Living with the Truth Stranger than Fiction This Is Not About What You Think Milligan and Murphy Making Sense

Thursday 27 November 2008

The long and the short of it (part one)

There can be no 'correctness' apart from usage.
—C. C. Fries, American academic

Lenin Nair is an interesting guy. His name alone is interesting. And, yes, that's who he's named after (I had to ask). He runs a blog called Cute Writing which I read from time to time. One thing he has a thing about is concise writing, using short sentences and not wasting words.

He's not the only one. I keep tripping over posts harping on at me to cut down on my words but it was one of Lenin's most recent posts that caught my attention and fired my imagination.

Say, an author wastes one word in every five sentences. There are 80,000 words in his latest novel. And there are 4 words in average in each sentence. This means ideally he wastes the first word of every sentence! Okay, here goes my calculation…

Totally 80,000 divided by (4*5) is what we want (is my math correct? I am weak in it). So, it is 4000. Our author wasted 4000 words in his novel. Now, to read those 4000 words, a reader requires one hour extra, let’s assume. And this is highly economical. Most authors waste far more than that.

One more assumption: our author has twenty books in writing (20 best sellers, each sold one million copies). Now, each book makes one hour waste on extra unnecessary words. So, our author makes 20 million of general public hours wasted! It is up to you to calculate how many days, months, or years it is. There are hundreds of best selling authors, and thousands of non-best selling ones, who give more danger to community than someone like Osama bin-Laden. They are delaying a lot of progress by riveting their readers’ attention on their useless words rather than their useful ones. - Why Waste Words in Writing?

Don't you just love statistics? I always have despite the fact I failed my Statistics exam at college but what were the odds on that? Personally I tend to stay clear of them. I don't trust 'em. But this is clearly just a bit of fun from Lenin to make a serious point.

It's something that I find myself running across more and more these days, online articles telling me how to write concisely, how many words per sentence, how many sentences per paragraph – and I am not jesting here. Tell me something, when did words become an endangered species?

I have a problem with all this. Although I agree that some authors do waffle on endlessly and needlessly about a lot of stuff, piling adjective upon adjective – there will always be those – there are also a lot of writers, myself included, who enjoy language for its own sake and relish the musicality of the longer sentence. Writing is not only about the destination (accurately conveying meaning) it is also about the journey (the experience of learning).

Small is beautiful

On the whole I agree that technical writing should veer towards conciseness, clarity and simplicity (the personality of the writer is neither here nor there) but in creative fiction the way the words say things matters every bit as much as the message that those words are there to communicate.

There's always a middle ground and I'd like to think that's where you'll find me; I tend towards the loquacious but steer clear of out-and-out verbosity.

In another article, How to Write Concise Sentences, Lenin provides a nice list of examples of words we often use to pad our sentences. Let's have a look at one here:

Using absolutely, totally, completely, etc: Don’t say “something is absolutely excellent”. Using just ‘excellent’ is enough.

Of course he's right. But he is also completely, totally and utterly wrong. That, by the way, is one of my pet interjections – "completely, totally and utterly" – and I enjoy using it. It's like my catchphrase. One of them anyway. It's not enough to say he's wrong here. I want to really emphasise his wrongness and stamp all over it. Or I could have said: "But he is also wrong, w r o n g, capital letters, bold, underscore AND italics." Or what about: "But he is also wrong. You would not believe how wrong he is. On a scale of one to wrong he's so very, very wrong."

Okay, maybe he's not as wrong as all that but you get my point.

To my mind the inclusion of all these adverbs adds colour to the text and English is a very colourful language. But when does it get to be unnecessary?

In his post Power of Short Sentences, Lenin draws our attention to the opening sentence to Oliver Twist:

Among other public buildings in a certain town, which for many reasons it will be prudent to refrain from mentioning, and to which I will assign no fictitious name, there is one anciently common to most towns, great or small: to wit, a workhouse; and in this workhouse was born; on a day and date which I need not trouble myself to, inasmuch as it can be of no possible consequence to the reader, in this stage of the business at all events; the item of mortality whose name is prefixed to the head of this chapter.

In other words:

Oliver was born in the workhouse.

And this is exactly how the abridged version of the book on Glyn Hughes' Squashed Writer's site puts it.

But just look at what Dickens does in this sentence. He piles insignificance atop of insignificance. He doesn't even name Oliver who is reduced to an "item of mortality". It is a carefully constructed sentence. Of course it could be broken down into smaller sentences but for whose benefit?

Up till now I feel like I've been slagging off Lenin but I think he's the kind of guy who can take a joke. To redress the balance somewhat if I go right back to the start of his blog, his very first entry has this to say:

When you can write simple sentences, you don’t have to write too simple ones:

Tom is a boy. He wears a sweatshirt. He is 5 feet tall. He is fair. He is handsome. He is running. He is…

Now, that looks ridiculous! How about:

Tom is a fair good-looking boy of five feet, wearing a sweatshirt. He is running.

That’s fine and professional. To me, being professional is being subtle. When you see professionals and amateurs at work, you will know this

See, he's not obsessed with brevity for its own sake.

Let's move the focus away from poor Lenin and look at why people have it in for the longer sentence. Here's an example provided by Ken Macrorie in his book, Telling Writing where he talks about what he calls 'namery' the habit of naming things that do not need naming:

He starts with this example:

Juliet and Rosalind are women who fall in love. This is one of the few similarities between these two characters. They are different in age, with Juliet being an impetuous adolescent and Rosalind being a mature adult. This different is illustrated by the manner in which each character falls in love. Juliet rushes into romance and gets married as quickly as possible while Rosalind makes sure of her love for Orlando--a much more rational and logical choice than Juliet's.

Now, on the surface this doesn't look too cumbersome. The sentences are not obsessively short but just because the component sentences are on the short side doesn't necessarily make it good reading. Macrorie provides a streamlined version and it's worthy of note that he doesn't try and force it all into a single convoluted 'clever' sentence.

One of the few similarities between Juliet and Rosalind is that they both fall in love; but Juliet rushes into romance while Rosalind makes sure of her love for Orlando. Juliet is an impetuous adolescent; Rosalind is a mature adult.

There is of course a problem with short sentences as Emma Darwin points out in her post In praise of the long sentence:

Short sentences don't flow. Yes, the next one may develop it. But at each full stop the reader, well, stops. There are several unfortunate consequences. One: rhythmically and therefore mentally the reader has to start up again each time. They may choose not to. Two: because you can't easily link each sentence grammatically and logically to the next, you're relying on the reader to make the connections: to move the story on, to provide their own profluence. Some will, some won't, but none will do it as well and reliably as when you, the writer, provide it. And Three: it's boring to read/hear for any length of time, just as is a single drum beat instead of the stress and slack, the interlocking rhythms of our human existence.

A similar point is made by Matthew Cheney in his post, In praise of long sentences, where he includes a quote from Joseph Williams's Style: Toward Clarity and Grace, the opening paragraph from his chapter on 'Length':

The ability to write clear, crisp sentences that never go beyond twenty words is a considerable achievement. You'll never confuse a reader with sprawl, wordiness, or muddy abstraction. But if you never write sentences longer than twenty words, you'll be like a pianist who uses only the middle octave: you can carry the tune, but without much variety or range. Every competent writer has to know how to write a concise sentence and how to prune a long one to readable length. But a competent writer must also know how to manage a long sentence gracefully, how to make it as clear and as vigorous as a series of short ones.

The online sentence

The main cry for shorter sentences comes from people involved in writing for the Web, shorter sentences, smaller paragraphs, plain English, lots of white space please. Since more and more people are being drawn to the Internet for information does this mean that what they're going to find has been diluted in some way to support the medium? In his article, Web Writing vs Print Writing, Kerry Redshaw explains the science behind these outrageous demands. In printed material, the brain slows down to string multiple syllables together. On the Web, that comprehension is slowed down by another 25% and with that slow down, we often lose the rhythms of sentences.

The Nielsen Report, which he references, provides some sobering statistics:

  • 79% of users scan the page instead of reading word for word, focusing on headlines, summaries and captions.

  • Only 16% actually read word for word what's on the screen.

  • Web readers are 3 times more likely than newspaper readers to limit in-depth reading to short paragraphs.

