Thursday, January 17, 2008

Pablo Neruda's The Book of Questions is mind-expanding. I came across it in Borders last year and read it greedily. When I lost it at a school I'd been visiting I felt bereft until a replacement arrived from Amazon. I don't know all of Neruda's work - he wrote so much it's going to take a while - and have already raved about The Captain's Verses. I'm waiting for the postman to deliver his Odes to Common Things but for now I'm back into the questions.

In composing these, Neruda was mining our most primitive drive - curiosity and inventiveness. It's curiosity that's moved us around the world, driven us to dissect, learn, stare, listen and dream ourselves into the inventions and theories that follow. He was also placing himself in the mind of a child and there's probably no more creative state.

When I worked full time as a journalist, questions defined my daily life. I asked questions that I wanted answers to. I was taught, as an indentured trainee, to avoid questions that required only yes or no. As I became more experienced, I learned that the silence following an answer could often lead to an even fuller or truer response. I learned that after asking a question, I had to trust silence and sometimes ask again in a different way.

I hated the foot in the door questions - how do you feel? - that are such blunt intrusions. I also knew we're all nervous about how our answers are used.

When I am writing, I start with questions. I was once told that the poem was not in the question but in the answer I struggled to provide. That's valid. But reading Neruda, I am more aware of how I am full to the brim with questions.

Questions can be awkward. Remember those moments when a child asks a difficult question on a crowded bus, in front of acquaintances? A question that can't be avoided or shuffled off....that may be so intensely personal you want to disappear.

Questions are at the heart of love, equality, freedom of expression and civil liberties. When we turn away from questions, turn them back on the questioner, imprison the questioner, mock her, intimidate her, threaten him or disadvantage him, we betray what makes us human.

Most of the questions in Neruda's book are enough as can fill a train journey from north to south of France. One is enough for a day. Attempting to answer them all could provide a lifetime's work. He could have written them as aphorisms but he didn't. Why? The aphorism is a statement, entertaining but essentially arrogant.

A question is a distillation of humility and exploration - both qualities that make his work so great.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Poetry's pool of prize money is a limited one - annually, the Forward and TS Eliot awards are the big gains, worth £10,000 and £15,000 respectively. In the absence of significant arts council funding to poets, they are significant. When one book scoops both awards, as Sean O'Brien's The Drowned Book, has just done, there's a good deal of scurrying around and questioning.

O'Brien regularly wins prizes, as does his fellow big hitter, Don Paterson. It seems that once a poet's on that shortlist and prize winning trail there's no stopping them. The massive exposure they receive ensures they are read, that their work is known, that any new work is stamped with the authority that comes with fame and consequently, reputation. Prizes bring jobs, too, more offers of work, commissions, invitations to read and so on.

Those on the shortlists fix their smiles afterwards - the confident and the generous praise the winner's success, the drunk say things they hope won't be repeated, the permanently insecure are confirmed in their insecurity. Those left off the shortlists altogether exchange consoling e mails or postcards.

There were some significant poets on this year's TS Eliot shortlist - notably Edwin Morgan, Matthew Sweeney, Sarah Maguire and Mimi Khalvati. Just one, Alan Gillis, came from a smaller publisher, Gallery. And all the books on the list deserve to be read, to be given time and respect.

But can we hope, too, that those who have made the big league will consider what they can do for poets whose work doesn't make headlines? I don't mean ensuring a smooth path for young successors, appointing newcomers who you believe are deserving - I mean that they will look around and read the books that were born around the same time.

.....Get to know them, as you know your neighbours, bring them together and enjoy their diversity, the new routes they offer, the different ways of using language and metaphor. Read them with the respect you wish your work to be given and be generous, responsible with the power you've been handed......

I was once told a story about a famous poet who was complaining about the number of other poets writing. His listener replied that without all those others around, his status would be meaningless.

We celebrate diversity in plant life, insect life. We speculate about what cures may be waiting to be discovered. I think it's time to take stock, as poets, of the fantastic range of work being published and make it our responsibility to celebrate that range rather than insist there is only one way. Surely we have the imaginations to do that.

Edwin Morgan
Matthew Sweeney
Mimi Khalvati
Sarah Maguire

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Opposite the funeral director's at the bottom of my road the other day I met a woman I know vaguely and because it was so close to the new year we stopped to chat. I asked about her kids and she about mine. On that grim corner, in the late afternoon, the pavements wet, the traffic as always, noisy, she told me the story of a boy who's just dropped out of university, who sits at the dinner table dribbling because he's so stoned, who takes ketamine, methadone, cocaine, anything to lose himself. A boy she imagines will one day be homeless from his inability to care for himself, to care about anything. She told me cocaine's cheaper on the streets than it's ever been, that he can get anything he wants within minutes.

Is it us, is it money, is it the city, is it absence of expectation, is it tv? My local authority has a campaign to clear the streets of chewing gum. That's our message for the new year. And there are children at local schools who are stoned in classrooms. Who smoke crack in the playing fields. Who are out of their heads on skunk and drink all weekend, playing chase with community coppers and occasionally police dogs.