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.
Did you hear the guns a rattling out on the Kentucky hills
As mud spattered up from your prison truck’s wheels
Did you smile every day as you washed the days away
Imprisoned for having nothing to say?*
Did you dream in an Un-American way?
Of diamonds and furs and long limousines in the rain
Is that the un-American way?
Now the Campsfield wire fences are rattling in the wind
And there are stranger’s faces pressed against the panes
What did they dream they’d find beyond the ghost of empire Were they dreaming of a world of American stars and bars
Did they dream in an Un-American way
Now the holy walls are dripping with the blood of men
As guns crackle like whips above their heads
And that prison truck is busy carrying away those who
Dream in an Un-American way
Of diamonds and furs and long limousines in the rain
Following on the revelation of the Middle Class ‘Proper Poetry’ v Working Class ‘Performance Poetry’ stigmatisation.
I have looked at what I actually written over the past 40 years and an awful lot of my ‘poetry’ was sublimated or ‘hidden’ from my potential middle-class audience in ‘songwriting’ ….
So how appropriate that a book of ‘songs’ could be published with title ‘Substitute’…..perfect….
Here some potential ‘Pongs’ or ‘Songems’ or as I recently heard it called SOETRY (Song Poetry) 🙂
This a song from last year’s posthumous Trailer Star lost masterpiece Chalk Pit Rattle……
Buying Time…which appropriate in context of Kit de Waal s recent piece in The Guardian which prompted me to start writing again.
Maybe I will include songs in Substitute volume 😉 Songwriting is just poetry by other means for me 😉
IVE BEEN BUYING TIME SINCE I WAS BORN
ITS WHAT THE WORKING CLASS ARE BUILT FOR
NO TRUST FUND, NO FOREIGN HOLIDAY
NO GAP YEAR, NO AUNT’S DOWRY COMING MY WAY
MY DAD TAUGHT ME TO BUY TIME
ANY CHANCE I HAD
HE SAID SON DON’T BE DISHONEST, KEEP YOUR PRIDE
BUT BABY BUY TIME, KEEP BUYING TIME
TIME’S THE ONE THING THEY CANT TAKE OFF YOU
ONCE YOU GOT IT THEY CANT GET IT BACK THAT’S TRUE
MY PARENTS WORKED EVERYDAY GOD SENT
SO I COULD BUY TIME NOW AND NOT GIVE IT BACK TO THEM
THE BOSS MAN TEACHES YOU TO GIVE HIM YOUR TIME
THAT’S WHAT MAKES THE WORLD TURN …HE LIES
MY PARENTS NEVER HAD ENOUGH
NOW THEYRE DEAD IN THE GROUND.
TIMES UP….GO OUT THERE SON AND KEEP BUYING TIME…
BUY BUY BUY TIME.
Poem or Song? maybe I never really knew after all? Floor of Wood …..about the farm I grew up on.
Maybe these were performance poems all along just hiding in plain view 😉
If they are then I have several thousand poems waiting to be added to the collection:-)
FLOOR OF WOOD
This house was built of planks ten years after the war
I spent my childhood days watching the wind blowing the straw
As the sixties twisted away and the motorways came
I would stand at the window playing with toy cars in the rain
This time I’m really leaving these green fields for good
But I’ll leave my heart under this floor of wood
Slate roof is full of holes, the walls are covered in rambling rose
Nothing lives here now but the ghosts
I push a broken door against broken plaster and ash
And watch the wind blow through windows all smashed
This time I’m leaving these green fields for good
But I’ll leave my heart underneath this floor of wood
Since I was a boy England has drifted from fields to city
All these cornfields been turned to golf courses or light industry
Plaster crumbles and dusts my shoes just like chalk
I walk away, scratches on my arm, I try to close the door.
This time I’m leaving these green fields for good
But I’ll leave my heart buried under this floor of wood
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;-)
A recent piece of ‘criticism’ in PN Review by Rebecca Watts has caused a storm of controversy apparently.
PNR is an adjunct to the long established and firmly modernist Carcanet Press which has long been one of the jewels in Arts Council funded poetry publishing in the UK alongside Ambit and Bloodaxe.
Read for ‘ACE funded’…’not commercial’ i.e. it can operate in an elitist way because it bankrolled….
I not criticising that in particular but this important in the context of the debate that Rebecca Watts started.
