Wednesday, 23 January 2013

Levane and Armitage; enjoying new poems


My blog readers will probably know by now that I love my job as Tutor for the Open College of the Arts; I love all contact with other writers, student, devotee or professional. Woe betide any student that decides to give me a ring; I can talk about writing until the batteries dry up on the phone (yes, it’s happened).
 Karen, one of my OCA students wrote in her assignment commentary recently:
 My tutor feedback was the most inspiring support I've ever received for my written efforts…
 It was nice of her to say this, but I can assure her that she, like many of my students, gives me just as much back in return.  It was what she went on to say that I found the most rewarding, and expanding...
Your comments and suggestions caused me at one point, to just sit for well over an hour trying out different synonyms for just one stanza. Knowing you took my poetry-writing seriously and actually understood what I meant, even when I didn't make it clear, delighted and focussed me…
This is a really important point, about both poetry and prose. Reviewers often describe an author as ‘having seemed to spend time over every word’, and it’s important that new writers take this on board. It’s easy to be ‘lazy’ when rewriting because it can be such an arduous task, but it’s so necessary. Redrafting, taking care with every paragraph or stanza, is a fast learning curve for a new writer; it teaches you a heck of a lot. Karen goes on to say…
I wanted to write something that really made me feel, that produced overwhelming emotion. Two poems I had the pleasure of reading in Being Alive, edited by Neil Astley, published by Bloodaxe Books Limited 2005. The first one was Not the Furniture Game by Simon Armitage.
Here is a taster from that poem:

His hair was a crow fished out of a blocked chimney
and his eyes were boiled eggs with the tops hammered in
and his blink was a cat flap
and his teeth were bluestones or the Easter Island statues
and his bite was a perfect horseshoe.
His nostrils were both barrels of a shotgun, loaded.
And his mouth was an oil exploration project gone bankrupt
and his smile was a caesarean section
and his tongue was an iguanodon
and his whistle was a laser beam
and his laugh was a bad case of kennel cough.
He coughed, and it was malt whisky.
And his headaches were Arson in Her Majesty's Dockyards
and his arguments were outboard motors strangled with fishing line...

Karen wrote... All though the poem I had a feeling of impending doom then it happened, the very last line blew me away. One second I was wondering, the next, tears exploded from my eyes... here are those last lines.

She was a chair, tipped over backwards
with his donkey jacket on her shoulders.

They told him,
and his face was a hole
where the ice had not been thick enough to hold her.


If you’d like to hear the full poem read by Joe Dunthorne, with his comments on it, click to
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9MV-aZEyN-4

I liked this poem. Its power is in passionate rhythms and extremely well-placed, clever metaphors. Karen is right, it tells its story by allowing you to tell it yourself. It reminds me (and maybe it’s a dedication to) of an earlier poem by Ted Hughs, Lovesong:

...Her looks nailed down his hands his wrists his elbows
He gripped her hard so that life
Should not drag her from that moment
He wanted all future to cease
He wanted to topple with his arms round her
Or everlasting or whatever there was
Her embrace was an immense press
To print him into her bones
His smiles were the garrets of a fairy place
Where the real world would never come
Her smiles were spider bites
So he would lie still till she felt hungry
His word were occupying armies
Her laughs were an assasin's attempts
His looks were bullets daggers of revenge
Her glances were ghosts in the corner with horrible secrets
His whispers were whips and jackboots
Her kisses were lawyers steadily writing...


I think we all get emotional about poetry that works for us; a poem can bring tears more easily then even a romcom and with far deeper reason. Emotion is something that can pass from writer to reader; one of the most important jobs of the writer, really. The thought that something I write might make a reader – far away and at another time – gasp, laugh, shudder or weep is an overwhelming thrill.

