Wednesday, 27 October 2010

Other people's poetry – Mike Venner

I've already mentioned once or twice that I've not been best friends with poetry this year. You hear all this stuff about poetry helping in hard times but this year, with my Mum dying and all that, I have found other people's poetry mostly really hard-going in all honesty. Maybe it's a childish reaction ('why are none of these people writing about my marvellous mother? Idiots!'), maybe my head is just too full of other stuff to take in other people's complicated thought patterns and rhythms just now... but whatever it is I'm afraid I've just been finding reading other people's poetry a bit of a drag in the last six months or so (listening to it though, interestingly, I've found much more bearable, stimulating and pleasurable... I am a sound person, it seems, but maybe we knew that already...).

Anyway, in a bid to reignite some love for reading poetry I dug out my old file of 'other people's poems that I like' earlier this week. I started compiling it over ten years ago and mainly it contains things photocopied from library books and such like (these days I am more likely to buy the books - partly because I have more money, maybe because I have more inclination...). The file has plenty of Larkin, some Roger McGough, some Liz Lochhead... but many more besides - all kinds of poems by all kinds of writers really. Some are by people with well known names (poetry-wise) and many are not and I'd have to say that that's pretty much the way I like it. I really don't feel that a well-known name means that much in poetry (not to me anyway...). Sure I can admire a Ted Hughes poem (for example) but do I really think his work is so superior to a million minor/obscure poets? No. I don't. So much poetic success is to do with right place, right time, right amount of application... I think. I really do believe that most of us have at least one good poem in us (and more than that if we work hard at it). We like to hype people up (it's just how we work somehow...'the best Scottish poet', 'the Nobel Prize winner' etc.) but if we strip away the hype I don't believe there is such a big difference between the skills and abilities of poets from all over the success spectrum. And I know there are poets and poetry fans who would disagree strongly with all that! Some would have me sent to the poetry gallows for such heresy!

Somewhere in my file I came across a poem I'd copied from an anthology ('Anvil New Poets 2' 1995 – ed. Carol Ann Duffy). I hardly remember the book now but I can remember why I liked this poem enough to put it in the file. The poet's name wasn't known to me at all and yet still I liked these words – very much. See what you think:

When My Ship Comes In

At last it was on the horizon, a big three-islander, and it was
coming in.

I waited on the sand with the sandflies pricking my ankles. I
smiled. My ship.

Still it came, but as it came somehow it wasn't getting any

Perhaps it had stopped. No, I can see it clearer now, rigging
and wash.

I could almost make out the captain, red in the face from sun
and yelling.

I waited, and still it came, clearer, frothing at the bow, getting
no bigger.

I had only to wait, so I waited, and my ship came in, shrinking
and shrinking.

The tide washed it right up to my feet. I picked it up. Shook
the sea out.

Held it to my ear to hear the captain's hello. Listened hard. No
hello. No captain.

Carefully I returned it to the sea and shoved it off and watched
it leave.

Slow at first, and then full ahead, making a coot's wake, a
swan's wake,

ship's wake, ship's wake, and soon it was miles away, growing
as it went.

by Mike Venner

'Anvil New Poets 2' 1995 is still available by the way (here). It costs £8.95 and other poets in the anthology include Alice Oswald and Kate Clanchy (middling to huge names in English poetry).

I tracked Mike Venner down online and quickly realised that some of you may already know him as he lives in Ireland and is one of the owners of Dingle Bookshop. The shop produces poetry postcards and some of these feature Mike's poems (including 'When My Ship Comes In'). Coincidentally blogger and irregular Poetry Bus rider Pure Fiction sent me some of these cards earlier this year (small world...). Mike also writes plays and is writer-in-residence for Beehive Theatre Company. I did get Mike's permission to reproduce this poem. Cheers Mike!

Hope you enjoy the poem and I'll be back for the Halloween Poetry Bus (driven by Liz 'the ghost' Gallagher) at the weekend. I'll be wearing a truly terrifying costume. You have been warned.

Image above borrowed from here.



deemikay said...

I'd like to believe in creative relativism ("everyone can create as well as everyone else") but I can't... Poetry is no different to photography, painting, any-other-art-form. And if someone consistently churns out photos or paintings that are regarded by lots of people as great, then surely there's something great to be regarded about them?

If someone consistently sings better than someone who only ever sang as good once do we say they're equal? I'd say not...

But all a matter of opinion, of course. :)

(This is the first time I've commented on a blog - or done anything bloggy, in fact - in weeks and weeks and weeks!)

deemikay said...

PS I like the ship poem. :)

Rachel Fox said...

I didn't quite say that if you reread the post. I said most people have at least one good poem in them - that's different. And as for the 'greats' many of their poems are really great and how many get marked 'great' just because they are the work of a supposed great poet?

