‘No poet has his complete meaning alone’
As explained by T.S. Eliot in ‘Tradition and the Individual Talent’ writing a poem in the form and style of another, a poem often prefaced with the epithet of after, pays homage to the influence of the poets of the past and their role in the contemporary. Written in 1919, Eliot’s essay was followed two years later by ‘The Sacred Wood’, an essay ostensibly about poets and critics, but revealing more about Eliot’s own poetics, which contains the oft-quoted (or mis-quoted) phrase ‘immature poets imitate, mature poets steal’. In ‘Tradition and the Individual Talent’ Eliot had advised that ‘The poet must develop or procure the consciousness of the past’. In two years Eliot is able to move from the word ‘procure’ to the word ‘steal’ and then implement his beliefs on a large scale in his seminal book The Wasteland, published a year later in 1922. Importantly, Eliot is open about acknowledging influence, feeling if the past is appropriated conscientiously, the contemporary poet can create ‘something new’. The quote about poets stealing therefore needs to be set alongside the paragraph from which the quote was extracted:
“Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different.”
Fifty years after The Wasteland Harold Bloom’s The Anxiety of Influence, published in 1972, picked up the thread of Eliot’s argument and added a new twist. In contending that all literary texts are a response to the literary texts that preceded them, Bloom argues that often the source texts are misread and therefore misinterpreted, the implication being that the healthy influence of past texts posited by Eliot might be misappropriated, diluted, perhaps resulting in a dumbing-down. For any, new, contemporary poet Bloom’s and Eliot’s theories add ominous weight to the enterprise of writing poetry. The poet needs to read widely the poets of the past, not be overawed by reverence and not too anxious of their influence, lest they misappropriate, or compare unfavourably. However, the poet undergoing a long apprenticeship of reading and studying (poets and critics) is in a stronger position than the poet who does not. Allowing that there might be a genius poet able to write great poems (there aren’t many, if any?) without being aware of a ‘tradition’, it is advisable a poet goes through a period writing in imitation, homage and dedication before they develop their own poetic style.
Poems requiring the epithet after are inspired by other poems and other poets’ use of form and style (and often content). I found myself writing several afters in 'The Mask' my first collection of poems recently published by Lapwing Publications in Belfast. Most often, it is a following of form and style or tone, but sometimes it is a (rhetorically) deep mirroring of subject matter, which can include the use of similar language and, when that is not sufficient, direct quotations from the source poet.
The after poems are honourable ventures, and stand at the opposite end of the spectre of plagiarism; they are an important learning vehicle for the poet, but they are not without disadvantages. What if the new poem produced is an embarrassing, risible imitation of the original? I felt this with a poem called ‘For Coleman Hawkins’. It was inspired by Philip Larkin’s poem ‘For Sydney Bechet’. I wanted to write my own homage to Coleman Hawkins so, with the exception of one rhyme scheme change, I followed the form of Larkin’s poem. Of course, the content is very different, but the shimmering quality of Larkin’s poem shines through fifty years after it was written.
‘After’ poems are written on reading and becoming linguistically hypnotised by a poet’s use of language. Something like a transference occurs, with language operating at a deep and rhythmic level of consciousness (another Eliot concept). The poet-reader compelled soon after to write his or her own poems in the style of, after, another poet. It is as if poets are participating in a specialised ‘language game’. There is, importantly, an element of inhabiting in the after. In transference, an inhabiting of the mind-language of another, and moved by the rhythms of consciousness, leads to a throwing of someone else’s voice, mimicking or wearing a mask. This inhabiting is similar to an actor in role or a poet speaking and thinking in the imagined first person of characters who may be fictional. The poems inhabiting are effectively an immersion and a sub-conscious development of the poems named after and continue the poet’s development.
After after come poems of dedication or homage, poems prefaced with the word for. This is salutary in many ways. To dedicate a poem to another can be a ‘thank you’ for the influence and therefore linked to the after poems, but it can also serve to highlight the poet’s independence. (i.e., Now I am writing my own poems I can safely say you will like this, or I am confident enough in this poem that I can add weight to its reach by dedicating it to a great dead poet [whom I’ve never met]). In this sense, the for and after poems are linked to The Great Tradition and emblematic, related to earning one’s stripes and saluting the people who helped you on your way. The for poems are useful stepping stones for the poet, but can be harmful if the reader feels excluded by personal dedications, and hurtful to the poet if the dedicatees (if they are alive) are embarrassed to be associated with the poem dedicated.
The final part of the would-be poet’s progress is a rumination on subject matter; after writing in a gamut of modes the poet moves toward a preferred stye of their own.
