Thursday, 31 July 2008

Poetry Focus: Bernard Spencer

Peter Robinson on Bernard Spencer

Bernard Spencer (pictured above with an unknown singer), born a hundred years ago next November, is still read and admired.

Talking recently to the poet John Welch about him, I was pleased to hear that he had recited Spencer’s "On the Road" at a daughter’s wedding. Since Spencer, a British Council lecturer for much of his life, had died in Vienna, his body discovered by suburban train tracks in September 1963, I included his "Night-Time: Starting to Write" in a reading at the festival there to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the Council office’s founding in 1946.

Jo Shapcott, who performed with me, mentioned that she and Matthew Sweeney had chosen his "Boat Poem" for their Emergency Kit anthology, published in the same year. His poem "A Thousand Killed" is discussed by Christopher Hitchins in a 2004 article in Slate. From a collateral line of the Spencer-Churchill family, he can also be found on the peerage website.

During his lifetime, Spencer published just three books of verse, Aegean Islands and Other Poems (Editions Poetry London, 1946), The Twist in the Plotting (University of Reading, 1960), With Luck Lasting (Hodder and Stoughton, 1963), and the first collection of George Seferis in English, The King of Asine and Other Poems, co-translated with Lawrence Durrell and Nanos Valoritis (John Lehmann, 1948).

Alan Ross published a Collected Poems in 1965, and Roger Bowen edited an enlarged edition for Oxford University Press (1981). Now out of print, some of these books can be found second-hand online.

Here is an uncollected translation from the Spencer archive at the University of Reading, reproduced with permission of the poet’s estate. It is taken from the script for "Poems by Seferis", selected by Ian Scott-Kilvert, producer D.S. Carne-Ross, broadcast on The BBC Third Programme, Sunday 8th December 1957, 9.55-10.15 p.m.

The Mourning Girl

You sat on the rock waiting
as the night came on
and the pupil of your eye showed
how much you suffered.

And your lips were drawn in a way
exposed and trembling
as if your soul were whirled like a spinning-wheel
and your tears were pleading.

And you had in your mind the thought
of yielding to tears
you were a body falling from its bloom
back to its seed.

But there was no cry from your heart’s breaking:
that breaking became
the meaning, scattered upon the world
by the sky, all stars.

Peter Robinson is Professor of English and American Literature at the University of Reading. His most recent book of poems is The Look of Goodbye (Shearsman, 2008), reviewed on Eyewear in April, and currently one of the recommended books at the blog.

Wednesday, 30 July 2008

White Keys For Bond

The James Bond theme songs have always been hit or miss. Often avoiding super stars or iconic singers for mediocrities, and expressing left-field production choices more enigmatic than M, they have nonetheless managed to feature, among others (and famously) songs by Shirley Bassey, Tom Jones, Nancy Sinatra, Paul McCartney, Madonna, Duran Duran, Tina Turner, Gladys Knight, and even Louis Armstrong. Songs by Garbage and A-ha were perhaps missed opportunities to have selected more interesting indie or alternative bands (U2? Depeche Mode? REM?). Why never Oasis, or, for that matter, Sting? Perhaps the saddest news is that Amy Winehouse and Mark Ronson, reported to be doing the song for 22, have been replaced, seemingly last-minute, by arguably the oddest couple ever assembled. Alicia Keys and Jack White (he penned the tune) are hardly in the same musical room, but are undeniably major contemporary American figures. What they come up with will no doubt be some, if not much solace.

Tuesday, 29 July 2008

Review: Fleet Foxes

Many critics have been suggesting that the eponymous album from Fleet Foxes is the best of the year (from an American group). It is surely one of the oddest. Eschewing a booklet with lyrics or photos, one is instead presented with a flimsy inner flyer, which is mainly a rambling diatribe against holiday snaps, and an argument for the "power that music has, its transportive ability" - as opposed to photographs, which ruin the imagination.

Well, it is hardly transgressive or even novel to argue that music is persuasive - music has charms, as we all know. However, striking out against images is less bland - though vaguely fundamentalist (one thinks of the breaking of stained glass windows, or the blowing up of statues) - and, as well as being politically dodgy, is not well-founded. Many mystics, and others, have testified to the power of a vision, sometimes based on an image, or fetish object, to assist in the concentration on higher truths. Yeats used, for example, a Japanese sword. Photos may sometimes rob us of purer memories, but also, of course, provide memories where none were before. Films are an example of the sublime powers (transportive) of images.

Anyway, the Fleet Foxes album is lovely, and nostalgic. It's very well-textured, and moody - as its editorial note would imply - and has a "haunting" element that comes from the seasonal and elegiac themes - and use of echo chamber, folk instrumentation (especially tom-toms and chimes), and rather old-fashioned production sounds. It feels like a long-lost classic from the late 60s or 70s, maybe via Cat Stevens' "Morning Has Broken" - or some Walker Bros. work - but sadder than that. It really is beautiful songwriting. "Tiger Mountain Peasant Song" is particularly moving, as is, indeed, "White Winter Hymnal" (which owes much to Arcade Fire, in theme and tone - surely the subject of winter and childhood treated in such a fashion comes from that Montreal band). "He Doesn't Know Why" and "Your Protector" are the other standout tracks.

This sort of album was more common forty years ago, when quality in songcraft was more prevalent - and when soaring, heartfelt songs needn't be tediously anthemic, but could be offered in a more nuanced fashion. Highly recommended. And yes, listening to this I feel ten again, when I first really began checking out my parents' record collection, and falling in love with old records. I recall my first hearing my mother's 45 of "(Ghost) Riders in the Sky: A Cowboy Legend". I think it was the Vaughn Monroe version. Fleet Foxes has trace elements of that potency, that stirring grandiosity, especially in "Your Protector".

