Thursday, May 27, 2010

Reading, one letter at a time

I talked at the beginning of the week about how hard it is for serial digressors like myself to look steadily and soberly at works of art, instead of appropriating those works as metaphors for some other thing, or as counters to push about in protracted arguments about rarefied ideas.

One man who has no trouble with looking closely at works of art is the poet, Sinologist, and 'wedding artist' Hamish Dewe. Although he tends to look at and write about poems rather than paintings, Hamish's powers of observation can serve as an inspiration for lovers of both art forms.

As a poet and a literary critic, Hamish works with a deliberate slowness. Particularly fastidious writers are often said to work 'one word at a time'; Hamish, though, seems to operate one letter at a time. The shape - or, as he likes to say, the architecture - of individual letters, and the sounds of vowels, consonants, and dipthongs are matters which continually preoccupy him. Hamish's interest in the sounds in our mouths and the shape of our scripts is not the product of some sort of disillusionment with literature's traditional function of creating and communicating meaning. When he writes and reads poems, Hamish is not interested in foregoing argument, narrative, plot, and the other pieces of cognitive architecture in which meaning can subsist - on the contrary, he is interested in how patterns of sounds and shapes can enhance meaning.

Hamish reads with such care, and has so many responsibilities besides the ones he inevitably finds as a careful reader of often carelessly-written literature, that he seldom produces extended pieces of literary criticism nowadays. Legendary texts like his Masters thesis on the American postmodernist and Marxist political activist Bruce Andrews, and his supernaturally attentive study of Joanna Paul's childbirth-poem Imogen, have given way to curt e mails to writers who privately seek his opinion on their work.

I thought I'd post an e mail I recently received from Hamish as an example of the powers of attention he brings to his reading. Hamish sent me the e mail after I sent him a poem I had written about the gruesome adventures of the masochists who attempted to discover a passage between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans in the nineteenth century. I'd dashed off the poem after reading a review of Glyn Williams' Arctic Passage, a book which describes the Franklin Expedition, which left London full of high hopes and jingoistic rhetoric in 1845, and ended up as a series of shallow graves and a pile of suspiciously-marked bones on the shores of Hudson Bay. Like Robert Burke, who chose a warmer wilderness to invade, and who consequently had fewer opportunities to experiment with cannibalism as a survival strategy, Franklin was a victim of the almost limitless hubris of nineteenth century imperialism.

I'll post my poem, followed by Hamish's response.

Northwest Passage

Our ship froze
before the sea.
Eyebrows turned white,
beards grew as slowly
as lichen, slower than
light. Nature is

We marched west, feasted
on lichen
our boots collected.
When the lichen faded
we feasted on boots.

The first body was cooked
in ice, burned
by frostbite, dissected
by hunting knives.
We sat in a circle,
with our eyes, our mouths

We gave the bones
a decent burial.

Not naff, but a little slight, I think.

I do like the sestina-like repetition that feeds (pun intended) into my sense of the circularity, 'worms that feast on the flesh of kings'-style. I really want to take the 'as' out of "beards grew as slowly". I know it mangles modern english usage, but it flows so much better, don't you think?, and adds to the glacial inevitability of the phrasing. Is there anything to be gained by breaking the aphorism "Nature is / supernatural" into two lines? I do, however, love the phrasing of "We marched west, feasted", just the alternating vowels.

Why does lichen fade, instead of plainly run out?, devoured, gone?

I don't know if it's the intention, but stanza 3, to my mind, gives the victim a sacrificial quality that seems undercut by the coldness of "dissected".

I'm in two minds whether I'd prefer the final sentence to have more of a hurried, throwaway quality (which it would have if given only one line), as if the speaker wants to quickly put this distasteful (another willful pun) episode behind him, or whether it should be expanded and take on the role of explaining and excusing his actions.


Plenty of thoughts, thanks Hamish, and one in particular: would you like to review Emma Smith, a brushstroke at a time?


Anonymous Anonymous said...

My name is Rod.
I am a young poet.
Could Hamish Dewe look at my work?
I am very unsure about it.
He sounds like the person who could help me with my problems.
Is his email address on this blog?

9:53 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

this wouldn't be Maps, would it?

10:36 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Never underestimate your appeal Hamish.

HD (not that one!)

11:20 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

White folk should be free to try out cannibalism should they not?

In the past I mean.

Equal rights and all that.

11:30 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

There are different ways of working. Hamish works slowly and with great precision. I think he is right in some of his comments.

This poem is good but does need work as HD implies.

I agree that the "as" seems somehow wrong and that that (middle) part of otherwise a great first stanza needs reworking) ...also the repetition of "lichen" ?

Some excellent lines and some weak ones. (Probably true of a lot of poetry, so before you launch into print Hamish is one man to consult! Of course there is a limit to 'tinkering' that only the poet can decide... )

Now your poem is (relatively) short. In such a small(er) space "errors" of phrasing etc stand out more, they seem to intensify in direct proportion to the shortness of a poem.

I was reading something about Yeats. He would work on say two lines sometimes for a week.

And all his poetry was written with huge number of revisions and retries, and very very slowly.

