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Poetry social media Writing

‘Oumuamua and identity

Artist's_impression_of_ʻOumuamua

‘Oumuamua was a new word for me. It means scout or messenger in Hawaiian, and was given to the first object we’re certain to have come from beyond our own solar system.

Wikipedia says it is a reddish object around 230 by 35 meters. To me, vulgarian that I am, it looks like an interstellar poo. As I type, glancing at the ‘Oumaumua tracker, I see it is currently zooming away from Earth at 64.6 km/s per second. With the recent antics of humanity, who can blame it? But this weird object that has dropped in from nowhere has got me thinking.

The thought of 2018 is quite a challenging one. We are all people of our time. Whether we choose to bury our heads under the duvet whimpering till it’s over, or thunder into the streets in protest, we are all reacting in our different ways to what 2018 presents us with.

It brings to mind the Intentionality debate, an old argument in philosophy and literary criticism. It goes like this: how much should our knowledge of a writer’s intentions and historical context affect how we read their texts? Should we find out what the writer meant? Or, as the anti-intentionalists prefer, support the idea that a poem should stand on its own two feet without the backstory,  as if it emerged ex nihilo, from nothing, like ‘Oumuamua.

I’ve aways found this debate a bit tiresome. The answer, surely, is a bit of both. A poem should be able to be enjoyed as its own thing, independent of previous knowledge, as you would if you stumbled over it in a magazine from a poet new to you. It seems common sense to me, however, that learning something about the writer’s intentions can only enrich our enjoyment of the work, without necessarily dictating how we should read it.

When I was a student (in the days of vellum and quill pens) T.S. Eliot was held as an example of someone who wrote brilliantly while having a minimal presence in the work.  This idea was reflected in the title of Hugh Kenner’s early biography, ‘The Invisible Poet’.

While even today some art forms, such as street art, require the anonymity of its artists due to the borderline illegality of much of their work, in contemporary poetry the identity of the writer is often scrutinised. What has been written is judged through the lens of who has written it. This may be due to how established privileges have been challenged. It is no longer acceptable that people can be quietly rejected on grounds of their race, class, gender, sexuality and so on.

For the Intentionality debate, it seems case closed. The poet’s identity is very relevant in 2018. But I do have some qualms. Is there a danger that literature can turn into a beauty contest? A writer may be unnoticed because their identity is frankly a bit meh. What would bookish bank clerk T.S.Eliot’s instagram account look like?

To gain relevance some subtly emphasise their challenges. This might be ethnicity, gender, sexuality, physical ability, age and so on. Everyone needs an angle, of course, but it has reminded me (and this does me little credit) of the phrase ‘the hierarchy of suffering’, with authenticity being awarded to those who have had more challenges. As consumers of art we often expect this too. We don’t much want to hear rappers or rock stars bragging about coming from wealthy, well adjusted middle class backgrounds for example.

What might swing the pendulum back towards the art and not the artist? Is it that the very notion of identity itself is being reassembled? We live in a time where it is possible (although gruelling) for people to adjust the body they happened to be born with, and choose a gender more appropriate to who they are. The famous case of Rachel Dolezal, who was born white but  controversially chose to identify as black may be a forerunner of how people might seek to override the hand they were played by birth. Sexuality is now often seen (correctly in my view) as a spectrum rather than a binary choice. While the internet and social media have enabled people to experiment and be selective and playful in how they present themselves.

The idea that you are born with an identity that must be adhered to is melting away.  Once you can choose who you want to be, who knows? Maybe our lives will, Oscar Wilde-style, become our artworks.

Or perhaps, with fewer rigid differences between us, our art will be about the art rather than who has produced it.

Here it comes. Tumbling from nowhere, and full of mystery.

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Categories
Poetry Writing

Is John Keats a natural poet?

‘If poetry comes not as naturally as the leaves to a tree, it had better not come at all.’ John Keats, Hampstead Feb 27th 1818, Letter to John Taylor.

Keats wrote this ‘axiom’ in a letter to his friend John Taylor when he was 22. Are we to read this as a notion of genius — that great artists simply and effortlessly derive their work from the muses, while the rest of us lumpen, non-geniuses labour? Of course by the age of 22 Keats had already published and written sublime and lasting work. But read through his poetry and you can see the craft evolve at an extraordinary rate — accelerated by his deep study of Shakespeare.

Most texts, especially poetry, are worked at long and hard. Many writers, but I would suggest especially poets because of the nature of the form, will be familiar with the sensation of a poem arriving fully realised. The first poem I had printed (in Other Poetry, back in the early eighties) was written this way. I remember sitting down to write, after a visit to Kenilworth Castle,  and an effortless eight-line poem about the Castle simply popping out. It was a weird feeling.  Since then a few of my poems have emerged this way and when it happens, you must avoid noticing that it is happening, just go with the flow.

