Tag Archives: lyric poetry

Sunday Poem – Bryony Littlefair

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Sunday Poem – Bryony Littlefair

I have somehow, after getting a bit worn down with it, managed to find my way back to enjoying blogging every Sunday again.  I found my way back to this place, as with most things, through poetry, through finding poems that I felt I had to tell other people about otherwise I might burst.  More on that later.

It has been a strange kind of week this week.  I’ve been frantically preparing for my mock viva which is tomorrow afternoon.  I have to give a ten minute presentation and then discuss my PhD and the 6000 word report I handed in.  I received feedback on my report and this is what I have the presentation has to be about – a response to the feedback.  So I’ve been thinking about that this week, turning it over in my mind.  I bought myself some small cards and have written prompts on and I’m hoping that will help me when I’m doing the presentation.

One of the main questions raised in the feedback was why use poetry, and lyric poetry in particular, to address the gap I’ve identified.  Lucky for me I’ve been reading Jonathan Culler’s Theory of the Lyric for the last month or so, as I feel I can answer that one.  As the gap I’ve identified is that poets don’t seem to be writing about sexism in a sustained way (as in over a whole collection, rather than the odd poem) then it makes sense to try and do this in poetry.  But why lyric poetry? Lyric poetry is always balanced between inner and outer experience, between the individual and the social, between the personal and the political.  I like how it is often in two minds. I’ve enjoyed reading about lyric poetry having a long history of being socially engaged – Jonathan Culler talks about its roots in epideictic discourse – which is public discourse about meaning and value.  And when anyone asks why poetry, I always return to Adrienne Rich and this beautiful quote from her essay ‘Vesuvius at Home: The Power of Emily Dickinson’:

But there is a more ancient concept of the poet, which is that she is endowed to speak for those who do not have the gift of language, or to see for those who – for whatever reasons – are less conscious of what they are living through.

The last part of that sentence is central to my own work – the idea that poetry can make us look differently at the world.  This is exactly what listening to Claudia Rankine read from Citizen did for me and this is what happened to me when my friend David Tait sent me the manuscript of his new collection The AQI which contains a long central sequence exploring homophobia.  I became more conscious of the times we are living through, when homophobia and racism is rife, but some of us are lucky enough to not be directly affected by it.  Poetry can make us see the world differently, can make us more conscious of what we are living through.

David Tait has been on a brief visit to the UK for the past fortnight and we spent three days together hiking in the Lake District and eating cake – that was pretty much the extent of our activities. It was great to see him again – and I’m looking forward to his new collection, which will be coming out in May 2018.

So as well as having a welcome visitor and preparing for my mock viva, I’ve also been desperately trying to catch up with emails and admin.  I seem to be getting a lot more freelance work coming through at the moment, which is lovely, and maybe an after effect of winning the Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize, but it has made this week a little bit manic as I try and keep up with it.

I’m also now fully on with my training for the Coniston to Barrow, taking place in May this year.   Last year I got injured and am determined not to do the same thing again.  I’m building up my milage, but really dialling back the speed.  I ran my longest run in a while today – 12 and a half miles but didn’t go charging off up the hills which is my usual style, and it seems to have worked, as I have no aches or pains so far.

Back to the Sunday Poem! My lovely editor, Amy Wack at Seren, sent me some of the new books that Seren have just published.  One of them was a pamphlet by a poet called Bryony Littlefair, who won the Mslexia competition in 2017 with her pamphlet Giraffe.  I really loved this pamphlet – it felt like a complete breath of fresh air, every poem entertained me.

I chose ‘Sunday mornings’ not because this blog goes out on a Sunday (no chance I’d ever get round to posting this in the morning anyway!) although it is nicely apt that it’s Sunday.  Returning to Jonathan Culler who writes that every poem about a bird conjures up other poems about birds.  I think this is true, to a lesser and greater extent.  I can’t read a poem about a fox without thinking of Ted Hughes ‘The Thought-Fox’.   Hughes’ poem stands as a kind of shadow poem behind other fox poems, casting a different length of shadow depending on how close they are to each other.

