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Why is Poetry Important to today’s society?

Why is Poetry Important to today’s society?

Poetry, like music, can provide a kind of atmosphere to echo or assure a reader, share in their mood, or provide one. It can also, like novels, serve as a kind of escape, allegory, or humor as we face or need respite from life’s difficulties. But what I find I come back to poetry for are insights into the deeper questions—life, nature, connection, existence, the cosmos. It is not that poetry answers the great questions, but that it asks with us and participates somehow in our being. 

I think of the deep reflective poetry of John Donne (“Death be not proud…”), poems by Gerard Manly Hopkins in moments of depression but also doubt about belief and then a reconnection with his God (ie “Carrion Comfort”) or Frost’s poems which are on one level simple observations of natural spaces he passes along in walks but on another level have to do with how he decides to live and direct his life, or how he keeps on keeping on. 

When I think of contemporary poetry, I think these are the things which draw me to authors like Anne Carson, whose poetry contains characters, philosophy, history and the confusion of everyday being that both interrogates my own existence and allows me distance to watch someone else doing the hard work of wandering along, struggling with love and rejection, meaning and time. Or I think of Shrikanth Reddy’s Facts for Visitors and now-native Georgia poet Andrew Zawacki and the deep beauty in their poetry. 

Lastly, I am a poet who has lived across multiple languages and countries, initially grounded in Iowa but now living in France, so the poetry by contemporary authors which is focused on interrogating family, migration/immigration and ancestral connections in wholly new ways is the writing I come to most: Myung Mi Kim’s Under Flag to Commons, Craig Santos Perez’s first 4 books from his unincorporated territory series telling of his roots in Guam and old family vs attachments to the USA via Hawaii and new family, Bhanu Kapil’s Incubation: A Story of Monsters with its cyborg version of herself—an Indian-Brit residing in the USA trying to figure out how to belong, American author now living in New Zealand Lisa Samuels Anti M which is a new version of an autobiography or the slightly older texts which paved the way to these: L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poet Lyn Hejinian (My Life but also her recent, exciting text for our times Tribunal) or Theresa Hak Kyung Cha’s mixed language text Dictée (first and only book, published on the day she passed away). 

Poetry connects me simultaneously to myself, and to the world and universe I am part of. It is a deep form of art which, in this current time of pandemic, is one of the strongest examples of hope, or methods of hoping. This is why I think poetry is fundamental to and for society.

Jennifer K. Dick 14th March 2022

A Forest On Many Stems edited by Laynie Browne (Nightboat Books)

A Forest On Many Stems edited by Laynie Browne (Nightboat Books)

This massive book (580 pages) is a collection of ‘essays on the poet’s novel’, which takes a look at contemporaneous and (mostly 20th Century) historical prose works written by poets. Most are written by poets, so we have an anthology of poet’s critical prose about other poets’ fiction.

I can’t pretend I know all of the critics or the authors and texts under discussion; even the many names I do know, I often haven’t read the works being considered. Yet these essays are open, inclusive and discursive enough to not only encourage me to find and read many of these works, but also to offer themselves as both experimental writing and as informed and more generalised contextualisation and discussion.

That is these essays are informed by and embedded within a sense of poetry and its playfulness, liquidity and experiment, with a particular focus on the works poets have chosen to produce as ‘novels’. Not prose poetry, but novels: fictional prose, although the book starts with a brief section on the ‘Verse Novel’ where texts by Lyn Hejinian, Anne Carson and Alice Notley are discussed and the fourth section includes ‘Prose Poem’ as part of its more elongated title.

Others of the seven sections are more intriguing and open to interpretation: ‘Genre Mash-Ups’, considers work by Barbara Guest, Gwendolyn Brooks and Gertrude Stein and others; ‘Metamorphic / Distance / Aural Address / Wandering’ could perhaps include anything, but its selection of author subjects includes Sebald, Pessoam Lewis Carroll and Leslie Scapalino; whilst Langston Hughes, Michael Ondaatje and Keith Waldrop are amongst those who feature in ‘Portrait / Documentary / Representation / Palimpsest’.

