Monday, 31 December 2007

21st Century Hamlet?

Eyewear wishes the young Oxford student and party leader all the best at this crucial time for Pakistan. There is something Shakespearean about this sudden rise from anonymity to youthful greatness - with the ringing claim that the best revenge is democracy - surely one of the great quotes of this decade, so far (and most debatable). Let's parse this one: "With his political inexperience, shy demeanour and Armani glasses, Bilawal was not the obvious candidate to lead his mother's party." What does The Guardian have against Armani glasses? One can be a great leader, and also stylishly bespectacled.

Back From Ireland

I spent Christmas in Ireland, with some of my family, and am now back from that wonderful place, renewed. The generosity of spirit, the good humour... it could almost be Canada - except a Canada inflected with greater traditions of faith, and poetry.

Friday, 28 December 2007

Poem by Maxine Chernoff

Maxine Chernoff (pictured above) lives in California, where (among other things) she co-edits New American Writing.

Ms. Chernoff is the author of many books of poems, such as Among The Names, and six collections of fiction including Some of Her Friends That Year, a new and selected stories from Coffee House Press.

I am very happy to welcome her to Eyewear. She is one of the American writers of her generation who one should read, in order to know what contemporary American writing is, and what it will turn out to be.

I especially enjoy poems with the word "gentians" in them, being a fan of D.H. Lawrence, these blasted gentians being altered Bavarian Gentians. I should note that one of her novels is A Boy In Winter, which is a lovely mirroring of Larkin's novel title.

A House in the Country is Not the Same as a Country House

Not wanting to name it,

it stayed in its bed

Until a break

in the weather

uncovered the reason

the restive urge

Until he found a way

over the mountains by elephant

Until he rested a means

from the fog, until,

veiled but uncovered,

he managed to express

his longings in something

formerly characterized

as art among those

who make a fetish

of unmasking

the general motives

behind the tragedy

of belonging

He thought it was wrong

to express this panic among

the uncertain crowd

Displaying the colors

he had earlier


parsing the rhetoric

to reveal the sore

in the shrine

the blasted gentians

He sealed the hope

beneath the faraway


a thread of cognition

to angle the moonlight

constructing a realism

that consoled

even as it found

itself wanting

poem by Maxine Chernoff

Assassination By The Coward

I suppose the killing of Kennedy, or Lincoln, was more shocking than the recent, terrible murder in Pakistan of the brave campaigner - since history was not yet fully used to such underminings of democracy - but yesterday's news still had something of the dreadful lightning bolt about it. What next?

Wednesday, 26 December 2007

Oscar Peterson Is Dead

Sad news. One of the greatest Montrealers, and a towering genius of contemporary Jazz, is dead.

Monday, 24 December 2007

Eve of Reflection

On the eve of Christmas, I reflect on how the two most famous British citizens of the 00s - Tony Blair, and JK Rowling (the best-selling writer in history), are both on spiritual, indeed faith-based journeys - belying the general, media-induced secularism in Britain today. I would like to especially congratulate Mr. Blair, a man who made some rum decisions with regards to war, for picking up some ploughshares and joining the Catholic Church. That's a brave move in these times. The Guardian today noted that most people in the UK have no belief or faith, and yet failed to think through how this would seem to correspond with a near-total collapse of public morals.

With a certain brand of militant atheism comes a void, one that science cannot fill. The best proof of the need for God is what sort of society one gets when such belief vanishes. Dawkins and Co. miss the central point of the mystery of faith - it is the journey towards God - not some zero point of blank factual arrival - that confirms a soul dwells within each of us.

This Christmas I wish all my readers the most enriched, and love-filled time of communion with their friends, family and neighbours, as possible.

Friday, 21 December 2007

The Swift Report 2007

I would like to begin my Swift Report for 2007 by thanking the many loyal readers of Eyewear who have made this blog so popular. Eyewear is maybe one of the leading literary blogs based in the UK, if only judged by readership, it being cited in The Writer's Handbook, and being quoted at length several times recently in The Guardian Review. The vitality of my blog is much improved by the kind donations of poems by poets whose work interests me, regardless of their prize status, publication record, nation of origin, or geographical location. It doesn't take much, these days, to be a fresh pair of eyes in the British poetry world - one simply has to read poetry with sincerity, integrity, and without biases based on ideas of nativist traditions, or univocal styles. It's sometimes suggested I have a radical perspective. I hope not. I simply believe that poetry can be written anywhere, by anyone, anyhow - a critic's job is not to evaluate the poem in terms of taste or practice drawn from one single tradition - but to approach the work as a possibly new thing, and bring to it as much potential for celebration, as condemnation. That being said, finally, it is possible to say what seems to make some poems worth reading many times - and it seems to be a combination of satisfying elements, such as style, complexity, originality, and depth of vision - the dance between form and flow, feeling and intellect, that has marked the best modern poems since 1900.

I want to briefly summarise my year.

2007 was not an easy year for me - my father had died in September of 2006, and I entered 2007 still in mourning. After my 41st birthday, in April of this year, I began to move on from that process, and after the year anniversary of his death, really tried to close the door of grief; but it remains ajar within me.


