Innovation and Craft: A Trans-Atlantic Theory of Poetry

“Poetry must be as new as foam, and as old as the rock”


Dichotomies are often false but useful. Contemplating the similarities and differences between British and American poetry, having steeped myself in both for some time now, I have been slicing my experiences as a reader along two axes: innovation and craft.

Ancestors to the word “craft” come from Germanic languages and originally had to do with “strength, force, power, virtue”, making the transition to mean skill in art or occupation exclusively in English. To “innovate” comes from Latin and French and has always meant, as Ezra Pound would assert, “Make it new!”.

To better define the effects of innovation and craft on readers of poetry, here are some comparisons:

Craft Innovation
Reassures us with skill Disorients us with newness
Builds trust Generates excitement
Pleases the senses Delights the mind
Refers to convention Inaugurates new paradigms

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A Swirl of Activity

10625105_10152448722408981_7255422506237288730_nIt has been a swirl of activity lately, epitomised by the sound of my Australian nephew downstairs dramatising epic Hero Factory battles. Mine have been of the more literary sort, though at times it has felt like a limb might snap off.

Straight back from the Swindon Festival of Poetry, I had the privilege of reading with several outstanding American poets at the Troubadour on Monday night. Particularly meaningful for me was the opportunity to meet Tim Nolan, whose prize-winning poem I read in his stead at the Troubadour Prize reading earlier this year. Greg Freeman of Write Out Loud wrote up an excellent summary of the evening’s adventures.

In case you weren’t in Swindon last Sunday at 5pm, with your radio dial tuned to 105.5 FM, you can also catch the spirit of the Swindon Festival of Poetry in the archive of the Rhythmn and Rhyme radio programme dedicated to this event.

The delightful and enthusiastic Sam Loveless sequestered me in a corner of Lower Shaw Farm just after my reading, and we quickly got down to business — talking about the impact of deeply personal writing on loved ones, how to decide what to publish and what to discard in therapeutic writing, and about how the “petri dishes” of British and American poetry interrelate (I switched metaphors to call it “pollination”, but of course what I should have said is that we happily infect each other!).

I also spoke a bit about the impetus behind my forthcoming poetry collection, The Knowledge. The complete interview with Sam is available here:

[soundcloud url=”″ width=”100%” height=”166″ iframe=”true” /]<a href="">Click here to listen to the interview</a>

Speaking of the book, it is starting to feel like a reality as we are lining up readings for next year in the US and UK, and even have a cover design, which you can see below.

Swirl on!

The Knowledge by Robert Peake

Transatlantic Poetry Readings On Air

Transatlantic Poetry CommunityIf, like me, you are thrilled by the idea of being invited into the homes of remarkable poets thousands of miles apart to hear them read their best work, then you, my friend, are living in the right era. That time is now.

Since the early days of the Internet, I have been fascinated by the possibilities for making and sharing art. When my alma mater began broadcasting their Lunch Poems series at the turn of the century, I was delighted. It meant that not only could residents of Berkeley come to campus to hear free, live readings by world-class poets on their lunch hour, but that anyone could tune in from anywhere in the world. Still, the poets had to come to campus to read their poems.

In 2009, I interviewed Scottish poet Andrew Philip over Skype from my home in California as part of a “virtual book tour” for the launch of his first collection. Using screen capture technology, I was able to record our conversation and upload it for others to see. It was thrilling to connect across such a distance. However, producing the video was cumbersome, and was only available after the fact, not as a live broadcast.

This is why I was so excited to be contacted by Google back in April to hear about their celebrations of US National Poetry Month through a series of readings using Google+ Hangouts On Air. I was sadly unable to participate due to work commitments, but recalled the conversation when the British Poetry Special Feature from Silk Road Review that I edited came out earlier this month.

I wanted to celebrate the issue and bring the British poets together for a reading. However, they come from all over the UK, and travel to London can be difficult and costly. Plus, so much of the intent of the publication was to share the work of these poets with readers in the US.

