Tuesday, 28 June 2011

Poetry Society resignations, and call for an EGM: update

There are rumblous thunderings over central London.  That’s not an attempt at pathetic fallacy but a description of the weather, which is heading this way.  I live on the side of a hill, so can see it coming.  

Kate Clanchy’s list of Poetry Society members calling for an Extraordinary General Meeting – see my last post – has reached 222 names, almost two-thirds of the way to the 340 names needed.  Do email her at kateclanchy at gmail dot com if you want to join the list.

The Poetry Society trustees issued a statement yesterday.  This uses Judith Palmer’s resignation as an excuse not to comment on what’s going on.  At least it says something about what the trustees are doing, though I think it’s much too late for that to be enough.  A bit like one of those political situations where there’s a lot of pressure for change, but too little is offered too late, and what might have been accepted at an earlier stage is no longer enough, so pressure builds for more change…  Which reminds me of the current situation in Syria – just to put things in perspective. 

Some people abbreviate the Poetry Society to PoSoc, which adds a nice Orwellian touch.  There have been two doubleplusgood blog posts on PoSoc by Rob Mackenzie (today) and Katy Evans-Bush.  

While I was writing this, the weather arrived in Greenwich.  Lightning and thunder cracked and crashed right overhead.  I’ll put any more updates in the comments below, because I don’t want this to turn into a blog about the Poetry Society. 

Thursday, 23 June 2011

The Poetry Society and organisational behaviour. How to support the call for an Extraordinary General Meeting

I was going to write about Edith Södergran this week, if I was in the mood for her.  She’s a poet one really does need to be in the right frame of mind to read.  Basil Bunting is another.  There must be more; another time I’ll think about who they are and why.

Romantic ruin no.1
Instead, this is going to be about the trouble at the Poetry Society – from the perspective of organisational behaviour.  I don’t know any of the personalities involved, and will stay off the gossip.  But I do have an MBA, specialising in organisational behaviour. 

You may wonder why I’m bothering with this.  Nearly half this blog’s readers are now in North America; it also gets read round the world from India, Brazil, South Africa, Europe and Australasia to Trinidad & Tobago, Brunei and Nepal…  So I apologise for writing about a storm in a teacup and I promise I won’t make a habit of it!

Anyway, the reason I’m doing it is that I don’t like to see an organisation which I belong to, and which does plenty of good work, in a mess.  Part of this mess the Poetry Society could resolve easily, just by communicating what’s going on.  

Romantic ruin no.2

Briefly, for anyone who doesn’t yet know but is interested, I think these are the facts.  The Poetry Society’s director, Judith Palmer, resigned suddenly in late May.  The part-time finance officer left around the same time, as did a third member of staff; and the Society’s president, Jo Shapcott, resigned in early June.  There has been a lot of fevered speculation about why, fuelled by leaks.    

Every organisation has its own culture and way of behaving.  If I were an organisation doctor, then my diagnosis of the Poetry Society’s symptoms, admittedly from a distance, would not be positive. 

The main symptom is that they aren’t telling us what’s going on.  (I don’t count the feeble statement on their website, saying that things are carrying on as usual.)  

This suggests that the Poetry Society does not want to be open about its governance, and lacks a sense of accountability to its members; and that those in charge are feeling defensive.  Secrecy has its place in the world, defence of the realm for example, but is often abused… I didn’t realise I was a member of the Secret Poetry Society.

The lack of openness also suggests that the trustees and staff don’t understand public relations.  Didn’t they know that failing to give out information would allow gossip and speculation to fill the void?   Or that when an organisation’s director and finance officer both leave suddenly, people will wonder whether financial problems have been discovered?  Apparently that’s not the case at all… but members have learnt this from the gossip, not the Poetry Society.  

