Louise Glück is one of those American poets who is temperamentally diametrically opposed to me, but whose style I greatly admire. Her austere, pared-down poems are deeply confessional, but you don’t quite know what the poet confesses to, so deeply embedded is the truth in her narrative. Like Elizabeth Bishop, she wants to reshape events from memory, with discipline, technical precision, and above all a certain distancing. Restraint is her favourite tool, but we can guess at an undercurrent of passion.
Bearing testimony, she seems to suggest, is the poet’s fate:
I’ll tell you
what I meant to be-
a device that listened…
Not inert. Still.
A piece of wood. A stone.
I was born to a vocation
to bear witness
to the great mysteries.
The poet has stated in essays that she often writes poems backward: she begins with the abstract insight or illumination that she wants to demonstrate and then tries to find a real-life example to relate it to. She often turns away from the very specific and concrete – this is not the poetry of rich detail, allowing you to feel textures, colours, tastes – but a poetry of the abstract, the universal.
Does it matter where the birds go? Does it even matter what species they are?
They leave here, that’s the point,
first their bodies, then their sad cries.
And from that moment cease to exist for us.
You must learn to think of our passion that way.
Each kiss was real, then
each kiss left the face of the earth.
She has a wonderful way of blending the personal with the myths of the Ancient World, especially in the two collections which are of most bleak comfort to someone going through a divorce: Meadowlands and Vita Nova. Yet, in an interview, she takes issue with being called ‘grim’ or ‘bleak’.
Unless it is grim to write a poetry that does not soothe or placate or encourage (except in the sense that it might, if it worked, dignify a certain kind of struggle). Or grim to write without a taste for noble thought or moral heroism. Perception seems to me in its very essence not grim: it tacitly believes meaning exists, that experience has complexity and weight, that accuracy is of the most immense importance.
The sustained blessing of my life has been the weird conviction that certain kinds of distilled utterance have unique, timeless, unquestioned value. This conviction confers meaning on experience.
I’ll close with fragments from one of my favourite poems: The Untrustworthy Speaker. Notice the cool detachment of her spin on confessional poetry (if you can bear to use that word).
Don’t listen to me; my heart’s been broken. I don’t see anything objectively. I know myself; I’ve learned to hear like a psychiatrist. When I speak passionately, that’s when I’m least to be trusted. In my own mind, I’m invisible: that’s why I’m dangerous. People like me, who seem selfless, we’re the cripples, the liars; we’re the ones who should be factored out in the interest of truth. When I’m quiet, that’s when the truth emerges. That’s why I’m not to be trusted. Because a wound to the heart is also a wound to the mind.
This April the Queen Elizabeth Hall and Purcell Room on the South Bank reopened at last after extensive renovations.
I arrived there early, after a lovely lunch and chat with a writer friend, Carmen Bugan, who was over from the US for a series of readings and lectures in Oxford and Liverpool. To my delight, in the foyer I got to tap along to school jazz bands taking part in a national competition.
As part of these celebrations there was a rather fantastic poetry reading: ten poets reading fifty poems offering a picture of roughly 50 years of life in Britain since the original opening of the music and poetry venue in 1967. Over the years poets such as Allen Ginsberg, Seamus Heaney, Anne Sexton, Anne Carson, Sharon Olds and many others have read in this building. And now it was the turn of established poets such as Fleur Adcock (who has translated a lot of poetry from Romanian, so a big thank you to her), Simon Armitage, Malika Booker, Imtiaz Dharker, Lavinia Greenlaw, Peter Finch, as well as relative youngsters, Jay Bernard and Caleb Femi, whose mellifluous readings belied their hard-hitting words and topics. Additional delight: Welsh poet Ifor ap Glyn and Sudanese poet Al-Saddiq Al-Raddi reading in their original languages (with translations being projected on the screen behind them).