Some questions re-occur – usually with different answers. Why would a poet adopt prose? How does prose differ from poetry?  (‘Why does a poet choose another language to write a novel?’ asks Vincent Broqua.) Do we read poets’ novels with different expectations? What about narrative, authenticity, plot and momentum? Interiority and lyricism? And what genre is the poet’s novel?

Abigail Lang, writing about ‘Jacques Roubard’s poets’ prose, gets to the heart of the matter for me, suggesting that ‘[i]f poetry and prose are maintained as distinct, they can enter into a productive conversation’. Whether engaged in close reading, philosophical discussion, literary discourse or theoretical deconstruction, this book articulates and extends that conversation. It is a challenging, focussed and exciting read.

Rupert Loydell 28th January 2022

The Celestial Set-Up (Oystercatcher Press) & A Revolutionary Calendar (Shearsman Books) by Zoe Skoulding

The Celestial Set-Up (Oystercatcher Press) & A Revolutionary Calendar (Shearsman Books) by Zoe Skoulding

When Harriet Tarlo’s challenging and deeply rewarding anthology of ‘Radical Landscape Poetry’, The Ground Aslant, appeared in 2011 from Shearsman Books it attracted a review by Robert Macfarlane for an issue of Saturday Guardian. Referring to details of landscape providing ‘no reliable resting place for the eye or the mind’ the reviewer alerted us to the movement onwards ‘in an effortful relay of attention from speck to speck’. He also pointed to Peter Larkin’s awareness of particularity, ‘highlights in the moving light of the ordinary’, which brings to mind the ‘message from far away’ that Jeremy Prynne wrote in 2005 for the opening issue of Pearl Contents, the First Students’ English Magazine of Guangzhou University:

‘Out on the Pearl River enjoying a festive excursion I was watching the water currents slide by, flashing with lights from the banks on either side and lightning from the sky; and I realised how brilliant would be the new magazine of the Guangzhou University English Writing Classes, full of pearl-bright moments and shining articles all moving along in the currents of these changing times.’

In Zoë Skoulding’s new group of poems from the Oystercatcher’s beak we are offered ‘The Celestial Set-Up’, ‘star clusters’ which scatter into ‘islands breaking into archipelagos’: pearl-drop moments of a ‘network of events’. Their relation to time as well as distance is given to us as the possibility of ‘love moving on the epidermis’, ‘a crackle on a hand’, and they unravel ‘in tenses / between your past and my future’. This poetry is a finely-tuned gaze at the particularity of who we are and what we see and it prompts me to look back at Ruskin’s concern in Modern Painters for the ‘Truth of Space’ as dependent on ‘The Focus of the Eye’:

‘First, then, it is to be noticed, that the eye, like any other lens, must have its focus altered, in order to convey a distinct image of objects at different distances; so that it is totally impossible to see distinctly, at the same moment, two objects, one of which is much father off than another.’

Skoulding’s awareness of the possible relationships between the near and the far is central to her focus upon the Menai Straits that separate the coast of North Wales from the Isle of Anglesy. In ‘A Strait Story’ she waits for the tide to turn:

‘Under morning sun, the surface stirs and flicks: this is how it appears, as retreating blue looking black. But what do I know? Soundings off the sea floor come up in layered patterns as the data stream flows in different intensities: a cobalt speckled band of fish; refracted harmonics of the lower levels. You’d be swayed by the glimpse of a seal led by fish led by movement led by transfer of energy, but who’s to say who sways what in the dip and shudder of knowledge, a vessel.’

