Tag Archives: sarah kelly

Getting poetry

Here in the UK it was said of our last prime minister that he didn’t ‘get’ it which is one of the main reasons that he was thrown out. In the popular press our current leaders a portayed as ‘arrogant posh boys’ who don’t ‘get’ it either. In both cases this relates to a failure to understand / identify with the experiences of the ordinary citizen.

I’ve given this some thought with regard to poetry and the sad fact that most people don’t feel that they ‘get’ it in that they don’t see the point of it or how it might relate to them. I’ve come to the conclusion that there is only a very small amount of verse that I can see the point of and a very small proportion of that is poetry that I feel might relate / speak to me.

For me ‘getting’ a poem is not the same as understanding it, I can work out what poems ‘mean’ but this does not mean that I can see the point of them nor does it mean that I can relate personally to them.

I’ll proceed by example, I don’t see the point of Auden, Hopkins, Rilke, Dryden and many others because they don’t seem to be saying anything either useful or different. I’ll readily admit that I might need to spend more time with these but an initial period of attention has failed to impress.

I can see the point of a lot of religious verse in that some of it is both useful and sufficiently different to hold my attention but I can’t relate to it, it says little to me about how I live my life even though I understand and appreciate the way that it says what it has to say. I’m thinking primarily of George Herbert and RS Thomas.

There are very few bodies of work that I can relate to in their entirety- only Andrew Marvell and Elizabeth Bishop spring to mind as poets whose work seems consistently ‘pointful’ and relates to my life in the clattering now. By ‘relate’ I think I mean those poems that I don’t have to think about, those that reflect / embody ways that I have thought and felt so that I know instinctively what’s going on. Writing this I realise that I could and should go on for a very long time about how I know (absolutely) the mind and the impulse that made “The Moose” the poem that it is.

Then there are those poems that I can see the point of but only bits of them speak to me. Some of these bits speak of my experiences and some of the way that I think and feel. The wedding reception scene in Keston Sutherland’s ‘Stress Position’ speaks to both my experience of mental illness and to the way that I think about it and does so in a deeply humane, unselfish kind of way. I can relate to and see the point of the strangeness of the human condition as set out in Books 3 and 5 of ‘The Faerie Queene’ even though my view of Book 5 is far away from the current consensus. I can, of course, see the point of the rest and iy is all magnificent but it doesn’t have the same complexity / nuance / strangeness of 3 and 5. I absolutely ‘get’ Milton’s discussion of evil in ‘Paradise Lost’ and this does speak to my experiences of working with people who do Bad (terrible) Things, I’m also of the view that this particular poem is the best thing ever produced anywhere but the description of Eden (whilst technically a tour de force) is quite boring (to me). ‘Maximus’ is nearly the perfect poem in that it contains so many things that tell me what it’s like to be alive, about place, process and the archive, but the material relating to myth just doesn’t reach me.

Understanding isn’t a prerequisite of getting a poem, in fact it can sometimes get in the way. Some of the work of Paul Celan and J H Prynne I can see the point of and it seems to embody how it is for me but I don’t claim to have a complete grasp of what’s being said. With Celan, obvious examples are ‘Aschenglorie’ and ‘Erblinde’, with Prynne, there are moments of absolute clarity in ‘Streak~~Willing~~Entourage~~Artesian’ and a whole range of ideas going on in ‘Kazoo Dreamboats’ that do seem to speak of the now.

Here’s a bit of a confession, Geoffrey Hill’s ‘The Mercian Hymns’ and ‘The Triumph of Love’ are stuffed with point and are two of the finest poems that we have (there is no argument with this as it is obviously a fact) but it is the short poems about landscape that I relate to most because (as with Olson) they put into words (embody) what it is like for me to be in a place. I’m incredibly grateful for this because it (social work term) validates and oddly anticipates the feelings that I have.

