Some of my favourite poetry books of all time are anthologies.
Not the headline selections everybody has (and has to have) –The New Poetry, Emergency Kit, The Poetry of Survival (though these are great)– but the obscure ones I have no memory of buying and which I cannot get rid of. The Poetry Book Society Anthology 1986-87 (edited by Jonathan Barker; Hutchinson, 1986), anyone? The Gregory Poems 1985-1986: The Best of Young British Poets (edited by K.W. Gransden and Howard Sergeant; Penguin, 1987)?
The former has poems by James Berry, Carol Ann Duffy and Ian McMillan. And Larkin. And Dick Davis and B.C. Leale. The Gregory book has poems by Graham Mort, Adam Thorpe and Deborah Randall (including the still amazing ‘Ballygrand Widow’). You will also find Pippa Little in there, plus Alison Ainley and Mark Hutchinson.
Two of my very favourites are Poetry Introduction 6 (Faber and Faber, 1985) and Poetry Introduction 7 (Faber and Faber, 1986). If you want to know where the careers of Stephen Knight and Bernard O’Donoghue (6), David Morley, Paul Munden and Matthew Francis (7) began, this is where you need to look.
Typing that last sentence has made me realise how deeply inimical the notion of a poet having a ‘career’ is to me. Surely, in the best sense, we are all amateurs, doing our best with out ferocious and various talents. The guarantees of fame and money are close to nil, as some of the names above and your reaction to them will testify. As Peter Sansom says, you don’t go into poetry to own a Porsche. (And yet, to oppose the notion that poets do have careers is to appear a Luddite, hostile to the notion of progression, development and reputation, of being rewarded with the investment these things take so long to build).
Reading the Faber Poetry Introduction series is to come face to face with the reality that whatever promise individual poets are seen to display early in their ‘careers’ this is not always borne to full fruition over the passage of time, even if we do not measure ourselves on the Porsche-index. I wonder why this is so? It is tempting to ascribe this to variations in talent and hard work, but also of course completely useless as these are unquantifiable. Being human, social and flawed, other factors influencing the ‘progress’ (or lack of it) in a poet’s career also come into play, for example, geography; the capacity for friendship and networking; and good old luck (which, it occurs to me, may be another way of describing the other two).
At this point it may be worth pointing out the difference between progress in a poet’s career and progressing as a writer of poems. Is it possible to have the former without the latter? Given we are all lividly talented and hard-working why don’t out careers develop at the same rate? I’ve always liked what Ted Hughes has to say about this in his Foreword to Sandy Brownjohn’s book of writing ideas for teachers Does It Have to Rhyme? (Hodder, 1980): ‘The progress of any writer is marked by those moments when he manages to outwit his own inner police system.’ Who judges this, and by what criteria, is another matter.
In a sense Gerard Manley Hopkins, who I wrote about two weeks ago, was an extreme example of a poet who demonstrated advanced poetic progression which nevertheless had zero impact on his career as a poet. You could say he was brilliant at outwitting the police, but hopeless at using the freedom it afforded him. I can’t imagine poets in this connected aged settling for the same equation. What is the point of writing ‘The Wreck of the Deutschland’ if no one is going to read it? On the other hand, I wonder what a writing group would have made of it…
Fingering these slim volumes I pondered about this in the wake of the publishing house Salt’s decision this week to no longer publish single-author collections of poetry. Leaving aside debates about funding and business models, I could not help speculating what would happen to the talented poets, now without a home, from Salt’s list. I call some of them friends. There are humans involved here. That it is a ‘great shame’ (Andrew Motion) seems an understatement.
It seems sacrilege to say this, but I also question whether this kind of squandering of talent has not always been with us?
