Light is life

February 19, 2019

Goethe’s final words: “More light.” Ever since we crawled out of that primordial slime, that’s been our unifying cry: “More light.” Sunlight. Torchlight. Candlelight. Neon. Incandescent. Lights that banish the darkness from our caves, to illuminate our roads, the insides of our refrigerators. Big floods for the night games at Soldier’s field. Little tiny flashlight for those books we read under the covers when we’re supposed to be asleep. Light is more than watts and footcandles. Light is metaphor. Thy word is a lamp unto my feet. Rage, rage against the dying of the light. Lead, Kindly Light, amid the encircling gloom – Lead Thou me on! The night is dark, and I am far from home – Lead Thou me on! Arise, shine, for thy light has come. Light is knowledge. Light is life. Light is light.

Chris Stevens
Northern Exposure

need to rebuild

November 17, 2018

In general, I look for placeholder language when I revise. That is, moments in poems where the language seems to get habitual and is, let’s say, falling down the stairs in an uninteresting way. Those are the spots I need to tend to. Often, those spots are indicative of larger structural issues I need to address. Like, I need to rebuild the stairs so the falling down them gets more interesting. Or, I need to remove the railing so the falling can happen more quickly. Or, I need to install a new spiral-y railing so the falling knows where it’s going. I realize I’m extending this falling-down-the-stairs metaphor very, very far. But what this metaphor also demonstrates is that for real revision, I need to immerse completely in the world of the poem; I have to move through it intuitively and with everything I’ve got.

Chen Chen
Interview with Allison Peters for the Michigan Quarterly Review

myth

November 4, 2018

Folk legend, fairytale, myth are thought of as escapist, but in reality they’re not – they’re distilled metaphor and truth.

Alan Garner
Interview for BBC TV programme Sleuths, Spies & Sorcerers

an infernal paradise

May 28, 2018

a city of the future - London

In Lovecraft’s defining stories, meaning such later works as “The Shadow out of Time” and “At the Mountains of Madness,” there is a sense of adventure. In his letters, Lovecraft often wrote of experiencing moments of what he called “adventurous expectancy,” by which he meant feeling oneself on the brink of some weird and hyper-exciting revelation that is always held in suspension and never known in its particulars. This is patently an aesthetic perception of existence. Borges described a similar feeling of the imminence of a revelation that never occurs as the definitive aesthetic experience. In Lovecraft’s work, unlike that of Borges, the origin of his feeling of adventurous expectancy derives from something terrible that is associated with the inconceivable spatial and temporal nature of the physical universe. I think that a great many people experience the same thing in their lives. I have myself. But it never occurred to me to express this feeling as a source of adventure in my stories.

My focus has fairly consistently been on what I have thought of as an “infernal paradise,” a realm where one wallows in something putrid and corrosive that lies beyond exact perception. In his stories, Lovecraft’s adventurous expectancy ultimately has its origin in something terrible, and not the child’s picture-book wonderland you find in the work of a lot of writers of fantastic fiction. But it’s still thrilling in its own way. It isn’t purely hellish, as is the case with my stories. Lovecraft was an astronomy buff as a child and so this feeling probably stemmed from that time. I was a pathological Catholic as a child, and one might make a connection between my early life and my later writings on that basis. Ultimately, the difference I’m trying to articulate between Lovecraft’s adventurous expectancy and my infernal paradise may seem superficial. I would say as much myself. But it seems to me that what captivates a reader’s interest in one writer’s work as opposed to another’s is quite often based on superficial qualities, even when there are deeper likenesses. Anyone can think of examples among both popular and literary writers. Lovecraft’s defining works portray a variety of monsters. Mine seldom do. What’s the difference? Not much on the deepest level. But monsters are a great literary hook and there is necessarily a surface adventure in dealing with them. If asked to name the definitive image in Lovecraft, one might likely say its tentacles flailing from the body of a monster. For me it would be probably be puppets, manikins, and clown-like things, even though these are more often a matter of metaphor than a literal presence of a monstrous type. Nevertheless, if Lovecraft’s tentacle monsters and my puppets and so on fought each other, I think the monsters would win.

Thomas Ligotti
Interview: Thomas Ligotti and the Realm of Nightmares
Weird Review 15th October 2015

School, poetry & love…

August 5, 2016

blooms

Some of my earliest memories are of school and of poetry. In particular the hours of homework spent with my copy of ‘Sound and Sense’, trying to scan various poems and to understand how the sounds of language can be used to create mood and meaning.

What, I used to ask myself, is the point?

The school I attended was private (that should be with a capital P), one of those facilities developed for people reasonably well-off, but not stinking-rich: a place for upper middle-class couples to rid themselves of the embarrassment of a potential lower-class lout or loutess, without the gut-wrenching cost of Harrow, or Eton or where-have-you.

We had to learn an awful lot of poems by rote in school. Generally an unpleasant exercise, I have to say; although I must admit Walter de la mare’s “Silver” struck a chord in me. It carried its own thrilling music within the words. That particular poem, I recall, was memorised for one of the LAMDA examinations (They took place every year).

Another poem that we all had to learn by heart was by W H Davies, aka Supertramp, titled “Leisure”:

What is this life if, full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare.

No time to stand beneath the boughs
And stare as long as sheep or cows.

No time to see, when woods we pass,
Where squirrels hide their nuts in grass.

No time to see, in broad daylight,
Streams full of stars, like skies at night.

No time to turn at Beauty’s glance,
And watch her feet, how they can dance.

No time to wait till her mouth can
Enrich that smile her eyes began.

A poor life this is if, full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare.

That poem, I believe, was published in Davies collection “Songs of Joy and Others” in 1911, though first published around 1906 in some periodical or other. But I still feel it in my…My what? My soul? I’m not certain. But I still feel it as something magical, despite my having had to learn it by rote to pass an exam and acquire another bloody certificate (Oh, how the school loved those bits of paper; certificates went some way to justify the horrendous fees they charged to educate/imprison us).

Another poem we had to learn was “The Highwayman” by Alfred Noyes. This I suspect was selected at the time to appeal to the romantic/tragic nature of the girls, and the melodramatic/ bloodthirsty nature of the boys (because, oh, yes, the school was co-educational!).

The wind was a torrent of darkness among the gusty trees,
The moon was a ghostly galleon tossed upon cloudy seas,
The road was a ribbon of moonlight, over the purple moor,
And the highwayman came riding –
Riding – riding –
The highwayman came riding, up to the old inn-door.

Later in the poem it was Tim the ostler that impressed me most. I saw him as the embodiment of Quasimodo – although lacking that individual’s unfortunate physical deformities, and, of course, the bells. But even so –

His eyes were hollows of madness, his hair like mouldy hay,
But he loved the landlord’s daughter,
The landlord’s red-lipped daughter,

But love, loving the red-lipped daughter of this publican, was something I could identify with. For I was in love then, first love, with a grey-eyed girl whose hair was ‘bound and wound about the stars and moon and sun’, and who I totally made a prat of myself with on a first date – so that the second date became, not just improbable, but an outright impossibility.

But I digress. Good ol’ Alf packed it all into his poem: alliteration; simile; metaphor; onomatopoeia; you name it, and you’ll find it there somewhere! And, as if that were not enough, the final stanzas of the poem confront us with a pair of ghosts, forever meeting at the inn window. How could that fail to capture and inspire young minds?

You’ll note the stanzas of this poem are always six lines long. It will also be obvious that the fourth and sixth line of each stanza is half the length of the other lines. The rhyming scheme is simple (AABCCB). And generally speaking there are six feet in every line (hexameter), but (have you noticed how there’s always a BUT?) not all those feet are the same: some have two syllables, others have three. Take as an example the first two lines:

The wind / was a tor / rent of dark / ness among/ the gus / ty trees,
The moon / was a ghost / ly gall / eon tossed / upon cloud / y seas,

The slashes denote each of the six feet, and the bold type shows where the stress should be placed. Short two syllable feet are called iambs and possess an unstressed syllable followed by stressed syllable. The longer three syllable feet are anapaests – two unstressed syllables followed by a stressed syllable.

Oh, how my young head ached!

But Alf’s poem is half iambic, half anapaestic, see? Simples!

The anapaestic feet, of course, suggest the galloping horse throughout the work while the iambic feet keep the poem grounded, preventing it from becoming too “jaunty”. Between the iambic feet and verbal repetitions, the poem develops a measured, suspense-generating tone.

Still with me thus far? Why is any of this important? Well, it isn’t really. You can read Alf’s poem (aloud, like me to the cats, this morning) and enjoy it immensely. However knowledge of Alf’s skill in constructing his poem, can only add to your pleasure. Although, that said, I think it was Mark Twain who said ‘the only problem with dissecting a frog is the frog dies’ or words to that effect.

Even so, today, more than at any other time, people are putting pen to paper and writing poetry. They have no idea of the technical skills or the “rules” behind the construction of good verse. So they write and call what they have written ‘free verse’, not recognising its mediocracy in the process. Or if not free, then experimental.

Consider the case of the artist Picasso. At an early age his skill and knowledge of drawing and painting was incomparable; he painted in a totally naturalistic style. But then his style changed. He began to experiment with different forms and techniques. By the time his paintings were depicting highly geometric and cubist shapes (and totally confusing many members of the general public in the process), it was only too easy to forget that he was totally grounded in the traditional, conventional methods of painting and drawing. He had developed those skills over a long period of time. He didn’t just slap paint on canvass and call it free art.

So you see, knowledge of the poets craft – metre, layout, form, rhyme, syntax, etc – is important. Especially if you want to write verse yourself. But even if you don’t, some knowledge of poetics will enhance your appreciation of a poet’s skills (or lack of same) when you encounter their verses.

Oh, well, that’s it for now. I have got to go clean the windows. Have a good day.