Whitby 3

Here’s another Whitby poem from Bluer Than This that didn’t make its way into the more recent New & Selected …

The Wrong Wind

The wrong wind
marshals its forces along the channel
and that range of hills we can quite clearly see
against the northern horizon
will within minutes be lost to sight.

Down in the town
a woman bustles across the bridge
with lowered head, plastic shopping bags
bumping and banging against her legs.

Outside the Jolly Sailors
two dogs pause in their robust examination
of each other’s genitalia to sniff the air,
and along the street at number 54, the children’s
crossing guard, once assistant harbour master,
taps his barometer and scowls;
the parrot in its cage is one hundred and five
or one hundred and ten, depending
what you believe.

High on the West Cliff
we squat in the lea of blackened gravestones
and count our blessings: peppermints, lip salve,
four squares of dark chocolate, the return
halves of two supersaver tickets
to Pudset via Leeds and a compass
neither of us can read. A ladybird,
startled, stops its scuttling run along your arm
and braces its wings for flight. Too late now,
too foolish to make a dash across
open ground, we wait, and if our luck holds
the worst of the storm will pass us by.

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Two Poems for National Poetry Day

Both of the poems I’ve lighted upon to share on National Poetry Day were written in the States in the mid-90s when I was fortunate enough to be a participant in a couple of poetry writing courses at the Squaw Valley Writers Conference, tutored by Robert Hass, Sharon Olds, Brenda Hillman, Lucille Clifton and Galway Kinnell. If you can’t come up with something half way decent after that, it’s likely time to give the muse a rest.

OUT OF SILENCE
Squaw Valley, 1995

How the light diffuses round house corners;
redwood walls, the breaking colour of packed earth,
ochre in the mouth

The red woodpecker
testilly chiselling sap from a small ash
the only sound in the valley.

FAILED SONNET HOME

The window boxes outside the Clocktower Café
are delerious with blood. Cappuccino with
chocolate and cinnamon. Blueberry muffin.
How many more days can the sky sustain
this absurdity of blue? I can taste vanilla
from the pines. You know the other day
Jake drove me to Truckee in his van
and in Safeway I was stalled mid-aisle
by the scent of that hot-buttered toast
we shared before you drove me to the train.
How far are we away? Crimson columbine,
black centre of violet pansy, its yellow eye –
one thing you learn here: how little soil
it takes to nourish the most stubborn root.

I’d always thought the final lines refer to the continuance of love in what seem to be unfulfilling situations, but it occurs to me now they might also refer to the writing of poetry.

And I believe, for a while at least, the second poem was included in a University of Nottingham English course about the sonnet – a self-confessed example, I suppose, of how not to do it.

For anyone wanting to read more, both poems are in included in Out of Silence: New & Selected Poems (Smith/Doorstop, 2014), available from bookshop@fiveleaves.co.uk or http://www.poetrybusiness.co.uk/bookshop/books-pamphlets  

Rhythm is Our Business

 

Prose

In her, to me, fascinating book, Reading Like a Writer, Francine Prose retells the story of the aspiring young writer who told his agent he wasn’t really interested in what he wrote about, what he really concerned him, what he wanted to do most of all, was to write really great sentences. Promise me, the agent replied, you will never, ever say that to an American publisher.

Perhaps the writer in question, apocryphal or not, had been reading Hemingway’s account of his early writing life in A Moveable Feast – also quoted by Prose.

Sometimes when I was starting a new story and I could not get it going … I would stand and look out over the roofs of Paris and think, ‘Do not worry. You have always written before and you will write now. All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence you know.’ So finally I would write one true sentence, and then go on from there.

As Prose points out, that raises the question of what exactly constitutes a ‘true’ sentence. She  thinks it might mean a beautiful sentence, while appreciating that such a concept is equally hard to define. For me I think it would be a combination of sound and meaning: the right rhythm, the most appropriate choice of words, the right sense of balance, all of those combined with the clearest meaning – while acknowledging there are times when that meaning will be purposefully ambiguous.

“All the elements of good writing,” Prose says, “depend upon the writer’s skill in choosing one word instead of another.” And further, “Rhythm is nearly as important in prose as it is in poetry. I have heard a number of writers say that they would rather choose the slightly wrong word that made their sentence more musical than the precisely right one that made it more awkward and clunky.”

