On Deaths of the Poets, interest in dead poets, and trying to be a live one

As an undergrad English student, I definitely lost time after searching online for lists of the deaths of famous writers. Some of them are quite weird or horribly fitting, others infamous or still blunt. In Deaths of the Poets, Paul Farley and Michael Symmons Roberts travel through the deaths of poets to consider the image of the poet as a dangerous vocation, where mortality seems to be the price paid for creation. They literally travel, indeed, around the death places of many major poets from Chatterton in the late eighteenth century to some who have died in the twenty-first, making the book part-travelogue, part literary history, and part-musing on being a poet.

It is a morbid whistle-stop tour in many ways, with the chapters organised by theme (and ‘theme’ is mostly related to their deaths) and thus jumping across time and place, particularly across the Atlantic. They concentrate on famous British and American poets writing in English, so their travelling features more than its fair share of New York (and a strange trip to my hometown thanks to John Clare). The book is, almost as a side effect, a useful way of gaining some knowledge of a lot of famous poets from the past two hundred years in a concise way (a bit like reading Wikipedia pages to find out how they died).

More than that, the authors are trying to examine the image of the dying poet, the post-Chatterton post-Romantic of a poet going out in an often troubled, possibly drunken blaze. They cover poets who famously died young—John Keats being high on the list, also war poets and others—and those who actually lived out a fairly long life. The answer to the question ‘is it a myth?’ is inconclusive by the end, but it was never really a scientific endeavour.

Deaths of the Poets is written by two poets and part of its work is a consideration of being a poet, in a historically-facing way. There are some offhand claims that poets don’t use Twitter or are somehow caught in the past, which is unfair to plenty of technology-embracing poets and poetry fans who also like old poetry. Perhaps it is difficult to reconcile the image of long-gone poets stuck in their time and modern, technological ways people can be still enjoying them (or Googling their deaths). The internet has made literary pilgrimages of the type the book’s authors embark on much easier: simply search online and you’ll find websites telling you the right house to stand outside or (this is very much from personal experience) exactly how to find John Thelwall’s grave in Bath.

The book has an underlying message about the humanness of the physical deaths of poets and the focus on details of their writing and non-writing lives that feels slightly at odds with its comments about poets today, an image which does seem to imply poetry writing is specific to an exclusive group of people stuck somewhat in the past. As someone who both loves a number of long-dead poets and has seen how trying to get into writing poetry and hoping for poems to be published is an off-putting and often inaccessible place, these moments felt a little off.

As with many books that cover a lot of different bits of literary history, this one works well as a primer on the stories of a lot of big name poets, with the opportunity for those who know more about a writer to get frustrated at elements of their presentation. It is a reminder of our fascination with the lives of these notable few and the almost mythical position they can hold in cultural consciousness, without consideration of greater depth. However, maybe it needs to demythologise the figure of the poet a little more. As it points out, they’re just people who lived and died like anyone else.

Don’t Go To Byron’s Birthday Party

Seeing as it is Lord Byron’s birthday, I thought I’d do a Byron-related post, as someone who has definitely never ever dressed up as him. He’s a poet mostly known for his bear and his sex life (well, and being a dick, but if there’s anything you learn from an English degree, it’s that so were most writers). My favourite burn is from an old All Souls exam paper that I remember finding online: ‘was Byron as funny as he thought he was?’ (depends on the day, for both him and the reader in question).

This post isn’t to give his life story. For that, read Fiona MacCarthy’s brilliant biography Byron: Life and Legend. And also bear in mind that this is someone who lived for 36 years, did a lot of self-mythologising and being fictionalised by other people, and then two hundred years of people changing, adding, believing, and a whole lot more with these stories.

There’s not even really space to talk about his poetry, partly due to how long some of it is. Byron uses a lot of stupid rhymes, dramatic imagery, and frankly flimsily-veiled references to his life (the fourth and final canto of Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, a tour round Europe slash meditation on being a brooding Romantic figure, features Byron complaining people thought he was the titular pilgrim even though he’s sure he made it very certain that he’s not, not at all). Two of his short poems are famous and get in general anthologies (‘She Walks In Beauty’ and “So, We’ll Go No More A Roving”). His famous major works, the previously mentioned Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage and the sprawling and more comic Don Juan, are long and not necessarily easy to get into.

