Sunday, 19 June 2016


I'm gradually changing my mind about second readings, especially regarding when they're deserved. I think

  • there's too much poetry that shouldn't require a second reading, but does.
  • there are too many pieces that should do more to reward a thorough first reading.

Poems that are too hard

I used to think that "tight" writing was admirable, the tighter the better even at the expense of clarity. Now I'm less sure. Which is best? - a short piece that needs to be read 5 times, or a piece 3 times longer that needs only one reading? The latter's more concise if (as nowadays) time rather than space is the determining factor. A tight piece verging on being cryptic requires reader intervention, but it might not be poetic intervention per se. It might just be a matter of having to de-code - a proof of a commitment after which the reader will be tempted to justify the time they've spent.

If instead the reader gives up after the first few lines, why should the writer worry? Nowadays there seems less of an attempt by writers to discourage accusations of charlatanism or unnecessary obscurity. Nietzsche wrote that poets "all muddy their waters to make them appear deep", which again makes me suspect cryptic poems - even if they're not deceptive they might still be inconsiderate. Whereas tight poems require on-the-fly exegesis skills from the reader, long poems require on-the-fly editing skills, which are more common.

Sometimes a second reading is required because the writing's not clear. Sometime this is deliberate, though that isn't always a good excuse. In

He liked John's body but not his brashness. "Are you doing anything tonight?" "No" "Well let's go out then."

which of the 2 men mentioned in the first sentence popped the question? Should more words be added to make it clearer, or should we assume that the supposedly brasher man made the invitation? Does it deserve a second read? That example's made up, but what about the following from "The Hunter's Wife" by Anthony Doerr? It's not ambiguous but is the lack of punctuation a help?

You know her? the hunter asked.
Oh no, Marpes said, and shook his head. No I don't. He spread his legs and swiveled his hips as if stretching before a foot race. But I've read her

Poems that are too easy

A poem/Flash begins with "he and "she" in conversation. It seems like a father/toddler relationship. Later however, it becomes clear that a grown man is conversing with his senile mother. That twist is what makes the piece work. People usually enjoy the deception. Writers are advised to "show not tell". This piece goes a step further, showing enough to make the readers err so that they can discover their unwarranted assumption.

"punchline pieces" don't survive repeated readings (except for a second reading to admire technique), but the trouble is that some pieces don't survive to the end of a first reading. An experienced reader will be expecting a twist and will try to anticipate it. When I read this piece the banality of the start immediately raised suspicion. I thought the father might be about to deliver bad news to the child about the mother, or that the daughter was an AI system. When the twist came, my reaction was "well, I knew it would be something like that".

I suppose you can't please everyone.

Saturday, 28 May 2016

Poems explained online

There are books and study guides that explain individual poems, though the poems aren't always very recent. I think Ruth Padel's "52 ways of looking at a poem" and "The Poem and the Journey" provide a useful service. For many years "The North" has had a "Blind Criticism" section where 2 writers comment on a poem without knowing who write it. In "Smiths Knoll" editors sometimes wrote about a particular poem from the issue. The "Best American Poetry" and "Best British Poetry" anthologies have comments by poets, but rarely anything thorough or online.

Here are some places where you'll find online analysis of poems that aren't too ancient -

Thursday, 5 May 2016

Fashion and The Rialto

In Neil Ferguson's letter in "The Rialto 55" he writes that the previous issue's poems "share common assumption about how poems are made ... not one ventures into rhyme ... [they] eschew formal techniques ... [they use] more or less random end stop ... all the poems cohere around a restrictive idea about what a poem is - informal/unformal, confessional, easy to read, smart ... [demonstrate the] demise of the metaphor".

While reading it I was drafting a reply not realising that Fiona Moore's much-welcomed reply followed. I'll put my reply here, then mention Fiona's.


From the outside, a genre or school's common feature can seem dominating or oppressive - disco's all THUMP-THUMP-THUMP; classical music's all Diddledum-diddledum-diddleDEE-diddledum. Fashion in clothes goes through fads too, some of them more pervasive than others (we don't all have to wear demin jeans nowadays).

Unsurprizingly, poetry has its fads, and magazines have their preferences. Poets move with the times, both influenced by and reacting against their surroundings. If they isolate themselves from the present (writing a poem that sounds like Hiawatha, for example), they should expect to be accused of pastiche, or of wearing fancy-dress. If the poets believe in poetry as communication, then they should also accept that reception of a message is influenced by the context that readers inhabit. If poets isolates themselves from the context that their readers inhabit, they may be misunderstood. Working initially within that context, a lucky poet might extend the prevailing range, reviving and remixing styles, but I think that's more the exception than the rule.

Text books lag behind poetry trends. I found John Redmond's text-book "How to write a poem" interesting because it focussed on different elements to those that older primers featured. Perhaps because I read too many old text books and I'm outside the school/genre in question, I sometimes think I detect similarities in a body of work -

  • "The Best British Poetry 2011" had no LangPo, no minimalism, though the final poem's a mash-up. There's little narrative. Stephen Burt in his "Close Calls with Nonsense" writes "In pursuing certain virtues - colorful local effects, personae and personality, juxtaposition, close calls with nonsense, uncertainty, critiques of ordinary language - the current crop of American poets necessarily give up on others. I miss, in most contemporary poetry, the arguments, the extended rhetorical passages and essayistic digressions I enjoy in the poems of the 17th and 18th centuries". In BBP 2011 I rather missed those features too.
  • The "Next Generation poets, 2005" had (individually and collectively, I thought) a narrow range, the main core being from anecdotal lyric to mute-Martian lyric, written in broken prose. I also thought there was non-intellectualism, form/word blindness, and a narrow range of imagery - computers, mobile phones, games shows and cheap flights barely figured, and War, Politics or World Affairs weren't alluded to let alone addressed.

