A poet’s work is never done

A bit random, or a bit of serendipity? This is an outtake from a long webcam video that dates to the afternoon of Saturday, 21 July 2012, which I filmed inadvertently while doing some reading and writing. I discovered the footage a few days ago on a long discarded laptop. (Spoiler: the footage is a minute or so of nothing happening.)

It’s a strange piece of footage to watch, though it’s a sort of video portrait of the poet or writer at work. Other videos in the sequence are of me reading poems I was working on at the time, presumably so I could play the audio back to listen to their rhythms. One of the books I was reading, Franz Wright’s 2009 Wheeling Motel, is identifiable by its cover which appears earlier in the footage.

All in all, it’s not quite Spenser’s Bower of Bliss, or the full range of the poet’s work as described by Luke Wright (‘drinking in the daytime, crying at night / going to parties and saying oh I write / to you a ‘war of letters’ to me it’s a fight’, from his poem ‘A Poet’s Work is Never Done’). Instead, it’s a long moment of lying around on a pleasant winter afternoon (t-shirt weather), reading from a few books, and typing away to an airy ambience of suburban street noise, wattlebirds, and passing cars.

A diary note for that day says I spent the afternoon at home writing and listening to music. There’s no music playing in the footage, so it must have come later. And while the diary note doesn’t mention the band or artist, the note for the next day mentions Wilco – which means either Summerteeth or Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, as I didn’t catch up with their albums again till 2015’s Star Wars.

My ‘Notebook 2012’ (a Word document) has two pieces I edited and two short new poems (or parts of) I worked on that day – drafted, as usual, in blocked paragraphs with colons separating the units or phrases. All four pieces are unpublished. I’ve included them below. The two edited pieces are labelled ‘For ‘Vox’’, which is a poem that will appear in my forthcoming book as a poem in seven parts. The two parts below were either culled entirely years ago, or were simply never worked into the larger poem. There are clear echoes of Franz Wright’s poem ‘Intake Interview’ (via YouTube) in ‘IV’.

The two new poems (or pieces of) were also left on the cutting room floor, and maybe haven’t had a moment’s attention since they were set down on the page. ‘Notebook 2012’ is about 65,000 words worth of drafts and re-drafts and re-re-drafts and off-cuts and writing exercises and notes and diary entries.

Anyway, the footage is a curio. A sort of portrait of the poet at work, and of the work in progress, and of the word and the (moving) image coupled together. An interesting co-incidence, or an artefact, or a bit of serendipity.

FOR ‘VOX’

IV.
we are here now : at the edge of a world that promises no future : asking for words : what happens now : tell me about the soft music i cannot hear : what if i could give you this moment : what’s to be made of it : what should i do if i find you breathless : troubled for words : if you fall asleep now who will watch over you : what are you prepared to sacrifice : why are we here :

VI.
what love means : look at us : the words i return to cannot touch it : things grasped : like a hand no longer offered : here we are : strange company to each other : something less than a life : something sudden like laughter that is gone : the waters you searched for dispersed in an instant : a world that never had a need for us : that never asked a thing of us : not love : what it means to see the world in all its terror : a note never struck : a phrase never uttered : there has to be something more :

THIS IS ALL (21.07.12)

this is all we have : fast forward : i choose : right now : thorns : of sunlight : necessity : this is all : dissolving : & she is : home : again : shining :

BONSAI POEM (21.07.12)

to find in beauty : an uprightness : something like : a bonsai’s bent loveliness :

Reading: February-March 2019

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A few of the books I’ve enjoyed reading, or returning to, in February and March 2019:

  • Karl Ove Knausgaard’s A Death in the Family: Book I of the six My Struggle (Min Kamp) novels (autobiographical novel: Vintage, 2009).
  • Ada Limón’s The Carrying: A follow-up to 2015’s acclaimed Bright Dead Things (poetry: Corsair, 2018).
  • JL Carr’s A Month in the Country: Published by Penguin as a ‘Classic’, and the source of a 1987 film starring Colin Firth and Kenneth Branagh, in their third and second film roles respectively (short novel: Penguin, 1980).
  • WS Merwin’s Garden Time (poetry: Copper Canyon, 2016).
  • Frank O’Hara’s Meditations in an Emergency (poetry: Grove, 1957).
  • Alejandra Pizarnik’s The Galloping Hour: French Poems: Patricio Ferrari and Forrest Gander’s translations of the French poems of Argentinian poet Alejandra Pizarnik, who died in 1972 (poetry: New Directions, 2018).
  • Forrest Gander’s Be With (poetry: New Directions, 2018).
  • WS Merwin’s The Shadow of Sirius (poetry: Bloodaxe, 2009).
  • Ron Rash’s Poems: New and Selected (poetry: Ecco, 2016).
  • David Marno’s Death Be Not Proud: The Art of Holy Attention: An extended study of John Donne’s poem ‘Death, Be Not Proud’, which argues for the possibility of poetry as a kind of ‘inception’ (criticism: University of Chicago, 2016).

