A very Bad hand at Righting 2 …Director’s Cut with special features

Well, it’s Sunday again, and it turns out I feel it’s a bit incomplete without a post. So, here’s the deal. If you read most of this on Wednesday, then you can whizz straight to the end and then crack on with whatever creativities enmesh you right now. If you didn’t, then you’ll just have to begin at the beginning, or the afterthoughts will make no sense.

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I’m writing this early in the week, and possibly not in the right mind for balanced thoughtfulness.This morning I read Anthony Wilson’s post, After Paris … just follow the link, and read it for yourselves     http://anthonywilsonpoetry.com/   And then I read Bill Greenwell’s poem for this week. And then I had to write. Anthony Wilson writes about the responsibility on all writers to write in the cause of the reality and truth of how things are. Bill writes about the ways in which we are all being steadily imprisoned in the name of our freedoms. I’m writing out of anger. I am writing because meaning is being sucked out of language that’s used to justify the unjustifiable, and about the profoundly anti-social nature of the soi-disant ‘social media’. I am tired beyond belief of the 24/7 news reporting that is minimally concerned with informing and clarifying, and substitutes hypothesis and posturing for responsibly educating us all. I am angry at the universal and casual Bush-ism of a ‘war on terror’, and all the terrible errors that follow on the reification of an abstract word. A word. Words cause nothing. People with guns and bombs and emotional paralysis kill other people, and they do it in the name of more words. They do it in the name of democracy, without ever defining what that might be. They do it in the name of Islam, which is a short name for a splintered and internecine religion with as many warring factions as Christianity. A word used lazily and thoughtlessly without any reference to mutually exclusive and rhetorically inconvenient schisms, say between Sunnis and Shias. Like Christianity, and the sectarian rhetoric of the euphemistic Irish ‘Troubles’. Anthony Wilson is right to invoke Seamus Heaney in After Paris. Think of him and threats to his friends and his family because he wouldn’t let his language and his poetry be allied to the half truths of dogmatic opposition. I am writing because I’m tired of the easy and uncommitted emotionalism that can be loosed on the world at the touch of a Twitter ‘enter’ key, or on railings in all our towns and cities for the cost of a bunch of flowers. I am tired of the OMG of texting atheists and the post-Diana and post 9/11 righteousness that commits us to nothing at all.

On Saturday I was a Poetry Business Writing Day. One exercise grew out of a poem: Known to the guards. I should have made a note of the poet. Someone will tell me. It’s a poem about how a child might be frightened into an unshakeable belief in the omnisicience and omnipotence of the forces of law and order, even if it’s actually only a fat member of the Garda on a bicycle. Peter Sansom asked us to to reflect fast on early brushes with authority. Normally, this would have sent me into Stan Barstow/Dylan Thomas territory. But this happened instead. It has no title, and it’s not been tidied up.

I want no more nostalgia, for whatever reason;

how can I, in a week of hostage, sieges, men in black

with guns as big as wardrobes, Kevlar vests, black boots,

helmets like the eyes of flies, the chatter of static, the racketting

senselessness of helicopters, blue strobing convoys

barrelling through siling rain and spray

and the breathless wet-yourself excitement

of the newsmen endlessly recycling scraps of film and tape,

and sputtering phone-in answers and solutions

no one wants to hear, the bigotry the fury,

the fictitious facebook solidarities,

the cursor click that tells the world that now,

today Je Suis Charlie

and redfaced politicians photo-opping

their temporary indignation in between

their destruction of the welfare state

and growing fat with hedgefund managers and oligarchs,

how can I versify my childhood fears

when after all, our number’s up

and all of us are in the eye of millions of cameras

and all of us are known to the guards

who have the guns and the vans and the planes

and can guard none of us from anything?

TOPSHOTS-FRANCE-ATTACKS-MEDIA-POLICE

Like I say. I’m not in the mood for balance, and I fear for truth, whatever that is, so long as it has no capital letter. Tony Harrison says it better. The last four lines of ‘On not being Milton’. The quotation is from a plea for clemency. Tidd was hanged.

Articulation is the tongue-tied’s fighting.

In the silence that surrounds all poetry we quote

Tidd, the Cato Street conspirator who wrote:

Sir, I Ham a very bad Hand at Righting.

 

Sunday: An afterthought 

I was tempted to call it a coda, but that probably implies a degree of of structural or formal intent that it doesn’t deserve.

