Wednesday, 27 August 2008

The Singing

I found another book by CK Williams at the library, which includes his early poems, before he wrote in elongated lines. The most evident quality of his early writing seems to be pain.

I found the poem below and the photo on the website of the Blue FlowerArts (an agency representing among others Paul Muldoon and Charles Simic.) The formatting is all wrong, more about that below:

C.K. Williams, Poet


I was walking home down a hill near our house
on a balmy afternoon
under the blossoms
Of the pear trees that go flamboyantly mad here
every spring with
their burgeoning forth

When a young man turned in from a corner singing
no it was more of
a cadenced shouting
Most of which I couldn't catch I thought because
the young man was
black speaking black

It didn't matter I could tell he was making his
song up which pleased
me he was nice-looking
Husky dressed in some style of big pants obviously
full of himself
hence his lyrical flowing over

We went along in the same direction then he noticed
me there almost
beside him and "Big"
He shouted-sang "Big" and I thought how droll
to have my height
incorporated in his song

So I smiled but the face of the young man showed nothing
he looked
in fact pointedly away
And his song changed "I'm not a nice person"
he chanted "I'm not
I'm not a nice person"

No menace was meant I gathered no particular threat
but he did want
to be certain I knew
That if my smile implied I conceived of anything like concord
between us I should forget it

That's all nothing else happened his song became
indecipherable to
me again he arrived
Where he was going a house where a girl in braids
waited for him on
the porch that was all

No one saw no one heard all the unasked and
unanswered questions
were left where they were
It occurred to me to sing back "I'm not a nice
person either" but I
couldn't come up with a tune

Besides I wouldn't have meant it nor he have believed
it both of us
knew just where we were
In the duet we composed the equation we made
the conventions to
which we were condemned

Sometimes it feels even when no one is there that
someone something
is watching and listening
Someone to rectify redo remake this time again though
no one saw nor
heard no one was there

I am not sure about the alineas here, and indentations are missing, because I could not format them onto the blog page.

The poem is not in my recently acquired book, this is the way it is laid out on the website, in a narrow-ish column, so chose not to change anything. I suspect that in a book the poem would be laid out in his well-known style - I have tried to reproduce it by reducing the font-size to make it fit in the width of the blog-page, but am unable to find a way to force the second and fourth lines to indent, which they should:

I was walking home down a hill near our house on a balmy afternoon
under the blossoms
Of the pear trees that go flamboyantly mad here every spring with
their burgeoning forth

To return to what is attractive about CK Williams' poetry: I like the lack of punctuation, the thoughts running into each other, the strange places he chooses for his line breaks, and how interesting the story is. He achieves the effect of writing the way one might talk, personally, effortlessly. He shows how to write a poem about everything and anything, as long as there is truth in it.

It is what I find most interesting about him, this catching of thoughts which do occur to us, but which we usually let go, hardly aware they have passed through our minds.

As a result, I wrote a poem about the closing ceremony of the Olympic Games, which I had watched to the end in appalled fascination.

About the name Blue Flower - here is a quote from Blue Flower Arts home page: the name comes
...from the unfinished short story “Heinrich von Ofterdingen” by the 18th century German poet and philosopher Novalis. The young hero's quest for the blue flower, his Poetry, then became a symbol used by the Romantic poets for the soul's unfolding...

This connects up with Penelope Fitzgerald's The Blue Flower (Flamingo 1996), which purports to be the story of Novalis - a wonderful novel and a highly praised choice for the Booker Prize.

Monday, 25 August 2008

Do no harm

Finished reading Borges' This Craft of Verse with pleasure, hoping that some of what he writes will stick in my mind. He writes about his journey - as a writer who started off wanting express everything. I thought for example, that if I needed a sunset I should find the exact word for a sunset - or rather, the most surprising metaphor. Now I have come to the conclusion(and this conclusion may sound sad) that I no longer believe in expression. I believe only in allusion. After all, what are words? Words are symbols for shared memories...

(p. 117). And earlier on the same page, an example of his depth and his modesty:

When I write, I do not think of the reader (because the reader is an imaginary character) and I do not think of myself (perhaps
I am an imaginary character also), but I think of what I am trying to convey and I do my best not to spoil it.

I do my best not to spoil it.
It sounds like the Hippocratic oath - at least refrain from harm.

He means it. He says on p. 116:

...Had I to give advice to writers (and I do not think they need it, because everyone has to find out things for himself), I would tell them simply this: I would ask them to tamper as little as they can with their own work. I do not think tinkering does any good. The moment comes when one has found out what one can do - when one has found one's natural voice, one's rhythm. Then I do not think that slight emendations should prove useful...

