Archive | October, 2009

Poetry in unusual places

30 Oct

The Scottish Parliament Outer Wall

The Outer Wall of The Scottish Parliament

Oh those politicians, they do like to liven up their speeches with a little quote from a poem or a song.  Heard this week in The Scottish Parliament was Bill Wilson an SNP MSP for the West of Scotland, quoting from not one, but two poems.  Firstly Walter Wingate

Sirs, row in; ye may as weel
Fish till a’ the licht is lost
Fish till day begins to speel
Ye’ll get naething but a hoast.

And secondly, that old favorite William Topaz MaGonagle.

A pathetic tale of the sea I will unfold
Enough to make one’s blood run cold.

The debate in which Mr Wilson was speaking was on the Marine (Scotland) Bill, which I am sure you will all be pleased to hear passed at Stage One.  If you are interested enough to read Mr Wilsons speech it can be found at The Scottish Parliament Official Report.  A Lump in the Throat will keep you informed of any further poetic outpourings in the devolved body.


A false decline?

27 Oct

heartupcloseThe decline of poetry has been much written and talked about.  How do we get more people to read poetry?  How do we get more children to turn onto poetry?  However in reading some of the commentary about this so-called decline I did start to wonder if poetry really was in decline, or if what is really in decline is one certain type of poetry, and its sales.

One piece from last years Times Educational Suppliment by the head of The Literacy Trust got me thinking.  He claimed that the decline in the children’s poetry market could be blamed on a lack of primary teachers who appreciate verse, and the projection of adults prejudices about poetry onto children.

Firstly I am a little reticent to lay all the blame at the poor primary teachers door, as far as I can make out they have to start putting children through exams from the moment the little one’s hang up their In The Night Garden raincoats.   Secondly while I agree with much of what he says in the article, and wholeheartedly support the promotion of poetry through multiple means to both children and adults alike, I find one big problem with the whole base assumption.

Mainly the premise that decline can be measured wholly in book sales.  Now for those who actually sell books, and for those who have had a collection published, this matters, of course it matters, I have no wish to see bookshops shut, or people stop buying volumes of poetry.  But can sales really equate to appreciation and enjoyment?

There is a concept in modern economics of the GNH.  Instead of measuring a countries wealth in GDP, Gross Domestic Product, it could be measured in Gross National Happiness.  Imagine how different, politics, schools, banks, whole infrastructure of our lives would be if  the main concern of our society was the “happiness” of all its members, rather than the accumulation of wealth for a few.

I would propose that we look not at the sales of poetry but how much poetry influences the individual reader and their society.  I believe that if we chose to look at poetry in this way we will find it robust, vigorous and full of vim.

If the only poem a person ever reads is WH Audins Stop All The Clocks (and they discovered it through Four Weddings) many may considered that individual has an impoverished appreciation of verse.  However if that one poem gave them great comfort at times of grief, if they passed that poem on to others in the hope that it would similarly help them and if that poem stayed with them until the very day it would be read at their own funeral, having inspired and comforted them their whole life – perhaps we should call that a success for poetry.  Maybe we should be pleased one person could be so wholeheartedly touched by poem, rather than being concerned if they went on to buy the associated merchandise.

Poets are meant to be radicals.  So perhaps those of us who don’t make a living by running a book shop should revise our standard of success.  Not how much have I sold, but how has my work touched others, has one line comforted my reader, made her laugh, made her think, made her see the world in a new way?  Did she read it out loud to others?  Did they momentarily lift their heads away from the TV screen and listen and agree?  Did it come to rest somewhere in side, was it gathered up and kept in their hearts for another day?  Most importantly, is that enough?  Is that a concept of success I can live and write with?

Post script:  I absolutly hold the right to revise my opinion should I ever have a book published.

Solid words

20 Oct


There appears to have been an explosion of concrete poetry in Edinburgh over the autumn months, in the form of talks, discussions and exhibitions. Last month I started taking an evening class at Edinburgh University in experimental poetry forms, mainly concrete and found poetry. I have had no previous experience with either of these forms, and suddenly they are appearing all over the city in which I live.

