What an amazing, talented and diverse line-up of poets at the Royal Festival Hall as part of the London Literature Festival and Poetry International! I felt very fortunate to see two of my personal favourites Canadian Anne Carson and American Claudia Rankine, as well as the Icelandic writer I know more for his novels Sjón and recent discovery from Trinidad Vahni Capildeo
Sadly, Iraqi poet Choman Hardi could not fly out of her country, as the airport was closed because of a crackdown against the Kurds, but she had recorded some poems for the event. It was also an opportunity to become acquainted with three new to me poets: Native American Joy Harjo, Indian poet Arhundhati Subramaniam and Chinese poet Yang Lian.
Two hours of poetry just flew by. Each poet was so different, there was no chance of being bored. All of them chose quite political poems to read, so there was a common thread. After all, it’s not easy being a ‘truth- teller’ in these times…
Joy Harjo was a revelation: making use of the spoken tradition of the Creek Nation, she sang her poetry in a mix of English and her tribal language, with a sense of freedom and extravagance which is not at all common in poetry readings I have previously attended. The poem to get rid of fear particularly struck a chord with me – you can read it here.
By contrast, Arundhati Subramaniam was full of wry humour and an understated irony very reminiscent of the British tradition. She has anticipated my surprise at her style (she must have heard it many times before) and replied with this wonderful poem To the Welsh Critic Who Doesn’t Find Me Identifiably Indian.
Sjón was adept at making Icelandic sound very melodious – and then read the English translations as well. His poems were restrained, minimalistic, almost Japanese in their conciseness and slant meaning, with close observation of nature as a metaphor for human unrest.
Vahni Capildeo was the exact opposite – a gush of emotion, opening up her guts and showing us all the vulnerability, passionate and playful and incantatory. Her experimental style must be very hard to read out loud, but she did an excellent job of it.
Yang Lian recited from a long narrative poem in Chinese, while Stephen Watts read it in English translation. It struck me how much more concise Mandarin is, but it is hard to listen to long pieces of poetry in that language, as the syllable sounds are quite limited in number, so there is a lot of apparent similarity, yet they differ by tones, which makes for an interesting sound. And no obvious falling tone at the end of a sentence, as we have in Western languages. It was also fascinating to see him referencing Syracuse and Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War – although he used it to reference that contradiction and tension between internal democracy and external empire-building impulses, which has characterised so many imperialistic nations since.
Anne Carson read an essay which she described as ‘it sounds like prose but, as you know, poetry is also a mentality’. She has sometimes been described as a poet more admired than understood, and some complain that she is too intellectual, her allusions to Ancient Greek myths and German philosophers are too dense. But her poetry (and her experiments at the very boundaries of what one might consider poetry) are all about fragmentation, about trying and failing, about pinning down the elusive, about making unexpected connections. I don’t expect to like everything of hers, but she always makes me work – and makes me think – and puts wonderful ideas into my head.
Finally, Claudia Rankine read a fragment from her truly seminal work Citizen (which has changed the whole conversation about race in the US) and also from Don’t Let Me Be Lonely. She has one of those grave, impressive voices – just what I expected from her.
One slight regret: that the hall was not full to bursting, as such a fantastic display of talent warranted. Meanwhile, Hillary Clinton’s event later that evening was sold out. Clearly, poetry still has a way to go before it reaches the popularity of politics. Or, as one person behind me said: ‘If this had taken place in New Zealand, it would have been standing room only. But you Londoners are spoilt with too many great events.’
I wasn’t allowed to take any pictures – and with those low light levels, my mobile phone would have struggled anyway. So I just included some studio portraits of the poets instead.
Maggie Nelson’s Bluets, which I recently read for the first time and am already rereading, puzzled me. It’s a memoir mourning the death of a relationship. It’s also a series of numbered mini-essays, meditations and aphorisms linked to the colour blue, in its literal and metaphorical manifestation. At times, it reaches poetic intensity, but this is not what we would usually describe as poetry. (Foyles had it displayed in the poetry section, however.) It is the prose-poem mix and research-intensive, allusive type of poetry which has become fashionable in recent years: practised by Anne Carson, Claudia Rankine, Ariana Reines and Bhanu Kapil. (There are plenty of earlier examples of it, but it seems to be much more mainstream now.)
I like each of the above-mentioned poets and I liked this book too, if we think of it as poetry, as sudden illuminations of a dark area of the human heart and mind. Vignettes about loss and pain, where the anguished cry of hurt and anger is kept at bay through careful selection of information, data points, quotations. Mediated through this semblance of rationality, the unruly emotions can be filtered for public consumption, unlike the angry, self-pitying outpouring on a blog for instance (just talking about myself here). So a very useful device for passionate writers who want to avoid descending into self-pitying bathos .
135. Of course one can have ‘the blues’ and stay alive, at least for a time. ‘Productive,’ even (the perennial consolation!). See, for example, ‘Lady Sings the Blues’: ‘She’s got them bad/ She feels so sad/ Wants the world to know/ Just what her blues is all about.’ Nonetheless, as Billie Holiday knew, it remains the case that to see blue in deeper and deeper saturation is to eventually move towards darkness.