Sometimes people ask me if also writing poetry has affected my writing of fiction; others ask, to what extent has your love of jazz – and the fact that you used to play the drums – influenced your writing? The answer to both is the same: hopefully both have helped me to develop a sense of rhythm. The Jimmie Lunceford Orchestra, pre-eminent in the States in the 30s, had as their virtual theme tune a piece called “Rhythm is Our Business”; perhaps we writers could adopt it for ourselves.

The story Prose tells about the writer and his agent reminded me of an occasion a couple of years back when I was being interviewed by fellow-writer Mark Billingham on stage at the Harrogate Crime Festival. I can’t remember Mark’s exact question – we were discussing my then latest novel, Darkness, Darkness –  but my answer was something to the effect that whatever the strengths (and weaknesses) of the book might be, the greatest sense of achievement for me came from writing one single sentence that seemed to me to be just right. My publisher was in the audience and she said afterwards she’d wanted to ask what exactly the sentence was, but had refrained. Maybe just as well – few sequences of words, taken out of context – because the context within which they occur, is, of course, intrinsic to their meaning – would live up to such expectation.

This past week, labouring over the proofs of both a new novel and a new collection of short stories, I’ve had the fairly unusual experience of reading quite a lot of my own writing, some time, as it were, after the event. In part, as I’ve suggested elsewhere, this can be a fairly chastening experience, one which was occasionally redeemed for me by coming across a sentence or two which brought me up short with a sense of yes, okay, I just might be getting the hang of it after all. The three that follow are from the stories in Going Down Slow, to be published in November.

Melanie Lessing stood in the hallway, the ghost of prettiness hovering about her, anxiety startling her eyes.

Slowly, she uncurled, face turning towards the light.

She left the room and he heard the fridge door open and close; the glasses were tissue-thin, tinged with green; the wine grassy, cold.

All right, nothing to set the world on fire. But they gave me a little chill of pleasure when I wrote them and they still do. The way, in the last one for instance, both parts of the sentence, either side of the semi-colon, balance and match; the repetition in ‘green’ and ‘grassy’; the near-echo in ‘thin’ and ‘tinged’; the final emphasis of ‘cold’. That lovely bloody semi-colon.

Jazz Matters: David Murray

It was my friend, the late David Kresh, who first attuned me to the controlled fury that is David Murray. A one person compendium of the tenor saxophone, a Murray solo can stretch from the honk and rasp of the R & B bands in which he learned his trade, to the keening stratospheric upper-register yelps of an Albert Ayler and the avant-garde, without straying far from the rich and muscular mainstem of Coleman Hawkins and Ben Webster. In print, Murray has vouchsafed Paul Gonsalves as a major influence, and if that isn’t always tonally evident, it is present in the way he muscles rhythmically from phrase to phrase, line to line – evident also in that the length of most Murray solos seems  inspired by Gonsalves’ famous 27 chorus solo on Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue in front of the Duke Ellington Orchestra at the 1956 Newport Jazz Festival.

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I first saw David Murray play at a smallish club in Nottingham, after that in the brutal splendour of the Queen Elizabeth Hall on London’s South Bank, and then again, last week, at another small venue, the Vortex in Dalston, east London. The first of two nights and to say it was packed would have been an understatement; jazz & crime fiction aficionado, Bob Cornwell and I had snagged the last pair of seats going, close up against the stage with our backs to the window facing out onto Gillett Square – any closer and I would have on top of the drummer’s kit rather than alongside it.

Humourously bemused by the weather – it was a day of unending torrential rain and he had flown in that morning without as much as a coat – Murray was in a relaxed mood (he even sang, pleasingly, on a couple of numbers)  and played, I thought, well within himself, eschewing much of the ferocity of which he’s capable. Which is not to say that he didn’t play with great virtuosity and rhythmic brilliance.

Sharing the front line with trombonist Paul Zauner, with whom he’s played, off and on, since the 80s, Murray was backed by bassist Wolfram Derschmidt and drummer Dusan Novakov, with Carlton Holmes at the piano. It may have been a relatively new rhythm section– he had to refer to a scrap of paper before announcing their names – but they had no problems following the shifts and changes, and soloed well. Sitting as close to Novakov as I was, I was able to follow his playing closely, my admiration soured only by the regret that I’d swopped my drum kit for a pair of DJ turntables somewhere back in the 70s and never pushed my own playing beyond the merely passable when I’d had the chance. I can dream, can’t I?

Here’s something I wrote after seeing Murray on that first occasion …

Grace Notes

Let’s say it’s one of those
insubstantial inner-city days,
from the flower beds in the park
to the slim-hipped cellist
playing the inevitable Bach.

