Home

A brief poetry interlude…. @SaltPublishing

16 Comments

As I mentioned in my post on “White Lines” earlier in the week, I ordered my copy of the book directly from Salt Publishing; I like to support indies, and as I’m also a fan of their various poetry releases, I took the opportunity to also pick up one of their slim ‘Modern Voices’ poetry pamphlets. I have several of these already, and the new title is “Low-Tide Lottery” by Claire Trévien. She’s another poet new to me, and I’m always pleased to explore the work of a writer I haven’t read before.

Trévien hails from Brittany and her work straddles the two cultures of France and England; the collection was released in 2011 and I believe was her first published work. The 25 pages it contains bring together some fascinating and innovative verses which very much draw on her joint heritage, and in particular the ever-present sea.

I am the underlined blank in your sentences;
my eyes are blue and yours are getting browner.
(from ‘Homecoming’)

I enjoyed reading Trévien’s poetry very much; there’s that immediacy that I love, and as someone who feels a strong connection to the sea, I obviously related to the verse here. Trévien often employs striking imagery and although the meanings are not always obvious, the words are suggestive. Certainly, it’s poetry that lingers in the mind, and “Low-Tide Lottery” is a welcome addition to my small Salt poetry collection:

Trévien continues to write and publish poetry, as well as pursuing an academic career; and interestingly has written and published on aspects of the French Revolution. On the basis of this pamphlet, her poetry is definitely worth reading if you get a chance; another winner from Salt 😀

“Prose invents – poetry discloses.” #jackspicer #afterlorca @NYRBpoets @NYRB_Imprints

14 Comments

Poetry is a form which makes infrequent appearances on the Ramblings, mainly when I return to my ongoing project of reading through the Penguin Modern Poets collections. I do love to read poetry, but don’t always get to it enough; however, I’ve recently started to take notice of the NYRB Poets imprint. The publisher was kind enough to send me a copy of “Magnetic Fields” by Andre Breton and Philippe Soupault, which I absolutely loved; and a recent arrival from them, in the form of “After Lorca” by Jack Spicer, sounded fascinating. Spicer is a new name to me; working in the middle of the last century, he was part of the San Francisco Renaissance and despite his short life made a lasting impression with his poetry and has also been described as “a quiet, unsung hero of the LGBTQ+ art movement”, producing six short books of work during that brief life.

“After Lorca” was published in 1957 and it’s an intriguing collection of writings; as is hinted at in the title, it takes its inspiration from the great Spanish poet Lorca; and claims that the poems are translations. The book comes with a foreword from beyond the grave by Lorca himself(!), and the poems are interspersed with letters from Spicer to Lorca. It’s not clear which poems really *are* translations from Lorca, and which have been written by Spicer himself; or indeed how accurate any translations may be. What is clear, however, is what wonderful poetry this is…

At ten o’clock in the morning
The young man could not remember.

His heart was stuffed with dead wings
And linen flowers.

(Suicide)

I always find that I prefer poetry to which I can respond instantly; whether I feel I understand it, or whether I’m just hit by the sound of the words, I want to have that connection with the work and the poet straight away. That was certainly the case with Jack Spicer; his verse is beautiful, often allusive and very atmospheric. The poems speak of life, love, death and suicide – I guess often the major topics of verse! – and writing is vivid and wonderful. “He Died at Sunrise”, for example, is particularly stunning, with its repeated phrases and beautiful imagery.

At that time I’ll imagine
The song
Which I shall never sing.

A song full of lips
And far-off washes

A song fill of lost
Hours in the shadow…

(Verlaine)

The letters too are fascinating; it’s as if Spicer considered Lorca as a kind of spiritual mentor, the two poets in dialogue; and he uses these prose pieces to discuss the whole art of poetics. The poems appear to take place over a summer, with the final letter realising that the year is starting to draw to an end and the link between master and pupil is over. It’s a moving end to the work which seems to have a strong thread of melancholy running through it.

We want to transfer the immediate object, the immediate emotion to the poem – and yet the immediate always has hundreds of its own words clinging to it, short-lived and tenacious as barnacles. (Extract from one of the letters)

Spicer was of course writing at a time when the San Francisco beat poets (such as Ginsberg, Ferlinghetti and Snyder) were making a name for themselves; yet from what I’ve read about him, he stood apart from them, refusing to copyright his poems, criticising the City Lights bookshop and at one point declining to publish his work outside California. However, I sensed in some of the poems a kind of kinship with Ginsberg, a common influence from Whitman, and I personally feel that his writing needs to be seen in the context of the time.