We’re wired to read meaning…

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As human beings, we’re wired to read meaning into words, no matter how apparently random they are. Because we know, intuitively, that we’ve never encountered words that haven’t been produced by some sort of intelligence. Words compel us to assume an originating intelligence: a speaker, a voice or a perspective from which they’re written or spoken.

Our willingness, at times, to dismiss a poem or poetry as meaningless or nonsense therefore cuts against the grain of one of our deepest intuitions. Some poems are hard work for readers, though they’re rarely – and perhaps never – meaningless. And some poems are written deliberately for us to piece together or supply a meaning ourselves. A poem that’s hard work for us can be satisfying, provided it rewards us at some level for our effort and attention.

As TS Eliot wrote: ‘Genuine poetry can communicate before it is understood’, and as Simone Weil wrote: ‘Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity’, even for us as readers.

100 days: an idea worth spreading

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When I speak to school students about poetry, I often tell them about an exercise or challenge I’ve used to help me write. The idea of 30 or 100-day projects began for me with a TEDx Auckland talk, called Inspiration Wherever You Are, The 100 Days Project, by New Zealand graphic designer Emma Rogan:

As Emma Rogan explains in her talk, it’s an idea she’s adapted from Michael Beirut, a graphic designer and design critic at the Yale School of Art. Each year he asks his students to undertake a project where they repeat one simple creative exercise of their choice every day for 100 days.

I’ve used the practice for periods of 100 days, or 30 days, and it’s the latter I usually recommend to students. For example, in the past, my daily exercise was as simple as writing a 12 line draft of a poem, perhaps about something that made an impression on me that day.

As I explain to students, the results are very imperfect, but the practice helps you develop creative discipline, encourages you to be attentive to ideas that arise in your day-to-day life, and generates creative work you can return to later to edit or rework.

I emphasise that it’s not an idea designed by or for poets, and can work just as well for aspiring novelists, short story writers, graphic designers, photographers, painters, songwriters, game designers, choreographers, actors, and so on. It’s a great idea, and one worth spreading.

Reading: January 2019

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A few of the books I enjoyed reading, or rereading, in January 2019:

  • Patrizia Cavalli’s My Poems Won’t Change the World: a selection of Cavalli’s poems from 1974’s My Poems Won’t Change the World through to 2006’s Lazy Gods, Lazy Fate, edited by Gini Alhadeff, with translations from the Italian by Alhadeff, Jorie Graham, Kenneth Koch, Susan Stewart, and Mark Strand (poetry: Penguin, 2007).
  • Pablo Neruda’s The Captain’s Verses (Los versos del Capitán): translated from the Spanish by Donald D. Walsh (poetry: New Directions, 1972).
  • Autumn Royal’s She Woke and Rose (poetry: Cordite Publishing, 2016).
  • Clare Nashar’s Lake (poetry: Cordite Publishing, 2016).
  • John G. Trapani Jr’s Poetry, Beauty, and Contemplation: The Complete Aesthetics of Jacques Maritain (philosophy: Catholic University of America Press, 2011).
  • Albert Camus’ Selected Essays and Notebooks (essays: Penguin Books, 1970).
  • Franz Wright’s Earlier Poems: a selection of Wright’s poems from 1982’s The One Whose Eyes Open When You Close Your Eyes through to 1995’s Rorschach Test (poetry: Alfred A. Knopf, 2007).

If you’re new to poetry and don’t know where to start

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If you’re new to poetry and don’t know where to start, try getting hold of an anthology of contemporary poetry from your local library or bookshop.

What is a poetry anthology? It’s a book that includes poems by a variety of poets, rather than just one poet. Anthologies often have a particular theme (e.g. Harbour City Poems: Sydney in Verse), or focus on a particular place and/or time (e.g. The Best American Poetry 2018, or The Forward Book of Poetry 2019), or present a survey of poetry over time (e.g. The Norton Anthology of Poetry, which includes poems in English from the 7th century to the present, or Australian Poetry Since 1788, or Puncher & Wattmann’s Contemporary Australian Poetry).

Why an anthology? Because an anthology includes poems by a variety of poets, though usually only one or two poems by each. This helps you get acquainted with a range of poems, in a range of styles, with a range of themes, and by a range of poets. It increases the likelihood you’ll come across poems you enjoy. As you read the anthology, trust your judgment on which poems you like or dislike, enjoy or don’t enjoy, are engaged by or not engaged by. Follow up on the poems you like best: see if you can find more poems by those poets online, or try getting hold of a book of poems specifically by that poet.

Why contemporary poetry? Because contemporary poetry, meaning poetry from the 20th and 21st centuries, generally uses words and syntax that are familiar to us – in contrast to Shakespeare’s Sonnet 20, for example, which reads: ‘And for a woman wert thou first created, / Till nature as she wrought thee fell a-doting.’ There’s a good argument for reading Shakespeare’s sonnets, but if you’re new to poetry, why not start with something closer to home, in terms of what a poem describes and the way it uses language to describe it.