Wednesday, 31 October 2007

Trick or Treats from the TS Eliot Prize

Sweets from strangers, or a bitter pill: poetry prizes, and being on or off the longlists, shortlists and final nomination lists, for them, can be either a thrilling gift, or a blade in an apple. The three judges for this year's TS Eliot Poetry Prize, the most-sought and respected of its kind in the UK, have met, and tomorrow their list of ten poets will be made public. Four are already known, as they were earlier selected by the PBS, hosts of the award, and these are Sean O'Brien, Sophie Hannah, Ian Duhig and Sarah Maguire. Six places are up for grabs, and near to 100 books are in contention. At this stage, with his Forward win, O'Brien would be the early front-runner.

Eyewear will comment more, tomorrow, after the list is announced. It will be intriguing to see how parochial, or how open-minded, the final list is - that is, whether it veers more to Hobsbaum's closed sense of Tradition, or early Eliot's ideas of experiment. The panel of judges - Peter Porter (filling in for UA Fanthorpe), Sujata Bhatt, and W.N. Herbert - represents a variety of poetics and tastes, and years of experience with form and language-play. I wouldn't be surprised to see Daljit Nagra, Edwin Morgan and Mimi Khalvati there. There are many other good poets up this year, such as Annie Freud, Joanne Limburg and Luke Kennard. Will Salt, for instance, breakthrough and get books nominated? Another good young poet debuting this year is Frances Leviston, who read for Oxfam in the past. And Fiona Sampson, David Morley, Elaine Feinstein, Michael Schmidt, are also strong possible contenders. Too many other names to mention here, such as Claire Crowther, and Matthew Sweeney. Also, this year a number of major North American poets had books eligible, such as John Ashbery, Margaret Atwood, and Adrienne Rich. It'd be good see Ashbery on this list, especially, surely. We shall see...

Tuesday, 30 October 2007

Top Ten Albums of 2007

Barring any surprises - and there may be a few - Eyewear would like to begin the listmania that usually begins in a month or so - and suggest a plausible provisional top ten list for popular music recordings in 2007. Looking back over my list for 2006, I realise I rarely listen to some of them anymore - music's charms can be fickle - but this is what is still in my ears now. You'll note that Arcade Fire are lower than might be expected - their album, while astonishing and innovative in places, was also over-hyped and grandiose, and put in its place by the far loftier-yet-serene experimentalism of In Rainbows, by far the most impressive album of the year.

I have also left off the Arctic Monkeys second album, which hovers somewhere in 12-20th spot. An early favourite for best of the year, it somehow faded in interest as the year wore on. Winehouse's retro album retains its power to shock with how the new can be so uncannily borrowed from the past, and yet be fresh. It is noteworthy how many of the albums were influenced by political events in America and The Middle East, and, however subtly, expressed concern with the world's current political ills - 1, 5, 6, 7, 8 and 9, especially - 2, 3, 4 and 10 rather reflecting the more-or-less apolitical sounds of an earlier era or time (whether the 60s or 70s) - which, ironically, were also very politcal moments. But, as I have suggested in my reviews, The Shins and Interpol are, in their ways, obliquely relating to current events. The strength of this list, and the longer one it draws from, argues that the 00s will be considered a good musical decade for popular music - even if no one dominant style has emerged - unlike the 90s with, say, Grunge, the 80s with Rap and Alternative, and the 70s with Disco and Punk.

10. Back To Black - Amy Winehouse. [not previosuly reviewed at Eyewear].

11. New Moon - Elliott Smith. [not previously reviewed at Eyewear].

Monday, 29 October 2007

Going To Mascara

There is Mass and then there is Mascara. One gets you to Heaven, the other to good poetry, published in Australasia. Eyewear encourages both journeys, but only one is as easy as a click here. I should add I am in this second issue of Mascara.

Monocle de Moloko

Eyewear is sad to hear the eye of Roisin Murphy (pictured) has been injured in Russia. Murphy should recover, though her Eastern European tour has been shelved due to her near-optical concussion. There is an irony in this, perhaps, since her new album is Overpowered.

The idea of Irish electronica-dance music is slightly far-fetched, but Murphy's latest is actually wonderful, within the groove of its genre. I've long felt that music is a derangement of the senses no worse than opiates or wines - or carnal knowledge - and so should also be allowed its wild, silly moments, as well as its austere, or heightened ones. One rarely makes love to Wagner, or would want to boogie all night to Bach.

Madonna and The Doors, for instance, are both mood stimulants, and purveyors of bottled lust, released like pheromones via stylus or wireless. Sounds carry - and they transport us. Overpowered is merely trashy dancefloor pop but is also, within its tawdry, midnight realm, sublime. Mirrorball sublime yes, but disco's sublunar (and gilt, guiltless) pleasures are also worth pursuing. Murphy's impressive vocals veer appropriately between 80s strip-club Tina Turner, and early Annie Lennox - at once Motown and robotic (cars built by machines, then). The album's production emphasises this circa 81 Depeche Mode tone, and swirls and bleeps in lovely retro fashion. Meanwhile, "science struggles to explain ... a chemical needing is there in the brain" - as she plays with po-faced lexicons of science and love. A cheeky, often ironic work, then, that also delivers bravura song after bravura song that makes one want to dance. Four out of Five specs.

Sunday, 28 October 2007

"Masters of all they survey"

There is a nice irony in the fact that the Observer has chosen to start its poetry page in its Review section with a headline that resonates with tropes of conquest - observation eliding into possession - that is, "Masters of all they survey". This page seems a wrong start, even as I am glad to see the paper taking on the responsibility for giving poetry more space in its pages.

My problem is with the trope of "mastery" itself, in relation to poetry. As Craig Raine wrote recently, in his controversial essay about Don Paterson's poetry, "The two great, natural enemies of poetry are exaggeration and euphemism." I am not sure this is always so - hyperbole is a poetic option - but exaggeration in the criticism and publication of poetry is rampant in Britain, and has lead to runaway critical inflation. It has also lead to a small, select group of mostly male poets dominating the conversation that the media is having with poetry. Sean O'Brien's recent Forward-winning collection, The Drowned Book, has on its back cover the following phrase: "The Drowned Book again shows O'Brien a master of the authortitative line ...." That seems like a lot of emphasis on mastery and control - and authority - and it is a somewhat male way of reading things, I think.

The media often says poetry is dead or dying. The media is often the one who killed Cock Robin, though. The new Observer poetry page, to return, has begun inauspiciously, if it is intending to present, to the readers of its pages - who, one would imagine, from the emphasis elsewhere, on trendy films and pop music, are otherwise geared to intelligent people in the 25-50 range - the actually-exciting truth about contemporary poetry - that it is vibrant, heterogenous, multicultural, and appeals to young and old. What, precisely, possessed the editor to allow the first page, then, to focus its observant eye on three white, male poets - one dead, one middle-aged, and one slightly older than that - Henry Reed, John Burnside and Hugo Williams?

Reed is a fine Forties poets, and I am glad to see his book is out. I very much like the work of John Burnside, especially - and spent several days with him in Montreal this spring, when we both read together at a major Canadian literary festival - so this isn't about their work, or anything personal. But how about a little balance? It might have been fun to have a poem by one of the younger, rising stars of British poetry - Luke Kennard, Daljit Nagra, Katy Evans-Bush, say - or mention of one of the many fine established women poets currently working in the UK. Instead, the page rather solemnly establishes an establishment feel (Hugo Williams is on record as actively mocking J.H. Prynne) and a feel that experimental, different, edgy, or more radical poetic efforts will not be looked at.

