With a busy year ahead – working on 2 new novels and a possible poetry collection and/or chapbook, plus the promotion of my new Wordcatcher titles as well as those of Original Plus authors, plus the editing of The Journal – I am not going to be blogging as regularly as I did in 2018. Nevertheless, here goes....
As before the most recent blog will be first, scroll down for those that will have gone before.
Good (writing) Intentions / The End of All Property / Readerly Expectations / The U.S. State of Fellatio / An Idiot's Guide to Poetry / Nuclear War 21stC Style / A set of characters for a possible novel of social manners / By way of a review / If it aint broke... / The Private[?] Lives of Authors & Painters / Bravery a Necessity / Missing / Self-analysis (after reading a Martin Stannard review...) / On reviewing new poetry and poetry reviewers / Another Beginning (Earth cleaned) / The knees of turkeys bend backwards to take them forwards / 1997 / Lies / On Heroes / More aspects of ageing - use of language? / Beginnings – Bricolage /
Good (writing) Intentions
Intention of writing has to result in its style. Academic writing it would seem sets out to name as many sources as its author is able. Such sources are intended to either validate her/his argument or to impress examiners, score points, even though in so doing they may very well make the writing otherwise inaccessible.
Writing that sets out to explain deliberately keeps itself simple. With no target readership in mind, other than the universal, and whether the writing is to explain the course of a convoluted love affair or how a minor political movement came to be, or even seeking to explain - and popularise - recent science, the writing must needs be simple, concepts readily understood.
So much for historical, for factual writing. Imaginative writing is not to so easy to categorise. Although again intention would seem to influence result.
Any imaginative writing, for instance, that sets out to seek universal acceptance is usually dead on the page, does not invite us onwards. New writing should be new; shockingly, abrasively, startingly new. Unless, another intention, the writing is meant solely for decoration. For self-decoration?
There is of course imaginative writing, poetry and/or prose, that can seem to have been made deliberately obscure. Usually it is writing that is intended to be admired, not dwelt in. But while motivations for such deliberate obfuscation may be manyfold, the reading of such depends on how cynical one's mood.
When open and receptive one can delight in, say, the logic of a poetry that is purely linguistic, associative. If cynical one sees it as verbal doodling, saying nothing. When such linguistic poetry fails to excite it is often because the attempt was to engage the reader solely on an intellectual level. Such writing rarely has any emotional content; and once an intellectual lesson is learnt we move greedily on. While emotions/sensations are returned to, re-examined.
Or, in cynical mode, one can see linguistic poetry, post-modernism especially as but a clever way of borrowing from others' work, not a white dissimilar from a DJ's sampling. But let us rejoice and call it ekphrastic. Or, when not cynical, one might view such borrowings as an exciting reshaping of the past, extending it into the present and remaking it relevant.
As a magazine editor I often find myself divining the source of a poem. If it's chummy and confidential, suggesting a shared experience, I suspect a workshop poem; and such poems often get no further than the workshop.
With tight and overworked poems I may look to the biographical note, and I will be unsurprised to find a recent MA graduate.
There is just so much writing for the sake of writing coming my way that it is always a pleasure to come across those who are bursting with something that has to be said. Maybe they don't know quite how it is to be said. Maybe it is the form itself needs to be shaped around the appropriate words, and what I am looking at is their one attempt thus far. That is the intention I look for, hope for, behind any writing.
There is no natural, no default human state so far as the concept of property goes. In most 'primitive' societies, the elements their enemy, their value systems grew from what was of benefit to the tribe. What was of value mutating into their morality.
So we find in a jungle tribe, where food is abundant, shelter unnecessary, but they are occasionally under threat from marauding beasts, little division of labour or regular sexual partnerships. All members look out for and after one another.
At the other extreme, a mountain people say, where for survival's sake flocks have to be moved from winter to summer pastures, and the women remain with the children but take on an 'extra' husband to help with the water-carrying, etcetera. In time this arrangement will become formalised.
Nomadic desert peoples on the other hand, traipsing after their flocks have mostly evolved a tent-erecting patriarchy. Again one that has favoured the tribe's survival.
Historically even here in Europe the concept of property was unknown to the medieval mind. Ordinary people owed loyalty - to clan or liege. Their land title was the gift of their monarch. But overall mutuality again: you support me and I'll reward you being the overarching concept. That reward being use of a piece of land just so long as your leader remained in favour.
Only when trade and usury were made respectable did who-owns-what - on a personal and private level - come to the fore. Which brings us abruptly to present day capitalism and the making of money from money.
Self-evidently capitalism has ignored, is continuing to ignore, the Easter Island escapade and our self-eating capitalism is about to self-destruct. Unfortunately for us alive now it is not just the one Easter Island that is going to be rendered uninhabitable by the unrestricted exploitation of its resources, but the whole of planet Earth.
