American Breakdown

american road

American Breakdown

(A Love Song)

It’s all about the road. That’s what they told

themselves: they said

                        one, where you are right now

is never enough, and two, a mystery’s a hell-

uva lot more attractive than a fact;

                                                                but it’s not

about the road at all (collection, please it’s not

all about the road)

and now we’re stuck out here in a yep a prison

of a Cadillac, and cicada interference is battling

with the night, and the country-music-station

drawl is slung low by our knees like a sleeping

rattlesnake, and our own faces are peering back

in at us – ours but different, distorted –

from three closed blocks of window (yez’m)

the nightmares of history are coming to get’em

and they’re scared of the cop-lights,

a girl and a boy and someone else back-seat

it’s not personal, (Number One) Sonny

we’re all in here now and I’m funny        how?

bursting but locked in to one fatal narrative

where a vast orange dawn with a yellow fringe

sets it all on fire,
a quien no sabe sun,

the concrete wall of a dead engine

The Dream…

                  pecked leather in the mornin

shatters into a black night of stars

stripped of all                                meanin

like,        Oh (say)          My (can)               God (you)

these honored dead                            Dances

With Ten Bears               (smiley face)

the good days of hunting are over

                                                         after all

tomorrow is           and           (smiley face)

                                                 I have            I have a



Why aren’t we happy that poetry is popular?


A couple of interesting and thoughtful blogs I’ve come across recently (via Matthew Stewart’s useful hub for all things poetry at Rogue Strands) have expressed some disquiet about the current state of the ‘poetry world’. These concerns are reasonable if not exactly new (as the blog writers acknowledge). Is poetry today too competition-focused? Is it too dictated by a central establishment? Is it too driven by the cult of personality and the desire for renown?
At the The Cat Flap, Richie McCaffery asks whether poetry is becoming essentially undemocratic, with those who play the festival-networking/self-promotion game rising to the top and as a result much good poetry going unnoticed. Helena Nelson at Happenstance points out that competitions look for ‘winners’ as opposed to good poems. Writing a poem for a competition encourages us to write the kind of poem that we think will get noticed by the judge rather than the kind we might naturally want to write (one that has “space to be its own good self” in Nelson’s lovely phrase).

In relation to this last point, it’s worth saying that every time we write a poem with a view to getting it published we are trying to write ‘the kind of poem’ we think a certain editor will look favourably on; in fact, magazines and publishers explicitly advise us to buy from them to see what sort of poetry is most likely to stand a chance of publication. This is, perhaps, an offer to see if there happens to be a lucky match, but it is also a statement to the effect of: “if you want to be published in this magazine, you will need to change your writing style to fit in with what we publish”.
There is nothing wrong with this of course, but it is also no surprise that as a result a lot of writers attempt to write in a way that will get them published in magazines, just as they will change their style to win competitions.
Poetry competitions and festivals and magazines and books exist as part of the system of commerce we all live by. Poetry is, like it or not, about winners and losers: if you win the competition it means someone else does not; if you get published in a magazine it means someone else does not (Nelson herself makes the same point in her blog). This can pretty much be said of all art at all times, at least since art was first commodified. Michelangelo would never have painted the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel if he had not won the contract, etc. It is just an extension of the basic producer-consumer agreement: I like what you have produced so I’ll look for more of it and even pay for it if necessary, I don’t like what s/he has produced so I’ll give their work a wide berth.
The poetry industry is…wait for it…an industry.

