Tuesday 26 April 2022

The specific as a pathway to the universal

Having recently read a few gorgeous lyric poems that failed to transport me anywhere at all, I found myself (yet again!) wondering why.

Once more, I reached the conclusion that supposedly universal lyricism without context is just beautiful language that floats in a vacuum without an anchor. It's to be admired rather than absorbed.

In my view, one ideal way to achieve universality in a poem is via a specific frame of reference. This is crucial to the ability of a poem to create a credible new reality that enlightens and transforms the reader's pre-existing imaginary world.

Contrary to certain critical beliefs, the specific is a pathway towards the universal and never deserves to be disparaged as unambitious. In other words, so-called anecdotal poetry is capable of generating power that reaches far beyond its initial modest confines. The supposed anecdote is simply a point of departure...

Monday 18 April 2022

A letter to a reader

Dear Camilla,

Fingers crossed this letter finds you in good health and still enjoying poetry!

I’m afraid I can’t quite remember your face from my reading at the New Park Centre four years ago, though I do just about recall resisting a dodgy joke about the royal family while checking the spelling of your name and signing your brand-new copy of The Knives of Villalejo. However, I’ve been thinking about you a lot these past few days, ever since my friend spotted that very copy at the Oxfam shop in Chichester last week and whizzed a photo of it over to me.

On the one hand, I hope you enjoyed it and then passed it on, rather than regretting your purchase. And then, of course, I hope that you yourself chose to give it to Oxfam. Far too many books in charity shops are from personal libraries that have been dispersed by relatives (see my blog post about Peggy Chapman-Andrews from a few years back).

And on the other hand, I’m writing to thank you for granting me this poetic rite of passage: the first time my book has been spotted at a charity shop. I’m pleasantly surprised not to feel annoyed at all that it might have been discarded. Instead, I’m excited to wonder about the prospective new life it’s been given. As soon as I get back to Chichester, I’ll be popping in to the Oxfam shop to find out whether it’s found another owner.

In other words, I'm proud of joining the ranks of the charity shop poets. I've always loved second-hand books, and my collection's now among them! For that, Camilla, I’ll always be grateful to you.

All the best,

Matthew Stewart

Sunday 10 April 2022

Clarity and freshness, Sarah Mnatzaganian’s Lemonade in the Armenian Quarter

Sarah Mnatzaganian’s first pamphlet, Lemonade in the Armenian Quarter (Against the Grain Press, 2022), is as refreshing as the fruit it evokes and invokes. Of course, as its title immediately indicates, a key theme is origin and identity, but this is not wielded as a statement. Instead, it’s explored via fierce curiosity.

And then there’s Mnatzaganian’s use of language. This might initially seem slightly formal on the spectrum of lexical registers, as in the following choices: whom is used instead of who, until instead of till, and if I were instead of if I was. However, any lazy accusations of stiltedness can easily be dismissed due to the clarity of her sentences, which flow naturally and are easy to read. They’re far from old-fashioned, simply acknowledging a linguistic tradition behind them.

One key poem in terms of the above-mentioned theme of identity is undoubtedly Juice, dedicated To my father, Aphraham. Its closing couplet reads as follows:

…Now I want to watch your dark throat dance
while you drink.

The metrics and aural patterning are especially interesting here. Three trochees are followed by three strong syllables in the penultimate line, thus imitating the dancing movement of drinking, while the open vowels and closed consonants also follow suit. And then the final line, made up of a single anapest, stops the poem in its tracks as Mnatzaganian suddenly accelerates to its climax.

Of course, the key adjective in the above couplet is dark, especially in the context of the poems that comes immediately after it in the pamphlet, which is titled Made in Hemsworth. The penultimate stanza resonates and reflects back towards the previous poem…

Now mum knows she’s one-third Viking,
she’s proud of her pale and ageless skin,
her North Sea gaze.

In this case, the pivotal adjective is pale. By juxtaposing a father’s dark throat and a mother’s pale skin, plus the contrasting proper nouns of Aphraham and Hemsworth, Mnatzaganian is portraying the two elements of the blend that creates a person. Rather than claiming or declaring an identity, she’s working through it, portraying it, unravelling its roots, reconciling its differing facets.

The clarity, freshness and light touch of this pamphlet are the qualities that lift it out of the hubbub of contemporary poetry, especially when considered alongside Mnatzaganian’s refusal to take short cuts or reach facile conclusions. For not much more than the price of a dodgy pint in a flash London pub, Lemonade in the Armenian Quarter encourages the reader to pause, breathe in its vitality and return to everyday life, newly invigorated. Get hold of a copy for yourself and you’ll see what I mean…