Anyway, “After Lorca” turned out to be a fascinating read. I was probably aided by the fact that I’ve read little Lorca, and what I have was a very long time ago! So to be honest, I wasn’t looking to see what belonged to which author, because in the end I think these poems and letters are just Spicer – and wonderful they are. I’ve included extracts from some favourite poems/letters, and I highly recommend this collection. It was a marvellous and unexpected delight, and evidence (if it were needed) that the NYRB Poets imprint is definitely worth exploring! 😀

(Review copy kindly provided by the publisher, for which many thanks!)

“…you’ve made the world…” @sublunaryeds #rilke

20 Comments

I have to confess to having been in a little bit of a reading slump recently; I read very intensely the wonderful book “Monica Jones, Philip Larkin and Me”, which I’ll be covering for Shiny New Books, and it left me with such a book hangover that I’ve struggled to know what else to pick up. “Adolphe” was a pleasant distraction, and after that I decided to let my grasshopper mind settle for a little while on some poetry – a slim and fascinating collection by that wonderful versifier, Rainer Maria Rilke.

Here I need to add another confession; although I’ve read Rilke’s fiction and letters as well as a book about his time in Paris, I’m not sure I’ve ever sat down with his poetic works… Which is a bit shocking, really.  So “The Voice and Other Poems”, translated by Kistofor Minta and part of my subscription to Sublunary Editions, was just right to pick up at the moment and rectify this.

This dual language collection brings together what the translator describes works which contrast with Rilke’s “thing-poems”; I’m of course not well-versed (hah!) enough to comment, but what I can say is that the works here were very beautiful and memorable. Most are drawn from the collection “The Voices”, where the poet speaks in the voice of others, such as the beggar, the blind man, the orphan, the leper and so on. Particularly striking was “The Song of the Suicide”:

They hold out the spoon to me,
The spoon of life;
No, I want and I want no more,
Let me spew myself up.

Other works are drawn from “The Book of Images” and “New Poems (1907-19080”; all somehow suggest people struggling and suffering yet somehow surviving; and all linger in the mind. “The Prisoner” was another standout, with its opening lines:

My hand has only one
gesture – I frighten them off with it;
Onto ancient stones,
drops fall from dank rocks above.

A work like “Girl’s Lament” demonstrates that very little changes in the world, as children quarrel and pick sides in their games; and “The Song of the Widow” was heartbreaking:

…we both had nothing but patience;
but Death has none.
I saw him coming (how wickedly he came),
and I watched as he took and took:
there was nothing that belonged to me.

I often find poetry very hard to write about, and I couldn’t honestly say I understand the meaning behind all of these verses. However, I did love reading them, once again wallowing in the beautiful sound of words. “The Voices…” has really whetted my appetite for Rilke’s poetry and I think instead of reading round the edges of his writings, I need to dive in and explore much more of his verse. This was the perfect read for an unsettled brain!

“…a liquid chorus…” @saltpublishing @HaslerPoet @RebTamas #ReadIndies

16 Comments

In contrast to my recent post on a fascinating novel in translation from Verso, today I want to focus on an independent publisher closer to home – Salt Publishing, who hail from the East of England. They’re an imprint I wanted to feature during #ReadIndies month as I’m a great fan of their poetry releases, and that’s what I’ll be posting about here.

I’ve previously reviewed a couple of Salt books here on the Ramblings – Marina Warner’s excellent collection of short stories, “Fly Away Home“, and an unexpectedly wonderful book of poetry, “Appearances in the Bentinck Hotel” by Tim Cockburn. I loved both of these, and today’s offerings were equally impressive. Both slim collections were issued in the Salt Modern Voices range (as, I think, was the Cockburn) and they made excellent reading.

“natural histories” by Emily Hasler

Hasler’s volume was first released in 2011, so I guess any biographical information might not be up to date. However, it seems she’s also indiginous to the East of England, and has published her poetry widely as well as winning prizes for it. Since releasing NH, she seems to have issued another collection and on the strength of the Salt volume I’d be very keen on exploring this.

The poetry featured here is very much rooted in nature; but using nature as a jumping off point to explore life and emotions more deeply. There’s an immediacy to this verse which I loved, and many of the poems resonated with me. I was particularly taken with a sequence entitled “The Safe Harbour” which explored the life of Flora McDonald, known of course for her connection with Bonnie Prince Charlie; a very moving series of verses.

