Last year I did a reading for Nottingham Poetry Festival in which I produced a small ‘polemical’ pamphlet called ‘Burning Books’.
The pamphlet was a one off and most of the poems after ‘outing’ in paper form were then hidden away as ‘too political’ for my readers by myself! I censored myself which crazy but shows the agonies of being in any way ‘political’ or writing from a stridently working-class viewpoint in the contemporary middle-class ring-fenced world of ‘proper poetry’.
It only now and post Kit de Waal’s article in the Guardian that I realise that in doing so I hiding from my true self.
So here again is the ‘real’ ‘Burning Books’ pre-edit and I stand by these poems…..a lot of pretentious middle-class ‘poets’ will hate it but frankly as I don’t spend much time listening to their whinging I don’t care. I will be ‘re-categorised’ as a ‘performance poet’ I expect and described as having a ‘chip on my shoulder’ which a frequent method of negating anything which threatens the middle class.
Since then I have noticed that academic poetry and performance poetry have started to separate in a alarming way. This is an outcome of a deliberately devisive education policy by government that increasingly appears to be a ‘pay to play’ approach to education.
If your parents invest a £100 k plus (BA+MA+PHD fees)you will one day get the payback of an academic career before 30 in return . An American privatised model.
These factors stopped me writing..I gave up..I felt nobody cared..that there was no audience for what I did..and I was right….the middle-class ‘proper poetry’ area isn’t interested in me..isn’t interested in the truth of working class lives and experience as a subject.
PN Review and others are not interested in working class experience one iota.
You want to play in the Premiere League magazines better hide all that personal shit and start writing about your foreign holidays, how difficult it is being a middle class person post Brexit or at worst make up shit about Impressionist painter’s wives you have no knowledge about but it feels authentic enough to your equally pretentious and middle-class readers sitting in their sun lounges drinking martinis to swallow.
Poetry for me has always been a means of articulating my anger at the class system in the U.K.
It has always been polemical even when it appears to be purely personal. As Raymond Williams wrote about the Romantics ‘the personal is political’.
So I have the impetus and hopefully in a few weeks a book to go with it…..I feel that inspired. I have been silenced for too long.
I am coming off the subs bench……I may not make the first team but I will put in some hefty tackles especially on Simon Armitage …the David Beckham of poetry;-)
I wrote this poem in 1995 and had omitted the key line about poets for fear of offending my father.
Now he has been gone 13 years so probably safe to reveal what the poem about.
After my father died in 2004 my mother confided to me that he had always ‘feared I was gay’ even when I spent seven years living with a Spanish woman…..such is the rural Oxfordshire psyche I suppose. Anyway here the finally rewritten (a couple of lines) poem about the trials of being a Berkshire Ruralist:-)
Wrestling with a young fir’s stubborn trunk
On an exposed north-facing hillside
Two weeks before Christmas, sleet, wind biting,
The spires of Oxford blurring in the storm
My father’s hands, hard, chapped, red-raw
Bend the tree over until the roots snap.
The red-faced farmer stands, biding his time
Then says ‘Poet is he.. they’re all gay or dead’
Silent we trudge back through rows of young firs
Past a tethered collie, collapsing tin sheds.
At the end of a gravel road worn to clay
We clamber inside my dad’s builder’s truck
In the cab, steamy with opened flasks
Radio Oxford blaring out the traffic report
He carefully shakes ice off his jacket
As I scrape frozen mud off my boots
Visiting for the day, not dressed for fields
My Levis are slaked with straw and muck.
He sets the windscreen wipers beating
And a ledge of ice builds up on the hood then melts.
Distances open up and close through low cloud
As cooling-tower steam collapses like a veil over our home-town
The Down-land swims like a saucer of cat’s milk in the rain
As I try and grip a hot mug of tea with cold hands.
Still silent my father sips his tea and stares
through the pine trees and away from the farm.
I feel awkward, pick at the flakes of ice on my sleeve
As the motor turns and we lurch down the track.
He has ten years more hard labour to do.
Excavating then replacing soil across this county.
I have ten years of unfulfilled promises and high hopes to go.
Before I crash back into these muddy fields and the land buries him.
Dedicated to Ivo Belcher 1932-2004 and the un-named Fat Farmer with the conservative views 🙂
Picked this up in a second hand shop recently. Was first edition (1962) of a book I had encountered in a travelling shelf of ‘American Poetry’ in my local Didcot library in 1981 when I had returned home after art college. It (in the flag cover version below) and a book of William Carlos Williams started me writing poetry. I had encountered Hughes and Heaney as contextual studies lectures at art college but these books started me writing.
I had always assumed that W.C.Williams in the book but I was mistaken it has Lowell and the full list below but NO WCW or Elliot or Frost because cut off is 20th century and all were born earlier. Lowell was born in 1917.
The second edition added a few new poets including Ginsberg and Plath as well as some now less well known people. There is an obvious male dominance..Levertov and Rich being notable exceptions but this is a product of the 1950s not today. For a lone art student at the time this was still a wonderful introduction to people like Creeley, Snyder, Ashbery, O’Hara, Merrill and Snodgrass…
Released into the wild today as a downloadable pdf. The first of an irregular series of pdf pamphlets released as and when i feel like it.
Basically a resume and calling card showing the fairly small output of the last 15 years and hopefully leading to more poems in the future. I have already started on a sequence for the ‘Backwater’ volume so thought I had better clear this one up for once and all.
