christopher james

Poems and prattle

Tag: literature

Should we be chasing the perfect poem?

I sometimes think of writing as a kind of chase.

Even the written line – especially if it’s handwritten – looks like a dash across the page, as if in a hurry to catch something or be somewhere.

We’re chasing a thought, an idea, or perhaps the mot juste. It could be a phrase, or just sense of something that’s tantalisingly out of reach.

It’s as if you’ve spotted someone ahead you faintly recognise. You try and catch up, yet fail to close the distance. Perhaps this person has something for you; the thing you’ve been searching for. 

I often find myself chasing the perfect poem. And at the same time, puzzling over what that might be, or whether I should be chasing it all. Is it a foolish – even infantile notion? Or somehow vital to becoming a better poet? 

Invariably, I’ll recognise within a line or two, that it’s not the perfect poem – but press on, in the hope it’s still worth persisting with. We accept a sort of compromise; a certain lowering of expectations, that it’s not our Bridport winning entry but not hack work either.

Often we’ll enter some sort of delusional pact with ourselves. We’ll mute our reader-self, and allow the writer to press ahead, even if if we know it’s pedestrian work. We’ll have the good grace to let them have a go at least.

We know in ourselves we can make it better through revision. By unpacking our tools and chipping away, we work until it passes that invisible threshold of ‘muster’ that makes it a keeper; until it resembles something that cuts our own personal mustard.

Sometimes we won’t go for perfection. Imagine an architect biting on her Ryvita, making sketches for a multi-storey car park. She knows in advance it’s not going to be the Taj Mahal. But at the top of her game, she still might still stumble on a sort of perfect car park. But she’s already adjusted her ambitions before setting off. But at home, that night, she might pour herself a drink, pick up clean sheet of paper and a 2H pencil and start sketching the graceful arcs of a concert hall. In that moment, she’s reaching for something greater. She’s chasing a sort of perfection.   

Of course, the idea of perfection in art has been almost universally rubbished (you’ll remember the scene in Dead Poet’s Society when Robin Williams ridicules Mr J. Evans Pritchard PHD’s graph of greatness, as if a perfect poem can be reduced to a mathematical equation: ‘A sonnet by Byron might score high on the vertical but only average on the horizontal…’

‘Excrement. That’s what I think of Mr. J. Evans Pritchard. We’re not laying pipe. We’re talking about poetry. ‘Oh, I like Byron. I give him a 42, but I can’t dance to it…’

The implication is that magic; verve; spirit – whatever you want to call it – a certain visionary quality is what makes the difference, not syllable counting or benchmarking against stated objectives.

Having gained popularity in the 18th century, the concept of perfection in art lost ground in the 19th before finally being scrunched up and tossed out of the window by French poet Alfred de Musset who declared: ‘Perfection is no more attainable for us than is infinity.’ But was this a case of sour grapes? Perhaps he realised perfection simply wasn’t within his grasp. Rimbaud dismissed de Musset, saying he ‘closed his eyes before the vision.’ Rimbaud’s implication is that we need to make ourselves receptive to a higher state – like Coleridge downloading Khubla Khan from the muse, channeling his visions of Xanadu.

Today, more pedestrian concepts of technical skill, emotional resonance, and originality persist as barometers of excellence. Yet the idea of a poem’s perfection persists on a subconscious level at least for anyone with a good idea and a word processor.

I once had a dream of holding three or four pages of poems that I’d written. All the poems were quite short – none much longer than a sonnet. I remember my sense of sheer delight with them; they had a luminosity to them. Each had a sort of perfection. 

I remember the feeling that they had a sort of lightness, detail and delicacy that set them apart from anything else I’d written. A sort of precious quality. I remember a sense of completeness, as if the chase was over – as if I’d caught up with that person and found – or even retrieved – what I’d been looking for. It was a feeling of relief.

