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Thursday 28 June 2012

Scenes from the Life of a Best-Selling Author

scenes from the life

“That’s funny,” replied the gaunt man with his lizard face – Michael Krüger, ‘Else and Sam’

The title of this collection of thirteen short stories is a little misleading, not that the author of the collection is not a best-selling author because he is although perhaps not in translation – Michael Krüger is German – but because the title suggests that these stories might be interconnected and they really aren’t although there are definite similarities in the settings both geographical and familial. Really they are scenes from the mind of a best-selling author – that they all have in common, that and they are all just a little on the odd side.

Now don’t get me wrong, odd is good, odd can be good, but odd is not to everyone’s tastes. Odd is an acquired taste and a little goes a long way. Which is why these thirteen stories (actually twelve stories and a satirical epilogue discussing the correlation between drinking and writing (and also drinking and reading actually)) are probably enough. After 119 pages of these you’ll probably be ready for something with its feet on the ground. So I suppose I’m likening this book to a night at the shows (for people outside Scotland read ‘fairground’). There are stories that’ll make your head spin, a couple might make you feel a wee bit queasy but all of them will entertain you to the limit you are willing to engage with them. I mean, what’s the point going on the bumper cars if you’re not going to try to crash into your friends or on the ghost train and at least be open to the possibility that you might be frightened?

Let me tell you about a few of the ‘rides’:

The opening story, ‘The Beast’, describes an author, a best-selling author, who has for many years been chronicling his family history:

14 volumes so far, if I have counted correctly, which have themselves been translated into almost every living language, so that, with all the special issues, paperback and book-club versions, my archive contains more than 500 different editions of my efforts. I don’t mention these things out of vanity … but rather to give a sense of the context within which my work, and with it my responsibility to my readers, should be understood.

The not inconsiderable revenue from book sales is divided among my family. Any living family member with a major role receives up to 2 per cent of the domestic revenue per book while those with minor roles get half of that. If a family member is presented in a particularly unfavourable light, a special compensatory tariff is agreed, up to 4 per cent.


In total about 400 people now make their living directly from my books or from the business ventures established with money from them.

His life is very ordered. All he has to worry about is writing. He churns out 300 pages a year, year in, year out and as he estimates that he has enough material available to fill 30 moderately sized volumes he doesn’t see that pleasant situation ending for about another twenty years or so. That is until the beast arrives.

evil3-884Only it’s not a beast, not at first. As a gift his German publisher, assuming that the writer lacked companionship – not realising how misanthropic the writer is at heart – presents him with “a small black animal with a shaggy pelt and black button eyes, about the size of a squirrel,” which, much to his surprise takes to him and he to it. Unfortunately it does not remain the size of a squirrel. It grows and grows and as it grows its demands on him grow and the net result is that his writing suffers and because his writing suffers his family suffers and they are not used to that and don’t much care for it. How big exactly the beast becomes I’ll keep to myself but the real question is: what exactly is the beast? I don’t mean what kind of creature because that’s never revealed but what might it represent? Is this an allegory on the price one pays for fame? Could be. You’ll have to read it to see.

The second story in the book, ‘Uncle’s Story’, begins:

Our family, unlike other families we knew but nonetheless visited, had only one uncle. And even that is an exaggeration. For while all my friends had, so to speak, an uncle for every occasion – one for the cinema, one for money, one for holidays and one for tears – our uncle according to my mother at least, was an uncle fit for nothing.

The boy’s uncle is a bookish man. His house is crammed from floor to ceiling with books, research you have to understand, for his “great oeuvre, the one he had been working on obsessively since he left university … a History and Theory of the Typographical Error since Guttenberg, with various historical excursi into the origins of writing." Little by little his nephew gets sucked into his world scouring the classics for errors, 5 marks for every misprint:

I earned 400 marks from Dickens, double that from Fontane, and the big Dostoyevsky edition would have netted me more than my father’s salary, if Uncle had not introduced a hierarchy of errors.

But what is the point to all this?

[Uncle’s] goal was … to demonstrate that the entire history of the world in written form was a misunderstanding that rested on misprints.

‘Green Week’ is a simple enough story that owes a clear debt to the Absurdists. A man supplements his earnings from his part-time job in the packing department of a publisher by working in a local theatre whose repertoire (you’ve guessed it) consisted mainly of the theatre of the absurd. Occasionally he steps in “(alongside [his] duties as ticket-collector, cloakroom-attendant and stage-manager)” and fills in when one of the other actors is unable to perform. His family does not approve:

The fact that once, in a moment of vanity, I had sent them a photograph from a Beckett production of myself in a dustbin, led them to believe that I spent all my time living in dustbins and eating out of dustbins, and was generally lost to civilised society.

Normally when the phone rings it’s his mother wanting to check if he was still alive but this third story comes to life when he picks up the receiver and a “silky voice” says: “I will be in Berlin tomorrow for the Green Week exhibition … and would really like to see you.” Now in any non-absurd story he would have asked who the owner of the silky voice was but he doesn’t and when she asks if she can stay with him he agrees and they make arrangements to meet. Which they do. And spend an interesting three days together.

Poets might appreciate ‘My Sister’s Boyfriend’ more than most. It’s really just a short character sketch which presents the boyfriend of the title, Knut, as a preposterous character on the one hand and yet also a believable one:

The first precondition of a modern poetic existence as described to us by Knut was the absolute prohibition on publishing. … Knut had not yet published a volume of poetry. He has, nevertheless, been awarded any number of prizes for promising young writers and had given a whole series of elaborate acceptance speeches, copies of which he promised to send to my aunts…

‘The Neighbour’ is a rather dark little tale about a family (mother, two sons and daughter – the father follows later) who go on holiday with their next-door neighbour and his two daughters after the death of his wife. This is really a study in atmosphere. The narrator is the younger son and it’s clear he doesn’t have all the facts at his disposal.

‘The Bluebeard Trust’ is a good lesson in leaving well alone:

Shortly before my twentieth birthday, I had the misfortune to learn that the man I had called father for as long as I could remember was not my father.

He learns this at the wake of the man he thought was his father when his uncles Adolf and Kurt – “wasters and blusterers through and through” – decide that the time has come for them to lay their claim to a fair percentage of the estate because, as Uncle Adolf screeched, without their intervention, “He would have killed you.”

“Father wanted to kill you?”


“Not that father,” she replied in a strangely throttled voice, “your own father. The lecherous deceiver who left us this house – to which your uncles now want to lay claim. You will understand it all one day.”

It turns out that his father had actually been married five times before he married the boy’s mother and once he learns this he makes the mistake of seeking out these women and bringing them together.

This is very similar in flavour to ‘The Blue Prince’ which is really a fairytale about a king whose son is such a waste of space that the king abandons his kingdom and moves to a foreign land where he remarries and has a daughter who only discovers her heritage when he is lying on his death bed whereupon she sets off to visit his kingdom and, needless to say, runs into her half-brother.

DoorI think my favourite story in this collection would have to be the seventh story, ‘The Door’. It’s similar to ‘The Beast’ in that it rests on a single preposterous and fantastical object, a door leading nowhere. Like in ‘Uncle’s Story’ and the later story, ‘Else and Sam’, this book is about the relationship between a child and a member of his extended family, in this case, his grandfather who, as a young man himself, had built the house in which the door to nowhere hangs. Nothing is something that preoccupies his grandfather:

Next to the door my grandfather had built a small bookcase, where he kept his library dedicated to nothing, almost 300 volumes … Some of them were ancient folio volumes, falling to pieces and home to all kinds of worms and silverfish; the rest were more recent scientific literature stuffed with equations and calculations, in which not even the most meagre living organism would take up residence.

At first I imagined that the ‘nothing’ that was behind the door was just the wall but as the story progresses it becomes clear that the nothing in question is something else entirely:

As long as I could remember, no one had entered the room behind the door. There was no crossing, not even a threshold: just the door. If you peered through the key-hole and felt your eyes getting accustomed to the darkness, you would only see – if you saw anything at all, that is – a thin film of dust moving in the air. There was nothing to see; that much was certain. And when my grandfather asked me what I could see, I would always answer, quite truthfully, “Nothing.” He sighed in relief. “For several years now I have been uncertain,” he would say, “whether there wasn’t perhaps something there after all, a little something, the remnants of something else. That would be the death of me.”

