Monday, September 24, 2007

On the Line

In contrast to prose--which, being continuous, pretends to a form of wholeness--poetry, because it is divided into lines, is equipped in its structure to reflect and deal with the brokenness of the world. This it holds in tension with a more intense and therefore more whole scrutiny of language.

How can someone accept the monostich and not the single-line stanza? The latter's acceptability is surely a logical extension of the former's or of the assertion that the line is the basic unit of verse. The two amount to the same thing at the end of the day.

The line has this equivalence to harmonic progression and cadence in music: it is the place where tension is created and resolved. Good line breaks create and resolve (or not, as necessary) tension in the poem's sense, rhythm or meter and consonantal/vocalic music.

Each poem--each line--must find its own balance of tension and release. If the poem--if the line--is unsuccessful, are the tension and release out of kilter?

I said "Good line breaks create and resolve ... tension", but tension and resolution can take place within a line. Otherwise, how could the monostich be anything other than tedious?

Sunday, September 23, 2007

LBF Website

The Linlithgow Book Festival website has experienced a few--ahem--technical problems, but we've fixed 'em. If you've tried to access it and failed, all should now be well. The programme on the front page has also been updated with a little more information about the renga and the Wallace event I'm involved in. And you can now subscribe to the site's feed.

Picasso on Paper

One of the pleasures of living near Edinburgh is being able to see the major Festival-time exhibitions once the biggest crowds have gone. Although family circumstances are not the most conducive, I had the opportunity yesterday to see "Picasso on Paper" at the Dean Gallery. And I'm extremely glad I went.

As the title implies, the exhbition consists of works on paper: drawings, etchings, lithographs and linocuts from throughout Picasso's career*. It is simply stunning. I knew that Picasso changed style and approach with similar alacrity and innovation to Miles Davis in jazz, but to be presented with the development so clearly and richly was a revelation.

Some people think Picasso overrated. Personally, I found the work by turns beautiful, intriguing, vulgar, moving, funny, tender, disturbing and exciting. One can dislike the style and even the content, but there is no question about the man's astonishing creative imagination and technical ability--he was almost constantly innovating techniques, even in processes he'd only just learnt. Such emotional, stylistic and technical range is surely one of the things that makes for greatness in art.

Picasso's combination of endless reinvention and technical genius must be a challenge to any creative artist who encounters it. It could be enervating--you might think "How can I ever match that creativity in my field?"--but I came away from the show exhilarated and fired up. Of course, it remains to be seen whether that comes out in my writing. Discernable effect or no, I'm glad of the stimulus.

Incidentally, "Picasso on Paper" is apprently the first major Picasso show in Scotland. Let's have more! There is an accompanying exhibition, "Picasso: Fired with Passion", at the National Museum of Scotland. I haven't yet seen it, but it's on a bit longer. I hear it consists mainly of ceramics, as the title might lead you to think.

*I really mean throughout: the earliest piece was made when he was 17, the latest when he was 90.

Friday, September 21, 2007

More on Orkney

The visit to Orkney with the Shore Poets exchange in October is beginning to shape up. It looks like it will involve one reading--on Saturday 13th along with Christine De Luca and local writers in the Pier Arts Centre, Stromness--and at least one school visit the previous day. There might be other visits to schools and/or writers groups, but I'm sure there'll be plenty eating and drinking whatever else happens! Diana Hendry and Ian McDonough are scheduled to read on Friday 12th October at Orkney Library, Kirkwall. They'll also be doing some school/writing group visits. I'm looking forward to it.

Speaking of the Shore Poets, don't forget the next reading: Polly Clark, Jilly Garnett and Ian McDonough, with music from Bob Murray and Friends, on 30 September in Mai Thai Cafe Bar.

Great Grog Gig

Readers of Rob A Mackenzie's blog Surroundings might recall a comments thread a while back about the idea of a Nov 4th reading with Roddy Lumsden, AB Jackson, Rob and myself. Well, the gig is confirmed. It should make for a good night, though I expect I'll be frazzled by the end, what with it also being the weekend of the Linlithgow Book Festival. Hope to see some of you there. Here are the details:

Roddy Lumsden, AB Jackson, Rob A Mackenzie and Andrew Philip
7.30pm, 4 November 2007
Great Grog Wine Bar, 43 Rose Street, Edinburgh (50 metres left from Hanover Street if walking from Princes Street)
Entry is free.

