Unsung Heroines of Martyrdom: the Pyre-Builders
Ron Mueck Woman with sticks, 2008 Mixed media 187 x 230 x 86 cm / 73 5/8 x 90 1/2 x 33 7/8 in (overall) 85 cm / 33 1/2 in (figure) 76 x 143 x 115 cm / 29 7/8 x 56 1/4 x 45 1/4 in (plinth)
© Ron Mueck Courtesy Anthony d'Offay / Hauser & Wirth Photo: Mike Bruce
Spare a passing thought for the pyre-builders, those unsung heroines of martyrdom. This young woman was chosen to play her part in the meticulous, heart-felt preparations for the immolation of the Jesuit poet Robert Southwell in 1595 because she had been obliged to participate in several of his over-long creative writing classes over at Heythrop House, a Catholic crammer in South Kensington.
Southwell, ever the harsh taskmaster, had demanded an entire crown of sonnets before the Nones bell struck. Even Sunday was not spared. When the news broke that he was to be relieved of his duties and have his soul transported, she was amongst the first to volunteer - in spite of the arduousness of the work. Each of the pyre builders was obliged to hew down, strip, and trim eight hundred and eighty-eight one-metre-long twigs of well seasoned birch wood. As is usually the case, all the volunteer pyre-builders were female because females, it is generally agreed, are more readily inclined to shed their clothes in conditions of intense heat.
The single most frustrating aspect of the case was that, as the pyre was building to its maximum ferocity, a recusant messenger boy arrived to announce that the government of the day had had a change of mind: Southwell was to die by hanging and evisceration, a much faster and more bloodily efficient mode of despatch. Understandably, the women raised up the messenger bodily, and committed him to the flames for his efforts.
An Infinity of Small Acts of Patience
Pursuits of a Scholar copyright Ryan Mosley image courtesy Alison Jacques Gallery
It scarcely needs to be said all over again, but we shall say it all the same. Making any poem cohere consists of an infinity of small acts of patience. This poet is just arriving at his third-floor 'studio' [rat-hole] after a twenty-minute trudge through the faceless housing estates of South London. He is burdened by the usual clutter: fragments of dreamscape; half-remembered memories of dead relatives, some more punitive than others; foggy recollections of school-day spats and other small-scale, wounding slights of various shapes and sizes. It is all just about manageable. It is all just about tolerable. Little of it is especially memorable for its own sake. What it means, of course, is that he is suffering, as usual, from the daily curse of being himself.
What is more, the overall tone of the scene, this lively, golden, peachy glow that he seems almost to be carrying around with him - it as if he cannot help himself; perhaps it is part and parcel of his innermost being - gives us all reason to hope, and perhaps even expect, that the joyously irrational feeling of self-transcendence that often seems to accompany the successful completion of any half-readable poem, ill-defined at this precise moment though it may be, could yet be in the offing. We do hope so, for his sake. For all our sakes, brethren, sisters.
A Moment in the Life of the Poet Conrad Eustace
Genre Piece, 2012 © Paul Hodgson, Courtesy Marlborough Fine Art
There's always so much to be said. And so little time in which to say it. We do feel for the poet Conrad Eustace, caught in the act of swivelling violently to the right in his chair. Before you ask, he is thirty-seven years of age, and he spent the best of his childhood years on board his stepfather's small fishing smack, moored off the coast of Venezuala, learning to observe the grindingly slow passage of time. In due course, he found himself in Europe, where he learnt to swim in European tides of fancy. Is this a painting studio in which he has found himself today? Not at all. The eye is so easily fooled. These are giant story boards. What would a poet be doing in the company of giant story boards though? He feels a little hemmed in here - isn't that the atmosphere? Poe-ish? Or mutedly Hitchcockian? Who laid down all that light-play, all that shadow-play anyway? And to what end?
Let us take a couple of steps back, shall we? Each and every one of us needs a modicum of light to see by. See what though? Reality. Or even that milk jug - half full, half empty - on the side table. When it comes to the fabrication of a thoroughly modern poem - and what are we in this world for if not to write thoroughly modern poems? - so much of the writing is obscurely bound up with the re-enactment of partially veiled states of mind. In fact, the making of the poem itself consists of a partial unveiling of some of those partially veiled states of mind - but not all of them, not by any means. We wouldn't want the poet to feel that he had violated himself.
Take Conrad, for example, who has borrowed this mini-loft from a casual lover in North London precisely in order to surround himself with these story boards of his own fabrication. Some of you could be fooled into thinking that they were paintings. Aren't they though? Violently gestural stuff, with a few spiky pepperings of Sutherland here and there?
