A lot of people say they dislike practical criticism: the poem is a butterfly and practical criticism is trapping and killing the butterfly and then pinning its dead body to a board. You may have found a beautiful specimen and mounted it with exquisite professionalism but in so doing, you killed the thing that made the thing beautiful. The examination of the poem leaves the poem lifeless.
For me, the opposite is true. I enjoy unpacking poems. I can read something and not really understand it, but by exploring how it works, what its words are doing, how they talk to each other and to other words in other poems or books or ideas – these things help me understand better what is happening. Unpacking is not an entirely unhelpful way of thinking about it. If the poem is a beautiful piece of luggage that I admire, practical criticism gives me the opportunity to open it up and see what’s inside. Nothing is dead, rather, I have had the opportunity to touch and feel and handle things, and see how they fit together. Does my initial attraction follow through? Is the poem full of beautiful things? Or can I find nothing to interest me inside? And in fact, even something which appears at first glance unpromising can be full of unexpected treats.
Over the next few weeks, I’m going to choose some different poems and have a look at them. I haven’t done this properly for a long time but am nonetheless hoping you won’t come back and find me surrounded by a small stack of dead butterflies.
This poem is composed from different things people said about Fenton House garden last Saturday. There will be more coming soon as lots of the garden’s visitors stopped and talked to me. It was wonderful to be able to meet and speak to so many interesting people. I’ll be back as the poet in residence for Apple Day (which is actually the weekend of October 3/4th).
Resulting angles and perspectives
The colours are bright and amazing. The roses
parfume remind me of my childhood.
Particularly the orchard which seems very magical.
wanted to hide. The levels are brilliant.
You turn – and every place is picture.
Excellent planting and amazing echiums,
It is a quintessential ‘English
Garden’. Echium pininana
was so interesting and fun to look at.
We garden in Worcs.
It’s very good for hide and seek,
A lovely sense of peace, escape.
I would let the grass grow long,
Hurrah! Tomorrow I get to be poet in residence at Fenton House garden. Despite having lived in NW3 for almost ever, I never knew about Fenton House until quite recently (given that ten years ago seems quite recent), and the first time I walked into the garden I fell completely in love. So I am over the moon to be there this weekend.
I’m hoping to create a poem from snippets given to me by people visiting the garden over the weekend – we shall see…
I went to a poetry masterclass given by the inestimable Don Share a few months ago, where I read out a poem for some feedback. He instantly asked how many lines the poem was, and when I said 14 he asked, ‘Is it a sonnet?’
I am not sure what makes a sonnet a sonnet. Once I saw one with 13 lines. Jo Bell has invented decimal sonnets – ten lines each. And what is this, Gerard Manley Hopkins? Are sonnets only sonnets because they are metred? Do they have to be in iambic pentameter? What about rhymes? And what if I write a 14-line poem in metre but without rhymes – what the hell is that (which is, perhaps, actually what Don Share was asking me, with exquisite politeness)?
Sonnet comes from sonetta, ‘little song’ in Italian, itself from sonus, the Latin word for sound. It is a little song – or a little sound, and often a love song. Sonnets have been mainly written in vernacular language – that is, they are informal. Aside from number of lines and rhyme structure, sonnets are supposed to have a volta – a turning point. Mostly they do. And perhaps this combination of compression and about-facing is what I find so exciting about sonnets. 14 lines is just about enough room for an argument, but it must be all muscle, no fat.
Here are two sonnets from me at Judi Sutherland’s brilliant site The Stare’s Nest. I am not sure they are entirely fat-free mind.
I am very happy to have a poem in Antiphon Issue 12, which you can read here – as well as another one here in StepAway magazine. Currently thinking a bit about sonnets, more here soon…
I took my 1992 copy of The Less Deceived on holiday with me this summer. My 17-year-old self really hated Larkin – I’ve written ‘Larkin sold out before he started’ above the final poem, and someone (me?) seems to have stabbed through the whole book with a pair of scissors. ‘Arrogance!’ appears in angry pencil nine times next to ‘Born Yesterday’, a poem dedicated to Larkin’s goddaughter Sally Amis (I think it was the aspiration for her to be average, dull – like other women, that homogenous bunch of creatures that we are – that really troubled me).
