The Ivory Tower and the Gatekeeper

ivory-towerI’ve read a lot of references recently to Gatekeepers being at work in British poetry; editors blocking voices they deem ‘unworthy’ of entry into their ivory tower and ushering in swiftly the Chosen Few. As a poet who has been pestering editors for the last ten years with my (admittedly hit-and-miss) poems, but who has over this time had a few significant successes along with the usual countless rejections, I find this Gatekeeper talk troubling. I want to try and set down why.

The implication is, I think, that white, male editors of (probably) over a certain age, are by rejecting work they don’t like maintaining their own cultural dominance and that of those who share their aesthetic tastes. The further implication is that these tastes represent and reflect white, male social/political domination in general and its continued suppression and repression of the ‘the other’. Perhaps those who make the Gatekeeper allegation would argue also that the problem is that editors are rejecting work they don’t understand (which by this argument is presumably why they don’t like it) because it reflects a racial or social aesthetic outside their known critical parameters. **I hope I am not misrepresenting the Gatekeeper allegation here, if I am, I would welcome comments below**

The problem with this is that it only looks at the situation from one perspective – the Macro. Looked at from the individual perspective of the editor, things seem very different; an observation illustrated perfectly by Michael Schmidt of PN Review in a recent interview in which he told of his exasperated reaction to these sorts of allegations: “I built the fucking gates!”. When someone has spent a lifetime creating a cultural repository and not only put their energy and creative spirit into it but quite possibly gambled with their own capital and livelihood to keep a magazine going for ten, twenty, thirty years it seems like a reasonable thing to a) protect, and b) claim some ownership of. Requesting that an editor forego the right to include in a magazine only those poems they feel meet their personal criteria for ‘good enough’ is like asking someone to relinquish the right to allow or deny entry into their house.

The idea of an ivory tower from the perspective of its gatekeeper, then, takes on a different aspect – not to keep out but to keep in, to maintain and protect. There is, after all, a huge amount of poetry out there, and if it were up to the poets themselves whose work got into magazines it would all get in and there would be no magazine.

That is not where it ends though, because poetry, perhaps more than any other single cultural sphere is the preserve of educated middle classes – and until fairly recently that meant white, relatively well-off and (probably) within the ‘liberal’ range in one direction or another of the political left-right nexus. To that extent the whole medium of expression is an ivory tower. I’m not saying that every poet fits neatly into this ‘educated middle class’ mould, just that those who don’t are exceptions rather than the rule. This has, of course, changed because the social demographics of the country have changed. But my feeling is that social changes hit poetry a little later than other cultural spheres simply because it is so much (traditionally at least) the domain of the ‘comfortable’. Most poets who have found themselves published have not had any particularly strong impetus to support a structural change within poetry because they have succeeded under just those existing structures.

We now find ourselves at a point where the social and ethnic identities of poets are changing – often but not always as a result of the increased influence of social media – but the social and ethnic identities of the editors of established publishing presses and magazines have not yet caught up – there has simply not yet been enough time.

We do ourselves and existing editors a disservice if we lambast them for not being what we would like them to be – we should be celebrating what they have achieved and appreciating the benefit we can gain from their experience. Every rejection after all causes (or provides the opportunity for) reflection on the quality, style etc. of our work. I’m not the only poet presumably who returns to rejected work often only to wonder what possessed me to submit it in the first place!

We need more editors of colour, more female editors, more LBGT editors, and we need those editors to be accepting work that fits with their ideas of what constitutes good poetry – but I don’t see why that also means we need to criticise current editors for successfully establishing and maintaining their businesses.