In terms of publication history, the sore point of the last few years was the reluctance of most of the major British poetry publishers to read, or consider, publishing my collections here in England, where I reside. The response was shamefully dismissive. I was misread by both the UK traditionalists, and the experimenters, equally - neither group quite hearing my complex shifting play between high and low registers, and various sometimes-comic, often-serious, rhetorics. It's been a painful thing for me to accept, especially given the commitment I showed, from 2004-2007, to British poetry, with my Oxfam poetry series and CDs.

I suspect the future, not just for me, but for many good new poets over here, is with the smaller, emerging presses - Cinnamon, Eggbox, Bluechrome, and so on - whose busy, open-minded editors are beginning to pick up very good poets who have been ignored or sidelined by the bigger boys.

At present, I have two collections scheduled for 2008. The first is New and Selected Poems: 1987-2007, which will be introduced by Kevin Higgins, and is out with Salmon Publishing in summer of the coming year. That'll have about 80 poems in it. And, then, there is a smaller untitled collection of newer, and possibly edgier, work, for the up-and-coming London press, Tall-Lighthouse, pencilled in for some time later in '08, or maybe start of '09. Details of the second book are still to be confirmed.


The three big projects of 2007, for me (I am always busy), were, the launch of my fourth full collection, with DC Books, in April, at The Blue Metropolis Festival, the biggest of its kind in Canada, and surely the most multilingual. I read there with John Burnside, Dennis Lee, and other wonderful poets. This new collection, Winter Tennis, is really lovely to behold - I'm well-pleased with DC's design for the cover. It's unfortunate, but the book, which had very supportive back commendations from A. Alvarez, Paul Farley, and George Murray, didn't manage to be listed for any prizes, and was hardly reviewed. Canadians seem less and less interested in their expatriated authors. I am very happy with the collection, all in all.

The second was the launch of Language Acts, co-edited with Jason Camlot, also launched at the same festival. This collection of essays was a five-year labour of love, and represents, on our parts, a very serious attempt to begin the proper study of Anglo-Quebec poetry of the post-76 period. An adjunct aspect of this publication was the appearance, in Jacket, of an online anthology of the major poets from this period in Quebec, which we also edited. The highlight for me was having Leonard Cohen agree to let us have three poems for this.

The third big project of 2007 was my editing and recording the second CD in Oxfam's Life Lines series. I was able to gather major poets in Soho on two days, to record new work - people such as Craig Raine, James Fenton, Fiona Sampson, and many others. That was wonderful. The CD was then launched at The Cheltenham Literary Festival, the biggest in the UK, and there were other readings, at Oxford, and so on.


I also kept busy teaching part-time at Birkbeck, and Kingston University, in creative writing, and English, at the MA and undergraduate levels.

And, I continued to work on my PhD at UEA in Creative and Critical Writing. My thesis topic is a new collection of poems, and a 50,000 word critical piece of writing. I was upgraded to being a doctoral candidate in the summer. My supervisors, Denise Riley, and Clive Scott, have been very supportive and insightful.


Poems of mine appeared, across 2007, in a variety of online and print magazines, from the small to the major, such as, in no order, The Wolf, Penumbra, Mimesis, Bordercrossing Berlin, Succour, fourWeighteen New Writing, Jacket, Atlas, The Manhattan Review, Aesthetica, and others. My reviews continued to appear, especially in Books In Canada. EnRoute magazine, the inflight magazine for Air Canada, ran a big feature on me in March, 2007, written by Doug Saunders, calling me one of the world's leading poetry impresarios.

I also read, during the year, in Galway, at the impressive Over The Edge series, and at The White House series. While there I was interviewed by Pat Boran for RTE national radio. I read also, as stated above, in Montreal, and then again, at UEA, St Albans, and other places, such as Paris, and the fun New Blood series. The most stirring reading was at Dulwich College, where I read with Daljit Nagra, Wendy Cope, Blake Morrison, and Jonathan Ward to an audience of almost 300.

In December 2007, I wrapped up the fourth and final year of the Oxfam reading series, after 22 events, having raised over £80,000 for Oxfam. David Morley, Barbara Marsh and Stephen Gyllenhaal were among the final readers at the final event, which had about 100 in the audience.


The highlights of the year for me were personal. Seeing my many friends at my launches in Montreal. Returning to Quebec for the late summer, to spend time with my mother, my brother and his wife, and to swim and canoe in Canada's beautiful wilderness. Another wonderful time was had, vale-walking in the Lake District, with dear friends, Chris and Lulu, and my wife.


I may have left some things out, but I feel this captures the spirit of the year: tirelessly engaged with reading, writing, editing, promoting, reviewing, and evaluating, poetry and writing in general. Perennially neglected by mainstream poetry Britain, for no good reason but that enthusiasm threatens to overturn their stiff little apple cart, but, in the margins, beavering away - like a good Canadian should.


Projects for 08/09 include completion of an anthology of modern Canadian poets for Carcanet, and a novel, as well as completion of my PhD.


I wish my friends and family, and all my readers, the very best for the Christmas season, and, with love, best wishes for the new year.