I could be wrong, of course, and we shall have to see how Adam Phillips navigates his way through the various channels of British poetry and poetics, now. You might think I am carping, but first impressions do count. This is why, whenever I present poetry events, or anthologies, I do seek a careful and nuanced balance of styles, and options - because I believe that the single most important fact about poetry currently is that it is not just one kind of thing - but many ways of being poetry. It is precisely this unmasterable, destablising flow and pulse that disturbs the smooth-running of the central London publisher-editors, who seek to keep a lid on things. But you cannot master poetry, anymore than you can conquer the sea with a sword.

Out of the shadows

The British little magazine is having something of a heyday at the moment. Mimesis started up recently, and is impressive. Now here is Penumbra, a magazine devoted to "Verse, Prose and Criticism" which is on to its second issue, and looks very handsome indeed, in its "smaller, smarter format". I have a poem in it, alongside work by Julian Stannard, Heidi Williamson, and others. To submit short fiction and verse, email the editors Alex Latter and Elle Collins here.

Saturday, 27 October 2007

Deaths and Entrances

Speaking of Welsh poets, Dylan Thomas (pictured) was born on this day in 1914. He would die 39 years later, in November, 1953. There is an extraordinary, brief letter, in The London Magazine’s first ever (Volume 1, No 1) issue, which opens, “Sir, the death of Dylan Thomas at the age of thirty-nine is an immeasurable loss to English letters. In memory of his poetic genius a fund has been started for the Establishment of a Trust to assist his widow in the support and education of his three young children.”[1] It is signed by thirteen hands, including T.S. Eliot, Peggy Ashcroft, Kenneth Clark, Graham Greene, Augustus John, Louis MacNeice, Edwin Muir, Edith Sitwell, and his dear friend Vernon Watkins. This sounds like an establishment view.

And yet, an unfortunate and I think misguided rear-guard action was already underway, in Scrutiny, well before 1954, to undermine this “genius”. It only grew, after his death. As G.S. Fraser puts it, “… Dylan Thomas’s reputation as a poet has undoubtedly suffered at least a mild slump. He was always far too directly and massively an emotional poet, and in the detail of his language often too confusing and sometimes apparently confused a poet …” for the newly-dominant critics of the Scrutiny school.[2]

Neil Corcoran, writing forty years after the London Magazine letter, begins by arguing that Dylan Thomas had his origins in an interest in Surrealism (among other things) but, mainly, himself[3]. The problem is, apparently, one of narcissism. “His is a poetry much taken up with the fact of, and with the emotions attached to, certain forms of psychological regression.”[4]

This is not considered a good thing, for the poetry. “There are too many poems from the 1940s in which the nebulously vatic seems repellent in its myopic self-assurance or triumphalism.”[5] The poems are trouble, and cause trouble. “The trouble with numerous poems is that their glamour and charm cannot disguise the fact that they are elaborate tautologies.”[6]

Apparently, the surface pleasures of a Dylan Thomas poem (almost like a 40s silver screen goddess, charming and glamorous) hide a troubling fact: poems are meant to be logical statements that must not contradict themselves (or else they become tautological). For Corcoran, a poem cannot, then, be a sheer verbal pleasure, enjoyed, say, for its ornamental qualities. It must be rigorously worked through, an equation that yields clear, new results. “The effect (of a Thomas poem) can seem like being insistently told, in some baffling way, some extremely simple things that we already know perfectly well…”[7] – which, despite its obviously critical intention, seems like a rather good job description for most mainstream English poetry.

Dylan Thomas is a snake charmer, or charming snake, his poems wild: “with their libidinous dictions of friction and flow”[8] – “the body of the poem always turning back in on itself”[9] – and this self-sustaining interest in body, fluid and experience is deeply troubling to a critic who wants, ideally, the poet to turn their work “outwards to a recognisable external world of action, event, suffering and relationship”[10].

Linguistic, primitive energy, with its potential slippage, its force, might render the world “unrecognizable” and therefore draw a veil over the rational order of things. In short, Thomas is “Dionysian” and therefore threatens a different order of things, one which wants its apples back in the cart – actually back on the garden’s tree. Recent anthologies of the last decade or so (for example, The Penguin Book of Poetry from Britain and Ireland since 1945, edited by Simon Armitage and Robert Crawford) pay short shrift to any post-war Forties poems or poets, neo-Romantic or otherwise, other than George Barker, Dylan Thomas and W.S. Graham (and they have 14 pages between them). Lynette Roberts and F.T Prince are not included. This is a period that time has selected to forget.

In Sean O’Brien’s recent anthology, The Fire Box: Poetry in Britain and Ireland after 1945, Graham is described as a “major” poet, in the Introduction, and is included, though Dylan Thomas is not. Nor are Roberts or Prince, again. It is unclear why Thomas, whose best work, arguably, was published in 1946, is excluded; his name is not mentioned, either, in the Introduction, though we are told that “the Movement also saw itself in reaction against the poetic excesses of the 1940s, exemplified by the hysterical irrationalism of the New Apocalypse School”.[11]

[1] London Magazine, February, 1954, Vol. I, No. I, Correspondence, p. 79.
[2] G.S. Fraser, Vision and Rhetoric: Studies in Modern Poetry (London: Faber and Faber, 1959), p. 238.
[3] Neil Corcoran, English Poetry since 1940 (London: Longman, 1993)pp. 39-42.
[4] Corcoran, p. 43.
[5] Corcoran, p. 42.
[6] Corcoran, p. 44.
[7] Corcoran, pp. 44-45.
[8] Corcoran, p. 44.
[9] Corcoran, p. 44.
[10] Corcoran, p. 45.
[11] O’Brien, Sean, The Firebox: Poetry in Britain and Ireland after 1945 (London: Picador, 1998),

Friday, 26 October 2007

Poem by Gwyneth Lewis

Eyewear is very pleased to welcome Gwyneth Lewis (pictured) this Friday. Lewis is one of the most significant Welsh poets - and, given the lineage, which includes (in no historical order) Lynette Roberts, Dylan Thomas, Dannie Abse, Peter Finch, W.S. Graham, R.S. Thomas and others, that's saying a lot. In other words, she's one of the best poets now writing, and, excitingly, in several languages.

Lewis was appointed Wales’s first National Poet from 2005-06. She has published six books of poetry in Welsh and English. Her first collection in English, Parables & Faxes (Bloodaxe, 1995) won the Aldeburgh Poetry Festival Prize and was short listed for the Forward, as was her second, Zero Gravity (Bloodaxe, 1998). The BBC made a documentary of Zero Gravity, inspired by her astronaut cousin's voyage to repair the Hubble Space Telescope. Y Llofrudd Iaith ('The Language Murderer', Barddas, 2000), won the Welsh Arts Council Book of the Year Prize and Keeping Mum was short listed for the same prize in 2004. She composed the words in six-foot high letters on the front of Cardiff's iconic Wales Millennium Centre.

She has written three libretti for Welsh National Opera. The first, The Most Beautiful Man from the Sea to music by Richard Chew and Orlando Gough was performed by a choir of five hundred. Redflight/ Barcud, music by Richard Chew and Dolffin, music by Julian Philips, have toured schools in Wales and England. Lewis was a scholar at Girton College, Cambridge and was awarded a double first in English literature. She received a D.Phil in English from Oxford, having written a thesis on eighteenth-century literary forgery. She is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, a member of the Welsh Academi and a NESTA Fellow. In 2005 she was elected Honorary Fellow of Cardiff University.