Precious Mother

heart of the run

My friend the Scottish poet Maggie Mackay has written a pamphlet (The Heart of the Run, Picaroon poetry) which is both moving and thoughtful. Mackay places her deceased mother at the centre of the collection, but it is maternal presence rather than absence that dominates; she – the poet’s mother – sits beside the poems like a ghost, in fact she enfolds them the way the dressing gown enfolds the poet in the opening ‘How to Distil a Guid Scotch Malt’: “Wrap yourself in Mum’s dressing gown, its envelope-hug.” So the reader is left with a sense that the poems themselves are evoking (we might almost say ‘summoning’ as ‘The Glaistig’ is almost summoned in the poem of that name) a departed and much-missed presence for Mackay. These elegiac poems bookend the collection (the final ‘Ghazal’ builds hauntingly with the repetition of “precious mother” but ultimately becomes an expression of the acceptance of mortality as much as a lament: “as you call from the edge of my bed, fly to me, Margaret.”) and the mother figure punctuates the poems throughout, but this is by no means a single-theme collection. One of the most enjoyable aspects of the pamphlet is the unexpected directions it takes. Having started off strongly with two initial poems of Scottish whiskey and myth, the reader might expect the Gaelic motifs to continue, but instead we are whisked off to Tsovkra-1, a Russian village where everyone can walk the tightrope (‘We are Tightrope Walkers from Tsovkra-1’), and then straight away at another tangent to the 16th century and Hernan Cortés twisting a flamenco out of the heat of a chilli (in the wonderfully effective ‘Chilli Peppers’). But as surprising and delightful as these shifts of direction are, they are always linked (Cortés’s “full circle skirt spins” bring him back to the “peppers of the Caucasus”, and the rope image flows through to the subsequent ‘Rope Walk’, a brief but heady evocation of early 1800s Edinburgh and the “stramash of creameries”, the “Rough language” and the “filthy / demonstrations of tumultuous joy” at the Grassmarket Ball. The cumulative effect is of being on a mystery tour in space and time with a guide who knows exactly what they want to show you and why.

Sometimes these ‘linked leaps’ between juxtaposed poems are gentle, and they click into place like the pieces of a jigsaw (I notice especially the lovely, quiet rumination on genetic inheritance and social class that runs between ‘Gardener Grafting on the Estate’: “Gran lives on in the bairn”; and ‘Paisley Pattern’: “A man dies in 1943, gifting prewired traces of movement / to his great granddaughter… // enduring past tuberculosis, factory smoke, malnutrition”). But equally there are occasions when the leap is far more jolting, and sometimes shocking. Immediately after the previously quoted poems we find a peaceful though emotionally loaded moment between sisters beside a loch in ‘this place is everything but dull’ (portraying microcosmic moments from larger unseen dramas and tragedies is one of Mackay’s strengths because she succeeds in the difficult skill of allowing the reader to fill in the ‘macro’ for themselves – providing just enough but not too much information). Then the subsequent poem (‘It’s like being thrown in the washing machine again’) takes the water theme and spins it into the violent and almost surreal image of a child being trapped in a washing machine by his mother. Whether the image is intended purely metaphorically or based in literal truth is unclear, but the appalling power of the image remains, unforgettably conjuring familial fear, disturbed mental health and a sickening sense of betrayal and bullying.  The violence here is actually unrepresentative of a very peaceful collection, but it is all the starker (and becomes all the more central to the pamphlet as a body of poetry) as a result.

Another poem, ‘Fitch’, evokes not so much the threat of violence as a latent and potentially difficult feminine strength represented by the disciplinary possessiveness of the nominally ‘browbeating’ mid-twentieth-century ‘wife’. Mackay’s mother (I assume I am correct in interpreting the mother in all these poems as the poet’s actual mother – and I think from what I know of Maggie that I am) is transformed into the eponymous ‘fitch’ or polecat, “our solitary hunter” who prowls angrily through the poem “…returned to seek out / her ghost husband”, and who “drags” her spouse back home from the library “by the scruff of his neck, / flicking her tail in the scramble over rockery and log pile”. The imagery here is inspired, demolishing the comic stereotype of a ‘battleaxe’ and replacing it (we might even say liberating it) with an intensely powerful sense of female territorialism. “Musk charges the room”, indeed. And when she returns to the kitchen “as a wife might, pressing office shirts”, she is not just ‘doing the ironing’ but “wielding an iron” and there is a world of difference in this wording.