Ignoring for the moment the physics involved here one has to ask why someone would install a door in a room that contained nothing. What purpose does the door serve? Without the door there is no possibility of the nothing escaping – assuming that it is indeed trapped – and consuming you. So why include that element of doubt in your life? You can try to read this story literally if you like and it does have something of a fairytale quality to it I have to admit but there’s more going on here.

‘The Story of Julius’ is a lovely story about the need for stories, for lies – in this case literal lies – in our lives. The story is narrated by the boy who ends up sitting next to Julius in class. Julius is an odd kid:

He is very fat; Julius is the fattest kid in the class. No one would say that he is exactly handsome. His ears stick out, Dumbo-ears as we used to say when we were trying to irritate him. He wears glasses with thick lenses. When he took them off you could see his pale eyes and he looked funny.

During class Julius sits quite still with his arms folded and doesn’t even move his head when all hell breaks loose. He never puts up his hand up and only says something when he has been asked a question.

Julius is something of a mystery and like primitive people do it’s hard not to make up things, which is what the boy does when Julius goes missing from school and he is instructed by his teacher to go to his house to see what’s what: he imagines Julius for the benefit of his teacher and classmates. But what will happen when Julius finally returns to school. Will the truth come out?

By the time we get to ‘Moon Enterprises Inc.’ we’re not quite so easily surprised and so the tale of a man so obsessed with the moon that he has holes bored in his house to accommodate his telescopes, who co-opts his family to his cause and wants to sell his knowledge to the world doesn’t feel so fresh; we’ve seen these elements in other stories.

And, ‘Murder Most Ordinary’ is a little like ‘The Beast’ in that it is also a testimony written by an individual who has been taken advantage of although in this case it is the editor who has been taking on more and more of his author’s work with no acknowledgement and little appreciation unless the man is under the influence.

I’m not sure why ‘Alcohol and Literature’ is an epilogue but that’s what he calls it. It is a little different to most of the other pieces in that this is a clearly satirical piece about the relationship to and dependence on a mix of drinks by both readers and authors of various nationalities. To illustrate:

Germany 15.8 litres = 20 books
Ireland 12.6 litres = 4 books
Spain 19.3 litres = 4 books
Italy 16.8 litres = 6 books
France 21.3 litres = 12 books

You will notice that it is heavily weighted towards consumption. A Spaniard has to consume nearly 20 litres of pure alcohol in order to read all of four books: that is 5 litres per book. And when you consider that the greatest works of Spanish literature are all slim volumes of poetry, then you will appreciate what an uphill struggle it is for the Spanish publishers’ association to reduce the levels of alcohol tolerance to a point where they can sell a book at all.

Don’t get me wrong, this is funny. It just feels a bit out of place at the end of this volume which has focused on relationships and are all written in the first person.

This is a funny book, funny-strange and funny-ha-ha. Like Beckett’s writing – the author get’s a name check and even a brief cameo at the end of ‘Else and Sam’ – you’re more likely to find yourself smiling as you’re reading along as opposed to laughing out loud but that still counts as funny. All the writing leans towards the absurd but mostly without the capital A. I’ve read this book twice now and I could easily read my favourites again; in fact they really are the kind of pieces where you want to go right back to the start of a story once you’ve finished it to see what you missed. They are slight but tightly written and they treat the reader with respect. I personally don’t like fables where the author feels the need to tag on a moral at the end and that’s often what’s missing here: Krüger leads you along the garden path and then leaves you to find your way home yourself. That may annoy some readers, the ones who need to know what breed of animal the beast was or what was actually behind the door, but I was far from annoyed and I’d happily read this guy again.

If you’re looking for a bargain this is one to check out. As I wrote this there are copies on for as little as 1p plus postage. I have no idea where I got mine but it was in an actual bookshop and I bought it because it was a) thin and b) had a great title. The cover’s not bad either.


Michael KrügerMichael Krüger was born in Wittgendorf in Saxony in 1943. After completing his final secondary school examinations in Berlin he undertook an apprenticeship as a publisher and typographer and subsequently went on to study Philosophy and Literature. In 1968 he became an editor at the Carl Hanser publishing house and has now risen to head of the company. Through his innovative capabilities as a publisher he was already one of the most prominent personalities of the German publishing industry by the mid-seventies.

He is a poet and novelist, editor of the influential journal Akzente as well as a member of the Bavarian Academy of Fine Arts in Munich, the German Academy for Language and Literature in Darmstadt and the Academy of the Arts in Berlin.

Krüger has published almost two dozen books with poems, novels and stories – he has received numerous literature prizes, including the Peter Huchel Prize (1986) for his volume of poetry »Die Dronte« (The Dodo), and the Ernst Meister Prize (1994). He recently received the Mörike Prize, one of Germany’s most prestigious awards, in recognition of his contribution to both sides of the publishing trade.

Works available in English translations include The Cello Player, The Man in the Tower and Diderot’s Cat (poems).

Saturday 23 June 2012

Ugly poetry (part two)

be4 n after

No object is so beautiful that, under certain conditions, it will not look ugly – Oscar Wilde


Ugly poetry

“To write a good poem about an ugly thing, as Seidel does often, is not to write an ugly poem.”[1] That’s Molly Young writing in an article about the poet Frederick Seidel. I’d never heard of Seidel, so I did some research. What I found was what Larkin might have been had he been born a few years later; Seidel was born fourteen years after Larkin. Take the opening stanza to ‘Evening Man’:

The man in bed with me this morning is myself, is me
The sort of same-sex marriage New York State allows.
Both men believe in infidelity.
Both wish they could annul their marriage vows.

Seriously, Larkin could have written that if he’d changed ‘New York’ to ‘Hull’; for all his faults, failings and foibles he doesn’t seem to have been homophobic. He could also have written:

I for years was unable to decide,
Tits or ass? And don’t forget legs.
Which one do you think is the best?
My choice would vary. Who would you choose?
It was all too good to be true. Then came you!

(from ‘A Song for Cole Porter’)

but I suspect he might have done a bit better job of it. Or maybe not. For all Larkin’s poetry frequently dealt with the less than beautiful aspects of life, he was always at least technically proficient, but so is Seidel and in a rather old-fashioned way, too. (Have a look, for example, at ‘Climbing Everest’ – which you can hear him read here – or ‘Poem by the Bridge at Ten-shin’.) Both Seidel and Larkin are confessional poets – with a small c – although neither is under any illusions about what they see when they look in the mirror.

seidelSeidel has been called “the poet the twentieth century deserved”[2] – not sure if that’s an insult or a compliment – and there is no doubt that his poetry polarises opinion. “From one major anthology of poetry, the Oxford, he was excluded for 47 years, and he still won’t be found in another, the Norton.”[3] He “has been called by the critic Adam Kirsch perhaps ‘the best American poet writing today.’ Meanwhile, from other corners of that world, Seidel has earned different and more complicated epithets: ‘sinister,’ ‘disturbing,’ ‘savage,’ ‘the most frightening American poet ever’ and even ‘the Darth Vader of contemporary poetry.’”[4] The thing is, I wouldn’t call his poetry ugly. I wouldn’t call it beautiful either.

Close to the grave

The closer you get to the coffin
the more you abandon fiorture,
the beautiful hollow words.

(from Never and Nothing)

So writes the Greek poet, Elias Petropoulos. His poetry – or “non-poetry” or “anti-poetry” – stemmed from the fact that he, and everyone he loved, was aging and therefore dying. “I’ll have to write a Manifesto of Ugly Poetry,” he writes in In Berlin and then later:

Throw away the Poetry of Ideas and Symbols and of Colours
Prefer Everyday Images
and insignificant Snapshots, one after the other;
that is, Poor Poetry.

(from In Berlin)

Petropoulos is not the first poet for whom, with age, idealism veers to melancholy; and melancholy to disgust. Yet he is one of the very rare poets who, affected by extreme feelings, is willing to relinquish all ties to formal literary elegance. And although he has always taken great risks with his readers, never were the risks as great as in his late poems. For he shows that the very form of a poetry inspired by melancholy and disgust must necessarily be melancholic, even disgusting.[5]

In 2003 he died of cancer in Paris at the age of 75. According to his will, his body was cremated and his ashes were thrown in a sewer by his life-long partner. Nothing if not reminiscent of the intended ending Beckett’s Murphy intended for his mortal remains.

