I beheld Satan as lightning fall from heauen (New Walk Editions) is my first foray into the work of Steve Ely and I came away from my initial two or three readings feeling as though I had been shoved up against a wall by Tom Hardy in one of his more intense roles. I mean this in a good way. Ely’s pamphlet is an utterly compelling “Improvisation on Luke X” which maintains throughout its thirteen poems the extemporaneous power of a 19th century preacher in full flow. Ely does not preach the Word of God, however, but the bleak, apocalyptic ‘word’ of a guilt-ridden individual reflecting on his feelings and behaviour in relation to the miscarriage, many years previously, of a son he never really wanted. As in any poetry, we should be wary of equating the speaker with the poet himself, although as the pamphlet is dedicated to “a little boy and a little girl” and the surviving children are named as Briony and Elliot in the first poem, I think we are encouraged to assume that Ely is speaking as himself. And as such, these poems are remarkably frank explorations of the male psyche in relation to tensions between parental responsibility and paternal selfishness, and the intense remorse resulting from prioritising the latter over the former (“…I shattered your joy / by proposing you have an abortion: a donkey kick / to the bleating womb, life offered sent bewildered back” ‘Exsultet’). The poet’s guilt is presented as if laid out on a table for dissection – although a better analogy might be a prisoner strapped to a rack for slow torture: the remorse to which the poems give expression is profound to the point of ostentatious. But the accusation of self-flagellation would belittle Ely’s project for two reasons I think. The first is that a genuine study of remorse must engage with both the remorseful and the remorseless, and the disturbing world opened up here lies right at the intersection between the two – like the lightning, that Talmudic “crack between worlds” of the title poem, through which a demon falls. Ely neither spares nor forgives himself (“You cannot / be redeemed” ‘Capernaum’) but forgiveness would be beside the point as coming to terms with his actions and emotions would close the door he has opened on a world so hideous that it is one into which he, with his intense self-loathing, fits perfectly. The second reason is that these poems are not simply a critique of the poet’s own shortcomings as a man and a father, but rather, the world to which his personal sense of guilt allows him access also acts as a surrogate vision of a bleak, violent and soulless wider world (the first two-thirds of the title poem is comprised of a list of tragic and despicable world events that took place in 1995, the year of the miscarriage). To forgive himself, therefore, would be to forgive us all; and that’s not going to happen.
Ely’s particular power comes from the technical dexterity with which he wields a King James biblical register and imagery alongside a cold, scientific vocabulary, the two worlds colliding much as Heaven and Hell might been seen to collide on Earth: “Nothing / begat physics begat chemistry begat biology / begat consciousness begat self-consciousness / begat physics and chemistry and biology / and consciousness and self-consciousness and / Nothing. / The four fundamental forces: / the quintessential fifth – a dark matter. / The haploid cell, a cold spark of soul / awaiting ignition; the diploid cell, the lit pleroma.” (‘A Dog Speculates on the Mind of Newton’ – formatting approximated) This confident and skilful juxtaposing of worlds has an interesting effect, which I would say is in a sense ‘masculine’: there is a fearless facing (or at least the perception of facing) of Truth. These poems stand up and meet both Religion and Science eye-to-eye. To me this is similar to the tough-minded Richard Dawkins-style atheism which also has its own self-perception as ‘combative’ and ‘manly’ (Ely sees this I think and out-Dawkinses Dawkins with the line “Dawkinsian dope / of awe and wonder can’t numb us to the horror” (‘A Dog Speculates on the Mind of Newton’). The speaker of the title poem also sees himself, in his growing mid-1990s political awareness, as some kind of movie or computer-game assassin (“I taped a machete between my shoulder blades”), while the speaker of the final poem, ‘Haec Nox Est’, steps willingly (and bravely?) “from the cliff into the ocean’s / up-thrust, and plummet(s) in the darkness”. All of this is a dry-eyed acceptance of what must be accepted. Like a warrior facing death, the poet must accept the never-ending horror of his own guilt. But that’s not quite all; at two points we see a softening of the hard outer-shell. The first is in the wording of the dedication already quoted: “To a little girl and a little boy”, this is the voice of a loving father: not “To my children” or some other formation – this wording accentuates their smallness and their anonymity (they may after all not be the children in the first poem, despite what I said earlier) the one emphasising their need for protection and the other attempting to provide it. That there is tenderness here is undeniable, and that it comes at the beginning of all the bleak anguish which follows makes it all the more moving. The second moment of shell-softening is in the final stanza of ‘Ego te Absolvo’ where the repetition of the conditional past “wish” acknowledges, for once, the desire for a different outcome, in other words the poet relinquishes his embrace of his own guilt for a short moment before seeming to shake away the thought and returning to the unchangeable reality of the Now: “I wish he had been born / I wish he was twenty-three. I wish I had not hurt / his mother, that she did not know her sadness. / I wished it. It probably made no difference. / I wish it. / It makes no difference.”
The poet draws on an almost obscene range of sources for a mere twenty-two pages of poetry. Apart from the obvious biblical references and immanent spirits of Milton and Blake, whose shades permeate everything, Ely quotes from or alludes to Egyptian hieroglyphs, the Talmud, the Nation of Islam, Nietzsche, Aleister Crowley, Charles Darwin, Albrecht Dürer, the American TV drama True Detective…and on and on. But they are all helpfully elucidated in the notes at the back, and there is no sense of ‘allusion for allusion’s sake’; the world Ely is conjuring here is one which requires the whole historic weight of western spiritual thought behind it. That is the point I think, that all this symbolism and search for meaning must come together in one man’s single regret: that he wished for his son’s death, and the wish came true. By drenching himself in allusion both he and his son together join their symbolic hosts in the Poetic Eternal (for want of a better phrase): “a flaming man / and a flaming child, with angels falling” (‘Haec Nox Est’). Perhaps if redemption is to be found anywhere in Ely’s dark landscape, it is here.
I should say, it’s not a pamphlet for the faint-hearted, and parts of it might be difficult for someone who has lost a child or suffered a miscarriage; there are lines here which seemed designed if not to shock then to jolt readers out of their slumbers (dogmatic or otherwise). I won’t quote them, not because they are so very horrible, but because I don’t want to take them out of context, and my feeling is that the lines which jolted me were all fully justified by their context – in fact I might say made necessary by their context. I’ll say no more on that partly to keep the review from running away with me and partly in the hope that curiosity compels you to pick up a copy of this excellent pamphlet.
You can buy I beheld Satan as lightning fall from heauen from New Walk Editions, here.