But having said that, it is also true that poetry (all art) can and does also exist within ‘the system’. Pockets of it are able to survive, thrive even, protected sometimes by their smallness and lack of popularity, sometimes perhaps by their lack of quality. Just as up and down the country amateur artists produce huge numbers of unsung sketches, water-colours and even full-scale paintings, so amateur poets scribble in their notebooks, save on their c:drives and post on their unread blog pages. Of course, any that are noticed and deemed good enough may well end up as part of ‘the system’ but not all. Are we a nation of poets desperate for recognition and stifled by jealousy of those chosen few whose talents are recognised by a central London coterie? We’ll probably never know, because all those poets who are inclined to get on with it quietly are doing just that. The ones who enter the competitions and struggle for publication are the ones who crave glory (and I count myself slightly sheepishly amongst them), but we don’t know much about the others. There may be an army of unambitious, uncompetitive poets out there. The next Emily Dickinson may be somewhere quietly among them (and she may not, ours will not be the generation to decide).

You don’t have to look far before you find these little pockets of poetry “hiding inside the system”. Take for example Kevin Bateman, a surrealist poet from Dublin I came across recently, who organises small scale performances in various areas of natural beauty. He invites seven or eight poets to read with him and he broadcasts on Periscope and then publishes on YouTube. These are joyful and joyfully amateurish performances – in fact their very strength is their unrehearsed quality and the fact that they locate the poems amongst trees, on cliff tops and halfway up hills rather than in the more sterile but supposedly intellectual atmosphere of a bookshop or with the self-consciously arty-trendy backdrop of a cellar stage. Kevin and the poets who perform with him exist happily and creatively nestled within the whirling chaos of competitions and networking that surrounds them. The space they and others like them are creating is artistically and culturally important precisely because it avoids (however much the poets themselves may want to get published ultimately) the rush and the push for central establishment acceptance.
This feels very democratic to me.
Very different, but also democratic by its nature, is the website, which is an enormous repository of verse written for the sole purpose of expressing delight in football. The poetry here is written by anyone who chooses to submit, with (as far as I can tell) no vetting for quality at all. Judging the quality of the work in poetic terms would be missing the point; football comes first, and the language is put to its service, not the other way round. There is nothing here that would win a poetry competition, but also nothing that would particularly want to. On the other hand, if any of these poems were to be adopted and chanted by fans on the terraces, or quoted by a football manager after a game, I imagine that would be a prize worth winning. It is one of the few places I have come across poetry genuinely moving away from its middle-class home.
In Democracy, Culture and the Voice of Poetry, Robert Pinsky makes a point of distinguishing between poetry as an art form (as which he says it will always be important to the individual) and poetry as a form of entertainment (as which it will always be at best marginal). I agree with Richie McCaffery that the distinction between print and performance poetry is largely a false one (although poetry in performance is clearly different to poetry read in the head) and Pinsky’s antithesis seems similarly dubious. This perception of duality forms the basis of the vague but common illusion that one set of poets (the performers) are democrats, jobbing entertainers who somehow represent the proletariat, while the others (the silent readers) are the snobbish elite gobbing poetic pearls from their ivory tower. I like to think poets can be all these things at once. But Pinsky’s wider point is that poetry itself is essentially democratic because it allows the inner world of the individual to link with the outer world of the landscape through the primal sounds of grunt and echo, and through metaphor link the psychological with the political. I can’t find anything to disagree with in this, and it might actually help to explain why so many people seem to feel aggrieved and concerned when poetry shows the outward signs of becoming popular: something we consider sacred to our inner selves is being profaned; something which on one level is deeply ‘ours’ is, on another, being manhandled by someone else.

It occurs to me that there are two ways of approaching the poetry industry and its associated battles for individual recognition and popularity: a) enjoy them, or (b) ignore them. Poetry, like so many things, is something we do to make us feel special; but it can do this in many ways, getting published or winning a competition are just two. One of the reasons I like poets like David Jones is not because I claim to understand The Anathemata any better than anyone else, but because I know it’s never going to be very popular and so reading it gives me that tingle of doing something just a little bit different from the crowd; and so, I briefly can allow myself to believe that I am different. This is part of what attracted me to poetry in the first place, and probably why, despite the thrust of my argument above, I am one of the many who, while yearning for recognition, feel the same awkwardness with the idea of competitions and festivals and national poetry days: they feel a little herd-like. When I got into this I thought it was just me and Auden; where did all these people come from?
Better just get used to it I suppose.