Sea Virus

I knew I should never have gone below
but I did, and the fug of bilges and wood
caught me aback. The sheets of my heart
snapped taut to breaking, as a gale
stronger than longing filled the sail
inside me. To be shot of land
and its wood smoke! To feel the keel
cold in a current! To see the mast
inscribing water like a restless pen
writing a fading wake! It’s true,
I’m ruined. Not even peace will do
to keep me ashore now. Not even you.

poem by Gwyneth Lewis

Thursday, 25 October 2007

Review: Magic by Bruce Springsteen

Bruce Springsteen is one of those figures so central to American mass cultural experience that his "iconic" status as rust-belt troubadour and cause-concerned-zeitgeist-king (AIDS, 9/11) obscures how good an artist he can be. Celebrity is often the sand thrown in the face of aesthetic appreciation.

So it is that yet another album from "The Boss" could be - and was in some British quarters - greeted with a shrug of Limey indifference (not just French waiters can shrug). So what, The Killers sound like this, was the refrain. Well, they wanted to, and their coe-turling attempts made some good songs, but many muddy, emotionally-sprawling bad ones. Magic comes then, as an unexpected, even unheralded, triumph (though in America, it is being called his best work in decades - perhaps since the early 80s).

From my perspective, it is his finest work since Born In The USA, and at times as eerily potent as Nebraska (one of the major albums of all time). In some ways, those two albums are the points he here oscillates between (not that they were an Alpha and Omega of themes). The underlying subject matter of all the songs on Magic is seething rage, terrible loss, and almost-total impotence, related from the perspective of the common man (a 21st century Tom Joad) who finds himself living in a "town" where his "own worst enemy" is suddenly in charge. The enemy is the proto-fascist neo-conservatism of Bush & Co., and the town is America. Like all good American liberals, Springsteen holds in his heart two warring beliefs - that America, as originally conceived, is ultimately good (in a Jeffersonian / Platonic City On A Hill kind of way) and, as it has been sold out, consecutively, ever since, by lying, cheating politicos and company men, is now in the hands of the very bad, who have somehow stolen its promise from the hapless suckers and huckstered saps of its bottom rungs.

This is an Edenic fantasy, of course, and one, ironically, shared by Bush & Co. - with one exception - in their case, the American Exceptionalism never waned and was not tarnished by brassy business dealings and warlike behaviour. At any rate, Magic is exceptionally poignant, as time and again, veterans back (dead or alive) from Iraq face a diminished present, glimpsing fragments of the hell that was the war, but also the beauty that is small-town America ("the girls in their summer clothes"). The title song, especially, is astonishing for how it manages to sound like George Walker Bush himself is murmuring threats to some magic-show assistant ("I'll cut you in half") that might as well be Osama, or the American people.

But other songs are just as effective - Gypsy Biker especially, with the vocals eerily wizened by Marlboros and sandstorms. There are raucous, joyous moments of such Americana, too, that one is put in mind of The Beach Boys, or Dylan. It's hard to represent both sides of a coin, one glittering with promise, one tarnished with promises broken - but that's the trick Springsteen manages on this great album.

Lessing At UEA

I saw new Nobel laureate Doris Lessing speak at UEA last night. She was very witty, alert, and "awkward" - her own word. She was also gracious - at the start of the hour Q&A she admitted to having a sore back, and a bad cough, but the 88-year-old had gamely kept her promise, and attended - a lesson to many younger "famous" writers who cancel appearances whenever they feel the slightest tinge of a cold coming on. Indeed, Lessing had words for the young - they were soft - in her day, people didn't expect to be happy, and weren't happy. They got on with things. They didn't expect money, and subsequently didn't mind not having it. She was very moving on the subject of her mother, with whom she battled for years. She recalled, in loving detail, how her mother would order books for her (parcels, shipped by boat) from London, that would take months to arrive in their African home - the opening of which were the highlights of her childhood. She also reiterated her recent claim that Tony Blair was "a little showman" and underlined, yet again, her feeling that "60s feminists" had done damage to women by "making political" their concerns. For Lessing, "political" is basically, and inherently, compromised. She does seem to me to be something of an unreconstructed humanist, but a very funny one. Her last words were to remember that inside, old people are still "young sparks". A spark can start a blaze.

Tuesday, 23 October 2007

In Rainbows

I just downloaded the new Radiohead album - available digitally from their site - In Rainbows. It was a painless process - I decided to pay £5.00 and they added a £.45 fee for credit card handling - so, about half what you'd spend on a physical album in HMV in London - which seems fair. The download took about 5 minutes. The album itself sounds very good - more immediately pop-oriented than recent more gloomy work. "Reckoner" is my early favourite, with its Zooropa stylings, as is peppy opener "15 Step". "Bodysnatchers" really rocks, and is Revolver in a way Oasis would die to do. Much of the album suggests their influences - aside from Aphex Twin and Pink Floyd, are early-90s U2 and The Beatles - but mainly they sound like themselves - this is out ten years post-OK Computer and sounds like that works' zeitgeisty cousin, with a little more sunshine on the windscreen, and a little less shattering of glass. Good work if you can get it. And you can.

Monday, 22 October 2007

Peak Experience

According to an article in today's Guardian, peak oil has been reached (in 2006), and from here on in industrial 21st century civilisation(s) is coasting downhill, at 7% a year, on a slippery slope to war for rarer and rarer, scarcer and scarcer resources. 2030 is either going to be very cold, or very warm - or both. Depending on which way the news blows, I'm never sure whether we're doomed, or about to have life prolonged for 200 years by Venter. Weird, science, indeed.

Sunday, 21 October 2007

Everyone Is Gay

It has been a funny old week-end, or so, here in the UK. Reading The Sunday Times I have discovered that the new Booker winner despises the telegenic parents of a missing child, that Mr. Clegg, a candidate for the Lib Dems leadership allegedly wrote glowingly of opium at Oxford when 18, that Hilary Clinton has no chance of winning the Presidency as she coldly jilted Socks post-White House, that one of the great geneticists and Nobel winners has been banned from his lecture tour of England as he is apparently a bigot - and, mostly oddly of all, that Dumbledore is "gay". J.K. Rowling, not to be confused with other initialled geniuses W.B. Yeats or T.S. Eliot, has "outed" one of her fictional characters, after selling a billion dollars worth of merchandise, some of it in text-based format, to adults and children - now, this once-anodyne billionairess is able to go all po-mo on us. Harry is bi, and Hogwarts is a cover for an S&M club. Why not go further J.K and tell us God is dead.

Friday, 19 October 2007

No Friday Poem This Week

I was just too tired after all the launches and readings to blog that much this past week. I'll start the features up again this Friday.

London Launch of Life Lines 2

The London Launch of Life Lines 2 featured readings by Dannie Abse, Sujata Bhatt, Siobhan Campbell, Elaine Feinstein, Wayne Smith, Atilla the Stockbroker and John Hartley Williams and was held at 7pm At The Poets’ Church, St Giles in the Field, London. The collection was in aid of The Darfur Appeal. I'd say about 80-100 people showed up - and maybe 60 remained after the interval. I would have hoped for a larger, more supportive crowd (especially as the CD itself features 56 poets, and many of the poets did not appear). The church was rather cold, too - no heating on. The poets read well, though.

Thursday, 18 October 2007

Deborah Kerr Has Died

The major British actor Deborah Kerr, pictured, has died. Her great period was arguably the decade between 1943 and 1953, when she appeared in some of the era's finest (and biggest) motion pictures made in England or America, such as The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, Black Narcissus, Quo Vadis, King Solomon's Mines, and From Here To Eternity. However, for another fourteen years after that, she appeared in a few interesting, popular or significant films, such as The King and I and Casino Royale, before effectively ending her film career in 1969. As such, she worked steadily for roughly thirty years in cinema, before returning in late life to do a few roles for TV and lesser movies. Never quite an icon, she was still a star.