But is creating ugly art the correct response to an ugly world?

This is a bad philosophy because it ignores social duty. If our age has in it ugly features – and who will deny it? – the duty of the artist should be, not to add to the ugliness, but – for him specially among all men – to strive to redeem it by works of beauty.[6]


I think that Herbert Samuel is being idealistic there. Part of art’s duty is to bring to our attention what is going on in the world in a way that news reports simply cannot. What has more power, the Wikipedia entry for the bombing of Guernica or prints of Picasso’s painting commemorating the massacre? And the same goes for the Wikipedia entry for World War I. I read ‘Dulce et Decorum est’ when I was twelve, if memory serves me right, but we didn’t study the First World War in History until I was fifteen and those who opted for Geography as an O-Level subject wouldn’t have covered it at all – I don’t recall it being possible to take both subjects that year. But if you wanted to get across to someone how horrible war was in twenty-eight memorable lines I can’t think of a much better way. It’s not a pretty way but it is an effective one. Here’s a poem I wrote probably not that long after being introduced to Owen’s poetry:

The Rats

And in his sanguinary grave
the soldier lies
slumped like a pile of old rags,
shapeless, his eyes
staring blankly – as if he died
before he knew
what’d happened. He’d been in
many wars. Who
had seen more of death than he
had but even
he wasn’t ready when it came. Most
of his men
had died and he had seen them
die. Just that
night his corporal had been
shot like a rat.

They lived like rats, it was only
fair that they
should die like rats, but if you’d seen
him in the grey
mud, his body torn to pieces,
perhaps you would’ve
had compassion for him but if it’d
been you he could’ve
quite easily have shot you a
few times just in
case you weren’t quite dead
and he’d grin
while he did it. You don’t know
the meaning of sin…

Okay it’s terribly derivative but you get my point. I’ve not set out to use clever metaphors opting for two crude similes – ‘like a pile of old rags’ and ‘like a rat’ – instead. That was poem #364. Poem #362 is called ‘The Virgin Soldiers’ – I’d not seen the film or read the book, I just thought it was a cool title. It’s not as good a poem as ‘The Rats’ but it’s worth mentioning because at the end of it I add a quote from ‘Dulce et Decorum est’.

Protesting ugliness

When Keats wrote "Beauty is truth, truth beauty"[7] he was being terrible naïve. When I wrote those anti-war poems I was adding my voice to thousands of others who have spoken out before and since. Langston Hughes said “that if some of his poems contained ugliness, it was to protest that ugliness rather than to dwell on it.”[8] A good example of that is:

A Dream Deferred

What happens to a dream deferred?

Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore –
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over –
like a syrupy sweet?

Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.

Or does it explode?

Adam-and-eveUgliness is necessary. Without it you cannot truly appreciate beauty. You cannot appreciate truth without lies. If that had been the case would Adam and Eve not said to the snake, “Nu-huh, we’re on a gooood thing here.”

The poetry after Auschwitz is a poetry in extremis – a poetry at the extremities of language ... the extremities of thought & feeling. It was Creeley who spoke, elsewhere, of a poem "addressed to emptiness" (the anomie & anonymity of the modern and postmodern conditions), but I would speak as well of a poem addressed to ugliness – a counter not only to anomie's numbness (its loss of law or meaning) but to that other temptation – the temptation of the beautiful that we also feel.[9]

The poet Jerome Rothenberg concluded that address with a poem, the opening lines of which read:

Nokh Aushvits (After Auschwitz)

the poem is ugly & they make it uglier
wherein the power resides
than duncan did – or didn’t – understand
when listening that evening to the other poet read
he said “that was pure ugliness” & oh it was
it was & it made my heart skip a beat
because the poem won’t allow it no
not a moment’s grace nor beauty to obstruct
whatever the age demanded

“Whatever the age demanded.” That’s the key line here:

“After Auschwitz,” wrote Adorno, “writing poetry is barbaric;” but that poetry he singled out a lyrik. Another kind of poetry came to be our central way of speaking: our most human act. It was a poetry that Adorno also recognised, when writing of it some years later: “Perennial suffering has as much right to expression as a tortured man has to scream; hence it may have been wrong to say that after Auschwitz you could no longer write poems.”[10]

Here, though, is where I find myself conflicted. Like most of us my knowledge of Owen’s poetry is limited. We only studied four at school, ‘Dulce et Decorum est’, ‘Futility’, ‘Anthem for Doomed Youth’ and ‘Strange Meeting’. My sister – unusually for her – had a collection of his poems (a little hardback) but I never read any more and it’s always the same ones that get reprinted in anthologies. So you can imagine my surprise when I came across his poem ‘Apologia Pro Poemate Meo’ which opens with:

I, too, saw God through mud, –
       The mud that cracked on cheeks when wretches smiled.
       War brought more glory to their eyes than blood,
       And gave their laughs more glee than shakes a child.

and also includes the verse:

I have perceived much beauty
       In the hoarse oaths that kept our courage straight;
       Heard music in the silentness of duty;
       Found peace where shell-storms spouted reddest spate.

God? Beauty? Maybe this is an early poem? Apparently not – it dates from 1917. The reason for the change in tone? Apparently at that time Robert Graves had recommended Owen cheer up and write more optimistically. There is certainly no other poem like it in his canon. He could, of course, be being sarcastic or ironic at least because at the same time (18th February) he wrote a letter home saying this:

It is a good thing no photographs can be taken by night. If they could they would not appear in the Daily Mirror which I see still depicts the radiant smiles of Tommies.[11]

And the next day:

We are wretched beyond my previous imagination.[12]

Peter Howarth has some thoughts on the subject:

Jon Stallworthy’s edition of the poems notes that Owen’s ‘Apologia’ is indebted to Shelley’s Defence of Poetry, which claims that ‘poetry is a mirror which makes beautiful that which is distorted … it marries exultation and horror.’ Evidently it is a marriage made in ‘the sorrowful dark of Hell’, but the reference is a helpful reminder that Owen is defending his own poetry rather than his own actions or feelings. His tactic to defend his poems’ ugliness, however, was not to reject beauty outright but to redefine it. ‘I have perceived much beauty / In the hoarse oaths that kept our courage straight’, and the question of who is swearing indicates how the question of beauty itself is caught up with Owen’s problems with his own agency in the war.[13]

Tim Kendall’s reading of it is that the reversals of the poem appear excessive and that Owen is sending up Jessie “Pope’s inflated rhetoric of soldier-tourists, boys eager to be matched with death in the ultimate test:”[14]

They’ll take the Kaiser’s middle wicket
And smash it by clean British Cricket.

(from ‘Cricket’)

Hidden beauties

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA         Where does the beauty in poetry lie? I think it has to be in its ambiguities. Owen’s ‘Apologia’ is framed in that Romantic tradition, leaning heavily on metaphors as opposed to plain speaking. Because of that its message is veiled. The ugliest poetry tends to be the poetry that does not mince its words. Robert Penn Warren has some thoughts on the subject:

Poetry wants to be pure, but poems do not. At least, most of them do not want to be pure. The poems want to give us poetry, which is pure, and the elements of a poem, in so far as it is a good poem, will work together toward that end, but many of the elements, taken in themselves, may actually seem to contradict that end, or be neutral toward the achieving of that end. Are we then to conclude that neutral or recalcitrant elements are simply an index to human frailty, and that in a perfect world there would be no dross in poems, which would, then, be perfectly pure? No, it does not seem to be merely the fault of our world, for the poems include, deliberately, more of the so-called dross than would appear necessary. They are not even as pure as they might be in this imperfect world. They mar themselves with cacophonies, clichés, sterile technical terms, headwork and argument, self-contradictions, clevernesses, irony, realism – all things which call us back to the world of prose and imperfection.[15]

Then the question arises: what elements cannot be used in such a structure?  I should answer that nothing available in human experience is to be legislated out of poetry[16]

Does that mean that ugly poetry is, effectively, chopped-up prose? It’s what Warren seems to be suggesting here. He’s not the only one. John Crowe Ransom differentiated between a “prose core” and “the differentia, residue or tissue, which keeps the object poetical or entire.”[17] The conflict seems to be between “logical structure and poetic texture.”[18] Clearly this is nothing to do with content but rather structure. Warren uses the term ‘pure’ but I think we can regard this an a synonym for ‘beauty’ (or at least ‘poetic beauty’ if you feel the need to differentiate) and, as such, a poem such as ‘Dulce et Decorum est’ could hang onto its poetic purity whilst describing horrendous things. Or maybe not.