For its clashes and threads, its rich, unexpected imagery and not least for the dazzling colours that run through it (which I have not even mentioned but do so now to tantalise the potential reader) this is a great read, and I would encourage anyone to pick up a copy. I very much look forward to a longer collection in the future.

The Heart of the Run from Picaroon Poetry is available to buy here.

The Windbreaks

monet clifftopa

The Windbreaks

The beach that day could have been a Monet,
the way the wind brushed the high dune grasses
and clouds daubed the sky.
All space and light.

The people on the beach, among them you and I,
are just people-shaped holes in a painting now –
nonsensical blobs of white weave.
But the windbreaks

still move with brighter yellows and bloodier reds
than even Monet would have mixed. And more
than that, they breathe and tremble,
they speak

of tickling and wagging; straining, they sing
with their secret in-out language, moved by the wind,
about the mysterious sifting and glistening
of sand.

 

 

This poem was published in Magma, in 2014.

The illustration above is from one of Monet’s various clifftop scenes, I’m not sure which one…

 

Where Rivers End

displaced children

The Displaced Children of Displaced Children by Faisal Mohyuddin had a lot to live up to from the word go simply because of its spellbinding front cover. I usually try actively to ignore front covers in order to resist their influence on my reading, but this is impossible of course and sometimes you just want to cut them off the book and stick them on your wall. This one by Edwin Smet for Eyewear is one of those, and it leaps out from everything else published this year in its simplicity, mystery and beauty. Whatever lies behind this battered and torn sepia image of a young woman (I assume Pakistani or Indian) with her young child and overlaid with the startling red title and author’s name in white, had better be good.

Luckily, what lies behind the front cover in this case is better than just good.

Faisal Mohyuddin, the son of Pakistani refugees to the USA, has written a collection of meditations on his physical, political, and spiritual origins; and further meditations on how they relate to his present and his future. On one level it is (with the Partition of India, his parents’ emigration from Pakistan, the death of his father, and the birth of his son) a journey through loss and grief towards an equivocal but clearly defined sense of hope. Ultimately, though, the journey is one towards an understanding or acceptance of the forces that created the poet, an immigrant in an often-hostile country. But Mohyuddin is wise enough not to try and provide answers to the difficult and complex questions his family’s history presents; instead, the book is intended, we learn in his lengthy and generous list of thanks at the back, as a gift for his son, to “help illuminate the stories of those who came before you and guide you forward.”

I could select literally any poem in the book to illustrate Mohyuddin’s process of working through his understanding of characters both public (Bhagat Singh, Jinna) and private (his parents, childhood friends) from the last fifty to a hundred years, his own relationship with his religion, and his present-day working life. But what would be harder to show would be the overall rhythm that the poems achieve as they are read one after the other, the emotional shifts and changes of pacing that keep the reader moving through the collection like the rivers that are so central to its imagery.

I’ll pick out two or three example poems to illustrate some of the book’s particular strengths.

The collection begins and ends (almost) with two ghazals, ‘Ghazal for the Diaspora’ and ‘Ghazal for the lost’. The form is apt as it is itself a relatively recent immigrant to English language poetry, and Mohyuddin uses them to illustrate the progression of thought from near despair at the beginning of the collection (“Tell me, Faisal, with what new surrender can you evade deeper damnation? / Whatever it is, hack away, before your children too become the Lost.”) to something closer to hope at the end (“Do you remember, Faisal, what the elders preached about forgetting? Centuries of grief / Had made them wise, taught them to seek the mercy and goodness of mystery.”). ‘Hope’ may be the wrong word here, but the switch from ‘lost’ to ‘mystery’ as the end-word in the second line of each couplet of the ghazals suggests reorientation, recalibration and ownership (if not acceptance) of the inexplicable.

