John Ashbery, Poet. (1927-2017)

We wake to the sad news that one of our greatest modern poets, John Ashbery, has died aged ninety.

He was a leading figure of the New York School of poetry in the 1960s, a group influenced by modernist and contemporary art (especially abstract expressionism and surrealism). The work that emerged from this movement was wide-ranging; forms of pastiche, non-narrative and anti-narrative text, a simultaneous return to and rejection of form all problematised the discipline of poetry—and in a good way. Complex new poetry for a complex new, postmodern world. An interest in contemporary culture provoked poems about the banal, every day, sometimes the throw-away. Art is life, and sometimes, life is dull. No more grand subjects and narratives, just life.

This is neither an obituary nor essay; it’s a remembering of my first encounter with Ashbery, and not an easy one to recollect since his poetic work has been so prominent in the study of contemporary poetics, but I think I can pin it down to a balmy late September in a seminar room when our tutor gave us crumpled photocopies of “The Skaters” (1964):

These decibels
Are a kind of flagellation, an entity of sound
Into which being enters, and is apart.
Their colors on a warm February day
Make for masses of inertia, and hips
Prod out of the violet-seeming into a new kind
Of demand that stumps the absolute because not new
In the sense of the next one in an infinite series
But, as it were, pre-existing or pre-seeming in
Such a way as to contrast funnily with the unexpectedness
And somehow push us all into perdition.

The direct address, themes concerning sound and music and the rush of rich images made this early encounter with Ashbery’s text a meaningful touchstone for much of my later research concerning poetry, music, sound, and the every day. I return to Ashbery again and again in reading, research and in teaching (some of our students will know well the famous “Popeye” sestina: “Farm Implements and Rutabagas in a Landscape”).

For more information about Ashbery, explore the online collection archived at the Poetry Foundation
To read and listen to, in Ashbery’s own voice, “The Skaters” visit the archive at Penn Sound.

Nobel Prize for Literature 2016: Bob Dylan

I have a confession to make: I do not like, nor have ever liked, listening to Bob Dylan’s music. This is surely  heresy as today sees the announcement of Dylan’s 2016 Nobel Prize for 2016-05-25-1464211797-4748536-bobdylanearly1960sLiterature, and it has left me with some mixed feelings.  I have among my friends and colleagues on social media many poets and writers and musicians, and the debate out there is passionate, emotional, fierce. Perhaps what surprises me the most is my lack of resistance  to this news; while I cannot suddenly purport myself an overnight fan of Dylan’s work, I do err on the side of the poets speaking in his defence. What I am certain about is Dylan’s unequivocal talent as a lyricist, and that writing lyrics is not the same craft as writing poems. Each of these disciplines is distinct and comes with its own complexities and challenges; one is not ‘better’ than the other. If I were a songwriter, I’d be proud to have written:

Yes, to dance beneath the diamond sky with one hand waving free,
Silhouetted by the sea, circled by the circus sands,
With all memory and fate driven deep beneath the waves,
Let me forget about today until tomorrow.” — Tambourine Man

The sonic undulation of sibilance in the second line of this lyric is poetic, as is the clean and unusual imagery (‘diamond’ ‘circus’). Is this a poem? Is this a lyric? Dylan has been awarded the prize for ‘having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition’, and to my mind, this extract above supports this position.  I would go further and suggest that Dylan also innovated and energised the form of the American song.

This award also brings into debate old divisions between supposed high and low culture for some, and I say, perhaps it is time to get over this class war of culture.  For some decades now, those boundaries have been blended, deconstructed, questioned, dismantled–so why are some commentators even calling into question the validity or possibility of the Nobel literature prize going to a songwriter?  I say, why not?  When I wrote my PhD, on sonority in literature by writers who might have ‘once-upon-a-time’ been called ‘minority’,  I included African-American spirituals and Welsh folk songs in my literature review not just as cultural documents, but for their distinct contribution to our literature.  It is about time perhaps to review what we call literature and broaden our consideration of all written cultural artefacts–perhaps we will soon see a Nobel Prize for Literature award to a video-game.

Do I still dislike listening to Dylan’s music? Yes–but to deny him a Nobel Prize for literature as a songwriter would be untenable. This prize is not about calling Dylan a poet; it is about acknowledging songwriting as a legitimate form of literature.

(Image Credit: Huffington Post)

National Poetry Day, 2016

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Today is National Poetry Day, and I spoke earlier on BBC Radio Stoke about my poem, ‘Kith and Kiln’, which his written from the point of view of a pot-bank. Viewing Stoke as an outsider, I am always struck at how uniquely elegant these structures are. They remind me of grand old ladies watching over us, keeping us in check, asking us to mind our manners.  Here is the text of the poem and a link to the broadcast:

Kith and Kiln
 by Lisa Mansell
 
 “Home is where somebody notices when you are no longer there. ”
    ― Aleksandar Hemon.
 