More than anything, Vahni Capildeo’s rich and diverse writing embraces plurality and togetherness; and their new pamphlet from SAD Press, Odyssey Calling, takes the ocean as its central metaphor for the expansive indivisibility of an unknowable, experiential world. I’m not sure if ‘together’ can be verbed (why not!), but togethering seems to be the best way to express Capildeo’s apparent project in this pamphlet, as it was previously and most conspicuously in their most recent full collection Skin Can Hold from Carcanet. There is no segmenting, bordering or othering in the great liquid oneness which covers two thirds of the globe – no single authority in the “flow of blue capillaries” (‘Spindrift Silences’) where there can only be “you” in the “dark room”, but an “only you” who cries “a thousand treasurable cries” and who sometimes finds, in “deeper water” and “emptier silences” that “outsider status drops expected but absent barriers”. “How can you be territorial about the sea?” the speaker asks in part three of the sequence ‘Odyssey Response’ (called, appropriately, ‘The Sea’) and set against this of course is the by-definition-territorial land, where there are both divisions and power relations (“people / who have power of health and employment over us”) but over which Capildeo invokes language as powerful transformative and levelling force (“as if lawyers were angels…as if death / were…an infinite set of paper doll kings / of terror, cancelled by a gentle fiery sword”). Words bring with them the same togethering that water brings, thus in part one of ‘Odyssey Response’ these lines, extending the Homeric metaphor of ‘winged words’ to unifying effect: “Words, take wing, fly commonly among all people / who share vulnerability on a trembling earth; / who drink, or hope to drink, sweetly, cool water.”
Elsewhere Capildeo sings an appreciation of birds at length in the glorious ‘In Praise of Birds’ and the reader recalls the previous alignment of words with birds and understands that this is also a hymn to language. ‘In Praise of Birds’ offers stanza after stanza celebrating their diversity, metaphorical ubiquity and general oddness (sometimes, in true Capildeo fashion, just revelling in simple birdy wordplay – “In praise of a good turn of cluck”).
As in Skin Can Hold, there is in Odyssey Calling a prose section explaining a group project approaching poetry in an innovative way. This time (perhaps evolving the ‘syntax poem’ reworking of Martin Carter – although I don’t know which came first) the new approach, “Azure Noise and Kinetic Syntax” makes use of a performance space carefully to reduce the pressure of interpretation (especially academic interpretation) on the audience and even discourage any active search for meaning at all – instead creating what Capildeo calls an “active silence”. Layered recordings of contemporary texts contribute, we’re told, to a soundscape that interacts with an audience moving in and out of various zones and multiple performances in a room including “swathes of fabric”, mattresses and sheets and stalls of marbles and other “simple lustrous things”. At the same time Capildeo reads “water poems” (an example of which presumably is what follows the prose section, quoted earlier, the beautiful ‘Spindrift Silences’), they read “softly, so the audience could choose their level of engagement”. All of this reflects the pamphlet’s overall sense of togethering: the individual here (poet, audience) does not exist in isolation either from the poetry or from the rest of the world, poetry is not me and mine, but us and ours.
As always in Capildeo, nothing is entirely straightforward, and the richly metaphorical ocean contains far more than a single simple reading, it also “covers over” and conceals, causes us to forget – history for example (“Memory is no good / to triumphant civilizations.”), and acts as a highway for Empire-builders and oppressors (“By Zeus, / Time Traveller, if you see Columbus, shoot on sight”) but it is also vulnerable (“The sea needs teeth. – How can there be freedom of the sea without protection?”).
The second of the pamphlet’s two central sequences (the first being ‘Odyssey Response’) is ‘Windrush Reflections’, which places modern and historical voices in two centos alongside the poet’s own voice to work towards a critique of empire, slavery, colonialism, immigration and their relationship to identity. Again, the ocean across which so many have journeyed in hope of a better life is the key metaphor of the piece (its traffic, economy, islands) with a disorientation, confusion, and the betrayal of British colonial subjects reflected in the woozily choppy waters of lines like:
“ …The finish
of those ships overlapping
as ships ineluctably do
with others, keening the curled
wake with a forward-looking wave.
The sea is like this.
What you expect nobody
can expect. What you accept
nobody can’t accept.”
Again, in this sequence it is a plurality of voices, overlapping like the wakes of boats – and perhaps presented in the poem like exhibits at the ‘Songs in a Strange Land’ exhibition in Leeds which prompted one of the poems in the sequence – that seems to concern Capildeo (“these shelves and these selves”). And by bringing them together the poet provides a sense that they are more than the sum of their parts. Maybe it is this discovery of something more in the togetherness of identities than exists in each individual identity that leads us so close, particularly at the end of the pamphlet, to prayer and praise. Birds, coffee (“which crosses the sea”) and the sea itself all come in for special thanks and admiration in this way – and the suggestion of something approaching apotheosis takes us back to both the Greek deities and heroes of ‘Odyssey Response’ and also the first poem in the pamphlet, almost Janet-and-John-like in its charming simplicity, ‘Holy Island’, which asks us, of the seals which have “gone to the other islands”: “What do they sound like? / They sound like ghosts”. There is no God or gods in this holy place – but if you join such ambiguous figures as these absent seals (simultaneously there and not there) in Capildeo’s mysterious and powerful ocean, who knows what you will find.
I say dive in.
You can buy Odyssey Calling from SAD Press, here.
We are going to need poets like Seán Hewitt, and I hope his pamphlet (Lantern, ORB), published last year and soon to be joined by his first full collection (Tongues of Fire, Penguin), proves to be the seed that will grow into a thoughtful, elegant and profound body of work. It is perhaps early to make such grand claims, but there is evidence in Lantern that this will be the case.
I say we are going to need poets like him because Lantern reveals, I think, a moderate romantic, and with the extreme and even radical passions that dominate discourse today, moderate romanticism is something that can help provide much-needed calibration. Among the gifts bequeathed us by the romantics was the ability to look into the darkness and chaos of nature and see not some terrifying ‘other’ to be destroyed or tamed, but instead a reflection of our own feelings and emotions. And it is in this sense that Hewitt’s ‘lantern’ lights a way through the various dark inner-worlds of his poems (“The world is dark/but the wood is full of stars” ‘Wild Garlic’). I wouldn’t be surprised to find that Hewitt has a penchant for Wordsworth, Coleridge et al. but he also deliberately references Christopher Smart (in ‘And I will lay down a votive to my silver birch’), who was thought by Yeats to be the prototypical romantic, while other reviewers have noted the influence of Seamus Heaney, who also has much of the romantic about him, and it is difficult to ignore the aforementioned darkness pervading almost every poem, which is so linked to romantic notions of the sublime (c.f. Edmund Burke). Yet a potential to lurch towards the unbridled passions and uber-sensibility of the Gothic is a concomitant danger of the romantic, along with the tendency towards ‘Utopias’ (both left and right) of which WH Auden was so aware in his famous criticisms of Shelley, Wordsworth and Byron. Politically, it could be argued, we live increasingly in a world of the romantically motivated extremes Auden feared. It seems important therefore that the heart is tempered by the head. This is where Hewitt’s moderate romanticism is welcome, and it can be seen in some of the other influences and references in Lantern. The first comes right at the beginning of the opening poem, ‘Leaf’: “for woods are forms of grief/grown from the earth” which, while casting forward structurally to the Smart poem, also clearly references Philip Larkin, who says, in ‘The Trees’: “Their greenness is a kind of grief”. Larkin does not tend to be thought of as romantic, although John Bayley (LRB, 5th May, 1983) pointed towards the similarities between him and Keats, but this early reference indicates a ‘Movement-influenced’ element in Hewitt’s writing: Thom Gunn is also there in the gay physicality, and so is Elizabeth Jennings in the many beautiful religious phrases and allusions (I would direct the reader to some of Jennings’ later poems such as ‘Among the Stars’ and ‘Walking in the Dark’ for comparison with the beautiful ‘Härskogen’), although we also find an idiom at times close to wonderful Hopkins pastiche: “glory be to the näckros, naked rose” (‘Waterlily’). One of the pamphlet’s most powerful moments occurs in ‘Dryad’, where the eroticism of woodland sexual encounters (“acts of secret worship”) leads, through a “perfect symmetry” between a lover’s body and trees themselves, to a rhetorical reflection which fuses the natural, the sexual and the religious: “But then/what is a tree, or a plant, if not an act/of kneeling to the earth, a way of bidding//the water to move, of taking in the mouth/the inner part of the world and coaxing it out.” I submit this sentence as evidence that Hewitt’s writing is more than the sum of its influences; there is something new and interesting here which is his alone. Such poetic moments, where the speaker appears to turn declaratively straight towards the reader, can come over as disappointing cod profundity, but here we see such a skilful weaving of the romantic with the erotic (the romantic subverted, we might say, by the erotic; with the latter then subverted itself by the religious) that the sentence yields insight on multiple levels. The mode is echoed in ‘Dryad’s partner piece, ‘Kyrie’ (“and what is a parent to a child but a god/who we turn to when we believe/everything is fixable”) with less individual power but functioning perfectly in tying the two poems together structurally, enhancing the original moment of reflection by over-layering it with the parent child image. The child imagery in the pamphlet deserves more space than I can give it here (if I can realistically expect anyone to make it to the end of my review!), and it is a theme I expect and hope to be developed in Hewitt’s forthcoming collection. I look forward to giving it more thought then.