Let’s look again at the roll call of names in Poetry Introduction 6: Susannah Amoore, Shirley Bell, Simon Curtis, Alan Dewar, Stephen Knight, Sarah Lawson, R.A. Maitre, Bernard O’Donoghue: they should all be household names by now, shouldn’t they? Isn’t that the premise of such books? This is not to justify the slow emergence and even disappearance of some of these voices, but to point out that career-paths in poetry are as non-linear as everyone else’s. Nor is this the argument that cream always rises to the top. Leaving our personal tastes to one side, it doesn’t (the Hopkins example shows us that) and can be subject to factors other than talent: health, family, resilience and of course good old luck (again).
This is not about talent, ‘developing an audience’, or even poems (is it?). This is about a system which seems to have waste ‘inscribed in its egg’, to borrow Ted Hughes’s phrase. Is it sustainable? I have just spent a week Googling the name of Susannah Amoore, whose poems I love and would like to read more of. But for a picture book for children she seems to have completely disappeared. This is indeed ‘a great shame’, but it has been one for nearly thirty years, since Amoore’s delicate-domestic poems last came to light. I don’t know what the answer is.
This is one reason I hold on to, and still look for, slim poetry anthologies no one has heard of.
One of the pleasures of being alive is reading John Ash.
Think of a prize-winning poet, someone you think of as a poetry-household-name: that’s how good John Ash is and how well-known he should be. I have a strong suspicion that none of this means a jot to him, which makes me enjoy his work even more.
I first came across his work in the great Cliff Yates‘s great book of teaching poetry, Jumpstart, which contains a marvellous poem of faux-instructions of Ash: ‘Some Words of Advice: After Hesiod’. The poem opens :
Never believe the words you hear in popular songs.
Conversely, believe them all,
even the ones about changing the world and living forever.
This is a microcosm of many of Ash’s procedures: the importance (or complete irrelevance) of words; a relish in artefacts of popular culture; and a profound sense of decay. Most of all, these lines have a conversational lightness of tone, a characteristic he shares with the late Kenneth Koch, who used to say that just because his poems were not solemn did not mean they were not to be taken seriously.
‘Some Words of Advice’ led me to buy Ash’s Selected Poems, which of course it did not contain. By this time I had read Ash’s poem ‘Smoke’ in the terrific Peter Sansom‘s terrific Writing Poems. This poem also contains references to ‘snatches of show tunes in the corridors’ and ‘old arias of desire’, but now the tone is chastened, cautious, elegiac:
In a city of burnt throats there can never be
enough sweet water to start the songs
and if you would dance, you must dance to the memory
of that lighted window the dusk carried off
If you do not know it, it is a seriously important piece of work. Without wishing to be reductive, it is as critical to our understanding of AIDS as the perhaps more famous The Man With Night Sweats, My Alexandria and What the Living Do:
What is left is irretrievable,
but continues like a melody
whose logical and grieving progression nothing can halt. (‘In Rainy Country’)
The book is about much more than that, of course, but I do think, in poems like ‘The Middle Kingdom’, ‘Smoke’, ‘Cigarettes’, ‘My Egypt’, ‘Following a Man’, ‘The Sweeping Gesture’, ‘Forgetting’ and ‘In Rainy Country’ Ash performs a sustained mediation on mortality and decay that is both exquisite and what Peter Sansom calls ‘urgent’.
For my money ‘The Middle Kingdom‘ fuses together two of The Burnt Pages’ chief impulses: clear-eyed satire and deep personal ‘regret’, a word the poem uses three times:
We were all well-fed and warmly clothed, and
experienced no misgivings on this account.
The oceans were calm and shallow,
the rivers stocked with salmon. Each spring
brilliantly coloured birds passed over
on their way to northern lakes and hills.
Poems were often penned concerning
their brief and glorious transit. When
they returned in autumn we succumbed
to appropriate feelings of mild regret.
You should read this, and everything by John Ash. His work, including his recent work about living in Istanbul, never fails to take the reader into wholly new territories both real and imagined, living and historical. His poems never let you forget the forces of history in which they were created, and which they notate, but neither do they bash down your door as they remind you of this. I think he is one of the greats.
