In my Beginning is my End

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OK – I wrote about poems’ endings. How about the beginnings? Can I find any lessons from my own opening lines?

 

I’ve reversed Eliot’s well-known line here, but his was deliberately contrary. All beginnings imply some kind of end and the characteristics of a beginning – whether it’s a poem, a revolution, a product launched or a child conceived, carry information which can determine how it will end.

 

DEATH AND THE MAGICIAN

 

One day the magician came to me and said,
The fish are leaping in the yellow stream
The oak has turned into an acorn small
And I saw Death in dream.

And I saw Death in dream, he said,
And Death was very kind
He showed me where the roses grow
Though I’m old and blind.

I’m old and blind and lame, he said,
The sea is out of sight
The shell is empty on the shelf
Through the woken night.

The night is all around, he said,
It closes hour by hour
The voices make me fear, my friend,
Should a proud man cower?

But should a proud man cower, my friend,
I think perhaps he should
The wine is turning sour, my friend,
But the bread is good.

The bread of death is good, my friend,
The bread of life is fine
And now I’ve understood, my friend,
Will the starlight shine?

And will the starlight shine, my friend,
And will the starlight shine?
Now let us touch the vine, my friend,
And we will drink the wine.

 

How does this beginning work? Well, in fact you could say the beginning is actually the title, which tells you death will feature and suggests something rather archetypal. Then the first line is in ordinary language and chatty, quite misleading really for a poem that becomes ballad-like and rather distant from everyday speech. But that’s a way of as it were luring the reader in. Compare with a Hitchcock thriller. It normally starts with things seeming ordinary.

 

VISITORS

Here are the shoes and here the photographs,
The shaven heads, expressionless eyes or defiant.
These are the notices: washroom, joy, be honest.
Joy was the brothel. Here the camp commandant’s children played,
Getting used to the occasional screams.
We are done now. Ten minutes’ rest break: the toilets are over there,
Hot drinks and snacks in that corner. The coach is ready.
Thankyou for listening, thankyou for coming here.

The people are quiet in the coach until a phone rings.
The old Jew answers it. “Yes, we’re fine. No, you’re joking.
It’s raining here, just like Manchester.”

 

Once you’ve realised this poem is about a concentration camp, the first line is very specific and plummets you right in. These are shoes piled up from people who were gassed. The title is ambiguous: is it about the visitors to the modern exhibition, to present-day Auschwitz, or does it describe the murdered people as visitors, perhaps because they didn’t stay long? The first line is straightforward and there is no twist from first line to second, just progression.

 

Here there is a twist though:

 

DISENCHANTMENT

The world is disenchanted
We have walked in the dark places
And found no ghosts or elves
No dragons roam the forests
The real fearsome beasts
Of the forest we have shot
And made a diagram of their bodily systems.

But now the sabre-toothed beasts from the forest myths
The giant wings, the parallel cunning people
With their invisible cities and hidden spells
Are coursing through the streets of the flooded city.

Come with me to the sea.
We know the source of its power, waves and tides
There’s not a grain of sand disturbed
By the last thrash of the wave
I cannot analyse;
I can tell when a star will disappear.

Hunting elusive messengers in your mind
You may find useful this neat chart
We can identify
The electromagnetic impulses for love or hate
We’ve come a long way, you and I
Perhaps it is too late
To search back for some thing we have forgotten.

 

The title and the first line introduce the words DISENCHANTED and DISENCHANTMENT, which normally mean serious disappointment (“He became disenchanted with his leader,”), but immediately you wonder how the WORLD can be disenchanted. Gradually you realise the word is being used perversely if logically to be the opposite of ENCHANTED. We’ve lost enchantment.To me too the very sound of DISENCHANTED is right: it has a kind of mournful music.

 

I don’t mean this as self-praise – just picking out some openings I believe work quite well. Maybe I’ll do this for poems by better-known poets – but that’s harder work as I have my own poems all on one word file!

