Wednesday, 31 December 2008

The last day of the year

A busy two weeks, running around, culminating in people and good food.

I did manage one book, from the pile on my floor by the table leg - the books to be read. It includes Ulysses and some Henry James - more than I can chew at the moment. But there was also Fahrenheit 451, by Ray Bradbury, initially published in 1956. It's slim, he wrote it in nine days, though he says in the introduction that it is a conflation of three earlier short stories, plus some extra bits. The characters are two-dimensional, but the story rings true, it is reality pushed just a bit further than we know it - his own experience of being stopped by a policeman one evening because he and his friend were walking in the street and talking: the policeman wanted to know what he and his friend were doing - the US in the fifties. They had trouble getting rid of him, and he warned them as he left.

Bradbury has a great facility with metaphor, he just writes and writes them, they come pouring out, unexpected, original, striking. In the first paragraph of the first page he is describing our hero, man Montag, burning books with a vengeance using a flame thrower:

"...With the brass nozzle in his fists, with this great python spitting its venomenous kerosene upon the world, the blood pounded in his head and his hands were the hands of some amazing conductor playing all the symphonies of blazing and burning to bring down the tatters and charcoal ruins of history...."

And so it goes.

Only a few hours and it's the end of the year... Started Ryszard Kapuscinksi's Travels with Herodotus, (Penguin, 2007) which is instantly surreal - he describes himself, an ignorant young journalist who had grown up under the shadow of Stalin, in thrall to a great curiosity for what lay beyond the frontier - what would be different there? How would it affect him?

He only dared dream of Czecholsovakia, but in the event he was sent to India, via Rome: he knew nothing about these places. His description of Rome on a warm summer night is so immediate that for a moment I slipped into it completely.

His book is a commentary on many things at once - himself as a young naive viewer, the effect of a Communist regime on its citizens, the many other lives he intersects- here is a description of the barefoot man who brings him his tea in the morning - his first day in India in a dubious hotel (bedbugs abounding):

"He placed the tray on the table, bowed, and having uttered not a word, softly withdrew. There was such a natural politeness in his manner, such profound tactfulness, something so astonishingly delicate and dignified, that I felt instant admiration and respect for him".

I love the way he takes the time to describe something properly with a variety of expressions. This book will take a while to be read - not too fast.

Wednesday, 17 December 2008

Review of Aravind Adiga's The White Tiger

The White Tiger, Aravind Adiga's first novel (2008, Atlantic Books, UK) has just won the Booker-Man Prize. The recent giant embezzlement of funds on Wall Street is rumoured to have affected the Man part of the Booker-Man finances - will there be a Booker-Man Prize next year?

I hope so: they choose wonderful books.

This one while dealing with dark matters is original and humourous. The story begins in a part of India described as The Darkness. Balram Halwai grows up in that darkness and is nicknamed White Tiger, for achieving the impossible - learning to read and write at the village school. His father pulls a rickshaw. His dying wish - he dies too young, of TB - is that at least one of his sons should learn to read and write, and live like a man - not like him, who has been trapped into spending his life "like a donkey". The challenge is great: assuming that a boy is clever enough to learn, he might be plucked out from school at any time by his elders, to be condemned to a life-time of menial labour, so that his family may fund the weddings of its many daughters; he also has to overcome laziness and venality of the teacher, who prefers chewing paan and sleeping the day away to teaching, and steals the funds allocated to the school.

We follow the White Tiger and his efforts to overcome the terrible disadvantages of low birth and ignorance. We witness his gradual initiation into the world, his growing understanding of human nature, his terrible loneliness, the choices he makes in what appears to be an amoral landscape. The only sources of strength the author grants him are his sharp mind and the practice of yoga, (from a daily TV programme).

We become acquainted with the other India, the one we Westerners never really know about- the India of destitution. Adiga describes how the poor are taught servitude, its violent enforcement by the rich, how they remaining stuck in it like chicken stuffed tightly and cruelly in a coop. It is similar to 19th century Europe, when people were supposed to "know their place" and stay in it, and the life-expectancy in London's slums was just 19 years.

What makes this book so endearing is the format - letters to Wen Jiabao, the Chinese Premier, who is about to visit India to learn more about the entrepreneurs who have master-minded a booming economy. The tone is respectful without being sycophantic - for once, Balram seems to be confident that he is communicating with someone who will understand. The first letter is written on The First Night, the second on The Second Night, the third on The Fourth Morning - it makes you laugh. The criticism of India is sharp and funny too: on the second page, he explains to the Premier: "Apparently, sir, you Chinese are far ahead of us in every respect, except that you don't have entrepreneurs. And our nation, though it has no drinking water, electricity, sewage system, public transportation, sense of hygiene, discipline, courtesy, or punctuality, does have entrepreneurs. Thousands and thousands of them."

Just over 300 pages, nice airy type-setting on creamy paper, and not a word too many.

Sunday, 14 December 2008

An endless folly

Lynn Jenner has won the Adam Prize for the best portfolio of her year in the Creative Writing course at the Institute for Modern Letters at VUW - the course that is generally known as 'Bill Manhire's course'. Richly deserved - I have heard poems from the poets who studied with her and enjoyed them too. Lynn's work is very very good.

After many years, have re-read Carlos Castaneda and am struck about how good his writing is - fluent and descriptive. The book is A Separate Reality, A Yaqui Way of Knowledge, Further conversations with Don Juan - there are two subtitles for some reason. (Penguin Books reissue 2003, first printed in 1971).

An impatience grew in me with all the stories about smoking drugs, being dunked in water and washed, seeing allies or green mists, hearing cracking branches, being very afraid, questions being answered by Don Juan laughing merrily, or heartily and not saying anything, it felt invented, or the product of the drugs, except for about 3 passages which stand out, which seem real. Someone else (it's a library book) had turned over the corner of the page where one of these passages featured, perhaps having a similar reaction to me: This is what matters, this is the important bit.

In the original, it is written as a dialogue. Castaneda's questions have been left out here.

Don Juan says (p. 226):

"You talk to yourself too much. You must stop talking to yourself. [...] You're not unique in that. Every one of us does that. We carry on internal talk. [...]We talk about our internal world. In fact, we maintain our world with our internal talk. [...] The world is such-and-such or so-and-so only because we tell ourselves that that is the way it is. If we stop telling ourselves that the world is so-and-so, the world will stop being so-and-so. [...] confuse the world with what people do. [...]What we do as people gives us comfort, and makes us feel safe; what people do is rightfully very important, but only as a shield. We never learn that the things we do as people are only shields and we let them dominate and topple our lives... [...] The world is incomprehensible. we won't ever understand it; we won't ever unravel its secrets. Thus we must treat it as it is, a sheer mystery!...a warrior [ a truth-seeker] treats the world as an endless mystery and what people do as an endless folly."

Don Juan mentions the folly of human actions earlier, referring to his own vain attempts to influence his grandson into a more thoughtful life-style.

Tried a couple of other books, including a biography of Allen Ginsberg, and a detective story translated from the Japanese, but a few pages were enough - the first far too detailed, the second too slow and stilted.
Back to the library with them.

Wednesday, 3 December 2008

The Annotated Waste Land

A thorough reading of T.S. Eliot's The Annotated Waste Land with Eliot's contemporary prose (L. Rainey, ed., 2005, Yale University Press), still on-going.

Monday, 1 December 2008

The fascination of the difficult

A long study of Maxine Kumin's essay on A Shropshire Lad by A E Housman (in Always Beginning, Copper Canyon Press, 2000), learning for the first time (!) about masculine and feminine rhymes, about spondees and trochees. Not all the new information has stuck in my mind, so the chapter will be copied for future reference (the book belongs to the library). It opened up new views, new ways of appreciating a poem. Some of it may be known instinctively, when the lines feel 'right', that's besides the rhyme.

"Nobody knows where the notion of rhyming comes from..." she says (p. 129).