The short ‘Darkness’ is fantastic: dramatic and unnerving. If you know anything about the Romantic period (or are willing to read a lot of notes to get the references) then read the dedication to Don Juan, which has some of the best use of terrible rhymes as comic insults (on Coleridge: “Explaining metaphysics to the nation— / I wish he would explain his Explanation”). As it is his birthday, read ‘On This Day I Complete My Thirty-Sixth Year’ and remember he died three months later.

I could write many things about books relating to Byron/using him in a fictionalised way/referencing him for some reason or another, but I’ve already posted on here about Caroline Lamb’s Glenarvon (and its similarity to Twilight) and this has become quite long already. Instead, here’s a video to enjoy, the amazingly weird ‘Dread Poets’ Society’, aka Benjamin Zephaniah accidentally meets the Romantic poets on a train (I would’ve also linked to the Horrible Histories Byron parody about him not being a vampire just a pretentious poet, but sadly I can’t find it on YouTube).

The poem that got me into liking Byron (and, in fact, probably Romantic poetry as a whole) was having to read Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage in the holidays before we did the paper including the Romantics during my undergrad degree. Some of it is the way the poem sounds—the best lines are the ones you want to keep reciting aloud—and also just the way things are phrased and described was unlike what I’d seen before (“And thus the heart will break, yet brokenly live on”). The end of canto III has some of the most quotable bits all at once, so I’ll give a little bit to close on:

“I have loved not the world, nor the world me, — / But let us part fair foes”.

Spite List: The Worst Books I Read in 2017

After claiming you should know what you hate, I really ought to practice it, and what better way than by moaning about things I read this year. If I’m being honest, I’ve actually left a few books off this list because I’ve already given them harsh reviews and I feel they were enough respectively. I’d say ‘no particular order’, but that’s untrue, Underworld is at the top because I disliked reading it that much.

  • Underworld by Don DeLillo – It’s too long. It’s mostly about men talking about baseball. I’m fed up of big American novels unless they’re doing something innovative. Did I mention I don’t know anything about baseball? I found the experience like talking to a very boring man who wouldn’t let me escape.
  • The Minor Outsider by Ted McDermott – If Underworld is being cornered by a man trying to tell you that politics is all a sports metaphor for many hours, The Minor Outsider was the guy who thinks his writing is better than yours but actually isn’t. Basically the main character is boring and unlikeable and I found the writing mediocre at best.
  • Higher Ed by Tessa McWatt – I didn’t so much dislike this book as I just found it boring. I picked it up because I wanted more London-set novels after having stopped living there, but it just…had no spark.
  • Prague Nights by Benjamin Black – Another disappointing boring book that I picked up because it was about an interesting city. I should learn. But I did read some quite fun books set in Berlin this year so I won’t give up all hope.
  • Leopard at the Door by Jennifer McVeigh – The main problem with this book was that it was a ‘white people in Africa’ story. Also it was slow.

Order in the bookcase

This blog has been a little quiet for the past week as I was moving house and working. One part of this was building a bookcase. Only a thin one because I left the majority of my books with my parents, having learnt my lesson that when you know you’ll be moving again in a year/under a year, don’t take all of them with you (unless you’re planning, as I did one year, to build your bedside table out of books and a piece of wood). After two English graduates remembered how 3D space worked and marvelled at how wood and screws can come together, a bookcase existed. And then I had to organise it.

How you organise your books is controversial (though there’s a fairly uniting disdain for people who do it by colour). There’s alphabetical, the classic, but then do you split further into categories like fiction and non-fiction or form or genre? You can just sort by categories, maybe subdivide by topic. Time period works if you own a lot of  ‘classic’ literature. When you’re lacking in space, as I have been, the best option can be by priority, creating your own ‘high use’ material (this is the only way to make a book bedside table without needing to dismantle it all the time).

