Stag’s Leap

The story of my stroke is the story of the characters in my life: nurses and doctors; friends and lovers; and everyone who has wandered through the past twenty months….

There’s no “Little Miss Irreverent”?! C’mon, now.

In the wake of Jeremy Paxman’s recent call for a poetic inquisition — a call for quantification and measurement and exclusion from a white, male member of the establishment — I was surprised by his premise that the citizens of the British Isles are increasingly rejecting poetry.

As I noted in a recent comment on the blog Whimsies And Words, Edinburgh seems awash with poetry that is engaging the populace:

[I]t’s striking how healthy poetry seems in Edinburgh, whether we’re talking about the Scottish Poetry Library, Rally & Broad, Illicit Ink, Neu! Reekie, or MiKo Berry killing it at the World Poetry Slam.

The Scottish Poetry Library‘s blog continues to offer chewy pieces of radio to nourish the blog. This week, I listened to a repeat of the poet Vicki Feaver’s essay that was part of the Explaining The Explicit series on BBC Radio 3. As described by Auntie Beeb, Explaining The Explicit is a “[s]eries in which writers considers the motivations for and challenges in writing about sex.” Vicki Feaver’s contribution focuses on how the female poet can explore her own sexuality.

For example, her complex reaction to Roger Hilton’s Oi Yoi Yoi

The essay contained a multitude of interesting insights, but what grabbed me most was an introduction to the American poet, Sharon Olds. As I understand it, although she’s little known in Britain, she’s revered (Sharon Olds’s poems are pure fire in the hands — Michael Ondaatje) and occasionally abhorred (pornographic — Helen Vendler) by those in the know. Her collection Stag’s Leap won the 2012 T.S. Eliot Prize and a Pulitzer in 2013. In one of the articles linked below, Marianne Macdonald quotes Olds’s editor at Cape discussing her poetry, and  “its direct, robust physicality, its corresponding rejection of rigid religious moral doctrines — the very qualities that enrage her critics.”

As much as the incredible poetry by Olds recited in Explaining The Explicit, I was intrigued by Feaver’s characterisation of the work: Brilliant and stirring, the poems are also a betrayal of intimacy, something Olds acknowledges in Left-Wife Bop:

…I gave my secrets to you, dear strangers
and his, too…

Entranced, I rushed to find out more about this poet and her work, and came across this 2008 interview in which Olds discusses her poetry and practice. Although Stag’s Leap is “an arc of poems, an almanac of grief, written in the days, weeks and months after her husband, a doctor to whom she had been married for 32 years, left her for a colleague,” Olds is careful in the interview to describe her poetry as ‘apparently personal’. Or… apparently very personal.

However, she later emails her interviewer with something of a change of heart, questioning her own “extreme reticence,” and wondering if her vow to maintain a delicate and flimsy veil separating the I and the poetic I is wearing thin. This is fascinating, I think. I’m increasingly interested in the the space between — the space that joins — experience and creation. Consider Alan Spence’s fiction-orgaphy of the Zen master Hakuin, or Jorge Luis Borges’ extensive fictional footnoting.

Or any fiction that bears the heft of experience

In her 2008 interview, Sharon Olds reflects that accuracy is everything, and that “In the last couple of years, I’ve had higher standards for what accuracy is.” How can one maintain accuracy in the concentrated language of poetry, without diving into the Russian doll protective clauses of prose? One must aim, I suppose, for concentrated, poetic truth, with the ring, the ear, the feeling of authenticity. Or is this a cop-out, I ask myself? I don’t think so. It is art, after all.

… the ‘I’ in it not myself anymore, but, I’d hope, some pronoun that a reader or hearer could slip into.

Even in a “confessional” blog, one slips into the I. Vicki Feaver identifies the tension in the context of the published and performing poet, citing in particular her poems Hemingway’s Hat and Women’s Blood:

I write for myself, but I also share my work through publication and readings. There is sometimes a conflict.

Readers of the tiny letter distribution may recognise that the voice in those letters is a degree different to the one in this blog. The reader creates that voice by dint of the interaction of clicking and completing the subscription. But that makes this blog no less “true”….

Stroke Bloke reflects on the nature of “truth”

Returning to the characters of my stroke, I see that Mrs Stroke Bloke has helped me learn how to share more of my truth with the world, both before and now, crucially, after my stroke. In light of that lesson, I’m lucky to have found someone I can speak about freely without worrying about betraying a vow on intimacy. Yesterday evening, I found myself talking to a woman I’d only just met and telling her about my haemorrhagic stroke and continuing difficultly maintaining my balance because of left side deficiencies. Rather than displaying discomfort, she thanked me for sharing with her. And that was a bonus, because the very act of speaking the deficiencies, the pains, robs them of some of their power, their shame. It’s the freedom of release.

As Sharon Olds tells her interviewer

“I think for me the impulse to write has to do with making something, with capturing, recording, preserving, honouring, saving – or not turning away from, if it’s a ghastly human thing one is driven to write about.” And what does it offer the reader? She laughs. “Well . . . companionship.”

“Lime green cabs in 2014? Don’t be ridiculous!” (Picture: Eamonn McCabe for The Guardian)

[Postscript:. The evening after I wrote this post, I was struck by the irony of a white, privately educated male — we can forget the disabilities for a second — appropriating the work of women poets to discuss the journey to finding his voice. But it’s interesting to me in this context that it took me almost 40 years to start to find an open, vulnerable voice.  Anyway. Look! Groundbreaking women’s poetry!]

