Wednesday, 17 June 2015


So: The Bees. Before I open it, I feel as if I have at least partly read it. From my previous knowledge of Carol Ann Duffy (mixed: some meticulously turned work in the past, but some obvious and banal work more recently - especially the laureate poem for the Olympics…). But also from the title.

Bees: that hints at Plath, obviously, but also more recently Jacob Polley and further back Mandeville, with his fable about society based on bees. 

There will be something about social order and swarms (maybe dancing, although that feels unlikely for Duffy). Something about domestic danger (with allusions to spacemen or biohazard suits). Something about pattern and order, celebrating the environmental importance of apparently humble creatures. And something about pesticides or fears about the reductions in their populations. Of course, it will be impossible to resist touching on the sting (with a nod to self-sacrifice, since a bee dies with its sting).

Or perhaps I will be surprised…

Approaching the bees…

It's one I the most beautiful books of poetry I've ever seen: a circuit-weave of hexagons that glints golden in the light, a single, golden bee silhouette in the centre like a Louis XVI wallpaper. A delight.

And yet perhaps the type is a little large and babyish? And is the degree of prominence given to prizes (Costa Poetry 2011) and titles (Poet Laureate) not just a little brash? And is the cut-out for the title really an octagon? That seems a little strange, in the context. But these are quibbles, perhaps. Onwards…

Hardback or paperback?

Carol Ann Duffy's The Bees is available in various editions, but the choice I had (at the Buxton bookshop where I found it heavily reduced) was between a pale blue hardback, overlaid with a gold pattern, or the same pattern on a white paperback. They were the same price.

Although the former seemed like it was meant to be the better edition (hardbacks carry status and have 'primacy' in terms of publication), I chose the latter. As well as preferring the contrast of colours, I have a long-standing preference for paperback poetry. It feels humbler, less grandiose, and lines up more neatly on the shelves (where it also takes less space).

Perhaps if I bought fewer books, I'd prefer hardbacks. But I'm often caught between preferring the paperback, but not wanting to wait for it to come out (I've got a couple of Paul Muldoon's books in hardback for that reason). Sometimes I'd happily pay the premium hardback price if I could get the paperback instead…

When poetry fits

Sometimes, I carry poetry with me to read when the book that I'm 'really' reading is too precious or cumbersome to take with me, or if I know that I'm unlikely to get much reading done. This works particularly well if I think I'll only get short bursts of time to give attention: when it's possible to read a whole poem, but not a whole chapter.

This skews the process of reading, since it means I'm more likely to read poetry in the middle of, and instead of, something else: so it sets up a lop-sided relationship between the poetry and the 'something else'. It also means I'm more likely to read poetry when I'm more busy, which must affect the way in which I receive it.

At the moment, I'm part way through an antique edition of John Ruskin's Seven Lamps of Architecture, but carrying around Carol Ann Duffy's The Bees. Ruskin's what I want to be reading (but also what I feel postponed from 'getting through'); Duffy's what fits easily in my bag or my day.

It's a curious thought that the physical properties of a book affect when and how you read it - and that this effect can apply to whole genres/forms. The more direct substitution of Twitter and email for poetry is a related issue, but one for another time.

Friday, 20 June 2014

A flick through one (of many) antholog(y/ies): Helen Gardner’s The New English Book of English Verse

Where to begin? The first challenge of a chronological anthology. Where Palgrave runs from (approximately) Shakespeare to Shelley, Gardner’s sweep is broader: from Anon (in a mediaeval prelude to Chaucer) to Fern Hill, written a couple of months after WWII. The poem by Anon is, appropriately, called ‘Cuckoo Song’ (also known by its first line: Summer is y-comen in’). All poems in anthologies are sorts of cuckoos: not only in their marking of time, their mechanical chimes jolting out between periods of silence and omissions; but also in their encroachment, their competition for place. All poems could not have happened, so their presence, in a summation of what did happen, carries a trace of that accident. ‘These fragments I have shored against my ruin’, in Eliot’s words from The Waste Land (included whole). But it’s also a particular version: for every poem that’s in, there’s one that has been pushed from the nest.