 

See you.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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More Snape

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First, an official announcement. If you got an email notification about my post yesterday, but on clicking couldn’t find it, there is a reason. I’d edited it and either failed to click on PUBLISH or the PUBLISH hadn’t worked (which is my story). Anyway, it’s back now. Please look at it as this post won’t make a lot of sense without it. On the other hand, that may be how you like things. Are you by any chance a poet?

Now one or two things I didn’t mention yesterday.

There was a long and interesting panel discussion about poetry and beauty. What is beauty? What is poetry? What is and? Poets from the 17th to the early 20th century often used the word “beauty” but it’s now almost a dirty word. It’s vague, of course, and saying something is beautiful doesn’t help much to describe it. We’re also clear now that there’s no obligation for poetry to concentrate on beautiful things, or what would we make of war poetry?

It seems to me we still write sometimes about beautiful things, but often with a kind of reservation, and we don’t use the B word. I don’t either – and the things I find most beautiful aren’t often the subject of poems, though they often appear as images within poems. The exception, for some reason, is dragonflies. Twice in the same long poem (“Dark Lady”), I apply the B word to them (one beauty, one beautiful) though in each case the dragonfly is an image suggesting something else.

Now the other thing. As last year, the poetry readings were a revelation (and only occasionally, a revelation that I didn’t think much of that poet), but I found some of the introductions jarred. These were sometimes very obviously read word for word from a book or script. We hear that this poet shows “startling humanity” or something like that, and very rarely does it give those who don’t know his/her work any idea what it’s like. Does it matter (s)he’s published six collections or seven? Why not just get on with the poetry? If (s)he wasn’t well rated, (s)he wouldn’t be at Snape about to read to us.

Oh, and the Macedonian poet Madzirov is great fun.

Save the Gerund!

A while back I sprang valiantly (adverb) to the defence of adverbs. Today I have a new cause – the Gerund. This magnificent creature is being hunted to extinction by American writing school proprietors for its mythical sedative and repellant qualities.

 

OK, I’d forgotten since I was taught it around the age of 15 what a gerund was. In English it’s a verb form of a word with an -ing ending, but used as a noun – for example, “they don’t believe in PRAYING”. Apparently this is another shock, horror thing for some American writing schools and for writers schooled thus and unable to think beyond the current orthodoxy.

 

But what’s wrong with the thing? Here are some examples of gerunds from the Wikipedia article on them:

 

  • I like swimming. (direct object)
  • Swimming is fun. (subject)

Gerund clauses:

  • She is considering having a holiday.
  • Do you feel like going out?
  • I can’t help falling in love with you.
  • I can’t stand not seeing you.

Let’s try to write the gerunds out without losing the meaning:

I like to swim

To swim is fun (or: swims are fun)

She’s considering a holiday (but that could mean she’s decided to have a holiday but is selecting an option)

Do you feel like….HERE I’M REALLY STUMPED. I CAN’T THINK OF ANY ALTERNATIVE FOR “GOING OUT” THAT HAS THE SAME MEANING.

 

I’m also stuck trying to find alternatives to the next two.

 

Gerunds exist in a very wide range of unrelated languages, from Romanian to Japanese, so the need for them must be pretty pressing.

 

So what was wrong with the gerunds – and why is the stilted and contrary to common usage “I like to swim” to be preferred? Search me. Maybe they’re getting confused with the other uses of -ing. I was told a while back that some editors would object to the use of the gerund in “he was breathing heavily” – but that isn’t a gerund at all. One of the main characteristics of English which distinguishes it from most other languages is that it has two forms of the present tense (and equivalents for the past and future).  One, as in “He’s looking at you” or “the water is receding”, describes an action over a period. The other, as in “She locks her car door” describes a habit or a state (“They fear death”; the water recedes when there’s no rain”) or an immediate action (“It hurt me”; “I think”). If you get rid of all these -ing words, you remove one of the main characteristics of the language and one that allows shades of meaning.

 

Where do these odd orthodoxies come from and why do people take them seriously?

 

Back to poetry next time!