And further: "It is far easier to memorize a rhymed poem than, for instance, the free verse of Walt Whitman. [...] While many poets have abandoned the rhyming convention, they still rely on other traditional devices such as simile, metaphor, and other figurative language, and most of the time they employ stanza breaks the way we employ the paragraph in prose. [...] For many of us contemporary poets, formalism is a way of life, a sustenance, a stout tree for the vine of our poems. We are, for better or for worse, committed to make rhymes, be they exact rhymes or slant...

[...] I know that I write better poems in form - within the exigencies of a rhyme scheme and a metrical pattern - than I do in the looser line of free verse...

[...] But the harder - that is the more psychically difficult the poem is to write, the more likely I am to choose a difficult pattern to pound it into. This is true because, paradoxically, the difficulty frees me to be more honest and more direct. It is Yeats's "the fascination of what's difficult."

* * *

Wrote a short story about a woman at the supermarket. Still bumpy. For the time being it's called New World .

Tuesday, 25 November 2008

Taking a break

Slowly working my way through Maxine Kumin's essays in Always Beginning, Essays on a life in poetry (2000, Copper Canyon Press) - not always understanding. An introduction to two poets whom I shall read soon: Frost and Wallace Stevens.

No writing on my part, except for this blog. Nothing new since One Red Sofa was sent out, though some unfinished poems which were set aside are calling out... The weather is good for gardening.

Am reading PD James' latest detective story, (2008, The Private Patient, Faber and Faber). She spins a good yarn, her characters are a little old-fashioned, but am absorbed nevertheless, though wanting to cross out some of the adjectives.

It's good to have a change. Next week I start on the next project, fun.

Monday, 17 November 2008

See, there she is in her natural habitat

The MS took shape, the strong anti-terrorist poem came first, blasting the door wide open (!), then poems about WWII and violence, followed by a slow movement to a more personal space, more intimacy and then the Black Lake poem. The whole thing entitled One Red Sofa, because the sofa marks the turning point.

Since then have read - am still busy reading - Lynn Davidson's journal, of a similar one-year long journey into poetry during her MA work at Vic (I surmise that, it does not actually say so.) Deep and thoughtful. I feel chastened, I should have tried harder.

I have also read Mona Van Duyn's book of poems Near Changes (1990, Alfred A Knopf), after my own heart. She was quoted by Maxine Kumin, whose essays I am still reading.

My favourite poem of the moment is this one by Mona van Duyn. The title seems mysterious at first:

The insight lady of St.Louis on zoos
(a found oral poem)

The other day I had an insight.

I suddenly realised why I hate zoos.
You know how they build those enclosures
for an
animal or two, and if the animal
is the kind that lives in a rocky country
they put one rock with it, and then they say,
see, there it is in its natural habitat?
And if the animal is a forest animal
they plant one tree with it and then they say,
see, there it is in its natural habitat?
Well, the handyman had put up the new bookshelf
on the only wall of the house
that isn't already covered with bookshelves,
and I organised all the books I had used
to write my book on Svevo, and then
all the books I had used for my book on Kierkegaard,
and then I saw myself as a zoo animal.
They would build a bare room with three bare walls
and put me and one book in it and then they would say,
see, there she is in her natural habitat!

And that evening I went to a party
and when we left I went upstairs to get my own coat,
and you should have seen that upstairs-
how can people live in a mess like that?-
it looked as the drugbusters had made a raid
and left every drawer half open
with the clothes and stuff dumped out on the floor,
and there was one book lying on the floor
and I picked it up to see what it was,
and then I had another terrible insight.
I knew what book they would put in my zoo pen.
It would be that book, Building Bicycles.

The tone of indignation, the and then they say, See, there she is..." the feeling, nay the fear of being taken over by an institution, where other people know what is best, it is all familiar.

Wednesday, 12 November 2008

Looming deadline

Working on the manuscript, which is due tomorrow, routine is ON.

Reviewed the re-written Meeting the house poem with Lynn J., she noticed a problem with what she called grammar and I call POV, never mind the name, she was right, it caused a jolt, remedied as usual by radical surgery, poem shorter now but healthier.

This cutting can become habit-forming, am doing it to some other poems too, more confidently.
It reminds me of the line about the man wanting to make a small fortune - you have to start with a big one.

Putting together the MS means deciding the order of the poems, for the flow, where each poem fits best. The one about terrorism is powerful and sticks out a mile from the others which are ostensibly domestic. How to deal with that.

Reading Lowell and Kumin, her essays very interesting, also stuff about writing, no time to go into that now. Except that she keeps a card system for her poems, to keep track of where she sends them for publication, told P and he said, Excel spreadsheet, without looking up from his book.

Looked for more Kumin poems at the library, but none. Found some other good poetry, more about that later. I have not finished the Waste Land, but shall get back to it.

After the BOW wow is done (Body of Work presentation at Whitireia) shall send off some poems to magazines etc. but only on Friday, after MS handover and the last reading completed.

My friend B visited, old comrade from working days, with lovely CD of his singing, we might try something together. One day, not now. Other projects.

A friend asked me about Toni Morrisson and remembered wanting to read her, but no recollection of her books. Thought I had not read them, but in fact I have.
I might have another look.

Sunday, 9 November 2008

Nothing to do with writing

NZ has a new Prime Minister elect, John Keys.

Most of the election campaign passed me by because I focussed on the US .

US (Obama) influence detectable in the final NZ speeches: 'graciousness' of bearing - John Keys overdid it. Helen was good, as usual.

Friday, 7 November 2008


Hinemoana suggested I use architectural terminology in the poems, since the house is the starting point (increasingly not, but that's another story).

I liked the idea because it might lead to something fresh, at the same time wanting to avoid using different words for the sake of the change alone. It should give a deeper meaning.

Thinking about it helped me realise that I see the house as a being, with a heart. I would like to use words related to human beings - the face of the house, its heart, its eyes - that's just the physical body - and its ability to welcome, to protect.

As I am writing this I think about the Maori concept of the wharenui...the wharenui representing the physical body of the ancestor.

I did not think this fitted at first- but now I realise maybe it is more so than I thought: my mother exclaimed when she first came in - It's like my parents' house.

A house in New Zealand is a whare.

I think of my sisters' house overseas: walking through the door is always a home-coming.

Thursday, 6 November 2008


I like the US for the first time since I saw Midnight Cowboy in the 70s.

A great acceptance speech, such a relief after the spin upon spin, the manipulations of the Bush regime.

The BBC correspondent in Iran says that they can't understand what is happening in the US, they are confused by this choice of a black President with Hussein in his name.

* * * *

Howltearoa went well, particularly the singing poem and the one about appearances.

A man in the open mic section recited a long poem by heart, a vigorous poem. He was Armenian and called himself Double Zero. Someone said that our group came across as 'polished' - Hinemoana's experienced hand there: each of us introduced the next speaker, that went smoothly. The song all together at the end was neat.

* * * *

Am working on the tricky poems and on my final MS for submission on the 13th. After the Body of Work presentation on the 18th, the year will be over. The BOW is apparently not important for a mark, but the MS will be reviewed by an external examiner.

Reading CK Stead's My Name Was Judas: Excellent start to it.

Thursday, 30 October 2008

Apprentice acrobat

Bodil Malmsten's new book is out - The Last Book from Finistere, but only in Swedish. I have no Swedish and there are no plans to translate. I found a webpage which translated her entire webpage, from Swedish into English, and that was great. She writes about events worldwide. Quotes for example one article entitled Poor Volvo - apparently orders are down to ONE TRUCK per day! (I am always curious about Sweden). Also quotes from newspapers in the US and France, good coverage.

