Boom, Boom – ‘View of the Capitol from the Library of Congress’ by Elizabeth Bishop

View of the Capitol from the Library of Congress’ by the American poet Elizabeth Bishop sounds like an austere landscape painting, but the poem gently mocks the seriousness of its surroundings.

Continue reading

Negative Virtues – ‘Into My Own’ by Robert Frost

Poems are not social in any normal sense of the word. You have to spend a lot of time alone to write or read them. The reader might share them or even read them to someone else (it does happen) and you can say that this is a kind of socialness. Here we get a little closer to the truth.

But it’s still not the whole truth: the pleasure the writer and the reader receive from the excuse to be alone which a poem provides them is not identical to the thought of the pleasure they may bring other people. At least that’s not my experience. If it was, people would write fewer poems.

A lot of great poetry comes with a drop of misanthropy. Misanthropy comes in different guizes. It might appear as a preference for some abstract principle — like an idea, or history, or God over living, breathing people. With Robert Frost, it often comes as the desire to be alone.

Continue reading

Into My Own: A Proposal

There is something about poetry which speaks to isolation. A poem is a highly concentrated moment of communication. Or rather a highly concentrated moment of attempted communication.

Poets are generally more solitary than most, but a poem is never solitary: it’s a signal sent up into the sky, trusting someone will receive it. For all these reasons they are everywhere right now (I suspect attention span also has a role to play). The poet laureate Simon Armitage has already written his first Coronavirus poem. You can follow the hashtag ‘covidpoetry’ on Instagram.

I’ve been thinking of writing a blog about poems for a while, but I do not want it to be me ‘explaining poems’. As if I could. Instead, this would be a regular thing – weekly, if I could keep it up (UPDATE: I have not kept it up) – where I will pick a poem and talk about what I like about it.

Continue reading

2 reviews: Hannah Lowe and Stewart Sanderson

I enjoy doing OPOIs (it stands for ‘one point of interest’) for Sphinx Review, the brainchild of Helena Nelson at HappenStance Press. The form, 350 words on one thing you liked about a new pamphlet, works like all forms – the restriction becomes a kind of freedom. If you haven’t written any criticism before it is a good, supportive place to start.

By ‘criticism’ I mean any kind of reflection on how literature does and doesn’t work for you, though these days the word will seem negative to many people. There is no reason why this has to be the case. All reviewing is a kind of criticism, or ought to be.

The beauty of the OPOI is that because of the word limit you have to direct that attention on the poems, and only the poems. There’s no room to speculate. My two most recent efforts are below, on Stewart Sanderson’s An Offering and Hannah Lowe’s The Neighbourhood.

In the first, I talk about how rhyming can help a poem carry an argument or a narrative. I’ve been thinking about this again recently reading eighteenth century poet Alexander Pope properly for the first time, most of which is in rhyming couplets. Pope’s ‘Essay on Criticism’, incidentally, argues that the point of criticism is to encourage what is good.

Even if you agree with Pope that criticism is a positive thing, the question then, is – who wants to put themselves forward as the arbiter? To which you can only ask: who else is going to do it? At the end of the day, you are only explaining what you like, but it might help someone else decide what they like.

Hannah Lowe’s pamphlet is very close to home: my street in Brixton is on the front cover. In the OPOI I talk about how one poem in the pamphlet deals with different kinds of distances.*

An Offering, Stewart Sanderson

The Neighbourhood, Hannah Lowe