On Adverbs, America and the God Hemingway

What is wrong with adverbs? A Linked-in discussion still rumbling on made me aware that there are writing schools in the U.S.A. teaching their students to never use adverbs, to write them out when they slip in and to find alternatives. This seems a strange perversion: adverbs evolved to help us communicate. It does seem to be mainly a U.S. orthodoxy, though as many Americans post on international forums as if the rest of the world didn’t really exist (or was just the same as the States) you wouldn’t necessarily realise that from the posts that talk simply about “what we are told”, “the consensus”  and the like.

 

It seems to be part of a cult of pared-down, ultra-simple writing that appeals to Ernest Hemingway as its god, but rarely approaches his skill.

 

I started thinking about our use of adverbs. On holiday I noticed a road sign: DRIVE CAREFULLY. Delete the adverb and you have DRIVE. “Drive carefully” seems a succinct and helpful way of expressing the message and others like “Don’t risk causing an accident” are longer and would either be ignored by the driver or cause the accident. I looked in a book I was reading – an example of pared-down American writing – and found “he was breathing heavily” and “she drank directly from the tap” in one passage. “He was breathing” is hardly useful information unless you thought he was dead, “panting” as a synonym doesn’t have quite the same meaning, and while I’m not entirely (adverb) sure about “she drank directly from the tap” (does it mean mouth to tap, no cup or glass?) at the very least “directly” applies emphasis. So adverbs can convey useful information that would be hard to convey otherwise so briefly (adverb).

 

Just about everyone uses adverbs in everyday life. They may fail to use the correct grammatical forms (“the boy done good”, “come on out real slow”), but these are still adverbs, just as they are in German where adjectives and adverbs correctly have the same form (Der Zug ist langsam; er kommt langsam – the train is slow; he comes slowly).

 

Of course you can do with a minimum of adverbs and adjectives too for that matter, so let’s see the effect. Here is the situation for your book. A country is fighting bloody wars abroad and is running out of soldiers. A very young Lieutenant has been sent to the front after a minimum of training. Here he is:

 

He picked up his gun nervously. Of course he’d handled it before, but under the bored eyes of the instructor. Now he had to check and clean it. It would be humiliating if he somehow shot himself. He remembered the instructions he had learnt by heart and obsessively repeated them aloud. Then, cautiously, he began the operation, speaking each stage as he did it. Somewhere outside a strange bird sang loudly: it brought home to him how foreign everything was. He wanted to hear a familiar, reassuring sound instead.

 

So for some high priests of pared down writing this becomes:

 

He picked up his gun. He’d handled it before, but under the eyes of the instructor. Now he had to check and clean it. He did not want to shoot himself. He remembered the instructions and repeated them. He began the operation. He spoke each stage as he did it. Somewhere outside a bird sang. Everything was foreign and he didn’t like it.

 

To my mind, the first version is more vivid and tells us far more about the young man. There are short, simple sentences there too, but mixing them in with more complex ones makes them stand out more and have more impact.

 

Writing with a minimum of descriptive words is justified by some because Hemingway did it. I learnt from the discussion that many American writers revered Hemingway. In the U.K. he is not revered or quoted as the foremost authority on how to write, though he’s certainly still read a lot. To some in the U.S. he seems to be an Olympian authority not to be questioned.

 

Hemingway wrote in his chosen style very well indeed. Those who imitate him rarely achieve such vividness and while the action may be technically exciting, the colourless characters don’t engage us. Hemingway’s characters do engage us, but at what level? I thought back to his books I’d read. They were all easy reads in the sense that I wanted to read on, but it seemed to me that except in “The Sun also Rises”, which has genuine subtelty, the characters were superficial. The main characters of “A Farewell to Arms” and “For whom the Bell Tolls” seem like idealised, uncritically presented versions of how Hemingway would like to see himself:  in fact they’re both American action men abroad and the character in “A Farewell to Arms” is even doing the same job in the same circumstances. “The Old Man and the Sea” is a beautifully written fable with the force and simple beauty of a fable or ballad, but as with fables and ballads, the characters are little more than stereotypes.