However, to return to influences, there are other females here too, more obvious perhaps than Jennings. The way Hewitt gets so close physically to nature recalls Alice Oswald, particularly in ‘Häcksjön’ in which the speaker leaps into a forest lake (“for a long moment/I plumb its dark core”) just as the speaker of Dart does into the eponymous river. And against, or perhaps alongside, Oswald sits the Eavan Boland of ‘Anna Liffey’ (“A woman in the doorway of a house”) as the speaker in ‘Kyrie’ stands on the threshold of his house, under a “purple blush of sky” keenly alert to outside sensation: “I stand frozen/by the back door of the quiet house,/trying to listen, receptive but distrusting/my body – the ring of light from the kitchen/over my shoulder…”
In these collaborative-creative times it is easy to be unfair on poets who thank other poets in the ‘Acknowledgements’, looking for and sometimes finding overt influence of those who have been involved with early drafts of the poems. Hewitt mentions Andrew MacMillan, Helen Tookey, Okey Nzelu and Sarah Hymas and, seeing this, those who know their work might find evidence of their guiding hands at times in Lantern. But of course, if Hewitt had not thanked them, we would not have looked and probably not have noticed. There are interesting questions around authorship here, but they certainly don’t only relate to Hewitt’s poetry so I will leave them for another time. And what, we might ask, is influence anyway? Where does it begin and end? Hewitt has written about Henri Cole, Yeats, Hopkins and, particularly, JM Singe. Harold Bloom would no doubt say that the poems in Lantern arise from Hewitt’s anxiety relating to his readings and misreadings of all these poets and more; and that may be so, but the quote we need here is well-known, it is TS Eliot from his discussion of Philip Massinger’s indebtedness to Shakespeare in The Sacred Wood: “One of the surest of tests is the way in which a poet borrows. Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different. The good poet welds his theft into a whole of feeling which is unique, utterly different from that from which it was torn; the bad poet throws it into something which has no cohesion.”
We all borrow, then, we who write poetry, published or otherwise; the question is how well we ‘weld our theft’. I have chosen to focus on influence in this review not because I find Hewitt derivative (I hope I make clear above that I don’t) but because, and I repeat, we need him and poets like him who are able to take their wide range of influences and create poetry which is new, compelling, and which speaks wisely in a voice of tempered passion so that we might all be able to see more clearly through our shared darkness.
You can buy Lantern from ORB, here.
As of May 2020, you will be able to buy Tongues of Fire from Penguin, here.
A man face-to-pavement in his own juice rises
Lazarusian over minutes prorogued into hours,
The angel in his raincoats beating him upwards
Like a helium #balloon in a thick grey rag ¶
The mothership of his body has taken a hit,
With every pellet of rain a globule of phlegm#
He spent his whole life hocking into the sky,
Receiving now a baptism of saliva§sliding
And shaking as a newborn calf trembles in
Fluid of a sudden other’s making: the dance of
Amnion, Albion, Albumen, beneath the white
And yellow of the sun ¶ He staggers in his own
Gob’s oil and touches the long unnatural handle,
Gutted and so gutted as his internals, fluttering,
Blink like diodes and spit their last- -he spins
In that silent point at the centre of his- -dance,
Remembers the small white feathers on his tongue,
So quick to pluck for children who became old men©
This is no country for #them ¶ This is the world
Of a wounded rabbit waiting in terror between
Wheels and shadows of cars above§wheels
And shadows of cars above- -he spins in him-
Self symbols fail him moon! he falls
Out of himself as a chimney falls away
From its own ghost #topples and #remains
At one time, twice ¶ Silhouetted in the sky’s
Single silver coin ¶ pooh! ¶ Icarusly he descends
With none of the dignity decline demands,
His thick middle is bleeding heavily in his hands –
Britannio, we thought you were something else
Altogether- -what have you left us right
Outside our library§and§cinema complex but
Two soft plops.
The conversation about the pros and cons of negative poetry reviews is not a new one, in fact I’ve been reading lately some of the articles and posts that appeared in the flurry of interest in this around ten years ago. There are some great pieces here, and – even more so – some wise/intriguing comments below the line in many cases. I’m linking the sites I found in case anyone is interested in going over this still-relevant debate:
It all appears to have started in the US with Jason Guriel’s piece “Going Negative” for Poetry Foundation.
There was then a letter of general agreement from Kent Johnston in May Day Magazine, “Some Darker Bouquets”.
Then Magma got involved on the UK side, with a question from Rob MacKenzie: “What Kind of Poetry Reviews Do You Want?” which contains an excellent UK-based conversation thread in the comments and various links to the previous pieces and their below-the-line comments. There are links to three other blogs that continue the conversation (although not all of them work anymore).
Back in the US, Alfred Corn also joined in with some interesting comments in his blog post “Reviews and Objectivity”.
And then (chronologically whether it was ‘then’ I’m not sure but it’s the piece I came across last) was what I found to be the best all-round post on this, by Corey Van Landingham for West Branch: “Something To Talk About: A Case for Negative Poetry Reviews”.
It’s also worth including a few of the negative reviews referred to in the above pieces, which serve as interesting examples of the genre:
This by Michael Schiavo on Matthew Dickman.
This by John Tranter on Robert Gray and Geoffrey Lehmann’s The Young Australian Poets.
And of course now we also have this more recent one by Rebecca Watts on Holly McNish, “The Cult of the Noble Amateur”.