Monday, 28 July 2008

Bad Brideshead, or, Arcadia Fire

Hollywood is so often blamed for ruining the great cultural objects, that it is worth noting that a mainly British team have managed to lay waste to the latest screen adaptation of classic 1940s novel Brideshead Revisited - or so the commentators have been lining up to claim (Eyewear will see the film in the fullness of time).

The irony is that Americans and Canadians (critics and audiences alike) grew up in love with the Granada TV series, which was aired on PBS. The fact that a vast audience in North America was primed and ready for a cinema version seems to have been overlooked by the cynical fire-sale crew who remade it ("everything must go") - who chucked out, apparently, the Teddy Bear, most of the Oxford stuff, and, of course, the religious subtext about grace, and Catholicism. This is like The Jewel In The Crown being remade, without "India".

It hardly makes sense for the current director (even if he is an atheist) of this lamed new version to claim to be "anti-Catholic" - and for most of those involved to have intentionally avoided the original TV version, or, indeed, the novel itself, which is famously about opulence versus austerity. This seems like a self-inflicted wound - but not, at any rate, stigmata.

One of the current tragedies in the cultural life of Britain is that, while in America, where 90% of people believe in God, cultural works can be made, open to the possibility of a divine presence, here, in the UK, far too many in the media and culture industries are militantly anti-religious - neutering their ability to sensitively and robustly engage with most of human history, and culture. Since film is also about good box office, it seems the producers bungled, in turning over such a potentially erotic-if-religiose (and hence, popular) product to a being of less than exquisite imagination.

Michael Bullock Has Died

Sad news. Michael Bullock, the British-Canadian poet, translator, and artist, has died. I am proud to own his original copy of his translation of the Siegfried Lenz literary thriller, The Lightship, made into a kitsch film in the 80s. It's one of my favourite novellas. Bullock warrants a Wikipedia entry - hopefully someone will set one up for him.

Beach and Crane

I've been reading, lately, The Cambridge Introduction to Twentieth-Century American Poetry, by Christopher Beach, who knows a thing or two about contemporary (and avant-garde) poetry and poetics. I'd recommend this book to anyone who wants to know more about the current state-of-the-art thinking on American poetry. Still, there's a strange moment in it, in the invaluable Chapter 3, "Lyric Modernism: Wallace Stevens and Hart Crane".

Beach, who should (and does, I think) know better, rather oddly parrots Yvor Winters, and his outlandish (if fascinatingly maverick) poetics, when discussing Hart Crane's The Bridge. Beach is excellent on Crane's excessive, exuberant rhetorical style (of great interest to my own poetry), but writes "if The Bridge is to be judged primarily as a modern epic celebrating the mythic and historical sweep of America .... then it must be considered a failure." This ain't necessarily so.

Only really by evaluating The Bridge within New Critical, or modernist, terms, especially Winters' curious version of such (Winters was, of course, opposed to much modernist critical thought) can a critic easily call The Bridge a failure. In fact, I am not sure what it would even mean, for a poem to "fail" - a poem is not a Boeing 747 (or real metal structure like a bridge) able to weaken under stress and strain; poems do not corrode. Crane's poem is deliriously, deliciously flawed, perhaps - but yields too many verbal pleasures to be anything less than a wonder, and, I'd argue, a success, as a poem.

Beach may be right in assigning failure to the grandiose final intended version, that Crane never completed, or achieved - his ideal poem in the mind - but criticism can hardly use neo-Platonic ideals to beat poets up with. I wonder at why Beach chose to take this line regarding Crane's masterwork. He acknowledges it has "brilliant lyric sections" but ends up as merely "a qualified success". Who is fit to qualify Crane? Beach's own interest in indeterminacy and post-modern poetics might have allowed him to read Crane against the grain - as the experimental scout for strange linguistically excessive poetry - not within narrow critical demands for order or unity of design.

Viva NASA!

Eyewear wishes NASA a very happy 50th birthday today, tomorrow (its precise anniversary), and in the future. The space agency has, famously, put men on the moon, and used a Canada arm to good effect. Hopefully, it will redouble its efforts, in years to come, to get men and women onto Mars. Terraforming the Red Planet needs to be one of the later 21st century's goals. Meanwhile, the unmanned probes go on, allowing us to extend, literally, human knowledge. While I have never been an Asimov-addict, or a slide-rule afficionado, I do believe that hard science, heavy lifting, and all systems go can inspire. Houston has sometimes been the Cape of Good Hope. Talk about retro: Obama as Kennedy, NASA back in the news (in a good way). Is it time to release the clones of Elvis from captivity?

Sunday, 27 July 2008

Knol How

The rise of knol is upon us. It will be interesting, and informative, to read how poets, and particularly, poets with both a sense of history, and poetics, make use of this communications tool to display knowledge of the poetic field - and its various, and competing, trajectories. Orwell would no doubt have mused on the power this will permit, or provide - for good, or mischief - for a little knol is a dangerous thing.

Poetry Focus: Jack Gilbert

Jack Gilbert by Don McGrath

A Slate magazine review of Jack Gilbert’s Refusing Heaven (2005), his fourth volume in a 50-year career, bore the title Rescuing the Poet Jack Gilbert from Oblivion. In 1962, Gilbert’s first volume, Views of Jeopardy, obtained the Yales Series of Younger Poets award and was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize. Gilbert was roundly fĂȘted and even given photo spreads in Vogue and Glamour. But after attaining literary celebrity, Gilbert turned his back on it the following year, when he moved to Europe to live a hand-to-mouth existence. This was the first stage of a long self-imposed isolation from the United States in Italy, Greece, Denmark, Japan and England.

