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Perhaps somebody who strives to be a writer should expect to come back from a trip to the far side of the planet with some pieces of writing in their bag. Damn right they should.

Of course, I could say I got a leg up in that department, getting wound into Inside-Out’s little competition. Here’s the piece of verse I turned out for the event. I got to read it out too, not because of its qualities, but because all the submission were put in a bag and five were pulled out blind for reading.

 

 

 

 

 

Gleam

 

The sweet flicker of wisdom    runs like water

through this galaxy     but there is a void

divides us            dry beyond droughts

sure beyond doubts     holds steady

to our certainties.

 

Let’s not make any claims for it, but that doesn’t mean there are points worth noting, at least from my perspective as the writer.

To begin with, I was pleased to see that it had form, and I spent some time after the event, writing it out in different ways…moving the line breaks (which I keep coming back to, as being one of the hallmarks of poetry – coming back reluctantly I might add, and have).

The writing above was this morning’s attempt, and seems the best so far. I like the split line layout. It’s in my use of language – the way I speak – and it’s in a fair sprinkling of earlier poems of mine, several of which have been published (and one of which won a prize of sorts!). The not quite balanced phrasing pleases me, but there’s also that fracture that it gives, on the printed page, which often does, and often has to run through the otherwise solid unity of any attempt at meaning.

There are other elements of form I like. There are a couple of rhyming lines, which echo also in their metre and ‘tunes’.

There’s a meaning to it as well which I’m not unhappy with. What I’m not happy with, at all, is the title, but it’ll do for now!

The five words that we were all given, and which had to be got in, were galaxy water sweet flicker and wisdom, listed in that order. Getting three of them out of the way in the first five words was a break through, and using up the other two before the middle of the second line took the pressure off.

I’m really not a fan of this sort of exercise, but to have refused would have been churlish, and I know from my own experience, that when you don’t know what to say, and somebody puts you on the spot to say something….you’ll dredge up something you’ve been meaning to say (in social situations this usually turns out to be something crass, vulgar and embarrassing – well, it does in my case). I suppose it’s only a version of Hemingway’s write drunk/edit sober concept.

While we’re on tossed off poems (no pun intended), here’s one that crossed my mind while on the 26+ hour flight to New Zealand. We were on the longer leg between Dubai and Auckland at the time:

 

Flying at thirty thousand feet

Above the Indian Ocean

When seated in the cubicle

You really feel the motion.

 

Other long haul victims will perhaps know that feeling! You might be relieved to know that I got some other stuff in the notebook too, which I’m still working on.

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On the long flight home from New Zealand I pondered the writing of poetry.

I was thinking about the memorability of poems. Someone wrote that ‘the first duty of poetry is to be memorable’. I think it might have been James Fenton, but perhaps not. If you recognise the quote and can source, please let me know. Though, of course, it doesn’t matter who said it. The validity of ideas doesn’t depend on who came up with them. Rather the opposite in fact. The value of the speaker is recognised in the wisdom of the spoken.

And poems often are memorable, far more so than prose, I suspect. As memorable, perhaps, as songs, to which poems are related. Learning songs, and by extension poems, is recognised as being much easier than learning equivalent amounts of prose. Songs I learned decades ago, and fragments of poetry, still lodge in the mind.

And I’m inclined to the belief that it’s not the meaning of the songs, or the poems which makes them memorable. The memorability lies in the physical attributes of the words. Their rhythms, alliterations, harmonies and dissonances, their echoes, which we call rime, their hard edges and soft centres, the tunes their phrases play. These are the qualities that make words stick: the way they lodge in the ear when we hear them; the feel of them in our mouths as we speak them. Meaning isn’t in it at all, as far as I can see. That’s why something as meaningless as Jabberwocky remains so memorable. It’s nothing more than a series of meaningless sounds into which we pour our own meanings, generation after generation, because we can remember it. The printed word has weakened that memory, perhaps, rather than strengthened it.

I would argue that poetry, like song, uses that quality of words as a vehicle to carry meanings, or the spaces into which meanings can be fitted, into the future. The meanings, even in poems like Jabberwocky, are what the writers want to pass on, but it’s the sound and the feel of the words that carries those meanings over the years.

So when we’re writing, it’s not simply that we have to struggle with what it is we have to say, but that we have to say it in words that will be memorable. It’s almost as if the meaning is not inherent in the words themselves, at least not to the extent that we have no choice, when it comes to choosing memorable ones.

Prose writing can supply evidence of the truth of this. A favourite exercise of mine with short story writers, is to give them the ending of a sentence (or even to suggest they ‘find’ one at random) and make it the ending of a story they will write. A roomful of people will take the same seemingly least meaningful fragment, and use their story to imbue it with power, with depth of meaning  Each one will bequeath a different meaning to the fragment, a meaning that grows out of the context provided by the rest of the story.

