Thursday, 25 January 2018

STORM WARNING

Stimulating, thought-provoking, informative, intelligent and closely printed in double columns on A4 size pages: P N Review is towards the Radio 3 end of the poetry magazine wavelengths.  When I read an article by Rebecca Watts in my latest issue (239 Jan/Feb 2018) I wondered if the wider poetry world would pick up on it - and it has.

Rebecca Watts takes no prisoners in 'The Cult of the Noble Amateur'.  Performance poets Rupi Kaur, Kate Tempest and Hollie McNish all come in for criticism for the shallowness of their work - particularly Hollie McNish, whose Plum was sent to Rebecca Watts for review.  Don Paterson, poetry editor at Picador (the publisher of McNish and Tempest) is a poetry establishment 'name'.  Watts accuses him of doing a U-turn from his 2004 denouncement of the 'populists' who have 'infantilised' poetry to his current endorsement of McNish and Tempest.

Do £ signs have anything to do with it?  T S Eliot said words to the effect that the aim of publishing poetry was not to make a profit but to make as small a loss as possible.  But Rupi Kaur's Milk and Honey sold 1.4 million copies by May 2017.  It's not surprising that Picador want a couple of performance poets on their list.  

Watts attacks the way writing about poetry has shifted from assessing the quality of the work itself to the cult of the personality.  

The article has provoked coverage in The Guardian (23 January) and a discussion on BBC Radio 4.  It's not often that the media actually notices poetry!  I suspect we haven't heard the last of this particular storm.


*

Last Friday I went to Rhiw, one of my favourite places on the Peninsula.  In the Plas woods winter storms had uprooted several trees, some of them still in a state of half-dismemberment.  Only a month after the solstice the sun was low, beneath a threatening cloud cover.  

Every crease of Porth Neigwl's crumbling cliffs and every fold of Cilan headland were illuminated.  The tide was well out but I could hear the waves on the shore - white surfing breakers that make the beach so popular in the summer (though not without danger as its English name, Hell's Mouth, makes clear).  The sea was gunmetal grey, except where a shaft of light pierced a break in the cloud to make a pool of dazzling silver.

I took the dog for a walk in the woods.  Two men were taking broken slates off a roof and chucking them noisily into a builder's lorry.  Rain had gouged big ruts in the path.  There were a few snowdrops already in flower - a foretaste of the great sheets of white which will appear here in early February.  But under the trees the woods still smelled of winter.

*

I flicked on the car radio - it was Radio 4's obituary programme, Last Word.  I often wonder why more men die than women, but Friday's programme included an obituary of the poet, Jenny Joseph.
Jenny Joseph was born in 1932 (the same year as Sylvia Plath).  She was a near contemporary of Elaine Feinstein, Anne Stevenson and Fleur Adcock.  

I first came across Jenny Joseph's poetry in the excellent Bloodaxe Book of Contemporary Women Poets edited by Jeni Couzyn (1985).  
This was far more than an anthology.  It presented the work of 11 British writers in 230 pages.  For each poet there was a good selection of poetry , photographs, a short biography, and - this was the best bit - an essay on their writing.   No bleeding chunks here!

'Rose in the afternoon', 'Dawn Walkers','Women at Streatham Hill', 'Another old tale', 'In Memory of God', 'The inland sea', two extracts from 'Persephone' and ... 'Warning' were the poems selected.  

Jenny Joseph wrote in her introductory essay that when she was in her teens 'it seemed the absolute of fame that what one wrote should be so much a part of the world as to rise to the lips of any Tom Dick or Harry, Joan Liz or Mary, unaware of authorship, like sayings, like war songs, like ballads.'

Be careful what you wish for - this is exactly what happened to her poem 'Warning' which took on a feral life of its own, so much so that she told her publisher that she had grown to hate the poem.    You'll know the one - 'When I am old I shall wear purple ...'