Gilbert began his poetic life in the company of the Beats but felt their casual and often boisterious style at odds with his own ascetic impulses. He felt a need for solitude and the pared down, hard-won style he developed within it became, at times, a source of anxiety over his American reception. In Views of Jeopardy we read:

What if Orpheus,
confident in the hard-
found mastery,
should go down into Hell?
Out of the clean light down?
and then, surrounded
by the closing beasts
and readying his lyre
should notice, suddenly,
they had no ears.

Gilbert’s solitude was not absolute: he was married twice, first to the poet Linda Gregg and then to the sculptor Michiko Nogami. Nogami, who died of cancer at age 36, spurred him to write some of his best poems. Some feminists have taken issue with Gilbert, claiming that he idealizes woman as vessels of mystery, but Meghan O’Rourke, author of the Slate review, tells us that Gilbert was aware of this danger. He wrote :

It got me thinking of the failed denomination
I was part of: that old false dream of women.
I believed it was a triumph to have access to their mystery…………
I had crazy ideas of what it was.

Gilbert’s two other books are Monolithos and The Great Fires : Poems, 1982-1992.

Don McGrath is a Canadian poet.

A Lot Can Happen...

... in a week. Eyewear goes off to walk in Exmoor National Park, and low and behold, the silly summer season turns baldly interesting: Brown down, Obama OTT in Berlin as JM glumly trudges around Berlinsvilles "back home", and, of course, the deranged war criminal masquerading as a hippie. Not to mention "Batman" getting arrested in a posh hotel for having a "disagreement" over money with his Mum. What a week. Meanwhile, let me say this about that, as Nixon used to: England's coombes and seacoasts are as beautiful as any anywhere else - and, when the sun's out, you don't need to fly off to that elsewhere, either. Exmoor Cream Teas are to be enjoyed, but, in moderation. Oh, by the way, Eyewear is thinking of supporting Scottish Independence. Scotland would be one of the great nations, culturally, politically, and even in terms of natural resources, on its own, unmoored from the English-Welsh ball and chain. Then, if Quebec separated too, they could form a new "auld" alliance, a sort of Franco-Scots pact.

Sunday, 20 July 2008

Canadian Invasion?

Anglo-Quebecer Leonard Cohen is (finally? again?) taking Britain by storm. Britain, about to become Austerity Britain Mark II, is falling under the spell of Montreal's most beloved son. His recent concerts have been applauded by no less than the beleagured Chancellor, Alistair Darling; the UK economy may be at its worst off since World War Two. Meanwhile: Germaine Greer recently claimed Bob Dylan isn't a very good writer, at all. And, famous formalist British poet Wendy Cope has been asked to write poetry for the anniversary of the BBC. One of her poems is, to say the least, dismissive of Dylan Thomas. Trouble in the towers of song?

British Invasion?

Perhaps there's a reason Eyewear is no longer based in Quebec. Former Beatle and cultural legend, Paul McCartney, has discovered the province's dark side. Offering to celebrate the 400th anniversary of Quebec, the musical genius has discovered a strident xenophobia among the stranger, and louder, separatist quarters: there's been a zealous reaction, demanding the "British" pop star not perform his show, lest he remind the francophone community of the terrible wounds of being conquered (on The Plains of Abraham) centuries ago. Be Montcalm. Music is meant to soothe savages.

Kay Ryan Is The New Laureate

Eyewear is just a little surprised to learn that the new American poet laureate (a one-year term) is the comparitively little-known Kay Ryan. Inspiringly, perhaps, Ryan has risen to prominence only quite recently (her first book was self-published). Looking forward to reading her New and Selected when it's out. Congratulations are in order.

Friday, 18 July 2008

Poem by Steve McOrmond

Steve McOrmond’s poetry has appeared widely in literary journals and magazines across Canada, as well as online at Jacket (Australia) and Nthposition (UK). His work also appears in the anthology Breathing Fire 2: Canada’s New Poets (Nightwood, 2004).

His first book of poetry, Lean Days (Wolsak and Wynn, 2004) was short-listed for the Gerald Lampert Memorial Award, which recognizes the best first book of poetry published by a Canadian in the preceding year. A second (fine) poetry collection entitled Primer on the Hereafter came out in 2006.

Originally from Prince Edward Island, McOrmond (pictured here) currently lives in Toronto. Eyewear is very glad to have him here, as he is undoubtedly one of the forty or so most compelling younger poets now writing in Canada today.

(for Matthew & Charmaine Tierney)

To dwell between the snowy fastness
and the ice-locked sea, in a city of blondes.

One must have heard the existential scream,
hands over ears, the huge Os of mouth and eyes.

Know it can begin with nothing more extreme
than the flat’s creaky floors, the old radiator ticking.

A fragile ecosystem: The furless, burrowing heart
and the Allen key of the mind.

Eventually, one might acquire a taste for hardcore
pornography and cod roe paste in squeeze tubes.

Held hostage in the bank vault of winter,
the captive will identify with the captor.

However peacefully it seems to fall,
there is suppressed violence in the snow.

poem by Steve McOrmond

Friday, 11 July 2008

Poem by James Midgley

Eyewear is pleased to welcome James Midgley (pictured) this Friday. Midgley was born in Windsor in 1986 and now alternates between Henley and Norwich. A few months ago he completed his undergraduate degree at UEA, where he will be studying for an MA in creative writing next year.