‘Sunday mornings’ bought into my head one of my favourite contemporary poem ‘Those Winter Sundays’ by Robert Hayden.  They are two completely different poems of course.  Hayden is writing about ‘the chronic angers of that house’ and the different ways humans show love, or don’t, amongst other things, whilst Bryony’s poem seems to be a poem of learning to be alone, learning loneliness or selfhood.  But I think the music of the poems, their intrinsic rhythms are very close to each other, especially at the beginning.  The lovely first line of Bryony’s poem: ‘The truth is I’m not sure what I did’ – the way it seems to start mid-conversation seems to mirror the mid-conversation stance of ‘Sundays too my father got up early’.   Both poems seem to be addressing us, the readers directly – Bryony’s all the way through, and Robert Hayden’s seems to turn its face towards us with that last heartbreaking question – ‘What did I know, what did I know,/of love’s austere and lonely offices?’  Although I suppose both poems could also be addressing the self rather than a reader.

I love the humour in Bryony’s poem as well – ‘I’d spin/on the office chair, or curl up on patches/of carpet, pretending to be dead’ and earlier in the poem ‘I didn’t/do any of those things, nor the homework/I’d invented to excuse my godlessness’.  All the way through the pamphlet, she uses fantastic metaphors and similes, and this poem is no exception – look at ‘Alone in the hefty silence, I felt loose/and endangered, like an undone shoelace/or an open rucksack.’ I think those are so well chosen – of course an open rucksack is endangered – it could allow things to fall from it, or allow a thief to take something.  A shoelace is endangered because it could be stepped on, it could case a fall.  Both objects are not doing what they are supposed to be doing.

It made me think back to being a teenager and how hard it was to be alone.  At some point, my mum and dad eventually trusted my sister and I enough to leave us at home, but I was never alone as I had three sisters.  Even when my older sisters were out, I was always with my twin sister – in fact we weren’t allowed to hang out with friends without each other, which maybe accounts for how terrible I am at being alone now.  I can manage it if I’m busy, but I find it really hard if I’ve got nothing to do.

A little bit about Bryony Littlefair – she studied English Literature and Philosophy at the University of York.  Her various jobs have ranged from cupcake baker to Editorial Assistant to dementia support worker.  She currently works at the Abbey Community Centre in Kilburn and focuses on work with older people.  She is also Project Coordinator for The Reader in Croydon.  Her poetry has previously appeared in Popshot, The Cadaverine, Clear Poetry and Ink, Sweat and Tears.  

You can buy her pamphlet Giraffe direct from the Seren website here– I can’t recommend it highly enough.  I read it straight through in one sitting and then started again.  There are some cracking poems in there – other favourites are the title poem ‘Giraffe’ and the very funny ‘Usually I’m a different person at this party’ which starts ‘Usually my tights don’t fall down like this, leaving an airy prism/just below the crotch’ and just gets better and better (Is Bryony Littlefair in fact following me around documenting my life I wondered to myself at this point).  I also really liked ‘Lido’ which starts ‘Seeing you at the lido was/like walking past a house I used to live in’ and I used ‘Visitations from future self’ in my Dove Cottage Young Poets workshop a week or so ago, where it received a stamp of approval.

Sunday mornings – Bryony Littlefair

The truth is I’m not sure what I did
those mornings they’d leave, my mother
always in a floral capped-sleeve shirt.
I wish I could say I graffitied the newsagent,
or met with a nicotine-fingered boyfriend,
or learned Bertrand Russell by heart. I didn’t
do any of those things, nor the homework
I’d invented to excuse my godlessness.
Alone in the hefty silence, I felt loose
and endangered, like an undone shoelace
or an open rucksack.  I’d pace from room
to room, hands tucked up my sleeves.
I’d play snatches on the piano, or make
elaborate little snacks – crackers piled
with quartered grapes and shavings of cheese.
I was like a blunt knife, failing to cut
and apportion the hours.  I’d spin
on the office chair, or curl up on patches
of carpet, pretending to be dead.
I might have put on a CD, shaken
my hips to Run DMC, a jerky
figure of eight.  I might have filmed myself dancing.
I’d be choosing another colour for my nails
when the key would turn in the lock:
my parents, whole and returned,
having sung their hallelujahs
and walked back through the cool light rain.