Romantic ruin no.3
I do understand that there may be a sensitive personnel angle to this, which the PS wouldn’t want to publicise – indeed, they probably shouldn’t.  But why can’t they be open about the policy issues?  If resignations have taken place because of a difference over the Poetry Society’s direction, then the members should be told.  In 2009/10, membership and publications brought in £165,000 which was 21% of Poetry Society income, so they owe us.  (Presumably the publications bit is Poetry Review; unfortunately there is no note in the accounts giving a further break-down.)

As for the issues: there seems to be a split between those who want the Society to concentrate on education in its broadest sense, and those who want to do more to promote high-profile poets.  The Poetry Society is a registered charity, and its 2005 constitution states that “THE OBJECTS OF THE SOCIETY ARE TO ADVANCE PUBLIC EDUCATION IN THE STUDY, ENJOYMENT AND USE OF POETRY”.  (Interestingly, the Society’s annual report & accounts for 2009/10, which you can read on the Charity Commission website, lists subtly different objectives: “The objects of the Society are to promote the study, use and enjoyment of poetry”.  Why?  One can’t just change charitable objects casually, it’s a complicated process.)

This has all been going on for a month, and we are none the wiser except for a welter of gossip.  In the absence of the director, the trustees could show leadership – that’s one of the things they are there for.   And show respect for the membership, by talking to us. 

Romantic ruin no.4
I wonder what the Arts Council thinks – already the largest single funder of the PS, it increased its grant significantly in the recent controversial funding round in which others such as the Poetry Trust, the PBS and various publishers lost out. 

If 10% of the Poetry Society’s members ask for an Extraordinary General Meeting, it has to be held.  Kate Clanchy is trying to get names together to ask for an EGM, simply to get the PS to make itself accountable to us and explain what’s going on.  She has just started and has over 40 names so far; needs to get to 340.  If you are a PS member and would like to add your name, please email her at kateclanchy@gmail.com. 

Thursday, 9 June 2011

The wastefulness of writing poems; rain; the excellence of sand dams

Writing poetry is so wasteful.  So many poems worked and worked on and abandoned.  Or finished, but unable to fly.  All my drafts are listed on a spreadsheet, but a better representation might be a plane wreck in the desert, bits strewn everywhere.  I don’t know whether to be encouraged or still further depressed when famous writers complain.  Here is Peter Porter, quoted in The Guardian a few months ago: 

Queueing for water, for days, near Mtito,
SE Kenya.  No sand dams here.
“I'm not at all confident about the quality of what I do, and I suffer like all people do, I think, who are writers, an intense disappointment – not at the reception of what I've written, but at my own inability to bring off what I want to bring off. Auden in his introduction to his Collected Poems (well, the first one of his collected poems), said in a writer's work there are usually four categories – he loved categorising things.  First, sheer rubbish which he greatly regrets ever having done.  Second, poems he's got nothing against except they're not very important; they're not very good but, you know, he doesn't hate them.  Third, the saddest of all, the fair notion, fatally injured.  And then the last one, the handful of poems he's truly grateful for, which if he were to publish would make his work seem dangerously slim, and vitiated.”

Seed bank, Kevanda, SE Kenya
 ‘Vitiated’ seems a strange word to use here.  (I’m assuming it’s Auden’s word, not PP’s; I’ve only got A’s Selected.)  I’ve just looked it up. Meanings include: to make incomplete or faulty; to corrupt or deprave; to contaminate; or to invalidate, make ineffectual, make [an argument] inconclusive.  Presumably it’s the first and/or last of these he means.  But why the assumption that it’s dangerous to be slim?  Does the best work need a context; is it all the better when surrounded by middling stuff? 

Of course Auden is the man who in later life described some of his 30’s poems, such as ‘Spain’ and ‘September 1, 1939’ as “trash” which he was “ashamed to have written”.  Thank goodness he wasn’t able to throw them down a memory hole.

Tree nursery, Meka, SE Kenya
It’s raining outside…. a week ago that would have seemed astonishing, as it had rained once since mid-March.  A spring without rain is unnatural.  Anyway at the weekend it rained non-stop all afternoon and evening and night, and some of the next day, and there have been showers ever since.  The effect on birds is amazing – I hadn’t heard a thrush since March, but now they are singing again.  And the blackbirds have got much more vocal.  When I walk along the station platform, I can hear two wrens singing, one either side.  Also the birdsong sounds much more liquid – revived, just as coloured pebbles are by water. 