His work has recently appeared in publications such as Fuselit, Magma, The Rialto, Stand and Stride, among others. He was a runner-up in the 2007 Poetry Business competition, and this year received an Eric Gregory Award. He edits the poetry journal Mimesis. He's one of the younger British poets now worth reading and watching over the next decade (at least) to see what happens.

"Something circled the house while we slept"

Something circled the house while we slept.
Here are the prints in the snow.
I don’t think we pay enough attention to silence,
the way you cradle a bauble of whisky
snug in your palm. These winter nights
I feel that glass could be my shrunken skull, and you
swirling a lantern’s afterbirth against my skin.
Something circled the house while we slept,
I know – I already said. It bears repeating,
like the habit of these ice-locked days, the bats
filling the rafters with whispers –
I am certain, though when I pull the bulb’s cord
there is only the wind making its presence felt
and the white noise of rain. Amnesia
must sound like that. We wash ourselves at dusk.
We wash ourselves in dusk. And something
circles, stops to watch its breath fan
against the pines, the village windows
summoning blanks to its retinas –
before moving on at a quicker pace,
wearing my eyes like wedding rings.

poem by James Midgley

Thursday, 10 July 2008

Is Britain Scared Of Canadian Genius?

According to this Guardian article, Britain is "scared" of the Canadian genius, Frank Gehry. Although Gehry is widely considered the most important innovative North American architect of the postmodern period, and perhaps since Frank Lloyd Wright, Gehry has never been commisioned to design a major building in the UK, even now as he nears his 9th decade. Pity - it seems a lost opportunity. Why does Britain resist some North American innovators, and not others? Crane, Stevens, Olson, Ginsberg, Cohen, O'Hara, Ashbery - all have had their admirers, in poetry, but rarely a mainstream welcome.

Review: Black Kids' New Album Partie Traumatic

It is becoming increasingly obvious that something there is that loves the 1980s - despite many naff failed attempts to bring the decade back. The zenith of the 80s is the great John Hughes filmography (Sixteen Candles, The Breakfast Club, Pretty In Pink, etc) that nailed some true colours to the mast. Songs from those movies became the New Wave American Standards (often from British bands less loved at home, like Simple Minds). Black Kids is an American New-New Wave band - they probably have another term for it (indie isn't sufficiently blunt): this music is almost homage, almost pastiche - and all Cure.

I can think of no higher praise for this fun, playful, deliriously derivative album of ten punchy songs* than to say that Partie Traumatic (due for US release July 22) is 21 years too late - and just on time. Taking as its template Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me, from 1987, and mixing it with 1982's The Youth of Today, Black Kids create a timeless upbeat pop sound, whose Robert Smith vocals evoke the swooning effervescent passions of the eternal teenager. May there be eternal recurrence for such retro-bliss.
*Some reviews have spoken of the album's literary and theological implications; although such undercurrents may reward sniffers of intertextuality, the overall message of the work is so zoomingly fun, and bubblegum-thin, any deeper religion is washed blood-clean as a lamb in Alabama.

Wednesday, 9 July 2008

July Poems Now Online At Nthposition!

Eyewear's 1,001st Post

Eyewear began a few years ago, in summer. Here it is, 2008, with heavy English rain outside, and a cup of tea (with milk and honey) inside. Reflections on a blog, One Thousand And One in? Not many. I regret, perhaps, some of the angst, some of the complaints. I am proud to have kept my friends and family, and my new haircuts, mostly out of it - this was never meant to be personal in that sense - perhaps impersonal, in the Eliotic sense. I am glad to offer space for widely known and lesser known poets, to review and share their poems.

It's often misread - as some sort of "with a hammer" riposte to entrenched British poetic positions; it's not meant to be. It is meant to get people thinking - particularly about the ethics of poetry in all its aspects, from publishing, to editing, to reviewing - even if that means being, at times, a gadfly. I'd say there is fear in a handful of poets in the UK trying to move up in the mainstream ranks, who know that there are elements within British poetry who do not permit much opposition. It's chilling. It was like this with Pound-Eliot; it was like this in the days of Alvarez (he despised it then); it's that way now, too.

So, I try and write fairly, freely, truly - and accordingly, this unsettles people, some people, in poetry. It shouldn't. Poetry's house is in disorder when speaking openly is considered unwise. The good news? There's more innovative, original, fresh, poetry being written, in Canada, or England, or Ireland (for instance) now than anytime previously. Will I keep updating this monumental waste of time, this blog? Stay tuned.

Tom Disch Has Died

A relatively unknown (though admired) American poet has died: Tom Disch. Disch appeared in the canon-forming The Best American Poetry series (five times!). I didn't know his work well. Not many did. Perhaps his divided time (he was also a SF, Horror, and Children's fiction, author) confused the reading public. Or maybe, as well all know, but try to forget, there is barely any general interest in poems, even ones as well-crafted, smart, and funny as Disch's. Why?

That question brings doctors, priests, and critics running through the fields, to answer - but no one can blame modernism, or mass culture, alone. It seems to me that poetry, however courteously it knocks on a person's door, isn't always let in. Poetry's a special guest that we want over only when we're at our best (or worst) it seems. Few readers turn to poems on a day to day basis. Few churchgoers attend mid-week.

The sadness of the neglected poet is often ignored, or mocked - but it's a true ache, and it persists. It can sometimes seem to be part of the package deal of the calling. Perhaps the semi-retiring, stoic position of the later modernists in England is the best one, to weather the storm of relative indifference. Perhaps poets should learn to not have many readers; then the few that do come, can be all the more appreciated. Hopefully, Disch will get a few more readers, now, with his many obituaries, and the blog posts. He has become a name, as the saying goes. Good luck to him, in the oblivious beyond, where posterity begins, and the writer ends.

