christopher james

Poems and prattle

Tag: poem

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.

Knives out: a review of The Knives of Villalejo by Matthew Stewart

I’ve been looking forward to reviewing Matthew Stewart’s long overdue debut collection. With a title like a 1950s crime fiction potboiler, and a blood-red cover, there’s the promise of mystery and mortality in store.

Those elements are certainly present in this fine book, but the set-up is something of a ruse. The themes, in fact, are squarely domestic. Family, home and work are the chief preoccupations of this honest, absorbing sequence, and yet each is explored with an astonishing intimacy.


The Knives of Villalejo

Stewart divides his time between England and Spain and works in the wine trade. And if some of these poems have been slow in gestation, then like a good wine, they have aged well. The book is full of polarities: between work and home, past and present, England and Spain, life and death, appearance and reality and these opposing currents provide the book with its emotional tension.

Stewart creates unpredictable landscapes. Often, innocuous, domestic scenes can lurch into something much darker. Sooner or Later begins in a ‘spare-room wardrobe’ where something lives amongst ‘forgotten gifts/ and out-of-favour shirts.’

Maybe tonight, maybe

next year, a sudden call

will bring it centre stage,

rushed to the dry cleaners.

It’s structured like an Anglo-Saxon riddle; then comes the pay-off: ‘There’s not a hope/of dodging the dark suit.’

This ability to wrong foot the reader, to lull them into a sense of quiet domesticity, only to pull the rug with a dramatic turn or arresting image, is Stewart’s trump card. And yet there is a never a sense of smugness or conceit in this. It’s a reminder that this is what life is like – light can give way to dark in a matter of moments; banality can slide into tragedy, bliss into despair.

There is a feeling here of life intensely lived; a sense sharpened by the certainty of death. Rather than something to be feared, however, our mortality appears to enhance each pleasure: each sip of wine and each carefully prepared meal. Stewart shares something of Larkin’s acute awareness of death (‘All streets in time are visited’) but without the same paranoid sense of self-preservation.

Stewart is especially adept in the kitchen. There is a ritualistic delight in Artes Culinarias: the ‘skinning and sluicing’ and the lamb stew for which ‘you peeled, you scraped, you sliced all morning long.’ Yet this isn’t Saturday Kitchen; in Stewart’s spry, multi-layered poems, there’s always something else going on. Here there’s a sense of the poet reflecting while these rituals are enacted – memories, worries and temptations reveal themselves. I especially liked the pay off in the final section: Guisantes al vino tinto, where an exquisite dish is meticulously prepared with ‘a long dollop of wine and just-shucked peas’. It appears to be an act of love and generosity. In fact, there are

memories of an old lover stirring:

This is still her dish and far more daring

than sly rummages for battered photos

especially now I’m serving it for you.

There is a clear link between sexuality, sensuality, food and wine, and yet it is never explicitly made. It’s a book full of allusions, hints and shadows. There’s as much left unsaid in the sparseness of the language.

The poem The 23rd is as heart-breaking as it is brief. A single stanza long, it is a dignified tribute to a loved one, and says everything about how grief must necessarily live in a world that carries on regardless. The date ‘casually loiters in the fourth line of April, pretending not to stalk me.’ The personification of death, sly and insidious, is brutally effective. So too is the caesura in the final line where there is a fear that the poet might forget: ‘As if I ever could.’ The fact I’ve written more in this paragraph and said so much less than the poem itself, tells you just how good Stewart is. I’ve only resisted reproducing the whole poem to encourage you to read the book for yourself.

Stewart’s poems are as precisely measured as the dishes themselves. The language has a deceptively simplicity, a distilled clarity, just as the most delicious food and drink relies on simple ingredients.

But Stewart has a gift too for the original simile and metaphor and it’s in these moments when you feel a re-invigoration of language and re-imagining of a familiar world:

….two rosaries

lie coiled on a sunlit table

like dozing, sated rattlesnakes.

This is as good as anything that’s being written right now. Aside from the freshness of the image itself, there’s a subtext of religion, culture and guilt all at play. Elsewhere, a pencil is ‘perfectly wigwammed by a Stanley knife.’

The title poem is one of the finest pieces in the book, and again plays into the themes of domesticity, ritual and mortality. The Knives of Villalejo are put to work each day in every kitchen, and are ‘blunted by the cloying dough of fresh bread.’ This magnificent iambic line, with its layers of clinging consonants and springy vowels, sets up a densely worked piece. Over time, the blades become ‘speckled with rust’ while the handles become ‘darkened.’ Then comes the village grinder, like the reaper himself, who ‘pushes his bike from door to door/he knows them well and whets them in seconds.’ But nothing lasts forever (not least our ourselves) until one day:

…they judder halfway through a stroke

and snap like over-sharpened lives.’

There’s a sense of danger, and an intimation of death but the poem is also a rich celebration of life.

Finally, it would wrong not to mention Last chance, part of a longer sequence called Speech Recognition. The voice is that of a neglected book, gathering dust in a charity shop:

I’m stick on a wonky trestle table

between a video tape of the Smurfs

and the 1989 Good Food Guide

The book has a simple plea: ‘I only want a single pair of hands/to stretch my spine and open me at last.’ Let this not be the fate of this important book.

It’s a flawless performance, at once funny, elegiac and deeply felt; and totally representative of this spare, deeply enjoyable collection that does not pretend to offer answers, but only questions and consolations. This is a generous and accomplished collection at once refreshing in its simplicity, nourishing in its intensity, and intoxicating in its emotional pitch. Enjoy with a glass of Rioja.

Solstice

On the shortest, darkest, coldest day
We pulled on our winter socks
Under frozen skies of grey
We saw the flash of a winter fox.

As we walked out into the cold
And stepped on ice and dreamt of snow
We thought of Christmases of old
The holly and the mistletoe.

And for a while we saw the sun
Its rays like wings for all to see
Above the Earth when day was done
Like the angel on the Christmas tree.

Winter sun