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.

From the Hurst 4

Not a good night with reduced sleep. Early to rise, shower, wash hair in order to bring myself slowly into being, then to read some of the poems given to me by students the previous night.

It was my turn to take the group on the theme of the multiple voiced self. There were two particularly interesting quotations used by Kathryn in her session yesterday. There was Blake Morrison's:

All poetry is autobiographical, even when the voice is detached and impersonal. You don't have to say "I" but it helps

And four lines from Zbigniew Herbert's Ars Poetica that go:

The purpose of poetry is to remind us
how difficult it is to remain just one person,
for our house is open, there are no keys in the doors,
and invisible guests come in and out at will.

Multiplicity of self. Distances of voicings and forms of address. Voiced presences at various distances from the fine integument of the text surface. Pronouns as distance: as intimacy or authority.

In T S Eliot's Preludes we are faced with a number of potential presences in the form of pronouns. Those withered leaves are about 'your feet' in part I. Then there is that more detached 'one', who thinks of hands and dingy shades in II. There is the other 'you' who tosses a blanket from the bed and lies on it in III. And finally we are presented with an assembly of selves in IV that include the implied 'he' whose soul is stretched tight across the skies that fade behind a city block, the 'I' who is moved by fancies that are curled, and that third 'you' who is told to wipe his hands across his mouth and laugh.

Why the multiplication? What is the distance of the voice from the experience it appears to inhabit? Why the evasion (if it is evasion)? Whose experience is being inhabited? How much knwledge do we bring to our hearing? What is the balance between the Morrison view and the Herbert view in this?

We spend a productive but long time on this, wondering what constitutes a self as a coherent believable dramatic being and how far back behind the surface of the poem might we locate the Eliot persona. He appears to be both 'impersonal' as he himself put it, yet vulnerable, almost neurasthenic. The quality of voice that characterises him is mediated by rhyme, metre and accumulation of detail.

We breeze through one of Edgar Lee Masters's Spoon Valley poems, the one about Dillard Sissman, which is a dramatic monologue for a dead man. Here, at least, we understand what is going on. It is a performance in costume that avoids being a pastiche because what the costumed figure says is understood to be said by a voice that belongs to Masters in some sense, a voice that interprets Sissman as Masters chooses to do. That much is clear. Largely, anyway.

Life becomes far more complicated when we read Sam Riviere's ice-cream sunsets, a tiny collage-poem full of proper names and talk that is clearly characeristic of persons who are not the poet even though the poem speaks as a distinct I - not an I that is someone else, but an I that is not a fully developed being, more a piece of commercial prose, a cliché walking about by itself, or rather a series of successive similar clichés set in an environment where clichés can prosper. At the very end the poem cuts out and remarks on itself, or rather on the act of the poet who has chosen to keep the poem.

This I is a derivative multiple and yet the voice has coherence. It has an aesthetic unity that, at some level, is the distant echo of a state of mind with which we can connect. Someone - a real person - has gathered the material for the collage. Someone has juxtaposed the material and taken up a position we can't quite gauge, beyond the received environment. That someone is responding to a perceived environment by shaping it. It does, thank God, actually feel something that is not entirely recondite. Yes, we say, perhaps the world is a little like this too.

Then it is a case of we versus they in Hugo Williams's poem, Last Things, in which the two pronoun terms assume the full opposition they - and we - presuppose. They is rarely good. We are threatened by them. But who precisely the we is, and how many of us (us equalling each plus each plus each) are happy to be lost in its vast but rather dominating embrace, is a moot question. Groucho Marx did not wish to belong to any club that would have him. We too have our occasional doubts.

So back to you. Here is William Empson's Let it Go. 'You don't want madhouse,' he tells us and no, you wouldn't, but why are we speaking of madhouses? What are the contradictions that cover such a range in the poem? How far is the you a figure for the Empson voice, behind which a real man called Empson is negotiating an experience that begins outside the poem but only finds itself through the poem. Is this a kind of desolation? Is it anxiety? Is it apprehension of apocalypse? Does the period of the poem contribute something to its web of meanings?

We also read Freda Downie's poem You, where the you figure whistles to the moon and rattles small change in his or her pockets. Do women keep small change in their pockets? Is you man or woman,  we wonder - and that question did, of course, arise in Eliot's Preludes too, for what man, after all, would use curling papers in his hair in post WW1 London? In Downie the female poet may be seeing a man whistling, but she is inventing him and it is her state of mind and relationship with the moon with which the poem is more concerned. Could that you perhaps be someone close, a lover or husband perhaps? Might it be David Turner, Freda Downie's real husband who, as we personally knew, could be pictured whistling at the moon.