Of course, the key sentence here is The moment comes when one has found out what one can do...Until that moment comes, we tinker and tinker with something, puzzle over it, and the final product is no good, it has a patched-up way of being. But then for the next thing we write, the writing may flow into something that is fine and good. I have seen it happen to friends in the visual arts. The work they have laboured over endlessly is warped by their effort. It is the next piece, which they have thrown together in one go, almost without thinking, which is wonderful.

Almost without thinking.
Very Zen, no-thought. Zen masters painting a perfect circle.

Sunday, 24 August 2008

Thought for the day

I prefer blogs when bloggers don't write about their personal feelings and actions too much. ("No milk in the fridge, sigh").

Bodil Malmsten often includes among the Swedish - which I don't understand - quotes in English and links to English websites.

She recently posted this, by Bob Dylan:

You gotta serve somebody

You may be an ambassador to England or France
You may like to gamble, you might like to dance
You may be the heavyweight champion of the world
You may be a socialite with a long string of pearls.

But you´re gonna have to serve somebody, yes indeed
You´re gonna have to serve somebody.

It may be the devil or it may be the Lord
But you´re gonna have to serve somebody.

You may be a state trooper, you might be a young turk
You may be the head of some big TV network
You may be rich or poor, you may be blind or lame
You may be living in another country under another name.

But you´re gonna have to serve somebody, yes

You may be a construction worker working on a home
You may be living in a mansion or you might live in a dome
You might own guns and you might even own tanks
You might be somebody´s landlord you might even own banks.

But you´re gonna have to serve somebody, yes

I found a fuzzy video of him performing it in 1984 on Youtube. And an interview with him, which reveals mainly that he does not like being interviewed very much.

Tuesday, 19 August 2008


The Paekakariki gig went well, lots of friendly people, the rehearsing paid off, a smooth presentation, everyone comfortable with the mike, thank you Hinemoana, (that's her on the photo, introducing us. You can visit her website on, and find out more about her - hear her sing !)

It seemed to me that the audience didn't always get the point of the more complex works that were presented. Discussed it via email with Elizabeth Smither, my mentor, and she wrote back among other things:

"...the problem with listening to poetry, especially in its more complex forms, is that the poem moves on while the listener in the audience is still absorbing the last image which has passed..."

Elizabeth suggests making the written version available on broadsheets, so that people can take them home and pin them up. I like that idea. But someone else said that not all her poems were ready for print. So there you go, no easy answers.

~ ~ ~

Serendipity plays its role: the book by Borges which I took from the library is not his poetry. The title was hidden by that bar-code sticker that is always in the way of either the title, the author's name, or the overall design of the cover (Why the scanning system could not be designed with the bar code in a different place is beyond me. Philistines are alive and well.)

Second thoughts: the actual title is This Craft of Verse (Mihailescu, C.-A., ed. (2000) Harvard University Press) - I wouldn't have noticed it wasn't verse even if I had been able to read the title.

The book consists of six lectures which he gave in English (he had an English grandmother) at Harvard in 1967, about poetry. They were taped and forgotten about, then rediscovered - when enough dust had gathered, to paraphrase the editor C.-A. Mihailescu.

It's lovely to know that one is reading the poet's own words. There is a chapter about metaphor, another about translation, another about the music of poetry...

All written in a style which is charmingly modest, a modesty which must be at least partly an assumed stance. Mihailescu himself says

"One cannot quite take at face value Borges' claim that he is "groping" his way along, that he is a "timid thinker rather than a daring one", and that his cultural background is "a series of unfortunate miscellanies"..."

I wonder what the Americans made of that, modesty not being a muscle that is flexed very often in their world.

Haven't finished it yet, reading slowly and enjoying it heaps. Shall buy it as a gift for someone.


Petri Liukkonen is a mysterious Finn, a librarian in the town of Kirjasto, Finland. He or she has become famous on the Net for creating an award-winning website entitled Books and Writers where he/she posts the biographies of famous writers in slightly accented English. I wrote playfully to Petri the first time, having noticed that both Bodil Malmsten and Per Pettersen - both well-known Scandinavian writers - were missing, and received a serious, considered email back. They are now apparently on the waiting list. Realising recently that Elizabeth Bishop was also absent, wrote to him and have just received a courteous email back - Elizabeth's bio will be posted soon, Petri has just returned from holidays.

And for those who might like to know: Katherine Mansfield is listed, as are Janet Frame and Keri Hulme.

~ ~ ~

And now back to work.

Wednesday, 13 August 2008

Preparing for the show

Today I shall retrieve my diary.