Except I hadn’t written them. None of them existed and I couldn’t remember a word when I woke up. Only the shape and the sense of them. The chase wasn’t over. In fact it had only made the longing more acute. Having glimpsed this perfection, but with complete amnesia as to the words themselves, I was no closer to finding it. One might attribute this psychological ‘chase’ to a creative impulse – the desire to make; the Victorian urge to pile red brick on red brick. An evolutionary trick to keep you working. Keep you trying.  

We all have our own ideas of perfection. I think Keith Douglas is close with How to Kill; surely Byron was near to getting Robin Williams to dance with Ozymandias. Both of these poems are touched by a curious magic; each line fits in the memory as perfectly as a sea-smoothed stone sits in the palm of your hand. Sifting through my own work I can see where I’ve achieved what I’ve set out to do – and then somehow gone beyond. And it’s only in these moments of creative liberation, where I’ve taken my hands off the handlebars (and somehow managed not to veer off the path) that I’ve somehow reached somewhere beyond, and transcended my own powers.

Sometimes we’ll have the start of what looks like it could be the perfect poem. Often this is a brilliantly strong idea or first line so good it’s as if its got its own energy source. It’s demanding to be developed, extended and explored. It would be a crime not to do something with it.

You can imagine, Wordsworth when he hit upon: ‘I wandered lonely as a cloud…’ I wonder whether at once he felt his pulse quicken; whether he called Dorothy in from the next room to check he hadn’t pinched it (perhaps she was too loyal to point out it sounded remarkably like a line from her own journal). This might be described as his ‘Yesterday moment’ – when Paul McCartney opened his eyes with that indelible melody in his head.

Wordsworth might have felt a responsibility towards that line – a duty to develop it. The same with Keats’ Ode to Autumn. The bar is set high from the outset. The opening line is a gift to set the poem’s heart beating, but how to sustain that sort of quality?  Immediately the poet moves from inspiration to perspiration. The pressure’s on to make the poem as brilliant as the opening line. There’s a risk of trying too hard – or even trying to compete with yourself; ‘the ‘other poet’ – ‘the better poet in you’ – who came up with that line.   

I think that’s why I think we should seek out the great poets’ second best poems. Don’t go for Howl; try Ginsberg’s A Supermarket in California instead.

‘Who killed the pork chops? What price bananas? Are you my Angel?’

The pressure’s off here. It’s 1956. He’s on incredible form, but he’s writing what he wants. He’s not having to follow up an opening line of genius like: ‘I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness…’ Instead he’s in the flow state; he’s ‘opened his eyes to the vision’ in Rimbaud’s phrase.

I wonder whether Ginsberg had a moment of self-doubt afterwards, staring at the words on the page; was it little more than an inspired diary entry? It’s imperfections; its sprawl; the stacks of adjectives piled like tins on the shelf, are what make it perfect.   

Is it useful to frame writing poetry in this way? To think of it as a Chaplin-esque chase through a crowded city street? Or The Wile. E. Coyote’s futile pursuit of the Road Runner through the canyons with armfuls of TNT?

Whether it is or not, the chase adds a sort of urgency to our writing life; a persistent, questing quality. Even if we never find that perfect poem (read it or write it) the chase spurs us on. Writing is often characterised as a struggle, perhaps even a noble one. And lest we forget, poets are ultimately lost causes. Whatever it is we’re looking for, we can’t help but keep chasing it.

For those too impatient to find out what happens at the end of the chase, let’s seek answers from Kaveh Akbar’s, The Perfect Poem

The perfect poem knows
where it went.

The perfect poem is no bigger
than a bear…

…The perfect poem is light as dust
on a bat’s wing, lonely as a single flea.

Christopher James’ new pamphlet: The Storm in the Piano (Maytree Press), including four first prize winning poems, and three second prize winning poems, is published on 17 June 2022. Signed copies available from the author.

Blue is the colour. On a lesser known sonnet by John Keats.