Her piece proudly available via front page of the PN website would not be available if PN Review had to stand on its own two feet.
Now Ms Watts is a poet and obviously a ‘proper poet’ by her tone and scathing attack on the three women poets as amateur and sentimental slush basically and worse their work sold by the bucketfull..
Ms Watts poetry with the title ‘The Met Office Advises Caution’ (published by you guessed it Carcanet) will have sold less..a lot less in fact it would not exist but for subsidy….
Her article opens with Rupi Kaur a Canadian poet of little depth but much exposure who has no connection to the other two poets. She is the foundation on which Watts builds her shaky theory….she uses the frankly awful Kaur to tar the other poets with the same brush. This is her prejudice over-riding any attempt at a coherent piece of criticism. Kaur is also of Punjabi descent….but let us not let race distort the picture too much. She is primarily chosen as an example of ‘popular poetry’.
To be popular in Watts world is naturally to be below par…in a upstairs downstairs kind of way…..beyond the pale..our language is full of class references…we are good at it..we built an empire on it.
Poetry builds its own little empires too…empires that discriminate and exclude.
Rebecca Watts is a middle class white girl from Suffolk ..no further details on her website so I presume not a sink estate in Lowestoft…before attending Trinity College Cambridge in 2001 after fees introduced so fairly well off from the get go oh and then on to an MA at Oxford which takes a lot more money…buying her way into the system basically.
I worked as a ‘minion’ in Oxford University and know her type all too well.
With her impeccable university education she is a natural elitist come to protect the British Literary world from ..dumbing down..amateurish writing and worse musical crossovers…
In Michael Schmidt’s Parthenon of white middle class writing……she found a home…
So given a platform she launched this tirade against what exactly? Many hit back for its incipient sexism but that isn’t its real subject…it is about CLASS
If a man had written this piece he would be hung drawn and quartered for sexism and possibly racism.. Watts gender saved her although it frankly is sexist..why not include male writers?
No this is about a far deeper and more troubling fault line in British publishing..CLASS
McNish and Tempest are outward-looking and experimental especially crossing over with musical forms because they are not from the middle class they both are from lower down the social ladder..too low for poor Watts. At the bottom of the ladder people can enjoy more than one art form…
Elitism, white middle-class elitism is about ring-fencing resources in troubled times so that people who look and speak like you are kept above the breadline and people who don’t are let slip into poverty and obscurity. It mirrors society in Britain now where those lucky enough to gain a degree and climb the greasy pole to a non menial job can be served ( left or right wing no matter) by those who born to servitude. It not a new phenomenon the Victorians invented it.
Rebecca ( how many working class women called Rebecca?) is maintaining her privileged position and bolstering her place in the great and the good and she is doing it through a thoroughly classist viewpoint. What she really saying here is these two women McNish and Tempest do not deserve their audience, do not deserve to be read because they are not from the elite. She is deserving of attention because she is from that elite she is ‘PROPER POETRY’ everything else is ‘PERFORMANCE POETRY’ which is shit..
PROPER POETRY = MIDDLE CLASS
PERFORMANCE POETRY -= WORKING CLASS
Performance Poets who won Mercury awards and Ted Hughes prizes…..who reference Shakespeare..but still not PROPER POETRY.
Performers with a larger audience through music and generally performers who are successful in their own right. Un-subsidised.
They have appealed to a huge audience Watts will never reach however good her poetry technically because she is not interested in the wider audience she obsessed with the narrowing down of culture.
Watts has proudly listed all her performances on her website ..they all in Oxford and Cambridge they all to people like her..ring-fencing culture..keeping it behind the college walls..keeping it safe..
For that reason I can honestly say I will never read her work but I will investigate Tempest and McNish because they interest me.
So thank you Watts your pathetic snobbery has opened my eyes to how there is a class war opening up in British Literature and I now know exactly which side of the barricades I on….
Oh and p.s. I write poetry you would hate..and I play music……I am obviously a NOBLE AMATEUR….and you my dear are a snob.
Oh and funniest moment in Watts frankly awful diatribe is where she compares Kaur and co’s populism to Donald Trump….
A white middle class elitist comparing a Punjabi immigrant girl to Trump…..just think about that for one second……
The comparison should have been Watts and Trump both say too much and think too little.
As for PN Review…..I will not be subscribing or submitting any time soon..wrong side of the barricade darlinks .
