I wrote something heartfelt about the process of marking a poetry exam, over on Vulpes Libris.
This is the prequel, or preceding companion to Maxwell’s fantasy creative writing course Drinks With Dead Poets, in which Maxwell writes urgent, obstreperous essays about how to read, write and think about poetry. On Poetry feels like a book written for practitioners at all levels. It’s certainly a hugely useful teaching book, full of admonitions and exasperated noises, as well as passionate explanations of the how and the why of meter and rhyme. I was reading it while teaching poetry boot-camp to my first-year students and came across a passage vehemently refuting the things I’d been teaching the day before. It’s from the chapter called ‘Chime’.
As we saw – or heard – with meter, it’s clear that the shorter the meter the more evident or present is the form. With rhyme what matters is the distance between rhymes, so that couplets – two lines together that rhyme – have no interest in concealing their effect, whereas a more complex stanza might separate rhyming words by six, seven, eight lines, in which case the impact of the rhyme is subconscious, kin to musical motif. As Joseph Brodsky writes: ‘In poetic thought, the role of the subconscious is played by euphony.’
Some poets say about their work or someone else’s that they use a lot of ‘internal rhymes’ – rhymes that are not at the ends of their lines – when what they mean is that some of the words sound quite like each other. I don’t think, by the way, one can ‘use enjambment’ either – that is, a line flowing without punctuation to the next line. For one thing, as I said before, the line-break is punctuation, it’s just white instead of black, and for the other, some effects ought to be subconscious in a poet, and I think enjambment and internal rhymes are things you say you’re doing but can’t help doing. The same goes for anything you call ‘assonance’. I imagine I get through a shed-load of assonance.
I gave that to my students to read in their next class. I have no idea if they liked it or not, but a bit of contradiction will be good to stimulate their minds for the exam.
On Poetry is not an instruction manual. It’s a set of opinions and heartfelt beliefs about how poetry works and why. It’s also a loosely-formed story about four creative writing students of whom I would be terrified in my own class, so attitudinal and know-it-all are they. There isn’t much theory, and hardly any of the scary big words that give prosody a bad name. (Stephen Fry and The Ode Less Travelled, I’m looking at you, you great lunk of show-off wordery.) Maxwell is not prescriptive. He blunders about in an expert’s scruffy working clothes and shows us that he knows his stuff. Good for enough for anyone.
Glyn Maxwell, On Poetry (Oberon Books, 2012)
In this entry for The 1951 Club, I reread The Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes, edited by Iona and Peter Opie. I love excavating the history behind the relics of history cast up as sayings and idioms, and as nursery rhymes. When I was little, reading the Puffin nursery rhymes book that I still own, tattered and torn though it is, I thought this was the saddest rhyme I had ever read.
Here am I
Little Jumping Joan
When nobody’s with me
I’m all alone
Existential crisis or what? But according to the Opies, who made the study of the nursery rhyme and playground song an academic discipline in its own right, this is about a 17th-century prostitute. Well! That certainly makes a difference to how I might also think about Little Miss Muffet. The Opies list many theoretical origins for Miss Muffet, but my favourite is that she was one of many parodies (along with ‘Little Mary Easter sat on a tester’, ‘Little Miss Mopsey sat in the shopsey’, ‘Little Polly Flinders’, ‘ Little Poll Parrot’ and ‘Little Jack Horner’) of the cushion dance in which someone had to sit and wait for something. Maybe it was a May Day ritual, or a marriage rite, or a folk custom lost in prehistoric mists. What the Opies don’t say is that these rhymes follow (more or less) the metre of dactylic trimeter or tetrameter, ie a waltz tune. Maybe it was a dance around the sitting person?
The Opies said of their Dictionary ‘we believe we have assembled here almost everything so far known about nursery rhymes together with a considerable amount of material hitherto unpublished’. In their Dictionary they included ‘nonsense jingles, humorous songs, and character rhymes, the more common lullabies, infant amusements, nursery counting-out formulas, baby puzzles and riddles, rhyming alphabets, tongue twisters, nursery prayers, and singing games’. It doesn’t include ‘rhymes of divination, magic spells and fairy tales in verse’, which is perhaps a good thing.
