Niall O'Sullivan

high brow, low brow, none of that stuff in the middle

Should most poetry engage most people?

Posted on | October 16, 2017 | No Comments

I was thinking about the Adrian Mitchell quote, “Most people ignore most poetry because most poetry ignores most people”

Adrian Mitchell was a very fine poet and human being, but I like this quote less and less the more I see it.

Most people have little need for poetry, therefore, they’re going to ignore most poetry. Popular poetry, the kind that aims to be read by “most people” is absolutely fine, like popular music and films about big robots that can change into vehicles and beat the shit out of each other.

But if a person engages with an art form in a less casual sense, their tastes will become more refined and personal and the kind of poetry they like will probably be less appealing to most people but more appealing to them. Isn’t this the same with art, music, novels and theatre?

The quote is used in a sense that there is a great untapped audience that we can get to if we could only speak to them. I find that this audience is already well served by their favourite song lyrics or by the popular poetry that’s already out there. Sure, there’s always room for more popular poetry for all those that want a bash at it but the thought of “most poetry” trying to appeal to “most people” is a profoundly depressing one.

What I’m doing now – 1/8/17

Posted on | August 1, 2017 | No Comments

I am putting the finishing touches to my still untitled New and Selected poems. It feels good to draw a line between now and the rest of my career. It gives me the mental space to try something new or simply stop writing for a while (newsflash- not going to happen).

I am currently writing a lot poetry wise but going against my habit of the last few years of putting it online. This isn’t because I suddenly want people to pay for my work (though my books are available online!) but because sometimes the creative act has to be a bit more private during certain transitional phases. I share the odd line here and there if I find it strange or funny enough but nothing more than that. I feel like I’m starting over in a lot of ways, that I have exhausted the possibilities of the styles and forms that I used previously. Starting again like this is always messy and as conducive to bouts of frustration as it is to fits of poetic frenzy.

It’s currently the school holidays so I am the full time carer for two daughters, not getting much done otherwise. Many people in poetry and the arts don’t have kids, which is probably a sensible strategy. There seems to be an idea that this isn’t real work and that a parent can simply get through the day, put the sprogs to bed and then knuckle down to some proper graft. This is down to to some superhuman parents that actually manage to do this. They are not the norm, they are freaks. All I want to do by then is drink a single beer and watch Netflix with the Duchess. I get work done in opportunistic bites throughout the day. Not much “deep work” gets done. It’s a crappy way of working but it’s the only way I can do it during school holidays.

Current influences:

Sleaford Mods – I feast or famine with this band. I either blast my eardrums for days or even weeks and then don’t touch them for a few months before going back to them. I will always be an angry man, though I work hard at being aware of it and dealing with it. Still, anger is often a sign that things aren’t as up to scratch as we’d like them to be and Sleaford Mods currently seem to be the best at using this anger creatively. There’s no way you could recreate their mixture of in your face lyrics with raw stripped down beats with a poem. But you can use it as a handy metronome for your own work. You can steal some of their fire.

Chelsey Minnis (all of them)

Another artist I have to be in the mood for and then read hardly anyone else. She’s funny, irreverent and experimental. A poet’s poet, as the saying goes. She writes with a healthy contempt for the tropes, styles and power plays of the mainstream academic. Her craft is informed by the aesthetics of amateurism rather than being amateurish within itself.

Nick Cave – The Sick Bag Song

Reading this for a third time. It got the usual frosty reception from poets that is reserved for successful outsiders trying a hand at their craft and shifting plenty of units to the audience they have amassed from their proper career (Also see Franco, James). That said, I think that Cave’s book is genuinely ambitious and his outsider success allows him to play with tropes and ideas that insiders wouldn’t dare for fear of self indulgence and cliche. Cave’s book of poems drafted on airline sick bags while on tour is exciting in concept and execution. As a scriptwriter he has an instinct for when the audience’s attention might be waning and keeps his thematic plates spinning to that tempo. The book runs out of steam at the end and Cave schleps over the finish line not long after he’s roared out of the blocks. However, he’s still produced something unique that addresses the problems and dead ends within mainstream poetry without necessarily remedying them.

Henry Jenkins

He reads at Unplugged sometimes, writes very short and pithy poems that are the polar opposite of the three minute epiphanies or hokey reminiscences of the Spoken Word circuit. I’m fascinated to see how far he’ll push it. When he started out a few years back you could spot the Bukowski influences but now I think he’s just about reached escape velocity from that ubiquitous influence.