Two days until our poetry reading. Am still wondering which poems are best to read and how/whether I should introduce them. The political poem definitely needs a neutral word to start off with -

This poem was written in reference to the difficulties of finding peaceful solutions to terrorism.

That might do.

Am making food for the hungry hordes who will come to hear us read - I hope.


Re-writing yesterday: the two-stanza kitsch/schmalz poem has responded well to surgery: immediate relief when the metaphor stanza was removed.

The metaphor now appears briefly in one line, bows and that's the end of the show.

Not happy with the title yet.

Reading yesterday was confined to the Dominion Post in the morning. Ugh. Since we don't watch local TV and rarely listen to the radio, it is our source of local news. This is a non-plug for the DP.

Tuesday, 12 August 2008

Worn edges

Wrote and wrote till late afternoon yesterday, two new poems, and another one revised after feedback from Elizabeth.

Showed them to P. He liked the long one which is called Red, and about the short one which has two stanzas, he said that the first stanza was kitsch and the second schmaltz. That became immediately obvious. He also said that the metaphor in stanza one was too remote from the reality described in stanza two. Same comment as Elizabeth about another poem. Hopefully I shall not need to repeat this error in the future. Need to work at being more slant-y, as in Emily Dickinson's Tell it slant. The metaphor in this case needs to be integrated into the story, and less fuss made of it, just pursuing it as I go along, little reminders. At least, that's the thinking behind it, Bill.

Read The Vigil, a book of poems by a most amazing American poet called C.K. Williams (1997, Bloodaxe Books, UK). My attention was initially caught by the cover: reproduction of a Rembrandt, Woman with a fan, a black background, she is young-ish and mysterious, smiling a little. The fan is only half open, and held as if she's forgotten about it, I don't know its meaning. It's probably his Saskia, there seems to be a lot of love in that portrait.

About the writing: Every one of C.K. Williams' poems hits home, there is an original thought in each of them which you may recognise as something you might have thought fleetingly yourself, but not been able to catch and show the way he has. A poignant one for instance, when he hears his wife in the next room, she is reading to their son, and he suddenly has an insight into what his life might be like in the future, if he was to be without them for some reason:

"...either one of them would be enough..."

His language is mostly ordinary, his lines always long. He has a masterful poem describing a death, long and involved, and surprising but not so that you say how amazing, it just takes you along and rolls you around until it's over.

My favourite is called My Fly, dedicated to his friend Erving Goffman - I feel a duty to mention this, because the poem is about Erving - this great garishly emerald fly, whom he imagines is

"...a messenger from you, or that you yourself (you'd howl at this),/
ten years afterwards have let yourself be incarnated as this pestering anti-/

and later:

"...- maybe it is you!"

Joy! To be together, even for a time! Yes, tilt your fuselage, turn it/
towards the light
aim the thousand lenses of your eyes back up at me: how I've missed/
the layers of your attention..."

I am tired and a little worn at the edges today. I left my diary at someone's house over the week end and shall only be able to retrieve it tomorrow.

Monday, 11 August 2008

Learning something

The timer is on again, for 10 minutes.

It is late, 11:30 am, and only now am I starting to write...The reasons why are not worthy of being blogged.

I have read Brian Turner's Footfall, from one poem to another, the lot of them, and reached the last one Exit, and it made my heart turn over.

A poem intended to be read at his funeral. He is only 60, and rides his bike all over the place - not about to die at all - a bit of depression there.

A wonderful poem, its truth unmistakable. I can't say what makes it so much more appealing than the others. Maybe it is that I don't care enough, they don't change anything. Exit is honest about his shortcomings and his hopes and regrets. It is not that either. Stunning, I can't wait to re-read it.

My next book is Hone Tuwhare's. His is waiting on top of the red sofa in the family room, for this evening. Robert Hass's edited collection is by my bed, to read before sleep.

Feedback from Elizabeth about my latest lot of poems - she explains why two bits I wanted to keep together in one poem do not fit, and it immediately becomes obvious. The two-poem version is best. I had been wondering whether I would actually learn something useful from her opinion on that particular issue, and because of the explanation she gives, that the connection between the two bits is too remote - which I saw for myself as soon as I read her words in the email, the answer is, Yes, I have learnt something.

Thursday, 7 August 2008

On Sharon Olds

Reading Sharon Olds The Wellspring. Her descriptive ability is awe-inspiring. Particularly about her children, and about sex. Showed a poem to K, who said that she was scientifically trained, used to writing scientific reports, and therefore could not understand these poems.

I was thunderstruck: I could have been listening to myself - except that I do find Sharon O very accessible.

Then it emerged that she had thought the writer was a man, there was an I in the poem, and so it did not make sense to her.