As with Easter Island's bizarre beliefs growing out of its deforested death throes so too have the planet's death throes resulted in Earth's leaders becoming ever more extreme. Regardless of the social and environmental consequences notorious bankers and faceless CEOs continue to award themselves huge salaries and bizarre amounts as a 'bonus', while giving nothing back to the societies that allowed them to do this. Which has led to those, who are unable to participate in these extremes of selfishness, or despairing of it, to react mirror-wise in extreme fashion, seeking ways to destroy those societies.
But all too late to save a habitable planet Earth. As with the Easter Islanders we occupants will end up in the semi-ritualised killing of one another. Which has already begun... Who owns what becoming of increasingly less significance when what we 'own' gets so easily flooded or burnt down and there's only people left. What is of importance now is not property but the very survival of the species homo-not-so-sapiens.
It might seem at times that we, as readers, are being asked to witness only the sad lives of poets. While we, as readers, know that there must at one time have been at least one happy poet, and one moreover who elected to celebrate their joy in good verse, rather than in chirpy doggerel. Which, unfortunately, does seem to have been the main attempt at a happy poetry.
So why the prevalence of sad poetry?
Can't be that sad poems are meant to console the bereaved. For anyone devastated by the recent death of another a few words on a piece of paper can seem an insulting irrelevance.
Or could the reason be that poems so often seem to dwell on the sad simply because they have been written by someone sitting alone? Were all poems to be written in the cheerful company of workshops they would probably verge towards the whimsical - affording some amusement to one's neighbours on the day, and bewilderment to the rest of us.
The reading of poetry, for me, being such a unique experience, is why each poem deserves private contemplation, as opposed to a public, communally-received, performance. Written by someone sitting alone I believe that each poem is best read by someone sitting alone.
Generally, although possibly about death, poetry can be an affirmation of life, a belief in continuance. A reconciliation to death certainly, but telling us that we are alive now, that we too have our wee window in space/time, that we too can make our own experiences.
One definition of 'poetic sensibility' could be that it is to look at a subject and to see its birth and its death, its creation/destruction, and its not having been at all, and all at the same time. Even if, not on so grand a scale, the poem, indeed any work of art, does not seek to address the meaning of life, then it should at least seek to offer an understanding of some part of life. Possibly.
My literary hero Henry Miller was also much given to pondering this - why the U.S. public, his fellow U.S. citizens, were so taken with cocksucking, even to using cocksucking as a default insult. Especially when in everyday converse little mention is made of connilingus, clit-licking, and when all that can be meant by cocksucking is the taking of an erect penis into the mouth.
Even so the present U.S. President has been reported as saying, words to the effect, that a vagina is a nest of viruses. While previous occupants of the White House also appear to have preferred oral sex. That is themselves the one-sided recipients of cocksucking, rather than their having been naked participants in pleasure. Little mutuality in the U.S. of A.
Which is probably because the practise of sex in the U.S. of A, alleged 'Land of the Free,' has more to do with status, with having power over another, subjugation of the woman or the rent boy on their knees, than of a democratically entwined pair of conspirators in pleasure. Same for cougars enticing six-pack pool boys into their boudoirs.
This one-sidedness extends to public displays of nudity, the pole/lapdancing clubs for instance. A most peculiar look-don't-touch morality at play there, with the one article of female clothing being either a thong or a garter - for the tucking in of paper money. While the wriggle-dancing on laps results in the customer ejaculating into his pants.
The touring male strippers would seem to be as one-sided, but altogether less seedy, the female audiences more raucous than leering.
Post Henry Miller I'm given to wondering how much of present day U.S. sexual practise has been set by their film and TV sex, where the female, if in a covert workplace setting, is taken from behind (we can see both their faces); or if in a bedroom the female is practically always filmed on top and, if bra-less, her breasts swinging. Film-wise the missionary position is not attractive, the bedclothes go up and down, then a grunt and get off.
Another lasting curiosity of U.S. film and TV sex is that when a pair would seem, according to the narrative, to have had full-on sex, when they rise from the bedclothes both still have on all their underwear. Could this be a result of male lap-dancing experiences?
Regular readers of prose often claim to be ‘frightened’ of poetry, in that they are left uncertain how they should react to it, what the ‘proper’, the socially acceptable reaction should be to a poem. Those supposed acceptable responses made more difficult now by poetry overkill – there being so many poems of a similar standard being published or performed.
Unlike prose, which is what it describes and either does it well or fails so to do, a poem is a thing in itself. So when asked I have advised worried members of the reading public that they should look upon poems as cheeses. A Larkin poem say, a bit tart on the tongue, could be grated Parmesan. Quiet anecdotal poems, not designed to disturb, could be cottage cheese. In-yer-face poems, Paul Sutton’s say, could be a ripe goat’s cheese, not to everyone’s taste. For use of white space in a poem think Emmental or Gruyère. Wedges of blue cheese will of course be those poems part of a series, common threads running through them. A surrealist poem can be an unwrapped Camembert inside its wooden box; or a Saint Paulin, orange on the outside, rubbery white and tasteless within. My own, the better poems of those, I like to think of as brick-hard Cheddar, leave the palate tingling.
