Thursday, 19 January 2012

SOPA Opera... and Things that Go Bump in The Night

O really, not another conspiracy theory!

But at least this is a first, I think. My shortest blog post yet...? So read on without fear of getting lost on route.

A friend joined a conversation over on Facebook, in a post that I'd added yesterday about the Stop Online Piracy Act, and the twenty four hour Wikipedia 'Blackout' protest. SOPA is currently going through its paces in the USA House of Representatives and Senate and seemingly causing a stir in the social media community; and quite rightly so, in my opinion; but not just 'rightly' so; this needs to be shouted from every hilltop in the land because it is potentially a great threat to our freedoms, which could become fiefdoms or 'feedoms' if we don't fight for what's right.

Anyway, my friend asked the question that spiked my imagination: "and who censors the censors!" she asked with no uncertain rhetoric, albeit with a question mark. A very good question, Fiona.

The answer to your question is that it should be the electorate! But it isn't, is it. Why is it that we should be so cynical whenever such a move is made by legislators! This is perhaps better answered by asking another question: who benefits most from this act? The answer could be that the largest multinational corporations benefit the most. I mention no names, but those whose core markets are in gaming, music, publishing are the most obvious, who may benefit; but aren't there always more sinister forces at work?
I would argue that there may also be some scientific research interests, particularly those that concern themselves with defence, security and pharmaceuticals. Behind them - and here comes our old friend, Conspiracy - aren't there selective groups of people who are largely without political colour, whose agenda is control. It is those with a primary interest in Control of Power (deliberate capitals); these are not necessarily political interests - at least of the conventional kind, which are voted for by a democratic electorate. No, this is an elite, who are not necessarily constrained by national boundaries and legislature; those who stand to lose the most, and who therefore develop the highest degree of paranoia when the masses get access to 'free' information and of course get to appreciate the persuasive power of 'social media'. 

May be it's when that paranoia becomes trigger happy that we should start to worry; not that it hasn't already, mind. After all, in the Middle East, where, as history would have it, lies the cradle of civilisation, and where previously religious conviction lead to crusades, which, it could be argued, continue to this day? Is this because the state of mind that accompanies this paranoia is not what you'd call open; open to debate and rational discussion; discussion that a vast majority of the world's populace would be capable of having in an objective, responsible and compassionate way and who are just beginning to find their voice by using social media. If it is only the few, who wish to abuse this amazing facility, then this can be dealt with if there's a strong enough will to place enough resource behind policing it. 

Whatever happens, we simply cannot afford to let this truly amazing resource, which has opened up to us only in the space of one generation, slip from our grasp. Surely the internet and, above all, freedom of speech as we know it today must be preserved!
In the mean time, in summary, I conclude that SOPA has less to do with copyright and piracy than it has to do with a lot else! 
I rest my case, Mi'Lords and Ladyships. 
(And the novel will be out sometime next year! I hope you enjoyed this executive snippet...)  ;-)

Friday, 6 January 2012

Writing Poetry... A Unique Perspective

So I commented on a mildly erotic poem and look where it got me!

This time last year, I would never have thought I'd be writing an article about writing poetry. But, you know, stranger things happened in Area 51! This post is my personal and unique perspective on writing, but particularly the business of writing poetry. It also happens, incidentally, to contain reference to literature that is just a little risque and which may offend some people; but, most important of all, I have tried to make an honest commentary out of what was originally a private communication that I had, before Christmas, with an author who had asked me to read and give my opinion on a poem she had just written. The email I ended up writing in response was, well, a bit long and much more broad sweeping than I expected (well, to be honest, and to her amazement, I went off on a bit of a gush!). This is an extension of that particular communication, which it seems warranted further airing, because of its relevance to me and hence its inclusion as a post, here in my blog.
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I wanted to share this with you, because I'm approaching the first anniversary of setting up my poetry blog, and it seemed an appropriate way to recap my experience, so far, on writing poetry and how I view the poetry of others. This post is based on the response I wrote after I'd been invited to read and comment on a poem. I had been enjoying a discussion about it with someone who describes herself merely as an aspiring poet, but who happens to be a pretty bright cookie and a published author. Over the past six months, I have also enjoyed much intellectual banter with her, on an array of subjects ranging from the London Riots to the economy, the state of the Euro and Greece, not to mention our more recent exchanges on poetry. 

She is Eden Baylee, who happens also, in my humble opinion, to be a poet; albeit one, who questions her poetic ability rather more than she needs to. This conversation, therefore, concerned a poem she had recently posted on her blog site, which she had invited me to read and comment on. You can read this poem for yourself (the link is in the next paragraph), but be aware that it is risque; so feel free to do so only provided you are happy with the nature of erotic literature. It is not central to what I am going to say, but I reference it not just because it turns out to be good poetry, on several levels, but because I wanted to credit her for persuading me to write this piece in the first place.