We all know the blockbusters – Bright Star and On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer. These are Keats’ Yesterday and Let It Be. But what of his other sonnets? Outside academia they are little known. Yet some are exquisite – and worth committing to memory to pull out on a rainy day. That’s the joy of sonnets. They fit easily into the pocket of the mind. This one is a case in point; on the face of it, an ode to a sunny day, that becomes something more.

Blue! ‘Tis the life of heaven,–the domain
Of Cynthia,–the wide palace of the sun,–
The tent of Hesperus and all his train,–
The bosomer of clouds, gold, grey and dun.
Blue! ‘Tis the life of waters–ocean
And all its vassal streams: pools numberless
May rage, and foam, and fret, but never can
Subside if not to dark-blue nativeness.
Blue! gentle cousin of the forest green,
Married to green in all the sweetest flowers,
Forget-me-not,–the blue-bell,–and, that queen
Of secrecy, the violet: what strange powers
Hast thou, as a mere shadow! But how great,
When in an Eye thou art alive with fate!

It’s a magnificent riff on the theme of blue. Yet unlike Picasso’s melancholy series, this is an ecstatic dance; a burst of joy; a glorious daubing of the colour. You can easily imagine Keats strolling out on the heath, peering up from beneath the brim of his top hat, beneath a basin of pure blue sky. Remarkably, we know the date he wrote it: Sunday, 8 February 1818 – and it was a good omen – because it preceded what was to be London’s longest and warmest summer in years.

The poem’s conceit is simple. It’s a defence of blue – a riposte to lines written by fellow poet J.H. Reynolds, who argued:

    dark eyes are dearer far
Than orbs that mock the hyacinthine-bell.

Reynold’s poem is sadly not worth repeating in full. It’s a lightweight thing, too clever by half, and caught up in its own contrariness, making the case for brunette over the blonde (the ‘tresses dusk’ rather than ‘the golden clusters’) and dark eyes over blue.

Keats’ poem transcends its casual origins and becomes a luminous, freshly minted thing in its own right. Perhaps it owes its spontaneity to the speed and circumstances in which it was conjured. In the joy of the game, the spirited sparring between the poets, it has a zest it might not otherwise have had, had he laboured over it in the dark. Perhaps a first draft was dashed off in a moment of good humoured indignation.

The poem is exceptionally vivid, and intensely visual: the brightness of the star is offset by the duller colours of the clouds, which are ‘gold, grey and dun.’ The sonnet has a painterly quality to it, yet unlike a painter, restrained by a single canvas, a poet can transport us from one scene to another. With its jump cuts from sky to sea to forest, it’s more like a short film.          

‘The wide palace of the sun’

It’s a poem in three parts: first the sky, or, as seen through his extravagant metaphor: ‘the wide palace of the sun.’ The long and open vowel sounds of ‘domain’ ‘and all his train’ give a sense of its epic scale. It’s not so much a sky as a sweeping theatre. The fact that he metaphor-hops from ‘palace’ to a ‘tent’ to a voluptuous woman (‘The bosomer of clouds’) gives you a feel for Keats’ mood – drunken on its endless bounty, struggling to contain it in a single idea.  There are a couple of classical allusions – Cynthia is a name for the Greek goddess of the moon, nature and hunters. She was born on the eponymous Mount Cynthus on the sacred island of Delos under those dazzlingly blue skies. Hesperus is the bright evening star.

But then he abandons the idea of the sky altogether. It’s not enough. Next comes the water; oceans and ‘pools numberless.’ Like these, the sonnet overflows, the line endings spilling over. The alliteration of ‘rage and foam and fret’ creates an unstoppable tumult. ‘Ocean and all its vassal streams’ is masterful; the lines themselves coarsing like clear streams through the poem.  

Then we’re back on dry land; in the woods, where blue is ‘the gentle cousin of the forest green.’ Its ‘strange power’ here is how it accents the other colours; and where as a shadow of green, has transformative properties. It’s a clever trick. Keats is not trying to out punch his own bombastic phrasemaking with the sea and sky, but instead focuses on the colour’s quieter alchemy. The coy ‘forget me not and ‘the queen of secrecy, the violet’ are small miracles in themselves, which in their miniature perfection are every bit as breath-taking as the sea or sky.

