Sunday, 29 January 2012

Birthday blog: one year old today

This isn’t one of those ‘I can’t believe it’s a year already’ moments.  I can believe it, it does feel like a year.  In a good way.  This is the 47th post, and a few days ago the blog got its 10,000th page view.  That’s nothing by big blog standards, but it’s fine for me.  The average daily figure’s going slowly but steadily up. 

Dear Readers, thank you.  Especially those who’ve commented on posts: here on the blog, by email or in person. 

Around 2/3 of page views are from the UK, one-sixth from the US.  Of the final sixth, most come from Germany, Russia, India, Canada, the Netherlands, South Africa, Ireland and France. 

But this blog also gets read in many other places: Algeria, Brazil, China, Dominica, Egypt, Finland…  One mystery is that no-one in Belarus has ever read the blog, though I’ve written about a poet who comes from there.  Maybe this says something about Belarusian access to the internet.  I get quite a few from next-door Ukraine. 

I know that some of you read the blog regularly, because whenever I leave posting for much longer than a week, the daily numbers start to go down.  I also get hits via search engines of course.  Some of these are interesting and/or strange.  Here’s a sample:

anaphora in the hurt locker
auxiliary lovers
how do the play’s characters change for the better
how does in praise of feeling bad about yourself
instead of poems
lost trust poems
m**s* s*x
m**s* smiling
poems about gossip society
poems on lost trust
sad depressing poems
skyscraper quotes
socialistisch realisme
социалистического реализма
villanelle most difficult quotes
why is american politics so vicious?
why is poetry hard to write

The *’s represent 2 o’s and then 2 e’s.  These m**s* searches (which I don’t much want, hence the disguise) come from Canada and the US.  Local equivalent of British jokes about sheep?  All because of one quite innocent m**s* photo, which was illustrating a point about Sarah Palin.  

How on earth did people searching just for ‘poetry’ or ‘suffolk’ find this blog?   
The most popular posts have been on the Poetry Society, political poetry, JH Prynne, Elizabeth Bishop redrafting ‘One Art’, the Poetry Trust losing its grant, Valzhyna Mort’s Factory of Tears, Carcanet’s New Poetries V, and Stephen Watts. 

Sometimes I know exactly what I want to write about; other times I haven’t a clue before I start.  I’d like to write about things that other people don’t.  That includes the elephants in poetry’s sitting-room.  What are they?  If you have any ideas, please comment here, or email me: fionamoore at aetos dot freeserve dot co dot uk. 

Monday, 23 January 2012

Not the TS Eliot Prize reading. A House of Poetry

I wasn’t one of the 1,700 people filling the Festival Hall last week.  People seem to have enjoyed it, especially (in my approx 1% sample) the readings by John Burnside, who won; Carol Ann Duffy, who can really carry off such occasions; and Esther Morgan.  Opinions on which is the best book vary widely.  I’ve only read three so far.  All had some very good poems; but all raised the question, are editors rigorous enough about weeding out fillers? 

I had a ticket, but sold it on to someone else.  I’m sure I’d have had a good and very sociable evening, but would have missed Alice Oswald and John Kinsella; and I felt like going to the Torriano to hear Stephen Watts and Cristina Viti read from Mountain Language and Journey across Breath.    

The Channel 4 interview with Burnside had an awards-style buzz.  Maybe they’ll be televising the whole thing in a few years - though hardly in the lavish mode of the Turner or Stirling Prizes, where people dress up for the cameras, eat dinner and look as if they paid a lot for it all. 

No, of course they won’t be televising it.    

When I started going regularly to London poetry readings several years ago, I expected them to conform to the poet-in-echoing-hall-reads-to-one-woman-and-a-dog formula.  (Where did this originate?  Were readings really like this?  Was there a set piece in some 1930’s or 50’s novel? Or several? If so, I’m sure I’ve read it/them, so strong is my mental template.)  I was surprised to find readings were usually crowded; standing room only, sometimes.  Admittedly, the meanness of the accommodation can contribute to this effect.

