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Let's Face The Muse And Dance

March 11, 2009


Just as little girls like to play with dolls, this boy doggerelist likes playing with villanelles. I like having a climbing frame to mess around on. There’s something about the formal, almost stately measure of the villanelle that appeals to my melancholic tendency. A villanelle seems to move toward its final inevitable quatrain like some rueful and reluctant waltz. I want villanelles on the subject of Time. Yes, the great analgesic itself. So get dancing, you lazy good-for-nothings…

Here are a couple of examples that I like and hope will inspire…

Mad Girl’s Love Song

I shut my eyes and all the world drops dead;
I lift my lids and all is born again.
(I think I made you up inside my head.)

The stars go waltzing out in blue and red,
And arbitrary darkness gallops in:
I shut my eyes and all the world drops dead.

I dreamed that you bewitched me into bed
And sung me moon-struck, kissed me quite insane.
(I think I made you up inside my head.)

God topples from the sky, hell’s fires fade:
Exit seraphim and Satan’s men:
I shut my eyes and all the world drops dead.

I fancied you’d return the way you said.
But I grow old and I forget your name.
(I think I made you up inside my head.)

I should have loved a thunderbird instead;
At least when spring comes they roar back again.
I shut my eyes and all the world drops dead.
(I think I made you up inside my head.)

Sylvia Plath

In Memory of the Unknown Poet, Robert Boardman Vaughn

It was his story. It would always be his story.
It followed him; it overtook him finally—
The boredom, and the horror, and the glory.

Probably at the end he was not yet sorry,
Even as the boots were brutalizing him in the alley.
It was his story. It would always be his story,

Blown on a blue horn, full of sound and fury,
But signifying, O signifying magnificently
The boredom, and the horror, and the glory.

I picture the snow as falling without hurry
To cover the cobbles and the toppled ashcans completely.
It was his story. It would always be his story.

Lately he had wandered between St. Mark’s Place and the Bowery,
Already half a spirit, mumbling and muttering sadly.
O the boredom, and the horror, and the glory.

All done now. But I remember the fiery
Hypnotic eye and the raised voice blazing with poetry.
It was his story and would always be his story—
The boredom, and the horror, and the glory.

Donald Justice

  1. mishari permalink*
    March 11, 2009 2:20 AM

    The Man In The Cuckoo Clock

    Glacial time grinds down the past
    This life is just the briefest pause:
    The fiery time’s approaching fast.

    You say this life will be your last:
    Nirvana–that’s your get-out clause.
    Glacial time grinds down the past.

    The play’s the same–a different cast
    Of thieves and drunks, of pimps and whores:
    The fiery time’s approaching fast.

    You smile and say, (when you are asked):
    They may be scum but they’re not bores.
    Glacial time grinds down the past.

    You dodge the streets where cops are massed;
    You must have broke a hundred laws:
    The fiery time’s approaching fast.

    You’d breathe but you’re just too harrassed;
    You take a drink and clutch at straws:
    Glacial time grinds down the past,
    The fiery time’s approaching fast.

  2. mishari permalink*
    March 11, 2009 12:02 PM

    On today’s GU book blogs, a writer named Hirsh Sawhney wrote a piece about the crashing publishing industry in NYC that posed the question:

    Could literary culture really be breathing its last?

    To which Damien G. Walter, best known to many of us as the GU book blogs go-to Science Fiction guy answered:

    Of course it is. Literary culture has been dead for some time, thank god. The last few decades have just been the final spasms of the corpse. The current economic collapse is banging the final nail into the coffins of many long dead institutions. Literary culture is the one we should mourn the least.

    Independent publishers probably will have a part to play in reinventing books and fiction. But they will have to abandon Literary culture to do it. No offense to Adam Rodriguez, his book may well be a very nice read, but why do I need one man’s take on the Bronx when I scan MySpace and find pages from thousands of people who actually live there now, telling me the story of the Bronx right now?

    The uncomfortable truth for Literary culture is that the model it is built on, of the few being listened to by the many, is increasingly irrelevant. The many are listeing to each other. And the few that are being listened to en mass don’t need publishers to do it, they speak directly to their audience through the wonders of the interweb. Thats a tough model for many writers to accept, because its unforgiving of mediocrity and takes little notice of priviledge, but increasingly its the way it is.

    On the whole, I agree: a change is coming. But when he says:

    why do I need one man’s take on the Bronx when I scan MySpace and find pages from thousands of people who actually live there now, telling me the story of the Bronx right now?

    I have to ask: are thousands of competent observers and adequate writers able to tell me as much about the Bronx as one great writer? Is he in danger of confusing quantity with quality?

    Answers on a postcard to the usual address.

    (I see that @smpugh has now made roughly the same point. Politely Homicidal–the bleeding edge of the bleeding obvious–Ed.)

  3. elcal permalink
    March 11, 2009 4:58 PM

    i think Damien is confusing facts with artistic truth, in his Bronx stories.

    i also don’t buy his “interweb bestseller” theory in the final paragraph. Masses of people still buy and presumably read Dan Brown, Archer, etc. And the only en masse digestion of the literary interweb seems to be in the same standard few being heard by many, especially when all the “top” litblogs are merely aggregators that link out to major sources (like online versions of newspapers and magazines).

    imo, Literary culture has been quite ALIVE for some time now. and by culture, i mean the culture of such things as Booker prizes, NYT Book Reviews, the NYer, MFA programs, etc. And such culture has been spasming for the last few decades because it all started in the post-War period. That all these things indicate a “dead” culture is probably correct, but it is thriving in the sense that many people still believe in it. Just because Damien doesn’t and just because sean and Steven have successful online literary ventures, this isn’t evidence that literary culture is dead. Rather, i think it possible that it shows the beginning of the death has arrived. Finally, the many listening to the many doesn’t guarantee “good” conversation. (Look at how well democracy in the US has worked in that regard.) It’s still all about content, which returns to Damien’s quality-quantity problem.

    I’m sure all the monks were scared or pissed at Gutenberg for “democratizing” their work, but the print world became that thing we all love to hate 500 years later. It had it’s moments of “many voices”, and many great stories were told. The web is just another medium, like print. It is just as easy to co-opt for a dominant literary culture as it is to privately “publish” splinter groups on “underground” websites. The best part, as was perhaps the best part about the printing press, is that it makes the dissemination of material quite cheap and easy. More people can read the renegade anti-publisher writer online, more than via the print route. In that respect, it’s a great opportunity. But when the print world dies, and everyone is online, what then will distinguish the content?

  4. mishari permalink*
    March 11, 2009 5:37 PM

    Well, exactly. While, like you, I welcome the fact that it’s become far easier both to access niche audiences and for writers who have no facility for or interest in reaching a mass audience to reach out and be reached, I’m not convinced that it’s the death of literary culture or even the beginning of the death.

    Aside from anything else, I actually far prefer to read a physical book. Further, while I welcome the general democratization of the web, I can’t help wondering if the quality will be drowned out by an ocean of sludge.(Something raised by Steven the other day with reference to independent poetry on-line being increasingly homogenized and marginalized by big, well-funded sites)

    The ‘literary world’ is a deeply flawed mechanism for winnowing out dross and finding quality but it seems to me, given enlightened and literate publishers and readers (admittedly a large-ishly optimistic given these days), it’s still a better mechanism than the web, or rather, it is when it works…

    Frankly, I found Damien’s idea–that thousands of Facebook blatherers was an acceptable, even desirable substitute for good writers who have honed their craft and been nurtured and encouraged by editors, critics and publishers–a laughable one…

  5. March 11, 2009 9:28 PM

    “Frankly, I found Damien’s idea–that thousands of Facebook blatherers was an acceptable, even desirable substitute for good writers who have honed their craft and been nurtured and encouraged by editors, critics and publishers–a laughable one…”

    It’s as anti-literary an opinion as Damien can blurt without actually being illiterate. The problem with the online literary “revolution” is that it’s being spearheaded, largely, by middlebrows, Resentniks and conservatives: never a good sign.

  6. mishari permalink*
    March 11, 2009 10:00 PM

    Too true. As for Damien’s contention that:

    “…they speak directly to their audience through the wonders of the interweb. Thats a tough model for many writers to accept, because its unforgiving of mediocrity…”

    …the evidence of my eyes, while admittedly unreliable (who’re you gonna believe? Me or your own eyes?–Groucho Marx) suggests otherwise.

    If anything, the opposite is true. With no filtering or distilling mechanisms in place, the web is awash with mediocre writing to an extent that the world of hard copy could never have envisaged. In fact, never in history has there been a medium so forgiving of mediocrity.

  7. March 11, 2009 10:18 PM

    Damien’s remarks about a plethora of voices bouncing against each other to provide a multi-strand image of a city or whatever has possibilities but doesn’t it need a vision like that of Studs Terkel to give it a coherence and shape? Otherwise you might as well claim that a random selection of ads on Ebay gives us a portrait of consumer life…..hang on a moment …. hold the press.

  8. mishari permalink*
    March 11, 2009 10:38 PM

    Up to a point, a selection of Ebay ads will give a portrait of consumer activity, which isn’t quite the same thing as life (unless buying and selling shit on Ebay is your life, God help you)).

    The trouble is, it’s all (the endless blogs, Facebook etc) undifferentiated chatter, the relevant mixed in with the irrelevant, the extraordinary and the mundane. What a good editor or writer can do is cut all the static and pick up a discernible, coherent signal…I think. Which, as you say, Al, is just what Terkel did.

    Damien seems to believe that because there’s lots of it, it must be an improvement on the old top-down, I write-you read, elitist model, which frankly strikes me as bone-headed…

  9. March 11, 2009 10:41 PM

    Unforgiving of mediocrity? Is he speaking in code? Not only is online mediocrity enforced and rewarded (as it is in “print”), but practising at the standard that “mediocrity” implied just a few decades ago will now get your bosom branded with a glowing iron E (for Elitist). And nothing, as we know, could be worse. Which is where Damien is actually coming from, innit? That chip-on-the-shoulder Robespierre-impulse to cleanse the world of those who can kick his arse at Scrabble (and get the girl doing so). Ironic that Damien clearly misses the point of the point that his obvious hero Vonnegut made in the short story “Harrison Bergeron”, but disciples are famous for fumbling the message.

  10. March 11, 2009 10:53 PM

    Harrison Bergeron

    by Kurt Vonnegut (1961)

    “THE YEAR WAS 2081, and everybody was finally equal. They weren’t only equal before God and the law. They were equal every which way. Nobody was smarter than anybody else. Nobody was better looking than anybody else. Nobody was stronger or quicker than anybody else. All this equality was due to the 211th, 212th, and 213th Amendments to the Constitution, and to the unceasing vigilance of agents of the United States Handicapper General.

    Some things about living still weren’t quite right, though. April, for instance, still drove people crazy by not being springtime. And it was in that clammy month that the H-G men took George and Hazel Bergeron’s fourteen-year-old son, Harrison, away.

