Monthly Archives: June 2013

2013 Summer Challenge: Take a Poetry Book on Holiday

We’re entering the period when Sunday supplements tell us what assorted famous people will be reading / pretending to read on their holidays, or what the paper’s fiction editor recommends for the beach. You’ll occasionally spot a poetry book among the Booker-shortlisted doorstops and impressive historical biographies, but not often. The Guardian’s opening salvo for 2013 divides the world of books into “Fiction”, “Crime” and “Non-Fiction” – and the Guardian is at the more poetry-friendly end of the broadsheet spectrum.

This is unfortunate, because poetry makes ideal holiday reading. Continue reading

Poetry & the Art of Editing: Poetry Review 103:2

Magazines (or Periodicals if you’re feeling frisky) are the cardio-vascular system of contemporary poetry. Open any recent collection and you’ll find something like: “Acknowledgements are due to the editors of the following publications in which some of these poems first appeared”, then a list of magazine titles that either follow the Ronseal / exactly-what-it-says-on-the-tin principle (Poetry; Poetry Review; Poetry Wales) or its near opposite (Magma; Archipelago; The North). Continue reading

A Delicate Mist: Owen Sheers

The challenge for anyone writing war poetry today is how to avoid sounding like a tribute act doing the Greatest Hits of 1914-1918 with smart bombs and modern line breaks. In his powerful new verse drama Pink Mist, Owen Sheers succeeds in this magnificently.

The poem tells the story of three school friends from Bristol who join the army and fight in Afghanistan. Much of it focuses on what happens after they return – one of them a double amputee, one mentally ill and the third killed by a roadside bomb. Continue reading

Understanding Poetry #3: Meaning vs Effect

A country classroom. A whiteboard. Morning.

Pupil: Please, sir, what does the assonance in line 3 mean?
Teacher: Well, erm, it’s a sad poem and the long “o” sounds are like someone moaning and wailing.

The trap here (which in one form or another has infected a lot of the way poetry is taught and read) is the assumption that everything in a poem has to be translated into a meaning that can be explained. Let’s compare this with what’s going on in another classroom in the same school: Continue reading

Close Reading: Catullus 51 / Obsession

Before too long in any discussion about translating poetry, it’s a fair bet that someone will either misquote the Italian “traduttore, traditore” (“translator, betrayer”) or misappropriate Robert Frost’s aphorism that “poetry is what gets lost in translation”. Both these phrases have survived in the meme-pool because there’s truth in them; but if we apply them too rigidly then we’ll miss two other important truths: that in poetic translation (as opposed to a literal crib) the original is really the stimulus for making a new poem; and that in a sense all poetry is translation (something that will have to be unpacked in a future post). Continue reading

In Different Voices: Samantha Wynne-Rhydderch

Samantha Wynne-Rhydderch has already established herself as one of the finest contemporary virtuosos of the dramatic monologue. Although there’s an element of this in every poem (the “I” of a poem is never entirely the “I” of the poet, even in the rawest confessional verse), something happens when a poem goes out of its way to use a voice that can’t belong to the person with their name on the cover, and in Wynne-Rhydderch’s poems that something is often magical. Continue reading

Close Reading: A Slumber Did My Spirit Seal

One of the joys of close reading is that it allows us to look at a poem as words on the page, unencumbered by any received wisdom about its “themes” or “interpretation”. Sometimes this can lead us in surprising directions.

A Slumber Did My Spirit Seal (William Wordsworth, 1798)

A slumber did my spirit seal;
I had no human fears:
She seemed a thing that could not feel
The touch of earthly years. Continue reading

Understanding Poetry #2: Lines

Last week we looked at some of the myths about understanding poetry and reacquainted ourselves with the joys of reading slowly. This week I want to look at the importance of lines and line-breaks.

The most obvious difference between poetry and prose is that poetry has line breaks whereas prose doesn’t (other than for practical typesetting purposes that don’t affect the meaning: two different editions of Robinson Crusoe with different font sizes might break the lines in different places without changing our experience of the book at all). Continue reading

The Fascination of what’s Difficult: Ahren Warner

The opening lines of Ahren Warner’s new collection, Pretty, give a good idea of what follows: “Between the apocrypha / of Einstein defining madness // as the same thing done over, / expecting, in effect, causation to acquiesce // and Freud, in Das Unbehagen in der Kultur…”.

Several elements of Warner’s trademark style are evident here: the precise use of a rich vocabulary (“apocrypha”, “causation”, “acquiesce”); foreign words and phrases; unapologetic high-cultural references; great writing. Continue reading

Understanding Poetry #1: Slowing Down

One of the phrases I least enjoy hearing is “I don’t understand poetry” (it’s up there with “bus replacement service” and “all-day carvery”). I don’t like it because it almost always turns out to be untrue, but also because it’s a category mistake: can you imagine someone keeping a straight face while saying “I don’t understand songs” or “I don’t understand prose”?

Thought not.

In reality the biggest problem is believing there’s something complicated to “understand” – something that needs decrypting or translating into non-threatening prose – in the first place. Continue reading