Nowhere more so than at the Poetry Café in Covent Garden.  The café and staff are lovely, but the basement for readings is cramped and airless.  The Poetry Society may be based upstairs in the rest of the Betterton St building, but it’s impossible to imagine Poetry Review holding a launch in the basement. 

Last time I was there was for a South Bank Poetry launch.  The event itself, as always, was very enjoyable.  And at least I got a seat... in a row near the back with my knees jammed into the chair in front, and unable to move without crippling the person behind.  Getting up to read involved careful planning of least-disruptive moment to squeeze out and up to the front, avoiding the wine glasses and coffee cups that can get spilt or broken in the thick undergrowth of legs, chair and human.  The worst thing is that people in the ground floor café have to come down the creaky stairs to the basement for the loos which are at the back, not far enough away from the room.  They arrive near the stage (or rather, front of room where people read).  Some of them creep down and wait for a poem gap before manoeuvring all down the narrow room past the people standing at the side.  Others galumph down the stairs and charge straight through, mid-reading.  None of this would matter much if the venue was atmospheric, but it isn’t really.  Here it is, in uncrowded mode.  This is IT, apart from another couple of rows going further back.  And a dark corner where they stack chairs and one can stand.  

I said all this to someone recently and the reply was Ah well, Earls Court… meaning when the Poetry Society had a vast mansion at its disposal, lost in financial mismanagement episode 1 (decades before last summer’s events).

Time for a national venue, that anyone can use?  A House of Poetry.  It would have a large space for readings, book fairs etc.  A bar/café.  Some rooms for workshops, school sessions and suchlike.  A poetry bookshop selling pamphlets, magazines and other stuff one can’t buy in shops.  And ideally a separate exhibition space for collaborative projects, bringing in anyone - from artists to doctors.  Thinking big, grand project, it would be purpose-built, architect-designed; thinking normal, it would be any place that would meet the spec, doesn’t need to be smart at all, just atmospheric and with good acoustics.   

OK, I’m in cloud-cuckoo land.  Especially in these times.  Well, it’s a better use of money than a new royal yacht.  And it would get used, because, in terms of activity, poetry is on a sort of virtuous circle: creative writing MA’s, workshops, courses, small publishers, open mics, etc.  New venues like Kings Place seem to do well; the Poetry School is booming.  Everyone goes to everyone else’s occasions. 

So why bother, if everyone is getting on without a national venue?  Because it would act as a focus, a way of expressing continuity between poetry past and future; somewhere for the non-poetry specialist to go as an alternative to a theatre or gallery, somewhere for children to associate with the experience of getting immersed in poetry.  Somewhere for people to find out or reaffirm that, as TSE Prize winner John Burnside said in his Telegraph article last week, ’poetry is, or can be, as central to our experience now as it has ever been’.

The House would need a National Lottery grant (and ongoing support), or a generous benefactor; and/or backing from institutions such as the Poetry School, one of the poetry libraries, universities, publishers, PoSoc or several such, joining forces.  It doesn’t have to be in London, though most such things are.  (Apologies if this feels like a very London-centric piece, but it’s where I live.)  

Is it old-fashioned, when there are so many virtual homes for poetry, and such thriving local scenes?  I don’t see why; look at the Tate, the National - every art has its focus or centre of excellence, or several, formal and informal, and great use is made of them.  The more virtual we get, the more we need reality. 

Friday, 13 January 2012

Innovative sonnets: the Reality Street anthology

The front cover of The Reality Street Book of Sonnets looks like the keyboard of an enigma machine for generating poems, and conveys more than a hint of the age-old obsession with 14 lines.  Flipping through the 350 or so pages, one glimpses plenty of 14-liners - thin, fat and normal; also some pictures, diagrams and collages; and a few totally non-sonnet shapes. 

In his introduction the editor, Jeff Hilson, sets out his aim: an anthology of “linguistically innovative” sonnets.  And the reason: these rarely make an appearance in contemporary sonnet anthologies.  Why?

