Category Archives: confession

Why don’t I understand poetry?

L found a book in a second-hand-book shop in Johannesburg called Future Exiles: 3 London PoetsAllen Fisher, Bill Griffiths, Brian Catling. It was Paladin Re/Active Anthology No. 1, published by Paladin Poetry in 1992 and edited by Iain Sinclair before he was famous: the jacket blurb, I imagine composed by himself, is as overwritten as you might expect, which makes me smile. Earnest, uncompromisingly un-dumbed-down. A nice bit of Stanley Spencer on the cover. L thought these scarcely known artists would be an inspiration to me.

They were. But I got very little of the work. I liked the words; I felt these were real poets, which perhaps means nothing more than, they weren’t guilty of my notions of fake poetry: neither sententious prose broken up into lines nor a formal exercise in metre and rhyme and image and structure (and sentiment). The words were charged, potent, alive, quivering and breathing (you can add some more appreciate adjectives of your own if you like), the rhetoric and rhythm alert and suggestive and provocative, the poets giving you a shove on the shoulder to make his point. They are, as art should be, irreducible to a moral or message, parable or allegory. Notice that these are all negative definitions, rules about what art is not. The trouble was that beautiful resonance alone didn’t give me a reason to read a second page.

Page 1 (the book begins with Allen Fisher):

1 Business

The sky is not our limit

A perfect fluid where
energy-density equals
pressure and sound-
velocity equals light-
velocity transforms
on the collision of
plane impulsive gravity
into null dust

X-Ray film to X-Ray

Shovel and cloth
or a muffled steel
hits the paving
signals another day
cleaning the summer

Wonderful. Page 2:

‘I’ve Left My Umbrella In A Taxi’

Fuel cracks
horizons over
gun a sound
in deep concrete a
high pitched blue
wheel ticks
weights through
bodies of food beget
hot displeasure fit
anger to uncultivated
din and this defends me

(After Wyatt’s Description of a Gun)

The gambler’s moll at No. 10

He walks up the alley
catches sunshine information
and heat beneath a hanging
honeysuckle where he scrubs
his body with the leaves
flowers resin and scent
extracts a population
of fleas and walks on

I’m starting to lose traction. Staying in low gear, I make it through to Bill Griffiths:

After Stroke

his jacket, boots kept outside the holding cell
I exhale: my breath tastes
as cut and raw veg
ceiling and great flanged tree
roundabouted, grudge
and wedge
the cuss-crush, bits of
death by fire, death by pneumonia, brain-jolting
with major wings
floods, catching.
slow angry I move
like with the heart of a hedgehog –
shocked with drink
Pete starts off to smash
the cell open, forgets it –
volcanoes=volcano will push the trees aside,
tilt and melt, like lightbulbs, till too
superheaven admits no light but a lemon blaze.
but it never comes / chains together,
the similes leap
nothing of it happens
it wldn’t happen, I suppose – morning,
I try to get my legs to move
Alf wakes with his hand in his belt
Pauline doesn’t stir yet – thinking:
it wld be better to burn the money
than be caught w/ it in yr pockets.

the cold roll of the river
the judged spark of cold stony flesh
the solemn sprinkle of bells toward a sun
vast dimensions
pinewoods & pure roadways choose on,
don’t check you

I start skimming, then skipping. And yet it’s a pleasure to type this stuff.

Last comes Brian Catling, a sculptor, installation artist, performer as well as poet. His section opens with prose, a series of pieces called Written Rooms and Pencilled Crimes, each half a page to a page and a half long. Now these, for me, don’t bear exemplification. Most of them describe rooms, and usually there is something going on in the room; often, they might be descriptions of a performance installation. They are, on the whole, simply and beautifully written. Often something painful, cruel or menacing is happening, or there is a horrifying risk of it happening. Often there is magic being worked, or at least, someone having a serious go at it, in a way that those lucky enough to have read The Course of the Heart and other work by M John Harrison might recognise. Lighting and textures are cheap, accidental, dilapidated and intensely considered, just the way I like them.

Like Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities, these fragments can’t be explained as extracts from an unwritten story: their before and after loom over them, sure, but we are bound to the present moment or moments under description as if we were present. There is a place: unlike Calvino’s cities, or Borges’ fantasies, which I would also put on this shelf, it is usually physically plausible, somewhere you could build and not just conjure up in words. There are people. Often there is a narrative: one thing follows another, is caused by it; you could write a script.

So after ten written rooms and pencilled crimes, I was excited to reach Catling’s poems. I understand this guy’s language, I thought. First:

Moon surgeon

Moon surgeon
dazzles in transparent air,
entwining the
cosmic dragon
onto the rubber hand.

And travellers stumble into
night’s artillery
crazed in subterranean swamp-
Mineral clock unwinds a sprung
water tongue

A ghost is being built from the more
solid things

Great. Don’t get it. Next:

To journey longer and blister

To journey longer and blister
around the vegetable eruption,
its thermal violence-
eating tantrum.

Or mid-europe among smoke and trees.
Treatment varies painfully
but squeezes out mephitic pleasures
under weighted pinball moons.

But being earthed & unmasked
adrift on the pesthouse clinker;
to journey is a cancerous deceit
for the monkish leather android.

You can’t fail to approve of a poem that gives you a monkish leather android. But what else?

