I do get hate mail — from the rejected and those reviewed in The Journal — and nowadays I rarely reply. It has become my experience that the offended, the outraged, do not expect or want a dialogue, only to express their hurt by retaliating in some small way. And more often than not I agree with them: yes I am a know-nothing arsehole, yes I am a know-all smug bastard.
Past attempts have shown that any response from me will more than likely bring further abuse or will involve me in a time/brain-consuming correspondence. And I don’t have the time, and I probably don’t have — before any of those I have offended leap gleefully in — the brain capacity either for such tit-for-tat point-scoring dialogues. Only here, with these occasional articles, will I attempt something by way of a pre-emptive response.
Hate Mail topics in reverse order of posting:-
41) Who the barbarians now? (6th February 2018)
40) Does this ever leave the news? (30th January 2018)
39) The Scene (5th January 2018)
38) Why we still need the likes of Chelsea Manning, Julian Assange and Pussy Riot (17th December 2017)
37) Age is my only Alibi (17th November 2016)
36) A Free Press (18th November 2015)
35) Inside the Death Carriage (3rd August 2015)
34) 3 reasons why I ended up not voting Green (18th May 2015)
33) Guest blog from Emma Lee on 'How not to approach book bloggers' (1st July 2014)
32) Living in the futuristic past (6th April 2014)
31) Nuclear Waste (31st October 2013)
30) On reviews & reviewing again (8th August 2013)
29) Choice (21st April 2013)
28) Parliamentary Poopspeak (22nd March 2013)
27) I don't get Seamus Heaney (7th August 2012)
26) To e or not to e (1st July 2012)
25) The Male Creative Process (21st September 2011)
24) Extracts (30th August 2011)
23) The Service Is Crap But We've Got A Glossy Brochure (23rd August 2011)
22) Why Shouldn't Women Chop Down The Tropical Rainforest Too? (14th August 2011)
21) Anne Lewis-Smith remembered (26th July 2011)
20) i.m. Derek Southall (1930-2011) (17th July 2011)
19) Identity in Mental Health (7th April 2011)
18) More on belonging, on not belonging (11thDecember 2010)
17) The English (7th June 2010)
16) On Belonging (29th May 2010)
15) Poet Heroes & Non-heroes (24th may 2010)
14) Property Angst (18th May 2010)
13) Why The Journal is secular (10th May 2010)
12) Atrocious Behaviour (3rd May 2010)
11) Fellow Feeling (17th April 2010)
10) New War Memories (24th March 2010)
9) Saving the country, saving the planet, saving ourselves? (17th March 2010)
8) Funding (19th August 2009)
7) Unacknowledged Legislators (11th August 2009)
6) Poetry as therapy? Poetry as affliction? (22nd July 2009)
5) Mental Modes (8th July 2009)
4) Categorisations (24th May 2009)
3) Reviewers reviewed (1st May 2009)
2) The spirit that guides the intelligence (24th April 2009)
1) The beginnings of a manifesto (17th April 2009)
Hate Mail 41
Who the barbarians now?
Barbarians are, according to my definition, any who wish to impose their will, their beliefs, on others through violence.
Religious extremists are the immediate and obvious candidates. Especially the underfunded extremists who resort to primitive weapons. Stick and knife-weilding mobs for instance, the religious mob having been goaded to violence by some preacher.
There are today several ongoing barbarous campaigns of religious extremism. Foremost, so far as secular Westerners are concerned, is that of radical Islam, its zealots slow beheading of men, subjugation of women, and the destruction of historical artefacts associated with other religions, other schisms. Barbarism.
Next in this league table of primitive barbarity would be, I suppose, the Hindu
mobs on the Indian sub-continent who seem to be easily provoked into attacking others; and provoked not only by Hindu rabble-rousers but by local career politicians too. While next door in Myanmar (previously Burma) the Buddhists are doing their utmost to wipe out Myanmar’s population of Rohingya Muslims.
So do we move on to the Christians, for the moment quiescent, of Northern Ireland. As with the Sunni and Sufi antipathetic branches of Islam that gave rise to Isis (al-Qaeda, Daesh, Islamic State) here too are those who march to war with one another, one side Protestant and the other Catholic.
Some of this barbarity is, of course, political in origin. To further their political cause politicians will often take advantage of ancient religious enmities. (Donald Trump for instance priming redneck Christians against Muslim immigrants.) Or the belief in a political cause itself might become akin to, and as intolerant as, a religious faith. Such a political creed can easily give rise to religious fervour in its followers. In class wars for instance the rich have got hung from lamp-posts, and the buildings associated with the rich, regardless of their architectural merit, have been destroyed.
But let us come up to date.
Being more technologically proficient some killings, some destruction, might not at first glance seem barbarous. Yet such violence is still, no matter how that violence is delivered, one grouping attempting to impose their will, their beliefs, their type of governance, on other groupings: primitive mindsets employing 21stC technologies. For instance the USA has lately sought to impose its will through drone strikes, through extra-judicial executions. Likewise Israel’s and Russia’s ex-patria assassinations.
More subtle methods of barbarism have been through financial backing of warring factions, or the more direct supply of ordnance, sometimes to both sides, all to win economic or political advantage. So does Russia assist a Syrian dictator in the killing of his own people and the demolition of his own cities. So does Israel supply emergent African states with arms and military expertise. So do the British supply planes and bombs to Saudi Arabia so that they can bomb out of existence their religious rivals in Yemen.
For the sake of trade, deals with barbarians continue to be made. And there are yet more subtle forms of barbarity which are not only disguised by sophisticated killing technology, but bound about by treaty and legal contract. Economic coercion for instance, where political decisions are taken that consign a people (the Palestinians?) to such poverty that they are denied the basics of life and the self-worth of contributing to the commonweal. Whole countries ghettoised.
Who the barbarians now?
Unless we actively object, unless we protest, we are all barbarians now.
© Sam Smith 4th February 2018
Does this ever leave the news? 31st January 2018
What I want from poetry is more than a throwing down of words on paper. I want a poetry that has intent, that has more than rhythm, more than successful rhyme, that is more than rote-learnt for performance. I want a poetry that transcends form.
What I want is poetry that can work, that must work on the page. Most people’s private experience of poetry is on the page.
What I also want from poetry is originality. Not therefore the kind of poetry that mines other texts, that becomes the backyard of initiates, that is essentially excluding and being exclusive, probably right-wing. Its advocates may claim that the resulting works are radical, but the concept is conservative. They do not want to bring about change, only to extend, to gird themselves for academic in-fighting. Seeking only to belong, “Where’s the establishment?” is their subconscious cry, “Let me in!”
What I want is great poetry, poetry that can speak to all. Not poetry that is only for those who think themselves really clever, a poetry that only they can truly understand. That is not great poetry. Great poetry can be understood and enjoyed by both simpleton and scholar. Therein lies its greatness.
In poetry, as with any art form, honesty is an intellectual necessity. So any poem that denies a truth, denies by its artifices and/or has a transparent determination to win applause, is destined to fail. Likewise poems that are all style and no content. Similarly any poem will fail that pretends to be more important than it is. The question to be asked of any poem is, “Can it withstand the lens of humour? Of crude mockery even?” Likewise those poems which are emotional pleading verging on blackmail – agree with me or else. Agree or else, disagreeable reader, you will be consigned to the insensitive and unsympathetic portion of humankind, unworthy of these ‘poetic’ offerings.
What I want from poetry, as with any new art, is experiment, where experiment means genuine trial and error, and where what doesn’t work must be acknowledged a failure, not be incorporated into a safe school of experimentation.
What I want from poetry, from contemporary poetry especially, is a condensing of the language in everyday use.
What I want from poetry, as with all art, is that it should disconcert. And to do that a poem needs first to make an impact. Its opening therefore, as with music that makes me listen, has to surprise me into paying attention, or at the very least keep my attention. I want poems like those paintings and sculptures that make me look. And having been made to read the poem thereafter the poem needs to shuffle my preconceptions, maybe take an ism and fuck with it, thwart expectations, unsettle….
If we haven’t actually met him, exchanged polite chit-chat, we’ve most of us been aware of him. (Or her. But for the purposes of this piece we’ll stick with a him.) And he is, as yet, the unacknowledged maker of art. He is, as yet, unrejected. He will, if pressed, self-deprecatingly call himself an aspirant. As an aspirant, and to not be left behind – as if there is a behind to be left in – he haunts these launches of the ‘latest’.
He doesn’t make the mistake of arriving early at a launch. He has learnt that in order to work the room it has to be at least half-full, easier then to assess its topography and dynamics.
So on entering the already filling gallery – ‘gallery’ for the purposes of this piece – he nods to acquaintances real or imaginary in far corners, and he makes straight for the temporary bar.
Glass in hand his first circuit will be devoted to what is on show. He avoids any squealing latecomers. They’ll be friends or extended family, never been to a launch before but know the artist.
On each subsequent glass-in-hand slow circuit as the gallery continues to fill he will, if no other singleton accosts him for conversation or – perish the thought – challenges his being there, he will dip into the nibbles. But still, mouth full, he will keep an eye on developments so that he can manoeuvre himself somewhere near the back for when the launchee nervously makes their welcoming speech. At its faltering end he will be the first and loudest to cheer, might even chance a confident “Bravo!”
Applause out of the way now will be the time for him to hubbub mingle, partake in glancing-about gossip, making sure that that he smiles and nods only when the absent get truly backbitten. For humorous effect he will stand back as if alarmed by any larger-than-life bracelet clanger. And if included in a group of wannabe-clevers he might possibly join in to be acceptably rude about a couple of the exhibits. Although he will, waiting for the opportunity (his greatest fear that of being labelled reactionary), namedrop pretty near anything recently alluded to in the broadsheets.
As people leave, and if there continues some generalised talk of art, he will pick up on the latest buzz word. Aleatoric say, and he will practise saying it when alone, use when next in front of an exhibit. If a true naïf, family friend of the artist should ask, “What’s that mean?” he will say, as if woken from a trance, “Oh, it’s art based on chance.” And he will repurse his lips and continue gazing as if rapt.
In the gallery’s comments book he will be weirdly abstruse or positively noncommittal, but will anyway leave his email address for future invites.
I used to think that it was just my post-WW2 generation, raised among bombsites and pillboxes, that felt we had to explain – if only to ourselves – the carnage of two world wars, and more particularly our parents’ and grandparents’ part – active or passive – in what led up to those wars.
I used to think that it was only my post-WW2 generation, or those of us bothered by it, who were the first to flinch away from mindsets that might enable more concentration camps to be built, that it was only us on guard against rhetoric that would again justify the carpet bombing of a Cologne, London, Berlin, Tokyo; or the slaughter on the Somme, even justify the massacres at Mei Lai and Wounded Knee…
But where to start with any of our recent wars? And war, any war, being the ultimate confidence trick, played always on the young by the old who have fooled themselves; children killing children while fat old fart-mouths like Sharon and Arafat, and the career-ambitious like Rees-Mogg and Farage talk of justice and nations… Even this present government. Because we are back with the divisive Tories who, in their praising of newly-killed warriors, are again legitimising war. Again the talk is of ‘love of country’, ‘honour’, ‘comradeship’, ‘bravery’, and the most favoured, ‘hero’. All used in the context of war, of killing. Young men told to glory in the killing of other young men, of being able to die for their country, their regiment, their comrades-in-arms.
Comrades-in-arms; but only while in arms. Seems that, unable to reconcile themselves with the strange formalities of war, with value systems that incorporate notions of honour and respect, and subsequently neglect, more ex-servicemen have in the UK reportedly killed themselves than have been killed in Afghanistan. [Add to that our continuing shame here in the UK that all those New Labour politicians who actively campaigned for the illegal invasion of Iraq have still not been charged with war crimes.]
Will my fellow flag-wagging citizens learn? Even when the recent wars in Iraq, Syria, Somalia, Sudan and Libya could have shown them that war is less about heroes and more about the disruption and devastation of ordinary lives. Lives like theirs. They though being the flag-wagging type won’t see themselves there. They continue to believe our present leaders. Consequently more cities will become ruins and there will become other lands of broken buildings and shattered trees.
The one good thing emerging from these continuing wars? We not only now have brave journalists, generations removed from mine, speaking out against idiot policies and politicians, but the likes of Chelsea Manning, Julian Assange and Pussy Riot also putting their necks on the line for Truth.
17th December 2017
Although reinforced by the mass slaughters of the 20th Century wars, the diminution of the individual has its origins in the industrial revolution, and has been taken up and carried on by mass consumerism, which of course practises a double deceit - in claiming that its mass-produced products enhance individuality. Democracy, the arch-religion of choice, underwrites this fraud. In practice democracy’s ensconced elites offer no real choice, electoral systems weighted always against the poor. Result is we have made our human selves statistics, but less than a number, hardly an integer. Those like us, aware of their insignificance, or even if unaware of their insignificance, nonetheless see that the only way to assert their individuality, to make an impact, is either through temporarily lording it over their brethren or by in some other way exploiting them; or simply by resentful violence, destruction.
But there was once, and hard to believe now, a time of hope, a looking to the future and beliefs in the many ways we could approach those happy times to come. Futureless now we endure through a time of apathy, of indifference to our common fate, with no faith in any control we might have over that future.
© Sam Smith 17th November 2016
The beginnings of a manifesto: acceptance-v-rejection?
I want a poetry that can speak to strangers.
Individual poems can be eavesdroppings or gestalts. As a gestalt the poem should bring no externals to it, should have all contained within its beginning and its ending. And I want each poem in a language that is sparingly precise, that shows/tells it exactly how it is. (Exception makes the rule of course. Without knowing the antecedents to Ted Hughes’ Birthday Letters half the poems of that master of the sparingly precise would be lost to the reader, and should the Birthday Letters’ editor have been following the gestalt rule the poems would have been lost to us. So let us include Birthday Letters under Eavesdroppings.)
Eavesdroppings are those poems of part open doors, their gaps offering glimpses into, overheards hinting at, universal experience/knowledge; hints and glimpses allowing each reader to complete, to build on the poem from their own lexicon of experience/knowledge.
As reader, as editor, I look for lucidity in a poem, for elegance. I also want poems that possess the illogicality and the happy sense of Zen. Or, and this requires genius, I want the simply told description — or seemingly so — that yet sneaks around the edge of consciousness and one finds oneself haunted by the poem.
That’s what I want. To what I don’t want....
Unfortunately the writing of serious poetry has come to be seen by the wider English public, and even more unfortunately by more than a few aspiring poets, as the advertising of one’s ‘poetic’ sensitivity. And by those who labour to fulfil this expectation the oblique and the obtuse are made great use of. Poetry though should say, regardless of the form, what it needs to say with the least words allowing minimal misinterpretation. Any overt, and written in, ambiguities signal the failure of any poem. Which is not to say that a poem cannot be subtle: what it mustn’t be is coy.
Because what I most definitely do not want is the coy and cosy poetry that one meets with at damn near every poetry reading today. Often anecdotal this is a poetry that without fail refers to, if not nostalgic brand names, then to some private and personal shared experience. The kind of poetry that all too frequently emerges from workshops or poetry groupings.
The workshop group go on an ‘inspirational’ river walk, or a slow moorland trek, and along the way remarks are passed on topographical peculiarities. Those remarks then find their way into the poems, such allusions being lost on anyone not of the group, and at subsequent public readings those allusions have to be explained — explained at a length in inverse proportion to the stripped-down poem. (I won’t bother here with a consideration of Slam/performance poets, or with those who confuse — at poetry readings — being entertaining with stand-up comedy. Neither work on the page, and as reader and editor it is the page only that I have in mind.)
As with group allusions the same applies to the terms of reference that lovers employ. The resulting poems are essentially a showing off of private matters, and which almost invariably come across as smug, and which come into my rejection category of ‘knickers-off poetry’.
Also under the heading Smug is that poetry which emerges from any subculture, that indulges that subculture’s slang, brand names and arcane period details littering the piece. And it’s but a step from that one-of-us poetry and the excruciatingly personal — but which yet offers no real insight into the person or their relationship — to those who seek to impress by throwing in names of philosophers. (Ludwig Wittgenstein said that a private language is no language at all. Although, as is the way with thinkers, he may well have later, or earlier, have appeared to contradict himself.)
And then we have those poets manqué who wish to demonstrate their nudging familiarity with the classics. At readings, condescending to explain briefly their poem — which is usually lengthy — they use expressions such as, "As you will be aware such-and-such in the Greek/Roman/Celtic pantheon was the bringer of...." Yawn. For most present that is. Although the equally pretentious members of the audience will, loud enough to be heard, snigger over the oh-so-many learned allusions.
And let’s not overlook the poet who instantly alienates by assuming a shared value ‘us’. "We all know what it’s like...." Especially, in my case, when it is a middle-class-income-taken-for-granted us. Again such poems offer no real insight into the person or their relationships, are only a confirmation of the author’s acceptable/respectable ordinariness.
Last words here I will leave to two others.
Anthony Barnett said of current British poetry that it appears to be mostly "....trivial anecdotal descriptive narrative, downright lies, and violence to the imagination, or.... in an aspiration to effects akin to advertising copy."
While Osbert Sitwell, when asked how to tell good poetry from bad, said, "In the same way as you can tell fish.... if it’s fresh it’s good, if it’s stale it’s bad, and if you’re not certain try it on the cat."
© Sam Smith 2009
return to top? - Hate Mail
Lately we have come to hear of athletes described as ‘physically intelligent’ and carers as ‘emotionally intelligent’. The intelligence I am to refer to here however is neither. This intelligence is solely cerebral, intellect taken as being remote from any emotion. Except, self-evidently, it cannot be. Cerebral intelligence is ultimately indivisible from the emotions, from the metabolic make-up, from the personality, from the spirit which directs the intelligence.