Not at all. They are all tiny Homeric instances, rendered in two dimensions, using a thoroughly minimal palette - just as Conrad's own clothing is further evidence of his preference for a thoroughly minimal palette. Should we call this an existential palette? Is that what it is? Perhaps. We must be oh so careful not to lose a liberating sense of open-endedness as we painstakingly endeavour to describe what is going on here.
This has always rankled with Conrad. It is why he walked out without buying the book - in spite of the fact that the price tag was derisory. Why did the poet not conjure him further south - as far south as, say, the northern coat of Venezuala? Yes, Conrad, whenever he thinks about Homer and Walcott and imaginative spaces, always places the action of the transmuted Homeric epic in the abundant seas just to the north of Venezuala, where he spent those blameless childhood years, inhaling the imaginative possibilities of the ocean's boundless indeterminacy. What was Walcott doing harnessing Homer to St Lucia?
Now you see it all the more clearly, I have no doubt. There is a violence in-the-making in these story boards, a coming, post-colonial violence of Homeric liberation. We look forward to reading the poem itself. We look forward to observing him throw down the gage to Walcott, to hear him calling the older man something like WALL COOT or similar. Who knows, Conrad may become, in the fulness of time, a poetic titan too. We look forward to all that and then some more - unless Homer proves to be a life-long preoccupation. In which case, we wish him well life-long.
Gyorgy Makes a Splash!
Poetry magazines often pose grave dangers to the health and well-being of the world. Megalomania stalks the land, seeking whom it might devour. Last year the Poetry Review destroyed the sanity of its editor. She was said to have chewed off her own leg during office hours. Ever since, that magazine, such were its destructive powers, has been constrained, under heavy sedation, at an unspecified address. Now this monster, we understand, has risen once again from the depths, thrashing its inky tentacles.
No, oh foolish pen, I meant to say tentacle. Singular. Yes, and fortunately for all who may be unwise enough to be caught bathing in its orbit, it has been emasculated by its owners, the Poetry Society. There is no longer a Poetry Review such as we knew it at all. Few decisions can be wiser than this one.
Two things have happened. The magazine has been diced up into a flurry of single pages (yes, there is ample space for poems on both sides), each one A5 in format, so that its powers to harm have been mightily reduced. Each of these single pages is now the responsibility of a single editor. The first two editors are male. They have already been chosen. They are busy shredding the instantly putdownables even as you read.
Wisely? Are they poetry insiders? Yes and no. The first of them, George Surtees, has cut some fat mustard as a poet, but his achievements as a spasmodic versifier are wholly overshadowed by his early career as a champion steeplechaser back in his native Hungary. Yes, in '56, his glory year, and known then as Gyorgy Szirtes, he shaved off an entire cross-bar before hitting the home straits. A safe bet there then. The second, Bonny Charlie Boyle, has served time in Faber's mega-poetry-remainder-warehouse over in chilly Harpenden. Less well known is the fact that he once received the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his quick way with retorts.
All this is to be welcomed. We will no longer find ourselves in the terrible situation where enormous powers to wound, mock or merely cut with the keenest blade, will be invested in a single individual. The wielding of such powers has done immeasurable harm in the past (see above). Nothing similar will be allowed to happen in the future.
What is more, the content of each of these tiny magazinelets is being strictly monitored by the Arts Council of England, which has created a special board of advisors for this very purpose. Once again poets will be able to walk the streets of Covent Garden without fear of the quick thrust of the poignard from an alley.
And how will it be distributed? A touch of genius, this. Each editor will stand on the Poetry Society's first-floor balcony, facing the street, and let the intense London thermals carry it away. The first 'issue' is already blowing in the wind in some neighbourhood near you. Duck.
Baked Screechings and Wailings
As if by some miracle, this violin, baked to perfection, was wrested from the ruins of Pompeii just a couple of years ago. According to the triumvirate of experts who managed to decipher the fragment of delicate, charred papyrus in which it was wrapped, it had last been played at a concert in Napoli in homage to the Roman poet Sextus Propertius. The cinerary urn containing the surviving fragments of Propertius himself was carried, at walking pace needless to say, around the auditorium as the homage was played. This was not an occasion for Olympian nonsense.
What part did Ezra Pound play in all of this? you may be asking yourself, you ridiculous anachronists. Not so ridiculous though. Ezra will be bobbing and weaving in and out of this issue of The Bow-Wow Shop as we begin to remember all that he almost achieved, and then again. And his great Homage to Sextus Propertius was far from the least of the achievements of this wild, flame-haired pantechnicon of a man.