And say, strolling home, I chance to pass
this bar just hours after David Murray
has jet-lagged in from New York.
It’s light enough still for the doors
to be open out onto the street;
the sound and the small crowd
draw me inside, and there on stage
before bass and drums he stands:
back arched, chest pigeoned forward,
horn angled outwards as he rocks
lightly back from heel to toe,
toeing the line of a calypso so true,
the crowd, as one, leans back and smiles,
relaxed, not noticing those heels
have lifted with an extra bounce
and before anyone can blink
his left leg kicks out in the curve
of a high hurdler; his tenor twists
and soars and lifts us, holds us to him,
wrapped in curlicues of sound,
blessed by the effortless grace
of his playing.

from Out of Silence, New & Selected Poems (Smith/Doorstop, 2014)

 

 

 

Robert Frank: The Americans, 1

I’ve just spent an enjoyable week at the Courtauld Gallery Summer School, following, along with a small group of other students, a programme devised and taught by Tim Satterthwaite, Living Cities: The photography of Urban Life in Europe and America, 1920-1989. Modernism to street photography; art photography to social documentary. Fascinating stuff – and centrally placed, Robert Frank’s 1958 book, The Americans.

Not least for its fine and freewheeling introduction by Jack Kerouac, The Americans has long been one of my favourite books of photographs, three of the images – Ranch Market, Hollywood: Nanny. Charleston, South Carolina & Crosses at the Site of a Road Accident. U.S. 91, Idaho – the subject of a short sequence of pieces which appeared in my 1998 Smith/Doorstop collection, Bluer Than This.

Here’s one …

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Robert Frank: Nanny. Charleston, South Carolina

Nanny. Charleston, South Carolina.

They don’t want me to hold this child. All them righteous brothers with the anger and their shades. Sisters, too. Wave placards in my face and shout and spit and sound their horns. One of them come right up to me, sanding here with this precious boy in my arms, and says, “Sister, can’t you see that’s the Devil’s child?” Well, I ain’t his sister, nor about to be, ain’t got no sister ‘cept Merilee, and she passed on having her third. No, if there’s anything I am, it’s this child’s mother, near as can be, doing everything for him his own mother don’t do. ‘Sides, you just have to look in this sweet baby’s face to know he ain’t no Devil. See that sweet little angel mouth, way that skin shine so white and flawless like a doll’s; and his eyes, how they stare out at you, never looking away, not blinking, like they already owned the world.

 

Denis Johnson, 1949 – 2017

JesusDenis Johnson, poet, short story writer, and novelist died on the 24th of May.  Although his Vietnam novel, Tree of Smoke – sprawling, busy with moments of brilliance and confusing and difficult to grasp as the war itself – won the US National Book Award in 2007, for me his best work is to be found in his shorter fiction, Train Dreams (2002), set in the American West at the turn of the century, the fast and nourish Nobody Move (2009), and the collection of incendiary short stories for which I suspect he will always be best known, Jesus’ Son (1992), from which these short extracts are taken.

The Vine had no jukebox, but  real stereo continually playing tunes of alcoholic self-pity and sentimental divorce. “Nurse.’ I sobbed. She pour doubles like an angel, right up to the lip of cocktail glass, no measuring. “You have a lovely pitching arm.” You had to go down to them like a hummingbird over a blossom. I saw her much later, not too many years ago, and when I smiled she seemed to believe I was making advances. But it was only that I remembered. I’ll never forget you. Your husband will  beat you with an extension cord and the bus will pull away leaving you standing there in tears, but you were my mother.

 

It was there. It was. The long walk down the hall. The door opening. The beautiful stranger. The torn moon mending. Our fingers touching away the tears. It was there.

 

And then came one of those moments. I remember living through one when I was eighteen and spending the afternoon in bed with my first wife, before we were married. Our naked bodies started glowing, and the air turned such a strange colour I thought my life must be leaving me, and with every young fibre and cell I wanted to hold on to it for another breath. A clattering sound was tearing up my head as I staggered upright and opened the door on a vision I will never see again: Where are my women now, with their sweet wet words and way, and the miraculous balls of hail popping a green translucence in the yards?
We put our clothes on, she and I, and walked out into a town flooded ankle-deep with white, buoyant stones. Birth should have been like that.