The poems were mostly on the lighter and more colourful side of the spectrum, capturing certain moments in time (Imtiaz Dharker – ‘1977 (I am quite sure of this’ or Caleb Femi’s ‘Man of the People: Labour 1997 & 2017’) or the colours, sounds and smells of a particular place (Malika Booker’s ‘Brixton Market’ or Peter Finch’s ‘Spending Money in Soviet Russia’, Fleur Adcock’s ‘Summer in Bucharest’). Best of all, I liked seeing the joy in the other poets’ faces when one of them recited a particularly good verse or finish a challenging poem. Love of words bound all of us and a representation of the multicultural Britain I always admired and believed in.
Of course, I forgot to take a picture of the actual poets at the end, bowing. I was far too busy clapping!
Shameful to admit, but I have to do it: although I read a lot of poetry, I seldom review it on my blog. Why is that? Because I often read 1-2 poems here, 2-3 there, without a methodical approach. If I do read a whole collection by a single author or an anthology by multiple poets, I do it over a longer period of time (because I need to reread and think about it) and forget to add it to Goodreads. Besides, reviewing an entire collection is much harder than looking at a single poem. So many different themes, styles, details to consider!
So I apologise for being remiss about reviewing what is probably even more important to me than crime fiction and literature in translation. I intend to do a lot better in the coming year. Meanwhile, here are some poets I discovered or rediscovered this year, with a short quote which will hopefully intrigue you enough to want to explore them in more detail.
Rebecca Goss: Her Birth
Very moving collection of poems portraying the birth, short life, death and aftermath of the poet’s daughter Ella, who was born with a rare and incurable heart condition.
Assure me I will be ripe
and stretching, my belly full
but still have space
for her first days, last days.
Assure me I will keep her toes
accurate as maths, her smell
precise, her voice heard above the birds.
Assure me that I will not howl her name
during birth, that I will place
newborn fingers in my mouth,
taste only newness.
Then, I will consider another.
Polly Atkin: Basic Nest Architecture
Beautifully observed details of nature, parallels drawn to human life, and to those concepts of home, belonging, nesting, which have always preoccupied me.
I am not a tree, my roots
blanketed by rock, my roots tunnelled under
the weight of the lake bed, my roots knotted rock
in the puzzle of a dry stone wall. Unthink
that sinking. Unthink that tether. Take
this light – that sweet, that loving yellow,
the mist erasing the horizon as though
there is nothing beyond the lip of the valley,
its kiss – could anyone turn from it now?
Gillian Allnutt: Blackthorn
Feminist Christian poetry might seem like an unexpected combination, but wonderful in Allnutt’s capable hands.
My father came home from the burning of Belsen
with bits of it under his skin and the bowl of his heart in his hands
that would never be the same again, not ever his own again.
Because of that burning down.
And, in his pocket, proudly, the souvenir spoon.
Of light tin, slowly, the bowl of it has worn down.
Barely is it a spoon.
The best of my life has been stirring the Bisto in.
And was Jerusalem.
Of my father in me there has been no burning down.
Andrew McMillan: Physical
Both lustful and tender, a paean to physical love in all its vulnerability, simplicity and complexity.
I had forgotten that loving could feel so calming
telling you that your body was beautiful sighing out
the brittle disappointments from the bones
having no judgement of what the body
may want to be doing where the breath may fall
My father had four children
and three sugars in his coffee
and every birthday he bought me
a dictionary which got thicker
and thicker and because his word
is not dead, I carry it like sugar
on a silver spoon
up the Mobay hills in Jamaica […]
I looked at my hand
holding this ivory knife
and thought about how hard it was
to accept my father
for who he was
and where he came from
how easy it is now to spill
sugar on the table before
it is poured into my cup.
Immanuel Mifsud (from a collection of Poems from Malta)
Go, my son, follow your open eyes.
Go seek that country you’ll never find.
Go unite shores, parted by vast expanses of water.
You’ll go on walking hurt, wounded by love,
and many will seduce you but none will love you […]
Because you’re nothing but a whiff of sad wind;
You only need to spread your arms out,
Open your eyes wide, take a breath… and fly.