Epileptic Seizures of the Right Temporal Lobe and a Voluminous Outflow of Rhyme: a case study
Finally, when studying and treating a patient, it is the physician's duty always to ask himself: 'What does it feel like to be in the patient's shoes?' 'What if I were him?' In doing thus, I have never ceased to be amazed at the courage and fortitude of many of my patients or by the fact that, ironically, tragedy itself can sometimes enrich a patient's life and give it new meaning. For this reason, even though many of the clinical tales you will hear are tinged with sadness, equally often they are stories of the triumph of the human spirit over adversity, and there is a strong undercurrent of optimism. For example, one patient I saw - a neurologist from New York - suddenly at the age of sixty started experiencing epileptic seizures arising from his right temporal lobe. The seizures were alarming, of course, but to his amazement and delight he found himself becoming fascinated by poetry, for the first time in his life. In fact, he began thinking in verse, producing a voluminous outflow of rhyme. He said that such a poetic view gave him a new lease on life, a fresh start just when he was starting to feel a bit jaded. Does it follow from this example that all of us are unfulfilled poets, as many new age gurus and mystics assert? Do we each have an untapped potential for beautiful verse and rhyme hidden in the recesses of our right hemisphere? If so, is there any way we can unleash this latent ability, short of having seizures?
Sandra Blakeslee and V.S. Ramachandran
If you feel you may wish to unleash your latent poetic potential, write in the first instance to The Bow-Wow Shop. All enquiries will be treated sympathetically.
Where Poets Should Live: a Bow-Wow Shop User's Guide
Poet's Cafe Sign, Bukhara
The Bow-Wow Shop has often been commended, albeit by a small and extraordinarily discerning handful, for its usefulness, its companionableness, its general dependability. We thank you all for that. We are pleased to be your chosen bedfellow. Such praise, of course, makes us want to do a little better, to become even more companionable, dependable and useful. It's a natural human instinct. So in this issue we thought that we would offer you a truncated guide to where in the world it would be best for a poet to live.
We have not taken into consideration issues of cost. Money is neither here nor there. Our main concern is potential productiveness; where the pen is likely to flow most unencumberedly. Above all, we want to encourage the production of as much first-rate poetry as possible in the most sympathetic of worlds. The best way of achieving this goal, we felt, would be to name and shame a few of the places where the writing of poetry is wholly inadvisable. Give these places a very wide berth indeed. Do not risk becoming infected by their atmosphere.
Our least favourable places are these: Oxford (England), Cambridge (England) and Cambridge (Massachusetts). Why should this be so? The short answer is that there has always been too much writing and close-scrutinising of poetry by young, swell-bellied, swell-headed wiseacres in these places. Competent poetry is therefore two-a-penny. Broadsheets are pegged to every clothes lines. Even the household pets organise their own slams, at which the human poets laugh with their usual merciless superiority. So much is known about poetry in these places that there is nothing left to be discovered. Every second book is a book of poems.
Instead, we commend to you such a town as Bukhara, a more sequestered nook altogether, where you will become an instant marvel. Even if not a single word that you have ever written is translated into the native tongue, you will find yourself carried shoulder-high, day after day, around the perimeter of the Great Mosque, and then offered unlimited quantities of sweet coffee. The government of Uzbekistan may even offer you flight deals.
The Common Illnesses of poets: a digest of a pioneering study from an NHS Truss in Cumbria
A senior specialist in invasive procedures performs a poetechthomy on a former poet laureate at a hospital in South London. Various organs and other random gobbets of extruded matter were later donated to a children's hospital in Liverpool
The list of medically certifiable illnesses changes all the time, inflating like any gross, post-prandial stomach. Afflictions not even remarked upon by our benighted forebears now cost us millions of IOUs almost every day that we chance to live and breathe. Who in times past, for example, would ever have guessed that tens of thousands of school-age children might be suffering from an affliction which could be treated by the simple, heartfelt gift of thousand upon thousand of laptop computers?
Poets have always been a special case, of course, doctors to those who have rapidly bedded or thought well of them, witch doctors to those who have tended to hurry by on the other side - nervy primary school teachers, for example. A pioneering report from an NHS Truss in Cumbria will cause many poets to re-consider the impulses which drive them on to versify, willy-nilly, day in, day out. It lists some of the many illnesses to which poets often tend to be prone. In several cases, this is the very first time that they have been given a medical name. All the more reason to take them seriously then. Here is a random sampling of some which were giving particular cause for concern in the South-East of England in the late autumn of 2011 - that is as close as we ever get to the present in this report, which tends to incline towards bucolic vapidity at its outer edges.