And I will add this 2015 review of Andrew McMillan’s Physical by Alan Dent for reasons that will become apparent below.
I’m sure there are many more, and if anyone knows of any useful additions, I’d be grateful if you posted them in the comments below.
The reason I started looking at these posts was a recent tweet in which Andrew McMillan reacted with pointed humour to a (very) negative review which his book Physical received a few years ago at the hands of reviewer/critic Alan Dent.
The poet was making light of something which had clearly hurt, and it made me think about whether Dent had been justified in writing so negatively (which I will come back to throughout what follows); and then I started to reflect on my own approach to reviewing, which has always been only to write positively about work I like.
Why have I done this? Well, I write poetry myself and I know how hard it is, so discussing what is good about the good seems kinder than pointing out the faults in the bad – even the writers of bad poetry (and we all fall into this category at least occasionally) are likely to have invested heavily one way or another in what they have published, do they need, and does the world need, another poet telling them where they went wrong? Also, there has always seemed to me a sort of arrogance, or at least a slightly blind self-importance, in an overly negative review, which reminds me of the Harry Enfield character who used to say “You don’t wanna do it like that, you wanna do it like this!” Is there anything wrong with writing glowingly about writing you admire? This has always been the point for me, a point that would be entirely defeated by laying into poems or poets I dislike.
“Kinder…? Do they need…? Are you a reviewer or a mouse?” I hear my inner-critic growl.
There are different positions on this and I don’t want to regurgitate the arguments that are well covered in the posts linked above, but there are a couple of points that I haven’t seen fully expressed that I’d like to give some rumination (with apologies for the doubling-up of cud metaphors).
The rest of this post, then, will be 13 ways of looking at negative reviews…
1) There seems to be an unquestioned assumption that if you put artistic work out into the shared cultural space, then that work must live or die on its own terms and on its own quality. The feelings of the artist should not play a part in a critic/reviewer’s commentary. I can see in academic criticism this is true, and I could be persuaded that in serious print/online journals this might also be true. But in a flourishing (mostly online and mostly amateur) artistic and critical community, does this necessarily need to be the case? I’m not sure it does.
2) Reviews are not always Criticism. They can also function as Celebration, and if they result in increased sales of the work under review, then that is a positive outcome of the review, not toadyism. It is not easy to separate either the word ‘review’ from (one of) it’s dictionary definition(s) as something implying criticism, or the word ‘criticism’ from (one of ) it’s definition(s) as something implying disapproval. But that is not to say it can’t be done.
3) As with competition judges, in the relatively small poetry world it is likely the reviewer/critic will have come across the poet personally in some context or another. This may colour the outlook they have of the work. This is just a fact we need to accept and move on. That there may have been prior contact should be assumed by the reader and it does not necessarily need flagging at the beginning of every review. Although having said that, why not?
4) Objectivity is impossible and reviews which try to make themselves sound objective are fundamentally dishonest. They are opinions, and as such they say as much about the reviewer as the reviewee (and sometimes more so – I emerged from the Dent review, as with the Schiavo piece linked above, with more thoughts and questions about them than their victims). The reviewer may have strong political or aesthetic views that align with neither the poet nor the review reader. Again you would hope that this would be assumed by the reader of the review, and it can be fairly easily researched with a bit of online investigation but there is no harm in reviewers making their personal predilections clear from the outset in some kind of manifesto, then the reader can make a quick and informed choice about whether to carry on reading the review. This is really just an extension of the very good point made by V. Joshua Adams about the “distinction we should make as readers of criticism (being) between reviews that are willing to make arguments and reviews that are only willing to make assertions” because arguments and assertions will tend to be affected by our preconceptions.
5) Why would a reviewer who thinks, for example, that poetry should rhyme review a collection of poetry containing largely poems which don’t rhyme? The only answer I can think of is that they wish non-rhyming poetry to lose its standing in our shared cultural space, i.e. ‘That which I dislike there should be less of, that which I like there should be more of’. This is faulty logic surely – why should there be less of that which you dislike? You are one among many. Who died and made you arbiter of what should and should not be? I dislike this attitude towards poetry reviewing and there should be less of it.
6) Negative reviews are often, it seems to me, takedowns based on the above premise. This might actually be valid (faulty logic notwithstanding), and if so should be made explicit, as Rebecca Watts did in “The Cult of the Noble Amateur”. NB – Alan Dent’s McMillan takedown seems less valid to me as he does not always give reasons for his criticisms (again, assertions not arguments), Watts was very careful to explain the reasons for her negative reaction to McNish’s work and her concerns about the popularity of what she saw as unskilled workmanship.
7) Overly negative reviews can hide valid comments inside their invective. There is an example of this in Dent’s comments on the potentially problematic valorising of gay porn in work like McMillan’s. This important and well made debating point gets lost amongst what comes over as intemperate mud-slinging. Perhaps the lesson here is ‘choose your targets carefully, and if that means a shorter review, so be it’.
8) And where, we might ask (particularly in relation to point 5 above), does the authority of the reviewer/critic come from? It seems reasonable to appeal to experience here – Oxford professor Craig Raine enjoys eviscerating those, such as Don Paterson, he sees (I assume) as clogging up a limited cultural space. He doesn’t feel it necessary to point to his years of experience as a poet and academic as a source of authority but why should he, most people reading him will know who he is. But would I carry this kind of authority if I chose to skin alive some poet I didn’t like? No. Do other reviewers who negatively review working poets? Not always. So it seems that the validity of a review depends on who writes it. One response to this might be that if the reviewer makes arguments rather than assertions, as per V. Joshua Adams, then the authority is internal to the review just as the deductive reasoning of a syllogism is internal. The reasoning is the authority. This is persuasive but misleading because the arguments within reviews can throw a blanket over the fact that ultimately, again, what criticism deals in is opinion – they do not succeed or fail through internal logic. The critic can say ‘you were trying to do x and you failed because of y’, but they can never really be sure that x is actually what the poet was trying to achieve. Equally, they can state that a rhyme choice is clunky or a metaphor unconvincing, but these are opinion words with which the poet may not agree. This might show a lack of sensitivity to harmonics or semantics on the part of the poet, but equally on the part of the critic. Fair use of quotes from the work will help the review reader understand whether they agree with the reviewer’s opinion but what such arguments often come down to is the critic saying to the poem, misquoting Geoffrey Hill, “You are mine and you do not please me in my current mood”. The problem of authority remains, and the review becomes simply an appeal to the reader for agreement. This is valid in itself but the honest approach would be to make a neutral pitch to the reader and allow them to make their own mind up rather than couching the review in negative opinion lexis designed to sway reader opinion.
9) Perhaps its worth considering, on reflection, that many people don’t read reviews for the poem or the poet at all, but out of interest in the comments of an admired critic. The critic’s authority in this case simply comes from the principal of supply and demand, all other considerations therefore become null and void, and the critic can be as negative, rude etc. (within legal bounds) as they want in order to keep their customers satisfied. What lessons we might draw from this I’ll leave to you.
