I don’t know much about art but I know what I like… 

I hate to sound like a Top Gear-viewing father-of-two on a daytrip to the Tate Modern, but I realised today that I don’t understand contemporary poetry. 

I read a lot of it, too, because poetry is important to me and I want to keep up with what other people are doing. So I skim Ambit, The Rialto, Antiphon etc. I admit I also want to find out what is being published, because I always think I should submit more of my own work.

And I don’t get it. Any of it. They’re all just short stories about nothing, written in very short paragraphs. There’s no consistent stanza – everything is formatted like e e cummings with a broken TAB key. There’s definitely no metre. And Jesus Christ, if you think you’ve found a rhyme you must have imagined it. 

And I know poetry doesn’t have to rhyme. I know there is such a thing as free verse, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But when did everything except non rhyming free verse disappear? 

When did every poem become about waking up in New York and checking your iPhone while musing on how disconnected you are from modern life? Or about reconciling your second generation immigrant status with the fact you’re middle class as fuck?

Oh God. I’ve done it. I’ve become the reactionary sophist prick I’ve always feared. 

I think the last Anglophone poet I could read and understand consistently was Auden. Fucking hell, that’s such a twatty thing to say, but it’s true. I could understand him because he was testing and trying to see where his skills and his experiences fit into the great tradition of verse extending back to Homer. He thought of his predecessors as colleagues. He wanted to have something to say to them.

Now, it’s like every poem is about how do I fit into the contemporary. How do I find my agency in a sea of Starbucks and Uber apps and Apple products? (The DeLilloification of verse?) Or, can I find the meaning of life in a quaint relationship I had with a mildly eccentric friend?

There’s probably an element of jealousy here. I feel like saying, I want to write about the universe, gods and demons, love and death, darkness and art, time’s impermanence. I stress over every bloody word I put down on paper. And you’re getting paid for prosing about drinking tea in a cafe in the afternoon. 

I’m going to stop there before I crystallise into an English professor at a dusty 19th century boarding school, the unseen villain of Dead Poets Society. 

The Evening’s Redness in the West 

Compared to 2016, during which I read more than a book a week, I’ve barely touched a tome this year. That changed a fortnight ago, when I needed something to occupy my brain while hiding in a Marrakech hotel room from the North African sun. I’d brought with me Cormac McCarthy’s 1985 epic Blood Meridian, a novel I really only speed-read about eight years or so ago, so it was a relatively fresh experience. 

I’m not sure if I have much to add to the critical furore over the book, which is chiefly centred around the prose and imagery. I’ve seen Mccarthy variously described as the greatest living stylist in any language and the heir to Faulkner. Harold Bloom’s general panegyrics probably do not need repeating here. Blood Meridian has been hailed as both his masterpiece and the best American novel by anyone after 1950. 

There’s a great deal about his writing I find hypnotic and fascinating. He constantly reminds me of a something once written about Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying: epic as the Old Testament, American as Huckleberry Finn. (Unlike Faulkner, McCarthy is also as bloody as the Hebrew Bible.) But there are frequently moments I find myself saying it loud, “Oh, come on” and wanting to reach for a red pen. McCarthy is decidedly not a purveyor of le mot juste, and sometimes the excessive sizzle denotes an overdone steak. There are even times when I cannot, for the life of me, understand what it is McCarthy is trying to say, and like him I am a devotee of Joyce – from whom, it must be said, McCarthy learned all the wrong lessons. Judging by his interviews, he seems to think Joyce’s greatness lies in his lack of punctuation… But that’s only true of Molly Bloom’s soliloquy. True, as early as Dubliners Joyce sacked off speech marks, but he never possessed the terror of commas McCarthy ascribes him. Furthermore, Dubliners is an exhibition of precise language, whereas so much of Blood Meridian is just an accumulation of syntactically loose jetsam. 

(I don’t have a copy of the book with me, but I can return with examples.)