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Sunday Poem – Jennifer Copley

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Sunday Poem – Jennifer Copley

I hope you haven’t missed me too much in this three week break (how did three weeks just fly by?). I’ve been hibernating from blogging, and getting through my last ‘busy period’.  In the intervening three weeks, I’ve spent a week running a residential in Grange-Over-Sands, at Abbot Hall Hotel.   It was a lovely week, with the opportunity to work with some fantastic poets from all over the country.  I was a bit sad because one of my regular course goers, who has been on every residential since I started running them had to cancel because of an unexpected hospital stay.  I know from personal experience how completely frustrating it can be, so I hope she is better soon.  It wasn’t quite the same without her either – she is a great laugh, and usually has the whole table at dinner in fits of laughter.  So get well soon Bernice!

It was perfect running weather in Grange, but I’ve been having problems with my IT Band, giving me pain at the side of my knee since I did the 14 mile race round Coniston, so I managed to resist, and went swimming in the hotel pool instead.  It’s not the same as running, but I enjoyed it still.  I used to swim at a club when I was younger, I think I swam nearly every night for quite a few years so it bought a few memories back.  I’ve been keeping the swimming up as every time I try to run, my knee hurts again.  I did parkrun yesterday but I can still feel the niggle there, so I think I’m going to have another two weeks off to see if that sorts it out.  I just want to get it right ready for the summer, I don’t want to be stuck indoors unable to run!

I’m waiting to hear back about my revised RD1 now as well, but I’ve carried on with my reading.  I bought a book called After Confessionalism: Poetry as Autobiography which is a collection of essays by American poets about confessional and lyric poetry.  I started to wonder whether my poems about experiences of sexism are actually confessional poetry.  The thing about these poems is that they have to be true.  They have to be a ‘lived experience of sexism’.  If I made them up, or appropriated someone else’s experience of sexism as my own, I think the reader would rightly feel manipulated, or annoyed.  Their power needs to come from the fact that they are an individual experience, but that they reach out into a wider social context, that they are recognisable by other women.  I felt uncomfortable and worried about having the confessional label applied to my poetry, and then started to wonder why that was.  I think it gets used as a dismissive/disparaging term still.  Like most labels, it’s not actually very helpful, and I’m halfway through this book of essays and haven’t found a definition of ‘confessional poetry’ that I agree with yet.

Joan Aleshire, in an essay included in the book called ‘Staying News: A Defense of the Lyric’ writes that

“In the confessional poem, as I’d like to define it, the poet, overwhelmed or intoxicated by the facts of his or her life, lets the facts take over.  To say that a poem is confessional is to signal a breakdown in judgement and craft. Confession shares with the lyric a degree of self-revelation but carries implications that the lyric resists.  The Oxford English Dictionary defines confession as the declaration or disclosure of something that one has allowed to remain secret as being prejudicial, humiliating, or inconvenient to oneself; the disclosure of private feeling; a plea of guilty, an admission of what one has been charged with,; a formal confession made in order to receive absolution.  I see the confessional poem as a plea for special treatment, a poem where the poet’s stance is one of particularity apart from common experience.  Confession in art, as in life, can be self-serving – an attempt to shift the burden of knowledge from speaker-transgressor to listener.”

First of all, I don’t think this definition works when applied to the original poets like Lowell, Plath, Berryman etc that the term was coined for, although later on in the essay, Aleshire looks in detail at some of Lowell’s work to illustrate her point.  I just don’t buy that bit about being ‘overwhelmed or intoxicated by the facts of his or her life’.    I don’t buy the ‘breakdown in judgement and craft’.  Surely that’s just a bad poem, not a confessional one?