    It was tragic, all right, but George and Hazel couldn’t think about it very hard. Hazel had a perfectly average intelligence, which meant she couldn’t think about anything except in short bursts. And George, while his intelligence was way above normal, had a little mental handicap radio in his ear. He was required by law to wear it at all times. It was tuned to a government transmitter. Every twenty seconds or so, the transmitter would send out some sharp noise to keep people like George from taking unfair advantage of their brains.

    George and Hazel were watching television. There were tears on Hazel’s cheeks, but she’d forgotten for the moment what they were about.

    On the television screen were ballerinas.

    A buzzer sounded in George’s head. His thoughts fled in panic, like bandits from a burglar alarm.

    “That was a real pretty dance, that dance they just did,” said Hazel.

    “Huh?” said George.

    (and so on)

  11. mishari permalink*
    March 11, 2009 11:01 PM

    Ever read Cyril Kornbluth’s The Marching Morons, Steven?

    From scifipedia:

    Centuries into the future, someone revives a cryogenically frozen body of a late 20th century man, Barlow. Barlow is horrified by the society he encounters, in which the vast majority of the people are illiterate, ill-bred morons, with an average IQ of 45, while a small minority of competent people are expected to do most of the important work, essentially slaves to the ignorant but numerous masses. One of these competent men blames past generations:

    “This damned mess is all your fault and the fault of people like you!….while you and your kind were being prudent and foresighted and not having children, the migrant workers, slum dwellers and tenant farmers were shiftlessly and shortsightedly having children—breeding, breeding. My God, how they bred!”

    Barlow has a plan to deal with the problem; in exchange for making him dictator of the world, Barlow organizes a publicity campaign to send everyone to Venus (their rockets don’t really work very well, but the masses don’t know that). His plan works, but in the end, with the masses gone and the smart people in charge of the Earth again, they put Barlow on a real rocket, thank him for his efforts, and shoot him off into space to die.

    The story stirred a lot of controversy at the time…

  12. March 11, 2009 11:05 PM

    That (or something else from Kornbluth) was in the Science Fiction Hall of Fame anthology, wasn’t it? What Cyril got eugenically wrong, of course, was that the “upperclass” GW Bushes are breeding as rapidly (if asexually) as anything else.

  13. March 11, 2009 11:06 PM

    Aha! I see it was in Volume Two, which I don’t remember as well…

  14. mishari permalink*
    March 11, 2009 11:08 PM

    Yeah, it was either that or The Little Black Bag, another great short story.
    I think Cyril got the mechanics of the mass imbecilification (to coin a word) of the human race a bit skewed, but not the fact of it…

  15. March 11, 2009 11:10 PM

    The Little Black Bag! Yes!

  16. MeltonMowbray permalink
    March 11, 2009 11:14 PM

    Hour by hour and day by day
    month on month and year on year
    your time is slipping away.

    Nothing you can do or say
    no whining or hot fat tears
    hour by hour and day by day

    can buy you any delay
    the destination’s clear:
    your time is slipping away.

    There’s no spell to make it stay
    and no charm to keep you here
    hour by hour and day by day

    vital stuff is going grey
    don’t surrender to that fear:
    your time is slipping away,

    don’t get on your knees and pray,
    go out with a careless sneer.
    Hour by hour and day by day
    your time is slipping away.

  17. MeltonMowbray permalink
    March 11, 2009 11:18 PM

    A bastard of a subject, if you don’t mind me saying so. No wonder he fell wanking to the floor.

  18. mishari permalink*
    March 11, 2009 11:22 PM

    Really? I thought it was a pretty broad remit, myself. You certainly don’t appear to have had much trouble with it…

    BTW, MM…have you seen the link to your website that I’ve put up? Good luck with that. When the shekels start rolling in, don’t forget your old comrades…

  19. March 11, 2009 11:31 PM

    DGWalter’s 2nd comment is even loopier. I think I’ll write a post about it.

  20. MeltonMowbray permalink
    March 11, 2009 11:31 PM

    I’m happy. That bloke is a lot better-looking than me. Stylish dresser, too.

  21. March 11, 2009 11:36 PM

    There’s a feature film by Mike Judge about the imbecilification of the world “Idiocracy” where the heroes wake up in a future which has totally dumbed down. The best bit is a trip to the cinema where the audience enthusiastically watch a film that is just a shot of someone’s arse which occasionally farts

  22. mishari permalink*
    March 11, 2009 11:39 PM

    Please do, obooki. I remember infuriating Damien with my rather cruel mockery of some SF he was boosting.

    He rather foolishly posted links to the actual text, which was eye-wateringly duff.

    I waded in, he replied, I dismantled his reply…whereupon he flatly refused to answer any more questions from me. Seriously. I actually said, “Can I ask you what…etc.” and he replied, “No.” and fucked off in a huff…(or possibly a taxi).

  23. mishari permalink*
    March 11, 2009 11:40 PM

    I saw that, Al (downloaded from Pirate Bay, natch). It was quite amusing, in a moronic kind of way…

  24. seanmurray permalink
    March 11, 2009 11:41 PM

    ‘But when the print world dies, and everyone is online, what then will distinguish the content?’

    elcal — I’d be interested to know if you’d any suggestions yourself.

    Some of the online fiction pushed at us on GU in ’07 was so shatteringly bad that it transformed my whole approach to fiction, one line in particular about the spunk-flakes on the writer’s keyboard ‘interfering with my creativity’, a real dark thirty seconds of the soul that’s sent me bolting ever since — wailing, spraying saliva, waving arms — from anything that reeks of ‘indie’ ‘edginess’. So it’s not all bad news. I thank the writer concerned from the bottom of my heart.

    Re printed books: one solution, I think, is a with extremely high standards (hint, hint to anyone with cash to invest; your chum wordnerd says you’re well-off, Mishari).(I’m Mowbray’s manager. Check his website. Not much dough in it–Ed.)

    Another is that writers provide samples or full text on their sites and then sell their books via Amazon or ebay, where folk can check sellers’ records and so avoid scams.

    The question, of course, is do writers want readers or do they really want to be able to say they’ve been published* and/or land a uni creative writing gig. If it’s the latter then of course they’re better off writing pale beige drivel about the nano-troubles of uni creative writing ‘facilitators’/students and devising strategies to get it to agents’ assistants who will then zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz…

    * in my posts from now on * stands for ‘(average sales of Booker short-listees prior to nomination: considerably less than 1000)’

  25. seanmurray permalink
    March 11, 2009 11:48 PM

    ‘prior to appearance on the shortlist’, that should read.

  26. March 11, 2009 11:50 PM

    No, on second thoughts I’ll just write it here. DGWalter says:

    I’m fascinated with the assumption that someone ‘whose job is writing’ would be more entertaining and informative than, for instance, a merchant seaman or coal miner. Perhaps in the last century, when basic literacy was still rare. But in the modern post-industrial world there are more people then ever who have the skills and education to be great writers. Why should we pay special attention to those who are good at networking with agents and editors?

    Merchant seaman/coal miner: hyperlinked to wikipedia page on Hubert Selby Jr. (As MCainduff points out, in what way is Selby Jr’s profession not writing). Other seaman writers include Melville, Conrad, Malcolm Lowry, Jack London etc.

    “Perhaps in the last century, when basic literacy was still rare” – one wonders, does he mean that dark age, the twentieth century? Or is he meaning the nineteenth century, at the end of which the literacy rate (in both Britain and America) was actually higher than at the end of the twentieth? (Strange, but true. – There was after all compulsory secondary education in Britain from the 1870s). In fact, on average throughout the c19th, the literacy rate was around 70-75%.

    You’d be hard-pressed in fact (or I would) to name many c19th novelists who had been to university.

  27. mishari permalink*
    March 11, 2009 11:58 PM

    While I agree with Damien that a new model is developing, I don’t know how it’ll work or be shaped. The case he makes and the reasons he gives for his particular vision of how it’s all going to pan out, however, are laughable in the extreme…

    You know, off-hand, I can’t think of any Uni educated 19th century novelists either, at least not off the top of my head. Did Wilde write a novel? (The Portrait of Dorian Gray, nit-wit–Ed.)

  28. March 12, 2009 12:04 AM

    Perhaps not quite as historically inaccurate as Bidisha’s Elizabethan Empire though, which I was reminded of today as I started to read Niall Ferguson’s Empire (Elizabeth, you may remember, died in 1603):

    It was only in 1655, for example, that England acquired Jamaica. At that time, the British Empire amounted to little more than a handful of Caribbean islands, five North American ‘plantations’ and a couple of Indian ports.

  29. March 12, 2009 12:05 AM

    Though, to be fair, Ferguson is known as a revisionist historian.

  30. mishari permalink*
    March 12, 2009 12:09 AM

    Yeah, but not that revisionist, surely. The risible Bidisha is symptomatic of the Grauniad’s descent into the Moronic Inferno. They must imagine all their readers are as stupid and ignorant as the majority of their contributors. Certainly, they soon will be, the way things are going…

    I suspect Bidisha heard about Drake’s circumnavigation, raids on the Spanish Main, etc. and imagined that spelled ‘Empire’. The half-wit.

  31. March 12, 2009 12:36 AM

    “As little girls like to play with dolls, I like playing with villanelles. As a boy doggerelist, I like having a climbing frame to mess around on. There’s something about the formal, almost stately measure of the villanelle that appeals to my melancholic tendency. A villanelle seems to move toward its final inevitable quatrain like some rueful and reluctant waltz. I want villanelles on the subject of Time. Yes, the great analgesic itself. So get dancing, you lazy good-for-nothings…”


    Re. villanelles: Touching if not also noble of you to challenge your legions with this most delicate of fixed forms, and I can tell from Melton’s laudable effort that those villanelles are sizzling away on every back burner in your cyberaudiencedomain as we speak. Though as a boy I must confess I did not share your curious habit of playing with dolls, still it would be dishonest not to admit to having wasted many an odd secret hour with a villanelle insinuating through one’s febrile imagination its fragile plait of gold and silver coloured threads, woven in with a third, rose-coloured thread, and why was that? Oft did one wish to resist the metallic, unyielding character of the gold threads (the A refrains), and join with the lovely silver threads (the b lines) in withstanding that head-boyish conspiracy of the refrains, almost as though one were indeed an actual man. But no. All one ever found oneself able to do with those silver threads was rope in an abject measure of world-weary transitoriness, a ponderous inkling of the weight of mortality. Poignancy, vulnerability. You feel me? Almost as bad as being French. And of course it’s what they say of the villanelle, the virelai, the ballade, the rondeau, all these circle-round-the-back forms: the French know about these things. Leconte de Lisle, Theodore de Banville, and so on. But then, the villanelle’s “upside”: something soothing and haunting and vaguely hypnotic in the way the lines come back as waves, breaking back upon their small crests. Refraction may possibly be the greatest pleasure to be found in poetry. Though that may not be saying much for poetry.

    Anyway, here is a top five-plus-one fave English villanelle list, in no real order: Roethke, The Waking; Auden, Miranda’s Song; Kees, The Crack; Robinson, The House on the Hill; Hardy, The Caged Thrush Freed; and Empson, Missing Dates– of which, in token, I offer its most lugubriously exhausted stanzas (the first two):

    Slowly the poison the whole blood stream fills.