I wonder about ‘the more common lullabies’: I don’t think I ever sang a lullaby to my children in the 1990s, because singing to them in their cots meant to infant minds that it was time for them to get up and dance. How common were lullabies in the 1950s, or earlier? This is perhaps the point, that in 1951 it was felt necessary to record and collate in a scholarly way the lineage of traditional rhymes, whether destined for nursery or schoolroom, because they were dying out. The collected scraps and snippets of ancient poetry are also garlanded with historical context: ‘a knowledge of their past adds to the pleasure of them in the present’. The Opies researched thoroughly in the standard collections, but also advertised for contributions, especially for material ‘never seen in print’, to try to capture the oral tradition that stretched its fingers of memory back to the nineteenth century and beyond. Their research crosses the sea: many of the ‘English’ rhymes are actually American (‘Three little kittens they lost their mittens’) and British rhymes have North American variants.
The Dictionary is a treasure, especially if you’re looking for historical events preserved in folk rhyme. ‘To market, to market, to buy a fat pig’ is from the sixteenth century, as is ‘Ding dong bell, pussy’s in the well’. ‘London Bridge is falling down’ dates from the seventeenth century. ‘Hot cross buns’ is from the eighteenth century. It has apparently been suggested that ‘Dr Foster went to Gloucester’ derives from an incident in the reign of Edward 1, from the thirteenth century. I don’t actually care whether that is true or not true: it’s a wonderful idea that oral traditions preserve the words that people sang for pleasure, and what they sang about, reused and revived periodically.
Warning: part-way through this novel about the author teaching poetry and drinking with Keats and Walt Whitman, I realised that it’s a sequel, of sorts. I’ve now got a copy of it, Maxwell’s On Poetry, but I haven’t read it yet. So I might have missed something in this review. Bear with me.
Glyn Maxwell, real-life poet, playwright and novelist, wakes up in a dream where he’s a poetry tutor on Thursdays, in a small village that has more pubs than shops. It also has an Academy, whose staff are none too pleased that Maxwell has been scheduled to run his extra-mural, ungraded classes for their students, who ought to be studying more important things with the real staff. Drink and rebellion against administrative regimes seem to be important for this poet’s mission. Maxwell is confused about why he’s there with no explanations, but he gets on with the classes anyway.
He gulps, but takes it in his stride, that he’s got guest poets arriving each week to do readings and meet the students: John Keats, Emily Dickinson, John Clare, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Edgar Allen Poe, Walt Whitman, Charlotte Bronte, both the Brownings and Yeats. Edward Lear is also in attendance, shyly sitting with the students rather than performing his own work. We encounter a clutch of almost indistinguishable British First World War poets in their cricket pavilion watching the fireworks, but I think I spotted Ivor Gurney, Isaac Rosenberg and Wilfred Owen.
It’s a lovely conceit that succeeds because as a practitioner Maxwell is steeped in poetry, and I personally would like to be taught by him. His classes are anarchic but also intensely informative: by making the students write poems he shows how it’s done, how poetry works. His students have strong characters, so their evolving community makes a novel out of their classes and encounters with the poets, as we learn more about them (and pick up on stories that seem to be left dangling from On Poetry). Maxwell has more scope with the students as fictional characters because he’s invented them. He can’t invent the poets, because he has restricted himself to only showing them as they are historically known to be, in their clothes, what they say, what they are known to have thought. He patches their dialogue so cleverly into the narrative that the dead poets live, magnificently: they are, variously, formidable, charming, friendly, shy, magnificent, dangerous, irresponsible, self-effacing and always elusive.
Maxwell himself works as a character because he is only confused when he’s not teaching or talking about poetry. In the episodes when he’s trying to find out where this extraordinary village is, how to leave, wondering what his real life is up to out here beyond the fog of this bubble of time, he is just a bit tiresome. When he’s fighting the Academy staff and its philistine autocracy (and, most unexpectedly, having a fling with one of them) he’s pig-headed, brave but irritating. When he’s moderating the uncontrollable poets, he’s desperate, juggling their wellbeing as ghosts with feelings, with the needs of his students and their emerging private lives that need a lot of taking care of.
What emerges is a passion for poetry, and a longing to have known how the great poets did it, how they thought about it. I loved this book. There’s a hint that he might be teaching plays next. I’m reading On Poetry now.
