Friday, November 21, 2008

On Having Nothing to Say, and Saying It

Seems to me there's two approaches to writing poetry, which can be summed up as "having something to say" and "letting the something say you."

Many poets, I suspect, "have something to say": a subject, either over their whole life, or for a particular work. It could be "capitalism is bad, socialism is good" or it could be as simple as, "I had a really good time on holiday in Greece."

Others - and I sort of count myself among them - actually don't have something to say themselves, but are trying to "listen in" and then record what the world is saying to them. The American poet Jack Spicer, put it succinctly: "you don't speak to the Outside, the Outside speaks to you." He had this idea that the poem didn't come from inside the poet, but from some outside source, as a kind of channeling thing, that you ought to remove yourself as far as possible from the poem so that you can hear what the poem/world is saying to you.

I can see this as sounding terribly mystical and foggy, but I can identify with it as well. Some of my favourite poems of mine are in some ways mysterious to me - I don't know where they came from. I work out what they're about as I'm writing. Or sometimes months later, after I've read them several times or published them in magazines. I still don't know what some of my poems are "about."

That is really why I started cutting and pasting, and why even though I don't use that technique as much now, chance techniques are still really important to me. Poetry to me is not about imposing my view of the world on other people but about seeking what the world is trying to say to me.

All this, of course, is only a partial explanation of what I do. And it doesn't mean that I've totally rid myself of ego in some zen kind of way. I'm still the same bundle of ego and uncertainty I used to be. But it does explain why "meaning" as in something imposed by me on the reader rather than something the readers discovers in the act of reading, is something I might want to get rid of in my own poems.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008


Been reading the Reality Street Book of Sonnets, edited by Jeff Hilson recently. I'm inclined to actually agree with Ron Silliman that it's one of the best and most significant anthologies produced in the last 25 years. It's full of so many different versions of the sonnet (and some things that aren't even sonnets) that it makes me gasp at times at the possibilities of the form. Everything from the concrete poetry of Mary Ellen Solt to variations on Berrigan's sonnets to the recent uses of the sonnet "box" by Abigail Obourne and Sophie Robinson.

There's a great deal of humour in this collection, and the sonnet is variously stretched, squashed and bent out of shape, though most people stick to at least one of the rules, even if it's only the 14 line rule, or the volta, or that peculiar out-of-balance octet/sestet division that makes it still so fascinating. There are poems and poets I don't get on with yet, but that's true of any anthology. A lovely Christmas present for the post avant poet and linguistically innovative chaps and chapesses out there.

Speaking of presents, I have recently reached the grand old age of 50. Time to lift my old willow wand to the crowd to acknowledge the applause of the crowd at reaching my first fifty. And I bet you never expected a cricket reference from me, did you?

Monday, November 10, 2008

Remembrance and Hypocrisy

Anybody else out there feel that all this Remembrance stuff that's all over the place is a teeny weeny bit hypocritical? Here we are again, remembering the "heroic sacrifice" of the First World War, while another set of young men go out to the Gulf and Afghanistan to be "heroic sacrifices" in another pointless war.

All those young men who died on the Somme (including among them, ancestors of my own family) didn't die for a great cause. Let us be clear about this: they died in vain, to support the flawed values of a bunch of tired empires trying to prop themselves up by killing young people. They were not heroes, great warriors going in to battle evil dragons; they were ordinary working people who died in their millions to uphold the great dragon of British imperialism. The Germans who they fought were also ordinary working men upholding their own dragon of imperialism. They were no doubt terribly loyal and patriotic and, like the well-brought up young people they were, they did as they were told.

But they were sold a lie. Just as the young men (often, in the case of American troops at least, poor and ill-educated) who march off to Iraq and Afghanistan are now. Watching the black-uniformed officers marching up to the Cenotaph to lay their wreaths makes me kind of sick. These people - or at least the politicians who declare wars - are still sending young men to die for British imperialism, pretending that it's a great sacrifice, invoking God and Christ as being on "our side", and it's just as much a lie now as it was then.

But there are still some brave souls who refuse. The conscientious objectors who refused to "go for a soldier", who refused to obey orders, who refused to prop up the dragon of hatred, prejudice and greed that is still what imperialism means, deserve to be saluted. They deserve their own monument. Refusing to kill is every bit as brave as going out to kill your "enemy." In fact, it's braver. Who is my enemy anyway? An ordinary Iraqi who gets in the way of a bullet? A young German man who's just come from the fields to die in another field?