Tuesday, May 29, 2007

The Knoxian Shore

Richard Dawson, musician of the month, provided a fine complement to the poetry, as on his previous Shore Poets appearances. In fact, to Richard goes the best rhyme of the evening: gregarious:areas. If I remember rightly, the lines were: "my pocketbook guide says they [bullfinches] are naturally gregarious; and found in cemeteries and heavily wooded areas."

First poet was Rob Mackenzie. I particularly enjoyed his more surreal, quirkier poems, such as "Advice to the Lion-Tamer on becoming a Poetry Critic" and "Scotlands". You can read his assessment of the evening here.

My set was almost exclusively unpublished poems, with the exception of "Wandelvakanties dicht bij huis" and "Sketchbook of a Trip to the Hebrides", although perhaps we could also count "Waukrife", which is about to be published in Lallans. I was slightly apprehensive about the two newest poems I read, partly because they were longer pieces. Moreover, one of them is in Scots with a fair bit of German thrown in--much too much to gloss--and the other is quite intense and concentrated. But both went down well.

We were fortunate that Alistair Findlay could bring forward his reading by a whole year to replace Kate Clanchy, who was suffering with bronchitis. Fortunate in more ways than one, because his reading was hugely entertaining. He read from Sex, Death and Football as well as from his new book, The Love Songs of John Knox. The latter poems dissected aspects of the Knox myth and today's Scotland but were saturated in a wonderful surreal, postmodern wit. Sophisticated and imaginative stuff. Very Scottish. I bought the book and might blog on it a bit once I've had a proper read.

Monday, May 28, 2007

A Bad Case of the Rogets

Reading Kate Clanchy's Samarkand the other week, I spotted the word "rheumy" in two consecutive poems*. It stood out enough in the first as that unusual beast, a rare cliché**, but for it to be found twice in not only the same collection but in such close proximity struck me as a significant slip-up in the poet's and publisher's editing processes.

This got me asking myself what degree of repetition of any given word is acceptable in a collection. The question is particularly pertinent to me at the moment, because I'm trying to put together a manuscript for a book-length collection of poems. So, today, I read through the pieces I've been thinking about collecting with that in mind. I got a bit of a shock: I reuse quite a number of words, a significant handful of which I stick in fairly frequently.

However, when I say "fairly frequently", I mean they pop up in, say, between five and seven poems out of 60-odd. None of the words repeated with such frequency is uncommon. Does it matter how common a repeated word is? Is it easier to get away with repeating a common word than a (comparatively) rare one? The above example would indicate that the answer is yes in both cases: I suspect the second "rheumy" would have stood out to me even if it had been several poems later in Clanchy's book, and I didn't spot any other repetitions (though I might be paying closer attention in future).

But if that's the case, how often can one get away with repeating a common word, such as "eyes" or "voice" or "coat"? If significant weight is put on the word in a poem, does that make it harder to get away with using it elsewhere even if it isn't carrying so much freight in the second (or third, or fourth or--gulp--fifth) poem? Up to what point is repetition of a word/image (perhaps we could call it a "poeme") part of an aesthetic and at what point does it become simply irritating to the reader?

I would be extremely interested in any comments on this. I suspect it's something on which every writer has to reach his or her own conclusions, but those conclusions are probably best arrived at in concert with other writers and some segment of one's audience or readership. So come on, pitch in. (Just don't repeat yourself.)

*Page 11, line 10 of "Act 2" and page 13, line 29 of "Deep Blue".
**The cliché is, of course, "rheumy eyes", which is the precise phrase used in "Act 2"; in "Deep Blue", by contrast, we have "rheumy, hooded eyes": a double cliché!

