Archive for poetry

J.S. Harry is great. That is all.

Posted in creative writing, criticism, literature with tags , , , , , , on August 13, 2017 by drayfish

JS Harry

IMAGE: J.S. Harry (photo by Edwina Pickles)

J.S. Harry was an exceptional poet – one of the most unique, endlessly innovative, intelligent, and at times hilariously wry poetic voices to have ever lived.

Her poetry celebrated nature, chased dragons, drowned towns.  It meditated on the subjective nature of existence – from our grammatical slip ups to the passions and beliefs that bind us or drive us apart.  It was political, serene, snarky, self-aware, and always beautifully, inspiringly curious.

She was a writer so skilled she could collide the hopeful inquisitive soul of Peter Rabbit with the unfathomable mire of language philosophy, and the result was sublime – a journey into what it means to be human filled with all the drama and fear and silliness that question demands.

In person she was also one of the kindest, most generous writers I have ever met.  I once told her that I adored her work and she went out of her way to send me original copies of her poetry – books that have been out of print for decades and that are now almost impossible to find.

There are too few words to describe how extraordinary Harry was, both as a poet and a person.  But perhaps that’s the point.  As Harry and her eponymous Peter Henry Lepus proved, words are magnificent, malleable things, but experience often slips between them, more wild and maddening and alluring than we can wrangle onto the page.  Nonetheless, that urge to continue trying to express and understand ourselves, that capacity to adapt and change – all of which is represented by our imperfect, ever-evolving language – are what define us as human beings.

And few artists have found the means to express that conundrum as eloquently, as playfully, as Harry did.

What follows is the first poem from her very first collection of verse, the deer under the skin.  Although her work would develop in exciting new directions over the following decades, it is striking how many of the themes and the tones central to her poetry are at least signaled in this elegant, whimsically soulful verse:

the what o’clock


A puff-ball

on a slim green stem

is more attached

to earth than I.


The wind will tear

its seeds away –

perhaps they’ll root –

Words root. My words? Mine?


Living all in your head

is a kind of thistle-madness,

anyway, but, close, grass is,

birds are –; the people


seldom sing.


People in pain

I brush against;

I rip. And they hold me.

But, when I roll away,

in my mind I am a puff-ball

about to leave earth;


the wind isn’t far away.



Grown from a thin green shoot

with a root in earth

to this airy death?


Even as a child,

I could feel        for days on end

the isolating air, cool and strange,

around my head.

Sadly, Harry is no longer with us – although I am still awaiting the final collection of her Peter Henry Lepus poems to be published.

But her words, her seeds, took root, even before she was gone.

I heartily encourage you to seek out and read anything and everything she wrote.

Secrets Revealed!: Lost Poem of Coleridge

Posted in creative writing, literature, stupidity, Uncategorized with tags , , , , on June 13, 2016 by drayfish

LOST wheel

Samuel Taylor Coleridge was an extraordinary poet.  Alongside William Wordsworth, he was one of the founders of the English Romantic movement, producing exquisite works like ‘Frost At Midnight’ and ‘This Lime-Tree Bower My Prison’, and ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’.  Sadly, it is also part of his legacy that he was negatively impacted by a crippling addiction to opium.  Whether the story is apocryphal or not, it is said that one of his most famous poems, ‘Kubla Khan’ was both the product of a drug-induced vision, and was unable to be completed due to the debilitating effects of his usage.

What is less well known is that Coleridge was also huge fan of binge watching high concept serialised genre fare.  So even though he died in 1834, technically before the term ‘water-cooler television’ was ever uttered, he somehow managed to write the following reflection upon ABC’s sci-fi/supernatural/drama series, LOST. 

I know.  Weird, right?

Thus, I now present this completely real and not made up work for the first time in history:

Dharma Da
Or, ‘Six Seasons In A Dream.’
(A Fragment.)

by Samuel Taylor Coleridge

To ‘purgatory’ plunged the flight
Of Oceanic eight one five,
Toward an island built, it seemed,
From maddened, nonsense fever dreams,
And the Twilight Zone archive.
And so six seasons came to falter
Sacrificed upon an altar
That worshiped vapid mystery boxes,
Of stall, delay and plot regressions,
Where mysticism was sour and noxious,
And characters ne’er answer simple questions.

