Friday, 24 September 2010

Wymondham Words: The notion of development

Some artists, including poets, are quick off the mark and fade, some are slow off the mark and rise. Some start and stay on top, the most obvious examples in the last century, being Yeats and Auden. Larkin wrote little and slowly, and after The North Ship he remained on much the same level. I have a great fondness for High Windows but that may be because it came out just as I myself was at an early stage of development, publishing my first poems.

The middle and later periods of poets tend to be overlooked. Those who might have been father figures to poets of my generation, poets with major reputations, poets who were influences, movers and shakers, helpers or critics of others, have fared variously. Peter Porter always did remain a major figure, important to the most prominent publishing houses. Late Porter is no whit less strong than early Porter - in fact it is clearer, subtler, of wider range. Vernon Scannell's reputation seems to have gone underground for now, but I am confident it will rise again. Alan Brownjohn's has risen, through sheer vigour. The publishers let go, but he has not. He has worked with a furious energy. Dannie Abse is unshaken, a proper living monument. Elaine Feinstein remains important and energetic and Fleur Adcock, who wrote little for years, has now returned, her cool crystalline voice tinged with irony.

This post is really about second wind in poets, the power of maturity. Both Anthony Thwaite and Moniza Alvi made their reputations early, and when their work is found in anthologies, latterly more Alvi's than Thwaite's, it is the poems with which they made their reputations: Thwaite as a distinct figure in Larkinland, that is the say with the sensibility of post-war Britain in slightly fancier mode (I think of those Victorian Voices) and Alvi (a little like me, but more so) as a representative figure of multicultural Britain.

Both have moved on to what, to my mind, is more exciting territory. Thwaite has hit the clear gravity that was always at the core of the poems but was rarely the whole poem. There was in the early poems an occasional sense that the poems articulated something that might have been articulated almost as well in prose. The late poems though have a depth, a distilled unsentimental pathos, while retaining the playfulness. It is as if the poems had fallen naturally into place: the language is simple, the idea still clear, still capable of being paraphrased, but paraphrase is less apt. The perception has become fully poetry.

Moniza Alvi's work caught fire for me from 2000 onward, once the search for the balance between Pakistani and British identity was over, or at least shelved. Since then she has written ever clearer, ever more vivid poems, poems that spring out of a less dutiful imagination. The language is clear, indeed clearer, but the ideas are ever more ambitious, ever more playful, ever more surreal, ever more realised. The images leap into being and blaze more brightly.

Here's Alvi's poem, Fish, one from the book where she imagines being a husband and having a wife, Carrying my Wife (2000)


I envied my wife her nightly visions.
She'd lay each one proudly on the bed

like a plump, iridescent fish,
and ask me to identify it.

Some nights I'd even manage to trap
my own by concentrating hard,

submerging the net into blue-black waters.
I'd place my catch on the rippling sheet.

So we'd have our own two fish, almost
indecent, nuzzling each other's mouths,

soul-fish, awkward in our hands,
hungry, as if our lives were a host

of crumbs to gulp in greedily.
They'd beat their tails very fast

until we could only see the one dream
moving between us, or feel stirring

one enormous fish, with our own lives
grieving, joyful, growing in its belly.

And here is Thwaite from his pamphlet ,'Late Poems',

In Camera

A light goes on:
Something is telling mw
The camera is too full of memories.
Before I take another picture
Some must be cancelled. 
So I must choose:
Blank out some bits of past,
Or print what's thre and leave room for the rest
While there's still time. Which shall I press?
What shall I lose?


Anonymous said...

Seems that what you are getting at when you talk of development in poets is something to do with extraction or deletion. Maybe that is about clarifying memory as real affects that actually occur and how one attends to that. I don't know how much of a choice it is what one doesn't pay attention to. Maybe in poetry, art in general it becomes something more considered. How to forget and let small details really intensify? How those affects start to morph and have a life of their own- like in the Fish poem by Moniza Alvi.

Bibliography (from you last post) could have a chance to be interesting if it is seen as this incomplete relationship between the teller and the lived.

I really like your poem,
"The Sense of Memory" for this reason; that it deals with the unfinished- the sense even of negative space which provides the invitation for some kind of wondering.

By George Szirtes

Not memories but the sense of memory,
as of a power, an enabling
like the sun on the street with its
delicate scribbling.

To remember the sense of your beauty,
your weight, breath, movement
is enabling and powerful
as the sunlight on the pavement,

which flits in and out of dark spaces in doorways
never quite filling a room that it enters,
but leaving dark spaces
like pockets, like splinters.


I used this poem for a garden sculpture and arts project I used to run for autistic adults. It was to start some thoughts about the way people moved around the garden-what became noticeable and compelling over time.

The connections with one another and through this piece of land were active doing patterns but the affects they sometimes generated were ephemeral; light and dark, speed of movement, distant sounds, wind, mood. Your poem dealt with this mixing of states which was something that everyone had a clear experience of.


George S said...

I think it is, partly at least, about confidence, Ruth: not caring too much how things seem to others, and being prepared just to look and listen intently with no distractions. Concentration is the point, but it's hard to concentrate when you feel you are being watched. Out of confidence and concentration comes, I suspect, a form of liberation. You go where the idea wants to go, trusting and concentrating. I think that is what Moniza and Anthony are doing.

I am a furiously thinking poet, that's the way things work for me. There is relatively little difference between thinking through one's feelings and feeling through thought. Or so it seems, at best.

Anonymous said...


Thanks- this helps me.
"furiously thinking poet" makes me smile- maybe it shouldn't but I guess that's my response to the words at least.