  • On the average Web page, users have time to read at most 28% of the words during an average visit; 20% is more likely.

  • Of those Web users who do read the entire page, most only absorb 75% of the content.

It's amazing anything goes in at all.

The most important conclusion was that writing on the Web should be 50% shorter than its paper equivalent simply because people don't read what they find online; they scan it and pick out the interesting bits. So we're advised to keep it simple, succinct and scannable.

Interestingly the turning point in sentence construction happened well before computers, with the inception of the pulp detective novel; at least that is what Otto Penzler suggests in the article Pulp Fiction Murdered Long Sentences:

I think it was really the beginning of a different kind of writing. The kind of writing in the world of literature that everyone had been familiar with was Henry James with long sentences, long paragraphs. And then Ernest Hemingway came along and Dashiell Hammett came along and they started to write short, quick, clipped sentences that didn't require lots and lots of description. The pulps provided the perfect springboard for that literary tone.

Middle ground

The real answer is that there is room for both. If you look at this speech by Shakespeare's Henry IV, Part 1 (IIiv) we find the character of Falstaff getting more and more long-winded in his sentences. I've reformatted it to make my point:

But to say I know more harm in him than in myself, were to say more than I know.

That he is old, the more the pity, his white hairs do witness it; but that he is, saving your reverence, a whoremaster, that I utterly deny.

If sack and sugar be a fault, God help the wicked! if to be old and merry be a sin, then many an old host that I know is damned: if to be fat be to be hated, then Pharaoh's lean kine are to be loved.

No, my good lord; banish Peto, banish Bardolph, banish Poins: but for sweet Jack Falstaff, kind Jack Falstaff, true Jack Falstaff, valiant Jack Falstaff, and therefore more valiant, being, as he is, old Jack Falstaff, banish not him thy Harry's company, banish not him thy Harry's company: banish plump Jack, and banish all the world.

To which the prince replies:

I do. I will.

Here we have a fine example of two very different kinds of power. And each is appropriate to the character involved.

In my next post we'll have a look at the lengths to which some authors go to demonstrate the effectiveness of the longer sentence and then we'll consider some of the maths behind it all.

Sunday 23 November 2008

Inspiration Filipina-style

I don't give a great deal of credence to the stats you get via the Internet but I do still check them now and again just for the hell of it. The wee graph above shows you the state of play at the moment. Notice something odd? Three percent of the visits are from the Philippines. For a wee country that's a lot of visits. That's 100 visits a month. And I suspect it's primarily down to one not exactly uninspiring woman, Jena Isle.

Those of you who are a part of the Entrecard community will have probably come across her since she runs not one but 10 blogs:

as well as contributing articles to other sites such as Helium, HealthMad, Quazen, Socyberty, Associated Content, Triond and Bizcovering and I gave up looking after that. She also finds time to add in her tuppenceworth (or whatever the Philippine equivalent to that might be) to loads of sites – I'm always running across her name. Plus she has a full time job which she describes simply as "demanding". When does this woman sleep?

On top of all that I've now found out that she's intending to bring out a book although for once she's not doing all the work herself. This is what she has to say about her project:

Books are treasure troves.

Almost all successful and famous persons I know have been "wide readers".

I have always wanted to share inspiring stories with readers.

It is a dream I know I have to fulfil in this lifetime, or I'll never rest in peace in the other realm.

This book project I will be embarking on would be entitled: "Inspirational Thoughts and Stories from Bloggers All Over the World."

She wrote to me and asked if I'd like to contribute. At first I was reticent and needed a bit of persuasion. It's not that I didn't think the project was worthwhile, I simply wasn't sure if I could contribute anything worthwhile. Still, she pestered me a little and I finally gave it a crack. You can see how well I managed on her website here. I'm afraid I took the easy option and decided to take inspiration itself as my theme.

If there're any of you out there who fancy offering a contribution then here's the link where she explains what the conditions are.

Jena surrounded by her family

Thursday 20 November 2008

How to critique

If you don't have anything nice to say then don't say anything. – My mum (and probably a thousand other mums too)

Okay, hands up – no one taught me how to critique but then no one taught me how to write a novel so there.

I think the biggest problem with the word critique is the word itself. It sounds like 'criticise' and so people can't help but assume that when you critique something you're expected to pick holes in it, after all aren't critics famous for tearing people to shreds? In fact it often seems like a prerequisite for the job is the ability to belittle, berate and beat the bejaysus (metaphorically speaking) out of any poor bugger that wanders into their sights.

Critics have a lot to answer for, the death of Tchaikovsky for one, although we will never know for sure but I'm blaming them anyway. In Waiting for Godot "Crrrritic!" is one of the insults they throw at each other.

So, how do you critique a piece of work? Stories are fairly straightforward because there are core elements you want to look at:

  • Plot
  • Characters
  • Action
  • Dialogue
  • Background
  • Theme
  • Spelling, grammar, punctuation

You can look at each one of them in turn and observe what works and what doesn't. Your object is to analyse and evaluate but let's stick with a poem for just now because similar principles apply. On Zoetrope apart from a written review you're expected to give marks out of 10 for the following points:

  • Originality
  • Communication of Theme
  • Structure
  • Fluency

It's not perfect but it's a reasonable list to keep in mind. I would suggest a few other things that should be considered:

  • If the poem has a title, how does it contribute to the work as a whole? Or is it simply a label?

  • What poetic techniques contribute to – or detract from – the success of the piece (e.g. alliteration, onomatopoeia, symbolism, rhyme)?

  • Is any part of the poem redundant? Is repetition used to good effect or is it a distraction? And that's not simply using the same words but expressing the same idea(s) but in different words.

  • Have the very best words been used?

  • Does the poem rely heavily on clichés or out-of-date and hackneyed expressions?

  • Who's the poem's target audience?

  • Is it relevant?

  • Does the work use esoteric terminology or require specialist knowledge?

  • And I would look at spelling, punctuation and grammar too.

Don't look at this as a checklist so much as things to think about when you look at a poem. Obviously the first time you run across a poem you're seeing it in isolation. If I can I'll have a squint at a few other poems by the same author to see what their style is, if they have one, and that will help me see if what I'm about to review is typical of their work.

I come across a lot of poems on the boards in certain forms (the haiku is obviously a popular one) so, if they're writing a haiku are they abiding by the rules and conventions that govern that style of writing. In simple terms, it is simple a poem with three lines with a 5-7-5 syllabic rhythm or is it true to the basic principles of haiku. Or does any of that matter? Western haiku is so far removed from its origins that beating someone over the head about their approach or subject matter is probably not going to help. I do usually mention the 5-7-5 structure IF the poem would work better with an extra syllable or two more or less.

The most obvious thing is first of all to look for what works about any piece – and even the worst poem has something praiseworthy about it. Note I didn’t say what's 'good' about it. Before you start dissecting a piece, find something – anything – nice you can say about it.

Then point out what doesn't work as well as it could, not what's 'bad' about it. Both of these should be objective comments.

Then what you like and dislike about the piece. These can be subjective remarks but it's so much better if someone tells you WHY they liked the piece. A comment like: "Great poem!" is … well, great, but not very helpful. If they're completely misread the piece then maybe it wasn't as great as you've been led to think it was. And, "That's the biggest load of horse manure I've ever read," is probably not the right thing to say either even if it is the biggest load of horse manure you've ever read. If they've put it out there for the world to see then they probably don't think so and no amount of persuading will convince them that it is.

One site I looked at suggested including a disclaimer:

Include a disclaimer that says you recognize the poet has the right to throw your critique into the nearest dumpster. "Take this for what it's worth." is a very common way to say "This is what I have to say, but you don't have to listen."

The next thing you know they'll be asking for a lawyer's letter.

But, yeah, make the point that this is an opinion and your motivation is to encourage and support the writer. You're not telling them what to do. You're telling them how their poem has affected you. So many writers forget that what they write is only part of the equation and their readers will bring only what they are capable of bringing to the table. Readers complete poems. In some cases this will be too much. In other cases not enough. I've had poets come back at me on both counts.

The website gives its own list and includes this option:

Offer suggestions for the poem from the point of view of a reader: point out the places that you don’t understand or sections that you find inconsistent with other parts of the poem. Give advice on the poem that is as concrete as possible. Tell the poet that you didn’t understand this line, or that word, or ask why each stanza begins with a capital letter.