Then it occurred to me that the reading need not be physical. So, with the support of the poets, Google, and Pacific University (sponsors of Silk Road Review), we are in the final stages of selecting dates for a very special poetry reading to be broadcast worldwide using Google+ Hangouts On Air. Continue reading…

Drawing the Line by Diana Bishop

Spanning more than thirty years of writing and weighing in at over one hundred pages, Diana Bishop’s first collection reads more like a retrospective than a debut. Arranged by theme (Love, War, Death, etc.) these poems range from poignant to hilarious, formal to plain-spoken, casting a keen and deeply sensitive eye over a world where politeness reigns supreme.

As first poet in residence at Keats’ House, Hampstead, Diana also brings an ear well-tuned to the traditions of verse. Lighter rhymes such as “Mr Miller’s Mistress” and “A Suitable Shell for Treatment” careen toward couplet punchlines such as “Now we’re very fond of Brighton and the place is sadly missed. / But you can’t enjoy your holiday with your tortoise round the twist.” They are sure to please an audience when read aloud.

But equally exciting are narrative poems attuned to social irony, such as the “Sachertorte” served at a fine restaurant, which is “dark, rich, thick and jammy / (rather like my friend…)” The friend, dressed to the nines and unapologetically snooty, is incensed when the waiter serves a larger slice to “a bag lady, a crone”. The speaker in the poem delights in the possible reasons, deciding finally that “Sacher’s tea room regains my esteem / catching the waiter’s eye, I grin at him.”

In “Famous Photograph”, Bishop takes up themes of innocence and experience in spare, direct language. Continue reading…

Christopher Reid’s Elegiac Scattering

“Hobgoblin, nor foul fiend; / nor even the jobsworth slob / with a slow sly scheme to rob / my darling of her mind / that I imagined; / just a tumour.”

-Christopher Reid, “The Unfinished”, from A Scattering

A Scattering by Christopher ReidChristopher Reid’s A Scattering is a moving tribute to his wife Lucinda, who died of cancer. A respected English poet recommended it to me after reading my piece contrasting Douglass Dunn and Donald Hall, both of whom also wrote elegies under very similar circumstances. In addition to fine poems, in this book I also found certain insights into how a culture grieves, and what it considers good art.

Whereas Douglass Dunn’s elegies take root in his working-class background, Reid signals his place in the upper class early on in the book when, on the island of Crete, he invokes “ghosts of old schoolmasters” whose lessons, in his mouth, have become, “scraps of misremembered Classical Greek.”

In The Daily Telegraph, a periodical more typically aligned with those who studied Classics as school, Tom Payne assessed, “It is a collection that defies criticism in two ways — first, because it feels wrong to pick over such poignant elegies, and also, because so many of these poems are impossible to fault.” What makes this book seem flawless to this particular slice of Britain — and especially when the topic is such a difficult one?

Two elements more common in American expressions of grief are entirely off limits to Reid: invoking religious faith, and outpouring emotion. Instead, educated fascination with the world, and particularly the natural world, takes the place of religion; and self-consciousness and self-deprecation take the place of emotive self-expression.
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Transatlantic Elegies: Dunn and Hall

Donald Hall’s keen observations on grief in Without had a profound impact on my understanding of the possibilities of elegiac poems. Since relocating to London, Douglas Dunn’s slim volume Elegies has deepened my understanding of the form, and some of its specific cultural implications. Both collections were written in the wake of the poet’s wife’s death from cancer. And each, in its way, is a remarkable achievement of transcending loss to make art. But here the similarities end, and certain differences — ones I find illustrative of the subtle divide in Anglo-American poetics — begin.

Whereas Hall’s poems are largely confessional, Dunn’s might be called archaeological. Taking the first poems from each book as examples, we find in “Her Long Illness” an account in the third-person that is none-the-less told in scene, revealing intimate details of the couple’s final moments together. By contrast, Dunn’s “Re-Reading Katherine Mansfield’s Bliss and Other Stories” takes us through an examination of the stains on a book’s pages, invokes Robert Frost’s “A Considerable Speck” in addressing a fly, and only obliquely touches on the matter of grief itself in the final words of the poem: “one dry tear punctuating ‘Bliss’.”

Some of this stems from the vantage point taken up by the speaker — whereas Hall is re-living experience, going back to the hospital scenes in his mind, Dunn is reflecting, rooted in the present, casting forward and back. How each poet chooses to reflect or relive, however, and the effect this produces in the poems, brings colour to certain value differences between the two poetics.
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