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Friday, 29 July 2011

Tara Bergin on Julith Jedamus's 'The Cull'

The Cull by Julith Jedamus

Last night I heard gunshots in Richmond Park,
but my November mind, thick with smoke
          and fear of wars
and phantom men, mistook the reason:
the cull of bucks and stags after the rutting season,
          when mast is scarce.

At dawn I walked through Bog Gate, and found
nothing: no drag mark, no blood on the ground,
          no trace of violence.
Mist threaded red bracken, and the broken ridge
of pollard oaks that march towards Holly Lodge
          and its sharp defence.

By the track they call Deane’s Lane I saw him:
a twelve-point stag, his scraped horns trimmed
          with moss and bracken,
his hindquarters lean, one shin gored and clotted.
I watched him browse for chestnuts, and waited for a quickening,
an unseen sign—
          his, the day’s, mine.
from New Poetries V © Julith Jedamus

This poem seems to me to revolve around the speaker 'jumping to conclusions': she is surprised twice (at least) by the actuality of the situation, which in her imagination has become much more dramatic and devastating. Firstly at the beginning, there is the confusion about the sound of bullets being fired; secondly at the end, there is the breath-held surprise that the wild stag doesn't bolt when the poet comes across him. But there is also within the poem the description of red bracken (as if blood-drenched), the polled oaks (as if wounded or amputated) and the 'sharp defence' of Holly Lodge (as if the forest house had too played a part in some kind of battle). Almost subconsciously, the speaker cannot avoid continuing to 'mistake the reason', describing everything she sees in terms of 'wars and phantom men'. Yet it is of course this double – or perhaps it could be called 'reversed' – metaphor, which indicates Julith Jedamus's skill as a poet. By owning up at the outset to reading too much into the sound of guns, she frees herself of the burden of making too heavy a point, while instantly making it all the same. This ability to make it feel as though it is us the reader, not her the speaker, who is making all the necessary associations, is an excellent example of Jedamus's admirable use of both technique and poetic imagery.

Reading this poem makes me wonder how many writers took up their pens on hearing the news, last autumn, that a fully paid-up stag-hunter had shot down 'Britain’s largest wild animal'? I certainly did, but repeatedly failed to find the right means to express its relevance at the time. In 'The Cull', Julith Jedamus deals with the topic of legal killings extremely well, and it is probably for this fine and elegant handling of her chosen subject matter that I most admire her as a poet.

Wednesday, 27 July 2011

Our readers write

Welcome to 'Our readers write', where we throw out a question related to poetry and ask readers to jump up and catch it. Got a question you'd like answered? Drop it in the comments section for use in the near future.

Keeping to the poetry and popular culture ideal set up in the first post, are there any poems set to music you admire? Two villanelles immediately come to mind for me: both the German singer Hildegard Knef and Glasgow group The Pastels have recorded versions of Auden's 'If I Could Tell You' (the latter deviating much from Auden); and the Australian singer Jeannie Lewis recorded and released a raucous, worth-searching-for version of Dylan Thomas's 'Do Not Go Gentle' in 1974.

Monday, 25 July 2011

Janet Kofi-Tsekpo and Jee Leong Koh on Lucy Tunstall's 'One Day a Herd of Wild Horses Came into the Garden and Looked at My Mother'

One Day a Herd of Wild Horses Came into the Garden and Looked at My Mother by Lucy Tunstall

Well, this is extraordinary, she is saying, this is quite extraordinary.
The horses stand on the grass and look at my mother. My mother stands on the path and looks at the horses. The horses nudge and shift; their manes tangle; their hooves are caked in mud.
Not until the mare has turned her head, like a sail in the wind, away from the
house and
                               out toward the hills, and led each straggling foal away,
will my mother go back into the house; close the door; pick up a book, a coffee,
a cigarette.

from New Poetries V © Lucy Tunstall

Jan: What I love about this poem is its apparent simplicity and clarity. The narrative of the piece is already contained within the title -- we know what's going to happen -- and yet what happens inside the telling of the story is very interesting. We hear the voice of the mother -- 'extraordinary' -- from her apparent background of domestic comfort. We then see her standing almost trance-like, as if being called away from that daily life. It reminds me of the Scottish myth about silkies -- half woman, half seal -- who live domesticated on land but must eventually return to the sea: 'the mare has turned her head, like a sail in the wind'...