Is the sonnet overblown? Possibly. But Keats is too much an artist to allow his tsumani of metaphors and images to dominate the poem. The focus-pull from the wide shots to the delicacy of those forest flowers shows he’s totally in control of his material.  

And then comes the coup de grace. Forget how blue floods nature, and electrifies the world. ‘When in an eye’ it truly comes into its own, bringing humanity to life. It’s a stunning closer; no matter what miracles we find in the natural world, nothing comes close to the miracle of our own existence – brought to life here by the blue of an eye ‘alive with fate.’ There’s a note of vulnerability and transcience here too, that gives it an added poignancy.  Our mortality makes the perfect imperfect.

There’s an interesting postscript. Eric Ormsby, in his review of Andrew Motion’s fine biography remarked on Keats’ own eyes:

‘whose exact color none of his friends could later remember but whose flashing vivacity none of them ever forgot.’

Commit this sonnet to memory and bring it out at the beach, or at a picnic that’s been rained off, as a gift from the pocket of your mind. This might be a Keats B-side, but like The Beatles, even his B-sides made mincemeat of the competition.

The Thirty-Nine Steps

It was only last year that I finally got around to reading John Buchan’s The Thirty-Nine Steps. I’d watched the celebrated Hitchcock film, but the book has a particularly stylish and exhilarating quality all of its own. The voice of the irrepressible, resourceful Richard Hannay, an engineer and intelligence officer recently arrived in London from Africa  is what gives its character, both cynical and scornful of authority. The pace is astonishing, with several things happening almost at once – there are chases, explosions and gun fights, but the central motif is travel.

The 39 steps

Buchan clearly has fun with the possibilities offered by motor cars and aeroplanes and along with trains, and chases on foot across Scottish moors, Hannay is always on the move. The plot, which revolves around a plan to precipitate a European war, is almost ancillary to the odd characters (including a milkman, hung over road worker and prospective parliamentarian) Hannay meets on the way. While it owes something of a debt to Conan-Doyle, it has inspired a thousand of copy-cat blockbusters and Hollywood films, particularly those which feature the archetype of the stylish, clever, maverick outsider, wayward, but ultimately committed to King and country. Ian Fleming, you suspect had a copy on his bedside table.

Anyway, all of this inspired the inevitable song! 

Live reading: 19 October 2014

Jazz-Poetry. One or both of these words may strike fear into your heart, however, if you’re intrigued, read on . . . I’m performing at the Rhyme and Rhythm Jazz-Poetry Club on Sunday 19 Oct at 6pm. Dugdale Centre, 39 London Road, Enfield, EN2 6DS.

I rehearsed with the band last Sunday and they are not only the most musically accomplished, but the nicest gentleman you are ever likely to meet. Some great tunes, hopefully won’t be spoiled by me reading some poetry with the music.  See you there!

Rhythm&RhymeOCT

The Cloud Collector

He keeps cirrus in the cellar,
stratocumulus stuffed like insulation in the loft.
Spare rooms billow with altostratus.
Outside, the sky is a cloudless blue.
He roams the hills with a Hoover and scoops
clouds from summits in butterfly nets,
bagging them on the quiet; he stitches
them into the lining of his jackets
presses them into the boot of his car.
Each summer, he rents a beach hut,
plain white, with yellow bunting hanging
above the door like a row of crows’ beaks.
He watches waves curl like rolling papers
and waits for the clouds to blow in from the sea.

