At Prac Crit, John Clegg analyses how he was analysing one of Melissa Lee-Houghton's poems -
- First Pass - ‘I’ll Find You’ consists of twenty-seven sentences, all of which but one begin ‘You could be’ ... This shifting mood is controlled by sentence length and sentence structure ...
- Second Pass - ‘I’ll Find You’ appears in Lee-Houghton’s second collection, Beautiful Girls (Penned in the Margins, 2013). Read in context, it changes substantially ...
- Third Pass - ... I feel I’ve got to interrupt. This sort of criticism doesn’t work on this sort of poem at all.
I've previously (see my Beautiful Girls write-up) been tempted to react similarly to this poet's pieces. Here I'll continue the meta-analysis before turning, belatedly, to a few of the poems.
Melissa Lee-Houghton's gained much poetry-establishment credibility in recent years. This book's poems (there are 27 including 5 one-pagers and 5 that are more than 5 pages long) have been in Rialto, Granta, etc, and she's been given several grants. You get a lot of words for your money - there are many pages, and lines are long. Online at PracCrit is a poem from this book which was shortlisted as a Forward poem of the year. She's interviewed there by Michael Conley, providing several answers that might make readers of her poetry nervous -
- "The whole act of my writing is about claiming control. It’s a place where I’ve imposed my own parameters and it’s important to me that I can do that."
- "Writing poetry for me is a vocation. Without it, I wouldn’t cope, wouldn’t survive."
So dare a reviewer adversely criticize work of a poet whose poetry is so central to them?
- "I suffer hallucinations so I have a sense of unreality in my life – I feel very dissociative when I’m stressed and I fall away into psychosis. I’m a high-functioning manic depressive."
- "In my early twenties I had a period of deep psychotic depression where I had no idea what was real and what wasn’t. I tried to kill myself, and came round after a coma in a psychiatric ward. I thought I was in hell. I didn’t believe that I was alive."
So how much of an "unreliable narrator" is the persona? In "Z", there's "We aren’t and will never be poetry for each other, and I know/ I am more alive when anesthetised than when I’m alone, naked ―/ and I undress, wanting to pick up the phone and call you". Given the importance of poetry for the persona, the wording of the first clause isn't surprising. But then, having stated that she's not at her best naked and alone, she makes herself naked and alone, and wants to get in touch. Such contradictions and self-sabotage abound ("I like to be watched but please don't look at me" - "Blue Prelude"), which shouldn't surprise readers - or carers.
- "I wrote consistently for about half an hour, maybe longer, from the beginning of the poem to the end. I’ve barely edited any of it; it just arrived. ... If I gave this poem to a good editor, they’d probably go to town on it."
So is it up to readers to be editors too? How much of a work is "meaningful" and how much is random? Is some of it there like a shaky hand-held video camera just to evoke a feeling of immediacy? I think the poems follow the prevailing trend of trying to appear more disorganised than they really are, but nothing feels sloppy or first-draft.
Line-breaks are problematic though. Are they the whims of a writer whose attention is elsewhere, or should we dutifully interpret each one? Some of the pieces that are longer than a page have no paragraph breaks let alone line-breaks. Others have long lines that need folding, and line-breaks. Others are in couplets. There's strange indenting. Is this what she means by claiming control? Particularly regarding this aspect, the reader may be tempted to edit. I suggest in the first instance ignoring all the line-breaks.
- "There are massive, irreconcilable tensions between men and women in relationships. But that’s also part of why relationships between men and women work, too. I’ve had relationships with women and they work in a very different way. As much as I’ve enjoyed those relationships, I’ve always erred towards being dominated by men, which disturbs me. Relationships with men have been a massive issue in my life – I’ve had therapy about it and it didn’t work. What works is writing poetry."
- "When you’re manic, you realise that if you don’t keep it going, you’ll go downhill fast. So often I feel very sexual when I’m like that. But I’ve also suffered sexual abuse in my life, so that comes with a sense of guilt too."
If she's had so many relationship problems surely her opinions will be tainted. In the light of this should readers re-calibrate their notions of public/private, etc? The confessionalists (and more gently, people like Sharon Olds) have re-drawn the lines. Perhaps the first poem will help establish the ground-rules. Here's the start -
And All the Things That We Do I Could Face Today|
If Disney made porn they would pay us well for our trouble.
We share baths together because we get bored and it’s cold and
we used to talk but now I just pull sad faces and you sympathise.