What of the wholly incomprehensible poem? With one of those what has to be borne in mind is that such could be the coded poetry of censored times/places and which require a historical/political/geographical context. A poem like that has difficulty being a thing itself and existing out of that time/place. Such a poem/cheese is therefore its packaging.
Alternatively the incomprehensible poem could be the work of an ‘experimental school’ or of a singular ‘poet as custodian of language’, the poet’s purpose there to explore the possibilities of language and to extend its range. Artisan cheese-makers obviously, and to be approached with a wary scepticism. These curds, this whey? Who’s fooling who?
Should any poem, after hours of open-minded study, remain uncategorized (cheese-wise), be still incomprehensible, then it has to be said that poems, like prose, like any other human artefact, can fail.
We had a few decades where the threat of global annihilation drifted to the back of the mind. Lately however, with so many autocratic right-wing governments having access to nuclear weaponry, the fear of nuclear war has once again become front and centre.
The proliferation of nuclear weaponry, the inability to come up with a 'balanced' approach to disarmament, the covert possession of nuclear weapons – especially by a state such as Israel with its preparedness to kill – means that all previous efforts at ridding the world of nuclear weapons are no longer feasible.
Post WW2, when it was only two sides that held nuclear weapons, if just one of those sides had taken the gamble and disarmed – they could first have built up their conventional forces to deter invasion – it would not only have left the other side morally deficient but would have left their having of nuclear weapons pointless.
That is supposing that all conflict is over territorial possession. Because even had the nuclear-armed side used their weaponry then all that they would have won would have been a depopulated and contaminated land. So could one side's nuclear disarmament have been taken as a sign of non-aggression if not peace.
Nor is it solely the latter spread of nuclear weaponry that has renewed the risk. It is the unstable nature of recent right-wing governments, their dependency on creating fear of others in order to win votes and so remain in power. That fear of itself can grow beyond their own power to control and can push those governments – the right-wing leaders are generally weak characters with a need to be liked/praised – into attacking whoever their 'others' are with their expensive and 'ultimate' weaponry.
Nor will this war be likely to end with the obliteration of just the one country. All of these recent right-wing, populist governments have sought to make allies of other right-wing gangster governments. Consequently once one nation is threatened alliances will be invoked and, with the launch of the first missiles, retaliations will be set in motion. Which retaliations, as with all gangster mind-sets, will lead to further retaliations.
Goodbye Planet Earth, we didn't deserve you.
Some numbers:- On 9th August 1945, when the second atom bomb was was dropped on the city of Nagasaki, 74,000 people died straight away. 20,000 more people died later from the after-effects. Unlike the comparatively small bombs dropped on Nagasaki and Hiroshima, when nuclear war becomes total there will be no escape, no recovery, no survival.
A set of characters for a possible novel of social manners
Male A: He gets undeserved tellings-off from his boss, but needs the job, can't afford to leave. He also stays with his grossly unfaithful wife for the sake of his children, which is why he needs the job. Doubly trapped he stays despite the way those who know of his wife's infidelities look at him – with pity and/or contempt. Memories of his various humiliations recur unbidden, infest his dreams.
Female A: She is attractive, but in a blank, sheet metal kind of way, has no definable personality. She wants more, but doesn't know what. Loud men become her brief consorts. Their opinions get bounced back at them. When the lack of contradiction confounds them, off they go. She stays.
Male B: In any event, conversation even, he finds himself sidelined, spectator not a participant. Seems to have no effect on anyone. He too wants more, owns fantasies of being Mr Popular.
Female B: She wonders what drives her brother to so cruelly treat his women, to even beating them. She and he both had the same parents, the same liberal upbringing. A self-declared feminist she agonises now over where her loyalties should lie. The women he ends up beating are far from perfect themselves.
Male C: Born rich, all creature comforts guaranteed, to anchor his otherwise aimless life in some form of framework he has devised rigid routines while at the same time taking risks with his wealth and his well-being. Physically gambling with dangerous and competitive sports; and, having the advantages of wealth, he inevitably wins. He also despises himself.
Female C: Pleasant rather than attractive; soft, sponge-like, she absorbs men into her domestic realm. She weeps alone and often.
Male D: His struggle to be free is complicated by his not wanting to cause her more hurt. In needing to be free however he has to dump her. This also leaves him despising himself.
Female D: A middle-class socialite, she is a people collector, her principal pleasure in introducing oddities and eccentrics to one another. She is so sophisticated, so caring, so acutely aware of every human foible and frailty it's a wonder she can bear to be alive. If it wasn't for her self-worth...
This blog is by way of a review of Bryn Fortey's collection of stories and poems, 'Compromising the Truth' (Alchemy Press https://alchemypress.wordpress.com/alchemy-publications/2018-publications/compromising-the-truth/ ISBN 978-1-911034-06-3 338 pages). Bryn recently sent the book to Steph and I. We're old friends.