Obviously some people can come up with a bigger body of successful work than others... but I think a lot of it is to do with the 'once you've got the big name everything you do automatically gets the "good" stamp'. Likewise if you haven't got a big name then everything you do automatically gets the 'who are they anyway?' stamp in some quarters...

Glad you like the poem. Maybe I shouldn't have lumbered it with the rest of this post! Just some stuff on my mind.


Rachel Fox said...

And speaking of other artforms, writing poetry isn't so different. Take photography - most people can pick up a camera and come up with some good photos, some time. Maybe it's luck, maybe it's particular interests, maybe it's totally random (as the teenagers used to say)...but they can do it and their good photos are no less valid than a great photographer's. Not to me anyway. And consistency isn't so important, is it? Isn't it about the individual photos? We're so hung up on reputation.

deemikay said...

Oh, I know you were meaning one-offs. But I still like to think that, say, a band who only ever did one great show aren't quite as good as a band who toured for 5 years solid doing great show after great show. Should they be spoken about in the same bracket?

I like to believe (maybe it is nothing more than a belief) that there *are* actually things called great poets out there. And I like to find them for myself. :) Maybe it's also just that I've never (and I mean *never*) accepted that peer pressure exists - it's just weak-will. I've never given in to what the big boys say, never done what they've suggested just because they suggested. Never read their "great poet" just because they say they're a "great poet". I do things my own way. (I never gave in to peer pressure as a child either. Hence why I was never a teenage drunk.)

And here I'd like to be extremely controversial and strongly disagree that most people can come up with good photographs - I've looked at lots and lots and lots of photos in my life and most folk can't!

A little flick through (sorry people!) some photo albums on facebook will reveal plenty of consistently bad photographers!

Sigh... photo-snob David has stepped out of the shadows. :(

Rachel Fox said...

We always knew he was in there. And I don't agree about the photos - but then we have very different taste. And I was a teenage drunk but not because of peer pressure, I assure you. I drank because it was brilliant fun, because it was hugely liberating (from a world full of peer pressure!), because it allowed me to do things (sexual ones mainly) that I wouldn't have dared to do otherwise because nice girls don't.

And yes I would give as much value to that one good tour as to five years of good tours. Keeping up being good is admirable but it's that one great night (every time it happens) that matters - not the reputation, the keeping it up. I think.

And obviously I too look for greatness sometimes...but I feel we have become a bit obsessed with it. It's too much about the career, the name, the headline billing at the poetry festival... Superstars is all we understand...


deemikay said...

I think we're just going to have to disagree...

deemikay said...

PS Superstars mean absolutely nothing to me...

deemikay said...

I've calmed down.

Most photographs are just photographs, neither good nor bad. They just are. Same with most poems, most paintings, most songs, most everything.

Most things are just mediocre. If I were to be the sort to make up statistics on the spot I'd say 98.6% of everything is mediocre. That leaves 1.4% that is good or bad - 0.7% a piece. Maybe my standards are set too high - I'd rather that than too low.

And if I spot something I think is shiny and nice and good - I'll smile. And if someone can produce lots of things that make me smile - I'll like them. If they can do it a lot, I'll call them great.

Most things are mediocre (even carpe diem). The aim in life should be to hunt out those things that aren't - celebrate what's great. That's my argument.

Now, I'm not going to comment again.

Rachel Fox said...

Standards can be so different of course! One man's mediocre is another woman's bloody fantastic. But I think we've been down this comment road before...

Marion McCready said...

I know what you mean, in the poetry scene who you know seems to make all the difference sometimes. Then there's the debate between popularism and greatness. I think personal taste accounts for far more than people like to admit. But do I think there are genuinely 'Great' poets, which isn't to say everything that flows from their pen is liquid gold but that their personal style/voice takes the world by storm and produces decades of poets writing in their derivative. I liked the ship poem too! :)

Rachel Fox said...

Maybe... or maybe that's just the way the tide has turned at that particular point and other people would have moved and swum off in that same direction anyway. It's possible that sometimes people get credit for more influence than they deserve...isn't it? Take Plath (as I'm sure you might...) how much is change in women's writing in the late 20th century really her influence and how much to do with other factors (feminism, changed opportunities, different social attitudes, access to education and so much more)? I'm not a Plath expert (so this might not be a great example) but you get my drift. We take some of these 'facts' for granted ('so and so changed the course of poetry...') but they are only theories. Aren't they? Going to bed now..fact!


Niamh B said...

Can definitely see why that one caught your attention alright.

It is such a crazy subjective thing, poetry. I've a little bit wobbly on it myself of late... fell off my poem a day wagon, just that it lost a bit of lustre for me... hoping, thanks to a recent great reading that I went to (there's the sound again) plus a gradual rise in energy levels, that it's on its way back.
Anyways thanks for posting this one! (in the absence of knowing how else to finish this comment)

BarbaraS said...

