Monday, March 30, 2009


What's Stefan Zweig talking about? (No googling.)

mechanical in its framework yet only functioning through use of the imagination; confined in geometrically fixed space and at the same time released from confinement by its permutations; continuously evolving yet sterile; thoughts that lead nowhere, mathematics that add up to nothing, art without an end product, architecture without substance, and nevertheless demostratably more durable in its true nature and existence than any book or creative work

Sunday, March 29, 2009

And his portrait looks like my friend Tristan

I've spent several joyful hours this weekend reading Yeats, grazing on my new copy of the OUP Major Works. I know shamefully little Yeats, and am enjoying rectifying it. I'd never before read 'The Song of Wandering Aengus', which begins:

I went out to the hazel wood,
Because a fire was in my head,
And cut and peeled a hazel wand,
And hooked a berry to a thread;
And when white moths were on the wing,
And moth-like stars were flickering out,
I dropped the berry in a stream
And caught a little silver trout.

(The silver trout reminds me of an image in a poem of my own, so maybe I have read it before.)

The opening of his 'General Introduction for my Work' resonates with me because of my recent struggles to find a way to approach some personal material:

A poet writes always of his personal life, in his finest work out of its tragedy, whatever it be, remorse, lost love, or mere loneliness; he never speaks directly as to someone at the breakfast table, there is always a phantasmagoria.

And then later in the same passage:

'A wise man seeks in Self,' says the Chandogya Upanishad, 'those that are alive and those that are dead and gets what the world cannot give'.

I'm finding myself surprised at the direction opening up before me.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Take two sonnets daily...

Hurray! I'm a doctor!

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Worth a listen... very hard

Radio 3 is broadcasting (at 8pm on Sunday) a play about the domestic life of RS Thomas, who apparently didn't speak to his wife for days on end. Deliciously odd, odd, odd. How to script such a play?

I have the massive and forbidding chunk of Thomas's collected poems on a shelf somewhere. I've never got into him; when I try, he feels like a poet whose work I will come to like in old age, or never like. I keep trying, but without much hope.

Rule of thumb

Don’t judge a book by its cover, judge it by its capacity for imagination. If the cover of the book is more interesting than the first chapter, you might be reading a Bad Book.

From a post on bad sci-fi at Feminist SF, but probably applicable to all genres (substitute poem for chapter, for instance). Maybe all those austere Faber poetry covers were designed with that rule in mind. (I rather like the Faber minimalism, but you couldn't call it interesting.)

Monday, March 23, 2009

Wonky Weekend

Failed to show at my brother's for a Mother's Day lunch yesterday owing to a house of illness. But on Saturday I cooked myself haunch of hare braised with puy lentils and white beetroot, with quince jelly. It was delicious, but I can report for those who are wondering that white beetroot is nothing to write home about ('nothing to blog about') - an anaemic version of the imperial variety.

Picked up a copy of Jeremy Hooker's Master of the Leaping Figures for £3 at Oxfam. I'm looking forward to it. They also had a copy of Tom Paulin's The Strange Museum for £6, but much as I like Paulin's work, that's too steep for me in the week before payday. Flicking through it, I was reminded how much Paulin's early work makes use of abstractions - an unusual trait, particularly in a poet so concerned with politics and history (where you might expect more focus on evidence, as it were). Can't really pursue this line of thought as, having not bought the book (or sneakily memorised them), I haven't got the poems in front of me.

Meanwhile I'm tumbling through Steinbeck's Travels with Charley. It's surprising to see what a macho, Hemingwayesque figure Steinbeck paints himself as - not what I'd expect from what I've read of his fiction. The writing itself is so unmacho - clean, elegant, reticent. Purged, even. It would be easy to read it half-asleep and wonder what the fuss is about ('a Nobel Prize?!'). But his style is so central to twentieth-century prose that we don't notice that it is a style – Steinbeck is a large part of the background to good modern writing. I can't really find anything to quote to back up this claim, but that's part of the point: rather than striving to write quotable sentences, he just writes. It's plain and almost facile. Still, the following is cheering:

When I face the desolate impossibility of writing five hundred pages a sick sense of failure falls on me and I know I can never do it. This happens every time. Then gradually I write one page and then another.

Friday, March 20, 2009

A Hop, Skip and a Jump

As my contribution to the feverish preparations for the London Olympics I've invented a new poetic form.

Three lines:

Line 1 (the hop) should be short and introduce an idea or subject.
Line 2 (the skip) should be longer, taking the idea on and extending or subverting it in the manner of a volta.
Line 3 (the jump) should be longer again – impressively long, in fact – while doing to the skip what the skip did to the hop.

It's all a bit hazy, because I've just cobbled it together while listening to my Lord Coe over some baked beans. It can be Olympic-themed, or not, as you like.

The first few hasty stabs:

I took some drugs
to improve my sporting performance.
Just dashing down to the garage for a Snickers and some fags. Do you want owt?

The spring sun
offers less heat than it promises.
Let us hope that the same is not true in 2012.

Attic window open,
I'm listening to the sparrows and the traffic
and the barking dogs distract me from writing about the sparrows and the dogs and the moaning traffic.

