Tag Archives: Poetry

Environmental Studies – Maureen Duffy

Reading poetry is something that I have to admit I don’t do very often. I think it is because whenever I try and read poems I inevitably feel like I am a philistine, stupid or that I am back in the classroom at St John’s and getting more and more upset that I don’t understand what some of these bloody things mean. I think poetry is very like art (and yes I know it is art but I mean art you hang on the wall art, or sculpt in some cases) because it is so subjective, some people (like myself) might like Picasso others may think he is an abstract mess. I tend to like poems that rhyme and which in some way I can apply to the real world in all its grubbiness or glory. As it is National Poetry Day though, and after a short natter with Kate about poems, I decided I would pick up a poetry collection (while I am at home with a voice like Mariella) and spend the day with it and report back with my thoughts. I plumped for Maureen Duffy’s latest collection, Environmental Studies.

Enitharmon Press, paperback, 2013, poetry, 64 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

You may be thinking, why on earth would someone who still has nightmares about English lessons choose a collection with a title that looked like it was designed for a classroom? This was my thoughts actually after I had grabbed it from the shelf. Yet Environmental Studies is not at all laborious or dull as it might be in a school context. It is a vibrant collection of poems that cover nature, culture, various periods in history and indeed the authors own personal history.

I have mentioned that I like poetry that I can relate to, and while none of them rhyme, I found myself incredibly drawn into this collection. My favourite poems were the ones about nature, we have poems dedicated not to all the fancy animals you might imagine but to woodlice, slugs, snails, pigeons and even the beautiful yet pesky parakeets that have made themselves so at home in London. I loved these particularly because they chimed in with my own thoughts, particularly Woodlouse because I have always been oddly fascinated by them, Sluggish as I have always questioned the point of slugs, Parakeets as when I lived in London they fascinated me, though the bloody squawking they would make was horrendous.  Here Duffy and I connected with our similar opinions of these creatures. Oh I almost forgot Pigeon Dancing is just wonderful, we have all seen a male pigeon trying its luck at any possible mate haven’t we?

Duffy and I also connected over the importance of keeping the small things in life and the feelings they can evoke. There are a couple of these which celebrate the smallest most random of things which are also the things which make us human. Who knew I could be so moved by a poem about an address book, thermometers or tools and yet I was.

Address Book

They come at me every year at this time
off the pages of my address book
my largely secular saints, the ones I no longer
can send carefully handpicked cards to
faces and voices I haven’t the heart
or something, even to cross out. The book’s
falling to pieces, held together now
with a rubber band, and by that same token
love token, when I should by another
enter only the current, living, my hand
draws back, like a Christian commanded
to put a pinch of incense on the emperor’s altar
an image of secular Shaw, I know.
I did say unsanctified saints. But in
the old world of falling night and frost
this was the time to wake the dying sun
the dead earth. So I invoke my lost ones
off these pages, tattered, battered by years
and tears, but with their living names still.

In Environmental Studies Duffy also brings up the subject of culture and art. Now here I was slightly worried, art being so subjective and all, yet Duffy does something very clever. She looks at the story behind the art, so for example in Portrait and Figurine she looks at the people behind the picture be they the artist or the subject and I thought that was rather wonderful. It also made me feel a bit clever and reminded me that art is initially in the eye of the artist, yet it is in only in our eyes that we can try and work it out, be it the story behind it or whether we like it.

I have to admit that with the more religious and historical based poems I did struggle a little bit more. However they weren’t all lost on me at all, I just didn’t always know what historical person, myth or legend (for there are many of those and I loved the poem from a medieval dragon’s perspective a lot) I was meant to be connecting with. Up rose that moment of ‘oh Simon you aren’t knowledgeable enough’ but I just enjoyed the pace and the words and carried on. There were some marvellous moments though when having a classicist for a mother paid off and really added to the experience, I will be taking my copy to her tomorrow. These historical pieces are not dry though, they are full of adventure, drama and comedy – the classic poets would approve I am sure.

Uses of a Classical Education

Narcissus is up the gym three nights a week.
Out on a binge Ariadne fell for the prettiest
boy in the rout who dumped her later.
Ganymede’s been swept of his feet again
and by the villa pool Daphne shrivels
under the sun. Callisto pregnant on IVF
goes around like a bear with a sore head.
But let me still be your all encompassing cloud
your shower of gold or just carry you away in my arms.

I loved the authors poems of personal history though. Those childhood dinners, the pastimes their parents had and of how things must be cherished and scrimped and saved, the atmosphere being very evocative. (See I can’t tell you about all the poetry tricks but I can tell you how they made me feel which I think counts as much if not more, he says not being defensive at all!) I also really loved poems where Duffy looks at the modern world, which she seems to both celebrate and be baffled by, along with the nostalgia for the old, like in the sublime Technolithic.

I really enjoyed reading Environmental Studies. I had forgotten the power of a poem. They can really evoke atmospheres, times and places. They can also tell a really wonderful story very quickly and encapsulate so much which you sometimes forget, especially if you read as much fiction as I do. It is a collection that covers a variety of styles, moods and experiments with the form whilst reminding you of all the good things about poetry too.

I am rather thrilled that Kate, in a way accidentally, set me off on a self imposed challenge to read some poetry and even more thrilled that I chose Maureen Duffy’s to read as it ticked all the boxes for me both in the poems and in reminding me of the joy in them. They aren’t just for studying, and if you don’t get all of them does it really matter? Have you read any of Maureen Duffy’s poetry, apart from the ones I have shared with you? It has really reminded me how much I need to read her fiction too as I heard her read a few times at the Polari Literary Salon when I lived in London and loved the extracts she gave. Have you read any of those? Which other poetry collections would you recommend?