You can also see some sample critiques there if you're interested.

I have completely reworked poems before to demonstrate a point I was trying to make. There are those who say this is an absolute no-no but sometimes it's easier to show rather than tell. But I'm always quick to point out that this is not saying their way is wrong and mine is right because so often there isn't a right and wrong way. Look at my post on my poem 'Stray', for example, and all the different ways it could have been laid out. That, I have to stress, is not something I do very often but a few lines is probably okay to illustrate your point.

I found this fun list on Author's Den. The author says of it: "I chose the letter 'I' to do this to remind us all that poetry is subjective and so is a critique."

Insight: A poem will often give us insight into a person's thoughts. What does this poem tell you about the poet?

Interpretation: What was your interpretation of the poem? What do you believe the poet meant for you to interpret?

Impact: How did the poem influence you? What impact did it have upon you? Describe from your own perspective remembering that this might not have been what the poet intended. Ideas Comment upon the ideas used. Was the poet original?

The article goes on to list illustration, inspiration, information, imagery, and a good many other ‘I’ words, some of which are a bit of a stretch. It is worth the read, however. The first comment on the list got to me:

Thanks for the info here, but basically, I think someone's write's either do it for you, or they don't. I personally don't try to find meaning/substance in others writings if it just dosent turn me on, that simple. And i am sure others feel the same way about my work. Each to his own.

And she's right, even if her English needs a bit of work. Or is that me being critical? Not everyone wants their work dissected and presented back to them arranged on a plate. For some people poetry is a take-it-or-leave-it medium. I don't get it. I think it's stupid but it's their right and so when I do encounter someone like that I apologise for any offense caused and move on to someone who might appreciate my efforts.

And that's the thing. When someone reviews your work never forget the fact that they've given up some of their precious time to try and make you a better writer. And that is the motive behind the majority of critiques. And even if it's not you can still learn from a bad critique. Just don't let 'em get to you.

For the record the next commentator on the 'I' list had this to say:

You are sooo awesome! You have helped me so much, now I know what questions I should ask on my critique. Thanks alot!

You never know how people are going to react. Some will be appreciative and other not. It's life and life sucks but we get on with it anyway.

There are other lists. Here's one taken from Poets Dictionary by William Packard:

And, lastly, how NOT to critique: DON'T CRITICISE THE POET. Was that clear enough? It's the old: hate the crime, not the criminal mentality. You can get away with quite a bit IF you're respectful. And if they won't listen don't try and force them around to your opinion.

All of the above is assuming that the poet has asked for comment in the first place. I've come a cropper before for saying too much when the poet has simply posted their poem on their blog. To my mind, if a poem's out there in the open then it's fair game though I've learned not to say too much on a blog. I just touch on a point or two and pass on. Poems on discussion boards are a different thing completely.

So, go for it. Just don't go for the throat. Okay?

Monday 17 November 2008

Egocentrifugal poetry

When we understand, we are at the centre of the circle, and there we sit while Yes and No chase each other around the circumference (Chuang-tzu.)

In an article in the New York Times, David Orr recounts the following anecdote which got me thinking:

In a half-filled auditorium, a poet was reading a poem about the death of a child. Autumn leaves fell, night descended, the hours became slow and cold and endless; it was pretty sad stuff. Afterward, an audience member came up to say how much he’d enjoyed the reading and how sorry he was for the poet’s loss. “I appreciate that,” the poet responded, “but the thing is, I’ve never had any kids. That was just a poem.” – Soldier Boy, New York Times

This got me thinking: Why is it that we automatically assume that poetry is autobiographical? I know I do. I do. I shouldn't. I know that everything I write is certainly not autobiographical nor does it always even reflect my personal opinion on a particular subject. And yet when I read anyone else's poetry that is the first thing that jumps to my mind.

I, the ninth letter of the alphabet, the personal pronoun. I have no way of proving this but I bet more poems are written in the first person singular than are prose works. In prose it's easier to write in the third person and in the past tense. Not so with poems. Poetry is the perfect medium for capturing the ego. I even wrote a poem once – twice actually – called 'I:-Ego'; there was a Part II too:

I:-EGO (Part II)

(who are so much like me),
if I love you,
am I narcissistic?

3 March 1979

I'd put up Part I but it's long, very long and exceedingly egocentric.

Now, here's a thought: have you even seen a haiku containing the personal pronoun? I've never even written a proper haiku until very recently but back in 1986 when I was playing around with the haiku format, I came up with this little gem:


I found the bath empty:
someone must have committed

17 October 1986

And, what do you know? It contains an I. Here's a much better example (with 3 I's) by Stella Carter:


I don't dare write you
because... I just don't, okay?
believe me, I know

In her essay Exploring the Zen Tradition of Haiku Through the Work of Eric Amann, Kathrin Walsch makes this observation about the difference between Eastern and Western approaches to poetry:

Suchness—Haiku poetry strives to create an image for what it really is leaving the interpretation and further association to the reader. However, in the western tradition poets insist on composing egocentric works. Rather than seeing a flower for its own beauty western poets generally use objects as a mode to express their own intellectual sentiments using a variety of poetic devices such as similes, metaphors, personification, and symbolism. This is in opposition to the Zen principal that objects should be objects and not distorted for our own exploitation as also seen in haiku poetry – Italics mine

Just because poetry focuses on the individual doesn't necessarily mean that that poetry is the poetry of self-satisfaction and congratulation. Indeed I would suggest that most self-examinational poetry has a tendency to explore character flaws rather than say what a great guy the author is. Of course self-contemplation can sink into self-absorption ("self-involution" as Coleridge called it when talking about Wordsworth) and from there it's a slippery slide towards the poetry of self-pity if one is not careful. It can also head the other way, towards self-assertion.

All poetry is a form of self-expression irrespective of its topic, it comes out of us and an individual shapes it on the page. For me a lot of the time my poetry is that of self-definition. Or rather than definition perhaps refinement. It's not simply autobiography; although I look back on my poetry as a kind of diary, the focus is towards understanding what I've been experiencing. But it's not a diary and the events are not always tackled chronologically. It was several years after my mother's death that I found the words to write about her even though I wrote two poems about my father the day after he died. Or it might have been the same day. (Shades of L'Etranger there, eh?)

I can't say I aim towards anything like universality when I write. That other people can apply what I've written to their own experiences just shows how what we go through is not that unique. I've written about love, lost love, grief, loneliness and ill health and these are things we all experience to a greater or lesser extent.

Of all the schools of poetry the Romantics were without a doubt the most self-conscious and Wordsworth was probably president of that club but, on the whole, they were more interested in recording experiences, things the self saw and did. We have to move on a few years before we get to truly confessional poets like W. D. Snodgrass, Robert Lowell, Anne Sexton, and Sylvia Plath who worked with a striking directness with such subjects as family, sex, alcoholism and mental illness.

In John Ciardi’s Mid-Century American Poets (1950), Richard Wilbur stated that:

…some writers think of art as a window, and some think of it as a door. If art is a window, then the poem is something intermediate in character, limited, synecdochic, a partial vision of a part of the world. . . . If art is conceived to be a door . . . the artist no longer perceives a wall between him and the world; the world becomes an extension of himself, and is deprived of its reality.

This is a metaphor I've used myself but to a slightly different end:


I am a door.
I open – words and ideas slip through me –
I close and I have no control over what
happens to them.

A few wind up in poems.
I heard a shitload of them moved away and
tried to make a go of it as a novel.
I think about them sometimes.

I wish that I
was a window, a dirty great sheet of glass,
so people could look out at the world through me
and not see me.

But I am not a window.

I am a door.

