Thursday, March 27, 2008

What Makes a Poem a Poem?

Rob A Mackenzie got himself in slightly hot water with some comment writers on his blog last week for daring to suggest that he might not consider Magi Gibson's work poetry. Unfortunately, instead of following the question of what makes a poem a poem, which could have thrown up some interesting ideas and insights, the comments took a rather more personal and abusive turn. Disgraceful and disturbing. I for one don't want to inhabit a space where perfectly legitimate aesthetic judgements attract abuse, so good on Rob for standing by his judgement.

Anyway, what does make a poem a poem? I'm interested to know what readers of this blog have to say on that. L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poet Charles Bernstein has an intriguing go at answering this perennial aesthetic question here. In 60 seconds. Of course, his answer throws up all sorts of questions. What does he mean by "the timing"? Is it something intrinsic to the poem or is it about the relationship of the poem to a moment in history and, therefore, to society? If the former, in what way does it differ from prosody, if at all? If the latter, is it possible for a piece of writing that once was a poem to cease being a poem and for one that formerly wasn't a poem to become a poem? Or is that more about the poem's relationship to time and is that different? If, as some scientists think, time is an illusion, where does that leave us?

Friday, March 21, 2008

LBF 2008 Takes Shape

The programme for Linlithgow Book Festival 2008 is beginning to take shape. It's looking good, not least with our first Booker Prize-winning author on the festival in James Kelman. Keep an eye the website for further announcements in coming weeks.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

A StAnza Blog Roundup

StAnza reports are, naturally, now popping up in the Scottish literary blogomarble. Colin Will offers a StAnza insider's point of view in his brief sketch. Rob A Mackenzie has two reports: one for the Friday* and one for the Sunday. Rachel Fox muses on her mixed feelings here; while Sorlil gives a StAnza first-timer's view here. I'm sure there are/will be more.

*In passing, I'll just mention that, at the weekend, he was far from the only one raving about August Kleinzahler's Friday performance.

Draft Poem: Onding

Will leave this up for a few days for comment. The title is Scots; here is a link to the DSL definition of the word.

[poem deleted 21/03/08]

Monday, March 17, 2008

Stanza 2008: What Andy Did

I jumped into the car first thing yesterday morning and zipped up the road to St Andrew's for my fix of StAnza 2008, listening to The Guardian CD of great 20th century poets on the way to get me in the mood. My first event was the masterclass in translation with Helmut Haberkamm and Fitzgerald Kusz, who both write in the Franconian dialect of German, and, from the Scottish side, Robert Alan Jamieson and Sandy Hutchison. I was irritated with myself that I hadn't managed to do or submit translations of any of the masterclass poems, but it was an extremely worthwhile event for the discussion of dialect writing and translation*. It also gave me the chance to catch up a wee bit with Donal McLaughlin, Jim McGonigal and Chloe Morrish. And I came away with some free back issues of the Berlin-based poetry and fiction periodical lauter niemand and it's English-language adjunct, no man's land.

After a somewhat hurried lunch, I was back in the Town Hall for the French-language translated poets reading. French isn't really one of my languages, but I've complained in the past about translated poets only being during the week when there isn't a hope of my getting to StAnza so, having missed the Frisian and Franconian poets' readings because I was unable to be there on the Saturday, I felt I ought to go to this one. It was a fascinating reading. Neither of the poets--Heather Dohollau and Soleïman Adel Guémar--was actually French. Heather Dohollau is Welsh but has made her home in Brittany and writes in French, translating her own work into English. Soleïman Adel Guémar is Algerian and writes in French but is now living in ... where else? ... Wales!