As a form the sonnet is fiercely guarded… To disturb the sonnet’s form too radically.. is not just to disturb the sonnet itself, or the sonnet tradition, but to endanger the foundations of the wider poetic tradition. 

Fighting talk, for which Hilson offers some evidence (his intro can be read online, here).  At first I felt sceptical.  But the Reality Street anthology contains a lot of interesting, accomplished, inventive and exciting poems: why don’t they appear in the other anthologies?  This book itself is Hilson’s best evidence.  Whatever the causes, its publication means that future sonnet anthology editors can’t say they don’t know where to look for innovative sonnets.

There’s a lot to absorb: over 80 poets, many of whom I’d never heard of.  I’ve read every page of this book over the last few weeks, but haven’t taken in anything like all of it yet.  All I can do here is sample a few favourites:

Peter Riley’s sequence ‘Ospita’, formal sonnets whose language, dense and modern but with many ancient echoes, I like very much.  I wouldn’t say the form is innovative.  The opening sonnet below isn’t Petrarchan, as the extract might suggest; these graceful, elegiac poems move in and out of rhyme schemes and iambic pentameter. 

Seeking a bearing point on hurt I find
Hollows and rooms in the thick of the night,
A building hard at work flashing its bright
Offers into the star dome.  Consigned
forward I bring my name in a sealed jar
To the steps up, pay the slight fee, assent
to slow harm by the covering letter..

Mary Ellen Solt’s Moon Shot Sonnet, formed from symbols imposed by scientists on the first photos of the moon.  It consists of a 14-line pattern, octet + sestet.  Somehow it’s very beautiful: without words, it conveys the silence and vulnerability of the moon.  Its power comes from the reader’s association of it with an accumulation of sonnets read.  There’s a lovely explanatory note (could be by the editor or Solt herself) which refers to Philip Sidney’s ‘With how sad steps, O Moon’.  Here’s the first stanza. 

Jen Bervin’s greyed-out Shakespeare sonnets, from which one scattered phrase emerges in black type.  Sonnet 5 becomes “hours and bareness distill their substance”.  You can see how it works from the ending:

But flowers distilled though they with winter meet,
Leese but their show; their substance still lives sweet. 

Philip Nikolayev’s embedded sonnets.  I think these are among the most original poems in the book: who would think of embedding a sonnet in a piece of prose?  I’ve written about him before, see here, with example

Lisa Jarnot: here’s the end of her charming Husband Sonnet One.  Gender inversion: female poet looks at sleeping male.

a sheep’s mid-life is stout and good
like beer that ambers from a tap
or maple running wine tree sap
you sheep of silence play along
in dreams my husband sleeps among

Aaron Shurin: here the humour comes from a dialogue with the past involving theft of Shakespeare’s end rhymes.  VIII (see WS sonnet 8) begins:

I come to café, I sit, I bear
my part in the general cruise.  One, sadly
won’t look at me, another
won’t look away; ridiculous consumption and snarled consumer joy
in abeyance…

Robert Adamson’s Sonnets to be Written from Prison, in which he plays with the idea of being a suffering poet.  (He’s Australian.)  No.4:

I dreamed I saw the morning editions settle on the court -
emblazoned with my name, my ‘story’ so glib it made
no sense.  The judge said ‘emotional’ but I thought
of the notoriety.  This was the outward world, and my sad tirade
was ‘news’ - Though if I’d been rhyming sonnets
in solitary, my suffering alone, could make them art.

Sophie Robinson (youngest in the book): ‘geometries’, 14-line left-and-right-justified squares which I like for their wherever-next streams of consciousness, vivid language and metaphysical slant.  Here’s part of the second one:

Time  loops  around   itself  in  bold   &  able
Gestures  as  I  wander  around  the  Payless
On  Roman  Rd   &   think  of  you   grabbing
My  rarely  thinnest  hand  &  dragging  away
From   jealousy   now   hardened   now   lain
On  a  fridge  putrid  w/pollen  &  fashionable
Lipstick  &  you  &  you  are   made  of   dust.