But oh! That ceaseless hope of revelation,
A reason to the tangents, jumps and asides!
Smoke monsters, polar bears, and Dharma stations,
An entire season where they went back in time,
And lazy ‘twist’ character suicides!
That iced wagon wheel of space vortex jumping,
The ghostly cabin where Jacob was slumping,
Egyptian statues with only four toes,
Was Hurley hiding a stash of Ho Hos?
The hatches, the numbers, the hieroglyphs,
Astrophysical dimensional shifts!
And ‘mid this tumult came the writers’ assurance
Reward awaited every fans’ endurance,
Even for those who liked Nicki and Paulo.*
But six meandering years: for a dumb fist fight,
Some faked up church to greet eternal night,
And all to stuff a cork in a magic grotto.
Scarce wonder the fans, with gnashed teeth and scorn
Enflamed the internet the following morn!

No Sherlock for their witless Watson,
They wept that such a fertile tale
Adrift amongst pretentious flotsam
Had left a corpse so trite and stale:
From fuel for weekly water cooler rants
To synonym for ‘fly by seat of pants’.

A boy called Walt with psychic powers
Once unknowingly foretold:
The let-down of the following hours
The ripening set-ups left to sour
When the actor got to old.
This nonpareil ‘chosen’ one,
The Others sought obsessively
Suddenly bundled on a boat and gone
The day he’d entered puberty.
For just as Walt was painted off
The writer’s ‘plan’! their grand canvas!
Those ‘truths’ that kept the plot aloft
Mumbled away with no payoff,
Reassured by Cuse and Lindeloff
That truly it was always thus:
There ne’er was need for explanation,
T’was the ‘journey’ now, not ‘destination’,
As soon t’would be in Prometheus

* No one liked Nicki and Paulo


(Another of Coleridge’s works, ‘Christabreaking Bad’ does not survive in its entirety.)

Poetry Unearthed By Legitimate, For Real, Authentic Poetic Research (Now With Facts!)

Posted in criticism, literature, stupidity with tags , , , , , , , , , on April 1, 2015 by drayfish

What was before a Chicken or Egg?

I despise April Fools Day.

A completely arbitrary mark on the calendar, used to justify telling outrageous lies and spreading often galling misinformation. And for what?  Just to make others feel stupid?  To exploit their trust in us?  To laugh at how foolish they must be to ever take at face value something we – their friend, family, colleague, newspaper, government, or scientific body – have told them.

Clearly the only real fool is anyone stupid enough to take the hard-earned faith of their fellow human beings and toss it in the trash for a cheap gag.  You’d have to be a shameless, self-destructive narcissist to do anything so glib and facile.

So anyway, apropos of nothing, I did some research on the weekend, and found a heretofore undiscovered poem by the iconic Romantic poet, John Keats.

Yeah.  That happened.  Why not?*

Like his poem ‘Bright Star’, said to have been discovered in the front cover of Keats’ collection of Shakespeare’s poems, I tracked this one down in his thoroughly dogeared copy of 101 Chicken Jokes for Transcendently Tortured English Poets (3rd edition).

I include it here without alteration, including his haunting postscript.

Let history make of this bombshell what it will…

On Looking Into Why Everything Tastes Like Chicken

by John Keats

Oft have I sought to roost in solemn dark,
to scratch for seeds and preen a lyric phrase,
Only to wake, my nests dissolved away.
A nightingale? A Grecian urn? A star?
What was all that about? What drunken haze
Sought ‘truth’ in chirps, space gas, and lumps of clay?
But lo – at last – a vision clears the strife:
two-legged waif, a symbol left unuttered,
Eternal, fowl conundrum: Which came first?
We, the cockerel’s dame, ripe with sunlit life,
Poised upon the threshold of the gutter,
Designed to fly, but doomed to walk the earth.
O chicken – ruffled, squat pedestrian!
Thou knowest where to cross; not why. Not when.

Signed, John Keats

And yes, I am the real John Keats – the one who wrote ‘Ode on Melancholy’ and all that stuff. So anyone who finds this poem should probably be given a Nobel Prize in Literature, or something.

And also a Playstation 4.)

He was a true visionary.

John Keats by William Hilton

IMAGE: Sony Fan Boy John Keats by William Hilton the Younger (National Portrait Gallery London)

* Because facts.