Glyn Maxwell, Drinks With Dead Poets. The Autumn Term (Oberon Books 2016), ISBN 9781783197415, £12.99
As regular readers will recall, I bought this book on spec before Christmas from a wily book catalogue. Reading it – it is a long essay on why people hate poetry – is an unfolding sequence of stimulants, a nuggetty book about what poetry is and does, from the perspective of those who hate it. Lerner, as a practising poet and novelist, teaches the stuff, so he does not hate it. But he is frequently addressed by those who do, so his accumulation of encounters produced this book.
‘What kind of art assumes the dislike of its audience and what kind of artist aligns herself with that dislike?’
Does poetry seem as though it expects to be disliked? It all depends on the company it keeps, I think. Very few harassed parents running busy households will welcome the prospect of a home-made poem flourished at them by an adolescent child (who ought to be revising for exams), when they don’t read poetry themselves, could not get on with it at school (if they were ever shown any), and don’t think that it bodes well for gainful adult employment. The poet as waster is a familiar character in novels of the misunderstood.
Lerner points out that Plato considered poetry to be both useless and corrupting: at once powerless and dangerous. As a political tool, poetry is definitely dangerous and hopelessly irrelevant, to particular sectors of society. It’s a ceremonial thing to be read at an inauguration, and an easy read on the Tube in between interminable stops. It’s not the stuff of daily tabloid nourishment, or something we hear read aloud as a matter of course in between TV programmes. Poetry is special, not normal, for most of the British population; half-remembered on Remembrance Sunday, but otherwise not part of their daily lives.
Understanding about good and bad poetry is also a puzzle. ‘It is much harder to agree on what constitutes a successful poem when we see it than it is to agree that we’re in the presence of an appalling one.’ Bad poetry is easily spotted, Lerner thinks, and spends a useful section in this book explaining why William McGonagall was a bad poet. The very recent announcement of a poem to celebrate the forthcoming Presidential inauguration proves Lerner’s point. That poem is of a McGonagall order of dreadfulness, because of the office it was intended to assume, as well as its painful obliviousness to poetic nuance or art. It uses Victorian Scottish rumty-tumty rhythms and rhymes that wave flags at you to be noticed: it has a pleased and terrible eagerness to display all the rhymes the poet found.
Lerner does admit that bad poets and their poems have a purpose.
‘Truly horrible poets unwittingly provide a glimmer of virtual possibility via the extremity of their failure; avant garde poets hate poems for remaining poems instead of becoming bombs; and nostalgists hate poems for failing to do what they, wrongly, vaguely, claim poetry once was or did’.
This is more like it. Lerner acknowledges that poetry has many audiences. The beyond-bad Inaugural poem will have a pleased reception, and the poet will be glad. This will not excuse its badness, but it will make some people happy, and perhaps encourage others not to hate poetry any more. Once you’ve found your way into poetry, you learn what you like and dislike: that’s good if it dispels a hatred of poetry. Dangerous poetry that corrupts is not necessarily bad for prosodic reasons, because it has to reach a technical level of skill to work its persuasion. Bad poetry, like the Inaugural poem, is unlikely to corrupt because its inadequacies and its inability to tackle prosodic challenges are easily spotted. I think there’s a metaphor there.
Ben Lerner, The Hatred of Poetry (2016, Fitzcarraldo Editions), ISBN 978 1 910695 15 9
By the time you read this, I hope to be in Hawai’i (actually Kauai). This is a major splashout holiday, for a particular reason. It’s halfway across the planet from my home, but it’s also halfway between where my siblings live, and the Christmas holiday is conveniently close to a significant birthday that they will be celebrating (they’re twins), so the clan is gathering.
We will be flying light, and I shall be severely restricted for my reading, as I loathe and abhor ebooks and refuse to use them now except for work when I have no choice. I shall take two fat novels for the flights, and intend to collect more when I’m in the US. I am also taking some slim volumes for reading on the beach as I rest from snorkelling practice, or while listening to the munching of dinosaurs behind me in the forest. I understand that Kauai was where Jurassic Park was filmed, so naturally I expect to see or hear dinosaurs. Hopefully just the herbivorous ones.
No, I haven’t read them yet. Yes, I know. Yes, my husband was immersed so deeply in them he forgot to watch Have I Got News For You. Yes, I hope so. I like Mantel’s non-fiction writing, especially when she blasts prejudices into molecular fragments, so I’m looking forward to these. But, when I finish Wolf Hall, will I be able to wait for a fortnight before beginning Bring Up the Bodies on the return flight?