She blows out the stars clumps at a time
as though a dandelion clock.

Another poem which struck home was “Snow”, focusing the mind on the changes that weather condition brings, in just a few lines. Nature and the land runs through the words, and interestingly, Hasler uses a quote from Basil Bunting’s great “Briggflatts” as the epigraph to her collection. An impressive and thoughtful book of poetry and worth picking up from Salt if they still have copies.

“The Ophelia Letters” by Rebecca Tamás

Another older release from Salt, Tamás’ collection was issued in 2013 and at that point she was also publishing in journals as well as receiving the Grierson Verse Prize. Like Hasler she’s also released another collection since this one, again sounding most interesting.

As with Hasler’s collection, in Tamas’ work nature and landscape is often to the fore, although she explores more visceral territory – this is nature red in tooth and claw as they say. Meaning is not always obvious, but there is still an immediacy about the writing and some startling, vivid imagery.

There is no road to run down,
no tunnel that leads in or out.

Central to the collection (well, actually at the end of the book, and making up most of the page count!) is the long title poem; and this is a particularly powerful piece of work. Made up of nineteen sections, the verses explore a possible life of Shakespeare’s Ophelia – or possibly an amalgam of Ophelia and the poet herself. Obsession, frozen weather, sex in the snow and dark landscapes appear, while the narrator declares “Clarity, that’s what I keep looking for”. As rain and water begin to appear as motifs towards the end of the work, it’s impossible not to think that this may be prefiguring Ophelia’s eventual fate.

Tamás is another poet whose work I’d love to explore further, and indeed both of these writers have such strong individual voices that it’s not hard to see why Salt published them. Slightly annoyingly, I notice that both poets’ more recent books are rather lazily labelled by the Internet as their debut collections. That’s obvs not the case as these Salt volumes were around long before…

But that’s by the by. Both of these poetry collections were wonderful reads, full of beautifully composed words and vivid imagery. Salt Publishing are definitely one of the indies I’d recommend trying out if you can – they publish a wonderful array of titles and for poetry alone are definitely worth your time and money! 😀

 

“…I am not quite ready/for them to disappear.” #wendycope #anecdotalevidence @FaberBooks

22 Comments

Anedcotal Evidence by Wendy Cope

Sometimes, often when you least expect it, a book you pick up on a whim turns out to be one of those which whacks you in the emotions and has a profound effect on you; at least, that’s happened to me in the past, and did so recently when I yielded to an impulse purchase and sent off for Wendy Cope’s most recent collection of poetry, “Anecdotal Evidence”. If you follow me on Twitter, you might have seen me reacting to it…

Cope is a poet I first encountered when her debut collection, “Making Cocoa for Kingsley Amis” appeared in 1986. It was an instant hit at the time, and I absolutely loved it; but I confess that I had drifted out of contact with her poetry since then, though I *had* gathered some unread volumes which are sitting on the TBR at the moment. I can’t recall now what impelled me to send off for this in May – perhaps a glimpse of one of the poems somewhere – but I’m really glad I did.

Cope’s poetry is very immediate, but that doesn’t make it trivial or light. Personally, I feel her work communicates brilliantly, perhaps in the same way that Larkin’s does; and maybe your response to it depends on who you are and when you read it. And that might be why I reacted so strongly to “Anecdotal Evidence”. This is her fifth collection of adult poetry, released in 2018, and trumpeted as her first since 2011. It contains the mature work of a mature woman (and I speak as one myself) and the poems are evocative, elegiac and often very moving.

The subjects Cope writes about are often seemingly simple, everyday concerns: the point of poetry; memories of old friends; reminiscences of visits to Shakepeare plays; going to boarding school for the first time; dreams; and nature. Yet these are filtered through a poetic sensibility that renders the event or memory or musing deeply moving and deeply profound. Cope is older than me, at a point of life where she’s looking back at her life and memories, her friends no longer here, her parents and her Nanna, the passions of her youth; and also reflecting on the love she has for her husband and what their future holds. This resonates strongly, as I think it will with anyone experiencing growing older and having more of your life behind you than in front of you; and many of the poems hit me powerfully, almost like a blow to the stomach. I was so moved at times, as I tweeted, that I had to stop between poems to recover.