How To Kill Your TV Show

Prison Break, the popular American TV series now in its 3rd season, has recently made a creative decision, based on behind-the-scenes problems, that will undoubtedly destroy the show's already-perilous hopes for any future life, or viewer loyalty. They have recently killed off the character of Dr. Sara Tancredi, the main love object of tattooed protagonist Michael Scofield.

Over the first two seasons, their painful, complex relationship (based on using, being used, and getting over that) was at first enigmatic, then deeply moving, becoming the centre of an otherwise often simply ludicrous and hyper-violent spectacle. Sara was the emotional anchor of the show. Unfortunately, the actor playing her character, Sarah Wayne Callies, pictured, became, in "real life", pregnant, wanted out of the show, and refused, it is claimed, to co-operate with a third season 13-episode arc that would have had her death (one imagines) more artfully engineered.

Instead, she was unceremoniously given the literal chop - her severed head appearing in a box. This grisly homage to David Fincher or indeed Psycho may have been a funny industry in-joke for a few suits, but it has also grossly insulted the fanbase (see the blogs) and ruined any sense of past or present continuity. As one fan put it, if this series is about hope, why should I care now? TV requires a comfort zone the cinema need not offer.

Was Dr. Tancredi a John The Baptist figure? Is the "Greatest Story Ever Told" spoiled by his death at the hands of Salome? Prison Break was good TV storytelling, but it was founded on characters that the audience rooted for, and loved. With Sara gone, it is a bunch of sadists locked in a Panamanian prison. I recommend some radical script doctoring, or resurrectionary work. Make it somehow a faked death. Bring her back. Religion is based on love, and hope, and TV's mass opiate requires the chance of a second life.

Laying Claim, Laying Waste

Excuse me for being naive, but I thought Antarctica was the last best hope for "mankind" (the moon being already targeted for military expansion in future): a place no one could own, no nation could exploit. I stand corrected. It's been reported that the UK is laying claim to vast tracts of Antarctica and surrounds, in order to secure oil and mineral rights - resources that in the 21st century will become increasingly required to sustain industrial expansion. So many things are wrong with this action, I won't even begin to argue a coherent case against the land grab. But I will say this - when will coherent, calm and capable people begin to argue the case against national interest? Almost every evil on the world stage, and every good that is halted or hindered, is related to an act made in some nation's "national interest". And yet, we are all victims of bleeding across porous borders. I am concerned that the late century ahead will feature increasingly bizarre alliances and struggles over far-flung bits of land and undersea beds to establish dominance over other economies. Oh, so like the last few centuries, then. How this ties in to Labour's ethical and green agendas, heaven only knows.

Monday, 15 October 2007

A Reading at Exeter College

I read Sunday with Elaine Feinstein at Exeter College, Oxford, as part of the Life Lines 2: Poets for Oxfam launch readings to a good-sized audience of appreciative and thoughtful students. During the Q & A questions regarding translation, evil and truth in poetry, and other matters, arose. One audience member rather kindly compared the sounds in my poems to Heaney and Plath. We then attended Choral Evensong (there was also Holy Baptism of two young people), followed by dinner at High Table, as a guest of the Rector. It was a very fine day, altogether, made better by the extraordinary sunlight.

Saturday, 13 October 2007

One Way Of Looking At It...

Sean O'Brien, in today's Guardian, writes of the affliction of poetry - not, in his way of thinking, a career at all - but rather, a bit of a damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don't kind of thing: one either writes poetry or goes mad, or writes poetry and goes mad, as he memorably, and dramatically, suggests.

I find much of this article convincing, and thoughtful, and useful reading, especially for non-poets, who often don't consider the immense and usually near-useless sacrifice that most poets make of their lives (as O'Brien reminds us Eliot had noted); for every two or three poets in each generation that continue to be read 50-100 years later (name three poets of the 1890s who are really read widely now, other than Yeats, Wilde and Swinburne; okay, now name ten; now name twenty.... now make a list of the 100-200 poets writing now...) the hundreds who also spent their lives on poetry (and it is a spending) are mainly lost to indifference, or studied, if at all, from a purely academic perspective. Most poetry is good, not just good enough, and few poets know, while alive, whether their work will last.

So, O'Brien is reminding the doctors, the lawyers, the civil servants, that, while they may have the villas and the jaguars, they also have the certainty that their careers are defined by a limited but sane purpose; poets have no such safe basis on which to plan or build. This way can lead to "madness" - is madness, arguably, from the get go.

What I should like to add is, that, while the verbal drama of invoking the poet as chief genius of madness (as the Greeks and romantics both believed, as John Berryman knew, and Plath and Lowell and he and Delmore and others not so long ago proved), is both vaguely satisfying to poets (it is one thing to be mainly ignored and potentially useless, it is another to be so but know oneself to be at least part of the agonistic drama that is creation) and even perhaps attractive to non-poets, it is only part of the story.

As I have argued on these posts and pages before, poetry is a recognised isolating, difficult, path (I do call it a career but mean by that simply it has its professional, life-long elements - poetry is a vocation and a career, as the priesthood or teaching, two other Calvaryesque callings) - but it need not be so painful as it often is. If poetry leads to madness, then what can poets do to make it less terrible? Surely, all people who live face the same terrible end - death. The key is to secure a viable way to live, a philosophy, that allows for some consolation, even sanity, in the face of the terror that is our one-way ticket out of here.

Thus, I feel poets should reflect more on their duty to other poets. This is not the same as their duty to poetry, which may be as individual, rigorous and austere as any forty days in the wilderness if they wish - but it is a complementary duty. Poets are too often antagonistic to their fellow practitioners, seeing them (incorrectly) as rivals for laurels. Instead, our fellow poets form a community of the similarly-afflicted. They are our comrades - no other word will do - on the arduous long march to - what? - an unsure, unknown victory, or defeat. Mad we may be, but we needn't be alone in the madhouse. Poets should, as the actors did in Hollywood, form a more solid union, to support each other in times of need. Those times are never far away.

Friday, 12 October 2007

Poem by David Caddy

Eyewear is glad to welcome David Caddy (pictured) this week. He lives and writes in rural Dorset. Founder of the East Street Poets in 1985, Caddy was director of the well-known Wessex Poetry Festival from 1995-2001. He is the editor of the literary journal Tears in the Fence, which publishes good poetry from around the world, and is open to a variety of poetic viewpoints. I recommend it as a place to send work, and also a place to find work.

Caddy presents the monthly Internet radio programme, So Here We Are: Poetic Letters From England. His latest books are London: City of Words, a literary companion from BlueIsland (2006) and The Willy Poems (Clamp Down Press 2004). He regularly reviews for the Use of English magazine and Terrible Work online magazine. His next book, Man In Black, is out from Penned In The Margins this November. I look forward to reading it.

Shuffling The Icons Shaking The Trees

Black is this year’s white and light born
yonder to appear as beyond nature,
the head shakes to see the make-over
the old marks, the winkling out and infill.

Willow and alder wild-eyed from neglect
by watery sensations and psychic home
with preLatinate logic in our clothes
in this parade of nettles and overkill.

Sticky with sap, smell of quince,
bloodsucker head spouts, daintiness flies
into an inferno of electrical dependency.
Dim groups disassemble looking for eyes to see.

Oak is ancient book and index.
Spin and governance barely show
such splits and coves and touts
that crackle with stunts and fire.

A world to go out into to become
without and within hearing
without mediating the immediate
holding it all inside.

