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I’m halfway through teaching a ghost story course; not something I expected to be doing, but a friend asked me to stand in for him.

It’s going well, I hope! I thought I’d better write one. I have already, several in fact, but all of a comic variety. This one was to be ‘serious’ (echoes of John McEnroe). I was aiming for a wrong footing or two…the first that there were two live people in the scene; the second that the chain saw might be possessed. A bit of a puzzle then, that might unsettle, perhaps even alarm, the reader.

Which was a curious thing, because a couple of nights ago I took the last of six classes in the ‘Reading As A Writer’ course I’ve been running, and the subject of stories and puzzles came up.

For me, stories aren’t, and shouldn’t be puzzles, though it’s fine if they’re puzzling. I feel the same about poems. I know many people feel differently.

I like stories that take me by surprise with their unexpected revelations, and hidden meanings, but the ones that don’t, because they’re a puzzle I haven’t worked out just leave me cold. Of course, I’m not a very bright bunny. It doesn’t mean that others won’t have tumbled to the solution, to the revelation. It’s all about where the line is drawn, and who for. Some stories are simply beyond (some of) us! I feel the same about poetry.

What I don’t do, and I don’t expect my readers (if there are any) to do, is to go back again and again to stories that they find incomprehensible because they are too puzzling. Of course, if they work on some other level as well – call it lower if you like – it’s all fine. Nobody has to know there’s a puzzle if they haven’t spotted it, and if they’ve found something else to enjoy, what’s not to like?

I have the story, but is it puzzling enough, yet not a puzzle? Guess I’ll have to puzzle that one out!

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Yesterday I kicked off the lunchtime poetry reading at Maryport’s The Settlement, as part of a weekend celebrating the meeting there of Norman Nicholson and Percy Kelly in 1959.

I came home with the same question in my mind as had been there when I set off (and for a long time before!). That question is ‘what makes you – the writer – think it’s a poem?’

It’s not simply a matter of techniques, like rime, and rhythm, and alliteration, for all those techniques can be used in what is clearly prose. It’s not simply a matter of profundity or any other quality of content. Both poetry and prose can be deep, still and unfathomable; both can be shallow, fast flowing and limpid. Both, to push the metaphor, can be pools or streams.

It’s not simply a matter of the line breaks either……is it? Yet the line breaks are the one obvious marker of the poem.

Perhaps it’s not simply a matter at all, but rather subtly and complexly one; a matter even, perhaps of intention, of what we’re thinking when we decide to put in the first line break, and what we’re thinking in the aftermath of that decision.

The word ‘purity’ springs to mind, with implications, for me, of deep insight, and tight focus, and tighter structure. But I could say the same of prose, where I’d probably add, clarity, and revelation, but also, contradictorily, ambiguity and suggestion. Not helpful is the fact that we can have ‘poetic prose’, and think that an enhanced variety; we can have prosaic poetry – but will probably think that diminished.

Yet, the fact remains, though I have reached no conclusions, that I still, and often ask that question. The late (and great) Geoffrey Holloway once demanded in a poem, that we ‘ask the right question’, which here might be instead, ‘what makes me – the listener, or reader – think it’s poetry?’ But we still might have to put with not knowing the answer!  

I’ve running a course at Carlisle’s Phil & Lit, on how we might read as writers, in order to get some insights into how we might write! It’s not so much a matter of stealing techniques, as of noticing them as we read; of paying more attention than we might if we were reading for fun, and not really paying attention.

Most of what you might say on such a course is a matter of common sense: read carefully, but notice your own reactions to what is being read…and as k the question, why did that particular group of words have that particular effect?

An exercise I’ve used several times is to give students a paragraph or two of writing, and get them to score the individual words: for what they think is the emotional impact of them. Some words have none = 0. Some have a small emotional charge = 1 Some have a big one =2.

It’s a rough and ready exercise, too ragged perhaps to be called a system, but it throws up, nevertheless all sort of interesting facets of the way a piece of writing has been written, and read.

For example, you tend to get clusters of scoring words. They aren’t evenly distributed throughout the piece. Often they cluster at particular places, like drunks on street corners, with highly charged words, and a bunch of lowly charged hangers on at paragraph beginnings and endings. Sometimes it works the other way, with groups gathering in the centre of paragraphs, and leaving the change points bereft.

