Well, it’s been a while… Since I last posted I had my first workshop where my own work was critiqued. The really scary part was getting all my writing to a state where I was vaguely happy with it; it was a bit of a rush, and I ended up sending round two pieces that I felt were nearly there, and two pieces that I knew were really only very early drafts. But the important thing was to get them sent round.

Then I spent the weekend trying not to think about seven other people reading them.

By the time Tuesday rolled round I was so nervous I was just pretending that it wasn’t going to happen. I think the fear was simply about people not liking my work – or, worse, thinking I shouldn’t be on the course. Of course it went fine, and the hour or so I had was both wonderful and awful, and for the same reason: close scrutiny of your work. On the one hand it’s terrifying, because everything’s exposed; on the other, having people pay close attention to the words that you’ve put together so carefully is really what it’s all about. It’s not just about getting feedback, it’s about what you’ve written finally having what it’s meant to: an audience.

Aside from the thrill of having seven good writers read your work as if it’s actually worth something, it was of course very good to get feedback – both positive and negative. One of the (many) helpful things our tutor has said is that the most helpful criticism is what the poet him or herself instinctively knows to be true – when someone highlights a doubt you yourself had about your work. But I also took on board some weaknesses that I hadn’t noticed, and conversely was delighted to get some very positive noises about one piece in particular – and I’m not going to pretend that having a T. S. Eliot-prizewinning poet and academic say of one of your pieces ‘it’s a 95% excellent poem’ isn’t rather thrilling…

After the workshop I had a tutorial by myself, which again was both helpful and inspiring. We talked about the other pieces I’d sent round that hadn’t been discussed in the workshop, and also my difficulties in breaking out of the lyric form – I came away with some very helpful and interesting ideas. Most of all, I was encouraged to experiment, take risks; and the most powerful thing was to be reminded that this course isn’t about turning up each week with ‘good’ pieces, in order to amass poetic brownie points; but to try to do difficult things and not worry about failing. Great advice, but so hard to take…

I have to confess I’m still finding the writing coming very hard, and very slowly. Much of it is to do with getting into good rhythms and routines. I’m confident I’ll get there, though. Right now I’m working on an advent piece (one of the drafts I sent round; I’m not quite sure what I’m doing with it to be honest); a piece about my youngest sister; and I’ve just started what I hope will be a sequence of three pieces in terza rima about some childhood incidents. Oh and if I have the time, something about how learning how to run might teach me how to write…

We have a week off from our Poetics module this Friday so I’m taking myself off up north to visit some good old friends, plus cousins. I’ve been promised long walks, home-made soup, backgammon, good chat, and maybe some lamb… just what I need, I reckon, and hopefully time and space for lots of reading and writing.

This post brought to you by the steps to the lindy circle, with music by Campus Five and words by Wendy Cope

heroes and heroines

8 October, 2009

I thought I’d make up for my lack of posting recently by just quickly linking to Carol Ann Duffy‘s poem for today – National Poetry Day (the theme is ‘heroes and heroines’). I meant to post at some point that I heard Duffy read at UEA’s literary festival last week, and she was fantastic: funny, engaging, warm. A few of her poems brought tears to my eyes, and it was magical to hear her read ‘Prayer’. Sublime, even (which I’ve been thinking about from my sickbed today – battling to get my Poetics reading done for tomorrow and reading Longinus’ On the Sublime)

In other poetry news, apparently T. S. Eliot is the nation’s favourite poet, according to the BBC’s poll to celebrate National Poetry Day. I have to say, much as I love Eliot, I find this rather surprising… although maybe people are thinking of Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats rather than The Wasteland…

And congratulations to Don Paterson, who last night won the Forward poetry prize for his collection Rain. I haven’t read it yet, but I very much enjoyed Landing Light when I read it last year, and in fact I’ve been re-reading bits of it in the last week or so. Great stuff.

I’ll leave you with a poem that I wrote for my own heroine – my mum, of course.

Snowdrops
‘Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of God.’

For most of the year’s length, its slow turn
you lie hidden, held in the cool earth’s cupped palms
a fastening of concentric skins, tissued
layers, tightly wrapped and packed like a parcel.

All around is shift and tangled tumble
the rustle of leaf and stalk. Finger deep
your minute processes unfurl – cells bloom
roots reach and stretch in a gritty embrace

until early spring, when freshly minted
fleshy leaves appear. On supple blown-glass stems
buds lift and shed their paper wraps: like a gift
petals condense in delicate drifts

as unexpected you break the cold crust
of earth as if to say look, here, now, this.

This post brought to you by Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos, hot lemon and honey and the wonder of my first non-liquid meal since Sunday

Apologies for the delay in posting. I realised on Friday that it probably wasn’t a good day for posting after all, what with finishing off Poetics reading in the morning, the seminar in the afternoon, and of course chatting in the grad bar afterwards… Posting took a backseat to actually getting on with the writing of poetry over the weekend, and then this week I’ve been completely wiped out with tonsilitis (miserable). The antibiotics are finally kicking in and I’m starting to feel a bit better, but it’s really frustrating to be missing out on everything – all the reading and writing I want to be doing, the workshop I had to miss yesterday, and various fun I’ve had planned.

