Friday, 29 April 2011

Starting a blog

There’s something weird about blogging – writing things down in a medium that’s so fragile. Based on banks of servers in places we know nothing of, subject to we know not what risks of incompetence, fire or interference.  It was so easy for the Egyptian and Libyan regimes to shut down the internet.  Then there’s the certainty of technological and social obsolescence; maybe that’s already started. Ancient papyri from the sands of the Egyptian Fayum, with scraps of Sappho or of the house-next-door’s accounts, have survived far better than any blog might, whether from Al-Tahrir Square or London.  And if the lights were to go out one day… at least paper diaries rely on nothing but themselves, and can be used as fuel in extremis. 

Fayum, 3rd/4th century AD: letter from
Prolemaeus referring to a cult banquet
(Michigan Papyri, Youtie & Winter)
Why do it?  I’m writing a blog partly because I want the discipline of knowing that others, if only a few, will read what I write.  A couple of people have asked me what the process of starting a blog was like.  Anyone who doesn’t want to know might rather stop reading here.  I will include a couple of poems for relief. 

I wanted a small, simple blog, not something I could customise up to the eyeballs or use to make money.  I have little patience with IT and less technical knowledge.  First, I googled starting a blog.  The online guides persuaded me to use a standard free blogging platform, rather than hosting the blog myself, which would require techie stamina.

It took some searching to establish that, of those who’ve tried both, more people seem to find Blogger easier than Wordpress to use, rather than vice versa.  Those are the two platforms most used in the UK.

Blogger blithely tells you it takes less than 5 minutes to set up.  Yes, if you don’t think about anything.  Otherwise it takes time to tour their various template options, and find out what all the jargon means; also what access controls, web listings etc. you want.  After that, I spent an evening sorting out fonts, colours etc.  I’d decided on a name; though for the url, or web address, I had to think how to make it easy for people to find the blog. 

Some of the ‘how to start a blog’ advice sensibly says, write a few posts before you start properly.  And always have one post in reserve.  I didn’t, but I had a list of subjects I wanted to write about.

Shakespeare sonnet 65

Since brass, nor stone, nor earth, nor boundless sea,
But sad mortality o'er-sways their power,
How with this rage shall beauty hold a plea,
Whose action is no stronger than a flower?
O, how shall summer's honey breath hold out
Against the wreckful siege of battering days,
When rocks impregnable are not so stout,
Nor gates of steel so strong, but Time decays?
O fearful meditation! where, alack,
Shall Time's best jewel from Time's chest lie hid?
Or what strong hand can hold his swift foot back?
Or who his spoil of beauty can forbid?
   O, none, unless this miracle have might,
   That in black ink my love may still shine bright.

The technical process of posting is mostly easy.  (Though I wouldn’t dream of trying anything scary, such as the tab called ‘Edit HTML’.)  Blogger has a ‘dashboard’, which is like the blog’s back door, or tradesman’s entrance, where you can go in and change settings or post a new piece.  You can write a post in your usual word-processing programme and copy-and-paste it into an interactive window on the dashboard.  Things like putting in links or photos are fairly intuitive, and you can search for help (though every time I do this, it off-puttingly says there is no help available in my language, being UK English). 

For a poetry blog, the awkward thing is getting quotes right: using the keyboard tab (in Word, anyway) to indent them doesn’t work when pasted into Blogger.  Selecting the text of the quote and then shifting it all to the right usually does work.  Poems with different indents for each line are tricky. 

It’s necessary to use the Preview function, which allows you to see the post as it’ll appear on the blog, before posting it.  A post that looks OK when you enter it in the window on the dashboard can come out on the blog all misaligned – especially photos, and poetry quotes.  I have spent ages trying to get a simple post right, by trial and error, until the alignment works. 