 


Am I still here?
 Do you see me
 notch the oxide sunset
 like an ancient etching?
 
 I've always hunched here, under rain 
 or low-scud cloud--

 heard distant Hanley goose-honks;
 watched unhusked skinheads
 in a drunken slump stumble to
 their midnight dhansak shank
 
 and I used to dream of gathering the crazed hem
 of my brick-skirt  (a drey of cindered mesh
 that cloisters my nesh in winter)

to waltz at the moon in blousy damask
 and tease the bone-ash stars:
 to fang their quartzy flux.
 
 If I could speak
 I would talk in round vowels
 of wom and dome,

and I'd ask you to stay--

but my throat is damp with rain
 without the rasp of caulk-smoke
 from my clayfire belly.
 
 If you must leave me, then do it quick
 before you see me untruss myself
 brick by brick 
 'til I am just a spill of sheeded powder
 whispered on history's lips 
 like a cipher.


 Do you see me?
 Am I still here?

 

 I also asked colleagues and students to submit their poems today, and these poems show that we are all different; our poems are different are as different as we are. We have poems here that are political, historical, formal, informal, experimental, observational; there is always time for poetry.  I hope that you enjoy them:

poem
by Kay Deakes  (Admissions & Enrolments)
Click on the poem to view as high-quality image

 

EL SALVADOR  (1979)

by Margaret Leclere (Senior Lecturer in Screenwriting)



Oh El Salvador
What do I know of it?
Pictures on TV
Darker people dying,
Suffering and crying.
What do I see of it?
Flesh wounds are a blur
A stain of red, a wail of dread
Gunshots whistle over whose head?
What do I feel of it,
Cuddled on this couch?
My cigarette is out,
Uncomfortable, I shift about.


A young man tells his tale, sharp-featured,
Torture too terrible.
They always suffer, those with dark eyes,
They always have. They hardly feel it.
We’ve seen too much of it.
I wish I could get comfortable.
What does it do to me, El Salvador?
There’s a pain on my poor face,
I see no pain on yours:
You’ve seen too many faces crushed by the wheels.
You don’t wring your hands,
Hands bound by the thumbs or with fingernails pulled off.
Those eyes plucked out were bright before,
Legs cracked moved swift before,
Lips so swollen kissed before.


How stupid the sad clown, or the happy clown.
How despicable our sentiment.
Blubber lips, wet eyes, near tears,
Hangdog, slouched, insomniac.
Poor kleptomaniac, megalomaniac,
Poor pre-menstrually tense, agrophobe, claustrophobe.
Poor me. Deprived, depressed, oppressed, obsessed.
Despised. Long pig.


El Salvador.
There would be pleasure in the cry
Did it not stick at my throat.
I would love
To pad gently through Noddy’s bubble world
When the giant has made the soft snow fall
And call, scream, blow it all away
With the cry – El Salvador.
Lamposts would fall, engines would stall,
Pretty lace curtains would crinkle and curl
And a crack would travel up the wall.
The dome burst, for El Salvador.

 

[p.s.  Margaret wrote this when she was a student in response to the 1979 events in South America.]

more
by Kate Moore, Level 6 Creative Writing.
Click on the poem to view as high-quality image

 

Vogue Brides
by Kerry Jackson   (Level 4 English and Creative Writing)


Vogue brides blushing since 1910.
Each dress, each decade just as dramatic.
Girls still scarpering, now and then.
Designers faultless, flaunting and charismatic.

Roaring twenties birthed Bara, bobbed brides.
Forties gowns were war filled simplicity.
The Valium lovers of the sixties, veils headlined.
The naughty women wore bold for publicity.

Beneath the twenties were unseen rompers.
Forties barely seen girdles revolutionary.
Maidenform the sixties liberal enough for an encore.
The thongs of this decade everyone but he would see.

Nearly virginal, probably pregnant, almost reluctant.
At least she got to wear a dress so decadent.





[Inspired by the title Brides in vogue since 1910]

 

Writer and Senior Lecturer in Creative Writing, Paul Houghton offers his thoughts on his favourite poem, “Memories of West Street” by Robert Lowell

 

It’s worth it alone for the line ‘Like the sun she rises in her flame-flamingo infants’ wear.’

But it’s a great poem about middle age disappointment, crime and hospital incarceration! I love its stories within a story structure and blazing images.