10) A healthy critical culture is surely going to contain some negative reviews, maybe even a lot of them. But a distinction should be made, I think, between negative-negative and positive-negative. Or is that heading too far towards the Rumsfeldian? Maybe we could say neutral-negative (Watts) and angry-negative (Dent, Raine). I imagine that a neutral-negative mindset would be more likely to yield a positive contribution to ongoing conversations about poetry, while an angry-negative mindset risks shutting the conversation down (the only dignified response being something along the lines of McMillan’s tweet). There is also of course a balance to be struck between positive and negative comments, even in a relatively damning review. Bidisha got it right in her Autumn Poetry Review piece on Jay Bernard’s Surge. She was generally complimentary but selected one area, Bernard’s overly heavy similies, which she felt didn’t work, and she backed this up with examples. This is not too far off the pedagogical approach sometimes called Two Stars and a Wish, where students are encouraged to think of two good things and one area for improvement when giving feedback on each other’s work. A harsher critic might choose to go for Two Wishes and a Star… This may infantilise the process somewhat but, on one level, feedback is exactly what a poetry review amounts to.
11) The two previous points lead to a thought on the right of reply. The critic replies to the poet’s work in negative terms but, as pointed out by Sheenagh Pugh in the below-the-line Magma comments, most poets “feel it’s a terrible mistake to reply to a review” and so the poet does not (by the present accepted convention anyway) have a means to speak back, explain, point out faulty reasoning etc. The conversation, in other words, stops with the critic. Ten years ago, Jack Underwood, again in the Magma comments, suggested a review of reviews, in which presumably the critics work is subject to scrutiny by other critics and poets. This is a great idea, and perhaps in today’s wider, more inclusive online poetry culture there is a place for some corralling of reviews of reviews and critiques of criticism, so that the conversation can continue and more people be involved. Could Poetry Review, PN Review and others include sections on review reviews, I wonder? I’d read them.
12) There is also the question of whether you approach poetry (or let’s say a particular poem) in order to learn something or to teach someone something about the world. Poetry, by its very nature of playing, studying and intervening in language, has a unique status amongst the arts as a tool which we might see as a concave lens on philosophy, both widening and warping what language is capable of revealing. As such it is also a tool which allows both writer and reader to engage in a process of newly understanding the world (‘seeing afresh’ is the rather worn expression but it is essentially learning – unlearning, relearning). Critics and reviewers, it often seems, abandon their role as learner for that of teacher. They feel it is their job to explain to others their own parameters for reading a poem rather than searching for new parameters, or even considering that alternative parameters exist (Jason Guriel exhibited this in his recent review of Jeremy Noel-Tod’s prose poem anthology in The Walrus, which I commented on here). As I said above, this is entirely appropriate in some contexts; but what I’m getting at is that we might still learn something from a poem we consider to be awful.
13) I see this in terms of two different kinds of person. Someone who has already made their mind up about the world will find negative reviewing comes very easily because anything which does not fit into their already-formed outlook will likely require some kind of negating, and the more successful commercially or critically the work is, the more it will be perceived to require such negation. On the other hand, someone who is still on a journey of discovery in life, who hasn’t turned off all the taps and stoppered all the holes in their certainties, may choose a different approach to reviewing, one which may not be particularly critical or even celebratory, but just one of simple enquiry.
What this blogpost has not done, as it is already too long, is look at negative reviewing in relation to race and gender. This is a whole other area, two other areas, which I might pause before throwing myself into, but it was pointed out by Corey Van Landingham ten years ago that the majority – if not all – of the extreme negative reviews are written by middle-aged-plus white males. There are exceptions to this (Rebecca Watts being an honourable one, whose negativity anyway was well-argued; and see also Patricia Lockwood’s hilarious but withering John Updike takedown in the LRB “Malfunctioning Sex Robot”), but it is not an outrageous falsehood; the more bad-tempered reviews do seem pretty much a white male enclave. There are men, in academia particularly but not exclusively, who send out signals in their prose style and debating tone that they find something bordering on macho in the intellectual fist-fight. This does not make them wrong in what they say, but it is interesting to consider how far negative reviewing might on some occasions represent a kind of metaphorical muscle-flex or organ-comparison, which may in turn come from somewhere unacknowledged, a place of perceived threat, of fear and weakness.
In her recent collection A Kingdom of Love (Carcanet), poet and Anglican priest Rachel Mann examines ways in which language (spoken and written, liturgical and secular) works in and around silence to maintain, or perhaps contain, notions of faith and worship. She interrogates both the public role of what might be called an administrator of faith (she is rector of St. Nicholas church in Manchester) and the private, unique faith of the individual; and, particularly in the second of the three sections into which the book is divided, she positions this interrogation firmly within a contemporary UK – the ‘Kingdom’ of the title becoming perhaps an ironic allusion to Brexit Britain as well as God’s Kingdom. This is also a ‘kingdom’ where Greek, Roman, Chaucerian and Biblical myths intermingle with the everyday, complicating the picture but also sharpening Mann’s analysis of who we are and where we are as a nation. The ‘Love’ is not quite as straightforward as it might at first appear either, with Mann several times curtailing the “God is Love” cliché to simply “God is”, the grammatical lacuna paradoxically suggesting everything and nothing equally. But the Godly love which replaces that of platitude is both a mother’s and an erotic love, sometimes simultaneously, and these can be painful, obsessive, bitter, overwhelming, as well as powerful, life-affirming, wonderful forms of love. There is also a suggestion of love lost or rejected I think, shown by the choice of the David Jones painting ‘The Garden Enclosed’ on the front cover and in lines like “If I am raised, I shall not care if you/Will be like unto severed hand/(Forgetful, free) and I the stump, mourning;” (‘A Kingdom of Love (3)’). So, nothing comes easy, but why should faith be either easy or comfortable?
As someone who has always swung between atheism and agnosticism but who has a genuine interest in trying to understand this mysterious thing called Faith, I felt intrigued (entranced, actually, there are moments of great lyrical beauty) but inadequate to review the book properly, so I emailed Rachel and asked if she would answer some questions to help me approach it. To my great joy, she agreed; so I submit this interview in lieu of a full review, not because the book is not worthy of one (it absolutely is) but because in this case I think the poet can provide more insight than the reviewer:
Rowan Williams calls poetry an example of ‘excessive speech’, meaning, if I understand it correctly, a way of using language which pushes us to see beyond what is immediately obvious and present. And in A Kingdom of Love, with incompletely-predicated constructions like “I am” and “God is” (‘Credo’) you seem to be suggesting an ‘ultimate unknowability’ of not only God but also the human ‘Self’ – or perhaps an acknowledgement of the rightness of Wittgenstein’s silence that must pass over what we can’t express. How does poetry figure in your exploration of your faith?
My earliest adult academic formation was in philosophy and, as a post-grad student, I became obsessed with Wittgenstein and ‘Linguistic Philosophy’. At that time, I wasn’t a Christian and – prior to my conversion experience – language was, pretty much, my god. I was simply obsessed with its possibilities: with the ways it gets away from us, forms us, or we imagine we can control it. After I came to faith, that fascination didn’t go away. However, it began to morph into a fascination with poetry as a locus for grace and, crucially, for my feeble attempts to say the unsayable. Without poetry, which is language straining at the edge of sense and remaking sense, I’m not sure God could get at us or we at God.