I have to confess that the exhaustion of the previous day's 1st birthday party was beginning to tell by that point and I didn't get as much out of the reading as I should have done. But I'd certainly look out for their work again. To combat the tiredness, I headed to the Byre for a cuppa before Wholly Communion, a film of a massive reading at the Royal Albert Hall in 1965. To judge by this, poetry--or at least the Beatier end of it--was so much part of the counter culture it could fill an establishment venue like that to the rafters in those heady days. It's a mad, mad film. Some of the camera work made me feel sea-sick (I'm serious; O for a steadycam!), some of the poetry was equally shaky (but some was still good) and some of the audience likewise. (Well, probably most of the audience and writers were under the influence of something. These days, you wouldn't even be able to smoke a cigarette in there, never mind what was probably in the majority of the roll-ups visible on screen.) Adrian Mitchell's "To Whom it May Concern" was one of the best bits of the film and here it is:

After the film, Rob Mackenzie and I had a coffee in the Byre before heading to the pamphlet fair. By the time we got there, it was really winding down, and there wasn't much doing. We browsed what there was and chatted with Jim Carruth and Tessa Ransford, the force behind so much of the promotion of poetry pamphlets in Scotland over the past number of years.

Back at the Byre, I bought myself a ticket for the 5:00pm performance by Belfast poet Gearóid MacLochlainn with guitarist Dave Burnett, on the recommendation of Donal McLaughlin. And I'm glad I did. His billing as a performance poet doesn't tell you the half of it. Readers of this blog will know I'm sceptical of the animal performance poetry, generally thinking the bulk of it is better less spotted and spouted, but MacLochlainn is the real deal. He writes in, across, over and under Irish and English. There's a very strong flavour of the elaborate soundscapes of the great canonical Gaelic poetry and song, such as Duncan Ban MacIntyre to use a notable Scottish example, but it's deeply contemporary in feel and content and--get this--he does it successfully in English too, perhaps not least because he brings this tradition into collision with elements of rap. I was, shall we say, hugely impressed and bought his CD, Rakish Paddy Blues II, my travelling companion on the way home.

The comparison with Duncan Ban is, by the way, not random: one of the pieces MacLochlainn performed was a poem in praise of an Irish travelling piper, Johnny Doran. MacLochlainn's poem emulates the rhythms of Irish "open" pipe music and then slips into those of "closed", dance music (hope I got those terms the right way round!). The distinction sounds not unlike that in Scotland between ceòl mòr (or piobaireachd) and ceòl beag and, of course, Duncan Ban's great poem "Moladh Beinn Dòbhrainn" ("In Praise of Ben Doran") is written in the form and rhythm of a piobaireachd.

Gerry Cambridge mentioned to me that Iain Crichton Smith had translated "Ben Doran" and that the version was in his Collected Poems. I hadn't realised that, despite having the book on my shelf. After a quick look this morning, I'm impressed with the degree to which Smith successfully renders the rhythm, meaning and some of the rhyme (he ignores some of it, presumably because it's just so elaborate it would be nigh on impossible to do in English). Julie Johnstone said she thought one of the films showing on the day's loop was partly about the poem, so I went up to have a look: she was right and, luckily for me, Moladh Da Bheinn (In Praise of Two Mountains) was the last one to show in the loop.

For me, the last event of the day was the Adrian Mitchell and James Fenton reading. Mitchell was a likeable chap with a very loose, relaxed style of presentation but, while I liked some of the poems, much of it did nothing or as near as for me. Probably the best was his slightly updated rendition of "To Whom It May Concern". However, I wish there were more poets as passionately pacifist as he is.

Fenton's work I don't really know at all, I must confess. However, from the extracts of his book on metrics that appeared in The Guardian a good few years back, I do know that he's quite conservative in many of his aesthetic views and that came across in the work he read. At times I found myself wondering whether Modernism had ever happened. That might well be an uncharitable, uninformed view, but it was my reaction. He read some beautiful, powerful, hugely accomplished and intriguing poems--and read them extremely well--but, but ... I don't know, something didn't quite engage me at the level and in the way I really wanted. One of the most interesting and powerful pieces he read was "Jerusalem", certainly worth hearing and reading.

Still, it was an extremely good day, full of good, interesting poetry and conversations with friends and strangers, many of whom I've not mentioned here. That's one of the things I love about StAnza. I overheard somebody say he preferred it to the Edinburgh Book Festival. I know what he means: even people you don't know talk to you, which doesn't happen so much in Charlotte Square. There's a sense of community and everyone seems glad to be part of that community.

*Of course, the term "dialect" is not one I'm comfortable applying to Scots as a whole, but the fact is that, because there is no standardised form of the language, everyone who writes in Scots writes in or out of a particular dialect of Scots, regardless of whether they confine their Scots vocabulary to that dialect.