Meanwhile, and despite what he himself wrote on the subject, poets do need more group-hugs, and fewer savage critics (no shortage of those). With only ourselves to watch over us, poets can only blame themselves when indifference, or heartless (opportunistic) opposition, takes over. A few poets see the "game" as a zero-sum one, and so try to settle scores, and knock peers down, to keep the road clear ahead for their own careering; that's sad, and short-sighted. If Eyewear has a theme, it is that the world of poetry needs to be kinder, more cooperative, and able to speak out more about those in its midst who would build their own fiefdoms, for their own (not poetry's) purposes.

Tuesday, 8 July 2008

Women Bishops

I am not sure if there is something oddly inverted about this being the 999th post, but here you go: Eyewear celebrates the decision to welcome Women Bishops into the Church of England. There was weeping (and no doubt gnashing of teeth) from some anti-women-bishop church leaders, who felt this was going too far. My own sense of this issue is rather clear: Christianity, as a faith, and a series of churches, is bound to relinquish its relevance, and its mission, if it does not soon adopt tolerance as its most central doctrine.

The religions of hellfire and damnation are retrograde, punitive, and unbelievable in this age - but a religion based on kindness, goodness, mercy, compassion, and love, is timeless, enduring, and, more than anything else, rational. No "God" of love would hate a human due to their gender, or their sexual orientation - or seek to engage any one person less fully than any other. That, at any rate, is my basic theology. It's derived from The Sermon on the Mount.

I know Christ also said he came with a sword (not a kiss) - but mostly, Jesus spent time expressing extraordinary compassion. Those who seek to keep gays and women from the inner sanctum, as it were, show little compassion, and less depth. Their house seems to have very few rooms in it, and is likely subprime.

Review: In The Valley Of Elah

The best American film of last year featured actors Tommy Lee Jones and Josh Brolin - but was not No Country For Old Men. Instead, it may well have been In The Valley Of Elah, which Eyewear only recently had the opportunity to view. Briefly, this is a supremely downbeat film, stoic, and lonely, about a father searching for a son - the son being a soldier just back from Iraq, and gone AWOL. Jones plays the spit-polish ex-army cop and Nam vet, with rigid solemnity - his duty is to country, and to his child.

Meanwhile, there is stuff about barely decipherable garbled digital footage captured by a mobile phone, lines not to be crossed, competing jurisdiction between civil and military investigators, and the right way to hang a flag, which provides the haunting, if overly simplistic, final symbolic image (for example, was Viet Nam really a more noble moment?). The women in the film are exemplary, if compromised, mothers - Susan Sarandon plays the wife whose two children are sacrificed to America's military culture - and Charlize Theron plays the tired, pale, single mother who also happens to be a local detective under constant mocking threat from her male (chauvinist) co-workers.

Canadian Paul Haggis directs, but it is Roger Deakins, famous for working with the Coen Bros., as cinematographer, that lends the film its gravitas - a steely, clinical, wintry tone, as if Edward Hopper's America had been put through the wash a few too many times, and been bled bone-dry of colour.

This is a detective story (in the classic way that Oedipus is said to be the daddy of all such mysteries), and Jones has some good lines, and observations (blue cars look green under yellow light) but what finally emerges is how brutalised men and women can become, once they are embedded in a state of war; how cruelty, and killing, become normal, even boring - and how America (with its roadside signs for guns, chicken, and strippers) has had its values strip mined of late, leaving precious little but an empty gut-ache wanting some idea of honour in the dust.

Oxford Poetry '08

Collectors of ephemera, and little magazines, will seek out the enigmatic, if feisty, Oxford Poetry '08 magazine, edited by Benjamin Mullen and J.C.H. Potts. At 147 pages, it is quite something.

Its end of transmission "and of transmission" statement (is that a typo?) in the manifesto section makes startling reading: "Oxford Poetry is a name. We have no premises, no freephone, and certainly no savings account. Printing costs this year were donated. We have no committee of bosses, neither any constituting documents nor cubby hole for their preservation, and by summer 'we' too will have gone. Oxford Poetry 2009 (Vol. XIII, no. 1), therefore, is open for conscientious editorship to anyone, so long as they can claim simultaneous connection both to place and thing. No appointments will be made, no mantles conferred, no batons passed with patted backs. Mail forwarded from Magdalen to St Anne's will be Magdalen's again, and details of such subscriptions as remain unfullfilled returned to them. We are a name. Writers, this is plenty."

As far as nomadic editorial introductions (and good-byes) go, this is impressive, if a little blank generation in style. This issue features poetry by, among others, David Wheatley, George Szirtes, Peter McDonald, Stephen Burt, Elaine Feinstein, and Andrew Motion - so, this is hardly sport for boys - these are serious poets. There is also criticism on Geoffrey Hill, R.F. Langley, Michael Hoffman and Ted Hughes (one wonders: where are the women poets?). Still, poets worth thinking and writing about.

In short, this is worth buying. To do so, go to the London Review Bookshop, Blackwell's in Oxford, and Heffers in Cambridge. You can also order it online.

Atlas: Don't Shrug

I'll be reading at the Poetry Library, at the Southbank Centre, on the 9th of July, at 8 pm, as part of an evening to celebrate Atlas, featuring poets Patience Agbabi, Fred D'Aguiar, Jane Draycott, and Sudeep Sen, among others.

Monday, 7 July 2008

Poetry Focus: Alun Lewis

Alun Lewis by Tom Phillips

Alun Lewis is a poet whose name is more familiar than his work. Although there have been new editions in “selected”, “collected” and even “miscellaneous” variants since his death in 1944, his reputation has pretty much dangled from a single thread: his much-anthologised, Edward Thomas-echoing poem, “All Day It Has Rained…”.