I’ve read that Wittgenstein (whom you quote at the front of the collection, and whom I spy in a number of poems) considered prayer to be something closer to ‘deep thought’ than anything like a request. Do you see a connection between writing a poem and praying? You also make a point of distinguishing “authorised words” – is this public versus private prayer? Where does poetry, which is both public and private, fit into this?
I’m not sure I can answer that terribly helpfully. One thing that fascinates me, however, is the extent to which (broadly understood) both poetry and prayer have to negotiate (for want of a better term) ‘privatisation’. I hear people say, e.g., prayer, faith, religion are all fine as long as they’re a private matter and kept out of the public square; there have also been times when poetry – especially women’s poetry – has been seen as an essentially private matter, centred on emotions and small concerns sometimes made public. While I think there is such a thing as the expressive or confessional mode in both prayer and poetry, it’s complicated. I find that in both personal prayer and in poetry the making is the creating; there is not a fully formed thought or idea behind the prayer or poem that simply needs to be presented to the world. We make meaning in public, in bodies which are always already in the world.
Some poems in A Kingdom of Love take parts of the liturgical day for their titles, as Auden did in ‘Horae Canonicae’ – what is the significance of this for you? Do you see any similarity between what you are doing in those poems and Auden’s incredible sequence?
Auden has long been on my mind. I certainly wasn’t attempting to mimic his masterful sequence, but I don’t think there’s any way for me to avoid a poet whose Anglicanism was simultaneously profoundly faithful, yet prepared to test out of the limits of orthodoxy. Upon his return to the church in the ‘40s, Auden brought to bear an independent, non-dogmatic intelligence. He was, as he wrote in ‘Horae Canonicae: Terce’, alert to the religious tendency to indulge in our own ‘secret cult’ and I think he resisted that magnificently. I hope I can be even half as successful.
In your memoir, you use Henry Vaughn’s expression “dazzling darkness” to express, I think, the depths of pain, doubt, horror in life etc. which is not ‘lit’ by the guiding God of cliched metaphor but which your ‘Dark God’ is intrinsically part of. I was struck by some of the dark images in A Kingdom of Love (such as “the frantic dove torn apart”) and some provocative ones too (“Jesus puts a tongue/into my mouth”). How far does this collection represent your own journey into darkness?
I suppose the priest who speaks in the opening sequence of A Kingdom of Love both is and isn’t me. The priest on the page escapes my control, as it were. However, I don’t know how this collection could have been possible without a wrestling with my own story, which of course takes in some challenging and beautiful encounters. If by ‘darkness’ we might mean ‘mystery’ and ‘possibility’ and ‘the liminal’ then these poems absolutely are committed to an investigation of the dark. Most of all I hope the poems take language seriously and explore the way it gives up its treasures in juxtapositions, allusions and a kind of tricksy benevolence and kindness.
A number of the poems also describe, or allude to, the physicality of the mouth and of sound-making. Can you say something about the point at which the physical becomes the non-physical and how important this liminality is to your poetry/faith?
I was reading one of Irigaray’s books recently – the one called ‘The Forgetting of Air’ – and your question reminds me of some of the things she examines in that book: the way that European cultures have often been obsessed with air rather than earth as metaphors of life and vitality. With Spirit and Ideas rather than Body. However, in A Kingdom of Love I want to wrestle with ‘breath’ – because breath is always physical, though there is a profound sense in which it is air too. I am fascinated by liminal places – by those places between what is body and not-body, breath and its absence and so on. I think that’s where we live most of the time, if not all of the time.
In Dazzling Darkness at one point you mention that you don’t “as a rule” write “religious” poetry. What changed your mind for this collection?
That’s a good question. I think in order to write A Kingdom of Love I had to come to terms with the deposit of faith in my own writing, life and language. I think when I wrote Dazzling Darkness, I was too obsessed with finding a language that was plausible beyond the communities of faith of which I’m part. I felt like I had to treat with contemporary poetry which, despite its indebtedness to religious gesture and language, is uncomfortable with the ‘religious’ as a mode or genre. As I wrote the poems which comprise ‘Kingdom’ I began to realise that I simply had to address my faith without embarrassment or apology. I had to travel through the features of faith rather than try to circumvent them.
Again in your memoir, you refer to God as ‘she’ but in A Kingdom of Love you use the more traditional ‘He’ on several occasions, and yet through your milk/mouth imagery you also suggest a mother/child relationship. I wondered whether you have changed your approach to the ‘gendering’ of God (if I can call it that).
Not really. A Kingdom of Love is very specifically about wrestling with linguistic and mythic inheritances. Male pronouns are so pervasive in religious discourse that I felt that I simply had to wrestle with them. As you say, there are female-coded references too, but I felt I needed to interrogate the dominant religious discourse.
In ‘Fides Quaerens’ you say “I don’t know what ‘believe in’ means/In the vast majority of cases”. This gets to the heart of it for me, as it seems to imply a difference between ‘Belief’ and ‘Faith’, two words which have always been synonymous for me. Can you distinguish easily between them?
It is a tricky distinction. I guess the line I explore in the poems is between ‘believe in’/belief as a propositional and intellectual matter and faith as a mode of trust and being. Of course, the line between them can be messy and I think that is part of the poetic riches found in both terms. I think it’s rewarding to treat them as concepts with ‘family resemblances’.
Many thanks to Rachel for taking the time to answer my questions.
You can buy A Kingdom of Love from Carcanet here.
You can buy Dazzling Darkness: Gender, Sexuality, Illness and God from Wild Goose here.
(after Norman MacCaig, on the eve of another Brexit vote)
Tomorrow Parliament, who are a crow,
Will sit, each in their own centre
Above their bloodied lamb, and blow
Tuneless through an old kazoo,
While wind’s quiet canned laughter
And fade-out of gramophone crackle
Will shake the solitary heath-tree
Where our own ragged self sits.
Crows, who are in Parliament, hollow
Is thy tune, thick-feathered thy crown,
Cape-winged thy shoulder blades, abstruse
Thy ways and means of representing us
Who are you, crows, in our single tree,
Shaking as our one breath blows.
A few days ago, a sequence of poems entitled ‘Welfare Handbook’ by Sasha Dugdale appeared in Mal, the online journal of sexuality and erotics. Its subject matter is difficult: the artist Eric Gill, a culturally significant figure who created many celebrated works and developed the Gill Sans typeface, but also a sexual predator who among other things abused his daughters (I won’t discuss his art and crimes here, they can all be found elsewhere online). Dugdale recognises the difficulty of tackling Gill but she has faced it down to produce a remarkable and, I think, important work which highlights some of the ways in which poetry can respond in measured and careful, but no less fierce – and proud – tones to subject matter that could all-too-easily be washed over with angry denunciations or indignant defences.
I would recommend reading the sequence carefully multiple times before continuing.