Here the Bio blurb so you get the picture..all offers of Penury Fighting to me asap 🙂
The Drifting Village – Press blurb stuff…
Shaun Belcher was born Oxford, England in 1959 and brought up on a down-land farm before moving to the small town of Didcot, near Oxford, England in 1966. He studied fine art at Hornsey College of Art, London from 1979–81. He began writing poetry in the 1980s and has subsequently been published in a number of small magazines and a poem used at title of the Shore Poets Anthology ‘The Ice Horses’ (Scottish Cultural Press 1996). A selection of poems was published as ‘Last Farmer’ in the Salt Modern Voices Series in 2010.
He now lives in Nottingham, England after two years in Edinburgh studying folk culture and several years in the city of expiring dreams otherwise known as Oxford.
He is currently working on a new volume of poems as part of a multidisciplinary art project called ‘Backwater’.
He has been involved in various literary projects including delivering creative writing workshops in Nottingham prison for the ‘Inside Out’ project and is a member of Nottingham Writer’s Studio.
After several years as an academic art lecturer he has returned to writing alongside his other artistic practices as this the fastest way to achieve total penury he knows.
I took on this present nine month career break (ends Friday) in order to confront some ideas I had about myself. Number one was that I was a poet. Correct only in terms of the statement ‘I was’. However, despite the RIBA Edwin Smith commission, I am no nearer resurrecting that particular career than I was last September. In fact I probably further away than ever. At least I know why now.
An M.A. was not the answer and after much soul-searching I have come to the uncomfortable conclusion that the reason is very much about who I was twenty years ago at the height of my written output and also what kind of a country I lived in. I started publishing poetry in 1992 and soon after in 1994 moved to Edinburgh. I had always taken a fairly political stance and my attitude matched in well with the proto-nationalist people I encountered in both Glasgow and Edinburgh. My strongest memory is of reading at a poetry event in Glasgow run by a Communist Pablo Neruda society and being booed when I mentioned I came from Oxford ( following an arse called Rupert who did a poem about the Royal Family I kid you not..maybe a satirist?). I lost my rag and told them there were two Oxfords the one they imagined and the one I lived in full of very poor ex-agricultural families herded into crumbling council estates. I ended up getting a ovation….especially when I read poems like ‘Severed Tongue’.
I and the audience were on the same wavelength.
I have ‘never’ felt that since. Leaving Scotland in Summer 1996 (because I simply could not get more than a few weeks temp work in banks) reluctantly myself and my Spanish partner at the time got the bus back south. There was also a good deal of Anti-English racism – I personally was shouted at in a bank canteen by a young man who told me to fuck off back to my ‘own country’. This racism did not come from nowhere however – most of the bank exploitation I temping in was done by ‘weekending’ rich Oxbridge types who saw managing Scots people like shooting grouse..a sport…hardly surprising the backlash hit those worse off than the worst off..
I also met some of the most inspiring writers I have ever met and walked some of the most inspirational landscapes. After living in Nottingham for 13 years I can honestly say that neither of those things have happened to me here. My writing career stayed in Scotland. It staggered on in Oxford but the sheer class-divide and absolute neglect of what I doing took its toll and it died in a Bear Pit in 1999. This came home to roost when watching the video I made for TV of ‘The Bear Pit’ from 1999 which in post below.
It wasn’t only the blood of bears that leaking into the Oxfordshire grass and clay it was my life as a writer…That poem was part of the final coherent sequence I wrote called ‘Skeleton at the Plough’ after a Roy Palmer folk book ‘The Painful Plough’ (see cover above’).
I have not posted in this writing blog for a while due to a full-time commitment to painting in preparation for the Lady Bay Arts show in West Bridgford on the weekend of 16th and 17th May.
The actual physical act of painting has made me look at my writing ‘block’ in a different way and also with the benefit of hindsight my writing ‘career’ post M.A. in Creative Writing. ‘Doing’ rather than ‘thinking about doing’ which my writing has been sabotaged by has become a useful tool. I painting again because ignoring theory and influences and simply engaging directly in practice as Picasso says:
“I am always doing that which I can not do, in order that I may learn how to do it.”
I am only able to paint like I am now because of time off on career break and I made the right decision in leaving writing behind for a while. At this point in my life and with seven years teaching in an art school and an MA in Fine Art recently completed my head was always in a ‘art’ place. Trying to drop all that and go down a writing MA route was a mistake but one I had to make to lay at least two ghosts.
1. My possible grandfather. If nothing else the MA course laid to rest that particular ghost. I feel free of that burden now. Having ‘revealed’ it I actually made it less not more important.
2. I have to ‘do’ a MA in Creative Writing to be a writer…complete tosh but sadly a attitude that all to prevalent in this city. I have met many people claiming to be writers with MAs and many without. In both cases I’d say about 10% are actually writers….about same quota goes for the rest of the arts. Postgraduate arts academic qualifications are mostly for people who want to impress their friends and a small percentage of students who want to work in academia.
So post ‘academic writing’ which is I reckon totally shot now what shall I do…
Good question I no idea…answers on a postcard please.
The only thing for certain is I will want to do it… if and when it starts again.
It could be songwriting, poetry…historical research..or music reviewing again which I always enjoyed.
As they say watch this space..literally all writing news will be posted here.
As Harland Howard said when songs rejected for the umpteenth time..