Daresay I'm not alone in having become friends with Bryn through writing, and then of course through our shared love of jazz. I've still got a CD of Bryn snapping out a rhythm on a snare drum; and he is the only man I know to have mimed poetry to a live jazz band. No surprise then that the very first story in 'Compromising the Truth' concerns jazz, the blues to be accurate.
Bryn's stories can start with the quotidian, with what you think you know, can draw you in; and before you know it you're off-planet or navigating a dystopia. In between times we're treated to Bryn's sometimes soft, sometimes sideways whimsy, an occasional immersion in the bizarre.
Stories here told straight have endings often more unexpected than the standard double-twist. Bryn's craft is in not so much raising expectations as hinting at them, and then taking us somewhere not just unexpected but off the map.
Mind you strange things do happen around Bryn. Or could be that's just Newport. I was going to give him a lift one evening to a Bristol gig, but got lost and ended up in Chepstow, left Bryn waiting at his gate. Still not sure how that happened.
I keep wandering off into memories... don't feel that I have yet given a good account of the quantity and quality of the stories here. There are stories concerning stag beetles, boxers, killer Blues, wormholes, mean-street parodies... Bryn even takes a fresh and personalised look at World War One. Was it Primo Levi said something about putting aside the numbers and to feel the effect of seeing just one person? Bryn does it so well.
The sign of a good writer Bryn had me both laughing and in tears, and a couple of times grimacing as I compulsively read on... So many lines to quote, a couple of them unbearably sad; but this has to be my favourite: -
'...If things started to look really bad he might consider relocating to Cardiff.
Well, only as a last resort...'
And then there's the poems, some sci-fi, tributes to Blues men and other musicians, poems of love and bereavement: '...But these are days of darkness / Times beyond understanding // Sometimes love is not enough.'
Not just this book, I'm so proud to have had Bryn as a friend through all these thick and thin years.
The hardware's fine, few moving parts, little wear and tear. How then to build in obsolescence, have us buy more? The answer of course has to be software upgrades. Upgrades that really aren't upgrades, but are most often two steps sideways and rendering one or other pieces of your hardware inoperable.
My first disaster with upgrades came about through Microsoft adding another number to Windows. My PC was no longer having its operating system updated and was said to be 'at risk...' I contacted a local engineer to ask him to install the latest Windows. I thought I'd saved/backed-up onto disc and/or USBs most of my files and photos. The engineer assured me that he'd transfer them all anyway to the new Windows. He lost the lot. Plus all the current stuff I hadn't thought to back-up, it not being anywhere near a finished state. Plus older files too that for some reason, some oversight long ago, I had failed to back up.
Thank you Microsoft. With the new Windows being only marginally/visually different was hard to call it 'improved.'
So it also goes with all those remote and background updates. The PC/laptop slows for a bit while a techie somewhere uploads their latest update. And suddenly, because of nothing one's done oneself, one finds one needs a new driver for a printer say, or for a scanner, which was working perfectly well the day before. And when, this day re-attached to a non-updated PC/laptop, will continue to work. I suspect cynical manipulation of the market here.
What I don't understand, and can see no gain for anyone, is when website hosts decide to update, and their websites don't then work as well as before. Facilities that were useful get removed, or they get replaced with a less capable function. The arranging of images on a website often falls into this category.
Where before the update one could place the images where required, adjust size and shape in situ. Suddenly one has one option one size.
My guess is that some techie somewhere in the company's employ, and for some reason best known to themselves, thought it a good idea to make a subtle change to a remote sub-program, with not a thought to the possible effect on the end-user.
This how, I'm convinced, 'Buy Now' buttons on websites cease working. Because it can be of no benefit to the web host, who loses traffic and therefore advertising; and it most certainly cannot be of benefit to the website owner. Who in panic quickly search out a new host.
I'm one of those who frantically searches for a new host having learnt that there is little point in trying to contact the web host and asking them to fix the 'Buy Now' buttons. Be that host Webs or Google. All queries and complaints will go unanswered. Even those chatty little surveys that spring up in one's feed and which ask how satisfied you are with recent changes, they too will go unanswered. Even when one fills in, with details, the box that says 'Any other comments' and you tell how the 'change' has affected your sales, could be driving you to cease trading, sending you to an early grave... They too will go unanswered, unacknowledged.
I feel that I have spent the last few years pursued by upgrades and updates to no real purpose; technology tinkered with for its own sake, not for us end-users. Two steps forward, two steps...
To reach my latest website, presently with working buttons, go to https://samsmithbooks.weebly.com/the-journal.html
Shortly after the death of V.S.Naipaul I came across an article – b&w photos of a grumpy V.S.Naipaul – that appeared, as a sort of sideways defence of V.S.Naipaul, to query readers' interest in the private lives of authors, all the while supporting his argument with yet more details of the private life of V.S.Naipaul. Headline gist of the article was that such interest was not only prurient but unnecessary, that the focus should be squarely on the author's finished work. Obituaries and recent reminiscences had contained many unflattering disclosures regards V.S.Naipaul's personality.
