Living with the Truth Stranger than Fiction This Is Not About What You Think Milligan and Murphy Making Sense

Friday, 29 August 2008

4am, Reading Larkin

"Life? Don't talk to me about life!" – Marvin (The Paranoid Android)

I don't sleep well. I'd put it down to my age but the truth is I've never slept especially well. I could blame it on a guilty conscience but we'll stick with the dickey bladder if it's all the same to you. I used to have a favourite time to wake up but it's pretty much a hit and miss affair these days, usually anything after 2am is up for grabs. This morning it was 4:20 and it wasn't a desperate need to answer the call of nature unless belching is one of the sub-categories. I blame the egg sandwich we had for supper.

Actually, do people have suppers these days? There was a time when people had breakfast, lunch, tea and supper – not forgetting elevenses, of course, and the afternoon tea-break. I was never quite sure where 'dinner' fitted into the equation. I never had 'dinner' growing up and the expression still confuses me a bit. And don't get me started on brunches.

But I digress.

I've always liked getting up in the middle of the night. I've always regarded it as my time and thankfully Carrie learned early on in our marriage that there's no need to get up and check on me; if I'm dead then I'll be just as dead in the morning and at least then she'll be refreshed and better able to deal with the situation then. My dad died in the early hours of the morning. My mum phoned, explained how it had happened, and then asked if I was going back to bed. I told her I didn't know, my dad hadn't died before and I wasn't sure what protocol demanded of me. As it happens I didn't and was on the first train out of Glasgow a couple of hours later.

I used to write a lot in the early hours. Now I prefer to read.

I have a fish, a goldfish. I've probably mentioned him before. When I bought him he had a little black moustache and I was going to call him Charlie but within a week the 'tache vanished and he's been Fishy ever since. He's a fantail, the pudgiest fantail you could imagine unless you have a really, really good imagination. I'm supposed to feed him twice a day. He lurks at the front of the bowl waiting on me – he knows the times to expect me – and as soon as he sees me there he is doing his wee dance and begging to be fed. He does not do his dance for Carrie; he's learned that she never feeds him. Me being a softie – and because he really puts on a good show – I've started giving him an extra food stick when I go to bed, just the one (he normally devours three or four in a single mouthful).

Anyway, this June morning I got up at about 4am and as soon as the office light went on there he was begging like a little yippy dog – he has no pride whatsoever. So, I fixed myself a cup of coffee (decaffeinated), selected a chochie bickie and settled down to read in my rather comfy chair that we got from Ikea. This particular morning, for reasons unbeknownst to me, I picked up Larkin's Collected Poems and began thumbing through it. Four in the morning is perhaps not the best time in the world to read poems, even familiar poems, and I found myself reading three or four lines and then moving onto another one.

As I'm doing this Fishy is swimming around frantically trying to get my attention as he does. After a bit, realising that I was not going to give in, he gave up and started rooting around in the rocks at the bottom of his bowl. And that's when it all came together in my head and I put my Larkin aside, switched on the PC and wrote '4am, Reading Larkin', which has just been published by Origami Condom. (Seriously, how could one not submit some poems to a site with a name like that?) It's on page 27.

I have always acknowledged my debt to Larkin. I'm also quite possessive of him. I've never especially gone out of my way to imitate him though. I did write a poem when I was at school to see if I could emulate the rhyme scheme in 'Mr. Bleaney' but that was about it. I just loved the idea of a poem written in full rhyme that didn't rhyme when you read it properly.

In 1997 I tried to write a poem tipping my hat to him and this was what I ended up with:


(for Philip Larkin)

In order to correct for small differences in his makeup
he kept himself alone for much of the time. It's wrong

to be different. At least that is what he maintained was
the case. So he only thought things through so far and

no farther and that became his official view rather than
try and cope with the truth about himself. Nothing true

meant nothing wrong and so he avoided life and life in
turn avoided him. It was all quite amicable, antiseptic

and as safe as houses, houses with high windows out of
which he could watch the world and ask himself why he

felt so trapped without having to worry about finding an
answer he might be able to live with. I don't know why.

13 November 1997

I sent it out once and it got rejected tout de suite. The editor was even a bit scathing about the structure of the piece; he didn't get it. I'm really a lousy judge of my own work but I don’t think it's a very good poem despite its good intentions. It was probably among the last poems I ever sent out until last year.

'4am, Reading Larkin' is a much better poem. It was inspired by Larkin's late poem 'Aubade' which begins:

I work all day, and get half-drunk at night.
Waking at four to soundless dark, I stare.
In time the curtain-edges will grow light.
Till then I see what's really always there:
Unresting death, a whole day nearer now,
Making all thought impossible but how
And where and when I shall myself die.

and also 'Sad Steps' which opens with:

Groping back to bed after a piss
I part thick curtains, and am startled by
The rapid clouds, the moon's cleanliness.

Four o'clock: wedge-shadowed gardens lie
Under a cavernous, a wind-picked sky.
There's something laughable about this

The structure is 5-4-4-4 until the very last stanza where I drop a beat on the punch line, something I'm quite fond of doing. In the poem the narrator feeds the fish of course. I did this because I wanted to include the whole gamut of my relationship with my fish. The simple fact is, if I just kept dropping in pellets, he'd just keep eating them until he burst; he really is stupid that way.

Of course the fish in his globe is a metaphor for the man in his world even though we learn next to nothing about him other than the fact he's a coffee drinking insomniac who own a collection of Larkin's poetry and a greedy fish.

The three poems weren't chosen as randomly as you might think: the narrator in 'Mr. Bleaney' lives in a one-room bedsit, in effect a goldfish bowl (and there's nothing to suggest that the narrator in my poem doesn't); 'Toads' evokes work and again we see someone questioning their existence; 'Church Going' covers the whole range, birth to death. Within the three poems, Larkin questions life as we know it, where we live, what we do for a living, and what our lives are all about.

If anything the fish has a positive take on life. It's almost as if he's saying: "If's that's all that's available to me then I'm going to be the best swimmer, eater and shitter that I can be. Now feed me. Feed me now."

What I feel the best of Larkin does is leave you with that feeling that someone has just opened a door and a cold draught has caught you by surprise but you look around and you've no idea where that door is. It's an uncomfortable feeling. I'll be honest I don't think I quite pull it off in '4am, Reading Larkin' but it's not bad. Someone tell me it's not bad.

Wednesday, 27 August 2008

Aggie and Shuggie 7

Shuggie: Aggie. Whit're ye daein?
Aggie: Ah'm usin the comptuta.
Shuggie: Whit fer?
Aggie: Nainur yer bisnis. An don't take yer Parka aff. Yer no stayin.
Shuggie: Why no?
Aggie: Yoo'll find oot.
Shuggie: Are yoo lookin up pikchas o Bread Pitt agin?
Aggie: Nah.
Shuggie: Wull who then?
Aggie: Nainur yer bisnis.
Shuggie: Let me see.
Aggie: Bugger aff.
Shuggie: Gie it ere. [He snatches the laptop from her] Who's that? That's no Bread Pitt. That's that pillock that played Bullseye in that Daredeevil movie.
Aggie: Ye mean Colin Farrell. It's no Colin Farrell.
Shuggie: E luks like im. E's goat the same shiftie eyes.
Aggie: E's no goat shiftie eyes. E's goat bedroom eyes.
Shuggie: Spare bedroom eyes mair like it. Luk whothfek is it? Ah've a raight t'know who ma wife's slavverin ower.
Aggie: It's Ken Earmstrong.
Shuggie: Who's e when e's at hame?
Aggie: E's goat a wee website and e's dun a review o' oor Jim’s book.
Shuggie: Anither review? Is thur any bugger who's no reviewed Jim's book?
Aggie: Wanur two.
Shuggie: So whit's e goat t'say? Ah hope it's a stoata.
Aggie: Ah wis jist tryin t'read it when yoo stearted all yer fussin. Gie it back ere.
Shuggie: Haud yer hosses. E says thurur three people in the novel. Thur's mair than three people in the novel.
Aggie: E must be talking metaphorical. Gie us the damn comptuta ere.
Shuggie: Fine but nae mair slavverin. Proamis?
Aggie: Ah proamis.
Shuggie: Raight now, bookmark that Earmstrong's bloag an fix ma tea.
Aggie: Ah fixed yer tea awready.
Shuggie: Wull whur is it?
Aggie: It's in the dug.
Shuggie: The dug?
Aggie: Aye.
Shuggie: Whit's it daein in the dug?
Aggie: Digestin' Ah spect. That'll teach ye fer goin t'the pub aefter work.
Shuggie: It wus jist a cupple o jars wi the boys! Whitama goanna huv fer ma tea? Ah'm so hungry ah'd cud eat a scabby hoss between two slices o breed.
Aggie: That's why Goad invented chip shops, Shuggie. An don't ferget t'take the dug wi yer while yer at it. E's no bin oot aw day.
Shuggie: Ah raight. Cum oan dug.