    It is not the effort nor the failure tires.

    The waste remains, the waste remains and kills.

    It is not your system or clear sight that mills

    Down small to the consequence a life requires;

    Slowly the poison the whole blood stream fills.

  32. mishari permalink*
    March 12, 2009 1:06 AM

    I actually considered all the villanelles you name as examples to post (except the Kees, which I don’t know) but felt they were probably too familiar. I’ve always loved villanelles and their close relation, terza rima. I’m not even really sure quite why. Doubtless,partly for the reasons you cite but equally, for some mysterious reason, they satisfy something, dunno what.

    I did consider asking for a sestina, but decided that would be effrontery of a high order, considering I’ve only ever attempted one in my life (in memory of Wallace Stevens and posted on the Poster Poems thread over on the Guardian).

    It wasn’t a good sestina, but I must say, I was inordinately proud of the fact that I’d managed it at all. In fact, (if I can find it) why should you escape the general suffering inflicted on my readers? Here it is:

    (Oh, no it isn’t. Too cack-handed to inflict on any poor bastard–Ed.)

    Alright, then…while searching out that sestina, I came across this tongue-in-cheek terza rima I’d written:

    You Can Teach An Old God New Tricks

    The old gods aren’t dead, they just can’t compete:
    24-hour news, laptop computers and mobile phones;
    A burning bush won’t impress the man on the street.

    Water to wine, loaves and fishes, blood from stones;
    Power divine to grant dreams and wishes, these tricks
    Are less magical now than the bank’s unsecured loans.

    Men put their faith in mortar and bricks,
    The miracle market that doubles your worth
    And internet offers to lengthen their pricks.

    Once kings on Olympus, they now walk the earth
    In casual clothes, hair-plugs and capped teeth;
    In at the death, (they were here for the birth).

    They eat, drink and sleep and sigh with relief
    At no longer dealing with the groundling’s belief.

    Today’s search terms:

    business man, ripped suit

    outline drawing of a gun

    officer shouting

    mother shouting at little girl

    doctor manhattan suit

    funny sheep pictures

    sheep tits

    sheep tits, for Christ’s sake? Who are these people?

  33. March 12, 2009 4:41 AM


    The Kees exploits the morbid or doomy aspect of the English villanelle. It’s the ultimate Renter’s Nightmare poem.

    The crack is moving down the wall.

    Defective plaster isn’t all the cause.

    We must remain until the roof falls in.

    It’s mildly cheering to recall

    That every building has its little flaws.

    The crack is moving down the wall (etc.)

    It’s one of Five Villanelles in The Collected Poems, edited by (and with) Justice. I’d type the whole for you but ever since I tried to type the bit of Empson, my computer is having a poetry seizure. And it’s late, and someone is (unhappily not) sleeping a few feet away, and the crack is moving down the wall…

    You know Kees is to have leapt off the GG Bridge–left his vehicle nearby and disappeared, anyhow. Perhaps it was the villanelles did it. Though there are those who claim to have seen him in later years, incognito in Mexico (perhaps on his way to join up in that Argentine catacomb with Col. Parker?). Anyway good for you for sticking to your guns with these Romance-language forms that were of course invented in and for languages in which rhymes are so much more profuse than in stark old English. And by the by, speaking of the (seemingly) useless difficulty of practicing such forms in English, is it not the villanelle of which ’twas said, “If a thing is not worth doing, it’s worth doing well”?

    It’s my understanding there were once hardened men who rode tall in the saddle through the American Southwest, spinning villanelles across the acute spines of the cacti… Friendo. (I am imagining Anton Chigurh customizing that cattle-terminating device to emit a metallic, unyielding A-refrain.)

  34. March 12, 2009 8:25 AM

    Alarming – well done on getting arses into the conversation again!

    I work in a branch of publishing. Online usage is on the increase at the moment and print is pretty static, but it’s a mature market and it still represents the majority of our revenue. Print is not dead in any way, shape or form. Personally I feel like there are more novels out there, more books than ever before. Maybe it’s because supermarkets now have book sections and you don’t actually have to go to bookshops at all that it seems books are more commonplace. Books have become throwaway commodities the same as anything else, that’s all.

    Online social networking (Facebook, twitter etc) is hardly a threat to the publishing industry, it’s more a threat to BT and the postal service – it’s the time people used to spend letter writing, talking on the phone or in person and to some extent is probably also replacing emailing. It’s hopefully biting into people’s TV watching – better to engage in something interactive than stare at the box surely?

    I’m an avid Facebooker – I don’t deny it. It never even occured to me that it could be a way of sharing anything other than photos and quips and an easy way to contact all my friends at once. People don’t use it in the same way as blogs, there are not long interchanges of opinion and I’ve never seen people printing fiction on there, but maybe all my friends are just slow on the uptake?

    Yes I’m sure the sale of newspapers has declined since we can find more up to date versions online, the same with other types of primary source information, and the internet is generally a much better way of finding out information than trawling through out of date encyclopedias, and gives the general populace a method for gaining sharing information. But it can’t replace the printed work of fiction. It’s daft to suggest that it can. There is so much information out there on the internet it’s even getting difficult to do simple searches. People have their favourite ways of searching for information and their trusted sites. Go out of that framework and you’re completely lost. You have to have half an hour to filter the results before you even get started.

    What publishers do is they filter for you. Personally I have to know that a book or story is good enough to read before I start it. It may be that there are great works out there which can’t ever get a publisher deal or that people never try, that’s a gap that can be plugged by blogs and it’s up to the users of blogs to make their own minds up as to whether work is worth reading.

    It’s all about choice though isn’t it? Just because people are choosing different ways to share and view things it doesn’t mean that the old ways are any less valid.

    (hm let’s see what colour my little avatar is today, perhaps a nice shade of blue)

  35. mishari permalink*
    March 12, 2009 10:30 AM

    I wish I could find that Kees villanelle on line, but no soap, so here’s another poem by Kees that I like:

    The Beach

    Squat, unshaven, full of gas,
    Joseph Samuels, former clerk
    in four large cities, out of work,
    waits in the darkened underpass.

    In sanctuary, out of reach,
    he stares at the fading light outside:
    the rain beginning: hears the tide
    that drums along the empty beach.

    When drops first fell at six o’clock,
    the bathers left. The last car’s gone.
    Sun’s final rays reflect upon
    the streaking rain, the rambling dock.

    He takes an object from his coat
    and holds it tightly in his hand
    (eyes on the stretch of endless sand).
    And then, in darkness, cuts his throat.

    Weldon Kees

    Apparently, when Kees disappeared, his worried friends went round to his flat to check on him. The place was completely empty except for his cat, Lonesome, and a pair of red socks in the sink.

    I suspect he’s in Mexico, sharing a flat with B. Traven, Elvis, Hitler and Judge Crater…

  36. March 12, 2009 12:35 PM

    “I suspect he’s in Mexico, sharing a flat with B. Traven, Elvis, Hitler and Judge Crater…”

    I hear they’re all throwing a little party to honor Amelia’s engagement to that Hoffa feller; Jesus, Nessie and the original Michael Jackson (always too busy to show up for these things) will sing something via video link, too.

  37. March 12, 2009 2:14 PM

    Let’s hope they bump into Arthur Cravan the dada art-pest last seen Mexico bound by rowing boat.

    (Apparently, Cravan’s aunt [sister of Cravan’s father], Constance Mary Lloyd, was married to Oscar Wilde–Ed.)

  38. mishari permalink*
    March 12, 2009 3:05 PM

    BTW, Al, have you checked out the International Dada Archive at the University of Iowa Library?

  39. MeltonMowbray permalink
    March 12, 2009 3:15 PM

    Stands the clock at ten to three?
    So that’s 1450, right?
    Is there honey still for tea?

    A fungus destroyed the bee.
    You’ll have to go with Marmite.
    Stands the clock at ten to three?

    An obsessive type, I see.
    Or perhaps you’re not that bright.
    Is there honey still for tea?

    What, again with the honey?
    I’m trying to stay polite.
    Stands the clock at ten to three?

    Think I’ll deal medievally
    With this barmy Georgianite.
    Is there honey still for tea?

    Whatevs, it’s going to be
    Better than a mozzie bite.
    Stands the clock at ten to three?
    Is there honey still for tea?

  40. mishari permalink*
    March 12, 2009 4:07 PM

    Is this a reaction to Brooke on POTW, MM? Anyhooo….

    The Night Watch

    My watch is silent, motion stopped,
    Its heart lies quiet and still;
    And time itself has been short-cropped

    Was it jarred or maybe dropped?
    Or was there time to kill?
    My watch is silent, motion stopped.

    I bought it from an ancient Copt:
    Ten dollars and goodwill;
    And time itself has been short-cropped.

    How many minutes are now lopped
    From my brief pack and drill?
    My watch is silent, motion stopped.

    What attitude should I adopt?
    Be calm or become shrill?
    And time itself has been short-cropped.

    The sundial worked (at night, it flopped–
    At night the shadows spill):
    My watch is silent, motion stopped
    And time itself has been short-cropped.

  41. March 12, 2009 4:52 PM

    Time was when I ruled this earth
    I stood my ground, I owned the ground
    The ground that fed me from my birth.

    Of my kind there is a dearth.
    I make a sound, a nervous sound
    A sound that’s lacking joy or mirth.

    I no longer rule this earth
    Lost or found, I’m not profound
    I’ve found I’ve lost my sense of worth.

    Life looks bleak for the dinosaur
    Pity my proud but feeble roar
    Still it’s not entirely lost
    Things will grow from my compost.

  42. elcal permalink
    March 12, 2009 6:48 PM


    i don’t have any good ideas at the mo, but one thought that just popped up has to do with education standards. even though we all have this little post-Grauniad consensus, a world of broad yet aligned tastes, i have a feeling that the online venue is not our strongest “link”. Rather, we’ve all grown up with varying degrees of conventional education in (for most of us) Anglophone settings. we begin to learn to think critically early in our lives, probably before we can even see the battle lines drawn between Kulchur and the alternatives. when education moves off print and is able to adequately develop and teach online research skills (skills much like any typical print research skills) as they relate to the “webbiness” of, er, the web (i.e., social networking), then we may see a new way of critical assessment. honestly, i have a hard time thinking anything will really be that different. our language will probably change, our forms of dissemination will certainly change, but the availability of educational and cultural access will probably stay in the mid to upper reaches. as was mentioned briefly above, literacy is down. that literacy is what the current web-based literature was built on. if we can no longer read, it won’t matter if it’s on a backlit screen (or your neutral matte background) or on cream 60-pound stock.

    i like the hybridity of your well-edited Lulu example. Print, yes. Conventional publishing, no. as an editor, i understand the fluidity (read: freelance-ability) of my services. however, i also prefer a paycheck with benefits. (right now the dole is all i got). this might have a connection to Damien’s ideal of the longshoreman-reader/writer*. tenured writers (post-war especially) have had their day in the sun and the lack of funding in the future (and the present) for such a life will change the playing field substantially. if society adapts to the loss of corporate and globalized structures (which would hopefully lead to lower housing, health and food costs), then i think of necessity the possibilities for something truly interesting and exciting will be realized.

    well, signing off, this is getting convoluted…

    *of course, as obooki notes, even if all writers in the future cannot make any living whatsoever on their work, even if we all turn to more defined jobs, those jobs will not define us. writers will be writers.

