Saturday, 31 July 2010

In the Box

Pleased to see I have extracts from a sequence of short poems called Time and Motion Studies appearing in the new edition of the excellent 'online forum' Blackbox Manifold':


There's an exciting range of poetry on there with some quite distinguished names (Sharon Olds, George Szirtes, Susan Wicks). What marks Blackbox out from other e-zines/magazines is their unusual interest in "innovative poetry that has prose, narrative or sequences in its sights." In other words, a determination to avoid the prevailing dominance of what James Byrne (in a Wolf editorial a while ago) called the "postage-stamp poem", that short, neat, undemanding lyric-poem invariably autobiographical or anecdotal in nature with which we are all only too familiar and which indicates the habitual lack of ambition and imagination so much mainstream poetry is prey to. 


Thursday, 29 July 2010

Travelling with Rimbaud

   Towards the end of last year I was fortunate enough to spend time travelling with my partner and son through India, South-East Asia and Australia. The one poetry-book I allowed myself to cram into my rucksack on departure was the Complete Poems (and Selected Letters) of Rimbaud (the quite old Wallace Fowlie edition). Rimbaud has been among my favourite handful of poets ever since I discovered him as an adolescent, although I hadn't read him all the way through for awhile and thought he would be the perfect reading for a lengthy and revelatory journey halfway across the world.
   Although it was by no means the only book I read (the serendipitous method of picking up and abandoning novels and other volumes in guest-houses and hostels is to me one of the curious delights of travel), my dogeared Rimbaud stood me in good stead and did indeed illuminate many an hour of transit with the crosscurrents and tangents of the poems' restless diversity and inventiveness, the way their linguistic evolution tracks an itinerary as wayward and exploratory as the poet's own.
    With no other poet, perhaps, are writings and biography so inextricable. The year before, I had completed a radio-play (called A Poet No Less ) attempting oblique perspectives on Rimbaud's extraordinary trajectory, using for my main source the quite astonishingly brilliant Graham Robb biog. In an article in last month's Wire magazine, the musician Alex Neilson refers to it as "the good book", and I agree that it should probably be regarded as a kind of Bible for anyone with a serious interest either in modern poetry or the art of literary biography (only Richard Holmes' Coleridge and Richard Ellman's Joyce are in the same league.)
      I'm currently (rather reluctantly) rewriting the play after a representative of the BBC suggested "a more sober treatment" was called for (what, Rimbaud and Verlaine, sober?!) with this time Edmund White's 'Rimbaud: The Double Life of a Rebel' as my accompaniment. You can tell from the crude title that this isn't very good; in many ways quite superfluous if you've read the Graham Robb. It has the feel of a pot-boiler about it: the prose is wobbly and White's attempts at translating the poems are riddled with errors and infelicities. But you can't really go wrong with Rimbaud, the story is always so enthralling and White manages to invest R and V's escapades with an appropriate mix of comedy and pathos. He also has some interesting observations to make from a gay standpoint, although at times labouring the point, given that it seems probable that Rimbaud's only homosexual relationship was with Verlaine.
   To return to my travels, I remember sitting on a train trundling through the suburbs of Sydney en route to the Blue Mountains and reading my way through almost all of Illuminations with that Dickinsonesque feeling of having "the top of my head taken off". In terms of freshness, it could have been the latest suite of prose-poems by a nascent young star of the American avant garde - it felt as though these texts written in the 1870s, far from being superseded or assimilated into literary tradition, were still in many ways ahead of us and in spite of attempts by successive generations of impressionable poets, still to be caught up with.
    More radically than any of the other inceptual locii of Modernism (Baudelaire, Whitman, Dickinson, Hopkins, Mallarme) the Illuminations initiate that rupture in the fabric of coherent, normative discourses whose implications and resonances we are still working through. Although Baudelaire is justly cited (eg. by Eliot and Benjamin) as the first important poet to take the modern urban environment as his subject-matter, how much further does Rimbaud take this in pieces like the 3 'Villes', 'Les Ponts' and 'Metropolitan', which enact dizzying detournements on the later-modern experience of finding yourself adrift in a foreign city - for me at the time, Sydney, Singapore, Kuala Lumpur, Bangkok, Mumbai; but for Rimbaud, Victorian London. His sense of bewildered, intoxicated anomie erupts in fantastical and excoriating perspectives which combine the brutal political insight of the Communist Manifesto (Robb conjectures that Marx and Rimbaud might have met in the British Museum Reading Room) and the fictive urban dystopias of Calvino's Invisible Cities or Ballard's Atrocity Exhibition.
   In a later post I want to look at some different Rimbaud translations, including perhaps my own.

