Saturday, 20 December 2014

My Top Ten of 2014

The Artful Voyeur

Bert Almon praises the concept behind Michael Lista's new collection:
Dante, one of the poets Lista alludes to frequently in The Scarborough, tried to represent the Devil at the end of Inferno; the description is powerful but falls short somehow, just as attempts to take us into Hitler’s mind are always problematic. Instead of depicting Bernardo, Lista focuses on a single weekend in 1992, Easter weekend—the days marking death and resurrection—when fifteen-year-old Kristen French was abducted. The point of view stays close to Lista himself, who, age nine at the time, experienced the anxiety that pervaded Scarborough, an atmosphere of terror he evokes very well. Events in suburban life resonate strangely with the tragedy performed offstage, and allusions to pop culture (like the R.E.M. song, “Superman,” played by Bernardo during the rape and murder) and folk culture (fairy tales are full of grisly murders) are functional rather than decorative. Lista gives his poems two pillars to hold up the diverse structure: the story of Dante and Beatrice and the story of Orpheus and Eurydice. Yet in The Scarborough, we know that Eurydice is not brought back from the dead, and Beatrice is not enthroned in heaven but rather buried in the woods. Lista’s ability to make every detail significant shows mastery. The allusions to voyeurism are especially chilling when the murderer is also a stalker—and the poet knows that the artist is a kind of voyeur as well.
Lista's struggle with the book's voyeuristic raison d'etre is what seems to excite Jonathan Ball most about The Scarborough, a book he calls "a significant achievement":
When Lista turns his gaze away from French, only to turn towards this turning away, the poems draw their blood. They are part of a sadistic project. The project’s sadism lays bare the reader’s sadistic interest, and the media’s exploitation. Lista plays a dangerous game by picking this subject, but he knows the game, and knows its danger. When the poems stop being about what they are supposed to be about, and instead become about Lista’s hatred of himself for being powerless to help French, and for wanting to write poems about her, the book bleeds.

Friday, 19 December 2014

Amateur Hour

Arguing that Edward Thomas' poetry displays the "authentically crippled quality of amateur poetry," Craig Raine pushes against what he calls the "shared communal delusion" of Thomas' genius:
As a poetic theory, Frost’s ‘sound of sense’, the idea of breaking irregular speech cadence over a regular line of verse, is original, as Frost was well aware. Only the sentimental chauvinist would try to give Thomas priority. We aren’t dealing with Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace. But Thomas’s champions routinely overstate their case. Remember that Frost had already written ‘The Death of the Hired Man’ in North of Boston, his second book. It was published very shortly after the two poets met for the first time. Frost had worked out his methods and principles and put them into practice. Thomas’s experiments are hesitant. He works, as Frost advised, from prose passages and produces what Larkin accurately called Thomas’s ‘fitful, wandering line’. We are also instructed to value the prose source less than the poetry it became. This is not as obviously axiomatic as we are frequently assured. For example, which is better, the prose of ‘the long, tearing crow of the cocks’? Or the versified elevation of ‘two cocks together crow, / Cleaving the darkness with a silver blow’ [of an axe]?
He continues:
Is it the sad, ironic lineaments of Thomas’s biography—the rapid realisation, poetic fulfilment, just before the untoward death—that incline readers to magnify his achievement? Like Violetta in La Traviata singing that life returns to her—at the very moment she dies. Is it the opera in the life that persuades us to go easy on the succession of ineptitudes that makes up the poetic oeuvre?

Wednesday, 17 December 2014

Tell it Slant

  Richard Harrison - The truth and the story from Sarah Howden on Vimeo.

Richard Harrison explains how metaphors combine truth and falsehood.

Tuesday, 16 December 2014

Weights and Balances

Kerry-Lee Powell discusses how the extraordinary story behind her poetry debut, Inheritance, shaped her formal decisions:
The collection centres around a shipwreck endured by my father in the second world war, his subsequent struggles with post-traumatic stress disorder and suicide. I wanted the collection to function as both an elegy and a love letter to the world that made and destroyed him. The subject matter imposed a number of constraints and meant that I was working with a subdued palette. Much of the rhetorical flamboyance that I admire in my fellow Canadian poets would have felt out of place. As the book approached publication, I became anxious about the emotional intensity of many of the poems. But it struck me that the forms needed the emotional intensity, would have been just so much dead wood without that heft.

I am a sound-oriented writer, and tend towards rhyme and slant rhyme and hard Anglo-Saxon stresses even in my fiction. I felt that working with older forms suited the outward theme of the collection. But there were other qualities, the doomed logic of the sonnet, the obsessive-compulsive repetitions of the villanelle that seemed ideally suited to the subject of mental trauma.

I don’t necessarily see myself as a formalist. Part of the pleasure of poetry for me, whether it’s free verse or conceptual or formal, is to find the patterns and constraints in any given piece. Are they conceptual, tonal, emotional? Where are the weights and balances? I find it hard to appreciate poetry that is shapeless or has too many false notes.

Monday, 15 December 2014

Ghostly Encounter

A lovely radio interview by Jeffery Donaldson about his book of essays, Echo Soundings.


Sunday, 14 December 2014

Sunday Poem


The secrets of losing recede until regret
is the only expression: instruct in error,

in the luck that flung you into wonder.
I've held you evenings in a briarpatch,
spitting lullabyes that permit a temporary claim.

Song of diamond, ease, mortal wound, the shared cry
that you were never mine as I am not yours. 
Fathers distinguish love's night terrors from dreams,
years on. Your own sons will long
for bedtime stories, and you too will spill
the secret I'm trying to tell: our feelings are am,

what will be. By day we play, are hurt within
protectorates of choice. I can't choose.
You were given to me. To lose.

From We Need Our Names (Anstruther Press, 2014) by Shane Neilson