This range of thought, soundings, brings to my mind the moment in Charles Olson’s ‘Letter 5’ of The Maximus Poems in which he refers to reading ‘sand in the butter on the end of a lead, / and be precise about what sort of bottom your vessel’s over.’
The precision and awareness of depth which prompts Zoë Skoulding’s poetry to compel the past to pierce the present, to speak of days which give utterance ‘all at once, their tongues punctured with green blades’ (‘A Divinatory Calendar’) is central to her reconstruction of A Revolutionary Calendar. As Lyn Hejinian puts it on the back cover of this compelling new publication from Shearsman Books:

‘With expert grace and subversive panache, Zoë Skoulding has written a collection of 360 five-line poems gathered into twelve sections of thirty poems each – a form that replicates that of the ‘Republican Calendar’ created in the immediate aftermath of the French Revolution…The resulting sequence of meticulous observations and penchant forays…maps out a temporal intersection, bringing historico-political time (linear and progressive) into conjuncture with seasonal agricultural time (cyclical and recursive).’

Just as all time is irrecoverable all matter changes shape and ‘oil pressed from / dark fruit won’t / hold summer’s shape’: the ‘Olive’ from Frimaire, the November of frost, will ‘ooze’ into a new day. The connection between what was and what is may be held in scents as the axe from Pluviôse (January / February)

‘felled at the root:
here’s an endpoint
sharpened by split
wood scented
with beginning’

Zoë Skoulding’s poetry is meditative, a drawing aside of curtains to allow a scene to be discovered to the reader: it seems like an act of instant as if a light is suddenly turned brightly focused upon a moment. As the poems rest securely on the page the focus is altered in order to permit the poet to convey a distinct image of objects at different distances. This is a poetry to go back to time and time again.

Ian Brinton, 30th August 2020

Ianthe Poems by Peter Philpott (Shearsman Books)

Ianthe Poems by Peter Philpott (Shearsman Books)

All art is in the past, acting as a record of what was seen or felt upon some occasion, and, as John Hall reminded us in his contribution to David Kennedy’s Necessary Steps (Shearsman 2007) the Oxford English Dictionary gives the etymology for ‘occasion’ in terms of the falling of things towards each other:

‘It is not just the things that fall towards each other, though there is always, I would say, a sense of conjuncture or convergence that marks something as an occasion, even for those with their attention on the everyday.’

A poem may appear to be occupied with a dramatic present (‘It is an ancient Mariner, And he stoppeth one of three’) but once the storyteller weighs in with his narrative it is firmly past tense (‘There was a ship…’). And it is the past’s intrusion into the present that is a mainstay of all Art. A poem, if it is worth anything, interrupts the even flow of the day-to-day; it appears in the manner described by Lyn Hejinian which Peter Philpott uses as the introductory presence to the first section of this sequence of poems which revolves around his grand-daughter, Ianthe:

‘The desire to tell within the conditions of a discontinuous consciousness seems to constitute the original situation of the poem. The discontinuity of consciousness is interwoven through the continuity of reality—a reality whose independence of our experience and descriptions must be recognized.’

When I first read a piece of prose by Lyn Hejinian it was in the Salt anthology Vanishing Points edited by Rod Mengham and John Kinsella over ten years ago and a line that struck me there was to do with children’s play; ‘They bend, the hour is bound somewhere.’ Fluidity and stillness, children’s ‘present’ and the adult’s binding of a moment into a poem.

If I were still school-teaching I would use some of these fresh, innovative and delightfully playful lyrics from Peter Philpott’s new volume. I often used to present a world of childhood through the eyes of ee cummings and his little lame balloon-man as well as through the binding loss of Blake’s priest in black gowns. Now I would include Peter Philpott’s ‘non-poetic coffee shop’

‘where babies gather in their buggies
& a man gives a tutorial on public health
and the staff chat about what they bought on holiday’

I would include this world in which ‘our ease is sweet here / luscious and dropping’; a world of ‘persistent bird cries / like little lyric poems’ which ‘erupt’ to intrude upon the mundane. These poems are unafraid to be serious. These poems are unafraid to be personal and to evoke domestic connections of the highest quality. These poems remind me of the point Peter Robinson once made when he recounted how the Italian poet Franco Fortini had approached him at a poetry festival in Cambridge to ask ‘Why do all the English poems end with a little laugh?’ It seems almost as if an ironic tone is adopted in order to protect the poet from being seen as nakedly serious and wanting to refer to genuinely felt emotions. This is absolutely not true of these poems by Peter Philpott:

‘what you read here is
what wisdom in these words
uncountable but singable not
what is said but how
each word points at this world!’