Here in the UK intellects directed to obviously loathsome ends were those of Oswald Ernald Mosley and Enoch John Powell. Both men were universally acknowledged as ‘clever’ and both men used their intelligence to foment racial discord. The blackshirted Mosley blatantly so; and, despite Enoch Powell’s protestations that dockers marching in his support and chanting racist slogans was a symptom of the very malaise he had been describing and was not of his seeking, he thereafter made no sustained attempt to disassociate himself from his previous racist rhetoric. In fact he elaborated and expanded on it at every public opportunity, drawing — as I believe he intended — the support of all those overtly racist.
* * * * *
If intelligence all on its own does not lead to understanding and compassion neither does intelligence necessarily include insight.
I can recall one patient, a scientist who had gained three Phds by his late twenties and who subsequently developed a schizo-affective disorder. He started to hear voices and to act on what those ‘voices’ were telling him.
His scientific colleagues became concerned, he was referred to a psychiatrist and his schizo-affective disorder diagnosed. The scientist didn’t agree with the diagnosis. Exceptional in his field, an entertainer of odd ideas, he was a man accustomed to trusting in and defending his own deductions, and he refused to accept that what his own mind was manufacturing could be wrong, even though what the ‘voices’ were telling him was patently absurd. Nor could he be dissuaded, brought all kinds of rationalisations, formulations even, to the defence of his subsequent actions. Even when his voices were pharmacologically silenced, still he sought to prove the validity of what they had told him to do. They were his ideas and he fought to prove them right, solely because they had come from him. He denied that he needed medication, almost came to welcome the return of his ‘voices’. Exceptional intelligence, nil insight.
Another patient, with not even a GCSE in woodwork and also diagnosed with a schizo-affectve disorder, had insight enough to discern that what his ‘voices’ were telling him was ‘daft’. He also had sufficient insight to realise when he was becoming unwell and the need for a return to, or for an increase in, his medication.
* * * * *
Although not as extreme as the cases psychiatric and political cited above literary endeavours are likewise subject to the guiding spirit. To what end intelligence here? Is it the author’s intent to enlighten, to entertain, evoke, amuse...? Or is this author simply seeking praise, is his/her writing solely an exercise in self-aggrandisement? Or could the intent be solely to express, to discover in its making, a truth? Or is he/she out to settle a score? Because, as with any other grouping, there lurks within many writers a meanspiritedness, a shrivelling spirit that seeks not to share, but to best, a spirit that seeks to promote the self at every opportunity. If only by putting another down.
Or, being generous, could the author be merely, and unselfconsciously, hugging him/herself — as in the self-regarding poetry and the self-regarding prose of the self-regarding professional classes? Theirs the irony beloved of post-modernists, postmodernism which also presupposes a shared value system, grown from their shared education/culture. Based not on external experience and imaginative observation postmodernism is language and literature deconstructed into crossword clues. Clever. Pat-self-on-back clever. Self-aggrandisement near every time. Backward-looking it does not move literature forward in any definable sense, its authors seeking only to produce work acceptable to their peers and to their college mentors.
So also does postmodernism's cousin intertextualism betray a lack of real life experience to be drawn from, its authors reliant on second and third hand experience, on those lives and observations already filtered by their tellers, making of the proponents and practitioners of intertextualism a nonparticipating people, recycling the images and histories known to them all, sponges soaking up manufactured excitements and neatly parcelled and reparcelled concepts. A people unshaped by events, un-self-made. Sofa people soaking up calories , grease and other people’s ideas; no events. Intertextualism doesn’t, so reliant is it on existing material, have the shock, the awkwardness of the new, doesn’t say anything new.
School-taught, tutor-pleasing, or left with no life beyond point-scoring academia, such writers seem to become occupied with the desire, if not to recreate the classics, then to rewrite them in contemporary idiom — reworked Shakespeare, rehashed Homer, redone Ovid — or they pounce upon a text previously overlooked and obscure and ride it to a small fame.
* * * * *
There is art and there is academic art. The one art that is art is art that is universally accepted, is art that speaks to a deep need in people. An excellent example is Gormley’s ‘Angel of the North’ and his ‘Spirit of Place’. Another such universal art would be Gaudi’s sculptures in Barcelona. Academic art on the other hand is smally clever art, is art that requires MA and Phd studies to win acceptance. The studies not solely to explain or to understand the art, but to add another layer of cleverness, which will require yet another Phd treatise, another MA project....
In the writing of poetry another intelligence that seeks only to display its intelligence is one that delights in mastering form, in producing conventional poetry containing conventional wisdoms, in penning poems that are no more than clever, no more than pleasingly true to form. All too often such superficial works are in rhyme, and all that they have managed to do is rhyme.
Cosily familiar, rhyme of itself tends to lull. While the values intrinsic to any language, in its expression, are its logic too, leading any attempt at reasoning solely within that language to an already existing conclusion. Rhyme propitiates this trend.
At the other extreme we have ‘free verse’ poems that are often no more than scribbled jottings — usually by those who would be known as poets rather than give themselves up to the production of worked up and worked upon poetry. Such jottings elicit at best a so-what? shrug.
Both practices say nothing new, are limited to the acceptable by their timid spirit. New art, all new art to be new, should startle one into awareness, should discomfort.
Poetry, serious poetry, first and foremost has to be a vehicle of truth. Form is secondary. Where form is seen as primary usually sight of poetry’s purpose has been lost and the result is a poem that is not — not a poem that needed to be written but that the writer needed to write a poem. Such a poem, if in any way new, is all too often a self-regarding innovation — look at me, aint I clever? Poetry cannot be just the latest from the pen of.... it has to say something new, be something other, cannot be just a piddling about on paper.
As editor I often have this nightmare vision of would-be writers leaving in hordes their ‘creative-writing’ classes/workshops all with shining faces eager to please, to not cause offence, to belong.... And with nothing new to say only the desire to be saying something — something which their tutors will praise, will find agreeable, acceptable.
To belong.... Such are the writers who will ultimately put themselves on the side of authority, and revel in its little paradoxes and privileges, be desperate to win its prizes. Their every published work seems to plead — Oh please let me join your circle, your establishment. Let me in. Please let me in.....
On the other side of the same sheet are the writers who seek to exclude, who seem to want only to play with words, who make poems that hide meanings within meanings, and who seem to produce work that is mere smart-aleckry. Or they mark their superiority by their time-consuming study and commentary upon lengthy and convoluted texts. Thus they exclude the great majority of the uninterested and the time-restricted. On top of that they often employ a language and/or punctuation all their own.
And then there are the writers, there are, who do have something to say, who do want to draw your attention in a novel way to what they’ve seen, to what they’ve thought, felt. But even here having something original to say is not enough. Especially if, in a poem, the poem implies the superiority of the poet writing — the only one to have seen, to have felt, to be able to express.... so very sensitive, so thoughtful, so obviously talented.... And such off-putting arrogance.
Of all the arts poetry’s is a process of reduction, of distillation, of draft-by-draft losing ownership, a distancing from the self, a diminution of one’s self, of one’s ego. A true poetic spirit, guiding the intelligence, should see the self as but a vehicle, a conduit, and without a personality of its own. Unless that personality can be put to use within the poem. Disguised preferably.
© Sam Smith 2009
If as Henry Miller said "a clown is a poet in action" then, mirror-like, a poet has to be a clown writing. Let us be laughed at.
Poems, whole collections, are personal things — author speaking to reader, the writing and the reading both solo, private activities, publication the conduit between them. Despite publication’s dissemination each book, each poem, will enter each reader’s consciousness differently. So where is a reviewer to start?
Critics — and I don’t mean those using the book under review to exercise some private spite, but those who attempt to engage with the work, who try to give reasons for their possible failure so to do, and who are not mere categorisers — critics are as various as the authors whose work they review. Add in the ethos of the publication they are reviewing for, the period during which they are doing the review, and it has to be apparent to even the most prejudiced that there can be no absolute, no authoritative view of a work.
I believe that, in reviewing contemporary works, every review being a part of the ongoing creative process, the reviewer should assess each poem, each collection, on what he/she believes it appears to be trying to say, trying to be. Unfortunately there are those critics who so take against a work at the outset that they only count its faults — punctuation, syntax, spelling — while missing the spirit of the piece. So was John Clare dismissed by the oh-so-smallminded-clever for nigh on a century.
On the other hand there are those critics who, not having shared similar experiences to the author find themselves unable to assess the veracity of a work. One such author for me is Seamus Heaney. However not only is his background, and the values therefrom, alien to mine, he fails to take me into his created life. Which has to be, despite the many garlands cast his way, a failing on both our parts. I can’t see the failing as entirely mine. Other writers, with even more alien life experiences and values, have taken me into their creations — Chinua Achebe, C. P. Cavafy, Djuna Barnes and Yukio Mishima for instance. Which variety has to demonstrate that one can have sympathy with any piece of imaginative work that invites one to enter the logic of the piece. But it must invite.
Unfortunately many critics tend to join with the author under review in — it would seem deliberately — excluding the reader from the piece. The pair of them showing off their arcane learning to no advantage to the reader of the review, the reviewer demonstrating only her/his intellectual snobbery.
Similar to the snob are those critics who are too aware of their subject’s life, or who are even a part the same circle, which will all too often be a praising circle. Here in the UK those closed circles can be an Oxbridge crew or a part of the same publisher’s list. Or they may be the same people who review and get reviewed in, say, The Guardian. With such circles it is not always easy for the out-of-the-loop reader to get past the hype and the mutual flattery to work out who are the authors worth reading. Because beyond that current praising circle, beyond that competition-judging circle, the work of such an insider can be very soon forgotten.
One has only to look back to those lesser/minor poets who were acclaimed in their own time, and who have now passed beyond memory, to ask how many of our feted contemporary poets producing works of similar mediocrity are but proficient networkers and self-publicists? The well-connected Alice Oswald springs to mind here.
Having thus far mentioned several names I am in imminent danger myself of being accused of pursuing vendettas and of inviting others to read author and not the work. Because for a praising circle critic the name of the author can be as, can be more important than, the actual work under review. So it is that excessive praise will be lavished on an older, and revered, author in his/her attempt to produce something/anything new. When on the author’s part there has been no urgent need to create, was only the middle-aged squeezing his/her pot-belly into the latest fashion.
What must also be taken into consideration is that most literary critics, being writers themselves, are likely to have some sympathy with work that has similar stylistic concerns and/or subject matter. For instance I prefer work that, much like my own, has relevance to matters outside of literature. Therefore for me the language has to be familiar even if the ideas are strange.
Which brings me — excuse the confusion of loosely applied terms — to the intertextual Language school of writing and reviewing. Postmodernists as I assume them to be, ironists all, their playing with language would seem to negate the very medium through which they are attempting to communicate: the medium is and isn’t the message?
Not that I am opposed to it as a form — that we should deny our learning in order to communicate with the unlearned? And language poetry, commentating on and questioning itself, is fine it what it successfully does; but even then it is only following where philosophy long ago led — in debating the ideas/values/narratives contained within the words and phrases that control our thinking, that contain and confine our thoughts, frame our perceptions.
A common language is what unites us, and we all of us take different meanings from it. What, for instance, is a poem?
As for Language poetry reviewing itself as it is being written I have enormous respect. What other art, aside from writing, has to describe, to analyse itself using the same medium? Are statues used to pass comment on statues?
I think it has to be the wannabe Linguistic poetry that I find so offensive, its coming across as no more than the verbal salads of the pressure-of-speech psychotic or as the associative cadences of the demented. Feeding on itself such artless Language — prose or poetry — can seem to be nowt but auto-cannibalism; and not that far removed from the out-to-impress learnéd allusions of the academically-inclined poets. Which is not to accuse all Language poets of being academics. Often they are but academics-manqué, with their work appealing only to those academically-aspired like them, and who make a show of gleefully following the many (supposedly free-association) erudite references and, having so followed, can knuckle-polish their lapels.
Such self-feeding work may bring the authors and their ilk much pleasure. But the more obscure the references, the more satisfying to the self-preening author, the more off-putting to the uncommitted reader.
Reviewers, if not seduced into complicity by the name-dropping subject matter, tend to shy away from such work. If they say that this sample of language poetry left them cold, or that they simply didn’t get it, they fear being labelled reactionary: Language poetry presents itself forbiddingly as the new. Even where a reviewer may have sympathy for any genuine attempt at the new still they might hesitate to say that there is as much self-conscious artifice in Language poetry as there is in the torturing of syntax to achieve da-di-da endrhymes. I personally need to know less where the poetry has come from: I want to know where it is going.
© Sam Smith 2009
What is an editor to do? Poetry is in a state of flux, is at a similar stage to that of early cubism — clumsy, ugly, monochrome structures built on theory.... no song, no beauty, too reliant on the appreciation of a partisan cognoscenti.... And that’s just those few attempting the new. Other poets labour on from the — let’s call it a — pre-cubism past, want their work to be pretty still, that is conventionally attractive, praiseworthy. Or they write solely to entertain, to amuse, and make no attempt to stretch their readers’ imaginations.
Confused? Allow me to attempt a loose categorisation. Though please be aware that in listing these ‘categories’ I am not being dismissive. Indeed at one time or another I have included most of these categories in issues of The Journal.
But let’s start at the beginning of the process. With every submission to The Journal, envelope unsealed, pages unfolded, e-mail opened, and once beyond the author’s paeans of self-praise (really if he/she is that good why are they sending work to the humble Journal?) the swiftest of glances over the poems has the categorising switched on.
Top of the list, of the first 3 instantly recognisable, will be:—
Rhyme And one can get trapped into rhyme the way one gets trapped into lies, the next one and the next leading one further and further away from the truth.
First Person The use of ‘I’ in any poem is usually the signal for throat-catching sentimentality; or, with first person plural, teenage angst/strictures.
Linguistics On the page barely distinguishable from computer spill.
Onomatopoeic Linguistics gone barmy.
Trash poems Unworked juxtapositions of the discarded.
Regret Lines which are one long regret for ever having grown up, the author’s childhood having been oh-so-much clearer.
Post-nostalgia Close to Regret, but more a wish for having had a better past.
Having got thus far with a submission — poems not yet rejected, still reading — I am then, often subconsciously, deciphering the author’s allegiances — humanist? fogey? religious evangelist? racist? anarchist? Suspicion of a sexist subtext...?
And I have to say here, Beware irony. Irony does not translate, nor does it travel. Irony is completely lost on Gee-whizz Americans, for instance, and every half-wit Australian thinks they’re being ironic every time they open their mouth.
So we come to the Poetry Group/Workshop poem — which is loaded with meaning and which requires an explanation at least twice the length of the poem.
Poem as puzzle Where one has to find one’s way into the meaning.
Code-breaking poem As above.
Self poems Can be mistaken for the above, but are poems written for the writer as opposed to poems written for the reader. Such poems are also not readily comprehensible.
Poems of Boredom are written with no object in mind, and often in the middle of the night, are simply a playing around with words for something to do. Often self-descriptive they ask time-starved readers and busy editors to sympathise with their ennui.
(Having written that I realise that these Poems of Boredom require additional categorisation. In that there can be two kinds of poets writing them — those poets who are seeking to express in some manner their life’s truths, and those who enjoy playing with words and form. Can be the same poet at different times; and occasionally a poet can combine the two in the same poem.)
Nature triumphant poems But if poetry is the alchemy of truth then any poem that these days presupposes cyclical rebirth is a lie and is therefore not worthy of consideration.
Lyrical Always tempting, but skating always on the thin ice of whimsy.
Over-exclamatory haiku Brevity already making of haiku an exclamatory form the addition of a single exclamation mark betrays an attempt to infuse it with drama.
Behold poems Behold the poet looking into the human soul and crying out in pity.
Posterity posturing In anticipation of their every phrase and minor eccentricity being dwelt on by acolytes as yet unborn, and with future academics quarrel-quoting their work, these are poems with leaden and signalled nuance.
Suck-up poems Similar to the above, but which suck up to a single group’s prejudices/dogma, seeking only to elicit sympathetic responses therefrom.
After that it can be a relief to come to current/topical poems and their wry reportage on the day, or
the self-mocking even the self-mocking doggerel of the stand-up
contrast poems that try to reconcile newspaper/TV reports of atrocities with the author’s own safe going-on day-by-undifferentiated-day.
anecdotal poems something really did happen.
stored experience poems beyond anecdotal, more an examination of the experience, giving it a context.
And so we come to a further categorisation of the poets themselves. Or more accurately of poets as met in that most peculiar of sit-down affairs, poetry readings.
Peculiar I say because what matters post-Chaucer is not the oral tradition, but print. Since the advent of print and latterly of near universal literacy the succinct expression of ideas/narratives (poetry) no longer requires mnemonic devices such as Italian/French rhyme or Saxon alliteration. Poets can express themselves on paper alone, have no need to meet their public in person. (Idris Caffrey, for instance, continues to be one of Original Plus’s most popular poets, by which I mean best-selling, yet he has opened his mouth at a poetry reading but the once.)
Nevertheless it has become accepted wisdom that poets still need to give public readings. Albeit that the ‘public’ at those readings will be 90% other poets. And those other poets will not usually be listening, but mentally rehearsing while waiting their turn to read, or thinking back on what, on how, they have just read.
Now the psychology of performance is that the performer (the reader) tries to win the audience’s approval/applause; and generally audiences have a taste for the new. Not though for the unknown, not for the truly original. The familiar, the singalong, and knowing where to laugh, knowing what is expected of them is a comfort to any audience.
Also to be taken into consideration is that at a poetry reading, in order to keep the audience’s interest, one thing has to quickly follow another, so the audience aren’t given time to puzzle on, to ponder over a poem, let alone a single line. Performance poetry is therefore unlikely to break new ground. Indeed it’s not a surprise that at readings, Slams in particular, the lowest common denominator reigns supreme — doggerel which gets a laugh, rhyming sentimentality which generates a sigh and applause.
Or — a subtle variation — the performers are young college-educated men with floppy hair, or curvaceous round-eyed female students, all of whom have pitched their charms according to an allusive lexicon. Both male and female seem to excite learned editors of a certain age. And both seem to say a lot without saying anything new, anything very much.