Jee: Yes, I love its clarity too. I was going to say 'economy' when I realized that it isn't true. The poem is short -- mirroring the brevity of the moment -- but it is involved with expressive redundancy. The mother repeats herself in wonder. Looks are exchanged in nearly the same words in the second stanza, the chiasmus depicting simultaneity neatly. The encounter is brief but it expands in the poem. I especially admire how, in the third stanza, the poem finds a way to say what happens next without leaving the present moment. 'Not until the mare has turned her head...will my mother go back....' What a superb trick! Using the present perfect and future tenses to fix the present. The poem is so clear in its focus.

Jan: This echoing or repetition quite literally creates the poem's resonance. The words circle around something that can't be fully articulated, although we feel its vibrations.

Jee: Like you, I wonder what to make of this unexpected break from domesticity. They meet in the garden, the liminal grounds between hills and house. The mare, who is also a mother, leads her foals 'away from the house and out toward the hills, but the mother returns to the house and 'close[s] the door', as if turning her back on wildness. What is she thinking and feeling as she picks up, and puts down, in turn, a book, a coffee and a cigarette? Regret? Relief? Gratitude? Unrest? I think the poem's strength derives in part from its open-endedness, but I also think that the poem wants us to wonder.

Friday, 22 July 2011

James Womack on Sheri Benning's 'The song that goes'

That song that goes by Sheri Benning

           For no reason I can name
I look away from the book and see
the moon deepen into golds and reds.
Eastern sky a sodden blue. Spring
dusk is something to breathe deeply –
wet dirt, stubble, last year’s leaves.
And like a dream that comes back
only when unasked for, I recall
his hands from when I was a child –
rough wood, tobacco, metal of earth.
A friend tells me of early grey mornings
at his kitchen table. There was tea,
the beginnings of a wood-fire, his wife,
bread. And the winter river-bed, the long,
slow ache I carry inside, briefly fills
with the singing of Spring melt.
Memory is that song the heart hums
along with. The one without
thinking, beneath breath.

from New Poetries V © Sheri Benning

In Embassytown, his recent novel about language and semiotics (and giant chitinous mantises, sentient factories and psychic twins), China Miéville invents a race of aliens who cannot lie. The closest some of them can get to telling untruths is to make statements whose final clauses they say, as it were, only under their breath, so that what is heard seems to be false: the unarguable statement 'before the humans came we didn't speak so much of certain things' is redacted into 'before the humans came we didn't speak'. Amongst other things, this is a poetic technique: to create a phrase which, as it were, stands next to its echo. A phrase which ends before you think it will, leaving you with a blank your mind unwittingly completes.
There's this kind of mild shock in the title of Ms. Benning's poem, where the chatty ('do you know that song that goes like this?') is suggested even as the title itself moves towards the transitory, the elegaic: a fading music. That song that goes. The twists, the momentary confusions, continue; helped by the large indent at the beginning of the poem proper, we are tricked (again) into reading the opening line as continuous with the title : 'That song that goes // For no reason I can name'. It is appropriate for a poem that, as it turns out, will be about a particular kind of departure, that the word 'goes' is given so much subtle work to do.
After the dislocation at the beginning, the body of the poem gets us back to specifics: 'wet dirt, stubble, last year's leaves'; 'rough wood, tobacco, metal of earth'. The syntactic parallel between description of the spring dusk and that of the dedicatee's hands connects 'him' (we see him as some kind of relation or longstanding family acquaintance) to nature and in particular the earth, a connection which becomes logical as we realise that this is, of course, an elegy. After the details, more dislocation: 'Memory is the song the heart hums' turns into 'Memory is the song the heart hums / along with': two parallel statements, one that allows the heart to sing, one that forces the heart to listen, and follow. More confusion: I realise that we don't know if 'he' is loved or not.

Thursday, 21 July 2011

Our readers write

Gabriel Byrne as Lord Byron in Ken Russell's Gothic (1986)

Welcome to 'Our readers write', where we throw out a question related to poetry and ask readers to jump up and catch it. Got a question you'd like answered? Drop it in the comments section for use in the near future.

Thinking about poets in film, there have been a number of good films about poets and bad films about poets, but has there been a great film about a poet? What poet films have stuck with you through the years?