The memorable poem, presumably, can do something similar. And I realise I’m back to the ongoing exploration of the roles of form and content, of the relationship between them, and of the functions of each.

This will probably be the last blog post I write before going to New Zealand to visit my daughter… so it may be some time before the next one pops up.

It’s easier, I suspect, to write about what you find in what you’ve read, than to write about what you think you’ve put into what you write. And rare, in my experience, to get a written response from a reader that clarifies what you think you might have found in what you wrote, if you had been a reader of it!

A few months before he died, the much missed Nick Pemberton, got hold of a copy of my sequence of poems, Martin? Extinct?, and read it in what I realise now might be the ‘proper’ way (at a sitting). He took the trouble to tell me what he found. I have been thinking of sending the collection for review, but after reading Nick’s comments, I wondered if I needed to!

‘This is deep and mysterious work. Full of pithy wisdom, raw ache, love, loss, the mystery of – as so often in a poem – who is talking to who(m). Thanks old pal, a true tonic.’

 

            I’ll take that!

I’m reading at the Maryport Settlemnent on Saturday 29th September, as part of the celebration of the moment, fifty nine years ago (in 1959), when Cumberland poet Norman Nicholson met painter Percy Kelly, in this very place.

There are events throughout the Saturday, and on the Friday. My part is two-fold. A bit part in the morning’s event with Brian Chaney of the Norman Nicholson Society, who will concentrate on Norman’s poems, and a bitter part as one of the lunchtime poets (from 12.30 till 2.00pm) at which I’ll do a set of around 20 minutes.

It’s always difficult at events like this to know what to read. There’s a fashion at regular poetry readings for writers, for poets to present their most ‘famous’ works, and their most recent.  The thing about recent work, whether it’s poetry or prose, is that we think it’s our best (weeks, months – possibly days – later, of course, we think something else is, and not necessarily something written since!).

There was a plan for me to read alongside the late (great) Nick Pemberton, but as you probably know, he passed away earlier this month. There’s a gap nobody will be filling! So among the poems I’ll be reading will be ones that I think Nick liked, or would have liked. There’s a sort of signature poem too – which is as near as I get to that ‘famous’, and yes, one or two ‘recent’ poems, that may, or may not be ‘the best’.

I mentioned in a blog a few posts back, the story of literary critic Cyril Connolly and his ambition manque – to write something that would last ten years. If he had, one must imagine, it might well have been his ‘best’, but would he have recognised it at the time, or even thought so ever after? 

Robert Frost famously, well, perhaps not famously but certainly reportedly, in the biography of him that I read a few years ago, advised his students not to write ‘unless you have something to say.’ I’ve cited the quotation before, but I come back to it again and again. It has a rider that changes what you might have thought of as its rather unhelpful finality: if you haven’t got something, he would, apparently, add, ‘go and get it’.

Having something to say seems to me to be an entirely laudable reason for writing, and trying to get it said might well be a long job, involving many attempts that either end up saying not quite what was intended, or failing completely. But there comes a time, I’ve found, when, only occasionally, one finds oneself, or to put it more bluntly, when I’ve found myself feeling that I have said what I had to say, and that consequently the tank is dry, the larder empty, the cupboard bare, and all other similar metaphors.

It’s an unpleasant place to find yourself, especially after that moment of euphoria when you first begin to think that you’ve nailed something (other than your literary thumb). I’ve experienced it in a couple of genres, I think – one can never be sure about these things – and certainly in poetry. It hasn’t stopped me writing poems, but it sure did slow me down. It was nearly ten years ago when the drowning of three boys in Ullswater challenged me to be a poet who wrote about something that mattered, or not. The Ullswater Requiem took several months to evolve, and I’m sure I’ve told the story elsewhere. But after it was finished, far from being the spur to a flurry of other poems, it created a sort of hiatus. I came to a stop. What else was there to say that I could say that would stand up to comparison with it?

To feel like that didn’t require anybody else to endorse my assessment of UR. It was, I knew, whatever reception it got, or whatever anybody else thought about it, simply the best thing I had written; the best thing that I had conceived of writing. I still feel like that about it, whatever level the poem stands at in relation to other people’s best or worst. It took some time to recover any sense that it was worth me trying to write anything else.

A similar thing happened to me on the way to this blog post. Nearly two years ago now, I wrote a couple of flash fictions, and then a short story (short enough to be regarded as flash fiction by some definitions) which had a similar resonance for me. One of the flash fictions (perhaps the starting point, and the least developed) has been published. The other pieces still have not, and, I suspect, might be impossible to place for a variety of reasons. A good friend and valued critic panned absolutely the one that I see as the pinnacle of the trio, yet, yet, for me it remains a high point: the high point when it comes to what I might have to say.

