September 30, 2016
Venezia, you lied to me.
Lazy water, coquetry,
sliding boats, that embrace
you said was ours, half-hidden place,
half the painters painted upside-down,
whoring, incestuous town,
Venezia, Venezia, you moored us together
with crimson crepe paper,
all the while you knew you would take her.
Vain, lying, jealous bitch,
architecture, water, sky, I don’t know which is which is which.
Venezia, laughing city,
I beg the sea to take you.
You lied about the size of the moon.
You draped facade upon facade
as though running for your life, Scheherazade,
Joseph Goebbels, lights on the water,
Scheming, faithless sewer of shit and blood,
you told me that she loved.
Donald Zirilli is the editor of Now Culture and has been writing poetry for the past thirty years.
September 30, 2016
The under-examined bone of contention in today’s poetry is the value of affect in art. More and more poets are suspicious of lyrical expression and devote themselves to emotionally neutral methods. The representation of affects—feelings that are often either transports or afflictions—has been increasingly muted in American and European art since the 1960s. Vehemence of feeling nonplusses the modern personality, a hostage to ambiguity and irony.
This turn against strong emotion leaves much at stake. Writers who pride themselves on conceiving projects and executing them according to plan — thus relatively indifferent to the intrinsic value of what is produced and to the quality of the production itself—neglect life values, which include a trembling web of receptivity, sharply interested observation, the ability to make instant adjustments, and organic developments within a constantly changing context, all properties as important to lyric poets as to cats. The new cerebral writing implies that the conceiving head is superior to the intuitive heart, to use the old words. It reinstates the ages-long assumption of the supremacy of culture over biology, the scheme that modern art and thought, as José Ortega y Gasset argued in The Modern Theme (1931), set out to overturn with pagan gusto.
But this cerebral poetry does its work in a period when the old assumption that culture could be progressive is dead. It is thus devoted to ruins. It is reactionary at the same time that its alliance with digital technologies—technologies that facilitate copying, sampling, and remixing; that “float” documents and make them seem up for grabs—gives it the lure of being very “now.” As an effort to form an avant-garde, “head” poetry thus diverges sharply from the disruptive-to-revolutionary aesthetic and political aims that characterized the early 20th century avant-gardes.
Melancholy and militancy, those contrary but subtly related elements of the poetry of affect, cannot be excised from literature, in favour of methodology, without both emotional and political consequences: misery in the first instance, cultural conformity in the second.
Defending the Poetry of Affect
September 30, 2016
A nation reveals itself not only by the men it produces but also by the men it honours, the men it remembers…
The men who create power make an indispensable contribution to the nation’s greatness, but the men who question power make a contribution just as indispensable, especially when that questioning is disinterested, for they determine whether we use power or power uses us…
When power leads man toward arrogance, poetry reminds him of his limitations. When power narrows the areas of man’s concern, poetry reminds him of the richness and diversity of his existence. When power corrupts, poetry cleanses, for art establishes the basic human truths which must serve as the touchstones of our judgment. The artist, however faithful to his personal vision of reality, becomes the last champion of the individual mind and sensibility against an intrusive society and an officious state. The great artist is thus a solitary figure. He has, as Frost said, “a lover’s quarrel with the world.” In pursuing his perceptions of reality he must often sail against the currents of his time…
John F Kennedy
Speech at Amherst College in honour of the late poet Robert Frost, February 1964
September 30, 2016
Field-Martin, the naturalist, sat in his corner arm-chair at the Club and watched them – this group of men that had drifted together round the table just opposite and begun to talk. He did not wish to listen, but was too near to help himself. The newspaper over which he had dozed lay at his feet, and he bent for¬ward to pick it up and make it crackle with a pretence of reading.
“Then what is psychometry?” was the question that first caught his attention. It was Slopkins who asked it, the man with the runaway chin and over-weighted, hooked nose, that seemed to bring forward all the top of his face and made him resemble a large codfish for ever in the act of rising to some invisible bait.
“Something to do with soul measuring, I suppose, unless my Greek has gone utterly to pot,” said the jovial man beside him, pouring out his tea from a height, as a waiter pours out flat beer when he wants to force it to froth in the glass.
“Like those Yankee doctors, don’t you remember,” put in someone else, with the irrelevance of casual conversation, “who weighed a human body just before it died and just after, and made an affidavit that the difference in ounces represented the weight of the soul.”