My favourite physicist broadcaster interviews loads of scientists about what alien lifeforms might look like and how they might function, depending on the speciality research area of each interviewee. Since my father is also a scientist (retired), but has no truck with science fiction, this will produce some interesting conversations.
Karen Russell, Swamplandia
This has been waiting to be read for far too long, I’m going to DO IT. I loved St Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves and Vampires in the Lemon Grove, so I’m going to dive into the full novel-length version of her peculiar world.
I’ll be on an island. I’ll need advice. I’ve also never read this, except for a dreadful abridged children’s edition at primary school that made no sense.
Ben Lerner, The Hatred of Poetry
I’ve ordered this from the lovely John Sandoe Books in Chelsea, because they slid a catalogue into my bag when I was buying Christmas presents and I was seduced. I’m hoping for poetical subversion, and sarcastic lines to read aloud to annoy people
If you have any suggestions for books I should be looking for in Hawaai’ian bookshops, do let me know.
The next two weeks on this site will offer two humdinger posts, and normal reviewing services will resume in early January. Joyeux Noel, Prettige Kerstdagen, Prettige Feestdagen and Bonne Année!
This podcast scripts recap from Really Like This Book is a demure and joyous novel that begins by looking up a curate’s trouser legs, Barbara Pym’s first novel, Some Tame Gazelle (1950). The middle-aged Belinda Bede lives with her younger sister Harriet in a comfortable house at the heart of English village and parish life. They are both unmarried, but Harriet’s principal hobby is adopting curates to fuss over, while being proposed to at regular intervals by an Italian count who lives in the village. Belinda is less bustling and outgoing than Harriet, but much sharper and irreverent. The great figures in the village are the Archdeacon, who is their parish vicar, and his wife, who is cleverer, more upper-class and a better manager than anyone else. The trouble is, Belinda has loved Archdeacon Hoccleve for over thirty years, since they were students together at Oxford and he used to read poetry to her. She doesn’t think that she would have been a better archdeaconly wife to him than Agatha Hoccleve, but she thinks, secretly and modestly, that she could have made him happier. However, we the readers can see perfectly well that the Archdeacon is spoiled, selfish, lazy and rather tiresome, and that Belinda is a lot better off not being married to him. She warms herself at the dying fires of remembered love in her heart, but otherwise has a happy life.
Pym began writing this novel when she was in her early 20s, and it took sixteen more years for it to get published, after much polishing. It doesn’t read like a first novel at all, but it does read a little unfinished, with some words or phrases oddly out of key with the rest of the novel, as if some small things had been missed over the years of revisions. There is a sense that some of the characters’ back stories are actually in-jokes between Pym and her friends, since they are never explained, yet are referred to in the story as if we know them. But the maturity and confidence in this novel are remarkable, written as it is about middle-aged women by a much younger woman. Another odd, but not a bad odd, aspect of this novel is its curious undatedness. It really isn’t possible to tell on which side of the Second World War it is set. It might be pre-WW2, because one character refers to her wartime experience in WW1 in the Balkans, as if this was not very long ago, and no-one mentions WW2 at all. At the same time, the luxuriant references to Harriet and Belinda’s clothes, and underwear, are definitely from the 1950s.
The undateableness also applies to people’s behaviour. Belinda has rather unfeasible worries about what people will think if she talks too long with the Archdeacon in the street before lunchtime, or if Harriet entertains a visiting Bishop to tea alone because Belinda is ill upstairs in bed. These are women in their mid-40s, so Belinda’s fears seem to be a caricature of what old maids are supposed to fear, rather than what might be reasonably expected to be risky behaviour. Village gossip is, as we all know, a protean and dangerously irrational thing, but how much censure could there be for 20 minutes of drinking tea?
The village is divided into the gentlefolk; and those who run shops, do the cleaning, come to do the dressmaking, and work in the pub. All the women in the village are territorial about their hereditary parts of the church which they decorate with foliage at church festivals. The gentlefolks are not so much segregated by social class, as would be usual in a novel of this kind – sitting as it does in the category of middlebrow fiction by middle-aged women about the tiny details of modern life – but by university education. To go to Oxford University is a social marker in itself, but it represents a less familiar character trait for fiction of this kind, in that the women of the privileged class are expected to have gone to university, and to pride themselves on their education. However, this being the middle of the century, very few of these women have gone on to do anything after university (unlike Pym herself, who worked as a censor during the war, and in academic publishing afterwards). Those women who do do postgraduate research are regarded by men, especially university men, with faint unease, and by other women with respect, some admiration, and also some resentment for not having got stuck in a dull marriage, and for having got out of having to grind away at a dull job.