If you carry out the exercise far enough into a piece of writing, you might start to notice that you’re scoring the same words differently, and perhaps an explanation for that might be that the words surrounding them are enhancing, or diminishing their powers. There’s also the reminder that words, quite simply, don’t carry the same weight for all of us: the strength of their meaning is not set by the dictionary definition, but by the circumstances in which we have encountered, and used them. This is one element of language that the nascent AI might struggle with, and, presumably, might erode or even destroy.

The exercise is one that a writer can carry out on their own writing, of course, and who knows, it might give some useful insights into how they think it will work…..

 

A recent review touched on the subject of Cyril Connolly. I’d not read anything by, or even about this writer, but I had encountered the name. He features in War Like A Wasp, an account of London’s Fitzrovia and its arty types during World War Two. The review mentioned how the well known and influential writer and critic had failed to achieve his ambition of writing something that would hold for ‘ten years’.

Two things about that ambition, and the failure to achieve it, struck me. The first was that ten years seems quite modest, if you mean that the piece of writing remains potent for that long. The other was that here was an apparently successful member of the London literary ‘elite’ suffering the same sense of failure as many of the rest of us probably are.

Of course, it’s not only the potency of the writing that he would have been meaning, I suspect, but its fame. Something can ‘work’ in the sense of being understood, and being relevant, for decades perhaps, without being known about, or seen to work, and maybe, at the bottom of it, what we would really like is someone to know we’ve written something that’s lasting for a decade, and maybe a lot of someones!

So I felt a kinship with Cyril, and that rather surprised me. It cheered me too. I read a poem recently, at an event locally, and somebody in the audience mentioned afterwards, how he’d been hoping I would, as he had remembered it from a reading a little over ten years before! I think Cyril would understand my reaction to that. In writing, as in many things, we’re all more alike than we sometimes recognise.

I’ve been an aspiring poet for so long that I’ve begun to wonder if I’ll become an expiring one before I get there; and after that, perhaps, an inspiring one. Which made me wonder if there are any other spirings to be done. Dispiring, for example, which might be connected to despairing. And then there’s the matter of Church Spiring. Did the word come after the structure, or was the structure named for the word?

There is of course, spiralling, which is usually associated with destruction, but surely could be upwards too.

The only answer was to look it up. I’m still in the Age of Paper when it comes to looking things up, and have a collection of dictionaries going back to 1659 (Blount’s Glossographia (of hard words)…which, as I’ve mentioned before on this blog, has in the case of my copy the word GLOSSOP in gilt capitals stretching half-way across the spine. The gilder, presumably recognised his mistake and decided to quit while he was behind…How he would got GRAPHICA on anyway I have no idea as he was already more than half-way across. Perhaps I’m being sexist, with that ‘he’, but surely a woman would have plotted it out more effectively to begin with?

Aspire obviously wasn’t considered a ‘hard word’, but Aspirate features with breathing, aspiring or influence.

From the sublime to the correctly lettered, I turned to the Shorter Oxford. Here were spires in abundance, and some of them, seemingly quite disconnected from each other. A thread of the two pages of entries…from Spiracle to Spirituous gives enough ideas, metaphors, similes and straight meanings to fill a small thesis; but at its core, I sensed the connection of movement, through breath, towards creation:

 

So here’s a creation from many years ago, not about spires, though perhaps touching on inspiration, but about that Age of Paper, and other ages, that might be passing:

 

A Premature Obituary

 

Poetry’s finished, he said. Yeah! I heard that.

And the wheel. The wheel’s off the road.

And fire’s out. Fire’s dead in the water.

But flint knapped blades are in, and obsidian.

Great for cutting meat. Useless with paper.

But paper’s done. That’s another thing off the books.

 

Don’t get me started on food. Sugar’s passé,

Sweetie. Fat’s in the fire, or would be

If that weren’t ashes. Salt’s old hat. We’re through

With that. All art and culture’s for the vultures.

It’s all gone out with the ark: obsolete.

Not a spark of intelligentsia left.

 

But some dodo, you can depend on it,

Even as we speak, ’s writing a sonnet.

