Wednesday, 13 October 2021

Prose and Poetry (The Dark Horse 44)

In The Dark Horse 44, Edna Longley has an article entitled "Holding the Line: Prose and Poetry: A Pendantic Argument". She writes -

  • "This essay ... starts from the premise that to classify Citizen as 'poetry' raises significant questions"
  • "why did Rankine publish Citizen as 'poetry' rather than as 'hybrid' collage or simply a 'book'? ... if you seek freedoms beyond 'free' verse, what is wrong with calling it 'prose'? In effect, the word 'poetry' retains a prestige or mystique divorced from poetry's actual marginalised cultural status"
  • "Perhaps marginalisation, as well as commitment, leads poets to embrace material that might be thought 'prosaic': to bulk up their work by reclaiming narrative or discursive territory largely abandoned in the late nineteenth century"
  • "'flow' is a verb that desperate students use in their essays on poetry"
  • "apart from metre, no verbal 'techniques and devices' belong exclusively to poetry ... it's just that poetry's 'elliptical intensity' combines more of them simultaneously"
  • "One of the effects of losing the line break is losing the provisionality that poetry achieves, the sense of a mind at work" (Nick Laird)

She compares two passages by Edward Thomas -

  • "She never talks of it, but I wonder how much of the garden she will remember, the hedge with the old damson trees topping it, the vegetable rows, the path bending round the house corner, the old man's beard opposite the door, and me sometimes forbidding her to touch it, if she lives to my years"
  • Not a word she says;
    And I can only wonder how much hereafter
    She will remember, with that bitter scent,
    Of garden rows, and ancient damson trees
    Topping a hedge, a bent path to a door,
    A low thick bush beside the door, and me
    Forbidding her to pick

She then compares a prose and a poetry passage by Ciaran Carson. She thinks he "may be a unique case of a poet actually perched on the frontier"

I go along with Wittgenstein's idea that to understand a definition, one needs to know its purpose. To use an analogy: the Male/Female distinction used in athletics isn't the same as the one to determine state pension age. Being classified as Female for one doesn't mean one's classified as Female for the other. So why was Citizen marketed as poetry? One can try to assess whether it conforms to some common notions of poetry by measuring the density of certain linguistic features, but it's not a reliable metric. Maybe it was classified as such to be provocative or attention-seeking; to have a chance of winning poetry prizes; to escape the QA that prose would be subject to.

If someone wants to get Aunt Maud, who likes a bit of poetry, a book for Xmas, they might depend on the publishers' classifications to decide what book to get. I think Citizen is far enough from the expected norms for there to be a suspicion that the book falls foul of the trade descriptions act. For pages at a time it's not poetry.

To be fair, many poetry books have pages that, but for line-breaks, would be Flash, or anecdotal mini-articles. Short texts, whether they're "prose" or "poetry", are likely to have several features in common - economy; hidden meanings, etc. - and prevailing fashion (rather than any intrinsic qualities) will determinethe format. The problem really is that very few single-author books are openly a mix of poetry and prose. I think John Updike produced one, but they're a marketing nightmare.

In short, I don't think that Citizen has redefined our notions of poetry. It's an example of how genre can be used as a marketing ploy.

Thursday, 7 October 2021

South 64

South (also on Facebook), a poetry magazine, currently comes out twice a year - on paper! I suspect it has many subscribers who've been supporting the magazine for ages. This issue has 12 pages about feature poet Wendy Klein, 58 poems from 47 poets (no bios), and 10 reviews (books from Frogmore Press, The High Window, Indigo Dreams, etc). D A Prince has a poem and a review.

The poems aren't chosen by the same editors every issue - this time 2 people chose - and submission is anonymous. All this should lead to variety and fairness. I understand why most magazines don't have anonymous submission, but I think this magazine should be commended for its policy.

Submission is by post. I suspect that many submissions are from subscribers who aren't in their first flush - the magazine has more than its fair share of poems about aging or dead parents/partners, and the trials of old age. I don't mind that. Style-wise there's nothing adventurous. I think I understood what each poem was trying it do, which makes a change nowadays. My favourite was "The night the willow fell".

Thursday, 30 September 2021

How many plots?


A text can have multiple minor plots, occasionally intersecting. I've tried writing these. I don't think any of them have been published, though I still send them away. They're not going to stand out amongst other submissions.


A text can have 2 plots - Plot A and a smaller, unrelated Plot B. Both have resolutions. At the end (or less interestingly as part of the plot resolutions) the reader learns how they're related. This is used in some Star Trek TNG episodes. It's an easy way to enrich an existing single-plot piece. It's also quite an easy way to generate texts - pick 2 plots at random and make them work together. I'm going to try more of these. It needs space to work - Flash and poems are too short.