Several laughed. Field-Martin wheeled up his chair with vigorous strokes of his heels and joined the group, accepting the offer of an extra cup out of that soaring teapot. The particular subject under discus¬sion bored him, but he liked to sit and watch men talking, just as he liked to sit and watch birds or animals in the open air, studying their movements, learning their little habits, and the rest. The conversation flowed on in desultory fashion in the way conversations usually do flow on, one or two talkers putting in occasional real thoughts, the majority merely repeating what they have heard others say.
“Yes, but what is psychometry really?” repeated the codfish man, after an interval during which the talk had drifted into an American story that grew apparently out of the reference to American doctors. For that particular invisible bait still hovered above the surface of his slow mental stream, and he was making a second shot at it, after the manner of his ilk.
The question was so obviously intended to be answered seriously that this time no one guffawed or exercised his wit. For a moment, indeed, no one answered at all. Then a man at the back of the group, a man with a deep voice and a rather theatrical and enthusiastic manner, spoke.
“Psychometry, I take it,” he said with conviction, “is the quality possessed by everything, even by inanimate objects, of sending out vibrations which – which can put certain sensitive persons en rapport, pictorially as it were, with all the events that have ever happened within the ken of such objects – ”
“Persons known as psychometrists, I suppose?” from the codfish man, who seemed to like things labelled carefully.
The other nodded. “Psychometrist, I believe,” he continued, “is the name of that very psychical and imaginative type that can ‘sense’ such infinitely delicate vibrations. In reality, I suppose, they are receptive folk who correspond to the sensitive photographic plate that records vibrations of light in a similar way and results in a visible picture.”
A man dropped his teaspoon with a clatter; another splashed noisily in his cup, stirring it a third plunged at the buttered toast of his neighbour; and Field-Martin, the naturalist, gave an impatient kick with his leg against the arm-chair opposite. He loathed this kind of talk. The speaker evidently was one of those who knew by heart the “patter” of psychical research, or what passes for it among credulous and untrained minds – master of that peculiar jargon, quasi-scientific, about vibrations and the rest, that such persons affect. But he was too lazy to interrupt or disagree. Wondering vaguely who the speaker might be, he drank his tea, and listened with laughter and disgust about equally mingled in his mind. Others, besides the codfish, were asking questions. Answers were not behindhand.
“You remember Denton’s experiments – Professor Denton, of Cambridge, Mass.,” the enthusiastic man was saying, “who found that his wife was a psychometrist, and how she had only to hold a thing in her hand, with eyes blindfolded, to get pictures of scenes that had passed before it. A bit of stone he gave her brought vivid and gorgeous pictures of proces-sions and pageants before her inner eye, I remember, and at the end of the experiment her husband told her what the stone was.”
“By Jove! And what was it?” asked codfish.
“A fragment from an old temple at Thebes,” was the reply.
“Telepathy,” suggested someone.
“Quite possible,” was the reply. “But, another time, when he gave her something wrapped up in a bit of paper, taken from a tray covered with objects similarly wrapped up so that he could not know what particular one he held at the moment, she took it for a second, then screamed out that she was rushing, tearing, falling through space, and let it drop with a gasp of breathless excitement – ”
“And – ?” asked one or two.
“It was a piece of meteorite,” was the answer. “You see, she had psychometrised the sensations of the falling star. I know, for instance, another woman who is so sensitive to the atmospheres of things and people, that she can tell you every blessed thing about a stranger whose just-vacated chair she sits down in. I’ve known her leave a bus, too, when certain people have got in and sat next to her, because – ”
Field-Martin paid for his neighbour’s tea by mistake and moved away, hoping his contempt was not too clearly marked for politeness.
“ – everything, you see, has an atmosphere charged with its own individual associations. An object can communicate an emotion it has borrowed by contact with someone living – ” was a fragment of the last sentence he heard as he left the room and went downstairs, spitting fire internally against the speaker and all his kidney. He seized his hat and hurried away. He walked home to his Chelsea flat, fuming inwardly, wondering vaguely if there was any other club he could join where he could have his tea without being obliged to listen to such stuff. . . He walked through the Park, meaning to cut through via Queensgate, and as he went he followed his usual custom of thinking out details of his work: the next day, for instance, he was to lecture upon “English Birds of Prey,” and in his mind he reviewed carefully the form and substance of what he would say. He skirted the Serpentine, watching the sea-gulls wheeling through the graceful figures of their evening dance against the saffron sky. The exquisite tilt and balance of their bodies fascinated him as usual. He stopped a moment to watch it. To a mind like his it was full of suggestion, and instinctively he began comparing the method of flight with that of the hawks; one or two points occurred to him that he could make good use of in his lecture . . . when he became aware that something drew his attention down from the sky to the water, and that the interest he felt in the birds was being usurped by thoughts of another kind. Without apparent reason, reflections of a very different order passed into the stream of his consciousness – somewhat urgently. Sea-gulls, hawks, birds of prey, and the rest faded from his mental vision; wings and details of flight departed; his eye, and with it his thought, dropped from the sky to the surface of the water, shimmering there beneath the last tints of the sunset. The emotion of the naturalist,” stirred into activity by the least symbol of his lifelong study – a bird, an animal, an insect – had been curiously replaced; and the transition was abrupt enough to touch him with a sense of surprise – almost, perhaps, of shock.
