What am I saying?

What am I saying?  

In a normal world with the company of friends (and strangers, and acquaintances), in the normal world of to- and -fro conversations, and chats, and arguments, at some point someone’s bound to say ‘So, what you’re saying is…..’ and you’ll say, ‘no, that’s not it at all; what I’m saying is….’ and so it goes.

In my current world, where we’re now in our eighth month of 99% lockdown, where I’ve been shielding, and then (officially) not shielding, and puzzled to know whether I am, or I should be; when face-to-face conversation is a brief chat over the garden wall to our lovely neighbour who nips up to Lidl for us every few days, or a visit to the surgery or the hospital, gloved and masked, for an injection, or a CT scan or to see a consultant -when the conversation is not-exactly to-and-fro; when this morning I was suddenly impelled to get in the car and just drive for 30 minutes, just to see something slightly different…..

What am I saying? No-one’s said, what are you on about, or jeez…..just get to the point. No-one’s around to keep me on track or up to scratch, and the only feedback I’ll get is that of one of the several versions of me that live in my head, like disgruntled squatters who are clamouring for better conditions, or room service.

The other thing is that the various changes to my programme of meds have come with the advice that side-effects may include low-level anxiety, mild depression, loss of concentration and joint pain. What that actually means in practice is tetchiness, irritability, intolerance and a tendency to swear even more. On Facebook, this manifests itself as a kind of keyboard Tourettes. So bear that in mind as this post progresses.

Over the last couple of years of poetry workshops and small-group critiquing sessions, I’m becoming increasingly conscious of a trend/fashion/fad for poems that can look not unlike a collage of ineptly curated poetry fridge magnets ( That’s excessive. What am I saying? I told you I was tetchy).

Let’s have a bit of context. At one time I wanted to get away from what seemed to be my default ‘voice’ which was, and probably still is, iambic. Also Iwanted to push myself to write about, and for, people as opposed to the other default of landscape….a poetry equivalent of Sunday watercolourists’ pretty daubs. I was very much in thrall to the venriloquisms of AS Byatt’s Possession, and I was equally fascinated by the sculptures I passed every day on my way in to work at Bretton Hall via the Yorkshire Sculpture Park. Three in particular: Michael Ayrton’s Minotaur, Elizabeth Frink’s Seated Man, and Igor Mitoraj’s Light of the moon. I wondered how it would be if they could speak, and why, and decided they imprisoned the souls of the deliberately or unwittingly transgressive, reduced to immobility and made dumb. 

The voices would have to be distinct, and this is how I eventually wrote a set of dramatic monologues, which became a sequence Outlaws and fallen angels. Finding a voice for the angel of the North seemed simple enough. It would have to be Milton. An aged tragic Mary Magdelene turned out to have a Tennessee accent. And so on. 

The one that gave me the most difficulty was Queen Victoria, or the version of her in Manchester’s Picadilly. The young Victoria was flirty and funny, and here she is frumpy and cross, entombed in a monumental masonry crinoline. It’s horrible.

Her diaries are often girlish and sentimental; she can gush, often it’s butterfly prose.  She is good company. When I settled on a voice for her it was because of the one AS Byatt chose for her fictional Victorian poet, Christabel la Motte. Which is, in turn, a pastiche of Emily Dickinson…or at least a lyric, stanzaic verse that uses a lot of dashes.

This is the authentic Emily Dickinson:

“Hope” is the thing with feathers –

That perches in the soul –

And sings the tune without the words –

And never stops – at all –


And sweetest – in the Gale – is heard –

And sore must be the storm –

That could abash the little Bird

That kept so many warm –


They’re very seductive, those dashes if you don’t stop too long to ask what they say about her voice, about the pace of her thinking. As though she pauses, minutely to think, to linger; or maybe she stops to think what comes next (no…I know). But it struck me that the young Victoria could be seduced by it, or it might be a bit like her slightly scatterbrained diaries. So I borrowed it.

Queen Victoria in  Piccadilly Square


We are Set-  here on this Monument

not like – Patience 

but old and  looking Cross

the epitome  –  of Discontent.


A pencil Study –I drew

my own  Likeness – and delicate

I think it does not – Flatter me

I thought –  I made it True.


