You are currently browsing the tag archive for the ‘poetry’ tag.

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.

Advertisements

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.

While on my trip to New Zealand I took the chance to read at one of Auckland’s Open Mic sessions. Inside-Out at Cafe One2One on Ponsonby Road is a well established monthly reading slot for local writers, and musicians. On the 14th of November 2018, as usual, I suspect, the room was packed and buzzing.

It’s quite alarming, I found, to contemplate reading to an audience as far round the world as you can get without starting on the journey home. What do they care about? What will they understand? What will amuse them? Rile them? Wind them up? Move them? And will it do it for the right reasons? How the hell does one choose just what to fill that five minute slot with? It was unnerving too, to find how similar the event was to  the Carlisle (Cumbria, UK) Speakeasy and Litcaff events I’ve been familiar with over the last dozen or so years. And amid those similarities, of course, the startling differences, of expectation, attitude, and perception, like the explosions of palm leaves that force their way through the canopies of ‘ordinary’ looking trees in what might be an English countryside. Walking on a turf headland forty minutes drive from the city, was like being on the coast near Whithorn. Crossing the fence line on the usual sort of stile, we stepped into what seemed a sub-tropical forest. Difference, and similarity in life, as in Art.

So, I’d taken a fistful of books to read from, made a dozen plans that I tore up, ended up reading one story, and one poem. The story, A Last Visit, taken from Talking To Owls (published by the excellent, but now retired Pewter Rose Press in 2012 – I have a couple of dozen copies left: Paypal me £6 GBpounds, and your address and I’ll send you one), but previously unpublished, and rarely read in public. The poem, All Things Are Connected, from Acumen‘s 60th anniversary anthology, and before that in #56 from 2006. In both cases, they seemed to understand what I was getting at. I should put that poem in a collection, if I do another.

Reading old work gets more enjoyable as I age with it, and reading new work less so! I had a new ‘work’ to read on the 14th, though, for a game they play here is to give you a fistful of words on a printed form, and ask for a piece of micro-fiction or poetry to go into the draw. Hell, I thought, why not? All Things itself came  out of a not wholly different exercise. Five of these raw pieces would be picked out of a hat, and guess what, mine was one of them! We each got a prize too…in my case Ivy Alvarez’s poetry collection Disturbance (Seren Books,2013),about which more perhaps after I’ve re-read it.

There isn’t, in my possession, an image from the reading, but if one turns up, I’ll post it! As an alternative, here’s a Kiwi forest, familiar, and unfamiliar.

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!

When I opened the e-mail that informed me of Nick Pemberton’s death it was late at night. I’d been out all day, and I don’t have spy-in-the-pocket technology to check every few minutes.

The house was quiet and I was alone. My first instinct was to get out my notebook and scribble some pages of thoughts, but that didn’t do the job. In the end I turned to other people’s poetry. I picked up my copy of Robert Frost’s poems, and read half a dozen of my favourites, aloud, to myself, in the kitchen. Only after that could I take myself off to sleep.

It was later I looked at the scribbling in the notebook, and from them one or two poems emerged. And poems written, in embryo at least, in the previous notebook got looked at again and finished off.

At Nick’s funeral over and again we heard testimony of how Nick gave to others the confidence that they couldn’t find in themselves – the best gift a teacher can give. He was so with me too, when I was wound in to his little bunch of part-time Creative Writing tutors at Cumbria University.

Nick and I argued continually (but not continuously – there’s one for you worders). So much so, in fact, during sessions we took together when he was still trying to work out if I had anything to offer, that one of the students suggested that ‘they’ should put us in a car with a camera on us, and send us off, arguing about literature across the USA! Hey! What an idea! And what a pity ‘they’ didn’t.

The great thing about arguing writing with Nick, with vehemence and passion and absolute commitment on both sides, was that the arguments never veered into rancour or acrimony – though they sometimes disintegrated into laughter.

One regret, and one thankfulness from the time of his passing. The regret is that I never got round to sending him the e-mail, congratulating him on the success of that final performance in Carlisle. I’ll do it tomorrow, I told myself (but as we know, tomorrow never comes). The thankfulness is that he read a collection of poems I recently published, and told me that he liked it.

Here’s a little poem I wrote, since then, that he might have liked – or at least we might have argued about!

 

The Living and the Dead

 

We the living.

They the dead.

There’s nothing more

that need be said

 

(except that they

don’t need to know

how much it was

we loved them so,

 

and that it is

the living who

are those that most

assuredly do).

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’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? 

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.

Here’s a poem I wrote about fifteen years ago. I haven’t tinkered with it since.