Form is important to Mohyuddin, and more than with many poets it indicates a psychological subtext to the words themselves. For example, in ‘Prayer’, the poem’s short four-line stanzas are split mid-line, creating artificial caesuras, and staggered satisfyingly, aesthetically on the page (prayer mats? thought bubbles? almost, in fact, evocative of the repeated patterns of Islamic art) to evoke a background sense of the calm and order that prayer brings to the faithful, opening up the white space to make it a central part of the words’ meaning rather than existing to one side of it (perhaps reflecting also the way Allah is so much more a part of the constituent grammar of the Arabic of the Koran than God is of the Bible’s English). It also has the effect of splitting the meaning of each line into smaller segments, breaking open the stanzas’ content so that they can only have complete meaning when brought semantically together, again reflecting the Believer’s relationship with God. This form is revisited subtly later in the collection in the sixth part (‘What Burns’) of the long narrative poem ‘Denaturalization: An Elegy for Mr Vaishno Das Bagai, an American’, which relates the tragic suicide of a Hindu immigrant whose American citizenship was revoked as a result of the 1923 Supreme Court ruling that all ‘Asiatics’ be denaturalized. As Bagai slowly comes to realise that he will never be anything in America other than a bird “locked up / in a gilded cage”, the short, split four-line stanzas reflect the earlier ‘Prayer’ but in this case they are regimented in lines rather than staggered and the effect feels forced, awkward – and the two ‘columns’ (as in effect they are) do not fit together harmoniously but stand separate, rigidly separated – and all this of course reflects Bagai’s experience of America following the citizenship ruling. In the seventh part of the poem (‘Moral Gesture’), Bagai’s death is signified with a completely ‘formless’ lineation where nouns, verbs, prepositions and prepositional phrases are split right across the page, filling the paper’s whiteness with small units, like floating molecules, as his spirit “migrates / from / the earthy depths / of his broken / body”. And then in the eighth and final part (‘Restoration’) as Bagai meets his old friend Mohammed in Heaven, form returns as the poem’s lines are split into three, creating staggered stanzas which both recall the harmony of the earlier ‘Prayer’ and resolve the ‘formlessness’ of death into something more cohesive. It’s interesting to hypothesise that this three-line structure could be seen as representing the Christian Holy Trinity, while the ‘Mohammed’ reference (and the line “Let’s surrender // to the perfected / beauty of our inner / light”) surely indicates Mohyuddin’s own Islam, and of course the main character is a Hindu, so this end phase of the poem might be suggesting the unification of the world’s three principal religions (“beneath the burning / gaze of the Almighty”) as well as a personal spiritual resolution for Bagai.

Rivers, as I mentioned earlier, are a central image running through the collection, and towards the beginning they stand as a metaphor for the past: the rivers of the Punjab where Mohyuddin’s ancestors lived and worked and which he lost when his father left Pakistan (“Exile begins where rivers end.”); but they also represent a movement towards the future, and in the final poem of the collection (‘Song of Myself as a Tomorrow’), we hear “But erasure – / what can it do when the blood’s trajectory / has forever been about becoming another river, about winding its way / along some other pathway toward survival?” and “I am that tomorrow, lost within the land / beyond where all rivers end”. So, as well as a metaphor for continuity in the poet’s life and between the generations of his family, the river also becomes a symbol for life itself, and so conversely the absence of rivers become the unknowable zones of both ‘afterlife’ and ‘future’, “the barren vastness of an untethered / darkness” which may be frightening, but into which the immigrant and their children must “(knife) new furrows through which their refugee blood / can flow” by taking an ultimately positive stance and saying “Yes / to exile / Yes / to America”.

The associations of Mohyuddin’s language are strong. The words just quoted are the final ones of the book and they echo the positive message (which now seems so long ago) of Barak Obama in his famous 2008 New Hampshire campaign speech: “Yes we can!”. And for some British readers, the linking of ‘rivers’ with ‘blood’ throughout the book also has political associations, with the Enoch Powell ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech in 1968, in which the Conservative politician used imagery originally from the Aeneid to illustrate his fear that immigrants would overrun and terrorise the nation (“Like the Roman, I seem to see ‘the River Tiber foaming with much blood’”). This may be unintended, but it could equally be that Mohyuddin is deliberately appropriating the image to keep a sense of unease about the future while transforming its Powellian racism into a powerful metaphor for passing on DNA to the next generation of ‘displaced children’ (the blood in the veins).