 

(Mike Smith, c2007)

Rime’s an odd concept. I don’t mean that crust of ice that clings to cold metal, but the poetic technique that sings the last syllable of some preceding word, often at a line end; absurd, round the bend.

It brings us up sharp against the subsequent word, or down heavyily on it, logically without warning, but if the rhythm’s right, the poem’s like a song and to not get the rime, at that point precisely in the tune would be somehow wrong. Rimes can be weak or strong. Sometimes, when we hit them, unintentionally as we speak, they sound out of time. Some poets put them in the middle of a line, which is fine. Others, I’m thinking Wilfred Owen I suppose, does something not quite the norm – echoing consonant but not vowel – but no-one cries foul! (or thinks him a fool or it bad form). Riming two syllables at a time often sounds silly, weakens the line, willy nilly.

It comes down to the tune, more often than not, and whether it will scan, but there’s one poem springs to mind, where it does not.

I’m thinking of Robert Frost’s Fire and Ice where the rhyme scheme is rigid, but instead of singing like music, it turns each line to come down like a mechanism, a verbal steam hammer rather than the lyric of a song. Instead of marking a musical beat, it makes the line-end an anvil on which the sense rings true, and is beaten out on the two rimes in it: the words of the title, echoed, pile driven home: ire, ice. The fact of the actual rime of ‘Fire’ being ‘ire’ adds a little something that must surely have been fortuitous!

Find it here.

I wrote a few days ago about failures, of one sort and another, quoting William Faulkner. If you’d like to experience Me attempting to be a (failed) poet…here are a couple of collections where you can:

A successful poet, you might think, is not one that gets published, but one that nails the poem.

Among the Christmas goodies that turned up in my kilt hose were several collections of short stories: by the Italian Giovanni Verga, by the Swede, Isaak Denisen, and, perhaps most noticeably, by the American film star, Tom Hanks. Hanks is one of those rare ‘A-listers’ who gets, and has got for decades now, not only good reviews of his film roles, but also and consistently good reports of his ‘real’ persona.

Of course, real personas, even for those of us who are not listed at all, not even under ‘Z’ are not all there is to our stories, and nor should they be. All of which is easing round to a confession that it’s difficult to make a judgment about the first collection of short stories to be published under the name of a famous and well liked actor. If we damn them, we’re at risk of being thought of as pressing sour grapes; if we praise them we court the label of sycophant.

I wondered too, as to whether or not this was, as well as being a first collection, a collection also of first stories. Has Tom Hanks, I wondered, been learning this new trade in secret, in nom de plume and alias, in the pages of and on the websites of the unpaying magazines and e-zines that most of us inhabit? Or was it a matter of jumping in with both metaphoricals, and enjoying the revenue from sales that would undoubtedly follow the publication of stories by the hero of Saving Private Ryan, and Sleepless in Seattle, and Sully (et al)? Has the man done his apprenticeship?

 

Uncommon Type, subtitled, rather originally, I thought, some stories, is a collection of tales that all involve, include or at least refer to a (usually) named make and model of typewriter. Typewriters, it appears, are a passion of Mr Hanks, and why wouldn’t they be? I have fond memories of typing stories and poems on my Olivetti Dora, a neat, manual portable typewriter that carried me through the first phase of my writing life – when I was a poor poet. That machine has long gone, but I’m still a poet of that ilk.

I’m coming round to the belief that there is no ‘good’ writing, but only degrees of liking, or disliking any specific example of the form, sometimes with what might be called objective, but often with what must be recognised as subjective reasons.

I liked Tom Hanks’s short stories. Especially, I liked the one called Christmas Eve 1953. Reviewers in the press have drawn attention to the battle scenes in this, referring back to those in Saving Private Ryan, and it should be recalled that Hanks was also involved, though not as an actor, in the more ambitious Band of Brothers. He also, in interviews, has referred to reading William Manchester, who wrote Goodbye Darkness, a very original personal history of the Pacific War. The battle scenes, though, are not what the story is about.

This is a Christmas story, and very much a character study, which shows us two ex-World War Two soldiers, dealing with their post-war issues. One has physical injuries, the other mental ones. It throws a powerful sidelight on how we cope, rise above, or fail, to deal with the cards we have been dealt, while the main protagonist struggles to get his wartime buddy to agree to visit over the festive season.