Single-plot pieces (especially shorter pieces - Flash or poems) are often based around a big event (or an event with big consequences) and its aftermath. If the event (a sudden death, say, or discovered letter) happens early, some flashbacks or memories will be necessary to justify the reactions. The piece might become a kind of psychological whodunnit - the latter part of the text explaining, say, the suicide mentioned in the first few pages.

What interests me more at the moment is when the big event is a surprise near the end. This is a ploy that poems as well as novels can try. There's time to set things up ready to go off. The reaction section could then be short. What purpose can the earlier part of the text have?

  • It can be there to add interest (lull the reader into a false sense of security) and stop the story being too purely sentimental.
  • It can construct a kind of reverb chambre to magnify the event. The event lights the fuse that brings the rest of the piece to life. Some poems use this idea, the event being as slight as possible. I think the late Smiths Knoll magazine liked this style of poem.
  • It can construct a scenario which the event flip-flops (a good person revealed as bad, etc). The event is ideally minor in itself

I haven't yet exploited some of the surprise-at-the-end options. I think I'll start with short forms before trying a story.

Friday, 17 September 2021

Loose forms

I'm used to the idea of variation within a tight form, in particular established ones like sonnets. I prefer it when the looseness/tightness variation corresponds somehow to the content, or where expectation is exploited. Some other forms (e.g. those based on acrostics and anagrams) are less tolerant of imprecision.

"The Mizzy" by Paul Farley includes "The Sloth" which has a form whose details puzzle me.

  • The indents (in characters) of the lines in stanza 1 are 0 4 0 2 2 4 6 2 4 6 0 1. In stanzas 2-11 the pattern is slightly different - 0 4 0 2 2 4 6 4 4 6 0 1.
  • Lines 1 and 3 (same indent) only sometimes rhyme (down/sown, interference/chance, ants/haunts, appear/shy, life/limb, skull/fell, degrees/tree, growth/forgot, rain/trapped, earthed/fair, stand/planned).
  • Line 4 has 2 syllables in all stanzas, line 5 has 8. The rest vary, I think (e.g. the first lines have 13, 14, 13, 14, 12, 12, 12, 13, 11, 14, 14 syllables, I think, and vary in their beat count).

Why make up a form just to break it? The expectation levels are so low that surprise is minimal. Maybe the title refers to the persona's laziness? Maybe it's like Islamic art, where the imperfections are deliberate? Or maybe it's poetry's equivalent of torn jeans.

Of course, the practice is nothing new. In Acumen 101, Fred Beake points out that in Tennyson's "Crossing the Bar",

  • "the ten syllable lines ... occur in a different place in each stanza"
  • "There are two ten syllable lines in stanza two and four and one in the other two"

"And yet somehow the very regular rhymed and the smooth wave like movement leave us with the illusion that this is a very regular poem"

My Relaxed Forms article has more info, looking at Larkin, etc

Wednesday, 28 July 2021

The Dark Horse (issue 43)

In Orbis 196, Philip Dunkerley wrote "Those of us who are white, middle-class, of a certain age and gender-conventional have to work hard at our poetry to find relevance in today's fast-changing world". I know what he means. I'm a middle-class computer programmer living in a semi-detached Cambridge house. I'm Caucasian and wear glasses. I have an allotment and ride a bicycle. I shop at Waitrose. I get mocked at comedy shows and in novels. And I'm not young. In an interview, Helena Nelson wrote - “Neil Astley will say openly that he wants poets with a future — young enough to build a profile”. So I'm not sending manuscripts to Bloodaxe.

It's becoming harder for me to find places to send work to. I feel I've had my chance, in conditions that favoured me, and now it's the turn of others. Magma magazine's next issue "will focus on Black poets", a wording which came as a surprise to me. Increasingly, there's a requirement for the poem's persona to be the poet - not so much an obligation to be confessional (that's last season's trend, which left a few victims in its wake), but to "write about what you know" without risk of appropriation. In the UK, an item can only be sold as a "Cornish pasty" if it's made in Cornwall. It's up to the consumers to decide whether this improves the quality of the product. In general I'd rather have a good cook than authentic ingredients.

At least I'm not very tall. People would called me "Lofty" or refer to me as "That tall guy". Tall people have to bow when entering rooms. They lack leg-space in public transport. It's as if society wants to take revenge, making them cower, confining them. They can't help being tall. Why aren't there more 'mind your head' signs? Why isn't there a satisfactory minimum height for doorways? Tall people on average have higher IQs than short people, so perhaps the idea is that a few bumps on the head would even things up.

Anyway ...

Two guest editors of a BAME background curated just over a third of the recent The Dark Horse issue (164 big pages). The prose attracted me the most.

Miguel Barretto García's piece about annotations, footnotes, bodies, and nationhood was good in parts but too bitty and flashy for me - phrases like "the colonised body is punctured of agency" don't help.