I turned to Fleur Adcock's seminal Faber Book of 20th Century Women's Poetry (1987) and found just one Jenny Joseph poem - yes, it was 'Warning'.  Maybe Deryn Rees-Jones editing Modern Women Poets (Bloodaxe 2005) would do better.  Slightly - she included 'The Inland Sea' and 'Ant Nest' as well as 'Warning'.  

In 1996 the W poem was voted the Nation's favourite poem (i.e., in the UK).  It is a pity when a poet becomes a one poem wonder and not recognised for the body of her work.  So I was pleased when one of my students asked if we could read and discuss some more of her poetry.  I incorporated the poems into the course under the heading 'What else has Jenny Joseph written?'

Friday, 19 January 2018

ANOTHER TWELVE YOU MUST READ

Scroll down on the right of this page, through Events, News and Recently Published and you will discover that there's a new list of Twelve Books You Must Read.

As usual this is a subjective, opinionated selection of some of the poetry books I have read over the past year.  Books that I have enjoyed and/or been challenged by.  

Limiting myself to twelve means that there are some notable omissions.  In particular four of my favourite poets - so I'll mention them here, which is a cheat's way of omitting them from the list.  Michael Longley Angel Hill, Philip Gross A Bright Acoustic, Thomas A Clark Farm by the Shore, Les Murray On Bunyah.

Here's the new list with accompanying 'puff':

R S Thomas Too Brave to Dream - a posthumous collection of poems written as a response to various art works (which are reproduced with the poems).  All the hallmarks of the poetry of R S Thomas - economy, simplicity, and those intuitive fractured line breaks.

Myra Schneider Insisting on Yellow: New and Selected Poems - readable, imaginative poems. 'Emotionally vulnerable, richly allusive and superbly poised between past and present' (Jane Holland).

Richard Price Moon for Sale - a roller coaster of emotions.  Witty, clever, funny, sexy, heart-stopping. You never know what is coming next.

Tom Pickard Winter Migrants - there is a distinctly northern feel (Pennines and Solway Firth) to this alert and original collection with its 'mercury whisper of tipped-in light'. 

Sinead Morrissey On Balance - another fine accomplished volume from Sinead Morrissey.  Is there anything this poet can't write about?  Is there any form she can't use?

Geoffrey Hill Clavics - read it to honour the memory of a great English poet (died 2016).  Beautifully crafted poems in shape and rhyme.  Hill is never an easy read but his work is a worthwhile intellectual challenge.

John Glenday The Golden Mean - there's a haunting quality of tone and content to these honed short poems without losing any of their edginess.  Includes powerful, sometimes shocking, translations from contemporary Iraqi poets who deserve to be heard beyond their own country.

Angela France The Hill - psychogeography meets poetry in these varied succinct poems (some with fine surreptitious partial rhymes) on the history and life of Leckhampton Hill near Cheltenham.  A wonderful and strange read.  'An essential contribution to the literature of landscape' (Claire Crowther).

Helen Dunmore Inside the Wave - how Helen Dunmore treasured life even as she lived in the shadow of death.  Poems of great depth expressed with clarity - if you read nothing else by this writer, read this.

Gillian Clarke Zoology - a bumper (by poetry standards!) 100 pages of poetry divided into six sections, including 'One Year' (the cycle of the seasons at Hafod y Llan farm in Snowdonia) and a final section of moving and powerful elegies.

Gerry Cambridge Notes for Lighting a Fire - uses the theme of light of explore 'desire, possession and memory' (HappenStance blurb).

Ruth Bidgood Black Mountains/Land Music - attractively produced back-to-back volume.  Here is the familiar Bidgood territory of a rural Welsh hinterland of deserted hills, empty lanes, ruined houses.  It is the loneliness of places where people seem to have withdrawn. She values this often overlooked landscape.

So there it is - now read on.

Tuesday, 9 January 2018

THE OTHER SIDE OF THE OCEAN

My first visit to America.  For almost two weeks I swapped the western edge of the Atlantic for the eastern edge.

