Tuesday, 24 February 2015

Poetic truth

The truth in its literal sense isn't a destination to be found by verse but a point of departure. In fact, an obstinate quest to render certain moments or scenes in a "truthful" way often inhibits a poem. Add a few swirling drops of fiction and a more authentic, arresting and unexpected truth suddenly emerges...

Wednesday, 18 February 2015

Poetry as commemoration

A great deal of writing is an act of commemoration. It's a grabbing on to feelings, thoughts, experiences before they slip away, and poetry is no exception.

For example, I haven't dialled my childhood telephone number for over a decade. I might be struggling to remember it by now if I hadn't written the following poem from Inventing Truth, my 2011 HappenStance pamphlet:

01252 722698

You worked your way round my milk teeth,
sung umpteen times before you stuck.
Soon a chameleonic code,
you were my safeguard from a snatch,
then my duty when staying out,
and recently a thankful leap
from trade fairs and dogged insects.
My fingers refuse to leave you.

Of course, my aim in this poem is to involve the reader, implicitly asking whether they too still recall their first telephone number. Well, do you?

Saturday, 14 February 2015

Delicious discoveries

I've blogged previously about my love affair with second hand bookshops, in part out of fear that they could disappear in the midst of Amazon's onslaught. However, I'm becoming more and more convinced they inhabit a niche that will ensure their survival.

Here's one such example. When in Chichester, I take every chance to head down South Street to Kim's Bookshop and scan their poetry section. Back at Christmas, I spotted a copy of Conor O'Callaghan's Seatown. I was vaguely familiar with O'Callaghan's work via anthologies, but I'd never read any of his collections. £3 and two hours later, I was a firm fan, ready to seek out more of his books.

I would never have happened upon O'Callaghan on Amazon. Physical browsing brings with it the underlying thrill of expectation and hope that a discovery is waiting on the next shelf, while it also enables the shopper to pause, examine the book, maybe even have a sniff (such gorgeous aromas for an addict such as myself) and sample a couple of poems in the aisle before deciding on a purchase.

This facet of second hand bookshops can never be replaced by the internet, just like the joy of paper, the crack of a spine. But that's another post...

Friday, 6 February 2015

Signature poems

One of my best friends has long championed the need for all poets to have signature poems: strong, identifying pieces that act as hooks for readers. Singles on an album might be a decent analogy. For example, two or three poems immediately jump into my mind when certain poets are mentioned, just as specific songs are the advance party for singers.

In this respect, I was drawn to one of The Guardian's Poems of the Week in January. It was Rory Waterman's "Access Visit", taken from his exceptional first collection, Tonight the Summer's Over (Carcanet, 2014). You can read it here, together with Carol Rumens' analysis. When discussing "Access Visit", she encounters many of the qualities that can also be found elsewhere in Waterman's work, all brought together in one of his signature poems.

Monday, 2 February 2015

Good poetry...?

When I browse repetitive threads on Facebook that jostle and strut along with varying definitions of "good poetry", I'm reminded that taste is not just fickle. It's everything. Just as Helena Nelson evoked the decline in popularity of a once-renowned poet in her blog post last weekend, so I'm drawn to compare successful and unsuccessful verse in different countries: Spain and the U.K..

Perhaps my favourite contemporary Spanish poet is Jordi Virallonga. His book, Crónicas de Usura, is jaw-droppingly good. His readings of two of the best pieces from that collection - "Los Ahorros" and "Mira Padre" - are on You Tube, yet their viewing figures barely reach double figures. And most of those views are mine!

Virallonga is not a famous poet in Spain: his poetry is not in vogue. For me, through the filter of my particular tastes, he's exceptional. What's more, his reading style heightens the concentrated intimacy of his work. Why not have a listen to "Mira Padre" (thus also brushing up on your Spanish!) and make your own mind up...?

Wednesday, 28 January 2015

Tom Duddy's The Café

Most of my favourite poetry is dangerous. It breaks the rules and takes risks. By that, I don't mean that it necessarily undermines metrics or flouts grammar. Instead, I'm referring to a great poet's ability to pull off something that shouldn't work at all.

One such example is Tom Duddy's poem "The Café". It comes from his indispensable first full collection, The Hiding Place (Arlen House, 2011), which inhabits my desk alongside his posthumous book, The Years (HappenStance Press, 2014). Duddy achieves delicious simplicity in "The Café", convincing the reader that his words couldn't have been written in any other way. Here's an extract:

"...Though I always ask for one
coffee - regular, black - she
never presumes to guess.
And so each day is a new day.
Which is as it should be.
There is an understanding
that there is no understanding..."

Count those four uses of "is" in eight lines, alongside the seemingly mundane repetition of "day" and "understanding".Yet the poem undoubtedly works. How? Forget logical analysis or explanation, this is verse that's been lifted from the ordinary by Duddy's magisterial touch.

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.