'I will bear you away and slice you and splice you till that shall suffice you for your writings and ill-gotten plagiarising’
- Herman Hesse
In recent years, the spectre of plagiarism has haunted the poetry world. Several well known poets have been accused of plagiarism and have been stripped of awards and competition winnings. If the poets had acknowledged the influences of (in these cases) their contemporaries, they would have been free from such damaging accusations, and still been able to bring to the world good new poems. One is innocently at risk from plagiarism if one hasn’t read widely and inadvertently uses a phrase that is extant and well known in poetry circles. Perhaps this phrase is so well known that it has become an everyday cliché (say, a Shakespearean maxim) that the poet lazily reclaims as everyday spoken language. And there is the odd occurrence that can be attributed to the notion of great minds thinking alike. In 2004 I wrote a poem called ‘Rain’ which ends with the phrase ...’in someone else’s Rain’. It is not a good poem, but I came to the phrase in the context of a poem questioning how other poets (Neruda/Cummings) wrote about rain. The poem shows how logical it was to use that phrase given what had preceded it, yet several years later I found the same phrase in a poem of John Burnside’s. I had not read John Burnside’s work by 2004 and Rain was written after the John Burnside poem, so neither of us were plagiarising each other! Notwithstanding the rare accidents of plagiarism, if poets followed the rites of passage of afters and fors, (homage and dedication) they would protect themselves from accusations of ill-gotten gains, for there is no pleasure or satisfaction having a poem commended that is not one’s own.
I am a writer, editor and gardener living in the Calder Valley, West Yorkshire. I have a degree and masters in Literature and Philosophy undertaken while living in London. I obtained a PGCE in English and History and taught for two years in a secondary school in England (age range: 11-18). My writing credits can be viewed here. I have had two poetry books published and am co-translator of Alain-Fournier:Poems (Carcanet, 2016). I am an editor and associate publisher at The High Window Press.
The Mask' is a book of imitations, impersonations and inhabitations exploring the notion of identity and persona. The poet wears the mask in order to explore the voices of a range of poets and historical characters including: Thomas Hardy, Alice Oswald, Glenn Ford, Jack The Ripper, William of Ockham.
Peter Riley in The Fortnightly Review wrote of 'The Mask'...
'The book confirms the virtuosic, lively manner: serious/comical, explicit/enigmatic, direct/ironical, streetwise/scholarly, sometimes all of these at the same time and above all, unpredictable.'
A longer review of the book can be read here
Review by Anthony Costello
On the front cover of Resurrection Party there is a detail from Michael Wolgemut's 'Danse Macabre' and the poems within are illustrated with six plates of skeletons in various states of wild relief at being alive, or resurrected. When I chose to review this book (based on the title and cover art alone) I expected something dark, ghoulish and harrowing; drawn, despite my scaredy-cat everyday existence, to the subconscious, the bad dream, the other, the bad spirit...in a word, the 'macabre'. How relieved I was to find that the book was less macabre than I had anticipated; relieved, but not disappointed as Michalle Gould's book is much deeper, philosophical, truthful and profound for avoiding the macabre route into the readers' imagination. But then, why the title? I hope I am not being pedantic, but there is neither a party atmosphere, nor a wholesale interest in the theme of resurrection. Perhaps the title stuck after the author published a chapbook in 2007 with the same title. This book is more about metamorphosis, transmogrification, transmigration or metempsychosis and more fascinating for it.
Resurrection Party begins with the reality of death in 'How Not to Need Resurrection' where "children like to play at death/they hold their breath/and cross their arms and shut their eyes". As Wordsworth felt the child was the father of the man because of the child's effortless insight into things, Gould has children as "the first resurrectionists" as they know "that once you believe in death, you must surely die". But this is about as morbid as it gets until we reach the end of the the book in part six and the wonderfully ghoulish and exquisitely titled 'Self-Portrait as an Ampoule of Martyr's Blood Buried with Them in Their Tomb' where
"Any heart is an ampoule of blood
Entombed inside a human body,
A vial, a closed coffin made of glass.
To open us, you must snap our necks"
What comes between the beginning and end of this 74-page book is a variety of experiences of transfiguration and, perhaps, even a sub-conscious yearning for some kind of conversion, a turning toward, in the latin sense, a belief system that can make sense of the challenges of being mortal. These transfigurative experiences occur at the philosophical level (there are poems about absolution and revelation, what it means to be alive and a poem titled 'Hamlet'), the physical level (there are poems about chastity, and wild things and landscapes full of wild animals), and the aesthetic (there are poems about museums and rare books and paintings and seven poems that begin with 'Self-Portrait...').
