Wednesday, 21 August 2019

Turning nouns into verbs

Further to my post about the changing use of tenses in English, I've recently noticed another trend of turning nouns into verbs, often with a tweaked meaning.

One well known example is "to ghost somebody", which now seems widespread, and I only had to notice a headline on the BBC website the other day to realise I was about to learn another. The afore-mentioned headline read as follows, "How to tell if you're being breadcrumbed at work", and a quick spot of googling (a proper noun that's become a verb in itself!) soon explained the origin of the term.

The obvious question, of course, is just what exactly "to poetry somebody" might end up meaning....

Monday, 12 August 2019

Failing our readers

Over at the HappenStance Press blog, Helena Nelson has just published her twice-yearly summary of current trends in poetic tics. In my view, the last one on her list is perhaps the most important...

The single most common problem: unintended obscurity. The poem is behaving as though it's obvious what's going on but the reader is mystified. This is quite different from deliberate obscurity, which can be compelling.

It's the most important because it means the poet in question has failed their readers at a specific point, thus losing them for the rest of the poem. Moreover, we're all prone to it. There are inevitable occasions in everyday life when we're convinced we've been clear and unambiguous, only for everyone to tell us they haven't got a clue what we're on about or to misinterpret our words with grim or hilarious consequences.

Exactly the same is true of our poems. Except that nobody's around when we write them and fall in love with them. Nobody's present to disentangle our unintentional semantic and syntactic knots. And that's where friends kick in, the best kind of friends, the friends we take into our confidence with dodgy first drafts, the friends who let us know us when we're making one of the biggest poetic mistakes around, that of failing our readers.

Tuesday, 6 August 2019

An unflinching celebration, Sheenagh Pugh's Afternoons Go Nowhere

I suppose cliché might suggest the invocation of terms such as “veteran” or “prolific” when approaching Sheenagh Pugh’s new book, Afternoons Go Nowhere (Seren Books, 2019) in the light of her nine previous collections and two Selecteds,  but that would do her poetry a grave disservice. In fact, her recent work displays a freshness and curiosity that reach far beyond the scope of many far younger poets.

First off, Pugh’s use of language is well worth highlighting. Her sentence construction possesses a lucid fluidity that’s outstanding, as in the first three stanzas of The View:

For as long as he could remember, the view
from his window had led across a street
to some house the mirror of his own,

and what he could hear through the double-glazing
mainly traffic, heels clacking  on asphalt,
late at night, a little drunken happiness.

Now he looks out on a bay, cuts his hedge
hard back, ruthless with the white roses
that would come between him and the ocean…

The layering of these lines is seemingly effortless, as is the natural flow. Of course, the poet’s ear, craft and skill all underpin their gorgeous clarity.

Moreover, the above-mentioned poem reflects one of Pugh’s main thematic concerns: the relationship between people and the natural world. At pivotal moments in her work, humans and nature rub against each other, sometimes chafing, sometimes caressing, sometimes managing to do both simultaneously.

Meanwhile, this same deft touch is also apparent in the poems that deal with history. Pugh’s achievement lies in the way she turns historical figures into individuals by homing in on specific personal and emotional moments within a wider context, thus creating empathy for them as people. The Glass King of France provides one such example in its opening lines:

When he looks in the glass, he sees
himself: every organ, every vein.
His most inward thoughts shine
through his crystal skin; the secrets
of his heart parade the streets…

Whether portraying a king or a neighbour, Sheenagh Pugh is acutely aware of the transience of life. Afternoons Go Nowhere is an unflinching celebration of the human condition, written in lucid language that reveals aching complexities. I very much recommend it.

Sunday, 4 August 2019

Just, already and yet

I've always used the present perfect tense with "just", "already" and "yet", as in "I've just arrived...he's already finished....we haven't eaten yet". What's more, when teaching English as a Foreign Language, I noticed that all textbooks for learners of British English not only encouraged but demanded the use of the present perfect in such expressions.

However, over the past few years, I've encountered more and more Brits using the simple past, as in "I just arrived" or "he already finished", etc, etc. For me, this is American usage. In my book, "I just had lunch" means that I only had lunch  (i.e. I did nothing else). It's got nothing to do with communicating that I've recently finished my meal.

I suppose this is another example of generational change, of how language evolves and leaves older (gulp!) users behind. Even so, I still can't bring myself to use the simple past with "just", "already" and "yet". Does this mean I'm becoming anachronistic myself? What tense do you choose in this type of context?

Wednesday, 17 July 2019

A poem by Oliver Comins

Neglected...underrated...overlooked... all three terms might be clichés, but they could justifiably be applied to Oliver Comins' poetry in general and in particular to his first full collection, Oak Fish Island, which I reviewed on Rogue Strands a few months ago (see here). 

As a consequence, I'm making an exception today and posting (with Oliver's permission) one of my favourite poems from his book. This piece was first published in the London Magazine when it was under the stewardship of Alan Ross, one of the most renowned magazine editors around in the second half of the twentieth century, though the poem still resonates today. Football fans might well notice its relevance to current events at Coventry City, but its delicate observations, surefooted music and layered juxtapositions reach far beyond sport and should appeal to many readers...


Geese above Highfield Road


One of those moments when the stadium
falls inexplicably quiet – you hear
the crowd, as one, breathe in and wait
for someone else’s voice to prompt
the noise.  Geese flying overhead
disrupt the spell and players call
the roaring back – an amphitheatre
filled with sound, cauldron of light
beneath a darkened autumn sky.

Up there a flock of geese is set
on inland lakes, days of food and warmth.
Down here goals are barely threatened
by midfield stalemate: we dream
of wingers making for a corner
then cutting back to cross behind
a scattering defence – too much
to hope for now.  Disappearing geese,
I saw them flying in for winter.

Sunday, 14 July 2019

Mat Riches at The Poetry Shed

Over at The Poetry Shed, Abegail Morley's astute editorial eye has selected a terrific poem by Mat Riches for publication today. You can read it by following this link.

Wednesday, 10 July 2019

Poets' Cafe in Reading on Friday

Just a quick reminder that I'll be the guest poet at Poets' Café in Reading this Friday (12th July) at the South Street Arts Centre, starting at 8 p.m.. Entry costs £5, £4 for concessions, and there's also an open mic. I'll be reading from my first full collection, The Knives of Villalejo, blending the poetry of wine from Extremadura with suburban Surrey. A number of people have already confirmed their attendance, and I'd love to see you there too...!