A truism these days is that any poet who doesn’t in some way entertain will be neglected. Another truism is that to be a poet, or indeed any kind of creator — given the odds against success and taking success as public recognition if not financial reward — requires naiveté. (Sophisticates do not risk being laughed at, sneered at, mocked.)
Unfortunately not all writers are fetchingly naive. Many are simply deluded to their writing’s worth. And some are so arrogant, think themselves hugely superior to other mortals because they have found themselves under a compulsion to put pen to paper. A consequence of this compulsion, and solely because of this compulsion, being that they call themselves a poet. Leonard Cohen said, ‘Poet is a verdict not an occupation.’
Disregarding the astonishing arrogance of blatantly bad poets we still have at readings the establishment English parading their poems of refined gentility. So very softly spoken, voice dying at line’s end; or that oh-so-polite hesitant drone into a microphone.
With or without microphone, page held before their face, observe their stance. One foot is held flat to the floor, while the ball of the other foot twists and presses down, down, almost wearing a hole. One which readers of their own poetry might yet disappear into.
Sam Smith © 2009
I’m a writer who has difficulty recalling verbatim: always I paraphrase, rehash, rewrite. Furthermore, when working on my own writing, I have actually taught myself to forget, in order that when I approach a previous draft I can almost see it, assess it, anew.
In creative mode this forgetfulness is beneficial, can trick me into exploring ‘new’ ideas, can see me scampering after what I think may be previously unconsidered concepts/scenarios and have me end up in unexpected places.
In other aspects of my writing life though — when reviewing, editing, compiling, publishing — forgetfulness such as this can be a handicap. A piece, a phrase, can seem worryingly familiar and I will have to go searching back through the MS to check for possible repetition, or go flipping back through previous issues of the Journal, or go a’tipping spines off my bookshelves to seek out the reference, the duplication, even to uncover the possibility of plagiarism. My self-induced forgetfulness then can make hard work of what should have been the simplest of tasks.
However, having seen what the cultivation of memory can do to other writers, I wouldn’t now change. The performance poet who, for instance, has learnt their own verses by heart and who can confidently recite them without recourse to sheets of trembling A4.... He or she can be very impressive the first time of hearing. Possibly as impressive on the second hearing too, with their extended repertoire. But, thereafter, year on year they repeat. Nothing new has been written.
My suspicion is that every creative urge of these memory-adepts gets stillborn. A phrase, a single word even, that could have been the beginning of a creative adventure, that could have sent them careening off into the new, instead brings to mind a line, a verse, from their own rote-learned work and off they totter down a well-trodden mental path.
Likewise with those who, in their desire to appear learned, have crammed every classical allusion into their skull. How many times does their pen pause, their typing fingers still.... and they think, Hasn’t this been done before? Yes, so-and-so in such-and-such said.... And off they go to wander that memory.
Art and Science both come from ‘Seeing what happens if....’ But if one already knows? Or if one thinks, one suspects one knows?
While we forgetters, although we may subconsciously recreate a previous work, may re-use a phrase, may even unwittingly borrow... at least we are making, have immersed ourselves in making, have no idea where the next thought might lead.... This is where imagination goes, extracting a particle and growing it to an image. And we can remedy any partial repeats, acknowledge any borrowings later, can have new and uncreased A4 sheets trembling in our fingers at readings.
Not that such trembling belongs only to the nervous novice. Forced from their working isolation, being made to stand before all those faces — who might well display sympathy, who might well appear to be paying attention, but by what they later say they obviously haven’t understood.... Even the feted and the famous can dread these public outings. I’ve seen such working authors reduced to mumbling puzzlement by praise for a work of theirs several years old. And they are puzzled because, leading a creative life, the author has yet to make, is still in the process of making, the perfect work. And yet here is someone praising what was obviously years ago imperfect. Had it been perfect there would have been no need for the author to go on striving after perfection. How though is one to respond to undeserved praise without causing offence? Yet to descry the value of that old and deliberately forgotten work would be to cast doubt on the flatterer’s taste, and even the most reclusive authors require a public.
Sam Smith © 2009
Art, every kind of art, can be defined by its function. When any music is played as background music it becomes by definition musak. Likewise when painting or the writing of poetry are used solely as a means of self-expression then both become by definition therapy.
Now let us suppose that there are only 3 purposes to writing — to explain me to you, you to yourself, and me to myself. Therapy can use the first and last of these. And that is as far as such writing goes.
Such ‘poetry’ therapy depends on the lingering superstitious belief in the runic power of words, on the use of the magic power of words to make the strange commonplace, ordinary and unthreatening — express a troublesome idea, a bothersome fixation and, by putting it into words, make it safe.
But any artist, to be worthy of the name, has to begin by questioning his or her every assumption; and assumptions are the glue which hold most individuals together. The true artist then has to go beyond assumption and question their every certainty, must question even the validity of their own experiences.
This self-regarding, this destructive narcissism, although essential to the process of making art, does not lead to psychologically well-balanced individuals. Consequently those who place art, or any other goal, as more important than equilibrium, have to be a psychotherapist's nightmare. And yet counselling groups employ poetry as therapy? And those ‘poets’ assume their outpourings to be deserving of publication?
For any such self-expression to become art further critical self-examination is required. Because without that self-lacerating, self-disparaging self-criticism all such self-expression is but self-decoration.
That is not to say that the creator, to be a true creator, must risk his or her equilibrium. John Clare, for instance, initially took strength from his unique talent, even though he ended as a man driven mad, driven into himself. The foundation for that, however, was laid first by a denial of his art, then by a brief and false celebration of it. What it was that destroyed him, what near obliterated his sense of self, was not his art, but the physical and social destruction taking place all around him. Making John Clare truly a poet for our time.
Sam Smith © 2009
(Or are we victims of our own hype and aiming far far too high?)
"....poetry which is a debased form of speech." Thornton Wilder
Where our language continues to be abused and debased by politicians, by corporate apologists, media chatter and lazy journalism, contemporary poets have yet to reinvent and reinvigorate language. Oh we have tried. And on the way to a reinvention, to a reclaiming of language, we have created (within poetry) a syntax without sense, a verbless grammar, and have even played around with computer spill-out. But still we haven’t made a new sense.
If what concerns us is communication — and it must be or we wouldn’t be so concerned — then the deconstruction of language in an attempt to reinvent it has to be self-defeating from the off. Rather, being aware of its entrapments, we should be attempting to transcend language. Each of our poems should seek in its expression to become a thing in itself. A thing to be referred to, to be used as a measure. It must alter the reality of which it speaks.
Most mainstream poets however seem intent only on recreating the past, seem to want to be, to gain the reputation of being their generation’s Shelley, Keats, Byron, Eliot, Kerouac.... (yer takes yer pick). And they end with poems of a self-defeating cleverness, incomprehensible to those not in the know, to those not of their class, with poems dated and irrelevant, making of their poetry a comfortable and little-read ghetto. Although they themselves might refer to it as an ‘elite’.
Outside of the mainstream attempts have been made to extend poetry/language into other art forms — text incorporated into image, image allied to text. Collaborations across disciplines have been many and various — haiku bricks, poetry pavements, jazz poems; along with wordless performances that range from a sequence of Neanderthal grunts and glottal clicks to a toneless Iroqois howl. Add to that the many internet endeavours — a randomised Google, updated OULIPO — and the collaborations within poetry — informal renga, all-comers invited to add a line, a word....
And the language remains unchanged, the poetry failing still to engage the wider public.
To engage the wider public, and to give themselves some street-cred, some poets make use of slang. But slang takes us nowhere. Slang is a disfigurement of language, a deliberate obstacle to communication. Its raison d’être is to make the person using it unintelligible to an untutored public and is therefore as excluding as the snobbish overuse of classical allusions.
I suppose that within our greater tellyocracy it is inevitable that a subculture of poetry should become inward-looking. A self-regarding self-conscious and defiantly embarrassed alternative society that eschews those works loaded with tabloid prejudice and which places words in such contexts where their dictionary use can be the only use. Pedantry in a poet though has to be more unseemly than in a clerk.
Sam Smith © 2009
The English generally confuse culture with gentility. Probably the closest we come to the concept of an English intelligentsia is a bunch of drunken hacks lounging about the Groucho and sneering sub-wittily at one another.
History tells us, should we care to look, that it is not suffering that produces great art, but generous patronage, a stimulating environment, constructive criticism and, above all else, way above all else, time — the time to immerse one’s self in one’s art.
But the English seem incapable, such philistines are they, of giving writers money solely in order that they can buy time to sit alone in a room and practise their art. Oh writers will be given public money so that they can be forced onto a public stage to read from their writings; albeit that others — ‘resting’ actors probably — could do it better. But to be paid to stay industriously alone in their rooms...? No, such invisible solo activity will never do.
The English, if they give any living money to writers at all, have to dress it up in a commercially respectable way. For their being given a one-off payment writers will be asked to run workshops, to give readings, take up residencies, collaborate on videos.... All of which have the effect of taking the writer away from his or her writing.
For solitary-loving writers, internal exiles all, the truth is that, the trouble is that, like most English people they don’t like most people. I don’t much like myself, certainly don’t much like the English (when you’ve been bottom of the heap you tend not to think that much of the heap), and in a belonging world, where individuals are led to take their identity from groups and subgroups, to seek parts in plots and subplots, to see oneself in tableaux both as perpetrator and victim.... even writers can catch themselves, against their better judgement, wanting to belong — to belong to something, to anything, a landscape, a group, oneself. And wanting to be constrained by none — not even by oneself. To be a freefloating intelligence, while resenting the dominance of cold intellect, of reason, craving the luxury, the flux only of emotions, of sensations. And despising their animal roots. To be free. To belong. And not to belong. In England to not belong is to keep passing by. To be passed by.
No time. The problem in England is that, because it is only academics who prize the creation of literature (their foodstock), it is only they who encourage their fellows, only they who allow them time to think, time to read, time to write. But their being all of an academic background and similar class this is bringing about too narrow a creative channel, is like inbreeding, the literary stock becoming ever more feeble.
One has only to witness the dead hand of Oxbridge at work, poets Laureate and Nobel continuing to present their versions of ancient Greek and Roman texts. With would-be Oxbridge types also peppering their efforts with allusions to similar texts. A cosy, if fuelled by petty resentments, classic-panelled club. Ossified.
Most writers now are sat somewhere alone and are, like the mad, talking to themselves. Which is not itself a bad thing. In any get-rich-quick society like ours what is often overlooked is that work of itself can be rewarding. Accomplishment can be satisfaction enough. Writing doesn’t necessitate a cash incentive. But serious writing, new writing, does need funding for it to be allowed to happen and to not get lost in the small spaces of a busy working day. Ivan Klíma said, ‘For a writer, any new experience is useful, but over years it [menial get-by jobs] demolishes your inner self and your capacity to think.’
Writing is how private, solitary people bear witness. And they need to be heard, society needs to hear them. And with the changes in publishing leading to less and less paid-for writing writers now need patronage, not to be patronised.
© Sam Smith 2009
Saving the country, saving the planet, saving ourselves? (17th March 2010)
Our thinking, our mind-set, has to move beyond the heroic, beyond the individualistic, to the communal. Not communistic. Not insectoidal. Rather that we seek to subsume ourselves. But not in a negative way, becoming less of ourselves. Instead that we see what we do, as individuals, is of benefit to the community, be it local or global, and we each thus become more than ourselves.
With individualism — at its worse a single-minded self-seeking, or when unthinking the self-satisfaction of consumerism — the end-danger is jungle anarchy, gangsterism.
With communal thinking — at its worse the unquestioning following of a creed, political or religious — the end-danger is a totalitarian orthodoxy.
At the moment to belong is to presuppose the forfeit of some independence of thought. So, in light of the dangers now facing us, what now has to be engendered is a mind-set where self-gratification comes from service, and from a willing servitude at that, one that does not inhibit free self-expression.
Free-market capitalism / consumerism / ad infinitum growth is not it. Capitalist / mass market / industrial civilisation is at a close, is killing itself, aided and abetted by its universal adult suffrage. Because it has been the capitalist engine of the democratic USA, imitated now by China and India — the ex-Soviet union too, also copying capitalist democracies and calling it freedom — that is driving us all to extinction.
What we cannot rely on is our present political leaders to bring about the fundamental changes necessary to our survival. Although we might like to believe that we are governed by profound and involved philosophies, we are not. Most of the thinking that goes into present nation-state governance is shallow — for personal advancement or for immediate electoral or political gain. The present political rhetoric of our global society is irreconcilable with its realities.
Indeed for the last 2 centuries the world has been led by the stupid — just look at the number and size of the wars they have allowed to be fought. And when I say ‘stupid’ I do not mean unintelligent. Sadly the intelligent can all too often be stupid.
Can we now save ourselves? Or are we a fundamentally oh-so-clever stupid species?
I don’t propose a simple answer. Ours has become a world that oversimplifies, to the point where we have become no longer capable of understanding the forces that drive us. Are we thus becoming, with every contradictory headline, ever more incapable of governing ourselves?
Individually and societally we have been borrowing from the future. Could bio-fuels, for instance, be the final selfish act of exploitive capitalism? Our successors will certainly pay for our lack of thrift. Leaving us with the preposterous question that we now all have to ask of ourselves — will this inhabitable world last beyond my children’s allotted span?
The danger is such that we also now have to ask of ourselves — is democracy of itself such a good thing? Relying as it does on the self-interest of every voter? Failing that we have to ask — which of the forms of democracy that have been concocted are the most efficacious? Which the least open to corruption? Which the least damaging to its neighbours and the environment? And when the gullible can be so easily manipulated by a self-serving media mogul, is universal suffrage inhibiting progress towards a sustainable environment?
Because we have learnt to live among liars and deceivers extreme dogmas that blaze out a single truth can come to seem very attractive. Indeed to save our world we are in need of a creed reduced to a few simple workable philosophies. But it is oh so dangerous.
Those of a conservative bent, delighting in sophisticated systems of checks and balances, might tell you that our world is far too complicated for but a few workable philosophies. But they, being conservative, want to keep the world largely as it is, as it was, on the path to self-destruction. Although as conservatives they might initially appear to be advocates of sustainability what they actually want to sustain is the status quo, to keep us tied into the systems that are destroying us.
To survive as a species we need to change. We all need to now see ourselves as a part of the solution, to contribute to it, to belong to it.
Religions might seem to offer an easy, non-contributory belonging. We cannot though look to them for an answer. They have been here a long time and are a part of the problem. And a belief in God, any god, is no different to the vanity of a celebrity believing their own hype: I am being made to feel important therefore there must be beyond this one life a greater reason for my existence.
Why are we here? Is it our purpose — should there be a purpose to each our lives — is it our purpose to be a part of the process? Part of the process of all life? Because all that matters now is process, is recognising one’s self, one’s actions, as but a part of that process — a process within many processes. Is it now our purpose — at many levels — to move us all along to the point where we will realise, all of us, that we have to sustain life on our planet? And from that realisation onwards will all philosophical outlooks, political organisations, civil government be directed to one outcome, a planet fit for people to live upon?
We are nowhere yet close to that crunch point. So, for the moment, do we actually need the stupid, the greedy and the self-serving fools — the Murdochs, the Bushes, the likes of Blair, Brown and Berlusconi, along with the dead-weight mass of unlearned consumers — to bring us even closer to the edge of global disaster. So very very close that even they will realise what needs to be done? Right now, in this part of the process, do we need both the fools looking back and the fools pointing the way?
Sam Smith © 2010
The pity is that there will always be young men, young women too, soldiers and suicide bombers, misled by the idea that it is somehow noble to make a sacrifice of oneself, rather than to live on, rather than to seek glory in the continuous service of an ideal.
There will also always be those prepared to mislead them.
On 1st October 2001 I wrote, ‘The same man [Tony Blair] who insisted on going ahead with the building of The Dome is now insisting on taking us into a war.’
War serves no purpose. Or, if there is a purpose to war, then the prime purpose of war is killing, not heroism.
War is the failure of government.
UK’s New Labour has been a government twice without principle, its members so corrupt that they don’t know they’re corrupt. New Labour has had no guiding principles. That is it has had no vision leading it forward, and it most certainly has had no sense of natural justice. New Labour has paid lipservice to an ideology, and in service of that dilute ideology has done only what it has believed that it can get away with. For the sake of the UK’s armament industry Blair’s New Labour government let the UK arms manufacturer, BAE, get away with bribing several foreign governments. New Labour’s various spokespeople have called this pragmatism, have called it realpolitick.
In a world run by the criminally bland, and throughout its entire period in office, like most other governments New Labour’s one real aim has been to hold onto power. All of New Labour’s scheming — by individuals within the party and by the party as a whole — has been to that end. And that included the decision to take this country to war. Again.
25th March 1994 I wrote, ‘In peace we live lives full to overflowing with small events, create smiling remembrances. War makes numbers of us, statistics. War lets thugs indulge themselves. Peace takes more work.’
If truth is the first casualty of war, language has to be the second. The language used by Blair and Bush for instance to describe suicide bombers — ‘cowardly’ ‘evil’ — was unequal to the task of expressing their outrage, rather their affected outrage. Blair in particular was very good at acting sincere. And this was when these two men had just ordered the bombing of two cities.
They talked too of patriotism, but of patriotism always in a war context, to justify their murderous intent towards a country not theirs, a people not theirs. Patriotism however, a love of one’s country, is born of a generosity of spirit. What Blair and Bush meant was nationalism, and nationalism is born of meanness. The patriot loves his country in its every aspect. The nationalist despises others than those from his own country, sees all others as less than human and so of no consequence. The nationalist media report the single death of one of their soldiers, ignores the hundred foreigners killed by the same bomb.
The likes of Rumsfeld and Cheney too talked of patriotism, of freedom and justice. But what justice for the innocents they were killing? What freedom and justice for those they were about to imprison and torture?
Rumsfeld and Cheney are unfortunately by no means unique. Theirs is the identical mindset for instance of the many democratically-elected Israeli governments. Who are still at war.