Horace Odes 3.30

Exegi monumentum aere perennius
regalique situ pyramidum altius,
quod non imber edax, non Aquilo inpotens
possit diruere aut innumerabilis
annorum series et fuga temporum.              
Non omnis moriar multaque pars mei
uitabit Libitinam; usque ego postera
crescam laude recens, dum Capitolium
scandet cum tacita uirgine pontifex.
Dicar, qua uiolens obstrepit Aufidus              
et qua pauper aquae Daunus agrestium
regnauit populorum, ex humili potens
princeps Aeolium carmen ad Italos
deduxisse modos. Sume superbiam
quaesitam meritis et mihi Delphica              
lauro cinge uolens, Melpomene, comam.

As usual with IT, simple things turn complex.  One week the dashboard wouldn’t save my draft post, or allow me to attach links.  I googled for help, as the blogger help didn’t. There were incomprehensible suggestions, and then one that just said, check you have saved your text in its original version on your computer.  Dead simple, and the right answer. 

Initially I assumed that to allow people to subscribe (ie. get notified of updates) it was enough to have the link at the bottom of the page which says ‘Subscribe to: Posts (Atom)’, which I think is an RSS feed.  However a friend in South Africa said this didn’t work, so I added email subscription, whereby the latest post arrives in an email.  She forwarded me the email of my last post on Stephen Watts.  It allowed no space after full stops; much more important, it didn’t replicate the layout of his poems.  Most of the ones quoted have their lines indented in a pattern, but they all came out wholly left-aligned.   

Horace Odes 3.30: a version by Franklin P Adams that made me smile

Look you, the monument I have erected
  High as the pyramids, royal, sublime,
During as brass -- it shall not be affected
  E'en by the elements coupled with Time.

Part of me, most of me never shall perish;
  I shall be free from Oblivion's curse;
Mine is a name that the future will cherish --
  I shall be known by my excellent verse.

I shall be famous all over this nation,
  Centuries after my self shall have died;
People will point to my versification --
  I, who was born on the Lower East Side!

Come, then, Melpomene, why not admit me?
  I want a wreath that is Delphic and green,
Seven, I think, is the size that will fit me --
  Slip me some laurel to wear on my bean.

Horace, on a later
Roman medallion
Copyright is an issue.  A blog lacks the space constraints of a magazine, so I like to quote properly, rather than meanly give readers the odd / one-and-a-half lines with slashes / in the middle of the text.  The Poetry Foundation in the US has just produced a helpful booklet on the subject, which appears to take a largely common-sense approach, adapted to the internet age.  In the UK, the Society of Authors says that for criticism and review, it’s OK to quote ‘extracts to a total of 40 lines from a poem, provided that this did not exceed a quarter of the poem’. How many people have read that and wondered: what if the poem, like most, is under 40 lines long?  What if it’s a sonnet?   

So far I’ve written each post to a self-imposed deadline.  The main challenge is deciding what to write about; once I know that, the tension of having to write it is far less.  This week I’m late and have chosen an easy subject, from the back of my mind which is under the influence of too much prosecco from today’s street party.  Without which (the party) I’d have gone off to the country for a long, long walk to get away from it all.

Thursday, 21 April 2011

Stephen Watts: visionary poetry

One day I went over the mountain
and the perfect curve of air broke in two
against rock all around me.  And I went down
into the strained calculus of that coast
past the white-shat cliffs of nesting cormorants,
the schist crests of that stilled and dancing land
and I lay on a slab beside the tilting sea..

These are the opening lines of ‘From the Islands’, from Stephen Watts’ book The Blue Bag.  For me they describe exactly how it feels to walk over a mountain onto the lonely side above sea.  I’m writing about this book because I like it very much, and because most people don’t seem to have come across Watts’ poems.  I hadn’t until recently, when Mimi Khalvati recommended him. 

Not Uist but the Coigach Peninsula
The Blue Bag isn’t like any other book of British contemporary poetry I’ve read.  The poems have an ecstatic tone.  They feel most of all like praise poems, whether Watts is writing about wild landscape, encounters with his often poor and lonely Whitechapel neighbours, or a local tree. 