Today my turn for a review by the group. Two poems are in deep trouble, Meeting the House and Upon reading the National Geographic. I keep trying and trying to improve them, but they do not find favour. I try to see them through other people's eyes, hear them with other people's ears, and learn. All I can think of right now is that the expression 'a cold shoulder' is weird, for some reason. I use it to describe the way the flight of concrete stairs leading to the porch and to our front door is angled away from a person arriving up the path, as if to say, You may be here, but we are not really interested. I think that I need to re-write Nat Geo completely, and have an idea that it might work, I feel relatively optimistic there. Have re-written Meeting the house already, more detail, more help for the reader - for Hinemoana said, Maybe it is under-written.

The feedback today was more muscular, to the point, no tiptoeing- it has given me something to work with. (There are some bruises, part of growing up, I think, like learning to be an acrobat.) I'll keep writing - other stuff- and then look back at these poems one day and probably wonder how I could not see what was wrong.

Here's a photo of our group taken last week, in front of Whitireia's library, with Hinemoana in the middle (white T-shirt). We are looking out over the lagoon which has ducks and gulls, towards the green Kapiti hills, low under a vast expanse of blue sky. Beautiful.

Discussion at lunch with the others about meeting up once the course is over: that will happen, I am happy.
We prepared for the gig on Monday at the pub, Howltearoa. I shall sing Yedid Nefesh, with the old familiar tune. Just the first stanza.

One thing I realise I have learnt during this year, which was wrong with the novel-in-process, and now have an inkling how to remedy - the cloying sweetness. A sweet story about Nazis. Yes.

In one of Elizabeth's emails, she mentioned Maxine Kumin - I might like her work. Well, she is one for me: no frills, and funny. Look here for some of her poems, Woodchucks is my favourite.

Monday, 27 October 2008


Am reading a book both about and by TS Eliot, The Annotated Waste Land with Eliot's contemporary prose (L. Rainey, ed., 2005, Yale University Press).

I read a bit of the poem, it was enough to entice me to read the long introduction by Lawrence Rainey and be drawn in still further. I am looking forward to this very much.

Wrote a poem I'm calling Motherhood - first draft. It seems to have emerged from the Black Lake poem.

Another story: I have been asked to provide a blurb about Kristallnacht events for the programme of the Vector Orchestra concert which commemorates them. I thought I'd quote a bit from my book. Am busy with that, but not quite sure how to approach the whole business. I have till Thursday to sort that out.

Hinemoana suggested that maybe besides reading my poems, I should sing something at the Howltearoa poetry reading at Southern Cross Pub, next Monday November 3rd.

(For readers outside New Zealand, the name Howltearoa is a combination of Allen Ginsburg's poem title Howl, and one of the Maori names for NZ, Aotearoa.)

The poster was produced by the poets' collective who run the monthly poetry readings.

Am thoughtful about the possibility of singing.

I said to my children on Friday: Maybe this is happening too late for me. I feel tired. Backache.

Thursday, 23 October 2008

Unkept promises

A welcome day at home.
Working on poems, cutting mainly. Feedback from Elizabeth is positive. I have yet to try sending anything anywhere for publication, cowardly.

Started on a story, something that happened, that I know about, a wicked old lady - well, maybe not so wicked, more misguided.

I have not kept to my promise to read poetry every day, yet. Nor have I been writing the 20 min of free flow, even though I know it is a good technique. Time to pull myself back on track, I would like those things to become routine. Have strayed considerably from everything, including Zazen and walking, though with regard to exercise, was happily busy in the garden for several hours yesterday.

I read a short play by Tennessee Williams, Something cloudy, something clear, because the title appealed so much. He wrote it when he was old, and death is in the play, though the play appears to be about young people - young people who know they are dying. The cloudy and clear are in the eyes of the writer - there is a writer in the play. Apart from the title, it makes grim reading.

Monday, 20 October 2008


A sudden spate of people reading this blog - over a hundred - leaving no comments - what triggered that?

Discovered a new blog to follow, entitled Long pauses, (see here) mainly film reviews, good reviews.

The name Long pauses is a quote from the English poet Denise Levertov, in her 1987 poem entitled Making peace:

"Making peace

A voice from the dark called out:
"The poets must give us
imagination of peace, to oust the familiar
imagination of disaster. Peace, not only
the absence of war."


A line of peace might appear
if we restructured the sentences our lives are making
revoked its affirmation of profit and power
questioned our needs, allowed long pauses...

There is much more, see the blog.

The Long pauses blog put me onto a (for me) new director, Nathaniel Dorsky (San Francisco, US), who makes short non-narrative films that are as yet unavailable here. A good description might be contemplative. He calls his style Devotional Cinema, and has written about it in a short book of that title, also unavailable.

We watched an Afghani movie entitled Osama last night, a story focussing on ordinary women in Afghanistan under the Taleban. The director is Siddiq Barmaq: the film is beautifully shot (in Aghanistan) and stringently cut - one of the sources of its power. It said somewhere that he decided during the editing to remove any trace of hope. The film won countless awards.

Have dragged myself around all morning unable to work because of the hopelessness. This has happened before, had sworn to avoid films like that.

Reviewing my own poems last week: cut, cut, cut.
Like pruning the roses.

Tuesday, 14 October 2008


Someone told me to read a novel called Remember me by Trezza Azzopardi, read it last night and disappeared into it, a feeling of being sucked in - thank goodness it's over, a depressing and scary world, about a woman with an intellectual disability living as a derelict, a bag-lady. Wonderful writing, in terms of imagery and of getting inside the head of someone like her, but also lacking in some ways, practical things not thought through. Azzopardi's first novel The Hiding Place was short-listed for the Booker in 2000. Her father is Maltese and her mother Welsh, she grew up in Cardiff.

Today is my uninterrupted day, got a lot done, have prepared poems for emailing on Thursday. Year-long resume next, tomorrow morning, mainly based on this blog.

Read Dylan Thomas's Where once the waters of your face, an ode to the sea, or is it the tide?
Expressions I noticed: 'The dead turns up its eye' , 'your clocking tides','the dolphined sea'. He eliminates words, changes others, creates concentrated expressions, the language becomes rich and fresh. That's from his book The Loud Hill of Wales.

A Scots friend lent me Selected Poems by George Mackay Brown (1971 & 1977, Hogarth Press). The first poem, from his Loaves and Fishes collection, is entitled The Old Women: they

"...fix on you from every close and pier
An acid look to make your veins run sour."

and at the death of a "...gray-eyed sober boy..." would

"...weave into their moans

An undersong of terrible holy joy."

The use of holy!

Monday, 13 October 2008

Humble pie

When the class reviewed my poem Meeting the house, a month or so ago, I listened in silence as people took their turn to comment, following the usual format for feed-back. I didn't agree with what I heard and when everyone had finished, I told them: "I won't change a damned thing".

Well, heaps has been changed and the poem is the better for it, slimmer, punchier. I was wrong. Apologies, people.

Wednesday, 8 October 2008

Abandoning the parochial

Reading Leonard Cohen. From the interviews with him and with others who know him, he is painstaking, choosing words slowly.

There is a quality to the poetry which has to do with the general, the topic that touches everyone. It is a relief to read poems like that.

How to do that.

Tuesday, 7 October 2008

Black lake

Today is uninterrupted, I can write. Am listing future phone calls and letters as I think of them. P guards the gate.

Yesterday evening, poetry reading with my Whitireia classmates at L's, a nice evening. We may keep in touch after the course is over.

The poem I read is called - for the time being - Away from here. Here is the last bit:

I would like to be that lake now -
black, silent, reflecting cloud, rock and snow,
the ruffle of a small sharp breeze, and then still
again. No fish, no bird, no other being.

Is it an ode to Death - frozen stillness except for the breeze? fish, no bird... - so much non-life. Except for other being... someone is there, maybe me? maybe not? The breath of air, wairua, ruffles the water.

Ruach noshevet al pnei ha mayim...
A wind breathes on the face of the water, says the Israeli poet Rachel (my translation). Ruach can mean both wind and spirit, I realise. More and more biblical. Checking Genesis 1:2, and the words ruach and al pnei ha mayim are there - but God's spirit (ruach elohim) 'hovers' over the water, merachefet, not noshevet.