‘Always smile, shake their hands and walk away’…..:-)
The photo above shows in their entirety the new poetry books I have aquired since the defining moment of the Salt pamphlet ‘Last Farmer’ in December 2010. The only other books missing are the Helen Mort Wordsworth trust pamphlet and my fellow Salt Modern Voices. I have separated them as I regard December 2010 as a break point between what I have done and what I might one day do. There is no specific intent in their collection. Indeed many are personal connections e.g. Rosie I have worked with and Tony Curtis I liaised with over a Ray Howard-Jones exhibition. Martin Malone I helped with web stuff on Interpreter’s House which I used to help run the web side of. Alan Baker is someone I got to know through the web but not met in person yet despite sharing this city:-)
December 2010 I was 51 years old and had stopped publishing in magazines (not through any great plan) around 1999 which about the same time the well of words dried up. There was a brief ‘dead cat bounce’ in 2006-7 when this blog originally started. Wayne Burrows selected three poems from those written then for an East Midlands issue of Staple and I was briefly an original member of the Nottingham Writer’s Studio.
From 2008 until September 2014 I neither read, thought about or had any contact with poets or poetry apart from the Salt Publication and subsequent Salt Modern Voices TOUR in 2011. This felt like a dead poet reading as I read some poems that over 20 years old! I was also dealing with my mother’s serious illness so my thoughts not really on the task at hand.
This was of course the perfect preparation for an M.A. in Creative Writing! In fact signing on to the course was a deliberate act of forcing myself to see what left in the tank..if anything and in that it was entirely successful. I had stopped serious painting years ago and had stopped writing but somehow I still believed I was a functioning poet and painter…I have smashed that idea once and for all now.
I thought I could pick up the past but the past didn’t agree. In fact when it came to writing an influences essay I floundered then I quit. I wrote the Edwin Smith commission poem during that first term with absolutely no influences at all. This is apparently not possible according to Creative Writing wisdom. Whatever influences can be detected are so buried even I was not aware of them!
So as I wrote in the previous post I raking over the ashes to see what might be left and what I might be doing in the future. I am sure that whatever I might do from now on is going to have be starting from scratch. If nothing else the career break has done its job…given me time to sort this out…no more delusions.This has led to some soul-searching and some interesting insights. Apologies for the naval-gazing but after all isn’t that what most poetry is these days?
NEW HORIZONS…..can the Dead cat be revived?
I have come to a couple of interesting conclusions and this goes hand in hand with my fine art painting career (non-career). When I seriously donned the ‘poet’ cap back in the early 1990’s I was heavily influenced by Raymond Carver and Simon Armitage and determined to produce a ‘democratic muse’ i.e. a poetry of simple expressions and familial history that anyone in my extended family back in Oxfordshire could read and by extension anybody could read. I held firmly to this through my extended stay in Edinburgh and some of that attitude I found mirrored in some contemporary Scottish poetry. I was heavily influenced whilst there by Stewart Conn, William Neill and Norman McCaig. Indeed I met and corresponded with the first two on a regular basis. Left-wing, working-class and place-centred it all fitted and was reinforced by a series of night-classes with Murdo MacDonald and Craig Cairns I attended at Edinburgh University. I felt part of the Scottish scene and felt supported as a poet in a way I have never felt since in Oxford or Nottingham. I think this is because I am a ‘class-based’ poet and that doesn’t go down well with certain elements in England. I am talking about the Oxbridge stranglehold on literary life that leads many to affect pseudo middle-class characteristics in both speech and thought. I ain’t like that my duck.
I also steered heavily towards figuration in my artworks from the mid 1980’s onwards too as the reality of grinding poverty hit home. The irony is that democratic poems and figurative art got me nowhere so I might as well have been an iconoclastic avant-guardist for all the good it did me. Which brings me to the point of this short essay.
My first encounter with poetry was American and Objectivist….through William Carlos Williams I discovered Tomlinson and Bunting and Pound. One of my favourite critics (still is) was Eric Mottram and I lapped up his conversations with Tomlinson. A very modernist and international outlook at a young age. The collected poems ‘Diesel on Gravel’ which collates the first ten years I re-read last night and it starts in an experimental WCW / Imagist / Pasternak vein and slowly adopts traditional forms before crashing through the Carver plain-speaking barrier around 1986. Then in the nineties I became more and more conservative to the point where Simon Smith accused me of being on an entirely different bus to himself.
I realise now that this went hand in hand with a lack of persistence in abstract painting too and a steer toward the graphic and familiar.
I am now at a point in my life where I can once more steer back into uncharted waters so to speak. I long ago gave up thinking that my art would make me a living which the most sensible thing I said since I walked away from my dad’s shovel. I can earn livings elsewhere like many a modernist.
So the image above is curious. I need to move forwards but not as randomly as above. I am beginning to sniff out a route. Alan Baker and Paul Sutton fit into a political/modernist/post-modernist area I interested in..a post OTHER anthology kind of sea Andrew Taylor also swims in.
Matt Merritt I found fascinating because he not embedded in academia. He also referred to Tomas Transformer who I hadn’t thought about since Edinburgh. I was heavily influenced by Robin Fulton and he had deep Scandinavian connections. These are the horizons I lost in Oxford. I ignored poetry and poetry ignored me in Oxford because it was locked behind steel wire and bricks. I once conned my way into a Les Murray reading inside a University building but I was treated like dog-mess on the pristine undergrad’s shoes. Being a University employee was to be a minion and one was always kept in one’s place…..always second in line basically.