Saturday, May 26, 2007

Somhairle MacGill-Eain Air-loidhne

(This post is in Gaelic* then English)

Tha mi dìreach air làrach-lìn ùr mu bheatha is bhàrdachd Somhairle MacGill-Eain lorg a-mach. Tha mòran ann: dàin, eachdraidh-beatha, dealbhan, clàran is bhideo, is mapaichean. Chan eil facal Beurla ann idir ach anns na earrannan bhideo anns a’ bheil Iain Mac a’ Ghobhainn neo Somhairle fhèin a’ bruidhinn mu a bheatha is Seamus Heaney a’ bruidhinn mu a bhàrdachd. Ann an bhideo eile, tha Aoghnas Pàdraig Caimbeul a’ bruidhinn mu a bhuaidh is tha tri earrannan bhideo ann anns a’ bheil Somhairle a leughadh dàn leat. Is e làrach-lìn fhèin math a th’ann.

I have just discovered a new website dedicated to the life and work of the great 20th century Gaelic poet Sorley MacLean. It is full of stuff: poems, biographical information, photos, recordings and video, and maps. There isn't a word of English on the site, apart from in the video exerpts in which Iain Chrichton Smith and Sorley himself speak about his life and Seamus Heaney speaks about his poetry. In another video, Angus Peter Campbell speaks (in Gaelic with subtitles) about his influence and there are three excerpts in which Sorley reads a poem of his. It's a tremendous site.

*Ma tha duine sam bith airson a' Ghàidhlig agam ceartachadh, b' urrainn dhaibh post-d a chur dhomh. Seo mo sheòladh: light [aig] gotadsl [dot] co [dot] uk

Friday, May 25, 2007

Constitutional Blogging

It seems something of a shame that my day job constrains me from blogging about this fascinating new era in Scottish politics. But there we go. Instead, I recommend to anyone interested in an analysis of developments the new blog by BBC Scotland correspondent Brian Taylor. His is a far more interesting, more entertaining analysis than I could ever give anyway.

I also highly recommend Neal Ascherson's openDemocracy article on the debate about a written constitution for Britain. That might seem a wee bit of a leap in one blog note but, as you'll see if you read the piece, the new situation in Scotland also has profound implications for British politics as a whole.

Change to Sunday's Line-up

Just got word that Kate Clanchy has had to cancel for Sunday due to bronchitis. Fortunately, we have managed to secure a last-minute replacement: Alastair Finlay, writer of Sex, Death and Football* and, more recently, The Love Songs of John Knox, both from Luath.

The rest of the line-up and other arrangements remain as advertised. It should make for a lively, interesting and varied night--with, I expect, a fair bit of demotic Scots from Alastair Finlay. Just a bit of a pity it's turned out all male.

*A book I enjoyed very much, somewhat to my surprise given the title. I haven't read the John Knox book.

Debut Authors Festival 2007

The programme for the the Debut Authors Festival 2007 came through the door this week. This year's festival has a 100% increase on the 2006 poet count: there are two--namely Daljit Nagra and Annie Freud--but that's still one down on 2005.

Also as with last year, the poets are mainstreamed into the programme alongside the prose writers: Nagra on the panel for "Britain Today" and Freud in the "Love Against the Odds" event. In 2005, there was a poetry event with Jacob Polley, Matthew Hollis and Choman Hardi. Which approach is better for poets? Minority that we are, perhaps we can garner a slightly greater audience by being placed alongside novelists, but my memory of the 2005 poetry event was that it was pretty full. Besides, this festival is pitched particularly at emerging writers, so mainstreaming shouldn't be necessary from that point of view.

Of course, there's something to be said for a thematic approach, which seems to be the way the festival is going. However, it still feels to me like the poets are a slender add-on to the prose writers, not so integral a part of the programming as their novelistic brethren and sistren. That impression is reinforced by the "Unpublished Writers Jam Session" (emphasis mine), billed as "a fantastic opportunity to read your unpublished work in front of an expert panel." But, if it's the same as in previous years (and the blurb is identical, as far as I can remember) it's not a fantastic opportunity if you're a poet. In fact, it's no opportunity at all. I'd be much less irritated if the event called itself an "Unpublished Novelists Jam Session". Y'know, as a poet, I'm a writer too.