To a point I agreed with the main thrust of the article: such disclosures, concerning not only authors but actors and other celebrities, usually focus on the salacious aspects of their sexual activities. Poor Ted and Sylvia for instance. But so far as authors and other creative artists are concerned knowing something of their lives does enable one to appreciate their work the better.
Whenever this topic re-emerges Walt Whitman comes to mind. Knowing that he was a male nurse and a cruising homosexual does open up his work, lets one read so much more into his poems. Knowing of his life adds to the poems, doesn't detract.
And for those of us especially who are attempting to follow in the footsteps of successful authors we can draw reassurance from their early trials and tribulations. A novel of Samuel Becket's for instance got rejected 42 times. The 11 year self-doubting gap Somerset Maughan had between his first book being accepted and his second. The 48 rejections the postal services left for Philip K Dick. The neglect John Clare suffered after his being London-fêted as the 'Peasant Poet'.
All I saw as relating to my own struggles. I wrote this on 14th May 1995 in Somerset: 'John Clare's internal exile, displaced psyche. We too now live among farmers and landowners who abuse the land for profit.'
Of course some writers give you every detail of their lives seemingly uncensored. Henry Miller for one. Bethany Pope nowadays. While Jean Genet almost gives one too much. Of de Sade on the other hand I'd still like to know more, to get beyond the shock.
While I was working on my own [yet to be finished/published] autobiography I jotted this admonitory note to myself, and to possible readers: 'I want to show you everything and, despite the everything, myself in the best possible light. You, however, will have brought your own candle.' (17th June 2003, Ilfracombe).
Although I believe myself reasonably self-aware, it's still hard to see beyond my own time, how it will have constrained me. Here I look to James Baldwin's Giovanni's Room. My first reading had the narrator female. Once Baldwin was Out it made much more sense as male.
Likewise knowing of painters' lives can add to our appreciation of their work. Caravaggio, El Greco, Francis Bacon, Goya, Gaugin – knowing just a little of their circumstances can have one consider their work anew. Biographies of Pablo Picasso opened my mind to so much beyond art. While their art brought unsought benefits. When first I found myself in Southern France I recognised it through the works of Van Gogh, then Italian cities through Canaletto. While the Lake District I met via fellow footslogger Wordsworth. And here in the valleys of south Wales I find myself resorting daily to childhood's Book of Common Prayer and '...lifting mine eyes to the hills.'
There are those who would seem not to know the crude mechanics of fame (connections, chance). I have heard them scoff at the attempts of those not yet famous. Their scoffing seemed to be saying, “How dare this person like us aspire to be different to us.”
For myself I've never craved pop-star type fame, that intrusive following/adoration of fans. What I've aimed for is the quiet kind of fame that would get my books read. The kind of indoors fame where people would chance upon a photo of me and say, “I thought he'd be much different.” That I'd be more in their image, or a mental image of one of my characters say.
For those writers for whom the very act of writing, of following ideas through the tips of their fingers, point of their pen[cil], is the primary attraction and not a necessary but tiresome step towards performance, even book-signings can be blushingly/stammeringly difficult, especially for us who are not at ease performing. But they have to be undergone, if only for the sake of our publishers, because even a quiet indoors fame requires us to occasionally venture out if we want to sustain our small renown.
As to 'natural' performers, I've been to readings with those circuit poets who have learnt their pieces by heart (including the introductory anecdotes); and every time I've heard them, even years apart, they trot out verbatim the same words/hestitations; and still they call themselves writers. Don't they get tired, I can't help but wonder, of pressing the same audience buttons, get a chuckle here, a sentimental aaaah there?
I have more affinity with those who, paper or book held to their face, stumble over their – not necessarily first time – delivery of their - not necessarily – latest work.
And it is here that we meet with the thin skin required to produce art, a skin sensitive to one's surroundings; and the thick skin required to put one's self – one's work as much as one's physical self – on public display. Here the necessity of bravery, steeling oneself to defy the sneers imaginary or real. Or worse still to behold the turning away indifference, that polite but reluctant putting together of hands... Would be a gross exaggeration to call such a brief clatter applause.
Looks like Simplesite is too simple and wouldn't format the extract - so if you want to see 24th May's blog -'Apposite? (Extract from my novel Everyday Objects Repurposed As Art) you'll have to go here - - https://thesamsmith.webs.com/beginnings2019.htm
Self-analysis(after reading a Martin Stannard review... and angrily looking at a clutch of my own notes for a potential poem.)
Soft-skinned commuting workers
stand shoulder-to-shoulder, back-to-back,
not stepping on toes, not sniffing a rose. (A rose! Sniffing a rose! What the hell does that mean? This is where a dementing need for rhyme can lead one – to meaninglessness, or hoped-for portentousness. Jaysus!)
One pair of shoulders moves to platform's end,
stands with his back to a rainbow
squinting at winter's sun. (An attempt at ironical, and clumsy, observation here – always we're missing something. Shakes bald head.)
the self-engrossed and thick-haired young,
along with the sleepers-out in their
street-rancid clothes. (Description alone never enough for me, conscience says I must include some social observation, cliché and pathetic as that may be.)