There is another dimension to getting poetry and this relates to tactics, There are some poets that write poetry that moves things forward and there are those poets that maintain a / the status quo. It is usually reasonably straightforward to identify these poets. Between 1960 and his suicide in 1970, Paul Celan wrote tactically important poems, J H Prynne has spent the last forty years making tactical / strategic interventions, ‘Howl’ is tactically crucial to an understanding of Where We are Now. I don’t agree with asingle word that Kenneth Goldsmith has ever uttered but ‘Traffic’ is something that I ‘get’ and something that is likely to be seen as quite pivotal.

We now come to to poems that I get as poems and that make tactical sense. These are very few in number because I’m a particularly opinionated individual and (I like to think) my standards are high. There is Vanessa Place whose work mirrors ‘how it is’ for me and who rattles many cages whilst pointing out how what we call poetry can begin to reclaim some degree of relevance in these provisional and vague times. There is also the work of Sarah Kelly that speaks to me but also makes a voice that must be heard above and against the prevailing din. Both of these two set up a kind of imperative (must be read / cannot be ignored) and yet they are utterly different, the only link being what they do to the inside of my head.

Sarah Kelly’s ‘cables / to the telescopes’

This has a number of disclaimers. Last year I wrote about Sarah Kelly’s work in the ‘Better than Language’ anthology and made these pertinent observations:

In this instance the halo effect refers to qualities that we like in ourselves that we see in others. It is something managers are told to guard against when selecting candidates for employment, we are likely to select those that appear to be most like us regardless of whether they are the best candidate for the job.

The thing is that Sarah Kelly is writing the kind of poetry that I would be writing if I didn’t think that poetry is currently too poetic. The other thing is that Sarah Kelly is much better at writing the kind of poetry that I would be writing if I wasn’t making poems out of sketch map labels and Gillian Welch set lists. This does at least have the advantage of not having to write poetic poetry ever again which is a bit of a relief but it’s also a bit weird because I feel as if I know what’s going on in this work at an unusually deep level so I read it as a kind of co-conspirator rather than as an ordinary passer-by.

Obviously, this stuff is absolutely brilliant and will single-handedly save the poetic sort of poetry from itself. It fulfils and surpasses all of the Bebrowed criteria:

  • short lines;
  • absence of titles;
  • absence of big or foreign words;
  • a satisfyingly sparse intensity
  • exceptional word choice;
  • great endings.”

The next part of the disclaimer (before we get to the digression) relates to the fact that we have corresponded fitfully since the first piece was posted and I remain of the view that Sarah’s work is essential.

The bad news is that I might have to start writing ordinary / normal poetry again instead of culling sketch maps and set lists because Sarah’s work has taken a new direction which means that there is now nobody writing the kind of poetry that I would write if I believed in poetry. The good news is that this new direction is stunning and shows to the rest of us (me) that our thinking is really one-dimensional even when we’re trying to be original.

Set out below are three images from a series currently entitled ‘cables / to the telescope’-

page 3 from the cables series sarah kelly

page 4 from the cables series sarah kelly

page 8 from the cables series sarah kelly

This is what Sarah has to say “which is a collection of around 35 poems called ´cables/to the telescopes´ using collograph too and the same technique of putting everything inside the paper rather than inscribing it upon the surface. Here are some of the images, the plan had been to turn them into a kind of artists books, but we´ll see. For now, it´s hugely rewarding and pushing me in different directions which feels like movement, and movement for me is at the very crux of it all”. Sarah has been learning to make paper and these pieces have come from that, the key thing for me is the idea of putting text inside the paper as part of the process of making the paper which sets off a whole range of thoughts related to good wrongness because text isn’t supposed to have three dimensions, it isn’t supposed to be tactile and it should exist on the surface of things rather than within them.

In the earlier post I identified Sarah as a co-conspirator because I seemed to grasp at an intuitive level what she might be ‘about’ and this remains the case, the possibilities from this new work are certainly making me think again about text as image and about text as thing.