Alan Curnow wrote about 8 poems (maybe less) a year (perhaps not all his life but I believe that was his general procedure or rate of work.) He revised massively until he felt he had it right. These constant rewritings and revisions are one of the signs of a good / great poet* (There are cases of poets working more quickly, but those who do so and are successful are rare (maybe there are none)).

Hamish Dewe's attention to detail is one lesson "anon" or Rod can already learn. And I can also. Everyone can always learn.

* Comment directed somewhat at Ron if he is serious. As clearly you are well aware of this...

1:46 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Richard Taylor,
did you know Yeats got his poems dictated by the dead?\This is
a ctually in the book A Vision.

10:03 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Trouble is the indigenes were blamed for the cannibalism:

But Dr. John Rae, of the Hudson Bay Company, had grisly news to report in his dispatch to the Admiralty on 29 July 1854:

During my journey over ice and snow this spring…I met with Esquimaux in Pelly Bay, from one of whom I learned that a party of “white men” (Kabloonas) had perished from want of food some distance to the westward… From the mutilated state of many of the corpses, and the contents of the kettles, it is evident that our wretched countrymen had been driven to the last resource, — cannibalism — as a means of prolonging existence.

Rae’s report touched off a furor in Britain. Charles Dickens, editor of Household Words, could not believe that Franklins’ men would have resorted to such behavior, even on the verge of death. Instead, he advanced the theory that the Inuit had probably set upon the dying party themselves.

12:24 pm  
Anonymous Kevin Torrance said...

In short, it is not the cannibalism, but the hypocrisy about cannibalism.

Cannibalism was a marker on the frontier between 'barbarous' and 'civilised' peoples:

Also note that the Franklin expedition suffered poisoning as a result of the lead in their tinned food. Did this mean the cannibals were eating poison?

2:26 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

Yeats! He may have thought his poetry was dictated by the dead...but he still needed to revise a lot!

Yeats (and his wife) experimented with automatic writing and seances etc. He was associated with Blavatsky, AE and others. Yeats had a huge and complex system he built around spirals or 'gyres' of history and so on and phases of the moon - his mysticism etc were probably in a large part reaction to his father's rather strict atheism.

But that is all rather 'off topic' as they say!

But another poet of great stature interested in all that stuff was the even more erudite, abstruse, and hugely intelligent son of a billionaire, (and one of America;s greatest poets) - James Merrill -
the Pultizer Prize winner who wrote the huge "Changing Light at Sandhover" which is full of communication (supposedly) with his friend W H Auden and others from "beyond the grave! Via a ouija board... (To my knowledge only Jack Ross has ever read and completely understood and consumed that vast tome completely. I know he has it as I saw it at his house - much filled with "post-it" notes...) No other mortal has ever fathomed it.

9:26 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

All peoples have practiced cannibalism at some time. That is, all of us have an [or] (some) ancestor(s) who has (have) been, at some past time, cannibals.

In fact cannibalism is natural (but usually seen when people are "in extremis") But it is particularly so when there is a depletion of meat (or in this case when there is no food at all).

There was a New Zealander starving in a snow cave a few years ago before he was rescued who thought of eating his brother if he died.

Bu I am not advocating you all rush out become Hannibal Lectors though!

Cannibalism is still very rare as in most times and most cultures it is not considered nice (or "cricket") shall we say!

Charles Dickens I have read much of (in fact I read what he wrote of Edwin Drood and also Hard Times last month). He is someone I would call a great writer, but he had the limits of the prurience of his times unfortunately.

This cannibalism is quite understandable (if we do find it repugnant, especially when we are not so hungry!) - the men were in extremis, at their limits.

It (and the struggle to explore etc) inspired a vital poem by Maps (although HD is helping to shape it into a better state as has been noted...)

And the subject matter here is not only cannibalism but in fact writing... & how to write I think...

Not that cannibalism isn't fun to think about. But while WRITING perhaps is less sexy and less interesting - it is perhaps a pity that subject isn't tackled a bit more on here...

But, re C., the other famous or infamous example is in that book / film "Alive!"


8:03 pm  
Anonymous jojo said...

Words, words, words…. Don’t tell me , show me … It’s about POWER, POWER alone. WHO has it and WHO lacks it. Those WITH POWER — interestingly lawyers, academics and “media” professionals interpreting as “judges” what the words mean, e.g. their history of the meanings of “rights”. Those of us, non-members in these clubs/clerisy are merely the audience of their performance. BUT — in the end the words are just words. In, even or especially?, the legislatures, academies and media culture POWER is what counts. We can now acknowledge, and if alert while the “liberals” are in control of the educational,influence and legal machines of the USA, POWER has always been the goal. All the rest is costume and staging. We now see that those who love power shall do, and have done, what THEY WANT, unless the POWERLESS STOP THEM. In a Country of Law, how does any powerless group stop powerful,lawless, “experts” and “leaders” of the society from doing precisely what they want, with full cooperation and support from other membes of the powerless? Arguing over words may be necessary, but hardly sufficient.

11:43 pm  
Anonymous Nestor Notabilis said...

a wanker once ripped the caps lock off my laptop. now i can't write manic rants. I wish that I could, but who can touch-type whilst using a pinkie to hold down the shift?

4:06 am  
Blogger maps said...

Brett Cross claims to type with his fists.

10:02 pm  

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