The nearest Pym gets in this novel to creating a really stupid woman is Harriet, and she isn’t stupid at all, just not interested (any longer) in things of the mind. She adores men, and clothes, and food, and these make her life very pleasant. Belinda, on the other hand, is quite happy planning things to knit, gardening to do, and takes great pleasure in recalling quotations from poetry to suit all occasions, though her unconscious mind does throw up some odd juxtapositions which make her jump. As I said, she is the sharper of the two sisters, though she hides it behind unbecoming clothes and a faded exterior.
Some of the most delicately funny moments in the story come from oneupwomanship. Agatha Hoccleve never lets anyone forget that she took a First in medieval literature. Harriet’s latest curate is stolen from her, most unexpectedly, by a woman conducting research on a Chaucerian poem. To make the theft more galling, Olivia is not only older than the curate, is Agatha’s niece, but she proposed to him. Belinda and Harriet are fascinated by Agatha’s disclosure of the manner of the proposal, because this means that Agatha undoubtedly proposed to the Archdeacon herself, since she so obviously approved of Olivia’s handling of the affair, which, Harriet insists, defending Belinda’s feelings for the Archdeacon, explains everything. Anyway, Agatha maintains superiority by pointedly referring to her niece’s research prowess, and never misses a chance to drop some medieval scholarship into conversation, just to show how intellectual she is.
It isn’t that Pym is laughing at academic women, or that she disapproves of an over-reliance on poetry as a way of relating to the world: she is a passionate quoter herself, her novels are full of it. But she cannot abide pride, or puffed-up behaviour, and enjoys pricking pomposity in her novels, delicately and subtly. She carries a very sharp authorial pin.
There are probably the same number of men as women in Belinda and Harriet’s circle, but somehow the women are dominant, and the men are merely prizes. They are also all churchmen, with three visitors who arrive in the course of the novel to swell the throng of dog-collars on the village streets. Their visit produces organisational excitement and emotional flutterings. The Archdeacon is most put out, because he sees no reason why strangers should come to stay with him (Agatha did the inviting), and is so outraged at the third visitor that he ensures conditions of deep discomfort in the spare room: old sheets sewn sides to middle, a lumpy mattress, no light-bulb in the bedside light, and unreadable books. I did say he was selfish, but I should also have noted that he was petty.
One of the visitors is an old friend of Belinda’s, now an important Oxford librarian (but not quite as important as he thinks he is), and he brings a colleague, Mr Mold, who is somehow not, well, not quite, as the English used to say. Mold isn’t of the same class as his colleagues, because he doesn’t follow their understanding about suitable subjects of conversation (he talks about lavatories in mixed company), and he drinks in the morning. The third visitor is a Bishop whom Harriet happily boasts about having known in her student days, but he, unfortunately, has no recollection of her, and is convinced that Belinda once knitted him a very nice scarf, which she in turn cannot remember. Two out of these three men make their way to Belinda and Harriet’s house to propose marriage, and when one is rejected, he proposes to the next unmarried spinster he meets.
Village life continues while all this gentle excitement riffles through Belinda and Harriet’s lives. Belinda is very focused on her knitting, and finds herself buying clerical grey wool just in case she feels brave enough to knit a jumper for the Archdeacon, but pretends to the wool shop lady that it will be for a jumper for herself, even though the colour is dull and the wool too thick. When Belinda sees an unwelcome visitor approaching her garden gate, she crouches in the rhododendrons by the front door to as not to be seen. Harriet is the tougher of the two sisters, since she is the one to interview and bargain with the lady who comes to buy cast-off garments from the gentry, and positively enjoys beating up the prices for Belinda’s dresses. But Belinda is the one who worries about the visiting dressmaker’s feelings, and can read the class nuances so precisely that she is in agonies over the caterpillar in the dressmaker’s daintily served cauliflour cheese. I was laughing my head off: clearly I have no sense of proper feeling. I do love this novel, just as I love all of Barbara Pym’s work.