This affliction can be recognised immediately, and it is particularly prevalent in Oxford, Cambridge, Norwich and across the bleaker stretches of the Wash as Autumn eases into Winter. It consists of harsh and uncontrollable outbursts of laughter when left alone in the presence of a poem of any length written by any living person other than the sufferer himself or herself. There is one quick remedy (highlighted, by the BMA, in a useful addendum to this report) which never fails to do the trick, and it is to smack the poeteasia sufferer across the side of the head - in the region of the temple is best - with a regular house brick of such and such dimensions scavenged from any blighted terrace across the entire length or breath of Merseyside or Humberside.
Studies have shown that no such response is forthcoming when the sufferer reads poems by the dead - or, indeedy, poems written by the sufferer himself or herself. In fact, quite the opposite is the case. A terrible seriousness descends upon the sufferer at such times. He or she is often inclined to slump into a chair and, head in hands, weep floods of tears of heartfelt appreciation. There is no known remedy for this kind of behaviour - expect, of course, to lock the sufferer into a small outside water closet scavenged from any terrace across the entire length or breadth of Merseyside or Humberside, for upwards of three months.
This is the name for the procedure most commonly used in hospitals in South London for blocking the creative passages of poets when they have dilated to such an alarming extent over a period of months and years that there is simply no other way to control them. Full details, accompanied by diagrams, and useful tips about what to do at home for those who live too far away from a public hospital or whose needs are too acute to resort to one, are available on the BMA's own website.
Innovative Poetry Publishing: The Future
The ever onward gallop of new technology means that books that can be read in the dark are now two-a-penny in various caves in Altamira. This is very good news for poets everywhere because most poetry books yield up the best of themselves when enjoyed in nocturnal situations - half-hidden beneath a duvet, for example. This girl from Pyongyang has just self-published her first collection. It is an extended meditation upon the life and death of a single marmoset, her most dependable childhood companion. She began to write it at the age of eight and a half, and completed the final poem within days of celebrating her twenty-seventh birthday - which, as it happens, fell just the other day, as the Feast of the Ascension was being celebrated in almost all civilised countries barring her own. It is a darkly ruminative book, and it seemed entirely appropriate that her father should profit by the latest technology to get it printed on the kind of dark-sensitive paper that is frequently used in North Korea for the communication of messages with a limited circulation. This means that the book is entirely legible in the kind of situation you can witness in this photograph, and wholly invisible otherwise. This kind of thing is a tremendous aid to the cultivation of inwardness.
Two male poets of a certain age are engaged in a boisterous conversation across a small restaurant table in Covent Garden, fuelled by the kind of passion that is often induced by a bottle of half-decent house red. John Hartley Williams is telling us about the poetry workshops he gave at the Listowel Festival just the other week. Wonderful, he vouchsafes, though the noise level is such that we have to read his lips.
Last year he was a little late in arriving, he tells us, so this time around he reserved a seat on the front row for the opening. He was right to do it: you can never be too careful. And what a ceremony it was! We touch glasses again to the memory of it. Especially good, he shouts, was the president of Ireland (Michael o dearie or something), who'd come trotting along to give the proceedings his blessings. Such eloquence! Such wit! Such learning! Such thoroughbred well-readness! Imagine our own lot of sclerotic politicos doing such a thing. We practically fall backwards out of our chairs laughing. Then there's a sudden change of mood.
Not so good, on the other hand, were some of the poems that he and his group had chosen to pick apart at their poetry dissection table. Hughes, Ted, had especially disappointed. 'You wouldn't believe how many bad poems that man wrote!' John tells me. That gets us both going. There's nothing better than agreeing to wholeheartedly condemn another poet. How the blood races!
'Remains of Elmet, that's where one of the worst of them came from,' he goes on, 'which is not, after all, too bad a book for the most part...'
'It's one in which he goes fishing and, right at the end, having kept the fish out of the water long enough for them to be stone dead, he tosses them back into the stream. You simply will not believe how bad the last line is!'
We tell him that I'm ready to believe it, but he has to tell me first. We're no good at guessing duff lines that we have not ourselves written. It's a failing, we know that.
'It would have made perfect sense to conclude the poem with the penultimate line, but, no, Hughes murders the whole thing!'
Brace yourself for this, readers:
I lobbed - one by one - high through the ai
The stiff, pouting, failed, paled new moons
Back into their paradise and mine. (!!!!!!!)