  43. March 12, 2009 9:04 PM

    OK, this is completely off topic, but I just have to alert you guys to the fact that for one night only on 21st March Todmorden Orchestra is staging the extravaganza Peter and The Wolf, featuring Anne Widdicombe … quality!

  44. mishari permalink*
    March 12, 2009 9:24 PM

    Featuring Anne Widdicombe? The Anne Widdicombe? Does she play the wolf? Actually, I’m hoping she’s a prodigy on the tuba. Perfection…

    BTW, here at Politely Homicidal, we don’t recognize the concept of ‘off topic’.

    This absurd notion is one of the things that ruined the book blogs at GU. It stifles civilized conversation, which is protean and diverges, doubles back, splits off and makes unpredictable returns. The over-arching subject, always, is life. Nothing is ‘off topic’.

    (Jesus. Do have any idea how fucking pompous you sound?–Ed.)

  45. March 12, 2009 9:54 PM

    Oh I’m sure I saw the phrase “off topic” here before – it was probably me and I’ve forgotten, I am prone to madness you know…

    Talking of madness is it just an urban myth that the film “The Madness of King George” was actually correctly entitled “The Madness of King George III”, but they decided that they had to drop the 3rd because stupid punters wouldn’t want to go and see it because they hadn’t seen the first two?

    Anyway she’s the narrator, I’ve just looked up their website. I notice they are doing Saint Saens Dans Macabre in June – I must find out if they need a xylophonist…

  46. seanmurray permalink
    March 12, 2009 11:00 PM

    elcal — I’ve no time to respond at respectable length tonight but here’s one suggestion: a site dedicated to agenda-free reviews of online fiction (or maybe such a thing already exists). Might do well, I think, as long as its reviewers don’t all top themselves.

    (You mean something like this? Dunno what, if anything, their agenda is–Ed.)

  47. MeltonMowbray permalink
    March 12, 2009 11:31 PM

    I’m nearly at my optimum
    I’m striving at the highest rate
    God, I think I’m going to come.

    I’ve done a long division sum,
    Named all the American states,
    I’m nearly at my optimum.

    Let’s think about a rugby scrum,
    Those sweaty thighs and heaving nates,
    God, I think I’m going to come.

    I’ll bite my thumb, I’ll pinch my bum,
    I’ll do my best to suffocate,
    I’m nearly at my optimum

    Those good vibrations start to thrum,
    The runners hit the final straight,
    God, I think I’m going to come,

    My balls are almost turning blue,
    I’m nearly in the tantric state……
    I’ve overflowed my optimum
    God, I think I’ve come.

  48. March 12, 2009 11:35 PM

    Try thinking of Anne Widdicombe…

  49. mishari permalink*
    March 12, 2009 11:44 PM

    Ah, Tink…you’ve failed to take into account MM’s perversity.

  50. March 12, 2009 11:52 PM

    Well, Barbara Cartland used to be the standard to put off the vinegar strokes, but then she’s long dead now and that gets into the whole necrophilia thing which isn’t pretty!

  51. MeltonMowbray permalink
    March 13, 2009 12:07 AM

    Barbara Cartland? The idea is to cool your ardour, not make you join a monastery.

  52. March 13, 2009 12:18 AM

    Ha. But you’ll think of her now… the seed is sown…

  53. seanmurray permalink
    March 13, 2009 12:33 AM

    Barely a single rating below 4/5? For net fiction? It’s the same error as, Mishari. Fine idea but they’ve immediately blown their credibility by welcoming all & sundry.

  54. mishari permalink*
    March 13, 2009 12:37 AM

    It was the 2nd or 3rd result when I googled ‘reviews of online fiction’ but I didn’t actually check it out. So their agenda is…what? Logrolling? Ah, well.

    I suppose everyone has an agenda. What one wants is a site where the agenda isn’t inimical to your own…mind you, I have no idea how one would set about keeping reviewers honest.

  55. March 13, 2009 12:52 AM


    The lovely thing about your villanelle project is that those villanelles WERE after all sizzling away on the backburner. And now that, it seems, the villanellists have not only had a bit of time to perfect their creations, but also a bit of time to be sure no one is still looking, voila! Excellent.

    In honour of all this marvelous dedication I have now managed to type up for you the whole of that Kees villanelle (the renter’s nightmare one) I teased you with, as you couldn’t find it. Here it is.

    The crack is moving down the wall.
    Defective plaster isn’t all the cause.
    We must remain until the roof falls in.

    It’s mildly cheering to recall
    That every building has its little flaws.
    The crack is moving down the wall.

    Here in the kitchen drinking gin.
    We can accept the damndest laws.
    We must remain until the roof falls in.

    And though there’s no one here at all,
    One searches every room because
    The crack is moving down the wall.

    Repairs? How can one begin?
    The lease has warnings buried in each clause.
    We must remain until the roof falls in.

    These nights one hears a creaking in the hall,
    The sort of thing that gives one pause.
    The crack is moving down the wall,
    We must remain until the roof falls in.


    And should you get hold of his Collected Poems, you’ll see he was at this best when working in these “round” forms. I love them too, incidentally. And as an homage to you I am at work even now on the construction of one for the linked Tom Clark site.

    The “return line” (or rentrement as the Frenchies call it) has such a spooky ghostly effect, coming back to haunt the rooms of the poem–who can say no to it? In the Kees CP, check out the piece called “Back”. Or better still–and perhaps my favourite WK–this one:


    The porchlight coming on again,
    Early November, the dead leaves
    Raked in piles, the wicker swing
    Creaking. Across the lots
    A phonograph is playing Ja-Da.

    An orange room. I see the lives
    Of neighbors, mapped and marred
    Like all the wars ahead, and R.
    Insane, B. with his throat cut,
    Fifteen years from now, in Omaha.

    I did not know them then.
    My airedale scratches at the door.
    And I am back from seeing Milton Sill
    And Doris Kenyon. Twelve years old.
    The porchlight coming on again.


    Of course all these fixed-form return-line and “round” patterns go back to the exquisite song-poetry tradition of the Renaissance. The absolute master of them in English (or anywhere) is Thomas Wyatt. Can’t imagine anyone who wants to ascertain the possibilities of this art form going another day without reading him.

  56. mishari permalink*
    March 13, 2009 1:07 AM

    Thanks, Tom. I searched high and low for the Kees villanelle, without success. It’s a beauty. I did, however, find this note on reciting poetry aloud, written by Kees and discovered in his papers after his disappearance:

    Before I read anything, I want to speak briefly about the awesome topic of reading poetry aloud. It seems to me to present a number of very real problems. If one is very well acquainted with a poem–and in the long run the only way to hasten that acquaintanceship is through repeated readings or listenings–if one is very well acquainted with a poem, there is a good deal of pleasure and instruction to be had from hearing it read aloud by someone who knows his business.

    Anyone who has heard T.S. Eliot read The Waste Land has had a genuine experience–and a very different experience, too, from that of reading the words of The Waste Land on the page. The tone of voice, points of emphasis, changes of pace and rhythm from section to section revise one’s interpretation and response enormously. And, of course, the fact that it is Mr. Eliot who is doing the reading has a not inconsiderable effect.

    Then there is the matter of speed. The matter of speed seems to me a crucial one. Words can be read on the page, silently, as the eye takes them in, many times faster than the human voice can properly articulate them. When someone reads aloud, the listener is at the mercy of the speed at which the reader operates. The listener has no opportunity, if he fails to “get” a particular line or passage, of going back and re-reading it. Or if there is a passage that interests or moves him particularly, he is sadly out of luck. The relentless progression of the reader’s voice has moved him way past it and on to something else. This is apt to leave the listener stuck far back in the poem, while the words go on, and this is a most unhappy state of affairs all around.

    There is yet another limitation, and in some ways it is the worst one of all. I mean the limitation that rests on the fact that a poem, printed on a page or pages, has a definite corporeality–something that occupies space in a very real sense–something that can be touched or grasped. If you pick up a book of poems and prepare to read, you get certain sensations, cues, and directions from this very physicality. It is all laid out before you–you can find out at a glance how long the poem is, how the lines are broken up, how the poem is spaced and divided. Open, for instance, a volume of Whitman, with its sprawling and enormous lines, and compare it, with, say, a page of the generally skinny, two or three-inch-size lines of John Skelton. A different impression has been prepared for straight off. And it might be said in passing that the things that get said in long lines are apt to be quite different than the things that get said in short lines, and vice versa.

    Most poets, if they are really poets at all, are achingly concerned with the look of the poem on the page–you might almost say the shape of the poem. The typographical experiments of E. E. Cummings, in which words float off by themselves, or fall like books tumbling down a flight of stairs, are an extreme case; but the human voice is as badly designed to convey these typographical oddities as it is to suggest that the poem of some other poet looks as solid and rigid as the side of a barn.

    The poem on the page occupies space and is so grasped by the reader. The poem read aloud occupies time. What I am saying now is being recorded on tape, and I think of the words as being squeezed out on a long, rolled-up line. But when they are unrolled against the recorders’ head for broadcasting, they have come a long way from their look on the page.

    What else? The contemporary ear is not geared to poetry, but to the looser rhythms of prose, its comparatively more relaxed organization, its lessened intensity. Poetry comes out of your loudspeaker, out of a context usually filled with prose–a prose particularly written for reading, in most cases–and the ear suddenly has to start working much harder, and along very different lines, than it usually is accustomed to. A physiologist can tell you what is apt to happen to both you and your ear under the circumstances.

    These are formidable difficulties. Then why read poetry? Actually I think the most important reason is in the hope that the hearing of poetry will entice more people into the pleasure of reading it. Regard the experience of hearing a poem read as a sort of sample of poetry–a preparation, perhaps–very definitely an invitation.

    So much by way of introduction. I’ll begin by reading some poems by various writers, chosen largely because I think they have qualities that lend themselves particularly to being read aloud. In most cases the poems are not too well known. At least I’ve never heard any work by most of these poets read on the air.

    For a long time, I’ve been partly convinced and have argued, albeit perhaps unpersuasively, that the further poetry moves away from music, the less…I don’t know…likely it is to connect with people in general as opposed to a specialised audience of poetry mavens. But reading this has me wondering. I mean Kees makes a good case both for and against (poetry being something experienced aurally as opposed to something experienced visually, I mean). I must give this some more thought…

  57. March 13, 2009 1:48 AM


    Very interesting that. Kees can be seen providing an apologia for a mode of reception of poetry that he makes a very good case for regarding as deeply untrustworthy: that is, hearing it read aloud. Pure pretzel logic. Of course, that’s because he’s been hired to read some poems on tape, first; and is a smart and honest fellow, second. (We consider the contradictions even as we recall that bridge leap.)