It must have been around that time, I also wrote the story Alcedo the Dipper. Set in a futuristic mall (that seems quite dated now!), the story world had people wearing hi-tech, electrically generated ‘veils’, to avoid being seen by CCTV, though the veils themselves had become their distinguishing features. That was the background to the story, but its intention was more about the creation of a street argot or patois, based on terms re-cycled from the trading floor of Stock Markets. I was interested in how words could be taken completely out of context and re-purposed. It ended up in The Man Who Found A Barrel Full of Beer, a collection of short stories that are longer than my usual. 

There had been around then, I think, an article in a women’s magazine showing photos of pairs of eyes and asking readers to guess the emotions in them. Men, apparently, scored worse than women at the test. It might have prompted the poem, or perhaps it was Jack Straw’s reported discomfort at interviewing masked constituents?

And perhaps Boris has missed a point or two, for the Burqa and the Niqab are not fashion statements, and what they look like is beside the point. It’s why they are worn, and where the practice began, and when, that matters. If you need a comparison, then compare them with the suits worn by the operatives clearing up after the Novachuk incident, for they were, and presumably are, for protection, in cultures where the gaze of men might lead to an assault, the cause of which would be regarded as the ‘irresistibility’ of uncovered women. Worth noting, that in current western culture we do not believe that women can be so irresistible, even when dressed provocatively.

Different cultures reveal and conceal different parts of the body for different reasons, and with differing messages. An open hand can signify no weapon, or largesse, or be the weapon (kara-te – no kidding). We can have face, or no face, or side, or no side to us. The public hangman, when we had one, was hooded, and thus masked, and so have been other executioners, authorised and otherwise.

Two masks I can think of in western culture that were ‘positive’ rather than negative, were the Lone Ranger’s one, and Zorro’s – both, perversely, covered the eyes, and nothing else. I am reminded too of that statement in The Virginian –When you say that, stranger, smile. To which the masked man might reply, I am smiling, underneath his Burka! Some things have to be taken on trust.

Perhaps I should have added, to the poem, a verse about hoodies….and there are so many ways to wear a bandana…. maybe I should try out a few at the local branch of my bank (while there still is one).

 

Shrouded Woman With Bum Bag & Coke Can

(a poem about cultural baggage, by Mike Smith)

 

Covered robed and hidden

Like a man from KKK

Hood black as balaclavas

That they wore in IRA

 

Perhaps her eyes are smiling

But I cannot see her face

 

Out upon the turnpike

With pistol or with knife

Masked Highwaymen demanded

Your money or your life

 

Perhaps her eyes are smiling

But I cannot see her face

 

Even knights in armour

With colours on a shield

Had to raise their visors

For intent to be revealed

 

Perhaps her eyes are smiling

But I cannot see her face

 

A little Hiroshima

A Dresden on a plate

Only one girl in a thousand

Would choose to take her place

 

Perhaps her eyes are smiling

But I cannot see her face

 

She twists a metal ring pull

There’s a package at her waist

Her eyes are saying something

But I cannot see her face….

Writing can be an alarmingly fragile activity.  It’s all I ever really wanted to do, and even I was blocked for a decade and more. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to write. It wasn’t that I had nothing to say. It was something to do with confidence. i was like a horse refusing a jump (apart from the four legs, of course).

So one of the issues I’m aware of when working with other writers is how easy it is to put people off, by saying the wrong thing, or too much, or not enough. I don’t always get it right! Everyone will have something to say, even if they don’t realise it, and anyone with any sort of language has a tool for saying it, however crudely.

The issue came to mind recently. I’d been recalling a meeting with the poet R.S.Thomas (I recalled him as gaunt, grey and fierce), and that brought to mind my old friend and poetry mentor, Geoffrey Holloway, who died back in 1997. I wrote an article about Geoff, comparing him and Norman Nicholson: two poets writing in Cumbria when I was a young man, and who seemed a generation apart though they were only four years different in age. The essay is in Steve Matthews anthology Nicholson at 100 (Bookcase, Carlisle, 2014).

It was Geoff who saved me from that ‘block’. Shortly before he died I attended a celebration of his life and work, re-connecting after a gap of several years. He’d heard from mutual friends about my situation, and not quite metaphorically had me up against a wall. He talked about ‘back then’, and in the collection I bought that night, wrote ‘for Mike, and the old days in the vat bar’.

The ‘vat bar’, at Kendal’s Brewery Arts centre had, and may still for all I know, round tables and seats in each of two or three old beer vats. That was where our tiny audience had sat to hear R.S.Thomas read! That was where ‘the Brewery Poets’ met, to share their work. Your stuff, he told me, had been among the best.

You could interpret that, but I took at as I’m sure it was meant. It was the right time. Other prompts, life threatening, and life expanding, were already pushing me towards breaking the block.

Sometimes it doesn’t take much to discourage, but equally a little encouragement goes a long way. (and having written this, I find myself reading that old collection once again. – And Why Not?, Flambard 1997)