Clarity & Obscurity in Now We Can Talk Openly about Men 

downing_street_1921 (2)

The characters Martina Evans has created in her 74-poem-long sequence of dramatic monologues Now We Can Talk Openly about Men (Carcanet) (actually two sequences of 39 and 35 poems), feel so real that it comes as a bit of a surprise not to be able to google Kitty and Flora Donovan, Babe Cronin and Eileen Murphy and find out more about them on Irish history websites. Although based around the factual killing of a British sergeant at Mallow Barracks, County Cork, in 1920 and subsequent military reprisals, the story/stories are entirely fictional. But somehow Evans has turned these short poems (only a couple cross over onto a second page) into what feel like primary sources of data about the characters and their time; Bernard O’Donoghue calls the book a “remarkable document” in the blurb on the back cover for a good reason, the poems have the feeling of authenticity and legitimacy that the word suggests). Her ability to replicate on the page colloquial Irish rhythms and phrasing has been commented on before (John McAuliffe has called the style “talky, jumpy, gothic”), and it draws the reader in from the beginning of the first poem:

I was in a weakness. I couldn’t stand up,
leant back against the wall like a drunkard.
Was that Himself I’d seen on the back
of a Crossley tender on Main Street?

Here it is not just the use of the sobriquet ‘Himself’ with all its connotations of indignant but ingrained respect for ‘the man of the house’, but also the second line, which is a participle clause to the second-half of the first, using the spondee leant back to evoke strongly not only an Irish cadence, but a female Irish cadence of the middle-twentieth century (I don’t claim to be an authority on female Irish cadences of the middle-twentieth century so I stand ready to be corrected, but this is how it sounds to me). Such careful attention to the narrating characters’ voices is maintained throughout.

It is in part the very believability of the authentic-sounding voices of Mallow seamstress Kitty Donovan in the first sequence and former stenographer from Dublin Babe Cronin in the second that creates a sort of ‘narrative veil’ over the real central characters of the story: Kitty’s strong-willed daughter Flora Donovan and, even more so, the rebellious and impetuous Eileen Murphy (who is also the link between the two sequences). Rather than reading poems about women in the Irish War for Independence, we feel we are witnessing the period of the war through them. But the veil is also generational because we are in effect looking at the younger characters through the eyes of the older – Kitty is Flora’s mother who has an increasing addiction to laudanum, and Babe (also with an increasing dependence, on whiskey), is an older resident of a Dublin hotel who is in love with – or at least infatuated by – the younger Eileen. The older women’s addictions are another gauze between the reader and the younger characters and the action of the piece.

Each poem is, in a sense, akin to a chapter of a novel, and there is narrative drive both within the poems and between them, but as they are poems, i.e. stand-alone entities and in this sense equally analogous to paintings, they serve as much as windows onto moments, thoughts, memories and feelings as narrative blocks. As the chronology of events progresses, each poem, each line, builds on our impression of Kitty’s and Babe’s mental states (or their memory of their mental states), so we emerge with the two older women’s psychologies fore-fronted and emphasised (the extravagant use of colour in the first sequence and monochromatic second add significantly to the difference between the two women here) and all the actual events are filtered through this. In short, cultural history and folk memory are the currency of these ‘documents’, as opposed to the history of statistics and other written records.