First up, I tracked down the poem ‘Known to the guards’. It’s by Martina Evans, ( check her out at http://www.martinaevans.com/about/ ), who I didn’t know about, but who grew up in an Irish country pub with lots of siblings,who has had published nine works of prose and poetry, whose poetry collection ‘Facing the public’ was a TLS Book of the Year in 2011, and who has a considerable reputation as a university teacher and workshop leader. I should get out more. I should certainly try to know more about this world of poetry and poets. It seems to grow exponentially, like Macbeth’s line of spectral kings.

Second is a bit more complicated. On Wednesday I wrote in reaction, and, as ever, there’s a lot of rhetorical over-simplification. I’ll stand by the wellsprings of it, but I didn’t want to give even the scintilla of an impression that words are the problem. What I wanted to say was that it’s what we do with them , and what we let them do to us that matters. I wanted to say my version of what Anthony Wilson meant to me. And also that words are what keep the world alive, and mapped and negotiable.

Most nights, on the edges of sleep,I dip in and out of Edgelands [Paul Farley and Michael Symmons Roberts], because there’s not a page without a line or a phrase or an image that doesn’t make me see the world in a sharper and more interesting light. Last night I was just skimming through the chapter on Ruins. It’s about abandonment and the uses of memory, or about the memories  built into industrial structures even though there’s rarely anyone to articulate them. (which is, of course, the genius of this book).

These are the things that stuck and snagged. The authors are writing about abandoned warehouses and other empty structures in the wastelands of buddleia and fireweed and crumbling asphalt. ”they become non-places, quite literally off the map – ‘an impossible designation of space as terra nullius, which suggests they are spaces of and for nothing’ And they atrophy because their blood supply has been cut off.”  A laid-off warehouseman points out for them ‘a long, shallow, corrugated roof like metal horizon over the scrubby edgeland trees. That was his warehouse. Now it feels like the empty church in Philip Larkin’s ‘Church Going’:

‘A shape less recognisable each week/A purpose more obscure’

What I was not managing to say was that we can behave as though words are real, and wave them like banners or wear them like disposable Tshirts . Or believe that words should be what make the world real, make its shape more recognisable, its purpose less obscure.

Next week we’ll be having a guest, which I imagine will be something of a relief.

 

 

 

 

A very Bad hand at Righting

ap_paris_shooting_vigil_2_kb_150108_16x9_992

I’m writing this early in the week, and possibly not in the right mind for balanced thoughtfulness.This morning I read Anthony Wilson’s post, After Paris … just follow the link, and read it for yourselves     http://anthonywilsonpoetry.com/   And then I read Bill Greenwell’s poem for this week. And then I had to write. Anthony Wilson writes about the responsibility on all writers to write in the cause of the reality and truth of how things are. Bill writes about the ways in which we are all being steadily imprisoned in the name of our freedoms. I’m writing out of anger. I am writing because meaning is being sucked out of language that’s used to justify the unjustifiable, and about the profoundly anti-social nature of the soi-disant ‘social media’. I am tired beyond belief of the 24/7 news reporting that is minimally concerned with informing and clarifying, and substitutes hypothesis and posturing for responsibly educating us all. I am angry at the universal and casual Bush-ism of a ‘war on terror’, and all the terrible errors that follow on the reification of an abstract word. A word. Words cause nothing. People with guns and bombs and emotional paralysis kill other people, and they do it in the name of more words. They do it in the name of democracy, without ever defining what that might be. They do it in the name of Islam, which is a short name for a splintered and internecine religion with as many warring factions as Christianity. A word used lazily and thoughtlessly without any reference to mutually exclusive and rhetorically inconvenient schisms, say between Sunnis and Shias. Like Christianity, and the sectarian rhetoric of the euphemistic Irish ‘Troubles’. Anthony Wilson is right to invoke Seamus Heaney in After Paris. Think of him and threats to his friends and his family because he wouldn’t let his language and his poetry be allied to the half truths of dogmatic opposition. I am writing because I’m tired of the easy and uncommitted emotionalism that can be loosed on the world at the touch of a Twitter ‘enter’ key, or on railings in all our towns and cities for the cost of a bunch of flowers. I am tired of the OMG of texting atheists and the post-Diana and post 9/11 righteousness that commits us to nothing at all.

On Saturday I was a Poetry Business Writing Day. One exercise grew out of a poem: Known to the guards. I should have made a note of the poet. Someone will tell me. It’s a poem about how a child might be frightened into an unshakeable belief in the omnisicience and omnipotence of the forces of law and order, even if it’s actually only a fat member of the Garda on a bicycle. Peter Sansom asked us to to reflect fast on early brushes with authority. Normally, this would have sent me into Stan Barstow/Dylan Thomas territory. But this happened instead. It has no title, and it’s not been tidied up.