Monday, 25 August 2008

Aggie and Shuggie 6

Shuggie: Ag. Are ye asleep?
Aggie: [pretends to snore]
Shuggie: AGGIE.
Aggie: Naw!
Shuggie: Naw whit?
Aggie: Jist naw.
Shuggie: Ye don’t know whit Ah want.
Aggie: Shug, wuv binin bed fer three minutes. Ah know whit ye want. Ah know whit ye aywis wants an jist yoo tell Wee Shug t’slink back inside yer jammie boattoms an go t’sleep. Ah’m no kissin im guidnight t’night.
Shuggie: That’s no wit Ah wanted.
Aggie: It’d be a furst.
Shuggie: Ah jist wunnert if ye knew that Dave King goat an award.
Aggie: Awd Dave? Naw, whit fer?
Shuggie: It wis frae oor Jim, fer bein a Kick-in-the-Arse Bloager or summat.
Aggie: Naw. An how cum oor Jim’s haunin oot awards?
Shuggie: E goat it frae that burd frae Millport, Cafrin Shearp or whiteffer er name is. An she said Jim cun pass it oana summat. Read it yersel in the moarnin.
Aggie: Ah wull. Night.
Shuggie: Ag.
Aggie: Ah said, naw.
Shuggie: Ah wisne askin.
Aggie: Wull whit noo?
Shuggie: Ah hudne feenished tellin ye aboot Dave. In is latest bloag e does a wee bit oan Jim’s book.
Aggie: Dus e? That’s nice.
Shuggie: Aye. E caws it a “gentul an hoomane portrait o hoomanity”. Is that no summat?
Aggie: Aye it is. Now go t’sleep. Ye’ve goat work in the mornin.
Shuggie: A’right, hen. G’night.
Aggie: Night.
Shuggie: Ag…
Aggie: [sighs] Aye, aw right. Jist be quick aboot it an don’t expect any enthusiasm frae me.
Shuggie: Right ye are hen.

Thursday, 21 August 2008

Our cockatiel loves Woody Allen

Heil, Poirot!

The nice people at Caffeine Destiny have included two of my poems in the Fall edition of their magazine. I submitted them yonks ago and I'd half-forgotten that I'd even sent them. The poems are 'Sometimes' and 'Scrap Values' both very recent poems (January 2008), actually written with a couple of days of each other. I'm always puzzled by the choices editors make. Of the five poems I submitted back in February these would not be the ones I would have picked but there you go.

I don't put the dates written on poems when I send them out. I always worry that if an editor sees a poem that's ten years old he'll pass it over for something fresher. I have nothing to base that on but that's how I feel. Whether those feelings are reasonable or even rational I've never much worried about but it is interesting that she would pick two poems written so closely together.

I like the layout of this mag. It was half the reason I chose to submit to it. I have no idea what its readership is but they do a respectable job. I had some poems published in a print journal recently and the presentation was decidedly amateurish. But there you go. My only gripe is that the bio is left-justified; I do like my straight edges. And I'd have liked a line space before the second poem. But that's just me being petty. Sorry nice people at Caffeine Destiny.

The first poem is biographical in much the same way as William Carlos Williams' poem about eating the plums from the fridge ('This Is Just To Say') is biographical and it's framed in a similar fashion. The structure is simple. I quite often use a mirrored or palindromic structure. This one has two stanzas each with two lines of eight syllables surrounding a block of five lines each with five syllables. Unusually the last couplet rhymes but since the emphasis in the last line is on 'bothered' I let it stand.

This was one of those pieces I rattled off in five minutes and was in half a mind to throw away. I simply wrote down what I was feeling at that moment without any frills. I was tired and I had too much to read. I'm constantly tired. 'Fatigued' would be a more accurate term but it sounds so Jane Austen – three times in Pride and Prejudice alone (I checked). And I always have way too much to read. Every time I sit down at my laptop I have this wall of e-mails and news feeds and comments sitting patiently waiting to be given my full and undivided attention. And there are times when – to use the vernacular – I'm just scunnered with it all. I know, I know, I know it's part of the game. I have to be visible but I don't want to be. I really don't.

We have a bird, a cockatiel. My wife rescued him from a dirty great big magpie and he's quite taken over our house. Carrie named him 'Poirot' after the great fictional detective but he gets called 'Birdy' after the not so great fictional Vietnam vet. Actually that last bit's not true. He get's called 'Birdy' because he's a bird and I have no imagination. Actually that's not true either. I'm just lazy. I call my goldfish 'Fishy'. I used to give my fish sensible names like 'Mars Bar' but now they're all just 'Fishy'.

Anyway, our bird can be quite noisy when he wants to be. As I'm writing this he's in the next room screaming at Woody Allen. I have a photo of Woody Allen on my bookcase that he's infatuated with. He keeps hauling him out of his frame and chewing on him. In the morning though he prefers to sit on his stand by the window and announce his presence to the world. It can wear one down after a bit. And that's where the poem came from. I was sitting here feeling burdened and there he was without a care in the world, standing on one leg and prattling away at passing doggy-birds and little-girl-birds and the occasional feathered-variety-type-birds.

Of course he's trapped too, a) by his hard-wiring – he's programmed to greet the sun in the morning – and, b) by the window through which he can see and hear all these other birds but can't get to them. My wife could have shooed both birds away when she head the ruckus on the window ledge and we would have now, "[a] silence where there could have been a bird" as fellow Caffeine Destiny contributor Annie Finch might have put it. Yes, sometimes he is noisy but I would never have written my poem without him.

The second poem, 'Scrap Values', is structured in couplets of 5 and 6 syllables but I organised it into three four-line stanzas because it makes more sense that way.

As a writer I've always been fascinated with words and their subtle shades of meaning. Some more than others. Take the words 'price', 'cost' and 'value', for example. Superficially they look as if they all should mean much the same thing but they're so different. There are hidden costs and things aren't always worth what you pay for them; values change and often you pay in other ways; for some things you never stop paying.

The poem is, of course, about personal worth. How does one determine that? To some people I'm valuable, to my wife and daughter, precious even (and not just in the cute sense) but to others not so much. In my last job for the first five years I was invaluable and then they brought in new systems and new people and suddenly I was eminently dispensable. I wrote a book. Yay me. I've had nothing but good reviews. And yet, because my current novel is driving me to total distraction and back, I don't feel like much of a writer. I had a couple of poems published on the Internet. Big deal. There is also my health. A lot of the health problems I have stem from overwork. I've paid though the nose for my aching shoulder, my bad back, the shooting pains in my wrists and my sore neck. Now I have them, what are they worth 'on the open market'? I think perhaps the cost was too high but I didn't see it at the time.

As my fellow contributor Arlene Ang writes in her poem, 'The Model Particular': "Sometimes seeing a wound / heightens the pain factor in the mind." You might not realise what you are doing to yourself until life takes you by the lapels, gives you a good shake and says: "Look!" That's really what happened to me a year ago when I started this blog. I looked, saw the wound and let out one almighty, "Ouch!"

I believe it's a good thing every now and then to step back and count the cost. I left a comment on a young writer's site a wee while back warning him about the dangers of overwork. He's young and still has bounce-back-ability but all you need to do is blink twice and "ten years [will] have got behind you" and what will you have to show for it?

