Archive for January, 2007

The Poetry/Prose Interface

Mornev, who is doing the same course as me, finds it difficult to accept Elizabeth Bishop’s The Fish as a poem. As far as Mornev is concerned, it would be no different if it were written out as prose; others, including myself, allow it into the club that is poetry. I do so because of the line endings (it looks like a poem) and its use of ‘poetic’ diction and imagery. Unless I ask them I don’t know what criteria others are using: some may want the more recognisable patterning of rhythm and rhyme; others may agree with me for different reasons. For Mornev The Fish is not a poem and, if he were around to give his opinion, a poet like Tennyson might well not recognise it as a poem either. However, the set that is poetry contains a growing number of overlapping sub-sets: it is with one of these, the prose poem, that I find myself at odds.
I have no problem with poetic devices used in prose: Jane Eyre, Rebecca and Sunset Song all contain lyrical passages where the language and imagery is such that it may be described as poetic prose; I just don’t get the point of the little packets of prose which are being placed alongside ‘proper poems’ even if they are called ‘….tiny monuments to lightness, mirrors in motion…’ by George Szirtes; for me they are a step too far. Patricia Debney who writes prose poetry (see Verse Smith in The New Writer No.78 p.26) says ‘It’s usually enormously condensed – and there’s a sense of the language being packed in’ which to me is true of good poetry in general. Maybe I just haven’t read a sufficient number of prose poems (I haven’t read Patricia Debney’s) but the ones I have read leave me saying pretty much the same as Mornev said about The Fish – it might as well be prose. Maybe I just need more time and familiarity with the genre.


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What is Poetry?

I’m reading John Carey’s What Good are the Arts? as background reading for the course I’m doing: Twentieth Century Literature: Texts and Debates. Carey writes:

A work of art is anything that anyone has ever considered a work of art, though it may be a work of art for only that one person.

Two consequeces of this definition are the removal of artistic judgement from an elite and the idea of a work of art as something ‘out there’ and separate from the rest of existence: Aaaron Barschak’s cry of ‘Viva Goya’ as he splashed red paint on Jake and Dinos Chapman’s The Rape of Creativity may have been criminal damage but it was a work of art as far as he was concerned; likewise my assessment of my son’s early daubs to create Anansi the Spiderman. I am not going to present an argument to counter Carey’s definition which he arrives at after excluding considerations of religious faith; instead I will see how it fits in with my own tentative answer to the question ‘What is Poetry?’

I will start with a poem I wrote almost five years ago when I was attending a local writing class and I was sending up archaic poetic diction as well as (although I was unaware of it at the time) taking up an instrumentalist position on literature.

(With apologies to Keats)

O for a tab of LSD
to wake my soul to poesy!
My faculties have all gone numb
as if I’d taken valium,
which doesn’t even ease the pain
but simply muddies up the brain.
If only I could start to write,
my poem would be dynamite.

Our writing class cannot agree
what makes a poem, poetry.
The orthodox say it has to rhyme
or at the least, with cadence chime.
With Modernists obscurity passes;
with the Movement – access for the masses.
Now is it a poem? Please set my soul free!
Say it’s a poem on the say so by me.

I was, in effect, saying that a poem is a poem because the person writing it says so, which satisfies Carey’s condition of there being one person that considers it to be so. The question ‘What is a work of art?’ implies a value judgement whereas ‘What is a poem?’ only implies entitlement to membership of a club; a poem may still be ‘good’ or ‘bad’. Five years on, I can see more clearly the flaws in my ‘poem’ e.g. I inverted the word order to acheive the rhyme on the last line. Although, I only have myself as a frame of reference, I feel safe to assume that if someone submits to a poetry magazine or a competition they regard what they are submitting to be poetry. I will consider this further by writing about prose poetry, a genre I have difficulty in admitting to my club, tomorrow.