After some pages of poetry, we get more Written Rooms, then more poems, and so on. Each prose section astonishes me: no duds, no disappointing understanding of a mechanism at work. One lends itself to allegory; other, later pieces cross over into the incantation of the poems, unintelligible to me:

From these relentless fictions I have netted a storm. I have bred hands. Incubated them in gloves of sulphur. Coaxed harsh nubile bone to invert itself. Carved them from occulted stones of lost intentions. Bathed them in milk under the swollen names of angels. And on that distant night unleashed them; a sending, a maelstrom of many where only one was needed. Tinder nails bite sparks from the walls in their passing, their velocity echoes stars in rain water cobble stones, a scatter over darkness, a flutter into dust: right hand, left hand, the prey being sensed, a warmth inbetween. Closing.

Each poetry section baffles me. So it should! is the easy response, followed by a quote from Keats:

… at once it struck me what quality went to form a Man of Achievement, especially in Literature, and which Shakespeare possessed so enormously – I mean Negative Capability, that is, when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason…

In Brian Catling’s poems and prose I seem to have found the exact spot where my own Negative Capability as a reader runs out. This is rather disappointing. I wish someone could help me.

Of Time and the City

Went to see Of Time and the City by Terence Davies on Sunday. I never know quite what to make of his films. The first one I saw, Distant Voices, Still Lives, in 1988, I reviewed for the university newspaper. “This is how to make films,” I wrote. “Cinematic concentrate. It’s an autobiographical picture of the lives of a Liverpool family in the forties and fifties; as remembered at the funeral of the violent and tyrannical father, then as the family ages and the children get married. If this sounds unpromising matter for a yarn, then you have in fact struck on the film’s weak spot. Its considerable strength, on the other hand, comes from Davies’ direction; the scenes succeed in the chronological disorder of memory; user-friendly features such as introductory and explanatory bits and references to other scenes are scornfully eschewed. The effect is exposure to the dramatic, emotional and aesthetic content of each scene in undiluted essence. The brew is not so strong and bitter as in Davies’ previous black-and-white Trilogy; but what does it profit him to distil it to such a purity if he will not add a tinge of soul?”

I think I have become less pompous in the past two decades. Not much, though. Continue reading Of Time and the City


I’ve just been typing up a list of every job I was rejected for in 1991 and 1992. There were a lot of them and most are terrifyingly dull-looking – it was around the time I moved to London and I didn’t know any better. But wouldn’t our CVs and biogs be more informative if they chronicled failures, disappointments, thwartings, accidents, aborted projects, misconceptions and frustrations as carefully as successes, insights, discoveries, achievements, accomplishments and strokes of luck? Positivity seems to have become a religion, the only one we here can still give credit to. I get a bit tired of this sometimes. We get “It’s all good” instead of “God bless” or “God willing”. But it’s not, is it?

The Museum of Doubt

is the title story of a rather good collection by James Meek. It’s a phrase that runs around my head a lot these days. I’m married to a doubter: only a few decades ago, I guess, that would have evoked a scene between a wise old priest and a passionate young intellectual, in which one would confess to the other that he (probably he) had Doubts. About their religious, Christian, probably C or E faith, naturally. These days, no one in this country is expected to be doubt-free about all that. But certainty is still hot property in every other sector of human behaviour. To get on, whether a career or in your social interactions, you must be sure of yourself.

I’m not even a doubter. I just don’t know. It’s not good when two people like me get together. After an initial warm rush to intimacy, recognising that we understand each other’s troubles getting to grips with the world, there is inevitably little to say. We look into each other’s eyes, smile and nod encouragingly, and realise we have nothing more to offer each other.

But what I wanted to talk about was how that affects the work. The Work. (One of the few things I know I liked about art school was learning that I could refer to such a massive range of activity, not to mention inactivity, with that one earthy word. It can either be the finished thing, buffed-up and nicely lit in its gilt frame with a little biographical notice in a tastefully understated font beside it, or it can be an otherwise unremarkable moment that might, maybe, be leading there.) When I was watching Spiritual Voices I thought, “This could do with some editing.” I like long, slow, contemplative films; I don’t see why we should slavishly follow the less-is-more principle and cut away everything inessential; but I think Sokurov is a little self-indulgent here. So, given that this was an observational documentary shot without extra lighting (except when outdoors at night) and so has a lot of murky shots, and that I felt the director had been less than rigorous in his editing, I wondered whether some of the more nicely lit, interestingly textured scenes had been included just because they were the closest this film was ever going to get to eye candy (the Old Master moments in the oil-lamp-lit dinner at night up at the observation post in episode 5, for anyone who’s interested: it seems a bit repetitious of the same scene by daylight earlier in that episode).

Then again, in Sokurov’s shoes, what would I do? I like work that is intellectually and conceptually tight, but, doubting that anyone will find that interesting enough in my work (perhaps not even me), I like to serve up some sensual, emotional, visceral stimulation at the same time. Oooh, that shot looks a bit like a painting! Oooh, look at what he’s doing now! Even, ooooh, that shot could have been in a normal film! And perhaps those moments serve a useful purpose in stirring up the mechanistic unfolding of whatever scheme or structure I think I’m working with; like the catchlight in an eye lifts an otherwise dark-toned portrait, like the sharp fruit cuts through the cheesy coating of the tongue at the end of a meal, like anything that disturbs what you have come to expect brings you back to the present, to what is actually happening, revives you, opens you up. Sounds good. But have I just convinced myself of something because I that moment reminded me of a film I’d rather be making, or might be making instead, or that would make people take me more seriously, and I’ve stuck it in place with special pleading putty?

I just don’t know. I don’t really want to know. I just want it to work for others the way I think it works for me. So they’re not sure either.