I've never really been a carpe diem kind of chappie. I've pretty much finished whatever project I was working on, stuck it in the proverbial drawer and waited for the next idea. I'm not alone in that. One of the first records I owned was a recording of The Planets with Sir Adrian Boult conducting. A marvellous, sparse recording and I wish I still had it. (I have a version by Karajan just now and it's a bit too enthusiastic for my tastes). Anyway, in the cover notes, Boult talks about his friend Holst who he describes as "one of those fey beings" – it was the first time I'd head the word 'fey' – and how Holst had, on completing his score, literally stuck it in a drawer to be discovered by a friend some time later. Not quite sure I'd appreciate my friends mooching around my drawers but I guess it was a different time. And the rest, as they say, is history. At the time I was quite taken by that. Now I think he was a plonker. Sorry Gustav.

I mention 'demographic' in my poem. It's a word I hate. I really have no idea what the demographic of my blog readership is. I suspect that most are fairly well-seasoned and I know a few have their own regrets because they're written about them with some candour. But to my younger readers (Hello, younger readers) I'd remind them that all we leave at the end of our tour of duty here is scraps and it's up to other people to root through them to see if there anything worth salvaging. It's a fact of life. You can decide for yourselves if you think it's something to be sad about.

In his sermon on the mount Jesus said not to hide your light under a bushel whatever a bushel is when it's at home. I say unto you, don't stick your novels in a drawer for your friends to find and then never invite them over for Sunday brunch.

"Time pearls", at least that's how Jordan Davis, another contributor to the magazine, puts it and by that I assume he means that time is reduced to small, precious moments. That said, I've read Steinbeck's The Pearl and I know that some pearls can be malformed and as ugly as ulcers. I have a few perfect moments but there have been more that I have not made the most of. If you're not careful you'll look back at, what Darren Demaree describes as "a domino / sequence of nothing", moments not taken advantage of in the back seat of The Odeon.

You might think these are two sad poems and you'd be right. Despite the rippling humour I display on occasions in my posts the fact is that I'm really not the most effusive of people and I tend to see the sadness in everything; it's my gift and my curse. I don't regret writing them. We use what's around us. Yes, I know, it's the whole "If life hands you a lemon" speech again but that's about the size of it. There is no subject that cannot be turned into art and there will be other sad – or potentially sad – people out there who will read these poems and either relate to them or decide they don't want to go there, no way Pedro.

I wrote in a poem once: "I don't believe in destiny / but I do in inevitability" and I liked the sentiment so much I stuck it in Living with the Truth for those of you who've read it and just thought, Wait a minute, I've read that somewhere else. It's something I believe as much as you'll tie me down to admitting I believe in anything. If you drive a car like a maniac then it's inevitable that something bad is going to happen to you sooner rather than later. It was inevitable that I was going to end up here or somewhere pretty much like here at about this time in my life. I'd hoped it might be a bit later but I wasn't being honest with myself. As I writer I have a problem with honesty because every time I put pen to paper lies flow like … really flowy things. But you may lie to your readers – Christ, it'd be boring if you only wrote the truth all the time, even journalists can't bring themselves to do that – but only a fool lies to himself.

Now, all of you clamber on your desks and go: "O Captain! My Captain!" and I'll stick the kettle on and we'll have a nice cup o' tea and a bit of shortbread.

Monday, 18 August 2008

Kick-Ass Blogger Award

Okay it's taken me a year but I've finally managed to bag my first award. (Note careful choice of words there). I was awarded it by Catherine at Sharp Words, "because of [my] long, thoughtful, intriguing posts about the creative process." So, thank you, Catherine.


I'm supposed to nominate five other sites that I feel meet the criteria that goes with this award. My problem here is not picking sites. My problem is defining 'kick-ass'. Maybe I've a numb bum because I spend so much time on it but there are only a few sites that I look forward to finding they're posted something new. I mean really, really look forward to. I recently did a post highlighting a number of sites that I felt deserved to be read more often. At the time I noted they were all males and I've been meaning to do a list of female bloggers but I keep finding other things to do. At the moment I have five other blogs sitting on my desktop in various stages of production.

I have a problem with a lot of the Internet awards that I've run into. It's not that they're not well meant it's just I'm not sure what they mean. That Catherine thinks my writing deserves an award is lovely. But to my mind what I've got is the Sharp Word's Kick-Ass Bloggers award. Do you know what I mean?

I think an award should mean something. The question is how to imbue that award with meaning. To my mind the more people who have the award the less it is worth. Let's take the Blue Peter badge. It's been on the go for yonks and I would expect that thousands of them are kicking around. The common-or-garden variety is blue but then there're green, orange, purple, silver and gold. Needless to say the gold one is the hardest to get.

I'm all for sharing but I'm just not sure about awards that get spread willy-nilly. If I sent this one to five and they send it to another five and then another five and another and another and the next thing we know there's 15,000+ awards Kick-Ass Awards kicking around. Now, tell me, does that mean there are 15,000 kick-ass blogs out there? I think not. Now, not everyone'll pick another five – Catherine only listed four – and I'm going to follow her lead and choose three blogs; the Olympics only present three medals and that's good enough for me.

The first is Dragoncave, hosted by Art Durkee; the second is World Class Poetry, run by Allen Taylor and the third is Pics and Poems by Dave King because each of these gentlemen writes passionately, intelligently and at length irrespective of their subject. It always bothers me that I don't always find the time to respond as fully as I'd like to their posts. I think they deserve more readers and if this is a way of drawing attention to their sites then fine, I'll play ball. (It'll also take some of the pressure off me if I know there are more people taking an interest in what they're on about). If I were to rank them then it would be in the order listed above based primarily on output – gold, silver and bronze. How they choose to respond to this I leave up to them, although a thank you would be nice. I hold them to nothing else.

Being who I am this makes me feel bad about all the other sites I enjoy that I haven't given an award to. I was in two minds not to pass on the award at all to be honest. The simple fact is that each of these sites is outstanding in its own way. There are other sites that I feel deserve an honourable mention but I'm not going to because the odds are I'd miss out someone and I'd hate that.

Saturday, 16 August 2008

Making a pig of myself

It's been a while since I've been able to advise you of the publication of any new poems. There are a couple of reasons for this: a) I've been lax about sending stuff out and b) those that have been out just take so long to come back.

So I made a dent in my submissions a week ago and sent out thirteen batches, two of which (much to my great surprise), came back right away; one was a rejection and one was an acceptance and I can't complain about those odds.

I don't know whether the short story magazines are worse than the poetry magazines because up until a year ago I'd never submitted a story anywhere but I've a whole batch dating back to November 2007 and you're not telling me that it takes eight months to read a story and say, "Sorry, son, but it's not for us." It's not the rejection that bothers me but I do think not replying is just plain rude. Of the twenty-five stories I sent out, eight were rejected, two were accepted and I've heard not a tweet or a chirrup about any of the others.

Back in March I chased up one of them. I won't name names but the magazine said that it responded "promptly" and so I sent a short, polite enquiry attaching the previous e-mail and not a dickybird: nada, nihil, nowt. And I don't know about you but I just think that's plain rude. And unprofessional. But it's worse than that, it's deflating for the author. Now, I know I could go down the simultaneous submission route and I don't know why I don't but I never have. I have loads of material. That's what happens when you write for ten years and don't send anything out.

I feel old. I've felt old for a long time, longer than I should have but as I write this I feel especially old. I'm becoming my parents. It had to happen but I thought I might be able to hang on a bit longer. It's not that all my heroes are dying off in droves (Is 'drove' the correct collective noun for heroes?) it's just that everything is changing faster than I'd ever imagined. And most of it is a double-edged sword. Even the blessed computer.

When I was a teenager I remember walking into The Third Eye Centre as it was back then and there were poetry magazines to be bought … lots of 'em. And they were cheap, maybe 35p or 70p for a thick one. The last time I was there – the place was called The Centre for Contemporary Arts – there was next to nothing, not even the big names. It had become the kind of arts centre I lampoon in Living with the Truth. And I felt like Jonathan, out of my time.

Meaning has changed too. That I really, really never expected. I'm not sure what things mean anymore. This wasn't supposed to happen so quickly. Now I submit my poems and stories to e-zines, magazines than don't exist, not in any tangible sense of the word. If someone turns off the server they're on then they're gone. There's one copy somewhere in the world and we all get to share it. The idea is good – very green – but, I repeat, there's one copy somewhere in the world and if their server crashes or there's a natural disaster or an act of God or if some loony takes to it with his favourite axe then it's gone, pffft! I've had stuff published on the Web before and I went looking for it and it's not there anymore. These should be collector's items. There should be people bidding for the stuff on e-bay. But they're gone. I can't even remember the names of any of them.