Poetics, then. I mentioned the week before last that I was really excited at the thought of getting stuck into literary theory again, and looking forward to getting on with the reading. Last Monday saw this exciting delivery from amazon:

goodies from amazon

These are my three essential texts for the module – Classical Literary Criticism, Sidney’s ‘Defence of Poesy’ and Selected Renaissance Literary Criticism and Poetry in Theory:

essential texts

And joining them are a couple of extras I treated myself to – John Lennard’s The Poetry Handbook, Terry Eagleton’s How To Read a Poem and the Penguin Dictionary of Literary Terms & Literary Theory:

poetry gubbins 2

– mmm, yummy books!

So last week’s topic for Poetics was ‘Poetry and Truth’ – might as well start with the big guns – and our reading included parts of Plato’s Republic and Ion, Sidney’s The Defence of Poesy and a couple of other pieces. Fascinating stuff – especially as I’d never read any Plato before. We’d been encouraged to come at it all from a practitioner’s point of view, so it was fun to argue/disagree with/question everything as I read it, and look for the connections between it and the way I read, the way I write. To be honest I disagreed with most of what Plato had to say about poetry; his willingness to sacrifice truth for an ideal state seems rather puzzling given his insistence on the importance of truth in general; at times he seemed so illogical and contradictory that I wondered if I was missing something. But for me the ultimate, and most delightful, irony is that he privileges diagesis (ie narrative, the author speaking in their own voice) over mimesis (imitation, the author speaking in the voice of their character), and yet his entire writing appears to be a conversation between Socrates and various others. Brilliant – to me this seemed to destabilise all his rather high and mighty (authoritarian? dictatorial?) ideas about poetry and how it relates to society…

Equally thought-provoking was the poet Laura Riding‘s writing about her poetry (Preface, 1938 and Introduction, 1980), which I found frankly hilarious in places; her utter seriousness and unsmiling conviction at her own rightness was both amusing and impressive. Her take on poetry is this:

One reads to uncover to oneself something that would otherwise remain unknown – something that one feels it is important to know.

I think I’d broadly agree with this – both in reading and in writing. She brings up all sorts of fascinating questions that I wanted to argue with, but in my rather weakened state I think I’ll spare you that for now.

So it was all good, chewy stuff, and we had a thoughtful seminar discussing it all. But to me what was most interesting of all was that we didn’t really talk about the notion of ‘truth’ at all; we sort of took it as a given that the idea of truth is desirable and possible. And that’s rather a big assumption, isn’t it?

This week (assuming I’m better by Friday) we’re looking at ‘Poetry and Beauty’. Having been sick I haven’t looked at any of the reading yet, but it includes Longinus’ On the Sublime, Shelley, Barthes and Wallace Stevens. And we’ve been asked to e-mail the tutor ‘the most beautiful short poem that you know’. What a challenge! I’ve been mulling this over all week and it’s even harder than I first thought, because when a poem really moves me, I’m not convinced it’s primarily its beauty that does that… it’s more about what it’s saying (though of course beauty is a part of that). Going through some of my favourites I’m not sure I could say that any of them are ‘the most beautiful poem I know’. Running out of time, I opted for this gem, by John Burnside. It’s from his 2007 collection Gift Songs.

Varieties of Religious Experience: XI Lares

All afternoon I have heard you
going from room to room, as if you would offer
the gift of a watchful presence, the gift of a look
to how the sunlight gathers in the folds
of curtains
how the shadows on the wall
flit back and forth, more sparrow, or swallow in flight
than birds would have been.

Like you I have felt it today, that space in our house
where doors might swing open
messengers appear:
the curve of a bowl, or the red in a vase of carnations
softly assuming the forms of a visitation.

We go for weeks and never catch ourselves
like this, the trace of magic we possess
locked in the work of appearing, day after day,
in the world of our making;

we go for months with phantoms in our heads
till, filling a bath, or fetching the laundry in,
we see ourselves again, at home, illumined,
folding a sheet, or pouring a glass of milk
bright in the here and now, and unencumbered.

I’d love to read your most beautiful poems…

This post brought to you by the miracle of antibiotics and Bella’s patented hot toddy recipe; music by James Remote

Varieties of Religious Experience: XI Lares

    All afternoon I have heard you
    going from room to room, as if you would offer
    the gift of a watchful presence, the gift of a look
    to how the sunlight gathers in the folds
    of curtains
               how the shadows on the wall
    flit back and forth, more sparrow, or swallow in flight
    than birds would have been.

    Like you I have felt it today, that space in our house
    where doors might swing open
                                messengers appear:
    the curve of a bowl, or the red in a vase of carnations
    softly assuming the forms of a visitation.

    We go for weeks and never catch ourselves
    like this, the trace of magic we possess
    locked in the work of appearing, day after day,
    in the world of our making;

    we go for months with phantoms in our heads
    till, filling a bath, or fetching the laundry in,
    we see ourselves again, at home, illumined,
    folding a sheet, or pouring a glass of milk
    bright in the here and now, and unencumbered.