Monday, June 25, 2007

Smiths Knoll + free pamphlet

Smiths Knoll 40 reached me over the weekend, containing the poem I wrote for James Sheard, currently on retreat in Wales by the look s of things. Hope you're enjoying the weather, Jim.

The poem's place was marked by a crisp new twenty pound note. My wife thought it was weird that they pay in cash; I can't get over the fact that they pay. Brill.

I haven't read much of the magazine yet, but it looks good on first browse. I've spent longer perusing the free pamphlet that comes with every issue - in this case The Devil's Cut by Marianne Burton. It's generally well-written, if not always entirely to my taste - mainly relationship/personal lyrics with a Hughes-Plath grotesque/hysterical tinge. Most entertaining of what I've read so far is 'Delivering the Foetal Diorammas to Peter the Great' - really a short story in verse but no less enjoyable for that.


Sunday, June 24, 2007

Auden's 'muscular' syntax

In my recent post on Auden, James's comment took me to task for the term 'muscular syntax', asking what I meant by it. Here goes - using the same Auden quote to which I applied the term as an example:

The tall unwounded leader
Of doomed companions, all
Whose voices in the rock
Are now perpetual,
Fighters for no one's sake
Who died beyond the border.

By calling the syntax muscular I mean that it supplies the rhyme-words, and a complex solution to the metrical brief, with minimal mangling of the underlying sentence (in this case a sentence fragment) - no inversions of word order, for example.

'The tall unwounded leader of doomed companions, all whose voices in the rock are now perpetual, fighters for no one's sake who died beyond the border.'

There's only one syntactical difficulty: 'doomed companions, all whose voices'. Here either 'doomed companions, whose voices' or 'doomed companions, all those whose voices' would be clearer; but it's still intelligible (the elision of 'those' is qute acceptable, if unusual), and such a hurdle is a typical Auden device for tightening and estranging the language.

While the rhyme-words occur in their proper places, the metre is not just a matter of providing adequate trimeter, strict or otherwise. As a rule each line corresponds to a syntactical unit:

'The tall unwounded leader'
'Are now perpetual,'
'Fighters for no one's sake'
'Who died beyond the border.'

That rule is broken, creating a syncopated effect, in L2-3:

'Of doomed companions, all
Whose voices in the rock'

Moreover although the lines correspond to syntactical units, those units are not simple clauses or sentences but fit together into a longer whole.

This illustrates what I mean by saying the metre and syntax are in conversation. Note then that Auden's syntax neither ignores the metre - a prose sentence running on over several lines apparently at random - nor submits to it by providing a series of trimeter clauses only loosely connected into a sentence. Delete any of the lines in thise extract, and the sense is destroyed. The complex sentence fragment running over these lines is trimetrical in shape, but each trimeter is not a discrete unit.

In achieving all of this the syntax never once breaks sweat in the sense of becoming a difficult sentence to untangle. The sentence is, and sounds, basically simple, conversational. That's the virtue of those short clauses, though they need marshalling with great skill. Even the 'all/Whose' knot is a localised elision rather than a confusion of subject or an unravelling of sense. It's controlled. And though we haven't dealt with the line breaks, vowel sounds, metre and so on in detail, all of which clearly contribute to the lines' status as poetry, I hope I've managed to indicate how the syntax can contribute to that status - and why we might call it 'muscular' when it leads to strong poetry.

Friday, June 22, 2007

Sorted Books

These are entertaining, and provide yet more opportunity for wasting time looking at books:

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Counties of England

Yesterday when I was supposed to be having a nap (don't ask) I read The Railway Accident, Edward Upward's surrealist short story about, well, a railway accident, but also about England as refracted through a certain milieu, one which now seems both very distant and awfully familiar.

It is extremely funny; it you haven't read it, do: it's only 40 or so pages.

And then today I was reading Mick Imlah's collection Birthmarks. Lots to say on this topic, not least how the more I read of certain young turks of the 70s and 80s (e.g. Imlah, Tom Paulin, Michael Hofmann, Craig Raine), the more I become aware of a definite style - cool, ironic, prosaic, funny - which is now something of a spent force, for good or ill. What I like about it is the way in which these poets, like Upward, manage to speak with both humour and incisiveness about a social topic (England, Ireland, a landscape, a city, a cultural and social set) without quite being just satirical. Take, for instance, Imlah's 'The Counties of England', whose sections cannot really be quoted effectively in part, but which manage to sketch their subjects with a cartoon humour reminiscent of Hogarth.