Post-holocaust pro-Israel semantics have tried to define Israel by delineating its enemies. That though is like trying to define the human body by describing only the viruses and bacteria that threaten its survival. In the self-walled ghetto that is now Israel, victims become perpetrators, those Israeli Jews in power still haven’t learned the lesson of themselves, the cause and consequence of their own aggressive policies.
Never has it been more self-evident that the dominant factor in world affairs was, and continues to be, the will of stupid loud-shouting people.
Not that they’re not opposed. But in 2003 the UK’s million plus marchers failed to prevent the UK army’s illegal invasion of Iraq. And they failed because that single march was a gesture and not a sustained campaign. The Blair government let the marchers feel good about themselves, let them go home, then got on with their telly-visual bombing campaign.
One can easily be shamed by the human race, by what it does to its own, and how it has connived so to do. And if you were English in 2006 you were further shamed by your elected leaders’ cleverness, by their complicity in war crimes, in torture, and you winced at their lawyer-explanations, stupid in their cleverness.
A few years after any war — the counter-invasion of the Falklands for instance which was only made necessary because of Thatcher’s cuts in defence — and with the return of complacency one has to ask, What was the point of all those deaths, all that killing? What, truly, did they think they were trying to win? The next election?
Nowadays what I want is to be among men and women who measure and think, and to whom bloodshed, although not unthinkable — because anything can be thought — is certainly the least desirable action.
Sam Smith © 2010
A criminal is defined by his/her reaching a point where his/her needs/wants are deemed superior to the needs/wants of others. That superiority, that contempt for others, will have the criminal taking the property of others, and taking it simply because he/she can. In the process of taking that property they may physically harm the owners, may cause damage to both them and to their remaining property.
Self-evident as it may be that thieves, burglars and muggers have no respect for the person or the possessions of others, it is the incidental breaking of things as they enter a home, the casual vandalism, the regardless brutality that is most shocking. What is gone is gone, the damage remains.
Once apprehended the offender may seek to justify the extremes of their crime by citing an overlay of social inequity (the taking of displaced revenge), or plead psychological warping (ill-treated in the past, the taking of displaced revenge again), or even as pre-emptive revenge (the taking from others before others can take it from him/her).
As justifications these don’t wear. Not all people ill-treated socially or psychologically choose to damage property or people. Not all people fearful of attack attack others. Only those with no fellow feeling.
Not that out-and-out criminals are the only ones with no fellow feeling. There are many secure within their social niche who are equally without fellow feeling. This lack of fellow feeling can have them, for instance, sneering at the apparently materialistically-driven. Yet for these seeming materialists, living hand-to-mouth, rent-paid-or-get-out, their vision can perforce be limited to the here-and-now.
Should we reserve our contempt then for those who, so grand are they, sneer at this pursuit of small gain? Are the sneerers those who have never had to take whatever chances they could, whatever job they could, just to get by? Nor is there any envied compensation in the enforced experience of most get-by jobs, because such get-by diversity is not in itself enriching. For such a variety of get-by jobs to be enriching the mind will have to be focused beyond the day’s wage.
At the other extreme the rich, in themselves, are rarely interesting. In fact most of the rich people I’ve met have been boring. Turns out that all that they are is the things that they own and the place they are. Of themselves, of their inner selves...? They have been too busy acquiring. Oh they’ve bought holidays to exotic locations and they can boast of the expense and the place, and complain about the service....
In their comfortable idleness some of the comparatively wealthy may claim to have a poet’s sensitive soul, to be offended by both commerce and poverty, and want to keep both at a distance, without acknowledging that both commerce and other’s poverty keeps them in their comfortable navel-gazing idleness. The pain of the dispossessed, of the underclass is worth more than any second-rate poet’s mockery and/or hand-wring angst.
The poor don’t move. Leastwise the poor lacking imagination don’t move. They stay where they are until their situation becomes uninhabitable. The ambitious poor, that is those with imagination enough to see something other than the nearby known, they will move anywhere in pursuit of that ambition.
Oddly it is the poor forced to move who are the most feared, and often attacked, by the stationary poor. The ambitious poor, the newly rich moving into their area may be mildly resented, held in contempt even as traitors to their own kind, but not feared. No it is the equally poor, the poorer, who threaten the stationary poors’ fragile security - that they may be put out of work and home by those most like themselves.
Lack of fellow feeling again.
©Sam Smith 2010
Whether it’s the mass gassings at Auschwitz, the pits in Belsen, the slaughter at Mae Lai, the destruction of Gaza, the millions killed in Biafra or genocide in the Balkans.... Those who cannot imagine, who say they simply cannot imagine, how those responsible, the concentration camp guards for instance, did what they did — the mass gassings, the group hangings, the collective reprisals — have never had to order about, to move, large groups of people, where one ceases to see them as people only as traffic flow. Of course it is a considerable step more to actually colluding in the stoppage of that traffic flow, in the death of a mass of people. "Move along there. Move along."
A lack of imagination, coupled with over-credulity, may have a soldier line up as part of a firing squad. But the mistake can be to credit the perpetrators, when trying to decide why an otherwise caring human being would willingly participate in an atrocity, with either a total lack of human compassion, or even with a twisted logic of compassion. Whereas it is more than likely that the perpetrators, men and women, if not out-and-out cruel were lacking in imagination and empathy and were thus rendered incapable of seeing their victims’ humanity. "Move along there. Move along."
In every society, for ease of its smooth running, obedience is prized, is praised. The awkward sods who ask, "Why are we doing this?" exasperate their colleagues and comrades who just want to get on and get the job done. "Move along there. Move along."
Target driven, task oriented, mind fixed on one goal, one objective, it does not concern the dutifully obedient how they achieve that objective. Whether that objective is but a small promotion or simply to look good in the eyes of their friends, of their comrades. There is sadly often no deeper cause than that. "Move along there. Move along."
There will be others so caught up in the ‘rightness’ of what they are doing that they will have forgotten that they are dealing with human feelings as well as ideas. Racism for instance always asks us to consider it reasonable. And reasonably — racism, tribalism, sectarianism — it will ask us always to kill other human beings. "Move along there. Move along."
Such killing does not require extreme philosophies. Give certain personality types a stake in the status quo and, army sergeant or social worker, and no matter what the ruling ethos, they will strive to sustain the status quo. You only have to get beaten up in a police cell once to know that every power-wielding institution welcomes thugs. "Move along there. Move along."
Will I be believed? Probably. Because we are now inured to atrocity. Day upon day our screens bring us new horrors, add to the Belsen pits, to the Cambodian skull hills already in our heads. Has our world, our time, become so casually brutal, so accepting of yet another atrocity, so accepting of the newsreader’s and the politicians’ manufactured shock that we can no longer be truly outraged? So do we shrug, switch channels, and allow another atrocity to blight our inner world? "Move along there. Move along."
© Sam Smith 2010
I look forward to the day when the rest of Europe’s nation states follow the example of France and Turkey and become secular, and beyond that to when the rest of the world follows the example of a secular Europe. In the meantime, once again, we non-adherents find ourselves caught between bigotry and superstition, between crusade and jihad.
Religions came into existence to explain the world to the untravelled and to the unthinking, and to give the unquestioning a set of rules to live by. And while I can appreciate some people’s continuing desire for a right/wrong religion, what I have no sympathy with are the religions themselves. Nor do I give any credence to the supernatural, only to the magic of the mind. Although, if pushed, I’d have to say that as a writer I do have some sympathy with Buddhism, its balancing of paradoxes. But of other religions? If we create our gods in our own image, pity us.
Organised religions have always been the refuge of the poor; and not only of the poverty born of hopelessness, but of the poor in mind and the poor in spirit. Except that having once been captured/captivated by the religion, having once accepted its assertions on faith and not on evidence, escape — even for the newly enlightened — is problematic. Christianity, for instance, makes everything its own, including its detractors.
Putting aside the archaic notions on which most of the larger religions are built it takes no great empirical feat to prove that at the controlling heart of every organised religion, as with almost every present system of government, is conformity and corruption.
Nor does governance of itself like to relinquish its tools, and religion has most definitely been, and continues to be, a tool of government. When all other arguments fail it is not only monarchs who claim divine right to do as they do.
So far as conformity goes there is no intrinsic difference to belonging to a football crowd and to any other which has ritualistic behaviour. Football chants, ‘moshing’ and arm waving at rock concerts, hymn-singing and prayer catechisms all spring from the same need — to identify, to become one, with a group. Whether it be in pew rows and week-in week-out mouthing the same old hymns, or kneeling in row upon prayer mat row and bending and bowing, nodding and reciting, the words made meaningless by the repetition.
The letters and numbers in any religion exist for the trainspotters and bureaucrats, the list-makers and categorisers. Some members will always delight in the religion’s arcana, much like statistic-happy cricket spectators, chapter and verse.
It is not their whimsy but the visceral power of religions that is so very dangerous and which is why The Journal will not contribute a jot to their credibility. This power, beyond reason, that ensnares with self-accusations of betrayal and subsequent guilt, is why all religions should be divorced from government, from all state institutions, such as law and education. (The promulgation of any faith system is propaganda, not education.)
A secular world one hopes would tolerate any number and variety of non-threatening religions. In such a secular world one could foresee the contentious religious-based nation state of Israel becoming untenable. Not that it would disappear overnight, but rather that its raison d’être would be rendered meaningless and it would become but another nation state subject to international law.
© Sam Smith 2010
Despite the fall in my present house price I can’t help but be pleased by this aspect of the credit crunch, which means that fewer houses are being bought and sold. Because I never did like the idea of seeing a house, a home, as a buy-to-sell commodity. I believe that this view of the family home as a disposable asset is a major contribution to our ‘broken society’.
The home of our childhood, rented or mortgaged, is our birthright. That home belongs to us as no other can, and as importantly we belong to it. We were formed by its every nook and corner, by the view from its every window. Which is why the buying and selling of family homes has impoverished us all. As adults we have nowhere to return to, where a memory will rise unbidden, provoked by smell or texture. Neither do we have a physical place in our past to measure ourselves against.
Children enter a seemingly permanent world, are discomfited by every change. The world they become aware of has things and people fixed in place. Their grip on this new life is tenuous and when those things are unfixed so too are the children. Everything thereafter brought new into that childhood can be seen as insubstantial, as fundamentally false: it doesn’t belong, is not in what was.
And that’s only their reaction to the small changes. Then their home is sold.
The effect on children, even though they might have desired the move, has to be traumatic. The moment their one known home is sold they are severed from their past, from their past self. The same applies even when they are older, even when they themselves have voluntarily left home. Because grown children want — often irrationally, having moved themselves — their parents to belong in that one place, want to carry with them the image of their parents ageing there
Nor is the psycho-spiritual damage limited to the upheaval of parents moving house. The psychological damage extends to changes made in the whole neighbourhood. [Bear in mind here that I am the author of To Be Like John Clare.] Childhood fields and woods given over to yet more buy-sell-property-ladder housing estates, local factories demolished/converted, a pond drained for a new road system, trees/hedgerows uprooted. . . . When what comprised our past is obliterated so too is a part within us.
Of course there will always be change — the seasons, the accumulation of years — but when what is being wilfully changed is done solely for commerce, then quality will always be the first casualty. All will bow to maximum profit. The thing being done, the thing being made, will be but a part of the process towards profit instead of an end in itself. So as many houses, as many flats, wll be squeezed into the given space, with little thought given to the living conditions, to the lives to be lived there. And moved from.
Within a year the trees that softened the lines of the architect’s plans will be damaged or dead. The temporary inhabitants do not tend the living, do not nurture. Although they may in their corporated lives make things those things will be made solely for profit. In their holistic lives now British people, producers and must-have consumers, are first and foremost destroyers.
Another effect of this often unnecessary move from house to house, to where we don’t know our nearest neighbours, is all that we have now is the myth of community, lives that don’t touch one another, that have no connection, making us into ever smaller social units. Add to the house moves the predominance of the car as often the most reliable means of transport in Britain, and we have become almost wholly isolated as individuals. Separated socially we are thus inclined to think of our own needs first. So have we become this self-centred, this broken society.
Some have even adopted the language of Masslow’s hierarchy of needs to justify their self-centredness. ‘Self-actualisation’ said to be the goal having been smugly attained, these buzzword name-droppers would appear to have completely omitted the phase of ‘socialisation’, that is an awareness of the needs of others. Oh the buzzworders may well have given to charities — although such remote ‘socialisation’ could as easily be categorised as instant emotional gratification. But stop and chat to a neighbour. . . ? Maybe, on their way to the car. If they know who their neighbours are.
Wherever we now live in the country we all have urban/suburban lives. Ours is the surface society of any city dweller/commuter, all wishing to be judged on their appearance. As with a celebrity's dark glasses our fellow citizens most often see only a reflection of themselves, theirs the limited vision of universal suburbia. And they look no deeper. Sustained by films and TV they consider only headline issues, ask only the questions they have been prompted to ask.
There is of course a literary aspect to this. Critics and readers alike now want a consistency, a single voice, a strong narrative to a work. Because our lives now are so dislocated? One moment in this room, in this house, next in the car, next watching someone being shot, next an advert for shampoo, next adopting a character to respond to a phone message, next. . . .
And why do we need to go everywhere so speedily? The obvious drawback of jet-lag is its addition of the 2 days necessary to recover from a 6 hour flight. And the smaller adjustments we have to make to our new surroundings after even a long car journey, just the time it takes to get out of travelling mode. Indeed, with the big and small moves, we move so much now that we have come to see our surroundings as secondary to ourselves in those surroundings.
I can recall childhood trips out in cars and coaches, being taken to see some historic monument or natural phenomena, and being far more interested in the suburbs and villages we were passing through, wondering of the people in those villages and suburbs what it must be like to live that close to something so famous that people made trips in cars and coaches to see it. Or, in the living of their daily lives, did the inhabitants give the tourist attraction a thought? Were they more concerned with the passing traffic.
Margaret Thatcher notoriously said, to justify her dismemberment of the welfare state, that there is no such thing as society only individuals. The obverse of that now infamous coin is that there is no such thing as an individual, that we are each one another, that we are all society, and we are made a people by where we are and by what we need to do there in order to survive.
But now we are anywhere and nowhere, and our survival has been so taken for granted that the occasional death of someone known, even of the old, comes as a shock. And it comes as a shock because we are now so many and we move so often that individually, as with most city-dwellers, we are not noticed, even as an absence. Daily life, in all its shapes and forms, goes on without us.
Because our current environment — we can move from it — hasn’t mattered we have allowed our land to be degraded. But if anyone, especially a consumerist woman, should assume that she is wholly independent of the place she is, consider this. A woman’s menses, like the Earth’s tides, are controlled by a stone out in space. And even were there to be no waxing and waning moon the frequency of her menses would still depend where on planet Earth she was and subject to the amount of light allowed by Earth’s orbit and latitude. In a temperate zone that would be approximately 36 days.
We are where we are.
© Sam Smith 2010
Poet Heroes & Non-heroes (24th May 2010)
There is no poetic, neither personal nor general: we strive to write what we are driven to write to the best of our abilities. Motives may be many — to amuse, entertain, to enlighten, to impress. The results are what we are judged on. If we are judged at all.
What we shouldn’t expect /anticipate is to be judged on ourselves. Certainly not on our appearance. Within the quiet of the page the reader can assess the product. The artist/creator should be elsewhere, caught up in the ongoing process.
Could this be why I have so little sympathy with the likes of Edith Sitwell. That cultivated look, all those rings...? And what is it with performing poets and hats?
Or do I find myself so out of sympathy with the self-promoting Edith Sitwell because she spent so much energy defending her life’s work against the reactionaries of her time, and in her employment of unfair tactics she has come to seem a reactionary to her successors?
What I don’t want is my poet heroes to be pouting, hand-on-hip gorgeous. I don’t want them sitting on this morning’s celebrity sofa. I don’t want them falsely eccentric. Nor do I want them cheery-chappies, self-parodies broadening their local accents.
I want my poet heroes to smell of their own piss like Whitman, or to be skulking old queens like Cavafy. I want them bristled and obnoxious, drooling and testy, unsociable and couldn’t-give-a-fuck reclusives. I want them as hidden-away-intense as Emily Dickinson, as angry and despairing as John Clare, as quietly persevering as Michael Hamburger, as out-on-a-limb as Hilda Doolittle, as barmy as Ezra Pound.
Could this be why I don’t have an easy affinity with the works of T S Eliot? Because I find him too middle class chummy, too removed from the harsher realities. All those comfortable, one-of-us, middle class assumptions within Old Possums? Is that why I take as one of my own the being-misunderstood, embattled blood-and-guts of Ted Hughes?
And let’s be clear: Ted Hughes is a poet of the subconscious, not vision. I define vision as the talking to one’s own imagination. Which is probably why I also don’t get on with establishment’s darling William Blake. In his case ‘vision’ seems to equal talking about worms, serpents, lambs and angels. And putting capital letters on Death and Sin, Eternity and Chaos. So did Blake take on the patina of the old Bible; and Christians, credulous souls not noted for their analytical insight, not understanding what Blake was saying, they classified him as Profound, as Visionary. Ditto Milton. Both rated because they are obtuse, difficult to understand — in that one has to be taught how to read them. Remove the many essays on, remove the Christian subtext, and the edifice of intellect, of vision, collapses.
Baudelaire on the other hand told me to be always intoxicated. On wine, poetry or virtue, as I pleased. I have to pass on virtue.
If my poet heroes seem to come mostly from the past, so be it. From the pages of books long may dead people continue to speak to me. And it has to be said that a part of the process of being an artist, a writer especially, is to own (usually kept secret, hidden behind socialising smiles) a contempt for the work of one’s contemporaries. One can occasionally find oneself in sympathy with both work and living author, but know that it is not the real thing. But then neither is one’s own work: dissatisfaction is what leads one onwards.
I have lived through an age of self-promotion wanting to be a recluse. I have endeavoured to keep to a simple self-sufficient life when all around have wanted to be conspicuous consumers. Small wonder I have failed. And, I confess, I have enjoyed failure — all those people I could have been and now don’t have to be.
