Halfway through the reading window

There is a pile of envelopes on the stairs, ready to post back to their owners, and another pile on the sofa unread.

The poems that were sent by email are on the dining room table – my task for this afternoon. I was going to read them on the screen but then I decided not to, and printed them all out in a font that suits me. I can read on screen but I don’t do it so well.

The letters people have sent (I love the letters) are in a clear plastic folder. I keep them all, though not in any meticulous fashion. It doesn’t seem right to shred them. Each is unique.

Sometimes the poems seem less unique than the letters, which is a peculiar thing to say when you think about it. Nor can it be true. But given the infinite possibilities in which poems might be written, it’s surprising how similar some of them look at first glance.

From age to age, we share ideas of what poems are meant to look like and, perhaps more importantly, what they’re not supposed to look like. Our common understanding starts to be a convention.

Art, in general, both observes and resists convention.

Resistance is great: it has its own energy. Give me a rebel any day. But you don’t get poet rebels unless there’s something to rebel against. Rebellion is only convention in reverse – unless you rebel against yourself, which I think is useful. First you would need to recognise your habits. Habits make you feel safe, and safety is risky for poets.

There’s safety in neatness, for example. Neatness is a widely shared habit. People like to divide poems up into even-sized chunks, and then sometimes add a little decoration like Master Chef.

Sometimes I like this. Sometimes there’s a sense of fun about it.

Sometimes I find neatness wearisome.

Sometimes I suggest that the ‘form’ of the poem – whether it’s neat or sprawly – doesn’t convince me.

Sometimes I suggest dividing a sprawly poem into two-line stanzas.

Sometimes I suggest the poet is using too many two-line stanzas with no organic rationale.

I shouldn’t use the word ‘organic’. It’s starting to be a habit. But what I mean by it is this: each poem has a driving impulse. Some phrase or idea or feeling that drove it into existence. That central impulse looks for a form that suits it. Out of the innumerable ways of expression open to us, what will that be? It could be anything.

But for some writers it can’t be anything. It can be four-line stanzas (left justified), three-line stanzas (left-justified) or the long thin left-justified block that stops about two-thirds of the way down the page. It’s a habit.

I was at the launch of Magma 65 on Friday. It was in the LRB Bookshop in London. There were about 16 readers, every single one distinctive in her or his method of projection. I didn’t hear any stanza breaks, though it’s likely there were some. I couldn’t hear the justification (in terms of page format) either.

There was a lovely variety of accent and intonation (people had come from many different parts of the UK, and one from Germany). Some readers stood very still to read. One strode about joyfully and put the microphone behind him. A couple held the paper in one hand but delivered by heart. Some wore a little smile when reading. Others were extremely grave. Some delivered the words as though there was a push of air behind them. Others let them float out over our heads like bubbles.

When you hear poetry – poetry you haven’t read before – you don’t get it all. You get some of it. Our ears aren’t very good at making sense at first hearing, unless the words themselves incorporate significant repetition. One of the Magma poets deliberately exploited that technique, and the audience responded with delight. Repetition is very enjoyable because (ironically) it allows you to listen for difference. It’s one of the great oral conventions.

Repetition in neat chunking is one of the less great print techniques. But it does allow the reader to pace herself and see the white-space ‘rests’ coming up. These appear to divide the poem into a journey with stations (though it’s a new habit to enjamb every one and thus undermine this idea).

Sometimes, in my reading window, I get poems that are word-dense, with lines that extend right to the right-hand margin, and hardly any stanza breaks. Before I start, I take a deep breath. In fact, I invariably flick through the pages and choose the shortest one first. It looks like it might be hard going. And indeed it may turn out to be. Or it may not. In which case, you can start to love that poem quickly.

Have you noticed, at poetry readings, how often the reader tells the audience, as a sort of placation, ‘it’s only a short one’? As though we all agree that short is better because it means we won’t have to concentrate for very long.

During the reading window, I am concentrating for long periods on poetic text. I like it very much. It’s sustaining for the spirit to concentrate wholly on only one thing, one piece of human expression. Reading is an art too. We know this, but we forget it all too easily. There is no arts funding – that I know of – for poetry readers, though (done well) it takes a long time, quality time. The reward is what you get out of the experience. And what do you get? You learn. These words are what human beings have made of their lives. I am trying to make something of mine too, and it’s hard. It sustains and heartens me to see the attempts of fellow travellers.

Usually when you read poetry, you read but you can’t reply. You have a response but you can’t give it back. So although poetry is a communication, generally that communication goes only one way. In my reading window, it goes two ways.

