Here in Baroque Mansions we not only do Christmas a little ahead of the herd – we also get stuck into the TS Eliots a day early, with my ‘Techniques of the Shortlisted Poets’ workshop tomorrow. A FEW days early, if you count the bag of books I’ve been carrying around, plus notebook: picture me feverishly scribbling notes into the latter, while clutching the former in my teeth, on a crowded bus…
The gala reading itself is on Sunday, at the Southbank. Ten poets! Last year the Queen Elizabeth Hall was full to just about capacity; we’ll see what happens this year. A plasma screen in the Clore Ballroom, perhaps.
But if this all seems a bit too razzle-dazzle, po-biz, middle-class mainstream Establishment grandstanding, or whatever the particular bee is under your bonnet – one of the things I’ve been loving about these books is a certain sense of miniaturism that comes through a few of them. (I’d say ‘quiet’ miniaturism, but I know there are already stage whispers going up: School of Quietude…) But really. The collections as a whole are awash with animals, tiny wildlife, birds, wrens… Sean Borodale goes one further and takes us inside the hive, living slowly, patiently, painstakingly, with his bees for a year. Deryn Rees-Jones even goes inside a seed. She and Kathleen Jamie both write from a stance of human modesty before the natural world, a sense of kinship with the animals, which reaches an apogee in Deryn Rees-Jones’ ‘Dogwoman’ – as much as anything, a bravura piece of word-work.
Natural tones dominate: the colours of woods, trees, fur, the sky.
Gillian Clarke’s Ice is where the dazzle comes in, refracted off the stuff that kills us, but first makes us cold, but first seduces us with its beauty. It contains a magic polar bear and that doesn’t seem very lame to me. The colours are amazing; the book is like a prism.
But human life is here too: we go through Sharon Olds’ long-ago divorce with her (I have to think once I’d laid it to rest I’d have just put in in a drawer, but that’s not the Sharon Olds style); Julia Copus takes us into the IVF ward, but she also takes us to visit Franz Süssmayr, and the draft libretto for The Magic Flute (a bit of time travel I’d particularly love to do). And Deryn Rees-Jones takes us into the icy, bloody night of grief. While Jacob Polley takes us past lots of poets who’ve inspired him to write versions, and Paul Farley does the same, they both end up at the furthest reaches – what CS Lewis might have called Beyond the End of the World: the Anglo Saxon. The place where you stop feeling fur and start feeling snow.
Simon Armitage comes out into the winter day and shows us the reflection of Arthur. Still breathing. How many people still think of him, our apocryphal patron king, as The Matter of Britain? I could do a whole workshop just on this. Armitage has translated the Alliterative Morte Arthure, which predates Malory, and which is part of a fashion that came up in the 14th century for using the old alliterative form – but in Middle English, you see, not Anglo-Saxon. Even then people were applying new styles to old forms, creating hybrids and new mixes. The bad news comes at the King’s Christmas dinner…
The alliterative line, were it invented today, would be quite the experimental thing. There’d be no talk of Schools of Quietude (or Parliaments of Owls?). Think about it: no rhyme, but instead you match up the beginnings of words. What!! And there’s a system, but it’s loose. And you have this break in the middle of the line, which creates a sort of interrogation of the line as line, creates the notion of space, of the line as both an object and a notation of time. Jorie Graham’s line arrives at this point, with its lefthand/righthand ‘double margin’ binary, or sort of optical spine running down the middle. Is it an animal? Tamar Yoseloff calls it ‘sculptural’, pointing out that Graham’s mother was a sculptor and thus positing even a 3D idea around it.
Another line running through some of this is tied to a word. Narrative. The Morte Arthure tells a STORY. I keep going on about story these days, narrative structure, what happened, the idea of the origins of – of what? Of now, I suppose – even of a tiny now like the death of Borodale’s bees. Bee Journal is just that: a journal. So it has a narrative structure which is presented in linear fashion, or rather in a circular fashion with the turning of the earth – tethered to the moon and sun, just as Gillian Clarke’s Ice moves round the planet with the seasons. (The moon crops up with striking, and lyrical, frequency.) You are tied to the dates and you keep going through, mesmerised to find out what happens next to this delicate, vulnerable world. Story often springs out of place (as Patrick Kavanagh tells us in his ‘Epic’), and Jorie Graham uses the page to break that into facets of incident, memory, thought, idea, sensation, identity.
It would also be very possible to give a whole day just on the line breaks of Jorie Graham, let alone Sharon Olds. But lots of these poets do interesting things with lines and pacing and with the white space of the page.
In short: it may not be arch-experimentalism, but there’s plenty to be getting on with! We’d better start on time in the morning…