I work in a library so you think mine would be very organised. Actually, they’re not. The shelves are as follows, from the top: drama (and a teapot); poetry and two books about Byron; prose, mostly novels but also Wollstonecraft’s Vindication(s); a small thematic shelf that is solely The Secret History, A Little Life, and If We Were Villains (and a cuddly bat); the Harry Potter books plus DVDs, a copy of Quidditch Through The Ages that my friend delightfully graffiti’d in character, and a Buckbeak keyring; and finally, a misc shelf that is keeping the bookcase stable by containing the complete works of Shakespeare, The Goldfinch, The Stranger’s Child, a single hardback book, and a selection of things I didn’t think I’d be reading too soon, but I did want to have with me.

It’s a fluid system that needs to be able to integrate parts of my to-read shelf once they’re read (these books are currently on my desk urging to be chosen next). It is also based upon whim and could be totally changed in a few months (say, after Christmas and my birthday, the main book gaining times of the year handily only a week apart). I think my point is, organise your books how you want. You’re the person who has to find/look at them, after all. Though if you have a particularly notable system, do share it so we can all be outraged/inspired.

A year in writing

In an unusual departure for this blog, this post is about writing, not reading. You see, it is exactly a year since I started trying to write something every day. Wanting to get back into writing regularly and inspired by NaNoWriMo, I made the resolution last Halloween to try and write something every day in November. I achieved that (with certain allowances for what ‘writing something’ entailed, which I’ll talk about later) and kept going. Each day I noted down what I had written, whether one thing or more. Now, a year later, I can look back and see that I missed 20 days out of the year. I don’t think that’s too bad.

What trying to write something every day has taught me, shared for mostly gratuitous reasons:

  1. Give yourself leeway. Writing is hard. Making yourself write regularly is even harder. In my category ‘writing something’, I included fiction, non-fiction, poetry, letters to friends, job application statements, and the online shop listings I wrote for Oxfam. Partly, this was because at the start I needed to be able to only do one writing thing—a blog post, or going to my volunteering at Oxfam—in a day and still feel I had achieved something. Also, life gets in the way and it is good to think that any number of words is still progress. It means a bullet point in my notebook (so a ‘piece’ of writing) can be a few lines of poetry, or 4000 words of fiction. That doesn’t matter.
  2. Structure is not for some people, but is for me. Any ‘you should write every day’ advice is not helpful. It entirely depends on how you write, what you write, and what you do with your life. It worked for me because once I had settled into the routine, it just felt like something that had to be done each day, even if it meant I just wrote some bad poetry at 10 p.m. (as could be the case when I’d been at work all day).
  3. Not just fiction. I was massively helped in my endeavour by the fact I review proof copies of books via NetGalley. This means that for over half the books I’ve read this (calendar) year, I’ve written a review of them too. That’s a lot of pieces of writing to get under my belt with little creative effort. I also wrote something for Shakespeare & Punk and a number of non-review blog posts on here. This leads me on to my next point.
  4. Variety is good. I’ve done NaNoWriMo (twice). Whilst doing it, I was also writing essays as an undergrad English student. That variety was probably necessary. I could not have written so much this year without having a range of things to write: whenever I felt unable to write one kind of thing, I tried something else.
  5. You never know where it’ll end up. A year ago, I had a sporadically-used book blog and a dream of writing things I wouldn’t just post online. Now, I have a regularly-updated book blog and a published poem (watch this space/my Twitter for further updates on this topic, in fact). Every step, however small, counts.

Scariest Stories

Fear is pretty subjective. Obviously. Some people laugh at horror films and others scream. Around Halloween, there’s often lists of the scariest films/TV/books ever, but it’s impossible to agree with all of them. Is Kubrick’s film of The Shining a masterclass of tense, slow horror or a dated relic lacking in terror? Zombie flicks—scary or ridiculous (or Shaun of the Dead)?

This isn’t about books, you say. I know. My point is, this is all subjective. Books are maybe even more so because it is up to the individual to picture the scares, to be drawn in and see them as more than words (I hope that hasn’t derailed you into thinking about the Extreme song). So when I talk about books I’ve found scary, I know it won’t be the same for anyone else.