I realise I’m not going into specifics, so I’ll mention a few favourites from the collection. “A Wreath for George Herbert” is a wonderfully clever tribute to a fellow poet; “An Afternoon” remembers Cope’s parents most movingly at a time of sadness; “Christmas Cards” takes a poignant look at the annual ritual of sending cards that may no longer be delivered; “A Little Tribute to John Cage” very cleverly captures that composer’s experimental nature; and “Que Sera” contains the wonderful lines:

….Always keen to organise
the future, though the enterprise
is sculpting water.

And I couldn’t write about this collection without mentioning “A Statue”, a moving meditation on one of my comedy heroes, Eric Morecambe – just wonderful.

It’s obviously quite impossible for me to do a sensible review of this book; instead, you’ll have to make do with a very personal response! All I can say, really, is that I found these to be beautiful, powerful and affecting works which looked at all manner of life’s vagaries and what it is to be human. The forms vary from free verse to very structured and clever works with repeating patterns (if I was cleverer, I’d know the name for these); it’s an eminently readable collection, yet one with hidden power. Basically, I was moved, and I still am, thinking back to the experience of reading it.

My Wendy Cope collection

Poetry does, I think, have the power to move in ways that prose sometimes doesn’t, and that was certainly the case here. I don’t know that I can really say anything more, or more sensible, about this collection except that it had me in tears in places (easier, I think, in these strange times, but nevertheless not a state I always get into over poetry). Whoever or whatever made me pick this up right now, thank you – I think Wendy Cope is an amazingly wonderful poet and I do recommend you read her if you can.

Reading challenges and me….

61 Comments

It’s probably fairly clear to anyone who reads my ramblings regularly that I’m an utter failure when it comes to reading challenges – either joining in with those run by others, or with the self-imposed ones I set myself in a flurry of enthusiasm and then allow to fall by the wayside… In fact, the only reading event I usually manage to stick to is the bi-annual reading clubs I co-host with Simon at Stuck-in-a-Book; and that’s with a lot of organisation and forward planning… And I was reminded recently that I devised (back in 2015!!) the project of reading all 27 books in the Penguin Modern Poets series, released between 1962 and 1979. In fact, I even have a page on the blog for it…

My Penguin Modern Poets collection!

However, if you have a look you will see I stalled early, at book no. 6, which was back in 2016 – which is pretty feeble. However, despite that utter failure, I am still fighting the urge to approach another reading project; it was this which reminded me of the Poets, and it came about when I saw (on Twitter, I think) that Penguin are releasing set 6 of their Penguin Great Ideas series in September – and it includes Perec and Calvino and Camus amongst many other rather wonderful authors!

My Great Ideas…

A quick hop onto Wikipedia revealed details of the 5 earlier sets, and I hadn’t quite realised how many there were; but I knew I had the whole first set and assorted volumes from the later ones. So of course I had to make a list, which is fatal for any book addict; because immediately you want to start collecting the whole lot, ticking them off merrily as you acquire them (well, I do, anyway…)  Looking down the checklist, there is a fantastic range of titles, all of which I’d be happy to read. And a lightbulb ping moment in my head said “You could read them as a project, you know…” Of course, we know how badly I do with these things, and so it really *isn’t* a great idea (ha!). Still. I’m tempted – and trying to fight against it. You can see from the image above that although I have all the first set, I only have a few of the later ones, so that would be a lot of purchasing and a lot more shelf space needed. No, it really isn’t a good idea…

Penguin Moderns box set and Little Black Classics pile

This also reminded me, of course, that I still have the Penguin Moderns box to make my way through, and I had been doing quite well, getting up to book 26 a year ago; and then I stalled… I *have* been galvanised to pick these up again, and have some reviews coming up next month of later volumes. However, as you can see from the picture, there are also the Penguin Little Black Classics, and I haven’t read all of them either. Yikes!

Anyway, I am going to try to take up the Poets Project again, and so I dug them out on Sunday to see what I had, where I was and generally take stock. This kind of necessitated a shuffle of the general poetry shelves which were slightly in disarray, and looked even worse when I started moving things about:

Poetry mid-shuffle

It was a useful exercise though; after having a bit of a crisis, I decided to shelve them alphabetically and put anthologies at the beginning, and after removing the Russians they fitted in quite nicely. Here’s the back row:

And here’s the front row:

This is, of course, not all the poetry in the house. The Russians are mostly on the shelf below; Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes are upstairs; and there are various Bloodaxe/Morden Tower anthologies lurking on other shelves. And probably others if I looked properly. Anyway, this is the next Penguin Modern Poets volume in the series:

Watch this space to see if I finish it! As for the Penguin Great Ideas – I think I’m going to be battling the concept of a project for a while; I’ve already sent off for one of the ones I don’t have, and will definitely be investing in more in September. Oh dear, oh dear….

