Tuesday, 3 March 2009

By my bed, in my head

I'm reading lots of different poetry books just now...more at once than I would normally...they're all up there by the bed and on the desk upstairs...probably dancing around the room when I'm not there. I know some of you read heaps of poetry all the time but I usually read mine in small doses, spread out over time, mixed in with novels and newspaper articles and more. There are lots of reasons for this current change: (a) I've been book-shopping more than usual of late and most of that shopping has been done in the poetry section (Borders in Dundee mainly), (b) I've got to one of those can't-read-any-more-novels-for-a-while points (Patrick Gale's 'Notes from an Exhibition' that I picked up in a charity shop recently just about finished me off...explanation on request) and (c) well, I'm just in the mood for poetry I suppose (I'm not always). I say this a lot but I really do like all kinds of poets...like to try them anyway...professors of literature...street poets writing directly onto pavements with chalk...I really like to go in without blinkers, if I can. For me it really is just about how a poet puts their words together...does it do anything to my brain that's interesting or not? And then if they end up saying something interesting too...well, then...hurray, hurray, hurray...jackpots, flashing lights, dancing on tables...

So, this is what I'm reading (in alphabetical order) – I'm not going to analyse each book too much just now...just a few random thoughts:

Simon Armitage 'Selected Poems'
Bought full price in a bookshop!
Armitage is one of those poets who I feel I...well...should like (he's very Northern English, he's my generation, he's a big music fan etc.) but who I've somehow never really got into, if you know what I mean. The book of his I've enjoyed most so far is the non-fiction prose 'All Points North' but I thought it was time to give his poems another go so I got a ticket for one of his StAnza events and bought this book to prepare! I'm reading it a little at a time and I am warming to it (little by little) as I go. So far the poem that has made me go back and read it again most is one called 'At Sea' (from 1992's 'Kid'). I'm not sure he'll ever be my favourite poet or anything (why is that...is he just too nice?) but I am enjoying getting to know his work better.

Wendy Cope 'Serious Concerns'
Bought full price in a bookshop (possibly with birthday book tokens though)
In the days when we were much more skint I used to do a lot of photocopying library books and this was one of the books I copied quite a lot. Wendy Cope (who moans about people getting poems free on-line) would probably disapprove of that kind of behaviour. However now we are less skint I can go mad and buy books that I have grown to love (like this one from 1992) so I'm afraid that shows the silliness of all those arguments (including yours, Ms Cope, much as I love you). Still, those differences aside, I do thoroughly enjoy and admire the way she combines humour and devastating observation, the way she switches effortlessly between different styles, the way she sidesteps literary fashion...so many things about her writing. She may not the be the critics' choice...but honestly who cares? (Not I!).

Sophie Hannah – 'Pessimism for Beginners'
Got this one in a book swap.
I've only ever read Hannah's poems in anthologies so I wanted to try...oh you know...a full book. I was also interested by the title because 'Living for beginners' was one title I considered for my recent publication (and I suppose we are not that different as poets...though of course she is better known, more successful, more experienced...minor stuff like that). A lot of the poems in here are witty (which I get accused of too) but her sense of humour and subject matter is a bit English middle class par excellence for me (jokes about getting an au-pair etc.). Maybe if I'd grown up in, say, North London instead of Middlesbrough I might have written more like this...who knows? Still, I do like the book and there's lots of clever, crisp writing - my favourite so far being 'Round Robin' (having a go at those ridiculous xmas letters). It's an easy target but she does it well with lines like “Timothy got his partnership and Claire her PhD / Which all reflects extremely well on Dorothy and me.”. There are plenty of layers to the book and I like her sharpness so I will be reading and rereading for a while yet.

By the way I got tickets for my Mum and me to see Sophie Hannah at StAnza but Hannah has cancelled so it will be Kevin Cadwallender instead (Fri 20th March, 1pm in St Andrews, Fife). My Mum doesn't really like poetry and was only coming with me because Sophie Hannah is a bit famous and also writes non-poetry books that are on sale in Smiths/Waterstones etc. (sorry Kevin...mothers, what can you do?) so if anyone wants the spare ticket just let me know. I should point out that it is a 'Senior' ticket but maybe because of the cancellation the Byre will go easy on us and let anyone use it...but this is all getting a bit Blind Date...I'll move on...

Adrian Mitchell
Odd one...I don't own any Mitchell books and never see any in shops. I looked online and there are so many different books that I don't know which one to go for first. I listened to the BBC R4 'Poetry Please' Mitchell special the other week (and loved it!) and may write about that soon but in the meantime if anyone wants to offer Mitchells as swaps or point me in a direction of anything that would be much appreciated.

Don Paterson 'The Eyes' (a version of Antonio Machado)
On loan from local library
I mentioned this book a few posts ago. I keep meaning to get out the 'Poesías Completas' of Machado's that is up on my bedroom bookshelf (along with lots of other books I haven't looked at for years...) but I haven't got to it yet. In the meantime Paterson's version is certainly how I remember Machado...sad as sad can be...lots of emptiness. Gotta love it.