Dugdale is of course a translator, and she book-ends the sequence with quotes translated from languages other than English, the last lines being from Valerie Meyer Caso: “English is a language of water / and good for recording disaster”. And she tells us in the introduction that “The voice in the sequence is not Gill’s – it is the voice of water”. So, English as water is at the heart of the sequence: useful, dangerous, dominating, all-pervasive; water, with all its many and varied symbolic and practical qualities, but water as language, which not only flows through us but creates us. And this is the level from which the poet is working, from the level of creation; she is, in fact, re-creating the subject matter, translating it, even reclaiming it.
Reclaiming it for whom? Well, it seems to me that by getting into Gill’s very creative fibres, quoting snippets (phrases, individual words) from his diary, and surrounding his voice with her own (because the voice may be water, but the water is also the poet), Dugdale has carried out a profoundly feminist act – she has created an artwork-response which turns a male abuser’s artwork back on itself – this becomes clearer in a soon-to-be-published poem the poet shared with me (more on this in a moment) which graphically, hilariously and powerfully reimagines the Homeric scene of Nausicaa meeting Odysseus – a Gill frieze of which adorns the lobby of the Midland Hotel in Morecambe. The point is that this is a female work which, by taking us inside the Gill community at a creative level, both challenges the male gaze of the artist (his nude images of women famously have them looking down and away from the viewer, submissive even) and takes on the notion that abusers-who-create (or their defenders) can in some sense hide behind the art, justifying their abuse with ideas of ‘free-spiritedness’ and ‘Bohemianism’.
And this is an angry sequence. Dugdale’s rage comes across in the first poem, which establishes both Gill’s sexism and his religious hypocrisy, but at the same time sets out the poet’s aim for the sequence:
When I write about this, shall I bang my fist
on the pound of paper to puncture it
or shall I gradually entrap my subject
with words written in mucous…
But it is an anger which Dugdale has taken as a tool for her craft, it is the very antithesis of the flailing, wild, formless anger found on city streets and social media in 2019, anger given a voice (one ‘good for recording disaster’) – and I think this is where the sequence’s real importance lies, especially in these times when there are so many reasons to be angry.
I mentioned earlier the Homeric (as-yet-unpublished) poem the poet shared with me. This was during a brief exchange of emails in preparation for this blogpost, in which Dugdale was kind enough to share some thoughts on where the sequence came from and what it means to her. I asked her what had drawn her to write about Gill and she mentioned the strong, visceral reaction she had had when visiting the Ditchling museum during an exhibition in 2017 which dealt with Gill as an abuser: “There are truths we intellectually know but a moment can arise when we feel that truth as a physical sensation, and the Ditchling Museum’s exhibition on Gill’s art and his abuse was that moment.” It is this ‘physical sensation’, but controlled, targeted, that comes through so strongly in this sequence.
Another strategy Dugdale uses is that of allowing multiple texts to talk to, and through, each other. She tinkers with Odysseus and Nausicaa in the Homeric poem, and in ‘Welfare Handbook’ she reworks Catullus in a similar way though to different effect. By corrupting the beautiful ‘Catullus 7’, and answering Lesbia’s question about how many kisses would be enough not with “as many as there are grains of sand on the beach” or “as many as there are stars in the sky” but with “as many stinking binbags as there are grains of sand on the shore…perhaps a private beach now (or)…as many cotton buds as there are stars in the sky to behold the illicit fumblings of men in railway carriages”, Dugdale draws attention to the artist’s betrayal of his muse, evoking a kind of spoiling, a degrading of art, but at the same time suggesting that the dominating and controlling male gaze has been there since Roman times (and before). ‘Welfare Handbook’ also plays with TS Eliot’s Wasteland, repudiating the association of the wasteland image with either ‘mental breakdown’ or ‘infertility’ (“Just picture the deserts / of Mexico, blooming with cactuses like prosthetic limbs.”). I don’t know if Gill knew Eliot, but he certainly knew and was admired by the poet David Jones, who in turn knew and was admired by Eliot, so perhaps that’s the connection. There could be reference here to both Gill’s breakdown and also Eliot’s first wife Vivienne’s mental health problems, but over-layering that is the notion that the wasteland image is a male construct imposed on women, to make them fear infertility, independence, and perhaps post-menopausal existence entirely:
A wasteland is what we have been taught to fear,
unhusbanded, without the city walls, infertile
And here, clearly I think, the voice is that of women – or perhaps ‘Woman’. Here also the female ‘water’ of language clashes with the male imposition of ‘dryness/barrenness’, and so a fuller significance attaches to Dugdale’s use of language-as-water trope – a female symbolism being used to flood and cleanse the world (her world, the world of Gill’s daughters) of masculine domination and debasement.
I for one hope that this sequence expands, even to book length. I hear in the language a natural evolution from her collection Joy, and particularly in the ‘Joy’ sequence itself, which does not contain the same anger but also fashions, extracts perhaps, a female presence from an overly dominant male one.
I will finish by mentioning something which struck me about the poem which cannot be ignored and which Dugdale told me was “probably the hardest poem to write because it refers to more recent sexual crimes against children”. It is towards the centre of the sequence and it begins:
sex with children upsets us
more than it used to. As my friend’s mother
once pointed out: stay away from him
you know what he’s like. They’re manipulative
said the policeman, they often ingratiate themselves
with the parents
There is something shockingly blunt about the phrasing of that first line, statement of fact that it is; to see not ‘abuse’ or ‘rape’ or ‘paedophilia’ but ‘sex with children’ knocks the reader off-kilter I would suggest. We sit up. We absorb the bluntness. We wonder whether the rest of the poem will increase our sense shock – and perhaps hope that it will. We try to decide how we feel about the shock: Will it become outrage? Will we call for the poem to be pulled from the website? We may not yet have read the later poem ‘Sexual Antinomianism’ with its evocation of “St Euph, patron saint of euphemism” but on a second reading we might wonder whether those words (abuser etc.) which we think still shocking are themselves becoming euphemistic, and then return to the line, thinking: sex with children? Really? Those words together? And perhaps we also aim some anger at our parents and grandparents – yes, you ignored it, you glossed it over. But do we do any better (Jimmy Saville)? And finally, we are faced, worst of all, with the old fear and knowledge that if it happened then, it’s likely to be happening now.
Later in the poem the victims are described, achingly, wrenchingly, as “those lonely exquisite pickings” and “the anxious child who fears not pleasing”; but the poem ends acknowledging the strength inherent in developing coping strategies, in learning that pleasure
is a structure like a tent, erected on sand
pack it up take it with you
it will never catch you unawares.
As I said at the beginning, it’s a difficult topic. And this is a difficult poem. Difficult to read, difficult to write about. And undoubtedly it was difficult to write. But now it is with us, and perhaps by being with us, it can help.
The Penguin Book of the Prose Poem, edited by The Sunday Times poetry critic and Senior Lecturer at UAE Jeremy Noel-Tod, has already been reviewed several times, both positively and negatively, and I’m not going to add to them here; but I would like to pick up a few points made in those reviews – particularly the negative ones – which I find interesting for various reasons relating to my own attempts to grapple with the prose poem as a form.