That joyful shout ‘summer is y-comen in!’ is an uplifiting place to start. Or, in the version of this poem, which is also called the ‘Reading Rota’ and is mounted on the walls of the ruined abbey in my home town: ‘sumer is icomen in’. There are variant reading (mis-Readings?) even where we start. But of course, this isn’t really the start. To summarise English verse without Angle-isch verse is itself a mis-reading: where is Beowulf, The Wanderer, The Seafarer, The Ruin? Lost at sea, perhaps… Too difficult? (See also the domesticated, truncated. modernised version of Chaucer, the eight line chunk of Langland). Anon continues to be prolific, in fits and starts: a mediaeval burst, some renaissance songs and then a late flourish to round out this strange career of C17th and C18th ballads. Everything after that is known and labelled (and, with eight brief exceptions, male).

Such anthologies serve some writers better than others, even amongst those that are included (we could note that English seems nationally or ethnically drawn, rather than based on the language, although we could then note the presence of Welsh and Scottish interlopers. Perhaps it should say ‘British’ – but how then to justify Joyce and Yeats’ inclusion? or the troublesome pair of Eliot and Pound?). Poetry that relates to an English poetic world, perhaps. In this, at least, it seems the Angles are here in force, along with the Anglicans represented in the middle of the volume. The selections are most unusual and quixotic in Gardner’s own areas of specialism: not just Eliot, but metaphysical poets. Aurelian Townshend makes an appearance. But later on, the list of names on the honour-boards are more predictable.

Most of Keats’, Coleridge’s and, later, Dylan Thomas’ best work is included. This format suits those who are only exceptionally exceptional, with careers cut short by death, addictions or both. The prominence Keats’ short career achieves in Palgrave’s Golden Treasury is surely one reason for his high reputation today (and indeed, the shape of our whole conception of the English canon: in wide-ranging lyric anthologies, minor lyricists and brief careers loom large).

More difficult to represent are the poets with longer, more complex poetic projects, such as Chaucer, Wordsworth, Pound. Although all are represented – sometimes at length – their work is cut down for size. The Prelude is delivered in two sections that are shorter than the (startlingly) absent ‘Tintern Abbey’. A page of Canto 81, unlabelled other than ‘from the Pisan Cantos’ gives no wider sense of its location (either within the cage in the detention centre at Pisa, or as part of a decades-long set of over a hundred long works). As the quoted section ends: ‘Here error is all in the not done, / all in the diffidence that faltered’. We are left with the climax without the build-up; and cathedrals shown at the same scale as cottages.

The balancing of scale in a historical anthology is always going to be difficult: the Victorian era (Tennyson, Robert Browning and Christina Rossetti aside) is perhaps not the high point, but there are plenty of ‘significant’ figures who need to be included (although one could question having seven pages of George Meredith and none of David Jones, or Charlotte Smith). In a poem, the form can follow the content: in a chronological anthology there are times when there are verses, or periods, that need to be filled.

Nearer the present, the selections are briefer, as if more tentative about reputations (or generous with opportunities). But as our present gets further from the present of its first publication, in 1972, we could make our own readjustments. The final poem, by MacNeice, speaks of ‘a cloud of witnesses’, but an anthology, like a cuckoo, like a war, thins out that crowd (all poets included were already either dead in war like Keith Douglas, or born before 1914). ‘What thou lovest well remains’, Pound wrote (in that short section of The Cantos included here). But we can perhaps be forgiven for finding this selection limiting and hoping that more that these few survive, that our love can be more inclusive: a living monument.

Wednesday, 1 January 2014

Poetry Highlights of 2013

Here are a few of my poetic highlights of 2013:

[On the basis that 'poetry is news that stays news', I have included highlights that weren't new to the world last year, but were new to me. Similarly, the 'poet of the year' is the poet who's made the greatest impression on me this year, rather than necessarily the one with the best new work this year.]