“….readability is intelligence.” #somewherebecomingrain #philiplarkin

31 Comments

Somewhere Becoming Rain by Clive James

My love of the poetry of Philip Larkin is no secret; I’ve written about him numerous times on the Ramblings, and most recently my encounter with his last collection of poetry, “High Windows“. Larkin is a poet I first discovered at Grammar School and his verse obviously had a profound effect on me as I’ve returned to his work over and over again throughout the years. Clive James is also an author I first read a long time ago; back in the 1980s, in fact, when he was a regular television face and his memoirs began to appear. As I’ve mentioned before, however, I only recently came to realise quite what an erudite man he was, and his latest collections of poetry and essays have been a bittersweet joy to read. So when I became aware that a book had been issued containing all of his writings on Larkin (a man he knew and admired), it was basically essential that I should read it – soon! Alas, the Birthday and Christmas Book Fairies didn’t deliver, but I did of course have a book token – and so “Somewhere Becoming Rain”, which turns out to be James’ last published book, was the first one I read in 2020.

The title is drawn from “The Whitsun Weddings”, one of of Larkin’s most brilliant verses, and it’s a motif which obviously resonated with James as it recurs throughout his writings on the poet. The book collects together a wide variety of material, ranging from reviews in the 1970s through poems (in particular, one written about learning of Larkin’s death), letters from the poet to James, coverage of a play performance of Larkin’s life, ending with a piece from 2018 on the poet’s letters and a final coda with a moving memory of an encounter between the two men. It’s a wonderful and stimulating mix of material and absolutely compelling; not only for a Larkin-lover like me, I think, but for anyone who appreciates good writing.

Larkin has never liked the idea of an artist Developing. Nor has he himself done so. But he has managed to go on clarifying what he was sent to say. The total impression of High Windows is of despair made beautiful. Real despair and real beauty, with not a trace of posturing in either. The book is the peer of the previous two mature collections, and if they did not exist would be just as astonishing. (1974)

As I read these pieces, gathered from all sorts of scattered places and publications, I found myself wishing I’d had access to them before now. The range, as I’ve said, is broad and each piece brings great understanding to Larkin’s work. James always responds to the problematic elements in the poet’s life in a measured way, giving context and constantly reminding you how the poetry is what is important.

Larkin is the poet of the void. The one affirmation his work offers is the possibility that when we have lost everything the problem of beauty will still remain. It’s enough. (1974)

And one of the fascinating elements of reading a collection which ranges over such a long period is watching James’ responses reflecting the changing perceptions of Larkin in the world at large. The latter’s public image has been through many changes over the decades, with the publication of biographies and collections of letters exposing his private life in a way he would never have been happy about. Reading James’ take on this clarified for me how impossible it is to really know anyone from a biography, or only certain elements of their life; frankly, even completely knowing the other humans we spend our lives with closely is very difficult. To judge and condemn Larkin’s behaviour so unilaterally seems wrong. All of James’ pieces build up to create an insightful picture of Larkin the poet and Larkin the man; he was a complex human being, like so many artists are.

Humphrey Ocean [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D

Reading “Somewhere…” was not only a joy because of the light it shed on Larkin; it was also wonderful to spend time with the mind and writing of Clive James. He was such a witty and intelligent commentator, and I had to laugh out loud in places. Even his asides can be hilarious; for example, when discussing the behaviour of the audience at a one-man presentation of Larkin’s life by the marvellous actor Tom Courtenay, he comments: “Except for one member of the audience who had attended the event in order to die of diphtheria , there was scarcely a cough all evening. (2005)”

Larkin is often regarded as a lugubrious and downbeat poet – of the void, as James says – and yet he’s somehow uplifting and dryly witty. In a letter to James from 1982 he comments that someone once said, “Age is an increasing punishment for a crime we have not committed”, and much of his best work deals with our ageing and mortality. However, as James pointed out in 1973, “Good poetry transforms and enhances life whatever it says. That is one of the reasons why we find it so special.” I couldn’t agree more and Larkin certainly enhances my psyche whenever I read him. One particularly lovely element of the book was James relating his meetings with Larkin and reproducing some letters; this humanised the poet very much, and it’s obvious that James thought very highly of Larkin as a person.