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Filed under Enitharmon Press, Maureen Duffy, Poetry, Review

Family Values – Wendy Cope

Poetry? On Savidge Reads? Yes, you well might be shocked. I have to admit I am often left utterly bemused by poetry. I have never really got it. I’ve always found it a little pretentious. (Did I just hear someone shout ‘heathen’ somewhere in the blogosphere? Ha.) This has all changed thanks to Wendy Cope and her latest collection ‘Family Values’. I think I have finally found a poet that I get the gist of and one who, in this collection alone, has made me laugh out loud and also made me want to cry. Yes, I seem to have found some poetry I connect with.

Faber & Faber; 2011; hardback; poetry; sent by publisher

It’s very difficult to review a collection of poems without wanting to simply include every single one of them to make it easier on yourself, it’s even harder if a) you have never done it before and b) until recently you weren’t really a big fan of the form. Wendy Cope’s latest collection of 56 poems ‘Family Values’ is one that really runs the spectrum of the everyday things that happen in human life. From the turbulence of childhood to both the fear and acceptance of death this collection spans a whole host of human emotions.

The start of the collection focuses on Christmas, one of the more delightful yet equally trying times of year. In the four poems that cover this period Cope manages to completely convey the joy and the annoyance that come with that time period. I found myself thinking ‘phew, someone else has that feeling of happiness and slight nostalgic melancholy at that time of year too’. From the start I felt I was on the same page (no pun intended) as Cope and this was before we had even started on the poems of love and loss, some of which I found so beautiful and touching I admit I got a little teary. Try reading the below and not feeling something.

April

The birds are singing loudly overhead,
As if to celebrate the April weather.
I want to stay in this lovely world forever
And be with, my love, and share your bed.

I don’t believe I will see you when we’re dead.
I don’t believe we’ll meet and be together.
The birds are singing loudly overhead.
I want to stay in this lovely world forever.

What I really loved about Cope’s collection, apart from the fact it ‘got me’ so much, was the sense of humour in it. As a child my Mum (the English teacher) read me Brian Pattern’s ‘Gargling With Jelly’ which would reduced me to hysterics. Almost two decades on Wendy Cope is doing the same on a whole host of things from love to debating whatever happened to the tomato shaped ketchup dispensers in motorway service station fast food restaurants as she does in ‘At Stafford Services’. I even found myself laughing bizarrely at subjects such as death and even the thoughts of our own funerals.

My Funeral

I hope I can trust you, friends, not to use our relationship
As an excuse for an unsolicited ego trip.
I have seen enough of them at funerals and they make
       me cross.
At this one, though deceased, I aim to be the boss.
If you are asked to talk about me for five minutes, please
       do not go on for eight.
There is a strict timetable at the crematorium and nobody
       wants to be late.
If invited to read a poem, just read the bloody poem.
       If requested
To sing a song, just sing it, as suggested,
And don’t say anything. Though I will not be there,
Glancing pointedly at my watch and fixing the speaker
      with a malevolent stare,
Remember that this was how I always reacted
When I felt that anybody’s speech, sermon or poetry reading
      was becoming to protracted.
Yes, I was impatient and intolerant, and not always polite
And if there aren’t many people at my funeral, it will probably
      serve me right.

I really loved this collection. I should say at this juncture that it was actually seeing Wendy Cope reading her own poems in Cambridge that made it all so accessible and finally broke me into poetry again. I could here her voice and see her arched eyebrow and wry smile as I read through so that added a certain something. Regardless of that though, she didn’t read the whole book, I can genuinely say that these poems would have touched me anyway if I had seen them. A collection of poems that can make you laugh, cry and resonate with you just so is a hard thing to find, but find one I have. Thank you Wendy Cope! 9/10

So there you are, I am somewhat converted. I have to admit that after the success with Wendy Cope (and I have another of her collections I am going to save for the future) I have since read a whole novel written in poetry. I will be reporting back on that soon. Which poet really resonates with you and why? Who would you recommend I go and try next?

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Filed under Books of 2011, Faber & Faber, Poetry, Review, Wendy Cope

A Poetic Costa Winner…

I have a Savidge Reads Grills going up within the next few hours which links to yesterdays post but seeing the Costa winner before I went to bed provided me with an interesting and enquiring interlude. So I will leave you all with a question or two over night (and on into the day of course dependent where you are worldwide and when you read this) and see what you all came up with.

Firstly though congratulations to Christopher Reid whose book of poetry ‘A Scattering’ won the overall Costa Award yesterday. I won’t deny that I had high hopes for the wonderful, wonderful, wonderful ‘Brooklyn’ but that got Costa Novel Award so I can remain a little thrilled, a little chuffed and even a little smug that my favourite book of the year ranked highly with the judges too. Back to this years all round winner, I am pleased Reid won as the story of why it was written (it’s all based around his wife’s illness, death, the after effects and emotions) is a poignant one, I think he is a worthy winner, it is also unusually poetry too. I am not sure when a book of poetry last won this award but I gather it’s a rare thing.

I am useless when it comes to poetry and apart from the occasional re-read of Brian Pattern from my youth (Gargling With Jelly is just a wonderful book) I rarely touch it and don’t go out of my way to find it. I don’t know why it just doesn’t get to me. I wonder if it’s just because I haven’t read enough or tried enough. Since reading The Bell Jar I have wanted to try some Plath poems, is she a good place to start? Who would you recommend to get a man who doesn’t think he likes poetry to absolutely love it? I know you will come up with some wonderful ideas.

After thought – Isn’t it odd that as I wrote this post as I noticed my next read is actually a crime mystery novel written in verse, not intentional I swear, this could make for interesting reading!

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Filed under Book Thoughts