28 May 2010

I Say I Say I Say

Lately I've been reading a good deal of disappointing contemporary literature. I read A Place of Greater Safety, by Hilary Mantel, and I liked it so much that I ordered Fludd, which sounded like the other of her books I would like best. But in fact I find Fludd kind of tedious: it persistently reminds me of a less-successful version of The Ballad of Peckham Rye, a book I absolutely adore. I think I probably just love TBoPR because of its protagonist, Dougal Douglas (or Douglas Dougal, one can't say which - which is part of his charm), because I generally find Muriel Spark pretty dreary, or at least over-rated (as my friend MF put it, "She's good, but she's not all that and a bag of chips") - it's her Catholicism, which is also the reason why I dislike P.D. James: both of them have a sort of hectoringly aloof tone that I associate with attempting to point you toward religious morals in their works (Graham Greene, I think, wears his Catholicism much more lightly. But then, Brighton Rock can do no wrong in my eyes, and Graham Greene has the benefit of wearing his Catholicism shall we say lightly in his life). In any case, Fludd is rather leaden, or it might be better to say heavy and dour, and I find myself not enjoying it very much.

And today I read Little Gods, by Jacob Polley. Jacob Polley was brought to my attention because he's up for a first novel prize, and he is, frankly, good-looking (in his publicity photo, anyway). When I found out he'd started off as a poet, and when I found a sample poem on the internet, I thought I'd give one of his books a go: I like contemporary poetry, or at least I'm interested in it (although, as with most contemporary literature, I don't know how to analyse it, only how to read it for enjoyment or lack thereof).

Weeeell, what can you do? It's...okay. There's one quite interesting poem (the one that lured me in), and three or four that are quite good. But the three or four that are quite good are about lost love, and if you can't write a poem that touches about lost love, what can you write a poem that touches about? Also, I feel sort of miffed at being touched by the poems about lost love, because it makes me feel like an easy mark. And the ones that aren't about lost love are simply not that interesting to me. The Liberal loved the book, but here the Liberal and I must diverge.

At first I thought I might have disliked it because, having now been a Romanticist for some eight years, I am a prisoner of conventional verse forms, but in fact I suppose it's because it's one of those poetry books that lingers in musing contemplation, and I, well, I've never been one for musing contemplation in poetry. Obviously one might have guessed this from my allegiance to that famous writer of meditative verse, Lord Byron, but even when I think of contemporary poetry I do like, it's got some oomph to it:

Anyone here had a go at themselves
for a laugh? Anyone opened their wrists
with a blade in the bath? Those in the dark
at the back, listen hard. Those at the front
in the know, those of us who have, hands up,
let's show that inch of lacerated skin
between the forearm and the fist. Let's tell it
like it is: strong drink, a crimson tidemark
round the tub, a yard of lint, white towels
washed a dozen times, still pink. Tough luck.
A passion then for watches, bangles, cuffs.
A likely story: you were lashed by brambles
picking berries from the woods. Come clean, come good,
repeat with me the punch line 'Just like blood'.
when those at the back rush forward to say
how a little love goes a long long long way.

My father would hate this poem: he'd say it's coercive, or easy, or something along those lines. But not me, baby! I'm not quite sure what this poem is trying to do, or what its point is, but it has force, and an energy that drives it along to its end point. I think that energy is the energy of unkindness, a kind of willful taunting ugliness, but it's there. Whereas the Polley poems seem inert. I didn't really know what to do with them.

Which leads me to wonder something I've wondered all along: how do you handle it if you don't like the creative work of someone you know? If I knew someone whose poetry was essential to them, who worked at their "art," and I didn't much care for it (never mind out-and-out hated it), I don't think I could be friends with them. It would just involve too much hypocrisy, and too much denial of their essence. When I lived in Otherhome, I knew a man in the creative writing program who was close friends with a woman, also in the creative writing program, whose fiction stunk. It was unimaginative; it was banal; it was unthinking. And I used to think, Does she just not show it to him? Because if she showed it to him he'd have to know it was awful, and then how could he continue being friends with her? I mean, I could understand if it were just your hobby, but if someone's really committed to writing, and you know they're just harbouring illusions...ouch.

In other news, I have an itchy place on the top of my good foot that just won't quit.

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