Wednesday, November 23, 2005

I Dares Ya

There was an interesting comment on the Ron Silliman blog to the effect that poetry should be "daring." I find this odd. I mean, yes, poets should be challenging themselves I guess; but what does it mean to be "daring?" Mandelstam's Stalin Ode was pretty daring - it got him killed, but short of declaiming poetry whilst walking across the Niagara Falls on a high wire, in what way is poetry daring? It's certainly not life-threatening to write Language poetry, for instance, though Harold Bloom and Helen Vendler (not to mention our own Sean O'Brien) might come round and bop you on the nose.

But there is a certain amount of "dare" involved in doing things different from the way you did them before, or the way anyone else has done things before. Putting a canvas on the floor and dripping paint over its surface takes a certain trust in the process; you could make an absolute mess of things and end up with something that looks like an explosion in a paint factory. Instead of which, you end up with great art. So I find, when I think about this, that once again I contradict myself.

And poets can sometimes get themselves into ruts: this works well, I'll keep doing it till it starts becoming pure rote. Then you get to the stage where you even bore yourself; but everything's done well and nothing is "bad." It might even be admired.

"Daring" can itself turn a revolt into a style though. If you're so determined to be "different", you can often end up sounding just like everybody else, like rock stars so eager to be "real" they turn out to be clones of each other. Being true to whatever you you're playing with at the time is much better than trying to find some mythical authentic self among the rock-star postures. For all I'm not a real fan, Robbie Williams is still better than Coldplay because at least he doesn't take himself too seriously.

I was at an open mike event yesterday, and they played lots of Motown records: the Temptations, Marvin Gaye, Smokey Robinson. Pure commercial gold, not in the least experimental or daring it might seem. Certainly not prog rock, which proclaimed itself as so very advanced and meaningful but which now seems as stodgy as wet bread. But you could dance to them, they had killer bass-lines and were as sexy as Brifgette Bardot. And, along the way, quite a lot more adventurous and daring than some of that self-consiously experimental muso-music beloved of middle-class prog-fans.

So daring is not about choosing the most extreme technique; it's stretching yourself, trusting the process, seeing what you can do, in poetry as in all the other arts. And if you've never written a sonnet, then dare yourself to try.

Friday, November 18, 2005

Embracing all forms?

Irish Poets said:

By embracing all form the poet cannot fail, as s/he will not be restricted and
can engage with all the schools and groupings.

But I wonder if that's possible. I have to say that everyone has their biases and I'm not alone in this. I don't think I'm going to go back to writing regular iambic pentameter any time soon. I like sonnets, but my sonnets owe as much to Ted Berrigan as to Shakepeare, and they certainly don't "scan." Yet I do have that skill, because I taught it to myself early on. You choose the techniques you use to suit the kind of person/poet you are, and because of what the writers you admire have chosen.

But do young poets writing now need it? Irish Poets again:

the crop of young and thrusting urban poets scrambling about the world today,
are all concerned with making a name for themselves, but very few of them have
metrical ability.

I'm in a dilemma. Does a video artist, or installation artist, need to know how to draw? Apart, that is, from the ability to storyboard the video, or come up with a reasonable sketch of what they want the installation to look like? So if a poet uses, say, a lipogrammatic technique, rather than rhyme, does that person need to know how to rhyme?

But then writing poetry is different from visual art...

well, yes, unless you're talking visual/concrete poetry. It's also different from music, unless you're talking sound poetry a la Bob Cobbing. Rhyme and metre are part of the poet's toolbox, available for use should you feel inclined; what if you don't feel inclined? Picasso could draw by the age of fifteen, but gave up on the ability to draw what he saw in front of him and became a Cubist. Can Damien Hirst draw? Is Tracy Emin deliberately a bad drawer, or just a bad drawer, and does it matter?

Yet it matters that we have the skill to rhyme and do meter, even though we never use it. Hmmm... I'm still in a dilemma. Maybe a basic skill is required, like even punk bands have to learn a couple of chords to play even a note. To play the freest of jazz, though, you have to know your instrument inside out, and you have to know music probably better than your average orchestal player, because you have to keep the sound together even while you're tearing it apart.

In the end, the more knowledge of technique, the better. Three chords always gives you more options than two. But technique doesn't make you great. There has to be passion - but therein lie a whole host of questions - what is passion? for starters.

Someone else can answer that one for today.

Monday, November 14, 2005

I sort of half-watched the second Lord of the Rings film on television yesterday. I read that book years ago, about three times, which is a lot less than some do. I can't say I'd read it again, though the big Battle of Helm's Deep was pretty good and I liked their portrayal of Golum/Smeagol. The ents though did look vaguely ridiculous. It's all good spectacle and straightforward storytelling; but nowhere near a great film. I know that there are fanatics who can't get enough of things like that; but however much I used to like fantasy, now I just find its addiction to straight story-telling boring. And all those elves...