Finally, it is in no sense belittling to the collection to say that one of the most moving moments for me was reaching the ‘thanks’ to colleagues, friends, and family (over two pages of them) that the poet includes at the end. I mentioned earlier the message he sends to his son, but it is the note to his wife that really raises the bar for any writer in the future wanting to express familial gratitude with sincerity and eloquence. Tempted as I am to quote it in full, I will resist and simply recommend getting hold of a copy so you can read it for yourself.

For its thoughtfulness, its skill, its originality, its beauty, and ultimately its love, this is a book which deserves the widest possible readership.

The Displaced Children of Displaced Children is available from Eyewear, here.

Under a Black Sun: Toby Martinez de las Rivas and Cultural Space

black sun

I’m going to risk showing my ignorance and open myself to mockery at the hands of people who have studied cultural phenomena far more than I have by plunging once again head first into the (most recent) furore over the poetry of Toby Martinez de las Rivas. It’s too fascinating and important not to.

One irony of the controversy is that so many of Martinez de las Rivas’s critics seem to be most angered over his work being given a platform by the Poetry Foundation, and yet by expressing this anger quite so angrily and publicly on social media (as opposed to, say, writing an email or direct tweet of complaint to Don Share) they are significantly increasing the visibility of this platform. This is an observation rather than a criticism in itself, public expressions of anger are now part of the world we live in – what is often called a ‘Twitterstorm’ or given as evidence of ‘groupthink’ is actually closer in kind to a public street protest, which would not (unless it became violent) cause dismay. But it is also, perhaps, a sign of the times that my pointing out the above irony is itself likely to irritate some of these critics on the basis that it appears to turn the argument around and, significantly, away from the object of their fury, i.e. the fascist poet Toby Martinez de las Rivas, who has mendaciously and cynically used fascist symbols (and here I have to stretch) to send out a message signalling his sympathy with far-right ideology. In other words, it misses the point, and worse than that it contributes to the general atmosphere in society of receptivity to the ascendant far-right which is a fact to anyone who watches the news. And it’s not even a new observation!

By expressing what I (a white, male, middle-class poetry reviewer – and not unlike the poet in that respect) see as a helpful observation which might make the poet’s critics pause and reflect, I am not only patronising those on the left I disagree with, I am also revealing that my own world outlook is at best lazy-liberal, possibly ‘post-liberal’* and at worst alt-right and maybe even fascist itself; none of which plays well with many of the very people I would like to engage in discussing the poetry of Toby Martinez de las Rivas. And then there’s that grating faux-academic tone I use. It’s so infuriating!

As with so many areas of public debate at this beleaguered point in the history of the western democracies, we reach an impasse before we’ve even got going.

Suddenly the world of contemporary poetry appears to be composed of two groups of people who are angry with each other about things which must fundamentally come prior to our reading of the words Toby Martinez de las Rivas has written in his books Terror and Black Sun, and the poem ‘Titan/All Is Still’. To put it plainly, there are things we need to talk about before we can start talking about this specific poet and his poetry.

So, I’m going to suggest a way forward. I will try to set out below a case for why it is important that we as readers do not cause institutions like the Poetry Foundation to refuse platforms for work, like that of Martinez de las Rivas, which may offend our political sensibilities. And then I’ll invite anyone who disagrees with anything I have written to post a rebuttal in the comments below.

Here goes:

All poetry is political to the extent that everything is political. Poets and poetry critics cannot step out of the world that made them and so the work they produce must reflect (or give away, perhaps) their political leanings, whether they are purposefully expressed or not. But the cultural space in which poetry exists is artistic, not political. In political spaces you must be as sure as you possibly can about a thing before you express it, lives might depend on it. But while art may be utilised in political spaces, artistic spaces do not require such certainty. Artistic expressions are not, or at least there is no imperative for them to be, reflections of a fully-formed set of beliefs. They are expressions of people working towards understanding, towards some personal truth.

