On Sunday 3rd May Kent Kent and Sussex member Jill Munro read to a full house alongside Robin Houghton and Patricia McCarthy as part of the Mayfield Fringe festival at the Middle House, Mayfield. Jill’s first collection, Man From La Paz from the Green Bottle Press will be launched soon.
Monthly Archives: May 2015
Kent and Sussex, Judge’s Report: Mario Petrucci
What sets a poem apart from the crowd is an interest in language. An in-built interest in language. After all, shouldn’t a painter be fascinated by paint, or a potter infinitely curious about clay? I’m not saying, here, that poets should concern themselves only with experimental or ‘sound poetry’: even the most conventional form or style can still besot itself with, and be acutely alert to, indeed immensely immersed in, the way it sounds. That will entail a whole lot more than whether or not something rhymes. Then, of course, we must note the images/metaphors. These should sing a fresh perspective, surprisingly, as when we break over the brow of a hill onto a stunning and unexpected vista. I’m generally put off by imagery that shouts: Hey! I’m quite good at this, don’t we think? I’ve more time (especially as I get older) for the murmurs that play behind language – that subtler metaphor, for instance, whose quiet conviction speaks again, with each re-reading, of a natural parallel in the cosmos that we’re being directed to, jolting us gently into recognising something fundamentally collateral between things, however unlikely or audacious the metaphorical connection may at first seem.
Let me list some further thoughts and provocations that arose whilst judging this excellent competition…
* * *
The crucial contrast between prose and poetry can be deft, almost invisible… but it must be decisive. * At last, at last – ecology and climate change as common subjects for rank-and-file poetry! * It’s absolutely fine in a poem to be lucid, musical, straightforward, capturing a pristine moment – but there probably have to also be nuances, suggestivenesses and complications, half-hidden densities lurking beneath the clear surface and the sense, somehow, of a much larger picture. It’s fine, too, to be nuanced, suggestive, complexly dense – but there probably have to also be half-aroused lucidities, straightforwardnesses, musicalities – and the idea of a captured instant or stillness somewhere at the work’s core. * Every style in a poem, ideally, contains (or at least suggests) its opposites. This offers not only contrast, but compensation. * Sometimes, a stellar image, in its individual brilliance, can illuminate, entire, a poem that’s otherwise dimly uneventful. * Straight reminiscence, in poetry, however well done, usually isn’t quite enough. Straight narrative in poetry – however interesting, thoroughly researched, or well executed – usually isn’t quite enough. A poetic story, told in prose, is still prose. * Line breaks, alone, can’t raise – from a corpse of prose – poetry. * Metre, particularly when it’s potent and obvious, demands to be handled with consummate skill: to inhabit a very strong form, you usually need extremely strong content… either that, or such wisping, warming elegance and intricacy as to surpass the form’s melting point. * Form and content are lovers, not acquaintances. * Mere randomness isn’t Modernity. * Pluralising every noun doesn’t make a poem universal. * Fonts that look like they were invented by Disney really don’t help. * Beware of unnecessary adjectives: I mean, beware of adjectives. * Roadkill seems to be an irresistible draw for Kent and Sussex entrants, along with senility, owls, and Dungeness. * The toughest, grittiest, baldest poem can still convey, however indistinctly, Beauty. * I fully sympathise with those – and I’ve lost count of the times this has happened to me in my own writing – who discover an obscure fact, a tantalising shred of historical narrative, a glowing fragment of insight, that’s screaming to be made into a poem… but, in spite of having the vibrant seed seemingly intact, they simply don’t possess, in that moment, the soil. * In poetry, constructing a familiar strangeness – or a strange familiarity – can be your greatest asset. * The poetic spirit at grassroots remains unbroken: the Great themes are coming through with courage and honesty; the Subtler themes are being addressed with care and sensitivity. * Poetry is still the finest instrument for detecting what living hearts/minds genuinely think/feel. * There is no taboo in contemporary poetry, not even (in these material times) that final, most shuddering of horrors: spirituality. * No poem need ever explain itself. * Every ‘rule’ one might suggest for poetry is eviscerated by the exception.