138. But perhaps there is no real mystery here at all. ‘Life is usually stronger than people’s love for it’ (Adam Phillips): this is what Holiday’s voice makes audible. To hear it is to understand why suicide is both so easy and so difficult: to commit it one has to stamp out this native triumphance, either by training oneself, over time, to dehabilitate or disbelieve it (drugs help here), or by force of ambush.
The author acknowledges this distancing effect. By writing things down, by finding words to share certain moments or feelings with others, she is robbing those moments or feelings of their mystical power. Which can be both good and bad. It might work as a way of overcoming sorrow and loss, but at other times it feels like you’re giving up something too precious:
193. I will admit, however… that writing does do something to one’s memory- that at times it can have the effect of an album of childhood photographs, in which each image replaces the memory it aimed to preserve. Perhaps this is why I am avoiding writing about too many blue things – I don’t want to displace my memories of them, nor embalm them, nor exalt them. In fact, I think I would like it best if my writing could empty me further of them, so that I might become a better vessel for new blue things.
However, there are two objections or hesitations that I have with this kind of writing. First, if it is poetry, it is too much ‘telling’ and not enough showing. I don’t think rationality and emotion have to be at odds with each other, but when I read or hear poetry I like to feel as if the poet is reaching directly inside my chest and pulling at my heart, or has seen directly into my head and made me aware of things that I’d previously hardly dared to voice. It’s very much like Emily Dickinson said: ‘If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry.’ There has to be something unspoken and ungraspable about it. It encompasses all of the poet’s feelings, plus mine, plus so much more.
Secondly, when this type of book is supposed to be a novel, such as Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation, it feels to me like an incredibly lazy way of handling a story arc. Vignettes, no matter how well written, avoid the connective tissue and real plot development. Perhaps it’s a trick writers use to hide their lack of ideas for plotting. It’s as if I were writing the exciting scenes of a novel but leaving out all the links between them, anything which might explain character development (other than the narrator), or running away from the saggy middle because I can’t think how to improve it, or chickening out of a proper ending because I’m afraid I can’t handle it.
This is not the case with Maggie Nelson’s Bluets, but I now feel the urge to read her The Argonauts, which has a clearer narrative structure, to see how she handled that. While I agree that modern life is messy and oddly dislocated, it is:
a) Not a new thing: Modernist literature is entirely predicated on this loss of innocence and decline of society.
b) I don’t see why coherence has to be sacrificed to describe messiness in fiction. Perhaps in a time of confusion, we need the boon of structure more than ever, supporting us just enough so that we can play freely within it.
After 20+ years spent in Great Britain, why oh why have I not visited Wales before? The combination of mountains and sea is exactly what my soul has been craving ever since I came to this island and a worthy substitute for my Genevois home which I miss with all my heart. This was enhanced, of course, by glorious weather and the serene setting of David Lloyd George’s house at Ty Newydd.
Trochi – Immersion
Reading, writing, listening, talking, eating, breathing, touching poetry as if it were the most important thing in the world. A protective glass bell for even the most fragile bloom to grow and blossom.
Diolch – Thank you
Under the gently challenging guidance of George Szirtes and Deryn Rees-Jones, who created a real feeling of community of like-minded people, who discuss your work rather than your personality or what they would have written instead. Profound admiration and respect to Polly, Jenny, Sophia, Jane, John, Antony, Dafydd, Christine, Simon, Vanessa, Margaret, Mary and Arji, who stretched my mind, made me laugh, made me cry and made me want to persevere. People who are serious about poetry, regardless of age and background, not ‘retired hobbyists’ (as implied in that controversial report). Not that there is anything wrong with opening up the world of poetry to hobbyists either…
Dechreuadau newydd – New Beginnings
To be honest, I was the most amateurish one there, the least experienced and the least ‘serious’ about poetry, too easily distracted by my other writing and blogging and reviews. It really brought home to me that you need to dedicate yourself seriously to poetry, to reading and writing it every day for years if you want to improve rather than just have a few happy accidents of phrasing.
Digon – Enough
The first few days I was panicking about not being productive enough: I had been hoping to repeat the feat of October in Provence of 35 new poems in 5 days. Particularly since at this particular point in time I could not really afford the fees (reasonable though they are, compared to other courses). It was almost as if I were measuring out spoonfuls of ground coffee and expecting a spectacular yield of nectar by the end. Then I learnt to relax: there are times of accumulation which are just as valuable as those productive times.
Syniadau Newydd – New Ideas
Ideas can come from anywhere, from following the course of a river through the woods, from blackberrying your way down the path to the sea, from watching a dog gambol on the beach to finding a rare volume of ecclesiastical history in the profound peace of Gladstone’s Library.
Anadlu – Breathe
How to keep the momentum going after this week out of time and space? I need to spend part of every day with poetry, not just turn to it when I am procrastinating on my novel or when I have an odd moment of inspiration. I need to practise and improve my craft, which means finding a writing group dedicated exclusively to poetry, although the more generic local one is a good source of inspiration in other respects. If I cannot find one geographically, perhaps I need to organise an online critiquing group.
Llyfrau – Books
One can never have too many books. They are the most beautiful decoration to a room and they bring endless delight and inspiration to yourself and to others.
Gwartheg – Cows
Do not attempt to outrun a field of Welsh cows, who are nothing like as blasé about intruders as their Swiss cousins.