In the first week of my ‘read a poetry book a day’ quest I actually managed five books rather than seven, but I think that’s a pretty good start. As promised here’s a very brief roundup of my impressions, and a few notes on how the process is going generally.
A tense, claustrophobic world with two just principal protagonists (‘she’ and ‘he) and a series of nightmarish scenarios where little is said or sayable – ‘He reads her by her scars. / Does he remember writing them?’ (‘One Last Time’). The many references to limbs, hands, skin, nails and lips – dragging, wiping, scraping swallowing and sewing – of words, or body parts, or tears – is intensely physical and I felt completely pulled in. The poems are uncomfortable, but compelling – like staring at something you’d really rather turn away from. Read as a sequence at one sitting. Favourite poem: ‘Her Turn’.
Otherwhere – Catherine Smith (Smith/Doorstop, 2012)
Like Abegail, Catherine is both a friend and a poet for whom I have enormous respect. It was she who inspired me start the ‘Reading List’ project, as I explained in my last blog post. So who better to pick up and read in my first week. Reading Otherwhere in one go is rather than gorging on one of those huge chocolate Easter Eggs (in the days when they were filled with yet more chocolate.) One more piece? Oh go on then. In an effort to categorise the themes and styles I started trying to group individual poems under headings…Surreal, Satire, Poignant, Erotic charge, Childhood memory, Ironic observation and Powerful but hard to classify, which I admit is a bit of a cop out. A rich and rollicking great read. Favourite poem: ‘Story’.
A Recipe for Water – Gillian Clarke (Carcanet, 2009)
By the time I picked up A Recipe for Water I was starting to realise how much I have actually read of the poetry books I possess. I feel as if I haven’t had time to read them properly, but even having dipped in and out, I’m still finding many poems familiar. This collection is full of the beautiful nature poetry I associate with Gillian Clarke, her affinity with the Welsh language and her Welsh heritage – ”The sea turns its pages, speaking in tongues. / The stories are yours, and you are the story.’ – ‘First Words’. Favourite poem: ‘Kites’.
Brumaire and Later – Alasdair Paterson (Flarestack, 2010)
Ooh! I struggled a little here. A pamphlet, so short in length, but very dense. It’s in two halves and built around the premise of the French revolutionary calendar, ‘ in which not only every month but every day was re-named after familiar flora, fauna and work tools’. In the second half, the poems take on the same theme but extend it into post-revolutionary Russia. Not having any great handle on these undoubtedly historic events, I couldn’t quite crack the code. (I blame my French Revolution phobia on being force-fed A Tale of Two Cities when I was eleven.) But I liked the conceit of it, and it makes for some wonderful titles, from ‘Apple’ and ‘Goose’ to ‘Ear’ and ‘Holes’. Probably very entertaining to hear at a reading, with some background preamble.
Overwintering -Pippa Little (Carcanet, 2012)
I came across a poem by Pippa Little relatively recently and wanted to read more of her work. Pippa has a wide range of styles and registers, and many of the poems here are rooted in the Northumbrian landscape, its history and its characters. You could glance at the copious notes at the back and worry about what you’re getting into, but no need. The poems are perfectly enjoyable even if you don’t know what the odd word means or refers to (always a sign of good writing, in my book). It was easy to read through this collection in one go, and plenty that was memorable, such as ‘Beijing Flight, Thursday Morning’, ‘After Flooding’ and ‘Spending One Day with Patrick Kavanagh’. Favourite poem: ‘Axis’.
On the process:
To begin with it felt wrong to be reading poetry books as I would a novel – no re-reading or going back (or very little), just ploughing on. But there were unexpected benefits. First of all, when I got the end of a book, especially if I had read it through in one sitting, I found I had very good sense of the work, a big picture if you like, more wood than trees.
Secondly, there are sometimes extended or concurrent themes that may not be obvious when cherry picking or dipping in and out. A repeated word here and there, references between poems (intertextuality, I think that’s called?) and other nuances seem to ping out when you consume a whole book at once. You see many subtle and clever things that you might not otherwise.
It wasn’t easy at first, especially fighting my instinct to re-read when something wasn’t clear. I didn’t re-read until I’d got the end of the collection, and it paid off. On returning to individual poems they seemed so much clearer and familiar the second time around, more so than if I had spent half an hour doing a close reading of a single poem.
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