The centre of The Blue Bag is a long poem, ‘Praise Poem for North Uist’.  He conveys the wonder of being in such a place in some great descriptive passages.  The repeated use of ‘I’ in phrases such as ‘I have stood’ gives the poem a visionary feel.  At the same time he  never ignores the human condition.  Or history; the Clearances are latent in this poem.  In this extract, I like the boat image appearing with Viking place-names.

I have stood on the hill of Eaval and have
                gone and been lifted,
and felt the laughter and yielding sobriety of
the ground.  To what more can I lay stress
                        and claim?

And Uist has appeared to me like a boat, stern of
        Griminish from the prow of Eaval,
and if it could drive us from pampered government
and if it could bring them to job-fulfilled shores –
        but when would that be likely.

The poems seem to trust in their own direction, unbothered by current poetry rules –  there are plenty of adjectives and abstract concepts, but minimal irony.  The style appears effortless, its fluency enhanced by Watts’ skilful line breaks.  He uses a lot of anaphora, especially with ‘and’ and, as above, ‘I’; this and the mix of simple and elevated language contribute to the ecstasy.  He writes in free verse, mostly in long blocks, or the varied line-length verses of the Uist poem.

Many poems move into elegy, as in this poem on Walter Benjamin’s death, ‘Marginal Note in Time of War’:

Walter Benjamin took his own
life out of pure exhaustion, walking
into the mountains against love’s gravity
up the scarp slope of his melting reason
to where he was abandoned by language.

I like the East London poems for their humour and sadness (again, many are, or may be, elegies).  This is from ‘Mark Wickham in Whitechapel’:

He is asking the waitress to take the skin off
        from his fish, then he is asking
her to take the batter off.  Then he is asking
                        for a cloth

And for a glass of water from her.  Then if she
                will let him have a kiss.
These are not the usual duties in a Wimpey Bar.
And I am wondering does she yet realise what
                        the matter is.

‘Song for Mickie the Brickie’ celebrates an encounter in Watney Market:

We walked through the decayed market, a yellow-
                        black sun gazed
down over Sainsbury’s as I went to look for change.
Ten pound was hardly enough to get him through
                the dregs of that bitter day.

We stood on the corner where for centuries people
                have stood.  Many
worlds passed us by. 

Watney Market, from
I also like them for their unforced sense of East London history, including the waves of immigrants from Huguenot to Jew to Sylheti – he’s really lived there, for years.  

Watts has a lovely poem in the latest issue of Long Poem Magazine.  ‘My Mother, her Tongue’ is an elegy for his mother, whose family came from the Swiss-Italian Alps: here are two verses. 

As a child I was happy in the garden of your
                       house: through
an air of daisies taller than my head to where
a tiny sun shone through the milky belly
                                     of a horse…  

I see you fling the blue vocable ‘never’ with
             its dull meaning against
the void of the sky where it explodes colour
in the space where nothing happens, O you
                   in the summer of jasmine…

The few poems that don’t work so well mostly seem to be located abroad (though some abroad poems are very successful): they are either too generic, or too verbally bedizened, as in a poem addressed to Marina Tsvetayeva, for whom words

and shunted like dark magma and shot out
volcanic gobs and flared at the earth’s edge.

Coigach Peninsula again
I wondered where the book’s title came from.  It made me think of the German romantic Blue Flower, that stands for love and yearning for the unattainable.  But that could be an utter misunderstanding: there’s those small blue bags of salt that used to be in potato crisps, or blue bag laundry bleach, or a recycling bag handed out by the local council, or the blue bag on the book’s cover that looks like my old primary school shoebag.  Or an ordinary plastic bag in Whitechapel, or whatever the writer wants.

Then I read ‘Yossef Hayyim Brenner’, a Whitechapel history poem that starts

I tried to write a novel about you – but could
            not find my voice.
You were walking in it on the Mile End Waste
and the blue bag of language was slung across
                        your breast.