Look at it any way you like, a poem is an artificial construct, a made thing. In his book The Idiom of Poetry, Frederick Pottle has a crack at defining a doctrine of pure poetry implying that…

…the effect would be more powerful if we could somehow manage to feel the images fully and accurately without the effect diluted by any words put into it to give us a ‘meaning’ – that is, if we could expel all talk about the imaginative realisation and have the pure realisation itself.[19]

He admits that a poem can contain “certain ‘innocent’ impure elements, which he called ‘prose,’ if the element, be it background or narrative, in Pottle’s words, “serves a structural purpose. Prose in a poem seems offensive to me when … the prosaisms are sharp, obvious, individual and ranked co-ordinately with the images.”[20]

I don’t know much about Warren but I do know he didn’t shy away from ugly subjects, for example:

In the last, far field, half-buried
In barberry bushes red-fruited, the thoroughbred
Lies dead, left foreleg shattered below knee,
A .30-30 in heart. In distance,
I now see gorged crows rise ragged in wind. The day
After death I had gone for farewell, and the eyes
Were already gone—that
The beneficent work of crows. Eyes gone,
The two-year-old could, of course, more readily see
Down the track of pure and eternal darkness.

A week later I couldn’t get close. The sweet stink
Had begun. That damned wagon mudhole
Hidden by leaves as we galloped—I found it.
Spat on it. As a child would. Next day
The buzzards. How beautiful in air!—carving
The slow, concentric, downward pattern of vortex, wing-glint
On wing-glint. From the house,
Now with glasses, I see
The squabble and pushing, the waggle of wattle-red heads.

(from ‘Dead Horse in Field’)

This is from a later poem from the collection, Rumour Verified: Poems, 1979-1980, a long time after his essay ‘Pure and Impure Poetry’ was published (1958) and an even longer time after he was associated with the Fugitives (practitioners and defenders of formal techniques in poetry) in the mid nineteen-twenties. So maybe, with age, his ideals have become less important to him. I don’t know; I don’t know the man.

Real chocolate

british chocolateThe problem with all of this is that we’re talking about something abstract: what exactly is poetry anyway? Let’s talk about chocolate instead. In Belgium and France chocolate isn't chocolate unless it is made exclusively with cocoa butter. This isn’t the case in the UK where manufacturers add a small amount (up to 5%) of noncocoa vegetable fat to their chocolate. For almost 30 years attempts to rename British chocolate (to Vegalate) or ban it outright were repeatedly and successfully fought. Ironic when you note that in 1847, the Fry's chocolate factory, located in Bristol, England, folded the first ever chocolate bar suitable for widespread consumption.

The thing is I’ve grown up with Cadbury, Mars, Rowntree's and other British confectioners. It was years and years before I ever tasted Belgian chocolate and I was not impressed. Now I could compare that to being brought up on a diet of books by angry young men and then being handed Proust. Just because Alan Sillitoe isn’t Proust doesn’t make him a bad writer; in fact I’d bet that Sillitoe sold a lot more in the 1950s than Proust (who only died six years before Sillitoe was born, incidentally) did. Times change, tastes change. Music now accommodates discords, art embraces non-figurative painting, and poetry has learned how to be ugly.

Perhaps the poetry we read nowadays isn’t pure poetry. Maybe it’s time for a name change. Maybe what we write are proems but we’ve always called them poems and we’ll continue to and I don’t think it makes that much difference as long as they make a difference.


[1] Molly Young, ‘Good Poems About Ugly Things’, Poetry Foundation

[2] Calvin Bedient, Boston Review

[3] Wyatt Mason, ‘Laureate of the Louche’, The New York Times, 8 April 2009

[4] Ibid

[5] John Taylor, Into the Heart of European Poetry, p.172

[6] Herbert L. Samuel, In Search of Reality, p.129

[7] John Keats, ‘Ode of a Grecian Urn’

[8] Laurie F. Leach, Langston Hughes: a biography, p39

[9] Jerome Rothenberg, ‘Nokh Aushvits (After Auschwitz)’ in Jonathan N. Barron, Eric Murphy Selinger, Jewish American Poetry: Poems, Commentary and Reflections, p.144

[10] Ibid, p.140

[11] Quote from letter dated 18 February 1917, ‘Apologia Pro Poemate Meo’, The Wilfred Owen Association

[12] Ibid

[13] Peter Howarth, British poetry in the age of modernism, p.187

[14] Tim Kendall, The Oxford Handbook of British and Irish War Poetry, p.127

[15] Robert Penn Warren, 'Pure and Impure Poetry', New and Selected Essays, p.118

[16] Ibid, p.133

[17] John Crowe Ransom, Criticism, Inc., quoted in Sacvan Bercovitch ed., The Cambridge History of American Literature: Poetry and criticism, 1900-1950, p.574

[18] Sacvan Bercovitch ed., The Cambridge History of American Literature: Poetry and criticism, 1900-1950, p.574

[19] Charlotte H. Beck, Robert Penn Warren, Critic, p.50

[20] Ibid

Monday 18 June 2012

Ugly poetry (part one)


Our capacity to be overwhelmed by the beautiful
Survives, unlike beauty,
Amid the harshest distractions.

James Longenbach (from ‘On Beauty’)


The beautiful game

A wee while ago my wife and I were watching TV as is our wont of an evening and someone made reference to “the beautiful game” – “What makes it ‘beautiful’?” she wanted to know and, you know, that is a very good question. The game in question is football (soccer to all you non-Brits) and the phrase was reputedly coined in 1958 by legendary TV sports commentator Stuart Hall. He is not your typical presenter: his reports are unique, scattered with allusions to the works of Shakespeare and all manner of linguistic tricks, so it’s not beyond the realms of possibility that his claim is true, but it doesn’t now matter who first uttered those words; in the UK at least, football is “the beautiful game.” But that doesn’t answer my wife’s question.

I don’t think football is a beautiful game. I’ve nothing against footie per se but to be fair I was always a rugby man. I don’t think that ‘beautiful’ is the right word to describe any sport, but if it is surely there are more ‘beautiful’ sports than football: women’s gymnastics, for example. The problem with the word ‘beauty’ is that we use it mainly to describe physical attractiveness and so when someone talks about a beautiful frog it doesn’t sound right; frogs are ugly creatures; that’s why the princess in the fairy tale is tasked with kissing one.

Let’s define ‘beauty’:

the quality present in a thing or person that gives intense pleasure or deep satisfaction to the mind, whether arising from sensory manifestations (as shape, colour, sound, etc.), a meaningful design or pattern, or something else (as a personality in which high spiritual qualities are manifest) –

There’s no doubt that many people get a lot of pleasure from watching a football match. I don’t. I can appreciate the technical excellence on occasion. I remember seeing the Columbian goalie René Higuita’s “scorpion kick” – a clearance where the Scorpion kickgoalkeeper jumps forward, arches his legs over his head and in doing so, kicks the ball away with his heels – and it is impressive but I’m not sure I’d call it ‘beautiful.’ I bet there were those though on the day who shouted out, “Beautiful save!” and meant it.

Doing a quick search on the phrase “that’s one beautiful” in Google just now I came upon a whole list of things that people have deemed beautiful: TVs, skies, girls, birds, cars, snakes, bellies, dogs, vaginas, brides, kids, roadsters, buttons, nurseries, watches, lights, lakes, writers, chairs, posts, cabbages, fish, poems… When I typed in “that's one beautiful poem” I got 8 entries which had me worried for a minute but “beautiful poem” did way better: 1,760,000 entries which is nothing compared to the 88 million entries for “beautiful girl” but I would worry if there were more people interested in poems than there were in beautiful girls. That doesn’t mean poetry’s not popular because type that in and you’ll get a whopping great 292 million entries which, in turn, pales into insignificance if you type in ‘porn’ – 1.36 billion entries. But I digress.


I have seen dawn and sunset on moors and windy hills 
Coming in solemn beauty like slow old tunes of Spain: 
I have seen the lady April bringing in the daffodils, 
Bringing the springing grass and the soft warm April rain. 