I want no more nostalgia, for whatever reason;

how can I, in a week of hostage, sieges, men in black

with guns as big as wardrobes, Kevlar vests, black boots,

helmets like the eyes of flies, the chatter of static, the racketting

senselessness of helicopters, blue strobing convoys

barrelling through siling rain and spray

and the breathless wet-yourself excitement

of the newsmen endlessly recycling scraps of film and tape,

and sputtering phone-in answers and solutions

no one wants to hear, the bigotry the fury,

the fictitious facebook solidarities,

the cursor click that tells the world that now,

today Je Suis Charlie

and redfaced politicians photo-opping

their temporary indignation in between

their destruction of the welfare state

and growing fat with hedgefund managers and oligarchs,

how can I versify my childhood fears

when after all, our number’s up

and all of us are in the eye of millions of cameras

and all of us are known to the guards

who have the guns and the vans and the planes

and can guard none of us from anything?

TOPSHOTS-FRANCE-ATTACKS-MEDIA-POLICE

Like I say. I’m not in the mood for balance, and I fear for truth, whatever that is, so long as it has no capital letter. Tony Harrison says it better. The last four lines of ‘On not being Milton’. The quotation is from a plea for clemency. Tidd was hanged.

Articulation is the tongue-tied’s fighting.

In the silence that surrounds all poetry we quote

Tidd, the Cato Street conspirator who wrote:

Sir, I Ham a very bad Hand at Righting.

 

 

 

 

Two cultures, and an (un)discovered gem: Liz Venn

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Three big influences when I was growing up..or growing older. Richard Hoggart’ s Uses of literacy; Raymond Williams’ Culture and society and The long revolution; and C P Snow’s lecture on The two cultures. It’s a curious triumvirate. The son of a Welsh railway worker, a working class lad from Hunslet, and then C P Snow, riddled with class insecurity, a scientific career civil servant, Private Secretary in the Wilson government, a man with a PhD on spectroscopy, and successful writer of turgid novels that, unaccountably, I read avidly at the age of 17. What they had in common, apart from the fact that they were never quite seen as ‘one of us’ by the great and good of academe, was a deep and heartfelt concern about the fragmentations of ‘culture’. The fact that Snow and Hoggart in particular set up a rhetoric about dichotomies didn’t help the cause, but they were, at the time, enormously influential. Snow had an immediate impact on sixth form education, in as much he he threw a strong light on the grammar schools division of their 6th forms into Arts and Science Sixths ( he was, I think, also indirectly responsible for the appearance of the Use of English exam I sat in 1961, and which I ended up teaching a few years later). This division led to earlier ones. I dropped all science subjects at the age of 13. The choice in my school was between History/ Geography, and Chemistry/Physics ….there we were. O level courses sorted. It seems unthinkable…and Snow was right. It was absurd that,culturally, a knowledge of Literature and Art and Music (with capitals, so you know what sort we’re talking about) had cachet. F R Leavis regarded Snow as little more than a PR man for engineers. It seemed OK in polite society, as Snow pointed out, to be effectively innumerate, and ignorant of how the world was physically put together. Maybe it’s something to do with the snobberies that are the truly unpleasant thing in English culture and society. But it’s an old division. Dickens saw the damage done to education when it chooses between Mr Gradgrinds ‘Facts Facts Facts’ and the fancy of Mr Sleary’s horseriding. Maybe it goes back to Descartes; maybe it’s even older, even though we may no longer believe in angels or think science is witchcraft.

So what’s this to do with a chatty poetry blog on a Sunday afternoon? You didn’t sign up for this, did you? It’s just that at one time art and science and music and maths and literature weren’t compartmentalised. Maybe the Industrial revolution, and the mechanisation of print and imagery have something crucial to do with it. And maybe that’s for another day. But painters like Joseph Wright were fascinated by science and its attendant technologies. Milton thought it obvious that Adam and the Angel would pass the time discussing the structure of the cosmos. Da Vinci was fascinated by the structures of everything, the way water fell, how a tree grows, the technologies of destruction, the wonders of human anatomy.Leonardo_da_Vinci_-_Anatomical_studies_of_the_shoulder_-_WGA12824