Curiously hidden behind shadow
strident tightly wrought words
replete with intent to awake
into recognition and mission.

Shuffling the Tarot, they hold,
fold, entice with letter and face
knowing that escape is no escape
not this day not this time.

The operation’s a gentle gnawing
on the chain, a bone licking tendency
to follow a prescribed order
and gain some respite from movement.

When young he copies out
his Donne from memory, muttering
in private disputation, wonder
of the addressee, boldness of argument.

On Sundays we visit the church of poetry
not through habit, through pressure, want.
New neighbours block off martins nests
and gunmen range to hunt in rovers.

About a doing, a making and a making do.
Bring up from the dark those amputated
those dormant, smoking fields and scrags.
Bring up from the dark those nameless people.

I am speaking of a ghost of a form
of expectation, the thought of thought
that drives legs and arms and eyes
to respect and ask for a journalist.

Those that know the ruin of empire
the moral core stretched to recoil,
farm handouts on nil return
slope management shot through.

Slept, crept, kept, wept, under attack.
Water supplies dip to unholy holiness
map, plaque, flak, crack.
Sometimes the threat is real.

Silence and binary logic wails
with disinformation, innocence.
The near homeless squint and mumble,
admissible as flint and lock.

With enough tension to fuse and decompose
to partially revitalise the chemically blown
from Farnham, effectively repopulated,
to Stickland, well-heeled and footloose

to the old-fashioned old cold table top
wood bare for lurch of calcium
Davy’s kindling deoxidised, sway of sulphur,
isolate of vitamin D, crazy, genuine.

More rackets to drug the market focus
the ostensible tap, tap of Tesco,
plight of village poorly sourced
craving to decode silence, bussed to charity.

The ear takes soundings beyond
masters of grammar and taxonomies
each scented petal has a name
that I bestow and cultivate around you.

Each balm and bane between us
lies to afford a presentation, a show,
a moment that is ours alone
thirsting to find new home.

Matter comes alight out of measure
our immortality’s a space and shadow
a quiet shuddering on earth’s face
the light is of light, I know.

Coda: Lady Jane Davy

Jane was as much under uterine dominion
to compose, recompose fluoric acid gas
as is graceful and pleasing
whether oxygenated, intoxicated or berated.

The first ever to fall victim to algebra
ascertain with greater precision
the nature of acidity in relations
and be geometrically led from virtue.

That combination of associate ignition
not yet a breach but a positive expansion
lit fuse after fuse far beyond
the string and glue of bound leaves.

poem by David Caddy

Thursday, 11 October 2007

Lessing Is More

Congratulations to Doris Lessing for winning this year's Nobel prize for literature. She is a worthy winner.

I do hope that Canada's Margaret Atwood wins one day, for her extraordinary - nearly unrivalled - contribution to poetry, prose, and critical writing. No other living writer in the English-language has so shaped their own national literature as she has, a sort of belated Yeats for Canada, say, or Ibsen. She's also an outspoken advocate for PEN, and other good causes, and a brilliant, witty public speaker.

Monday, 8 October 2007

Review: A Mighty Heart

In many ways, A Mighty Heart, the Michael Winterbottom film about the abduction and brutal killing of American journalist Daniel Pearl, is the antidote to The Bourne films - in this case, an American is lost in the world of terror, espionage and multicultural clash, unable to assume another identity, or use force to escape a wrongful fate.

Winterbottom, a practiced and busy British director, has borrowed the Greengrass style and intent to dazzle with movement - here the camera jerks and stutters uneasily through the busy streets of Karachi, and zooms in on faces of drained, concerned Wall Street journalists, or a torture victim, with telescopic, grainy imperfection - the screen is a rapid eye movement of colour and cut - the film is mostly about seeing the Real - ironic, and apt, as the central action is left obscene, off-scene - the ritual slaughter of Pearl, simply because he "is American". Or, more accurately, Jewish, as Pearl's moving last words prove. Journalists no doubt appreciate the film's accurate depiction of their dangerous, lonely investigations in unwelcoming lands.

Others may find the film a strange mixture of undeniable personal anguish, set against an unclear backdrop of near-contemporary foreign policy and violence. As a story of a wife, stoic and noble, the success is immense - Angelina Jolie has never been better, and, risking the crass and obvious, this seems a sure bet for an Oscar nomination, even win, for Best Actress. Her sustained wail of horror and grief (borrowed from Bergman's Fanny & Alexander) is undeniably powerful. Will Patton, an under-rated character actor of great ability, is here the vaguely sleazy US Diplomat who seems to almost revel in the unfolding drama.

However, the other, bigger picture - the relationship between the West and its often "Orientalised" enemies - is muddily presented, as if there might be a danger that, in presenting too clear a through line, uncomfortable truths might emerge - uncomfortable for America and its allies.

There is a potent ambiguity in the dogged pursuit of the kidnappers by a ruthless secret policeman (The Captain played well by Irfan Khan) working for Pakistan's government. He and his men come across as effective, to say the least. The image of the tortured suspect, hanging from a chain like meat, is a homage to the greatest political film of all, The Battle of Algiers, but also a thorn in the side of any mere apologist for wars on terror - as such wars also use terror. For a film about trying to see the truth, this is an evasive, but compelling, portrait of what stays invisible, unseen, unsaid.

Sunday, 7 October 2007

Life Lines 2 Launched and Available To Order

Life Lines 2 has been launched, and is now available for £4.99 across the UK, in all 127 Oxfam book shops. I edited it, and was able to collect donated poems from 55 British, Irish and American poets. The poems were donated by the poets and their publishers, and recorded live, mainly in Soho and Camden. Poetry works. To order it online go here.

Taken At The Flood

There is a tide in the affairs of men, and so on. Gordon Brown, the British PM with the sombre brow and deep solemn voice, this week-end made a terrible mistake. As the whole country seemed to be running pell-mell down a hill to a general election - this riderless cycle set in swing by the kick of no other than Brown himself - he suddenly showed a loss of nerve, and called the whole thing off. Inevitability has never looked so second-rate. Brown has cancelled the check he wrote, the one that, if cashed, would have given him a major win, I believe. Instead, looking into the whites (or greens) of that pseudo-Blair, Tory Cameron (un-teleprompted that he is), Mr. Brown blinked. He caved in. He threw in the towel. He is the Northern Rock of UK politics, now, on which Labour will build increasingly shifting fortunes. Time will run out, Mr. Brown. You lost your moment. Like Hamilton, in pole position, your tire blew before you got to lift the golden prize.

Saturday, 6 October 2007

Back from Cheltenham!

The Times Cheltenham Literature Festival (5-14 October) may be the best of its kind in the known universe. Established in 1949, this year its attractive image features a hand, with, on each finger, a word - not just a word, but a word doing something. This bold hand urges us to: "Question, Debate, Discover, Engage, Enjoy". Literature could also do with the following Prison Breakesque body-commands on its other hand: Learn, Change, Create, Critique, Share.

This year will feature an astonishing range of writers and bookish figures from across the tiny planet we call home (as we say), including, yes, myself. More on that in a minute. Others appearing include: Alan Alda, Al Alvarez, Martin Amis, Margaret Atwood, Iain Banks, Pat Barker, Simon Callow, Douglas Coupland, Alain de Botton, Sebastian Faulks, AA Gill, Stephen Hawking, Nick Hornby, Mimi Khalvati, Galway Kinnell, Naomi Klein, Ken Loach, Ian McEwan, Daljit Nagra, Michael Ondaatje, Steven Pinker, Craig Raine, General Sir Michael Rose, Helen Thomas, Lynne Truss, Michael Wood, Xinran and Johnny Zucker.

