Friday, 30 August 2013

Joining In

                                                                    "I will feel lost,
                                                              Unhappy and at home"

Thursday, 22 August 2013

Monday, 19 August 2013

Highdown Hill

   Highdown Hill is a National Trust area in West Sussex near to the village of Angmering. The earthworks at the top is a place of ritual sanctuary, burial-ground for Anglo-Saxon kings such as Aella.
  Walking there, touched by its memorial energy, the 'Song from Aella'  by Thomas Chatterton came into my head:
O SING unto my roundelay,
O drop the briny tear with me;
Dance no more at holyday,
Like a running river be:
   My love is dead,
   Gone to his death-bed
All under the willow-tree.

Black his cryne as the winter night,
White his rode as the summer snow,
Red his face as the morning light,
Cold he lies in the grave below:
   My love is dead,
   Gone to his death-bed
All under the willow-tree.

('Cryne' is hair in Chatterton's pseudo-Middle English, 'rode' is complexion; 'summer snow' was actually a nickname for may-blossom, although global warming has meant that the phrase is not the paradox it once was.)

Tuesday, 13 August 2013

Metrical Twinges


"Thought does not always take a theoretical form. Verlaine's metrical machines are as intellectually satisfying as philosophical propositions. He never wrote a bad line of verse...The harmonious mangling of language, the little twinges of dislocated rhyme and metre might also appeal to a sense of savagery, just as they appealed to Rimbaud."
                                                                                                Graham Robb, Rimbaud (2000)

Monday, 5 August 2013

Review: Chris McCully's Selected Poems (Carcanet 2011)

  The second-hand bookseller from whom I purchased my copy of Chris McCully’s Selected Poems had affixed a sticker to the cover saying it had been discounted to £1 because it was ‘curvy’. As well as for its slightly warped appearance, ‘curvy’ might stand as an appropriate adjective for the book’s contents too, in so far as the poems deviate in interesting ways from the flat and predictable surfaces of much current verse, in particular offering a more varied and rounded sense of formal accomplishment than usually encountered.  If his deliberate, carefully-honed style seems – in a positive way - ‘out of key with its time’, this is because McCully benches his work in an intimate and complex engagement with the whole tradition of English poetry, rather than drawing only upon other contemporaries or near-contemporaries.

   Trained in linguistics and more latterly an academic specialising in prosody and Old English, McCully often resembles Modernist luminaries like Pound and Bunting in forging innovative permutations out of older materials, adopting a ‘reculer pour mieux sauter’ approach to remould universal themes and tropes: mutability, seasonal change, love turned bitter, separation, all met with a wry Horatian stoicism. (Knowing that McCully has published a memoir about his struggle with alcoholism – Goodbye Mr Wonderful (2004) - makes it all the more admirable that he never lapses into confessional self-disclosure.)

     McCully’s astute ear, however, is attracted more to metre and rhyme than to freer forms, and everywhere throughout the selection the major forebears cited in his Preface – Hardy, Yeats, Graves and Auden- are apparent (one might perhaps add another masterful verse-technician, Louis MacNiece).  In fact the influence of the early, ‘English Auden’ is perhaps the dominant one on McCully’s first volume Time Signatures (1993) -  the adapting of Anglo-Saxon models to create dense phonetic textures and a sense of haunting estrangement can be heard in the Audenesque  ‘Towards the unknown region’:

            ‘Wry light on slate,
              leaving the darkening trees...
              It is the stranger wanting peace
              at the watershed knows peace recedes
              beyond each stride’

 Where McCully also follows Auden is in returning lyric to its original source in song-based forms such as the ballad and villanelle, with frequent use of refrains, syntactical repetition and other acoustic devices that appeal to what Eliot called the “auditory imagination” as much as to the intellect. Again, McCully’s insistence on the poem as highly-crafted verbal artefact sets him apart from less scrupulous contemporaries: short pieces such as ‘Pastoral’ and ‘Demeter’ have all the plaintive grace and fluency of Elizabethan lyrics.