Here are two of Fulton’s books and the Bloodaxe Transtromer collected collection translated by Fulton from 1987. I also include Nicholson’s majestic ‘Poem, Purpose and Place’ from my Scottish days too:-)
Now I have always had a problem with being a ‘poet’.
I come from a straightforward working class council estate background and the only thing worse than being a poet there was becoming a ‘fine artist’ so I killed two birds in one bush there then with my double non-career. I remember digging up a Xmas Tree with my dad in my 30s and a farmer asked my dad what I did to which he replied ‘artist’. The farmer replied ‘Oh Aye they’re all dead or gay aren’t they’ which just about sums it all up….my dad said nowt….just dug up the tree.
So forgetting that I wasn’ t meant to be a poet but a bricklayer (my dad never got over that) I was introduced to poetry at my fine art course under ‘complementary studies’ and bought my first poetry books (Heaney and Hughes Faber paperbacks). I even witnessed a living poet when Adrian Henri came to give a talk, which was unforgettable, as we decamped from Alexandra Palace art school to the park outside and much wine was drunk.
A seed had been planted and suffering from London withdrawal symptoms and no job in 1982 I was back home and visited my local library. I came across the Donald Hall American Poetry anthology and another book with William Carlos Williams in and that was that I was hooked. What is more with no money and no studio making art was far away and here was something I could ‘have a go at’ with a pencil.
I then wrote poetry off and on until 2000 (most intensely in the years with no art studio) and then again briefly in 2006-7 which was the three poems published in Staple. However having finally put my art archive online I have realised that, a bit like songwriting, poetry filled in a gap when I not creating art which from Foundation Course in 1977 onwards until 1990 had been my main focus.
Which brings me to now and all that happened since last September. The coincidence of my first ever paid poetry commission and starting the Creative Writing M.A. was dysfunctionally apt….I immediately concentrated on the commission and I think did quite well in fulfilling that brief and promptly screwed up the M.A.
Well I say screwed up , other parties gave me a more than helping hand (not at Clifton nor anything to do with CW I may add) which may come out in due course depending on the probability of a lawsuit ensuing.
So here I am 56 years old. One small pamphlet to my name through Salt and wondering whether to carry on writing poetry. A strange place to be. I am doing the right things. Attending the writer’s studio poetry monthly session, Stanza meetings (last one excellent) and seeing live poets at Jazz and Poetry (D.A.Prince and Tony Roberts both excellent) and Totally Wired evenings (more for the student crowd but equally good readers).
But…….my mind at the moment firmly fixed on painting again for the first time in a very long time. What is more one of the reasons I gave up on CW M.A. was the feeling that the time off until June should be used in my studio whilst I have one. Too many times in my life I have not had the space to work in as a fine artist. For once I have chosen to use it whilst it there. Then the same day as I start drawing I write a poem….DOH. Not a poem in the way I have written before and whatever poetry I might write in the future will not be like the past.
The poet I was is buried along with the Salt pamphlet in my mother’s grave. I cannot go back. I cannot write like that any more.
The times they have changed. Whatever comes next is starting in the Iggy Pop poem below. I no idea if it will last this time. Maybe all along it was just a substitute for another art form..we’ll see 🙂
The images just a bit of my inner Mod coming out 😉
Too much thinking fucks you up
Too much time slips through the cracks
Worrying about the rain, the funerals
The way the poplar trees creak in the wind
And all along the drip of ice melting off
The corrugated asbestos roof a metronome
The beat of a disillusioned parade
Spinning through a muddied field outside Berlin
The piano disintegrating under the 400 blows
Of a clown and Judy Garland’s axes
Through the wires and chords
The splinters of a life fading away
I was 17, Lust for Life, in a rack at Woolworth
I bought it although it was so warped it didn’t play
Spinning on a tweed covered second-hand record player
Hidden inside a wooden sideboard it rattled the china
The Passenger woozy and stumbling into a Motown beat
The future on a plate, disintegrating in the shooting match.
Finally like a chord wrenched from a broken piano a new poem. I think. I not sure any more if I actually am a poet. Whether poetry even worth writing in the U.K. at this time as it seems to me to have become a sport for the white middle-classes and to be slowly suffocating in academic rules and careerism. I always felt distanced from anything remotely resembling a British novelist scene. That to me was pure drawing-room from the get go with a few notable exceptions e.g. Ballard, Sinclair etc but most of what I see paraded in Waterstones fiction section I’d rather see pulped to be honest. Apart from helping second-incomers pay off their mortgages or buy a nice cottage in Cornwall I don’t see the point. Now poetry has gone the same way…
The poetry I felt part of has disappeared under the weight of participants..many good and talented ..but for me hugely boring. I felt attracted to iconoclasts and outsiders…politically motivated poets of region. I don’t see that any more in fact I see careerist tick-boxing on a scale that would make a fine-artist with a wad of ACE forms blush…..so what has happened…is it the internet? The everybody can do it mentality when patently most cannot..sorry that not CW PC speak but I don’t buy into the revise enough times you will get it right school. In fact I increasingly believe in less revision is better.
I may be wrong but if so why do I feel so miserable whenever I see yet another worthy but dull white middle-class poet read?
As a counter-blast here a poem about smashing pianos and other things….
First version hand-written in one go whilst listening to music. Second as written directly to facebook ( a well known literary outlet) and finally posted here and removed from facebook.