December 21, 2007

Poem by Annie Freud

Annie Freud (centre) with poets Roisin Tierney and Liane Strauss

Eyewear is very glad to revisit this earlier post, and update it for the Friday before the Christmas holidays. Today, I welcome Annie Freud to these pages. As readers of this blog will know, I earlier this year championed her debut collection from Picador, arguing its many strengths. I believe it was one of the best poetry collections published in the UK in 2007, and among the most surprising, inventive, and witty.

Freud studied English and European Literature at the University of Warwick and now lives in London. Her poems have been published in Poems for a Better Future (Oxfam), Gobby Deegan's Riposte from Donut Press, Future Welcome, and various magazines like Magma.

Annie is one of a group of very fine poets based in London, who have, over the years, studied the art and craft of writing with Michael Donaghy, and then John Stammers.

A Residential Guinevere

Emboldened by green-gowned carnality and a plucked dome, we call for dressing table mirrors to be placed upon our altars, in accordance with the Spirit of the Rock of Baroque. We have paid in advance and must change our lives.

We could get to reappraise the hypereality of artificial fruit, especially the gleam on the grapes and the peach’s fuzzy globe. Would we get hung up on a configuration of turrets? Or is it the rack of disbelief we’re on, or is it the junction between onomancy and grief that buys our compliance?

And, if one of our circle breaks down and cries on Day 2, the chance acquisition of a set of second-hand golf clubs or, in the very last resort, a bentwood loveseat that has seen much life, might wake in us thoughts contingent to Forgiveness Valley. The steam from the laundry and the chunk of the woodcutter’s axe will be our moral base.

Minutes pass; the illusion of connectedness caves in and each now goes his separate way, either in the closed circuitry of will or in vacuity of the mind, but always propped, always with a vehicle, be it an envied pencil case, a display of knowledge of the history of the holiday, or a bolt of yellow silk outside the cash-and-carry in the town, a reminder of sensuous life back in the real world.

Even so, there comes a time where each one, from within the unpruned coppice of his wounded loves, will hear his fetish-queen call out his name and take a stroll with her along meandering paths to view the dusty mirror of the lake, and on to higher, and yet higher ground, where the wild garlic thrives in shimmering grass whose uses are limited by nothing.

poem by Annie Freud

Wednesday, 19 December 2007

The Failure of Interest In Poetry In Our Time

Poetry - a literary genre - cannot be said to fail, whether it be conservative (in places) or innovative. I have often wondered how intelligent poets, who espouse an interest in science and medicine, could understand science to pertain to the whole of the world (indeed, to all existence) with its laws, but still accept that "Poetry" could be one thing in, say, America, and another in Scotland, or India. Languages separate poems, even poets, but poetry is an indivisible and complex whole, a concept that contains many different possible options, perspectives, and approaches. Otherwise, how to explain Ashbery and Heaney - both significant figures - writing poems of very different kinds, and orders? Too often, criticism has sought to position various "poetics" or "poetries" at odds (official verse culture, say, or the avant-garde) - when a larger, and more positive, similarity accrued, across the globe, with relation to poetry. So, poetry has not failed in our time.

But there has been a massive falling off of interest in poetry, on the part of everyone - that is, the public at large, the average reader, even the intelligent, informed student, and so on. To deny this is impossible, I think, if one quickly reflects on what actual interest looks like. A "star" of film or music is followed by dozens of photographers, and is known to many, if not all; their products sell in the millions of units, enriching them in the process. Their work is widely enjoyed, discussed, owned, and reviewed.

This is not an ideal, but it is a definition of interest. I am avoiding the word "popularity" for any number of reasons - one of which is that mass interest even attaches to the despised, in some instances. What is sure is that no poet - not one - currently writing or alive - has raised that interest. Too often, schools of thought or taste are blamed for this downfall of recognition. Or even, teaching.

But no one is taught to love a screen star, or a song. Desire brings people freely to other artifacts of our world culture. It is true, marketing is cunningly employed to assist this process - but then again, books are also marketed - and the result is, storytellers, like Ken Follett or Pullman - become loved, or at least famous.

No, the fact is, poetry is no longer of any interest to most people. None.

I read somewhere that Daljit Nagra's amazing debut collection, from Faber, this year sold 35,000 copies. In poetry terms, that is impressive. In world terms, that is nothing.

There have never been such engaging, accessible poets (Billy Collins, Wendy Cope, Derek Mahon, Margaret Atwood) or such difficult ones (Prynne, Bernstein, Muldoon, Kinsella). Neither set outwits or erases the other - both work to enjoy, explore, and engage with, language - in terms of form and content. 21st century English-language poetry is as rich as at the time of Kipling, Yeats and Hardy.

So, the genre of poetry cannot have failed. It is no failure on the part of the poets, maybe not even their publishers and promoters.

So, what is the cause of the major lack of interest in poems?

I am afraid the answer is, it is our humanity that has failed. It is not the poems that have got smaller, but the audience - in more ways than one. Readers (and by extension I mean Western society) no longer seeks a quest, or a journey, that may be truly transformative, in art. The major effect of art was always transformation - metamorphosis. It might render one immortal, or blind, or wise. Today's readers seek comfort, conformity, and assurance. If they believe in God, they do not want to truly shaken to the core of their faith. If they are determined atheists, they do not want to thoroughly consider the possible riches that await a believer. Story is desired. Story, and escape.