Enthroned ten feet high

Twice life-size  – Cold

Victoria regina – Empress

of half the Earth – I  Solidify


O my True love – my only Albert.

he had my Image – made – a Keepsake 

in his Dressing-room – all Loose my Hair

my white Shoulders Bare


Here I am – made Squat – a Toad

these Tons of stone – Drapery                                                                                

a small and silly – Crown

Years and – Dirt – bear down on me

There’s more. But the thing is I was just, I realise, borrowing a ‘trick’, the use of Capitals and – Dashes, but without any essential understanding of what Emily Dickinson was up to. It’s a pastiche. A game. It’s not, when we come down to it, an authentic poem.

What am I saying? Basically that I’m a bit distrustful of more and more poems turning up that are either the dense text of what may, or may not be, authentic prosepoems, or scattergrams of poems that may use the black Sharpie blockings-out of ‘redacted’ texts, or fridge magnet collages of cut and paste phrases, or white-space sprawling text which does without Emily Dickinson’s Dashes and uses spaces instead. This is my problem. It’s the problem I have with much of contemporary art. How do I tell the real deal from the superficial bit of pastiche?

I’m interested in the craft of writing, as in the craft of any art. I’m interested in line breaks and punctuation and single spaces and double spaces, and rhyme schemes and rhythms, and I think, (because my Art teacher drummed it into me) if you’re going to break the rules or subvert the conventions, you really need to know what they are, and be able to use them. I worry about the kind of contemporary art (conceptual or otherwise) that comes with a catalogue of impenetrable abstractions mashed together in gruesome prose. I am deeply suspicious of any art that comes with an instruction manual about how to understand it. It puts me in mind of Vernon Scannell who wrote in 1993 

At a time when contemporary poetry seems to be written for specialist exegetists in universties, in order that they may practise their skills in deconstruction, I have, as Wordsworth said ‘wished to keep the reader in the company of flesh and blood, persuaded that, by doing so, I shall interest him’

and also what he called

“genuine poems; that is to say poems that have been written from a sense of compulsion, a real need to explore and articulate”

I know. It’s easy to dismiss him as dated and just a bit pompous, but the thing is, he was a craftsman who wrote powerful, memorable poems. And at the moment, he chimes with the way I’m feeling.

And then, of course, there’s Clive James, who I am always happy to listen to, and his own tetchiness about

“slim volumes by the thousand…full of poetry…but few…with even a single real poem in them”

as we live in a time

“when almost everyone writes poetry, but scarcely anyone can write a poem’

and of the would-be poets

“who want to keep technique out of it, because they don’t have any” 

What am I saying? I’m saying that there are lots of writers about who have been seduced by, say, Sharon Olds (who I have come to appreciate, to admire, to want to learn from). It’s as though they see a passage like this

As for the
condition of being beaten, what
was it like: going into a barn, the animals
not in stalls, but biting, and shitting, and
parts of them on fire? 

and see that she does odd things with line breaks, and ends lines with words like what, the, and …and feel empowered to do exactly the same thing themselves without actually having the voice that powered those breaks or the passionate involvement in the experiences that powered the poem in the first place.

Like I’ve said, I can learn or copy what seem to be easy tricks or devices from poets who can actually do pretty well anything, technically, but who choose to push the boundaries, one way or another. But if I’m just pulling tricks, it’ll never be the real deal. Maybe I feel a bit like John Cage who recounted a conversation with Schoenberg:

After I had been studying with him for two years, Schoenberg said, “In order to write music, you must have a feeling for harmony.” I explained to him that I had no feeling for harmony. He then said that I would always encounter an obstacle, that it would be as though I came to a wall through which I could not pass. I said, “In that case I will devote my life to beating my head against that wall.”

The thing is, when Cage created 4.33 he knew exactly what he was doing. He made a silence in a very particular space, with an audience who probably came with educated expectations. He knew what he was leaving out and he knew why. But if I charged people to watch me sit at a piano, I’d be pelted by people wanting their money back, and quite right too.

Modigliani is famous for his frail attenuated skeletal sculptures. What you don’t see are the maquettes he pared down and down until they collapsed in bits and dust, and that’s how he learned the exact point of tension when you have to stop.

What am I saying? Not much. I just want us all to to be bothered to work with the constraints of rule and convention before we decide to break or subvert them. I want us to know what we’re doing.

What am I saying. Nothing. Nothing happened.

[That, by the way, is a quotation, but the poem hasn’t appeared in a book yet. Though it will.]

Enough. When I started this poetry blog it was with the firm purpose of sharing the work of poets you might not have encountered, or were flying under the fashionable radar. Time I got back on track. No more tetchy irritable stuff. Just poets I like. See you soon.