Saturday, March 08, 2008

A Footnote to "Les Troubadours de HappenStance"

"Things often move slowly in the poetry world!" said I. Do you think if we rechristened poetry "slow books" it might become as vaguely trendy as the slow food and cittaslow movements? But then even vague trendiness is probably not what poetry needs. Remember, it was once the new rock 'n' roll. Now, it's The Guardian's new selling point (for a week or so, at least)*.

*See the footnote to this excellent piece by Sean O'Brien.

And, despite my sarcastic tone, a genuine hooray for The Guardian's free booklets (except the Great Interviews series)!

Shore Poets February 2008: Photos

Mark Ogle's family and several Shore Poets past and present.

Alison playing.

The Mark Ogle Memorial Poem trophy.

Hamish Whyte, Jacob Polley and Diana Hendry relax.

Angus Peter Campbell receives the trophy from Lizzie and Deborah.

Angus Peter with Mark Ogle's family.

(These photos, with full tags, are also on the Shore Poets Facebook pages.)

Les Troubadours de HappenStance

News just in: there'll be a HappenStance Press reading at Coffee House Poetry at the Troubadour in London on 26th May. Several HappenStance poets will read, including Rob A Mackenzie, Eleanor Livingstone, Michael Mackmin (editor of The Rialto), Gregory Leadbetter, me and Helena Nelson (Mme HappenStance herself). I've been thinking about trying to read in London for a while, and rumours of something like this happening have been in the air since Siriol Troup passed Tonguefire on to Anne-Marie Fyfe a while back. (Things often move slowly in the poetry world!) I'm particularly looking forward to hearing HappenStancers I haven't heard before. Should be great fun. Now to work out the travel ...

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Wading Through ... Or Not

On the train into Edinburgh for Polly Clark's reading the other night, I finally started to read Sean O'Brien's Forward and TS Eliot prize-winning collection The Drowned Book. Now, I might be missing something--I must be missing something, if the judges of both prizes aren't--but I simply couldn't get into it. It's not that it's what one might call difficult poetry, it's just that I found it ... well ... dull. Granted I've only read the first three or four poems, so maybe there's something more later in the book, but it would go against all the principles of constructing a collection to put your least interesting poems at the front.

Has anybody else read The Drowned Book? Do you find it dull? If you don't, I'm willing to be persuaded. I don't intend to abandon it quite yet, but there was little or nothing in those opening poems that would naturally draw me back, especially when I'm having fun reading Milton along with Rob Mackenzie, Jane Holland and others. If you're a Drowned Book fan, what is it about the poems that grabs you or draws you in?

Monday, March 03, 2008

Two by Two

Out last night to Polly Clark's reading at Edinburgh Uni's Office of Lifelong Learning, where she's the Royal Literary Funding writer in residence. Polly was reading along with three OLL students.

Debbie Cannon, who read at last month's Shore Poets, was the only poet of the three. She kicked off with a reduced version of her Shore Poets set, and I have to say I enjoyed hearing the poems again. Of course, hearing poems read isn't like reading them on the page and, if they're any good, they should bear being heard again, which they did. The pleasure changes, of course, from the surprise of discovery to the enjoyment of knowing what's coming--a deeper pleasure in a way.

I'm afraid I can't quite remember the other two readers' names: Sean Morris and Katie something, I think. Sean read an entertaining excerpt from a novel in progress about the "beast girl" (i.e., an animal keeper) in a circus. Katie read from a dark and absorbing mystery set in Victorian London. An interesting contrast to Debbie and Polly's sets.

Polly came after the break, reading from her two published collections--Kiss and Take Me With You--as well as from Farewell My Lovely, a collection to be published next year. Much, if not all, the published work she'd read at the Shore Poets in September but, again, that was no problem for me. The new work she read was mostly about marriage and motherhood, though Polly pointed out that the new book isn't solely about those themes. In the best tradition of contemporary poetry, it was not only celebration but exploration. In fact, it sounded a more interesting and therefore more enlightening approach to writing about motherhood than Kate Clanchy's Newborn, for instance, even if the latter book does contain a couple of beautiful poems.

