Saturday, 24 January 2015

I want you to go

A number of poets work as Teachers of English as a Foreign Language. Doing so for a prolonged period has major drawbacks, especially if your only contact with English is through your pupils, as your own linguistic use easily becomes stilted. However, there are also considerable benefits. Above all, you find yourself in the position of explaining points that you never had to learn consciously yourself, thus bringing about a major reassessment of your relationship with your native tongue.

When first in Spain, I did a lot of TEFL work. I found that the Spanish tended to speak English in something of a monotone, not feeling its bounces. Of course, Spanish metrics count syllables instead of stresses, and that is a reflection of how stress and intonation differ between both languages.

Over time, I realised that English-language poetry was a useful tool in the classroom: I would ask my pupils to recite lines of pentameter to work on that afore-mentioned intonation. Meanwhile, another favourite activity was to take a sentence and analyse how its meaning would be altered by a slight shift in intonation. I often used the following example, the brackets providing an unspoken illustration in each case :

I want you to go (but your mother doesn't)
I want you to go (I really do)
I want you to go (not your brother)
I want you to go (not to come)

I recall rows of flabbergasted Spaniards trying to get to grips with an implicit semantic use of intonation and stress that just didn't exist in Iberia. The nuances might sound so obvious to a native speaker, but I had to go through a considerable process of working out how my own language functioned before I was able to explain them to my pupils.

In other words, coming to English afresh from a foreigner's perspective is a terrific experience for any writer. For a poet it's even more enriching.

Sunday, 18 January 2015

The accumulation of detail, D.A. Prince's Common Ground

There’s no impatience in the poetry of D.A. Prince throughout Common Ground, her second full collection (HappenStance Press, 2014), no sudden foreshortening or abrupt change of gear, no shocking thrust toward the core of inspiration. And nor is it a poetry of the peeling of layers as focus is gradually revealed.

All very well, you might say. It’s easy to pinpoint how her verse doesn’t operate, but just how does it work? Well, D.A. Prince is a specialist in the almost-unnoticed accumulation of emotional impact. Her work builds imperceptibly, detail on detail, gathering momentum line after line. One such instance can be found in the final two stanzas of “P.O.W.”:

“…She waited
while he stripped the chicken carcass,
every sliver, not a scrap wasted,
leaving the bones polished,
scoured of meat, a gleam on the plate.

It was only over
with the last shred eliminated
and the silence reshaped around him.”

This poem homes in on a series of minor points so as to generate major impact.

Now I’ve read elsewhere that D.A. Prince’s poetry is lacking in humour. I’m afraid I couldn’t disagree more. It’s absolutely packed with the stuff. Not laugh-out-loud ribald jokes, not the funny-bone fireworks of early Armitage, but the slow-burning wry grin of keen observation. A personal favourite is the role reversal that’s portrayed in “Responsibilities”, as the offspring worry about their parents:

“…They confide in friends
over school lunches: where did they go wrong?
and will we ever learn? They whisper how
they have to check our bags, can’t trust us
with the car. What if we’re taken into care?
That they’re too young for this.”


Just as double-acts (i.e. the straight and funny man) work by creating uncertainty, so humour plays a crucial role throughout Common Ground by playing off D.A. Prince’s precise control of those afore-mentioned accumulated details. This is a poetry of unsuspected ramifications. Readers underestimate it at their peril!

Wednesday, 14 January 2015

Clarissa Aykroyd's The Stone and the Star blog

Another year, another excellent poetry blog comes to my attention...

... this time it's Clarissa Aykroyd's The Stone and the Star. Her blog is especially interesting because it often draws on out-of-copyright poems that can thus be republished and discussed in situ. Moreover, Aykroyd doesn't just slap verse up there and deal with it superficially. Instead, she gets her hands dirty and homes in on how the verse functions.

Perhaps my favourite out of all the recent posts on The Stone and th Star is Aykroyd's detailed analysis of Keith Douglas' "Words". Okay, so I'm a committed Douglas fan, but she really does the poem justice. Furthermore, her piece encourages me to reread his verse in the light of her remarks.What greater recommendation can I give...?!