But this is not a guessing game about what poets do in their private lives or who exactly they mean  when they invent their personae - the real question is how we, meaning a hypothetical reader furnished with our own level knowledge and sensibility, whoever we are, might apprehend them.

How complicated it all is. Finally we consider the proper name in James Dickey's The Performance a poem that concerns the actions and death of one Donald Armstrong, an executed prisoner-of-war in the Philippines. What is the significance of the full name? What changes when we are given a name in full?

This post is getting far too long but it might give an indication of the possibilities of selfhood in lyric poetry. None of it is altogether simple. Not even Shelley's cry at the height of the Romantic period: 'I fall upon the thorns of life! I bleed!'

Something bleeds, that much is certain; someone who has entered our Zbigniew Herbert house- without-keys and has occupied it (with us? instead of us? as us?) for the period of the poem. His or her hands might not be poking through the wall as did the hands in Polanski's film Repulsion did, but there are hands there, and eyes, and their presence is known to us whether we acknowledge it or not. That presence's full name might be Autobiography, but don't we mostly make that stuff up?

Thursday 28 August 2014

From the Hurst 3

Coming to bed rather late so this might be a little shorter. The rain has lifted but not entirely departed. It hangs about like the police at a stage door.

The morning was Kathryn's, thinking about confessional poetry - mostly American - considering questions of autobiography and presentation. We look at poems by Jeffrey Harrison, Robert Lowell, Anne Sexton, Pascale Petit, Sharon Olds, John Berryman, Dana Levin and Nuar Alsadir. We walk around notions of truth, of presentation, of the location of the self. We consider what is true and how it might be true, what is fiction and what is report.

Essentially, this is about the balance between imagination and recording. It is also about the pressure of events on the writing self or voice, about how far the reader is an invited or willing participant in other lives. It is interesting, I think, how the poems of Sexton and Olds tend to gather narrative then erupt into associational imagery as if an energy button had been pressed. At first the voice is only telling us about something, almost reporting on it, but then, as it realises its position, it expands under pressure. It's like a release button.

We are invited to write a poem in the form of a letter in the sense that an 'I' is addressing a 'you', We have twenty minutes. I write this:

Ice Cap

Jack, you might recall the time I told you
about my years in the galley, pulling hard
for Bergen or Stavander. It was metaphor
as you understood and you also knew what it meant,
that I was cold and tired and having a hard time.
    Well, times are hard now and the galley is waiting,
I can practically smell the sea in my bones,
or so I’d put it, knowing you understand the sea
and its ice, that this is quite clear to you.
Back in London was all kind of trouble. My mind was
winter in Norway. I was all fjords and islands,
life was glacial. I was North of the Northern Line
numb from waist upwards.
            You know how it is, Jack,
Colindale, Burnt Oak, Edgware, the ice cap of Metroland.
We know where the heart is, we understand metaphor
better than language, that desolation is too big a word
to handle with bare hands when the fingers are frozen.
How is life in the suburbs? How is winter in Ruislip?
My compass is gone, I mean really. Talk to me, Jack.

Hmm. It has something going for it.  It's raw and possibly clumsy yet it has a certain enticing quality. I always do the exercises set by the other poet and often it results in a genuine poem - two of the poems in Bad Machine came about like this.

After lunch the individual tutorials. Five times half hour, intense, engaged, then a walk in the grounds, not too long, and back into the house as the rain starts to patter. We chat in the sitting / reading room - and soon Hannah Lowe appears. We sit down to dinner and, after it, she reads from Chick and  from later poems, rich material mostly based around the gambler father. These are not confessional poems in that they are not about the voice that is doing the talking. They are conjurations and variations on a person, a filling out of memory with desire and dream and wonder.

Then we stay up late talking of education, of reading, of music.

It is late. Tomorrow is my morning and I have work to read before then. It is past midnight.|

Tuesday 26 August 2014

From the Hurst 2

Surprisingly nowadays I had a good night but woke early. I had a set of poems to read and duly read them then decided to go for my brisk walk before reading the poems again. The trees were still dripping with last night's rain and there was more rain in the air, all but intangible for a while then every so often producing a spell of something a little more pronounced and distinct. But whether it ws actually raining or not it was like being in Baudelaire's 'rainy country', a terrain dunked in a systematic wetness that was both dismal and romantic, hills coming into view like veiled and faintly operatic statements.

Just a bowl of cereal for breakfast and some coffee then to prepare for the first session which was to be mine. I squeeze a lot in but try to link themes, beginning with the sense of language as something both rich and multifarious but at the same time as thin and brittle as a sheet of ice over a mass of water. Language as a system of arbitrary signs, language as something not quite amenable to paraphrase, language as transaction, as code, as manners, as decoration. Might form with its apparently arbitrary rules be an echo of the arbitrariness of language? And if there was an element of the arbitrary and provisional in its way with meaning might that be a way of opening up possibilities, ways of conducting an exploration.