After the reading, Polly, her husband Julian and I went for a drink before I caught the train back to Lithgae. We ended up in Centraal (where I've been only once before, I think; before a Bruce Cockburn gig at the Queen's Hall a couple or more years back) for one drink and a good, relaxed chat about babies, writing, my day job, vocabulary and where we were on Sept 11th 2001 and the day Diana died.

Sunday, March 02, 2008

100 Favourite Scottish Football Poems

One of the questions that one always faces with an anthology is what is its rationale, its purpose and aim? Like its team mates 100 Favourite Scottish Poems and 100 Favourite Scottish Poems to Read Aloud, 100 Favourite Scottish Football Poems, edited by Alistair Findlay, hints at a kind of democratising of the canon in its title and cover design, which is reminiscent of the earlier edition of The Nation's Favourite Poems in typeface and layout. However, although the 20 of the 100 Favourite Scottish Poems (which, presumably, nobody would ever dream of reading aloud) were chosen through a Radio Scotland listener poll, the other 200 are, as far as I can tell, chosen by single editors.

So, if we don't have a popular poll, what do we have? One man's take on how poetry has addressed an endlessly popular subject, perhaps. Findlay instinctively sides with the crowd, which, he says is "really only another name for 'the people'." Perhaps it was an awareness of the disjunct between his role as sole arbiter of what's in and what's out and the requirements of his Marxism that led him to the rather odd decision to number not the pages but only the poems and state that they are "in an order of reading proposed by the editor", which is to state the obvious, really.

But what you really want to know about is the poems. Readers of this blog will know that I'm no football fanatic, though I confess I'm not entirely averse to watching the odd Aberdeen or Scotland game and have been known to kick a ball about. All of which makes me pretty reasonably well-placed to judge the book as an anthology of poems without becoming misty-eyed about the footballing aspect or writing it off in anti-football disgust.

If you're looking for a golden treasury, go to Palgrave. For my taste, there are a few too many paeans to great footballers and I find many of them dull poems. One notable exception in that genre is Matthew Fitt's wonderful "Jim Leighton", a poem that, certainly read aloud (as it is on The Jewel Box), would curely make the hardest footiephobe concede that there must be beauty and heroism in the game.

But don't just turn over to the black and white film on the other channel. There is a lot more to this book than the footballing hall of fame in verse. If it contains a good handful of poems that will interest only the enthusiast, it also contains at least as much that's well worth the general reader's attention. Football runs deep, deep in the Scottish psyche and male Scottish society, and the real strength of Findlay's anthology is that it presents us with a portrait of that deep place in a more profound and, certainly, more entertaining way than any academic study could.

Every aspect of football's appeal is here: the highs and lows, the tribalism and sectarianism, the communal experience and the shared memories, the inextricable link between the sport and Scottish tribal identities. The book shows how far back this goes: the earliest poem is a quatrain from 1580, and one of the most pleasurable discoveries for me--there were plenty, I assure you--was the exerpt from "The Christmass Bawing of Monimusk, 1739", proof that the divines of Scotland have never been Calvinist dourness through and through.

Sectarianism, is of course, unavoidable. Findlay does an admirable job in this regard. "The Fields of Athenry" and "The Sash My Father Wore" sit side by side in the book--could you do otherwise?--and there's plenty sharp, funny and poignant commentary on the sectarian question from several of the poets. Dennis O'Donnell captures so much of the ambivalence, threat and fear in his "Fid. Def." (another poem that stood out for me), while Robert Crawford's "Identity League" sums up the nation's carnaptious obsessions with typical Crawfordian wit and invention.

It's interesting that, although the book includes a good deal by many of our leading poets, it's often far from their best work and that many of the most interesting and effective poems in Findlay's choice are not those by the biggest names. Perhaps there's something in football that raises the game of the lesser writers and maybe the bulk of the greats, MacDiarmid not least, have missed what's most poetic about it. There are also a few odd choices in Findlays list, poems that are shoehorned into either the rubric of "Scottish" or "football", but he does a good job of defending them in his spiky introduction.