I have heard the song of the blossoms and the old chant of the sea, 
And seen strange lands from under the arched white sails of ships; 
But the loveliest things of beauty God ever has showed to me 
Are her voice, and her hair, and eyes, and the dear red curve of her lips.

John Masefield

When I did my interview with Marion McCready a while ago the issue of beautiful poetry cropped up and I decided to have a think about it and write this post. Once upon a time you could say, as did Edgar Allan Poe, that, “poetry is the rhythmical creation of beauty in words,” but I think since form has fallen by the wayside to the greatest extent, I’m not sure we can take such a simplistic position these days.

No poetry after Auschwitz

No poetry after Auschwitz. The phrase is attributed to the philosopher Theodor W. Adorno. Unlike the quote Stuart Hall claims is his, Adorno did say this but, as if often the case with quotes, it’s derived from a longer sentence:

The critique of culture is confronted with the last stage in the dialectic of culture and barbarism: to write a poem after Auschwitz is barbaric, and that corrodes also the knowledge which expresses why it has become impossible to write poetry today.[1]

Now when I first heard the phrase my interpretation of it was that, as poetry was supposed to encapsulate beauty once having witnessed what happened in Auschwitz and similar camps one would be unable to get the images out of one’s head to be able to perceive beauty in anything else, as if after 1945 everything in the world was somehow stained by the Holocaust. It would logically be impossible to write anything resembling poetry as defined prior to World War II:

It comes at the end of a complex essay that argues that it is "barbaric" to write lyric poetry because the culture that produced some of the greatest lyric poets in Europe also produced the concentration camps. The language can't help being fatally saturated with the conditions that made the death camps possible. 

Adorno also said, in response to Paul Celan's poem ‘Todesfuge’ (‘Death Fugue’) "No lyric poetry after Auschwitz!" Which can be interpreted to mean that in the face of such human enormity, it is no longer possible to make a lyric beauty that is not, at the same time, denied.[2]

There has rightly been much objection to “the Hollywoodization of the Holocaust” – a phrase that crops up more and more in articles these days but I’m not sure who first used it:

In the United States there is great concern regarding the “Americanization of the Holocaust,” resulting in violation of its sacredness and the increasing of its trivialization. Films based on the Holocaust may fictionalize events to produce drama, telescope time, avoid filling the movie with too many minor characters, and simply to be more entertaining. Feature films are obviously commercial endeavours, with economic interests. As a result, the stories have to be changed to attract moviegoers. Given certain formulaic plot additions that guarantee box office success, the event unfortunately becomes distorted through the process.[3]

HolocaustThey have taken what was ugly and if not exactly beautified it they have at least sanitised it where they have not downright romanticised and trivialised it. Although the four-part, nine-and-a-half-hour long miniseries, Holocaust, broadcast in 1978, probably imparted to its audience more over those four nights than they had learned over all of the preceding thirty years, it is, nevertheless, a programme that comes in for some of the most severe criticism for pulling its punches and misrepresenting the facts. On the day the NBC series aired, Elie Wiesel remarked in a New York Times article entitled ‘Trivializing the Holocaust: Semi-Fact and Semi-Fiction’ in which he wrote:

Untrue, offensive, cheap…an insult to those who perished and to those who survived…It transforms an ontological event into a soap opera…[4]

Okay, none of this is poetry but my thinking is the claim that poetry should be beautiful is a claim that can also be levelled against all art, be it music, painting, dance or television programmes.

Before the war, for example, Graham Sutherland was a landscape artist. In 1934 he first visited Pembrokeshire and was profoundly inspired by its landscape, and the place remained a source for much of the following decade. From 1940, however, Sutherland was employed as an official artist in World War II, as part of the war artist scheme and one his return from the war his approach to his art changed completely. Thorns dominated. Nature became more blatantly symbolic. It wasn’t enough to paint pretty pictures. He had to say something.

Talking about an exhibition of Kandinsky’s paintings at the Guggenheim in 2009, Andrew Mangravite made this observation:

Kandinsky’s art changed after World War I, becoming harsher, losing its lovely sense of lyricism— and the energy that accompanied it. The later works— arrangements of sharply-outlined shapes with bold, often jarring colours— take some getting used to, and there were too many of them for the show’s own good.  I heard dozens of people saying that the artist “lost me” at this point.[5]

Klimt’s style changed after the death of his brother and father, Whitman’s poetry changed after the Civil War as did Mayakovsky’s after the Russian Revolution. There are even those would argue that even J K Rowling's literary style changed after 9/11.

Who’s for the game?

Of course there had never been an event like the Holocaust before but that doesn’t mean there hadn’t been significant events prior to that. Take the First World War as a good example. The tone of poetry in general changed markedly as the war progressed. The notions of patriotism and honour fade to be replaced by commentaries on the physical reality of modern warfare. All you need to do is compare a poem intended to talk to the men’s sense of national pride, like Jessie Pope’s ‘Who’s for the Game?’

Who’s for the Game?

Who’s for the game, the biggest that’s played,
The red crashing game of a fight?
Who’ll grip and tackle the job unafraid?
And who thinks he’d rather sit tight?

Who’ll toe the line for the signal to ‘Go!’?
Who’ll give his country a hand?
Who wants a turn to himself in the show?
And who wants a seat in the stand?

Who knows it won’t be a picnic – not much –
Yet eagerly shoulders a gun?
Who would much rather come back with a crutch
Than lie low and be out of the fun?

Come along, lads – but you’ll come on all right –
For there’s only one course to pursue,
Your country is up to her neck in a fight,
And she’s looking and calling for you.

Jessie Popewith the later poems of Wilfred Owen, something like ‘Dulce et Decorum est’ to see the difference. 'Dulce et Decorum est' was a direct response to her writing and was originally dedicated "To Jessie Pope etc.". (I’m a bit annoyed that I’ve only just discovered her and that she wasn’t pointed out to me at school.) Owen’s poem reads, in part:

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of disappointed shells that dropped behind.

A later draft amended the dedication to simply "To a certain Poetess" and was later removed completely to turn the poem into a general attack on anyone sympathetic to the war. War is not a game – Pope has another poem, ‘Play the Game’ where she literally does compare war with a game of football, and another in which she compares it to cricket – nor is it a sweet and fitting thing to die for one’s country. I found this quote from the same time period noteworthy:

The public, as a whole, does not demand or appreciate the pure expression of beauty. Its cultured members expect to find in poetry, if anything, repose from material and nervous anxiety; an apt or chiselled phrase strokes the appetites and tickles the imagination. The more general public merely enjoys its platitudes and truisms jerked on to the understanding in line and rhyme; truth put into metre sounds overwhelmingly true.[6]

The question before the group is, however: Is 'Dulce et Decorum est' a beautiful poem? It is a technically proficient poem but it’s not meant to be beautiful. It’s not describing beautiful things. So is there another kind of ‘beauty’ going on here? Basil Bunting said that "poetry is seeking to make not meaning but beauty,"[7] whereas Auden was of the opinion that, "[a]rt arises out of our desire for both beauty and truth and our knowledge that they are not identical."[8] The Italian philosopher Fulvio Carmagnola wrote that, “[i]n the traditional idea of form we naturally find beauty as the pacifying meeting between the visible and the true."[9]

Philip Larkin said:

Every poem starts out as either true or beautiful. Then you try to make the true ones seem beautiful and the beautiful ones true.[10]

It’s a quote I’ve stared at for quite some time. In his book on Larkin, Terrence Whalen interprets that statement as follows:

He proposes to value the beautiful in life without denying the 'true' and depressing aspects of existence.[11]

I get that but I find myself more in agreement with Herbert Read:

We always take it for granted that all that is beautiful is art, and that all art is beautiful ... This identification of art with beauty is the root of all the difficulties of judgement."[12]

And, also, Eliot:

["Beauty is truth, truth beauty"] strikes me as a serious blemish on a beautiful poem, and the reason must be either that I fail to understand it, or that it is a statement which is untrue. And I suppose that Keats meant something by it, however remote his truth and his beauty may have been from these words in ordinary use. ... The statement of Keats seems to me meaningless: or perhaps the fact that it is grammatically meaningless conceals another meaning from me.[13] (italics mine)

The problem of beauty

Lisa Samuels opens her article ‘Introduction to Poetry and the Problem of Beauty’ with a simple statement:

Beauty is a problem for poetry because we no longer imagine beauty as a serious way of knowing.[14]

When I read that I couldn’t help think of the well-worn expression: Beauty is only skin deep. We live in a society that, probably more than at any other times, wants things to look good whether that be the meals on our plates, the alarm clock sitting on our bedside table or the clothes we have on our backs. That said I also think Mozartthat, probably more than at any other times, we are acutely conscious of the superficiality of appearances: Never trust a pretty face. Beauty is no longer synonymous with honesty. Or maybe not so much honesty as meaning. Mozart’s 40th Symphony isn’t dishonest, it’s not pretending to be something it’s not but I can’t honestly say that it means anything to me. I get pleasure from listening to it, from being reminded of the time I first heard it, but I’m not sure it does anything more for me. Or, perhaps, I’m being a little shallow when it comes to my definition of ‘meaning’.