Friday, 9 January 2015

Striking a balance

My four years at Oxford sharpened my critical capacity. Those one-on-one tutorials taught me how to dismember or defend a stance on a text. However, they also blunted my creativity and enjoyment of reading.

At the time, I was surprised to find so few tutors were also writers, but I later realised that their constant deep analysis of the relative virtues of existing texts inhibited their capacity to create: when committing words to paper they were only too aware of their own deficiencies. One Spanish lecturer even struggled to bring himself to publish his critical articles, such were his demanding standards.

As a reader, meanwhile, my time at Oxford changed the way I approached a text. In my teenage years I’d fallen in love with books for the way they captivated me. Oxford took that away. I was no longer captivated. Instead, I was coached to assess a text’s value from the first word.  

I do worry that many critics (and poet-critics) have fallen out of love with literature, and that’s why I left academia as soon as I’d finished my undergraduate degree. Almost twenty years later, I’m finally capable of letting a text wash over me once more, before stepping back and taking it apart.


However, there’s also the opposite end of the spectrum. Writers who haven’t developed a critical eye are at a severe disadvantage when looking to improve their work. All poets should write reviews, not necessarily for publication but as a way of getting to grips with their own views on verse. It’s all very well for us to state that we like or loathe a book, but the key is in coherently putting our arguments down on paper. Learning to do so will make us better poets. It’s a question of striking a balance.

Wednesday, 7 January 2015

Poems from the Road now on SoundCloud

Following its weekly slot throughout December on Hive Radio, Poems from the Road is now available on demand via SoundCloud. It's well worth a listen. I was also delighted to see the excellent feature on it here, which even mentions my poem from the podcast.

Thursday, 18 December 2014

Gestures of love, Rebecca Farmer's Not Really

The easy way out for this reviewer would be to declare that Rebecca Farmer's Not Really (Smith-Doorstep, 2014) is concerned with mortality. At first glance, death seems a dominating theme in her pamphlet.

Of course, that would be to ignore a couple of obvious truths. Someone cannot die without a preceding life. Other people continue to live after a death. A reminder of these two facts enables us to get to grips with Farmer's verse.

Before homing in on the nitty-gritty of the poetry, one additional caveat is required: the poems in Not Really are so charged and moving that the reviewer ends up in even greater danger than usual of blending the poet with the verse. Such emotion is evoked and invoked that the distance between the two is compressed. However, this separation should never be ignored and is key to any assessment of Farmer's poetic qualities.

Let's start with the first of those afore-mentioned truths, that someone cannot die without a preceding life. In this respect, Not Really is terrific at the treasuring of moments and the depiction of gestures of love amid suffering, as in the following extract from the collection's title poem:

"...They ask him if he's in pain; not really, he says.
You curl beside him and he strokes your feet.

Farmer is also especially good at capturing the essence of experiences, making the reader live through them too, in a new and pesonal way. In "The Diagnosis", for example, she creates a disembodied music and syntactic structure that reflect the semantics:

"...Your name is called.
The doctor hasn't read his script,
he doesn't say this is what it is,

but you look pale.
He looks at me.
Does he look pale to you?

Pale? Pale as what -
pale as this December 10 O'Clock?
Yes, he looks pale, I say."

And now for the second truth, that other people continue to live after a death. One of Farmer's favoured devices is the role of ghosts. They crop up in several poems. They are characters. They take on human traits. As such, their haunting qualities are exacerbated. In "The Fridges of Ghosts", we (i.e. those who have been left behind) are watching...

"...as the ghosts freeze old memories in cubes
and to keep themselves amused

photograph each other on their phones..."

I hope these snippets from Not Really, together with their related analysis, are sufficient to demonstrate that Rebecca Farmer's verse shouldn't be pigeon-holed as confesssional. I can't claim it's an easy read, but that's not because of the presence of death itself. Instead, it's due to her talent for involving the reader. Farmer aims to unsettle us so as to make us consider our own lives afresh, and she succeeds throughout her pamphlet. Read it if you dare!