All this goes to making the already enigmatic title, Now We Can Talk Openly about Men, even more abstruse: these poems are not, primarily, about men; and very little in them is talked about openly; even what is discussed in direct terms is hidden behind this ‘narrative veil’. In fact, the men who are directly involved with the action are almost always either not actually there (Himself), masked (the Tans who attack Eileen), or dressed in a disguise (Donnacha); alternatively, they are (like Mr Bloom and Captain Galway) only briefly sketched in character. Little open talking here. Is the title ironic then? In part it is, I think; but there is more going on that that. Occasionally men are seen clearly and almost demonically (Himself’s “red eyes” in that first poem; the Tan as Eileen rips off his mask and shouts “I’ll identify you in court!”) and these moments are often marked by direct speech, also something which seems to pull them clear of the above-mentioned obscuring veil. In the final poem, and dying in bed from consumption, Eileen says “Mrs Donovan taught/me darning & fancy darning. I could/do the Peacock’s Eye but all I darned was/men’s socks & they were always on the run.” At the end of her life Eileen seems to find a melancholy clarity within her half-delirium (conjured by that blurred and dreamy repetition of “darning & fancy darning”) as she recognises her relative importance to the men and women in her life, and the difference in how capable they thought her – how much they valued her. She is, at last, speaking openly about men – and in doing so it is disappointment she is expressing.

The title was apparently a phrase used by Evans’ mother after the poet’s difficult divorce, and thereafter it served as a ten-syllable phrase to get this extraordinary work of art (mostly decasyllabic, or thereabouts) underway. So it is, on top of everything else, a practical departure point for a work that will I imagine be discussed and written about for a long time to come.

After writing the above, I discover that Eileen Murphy was the name of Evans’ cat who featured in a well-known (although not by me until now) earlier poem “The Day my Cat Spoke to Me”. On my original reading I had not considered the surreal, psychological angle of the poem as an exploration of Evans’ own inner-world. Having recently read and written about, Sophie Collins’ criticism of male critics’ inability to allow women credit for creating art free of their own autobiography in Who Is Mary Sue? I resist this reading. But I will enjoy returning to Evans’ book to think more about it.

Now We Can Talk Openly about Men is published by Carcanet, and is available here.

12 Observations on translations of Al-Saddiq Al-Raddi


a monkey at the window

What can I write in response to the beautiful 2016 collection of translations from the Arabic of Al-Saddiq Al-Raddi, A Monkey at the Window (Bloodaxe)? What might be useful? What might be interesting from someone with no more knowledge of or insight into Arabic or Sudanese culture, history and religion than anyone else?

Should a reviewer pause before reviewing a translation? Well, this is my first; and I do pause, briefly. It’s not that I don’t read poems in translation much, I do; and of course I feel I’m as entitled to have reactions to them as anyone else. But to review them, and publish on a blog? Am I qualified?

There is a Philip Larkin quote from The Paris Review, which comes over these days as pretty xenophobic:

“I don’t see how one can ever know a foreign language well enough to make reading poems in it worthwhile. Foreigners’ ideas of good English poems are dreadfully crude . . . But deep down I think foreign languages irrelevant. If that glass thing over there is a window, then it isn’t a fenster or a fenêtre or whatever.”

Although hemmed in by the prejudices of his day, Larkin was making a good point. Isn’t it true that you must have a fairly profound understanding of a language before you can enter into its poetry, either as reader or writer? And doesn’t reading a translation just present you with the same problem at one step removed? Yes and no.

The problem – if it is a problem – can be overcome to an extent firstly by the teamwork between the writer and the translator (or translators, literal and final), who work together towards a text which is more than any one of them could produce alone; and, secondly by the understanding that the word translation does not mean “exact copy into a different language”, rather “new piece of work inspired by a previously existing one which happened to be in another language”.

But Larkin’s point can be extended, I think, to include a ‘foreign’ culture as well as just another language. I feel this sometimes when I hear rap – I understand the words, but do I really understand what’s going on beneath the words? On the other hand, perhaps if you follow this road in the direction logic takes it, you must also include work by those of other regions, cities, classes, genders…every body is a foreign body, after all.

And besides, Carol Rumens wrote this 2007 article in The Guardian which convinces me that translations are in fact worth the effort. The only crime, for reviewer as well as translator, is to ignore the fact and nature of the translation.