I don't think I like virtual reality. I like real reality, the kind you can stick in a box and pull out every few years, the kind you can show your daughter and say, "See, this is the kind of stuff Daddy wrote when he was your age," only she's now ten years older than most of the stuff you'd want to show her and there's never time for stuff like that when she visits.

Where was I? Oh, yes, I got a poem published in Ink, Sweat and Tears. It's one of the few journals I actually subscribe to. I like it because I get one poem to look at and I don't have to fret about flicking through cyberpages to find something I can actually be bothered reading. There's one poem, take it or leave it, Jim.

Well now it's one of mine, a little poem I ran off a few months back called 'If Only Pigs Could Fly'. It's not the one I would've picked out of the selection I sent them but I've never understood how editors make their choices nor do I worry overly much about what they've published before because it's rarely anything like what I produce anyway.

I've been writing a lot about the nature of poetry of late. I think it's been because I've been nearing my one thousandth poem (actually I've passed it now) and I've been thinking about my craft such as it is. Poem #1000 was actually a waste of time, a poem about wasting time reading a poem. I'll let you read it some day. 'If Only Pigs Could Fly' is #974. It was inspired … only that's not really the right word … I had in mind the story from the Bible about Legion.

I know Bible study isn't a big thing anymore and although I adhere to no kind of religious belief nowadays I cannot help having been taught what I was taught as a child. The imagery is powerful and it stays with you and I wouldn't fret if the only book I was ever left with was an old bible but that's a subject for another day I think. (Actually I know it is because I've already written the blog).

Anyway, here's the story:

1 They went across the lake to the region of the Gerasenes. 2When Jesus got out of the boat, a man with an evil spirit came from the tombs to meet him. 3This man lived in the tombs, and no one could bind him any more, not even with a chain. 4For he had often been chained hand and foot, but he tore the chains apart and broke the irons on his feet. No one was strong enough to subdue him. 5Night and day among the tombs and in the hills he would cry out and cut himself with stones. 6When he saw Jesus from a distance, he ran and fell on his knees in front of him.

7He shouted at the top of his voice, "What do you want with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? Swear to God that you won't torture me!" 8For Jesus had said to him, "Come out of this man, you evil spirit!"

9Then Jesus asked him, "What is your name?"

"My name is Legion," he replied, "for we are many." 10And he begged Jesus again and again not to send them out of the area.

11A large herd of pigs was feeding on the nearby hillside. 12The demons begged Jesus, "Send us among the pigs; allow us to go into them." 13He gave them permission, and the evil spirits came out and went into the pigs. The herd, about two thousand in number, rushed down the steep bank into the lake and were drowned. - Mark 5:1-13

Translations differ. In the one I remember they throw themselves over a cliff (kremnos: overhanging, i.e. a precipice – steep place) and that's the image I had of all these piggy wiggies sailing over the edge of a cliff but, forgetting they no longer had the wings they were used to, the demons plummet into the sea.

A common expression is wrestling ones demons (an expression that's always puzzled me because Jacob wrestling an angel (Genesis 32:1) which is where I expect the expression originates) and that's always struck me as an appropriate metaphor for the whole writing process. I've never found it especially easy. It's as if I'm dragging a part out of me and shaping it into a poem or whatever. Yup, more biblical imagery. Anyway, all of this stuff is in my head and I dip into it as and when necessary. None of which you actually need to know to get the poem. But that's what I was thinking about when I wrote the piece.

Of course, I could've given it a more biblical title, like 'Legion', but, as I've just pointed out, people aren't as au fait with the scriptures as previous generations were so why make life hard for my readers? "If only pigs could fly" is one of those expressions that is still in common use and it carries the notion of wishful thinking. And that's really what the poem is about. We write 'em, we send 'em out and they crash and burn. It's a poem about the rejection process. We take our demons, cram them into poems, drive them away and watch as they fail.

The structure is a simple 4-2-6 count in the first two stanzas. The last one is 4-2-1-1 and is meant to suggest the falling process, the stanza crumbles away. The irony, of course, is that this poem didn't fail. And we like irony.

Wednesday, 13 August 2008

Aggie and Shuggie 5

Aggie:  Shuggie!
Shuggie:  Whitsta matter, hen?
Aggie:  Huv yoo seen Shearp Wurds this week?
Shuggie:  Ah huv noat.
Aggie:  Well Cafrin's goanan dina review af oor Jim's book.
Shuggie:  Whadya mean? She's hud shearp wurds wi oor Jim? Af she's bin pickin oan oor Jim Ah'll sink the heed in 'er, Ah wull.
Aggie:  Nah, don't be a pillock. Her bloag’s cawd 'Shearp Wurds'.
Shuggie:  Whit? That's a daft name ti caw a bloag.
Aggie:  It's no a daft name.
Shuggie: Well Ah think it's daft.
Aggie:  Will yoo jist wheesht while Ah tell ye whit she hud ti say?
Shuggie:  Aye, aw right.
Aggie:  Wait till Ah fin ma place… Right, she says it nudges oan magic realism.
Shuggie:  She's right there. It's a dead magic book it is.
Aggie:  That's no whit she means. She means like wi Borges n at.
Shuggie:  Oh right. Ah thought it were mair like Kafka mesel.
Aggie:  But she disne know whit 'nip' means it seems.
Shuggie:  She whit? Ah thought she wis a clever burd.
Aggie:  Well, she's frae acroass the watter…
Shuggie:  Ye mean Millport?
Aggie:  Ah mean Ireland.
Shuggie:  Oh begorraw!
Aggie:  Cut it oot. Ye know ye canne dae an Irish accent. Anywise, she says it's a two tissuh joab.
Shuggie:  Naw!
Aggie:  Aye. Seems she read the book twice an it had 'er greetin twice.
Shuggie:  That's rare. Ah jist cried the wance. Ah jist hope it were the right kinda tears.
Aggie:  Af course it were ye daft bat.
Shuggie:  Well bookmark the thing wumman an Ah'll read it later after Ah've walked the dug. 'Shearp Wurds' ye say? Still hink it's a daft name fer a bloag.

Monday, 11 August 2008

Poetry and art (part three)

The painting rises from the brushstrokes as a poem rises from the words. The meaning comes later. – Joan Miro


Image: "Banana tree and gate to the banana tree hut," Matsuo Basho (1644-94), Idemitsu Museum of Art

Simply put a haiga is a painting that incorporates a haiku. But it's not quite that simple. The haiku is a reserved style of poetry and the painting that goes with it is expected to be the same, restrained, with minimal ink brush strokes and light colour. Strangely enough, "Hai" means comic and "Ga" means painting. In his article, 'A Brush With Poetry', in the World Haiku Review, Susumi Takiguchi, founder of the World Haiku Club, writes, "haiga is unromantic, down to earth (unpretentious) and humorous, dealing with unremarkable, day-to-day subjects and objects."

The relationship between the poem and the painting is interesting. They are meant to complement, and not explain, one another. Sometimes the poem and the painting appear to have nothing to do with one another. "[I]f the painting and haiku are [similar], it would mean that one has been added because the other is not adequate," explains Takiguchi.

The style of writing, the calligraphy, also becomes a significant part of the work as a whole.

The moon is a common subject in these poems and paintings, sometimes represented by the Zen circle ensō, which evokes a number of other meanings, including that of the void as illustrated by this haiku by Art Durkee. You can read about the construction of the poem here (scroll down to the entry headed '509. 28 November 2006, Beloit, WI'.

In recent years there has been an increased interest in the haiga only now poets are using digital images. A lot, to my taste, look like cheap greeting cards. But not all, certainly not this one:

'leaving home for good' by Liam Wilkinson; Yorkshire

A whole selection can be found at Modern Haiga.

The question I have, not being a practitioner of this style of expression, is which comes first, the poem or the image? I suppose it depends. But why incorporate an image in the first place? I'll let Ray Rasmussen answer:

Just as many haiku poets at some point ask themselves why they want to write haiku, haiga artists might ask the same question. For me, the answer is one of focus. With both photography and haiku, a big part of the motivation has to do with the process of doing, slowing down on a walk and taking something in that becomes the subject of a haiku, or paying attention to a haiku moment. With photography, this involves focusing my lens on a wildflower and looking at it in a way that I wouldn't have had I merely glanced at it as I passed by.

