Thursday, March 02, 2006

A long excuse to post a poem

Stephen Fry, self-hating polymath and bad novelist, has given us the benefit of his thoughts on poetry in The Ode Less Travelled, his most recent addition to a consistently irritating oeuvre. Fry is Tony Hancock's deluded autodidact snob come to life. His polysyllabic faux-donnish 'I think you'll find...' attitude, and the repellently smug conservatism of his....oh, I can't keep this up. He's OK I suppose. A Bit of Fry & Laurie was very funny wasn't it? And his Voltaire / Gilbert Harding idiot-baiting persona can be very charming. I once saw him tear into a spirit medium on some kind of Kilroy-style TV show with an articulate cold fury that visibly injured the cowardly cheat. But there's something annoying about his telling us about poetry. What are his credentials exactly? It's a similar notion to that behind those celebrity cookbooks where we learn how to braise Lowri Turner's kidneys. It's passingly interesting to discover that celebrities exist outside of TV. Once you've made this discovery (I made it aged 9 when Gary Newbon opened a fishing tackle shop in my village) it's time to get back to reading 2000AD and killing ants. Many people at the moment (you may have noticed this) seem to have got rather stuck at this point of their culturation, and all areas of the media are more than happy to feed them what they want. Fry's poetasting falls, I submit, into this category.

The book's OK I suppose, if you had no access to a Waterstones, a secondary education, or your own mind. Pretty much everyone in the world gets a go at poetry, even if it's only nursery rhymes or choosing words to chant at sports events. Most people don't pursue it for the same reason that most people don't pursue painting. It's surprisingly hard to get good at it, it doesn't interest many people around you, there's no money in it, and it's not a very sociable way of dispensing with your spare time. The general falling-off of poetic activity in the last 200 or so years is not because people haven't been taught about dactyls and trochees.

Most irritating, however, is a passage wherein Fry launches a vituperative attack on what he imagines 'modern' or 'free' poetry to be, even including an example (written by Fry himself) for us to laugh and marvel at. Well fuck you Fry. The type of writing you imagine to be poisoning the well of poetry has been the most fascinating and useful since time began. The sixteenth century was full of competent gentleman poets writing sonnets about their lovers. Outside of the academy they are all forgotten. Not so John Donne, writer of the most crabbed and strange poetry theretofore seen. When Whitman was first published, people claimed that they literally could not understand a word of it, in rather the same way people once claimed to find newsreaders with slight regional accents incomprehensible. And people are still saying it now. If you want poetry to be easily understandable then you want it to be powerless to communicate the new insight or idea. I suppose that you could level the same accusation at theoretical physics. To the uninitiated it looks like gibberish, so must be generated by a weak or flawed mind. Entartete Kunst! Hulk smash! This is philistinism. It is unattractive, Fry, and will get you friends you don't want.

Anyway all this is by way of a preamble to saying that I recently got interested in writing in rather tight traditional verse forms - particularly the sestina, and I wanted to make it clear that this was not occasioned by Stephen Fry's kind and helpful guidelines on the subject. I got the idea from John Ashbery. The sestina is composed of seven stanzas. Its stucture is built around a pattern of repeated end-words. The first six line stanza has a different word at the end of each line. The second stanza has the same six end words, but in a different order, and so on through to the seventh stanza, which is of three lines and includes all six end words, one in the middle and one at the end of each line. The pattern according to which the end words' order changes is set, but it's a bit complex to explain without giving an example. Luckily (reaches below table) here's one I prepared earlier. There are plenty of places you can get a more detailed run down on the sestina and other rare beasts like the pantoum, ghazal and villanelle without having to line the pockets of an art-hater. You started it, Fry.

This is my best sestina so far:

The Glass House

How our days will fall or cluster by recall’s index.
How this pattern broadly slants the lunch-hour corridor.
Pale blue, pale green: hatched daylight
breaking in transverse tides, your white shirt
and your, and afternoon’s, and my arrival.

Still, dismal in the press of each arrival,
skylight by skylight, is a skylit cluster
or arrangement of some sorrows, thus: a shirt
collar, splayed at the throat, a pattern
pressing the glazed eye with daylight.
Explosions warp windows in the vacuum corridor.

Bomb pressure hairdo in the lunch-hour corridor.
Such visions as attend your bloody arrival
skew and seethe quite unlike daylight,
then as fast retreat and are a cluster
of blink motes, wherein again the banded pattern
of light pulses, and repulses, across your shirt.

All this while I’m in the wrong shirt,
dead still in the gunsight corridor,
pierced in my tin shadow by a pattern
of kill-shots, the event’s arrival
is love, another, a memory cluster
coding for this particular daylight.

All of us walk in rented daylight
each in his or her chosen shirt
toward the point where the lines cluster
which today is the end of this corridor.
In the constant flare and fade of our arrival
I see nothing I could call a pattern.

Recall prints the long pattern
in file history, in saved daylight,
makes a song and dance about arrival
in a worn out grey green shirt,
walking the type of quotidian corridor
where such events are apt to cluster.

Without this pattern, watch it cluster,
would your arrival, your beautiful shirt,
matter? Breathe daylight, walk the corridor.

Ah, now I see. It's beautifully spacious, complex and surprisingly colloquial form.
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