No robins, though.  A black cat with white paws from across the road killed one of the pair nesting in the ivy hedge, who were my constant garden companions.  I think they raised one brood.  I hope so. 

Rain brings out the poets too.  Which 1950s magazine editor said that whenever it rained, he got lots of rain poems in the next post?  I think Sylvia Plath comes into this story somehow. 

Building a sand dam
 In some places in the world, a year’s only rain can fall in a couple of days. Or not at all.  Have you heard of sand dams?  They provide rural communities in semi-arid areas with clean water, and raise the water table at the same time.  They are low-maintenance and last for decades.  The inspiration for them came from a local farmer. 

Irrigating tomatoes, Mansenviro
You can still listen to John Humphreys making last week's BBC Radio 4 appeal for Excellent, which helps communities build them, here.  The charity’s website is here.  I’ve been to Kenya and seen sand dams, and talked to communities about the huge difference it’s made to their lives – diet, health, earning an income, going to school.  It’s wonderful.  Travelling around, valleys with sand dams are terraced and green with fields and trees; valleys without are the colour of earth and sand.  

“Your heart is your forest”.  Kenyan saying

I try to post something on this blog every week.  I won’t be posting anything next week, as I’ll be away.   

Kevanda self-help group discussion

Thursday, 2 June 2011

Why does nobody read J H Prynne?

Well, not nobody; I do, for a start.  But I have yet to hear anyone else express enthusiasm for his work. 

He doesn’t make it easy.  I’ve just weighed Poems on the kitchen scales: 2¼lb, or just over 1 kilo.  This slab of a book would be a useful accessory for yoga, or for building a wall.  And getting hold of a smaller helping of his poetry is difficult.  With one exception, on Amazon you pay between £95 and £322 for old pamphlets, but most of them are unavailable.  Prynne hardly ever does readings.  There’s a recording on YouTube of him reading at Chicago a couple of years ago, but the sound quality is very poor, and, having expressed doubt about the value of readings in his introduction, he doesn’t read particularly well. 

And then there are the poems.  Here is the opening of ‘The Ideal Star-Fighter’:

Now a slight meniscus floats on the moral
     pigment of these times, producing
displacement of the body image, the politic
     albino.  The faded bird droops in his
cage called fear and yet flight into
     his pectoral shed makes for comic
hysteria, visible hope converted to the
     switchboard of organic providence
at the tiny rate of say 0.25 per cent
     “for the earth as a whole”.  And why
go on reducing and failing like metal: the
     condition is man and the total crop yield
of fear, from the fixation of danger; in
     how we are gripped in the dark, the
flashes of where we are.

That poem is from Brass, 1971.  It’s one of the poems he read in Chicago, maybe chosen because it is relatively easy to follow.  It seems to me to be a violently pessimistic poem.  In the last section it includes the lines “We walk / in beauty down the street, we tread / the dust of our wasted fields…. we have already induced / moral mutation in the species”. 

Typically for Prynne, it plunders the vocabulary of various specialisms, politics and also literature to produce strange juxtapositions, connections and imagery.  I find this exciting – it makes my synapses spark, whether or not I understand what is going on.

I’m not sure that late modernist poets are meant to be lyrical.  A few years ago I went to a reading/lecture by John Kinsella, organised by The Wolf magazine, in which JK and others referred admiringly to Prynne’s non-lyricism.  I suspected them of macho posturing, reflecting a value system which at least has the merit of rarity.   I find some Prynne very lyrical, including the poem quoted above.  More obviously, Moon Poem (from The White Stones, 1969), which ends:

I know there is more than the mere wish to
wander at large, since the wish itself diffuses
beyond this and will never end: these are songs
in the night under no affliction, knowing that
            the wish is gift to the
            spirit, is where we may
            dwell as we would
go over and over within the life of the heart
and the grace which is open to both east and west.
These are psalms for the harp and the shining
stone: the negligence and still passion of night.   