The self-portraits are interesting for their shifting perspectives. In 'Self-Portrait as a Rare Book Exhibited in a Museum in England' the narrator is the eponymous rare book, owned by a mysterious 'He', at his home dwelling "...on a shelf in his own library/where only his hand could open me", in 'Self-Portrait as a Series of Preparatory Studies for a Nude by Matisse' the narrator is the model telling us "the artist scrapes my flesh on to his brush/but cannot touch what lies beneath". In another lovers are depicted as hungry birds, in another the narrator is a feminised Rapunzel. These self-portraits are a way of interpreting different experiences of the same world, and when the world is not enough the world of myth from Medusa to the Minotaur.
There are many poems that are rooted in the physical world of matter, and not all of the decaying kind! The whimsical weighing of the body in 'Words from a Pound of Flesh', both the "scraps and ounces" of all the body parts or "the pulse as a single heaving mass" to the physical (both human and animal) and erotic charges of the needy body in 'Wild Things'
"My bed is warm tonight.
And spare. A length of wood.
A mat of grass. And hair.
Some animal is bare,
Tonight, under my bed.
Its fur embraces my Body.
I arch my back And sigh.
It licks its lips.
The skin slips off my toes.
Tonight, are you hungry?
Nibble away, oh monster.
My dreams await. meet me there"
There are more erotic shocks of physical pleasure in other poems where the notion of a sexual other being part human, part animal: "a chill creeps through my open window/life a thief, to pick my pocket/leaving a trail of wet behind it". Yet these physical moment of wonder are often dreamlike and imagined, and no matter how many times the narrator in these poems tries to attach her self to the physical... "I was the dune"..." I was the Mississippi"..."I was the lake", it is to the heavens, and the ethereal and the need to transform oneself in order to understand or reach a spiritual realm that this book is concerned with.
Gould has angels discussing Michaelangelo's 'Creation of Adam' questioning "Who is the master of this landscape?" And concludes the man is "but the mere image of a man". Angels in 'We were never angels' question whether they were ever angels ("we just looked the part. Taller. Bigger. Stronger"). Doubt prevails, heaven itself an egg "lying broken in half there" ('Revelation by Fire).The Fall is visceral in 'When I Fell to Earth'..."a chewed up piece of planet"..."a damaged star"..."a meteor"; in 'Signs' Gould poignantly ends the poem with the line "perhaps the end is already here".
However, there is acceptance, pantheistic at first with the narrator's identification with the physical phenomena of the earth, and then spiritual, a spirituality that has its source in the recurring motifs of love and longing. "And each time I fell, I wept, I said my God..." ('When I Fell to Earth'). Skies will fall but they will be born again. There is ultimately an identification with a creator in the moving and questioning poem 'Untitled', the subtle undercurrent of homilies for homecoming in other poems like 'On the Potential Appearance of Ressurection' and a poem called 'Spring Awakening'.
Some of the poems in in part four like 'Rectangle' and 'Square' detract from, and are an intellectual detour from, the book's main message, how human beings are a part of a whole which by its very nature is difficult to comprehend or tangibly locate. Gould sums up this dilemma brilliantly in 'Dirge for a Dinosaur by its Bones':
"Longing impresses itself
Into the form of the world
That surrounds it; replicating
Itself physically, in the image
Of the objects found nearest it.
We are haunted not by a ghost,
But its corporal incarnation,
As a wound sometimes reminds us
By its shape of the very instrument
Of its creation. As, yesterday,
During installation at the museum,
Our shadow grew up on the wall,
Until we seem for a moment to be
(Reassembled at last after such long separation)
Joined once more to that same flesh
Which failed to prevent our extinction"
A powerful poem that somehow manages to exist at a viable point between Plato's Cave and Holy Communion. Despite a reasonably steady dose of glass coffins and amputated arms Resurrection Party is always looking for a way out of the dark premise, the claustrophobic impasse. There is more air than dark, more beautiful poetry than negatively spiralling enquiry.
I am particulary pleased to see that Michalle Gould didn't overuse metaphor in the course of her endeavour, which would have been forgivable given the subject matter. Many critics and poets feel that metaphor recreates the world. It can, but overuse can render poetry a cliche. Here, metaphors just running the length of a phrase or a line suffice, like "snow is a country doctor" or "leaves as hands" in 'New England Boarding School:Winter' and 'Signs', respectively.
