Happenings 29: a teaser

February 26, 2010

If you’ve been following Our Sweet Old Behind the Scenes natterings, you’ll know this month has been packed with exquisite poetic activity, including a poetry pub quiz, Mr John Hegley, poems projected, and poems explored, poems in gardens and crafty poems, Poetry Olympics: plenty poems carried every place, all in honour of the city-wide Carry a Poem campaign.

There are a few events left to sate your poetry-loving appetites, namely Kind of Larkin tonight at the Central library (John Sessions voice accompanies Don Paterson’s jazz guitar); Getting Into Poetry tomorrow morning here with our Lilias, Old Town Poetry Trail with Ken Cockburn, and of course, the big mama of all poetry readings – Poets for Haiti at the Queen’s Hall on Sunday night. We’ll be blogging about that, and our reactions to the Carry a Poem campaign at large, next week.

News from the library this week, meanwhile: our sonnets exhibition went live, Don Paterson’s upcoming sonnets event on Tuesday 2 March has sold out; Dave bought doughnuts; Lilias dispatched our Poetry Issues – send with passionate abandon to all librarians of your ken! – Julie and I attended the very interesting ‘Listening Online’ webinar, hosted by Amb:IT:ion Scotland on Thursday and Richard Holloway’s Hugh MacDiarmid Lecture (a joint event with us and the PAS) is booking up swiftly.

See you on the other side!

Frank Kuppner on the titles he’d like to see back in print.

It would be distinctly excessive to suggest that I spend much time deep in contemplation, whether anguished or otherwise, about out-of-print poets, presumably dead, who might deserve to be republished – I seem to have enough problems of my own in that general area to keep myself occupied – and, for tedious technical reasons, your kind invitation to contribute to the Reprints & Revivals column did not reach me until shortly before the proposed deadline, so my initial impulse was merely to thank you for the friendly thought and let it go. However, it crossed my mind just in time that there might be a welcome opportunity here for me to offer a more or less off-the-cuff vote of thanks for a slim but often brilliant body of work which massively impressed and delighted me in my late teens; which pretty much since then has always seemed to me to be oddly under-appreciated; and which, if nothing else, brings back to me with great and touching keenness the feeling of exhilaration and energy and almost infinite potential-in-waiting of those now so alien years of irrational (not to say, insane) optimism – (pre-Internet, pre-PC, even pre-decimal coinage! was I really alive then?) – before mere sardonic reality began to do its usual grind-you-down stuff with (to not quote Hopkins) the brakes, glue, contrary winds, indifference and nail-file.

Indeed, some of it may even be technically still in print. Certainly I remember that, quite a good while ago now, Polygon published a Selected Poems of D.M. Black, and that this happened after I had more than once expressed my enthusiasm for the man’s work (how crucially I can no longer recall, if I ever quite knew) to Polygon’s then leading-light, Peter Kravitz. Indeed, such was my enthusiasm for the early publications (The Educators, The Old Hag and, perhaps most of all, With Decorum – before the poet took a sort of formal expression, Eastern Religion turn which rather threw me off his track) that I suggested he should announce a multi- volume, chronologically arranged edition of the Collected Poems and at all costs publish Volume One. Not that there wasn’t more to Black’s oeuvre – (long narratives like Notes for Joachim, for instance; and did I just imagine something called Parsifal?) – but I felt that all this early material should be back in print immediately, en bloc, as a matter of some urgency. It reached so many uncanny, difficult-to-access places that were well worth getting to, by means of a technique of dazzling flair and apparently effortless, almost ridiculous panache which reminded me of no-one else. And – though, I suppose, this may only be ignorance and dubious judgement talking – such is still pretty much the case.

Frank Kuppner was born in Glasgow in 1951 and has lived there ever since. He has been Writer in Residence at various institutions. His latest book is Arioflotga (Carcanet, 2008). This piece first appeared in our Poetry Reader, issue 5.

A sonnet (literally, ‘little song’) is one of the oldest surviving poetic forms.

This is partially explained by its origin in the love-lyric (in the thirteenth century Italian love-lyrics of Piero delle Vigne and Giacomo da Lentini, to be more precise). However, it’s more complex than that. Dante and Petrarch would have considered love as tied up with creative prowess, the beloved as muse, etc. Implicit in the sonnet’s origin as love-lyric is the idea of contrariness, a pull and push between love and reason, unity and disunity, tension and release. Say no more.

It’s as if, unsatisfied with
the harmony of an even-split,
the form has to be more
deeply split.