‘That’s What He Said’: WhatCulture, Australian Poetry, and Plagiarism

Posted in art, criticism, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 4, 2013 by drayfish

Odysseus and Suitors

IMAGE: Odysseus Confronts the Suitors

There’s a sign on my office door that depicts Odysseus in his moment of merciless slaughter.  It’s an image taken from an ancient Greek vase.  There’s no gore or viscera, or even facial expressions, merely rudimentary silhouetted shapes against a stark burnt umber backdrop; and yet the ghoulish subject of the scene is wholly unnerving nonetheless.  It takes place at the conclusion of The Odyssey.  Odysseus stands in front an exit that he has just locked shut, towering, unyielding, as he rains down a barrage of arrows upon the throng of suitors that have plagued his home for years.  Seen in profile, Odysseus towers on one side of the picture, a man whose mettle has been tested, the bow in his hand flashing as his victims squeal and gnash their teeth in a wild clamour, their desperate pleading only cut short by the cold reprieve of an inexorable death.

Beneath the image I have written:

‘Dr Dray Explains His Policy On Plagiarism.’

I put it up as a playful warning to my students, situating it about eye height for anyone who would come to knock on my door.  It’s an image so hyperbolically visceral and ferocious that it would elicit chuckles, and that will (hopefully) stick in their mind once the gag subsides.

The only thing is – I’m not really joking.

Okay, sure, when I encounter plagiarism I don’t string a mighty bow and block up the doors, but I do find it inexcusable.  And if it proves to be methodical, and not accidental, it becomes unforgivable, and the slaughter – metaphorical or no – begins.

Because, both as an academic and a writer, the idea of knowingly thieving another person’s work, claiming ownership of thought and creative practice without even attribution or acknowledgement, strikes me as the most vile act anyone who claims to be a writer can perform.  An act of arrogance and laziness and shamelessness, it forever tarnishes the perpetrator, proving that they have no regard for their victims, their readers, or even themselves.

While I wish this post were just an arbitrary listing of things I hate (aren’t they always fun?), it is, sadly, motivated by two recent grotesque and glaring examples of such fraudulence within circles I have frequented.

So journey with me, won’t you, as we take a magical ride through the tragically proliferating culture of flagrant plagiarism…

Firstly, at the WhatCulture website.

For those unaware, I actually used to write for WhatCulture.  Well, when I say ‘write’ for them, I should clarify: I would write articles for my Themenastics blog, but would later contribute some of them to be republished there.  There was no payment or expectation of first-publication, so I didn’t feel conflicted in repurposing my own work.

(It has since been discovered that WhatCulture was, for a period, openly misleading potential contributors by advertising paid freelance writing positions through agencies such as the Mandy website, in order to attract writers to whom they would only offer unpaid work.  This misbehaviour  was completely unbeknownst to me (I had offered to contribute my pieces unpaid from the start), but Paul Martinovic, a freelance writer and blogger who was a victim of this deception, spoke of his experience having taken the WhatCulture editors’ bait.)

When I started submitting to WhatCulture, well over a year ago, it seemed a promising little start-up.  The mission statement, to give a voice to fans of popular culture – film, television, music, comics – that would allow them to speak to the aspects of these fictions that they loved, ideally putting them into some kind of critical context, seemed worthy.  Like an AV Club with more readership participation, it seemed inspiring that the editors were so eager to provide a platform for  those enthusiasts who might otherwise have their opinion languish unseen.

As time went on, however, the quality of WhatCulture steadily declined into something that – even with my relatively superficial familiarity with the site – I scarcely recognised.  It seemed to happily wallow (in many cases seemingly as a direct influence of one of the writers I am about to denounce) in a snide, click-baiting swamp of cheap titillation and contrarian bickering, repeatedly sacrificing editorial substance so as to chase minor controversy for page-hits by whatever means it could.  Articles with little more than a thousand words of copy were suddenly being split into several pages that needed to be clicked through, literally just to artificially inflate the page traffic, and the site started running progressively more pieces such as ’10 Awful Movies You Only Watched For the Nude Scenes’ (with screen grabs and clips!  Yay!), fan boy lures like ‘PS4: 10 Reasons It’ll Win Console War Over Xbox 720’ and ‘Xbox 720: 10 Reasons It’ll Win Console War Over PS4’, each of which was written by the same author (again, more on him in just a second), merely days apart, with only the names of the consoles swapped around.  And who could forget the journalistic high water mark of See The Newcastle City Wall Sex Picture Taken From WhatCulture’s Office’.  An article that is exactly as pathetic and puerille as you might suspect it to be.