Not the way you told to do it in a CW class maybe ..well fuck it it’s the only way I can write. It may be rubbish who knows. It’s this or nothing…and I mean nothing…I that far away from writing right now.
Smashing Pianos is how I feel.
In fact looking at the poem again ( It was deliberately written in a semi-trance whilst thinking about other things to try and unlock something other than bland formal concision). I realise it all about the sentiments above.
It is about the futility of being a ‘working-class’ poet in a middle-class scene. A real working-class council-estate chavvy poet. The kind of poet some younger middle-class poets have been attacking lately for ‘parading’ their working-classness for fuck’s sake as part of the attacks on David Harsent and Simon Armitage. Yes being brought up poor is now a stigma in poetry circles…..that subject is no longer required..in fact we have all moved on..gender politics, feminism, animal liberation they fine ..but male, left-wing class-based politics that not allowed any more…it so 2oth century darling.
That’s fine if we in turn are allowed to point out the dire middle-classness of poems about Daddy’s Bermudan holiday or how wonderful France is…or is that somehow OK? Is it also a fact that a majority of white middle class poets under 30 choose poetry as a life vocation or profession, a bit like being an architect, and can only afford to study and crawl up the academic league ladder of riches and fame because of money made from Thatcher’s Britain?Is part of being a citizen of Cameron’s state being allowed to say what one likes if one has money only?
Julie Walters said recently that there would be no working class RADA actors soon…the same applies to all the visual arts and poetry too. The marginal and the poor are being squeezed to the edge of everything…taking away a voice is the first step in eradicating a ‘problem’…….ask Tony Harrison..he quoted Arthur Scargill’s father in ‘The School of Eloquence’ from V…..nothing changed but the hands on the dictionary….
The epigraph to Tony Harrison’s long poem v. is a quote from Arthur Scargill, the miners’ leader:
‘My father still reads the dictionary every day. He says your life depends on your power to master words.’
For a poetry workshop tonight I have selected four poems from across ‘Rhymin Simon’s’ illustrious career to see if Stannard was just a sour-puss and lo and behold this is what I found.
THE TYRE (from Cloudcookooland 1997)
A poem from his middle period I guess. Displays the usual ‘prosaic’ subject matter in first stanza, skips to ‘what might happen’ in stanza 2 and then drifts off into transcendental hogwash in the third stanza although I am sure there are readers who find it sublime. I don’t.
In fact I find the whole thing confected and unbelievable. He has obviously never done a labouring job or worked on a farm because his ‘tyre’ is made up. No farmer would leave an expensive bit of kit like that lying around and secondly it would if containing water be too heavy to lift. Anybody who close to the land would know that. Further there is no ‘real’ location nor identifiable others..in other words it fiction.
No this is a typical Armitage confection. Take an object and build a’narrative’ around it (like the penny.etc etc). This fitted in well with the Glyn Maxwell school of narrative poems that Poetry Review editor Peter Forbes (New Generation maestro and who put them both on the cover -see above) was engineering. Back in the late 1980s he came to a workshop I attended in Islington raving about Maxwell, himself and Byron as all parts of the new longer poem movement…Armitage fitted in well and indeed pretended to be Auden to Maxwell’s Isherwood.
Now this is where things get interesting. If one takes the poem and simply let the sense determine line-break we find a far shorter and far more conventional poem ‘chopped’ into a longer form. Stannard is spot on Armitage is obsessively iambic and 10 syllable to line then plods duly on. Here the original and my edited version.
Just how it came to rest where it rested,
miles out, miles from the last farmhouse even,
was a fair question. Dropped by hurricane
or aeroplane perhaps for some reason,
put down as a cairn or marker, then lost.
Tractor-size, six or seven feet across,
it was sloughed, unconscious, warm to the touch,
its gashed, rhinoceros, sea-lion skin
nursing a gallon of rain in its gut.
Lashed to the planet with grasses and roots,
it had to be cut. Stood up it was drunk
or slugged, wanted nothing more than to slump,
to spiral back to its circle of sleep,
dream another year in its nest of peat.
We bullied it over the moor, drove it,
pushed from the back or turned it from the side,
unspooling a thread in the shape and form
of its tread, in its length, and in its line,
rolled its weight through broken walls, felt the shock
when it met with stones, guided its sleepwalk
down to meadows, fields, onto level ground.
There and then we were one connected thing,
five of us, all hands steering a tall ship
or one hand fingering a coin or ring.
Just how it came to rest where it rested, miles out, miles from the last farmhouse even,
was a fair question. Dropped by hurricane or aeroplane perhaps for some reason,
put down as a cairn or marker, then lost. Tractor-size, six or seven feet across,
it was sloughed, unconscious, warm to the touch,
its gashed, rhinoceros, sea-lion skin nursing a gallon of rain in its gut.
Lashed to the planet with grasses and roots, it had to be cut. Stood up it was drunk
or slugged, wanted nothing more than to slump, to spiral back to its circle of sleep,
dream another year in its nest of peat.
We bullied it over the moor, drove it, pushed from the back or turned it from the side,
unspooling a thread in the shape and form of its tread, in its length, and in its line,
rolled its weight through broken walls, felt the shock when it met with stones, guided its sleepwalk down to meadows, fields, onto level ground. There and then we were one connected thing,
five of us, all hands steering a tall ship or one hand fingering a coin or ring.
It is a very dull iambic pentameter with very basic rhymes nothing more…and I think he got it from Auden…..it is ‘As I walked out one evening’…ba de dum ba de dum ba de dum ba de dum.