And the first poem, untitled, in Pearls that Were (1999), which ends:

So Orpheus tamed the wild beasts
  for long night comes down
moving naked, over the wound,
  the gem from the crown.

Ivory tower: not Cambridge Gothic
but Khiva minaret (pinkish bricks
the colour of Prynne's book cover)
What I don’t like at all is what is evident throughout his long oeuvre but becomes more pronounced in some later poems: a sort of senior common-room cleverness, an arid playing with language.  So I can see why people say, when asked about Prynne, that they find him dry and cerebral, as well as obscure and difficult.  But I think they miss the lyricism – and the emotion. 

I wonder if people also find the obscurity and difficulty threatening because they may not get individual references in a poem, let alone the whole picture.  Though in this google age, the former can be less of a problem – I just googled a quotation in ‘A New Tax on the Counter-Earth’ (from Brass) and found it came from Trollope’s The Prime Minister.  The poem, which is highly ironic and in parts comic, includes these lines:

          … the stupid slow down & become
wise with inertia, and instantly the prospect of
money is solemnised to the great landscape.
It actually glows like a stream of evening sun,
value become coinage fixed in the grass crown.
The moral drive isn’t
            quick enough, the greasy rope-trick
has made payment an edge of rhetoric;
                           the conviction of merely being
                 right, that has
marched into the patter of balance.   

That could have come from a 2011 collection, not 1971.  Prynne’s  poems often use words from  finance and economics; they address the environment, disintegration, the edges of things, the end, muddle, disaster.  It is a shame his fractured language should be perceived as a barrier to such contemporary stuff.  I can’t think of anyone else who writes about it half as compellingly.  ‘On the Matter of Thermal Packing’ starts

In the days of time now what I have
is the meltwater constantly round my feet
and ankles.  There the ice is glory to the
past and the eloquence, the gentility of
the world’s being… 

That’s from the end of the 60’s.  I am probably reading it too literally, but the poem does contain a powerful metaphor for transience and instability (and/or other things I’ve missed); and becomes all the more powerful when read today. 

Relevance is only part of it, though.  One way to enjoy the poems is to… well, enjoy them – read them in a state of negative capability, and see what happens.  Maybe have fun reaching after references later, but only once the poem has entered in, as a poem, with all its richness and energy and colours, and anger, confusion and sometimes despair. 

There is a bit of help available with reading Prynne, though some of it is written in language which may well put off anyone who’s put off by Prynne anyway.  Thus keeping the smooth walls of the ivory tower in good repair.  An exception is a piece by Ruth Padel on his early poem ‘The Holy City’, in her book The Poem and the Journey.  She says, of modernism generally and JHP in particular:

‘It is as if, ninety years after [Modernism started, it] has become a form of elegy: a lament for the fact that words can never exactly match things Or else it has become an intense form of yearning driven by two incompatible desires: to get everything in and say you can’t.  A poem may want to be all of life but has to use form and language.  Form and language limit it, so the poem can never fulfil what it longs for… words can never completely represent the world. 

‘Formal traditions make a virtue of this; they revel in it.  Avant-garde work, like space travel, always wants to go for broke, go farther, strip away frontiers and boundaries.’  

Another exception is an interesting piece by Robert Potts in the Guardian, here, from which comes this statement by Prynne himself about his poetic practice:

‘It has mostly been my own aspiration, for example, to establish relations not personally with the reader, but with the world and its layers of shifted but recognisable usage; and thereby with the reader's own position within this world.’

A more recent piece by Potts is here.  And there’s a whole Prynne poem in Jacket, here, analysed by John Kinsella.

Two years after writing this I went to a lecture by Prynne at Sussex University.  It was rather entertaining see here for an account.  

Prynne’s Poems are published by Bloodaxe.