Wednesday, 20 July 2011

Michael Schmidt on 'Voice'

'Teachers and critics talk about ‘voice’, not as an instrument with which a man might, in Wordsworth’s phrase, speak to men, but as an individuating medium, defined by its inflections and distinguishing mannerisms. The poem performs some kind of self, but being performative it is also ironic and the real self is withheld. Anecdote (dignified as ‘narrative’) displaces complex form, and the poem builds towards that audible point of (Larkin’s term) ‘lift-off’ when the audience, if there is an audience, is conditioned to respond with the ‘ooo’ or ‘aaa’ and the intake of breath. A palpable hit. Such poems are shy of abstractions, of the ‘sensuous cerebration’ that Charles Tomlinson admires in the French, of the demands of traditional form and what can be done with it and experimentally against it. Ezra Pound’s ‘Go in fear of abstractions’ has become a commandment that the obedient – obey. They go in fear, and one thing they fear is the long poem in which ‘voice’ is soon exhausted and other resources are required.'

Monday, 18 July 2011

Lucy Tunstall on William Letford's 'Taking a headbut'

Taking a headbut by William Letford

your pal ruffled ma hat
i said, what? made the mistake of leaning forward
and that was that

blood-metal darkness and the taste of brass
the bell was rung
i know i went somewhere
because i had to come back
from New Poetries V © William Letford
Well, it’s funny, but it’s also brilliantly achieved in formal terms. The heavy use of rhyme in the first stanza -- ‘that’ (twice),‘hat’; ‘what’, ‘forward’ -- eases off in stanza two until the very last word -- ‘back’ -- does indeed call the ear back to where we began, only slightly adjusted by the experience.

Line two leans dangerously forward, awkwardly (foolishly) proud of the rest of the poem, inviting attack; and the detached and understated tone allows itself a flourish with ‘blood-metal darkness’. There is some really fabulous imagery here for the moment of impact, or of ebbing consciousness, where the sound of the knockout bell, the taste of blood and metal, and encroaching blackness, collide and reverberate, giving both resonance, and a very appropriate sensory confusion. And there is another subtle use of rhyme: after the ‘taste’ of ‘blood-metal’, ‘rung’ cannot help but invoke it’s absent rhyme-mate, ‘tongue’. The journey of the poem is into the body, and out of this world.

The last two lines are epigrammatic, bathetic, zen-like and cartoonish all at the same time. ‘Come back’ expresses the gravity of the situation, the sense that things might have been touch-and-go there for a moment, that there was ground to be covered to regain consciousness, and even the suggestion of a near-death experience. But they also call to mind the soul of Tom wafting gently to the ceiling as Jerry smashes his skull with a mallet. It’s all held together by a voice which, while scrupulously objective and devoid of self-pity, has a profound interest in the mysterious process of receiving a headbutt. This is awe as well as shock.

Welcome to New Poetries

In the wet Manchester May of 1994, Carcanet published the first of its now five-volume New Poetries anthologies, Maurice Tempelsman read Cavafy's 'Ithaka' at Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis's funeral, and movie-goers first heard John Hannah read Auden's 'Funeral Blues' in Four Weddings and a Funeral. That same year, Paul Muldoon's The Annals of Chile appeared from Faber, going on to win the T.S. Eliot Prize, and Coach House Books published Christian Bök's Crystallography, a warning bell that signalled the arrival of conceptual poetry. In the autumn, there were films about poets, Alan Rudolph's Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle, and Michael Radford's Il Postino. This was in the years between Walcott's and Heaney's winning of the Nobel Prize for Literature -- the last major poets to do so. And poetry itself was in the middle of something: it was selling, it was in the movies, there was product (Muldoon) and counterproduct (Bök).

Much of what was happening in 1994 continues today: for better or worse, poets are still at the cinema -- Plath (2003), Bright Star (2009), Howl (2010) -- and have even started popping up in fiction -- Bolaño's The Savage Detectives (2007) and Nicholson Baker's The Anthologist (2009); Muldoon is amid the most influential poets of his generation, and, to a very different generation, so is Bök. In the middle of all this the latest New Poetries arrives.

Over the past seventeen years, Carcanet's New Poetries anthologies have introduced some sixty poets to readers, 'published from Britain, [providing] a vista across a worldscape from a fixed point'. This blog is dedicated to the difference and variety of the New Poetries anthologies, to 'the irreducible plural of the title'. We hope readers will find here some thoughtful discussion on the workings of poetry, and ideas about and around the writing of poetry today.