Tag Archives: writing

Having a good time with poetry

Robert Peake’s piece “on Ashbery and surprise” where he quotes Robert Frost on the importance of having a good time when writing a poem has got me thinking about  those poems that so obviously gave pleasure to the poet. I know that, as a reader, I get added satisfaction where the poem has been written with pleasure as if I’m sharing in the poet’s virtuosity. As a writer of poetry there’s also that admiration of someone else’s skill.

I think that having a good time is about setting out to do something quite difficult and then finding that you can do it quite well, about showing off the new found skill and about taking delight in the effect that you have created.  Book 3 of Paradise Lost for example is Milton’s attempt at setting out a quite complex theological argument by depicting God in conversation with Christ and thereby explaining the “ways of God to men”. This is brilliantly acheived and the pleasure that Milton derived from this shines through on every line. Now, we can’t all be John Milton but we can take pleasure in his achievement.

On a lesser scale, the same can be said about Edmund Spenser’s depictions of sex and violence in the Faerie Queen.  These are brilliantly realised, Spenser takes enormous relish in describing the fights between the various Knights and gives the reader a very clear sense of the extreme violence involved in medieval combat. It could be argued (and has been by Virginia Woolf) that Spenser got carried away with his own ability and put too many fights into the poem but that doesn’t mean that he didn’t get enormous pleasure from writing them. With regard to sex,  Spenser gives a lengthy and detaile description of the Bower of Bliss in Book 2 only to have his hero destroy it. The authorial voice throughout is consistently disapproving of lust and lustful acts yet his description of these is very alluring. I’m convinced that he really enjoyed writing about sex but was also aware that this conflicted with his overall aim (fashioning the virtues).

Moving into the 20th century, TS Eliot clearly had a great time writing  “The Waste Land”, for all its melancholic overtones this is a poem (and there aren’t many) that broke new ground and Eliot must have been aware when he was writing it of the fact that it “works”. There is a confidence in the poem that indicates that Eliot had discovered that he could write it and that he really enjoyed the creative process.

In 1962 John Ashbery published a collection of poems “The Tennis Court Oath”, this book received almost universal opprobrium as critics felt that it was far too obscure and experimental. One poem, “Europe” is particularly difficult but even here the great time that Ashbery had in writing it stands out. Reading it now it comes across as the work of someone who is confident of his gift and is taking pleasure at pushing that gift to its limits.

The great Elizabeth Bishop wrote a poem called “The Moose” which she published in 1976. This is a poem which tells a story about a bus journey but it is packed with such elegant detail that the reader shares the journey.  This is a poem whereby Bishop displays her skill in such a loving way that her pleasure  is displayed for all to see and share.

Coming up to date, Geoffrey Hill also had a good time composing “A Treatise on Civil Power”. Hill is a controversial character and this poem is full of the trademark allusions to obscure foreign writers, “difficult” pieces of music and descriptions of nature. Nevertheless this poem represents a poet at the peak of his abilities who is making a difficult argument and making it very well. His confidence has grown enormously over the last ten years and this has been a joy to follow.

When I started this I wanted to make the point that writing poems doesn’t have to be an  agonised tussle with language. Now, I also think that the fact that people write poetry is in itself a cause for celebration and we should try to be a little less precious about it.


Poem about poetry

Larkin hated poems about poetry but I can’t seem to get away from them. I think that’s probably because I get really immersed in the process (drafting, writing, reading out loud etc) and I am infinitely curious about the way other people do it. Anyway, what follows was kick-started by a Geoffrey Hill essay  on John Ransom Crowe. What I hope I’ve done is put together a slightly tongue-in-cheek riposte to those who take poetry too seriously.

Nights in the pub

Man walks into a bar,


(to no-one in particular)

“I’m looking for the monad”.

The two bar staff exchange glances

and shuffle their sweating feet.

The older one says:

“We haven’t had a monad in here

since a week last Tuesday”.

The man says: (to them)

“You two don’t even know what a monad is”.

At which the younger one gets all indignant,

pours himself a drink and leans across the bar:

“The monad is Eliot’s still and moving centre,

the compression of feeling, the true object of all poetry.”

He’s strangely impressed and orders a drink- double malt with ice.

Night after night he drags himself down there

to the bar on top of the sea,

night after night he drinks himself drunk,

notebook by his side

as the waves drench the rocks.

Then, one fateful night,

they greet him and say:

“The air’s thick with it tonight-

can’t you smell it?”

And he could, the air was warmer

and carried the scent of burning orchards.

All he had to do was wait.

Then,  at ten past ten, it all started to begin.

The plaintive cries,

the women in their thirties,

the long, long sighs,

the silent sobbing inside,

the older men,

the glazed euphoria.

10 or 12 all at once,

he sat fixed to the  bar

he took notes

(as you would),

he sweated,

he cried,

capturing every last angle that he could.

By 11 it was all over

and he went home,


to sleep.

The next morning with coffee and a smoke

he opened his notes only to find

that he couldn’t read a fucking word.

All squiggles and blotches

as if the truth demon had erased

the revelation in the night.