Now, vigorous imagination, the kind that creates out of next to nothing, was not an ingredient of his logical and “scientific” cast of mind, and Field-Martin, slightly puzzled, was at a loss to explain this irregular behaviour of his usually methodical system. He stepped back farther from the brink where the little waves splashed . . . yet, even as he did so, he realised that the force dictating the impulse was of a protective character, guiding, directing, almost warning. In words, had he been a writer, he might have transposed it thus: “Be careful of that water!” For the truth was it had suddenly made him shrink.
He continued his way, puzzled and disturbed. Of the mutinous forces that lie so thinly screened behind life, dropping from time to time their faint, wireless messages upon the soul, Field-Martin hardly discerned the existence. And this passing menace of the water was disquieting – all the more so because his temperament furnished him with no possible instru-ment of measurement. A sense of deep water, cold, airless, still, invaded his mind; he thought of its suffocating mass lying over mouth and ears he realised something of the struggle for breath, and the frantic efforts to reach the surface and keep afloat that a drowning man –
“But what nonsense is this? Where do these thoughts suddenly come from?” he exclaimed, hurrying along. He had crossed the road now. So as to put a greater distance, and a stretch of wholesome human traffic, between him and that sheet of water lying like painted glass beneath the fading sky. Yet it pulled and drew him back again to the shore, inviting him with a curious, soft insistence that rendered necessary a distinct effort of will to resist it successfully. Birds were utterly forgotten. His very being was steeped in water – to the neck, to the eyes, his lungs filled, his ears charged with the rushing noises of singing and drumming that come to complete the dread bewilderment of the drowning man. Field-Martin shook and trembled as he crossed the bridge by Kensington Gardens. . . . That impulse to throw himself over the parapet was the most outrageous and unaccountable thing that had ever come upon him . . . and as he hurried down Queensgate he tried to calculate whether there was time for him to see his doctor that very night before dinner, or whether he must postpone it to the first thing in the morning. For, assuredly, this passing disorder of his brain must have immediate attention; such results of overwork could not be seen to quickly enough. If necessary, he would take a holiday at once. . . .
He decided to say nothing to his wife . . . and yet the odd thing was that before dinner was half over the whole mood had vanished so completely, and his normal wholesome balance of mind recovered such perfect control, that he could afford to laugh at the whole thing, and did laugh at it – what was more, even made his wife laugh at it too. The fact remained to puzzle and perplex, but the reality of it was gone.
But that night, when he went to the Club, the hall-porter stopped him:
“Beg pardon, sir, but Mr. Finsen thought you might have taken his hat by mistake last night?”
“His hat?” The name “Finsen” was unknown to him.
“He wears a green felt hat like yours, sir, and they were on adjoining pegs.”
Field-Martin took off his head-covering and discovered his mistake. Finsen’s name was inside in small gold letters. He explained matters with the porter, and left the necessary directions for the exchange to be effected. Upstairs he ran into Slopkins.
“That chap Finsen was asking for you,” he remarked; “it seems you exchanged hats last night by mistake, and the porter thought possibly – ”
“Who is Finsen?”
“You remember, he was talking so wonderfully last night about psychometry – ”
“Oh, is that Finsen?”
“Yes,” replied the other. “Interesting man, but a bit queer, you know. Gets melancholia and that sort of thing, I believe. It was only a week or two ago, don’t you remember, that he tried to drown himself?”
“Indeed,” said Field-Martin dryly, and went upstairs to look at the evening papers.
If the cap fits
September 29, 2016
September 29, 2016
What exists beneath the sea? I’d always pictured it in colours of emerald and aquamarine, where black velvet fish with sequined eyes swim among plankton. But, when my eyes adjust, I see gray stones, lost anchors, wet wood, buttons, hooks, and eyes, the Salem witches who wouldn’t float, stars and stripes, missing vessels, windup toys, the souls of Romeo and Juliet, peaches, cream, pistons, screams, cages of ribs and birds, tunnels, nutcracker soldiers, satin bows, drugstore signs, Pandora’s box ripped open at its hinges.
The History of a Star
September 29, 2016
He was an elderly man and he had queued up with the people who were waiting for me to sign their books. When his turn came, he announced unapologetically, “I don’t read poetry. I write it. I’ve brought you a copy of my book.”
If he had been younger, I might not have been so polite. I smiled, took the book and thanked him. Later on a quick glance through the self-published volume confirmed what I already knew: the poems were no good. People who never read poetry don’t write poems that are worth reading.
It’s a free country, of course, and anyone can write whatever they like. However, if you are interested in writing well, in working at being a better poet, then the most important piece of advice that anyone can give you is that you have to read both recent poetry and the poetry of past centuries. That’s how you learn. The elderly gentleman must have come across some poems at some point in order to have a concept of what a poem is. But vague memories of a few things you read at school are not enough.
It seems odd to me that anyone who hates reading poetry should want to write it at all. Are there amateur painters who never go to an art gallery? Or amateur musicians who never listen to music? Sometimes non-reading poets explain that they are afraid of being influenced. They don’t understand that being influenced is part of the learning process. Some of my earliest (and unpublished) poems read like poor imitations of Sylvia Plath. Others read like poor imitations of TS Eliot. I was unaware of this at the time. Gradually I worked my way through these and many other influences towards finding my own voice. Nowadays I hope I sound like myself in my poems but I am still influenced by what I read, still learning.
Judging poetry competitions has reinforced my understanding of the crucial importance of authenticity of tone. If a poem is to work, the voice in it has to sound like the real voice of a real person. This applies to dramatic monologues (where the poet puts words into the mouth of another character) as well as to first-person lyrics.
Some insecure people use a special voice on the telephone that sounds quite different from the way they usually speak. Inexperienced writers sometimes do something similar in their poems – using “poetic” language that they would never employ in ordinary speech or reaching for clichés because they lack the confidence or the energy to find their own, unique way of expressing themselves.
I find that the most important and helpful question to ask myself when I’m working on a poem is “Am I telling the truth?” TS Eliot said that the greatest difficulty for a poet is to distinguish between “what one really feels and what one would like to feel”.
Knowing what one really feels is not always such a simple matter as it may sound. Whether we are writing about our own lives, or our response to the world around us, or public events, Eliot’s dictum still holds. If the poet is, knowingly or unknowingly, being dishonest, the poem will fail. We need to search for the words and images that accurately convey the truth of the matter.
We also need to acquire some technical skills. A few years ago I spent a month teaching aspiring poets in Colorado Springs. They all wrote free verse and knew very little about traditional forms. By the time I had finished with them they could write iambic pentameters. “If you want to be a poet,” I insisted, “you have to know this stuff. You don’t have to go on writing like this but you should understand how to do it.” They responded very well. I especially remember the fiery young Hispanic-American and his excellent revolutionary villanelles.
They were a talented bunch and I hope that some of them are beginning to get published. They won’t all be famous poets – quite possibly none of them will. I hope they won’t feel the time they spent on learning to write was wasted.
I’ve spent a lot of time learning and practising the piano, even though there was never the slightest possibility of my becoming a professional pianist. It is something I want to do for its own sake. So is writing poetry. It has to be. I’ve observed that people who are too focused on being published tend not to get anywhere. If you have the urge to write poems, and to work at doing it better, good luck to you. I hope you will find the journey rewarding.
How to write Poetry
September 29, 2016
September 29, 2016
To my mind the great pre-eminence of Browning as a poet does not rest on any profound philosophy to be found in his work, nor in his superior craftsmanship, not yet in his generous uplifting impulse and the way with which he arouses our feelings, but rather on the fact that he possessed all these three requirements of a poet in an equally marked degree. The work of Poe or of William Morris, on the other hand, does not exhibit this fine balance of strength, intellectuality, and passion. On its sensuous side, it is wonderfully beautiful; and yet it is not wholly satisfying, since it fails to give us enough to think about. Its mentality is too slight. Neither of these poets, to judge from his poetry alone, had any large and firm grasp of the thought of the world, such as Browning possessed, and that is why the wizardry of Poe and the luring charm of Morris are not more effective. An artist must be also a thinker and a prophet, if his creations are to have the breath of life. And again, poetry may easily fail by being overladen with this same requisite of mentality. It may have more thought than it can carry. Browning himself, in several of his later books, like the “Inn Album,” quite loses the fine poise of his powers, and almost ceases to be a poet, in his desire to be a philosopher…
The Purpose of Poetry