I can’t praise this book highly enough, really, and as I said I wish I’d had access to the pieces collected here before. Certainly, his review of the “Collected Works” volume of Larkin’s poetry was particularly helpful in crystallising my feelings about the book. I’ve had it for decades but have had doubts about the fact that the poems are presented in chronological order, and never felt entirely comfortable with that. James’ review makes it very clear how consciously Larkin placed his poems in relation to each other in his published collections, and that of course is lost in the collected volume. Reading “High Windows” as published recently was a powerful experience and although it’s nice to have everything Larkin ever wrote, I think I will pick up his other collections too and read them as he wanted them to be read. That somehow seems very important to me now.

Reading “Somewhere Becoming Rain” was everything I wanted it to be, and more; my first book of the year is certainly going to be a candidate for my end of year best of! It also helped me come to a decision about my Larkin books. If you have a look at the image above I shared some years ago of my Larkins, you’ll see a certain biography at the bottom. I picked it up in a charity shop but have never actually read it because of its reputation, and for how it presents and interprets Larkin. James’ deals with this head-on and analyses its faults better than I ever can; and this clarified my mind wonderfully. So this is now my pile of Larkins, with no Motion biography – I don’t need to read it and it’s now in the donate box.

More individual Larkin books will be added to the pile as I continue to enjoy and be moved by his work. “Somewhere Becoming Rain” started off my reading year wonderfully; it’s an erudite, funny, profound and wonderful read; and if nothing else, the book has made me connect more deeply with Larkin’s verse and revere him even more as poet. In the end, that’s all that matters.

Spacehoppers, David Bowie and Jeremy Clarkson – the wonderful world of Brian Bilston! @brian_bilston

19 Comments

Have you ever read one of those books you think is so brilliant that you want to tell everyone you meet how wonderful it is and how they must read it; including accosting total strangers in the street? That happened to me recently when I came across the poetry of Brian Bilston. You might ask where I’ve been – late to the party as usual – as he’s been around for long enough to earn the moniker of ‘the poet laureate of Twitter’. However, it was only when he made an appearance on one of the Sky Arts programmes covering the Cheltenham Festival of Literature that I realised that I had been missing something really special…

Bilston keeps a low profile and describes himself as “a poet clouded in the pipe smoke of mystery”, known for “his penchant for tank tops, his enjoyment of Vimto, his dislike of Jeremy Clarkson.” His first poetry collection “You Took the Last Bus Home” was issued via Unbound in 2016 and a recent fiction/poetry collection “Diary of a Somebody” has also gained much praise. So of course I had to track down the poetry collection, and I’ve been reading it and loving it for the last week or so.

One of my books of the year, for sure! 😀

Brian Bilston’s poems deal with the stuff of everyday life; he’ll write short verses playing with words and puns; or longer works referencing everything from mobile phone chargers to book groups to USB drives. Some are just out and out clever and funny; and Bilston is not afraid to experiment with form, presenting poems as scrabble boards, spreadsheets and venn diagrams! However, as I read on, I realised that there was more to Bilston than just a smart versifier. Beneath the surface, these poems have much to say, and plenty of really quite deep comments on the modern world and the society in which we live. In fact, Bilston continues to share his work in Twitter, and one of his pithiest is called “Hold my hand while we jump off this cliff”, a pointed analogy for Brexit if I ever heard one.

As usual, I don’t want to pick out favourites as there wasn’t a dud in the book. But I’ll mention a few poems that were particularly special. Short works like “The Power of a Homophone”, “The Unbearable Lightness of Boing” and “Robert Frost’s Netflix Choice” deliver their punchlines smartly, like an actual physical punch that catches you unawares. However, there is one poem which stands above them all and that’s “Refugees”, which I believe has deservedly been published separately on its own. It’s an incredibly clever and thought-provoking piece of work which just goes to show that there are more ways than one of looking at the world and that we need to adjust our thinking to make the place better for everyone.