I was thinking about abstract things, like what distance means to lovers;
physical distance, emotional distance and the distance
between us in the bath in our heads. I looked into your eyes,
your perfect, blue-jay Hollywood eyes, and how starved they sank
Puzzled by the title? In the Acknowledgements it says that it's a lyric from ‘If Only It Were True’ by The Walkmen. I like the potential of "If Disney made porn". The next few, thoughtful lines could perhaps come from an A.L.Kennedy story, though "how starved they sank" rather puzzles me. After this start, there's some one-sided sex in the bath and a Disneyesque follow-up ("Immediately, a dozen bluebirds flew in and tidied your hair,/a gentle and spritely music soothed your brow"). How are these bluebirds related to the earlier "blue-jay"? The female persona feels frustrated - sexually and more generally. She wants to be pinned down, to focus on one thing - perhaps her next book. But first she's going to drink or do drugs with Rob, a 3rd party. She feels hollow, and/or that writing the book will leave her hollow, thinking
Do you even realise how cool the full moon looks|
over Pendle Hill and all the rotten towns at midnight, howling
and hollow, and do you remember how good it feels not to touch
on MDMA and have all that hollow love like a mouthful of wasted come.
- a burst of traditional imagery ("moon") and sound effects (clusters of "oo" and "ow" sounds). She ends with "I fit inside love like the breath in a flute. I will escape/ at the slightest pause or hesitation. You need to clasp me./ You need to tie me down. Please. I want to go nowhere". The wish for (artistic) freedom contrasts with the acceptance that discipline may need to be imposed rather than coming from within, though the words chosen hint at S&M, and that restrictive force seems related to love. The poem is "I/You" with an absent (though important) "he", a triangle replicated in other poems - offering intimacy without commitment?
In the early part of the book the final line's often as resolute as this one (e.g. "Z" ends with "I am never, ever, going to be the same again") and frequently contain absolutes - as well as this poem's "nowhere" the early poems have "everyone", "never, ever", "never", "forever", "from now on" and "Right now" near their end. Later poems lose these tendencies.
The transitions in these texts are conventional enough - after all, essays contain contrary opinions and a mix of general/specific. What's lacking is signposting. The passages could be normalized, the montaged discourses disentangled. E.g. -
- Phrases could be re-ordered so that there's less jumping about
- Asides could be put in parentheses
- When 2 juxtaposed passages are connected by implicit "is like" or "is the opposite of" phrases, the relationship could be mentioned
- When the discourse mode ends (e.g. when the narrator jumps out of the frame), a new paragraph could be started.
Of course, the poet's fully capable of this - for example, she writes excellent reviews for The Short Review. In this book she's adopting a voice with some features of manic language. The verbosity and limited subject matter (all about "I") are part of the package. It's a style not uncommon in poetry. I'm unsure whether this is because manic-depressives find it socially convenient to classify themselves as poets, or whether the style offers poetic opportunities.
In "Prac Crit" John Clegg more thoroughly studies the language of one of her poems. Continuing the passes that I mentioned at the start, he produces "Fourth Pass - ‘I’ll Find You’, like much of Beautiful Girls, negotiates a difficult balance between accessibility and privacy. It takes seriously its responsibility to communicate, and to bring across situations which may be outside the life experience of many readers (hospitalisation, addiction, self-harm)"
I see a "responsibility to communicate" in the choice of imagery, but not in the line/paragraph breaks or the verbosity. He continues - "Themes emerge – unhappy family life, hospitalisation, and finally, most inescapably, death – but there is no argument or superstructure. Instead, there’s a shifting mood ... This shifting mood is controlled by sentence length and sentence structure. In general, the main clause of the sentence gives the scenario, subsequent clauses develop small details: ... Once this expectation is set up, Lee-Houghton can vary it for effect". The movement I sense in several poems is a repeated loosening then reining in (akin to simulated annealing). For the shifting moods it helps me to think in terms of multiple voices. Consider the start of another poem -
The Price You See Reflects the Poor Quality of|
the Item and Your Lack of Desire for It
We sleep with minds of black and white confetti -
the fragmented thoughts and brain cells coalesce, dance -
we pose as anarchists, we develop Alzheimer’s
just to lose ourselves within ourselves. Are you seriously telling me
this is your best analysis? The dying stall and drink from virally
infected cups, and go out
with wet hair to catch pneumonia, because it’s better that way. I
walk away from you
without glancing back, in case you see in me something I don’t.
Polyphony has been flattened into monologue. In the cause of user-friendliness, let's reformat, reversing the process and adding some comments
- We sleep with minds of black and white confetti - the fragmented thoughts and brain cells coalesce, dance - we pose as anarchists, we develop Alzheimer’s just to lose ourselves within ourselves. - we feign disintegrated selves, using pre-existing roles as disguise. The first phrase could be interpreted in a few ways. "sleep with" could be a transitive verbal phrase. Most likely, the sleeper has the mind. "black and white" could denote simplified thinking and/or printed matter.
- Are you seriously telling me this is your best analysis? - this steps out of the frame of (1) to criticize the content
- The dying stall and drink from virally infected cups, and go out with wet hair to catch pneumonia, because it’s better that way. - reverting to the style of (1), the claim is that dying people speed up their demise without resorting to explicit suicide, again using disguise
- I walk away from you without glancing back, in case you see in me something I don’t. - Perhaps continuing the thread of (2), the narrator recognises her dependence on others' opinions of her, wanting to leave yet lacking resolve. Perhaps she's scared that he will see through her disguise. In a later poem where the persona lists her attributes, one is "When I start things I can’t finish I just walk away and don’t look back."