Later in the poem

..I adjust the blue bag across my breast, feel
the wet fish and its ginger shift inside my old
                  anarchic cave

So maybe the Blue Flower is meant to be somewhere behind the bag of wet fish and Brenner’s influence, or maybe not.  Anyway it’s there for me, in the blue word-bag of imagination and vaulting upwards beyond one’s reach; and the book is now mine, as reader. 
Except that the book isn’t mine, unfortunately.  I got it out of the Poetry Library, which has two little-read copies, and I can’t find it for sale online.  I think it’s Watts’ only full-length collection, and the fruit of many years.  He has also translated poetry including from Persian and Slovenian; and in Long Poem Magazine he talks about the early influence on him of Tamil poetry.  Maybe all this has contributed to the originality of his voice. 

I do wonder whether it is starting to become less difficult and unfashionable, especially among new writers, to write stuff that doesn’t conform to current poetry rules; in which case his work might become better known.

Stephen Watts appears on the poets’ website poetry pf, where you can read several of his poems.  The Blue Bag was published by Aark Arts in 2004.       

Thursday, 14 April 2011

Why is political poetry so hard to write?

Poetry that addresses core political news, the stuff of broadsheet newspapers’ current affairs pages.  Cuts, cuts, cuts, the financial crisis like an earthquake with a lot of nasty aftershocks, Japan, the Arab Spring... When I was in Suffolk last month I didn’t look at the internet for several days in a row.  Early one morning I logged on at Bruisyard Hall’s vast kitchen table (only place with a good signal): the UN had declared a no-fly zone over Libya, and there was a Japanese nuclear emergency.  It felt as if I’d time-travelled forward, much more than a few days – unsettling. 

Where is the poetry that can keep up with this?  I want to persuade myself that it’s still possible.  

Peterloo Massacre, published by Richard Carlile

Shelley could write political poetry. 

I met Murder on the way -
He had a mask like Castlereagh -
Very smooth he looked, yet grim;
Seven blood-hounds followed him:

All were fat; and well they might
Be in admirable plight,
For one by one, and two by two,
He tossed them human hearts to chew
Which from his wide cloak he drew.

Next came Fraud, and he had on,
Like Eldon, an ermined gown;
His big tears, for he wept well,
Turned to mill-stones as they fell.

And the little children, who
Round his feet played to and fro,
Thinking every tear a gem,
Had their brains knocked out by them.

Clothed with the Bible, as with light,
And the shadows of the night,
Like Sidmouth, next, Hypocrisy
On a crocodile rode by.

And many more Destructions played
In this ghastly masquerade,
All disguised, even to the eyes,
Like Bishops, lawyers, peers, or spies.

Last came Anarchy: he rode
On a white horse, splashed with blood;
He was pale even to the lips,
Like Death in the Apocalypse.

And he wore a kingly crown;
And in his grasp a sceptre shone;
On his brow this mark I saw -

With a pace stately and fast,
Over English land he passed,
Trampling to a mire of blood
The adoring multitude.

How did Shelley do it?  There’s grotesque imagery in The Mask of Anarchy, written in 1819 soon after the Peterloo Massacre.  And anger.  Both satire and mounting anger are reflected in the list-like narrative’s insistent metre and rhyme scheme.

It was easier then… to be didactic, to grandstand, to personify abstracts and use allegory, to find extreme tyranny and injustice close to home. 

It’s still possible.  NxtGen can do it.  Here’s the refrain of his rap on the NHS. 

Andrew Lansley,
greedy Andrew Lansley,
The NHS is not for sale you grey-haired manky codger!

His smart lyrics, whose rhyme and rhythm would still stand up without the backing music, exploit the bureaucratic language of privatisation:

care will be farmed out to private companies,
who will sell their service to the NHS via GPs
who will have more to do with the service purchase arrangements 
than anything to do with seeing their patients…

Rap lacks poetic inhibitions, and has the licence to tell. 

Poetry magazines have very little political poetry: is it that they don’t get sent it, or that the stuff they’re sent is bad?  What about climate change and other environmental destruction, for example: can it only be written about well, according to today’s poetry rules, by leaving it out of the poem and instead praising what we have left? 