In Christmas Eve 1953, I like the way he leaves it till half way through before dropping into the story the nature of the particular injury that his main protagonist suffers from. I can remember telling students, repeatingly, that if ever you need to give a character a wooden leg, or a glass eye, you’d better get it in early on, so that readers aren’t fooled into imagining the wrong sort of person as they progress into the story. Of course, the advice doesn’t work if, like Hanks, you need to be making the point that the injury has not crippled, though it may have challenged, the character in question.

At just short of 25 pages in the Heinemann hardback edition (no doubt there will be paperbacks to follow), it seems about average for the collection (which has some that are longer, and some that are shorter). The longer ones make me think Mr Hanks might try his hand successfully at a novel one day (tho’ that would be a shame, if it drew him away from the senior genre). The writing style is clean, by which I mean that I can understand it, sentence after sentence, all the way through, even though it’s written in that foreign language named after my mother tongue. One or two words, I admit, in the collection generally, were totally meaningless to me, though I got the sense of them from their contexts. Stephen Fry, on the dust jacket, says that author is ‘smart, engaging and humane’, which seems true. Steve Martin calls him ‘wise and hilarious’. I’d go for ‘insightful’ too, and a ‘neat technician’, who can pull some clever tricks with language, and with stories told in it.

The press reviews are more universally negative about the collection. Several mention the length of the book – even the Irish Times, which took a generally positive view (‘But Hanks is a good writer and, even without his fame, I suspect that many of these stories would have found their way into print.’ -John Boyne in the Irish Times). Mostly though, they don’t like the writing, the tone of voice, or the admittedly cosiness of most of the stories – ‘Hanks’s stories – Alan Bean Plus Four aside – are forgettable, middle-of-the-road and touched by the special banality of mere competence.’ The Guardian (no byline). ‘It’s rare that a book is actually painful to read, but getting through Tom Hanks’s short-story collection, Uncommon Type, was like pulling teeth.’ – The Independent. I can sympathise with that last comment, having experienced it with an A.S.Byatt collection, but doesn’t the reviewer mean having teeth pulled? Pulling them, surely, would be more enjoyable? Amazon, in its sales pitch, says that Hanks is ‘as good a writer as he is an actor’, which strongly suggests that they know very little about either art form, other than with regard to how well individual examples of them might sell.

The Guardian review hits a nail though with its ‘mere competence’. The stories are competently written, but competence alone is not enough. A similar criticism was made about contemporary poetry by the editor of Acumen recently. She put it down to the widespread teaching of ‘Creative Writing’, which can teach the competence, but not the reason for telling any particular story. I found Hanks’s stories likeable, but they didn’t shake my beliefs to the core, nor open my eyes to that which I hadn’t seen before, neither did they remind me, either forcefully or subtly, of deep truths that I had forgotten. They are the sort of stories I would be happy to listen to at forty thousand feet, in a metal cylinder that I feel has no business staying in the air, and which delusion I’d prefer to be distracted from.

Tom Hanks’ stories are the stories of an amiable and garrulous companion, but are they entirely what stories have to be, if we are to think of them as good, or even as short stories? In my part of the world we have something called the Cumberland Sausage. Unlike other sausages it is constructed as a single, long tube, not split, like ordinary sausages, into links, each of which can be described as ‘a sausage’. When the Cumberland Sausage is cut into sections, each section remains simply that, a section of, rather than a Cumberland Sausage in its own right. There’s something similar about writing, a similarity that makes us think that some poems are merely ‘chopped prose’, and, perhaps, that some ‘short stories’ are merely descriptions or accounts of people, places, and events.

Do Tom Hanks’ stories pass the test that all stories to some extent are at risk of failing, which is that of whether or not they need to be told? The answer to that lies almost always with the ending of the short story, rather than (as in the case of novels) with its crisis. Tom Hanks, I found, reminded me a little of Chekhov in this regard, for I had to turn the tales over in my mind for a time, considerably so in some cases, trying to get an idea of why he had brought me to those specific words that were his endings, and of what he expected me to, or hoped, I would see when I got there.

 

 

 

My problem is that I want to get on with telling the story. I haven’t the patience for messing around with sub-plots and character development and slow build ups to complicated denouements.