So despite continuing to happily produce columns for Themenastics (and now to contribute pieces to the online journal PopMatters), as time has gone on I have been less inclined to make my writings available to WhatCulture.  It wasn’t an act of protest, or judgement – I am under absolutely no delusions that my work was in any way missed – I simply lost interest in their new unspoken mandate, hoping that they might pull out of this disheartening nosedive, but continuously discouraged by the material that I instead saw them promote.

And consistently, to my mind, the worst offender amongst this race toward mediocrity was WhatCulture’s senior (and therefore paid) film reviewer and contributor Shaun Munro.  I had been struck by the inanity of some of Munro’s work – it was he who had copy-pasted his Xbox One vs Playstation 4 article with the names flipped – but as time wore on he seemed to use the site as his own toilet wall, listing actresses who, in his opinion, ‘desperately need to go nude’ in future (as opposed to his desperately needing to get a personal life), salivating over every scrap of Scarlet Johansson’s flesh he could track down before his (apparently highly anticipated) opportunity to see her naked in the film Under the Skin, and offering a breaking ‘Special Report’ after seeing said film, providing a detailed list of every body part and crevice he had personally spied with the kind of obsessive, lecherous specificity you would scarcely find outside a legal deposition testimony.

‘Let me tell you about the full frontal nudity I just saw…  Cwwooaarrrrr…’  Truly, journalism at its finest.

It was therefore something of  a surprise to learn, two weeks ago, that my opinion of Munro actually was able to sink even lower, as it turns out that these masturbatory jaunts were apparently the only material he can comfortably produce without resorting to theft.

Garfield Plagiarism

IMAGE: Garfield by Jim Davis (21/4/2008)

As was revealed by a blogger named Sr. Mxy in an exhaustive Tumblr that still only catalogues a portion of his innumerable plagiarisms, Munro, along with another WhatCulture writer and associate editor, T.J. Barnard (also a paid contributor), had been stealing work from the Cracked website and passing it off as their own.  What made it an even more pernicious act was that the material they were helping themselves to was in a draft form, and had therefore not yet been published.  Part of the Cracked editorial process apparently involves submitting outlines and edits into an online workshop system that can only be accessed by contributors to the site and its editors; Munro and Barnard, who each had access to this site, had repeatedly fished through this raw material and taken it as their own, frequently with little, if any, alteration (the blog buydemocracy has a far more thorough account of the process in their discussion of this sad debacle).  As successful authors on the Cracked website are paid – but only for work that is original – this therefore meant that Munro and Barnard were literally robbing these writers of their rightful earnings; and as WhatCulture was able to publish this stolen material faster than it would have travelled through the Cracked editorial process, there is a very real chance that even if the victims of their plagiarism were able to go on and publish their own hard work, they would have been doubly mistreated, forced to then fend off accusations that it was they who ripped off Munro and Barnard

It appears that these acts of plagiarism were pointed out to Munro, Barnard and their editors at WhatCulture repeatedly, but aside from such comments being unceremoniously deleted from any pages on the WhatCulture site, little to nothing was done until Sr. Mxy assembled his incontrovertible evidence, other writers with past experience of Munro and Barnard’s wrongdoing came forward to give their accounts of similar experiences in the past, and the issue was unable to be quashed any further.  WhatCulture – once the issue became unavoidable – published an apology to their readers and the Cracked writers who had been wronged.  The statement has already been buried by their daily feed and is not linked to their front page, but it can be found here.

A writer by the name of Ali Gray at the website The Shiznit offers a fantastic personal account of the worrying implications of WhatCulture’s blasé editorial and business practices, and what, by association, it might mean for the online blogging community.*  Indeed, Ali even, seemingly, has personal experience with what is revealed to be Shaun Munro’s long history with serial plagiarism, an act he will seemingly employ for paid work, for unearned esteem, or even just to try and win a free videogame.

If true (and given the wellspring of evidence and personal accounts now surfacing I am very much inclined to believe that it is), it gives the lie to Munro’s ‘unreserved’ apology for his actions, and rather puts in context his repeated censoring of people’s comments when they would point out his fraud.  He seems to have been well aware of his actions for several years – his entire career seemingly cultivated from this knowing, ongoing theft.  And given that he will soon be continuing his work with employers who have seen this history, perhaps even been complicit in perpetrating it themselves, there is little to indicate that anything substantive will change.