But don't get me wrong: I'm otherwise impressed with the programme and very pleased that poets are on the increase again in it. Last year, I was told that the paucity of poets was because there were few debut poets to choose from. Well, that might be the case if all you're considering is the main publishers (Nagra's with Faber and Freud is with Picador), but there's a lot of work worth hearing furth of the Mighty Handful and smaller presses are becoming ever more important to poets. After all, it was a Seren poet who beat Heaney, Feaver and Williams to the poetry Whitbread--sorry, Costa--last year.

Monday, May 07, 2007

A Routine in its Infancy

A little time to write today. I shouldn't be spending it scribbling a note on the blog but I haven't had enough mental space for poems to grow in since the baby was born, although I've had plenty feverishly paced thoughts about poetry, politics and various other matters. As a consequence, I'm facing the fear of an hour or so filled with blankness or writing less rewarding than poetry.

I'd be interested to know how other writers with small children and day jobs have managed the transition into writing and working parenthood. Perhaps it's just a matter of time and patience. The wee one is only just shy of eight weeks, after all, and only in the past week or so has something approaching a routine begun to develop. Still, any thoughts from anyone who is or has been in a similar position would be welcome.

Sunday, May 06, 2007

Salty ruminations on bad news from Bloodaxe.


Which come after Mark Ravenhill writes on arts funding vs sport funding in The Guardian.


Meanwhile, here's a new poetry podcasting project.


And something else that could set poetry alight.

Interesting Times

So, the SNP came out on top, only just. Given my day job, it's inappropriate for me to express any opinion on the result, except that there's no denying it's a momentous change in Scottish politics. However, with the possibility of challenges to the result and no prospect of a coalition big enough to form a majority, the future looks pretty uncertain. A minority Administration now appears likely, but the possibility remains that the majority in the Parliament could vote against Salmond for First Minister, which could force Scotland back to the polls. If that were to happen, at least there would be less room for confusion over ballot papers.

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Reasoning Rhyme: To Begin at the Beginning: the Role of the Onset 2

The previous post in this series examined the role of the onset in Wilfred Owen's poetry. In this post, I'll consider the subtle ways in which the onset participates in the rhyme scheme in a couple of poems by Simon Armitage.

Many contemporary poets exploit a wide variety of rhymes, often within a single poem. One piece with a fascinating relationship between onsets is Armitage's sonnet “Poem”, which mixes nuclear and fraternal rhymes:

And if it snowed and snow covered the drive
he took a spade and tossed it to one side.
And always tucked his daughter up at night.
And slippered her the one time that she lied.

And every week he tipped up half his wage.
And what he didn’t spend each week he saved.
And praised his wife for every meal she made.
And once, for laughing, punched her in the face.

And for his mum he hired a private nurse.
And every Sunday taxied her to church.
And he blubbed when she went from bad to worse.
And twice he lifted ten quid from her purse.

Here’s how they rated him when they looked back:
sometimes he did this, sometimes he did that.

If one ignores the onsets, the rhyme scheme appears to run aaaa bbbb cccc dd, an incredibly simplistic scheme which parallels the matter-of-fact tone of the poem. An attempt to parse the rhymes into a more complex scheme on the basis of the codas would produce something highly irregular, such as abab cddc efee gg. The first stanza is the easiest to parse, and abab the most sensible option, based on the identical codas of side:lied, but it does leave the somewhat distant relationship drive:night in which the only features that the codas share is that they are not sonorants.

The second stanza is more problematic: none of the codas is identical and each possible relationship has complications. The closest relationship is saved:made, on the basis of which the stanza is parsed as cddc, but this relationship would involve syllable-internal intrusion. The relationship wage:saved would involve swapping the continuancy feature in the final two segments, and the relationship saved:face involves breaking the continuancy and coronal features.

In the third stanza, determining fellowship on the basis of the codas would leave church without a fellow and produce a three-fellowed rhyme in a poem which otherwise uses only two-fellowed rhymes. However, there is no question about the final stanza, as this contains only two candidates for fellowship.

