What’s so great about Finuala Dowling?

In a sentence: In an age of self-obsession and poetry as therapy, poet and novelist Finuala Dowling’s work is outward oriented. She makes it her business to have an audience. Her poems talk about what is most painful to us, publicly and privately without inviting voyeurism and she’s not afraid of politics beyond slogans. And she enjoys performing her poems. They are not internal monologues.

By know, Dowling is well known – for a South African poet. Perhaps her best-known poem, To the Doctor Who Treated the Raped Baby and Who Felt Such Despair, dealt with a topic that seared the public consciousness, to the extent that it exists in South Africa.

 

I just wanted to say on behalf of us all

that on the night in question

there was a light on in the hall

for a nervous little sleeper

and when the bleeding baby was admitted to your care

faraway a Karoo shepherd crooned a ramkietjie lullaby in the veld

and while you staunched

there was space on a mother-warmed sheet

for a night walker

and when you administered an infant-sized opiate

there were luxuriant dark nipples

for fist clenching babes

and when you called for more blood 

a bleary-eyed uncle got up to make a feed

and while you stitched

there was another chapter of a favourite story 

and while you cleaned 

a grandpa’s thin legs walked up and down for a colicky crier 

and when finally you stood exhausted at the end of her cot

and asked, “Where is God?”,

a father sat watch. 

And for the rest of us, we all slept in trust 

that you would do what you did,

that you could do what you did. 

We slept in trust that you lived.

Looking at the poems in her latest book Pretend You Don’t Know Me – a selection from previously published volumes as well as new poems – and after hearing her speak at a reading at Love Books I was reminded of an observation by George Santanyana: “Nothing is so poor as art that is interested in itself and not its subject.” Dowling’s poetry is the opposite.

Her work is, as author and editor Helen Moffett has pointed out, hyper-local, which in an era of writing, fiction and non-fiction, that exists in a kind of deracinated, globalized sphere, is not only welcome but fundamental.

Her poems have a playfulness of someone who loves words and what they can do, the essence of poetry, alongside an ability to conjure in verse the wonder and awkwardness of being truly alive to the love of people and places and ideas.

The collection includes the Dementia Ward poems, one of which illustrates perfectly the humour she can employ in examining life’s difficulties.

Widowhood in the dementia ward

‘Oh my God, I’m so pleased to see you,’

she says from her nest of blankets. 

‘I’ve been meaning to ask – 

How is your father? 

How is Paddy?’

‘He died,’ I say, remembering 1974.

‘Good heavens, now you tell me! How lucky he is.’

‘You could join him,’ I suggest.

‘I didn’t like him that much,’ she replies.

To be sure, I did once or twice wonder if a particular poem was a poem or notes for a future novel, and muttered to myself, “More art, less matter.” But this was rare and forgivable in the light of the poet’s formidable talent.

The only problem with this new volume I foresee is that it will entice others to write verse, and as Billy Collins – who reminds me of Dowling – has observed, poetry leads to more poetry. And we need more readers as much as we need more poets.

I won’t belabour this: buy Pretend You Don’t Know Me if you appreciate poetry at all and especially if you wonder whether you still enjoy poetry. Buy a copy for a friend who enjoys poetry. Buy a copy for your book club. Just do it.

Pretend You Don’t Know Me is published by Kwela Books.

 

The attraction of the Villanelle

Poets are perverse. In the mid-19th century William Ernest Henley wrote what he intended to be a self-descriptive poem about a strict verse form called the Villanelle. How strict is the Vilanelle? Let’s just say the Villanelle is as artificial as a Fabergé egg. It repeats, not merely two rhymes, but two whole lines throughout the poem. Henley’s message in his villanelle is that the Villanelle is unfit for serious poetry.

 

A Dainty Thing’s the Vilanelle

 

(William Ernest Henley)

 

A DAINTY thing’s the Villanelle,                      a1

Sly, musical, a jewel in rhyme,                       b

It serves its purpose passing well.                  a2

 

A double-clappered silver bell                        a

That must be made to clink in chime,             b

A dainty thing’s the Villanelle;                        a1

 

And if you wish to flute a spell,                      a

Or ask a meeting ‘neath the lime,                  b

It serves its purpose passing well.                  a2

 

You must not ask of it the swell                     a

Of organs grandiose and sublime —               b

A dainty thing’s the Villanelle;                        a1

 

And, filled with sweetness, as a shell             a

Is filled with sound, and launched in time,    b

It serves its purpose passing well.                  a2

 

Still fair to see and good to smell                   a

As in the quaintness of its prime,                   b

A dainty thing’s the Villanelle,                        a1

It serves its purpose passing well.                  a2

 

As if to prove Henley not only wrong but lacking in foresight, several well-known poets have produced powerful poems in the verse form, Dylan Thomas’s Do Not Go Gentle into that Good Night, being the most notable. Its first tercet is instantly recognisable.