© Sam Smith 2010
On Belonging (29th May 2010)
I grew up in the village of Stoke Gabriel on the Dart estuary. In those days the village was divided in two, top village and bottom village, stonewalled apple orchards on the hill between. I lived in a bungalow off the side of that hill, belonged neither to top nor to bottom village.
When I was 8 I was one of 5 children moved from the village school to a larger one in Paignton, went there and back by bus. Socialising out of school became difficult. This was further compounded when I passed the 11+ and had to catch 2 buses daily to Totnes Grammar. All but one of the other village children my age went on the one bus to Paignton’s secondary moderns. My grammar school teachers were snobs. My father was a shop assistant. My mother took in B&B and did cleaning. I worked mornings and weekends on a milk round. I emerged into adulthood belonging nowhere.
All of my attempts thereafter to belong felt as if I was forcing myself into clothes that didn’t fit. In the Merchant Navy there was no way that I saw myself as an officer, a giver-of-orders, and I was certainly no gentleman. As a scaffolder in London I even attempted an estuarine glottal stop, until the implicit denial of my past and my learning made me feel ridiculous.
At 20 I had felt that I was of no consequence, that I was there but to be cancelled. I was widely read, but mostly of novels written by, peopled by, those who didn’t need to earn a living, who were not thinking towards their next wage packet. Even so Evelyn Waugh put into words what I already knew/know: ‘by every addition I am diminished’. Crowds eat me. City crowds, shopping crowds, football crowds, concert crowds — all become a single organism, absorbing all. And I have never wanted to be where everyone else was just because everyone else was there. At 21 I determined never to belong.
To belong is to be owned by. Any grouping, even a brand name, convenient label was to be disavowed. Which is how I came to the solo act of writing, to wanting to speak privately into a public ear.
Writing and reading are not group activities. Belongers might form/join groups to do it, but it is the belonging to the group that is important, not the activity therein. To be a writer I did not have to join a group. Only to write.
For the next few years at every unsociable opportunity I shut myself away to write. Writing became my raison d’être. For a workaholic loner writing is a great way of life. And rejection after rejection served only to keep me at my desk, to confirm me in my outside status.
Then, after 23 years of rejection, my work suddenly began to win acceptance after acceptance — for work sometimes written decades before. Indeed so much work got taken for publication that the act of acceptance became valueless. Which was when I realised that rejection was/is probably the more important, the more forming of one’s art. On the other hand that response could have simply been my not wanting to be accepted, to belong. Could acceptance, belonging, be a corruption? Was it more important to my writing to keep to my outsider status?
Those fears did not derive from my being taken up by the establishment, by mainstream publishers. Any acceptances of my work have been out on the fringes of publishing, magazines and companies starting up one year and all too often going bust the next. Nonetheless, still aiming for a wider readership in this latter period I came to see myself as the boxer who keeps getting knocked down — another independent publisher going broke — and getting back up again — next acceptance, new publisher — until I neither knew why I was getting knocked down nor why I was getting up again. It was just something I was doing. Am doing.
I am English. I know my place. I know where I belong — to the condescended-to and to the ignored. The beauty of writing for me was that to do it one didn’t need to meet people, particularly snobbish, partisan English people. I have tried to give readings, to network, to be sociable, et cetera. And I felt smiling uncomfortable, untrue to myself. Which made me realise anew, again, that it was the public privacy of 40 years before that had made me want to be a writer. Greybearded now I relish my being shut out and shut away.
This isn’t to say that as a writer I haven’t been caught up and confused by the group-formers, by those who want to belong and suppose the same of all others. "Hey! Let’s start a movement." Let’s not. But they want to belong, if only to a small esoteric group, isolated in their belonging, ‘to the school of’, rather than being one of those sworn to the getting of it right no matter what. No matter what.... once we have an idea of what ‘it’ is and what ‘right’ may be. Owned by such uncertainty an individual can belong to no school.
Out here must be where I belong. I look at those who get the establishment accolades — the likes of Stephen Fry and Martin Amis — and I know that I will never belong. Not only because I have neither the connections nor the clubbable means, and that I do not have even the desire to network, but I look at who does belong — the Alice Oswalds and the Ian MacMillans — and I know that I would rather keep to the non-company of outsiders.
There is more to this than my unsociability, than my misanthropy. Or I have rationalised it so. A reason I believe that artists are important to society is that they work alone outside of society, and being alone they follow the logic of their own creations, are able to hold a mirror up to that society. Isolated they are not even subconsciously tempted to conform to received wisdoms, to current trends. Haydn’s isolation for instance, brought about by the Esterhazys, was what led to his originality.
It is when an artist, a philosopher, works in isolation, in peculiar circumstances — Henry Miller, Colette, Vikram Seth — that they are more likely to take their art, their discipline beyond what is currently acceptable, beyond what is expected. Shut each in his/her room is where they will grow sustenance for future scholars.
Is that what we’re doing out here, we non-belongers, seeking new ways to say the same things to our contemporaries who are again determined not to listen? Because we are not one of them?
©Sam Smith 2010
The English (7th June 2010)
I am not a racist, but if there’s one nationality I can’t abide it’s the English. Probably because I am English and I am consumed with self-loathing. Because I am English?
In this one respect I join with Byron in cursing England ....this class-ridden, mediocrity-making isle. In their defence it could be that the English are not so much anti-intellectual, anti-aesthete, as of a tendency to over-compartmentalise. Witness the many recent attempts to take philosophy, theatre, poetry into pubs, and to put up art in public spaces such as shopping centres.
They will have little success. The English have long since made themselves anti-intellectual, anti-aesthete. The sentimental and callous English, with a notable lack of self-analysis, care more, spend more on, their pets than they do their children. It can come as no surprise that in this over-compartmentalised, dumbed down England — The Sun is its best-selling daily newspaper — literature is but another ghetto. Witness the English literary establishment’s preference for novels written by professors, by middle class professionals, dinner party life centred on sexual infidelities angst-ridden or comic.
Even ‘taste’ in compartmentalised England is so closely associated with class that as soon as one displays any aesthetic appreciation one is accused — by one’s own class — of getting above one’s self. While, from the classes above, the nouveau aesthete’s accent and mispronunciations get scoffed at. Unless the classes above feel able to make a pet of one.
With his every small attempt to escape his class rebuffed, anger gets hardwired into the young English male. I know that there’s still a spiky centre of spite to me. So does our national attribute become the ability to do violence. The end result is that, from a foreign perspective, all that the English seem to be good at — this current Home for Heroes — is fighting.
"The English will never be forgiven for the talent for destruction they have always displayed when they get off their own island." Hilary Mantel.
The cause is and isn’t self-generated. Because one cannot examine the English without taking into account the English desire to be more like the US. Our politicians for instance, and of every mainstream hue, have wanted us here in England to be more like the USA. We can’t be. The ridiculous Thatcher tried to create a car culture here as in the USA. Our town centres subsequently died as we drove to the supermarkets on the ring roads, and the railways fell further into disuse as 6-lane motorways spread across this country — this small island where land is at a premium.
The USA was built on greed and destruction, culminating in the US gun laws and capital punishment further leading to it becoming, pro rata, the murder capital of the world. While its free market dogmas have it creating global economic instability. Subsequently wherever the mighty dollar holds sway banks and bankers are viewed with disdain. Yet still English politicians strove/strive to emulate the US.
Over the last 30 years the English have been cursed with a bunch of Tory spivs who called themselves a government, followed by a band of New Labour wide boys, who also called themselves a government. And when that latter government followed the US into an illegal war, and in so doing ignored the largest protest march ever staged in England, they made the populace’s view of no account and the populace itself, therefore, of no account. And we English did nothing further, except moan. A below-stairs characteristic.
Plus ça change.
© Sam Smith 2010
Globalisation is dangerous, its effect not that dissimilar to internal colonisation. The colonised seek to become acceptable to the colonialist, the colonialist first having had to be imbued with the values necessary to become a colonialist. The result self-feeding, circular, I was saved from both, had my mind freed by the likes of Franz Fanon, Alejo Carpentier and Eldridge Cleaver.
Harder now though, with our all-pervasive globalisation, to free oneself. With so little happening in isolation, with the different not getting a chance to develop independently, the bland has become prevalent. The less difference there is the less distinctiveness. In food terms ours has become a burger world.
In a world overconnected and overfull with information, its time-pressed inhabitants of necessity eager to categorise and move on, it is often only the surface that gets examined. Our global community is thus becoming as narrow-minded and conformative as a village, knowing but not knowledgeable, doorstep gossip letting us know that we are always being watched and so we become like them second-best people living lives at second-hand.
Yet in this global village there are no roles offered in life’s set pieces other than from the melodramas of soaps. Our villagers report on what they have done only in village-acceptable terms. So have we all become impoverished souls who take pleasure in routine exchanges. [Facebook? My Page? Chat rooms?] Eccentrics mind-medicated into conformity? The new suburbia ruling all?
Any community, large or small, can both comfort and suffocate. In this global community suffocation is what is happening to art. All now has to be acceptable, to not cause offence. Or we are warned not to look at it because it might cause us offence. So by its categorisation it is rendered harmless.
If not to be worn as a badge of belonging new art seems to be aimed at comforting (one of us), not to discomfit, not to disturb. Yet we have not become self-satisfied. We are far from smug. We have instead become indifferent, accepting.
Nothing startlingly new now comes out of art colleges or creative writing classes. Because all starts as wanting to be acceptable? And what starts as acceptable finishes as just about acceptable, as more of the same. You are told – that bright new idea of yours – that it’s in the tradition of..... And so it becomes instantly commonplace, been done before, not worth pursuing, stillborn.
Beyond education – beyond education systems that dull and imprison the mind rather than systems that enliven and liberate – we global citizens are kept busy. Not having the luxury of time on our hands we hurry through meals, through books, through sex even. We rush to finish our interlocutor’s slow sentences, seek to condense every argument into one phrase; and we miss what was being said, end up with part understandings.
We have to climb out from under this informed ignorance (knowing but not knowledgeable), from under this metal-heavy blanket of pop music, celebrity culture, tabloid issues, rolling news and on-line simplisms that are taken as representing our lives today. This media wants to pigeonhole an artist the once and never have us think about him or her or their work again. Often all that we know now of a poet, novelist, philosopher is their name. Most authors now have been made but brand names for their books.
For me the measure of good poetry is that it makes me want to write poetry. Not-so-good poetry passes me by. Same applies to prose. What reading mostly inspires in me now, however, is irritation. Especially when that writing is, according to convention, considered worthy, beautiful, whatever... What is most irritating about this beautiful writing (mostly bullshit, the surface appearance, knowing but not knowledgeable) is that it still does attract people, is that people do fall for beauty and bullshit again and again.
Some of those writers, who want to belong to what’s gone, who write in the styles of past masters, who do what’s been done, who make their work (and themselves) acceptable, do so only to belong. Post-modern poetry, for instance, drawing as it does from what’s been done, from the past, cannot be of the future. By its own tenets (non-tenets?) it has nowhere to go. It can update and continue, but it will be merely a continuance.
The small perfections of punch-line poetry may be suited to these existential times of quick travel/sudden arrivals, soundproofed rooms, rapid channel changes, soundbite quizzes, stand-up comedy, disposable lives.... But such poetry is far from new, of itself says nothing new. And we need the shock of the new to stimulate the new.
The ordinary, the accepted, the acceptable does not stimulate. And the function of art is to make us see, to make us look again. Art is therefore contrast, silence framed by a shout, a mottling of grey brought to life by a dab of red, life set in proximity to death.
Visual art progressed from the decorative, from the religious, to the representational – commissioned portraits of the rich and of what belonged to them – and on to landscapes for their own sake, still lives; and on to an examination and analysis of art’s own techniques, of why art does what it does.
So have we arrived at a point where all art-thought has become retrospective? Does art now look only to where it has come from, look to emulate what has been? Not what could be? Have we become a visionless people?
If not all people then certainly artists must exist in a state of constant dissatisfaction. One poem published isn’t enough. One painting in one exhibition isn’t enough. One collection isn’t enough. One positive review isn’t enough. Now will a novel, a bestseller, universal critical acclaim be enough. Should it ever be enough then that artists will be finished as an artist.
Much of the practice of art is the education of oneself. I tell myself that we have not yet arrived at the new.
I believe that art’s purpose is to isolate, then integrate a truth or truths. And that no art, like life, can happen in isolation. Yet new art must be made, must be allowed to grow in isolation.
I believe that an artist’s primary task is to keep the anger (anger at the always unsatisfactory status quo) alive. To feed that anger, fan fuel it, coax it.... Yes, we have to be informed by all the other art happening around us, but not cowed into imitating it.
Bearing in mind that, as here, all sorts of people give advice. It doesn’t have to be taken.
© Sam Smith 11th December 2010
What follows was commissioned to appear in an anthology concerning mental health issues. Like so many other similar projects this one also failed to reach fruition.
Identity in Mental Health (Identity, Identity, Wherefore art Thou?)
Identity is often based on no more than self-image, and self-image on what we think we'd like to be like, a compound of made-up mirror image, family likenesses and fantasy film roles. In this respect the young are often so deluded.
It was once my task to give work experience schoolchildren guided tours around the old Victorian asylum where I worked. Some apprehensive, some unsympathetic, they sniggered at the odd human behaviours and dress on display there. To shut them up I used to tell them that mental illness, in all its forms, is a disease that not one of us is immune to. The lecture being delivered in a very stern voice with masses of eye contact, it usually did the trick.
Often it is those who believe themselves most immune from mental illness who are, if not the most susceptible, then those whose identity is the most dramatically damaged by the onset of mental illness. There are, of course, those among us who, in everyday life, believe themselves immune from every sort of ill. Take this man who overtook at a road junction, in fog, not wearing a seatbelt. After the accident, intent on starving himself to death, he was transferred to the asylum to be fed.
Deep inside the rock the minotaur
had a roar like this one-legged man's
Single survivor of a car smash
he wasn't meant to be alive like this
is all the stump of his brain knows
And out of the red & blue pain of raw meat
(from 'To Be Like John Clare: Salzburg University Press, 1996)
In one sense I was spared this belief in immunity by having had two grandparents who had died in Exe Vale Hospital, both from dementia, with both dementias as a result of their alcoholism. And, for the first fifteen years of my adult life, I too had had bouts of self-destructive binge-drinking, so knew that the seeds of mental illness lay fertile within me. And working day in day out in such an environment one was prone anyway to diagnose all sorts of symptoms in oneself. The other side of this coin, indeed, can be that one is attracted to the mental health profession because one identifies with the mentally ill. One certainly comes to dwell in that gestalt, thinking not only in diagnostic terms but taking on the mind-set of the patients themselves and seeing only their outcomes from many of life's difficulties. Nurses might self-medicate; and the number of psychiatrists I've know who have killed themselves...
But back to identity. Often to test out the newly diagnosed older people with dementia, they would be asked if they knew where they were. Their short term memory shot, they would look at the ward/nursing home environment and, not wanting to be seen not to know, would confabulate a guess. In apparent agreement with their guess they'd be told the current name of the hospital, which often meant little to them. So they'd be given the old name of the asylum: "You're in Cotford." Whereupon their legs would buckle under them and they'd stagger backwards. Recovered, ten minutes later they'd be asked the same question, confabulate; and so again be given the answer, with the same response.
This didn't happen in the modern acute unit which replaced the asylum.
In The Carpeted Corridor...
a step from her door
the whole of her sagging
"I'm lost." she says
looking beseeching up
from the bend in her neck
like old women do.
Taking the tissue-soft arm
I turn her around
"Here you are.
This one's your room."
"No." she pulls feebly from me
"You don't understand."
The old eyes can't hold mine
"You don't understand.
It's myself I've lost."
(from 'To Be Like John Clare': Salzburg University Press, 1996)
Identity is at the core of mental illness: the schizophrenic mocked by part-heard voices, the hallucinating beset by an unconforming world, the abused and self-harming loathing the self they have been made to become, those without hope being unable to see a place for any self in the future, the simply misled, who allowed themselves to be misled...
One Time Called Hysteria
nameless she's a vacancy
her father's daughter, husband's wife
her children's mother, house's keeper
her clothes, her shape
Keeps her busy
children grown leave home
clothes don't fit
her changed shape
husband can't wait
to leave this non-woman
her parents die. She can't
afford new clothes, becomes
aware at last
of the absence of a self
in her outside life
she developes an illness
and becomes it
(from 'Problems & Polemics': boho press, 2004)
Our soma and psyche inter-reacting, we will all of us anyway change, who we think we are being continually under review - as we become parents, or not, right through to retirement. Those changes, for most of us, will not be so sudden, nor so drastic, that we are unable to recognise our new undone selves, unable to retrieve our old self.
Madness is everyone's experience:
from a single word clue
thinking "You too." You too
have known this - this state of mind:
psychotic lapses like vivid dreams,
drunken adventures that stay forever
just beyond complete recall.
Or is this playing mad?
The imagination made singular? Imitating
in public the parts most only dare play
in front of mirrors? And, out of
new habit, acting on the singleminded
impulses of a toper; forgetting one,
some nurses and doctors,
intimates of death and nakedness,
become engrossed in the dissection
of thought, analysis of the thinking
process (or they become filing clerks
looking for labels), who nonetheless
assume themselves to be
superior to their patients, because
they have not lately looked below
the surface of human actions and watched
their own selves behave. They too
repeat their mistakes. Incipients all.
(from 'Problems & Polemics': boho press, 2004)
Identity is a compound of relationships, experience and present wage-earning profession. Those who have suffered traumatic mental illness often disown their making pasts, and feel themselves abandoned or betrayed by their families. (It can be a last desperate act of self-respect to render themselves single.) With their past not believed by themselves, their identity comes to reside in what they do. Unfortunately there is little for those labelled mentally ill to do once given over to 'care in the community', a spider's web system based on private, profit-driven residential homes, which are staffed mostly by unskilled labour on, or below, the legal minimum wage, and which are inspected only by those social workers who have placed their troublesome clients there.