I have tried this with all four poems and it works on all.
He seems incapable of avoiding this constant beat…or using any other register.
Most worryingly even the mock Sonnets of Book of Matches which so beloved of our schools worksheeting teachers has exactly the same plodding inevitability. He himself did not claim they sonnets they just aped the 14 line length BUT…..they have nothing of a true sonnet about them at all…Wyatt would turn in his grave..there no subtlety here at all..Professor of Poetry? What for?
This is what the poem ‘POEM’ actually made of…..
Ba de dum ba de dum ba de dum ba de dum….
when he cannot find a full rhyme a half rhyme will do it seems……
And if it snowed and snow covered the drive he took a spade and tossed it to one side.
And always tucked his daughter up at night And slippered her the one time that she lied.
And every week he tipped up half his wage. And what he didn't spend each week he saved.
And praised his wife for every meal she made.And once, for laughing, punched her in the face.
And for his mum he hired a private nurse.And every Sunday taxied her to church.
And he blubbed when she went from bad to worse.And twice he lifted ten quid from her purse.
Here's how they rated him when they looked back: sometimes he did this, sometimes he did that.
Once you hear this dull rhythm it hard to get out of one’s mind which I think why Stone Stanzas so successful. Because he was working with a shorter line and one which had to be sculpted in stone which he could not drag on ad nauseum he had to change rhythm perhaps for the first time and break the Armitage Stomp….
From Stone Stanzas
The sky has delivered
its blank missive.
The moor in coma.
Snow, like water asleep,
a coded muteness
to baffle all noise,
to stall movement,
After testing his theory I can wholeheartedly agree with Martin Stannard that we have a leaden fairly unimaginative Poet Laureate elect on our hands but how he got to be in that position is far more about poetry and politics than any fault of the man himself.
He is a good performer, a very good and media savvy spokesman for poetry but as a poet…he just isn’t that good in my opinion and I think Stannard amidst the rancour has finally found him out which is what good criticism does it makes you look again.
'The Martian Owl' Photo Credit: Paul Wolfgang Webster
This post brings together some thoughts I posted online today in response to the attention being given a negative review posted on the Stride website by poet and critic Martin Stannard of the newly published ‘Paper Aeroplane: Selected Poems 1989-2014.
I had been writing quite experimental poetry through the 1980’s since art college most obviously influenced by William Carlos Williams and Boris Pasternak. Like my abstract painting it was not ‘user friendly’ and nor was I.
Then in 1986 I discovered Raymond Carver’s effortless and readable poems and he became my biggest influence. I also read Simon Armitage’s Slow Dancer pamphlet not because I had heard of him but because I was interested in anything John Harvey published. He was the man after all that had published a Slow Dancer with Carver’s photo on the cover that led to me submitting to him.
I liked that pamphlet and also read his first Bloodaxe book ‘Zoom’. Rather than feeling overawed by Armitage’s talent for a winning and entertaining line I actually found it inspiring that someone from ‘my background’ and using day to day sayings and colloquialisms could garner so much attention. I may subconsciously have been thinking of that first pamphlet ‘The Walking Horses’ when I wrote ‘The Ice Horses’ although to me Carver was far more important. So in those days I was a fan not a detractor.
Ironically I then read on the same bill at the Rising Sun Institute in Reading in 1992.
I don’t remember anything much apart from Simon Armitage’s awful Hawaiian shirt and his asking the arts officer to pay him quickly as he had a mortgage. That struck me because I was unemployed and living with my parents and nowhere near mortgage land. He was a different animal to me even then.
Since then Armitage has simply been there all this time but not on my shelves.
I therefore have no real contemporary knowledge of his work to draw on.
Since the early 1990s I have never managed to earn a living from poetry or any art form. Armitage must be one of the few poets in England that has been that successful that he could probably live off his poetry alone. That may well be the source of the antagonism that he provokes from other poets but jealousy is not criticism.
Martin Stannard Review – The Hand Grenade
Which nearly 23 years later brings us to Stannard’s review and to the traditional first go at the tome to be judged by..The Selected. 1989-2014 covers everything from his first Bloodaxe book ‘Zoom’ to now. Because of the kerfuffle I feel inspired to buy it despite the cover.I have only my memories of those early works and an awareness of his very public profile to go on so this not another review.
I think the only things I have read by him since the 1990s would be the Vinyl Collecting pieces from The Observer he did for a while which were a bit nondescript and I do own the ‘Gig’ book but never felt inspired to read it as it looked to me to be a bit of vanity publishing.
I have never had an opinion about his career other than he got lucky hit the moment just like some other lucky working-class bleeders (Damien Hirst) and once ‘famous’ he never lost the right to churn out books. I have read reviews over the years and watched his reputation rise and fall, never dipping below hugely admired as far as I can tell. I may have missed more critical opinions as I have not been focusing on poetry.
I was surprised then today by the venom attaching itself on facebook to a ‘negative’ review of Rhymin Simon and have reacted. The surprise the more heartfelt because I don’t think I have ever read a negative review of the man. Which shows how deeply embedded in ‘National Treasure’ territory he has become. Like Ian McMillan they are cheeky chappy working class media ‘poets’ but does that mean because popular they beyond criticism?