The Lectern : Revisited

Posted on | July 25, 2017 | No Comments

Apologies for not posting in a while, as my life got busier and my blogs became essays, productivity ground to a halt. So, let me share a quick observation to get things back on track.

The lectern has come in for a bit of stick on this blog, particularly with regard to the barrier it places between the poet and the audience and the cloying sense of importance it lends to proceedings. I am still not a fan of the lectern but I noticed a few things at a reading this weekend that made a strong case for why a literary poet might prefer it.

Now the reading I was at didn’t use a lectern per se, rather a music stand that had been made to look attractive with some glittery adornments. That said, the music stand was very lectern-like in the way that it was placed very close to a back wall with the mic stand nudged up very snugly to it. This led to the poets being crammed in the tiny space between the music stand and the back wall. To be honest, the basement room of the Poetry Cafe has wonderful acoustics and I don’t use the mic at my own event. For purposes of audibility, it’s not needed.

As I watched poets peer out from behind the music stand, speaking into a gratuitous microphone, I had a bit of an epiphany. The poets were trying to vanish. Much like the books or sheets of paper placed on the music stand that they peered over, they wanted the poem to be a barrier between themselves and the audience. If the ultimate medium for their poem was phonetic script on a clean page rather than a live communication between themselves and the audience, then this was a way of reading the poem in a way that recreated this. The microphone also helped, not in the sense that the volume was needed, but in lending an unnatural quality to the voice, another intentional disconnect between the poet and the audience.

Previously, I have seen the need for this kind of alienation as a weakness of literary poetry within a live setting. But now I recognise that alienation may actually be the intent. Their aim is to present the poem as something that has successfully escaped the personality of the poet and now has its own existence within its medium of the printed page. Barthes’ Death of the Author as an act of public execution.

How Should You Perform Haiku?

Posted on | April 22, 2017 | No Comments

One of my most excruciating live poetry experiences was during the reading of a long haiku sequence. The poet stopped for applause after each one. Gradually, it dawned on the audience that this wasn’t going to end any time soon. The poet read the next haiku and then slightly bowed his head and stepped away from the microphone. We took our cue, briefly patting our palms together as he stepped forward to read the next one. We could have stopped applauding but decorum dictated otherwise. It was a long five minutes.

The problem wasn’t that that haiku were bad, on the contrary, the problem was that they were good. That is to say, they weren’t just seventeen syllable poems (sometimes known as senryu). They weren’t just seventeen syllable poems that used a seasonal word. Many of his haiku were faithful to the mood, philosophy and aesthetic of traditional Japanese haiku. The problem was that the poet didn’t know any other way of reading them other than the standard open mic procedure of poem>applause>poem>applause>poem>applause…

One of my favourite definitions of a haiku comes from this article about haibun by Aimee Nezhukumatathil. She characterises a haiku as a meaningful murmur. In the same article, haibun (a form that normally consists of a prose poem followed by a haiku) are characterised and differentiated from other observations of nature by merit of them possessing the quality of aware:

aware—the quality of certain objects to evoke longing, sadness, or immediate sympathy.

Many haiku can seem incomplete when read to an audience. There is often an openness to the poem that is at odds with the need for immediate response characterised by the kind of poems that we hear at poetry slams. Let’s look at a typical poem by Basho.

This autumn
why am I growing old?
bird disappearing among clouds

(trans Robert Hass)

Now, unlike a lot of Japanese haiku, it’s hardly oblique in its meaning to western ears. Autumn is traditionally a time for pensive moods and reflections of mortality. The image that concludes this observation invites us to see the speaker, a poet who led an ascetic lifestyle, as a bird disappearing among clouds. His inevitable vanishing from the world is a casual, almost unnoticeable thing.

Now imagine the poet reading out this line, then stepping back and awaiting applause. Not so insignificant and modest now, is he?

So, if a haiku often ends with an image that may need to be bounced about the brain of the listener for a while before they can really make a judgement about it, how should a haiku be performed and how should it be received? Here is a good point to pay heed to the magnificence that is cockney hard man actor Danny Dyer reciting reflective haiku(s).

