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.

The Performance v Page Debate is a Red Herring


I only made it to two sessions at Poetry in Aldeburgh last weekend, but I was extremely glad to have seen and heard what I did. The ones I saw were ‘The National Poetry Competition at 40’ and ‘A Cambridge Quartet of First Collections’, the first of which featured readings by Dom Bury, Yvonne Reddick, Philip Gross and Liz Berry; and the second Adam Crothers, Rebecca Watts, Alex Wong and Claudine Toutoungi. I was struck by how differently all the poets read their work and how I as a listener got caught up far more in the sound of their voices and the movement of their hands, the expressions on their faces, than on the actual content of their poems.

This is what I wrote up from my notes on the poets:

Dom Bury is of the Poet Voice school of reading, leaning towards the austere and liturgical, there is power in this brand of solemnity – he holds the lectern and often closes his eyes; Yvonne Reddick is expressive in the earnest manner of an amateur dramatist, its effect is cumulative across poems – her hands play out the action of her lines; Philip Gross (my favourite poet bar none) brings something otherworldly to his reading: simultaneously Arial and Caliban flitting then lurching through a wood; Liz Berry clutches at herself emotionally and rides her strong accent as though it’s a creature performing the poems with her – she looks out at the audience, monologuing; Adam Crothers has self-deprecation knitted into the confidence that underlies his word-play and wit – his hands stay in his pockets, awkward but not; Rebecca Watts is deliberately neutral in a way that surrounds and defends her lines – she gets the closest to disappearing; Alex Wong leans forward gently on the lectern, speaks to the page and with reticence stirs pleasing sonority from mumbles; Claudine Toutoungi gives the air a shove with her no-nonsense clarity of diction and awesome comic timing, she wrings each utterance for conversational acuity.

That I could not remember the content of the most of the poets’ poems by the time I headed home from Aldeburgh later that afternoon was, I’m sure, largely due to the fact that by and large I am a ‘reader of’ poetry rather than a ‘listener to’, and I think it is fair to say that there is some skill in listening to poetry. That’s what I’d like to write about a little here, if only to think it through for myself.

There are interesting debates around the dichotomy (a false one according to some) between ‘performance’ and ‘page’ poetry, but they all seem to centre on what the poet-performer does as opposed to the reader-listener. It is not controversial to say that a ‘reader of’ poetry and a ‘listener to’ poetry are doing two different things – one is reading and the other is listening (even though the ‘reader of’ may be reading aloud and so listening to their own voice, it is their voice they are listening to, not someone else’s). So, there is clearly a ‘true’ dichotomy going on in this sense. I was fascinated by Jack Underwood’s Poetry Review article ‘On Poetry and Uncertain Subjects’ and his response to my blog post earlier this year which made me re-visit my understanding of the ever-changing meaning-making relationship between not only the poet and their text but between the reader-listener and the same text. Bearing Jack’s words in mind, though not entirely abandoning my own ideas about ‘linguistic DNA’, it seems reasonable to talk about a tacit meaning-making contract between the originator and the receiver of a text. I feel like this aligns with ideas found in reader-response literary theory, although I find the position of Stanley Fish (whom I have come across since my previous blog on this subject, and who claimed in 1976  to have ‘made the text disappear’ entirely – ‘Is There a Text in this Class?’) hard to follow to its extreme.

In relation to the page-performance question, the idea of a meaning-making contract is a useful one insofar as it relates to the physical transfer of data/signals/symbols or whatever from A (poet-performer) to B (reader-listener), and the skill required of B in gathering these data/signals/symbols before they can go about interpreting them.

1)    For a ‘reader of’ poetry, their side of the contract is very much in their own hands – the ink on the page is the only real vestige of the originator’s side and (although there are different fonts, different paper types, or other written contexts entirely) generally speaking the reader can take their time and does not (ideally) have any major distractions to deal with (not ones that add to the meaning of the text anyway). The reader will go about generating meaning in whatever way they generate meaning, but crucially for my point they only have the ink and paper (or whatever) to go through to do so, and they can do it in a time-frame that is comfortable and natural for them.

2)    But for the ‘listener to’ poetry, the contract is performed in real-time, they have to keep up and maintain their end of the contract at whatever pace is dictated to them by the performer. In my other, non-poetic, life I am an EFL teacher and from this context I know that listening is a skill, and not a simple one, it’s easy to get lost and easy to lose focus. And in addition, ‘listeners to’ have numerous other ‘distractions’ to deal with (as mentioned in my Aldeburgh notes above): the performer’s reading style, accent, pitch, timbre, cadence, lisps, hand gestures, facial movements, use of the dramatic pause, comic timing etc. And that is not to say anything of the other distractions outside the performer themselves (such as all the other people in the auditorium, the lighting, the microphone system – at Aldeburgh there was the occasional hum of mobile phones, and the atmospheric seaside squawk of far-off gulls).

