Friday 25 May 2012

George Steiner on difficulty in poetry

This blog is going on holiday, to Exmoor, in around half an hour.  I’ll just post some food for thought…  I’m not even sure if it’s a direct quote or a paraphrase.  It’s from Parameter magazine online, referring to an essay by George Steiner, ‘On Difficulty’, in the Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, vol 36, no.3, spring 1978.  One day I’ll look it up.

According to Steiner, or the paraphrase of Steiner, these are the causes of difficulty in poetry. 

"1 – The Epiphenomenal Difficulty. This is in the use of obscure words, phrases; and of ideas that relate to unusual or relatively unconnected areas of knowledge.

2 – The Tactical Difficulty. This is where something is deliberately withheld from the text. This was a major strategy of Eastern European writers, where a classical allusion was used as a comment on a contemporary situation, but the readers had to draw the linkages themselves.

3 - The Modal Difficulty. This is where the tone of the poem renders it unappealing. Think of Swift’s diatribe’s on women’s boudoirs. It need not be inimical to the reader, just at odds with the subject.

4 – The Ontological Difficulty. Contemporary poets question more than ever before the ways a writer communicates with the reader, the languages used, and the ways syntax can be manipulated to express more of the complexity of the contemporary world."

PS (nearly 2 weeks later): I posted the quote without re-reading it first.   It reads like a paraphrase. 

Friday 18 May 2012

After the Creel Fleet

I’ve been carrying this pamphlet by Niall Campbell around in my bag for a couple of weeks.  Lyrical, reflective, deft – and strong enough to take me away completely from a crowded train or ticket queue.  In the title poem, a description of old creel-rope:

The frayed lengths knotting into ampersands
tell of this night, and this night, and this,

spent taut between the surface and the sea-floor –
the water coarsening each coiled blue fibre

Many of the poems draw me in because they hold something mysterious which calls to be examined, not logically but by process of association.    It’s hard to decide on verses to quote out of the five of the last poem, ‘North Atlantic Drift’. Here are the first two:

We lay together in a run bath
and thought over the rowing boat
that neither one was rowing,

the evening berthed at the bath side
with its vowel song and habit
of staying with us for a while.

The language is simple, there’s a lilting rhythm, the lovely bath/evening/boat metaphor is slightly disorientating, and the skilful line- and verse-breaks have a mesmerising effect.  The mind falls down the page, half-asleep, jolting from one stanza/thought to the next.  (Is that last sentence worthy of Pseuds’ Corner?  I can’t think of a plainer way of putting it.)  You can read an earlier draft of this poem at Northwards Now, along with a few others, not all in the pamphlet. 

Campbell’s line breaks give his poems an electrical charge.  Maybe that’s why I found the two prose poems less effective, though I enjoyed the one that creates a god for each Scottish city.  Several poems include a line or two of description that gets an inner Yes!

..ram’s wool flagged on a neighbour’s fence

from ‘Smultronst√§llet, Glendale’ (the first word turns out to be Swedish for wild strawberries, the title of the Bergman film, and more than that); or this from ‘Advice’:

and this empty Guinness glass
banded like a soil sample.

Its lines of sediment,
now thick, now thin, now thinner:

a calendar of our ways,
our weather, our damned chance.

Those moments of our flood,
those moments of our drought.

The assured, almost proverbial tone of those last lines is typical – as if written out of stillness and reflection.  In this and other ways, Campbell’s poems remind me of Rachael Boast’s Sidereal – another book I’ve carried around (see her ‘Cabin Fever’).  Talking of stars, here is the second half of Campbell’s ‘The tear in the  sack’, a poem about a nightjar:

                Its twin perspective
seeing with one eye the sack-
grain spilled on the roadway dirt,
and with the other, the scattered stars,
their chance positioning in the dark.

There’s a sense of wonder in these poems, whether the subject is death visiting in the sinister form of a long-buried dog, in ‘The fraud’, or strange birdsong in ‘Lyrebird’.  The latter could be taken as a manifesto, for a poet who was less lyrical than this one. 