Since the advertising-media complex sells Escape as its principle commodity, it cannot interest its readers in Poetry. Poetry intensifies within us precisely those parts of being which resist the world that can be bought and sold. Poetry reminds us of language as something other than that can be manipulated to deceive. Poetry - neither mere magic, or craft - is the art and science of language utterly speaking out all possible engagements with the world. its astounding diversity topples preconceptions, dogmas, and hierarchies. The greatest poem is always yet to be written.

Poetry, therefore, remains, to me, exactly exciting, in the deepest sense. But is an excitement predicated on a strong willingness to recognise the need for change - even radical change. Poetry may require a non-believer to love a god, or a god to love a man.

The fact that poetry does not interest most people suggests most people are no longer interesting. Their absorption in extremely violent parallel worlds, games, and so on, masks a declining ability to empathise with that was once called the human condition. I fear, quite seriously, that we are everyday rendered less human. Welcome to the inhuman condition of the new age.

Guest Review: Flood On Di Prima

Chelsey Flood reviews
Revolutionary Letters
by Diane di Prima

Diane di Prima was writing and publishing controversial work on the subject of rape and incest when it was considered indecent for a young woman to live alone. She was taking drugs and having orgies when the rest of her peers were learning shorthand and awaiting marriage proposals. It comes as no surprise then, that when she was first publishing in the 50s, her work was way ahead of its time.

A contemporary of Beat writers such as Kerouac, Ginsberg and Imanu Amari Baraka (then LeRoi Jones), di Prima’s writing covers similar ground to theirs. She is obsessed with the lies and pains of civilisation and our birth right to freedom, though much more likely to focus on the utopian, futuristic and mystical than her Beat compatriots. Her Revolutionary Letters (beginning in the 60s and progressing through to the 00s) denounce all that puts limits on this freedom: conformity, bureaucracy, decorum, and the majority of them are exciting.

Di Prima makes the revolution real for us. She talks about the importance of wearing shoes in which we can run and keeping our baths filled with water in case of government initiated emergencies. She tells us which foods to buy that will keep for longest in case of a boycott and congratulates us on not being complacent and greedy like the rest of America:

remember we are all used to eating less
than the ‘average American’ and take it easy
before we
ever notice we’re hungry the rest of the folk will be starving
used as they are to meat and fresh milk daily

She includes us in her pack of svelte, proactive revolutionaries, inspiring us with her words. The question is what to do next. And this is where di Prima falls down, even more so because we are reading her work with the benefit of hindsight. It is all too clear that her revolution doesn’t lead anywhere. And as the Revolutionary Letters progress she seems to move further and further away from what is possible, looking towards an entirely fictional world post-revolution.

This later vision of post revolutionary life is merely a utopia: a beautiful impossibility where women and men make love under trees abundant with fruit and children roam the land unthreatened. As the chance of real revolution diminishes, Di Prima’s poetry finds solace in the unreal.

Di Prima hasn’t lost her edge, but the rest of the world has caught up with her ideas, and there’s still no sign of revolution. Despite this, Revolutionary Letters contains strokes of genius. Di Prima’s stark free verse cuts into you frequently, stopping you and demanding to be read again. Her poetry stays in your head for days.

But it is often the least politically charged writing that is most impressive. In "April Fool Birthday Poem for Grandpa" di Prima remembers her grandfather, the activist who inspired her to devote her life to invoking change. It is the simple gentleness here – so rare in her poetry ­– that makes it stand out.

The idealist radicalism that di Prima is famed for rings out throughout the book, but forty years later, it has lost much of its power. The issues she covers remain as relevant as ever, but her approach to them is no longer avant-garde. Her ideas have been overworked and underproductive, her main themes no longer sound revolutionary but jaded, obvious, elementary. She hones in on capitalist discontentment perfectly, but she is one of many. The only thing that makes her stand out is the fact that she once believed revolution was possible. For that alone, then, this collection may be a testament worth owning.

Chelsey Flood has had short fiction published in various literary journals and magazines including Riptide and White Chimney Magazine. She also writes theatre and book reviews for Stranger Magazine and The Small Press Review.

Tuesday, 18 December 2007

In Praise of Oscar Williams

Readers of the Dylan Thomas letters will know that no one did more for the heavy-drinking, over-spending poet, in North America, than Oscar Williams, yet sadly, in letters to friends back home, Thomas mocked his supporter, calling him things like "old Captain Oscar Cohen" - a borderline antisemitic jibe (Williams was, in fact, Oscar Kaplan). Thomas, who I think was a great poet and a shit as a human being, probably, wrote things to Oscar like "Little dear Honourable Treasurer of mine, how are you?" - and would then ask for money. Thomas kept Williams hooked with promises of featuring his work on the BBC radio, which I believe never materialised (and not just because of the death in New York). The Thomas-Williams affair exposes a constant of the poetry world - certain successful poets often misuse their closest allies to get ahead, flattering them mercilessly. Thomas wrote (perhaps his last printed words) the following cable, on October 25th, 1953:


But there is more to the Oscar Williams story. The entire Anglo-American poetry world has been unkind to Oscar, the old Captain. No man or woman, in the 40s, 50s, or 60s, did more to popularise modern English-language poetry, than Williams. His anthologies sold in the millions, and were early instruments of celebration of complex, difficult, intelligent, and beautiful, work. His selections were often imaginative, and judicious. He is one of the 20th century heroes of poetry activism, one of the greatest advocates for modern poetry ever. And yet, his own poetry has been unduly neglected, as if the price of his enthusiasm, interest, and commitment - let alone generosity - to countless struggling poets - was to be attacked, or worse, ignored. I suspect there is a complex psychological reason for this - for it often seems that the very people who do the most for poets are those most attacked by poets, too.