I’ve suggested to students before now that success as a writer is something that has, or has not, already happened when you put down the pen, or close the keyboard. Public, or private approbation, publication, is only the recognition of that already accomplished success. Success in sales, or celebrity is an entirely different matter, as Gerard Manley Hopkins or Nathaniel West might testify.

So.

At the moment I’m wondering what to write that will advance what I perceive as my writing trajectory. I’d be tempted to say that it is ‘no easy place’, but I said that back in 2004, in a poem that provided the title of a now out-of-print 2005 collection (the poem, In My Claude Glass, was included in the Maryport Writers anthology New Stories for Old Stones).

When I was in my teens, and was supposed to be listening to various pop-groups whose names I can’t remember, I was fan of Stan Getz. Never heard of him? Or perhaps you have. Playing an Americanised version of South American music the faux-Samba hit of the season was Girl from Ipanema. You don’t have to be any sort of feminist to see the inherent stereotyping in this title, and you don’t even have to know the song. Like a diffused bomb, the eponymous woman was both made safe and endangered.

It was sung by Astrud Gilberto, wife of Jao (I know I’ve spelt that wrong, but am too lazy, and unconcerned to correct it,; and I know how easily you could, if you could be bothered) Gilberto, a guitarist and singer who collaborated (an interesting choice of word) with Getz, a tenor saxophonist. As a kid I had all the Getz albums on vinyl. I have a compilation on CD nowadays, but rarely listen to it. Gets, record sleeves told me, had initiated the venture, and Gilberto, He’s wife, had been drafted in to sing the song. I was happy to listen to whatever she sang, and in whichever of the languages she had available, for you did not need to know what the words meant to pick up the emotional freight that they were slipping across our borders. In fact it might be that, certainly with that most famous song, the tedious and trite lyrics are best left un-known, with only the sound to enjoy. After all, much opera is enjoyed that way, even in English so far as I can tell.

Getz played a soothing music in the main, which appealed to me then in the way that poetry always has: lyrical, suggestive, and valued as much for what it leaves out as what it puts in. That’s what as a writer I might call leaving something for the reader to do. I find the same quality in that Josephine Dickinson poem I wrote about only a short while ago. When you get us on the right emotional wavelength we tune in to our own hopes and fears and dreams, and fantasies.

There’s something else about Samba that didn’t come to me until years later though. It was when my daughter was at school in the early noughties and Samba Bands were what the trendy English kid did at school. I would never accuse my daughter of being trendy, by the way, but her school had one of those bands, which were, at the time, virtually ubiquitous.

In case you’ve never heard of them, because they sank without trace soon enough, in my experience, they would lend a Latino flavour to the most English (and Scottish) of local events. A phalanx of drummers, lead by a gruppenfuhrer with a whistle, would – and here I struggle for a verb…stomp seems not quite right – up the road, usually as part of a larger procession, beating out a complex rhythm, the shrill shriek of the whistle signalling the changes. The not quite part of it audience – and here another verb gives problems….shuffles is only the half of it – would accompany them, sheepishly, on the sidelines. It didn’t have the insistent fascist quality of other drum bands I’ve heard (along with pipes in Carlisle’s market square, exhorting us to hate someone), nor that of the little drummer boy from you know which old film.

Eventually the Samba band would take ground at the top of a hill or in a square and settle down to a virtuoso performance of its whistles and bangs. It was all rather heady, but benign.

How the hell, I wondered, did the kids learn though, such complicated rhythms? And here comes another link with poetry, or at least with language. My daughter gave me the secret. She was playing, she said Polly put the kettle on. From that old nursery rhyme! You can tap it out on the table. That’s all you need to know really. There’s nothing you can say, even nonsense, in this language, and for all I know, in any other, that couldn’t teach you some sort of drum solo, and no line of poetry you’ve ever read, or written, that can’t be tapped out that way…. whether or not it would be worth shuffling up a street alongside though, is a different matter….

 

Here‘s a little review of Me reading at the Poetry Symposium in Carlisle a couple of weeks ago. Andy picked up on my idiosyncratic avoidance of introductions. It’s not just bad introductions I don’t like. It’s the idea that you can, or even should, try to prejudice somebody’s response to a piece of writing by telling them what you think they ought to look for, and find in it… If you doubt they will, then maybe you should have written it differently.

I’m all for discussions afterwards though, when they have found (or not!)…and maybe that’s the time also for any stories about where the piece of writing came from and why…which is really only of interest if we really like the piece (or really loathe it…which is still  better than not caring one way or the other, I suspect!).

The collection Andy mentions can be purchased here and there>

Andy Hopkins, with the help of a team of students organised by Ruby Evans, gave Carlisle its first Poetry Symposium at the weekend. It was staged at Room 8, Fisher Street Galleries, the home of Darren Harper’s Phil & Lit Society.