 

Even with a writer of Hemingway’s skill, there are tasks of description and contemplation you simply cannot do within this style, and for the rest – I suspect Hemingway is so popular with some writers because he’s easy for indifferent writers to imitate.

 

Hemingway challenged the orthodoxy of his time. In the U.S.A. he seems to have become the orthodoxy. It’s easy reading and it’s easy not to notice an absence of thought.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

What is Poetry?

I’ve seen it recently said on LinkedIn that it’s wrong to limit poetry through any kind of definition, wrong to say that anything isn’t poetry.

 

I understand the thinking behind this – and maybe at times I’ve been too willing to make absolute statements about poetry. But if anything can be poetry, why can’t anything be a telescope or a burp or an ideology? In which case, what’s the use of words?

 

Can a boiled egg be poetry? Yes, we might say a boiled egg was poetry if we particularly liked boiled egs, or were exceptionally hungry, or if the egg had been boiled to perfection (no easy task). But that would be a figure of speech, like saying it was a jewel or an angel. I submit that a boiled egg cannot be poetry, though it could have poetry written on it. Poetry is an art of words. For something to be a poem it needs words in it. In other words, it’s literature.

 

Two discussions I’ve seen have made a great deal of a poem by William Carlos Williams about a wheelbarrow, which was seen as revolutionary in America and perhaps had rather less impact in Britain. It’s a straightforward description of a wheelbarrow set out in poetic form. I’ll agree that’s a poem, though not one of my favourites, but what about this?

 

PROMOTING YOURSELF

 

Effective self-promotion tells

The market who you are and what

Service you offer. A first step

Should be to create

An individual portfolio

Of images tailored

To appeal to the target

Market.

 

(“Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook, 2012”: The Freelance Photographer, Ian Thraves)

 

Now why am I inclined to think this is not a poem? It’s set out like one. It starts with perceptible rhythm and ends with a half-rhyme. But it lacks intensity. It’s an ordinary wodge of prose text set out in short lines (in case the penny hasn’t dropped – I set it out like that). I’d suggest that any poem should be capable of making us stop and pay attention – should have an impact beyond the normal. I’d suggest also that the poem should at the very least be capable of being effective when read aloud. The roots of poetry are in songs and rhythmic chants, both of which can for example be heard at a football match. I personally believe poetry which loses this connection with sound, with meaning conveyed through sound, has lost a large part of what makes poetry special. The poem can be – I just hold back from saying should be – conveying a message both through the meaning of the words and through their sound.

 

What about Williams and the wheelbarrow? It seems to me what he was doing was fixing our attention on something apparently unimportant, just as a visual artist might put a pile of bricks or an unmade bed in an art gallery and in effect say, “Stop and look at this. It’s worth it.” And so it might be, though the effect on our life may be small, as we can’t react to everything we see in this intense and reverent way or we’d never get from one end of the street to the other. I’ll not question that this is art, though I’ll spend more time with Turner and Kandinsky, with Yeats and Hopkins, who are connecting the immediate to something profound and hidden.

 

Oh, and there is a word which includes something set out as poetry but lacking intensity or depth. It’s called verse.

Of course, I don’t really know what I meant…

According to some academics, it’s meaningless to ask what a writer meant, or at least, pointless because we can’t tell. Maybe nothing means anything. This is an attitude that could only exist in academia. People everywhere else are engaged in the risky, uncertain business of guessing what other people mean all the time. A general or a business competitor analyses his or her opponent’s motives, what the opponent is trying to achieve, and, faced by an unexpected move, tries to work out what he or she means by it. A chess-player does the same and even a footballer does, guessing whether a jink one way is the prelude to a dash the other way. Doesn’t someone who thinks himself or herself to be in love ask all the time “What did (s)he mean by that?” and isn’t getting the wrong answer likely to lead to trouble?

 

Nonetheless, when I attempt to explain what I meant in a poem, I’m aware of being on insecure ground and step with caution. For a start, I don’t want to stop others developing their own interpretations, which may in any case reflect something that was an unconscious influence when I wrote. I also write things I don’t feel I fully understand at the time, but they feel right.

