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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!  

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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)

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….

 

Ah! A beer in Vetters Bar in Heidelberg, just off the Haupt Strasse at the Cathedral end. Bliss.

Yesterday reminded me I must watch Bad Day at Black Rock again, but in the meantime here’s some news about a poetry anthology under preparation in Cumbria and to which I was offered the chance to submit.

I was lucky enough to have one poem accepted. It’s one of several poems I have written over the years touching on the subject of dry-stone walls. The first two were written back in the mid seventies and picked up by The Countryman magazine (which actually paid for publication!). It was a theme I returned to for a number of reasons. One was that the stone wall has a high profile in the culture of the north of England, and does so even as far south as where I grew up. The Derbyshire stone-walls are as ubiquitous as those of Yorkshire, Lancashire and the Pennine country and of the Lake District Fells. They differ in building styles and techniques, some being of the dark – Satanic – millstone, some of the sharp, irregular limestone. But here in Cumbria too there is a similar variety – Limestone on Orton Scar, Slate and granite on the central Lakeland fells, sandstones on the fringes to the north and west.

It’s not just their appearance in the landscape that draws the poet’s attention though. Walls themselves, Hadrian’s or the Emperor of China’s, and later Stalin’s, Israel’s, and perhaps one day Trump’s, make political and racial statements about who they are walling in and walling out. Since schooldays Robert Frost’s poem has reminded me to ask ‘to whom’ they were ‘like to give offense.’ That poem, Mending Wall, appeared in the 1914 collection North of Boston. Decades later, in a collaborative publication with retired miner and embroiderer Kenneth Dow Barker, the Cumberland poet, Norman Nicholson’s Wall, inspired me with its lyricism. That poem focussed on walls in the landscape and how they were built, but it contained a simple idea, ‘built it to stand’, that became the core of my later poem.

I heard Nicholson read his poem along with others from Stitch & Stone (Ceolfrith Press, 1975) at the Brewery Arts Centre in Kendal, soon after, or probably at its launch and I recall him introducing the two long poems – Wall and Beck – with the explanation that he hadn’t had the time to write shorter ones.

Writer and stone-waller, Joe Smith, writing in Southlight  #13, cited one of my wall poems – quite a compliment, for I believe he can’t have seen it in print, but must have remembered a reading somewhere. That might have been at the Burns Centre in Dumfries, where I read as a warm-up poet for a mildly famous ‘named’ poet, whose name I have forgot. He reassured me during the after show hospitality, that I had been lucky that he had ‘not caught fire’ in his own reading. I have wondered since if he was the lucky one, as I would have had to hand only beer or urine to douse him in – and would have considered it a waste of beer (nobody can beat a poet at nursing a grudge).

To be published in early October by Handstand Press, This Place I know will feature poets living in the county. There will be launches as part of the Borderlines Festival, and at the Wordsworth Trust.

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…?

Global Fixation System? No.

Someone on Twitter a couple of months ago called Nigel Farage a ‘gammon faced shitflute’. I liked the sharpness and originality of the language, and could imagine it sitting well in a story, however presented, but I despair of the application to living people, or dead ones for that matter, however odious we find their beliefs, aspirations and actions.

I distrust personal insults as a means of argument. Of course they aren’t a means of argument, merely an expression of dislike. It doesn’t matter whether or not one likes this or that politician, or any other person. What matters is why we come to the beliefs we hold, and whether or not those who disagree with us can give us a good reason to change our minds. Fear of what they might do to us is not a good reason – though it may be a potent and compelling one.

Calling Farage names doesn’t help anyone, though it may make many feel good. It’s a great phrase though, and called forth praise from an American tweeter (not Trump, btw).  It’s perhaps worth considering that people who believe there is only one way to see the world, and that it only can be seen  from the place and time in and at which they stand have a vested interest in belittling those who witness other perspectives, of demonizing them, and, ultimately of eradicating them.  Curious also, not how often such people believe they are right, but how often they believe they are civilised too.

I remember a northern Irish politician many years ago referring to ‘Republican Scum’…. I couldn’t help but think of American friends who are, well, republicans…(rather than Republicans, if you take my nicety). I’ve written about scum on the blog before, and how it often floats to the top. We hear very little about English Republicans (or republicans for that matter). British Republicans would, I should think, be seen as oxymorons (or at least some sort of that ilk) the Unionist position being by default a Royalist one.

All this speculation about words has reminded me of the American Poet Jonathan Williams, some forty years ago, puffing cigar smoke in my direction, and asserting, poetry is about words, son! Poetry is about words! 

I’ve got that now, Jonathan…sorry it took so long, and so much smoke.