He tried to make things out,

he really did,

but the only words that were left were:





Love poem

I don’t do this very often, probably because I’m not good with emotions and the world is already full to bursting with  poems about love. This one started with a documentary on Derrida where, in exasperation, he made the statement about love that’s in the poem- that got me to thinking about my own feelings for my partner and this in turn led to the poem which is, if anything, an affirmation of the life we’ve shared together since 1970. The documentary is really good- a bit like watching God taking a piss.


Jacqui says (and he should know)

There are two types of love

The love of qualities and

The love of the essential,

My love for you is of the second kind.

Jacqui says this poem

is in a frame marked “poem”.

Whilst it is true,

I do love the inside of your thighs,

Your smile, the things you think,

The way you check yourself out,

That’s not why I love you,

Then I get to thinking about essence,

Give some consideration to soul.

Then I see that my love for you

Is implacable, takes no prisoners

Is about the You of You,

The storm within the storm,

The deep inside and the eyes that smile.

I love you.

Jacqui is a clever man,

He’s read three or four books very very well,

He frets about his wife in the kitchen,

And eats lemon curd for breakfast

But he’s only half-right about love,

You cant split qualities from essence,

One reflects the other,

immutable, for ever.

I really love the you of you.

The first time (line)

In 1969 or thereabouts I was your average bright but disaffected schoolboy.  Like all of my contemporaries I thought that poetry was effeminate and vaguely  silly. There then occurred a moment of revelation, our averagely disdainful English teacher distributed an anthology (“The Albemarle Book of Verse”) to the class and we started to go through some poems. Instead of going along with this, I flicked through the book until I came across “Welsh Landscape” by RS Thomas.

I read the middle bit first-

It is to be aware

above the noisy tractor

and hum of the machine

of strife in the strung woods,

vibrant with sped arrows.

You cannot live in the present

At least not in Wales.

It’s the sped arrows that lifted me to another place. I suddenly understood with that line what poetry could do, how it could transform language and turn ordinary words into art  by altering their usual placement and thereby transposing the sense. I also knew that poetry had just become a major part of my life (it has remained so for the last forty years. What is interesting for me is that the poem isn’t that good and the line about sped arrows  is a bit formulaic- this is hardly an example of what poetry can really do- but it was sufficient to lead me into the world of the poem. I often wonder what would have happened had this random event not occurred, would there have been others to draw me in or would I have remained blissfully ignorant of all the stuff that currently fills my head?

As a writer of poems I’ve noticed recently that (unless I’m careful) I write like R S Thomas, I still adapt his voice, I still end stuff with weak last lines just like him- it’s as if I’ve never really let go of the blueprint that he gave me in 1969.  This is especially odd as I have nothing in common with Thomas’ faith (he was a vicar) or his Welsh nationalism.

The First Chapter

I’ve started the novel. I don’t normally think about prose because I don’t normally read fiction (except for Roth, DeLillo  and Bolano) and poetry has always seemed more satisfying.  I’ve started the novel against my better judgement because the idea has stayed with me for some years and I can’t get rid of it. I can’t honestly say that it’s a bad idea  and walk away so I’m stuck on the third(ish) attempt to do something with it.

I’m very conscious that the first chapter is about dragging the reader in, about persuading him that it’s going to be worthwhile to read the rest so I do partial disclosure, I hint at problems to come, at something nasty lurking in the cupboard. I also try to keep myself interested on the grounds that if I’m bored then everyone else will be too.

So far I’m not bored but the language could use a little polish  and this is my current task. I’m not the greatest prose stylist but I know how to make good use of the occasional image without killing the piece. I also need to get better with dialogue. Much information is shared in the first chapter and I need to be able to use different speech patterns to reflect the different characters as they let some of the cat out of the bag.

It’s this re-working that I don’t enjoy, it feels cynical and manipulative but I’m trying to look at it as a necessary evil. I  keep telling myself that the idea is strong and valid but already I can feel  the glum self-doubt sttling in.

The point of this is to declare my unequivocal admiration for those writers of fiction who need to tell a story and are prepared to go through all kinds of hell to simply get it told. Even bad fiction writers still have the guts and bloody mindedness to see the thing through. Poets simply don’t have that kind of pressure.

Poetry and the recession

I’m toying with writing something about the recession but I’m not sure that it’s a theme that lends itself to verse. If poetry is about compression then it’s really quite hard to get to the kernel of the current crisis- what we seem to have is an abundance of follies (greed, hubris, unchecked risk, the herd instinct, stupidity, arrogance etc etc etc) and a plethora of explanations that are almost as complex as the problem itself.

I’m not suggesting that poetry shouldn’t be polemic nor that it should shy away from the uncomfortable. It’s just that if you are going to do polemic then you need to be very sure of your target. The closest I’ve got so far is taking on the Chicago School with it’s rigid faith in the glories of the unregulated market, in self-correction regardless of the human loss on the way.

This doctrine has always struck me as intellectually empty and to attack it by saying the obvious seems a bit too easy unless I can find an interesting way to put the point and present a feasible alternative without being too strident.