 

Do not go gentle into that good night,

Old age should burn and rave at close of day;

Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

 

Is the Villanelle a viable verse form? James Fenton in his 2002 “An introduction to English poetry” makes the claim, “Few poets have written a Villanelle worth reading, or indeed regret not having done so.” I’m not sure in the 21st Century that he is correct. Enough evidence exists of other outstanding poets, attracted to rhyme, at least trying on the corset of the Villanelle, including WH Auden and  Sylvia Plath.

And a host of others, influenced by the New Formalism have followed suit. Amanda French, who has gone to the lengths of publishing a website dedicated to her dissertation on the Villanelle, writes: “I have compiled a list of villanelles indicating that over a hundred villanelles have been published in reputable literary journals and books since 1985, and I am not so simple as to suppose that this constitutes the entirety even of published villanelles from that period.”

Fenton’s broader point, however, is that the poet’s choice in writing is not between the chains of artificial forms like the Vilanelle and free verse, but in finding through experiment with form the right method of expression for our particular needs: “The choice is between the nullity and vanity of our first efforts, and the developing of a sense of idiom, form, structure, metre, rhythm, line — all the fundamental characteristics of this verbal art. Of course our first attempts will be vain. They will be vain because they must be ambitious.”

For me the attraction of the Villanelle came with picking up a slim volume of William Empson’s verse and chancing on this 1937 poem:

Slowly the Poison the Whole Bloodstream Fills

 

William Empson

 

Slowly the poison the whole blood stream fills.

It is not the effort nor the failure tires.

The waste remains, the waste remains and kills.

 

It is not your system or clear sight that mills

Down small to the consequence a life requires;

Slowly the poison the whole blood stream fills.

 

They bled an old dog dry yet the exchange rills

Of young dog blood gave but a month’s desires;

The waste remains, the waste remains and kills.

 

It is the Chinese tombs and the slag hills

Usurp the soil, and not the soil retires.

Slowly the poison the whole blood stream fills.

 

Not to have fire is to be a skin that shrills.

The complete fire is death. From partial fires

The waste remains, the waste remains and kills.

 

It is the poems you have lost, the ills

From missing dates, at which the heart expires.

Slowly the poison the whole blood stream fills.

The waste remains, the waste remains and kills.

 

I was struck by the sheer vigour of the poem, its emotional and intellectual force. Strict verse, however, needs skill not to overbalance. Plath’s Mad Girl’s Love Song begins:

 

I shut my eyes and all the world drops dead;

I lift my lids and all is born again.

(I think I made you up inside my head.)

 

The poem’s central idea is brilliant, but this is far from the edgy poetry that propelled Plath into a singular fame. It is perilously close to Wendy Cope’s light verse in tone. This is the risk of formal verse

Many poets today will choose free verse, the dominant form in the English-speaking world, unfettered, unchained, wild. Superb, affecting poems are written in free verse all the time, by poets who have long forgotten rhyme and metre, which they consign to limericks and other humorous expression. But much free verse is flaccid, meandering and timid. Often it displays a deliberate obscurity, as if to conceal the vacuous nature at the heart of the exercise. Fenton also comments in his book on modern poetry’s desertion of music and of voiced performance in favour of the printed line. I wonder whether, in addition, the discipline of rhyming verse might not reveal to would-be poets themselves the weakness of the some of the lines they pen.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A poetic manifesto of sorts

I foresee a coming earthquake

In verse, the death of diffidence:

The driver will no more dispense

too little fuel, too much brake

 

And crawl along the roads of sense

Like someone stoned. A poet in fear

The audience may find him clear

Instead of distant, dark and dense.

 

Politeness! Fuck it, let’s appear

To give a damn about the mind

And heart and world at least. Go find

Your lust and love: seek far and near.

 

And shout out loud to humankind

Your pain and joy, defy all fake

Humility. We will not make

Our voices small or too refined.

 

The time has passed to be too tame

To take the stage and to declaim.

 

And suddenly …

Re-reading the poems of the great Italian Hermetic poets it strikes me again with some force how much understanding poetry is not a matter of analysis. Take this poem by Salvatore Quasimodo.

Ed è subito sera
Salvatore Quasimodo

Ognuno sta solo sul cuor della terra
trafitto da un raggio di sole:
ed è subito sera.

And suddenly it is evening

Everyone stands alone at the heart of the world
pierced by a ray of sunlight:
and suddenly it is evening.