The sonnet has endured because it reflects the contrariness at the heart of human nature and is, to quote Don Paterson, ‘perfectly fitted to the shape of human thought’. John Donne’s ‘Holy Sonnet XIX’ (‘Oh, to vex me, contraries meet in one’) brilliantly grapples with contradiction and contrariness: ‘I change in vowes, and in devotione. / As humourous as is my contritione /As my prophane Love’. And ‘Holy Sonnet XIV’ leaves us with that memorable paradox, ‘for I/ Except you‘enthrall mee, never shall be free, /Nor ever chast, except you ravish mee’.

Aside from subject matter, a deeper contradiction embodied by the sonnet is that, traditionally, it is asymmetrical. It’s as if, unsatisfied with the harmony of an even-split, the form has to be more deeply split. Traditional sonnets consist of two stanzas, an octave (eight lines) and a sestet (six lines). The Shakespearean sonnet dispenses with this and instead is marked by its final clinching couplet (although still adhering to the same unravelling of philosophical reflection which the sonnet is so enduringly disposed towards). Another traditional characteristic is the volta, or ‘turn’, which comes between the octave and sestet. Phillis Levin remarks that it ‘introduces into the poem a possibility for transformation, like a moment of grace…we could say that for the sonnet, the volta is the seat of its soul. And the reader’s experience of this turn reconfigures the experience of all the lines that both precede and follow it’. The volta cuts into the preceding argument like a flash of insight.

Don Paterson points out that for all the various traditional rules for sonnet writing – the fourteen lines, the rhyme scheme either Petrarchan or Shakespearean, the octave/sestet division, the volta between line 8 and 9, etc, – ‘A great sonnet … will often surprise you by doing at least one thing it’s not supposed to do. Though we should remember that the poet had to learn the “rules” before they could deliberately break one of them’.

A great sonnet will often
surprise you by doing at
least one thing it’s not
supposed to do

Now for a quick history. One of the reasons why Shakespeare had such an impact on the sonnet, besides adapting it to the difficulties posed by a lack of rhymes in the English language, is that he took a risk thematically, reclaiming the figure of the beloved from tedious overpoeticisation through an attitude of increased realism. He fused tradition with innovation to produce the brilliant line we all know: ‘My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun….’

In the early seventeenth century there was a movement in theme from Shakespeare’s earthly sentiment back towards the sacred. Yet this sacred, as we can see in Donne, has been re-envisaged. The sonnet becomes a means of direct address to the divine, whereas previously, by and large, a lover or beloved, or muse, had been addressed. Wordsworth revitalised the sonnet in the nineteenth century, as Shakespeare did in the sixteenth. We see a move from constraint towards expansiveness. This is partly achieved by a shift of emphasis from sonnet as rarefied pressure chamber, to sonnet as capable of speaking the language of the common man. Wordsworth’s approach would have come as a refreshing change, contributing to the sonnet’s longevity and granting enough stability to the form for poets such as Shelley and Keats to deconstruct his agenda. And indeed they did.

Enter the Victorian poet, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, with sonnets such as, ‘A Sonnet is a moment’s monument’. Wordsworth’s visionary gleam comes up against the stark reality of time. In ‘A Moment’s Monument’, Jennifer Ann Wagner tells us that ‘Rossetti understands the sonnet to be a kind of death in life, a formalized stasis. The isolation of the moment holds no revelatory vision, because revelation for Rossetti is obscured by temporality and therefore by thought, memory, and artistic form itself.’ The Victorians, however, did much to sentimentalise the form.

The contemporary poet is in the unique, though quite confusing, position of being able to scan back over the centuries and weigh up differences of approach, thematic and structural. However, to overlook the essential spirit of the sonnet would be clumsy, if not an infidelity. Problem is, no one can agree on what that is. One precept we can stick to is that writing a good sonnet should be hard work because it demands a kind of thought that whilst being highly compacted is also clearly articulated, just as a diamond results from the intensive compression of coal. The general consensus is that any subject matter is fitting, as long as it is subjected to this kind of process. Seamus Heaney’s ‘The Skylight’, for example, is proof that the profound exists in the ordinary, that the sonnet is a little quest to unearth that profundity, a means by which we can dig deeper into the richness of our everyday experience.

From all this we might conclude, strangely enough, that the very themes embodied in the sonnet are displayed at large in its evolution over time: the struggle between tradition and innovation, between structure and content, and between reason and love. This comes very close to suggesting that the sonnet is not simply a poetic form (nor for that matter is any form), but has a kind of multi-dimensional inner life of its own in which the sonneteer, past and present, participates.

Rachael Boast has recently completed her PhD at St Andrews University. Her poems have appeared in Addicted to Brightness, Markings, Poetry Wales and The Yellow Nib. She is working on a first collection, and a study of contemporary poetry in relation to the Book of Job. This piece first appeared in our Poetry Reader, Issue 6.