Now, while this is obviously a piss take, Dyer’s recitations and his reactions to the poetry are more appropriate to the form than standing back and expecting applause. Whether taking a drag of a fag, or exclaiming “That’s properly reflective innit?” or thinking to himself silently before exclaiming “Wasssat fackin’….. wassat mean?” he is at least recognising the openness and ambiguity of the form – the meaningful murmur, albeit in his usual idiosyncratic way.

When we encounter haiku from Spoken Word or Performance Poets, the poem tends to resemble a seventeen syllable aphorism, epigram or joke. In a video of a haiku slam (The Haiku Death Match, great name!), the poems seem to be judged by their immediate effect on the audience – in this case immediate laughter or recognition of how right-on or mind blowing the idea is. Rather than try to tailor the event towards the needs of the form, the form is instead tailored towards the needs of the event. An audience member interviewed for the Haiku Death Match video shares her idea of what a good haiku is:

A good haiku is like, thought provoking, where they use the seventeen syllables to really blow your mind or it’s hilarious. Those are the two options. You can’t really go any other direction.

Another describes a good haiku as being “…quick, to the point. I really like a twist at the end.”

There’s no doubting the talent of the poets involved in the Haiku Death Match. There is an economy of language and pithiness that is less evident in the longer pieces that succeed at conventional slams. They are similarly welcome to tell me to get fucked with my restrictive definitions of what a haiku should be. I will in turn, take that critique in good grace while mumbling “…but it’s still not a haiku” as I amble away.

While the syllabic count stands as the sole criteria as to whether these aphorisms are haiku, it is interesting that the syllabic count is often seen as the least important criteria when translating classic haiku from the Japanese. It is far more important for the translator to get the mood and imagery just right instead. The Penguin Classics translation of Basho’s The Narrow Path to the Deep North substitutes four line quatrains for the three line originals.

One reason why the syllable count is not that important is due to the difference between spoken Japanese and spoken English. A spoken line of English poetry is often characterised by its stresses. A line of Japanese poetry is characterised by its syllables. We can tell if a line of English poetry is in iambics by simply listening to it. It is far harder to count the syllables in the same line without finger counting. Japanese language uses stresses less in speech, hence why syllables are more apparent to the ear.

Perhaps we need to examine what happens when a traditional haiku is read out to an audience within the typical poetry reading format. What do we do with that air of ambiguity that ends barely a moment after it has begun. What is the best show of appreciation or understanding for a meaningful murmur?

Our first cue should be to look at the communal aspects of the composition and readings of haiku. Sometimes haiku were traditionally written as part of haibun, as detailed above, or as part of long travel journals. They are also used in renga, linked verse, where a chain of haiku and waki (two seven syllable lines, often appended to haiku to make a tanka) would be composed by the visiting poet and their hosts. Poets, monks, novices, lords and servants would often partake in creating the renga together. The effect would be a poem that showed different minds as fractured manifestations of the same experience.

Contrast this with the format of the poetry reading and the cult of authorship. There is an anxiety at the heart of poetry in performance, the possibly antagonistic relationship between the poet and their audience. It cannot be denied that the person on stage is often endeavouring to conquer or subdue the audience. Or, in a kinder sense, they are seeking the audience’s approval. It is this anxiety that is shut down or kept in check by the snappy one liner or the grand statement. In contrast, when the ambiguity and openness of the haiku is introduced to this environment, the anxiety is amplified.

I would perhaps solve this a couple of ways, The first would be, in the spirit of the haibun and travel journals, not to present haiku as main courses in the performance, but to toss them in among some banter and storytelling. Let it sit there as part of a softer, inclusive silence before getting back to the small talk.

The second would be to invite more feedback from the audience, not in requesting applause or demanding silence but to instead to throw it open, to let the audience respond with their own thoughts or even to write haiku of their own. They would be welcome to share these at certain points during the reading. Anyone caught counting their fingers will be escorted from the premises.

This is the latest in an ongoing series of posts that work towards a criticism of the Spoken Word. I will be looking at all forms of Spoken Word — not just poetry readings and spoken word/poetry performances but stand up comedy, confessional monologues, academic lectures, speeches, wrestling promos and any other act of public speech that rings my bell. All posts will appear under the Toward a Criticism of the Spoken Word category. Click to see if new posts have been added and for any you may have missed.

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  • insta-haiku (hover over picture to see the poem)

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