Wednesday, 25 March 2009

Update on the Decent

I walked up to Easedale Tarn on one especially hot day the other week and found shallow pools with frogspawn dimpling the surface. Which is a way of saying that Spring has come to Grasmere, complete with lambs and daffs and some quite ridiculously glorious weather. The mornings are radiant and sultry though most afternoons about half twelve or one the sun slips off early and the rain rehearses its customary showers.

April is the coolest month, however, promising the new Luke Kennard book Migraine Hotel and the arrival of the poetry season to our little village. First up is Tomas Venclova and Ellen Hinsey on the 21st. It'll be held in St Oswald's Church as our old venue is being pawed at by diggers. Hinsey's two full collections The White Fire of Time and Update on the Descent have been a revelation for me over the past couple of days; forms which fuse aphorism, dialogue and transcript, a belief in language despite its flaws and shortcomings, and an overwhelming sense of urgency and importance. Audaciously ambitious and that's fine as far as I'm concerned. As Andrew said after seeing the books, "Not what I expected", which is a rather sad reflection on much that's out there.

Oh yeah... New issue of Warwick Review out now, in which I have a round-up review of poetry pamphlets, but if that's not enough reason for you to check it out there's also some lesser names: Peter Porter, George Szirtes and John Kinsella amongst many more.

Monday, 23 March 2009

Romanticism in the news - Richard Bronk and The Romantic Economist

Some cruel people would have me believe my discipline is not relevant. Well, the answer to the current economic crisis is in the works of our Romantic forbears, according to Richard Bronk. On Saturday he made an argument for an imaginative, Romantic approach to economics in a Guardian article. It is not really possible for me to comment on the economic judgement of the piece as someone who, frankly, is too fiscally-inappropriate in her own finances to comment on the country's.

Here's a bit that I think I understand and rather charmingly applies Keats' negative capability to the situation:

The great danger is that we exchange the market fundamentalism of recent years with a similarly hubristic conviction that the great policy brains of the world can devise a single "New Deal" that will solve all our problems. Not only does this fly in the face of the dangers of universal solutions, but in a world made uncertain by constant innovation and self-reinforcing emotional reactions to events, we also need to realise the limits of any such grand plan and, indeed, of reason itself. Far better to learn from Keats the merits of "negative capability" - being willing to remain in uncertainties without "irritable reaching after fact and reason" - and stay imaginatively receptive to pointers as they emerge.

I'm hesitant about this kind of approach to Romanticism and use of the label. When we wield the term in this way we make a generalisation about a movement that as we discover more writers and thinkers of the time we find was diverse and complex. I can't make any judgements without reading Bronk's full-length work The Romantic Economist*, but the idea of this book fascinates me and I'm dying to read it. In an apt state of affairs, however, I can't afford to buy it... ** So, should anyone know Richard Bronk, his publisher, or his agent, or should they simply spot him on the underground, I'd love a copy to review for this blog or for another publication. I think a Romantic, non-economic perspective would be an excellent standpoint from which to read the volume.

Rally the troops, bring me Bronk! Please and thank you.

*The book's been sort of reviewed in a wider article here. The full url ends in a beautiful collection of words: 'recession-depression-economy-wordsworth'. I'm suggesting this as the new tagline for our museum. 'Recession = Depression. Economy? Wordsworth!'
**I'm a fulltime volunteer for the Wordsworth Trust.

Sunday, 22 March 2009

World Poetry Day

Town End, World Poetry Day Celebrations, March 21st 2009.


19.00: Wine
19.15: Omelette
19.30: Participants to scatter to rooms to find poems, muffins and wine
20.00: Participants to resume places at the kitchen table
Rest of the evening and into the early morning: Drinking, searching for tobacco and reading aloud poems.

Not a UNESCO-endorsed event I must admit, but that's how the impromptu night played out in Terrace Two. It's a level of pretension I'm very comfortable with. Some of us had never read poetry aloud before (Heather's cynical Glasgow drawl a revelation in this context), others debuted new work or read their own for the very first time. Highlights included: Molly's Spanish; getting a room of people to listen as I read the entirety of Pessoa's 'The Tobacco Shop' in translation; Jane Learing; prose poems read by Helen; and Mark's bemused face when he came into the kitchen get a drink.

Rather a success I think.

The Great Poet Boreateship Debate

In which, after employing a bad pun in the title, our blogger indulges in a Brooker-esque ejection of bile about the continuing press babble ... paradoxically adding to the mountain of superfluous words that have already been sacrificed to the great poet laureate debate.

There was a time when people in the media wrote about all sort of fancy things. There was a time when poetry did not even make the book section of national newspapers. There was a time when people I met found out I liked poems and mocked me, shunned me or patted me on the head as if it was a great wonder I had managed to get along like a normal human being. Those happy days are gone. Now the only thing anyone cares about is who is going to be the next Holder of an Archaic Monarchical Office that Impairs Creativity and Causes Poetry to be Belittled in the Public Eye, to give it its full, official name. Don't get me wrong, I am against the role entirely. In my time the laureates have done some great things for poetry: the Poetry Archive is fantastic and I hope it continues to expand, but we don't need royal permission for websites (Poetcasting is good example of how a similar--and in many ways more diverse though smaller-scale--project can be gotten off the ground without the Queen's help.)

Here comes the Romanticism bit...