Samuels continues, in an attempt to debunk that notion that beauty is meaningless:

Beauty wedges into the artistic space a structure for continuously imagining what we do not know. This claim reverses Shelley's formulation of poetry as the place where we "imagine that which we know," which presumes that creativity translates knowledge into imagination. Our general lack of response to beauty nowadays – at least in critical literature – results, among other things, from an intuitive sense that beauty defies such translation. We can neither measure the knowledge that Shelley's imagination turns to beauty, nor can we translate that beauty back into its components of knowledge and imagination. That's because beauty is a non-conceptual way of knowing. We have developed, implicitly, a sense of the non-conceptual in artistic beauty; but we have not much developed sympathetic theories that will allow us to discuss beauty in these terms. We still largely imagine beauty in Shelley's terms, and so we think that those parts of beauty which resist the translation back to knowledge are uselessly private and uncommunicative.[15]

Samuels admits that “not … all poems are beautiful.” Even though the words themselves might be considered beautiful and as every poem is constructed from words it is formed out of things that are beautiful in themselves – I willing concede that point – but the intent is another thing entirely. Think of chemicals. The way chemicals combine could be viewed as beautiful but is a bottle of poison beautiful? Even if it’s in a beautiful bottle?

Beyond beauty

These days we look beyond beauty. Whereas in the past people were content to stop at beauty, we know there is always more. That ‘more’ does not need to be disappointing, it could be a deeper beauty (the beautiful woman could also be beautiful on the inside), but so often these days it is. Clearly we need to redefine ‘beauty’:

Proportion is to beauty what reasoning (ratio) is to truth; if this entails that beauty has little logical weight, it also entails that it has a claim on us as real, and so teaches us about reality by distinct but equally strong means. John Keats was correct to declare, “Beauty is truth, truth beauty,” but not for the reasons he suspected.[16]

That’s what poet James Matthew Wilson had to say. I think this is also what his fellow American Reginald Shepherd is trying to get at here:

Beauty isn't particularly good for anything, except perhaps helping one get laid, and I like the idea of its uselessness. In a society so over-ruled by instrumental reason, to be good for nothing is perhaps simply to be good: in its inutility, beauty manifests what Kant called the kingdom of ends, a world in which people and things exist for their own sakes and not simply as the means to other ends (profit, power).[17]

That said he also admits that “without a notion of beauty,” which he defines as, “an embodiment of the possible beyond the abjections of the mundane, I would not have become a poet, would not, perhaps, have left behind the housing projects and tenements of the Bronx in which I grew up.”[18]

“Where does beauty begin?” asked John Cage, “And where does it end? Where beauty ends, that is where the artist begins.”[19] Beauty is not a simple thing these days. Hasn’t been for years. Larkin captures it well in this poem:

Eternal Beauty

In frames as large as rooms that face all ways
And block the ends of streets with giant loaves,
Screen graves with custard, cover slums with praise
Of motor-oil and cuts of salmon, shine
Perpetually these sharply-pictured groves
Of how life should be. High above the gutter
A silver knife sinks into golden butter,
A glass of milk stands in a meadow, and
Well-balanced families, in fine
Midsummer weather, owe their smiles, their cars,
Even their youth, to that small cube each hand
Stretches towards. These, and the deep armchairs
Aligned to cups at bedtime, radiant bars
(Gas or electric), quarter-profile cats
By slippers on warm mats,
Reflect none of the rained-on streets and squares

They dominate outdoors. Rather, they rise
Serenely to proclaim pure crust, pure foam,
Pure coldness to our live imperfect eyes
That stare beyond this world, where nothing's made
As new or washed quite clean, seeking the home
All such inhabit. There, dark raftered pubs
Are filled with white-clothed ones from tennis-clubs,
And the boy puking his heart out in the Gents
Just missed them, as the pensioner paid
A halfpenny more for Granny Graveclothes' Tea
To taste old age, and dying smokers sense
Walking towards them through some dappled park
As if on water that unfocused she
No match lit up, nor drag ever brought near,
Who now stands newly clear,
Smiling, and recognising, and going dark.

Beauty is something that exists in billboards. Beauty is something we expect to be sold. It’s a commodity and we all know what happens when we get home and all the shiny wrapping comes off. Larkin here contrasts the artificial (airbrushed, at least these days) beauty of advertisers with the real word. I wonder if this poem started out as “true or beautiful.” Of course this poem has – what shall we call it? – a certain beauty. It talks about ugly things but not in an ugly way. The question is: Is ‘ugly poem’ an oxymoron?


In part two: ‘Ugly poetry’, ‘Close to the grave’, ‘Protesting ugliness’, ‘Hidden beauties’ and ‘Real chocolate’


[1] Original quote in Prisms, 1955, MIT Press. Reprinted London, 1967

[2] Alison Croggon, ‘Critic Watch’, defixiones reviews, October 2005

[3] Shahab Elliot Hakakzadeh, 'Hollywoodization of the Holocaust: The Method of Representing the Holocaust in American Films', Quaestio, Volume II, June 2004, p.8

[4] Quoted in – Shahab Elliot Hakakzadeh, 'Hollywoodization of the Holocaust: The Method of Representing the Holocaust in American Films', Quaestio, Volume II, June 2004, p.12

[5] Andrew Mangravite, ‘Kandinsky’ at the Guggenheim in N.Y. (1st review)', Broad Street Review, 27 October 2009

[6] Harold Monro, ‘The Future of Poetry’, Poetry Review, January 1912

[7] Basil Bunting, Stand Volume 8.2, p.28

[8] W.H. Auden, The Dyer's Hand and Other Essays, p.336

[9] Fulvio Carmagnola, Parentesi perdute, p.44

[10] Philip Larkin quoted in Terrence Anthony Whalen, Philip Larkin and English Poetry, p.31

[11] Terrence Anthony Whalen, Philip Larkin and English Poetry, p.31

[12] Herbert Read, The Meaning of Art

[13] T.S. Eliot, Dante

[14] Lisa Samuels, Introduction to Poetry and the Problem of Beauty  from Modern Language Studies, 1997

[15] Ibid

[16] James Matthew Wilson, ‘The End of Beauty — And We’re Not Talking Teleologically Here!’, Front Porch Republic, March 2010

[17] Reginald Shepherd, ‘Notes Towards Beauty’, Crossroads, Spring 2001

[18] Ibid

[19] John Cage, Silence

Wednesday 13 June 2012


Fabric Cover

When we constantly ask for miracles, we’re unravelling the fabric of the world. A world of continuous miracles would not be a world, it would be a cartoon. – Douglas Coupland

That ‘difficult’ second album has been the bane of a great many recording artistes over the years. The first album contains eleven or so tracks that they’ve probably honed to perfection over years and then, overnight, they’re discovered and, after the initial flush of success and two or three hit singles, reality dawns: the pressing need for a follow-up and sooner rather than later which, because of performing commitments they end up having to write on tour buses, in corners of dressing rooms and sprawled across anonymous hotel room beds. And the pressure is on: Do they have anything else to offer? Bob Dylan certainly did with The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan as did Nirvana with Nevermind and Oasis with (What’s The Story) Morning Glory?