Anyway, brief pause over and my urge to ruminate being the same for poems in translation as any other poems, I present not a review exactly but 12 observations on this almost exhaustingly lovely collection:


I quoted Auden recently in this blog: “Poetry makes nothing happen”. Now, I read these lines in Sarah Maguire’s and Sabry Hafez’s translation of ‘Theatre’:

to set the world ablaze
so poetry quickens in your hands
and inflames you with desire

I think about these two poets and what must be their very different experiences of life that led them to have such polar views of what poetry can do. Suddenly Auden appears rather lazy and dismissive.


The literal translations on the PtC website (an amazing resource) make me wonder whether the final translation above adds a political dimension which is not there in the original (transcribed as “I write/so that the world lights up in you”); but it also makes me consider the conversations between Maguire, Hafez and Al-Raddi that must have led to the final version. What has the final translation mined from the Arabic that the literal translation was not able to express, I wonder.


As I read these translations and I look for meaning, almost blindly feeling around for sense and significance, I feel like the poems are asking me to forget for a moment as much as I know. They are lights onto a different world of understanding from the one I exist in.


The original Arabic is set out on the left-hand page with the translations on the right; so English readers begin towards the middle and move further to the right, while Arabic speakers who also begin towards the middle, move further to the left. But at the line endings both readers’ eyes return towards the middle, together.

The Arabic and the English reader go on their separate journeys, but they come home to the same place. Is the ultimate aim of translation? It feels too simple. The ghost of Larkin stirs.


Each poem and its translation could be friends leaning against one another, facing outwards and poised for attack from an enemy circling the page. Or they could be duellists about to march their paces, turn, and shoot. Or lovers, sleeping – we do after all make odd shapes with our bodies in our sleep.

Or they could just be Rorschach blots.


I’m aware of seeing the two versions of the same poem with different parts of my brain.


The English looks solid, calm, to my trained eye.
The Arabic looks as though its quivering, straining to be free, to my untrained eye.


The body of a bird in your mouth
breathing songs.
Raw light spills from your eyes,
utterly naked.

These lines of Al-Raddi’s (the first from ‘A Body’), translated by Sarah Maguire and Atef Alshaer, demand attention. If you take a moment, you can feel the scratchy, feathery, beaky bird inside the soft flesh of your mouth; you can feel the warmth of its breath against the inside of your lips causing them to open and allowing the song to escape. That’s the mouth, then there are the eyes. If I block out Cyclops from the X-Men, I suddenly see that something terrifying is happening: by ‘looking’ you are giving to the world not taking from it, and by giving you are exposing yourself entirely. The words ‘raw’, ‘spill’ and ‘utterly’ are the translators’ I notice, but they heighten the lines to an emotional level which I have to assume is equalled or surpassed by the original.
The rest of the poem demands equal attention.


I am not usually aware of needing to rest between poems, but with these I am.


I think again about (8) above, then about (5) and (6). On the right, my cynical western atheism; on the left Al-Raddi’s Sudanese Sufi mysticism. These poems are taking me into the crevasse, the inside of the spine, between the two.


And a violet blossomed fiercely in the bosom of the sky

These words (from ‘A Star’) are a negotiation between Al-Raddi, Mark Ford, Hafiz Kheir and…here’s the revelation…me. And they’ll remain a negotiation.

What they are negotiating is not Arabic or English but an understanding to which both languages lead.


When I return to ‘A Body’, the image of the X-Men’s Cyclops again invades my brain, and I resent this elbowing-in of my own culture as I try and open my Self to Al-Raddi’s. It happens again in ‘Traces of an Unknown Woman’:

The end of a tribe is a tribe.

Here, against my will and denting my pride, I hear The Who singing ‘Won’t Get Fooled Again’: “Meet the new boss/Same as the old boss”.

The snob in me wishes my cultural references were more cerebral.

A Monkey at the Window is published by Bloodaxe and is available here.