I went to Providence, Rhode Island, to visit my American daughter in law's family.  Rhode Island is the smallest state with the longest name (Rhode Island and Providence Plantations).  It's not an island but it has more coastline per inhabitant than any other state.  Rhode Islanders joke that it's 3 per cent bigger at low tide.  And, yes, it's where the hens come from.

My main impressions were that most of my knowledge of America comes from literature and that everyone I met had a story of origins.  And the Cold.

I flew into Boston and as we travelled along the freeway from to Providence I spotted a U-Haul depot.  It brought to mind Amy Clampitt's poem 'Real Estate' with its striking opening lines
'Something is that doesn't
love a Third Avenue tenement'.
The poem describes the run-down area and the demise of a pawnshop -
'... Finally a U-Haul
truck carted everything off somewhere'.
When the conversation turned to baseball I envisioned the poet Marianne Moore in her big hat attending the Brooklyn Dodgers games.  A visitor from Florida made me picture the long Pan Handle ending in Key West, the setting of Wallace Stevens' great poem, 'The Idea of Order at Key West'.

Novels too, came to mind.  Talk of slavery was illuminated by my reading of Toni Morrison's novels and mention of the Civil War and its aftermath conjured up scenes from Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury.

We visited Newport - in the late 19th century the playground of rich New Yorkers who built huge holiday houses on the edge of the ocean.  We went round the Vanderbilts' opulent mansion, The Breakers.  It was pure Edith Wharton - think The Age of Innocence.  The book Wharton co-wrote with the architect Ogden Codman (The Decoration of Houses) was on display, and Codman had been commissioned to work on The Breakers.

The clapboard houses in the snowy streets of Providence had a Scandinavian look and would not look out of place in Oslo or Bergen.  I  was reminded of the Scandinavian immigrants mentioned in Willa Cather's My Antonia.   In the same novel Cather describes the turf dugout that the Shimerda family lived in during their first winter.  During my visit it was cold in Providence - colder than in Alaska.  Bone-searingly cold, relentlessly cold.

*              *                *

I was struck by the way that almost everyone I met had a story of an 'elsewhere', either in their own lifetime or in earlier generations.

My daughter in law's family on her father's side had been Christian weavers in Aleppo and had settled in Patterson, New Jersey.  Her mother's family traced their ancestry to English and Irish immigrants.    I met a man who had been born in Seneghal and a woman whose mother had fled from the Ukraine in the time of Stalin.  The wide variety of restaurants in Providence reflected wave after wave of immigrants from different parts of the world.

But the voices of those who had inhabited Rhode Island before the settlers came were silent, preserved only in place names (we were staying in East Side very near to Pawtucket) and in the 1643 book written by Roger Williams, the founder of Providence.  The book was A Key into the Language of America, longly subtitled 'An help to the language of the natives in that part of America, called New-England.  Together with brief observations of the customs, manners and worships of the aforesaid natives in peace and warre, in life and death.'

On Thursday the storm came, shown on the weather map as a seething mass of bright blue, green, yellow and orange.  The blizzard raged all morning and afternoon - fine sifting powdery snow that blew like flour from a mill, muffling everything, rapidly covering footprints and tyre marks.  White seeped into everything, even finding a crack in the attic window frame and laying its trail on the steep stairs.  We were in 'lock-down'.  All flights were cancelled (including my return flight), schools and work places were closed, even the Seven Stars Bakery on Hope Street was shut.  Someone coined a new meteorological term for the storm 'bombogenesis'.

The car was deposed from its rule of the city and the Providence streets belonged to those pedestrians who were brave/foolhardy enough to venture out and to the grey squirrels.   One night the temperature went down to 2 degrees Fahrenheit (-17 Centigrade).

It was the kind of bitter cold Edith Wharton captured in her novella Ethan Frome.  Wales seemed balmily warm when I finally got home - three days late.