And just as there are ‘difficult’ second albums there are ‘difficult’ second novels, seasons (I’m thinking TV shows), terms (politicians), films (The Matrix Reloaded anyone?) and poetry collections. A year ago Jessica Bell published her first collection of poetry entitled Twisted Velvet Chains which I reviewed quite favourably here. Towards the end of the review I inserted a comment made about the Australian poet Gwen Harwood—“ Whether the poems are written in formal metres and structures, or whether constructed in freer forms, they offer delights at the primal levels of their musicality and their ability to shift the boundaries between the verbal and the oral.”—and I followed this with: “I could well say something similar about Jessica. I’d love to underline that statement in twenty years time if she manages to broaden her palette but this is a decent start…”

I am pleased to report that with the publication of her second collection Fabric I see evidence that she has attempted to broaden her palette. The most noticeable difference is a veering away from “the kind of straight-talking poetry that I like” with solid punch lines that hammer home the points she has to make; there are Is and mes but these don’t feel like the earlier biographical or confessional poems. There was a narrative to Twisted Velvet Chains—the mother/daughter theme was strong, palpable—but this is missing with Fabric. That does not mean that Fabric lacks order because it’s very clear even from the most cursory flick through that this book is structured.

In the author’s note at the end of the book Jessica offers some thoughts. She opens with:

When trying to look at the bigger picture we tend to forget the individual. We also tend to forget that it is the individual that contributes to the bigger picture. We, each and every one of us, uniquely influence the moral fabric of society. The “framework” of society is us, the choices we make, the actions we take, and the beliefs we embrace. They may be significant to some, and not so significant to others, but they nevertheless weave the fabric of our world together, creating perpetual causes and effects, both big and small. We contribute to one big massive cycle of life. And we are important. We matter.

To this end the book is divided into four sections:

εγώ: me
εσύ: you
εμείς: us
αυτοί: them

The language is Greek and the frequent references to Grecian culture and society are deliberate; although born in Australia Jessica has lived in Greece for a number of years.

Each section begins with a graphic showing a building with seven empty windows (the eighth has someone looking out at us) followed by seven haiku in a 4 x 3 grid. In her notes Jessica talks a lot about numerology specifically how she views the number seven:

7To me, seven represents symmetry, reason, and order within the Universe. Even when life seems chaotic, there is an omnipresent fabric that is reassuringly homogeneous in its behaviour. We are all imperfect humans. We will be what we will be. And we are perfect just the way we are.

I know a little about numbers and I expect there will be a few who will nitpick at the particular significance she places on the number seven—most Christian groups accept one Archangel, not seven—but let’s not be petty; we’ll just call it poetic licence and leave it there. There were several instances she could have used from the Bible like the seven congregations in Revelation or the fact that the Israelites were said to have marched around the wall of Jericho seven times before they collapsed. It’s not a number I associate with perfection but rather with completeness which ties in with what she is saying. So, in what way are these 28 poems and 28 haiku complete?

As I mention above there are four sections to the book; in English, me, you, us and them. I therefore expected to find the first section full of poems in the first person, personal poems, and yet the third poem, ‘Mama’s Confession’ seems more suited to the second section since it’s a mother writing to her son in prison. The same with the third section; I only found one ‘us’ in ‘Goat Skin Beer Holder’ although three of the poems contained ‘we’ which made me wonder why the other poems were there. There was only one ‘they’ in the final section and it’s referring to tears, not people, and no uses of ‘them’ but on closer inspection the ‘they’ are represented by ‘hes’ and ‘shes’, ‘soot-dusted men’, Mamas, Papas, babies, an Athenian and a certain Mrs. Cuthbert. It’s a good way of structuring a book like this. Of course there is overlap and although personally I might have preferred ‘Mama’s Confession’ in the second section it also works okay in the first, especially given its title. As kids we learn how to conjugate verbs without realising that as we rattle them off by rote—assuming that’s still done—we are also learning about the four ways we are capable of perceiving the world.

The seven poems in the first section are an odd group. The seven ‘mes’ are an artist, a writer who has been suffering from writer’s block, the mother of a serial killer, “today’s personality”, the town of Monemvasia personified and the wife component of an eternal triangle. If you’re counting that makes six because I think that the mother in ‘Flesh’ is the same woman who narrates ‘Mama’s Confession’:


IRing drop my wedding ring
in holy water.
I hope it repels;
the years
of hate
and hope,
so I can finally relate
to the son we made.

It doesn’t have to be but as it’s the very next poem in that section it’s hard not to make the connection. I like this poem a lot. Not sure the semicolon and comma are absolutely needed but I’m not going to make an issue. Actually she’s a poet after my own heart in that respect and uses punctuation marks a-plenty. This is the most straightforward poem in the entire collection and probably my favourite. There are some stories here but much is missing and quite deliberately, I’m sure; these are postcards, not home movies. (She likes the word ‘vignette’.) Why the shift though towards a more lyrical, seemingly ambiguous style?

I’m not sure it was intentional. When introducing the book on her blog Jessica writes:

My poetry will not baffle you with phrasing that scholars award for academic genius and that can only be understood by those who wrote it. My poetry is for the everyday reader. In fact, it is even for those who don’t like to read poetry at all. Because it is real, stark and simple.

Some of it is but not all. Indeed the very first poem in the collection caused me no end of bother. I simply couldn’t get it and it wasn’t for want of trying. So I wrote to Jessica and asked her what she was getting at. I then sent the poem to my wife, who was in America at the time, and asked her what she got from the poem. She got something else entirely. Here’s that opening poem:


Feelings can be broken
when layered paint cracks—

white noise calcified to the tune
of poise and pleasure—Socialism

perched on a paint brush;
an election on canvas.

I snack on written woes;
electronic black mail slips

through automated slots—a grant
to an artist who sells reclusivism

to hermits in dusty boxes. pallette
I cut one open at breakfast,

patterns of hope discoloured
with yoke. And tears.

I purchased my own work.
Hung it on my wall.

Sometimes I like to touch it
with my eyes closed.

I spent a long time looking at this poem, a long time; days in fact. Briefly this is what Jessica said it was about in her first e-mail:

In a nutshell, it's about a painter, a recluse, who refuses to market himself because he's agoraphobic, and despite being granted money to paint no one ever buys his work, so he buys it himself and pretends it not his.

My wife thought this was a “decoder ring” poem and that all she needed was the key and it would all make sense. On receipt of that ‘key’ she found it didn’t. Carrie thought it was allegorical, that Jessica was talking about herself about how she felt about her work being neglected and rejected. I too got misdirected, in my case by the word ‘Socialism’ and assumed that this was a poem referencing the current economic and political crisis in Greece. Neither of us saw the artist as being agoraphobic; his clientele, perhaps. Also if he sells to hermits, who is it that’s not buying his paintings that he needs to buy back? Now there will be those who will say that both of these are valid interpretations but I disagree. I don’t think poetry is so different from prose that an author’s original intent can be so easily disregarded. Later Jessica sent me a detailed almost word for word breakdown of the poem and it’s clear that a great deal of thought went into it—‘black mail’ is two words for a reason, for example, and ‘yoke’ is not misspelled—but I suspect most “everyday readers” will struggle with this one; this is exactly the kind of poem I remember getting handed out when I was at school which I only understood after it was explained to me. The problem with poetry, and this is not just Jessica’s poetry, is that no one ever tells us if we’ve got it wrong and it’s easy to think that whatever we think a poem means is what it means. So how do you know when a poem is a bad poem?

Jessica writes:

I want more people to understand that not all poetry is scary and complex. Not all poetry is going to take you back to high school English, and not all poetry is going make you feel “stupid”.

I commend her goals. They’re mine too. But we writers are the worst judges of our own poems because everything that’s missing from a poorly constructed poem is in our heads and so, when we look at them, they all make complete sense.

There is another problem with many of these poems. ‘Mama’s Confession’ opens like this:

My nails aren’t strong enough
to scratch you anymore,
Antoni mou.

There is nothing to explain ‘Antoni mou’ and that annoyed me; a quick search of Google was not helpful. Okay, once I got to the appendix it was explained but I would have preferred a footnote there and then. Foreign expressions are off-putting. Even when explained, they are off-putting. (I associate them with writers like Ezra Pound—show-offs.) The problem is the damage has been done; we already feel stupid. I felt stupid. Here, by the way, is what the expression means:

daglis-005Antoni mou: This means “my Antoni”, which is in reference to the serial killer, Antonis Daglis (Greek: Αντώνης Δαγλής, born 1974), who was convicted of the murders of three women, and attempted murder of six others in Athens, Greece, on January 23, 1997. Also known as the “Athens Ripper”, he was sentenced to thirteen terms of life imprisonment, plus 25 years.