Or is this poem about longing to be a Zen person in a black robe, anchored on a black cushion? Noshevet has for me the connotation, the sound, of the passive tense of Yashav, he sat. In the feminine - she was sat.


Watched the Leonard Cohen documentary I'm your man and the music is in my head all the time, wake up with it, go to sleep with it. I'm dying to sing that song- If it be your will. Found Anthony singing it on You tube, better than LC himself - took down most of the words. Seeing/hearing the MacGarrigle sisters in the film - a flashback. We must be the same age.

I set the timer for eight minutes and it rang - ages ago.

Monday, 6 October 2008


A confession: Two non-writing projects of mine are going awry at the moment and it is difficult to write while this is happening. The 3 hours of writing should come first, but the compulsion is strong to try and get things moving on those fronts, and once the phoning and talking about them starts, whatever peacefulness there was is replaced - for a while at least - by agitation and a churning stomach.

Months ago, someone lent us a DVD of a film about Leonard Cohen and his songs, entitled I'm Your Man. It was almost lost, then found again, then about to be returned unseen, and finally last night, when there was nothing else to do, we watched it, transfixed. When it ended we re-watched the songs we liked most, it was after midnight when we said, This is madness. The songs are still going through my head. They were not sung by LC who is in his seventies, but by other people, wonderfully. Rufus W. sang the Halleluyah which is well know, but that was not the best, the best was Anthony, singing If it be your will - straight to the heart. Wonderful words all along. Good interviews with LC himself. They showed some footage of him and his Roshi, very fat and old, and neither of them at ease, a surprising thing to notice about a Zen master.

The DVD is also at Wellington's Central Library. The lovely library.

That was my most recent enthusiasm. There was another before that - two in two days - a book I spent the entire Saturday reading: Portrait of the Artist's Wife, by Barbara Anderson (1992, VUW). My original perception of her as a writer was formed by a play she wrote entitled Gorillas, which was put on by the local amateur theatrical group. That group can do a decent job, but the play was ghastly - and does not feature in the list of her publications on the Book Council website, so something must have happened to it (maybe it became something else?)

The Portrait was gripping: as if a dear friend were telling a story about something that has happened to her, that has changed her. The story progresses naturally in time, a relief after bumpy flashbacks encountered elsewhere.

In particular - and this is a personal view - to the point of tears, I was touched by the loving portrayal of the elderly refugee couple from Vienna, Olga and Otto, who tutor and mentor the main character. That generation has all but vanished now, but the portrait is true, true.

Reading Elizabeth Smithers' Professor Musgrove's Canary. Reading aloud has its rewards - the smell of stone, I wondered? Ah yes, stoned...

Struggling with a new Robert Hass book bought extravagantly new - it includes a ten-page essay on Rilke, which I am trying to complete the reading of, have tried twice so far, admittedly before going to sleep. From a second hand bookshop: Stevie Smith, Dylan Thomas and Seamus Heaney's for my own bookshelf, to keep. No CK Williams anywhere, yet.
Also CL Stead's My Name was Judas. That will have to wait till I have written more and read more poetry.

And constant companions, read for the calm and the wisdom: Charlotte Joko Beck's classic Everyday Zen (S. Smith, ed., 1989, Thorsons), and the quarterly fascicles of Mountain Record, from Zen Mountain Monastery. Daido Roshi included a lovely sci fi story by Terry Bison in one of his talks - here is just a small excerpt:

“They are made out of meat.”
“There’s no doubt about it. We picked up several from different parts of the planet and took them aboard our recon vessels and probed them all the way through, and they are completely meat.”
“That’s impossible. What about the radio signals, the message to the stars?”
“They use radio waves to talk, but the signals don’t come from them, the signals come from machines.”

“So who made the machines? That’s who we want to contact.”
“They made the machines. That’s what I am trying to tell you—meat made the machines.
“That’s ridiculous. How can meat make a machine? You are asking me to believe in sentient meat?”
“I am not asking you, I am telling you. These creatures are the only sentient race in the sector and they are made out of meat.”

If you want the rest of the story, and the rest of Daido Roshi's dharma discourse, which is entitled Perfection Revealed, you can find it here. (The sci fi story is in italics half-way through).

Wednesday, 1 October 2008


Today some sort of routine is resumed. Too much has been going on which has nothing to do with writing, commitments to others. Also some business hanging over me which was originally to be completed long ago and which is still going on. People to be overseen and chased up. It is just how things are.

Looking back reveals how necessary peace of mind is for writing. Knowing that there are just three hours to write in and that then it will be necessary to jump up and deal with the so-called real world means that writing may be unfocussed during those three hours. Writing this blog is my favourite diversion from writing poems.

Today the 20 min free writing exercise: only carried out three times in September, not counting the times we wrote in class. Poems have been written but not finished, in the sense that more work is needed - or maybe they should be chucked out?

Taking my writing book to bed with me in the evening can work well; by then nothing more can be done about all the other stuff, and my head is clearer, less anxious. But tired, which is why it is not a good long-term strategy.

Have been reading over the last weeks a medley of poetry, Robert Lowell, Kate Camp's Realia and some of Elizabeth's poetry collections. These last have intriguing titles taken from poems in the collection: You're very seductive, William Carlos Wiliams (1978, John McIndoe) and The Legend of Marcello Mastroianni's Wife (1981, Auckland University Press and Oxford University Press). Re-reading them several times brings more enjoyment, more understanding, and also a clearer perception of how the number of words can be reduced - what can be pared off, how to leave space for the reader's imagination, rather than pinning it down with detail. That may be a new insight, or is it an old one which has returned with greater power?

Sunday, 28 September 2008

Seamus Heaney

A friend - a fellow student - lent me her copy of Seamus Heaney's New selected poems, 1966-1987 (1990, Faber and Faber). This cross-fertilisation is one of the ways in which the class expands one's horizons. Heaney is a pleasure, and a challenge - so many new words.

We talked in class recently about the fact that we tend to write re-using the same words, without being aware of it, one person uses 'gonna', as in 'I'm gonna do...', and Hinemoana told us of a poet who often has 'teeth' in her poems. Most of us would need friends to point out these repetitions.

Seamus Heaney tends to include mud in what he writes, and he has a hundred words to describe its consistency, colour and the sound it can make...I am sure that he is very conscious of doing this.

The first poem is the one that has affected me most so far, so powerful. It is called Digging , it describes his father and his grandfather digging, and how he (Seamus) digs with his pen. The first stanza in that poem has a nice little trick in it, the pen "...snug as a gun".

Read Bill Manhire's Hotel Emergencies last night to friends over dinner, as an example of modern poetry. It is such a pleasing poem. Another favourite is Stevie Smith's Oh Pug!.
There was still someone who pointed out, It does not rhyme, and, Is that poetry, then?

Hinemoana, if you read this: There's a wonderful poem about a dog! Or it might be - really - about something else - anxiety, maybe, the way it arrives and attaches itself randomly to situations ? It reminds me of the on-going competition for a sonnet about Wellington: it seems impossible to write about Wellington without sounding like a gushy travel guide. The only way might be to write ostensibly about Wellington, while underneath it is about something else.

Tuesday, 23 September 2008


A fellow student kindly lent me Yevtushenko's A Precocious Autobiography, (1963, Collins and Harvill Press, translated by A.R. MacAndrew) which starts with a bang, though it tends to rant towards the end.

Strong first paragraph, including the line
"...a poet is only a poet when the reader can see him whole as if he held him in the hollow of his hand with all his feelings thoughts and actions."
(No commas.)

When I read his poetry for the first time in the 60s, I was enthralled.

Reading up about Y and his work so many years later, re-reading Babyi Yar, I am less impressed. Some of what he writes seems facile.

Still struggling with Lowell. In his book Yevtushenko writes about reading Pasternak and not understanding him, at first.