It is an honour to appear. And appear I did, for the official launch of Life Lines 2: Poets for Oxfam, which I edited. It was at the Town Hall, 5 October 2007, from 7.30-8.30 pm, with talk and poetry readings from myself, Michael Rosen and Kate Clanchy. I am now back in London.

Friday, 5 October 2007

Poem by Sheila Hillier

Eyewear is very pleased to welcome Sheila Hillier (pictured, in a photo by Derek Adams) this Friday, especially as this is her birthday.

Hillier is a medical sociologist who has researched in China for many years and is now Professor Emeritus at Queen Mary's School of Medicine. She began writing poetry in 2001 under the direction of the late Julia Casterton. I have been working with her on her poems, through the Poetry School, these last few years.

Her work is widely published in British poetry magazines, including at Nthposition, and she was recently commended in the UK's highly-prestigious National Poetry competition, for the poem included below. Hillier is currently putting together her first full collection. I think it is a very impressive manuscript.

Pollux and Castor, elephants

Krupps’ cannons pound the walls,
the darkness smells of soil and gas;
at Voison’s, rue Cambon, a special black card
buys sauce souris on pate of rat.

It’s a challenge to garnish donkey with cepes;
there’s a gold market for cats of all colours
Castor feels itching deep in his trunk,
Pollux walks in the snow and shivers.

The gates of the Jardin des Plantes have been chained
for over a week, but now carts from de Boos
are waiting outside. Zebras are easy, Martin the bear
puts up a fight, now they draw on a ruse

and Adolphe Lebeeque, whom Castor knows well
wheels out the last kilos of branches and fruit
which he tips at the base of their sandpaper tree
as others take aim from the rainwater butt.

Grey lumps too big to be dragged,
so they’re jointed there in a scratch abbatoir.
Feet sliced away first, and eager talk spreads
to long lines outside the Boucherie Courtier.

A starving gourmet hurries out to catch
the carrier pigeon’s fragile message,
which unfurled, says, Yes! There’s ‘variety meat’
in a siege menu of elephant blood sausage.

Goncourt dines at seven, the evening sky
is brilliant with the enemy’s flares.
There’s Consomm’ Oliphant, filet de mulet
and rarest, by Choron, the trompe sauce Chasseur,

nearly spoiled by Adolphe, who wept bitterly,
gripping dead Castor’s trunk in the snow.
The butchers were waiting to finish their work:
‘C’est foutu Adolphe!’ But he wouldn’t let go.

poem by Sheila Hillier

Thursday, 4 October 2007

BBC Oxford

Kate Clanchy and I were on BBC Radio (Oxford) today for about 30 minutes, with host Jo Thoenes, discussing poetry, and the new Oxfam CD, Life Lines 2. The show should be available for replay online at some point. She asked me for a limerick, while on air, on her name. Here is my hastily composed effort...

There once was a girl name of Jo
Whose speed was fast, not slow
She interviewed Todd Swift
On her show for a lift
And now Jo is raring to go.

I should have worked radio and head into this one, as Radiohead - digital pioneers that they are - hail from Oxford. Oh well.

Happy National Poetry Day

National Poetry Day. I understand why some poet-theorists, like Charles Bernstein, resist the lure of such public celebrations of an otherwise private, and ideologically-complex art. Poems, arguably, are meant to oppose just such occasions, such broad-beam jamborees. To question everything civic and communal. To resist, with language, any too-easy consumption of language. Language should also stick in the throat, not just slide down like so much predigested pap. Okay, but as poetry is already on the outside of civil society for 360-plus days of the year, a day, a week, even a month, in which to bring its riches before the public is not necessarily a bad thing. Only so, if the only poetry celebrated is simply rubbish. Which most poetry isn't. Even the most so-called mainstream, or traditional, work, has its moments of challenge. No good poem can be just simple, just accessible, even if it seems so. A swan dive requires skill to execute, as do all elegant acts, and so should not be avoided in favour of cannonballs simply to readjust water levels and raise eyebrows. The arc in the air is the thing, as well as the splash made. But, let us not pretend, either, that all poetry is good for children, or for the air, or for the mind. Art can destroy as well as build, upset the apple cart as well as pick an apple from a ladder. National Poetry Days need to contain the elements of strange surprise and danger that are also inherent in poems, in order to tell more of the story about poems.

Here is a poem of mine, an homage to Larkin, about the state of literacy and culture in Britain, to share with you this day.

Library Going

“Libraries in the UK will be redundant by 2020” – BBC news

I return, even though the due date’s faded.
The glue’s decayed, lets gape an erotic
Separation between card and page. 2020
Is not so much a time as a place, loaded
With laser-visions of dystopic outrages:
One being the library’s gutted, dead as

A church. Pigeons for squatters, mice;
Screens unplugged from their machines
Have taken their flat coma minds away,
Now as functionless as a drinks tray
At an AA meeting; as sad as memorabilia
For a team that never had a victory.

The books themselves assume the position:
They spread out on their desert island
Shelves, the castaway long gone:
To rescue or sun-picked oblivion. Bloated
By rain-damage, yellowed, quiet as kids
Traumatized by the playground into books

And music, they spell out culture’s purpose:
U-S-E-L-E-S-S. Queuing where they would
Have stamped my tomes, then run them
Over that queer magnetic beam device
(Sometimes forgotten so all hell’s bells
Went off, startling the pensioners, the mad

Homeless and the religious elf, whose home
This was, because theirs was lonely, unheated)
I joke about late charges, and toy with an idea
Of asking the invisible librarian out for tea.
Her reply is vacant and worthless, anyway;
As are all these authors, glossy covers,

And flattering blurbs: best, better, and so on.
What did those reviews get them in the end?
A better type of casket? A leggier friend?
Anonymous? Take your pick. Even famous
Writers get lost in indifference, once dust:
Their agents have moved to digital recreation.

Still, it isn’t so bad in this page-littered
Mausoleum, a permanent autumn of loose
Leaves and broken spines: it’s just a ward
Where all the injured veterans of some old
Romantic war lie, under their sheets, to fold
Into the future like a memory of wind-turning

Narration: a novel ride, reading, at the sea,
Or, like a faithful canine, that bedside block
That kept you an insomniac; that door-stop
Whose catacombs contained words, characters,
And even a sense of falling into love, or destiny.
No one borrows now. They read, if they do,

Off monocles, implants, it’s all direct. No
Going to a building to get a bunch of stories
To carry home, like groceries: all delivered
Over optic wire, at the speed of vision.
I leave the copy I neglected for so long
On the returns trolley, then stop in the middle

To snicker, take a bow, cough loudly,
Then finally sneeze. Once, this was verboten.
Not anymore. No one to care to shush,
Or put a prudish finger to their thin lips.
Acting out, I yell: f-ck literacy! An owl
Or an addict mumbles back; my own voice

Echoes off the subjects, from Art to Zoology.
Time to go. On the way out, on forever-loan
One supposes, I acquire a How To guide
To automotive repair, and a battered thriller.
I know how both end, but still desire the act
Of taking my literate communion publicly.

poem by Todd Swift

2007 Forward Prize Winners

Congratulations to Sean O'Brien, and Daljit Nagra, who both won Forward prizes today, on National Poetry Day in Britain. Alice Oswald also won the prize, for best poem. Hats off to her as well.

O'Brien is the first to win the Best Book prize three times, since 1995, and Nagra, the UK's most-talked-about new poet for years, now establishes his collection as something of a contemporary popular poetry classic. Nagra is one of 56 poets on the new Oxfam poetry CD launched at The Cheltenham Literary Festival tomorrow. O'Brien was one of the first poets to read for the Oxfam Poetry Series, in London, in 2004, as pictured above, with fellow poet Polly Clark, who also read that night.

