Monday, 21 December 2009
Noll, born in 1927, has the best poet name, no? I love the name Bink Noll. Anyway, he is too obscure now, but wrote well, if not superbly, in the period style. Noll's life apparently turned in middle age, when he openly explored his gay identity but also sadly became encumbered by illness. He left his family and went on a new path only publishing a third book later in life. Christmas is, among other things, about encountering redemptive origins, small gestures of joy opening to greater demarcations. I wish to think of Bink Noll at Christmas. The least great and lesser are not lost ever fully if love survives.
Saturday, 19 December 2009
The audience was almost all late 40s and facebook fans. After the show which was too brief Heyward mingled in the bar with several hundred fans, smiling and genuinely bemused by the adoration. I hope for a Pelican East soon. However while last night reminded me of the power of pop and ska in the early 80s to instill hope and offer change - good songs for good young people - the failure of Copenhagen today and the rise of a Simon Cowell world of corporate pap music makes me wonder if the past may be a kinder ghost of promise than the future.
The event was low-key, attended by those who braved the snow storms on such a cold December night. The atmosphere inside was however warm and welcoming; it was a great night for the young poets to meet each other, share their ideas and also hear each other read. Those who attended were also lucky enough to hear a song performed by Michael Horovitz, poetry veteran and editor of 1960’s poetry anthology, Children of Albion.
There will be another event for this DVD in March, when Todd will hopefully be in better health. Till then, please support Oxfam and the young poets, including myself, who are featured on the DVD. It is available to buy on eBay and you can also get a copy from Oxfam Books and Music in Marylebone.
Friday, 18 December 2009
Wednesday, 16 December 2009
White Magic and Other Poems
by Krzysztof Kamil Baczynski
Krzysztof Kamil Baczynski was born in 1921 and died in the Warsaw uprising in 1944 leaving behind him a substantial body of poetry, very little of which, up until now, has been translated into English. This book, a selection of his poems in a bilingual edition seeks to remedy this lack. The book is translated by Bill Johnston, Director of the Polish Studies Center at Indiana University, and is published by Green Integer.
The claims made by Johnston in his introduction that Baczynski should rank alongside Czeslaw Milosz, Zbigniew Herbert and Wislawa Szymborska as one of the giants of 20th Century Polish poetry do him no favours. He is not (at least in translation) on a par with these poets. Better to consider him on his own terms, if we can, or failing that, to grant him the indulgence we would any poet who died at the age of 23. Excesses of religiosity, lyricism, grandiosity and morbidity – all of which Baczynski on this showing clearly has – are forgivable faults in such a young writer. Better to openly admit these shortcomings than, as Johnston does, state without any support that Baczynski was writing “mature work” at the age of 18 or that by 1942 he was already considered a “major poet”.
Where Johnston’s claims seem more justifiable is in his defense of Baczynski’s love poetry. The poems addressed to his wife, Barbara, are among the finest in this selection
Barbara stands at the mirror
of silence, and her hands reach
to her hair; in her body of glass
she pours silver droplets of speech
This is the opening to the poem, “White Magic” and even without the music of the original this is heady stuff. The untitled love poems on pages 91 and 95 show a similarly imaginative use of imagery.
This extravagance can at times get out of control. So “The Choice” which opens near perfectly:
After a scorching day, the night was green;
its depths soughed like black leaves in which had grown
a milky pith
descends into a lush and breathy exuberance
And so a massive quiet arose like water,
dark, deep, and warm, absorbing shapes and matter.
Above earth, a quiet angel took his hand
and they rose into the cloud’s unfolding flower.
This is bad, although I would argue it is bad in the same way Keats’ Endymion often is – a kind of necessary, free-associative unleashing of lyricism which in each case allowed the young poets to achieve better things elsewhere. So we have Keats’ Odes and so we have a poem like Baczynski’s “Generation” where he successfully contains this declamatory mode within a meticulously constructed architecture.
At other times we are tempted to forgive Baczynski his excesses not so much on technical grounds but because of the context. “Was it a bullet killed you, son, or was it your heart bursting?” concludes one of his later poems. This is overly dramatic but in the mouth of a 23 year old who would be dead six months later, it passes. Does it pass too because it is in the mouth of a Pole? Are Polish writers in particular (and Eastern Europeans in general – think of the cult of Brodsky) allowed a kind of tragic, patriotic lyricism, which would get a British or American laughed out of court? Certainly it is hard to imagine any British writer of the Auden/MacNeice era or even at the time of the First World War getting away with, or even coming out with, this kind of line. Does Eastern European verse serve much the same function as farmers’ markets or urban beehives do – a way to buy into a “reality” that Anglo-American city-dwellers otherwise prefer to keep at arms length?