Ah well, back to poetry. I've been thinking again about the much-vaunted category of the "authentic" and what it means. Is there such a thing, really, especially in this day and age when everybody from poets to pop-stars are putting on masks? I watched the BBC's programme about sex and rock-and-roll, and it was interesting to see the way in which male pop-stars either rooted around in the fancy-dress box (Bowie) or went all macho-authentic (Led Zeppellin.) Of the two, I've always prefered the former; I actually find it more true to (my) life than the thrusting cock-rock of blokes in jeans with guitars.

I caught a newspaper headline that said that men always wanted to be cavemen even if they pretended to be "new sensitive men". Well, that's not true of me. I don't even like jeans. I don't like the idea that I'm supposed to go to the pub, like football, get drunk and read the Sun if I read anything at all. I am (stand up and say it!) a sissy, and I'm proud of that fact. I read books, I read poetry on buses, I write poetry and go to jazz concerts and art galleries, prefer romantic comedies to action films and postmodernism to straight narrative. I drink wine not beer. I'd rather engage in a nice intellectual conversation than watch reality TV or Pop Bile. And I like intelligent women. No really, I do. Even if you're more inteligent than me.

And I like leather jackets. Hey, I contradict myself, so I contradict myself. I contain multitudes.

Monday, November 07, 2005

The Prize, John Siddique

(Rialto, £7.95)

First, the one objection. The print is too small and difficult to read as it's not the clearest print.

Maybe that means he can cram more poems in. Which would be great because on the whole this is a very readable and very thought-provoking collection. There is a quiet force to these poems that is rare to find in much English poetry. "Quiet" is not always a complimentary adjective in the poetry world: there are a lot of poems that are as undemonstrative as a dull day in Blackburn; but these poems are often full of feeling, emotions lying not very far from the surface, as here:

Cherry Tree

We are carving wood together,
I turn the head and Chris shapes with each beat.

The room is filled with cherry scent & schoolboys.
Every moment is its own. There is no talking,
no cause of pain.

I can smell the patcouli oil she wears.
We operate as one. I wonder do the schoolboys
notice our oneness. They are quiet too
shaping the pieces, rasping and smoothing,
carving shape. Constantly running their hands
over the limbs forming from each stroke and beat.

There's a sensuousness, even a gorgeousness about his language that drags you into the poems in this book, and a sense of enquiry that I find compelling. Even in the poems that deal with his own life as an Asian/European man living in England, I never see any striving to "put the message across" in a forced or artificial way. There is anger here; but there is also love.

He is, in fact, a very good love poet. I particularly liked his Ninety Day Theory, which manages to be both erotic and caring, and to reveal a truth about relationships that in the end you know aren't going to go anywhere. His poem about his father's smallpox (Variola) and the three sisters that died again manages to be both revealing and moving. It's a difficult task to be both, I feel; so many poems either pluck at the heartstrings or give us some information or play games with language that may be interesting but ultimately don't move us. There are poems here that are very direct, and others such as Horsebones which are more mysterious, like fragments from stories overheard but not completely; but always, there's an emotional charge, and an exploration of feelings that is very rare in a male poet.

John Siddique is published by a small but enterprising press from Norwich. All power to their arm if they continue to produce work like this.

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

Stop Making Sense

One of the things that I like about the poets from the New American Poets camp is that there is an attitude that anything goes, and that you don't have to be sensible all the time. You are allowed to be silly, or to do things that are not logical but which lead to insight; you can be surreal without being pompous, and you can stop making sense.

There is, of course, a tradition of "nonsense verse" a la Lear but that's not what I mean; that's still too tied to a basically logical way of reading the universe. For me, though, what I find in poets like Kenneth Koch or Ron Padgett is the idea that anything can become poetry if you let it. So I recently had a bad cold, and wrote a poem about it. Which was fine; but it still made way too much sense, so I turned it upside down to see what would happen. Poets like Rupert Loydell are using cut-up techniques - again to re-introduce an element of surprise into their poems.

It's that surprise, those unexpected shifts and turns in a poem that make you want to read past the first line. So here's my new poem:


The next stop is Bessie’s o’ th’ Barn
or a sneeze dismantling the universe.
Is that a break in the clouds
next Friday? Nostalgia sets in at 50.
I feel every week of my age,
some sweet green tea and a tissue.

I need an injection of sun.
Because I’m a man it’s my job
I’m taking this illness too far.
What’s that mobbing the lampposts?

The sky’s an ache overhead. Pigeons.
Metaphysical with snot,
I sit by the window at the front:
my head needs truth, and Nurofen.
It's a kind of unrhymed sonnet turned upside down. There's also the sheer childish pleasure of getting the word "snot" into a poem. It made perfect sense the other way around, and if you feel like reconstructing it from the bottom up, feel free. But here you get some unexpected connections, I hope; something that opens up the poem: plus a last line straight out of Alvaro de Campos (Fernando Pessoa.)