Thursday, 26 August 2004

So what am I on about here? Actually it's me bemoaning the fact that I can't write confessional poetry without revealing more of myself than I'd like. It's the same with the novels – and the short stories although they don't get a mention – I find I'm inhibited about what I write. The idea of writing a poem with the title 'The Ballad of the Lonely Masturbator' just makes me squirm and yet Anne Sexton did exactly that. It's not a short poem so here's a single stanza:

I break out of my body this way,
an annoying miracle. Could I
put the dream market on display?
I am spread out. I crucify.
My little plum is what you said.
At night, alone, I marry the bed.

and, at the end of every stanza, she repeats that final sad line. That's the thing about so much of my own poetry, it's sanitised, soft-core confession where I ever veer in that general direction. I'm not sure I like the idea of being watched. This stanza from 'Tulips' by Sylvia Plath is very striking:

Nobody watched me before, now I am watched.
The tulips turn to me, and the window behind me
Where once a day the light slowly widens and slowly thins,
And I see myself, flat, ridiculous, a cut-paper shadow
Between the eye of the sun and the eyes of the tulips,
And I have no face, I have wanted to efface myself.
The vivid tulips eat my oxygen.

The tulips embody how Plath believes she is viewed from the apparently conspiratorial outside world; constantly watched and judged, and she has a concurrent fear of being criticised.

As I've said, I don't like being watched, being the centre of attention, but – typical poet – I do like to watch. Statistics says that 99 out of a hundred poets admit to being a voyeur … and the other one's a liar. (Old joke twisted to my own nefarious ends).

This next poem is an odd piece. It's about transference. A confessee needs a confessor:


The existential voyeur watched me undress –
it was a spiritual thing, an act of blind faith.

I don't know what he wanted to see,
not me, he wasn't really looking at me,
but there was something reflected in his eyes.

I shuddered, and he asked if I was cold,
but we both knew that wasn't it.

11 May, 1996

On the surface it's a poem about sex but it's really not about sex at all. The whole poem is a metaphor for the writer-reader relationship.

So I have to wonder, just how much of the exhibitionist there is in being a poet? It's nothing I would tar myself with and yet I write and make what I write available for others to look at. Okay, maybe I'm only baring my soul a bit at a time. Does that make me a tease?

The reality is that most of the time our consciousness bounces around from one aspect of ourselves to the next, from less aware to more aware and back again. The sense of this flow of consciousness is expressed simply and effectively in Pablo Neruda's poem 'We Are Many':

Of the many men who I am, who we are,
I can’t find a single one;
they disappear among my clothes,
they’ve left for another city.
When everything seems to be set
to show me off as intelligent,
the fool I always keep hidden
takes over all that I say....
What can I do?
What can I do to distinguish myself?
How can I pull myself together?

So really it's only going to be by reading an awful lot of my writing that people are going to get a picture of … I hesitate to say the "real" me because there are aspects to my personality that rarely show their face in my writing. Simply put, there are things I write about and things I don't. Art is a good example. I am a huge fan of the visual arts but the only time I write about it – in Living with the Truth – I actually poke fun at it. I've never written a poem about a work of art though there is a fragment in some notebook about wandering around a gallery from about fifteen years ago.

I would rather people took more interest in the aspect of the mind that I'm exploring in my poems than in the person who wrote it. You'll have your job cut out reconstructing me from the pieces. Stop trying to understand me. That's not the purpose of my poetry as far as you are concerned.


Do not analyze
      my poems!
They will not conform
      for you.
Neither stare into
      any mirror
and expect your image
      to give up
any truths or secrets.

8 December 1979

Sometimes of course that is their purpose as far as I am concerned but that's a different thing completely.

Poetry is not therapy, not for me. It has a therapeutic quality and I can see why mental health practitioners get people to write poems. Here's a word from Art Durkee:

The act of writing a personal therapy poem, for myself, can be very satisfying, and can be a bit of writing I come back to later to see if I have changed since I last went to that place. I do re-read back in my old journals, albeit not very often; occasionally you do discover something that could be re-made into a poem; an old dream; a passing moment, observed. But I also recognize, as a critical poet looking back over his own work, that a lot of what I wrote in the heat of anger, despair, and depression, just isn't very good as poetry, so I tend to not inflict it on anyone. I neither present it nor publish it, at least not without considerable revision. It can stay in the journal, where it began and where it belongs. – Notes towards an egoless poetry 9: Mental Illness & Poetry

Write stuff like that if you want/need/have to but if it's not a good poem outside that process then why the hell are you sending it away for editors to read?

The bottom line is that I think the term "egocentric poetry" used as a disparaging term is unfair. Of course there are people who take things to the extreme – there always will be – but that doesn't mean that there is not a lot of good to be done for the author and to the reader. I've quoted C. S. Lewis a few times over the past year – "We read to know we are not alone." – and I have no doubt I'll quote him again because when I read about the personal experiences of others I'm putting myself in their place, I'm trying them on for size. If he (the guy on the page) makes sense then I must. If he's having a hard time then I shouldn't feel so bad about having a hard time too.

When the Beat-generation cult of the ego began its decline, writers such as Robert Bly, Denise Levertov, Adrienne Rich, and Lawrence Ferlinghetti stepped up as "political" poets whose conventional expressivist poetics took controversial issues such as feminism, the Vietnam War, or U.S. intervention in Central America, and gave them a "human face." There was a place for them. And now there are poets writing about real world issues, the Iraq War, 9/11, AIDS but I found this comment by Shane Neilson of real interest:

As co-poetry editor of The Danforth Review, I sift through about a hundred submissions every four months. A third of these could be considered political poems. An informal survey of other poetry editors showed a similar experience to my own. In the months after 9/11, this ratio was predictably weighted much in favour of the political spectrum. Yet in my few years as editor, I have never published a political poem despite the fact that a good proportion of the submissions possess political content.

The usual mistake is – alas – grammatical error. Half fail for this reason, and they are the blessedly bad poets whom are easy for an editor to recognize and reject. The remainder display a reasonable appreciation of the language in their poems but unfortunately give the game away when they substitute profundity with forceful judgment. Their poems bully the mind, offering the reader no alternative but assent. All agree that bad things are, by definition, bad things. But this is the extent of the moral inquiry – a mere declaration. Better political poets ask questions in their poems, and though they do not arrive at answers, they create a dimension of evil as absurd as it is abhorrent. – Political Poetry and the Canadian Tradition

I had never imagined so many people were writing about these kinds of issues. So, does this suggest the demise of egocentric poetry? Nah, there are only so many things people can write about and there is nothing more interesting to write about than people. Even political poetry is still about people ultimately.

But that's perhaps a subject for another day.

Thursday 13 November 2008

All writers are Martians

All writers are Martians. – Martin Amis

No we're not.

Okay, some of us might be. There are times certainly I've felt like I don't belong. It's an odd thing being a writer. I wonder what on earth Amis could have been on about when he said that?

But let me digress. I like books of quotations. I grew up with The Public Speaker's Treasure Chest, in fact I still have the book. I devoured it as a kid. There were wonderful, striking, moving titbits from people I had never heard of … and even one or two that I had. But there's a problem with quotations, they're presented like proverbs, and that's how some of them will be passed down into history, little nuggets of wisdom to chew on, like: When you stare into the abyss the abyss stares back at you (Friedrich Nietzsche). Great stuff. It's a thought-provoking sentence but only one out of a 240 page book.

This is why I was delighted when a copy of The Paris Review Interviews Vol. III dropped through my letter slot from those nice people at Canongate who are publishing the UK version. If you're compiling a book of quotations, this is a goldmine. Just look at that one from Martin Amis. Of course I'm quoting him out of context. You all knew that. And that is the great thing about this collection, there is plenty of context.

There are a lot of things to like about The Paris Review's whole approach to interviewing its subjects. In our sound-byte-focused society interviews are not what they once were. We want them to get to the point, plug what they're come to plug and make room on the sofa for the next guest. And that's not what The Paris Review is about at all.

Each interview begins the same way, as you might expect, with a little bit about the person being interviewed. That's helpful because although I know full well who Jan Morris and Georges Simenon are and what I might expect from them, not all the names were well known to me. Chinua Achebe, the Nigerian writer for instance – I was glad for a bit on him. He is best known for his first novel, Things Fall Apart (1959), which apparently is the most widely read book in modern African literature; something else to add to my Amazon wish list I suspect.

The next thing, before we ever get into the interview, the scene is set: we're told where the interview took place and over what period of time. In some cases the interview takes place over weeks, in differing locations and occasionally even by letter and phone. Other people chip in, too, occasionally, Karen Blixen's secretary, Clara Svendsen, for instance, and in the case of the ailing William Carlos Williams, his wife virtually monopolises the second part of the interview; she reported later that Bill, as she called him, had "been much entertained" by both her involvement in the interview and the fact the magazine afforded her such an amount of space when he got to see the proofs.