    The public reading of poetry has now replaced the quiet private reading of a text as the standard mode of delivery. This has exaggerated the hollow cult of the celebrity poet-personality, by which the face, voice and body of the “performer” replace the poem itself as the object of attention; and it has resulted in the relative higher and higher valuation of pseudo-poetry of which the most salient characteristic is that it addresses the obvious in obvious ways, as must any crowd-pleasing commodity.

    Caught on the horns of this dilemma before it emerged as the threat it has now become to the art he practiced, Kees jumped.

  58. mishari permalink*
    March 13, 2009 2:08 AM

    Do you think the contemporary problem may lie in the fact that most poetry isn’t written with its sonic/aural qualities in mind? Hence the unlovely sound it makes falling on the ear?

    I’ve tried, in the past, to argue that when Virgil wrote ‘Arms and the man I sing…’ the operative word was ‘sing’.

    Here’s Alan Ginsberg in that 1966 interview you did with him:

    See, the difference is between someone sitting down to write a poem in a definite preconceived metrical pattern and filling in that pattern, and someone working with his physiological movements and arriving at a pattern, and perhaps even arriving at a pattern that might even have a name, or might even have a classical usage, but arriving at it organically rather than synthetically. Nobody’s got any objection to even iambic pentameter if it comes from a source deeper than the mind, that is to say if it comes from the breathing and the belly and the lungs.

    Unless I’ve misunderstood him, Ginsberg seems to be saying that an organic flow, a natural musicality or rhythm are more important than any formality. His mention of breathing, belly and lungs would seem to suggest that he intended poetry to be recited aloud.

    I’m inclined to think that the fact that poetry is now written for ‘niche’ markets makes it inaccessible and in the process enfeebles it. Our friend the poet Billy Mills has argued that poetry was always a minority interest and while he’s certainly right about the poetry of the last…what?…few hundred years in western Europe, it’s not true in my own culture.

    Arabic poetry has always had mass appeal and has always been written with the express purpose of being recited or sung aloud. Consequently, it’s always retained its ability to move and connect with the commonality, as I suspect Homer’s Odyssey did when it was fresh.

    Do you think that perhaps poets should be considering a move back towards giving delight to the many, as Arabic poetry does, as opposed to merely impressing or intimidating the competition/securing tenure at some diploma mill/securing a publishing contract, which is how so much modern poetry appears to me?

  59. March 13, 2009 2:34 AM


    I’d agree with you if I believed the poetry in question had singing qualities. Alas, how much of what’s out there today really does?

    Hearing recordings of Darwish’s poetry sung–this brings tears to the eyes.

    Your average English-speaking poetry reading? Sleep would be the state to be desired.

  60. mishari permalink*
    March 13, 2009 2:49 AM

    George Bernard Shaw’s observation that “every profession is a conspiracy against the laity” springs to mind and poetry has become a ‘profession’. That, as I see it, is the problem. Poetry is no longer written with its aural qualities, the very qualities that might please the ear of ‘the laity’, foremost (or even hindmost) in the poet’s mind.

    “How does this sound” doesn’t seem to be a question many poets ask themselves. One of the things that non-Arabic speakers can’t possibly understand is why the Quran is so powerful. It’s because the language is incredibly, almost supernaturally lovely. It is poetry and it moves people deeply, the way the greatest and most profound poetry does.
    And right from the start, it was meant to be recited and sung aloud.

    As it’s the first real codification of the Arabic language, the very fount of classical Arabic, its power is all the greater. Think the King James Version, in my opinion one of the glories of the English language (purely in terms of language, mind) and multiply it many times over to get some idea of the effect the language of the Quran has on Arabs.

    That’s what I believe poetry should be aiming for–language, the sound of which can pierce a heart with its loveliness or sear a soul with its terrible beauty.

    I won’t hold my breath.

    Meanwhile, in the interests of bringing poetry even further into disrepute, here are a couple I did for POTW last spring on the Hay book festival. Re-cyled verse at greener-than-thou Politely Homicidal…

    Hay, Big Spender: A Ballade Royal

    Be sure to carry plastic and lots of dough,
    Rubbing shouders with authors isn’t cheap,
    When paying for drinks, you must not be slow,
    The meaness of authors will make you weep.
    Pay up, and pay up for all without a peep,
    If there’s one thing our authors can’t stand,
    It’s a ‘book-lover’ who lacks an open hand.

    But poets, impecunious bards, are penniless and so
    Will spend their all without a thought, why keep
    These baubles? Money’s for spending, hey-ho,
    Let’s drink, death brings time enough for sleep,
    We have no pressing engagments to keep.
    If there’s one thing a pub-landlord can’t stand,
    It’s a ‘book-lover’ who lacks an open hand.

    This is life for poets, its charming ebb and flow,
    Carpe diem, a poet says, why look before you leap?
    Such caution would make a shabby show,
    Let life be brief or long, but one clean sweep,
    After all, we’re human, with passions, not sheep.
    If there’s one thing a ravening poet can’t stand,
    It’s a ‘book-lover’ who lacks an open hand.

    Dog Days In Hay

    For without are dogs, and sorcerers, and whoremongers, and murderers, and idolaters, and whosoever loveth and maketh a lie. —Revelation 22:15

    Deliver my soul from the sword; my darling from the power of the dog. —Psalm 22:20

    The published dogs all bark and bay,
    The night’s no longer still,
    And dogs all have their day in Hay.

    Seeking a bottle-opener, poets bray,
    (though drink will make them ill),
    The published dogs all bark and bay.

    You toss a bone, you hope and pray
    The authors get their fill,
    And dogs all have their day in Hay.

    View with distaste this crude ballet,
    As authors pose and sluice and swill,
    The published dogs all bark and bay.

    A muzzle just might save the day,
    Perhaps slip them a fatal pill?
    And dogs all have their day in Hay.

    Warp and woof, the doggies play,
    This is no kind of thrill.
    The published dogs all bark and bay,
    And dogs all have their day in Hay.

  61. March 13, 2009 7:05 AM

    “That’s what I believe poetry should be aiming for–language, the sound of which can pierce a heart with its loveliness or sear a soul with its terrible beauty.”


    That is eloquent and inarguable. In fact most of the people I currently know who most value and respect the sacral qualities of poetry would agree with you. I envy the depth and discipline of their belief. Here is where I most commonly find them:

  62. March 13, 2009 9:03 AM

    I guess the poets who try and give delight to the many are the likes of John Cooper Clarke, John Hegley, Ivor Cutler very much performance orientated. They are (or were in the case of Ivor Cutler) a great night out but what they write doesn’t work on the page. It needs their style of delivery to give it oomph.

  63. mishari permalink*
    March 13, 2009 10:46 AM

    I also worry a bit when Kees says:

    “Most poets, if they are really poets at all, are achingly concerned with the look of the poem on the page–you might almost say the shape of the poem.”

    It seems to me that this is one of the reasons poetry has wandered so far from its well-springs. I mean, isn’t this confusing graphic art with poetry?

    Do you suppose Homer or Villon or the Provencal troubador poets gave a shit how their words looked on the page or were they more concerned with how their words sounded? From whence comes this concern with how a poem ‘looks’, for Christ’s sake?

    As the Psalmist wrote:

    Sing aloud unto God our strength: make a joyful noise unto the God of Jacob. Take a psalm, and bring hither the timbrel, the pleasant harp with the psaltery. Blow up the trumpet in the new moon, in the time appointed, on our solemn feast day. —Psalms 81:1-3

    Too many poets have forgoten how to make ‘a joyful noise’ and have become too concerned with effete diversions like ‘how my poem looks’.
    It makes them sound like bored housewives agonizing over a new hair-do…

  64. seanmurray permalink
    March 13, 2009 12:09 PM

    Tangentially connected to Damien’s post on GU, here’s a snippet from an email debate with one of your regulars:

    My belief is that carried over from times when writers mattered more is the idea that we must think as if we were unacknowledged legislators of some sort. (E.g. ‘None does offend, none – I say none!’ is acknowledged in King Lear as spiritually valid, perhaps, but finally as *no way to run a society*, which of course it isn’t). But here’s the thing: writers don’t run society and it is eons IMO since they’ve had the slightest relevance to real world legislators.

    In my recent blog posts I’ve been battling the pathetic self-overrating of the lit community and this is yet another strand: the ‘transcendent’, top-down, ‘If I ruled the world’ mindset. We never, never, never fucking will and the sooner this realisation works its way through the artform the better. We are not legislators and have no right or *responsibility* to think we are.

    Mishari — my hope is that the net will help kill off the patrician lit voice (Amis, Roth, and yeah Mailer) and the sort of top-down, Grumpy Old Man, ‘If I ruled the world’ novels I (and you?) refer to above, essentially 3-400 page newspaper columns. That it might kill off the same kind of *thinking* is presumably too much to hope for.

    Once again: the vast majority of the big houses’ *most promoted* lit novels have a fraction of the sales of the most obscure 80s shambling bands’ EPs. Time for we fiction writers to know our place, I think, and that’s writing from the bottom-up (e.g. Ulysses, Beckett’s trilogy, The er… New Testament).

    Some background: I continue to be haunted by the demise of dance music culture when it became about the DJs rather than the punters (and for the Moody DJ himself Andy Weatherall, read MC Thomas Bernhard).

  65. mishari permalink*
    March 13, 2009 12:23 PM

    Sod all to disagree with there, Sean and I’m optimistic that, given the fact that the web is still really in its infancy, we will start to fashion mechanisms that perform a disinterested winnowing function, i.e. a separating of the gold from the dross. Just have to keep plugging away, I guess. Never say die…

  66. March 13, 2009 12:32 PM

    Just passing, but I attended a panel discussion at the ICA this week and – amongst other things – Mike Figgis said something along the lines of ‘the movie industry’s fucked, the sooner it’s replaced by YouTube or something like it, the better…’

  67. mishari permalink*
    March 13, 2009 12:41 PM

    Baron, this kind of jibes with my pleasure in the fact that the means of making a film (high-quality digital cameras, editing software, powerful laptops) are all within the means of ‘the masses’, something that traditional film-making never was.

    Kind of the same way that the web is allowing the previously voiceless a chance to be heard and to connect. Obviously, there’ll be lots of dross but so what? Cream will, I suspect, eventually float…

  68. seanmurray permalink
    March 13, 2009 12:53 PM

    Just a thought: there must be tens of thousands of dreadful litblogs out there but it’s not *that* hard to find the decent ones. Why should it be any different with fiction (and yeah, films)?

  69. March 13, 2009 12:55 PM

    (Check this out, folks. Fucking hilarious.–Ed.)

  70. mishari permalink*
    March 13, 2009 1:02 PM

    Ah, but Sean, this poses the question ‘How, exactly?’. Word of mouth? Links? Or are we eventually going to need some sort of central index that can be trusted, which is what you were talking about earlier. I wonder if the increasing volume of dross is going to make it more difficult to find the quality?