Auden I give up and go home?

There's a shortish article by Peter Scupham in the latest Rialto, number 62, on Auden. It's supposed to be celebrating his centenary, and succeeds in this by the best measure I have available: it made me go and read some Auden; by chance the Collected Longer Poems is what came to hand.

Scupham has a critical conceit based on The Sea and the Mirror, Auden's treatment of The Tempest: the great man is part Ariel (pure lyrical talent) and part Prospero (crafty avuncular wise magician). The early poems are more Ariel, the later ones more Prospero.

As conceits go it's fairly interesting, and I have neither the wherewithal nor the inclination to pick holes in it with counterexamples. I'm pleased in fact to see a discussion which hints at the differences between early and late Auden which doesn't subside into an either/or value judgement. Late Auden, which I've always liked, reminds me at the moment of Horace: late, sophisticated, amused, exhausted yet still civilised. But it does lack the lyrical bite of the early stuff; Scupham quotes:

The tall unwounded leader
Of doomed companions, all
Whose voices in the rock
Are now perpetual,
Fighters for no one's sake
Who died beyond the border.

This is writing without the stabilisers provided by civilisation, not elegant but vital as the late verse, for all its wonderful virtues, is not. The power is generated partly by a daring use of words in a heroic abstract or even platonic mode ('the tall unwounded leader', 'the rock', 'the border'; all these nouns might happily take capital letters), and partly by Auden's astonishingly muscular syntax, in which a sentence is constructed in conversation with, not obedience to, the lineation. It might on a bad day be enough to make me give up writing. Today it inspires me: to read more Auden, and to write more, and better, myself.

PS As you know Wystan was named after Saint Wystan, who happens to be the patron saint of the church in Repton, Derbyshire, in whose crypt my father once declaimed the charming tonguetwister 'He crept into the crypt, crapped, and crept out again'.

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Prejudices about lineation

Reading the latest PBS choice, Sarah Maguire's The Pomegranates of Kandahar, I was struck by a strange reaction. The poems vary in line length, sometimes within the poem but more usually from poem to poem. As I turn the page I'm instantly put off by the poems that have very short lines (some have single-word lines in places, but usually three or four) - like, to take the first few poems in the book, 'The Grass Church at Dilston Grove', 'Cow Parsley, Bluebells' and 'Passages'. On the other hand, I'm much better disposed, at first sight, to 'Vigil' and 'Solstice', both of which use a fairly long line.

On reading the poems I sometimes go against my prejudices: I rather like 'The Grass Church at Dilston Grove', for example. But perhaps more often I find them confirmed. In this instance - although this isn't meant to be an essay on Sarah Maguire but on my own reading habits and preferences - I liked 'Vigil' and 'Solstice' and didn't have so much time for 'Cow Parsley, Bluebells' or 'Passages'.

Is it mere prejudice? Sometimes a short line seems to me unearned, as if the poet's trying to make the words weightier by giving you fewer to the pound. Yet I must also confess that I don't always know how to read short lines - do you pause after each line? Linger over each phrase? Read through normally without regard to line breaks? This last option seems to defeat the purpose (whatever it is) of the short line. The second option risks the fey. So maybe the good, old-fashioined pause at the end of each line it is.

On the other hand maybe it's just that I have a preference for poetry in long lines — in which case, a further question is raised. What sort of poetry goes around in long lines? Does the length of the line correspond to tonal and thematic qualities? It should be fairly clear that a long line is better suited to certain rhythms - the discursive, the ironic, the prosaic (Michael Hofmann, Ciaran Carson) - as well as, obviously, certain metres. And those rhythms and metres are often associated with particular effects and types of poetry - whereas the short line is generally associated with the free verse lyric (in a wide spectrum from breathless emotionalism to modernist jigsaw). And though I can be tempted by that sort of thing, from all areas of the spectrum, none of it's really my thing. I keep looking greedily on in Maguire's book to 'The Water Diviner', which promises some hearty chunks of regular lines I can get my teeth into. I'm so uncool.