We get descriptions of the authors, pencil sketches, yes, but with a touch of colour and wit too. I was delighted by how Andrew O'Hagan, for instance, describes Norman Mailer in his dotage as "something Zeus-like" before proceeding to let Mailer recount an amusing anecdote about how often he finds he now needed to pee even taking advantage of phone boxes on occasion; it certainly puts him in perspective. The same could be said for Andrew Philips's description of Joyce Carol Oates from 1978:

Ms. Oates is striking-looking and slender, with dark hair and large, inquiring eyes. She is highly attractive but not photogenic; no photo has ever done justice to her appearance, which conveys grace and high intelligence.

So no photo then. Actually, and unexpectedly, there were no photographs of any of the authors. Instead each interview included a page of the writers work, like this one from Ralph Ellison:

Click to enlarge

So, before we even get to the first question, you can tell that these are not going to be your typical question and answer sessions. Yes, obviously there are questions and answers, some quite lengthy, but there is also a real feel that what we are privy to here are conversations; they mostly don't feel scripted. Some, like Pinter's, are interviews from the early days of the writer's career; others, as in the case of Williams, are at the end of his life (Williams literally passed away before the issue in which his interview appears was printed).

They take place where the writers are most comfortable. Evelyn Waugh for example:

"I hope you won't mind if I go to bed," he said, going into the bathroom. From there he gave me a number of comments and directions.
He re-entered, wearing a pair of white pyjamas and metal-rimmed spectacles. He took a cigar, lit it, and got into bed.

Cheever, a notoriously difficult interviewee, led Annette Grant a merry chase in 1976:

During the course of several visits we did in fact mostly eat, drink, walk, swim, play backgammon, or watch television. […] On the day of the last taping we spent an afternoon watching the New York Mets win the World Series from the Baltimore Orioles.
Afterward we walked in the woods, and as we circled back to the house, Cheever said, "Go ahead and pack up your gear, I'll be along in a minute to drive you to the station" . . . upon which he stepped out of his clothes and jumped with a loud splash into a pond, doubtless cleansing himself with his skinny-dip from one more interview.

Of course, with a book like this you jump to your favourite author. I've read and watched many interviews with Pinter. He interviews well and I could hear the rich sonorities of his voice clearly in my head as I read through his piece. What is fascinating is comparing the man he was in 1966 to the ailing man I watched accept the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2005.

All the above is procrastination you must understand. I'm sitting here with a book with 38 post-its sticking out of it and I've probably got another 1500 words max to mention some of them. There's no good way to do this so I'll just dive in. In addition to the bit I've quoted above, Andrew Philips says of Joyce Carol Oates: "One receives the impression that she never speaks in anything but perfectly formed sentences." That could be said of most of the authors in this collection.


All novels are about certain minorities: the individual is a minority. The universal in the novel – and isn't that what we're all clamouring for these days? – is reached only through the depiction of the specific man in a specific circumstance.


[W]hen a novel is finished I always have the impression that I have not succeeded. I am not discouraged, but I see – I want to try again.


I don't know what kind of characters my plays will have until they . . . well, until they are. Until they indicate to me what they are. I don't conceptualise in any way. Once I've got the clues I follow them – that's my job, really, to follow the clues.


Fiction is experimentation; when it ceases to be that, it ceases to be fiction. One never puts down a sentence without the feeling that it has never been put down before in such a way, and that perhaps even the substance of the sentence has never been felt. Every sentence is an innovation.

When I was excited about life, I didn't want to write at all. I've never written when I was happy. I didn't want to be. But I've never had a long period of being happy. Do you think anyone has? I think you can be peaceful for a long time. When I think about it, if I had to choose, I'd rather be happy than write. You see, there's very little invention in my books. What came first with most of them was the wish to get rid of this awful sadness that weighed me down. I found when I was a child that if I could put the hurt into words, it would go. It leaves a sort of melancholy behind and then it goes.

A block is when we can't get through to the real thing. Many writers write a great deal, but very few write more than a very little of the real thing. So most writing must be displaced activity. When cockerels confront each other and daren't fight, they busily start pecking imaginary grains off to the side. That's displaced activity. Much of what we do is a bit like that, I fancy. Bit it's hard to know which is which.


Plots only matter in thrillers. In mainstream writing the plot is – what is it? A hook.
Writing is waiting, for me certainly. It wouldn't bother me if I didn't write one word in the morning. I'd just think, you know, not yet.

When I'm in my room with the door shut, nothing signifies except what I'm trying to wrestle with. Writing's too hard, it just requires so much of you and most of the time you feel dumb. I always think you start at the stupid end of the book, and if you're lucky you finish at the smart end.
I work just as hard when I'm not writing a book as when I am. I sit there and let things happen, mostly I throw away the next day what I wrote the day before. But pure creativity is just seeing what shows up.

And the thing is these are exactly what I was talking about at the start of this review, some of the most quotable bits from a collection of very diverse authors, playwrights and poets, from different eras and backgrounds all trying to distil their craft into a few wise words that the rest of us can carry with us to help us make sense out of what we try and do as writers. I'm sure readers would enjoy this book too but I suspect that it's the writers out there who will really appreciate what these various authors have to say, as Margaret Atwood says in her introduction to the book:

[These] interviews are a great encouragement to other writers, especially at moments of wavering faith. Why am I doing such an eccentric thing as writing? Is it just undigested neurosis? Why spend all day in a room, in the company of a bunch of people who don't really exist? What good does it do the world? Isn't it unhealthy? Why waste the paper? Every writer has such thoughts from time to time, and to know that others have had them too is reassuring: I am not the only one who has viewed the page with loathing.

There is some touching stuff here too, like Raymond Carver talking about the first time he was published – he took the magazine to bed with him: "I did more looking and holding than actual reading. I fell asleep and woke up the next morning with the book there in bed beside me, along with my wife." Or the fact that there's a word in the middle of 'Hawk Roosting' – one of his most anthologised poems – that Ted Hughes was never happy with. Or Martin Amis talking about how his father felt about his son being a writer: "My father said to me that when a writer of twenty-five puts pen to paper he's saying to the writer of fifty that it's no longer like that, it's like this." Then he compares that with Somerset Maugham's reaction to Amis's father's debut novel. It's quite poignant really. Writing is an ongoing thing. It's about time for the current generation to say to Amis, "No, not like that, like this!" And I'm sure he would take that better than some of his peers.

Bernardus Carnotensis is someone I doubt many of you will have heard of. He's better known as Bernard of Chartres but I doubt that'll help much. Most of us will be familiar with his metaphor, nanos gigantum humeris insidentes – that's "dwarfs standing on the shoulders of giants" to you and I and, in time, I expect most of the writers in this book will only be remembered for a few wise words of wisdom. I'm sure Amis hopes it's not, "All writers are Martians." Here's your chance to find out just what he really meant when he said that. (And, no, I'm not going to tell you).

The book has been reviewed by all the big boys, and, since we've been talking a lot about quotes in this review, let's end with one or two more:

Fascinating . . . This book will intrigue and delight any serious reader or writer. It may even inspire.-- The Times Literary Supplement

As The Paris Review Interviews reveals, there is an art to the interview and a value to what it brings. . . . In the best interviews, the exchange of question and answer brings the authors to life.-- The Wall Street Journal

The most remarkable and extensive interviewing project we possess. . . A series of excursions, alternately purposeful and capricious, with side trips, stops for tea, and mystifications.-- The New York Times

but I'd like to qualify one comment made by the Minneapolis Star-Tribune which had this to say: "A stimulating, funny, and provocative snapshot of five decades' worth of (mostly) American literary history . . . The resulting conversations are luminous and often revelatory."

