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I was at a public rehearsal of Patchwork Opera’s Footstep a couple of nights ago. A multi-media group, of poets, songwriters and film makers, they had put together a story based in Carlisle (England), and which featured a poem by local writer Kelly Davis. A full performance scheduled for August 29th at Carlisle’s Old Fire Station.

In particular this caught my ear, because it was written in the Valanga form. I devised and named the form about ten years ago, whilst working towards an M.Litt at Glasgow University’s Crichton Campus.

The exercise wasn’t appreciated by my assessors, it must be said, but it served the purpose of allowing me to write a poem I wanted to write in a particular style. I had been looking at the pantoum form, and the way that lines repeat in a sort of ‘ripple’ down the length of the poem. That wasn’t quite what I was looking for. I wanted a repetition that would build, expand, like…I thought, an Avalanche! The poem was called Avalanche (originally, The Avalanche of Emotion…which was too much, and most of it wouldn’t need saying if the poem did its job!). I called the form Valanga, as a bit of a dig at the British (English? Establishment?) preference for Arts that aren’t home grown.

Kelly’s, to my way of thinking, successful use of the form, had resulted in her poem being taken for publication…but the editor had asked for some shortening…saying it was a bit ‘repetitive’. The editor, Kelly told me, was ‘forthright’: a good quality in an editor, especially if you are going to disagree with them!

The use of repetition is traditional in poetry (and elsewhere), but that doesn’t necessarily mean that that use must be for tradition’s sake. Repetition can be used in several ways (some of which, I’m sure I’m not yet aware of!). It can render a phrase, clause, or sentence (or even a single word for that matter) meaningless, comic even. It can add emphasis on each subsequent usage. It can fade like an echo, or like someone leaving, or crying in a wilderness. It can explode, like an avalanche, progressively filling our consciousness. It can test a form of words against a variety of background contexts that will give them meanings totally at variance with each other. It can make music, beat, and rhythm.

In poems like Louis Aragon’s Ballade de celui qui chants dans les supplices it can be heart-breakingly powerful, where the opening refrain becomes an assertion of human courage, endurance, hope and intention against the certainty of death:

 

“Et s’il etait a refaire

Je referais ce chemin….”

 

….Which I translate as:

 

‘And if it was to do again

I would do it the same…’

…which I know is not a word for word translation. You can find the poem, with a word for word translation in The Penguin Book of French Poetry 1820-1950, which I strongly recommend to anyone wanting to write poetry influenced by our European tradition.

A similar power, in a quite different context can be found in Josephine Dickinson’s lament for her late husband. From the collection Scarberry Hill (Rialto,2001), comes the profound and moving Instead of Time .

Again it is the opening lines that are repeated, this time with a slight variation to end the poem:

 

Do you not hear the sea?

Snow still falls on your grave

(I threw a red rose)

The wind still blows.

 

This stark quatrain of simple, single syllable words beats like a muffled drum, and I have testified before to feeling the hair stand up on my neck when I have recalled it to mind, let alone read it again. The first time I heard Josephine read it (she stood tall, slim, silent and motionless as a pillar of dark slate) not only did I listen in stillness and in silence, but without breathing for fear of breaking the spell; and that spell was woven to a large extent by the repetitions of these words.

At the other end of the scale, the repetition of a single word or phrase ad nauseam can reduce an audience to hysterical laughter.

Perhaps somewhere in the middle lies that tradition I mentioned, in the provision of choruses to both songs and poems. Choruses bring us back and send us round again, like a merry-go-round fun-fare ride, like a marching song. But it’s not only verse, lyrical or otherwise. I’ve even attempted a ‘chorus’ short story, though it didn’t quite work out that simply (Last Chorus in Burton on Trent, from Second Time Around, 2006). Repetition is a powerful tool of more general oratory. Can you remember Labour Party leader Neil Kinnock asking his members if they were ‘ready for power’, and by that repetition generating a storm of response that some commentators suggested he himself was not ready for?  And what about the Shakesperian repetition that undermines its own ostensible meaning in Mark Antony’s famous eulogy…Brutus is an honourable man…?

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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)

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!

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.

That William Faulkner quote popped up recently in a promotional e-mail…the one about novelists being failed short story writers; short story writers being failed poets….made me wonder what sort of failure poets are?

More than ten years ago I started writing what became a sequence of poems about the fictional character ‘Martin’. Between 2005 and 2011 about a dozen poems turned up. They were never exactly planned, but I knew them when they arrived, and not always because of his name. Often it was a tone of voice, or the ambience of the first few words to arrive that alerted me!

Several have been published, in Acumen, Tears in the Fence, Beautiful Scruffiness, and most recently, with the latest addition, Martin Removed, in the second Speakeasy Anthology here in Carlisle. Eight of the poems were gathered into a short run chapbook by the Carlisle based Freerange Press.

Over the years since 2011 a handful of new poems have been added to the sequence, and they have now been collected into a new edition in paperback and for Kindle. You can find it online here.

I’ll be reading from Martin? Extinct?, followed by a Q & A session, at the poetry symposium on May 19th, at Carlisle’s Phil & Lit Society (Room 8, Fisher Street Galleries), and will have a limited number of numbered & signed copies of the new collection for sale.

It’s always difficult to know what to put up as a blog post. I’m not inclined to publish the small doings of my daily life. I did go out for a coffee today, and it wasn’t a bad coffee, but the slice of ‘chocolate crunch’ though chocolatey and crunchy was otherwise tasteless, and a bit on the sweet side, but I suppose it had conformed to what it said on the label.

You see, it’s not that interesting, is it?

A friend of mine, and a very good writer, introduced himself at our first meeting, by describing himself as ‘having the honour to be a failed writer’. It’s a wonderful description, and one that could be applied to me as well, and perhaps better than to him. I’ve been writing since I was at school, and that’s a certain half century with perhaps a few more years tagged on.

My first piece published was, I think, a poem, heavy on structure and weak on content, though it did trite in spades. That would have been in the late nineteen sixties. After that I moved north, and wrote some more. Poems got published. Out of the three hundred or so I have archived on yellowing paper – typed on a manual typewriter (Olivetta Dora – A small portable. I loved it. I wonder if Mr Hanks has one. Mine has long gone) only six are worth a fart, and three of those need work.

I was pleased with myself when I got two poems about Cumbrian stone walls into The Countryman (January 1977), but not as pleased as I ought to have been to get into the hard-back PEN anthology of ‘New Poetry’ the year before (I face Fleur Adcock across the page). Since then I’ve had two comparable success – that’s in fifty years, remember. Out of the hundred or so poems that have been published here there, and more often than anywhere else in Acumen, I got one into that magazine’s 6oth anniversary edition (First Sixty, 2010). I also won, in 2009, with a collection of poems that included the Ullswater Requiem, the first Sir Patrick Geddes Memorial Trust award for student work that celebrated the causes of that trust, to be awarded to a piece of ‘artwork.’

The success, always, lies in the writing, not in the recognition. But the recognition reassures – even though we know that it goes oft astray.

If anyone asks me to read poetry to them, I’m pleased to do so, but if they don’t, I’m neither surprised nor insulted.

A friend and fellow writer recently set up The Carlisle Phil and Lit Society….a valiant enterprise, in my opinion, evocative of windmills, and grist. Another fellow writer, and friend, plans to run a poetry symposium there, for the encouragement of interest and participation in the literary arts. I put up a link to this a few days ago and was horrified to find abusive and negative responses to both ideas. I can’t begin to tell you how angry and sad that makes me. Thankfully, I have a wall against which to bang my head.