Friday 19 November 2010

The Poetry Circus

In a secondhand bookshop I found "The Poetry Circus", by Stanton A. Coblentz, (Hawthorn: New York, 1967). It is "a frontal attack on the sloppiness, pretence, and just plain sensationalism that prevails in much of contemporary poetry". In one section ("How to write a Modern Poem") he shows how an embarrassingly bland text (e.g. "Every nation, isolated in its own house, seeks to wall out all other nations") might be modernised by substitutions leading to something that "may be a little vague and somewhat hard to figure out, perhaps even contradictory, but no one will say it is trite" (e.g. "Every nation/in the isolation of its own libido/seeks to cro-Magnonize all others with the psychology of the alter ego"). Of course no-one consciously proceeds through these stages, but poem explanations sometimes perform the reverse process. Are they attempts to normalize, to remove from the work all that's odd to us, all that's novel? Do they dumb down? Whatever the explanations do, they don't always explain what's lost in this process. The paraphrase may even be an improvement on a confusing draft.

Coblenz's battle against the Emperors' New Clothes failed to change the course of US poetry, but I share some of his doubts about the purposes of difficulty. There are several reasons why a vague or difficult poem might be more effective than a direct one -

  • In "Nature", 17th Mar 2005 they reported that blurry images can have more emotional impact than clear ones - the emotion-modules in the brain don't need detail; the detail activates other activity that might distract.
  • A "Rorschach" poem can give a reader more scope for imagination.
  • Exploring a difficult poem can be a reward in itself.

- but vagueness and difficulty can of course be evasion, bluffing, or a sign of more general communication difficulties.

I read the "Tears in the Fence" magazine to encounter types of work I don't often read, work that challenges and stretches me. Both poets and critics are given space to make their case. Even so, I sometimes feel that I'm encountering crop circles rather than new life-forms. Here's the start of "Love Poem 2" by Lisa Mansell

slick in the lactic stale of sextet
                                        they crabform in their calculus
        and listen to the music that kilts and sucks their scarab-wracked skin
               tantric and crystal                a tryst
                                               rustic and cusp

oceans slip by denizens of noose
       and coil unctuous          vultured in love-letter-scrawl
                       as laval scions the deserting vulva
         aztec and volatile                        liquid

It's rich in sound effects - "slick in the lactic stale of sextet" has many 'S' and 'K' sounds that are repeated through the piece. Later, 'L' and 'V' sounds begin to dominate. Sound has its own meaning-making mechanisms. The dadaists wrote "sound poetry". Less extremely, Mallarmé and Basil Bunting foregrounded sound. I side with Eliot when he said "the music of poetry is not something which exists apart from its meaning". The balance between sound and "sense" can vary in poetry. In this piece several word-choices look strange if one merely considers their sense. Why "slick in the lactic stale of sextet" rather than "slick in the lactic staleness of sex"? What does line 2 mean? "calculus" might be something to do with bones or with calculation. What sort of "music" is being referred to? What is "kilts ... their skin?" (by the way, "unctuous" means oily or smarmy; "scions" means offspring). What does "deserting vulva" mean - that it's going dry? that it's making something else dry? that it's leaving? How do any of those interpretations connect with the rest of the line (presumably they do in some way, otherwise there'd be a line-break). The poem's grammatically parsable, but commas have been replaced by line-breaks. That doesn't fully explain the splattered layout though - why the inline spaces?

I like the sound of it - I can imagine people being seduced by the sonic constellations alone - but it might as well be in a foreign language for all the "sense" I can make of it. When writing a Rorschach poem it helps to retain some referential clues - partly to tantalize. But readers aren't to know whether there's a riddle to be solved, or how much work is expected. Here for instance "kilts" could suggest the swaying of seaweed, or maybe it's something to do with "kilter" (as in "out of kilter"). The lovers could be whales, "slick" could allude to "oil-slick". Perhaps vultures and scarabs are Aztec symbols (there must be some reason why "aztec" is there). There are other symbolic links too - crab, ocean, liquid; sex(tet), tantric, vulva; desert and ocean. The rest of the poem doesn't help me, though there is "their unbelief in binary rubs at the solent-soft of her love" which reminds me of the concocted examples of modernized poetry that Coblentz developed from a simple statement.

Formalist poems are sometimes accused of being rhyme-driven, with artificial inversions introduced merely to regularise the rhythm. Mainstream poems often have mundane settings into which some mystery is embedded (a "lift" in the final line, for example) with sound having a minor role. There are sonic forces driving this poem like an ambulance siren pushing mainstream meaning aside. Or alternatively one could say that the setting is sonic, generating effects (a field, if you wish) that isolated referential meanings expand into and modulate.