In my opinion Martin Stannard makes a hash of his critique because he adds so much personal detail he manages to throw himself on his own grenade. If one ignores the 23 years of rightful indignation ( which I admit I have sympathy for) that the rewards of poetry are thin and get spread even thinner when dumped on a lucky few there is some very good and insightful and damaging points being made. That is what criticism should do. Criticise…
Stannard is not a fan and to be fair appears never to have bought into the work.
To paraphrase Stannard he says that Armitage has played a one-card poetry trick for almost 25 years. In the rare case where he tries something else like ‘Stone Stanzas’ he reveals a depth mostly missing from his O Level syllabus grist. Stannard has analysed his line and thinks it is repetitive in the extreme being almost solely based on a 10 syllable metronomic beat. To me this element of the review is good closely read ‘criticism’ from Stannard and personal opinion has nothing to do with it. According to Stannard there is little or no real adventure over his career and when he attempted prose-poetry it was a mistake. For someone held up as the Professor of Creative Writing at Sheffield University (a post he given I presume because of his published work not his academic status) this is a very harsh criticism but Stannard needs to rewrite or write again with a cooler head to make this criticism stick.
I say respect Armitage’s early originality and the good stuff including the Stone Stanzas. Let us recognise his faltering middle years if that true and make any real criticism coherent and less personal. Including from myself! I will try and review the book objectively if I get hold of a copy.
I do think British poetry needs more than a cheeky grin and admirable technique and that my personal opinion and it can apply to other ‘media’ poets too like Ian McMillan……for me it needs grit and experiment too. Peter Reading and Ken Smith where are you when we need you most?
As for lovely northerners I will stick with Basil Bunting and he didn’t do cuddly:-)
Pound mugshot 1945 whilst under arrest for Treason in Italy
An interesting session last night with Sarah Jackson again focusing on imagery which had an unexpected relevance to me and not in the direct way I might have imagined. There was a good selection of examples and the background reading was interesting if only because it confirmed what I already thought about both Pound and Frost i.e. that Pound was a seminal modernist but a terrible self-obsessed diva and closet fascist from the get-go and that Frost was far truer to the democratic principles I hold dear. Pound probably the more important historically especially in history of modernism but that doesn’t mean I like him one bit and that has coloured my appreciation of his poetry.
I feel far closer to Frost. Reading a small Bantam book I was amazed at how he continually shape-shifted away from easy categorisation even in early poems. His father was a Democratic politician and this democratic Californian start informs a lot of his worldview. He resisted easy labels such as ‘nature-poet’ indeed John Ciardi said ‘Robert Frost is no lollipop’ referring to a saccharine film portrait of the poet as nature poet..barns and fields persona to the fore. His essay ‘The Form a Poem makes’ from introduction to Collected Poems 1939 (also available in ‘The Prose of Robert Frost‘) I knew by attribution purely because of the wondrous and off-quoted line
Like a piece of ice on a hot stove the poem must ride on its own melting.
The Do’s and Don’ts by Pound and Aldington in ‘Retrospect’ I found less inspirational if only because in full document ( the class excerpt missed out much of the full ‘Retrospect’ which available here) Pound spends fifty per cent of the time slagging off or praising all and sundry from a Turkish war correspondent to fullsome praise for anything by Wyndham Lewis who famously ended up driving across marshes pursued by a flying submarine…..which says it all really. Will Self sometimes feels like Wyndham Lewis’s bastard offspring which probably not a link he’d thank me for but I get the impression Self would have been happier in 1913 than now.
The taint of Futurism/Vorticism is like a sickly smell around the sloganeering here and is basically an incipient Fascism in all but name. The famous Imagist poem ‘In a station of the Metro’ is more interesting to me for its title than for the pseudo Japoniste sentiment ( a reflection of trends in art 20 years earlier perhaps?) By locating on ‘The Metro’ Pound not only adheres to the classic Yankee abroad fetishism for the French capital but also links directly to the ‘cleansing’ forces of modernism as represented by the machine. The date of the statement (published in Poetry in March 1913) is telling. This is surfing on the boundless sense of optimism for a mechanical future that ground to a literal halt in the mud of The Somme just a few years later.
Pound did not fight in World War One preferring to view from the safety of Bloomsbury where he continued to promote the nascent ‘Modernism’ and influence the Lewis inspired Vorticist movement ( literally naming VORTEX’ in one article’). As a catalyst,tub-thumper and investigator of obscure European literature he has no equal and save for Ford Maddox Ford no challenger in early Twentieth century influence. However as Hugh Kenner pointed out he also is probably the least read of the avant-garde with William Carlos Williams and Basil Bunting and other Objectivists influenced by him having far greater actual readership. In Great Britain the actions of the allegedly ‘mad’ Pound in the ‘cage’ and his support for the fascist point of view ( LINK) in the war certainly affected native support for his writing and still does.
What is fascinating is how many of the sounder strictures that Pound evinces in ‘Retrospect’ form the core texts of contemporary ‘Creative Writing’ instruction almost 130 years later. Raymond Carver had a 3×4 inch card above his desk with a Pound quote…
Fundamental accuracy of statement is the sole morality of writing.
This is interesting as Donal Foreman points out here this statement seems unimpeachable but fragments like the supposed compression of his Imagist poems do collapse under intense scrutiny. Pound’s war on adverbial abstraction reflected more of his setting, a forceful ‘clean’ machine-like stringency against the puffy,flabby post-Romantic past than an actually taut new line. He was a brilliant self and general publicist . Alive now, he would be a Saatchi of his times perhaps, constantly ‘branding’and re-branding his own and other artists efforts to fulfill a ‘manifesto’ of his own imagining. Like Saatchi or Brand this kind of messianic delusion leads to madness or breakdown or both.