Keats’s Ode To Autumn, was published in 1820. While the first page of the MS here has crossings-out (I selected this image from Google because it seemed quite worked on) even this MS demonstrates that the poem arrived almost fully formed, and it was composed in one day — 19th September 1819. For one of the most famous poems in the English language, that’s not bad going. Here’s the first page of the MS version.

toautumn1

It is a moot point if anyone else can tell that a something written in one fell swoop or not, and if this matters?

T.E. Eliot’s The Waste Land, took years to write, and there is MS with not only Eliot’s workings but Ezra Pound, the il miglior fabbro (the better maker) of the poem’s dedication. Between them, they shrunk the poem by almost half with their edits and revisions. Here is the start of the poem as we know it, but notice the pagination, the first page of the poem in MS had been completely cut, with a light pencil line, by Eliot himself.

Manuscript-of-T-S-cup_410_g_63_p6

Naturally the methods of Keats and Eliot are entirely different. Modernism, as expressed in The Waste Land, is in part a literary collage, a piecing together to make something new. This is time consuming. The Romantic idea of genius, and a spirit suddenly possessing one is persistent.  It is a single-minded outpouring, rather than an assemblage. You may have read lots, but your poem must pour out of you in an inspired torrent.

Keats was an extraordinary person. If we were all to wait for poetry to emerge like leaves from a tree, poems would be few and far between. But perhaps there is a case to be argued that a Romantic poem being tinkered with endlessly somehow kills it. Wordsworth’s endless revisions of his own work may be an example of this.

Today, traces of Romantic thinking still exist in the caricatured expectations culture has for the way artists are supposed to behave. The image of the otherworldly poet inspired by a muse is a hard one to shake off.

Categories
Poetry

An afterthought on the T.S. Eliot Prize readings

Snapping up a ticket offered to me by my more organised pal Robin Houghton, I was lucky enough to get to hear the work of the ten shortlisted poets for this year’s T.S. Eliot awards in the capacious Royal Festival Hall. Fab seats we had too, being in row D, only slightly marred by the screen-lit faces of the self-important live tweeters next to us.

It was an unrivalled snapshot of the state of poetry. My favourite was Pascale Petit, whose reading from her collection Fauverie was electric and inspiring. While Ruth Padel hooked me right away too, and I admired Arundhathi Subramaniam’s poise and felt convinced she would win. I was wrong. David Harsent won the prize next day with his book Fire Songs more a box of damp matches on the night, but I am keen to read his book. While Michael Longley’s elegies to his twin brother were fascinating and moving, as was a poem by John Burnside about his sister.

The readers were excellently introduced by Ian McMillan.

The dire rail replacement service to and from Brighton meant I couldn’t lurk with poet pals afterwards. The best thing for me was that even several days after the event, nothing seems as big and clever as reading and writing poetry. Surely that’s the whole point of such events and prizes.

Comparing poets is such an apples versus oranges business, but it seems our culture best relates to the idea of winners and losers; of hierarchies. The event was topped and tailed by short recordings of T.S. Eliot reading his own work.  And I shuffled out trying to imagine an event in the early 1930s with the Old Possum up against Yeats, Pound, Masefield, Sitwell, H.D., the young Auden and so on. The idea seemed crazy.

Below, my winner: Pascale Petit.

Pascale Petit

Categories
a writer's life Autobiographical Genius Poetry

How I stopped being a genius

Let me tell you that until the age of 29 I was a tortured genius.To help other people understand this, I lived in a squalid bedsit. I was also permanently unhealthy in that way typical of geniuses, and I spent my nights barking my tortured, misunderstood poetry into the smoky fug of doggerel-filled rooms.

Don’t let anyone tell you that being a tortured genius is easy. It’s not. It demands things of you, such as drinking lots, drug taking, and unsatisfactory relationships. It also creates a persistent idea that the world owes you a living because you are far too absorbed in your lofty contemplations to think about filthy lucre.

Of course I worried about money, but being permanently broke contributed to a vortex of hypochondria and depression. This led me to create more tortured poetry, which only confirmed my conclusion that I was a genius. Another thing about being a genius is that you end up talking about yourself incessantly. For a few months I had the good fortune to be the lodger of Dr Janet Summerton, who has remained a firm friend. I was talking to her about genius (over a glass of wine and a pate-smeared water biscuit) hoping that she would join the dots and reach the inevitable conclusion that I was one too.

Imagine my surprise when she asserted that there was no such thing as a genius. For how could this be? Did I not refute her assertion just by sitting there, drinking her wine and worrying about my pulse rate?

Janet told me that genius is a fairly modern notion. For me this was an eye-opener. I thought that geniuses had always existed. Surely, for example, when Shakespeare sprang up in the morning with the glorious filthy tang of London drains in his nostrils (and worrying if London was getting a bit too plague-ridden to stay) he was certain of his genius? Well… No actually. He wouldn’t have thought any such animal existed.