Of the sixteen interviews, actually only six are with Americans. Here's the full list and the years of the interviews:

1955 - RALPH ELLISON (American)
1976 - JOHN CHEEVER (American)
1978 - JOYCE CAROL OATES (American)
1983 - RAYMOND CARVER (American)
2007 - NORMAN MAILER (American)

1963 - EVELYN WAUGH (British)
1966 - HAROLD PINTER (British)
1995 - TED HUGHES (British)
1997 - JAN MORRIS (British)
1998 - MARTIN AMIS (British)

1955 - GEORGES SIMENON (Belgian)

1956 - ISAK DINESEN (Danish)

1979 - JEAN RHYS (Dominican)

2005 - SALMAN RUSHDIE (Indian)

1994 - CHINUA ACHEBE (Nigerian)

The Paris Review Interviews Vol. III is available from Canongate Books in the UK and was published on 6th November 2008. A Picador edition is already out in the United States.

Oh, one last thing, I just found out yesterday that The Truth About Lies is Canongate's Gatekeeper's Site of the Week. Wasn't that a coincidence? No, honest, it was.

Monday 10 November 2008

The half-life of books

Some time ago I read the following:

A neighbour recently loaned me her copy of Atwoods's short stories, Moral Disorder, which I am slowly making my way through - one story a night before bed: my nightcap. It is a collection claimed to be as close to autobiography as Atwood has written in her fiction. More poignant: I find it to be a reminder of what it is I admire and appreciate in a "good story." The book, BTW, with a 2006 copyright, and a first edition, is already a victim of "discard" from a public library. - New Pages Blog

This, of course, started me thinking about what it would take for me to discard a book. I know I don't still own all the books I've ever purchased. A few were leant to people (my copy of A Time of Changes, for example) before I learned my lesson but I honestly couldn't tell you what ever happened to Don Quixote. I think I must have thrown it out about fifteen years ago when I moved house for the seventh time although how it managed to survive six other moves I have no idea. What gets me is that I can't think what could possibly have gone through my mind to throw out a book.

I'm the same with photographs. I never throw out a photo. I tore up a photo of an old girlfriend once (as a gesture to the current girlfriend) and I have absolutely hated myself ever since for it.

In recent years I did chuck out an old and very smelly copy of Hartrampf’s Vocabulary Builder – which my dad had bought in the 1960s – but only once I'd located a replacement. (It still had the original invoice inside from 1965 for £1.10s.0d (£1.50 in today's currency) and I picked up my copy in 2003 for £1.20. Not bad.) Looking at my shelves I am actually disappointed that I don't have more books and there's a part of me wants to go and buy up all the books I know I've borrowed from libraries just so I have a copy for emergencies. You simply never know when a copy of Spider Robinson's Telempath will come in handy.

But I was thinking about libraries: how do they choose what to discard? It's not as if the books are theirs. Of course it's semantics but discard sounds a little harsh. How about weeding books or withdrawing titles?

All librarians are encouraged to weed their collections every year in order to maintain materials that are still useful and timely. They have to. Space is limited and who needs copies of Yellow Pages going back to nineteen-canteen? I don't think I've opened a Yellow Pages in the last five years and all I do when I get a new one is take the old one out of the writing bureau, remove the plastic wrapper and toss it in the recycling bin. In fact as I write this there are five copies lying in the foyer of this building that my neighbours have neglected to uplift. They must all use Yell the same as I do.

I've been trawling through the Web looking to see what the rules are for disposing of books. The gist of most of them is as follows: An item is considered for discard when it is (1) obsolete or outdated; (2) physically deteriorated or damaged; (3) no longer circulating; (4) one of many copies of a formerly popular title. And that seems quite reasonable to me.

Most lists expand on these. I was particularly struck by this entry which I found in the School Board of Alachua County, Florida's Media Specialist Handbook:

3. Timeliness - This is one of the most frequent criteria: Reference may be to: (a) out-of-date materials, particularly in the sciences and technology. A rule of thumb is to reconsider almost anything more than three to five years of age, (b) materials no longer in demand, or that no longer support the curriculum or current community needs (c) older editions no longer used, and (d) dated textbooks, where they are part of the collection.

Now, I know that with non-fiction books this is easier to determine and other sites list general guidelines, like this one from Omaha Public Schools:

Weeding specific classes of books (maximum age of materials)
  • Encyclopaedia sets -- ten years.
  • Almanacs -- five years.
  • Directories -- five years.
  • Biographical sources -- see "General guidelines" above.
  • Dictionaries -- ten years.
  • Atlases -- ten years.
  • Books on mass media, descriptive geography, careers, computers -- five years.
  • Topical materials -- ten years.
  • Social sciences -- ten years.
  • Fiction titles not listed in standard sources and which have not been checked out for three years.

The thing is I misread 'Timeliness' the first time I looked at it. I thought it said 'Timelessness' and that made me ask, "How does one determine if a book is timeless?" There are certainly a great many books that are of their time and yet, at the same time, timeless.

I was impressed to find online something called The Freedom to Read statement on the American Library Association, part of which reads:

7. It is the responsibility of publishers and librarians to give full meaning to the freedom to read by providing books that enrich the quality and diversity of thought and expression. By the exercise of this affirmative responsibility, they can demonstrate that the answer to a "bad" book is a good one, the answer to a "bad" idea is a good one.

The freedom to read is of little consequence when the reader cannot obtain matter fit for that reader's purpose. What is needed is not only the absence of restraint, but the positive provision of opportunity for the people to read the best that has been thought and said.

The whole thing is worth having a look at. I wonder if there's a British equivalent? I couldn't find anything.

I don't think I could be a librarian. Okay, I could chuck out old reference books but I would have a real issue with fiction. I'd find myself very protective of other people's novels and short story collections. One of my favourite science fiction novels of all time is A Time of Changes by Robert Silverberg and I went to find a copy a while ago (see above) and lo and behold it was out of print. Damn and blast! Okay, I managed to get a second-hand copy. And The Death of Grass by John Christopher – I had to download a PDF because used copies were so ruddy expensive (£55.00 last time I looked). And these are just two books. And what if my local library had decided to toss them?

How can you make that decision without reading the book first? Every condemned man gets to state his case but what about every book? The librarian is judge, jury and executioner. But what if he or she isn't into science fiction? I can just imagine all the copies of The Death of Grass from 1978 that hadn't been checked out in many libraries for over three years and got the chop and there are now queues forming to demand copies of this underrated little gem. And where are they? Okay, maybe not queues but you get the idea. How do they handle the responsibility? How do they sleep at night?

There was an article in The American Spectator back in April 2007 about certain library practices in Fairfax County: "We're being very ruthless," said Sam Clay, director of the 21-branch system. "A book is not forever. If you have 40 feet of shelf space taken up by books on tulips and you find that only one is checked out, that's a cost."

According to the article:

The Fairfax libraries are now using new computer software programs to identify titles that have not been checked out in 24 months. Victims, to date, include the speeches and writings of Abraham Lincoln, The Education of Henry Adams, poems of Emily Dickinson, and, according to the Washington Post's Lisa Rein, "thousands of novels and nonfiction works" that were swept up in the computer vacuuming.

Other books that have been "weeded" from the shelves of various branches of the Fairfax County Public Library system or haven't been checked out in 24 months and could be discarded include: The Works of Aristotle, The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner, The Mayor of Casterbridge by Thomas Hardy, For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway, Doctor Zhivago by Boris Pasternak, and The Glass Menagerie by Tennessee Williams.

So, pray do tell, what are the good residents of Fairfax County reading these days?

The top 25 books checked out in December, from Fairfax County libraries, were best-sellers by John Grisham, David Baldacci, James Patterson, Nelson DeMille, Stephen King and Alice McDermott, among others. Most are entertaining, but only a few will be considered classics in 25 years.

The world is speeding up. Things go out of fashion quicker and quicker. I look at my contemporaries online and I see the piles of books they have to read and I wonder how many of them read them properly. There are simply too many books being produced. And some of those books will be the classics of the future. But what if they only had 24 months to demonstrate their timelessness? What would we lose?

I used to think I'd like to be a librarian, after all Philip Larkin was one and a very successful one, but now I'm not so sure I could live with myself.

