I have not read a book in six months

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I have not

read a book in six months

-Raymond Carver, ‘Drinking While Driving’

I can still remember the shock of encountering the bare-handed honesty of these words, standing in a bookshop in the suburb I grew up in. Writers -published writers with book deals and international reputations- were not supposed to admit to such things. Because of this and lines like it (Mark Robinson’s ‘I have had time to stand and fart recently’; Marie Howe’s ‘Every day I want to speak with you. And every day something more important/ calls for my attention’; Tranströmer’s ‘We are at a party that doesn’t love us’) I can add to the list of What I Want In A Poem -devastating use of language, surprise, ending up somewhere new- vulnerability. I don’t mean look at me suffering please feel sorry for me vulnerability. I don’t mean poems that tell us they are having a jolly bad time. I mean poems that risk looking foolish and not as in control as the social fabric of our lives normally allows. Michael Laskey’s poem about going for the last swim of the year. Sharon Olds saying ‘I want to live’. Sylvia Plath saying ‘Let be, let be’ at the end of ‘Pheasant’. Poems that put a hand on your shoulder and risk saying I have no idea what is going on here but it seems important. Poems with a human face, as I think Seamus Heaney says somewhere. Poems, to quote Mozart in Amadeus, that don’t sound like they shit marble. Everything by Ann Sansom. Ditto Jean Sprackland (‘Everything comes to this’). Poems that are completely in control of their preparedness not to appear wise and all-knowing. That’s what I want. Poems that may appear foolish, childish, even. Silly. I love silliness. Why are we not more silly? We should institute prizes for clowning in poetry. For pulling the rug from under us. We could do it. Cliff Yates. Siân Hughes. Edwin Morgan’s ‘The Loch Ness Monster’s Song’. Ian McMillan using words like ‘galoot’ and ‘settee’. Let’s lose control. We are not in control. We could all admit this more, and fall over while we’re at it.

13 comments

  1. Meg Cox

    my goodness this works for me. By the way I stopped reading your blog to respond to something that pinged up on facebook responding to something I had written (kind of Marie Howe). But I came back to you. My goodness i like silly. But not everyone does – look at the long lists on poetry comps.

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  2. Liz

    What’s silly about ‘settee’? I grew up with them. It’s what working class folk from Yorkshire of a certain age called those things we sit on. I think my dad probably still does. Better not tell him he’s a silly man though…

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    • Anthony Wilson

      Hi there. I grew up calling them settees as well. Nothing silly about it. I think Ian is deliberately playing on expectations of not finding certain words in poetry. Like incontinence pants, in ‘On the Impossibility of Staying Alive’. I don’t think he is silly at all. Far from it. I mean that he is prepared to risk looking silly to make the most serious of points. He’s one of our most serious poets. I’m sure of it.
      As ever with thanks and best wishes
      Anthony

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  3. Jeff Schwaner

    So true, Anthony. The jarring quality of the lines you mention remind me of the work of a poet named Dana Martin, whose work I recently reblogged. She writes powerful stuff and you put your finger on why and how it is so powerful–it’s as honest a navigation through language and/or negotiation between style and content as you can get. The results include poems with that same gob-smacked impact of depth and immediacy all at once. I love that kind of work, and of course there’s no way to “learn” that craft. We as writers can only learn to be as honest with our project and ourselves (and our readers) as possible.

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    • Anthony Wilson

      Hi Jeff
      Thanks so much for pointing me (again) to Dana Martin’s work. I don’t know it, but am going to find it for sure.
      As ever with gratitude for your wisdom
      Anthony

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  4. Nell Nelson

    “Poems that are completely in control of their preparedness not to appear wise and all-knowing”. Yessss. And poems that are manifestly not in possession of the facts. And poems that are lost and take us with them. 😉

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  5. Meg Cox

    Dear Anthony, do let us know when you judge a single poetry comp for someone, like the Bridport maybe, so that I can enter and get long listed for something silly which you alone are able to see through.

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