This leads me to my Main Point. For a poet, the idea of a page poem or a performance poem is a false dichotomy, because both are generally created with the way the words sound in mind (there are exceptions, of course); and when we read a poem to ourselves, either out loud or in our heads, we are in effect performing it to ourselves and so the dichotomy between page and performance is also false in that sense. But when we listen to a poem being read by someone else, we are clearly doing something different, and the dichotomy is real. Thus, as with so many things, whether there is a performance-page dichotomy or not comes down to perspective. There both is and isn’t. If we accept that both poet-performer and reader-listener are involved in generating the ever-shifting meaning of the poem then it becomes clearer that any debate around page and performance is actually a red herring. What is really being debated in these cases has nothing to do with poetry – or at least is a priori to it – the arguments are ideological, they are about class, society, education, power, race, identity and probably various other things out of which poetry comes to be sure but which will not be agreed on by debating whatever poetry point is under discussion. Poetry becomes simply a useful cultural battleground in a wider ideological war. You can read the Rebecca Watts/Holly McNish furore, the Toby Martinez de las Rivas palaver and many hundreds of social media horn-locks in the same way.

So, Aldeburgh underlined for me that I am not a particularly good ‘listener to’ poetry because I was focused so much on the poets’ delivery of their work that I was not able to open myself properly to the poems’ meanings – or perhaps I should say I was unable to fulfil my side of the meaning-making contract adequately. But it also occurred to me that (notwithstanding the red herring of my Main Point) we as ‘listeners to’ cannot help but arrive at a performed poem through the performer, and so (for all the reasons mentioned above) a poem’s meaning becomes subordinated to the style of its delivery. Just as it is harder to see something through warped glass – although I accept that just how warped the glass is, is down to the listener (for example, I love Liz Berry’s marked Black Country accent, which may warp the glass one way for me, while another member of the audience may have a hated work colleague with such an accent and this may warp the glass of Berry’s performed poems the other way for them) – the poem’s meaning takes secondary importance to its delivery because the delivery has such a tight grip on that meaning for the audience; it can obscure, distort, even change a line’s meaning entirely.

And as a final thought, we might also say that a poem’s delivery itself adds significantly to the total number of ‘formal units’ of meaning (as I think Fish calls them) with which the ‘listener to’ a poem is faced: in other words, the poem on the page has ‘less to it’ than the performed poem. We could therefore see a performed poem as more complex than and therefore superior to a page poem or as less pure in relation to perceived authorial intention and therefore inferior. Again, we are back to perspective.

Into the Soul of Totalitarianism


the illegal age

The Illegal Age by Ellen Hinsey

 The word ‘important’ is over-used in poetry reviews, but in the case of Ellen Hinsey’s The Illegal Age it seems to me the only appropriate adjective to describe a sequence which should be required reading on the National Curriculum. It is not a book we can afford to ignore; and I’m very grateful to the Poetry Book Society as I had heard of neither the book nor the poet before it came through the post as their Autumn Choice.

Like Robert O. Paxton’s 2005 The Anatomy of Fascism, this is a book which approaches its subject with the absolute clarity it requires. Paxton set out his analysis of Fascism as an ‘Anatomy’ almost as though it were a body lying out for dissection, Hinsey uses the structure of legal documentation as the framework which both supports and contains her poetic project. In the same way that the restrictions of a strictly-rhymed sonnet simultaneously create and contain its content, The Illegal Age’s three sections or ‘investigation files’ (Smoke, Ice and Obscurity – themselves divided legalistically into Reports, Evidence, Files, Internal Reports, more Evidence, more Files, and Testimony) allow Hinsey both to build a Kafkaesque edifice (though perhaps ‘scaffold’ would be a more appropriate, sinister word) that confines her language – and by restraining creates its meanings – and becomes a mysteriously self-contained world in which her own investigation can take place: What are these documents? Who is on trial? Who is sitting in judgement? Well, it would seem that autocracy itself is in the dock, indeed being condemned and imprisoned by its own dark strictures, but if that is the case there is no sense that we as readers are in any position of power – perhaps we may think ourselves members of some small resistance group rifling through the documentation of the collection by torchlight.

Paxton pointed out that Fascism is never inevitable because throughout its stages of development there are always (among other factors) people making choices, but Hinsey uses her unfolding imagery, her changes of register, her rhythms and motifs (in other words her poetic ‘choices’) to begin a process of unpacking at a deeper level than is possible in non-fiction prose (or arguably fictional prose) and we as readers are aware that the analysis taking place here is occurring at some point behind or beyond the mere political fact of totalitarianism itself. The barriers of those clouding, opaque section titles hint at the impossibility of the feat the book is attempting (or asking us to attempt) which is an analysis of what Hinsey calls ‘the autocratic experience’, but which could equally be called the soul of totalitarianism.