Monday, September 10, 2007

Remember "poems on pillows"? (New readers start here then follow the trail to here and here.) Well, I don't know why I should further humiliate myself by saying this, but there's a page for the project on the Ten Hill Place website. It features my commissioned poem just about legible on the postcard (not one of my best by a long way) and one of the publicity shots of Richard, Elspeth and me. Oh dear.

Monday, September 03, 2007

Reading, Do You Find Yourself ... ?

I've been thinking about the way that I and other writers use the pronoun you in poems and realising how strong an antipathy I have to its being used to stand in for the first person. I'm not talking about the colloquial use of you as a replacement for the often bothersomely formal impersonal pronoun one, but about poems that seem to address the reader/hearer when they're actually telling us about what the writer/speaker is doing.

For an example, listen to the poem that set me off on this train of thought: Jacob Sam-La Rose's aubade "Waking, You Find Yourself ...". Certainly not a bad piece of writing, but it suffers from this problematic you.

And here's the problem: This you pretends to generalise a particular experience; it tells the reader "you do/see/think this" when, in fact, they don't and quite possibly wouldn't or couldn't for any number of reasons. It attempts to steer around the ambiguities and problems of the poetic I; it neither steams ahead with the first person nor engages with postmodern games and doubts about the self. It can't decide whether it wants distance or intimacy and, instead, opts for something that purports to provide both.

Is this approach mainly an affectation of younger writers? I used to do it now and again, but I don't think I've fallen into that trap for a good six or seven years at least. In the flush and overconfidence of youth, is it too easy to think that something we experience is universal? Or is it a lack of confidence that leads the younger writer to push for universality by slipping into the second person?

Whatever the answer to those questions, it seems to me that you would be best reserved for instances in which there is a clear addressee--a named dedicatee or one unnamed but obvious--or for use as an impersonal pronoun where standard grammar would require one. It is possible to use you to address oneself in a poem if that's made clear in the title, for instance, as in my poem "Notes to Self".

Poems like Sam-La Rose's are probably best rendered using the first person or, if the poet wants more distance, the third. Of course, the third person in English (and many other languages) ties down the gender of the character in the poem, which might or might not be an issue. Then again, the you I'm arguing against also gives the question of gendered poetry a bodyswerve, and is that really acceptable?

Saturday, September 01, 2007

Mr Mackenzie's Manuscript

If you've been following my and Rob A Mackenzie's posts about our manuscript swap, you'll probably be waiting for the more detailed comments I promised on Rob's poems*, so here they finally are.

There's a lot of very good stuff in Rob's MS, with a few really fine poems. Think of Rob A Mackenzie, and you're likely to think of surreal, ironic, witty narrative poems. Many of the strongest and most distinctive pieces in the manuscript are just such. They are fresh and contemporary and their level of irony is just right: never arch, too knowing or clever-clever but playful, even though the material is serious.

These poems support Rob's statement that his writing follows "the softer side of the New York School and ... European surrealism". Nonetheless, his voice also sounds distinctly Scottish to me. It's not particularly a matter of vocabulary, as there's almost no Scots in his MS**. Nor is it necessarily a matter of geographical or cultural references. The Scottish flavour comes, I think, from the way Rob deploys his wit and irony, mixed often with genuine passion and commitment. I'd go so far as to say that it feels quite Glaswegian, a subtle reflection of the best parts of that city's distinctive character and humour mingled with the European and transatlantic influences.

Here we have that good old Scottish internationalism again, which also puts me in mind of Edwin Morgan, whom Rob has cited. I can hear echoes of Morgan's voice in the mixture of international influence, Glasgow exuberance and formal variety but Rob's voice is still very much his own.

All in all, Rob's work is a highly entertaining, stimulating read. He has decided to keep writing for a few more months before sending an MS out. To judge by the present selection, he's going from strength to strength, so I'm sure those few months will bring some excellent poems into being. I'm looking forward eagerly to putting his first collection on my bookshelf (and, of course, to taking it down). Meanwhile, if you haven't already bought a copy of The Clown of Natural Sorrow, what are you waiting for?

*You can read his comment on my MS here.

**The confectionary and culinary terms "soor plooms" and "bridie" are the only instances I can think of.

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