Saturday 8 November 2008

Aggie and Shuggie 14

Maggie: Ma, how's m'da doin?
Aggie: E's havin a wee lie doon, hen. E goat imsel inna awffe state aboot that last refyoo yer Unca Jim goat.
Maggie: At wis no that bad, Ma.
Aggie: Naw it wisne.
Magge: Jahink e cud dae wi a wee bitta cheerin up?
Aggie: Ah'm shair e cud, hen.
Maggie: At's jist Ah've cum acroase anither refyoo. At's frae Jena Isle.
Aggie: So, who's she? Soonds lik she's a poap-starra sumhin.
Maggie: Whit wid a poap-star be dayin refyooing Unca Jim's book? Naw, she a Frillypinny burd.
Aggie: That's a long ways a way. As it a gud refyoo? Ah'm no lettin yer faither within a hunner miles o anither refyoo unless at's an absilute stoater.
Maggie: At's no bad.
Aggie: No bad's no good. Let me read it.
Maggie: Thur it is, Ma, Gewgaw Writings?
Aggie: As that sum fancy-smancy Frillypinny way ur sayin 'Glasgae Stories'?
Maggie: Ma, Ah cun barely speak Anglish withoot tryin t'get ma tung aroon Frillypinnyenese.
Aggie: Ssssh, Ah'm reading.
Maggie: Sor-ray.
Aggie: At looks no bad but Ah'm no shair aboot er getting stuck oan page seeven.
Maggie: Ah, but Ma, she says page thiheen wis er 'read tull dawn moment'.
Aggie: Ah no, Ah no, but yer faither's awfe fragile t'day. Ah think wu'll jist keep this wan t'oorsels fur now, tull e's feelin a wee bit stroanger.
Maggie: Whiteffer ye say. So, noos no th'time ti ask af Ah cun go ti the pictchas wi Duggie Scoat oan Satdy?
Aggie: Ah widne think so, hen. No t'day. Ah take it e's geen up oan tha Roabert Ludlum then?
Maggie: At wis aw a misunnerstannin, Ma.
Aggie: Aye, they ayewis say stuff like that.
Aggie: That'll be yer da lookin fer mair Lookazade.
Maggie: Jist as lang as e disne want me t'emty is chanty. Ah'm no dayin that no fer no man. No even ma da.

Thursday 6 November 2008


Poetry does not have a lot going for itself these days – it needs all the help it can get – so when the postman arrived with a package and it wasn’t my eagerly expected new hard drive I can’t pretend I wasn’t disappointed that it was only a book of poetry and one I hadn’t ordered personally, i.e. a review copy. Me being me of course I then felt guilty for feeling that way so I had that to overcome too.

And then there was the presentation, which was nice, don’t get me wrong, but it was also a little too nice, a slick, professionally-produced hardback on good-quality paper with a glossy dust wrap – very nice you might think so why was this an obstacle? Because I immediately wondered who the book was being marketed to. I don’t know about you but the number of hard-backed poetry books I own I could count on one hand. People would like us to believe that no one buys poetry these days which simply isn’t true but I would like to know who buys hard-backed poetry books.

Then I made the mistake of flicking through the opening pages, those pages where you get to list the magazines you’ve been published in – looked like nothing but university magazines (okay so you list your best stuff) – and the awards you’ve received – first prize American Poetry Association two years running (sounds impressive) – and the radio stations that had broadcast his work (the BBC no less) … all of which felt like an obstacle to overcome rather than a recommendation, a reassurance that I was in the hands of a master of his craft. Perhaps it’s an American thing, perhaps it’s just me, but I felt I was being sold the guy.

The contents page listed the poems but I didn’t pay a blind bit of attention to it. It was just a list and I didn’t fret about it. I jumped straight to the first poem, ‘The Love That Passed Us By’, not exactly a title that excited me but what the heck, it’s just a title. The poem begins:

Fallen riders from the carousel of dreamers,
tumbled, humbled – hurled by make-believe,
be our own phoenixes – rise to splendorous life
– the love that passed us by! Too late we learn
that rainbows fade from showers of the eyes.

at which point I put the book aside and thought to myself: What the hell have I got in my hands here? This read like something one of the Romantic poets might have penned. I was probably fifteen the last time I mentioned a phoenix in a poem.

This did not bode well.

So, I read through the publicity materials that came with the book. (Yes, it had publicity materials.) There was a quote from a Dr. Ernest Kay at Cambridge who said that “Jonathan Russell” – that’s the author’s name by the way – “is reminiscent of the late and great John Masefield.” Kay is actually the Director General of the International Biographical Centre in Cambridge. (Yes, I googled him.) Masefield is known to me (I didn’t need to google him) – we did ‘Sea Fever’ in Primary 7 (you know the one – “I must go down to the sea again…”) but none of this helped. Comparing a 21st century poet to Masefield (who only died in 1967 I was surprised to discover), great though he might have been (he did manage to get appointed to the position of Poet Laureate), still made me wonder. The publicity material says that “Whispers is a collection of poems that celebrates love and the natural” and, if you add in the dozen or so nautical poems it’s easy to see why Masefield might just leap to the good Doctor’s mind; personally I kept coming back to Wordsworth who was not adverse to poems of a seafaring nature himself.

Of course there is very little poetry written that is not in some way derivative. I’m just not sure when ‘derivative’ got to be a derisory term: everything derives from something. No doubt Masefield was inspired by Wordsworth who was in turn inspired by Chaucer, Spenser, Shakespeare and Milton.

There is not a lot of decent nature poetry being written these days and I’d be hard pushed to remember the last poem about sailing ships I’ve read so I was surprised to find a poem in this collection that began:

O give me a ship, the wind on my neck, a deck
at my feet, tall masts to scratch a sapphire sky
and what cradle of peace rocks to the maternal sky.

from ‘Great Call of the Sea’

The problem I find with nature poetry in general, despite its often overt sentimentality, is that it so often relies on language that we now regard as clichéd. It’s not that Nature has become irrelevant, far from it, it’s just that its relevance has changed; Nature is now something we talk about preserving for future generations, it is something “out there” that we have to travel to rather than something that surrounds us. The 19th century poets were forever yearning to merge with nature. Our aesthetic appreciation of nature nowadays relies less on contextual knowledge than on a spectator’s sense of being within a landscape. Nature is something we escape to but at the same time we recognise that we’re really just visiting.

That sense comes across in many of these poems and yet there is also an awareness of Nature standing up for itself as in the poem ‘Oonala and the White Ants Sleeping’ which talks about how Nature thwarts the attempts of oil drillers in the Australian outback:

The pendulum had momentarily swung to a stop,
Dame Nature had played havoc with the clock

Further on in the poem – it’s a long one, 10 pages – we see the chief now happy with the results and this provides a good example of the kind of rhyme scheme that Russell uses the most with lots of internal and half-rhymes and plenty of alliteration:

Chief Oomala rose, and gloating with satisfaction sat
like a squat messiah frog agog with his own sagacity
on a pond’s brink, blinking blissfully to freckled kin
bubbles blowing across the dark water rippling.

What is also a little different about this particular poem is that it has a definite sense of place.

There is no doubt that Russell is a capable technician though he keeps his palette limited to the more common poetic techniques. Metaphors are prevalent, the occasional onomatopoeia and although he mostly he handles his rhymic language with care he does drop the occasional clanger with his use of full rhyme:

How can we drop anchor
In heavy seas of rancor?

from ‘Shipwrecked Mariners of the Heart’

Nature – as in trees and animals – is not the only subject matter in this collection. Like Wordsworth before him Russell also comments on the nature of Man from poems on childhood experiences till considerations on death and dying. I was struck by the ending to this particular poem:

Through our mother’s tunnel of love we squeeze
and smack into life loud as the dawn chorus.
Ultimately, silently and reluctantly, mostly we depart
as a mole of Faith in its tunnel blocking the light.

from ‘The Older We Grow’

You’ll note the capitalisation of ‘Faith’ in the last poem. This is a trend he adopts in a lot of his poems, words like ‘Future’, ‘Love’, ‘Youth’, ‘Time’ and ‘Faith’ and is certainly not something I would expect from a 21st century poet but there is an undeniably old-fashioned feeling to these poems, a pining for older, better times. Classical references abound – Zeus, Apollo, Venus, Cupid, Morpheus, Pandora, Titan, Artemis, Atlas, even Cerberus and I could go on – in fact every time there was as much as a puddle in a poem I fully expected to see Neptune bursting out of it on the back of a dolphin (why no references to Poseidon or Triton?) – and there were also a few biblical references in particular to the Good Samaritan. Really his source material is the kind of stuff most well-read – and even not that well-read – people will be able to connect with.