 

So these are thoughts about what I wrote, not an authorised translation of it.

 

COMING OUT

 

A gentle soup is around you

You belong to a circle and beat

At an alarm you struggle

In time of peace you sleep

 

Now the world is warped by a warlike

Beat from a tunnel of change

And the light at the end of the tunnel

Is the light of an oncoming train

 

But if you can grab a handrail

Hold on to the train if you can

For the scenery’s into this world, and

You won’t get a ticket again.

 

Probably most people get the idea. The title is slyly misleading: in Britain and America at least, “coming out” is what gays and lesbians do when they declare themselves. Here, though, it refers to birth, our first coming out. The first verse describes the experience of the baby in the womb: we know that unborn babies begin to react to signs of the mother’s contentment or stress. The second verse describes the actual birth. It should be clear what the “tunnel of change” is, and the light of the world outside is threatening, “the light of an oncoming train”. there is a common phrase about “the light at the end of the tunnel”, meaning some hope after a long period of struggle or depression, but the joke based on this is also quite common, that the light at the end of the (railway) tunnel may be the light of an oncoming train.

 

The last verse tells us to welcome and partake of life. The metaphor is in danger here, because seen literally, if it’s an oncoming train and you cling on to it, you’ll go back the way you came. Still, maybe in a  sense we do.

 

THE GARDENER

 

An intricate garden grows around

A careful gardener with soiled hands;

Plants crystallise from secret soil

And all the weeds are broken down

Withered and brown

 

Patterns of colour, of stroke smooth slabs

Of burning red and drowning blue

Spread like a puzzle to understand

Or copy almost true

 

Scent swarms the leaves

The bees are drawn

And no-one hears the fall of trees

 

Reason has died, the gardener’s gone

And vigorous weeds invade the beds

While purple and yellow snowflake shapes

Tangle and clash across the ground

And bindweed grows around

The rake forgotten where it stood

 

No pattern now but riot of green

Orange and mauve confusors’ dance

That somehow rhythms to a word

The gardener had never heard.

 

This is a poem that operates on different levels. On the most obvious level, it describes a piece of land tended by a gardener and what happens to it when the gardener is gone (dead?). All his careful neatness is lost but the garden gains a new kind of beauty. But you could see the gardener as God (or a certain conception of God) or as a mortal human, or as humanity in total. Ultimately it expresses faith in an underlying beauty and coherence. The word “confusor” is invented, but I needed a word for “one who confuses” and there didn’t seem to be one.

 

ON THE MALL

 

On the mall

The man with the latest mobile phone

Said do not groan

The world’s not wounded.

 

All across

The world by internet technology

The clever, you see,

Unite and know the answers.

 

Nothing’s lost.

The vase you dropped can be replaced

To a more modern taste

Sign on this line.

 

So are bears

Good Catholics, does the Pope

Shit in the woods, and is old rope

The thing to invest in?

 

An easy one. the message is “don’t trust expert commentators, especially if they keep telling you everything’s all right”.  I think I was particularly aiming at comfortable lies about what we’re doing to the planet and at the weird idea held by the organisation Mensa that if you get people with high I.Q.s together, they could solve the world’s problems.

 

The last verse deals ironically with two common sayings.. The first is the (I think) American rhetorical question, “Is the Pope a Catholic? Do bears shit in the woods?”, which is a way of saying something is obviously true. In turning it round to refer to the Pope’s toilet habits and the religious views of bears, I suggest that what we’re hearing is obviously false. The second is the old English phrase about “money for old rope”, meaning money for something worthless or excessive payment for something that should be cheap. Again, I’ve turned it round.

 

I’ve got slightly out of order here because before this last poem came “Six Strands”, which I’d like to discuss, but that’s a VERY long poem and deserves its own post!

 

Sleep well – that’ s if you’re not driving or doing a test.

 

Be specific

Recently I got into an on-line debate, which at times became a little sharp, about whether poems could come fully formed into the world without need for revision, or whether revision was always required. I do revise my poems, but usually on very small points, and was concerned to question an implication that high-quality, serious, “professional” poems must emerge from a process of revision, since some of my best published poems did nothing of the sort. I think with the help of others in the discussion we reached a degree of common ground.