I just want to tell you what happened, and put it in context. That’s probably why I rarely attempted to write novels, and stuck to short stories instead. Short stories are about situations that led into, or will lead out of the situations they have been created by, or have created, or will cause to be created. Characters might develop as a consequence of them, or might have caused the situations as a consequence of some previous development, but the process of that development isn’t what the short story is about. Only its consequence, the playing out of its revelation is what interests the short story writer.

Perhaps because of that the short story is not aimed at making you understand or sympathise with the character, who you meet only briefly and see, sometimes not too gracefully, under pressure. The short story is aimed more at you, the reader: you could be the stranger you are hearing about, because he, or she, has not been developed into someone else that you have to believe in, in the way that you believe in the characters of a novel. Implicit in every short story, is the possibility that there but for fortune, and back story, could be you! A short story can be like the car crash you witness from one vehicle behind.

That doesn’t mean there can’t be several sequences of events or trains of thought going on at the same time. That car crash might take up the bulk of the words in the story, but the meaning and the satisfaction the reader gains might lie in noticing the few words that showed the driver’s head turning towards the young woman fastening her suspender belt at the side of the road, just before he hit the pram. And that could be a story set anywhere and when from the early twentieth century to the present day, and from Shanghai to Beijing, the long way round. I saw something similar, from the car behind, in Carlisle in the nineteen seventies.

Sometimes with short stories, it’s what’s going on in the background, unnoticed by the characters themselves, that is the real interest of the story, and the narrator’s reason for telling it.

Sometimes I think that it’s a shame, and unhelpful, that we refer to the shorter stories as ‘flash fictions’, as if they were neither stories, nor short, whereas they are usually, demonstrably both! As I’ve pointed out before on this blog, it’s curious too, that the ‘flash’ is interpreted differently in different cultures (the American originators of the term meant the flash of a single white page being turned – pinning the form to the printed, or at least written word, but leaving the word count flexible to around 1400 words – whereas the British have assumed it means a ‘flash’ of an ending – impacting on content and form, to which they have added specific word limits: 150,250,350, 500 being common ones).

I tend to favour shorter stories, rarely enjoying ones of longer than 5,000 words, and as for writing them, sticking usually to around 12-1500, or at that 500 limit. In an essay somewhere a few years ago, I used the metaphor of a short story collection or anthology being like a box of chocolates…. to be picked through selectively, one a day – or greedily binged in an evening, which perhaps brings me back to where I began this post…My problem is, that I want to get on with telling the story!

DIGITAL_BOOK_THUMBNAILThere were 14 poems in the first projected version of An Early Frost, but they were whittled down to ten and then had to be boosted again for technical reasons – giving me the chance to bolt on the Ullswater Requiem, which was written in the same time period, and from literally the same perspective.

What surprised me when I finally got around to publishing them, was how many years had passed since they had first been written. In fact, it’s a decade now since the first of them was completed, and just over a decade since it was begun.

Over the years all except one of them has been published, or won prizes, or both (and that one, I think, appeared in A Gatehouse of Fleet window during the recent Big Lit weekend!). Then I was invited to contribute to a reading at Dumfries Theatre Royal (on May 5th!). I sent the collection in and said, I could read a couple from this, ‘as yet unpublished collection’. It was only after I’d made the submission, that I told myself it was time to do something about that.That’s what gave the impetus to self-publish. What I think of as the core poems of the collection were too few, I thought, to interest a small press, and perhaps they are too old now! It’s always possible to perceive as a problem the question of what to do with a poem that has been published already, and here was a whole group of them: written from the same place, facing the same view, and dealing with similar themes, in a similar tone of voice. Though they were written individually, they always seemed, among other writing of the same period and the same place, to hang together. The ones that were pruned out were pruned, not so much because they hadn’t been published, as because they didn’t have that tone of voice. These poems sound as if they belong together, at least to my ear.