Rialto's reply

I've often bemoaned the lack of explanations of poems, especially articles for people wary of modern poetry. If poets make no effort to explain their poems they shouldn't grumble about low sales of their books. I think Ruth Padel's "52 ways of looking at a poem" and "The Poem and the Journey" provide a useful service. For many years "The North" has had a "Blind Criticism" section where 2 writers comment on a poem without knowing who write it. In "Smiths Knoll" editors sometimes wrote about a particular poem from the issue. More recently, prac crit has appeared. They all help.

It's refreshing to see [sub]editors engaging with readers. Fiona Moore points out in her reply that

  • Especially regarding rigorous forms, magazines can only print what they're sent
  • Technical constraints make writers work harder, avoiding obvious paths
  • Rhyme is less regular and full than it used to be
  • Metaphor is perhaps less obtrusive than hitherto

She ends by saying that she'd like more about "politics, climate change, space and science".

Re the first point, there's obviously a chicken-and-egg issue, but I've never thought of Rialto as an anti-Formulist publication. I feel sometimes that the cliches and deadwood of free-form (gratuitous line-breaks, say) are more tolerated than gratuitous end-rhyme, but that's the fashion.

I'm less enthusiastic about constraints than she seems to be, but my guess is that we differ in our attitude to half-hearted constraints - I'm less tolerant, seeing less value in them.

I agree that sound-effects are less line-based nowadays, with more emphasis on 2-D arrangement and clusters. Padel's books often point these out.

Sunday, 1 May 2016

2 archived publications, 2 current concerns

Thanks to virgin media I've needed to move some web material around. I've decided to preserve 2 old, themed publications that I edited. Both were trying to make a point.

4 issues of PaP: Poetry about Poetry appeared 15 years ago. As I've written elsewhere, if tutors tell pupils that they should feel free to write about anything, poetry should be an allowable topic, and if paintings and painters are written about, why not poems and poets?
I still write poems about the nature of poetry, and still sometimes write "Pompidou Centre" poems that show you how they work. I think there's too much "transparent language" poetry out there.

A Form of Words, also about 15 years old, contains Formalist prose. In poetry there's Formalist and free-form writing. If a text has patterning (if it's an abecedarian, for example) there's a tendency to categorize it as a Formalist poem. This might partly be because there were few markets for short prose, but there are more now. In my Short fiction article I tried to reclaim a place for Formalist prose in the fiction spectrum.
I write fewer such pieces than I used to, but just as the definition of "sonnet" is loose nowadays, the formalist prose category is baggier than it was, so maybe I write more Formalist prose than I think. Certainly the trend for shorter pieces encourages more formalism.

Sunday, 24 April 2016

From A to B (Arundel to Brighton)

We spent a night at Arundel, in a boutique hotel. We weren't quite the oldest people there. At our table for the evening meal an ice bucket and fizzy wine was awaiting us. I could get used to being middle aged.

I've been blasting away writing prose, following on from last year's burst of activity. I've been giving rein to my Kundera/Julian Barnes tendencies, trying to get the story/essay balance right, trying not let the past take over. Few new poems, but I've been sending old ones off - I've 30 things in the post, including over 70 pounds-worth of competition entries. I'm not counting my chickens, I'm making hay - in writing and more generally. That said, I'm burnt out writing-wise just at the moment, so the Arun break was timely.

On the way back we stopped at Brighton. Straight and tattooless I could have felt out of place there, even on a Sunday, but it's easy to enjoy the scene - like Camden? Like Berlin with a beach? Not really, but it's fun. I picked up the programmes of festivals and learnt a lot of jargon - ghetto funk, lo-fi, dubstep, riot grrrl. The tattoo convention has a new venue this year with natural lighting and beautiful views. At the Brighton Fringe there's

  • Naked Boys Reading (£9.50 for a 1hr show) - "Five naked men deliver readings on, by and about 'women'".
  • Naked Girls Reading (£10 for a 1hr 30m show) - "an intimate show where beautiful women read naked. It's a witty, pretty, grown-up bedtime story for lovers of fine words and fine women".

I hadn't realised that the Royal Pavilion had been a hospital for Indian soldiers. It's a strange story of image management. In Brighton, names and image matter. Shop names include "Barber Blacksheep", "Wooden It Be Nice", "Abra Kebabra" etc. My favourite is "Brighton Wok". Beware - "Singles Bar" sells records.

Monday, 18 April 2016

Snapshots in "The Forge"

I have a story in "The Forge" today - Snapshots - and an old story that I've always liked will be in "Jellyfish review" in a few months.

Tuesday, 5 April 2016

Mobile phones

They're a pain. In "I just called to say I loved you", Jonathan Franzen wrote "The technological development that has done lasting harm of real significance - the development that, despite the continuing harm it does, you risk ridicule if you publicly complain about today - is the cell phone". They've made several of my stories into period pieces. People no longer get lost in cities or fail to meet people at the right time, unless their mobile goes flat, or they've lost it. Many of the stories I write nowadays begin with characters losing (or forgetting to recharge) their phone.

In the Guardian's Have 40 years of mobile phones given literature bad lines? article, JM Coetzee's quoted - "The telephone is about as far as I will go in a book, and then reluctantly. If people ("characters") are continually going to be speaking to one another at a distance, then a whole gamut of interpersonal signs and signals, verbal and non-verbal, voluntary and involuntary, has to be given up. Dialogue ... just isn't possible."

That said, they make some new plots possible. See

While videoing with his phone in the snow, my son dropped the phone, which became buried, lens up. It continued recording my son's panic until he uncovers it. See the two minute video

There are Cell phone novels, though I'm not convinced.