Saturday, 15 March 2008

George Ttoouli - Reading Elisabeth's Bletsoe's Landscape from a Dream

extract from Ooser



        the sea

gave up the dead that were in it

faces discoloured the nacreous

interior of a mussel, all

code, legacy & trace

overscribbled by the waves'


in constant erasure of the phenotype
     shattered skin;


Every so often, a poetry comes along that I find completely, inexplicably irresistible, partly for chiming with a stage I am at and partly for opening doors I'd not known were there. I found Elisabeth Bletsoe's writing at a time when I was struggling with 'medium-length' poetry - poems that resisted the intense brevity of the lyric, while also delivering their emotional punch without a dependency on narrative.

I say struggling - I'd written something to the tune of about 120 lines, in seven parts. Though the whole had a unity, each part depending on the others, I couldn't bring myself to take action and let them flow together, so it fell into distinct lyrics. Yet these didn't satisfy. I was struggling, I realise now, because I lacked models for what was acceptable. I wasn't trusting where the poem wanted to go, the demands it was making.

The culmination of this, was that I chose to chop the whole down to a single poem of about 30 lines. This probably made for a better poem, but I wasn't happy with the end result - I kept seeing the amputated lines ghosting around the poem I had left.

And then, Tony Frazer of Shearsman Books introduced me to Elisabeth Bletsoe's poetry while we were working on his Guest Edition of Poetry International Web - UK. I was stunned by the ideas opened up for me. In fact, all three of his choices blew me away, from Frances Presley's perfect balancing of self, language play, politics and voice to Peter Riley's wonderful experiments with depth of field in bolding and italicising words and all three's blending of prose poetry with deftly-considered linebreaking and surprising associations. Enough gushing, though. Back to Bletsoe's writing.

Something else chimed. Her casual engagement with all the issues I've been obsessed with in poetry for the past decade: geology, history and natural history, mythology and newly mythologised landscapes; love and sex; spiritualism - or rather, the ability to transcend accidence into substance, the sublime.

Her work - in particular The Separable Soul - made me realise that the short lyric isn't capable of containing these multitudes, unless you force yourself into the density (and, some say, inscrutability) of Geoffrey Hill. And the other models I was aware of at the time were distinctly American - Gary Snyder being one of my favourites - or Greek - dead Greek modernists, like Seferis and Elytis - so the landscapes, the approaches, felt as if they lost something in translation. My previous models were not close enough to where I was; I always feel like a thief, or pretender, trying to compete or enter into dialogue with them.

From here, I fell to thinking about where the medium-length poem had gone. I've read (in BS Johnson's Aren't you a bit young to be writing your memoirs?) that the short lyric was the natural haven for poetry after the novel took ascendancy in narrative forms. But the medium length poem can do something that short fiction, intense lyrics and prose poetry can't quite. It's also a very demanding form, unless the poet focuses too much in favour of style over substance. To some extent (argued elsewhere on G&P recently), John Burnside is guilty of this washing over of sound, yet he also demonstrates the ability of medium-length poems to pull the reader entirely within their world, to envelop in atmospherics.

There's also the extended argument or essay of the poem - a demonstration or investigation of a subject that can process through permutations of an idea, or scene. Perhaps the sequence rivals this, but not without breaking the flow of the atmosphere. And of course, being closer to the long poem, narrative isn't out of reach. Bletsoe plays with emotional narratives, intense bursts, even a version of Gawayn & the Greene Knight.

So why are these qualities often overlooked? A better question would be: Why is the industry so obsessed with the short lyric; with the '40 lines or less' competitions? Is it sheer laziness - editors not wanting to read more? The ability to fit those poems onto a single page, thereby saving paper? Or the constraints of space in general, in magazines and anthologies, that enforce page limits on editors and publishers?

There's definitely something in this that's connected to the capitalised markets in which poetry has been trying to function; a sure sign, yet again that capitalism is stifling creativity - the lack of diversity in the more commercial publishing houses' lists shows this, even where the editors are widely read and extremely open-minded, they're within capitalist business systems, which are beholden to capitalist economics: profit margins, annual growth, forecasting.

OK, if I haven't lost you already, I should say, I'm not a raving leftie. I like to consider myself critical of the current system and its effects on the things I love, both negative and positive. And so I also see the internet (a place I've been highly critical of in the past, for making room for so much of the slushpile, thereby undermining my democratic championing of poetry) as a place to bring back the medium-length poem, a place where poetry is not beholden to column inches, or cost per square inch of paper. That said, I am secretly worried that this may just open the doors to a lot of baggy self-indulgence.

Meanwhile, I've not said very much about Elisabeth Bletsoe's Landscape from a Dream. But I'm still reading it, like it says in the title to this post. So you'll just have to wait, or buy a copy yourself and make your own mind up.


The Editors said...

George, yes, totally agree (though why is being a raving leftie necessarily a bad thing?). The question of the medium length poem - or, perhaps more correctly, the longer poem: because where is the middle in a potentially infinite scale between the smallest haiku and the longest modernist epic? - is certainly tied to a particular economic epoch, but is equally neglected or sidelined because of a certain critical hegemony too (which is intimately related to that same economic structure). If Bloodaxe, Cape and Picador favour the 'prize-winning poem' (hateful phrase), we can also see Shearsman, Reality Street, Salt etc taking risks with more complex poetic structures in their own books. I'm thinking here of Reality Street's edition of Allen Fisher's 'Place', Salt's publication of Rachel Blau DuPlessis' ongoing 'Drafts' project, and Shearsman's engagement with the 'open field' contingent in late modernism (Bletsoe is one exponent of this, but Shearsman also publish Colin Simms, Toby Olson, Michael Haslam, Laurie Duggan, Lee Harwood, and many others who have, throughout their careers, resisted the mainstream ideal of the well-made poem that's over before it's begun, using the poem as a space of exploration and discovery, rather than dogmatic reassertion of ideas that the reader already knows).

Simon Turner, G&P

Jane Holland said...

You're certainly right about the connection between poem length and new technology. If longer poetry is to make a genuine 'come-back' - it hasn't been in vogue for well over a century now - its first important sightings will be on the internet. The internet is a vast and as yet more or less untapped area for change in the way we write, publish and read. Habits change slowly, but poetry is gradually beginning to shift in new directions. Even if the only evidence we have for that is this blog post ... but it's a start.

"If you say it, they will come." Or something along those lines.

And there are all these new online poetry magazines springing up and challenging old perceptions of what poetry is and how we should approach it, just by virtue of having these new and potentially 'unlimited' spaces at their disposal.

Is Geoffrey Hill inscrutable? I suppose he must be, at times. But I think he knows what he means, even if no one else does. The same cannot always be said for other inscrutable poets, sadly.