Words in Your Ear

monet waterlilies

In some poems the speaker feels closer to you than in others. I’m not sure why. It may have as much to do with the reader as the speaker, but it’s also something about the poet’s ‘voice’ I think: their approach to rhyme, choice of syntax, sense of rhythm, even the subject matter. The speaker’s mouth just seems closer to your ear and gives you – even without hearing the work read out – a stronger sense of a character standing there behind the poem. This is not a dramatic character but a personality – either the poet’s own or their creation’s – which fully inhabits the words. Some of Simon Armitage’s poetry has this quality I think, and Sharon Olds’, in a very different way, often has it too. Paul Stephenson’s Selfie with Waterlilies (Paper Swans) is a pamphlet of such poems, although I’m not suggesting it bears any other similarities to either of these two poets’ work.
Stephenson takes a more-than-usual delight in language, and this comes through in all sorts of ways: his use of internal and half-rhyme, imaginative repetition, knowingly deployed cliché, shaped poems, punning and other word-play; and it seems to me that he uses this delight as a distancing mechanism, a way of stepping back from the objects of his poems in order to take a clearer look. Perhaps it is this stepping back that brings him a step closer to us. It’s a technique similar to that employed by comedians who use humour to dissect and analyse the world; but Stephenson’s aim is not to amuse, although there are funny poems like ‘The Apprentice’, which memorably teases barrow-boy-cum-millionaire Alan Sugar by ending every line of an open letter to him with the word beetroot. His main purpose here is I think to use language as a distorting lens which emphasises features that might otherwise be missed, features of his parents and their infirmities, his childhood, and his relationship with continental Europe, Russia and Turkey. And of course, the sense of delight in language works in particular contrast to the sadness of the poems which deal with death in the family.
There is a lot of travel in these poems. The speaker takes a taxi across the Bosphorus in ‘Turkish Delight’, before travelling home to see a dying relative (whom we assume to be this father from subsequent poems, though interestingly this is never directly said); he takes a trip in a car with his family only for his father to refuse to get out when they arrive (‘Where are we going?’); he drives down the sleepily repeated “motorways of France” (‘Autoroutes’); he blurs weather and security at Houston Airport (‘Going through’); and finally he has fun with airline safety instructions by putting them into an imperfect online translator: “So listen hard, belt up and fear the worst safely” (‘Waistcoat of Life’). These poems not only reflect a globalised twenty-first century, they also create a sense of personal dislocation, a jitteriness, an inability, perhaps, to settle down; here the speaker’s movement in the world reflects a life thrown into turmoil by death. But the travel in these poems is juxtaposed starkly with the stillness of poems like ‘Womb’ (a sonnet of single word images surrealistically building a portrait of a child in the womb), and ‘Selfie with Waterlilies’ (a double page of two waterlily shapes made up of phrases beginning with a self-centred me). So, at the heart of the pamphlet there is both movement and stasis; maybe it’s the reality of the former and the yearning for the latter. For me, the speaker feels tired in the ‘still’ poems, like the tiredness we all feel when we experience inescapable grief. Stephenson knows that there are times when grammar, punctuation and syntax should keep a firm hold of a poem, and other times (as in ‘My Father’s Food’) when the imagery can take over and lead the mechanics of the language.
‘Deathflake’, perhaps more than any other poem, carries the speaker’s playfulness somewhere darker, using the simple but effective idea of transposing the words “death” and “snow” in various phrases, clichés and collocations, creating new, unusual and sometimes unsettling images (“He snowed heavily in his sleep/Death White. Snow duty.”). There are hints too, I think, towards problems of both physical and mental health in the family of these poems, and disillusionment along with the love, a bitterness which is vaguely alluded to throughout and then begins to head towards some kind of catharsis in the final poem (‘Appeasement’), which picks up the /athe/ sound in “swathe” and plays with it almost like a kitten with a ball of string before the speaker finally changes tone and addresses his family directly: “Mother, father, brother,/you know I don’t loathe you/though indeed at times I’ve seethed”.
Because family and the speaker’s youth play such central roles, it also feels like there is more to be said than was possible in twenty-three poems, as though we are reading a selection of stories from a much longer text. There are unanswered but intriguing questions at the end of this enjoyable and thought-provoking pamphlet, and I hope we’ll soon get to read a full collection from Stephenson for some answers to those questions. He has, with this pamphlet and its predecessor The Days That Followed Paris, begun the process of creating a strong poetic voice which knows both what it wants to say and how it wants to say it; and because it has this quality of proximity to the reader (this reader anyway), it feels like a voice to return to and hear again.