This, it’s true, is one of his finest poems, a masterpiece of understatement with a bitter flourish at the end, but his two long-out-of-print volumes, Raiders’ Dawn (1942) and the posthumous Ha! Ha! Among The Trumpets (1945) show him to have been far more than simply “the second best poet of World War 2” (after Keith Douglas) or, as some have claimed, the “missing link” between the 1930s and the Movement.

While “the ruthless loneliness of war” is, by default, his “headline” theme - a theme which began long before his wartime posting to India physically and, as it turned out, permanently separated him from home and loved ones - he was also profoundly engaged in mapping a metaphysical terrain marked out by the eternal conundrums of love, life and death.

“Romantic existentialist” would be the category you’d need to invent if you wanted to shoe-horn him into a pigeonhole and, whether jaded or uplifting, his always questioning, always deftly crafted poems range from the hallucinatory nursery rhyme of “Raiders’ Dawn” (“And lovers waking…. /Recognise only/The drifting white/Fall of small faces/In pits of lime.”) to the sceptical flirtation with mysticism of “Karanje Village” (“And when my sweetheart calls me shall I tell her/That I am seeing less and less of world?/And will she understand?”).

In between are poems which flex their linguistic muscle with an artisan’s delight in words (“Lines on a Tudor Mansion”), saunter into satirical Audenesque (“Lady In Black” with its “Death’s only a vicar/armed with a gun”), rage against the psychological machinery of war (“After Dunkirk”) and deal with the ever-changing details of love with a rare, clear-eyed intimacy (“Song (on seeing dead bodies floating off the Cape)”).

Read the new Collected Poems, in fact, and the “precursor to the Movement” tag soon comes to seem hopelessly wide of the mark. Sure, Lewis’s work is not ambitious, cosmopolitan modernism in the Pound/Eliot vein, but neither is it Larkin behind his “High Windows”. If anything, in fact, it forms part of a very different pathway, from Rilke and Yeats to Plath and Heaney. What’s more, Lewis was a socialist, a firm believer in poets being no different from anyone else in the conscripted crowd, and he ticked off Robert Graves for accusing him of ivory tower tendencies (a ticking-off which partly inspired Graves’ lifelong respect for the younger Welsh poet).

Born in 1915, Lewis died in Burma on 5 March 1944, from a single gunshot wound, described in official records as an “accident” but, just possibly, self-inflicted, the ultimate judgement of what he himself called “the immaculate Gestapo of his brain”.

Tom Phillips is a poet and writer whose work has appeared previously at Eyewear.

Sunday, 6 July 2008

Guest Review: Robinson on Barnes

L.K. Robinson reviews
A Thaw Foretold
by Mike Barnes

This is a second collection from a Canadian poet whose first collection Calm Jazz Sea (Brick, 1996) was shortlisted for a Gerald Lampert Memorial Award. The poems in this collection were written over a calendar year "from one January to the next" and are ordered in two sections – January to May and August to January (presumably the poet went on holiday in June & July).

The book itself is well presented by the publishers, it feels good to hold given its mottled/embossed cover, unfortunately the copy I had has too much glue hanging from the binding but it does not devalue the overall quality of this publication. Does it feel as good once read?

The back-cover could be a little daunting in its explanation of the poems: exploration, desolation, consolation, suspension, tension. However once inside the poems are rewarding. Particular favourites are "Moleskine", "The Purple Finch", "Garbage Day", "Seconds", "Birthday". There are a number of oddities, particularly "Cameo", a two line rhyme, or maybe a thought waiting to be stretched into a more challenging poem…

Iron Age features – courage, strength, grace –
rounded, not softened, by irony’s trace.

And a poem which teases as much as it pleases is "Bloomsbury" (maybe because of its referenced Englishness) but the ending is memorable:

…… return – too soon –
to the usual diet of prudence and strangers.

There are also a good number of well crafted and intriguing poems – "Picking Up Steaks", But what of the stronger poems?

In "Moleskine" the set up is superb –

Let me help you with your tunnelling, she said.
There is a store. An art store packed with stuff.

This leads into an absorbing poem, reminiscent of Paul Auster’s regular writings on the physicality of his own notebooks, but here the poet analogises a relationship not only with Moleskin notebooks but the dear old mole himself:

………..I might explain
how snout and scrabbling feet do not bump up against,
much less push through, the friable grains of days,
but go, somehow, right past them. Past.

"The Purple Finch" is a poem of brevity and beauty:

Parlous to seek signs
in doggerel times.

This raspberry head
flicking side-eyed

gleams into this room
may just have come

to warm its face
near a flash of glass

(though along the sill
there is still ice)

"Garbage Day" hooks the reader immediately. Despite its strength of both description and emotion the last lines are a tad disappointing, mainly I think in the use of tocking which jars for me

A metronome will pace this day,
its lone tocking that of clarity

"Birthday" delicately captures moments of being around the prop of a yellow tennis ball, evocative of its setting an August afternoon expertly brought to a conclusion of beautiful simplicity

Only take one step
to clear the willow;

toss it to him,

And finally "Seconds". Somewhat a masculine poem perhaps, based on the poet and his brothers trying on their father’s shirts when younger and now older and possibly with their father deceased the poet tries his fathers shirt again.

And now this last blue model I’m given to try
fits perfectly, squeezing across the chest.

The poems in the collection don’t all fit perfectly but most do, engaging and challenging in equal measure, many of the poems demanding a second and further readings, bringing the reader back time and again to flick through the pages and join the poet on his journey through shared emotional seasons.