In 1992 Whilst living at my parents I joined Didcot and Wallingford Friends of the Earth.
We went on demonstrations (B and Q mahogany etc) with Earth First and raised funds for tree-planting.
I created this small ilustrated poetry booklet and sold 25 at £2 each which equivalent to 25 new trees.
I also took part in the actual tree-planting that happened based on the proceeds.
If I ever take the train back to Didcot I can actually point to the clump of new trees in a field neat Cholsey, Oxon which this book created;-)
I also showed a series of the down-land drawings behind Sir Julian Rose at a meeting on Organic Farming.
My thanks to Beryl Davidson of F.O.E. at the time (and fellow Didcot poet Jonathan Davidson’s mum by the way:-) for helping produce the booklet.
The publication has finally been scanned and the whole thing can be seen here under Publications on this website: NATURA MORTE
Here scans of the individual pages. The poems were all related to green issues and specifically related to animals and insects hence titles.
The following was written as a comment on facebook about the Tim Lott article on the Guardian published this week. This sparked some interesting comments on the notion and as Lott specifically flags up Sillitoe and this now a City of Literature I thought it might be worth expanding on.
The comments are more revealing than the article. I was born on a farm and moved to a council estate (lucky enough after sleeping on floors my family were rehoused) in 1966. I have always seen myself as working class and have written about it. I don’t think you lose that and I am not any less working class now than I was then. I do however from the age of 17 have many instances where I was told I was ‘rough’, uncultured, brash, awkward, not nice..by middle class people when it suited them. This usually occurred when I stood up on principal to being labelled or demeaned because of my background. I would be famous now if middle class because I would have learnt to keep my mouth shut and ‘do the right thing’. I never have and I never will and it has cost me jobs (the latest a case in point even academia is rife with classism) and affected my artistic production but it has never stopped me and never will. As my father said if a job’s worth doing it is worth doing well. I worked 8 years as a ‘minion’ (their words) at Oxford University in the same Colleges and system as Jeanette Winterson et al attended…..I could not be seen let alone heard during that time and that why I in Nottingham. If I stayed in Oxford I would be dead..literally.
There are some strange reactions in the comments including some vituperative remarks about Sillitoe himself which seem worth mentioning. He did in fact spend most of his life living in London but I don’t think that precludes him writing about the working class he came from. It would be like someone telling me I cannot write about Oxfordshire. More cutting was the accusation of demeaning the Radford area and its folk as villains which as I worked on Radford Road isn’t as far from the truth as it should be. In fact that road is statistically one of the highest reported crime areas in the country due to a high turn over of dwellers, students and a drug problem that has never gone away. Again attacking Sillitoe seems to be shooting the messenger and not addressing the problem something Nottingham good at.
Stanley Middleton isn’t mentioned which a shame as he probably wrote about the suburban aspirations of ‘decent folk’ ( i.e. people who work rather than the ‘working class’) just as well and lived all his life here but does that make him a better writer? As for modern day writers in Nottingham addressing ‘working class’ values it hard to say. David Belbin and John Harvey both address working-class story-lines but does that make their work ‘working class’ or them for that matter? Further more does it matter? Michael Eaton and Stephen Lowe both address working class subjects but I would never describe either as working class. As my dad would have said they wouldn’t know one end of a shovel from the other. Rosie Garner is definitely working class and lived all her life in Bestwood so I guess she would be happy with the label. Mulletproof Poet addresses his upbringing directly in his writing but aligns himself with The Sleaford Mods as much as Sillitoe. Nicola Monaghan in her original format ( she has since re-booted as a Horror Story/Thriller novelist Nikki Valentine but that another story) used working class to brand her first novel The Killing jar very successfully but having explored the hell of her estate upbringing (allegedly …I remain unconvinced there wasn’t a fair amount of decorative drugginess added to spice up the tale) she has not pushed that particular angle since. As an academic lecturer ( therefore now middle class according to some people’s logic) she now may find that to do so brings accusations of hypocrisy as many suggested in commenting on Lott’s original piece. To succeed then is to betray your background? That unjust in my opinion but unless a working class writer remains in poverty how do they avoid that catch 22. I am unemployed technically now but it not the same as being a 17 year old with no prospects. I am comfortable for the time being and can survive. Can I then say I still working class?