A second part of my motivation to produce haiga images from the haiku of others is that it helps me to focus on the haiku poem, to gain a sense of what it means, its mood and colour [can a haiku have a colour?]. The haiga image becomes my expression, my "here's a picture of what I hear and feel when I read the poet's words".

A third motivation is that the computer screen is an especially colour-vibrant canvas for art work. Creating haiga images is an excuse for working in form and colour. Whether the digital-art or photograph indeed enhances the haiku is an issue of importance for viewers of the work, but for me, it isn't the essential issue. The essence is process and getting more deeply into a poetic experience through the mediums of photography and computer digital work.

The next thing of course is to add some music to the work. Check out these haiga with a short musical accompaniment.

Poetry as art

The Japanese haiga is not the only approach to the illuminated poem. William Blake's overanalysed poem 'The Tyger' is an obvious example. It was first published in 1794 in the collection Songs of Experience.

'The Tyger' is found in draft in a notebook that takes the name the 'Rossetti Manuscript' from a later owner, the poet and Pre-Raphaelite painter, Dante Gabriel Rossetti. It is the classic example of a working notebook, in which every corner is filled with jottings and drafts. What its existence proves is that the poem existed before the page in Songs of Experience.

William Blake, Songs of Experience, 'The Tyger', 1794

Better examples can be found in Kenneth Patchen's Painted Poems:

"It happens that very often my writing with pen is interrupted by my writing with brush, but I think of both as writing," said poet Kenneth Patchen. "In other words, I don’t consider myself a painter. I think of myself as someone who has used the medium of painting in an attempt to extend." – Poet's Org

Kenneth Patchen, Poem, 1976

Throughout his prolific career, Patchen produced more than forty volumes of poetry and prose, most with a visual component.

"Like Picasso," wrote Henry Miller in 1946, "[Patchen] makes use of everything. The innovator and initiator are strong in him … One is no longer looking at a dead, printed book but at something alive and breathing, something which looks back at you with equal astonishment. Novelty is employed not as seduction but like the stern fist of the Zen master to awaken and arouse the consciousness of the reader."

Patchen is doing nothing new. The Spanish artist Joan Miró had been there before him. Possessing a deep love for poetry the artist once commented, "I make no distinction between painting and poetry." In his poetry paintings, Miró would write poetic phrases on his canvasses. One of the most famous examples of Miró’s poetry-paintings is his painting-poem of 1938, which features the French expression "une étoile caresse le sein d’une négresse" ("a star caresses the breast of a black woman") atop a vast black background.

Joan Miró, A Star Caresses the Breast of a Negress (Painting Poem), 1938

It is becoming more and more common to incorporate text in works of art these days. Miró was very clear that what he was doing was melding poetry and art but not all artists are as clear. The Californian artist artist Tauba Auerbach, who used to work as a sign painter, often includes text in her works like this one:

Tauba Auerbach, Subtraction (Startling),
Ink and pencil on paper 27" x 27" (2007)

which is reminiscent of the concrete poem by Edwin Morgan only this is art and his is a poem. She often uses eye charts, binary systems and elementary design to reveal the extensional functions of language. Are you looking at a poem or a painting? Or does it only become a poem when she says it is?

Visual poetry

I left tackling this heading till last, even though I shifted its place in the list. The main reason was I found myself struggling to draw a real distinction between concrete poetry and visual poetry. Wikipedia provides this help:

It should be noted here that there remains some debate regarding the distinction between concrete poetry and visual poetry. There are three dominant views regarding the issue. One view is that visual poetry is synonymous with concrete poetry. A second view is that visual poetry is a type (or sub-category) of concrete poetry. And the last view (adopted in this article) is that visual poetry has evolved into a visual form distinct from concrete poetry. This view is supported by work identified as visual poetry in which, typographic elements are secondary to visual elements, or are minimal, or in some cases are absent altogether from the work.

So, if I take the third definition, then I'm looking for works in which there is both text and a visual image but where the text is subordinate to the visuals.

In his essay, From Concrete to Visual Poetry, with a Glance into the Electronic Future, Klaus Peter Dencker provides a whole selection of attempts to define and distinguish visual poetry from concrete poetry. At the end he has a go at putting it all in one sentence:

If concrete poetry has been made to serve against the wearing out of language and for the discovery of a new literalness, a new material and language awareness, then the chief service of visual poetry lies in the discovery of a new context awareness and new language reference systems, whereby language no longer means only alphabetic language.

The longest running visual poetry magazine online is Kaldron. It probably is one of the best places to start to get to grips with this challenging form of poetry.

An essay on the poet bpNichol provides several examples over the years from the fairly straightforward:

A Study of Context 2: S into H by bpNichol

moving onto this oddity:

Two Birds: After Matisse
(Water Poem # 6)

by bpNichol

which, for the life of me, I cannot identify as a poem. Art, yes, simple and quite restful. But a poem without words? I'm not sold.

Now, this one makes more sense to me but I still think of it as a witty visual pun rather than a poem per se:

Kama Sutra by Avelino de Araujo, 1994

The poet David Cole has this to say about his work:

For me, visual poetry is the presence of line and language within the same space so that the eye and mind inter-react in the 'reading' of the work. I am interested in how the mind makes meanings from fragments of language, all the way down to individual letters floating about, while at the same time seeing the poetic page as an artwork with traditional aesthetic signals which lead the viewer's eye in non-linear ways

Now, have a look at one of his Floor Poems:

Walkabout by David Cole
5' x 5'; 1997

Now, would you not swear blind this was a long lost painting by Jackson Pollock? But let's take a closer look:

Is this art or is this poetry? I dunno. Some people don't think Jackson Pollock was art.

The future of poetry

I have no idea what the future holds for poetry. That's probably not the best sentence to start a section headed 'The future of poetry' but I'm not going to be around to see how the future will pan out. What is obvious is that the growth of technology is going to continue unabated until we have some dirty great financial crash or something more striking that they could make a Hollywood blockbuster out of. Who knows?

In the short term anyway it's clear that younger poets are going to take advantage of every new technological innovation that comes their way. My worry is that content is pretty much going to go out of the window. Most of the visual works I've run across have been pretty. There was one where you could rotate a poem, in 3D, 360° and its fun for five minutes. What I noted after I'd finished playing with it and moved onto other things is that I didn't actually read the ruddy poem. That says it all as far as I'm concerned.

I'm going to leave you with one of the more striking pieces. It reminded me of Beckett's Not I in its intensity and immediacy. It's by Dr. María Mencía, a digital artist and senior lecturer in Digital Media at Kingston University, London, UK, as well as a visiting academic at the RMIT, Melbourne, Australia. She holds a practice-based doctorate in Digital Poetics and Digital Art, University of the Arts – London. It's called Worthy Mouths. It says it all, but too fast for these tired eyes to make out.

Thursday, 7 August 2008

Poetry and art (part two)

Painting is mute poetry and poetry is speaking painting. – Simonides of Kos, 6th century B.C.

Poetry first (illustrations and collaborations)

In the last section we ended on poetry inspired by art. It can work the other way round, of course, Charles Demuth's 1928 painting, I Saw the Figure 5 in Gold is based on the 1920 poem by William Carlos Williams, 'The Great Figure'.


Among the rain
and lights
I saw the figure 5
in gold
on a red
fire truck
to gong clangs
siren howls
and wheels rumbling
through the dark city

Constable's famous painting, The Hay Wain, is in fact a painting about a poem. I may be one written by Constable himself (now lost) about another painting he completed a few months earlier entitled, 'The Hay Wain'. I've also read that the painting may have been inspired by the poem 'The Task' by W. Cowper:

There from the sun-burnt hay-fields, homeward creeps
The loaded Wain; while, lighten’d of its charge,
The wain that meets it passes swiftly by;
The boorish driver leaning o’er his team,
Vociferous, and impatient of delay. (Lines 295-99)

While Meditations, Frank O'Hara's first collection of poetry, was being prepared for publication, he was approached by a publisher about collaborating with artist Larry Rivers. The resulting project, a series of twelve lithographs titled Stones, was produced between 1957 and 1960. For the work, Rivers and O'Hara worked directly on the stones from which the lithographs were made. O'Hara had to write backward so the text would be readable in the finished lithograph

Frank O'Hara, A City Winter and Other Poems,
with two drawings by Larry Rivers. 1951

In 1993, artist Jane Hammond commissioned John Ashbery to create a set of titles that would act as catalysts for her work. The sixty paintings Hammond created in response to Ashbery’s titles are collected in The Ashbery Collaboration, published in 2002 by Cleveland Center for Contemporary Art. Judith Stein writes on detail about the project at BNet.