Some have commended WhatCulture for finally admitting that something was wrong, for apologising to the writers whose work was stolen, offering to pay them $50 each in damages, and for even asking forgiveness of their own plagiarising employees, Munro and Barnard, who they claim were under too much pressure to produce material.  Others who have read the statement have pointed out that this admission was a shamefully long time coming, particularly given the amount of evidence provided, that $50 dollars is considerably less than those writers would have earned had their work not been ‘misappropriated’, and that by apologising to people who have openly misled their employers, fellow writers, and readers, by choosing to temporarily suspend rather than dismiss them, they are tacitly endorsing their actions and inviting more such misbehaviour in future.

…Well, when I say ‘others‘ have said this, what I mean is: I am saying this.  I am saying this rather adamantly.

After all, Munro and Barnard (the editors of WhatCulture assure us) ‘apologise unreservedly for their actions’ – but so what?  They’ve not done anything of substance to rectify it.  They’ve not resigned.  They’ve not been fired.  They have simply been shelved until the heat dies down, and will be welcome to return to paid duty soon enough – presumably to do more of the same now that they know it has no real consequence, and that they are victims too…

Ultimately, all they have done is offer words of regret (in truth, they have only offered second-hand words of regret through their superiors; neither one, in any format I am aware, has themself addressed the issue directly).  But words are the problem here.  They’ve already proved that words come far too easy to them.  Both have already shown that they think words and ideas can be ‘borrowed’ and plucked, used and discarded at will.  Words from these two mean nothing.  Words reported by proxy through their superiors mean even less.  That is, and should always be, the consequence of plagiarism.  You rob others of their work, yes, but you also rob your audience of their trust, and yourself of your integrity.  Your work and your name are undone.

Curiously it is an issue that has even emerged in the literary circles of Australia, where one can hardly imagine financial profit to be the primary motivator.  This past month (September) a Newcastle poet named Andrew Slattery – winner of several major Australian poetry prizes over the past three years – was likewise revealed to be a serial plagiariser.  Slattery had just won the Josephine Ulrick poetry prize for 2013 with a verse titled ‘Ransom’, but a quick Google search of the lines and turns of phrase he had employed revealed that the piece was an amalgam of the work of several other poets stitched together like an imagistic Frankenstein’s monster.  In the aftermath, another successful Australian poet, Graham Nunn was also implicated for doing the same.

canyon by andrew slattery

IMAGE: Canyon by Andrew Slattery

A fantastic write-up of the whole affair is offered by Justin Clemens in Overland, ‘”Of borrow’d plumes I take the sin”: Plagiarism and Poetry’, and as he makes note, what is extraordinary is just how ubiquitous and celebrated Slattery and Nunn’s output has been up until this revelation.  Both have won prizes, both have had their work printed widely in respected literary journals such as Meanjin and Best Australian Poems, and both seem so comfortable with their theft that it has gone unamended for years.

For his part, Graham Nunn has attempted to explain away his direct, unattributed and unindicated quotations from other writers  as a form of literary homage; but somewhat contradictorily for a man professing his innocence and poetic license, he has also swiftly taken down all evidence of the poems in which he performed this ‘homage’  from his blog.  It seems strange that if (as he claims) his intent was always to draw attention to these poetic connections with work that he admires, he has suddenly chosen to hide this work away from the world now that those (apparently intended) allusions have finally been illuminated…

But of course, that was never the point.

Pastiche, allusion, quotation, these are all legitimate poetic devices, but (as Clemens likewise observes in his commentary) it is amusing how plagiarists decide to reveal that this is what they were doing all along only after they are caught.  Until then, when they must scramble to retroactively re-write their mission statements, they are content enough to have all of the plaudits for other people’s work go only to them – prizes, publishing, money – buoying their name while the artists from whom they have thanklessly harvested the trappings of their success remain in the dark.

But that has always been the problem with plagiarism – and why it is such an egregious sin for writers.  It reduces words – the application of words; the work of the author that brought them into being – to vapour that can be stolen freely, repurposed and not attributed, claimed and discarded without consequence.  It abuses the power of language, reduces it to an egotistical play-act – the proverbial crow dressed up in another’s feathers – hiding behind the indulgence of a readership that they assume is too ignorant or besotted to bother calling them to account.

The reason that it is unforgivable is not that it is a theft equivalent to driving off in someone’s car; a stolen DVD player can be replaced; the money in a wallet can be payed back.  Plagiarism, in contrast, irreparably debases everyone in its little sphere of influence – victim, reader, and writer.  It belittles the victim’s hard work, insults the reader’s intelligence and trust, and proves how egomaniacally hollow and devoid of individuality the writer has been in thought and practice.  It is narcissism made manifest; and as it their own name that plagiarists are trading on at the expense of all others, then by their very own actions they render it worthless.