With all of the need-to-earn-a-wage gone
pavements now are long patterns of stone. (Behold the slant rhyme sneaked into what was, by its appearance, claiming to be free verse, and has me ask how many more months – I'm hoping years – before brain decrease has me rocking and singing the same phrase over and over like a Dylan Thomas villanelle?)
Single old men emerge to take their small dogs
for the second of the day's four walks, pause
to catch their breath and consider. (...how many more months for them? Or are these lone men also travelling inscapes seeking their own slipped-away names/memories?)
Gate-leaning they hope for someone to gasping pass,
know them well enough for a verbal exchange - of weather, of health. (Gawd! I the observer am so very very superior.)
One old man has been left indoors
caring for his even older father, both with
mouths sealed shut. Next door's sharp old woman,
also mute, treads carefully to not disturb
her parcel of pains. (So did I look to end with a poignant touch, and definitely rhymeless. With all that's left being to crumple the paper and take aim at my best-friend bin. Or use it to self-lacerate...? The answer herein. Damn! Another accidental rhyme.)
The wonderful Idris Caffrey and I at a Purple Patch Poetry Festival a long time ago
On reviewing new poetry and poetry reviewers
Every author wants their book reviewed, reviewed positively that is, and is prepared to argue at length against a negative review and its every justification. One consequence being the haunted look that publishers and editors of those magazines that carry reviews get at book fairs and readings, expecting at any second to be assailed by offended egos, rejected egos, even neglected egos. [The late and amiable Idris Caffrey was not one such.]
Let us assume that those who appoint themselves reviewers are genuine lovers of poetry, that they truly want to discover the new, and let us discount the mean-spirited intelligence which results only in waspish pedantry. Let us discount also those who prefer to expand, at convoluted length, upon the new poetry (theories of) rather than comment directly on the book before them.
It must also stand to reason that the poetry a reviewer likes is closest to the poetry that he/she writes, or that she/he would like to write. Because, clumsy errors aside, there can be no such thing as an objective assessment of poetry. Every time-pressed reviewer will have their own idea of what poetry, the new poetry, should be; and if your work doesn't fit with that idea they could well dismiss your sweated-over work as not worthy of consideration.
I believe however that most reviewers want to be fair, want to offer constructive criticism. And you can usually tell when they come upon content unfathomable to them – by their seeking out of slant rhymes, broken rhythms, architectural lay-outs, use of white space and hints of a form. These they can then pass comment on, possibly even congratulate him/herself on her/his insight. Behold a reviewer's joy when they chance upon a piece of clever work they managed to understand, and forgive them their puzzlement for they truly know not what they are sometimes asked to review.
It was the beginning of the world. Another beginning. There had been an end. Another end. But in this ending only the Northern hemisphere had been wholly destroyed – by a nuclear catastrophe centred on the UK. (Known possibly in parts of the Southern hemisphere as The Last Night of the Poms?)
By the beginning of this future history however the North has become by and large clean again. Temperate Europe has once again been colonised from Africa. Our hero though is not clean. He has unnameable memories polluting his everyday vision, pre-verbal mentalese, new primordial instincts....
Europe's cities have disappeared, little evidence of their having been, even archaeological. Rather like the trillions of books published in the preceding millennia, all that remains of them will be in the indexes of electronic libraries, brief descriptions of some of them and of some of their contents.
In a renewed continent, inhabited by basic character types, will our hero go – Brian Aldiss-like – in search of a mystic land where, possibly, he believes he will be able to talk to the animals? This maybe because he was told that humanity and quadrupeds had once shared a common language? Could it be that he will discover the only word remaining to both is that which means 'man'? When the crow uses the word it is 'caw'. A harsh goat bleat sounds the same. Therefore, when introducing himself to boars and horses, might our hero place his palm flat to his chest and say, “Caw”?
The knees of turkeys bend backwards to take them forwards
While many of us can give the appearance of belonging, of being in the know, of being at confident ease with ourselves and our surroundings, most of us know that it is an act, that it has and will only ever be appearances.
When young I knew who was bullshitting who, be it a lad's lad priest, or disciplinarian teachers, or got-to-be-hard-like-me squadies. Nowadays it's all down to guesswork.
Tattoos for instance used to be the province of Pop-Eye sailors and borstal boys, or pretend borstal boys. On any girl's forearm the usually smudged self-tattoos were in among the self-harm scars. Nowadays however the arms of effete musicians are blue with intricate tattoos, body beautiful athletes have them on their calves upwards, and the smooth shoulders of plump young women sport roses or dragonflies.
It is though still all about belonging. Young people still seek ways to be accepted, go looking for what they have to do in order to belong. As I once did, knowing then the rules. But every part of that imperfect world contributed to its imperfection; and I also knew that I wanted a life larger than my parents' home, than the village, larger than the county, than the country; a life larger than life itself.