To return to the matter at hand, these are not, despite Johnston’s pleadings and despite some great moments, poems of the first order. Nor can I imagine that they will have any great influence on contemporary Anglophone poetic practice – they are too much of their time and place for that – but in as much as they form a part of a poetic tradition that has since blended in interesting ways with our own, it is good to have them available. I do not know Polish so am unable to comment on the translations but they read well in English and, if only for the image of thunder rolling “like an apple from the sky” in “Autumn 1941”, I am glad to have this volume on my bookshelf.
Rufo Quintavalle, 2009
Tuesday, 15 December 2009
The Sunday Times Culture section ran an intriguing list of the best of the 00s in film, pop, books, last weekend. It was a persuasive list. Best film: In The Mood For Love – which would have been my choice. Best book: Austerity Britain, by David Kynaston – a wonderful choice, and one that makes me particularly pleased because David is a colleague of mine at Kingston University, and also because my doctoral research is in the austerity years of the 40s and British poetry of the period. Best album: Kid A – not a bad choice either. Eyewear’s Top Films of the Decade would include The Lives of Others, The Bourne trilogy,
‘The Terrors’ is, by nature, a mysterious book. Even the preface, in
which the sequence is introduced as ‘a series of imagined emails to
inmates at Newgate Prison between […] 1700 and 1760’, is far from
explanatory. However, what might seem an overly complex book is shown
by attentive reading to be an engaging, if not always immediately
understandable, work of linguistic playfulness and incisive satire.
It is, perhaps, the juxtaposition of such a contemporary form of
discourse as the email with the style of the 18th century Newgate
Calendar which throws up the most questions. In some quarters it is
felt that since email has, in many ways, usurped snail mail we might
one day, as Michael Ravitch envisages*, appreciate the email as a
literary form rather than just a means to the end of relaying a
The opening poem ‘A Guide to Email Etiquette’ serves as an orientation
to the world the reader is about to enter as well as an introduction
to the tropes at work in the book as a whole:
Don’t make personal remarks.
Don’t send unsuitable email.
Don’t mention Lilly’s hieroglyph.
The shift in register from the diction of an acceptable use policy to
the historical ‘Lilly’s hieroglyph’ hints at the tonal and referential
shifts that follow in the rest of the book. This approach suggests
that History (or, more specifically, Time) be understood as the
concurrent interplay of past, present and future. Well worn though
this notion may be; what is striking is the absorbing and, ultimately,
compelling way in which it is examined by Chivers.
Of the book’s successes the foremost, to my mind, are the emails
addressed to William Dodd, a clergyman, and sometime poet, who fell
into disrepute after being convicted of forgery. Dodd numbered Samuel
Johnson among campaigners for his release but not even an extensive
petition could save him and he was hanged. The plight of a prisoner
awaiting a very public death is captured with great skill in this
passage from ‘Terra Incognito’:
It’s a doddle, Will: just get yourself a pen to write
your soul’s way
outta there. In place of Shepherd’s rusty nail and
you’ll have a memoir worth the reading.
This satirical look at the consolation offered by notoriety after
death not only brings into focus our morbid fascination with those who
teeter at the precipice but also the human need for recognition. This
is explored further in ‘speculate to accumulate’ which begins ‘Treat
this as fan mail, or whatever’ and goes on to explore the manner in
which criminality can bolster one’s ambitions for ‘infamy’. In the
face of an increased focus on the description of the ‘criminal
classes’ in today’s society it seems precious little has changed.
Elsewhere in the pamphlet Chivers muses on the fates of some of
Newgate’s other notorious inmates in fine style. Not least in ‘Other
Side’ where the parade to the gallows is described in all its horror
with an ear for the music of the words:
Ox-cart’s a pretty way to go. Clipping, shipping, scaling, lightening.
Thank god you were throttled before you were burnt.
This poem, in particular, is one in which the juxtaposition of
eighteenth century London and that of the present day is employed to
great effect in the shift from ‘Ox-cart[s]’ to ‘burger vans’ humming
in the following stanza.
Though I did find this approach illuminating I did feel that some of
the poems suffered because, since I hadn’t read the Newgate Calendar,
there were a number of references which I didn’t understand. For me
this challenged the notion that a poem must be ‘got’ to be enjoyed but
there are, I’m sure, some readers who would be turned off by the
pamphlet’s occasional murkiness. Ultimately, though, I found the
sequence to hold genuine interest beyond a single reading both as a
way in to the history of London and as an exploration of what can be
achieved in the email format.
