03 October 2008


At JSBlog, Ray Girvan cites William Gibson's Agrippa (a book of the dead) as "probably my favourite modern poem", and with good reason.

I was about to say that I only know of Agrippa because of Ray. I can't really say that in reality, of course: I might well have heard of it elsewhere, in time; who can say? Nevertheless: as things happened, I first heard of it from Ray (in 1992, with specific reference to the floppy disk version) and would otherwise probably not have known it until much later. It is a powerful example of the autobiographic poem model.

Looking back, though I didn't realise it at the time, my obsession with poetry had its first seeds at the same time as I became obsessed with the photograph at around age eight. So it's not surprising, perhaps, that a poem which tied itself so completely to the photograph as subjective document (a perception closest to my own photographic practice) should embed itself within me.

I first consciously made the connection between photograph and word when I read Joyce's Portrait of the Artist, somewhere around 1967 or 1968. It's vividly burned into memory. A description of Stephen Dedalus standing on a bridge surveying the view suddenly played itself through my mind as grainy black and white images which I recognised as being out of season visits to the south coast seaside resort where my maternal grandfather lived. Like most of my generation I was steeped in Auden, Spender, the first war poets, Eliot, Plath. As an adult, I recognise that those poets were shaped partly by the cultural outflow from invention of photography in the century before, but at the time I was simply struck by the affinity between the poem and photograph, even stronger than that between photograph and novel.

Somewhere in her Isadora Wing trilogy, Eric Jong has her character say something along the lines of "a novel is a marriage, a short story is an affair, a poem is a one night stand". That may well be true for Jong (or Wing) but I can't see it myself. Even leaving aside such epic monuments to poetic commitment as Aurora Leigh or (for anyone with the staying power) Spenser's Faerie Queene, the shortest poem of any quality represents a high level of commitment to careful crafting – and can reward a lifetime's revisiting.

It is one of the oft reiterated (no doubt ad nauseam) bees in my bonnet, that amongst other media and forms photography is closest of all to poetry and sculpture.

I am never any good at lists or nominating favourites. My favourite anything (book, music, meal, friend, photograph, poem) now is always different from my favourite a few moments ago, and will have been replaced again a few moments hence. Even when, under pressure, I tentatively produce a candidate, the alternatives immediately crowd in with "but what about..." and "then again..." and "on the other hand..." When I think about choosing a favourite modern poem, my heart quails at the idea of choosing from the cornucopia to be found between Anne-Marie Austin and Benjamin Zephaniah. However ... there is, of course, a pool from which I habitually make such unsuccessful attempts to fish answers: and Agrippa is definitely in it, swimming strongly.

  • Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Aurora Leigh. 1857, London: Chapman & Hall. Recent republications include 1996, New York & London: W W Norton, 0393962989. Full online text available at the University of Pennsylvania.
  • William Gibson. Agrippa (a book of the dead). 1992. Full text on line at Gibson's site.
  • Erica Jong (all given as Panther paperback versions):
  • Fear of flying. 1976. 0586041494
  • How to save your own life. 1978. 0586047379
  • Parachutes and kisses. 1985. 0586063544.
  • James Joyce, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. 1916, New York: Huebsch. Recent republications include1994, London: Secker & Warburg, 043620245X.
  • Edmund Spenser, The Faerie Queene. 1590. Full online text available at the University of Oregon
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