The lines of a poem, the binding of a moment, the words (already an echo of the past by virtue of being language) reflect what Philpott recalls from Keston Sutherland about ‘The pressure to think and sing’. The poems constitute a type of absence:

‘a silence
or opening
that isn’t
silence but
lies underneath
that

the darkness enclosing
that too…’

Ian Brinton, 7th September 2015

Long Poem Magazine 12 edited by Lucy Hamilton & Linda Black

Long Poem Magazine 12 edited by Lucy Hamilton & Linda Black

http://longpoemmagazine.org.uk

Issue Twelve is as eclectic as ever and features long poems by Salah Niazi, translated by the author from the Iraqi with David Andrew, Patricia McCarthy, Martyn Crucefix’s versions of parts of the ‘Daodejing’, Richard Berengarten, Jeri Onitskansky, John Greening, Norman Jope, Tamar Yoseloff, Ben Rogers, Varlam Shalamov, translated from the Russian by Robert Chandler, Alexandra Sashe, David Andrew, Alistair Noon’s Pushkin inspired travel narrative, and W.D. Jackson. Linda Black’s editorial offers insights into the current reading habits and recommendations of several contributors. Alexandra Sashe ‘neither wrote nor read poetry’ until she discovered Paul Celan: ‘The predominance of Language, which writes itself, which dictates itself … this same Language lived by the writer, becomes a new entity, something other: “essentialized”, and, faithful to its centripetal life, increasingly personal …’.

Sophie Herxheimer’s ‘Inklisch Rekortdinks’ series of dramatic monologues impressed sonically and thematically. Based on the experience of her father’s family who emigrated to London in 1938 and written in the Lenkvitch, a sort of German Jewish – English hybrid accent, of her paternal grandmother, they probe identity and immigrant experience from alienation through war and assimilation to friendship and domesticity. The sumptuous language and narrative angles make the world of Herxheimer’s poems sparkle.

Vis efferi Snip off Dill I fezzer
on my feinly slizzered Kewkumpers
I re-azzempel Leipzig
Birch Treez, Promenaats.

Vis efferi chop off peelt Eppel
es it sutds into my Disch
for Pie – zerburban Etchvair
ordinerry: I kerry on.

Timothy Adés’ ‘The Excellent Wessex Event’ uses the Oulipo univocal lipogram omitting a, i, o and u to produce a narrative poem in rhyming couplets drawing upon the film version of Hardy’s Far From The Madding Crowd. This one hundred line sequence comes with a set of multi-language footnotes all with the same impediment.
Lucy Sheerman clearly articulates the relevance of Lyn Hejinian’s My Life as ‘a touchstone for experimentation with the representation of thought in the field of the long poem’ in her essay feature. Sheerman quotes Juliana Spahr on Hejinian’s achievement:

Hejinian works rigorously against a capitalsed ‘Self’ or
any stability of the self. Her subjectivity, more empty
than full, concentrates on the ‘separate fragment
scrutiny.’ It is defined by fluctuation, by the
move from ‘I wanted to be’ to the lack of fixity of ‘I am a
shard.’ Or, as she writes citing the title, ‘My life is as
permeable constructedness’ (93). One of the crucial
distinctions between the multiple subjectivity of current
autobiographical criticism and Hejinian’s fluctuating
multiple subjectivity is the absence of stability in
Hejinian’s subject. Instead of offering full multiple
identities, My Life is a process-centred work that
calls attention to the methods by which the
autobiographical subject is constructed by both author and
reader. Hejinian’s constant resignification of subjectivity
confronts head-on the constructed reality of
autobiography and the reader’s seduction by this
construction.

Sheerman concludes with a number of challenging critical comments, which makes the essay immensely valuable and more than a informed introduction.

Long Poem Magazine is a veritable feast of the strange and familiar taking the reader on a wonderful journey.

David Caddy 25th November

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