Of course the more common coming together of words and art is the often underappreciated art of book illustration. When I recently reviewed Rachel Fox's poetry collection I compared her to Libby Houston and referenced Houston's second collection, Plain Clothes. What I didn't mention is that Plain Clothes is illustrated by her husband, Mal Dean who did a lot of book illustrations; his cartoons, drawings and paintings have also been published separately.

Libby Houston, Plain Clothes,
with illustrations by Mal Dean. 1971

It's certainly not the first poetry collection I've seen with black and white drawings incorporated. To be honest I never gave it much thought in the past. It's like walking into some waiting room and there happens to be a print on the wall; it's just there.

I've never considered asking anyone to illustrate any of my poems but some editors in the past have done. Here's an example from a magazine called Works. I couldn't see a date on it but the poem dates from 1987. (He also removed the dedication – that annoyed me).


I circumcised my heart for her.
It lay bare and bled for days.
But after a while it turned hard.

I still said those familiar things
because I'd always said them and
once they I said them to you
but I don't know if they're true.

(For M.)

The question, and I obviously don't have the answer, is: was the art created to go with the poem or did he just have a few pictures lying around and that one seemed (to him) to be the best fit? I don't think it goes at all.

There are many issues here. Does a poem need illustration? What happens if the wrong illustration is put with the poem? Does it ruin it in some way?

On his website Gene T. adds photographs to a number of Robert Frost poems including 'The Road Not Taken'. This is the picture he uses:

Now Gene comes across as a well meaning guy. And he's gone to a lot of bother to try and get it right. The photo was taken on the Robert Frost Farm, in Derry, New Hampshire where Frost lived from 1900 to 1911. The thing is, the image of the crossroads came to Frost after that and this is confirmed by letter a he wrote to Susan Hayes Ward on February 10, 1912:

Two lonely cross-roads that themselves cross each other I have walked several times this winter without meeting or overtaking so much as a single person on foot or on runners. The practically unbroken condition of both for several days after a snow or a blow proves that neither is much travelled.

I don’t think the image is right myself. It's not what I have in my head but has any harm been done? I don't think so but I don't need a photograph to appreciate the imagery of the poem in fact if I'm honest I don't actually visualise any crossroads. The word 'crossroads' and the connotations attached to that word exist without any specific image. Hmm… interesting.

Poetry that looks like art (concrete poetry / typographic poetry)

Concrete poetry is defined as:

…poetry in which the typographical arrangement of words is as important in conveying the intended effect as the conventional elements of the poem, such as meaning of words, rhythm, rhyme and so on.

At least that's what Wikipedia says and it's not especially helpful. I found a better description of concrete poetry by Dan Waber:

Concrete poets spend so much time looking at the physical substance of language that they find they can't help looking for the physical substance of language in places where most people – and most poets – never think to look.

The human brain seems hardwired, no matter what, for pattern recognition and for metaphor making. All good poetry is actively engaged in the latter. All good concrete poetry actively engages both. – Minimalist Concrete Poetry

Okay that's a bit better. In Theory of Concrete Poetry (1975) its central argument states (in part):

…concrete poetry begins by taking into account graphic space as a structural agent, qualified space; spatio-temporal space, in place of merely temporal-lineal development; thence the importance of the idea of the ideogram… - The Currents of Concretism

Defining concrete poetry is proving a difficult thing but I found this wee list by Ariadne Unst which I found helpful, if a little repetitive:

  • If you remove the form of the poem, you weaken the poem.
  • In some (though not all) Concrete Poems, the form contains so much significant meaning of the poem that, if you remove the form of the poem, you destroy the poem.
  • The arrangement of letters and words creates an image that offers the meaning visually.
  • The white space of the page can be a significant part of the poem.
  • Such poems can include a combination of lexical and pictorial elements.
  • The physical arrangement in a Concrete Poem can provide a cohesion that the actual words lack. This allows a poem to ignore standard syntax, and logical sequencing.
  • While such poetry is predominantly experienced as visual poetry, some concrete poetry is sound poetry. In general, concrete poetry attempts to give its audience the more immediate experience of art that is achieved by viewers of art or hearers of music. –

Why do they all have to be so damn wordy? Here's my list:

  • Concrete poetry is an artistic expression of written language.
  • Concrete poets make designs out of letters and words.
  • Concrete poetry is a poem in the shape of its subject or something related to the subject of the poem.
  • The shape of the poem is far more important than with normal linear poetry.
  • Even though the visual pattern may catch our eye, it is the language itself that makes the poem poetic.

Let's look at a few simple examples:

'Spotted Owl,' by Court Smith, The Eloquent Umbrella, 1990, p. 35.

I like this one because… well, there's no owl in the picture.

'Breezes,' by Court Smith, The Windless Orchard, 31, p. 12

This one is less my kind of poem but I think it's a better example because there's no one way to read the piece. It's as if the wind has blown the words about and, for an instant, they've gathered in this shape and this is a snapshot of that moment.

The concrete poetry movement started in Europe and Brazil in the 1950s and 1960s. In the mid-fifties, Eugene Gomringer in Switzerland and a group of poets working together in Brazil, defined concrete poetry as writing that "begins by being aware of graphic space as a structural agent", so that words or letters can be juxtaposed, not only in relation to each other but also to the page area as a whole. The Brazilians - Décio Pignatari, Augusto and Haroldo de Campos-defined "concrete" with an emphasis on the word as a unit in space.

In his essay, From Concrete to Visual Poetry, with a Glance into the Electronic Future, Klaus Peter Dencker makes this helpful comment:

No customary left-right reading will work, no usual sentences, no given sequencing, not even words that had once been complete-the reader must himself become productive, discover constellations, determine double meanings of words, develop his own history with the language material being offered.

What I have struggled to find is why exactly the term concrete poetry to describe what is the most abstract of literary forms.

In this example by the Scottish poet, Edwin Morgan, the shape of the poem effectively gets his point over, the consequence of time on our understanding of history. It's vaguely reminiscent of some ancient scrap of paper: think Dead Sea Scrolls and you'll see where my head is.

The Swiss poet and artist, Eugen Gomringer, who single-handedly founded the European branch of the concrete poetry movement, gives this rather striking example of how to interact with concrete poetry although I would suggest it could be applied to all poetry to be honest.

The constellation is the simplest possible kind of configuration in poetry which has for its basic unit the word; it encloses a group of words as if it were drawing stars together to form a cluster.

The constellation is an arrangement, and at the same time, a play-area of fixed dimensions.

The constellation is ordered by the poet. He determines the play-area, the field or force and suggests its possibilities. The reader, the new reader, grasps the idea of play, and joins in.

In the constellation something is brought into the world. It is a reality in itself and not a poem about something or other. The constellation is an invitation. – From Line to Constellation

Here's a nice index to concrete poems you can find online.

A very long and detailed essay Poetry: A World View by Mary Ellen Solt is also worth investigating.


The Internet has, of course, allowed this to move onto the next logical step, animated poetry. Three straightforward examples can be found in Born Magazine #1: 'Five Kinds of Weather Roll Across Texas', 'Among the Gospel Trees the Only Moving Thing' and 'What Afterlife'. Here's another of a poem by Octavio Paz, 'Certainty'.

The problem with all of these is that I found having the pace of the poem forced upon my a bit annoying. But perhaps I do read too quickly at times and need to be slowed down.

And then we move onto interactive poetry. Interactivity was a big thing a while ago. People got all excited about it about the same time as someone invented the term "virtual reality" and suggested it might be a bit better than real reality for some cockamamie reason.