 cromer collage

Winkleman’s Broadwater

Winkleman’s Broadwater
is an ale of rare perfection:
It opens with toffee and walnut
notes, crushed gooseberries
and limes; the hops come through
with the bitterness of beeswax.
Appearance is a jar of honey,
left in sunlight; an amber pool.
At Winkleman’s we mash
in a tun like a king’s bathtub.
Fermentation is our holy art,
where we bless the wort
with yeast in six silver vessels.
It is bottled in thrice blown
brown glass and ferried each day
to our dealers in the back
of our patent yellow Land Rovers.
Each morning here at Winkleman’s,
we abandon the brewery, dress
in striped Victorian bathing costumes,
and head down a ladder to the sea.
Lunch is a feast of shrimp, dressed crab,
crusty bread and two pints
of Broadwater for every employee.
In the afternoons we drift off
to the sound of Debussy, Chopin
and the gentle brass of the brew kettles.
Every evening is a special evening
at Winkleman’s, when we gather
beneath the glass roof to write
the tasting notes: our eulogies
to the grains, our elegies to the vines.

Beer

The Mine

We descended in waistcoats
ties and spectacles, twisting
fountains pens nervously in the lift.
The light thinned to a single flame.
We edged down passageways
lined with sonnets and haikus,
dug out rhymes, fully intact,
laid them flat on conveyor belts.
We listened to the mine: the scratch
and murmurs of the ages;
the drip of ink from the roofs.
We broke into rooms of rock
supported only by fragile
pillars of words and saw the ghosts
of old poets sat at desks,
taking down what they heard.
The air was foul with damp.
Some poems we found glowing,
perfectly formed, there for the taking
glistening roundels chipped
straight out of the rock.
Others were in fragments,
cut off in a moment of brilliance.
There were occasional disasters.
Along the seam where we found
the epics, a roof fell in and six poets
were entombed in Ancient Greece.
Each day we emerged like newborns,
blinking in the light, clutching pages,
our faces blackened with print.

Colliery

The Levitating Farm

Running up the lane,
and I find a barn
suspended above the field:
no pillar or post,
just a lid of tin and moss,
an attic of timber
and hay; no mirrors,
no wire, no trick of the eye.
Then I see cows, peddling
the air, stirring it
with their hooves,
licking knats from the wind.
Across the yard, a tractor,
driverless, scoops
mist in its shovel,
shifts down the gears.
The farmhouse floats
like a balloon tethered
by invisible thread.
Inside the chairs
drift through the kitchen.
I catch my breath,
while the wind slowly juggles
six bales of hay.
A pitchfork and saw
edge towards me
like the cutlery of a giant.
Then I see the notice
of auction, and later
up by the church,
a single cauliflower
laid on a brown dirt grave.

Lamb

The Dickens Impersonator

All that year, I wore dead men’s clothes:
Victorian trousers with a button fly;
white shirts that billowed like spinnakers.
At night I heard ghosts clink in the kitchen,
rummaging for whisky and cufflinks.
On buses I was like a time traveller,
my pocket-watch ticking like a heart on a string.
I overheated in matinees, left top hats
on top decks and watched the world through
a clouded monocle and a pair of pince-nez.
My overcoat belonged to an undertaker,
a monstrous blanket of darkness with pockets
as deep as graves. So I left it all in an attic
where my suit now waltzes with a scarlet gown.

Charles Dickens

 

Christopher James’ latest collection of poems: England Underwater is available now.

Walking the Line

Only when we made it to Gabon,
did we discover the Equator was real:
something you could see:
a length of yellow piping, a wire fence,
then schoolchildren holding hands.

It was a belt around the world,
a ball of wool unraveled by a kitten;
cotton spilt from a reel.
We walked the line of nothing
to the heart of the Congo,

where we found Dr Livington’s
boot laces knotted together
with Stanley’s tie; in Kenya, there were
football scarves held end to end
by some die-hards from Kisumu.

Once I saw it hold only by a thread:
the single strand of a spider’s web.
Over the Atlantic, it was a telegraph wire
almost invisible, then a fibre optic cable,
pulsing like an eel on the ocean floor .

In Equador, we lost track of it,
then picked it up at Mitad del Mundo
In Brazil at the Marco Zero, we watched
women hanging washing on the line: the flick
of a number ten shirt out in the middle.

equator