That’s why Odysseus – renowned in this world and the next as the greatest teller of tales who ever lived – knew the mighty price of attaching a name to your deeds.  When escaping the Cyclops he said his name was ‘Nobody’, wise enough to know that there is power and danger in taking ownership of your actions.  Indeed, when his pride and ego led him to rashly blurt out his name, he suffered dearly.  And when he finally returned home to find a gaggle of usurping thieves, villains who literally intended to steal his kingly title while growing fat on his property, convinced that he would never know of their imposition, he knew well enough to board up the doors, count his arrows, and in the most pitiless, righteous wrath, reclaim his name.

ChainSawSuit Good Artists Copy by Kris Straub

IMAGE: ‘Good Artists Copy’, chainsawsuit by Kris Straub

* Ali’s piece is also a response to the proliferation of lecherous and tasteless articles on websites that heretofore have purported to offer legitimate cultural and critical substance – articles listing which teenage actresses are ‘hotter’, cataloguing where to find the best full-frontal nudity in film, etc.

Prose Poets

Posted in criticism, literature with tags , , , , , , , , on November 30, 2012 by drayfish

Complete Poems (Revised Edition)

IMAGE: Ernest Hemingway Complete Poems (Bison Books)

As a frustrated poet myself, I am always intrigued to see when famous writers of prose fiction choose to explore the verse form.  There are, of course, numerous examples of writers who have crossed over with grace.  Thomas Hardy’s hilarious ‘The Ruined Maid’ is a long way from his narrative’s fateful chewing up of the luminous Tess Durbeyfield.  Raymond Carver (who I think I will no doubt return to and rave about one day) offers soulful and elegant verse that is a fine extension of his rich fiction.  And if I’m completely honest, I prefer D.H. Lawrence’s poetry to his prose – I get infinitely more from his ‘Piano’ than his Rainbow (although the flood chapter is impressive).

Perhaps one of the most surprising transitions from one medium to the other is seen in the work of Ernest Hemingway who, although not the most accomplished poet, I find has a unique and bold take on the form.  For anyone interested, there is a nice edition of his collected works edited by Nicholas Gerogiannis (here).  This volume is worth checking out, not only for the fine introduction, but for the inclusion of some of Hemingway’s handwritten manuscripts, which contain hilarious doodles of fat grinning cats and weird bunny-eared creatures in the margins.  For anyone just curious, a small selection of Hemingway’s verse can also be viewed online (here).

Not surprisingly (for a man who used to teach Ezra Pound to box in the hope of toughening him up), Hemmingway proves to be an unsentimental poet.  These works are often satirical or playful harsh.  The poem ‘Lines to Be Read at the Casting of Scott Fitzgerald’s Balls into the Sea from Eden Roc (Antibes, Alpes Maritimes)’ certainly stands out.  Likewise his poem ‘To a Tragic Poetess’ (an attack on Dorothy Parker, who he considered an overly-theatrical pseudo-tragic …and who didn’t return his typewriter) is absolutely vicious, as its epigraph will attest: ‘Nothing in her life became her like her almost leaving of it’.

One of the works I most enjoy however is also one of his earliest, a short humorous piece titled (or not titled) ‘[Blank Verse]’.

‘[Blank Verse]’, by Ernest Hemingway (1961)

|          “                                                   ”

|                     !                  :                  ,                 .

|                                   ,                 ,                  ,              .

|                     ,                    ;                             !

|                              ,

What I really like about the poem (aside from the obvious audacity of stripping out the most basic units of any literary work: nouns, verbs, conjunctions), is that the final sentence – if indeed it can be called a sentence – is left hanging open.  The final line contains a comma, but no full stop.  Not only does the work contain no linguistic datum, but in its absence, it only projects further, compounding emptiness forever after in an anti-sentence that can never be concluded.

Farming the Footnotes

Posted in criticism, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , on November 2, 2012 by drayfish

IMAGE: Ariel and Prospero by William Hamilton (1797)

I’ve been revisiting The Tempest again (and truly, is there a better play, ever? okay, maybe Superman: The Musical) and I’ve discovered that my reading of the text has become inseparably entwined with the Rainer Maria Rilke poem ‘Der Geist Ariel’, or ‘Ariel’, which he wrote after himself adoringly absorbing the play.  So much so, in fact, that I have had to slip a copy of the poem into my edition.