Robinson is a London-based poet, and Director of tall-lighhouse publishing.

Friday, 4 July 2008

Poem by Dara Wier

Eyewear is very glad to feature, this Friday, July 4th, the American poet Dara Wier (see photo).

Wier's books include Reverse Rapture (Verse Press, 2005), Hat On A Pond (Verse Press, 2003), Voyages In English (Carnegie-Mellon, 2000), Our Master Plan (Carnegie-Mellon, 1997), Blue For The Plough (Carnegie-Mellon, 1992), The Book Of Knowledge (Carnegie-Mellon, 1988), All You Have In Common (Carnegie-Mellon, 1984), The 8-Step Grapevine (Carnegie-Mellon, 1980), and Blood, Hook & Eye (University of Texas, 1977).

Her limited editions include Fly On The Wall (Oat City Press, 1996) and The Lost Epic (co-written with James Tate, Waiting for Godot Books, 1999).

Her work has been featured in Best American Poetry, American Poetry Review, Conduit, Fence, Verse, Green Mountain Review, New American Writing, Volt, and Denver Quarterly.

Wier directs the MFA program for poets and writers for the University of Massachusetts in Amherst and, with Noy Holland and Lisa Olstein, co-ordinates the Juniper Initiative for literary arts and action. She is the recipient of fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts.

Without You

You know that famous silence out beyond the stars

We’ve imported it here where it shies in shimmers

Like a dark horse’s shadow in a snow blown pasture

We pass by there, look here, what’s this my fingers

Are saying to my thumb, you know those famous silent

Skies, hear a twisted engine’s contortions discharging

Ignition ignition , how hard we register a hollow

Thump of a steel door closing, it’s not your civil twilight,

Your altitude of fine immovable patience, in another story

I lied about how wind can get a tree to tell all its secrets,

I lied about an hourglass I was supposed to fill with someone’s ashes,

In twilight anyone can be thinking about airlines,

I wondered if an hourglass filled with someone’s ashes

Might tell me something, strangely, we have hourglasses.

poem by Dara Wier

Thursday, 3 July 2008

Littering, Please

Three new poems of mine have just appeared at the latest iteration of Litter Magazine, along with new work from Andrea Brady, Peter Riley, and Rupert Loydell.

Wednesday, 2 July 2008

Barker Bites

Sebastian Barker, who was editor of The London Magazine over 34 issues for six years, before the Arts Council cut its funding, has had a potent, and pointed, letter published in the latest issue of The Rialto, Number 64, one of the UK's leading poetry magazines. Barker argues that "the Arts Council has lost its way", because it seems to be, in his view, run by "blindfolded" civil servants and co., with little or no appreciation for poetic history. He also condemns "some of those in our prize culture (cabals awarding themselves the prizes), who by this means bring about a degradation of talent." Eyewear thinks this is perceptive. There's been a bottleneck at the top of the prize structure recently, in Britain, which is not accurately reflective of the broad and deep poetic talent at work currently in the UK.

Michael Mackmin (the editor of the magazine) observes in the same issue, "when I saw that the Scottish Laureate Edwin Morgan was on the shortlist [for the TS Eliot Prize] I did more than half hope that the TS Eliot judges might give him the money - a very useful recognition of his long lifetime cheering poetry along."

It is almost a scandal that a great and needful genius such as Morgan was deprived of the Eliot award (though he has since won the biggest Scottish book award for the same book). Poets need to become aware that more and more public scrutiny (especially when public money is at stake) will be directed on them, so that, at all times, their ethical, and critical, faculties must rise to the occasion.

Eyewear is sometimes thought of as beyond the pale - outragously commenting on things best left unsaid. But poetry is not a family secret that has to be kept in the attic. It is a public art, and needs to be upstanding and transparent about its business. When poet-editors with the integrity, and talent, of Barker, and Mackmin begin to write like this, it may be time for other brave people to speak out. To change things.

Guest Review: Stannard On Yakich

Julian Stannard reviews
The Importance of Peeling Potatoes in Ukraine
by Mark Yakich

The poetry of Yakich is full of gags, dildos and literary muggings and I applaud it for that. Poems often sell themselves by their titles and Yakich has a natural gift for publicity. The title of the volume is instantly intriguing and it’s difficult not to be sympathetic to poems which introduce themselves so brazenly: "After the Flood All the Condoms Fall Off", "Pretzels Come to America", "The Supercomputer Finally Answers Charles Manson", "Spell to Bring Me Osama bin Laden" or, right at the end of the collection, "An Untenable Nostalgia for Chernobyl".

If you’re thinking this sounds like a poet strutting his stuff, a charismatic mago showering us with glib conceits, you would be wrong. Yakich’s poems are disturbingly serious. Take, as an opening example, "A Truth Is Subject to Its Title". We’re now in Rwanda at the museum "that is the African equivalent/of Auschwitz" where the hallways "are not lined with//Small mountains of hair of Jewish girls or/Strewn with suitcases stamped Horowitz, Goldstein, et al" but rather with "piles of macheted skulls’" of Tutsi boys. This tour of hell, which might also be seen as a tour of the twentieth century, allows you to hold hands with one of the survivors and have your photo taken beside his mother’s bones:

“This,” he says, “is my mother.”
And then after looking at her

Imploded chest, he says: “Oh no, that’s not her.
That would be my cousin. There --”

And he gestures with a rock-throw, “That’s my mother.”
The boy is so calm and polite, and you wonder

Who taught him to speak the King’s English.
Both of you walk over to inspect the skeleton.