So, what happened?
It was one of those nights, recently, when I found myself awake between four and five o'clock (ok, I got a lie-in!). Anyway, I woke thinking - as I have so often done around that moment between sleep and waking - about the universe, about the human condition and sometimes how poetry springs forth from this transient state of mind. It is at these moments when I also do my deepest and most philosophical thinking; I’m sure that some of you may also be able to identify with this ‘twilight zone’. OK, I hear you ask, so what has this got to do with a sensual poem called "Sleep Eludes Me"?! Well, if you read the poem, I think you'll work that out for yourself. However, they are connected by that point in time, between sleep and waking, when the mind has access to both the semi-conscious and fully conscious states that seem to engage the creative centres of the right brain, from which the creative imagination can run riot, the effects of which can be creatively very productive... or very frustrating! 

On this particular night, however, I had woken and fell to thinking about humanity (again) and how it is inextricably linked to the enormity of the universe; how the creative vision of poets and philosophers spans its diversity, fathoms its depths, and sheds light on its darkness.
This creative imagination, the deepest thinking, of which homo sapiens is capable, is the root and source of all philosophical thought, which, in turn, is the root and source of fundamental science; the stuff that separates us from all other forms of life on earth. Who is to know what imagination apes and ants may have, what as yet undiscovered secrets, plants of the Amazon may hold about the cosmos? The answers to those questions are for another time and, probably, from another brain. My commentary will be confined to homo sapiens in general, but poets and poetry in particular. 

The fact is that you and I are children of the universe - and who was it first said that? Anyway, add to this one further deeply philosophical thought: that life's diversity, its complete series of spectra, the whole of the universe in its entirety is held in the cumulative creative imaginations of every human being, who ever lived, who live now and who will ever live in the future. If we were able to bring all of that creative imagination together into one stream of thought, into one quantum mechanical equation, in one great collaborative piece of work, we would understand the universe and everything that's in it. Of course, I know that this is unlikely to prove possible, but it tickles my intellect to consider it. It also seems to add some depth as well as perspective to my view of human multiplicity.
Why read and write poetry, then?
Because it will improve your mind and help you understand how to write it. I say this now, in the full knowledge that my poetry writing started, albeit in quite cathartic circumstances, before I'd really spent any time reading the poetry of others. So, apart from the fact that at least I got going writing poems, most of it was not very good at all, poetically speaking, because I didn't know what I was doing! I did feel an immediate passion for it, though. In fact, my first poem "Jessica Tenth of May", subsequently edited and reworked, had uneven rhythm, odd and changing numbers of lines in stanzas to say nothing of the use of archaic language (have to say that my eldest daughter still has the original framed on the wall of my granddaughter's bedroom!). So, when I did start to read the poetry of others, properly, I then found myself criticising it in my head, because I thought I knew what I was doing. Hah! Wake up call..! This truly began to dawn on me during the past year as I formed allegiances with a group of special people, poets, on Twitter, from whom I have learned so much.

So, what I learned from this, therefore, was that, when you read another author’s poetry, it’s important to remember that it is perfectly unique; its combination of rhyme, rhythm, metaphor, simile, alliteration and any number of other tools of poetic expression that may have been used, is unique to the poet and the poem and the circumstance in which they wrote it. It is the task of the reader to read it in the way it was intended; try to understand the poet's vision, which is sometimes obvious, sometimes very difficult. Either way, you need to try to understand and if, in the end, you can’t, then leave it and move on, but don’t try to alter it, even in your head, tempting though that may be; although I'd say a desire to alter it may be the starting point for understanding it. 
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Occasionally you will come across a poem or a lyric that takes on a life of its own and can be understood in more ways than one; these can be amongst the most special and memorable. When reading someone else’s poem, then, the key is to try and understand the subtleties of their expression, visually, intellectually, rhythmically, even harmonically. Ultimately, assuming they can read it out loud as effectively as they could in their head as they composed it, the poet's own reading of it is, I find so often very telling; but not exclusively. There are some poets who like their poems to be read by others for special reasons and there are those who are very good at reading poetry - who wouldn’t like Sean Connery or Sheila Hancock to read theirs! But be prepared to allow someone to read your poems out loud; you would find it revealing. Making the effort to understand a poem also has another benefit. It fosters in the mind of the reader not only a quest for understanding, but it also nurtures tolerance for alternative expression, perspectives and views on its subject matter; this is the same principle that applies to the reading of any literature. Surely, this can only be good for humanity and human development.
The quality that separates mere journeyman poets from the truly great poets is the knack they have to find a means of expression, the special use of language and combinations of poetic forms, tools and words that communicate and appeal to the widest audience; that hit the nerves, pull the heartstrings and stimulate the emotions of the greatest number of readers. They are, in some way, special; and this could equally be said of great song writers, who write songs with a 'hook'. Poets can do the same thing. How many of you know the following lines:
“What is this life if, full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare”
..and how many know the name of the author, William Henry Davies, or anything about his life and works? 
And how many know these lines:
“Laugh, and the world laughs with you;
Weep, and you weep alone”
..from the poem “Solitude” by the 19th/20th Century poet, Ella Wheeler-Wilcox?
I would argue that it is the inner quest of most poets (and lyricists for that matter) to achieve this; but few of us will. This is not due to a lack of skill or talent, but, I think, by virtue of our unique blend of attributes, the way we are wired by our genetic heritage and the environment into which we were borne; the unique way in which we are constructed from the atoms of the universe and, in a more down to earth sense, the faculty we have etched into our psyche to push ourselves forward... or not; our attitude. Sometimes we also need a bit of luck; to be in the right place at the right time. That said, I still think that a great many more poets and song-writers are capable of more universal recognition than are ever acknowledged as thus. Firstly, this is a function of how critics in the media tend to elevate the elite to God-like status (or crush them to obscurity), which thereby preoccupies our consciousness, in a way that is out of proportion with reality - is this yet another outcome of a celebrity obsessed culture?  Secondly, I believe it is also a function of how much we are prepared to accept the views of others, second hand opinions, without making the effort ourselves to formulate our own authentic opinions.
Anyway, back to poetic structure...
There are so many forms and structures of poetry it is mind boggling and probably disenchanting to a lot of would-be poets. Take Lewis Turco's 'Book of Forms', for example, which is a reference work for poets that was recommended to me by Kona Macphee a couple of years ago. I used this avidly for a time but now not so often! I think the reason for this is that, if you are true to yourself as a poet, you don't need that many rules. First and foremost you need a stream of creative ideas; to be inspired; and a determination to use your first language, or any other that you know well, to write; just write and see what comes of it. 