Don Paterson 'Landing Light'
Bought full price from a shop (Again! Am I splashing out these days or what!)
Unlike with the Armitage, straightaway several of the poems in here switched lights on for me...flick, flick, flick all over the place. Bitterness, tragic tones, cynicism, spiky intelligence, really perfectly targeted arrows to the heart...yep, that's me, signed, sealed and sucked in. So far my favourite is 'The Rat' (although incidentally if you go and read the poem via the link I've put there you can see that Paterson calls it a “not very good poem about a very good poem”). Oh...what does he know! Plus he must have thought it was good once...even if only for a second or two.
I might need a course in Classics to appreciate some of the other poems in this book more fully...except I'm just a bit distracted with other things right now (well seeing as you ask – family life, social life, 'Sopranos' series 2 , about a million different CDs, reading too much bloody poetry...). Maybe next year.

Stevie Smith 'Selected Poems'
Bought full price from a shop
I had this book from the library a while back and always wanted my own copy. It contains some real nonsense and some real sense (sometimes disguised as nonsense). I will be writing a big ol' post on this poet at some point soon. Anyone else a fan?

Wallace Stevens 'Poems selected by John Burnside'
Bought (again!) full price from a shop
Because I kept reading that he was the best poet ever and I hadn't read any of his work (ever). I am liking the poems in this book...but so far more in a line by line way than in a whole poem way. I'm not really ready to go into this one any deeper than that right now. Maybe more later.

So that's it for this broadcast from Plebs read Poetry Badly. Come back next week to see me compare and contrast T.S.Eliot classics with Lily Allen's song lyrics. As if I would....


swiss said...

you may want to wile away an hour with this

deemikay said...

"Some real nonsense and some real sense - sometimes disguised as nonsense."

And of course some real nonsense disgused as sense!

I like Stevie. (Ever since we did The River God in third year at school.)

Armitage? He's ok, don't mind him at all. Cope? Not really read much by her. Hannah? Don't recall ever reading anything by her. Adrian Mitchell I love. Don Paterson we've spoken about before...

And Wallace Stevens? Like Stevie: "Some real nonsense and some real sense - sometimes disguised as nonsense." Which is no bad thing.

deemikay said...

PS I think I might have to contrast TSE with LA... perhaps fun to be had. ;)

Rachel Fox said...

Swiss - maybe later today.

David - (it's my brother's name and I never see him...I think I just like using it) yes...as I typed it I wondered about the TSE/LA essay potential. You should have seen some of my uni lit essays...fairly experimental...fairly low marks too.

Marion McCready said...

I've got a little Cope book, which I love, full of parodies of other poets. I think Stevens is going to be one of those treasures that I'll keep coming back to rather than swallowing the book in one go.

Rachel Fox said...

Glad you like Cope too, Sorlil. She's one of those poets who attracts phrases like 'I like some of her stuff but...' (and I suppose the next words are ones like 'a lot of it's very light'). She may have some light exteriors but she has some pretty heavy and/or dark in hidden corners too. I've been reading her on and off for years.

deemikay said...

I've put a couple of Wendy Cope's poems over at my Noise and Riot thingy... including her Wasteland Limericks, which may be the ideal way to connect TS Eliot to Lily Allen (sp?) :)

A moan I had a wee while ago is that there isn't enough light poetry in the world... Everything has to be a work of art. Which is depressing when you think about it.

Rachel Fox said...

Indeed. And who's to say a supposedly light poem can't be a work of art anyway? There's an old Chinese proverb (that I've just made up) that says 'Sometimes they that seek hardest for the deep never leave the shallow end'.

Liz said...

Have read the Sophie Hannah one and the two Don Pattersons - and got totally hooked on all 3 of them...I know what you mean about the poetry books all lying hither and tither...I think mine might get up to some antics while I'm not about as well...(dancing too maybe... ; ))

And 'hurrah' on the successful mc-ing and performing night.

deemikay said...

Sorry, I should have written "has to be a Work of Art". Those capitals make all the difference, don-cha-know....

Those Wasteland Limericks have more genius in them than, oooh, lots of things.

Ken Armstrong said...

About that ticket, I could fly over and dress up 'old' -flat cap, pipe, that sort of thing. but I won't do old-lady-drag for a poetry reading.

Once was enough.

Rachel Fox said...

Thanks, Liz. Looking forward to hearing about your reading/performing experiences in Ireland!

David - I don't even know why you're wasting all this time here when you could be off writing Works of Art yourself somewhere. 'Ode to a ukele' and all that.

And Ken. Bizarre secret assignation with you in dyed grey hair and tweed? Sounds fun. There's a story in there somewhere for you...

deemikay said...

"My ukelele little lady
muse in ol' Hawaii
shimmies out alohas
then she glitters out goodbye-ee."

Something like that? A Work of Staggering Genius if ever I've read one...

(Can you guess that today's a rather boring office day?)

Rachel Fox said...

How do you think TS Eliot felt in the bank all that time?

Now I've got some cooking, hoovering and taking girl to dance classes to do. It's just so glamorous. You've no idea.


Jim Murdoch said...