Dogs appear in a number of the poems. As Russell is blind I suspect a great attachment to guide dogs may have prompted this although he manages to avoid the cloyingly sentimental when talking about them except for ‘Paws in Paradise’ – I couldn’t get over the image of a winged Coco ‘begging from Saint Francis / at the Lord’s table’. ‘Valhalla Hill’ fares a bit better as does ‘A Hole in the Darkness’.

The most poignant for me though was ‘The Last Waltz’ which begins:

In the park, deserted-dark – two seated figures
haunt the rippling lake. Night sleepwalking
on the moonlit liquid, reflects of Eleaze
like a beautiful flower gone to seed – the tight
thin petals of her unseeing eyes are closed for ever.

Otto, her devoted Labrador, is harnessed to her darkness.
and ends with the couple dancing in the dark:

“Otto, dearest, on my carnet de Bal* I’ve reserved
for you the last waltz.” And as if to assist Eleaze
to her feet, Otto lifts a gallant paw.

The strange couple linked, foot to claw.
hand to paw, burnt umber to pearl
facing each other, bridging the tacit void,
the doppelgangers of Past and Present coalesce.

* a dance card holder

You’ll note the use of ‘haunt’ in the first quote. This is something that struck me about the collection as a whole, I counted at least twenty poems that contain references to ghosts, phantoms and other spectral phenomena, all – bar a couple I think – as metaphors. It is perhaps a weakness of the collection that I kept coming upon similar imagery over and over again. I was particularly struck by these three:

the crabs came rolling home to their tea.

from ‘By the Sea of Crabs and Crocuses’

with stingray on skin and crab in my rolling stride.

from ‘Sea Peace’

We watch the drunken crabs staggering home

from ‘A Day to be Free’

Notwithstanding Neptune’s nine appearances and a good seven dolphins (there’s even a poem called ‘Sleeping Dolphin’), half-a-dozen swans (one of which also is sleeping), some phoenixes, albatrosses, lots of purple flowers, moons that look like melons (or in one case a lemon) and even a few angels. Oh, and more references to Glamorgan than I rightly expected to see. Oh, and talking about ‘O’, according to W.D. Snodgrass every poet has the right to begin a line of poetry with an ‘O’ at least once in his life (even I’ve managed it), but, for my tastes Russell overdoes it. A small selection:

O what trysts to keep with our love-in-the-mist!

from ‘The Love That Passed Us By’

O awaken the mistaken! Beneath our shining gold braid

from ‘When the Moonlight Breaks’

O jealous forgettable wallflowers sighing bouquets

from ‘The Last Waltz’

O blow me home to the whales, the beautiful fountains

from ‘Endless Horizons’

Shelley wrote that the poet’s job is to refresh language for their society and that’s true of both Masefield and Wordsworth both who contributed significantly to making poetry accessible to the man in the street. Jonathan’s Russell’s poetry is without a doubt accessible, so we can tick that box, but I'd have to say that it fails to advance the cause of poetry. I don't mind that his influences come through but it's what he does with his material, or fails to do, that bothers me.

The next question I would ask is: Is it relevant?

Yes, some of it is. Russell doesn’t write ‘I must go down to the sea again’ but he does say:

…we flee on our fleet rubber wheels to the sea

from ‘A Day to be Free’

and, once there:

                                        …such a joy to cast off
from the wharf of life and rejoice to the tongue of the sea
under the shrieking clouds kissing the shingle goodbye.
For at sea, what comradery, at the table taboo
politics and religion, for more sins are brewed in the pot
of these heavenly twins than by their virtues rise to Paradise.

from ‘Great Call of the Sea’

And what are they running from?

Concrete pasta, the marvellous mortar mix
by Rome invented by phallic Manhattan inherited
rising to the plumes of pollution…

from ‘The Beef and Pasta of Art’

Yes, just as Blake could bemoan the ‘dark Satanic Mills’ of his day so we have a lot to take issue with today. Yes, that is relevant. Some of it is not. The gentleman-of-the-road cropped up not infrequently in the works of 19th century poets. I remember as a child, along with the aforementioned ‘Sea Fever’ being introduced to Robert Louis Stevenson’s ‘The Vagabond’:

Give to me the life I love,
      Let the lave go by me,
Give the jolly heaven above
      And the byway nigh me.

and it’s really impossible for me not to think of lines like that when I read Russell’s ‘Nature’s Travelling Gentlemen’:

Nature’s tramping tortoises of the tarmac
were slowly nibbling up the mileage
by their shark mouthed boot leather.

But the romanticised tramp is a thing of the past. Perhaps people take less to the road these days. They simply retire early and relocate to the Continent.

The question I have to ask is: What if someone like Masefield had kept writing poetry down till this day? Masefield himself had become unfashionable as far back as the 1930s though his star is somewhat in the ascendant at the moment. Yes, he would include things like cars and bus stops, even though of course they had both in his day, but would he have anything new to say or would he still be regarded, as he is by many, as a Georgian relic despite living through the reigns of four monarchs?

One of the main problems I had with this collection, despite the fact I think it contains too many poems that are too similar, is that it could do with being organised differently. I would have liked to have seen the dog poems, and the sea poems, the love poems and the humorous poems grouped together. And, yes, there were humorous pieces here:

The tiger in Niger is gloriously glamorous to a tigress
in striped pyjamas making amorous overtures.

from ‘Fateful Attraction’

has a definite touch of the Ogden Nash here although I believe it was Edward Lear who wrote:

There once was a lady from Niger
Who smiled as she rode on a tiger

The bottom line is that this is not a bad collection as long as it finds the right home. My mother would have loved it. That may sound like a put down saying that I would give it to my mother but there are a lot of mothers out there and they need something to read.

Up till now I’ve only offered snippets of the poetry on offer in this collection and so I’d like to leave you with a couple of complete poems to help you decide whether this guy’s for you. I think his humorous verse is his best work so here’s ‘Prudence Pimm’ first of all and, since he mentions the spectral so often, tell me there’s no Poe in the last poem in the collection ‘Shadow’ and I’ll eat my hat.

Prudence Primm

Prudence was a prim collegiate blue-stocking,
a spinster devoted to her catechism – akin to a church
nibbling at Christianity. As candles on the altar flicker,
occasionally did her Faith. She took cat-comfort
in her lap. Tom was stuffed to the tips on his whiskers
with tuna, and spoonfuls of cream to fortify his milk
till purr inflated into fur. She was the most consummate
unconsummated lady of her locality, with Heaven’s price
heavy on her virginity – closing the gap to opportunities!
Sadly, she prayed for a suitor of purity to replace
Tom who’d gone missing without leaving a trace.
Months lugubriously lapsed, then Thomas returned
with his bride, plus kittens – rekindling her Faith.
In her pew sank to her knees, staring above
Eyes like saucers – at her priest as if seeing God.


Sleepwalking through the window, a moonlit phantom
whispered: “I’m your shadow, I shall thee follow.”
I awoke and spoke: “O true ghost, why do you?”
“Because I love you,” answered my faithful shadow,
“I follow thee everywhere.” I inquired, “When I quit this
will you follow me still?” “Indeed I will,” assured
the clinging fly of a wraith – it now kneeling on the
The grandfather clock tolled from its tower below,
calling the hours to prayers. I asked the ghost
(beginning curling like smoke) above my bed: “Do you
for my soul?” And it shook its darkness negatively. “But
you believe?” I exclaimed, “Don’t tell me we pray in vain
– there has to be a Heaven?” The spectre, as it vanished
“Not to my knowledge – but until we arrive we never can

Russell, by the way, is an Englishman who has become a U.S. citizen. He holds an Honorary Doctorate of Literature from the London Institute for Applied Research and Docteur des Lettres, Pyschologie et Litterature, from the Academie Des Sciences Humaines Universelles in Paris. He is an Honorary Professor of Humanities at the Institute of Higher Economic and Social Studies in Brussels, Belgium and was chosen International Literary Man of the Year for Services to Poetry by the International Biographical Centre of Cambridge (England). In 1998 and 1999 he received the grand prize from the American Poetry Association and has been admitted to the Academy of American Poets.

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