Let's see your attempts. And if anyone fancies inventing their own olympic forms, step to it.

Didsbury on the Horizon

The second issue of Horizon Review is out now, and it looks a bumper selection too – poems, fiction, reviews, articles, art, and a podcast.

There are three interviews, including my interview of Peter Didsbury. And if that whets your appetite, you can also find my essay on genre in two of Didsbury's poems here, and David Wheatley's interview with Didsbury (referred to my own interview and pretty much essential reading) here.


Monday, March 16, 2009

The Land of Green Ginger – whistlestop tour

I recently read Antony Rowland's The Land of Green Ginger, having heard good things about it from various sources. It's very, very good stuff.

I think my favourite pieces are the comic ode-ish monologues on 'Pies', 'The HIstory of the Beard', 'The Italian Bob', 'London Particular' and 'Cucumber'. They clearly benefit from trawls through historical lexicons, but the catches aren't wasted by being using in a scholarly way. Instead, we get the flavour of, ooh, Hogarth or Smollett: 'Go and comb your peruke in an opera box, beaux-face'.

Also interesting but in a different way are the explorations of family history in poems addressed to male relatives. It might have been odd to have the two sorts of poem rubbing up against each other, but it works because the family poems also ruck up the texture of language, in a quieter but effective way. Several times I thought at first I'd read a misprint when Rowland alters a cliche or idiom to make something new. Strange stuff.

What else? 'Moose' reminded me of Al Purdy, and not just for the subject matter. And 'I.M. Deltics, 1977-81', about railways and longing, is in a way the 'straightest' poem in the book, but not the weaker for that.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Byzantium and Steinbeck

Spent the weekend at the in-laws, and on the Saturday we went into London to the Byzantium exhibition at the Royal Academy. Not much to say here unless I embark on a massive gush about how ace it was. It's only on until the 22nd of March. The exhibits are on loan from Venice, Turkey, Sinai; it won't come again; go there. The catalogue is pretty spectacular too, although, as ever, photographs can't really do justice to some of the originals. Meanwhile Judith Herrin's recent popular history of Byzantium is engaging and pleasingly concise.

(The image above is an icon of St Michael, looted from Constantinople by the Venetians in 1204. It's basically a gold biscuit tin with ludicrously large fake gemstones (i.e. fabulously valuable real gemstones) studded all over it.)

And yesterday I got home to find that my brother had sent me a copy of Steinbeck's Travels with Charley. I'm very excited.

Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Hofmann on poetry, Lowell, Bishop

Two interesting articles by Michael Hofmann in consecutive issues of Poetry magazine: from the February issue, a manifesto, whose most striking moment for me are the remarks 'Ezra Pound said: be against all mortmain. Gottfried Benn said: disappoint the season-ticket holder', which both seem more interesting and substantial expressions of Pound's 'make it new'.

And from the January issue, a review of the correspondence between Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell. It's classic Hofmann (as with Randall Jarrell, the primary pleasure of reading Hofmann's prose at its best is for its own performance, however diligently it sticks at its subject matter), for instance in this passage:

How do you filter, assimilate, crunch it down to the space of a review? Its eight-hundred pages of letters—every one of them bearing my ambiguous slashes of delight, interest, controversy, revelation—still left me with eight sheets full of page numbers of my own. It's like starting with a city, and ending up with a phone book—hardly useful as a redaction. Really, I might as well have held a pencil to the margin and kept it there, for bulk re-read.

Lesser bombasts might note how this flight of apparent indulgence manages via that indulgence to say something emphatic (and gracious) about the material under review. (Bombast isn't the right word here, but I've got a PhD to finish this morning and really shouldn't be posting here.)

Monday, March 02, 2009

A good place

Have a look at the website for My Place or Yours, a project from Apples and Snakes. A really stylish, clean and accessible website, not to speak of the project itself. I love Jay Bernard's facsimiles of drafts. I may nick the idea.

Heh. I've got places queuing up in my mind to do projects of this kind with. Of course,I could just get on and do them...

Poem at Raw Light

Poet and editor of Horizon Review is very kindly featuring a poem of mine in her Short Season of Other Poets on her blog, Raw Light. I'm very happy to feature alongside the other poets in the season. Thanks Jane!


Spent an enjoyable evening on Friday at Wordlife at the Lantern Theatre, a really nice little old theatre in Nether Edge in Sheffield - as the promoter (from social enterprise Opus) said, you can live in Sheffield for years and then suddenly hear about brilliant venues and buildings tucked away round the corner.

There were too many acts to mention (in the end, probably too many full stop - by the time singer-songwriter Louis Romegoux came on at the end, I was a bit too cultured-out to enjoy him as much as I'd have liked) - but highlights included sets from Matthew Clegg, Ben Wilkinson and Helen Mort, a typically Geraldine Monkish set from Geraldine Monk, and Matt Black's long poem about the old Tinsley cooling towers.

I'm hoping to write more about some or all of the above, but I don't know when I'll get round to it. Bought two pamphlets and liked them both.