Despite this, depsite its slight uncertainties about canon building and democracy, and despite overdoing the eulogies from a general reader's point of view, this book is a lively, entertaining and emotionally informative anthology of poetry. If you want to understand Scotland today, you need to read this kind of stuff, not just the academic and semi-academic analyses of where we are and how we got here. Findlay has done us a service in collecting it between these covers.

"OF MAN'S first disobedience ..."

Perhaps I was too harsh on Rob Mackenzie's schedule for reading Paradise Lost: I made it to the same point as him yesterday. Rob is doing a good job of summarising the poem and there are already a few interesting comments on his first post, so I won't repeat what's already on Surroundings. I have to say, I am enjoying it. Milton writes some truly great blank verse. There are so many justly famous lines and dazzling passages in those first 330 lines. So, many thanks to Rob for the spur to read the poem.

Saturday, March 01, 2008

Reasoning Rhyme: Lightness that Drew Me: Rhyme in Gaelic

One question that arises for the new terminology is whether it can cover rhyme practice in languages other than English adequately. It ought to be able to, as it's based on phonetic/phonemic correspondence rather than any single tradition of what does or doesn't constitute a rhyme. In this post, I start to test it out against Scottish Gaelic rhyme practice.

In Gaelic poetry, rhyme is traditionally considered to focus on vowel sounds, with no reference to the coda consonants of the rhyme syllables. Because stress is on the first syllable of a word in Gaelic, the rhyme vowel in end rhyme often falls on the penultimate syllable of the line. However, this isn't feminine rhyme, as the final syllable doesn't participate in the rhyme correspondence. Final-syllable rhymes are nonetheless perfectly possible (there are plenty monosyllables in the language), and it's also common to find internal rhyme, in which a vowel sound rhymes with a stressed vowel at a given point in a preceding or following line. It's also worth noting that vowels do not necesarily have to be identical, but closely related: /e/ and /E/ can rhyme, for example.

Meg Bateman's beautiful short poem "Aotramachd" neatly demonstrates the rhyme on the penultimate vowel sounds:

B’ e d’aotromachd a rinn mo thàladh,
aotromachd do chainnte ’s do ghàire,
aotromachd do lethchinn nam làmhan,
d’aotrmachd lurach ùr mhàlda:
agus ’s e aotromachd do phòige
a tha a’ cur trasg air mo bheòil-sa,
is ’s e aotromachd do ghlaic mum chuairt-sa
a leigeas seachad leis an t-sruth mi.

It was your lightness that drew me,
the lightness of your talk and your laughter,
the lightness of your cheek in my hands,
your sweet gentle modest lightness:
and it is the lightness of your kiss
that is starving my mouth,
and the lightness of your embrace
that will let me go adrift.

There's so much going on in this densely wrought lyric, with its rich mix of semantic, grammatical and phonological parallelism, but the feature I want to focus on is the end rhyme scheme. According to the Gaelic criteria outlined above, the poem rhymes AAAABBCC. The A rhyme is on à (thàladh:ghàire:làmhan:mhàlda), the B on ò (phòige:bheòil-sa) and the C on u (chuairt-sa:t-sruth mi). The first four lines--those that rhyme on à--are concerned with what drew the speaker to the object of her desire; they unpack the attractive lightness of the first line. In the subsequent four lines, as the lightness repels instead of attracts and the lovers drift apart, the rhyme scheme changes and fractures into two couplets.

It will not have escaped the astute reader's notice that the scheme of "Aotramachd" is more or less nuclear rhyme. In fact, analysed in these terms, we can break it down further into a clear A1A1A2A2BBCC structure. Before we do that, a quick note on Gaelic phonology is necessary.

Gaelic understanding recognises two classes of vowels and consonants: the broad and the slender. Slender vowels are i and e in the orthography, which represent the high front vowels /i/, /e/ and /E/; the rest are broad vowels. The slender vowels are sounds that, across languages, cause palatalisation of consonants*. And that's what the slender consonants are: palatalised versions of the basic, broad consonants (except that, in some dialects, the /rj/** is pronounced as a [T] or [D]). This means that what might be a secondary articulation for a consonant English is a significant difference in Gaelic, significant enough to create a separate class. I'm sure I needn't point out the importance of that for the possibilities in rhyme.