Monday, 22 September 2008

Review of last week

Only heard half of the MA reading last week, having to run off somewhere else...

Library visit, resolutely chose a number of poetry books, including Stevie Smith. Practiced reading her poems out loud and have had an insight about rhythm and sound...something to work towards, now. The poem was in Scorpion and other poems (1972, Longman, with drawings by the author and an introduction by Patric (sic) Dickinson). Like the poems, the drawings are fluent, naive and expert simultaneously, little pencil sketches almost like doodles, immensely expressive.


The lines cannot be found now. To do with sin and a half-rhyme with sin - something obvious like bin, and yet neither the poem nor the sentiment were obvious. To read more of her would be good.


Am struggling with Robert Lowell: An introduction to the poetry by Mark Rudman (1983, Columbia University Press) in the hope that it would show me more of what is needed in what I write. I should try reading aloud here too.

The Net produced the list of poems and poets on the CD of the Caedmon Collection of poetry, though have not had the time to listen to much so far.

Not much writing in the last week, shall do better now. Early to bed and early to rise is really the only way.

Monday, 15 September 2008


Have drifted away from poetry again, reading prose. So silly, I should focus on poetry for the moment.

Found a lovely poem by Elizabeth Smither on the web, in The Listener, (July 21-27, 2007, Vol 209, No 3506) entitled Plaits:

I had two plaits: one thick,

an anaconda plait, and the other

more like a thin grass snake.

For copyright reasons, I can't put the whole thing, though it is not very long. Here are the last one and a half lines: though I could not see justice,

I could feel how it was distributed.

For the full poem, go here.

* * *

Last Monday, attended the annual reading of poetry and prose by creative writing students of the MA programme at the International Institute of Modern Letters at Victoria University (commonly known here as "Bill Manhire's programme").

Lynn Jenner read two impressive poems, both anti-war. One of them is about her thoughts after the birth of her son, thoughts of cutting off part of his index finger to ensure that he may never be able to shoot - "a Russian thought". People were impressed.

The second half of the readings is today.

* * *

Listening to a recording of Bill Manhire reading his poetry at Whitireia on Thursday was a stimulating exercise - was able to write four poems in succession immediately afterwards - no idea what they are worth at this stage. The best stimulus for writing poetry is to be exposed to it, again and again.

So searched for and found a collection of 3 CDs of poetry read by the poets themselves, including Dylan Thomas and May Sarton, from the central library in Wellington.

Central Library at night
Wellington Central Library - photo from their website

I love the central library, not just the books, but the building and the service - time and again I have taken out a book that was a "Librarian's Choice", and it has proven a joy - think Per Petersen's In the wake - so I now trust them (almost) completely.

Wednesday, 10 September 2008

Elizabeth's Award

Elizabeth Smither has won the 2008 Award for Literary Achievement for poetry. You can read her extended biography (which includes photos and some of her thoughts on writing) here.

I am engrossed in her novel The sea between us (2003, Penguin). It is rich and poetic, as you'd expect. The biography (listed above) hints at the origin of various aspects of the story.

The sea between us is a family saga, spanning about a century in Australia and NZ. Four sisters are at the centre - a challenge, all these characters needing to be kept individual. The details are abundant, but things are not over-explained, so that sometimes you wonder about something - did they marry?- and then find out some pages later, in an indirect and satisfying way.

I haven't finished it yet - can't wait to get back to it.

I had been reading East of Time, a holocaust memoir by Jacob Rosenberg, who emigrated to Australia after surviving the Lodz ghetto. He was about 5 years old when the invasion of Poland took place so he must now be about 83. The writing is occasionally rocky, but the overall effect is powerful and to me, heart-rending. The sadness - as usual - took me by surprise, and so I left it half finished for The Sea.

He included a few useful things about writing - but that'll be for another time.

Monday, 8 September 2008


This week feels like a new start.

An email from Elizabeth in response to some questions about achieving depth of meaning in writing poems:

...There are no real prescriptions - except, I think, concentrate hard on the subject (the sofa, the dog, the children reading etc) - but never should poetry be deliberately obscure. (If the Casanova poems seem difficult it is because the concept (Casanova's mind games and dialogue with himself) was difficult.) The 'difficulty' of a poem should match or equal the difficulty of what the poet is trying to say. Obviously William Carlos Williams' poem about a red wheelbarrow is very different, in difficulty level, from say a poem by Robert Lowell. It's getting this as near right as we can that is part of the fascination of poetry.

(The text of the William Carlos Williams' poem and an analysis are here)

Re-reading Elizabeth's Casanova poems, (Elizabeth Smithers, Casanova's Ankle, 1981, Oxford University Press), I found them difficult to understand. I am also not at all sure that I 'understand' the Wheelbarrow poem and have yet to read poetry by Robert Lowell. A lot of catching up to do.

Wednesday, 3 September 2008

More Oz

Here is the quote, from p. 99, (in Don't Call it Night, by Amos Oz, 2004, Chatto & Windus):

..A girl or a young woman would come in the night to share his hammock, bringing huge earthenware cups of coffee from somewhere for them both. Past and future appeared to him on such nights as two common diseases, slow, destructive plagues that had infected most of mankind and were gradually causing all sorts of strange frenzies in their victims. And he rejoiced that he was not afflicted, and considered himself immune...

I had forgotten that he mentions it in the context of sex. It makes sense there, but in a limited sort of way - unless of course the sex is a metaphor for life...

Here's another noticing: the quote extends from the last line of page 99 to the first line of page 100. The last numbered page - including the list of characters - is page 200. This puts the quote at the heart of the book. The book is divided into chapters without any numbering, so I counted - it is in the middle of chapter 15, though there are only 26 chapters in all. Fifteen in Hebrew is yod he, one of God's many pronounceable names: since numbers are represented by letters, one can 'read' them. (This sort of play is common in the Bible, and in Kabbalistic and Judaic literature.)

Just in case you find this is far-fetched: the character's name is Theo.
And here is a link ( to a review in the New York Times, entitled God is in the details...
Worked on the Chinese Olympics poem: two versions - one with long lines, one with short ones. Shall wait for a day or maybe a week, before showing it to anyone.

Added much later:
Re the Hungarian cantor who was in the book for no apparent reason. I found the following reference in Wikipedia, when looking up Bloomsday in Dublin:
Bloomsday has also been celebrated since 1994 in the Hungarian town of Szombathely, the fictional birthplace of Leopold Bloom's father, Virág Rudolf, an emigrant Hungarian Jew. The event is usually centered on the Iseum, the remnants of an Isis temple from Roman times, and the Blum-mansion, commemorated to Joyce since 1997, at 40–41 Fő street, which used to be the property of an actual Jewish family called Blum. Hungarian author László Najmányi in his 2007 novel, The Mystery of the Blum-mansion (A Blum-ház rejtélye) describes the results of his research on the connection between Joyce and the Blum family.

Tuesday, 2 September 2008

Hungarian cantor?

Various commitments all suddenly need input at the same time, nothing can be put off; my brain veers off in several directions, thoughts incoherent, and not a word written since the poem about the Olympics. Today found my cellphone and my watch again. Misplacing them is always a sign.

Read Amos Oz as if meeting him for the first time - Don't call it night (Chatto & Windus, 2004 - Al tagidi laila) only $12,- hardback copy from Quilters' on Lambton Quay - not a second-hand book shop, an Antiquarian bookshop. Heaps of poetry books.

Amos Oz, May 2005

Back to Amos Oz: here's a question - the novel ended too soon for me, so read what was on the next page, curiously, a list of the novel's characters, like in a play, including near the end "Hungarian Cantor".

I can't remember a cantor of any kind in this book- did Oz just pop him in the list to keep things interesting?

Needing to read more Oz, took The Same Sea (Vintage, 2001, Oto HaYam) from my shelf: what I thought of as my copy turns out to belong to a friend.(I feel guilty, but I'll read it again first.)

