Stride Magazine -

  DON’T ASK ME WHAT I MEAN (Poets In Their Own Words)
edited by Claire Brown & Don Paterson
[335pp hardback, £16.99, Picador]

This book is a collection of stuff written by poets for the Poetry Book Society Bulletin when one of their books was chosen by the Society as a Choice or Recommendation, or whatever. Leave it at that. It’s definitely not “a guide to the work of almost all the major poets published in the UK in the last fifty years”, as the Introduction would have it. There’s too many cracking poets who never get within even earshot of the PBS for that to be true. Nor is it, as the cover blurb has it, “a unique insight into some of the most remarkable minds of our time.” This claim is immediately undermined by the presence of, among others, Simon Armitage and Wendy Cope. But reading poets going on about themselves can be entertaining, and sometimes enlightening, and sometimes even fucking funny. That here they weren’t put on the spot by a tough interviewer, but let loose with their ego, can be kind of revealing. The majority take the predictable line that writing or talking about one’s own poetry is difficult, unnecessary, pointless…. but the majority of that majority end up doing it anyway, to a greater or lesser degree, because they’ve been asked to, and it’s relatively painless for all concerned. Most of the time, anyway. And if you took a bunch of the ideas here, mixed them up, turned some of them inside out and some of them upside down, headed in the complete opposite direction, and then set fire to a couple, you’d probably end up with a half-baked poetic philosophy that sounds about as good as any other.

There are bits in this book too good to miss. So, for your delectation, and I hope your entertainment, I’ve taken the liberty of turning this “review” into a kind of award ceremony. A bit like The Brits, but there are nowhere near as many girls here with not much on. Anyway, let’s get going: there are awards to be awarded. So, and in no particular order, here they are:

The Precious Silver Spoon Award to Frances Cornford:

“Rothenstein persuaded my father to print privately my first volume of poems. Roger Fry reviewed it very kindly in the Times Literary Supplement, and it had a small succs d’stime.”

The Award for Saying What Loads of Other Poets Said but This One Says It Most Eloquently to George Barker

“I’ve never been able to believe that poets invented or made up or created poems: it has always seemed to me that the poem allowed the poet to discover it much as a water diviner is permitted to come upon water.”

The Award for Sounding Like Someone You Could Like If You didn’t Already Know You Didn’t Like Him
to Kingsley Amis

“…he will see his readers or anyone else damned before he will reveal his almost total ignorance of what on earth he is up to as a poet.”

The Award for Being Quite Refreshing to John Ash

“For me, poetry is not ‘a spiritual exercise, a state of the soul or a placing of oneself in a situation’ (‘I’ is not a word that occurs with any frequency), but more of an attempt to reproduce ‘the splendour and freshness of a dream language.’”

The Award for Best Word to Carol Ann Duffy:


The “I Am Not Frank O’Hara Award” goes to W.S.Graham:

“I am always very aware that my poem is not a telephone call.”

The Award for Being Sensible About Influence to Elizabeth Jennings:

“Influences are perhaps interesting and I should like to think that I have been influenced by the modern poets whom I most admire ­ Yeats, Edwin Muir and the American Wallace Stevens. I do not think I have been strongly influenced by any of these poets in the matter of technique. Rather they have acted as liberators, have shown me the most direct way into my own world.”

The Poetry As Dung Award
goes to Roy Fuller:

“I would like readers to wring the last ounce out of lines like:

              Why the short sword of Brutus dealt
              A thrust at its beloved thing.”

[Dear Reader, I’m afraid there’s more of this rubbish, which is why he‘s a winner:]

              The car in the lane that circumvents
              The archipeligos of dung

…cow dung, obviously, because of its island shape; “archipelagos” because of the tendency of a group of islands to consist of smaller and smaller islands at its extremity.”

The Quite Funny Parenthesis Award
to Charles Causley:

“Since 1947, I have worked as a teacher (all subjects from religious education to disorganised games)”

The “If You’re Not Going To Drink It, Give It Here” Award
to Dom Moraes:

“While writing I chainsmoke and stand a bottle of whisky in front of me, not to be consumed but so that it can admire me at my labours.”

The Award For Being Embarrased but Still Somehow Managing to Write 3 Pages, Which Is Just About The Longest Essay in the Book to Michael Donaghy:

“It’s embarrassing to discuss your own poems in print.”

An Award Because I Like This Paragraph to Lawrence Durrell:

“I have been writing since childhood and have as yet not completely conquered a desire for fame (so hard is it to face the possibility that one is second-rate). If I should ever achieve the disinterested automatism for which I am searching in life, I don’t doubt but that my technical grasp of the job would let me rise into the front rank. But this cannot be done by trying. One can only sit like a fisherman on a bank and watch the bloody float.”

The “I Am Not A Postmodernist” Award to: Peter Didsbury:

“….my distaste at being described as a postmodernist. I believe I’m engaged in tasks and duties and pleasures which are nothing if not ancient.”

The Samuel Taylor Coleridge Award for Mentioning Samuel Taylor Coleridge goes to Geoffrey Grigson:

“At a Poetry Festival or a writers’ conference Coleridge and Hesiod are unlikely to be encountered.”

The “Mentioning of the Great Ron Padgett” Award goes to Billy Collins:

“….my theory of writing poetry is like Ron Padgett’s philosophy of life: just cook well, then butter and serve.”

The What the Fuck Am I Doing Here Award and The Poetry Then Was Obviously Just Like Poetry Now Award both go without a shadow of a doubt to Christopher Logue:

“Talent is thin on the ground, ability to face outwards, using personal predicament as a spur and not an end in itself. The indifference of the educated public to poetry is justified. Organisations such as the Poetry Society and the Poetry Book Society emphasise this indifference but do almost nothing to change it.”

The Award for Something or Other but I’m Not Quite Sure What to R.S.Thomas:

“When the genius appears, he does easily what had seemed impossible. The poet of the new age may already have been hatched in some incubator or other. For myself I cannot boast even a guitar. I play on a small pipe, a little aside form the main road. Thank you for listening.”

Thomas also collects the rarely awarded The Confusion of Dancers & Actresses Award. In two separate essays, R.S. says the following:

“One is reminded of Eleanora Duse: ‘if I could express my meaning in words, why should I go to the immense trouble of dancing it?’”

“I still remember Anna Pavlova’s answer to the question as to what her dance meant: ‘If I could tell you in words, do you think I would go to the immense trouble of dancing it?’”

The Award for Grabbing an Advertising Opportunity goes to John Heath-Stubbs:

“A book of selected poems is simply a case of samples. I would refer readers who find my work in any way attractive to my more substantial volume of Collected Poems.”

The Award for the Most Pretentious Twaddle (there were surprisingly few nominations in this category) goes to Charles Tomlinson:

“Perhaps I should add that the short lines of these poems are not to be read staccato: they are intended to be full of the rubato of daily speech, to be kept in flowing movement like a melody and, like a melody, to be felt out against their accompanying silence.”

The Award for the Best Name
by a distance to Chase Twichell.

The Pizza Hut Award for Services to Pizza
to Gerard Woodward:

“Fourteen poems were written in a miserable ground floor council flat where the old woman upstairs sang, and hovered her carpets every morning at half past five. Spiteful children fought outside the windows. I worked nights in a pizza restaurant and fought with drunken sailors and was spat at by their girlfriends.”

Thank you all for coming. We can all go home now. Drive carefully.

             © Martin Stannard 2003