Perhaps poets despise those who help them to get to their lofty reputations, because so often, those on the way up know (to mix a metaphor) how many eggs were broken to make the reputation souffle, and how many eggshells licked. I don't think Williams is a major poet, deserving of canonical status. But his name is somehow synonymous with the second-rate, and the hapless, in a way that is entirely out of proportion to his dedicated, professional, real historical role. It isn't just Dylan Thomas that owes him. We all do.

Ning, Nang, Nong?: article by Helên Thomas

A recent Ofsted report, Poetry In Schools, stated that schools rely too heavily on a limited number of poems as resources for teaching poetry. A survey of schools revealed a top ten of poems which included "The Highwayman" by Alfred Noyes; "On the Ning, Nang, Nong" by Spike Milligan and "Jabberwocky" by Lewis Carroll. Interestingly, all of the poems in the top ten were written by men, most of whom are dead.

Ofsted was especially critical of primary school teachers whose lack of subject knowledge leads to an over-reliance on lightweight poems with little attention being given to classic and multi-cultural poetry. The report concluded that teachers are playing safe by using the same poems again and again while steering clear of anything challenging.

I have a vested interest here. Along with primary school teacher and literacy specialist, Kate McGann, I provide poetry performances and workshops for primary schools. In our performance piece: We Are Poets! we adopt the roles of posh poet Penelope Page and grubby, street poet Gabby Mouth. Throughout the show, Gabby and Penny bicker about what is and isn’t poetry while taking turns performing their poems. Penelope’s poems are fantastical flights of fancy whereas Gabby’s autobiographical verses are full of childhood grot, grime and scabby knees! Kate describes it as pantomime meets poetry; I call it the performance versus page poetry debate for the under 12s.

All of the poetry in the show was written [by me] with the literacy strategy in mind. That said, I didn’t allow the strategy to stifle my creativity, and sought feedback from teachers and children along the way. Children’s laureate, Michael Rosen, has been quoted as saying: “The literacy strategy has been disastrous for poetry. Children spend their time counting metaphors and proving what makes a poem effective.” He has a point, but it doesn’t have to be that way. The strategy is open to interpretation; with a bit of imagination, it is possible to teach children about the nuts and bolts of writing while illustrating that poetry can be lively, evocative and thought provoking.

Despite the arid nature of the literacy strategy, I think I have managed to use it to produce a variety of poems that are relevant, inspiring, accessible and at times challenging. I say this because these are all words that have been used by teachers when feeding back. Many teachers seem to fear poetry; according to Ofsted, “poetry becomes a chore rather than a pleasure”. This resistance to poetry is illustrated by a quote from a KS2 teacher referring to one of our workshops: "I was dreading the poetry, but that was excellent!"

I believe that the We Are Poets! package of performances and workshops takes the pain out of teaching poetry. We demonstrate that anyone can write poetry about anything they choose whether that be the stuff of daydreams or grim reality; that poems can be long, short, complex or simplistic; that poems can tell stories; that poems can be accompanied by music, actions or a simple drum beat; that poetry can be loud and energetic or quietly contemplative.

It’s fair to say that we don’t qualify as multi-cultural and none of my poems are classics (yet). However, unlike most of the poets in the top ten, we’re not men and we’re certainly not dead! We’ve encountered lots of interested, dedicated teachers who make the most of our visits using them as a starting point for future work. When we leave a school, the children are fired up and can’t wait to read and write more poetry; some of the children even go home and write their own poems, quite independently, just for the fun of it. Imagine that! We’re doing our bit to keep poetry alive in schools. I think we’re doing a good job.

by Helên Thomas

Faggots Of The World Ignite!

Yuletide faggots set the Christmas mood, as do songs on the radio. A shame then, that one of the greatest popular music songs of the last century, The Pogues single, "Fairytale of New York", has suddenly, and ludicrously, been bowdlerized by the Beeb. Situation normal all fugged up.

Thursday, 13 December 2007

Except for Canadians

I thought this recent Guardian article on Facebook funny - especially the awkward phrase: "And Britons do it online more than anyone else in the world, except for Canadians." Actually, no - that should read: "Canadians do it more than anyone else in the world, followed by the British."

Wednesday, 12 December 2007

Cheerleaders of the world, unite!