Anyone who is driven to write poetry knows that the moment you have finished one poem to your satisfaction, an empty feeling ensues which can only be filled by writing another, a different one, aiming to express some kind of understanding about something else, or aiming to express a different kind of understanding about the same thing. And it may be that words in their correct syntactical arrangement, the conventional deployment of imagery, obvious or satisfying rhythms, or easily fathomable uses of symbolism will not be sufficient to express the understanding you are aiming towards. And sometimes this will work, and sometimes it will not; and sometimes you will think for a while that it works and then decide later it does not (possibly, if you are lucky or already well-known, having had it published in the meantime). But there is nothing in poetry’s artistic space which requires either consistency, logic, good sense, or even morality – if these elements are present (and this is key) then it is at the poet’s/artist’s discretion, as is the extent to which they are present. This is a free space where thoughts and ideas can have room to bounce off each other, fly free or be reined in, tested and tried out, accepted and rejected as the poet searches for an understanding which, until the right form of words arrives, remains elusive.

I think that if Martinez de las Rivas is deliberately (despite his admission of ignorance, which may or may not be entirely truthful) using fascist symbols in his poems, then it is surely likely he is doing so with a mind to moving towards some form of personal understanding of the world. Otherwise, I can’t see why he would be using them. Can it really be his intention to send a message of sympathy to his fascist brethren via poetry, of all things? I’m venturing too close here to flippancy perhaps, but if he is guilty of the ‘bad faith’ he’s been accused of, what is his overall game plan?

But anyway, for all the reasons above, the cultural artistic space in which poetry is written, written about and discussed on social media, is an enormously important one for our freedom within the wider political space that none of us can avoid. Any call to restrict artistic freedom (within legal limits) impoverishes this cultural space.

If there is a main fault line between factions in this debate, it is likely to lie in the view that as totalitarian-leaning thought gains increasing currency in society, defending the freedom of the artist within our cultural spaces is more important than seeking esoteric evidence of totalitarian sympathies in a single poet. Which is not to say that we should not be alert to the growth of far-right mindsets in the arts, there are of course famous examples of intolerable intolerance. But the fascism and anti-Semitism of someone like Ezra Pound was of an entirely different order, and if there were anything in Martinez de las Rivas which suggested incitement to hatred or intolerance, I would swap sides in the debate immediately. But what I actually find in his work is a poet using the ideas of authority and power inherent in political authoritarianism, and some of its symbolism, metaphorically to investigate his own position in relation to his God, his family, his country etc. He may also have been using authoritarian motifs to be deliberately controversial and gain notoriety, and if so, he has been very successful – but it seems unlikely to me that this was his purpose. Whether he was wise to use them, and even whether it is legitimate to use, say, Nazi or Holocaust motifs to express a personal issue, is another matter, but one we must see and read the poetry (as we can with Sylvia Plath’s Daddy) in order to debate. Cutting the poetry off from a public will prevent these important matters space to be discussed.

In our place, we readers also bring our own meanings to his poems, as we do to anything we read. If I ‘want’ to see ABC then I will be more likely to see it, if you would prefer to find XYZ then it may be there for you while I struggle to see it. There are different ways of reading any poem, and it is worth remembering that we are complicit in the meaning making process, so while we can argue about whether the black sun symbolises Nazism, an eclipse at the crucifixion, or (as one insightful poet pointed out to me) dissolution and breakdown in the Alchemical system of thought, it is a simple fact that on different levels  we are all right. Fundamentally, this is the point isn’t it? In poetry, we don’t have to agree. And having a cultural space where we can all think different things at the same time without shouting at each other is valuable.

One last thought to put out there: if we are going to judge Martinez de las Rivas on his poem ‘Elegy for a Young Hitler’, we should also weigh this against his more recent collaboration with bookbinder Simona Noli, 12, which appears to be a sensitive contemplation on God and the Holocaust.

Well, I think that just about winds up my argument FOR Martinez de las Rivas; I look forward to reading the argument AGAINST in the comments below.