Robert Kendall's 'Clues', is an interactive poem including pictures. I'm not sure I get it and I may not be doing it right but it's intriguing. It reminds me of those novels that never really caught on where the author gave you several options: if you want A. to happen turn to page x, if you want B. to happen turn to page y and if you want C. to happen just keep on reading. I liked the idea but it needed the Internet for all that to come together.

A slightly better example is 'Insomnia' by David Jewell where you do get to choose the direction the poem takes.

Jim Andrews' Nio is a more playful piece. In an interview he describes it:

The particular content in it now is a two part interactive audio piece for the Web that combines sound poetry, music, and visual poetry of my animations and vocals. I hope people see it suggests a new form of music. Though, since the audio and the visuals are pretty tightly conjoined, it might be described as a multimedia form rather than solely a musical form. The underlying program, which I wrote in Lingo, is a player, like the Real Player is a player, of synchronized, interactive layers and sequences of audio and animations for the Web. You interactively construct these layers and sequences of sound/animation. It synchronizes multiple layers of rhythmic sound and provides uninterrupted audio between sequenced sound files, and synchronizes the animations with the sound. - Turbulence

A "still" from 'Nio' by Jim Andrews

Here are three more conventionally animated examples of poems by Billy Collins:




There are a few sites that use animation not simply to compliment the poetry but to attract children. A number of examples can be found on the BBC site. Personally I'm not sure how much these would keep a child's attention. I suppose they might do for an hour or so. I'm a bit too far away from being around little kids to make a realistic assessment.

Another type of animated poem leans more towards concrete poetry. Here are a number of delightful little examples by the Argentinean poet Ana María Uribe, which she calls anipoems: Gym 1, Rebound 1, Spring, Winter and Ladder 3 and this is what she has to say about them:

In Anipoems, the main components are typography and motion, in that order. And once motion is added, rhythm becomes all important, since I work with repetition and short sequences of elements.

Typography and words - as in the old Typoems [her name for static poems] - are still the main elements, since the letters themselves are my source of inspiration. They project themselves into the world around me and they act upon it, and not, as much, the other way around, as one might be led to believe.

These were very early examples. She has since moved on and included sound:

These more recent works also begin to have a plot, however simple it may be. There is a timeline with a starting point, a climax and a denouement. 'A Busy Day' depicts one day in the life of Mr. @. In 'Discipline' the "h"'s (a letter which in Spanish is always mute) are tyrannized by a dictator. In 'Deseo - Desejo – Desire' - a trilingual "erotic" Anipoem - the letters "s" and "i" in "desire" join in a tango dance, forming the Spanish word "si" (=yes), in apparent acceptance. However, on a second reading, "si" in Spanish also means "if", so success should not be taken for granted after all.

In interview she expresses her opinion on e-poetry in general:

I translated the titles into English. On the other hand, language is no obstacle to understanding my web work because most of the poems are based on letters and not words. This is natural: any references you find there are universal. It is obvious that differences in appreciation stem from the various cultural backgrounds.

Nevertheless, I would not say this about all electronic poetry. Some e-poems are very universal. Anybody can understand [the Vietnamese writer] Duc Thuan's 'She' although it is based on an English word. Jim Andrews 'Seattle Drift' is visually so expressive that we sense its meaning even if we do not understand the text. We also have sound e-poems that do not require mastering any language. Most e-poetry, however, is language dependent.

Jim Andrews' 'Ound Poem' is quite lovely but I'm not sure I get it. Dan Waber's short collection Strings and Strings II are definitely worth checking out.

A "still" from 'Ound' by Jim Andrews

I'm actually not sure I get most visual poetry. A lot of them strike me as a puzzle to work out, visual metaphors, and when you've got them that's it.

Part three

p.s. if you can get Film 4 then do yourself a favour and set your recorder for Saturday 01:35 BST. The film is Quiet City. I mentioned it a few blogs ago. It is a beautiful film where nothing particularly happens but that isn't especially important.

Monday, 4 August 2008

Poetry and art (part one)

Poetry and painting are done in the same way you make love; it's an exchange of blood, a total embrace – without caution, without any thought of protecting yourself. – Joan Miro (clearly a pre-AIDS quote)

In his lecture 'The Relations Between Poetry and Painting', poet Wallace Stevens, asserts that there is "a universal poetry", of which literary poetry and painting are manifestations. Art and composition are one; poetry and painting alike created through composition. "Where the poet does his job by virtue of an effort of the mind he is in rapport with the painter, who does his job with respect to the problems of form and colour."

Artists have become writers and writers have become artists. I've been an artist in the past, not an especially good artist I have to say, but I enjoyed the process. I was a very mathematical artist. I measured things. I worked on paper first, transferred the drawing from paper to a Daler board using carbon paper, inked in the outlines and then filled in the blanks with oil paint using the tiniest of brushes, an 0 or an 00, and even tinier amounts of paint which I worked into the board carefully. A single A4 sized painting could take me 6 months. Only two have survived I'm afraid. My wife had them framed a few years back and they hang in our living room.

Robert Creeley has said that presenting people with both poetry and visual art "shifts the emotional centre." Speaking of artist Francesco Clemente, with whom he collaborated, he said, "Any person reading what I've written and seeing what he's made is moving back and forth between two emotional fields." He went on, "It's not a question of understanding the paintings, but of picking up their vibes – more like playing in a band."

Robert Creeley, Just in Time: Poems 1984-1994
cover illustration by Francesco Clemente

When I made my paintings – and it's over twenty years since I've had a brush in my hand – I considered what I was doing as a completely separate thing to my writing. I had never considered that art might have anything to do with writing. Even now, older and supposedly wiser, I still struggle with the notion. It's an oil and water thing. Oil and water don't mix but oil can make some pretty shapes floating around in water.

Anyway, I've been thinking about the relationship between poetry and art for some time so I thought I'd do some investigation and the following, which will run over three blogs, are the results.

Poets and artists (friendships)

Poets and artists have bummed around together for years. It's not as if we have different tables in the café. "Oh, sorry, you can't sit here – this is the artist's table." We're all after the same thing, to provide a reader or a viewer an opportunity to interact with a part of us.

The New York School poets and painters shared a social scene and a community, appearing frequently in each other's work and letters, reading together, working on literary journals, and becoming champions of each other’s poetry and artwork.

In, City Poet, Brad Gooch’s biography of Frank O’Hara, he provides perhaps the best (and most predictable) explanation for the collaborations of the New York School – a preference for the same drinking establishments:

We were all in our early twenties. John Ashbery, Barbara Guest, Kenneth Koch, and I, being poets, divided our time between the literary bar, the San Remo, and the artists’ bar, the Cedar Tavern. In the San Remo we argued and gossiped: in the Cedar we often wrote poems while listening to the painters argue and gossip. So far as I know nobody painted in the San Remo while they listened to the writers argue and gossip.

It's all very understandable. Poets write about what's going on around them. And artists draw and paint what they see. It must have been the most natural thing for them to make art (both written and visual) out of their parties, squabbles, affairs and booze-ups.

The Frank O’Hara poem 'Why I Am Not a Painter' begins:

I am not a painter, I am a poet.
Why? I think I would rather be
a painter, but I am not. Well,

for instance, Mike Goldberg
is starting a painting. I drop in
"Sit down and have a drink" he
says. I drink; we drink. I look
up. "You have SARDINES in it."

I get that but there were no sardines in any of my paintings; in fact my paintings were devoid of meaning. I admit that quite happily up front. I was not an artist in the purest sense of the word. Oh, I have an eye – that I am happy to admit – but no real ability. What I did was techie drawing coloured in. And yet there have been so many times I wished I could pick up a piece of paper and a pencil and words NOT flow from it.

Mike Goldberg, Sardines, 1955

Beckett, of course, maintained lifelong friendships with a number of artists; Louis le Brocquy, Avigdor Arikha and especially Jack B. Yeats spring to mind but there were others. Ever since people have written about Beckett they've noted that he's a writer who is, even more than usual, interested in images. In his biography of Beckett, James Knowlson writes that, according to Arikha, Beckett "could spend as much as an hour in front of a single painting, looking at it with intense concentration, savouring its forms and its colours, reading it, absorbing its minutest detail."