Eyewear found Heroes (Season 1 has just ended on terrestrial BBC2, Season 2 airs in 2008, and is delayed post-episode 11 due to the ongoing writer's strike Stateside) eye-catching entertainment. However, its hybrid, multicultural plotlines, more than homage to great 60s TV series like Mission: Impossible and Star Trek, and comic books like the X-Men, and Star Wars, was often as not more a quasi-rip-off of ideas from, say, The Incredibles (where another evil-minded maniac kills superheroes to pilfer their powers). However, originality need not be the benchmark for great TV entertainment, and, starting with the straight man Mr. Bennet (and his mutilated-yet-recoverable post-Lolita daughter, Claire, pictured), on to the semi-dumb yet lovable cop who can read minds, it won hearts. Sylar and his murderous moving finger cemented the show's greatness - or maybe the dumpy Japanese bespectacled guy, Hiro, hopping about time, did it. It was also fun to see the cameos from pseudo-has-beens, including Mr. Takei, of Star Trek.

Something still grates, though. Perhaps it was the series slogan: "Save the cheerleader, save the world" - a mantra that became tedious. My main concern was that the "world" was never even in peril - just several million people in NYC. Once again, a very American-centric view of the world prevailed, as in other superhero films (admittedly usually American in origin) where, aside from a few shots of Wonders of the World being toppled by meteorites or giant waves, most of the rest of humanity barely exists. Worse, still, is the absence of any sense of two major factors in human experience.

The first is culture (other than rather 19th century figurative painting), which seems entirely absent from the worldview of any of the characters, all isolated, in pure postmodern post-industrial American fashion, and individual, uniquely alone and mostly frustrated in their dreams of fulfillment - fulfillment which, it should be added, has nothing to do with an interior journey that might involve education, enlightenment, let alone literacy. It is often the unspoken blindspot of TV product that it seeks to render invisible the letter, literacy, and text itself - books, reading, writing - and the heroic journey that sort of quest involves, is annihilated. In Heroes, the world of the mind, rather than being saved, is already mostly lost - Mohinder, the Indian genetic scientist, represents Reason, but hardly Art.

The second absent factor is Economics - or rather, a historical, or Marxist, reading of America. In Heroes, you would hardly suspect that worse things threaten mankind than several insane people capable of going nuclear (a very Bush-style paranoia) - for instance, global climate change, or the AIDS pandemic, actually represent catastrophic human suffering - yet our Heroes instead scramble to merely confront a local, pathological watchmaker. In creator Kring's defence, this is only the first season, and the series arc may confront wider international issues. However, the major weakness at the core of most American filmed product (There Will Be Blood may be different) is that it cannot deeply question the "American way of life" and posit an alternative system of distribution, or social co-operation.

Bereft of the idea of true solidarity, or community, the ruggedly individual quests of the main characters combine only at key crisis moments, presenting a "family values" idea of brotherhood (like The Waltons did) without offering a sustained critique of the rot beneath. Therefore, the shallow, surface plot elements that seem subversive (a corrupt presidential candidacy predicated on mass murder) merely reinstate a feeling that, ultimately, as one young character says, when told the world needed to be cured: "I didn't even know it was sick". Indeed. While America continues to think all is well with capitalism, nothing will be done to stop capitalism's destruction of the planet.

Heroic? Not very.

Tuesday, 11 December 2007

Review: The Golden Compass

I saw The Golden Compass twice in less than 24 hours (the first viewing was on Friday, at the little cinema on Baker Street, truly a terrible place, where seats collapse, screens are tiny, and, in this instance, a badly-marked and inaudible print was run), and the second time, the sound was as it should have been.

I read the novel on which the film was based about nine years ago, in Budapest, and enjoyed it immensely. The introduction of a talking polar bear, and a cowboy balloonist, among other elements, was as quirky as the anti-theology was thoughtful, and the plot was gripping. Lyra seemed a classic character. I didn't expect the film to be this good, simply because I feared the rather English essence of it (based on Exeter College, Oxford, and other very British traditions, like stiff-upper-lip explorers) would be drained away (as was done with The Dark Is Rising film, ruining it).

Instead, the movie is a treat to watch. It is very retro in feel, and texture - a bizarre cross of Oliver Twist, Pippi Longstockings, and 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea. To that should be added the other obvious, if startling, filmic inspiration, Dune (a film that one day will be seen as brilliant). The movie is, as Peter Bradshaw has noted, far stranger than anyone could have hoped it might be. The shadowy close-ups of aging British movie icons, the art deco zeppelins, the old-fashioned, thrillingly strident music, and the unusually slinky Mrs. Coulter (Kidman) make the film run like a very classic show from the start.

That being said, the movie is so good, it reveals the weakness of the novel it is based upon. Most everyone says Pullman is a master-storyteller, but that is not true - more interestingly, he becomes a better writer as his trilogy progresses, and in this first novel, Northern Lights, what were clever were the elements (the souls outside the body, the off-kilter anachronisms) - not the overall storyline. In short, the film exposes the lack of any central dramatic journey in the work - yes, there is a race to rescue children, but the battle for their lives is won easily, and no powerful resistance is made - and so the film ends with a great sighing anti-climax. Meanwhile, the theology and anti-God stuff putters along, a little winded and alone, by the side of the main plot, basically bewildering and unfun. The Magisterium (aka The Church) seems as threatening as a museum - simply a big dull place to wander in, and its members are either sexy women, or weak-looking men. Their one weapon is an automated fly that is quickly cupped in a normal glass. Okay, they also have an ineffectual recourse to poison Tokai. The cutting machine is dispensed with so simply, it comes across as a gizmo, not the ontological-killer it is.

The movie works as a great children's yarn, full of wonder, innocence, and spectacle. The sequels, if there are sequels, should up the darkness and danger factors, considerably. And also include a genuinely engaging dramatic issue to be resolved.

Still, well worth seeing. Twice.

Monday, 10 December 2007


This no country for old men. If rock music is demonic - in the best, Bloomian sense - and it seems it is at least Dionysian - then hard rock is more so; and the true fathers of heavy metal are Led Zeppelin, satyrs of swing, starting in '69. It is hard to think of a string of albums (I-IV) that are more intensely thrilling, varied, and yet of a piece - the core quality of these albums is a darker sublime: bluntly, music that mirrors youth's reckless exploration of sexuality, excess, and realms of the spirit angels sometimes fear to tread in. "The Battle of Evermore" still sends shivers down my spine (I first heard it in Berlin). They're a great band - easily better than The Stones or The Doors, The Who or you name it. Put on a Led Zeppelin album, and you are in a sensuous hell of your own making, one that tempts you with the idea that's the best place to be. This power, and this skill, in terms of vocal and performative ability - a striking, unsurpassed pop culture charisma - is nearly uncanny at moments. It led to bad - or at least debauched - things happening. It made people money. It somehow became a subject of humor (Spinal Tap is what happens next). Now they are playing, even as I write, in London. Roll over Bo Didley, and tell Crowley the news.

Sunday, 9 December 2007

A Good Book To Buy For The Holidays

Eyewear recommends Lifemarks: Poetry about the Big Events of Life. In this new collection, some of Britain's finest poets write about the great events of our lives. Poems by Ian Duhig, Julia Copus, Paul Farley and others mark these moments in a remarkable and life-affirming anthology. All poems have been freely donated and the proceeds go entirely to the Motor Neurone Disease Association.

All orders received by 21st December should have their book for Christmas.

Copies of Lifemarks @ £6.99 each. Add p&p @ £2 for first book, £1 for additional books.

Send your name and address with a cheque payable to the Motor Neurone Disease Association to: Bell Jar, Unit 4.3, Banks' Mill Studios, 71 Bridge Street, Derby DE1 3LB

Hey Kids, Look, More Poetry!

The Internet, far from being "inane", is allowing younger, emerging poets to reach an audience, and generate a community of readers. In short, the web is allowing poetry to pass on to the next generations, with verve. Check out this new project, Pomegranate, for example.

Saturday, 8 December 2007

Stockhausen Is Dead

Sad news. K-H Stockhausen is dead.

Hard Lessing

It is one of the paradoxes of our age that, even as the Internet - comparable in scope and range to aviation or the phone, perhaps combined - alters our imaginative landscape, and permits extraordinary freedom of expression and transmission of information - certain vested interests, and older literary figures seek to cancel out its achievements. Latest to protest too much is Nobel laureate Doris Lessing. Her new anti-net diatribe is not new, but stale invective. It is a retread of that old canard that books will be killed off by digital enjoyments. Blogging is singled out for its addictive, time-wasting effects, a new opium. Sadly, Lessing ignores the fact that blogging encourages writing, and reading - and is a new genre of creative writing. Just as comics were once seen as the ultimate foe of literacy, and are now revered as a new kind of classic, so too may be certain works of the Internet-era, in future. At the very least, the enemy of great writing is not the web. It may, instead, be the mind-dulling latter stages of capitalism, which increasingly bamboozles us all. The Internet can oppose, as much as support, this ad-copy-world. Lessing, so good at some things, has thrown the baby out with the bathwater.

Friday, 7 December 2007

Poem By Sarah Lang

Eyewear is very pleased to welcome the Canadian poet Sarah Lang (pictured) to its pages this Friday. Lang (one wants to say "out on parole"), according to Wikipedia, shares her name with "a game show winner" and was born in 1980. In the spring of 2004, she completed her MFA at Brown University. She began work on her PhD in Chicago in the fall of 2005.

Her work, which includes poetry, prose, personal, critical and medical esssays, has been published in Canada, Great Britian, and the United States. She has translated work from Latin, Ancient Greek, French, Ukrainian, Japanese, and Mandarin. Her first poetry collection (recently out), from which the text below is an excerpt, is The Work Of Days, from Coach House Books. She's one of the future directions of contemporary Canadian poetry.

from Videos in Montreal

Admittedly, there are ends. I no longer wanted. There are ways
to sign season, home; a body is not tender. I knew change; no,

things grow where they will. To what use? You mimed
movement with the skill of one who has moved. A snail

without shell bruises and bruises easily. Our house is thin,
flat flesh. I never could have swallowed all expectations,

or yours. You were the first instance. Where fall
flames, that is flowers, your bones like the trees

are a new season. A chest blooms with demands.
A body is erstwhile in its delicate, radiant finery.


The city has drawn a blank. How big
you are; a tarmac in the cool summer.

You pretend to love them all. Let
is a word like a creek in spring.