Both poets are now likely to compete for the T.S. Eliot Prize, awarded in January 2008, along with 8 others who will be shortlisted. It should be a strong field.

Wednesday, 3 October 2007

Dr. Ronan McDonald Replies

Eyewear is pleased to report that the Internet and Blogosphere continue to bear much interactive fruit. Dr. Ronan McDonald has kindly and thoughtfully replied to an earlier post, questioning his stance, in The Death of the Critic - available on Monday, 8 October. I for one am eager to read it. Here is his reply, sent to me earlier this evening by email:

"Dear Todd,

Thanks very much for your attention to my article. I've had a look at your blog entry and I would say we're much less in disagreement than it might appear. My book The Death of the Critic is not hostile to the blogosphere (though the line you quote from the article on blogging might give that impression). Can I blame the by-line on the article and the exigencies of space? One obvious advantage the internet has over the newspaper is space.

I know there are excellent critics working on the internet and I hope that they get the recognition they deserve. I feel that blogs have unleashed a wave of energy through the criticism of the arts. And I certainly don't endorse the caricature of blogging as amateurish and semi-moronic.

But there are dangers in the blogosphere too. My chief concern is that the talented critics writing therein will end up being swamped out by the mediocre and banal. The open door policy of the web allows in much talent, but also much dross. The small circulation magazines of the modernists had the advantage of also being few in number. I do think that there is something to fear in the volume of comment that the Internet affords. It makes it easier to miss the good stuff. And to point out that some critics have had authority in the past is by no means ot endorse 'tyranny'. It is to say that we need to read the best criticsim, just as we should be reading the best poetry. You may well be right about Pound.

But remember too his conviction that 'Good art weathers the ages because once in so often a man of intelligence commands the mass to adore it.' (Ezra Pound) . (I'm not keen on the words 'mass' and 'command' here - typical Pound - but I cite the quotation as a counterpoint to 'Pound-the-blogger').It's too early to say how the blogosphere will develop but I hope it will provide access for new critical voices, ones that might not otherwise have become established, to gain a wide audience. I hope too that they 'slowly earn credit' with readers, as you predict. I hope that it challenges the corruption of the old media, which so often relies on back-scratching and score-settling. I hope in short that it is meritocratic, rather than simply democratic.Thank you for your considered thoughts and criticism, which I welcome. (Especially compared to the hornet's nest I seem to have inadvertently stirred on the Guardian 'Comment is Free' website! )
Can I conclude by taking an extract from Chapter One of Death of the Critic? It's praising Marjorie Perloff's essay in Grub St and Ivory Tower:

'Perloff ends on an optimistic note, with the hope that the Internet may provide a critical forum for discussion of challenging or innovative poetry, but this too has its problems and dangers, some touched on already. One is quality control. Internet reviewers are not always as accountable as their counterparts in the print media; fact-checking and accuracy are not as audited. This is not to cast a pall over the standards of the many reliable and professional internet magazines and reviews, which are proliferating and growing in profile and prestige all the time. But they represent another danger. The internet provides space for criticism and analysis of niche interests, which because of space limitations, conventional publications do not. But this atomises cultural discussion, to the detriment of the wider public sphere. Those who want to joint the arena for, say, performance poetry or the work of minor film-makers or installation artists may well be drawn to relevant websites, but this will disperse the arenas for debate and evaluation. Non-initiates are unlikely to stumble on the relevant sites which may become, instead, hermetic discussion circles for those already won over to the cause. The danger, again, is that while everybody's interests are catered for, nobody's are challenged or expanded. The sheer size of the internet is, then, part of this problem. In order for there to be a public sphere, an arena for the sharing of ideas and cultural critique, the organs and venues of communication need to be limited. There need to be some voices heard above the din. The number of arenas the internet provides for criticism and reviewing counterpoints the contraction of academic criticism. But dilation, so far as an arena for public discussion is concerned, is also dilution. '

Best regards,


Blog Ambition

Eyewear would like to disagree about blogs with the author of The Death of The Critic, who is chairing a panel discussion on the subject at the ICA (London) on 4 October. According to Dr. McDonald, writing in The Guardian yesterday, "there has been a tremendous democritisation in response to the arts". He argues that the death of the commanding (and professional) critic - one who, like Leavis, or Greenberg, has the authority to make large statements and champion artists - has been in part reduced by narrow academics, and also the tastes expressed by bloggers. He asks, "can we rely on the bloggers to bring vital if alienating art to a wide audience?" - and then sums up, "without critics of authority, the size and variety of contemporary criticism may ultimately serve the cause of cultural banality and uniformity."

This seems wrong, for a number of reasons. Chiefly, it is wrong about the nature of blogging, and bloggers. It is a common mistake, for those opposed to the Internet, and its impact on culture and cultural discourse, to suggest that the writing available on blogs, because almost always free, is a) uniformly amateurish and b) merely the expression of a personal, often semi-moronic bias.

Instead, many blogs, on writing and poetry, for instance, express well-argued and well-written positions, and are often written by poets or others interested and well-versed in their field. Blogs, rather than being banal, have vastly enlivened the room to debate, and question, the evaluative process - often filling in the gaps left when daily newspapers of quality began to review less and less serious fiction, and poetry. McDonald doesn't seem to appreciate the radical, sometimes avant-garde nature of many blogs, which are more sophisticated than all but the leading print journals.

Is he right, though, in mourning the passing of The Major Critic, whose vatic pronouncements could make or break a career? Eliot, Empson, Winters, Jarrell, did some good - and were always stylish writers of critical prose - and it seems few, if any, poetry critics today, for instance, carry quite that weight (though surely Vendler and Perloff both do). The fact that more and more people can, and do, engage in critical evaluation, cannot be a bad thing, in itself, if the ideal of an enlightened democracy is ever to be more than an amusing fiction - and one might actually suggest the opposite lament - that if only more people actually did care enough about the fine arts, and serious writing, to blog about it, it would have more social and cultural impact.

Critics of blogs fear the ubiquity, and the sheer volume, of the writing. They crave a time (never real but always imagined as the golden age) when opinion was not only formed by, but completely controlled by, a very few individuals - individuals they know, and are in league with, usually (for who aspires to a tyranny of which they are not a part?). Why it should be good for opinion to be so dominated from above is unsure, but it seems to stem from the belief that only a very few persons have access to the truth, or what passes for the truth among intelligent people. Indeed, it believes in critics of genius, who steer their minority positions so cleverly that soon all others navigate in their wake - and, historically, this was the course for, say Eliot, championing The Metaphysicals.

Critics of blogs assume, incorrectly, that such a genius, if arriving on the scene now, would not write using a blog. Here, they are wrong. Any reader of Pound knows instinctively that his antennae would have wanted to use the new electronic broadsheet that is the world wide web, to broadcast his work - Pound, after all, used printing, and radio, where he could. The little magazine now gives way to groups on Facebook, and to Internet zines.

McDonald may be right, in thinking such a genuine new critical voice might be lost, among the multitudes of other blogs. But great, even good, writing, has a way of slowly earning credit with its readers. Some blogs get more "hits" than others - just as some critics, in the days of Leavis, were attended to, more than others.

I will write to Dr. McDonald and ask for his reply. Let's see if he's willing to enter the Blogopshere.

Joe Mitty Has Died

Joe Mitty, who started the first Oxfam shop, in Oxford, has died, at the age of 88. The world has lost a great visionary, and a good man.