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On Being the Enemy

I have been thinking a lot about Kamsin’s experiences in Bosnia, working for a Turkish Muslim boss. Putting aside this man’s abilities as a leader and administrator, I want to consider why he has had so many problems with American and British staff members. Nine or ten members of staff have left or been asked to leave over the past couple of years; three (all American) since last September. I think this leaves two Americans and two British teachers. Of the two British teachers, one is a British Muslim and the other is Kamsin. None of the teachers are happy with the working conditions but the Bosnians need the job too much to complain. I am wondering about the extent of anti-British and anti-American feeling since the invasion of Iraq and whether or not this is a factor in the situation.
Kamsin tells me that her Turkish students are very proud of being Turkish and look back to the glorious days of the Ottoman Empire. It could well be that the British and American teachers are not accepted solely for their lack of ‘Turkishness’, but Kamsin has overheard some of them making favourable comments about Sadam Hussein. Whatever the truth of the matter, here is one of my poems, which alludes to both 9/11 and a time when a WMD was actually used.

Journey to HiroshimaSeptember 13th 2001
‘I will write Peace on your wings and you will fly all over the world.’

(Sadako Sasaki 1943-55)

No planes are flying west but I’ve flown far away
– despite armed guards at the terminal and rumours of delay
– east, to where Enola Gay dropped Little Boy.

Our hand luggage is searched.
I surrender scissors
a teenager worries over unwashed underwear.

By bullet train to

Hiroshima’s Peace Park where parties of schoolchildren,
and multicoloured origami garlands, enfold the statue of a Little Girl.

Sadako’s medicine papers reborn as cranes– if
she could fold one thousand she would be well again.

We tour the museum – taste the charred remains
in a child’s lunch-box – cleanse ourselves with iced coffee.
Under the shade of the A-Bomb Dome, we watch
cranes dip down into the once black river – rise – and fly away

Little Boy, the first atomic bomb, was dropped on Hiroshima on 6th August, 1945.

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To Meme or not to Meme

Yesterday, I learned the meaning of the word ‘meme’; increasingly prevalent in Blogland. I should have known that I’d be more likely to find it in Wikipedia than the OED. This word was first used by Richard Dawkins in his book The Selfish Gene (1976) as meaning ‘a unit of cultural information, transferable from one mind to another; a sort of behavioural analogue to the gene, propagating and subject to variation, mutation and competition in much the same way. ‘Meme’ did not achieve popular usage until the Eighties when it was taken up by the American philosopher and scientist, Daniel Dennett. ‘Meme’ comes from the Greek word ‘mimeme’ which means something imitated and Dawkins later developed Memetics.
I have to ask myself about the usefulness and validity of this concept. The examples given of memes such as tunes, catchphrases and fashions in clothes describe what happens in popular culture but does little to explain it. Scientists like Francis Heylighen ask for an empirical grounding for something that is both subjective and nebulous. I would go further. Whilst not doubting that many human attributes are acquired genetically, debate still surrounds others. When I studied psychology in the Sixties, it was not believed that skills like those of a Musician were passed on from one generation to the next. In the current edition of Mslexia, in an article called ‘Born to Write’, two psychologists take up opposing positions in the nature versus nurture debate. When it comes to transferring from biological to human behaviour we are on shakey ground. However, I will stay judgement on the usefulness of the term until I have seen it in action more often but I don’t see Memetics as being in any way scientific.

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First post of the New Year

This is my first posting in 2007. My elder son and family returned to Geneva on Sunday and this is my first full week back at work. Well, three days (20 hours) is a full week for me. I’m semi-retired and I never worked long hours when I was teaching although there was all the preparation and marking to do.
I have two clear days in which I intend to finish reading Sunset Song, watch a DVD of The Cherry Orchard and keep up with my online Creative Writing Workshop with Lancaster Uni. I hope that I have made the right decision in updating my OU degree by doing a third level course on 20th Century texts to give me the Diploma in Literature and Creative Writing. It will, hopefully, get me reading more than I did last year, but could get in the way of me doing much writing. When I did my original OU degreee in the Eighties my aim was to write, but in the end it stopped me writing much other than essays. I think that I will have to sign up for another course at Lancaster when this one ends or join a local writers’ group. I know that I don’t have the discipline to continue on my own. The group formed with members of my A215 tutor group fizzled out just before Christmas, mainly because two of the members went on to do other courses immediately. I did my Web Design course, but that was only 12 weeks and wasn’t too demanding.
Well here I am with the day (almost) before me.

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