Wednesday, 25 June 2014

Psychology and literature

I think psychology should be part of any creative writing curriculum. I read psychology books to find out more about the processes of reading and comprehension, to help me understand how rhyme works, how readers construct characters, etc. I also read them to find out why people write, what influences the way they write, and what the health consequences are.

Below are links to some psychology articles I've written (I think they're some of my better articles) and responses to some psychology books I've read.



Thursday, 19 June 2014

Poetry and ordinary people

The term "ordinary people" has come up in Paxman-inspired poetry discussion lately. I confess that I don't meet many ordinary people. Over 50% of Cambridge people have at least a degree (the 3rd highest percentage in the country), so it's not an ordinary place. The local paper sometimes has a poem on the letters page. Here's part of "Pylons" from the latest issue we have

When the weather is clear, no mist or rain
I can see pylons stomping across the plain
Arms out stretched they stride the land
Or with hands on hips in cornfields stand,


They step over motorways with ease
And straddle roads and lanes where ere they please

I don't know how typical this is of the newspaper's poetry, but I imagine the editors know what goes down well. It's interesting to see how the formal features are dealt with. The rhyme is tight, the rhythm less so - there are 4 beats a line with a variable number of unstressed syllables. There seems little pressure to regularise the rhythm except for the use of "ere" (I presume "e'er" was intended).

The language has rather a "retro" feel - inversions aren't avoided, and compression isn't a priority.

Using pylons in this way as subject matter (rather than writing "Pylon poetry") is tempting - I've done it (though with much less anthropomorphising), and so, I imagine, have many other people. Often the pylons hold skipping ropes. Here they're mostly on the move. The ending's not so different to one of mine in sentiment.

Strung together for ever more until they reach some distant shore

I imagine that ordinary people read little contemporary poetry written by "poets". In a way, poems like "Pythons" take advantage of its readers' ordinariness. For that reason (and others) I'd feel rather awkward writing such poetry; exploitative. I wouldn't be writing for my peers.

And yet, I think I do sometimes write for non-poetry readers. Whether they'd be called ordinary is another matter. I have in mind people who have to read or write prose carefully, people prepared to challenge and question. But they won't know about the aims of some modern movements - Flarf, LangPo, etc - and they won't have much patience re Oulipo, minimalism, or anything that looks too much like the literary prose they usually read. So the poetry needs to allude to familiar material, and the aesthetics need to be familiar. Alternatively (and I've tried this too) it can be explained.

I went with my wife to see Luke Wright. His allusions to events and TV programs in his childhood were beyond her. He, John Cooper Clarke, rap artists, Wendy Cope, Pam Ayres and Roger McGough are amongst those who at least sometimes write poetry that ordinary people will pay attention to, though not the same "ordinary people" in each case. And John Cooper Clarke fans probably won't go for "Pylons".

Wednesday, 18 June 2014


I stayed for 24 hours in Newcastle - my first visit to the area. I didn't know whether to treat it as a photography holiday or a writer's retreat. I ended up reading and being a tourist. I found this spiral poem on the pavement close to where we parked my car - outside Newcastle University's library, I think.

I'd planned to photograph night-life, but after an evening meal at a world all-you-can-eat buffet I fell asleep before 10pm. Next day I had a buffet breakfast then dashed to the train station where groups of smartly-dressed people were waiting to catch an early train South - a palace garden party? The races?

I used the Metro and trains to see Sunderland, the Stadium of Light, Durham (where there was a 4-floor Oxfam bookshop with many poetry books and magazines) and the coast. Near Tynemouth there was this abandoned swimming pool.

Later, back in Newcastle I found a "Books for Amnesty" shop, then walked over the Tyne Bridge (roof gardens and kittiwakes beneath me, a note about the Samaritans half way along) to Gateshead (where Defoe spent a while), watched the Millennium bridge rise, went up the Baltic tower, and looked for Morden Tower (which has a literary history). Beside the walls were the backs of Chinatown restaurants and their ventilated smells.

The football stadium and the bridges can be seen from many parts of the city. Also quite a common sight were groups of party-goers (all-male or all-female) in good voice. Bouncers have a full-time job.

I wasn't in the mood for writing, but I can take photos in any mood. They'll come in useful for writing eventually. I finished a poetry magazine ("The Dark Horse") and read most of an Italian novel ("Se chiedi al vento di restare"), returning home just in time for the England vs Italy game.

Monday, 16 June 2014

List of my online pieces

I've some short prose (not flash) in Ink, Sweat & Tears today.

I've recently made a list of my online publications - poems, stories, articles and reviews. There are more than I thought - about 50. Some are web originals, some are re-prints from paper publications.