Little song. A little squared circle. A moment’s monument. That’s right, we’re celebrating sonnets in all their shape-shifting, line-dancing, glorious form this month at the Scottish Poetry Library. Pop and in and browse our exhibition and our titles; muse a while among our sonnets displayed. We’d very much like to know what your favourite sonnet is? And if you’re not sure you know, pop in and see us, or dive in to this and report back!

Olympics, Poetry style…

February 22, 2010

On Saturday, we donned our tracksuits and got sporty for poetry down at the Historic Scotland Education Centre at Holyrood Park. Not a common alliance, you might think, poetry and sports. But as part of our Carry a Poem Campaign, we wanted to show that poetry’s for everyone for always, including those that feel more comfortable on a football pitch or running track, by indulging in a series of unexpected events.

We can’t remember whether the idea first came from the City of Literature’s Ali, or the SPL’s me (Peggy) but it always took the shape in our minds as a retro sports fun for all the family day, in which poems played a large part. Thus evolved our relay race (with poem baton), welly toss (with customised poem-adorned welly), fastest poet (in which the athletes each represented a poet. Why shouldn’t our poets be lauded on the back of shirts, as footballers are? Sorley MacLean, if you care to know, was the Usain Bolt of the day), egg and spoon and sack race. Master of ceremonies Ewan MacIntosh made sure the athletes warmed up appropriately – much arm-swinging, many star jumps – and that energy levels were suitably sustained by chocolate mallows and Party Rings. In between races, Kate’s face painting proved popular, and what with such unseasonally beautiful, sunny weather, many families hung out for most of the day.

We ended with a chance for the adults to get in on the running action, followed by an epic poetry play-off, in which our littlest sportsman of the day scored a penalty and victory for his team. We bade our Olympians goodbye with a prize-ceremony in which chocolate gold coins took the place of medals and a Carry a Poem book. Everyone a winner. You can see our snaps of the day here, by the indefatigable Chris Scott.

With thanks to Historic Scotland, Ewan, Kitty and Kate, and Ailsa for all their help.

Week long eventing

February 18, 2010

Well, we have been mighty busy, what with grand scale projections, Carry a Poem poetry events of all different shapes and sizes, eating cake crafted by our dear friend Aiko and assisting in the organisation of the Poets for Haiti event, coming to a stage near you on Sunday 28 February. We’ve also been visited by Hunt the Poem hunters, keen to track down the elusive poem fragments scattered round the city, as well as another oft-sighted species, those Carry a Poem book hunters, hoping to bag those last elusive books!

To work backwards through some of the Carry a Poem events you may have missed, we look to last night’s Golden Hour at the Forest Cafe. Hosted by our Ryan, the evening featured the usual lip-smacking smattering of poetry, prose, music and cartoons. We stuck a brass neck over the door mat to find the place absolutely mobbed. Lovely crowd for lovely poetry. We slunk off into the night pleased while the party bounced on.

On Tuesday night we invaded the upstairs of the Waverley Pub for our second Poetry Pub Quiz! Always an eye-opener to invite random punters to participate, only to see their faces sag in panic when we drop the poetry bomb. As it happens, our man Dave does a very fine quiz – an even mix of known knowns, unknown knowns and known unknowns, to cite Mr Rumsfeld, with a picture round and some audio to stroke your chin by. More teams than last time, with the competitive edge that comes of scores added up wrong, we had a tie at the top, and must throw metaphorical bouquets at ‘The Jewels’ and ‘MILC’.

On Monday, Poems Aloud saw 20 odd folk, conversing and drinking tea to the sound of poems read aloud. We found out which poems they carried. We distributed Carry a Poem books and custard creams with passionate abandon.

Thursday and Friday welcomed the arrival of his excellency Mr John Hegley, who wowed the pupils and their parents of our ‘Poetry School’ Holyrood High School on Thursday, and repeated the exercise, accompanied by guitarist Martin Rensner, for us on Friday. We hoped for A – Zs on animals (guillemot rap, amoebas), potatoes, spectacles and poems that scanned scanned alongside the Can-Can. We got them, and Tunnock’s tea cakes besides.

If you feel you’re missing out, then find out what else is going on and join us next time. If you’re over an ocean or living on an island with a difficult commute, you can feel the vibe by following our shenanigans over at our Carry a Poem website, and, why, here of course!

Photos by Chris Scott, apart from the one of Aiko’s awesome (and delicious) Christina Rossetti-inspired red velvet cake.

Ryan sits down with Edinburgh’s Makar (poet laureate) Ron Butlin during a recent visit to a slightly noisier than usual Library (apologies for the melody of the office stapler going like the clappers in the background) and discusses where his poems come from, the differences between writing poetry and prose, and what it’s like to write for musicians – of the popular and operatic variety. We also get the chance to hear a few poems from Ron and listen to an excerpt from the short opera ‘The Voice Inside’ by composer Lyell Cresswell for which Ron wrote the libretto.

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