Another irony of all this for me is that I don’t enormously care for Martinez de las Rivas’s work – it fascinates me and opens a world of questions, but it leaves me cold. Like Geoffrey Hill’s poetry, I would liken it to an intricate and skilfully wrought museum piece at which I stand in awe before happily leaving it in the museum and returning home to the trinkets on my own shelves, which I actively want to look at because of the way they make me feel. My feelings about Terror, Black Sun and ‘Titan/All Is Still’ bring Voltaire to mind, although it’s a little strong: “I detest what you say but I would defend to the death your right to say it”. However, I recognise that Martinez de las Rivas’s critics could come back with another equally famous and pertinent quote, also from Voltaire: “Écrasez l’infâme!” Crush the infamy!

I guess there are different ways of reading Voltaire too.

  

*‘Post-liberal’ is a label which was new to me until I read it in a blog post here; if it’s new to you too, read more here.

Poetry and the Search for Meaning

cat and poetry

I like a good grandiose blog-post title, and this is one I’ve been wanting to use for a while, so I’m pleased the opportunity has arisen. On Monday I went for the first time to the Poetry Society’s regular ‘Poetry Review Discussion’ evening (above the Poetry Café in Betterton Street, Covent Garden), where interested PS members discuss poems from the most recent Poetry Review, exchange ideas, point out literary references, offer alternative perspectives, and generally have an enjoyable poetry chat in a friendly, non-threatening, and non-judgemental atmosphere. It was during, or shortly after, this discussion that I realised I might have found a use for my portentous title. After all, what were we doing if not searching for meaning in each poem, and doesn’t every poem represent such a search on the part of the poet? I think it does.

But first, the Monday evening ‘Poetry Review Discussion’:

What I write here are my own impressions only and I apologise to our very welcoming host, Paul McGrane, and my fellow Poetry Society-ers annemarie, Terry, Holly, John and Nick if I misrepresent the group feeling.

The poems we chose were diverse:

1 – Frank and Lemons by Hugh Smith

2 – Correspondences (I) by Angelina D’Rosa

3 – Four Huntingdonshire Codices by John Greening

4 – On the Backyard Decking by Helen Grant

5 – Self-Portrait without Stitches by Safia Elhillo

6 – The art of trying by Sam Buchan-Watts

But there were links, thematic and other strands, running between them:

  • all the poems with perhaps one exception seemed to be voices searching for identity;
  • all, with one exception, appeared fractured or split – the identities of the speakers to one extent or another coming apart at the seams – or were these separate voices being represented, echoes of others who have no voice of their own? (we remained undecided I think on this point when it came to Self-Portrait without Stitches);
  • all but one of the poems required some thinking about, some putting together, they were in various ways ‘difficult’ in terms of extracting a precise meanings (we felt differently about this, but I will come back to why I found this to be a positive thing);
  • all the voices, again with one exception, felt as though they were expressing some confusion, becoming or being lost, fading out or clinging on to sanity and Self;
  • and finally, all the poems contained elements of ekphrasis (with a single exception).

The exception in all these cases was On the Backyard Decking by Helen Grant, a stunningly direct weaponization of erotica which really deserves a post of its own, but I feel compelled to say something about here as our group spent at least twice as much time discussing this poem as the others. Selected by a middle-aged man out of genuine curiosity and I think some bewilderment and irritation, but who did not want to read it out aloud (and I don’t blame him, I wasn’t about to volunteer), this poem put us (and I can only speak for the middle-aged male heterosexual members of the group) exactly where it wanted us. The poem presents the reader with a woman who openly, vigorously and defiantly masturbates in front of a male neighbour who is watching her from over the fence as she is sunbathing. At the end of the poem, she says: “I held up my used, two fingers in front of my face:/flipped those fingers and thumb like a gun/to shoot him, before they were sucked clean.” Rarely if ever have I found a poem so successful in forcing its intended reader (and while many or even most poems do not have an ‘intended’ reader, I think this one does) to confront themselves and their impulses, desires and, ultimately, their ‘gaze’. You could write it off as deliberately shocking or attention-seeking, you could be maddened (as one of our group was) by the deliberate titillation, or you could make the claim (again as one of our group did) that if a man had written the poem about a man masturbating is would not get published because it would just seem creepy (yes it would, but switching the roles is too easy a get-out – few heterosexual women would be turned on by watching their male neighbour masturbate, whereas few heterosexual men would turn down the opportunity to watch a woman do the same if it could they could get away with it in secrecy [okay, I can’t prove that]). But all of the above misses the point of this, yes, deliberately shocking poem, which is that it leaves nowhere for a male heterosexual reader to hide. To read it is to be confronted with your own titillation, but out of secret, out of the darkness of a private fantasy and into the intellectual, spiritual, literary realm of ‘The Poem’ – and on Monday night into a little well-lit room above the Poetry Café! The poet has us, as they say, by the short and curlies. Poet and/or narrator forces reader and/or neighbour to accept that the eroticism of the piece is being used against him, rather than for his pleasure. The ‘male gaze’ is thereby reclaimed – albeit briefly, I guess – from men, for women. And in the reclaiming there is genuine power. I wrote recently about performance/page, and it is fascinating to consider how the public performance of this poem might play with the dynamic between the performer/narrator and the audience.