How could you categorise this image, and why would you want to? My art teacher in the 6th form was more concerned that I dabbled with Taschism and Cubism, so I didn’t get to know much about the Renaissance. But I did get Metaphysical poetry as a set book for English A level, so I got Andrew Marvell, and coy mistresses, and above all, John Donne and those ‘stiffe twinne compasses’. For the first time in my life I thought I could see how and why a metaphor worked, and fell in love with that fusion of sex and wit and science and passion and religion, and all that cleverness. Well maybe it’s predictable, that appeal to a smartass grammar school adolescent. But I’m still glad of it, and still happy to find poetry that embraces politics and passion and technology…and, well, knowledge. I like poems that think it’s OK if the reader sometimes has to look things up. You can see why I like Tony Harrison…when I read his early stuff I thought I’d met a real-life Metaphysical poet. I got the same buzz when I first saw Bronowsky’s  Ascent of Man, which I can watch again again (thankyou BBC DVD) but less of a buzz from the patrician Kenneth Clark’ Civilisation. Though I still watch both. Technology, eh?

And, if you’re still with me, this is why, when I met her at a Poetry Business writing day, I was much taken by one of Liz Venn’s poems, and why  I want to share my enthusiasm. I would have loved to have posted The bone man and the way it easily wove a knowledge of bones and antomy into a poem full of a sense of wonder; but it’s out with a magazine at the moment. I shall look out for its acceptance with some eagerness. I said at the top the page that she’s an (un)discovered gem.  This is to cover my embarrassment…I discovered her in much the same way as Europeans discovered America, as though the Oglala Sioux and Commanche and Seminoles and all the Nations had not previously noticed they were already living there. Liz is actually the House Poet for the Carol Ann Duffy and Friends series of poetry readings at the Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester. She did a distance learning writing course tutored by the immensely-talented Bill Greenwell; she did a creative writing MA at MMU. In the same year as Kim Moore, and at the same time as David Tait. It’s a small world, and I still don’t know much about it. Mea culpa. She’s been published in the splendid CAST** anthology: The Poetry Business Book of new and Contemporary Poets. She’s been published in lots of quality magazines..The North, Iota, Magma, Smiths Knoll. She won the 2014 Poets and Players prize. So all of you who knew this can smile quietly….keep up, Foggin. Keep up. She also teaches creative writing for science communication, to undergraduate life scientists, and I think her easy synthesis of scientific knowledge and poetry is what I responded to. She can write matter-of-factly, and with a great sense of fun (as she does in The women I’ve worked with) and a nice ruefulness about her dad who’s out shopping for grout and wishing I’d found a man to do these things for me, but I’m going to choose just one poem today, and tell you to check out the magazines, to buy your copy of CAST**, and to visit her website:  http://lizvenn.wordpress.com/

I’m assuming that I’ve made you want to. And think on; next week I might be asking questions. Just in case, here’s the poem.

And though I’m not the believing type

I’d believe in the iron souls of trains,

a hollow soul for carrying things

with a spark blown through its fingers.

 

I’d believe in the souls of drystone walls,

that rise up in rough hands and hold themselves.

That wear the wind on one side, moss on the other

and stand fornothing, except to turn sheep back.

 

I believe in the fragile souls of light-bulbs,

metallic and easily broken, or dig

to find the ugly clay soil of the North.

 

I’d believe in souls like chocolate buttons,

that start to melt as you hold them,

in souls that aren’t actually souls,

but chemistry, in the way that carbon breaks

 

and heals itself through all its different faces,

from the slippery memory of pencil lead,

to the beautiful laboratory of leaves.

 

There are great images, here. I like the blown spark, and I particularly like the walls that (ambiguously) stand for nothing. But what’s memorable for me is that ‘beautiful laboratory of leaves’ and that conceit of carbon, metamorphosing itself into the souls of everything. So there you are. I’m delighted to have (un)discovered Liz Venn’s poems. Just one thing before I go. Distrust those who spell Culture with a Capital, and equally, Literature, Art, Poetry and Music. They’re trying to keep it for themselves, behind their upper-case fences. Raymond Williams and Richard Hoggart got me starting to see that (and, later, John Berger). When was the last time you saw science, and mathematics, and physics and chemistry and biology in capitals (except on an exam paper or a university prospectus)? C P Snow got me to think about that.

Next week, we’re coming from Spain. I want you to meet a Hungarian sculptor who writes poems in English. I was lying about the questions.

**CAST: The Poetry Business Book of New Contemporary Poets ed Simon Armitage, Joanna Gavins, Ann Sansom, Peter Sansom [Smith/doorstop. 2014] £10