The Robert Hass book is a book edited by him, a collection. So am still not able to read him. Am getting over the Hass = hate bit. It probably was Hase, once. Or Haas. A hare. I think of emigrants coming in through American immigration in the 1920s, on an island near NY - people's names mis-spelled by the bureaucrats...


Other people's writing blogs

Problems with Internet access on my computer since I bought an iPod going cheap from Dick Smith's. T says if I'd asked her, she would have told me so. She is rude about what iTunes (software for iPod) does to my non-Mac computer, but entirely correct. Time wasted: about 3 days' worth - and money. Even more money now, as Derek has to come in and fix it. In the mean time, am writing this on someone else's computer.

Got diverted reading other people's writing blogs, for a while. People writing about their inner world at the most immediate level - mostly not a good read, we are too similar. Stream of consciousness tends to become self-indulgent.

Still reading Otto Friedrich, I had forgotten my rule of not reading WWII stuff before going to sleep. So:

Poetry books collected from the library today. Read To be a poet by Maxine Hong Kingston in one go last night, (Harvard University Press, 2002), an agreeable book to hold and read - small, non-standard format. It is an expansion of her lecture at Berkeley. That did not matter, reading her is encouraging and reassuring, a welcome guide.

The other books are by Sharon Olds, Brian Turner, Hone Tuwhare, Robert Hass. Brian Turner was a favourite with people who heard the Poets Laureate at the National Library on Monday. Something gravelly and real about the way he read. Also he said "a kertle of sheep" or is it kirtle? Someone said that kirtle means a kilt...

Writing: Have been tidying up recent poems. I have stopped doing the free-flow writing in the last days, shall resume today.

Monday, 4 August 2008

Turkey feet?

Busy week-end, but not with writing.

Downloaded a set of Marianne Moore's poems and could not get excited. Too remote and dense with allusions and figurative language that I don't understand. Using the bookshop test - taking her book and opening it anywhere to try a poem - suck it and see: it would not make the grade with me. Knowing that Elizabeth Bishop and many others find her poetry so wonderful makes me wistful. What am I missing.

The exception was her poem A Grave, about the sea. Metaphor for the way we ignore death staring us in the face. I understood almost every line as I read it. What I did not understand, for instance:

The firs stand in a procession, each with an emerald turkey foot at the top...

Emerald turkey foot????

The beginning is great:

Man looking into the sea,
taking the view from those who have as much right to it as you have to it yourself
it is human nature to stand in the middle of a thing,
but you cannot stand in the middle of this;
the sea has nothing to give but a well-excavated grave...

Then cames that line about the firs and turkey feet.

I like, ...It is human nature to stand in the middle of a thing...

Could it be that she expresses here a Judeo-Christian view, which stems from the ingrained belief that Man ( as the Victorians used to say) is at The Top of The Tree, God's greatest creation. Other people hold different beliefs - Hindus, for instance.

MM's choice of 'Man' here not incidental.

A heap of poems written last Friday, about the house: P went out and left a phone off the hook in the kitchen, so no one called and I was busy till 3 pm before realising that something might be wrong. Not so wrong, really, it was worth while and I was happy doing it.

Whenever I feel bad about something I think about writing and feel better.

Besides MM, have been side-tracked again into a book entitled Before the Deluge by Otto Friedrich (1974, Michael Joseph, London). A witty and succinct description of the events leading up to Hitler, covering many aspects, theatre, music, the military, the Communists and the emergence of the Nazis, what the man in the street thought, as well as science. For instance: it was a mystery to me how Einstein happened to be so well-known and influential when his theory was incomprehensible to everyone except maybe 3 people in the entire world, at the time, and this book makes it somewhat clearer; also shows how he used his influence. Found out that when Walther Rathenau was murdered - Jewish Foreign Minister- the population poured into the streets in protest, all over Germany, hundreds of thousands marching in silence.

And now to work.

Friday, 1 August 2008

Blown away

Review of EB finished, and as usual, I learnt more doing it than just reading...Focussed on her use of repetition - in her poem Argument, she says ...argue, argue, argue... in the middle of a line, very effective. The poem is about missing someone and the argument is between Distance and Days, which separate her from this person. It is so well done. She also piles on adjectives without hesitation, an eye-opener for someone who has been taught to eliminate them wherever possible.

She writes fluidly, no contortions in order to get a word into a desired position in the line. This is all the result of painstaking work, her output remained small.

On to Marianne Moore and Robert Hass now.

Yesterday, resumption of the course and I woke up versifying in my head, thinking about poems I am busy with. Neat.

We looked at erotic poetry, which was fun. I was absolutely blown away by Sharon Olds' Topography, because of what it says about duality, or the absence of it.

It made my day.