Tuesday, 3 June 2014

Yet more line-break experiments

Pound wrote "to break the pentameter, that was the first heave". People objected that without meter there was no poetry, yet poetry survived. The resulting poems didn't have to somehow compensate for the loss of meter. Though meter had sometimes been used to effect, often it wasn't - it was just habit - so leaving it out merely removed the superfluous. Maybe line-breaks are the next to go. People will complain of course, and of course line-breaks will still have their uses, but they've become so much a habit that even their users struggle to explain them. If in doubt, leave them out. Let rhythmic, articulated sentences recover their lost potency, making line-breaks seem rather heavy-handed, more suited to ads and teleprompters.

Try the task below with a poem. For each version, start with a non-line-broken text.

  1. Lay the text out in rectangles, 2 lines per stanza, lines over 8cm long. Isolate the final line if you wish
  2. Lay the text out in rectangles, 5 lines per stanza. lines less than 5cm long. Isolate the final line if you wish
  3. Break it into stanzas as you'd break prose into paragraphs. Then break lines at the clause-break nearest to the 6cm mark.
  4. Look for a place or two where you can add a clever line-break (at the word "break" for example, or "he was good/ for nothing"). Then break the other lines so that the resulting poem's lines are all about 6cm long. Add a stanza break half way through the poem.

Give these versions out. Ask people to put a "1" by a line-break that deserves a point, a "-1" by line-breaks that detract from the poem, and nothing beside line-breaks that do nothing. Try to have some people who read many novels/stories but no poetry amongst your audience. Assess the results. In how many of the versions does the line-break total score come out positive? In particular, ask yourself why the line-breaks with a "-1" beside them need to be there. Then consider removing the line-breaks that have nothing beside them - if they do nothing, why clutter the poem with them? Or do the results suggest that the more line-breaks used the better?

You might try scoring the adverbs and adjectives while you're at it, culling those that don't earn their keep.

There may well be more uniformity of opinion amongst the poetry-reading (aka poetry-writing) audience than amongst the general audience. The poets know that line-breaks can be used to

  • suggest to the reader the overall reading-strategy to adopt
  • disrupt the language
  • create units of breath
  • create units of meaning
  • replace punctuation
  • create a pause (less than a comma)
  • emphasize the final word of the line
  • emphasize the first word of the next line (US poets moreso than UK ones do line-breaks like "the/ death", leaving a minor word at the end of the line)
  • create a shape poem
  • force a premature parse ("he fell/ asleep")
  • set up a pattern of line-length expectation (or clause/line-ending synchronisation) that can be used to surprize the reader
  • etc

In fact, it's rather hard not to be able to find an excuse for any particular line-break. And it's hard not to sound like a boring kill-joy when trying to describe why a line-break isn't good enough. Moreover, some people tend to be defensive about their line-breaks, especially if the poets can't explain why the line-breaks (which begin to be described as "powerful") have to be just so - it's a personal thing, part of their "voice", the last vestige of visual evidence that they're writing poetry rather than prose. One of the outcomes of the above exercise is to gain experience at discrediting line-breaks so one is able to perceive that adding a line-break is taking a risk, that there are disadvantages too. If there aren't, we'd all be writing long, thin poems.

I sometimes use rhyme (and half-rhyme). I usually use line-breaks, and often my stanzas are bricks. Like the rhymes the line-breaks vary in their "strength". Much of the time I use line-breaks because other people do - they're the default, they're what readers expect, and they're easy for readers to ignore (easier than ignoring the lack of line-breaks in "prose poetry").

The book I've got the most from on this subject is Next word, better word by Stephen Dobyns. He points out that for some (generations of) poets, "many of their lines appear flaccid and lack any apparent reason why a line is broken this way rather than that. Their lines often read like prose". However, not all poetry's like that - "Rewrite Gluck's poem with end-stopped lines and it would read as prose, while if the same were done to Lux's poem, it would still read as a poem, though a much weaker one". He points out that readers can find in prose the patterns of sounds and pauses they appreciate in free verse. He spends 3 pages on this first sentence from Henry James' "The Middle Years" - "The April day was soft and bright, and poor Dencombe, happy in the conceit of reasserted strength, stood in the garden of the hotel, comparing, with a deliberation in which, however, there was still something of langour, the attractions of easy strolls".

The stage/page issue arises with line-breaks too. In his book Dobyns write that "Wallace Stevens, when he read his poetry, never audibly broke the line". At the other extreme is the poet I heard who read his poem (shaped like a temple) so that his pauses matched the length of the spaces on the page! As an experiment it would be interesting to see where listeners think a poem's line-breaks are.