* * *
Trying to whittle down the entries in a good competition sometimes feels like being the ancient Mariner, who “stoppeth one of three”. You probably won’t agree with my final decisions – in fact, I almost hope you don’t – because, unless a given entry wins, unreservedly, on all fronts, a judge is always ensnared in the weighing up of a number of diverse features: metrical/linguistic skill, musicality, potency of subject, metaphorical inventiveness, and so on. The judge’s job is to fabricate a convincingly stable hierarchy from this subjective-objective flux. It may teach us much when we humbly attempt to do such things, as long as the results aren’t taken as somehow categorical. So, from caveats to winners. The four ‘near misses’ (and there were quite a few contenders) were really that: very near. If it’s any consolation, all our words are, in some essential way, always a near miss to ultimate meaning. As I’ve said elsewhere: all poetic language is a falling-short – but miraculously so. The three major winners [First to Blink; Fishing the Khabur River, Syria; A Calculus] do, between them, what I’d wish poetry in every age to achieve at its most ambitious levels. Firstly, to allow language to enact an experience, through the language, rather than merely tell us about it (that famous workshop adage “Show, don’t tell” doesn’t really reach, in this regard, far enough). This can be especially resonant in poems that profoundly challenge our point of view, as in the first-prize poem, where the speaker powerfully, surreally morphs between narrator and the poem’s/subject’s roadkill-prey. Secondly, to be the plain-speaking witness to our troubled world, expressing life – right down to its darkest recesses – on behalf of the (largely) voiceless, and creating connection in the most difficult circumstances without generating victims. Finally, to reify in words – to make, indeed, sonically palpable – those many under-represented subjects and metaphysical intimations that shimmer at the far edge of perception, that reside, in themselves, almost beyond speech: to lift into scrutiny, in a net of words, through skilful instinct and linguistic daring, an elusive or intangible matter like ‘desire’, so that meaning itself can, by means of mere language, flash through the ineffable and re-emerge, shining.
FIRST TO BLINK
And on the rain-slick road in front of me
white-staring staring me down
daring me down not moving
luminous in the moment in the car headlight
taking me in
taking my lethal metal jacket in
and not moving facing me down
claw gripping carcase
pinning me down
till I blink brake swerve
into the risk of oncoming
lifts upward like a leaf
letting go of gravity
curd of mist
of white ash
dissolving to night to drizzle
blurring to peripheral
letting me run
leaving me smeared
furred and bloody
on the road
Fishing the Khabur River, Syria
This was once our sacred river,
so sacred that we were forbidden
even to drink from it.
Yet today we fish in it.
See Youssef there, waist-deep,
straddling mid-stream, braced against
the current under the arching bridge
where the river swirls quicker, darker
in curdled eddies that chunter the pebbles
shuttling forward and catch whatever
rattles snagging downstream.
See how his back tenses, his muscles
defined beneath his splashed didashah,
one arm reaching out, the other anchored
with twined sisal to the bank-side, and he’s
stretching and straining, his fingers seeking
beneath the chilled depths in a leaning feel,
the water suddenly muddied as if by blood.
And he has one. A heaving haul, struggling
to make it secure, dragging in – heavy, slow –
fumbling its slipping dip, and passing it back
to the bank-side down our line of men where
they lift it, up and over, then across, one after
the other, wet forms glistening silvery
till placed with dignity face down.
Four times today we have done this –
Omar, Khalid, Sayeed, Ahmed –
and now the boy Mohammed.
But for Rasha and Almira, our mothers,
it is too much. They drop their heads, turn
backs, and melt away home,
their abayas closing in on them
like closed doors as they go.
Surely Allah has forsaken us.
See these five,
hands tied behind backs
where the bullets found their zero.