The long-term mentally ill, now called clients, become recipients, at best, of do-gooder organised trips out, at worst are left to their own day-in day-out devices, this tying in with a convenient ethos of non-interference, for which read non-intervention. Which means that all too often the clients are forcefully led - by other residents needing funds - into a drugs or drink-based lifestyles. The drink or the drugs make them increasingly labile, a danger to themselves or to the other clients, so they are medicated again into mindlessness. How to acquire a self-respecting identity there?
We are our brains.
Should a car accident
damage the hypothalamus
the injured thereafter
will be full of limping rage,
will spend the remainder
of their shuffling days
(from 'To Be Like John Clare': Salzburg University Press, 1996)
Although the big old asylums were often too safe, sucked patients into a comfortable institutionalised state, they did allow the most damaged to acquire a meaningful identity - if only by what they daily did. Every patient, once stable, was encouraged to work - some in the gardens, or in small factory units, on work gangs, on farms, in the library, hospital shop, as cleaners, in the laundry... Given a function they were able to function. For a token wage it is true, but it allowed their recovery to be more than passive. While very exceptional talents were encouraged. John Clare, for instance, was not only allowed to wander the local lanes on his own, but at one time a whole room within Northampton General Asylum was set aside for other patients to make fair copies of his poems. And this in the unenlightened 1800s.
All our lives
we've been sold
Identifying with the struggle, I know
how near the edge I am. But
I'm nowhere near as close as you
who are walking backwards towards it.
have the onion self
(from 'Problems & Polemics': boho press, 2004)
I know that Day Centres now encourage those in need to various 'activities'. But, because they rely on their referred clients finding their own way to the Day Centres, or on their being delivered to them, far too many are slipping through the net, remain lost to themselves. Mined out, depthless, these survivors are not enigmas to themselves, rather they have been left with no self against which to guage the world as it is hourly presented to them. And with identity no more than a diagnostic label, when asked what they do, do they now say, "I'm registered disabled, mentally ill"? Or might it be better to say, "I'm a farmhand, a gardener, a potter, a ...."?
What Is Social, What Mental Illness
Take M. He likes a drink. But it fuddles him. His flat becomes a mess, he loses the time of day, the electricity and phone don't get paid, court applications are made; and his money starts to get taken off him at source, leaving him with not enough even for a drink. With the circle of debt starting to tighten M takes himself to the police station. He tells the officer behind the desk that he has a voice in his head telling him to slit the gizzards of young children. As before the police call the on-duty psychiatrist. As before, being new and not knowing M, and most certainly not wanting to take the risk of M slitting a child's gizzard (a sharpened knife, as before, was found on M), the on-call psychiatrist diagnoses alcoholic dementia and M is taken by ambulance to hospital.
In hospital M is encouraged to a bath and is put on a librium detox, usual duration a week. M doesn't get better within the week. Tremors and sweats over, he developes other symptoms, becomes incontinent of faeces and talks still of the voice. Puzzled, his new consultant won't take the risk, yet, of discharging him home. In the fourth week of his stay M says that he is starting to feel better. (Timing is everything now: after 6 weeks in hospital his disability allowance will get drastically cut, is a headache to get reinstated.) After 5 weeks in hospital, the voice gone, the consultant feels safe enough to allow M home - on new medication, to his flat cleaned by Social Services. With his accumulated back pay M clears off the last of the bills, treats himself to a drink, buys a new knife, sharpens it.
(from 'Problems & Polemics': boho press, 2004)
© Sam Smith 7th April 2011
Not enough people know of the work of Derek Southall and I am reprinting this attempt at an obituary from #32 The Journal in the hope that it just might encourage those who come across it to go seek out his paintings.
The painter Derek Southall came into my life, my artistic life especially, at the time that I probably needed him most.
I was living in one of the flats in Heatherton Park, a 17thC manor house in Somerset. Sounds posher than it was, Heatherton Park being one of a number of ‘grand’ houses bought up cheap by local eccentric ‘Gassy’ Harris at the end of WW2 and as eccentrically divided into flats and let cheap. At one time ‘Gassy’ was housing more people than the local council.
Derek and Jenny bought the chapel adjoining the house and converted the lion’s share of the upper floor into a studio. I had to pass the chapel to get to my garden in the corner of the adjacent field. Derek came out to talk to me, as he talked to everyone, finding something of interest in most everyone. Even in my own unsociable self. And I’d got that way after 20+ years of having my novels rejected, and at that time, 1987, of having just adapted a novel to suit a start-up publisher whose backer had lost all their venture capital in the ‘87 crash. Resigned to failure I’d got into the habit of telling no-one that I wrote. But Derek winkled it out of me, saw my persistence as laudable, as nothing out of the struggling-author-ordinary, and told me - during the course of our many casual chats - of his own life.
Derek’s mother was a stalwart of Coventry Labour Party. Derek, a precocious lad, went from Coventry School of Art to Camberwell to Goldsmiths. He had subsequently had one-man exhibitions at major galleries, including the ICA, Arnofilni and Oxford’s MoMa. He had work in the Tate. For a period in the sixties he had been the darling of the Sunday supplements, but had taken himself and his family off to the US, then to Australia, and was at that time trying to re-establish himself back in the UK.
Derek showed me that an artist’s life, in terms of financial reward and recognition, is as much failure as success, that what matters most is one’s development as an artist, regardless. During his time at Heatherton Park he had two different agents, two major exhibitions in Bath and Hamburg, and at the same time he was bartering paintings for dentistry and for car repairs.
Invited in for coffee with him or Jenny on my way back from the garden, talking of books, music, paintings; what I loved most of all was hanging about his studio while he tried to work out what his latest work was trying to tell him. (I’m trying to remember how Derek classified himself at that time - he was punctilious about such definitions and ever the professor quick to pick one up on misquotations - but I’m pretty sure that, although he had gained his early reputation with shaped canvases, he then saw himself in the tradition of Romantic English Landscape painters.)
For most of his time at Heatherton Park Derek was occupied with the large variegated cypress in the chapel’s garden, with seeing how it related to other of his motifs - the Australian boulders, the Suffolk stand of trees, his ‘islands in the stream’.... Those islands were Steep Holm and Flat Holm in the Bristol Channel, and that became in Derek’s representation, hanging in their field of blue, something akin to spiritual. For me the sight of that series came every single time with the shock of the new.
Through Derek I met his friend Michael Hamburger. Because of Michael Hamburger I came to concentrate more on poetry, and finally I got some work into print.
We both left Heatherton Park, went our separate ways. Leaving me with, aside from Turner’s mists, two other painterly skies - Constable’s ragged cumulus cover, and Southall’s horizon-seeking streaks of cirrus.
I could write pages more about Derek Southall, his all-encompassing humanity, his generosity to me and to others. A poetry journal is probably not the place. Suffice to say that in a crucial period of my life he sustained me. So for myself, and on behalf of all those many others you have helped and encouraged, thank you Derek.
News of Anne-Lewis-Smith’s death arrived in a damp envelope - a preprinted request to remove her from The Journal’s mailing list.
An apt ending to our relationship conducted entirely by mail. But which was just slightly more than that between two poets, two editors; Anne having also been the one-time editor of Envoi.
Our first contact was shortly after I had launched The Journal of Contemporary Anglo-Scandinavian Poetry. Anne’s enthusiastic submission to The Journal of Contemporary Anglo-Scandinavian Poetry was as much to the Somerset address as to the magazine.
One of the many incarnations of Heatherton Park, the old manor that housed my flat, had briefly been as St Catherine’s, a private school for girls. Anne had been one of those girls. She delighted in telling me that my ground floor flat had been part school kitchens, part science lab; and that down by the old mill, a ruin still then, in among a holly grove had been where the children had buried their pets. School and house, like myself, had fallen on hard times; but I could tell her that the school secretary, Ms Falconer, had one of the flats above mine, and that she had photos of house and grounds when a school.
All through my house moves and the evolution of The Journal Anne and I continued our correspondence. I published some of Anne’s poetry, best defined as nature become dreamscapes; and Anne pointed Original Plus and the A4 Journal towards Envoi’s one time Fishguard printer. We critiqued one another’s work, and that continued right up to last year. My hope is that Anne gained as much from our ‘relationship’ as did I.
© Sam Smith 2011
(I wondered how this historical curiosity would fare on another airing - first published 1993 in #4 SODEM magazine)
Two things I try to hold dear are Truth and Justice.
Justice has me in sympathy with Feminism.
Truth has me wondering if women are not innately more gullible than men. Or is it that women have been trained to be more credulous than men?
Apart from soft porn there are no gender magazines aimed at men. But from Twinkle and Just 17 onwards girls are coached by women’s magazines to be consumers of our world. (Or is it that men don’t have to be told how to be men, whereas women have to be shaped to the secondary role that this society has come to expect of them?)
If the magazines do exist because of women’s innate gullibility my guess why women should be more susceptible is that girls feel a greater need to belong in a day-to-day tangible sense. Men appear content, mostly, to belong in the abstract - in that they are following an acceptable and clear code for their daily living. In turn this - needing to abide by sets of rules - makes men more susceptible to political propaganda. (I am convinced that the same self-sacrificing convictions that led soldiers to volunteer for the slaughter of the 1st World War was also responsible for saving more Victorian maidens’ virginity than did ever those girls own sense of modesty.)
Wanting to belong women have been trained to not look beyond the image. How things appear is what is most important - that is the message that women’s magazines promulgate. Beyond those best-selling magazines 90% of adverts, even those for male deodorants, are aimed at women. Not looking beyond what’s on offer the readers of women’s magazines seem to exercise their intellect only in a comparison of brands.
Women, those readers of women’s magazines, appear not to know of the science of autosuggestion, how propaganda by association works. They seem to not want to know that these magazines are disseminating unFeminist attitudes along with skin care advice (How to attract a man.) Self-made victims they make no effort to understand how so very little of our lives is ‘natural’, that the manufactured fashions they so worriedly follow are not only in clothes and hairstyles but also in body size and social manners, where any deviation from the magazine’s norm becomes a ‘problem’. (Which is all very easy for me as male observer to say. Women are taught to look at themselves through the lens of men. This gender doubletake is not asked of men.)
One of my male problems is how to reconcile Feminism with the family and with justice. (Man’s Role In The Feminist Family - title for future article?) But let’s not complicate this with childrearing: for the moment let’s stick with suburban coupledom.
Let’s imagine ourselves at one of those couple functions where husbands and wives finish each other’s sentences and alter each other’s stories. A man to your left innocuously says something about never cooking and before he has finished speaking some knee-jerk feminist opposite has accused him of being a male chauvinist.
That glittering blonde matron opposite, hereafter, shall be known only as the knee-jerk feminist (KJF). Now this KJF is a magazine reader, has umpteen feminist slogans and a thousand easy recipes to hand. She is also in thrall to her man, has - following tips in the magazines - made herself indispensable to his ego by agreeing with his every banal utterance and by slating his sexual habits. She has also made herself his domestic servant. While he indulges her knee-jerk feminism - "Men!" Such banter, such feminist jibes and gruff rejoinders make them magazine-normal these days.
Meanwhile the poor man to your left doesn’t even attempt to explain, for fear of more KJF, that he doesn’t cook only because his partner is so much better at it. In the division of their domestic chores his portion is the washing up, the hoovering and the ironing.
Sounds petty? It is. But irritating beyond measure. And I have found that KJFs being first to accuse any man of chauvinism are also first to claim the right to do anything a man does, and are also the least feminist in the day-to-day living of their own lives. KJFs always say, eventually, they do like men opening doors for them. KJFs also admit, with becoming blushes, to being ‘romantically inclined’. All those women’s magazines. And yes, they do like to be dominated, going so far as to make their man dominate them.
"A real man would..." they say in private spite to their man.
Perpetuation of slavery by the enslaved has women in women’s magazines persuading women readers that to be dominated is to be secure, is to be safe. These are the women who teach their sons to open doors for women and say, "Ladies first." (Which is all chicken and egg country. Which, being wholly female, is an apter than apt analogy, the male as unmentioned inseminator.)
Many men are as fed up with the restrictions of these gender roles as true feminists are of being dominated. Coupledom corrupts both to itself.
Why, for instance, do faithful women, even committed feminists, feel it necessary to hero-worship their man? And why doesn’t everyone else find it odd that, just because a man enjoys having sex with a particular woman, and vice versa, she is then supposed to want to cook and clean for him while he is supposed, being a ‘real’ man, to provide her with a house and furniture?
Truth and Justice both say that only in certain areas of life, and at certain times of life, can any of us come together. Justice has me seeing that men must become as liberated by genuine feminism as women.
Thus does self-interest have me supporting feminism. Because not only do I not want to fall victim to a prescribed role for males, nor do I, as father of 3 daughters, want my children to be designated 2nd class citizens and seen only as appendages to some male as yet unmet.
I, a male, have been owned by many codes, from absolute pacifism to reluctant Trotskyism. And, having looked at those codes through the twin lens of Truth and Justice, I have abandoned them all. (Another good test for any code is to listen to the dogma coming from the mouth of a fool. If the dogma still makes some kind of sense then you have a creed maybe worth adhering to. But if all you hear in the mindless reiteration is mockery, then the whole dogma is bullshit, so dump it. Feminism now has its share of fools holding forth. Listen carefully.)
In approaching this subject I felt myself transported back to the days when I was an ardent advocate of socialism. Then I was immediately labelled, by opposers of socialism, a communist and I was told,
"People don’t want to be regimented."
"You, like the communists," I used to say (as keen on semantics then as now), "are confusing equality with sameness. ‘To be equal to’ is not to be ‘the same as’. Two plus two is not the same as three plus one, although both equal four."
Many feminists today labour under similar confusions. Because parity with men is sought doesn’t mean that women have to make the same mistakes as some men. Taken to extremes would feminists, in a fascist state, campaign to let women be concentration camp guards too? The answer sadly is, if they were knee-jerk feminists, yes.
I can only attribute any feminist having an opinion on whether or not the Anglican church should have women priests to a case of KJFism. A church created by men, based on male apostolic succession, all believing in an omnipotent and invisible male god, and all according to a bible written by men? And some women magazine readers want the right to preach that gospel?
Absurdity upon absurdity. Will KJF - If-a-man-can-do-it-why-shouldn’t-a-woman? - have a fool saying on domestic violence, "Every woman should have the right to beat up her husband."
So why shouldn't women chop down the tropical rainforest too? The question is, I hope I have shown you, a KJF. The answer to it is, I hope I have persuaded you, that the tropical rainforest shouldn’t be chopped down.
© Sam Smith 2011
(first published in Front Cover #3 in 1995)
Repeat any statement often enough and it will be taken as the truth. Such is the working rule of all advertisers and propagandists. And we, the consumers and the ‘dupes’ of their propaganda know this. Propagandists and advertisers too know this, yet they themselves continue to believe what their chosen politicians say, and they continue to buy the products other advertisers tell them to buy.
This world is now one of accepted illusions, shared delusions. Duplicitous politicians come to believe their own reiterated untruths. So too do manipulating managers, pressing all the right buttons in this suck-up society. (Managers being those who have vacuum-lipped it to a small pinnacle in a small hierarchy.)
No-one now, not even scientists because they’re run by managers trained in mendacity, wants the truth the whole truth and nothing but the truth. Certainly not lawyers. Would rock too many painstakingly constructed illusions. Of Justice for a start. All any want now is a truth that suits.
Information technology now means that any one mind receives such an inordinate amount of input that the bamboozled brain is grateful for any glib condensing of information. The danger of symbolism though is that we no longer contemplate the profound complexities that lie behind the symbol. (This phenomena has even been given a name - iconography. Which is not the dictionary definition of iconography, but the new accepted meaning, which in itself is an example of iconography. And now you too can use this word as a symbol of a concept, and forget it. See how it works?)
How did we got to here? Because all now is reactive, because capitalism is now the dominant creed. And capitalists have no nobility of purpose, no sense of pride in a thing well done. Their own profit or loss is all.
This capitalism/commercialism swears by market research. Market research though is like a Saxon snake devouring its own tail, feeding ever on itself, until there’s nothing left.
One day soon market researchers will discover that the thing most asked for by people is death. At one time or another in all our desperate lives every one of us has said, "God I wish I was dead."
"I just can’t," we have wept into our beers, "I just can’t see the point in going on."
Market research will sell us suicide/cyanide.
"Feeling low? Depressed? Don’t want to go on? This one little pill will see an end to all your cares."
Not possible? Capitalism has no morality other than personal gain. Yet, in glossy brochures and on slick videos, the PR lackeys present us with a veneer of competent power, infer that they have all the answers. On this poisoned planet what I want to know is if this world is so full of clever bastards who’ve got all the answers, why is every one of them in the same deep shit as me?
I’m a nasty unsociable git selling nothing but despair.
© Sam Smith 2011
(All quotations are taken from 2 imagined books.)
First classify which kind of refugee you are. (Refugees Handbook. TSSO & Others.)
Industrialized societies have lost touch with death and therefore have an unbalanced view of life. (Pacifist’s Guide to War Zones. Holmes & Zilbic. Centurion Press.)
Like the rest of the world’s frightened peoples I hesitated to join or to condemn, to take any stance that would identify me with one side or the other. All were wrong. Not my war, I said, and ducked away. (Refugees Handbook. TSSO & Others.)
Human beings need to go to war. This must be true. Look back through the history of the world and try to find a time when there wasn’t, somewhere upon its surface, at least two sets of people at war with one another, or threatening war, or preparing for war, or suing for peace, which is the negative of war. (Coexistence is the absence of war.) (Pacifist’s Guide to War Zones. Holmes & Zilbic. Centurion Press.)
Refugees from rural areas are initially the better off refugees. Having had no reliable public transport system they usually have bicycles, wheelbarrows or old prams to carry the burden of their belongings. Such wheels will be in short supply in any mass exodus from a city. They will probably, therefore, soon be stolen from you. (Refugees Handbook. TSSO & Others.)