Eight invited poets were supported by a dozen ‘open mic’ readers, which merry (and not so merry) band held their audience of fellow writers, readers and friends from 11.00am to around 4.30pm, give or take a break for networking and buying from the pop-up bookshop which sold over £300 pound worth of local publications.

Most dazzling of all, for me, was the finale, during which Josephine Dickinson read her poem ‘Alphabetula’ designed, and performed to give the hearing reader an experience of the profound deafness that overtook her from the age of six. Astonishing is a difficult word. Is the astonishment a quality of the astonished, or of the astonisher? Whichever, I found the performance astonishing. Working at break next speed from a breeze-block sized stack of single sheets upon each of which was written in capitals a single ‘word’, or rather a single group of seemingly random letters, and which she flung from the pile to face the audience, Josephine grunted, squeaked, wheezed and harrumphed her way through what to call a ‘nonsense poem’ would be to do to (or even oo-bee-do-be-do) an injustice.

Forget Jabberwocky. With this poem we were not invited or encouraged to mould the gibberish to our usual grammar or to a simulacrum of our normal speech, but were rather demanded to look, and listen on, in bemused incomprehension – as those who are profoundly must often have had to do.

It was a break neck performance, not least because of the sheer physical weight of the poem being read…and make no mistake it was being read, it was a poetry reading, a mad, compelling soundfest of a poem, the meaning of which was not meaning, but incomprehension itself.

Writing this I’m reminded of Bob Cobbing reading in the seventies – he toured the Lake District one summer in the company of other pop poets on a poetry bus or van that colonised, and re-vitalised a series of car parks if memory serves -but by comparison his poems, broke down some barriers of language and languages, were models of linguistic simplicity. It seemed to me, glancing at the audience when I could tear my eyes away from Josephine and her crazed turning of the pages, that she was taking us on a wild ride, no less, I think, than we might expect from this mistress of words.

For those of an arboreal persuasion, let me say that the title of Josephine’s poem contains no co-incidental pun, as she will explain, when and if you ever get the chance to take the ride. You can take a peek at Josephine reading, and what the poem looks like on the page, here.

There will be another poetry symposium, I hope, and, I hope I shall be there!

We have an all day poetry symposium in Carlisle (England) on Saturday, May 19th, at the Phil & Lit Society on Fisher Street (Room 8, Fisher Street Galleries).

I’m one of the poets who will be reading. I have a twenty minute slot to fill. I don’t do introductions, or at least not the twenty-minutes-to-introduce-a-twenty-line-poem sort of introductions. It seems to me that if the poem doesn’t speak to you it’s no use the poet telling you what it should have said, and besides, the poem you experience is the one you hear, not the one the poet tells you that you are going to hear. So it’ll just be the poems, mainly, apart from a word or two.

There’s a Neil Young concert, with Crazy Horse, I have on CD – you remember those – at the beginning of which someone yells out ‘They All Sound the Same!’, and Young shouts back, ‘It’s all one song’. The perfect grammar makes me wonder if it was a plant…but either way, if my poems attracted the same sort of comment I’d have to give a similar sort of answer.

I set about choosing the poems I won’t be introducing.

I have a new collection out, which I should attempt to promote…we’re having a pop-up bookshop too, so I’ll bring a few copies to sell…. and I’ve included a couple from that, at the end of the reading.

But which other poems? Well, I thought, pick ones you like. Pick ones you’d like to have read if you were never going to read in public again, and who knows if you are ever going to read in public again? Who knows if you are going to make it through to the 19th of My anyway?

I discovered I liked quite a lot of my poems. That’s why I wrote ‘em, I suppose.

A.E.Coppard, that short story writer whose stories I rather like, published a couple of collections of poems, and he too liked his own poems. He got into a deal of trouble for mentioning that. Perhaps I shall too.

And then there’s the matter of which order you read ‘em in. I sent fellow poet Andy Hopkins – whose event this is – a copy of the intended poems, and he suggested which one I start with. I’d placed it nearer the middle, but the suggestion unlocked the logic of the ordering.

Start with the poetry, then the biography, then poems that matter, to me, and perhaps, if I’ve done the job properly, to you too. End with the poems in the collection you’re trying to promote (I added one extra comic poem – always good to end on a high note, if there’s time to squeeze it in).

There are several others readers, too good to be among really, and lots of ‘open mic’slots in between. The show runs from 10.00am until 5.00pm. Come along. Listen. Read. Buy books. Ask questions. Chat. Make sure Andy reads some of his poems too!

One of Me’s poems is Guesting on the Acumen poetry website at the moment. Why not take a look! Here.

 

 

On the other hand, you could click on the Just Giving page and donate for his 15 mile hike in aid of The British Heart Foundation…in the vicinity of Hadrian’s Wall, on May 20th. Here.

 

 

You could do both, I suppose!