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8 thoughts on “Stag’s Leap

    1. As Mrs Stroke Bloke would say, it’s a virtuous circle. I’m finding that being exposed to more and more voices is helping me find mine. And yes, there’s some poetry coming. Thanks for wondering. In the meantime, there’s always the primordial soup….

  1. I just had a literary epiphany of sorts upon reading your latest blog piece.

    In my mind (and I had assumed this is the general conception that everyone holds – though perhaps I was mistaken… you know… lack of your favorite notion, “empathetic imagination”):

    A literary binary exists. On one side you have Non-Fiction, which in its Platonic Ideal is this dry, objective, just-the-facts-ma’am form of writing. (And how false is that! As your blog demonstrates. Though the shattering of this Platonic Ideal in my brain was not even the major epiphany. [And side-side note: due partly to my academic training and partly just to professional writing experience and life in general, I’m hyper-aware that supposed non-fiction or documentary or journalism or photography or any kind of statements are far from objective and realist, but somehow I still held this ideal in my mind. It’s funny how our brains hold onto notions about reality sometimes despite evidence to the contrary.])

    On the other side (let’s escape – mostly – from the labyrinthine Russian nesting dolls of parentheticals above), you have Fiction, Poetry, Theatre. These are the artsy writing modes. On the Non-Fiction side you have reality. On this other side you have artifice.

    Now here was the epiphany: Poetry is by far the most “real life” of all the literary genres. The Poetic I is often the most true, the most confessional, the most accurate. I’m not sure why it’s grouped, at least in my head if not other people’s, as a sibling of fiction.

    True, it’s the most “artsy” of the genres. It’s the most “poetic” to be annoyingly-yet-perhaps-usefully tautological. But it’s also likely to have the deepest, most emotional truths.

    1. Thanks, Ron. Mrs SB and I both thoroughly enjoyed your comment. I can’t add much, except, bravo.

      But that’s never stopped me before.

      The “minor epiphany” was unavoidable for me, given exposure to the British papers, which don’t attempt to maintain the NYT-style pretence of a distinction between “news” and “op-ed” pages. This left fertile fields for the seeds sown by critical legal theory. If blind-folded Lady Justice is subject to (employs!) rhetoric dressed as postivism when fortunes and futures and lives are at stake, where can we seek a bastion of objective truth? Yet, my mind also clings onto the received notions of non-fiction writing.

      And yes, the major epiphany rings true, even if I suspect most of us join you in grouping poetry with fiction. I guess because of the concentration of language and the related reliance on imagery and symbolism? But, as FotBP might note, limitation also concentrates the mind. Further, the focus on language and metre, as well as requiring the poet to examine each idea from multiple angles to represent it most accurately as she sees it, distracts us from the self-conscious I. Removing a cataract in, I suppose, a form of clarity through meditation.

      In the absence of journalistic, photographic, etc, truths, how do we avoid the apparent perils of relativism? I still haven’t thought clearly on that. I mean, clearly, I wouldn’t have an answer, but I’d like a framework for myself, at least. Maybe the best I can do for now is enjoy the fleeting glimpse (feeling?) of deep truth that poetry can provide. And try to persuade everyone that I’m right with the usual tools of rhetoric. Relatedly, there’s an interesting feminist (and therefore relevant to this post) take on the nature of patriarchal public discourse in an LRB winter lecture that didn’t make the blog, Mary Beard’s The Public Voice Of Women.

      And possibly also interestingly (I’m flailing here — stroke fatigue setting in), I’ve noticed that much as ex-smokers are often the most evangelical anti-smokers, it seems to be those of us who are most committed to the certainties — of, for example, legal positivism — who in glimpsing the cracks in the façade become, in this example, the most disillusioned legal realists.

      Ricky's thoughts

  2. Bit of a week and just catching up now. The old blog made me go and purchase pale fire for my kindle. I got the one you think I’m referring to but I also found there is another kindle book called pale fire which has as a synopsis

    On a forced medical leave from his job with the CIA Sasha heads for Las Vegas for a little R and R. As a long time abductee Cath is thrilled to be speaking at the UFO Believers convention in Las Vegas. They’ve been abducted together since they were children and the last thing either expects is to meet the other. When they wake up the next morning after their chance encounter they’re married and the government is not pleased. They were never supposed to meet outside the Experiment, never supposed to know about each other or the hybrid children. Now General Nathaniel is after them and he’ll stop at nothing to protect his dream of a super army. Escape from Nathaniel and his forces isn’t certain but Sasha and Cath won’t give up the love they’ve found without a fight.

    As here

    So I thought you would like to know that your blog made me read that synopsis!

    1. “ made me want to read Nabokov [or anything else, frankly].” — FriendoftheBlogPaul.

      Enjoy that. Now I’m old, I don’t have the patience for the early Martin Amis I used to devour, but his essays on Nabokov (I read a bunch of them in his collection The War On Cliché) are mouthwatering. (And his cameo as a character in Ian McEwan’s Sweet Tooth was rather fun.)

      And how very postmodern of you to write the blurb for a non-existent book!

      1. I wish that was a non existent book. That blurb is cnp from the amazon link above! Turns out pulp soft core romance scifi porn is a genre. So now we know what to do with the next nerdbait short

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