Tuesday, 20 July 2010

Rabbit 2

   Finished Rabbit, Run last week with a sure sense that this is among the most important novels ever written - while disliking the contemporary fad for lists and charts as much as the next (grumpy old) man, to me any sort of critical enterprise involves making comparisons and distinctions and I haven't much time for the school of levellers who suggest that Eminem's rhymes should be read as poetry that stands comparison with, say, Wordsworth, Eliot or Muldoon.
   Locating Rabbit, Run within the lineage of other 20th Century novelists is intriguing. My reading is that as well as being benched in Joyce Updike is also setting up a dialogue with DH Lawrence and that in fact the whole novel could be read as a complex interplay between (and wasn't it Richard Aldington who originated the antithesis in the Intro to DHL's Collected Poems?) what Joyce represents (both stylistically and epistemologically) and what Lawrence (ditto) does. In some ways Rabbit is like a Lawrence character living off his impulses and the pull of sensual/sensuous pleasure: the familiar rhythm and diction of Lawrence's prose (as well as his questionable gender-politics) burst through in this sentence:
   " He knows only this: that underneath everything, under their minds and their situations, he possesses, like an inherited lien on a distant piece of land, a dominance over her, and that in her grain, in the lie of her hair and nerves and fine veins, she is prepared for this dominance." (p. 206, Penguin Modern Classics)
    But Updike (although he sees the appeal of this vitality when set against the moral staidness of small-town American society) shows what Rabbit's impetuous individualism can result in within the context of the Joycean priorities of family and social kinship: the tragic denouement is however saved from being the punitive comeuppance of a Victorian novel by an ambivalent ending unfolding (like that of Joyce's  A Portrait ) on a future to be returned to in subsequent fiction. As Updike says in his Afterword: "the book ends on an ecstatic, open note that was meant to stay open, as testimony to our hearts' stubborn amoral quest for something once called grace".
   One more example of the marvellously-precise, subtly-embedded poetry of Updike's prose. When Rabbit supports his toddler son to use the toilet at night, "wee-wee springs from the child's irritated sleep and jerkily prinkles into the bowl" - surely eliding the s here and converting "sprinkles" to the coinage "prinkles" (with its connotations of smallness and pinkness and its onomatapeic rightness) is an act of genius - it is absolutely the "mot juste".

Monday, 12 July 2010

Bizarre Connection


   One bizarre connection resonated for me in the peculiar story of Raoul Moat's "stand-off" with police and subsequent demise on Saturday. Barbara Ellen in The Observer wisely pointed to how "Moat embodied the almost-nuclear frustration of the failed male - ego-driven, soured, festooned with the trappings of cliched machismo". And talking of failed males, apparently a pissed Paul Gascoigne turned up during the evening with a fishing-rod and a can of beer to try a proper bloke-to-bloke talk with the gunman!
   Anyway, the watercourse that Moat lay and sat cross-legged by as he spoke for six hours to police-negotiators with a shotgun against his own neck was in fact the River Coquet, surely the same Coquet that Basil Bunting refers to in a line which has both baffled and enthralled me for years: "Stones trip Coquet burn" (10, Second Book of Odes).
    Bunting was, of course, born in Northumbria and lived there again during his latter years (this poem is dated 1970). The line is so intriguing because  - if you don't know that Coquet is a Northern river  - it borders on the opaque, gesturing towards a kind of "concrete" approach whereby phonetic language-properties are foregrounded over semantic ones. The fact that each of the four words can be read as having more than one grammatical function furthers this effect: for example, "stones trip" seems to echo the idiomatic collocation "stone's throw", whereas "burn" could be read as a verb. (If "trip" and "burn" were both read as counterbalancing verbs, one might detect a trace-memory of the syntax of Hopkins' wonderful opener: "As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame".) The four stressed syllables (out of five)in a row like this is also unusual and emphasises the dense sound-quality of the line, dwelling on the interplay between sharp t-sounds and the long vowels of "stones" and "burn".
     The French loan-word "coquette" also has a meaning in English of course: a flirtatious or invitingly-playful woman. My former (tentative) reading of the poem was that it was about a girl or woman the narrator was following through a stream or river - I now see in a Damascene moment of illumination (afforded by Raoul Moat!) that Bunting is personifying the river ("burn" - a word also used in Briggflats - is more accurately a dialect-word for stream or brook but we''ll let that pass), playing on the near-homonymous link between "coquette" and "Coquet".
     In fact, the poem seems fairly lucid now, as well as being beautiful, and one wonders to what extent Bunting was aware of the ambiguities he was setting up in writing that amazing first line. My hunch is that, being a poet so attuned to the acoustic aspects of language and so keen for readers to "trace in the air a pattern of sound"(Intro. to Collected Poems), the effect was intentional: the line works in very different but equally valid ways according to one's recognition of "Coquet" as a geographical river. Not knowing this fact doesn't harm one's appreciation of the poem and in fact it could be said has kept me returning to it over the years. As Wallace Stevens wrote, "The poem should resist the intelligence almost successfully."
    I've also just realised that Bunting is doing the same in this poem as he did at the magnificent beginning of Briggflats - "Brag, sweet tenor bull,/descant on Rawthey's madrigal" - where Rawthey is another North-Eastern river, in this case personified as a singer. 

Friday, 2 July 2010

found poem

seen graffitied on a rubbish-bin
but removed before I could get a photo: