Excerpt from a reading journal, 2006
Ah, journal . . . we meet again. It seems that last time the entry degenerated into a bout of self-flagellation and grovelling promises. Well, I’ve already broken them. Let’s say weekly from now on . . . promise.
Anyway, let me just disgorge thoughts on a couple of poets. As I mentioned at the end of the last post, I’ve been helping myself to some work by old Irish bastards like Seamus Heaney, and locals like Bill Oliver.
Heaney first. This supposed ‘Nobel laureate’ seemed to have quite a reputation, but I wasn’t immediately taken by the cover of his Collected Poems. This, coupled with the few Heaney poems I’d read in the past, took me to the book with some skepticism. It was unfounded. I reckon Heaney’s poems are brilliant. The early earthy ones are deceptively simple – invitations and odes to something pastoral and deeply calm. I was particularly taken by the half-rhymes he uses regularly, and have begun to incorporate them into my own poems – something like ‘Neighbour’, for instance, which I’ve shown to James Brown and got some good feedback on.
But back to Heaney. There’s a wonderful attention to the sheer sounds of words in his poems. Now I know that seems an obvious thing to say about a poet, but I think Heaney’s into it more than most. Better still, he does it without getting silly, I reckon, without losing the thread of a story, a reflection or something to haul us along with. It strikes me that my own work is not as immensely interested in words as units as Heaney’s is. Which may just be a round-about way of saying he’s a damn good poet, but I think is also a reflection of different styles: some poets are more straight-up, working for the good metaphor, the knock-your-head-off turn, the compelling narrative; others seem more interesting in the bouncing around of words on the page and their echoes. I’d say I’m more the former, and I still actually think Heaney is too, but I think there’s room for me to move in the direction of the latter . . .
Greetings journal, I’m back . . . four days after the last entry. Ouch. Ka-pow. Take that. Just a few reflections on my first meeting with my supervisor, James Brown, at a café at Te Papa yesterday. I’d given him about 6 poems and a longish prose piece about America. Found him to be a nice mix of forthright and accommodating, opinionated but curious, critical and positive. Some of the more interesting things:
it’s always what I’m burning to know – did you like the poem? Did it actually do anything
for you? If not, let’s chuck it. (Well, not quite, but if enough people say it, then
maybe . . . )
–Just good to have fresh eyes on things. Interestingly, he didn’t really take to one that
I’ve been peddling since I was about sixteen called ‘It is strange’. I still like this poem,
but I think perhaps I’ve overrated it a touch. I remember it getting a very positive
reception from my Dad when I wrote it, and he still often refers to it, so I think I was
just too attached.
–Big on the ‘show, don’t tell’ school of thought . . . almost too much so, I thought.
After he had put the pencil through some of my glorious ‘telling’, I had to ask, ’Can you
ever tell? Can you ever extrapolate and reflect and be instructional or explicitly
meditative?’ His answer was, ‘well, yes, but you’ve got to do it very well and sparingly’.
I think that’s probably fair, but one will never get there if one just cuts it out of every
poem and shies away from it as a tool in the belt. Anyway, a theme to watch for.
–Great to get my first dose of real feedback. The class is yet to see my ’real work’ and a
couple of the poems I gave to James I am yet to show anyone else. So they’re out
there now. Good.
Until next time, sayonara.
OKay, I made it. One folio session down and I’m still here to tell the tale. My session was a combined one with Emma, who’s working on a novel set in 1950s small-town New Zealand. She’s still got a way to go with her plot, but I reckon the writing’s really bold and original.
And that’s enough about her project – back to me. I delivered about twenty poems to the rest of the class and the feedback has been pretty, pretty, pretty good (to quote Larry David). OKay, well maybe not that good, but good enough to make me feel like I’ve made a start to the year. I tried to include only stuff that I’ve written more or less since the course began and I don’t think there were too many let-downs.
It’s an interesting process, the class discussion. Talk naturally drifts towards consensus, I think, unless there is a particularly vocal opposition to the initial sets of thoughts. After the session, when I’ve gone back and looked at the individual written comments, they are frequently quite different to where we got to in class. I don’t think there’s anything malicious about that; it’s just the natural process of discussion. Also, inevitably some people feel stronger about certain pieces than others . . . and sometimes the stuff written down doesn’t really show that. I know that when I write, I’ll usually put something down even when I’m not particularly moved.
Anyway, the class favourites appeared to be these ones:
‘The Scientists are Hunting for the Graviton’
Some I had really liked when I wrote them (‘Firecracker’ for one), were panned.
Some (like ‘Neighbour’), which James Brown had very much liked, received a more mixed reception from the group.
Overall, people (especially the females) warmed to the more domestic poems – where characters like my young brother feature, or I at least appear to spill my guts. There was some criticism of my ’political poems’. This was mainly based around issues of authenticity – whether it was achievable for someone like me to write a poem about war in Afghanistan. I feel quite strongly that it should be, but I think it’s perhaps a more difficult poem to write – and maybe, ultimately, that is what’s being said . . . that the poems don’t achieve enough, and thus appear to be awkward and inauthentic.
So in summary: lots to work on – many of the poems got half-ticks from the class – and a good buzz about the year’s toil so far as well. It’s clear to me that I don’t necessarily put in the sheer number of hours that say the novelists do, but I feel positive that my approach is right. Poetry is always hovering at the top of my brain this year, and I generally sit down at the end of the day and just rattle off what has been building there. I hope it continues to flow.
[This section follows a workshop I chaired in the class about whether poetry was any use, and if it could stand to be more popular, and other such things I typically rant about. I’d given them all about nine poems and loads of opinionated pieces by people like August Kleinzahler and Harold Bloom and Billy Collins and Mary Oliver . . . ]
I thought it was a damn good discussion. Bernadette Hall came along for it as well, and we really got going on what poetry could and could not be expected to do. Some particular highlights:
into my group entitled ‘Reasons no one reads poetry’ and Bernadette thought was one
of the best poems she’d ever read. Various methods of reading the poem were
suggested, and the intense group analysis began to reveal some real layers to it.
Interestingly, one of the ways suggested was to read it beside other Muldoon poems,
and I found out today that in fact it’s one of three loosely associated poems
about Muldoon’s daughter. That certainly changed things a bit, but I actually like
the other two better, and still think this one’s just too much for me. You can take
your widgeon and stick it, Muldoon.
– My concluding rant about looking for wisdom in poetry. This followed some lively stuff
from various bods about liking poems that unsettle them and ‘ask questions but don’t
give answers’. I basically said I was all for these, but how about some that also pointed
to ways of coping with a tough world, of seeing wonder, and then I also said, ‘that
deal with how to live’. Well, that’s probably a bit of a no-no . . . all a little too
didactic and straight. Bill said he distrusts poems that go for wisdom from the start;
reckoned it’s got to be incidental, surprising.
– Conflicting views about poetry and élitism. Lucy was very much in the ‘so what?’ camp
poetry’s like chamber music, only highly literate people will get it, it’s the top of the
artistic food chain. I wasn’t so prepared to throw away the everyman . . . and how
about the joker who reads novels but not poems? Mary said simple poems could be the
one-day cricket games to the test matches of more complicated poems . . . ways of
getting people into the medium. I rejected this; it’s like saying there are poems
and then there are poems. Also, it seems to suggest a simple poem can’t be a truly
Overall, I walked away feeling thoroughly energised and went home and penned a few poems.
Let’s talk about Mary Oliver’s A Poetry Handbook which I ordered off Amazon last month and downed in two days. It’s a spare, lucid little book that deals with the technical and ‘process’ aspects of writing and understanding poetry. My initial observations about it:
That thing about how we’re comfortable with painters copying Rembrandt and music
players learning all the craft issues, but we somehow expect poets to just do it off their
ear. This of course made me feel entirely illiterate and blinkered, and challenged me
to do yet more reading, especially of older stuff.
– Different perspective on free verse. Her theory is basically that free verse is not nearly
as free as we think it is – it’s an attempt by poetry to be more democratic
and conversational, and is just the beginning of a new direction in poetry that’s
likely to last a long time. The first part seems to me reasonable enough, though a bit
ironic because I think it’s free verse that the ordinary public finds so damn
difficult about poetry; the second part was particularly challenging; I guess I thought
of free verse as kind of like Francis Fukuyama’s view of liberalism – the ‘end
of history’; the broad trend towards which everything seemed to be slanting.
– Thoughts on revision, where she said that she would usually revise a poem forty or
fifty times before coming to a place she might be satisfied with it. This made me think
about my own revision practises. At first, I thought, ‘Shit, I probably only revise
most of my poems a couple of times before I show people’, which is sort of true.
However, it’s also true that I read them a lot more than that on the computer,
generally trying to iron things out as I do so. It’s almost a sort of half-revision;
and I don’t actually think it’s entirely adequate at all.
– The absolutely money last page of the book which had me cheering like an idiot. I
want to reproduce it almost entirely:
journals. Converted to present tense, it reads: The poem is a confession of faith.
Which is to say, the poem is not an exercise. It is not ’wordplay’.
Whatever skill or beauty it has, it contains something beyond language devices, and
has a purpose other than itself. And it is a part of the sensibility of the writer. I
don’t mean in any ‘confessional’ way, but that it reflects from the
writer’s point of view – his or her perspective – out of all the sum of his or
her experience and thought.
Athletes take care of their bodies. Writers must similarly take care of the
sensibility that houses the possibility of poems. There is nourishment in books,
other art, history, philosophies – in holiness and in mirth. It is in honest hands-on
labour also; I don’t mean to indicate a preference for the scholarly life. And
it is in the green world – among people, and animals, and trees for that matter, if
one genuinely cares about trees. A mind that is lively and inquiring, compassionate,
curious, angry, full of music, full of feeling, is a mind full of possible poetry. Poetry
is a life-cherishing force. And it requires a vision – a faith, to use an old-fashioned
term. Yes, indeed. For poems are not words, after all, but fires for the cold, ropes let
down to the lost, something as necessary as bread in the pockets of the hungry. Yes,
There’s just so much here that I love. This idea that poetry is not just an exercise, the delivery of words, but that there must be something inside of it . . . a purpose other than itself. The nod towards all the worlds of inspiration and wonder which can inform good work. The affirmation of the poem as something meaningful – ‘fires for the cold’. I definitely think Mary Oliver would have had my back in the debate we had about poetry in class.
This passage also recalls a Keats phrase she uses in the book to describe a prerequisite for the writing of poetry: ‘negative capability’. Here are the quotes from Keats’ letters themselves:
Literature & which Shakespeare possessed so enormously – I mean Negative
Capability, that is when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries,
doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason . . .
He also calls a poet the ‘most unpoetical of any thing in existence, because he has no Identity – he is continually in for – and filling some other Body . . . ’ I like this notion of finding poems in other things, in intense observation and patience and an almost blankness. It seems to contrast quite deeply with the classic Romantic image of the artist being someone brimming with tormented creative energy, continually ready to pour forth from their own highly individual soul. I, for one, have never felt like this at all, and yet I still feel like a poet . . . this sort of writing confirms why, I think. One doesn’t have to be a manic-depressive, or wildly passionate, or melodramatic, to be a poet. I think there probably does have to be the ability to feel things especially keenly and record the essence of physical things, or moments. Those are the things I want to develop as much as possible.
What up Journal? Who you trying to get crazy with?
Just a quick one to say that I’ve been through my solo session with the class and I’m alive.
But, whoa, three hours is a long time, and it’s really interesting how the response comes out. I’m finding that with their general comments, people are overwhelmingly positive – almost to the point that it’s difficult to gauge sincerity. When it comes to the individual pieces, though, it somehow becomes easier to criticise them, and people let out all their savagery. It’s quite a shock for the writer being appraised, and I suspect the real truth is somewhere between the two extremes.
Anyway, and far more importantly, I’m reasonably happy with the quality of my work. Just had a meeting with James Brown, as well, where his feedback was mainly positive. For some weird reason, during my actual session with the class, I started to doubt that many of them were any good. Perhaps it was something to do with the order I was reading them in, along with the fact that I had put one or two in which were genuinely just silly, like ‘Burger’. Still, standing back a week later, I feel a lot better. I do have a really solid body of poems sitting on the computer, and I’ve started to get a sense of how little time there is left on the course.
Things to do: buy a printer, actually revise my poems, learn everything.
Just landed in Wellington after a week up north. The first few days were at Ohope, near Whakatane, where we had superb, cold, still, sunny weather. A friend and I swam. On the drive up, we had been snowed in at Taihape as well, which was high drama – I’d never been under snow before.
The second half of the week was in Auckland, where I was in a debating tournament. We argued for televising criminal trials, against child sponsorship as a good type of aid, for the US practice of ’extraordinary rendition’, against putting folate in NZ bread, against boycotting Pakistan for being undemocratic, and for the partition of Iraq into three contiguous units.
I did a little reading while I was away – got halfway through John Banville’s The Sea, but it was mostly fairly light. I wrote a couple of poems at Ohope and I think the debating topics have provided the seed for a few more.
I’m aware that such lazy living could be regarded as sacrilege at this point in the course – all my classmates will have been writing ferociously for the last week, avoiding jury duty and talking to even their partners and families. Right now, though, I’m feeling brilliant about my direction. The poems are flowing again and I’ve got an energy that I didn’t have a week ago. I just don’t think you can write poems 24/7 . . . they go stale and weird and the same if you do. At some point, you’ve got to have the experiences and the feelings and the sheer time that most poems surely flow out of. I hope that’s what I’ve done. More thoughts to come in the next few days . . . and particularly a synopsis of my reading this year. Say your prayers, journal. This time next week, you’re dead to me.