Which brings us to Nottingham’s most famous son..the rose with thorns. D.H.Lawrence. Definitely from the working class in Eastwood but hell bent on putting as much distance between himself and this ‘provincial’ city as he could. Never did any manual labour but wrote about it beautifully. Leant heavily towards right wing and fascist ideas after marrying into the Richtofen family. Treated badly certainly but no worse than others suspected of German allegiance and ended up a virtual exile because of it. A working class writer. Yes. A fascist. Yes. Uncomfortable truths abound. I do not buy into the ‘he was misunderstood’ approach. When he wrote his eulogy to Hitler he knew what he doing. A Moseleyite through and through.
WORKING CLASS HERO?
Can one be a truly ‘working class’ writer then? My opinion is yes one can.
Even in writing that line I baulked at using ‘one’ it reminds me of Oxford.
We carry our childhoods with us and we never lose them. they form our core values and our outlooks. I will never vote Conservative. I will never support fox-hunting. I do not like right wing people and neither did my family. My parents bought their council house off Thatcher because it was a good deal …did that make them any less working class? The estate I grew up on is unrecognisable now and a dormitory suburb for London with high prices and no community. That was part of the Thatcherite policy to enable purchase, profiteering and movement. Slum landlords have divided the small council houses into multiple occupation flats. The working class are still there but speak many languages, have no organisation to speak for them, and work horrendous shifts to pay sky-high rents for cramped rooms. That is what working class writing should tackle now. It is below the radar of old notions of working and class and some working class people are actively exploiting that underclass. Again an unfortunate truth.The exploitation of land and capital continues by whatever means allowed.
The white working class communal world I grew up in has been smashed but it does not mean I cannot write about it or posit it as an alternative to what we have now. That is not naive lefty fantasy – that is fact. That certain middle-class writers would rather avoid that unwelcome truth says more about the state of Britain now than what existed then. Sitting around in book groups reading Hilary Mantel and eating cake is very nice for the idle rich but how many question how or where their nice cheap Amazon paperbacks are printed or who actually prepared and served that delicious cake? Many hands hold up our middle and working-class lifestyles now. We are all beneficiaries of our comfortable western capitalism..all of them unseen hands….in foreign parts mostly. Cheap labour and exploitation is at the heart of all capitalist processes. Forget that and you have forgotten you are working class. Hands define manual labour. Hands also write. Some writers only know writing and have never encountered the other.
My definition of a ‘working class’ writer is anybody who has experience of both. Working and writing. These days the literary world is clogged up with people who know only one and lecture those who have experience of the other endlessly…
Tim Lott has ‘soft hands’ as my Dad would say….they be manager’s hands.
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 😉
Paradise is a gold throw on a white leather sofa
Under the buttocks of a call-girl blowing a footballer
Indiscretion is a national pastime after cup-cake baking
Facebook ramming lives with other people’s misfortune
Clear-eyed dreams of making it with the boys in the band
Dissolve in bleary orgies in the back of a camper van
Parrots and lizards scamper under screen saver skies
As the magpie landlords eye their prosperous finds
While celebrities promote books they never saw penned
As the cut crystal tinkles with the fizz of the vanity press
Screenwriters shuffle stories that have already been spent
Suggesting that our culture is bleeding to death
The tethered ox offers its throat to the knife
The Sun will always shine on the shittiest life.
In the vacuous naughties the affluent thrum
Their chubby fingers on the card-less tills
As the slippery accountants of PWC and RBS swill
Their caviar down with Vive Cliqout at the parliamentary bash
The air is full of Quangos and insider trading slang
As the parade of yesterday’s entertainers head for the tank
Never have so few been made rich by so many
Gated compounds reek of the stench of money
Whilst out in the gutter the poison rain flecks
The sequined shoes of the stars as the homeless wretch
Wherever a buck can be made from a paedophile story
With a false ID the hacks tear at the fraudulent lying
Satellites spin, click every channel is a Clear Sign
We are all Poundland remainders now buried alive
I knew Armitage had written something called Poundland (It is actually one of the worst poems ever written full of fake poetese..yuk) so I was going to change the title of these ‘mock’ sonnets especially as he famously wrote bad sonnets in ‘Book of Matches’ and has been duly punished by being doomed to the GCSE Revision Pages of the internet forever more. However as I will not be the last bad sonneteer I thought fuck it here they are…rants in other words as we approach the shittiest election in years…
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.’
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.