So I finished reading this collection of the opinion that Brian Bilston is a genius. His poems are witty, clever and profound in equal measure; there’s a real skill involved in keeping that balance and making you laugh and think at the same time. His cleverness with words is quite breathtaking at times, his puns are laugh-out-loud, but he really skewers the oddity of life, the things we have to contend with every day and the out-and-out strangeness of living in our modern world. I could quote any number of poems from the book, but I won’t because a) I want you to go out and read it, and b) Bilston is generous enough to share his work regularly online, so you can find plenty of his poems quite easily and have a look to see if it’s for you. Me, I’m hooked; I haven’t enjoyed a book so much in a long time, and “Diary of a Somebody” is most definitely going to be on my Christmas list! 😀

#1930Club – The Poetry Edition…

14 Comments

When I was digging around in the stacks for 1930 books, I started wondering whether I’d ever read any poetry for our Club Weeks – and I don’t think I have (I could check, but my computer is very slow so I’m relying on my rubbish memory). This set me checking to see what verse had been published during that year, and I discovered an important volume had come out in 1930 – “Ash Wednesday” by T.S. Eliot. I own several collections of his verse so I went searching and discovered that of course I do own this volume. However, an online search revealed another intriguing fact; Basil Bunting, who I’ve discovered recently and written about on the blog here, published his first collection in 1930, an obscure privately printed book entitled “Redimiculum Matellarum” which is pretty much impossible to get hold of. However, some research revealed that all the poems included were available in his “Complete Poems”. I had been contemplating getting a copy of this for a while, and I’m afraid this discovery tipped me over the edge. Damn you Bloodaxe Books and your wonderful poetry editions!!

So I’ve been spending some time with Eliot and Bunting and am left facing the actually very difficult task of writing about these works. Many and much greater writers than I have pondered these poets, and frankly I don’t know that I’m qualified to offer much. So I’ll just share a few thoughts here – forgive me if I talk rubbish!

First up, Eliot. “Ash Wednesday” was written in 1927, after the poet had converted from Catholicism to Anglicanism, and as you might gather from the title is a work concerning religion. Wikipedia describes it as “richly but ambiguously allusive and (it) deals with the move from spiritual barrenness to hope for human salvation”; I suspect it’s the religious references which cause me to struggle with it. Yes, I’ve read “Ash Wednesday” but I’d be lying if I said I understood it. It’s a dense, evocative text, laden with imagery; and though I don’t always get the sense of it, I often love the sound of the words. More about the latter later in this post…

In this brief transit where the dreams cross
The dreamcrossed twilight between birth and dying

On to Basil. Bunting was associated with the Modernist poets of the early 20th century, and was highly regarded by the likes of Ezra Pound. The poems in “Redimiculum Matellarum” (which apparently translates literally as ‘A necklace of chamberpots’ ) are scattered around the Collected volume and I made a list and read them in order. The first verse is “Villon”, included in a section entitled ‘Sonatas’, and the man of the title was a 15th century poet-villain. The poem reads as a prison ballad, with the modern poet merging at times with the historical one and aligning himself and his experiences with the life of the earlier man. The other verses vary in length and range over love and sex, the poetic muse and the beauty of the world. Bunting’s verse is intriguing, often contrasting beauty with harsh realities; and I ended up keen to read more of his work.

… drift on merciless reiteration of years;
descry no death; but spring
is everlasting
resurrection.

So – poetry. I like reading poetry very much; but with the more complex stuff I sometimes feel I’m struggling to understand it and I end up feeling cross with myself that I don’t get it. However, one part of Virginia Woolf’s essay, which I reviewed earlier this week, struck home and made me feel better about it. She talks about reading poetry when one is ill, stating:

In illness words seem to possess a mystic quality. We grasp what is beyond the surface meaning, gather instinctively this, that, and the other – a sound, a colour, here a stress, there a pause – which the poet, knowing words to be meagre in comparison with ideas, has strewn about his page to evoke, when collected, a state of mind which neither words can express nor the reason explain.

Although I can’t always put into words what I get from poetry, I think it’s exactly what Woolf is hinting at above. The music of the words speaks to me in a way I can’t define and puts me in a particular state of mind. So I shall stop worrying about it, and if I take nothing more from poetry than a love of the sound of the words and a deep emotional feeling, I’ll be happy. 1930 certainly produced some interesting poetry, Modernist or not – and I’ll definitely be dipping into Bunting again as the years go on! 😀

“…language the source of itself…” #tompickard @mordentower50

9 Comments

Fiends Fell by Tom Pickard

As I mentioned in my previous post on Morden Tower and its poets, when I was searching the local library catalogue for Tom Pickard’s works, “Fiends Fell” was the only book available. I knew nothing about it, but I took a punt and reserved it so I could perhaps get a feel for Pickard’s work. It was possibly not what I was expecting, but that didn’t stop it being a very marvellous read.