Carol Ann Duffy (who used to be great on gender politics in The World’s Wife, knife crime in that exam board-banned poem) commissioned poems about war for The Guardian a couple of years ago.  The result was some well-constructed poems, but they didn’t lift off the page; torn between showing and telling, they couldn’t compete with the reality we keep seeing and hearing. 

Or with ex-US soldier-in-Iraq Brian Turner’s poems in his first book Here Bullet.  (I’m not suggesting that only a soldier can write war poems.  And these count as poetry-of-witness; my definition of political poetry is flexible..)  Some of them are very good.   Here is the end of ‘The Hurt Locker’:

Believe it when four men
step from a taxicab in Mosul
to shower the street in brass
and fire. Open the hurt locker
and see what there is of knives
and teeth. Open the hurt locker and learn
how rough men come hunting for souls.

The American poet Carolyn Forché does it in The Colonel, here, which begins: 

What you have heard is true. I was in his house. His wife
carried a tray of coffee and sugar. His daughter filed her
nails, his son went out for the night. There were daily
papers, pet dogs, a pistol on the cushion beside him.
The moon swung bare on its black cord over the house.
On the television was a cop show. It was in English. 

This prose poem builds up, from that calmly sinister start to something surreal and appalling.  Quoting from the middle or end could ruin the poem for anyone who hasn’t read it.  It was written in 1978 and the setting feels Latin American, like something out of Gabriel Garcia Marquez; but it could be now, Syria or Ivory Coast. 

Derek Mahon does it, in A Disused Shed in Co. Wexford’, another seventies poem, the worst of times in his native Northern Ireland.  He triangulates – between the mushrooms locked in the shed; the JG Farrell novel, Troubles, that’s a starting point for the poem; and the politics, implied throughout until that one startling line at the end of the second passage below: 

The rest, dim in a twilight of crumbling
Utensils and broken flower-pots, groaning
For their deliverance, have been so long
Expectant that there is left only the posture.

They are begging us, you see, in their wordless way,
To do something, to speak on their behalf
Or at least not to close the door again.
Lost people of Treblinka and Pompeii!

That last line is the 54th (of 60); by then, the poem has earned it. 

When a political poem works as well as those last two, it seems to get around, onto school syllabuses and into people’s poem repositories.  And the NHS rap has been viewed over 300,000 times on YouTube. There is surely stuff being written in other parts of the world, whether Burma or Bahrain, Congo or China, that few of us can access.

When I want a fix of really great political poetry I tend to go to those Eastern Europeans who wrote it in the Iron Curtain years of the 20th century: Herbert, Miłosz, Szymborska, Holub, etc.  Some of them were experts on writing about things by leaving them out.  There’s an excellent anthology edited by Daniel Weissbort called The Poetry of Survival: Post-war Poets of Central and Eastern Europe.  And there are so many other great poets who did it in the 20th century: Akhmatova, Celan, Darwish…  (World class English language writers don’t come to mind so immediately in this context: Yeats, Auden…?)  There’s Carolyn Forché’s anthology Against Forgetting: Twentieth-Century Poetry of Witness. 

Maybe Brecht, who also belongs on the list, sums up what they had in common:

In the dark times, will there
also be singing?
Yes, there will be singing.
About the dark times.

But what happens when Brecht’s put against TS Eliot’s ‘raid on the inarticulate’?  Today's world of politics is all too articulate. Political discourse is often dreadful: mean, evasive and dishonest, from the Commons speech (satirised in Carol Ann Duffy’s  ‘Weasel Words’) to the Today Programme.  Political news is everywhere, fluent, vivid, exciting, appalling, updated by the minute, illustrated by the best pictures.  

How can poetry make all this new, when it’s new anyway?  When we get angry about politics, don’t we mostly get angry in prose, in words that are all too sayable?  And getting angry isn’t the way to access the place where poetry comes from.  Maybe that place has changed, from Shelley’s day.  In the western world, anyway.

The poetry rules and customs have certainly changed, to a point where rapper NxtGen can do things that the poetry establishment can’t. 

Any ideas on who's currently setting the world alight with political poems would be very welcome.