I don’t mind idiosyncracy in a writer, especially not when such power can be derived from it. McCarthy’s writing conveys real menace – Judge Holden is a genuinely frightening and brilliantly realised character, although anyone calling him “the most terrifying […] in all of American literature” as Harold Bloom did has never encountered Dr Benway. 

(In fact, all of the nonsense about whether or not the Judge is Satan misses the point obvious to a comic book reader: Holden is actually Darkseid, just like Benway is Desaad.)

Which brings me to another unfavourable and perhaps odd comparison I found myself making. Blood Meridian is, to its credit, a Hieronymous Bosch painting of the American West, but an inferior one to Burroughs’ truly revelationary Western Lands trilogy. Where McCarthy is idiosyncratic, Burroughs is experimental. Where McCarthy hints at the numinous, Burroughs eviscerates it. And where I see McCarthy as a genius and visionary amateur, Burroughs seems ever more the master – A real American Moses wandering down from Mount Sinai chewing on psychedelic cacti.

Learning Italian

Is there a word for philological wanderlusting? Whatever it is, every so often I suffer it painfully and have to have a crack at a new tongue.

In this case, the stimulant was the knowledge I will never get the full hit of Dante without at least attempting to stumble through it in the original. This is self-evident from a mere glance at the untranslated text, which hides rhymes within rhymes and stacks rhymes on top of rhymes, vs the comparatively rhymeless English of the courageous interpreter who can never give more than a flavour of Dante’s endless cascade of onos and oros and itas and ritas and ortes and elles and ivas and inas.

I’d also realised it’s generally true of the language while rolling around a few memorised lines of Petrarch in my head:

Aura che quelle chiome bionde et crespe
cercondi et movi, et se’ mossa da loro,
soavemente, et spargi quel dolce oro,
et poi ’l raccogli, e ’n bei nodi il rincrespe…

In the first line, every non-conjuctive word but one ends in the same letter. The majority of words in the text end in vowel sounds, which adds immeasurably to il dolce suono. There’s also a beautiful da-da-DUM da-DUM-da rhythm that runs through, but that’s less a linguistic feature than something unique to Petrarch’s art.

(Does anyone else short-change “Petrarch” one of his Rs when typing his name? No matter how many times I type it knowing it’s “Petrarch,” I always seem to type “Petrach” and have to backspace past the C.)

Learning Italian to read Dante and Petrarch is also one of the prescriptions for poetic mastery given by Ezra Pound. (Along with learning Chinese – I’ll leave that one alone for now.)

I’ve always said I don’t have a head for languages, but I’m not sure if it’s more true that I don’t have a head for French, which is a language I’ve been studying on and off, formally and informally, for seventeen years and I still can’t do much more than follow the gist of a conversation. A few years ago I started learning spoken Russian via Pimsleur tapes, and within a few weeks I could comfortably pass the time of day. I read a course in Gaelic at university in order to get a better grip of Irish texts, and picked up a lot in a short space of time.

Likewise, studying Italian with the Duolingo app has been a great deal of fun where French was always a chore. I’m not sure if it’s the subject matter – I’ve accidentally developed an almost A.E. Houseman*-esque contempt for French poetry beside Rimbaud, Baudelaire, and Verlaine, whereas I genuinely love Dante, Petrarch, Ariosto, Foscolo, Leopardi, Ariosto and Michelangelo’s sonnets. I’ve also suffered through Sartre and Camus in French, but I find them to be bores even in translation – maybe I need to turn my attention to a true prose aesthete like Flaubert.

In any case, this may or may not all come to nothing, but hopefully it keeps the brain nice and limber if nothing else.

*An anecdote tells us Houseman once asked the great Andre Gide at dinner why it was the French have never produced any poetry of note. Gide’s response was the quite get-out-of-jail-free-card retort, “What is poetry?” But to fight this bias, I have purchased the splendid Jacques Barzun’s “Essay on French Verse: For Readers of English Poetry.”