25 November 2005
A white day
to go: November slipping
or jaundiced, brittle with frost.
even now, not drowned in flesh,
but turned to gold,
skin beaten out
to the thinnest leaf,
a god’s mask,
if gods could die
or come to grief. That sheen,
as if death
burned off the slag, left only
the right metal,
the flash of talent, the joy
speeding and weaving
to its goal,
baffling all challenge, laughing
at its gift.
We grow up:
put away childish things, stop
hoping for fame
same as the rest. But just
now and then,
a man rises
above everyday, a man
and we fly
a little way on his uplift.
he comes down
in the end to ruin?
It is the brief
the leaving earth, that lives,
as when a boy,
still glowed from having once
touched the sun.
This poem was first published in PN Review. It appears in Sheenagh Pugh’s current collection, Long-Haul Travellers (Seren, 2008).
Order your copy of Long-Haul Travellers here or here.
Visit Sheenagh’s website.
“Poetry seems to have been eliminated as a literary genre, and installed instead, as a kind of spiritual aerobic exercise – nobody need read it, but anybody can do it.”
– Marilyn Hacker
“It is true there is not enough beauty in the world.
It is also true that I am not competent to restore it.
Neither is there candor, and here I may be of some use.”
– Louise Glück, from “October”
Averno (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2006)
“A poem is a place where the conditions of beyondness and withinness are made palpable, where to imagine is to feel what it is to be. It allows us to have the life we are denied because we are too busy living. Even more paradoxically, poetry permits us to live in ourselves as if we were just out of reach of ourselves.”
– Mark Strand
when I work I am pure as an angel
tiger and clear is my eye and hot
my brain and silent all the whining
grunting piglets of the appetites.”
– Marge Piercy, from “The Moon is Always Female”
“After they had explored all the suns in the universe, and all the planets of all the suns, they realised that there was no other life in the universe, and that they were alone. And they were very happy, because then they knew it was up to them to become all the things they had imagined they would find.”
– Lanford Wilson, Fifth of July
Last night, I read Philip Larkin’s interview in The Paris Review Interviews, Volume 2 (Picador, 2007). Larkin wasn’t the most amenable interviewee (he was downright cranky at times), but his answers make for interesting reading.
The interviewer, Robert Phillips, said: “Davison also sees your favourite subjects as failure and weakness”, referring to Peter Davison, an American “poet-critic”.
“I think a poet should be judged by what he does with his subjects, not by what his subjects are. Otherwise you’re getting near the totalitarian attitude of wanting poems about steel production figures rather than “Mais où sont les neiges d’antan?” Poetry isn’t a kind of paint spray you use to cover selected objects with. A good poem about failure is a success.”
Similarly, I’ve read reviews in which poets are berated for being “too personal”, for writing about menstruation, menopause, infertility or masturbation. These topics make some people uncomfortable, but surely nothing should be taboo. What is poetry, if not personal? Who are the final arbiters of what is and isn’t acceptable? It’s subjective, a matter of personal taste. A poem should be judged on merit, on whether it is well written, not on its subject matter. How boring it would be if all poetry toed the line. Vive la différence.
“I think a young poet, or an old poet for that matter, should try to produce something that pleases himself personally, not only when he’s written it but a couple of weeks later. Then he should see if it pleases anyone else, by sending it to the kind of magazine he likes reading. But if it doesn’t, he shouldn’t be discouraged. I mean, in the seventeenth century every educated man could turn a verse and play the lute. Supposing no one played tennis because they wouldn’t make Wimbledon? First and foremost, writing poems should be a pleasure. So should reading them, by God.”
– Philip Larkin
“When I look at my life I realise that the mistakes I have made, the things I really regret, were not errors of judgement but failures of feeling.”
– Jeanette Winterson
Read Jeanette Winterson’s January column on the death of her father here.