Bernadette Meyer for her versatility and speed.  This is the sestet+ of Sonnet:

Nowadays you guys settle for a couch
By a soporific color cable t.v. set
Instead of any arc of love, no wonder
The G.I. Joe team blows it every other time

Wake up!  It’s the middle of the night
You can either make love or die at the hands of the
                                Cobra Commander

To make love, turn to page 32.
To die, turn to page 110.

Some innovative poetry can be hard for the mainstream reader, if not impenetrable, and occasionally with this book I feel my head’s filling with cement.  But the sonnet form offers brevity; and a way in, a way of reading.  The latter may be the opposite of what the writer wants, if the aim is to defamiliarise.  But both writer and reader are starting with the same thing in common: the sonnet tradition.  Some of these writers engage in a dialogue with the past, usually (or at least most obviously) with Shakespeare.

One of the good things about the anthology is that it allows the mainstream reader that way in, to try out less familiar stuff.  Another is that sonnet-writing offers a licence to be playful.  One mainstream criticism of innovative poetry is that it can seem humourless, but there’s lots of humour here. 

A glaring contemporary omission is JH Prynne.  Presumably he refused (or would have), or he’s very expensive - hard to imagine any other good reason for leaving him out.  The intro, which has lots of good background on the history of innovative sonnets, name-checks him but doesn’t explain.  It’s good on women breaking the male sonnet mould, but only around a quarter of the poets are female.  (I suspect that may be quite a lot for an anthology of innovative work, though.)  The poets are mostly British and American; ethnic origin can’t be worked out.

I wonder how many mainstream poetry readers know this book exists.  I didn’t until the Poetry Book Fair in London last autumn, when it beckoned from the Reality Street stall.  According to the intro, Pound and Williams both declared the sonnet as good as dead: if they could read this, they might change their minds.  They might not be altogether pleased to see how innovation can reinvent and perpetuate one of poetry’s great traditions. 

Friday, 6 January 2012

Happy New Year; and Shakespeare

Writers of poetry tend not to say Shakespeare, when asked who are their favourite poets of long ago, or who their formative influences have been.  They are much more likely to mention Keats & co, or Herbert & co, for example.  Why?  Don’t his iambic pentameters, especially the soliloquies and other set speeches, run in our modernist veins?  And the sonnets, and greasy Joan?  Perhaps the plays are too great a monument to be seen, or felt.  They are just there. 

47 South View, Heaton, Newcastle-on-Tyne, photo Paul Barlow
Here’s Sonnet 64, in which all monuments fall.  Hardly cheerful for a New Year; but it feels appropriate, after 2011’s Arab Spring, financial terrors, natural disasters.  This week’s gales, too.   

Shakespeare’s Sonnet 64

When I have seen by time’s fell hand defaced
The rich proud cost of outworn buried age;
When sometime-lofty towers I see down razed,
And brass eternal slave to mortal rage;
When I have seen the hungry ocean gain
Advantage on the kingdom of the shore,
And the firm soil win of the wat’ry main,
Increasing store with loss and loss with store;
When I have seen such interchange of state,
Or state itself confounded to decay,
Ruin hath taught me thus to ruminate:
That time will come and take my love away.
   This thought is as a death, which cannot choose
   But weep to have that which it fears to lose. 

One can draw optimism from such perfection.  Art as a stay against mortality, and in defiance of it.  Happy New Year! 

***   ***   ***

Following my post on WG Sebald last week, I’ve been listening to some short talks about him on iPlayer, here.  The series is called Looking and Looking Away.  (Not knowing that, and until I retrieved the link a friend had sent me, I couldn’t find it.  Searching for Sebald on iPlayer drew, absurdly, a blank.)  I specially recommend the first talk by Christopher Bigsby, which is enlightening about how Sebald found his subject matter.