Poetry event of the year: Paul Muldoon at Durham Cathedral
Poet of the year: Jorie Graham
Poetry book of the year: Never by Jorie Graham
New poetry book of the year: West North East by Matt Clegg
Pamphlet of the year: Confusion Species by Suzannah Evans
Anthology of the year: The Footing from Longbarrow Press
Poem of the year: Prayer by Jorie Graham (from Never)
Sequence of the year: Death and the Gallant by Chris Jones (in The Footing)
Special mention: Seamus Heaney (of course)

Some things I'm looking forward to next year:

A new book by Jenny Lewis out from Carcanet (about her father in Mesopotamia during WWII)
Exploring 'other' war poets to complement the 1914 centenary
Two books by Valerie Rouzeau, from Arc that look exceptional at first glance…

Tuesday, 24 December 2013

Tolerance and Temptation

Exceptional poetry is rare enough that it requires the reader to be tolerant of, open for and receptive of many differentiating particularities of those poet who can write it: e.g. David Jones' Welsh and Catholic mythology. More dangerously, it can call for the same openness to a writer's vices and failings: e.g. Pound's fascism, Yeats' and Hughes' and Plath's occultism.

This combination of tolerance and temptation creates a curious situation in which the creation of increasing amounts of exceptional poetry weakens the impetus towards that empathy, but also protects against susceptibility to other failings. It is easier not to stray outside our tribe, but also to not betray our values.

This is, of course, a minor effect (empathy and integrity are too important in their own right), but I suspect that it is nonetheless real, as well as curious.

Wednesday, 3 December 2008

"Do you know who I am?"

An amusing post over on Volatile Rune about unwittingly coming across T S Eliot's Gerontion without realising who it's by and judging it 'better than average'... (The blog's well worth a regular read too, btw).

It reminds me of the fantastic book Practical Criticism by I A Richards (yes, I've got rather old-school tastes sometimes), in which he recounts his experience of giving a variety of poems to his Cambridge undergraduates without saying who they were by. Some were by 'great names', others by far 'lesser' figures. The results were intriguing and didn't generally fit with the recieved opinion about which were 'better'.

There are many conclusions which could be drawn from the experiment. I'm sure many would say that it shows that 'The Canon' is a load of bunkum. But I'd be inclined to suggest that it shows (as with Volatile Rune's experience) that we often read poetry in a way that's not equipped to recognise all of the depth, subtlety and context of the poem. And that's ok. Perhaps we note which are worth a reread, and that's when we start to sift the wheat from the corn (having already sifted out the chaff). After all, 'better than average' isn't a wrong description of Eliot's poetry.

Friday, 28 November 2008

Dylan or Dylan

I went to see Jarvis Cocker play a hometown gig in Sheffield this week, at which the highlight was the projection of the standard crowd banter onto the backdrop ('good evening Sheffield. Are you feeling all right? I can't hear you. That's better' etc) whilst the great man himself (tGMH)wandered around the stage.

Anyhow - at the end, tGMH started reciting that bit of Dylan Thomas. 'Do not go gentle into that good night' and so forth. And it seemed to almost work. Which reminded me of how Dylan T was a sort of synthesis of the old 'Dylan or Keats' question. It's not too much of a leap from there to Oasis' Champagne Supernova, after all...

The Man Who Was Thursday

Speaking of poets and politics, I've just been reading G K Chesterton's The Man Who Was Thursday, at the insistence of my sister (and yes, she's right: it does make a bizarre type of sense of the post-9/11 world). It opens with a debate between two poets about whether poetry owes alliegance to order or anarchy. One argues that:
An artist disregards all governments, abolishes all conventions. The poet delights in disorder only. If it were not so, the most poetical thing in the world would be the Underground Railway...The poet is always in revolt.

The other counters:
Take your books of mere poetry and prose, let me read a timetable with tears of pride...What is there poetical about being in revolt? You might as well say that it is poetical to be sea-sick. Being sick is a revolt...The most poetical thing in the world is not being sick.

There's something, to my mind, in both of these points of view, though they point to very different poetic traditions.