The person I was debating this with, a lecturer, poet and editor, made a number of very useful points about common faults in poetry and how to improve work. I thought this very helpful and agreed with most, but had reservations, which I expressed, about her advice to be specific. She gave the example of referring without description to a fish. I suggested that a fish could be a symbol (like the Christian fish symbol) or could appear in a dream – and only fishermen dreamed about chub or rudd. That seems quite a good line, so I might use it some time. She had a point, though, and it got me thinking. I pursued this by two examples, one prose and one poetry.

Let’s say someone writes, “He carried her limp, lifeless body back into the house and laid it gently on the cherrywood table.” I’d suggest that telling us the table was cherrywood distracts from what should be the centre of our attention, the man and the body. We shouldn’t be paying much attention to the table at this point. It would be different, though, if the woman had remarked earlier to the man with delight that the table was cherrywood and it reminded her of one in her parents’ home. If the table was topped with green baize, though, this would give us a powerful visual image especially if combined with our awareness that the woman was dressed in a contrasting colour such as white or red. It still might be best, though, to concentrate on the human tragedy.

Now here’s a verse from a poem of dreamlike quality. Let’s see if being more specific and helping the reader to see things more vividly helps. I apologise that I couldn’t preserve the rhyme or scansion of the original. I also apologise if I misquote, because I’m quoting from memory.

LA BELLE DAME SANS MERCI

O, what can ail thee, wretched knight

Alone and palely loitering?

The sedge is withered from the lake

And no birds sing.

Now the improved version, more specific in description:

LA BELLE DAME SANS MERCI

O, what can ail thee, wretched, short, broad-shouldered knight with a hooked nose,

Alone and palely loitering, repeatedly walking a few steps up and down?

The pale brown sedge is withered from the calm, shallow, kidney-shaped lake

And no birds sing within half a mile.

Consumer Boom

 

If you are short of a principle

Or two or three or more

Principles for Men will fit you out

They won’t be demanding

You won’t have to shout

Or break the law

 

If you’re inclined to change your mind

If the conclusions it has come to

Aren’t for you

Go to the MIND shop, it’s no bind,

Address the crew

And say “I want to change my mind.”

 

If your account is in the red

The creditors in ambush wait

To Body Shop repair

Say “Out of stock – or am I wrong?”

In the van over there

I’ve got six bodies for a song!”

If something seems a little flat

A little empty

Don’t worry. Tesco’s is at hand

Seek out computer games and shoes

Join the happy band

There used to be just booze.

 

Some of the names here may puzzle the non-Brits. I don’t know how international they are. “Principles for Men” is a clothes shop chain, I think just so named because the original “Principles” was for women. MIND is a big mental health charity which has a large number of charity shops all with the sign MIND SHOP. Body Shop is a chain selling environmentally-friendly lifestyle items (roughly). Tesco’s is our biggest supermarket chain, famous for using its economic muscle ruthlessly to get planning permission for new stores.

 

Babel

Words unite people because they can communicate. But they also divide people. The Biblical myth of the tower of Babel was that God thwarted the builders by making them speak different languages so they couldn’t understand one another and co-ordinate action; but sometimes speaking the same language divides, or the communication it can bring is seen as dangerous and needing to be suppressed. Words carry power, so powerful people try to control them, as shown by George Orwell in “1984” and “Animal Farm”. In Douglas Adams’ “The Hitch-hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy”, there is a thing called the Babel Fish, which provides instant translations from any language in the galaxy to any other. The book says that when this was introduced, it caused innumerable wars.

BABEL

Once upon a time

The God took up a bag to a high place

And threw down all the words to ever exist.

They made a pretty pattern on the grass

But people picked them up and traded them

Or fought over possession of a “so”

Until the different patterns hid in forts

And when a wandering “if” came on the wind

And tried to attach to a sentence in a case

A termination was decided on

And doctors came to cut it cleanly out.