What I can't understand is why anyone young now doesn't want that. Because even if one ends up old and lost in memories, in all that still not-knowing what precisely it was that I wanted, the seeking of it took me down so many roads, and I at least have the memory of those roads.
At odds with most people most of the time, there were of course occasions when, out of sorts, I had to decide whether everyone else was being honest, or it was me being deceitful – to myself if no-one else. But usually they wanted me to belong more than I wanted to belong to them, individual or group; and when to belong all too often required some form of denial. A truth pushed aside; and the insistence, unsaid, that I become like them. So when I questioned, possibly detailed their inconsistencies, they might indignantly and self-righteously deny them; or, with a shrug, they accepted; just the way of it.
It was that acceptance always that I questioned.
Chip-on-the-shoulder cynic I may have been. But back then I was also a fool. I once assumed that everything in print, because it was in print, had to be important – not knowing then the hit-and-miss process of publication. So back then I read everything, tried to both understand and identify with it. To belong somewhere. And I saw any failure to understand as mine.
But I did eventually learn. I know now to spot the code word/phrase, its hinterland of attitudes, and I will skim-read on, or discard. Be off on my own again.
Going by these kept jottings 1997 must have been even more changing than I realised at the time. I was busy.
'Odd that although I am happy to accept other people being different to me they are not happy to accept my being different to them. Christians refuse to believe that I'm not [being an English-born ex-choirboy] a patriotic Christian. Performance poets that I honestly do not enjoy performance poetry, etc.' (3.3.1997)
'Rimbaud in reverse: I did my living early, gave it up to write at 25.' (29.4.1997)
Explanation for that last note to self:- From adolescence onwards I'd been eager to sample each and every aspect of life. But as a recipient, not an actor. So I took my curious self to strange places, into new situations, to see what would happen to me, how I would react. Which was how I've been both street-fighter and pacifist. Singularity, wholeness, was never my objective. And in all my doing, in action, had not been desperation, nor a frantic sadness, more a tempered exhilaration. What next? While at the same time I was wary of causing unnecessary offence and thus depriving myself of the possibility of yet another new experience. Small wonder that I left both lovers and acquaintances confused.
1997: when I was full of having had my first collection, 'To Be Like John Clare,' finally in print, my mentor and friend Derrick Woolf asked me, “What's worse than a first collection by Salzburg?”
I face-shrugged a Don't Know.
“A second collection by Salzburg.”
How soon are our bubbles pricked. Which probably led to this:- 'Seeking now, not an impossible permanence, more a point of rest, a comfortable predictability.' (8.7.1997)
That year however there were some beneficial changes to my psyche. This note to self may have been written years later:- 'Never try to repair machines in a hurry or in anger.' (13.6.2008), but was a cautionary reminder of my having read in 1997 Pirsig's 'Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.' That was the book that physically changed my life. Pre-Pirsig I had broken coffee tables that got in my way, had thrown malfunctioning telephones the length of hallways, and I had chucked unco-operative lawnmowers over garden hedges. Post-Pirsig offending tables got moved, phones put aside, and lawnmowers mended.
Sometimes it can seem that throughout the whole of my writing life I've been forced to undo lies. Some of my own, youth's boasting, and those lies that seemed necessary at the time to get me into or out of love affairs. Into jobs as well. But like all readily-believed liars what I instead wanted was to impress with the truth. But lies were easy, the truth hard, and people seemed to prefer the familiar off-the-peg lie.
Most of my lifetime's lies though have come from the lives surrounding mine, clothing mine. Let's take the '68 anti-Vietnam war reporting – of the Vietnam war itself, and of those many who were campaigning to have that war stopped. Even now, harking back, there continue to be deliberate misrepresentations. In the USA the National Guard did shoot and kill several unarmed demonstrating students. While here in the UK, in Grovesnor Square, the police horses did come charging into us protestors before any horse ever got hit with a placard stick.
Sometimes it feels as if I should pitch into every FaceBook thread to say No, it wasn't/isn't exactly like that... Set the record straight, tell the young, “But it's true. It wasn't some game. The threat of World War Three and nuclear obliteration was real. Politicians believed it. Governments built bunkers to hide themselves in. Just themselves.”
Nor is it solely the young and new to life who get it wrong. I made this note to myself in 2010: 'Live long enough and our own lives become a fiction. Which could be why old men talk so much – to try to recapture the reality of their lived life?'
Before that, in 1997: 'Self-mythologies are the stories we come to believe about ourselves, stories that make our small lives more than pathetic.'
What I have always wanted, in writing, has been to accurately describe the real, the actual. Unequivocal accuracy though is difficult verging on the impossible. And it's the totality of truth where I most often fail. A detail unconsidered, or deemed inessential, omitted, the context unexplained; and so I too add to the misrepresentations.
Plus all my writerly efforts are reliant on my readers' knowledge/expectations/prejudices; and whether they have come to my work to have their views reinforced, or they came with the intention of pulling the work apart. The latter happens especially when I have penned a piece where I have attempted to defy the direction of the words, to bring them back to what I actually wanted to describe, shake them out of the mould the words had made for themselves.