A standard approach to rhyme obviously has grave problems parsing the rhyme scheme of “Poem”. However, if one determines fellowship within stanzas partly on the basis of shared features of the onsets, a choice of schemes more complex than aaaa bbbb cccc dd and more regular than abab cddc efee gg emerges: abab cdcd efef gg--the rhyme scheme of the Shakespearean sonnet form--or possibly aabb cdcd eeff gg.

As all the onsets in the first stanza are coronal, determining fellowship boils down to a choice between drive:night; side:lied (abab) or drive:side; night:lied (aabb). Since the former choice involves a stronger relationship between the onsets of the a-fellows in that they both contain sonorants and obstruents, it seems reasonable to opt for this as the scheme. This also accords with, but provides a stronger relationship than, a choice based on the codas and provides a rhyme scheme which looks like a Shakespearean sonnet.

In the second stanza we are faced with three labial segments ([w]age, [m]ade, [f]ace) and one coronal ([s]aved). Obviously, the place feature is insufficient to define fellowship here, so we turn instead to the manner feature, which divides the stanza neatly into two sonorants ([w] and [m]) and two fricatives ([s] and [f]). Thus this stanza is parsed as wage:made; saved:face (cdcd).

The third stanza can be parsed as efef or eeff. As with the first stanza, the former choice accords with the sonnet rhyme scheme and is based on a stronger relationship: nurse:worse ; church:purse as opposed to nurse:church; worse:purse.

Interestingly, the least intimate relationship between onsets occurs in the gg stanza: back:that, two voiced obstruents. Although comparable weak relationships are found in other stanzas, they are partnered by stronger relationships. However, there is no functional need for a strong relationship here, since there are only two candidates and therefore no questions as to what rhymes with what.

These observations indicate that the onsets are strengthening in their role as compensation for a weakening in the differential role of the nuclei. This compensation is not so strong if the codas provide enough differential information to determine fellowship (e.g. side:lied versus drive:night) or if there are only two candidates. This strengthening is probably motivated by a preference for a complex but regular rhyme scheme, for which the nuclei normally provide sufficient differential information for fellowship within a single stanza.

Another poem by Armitage informative for the status of onsets is the single stanza, 24 line “Kid”, the title poem of the collection from which “Poem” also comes, and therefore roughly contemporaneous with the latter work:

Batman, big shot, when you gave the order
to grow up, then let me loose to wander
leeward, through the wild blue yonder
as you liked to say, or ditched me, rather,
in the gutter ... well, I turned the corner.
Now I’ve scotched that ‘he was like a father
to me’ rumour, sacked it, blown the cover
on that ‘he was like an elder brother’
story, let the cat out of the bag on that caper
with the married woman, how you took her
downtown on expenses in the motor.
Holy robin-redbreast-nest-egg-shocker!
Holy roll me over in the clover,
I’m not playing ball boy any longer
Batman, now I’ve doffed that off-the-shoulder
Sherwood-Forest-green and scarlet number
for a pair of jeans and crew-neck jumper;
now I’m taller, harder, stronger, older.
Batman, it makes a marvellous picture:
you without your shadow, stewing over
chicken giblets in the pressure cooker,
next to nothing in the walk-in larder,
punching the palm of your hand all winter,
you baby, now I’m the real boy wonder.

This poem uses exclusively feminine rhymes, including one mosaic rhyme (took her:shocker ll.10,12), all of which end in unstressed schwa, in a highly irregular scheme: abbc acdd efef ghij jikg khll. As expected, the stressed syllables participate in the rhyme scheme.

Fellowship was determined by finding as many identical vowels as possible then looking for the closest overall match in the remaining fellows. This was straightforward for longer:larder (identical onsets, and low, back vowels) and winter:wonder (identical onsets and near-identical codas). The choice for picture:cooker was determined by the lack of any other possible fellows within reasonable distance. The choice of caper:motor; took her:shocker was based on the backness of the vowels and identity of the codas in the latter pair.