The format of The Same Sea is different from usual novels: chapters often only a page long or less, prose poems, non-prose poems, lots of work for the reader, satisfying though at times obscure, not to say impossible to understand. ( I'd wish I had a Hebrew version, to read them side by side). The excellent translation by Nicholas de Lange, as usual.

Perceived recurring themes: the impossibility of truly knowing anyone else however close, the great suffering caused by love, and as part of the canvas he paints on, ordinary people grieving losses incurred in the Conflict.

In Don't call it night, he writes a wonderful sentence - about people's obsession with the past and the future, how they shouldn't. I'll re-read that book, find the sentence for posting here, and check about the cantor.

Wednesday, 27 August 2008

The Singing

I found another book by CK Williams at the library, which includes his early poems, before he wrote in elongated lines. The most evident quality of his early writing seems to be pain.

I found the poem below and the photo on the website of the Blue FlowerArts (an agency representing among others Paul Muldoon and Charles Simic.) The formatting is all wrong, more about that below:

C.K. Williams, Poet


I was walking home down a hill near our house
on a balmy afternoon
under the blossoms
Of the pear trees that go flamboyantly mad here
every spring with
their burgeoning forth

When a young man turned in from a corner singing
no it was more of
a cadenced shouting
Most of which I couldn't catch I thought because
the young man was
black speaking black

It didn't matter I could tell he was making his
song up which pleased
me he was nice-looking
Husky dressed in some style of big pants obviously
full of himself
hence his lyrical flowing over

We went along in the same direction then he noticed
me there almost
beside him and "Big"
He shouted-sang "Big" and I thought how droll
to have my height
incorporated in his song

So I smiled but the face of the young man showed nothing
he looked
in fact pointedly away
And his song changed "I'm not a nice person"
he chanted "I'm not
I'm not a nice person"

No menace was meant I gathered no particular threat
but he did want
to be certain I knew
That if my smile implied I conceived of anything like concord
between us I should forget it

That's all nothing else happened his song became
indecipherable to
me again he arrived
Where he was going a house where a girl in braids
waited for him on
the porch that was all

No one saw no one heard all the unasked and
unanswered questions
were left where they were
It occurred to me to sing back "I'm not a nice
person either" but I
couldn't come up with a tune

Besides I wouldn't have meant it nor he have believed
it both of us
knew just where we were
In the duet we composed the equation we made
the conventions to
which we were condemned

Sometimes it feels even when no one is there that
someone something
is watching and listening
Someone to rectify redo remake this time again though
no one saw nor
heard no one was there

I am not sure about the alineas here, and indentations are missing, because I could not format them onto the blog page.

The poem is not in my recently acquired book, this is the way it is laid out on the website, in a narrow-ish column, so chose not to change anything. I suspect that in a book the poem would be laid out in his well-known style - I have tried to reproduce it by reducing the font-size to make it fit in the width of the blog-page, but am unable to find a way to force the second and fourth lines to indent, which they should:

I was walking home down a hill near our house on a balmy afternoon
under the blossoms
Of the pear trees that go flamboyantly mad here every spring with
their burgeoning forth

To return to what is attractive about CK Williams' poetry: I like the lack of punctuation, the thoughts running into each other, the strange places he chooses for his line breaks, and how interesting the story is. He achieves the effect of writing the way one might talk, personally, effortlessly. He shows how to write a poem about everything and anything, as long as there is truth in it.

It is what I find most interesting about him, this catching of thoughts which do occur to us, but which we usually let go, hardly aware they have passed through our minds.

As a result, I wrote a poem about the closing ceremony of the Olympic Games, which I had watched to the end in appalled fascination.

About the name Blue Flower - here is a quote from Blue Flower Arts home page: the name comes
...from the unfinished short story “Heinrich von Ofterdingen” by the 18th century German poet and philosopher Novalis. The young hero's quest for the blue flower, his Poetry, then became a symbol used by the Romantic poets for the soul's unfolding...

This connects up with Penelope Fitzgerald's The Blue Flower (Flamingo 1996), which purports to be the story of Novalis - a wonderful novel and a highly praised choice for the Booker Prize.

Monday, 25 August 2008

Do no harm

Finished reading Borges' This Craft of Verse with pleasure, hoping that some of what he writes will stick in my mind. He writes about his journey - as a writer who started off wanting express everything. I thought for example, that if I needed a sunset I should find the exact word for a sunset - or rather, the most surprising metaphor. Now I have come to the conclusion(and this conclusion may sound sad) that I no longer believe in expression. I believe only in allusion. After all, what are words? Words are symbols for shared memories...

(p. 117). And earlier on the same page, an example of his depth and his modesty:

When I write, I do not think of the reader (because the reader is an imaginary character) and I do not think of myself (perhaps
I am an imaginary character also), but I think of what I am trying to convey and I do my best not to spoil it.

I do my best not to spoil it.
It sounds like the Hippocratic oath - at least refrain from harm.

He means it. He says on p. 116:

...Had I to give advice to writers (and I do not think they need it, because everyone has to find out things for himself), I would tell them simply this: I would ask them to tamper as little as they can with their own work. I do not think tinkering does any good. The moment comes when one has found out what one can do - when one has found one's natural voice, one's rhythm. Then I do not think that slight emendations should prove useful...

Of course, the key sentence here is The moment comes when one has found out what one can do...Until that moment comes, we tinker and tinker with something, puzzle over it, and the final product is no good, it has a patched-up way of being. But then for the next thing we write, the writing may flow into something that is fine and good. I have seen it happen to friends in the visual arts. The work they have laboured over endlessly is warped by their effort. It is the next piece, which they have thrown together in one go, almost without thinking, which is wonderful.

Almost without thinking.
Very Zen, no-thought. Zen masters painting a perfect circle.

Sunday, 24 August 2008

Thought for the day

I prefer blogs when bloggers don't write about their personal feelings and actions too much. ("No milk in the fridge, sigh").

Bodil Malmsten often includes among the Swedish - which I don't understand - quotes in English and links to English websites.

She recently posted this, by Bob Dylan:

You gotta serve somebody

You may be an ambassador to England or France
You may like to gamble, you might like to dance
You may be the heavyweight champion of the world
You may be a socialite with a long string of pearls.

But you´re gonna have to serve somebody, yes indeed
You´re gonna have to serve somebody.

It may be the devil or it may be the Lord
But you´re gonna have to serve somebody.

You may be a state trooper, you might be a young turk
You may be the head of some big TV network
You may be rich or poor, you may be blind or lame
You may be living in another country under another name.

But you´re gonna have to serve somebody, yes

You may be a construction worker working on a home
You may be living in a mansion or you might live in a dome
You might own guns and you might even own tanks
You might be somebody´s landlord you might even own banks.

But you´re gonna have to serve somebody, yes

I found a fuzzy video of him performing it in 1984 on Youtube. And an interview with him, which reveals mainly that he does not like being interviewed very much.

Tuesday, 19 August 2008


The Paekakariki gig went well, lots of friendly people, the rehearsing paid off, a smooth presentation, everyone comfortable with the mike, thank you Hinemoana, (that's her on the photo, introducing us. You can visit her website on, and find out more about her - hear her sing !)

It seemed to me that the audience didn't always get the point of the more complex works that were presented. Discussed it via email with Elizabeth Smither, my mentor, and she wrote back among other things:

"...the problem with listening to poetry, especially in its more complex forms, is that the poem moves on while the listener in the audience is still absorbing the last image which has passed..."

Elizabeth suggests making the written version available on broadsheets, so that people can take them home and pin them up. I like that idea. But someone else said that not all her poems were ready for print. So there you go, no easy answers.

~ ~ ~

Serendipity plays its role: the book by Borges which I took from the library is not his poetry. The title was hidden by that bar-code sticker that is always in the way of either the title, the author's name, or the overall design of the cover (Why the scanning system could not be designed with the bar code in a different place is beyond me. Philistines are alive and well.)