I really don’t want to become over academic about poetry, because, for me, being overly conscious of form has the potential to strangulate the creative process. I don’t deny, however, that it is important, for example in teaching, to have an understanding of poetic structure and a good reference source of poetic forms (e.g. Lewis Turco) as well as a good knowledge of poetry and literature in general. I do sometimes like structure. 

There are times when a poem does need to 'look' good. An odd number of stanzas and perhaps an odd number of lines in each stanza, can make for a better visual balance. However, when I write a poem, I rarely set out with a structure in mind; whatever evolves from my thought processes, is placed on the page as it flows from my head; it is what it is. So what comes out could be in any form from 'free verse' to the highly structured and stylised English sonnet; or it could be 'blank verse', which, although unrhymed, does use that well known Shakespearean metre, ‘iambic pentameter’ as its metrical anchor. There are, however, exceptions in my case, here are some examples. 

"Twenty Nine" is an elegy for a hero, which I wrote deliberately in exactly the same form that Alfred Lord Tennyson wrote his epic "In Memoriam A.H.H.". 

The Lamb” is a Haiku triplet. 

I have also written a few limericks 

... and some English (aka Shakespearean) sonnets, like "Rose Petal" and "Christmas Gold".

I have written several poems in 'free verse' like "Perfection" and "The Poppy" as well as variations; free verse that had some structure e.g. the fifteen line stanzas of "Unreality". But I think some of my best work didn’t set out to have any prescriptive structure at all, for example "Grasslands".
The only thing I have found on my own poetic journey, is that, whilst I do from time to time write 'free verse', I am a sucker for good old fashioned uniform structure; 'visual' appeal is sometimes important. None of these forms is easier than the other, in my opinion; each has its merits and difficulties. An odd number of stanzas and an odd number of lines in the stanza is neat. I like odd numbers because it somehow gives a poem balance; some designer "je ne sais quoi".
Eden Baylee said: "It's good discipline for me to use words sparingly and still get my point across. Poetry for me is like music - more visceral than intellectual". This is very pithy and perceptive, in my view, and the mark of a writer who is never entirely satisfied with their work and wants to improve. I had already made the same observation elsewhere of my own personal poetic journey (in a micro-interview on Kona Macphee's excellent 'That Elusive Clarity' blog site, called "Six Things" - see the question: "one thing about myself that often obstructs me"), because, as you've seen, I do have an unerring ability for distraction and verbosity! Poetry is a discipline in itself that encourages concision in writing; it motivates a writer to be economical, but precise in written expression.
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So please, if, like me, you are an aspiring poet, never feel in any way at all that your poetry is anything other than good! It represents you and your particularly unique perspective on this world and it can be a fulfilling and joyful experience as well as being a place in which you can begin to resolve your thoughts on so many of the mysteries of life. To get it right, provided you work diligently, and ruthlessly if necessary, on your final editing, to ensure there is a story or a message, however subtle; that you chose words carefully and construct sentences properly; that it flows, joins up and is connected; that there is a rhythm, which also flows, joins up and is connected and pays attention, where necessary, to metric 'feet', whether iambic or trochaic, then you will have the potential, as will I, to be a great poet. All writers can and should strive to improve their writing; and all the good ones are never satisfied with their last work. 
As for poetry, right now, you and I, along with those, who make the effort to transcribe their thoughts, feelings and sometimes strong emotions, that arouse us between sleep and waking, or at any other time for that fact, are on the journey toward finding out if we can be great.

I hope you enjoy your journey; I hope we enjoy each others' journeys.


Ten days after this post, I had a dream and wrote "The Dream of A Poet", which relates to several aspects of this post.