   As with Auden, however, one wonders if McCully’s impressive technical facility has occasionally lead him in the direction of the merely facile: by the time we reach ‘Mass’ from The Country of Perhaps(2002), the too-obviously Auden-borrowed rhyme-scheme coupled with a reaching towards faith quite as unconvincing as the older poet’s provokes bathos rather than uplift:

              Throw away the calendar,
                The critical key.
                Cancel the cleverness
               That calls you free...

                Look back at history
                As it pours into space
                And into the mirror
                Of your disgrace.

   Some of the most successful pieces in the book, on the other hand, are the translations from Old English texts (2008), where McCully’s handling of the rugged, two-ply alliterative line seems to capture the strident thud and anfractuous intensity of the original poems with unfaltering tact. To compare McCully’s version of ‘The Seafarer’ with Pound’s is instructive: despite the many virtues of Pound’s famous (or infamous) adaptation, it seems rather overdone and in fact romanticised when compared with McCully’s starker, more pared-down and therefore more tangibly human Seafarer-voice. It also highlights how much editing Pound did both of the poem’s original length – not that McCully’s rendering ever seems overlong – and also of the strong Christian elements within the poem, such as the invocation and ‘Amen’ at the end: surely, without these, the whole moral context for the Seafarer’s laments on worldliness is lost.

     McCully’s structuring of this Selected Poems is intriguing. At the forefront of the book he places a five-page prose-poem called ‘Dust’, which is actually from the last volume represented, Polder (2009): its darkly spiralling cadences, somewhere between the King James Bible and a Beckett monologue, are bleaker than anything that comes after. This seems to be thematically intentional, whereby (as McCully writes in his Preface) “the poems which succeed the piece may be read as fragments of consolation, of partial vision, of a tempered, amended voice.” Certainly the trajectory of the book plots a development from more troubled, rueful, at times satirical work through to the calmer, more consoling voice of Polder, written after the poet’s relocation to the Netherlands. Two groups of poems in this volume count as among the most achieved and effective in the book: a cycle of ekphrastic studies based on paintings in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, and another of well-measured imitations of Horatian odes addressed to McCully’s own Torquatus-figure. They form a fitting culmination to this excellent, far-reaching selection.
                                                                  (First published in The BowWowShop 2012)

Sunday, 4 August 2013

Preaching to the Complacent

  Is it just me or has The Guardian Weekend Edition become more and more an unchallenging reiteration of middle-class assumptions and idées reçues, more commonly known as stating the bleedin' obvious while missing the point? In the News section we find a potentially interesting and timely piece by Peter Walker about "the new gentrification" in London: trouble is, his main focus is on Brixton, where gentrification has been going on for about fifteen years; equally, the rebranding of Brixton Village is hardly news. It would have been more pertinent, perhaps, to explore how gentrification has in more recent years spread south from Brixton to areas like Peckham. Luckily, as Walker explains, gentrification is "helping to lift some desperately poor areas out of deprivation" - by forcing all the poor people to move to other deprived areas, perhaps?
   Turning to the Review section, the lead article sees Will Self get all Ronnie Laing on our arses with a scathing critique of how the psychiatric profession is in thrall to "big pharma" thereby keeping us all doped up on Prozac which doesn't even work anyway. The trite countercultural memes come so thick and fast it feels like you're back at one of those dinner-parties in your 20s when everyone thought it was cool to talk about drugs and you got stuck - bored out of your mind - next to the weird-eyed, been-there/done-that maverick who's seen through all the lies...
   More modestly, what Zadie Smith wanted do in writing NW was "to create people in language", her model for this being Virginia Woolf who "loved language and people simultaneously". I'm an admirer of Woolf's novels and their innovative use of language but did she really love people? Others in her upper-middle class and aristocratic circles, maybe. The journals Smith says she pores over demonstrate not just snobbery but class-bigotry as well as a character Doris Lessing describes as that of a "spiteful, malicious woman" (cf. William Boyd's Any Human Heart.)
   And then we open the supplement on 'England's Forests' and find useful guides on how to climb trees and play Pooh Sticks!