The term ‘confessional poetry’ was coined by the critic Mack Rosenthal in 1959 in a review of Robert Lowell’s collection ‘Life Studies’.  He defined confessional poetry as ‘poetry that goes beyond customary bounds of reticence or personal embarrassment.’

Both of these definitions are problematic.  The original definition of confessionalism assumes that there is a generic boundary of reticence/embarrassment that we all share, which is obviously untrue – although I guess that we are still bound by convention in some ways, there are some things that there is general agreement shouldn’t be talked about, but since 1959, this boundary, this border has shifted massively.

Going back to my own work, I’m not sure my poetry fits this 1959 definition.  It kind of does – it is uncomfortable to point out sexism still or to talk about it.  It’s often the ‘elephant in the room’ that doesn’t get acknowledged, but whether it crosses the boundary of ‘personal embarrassment’ – I’m not sure.  Doesn’t every poem cross the boundary of reticence to be heard?

So back to Joan Aleshire.  I’m not ashamed to say that sometimes I’ve been overwhelmed when writing a poem.  Sometimes I’m writing so fast in my notebook it feels like I’m riding a wave.  However, this is only in the moment of first getting the ideas down.  Once I start editing, it is a very cold, hard and calculating process.  The part about the ‘facts taking over’ is interesting.  Because of what I’m writing about, a lived experience of sexism, there has to be a contract between myself and the reader, that what I’m writing is true.  Otherwise the whole thing becomes pointless.  At this point in my reading, I’m distracted by looking up ideas of truth in poetry, and the idea of there being only versions of the truth anyway, but I won’t go into that here.  The rest of the definition, which centers on the premise of ‘confession’ kind of fits but doesn’t.  The poems are not an admission of guilt, although I have felt ashamed when I’ve examined my own reaction/collusion with sexism.  I don’t want to receive absolution though, or give it.  I want to hold transactions that I have made in the society we live in up to the light to see exactly what is going on.  Finally, the idea of shifting the ‘burden of knowledge’.  This doesn’t work for me either – as often when I start writing these poems, I’m writing about a memory that I’ve carried for a long time, without even knowing why I’ve carried it for so long.  I’m writing to find something out.

So maybe I’m not writing confessional poetry, or maybe the term is undefinable.  Maybe it never worked in the first place.  So what am I writing? I like Joan Aleshire’s definition of lyric poetry much better.  She says

the true lyric poem – can, through vision, craft, and objectivity toward the material, give a sense of commonality with unparalleled intimacy.

Joan Aleshire tells us that

T.S. Eliot in “The Three Voices of Poetry” defines the lyric as “the voice of the poet speaking to himself, oppressed by a burden that he must bring to relief.”

These definitions feel much more comfortable to me.  I love the idea of intimacy juxtaposed with commonality, a reaching outward.  If the poems about experiences of sexism are working, if they are living breathing things then this is what they will do.

The good thing about this book is that the essay writers often disagree or outright contradict each other.

I’ve really enjoyed reading this book, and I’ve not reached the last chapter yet, which focuses on women’s poetry, which I know will be interesting, because I think the term ‘confessional’ is applied to women poets much more frequently than to men.  What I’m not sure about is whether what I’m doing now, is actually what ‘doing a PhD’ is.  Is reading the book on the train and making notes ‘doing a PhD’.  Is writing my thoughts out on this blog, which has helped make them a lot clearer ‘doing a PhD?’  Why hasn’t someone written a handbook about creative writing PhD’s which would have a chapter that defines what ‘doing a PhD’ actually is? If this is ‘doing a PhD’ then I’m bloody loving it.  If it’s not, then I’m a bit screwed, because I’ve spent the whole week doing something else entirely.