Marketing the Inedible - Kevin O'Rahilly writes...
Another deeply unsatisfactory, pre-publication meeting with the marketing manager of the publisher of the new collection of poems which, he informs me with ferocious sarcasm, consists of eighty or ninety unruly individualists, most of them too short even to get your teeth into, and all facing in slightly different directions.
I try to explain. A poem is what it is. It cannot be programmatic. A poem is just as long as it proves - and needs - to be. Inwardly I find myself agreeing with him, quite snarlingly emphatically, that it is very difficult to make a book of poems cohere. Outwardly, I sniffle-whimper all this back at him, needily, and in a maddeningly small and exaggeratedly unemphatic voice, as he swivels in his pumpy black leather chair, snarling approvingly at the booted foot that he has just hoisted up on to the edge of the teak desk which serves to separate us.
You can't make something big that's meant to be small, I add. Not everyone who foot-slogs through the bogs of Ireland is in the longer-term, epic business. Then he begins to talk to me about raising the profile, need to do same. Who has ever heard of you? he asks. Having mentioned two or three, I glance aimlessly in the general direction of the window. A young woman is seated, quite prettily, on the window sill opposite, lovingly communing with the morning's first cigarette. I think to myself: O'Rahilly, my dearest friend, you are barely on speaking terms even with the neighbours. I then wonder aloud how he will set about doing such a thing. He rummages about in a cupboard, eventually pulling out a length of twisty rope, a wrench and an ancient gibbet.
What he really does is to say this: wikipedia. The wikipedia page. Do I have a wikipedia page? He makes it sound like a medieval weapon. Perhaps a metal ball, with spikes. Not yet, I confess. What would you say if you did have a wikipedia page? he asks me, mock-tauntingly. I would say...I would say...that a book of poems can never be the equivalent of the illustrated history of the propelling pencil. It simply cannot be expected to generate that level of excitement.
I screw my features up into an expression of faux-excitement. Just then the fire alarm goes off. When it stops, with alarming abruptness, he tells me that poetry is a distraction, and that they are publishing it at all because Sir Ronald likes to read it to his new family.
Mud-Wrestling in Cyberspace
The left inclining profile of Norm Sibum, an intelligent maverick
Cyberspace is a lawless domain, ranged over at whim by tricksters, pranksters, cowboys and verbal brawlers who are just as likely to be telling the truth as any fresh-faced, aspiring member of our Westminster Parliament. That is the opinion of many. It's not true in this particular neck of the selva oscura, of course. We have better manners. We take our enemies seriously. We play by the rules. If we have a genuine grouse about something or somebody, we spend an awfully long time milling the edge of the blade before raising it up into the air.
And so to our story. The other month, a Canadian writer whose name we recently misplaced took the short-handled thrusting knife to one of our regular contributors, the poet Norm Sibum, who lives in Montreal. Norm has a lively cyberscene of his own going on over there. Its domain name is Ephemeris, and he uploads new words every livelong day that the almighty keeps the juice topped up in the dear man's batteries. Norm has been known to sprawl a bit at times, but he's worth attending to. He's an intelligent maverick.
Not that his assailant thought so. He came at him from every angle at once - jugular, carotid, heart, kidneys, testicles, butt. It was not so much that Something was wrong about Norm, his website, his poetry and his personal habits. It was that Everything was wrong about Norm, his website, his poetry and his personal habits. Can this be a case of old-fashioned animus disguising itself, at least in part, as something a little more high falutin'? Here is the trick. The blade must be clean. It must strike at the right angle. The worst thing anyone wants to experience is a messy outcome. Justice must be seen to be done.
Dial P for Murder
He broke in to the house one morning and, wrenching a book out of the stack, he murdered a perfectly harmless piece of elderly verse which had been living there in the company of fellow inmates for upwards of eighty years. The others tried to stop him, but what could they do? Elderly verse is never armed to the teeth, except with slightly dated imprecations, which proved perfectly useless, of course. They tried to tell him that it would be utterly pointless, that he would gain nothing by it other than instant notoriety, but he did it all the same. He started at the top of the page, with the very first line, and he murdered each and every line in succession, twisting the neck of every syllable, mispronunciating the rhyme words, strangulating every metaphor. It was such a sad, pitiful, bloodied mess by the time he'd finished.
When the local vigilantes discovered who'd done it, they torched the manuscript he and others of a similar age had been spoon-feeding with syrupy praise over a period of years, and gave a suspended sentence to the entire local poetry group, the ones who had been stoking his mania to be published before the forty-seventh birthday of his eldest daughter, one of about seventeen.