I will confess immediately that I don’t speak German, and thus cannot read Rilke’s luminous work in its original, but I have found Stephen Mitchell’s translations to be rather striking.  You can get a marvellous Selected edition (which includes the Duino Elegies and ‘Ariel’) from Vintage International (here).  Likewise, as fans of the book will attest, Mitchell’s translation of Letters To A Young Poet captures the wonder and consolation that Rilke offers to any soul-starved (though frankly a little whiny) artist awaiting inspiration (here).

But back to The Tempest and the multi-layered, enriching experience of Rilke’s cross-pollination: ‘Der Geist Ariel’ is a wonderful short poem, The Tempest proving itself to be perfectly suited to Rilke’s sensibilities.  Themes of the agony of longing; the tremulous bonds of love that quiver with desire and despair; ghostly images of absence and loss; Rilke explores them all, tracing the immaterial bonds that unite us all in a tidy summary of Ariel and Prospero’s relationship:

And half imperious, half almost ashamed,

you make excuses, say that you still need him

for this and that, and, ah, you must describe

how you helped him.  Yet you feel, yourself,

that everything held back by his detention

is missing from the air.’

Come on.  That’s good stuff.

For much of the poem the narrator speaks to Prospero as though in the midst of a dialogue, but at its conclusion Rilke projects himself into the eyes of Ariel, in a nicely embedded parenthesis, watching as Prospero surrenders his power, becomes merely a man again, and asks the audience for the indulgence of their applause.  And what a magnificent moment!  Shakespeare, through the character of Prospero, is dropping his authorial mask at the end of his ‘final’ play to ask his audience to bid him and his work a fond farewell, but Rilke’s manner of respecting this request is to instead slide into the text, putting on the mask of Prospero’s newly freed spirit to admire his once-master as a grateful participant in the fiction, swooning in a kind of Stockholm Syndrome of Artistry.  It’s lovely.

Ultimately, this exchange got me wondering about other examples of such artistic and authorial conversations, where one work directly responds to the stimuli of another masterpiece.  Obviously there are the famous ones – Keats’ ‘On First Looking Into Chapman’s Homer’, Auden’s ‘Musee des Beaux Arts’ and its description of Brueghel’s Landscape with the Fall of Icarus, or for that matter, William Carlos Williams’ collection Pictures From Brueghel – but are there ever famously negative responses?  Reactions against a work that in its revulsion creates art?  ‘I Hate Madame Bovary And Here’s Why’, a haiku?  Traditionally we think of the artist sitting in stunned bliss or giddy excitement, striving to scratch out their response to a work that has rocked them to their very core, but the artist can be notoriously petty.  The genius even more so.  (I’ve heard that that elephant who paints with his trunk is a complete bastard.)

I’m positive that there are numerous such examples of writers responding with rebukes rather than regard, but my enfeebled brain is struggling to think of one.  And I guess that for now I am happy enough to swim through the warmer waters where everyone is struck with a dreamy wonder.

p.s. I don’t hate Madame Bovary.  I think she’s funny.

John Tranter: He’s great. That is all.

Posted in literature with tags , , , , , , , on August 25, 2012 by drayfish

IMAGE: The Floor of Heaven (HarperCollins)

The poet John Tranter is a bit of a hero of mine, and recently I have been revisiting his brilliant verse novel The Floor of Heaven.

For those unfamiliar with the work, I cannot recommend it enough.  A clusterbomb of narrative play and a musing upon the glistening miasma of high and low art, it is a work of striking depth and genuinely dizzying fun.

…And yes, I said ‘glistening miasma’.  I’m comfortable with that.

While I would definitely recommend buying a copy to savour (is it sad that I have three copies? one signed?), if you’re reluctant to trust the word of a faceless blogging nerd on the interwebbies, you can check out the entire book, which Tranter has kindly posted to read (completely free), on his homepage:

Tranter was also the founder of the fantastic (also extraordinarilly freeJacket electronic journal.*  There you can find a fantastic analysis of the book by Kate Lilley (originally published in the journal Southerly), a reading that engages much of the intertextual commentary Tranter produces through his swirling narrative layers.

* The original journal appears here:; it’s sequel Jacket2 (no longer edited by Tranter) can be found here:

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