The reference to Auschwitz is significant in that Nazi acts of genocide inform the philosophical consciousness of this collection. The boy survivor in Rwanda is a brother-in-tragedy to the boy who hides in a sack of potatoes in Nazi controlled Ukraine, where the Jews are being shunted off in trains. The Ukrainian boy survives the war on fresh "handfuls of potato peelings." Yet "Proof Text", almost the title- poem and rather tellingly written in prose, ends up by interrogating the moral validity of bearing witness in these fable-like terms: "The actual lives that are lived in atrocious times and distant places can never be told – out of fear that they will be either too beautiful or too true." In their introduction to The Penguin Book Of Contemporary British Poetry (1982), Morrison and Motion champion the imagination as a force for renewal and healing. Yakich, however, throws a spanner in the works by saying "If imagination is stronger than knowledge, it is always more to blame."

The force of metaphor in Gunter Grass’ Peeling The Onion (2006) is immediately apparent. The German novelist un-wraps and reveals his own collusion with his country’s tormented history and examines how the past and the present are contiguous. In The Importance of Peeling Potatoes In Ukraine, Yakich is, inter alia, making uncomfortable connections between Europe’s concentration camps and America’s post-9/11 hijacking of democracy. Three separate poems go under the title "Patriot Acts". In the third of these, zealous for the elimination of the enemy within, the authorities place their suspicions on a kitten because "who wouldn’t/Send in an animal to do a mortal’s job?" The unlucky cat ‘"Swayed back and forth at the entrance to the hotel./And then - worthy of a copyeditor’s pun -/Catastrophe! A bullet hit the kitten killing her/Instantly, saving many people. But what’s left us now -/Dried blood and shifting eyebrows, limp cocks/And lopsided divinity?"

Limp cocks and lopsided divinity, the state of a nation? If Europe’s ideological hinterlands are a phantom in the American machine, see for example his excellent poem on Leni Riefenstahl, it’s the machine itself that exercises Yakich. The collection is prefaced by a line from the great protestor Allen Ginsberg - America this is quite serious. And central to this collection, and another reason the work is so compelling, is an exploration as to how, and in what ways, a modern American poet can fashion a poetry of protest. The Importance of Peeling Potatoes in Ukraine reveals its political animus in the choice of subject matter, sometimes the titles themselves, yet the collection also becomes a conversation with poetic and philosophical traditions. The references to Whitman and Ginsberg are significant and Yakich make us conscious of an established declamatory tradition right from the beginning. Whitmanesque sonority and the high rhetoric of Ginsberg et al are acknowledged and somewhat teased in "Tourists Beware’:

In our free speech they say
There is protest. They say this.
They are wrong. Poetry in America is a hobby

Horse or an earnest earache. Unless it breaks
The rules of syntax and grammar;
Then it simply breaks the rules

Of syntax and grammar. I say this.
I, too, am wrong.
Humorous poetry is published exclusively

One month of the year when everybody is
On summer vacation. More than poetry,
Vacation is protest.

Likewise Ginsbergian swagger is knowingly collapsed, and yet not un-echoed, in Yachich’s "For a Young Male Poet" where "I, too, suckled from//A browbeaten nipple/Under a wimple and came//Up short. Fight for the penile/Implants and lactation consultants."

Two poems on from "Leni Riefenstahl" and we’re reading "Adorno" and this takes us straight back to Nazi horror. Adorno’s famous dictum on the role of poetry post-Auschwitz, namely its moral illegitimacy, is, by implication, taken up by Yakich and feeds into that that earlier statement regarding the culpability of the imagination. Yakich’s response to Adorno is to take grace notes from the American epic and to beat them into a dissonant and unforgiving demotic. Yakich creates an anti-lyric that sometimes recalls Charles Simic. (Buried near the centre of the book he mischievously asks "Who was Frank O’Hara"?) Humour becomes a wince across the face and the poem a brilliant act of sabotage. From "For A Suicide Bomber":

Have seen people exaggerate the flower
Of poetry. For example, it can give you
Longer, more distinguished orgasms; it can
Make you fall in love with your mother;
It can placate crotch odor. I have known men
And women who deliberately crap their own
Pockets and leotards trying to suffer the same
Misery of Buddha, Dante, Dickinson, and Li Po.
It’s time to put the big myth about these
Pilots to bed.

Julian Stannard’s most recent collection – The Red Zone – is published by Peterloo Poets. He teaches English and Creative Writing at the University of Winchester.

Boyd Up

Good news! Toronto poet Alex Boyd has recently won the Gerald Lampert Memorial Award for his book of poems Making Bones Walk. The award, named after an arts administrator who took a particular interest in young poets, is handled by the League of Canadian Poets, and always goes to a first book of poems published in the previous year. Boyd has also been busy co-editing I.V. Lounge Nights, an anthology of 29 poets and fiction writers who appeared in his series, the I.V. Lounge Reading Series. In addition, he's the reviews editor for the online journal Northern Poetry Review, and putting the finishing touches on a novel.

It might be fair to say that Eyewear saw this coming. Here's the endorsement I'd written for the back of the book: "Alex Boyd gives us back the world, as if remade by thoughtful, inventive and always engaged language, in this excellent debut collection. Boyd's concerns are strikingly mature for a young poet - to examine closely, to record faithfully, and to speak out in memorable lines with style and clarity. The concern and care he shows, for both the formal richness of English poetry, and histories both sensual and political, is exemplary. He gives us lessons, about power, pain, hard light, and possible grace. Time and again, poems here had me stopping, returning, moved by the possibility that he might just be one of the best new poets of his emergent generation.”


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...