intense sensations

Posts Tagged ‘Poetry

“Stories are not chapters of novels. They should not be read one after another, as if they were meant to follow along. Read one. Shut the book. Read something else. Come back later. Stories can wait”

So said Mavis Gallant, who is one of the world’s greatest short story writers. Or was, until she died recently at the age of 91.

I think stories can wait to be written too. They shouldn’t be forced. You don’t have to rush to read them and you don’t have to rush to write them.

Mavis herself waited many years to discover that people liked her stories. Her agent had been selling them to The New Yorker without telling her. Mavis couldn’t afford to buy the magazine but read a copy in a library one day and found one of her stories in it. Eventually The New Yorker published more than 100 of her stories, more than any other writer apart from John Updike or S.J. Perelman.

I read a very sad blog last night by a writer who was struggling to increase her output from 2,000 words a day to 10,000 to meet the demands of a ravenous publisher.

Wait! Take a step back!

Writing is not manual labour. It’s the least effective way in the world to earn money. It would be illegal if it weren’t self-inflicted.

Hanif Kureishi can vouch for that.

“It’s a real nightmare trying to make a living as a writer.”

He was talking at the Bath Literature Festival, taking time off from promoting his latest novel and from his job at Kingston University where he teaches creative writing. Well, not really taking time off. Writers never take time off. He was pretending to take time off but really he was “working in the market.” He was making headlines.

“Creative writing courses are a waste of time.”

he announced. His students, he said, were talentless.

“A lot of my students just can’t tell a story. They can write sentences but they don’t know how to make a story go from there all the way through to the end without people dying of boredom in between. It’s a difficult thing to do and it’s a great skill to have. Can you teach that? I don’t think you can.”

I disagree with him. I think you can teach how to tell a story. Syd Field has been doing it successfully for years (and many books for writers have copied his ideas). But I acknowledge that Hanif has a fair point. Writers get very anxious about style.

“They worry about the writing and the prose and you think: ‘Fuck the prose, no one’s going to read your book for the writing, all they want to do is find out what happens in the story next.’”

Yes! Fuck the prose. That is a very profound point. Fuck the prose because what matters is the story.

I am putting these ideas out there because I want to refer to them in my next book review without cluttering it up with a lot of literary theory.

Talking of which, I want to leave you with another quote, this time from Stephen Fry’s book on poetry, The Ode Less Travelled. Stephen Fry, you could say, was fucking the prose but in a different sense. He was fucking the prose and loving the poetry. But he still insisted that all his readers follow his first golden rule: Take Your Time.

“Among the pleasures of poetry is the sheer physical, sensual, textural, tactile pleasure of feeling the words on your lips, tongue, teeth and vocal cords.”

That quote was not quite the one I wanted but I love it. Oh, wait, here is what I wanted to him say:

“It can take weeks to assemble and polish a single line of poetry. Sometimes, it is true, a lightning sketch may produce a wonderful effect too, but as a general rule, poems take time. As with a good painting, they are not there to be greedily taken in at once, they are to be lived with and endlessly revisited: the eye can go back and back and back, investigating new corners, new incidents and the new shapes that seem to emerge.”

Actually he goes on and on and on about taking your time.

So, summing up. Stories can wait. It’s a nightmare making a living. Fuck the prose. Take your time.

That’s the literary theory. A book review will follow shortly.

30 Poems, 30 Days: Inside a Poet’s Mind by A.D. Joyce

It’s surprising what comes to you out of the blue sometimes.

At the beginning of this month I received this book of poems by A.D. Joyce. They are a gift not just to me but to the world. The poet asked me if I would like to review them. I read them and said, yes, I would.

I wrote yesterday that poetry is very hard to review. That post was partly to establish my credentials. I have never reviewed poetry before. But I would like you to take my review seriously.

These poems are free but they are not to be valued lightly. I have read them with pleasure, read them for comfort and read them with tears in my eyes. They are short but they show an extraordinary range. Some are funny, some are light, some are sexy and some make you think. There is a weight of emotion in some of them that, as in much great poetry, lies “too deep for tears.”

Let me share just one of them with you.

Sensation (Day 19)

you can
pick up the
reddest apple on
display
touch it turn
it around
inspect it for
marks or bruises
but biting
is the only
way to
really know

“This poem,” says the poet, “is about the danger of taking chances and the need to take chances.”

I like it for many reasons.

First, it is about sensation, one of my favourite things. And it has a very physical quality, which is achieved through a subtle use of enjambement (yes, you see, I know the technical terms).

Secondly, it reminds me of how I approach my self-imposed task of reviewing books. Covers, reviews, blurbs and blogs are all wax and polish. What you’ve got to do is start reading. Bite. That’s the only way you know if a book has substance.

Thirdly, it is about the creative life. Try writing a poem a day for 30 days as this poet did. Don’t think about it. Don’t prevaricate. Just begin. Once you start writing, without waiting for inspiration, you’ll be amazed at what you discover. The imagination is an infinite resource.

And, finally, it is about life. Bite. It is a very double-edged metaphor. Sometimes you need courage to bite because some people, some things, life itself, bite back.

A.D. Joyce is a poet/writer/editor living in New Jersey. Her blog, Sweepy Jean Explores the (Webby) World, showcases her poetry and discusses topics such as the writing life, women’s issues, and personal observations.

Staying Alive: Real Poems for Unreal TimesStaying Alive: Real Poems for Unreal Times by Neil Astley
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Poetry is very hard to review and even harder to anthologize. Many editors are guided by tradition. The same old poems turn up time and time again. Most poetry doesn’t sell well, so what editor would take a risk on including poets most readers have never heard of? This means that finding fresh, good poems is really hard and can be expensive.

Enter Neil Astley, an extraordinary man and the founder of Bloodaxe Books. He has spent a lifetime devoted to other people’s poetry. Unlike many literary men, he has an open mind, vast experience, breathtaking vision and colossal self-assurance.

It was in this book that he first gave us the benefit of that unusual combination of qualities. Staying Alive is a large book, well-organised, stimulating, surprising and accessible. It was published in 2002 and is still fresh.

It was followed in 2004 by Being Alive and in 2008 by Being Human, both equally good and equally vital. Many people buy all three.

These poems are varied and various, consistently good, and striking without being difficult or obscure. I particularly like the way Neil places poems with contrasting viewpoints side by side. It is typical of his approach, inclusive, balanced and pluralistic. If reading so much poetry can lead to this kind of enlightenment, let’s all read more poetry.

Here is one that plays with the contrasts and contradictions within a single word and is almost therefore representative of the whole collection:

Lightness

It was your lightness that drew me,
the lightness of your talk and your laughter,
the lightness of your cheek in my hands,
your sweet gentle modest lightness;
and it is the lightness of your kiss
that is starving my mouth,
and the lightness of your embrace
that will let me go adrift.

Meg Bateman
Translated from the Gaelic by the author.

Vanessa Wu is the author of Love Has No Limits


Books by Vanessa Wu

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