I now need to digress, artists are better at putting poetry in pictures than poets are at putting pictures in poems. Anselm Kiefer and Cy Twombly both incorporated lines from poetry into some of their more famous works, books have been written about Kiefer’s use of Celan and books will be written about Twombly’s use of Rilke. Poets have made pattern poems and concrete poems and have written poems about paintings and to accompany paintings. Some time ago I was of the view that poets should steer well clear of the visual, that what mattered where the words on the page and what they meant and that anything else is just distraction. Then I came across the work of Erica Baum which seemed to suggest that image and text (or image of text) can function as a viable (whatever that might mean) alternative to the poem on the page. I then had a look at Caroline Bergvall’s work and decided that I want to be Caroline Bergvall so I thought I was reasonably au fait with this corner of things poetic. Sarah’s work has thrown this into doubt because the text-as-thing within instead of on the page seems to reconfigure my assumptions and remind me of how little I know and how deeply unoriginal my thinking has been. This reconfiguration seems to have caught some of the Whitehead notion of process.

Digression- I spent some time yesterday recording a layered reading of a poem, I did this with two friends who own the equipment. What was interesting / satisfying for me was the way in which we were able to work together to get something from out of my head and into the real world. I was pleased that this process (which was deeply tentative) worked but the ‘doing’ seemed as important / interesting as the audio file.

Sarah’s new work is about process and showing that movement through to final object which can be seen and felt across the contours of the paper and the text and what’s just becoming additionally interesting is how and when you decide that the object is ‘finished’ / ‘complete’ and I am fighting the opportunity to take this too far down the Whitehead route.

Unusually, I haven’t discussed the words and this is in part because of the brilliance of this particular conceit but also because I think I need to find a different way of writing in order to do justice to the material and it seems that conventional enthusiasm isn’t going to be enough.

Better Than Language, Anna Ticehurst, Sarah Kelly and the halo effect.

I was going to be reasonably methodical with the ‘Better than Language’ anthology, I was going to write about the poets that really impressed me in fairly rapid succession. I di some forward planning, I identified the bits of Anna Ticehurst’s poems that I wanted to rave about and gave considerable thought to how Sarah Kelly’ work made me feel.

And then I got distracted and went meandering off in other directions (an all too common occurrence) and have only now returned to the anthology. ‘Better than Language’ is a landmark publication because it brings together in one place a concentration of immensely talented younger poets and must be read and argued about by all those who have any kind of interest in the state and nature of British poetry. I know that I have said this before but, in this instance, I don’t have any problem at all with repeating myself.

Anna Ticehurst.

According to the blurb, Ticehurst was born in Bristol in 1986 and is currently studying to be a secondary teacher at the University of Brighton, she’s had stuff published in Cleave, Quid, Intercapillary Space and Openned so it’s odd that I haven’t noticed her before. The work occupies a unique corner in the wry/clever/exceptionally articulate section of British poetry and should not be overlooked primarily because it does several things very, very well and does them in a way that neither shouts nor whispers. I’ll try and give a few examples of these things:

Endings.

Regular readers will know that I am very partial to poems that end well, and that I know what I mean about ending well but have a hard time putting this into coherent language. The temptation is always just to quote the ending and then to assume that everyone else will be instantly converted to my point of view. This is a technique that only works for me and is really rather lazy. Because some of Ticehurst’s endings are so accomplished, I’m going to use a couple of them and try to explain how they work so well. This is the end of ‘Sunbathing under Surveillance Camera One’:

An analgesic piped through Bloomsbury
brickwork does for all, stirrups the air
through martingal'd vents and pierces the
bubble with the hacking of COPD.

First of all there’s the elegant and intelligent central phrase- ‘stirrups the air / through martingal’d vents’ which is startling in itself but is contrasted with the quite brutal shock of ‘the hacking of COPD’. As the title implies the poem is a wry and angry riff on the many contradictions and apparent hypocrisies of life in the perpetually mediated West and its many insecurities. Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease is directly linked to poverty, a condition that almost exclusively affects the underclass. It’s also deeply unpleasant with sufferers having to struggle for every breath that they take which is why it is so effective here. The other bonus, I would argue, is that ‘COPD’ is not poetic, not lyrical and is not dressed up here to make it more ‘fitting’. This is a Very Good Thing especially if you share my belief that there’s too much of the poetic in contemporary verse.