  71. March 13, 2009 1:21 PM

    Perhaps what we need is an online group of, let’s call them ‘filter-monitors’. Their job would be to evaluate submitted texts then recommend those they liked or felt had commercial potential to an online fiction site, or ‘weblisher’. Authors would be contracted to show their fiction only on this site – the text itself would be flagged by recommendation quotes from associated review sites and transferrable to the reader via a hard-copy, delivered by analogue post. Authors would receive a fee followed by a percentage of each sale…

  72. March 13, 2009 2:06 PM


    “— my hope is that the net will help kill off the patrician lit voice (Amis, Roth, and yeah Mailer)…”

    I’m all for *any* voice, patrician or pleb, orderly or chaotic, placid or irate, sexy or vomit-inducing, familar or strange… as long as it’s enriched with *Talent*. The Net is killing off the “patrician” voice by making aesthetic judgment (and truth itself) a function of numbers. Eg: If a million viewers watch it on YouTube, it must be good. Eg: “Nabokov sucks” (and so does Hendrix).

    I love the medium because I can use it to fit my own purposes nicely; but I’m not nuts enough to think that I’m part of some great, liberatory wave in doing so. Most Net Usage will necessarily *repress* nice things like “freedom of expression” and “individuality” and any form of the “avant garde”. Give me a dozen people in a room for a week and I’ll show you how a Fascist Crystal forms. Better yet: let’s have a peek in at your typical “online communtity” (gamers or fanboys, say) and monitor the comment threads and chats for things like tolerance to minority positions.

    The name-taking, ass-kicking, value-leveling anti-patrician kill-off you dream of, Sean ole chum, has already been done (analog instead of digital) and it was started off by an anti-elitist elitist named Mao. With mixed results. They managed to rid China of most of its annoying house flies (everyone set a goal of killing a dozen a day or something, I hear)… but the resulting “Art” was… you know. It sucked. Though beating intellectuals with sticks and making smartypants poets and novelists publically shit in buckets and scrub loos with their decadent tongues must have been fun.

    Stand a late-period marvel from Egon Schiele next to a mass-produced image of clowns or flowers or pouting ingenues and put it to a vote of two or three billion: you can’t be serious. We know which one, without the protection of our “elitist” conservatorship, gets tossed on the bonfire.

    DFW ran up against this same paradox: the style, tone and complexity of his *best* fiction was Elitist as it could possibly get (and still be published), yet he was always nattering on about “helping” people (if not The People). He could (and should) only have worried about helping himself. And got on with the business of making *Art* for that tiny, tiny (ever-shrinking) fraction of mandarin sprogs capable of reading him. “Populist Literature” is an oxymoron.

    As I put it to you before, Sean-O: if you want to reach The Masses, start learning to code video games. Or start ghost-writing political speeches. But no matter what They tell you, neither of these crafts is an Art.

    Signed: Elitist Cunten Prouduvit (The well-known Estonian artist–Ed.)

  73. March 13, 2009 2:14 PM

    “I wonder if the increasing volume of dross is going to make it more difficult to find the quality?”

    There’ll always be treasures that we miss, online or in The World, but is there enough time in a day (or a life) to know *everything* good and great? As it is, we manage to find material we think of as good and great… we’ve sniffed out this blog, haven’t we? I’ve got a dozen sites I drop in on regularly and the odd one-off plus a backlog of books and movies to get to that are each anywhere from two-to-eighty years old: that’ll keep me busy. The trick is in scaling things down, again. We’ve had our faces at the open furnace door of Hyper Capitalism for too long. A few very good things will do it.

    I find, for example, that since chucking my TV off a penthouse roof (I wish: I gave it to friends) ten years ago, my perspective has changed rather radically. I just don’t think in terms of *millions-of* units, anymore. Handfuls (virtual or literal) of anything turn out to be best.

  74. March 13, 2009 2:20 PM

    One more thing and then I zip it:

    RE: Finding vs Being Found: if anyone is worrying about this from the *Artist’s Perspective*, my idea is this: put the stuff out there. Put more energy into making it both brilliant and *unique* (ie, authentically itself) than in getting attention for it. It may (it will) take years. But people will find it. And a *few* will crush it to their needy bosoms. Isn’t that enough?

  75. mishari permalink*
    March 13, 2009 3:28 PM

    Hard to argue with your impassioned case for narrowing (I mean in the sense of focusing more intensely as opposed to restricting) our focus.

    Like you, I have a huge backlog of stuff to read, watch and listen to and the backlog keeps increasing thanks to tips, pointers and recommendations from people who post here. I guess it’s always been true, at least since the dawn of any kind of ‘mass culture’, that %90 of everything is crap but the %10 that isn’t makes it all worthwhile…

  76. Zephirine permalink
    March 13, 2009 4:34 PM

    Musicality, hmm. Well, of course, there are people who write poetry where the aural effect is of prime importance, but we call them ‘song-writers’ and put them into a pen with the musicians, while the ‘poets’ are in another pen by themselves, or perhaps with other people who get Published In Books. An odd distinction which earlier cultures might find hard to comprehend. What is Tom Waits, for example? Is he a poet?

    Just asking.

  77. March 13, 2009 5:04 PM

    spot on Steven re: your last comment – true for most art-forms but a tad more difficult for those of us who need a production budget to start work. We’ve always worked on the “if they liked that then they may like this” principle which by and large works. There’s no value in trying to second guess what people like.

  78. mishari permalink*
    March 13, 2009 5:06 PM

    But that’s just my point, Zeph…I believe that ever since poetry diverged from music, it’s become more and more recherche, to the point of vanishing up its own fundament. The more it’s ceased to be an oral medium, the more precious it’s become.

    I mean, this concern with how a poem ‘looks’ on the page is understandable up to a point, given that poetry has become an almost solely printed art form, but at what cost?

    I think Waits, a personal favourite, is a poet who sings and is all the better for it…but there’s always been a spectrum ranging from the great to the rotten, in poetry or any other art. Are you saying that poetry that’s sung is somehow less pure, less noble, less…I dunno…poet-y?

    There was a time when people in the West, and I don’t just mean a small coterie of poetry geeks, could recite vaste swathes of poetry from memory. Poetry has not only allowed it self to be marginalized, it revels in it, almost viewing it as a badge of distinction…”we are too good for the plebs” sort of thing. Well, maybe you are, maybe you’re not, but by staying on the reservation, I guess we’ll never find out.

    Too many people buy into this idea that an artistic elite can only be understood by an elite audience. Certainly, I regard the artists as an elite (and in Arabic culture there’s no greater name than that of ‘poet’ nor work more popular), but it’s not axiomatic that great art be impenetrable.

    Is it?

  79. Zephirine permalink
    March 13, 2009 5:19 PM

    You seem to be saying that poetry that’s sung is somehow less pure, less noble, less…I dunno…poet-y.

    No, no, I’m not saying that myself, I agree with you. I’m just reflecting that Kulchur seems to have decided that, in a bizarre and arbitrary distinction, and how daft it is that a ‘lyric’ is not given the same value as a ‘lyric verse’ – provided both are good, obv.

    But sung work may be less poet-y, if a poet is somebody who believes in making work that can only be understood by those who already have the keys.

  80. exitbarnadine permalink
    March 13, 2009 5:34 PM

    I think the distinction between lyric and poem is important and genuine. Hence the problem people have with Dylan. Many of his most brilliant lyrics look awkward and meaningless on the page whereas, for me, the more poet-y simgers such as Cohen and Waits lose something in the thrill of the music as the lyrics, which are often brilliant on the page, sound to these ears rather too crafted and rehearsed for rock’n’roll.

    When asked his favourite Dylan lyric, Michael Gray insists upon the difference between a lyric on the page, a performance on record and a live perfomance. He lists a favourite for each category.

    When I started on Poster Poems I would often confess my near-complete unfamiliarity with poetry. Although I’ve played in bands for years and written humdreds of lyrics I know very well that what feels good in the mouth and – with the right delivery – can be effective in performance (one hopes) can be dead, shame-inducing on the page. This is why ‘serious’ critics will damn the Beatles for ‘love, love, me do’ whilst rock critics such as Nick Cohn (I think) will recognise the revolution taking place in ‘awopbopaloobopalopbamboom’. I still struggle with hearing a poem from the page – for me verse with music are always my first way in.

  81. mishari permalink*
    March 13, 2009 5:35 PM

    My apologies, Zeph. I went off half-cocked, as usual. And you’re quite right about this arbitrary distinction being made. But I believe that poetry has been complicit in seeing to it that this distinction is made.

    The result, I think, is that poetry has gone from being the embodiment of all that was finest and noblest about human culture (we still use ‘poetry’ as the measure of things, to describe the superlative,i.e. ‘poetry in motion’, ‘pure poetry’, etc.), to being a minority (a very small minority) interest.

    Viewed from the outside, the poetry world, with all its schisms, in-fighting, exiles and anathemas, dogmas and heretics resembles nothing so much as the world of Socialist politics–endless small acronymic groups squabbling, hating and back-biting while outsiders look on baffled and bored.

  82. Zephirine permalink
    March 13, 2009 6:09 PM

    I think the distinction between lyric and poem is important and genuine.
    Barnadine, yes, and it should be an artistic distinction, a choice artist and audience can make as to which art form they prefer in a given situation. Not a value-judgement distinction between something that’s supposed to aspire to literature (good) and something that’s supposed to aspire to plenty of downloads from iTunes (bad).

  83. March 13, 2009 7:10 PM

    I have very close connections with a theatre company from round Tinkerbell’s neck of the woods IOU Theatre. Their work is mainly visual but uses poetry as well. The poems work well on paper but sometimes it takes setting them to music to really make them come alive. But I never know whether when set to music they then become lyrics or whether they continue being poems.

    • mishari permalink*
      March 13, 2009 8:08 PM

      I think the first time that the incantory power of an English-language poem was revealed to me was when I was about 8 or 9. Our English teacher gave us Vachel Lindsay’s The Congo to recite. We were encouraged to stamp out the rhythm with our feet and hands, while the teacher conducted us (some passages are meant to be soft, others loud):

      Fat black bucks in a wine-barrel room,
      Barrel-house kings, with feet unstable,
      [A deep rolling bass.]
      Sagged and reeled and pounded on the table,
      Pounded on the table,
      Beat an empty barrel with the handle of a broom,
      Hard as they were able,
      Boom, boom, BOOM,
      With a silk umbrella and the handle of a broom,
      Boomlay, boomlay, boomlay, BOOM.
      THEN I had religion, THEN I had a vision.
      I could not turn from their revel in derision.
      [More deliberate. Solemnly chanted.]
      Then along that riverbank
      A thousand miles
      Tattooed cannibals danced in files;
      Then I heard the boom of the blood-lust song
      [A rapidly piling climax of speed and racket.]
      And a thigh-bone beating on a tin-pan gong.
      And “BLOOD” screamed the whistles and the fifes of the warriors,
      “BLOOD” screamed the skull-faced, lean witch-doctors,
      “Whirl ye the deadly voo-doo rattle,
      Harry the uplands,
      Steal all the cattle,
      Rattle-rattle, rattle-rattle,
      Boomlay, boomlay, boomlay, BOOM,”
      [With a philosophic pause.]
      A roaring, epic, rag-time tune
      From the mouth of the Congo
      To the Mountains of the Moon.
      Death is an Elephant,
      [Shrilly and with a heavily accented metre.]
      Torch-eyed and horrible,
      Foam-flanked and terrible.
      BOOM, steal the pygmies,
      BOOM, kill the Arabs,
      BOOM, kill the white men,
      HOO, HOO, HOO.
      [Like the wind in the chimney.]
      Listen to the yell of Leopold’s ghost
      Burning in Hell for his hand-maimed host.
      Hear how the demons chuckle and yell
      Cutting his hands off, down in Hell.
      Listen to the creepy proclamation,
      Blown through the lairs of the forest-nation,
      Blown past the white-ants’ hill of clay,
      Blown past the marsh where the butterflies play: —
      “Be careful what you do,
      [All the o sounds very golden. Heavy accents very heavy.
      Light accents very light. Last line whispered.]
      Or Mumbo-Jumbo, God of the Congo,
      And all of the other
      Gods of the Congo,
      Mumbo-Jumbo will hoo-doo you,
      Mumbo-Jumbo will hoo-doo you,
      Mumbo-Jumbo will hoo-doo you.”