I’m a little puzzled how a man can get sentenced to thirteen life sentences for attacks on nine women but who am I to argue with Hellenic jurisprudence?

The second poem in the collection, ‘Breaking the Curse’, is no better than the first containing three expressions—‘Euterpe’, ‘Kolossus’ (no, it’s not a giant) and ‘gnidnib ym no gnitirw’—that all require explanations at the end of the book. Now, had I been reading the paperback, I might not gripe but since I was working from an electronic copy I couldn’t keep my finger in the back of the book. This is not so much of a gripe about ebooks as it is a cogent reminder for authors to bear in mind the limitations they impose on readers. This particular poem opens with:

My words create shawls—
they cloak the crazies
on empty nights

like this.

On her blog Jessica writes “if you read Fabric, you’re not reading poetry, you’re reading about people” and although I understand why she might say that, but the fact is this is poetry. When I was about eighteen I remember giving a poem to one of my workmates to read. I’ve tried to find it to get the quote right but I can’t locate it. The poem talked about a man pouring himself a crutch to drink, an expression I thought so blindingly obvious it required no explanation whatsoever, and yet this was where the girl pulled me up: she read the words quite literally and said, “You can’t pour a crutch.” Had she read Jessica’s poem she would have said immediately, “Words can’t knit shawls and who are ‘the crazies’?” I’m not saying that this is bad poetry—I don’t think it is—but what we poets think of as easy, obvious and accessible may not be to people who haven’t looked at a poem since they were forced to do so at school. The twenty-eight pieces of writing in this book are poems and there’s no avoiding that.

Another gripe I had with the ebook is that you can’t—at least I couldn't—turn my tablet sideways to read the grid properly because every time I move the thing it flipped the page; very annoying. Later she sent me the paperback which is lovely, solved all my problems and only marred by a typo on the otherwise charming front cover:

a rich collection of poems that take the reader on a deap tour of the psyche – Magdalena Ball

That would be the Persian flaw then?

Interestingly the poem I think most people-who-don’t-read-poetry will identify with will be this one from the final section of the book, which begins:


“I just can’t bear to lift my head
the world, it seems askew.
One more minute, here in bed,
then I swear I’ll comfort you.”

But baby wailed, hiccupped, cried,
and Mama did not move.
Instead she prayed her son might die,
knowing Papa would disapprove.

I’ve used this form once myself—a nursery rhyme about child abuse in my case—and it’s not an approach I think I’ll ever use again but it is a very powerful way of getting a point across. We’re all familiar with iambic tetrameters, that jolly da DUM da DUM da DUM da DUM rhythm of childhood prosody and so it evokes before meaning has a chance to take charge of us. Sentiment, noun, “The emotional import of a passage as distinct from its form of expression.” It’s a word Jessica and I talked a bit about when we were discussing ‘Canvas’. Jessica said, “I know there's no way [a] reader will understand my intentions with it. But surely the sentiment?” This is the only poem in the collection where sentiment hits you before meaning. I believe, certainly as far as the written word goes, that feelings always follow meanings. In this poem though, its soundscape evokes before we have a chance to start interpreting the verses.

The first section of the collection is, as I’ve said, εγώ: me, and so I was surprised to find the poem ‘Monemvasia’ there. Again, unless you’re familiar with Greece, it’s a word that requires some clarification; it’s “a Byzantine town initially constructed on a rock that was separated from the mainland during an earthquake in 375 AD, is located on a small peninsula off the east coast of the Peloponnese in Laconia, Greece.” Not a person then.

monemvasiaWhite-capped tears
no longer soothe
the clefts and valleys
of my cracked skin.
Instead they sting
like pins and burn
away bruised years.

So anthropomorphism: a literary device giving an inanimate object human traits and qualities, such as emotions, desires, sensations, physical gestures and speech. Another perfectly valid poetic technique. But it’s most definitely poetry. The readers have to be willing to accept that a town could talk, cry and possess skin that could crack. And how can years bruise? Personification, similes, internal rhymes (skin/sting/pins) and metaphors, all in seven lines. In other words, poetry. ‘Once’ is a mirror poem, ‘We Need Women’ is an alphabet poem, ‘What You Found’ is a list poem and ‘Postpartum’ is a ballad.

The poems in this collection were written over a comparatively short period of time. In a recent interview she explains:

[I]t started when I printed up all the poems I’d written from the last year and tried to find a concurrent theme in order to put together a new collection. I realised that I had a substantial amount of poems that included a fabric of some kind … “ooh,” I thought, “that’s a pretty cool title.” Of course, a piece of fabric appearing in every poem was not meaty enough to base a collection on, so I brainstormed some symbolic links. That’s when I came up with “the fabric of society”. From then on the collection began to bloom. I wrote new pieces, tweaked old ones, and rewrote some entirely to fit the theme.

Of the twenty-eight poems in the collection, twenty were selected from what she had written in 2011 and eight were written to plug gaps. So the whole book serves as a snapshot. I’ve never written enough poems in one year to do something like this but I do recognise periods in my writing that could, if I was so inclined, be published as a group, that say something about me at a certain time in my life. Only in a few years’ time will we see where these poems fit into the bigger picture that is Jessica Bell.

Bottom line then. As I write this there are eight 5-star reviews on Goodreads and six on Amazon; nothing less and if the hundred-plus people who have it on their to-read shelf actually buy the thing then she can be a very happy lassie. I don’t give stars here. I do on Goodreads (eventually). It’ll be a while before I post a link to my review there, but it won’t be 5-stars. A poetry book is an odd thing. Few people set out to produce a book of poetry; rather they gather poems into a book. Really every single one of these poems needs to be reviewed in isolation because that’s how they were written and that’s how they should be read. Grouping them risks diminishing them. One beautiful woman in a crowd of beautiful women is never going to as eye-catching as she would be on her own, I don’t care who she is. The same goes for the plain Janes; they’re never going to look quite as homely, to use Arthur Miller’s word, in a crowd. There are a couple of stunners here and a few homely girls too. And some that I really couldn’t decide on, strange-looking creatures, unconventional beauties; as much as ‘Canvas’ annoyed me—and it did—I did keep coming back to it; that was not the case with some of the others. I found myself reading the collection in bits, a section at a time, in isolation. The haiku didn’t impress me—I didn’t feel the connection with the four themes although the first two groups work better than the second two—but then I’m not a huge fan of haiku-esque poems. The poets who have reviewed it have gushed over it. It’s nice to be nice and we all like good reviews but I would rather buy a book that had five 4-star reviews that a hundred 5-stars reviews; I wouldn’t trust them. Which makes me seem like a curmudgeon but if I tell any one of you out there that I loved your poem or your article or your book you’d better believe it. I liked this collection; I didn’t love it. I’m not a big fan of love at first sight, though. I prefer an affection that grows over time. I could list a number of great works of literature that I hated the first time I looked at them but grew to love and the same with people.

There is chaos, i.e. true randomness, and there is complexity beyond which humans can fathom any pattern. Jessica acknowledges that the characters depicted within many of the poems in this collection are full of flaws—there are hermits, crazies, murderers, abusers, failed parents, needy people, Nazis, sick people, the suicidal, the depressed—as well as the odd, sweet grandchild so this is no Persian carpet. This is a tatty, old rug, worn and beaten, but it’s our rug; it’s not perfect—far from it—but it does its job.

Let me leave you with the trailer for the book:


The bio at the back of the collection reads:

If Jessica Bell could choose only one creative mentor, she’d give the role to Euterpe, the Greek muse of music and lyrics. And not because she currently lives in Greece, either. The Australian-native author, poet and singer/songwriter/guitarist has her roots firmly planted in music, and admits inspiration often stems from lyrics she’s written.

She is the Co-Publishing Editor of Vine Leaves Literary Journal, and co-hosts the Homeric Writers’ Retreat & Workshop on the Greek Isle of Ithaca, with Chuck Sambuchino of Writer’s Digest.

You can read my review of her first novel String Bridge here and my review of Twisted Velvet Chains here.

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