What a heart, then
or what a damn fool

to hear the axe-fall,
the back-firing car,
a world break apart
and think to sing it.

After the Creel Fleet by Niall Campbell is published by HappenStance Press. You can read a poem at the link.  You can hear the poet, who comes from the Outer Hebrides, reading here - recommended.

Monday 7 May 2012

Canterbury Tales above the Thames

You have to walk the plank, over mudflats or river water seething with currents.  To the sound of halyards clanging, and background noise of conveyor belts at the aggregate factory.  Then - one night a year - you arrive at Greenwich’s stellar poetry destination, a building of glass, wood and steel, on wooden stilts over the river.  From outside, Greenwich Yacht Club has an extra-terrestrial, just landed look.  From inside, there are river views all round.  No sunset over the Thames on Friday night but a misty, damp riverscape, with acres of low-tide mud. 

The modernist/late-90’s architecture somehow blends with boat club paraphernalia such as trophies, photos, rosters and signing-in books.  Get a drink at the bar and you might notice No Mooring written on the sill, just below where you lean your elbows. 

There was standing room only in the large glass space on Friday.  People had come to hear each other, but most of all to hear Patience Agbabi read.  While she did I could hear the river, the room was so quiet. 

She read some of the literary problem page sonnets from Bloodshot Monochrome, bringing them alive; and ‘Chains’, a crown of sonnets from a residency at Chatham dockyard which can be downloaded here.  Watch for the great segue from the sixth poem to the last one. 
Patience reading, photo Liz Devereaux
And then, after the interval, when it had got dark, she read from her new project, a reworking of the Canterbury Tales.  Post-watershed as she put it: appropriate for the Miller’s Tale, a bawdy sex farce worthy of the original that got us laughing.  

She started with the Prologue, in the voice of the - rapping - Landlord (he’s the one who sets the Tales going).  Such speed, wit and rhyming, the rhymes increasing the speed, as if going round corners too fast, and the speed seeming to give birth to the rhymes and the wit.  Great puns too, some of them with a literary angle.  There were small gasps and chuckles from the audience, in between silence. 

My favourite was the last, the Franklin’s Tale, which Patience was reading for the first time.  It’s written in rime royale.  The love-and-magic story follows the original but is set in Christiania and Edinburgh.  What disappears is not rocks, but a castle.  There’s an epigraph, this quote from Thoreau:

If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be. Now put the foundations under them.

Here’s one-and-a-bit verses - torn out of the poem.  Deirdre, the heroine, has just said she’ll sleep with Arild if he can make the castle vanish (guess which castle):

not knowing at that instant Arild texts
The Artist in his hammock out in Freetown
who knows, this master artist-architect,
both how to build things up and pull things down;
how the right words, verb, adjective and noun,
in the right order, uttered in the air
can turn a limestone castle to thin air

for the small sum of a thousand euros           
which isn’t much when love feels more like death

On my table, there was a communal spellbound feeling while Patience was reading the Franklin’s Tale.  The poem draws its power from various places. I think these include its form; the way it responds to its own epigraph; the skeleton of the old story underneath; the two locations to which listeners or readers will add their own memories; and the tone that’s visionary, precise, deft, driven...  And the ending is wonderful.   How it was read mattered too: intensely, out of a kind of stillness. The tale is not quite finalised.  I hope it appears in a magazine with a lot of white page around the verses.  It seems to demand space, to allow the mind to roam alongside it.  

Patience Agbabi has been (re)writing the Tales for a couple of years.  It’s the perfect project: recreating/performing stories that were originally told aloud, the scope for dramatic monologues which she excels at, the literary history angle.  There’s some interesting discussion of the creative process on her blog.  She’s nearly finished.  Book publication date to be announced.  There had better be a lot of readings…

When we walked back down the gangplank, mudflats had given way to deep water and the clouds were clearing to reveal a nearly full moon, lovely, very bright, but no supermoon.  How did it get so much larger by the following night?  Are all those photos online real?