I believe that it is because we are alone when we write, just ourselves and the page, that we can achieve an honesty rarely found elsewhere in our lives. Try for instance criticising a book in the author's presence. There can then be no pretence at objectivity because most people won't want to be unkind, will possibly, sociably, even seek to make themselves well thought of by the author. Or, if they have taken a dislike to the author, they may find themselves being wantonly cruel. Alone with the page however they can, either way, caution themselves to be dispassionate.
I cannot afford heroes. Hero-worship is a static state and creativity demands a continually changing perspective. Which means that I am uneasy whenever anyone is made a hero, especially when they are made heroes by the media. One knows from experience that no sooner has the media conferred heroism on them than somebody else in the media, maybe even within the same periodical, is looking for the new hero's clay feet. The story can then run and run.
For hero read celebrity, and given tabloid intrusion into the lives of celebrities I find it difficult to believe why anyone would even dream of becoming a celebrity, a media hero. Hence I do not allow myself even the fantasy of celebrity, of heroism. I am a common-named fool, have done and continue to do many foolish things. (Could these here, for instance, be the diary entries for another gross Nobody called Smith?)
Given awareness of my own clay feet what I also find difficult to understand is the near religious adulation offered up to singers/performers. For me the performance, the posturing gets in the way of the material. I prefer always a self-effacing interpretation to a virtuosic display. Unless of course the performer is the material, which is why I do so enjoy kitsch and camp.
I cannot likewise understand the loyalty given over to sports teams. I enjoy watching some soccer, some rugby; but I admire technique, skill and prowess, regardless of which side wins.
My distrust of the process of heroism, my own fallibility, is probably why so many of my own heroes have been damaged people, often failures by their own light – John Clare, Jack London, Edward Bibbins Aveling, Phillip de Marisco, Van Gogh, Bothwell... And why I am drawn now to those – not shock-jock controversialists being scandalous for its own sake, or to establishment pets like Fry and Perry, become parodies of themselves – but to those whose principles dare them to be different – Meredith Monk, Laura Riding, George Galloway, Tariq Ali, Caroline Lucas, Bjork... Equally poet friends like Paul Sutton, Alan Corkish, Jan Oscar Hansen: their obstinate outspoken existence I approve of, purely for the light they let into any exchange-of-clichés debate.
What happens to certain people in their forties and onwards that their language changes and they become these pompous establishment types who trot out things like, “Your dad used to be a bit of ladies' man.” Instead of, an expression appropriate to my generation say, “He was always after getting his end away.”
Let's call them premature-previous-dotards, because these people my age can often also be seen wearing ever-pressed trousers and the women getting their white hair precociously permed.
Could it be that hormonal changes have these premature-previous-dotards feeling that they are now living the second, maybe even the third part of their lives – childhood, then their busy breeding age, and now their imminent dotage? - that they are now different people to what they were? So they have to adopt a new persona? Have to use other terms of reference? And the only models they have were their aged parents, uncles and aunts, and what they used to say: “In my day...”
All our physical components change, cells renew, die, some get replaced... Every 7 years apparently, and like Buddha's ox-cart we become composed of different parts. Our thinking processes though, our emotional responses, remain largely the same. Could that be what these peculiarly old-fashioned responses are, an attempt to reconcile our extant emotional states with the wreckage that has become of our bodies and, because of our age and adult circumstances, our now limited opportunities? So do these premature-previous-dotards resort to archaic platitudes: “When I was your age...” “I'll give you what for young...”
Could it be that, after all the uncertain fumblings and errors of youth, wrinkles and grey hair have bestowed upon them an unexpected and unlooked-for respectability, and they want to exploit this new role to the full: “Youngsters these days...” “Think life's hard now...” “What they need is....”
So much of art can start as a happy accident. Although for that accident of itself to be considered art could be a tad premature.
It is usually not enough to rely solely on assemblage, to gather together sounds for instance and to call that gathering music. Or to collect colours and textures together and call that assemblage visual art. Or to put words together on the same page and call that page poetry. No, these gatherings are but the beginnings.
Now, the gathering complete, is when the internal editor/critic/compiler takes over. If a composer one tries laying one sound partially over another, asks if that could make a viable chord. Does it respond to that click sound? Should it be repeated? Could the pairing become the motif for a larger piece? (See Neil Carter CDs.)
While for the colour splashes now is the time to consider the dynamism of any juxtaposition. Or what you may want the piece to become. Or, and more likely, what the piece may want to become. Are those large then small splodges creating an unwanted perspective? Do those four colours so close together look possibly representational? Could that hint of an image be put to use? Or will it then look too much like so-and-so's work?
A red pen is required for the word-gatherers. With no preconceived narrative in mind it could be that there is a sense of something lurking in this wordy gathering, a possible otherness asking to be conveyed. A couple of words might be preventing that. Remove them. Change the order of some others? Make it present tense? Past? Now it is starting to become art... That is if Art should end/not end where wonderment/imagination begins.