Karl Knights' 'The Face Not Seen': Disability, Staring and the Canon article made me think. It's cogent and informative. I can believe many of the points made, though sometimes I think he oversteps. Here are some quotes and my comments -

  • "The repertoire of disabled images and themes used in literature through history to the present is very small ... Firstly there's the bleeding heart, or what the disabled community calls 'inspiration porn' character ... Dickens' Tiny Tim is a prime example ... Secondly there's the bad cripple ... most James Bond villains come to mind. Finally there's super-crip ... Paralympians are almost always portrayed in this superhuman way"
  • "The disability scholar Tobin Siebers summarised that 'Disability has provided the public imagination with one of its most powerful symbols [...] but it always symbolizes something other than itself'"
  • "[Edwin Morgan's] 'In the Snack Bar' is, to me, a greatly overrated and dislikeable poem ... Morgan may have had the ability, but did he have the right? " ... "Nuala Watt rebukes Edwin Morgan in 'The Blind Poem'" - but even if (as in the Morgan case) there's evidence to match the persona with the poet, there's no need for the reader to. The character's response in this poem seems typical of the times - not an anachronism.
  • "[Louise Glück] used that voice to return to disability on numerous occasions to write what to me are badly-executed arid poems"
  • "[Ted Hughes'] 'Deaf School' achieves nothing but denigrating a group of children. They become merely another entry in the beastiary of Hughes' mind" ... "Raymond Antrobus writes two responses to Ted Hughes' 'Deaf School'". When I read the response that involved redaction it seemed a stale idea to me - not the first poem I'd seen to use the device that year. The book was interesting, though I'd describe it as a prose/poetry miscellany rather than poetry, which what it was marketed as. There are a lot of misleading labels around nowadays.
  • "Disabled speakers are often used as symbols of the writer's outsider status"
  • "Rilke and Glück participate in one of the most harmful hallmarks of the ableist poem: an imaginary monologue by a disabled speaker ... the author suffers none of the consequences of being in a minority group, and profits from the prestige that their masquerade brings. Meanwhile, actual disabled people experience the very real effects of being an outsider" - when an actor plays the role of a soldier they don't risk dying in action. I presume they get the job because it's thought that the film will be more successful with them in it than if a soldier performed. Indeed, the public may think the actor a more believable soldier than the soldier might appear to be.
  • "ableist poems abound in the tradition. More appear each day in periodicals, pamphlets, full collections ... Such a poet's overused metaphor of disability robs all meaning from the lived experiences of disabled people" - examples of Ableism provided in the article include phrases like "blind to criticism", "lame", and the use of phantom limb imagery. Poets shouldn't "rely on stale metaphors, images and ideas" (e.g. phantom limbs, which is a bugbear for disabled poets like Jillian Weise)
  • "As a visibly disabled person, being stared at is nothing new. Almost every memory I have of my life involves staring ... On the page, what is otherwise a brief annoyance or discomfort is immortalised ... I can hardly open a magazine or a collection without being stared at"
  • "Nothing about us without us, goes the slogan in disability activism"
  • "disabled literary criticism began in the form we know it today in the early 2000s. Queer criticism, the closest to disability criticism in age, began in earnest in the 1980s and has become a part of the academy"

He doesn't address the d/Disabled (D/disabled?) issue, which I presume exists.

The advice is -

  • "If you're desperate to write about your crippled aunt, think twice" (which seems a little mean)
  • "Don't use what you imagine is a disabled person's experience to fuel your poems". Are disabled poets allowed to use what they imagine is a non-disabled person's experience to fuel their poems? I suppose so, because they're a minority, and because they once might have been abled themselves.

I know wheelchair users, and I have dyslexic relatives. One reason that few disabled people appear in my pieces is my worry about getting things wrong - risks outweigh benefits. When, years ago, I read that to a person in depression the self was like a phantom limb, I was impressed by the analogy - I'd seen the phantom limb image used before of course, but not in this way. I'm going to have trouble avoiding Ableist phrases in my work.

There's a trend in poetry towards writing about self-identity and social unfairness, where the poet is the persona pointing out issues. Worthy though much of it is - important even - it's not my type of poetry - the subject matter tends to displace the kind of poetry I'm looking for. Wallace Stevens isn't my favourite poet, but in times like these I turn to him. Or Hart Crane. Or Michael Donaghy.

Sunday, 18 July 2021


Cambridge's University Library is a copyright library - a very tempting place to browse. Books are roughly sorted by size and subject. They're sequenced by acquisition date, so all the new books on a topic are on one shelf.

I've never visited the British Library though I've passed it many times. Behind these gates somewhere lurks my book.

There was talk of shutting down the National Poetry Library on the South Bank. I popped in whenever I was in London to catch up with current magazines.

Libraries are turning into hubs. Within reason, students can snack in my department's library. There's a library within the library where old habits like silence still apply.

I've been around Pergamon, Turkey - the place-name that "parchment" derives from. The library was second only to Alexandria in its prime.

These mini-libraries are common in the nearby villages

Just outside my house the mobile library sometimes parks.

A community library in Sweden which looks like a wooden shed.