Up at the holy end

February 28, 2013 § Leave a comment

I always thought that poetry went down best in pubs – preferably fuggy upstairs rooms.  Lately, though, I’ve been reading in church: two, in fact.  A couple of weeks ago I was invited to read in St John’s Church in Penistone, as part of an event to celebrate the work of a group of local poets and the launch of their pamphlet, East Peak.  Part of the event involved me and Penistone poet Julie Mellor serving tea in a Japanese tea ceremony, led by Becky Bowlee, in silence and stocking feet, to the audience.  As far as I know, none (apart from Becky) had taken part in such a thing; but in the calm shadows of the old place, everyone entered into a spirit of contemplative reverence for the occasion, which complemented perfectly the readings (themselves introduced by a positively priest-like Mark Doyle).

As reported previously, Ray Hearne and I, with the support of other poets, gave a reading of Spence Broughton in Hill Top Chapel in Attercliffe near Sheffield on Halloween.  The old chapel bears in its air all of its near-400 years – and every breath and gesture, it seemed, resonated through an atmosphere as charged as a storm.

What is it about such spaces that confers on the breathed word such power – and gives to the reader an enhanced oratory?  And particularly for an atheist like me?  Can a contained emptiness, steadied within thick stone for hundreds of years (while outside factories, trucks and sports stadia buzz and clamour), accrue something, a sense of the numinous?  Or is it just physics?

End of the line

February 7, 2013 § 6 Comments

Sharon Olds’ success in winning the TS Eliot Prize and the expanded readership for her work which will follow will no doubt reinvigorate debates about poetic form – in particular, the line ending.  Many commentators have found Olds’ preference for putting articles and prepositions at the ends of lines difficult; others find the prosiness this confers on her poetry liberating.  Olds herself has talked about the living quality of poems, likening their structure to a tree (or in fact half a tree), with the beginning of lines forming a trunk.  As such, this is where she stacks up verbs and nouns, rooting meaning – so that lines can stretch away, more naturally in keeping with thought and speech.

It’s an interesting approach: and one which seems to contrast with Glyn Maxwell’s demands, in On Poetry, that line breaks have a weight borne of their intermediary nature – their emphasising of both utterance / existence and silence / void – which renders them of primary significance: they are at the core of a poem’s sound and meaning.

We might throw in some gender politics here, too, positioning Maxwell’s masculine, even monotheistic cry (In the Beginning was the Word…) against Olds’ feminine, organic poetry.

Personally, I still feel my way forward, only dimly aware of what’s at play – which is something between breathing and mechanics and impulse, knowing how all of these have to contend – in some way taking an idea, or glimpse, or motivation, dragging it out of the cave and into a real, imperfect (yet hopefully suggestive and resonant) place.

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