War being the ultimate theatre New Guinea tribes once reduced it to a ritual of battle and mutual celebration. The men folk, at certain times of the year, armed themselves to the teeth and tramped off to the battleground. There they drew themselves up in opposing lines, made great noise, and threw their spears, shot their arrows... The lines were always further apart then the range of their weapons. No-one got hurt, unless by accident; and the 'combatants' all returned to their villages with, every time, tales of heroic feats. (When these tribesmen were ‘civilised’ they were told that their version of war was silly.) (Pacifist’s Guide to War Zones. Holmes & Zilbic. Centurion Press.)
1st rule - try not to have anything visibly worth stealing. (Refugees Handbook. TSSO & Others.)
The Greeks tried to translate their warring needs into sporting rivalries, which became the Olympics. This didn’t work. In fact sport, football for instance, often leads to small wars between city tribes. Team sports are also used for military training. (Pacifist’s Guide to War Zones. Holmes & Zilbic. Centurion Press.)
(Urban refugees) Forget cars. Too easy to get stuck inside them; and they’re too big and too tempting a target for the trigger-happy. (Refugees Handbook. TSSO & Others.)
With the internal collapse of the Soviet Union we have moved into, possibly, a period of Pax Americana. Except that, during the proxy wars, so many arms were sent to so many areas of potential conflict that the world ¾ its peoples now all being capable of going to war and so going to war ¾ is in a much more dangerous state than ever before. (The massive expenditure on arms, incidentally, was the primary cause of the economic collapse of the Soviet Union.) (Pacifist’s Guide to War Zones. Holmes & Zilbic. Centurion Press.)
(Rural refugees) Take with you what livestock you can manage. A few hens if nothing more. Even if accidentally killed they can still be eaten. Don’t bother with pets. Cats won't come and barking dogs will make you enemies. Caged animals look pathetic and excite contempt; and where are you going to get the food for them? (Refugees Handbook. TSSO & Others.)
With barbarism again in the ascendant the warring peoples of the world ¾ most of them ¾ are that much more technologically capable of inflicting damage on one another. Not only do the smallest groupings of people within a nation have easy access to conventional weapons, but most of the world’s governments now have nuclear weapons. (Pacifist’s Guide to War Zones. Holmes & Zilbic. Centurion Press.)
Avoid cannibalism where possible. (Refugees Handbook. TSSO & Others.)
The variety of the world’s 156 governments has led them to acquire the same capacity for killing as their suspect neighbours. Despite the protestations of the official nuclear powers most governments now have the status symbol of nuclear capability. And every one of the world’s governments is unstable. (Pacifist’s Guide to War Zones. Holmes & Zilbic. Centurion Press.)
Wrap what you can carry in a blanket. Duvets are too bulky and, unless completely waterproofed, retain heavy moisture. Sleeping bags and binliners are best; but, even so, wrap them all in an old blanket. Out of sight out of mind. And a blanket looks like baggage of last resort. (Refugees Handbook. TSSO & Others.)
Although war is self-evidently cultural stupidity we will not, in our lifetime, stop war. You and I both have looked into bigotry’s face and puked over its shoes. You and I both have seen national flags become badges of thuggery. You and I both, before we ever entered the war zone, saw the casual indifferent corpses of war; and we couldn’t stop it then... (Pacifist’s Guide to War Zones. Holmes & Zilbic. Centurion Press.)
Credit cards are generally not accepted in war zones. Currencies can also be rapidly devalued. Jewellery, not too expensive or ostentatious, is best for most barter. A hidden store of 22 carat wedding rings would be ideal. You could then wear one ring at a time, barter one ring for one meal at a time. (Refugees Handbook. TSSO & Others.)
All has to change. Already we live in a time of such carnage and insensitivity that the precise number of deaths, in any genocide, has become a dinner table dispute. (Pacifist’s Guide to War Zones. Holmes & Zilbic. Centurion Press.)
Collect as many sets of papers, of identities, of nationalities as you are able. (There is danger in this. The charge of spy is always levelled at those with dual nationality. Therefore ensure that you have a safe hiding place, not on your person, for all your spare papers.) (Refugees Handbook. TSSO & Others.)
War is for those individuals who have been left with nothing else they want to do. Anyone who has a definite purpose in life ¾ things to make, things to do, places to go ¾ the last thing they want is to get mixed up in a dangerous war. (Pacifist’s Guide to War Zones. Holmes & Zilbic. Centurion Press.)
Repeatedly make sure that you have nothing left to lose but your life. That extra thing is what you will be killed for. (Refugees Handbook. TSSO & Others.)
War is for those who can only measure their own bravery by the ferocity of their enemy... War is for groupings of people who are only delineated by their enemies, be they other peoples or climatic circumstances... With freedom from threat no people would exist, except by artifice. Without threat or politicians, all that the world would be left with would be loose collections of individuals aware mostly of their dissimilarities. (Pacifist’s Guide to War Zones. Holmes & Zilbic. Centurion Press.)
All female refugees are likely to get raped. To defer the rape it is best that all women make themselves initially as unattractive as they are able, even to disguising their age and sex. (When the women do get raped, remember, the psycho/social dynamic will result probably in all attendant male refugees getting killed.) Dirty children too are less likely to get raped. (Refugees Handbook. TSSO & Others.)
Can we diminish war? The greatest and most indefatigable enemy of pacifism is the state of mind that still believes that good ends can be achieved by violent means. Such a belief is a simple equation for simple minds. Only while intelligent minds go along with that equation, though, will wars continue. (Pacifist’s Guide to War Zones. Holmes & Zilbic. Centurion Press.)
Every day make two rendezvous points, two rendezvous times with your family. The first is always likely to be within a combat area or to have been destroyed. (Refugees Handbook. TSSO & Others.)
Expect no cure for war from politicians. Politics is peopled by the stupid and by the clever who pretend to be stupid. (Pacifist’s Guide to War Zones. Holmes & Zilbic. Centurion Press.)
Try to have at least one pair of sturdy shoes and a set of waterproof clothes. It always rains on refugees. (Refugees Handbook. TSSO & Others.)
While politicians continue to strike heroic postures and to use the only language they know ¾ that of war ¾ to inspire fear in others in order to bring more support to their own cause, then war will continue. (Pacifist’s Guide to War Zones. Holmes & Zilbic. Centurion Press.)
Don’t expect to find peace. (Refugees Handbook. TSSO & Others.)
All politicians are in our power. That is what we must remember. Without us politicians are nothing. We have power over them, not they us. We must exercise that power or become refugees. And, in this world now, there’s nowhere left to run. (Pacifist’s Guide to War Zones. Holmes & Zilbic. Centurion Press.)
Be ready to be moved on at any moment. Keep your water containers full. (Refugees Handbook. TSSO & Others.)
Welcome to the World. Welcome to the War Zone. (Pacifist’s Guide to War Zones. Holmes & Zilbic. Centurion Press.)
© Sam Smith 2011
(In the mid 1990s I got carried away with the writing of articles. This was one of them. It never got published. I don't know if I even tried to get it published. Anyway, here it is.)
The Male Creative Process
"Artistic creation, like any form of creation, is born of energy ... being in no way merely cerebral. Thus it is important for the creator to have sources of energy that have not been tapped." Osbert Sitwell.
The composition of any artist thus has to be:-
90% Energy. The artist has to be always doing.
8% naiveté. The artist has to believe that what he is doing matters above all else.
2% talent. The minimum necessary on which to hang the energy.
If art is a series of happy accidents then the first happenstance is to find ourselves praised for something - a school task usually, poem or painting - which cost us no effort. We look surprised to the praise disproportionate to the effort; and shrugging we repeat the exercise, still not knowing what we’ve done. (This does not mean that the putative artist has any ‘natural’ talent or genetic propensity to poetry or paint, simply that the praise has given that art form an exaggerated importance in the building of that boy’s self-image.)
Only a fool, however, will get any satisfaction from performing the same trick over and again. Any noviciate artist therefore, in seeking to improve his performance, must learn more of his art. Some of this will be done by consulting the works of the masters, although most learning will be done through the practise of his art. So begins the escalation of creation. How, no matter what form of praised self-expression we use, in seeking to say more we see more, and in seeing more we create more, and so see more...
With the creative process being also a learning process, art requires not only naiveté but often outright ignorance, else what can the artist’s art teach him?
By this stage the balance of praise - from teachers, family and friends - has become decidedly unequal to the huge amounts of time and effort expanded. So the artist seeks a wider and more appreciative public.
And by now the artist, having learnt the tricks of his trade and having earlier realised that all praise - no matter how greatly desired - is undeserved, has come to see all art as illusion, one that requires artist and audience to conspire in the importance of the art. (All art being this massive presumption is why its perpetrators so often, seeing themselves as frauds, say, "It’s only words on paper." So do the acclaimed turn aside the adulation. "It’s only paint on canvas..." The makers truly do belittle their own achievements, denigrate the themselves; and so vanity has to satisfy itself yet again, ego to prove itself.)
Any artist must become exasperated with his fellow conspirators and will want to show how the illusion is created. And having done so, via illusion (the whole truth can never be told), and having been applauded for his exposing of the fraud, the praise undeserved, he takes the illusion further. This goes under this label truth-seeking. Dissatisfaction persists.
Why outstanding artists should often be vilified and ignored by their contemporaries is another aspect of the fraud. These contemporaries see a man creating something more beautiful, braver, more noble than himself. Fraud. How can such a podgy timid fool aspire to The Truth and the affection of beautiful women? The real sly truth to that his art is his only means of making himself attractive, and his contemporaries will not allow him that in the name of art. (The deception many of these podgy men practise upon themselves is that they never countenance even the possibility of that motive.)
Like a lapsed Buddhist I have ceased to aspire to the perfection of my being. Now I seek to create the perfect work, which I know that I am incapable of and which anyway doesn’t exist.
At odds with this honest self-delusion/dissatisfaction is a beholding, with awe, of one’s own creations. From a few words on a page, from some paint and paper, one has created something unique. And herein is the magic of creation, the alchemy that is a source of wonder to all its practitioners.
Always, from base materials, we are making gold, bringing into existence that which did not exist before. Basking in the reflection of our created glory, we look again at the importance that is given to the work of artists. Such men as we are the changers of a civilisation’s perceptions; and so does the self-praised artist allow conceit to grow. Change is created by the theatre of the few; and his own work is aspiring to be of the few. Ambition is renewed.
Assuming that all artists have by now enormous egos then the works they create can never equal their own estimate of themselves. That’s on one level.
On another.... At about the time that the artist realised that the amount of praise for his works was undeserved and saw himself as perpetrator of an easy fraud, his self-esteem set out to merit that praise. No-one, thus, becomes more self-critical than an ego-inflated artist. (Every artist knows the laziness and sleights of hand which will make the creation imperfect and therefore unsatisfactory.)
This self-critical attitude, although necessary to the creative process, is still in the sphere of ego and vanity. Every genuine artist, however, striving through his art after the ineluctable truth, must enter another realm.
Enter now also the concept of artist as servant of his ego’s ambition; and never has there been, in the history of servility, a more self-effacing servant. He cannot short-measure himself.
We also have to bear in mind here that Art is not wholly self-generated. It has external causes, draws on life. Imagine Sassoon’s poetry without the war, Ted Hughes’ without the farm... First though the artist has to discover himself, has to enter into his Self...
And it is here, in this other realm, this other state, where he is able - as Robert Schumann said, ‘....to touch a moment as it passes.’ This happens only when the artist has given himself wholly over to the act of creating, has suppressed all his conscious critical faculties, and is simply letting his hard-earned virtuoso talents flow.
In the making of any one work of art this is usually the initial phase of the creative process, where the artist must undistracted lose himself in his work. Solitude is therefore a must. Except for the jazz improviser. Which probably accounts for the popularity of jazz among all sorts of other artists - they can behold another rapt in the process, touching moments as they pass.
For most other artists, privacy assured, this self-induced state becomes almost habitual. Cecil-Day Lewis claimed that he couldn’t give up smoking because the calming effect of nicotine helped suppress his self-conscious critical self. He feared that if he gave up smoking he’d become so aware of the here and now that he would never write spontaneously again.
Derek Southall says that once his studio door is shut behind him, although that day he may be only cleaning brushes or preparing canvasses, he can feel the circle of his artistic self becoming closed. Alone in his studio he is complete; and from that wholeness, within that gestalt, his creativity can flow.
Those who aren’t artists probably come closest to this mental state on a slow-waking lie-in, ideas and images drifting in and out of consciousness. Here the odd juxtapositions, the strange bedfellows of creativity, the lateral thinking and eureka connections that all add up to originality. André Gide was probably having a lie-in when he decided, ‘Thoughts are like flowers, those gathered in the morning keep fresh the longest.’
When I’m writing a first draft - my Self, my situation forgotten - I sometimes feel that every one of my years, every idea I’ve ever known, whole universes of thought are balanced on my pen nib. And I watch, in a state of near grace, words and lives take shape under my hand. All blown aside by an intruding voice or noise.
Privacy to also required because art can often be an act of confession, of shameful disclosure, of shaming betrayal. And such unburdening is addictive. As is excitement - pace fairgrounds and fast cars. All creativity is surprising to its creator and as such is exciting, and therefore addictive.
The second part of this self-perpetuating process is when the artist steps back from his creation, resurrects his critical faculties, and becomes dissatisfied with what has just flowed out of him.
On the other hand, beholding this that has been newly formed by his own hand, he can become both astonished and awed by his work, which will in turn instantly worry him. (Success is more crippling to an artist than failure. With failure he can simply begin anew. Success though can only repeat itself, ceases therefore to be creation. He has achieved perfection and complacency is the death of creativity. Success to the artist is what the scholar calls the poet finding his voice, the painter his métier. Both constrict. Success therefore equals despair, which is probably why so many so-called successful artists become self-hating drunks, because they have been denied their true addiction, that being the process of creation, touching moments as they pass. Success has denied them even the temporary completion of themselves.)
Though they seek it artists thus come to distrust what appears to be success. As they have also learnt, although reliant upon it, to distrust their own judgement. Their early works always later dismay them. How could they have been so naive? How could they have been so conceited over such immaturities?
So full of doubts is the artist that every third party criticism of his finished work will enter his own being. Art is shared illusion: he knows he is a fraud, is he being found out?
So, mid-step in his exultant dance down the stairs, the artist will pause in his solo celebration over his latest work; and he will seek to mentally justify his glee to some cretinous critic, and that justification will lead him down a path previously unconsidered, so he returns, sinking into trance, back to his workroom, back to the first part of the creative process.
This to-and-fro genesis will be lost by the time the work is completed, the process forgotten, his thoughts occupied with the next work. Because to the artist the next work, the work being planned, is always more important than any finished work.
Rejection of ‘finished’ work is a necessary part of the creative process. It pricks the arrogance that is the essential spring of creation. Rejection makes the artist re-examine and review, and most importantly justify the work. That justification takes the artist on.
The artist’s self-defences will instantly and contemptuously crush any flippant criticisms. Any considered criticism though, emanating from some learned worthy, although the artist may initially and defensively disagree with it, that disparagement will sneak into his unworthy inside. He therefore seeks to make every new work critical proof. And sometimes, only when looked at in imagination from another’s point of view, does the work begin to gel.
To know what a work is to be, what it’ll take to be complete, often requires that sideways, that come-upon-it-by-surprise look. More than one. It can take 10 rejections or more before a poem reveals what it needs to complete itself. (My thanks to all those Small Press editors for telling me categorically what a poem isn’t. They were wrong of course; but they served to rouse my indignation, which got me to justifying the poem to myself, which concentrated my mind on exactly what the poem was.)
Any reworking is still a creative part of the creative process. Which tempts me to compare this making of things to birth and training. But I know of no natural human function truly analogous, not that feeds self-contemptuously back into itself like the creative process, not that allows its victims no self-delusions, any such delusions, untruths, finding themselves in their art and thus leaving it open to easy criticism. The artist must, in this secondary critical stage of his work, shut off all those openings.
This rational approach to his art can lead him, by unexpected insights, back into the first stage; and on, closing off, tightening up, until he decides, for the first time, that the work is complete, that nothing more can be done to it, that nothing more can be added to it without detracting from it. Until, a year later, he looks at it again; and he sees that it needs reworking, which gives him an idea for another piece...
A time will come - possibly in that first happy instant of creation, more likely a few reworking years later - when that work will move out of the realm of his creativity, become as if made by another. Accepted by a public it continues to belong to him in name only. A child grown up and left home he has no more creative interest in it. That which was formed under his hand has become a separate entity, has a power and a value unto itself, exists in its own right. The alchemist’s work is complete
© Sam Smith 2011
Although what one likes, what one needs to write is not the same as what one likes to read, the greatest imaginative leap that any writer has to make is to put her/himself behind the eyes of a reader who has no wish whatsoever to write and who is the kind of person most books are written for, most books bought by. Except now will they continue to be called books? Being read as they are on magic e-paper and backlit screens?
These thoughts are a consequence of BeWrite’s 2 year long behind-the-scenes debate on whether or not to go e-book only. That decision now made I am still unsure, in general, what is to become of poems written for the page. Narratives, be they short story or epic novel, contain their own onward tug. I therefore see no problem with novels and text books henceforward being published in e-book formats only, possibly with a few print-on-demand paperbacks run off for the author’s show-off shelf.
Likewise those poems not dependant on their visual appearance, they too can be readily adapted to e-publication. Ballads for instance can rollick along regardless of the medium they’re reproduced on. Even the majority of poems with a left-justified format, sonnets and sestinas say, will be able to survive intact the font preferences and type sizes that their readers impose on them.
Those poems caesurae dependant on line breaks, however, can be rendered meaningless by a quick-click change in font size. For such poems fixed paper delivery still has to be the medium. As it is for those that rely on the architectonic use of white space - the poems of Colin Simms, John Jones, Carol Thistlethwaite, et cetera.
As anyone who has been to a poetry reading will know there aren’t that many non-poets who read and more importantly buy poetry. The market is small and exclusive. So what is the future for visual poems, for those poems written to be taken in in a single view? Poems that rely on their fixed page appearance?