Pickard has been publishing since the 1960s, but I sense he’s always moved outside the mainstream. That may be because of his personality, inclination or the fact that he doesn’t fit into any convenient niche. “Fiends Fell” is a recent work from 2017, published by Flood Editions, Chicago; and it’s a bracing mixture of genres. Although published so recently, the introductory lines place the events it charts in the early 2000s, as Pickard refers to himself as being 56 and with an ended marriage. So the poet escapes, taking refuge in a high stretch of the North Pennine hills; and the book charts a year of the time he spent living there.

night blows up fast from the valley
dykes dissolve in thick fog
I follow my feet home

Lodging above a cafe, and sometimes helping out there, Pickard considers his past, his future, nature and the elements, and of course poetry. Prose sections are interspersed with short bursts of poetry, and the writer struggles to work in an attic which physically rocks and rattles when assailed by the elements. Often earthy, he wrestles with his lusts and also more prosaic matters of money. As I mentioned in my previous post, Basil Bunting suffered impoverishment in later life, and as Pickard deals with his bankruptcy as pragmatically as he can, it really does seem that it’s impossible to make a living as a poet nowadays (if it ever was…)

When I put my head out of the attic window all I saw was stars and the wind wrapped itself around my neck like a cold silk scarf.

The blurb likens the book to the Japanese Haibun, a mixture of prose and haiku, and it’s a format which is so effective here. The record of extreme weather, loneliness, the artistic urge and the need to make poetry is balanced with actual verse, slowing the reading down and allowing time for contemplation. It’s a wonderfully rich narrative and underpinning it all is the challenge and drama of living in extreme conditions, on what feels like the edge of a precipice when nature may sweep you away at any time. The wind is a constant presence, almost a tangible being from a fairytale; Pickard’s trips outside during the winter months remind you how precarious our existence can be and how extreme weather conditions can destroy us without pause.

In bed and a pack of winds are arriving at the windows. They pass by. They gather. They whine painfully, begging in.

If there is a pin-thin gap they will take it. If there is a wormhole they will snake it. If there are eaves they will heave.

Pickard uses the book also to explore autobiography, albeit in a fragmentary fashion. From what I’ve read, his early life was lively to say the least. He left school at the age of 14 and if the memoir elements here are to be believed came from a complex family background. Pickard’s grandson visits and bonds with the poet, offering a glimpse of a family life. But the poet is left alone again to wrestle with himself and the elements, as well as the state of the world. As befits a working class Geordie, he has a suitably scathing view of Britain and its class system…

We’ll never be a grown-up nation until we’re a republic – meanwhile we kowtow, fawn and flounce in search of favour.

Hovering over the book is the shade of Pickard’s dear friend, Basil Bunting; obviously a pivotal figure in the former’s life, at one point he reflects “I found a teacher of another kind, in Bunting”. He also calls him his mentor, and it’s worth remembering that Pickard was only 17 when he married Connie and they founded Morden Tower so it’s obvious to infer that he regarded Bunting as a father figure. Poetry is better off because of their association, which not only spawned “Briggflatts”, but also apparently informed Pickard’s work.

The Pennines, via Wikimedia Commons – einklich.net [CC BY 3.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0%5D

But I digress. Pickard survives the winter, and indeed the year documented in what he calls the “Fiends Fell Journal”. The book ends with a lyrical poetry sequence, “Lark and Merlin”, which convinces me I want to read more of Pickard’s verse. Because it has to be said that his writing is powerful and beautiful, and evokes vividly the intensity of living in such an extreme landscape. What happened to Pickard after the end of the Journal section of the book I don’t know; but there is a rumour online that the poet is working on “Fiends Fell 2” and if that’s so, I for one can’t wait! 😀

*****

As I mentioned in my previous post, I did borrow “Fiends Fell” from the local library. The best plans, etc, etc…. I loved it so much I ended up sending off for a copy of my own, so at one point there were two Pickards in the house:

The library one has now gone back, and I feel no guilt. This is a book I know I’ll return to, so I definitely needed my own copy! 😀

Older Entries

%d bloggers like this: