At the age of 20, MORGAN lost faith. He was an IT Engineer for a large digital corporation. He worked, he ate, he slept, he played Half-Life and Deus Ex. He tried not to think about the God he didn't believe in. And so on. It was something.

Then one day, he had a vision.

The vision was this.

The Rhyme of the I.T. Engineer

When I’m encrypted into my coffin
And the mechanical crickets are humming
As if Life was a coded message
Of airstrikes and carpet bombing

Tell them I had a Vision
An acid-induced disaster
Of computers and Ethernet cables
Where my eye was a nano-transistor

And the world was the signals I coded
In greyscale zeros and ones
Of protocols and 2-bit programs
Of no-man’s-land and nailguns

Where God wasn’t dead but He’s hiding
In the internet servers and memory
Where He wages his viral invisible war
Sunken deep in the cyberpunk sea

Where light in fibreoptic cables
Webs the bedrock in neon and glow
A luminous net of jellyfish tendrils
That feed in silence and grow

That safeguard their luminous flickering
Pulsing a subterranean light
Under the Atlantic search-engine waves
Where sand is broadband, noise is white

Where the internet is not a nation
Cannot be powerplayed, is not property
But augments, is blue-chip, and steroidal
Is vast and without pity

Tell them I had a vision
Of cyberspace in its infancy
Of Artificial Intelligence
Suckling its dragnet under the sea

Where God was hardwired in the circuits
And each microchip had a blip of His code
And the cities crashed and malfunctioned
And the sky tried to corrode.
by Paul Abbott


THE Critical Literary. A brief polemic

There are a sort of blundering half-witted people, who make a great deal of noise about a verbal slip; though Horace would instruct them better in true criticism: [I shall not quarrel with those faults which we caused either by carelessness or human weakness]. True judgement in poetry, like that in painting, takes a view of the whole together, whether it be good or not; and where the beauties are more than the faults, concludes for the poet against the little judge; ‘tis a sign that malice is hard driven, when ‘tis forced to lay hold on a word or syllable; to arraign a man is one thing, and to cavil at him is another. In the midst of an ill-natured generation of scribblers, there is always justice enough left in mankind to protect the good writers. And they too are obliged, both by humanity and interest, to espouse each other’s cause against false critics, who are the common enemies.
(John Dryden, ‘Preface to Sylvae’)

What’s interesting here is Dryden’s assumption that criticism is evaluation. ‘True judgement’ is treated as synonym for a criticism that reaches conclusions by weighing poems’ beauties and faults. Where elucidation? Where interpretation?

Dryden himself is always weighing—most conspicuously in the essays on classical translation (he loves Pindar, Virgil), but also he considers the careers of dramatists and poets who preceded him in English. He weighs even criticism, in this letter to Charles, Earl of Dorset: ‘Mr Rymer sent me his book, which has been my best entertainment hitherto: ‘tis certainly very learned, and the best piece of criticism in the English tongue; perhaps any other modern.’ Entertainment? He’s right, you realise: a good picking apart, like James Womack’s of Paulin and Muldoon, or Wood’s of Updike and others, is always fun to read. But what’s its value? Where exactly is its audience? If written for the benefit of the writer criticised, such demolitions should be couched in far gentler language. No one blandly accepts lava-eyed vituperation as ‘improving’; then adopts the critic’s recommendations, with their spittly sheen & second-hand aroma. It’s more likely to spur them to write another book guilty of those flaws their critic would scoff at than sting them into hurt submission. Artists good and bad set their own agenda, and won’t be warned from pursuing certain paths unless they agree with critics that they’re fogged—in which case they’d never have pursued them in the first place. Bad reviews are simply and complexly entertainment for readers who like seeing those self-impressed or merely foolish enough to try promulgating their art shot down like clay pigeons at a toffs’ picnic.

The audience of criticism—generally as possible—wants two things: to know what’s good and to know why. Criticism as practised now is either broadly journalistic or broadly academic, and those two fields tend to address one demand more fully than the other; that is, journalistic reviews deal more with what’s good, academic with why. Of course there is overlap. A sophisticated film critic, say, will give as much analysis and justification for his star-rating as space allows. Essentially, though, he is recom- mending one’s evening film, and needn’t try too hard analysing when he knows not many readers are likely to have seen it yet. The academic’s indication of what’s good will tend to be implicit in his choice of what to bother criticising, though this has become less true as academics focus on increasingly obscure texts in the scrap for original research. But he will treat the why in very much greater detail. Indeed, it is a great question, if one sets within its remit questions of interpretation, of exposition, as I think is appropriate. Perhaps it’s contentious to say the question of what a text is about, what it means, is subordinate to or at least component of why it’s good. But think: if questions of meaning were considered apart from those of value, what would impel anyone to care about the answers? Literary criticism would cease to be literary, and become subsumed under whatever domain of history deals with cultural documents. The interpretation of a text is by no means fundamentally a literary endeavour, but the interpretation of it when alive to how the writer’s conveyance and our construal of meaning influence the text’s success or failure as art is literary by definition. When a critic examines a crux in Shakespeare, he does not just seek the exact meaning of the seven or ten words in front of him as it would have been received by Shakespeare’s contemporaries, but the words’ meaning in relation to the surrounding lines and relevant scene (or even ‘the whole together’, as Dryden has it), how small alterations might in turn modify our sense of those lines and that scene, and how they might advance our sense of their quality as art. If, for example, we knew definitely what Hamlet meant by his ‘dram of eale’ remark, we’d obtain thereby surer purchase on our idea of the success of his ‘nature’s livery’ speech entire.

Dryden, being a poet of fact, in Auden’s judgement our greatest occasional poet, a poet of record and of the history which unfolded as he worked, wrote poetry that’s particularly receptive to political and historical interpretation. Such interpretation is moreover particularly necessary with regard to him—just look at MacFlecknoe and Absalom. But to what purpose? Why root out the obscure significances of locutions long thought understood, or the forgotten referent behind some odd proper noun? Academic detective work like this is fine and useful, I concede, if it’s carried out in literary spirit. If the historical understanding of the poem we seek affects our larger understanding of its value—if, say, in mining for political resonance we strike a profound seam—then such work is worthwhile. But so often it is prosecuted only with political or historical ends in mind. So often there is no concern for the literary value of the factual discovery. There’s an assumption it’s enough just to find, or to think one’s found, significances hitherto buried in centuries’ compost without considering their relevance to the poem as literature. Many such discoveries have therefore no bearing on our concepts of what in poetry is good or why it’s so, and do not constitute true criticism. Historical criticism may well explain a lot, or at least correct misconceptions, but what use is such unblemished comprehen- sion without knowing the value of what’s comprehended? I could in an essay perhaps unweave the whole politico-historical texture of a Roscommon poem or a Rymer play; I wouldn’t have criticised it, I would have researched it. The task of criticism is only secondarily to understand; its first task is to appreciate.

What’s good and why is it good? are questions beyond historical enquiry. The answers are literary.



We at PITCH are editors as much as makers. If we catch a glint of quality in poems we are sent, occasionally we will attempt to sluice out the dross so as better to expose what good we believe is present. We edit by instinct, not by ideal – which is perhaps foolish, foolhardy. We do not know. Reader, why not judge for yourself?

The bamboo trap

For Ishikawa Jozan, who set a bamboo trap
to keep the deer from his garden
while he was trying to write:

did you not think that the
perfectness of your concentration
might in the end not make up

for the terrible empty sound
of snow falling straight through
everything without landing,

and that it was probably a bad idea
to create a deerless world, then leave
tied up outside it in your dream catcher

all your better halves,
those who might have noticed the snow
and marked it?

This was our first go:

The Bamboo Trap

For Ishikawa Jozan, who set a bamboo trap
to keep the deer out his garden
when he was trying to write:

did you not think that your
perfect concentration
might in the end not make up

for the terrible sound of snow
falling straight
through everywhere without landing

and that probably it was a bad idea
to create a deerless world, then leave
tied up outside it in your dreamcatcher

all your better halves, those who might
have noticed the snow,
marked it?

However we were not happy. We could not settle on a pattern of lineation in the final stanza which satisfied us. We decided, then, that more than tinkering was in order. An editorial overhaul?


As clouds crossed the light of the sun;
Ishikawa bent, watched meltwater run
a second, and set his bamboo trap to keep
the deer out when he wrote; the garden
flexed its pelt of snow, sound fell asleep
and Ishikawa waited for his lines to harden,

to pack like fallen snow. Silence rang
loud as flies; as it took his ink the paper sang
though nothing came. He raised his eyes. Outside,
beyond the lantern, like ruins antlers jutted; snow
feathered: it was a stag collapsed. Before it died
it shuddered, bled, its ankle leaked a carmine flow

marking the white ground Ishigawa wrote.

We hope these changes have been improvements; our instincts tell us that they have.


Letter from Oxford

At this season, and in this city, the air is tense and chill with spring. Oxford is never really quiet; and now the gathering rooks, as raucous as clockwork, are beginning to tangle and untidy the branches of the high trees in the Meadows and in Magdalen deer-park. Our winter sleep has been short this year, and not deep. Autumn lasted until Boxing Day and beyond; the cold snap which brought skaters and an ice-yacht onto the broad flood of Port Meadow has gone as swiftly as it came.

These recent months have been filled with an unusual stir and hurry, for the radio and television units of the BBC have been frequent visitors. This term, too, one has been able to read with a certain degree of interest the newspaper reports of the latest ‘Oxford Hoax’. Such a hoax, which generally involves someone pretending to be someone else, is as much an item of news to the majority of people inside Oxford as to those outside. I think this fact ought to be mentioned because one has the impression, when reading outside reports of local happenings, that journalists and audience alike imagine a ferment, a seething of excitement in the University at some trivial plot or small event. On the contrary, the most usual reaction is one of simulated detachment, of bored indifference. One may not condone such an attitude. Indeed, to older and wiser heads such adolescent poses and affectations may seem but faintly amusing. But it is still a point worth emphasizing that in such a very large community, composed of so many diverse elements ‘yoked by violence together’, what goes on in the next room or at the other end of the town might as well be happening in another climate, another sphere. Most people, perhaps, have this conception of life at the University: of quiet scholarly lives of the minority contrasted with the frantic, almost defiant, bustle of the mass of the student population, a mass which cannot easily be separated into its parts. But it is not like this. Not only the College Fellow in his garden, silent between bells, but also the young student, the poet, maybe, hunched in his mackintosh at the top of a bus in the Banbury Road, sits apart from the crowd. Or he follows in the wake of a vision of life that goes before him and which he cannot grasp, a cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night.

For it is a commonplace that, to each man, the world is what he sees and makes. The sportsman, the young man who ‘knows all the right people’, the girl who finds her work too much for her, all who rub shoulders in this City and this University, build – and have built for them – a world in which their neighbour has little part or place. Nevertheless, for the majority, living and studying within the bounds of a moderate State or College grant, there are common meeting – and passing – places; the lecture-room, the ‘Scala’ cinema in Walton Street, the ‘Stowaway’ for a meal at night. Here, and in the wide or narrow streets, the flood of living eddies and tugs and seldom runs slack. Such is the abundant traffic that a newcomer to Oxford sees and hears.

But what of each separate link in this unending chain, each knot of a body, or a mind that says ‘I’? The doctor’s son from Cheshire, or the police-constable’s son from a Worcestershire village, who have great expectations, though as yet small claim, to be called poets: to the one and the other of these Oxford is a succession of traffic and broad walks, or the river-smells, and the smell of petrol and tar: of the clouds, as quiet and heavy as snow, sliding and lifting from the gables and narrow roofs in Holywell. But inside this, each knows a couple of familiar rooms, two or three close friends and a circle of acquaintances. In fact, whether he likes it or not, the young Oxford poet and writer finds himself a member of a small mutual insurance group; so does the actor or the sportsman. It is inevitable that in such an environment a person who has any capacity at all for friendship should gather to himself a small tight shell of people. But only a very unenterprising person would keep his head drawn down inside the whole time.

From the outside all cliques and societies doubtless appear equally brittle, equally sterile. But from within, if one knows their growth, senses the changes of atmosphere, of pressure, they offer more chances of life than might appear. At the present time the young writers in Oxford happen to like each other, enjoy one another’s company for the pictures or a pub. Most of them turn up to the Poetry Society or the English Club each week to hear visiting poets and authors read their own work and to talk about it. They also criticize, abuse, and occasionally praise each other’s work as it appears in manuscript or print.

This is how they see themselves; but ‘how others see us’ has always been the rub. And big words in strange mouths are unpalatable. The Oxford Literary Scene, as it is sometimes called, has been severely criticized by the Cambridge journal Granta in a review of Oxford Poetry, 1953:

‘For at least a generation, Oxford poets have inhabited a club atmosphere in which they have glorified incompetence by calling it “modern” or “neurotic”, and magnified defects by congratulating each other on them.’

Incompetence there may very well be; but it is certainly true to say that, over the past two or three years at least, there has been little of the self-congratulatory spirit in the neighbourhood. As Bacon once said: ‘There is no such flatterer as is a man’s self, and there is no such flattery of a man’s self as the liberty of a friend’. There does seem to be quite general agreement that each artist, young or old, must work out his own salvation, must cut his own path; and that only those with the most strength and the most courage are likely to get to the end. This has always been the case, one supposes, but some decades forget it more readily than others. But to give light and encouragement (and this can often come in the shape of severe but just criticism) is surely the true ‘liberty of a friend’. It may be only a poor and narrow light in this marshy air; but in such a case a lantern swung is a surer weapon than the jawbone of an ass.

I have said that emphasis is laid on personal exploration; this is coupled with a distrust of anything approaching the nature of a manifesto. But most agree as to what lines are good to follow, which seem to lead the seeker farthest before leaving him on his own. The gods whose knees we clutch, one or the other of us, are Yeats, Empson, Dylan Thomas, a diverse enough trio.

If for any reason the Oxford writers consider themselves as a Group it is because they have as a nucleus the Fantasy Press. This was established about two years ago, at Eynsham near Oxford, by the young artist Oscar Mellor and his wife. They began by printing a few pamphlets for the University Poetry Society; and a series of Fantasy Poets now comprises the names of about twenty young writers. Its scope has also been extended beyond the immediate bounds of the university to include selections from the work of such writers as Kingsley Amis, Donald Davie and Thom Gunn. The Press also produces a quarterly magazine New Poems, and has taken over from Messrs Blackwell the publication of the annual volume of Oxford Poetry. Various of the books and pamphlets have been reviewed in the columns of The New Statesman, The Times Literary Supplement, and Time and Tide. Fantasy publications have a sale not only in Oxford but also in Birmingham, Cambridge and London.

The event that probably attracted the widest attention in Oxford writing in general and to the work of the Fantasy Press in particular, was the award of the Arts Council prize of 1953 to the young poet Elizabeth Jennings, whose first book, Poems, was printed and published last year by Oscar Mellor.

It has always been comparatively easy to get poems published in Oxford magazines. But, over the last few years, short-story writers have been badly served, finding infrequent and, of necessity, cramped space in the pages of Isis. To remedy this, a new magazine has recently been brought out, devoted entirely to the publication of short stories. Edited by Derek Wilson of Brasenose College and printed by Fantasy Press, Signpost invites contributions from unestablished authors both inside and outside the University.

But if you are in search of an attack of any sort of melancholia Oxford, I suppose, is the place to find it. This city of sun and water can prove a shallow forcing-bed of youth and talent and energy. And here, amid so many thousands of young people bent of the pursuit of love and happiness, here is the place of all places on earth to be very lonely and very unhappy.

One might think that the great strength and appeal of Oxford lay in its tradition; that an awareness of this would grant a sense of peace and security. But one has found tradition as cold a shadow here as in Westminster Abbey. There is small comfort in being crowded out by ghosts. Under the chill salty-smelling stone of the great Tudor gate-houses, beneath the high rows of portraits in the halls, thin-lipped prelates, all evil-looking old men, you are browbeaten by the past. Tradition is carried to the point of parody and pathos in the advertisements of tailors and marmalade-makers. ‘Generations of Oxford Men’ they write, beneath caricatures of weedy young lads in knickerbockers and norfolk jackets. To be enthusiastic about such traditions requires a particular blend of insensitivity, a bland refusal to hear the bells and wheels of ambulances and fire-engines and heavy lorries shaking the sham and the genuine Gothic frontages to dust. Close by the end of the taxi rank in the Broad a little cross is set into the roadway to mark the place of the Oxford martyrs Latimer and Ridley. But to stand and contemplate such a spot in the midst of all the traffic would be to invite a less glorious, though possibly less lingering, fate for oneself.

Tradition has grown outward, too, beyond the city-boundary. There can be no real escape down to Iffley, or northward by Marston Ferry or Godstow. Even there one is cold-shouldered by the shades of Arnold and Carroll, bruised by blazered elbows and jaded by the so very carefully modulated voices in bar-rooms and along the riverbank. And yet there are sudden flashes of delight for the unwary, when Merton, seen from the Meadows in a windy spring morning, stands hard-cut and glittering; or when the crocuses begin to thrust and trim their narrow wicks; and on the chestnut boughs the oiled buds unravel into leaf. And to have a vision of the rooks and blown trees from a high window in Longwall is to see again that ‘towery city and branchy between towers’ that Hopkins knew and that Keats once saw in his life and loved: ‘This Oxford I have no doubt is the finest city in the world – it is full of old Gothic buildings – Spires – Towers – Quadrangles – Cloisters – Groves, etc, and is surrounded with more clear streams than I ever saw together.

But Keats came to Oxford in the Long Vacation when Oxford, left to itself, was breathing its own air and all its hosts, broken and scattered, were in their homes or wandering in search of strange strands. It is worthy of notice, one feels, that the so-called ‘Oxford Poet’ is living away from university for at least six months of the year. So the boy born and brought up in Worcestershire or Yorkshire is still to all intents a local boy. He does not, unless he is very unfortunate, lose touch with his home ground. His roots still ache for their soil. And the poem he writes or publishes in Oxford may well have been conceived during a ramble over the Lickey Hills or round by Bewdley and the Severn. He is probably left more to his own devices than is his young contemporary who lives and works and frequents literary circles in, say London or Edinburgh. Oxford is essentially a place of meeting and parting. She stands steady amid the rush and swirl of form and fashion, dressed in her own garb and full of her own song. Keats and Arnold and Hopkins have spoken, and what they have said can scarcely be wished unsaid. Anyway

The words of Mercurie
Are harsh after the songs of Apollo.
You that way: we this way.’

[Geoffrey Hill, The London Magazine, May 1954]


LET us decry

the failure of the roster of commentators, in last month's Guardian feature on whom we might anoint our 'greatest living author', even to mention Geoffrey Hill in that context. We were surprised & saddened at the omission, for the only poets they did bring up were Edwin Morgan, Michael Longley (an Irishman) and Zbigniew Herbert (a Pole, and dead) Edwin Morgan, to risk the Bloomian rasp, has never approached Hill's stature, despite having produced a translation of Beowulf which in our view excels Heaney's. By 'author', it seems, most of them assumed 'novelist' was meant. What sorry pundits! Not even Nicholas Lezard, in some reviews his puppyish votary, remembered the author Tenebrae and of The Trimuph of Love, of

A pale full sun, draining its winter light,
illuminates the bracken and the bracken-coloured
leaves of stubborn oak. Intermittently
the wínd spoórs ׀ over sált ínlets
and the whiteish grass between the zones,
apprehension’s covenant. Could this
perhaps end here: a Paradiso
not accounted for – unaccountable –
eternally in prospect, memory’s blank
heliograph picketing the lost estate?
ánd ׀ ís this vision enough ׀ unnamed, unknown
bird of immediate flight, of estuaries?

[Speech! Speech!, 102]



Tabloids are a symptom of society's ills.

Tabloids = the Death of Culture.

Tabloids are black-mouthed parasites on public life, massive with blood

Or so runs the complaint.

We don't accept it. Why denigrate publications with so broad a readership? Why begrudge the tabloids their giant audience, their stuffed barrels of cash? All you do is insult those who see fit to pay 35p every day for a happily unsubtle march through the last 24 hours' news & chat. If you think their influence disproportionate, you patronise their readers' ability to sift truth from opinion's silt, to distinguish between fact and demagoguery (there have always been demagogues; they have always, eventually, failed), & thus belie what faith in the principle of democracy you profess.

PITCH has no beef with The Sun.

We love it for its brazen enshrining of the hacks' modus Simplify Then Exaggerate. Makes for a cartoonish, almost playschool take on current events, relayed in punchy short paragraphs structured like jokes. It is colourful! It is so obsessed with the insignificant its treatment of the significant makes significance itself look insig- nificant. It is also charmingly at home with the concept of 'woman as object'. Just as every day its Page 3 exhibits nationally an unerotic specimen of soft porn, so the journalism filling the rest of the paper might be described as 'news-' or 'sportporn'. And just as page 3 serves as wank-fodder for ten thousand lorry drivers, so the actual articles serve as opinion-fodder for a thousand lonely cabbies, prejudice and ill-informed argument their ejaculate.

(We realise this may contradict what you'll recall we wrote above.)

All hail the tabloid style! We want to take it as exemplar, but fear we could not honour it.


Love-making is a game you win by losing. Yes! Yes! Yes!

Only the insecure describe themselves as serious.

Doing things properly is the grubby utilitarianism of middle management.

Technology perpetuates.

Style is all-inclusive. Like a cheapo package holiday.

The chameleon who can’t change his skin is unfulfilled.

Most of our brain is idiotic. Therefore, we can be mostly swayed by idiotic arguments.

The tragedy of western Liberalism is that humanbeings will always turn a meritocracy into a mediocracy.

What thought is not shadowed by a question?

Wrecks are indestructible.

A bag of gold means nothing until we exchange it for a man’s life. God exists in the way money exists. This facet of ourselves means nothing until we use it as persuasion to kill another who does not share it.

One sad fact of life is being in love with somebody who does n
ot love you is not love, but obsession.

‘See’, she said, pointing to water.

I love you. Much tarnished by vicious use; retains lucent power.

What is philosophy? A
sking that question.

For love poetry must the poet love?

‘Speech is beautifully useless’?
So Laird is gorgeously boring.
(Usefully beautiful, that.)

feelings, npl. These cannot be willed away. You can change what you believe, what you say about them; you cannot change them.

s no mans talent matches his.

Poets are phrasemakers — with contracts to publish.

There isn't a verb for the way literature teaches.

s prose compels annotation; I was too anxious Id forget his rapid felicities; I wanted as response to interact with — by recording and marking out — prose this constantly delightful, since to annotate is to socialise with the book.

— not what it says; what the language is.

Think of life as dark landing. Faith is what prevails against the part of minds that would imagine, in the dark, surrounding men or ghosts there.

Q: Who is it the popular are popular with?
A: Those they don
t know, but who want to know them.

In literature, true mastery is to forget one is master.

In the flowergarden that Spring Jenny likened sinning to a rose.

‘They are beautiful, but have thorns,’ she said.

Vitality lasts.

Every day we look upon that which we were the day before with patronage and disbelief. And as for our youth ... But what, did it perceive, of the bicentenarian gaze? What of our seventy years’ accomplishment then?

Meiosis is pointing and saying.

Winters had a blindspot the size of his head.

Only experience will rid you of fear; only fearlessness win experience.

The moral of the story of Hirst is the difficulty of telling between art whose badness mocks its buyers and art whose badness makes a mockery of them.

by among others Paul Abbott


To fit the meter to the thought is a very difficult art and one the neglect of which is in large part responsible for the ludicrousness of verse. Meter and thought are related to each other as, in ordinary life, life-style is to office.

With our fashionable poets it is easy to see how the word has produced the thought; with Milton and Shakespeare the thought always begets the word.

As soon as one begins to see all in everything what one says usually becomes obscure. One begins to speak with the tongues of angels...

A book is a mirror: if an ape looks into it an apostle is unlikely to look out.

With the band that should have tied their hearts together they have strangled their tranquillity.

All impartiality is artificial. Man is always partial and is quite right to be. Even impartiality is partial. He was of the party of the impartial.

The detection of small errors has always been the property of minds elevated little or not at all above the mediocre; notably elevated minds remain silent or say something only in criticism of the whole, while the great spirits refrain from censuring and only create.

I am convinced we do not only love ourselves in others but hate ourselves in others too.

What can be the reason I sometimes fret about a thing at nine o'clock, cease to do so at ten, and perhaps do so again at eleven? I am not aware of any ebb and flow of grounds of solace during this time, yet such there must be.

When something bites us in the dark we can usually locate the spot with the point of a needle: how exact a plan of its body the soul must have.

You believe I run after the strange because I do not know the beautiful; no, it is because you do not know the beautiful that I seek the strange.

A woman's eyes are to me so essential a part of her, I often gaze at them and have so many thoughts, that if I were merely a head girls could for my part be nothing but eyes.

There are faces in the world one absolutely cannot call Du.

There exists a condition which with me at least is not all that rare in which the presence or absence of a beloved person are equally hard to endure; or at least in which the pleasure derived from their presence is not that which, to judge from the intolerableness of their absence, one would have expected it to be.

Popular presentation is today all too often that which puts the mob in a position to talk of something without understanding it.

There is a great difference between believing something and being unable to believe its opposite. I can very often believe something without being able to prove it, just as I do not believe something without being able to refute it. The stance I adopt will be determined not by strict proof but by preponderance of evidence.

The nightingales sing and have no idea of the fuss poets and lovers create over their song, or that there exists a whole society of higher beings who entertain themselves solely with Philomela and her complaints. Perhaps a higher race of spirits regards our poets as we do canaries and nightingales: they enjoy their song precisely because they find no rational sense in it.

[Trans R. J. Hollingdale]


FREEZEFRAME: Poetry & Poets / Oxford 2007

by Paul Abbott

Poetry in Oxford is like horseshit on a bridleway: you can’t go anywhere without putting your foot in it. The creative tailback of teenage angst, the nursed ambitions of wannabe aesthetes, a plethora of backbiting Colossi to whom we do or don't look up (McDonald, O’Donoghue, Paulin, Raine, McNeillie, etc) – all these conspire to make Oxford brim with the stuff. It may not be published, yet, or any good, but a lot of people write it: from the secrecy of a laptop to the open mic nights’ risky exhibitionism; from High Verse to the hiphop lyric – and everything in between. In the 21st century, when prose is King, what’s the point of it all? What’s going on?

The diehard poetry scene in Oxford, like those of crack cocaine or tiddlywinks, suffers and enjoys its own cast of stereotypes. There’s always, for example, a green lynchmob of Freshers who’ve studied Keats at A Level, slightly plagued with archaic diction (‘Fain would I tell thee so…’). There’s the loafish colloquialist, ever threatening to drop out, whose oeuvre’s little but a sordid catalogue of trivial sins (‘I sell bunking schoolkids weed…’). There’s the formal straightlacer, who frowns at anything which doesn’t rhyme (‘I love you, like a Necrophiliac / Loves graveyards, with a spade and Hessian sack’). And with those at least a dozen others: Dr Tryhard McLacktalent; weird foreign bloke; Miss Boohoo-the-sea’s-grey, etc – really too many to list. In the Darwinian struggle to be distinctive, Oxonians reincarnate the same dramatis personae yet and yet again.

However, despite their differences, these piebald allsorts compete for the same goals. The first of these is the Newdigate prize, a big university poetry prize worth several hundred pounds. Alas, whatever prestige it once possessed was at last obliterated in 2006, when a doggerel sequence titled Bee-poems scooped the rollover £700. Since that travesty, Oxonians have focused on different ambitions: securing the editorship of Oxford Poetry, the major yearly antholgy, or the presidency of OUPS, or gunning for the termly Isis Prize. This isn’t a great deal to compete for. But, while the opportunities are rare, so is the talent. Poetry’s a niche pursuit; the smallest of small worlds; cliquey and incestuous. In Oxford, doubly so.

Oxford's famous as being a pressure-cooker for aspirant writers: the list of Names is long as Motion’s memoir; it doesn’t need rehearsing. Suffice it to say, very few Oxonian poets write about Oxford – spires, dreaming or squat, tend to leave notebooks virgin. After all, what does one say about them? They’re just there, that’s it. Like carbon monoxide and the War on Terror. Oxford’s grandiose physical architecture becomes another kind of background noise, which gets tuned out of the creative process. Poems, then, tend to be about people.

Out of such a shambles, however, a few unifying threads can be plucked. What follows is a plot-spoiler. So: anyone who doesn’t want to know the future of poetry, Look away now. The three main unifiers will be: One – journalistic or colloquial diction, a kind of slangy trashtalk which uses ye olde metrics to perform modern speech. Two – exotic characterisation, with revival of the dramatic monologue. Three – miniature plotting, using a poem to narrate a very short story or situation. In other words, it will attempt to be populist and relevant, and to entertain, without losing its integrity as an artform. It is, of course, too early to tell whether this attempt will enjoy even partial success, or simply fizzle off. However, if it does prove junk for history’s scrapheap, for the moment at least, Oxford poetry has a direction in which it wants to go; it has an agenda. This is something it’s lacked for a long time.

[Originally published by The Oxford Student, 22 February 2007]