Monday 19 May 2014

Hearing poems in the head. Hannah Silva’s Forms of Protest

I’m going to start with stating something that I haven't fully worked out for myself before, and may be obvious to everyone else.  I feel slightly embarrassed about doing this.  How people hear poems while reading them on the page must be a subject of enquiry, from academic research to blog posts. 

When I begin to read a poem silently, an inner voice starts up in my head.  Usually the voice is a disembodied version of my own.  The music of the poem runs alongside the voice; not exactly an accompaniment, rather something deeper, less conscious.  If the poem is by someone whose voice I know from readings or recordings, or by a friend/contemporary, then I hear it in the poet’s voice: Seamus Heaney or Sharon Olds; Patience Agbabi, Hannah Lowe, Stephen Watts.  The more distinctive the voice, the stronger this phenomenon is.  Going back: Dylan Thomas (Fern Hill!), Elizabeth Bishop.  My own inner voice still runs alongside, but subdued.  
Paul Celan
At least, I think this is what happens.  It’s difficult to analyse.  Maybe a different analysis would change my mind.  I would love to be able to read Keats with his voice, or Shakespeare.  Or Catullus, or Sappho.  Or Paul Celan… writing that, it suddenly occurred to me that this might be possible.  Here he is reading ‘Psalm’, and here ‘Todesfuge’.  Now I am going to try to go on writing this despite feeling moved and disturbed by those readings. 

The fact that I hadn’t looked for recordings of Celan before, despite occasional intensive phases of reading his work, shows how much of a page reader I am.  But poetry readings are a means of acquiring poets’ voices, to take back home into their books.  I’m looking forward to this happening at Niall Campbell’s London launch of ‘Moontide’ this week. 

Researching contemporary political poems for a workshop recently, I discovered Hannah Silva.  That too is embarrassing – to be so far behind.  I’d liked her sestina very much in the anthology Adventures in Form, but hadn’t listened to her performing.  Here she is reading/performing ‘Gaddafi Gaddafi Gaddafi’, a poem that comes in waves of sound, a child’s word-game in a prison-like, soundproof location, that also sounds like the chanting of a crowd:

Gaddafi a room with strong walls
Gaddafi strong floors and strong ceiling
Gaddafi and choose a word Gaddafi not any word

One of the ways the poem works is that the syntax of the text, concealed by the repetitions of “gaddafi”, is tightly controlled and very clear – all the more so when it overhauls itself by repeating phrases and other words.  In Silva’s reading, the poem comes across as very cogent.  Finally the meaning of the dictator’s name is lost and the name itself gallops away:

gaddafi gaddafi gaddafi we chant our way through this
loss of meaning until we become a gaddafi of horses
galloping: gaddafi gaddafi gaddafi.

The ending reminds me of a nursery rhyme which my ear still hears as if it doesn’t yet understand the words… ending, gallopa gallopa gallopa.

After listening to ‘Gaddafi Gaddafi Gaddafi’ I bought Silva’s book, Forms of Protest.  That sestina, ‘Hello My Friend’, is there.  The sestina may be today’s most despised poem-form, but it offers great potential for playing around with text.  Silva makes full use of that, her starting-point being disjointed phrases from email scams: 

I am contacting you with something urgent,
you have always been a good friend

The poem reaches far beyond this into the realms of social media and instant news culture.  Silva captures well the slightly off-true syntax of spam.  The repetitiveness of the form adds to the insistent tone and the confusion around the interconnectivity of things: 

Sometimes I wonder if we really need to be connected
to an idea, a chink in history that only now is urgent.
I wonder why I feel the need for a friend
when friendship has become a meaningless subject.

One of the two things I like best about Silva’s poems is that they address political subjects, often head-on, usually by using experimental techniques as a way to get beyond familiar types of political discourse.  Secondly, they combine such techniques (eg collage, homophonic translation, concrete poetry, texting) with lyric poetry, in varying proportions. 

‘Opposition’ rubbishes politician-speak by breaking it down into its components, from the insincerity of stock phrases:

It’s great to be here in Liverpool
we’re happy about that.
I’ve been in Downing Street
it’s great to be here in Liverpool
We’re happy about Downing Street
it’s great to be here in Liverpool

To a crazed obsession with cuts:

And yes cutting the
And yes cutting the nat
And yes cutting the national

And yes cutting the cutting the cutting cutting…

The word ‘cutting’ is itself cut up, leaving only its onomatopoeic consonants.  This is a good example of a poem that must be great when performed, but also works very well on the page.  Nearly everything does work.  One exception is ‘Insults’, which might be effective in performance but its 23 lines come across as a lucky dip on the page, despite the lively language:

You are a surreal pandemic
You are an uber wacky
You are a poor man’s metaphor
You are an immortal waste of space

There is a suitably surreal, both funny and sinister “adaptation” of Kafka’s The Trial, one of several poems sustained over several pages and (like ‘Opposition’) in several parts with widely varying form and rhythm. 

Perhaps a deferment would suit you better?
Would you like me to explain what deferment is about?
Leave the carpet alone and listen to what the lawyer is saying!

Silva addresses gender politics, in very different environments.  Sometimes all you can do is laugh in the face of despair... ‘Tory Party Sonnet’ starts:

There are no women left, can’t win
carpeted halls, a place that smelt, women left
exhausted sandwiches spoke only to themselves.

It reads like, and is, a collage.  The last two lines are brilliant.. get the book!  ‘River Bank’ is also disjointed but graphically frightening instead of comic:

What do you do with a slut?
Reach for the ketchup bottle.

I could easily quote from another dozen or so poems, to cover more of the variety of form and subject matter.  There’s a good review on John Field’s blog, which covers both similar and different ground.  Reading the book, my inner voice goes all over the place, turning into Silva's for 'Gaddafi Gaddafi Gaddafi' and a couple of others I've listened to, and extrapolating from her voice to varying degrees for the rest.  

To end, here is the last verse from the lyrically weird last poem, ‘Sharing Faces’:
 it is a lonely place
     the body stretched out across the river
                      walk on it  I dare you


  1. Dear Fiona

    Didn't she used to be called Sophie Hannah? (I also misread homophonic as homophobic and faces as faeces.) I agree with you that it's important to hear poets read their own poems. When my wife reads my work it's sometimes as though someone else had written it. I saw an interesting You Tube video recently involving Fiona Sampson, Simon Armitage, Anne Stevenson and Stephen Regan. The one thing they all agreed on is that far too much poetry is currently being written which inevitably shifts a bit of the limelight away from themselves.

    Best wishes from Simon R. Gladdish

    1. Sophie Hannah is someone else entirely! But I think you know that.... Patience Agbabi has a poem in her collection Transformatrix called 'Who's Who? which starts with Tony Harrison and Toni Morrison and ends with Andrew Marr and Andrew Motion.

  2. Dear Fiona

    Thanks for the heads-up on the Robert Mugabe poem. I'll have to check it out!

    Best wishes from Simon