      It was indescribably thrilling…the way the narrative revealed itself, sometimes exubarant, sometimes sinister, always compelling. But it also made me realize the satisfaction of participatory poetry…the pleasure of re-creating the poem afresh, as opposed to what came later in my education, i.e. poems being handed down from on high with lofty suggestions of what kind of intellectual back-flips I’d have to perform to appreciate some abtruse aesthetic…

      The thing is, did reciting The Congo aloud and with appropriate emphases and rhythm change it from a poem into something else, i.e. lyrics?, or was it still a ‘poem’? Or did it become a song/poem? And does it matter?

  84. seanmurray permalink
    March 13, 2009 7:38 PM

    Steven-o —

    ‘The name-taking, ass-kicking, value-leveling anti-patrician kill-off you dream of’

    Only anti-patrician, min, and opposition to the condescension of the patrician voice by no means entails that I’m pro-value-levelling. The last thing I am is a relativist/nihilist, as you surely know (favouring the sickness/health model, for instance, rather than the Cunt/chum one certainly doesn’t propose that sickness is as desirable as health). *Formally* my fiction tastes could hardly be more elitist (and see my stuff above about the necessity for elitism within the online fiction world).

    ‘DFW ran up against this same paradox: the style, tone and complexity of his *best* fiction was Elitist as it could possibly get (and still be published), yet he was always nattering on about “helping” people (if not The People). He could (and should) only have worried about helping himself. And got on with the business of making *Art* for that tiny, tiny (ever-shrinking) fraction of mandarin sprogs capable of reading him. “Populist Literature” is an oxymoron.’

    Well, we’re back to the formalism debate and if what you’ve said above were true (for me), I’d give up writing and reading fiction and watch Big Sport again. Fiction as little more than a really evolved and sophisticated equivalent of origami — this holds little interest for me, and veers dangerously close to nihilism. In the wasteland you agree we currently inhabit, formalism just feels too *unserious*, too *camp*. Like Big Sport, purely formalist art (i.e. 99% of art currently shat out) is just another of yer masses-diverting circuses (though far more insidious, as its victims con themselves that it somehow Matters).

    Btw it’s only fair at this stage to re-state that I do not love fiction. I love those very few instances that *get it right* (basically the reverse of what Tarantino says about himself and cinema). This is one cause of the love/hate relationship with the artform that I spray across these threads.

    ‘“helping” people (if not The People).’

    Not The People. Never The People. Wallace was the modern master of bottom-up writing. One reader at a time. One reader at a time…

    However, the anti-formalist-fatalism position (the only area where I’d side with James Wood against you) is extremely difficult to argue in blog posts. Much better, I think, just to try to work all this out in the fiction (and films). But I will say this: most vehement formalists I’ve known have little or no worldview (weird, eh?). I do find it odd that somebody as politically clued-up as you is so strongly formalist. Also odd: much of the 60s European art cinema we both revere was formally ravishing, yes, but much, much more than that.

    (Suddenly very scared indeed that Steven Augustine thinks I called him camp…)

  85. March 13, 2009 7:52 PM

    Who said I was a “formalist”? I’m a Talentist.

    And how is Philip Roth the antithesis of what you claim to prefer in yon screed direct above?

  86. March 13, 2009 8:52 PM

    Sean – sorry to be thick ( never stopped me in the past ) but can you give examples of what formalist literature is? I can think of many examples in visual art ( some bad, some very good ) but I can’t think of any literary equivalents. Ou Li Po is the nearest I suppose but they are not the same as a Donald Judd box or a Richard Serra slice of steel seeing as there is content in the writing no matter how mechanically or mathematically it’s been arried at.

  87. March 13, 2009 9:23 PM

    This interesting discussion is brought back round (appropriately, as it began so sweetly with “round” forms in poetry), I think, by the typically spot-on comment of the always helpful-to-any-thread linked blogger named Zephirine.

    “‘I think the distinction between lyric and poem is important and genuine.’
    “Barnadine, yes, and it should be an artistic distinction, a choice artist and audience can make as to which art form they prefer in a given situation.”

    “Lyric” is such a pleasant term. Lovely in and of itself, such a fluent sound to it. Always puts me in mind of fine days in the madhouse garden with my cat Jeoffrey.

    The English word “lyric,” it is elementary to remark, derives from the Greek “lyra”, designating a specific musical instrument. The link between the English lyric poem, at a late high point in its development, and the historical instrument, which is to be found if at all only in museums and archeological digs these days, is explored a bit here:

    Though lyric poetry gradually lost its memory of its musical origins, the lyric poem, here and there, in isolated instances–a fugitive evidence, perhaps not unlike that produced by the embers of distant fires glimpsed across the shadows of the plain–retains structural or substantive evidence of its melodic ancestry. In suggesting lyric poetry be defined as a sort of “utterance that is overheard”, J.S. Mill–who, one surmises, resembled most modern writers and readers of poetry in that he seems not to have had much of an “ear”–perhaps unwittingly put a fine point on something that had actually happened hundreds of years earlier, the sea-change of the lyric, its mutation from tune to be sung or hummed to quiet private emission to be eavesdropped-upon.

    The crucial point of divergence of written lyric from lyric song, in the West, occurs, as everybody who cares obviously knows, in the early 16th century. And as at so many points of semi-important historical crisis, the fracture threw off a few interesting sparks. These are chiefly to be found in the work of Wyatt, whose use of those return-line forms–so plainly, at least to those at the time, derived from the “round” or “round-dance” of the folk tradition, smuggled indoors to the semi-private setting of milady’s chamber, usually for a tickle if not yet a penny (this before the days of the Big Contract) as recompense–makes his work decisive to the understanding of this whole issue.

    By introducing one of these “technically” hoary yet recognizably-to-most still curiously “songlike” return-line or “round” forms, i.e. the villanelle, as his present poetry challenge, Mish has, one observes, sparked a stimulating discussion. Poetry thanks him for it. (And even better, it appears that, unlike certain expert mentors frequently introduced hereabouts as authorities, he is plainly not, or anyway at least not yet, being paid by Big Journalism to so challenge us; so that we may happily rest assured all this fun is not merely false merriment of the JABS variety…though then again, perhaps Just Another Bought Situation is the only kind in which one is ultimately meant to feel comfortable, in a “consumer society”?)

    But how tiresome really, teetering listlessly like this at the brink of a fatal swoon into that worst of sloughs of despond, the Politics of Poesy …let’s stop immediately.

    Oh and the way, dear Mish, as earlier I promised, in delivery as requested by your pregnant challenge, a modest modern “round”, let it not be thought I was pulling your leg–just that, as with your Bollywood film essay, it was a few days under construction… as is usually best, perhaps. ( “First thought best thought” I’ve always considered among the silliest of officially licensed Beat dicta.)

    Anyway, out of here, but before one’s barn-door exit, that promised Round:

  88. seanmurray permalink
    March 13, 2009 10:30 PM

    Alarming —

    Finnegans Wake. Much of Dennis Cooper’s stuff; Simon Ings’; most genre stuff; much of Bukowski’s (not well-crafted, of course, but often completely without substance, a remarkable achievement for any stretch of prose).

    From my personal canon: Maldoror, The Man Who Walks, Pale Fire, Sanatorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass (this last my very favourite work of fiction). I am not anti-formalism. All else being (formally) equal, though, I am pro-engagement.

    Steven, sah —

    I thought your stuff about Wallace above (and some of your posts on e.g. Ed Champion’s site) smacked of formalism. I’m happy to be corrected. As I say, I found the idea hard to square with your political engagement.

    I believe Roth’s rhetoric is at times so cackhanded it may spawn literary formalists and nihilists. I believe young writers read blatantly one-sided screeds like The Human Stain and find the rhetoric so lacking in sophistication that it sends them sprinting into the mumbling, shoe-gazing mealy-mouthedness that characterises so much ‘edgy’ online fiction. The reason Roth’s allusions to Shakespeare are embarrassing IMO is that it’s in the latter’s works that lie the cure for his cackhandedness: the *dramatisation* of ideas; take your beliefs, think yourself just as deeply into the opposite, and then send the two out to do battle (or better, think yrself into half a dozen intermediary positions too): this is how truly substantial literature can be wrought. (One of my few criticisms of Infinite Jest is that it doesn’t give enough weight to the pure enjoyment there to be had via stimulants, sex, sport, etc). Many young writers are unaware that the Shakespearian — or Dostoevskian — option even exists and so when they retreat from what seems to them lit preachiness, they believe the only other option is formalism and nihilism (I’ve heard several writers describe exactly such a shift).

    But if you’re reading this, Phil: it’s never too late to learn, mate. And the graduation photo scene in Sabbath’s Theater was pretty funny.

    I won’t be able to continue this for 5 days or so as I’m off into the wilds to be manly. (Boot-polishes face in readiness for SA and his hunting dogs…)

    (You can run but you can’t hide from Augustine the Camp Avenger–Ed.)

  89. MeltonMowbray permalink
    March 13, 2009 11:15 PM

    As time goes by

    You must remember this
    though everything might change
    a kiss is still a kiss.

    Though the world of business
    is currently deranged
    you must remember this

    beyond market madness
    there’s another exchange
    a kiss is still a kiss,

    the dividend of bliss
    traders of love arrange.
    You must remember this

    despair would be remiss
    across the product range
    a kiss is still a kiss

    step back from the abyss,
    connect and interchange,
    you must remember this
    a kiss is still a kiss.

  90. MeltonMowbray permalink
    March 13, 2009 11:16 PM

    Yes, it’s sentimelton.

  91. March 13, 2009 11:21 PM

    …and indeed sheer genius as well.

  92. mishari permalink*
    March 13, 2009 11:39 PM

    Thanks for your impressive poem, Tom

    Nice one, MM…BTW, kind of you to reccomend my sub-standard sestina for Billy’s anthology.

    Al, that doggerel of mine you wanted to recommend was called:

    Plath’s Plaint

    My husband’s a scrote–
    He thinks I’m a sloven;
    I’ve left him a note:
    Your wife’s in the oven.

    I think I was art pepper at the time.

