Friday, 29 August 2014

From The Hurst 5

It's all over bar the readings now. The group part this morning was led by Kathryn and was dedicated to the notion of breaking the rules and excess. Here we considered the various injunctions developing and starting writers tend to be given, such as show not tell, make it new, kill your darlings, go in fear of abstractions etcetera, some adapted from Ezra Pound.

So we look at Pound's advice regarding music, devices, dullness, description, discovery, end-stopped lines and control. We also look at Simon Armitage's 'Testing Kit' which is not so much for writers as for readers who are looking to gauge a poem: the eye test, the magic eye test, the hearing test and so on right down to the acid test, some of which is simply telling us that good is good and bad is bad. We examine the warnings against adjectives issued by writers from Voltaire to Orwell, from Twain to Stephen King and others.

But what is the function of rules? What do we mean by rules, who gives them, and how are they to be followed if at all? How innate are they? Is there such a thing as good practice or good craftsmanship? What is best advice?

My personal view on this is that any advice given is likely to be agreed by about 80% of writers and will be useful about 80% of the time but that 'making it new' might be best achieved by not following too many rules too closely.

Nevertheless you can only depart from a rule that is perceived as a rule. A rule is a form of expectation. If you have no expectation you can't be doing something that runs against expectations.

The first poem we look at is The Haulier's Wife Meets Jesus on the Road Near Moone by Paul Durcan. This is a piece of high Durcanry, a Molly Bloomish monologue rooted in catholic belief and set against an unruly and fantastical set of circumstances in which a great many rules are broken. There is a good deal of repetition, a certain randomness in the look of the page, huge comical inconsistency and hyperbole all executed with tremendous élan and insouciance. There is so much going on in it, and so deliberately, we could hardly accuse it of ill judgment or disproportion since that is precisely what the poem feeds on. It's a great riot with both a savage and a humane side.

Elizabeth Bishop's marvellous poem, The Fish, serves as an example of almost childish repetition, of the use of what someone had termed 'pink' words that are in some way value words of the kind poets are encouraged to resist.  These include words such as big, little,  tremendous, terrible, and there is the repetition of 'wallpaper' in a simile within three lines.

From Bishop to Alice Oswald's Walking past a Rose this June Morning which begins with the reiteration of the line 'Is my heart a rose?     how unspeakable' and moves on pitching the high romantic against the mechanical (is my heart folded to dismantle / is a rose a turning cylinder of senses / is this the ghost of the heart...the inmost deceleration of its thought), while all the time a series of comments, exclamations and questions proceed down the right side of the poem. This is, I think, a remarkably original work that looks to rescue the value of hearts and roses not as symbols but as things and re-energise them through a technique charged with passion, intelligence and wilfulness.

We read Sylvia Plath's Poppies in October which offers a set of energetic bladed gesticulations in response to something not quite revealed to us. There are long lines, short lines, the liberal use of adverbs (which rules discourage). There is no time by now to read Deborah Digges' poem Broom, Deryn Rees-Jones's marvellous and heart-rending Dogwoman or Frank Bidart's Ellen West.

We review what we have done and are required to write, within some twenty minutes, a poem in which we must 1. Tell not show, 2. Use six adverbs, 3. Use ten adjectives, 4. Employ at least one ellipsis, 5. Make the lines unusually long, 6. Include at least two abstractions and 7. Rely on no more than four images.

Some of this might take more than twenty minutes but there is nothing like working under pressure and the good results when read back are very good indeed.

Here is mine:


Deviously, deviously, was he grievous and warily moping
in the something he called emptiness, which was devious,
both something and a cold, faint, lilac nothing such as a window
or the mood he was in, which was grievous and full of moping. But
this mood, this injudicious mood, was his undoing, or so he considered
and said, yes said, quite clearly while propped against the bar
in his customary fashion. It was the saying of what he was
that rendered him helpless, moving helplessly yet deviously along
the bar as he spoke, moving away beyond…. well, a
certain discomfort in the long green bar, along its metallic surface
and the words he used which continued devious and wary,
the very image of moping, the colour of the liquid
in his glass which was even then vanishing.

I will write one more blog, possibly tomorrow, reviewing the week. The students were delightful, a mix of age and gender - chiefly female of course, as always. But bright and ever brightening. It is they who read tonight after dinner.

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