And, finally, a poem …

PASSENGERS

The world will burst like an intestine in the sun,
the dark turn to granite and the granite to a name,
but there will always be somebody riding the bus
through those intersections strewn with broken glass
among speechless women beating their little ones,
always a slow alphabet of rain
speaking of drifting and perishing to the air,
always those definite jails of light in the sky
at the wedding of this clarity and this storm
and a woman’s turning – her languid flight of hair
travelling through frame after frame of memory
where the past turns, its face sparking like emery,
to open its grace and incredible harm
over my life, and I will never die>

Sadly, not true.

Howard Hodgkin 1932 – 2017

I first became really aware of Hodgkin’s work towards the end of 1995, the beginning of 1996, when I was able make several visits to a major retrospective of his paintings, first at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and then at the Hayward Gallery in London. It was difficult – nigh on impossible – not to be dazzled, delighted, impressed – the richness of colour, the seductive brilliance, all those glorious swirls of paint – echoes of other favourite painters, Bonnard, Vuillard.

It was only when visiting a late exhibition, at Oxford in 2010, that some doubts arrived, not about the earlier work, which I still loved, but the more recent. Had there, with age, been some kind of falling off, and if so, was that not perhaps inevitable? It’s a  question I asked myself about my own work at the time, and which I ask myself now, seven years later, seven years older, and some 20,000 words into a new novel. Is it, can it be, as good as the best of what’s gone before?

Early readers [we’re talking strictly family here] have noted what they see as a possible change of style towards something tighter, more propulsive, faster moving – anxious to get it finished, perhaps, while I still can.

Here’s the piece I wrote back in 2010, after visiting the exhibition in Oxford …

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Having walked round the Hodgkin exhibition at the Gagosian with my youngest daughter a couple of years back, I asked her what she thought. “Okay, but not as good as his early stuff.” She was all of 10. Challenged, she dragged me out to the foyer and a copy of the book we’ve got at home showing work from the early to mid-1990s. She had a point.

I remembered this standing in one of the upper rooms of Modern Art Oxford, which is hosting Time & Place, an exhibition of new Hodgkin paintings, dating from 2001 to 2010. Uncertain of my initial responses, I wondered aloud to my companion about the perils of continuing to work into the latter year’s of ones life and producing work that was less good than what had gone before, thus risking the sullying of one’s reputation.

It seems to me, she said, somewhat wisely, that you’re talking about yourself, not Hodgkin.

And she’s right. There have been times in the past – even before, in my mind at least, the age thing became an issue – when, having written something I thought pretty good – not great, but about as good as I could manage – I was cautious of moving on to something else for fear it wouldn’t be as good. I felt it after writing the first of the Resnick books, Lonely Hearts, aided on that occasion by my then editor telling me, in so many words, it had turned out rather better than he’d dared hope.

I’ve also felt, an analogous feeling, that I’d written (and worse, had published) something so poor that the next thing had to be bloody good in order to take the taste, as it were, out of my – and my readers’ – mouth(s).

But back to Mr H0dgkin. In the catalogue essay, which I read on the train home, Sam Smiles writes interestingly about the notion of ‘late work’. Vasari, he notes, having visited the elderly Titian in his studio, deprecated the fact that Titian had carried on working, harming his reputation as his creative powers “inevitably waned”. This, Smiles asserts, is not necessarily the case (check out Beethoven’s late quartets, Picasso, de Kooning et cetera, et cetera). What you can find – and what Smiles finds in Hodgkin – instead of ‘late work’ is a ‘late style’. And yes, these paintings are, on the whole, less busy, less baroque, less full, less likely to confound and astonish the eye; what you have instead is something simpler, more direct, more content with a simplicity of image, of stroke, of colour, of line. Marks that have the appearance of being quickly, urgently made. The single, supple swirl of “Leaf”; the fierce bands of light and cloud in “Yellow Sky”; the force and gravity of “Spring Rain”, a brisk and sudden downpour of oil of wood.

Late work, good work. Work that gives the heart a lift.

And here- for the second time on this blog, but hey, I like it! – is my poem based on one of Hodgkin’s paintings, After Corot

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After Corot

‘After Corot’ 1979-1982 by Howard Hodgkin

the train turning into the bay
enough to bring tears to your eyes

sleeping, your skin ivory
reach & fall of your breathing

your hand

in the painting everything is
at a distance: cliff, harbour,
sea, sky

tight within a frame
within a frame

only wait
and the light breaks white
on the horizon, mastheads etch
contours green beyond the wall’s bulk
and as a small boat painted red hoves into view
the land slips another foot into the sea

you throw up your arm

untrammelled
blue seeps under the edges of the frame
refusing to be bound

the rocking of the train
as it rounds the slow curve

your waking breath

the sea

James Schuyler Again …

… or you can’t keep a good poet down. I’ve blogged before about James Schuyler and the combination of pride and pleasure it gave me when Slow Dancer Press was the first to publish his Last Poems in their entirety in this country, together with an afterword by the British poet, Lee Harwood.