Selfie with Waterlilies is published by Paper Swans Press and is available here.

The painting above is a detail of Water Lilies by Claude Monet, National Museum of Western Art, Tokyo.

To Helen Dunmore

hlen dunmore

I came to your work very late
and had no reason to expect

that it would be waiting.
We might say the sun

had already gone down,
and it’s true your back was turned.

Would I have been embarrassed
to admit your last collection

was all I’d read?
We have to start somewhere

I suppose, there are no rules
of metaphor to follow.

I choose for you to smile as
you are writing now.

Let’s count backwards together
and one by one

return to your juvenilia.
Then I’ll see where I am.

Poetry, Uncertain Knowledge, and Linguistic DNA.


Jack Underwood wrote in the Winter 2017 issue of The Poetry Review:

“If a poem works it’s because you’ve made it such that other people might participate in making it meaningful, and this participation will always rest on another person’s understanding of the poem and its relationship to a world that is not your own.”
(from ‘On Poetry and Uncertain Subjects’ TPR p.43)

I don’t disagree with this at all, but when I read Underwood’s essay, I also happened to be reading Helen Dunmore’s Inside the Wave, and these two texts have come into alignment for me with a recent TES article called ‘There is no “correct” answer in English’.

It was argued in the TES piece that schools should be asking students to give interesting and creative interpretations of texts instead of asking them questions of the ‘How did the writer use…?’ variety. This sounds like quite a tempting idea – creativity is after all a Good Thing – and it ties in with Underwood’s comment on the key importance of “another person’s understanding”. This is (part of) the idea behind Rolande Barthes’ The Death of the Author; in fact Andrew Otty, the author of the TES article, dismisses any thought of authorial importance as the kind of thing any first-year undergraduate should be outgrowing, citing Barthes along with IA Richards and others. But I disagree with Otty and reading Helen Dunmore has helped me crystallise for myself exactly why. This: no one but Helen Dunmore, in her exact situation at that specific time at the end of her life, could have written the poems in Inside the Wave. There was only one way it was ever going to come into existence – this one particular woman being who she was, when she was and (certainly for some of the poems) where she was. There’s no way round that for me – Dunmore gave creative birth to Inside the Wave shortly before she died, and we are all the beneficiaries of that.
I realise this is missing the main Barthesian point that once the text is in the world, then the Author dies, leaving the reader with all the power for meaning generation (and for Barthes in 1968 The Death of the Author was all about the transfer of power); and this may make it appear that Dunmore works against me as an example, and becomes a slightly over-literal reading of the Barthes metaphor, but I don’t think so: she as an author is gone, and the text remains for all and sundry to make of what they will; but the DNA of the text (that is the choices of words, phrases, thought-groups or lexical chunks, grammar structures, metaphor, juxtapositions, line breaks etc., the “foregrounded language” as Underwood has it) is hers and it will always be hers no matter what new meanings are attached by subsequent readers. Underwood quotes a line from Momtaza Mehri to illustrate the impressionistic nature of poetic language:

“Here is where an afternoon eats its meal from the hollow of elbow pits.”
(from Asmura Road, NW2)

But as impressionistic and open to interpretation as it may be, there is not a single element of this sentence (including, to one extent or another, its adherence to spelling and grammar conventions) which did not involve a choice being made, and each one could only possibly have been made by Momtaza Mehri. Those choices, which remain now as the words in the line, are the line’s linguistic DNA. Think of all the other choices that Mehri could have made all the way along that line. Change any one thing and you have a different line. Change any one line and you have a different poem:

“Here is where an afternoon eats her meal from the hollow of elbow pits.”
(from Asmura Road, NW2)

In some cases, of course, the choices may not be the author’s at all but those of their editor or friends, or anyone who may have added ideas. Whoever made the choices (and in this sense the poet whose name appears above the poem may not be as important as they seem), they become the genes from which any subsequent meanings will be able to grow. The area of criticism which analyses a text’s heredity, or ‘how it came to be’, is called Genetic Criticism for a good reason.
Underwood uses several extremely apt metaphors to illustrate the uncertainty of a poetic text: “a huge shoal of jellyfish”, “an open habitation” in which the poet leaves “holes in the walls”, “unstable material”, “someone who has something specific to say by their dancing”, “the precarious ledge of an inconsolable question”. All these metaphors make the point with great clarity, but to them we might also add this: the child who has been left alone in the world when their parents are gone, who may be influenced in life one way or another, who will make decisions and have decisions made for them, who will become one thing or another, who will fail or thrive; one thing amongst all this uncertainty will remain unchanged and unchangeable about this child – their parents’ genes which they carry in their linguistic DNA.

I think this addendum to everything that Underwood pointed out in his Poetry Review essay out is important because it underlines a dichotomy at the heart of contemporary poetry – that is: poems are places of “uncertain knowledge” as Underwood says, and yet they have a stable genetic core because they are built by people who are themselves definite (as in well-defined), certain (as in very sure) and very diverse (clearly, as in of very different backgrounds, sexualities, genders etc.). Within contemporary poetry, then, the uncertain and the certain come into direct confrontation.

And yet if we acknowledge that there is both certainty and uncertainty in poetry, we may avoid misunderstandings like January’s Rebecca Watts controversy. One way of describing what happened there might be to say that Watts was defending the rigorous analysis of “uncertain knowledge”, while Hollie McNish and her fans were wounded by an attack on the certainties of her poems’ DNA.

All of this is why I disagree with giving students a free hand to be creative with their analyses of literature. This should be part of it of course, but if they are allowed to ignore the author entirely they are simply not being asked to tackle the work in its entirety.

And finally, could linguistic DNA be a way of approaching issues of race and gender in writing and reviewing poetry, as highlighted by last week’s Ledbury Festival event? It is surely important to allow that while uncertainty is one of the great strengths of poetry, the twin certainties of ‘who wrote a poem’ and ‘where they came from’ also matter; otherwise the call for diversity in writing and reviewing sounds purely political.

It seems that Jack Underwood is working on a book of essays on uncertainty in poetry called NOT EVEN THIS. It should be a fascinating read.


When I copied a link to him on Twitter, Jack Underwood kindly replied to my mini-essay. I summarise what he said here:

The author is not a constant. The linguistic DNA is never there because in language the subject is always in the process of becoming. We see the evidence of the writer’s decisions but that writer is only a further text which requires constant reinterpretation and self-reinterpretation. Poems may be evidence of the “problem” of personhood, but they cannot be authenticated by it. We are changeable and changed by our own poems as much as they are different in the heads of others. This leaves us as very unreliable narrators of ourselves to ourselves since the narration belongs to language and not to us. It is very voidy, and the void is very much against our nature. A lot of gender studies comes out of this and numerous writers talk about the constructedness of race in language terms.

I had not thought of the author of a text in these fluid terms, or the idea of a poem as evidence of personhood – but of course it is. I get the feeling I am just scratching the surface here. I need to regroup on some of these fascinating ideas (especially the notion that ‘the subject is always in the process of becoming’ – a poem in itself!) and post again in the not-too-distant future. In the meantime, if anyone has any comments of agreement or disagreement on any of the above (or any suggestions of good books to pick up to learn more), I’d love to hear from you in the comments below.

Thanks again to Jack for his stimulating essay and response to mine.