Second thoughts: the actual title is This Craft of Verse (Mihailescu, C.-A., ed. (2000) Harvard University Press) - I wouldn't have noticed it wasn't verse even if I had been able to read the title.

The book consists of six lectures which he gave in English (he had an English grandmother) at Harvard in 1967, about poetry. They were taped and forgotten about, then rediscovered - when enough dust had gathered, to paraphrase the editor C.-A. Mihailescu.

It's lovely to know that one is reading the poet's own words. There is a chapter about metaphor, another about translation, another about the music of poetry...

All written in a style which is charmingly modest, a modesty which must be at least partly an assumed stance. Mihailescu himself says

"One cannot quite take at face value Borges' claim that he is "groping" his way along, that he is a "timid thinker rather than a daring one", and that his cultural background is "a series of unfortunate miscellanies"..."

I wonder what the Americans made of that, modesty not being a muscle that is flexed very often in their world.

Haven't finished it yet, reading slowly and enjoying it heaps. Shall buy it as a gift for someone.


Petri Liukkonen is a mysterious Finn, a librarian in the town of Kirjasto, Finland. He or she has become famous on the Net for creating an award-winning website entitled Books and Writers where he/she posts the biographies of famous writers in slightly accented English. I wrote playfully to Petri the first time, having noticed that both Bodil Malmsten and Per Pettersen - both well-known Scandinavian writers - were missing, and received a serious, considered email back. They are now apparently on the waiting list. Realising recently that Elizabeth Bishop was also absent, wrote to him and have just received a courteous email back - Elizabeth's bio will be posted soon, Petri has just returned from holidays.

And for those who might like to know: Katherine Mansfield is listed, as are Janet Frame and Keri Hulme.

~ ~ ~

And now back to work.

Wednesday, 13 August 2008

Preparing for the show

Today I shall retrieve my diary.

Two days until our poetry reading. Am still wondering which poems are best to read and how/whether I should introduce them. The political poem definitely needs a neutral word to start off with -

This poem was written in reference to the difficulties of finding peaceful solutions to terrorism.

That might do.

Am making food for the hungry hordes who will come to hear us read - I hope.


Re-writing yesterday: the two-stanza kitsch/schmalz poem has responded well to surgery: immediate relief when the metaphor stanza was removed.

The metaphor now appears briefly in one line, bows and that's the end of the show.

Not happy with the title yet.

Reading yesterday was confined to the Dominion Post in the morning. Ugh. Since we don't watch local TV and rarely listen to the radio, it is our source of local news. This is a non-plug for the DP.

Tuesday, 12 August 2008

Worn edges

Wrote and wrote till late afternoon yesterday, two new poems, and another one revised after feedback from Elizabeth.

Showed them to P. He liked the long one which is called Red, and about the short one which has two stanzas, he said that the first stanza was kitsch and the second schmaltz. That became immediately obvious. He also said that the metaphor in stanza one was too remote from the reality described in stanza two. Same comment as Elizabeth about another poem. Hopefully I shall not need to repeat this error in the future. Need to work at being more slant-y, as in Emily Dickinson's Tell it slant. The metaphor in this case needs to be integrated into the story, and less fuss made of it, just pursuing it as I go along, little reminders. At least, that's the thinking behind it, Bill.

Read The Vigil, a book of poems by a most amazing American poet called C.K. Williams (1997, Bloodaxe Books, UK). My attention was initially caught by the cover: reproduction of a Rembrandt, Woman with a fan, a black background, she is young-ish and mysterious, smiling a little. The fan is only half open, and held as if she's forgotten about it, I don't know its meaning. It's probably his Saskia, there seems to be a lot of love in that portrait.

About the writing: Every one of C.K. Williams' poems hits home, there is an original thought in each of them which you may recognise as something you might have thought fleetingly yourself, but not been able to catch and show the way he has. A poignant one for instance, when he hears his wife in the next room, she is reading to their son, and he suddenly has an insight into what his life might be like in the future, if he was to be without them for some reason:

"...either one of them would be enough..."

His language is mostly ordinary, his lines always long. He has a masterful poem describing a death, long and involved, and surprising but not so that you say how amazing, it just takes you along and rolls you around until it's over.

My favourite is called My Fly, dedicated to his friend Erving Goffman - I feel a duty to mention this, because the poem is about Erving - this great garishly emerald fly, whom he imagines is

"...a messenger from you, or that you yourself (you'd howl at this),/
ten years afterwards have let yourself be incarnated as this pestering anti-/

and later:

"...- maybe it is you!"

Joy! To be together, even for a time! Yes, tilt your fuselage, turn it/
towards the light
aim the thousand lenses of your eyes back up at me: how I've missed/
the layers of your attention..."

I am tired and a little worn at the edges today. I left my diary at someone's house over the week end and shall only be able to retrieve it tomorrow.

Monday, 11 August 2008

Learning something

The timer is on again, for 10 minutes.

It is late, 11:30 am, and only now am I starting to write...The reasons why are not worthy of being blogged.

I have read Brian Turner's Footfall, from one poem to another, the lot of them, and reached the last one Exit, and it made my heart turn over.

A poem intended to be read at his funeral. He is only 60, and rides his bike all over the place - not about to die at all - a bit of depression there.

A wonderful poem, its truth unmistakable. I can't say what makes it so much more appealing than the others. Maybe it is that I don't care enough, they don't change anything. Exit is honest about his shortcomings and his hopes and regrets. It is not that either. Stunning, I can't wait to re-read it.

My next book is Hone Tuwhare's. His is waiting on top of the red sofa in the family room, for this evening. Robert Hass's edited collection is by my bed, to read before sleep.

Feedback from Elizabeth about my latest lot of poems - she explains why two bits I wanted to keep together in one poem do not fit, and it immediately becomes obvious. The two-poem version is best. I had been wondering whether I would actually learn something useful from her opinion on that particular issue, and because of the explanation she gives, that the connection between the two bits is too remote - which I saw for myself as soon as I read her words in the email, the answer is, Yes, I have learnt something.

Thursday, 7 August 2008

On Sharon Olds

Reading Sharon Olds The Wellspring. Her descriptive ability is awe-inspiring. Particularly about her children, and about sex. Showed a poem to K, who said that she was scientifically trained, used to writing scientific reports, and therefore could not understand these poems.

I was thunderstruck: I could have been listening to myself - except that I do find Sharon O very accessible.

Then it emerged that she had thought the writer was a man, there was an I in the poem, and so it did not make sense to her.

The Robert Hass book is a book edited by him, a collection. So am still not able to read him. Am getting over the Hass = hate bit. It probably was Hase, once. Or Haas. A hare. I think of emigrants coming in through American immigration in the 1920s, on an island near NY - people's names mis-spelled by the bureaucrats...


Other people's writing blogs

Problems with Internet access on my computer since I bought an iPod going cheap from Dick Smith's. T says if I'd asked her, she would have told me so. She is rude about what iTunes (software for iPod) does to my non-Mac computer, but entirely correct. Time wasted: about 3 days' worth - and money. Even more money now, as Derek has to come in and fix it. In the mean time, am writing this on someone else's computer.

Got diverted reading other people's writing blogs, for a while. People writing about their inner world at the most immediate level - mostly not a good read, we are too similar. Stream of consciousness tends to become self-indulgent.

Still reading Otto Friedrich, I had forgotten my rule of not reading WWII stuff before going to sleep. So:

Poetry books collected from the library today. Read To be a poet by Maxine Hong Kingston in one go last night, (Harvard University Press, 2002), an agreeable book to hold and read - small, non-standard format. It is an expansion of her lecture at Berkeley. That did not matter, reading her is encouraging and reassuring, a welcome guide.

The other books are by Sharon Olds, Brian Turner, Hone Tuwhare, Robert Hass. Brian Turner was a favourite with people who heard the Poets Laureate at the National Library on Monday. Something gravelly and real about the way he read. Also he said "a kertle of sheep" or is it kirtle? Someone said that kirtle means a kilt...