The book I remember finding most scary is a Point Horror novel called Fright Train. It was from the ‘Unleashed’ range, which I think was meant to be more intense in some way (I’ve talked a bit about my love for Point Horror before). In Fright Train, a couple got on a train only to find their fellow passengers acting weird and the conductor terrifyingly rude. It turns out (spoilers, in case you really fancy trying to track down a secondhand copy) they’re on a train to Hell, incorrectly. A different couple were meant to get on that carriage instead of them. Their fellow passengers all have horrible recollections of whatever it was that got them on the train to Hell and our heroes try and convince the devilish conductor they should leave.

Doesn’t sound that scary, I know, but there was something about it that caught my imagination aged about ten or eleven. Maybe the combination of scary devil stuff, people who had actually done bad things, and the injustice of it all. Whatever it was, it threw the Goosebumps story about the Halloween mask you can’t get off seem like a fun trip to the park (Google tells me this is The Haunted Mask).

I have to admit, I don’t think I’ve read anything since that has made me personally feel scared in the same way. I think Cujo is probably the scariest Stephen King read for me, for the tension, and there’s definitely a horrifying factor to some of the stories in Chuck Palahniuk’s Haunted (one about a swimming pool drain sticks in my head), but it’s not the same. Maybe it’s because I don’t read much horror any more, or I became too immune, or because it is so dependent on time and place of the reading experience as well.

Maybe you think the scariest stories now are the dystopian fiction that feels like it is coming true. Maybe it’s still the horror genre, which can be tense and the fear believable even when it is otherworldly. Maybe nothing is scarier than real life. Regardless, pick up one of your favourite creepy books this Halloween (unless you opted for the last option there, then sorry).

Living That Library Life

It being Libraries Week at the moment and me having just left one job in a public library and started another in a university library, it felt like a good time to write something about libraries. People can be surprised that they are not just silent book-centred spaces any more, but places focused on information in many formats and often connected to various IT and wellbeing services. They are where individuals come to find out things, read books for free, and do a whole lot more besides. I had someone ask me on a boiling hot day whether the temperature recorded by the Met Office was in the shade or not (I didn’t know). For some people, libraries are like Google, except better at interpreting your search terms and more happy to accept tea and biscuits.

I liked libraries as a kid (except for the traumatic time I left my favourite soft toy in one overnight). I could take out a pile of books, put them into a specific order, read them as quickly as possible, and then go back for more. I begged my mum to let me use slots on her card to take out Young Adult books before I was old enough, and then when I was old enough I’d read most of what our village library could offer me in the way of Point Horror and teen fiction (this was before the huge amount of YA books available now, so everything was American teen horror or British groups of teen girl friends).

A bit older, I used the adult fiction section to discover all the things thrilling to 15 and 16 year olds—A Clockwork Orange, Lolita, basically anything from Penguin Modern Classics in fact—and then supplemented my A level English Lit by reading books I’d heard of or that looked exciting. This experimentation was possible thanks to being able to take out the books for free. One of the great joys of borrowing from libraries is it not mattering if you don’t enjoy the book because you didn’t pay for it and can just take it back.

Having frequented public libraries with my friends at sixth form to revise whilst imagining it was like we were proper students, it was exciting to finally get to use university libraries too. At both places I studied I had access to multiple libraries including a legal deposit library in both cases, so I was pretty spoilt in terms of accessing books. Probably my favourite academic library experience was reading bits of The Romance of the Rose (a medieval French dream poem, in translation) and then all of Glenarvon (Caroline Lamb’s ‘Byron is a vampire’ gothic novel) holed up in a corner of the Gladstone Link, which is a space-age underground bit of the Bodleian in Oxford made up of rolling stacks and the awareness that in the instance of a fire, you get locked in.

Working in a library tends to involve a bit less of the books than using one does. There’s a lot of giving IT support and knowing your way around Microsoft Office, answering queries relating to the building/local area/other services and reassuring people that no, just because you found the book where they didn’t doesn’t make them stupid, only not paid to know how to find the books. It’s interesting because days don’t end up the same, humans are infinitely varied and their ability to ask completely left field things is very impressive sometimes.

I didn’t plan to work in libraries. It came out of the thought that I could be around books all the time, which would surely go nicely with my hobbies of reading, writing, and keeping this blog. Other parts of the job—particularly helping with IT stuff—ended up very satisfying and a great way to keep learning and improving skills (not to sound like my CV). Libraries have a real place within the modern world, whether local libraries or university ones, as a place where books, technology, and information can all work together, and they should be inviting and accessible to all. Also, you get to eat a lot of biscuits if you work in one.