Perhaps it could be viewed as a latterday "To be or not to be" monologue with the voices of "others" internalized. Death is conventionally a symbol of wanting to change. 3 pages later, we reach the conclusion -
Trapped in a little girl’s forgetfulness I beg|
and the abacus that infers my life is fettering away
now fades. If I don’t live forever I don’t see why I can’t
do anything I want. Jump ship. Lie in court.
Become a more mysterious person. Leave a blank note.
Scream and wail. Mourn the lives of everyone I ever met whether
dead or not.
Look back and see you turn away, and never do anything again but
think on it.
Instead of the first stanza's Alzheimer's, there's a little girl’s forgetfulness. I can't work out the "I beg ... fades" section - is "fettering" supposed to be "frittering"? If the section means that the narrator is forgetting about the rational predictions of her death, then the next section doesn't follow it up. Morality is tied up with immortality. The first stanza's idea of walking away is continued, but now the awareness of mortality means she can more effectively cope with seeing him turn away.
Linkages across a gap of pages occur elsewhere too, challenging the capacity of the reader's working memory. In "i am very precious" the following 2 fragments are 4 pages apart
do you understand that when the day breaks|
semen in the body turning over like a silk belt, slashing
the way the poetry aches like it does when fantasies
abate and leave beds turning over like guillotined heads
... and a sound like you’re supposed to make when a climax comes,
so slow and steady you’re silk, the heart turning over
like a silk belt; the little black buckles of the heart snapping
in turn. I don’t want to take my clothes off for anyone; want to
sleep with my t-shirt on and wake in a fever,
In both fragments there's "turning over like a silk belt", waking-up/dawn, but what are we supposed to make of the repetition? Come to that, what of fantasies leaving beds turning over like guillotined heads?
"He Cried Out To the God of Austerities Who Said On the Seventh Day You Shall Tax, Pillage and Burn" is different in form and content to the previous poems I've quoted from. It has 18 5-lined stanzas, each stanza end-stopped. Though God, Austerity and a few other themes recur, there's little coherence even within a stanza. Here's a sample stanza
God descaled my heart and French kissed me. He tasted like McDonald’s.|
He loves me most when he’s tired, when he’s too tired to run.
So goodnight blackbird, and starling. Goodnight Adrian, and senorita,
and my mother, who swings from the bough of a dead tree,
a conker for a heart and a handset for a brain.
Make of that what you will. The final line's success is conventional enough, but I found 90 lines of this too much to cope with. It's the sort of piece that led me think that this book is less restrained than "Beautiful Girls" (where nearly half the poems were less than a page, and most of the rest less than 2, though "Fettered Heart" is 6 pages), and my taste is towards "cooked". That said, my favourite poem is "The Price You See Reflects the Poor Quality of the Item and Your Lack of Desire for It". I had the most trouble with pieces that seemed more like automatic, manic writing than poetry. And there were times when the temptation to fuse the persona and the poet led to situations where rather than being a reader of a poem, I felt like I was in a train station's waiting room with a stranger telling me all about their suffering and lurid private life. "Mouth" and "Woodlea", "Sunshine" don't work for me, and "Samson Beach" seems minor. I'm allergic to lines like "My pain rings out like the church bells on a Sunday morning. I want them to feel/ my pain, all the ringing, singing lovers under their warm sheets" ("Mad Girl in Love"). I first have to conquer my reaction to people who go on about their pain - is the narrator mocking herself? Then my close-reading habit kicks in. I wonder what it means that the lovers are ringing too. What are they summoning? Are they in pain too? Does she want to contact all and only those who are in pain? But why are they singing? Because they're happy? Is that why the persona wants to inflict her pain upon them?
The book's final piece is "Hope", a page of unbroken text. One by one the people in a group who've been kidnapped and taken to a farm are beheaded until only the narrator's left. This plot commonly symbolises personality integration. "They dressed me in a warm, white fleece cardigan; I’d been cold for weeks. I knew it meant I’d won, and so I followed them into a kitchen. A woman with an apron was chopping vegetables and white meat." What's the significance of the repeated "white"? Is she being dressed like a compliant sheep? Is the woman that she's led to a vision of how she'll become? More whiteness follows - "A man in white with a white surgeon’s mask ... severed my spinal cord with a scalpel, then hacked through the tendons in my neck. Although my psychiatric worker said it’s more than unusual, I died in that dream, and I went somewhere. Part of me remains there, happily, in the glamorous glare of lost hope and a sadness spun of pure sunshine". As death presages re-birth, so losing a head/brain perhaps offers the possibility of acquiring a new one. Or perhaps the separation of head from body represents a Mind/Body split - an intellectualisation that has pros and cons. The "I went somewhere" in this last poem forms part of another long-distance linkage, connecting with the first poem's "I want to go nowhere". Neat.