Karen chose a second poem to write about in her assignment commentary;  The Simple Truth by Philip Levane, the American poet laureate. She says...I couldn't fathom the first stanza. Then I read the second. From the sentence “Can you taste the words I'm saying?” my tear ducts and sinuses tingled and my arms erupted in goosebumps as I flashed back to the alcoholic suicide of my stepmother. I sobbed out long and loud then, making the connection between the simple flavour of boiled salted buttery potatoes and the simple truth of a lost loved one and words never shared.

Now, Levane is not a poet I’d read for a long time, so I Googled The Simple Truth. Here it is:

I bought a dollar and a half's worth of small red potatoes,
took them home, boiled them in their jackets
and ate them for dinner with a little butter and salt.
Then I walked through the dried fields
on the edge of town. In middle June the light
hung on in the dark furrows at my feet,
and in the mountain oaks overhead the birds
were gathering for the night, the jays and mockers
squawking back and forth, the finches still darting
into the dusty light. The woman who sold me
the potatoes was from Poland; she was someone
out of my childhood in a pink spangled sweater and sunglasses
praising the perfection of all her fruits and vegetables
at the road-side stand and urging me to taste
even the pale, raw sweet corn trucked all the way,
she swore, from New Jersey. "Eat, eat" she said,
"Even if you don't I'll say you did."
Some things
you know all your life. They are so simple and true
they must be said without elegance, meter and rhyme,
they must be laid on the table beside the salt shaker,
the glass of water, the absence of light gathering
in the shadows of picture frames, they must be
naked and alone, they must stand for themselves.
My friend Henri and I arrived at this together in 1965
before I went away, before he began to kill himself,
and the two of us to betray our love. Can you taste
what I'm saying? It is onions or potatoes, a pinch
of simple salt, the wealth of melting butter, it is obvious,
it stays in the back of your throat like a truth
you never uttered because the time was always wrong,
it stays there for the rest of your life, unspoken,
made of that dirt we call earth, the metal we call salt,
in a form we have no words for, and you live on it.


This is a magnificent poem. Levane brushes with darkness; just subtle hints the dark furrows…and… gathering for the night… There is humility about him, as he recognizes the astuteness of the woman who sells him his potatoes, and the beauty of simple fare. But the magic is the transformation of all that, the laying out for the reader of the simple truth that comes to him through these experiences. I also loved the shape of the poem; the way its stanzas are joined by the two words Some things. The poet reminds me a bit of Walt Whitman himself, who often compared nature with his own though processes as in I saw in Louisiana a Live-Oak Growing.Whitman is in awe of the solitary nature of the oak and takes home a sprig of its leaves:

...Yet it remains as a curious token, it makes me think of manly love;
For all that, and though the live-oak glistens there in Louisiana solitary in a wide flat space,
Uttering joyous leaves all its life without a friend a lover near,
I know very well I could not.



I was so impressed with Karen’s discovery of Levane’s poetry, I searched from more to enjoy
and came across Call it Music and Gin. You can hear Levane reading his work at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vXD7OetrX7A

 Thank you Karen, you’ve widened my enjoyment of American poetry and given me a lot to think of!
.



 walking the halls of Cass Tech, the high school
where he taught after his performing days,

when suddenly he took my left hand in his

two hands to tell me it all worked out

for the best. Maybe he'd gotten religion,

maybe he knew how little time was left,

maybe that day he was just worn down

by my questions about Parker. To him Bird

was truly Charlie Parker, a man, a silent note

going out forever on the breath of genius

which now I hear soaring above my own breath

4 comments:

  1. He is also featured on the Poetry Archive site:
    http://www.poetryarchive.org/poetryarchive/singlePoet.do?poetId=8629

    ReplyDelete
  2. thank you Joanna, that's a great link.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Super post. I hope within a short time we will get more post like this nice post.Self Book Publishing.

    ReplyDelete
  4. Thank you, Self Book Publishing, nice to get a comment from you. New post about a writer coming up very soon (just give me chance to finish my draft of the second Shaman Mystery nove!)

    ReplyDelete