Poetry and me: a love/hate story

Lots of people love poetry. Lots of people hate poetry. It’s something you’re forced to read (and often try and write) at school and something that might not seem to come up often after that, except in greetings cards. Poetry is great, but it is also about finding the poems that work for you. Whilst it can be argued that almost anything with words can be poetry (as my undergrad English class tried to do with the category ‘literature’ when made to investigate the term), even the writing more typically termed ‘poetry’ can vary a lot and, though it can be off-putting for many reasons, there’s a lot of different poems out there to try.

I used to think I couldn’t ‘do’ poetry. In secondary school, we studied poems and sometimes they made sense, sometimes they didn’t. People were often too busy chatting or messing around for real discussion of the poems, so it could be difficult to be taught how to approach them, and they weren’t always ones that might interested thirteen year olds.

At GCSE (aged 15-16) there was quite a lot of poetry to look at, all housed in a handy anthology that someone had ill-advisedly decorated with black and white pictures that we used to colour in instead of reading the poems. We went through some of them in more depth and there were definitely some I connected with (thanks Simon Armitage for writing a poem—‘Kid’—about Batman and Robin that I read post-The Dark Knight and therefore thought was great). However, these were short and usually quite simple to pick techniques out of. The older poetry was usually awkwardly thrown at us so nobody really understood the point of say, Browning’s ‘My Last Duchess’, other than having written ‘dramatic monologue’ at the top of the page at the teacher’s insistence.

By A level (aged 17-18), the English Lit class was much smaller, and there was more time to look at poetry. We did Carol Ann Duffy’s The World’s Wife and mostly it introduced me to the stories and myths she was retelling rather than give any poetic insight. We did the metaphysical poets and they were okay, but still, a headache. Too many conceits, really. By that point, maybe the teachers assumed we knew how to read metre, or there just wasn’t time to spend more than the time it took to remind us Shakespeare mostly wrote in iambic pentameter. I remember once being told about iambs and dactyls and mostly thinking it sounded like the dinosaurs I loved when I was five.

I did find, though not through school, the next poem that was ‘mine’, one that I loved the sound and meaning of and would attempt to analyse because somehow it felt like it made sense. This was ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’ by T. S. Eliot, quite an obvious choice, but at the time it felt like a revelation. All the line breaks and separate sentences were chunks I could follow and the huge ambiguity of the poem appealed to teenage me. I printed it off the internet and reread it a lot.

When I got to university to study English, though, I still felt poetry was something I just didn’t understand. It was too hard and nobody had showed me how to read it properly. Faced with a lot of poetry, I tried, I tried hard, but sometimes it was the week we did Gerard Manley Hopkins in our Victorians paper and I had to try and write an essay about political stuff in his work because I didn’t understand it enough to write about the poetic techniques he was using. At times it felt like it must have been going to a state school that had done it, that I’d not been taught how to ‘get’ poetry and was now paying by desperately clawing my way through tutorials about scansion in Victorian poetry.

Luckily, the Victorians didn’t last forever. In second year I discovered Elizabethan narrative poetry and Milton that wasn’t the hell bits of Paradise Lost and then, after the headache of Middle English,  we got to the Romantics and I picked up Byron’s ‘Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage’ and loved it and discovered Keats is worth his reputation. By finding poems that made my brain go ‘this is incredible’, I could believe I could read and understand them, and discuss them in essays and tutorials without everything being a hesitant guess.

Of course, it might not be the Romantics or Milton who help you realise some poetry is for you. It could be twentieth first century stuff with modern references, or poems that relate to your own identity and experiences, or lines that are spoken or sung not read. There’s a lot of options. And poetry might seem pretentious or irrelevant, but when you find the lines that speak to you, that make you go ‘oh, yes, that’s how to describe that’, it helps make poetry seem worthwhile. And after all my insistence I can’t do poetry, I now love reading it, write it with varying degrees of success, and have had a poem published (admittedly one about swearing). Poetry isn’t for everyone, but give it a chance.