Yet Pound’s influence remains strong across countless creative writing courses and in countless self-help manuals and online guides with very little acknowledgement of their source. Two occasions of countless there, used deliberately, Pound would spin in his grave no doubt.
That a self-confessed Fascist should be the originator of the fundamental’disciplines’ so many left-wing leaning courses is an interesting irony. There is, I believe, a deeper meaning at work here. What Pound did was clear a path away from the mawkish, sentimental effects of mass publishing. It was literary elitism. Wheat and chaff approach which why it popular now in a time of similar uncertainty and mass cultural overload. The second coming of the Victorian. Frost was an instinctive democrat he did not impose strictures and he benefitted from Pound’s storming of the gates’ of the Edwardian syrup-masters but never aligned himself with his politics.
Pound as stated in Retrospect had no problem with people writing sentimental and mawkish drivel but he had a big problem with it being respected and ‘published’ that is the key. He was a golden age medievalist intent on holding the fort against the barbarism of the modern age as exemplified in the photograph, the cinema and the penny broadsheet.
It is ironic that William Morris more enthusiasticly embraced technology than Pound. Morris used photography to examine Italian fonts and also called it up when needing to prove ‘copyright’. I cannot recall Pound ever discussing the new visual technologies. Frost had several engagements with film and not least just before his death in ‘A Lover’s Quarrel’ (LINK) where he honoured by J.F.Kennedy. Hard to ever imagine Pound doing this. Chalk and cheese.
Right now, 100 years exactly on from Pound’s proto-modernism, I feel Frost’s shape-shifting and non-alignment pact has far more to teach us than Pound’s ranting from the battlement of elitism. Let us take the common-sense and filter out the stridency as suits us but we ignore the darker art in Pound at our peril. At root it believes in a new order.
First lecture by Sarah Jackson and a surprise….a poem from a book I had not really paid attention to but had purchased many years ago…probably because of the cover. The image does indeed turn out to be a negative image of Bewick’s ‘White Owl’ engraving from page 89 of his ‘British Birds’ from 1809.
It entirely appropriate that the publisher has reversed the image and set in a quasi-gothic setting as Strand’s volume is full of darkness, ghosts, negative capability and the ‘uncanny’. In an excellent review in The OxonianAlexander Nemser himself an American poet says what I felt after reading though the volume properly (possibly for the first time)
But, paradoxically, New Selected Poems leaves the reader with the impression of a poet who,in composing letters to himself about the ultimate end, has ended up only talking about the weather.
In fact in another very good interview with Wallace Shawn (a friend) in The Paris Review Strand states that almost all his poetry refers or is a ticking watch toward death. This fine but sometimes the use of short anglo-saxon words and the repetition..be it in Litany or instructions as in ‘The New Poetry Handbook’ does become somewhat claustrophobic. There is a repetition of certain strophes almost like a trance-like or meditative state. Strand himself believes in poetry as being ‘other’ a breaking through the boundary of the quotidian to other levels to the ‘magical and astonishing’ but sometimes the ‘other’ becomes airless and dank as if in need of some fresh air. Strand has written about artists and interestingly Edward Hopper who also the master of the limited view..the airless and unmoving. He also admires the Italian surrealists and indeed his knowledge of European languages and forms is displayed in his writing. The poetry has the flavour of Otavio Paz and Montale and it hard to find any trace of contemperaneous Canadian poetry like the Praire Poets . The compressed roomic spaces owe more to philosophy than landscape and bring to mind Gaston Bachelard’s ‘Poetics of Space’.
What impressed me at the time and still impresses is this ‘non’USA’ atmosphere. He states in his own words that he attracted to an ‘international’ free-verse movement which he sees himself as part of. Now in his 80’s he has a substantial body of work and a very long and well supported academic career. There the nagging feeling that that very support and life in ‘academic rooms’ has stifled something….has led to the restricted and sometimes suffocating enjambment. The close control never seems to give, the opiates are dismissed, the night coils rather than releases and finally the ‘Screetch Owl’ is pinned like a moth in its final negative image….its museum like otherness.
Finally an erudite passage from the Paris Review…
Mark Strand on Poetry and Prose:
Well, I think a poet’s focus is not quite what a prose writer’s is; it’s not entirely on the world outside. It’s fixed on that area where the inside meets the outside, where the poet’s sensibility meets the weather, meets the street, meets other people, meets what he reads. So a poet describes that point of contact: the self, the edge of the self, and the edge of the world. That shadow land between self and reality. Sometimes the focus is tipped slightly in favor of the self, sometimes, more objectively, in favor of the world. And so sometimes, when the balance is tipped towards the self, strange things are said, odd things get into the poem. Because the farther you are from the world that everybody recognizes as the world, the stranger things look. I mean, some novels do this, but most don’t. Most novels are focused on what’s out there, and the novelist erases himself, by and large, to keep the narration going. There are some narrators who insert themselves, as Philip Roth does, brilliantly and amazingly. I’m always dazzled by his books. The world is electrically alive in American Pastoral, for example, but he’s there too: Roth is Zuckerman, and he’s there, he’s telling the story. We’re never unaware of the fact that he’s doing it, but we’re never wholly aware of the fact that he’s doing it. In a sense, that book is more magical than any poem I’ve read recently.