Christ, I've been sitting with the same chapbook for about two months. I know it's the way my head is right now but I can never manage more than two or three and I'm done.

The Solitary Walker said...

Heard that 'Poetry Please' Mitchell special too. It was great.

Rob said...

Stevens line by line? Seems like a fair way to appreciate him. He can often be quite difficult. The flip side is that you can never exhaust his poetry - there's always more in there to appreciate. Pennies keep dropping even after years. I know Katy E-B reads Harmonium (Stevens's first collection) from start to finish every year. I'm always dipping into his poetry.

deemikay said...

Banking in post-WW1 Britain would have been tedious in the extreme... me thinks me lucky.

Colin Will said...

There's a new - sadly last - Adrian Mitchell collection coming from Bloodaxe soon. In the meantime I keep coming back to his 'All Shook Up' collection (2001 I think). Your Mum might like Kevin - I think he'll be great. I remember spotting the Machado Museum in Segovia, and the tourist guide being surprised that a non-Spaniard had heard of him, but I like DP's versions. Wallace Stevens constantly interests me. No matter how often I've read a poem, I find more on re-reading.

Rachel Fox said...

I go out for the night (to see an excellent band called Fribo at the folk club) and look at all you gentleman callers! Far too many to answer now...and it's nearly midnight again. But I do feel honoured by your presences!

All I will say is - thanks for the book tip Colin and...you've not met my Mum, have you! She once said to me 'but dear...you could do so much better than poetry.' Take some time to digest that one...like a Stevens poem...so much in it...


Kat Mortensen said...

I commend you on you ability to absorb so much - I am ecstatic when I manage to read a full novel (I've already completed 2 so far this year, so I'm doing well for a change).
Actually, the one I'm currently reading is called "The Archivist" and has a back-story about the life of T.S. Elliot, so I feel I'm doing double duty with it and I really like the book.


Rachel Fox said...

Hey, Kat. Am I absorbing? Sometimes...sometimes I'm just wandering about and having a look round! It's like the Stevens...I don't think of it in terms of 'difficult'...I just approach it the same as I would anything...what works for me, what doesn't, what grabs my interest, what doesn't (and why doesn't it), what's lasted, what hasn't, what will last a bit longer, what won't, what needs some background information to work well, what doesn't. And I don't think that only 'difficult' or more obviously dense poems bear reading and rereading...sometimes the simplest little poem can have layers that you're not necessarily aware of at first read. (And sometimes not even the poet knows about them either...I always think that poems are far cleverer than poets on the whole...).

It's weird reading lots of different poets at the same time, I think. It probably does suit some people's heads (and how they work)...but I'm not sure if it suits mine. I have a lot of voices in my head all the time anyway...maybe I might be heading towards overcrowding just now. Interesting to experiment though (to a point...).

I was a big T.S. Eliot fan at school but I have to say I have kept off him as an adult on the whole. Not to say that I won't read some more some time...it just hasn't called out to me of late. He never seems short of admirers or interest anyway!


Art Durkee said...

Stevens the Best Poet Ever? Ummmm, no. Influential and important, surely. At times brilliant. Certainly wrote some of the greatest individual poems of the 20th. C.

But also responsible, if you trace the lineage of modernist and postmodern poetry, for detaching meaning from words, leading ultimately to the poetic dead-ends of Language Poetry and some other "post-avant" styles. Stevens was really into words, and loved their sounds as well as their sense. I think he handled his materials well; but some of his followers have failed utterly, in my opinion, just as disciples often aren't as good as the master who inspired them.

Some poets, like Eliot, Stevens, and WCW, are now famous for having been influential and famous in their time. Rightly so. People still worship at their altars. But worship clouds judgment, i think. Reputations get inflated beyond reason. (Eliot's criticism, for example, is pretty elitist, and often pretty bad.) Personal taste gets ossified into deification, and the worshipping beings. It's the worshipping one needs to avoid, because it removes thought and discrimination from the equation.

I've read some Cope, but not enough to have a strong opinion either way. I'm interested in reading Mitchell, from what I've heard about his work.

Meanwhile, lots of other very good poets often go unknown, languishing in the shadows of the worshippers of Stevens, et al. Every so often on my blog I post an appreciation of a poet or artist; it always astounds me how many comments I get saying "I never heard of him/her before!"

Poets need to read a lot more poetry than they do. There's no better way to learn how to write poetry, either.

Thanks for sharing your list. It's good to do that every so often.

Art Durkee said...

Rachel writes:

"And I don't think that only 'difficult' or more obviously dense poems bear reading and rereading...sometimes the simplest little poem can have layers that you're not necessarily aware of at first read. (And sometimes not even the poet knows about them either...I always think that poems are far cleverer than poets on the whole...)."

Boy do I agree with this!

I still find writing haiku to be so simple yet so layered, that I keep working at it. Tremendous powers and layers can be unpacked from those little, little poems written by the haiku masters.

Rachel Fox said...

Thanks for these comments, Art - interesting and considered as ever.

It's still early days for me with W Stevens. I can see what others might get so excited about...not sure it will have quite that effect on me. We'll see...