The A1 rhyme thàladh:ghàire transcribes roughly as /hAl6G:GArj@/. The rhyming vowels are identical. In the codas***, we have /l/ and /r/, which linguists class together under the term liquids. The correspondence of /h/ and the voiced velar fricative /G/ is less obvious but, if we take into account the morphophonemics--the interface of grammar and phonology--we get a clearer relationship. In their unmodified form, the rhyme fellows are tàladh and gàire, so their first sounds are /t/ and /g/ respectively: two non-nasal stops. However, because they follow the possessive adjectives mo (my) and do (the singular and familiar form of your) in the poem, they are lenited. That is to say, the stops weaken to fricatives. In the change from the velar stop /g/ to the velar fricative /G/, the place of articulation stays the same. However, in Gaelic, the voiceless coronal stop /t/ always lenites to the voiceless glottal fricative /h/. Not a close correspondence phonetically or even necessarily phonemically, but a clear morphophonemic correspondence.

I don't even need to transcribe the A2 rhyme for it to be obvious that it's a texbook example of segmental swapping: làmhan:mhàlda. However, perhaps a comment on dialect is appropriate here. In all dialects of Gaelic, the grapheme mh represents /v/ when it occurs at the beginning of a word. The word-medial mh in làmhan would be realised as /v/ in some dialects but, in others, it would be a /w/. Happily for my analysis, a recording of Meg Bateman reading the poem is on hand in The Jewel Box: it reveals her pronunciation to be /lAv@n/. Even if it was a /w/, it would still share the labial place of articulation with /v/, so it would be a case of featural swapping rather than segmental.

The B rhyme, phòige:bheòil-sa, transcribes as /fO:kj@:vjO:ljsa/. As is clear from the orthography and transcription, the place and manner features of the onsets are identical; the only major difference is in voicing. The codas might seem less closely related, but the /kj/ is a palatalised velar stop, which brings the blade of the tongue into a position much closer to that for /lj/ than in an unpalatalised /k/ so, in Gaelic terms, both codas are slender consonants. Interestingly, in the second rhyme fellow, the onset consonant /vj/ is palatalised. There's a lot going on in this apparently simple rhyme.

Finally, there's the C rhyme, chuairt-sa:t-sruth mi. It transcribes as /xuartjsa:tru:#mi/. Again, there's some segmental swapping going on here, with a /rtj/coda becoming a /tr/ onset. The second rhyme fellow has an empty coda. We could borrow the /m/ from mi, which would involve the sonority and the stop features of the /m/ breaking into the /r/ (sonority) and /t/ (stop) from the coda in chuairt.

There's much much more I could say about the poem, but this analysis indicates two things: that rhyme in Gaelic can, in fact, go beyond the vowel and that the new terminology is well placed to describe a non-English rhyme tradition. I might, in future posts, test it against older Gaelic poetry, but this will do for starters!

*Note that the presence of a vowel in the spelling doesn't necessarily mean it's pronounced. Like English, Gaelic has plenty of digraphs (two-letter symbols that represent one sound). However, the orthography often indicates historical pronunciation and the presence of slender vowels around a consonant always means that that consonant is slender.

**I use the /j/to indicate palatisation. Hence, /rj/ is a palatalised form of /r/.

***In these words and several others in the poem, what I'm treating as codas would probably be better described as the onsets of the second syllable. Therefore, as there are clear relationships, we can say that they are borrowed from the second syllables, which doesn't really participate in the rhyme scheme, as is shown by the varying vowel sounds and the variation between syllables with and without codas.


Rob Mackenzie has thrown down a gauntlet: to read Paradise Lost with him this month. "Paradise Lost in a month?" I hear you ask, as you fall off your chair in disbelief. It seems so. I will be joining him, although I guarantee I'll fall behind his exacting and somewhat artificial schedule, which apparently works out at about 300 lines a day! There's an online study guide here, although I haven't the faintest whether it's any good.

Much more manageable is the latest incarnation of Rob's manuscript collection, which I read a couple of weeks ago. There are some really cracking poems in it, I have to say, and it's certainly a stronger book than when I last saw it. I enjoyed reading it so much I could hardly put it down. He just gets better and better, so somebody should snap him up. (Any publishers listening?)

What's New on Tonguefire