Seven out of the twelve rhymes are fraternal (that is, have identical vowels); the remaining five do not have identical vowels. These two types are not arranged with any regularity. Five of the onsets of the seven fraternal rhymes (i.e., approximately 70%) share fewer than three features. In three out of these five, one fellow has an empty onset (order:corner ll.1,5; clover:over ll.13,20; shoulder:older ll.15,18). Four of the onsets of the five other rhymes (i.e., 80%) share three or more features. In two of these, the onsets are identical (longer:larder ll.14,22; winter:wonder ll.23,24). These figures indicate that, for this poem at least, onsets in a rhyme relationship are more likely to bear some similarity to each other if the nuclei of the syllables differ. It would therefore appear that the role of the onsets strengthens to compensate for weakening in the role of the nuclei.

Besides the features mentioned above, there is another notable aspect to the rhyme scheme of “Kid”, namely that the onsets of the second syllable are not always identical between fellows as would be expected with feminine rhymes. Examining these yields startling results. Of the twelve rhymes, seven exhibit this dissimilarity, the same proportion as exhibit vowel identity. However, onset dissimilarity is in no way connected to vowel identity, as only four out of these seven (i.e., approximately 56%) do not exhibit vowel identity. Strikingly, in all seven rhymes, both fellows share three major features. Two of these rhymes, d and k, may share four features, if, for cover:brother, the dental nature of the two fricatives counts, and if, for picture:cooker the secondary, palatal articulation of the /k/ counts as parallel to the frication in the affricate. There is a striking regularity to the shared features, as shown below:

proportion in which
- lack of sonority is shared: 6 out of 7, approximately 84%
- continuancy or lack of it is shared: all 7, i.e., 100%
- non-continuancy is shared: 6 out of 7, approximately 84%
- voicing or lack of it is shared: 5 out of 7, approximately 70%
- place is shared, excluding d and k: 3 out of 7, approximately 42%
- place is shared, including d and k: 5 out of 7, approximately 70%

It therefore appears that rhymes with dissimilar and similar onsets in the second syllable are involved in a separate rhyme scheme from the stressed syllables. This makes sense if one recalls that the rimes of all the unstressed syllables in the poem are identical, an unexpected feature of the work. Thus the onsets of these syllables appear, in terms of this separate subscheme, to be strengthening in their roles and simultaneously, in terms of the overall feminine rhyme scheme, to be weakening in their roles in order to compensate for weakening in the differential role of the nuclei. This is a very similar situation to that discussed above in relation to “Poem”.

What is Mainstream?

I've been musing a little about the usefulness or otherwise of the term "mainstream" in relation to Scottish poetry. I think it's fair to say that, in UK terms, Hugh MacDiarmid would not be regarded as mainstream. His non-mainstream status is emphasised by the fact that he turns up in the marvellous PENNsound archive, which focuses on the more experimental/avant-garde end of American poetry, and the fact that Eliot Weinberger considers his work in an admiring essay in Karmic Traces. And yet MacDiarmid is a hugely significant figure in 20th century Scottish poetry by anyone's standards. This surely makes him mainstream in a Scottish context, which perhaps emphasises his contention that Scottish literature is a separate tradition to the so-called English literature canon and market.

An analogous situation obtains with Gael Turnbull. Gael's role in injecting postwar modernist American poetry and poetics into the British scene was highly significant. He was an unceasing experimenter and his work sits comfortably with Shearsman Books, who published his Jacket tribute also fitted easily into the much more mainstream arena of Shore Poets, of which he was a valued (and is a much missed) member. Is Gael's work mainstream or experimental? Why should I (or anyone else) care? It's full of inventiveness, wit, insight, beauty, energy, playfulness and seriousness. It's simply worth reading.

Does this mean that, in Scotland, we have less of a distinction between the mainstream/accessible and the experimental/difficult? I'd like to think so, but I'm not convinced. After all, the poetry scene in which I'm involved is pretty much the main stream. But then, where do writers such as Frank Kuppner, David Kinloch or Price sit in relation to this supposed dichotomy? They have all appeared and/or are appearing on the bill at Shore Poets and other mainstream poetry readings, but they certainly don't row down the main current of the main stream, as indicated by the fact that Kinloch and Price both appear in the Archive of the Now.

What's New on Tonguefire