Deryn Rees-Jones: Burying the Wren
These poems spoke to me a lot this year: about trying to escape the confines – and seduction – of grief, about finding joy in small things.
It was the only blessing that I asked you for,
of leaving me unnoticed –
like the earth might tree seeds or a rouged leaf
in its fall.
Instead, you give me nothing,
catch me inside your coat
to see if you can catch my breath,
It’s National Poetry Day today and unfortunately I will not have the time to go to either the Poetry Library or the Poetry Cafe. But I wanted to do a quick poll to see who your favourite poets are – if you like poetry at all…
I have far too many favourites, old and new, but my way into poetry is very conventional indeed.
I loved learning poems by heart and reciting them and my first such ‘show’ was Hilaire Belloc’s ‘Matilda told such frightful lies, it made one gasp and stretch one’s eyes’. Then I went through the obligatory Edward Lear, Lewis Carroll, Roald Dahl and ee cummings (‘anyone lived in a pretty how town…’). I can still recite many of those childhood favourites from memory. And, for some reason, I still remember huge chunks of ‘The Lady of Shalott’ by Tennyson.
Then I discovered the French and German poets (initially somewhat reluctantly, at school): Paul Eluard ‘J’écris ton nom. Liberté.’, Hälfte des Lebens by Hölderlin, Schiller, which led to adolescent exploration and obsession (with Rimbaud and Baudelaire and other bad boys…). In Romania we had to analyse in minute detail the poems of Eminescu, which perhaps led to my feeling I had overdosed on him, especially his epic historical poems, but when I fell in love I could not get enough of the romantic and melodious enchantment of Blaga, Labiș, Nichita Stănescu.
And then I was hooked. But it was the fun children’s poetry which paved the way to John Donne, T. S. Eliot, Rilke, Paul Celan, Emily Dickinson, Sylvia Plath, Marina Tsvetaeva, Louise Labé and so many more.
I still love reading poetry out loud for the sheer delight of the sound of it, the way it feels in my mouth. I love listening to it, even when I don’t understand the language. It paints pictures in my head.
Sadly, I have lost my ability to instantly remember any poem I hear a couple of times…
So tell me how you discovered poetry? Did you have to learn poems by heart and recite them at school? Did you have to over-analyse them at school, which destroyed any feeling you might have had for them?
After recent events in America, I felt I needed the comfort of some thoughtful women poets, who can uplift and inspire us with their words and their lives.
Maxine Kumin: Jack and Other New Poems
Maxine Kumin has been one of my heroines from way back, when I wrote poetry the first time round, in high school. Her trademark close observation of nature life is often humorous, with just a tinge of fear and wonder at the power of nature, its bounty but also its indifference. She has sometimes been described as a ‘regional pastoral poet’, but her themes seem universal to me, although they often start from personal experiences of farming life. The poem ‘7 Caveats in May’, for instance, describes her dog chasing a bear up a tree and no patrol car being available to help, so she has to ask her neighbour to poke the bear to come down (without tearing apart the dog). The cheeky redpoll birds are described as ‘highwaymen’, intimidating ‘your year-round faithfuls away from the feeder’, yet Kumin notes with tenderness how charming they are ‘in their little red yarmulkas’.
Of course, nature always leads humans to awareness of their own mortality, especially when beloved animals (horses and dogs) die, yet leave their ghostly imprint upon us. The almost unbearable pain of farewell from her beloved old mare Broody, who had a good life, yet the indignity which follows death is always present, no matter how quiet and gentle the passing away itself is.
If only death could be
like going to the movies.
You get up afterward
and go out
saying, how was it?
Tell me, tell me, how was it?
Kumin must have been a delightful person to know, her poems often feel like a personal conversation, with brilliant moments of insight, yet always elegant, restrained, making you work to understand what lies below the carefully constructed and balanced surface. Yet there are personal touches too, like this charming reference to her fellow poet Stanley Kunitz:
Luck of the alphabet,
since 1961 we’ve leaned
against each other, spine
on spine, positioned thus.
Upright or slant, long may we stand
on shelves dusted or not
to be taken up by hands
that cherish us.
