Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Let's Hope Not Much Depends On

Anyone know whats happening with The Red Wheelbarrow? I haven't heard back about some poems I submitted some time ago, and while I can just about get my head round the notion they might, as usual, have been rejected, I am as far as I recall a subscriber, and haven't seen a copy for some time either. Or did I just buy a single issue? Sigh. Must keep better records.

Monday, July 30, 2007

Exceedingly Good Prose

I recently read Kipling's autobiography Something of Myself, which contrary to the introduction by Richard Holmes isn't a Modernist masterpiece but a reticent and traditional memoir, but no less fascinating for that. How about this for a sparkling aside:

"(Also, by pure luck, I had sight of the first sickening uprush and vomit of iridescent coal-dusted water into the hold of a ship, a crippled iron hulk, sinking at her moorings.)"

Poems about poetry

Rob MacKenzie asks for lines of poetry that inform one's writing. This game deserves more time than I can give it at present, but I'll start off with the following from William Empson's 'This Last Pain' and edit in more if and when I think of them.

Feign then what's by a decent tact believed
And act that state is only so conceived,
....And build an edifice of form
....For house where phantoms may keep warm.

Imagine, then, by miracle, with me,
(Ambiguous gifts, as what gods give must be)
....What could not possibly be there,
....And learn a style from a despair.

From Smollett's Apologue to Roderick Random: 'indulging a vein of pleasantry' - not to be sniffed at.

Various remarks by good old Gottfried Benn:

‘Even though there was no great spiritual world to be discovered, I tried attentively to penetrate my environment.’

‘No question, the modern poem is monological, it is a poem without belief, without hope, it is a poem consisting of words, which you arrange in a fascinating way’

‘There is no other way to put it: works of art are phenomenal, historically ineffectual, without consequence in reality. Therein lies their greatness.'

And Michael Hofmann, speaking of Randall Jarrell but naming virtues I value in any poet:

'At its best, I think Jarrell’s poetry combines such hardness and leisureliness — something specific and the kaleidoscopic sweep and play of his mind upon it.'

The whole of Auden's 'The Cave of Making' is half-relevant. Chris Wallace-Crabb has a good appreciation of it in a recent PN Review.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007


July's issue of nthposition is now up, with two poems by me in it.

I've yet to read at length, though so far I've enjoyed poems by John Siddique and Claire Crowther. And last month's issue contains an excellent poem by Jeffrey Wainwright.


Monday, July 02, 2007

That List Thing

Two short books I read last week reminded me of others, or rather of other reading experiences.

I'd never read anything by Kurt Vonnegut before, but I picked up Cat's Cradle and liked it a lot - funny, intelligent stuff. But the more it went on and the more science-fictiony it became, the more I cooled to it. It stopped bearing on the world and became a story. The last time this happened to me was with Bulgakov's The Master and Margarita, where, once I'd realised that the Devil could do anything and therefore that whatever did happen didn't matter (it almost literally had no plot in the sense that later events always undercut earlier ones), I rather lost interest. (In the case of the Bulgakov that's part of the point, a depiction of life under Stalinism, but that fact doesn't solve the aesthetic problem.)

So I wonder if it's just that I don't like science fiction, or (and this is probably the same thing) that I look for realism in my fiction - it's got to bear on the way things are, or it doesn't interest me. Put in bald terms like that, I don't want to assent to it, but my experience with the Vonnegut demands that I consider it. I'll try another, probably Slaughterhouse Five, when I get round to it.

Also, don't ask me to define 'realism'.

The other book was John Steinbeck's Cannery Row. When I was reading it I had that exhilarating feeling of reading a great book. So now I'm tempted to do that list thing and say what other books I got that feeling with. I mean not just thinking this was a great book, or enjoying it a lot, etc, but the gut certainty that this is masterful writing. Some books produce it, others don't, even books that I do think are great. For example:
Tolstoy: War and Peace yes, Anna Karenina yes, Hadji Murat yes, Resurrection no, The Kreutzer Sonata no
Dostoyevsky: The Idiot yes, The Brothers Karamazov no, Crime and Punishment I think so
Achebe, Things Fall Apart yes
Trollope's The Warden yes
Faulkner's As I Lay Dying, a book very similar to the Steinbeck in some ways, no
I don't mean this to be a list of Great Books, or even of Look at the Books I Have Read. I'm interested in that feeling - is it contingent, a chance product of the circumstance of reading as much as anything? I remember getting it when I read Sartre's The Age of Reason when quite young, and I suspect if I reread that book now I'd not feel the same. Or is it something in the work, the writer's technique finding, obscurely, a subject matter which it really suits?