Apart from PhD work, I’ve also managed to finish a review that was overdue for Under the Radar magazine of two fantastic books by Emily Berry and Sabrina Mahfouz, played second trumpet in a duet piece for one of my remaining trumpet student’s GCSE performance, worked with Pauline Yarwood to finalise proofs for Kendal Poetry Festival brochures, had a filling (completely traumatising) and organised with Clare Shaw a ‘Feminist Poetry Jambouree’.  What an amazing night that was.  We stopped counting the audience at about 70.  It was such a great thing to be part of, and lots of the audience were new to poetry as well, and had come because it was a feminist event, or because it was political.  I’m sure themed poetry readings are the way forward! We also raised £200 to be split between The Birchall Trust (a local charity that works with survivors of sexual abuse) and Let Go (a charity that works with victims of domestic violence).

My exciting piece of news is that I’ve been invited to read at Struga Poetry Evenings, a poetry festival in Macedonia in August, as part of the Versopolis project that I’m currently part of.  Versopolis is a funded project to help emerging poets reach a wider, more international audience.  Through Versopolis, I went to Croatia at the Goran’s Spring Festival in 2015 and had a brilliant time, so I’m really looking forward to Macedonia.  I’ll be at the festival for a week, and then the husband is going to meet me there on the last day of the festival (he is doing some epic and ridiculous bike ride to get there) and then we’re going to have a holiday together.  As long as he doesn’t expect me to get on the pushbike!

In December, I’m running my ‘Poetry Carousel‘ residential course again for the third year running.  As far as I know, nobody else is doing anything like this in the UK.  The basic premise is instead of the usual two poetry tutors on a residential, the lucky participants on the Poetry Carousel will get four – myself, David Morley, Hilda Sheehan and Steve Ely.  You will be in a group of no more than eight, and your group of eight will get a two hour workshop with each tutor.   There will be a maximum of 32 people booked on the course, but the workshop groups will be small and intimate.  In the evening, we all come together for readings from the tutors and guest poets, and it feels more like a festival than a residential.  It’s taking place at Abbot Hall Hotel from the 8th-11th December 2017 and costs £360 for the weekend.  This includes all of your meals (breakfast, lunch and three course evening meal) plus accommodation and workshops.  If you are interested, please give the hotel a ring to book your room on 015395 32896.  The best rooms always go first, so if you like a bit of luxury, please book early!

Today’s Sunday Poem is by my good friend Jennifer Copley, who I tutored with last week on the residential course.  We shared a lodge together for the first time and it was a bit like living with a small bird.  Jenny trilled her way round the lodge, singing snatches of Methodist hymns and other tunes.    Jenny’s new pamphlet was published just in time for the residential course.  It’s called ‘Some Couples’ and does what it says on the tin, exploring the world of coupledom in Jenny’s usual surreal style.  It is a HappenStance pamphlet, so you know it’s going to be good! You can order it direct from them HERE, and make a hardworking, independent publisher very happy.

I love this poem for it’s childlike, wide-eyed tone at the beginning.  Jenny’s poems always have their own inner logic, and I love how the reader goes with the idea of a mouse having a favourite corner, but then she pushes it further and convinces us that the corner has an opinion and worries of its own, and then even further still, with the introduction of the idea that the corner has a mother.  The poem doesn’t give us all the answers however – what would a corner’s mother look like? For me, the whole poem lights up in the third stanza, with that direct interjection from the author.  The use of the word ‘little’ works really hard for such an innocuous word to illustrate the fondness of the author for the corner.  And then finally there is that lovely image of the mouse returning to finish off.

The Two Friends – Jennifer Copley

A small mouse sits in a corner of a field.
It’s his favourite corner
where he feels safe.
The corner is happy to have him.

Sometimes the mouse has to go away.
The corner worries he won’t come back,
that he’ll find a better corner elsewhere.
A long time ago the corner’s mother did just that.
The corner had only a few cold-hearted stones to turn to.

Don’t worry, little corner! I am the writer of this poem
and I can reveal the mouse will always return
though his fur be more and more bedraggled
going through all those hedges, brambles and nettles.