As much as I despise art become commerce, paintings renowned for the price tag that some wealthy individual or corporation has had attached to them - when what I what for any artform is an appreciative audience not a market - but based on the premise that no collection of visual poetry is ever going to be a bestseller then the way forward has to be to make those poetry collections into card and paper artefacts, into objets d’art in their own right.
Distinctive possibly handmade paper, unusual bindings, limited editions, with the book made in collaboration with visual artists, and to be displayed no longer on bookshop shelves but scrutinised in art gallery display cabinets, or pages framed and hung on walls, the books gracing coffee tables, decorative and illuminating ...
Sam Smith © 2012
In that I continue to be able to absorb lessons I hope that I am still learning. Especially about poetry. Always some new, some previously unconsidered aspect opening to me. In the diverse and confusing world of contemporary poetry, for instance, one of my latest dictums has been ‘Don’t ask what poetry is, find out what poetry isn’t.’
What I cannot grasp, however, and in writing this it’s not my intention to have a pop at him, is why the poetry of Seamus Heaney is so rated. I just don’t get it. Don’t get the poetry, but most of all don’t get the reputation.
Friends whose opinions I usually respect rave about him. Ted Hughes, whose work I love, considered Heaney his equal. Heaney has even been made a Nobel Laureate. Nor do I doubt Seamus Heaney’s sincerity, be it in his approach to his own poetry or in his promotion of poetry in general, as in The Rattle Bag. Yet I go to his poems and - granted there’s usually one or two telling phrases - but whole poems slip by me.
The printed word requires collaboration twixt author and reader. So if failing there is then in part it has to be mine. Could my lack of sympathy with his work be because I don’t share his background, more specifically don’t have his Northern Irish experience?
I don’t think so. Several of Michael Longley’s poems have engaged me, have moved me; and even those that haven’t I can grant their ability to move others. And there are more distant poets, backgrounds wholly alien to mine, their poems written in languages other than English yet who have managed to speak directly to me.
So could it be that Heaney, and the likes of say Muir, fail in that they look to the past as their only, at least as their predominate measure, and that past isn’t mine?
Or could it simply be that Seamus Heaney is a college graduate? Granted I don’t in general have a high opinion of graduate poetry, written as it so often is to please their present/recent tutors, and so transparently minus any of life’s visceral experiences, is all flummery and post-modern fluffiness, an extensive vocabulary very much on show and not saying very much.
Not, let me hasten to say, that just because these poets manqué are college graduates I question their motives in wanting to write. As with many another poet they too will have been driven to write, and due to their education they will probably write well; but not having yet lived they will have nothing much to say beyond what others have said before. Their writing becomes simply words arranged on the page, and the page is where their poem stays, doesn’t relate to anything off it. 400+ years later we still know what Shakespeare was writing about. 100 years later John Clare’s work has real relevance. But these clever college doodlers...?
Not that the above applies to all college graduates. Nor can I be so dismissive of all graduate poets. That I should dare dismiss Auden for instance? And there have to be plenty graduates whose work I have probably, wittingly and unwittingly, published in The Journal.
Nor can my lack of response be solely because Seamus Heaney is such an establishment man. Ted Hughes was poet laureate. As is Carol Ann Duffy, and much of her work appeals
Could it be that Heaney’s childhood owned a trust in the grown-up world, which trust I suspect has translated into a grown-up faith in things as they are? A childhood trust remaining, if most times inferred, in the way the world is presently ordered?
I had no such trust, have no such faith.
He also seems to own a nostalgia for a life he hasn’t known. For the picturesqueness of it. Not for the all-weather hands that split in the cold and wet, and for the pain that then catches in the cut and goes thump to the heart. And again. And again. In days that seem far away from their ending. Seems no hint in his output of that futureless tedium.
Or could my resistance be, aside from my usual suspicion of any artist accepted by the establishment (how did they sell out?) that what sets me out of sympathy with Heaney’s poetry is his Christianity? Even when there is no direct reference to his religion still it seems to inform his attitude.
Or could it be that Heaney’s work holds no appeal for me because, and this I think most likely, at heart he is a sentimental poet. Which ties in with the above: sentimentality underpins most establishment-acclaimed art. I did a test once - my not getting Heaney has been a long term puzzle for me - and I dipped into a Selected Heaney as if considering his work for The Journal. Overly, obviously sentimental was the reason for my rejecting most of those poems. While those of his I would have conditionally accepted I would have asked for the last wrapping up line, or lines, to be cut.
All of the above still doesn’t tell me how he has acquired such a reputation. And I don’t doubt other poets’ admiration for his work. I do wonder though how much of his reputation is based on his public appearances, has come about via his lectures and readings; how many of his poems work at those events due to his having framed them with anecdote and explanation. An entertaining performance by a poet has often led me to buy her or his collection. Only to extract that collection from a stack a few months later, performance and accompanying anecdotes faded if not forgotten, and to wonder why I depleted my meagre income for such so-so verse.
Could that be it? I’m still not sure. Am certain only that I don’t get it.
Sam Smith © 2012
1) Use of the word ‘right’.
Often used following ‘only’. As in "It is only right that hardworking families..."
Which pairing can often be followed by ‘and proper’. As in "It can only be right and proper that endeavour by hardworking millionaires be handsomely rewarded."
‘Thing’ often figures in this context too. As here, delivered forcefully: "Giving bankers huge bonuses is of course the right thing to do."
And in sombre mood, all on its own, "Given that ... blah lies blah ... it was right that we invaded Iraq."
Two other words that can follow ‘right’ in Parliamentary Poopspeak are ‘decision’ and ‘path’.
Accurate usage however only occurs in party political poopspeak when ‘right’ precedes ‘cock-up’.
Sam Smith © 2013
Choice, as practised in the UK, is both bogus and damaging. Free market capitalism claims that choice is for the public good. Quite the reverse, particularly when applied to health and education.
Any choices in health care have to be bogus. Most people in Britain go to the GP surgery and to the hospital within easiest reach. Having become unwell all they want is to be cured, expect only professional competence from those medically qualified to treat them. How are they to assess who is the more qualified?
Consequently not only is this ‘choice’ bogus it is also damaging to the National Health Service in that the ‘choice’ being provided by private for-profit companies removes funds from the NHS for the benefit of the private companies’ shareholders. Every private company within the NHS’s ‘internal market’ also has the effect of duplicating bureaucracy, those extra wages further removing funds from front line health care.
If ‘choice’ there is to be in health then let the private companies operate independently - own staff, own funding - of the NHS.
Because if there are to exist schools within the state education system then, aside from their educational standards being assessed by state school inspectors, they should receive no state subsidies, no ‘charity’ tax exemptions. ‘Independent’ should mean independent, and those who can afford the ‘choice’ can pay the unsubsidised going rate.
‘Choice’ within state education is damaging for other reasons - in the pressure it puts on parents and in the damage that it does peradventure to the environment. If all British children were to attend the state school nearest them there’d be no need for the many school coaches and buses that queue at school gates and pass each other going in opposite directions twice a day transporting children to the school of their parents’ ‘choice’. Bring back school inspectors, do away with the watered-down Ofsted, and have all schools of an acceptable standard; and if they’d not then the local parents can campaign to make them so.
As if devoted parents weren’t already aware of the myriad ways in which they can fail their children this ‘choice’ of school adds unnecessary pressure. With insufficient scholastic information - all that they can have is backward looking to previous results - they have to take into consideration the social effect of moving their child away from friends whose parents will make other choices... More parental guilt is inevitable.
Self-evident that ‘choice’ elsewhere in Britain is bogus. Rail companies, energy suppliers, all offer pretty much the same rates. Yet all have to pay off their shareholders before looking to the needs of their ‘customers’, who have no choice but to be customers. So do we have the false choice of different ‘providers’, which drives prices up rather than - as trumpeted - down.
Supermarkets, so far as price and products go, also offer little ‘choice.’ Corporate heavyweights swinging planning permission for their megastores and driving High Street small shops and garages out of business. Choice?
At the other extreme, and where it’s not necessary, we do have choice. Genuine choice. Almost too much choice. A plethora of ‘choice’ can exist for nonessential items. Then we are overwhelmed with ‘choice’. Well I am. For instance I’ve gone to buy underwear and have several times left the shops not having bought a thing, a simple purchase based on size and shape having been beyond me.
Debating Parliamentarians promote choice. Prey to dichotomous thinking themselves they have come to believe that democracy itself is solely either/or ‘choice’. Westminster political ‘choices’ are as bogus as elsewhere in Britain.
© Sam Smith 2013
"...it is the currency of poetry, not poetry itself." D H Lawrence reviewing a friend’s poem.
Since Paul Lee’s death I have had to undertake more of The Journal’s reviews. At the same time, The Journal being one of the few print mags to now attempt to review all that comes its way, much as Geoff Stevens used to do with Purple Patch, more chapbooks and collections are now arriving via the Royal Mail than are paper submissions. Consequently I have again come to question the purpose of a review. Who am I writing/publishing all these reviews for?
More than that: what is a review for? To provide the author with a back cover quote for their next book? Hardly: not every review will be positive. Nor can a review, I have decided, be a consumer guide. Bit pointless. Because even with increased sales there will still be small possibility of those exceptional sales covering production costs.
Let’s be clear, poetry is not a part of the commercial world. The small press publication of poetry has always had to depend on patronage or subsidy, even if that subsidy is but part of the editor’s dayjob earnings, even part of their welfare benefits. [The Journal and Original Plus, for instance, are at the moment having to be subsidised by my state pension.]
With little prospect of sales a review can therefore exist only to tell you whether the collection might be worth reading. Buy the collection by all means, but in the pursuit of excellence in poetry there can be no realistic commercial expectations. So best if we abandon the pretence altogether. Best also that we do not leave the measure of poetic success to the academics or the populists. Which brings us back to reviews in the small presses.
Publication and review - even if only within the small presses - is a necessary part of the process of poetry. Writers need readers, need to know that there are readers, knowledgeable readers of their work. Every Journal reviewer is a poet, is a participant, a part of the process of making our time’s poetry.
But what authors should bear in mind while awaiting their review is that we unpaid reviewers, faced with a half-metre high stack of books, can get to read their time-invested poetry collection as fast as we do a newspaper. So, although a reviewer may well criticise a collection, a book reviewer is not a critic. Although some reviewers do come close. Antiphon’s online reviews for instance, given the space and just the one collection, they are able to dwell on the text and do publish really close readings.
The Journal, however, having limited space means that most of its reviews are confined to description and assessment, in whatever order, and either recommend or advise against reading. Not that a recommendation need necessarily be wholly positive, may well be double-edged specific, the reviewer deciding that the book is for those who might be partial to that kind of poetry, be it romantic formal verse or steampunk gadfly. And while dispassionate as each poet-reviewer may attempt to be please also allow that each review is just one person’s reaction to that collection on that day.
© Sam Smith 2013
PS None of the above applies to prose authors who, even though they may say in their works that they despise commercialism still they measure their success in sales.
I see that the Westminster morons in charge of all our lives yesterday moved the goalposts so that those most prejudiced in its favour can now make the final decision on the burying of nuclear waste in Cumbria’s unsuitable terrain. The most suitable terrain - pace Finland and France - has been shown to be in flat country under impermeable clay. Not within brittle Cumbrian granite. One spillage and that’ll be the Irish Sea made radioactive. While a major breach into the atmosphere, and given the prevailing wind, could see major Northern cities rendered uninhabitable. The most suitable terrain in England is actually in the south east corner of England, under what the geologists call London clay. Maybe, with their instinct for self-preservation, they’re not quite so moronic in Westminster as I first thought.
© Sam Smith 31st October 2013
3 reasons why I ended up not voting Green
I approached this election as a campaigning member of the Green Party, stuffing flyers through letterboxes, wearing a green rosette and pushing the Green newspaper at precinct shoppers, even attending a meeting with Natalie Bennett. I stopped campaigning this year because I was asked to be - and here is the first of my reasons -
1) to be a paper candidate in the local election.
I refused - on the grounds that, with no intention of doing anything other than allowing my name to be put forward as a candidate I would, in effect, be attracting votes by deceit.
There is a history to this. It irked still that in a previous election I had voted for a Green candidate who had done nothing, said nothing, during or since that election. It was on my being asked to be one that I discovered that she had been but a paper candidate. I felt that I’d been cheated out of my vote, a vote that I could have used tactically elsewhere.
In a first-past-the-post electoral system many of us are anyway, by the ‘safe’ constituencies in which we live, disenfranchised. To further render a vote worthless seemed to me - despite assurances that every political party did it (which has never been justification for anything in my book) - seemed to me verging on electoral fraud. Not wanting to be associated with such deceit, even if electorally acceptable, I stopped participating in the Green Party campaign.
2) Having stepped back I found my disquiet over another aspect of the Green Party campaign rising to the fore - the Green Party’s anti-nuclear rhetoric. My unease, which I’d previously quietened as but my writerly pedantry, had always been there. What it was that I had so disliked was their simplistically describing themselves as the ‘anti-nuclear party’.
Now I’m staunchly anti-nuclear weapons and anti-nuclear power, but I believed that by their simply, short-handedly stating that the Green Party is ‘anti-nuclear’ they are in danger of stigmatising nuclear research, can possibly be deterring some of our best brains from taking up that branch of the science. And with 250,000 years worth of nuclear waste sitting on several acres of Cumbria we desperately need nuclear scientists and nuclear technicians to devise ways of safely dealing with this national hazard - without once again polluting the Irish Sea or by burying this most toxic of wastes in unstable and unsuitable terrain and so rendering uninhabitable large swathes of the north of England.
Nuclear of itself is not bad, but what we have done with nuclear possibilities has been politically stupid. Now and for the next 250,000 years - that is further again into the future than the 150,000 years that homo sapiens has thus far been around - we have to be realistic. Future generations require this problem to be approached with scientific rigour, not yet again with vote-catching party political expedience. From either side. We need to make heroes out of the technicians tending the waste and to encourage more students to take up nuclear research, not defame nuclear activity by simplistic sloganeering.
At this point, still not wholly disenchanted, my intention was to vote Green in the general election (Jill Perry was a genuine candidate and one can’t agree with all that a party says and does) and to vote strategically in the local election to stop UKIP/BNP from getting seats. But then, even closer to home,
3) at an ALCS politicians election panel the Green Party representative said that Green Party policy was that copyright would last for only 14 years after publication.
It has taken generations of campaigning authors to first establish the concept of copyright, then to extend copyright beyond the death of the author, and here was a policy designed to remove the copyright of authors still alive.
14 years is no time at all in publishing. Only 0.0026% of authors make more than the minimum wage. Independent publishers in a highly unpredictable market, one made even more precarious now by technology, can appear and disappear within a few years. Over a period of 14 years an author can have several books published and still not make enough to reach the initial tax threshold. Then in the 16th year a new book can hit a public nerve and take off, taking with it the sales of titles published over 14 years before; and for which - if this Green Party policy were to be enacted - the author would receive nothing?
Despite the Green Party’s sensible policies on the climate, health, housing and transport, it was that one bonkers policy - where did it come from? who would it benefit? - had me wondering what other ill-thought-through policies were yet to be revealed, and that was what had me finally not voting Green.
© Sam Smith 18th May 2015
A Free Press
Free speech we have. Are repeatedly told that we have. Even so, who listens? Even if we include Social Media, how big the pre-selecting audience?
As for a free press… Hardly free. Nor will it ever be. All media will be owned by someone, answerable to someone, corporation or wealthy family, and they who pay the piper will call, ultimately and always, the tune.
Let’s begin with local newspapers, those bastions of reactionary attitudes, reactionary because they publish only what they believe their small town readers want and what will not upset their local advertisers. Most reporters and journalists begin their careers working on local newspapers or local radio.
Nationally the target readership, the mass consumers of tabloids, the TV audiences that boost ratings, are those, the gormless, who go to watch the weddings and funerals of people they do not know, have not known. Are of the same type who go to gawp at road crashes, disasters, who make up the swaying throng at pop concerts… It takes but a cursory study of our mass media to become aware that the mob is still out there, easily manipulated and primed for a lynching. Wag a flag and off the mob will march us to yet another war.
The amoral mouthpieces who put together the tabloids and the ‘reality’ TV shows will, for the sake of ‘news’ and their salaries, happily sit in (mock/made-up) judgement on anyone who dares to be genuinely different. So it is, will be, us oddities who will get condemned by those who buy and believe the tabloids, TV picking up and running with the selfsame stories. This is how the news hounds have all been trained.
But why does the mob continue to be so easily manipulated? When information is available at the click of a mouse? Could it be that information overload – stimulus atop stimulus – is desensitising? Or can this nouveaux brutalisation be the result of so much staged violence, even readily accessible porn? Does the general public not want to know?
Even the by-the-metre journalism of the broadsheets seems to reduce everything to the domestic. (The broadsheets too – as trained – led by their editors’ expectations of their readers?) Theirs the kind of journalism that talks cleverly about stupid people and by so doing endows their stupidity with a patina of knowingness. For that ‘knowing’ audience what they write even of men who produced great works of art is that they were at times unkind to their womenfolk; or of those women, who devoted themselves to a life of art, that more importantly they had extra-marital or lesbian affairs.
Many of art’s own practitioners however have become so accepting of what has been presented to them as ‘art’ that they have become unaware that much of that ‘art’ was but propaganda, the wealthy glamourising their leisure pursuits. Then, following traditions of the genre, these latterday ‘artists’ come to believe that their every new endeavour because new is a radical art form, when they have become but comfortable practitioners of a craft. (Regards writers I’m not referring here to those who are obviously publishers’ lackeys but rather to those who are culture’s dupes.) Art is not a safe occupation. Art to be art has to be dangerous, has to put the artist in danger – critically, physically, emotionally, socially, spiritually in danger. Art’s one purpose is to make its audience see with a clear eye. To do that it has to upset preconceptions, not fulfil them, and hope – vainly probably – for positive reaffirming reviews in the free press.
© Sam Smith 18th November 2015