Of course, this being Kumin, firebrand and feminist, the poems are not just inward-looking, but expertly mix the lyrical with the political. Particularly striking is the poem ‘Women and Horses’, which asks how poetry and beauty is still possible after the experiences of Auschwitz, Vietnam, Korea, Somalia, Haiti, Afghanistan, after the Towers’ (you can imagine which twin towers this refers to). It is an exhortation that the only way forward is to allow freedom and beauty rather than seek to constrain life, even if the result is messy.
Let there be fat old ladies in flowery tent dresses at bridge tables. Howling babies in dirty diapers and babies serenely at rest. War and détente will go on, détente and renewed tearings asunder, we can never break free from the dark and degrading past. Let us see life again, nevertheless, in the words of Isaac Babel as a meadow over which women and horses wander.
Cecilia Woloch: Carpathia
I’d never heard of Cecilia Woloch before but the title of this collection appealed to me, since a good part of the Carpathian mountains are in Romania. However, it turns out that the poet is referring to the Polish portion of the Carpathians, which is where her family originally came from. She instantly appealed to me, with her nomadic lifestyle and her poetry outreach work in prisons and schools, as well as collaborations with visual artists and theatres.
Growing up in rural Kentucky as one of seven children, she pens a beautifully tender ode to her parents, the love they have for each other and their family, entitled ‘Why I Believed, as a Child, That People Had Sex in Bathrooms’. Here she is on You Tube performing it.
Poets always seem to find it easier to write about sad things and troubled times, but Woloch has the knack of happiness. She captures perfectly the dizzying moments of falling in love, with the breathless listing of key moments, the repetitions, the simplicity of language:
And hadn’t you kissed the rain from my mouth?
And weren’t we gentle and awed and afraid,
knowing we’d stepped from the room of desire
into the further room of love?…
And were we not lovely, then, were we not
as lovely as thunder, and damp grass, and flame?
Her poems evoke a special kind of tenderness, a profound understanding of the less than perfect situations or humans. In the tour de force of a poem which is the pantoum Le Jardin d’Isabelle, she describes a woman being invited to the home of her lover and his wife. This is a love triangle without rancour or bitterness, although it addresses the shattering of illusions. But the language conveys so much richness, flowing, shimmering brightness, that it feels ultimately uplifting.
Sharon Olds: The Wellspring
I’ve admired Sharon Olds since I discovered her when she won the TS Eliot Prize (the first American to do so) for her collection ‘Stag’s Leap’, which described her abandonment and the breakdown of her marriage. There is nothing she does not address fearlessly and in a very feminine way (strong, feisty feminine way) in her poetry – family, politics, inner life, but I’d never read a whole collection by her. As the name indicates, ‘The Wellspring’ is about the female experience in its entirety: from the mother’s womb, to childhood and sexual awakening, to motherhood and learning to let go, to mature love. It’s full on instantly recognisable moments too, yet always with a surprise twist: a father smiling triumphantly at a daughter who comes last in a swimming race ‘almost without meanness’; the bonding between brother and sister both wearing braces, like a tribe sharing a sibilant language with its ‘orthodontial lisp’; love-making in narrow beds in college.
It’s a very sensual description of the body and emotions – fully-charged eroticism counterpointed with tenderness, humour and wonder at the miracle of giving birth to something so profoundly other. This is poetry which speaks directly to the emotions rather than being a tricky intellectual puzzle, which is exactly what the poet intended. I particularly liked the bittersweet feeling of no longer being needed, so eloquently described in the poem about the smashing (mercy killing) of the cow butter-dish, marking the end of motherhood.
Some critics have complained that her poetry is too accessible (while others usually complain that poetry has become too difficult and unappealing), but I think she is popular without becoming populist, and has the perfect balance between the personal and the universal. Many of her poems start off with a funny moment and then rapidly change into something far more serious and poignant, with a real wind of loneliness blowing through it, as in her poem ‘Forty-One, Alone, No Gerbil’. I’ll have to share it with you in its entirety, as it would be a shame to cut off any part of it.