“Nothing happens quickly:” is the declarative that opens the book, the first of many (most sections take the form of lists of either aphorisms, instructions or Old Testament-style injunctions), and one which sets the tone – it is another expression perhaps of Hannah Arendt’s image in The Origin of Totalitarianism in which the “subterranean streams” of Jewish history lead to the great “coming to the surface” of the Holocaust; “each day weighs upon the next” Hinsey continues, “until the instant comes”. And that is in essence what this sequence goes on to scrutinise – the semi-hidden approach and then the ‘surfacing’ of a moment of total tyranny.

The distillation of this moment comes through most succinctly I think in ‘Elementary Lesson in Division’, a prose poem (or ‘anti-lyric’ to use Hinsey’s chosen phrase) which takes the logic of algebraic equations as a starting point from which to reduce and collapse an individual’s life, and by extension society, as the extreme clarity of mathematical language becomes analogous with the inhumanity of Nazi or Stalinist policy. The beginning and end of the poem run as follows:

     “Start, as  once   instructed, on  the left side of
the equation: there you will  glimpse  the totality
of a simple, well-ordered room…

…all is reduced to one, where
only a fraction of the face is left visible, then only
only a mouth, only a black eye through the bars –
before the prison train jolts.”

And so simple order is ultimately broken down to a single black zero, the hole of a political eternity. Here, with “as once instructed”, it seems to me that Hinsey deliberately echoes Geoffrey Hill’s “As estimated, you died” in his ‘September Song’; and this exemplifies how she writes “in dialogue with” other writers, as Marilyn Hacker puts it in the dust cover blurb. And this is one of the ways in which the book maintains a sense of hope amid the fear and despair. Just as we might think of ourselves as coming across these legal papers during some imagined act of defiance against the regime, there is also a feeling that poets of the past (Trakl, Celan, Szymborzka, and Milosz all more obvious examples than Hill) are being marshalled into a form of resistance which, while it survives, is our defence against the “ascendency” of “the Inconceivable” (‘On the Rise of the Inconceivable’). And part of this resistance is also the plea that the reader listens to other voices from the past, survivors of the Holocaust and other atrocities of autocracy: “Remember: each memory salvaged from tyranny’s flood is an unsteady, but miracle-buoyed raft” (‘Carved Into Bark’).

Although there remains a silence at the very centre of this work (“FINIS MUNDI You can then do what will never be able to be described in language” – ‘Handbook of Smoke’), many sections juxtapose registers that resist one another to create a friction from which the reader senses a voice expressing the individual experience within totalitarianism. The poem which seems to illustrate this best is ‘Terminology Lesson’, which uses eleven phrases that sound as though they may have been taken directly from a Secret Service handbook on torture (‘stress positions’, ‘special positions’, ‘sleep management’ etc.) as subtitles for brief statements and semi-statements which may or may not be biblical paraphrases but which certainly use the high religious-lyricism of the King James Bible (“Like each creature, beneath my tongue I possess a Word, given at birth – a Word that means to be and to praise –”; “And when before thee Lord, we were afraid, and before your justice –”). The horrific banality (recalling Arendt’s use of the word) of the torture-expressions imprisons the poetic beauty of the ‘personal-belief’ phrases leaving us stunned, perhaps numbed, by what the poem implies but cannot quite say.

Torture techniques can be described in all their horrific detail, as can the factual details of what makes a fascist regime, for example, recognisable as such, but what Hinsey achieves in this sequence is a terrifying sense of being within the system, and further than that she stimulates readers to consider the implications of that terror for ourselves at our current, dangerous point in Western history. In ‘The Denunciation’ she elicits a horrific feeling of the personal paranoia and the invasion of private spaces by wider political spaces, not by telling us about it but by burrowing into a couple’s most intimate, spiritual, sexual moment – the moment of their child’s conception, and surrounding it with the language of espionage: video tapes, locked metal drawers and cardboard folders. At what point did the betrayal take place, the speaker asks. The total state has infiltrated and infected the deepest most private connections within the most personal relationships and has thereby achieved its aim. It is hard not to read this and think about the way the internet brings our public and private lives together and how that could and can be used to divide us from one another.

It is worth concluding this review, I think, by inserting the whole of ‘The Denunciation, as its effect is cumulative, and by noting that the phrase in its first line “all was blackly clear” may well be an echo of another voice, this time Holocaust survivor Paul Celan’s, from his famous ‘Death Fugue’: “Black milk of daybreak we drink it at sundown” (Michael Hamburger trans.).

There are many voices in this sequence, both above and below the surface, but all of them ask us to listen, and to remember.

denunciation 1
denunciation 2

The Illegal Age is published by Arc and is available here.