I wondered why my English teacher had chosen this book for a group of teenagers to study. Who amongst us could have had the tiniest glimmer of understanding about the misery of a lifetime of work that Larkin writes about in ‘Toads’? At 17, I thought Larkin’s poetry described being too frightened to walk inside the room where the people were dancing, and then went about elevating this terrified outsider/observer into a godlike figure who alone could see the truth.
Perhaps I was half right. Now that I am older and wiser, or perhaps finally as cynical and grumpy as my old English teacher, I had a different reading experience this time round. The poem the book takes its title from, ‘Deceptions’, is about a girl or a woman who is raped in 19th century London. It has a number of remarkable lines (the one about a mind lying open like a knife drawer I found astonishing – it is a line that, in a letter to Julian Barnes, Larkin was delighted to discover Mrs Thatcher remembered – wrongly). It talks about the exactness of suffering, makes the woman into the ‘less deceived’ while the rapist stumbles and bursts ‘into fulfilment’s desolate attic’. Reading this together with ‘Myxomatosis’ – ‘You may have thought things would come right again/If you could only keep still and wait’ – I felt I had probably, horribly, misjudged The Less Deceived. Instead of standing outside the room and wanting to sneer, the poems now describe (for me anyway) being stuck inside with everyone else, getting bounced off an electric fence as we get too close to the edge.
Here’s the other poem that was commended in the Ware competition. Although I have now messed around with it a bit, because it’s impossible to type something out without messing around with it a bit.
The third time round you’d think I’d know what I
was doing. Things went wrong though and the milk
got stuck: every time I tried I’d cry.
The milk came out like glue and made me ill.
I lay in bed and shivered, watching things
go wrong; fever, bleeding, strange white lumps.
I’d pull myself awake at two each morning
to clear the block with an electric pump,
see slimy curds uncurl in plastic tubes –
poor cow gone wrong. I didn’t know if I
would make it. Once I looked across the room
over staling milk and muslins, cries,
and saw my husband watching – so far away –
my island bed, a storm that raged and raged.
I wrote this several years after the event – I never knew about tongue tie before. Here is a handy article about it.
I started submitting stuff to poetry magazines this April. I started getting rejections about two weeks later. Coincidence? I think not.
The first time was grim and terrible. It didn’t say anything mean – in fact, it was thoughtful and kind. Nonetheless, I immediately realised everything I had ever produced was awful and that I must stop writing instantly.
The time after that, I only cried a little bit.
The sixth time I thought ‘meh.’
I have also discovered that there are good rejections and bad rejections. Handily, this rejection wiki gives examples of first tier rejections (no to this but we’d be interested in seeing other things by you) and second tier ones (just nooooooo). And it turns out I’ve had some really good – non-form – rejections. I’ve also had some acceptances, which will never become meh (most recently here, for Kevin Reid’s new blog of teeny tiny poems – submit, submit!)
My formula so far: response to rejection=n(rejection)/x, where x=the realisation that an editor is actually another human being who may or may not happen to like something. It could probably be more elegant.
I recently had two poems commended in the Ware Open Poetry Prize (I may have mentioned this already one or two times). Both sonnets will appear in their anthology coming out in July, but here is one of them in the mean time (and here is a poem by the judge, Roddy Lumsden).
This small box is mine, I know it well.
I know its internal dimensions, and when
and how I am allowed to leave. I smell
the air; a clever fox must check the scent
and when it’s safe she’ll go. For when she gets
it wrong, it comes at her with claws and teeth
and even then she can’t believe it, even then,
back in the box and breathing hard with fear,
she’ll think she made it up and shift the fault,
curl up around it, try to make it fit
as if it could fit. For surely this intent
– to hang her out to dry, to keep her in it –
is too fantastic, no true heart this black.
And yet, and yet, she feels him at her back.