At the time of writing that, April 2015, I thought there were no more than a few copies of that edition remaining, but, lo and behold, in the long overdue act of clearing out one of the cupboards in the room I rather grandly refer to as my office, what should I find but a treasure trove of Last Poems. Thirty copies, to be exact.

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For those of you to whom Schuyler is little more than a name, one of the lesser lights perhaps of the New York Poetry scene that congregated around Frank O’Hara and John Ashbery, this collection of late work – if read together with, say, the earlier, and quite wonderful, The Morning of the Poem – attests to the breadth and depth of his poetry, the meticulousness of his style.

The following comes from Harwood’s essay …

Schuyler was bemused and fascinated by the world.  Whether it was the “icy spaces” or “rain quilts the pond” (Rain) or describing the play of light on “a rainy April morning” in The Light Within, he looked and relished what he saw and the words he chose to describe what he saw. As he wrote more directly in the title poem of his earlier book A Few Days

“Let’s love today, the what we have now, this day, not
today or tomorrow or
yesterday, but this passing moment, that will
not come again”

It follows naturally from this that a reader of Schuyler’s poems nearly always finds himself or herself in the present.Not a narrow present, but one that includes asides, memories, double-takes, and all the vivid associations that pour into the brain in a few minutes. Reading one of James Schuyler’s poems often feels like looking over his shoulder as he writes. The process is open to view. In fact the “process” is very much part of the poem. It’s akin to listening to Glenn Gould playing Bach’s Goldberg Variations (and Beethoven’s piano sonatas too). The way Gould tentatively plays the notes, searching his way through the music, as though recreating Bach’s thinking and progress as Bach builds a piece. As though making it up as he goes along. It could go this way? or that? no, this way. In his poem Shadowy Room Schuyler touches on this.

“Perishable perfection
of Glenn Gould playing
Bach purls on, oblivious
of interruption, building
course on
course, harmonious
in all lights,
all weathers …”

Copies of Last Poems are available from Five Leaves Bookshop, 14a Long Row, Nottingham NG1 2DH     Phone: 0115 8373097   Email: bookshop@fiveleaves.co.uk

Remembering Hopper

Just a day late to celebrate the birth of Edward Hopper, July 22nd, 1882.

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Edward Hopper: Excursion into Philosophy , 1959

COUPLES

2. Excursion into Philosophy

He has been reading the Tractatus, Wittgenstein.
the footnotes made him laugh; the book open
in the bed, the blue divan. How to explain
the duality  of grief and joy, relief
and guilt. The way her breathing, as she lies
behind him, legs drawn up, exposed,
her back not quite touching his, touches his heart.
They’ve been together fifteen years
and he would like to leave it at that.
The sun burns low along the ripening wheat
that looks like the wheat in the painting by Van Gogh,
the  postcard she bought him that day in Portland, Maine,
and told him if he ever left her she would truly die.
He picks up his book and begins to read,
but sets it back, drawn to the window by the sun,
the sound of a meadow lark in the field.
The only signs in the morning they were there
will be her red hair, snagged at the corner
of the pillow; the slight impression, fading,
on the mattress where they lay.

From Out of Silence: New & Selected Poems (Smith/Doorstop, 2014)

Getting to Grips with Poetry

Chrissy Williams and I were guests last Thursday at Pighog Poetry’s monthly reading at the Redroaster Coffee House in Brighton. It was, I thought, a splendid evening, with no fewer that sixteen poets, under the watchful eye of organiser, Michaela Ridgeway, reading from the floor. The place was full, virtually standing room only, and Chrissy and I were both made to feel welcome and listened to with attentive enthusiasm. [You can feel it!] I closed my set with a new poem, Curve, written after going down to an exhibition of Bridget Riley’s paintings at Bexhill last year, and it was this that drew the most positive comments afterwards.

The poem has just been included in the Spring issue of London Grip’s online poetry magazine (which also includes work by Norbert Hirschhorn and Rob Etty amongst others) and you can link to it here http://londongrip.co.uk/2016/02/london-grip-new-poetry-spring-2016/