Then there’s the ending that doesn’t seem to work at first or second reading but then becomes the best part of the poem. This is the end of ‘Open Season’:

In the Centenary Gardens,
I lose you
push pavements to the back of my eyes,
fighting at losses in the tinted interior,
swallow Optrex and do away
with the periscope only to
silence desires and shove them into little paper bags
to discard like sugar.

On a first reading this felt too stylised for its own good and the last line fell flat almost as if it wasn’t making any effort at all- an example of the unpoetic teetering on to the facile (banal). Then I started to think a bit more about the little papers bags and how exactly sugar might be ‘discarded’ and then things began to speak to me and become very special and completely appropriate.

Word choice

Most makers of poetry know that the selection of words is a crucial component in the making of the poem because the ‘right’ word is what makes the difference between something that ‘works’ and something that doesn’t. Of course, most of us have our own ideas of what good word choice should produce and mine are no more correct than anyone else but I think I can show why the following are so effective. This is from ‘Sunbathing under Surveillance Camera One”:

date palm oases washing the skins
in salt-water brilliance and free-thinking

vacuum pumps in an oxygen tent
flick-knife the opportunity like
kissing a wet dog in the rain

The two words that I’d like to draw attention to are ‘brilliance’ and ‘flick-knife’ because they are both being used in unusual ways and yet provide a more accurate picture of what needs to be said. ‘Brilliance’ also has the effect of encouraging the read to visualise what is being said and how it might differ from other kinds of liquid brilliance. It can be argued that ‘flick-knife’ is over-shadowed by the image in the last line but I would argue that the two complement each other in a very satisfying and compelling way. I’m not sure about ‘free-thinking’ because it feels a bit unnecessary but that’s probably because I haven’t paid sufficient attention to the rest of this very accomplished poem.

Sarah Kelly and the halo effect.

In this instance the halo effect refers to qualities that we like in ourselves that we see in others. It is something managers are told to guard against when selecting candidates for employment, we are likely to select those that appear to be most like us regardless of whether they are the best candidate for the job.

The thing is that Sarah Kelly is writing the kind of poetry that I would be writing if I didn’t think that poetry is currently too poetic. The other thing is that Sarah Kelly is much better at writing the kind of poetry that I would be writing if I wasn’t making poems out of sketch map labels and Gillian Welch set lists. This does at least have the advantage of not having to write poetic poetry ever again which is a bit of a relief but it’s also a bit weird because I feel as if I know what’s going on in this work at an unusually deep level so I read it as a kind of co-conspirator rather than as an ordinary passer-by.

Obviously, this stuff is absolutely brilliant and will single-handedly save the poetic sort of poetry from itself. It fulfils and surpasses all of the Bebrowed criteria:

  • short lines;
  • absence of titles;
  • absence of big or foreign words;
  • a satisfyingly sparse intensity
  • exceptional word choice;
  • great endings.

So, ignoring the halo effect, I’d like to use a longish extract to demonstrate why this is really essential stuff:

the three leaves 
rest like three
feathers I tell you
of and the
triangularity of our
bespoke hope
non spoke
in trust-structures
stay-structures
etched on prized
unwritten place
the gap
between shoulder
and base that
contorts as
you turn to
look at my
unlooking resolve

I could wallow in this stuff for a very, very long time but it is clearly an object lesson on how to do very complicated (and quite profound) things with a deliberately constrained palette. The brevity of each line forces us to think carefully about what the line is really saying and the chosen words build to create an increasingly rich range of emotions through to the brilliance of the last three lines. This is only one extract from a series of consistently impressive poems which really do stand out in tone and skill from the rest of this very impressive collection.

Because of the halo effect, I’ve tried hard to find bits that I don’t like or bits that don’t ‘work’. I have to report that the only quibble I may have is that some of the poems may be too sparse and oblique to attract the attention that they warrant but this is, at best, a tactical quibble and has nothing to do with the merit of the poems as poems.

Better than Language is available from ganzfeld press for a mere ten of your finest English pounds. There is no excuse.