In the strange quiet, I realize
there’s no on else in the house. No bucktooth
mouth pulls at stainless-steel teat, no
hairy mammal runs on a treadmill–
Charlie is dead, the last of our children’s half-children.
When our daughter found him lying in the shavings, trans-
mogrified backwards from a living body
into a bolt of rodent bread
she turned her back on early motherhood
and went on single, with nothing. Crackers,
Fluffy, Pretzel, Biscuit, Charlie,
buried on the old farm we bought
where she could know nature. Well, now she knows it
and it sucks. Creatures she loved, mobile and
needy, have gone down stiff and indifferent,
she will not adopt again though she cannot
have children yet, her body like a blueprint
of the understructure for a woman’s body,
so now everything stops for a while,
now I must wait many years
to hear in this house again the faint
powerful calls of a young animal.
Sharon Olds seems to be getting more and more honest and uncompromising in her examination of the female body and ageing, according to the critics, in her latest book ‘Odes’. I feel myself attracted to it already…
After a short summer break, the dVerse Poets Pub reopens its doors and celebrates its third anniversary. This is no small matter in a world where blogs come and go at lightning speed, especially community-based blogs, where we share our poetic thoughts and feel free to experiment. The poem below is based on Catullus and his famous Ode to Lesbia, and it’s dedicated to all of the talented poets (and moments of fun and serious talk) that we’ve had here at the Pub.
Let’s live and love then, my dear friends,
another glass of champagne? …don’t mind if I do..
and give old naggers’ disapproving frowns short shrift.
The sun rises and sets on repeat.
[Over and over and over and over…
//the joy of repetition really is in you.]
But we? Once our sun’s snuffed out, it’s the graveyard shift.
So cover me in poems, a thousand,
then a hundred more, then let’s start over again.
Oh… is that taking it too far? / No, wait!// Don’t turn away…
A million poems later, let’s fudge the score
so no cold calculating eye can quell our enthusiasm!
Tomorrow evening I will be presenting something in front of a roomful of people, most of whom I’ve never met before. ‘So what?’ I hear you say. ‘That has been your job (in various incarnations) for a while now.’ True enough: I’ve been a teacher, a lecturer, trainer/facilitator and what is laughingly known as a ‘headliner’. I’ve even been an enthusiastic participant in amateur dramatics – as if you can’t tell!
So what is different this time?
Well, this time I won’t be reading somebody else’s words. I won’t be presenting general knowledge or sticking to the tried-and-tested pedagogical methods. This time I will be reading my own contribution to Offshoots 12, the annual publication of Geneva Writers’ Group. It’s like cutting off small strips of your flesh and presenting them to the audience. I just hope none of them are cannibals.
So, of course, the question now is: what should I wear? In my corporate world, I have a ‘uniform’ – reasonably smart, modestly flattering, yet flexible enough for the temperature variations of training rooms and the mad dashes down airport corridors.
For poetry, however, something more free-flowing, more creative is required. Shall I go for the romantic look we tend to associate with poets (rightly or wrongly)? I cannot bear trailing scarves or opinion-piece jewellery. It’s not quite warm enough anymore for a strappy summer dress. The other major staple of my wardrobe (jeans and white shirts) is an over-done look for hip, happening SLAM poets and spoken word ambassadors. Besides, I’m neither hip nor happening (as you can tell from the fact that I am using these words, which are probably a couple of decades out of date).
So what do poets and writers more generally wear to readings? Any suggestions? Wikihow tells me (seriously, perhaps?) to either dress in existentialist black if I want to seem thoughtful, or in dramatic high boots if I want to be showy. Checking out videos of poetry readings, I notice that many have taken this advice to heart. Meantime, I’ve found some wise words here, but no matching, colourful clothes in my wardrobe.
Over at the dVerse Poets Pub, we are being encouraged to try out a different short verse form called cinquain. Here is my rushed attempt, but there are some far, far better ones out there, so be sure to visit thereand have fun reading them!