    It appeared on (I think) one of Billy’s Poster Poems threads and formed part of a long and very entertaining exchange of comic quatrains MM and I indulged in. MM had a great one about John Clare. I wish I could remember it properly, but it went something like:

    Nature I loved,
    The trees and the conkers
    Something something:
    Now I’m bonkers.

  93. freep permalink
    March 13, 2009 11:47 PM

    Let us blame Alexander Pope. If anyone was responsible for reducing poetry to the written and denying the power of the vocal, it was that squirt from Twickenham. [Good discussion above, been preoccupied with 96th birthday celebrations (not mine)]. I wouldn’t disagree with btp that the early C16 was the time when written and spoken / sung poetry diverged, but that may have been as much due to the rise of print as to what people thought about poetry. The attempts to revive the bardic thereafter always look artificial – Bishop Percy, Walter Scott and the like – But old Pope put the lid on things with the tyranny of the perfectly balanced line and the rigorous couplet, and his jeering at all who did rough and primitive things with words.

  94. March 13, 2009 11:51 PM


    “I thought your stuff about Wallace above (and some of your posts on e.g. Ed Champion’s site) smacked of formalism. I’m happy to be corrected.”

    Not enough (or coherent enough) of an argument there for me to “correct”, man!

    When you write that “most genre stuff” is “formalist”, I admit to being baffled.

    As long as you define “formalist” in an I-know-it-when-I-see-it kind of way, you can claim anyone you wish (eg, me) to be one. If you’d like to claim I’m a “formalist” because I enjoy (for example) Nabokov’s Lolita, on a stylistic level, very much, while not at all as an anti-pedophile tract… then I’m willing to be “formalist” for only as long as it takes to debate that very specific case.

    Until then, again: I’m a Talentist. I don’t advocate any particular style or use for Literature/Art. I argue strongly in defence of the unbridled imagination: yeah, I’ll confess to that. And I have my likes and dislikes, but I’m not about to codify them. I’m suspicious of the codifying impulse, in fact: that’s where my being “politically clued-in” comes into it.

    I think where we differ most glaringly may well be that you seem to be more attracted to ideological thinking on these matters… which backs you into the same corner I like to piss in when James Wood is barking there. You can’t present definitive statements about what Fiction is or isn’t, or should be and shouldn’t be, without having to build so many fancy rhetorical backflips (and bet-hedging contradictions) into your manifesto, in order to preempt every possible example that will come along, with very little effort on anyone’s part, to prove you very wrong, embarrassingly… that it’s hard to work out what you’re saying, in the end (see above).

    As for the Ed Champion comment posts: produce one and I’ll discuss one. Otherwise, bit vague, your case, m’lud, innit?

  95. mishari permalink*
    March 13, 2009 11:52 PM

    Welcome back, freep. I was beginning to worry about you. While scanning through the past Poster Poems looking for MM’s Clare poem, I came across this one of mine that might amuse:

    Garlic Charm

    Shall I compare them in a summer blockbuster?
    Chuck Mallarme, his pecs well-defined,
    Accepts all the roles that won’t pass muster
    With Clint Baudelaire, who’s just more refined
    Than the likes of Jean-Claude Verlaine
    Or Arnold Nerval, (lobster-friend), those chumps will get
    Roles fit for beasts, but others disdain
    Such flummery, like Bruce de Musset,
    Who made some bad choices, seemed not to care,
    Who’s been in some stinkers, and yet, and yet…
    Anyone’s better than Sylvester Apollinare.
    Poets with muscles, they all get our vote today,
    Let’s have a big hand for Vin Gautier.

    It’s actually worth going through the whole years worth of stuff (I haven’t yet). Some wonderful stuff from freep, MM and all the usual suspects.

  96. MeltonMowbray permalink
    March 13, 2009 11:52 PM

    Thanks for kind remarks. That sestina of yours deserved a medal. I completely bolloxed the cutting and pasting on Poster Poems-hope it came out OK. I see atf is trying to lay down the law as usual. Doubtless wn7 will be winding her up with a bevy of sockpuppets.

  97. mishari permalink*
    March 13, 2009 11:55 PM

    No doubt. Did you catch Billy’s sonnet on our sonnet thread?

  98. freep permalink
    March 14, 2009 12:03 AM

    Thanks for vastly kind comments on my old man poem, MM. Will catch up on matters of minstrelsy tomorrow and read properly what Billy says. The Stevens sestina, mish, was indeed a masterpiece.

  99. MeltonMowbray permalink
    March 14, 2009 12:06 AM

    Yes, it was very good. Nice to see him here.

    Read Frankie Machine, which Mrs and self both enjoyed very much. Now on the Willeford. No sign of Liebling as yet. Has the postgit snaffled it? I don’t know.

  100. March 14, 2009 12:09 AM

    Christ, glancing above now I’m embarrassed for having gone so far off piste (only because going off piste is so politely tolerated here; I don’t mind doing it on the GUblogs… I consider it Resistance over *there*).

    I quit; Sean wins; I skulk off sheepishly and promise to restrict future comments, *in this thread*, to matters of poetry…

    • mishari permalink*
      March 14, 2009 12:14 AM

      No worries, man…I enjoy reading the discussion and there’s no such thing as off piste here.

  101. mishari permalink*
    March 14, 2009 12:12 AM

    No, that’s just me being useless, MM. It’ll go in the post on Mon.

    You owe me a villanelle, freep (and a sonnet, come to think of it). Shirker.
    This is what comes of frittering your time away Doing Good and such-like sentimental twaddle….

  102. March 14, 2009 12:13 AM


    …never mind, poetry, like most things that are not for The Many, always loves being ignored.

  103. mishari permalink*
    March 14, 2009 12:17 AM

    When Mills asked for syllabic verse, I produced this. I’d forgotten all about it. It made me chuckle but then, I’m easily amused:

    This Little Piggy Commited Thought Crimes

    I took my little poem
    To market in the town
    There metre was o’erthrown
    And rhyme itself cast down

    There Mills the Bailliff met me
    ‘What stuff is this?’, Quoth he,
    ‘How many syllables are
    There, in this poetry?’

    Bill Mills began to count up,
    His face grew dark and grim,
    ‘You have not kept to the rules,
    You are a poet – crim’.

    So in the dungeon I now
    Sit,troubles I’ll surmount,
    I should have sold the damn cow
    Or learned to bloody count.

    7,6,7,6, throughout…

  104. March 14, 2009 12:27 AM

    Lovely fellows!

  105. March 14, 2009 10:08 AM

    Sean I see what you mean but the likes of Bukowski didn’t set out to be a formalist did he? I thought his failings were down to a compulsion to write coupled with not always finding something “to say” with the writing. Probably due to the fiction springing from personal experience which often as not wasn’t as interesting for the reader as it was for the writer. He did get the balance right occasionally.

    Whereas Finnegan’s Wake ( as far as I can tell – I haven’t read enough of it ) is very much about the form.

  106. March 14, 2009 12:53 PM

    (taking a deep breath, with Mishari’s apparent blessing for the off piste in mind:)

    Well, still, Al: whereas I agree there are “formalist” readings of texts, I’m finding it difficult to imagine what Sean means by calling Finnegans Wake (for example) a “formalist” text, or any particular writer a “formalist” …

    Sean, do you mean to say that Joyce wrote the Wake with the idea that historical and cultural contexts and references should be purged in the writing of it, so that only the maths of grammar and syntax would remain? Because not only would this assertion by the opposite of True (Joyce rigged the thing so that every *phoneme* in the text referred to bits of culture and history)… it would have been impossible for Joyce to have pulled it off if he’d *wanted* to.

    Even a madly stylish writer who demands that her/his text be read *only* as an aesthetic experience of pure glyphs can’t have it that way (I can do a sentimental, secular humanist reading of an electronics manual if I’m in the mood). And Philip Roth, even at his Eastern-Europeanish-Postmodern best (The Counter Life) puts the technique at the service of telling recognizable stories about familiar types of *people*, something one of your “formalist” writers would never stoop to, if he/she were possible and knew what the classification meant. Maybe what you don’t like about Roth is that the stories are *too* recognizable; the characters *too” familiar. But, then…

    …. are you slapping at Roth for being too “formalist”, or not “formalist” enough?

  107. mishari permalink*
    March 14, 2009 1:09 PM

    I must admit, I too was puzzled by Sean’s use of ‘Formalist’. I imagined he meant writers who use the ‘form’ of the novel as a kind of frame for their prose, without any regard as to whether or not they use the expected tropes, tricks and various narrative structures of ‘the novel’–rather as if you had a dozen tin-cans labelled ‘food’ and some contained actual food whereas the ‘Formalist’ cans contained styrofoam balls painted red or Monarch butterflies.

    I guess we’ll have to wait until he and Ray Mears get back to find out.

  108. March 14, 2009 1:18 PM

    My reading of it would be someone who gets bogged down with style and tricks so much that the content ( whatever it may be ) starts to play second fiddle to the style. But it’s nothing like the sort of formalism you see in Islamic art, abstract paintings, certain forms of dance where colour, shape and movement are your only ways in.

  109. March 14, 2009 1:19 PM

    I think Sean will be so changed by his feral sabbatical that he’ll have forgotten all about unmanly things like literature when he gets back…

  110. March 14, 2009 1:40 PM

    The two possible meaning options are:

    1. Formalism as about “strict adherence to or observance of prescribed or traditional forms, as in music, poetry, and art.”

    2. Formalism “refers to critical approaches that analyze, interpret, or evaluate the inherent features of a text. These features include not only grammar and syntax but also literary devices such as meter and tropes. The formalist approach reduces the importance of a text’s historical, biographical, and cultural context.”

    But how would Sean not-nuttily claim Finnegans Wake as being “formalist” in the first sense? And in the second sense he’d be off (it’s a critical approach, not an approach to writing fiction), and, even adjusting for that technical difference, just plain wrong.

    If he’s having a go at “genre” in the first sense, fair enough (though there’s an argument to be made that “genre” isn’t a precise enough term to mean much in that formulation), but where would any of my comments, above, earn me the same description?

    It’s a tortured, muddled rhetorical path to scamper just to cast aspersions on my Elitism. And a strange way to deny my claim that DFW was a writer divided, painfully, into a Wildly (elitistly) Talented bit and a bit that was dulled down with PC kneejerk reflexes.

  111. seanmurray permalink
    March 30, 2009 9:26 PM

    Fuh buh cuh uuuhhhhhhhh…

    (Bear with me here. I’m trying to get my jaws and typing fingers working again).

    Beckett on Joyce re FW: ‘His writing is not about something; it is that something itself’

    Cuh suh auguhh cuh muh tuhchuhhed…

    The nearer fiction approximates this* the more formalist it becomes, in my understanding of the term. Fiction with little or no intentional point/ideology/ethos beyond itself. Lumping in most genre writing *perhaps* stretches this definition a little, but so be it. Again: art doesn’t have to be particularly well-wrought to be formalist IMO.

    And I don’t think my objection to Roth above is especially tortured. I like engaged writing; he gives engaged writing a bad name — nothing too complex there, I’d hope.

    Fuh phuh ruh unh thuh humuh stuh…

    * Beckett’s quote, not ‘cuh muh’, etc. Mind you…

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