Rather than send in the clowns perhaps it's time to start dismantling the Big Top. Whose fun would it spoil? Would it throw the baby out with the bathwater? Does it risk the accusation of being right-wing, reactionary, nostalgic for "The Movement"? Even suggesting that one create a table of pros and cons for the special effects displayed in such poems risks being accused of over-rationalism, of workshoppery taken over by accountancy. The poet has a Ph.D and lectures in Creative Writing so I presume all my points have been taken into account. In the end all one can say is that the proportions of the ingredients don't suit me. Maybe there are also some ingredients that I'm oblivious to. It takes all sort to make a world and I'm sure this poem has its share of fans.

Saturday 13 November 2010

Book Launches

I've been reading some articles about book launches - How to have a book launch in London when you don't even live there by Elizabeth Baines in particular but also how to throw awesome book launch, what I learned from my first book launch, etc. Here are some points

  • Venue - Consider a big city (e.g. London) rather than your home town. Decide whether to use a bookshop.
  • Tone - Treat it as a party/celebration, but don't forget to circulate.
  • Selling - Make it someone's job to take the money. Don't just sign copies, ask people what they want you to write on their copies.
  • Sharing - Invite other poets with books to launch? Have a musical interlude?
  • Expectations - Don't expect to cover costs. Invite everyone you can (family, friends, maybe a few more famous people) - invitations double as advertisements for the book. Use Facebook (maybe set up a Facebook event), writers groups, etc. Don't expect many people to turn up.
  • Review copies - Many publishers think that review copies don't even lead to reviews let alone extra sales, but a poetry collection that has poems from many magazines might be dealt with more generously?

You can have more than one "launch" of course. You can also arrange a virtual book tour, use open-mike sessions, etc.

Tuesday 2 November 2010

From Dickens to Chaucer

Few Dickens scholars know that he was born just round the corner from my birthplace in Portsmouth. Here's the room where he was born. It's not the original bed but a similar style (I was born in a bedsit in a terrace house). I didn't visit his house for over 40 years. He visited Cambridge a few times, staying at The Eagle in 1859. He visited Italy in 1844.

Now I live in Trumpington, allegedly named after a tribe called the Trumps. Chaucer's The Reeve's Tale is set there.

At Trumpyngtoun, nat fer fro Cantebrigge,
Ther gooth a brook, and over that a brigge,
Upon the whiche brook ther stant a melle;

The location of the mill is in doubt. It's unlikely to be at Byron's Pool. In 1380-2 Chaucer's wife and Lady Blanche de Trumpington were in the service of the Duchess of Lancaster, so maybe Chaucer visited Trumpington even if he didn't visit Cambridge. He visited Lombardy on business.

With Italian relatives we went to Stratford. Here's Shakespeare's house. Shakespeare may have performed at The Eagle as part of a group of actors but there's no proof. His use of Cambridge jargon has led some people to suggest that he was a student there. There's no proof that he visited Italy either, though his plays contain so many references to Italy that some strange theories have been suggested.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle lived for quite a while in Portsmouth. However, little is known about the education of Sherlock Holmes. It's assumed from references to "the university" in "The Gloria Scott", "The Musgrave Ritual", and to some extent "The Adventure of the Three Students", that he attended Oxford or Cambridge. Baring-Gould believed textual evidence indicated that Holmes attended both, though Dorothy L. Sayers thought he was a chemistry student at Sidney Sussex, Cambridge, which would fit in with his evident knowledge of forensics. He was born on January 6, 1854, which would put his student years in the 1870s, but there's no evidence of a Sherlock Holmes at the college then, though a photograph from 1878 (one of the earliest college photos ever taken) has several blanks amongst the captions, and several faces smeared by the long exposure, one of them suspiciously Holmesian. Mycroft's clearly well acquainted with Cambridge, so perhaps Sherlock just visited his older brother. During his detective career he visited Cambridge several times, taking the train from King's Cross. In "The Adventure of the Missing Three-Quarter" he uses a tracker dog in Cambridge "In half an hour, we were clear of the town and hastening down a country road. The road took a sweep to the south of the town, and continued in the opposite direction to that in which we started. ... This should be the village of Trumpington to the right of us."

Florence is the only Italian city definitely visited by Holmes, though he may have visited Milan

Last weekend we stumbled upon Bunyan's Chimney during a walk. It's all that's left of a cottage where Bunyan preached and maybe stayed. "Pilgrim's Progress" isn't my favourite book, but it was popular I suppose, and may indeed have helped the novel genre develop. It was started in Bedford which I've visited several times without realising its significance. John Bunyan used Stourbridge Fair (near Cambridge) as the inspiration for the Vanity Fair in Pilgrim's Progress. He probably passed through Cambridge. I don't think he could have visited Lombardy.