Kate Kellaway in The Guardian, while her adjective choices are sometimes a little breathless (“stupendous”, ”exhilarating”), makes some good points and she notes correctly that “the prose poem has always been a liberating space”, a nice phrase that sums up the general feeling of Noel-Tod’s introduction. The Telegraph and The Times reviews are behind paywalls, but they must also be positive as they awarded the anthology five and four stars respectively.
Such reviews are, in the opinion of that combative and grizzled Old-Schooler Craig Raine, “abject” and “docile” due to Noel-Tod’s “intimidating” introduction. He has a great time tearing it to pieces in his magazine Areté. Now. As much as I enjoy Raine’s habit of stalking the world of contemporary literature like the Phantom Raspberry Blower of Old London Town, his aim here is way off. It is motivated surely by bad blood (Noel-Tod is his former deputy editor at Areté and his former student at Oxford) rather than any real failing in the introduction, which is, for the general reader, very informative and accessible. Raine’s ostensible beef is, I think, that Noel-Tod writes too vaguely, using rhetorical flourishes and overly extensive end notes in order to hide his fuzzy thinking on prose poems. Even by Raine’s exacting professorial standards, he is being too harsh. This is “not an argument” he says derisively, but no ‘argument’ is intended: the introduction is meant to provide perspectives on a literary form that is more-than-averagely difficult to pin down; Noel-Tod is assembling a range of thoughts from people likely to be interesting and instructive, not developing a thesis. It is true that his own definition (“a prose poem is a poem without line breaks”) is a bit too minimalist to be much help, and that expressions like “….wayward relationship to its own form…” go the other way and ask the reader to make too great a leap from signifier to signified, but given that he is discussing a form “with an oxymoron for a name (Michael Riffaterre)”, the strategy of providing a spectrum of attempts to express its ‘whatness’ is as good an approach as any. And he compliments this with some features that are common to many prose poems (such as expansiveness, a tendency towards the imagistic, and towards metonym over metaphor), also supplying thoughts from various writers and critics on the two forms separately, poetry and prose, which fuse in this simultaneously too-difficult and too-easy hybrid. Again, this is a good strategy, which, although it didn’t leave me with a solid understanding of some pocket-sized definition, did provide enough different perspectives to allow me a ‘feeling’ for what a prose poem ‘might’ be, i.e. an expansive, loose, imagey, notey, cage-bar-bendy, echoey, metonym-y kind of thing. And I think that is about as much as I can hope for. Really, I don’t think prose poems want to be defined – they are radically ambiguous.
It is this sense of having to accept the form’s essential non-definability which I think lies at the heart of Jason Guriel’s complaint in his review in The Walrus. Guriel is a poet, and as far as I can tell not a bad one, who takes a reserved approach to what a poem ‘should’ be and so finds himself uncomfortable with the prose poem’s radical ambiguity. His tone is less splenetic than Raine’s, though he still sounds rather irritated. He does, however, raise the one point I struggle most with in connection to prose poems – that is, how are we supposed to know a good one from a bad one if the rules which govern what it is are so loose? To an extent this is a question that goes for a lot of contemporary poetry that doesn’t follow traditional forms, and critics often use that equally indefinable reason for their criticisms, that “it doesn’t work on its own terms”. The prose poem must present a double headache for such critics because it doesn’t even provide any terms on which it may or may not work. Guriel plays a sly trick halfway through his review, inventing a prose poem and adding it to a list of genuine ones in order to illustrate how craft-less their cod profundity really is. I have to admit that I was caught out here, and I felt (as Guriel no doubt hoped his readers would) slightly ashamed and ‘copped’ at not having been able to distinguish the genuine from the forged. Of course, with hindsight I can go back and backfill all sorts of reasons for being duped; and re-reading it I can see how he has used Noel-Tod’s introduction to write a sort of prose-poem-by-numbers.
Here is Guriel’s prose poem in full:
A text, resting on a table, having been turned to a page of illustrated finches years before. (The page was torn out years before.) And beside it, the tumbler of water. And beside themselves, the finches. And where the page was torn, an edge. An absence. A muted singing.
If nothing else, we could perhaps say that it is an expansive, loose, imagey, notey, cage-bar-bendy, echoey, metonym-y kind of thing. And you know what? I still quite like it, the way I might like a painting I know is actually crap but which gives me a pleasant feeling to look at, and so I keep it on my wall almost as two fingers up to the world. I think a lot of poems are ‘good’ in this sense – and of course there are those who are concerned that this is part of the ‘dumbing down of poetry’, and perhaps the recent increase in collections of prose poems, or including them, is seen as part of this trend.
But it is worth going back to the Noel-Tod anthology to see what the genuine prose poems have got that the fake one hasn’t. Here is The God of War (1949) by Berthold Brecht (trans. Thomas Kuhn), another poem that would fit my silly non-definition above:
I saw the old god of war standing on a stump, one side an abyss, on the other a cliff wall.
He smelled of free beer and carbolic and he showed off his gonads to the teenagers, the while some professors had rejuvenated him.
In his hoarse wolf’s voice he declared his love for all that is young. And there was a pregnant woman standing by, and she shivered.
And he continued without shame, presenting himself as a great champion of order. And he described how he created order in the barns, by emptying them.
As a man may scatter crumbs for the sparrows, so he fed poor people with crusts of bread he had taken from poor people. His voice was sometimes loud, sometimes quiet, but always hoarse.
In a loud voice he spoke of the great times to come, and in a quiet voice he taught the women how to boil crows and seagulls.
All the while he was uneasy in himself, and he looked over his shoulder time and again as if in fear of a stab in the back.
And every five minutes he assured his public that he was minded to make his entrance brief.
This is a poem that I don’t just want to look at but to touch, climb onto, open up, root around, delve into, investigate. Even though it is in translation (perhaps because it is in translation) there is something in the word choices, the images, the surprises, the repetitions, the themes that pulls me in, demands not only that I read and speak it but that I speak and write about it. Something, well, indefinable. And I can only express what I want to express about how the poem affects me through the metaphors of the previous sentence – how fuzzy is that? There is nothing in the Guriel fake that makes me feel anything like I feel when reading the Brecht. I used to mock Christians (when I did such things, git that I was, back in my Dawkins days) for their use of metaphor: “Well, of course you’d say God is Light because there is Light whereas there is no God”. But now I see that some things just do not trade in clear definitions – they need metaphor and analogy because they are made of something that conventional clarity cannot capture. And that’s okay. After all, a simple biological definition of ‘The Human’ would miss an awful lot of fuzziness around the question of what a human really is. If we were looking for a literary form to fit the contradictions and contrariness of the human character, perhaps we would choose one “with an oxymoron for a name”.
What Noel-Tod’s anthology has helped me understand is that knowing what a prose poem, or any poem for that matter, is is not the point, the point is what it does. I know a good prose poem when I read it because of the way it makes me feel, what hidden truth about the world it points me towards, what it makes me want to do after reading it, where it takes my imagination; and you can call it what you want. Some poetic forms afford us the comfort of a clear definition and Audenesque memorability, while others don’t. Equally, some readers require such clarity, along with the security of being able to say ‘I know this is good because it fulfils criteria A, B and C, which are all good things, and it bends criterion D, which is clever’. While others don’t.
You can buy The Penguin Book of the Prose Poem here.