In 1990, when I was staying in Boston, I met Lowell’s best friend, a wonderful man – a painter named Frank Parker. He had sad but fascinating stories about Lowell excitedly reciting his poems in the kitchen while he (Frank) and his wife were trying to retire to bed!

lowell

Memories of West Street and Lepke
Robert Lowell

Only teaching on Tuesdays, book-worming
in pajamas fresh from the washer each morning,
I hog a whole house on Boston’s
“hardly passionate Marlborough Street,"
where even the man
scavenging filth in the back alley trash cans,
has two children, a beach wagon, a helpmate,
and is “a young Republican.”
I have a nine months’ daughter,
young enough to be my granddaughter.
Like the sun she rises in her flame-flamingo infants’ wear.

These are the tranquilized Fifties,
and I am forty.  Ought I to regret my seedtime?
I was a fire-breathing Catholic C.O.,
and made my manic statement,
telling off the state and president, and then
sat waiting sentence in the bull pen
beside a negro boy with curlicues
of marijuana in his hair.

Given a year,
I walked on the roof of the West Street Jail, a short
enclosure like my school soccer court,
and saw the Hudson River once a day
through sooty clothesline entanglements
and bleaching khaki tenements.
Strolling, I yammered metaphysics with Abramowitz,
a jaundice-yellow (“it’s really tan”)
and fly-weight pacifist,
so vegetarian,
he wore rope shoes and preferred fallen fruit.
He tried to convert Bioff and Brown,
the Hollywood pimps, to his diet.
Hairy, muscular, suburban,
wearing chocolate double-breasted suits,
they blew their tops and beat him black and blue.

I was so out of things, I’d never heard
of the Jehovah’s Witnesses.
“Are you a C.O.?” I asked a fellow jailbird.
“No," he answered, “I’m a J.W.”
He taught me the “hospital tuck,"
and pointed out the T-shirted back
of Murder Incorporated’s Czar Lepke,
there piling towels on a rack,
or dawdling off to his little segregated cell full
of things forbidden to the common man:
a portable radio, a dresser, two toy American
flags tied together with a ribbon of Easter palm.
Flabby, bald, lobotomized,
he drifted in a sheepish calm,
where no agonizing reappraisal
jarred his concentration on the electric chair
hanging like an oasis in his air
of lost connections. . . .

From Selected Poems by Robert Lowell, published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux, Inc. Copyright © 1976, 1977 by Robert Lowell. Used by permission.

Visiting Writer: Poet, Nabila Jameel– Persian and Urdu Poetry.

The department welcomed poet, Nabila Jameel, this week. She delivered an outstanding lecture on Persian and Urdu poetry, from classical to modern, and the complexities of its translation. We read and discussed texts by several Urdu and Persian poets that included Alama Iqbal, Rumi, and Hafiz and explored women’s voices too in Zebunissa, Parvin E’tesami and Parveen Shakir.

For me these are new poets, and voices of extraordinary resonance. These lines from “When I want to Kiss God” by fourteenth century poet, Hafiz particularly struck me in their sharpness of image, concern for the sublime, and the tension inherent in its secretive confessional tone:

When
No one is looking

I swallow deserts and clouds
And chew on mountains knowing
They are sweet
Bones!   (Hafiz, 64)

Zeb-un-Nisa_Begum                                                                                                  (Zebunissa, WIki Commons)

We also read Zebunissa (1638-1702) who was a princess of the Muhgal Empire held captive for the final twenty years of her life by her father. The verse that she wrote then still has bold political register in contemporary debates about society, gender and Islam:

I will not lift my veil,
For if I did, what may befall who knows.
As Nightingales do directly love the rose,
And as the Brahman worships Lakshmi’s grace,
Thus lost in contemplation of my face,
The poor beholder may forget and fail. (Zebunissa, 124)

This strong, female persona declares and defends her position in defiant lyricism and also questions and reflects upon the role of woman in society.

You can read Jameel’s work in Stand magazine, the Poetry Review and in a recent anthology by Bloodaxe: Out of Bounds.

 

Works Cited:

The Gift: Poems by Hafiz, the Great Sufi Master. Daniel Ladinsky (trans.) Penguin Compass, 1999.
Annie Krieger Krynicki. 2005. Captive Princess: Zebunissa, Daughter of Emperor Aurangzeb. OUP

Long Poem Magazine: Issue 10 Launch

It was a privilege to read this week at the Barbican Library last Wednesday, October 23rd, as part of the launch of Long Poem Magazine Issue 10, and I offer me sincerest gratitude to the editors, Linda Black and Lucy Hamilton for agreeing to publish my new long poem ‘Kernel Stone’ in this issue.

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