I met Gwyneth Lewis my first night in West Chester. She joined our table and chatted very personably in her mellifluous Welsh accent. I had read and liked her book Keeping Mum a year or two ago, but with my usual talent for names I couldn’t place her. Later on in the conference I went to a panel on Dylan Thomas she co-chaired, and also heard her do an evening reading of her own work.
There’s nothing like hearing Brits read their poetry in their own accent to make it come alive. I’ve just finished reading Chaotic Angels, a collection of her poetry in English from 1995-2005, and I can hear in my mind what it would sound like in her wry musical tones. I think my favourite is a series called The Love of Furniture, where wardrobes etc are not only personified but given deeds of valour and romance. Wacky and charming.
She isn’t a formalist, but some of her poems rhyme, usually in couplets, and some are at least roughly metrical. Some even conform to traditional forms – or nearly. ‘Advice on Adultery’ is a sestina and yet…it breaks the rules. I’ve never successfully written a sestina myself, but it seems to me the whole point of them is the mathematical purity of the formula. To break the pattern in one small place is jarring, like thinking you’ve solved Fermat’s Last Theorem and then realizing you forgot to carry the one. The whole structure tumbles down. (If my blog a couple weeks wasn’t enough to convince you, here it is: the incontrovertible proof that I’m a formalist. And/or OCD.)
So, mixed feelings, but I would definitely recommend the book. It’s accessible, graceful, bubbling with quirky observations and ideas. And I’d recommend even more seeking out her readings.
Last night I went to hear the Carducci Quartet kick off the Cambridge Summer Music Festival. I’ve seen them before: they perform excellent 18th and 19th century pieces, but their Shostakovich will knock your socks off. I’m not always a huge fan of 20th century music, where composers often abandoned melody in search of experimental effects unpleasant to hear. But every now and then, a modernist piece superbly performed can have the same feeling of rightness and inevitability as the Baroque. I had a similar reaction last month to hearing the Trinity College Choir perform a new work by 21-year-old Owain Park, Judas Mercator Pessimus. It was discordant but beautiful, and it gave me chills. Watch out for that boy.
So obviously this all made me think of poetry. 20th century poets moved away from meter and rhyme into experimental disharmony, with results that often strike me as regrettable. Some of it is perfect and unforgettable, but a lot of it leaves me squirming in my seat like at a high school orchestra’s performance of Stravinsky.
Progress is inevitable and desirable: nobody is saying that composers nowadays should write like Mozart or poets should write like Keats. We use modern language and modern techniques, but we should still be able to call on traditions from the past. And I think there should still be music in it. Make some music. It’s your birthright.
I blogged recently about re-discovering at my parents’ house the book of doggerel I wrote when I was 10. Sadly I didn’t stop there: I also brought back with me the literary magazine from my senior year of high school. But it wasn’t until a few days ago that I worked up the courage to sit and read it.
Unbelievably, it’s even worse than I remembered. Some of the stuff by other kids is just about OK, but most of my own poems are among the worst things I have ever read. I can’t begin to find words for how bad they are, and frankly I don’t want to. You can probably imagine well enough the free verse ramblings of a precious morose 17-year-old. Think Adrian Mole with less humility. One of my first poems as an adult (Cider with Poesy) was a sonnet about how the memory of this sloppy wet verse drove me to write in rhyme and meter now, to distance myself from that mess.
Imagine a prisoner at Guantanamo Bay who is tortured (excuse me, subjected to enhanced interrogation) by blasting violent rap music into his cell every hour of the day and night. (As you probably know, this actually happened). Now imagine that on his release, his friends tell him that he ought to listen to more rap music, because there is some very good stuff out there (which is undoubtedly true).
It’s not going to happen; and the way he feels about rap music is the way I feel about free verse. I am free-verse-averse due to the trauma of overexposure in my youth. And I wasn’t just subjected to it by malicious others: it’s an atrocity that I perpetrated on myself.
OK, this is somewhat exaggerated for comic effect. Nowadays I can manage to read and appreciate some free verse written by other people; and when I have a poem to write which simply can’t be done in meter, due to the need to include direct quotations or other verbal effects which don’t fit a rhythm, I do write free verse myself. But it never feels quite comfortable and it isn’t my best work.
No, I haven’t been engaged in competitive cupcake-making. Bakeoff is the name the website Eratosphere gives to its annual poetry competitions. Everyone sends in a sonnet (in this case) and a judge picks a shortlist of 10-12. These are posted anonymously on the site at a rate of 2 per day along with the judge’s analysis of them. Members of the website then post critiques, and at the end of a week or so there is a public vote, followed by a revelation of the judge’s picks and the writers’ identities.
I entered the past two years and wasn’t shortlisted (although I did get honourable mention last year for New Parents at Feng Sushi, which will soon appear in Light). This year I haven’t written many sonnets, and all the ones I had written I already workshopped on the site so they wouldn’t be anonymous. I was going to be away in Italy during the competition anyway, so I just sent off a poem I had written a couple years ago, shortly after starting to write poetry. Its flaws are so clear to me but yet so unfixable that I’d never bothered workshopping it online or even sent it to my sister, but it still kind of appeals to me.
So needless to say it was shortlisted. I was busy at my conference all day and didn’t even realize until the following evening, but it was quite a thrill. The comments were mostly negative but not catastrophically so (it came 7th out of 10 in the public vote), and a lot of people enjoyed it regardless of its weaknesses. Including Susan – it was comforting to see that she liked my poetry even when she didn’t know I had written it. Amusingly, she speculated publicly that the poem might have been written by a man.
Overall a positive experience, but a slightly bittersweet one, because it’s a poem I probably wouldn’t write now. It’s too far from the accepted style of how a sonnet should be written, which I’ve learned and internalized over the past few years. But that seemed to be what people liked about it – a sort of brio incompatible with the demand for subtlety.
I can’t have my cupcake and eat it too.