music's agony aunt,
ALICE McVEIGH, on poetry
Another question my readers never ask me is, what's clicking, good-looking?
Another question my readers never bloody ask is: Hi Alice, read any great
new poetry lately?
Now before you all rush to click 'down' in the vain hope that the next
question will be sexier, let me first say (a) have I ever! and (b) the ones
I've just finished reading are dead sexy.
And the reason I've been reading them is all because of a mix-up with my
first novel, when, about eight years after meeting violinist Gregory Warren Wilson
on a London Mozart Players tour, exactly two thirds of his name resurfaced in what
I'm pleased to call my brain when searching for a name for a stimulating,
Giotto-loving, poetry-reading violinist for my first novel. Bingo, I thought,
Warren Wilson! That's a good name! (No, not Gregory WW, thank God. Not that
that's an excuse. I'm just quite simply diabolical at names, and have a memory
that would shame a sieve.) So, when Sebastian Comberti told me that the real
live Gregory Warren Wilson was annoyed, when we were messing about with the
Hanover Band in New York, I was absolutely mortified.
Because, while my conscious mind was surfing along breezily, thinking about
my characters, my subconscious was clearly on red alert, for the real Gregory
Warren Wilson is not just a marvellous violinist, acute, stimulating and quite
seriously Italianophilic, but is also and much more rarely a real poet, the
genuine article, one who writes Emily Dickinson's immortal description of
poetry: 'When it feels as if the top of my head has been taken off I know it is
poetry. This is the only way I know it. Is there any other way?'
Anyway, thanks to Sebastian, the breach was healed and we met for lunch
in London about a decade after our first meeting in the Mozart Players. I
apologised for my dizzy stupidity, and G W W was most feelingly generous
towards my novel which had precipitated the crisis.
But I was the gainer, because, although Greg might have mentioned writing
poetry himself on our first meeting, that affliction is frankly too widespread
to have made much of an impression on me. To the eternal credit of these isles
(Ireland especially) poetry is one of its most widespread secret vices. Why,
in England alone, tens of thousands of poets ply their trade in private,
trading phone numbers, manuscripts, and the rest of the paraphernalia of the
seriously shameful. (Only death and serious drug-addiction rank any lower,
frankly, on the social scale, and even for those there is usually some plea in
mitigation, such as not being able to help it.)
How do I know? Because I myself wrote poetry -- mainly rotten -- during my
first three decades, all miles too personal to be rehashed here, though,
bizarrely, one of the few poetry publishers to have plucked a few out of the
slush-pile for publication (Staple) was the very poetry press which published
Greg's first book. That book, Preserving Lemons, was his first collection,
and the sheer vitality and feeling of the language impressed me so profoundly that
I can still recall some of it from memory. I keep returning to it, for the energy
of its imagery, its erotic charge and its entrancing delicacy. (U A Fanthorpe,
one of modern poetry's greats, describes Greg as having 'that rarest of rarities,
a perfect ear') and reading his poetry makes me feel as if the sense of hearing
is cleansed, made whole and pure and new again.
Here is one of my favourites.
('Any other way' by Gregory Warren Wilson)
He would not like it much, were I to say
it was his wrists, remembering his wrists
which tightened tiny draw-strings round my heart.
The photo in my fiddle-case of him in snow --
smiling huddled in a shabby coat -- shows
why I love him. He would not have it so.
Who can resist the make believe
that keeps us at our best, glimpsed
by candlelight in antique mirrors,
or tousled by the sea, grinning ruggedly?
But it is not so. Today it snowed,
and I remembered him -- his wrists
thin as plant stems, and his hands
opening in unprompted acts of kindness.
If I did not tell him, would he ever know
I thought of him today as it began to snow,
as whiteness made particular
each leaf I'd overlooked, as quietness
settled unobtrusively? Would he know
the snow made each frail cyclamen ache,
and that I would not have it any other way?
But his most recent collection, Jeopardy, published only this month
by the prestigious Enitharmon Press, is, if anything, still more resonant. This
is part of his insightful and terrifyingly personal series of poems from a
ventriloquist's dummy to its puppeteer:
Watch me -- artless, artful, anything
but simple. Just you try upstaging me.
I'd con the halo off an apostle and filch
the readies from a pimp's cache-pot.
Irresistible in my own way.
Stand back Lazarus you one night stand.
In this whole series of poems, GWW quietly oils off the layers that separate
audience from artist, until nothing is left except the bare bones of emotional
reality. All this, and still the choice of words breathtakingly audacious, and
unerringly rhythmic in the sense that most of us secret poetry vice-lovers can
only dream of.
And even -- aren't you glad you carried on reading, even though it is
about poetry??? -- so warmly erotic. Here is GWW on the peel of a navel orange:
Now you're going halfway round the world;
what can I give you
that's light and flatpacks
into an envelope?
sweet; here's the peel
from a navel orange
all in one piece,
the bits that's left behind
when the flesh has gone.
No ... One strip
thumb-scooped from pole to pole
and two half globes.
Press its creamy pith
against your belly
navel to navel
skin to skin
and think of me ...
If interested (you'll never regret it) please contact Enitharmon Press on
order Greg's Jeopardy from a bookshop (ISBN 1 900564 63 7).
And tell them Alice sent you.
Copyright © 11 July 2003
Alice McVeigh, Kent, UK