I talk of Nemes Nagy and her view of the poet as a scientist or explorer of the emotions,  as someone coming across a new emotion, discovering it by exploring it through language, and her sense that a poem was, in fact, a kind of name - the name of a complex emotion, or to put it another way, the name of a complex state of affairs.

When we come to patterned form I suggest there are various conventional ways of approaching it; in terms of tradition, song, echo, mnemonic, and music, but also as process, a process in which the rules of any particular form are constantly diverting us from simply articulating something we already feel and know, shifting our attention towards improvisation and the discoveries of improvisation. How paradoxical it is that the very things we assume to be limits to freedom may in fact be the producers of a less expected freedom; that having overt rules is a way of breaking a more pervasive covert rule.

We say something about the different natures of poetry and story: poetry as cry and naming, story as consequence.

But I have written all this before in various ways and the point is to see how form can help us. So we take a gallop through various received forms starting with some short ones: the clerihew, the haiku. We look at five Tranströmer haiku. We discuss the sonnet and its apparently infinite tolerance for rough handling - from Shelley through Ransom, through Berryman, Hacker and Lowell. Then the sestina, the canzone, syllabics and finally MacNeice's internal rhyme device in The Sunlight on the Garden, and a bit of Sitwell.

We also talk about the structure of the three-stage poem, which I explain then set as an exercise. We start with rain, then continue first by digressing, then by either returning or by digressing still further into an area that nevertheless seems relevant.

We spend about 20 minutes writing, then read and discuss the drafts and that takes us well past the time designated for lunch. The students have in fact done very well indeed: time pressure and structure (or rule) immediately produces results that longer forethought might not have. So it's pleasing.

Then a light lunch and into individual tutorials - three meetings in my case. I am always trying to gauge what level of advice / criticism to offer that might be valuable, not to an abstract student, but to the specific writer in front of me in the light of what they have shown me. I can of course get this wrong but hope to get it right most of the time.

An hour or so of quiet afterwards then Kathryn and I do our readings followed by some Q and A, then simple conversation. It's a long day. Tomorrow it's Kathryn's session, with Hannah Lowe to come in the evening.

I have in the meantime written a few half-ironic precepts relating to all the above. Time for that on another occasion.

Monday 25 August 2014

From The Hurst 1

Almost a month without a blog but I'll try to keep one up from here, now that tutors get wifi.

It was a long journey of three parts, the first jogging along from Wymondham to Birmingham via Ely, the second a little nightmarish to start with because the journey from Birmingham to Shrewsbury had to be by bus, and not only is Birmingham New Street the worst possible major railway station in the country but also because though there was twenty minutes between arrival there and the departure of the bus there were no clues as to where the bus was likely to be found and the rail staff weren't too sure themselves, so the suspense and anxiety of possibly missing the bus did not help the sense of being in the rain in not only the worst possible station but the ugliest possible environment for it. The bus stop was in fact some distance from the station.

But the bus came and people got on and there followed two hours of mostly motorway - someone some time must write a book titled The Inexhaustible Pleasures of the Motorway - until we reached Shrewsbury then it was on to the small three-carriage train that goes all the way into the heart of Wales.

The last part of the journeyis beautiful even in the mist and mizzle, hills rising on hills, each peak fringed with cloud, the valleys billowing with it. It is wonderful to be among hills when one is used to living in a relatively flat landscape. Every hill is an event. Sheep everywhere, disposed, as Hans Arp might put it, according to the laws of chance.

Rain continues when I arrive along with a fellow student who introduces himself. A car is waiting for us and we are driven to The Hurst arriving at exactly the same time as Kathryn and a student who had driven her up from London.

We meet Natasha and Gabriella who show us round. The place has completely changed. The new architecture is nice though still needs snagging but everything is in one building now and my room is vast and modern and comfortable. The old circumstantial privations of Arvon are gone. We are a touch austere but there is space.

We photocopy material we want to use, Natasha talks to us, then we go into the dining room where I get involved in conversations about ekphrasis, Modernism, Max Ernst, manners and music. After that the introductions and the first session.

I offer some riddles and get people to write them, then suggest an epigrammatic poem by the morning, one in the form of an epitaph, the other in the form of a self-presentation. The course will concentrate on rule, self and voice.

Late. Almost 11pm. Which is not that late really but after an early rising and a seven and a half hour journey it feels late. And so to bed as Mr Pepys would say.

Therefore to bed. Pictorial matter later.