THE SUNDAY POEM

Every week Ruth Padel discusses a contemporary poet through an example of their work. No 33 Kate Clanchy
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Her first collection won the Forward Prize for Best First Book; her second, just out, is shortlisted for this year's Forward Prize for Best Collection. Witty, formally skilful reveries on situations from the day-to-day, to historical, to surreal: from domestic love to colonial exploitation to sex with an angel.

This poem tackles head-on the challenge facing every woman poet: her relation to male lyric tradition. Poems "come" partly "from" your relation with that tradition, and all inspiration has a quasi-erotic charge. So how do you cope with the big implication of male tradition: that female form is the source of poetry? In other words that damnable male invention, the Muse? If Clanchy wants to anatomise how the muscles arch about a man's chest, she has to do it in a form man invented to anatomise women. Think Catullus and Lesbia, Dante and Beatrice, and Shakespeare everyhere ("My mistress' eyes are nothing like the sun /.../ If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun"). Latin forma means shape, figure, appearance - what men judge women by - and also "fine shape", "beauty". Formosus, "full of form", should mean "formal" but means "beautiful". In a poem, form equals beauty equals truth. When words sound right, what they say (even if it's a lie) seems to be right. Whatever the "form" - Muse's figure, poem's shape - men got there first. Both the archetypal source and written object of love-poetry (in John Fowles's novel Mantissa the Muse is an armed feminist shifting shape from hospital nurse to sex-toy) are female.

You can't ignore male tradition: you have to make your relation to it your starting-point. So Clanchy turns upside down one of the most famous love poems of all. Yeats's beloved reads herself in his book. ("When you are old ... take down this book/And slowly read ... ") Clanchy's archaic, Yeatsian use of verse (like shall not know, which echoes the now-nearly- extinct "jussive", commanding, use of "shall") flaunts the "See, I can sing the old song too" gauntlet she is throwing down to male tradition. Into this verse she puts a man: curving chest, heart, hands, and muscle like great books. But he in reading her, in classic subservient pose: I kneel there. Woman is (or is in) the book. He reads her eyes. Stroking her is stroking a book: hair like silk-thread bookmarks (scarlet is nothing to do with hair-texture, all to do with the decorative detail by which men "read" women, how they colour or touch up the woman they write; the poet becomes, like a newspaper in the old joke, "black and white and red all over"); cheeks like tissue leaves on plated pages. (Does this echo "plating", Sixties slang for archetypally subservient fellatio - for which you also kneel?) But she's writing him reading her. When Clanchy returns to the Yeatsian take down and book, her beloved reads himself silvered and monochrome. Never mind the scarlet - woman writes man (Clanchy teasingly implies) realistically, in black and white, not knowing who's reading, writing, or written, uncertain who's in charge.

Sound-relations bind the poem together (ER in the first stanza - work, verse, curves - shades in the second to AIR - hair, picking up there, where of the first, mutating to near - and AY in wayward, plated, pages; the last rings with OH: alone, monochrome, not-know); so does the quilting of Ks and Ls, summed up in what is inside the woman-book "taken" and read by the man - scarlet silk: work, take, curves; flat, scarlet, silk, bookmarks, stroke, cheeks, back, chilly, plated, pull; alone, shall, silvered, monochrome, desk, take, book, shall. The poem sexualises reading and writing. Who has power in a love poem, silent beloved or all-controlling poet? In this web of K's there are two silent ones: kneel (what the poet represents herself doing) and not know - which she represents the man doing. Who is subservient here? The poem is silently about a man not knowing the sexual balance of power. The form which Clanchy (the K and L of her name putting its aural mark on the relationship she's written) weaves round her lover is what Robert Graves (Muse-worshipper supreme) called a "silk web of language." Hence Clanchy's title. The women poet binds a silk-thread sonic spell round the traditional image: man reading, man writing, woman in a book.

c Ruth Padel, 1999

'Spell' is taken from Samarkand (Picador)

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