The poems have appeared in several magazines and journals, among them Acumen, and the south-west Scotland magazine Southlight. A couple appeared in the Templar Poets anthology Octopus. Curiously, they have been taken as pairs and trios, as well as single poems, so perhaps it’s not only me who thinks they belong with each other! Ullswater Requiem was one of a different group that won a Sir Patrick Geddes Memorial Trust award, back in 2009, the first time the award had been made to a piece of creative work. It was written in response to a triple drowning in the lake, which I did not witness, but felt that I could not fail to respond to. I still have somewhere the handwritten couple of pages of A4 paper upon which the earliest draft of this poem appeared. I took it along to one of Chris Pilling’s poetry workshops at Keswick, where poet Meg Peacock identified some lines of blank verse in the middle of its half formed ideas. It was this that gave me the sense of the structure that it needed, and became the opening ‘sonnet.’ First three, and then five,six, and finally seven sonnet-like verses, borrowing from the structure of the Requiem Mass, took shape over the next few months. Each step in the process seemed a journey finished, but with something missing, that only longer reflection could, and did provide.

What surprised me, reading through the collection to look for typos and spelling errors – but not to correct – was how fresh they seemed to me, though the years have left them behind. It’s three years now since I worked on the garden that overlooked Ullswater and Howtown Pier, and looked out towards Steel End and Hallin Fell. I haven’t been back, though I’ve seen it from a distance. The place offered a grandstand view of the world it encompassed: water, earth, and sky, and the flames of my frequent bonfires. Sounds flew in along with the birds that carried them. People came and went. The Ullswater Steamers ferried their passengers to and from the pier, and wrote their passages in those ripples, as regular as Marion Richardson handwriting.

I feel as strongly attached to these poems as I did the day I wrote them, which gives me a confidence – perhaps misplaced, as confidence can be – that they are worth the reading: I have a file of some three hundred poems written in the nineteen seventies, and would struggle to pick out more than four I would still put before you (and some sixty of those have been published).

The cover photo was taken from the bonfire place in the old rose garden, looking to the north of west. The collection, An Early Frost, poems named and un-named written above Ullswater, by Mike Smith is available on Amazon, in print form or for Kindle.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIt would be nice to think that short stories find their way into the hands of those who will appreciate them. A book of short stories found its way into my hands recently, and in it was the story Miggles by Francis Bret Harte.

Set in the old west (but written in the days when it wasn’t that old!) the story opens with a stage-coach journey truncated by flooding on the trail ahead. Advice is to head for Miggles! Though nobody aboard knows what or who that is. Well, anyhow (in an American accent), that’s what they do, arriving to find no-one at home; though a voice answers their calling from the locked gate. So, as you do, they beat down the gate and let themselves in. There’s an old man in a chair, but he’s been struck down by a stroke, and is incommunicado.

It’s a rum do; and then the eponymous Miggles arrives… a bright, vivacious, young woman, who feeds ’em up and finds ’em a bed fer the night. After a short while she comes back to join the men, who have bedded down in front of the fire in the main room, and she tells them her story, and that of her stricken partner, Jim.

In the morning the travellers resume their journey, and on arrival at their destination, drink a toast to Miggles, and the story closes with a brief authorial/narrator’s comment. It’s a first person narrative, by the way.

What struck me about it, was the segments of the story, the phases through which it moved to its conclusion. They were quite distinct: the journey – the arrival – the evening meal – Miggles’ story – the resumed journey – the last comment. It is not merely a series of events, but a highly structured sequence.

In fact that ‘last comment’ is slipped in almost as an aside, were it not for the fact that it ends the piece, and so is quite noticeable. Obviously the comment is upon an aspect of the story, the most important aspect one presumes; the story is a preparation for the comment. Miggles has explained her situation, and we (and the travellers) have been put into a state of readiness for the comment. In fact, each part of the story has been a preparation for the following part: The journey leads us to Miggles. The arrival poses a mystery and her arrival and the evening meal go some way towards explaining it. When we get to her story we have already travelled a good long way into the story. We have observed our fellow travellers, and Miggles! Perhaps we have held and revised opinions about what might be going on. There was a moment, before she appeared, when the story seemed to be taking quite a magical turn. Miggles’ story could have been the denouement. After all, it explains her situation; but Harte has another scene to play out, one which doesn’t seem to add anything to our understanding. What it does do is to complete our journey, with the other travellers, who, we are told, do not speak, but seem to be reflecting on what has passed, as perhaps do we. When they get to their destination they mark what they have witnessed, and understood, by that celebratory drink, and as we stand with them at the bar the narrator/author poses a question.