Though only for a little while..

Because the window is only half open now.

Photograph of the Hebridean coast taken through the window of Ron King's holiday house. It is divided into three sections with black frames, and is a horizontal rectangle. Through the window is amazingly turquoise see and fantastically green coastal stretches. In the sky fluffy white clouds. It looks fabulous.

Photo credit: the inimitable Ron King



The entrance first, and it is feathered.

The entrance first, and it is feathered.

Christina Dunhill’s debut pamphlet Blackbirds is currently winging its way around the country. It is a beautiful little thing, full of myth and magic, presented in a style that’s anything but airy-fairy. Her poems have been popping up in various UK magazines for years, notably The Rialto, so her name is already a familiar one.

This poet shifts the centre constantly. You’re never quite sure where you are with her. That sounds like poetry to make you sea-sick, but that would be quite the wrong impression. What I’m trying to describe is the sense of unpredictability. Oddly different aspects of life are approached from unexpected angles. She keeps you on your toes, like a hall of mirrors. My tropes are not in the least up to the job. You need to read her and see.

But there is also a death, one that has grieved me very much. When I first started publishing, it never occurred to me that this would be part of it—that one would develop emotional attachments to poets, not just as writers but as people, as members of an extended family. Many of them are what Ruth Pitter called “blood-relations of the mind”. The risk of all such attachment is loss.

The first HappenStance poet to die was Olive Dehn. She was marvellous, an absolutely unique poet, and I loved her, but she was in her nineties and I think she was ready to go. Cliff Ashby, who died more recently, had also done his time: it was a gradual dwindling and a graceful exit. He made a terrific old man.

But the latest loss is Tom Duddy, who was not so old—not old at all—and he was not expecting to die just now. He was diagnosed with cancer just before Christmas and had treatment that was intended to prolong his life. It didn’t work.

In his last months, he was working intensely on poetry and there is a body of work—some of it quite remarkable—enough to make another book. He writes as though he is dying, as though each moment contains the secret of life. We should all write like this—if we only could, if we only could.

Tom’s first collection, in 2006, was a HappenStance pamphlet—The Small Hours—I have run out of these, so alas no use trying to order one. That pamphlet came about because Tom’s poems were featured in a Magma showcase, and I was so struck with them that I wrote to him, via Magma, and asked whether he would like to send me poems with a view to pamphlet publication. This is the only time I have ever done this.

What was so striking about Tom’s poems? It is hard to explain. What he does is never in your face or splashy. He is an understater. But he can see things in life— that mysterious process we are a part of till we stop—that I can’t pick up any other way. He is irreplaceable.

He has some paragraphs worth reading about his poetic principles on his website, and you may notice that the information there is much greater than on his poet’s page in the HappenStance home site. He was not a man who easily spoke about himself and he found the web copy difficult to assemble: he felt he should do it to help find readers for his book. Tom’s default mode was reticence.

His first full collection was published by Arlen House, a small Irish imprint. The Hiding Place (2011) included many of the poems from the original pamphlet but also some new ones, poems with mysterious and evocative power, drawn from the most ordinary situations. (I reviewed the book on GoodReads here and Matthew Stewart discusses it here.)

In Duddy’s writing, ordinary situations are drenched in mystery, with himself, most secretive of persons, at the heart of all awareness. Here, for example, is ‘Garden Party’:

At some strange distance, the good children
are playing among the metal chairs
in the patio; laugh after laugh
goes up from a group that still loiters
by the dead barbecue; old old friends
look well pleased to assemble again
on awkward ground under the sycamore;
the evening sun leaves all impressions

at the edge of consciousness; and an air
of lateness shimmies in the trees.
I almost reach across the table
towards the woman opposite,
almost speak warmly to her,
almost give myself away for once.

The mystery is flagged by the word ‘strange’ in the first line, and then everything teeters. The group ‘still loiters’ but is about to go. The barbecue is ‘dead’. The ground is ‘awkward’. The light and the atmosphere is ‘at the edge of consciousness’ where anything might be true. That ‘air / of lateness’ suggests a time out of time, a time when something other might happen. Everything is ‘almost’ – the word he repeats three times. And in that moment when he almost gives himself away (but doesn’t), he gives himself away.

One of the poems from this book, ‘The Touch‘, was included in The Forward Book of Poetry, 2011 and you can hear him reading the poem here.

Tom Duddy is gone from the earth. He is alive in that poem and many others. He could, and can, see things I can’t see, which is why I find his poems indispensable. There will be another book, though not yet. Please, please look out for it, and in the meantime, read what is already in print.