The only plus to the furore I can see is that it makes a handy point of modern reference when I show visitors Wordsworth's royal warrant and tell them how Robert Peel himself wrote to convince him to take the laureateship in 1842. Wordsworth had turned down the post twice. The official line, I believe, is that he thought a younger poet should take up the position rather than any antipathy toward the role. When he did finally agree to the laureateship it was under the stipulation that he didn't have to write any official poetry unless the inspiration took him. And so he spent seven years not writing official poetry. At this stage in the tour I make a joke about how laureates would probably like it to be that way now. Sometimes it even gets a laugh. The fact is it was different. In Wordsworth's time poetry was revered by the public, a poet was a great figure; manly, inspiring and relevant. It wasn't his job to make people care about poems, but that's the way the office has been interpreted in recent years. But is the best way of encouraging debate, pluracy and engagement with poetry--hell, of just getting people to read it--to have a figurehead? Or are the internet forums and blogs, the journals, the increasing culture of putting poetry into and onto buildings and landscapes a better route.

So, I don't care whether the person appointed is male, female, straight, gay, black, white, English, or actually any good. I don't think the office is going to be scrapped. It may be renamed and the process for appointment may be changed. But when the next person asks me who I think it should be, I'll tell them as I have told everyone else that I hope it's someone I don't admire, so that I'm not pained by their acceptance, possible decline and inevitable embarrassment. I couldn't sneer at anyone I knew or liked taking it because for most poets £5000 is a fortune. And they might take the role willingly, enthusiastically and light-heartedly--realising that it's not the beginning and end of contemporary poetry.

Saturday, 21 March 2009

Hamlet, Hazlitt, Hancock.

I know, I know, nothing for weeks but rants and prose poetry, apologies. In my defence, it's been pretty manic.

More to come soon, but a few curios for the time being:

A few years ago I wrote an essay on the way that Hamlet, as a character, has been interpreted. Part of the brilliance of the play is its flexibility. Hamlet is a prince and an everyman. It wasn't a successful essay but great fun to research as it meant I could avoid the drama side of things altogether. I was intrigued to discover that the Russians--who have a fascinating and complex relationship with the Dane--consider him to have been a fat man. Not altogether obese, but flabby, corpulent.* In reading Hazlitt's Spirit of the Age I discovered this was a prejudice the Romantics held too. Hazlitt described Coleridge as Hamlet-like in appearance as well as manner because he is on the chubby side.

It's a presumption partially based in the original text. Gertrude claims Hamlet is out of breath because he is fat, which could mean flabby or simply unfit, out of shape. But for the Romantics and the Russians he's a portly figure. It's interesting that Hamlet goes on to describe his age as 'the fatness of these pursey times', because this added to the previous conception makes him a reflection, an embodiment of, his age. Hazlitt is a figure who writes portraits of individuals not to identify them specifically but to capture and distill the zeitgeist, so it's significant that he sees Coleridge as a Hamlet. That is Hazlitt sees Coleridge as an indecisive but brilliant figure, and as such the spirit of his age. Appearances meant everything, yet they were manipulated to suit.

Anyway, in case we should be in danger of taking ourselves too seriously I am recommending all my Romantic colleagues listen to the episode of Hancock's Half Hour called 'Lord Byron Lived Here'.

*My fallible memory suggests there's a phrase by the narrator of Turgenev's 'Hamlet of the Shchigrovskii District' where he claims that the subject even looks like him, tending to fatness. In the political climate of doubt, indecision and looking both ways, Hamlet seemed to embody a certain Russian hero. There's some great essays on this somewhere. The lineage of the Russian Hamlet is a complex one, as they originally receive the play through a French 'adaptation'.

Tuesday, 10 March 2009

Nightshapes, Town End

The moon is full, or almost. Maybe the tiniest fingernail crescent to be added. We were at a party. Someone was talking about fairies. Someone was reading palms.

Took the old road, past the Dove and Olive. Heard the stream finally. The puddle of a tarn at the top which doesn't even make the map. The road became grass, became mud, became water. Turn and run. Down. Your feet will do this for you. You hear them like water in the carless air. Follow the satisfying curvature, the line of the road, through feel alone. Passing the Mound of Venus, I run and run and run. It branches at the bottom, and I head for home, words, sleep.

Sunday, 8 March 2009

Again, again.

It was my good fortune to be present when Tony Harrison read here last week, for the Robert Woof Memorial Reading. Every morning, when I check the museum before opening, I put each audio system to my ear and check they are still reeling round. In the far corner, under some of the most austere visions of Wordsworth committed to paint, is a set that constantly play a few of Keats' sonnets, read by Harrison. I always linger longer than I should here, hearing the each word tripped out as though it were never written, never spoken before; the form capturing that true brilliancy of strict meter where it spools out naturally, as though birthed from the Poet's mouth each time.

Harrison's ability to read form well, I suppose, comes from the fact he writes so steadfastly in it, and knows it's a mechanism there for a reason and you just let it do the work for you. Other than looking to the punctuation and at the words themselves, you are led by the tongue through the sound-shapes you need to reproduce to the audience.

I've heard form read very badly too. Often by people who don't understand how it works, how simple it is to bring into being. They act the piece and get put off by punctuation, linebreaks and will end up mis-stressing and even mis-reading words. When we're confronted with a poem not in anything we can put can label as in a specific form the problems increase. Readers become obsessed with the line. Even where the line is not end-stopped they build to it, letting the intonation congeal at the end of each line, like wax dripping down a candle. This is considered good reading, it makes for an ominous, poetic style that supposedly captures an audience. In reality, that stress isn't there in most lines of most poems, the enjambment is lost, and the listener looses the natural flow of the poem, channelled away by the reader. I've heard people do this with their own poems.

And so my vitriol sighs and expires, patient reader. I do not claim to be a great performer of poetry, but I feel these issues should be addressed. There's enough to put people of coming to poetry readings (or worse yet 'recitals') as it is without bad performances.