In the gene-and-protein-laced saline
dark of our cores where we’re drawn
toward one another, a calculus runs,
out of all consciousness – and it isn’t
ours, this gift in us for tracking
the arcs of each other’s lips coming close,
for plotting the docking of tongues – it is
the same genius honing the ocelot’s
pounce, choreographing the balletic
dip-turns of swallows, lathing
the leaps of dolphins . . . It can derive
the contour through time of our touch
as it graphs us from inside, mapping
the possible into the moments ahead,
toward our confluence, fluid nexus
where feeling and meaning meet. Invisible
under the skin, there are adjustments
subtle as in the wings of peregrines
while in near-suicide plummet
toward hot-blooded sustenance. Such is
desire’s complex precision – imagine
this apparatus, weightless, translucent,
braiding the helices of our wants
beneath our awareness, weaving us,
the rivers we are, into our convergence,
our intricate swirls of silts, our crisscross
dazzle of currents . . . And it will
ever be missed by us, though we live
and search and kiss by its secret
axioms, its silent eloquence – elegant
integral of fierceness and care, give
and seize, love and hunger, selfless
offering and that essential despair.
JOINT FOURTH PRIZE
Entering the room
easy chairs, table,
vase of fragrant
in perfect order,
before that door
opened; before trivial
across the threshold;
thoughts made wispy
in that perfect
oneness of objects
communed with itself.
JOINT FOURTH PRIZE
Where did I lose the blue felt glasses case,
yellow-stitched with my daughter’s erratic precision?
It was in my loose pocket
as our party walked Auschwitz,
the mausoleums of hair and shoes, callipers and spectacles,
then the first, workshop gas chamber.
It was clutched love in the Birkenau afternoon
along slide rule tracks
to the chamber-troughs at the birch line.
Even in night returning past The Ramp
where they’d divided the useful from the weak and young
it was never quite overwhelmed.
Not then, but now I hope, perhaps,
it was not lost on the coach, or in my room
or the hotel bar’s two-beer sanctuary
but its yellow star-crossings are somewhere
in the barbed acres, somewhere there
is my daughter’s stubborn kindness.
JOINT FOURTH PRIZE
A cautious boy. They called him ‘chicken’
because he wouldn’t be drawn into picking
the short straw, to dash on railway lines
or dart across the road for a childish dare.
He played the cello at school. His frail
uncertain fingers unsteady on the strings,
a long gold slur of chords burring round
the playground in the diffident heat.
Outside, girls skipping, the crump of tennis balls,
a laze of bees bumbling the dusty window.
He grew tall, strong armed, and wanted more
than Dvorak and Vivaldi, wanted to belong
to the boys who taunted his timid past,
yearned for excitement, the thrill of action.
No chicken now. A soldier sweeping mines,
detector held out rigid as a bow
in his steady hand, the weight of others’ lives
pressed down on his young shoulders.
No chicken as he stepped onto the scrubland,
as his feathers unravelled, his wings flew,
and the hero of his blood scattered
like ghost-notes into the arid air.
JOINT FOURTH PRIZE
I will write peace on your wings and you will fly all over the world.
Red-crowned cranes bob their splash
of colour in the monochrome landscape
of the Japanese winter on Hokkaido island
in the snow.
They follow every mirrored prancing step
in synchrony, black legs elegantly dancing,
long black necks curling fluid sibilance
with every bow.
Forever is the theme that fills their ballet,
every jump and wingspread black and white
an echo of their voices taking turns to call,
the other sure and certain in the turn and float.
Close on the magic thousand gather here,
breath misting upward from their skyward bills.
they stand to still their dance and fold their wings,
while far away cross the world, Excel is busy
with the arms fair in full flow,
and pink paper cranes hang on strings to fill the quiet air
in the restaurant below.
Mario Petrucci with our Open Competition Winner, Jennie Osborne.
A fabulous feast of poetry was enjoyed by members at the Camden Centre on 28 April, when Mario Petrucci presented his adjudication of this year’s Open Competition. The winner, Jennie Osborne, was there to read her poem, and the other prizewinning poems were also read, providing a wide variety of excellent work. In the second half, Mario read from his powerful and political work, including poems on the anniversary of the Chernobyl disaster, from his collection “Heavy Water”. Watch this space for the winning poems!