Janet pointed me towards Keywords by Raymond Williams. This told me that Genius entered English in the C14 from the Latin.  It meant a guardian spirit. It was then extended to mean ‘a characteristic disposition or quality’.  Only towards the end of the eighteenth century did it acquire its modern meaning of ‘an extraordinary ability’.

If you allow the idea that genius is an invention, then it follows that we do not live in a world populated by a race of demigods possessed by an otherworldly ability to which ordinary mortals cannot aspire. Don’t get me wrong, there’s no denying the fact that some people have extraordinary gifts, but to simply suggest that this is the result of divine inspiration, or being the winner of a genetic lottery, ignores the hard work that went into their achievements.

Secondly on a personal level, once you start to view genius as a social construct, you wonder why you or anyone else feels they need to conform to the ridiculous stereotypical behaviours associated with the idea of genius. For the troublesome idea that gifted people should behave in certain self-harming ways has claimed many lives. In poetry I think of Dylan Thomas who drank himself to death. And for what? He wrote most of his best work when he was young. It’s only when he started to be the very image of the Romantic tortured genius did he and the plot part company.

Of course there are numerous counter examples in poetry. T.S. Eliot working at the bank instantly comes to mind. Maybe not as exciting or “poetical” a life as Byron, who fought and womanised his way around Europe – but this doesn’t make Eliot’s poetry any less authentic than Byron’s.

I like this double-edged Oscar Wilde quote from The Picture of Dorian Gray, spoken by the character Lord Henry Wotton:

“A great poet, a really great poet, is the most unpoetical of all creatures. But inferior poets are absolutely fascinating. The worse their rhymes are, the more picturesque they look. The mere fact of having published a book of second-rate sonnets makes a man quite irresistible. He lives the poetry that he cannot write. The others write the poetry that they dare not realise.”

Pop music has a roll of honour of self-harming caricatures of genius – contributing to the dozens of suicides, overdoses and the rest. I never understood why self-destructive behaviour somehow equals authenticity. That these people are so overwhelmingly possessed by the spirit of their art that they are driven to do mad things seems absurd.

As onlookers, why exactly do we need to feed vicariously on the excesses of stars? To watch Amy Winehouse descend into a tragically early grave? Why does a sense of onrushing doom, lend authenticity?

Anyway thanks to my friend Janet I stopped being a genius. Gradually I moved out of the bedsit, and came to a series (of then) painful compromises that allowed me to take full time work and earn some cash.

After all Shakespeare, Michelangelo and Mozart all managed to keep the wolf from the door.

Not that they were geniuses mind you.

Categories
Criticism Poetry

Coleridge and Dejection

Re-reading T.S.Eliot’s the Use of Poetry and the Use of Criticism, specifically his essay about Wordsworth and Coleridge. Here Eliot makes a memorable assessment of Coleridge.

…for a few years he (Coleridge) had been visited by the Muse (I know of no poet to whom this hackneyed metaphor is better applicable) and thenceforth was a haunted man; for anyone who has ever been visited by the Muse is thenceforth haunted.

Although Eliot distances himself from the idea of a Muse, by calling it a hackneyed metaphor, it’s easy to understand intuitively what he means. Having a more pedestrian approach, I think it more likely that he was not abandoned by a Muse, but instead possessed by exhaustion and the burnout caused by drug addiction, persistent poverty and illness.

Eliot says Dejection: an Ode is “one piece of his formal verse which in its passionate self-revelation rises almost to the level of great poetry.” This is slightly damning it with faint praise. But as I’d not read for many years, I discovered it to be heartbreakingly lovely in parts.

There was a time when, though my path was rough,
This joy within me dallied with distress,
And all misfortunes were but as the stuff
Whence Fancy made me dreams of happiness:
And fruits, and foliage, not my own, seemed mine.

It is the ‘not my own’ which is the pin in the balloon here. I am also drawn to a passage about the wind, which shows another glimpse of Coleridge’s trademark opiatically Gothic imagination. This is a hellish vision that would not be out of place in Dante. The poem is dated 4th April 1802 but this is a nightmare Spring in which hope is absent.

Hence Viper thoughts, that could around my mind
Reality’s dark dream!
I turn from you, and listen to the wind,
Which long has raved unnoticed. What a scream
Of agony by torture lengthened out
That lute sent forth! Thou Wind, that rav’st without

Mad Lutanist! who in this month of showers,
Of dark-brown gardens, and of peeping flowers,
Make’st Devil’s yule, with worse than wintry song…

‘Tis of the rushing of a host in rout,
With groans, of trampled men with smarting wounds-
At once they groan with pain, and shudder with the cold!
But hush! There is a pause of deepest silence!
And all that noise, as of a rushing crowd,
With groans and tremulous shudderings–all is over–

The poem ends with him picturing the woman he loves, and wishing gentle sleep on her, after a vision of a lost girl “Upon a lonesome wild”. All rather traumatic stuff, written long after the Muse was supposed to have packed its bags.