Similarly, in 1951, poet Frank O’Hara got a job selling postcards at the gift shop of the Museum of Modern Art in New York City – simply so he could have access to the paintings; he often wrote poems while he worked at the counter, and his friends in the art world often stop by to visit; in time he actually worked his way up to the position of associate curator.

There were many artists that influenced Beckett's work and that you can see in his work but I find it interesting what he had to say about the work of Jack Yeats:

What I feel he gets so well, dispassionately, not tragically like Watteau, is the heterogenicity of nature and the human denizens, the unalterable alienness of the 2 phenomena, the 2 solitudes, or the solitude and the loneliness, the loneliness in solitude, the impassable immensity between the solitude that cannot quicken to loneliness and the loneliness that cannot lapse into solitude.

It's doubtful that Yeats would have seen this in his own work and equally unlikely that this was in his mind as he painted but this solitude is what Beckett saw and went on to extend to the humans in his plays and novels.

Jack B. Yeats, O’Connell Bridge, 1927

I have to admit that, although I have a great love of art, I've never known any artists. I spent a few hours with a printmaker in Aberdeen – much to his annoyance I'm sure – and watched him work but that's about it. Actually, that's not true, Margaret, one of my friends' mums was an artist, but I never even saw any of her pictures until I knocked on her door to tell her my mum had died and art wasn't really on my mind right then.

The painters I appreciate the most are Magritte and Hopper. There was a documentary on BBC4 a wee while back where Michael Palin investigated the life of the Danish artist Vilhelm Hammershøi and I was totally bowled over by his work. But I've never been so moved by any painting that I've felt the need to put my feelings into words.

Here's the Hammershøi I have on my desktop at the moment:

Vilhelm Hammershøi, Interior, 1903-04

Art first, poetry second

When you think of an artist's response to a work of art probably the first thing you think of is 'Ode on a Grecian Urn' by John Keats. Its inspiration is considered to be a visit by Keats to the exhibition of Grecian artefacts accompanying the display of the 'Elgin Marbles' at the British Museum.

There are a number online like 'Persistence of Memory', based on the painting of the same name by Salvador Dalí, by Gayle M. Petty;

Ferlinghetti's 'Monet's Lilies Shuddering';

Rachel Fox's 'She’s not there' inspired by Joan Eardley's self portrait – ‘Joan Eardley, 1921 -1963, Artist’ 1943;

Cathy Song's 'Girl Powdering Her Neck' after the print by Kitagawa Utamaro;

and Anne Sexton's 'The Starry Night' based on Van Gogh's painting, coincidentally also the inspiration for Don McLean's song 'Vincent (Starry, Starry Night)' (which a few weeks back I mistakenly attributed to Leonard Cohen).

One poet who has made a practice of writing poetry about specific works of art is Mark Young. He runs a blog called mark young's Series Magritte where he regularly presents us with a painting by Magritte (and there have been one or two I wasn't familiar with) coupled with a poem about the piece.

William Carlos Williams wrote a whole book of poems about an artist, Pictures from Brueghel and Other Poems. It has its own website.

Brueghel's an interesting choice for Williams who regarded himself as a Modernist first and then a poet. Like Beckett, Williams was one who celebrated Modernism, but both artists could be inspired by the old masters. In Williams' case, Brueghel, da Vinci, Dürer, Botticelli, Bosch, El Greco and Gauguin; in Beckett's Poussin and the Dutch masters of the Golden Age, and of course Caspar David Friedrich.

Williams himself took every opportunity to remind his audience that he worked across boundaries: "For poet read – artist, painter." Williams thought about the creative process in painterly terms, and he asks us to experience the work as we might experience a modern painting: "There is no subject; it's what you put on the canvas and how you put it on that makes the difference. Poems aren't made of thoughts – they’re made of words, pigments put on ..." In an interview with Walter Sutton, Williams said explicitly, "I've attempted to fuse the poetry and painting, to make it the same thing."

Like Beckett many of Williams' closest friends were painters and/or collectors, and although he kept a safe distance from Greenwich Village, he made regular weekend visits, frequenting the informal salons of Alfred Stieglitz, Walter Arensberg, Alfred Kreymborg, Man Ray, and others. (See William Carlos Williams in a World of Painters by Bonnie Costello for more information).

Everyone knows Waiting for Godot but what a lot of people won't know is that the inspiration for this great theatrical work was a painting. Beckett told Ruby Cohn that he had remembered a Casper David Friedrich painting, 'Two Men Looking at the Moon', which he had seen during his trip to Germany prior to World War Two and had adapted this image, staging it in En attendant Godot.

I've mentioned poets up till now but other writers have also been inspired by art. My wife's longevity-enhanced, blind traveller, Blind Carbon Copy, was created first but as soon as Carrie saw Picasso's painting 'The Man with the Blue Guitar', he came to represent the character from that point on.

Better known will be Tracy Chevalier's novel Girl with a Pearl Earring inspired by the painting by Vermeer. Susan Vreeland's 1999 novel Girl in Hyacinth Blue, was also inspired by a Vermeer painting, 'The Passion of Artemisia'.

Ekphrastic poetry

It sounds Greek so it probably is Greek. In his book, Museum of Words: The Poetics of Ekphrasis from Homer to Ashberry, James A. W. Heffernan states that ekphrasis is “Composed from the Greek words ek (out) and phrazein (tell, declare, pronounce), ekphrasis originally meant ‘telling in full.’"

We're told by historians (who supposedly know about these things) that dating back to the 4th century school boys were taught to write poems about the architecture, museum art, grand public places and everyday objects such as goblets, urns or vases – for the benefit of those citizens who had little access to them. I'm not sure which citizens wouldn't have access to urns and vases but I'm just reporting what I read somewhere.

In its earliest, most restricted sense, ekphrasis referred to the verbal description of a visual representation, often of an imagined object such as the shield of Achilles in the Iliad which most texts agree is the "original" classic ekphrasitic poem expressing the principle (outlined in Horace’s Ars Poetica) of ut pictura poesis (poetry as a speaking picture and painting as mute poetry),

The point to this kind of poetry, which is probably why it's often used in schools to introduce children to poetry, is that you are not being asked to describe the work of art in question but how it makes you feel; it's a response to the art, as if you've entered the work rather than simply observed it.

I found this sheet online for a teacher to use as a handout:

Perspectives in Writing Ekphrastic Poetry

As you begin to write your ekphrastic poems, consider the following approaches:

  • Write about the scene or subject being depicted in the artwork.

  • Write in the voice of a person or object shown in the work of art.

  • Write about your experience of looking at the art.

  • Relate the work of art to something else it reminds you of.

  • Imagine what was happening while the artist was creating the piece.

  • Write in the voice of the artist.

  • Write a dialogue among characters in a work of art.

  • Speak directly to the artist or the subject(s) of the piece.

  • Write in the voice of an object or person portrayed in the artwork.

  • Imagine a story behind what you see depicted in the piece.

  • Speculate about why the artist created this work.

Lisa Rhody—who was at the time calling herself “Calamity Jane” and was working towards her Ph.D. at the University of Maryland—has put a lot of effort into laying out Conventions of Ekphrasis. They're worth having a look at and the comments are intelligent too.

An interview with the poet, Jennifer Bosveld about how she goes about writing ekphrastic poetry is also of interest.

I'll leave you with Jennifer Bosveld's poem 'Man and Dog'. I did look for an image of the poem that inspired this online but I drew a blank and I wonder if this weakens the poem any? I'm not familiar with the artist so I can't even guess how he would portray a man and his dog. Any thoughts?

Man and Dog

     response to George Wesley Bellows (1882-1925)
     Man and Dog
     oil on canvas, gift from collection of Everett D. Reese
     to Columbus Museum of Art, 1998

blacks and browns at first glance
drawn in to a
sleeping border collie
round as a cake at the man’s feet
the man
waits for nothing
is thinking of nothing
all that matters is
the breathing of the dog, that it does
and the man’s long black coat
brown suede gloves
bowler hat are
shelter enough
as he waits on the stool for the dog

to have his rest
in this dark corner of an alley
that could be anywhere
the man’s only thought
is the dog
to watch over it
and will take no turn at sleep
will not close his eyes
though nothing enters them that matters
everything that means
means only in relationship
to the dog
the man’s leash on the dog
is his leash on the world
here, this moment, is all
and ever

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