Monthly Archives: February 2013

Poetry is a Serious Business

Hurrah! I made the finals again in the quarterly contest in Lighten Up Online (http://lightenup-online.co.uk). A year ago today my first poem was published there.

I must admit I find writing funny poetry more satisfying as well as more fun than serious poetry. This was always likely to happen. At the start I had some serious stuff to get off my chest, and a few sad things have happened since that called for a serious response, but in general I prefer to be funny when I can. I might even give up the serious stuff entirely.

 Of course, that would be the end of any hope to ever get a book published, since the poetry establishment is relentlessly grim in outlook. But it would be absurd for me to approach poetry like a career, when no one makes a living from it anyway. I may as well write to amuse myself. If other people laugh, that’s a bonus.

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A Curious Interlude

The last thing I picked up at the library was Mark Haddon’s poetry book, The Talking Horse and the Sad Girl and the Village Under the Sea. I liked his novel about Asperger syndrome, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time (he is fond of a long title), so I thought it was worth a try.

Well, it didn’t take long. It’s all free verse and not very musical to my ear, but it is at least accessible. Ironically, what I liked best was the poems about writing poetry (usually a black mark in my book). But I found the self-indulgence of ‘Poets’ and ‘This Poem is Certificate 18’ was laced with enough po-mo self-mockery to rescue it. On the other hand, I skipped the longest poem, about a Buchan novel, and I didn’t see why he bothered with his translations of Horace. I did like a number of his images, here and there; but overall it felt a bit amateur.

 I’m starting to feel bad about how negative most of my poetry reviews are. I do like some poetry, honest. I’ll probably write something favourable when I finish Louis MacNeice’s Autumn Journal; but sadly he isn’t around to google his name and feel flattered. No help for my karmic balance.

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Pink Mist

What is pink mist? (Advisory notice: you might not want to know.) Pink mist is the aerosolized human tissue that results from a direct hit on a soldier near you. It is also the title of an upcoming book of poetry by Owen Sheers, which I unknowingly went to a reading from tonight.

OK, I knew I was going to a poetry reading, but his previous work up on the website was all about family and horses. He often uses rhyme and pulls off an almost-rap rhythm which is very engaging. But tonight the subject matter was nearly all about stepping on landmines and your mother only being able to recognize you from your tattoo.

I don’t like war stories. I’m not particularly sheltered — I’ve seen everything from Apocalypse Now to Saving Private Ryan. That’s how I know that I am not interested in war. It’s a guy thing, I guess.

But beyond that, I resent being exposed to images that I don’t want in my head. I don’t want violent pornographic images in my head either, and I think most people would agree I should have the right not to be exposed to them without warning. But apparently that doesn’t apply to violence without the pornography. It’s not as if I’m a terrific warmonger and need to be educated what the poor soldiers are going through. I get it. It’s awful. I would never in a million years volunteer to go over there myself, and I feel bad for the poor suckers who do. I’m sure their stories are good and true, and I don’t want to hear them. I’m sorry.

So I spent a good chunk of the time trying to think what ingredients would go in a Pink Mist cocktail. Grenadine, pink grapefruit juice, cherry brandy? You can tell I’ve given up alcohol for Lent.

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Valentine’s Day is Over

I didn’t celebrate this year (my husband was at a meeting in Swansea), and I imagine most of us find it a slightly tiresome holiday, whether we’re in a couple or single. It’s the worst time to book a table, and if you do go out you feel that spontaneity-killing pressure to enjoy yourself more than usual. Love’s Disneyland.

Our poet laureate marked the occasion with a Valentine poem: http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2013/feb/14/chaucers-valentine-poem-duffy?CMP=twt_gu

Like the day itself, it tries too hard. Duffy clearly felt the occasion called for rhyme, so she tortured the syntax like a middle-aged man squeezing himself into velvet pantaloons to propitiate the missus. I’m sure there were many worse poems presented yesterday, but mercifully few so public.

The best poem I read yesterday was this one courtesy of the Cleveland Shakespeare Festival: Wars of Roses are red / smothered nephews are blue. / I’d wait 500 years / under a carpark for you.

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Hegley and Orbit

This week for a change of pace I read John Hegley’s Uncut Confetti. I blogged in November that his performances are lots of fun but I doubted the poems would be very interesting in print. And that turned out to be largely true, at least from a technical standpoint. The only form tends to be list poems, and it rarely seems very musical without the advantage of his delivery on stage.

But I did keep reading to the end, and might well read more. Why? It was occasionally funny, which atones for many sins. But there’s also something peculiarly appealing about the tone and subject matter (mundane family stuff, which by its nature everyone can relate to).

[A confession: my brain tends to make connections that most other people’s don’t. This  can have good effects (coming up with original metaphors, solving complicated mathematical problems) and bad effects (blurting out socially inappropriate statements, paranoia).]

I think a writer needs these 2 contradictory qualities: the differentness from other people to say original things in an interesting way, and the sameness to be able to communicate with the reader. Poets often downplay the importance of the latter in this balance of centrifugal and centripetal social forces, because they are quite content to float around the exosphere alone. John Hegley is perhaps too ‘down-to-earth’ for my tastes, but I think he can help me learn how to fine-tune the balance for myself.

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What Paterson Fails to Realise

No, this isn’t a rant, it’s the title of one of the poems Don Paterson read yesterday. I was delighted to find that not only is most of his recent work metrical, it’s sometimes funny too. I even appreciated the humour in some of his poems I had been too bored to finish reading, such as “Song for Natalie ‘Tusja’ Beridze”. The jargon that had bogged me down in print washed pleasantly over me when read out in his charming Scottish accent.

The accent was a bit more problematic in his masterclass, where he spoke quite quickly and almost without interruption for 2 hours. I followed it all, but the strain of concentration on decoding made me even more brainless than usual when it eventually came to a practical exercise. But I still found it useful, and his advice was mostly very sound and sensible.

 The one point I would take issue with is his advice that a poem isn’t worth writing if you know at the start what it is about. This seems to me to deny that the communication of ideas and emotions is a valid purpose of poetry. And it seems a charter for self-indulgent writing – I don’t necessarily want to read poetry where even the poet doesn’t know what it’s about. I think I’ve read enough of that sort already.

 But this is a relatively minor complaint (and I know very well that it is my own peculiar hobbyhorse). On the whole I think he was an excellent choice for poet-in-residence at the Whipple Museum of Science. He seemed actually interested in science (especially science fiction), compared to the poets last year who mostly feared and disliked it.

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