Wow, I was in that bookshop last year! I remember the postcards. This is a cracker of a poem, well done for all the background info, this has been a really useful post! :)

Rachel Fox said...

And here come the Irish! Good to hear it's not just me, Niamh, struggling with the big P (as it were). Glad you like the poem.

And Barbara...long time no see! Good to have your face and words back here again.


Emerging Writer said...

I totally agree that right time, right place and preserverence are ever so important, not just in poetry of course, also work, love, maybe even chocolate.

I read your Poetry Bus poem at the launch yesterday, so you were there in spirit (mine's a gin)

Rachel Fox said...

Oh thanks EW! That feels great to have sort-of been there!

Pure Fiction said...

Thanks for letting me know about this - it really is a small world. I heard Mike Venner read this a few years back - it's a great poem, and he reads it incredibly well.

I do think, like you, that if you have a strong enough inclination to do something like write poetry and if you try hard enough and devote enough time to it, then almost anyone can produce a few good poems.
With a lot of collections I've read recently you kind of want to ask the poet, why did you put that in? I'm left blown away by one or two, while a lot of the other stuff reads like pagefillers.

Rachel Fox said...

Album tracks...

Rachel Fox said...

But yes, to respond more thoughtfully, most good singing teachers will say that almost everyone can sing (even if they don't know it) and I think the same is true of writing poems (we can most of us write a poem at some point that some people will like/admire). Language belongs to all of us after all (or almost all of us) and we can all use it in different ways (or learn to). I think sometimes the reason people want the elusive greats so much is (a) because they want to be one of them, (b) because they really like worshipping or (c) both of these reasons combined. However that's just a theory and not a terribly serious one.

The Solitary Walker said...

I like the poem.

Re. the debate: of course, there are lots of good poems out there, many by unknown, unpublished writers. But I do believe that the recognized, 'great' poets - whether Ted Hughes, Philip Larkin, Sylvia Plath or whoever - have a consistency, a continuity of output, an originality, a field of reference and a distinctive voice which sets them apart from the merely proficient and the flash-in-the-pan, which is what many poets are.

Of course all this matters not one jot, because, as far as I'm concerned, the more people write poetry or take photographs or paint pictures or engage in any other demanding but deeply satisying, self-expressive, creative artistic activity, the better. All good.

I suppose some poets can get lazy, and trade on their name - but any below-par volumes would soon be savaged by the critics.

Rachel Fox said...

The greats...of those 3 you mention the only one who would go in my personal great box (because that is all it is) would be PL and even then I know that I am just biased towards him for a hundred different, not all terribly academic, reasons. There is his good writing, yes, but then a good part of what I like about him is his whole attitude (comedy from misery, misery from comedy etc.) and that is not really his writing so much as is his outlook (he is, oddly, 'my kind of person').

As for the others...whilst I know that others adore the work of Hughes and Plath very often their poems just make me want to hear the spoof versions (and often I think they'd be the same...).

Funny you mention those 3 - remember I got them all into poem... here.


The Weaver of Grass said...

I love that poem too Rachel.
I am sure the muse will return. The death of your Mum has obviously had a profound effect on your creative powers - we can only use the artistic side of our nature on one thing at a time, so be patient, I am sure all will be well. Remember to call if you come this way. Maybe lunch next time?

Rachel Fox said...

It's not really my creative powers, Weaver, as I am still writing fairly regularly (thanks to the Bus quite often). It's more that I have been struggling to find other poetry interesting (on the page anyway)! In fact I've been reading less than usual all round.

Totalfeckineejit said...

Terrifying costume? Tell me it's not a Liverpool football shirt! AAAaaarrrgghh!
I likes that ship coming in poem and all the rest of your post and don't you really have to love poetry to hate it sometimes? That's the excuse I give myself. Currently I hate anything over 30 lines.
And as for other people's poetry Kate Dempsey did indeed not only read her splendid poem 'Crewe' last night but also your splendid poem 'Home is where' both splendidly! Splendid!

Rachel Fox said...

No, no football shirts...

Great Bus news. Much splendidness.


Rachel Fox said...

And all this talk of greatness reminds me of this song (the 'just a band' section).

Frances said...

I agree with you Rachel. For example I thought Michael Longley's choice of 1st 2nd and 3rd in the Poetry London competition (I presume by little known writers) were every bit as good as some of the works in the same issue by the 'known names'. If not better.

I like the ship poem too. It's extremely clever without being self-consciously up itself and it's oh so true.

Rachel Fox said...

Wasn't one of those poems by a friend of our Titus, Frances? I think so. Vivien Jones? I agree with you - the divide between the well-known and the obscure poets is not what some of the well-known/editors/critics think it is!

So glad you're all liking the poem. Though obviously I might not have come across it without the (well-known CAD putting it in this anthology...).