Nthposition's October Poems Now Online

Life mask & Service road
by Frederick Pollack

Reversible swirl, A mind of summer & Sealed warrant
by Philip Fried

Monday, 1 October 2007

Guest Review: Wilkinson on Turnbull

Ben Wilkinson reviews
Stranded in Sub-Atomica (Donut Press) by Tim Turnbull

It’s interesting that one of the poems early on in this shiny and slickly produced first collection gives Simon Armitage a decisive ribbing, albeit a distinctly tongue-in-cheek one. The target here is ‘Chainsaw versus the Pampas Grass’, a poem from Armitage’s 2002 collection, The Universal Home Doctor. Turnbull’s poem functions as a sort of dialogue piece, then, sarcastically questioning whether Armitage has ever actually ‘heard the creaking hinge [of a genuine chainsaw] / and rushing air as six tons of timber and branch / come roaring, like a train crash, to the ground’, or whether, as is more likely, he’s simply the proud owner of a ‘glorified hedge trimmer.’ And it’s suitably ironic because, what with all the down-to-earth humour and barefaced honesty that marks it, Turnbull’s work ultimately owes a lot to his hedge-trimming contemporary. The other trademarks are there, too, from a commitment to the present (and indeed, northern) vernacular, to the darkly comic twists and idiomatic turns of phrase that lend both Turnbull’s and Armitage’s poems their verve and edge.

This is particularly evident in the collection’s title poem, which compares the eviction of a man from his flat with the Fantastic Four’s efforts to ‘reverse Doctor Doom’s shrinking-ray / or be marooned / forever’, epic fantasy meeting everyday reality in similar ways to Armitage’s ‘Zoom!’. Life’s cruel humour also works its way into the poem’s opening lines, where the narrator reveals how ‘after four years of wrangling over unpaid rent, the housing co-op, / the one he helped found / in the seventies, obtained an eviction order and repossessed.’ Further to this, and like much of Armitage’s early work, the scene Turnbull vividly paints is a harrowingly familiar and contemporary dystopia: a room full of ‘shit’ containing ‘a pamphlet biography / of Rosa Luxembourg, copies of Green Anarchist, assorted tracts / from the WRP, / A Nietzsche Reader’, as well as the brilliantly illuminating image of ‘stacks of PG Tips boxes which leaked residue / like bracken spores / when moved and gave a deep brown dusting to the work tops / and the grease-caked floor.’

Whatever a number of Turnbull’s poems might owe to Armitage, however, becomes largely irrelevant when one considers the scope, ambition and variety of much of the collection. In fact, the poems are often most impressive when Turnbull moves away from his usual (and no doubt anecdotal) territory of chainsaws, motorbikes and cars that, at least in tone and rhythmical execution, seem to come most naturally to him. Such an ‘alternative’ highlight is ‘Not the Whitsun Weddings’, a poem in which Turnbull meticulously adopts Larkin’s rhyme scheme and eye-opening train journey to his own updated, yet similarly cynical, intentions. Here, instead of Larkin’s crowd of brides, grooms and families, the poem recounts a group of ‘Stags’ (‘a laddish plague / infecting all the coach with noise and beer’) and ‘Hens’ (who ‘play it dumb-but-sly and soak the flattery up’) boarding the train carriage, less to celebrate the marriage of their friends and more for the excuse of a party; amid ‘air perfumed with booze / and latent sex.’ In addition to this, and in its cynicism and twisted humour, the story of an imagined government genetics experiment, ‘It Lives!’, is similarly captivating, largely due to Turnbull’s tapping into the more paranoiac and uncomfortable elements of the political zeitgeist: ‘the mind of a pig, / implanted in the body of a pig, / dressed up in a cheap suit, furnished […] / with a full set of opinions and let loose.’

What really helps this collection to stand out, however, aside from the fact that Turnbull is that rare combination of a technically accomplished writer and a strong live performer (which undoubtedly lends many of his poems their liveliness and memorability on the page), is poems like ‘Johnny Cash’. In this paean to the country & western legend, Turnbull deftly blends humour, wit, and the trials of male adolescence towards a personal revelation that holds an unfortunate but likely truth for all of us. As well as imagining Cash at a Led Zeppelin gig, then, humbling Jimmy Page and quietly threatening to ‘ram that violin bow up [the guitarist’s] ass – saadways’, Turnbull draws the ‘sad conclusion’ that brings the various elements of the poem together perfectly, recognising ‘as so often in my life, that all that adolescent self-assertion / was in vain. / Me mam was right again. My name is Sue. How do you do? My name is Tim, / Johnny, and things are looking grim.’ Good job on the promise of this first book, then, that the same can’t be said for Turnbull’s poetic future.

Wilkinson is a poet who recently completed his BA in English and Philosophy at University of Sheffield. His dissertation was on the New Generation Poets of 1994, primarily the work of Simon Armitage, Don Paterson, and Carol Ann Duffy. His poems have appeared in various magazines, including Poetry Review, The Frogmore Papers, and The TLS. He has been an Eyewear Featured Poet.

Ubiquitous Armitage

Simon Armitage (left) has been everywhere this week-end, in the British media - a genuine blitz. He was the cover story for the Guardian's Weekend magazine - he's founded a new band, at age 44, with an old friend, and they're The Scaremongers. Okay, suitably Gitmo-zeitgeist. And then, on the BBC flagship morning radio show, Today, at around 8.25 (today), he popped up, not to sing a few Scaremonger tunes, but to read a new poem, "The Not Dead" I believe it was titled, all about how veterans of the current wars have been let down by Britannia, and feel like awkward ghosts in ordinary towns. Okay, that may not be Ivor Gurney stuff, but it packed a punch, and is for a very good cause - the soldiers are bearing the brunt of shame better levelled at Blair (and the voters who allowed Iraq to happen) - and receiving few benefits for their patriotism and sense of duty. Armitage is one of the best, and most prolific, of the mainstream poets of his generation, and it is good to see him getting so much airplay, but there is a new generation or two now coming up, those in their 30s, and those in their 20s, exemplified by the other new media darlings, Daljit Nagra and Luke Kennard (up for 2007 Forwards in two different categories, Kennard poised to be the prodigal Dylan Thomas/ Auden of his age, especially if he wins, stay tuned). In the UK, to be on the poetry map, it seems you have to be on the radio, telly, or in a paper. Those who mainly just read and write poems can end up feeling pretty ghostly too - the silent majority of poets. And what is it with poets and bands, anyway? There's Puggy Hammer in Montreal, Paul Muldoon's group, and now Armitage's, and I have no doubt there are many, many others. Can't imagine Wallace Stevens was in a band, but if he had been, it might have been The Keener Demarcations. Yeah, dig those ghostlier sounds.

London Launch of Winter Tennis Tonight

Autumn Tennis in Bloomsbury, Anyone?
a reading by 6 younger poets and 2 special guests
October 1, 7-9 pm
Oxfam Bookshop, 12 Bloomsbury Street
London WC1B 3QA

The reading, in the Poetry Month of October, will feature 6 younger UK-based poets, who met at The Poetry School, and whose poems have begun to make an impact on the British literary scene.

Readers are:

Emily Berry, Joe Dunthorne, Kaethe Fine, Michael Kavanagh,
Alex McRae & Helen Mort

With special guests Joanne Limburg and Todd Swift

Swift will give an exclusive UK reading from, and signing of, his latest collection, Winter Tennis (DC Books, Canada, 2007)

Admission is free
with a suggested donation of £5 to Oxfam.
To secure your place please phone
Alison Jackson on 020 7637 4610


A WORK IN PROGRESS... I am writing this first part on the eve of New Year's Eve day - and as new remembrances come to me, I may well...