Read ‘The Middle Kingdom’ here
You can find more Lifesaving Poems here
All of the speakers in my part of the series were asked to speak on the subject of ‘How to…’ (let go/feel beautiful/kill a chicken etc).
I was asked to speak about writing poems.
The result is now live on the Greenbelt site.
You can watch the video of the talk here.
You can download the script of the talk here: How to Write a Poem.
I have written before that there are a wide range of reasons for including the poems I have in my Lifesaving Poems series.
Some of the poems I came across at school, and acted as a kind of gateway to the world of poetry and what it could do. Some I came across on recommendation of others, in reviews, or by word of mouth. Some of the poems remind me of friends to whom I owe a debt of gratitude for immeasurably improving my life, through their friendship and writing.
Some of the poems I came across entirely on my own.
My hunch is that the social contract we forge with each other when sharing poems, whether in person, or on email, or on blogs, is vastly underrated as a mechanism for cultural transformation, in this country at least (as a working academic I should really back up this kind of thinking with at least one reference to a recent research survey giving chapter and verse). There’s a lovely description of the kind of thing I am talking about in Seamus Heaney’s essay ‘The Impact of Translation’. In it he describes being shown a translation of a Czeslaw Milosz poem for the first time by Robert Pinsky.
There is a kind of religious, ‘conspiratorial’ hush about it, at once private and communal, and it seems to reach into spaces we all carry that are non-verbal, or pretty much that way for most of the time.
All of this came back to me last weekend as I prepared for my Poetry School course by typing out Galway Kinnell’s marvellous poem ‘St Francis and the Sow’. I was first shown it in much the way Heaney describes, by Jean Sprackland, at the Arvon Foundation’s writing centre at Totleigh Barton.
That week we had given our group a pre-course task, of bringing to the course one book of poems they felt passionate about, to share and discuss with others. Jean brought Kinnell’s Bloodaxe Selected. I had not seen it or the poem before.
My initial reaction to it was one of surprise and great fondness. I loved that it dared to hymn unlovely subject matter. I loved its complete self-absorption in the living moment of description. I loved that it did not seem to care a hoot what I thought about it.
Reading it again now, I think daring is not far from the mark. It seems to take two very distinct strains of American poetry, beginning in didacticism and ending with tender praise, and blends them without one overshadowing the other. That is both risky and skillful. Poems that do that usually fall flat on their backsides, while this one achieves liftoff and in plain sight.
But it is in more than admiration that I come to this poem. It is ‘about’ a sow, and the sowiness of sows, returning us the earthy facts of the matter with both precision and exultation. I happen to think it is just as much about teaching and suffering, and the counter-cultural energy that is released when we choose to utter praise. As one of my Poetry School group remarked last night when I shared it with them, the poem enacts its own meaning, flowering into ‘self-blessing’ like the ‘bud’ it describes, in spite of its ‘broken heart’ and ‘creased forehead’.
If that is not a miracle, I don’t know what is.
Saint Francis and the Sow
stands for all things,
even for those things that don’t flower,
for everything flowers, from within, of self-blessing;
though sometimes it is necessary
to reteach a thing its loveliness,
to put a hand on its brow
of the flower
and retell it in words and in touch
it is lovely
until it flowers again from within, of self-blessing;
as Saint Francis
put his hand on the creased forehead
of the sow, and told her in words and in touch
blessings of earth on the sow, and the sow
began remembering all down her thick length,
from the earthen snout all the way
through the fodder and slops to the spiritual curl of the tail,
from the hard spininess spiked out from the spine
down through the great broken heart
to the sheer blue milken dreaminess spurting and shuddering
from the fourteen teats into the fourteen mouths sucking and
blowing beneath them:
the long, perfect loveliness of sow.
Galway Kinnell, from Selected Poems (Bloodaxe, 2001)