We are strangers; there are ways
to lie. There are trees, there are

trees, there are trees. The wind
does many things. A Hungarian sign

is not unlike your mouth. I never claimed
gravity, strength. From the left, a cot

has great significance. Like the city
we squeeze in tight for a photograph.

poem by Sarah Lang

Thursday, 6 December 2007

12 Poets for December Now Online At Nthposition

The Last One

The Oxfam Poetry Series, hosted by the Oxfam Books & Music Shop in Marylebone, is in its fourth and final year. Since it began, it has helped to raise over £30,000 for the charity, as well as spearheaded the Life Lines poetry CDs series, which has raised an additional £50,000 so far. Many of the leading British poets have read for the series, or for the CDs.

Come celebrate with me, and our last group of guest poets, as this extraordinary reading series comes to an end, with one of its most exciting and surprising line-ups yet, including guest readers from afar. The American film and TV director, and poet, Stephen Gyllenhaal, is in from Los Angeles, especially for the night, and Alistair Noon is in from Berlin.

Oxfam Poetry series
Winter Poetry Reading - The Last One
Thursday, 6 December, 2007, 7 pm
Hosted by Todd Swift> featuring poets:

Alan Buckley
Claire Crowther
Anne-Marie Fyfe
Susan Grindley
Stephen Gyllenhaal
Luke Kennard
Tim Liardet
Barbara Marsh
David Morley
Alistair Noon

Oxfam Books & Music Shop
91 Marylebone High Street, W1
near Baker Street tube station.

Admission is free - donation of £8 appreciated.
All proceeds will go to Oxfam.

Tuesday, 4 December 2007

Ash of Himself?

It is always fun when The Economist reviews poetry. Who is their anonymous reviewer, I wonder? Someone rather dry, serious, even-handed, and a little conservative, perhaps. They were recently a little baffled by Muldoon. Now they seem slightly puzzled by Ashbery. The good thing is, their review of 384-page Notes From The Air: Selected Later Poems (Ecco, or in the UK, Carcanet) actually engages with the poet's language, rather than entirely recoiling from it, as some British critics do. Here are some of the things they say: "beguilingly casual"; "delicately playful"; "perpetual shifting of tones"; his tone can be "alarmingly inconsequential"; "endlessly digressive". His manner is "free-flowing, conversational" - lines often "untrammeled by any concern about whether or not they scan". And, finally, "Mr. Ashbery likes using similes in his poetry" - that last not so surprising, as most poets do. Reading this, one might almost think that Mr. Ashbery was the direct heir of Mr. Eliot, the Mr. Eliot of "Prufrock", not "Four Quartets" - almost all the critical comments could refer to his early ironic, conversational style. Or rather, one might think him a direct descendant of Laforgue and Corbiere - and Mallarme. One might also think The Economist, so calm on money matters, might be less alarmed about the seeming inconsequence, and "Dada-like" elements, of the poetry. More to the point, they might worry less about lines "scanning" - free verse dispensed with that concern 90 and more years ago. Eyewear looks forward to reading the collection, thought it knows some of the poems already.

One In Ten

I recently made a list, for fun, of the most popular 20th century (deceased) British poets. These had to be ones whose work had truly entered the public imagination, and language, and were almost universally famous. The list was Kipling, Owen, Eliot, Auden, Dylan Thomas, Larkin, and Hughes. I then noticed that they corresponded more or less directly with decades (that is 00-10, 10s, 20s, 30s, 40s, 50s and 60s). I suppose Hardy, Brooke and Betjeman might wreck this, but who else? I don't think this list represents the most innovative, or even enjoyable, poets - but it did suggest to me what I had long suspected - the public cannot endure too much poetry. For them, one (or so) poet every decade is just about right. The Americans tend to get two in each decade...

Far Flung

In The Player, one of the great Hollywood films about itself, a suit trying to imagine a writerless future for their studio picks up the paper, and pitches movies from the headlines. British film could get like that, and do no harm - too many of its films are set in a tough-guy world of the banal. Consider this just in. Who knew that the most remote island community in the whole world was British, and lived on a volcano? Not Eyewear. In the meantime, this is also reality, and let us hope the disease is cured soon, and medical supplies reach sooner.


The word of the day is: Christianophobia. A British MP has called for a debate on the decline of Christianity in the UK. He has a point: most schools aren't having Nativity plays this Yuletide season, to avoid stepping on the toes of those of little, no, or other, faith(s). More pressingly, a very aggressive, cynical form of Dogmatic Atheism has become the default mechanism for many average Brits. It's cool to kick Christ, especially when he's down. Leaving aside the dangers of fanaticism (which are legion), religious faith can be a great balm and boon to society. It leavens culture, charity, and community. It is also, historically, a key element in the story of Britain.

Saturday, 1 December 2007

Evel Crosses Over

Like Stretch Armstrong, or G.I. Joe, but for real, Evel Knievel became an action figure that no boy or girl in North America, and beyond, could ignore - he was the daredevil of our time, and his monicker itself is worthy of acclaim, requiring a P.T. Barnumesque genius for public appeal to conjure up. Snake River Canyon is not the greatest leap into the unknown - death is - and we all make that jump, some not wearing such entertaining armour. Somehow, in his own showbiz, corny way, he made such stoic confrontations with death (he was, after all, the living embodiment of "death defying") more than a stunt - almost a credo.


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...