Writing: Have been tidying up recent poems. I have stopped doing the free-flow writing in the last days, shall resume today.

Monday, 4 August 2008

Turkey feet?

Busy week-end, but not with writing.

Downloaded a set of Marianne Moore's poems and could not get excited. Too remote and dense with allusions and figurative language that I don't understand. Using the bookshop test - taking her book and opening it anywhere to try a poem - suck it and see: it would not make the grade with me. Knowing that Elizabeth Bishop and many others find her poetry so wonderful makes me wistful. What am I missing.

The exception was her poem A Grave, about the sea. Metaphor for the way we ignore death staring us in the face. I understood almost every line as I read it. What I did not understand, for instance:

The firs stand in a procession, each with an emerald turkey foot at the top...

Emerald turkey foot????

The beginning is great:

Man looking into the sea,
taking the view from those who have as much right to it as you have to it yourself
it is human nature to stand in the middle of a thing,
but you cannot stand in the middle of this;
the sea has nothing to give but a well-excavated grave...

Then cames that line about the firs and turkey feet.

I like, ...It is human nature to stand in the middle of a thing...

Could it be that she expresses here a Judeo-Christian view, which stems from the ingrained belief that Man ( as the Victorians used to say) is at The Top of The Tree, God's greatest creation. Other people hold different beliefs - Hindus, for instance.

MM's choice of 'Man' here not incidental.

A heap of poems written last Friday, about the house: P went out and left a phone off the hook in the kitchen, so no one called and I was busy till 3 pm before realising that something might be wrong. Not so wrong, really, it was worth while and I was happy doing it.

Whenever I feel bad about something I think about writing and feel better.

Besides MM, have been side-tracked again into a book entitled Before the Deluge by Otto Friedrich (1974, Michael Joseph, London). A witty and succinct description of the events leading up to Hitler, covering many aspects, theatre, music, the military, the Communists and the emergence of the Nazis, what the man in the street thought, as well as science. For instance: it was a mystery to me how Einstein happened to be so well-known and influential when his theory was incomprehensible to everyone except maybe 3 people in the entire world, at the time, and this book makes it somewhat clearer; also shows how he used his influence. Found out that when Walther Rathenau was murdered - Jewish Foreign Minister- the population poured into the streets in protest, all over Germany, hundreds of thousands marching in silence.

And now to work.

Friday, 1 August 2008

Blown away

Review of EB finished, and as usual, I learnt more doing it than just reading...Focussed on her use of repetition - in her poem Argument, she says ...argue, argue, argue... in the middle of a line, very effective. The poem is about missing someone and the argument is between Distance and Days, which separate her from this person. It is so well done. She also piles on adjectives without hesitation, an eye-opener for someone who has been taught to eliminate them wherever possible.

She writes fluidly, no contortions in order to get a word into a desired position in the line. This is all the result of painstaking work, her output remained small.

On to Marianne Moore and Robert Hass now.

Yesterday, resumption of the course and I woke up versifying in my head, thinking about poems I am busy with. Neat.

We looked at erotic poetry, which was fun. I was absolutely blown away by Sharon Olds' Topography, because of what it says about duality, or the absence of it.

It made my day.

Monday, 28 July 2008

After a long absence

Reading Elizabeth Bishop, I know that I am often missing the point.
Yesterday I read - among other poems of hers - a long ballad and derived little pleasure from it.

On the other hand, there is a poem called In the Waiting Room, where she describes a strange experience, a sense of merging with her aunt who had cried out in pain from the dentists' room next door, which was followed by the assertion of a sense of her own I:

...I said to myself: three days
and you'll be seven days old.
I was saying it to stop
the sensation of falling off
the round, turning world
into cold, blue-black space.
But I felt: you are an
you are an
you are one of them.
Why should you be one, too?
I scarcely dared to look
to see what it was I was....


...Why should I be my aunt,
or me, or anyone?
What similarities-
[ ... ] -
held us all together
or made us all just one?

(p. 160, Elizabeth Bishop, The Complete Poems, 1927-1979, (1980) Farrar, Straus and Giroux, NY)

I particularly liked the line ...Why should you be one, too?... the playfulness of it, and the shyness of ...I scarcely dared look...

Furthermore, this poem could be useful as an example of narrative poetry, no rhyming or form except for the rhythm of the words and the breaks from line to line. I am working on a poem entitled After a long absence which is narrative, and which would suit this style.

The main problem with After a long absence is that a second story is inserted into the story of the poem, with unfamiliar actors , which took place elsewhere, but which is connected by association of ideas to the events described. How to make the transition to and from the main story a smooth one for a reader, so that they may travel on this little journey without a sense of disruption?

Typographic indications might work - for instance at present the second story is framed by a line in italics After a long absence..., and the same sentence is repeated afterwards. But a past experience using italics taught me that they may appear cheap.

It might be better if a gap were left within the column of the main story, while the text of the second story was moved as in a side-step, into an adjacent column.

One might say that this is gimmickery.

It would be best if the connection was made clear or an enemy might say, two poems made out of the one. That would result in two poor little poems without much merit. They would simply wilt and die.

Too much time spent writing this today.

Sunday, 27 July 2008

Elizabeth Bishop's letters

I spent yesterday reading Elizabeth Bishop's letters, got about a fifth of the way through the book (too big, heavy to hold, what was the publisher thinking of.)

On p. 54, in a letter to Marianne Moore, about the sestina: ...It seems to me that there are two ways possible for a sestina. One is to use unusual words as terminations, in which case they would have to be used differently as often as possible - as you say, "change of scale". That would make a very highly seasoned kind of poem. And the other way is to use as colorless words as possible - like Sidney, so that it becomes less of a trick and more of a natural theme and variations. I guess I have tried to do both at once [in her poem A Miracle for Breakfast].

I think Sidney is a town in Florida, where she was at the time. I have made notes of other things she says, but those are more in the nature of going off on tangents so shall not mention them here.

I was pleased to discover the source of the word 'mackerel' used to describe a sky in the poem Invitation to Miss Marianne Moore, the one with the Please come flying leitmotif mentioned in yesterday's post: she had a kitten named Minnow, but its colour was really mackerel, she writes, a certain kind of grey...

I shall be reading Marianne Moore next, once I have thoroughly examined EB.

Friday, 25 July 2008

Please come flying

It has been twelve days since I wrote. I was away for exactly a week, and it has taken me this long to settle down to routine again.

Since returning have read a couple of books (prose!) , the one worth mentioning here is Nigel Cox's Phone Home Berlin, a collection of essays with some poetry thrown in. The core of the writing is about his experiences in helping set up the Jewish Museum in Berlin. I was very interested in the interaction between the Kiwis and the Germans, and found some of what I expected, and other things that were more surprising and helpful in their clarity - for instance the value that is placed upon art and beauty in Germany (read Europe) versus NZ. When he got back, I think that NC found it hard being here... An impressive person, in his ability to deal with people and in the knowledge and skill he acquired despite his lack of formal education.

Am busy with Elizabeth Bishop - her poem 'Invitation to Miss Marianne Moore' is in my mind - the repeated call Please come flying. The pleading quality to that sentence comes in part from the contrast with the rest of the poem. Now I've read that poem twice and thought about it, and after a few days all that remains is the Please come flying and an image of a lady in black - hat, cape and shoes, flying up a NY street. Here EB has found someone she can trust who will come when she calls. The bits of biography I read, where she said that at her grandparents house, her status was on a par with the dog's - she was not yet ten years old. That cry Please come flying seems to come from a child, must date from that time, the aching loss of her mother.

Have written a poem about the little study, for the 'collection' about the house. (I don't like the word 'collection'). Actually not a poem yet. A poem aan het worden, 'in the becoming'. Incipient I think is the word.

Am making a list of 'projects'. Maybe commitments is a better word here. Reminds me what it is about.