These are accomplished poems in a range of forms - free verse, rhyming quatrains, couplets - full of intelligence and lyricism. Don't be put of by the surname Gould (a weak pun on ghoul I have avoided so far) as this collection shows Michalle to be a sensitive soul, even sensitive to the plight of clouds:
"Tonight, the clouds
Are tired of flying
Above the earth
Suspended by chains
They long for rest
They long for the day
When the ground
Will accept them
They will sleep
On its surface
In pools of puddled white
In their place
The heavens will be strewn
With lawns of grass
('Tonight, the clouds')"
Review by Anthony Costello
A necessarily bijou review for Gertrude's Attic, a bijou chapbook, beautifully designed by Chris Edwards at Vagabond Press. In a novel and ambitious undertaking Jaimie Gusman, author of One Petal Row and The Anyjar interweaves the poetry (and poetics) of Gertrude Stein into the fabric of her own poetic outlook. The three sections to this book - Heirlooms, Scraps of Lace, Drawings - draw on Stein's collected works, including her essays and her novel Ida. However, these borrowings are never onerous or misapplied, but placed at pivotal points in Gusman's own poetic endeavour.
While 'Gertrude's Attic', the eponymous poem in part two, is like peering into a doll's house where clothes are folded "into triangles", and closets are opened and "everything is stored up above one finished breath", elsewhere the poems read like a story pieced together from a mosaic or tapestry where tassels, sofas, dresses, dolls and costumes sit alongside surreal (the sky as an empty fruit basket!) and modern motifs you would expect in a book referencing Gertrude Stein.
Despite Gusman's immersion in Stein's oeuvre this is not purely a homage. Gusman riffs off Stein and her 'notes on the text' dutifully credit the influence, but the influence is often light: Stein's "What is the use of a violent kind of delightfulness" in her 'A Substance in Cushion' becomes "the generous interest in a violent appearance" in Gusman's 'Ghazal', for example. Gusman tenderly rearranges and softly utilises text fron the same Stein poem in 'Villanelle' and 'Vegetable' to make this book very much her own. (Elsewhere, Gusman acknowledges Stein in quotations and in italics when the referencing is more concrete.)
There is an interesting mix of form and style in Gertrude's Attic from the storytelling technique of 'Baby' to the poetic prose of 'Candelabra', from the experimental 'A page Ever Coming' to the modernist 'Hair' and 'Drawers'. The language use is varied too, from the imagistic in 'Some Reactions To Being Alice'
"the arctic cookbook, your
Ice cakes, cold cream hands
up and down the spine like a fork"
to the narrative and lyrical in 'Tomato Seedlings'
"I ask our Ida when she'll go back
to Washington because I am reading the book
on how to escape Ohio without ever leaving
Washington is a bitter spring,
white tulips scatter like frozen teeth.
I meet our Ida there at a bar called Al's"
There is much to admire in Gertrude's Attic. The writing is sweetly pitched and poised. I can't always be sure if the poet's experience in Gertrude's attic is metaphoric or real, but this balance between walking literally in Stein's shoes ("we try them on and walk through her house") and the figurative is sustained throughout. It is definitely a richer reading experience for knowing Stein's work, or re-descovering her work, but this fact should not deter the would-be reader as the book can work independently of the Gertrude Stein connection. This is a book of more than one room, despite the potency of the title sometimes dominating. Gusman is able to move from attic rooms to flghts of fancy like this in the introduction:
"I had you by the tip of my genius
and you had me slumped over
a boxspring and a Riviera bedspread."
Other examples of virtuosic writing abound (..."her shadow prepares an oven/hot, a callous here and there, she sighs/that her nail beds are flimsy steroid-moons" and "Where are the glistening waistlines/that so briskly walked down/aisles before me?" in 'Some Reactions To Being Alice' and 'Birdsong', respectively). Gertrude's Attic is worth reading for the successful villanelle alone (no mean feat), and for the lively and engaging poetic questions it raises. I particularly liked the nuanced and sometimes complex use of 'we' in 'A Page Ever Coming'. I will finish with one of the stanzas in this four-page poem and with a general overall recommendation. I look forward to reading what the poet writes next.
"With all the birds eating the lint eating the atmosphere
I sat in the nothingness looking at the ink on my tiny thumb
and my tiny thumb on the white walls of a singular cell
built by We-men that make up a whole body of cells
and all I could think of was which We was hungry and which
We was full of ink."
Alain-Fournier:Poem (Carcanet, 2016)
Angles & Vision
High Window Press, March 2016
- The Mask,
Lapwing Publications, Belfast, 2014
- Schrödinger's Tail
(with 50 illustrations), Lapwing Publications, 2015...pending
- Schrödinger's Cat
Martin Rees, Professor of AstroPhysics at Cambridge University, called these 'highly original poems' 2011
- Dreaming Tigers
(a book of travel poems), 2012
- Here and Elsewhere
(an adaptation of Yves Bonnefoy's L'Arrieres-pays) 2013