(I repeat, though I would hope I don’t need to, that the preceding paragraph is a male cishet reading – I would love to see alternative ones in the comments.)

The clarity of this backyard scene is, as I say, in contrast with the other poems we read, and part of the reason for this is that the woman in the poem knows exactly who she is and what she is doing, that is her strength (it is the neighbour, the male heterosexual reader, who must work at defining, decoding himself). But in the other poems we looked at, the perceived complexity of the poems comes, I think, from the fact that the ‘speakers’, and perhaps the poets, are using the poems as a means to understand themselves. In other words, the poems are a tool in their (and our) search for meaning. The speaker in Four Huntingdonshire Codices appears to be struggling with dementia, hanging on almost desperately to the poem’s increasingly jarringly-rhymed tercets; the speaker of Correspondences (I) struggles with the “unreliability of memory” and gives the sense that as they to hold on to memories of their son they are losing a hold on sanity themselves, finishing the poem by reciting “You’re fine. You’re fine. You’re fine.” (it’s interesting to note that although this poem seems to encourage an assumption that the speaker is a woman, there are no actual gender references); the speaker of Self-Portrait without Stitches seems to be coming apart like an unhealed (FGM) wound with spaces rather than punctuation emphasising the ‘opening up’ of each line’s flow, as though set down by an individual who is psychologically coming apart; and the speaker of The art of trying ruminates on the artifice of truth-building as both craft and means of survival, even as speaking causes the grip on Self to weaken (“The ‘I’ speaks out and disperses”).

The quote of the week comes from Jean Sprackland, whose excellent Crystallography was included in Poetry Review but was not one of our selections. “There is an epidemic of certainty” she said at a Manchester Writing School event, “and I am increasingly aware of the importance of not knowing”, showing some good sense that seems much missing in the world at the moment. And it seems to me that what is so important about the state of ‘not knowing’ is that it exists in tandem with a state of ‘searching for meaning’. This is the search that poetry helps us undertake, and it is by no means always an easy search. However, it is one that is central to the human condition (for anyone who has not read Viktor Frankl’s Auschwitz/logotherapy book Man’s Search for Meaning I would recommend it). This is why our group had such a great time talking about these poems. It is why I like poems whose meaning is not immediately apparent, and why I am happy to walk away from a poem in a state of ‘not knowing’ – that is just a poem for me to come back to on another day. It is also, I think, why we should be careful before reading poems as poets’ finished thoughts on a subject (and leaping on them as, say, fascists) rather than as part of their own personal search for meaning. As readers, we need to distinguish between our own certainties about life and the certainties we think we see in poetry. To continue Jean’s metaphor: Poetry should work as a vaccine to the epidemic of certainty, not an exacerbation of it.

Finally, before rounding off this overlong blog post: Paul asked us to choose who we would like to see as Poet Laureate, and I made a couple of selections along with everyone else. But I think based on the above quote I would change my Laureate choice to Jean Sprackland!

Poetry Review Autumn 2018, from which all the above poems came, is available if you join the Poetry Society, here.