The shock of recognition when you first read the lines overcomes a desire to break up the words and examine them under the microscope of whatever your pet theory may be. They are stark and immediate and directly meaningful.

However, I believe translation to be a valuable method of sharpening a poet’s understanding of how to write. Translation illuminates how slippery words are and how much imagination creates meaning. A translator has had a go at renewing the poem with new English words.

(My apologies for not posting for so long)

beyond touch, by Arja Salafranca

Beyond touch – Poems by Arja Salafranca

I can think of no greater compliment to a poet than to say that you have read all the poems in a volume. Often, I dip into poetry books, reading some poems that look promising, or which particularly resonate, and pass over the rest. I read all of the poems in ‘beyond touch’ by Arja Salafranca.

One reason for this is that their form, characterized by narrative, with closely observed details, sometimes journalistic, allows for easy access, superficially at least. Meaning, however, is just out reach of the lens (a metaphor the poet employs) and left to the reader to divine.

A lot of modern verse is difficult, sometimes difficult because of the profundity of the poet’s thought, sometimes difficult because the poet hasn’t thought through her ideas. Modern poets contort language in trying to make meaning of the world, sometimes using tortuous metaphors and tortured sentences. An opposite phenomenon, famously evident in the works of Cavafy, is to use deliberately ordinary and unornamented language.

Another phenomenon is the absence of context, a style that allows for powerful condensation but can leave readers in the dark questioning “where, what, when”.

‘beyond touch’ tends to rely on plain statement, enlivened by only occasional imaginative figures of speech, and context is clear. So, the idea of being a tourist, an outsider to other’s happiness occurs at the end of a poem that starts with a mundane list of names:

I scurry on, join a group of Spanish women
Excitedly exploring the bullring.
I look at them a tourist to their joy.

– The English cemetery

All the verse is, for me, at the very least interesting, and at best, moving. Part of my fascination lies in the way the poems keep their distance, actual and emotional, from their subjects. Passion is evident but kept in check.

In the poem, Dachau, for example, the poet adopts a professional stance in contemplating the horror the concentration camp represents but struggles to keep the horror from breaking through her defences.

Days later, and I can’t look.
I thought it had not affected me.
Walking around, taking notes for a story,
taking photos of a place that is not beautiful,
listening to a guide tell us of the horrors.
Only once, alone in the cement corridor
of the VIP prison unit did I feel it,
what went on there.
And I almost ran towards the light
coming from the door ajar at the end of the corridor.
– Dachau

Some of the poems in the book are about photographs or paintings, and I couldn’t help thinking that some of the poems are verbal photographs, slices of time, decisive moments, or realistic paintings. In the way that expert photographers do, the poems present the external face of things hinting at the internal life in the light of the eternal.

A man, having his head shaved,
Highlighted by the dusk of early evening.
All around him, gathering darkness, except his head,
This small stall, lit by phosphorescence,
Haloed by a weird greenish purple light.
A flash of colour.
I drive on.
– Joburg pix, not taken

The poet is compelled to observe, to seek illumination, whether the subject is anonymous or deeply personal:

Later I turn over,
To look at your face in
The darkness, lit up by the light
Falling from your skylight,
There’s the soft curl of a smile
Around your mouth.
My eyes probe yours,
But we say nothing.
– The Way

I have only quoted snippets, because the power of the poems lies in the cohesive stories they tell – or photographs they take – whether they deal with the pain and pleasure of love, or the alienation of not quite belonging, especially in traversing nationalities.

I look forward to Arja’s next volume.

No more poetry?

I was always surprised at the number of people Harry Owen managed to entice to his open mike Reddits’ poetry readings in Grahamstown. It may partly be the nature of the residents of Grahamstown. It’s also that Harry’s Reddits’ events made poetry accessible and fun.

Poetry or more accurately verse is not exactly, let’s say “popular”. We accept this somehow, but do not question why enough. Few read poetry, and fewer are prepared to say why.

Some people think poetry is like a crossword, or a dead language like Latin, that has to be puzzled through.

Many people seem to think poetry is just notes about your life, sometimes obscure notes, made instantly into poetry by being expressed as lines scattered across a page. Free verse has encouraged this.

Mind you the past produced reams of properly rhyming and scanning verse that differed little in pretentiousness and banality.

Anyway, in the light of our silence about poetry denialism, I was pleased to see that someone called derek beaulieu (pretentiously lower case by design) has written something (a book of verse?) called “Please, No More Poetry“. It contains these, and other, provocative lines:

Poetry is the last refuge of the unimaginative.
Poetry has little to offer outside of poetry itself.
Poetry, sadly, knows it’s poetry, while writing doesn’t always know it’s writing.

As the old Nedbank ad used to say, “Makes you think, doesn’t it?”