Found poetry has been, so far, a highly enjoyable experience for me, it’s a kind of linguistic collage, it can turn your surroundings, the books you read, the signs you see, into something new. You are able once again to take a childish delight in discovering the world around you. That is not to say that it is easy, it can be extremely challenging, but I would recommend at least trying it once to every aspiring poet. It improves your observation, stretches you imagination, and insists on you exploring new ways to find meaning.

Concrete poetry on the other hand I have found much more difficult. Firstly I was not able to work out if it really is poetry, or if it is visual art. I came to the conclusion that it was definitely a type of art, however, could it be poetry at the same time? It stretches my traditional ideas of what a poem is. But that always been the part of the point of anything new, to make us question our assumptions? I found myself wondering if my definition of what a poem was is too narrow minded? Am I open enough to new ideas? or am I following blindly in a rut worn by generations? These are still questions I am contemplating.

One of the first things that put me off concrete poetry was that fact that a lot of it appears to be self consciously clever and lacking in emotional resonance. I have always considered poems to be difficult linguistic puzzles, for which there could be several right answers or none at all, and definitely many wrong answers, with few rules to explain the game. The concrete poem takes this to a higher level. At first many of them appeared little better than word searches with the extra letters taken out. When the class were shown one of the floral poems of Mary Ellen Solt, and while most of them cooed over it I just could not bring myself to join in.

However my opinion has started to change particularly thanks to one poem by Ian Hamilton Finlay. One example of which is shown above and is currently on display at the Scottish Poetry Library. At first this may just look like a jumble of words. However I would encourage anyone who feels that way to spend a little more time with it. By using shape and colour Finlay has manged to subvert all our assumptions about what a poem is. This poem by passes the intellect that we are so used to using when reading poetry and speaks purely to our instinct, our heart, our innate knowledge of the world.

Another of the strengths of concrete poetry is its accessibility. It was, and still is, a truly international movement. Thanks to its simplicity I have been able to read poems in Spanish and Japanese (I feel the form is very suited the Japanese), something I would have never been able to do before with a more traditional form, without years of language lessons.

I feel that my exploration into concrete poetry will certainly influence my work, the shape of my words is something I will be much more conscious of. It has been really exciting, and very challenging to be introduced to forms I had never known about previously. Not only will it strengthen my work, but it has also stimulated me to ask some important questions about my assumptions and beliefs surrounding poetry.

For more about concrete poetry in and around the city of Edinburgh check out the SPLs listings.

A poem begins…

13 Oct

The title of my blogg is taken from a quote by Robert Frost

A poem begins as a lump in the throat, a sense of wrong, a homesickness, a lovesickness.

This quote stood out to me, mainly for it’s physicality.  In it Frost is not just seeing a poem as something ethereal, something of the mind or emotions, things unquantifiable, but as something all to physical.  I can well remember the feeling as a child of trying so hard to hold my tears back that the lump in my throat began to hurt.

The birth of a poem here is something that can be discomforting, painful.  He goes on to describe it as a “a sense of wrong”.  He does not let us know if this is a righteous sense of wrong, or the unease and discomfort that we all feel at points in our lives.  It is also describes as “a homesickness, a lovesickness”.  These are both things that while easy to cast in a romantic light, are all too painful for those who experience them, and can come directly from that sense of wrong previously mentioned.  It is wrong that s/he does not love me.  It is wrong that they are not here.  It is wrong that I am not there. These are all states that can vary in their degree of painfulness, but are all painful, and will all be experienced by most feeling human beings.

I enjoy any description of  what a poem is that does not contain the words truth, beauty, soul 0r anything vaguely related to sun sets.  Mainly because once you start writing poetry, and I mean seriously writing poetry, you find it is excruciatingly difficult.  If it was easy, everyone would be doing it.