What are we, then, to make of Chivers’ exploration of the email as a
literary form? For me the most useful way into the pamphlet is in the
description of the work as a set of ‘imagined’ missives. This sequence
announces a poet awake to the strangeness thrown up by flights of
imagination which variously place the snappy media-speak of our
information age aside the gratuitous crime reportage of 18th century
The fact that this pamphlet was published by Nine Arches Press, a
relatively new player on the scene, says a lot about the freedom of
small press publishing. Here is a poet tackling the contemporary
sphere without recourse to the continual use of explicitly topical
references. It is this freedom which makes the small press and the
pamphlet an essential part of poetry publishing. Long may Nine Arches
release books of this calibre. The Terrors is well worth a look for
those who enjoy poetry that defies easy reduction.
Tom Chivers, The Terrors, (Nine Arches Press, 2009), £5
Sunday, 13 December 2009
Wednesday, 9 December 2009
Fever Ray, eponymous;
Grizzly Bear, Veckatimest;
Yeah Yeah Yeahs, It's Blitz!;
Animal Collective, Merriweather Post Pavilion;
The xx; eponymous;
Lady Gaga, The Fame;
Hope Sandoval and The Warm Inventions, Through the Devil Softly;
Echo and the Bunnymen, The Fountain;
U2, No Line on the Horizon;
White Lies, To Lose My Life.
Others were close, but no cigar. A few were strictly guilty pleasures, like the latest Ah-ha, or Depeche Mode, or Simple Minds. The new La Roux, and the new Little Boots etc., the synth pop gals, were good but really rather limited. On another front, the best film of the year was Let The Right One In - but then I didn't see many. I look forward to finally seeing The Hurt Locker and also Bright Star. Alan Baban has promised us a round-up of the decade early in 2010.
Tuesday, 8 December 2009
A New Hybrid Muse
Language for a New Century: Contemporary Poetry from the Middle East, Asia and Beyond, ed. Tina Chang, Nathalie Handal and Ravi
Language for a New Century begins with a question about the meaning and value of poetry. Yet in this anthology, the question of value acquires all the more meaning, because the poetry comes out of postcolonial and diasporic settings. In their preface, the editors suggest that ‘Where the opportunities for fatal destruction, between people and between nations, are intensified, the same age-old questions still exist: What is the role of poetry? What can it do? Can poetry still matter?’. What this anthology offers is a poetry attuned to needs of particular cultures. It is a poetry that works for these needs, by reinventing form, syntax, the lyric mode and themes such as childhood, identity, politics, war, homeland, spirituality and the body.
The writers included originate from regions traditionally sidelined by the West: South Asia, East Asia, the Middle East and Central Asia; as well as other territories like
In 2004, Brent Hayes Edwards
But this is an anthology that never claimed to be simple in its outlook, and how could it be when it covers such a multitude of voices and outlooks? What is fascinating though is that many of these poets are Anglophone, though the anthology does contain some translations to English too. ‘Slips and Atmospherics’ is a particularly important section in relation to language, because it gathers together poems that ‘stretch[es] the cords of syntax, exploding normative lineation and familiar imageries to present an avant-garde sensibility’. This statement applies to a great many poems throughout the anthology, which feel refreshingly detached from traditional forms and from the kind of uncomplicated lyrics that sometimes dominate Western poetry. The poets writing in English are certainly deterritorializing the language and making it their own, forcing it to work for their own purposes and political needs. It seems to be what Jahan Ramazani
In Language for a New Century, poetry humanises the experiences of poets working in this hybrid muse, allowing them to maintain their cultural specificity, whilst also creating a seed of familiarity that flowers to understanding. Tina Chang sums this up in introducing the section on the lyric. ‘What is it that we seek to glean from poems but a shadow of our own human experience? When we subtract rationale, logic, even narrative consistency, we are led by the essence, feeling and raw energy of the song, the purity of a given moment.’ And this sympathy, of course, is desperately needed. The East is still a mythic place created by Orientalist discourse, as has been shown more recently by Judith Butler’s
This kind of perception unravels in poetry. When, in Saadi Youssef’s
Altogether the breadth of work in Language for a New Century is hardly broached by a short review like this one. It is a pioneering anthology that, for myself, is a roadmap to poetries that I have never encountered before and I find it both inspiring and heartening. Overall, I am inclined to agree with Carolyn Forché
Sunday, 29 November 2009
Friday, 27 November 2009
eccentric pop, much of which has been revisiting us this year, twenty years after
that decade ended. There's a new Moyet Best Of just out for instance. And since
the year began new albums from Simple Minds, Depeche Mode and Echo and the Bunnymen, to simply name three of the major bands of the time - each of which made it equally big in America as at home. Now comes the reunion album from Spandau Ballet after
almost Smiths-size acrimony. SB were not as big as Duran Duran or Tears for Fears
stateside, but bigger than OMD. They were part of the New Romantic wave at its height. Their unlikely name and likely look were of the moment, and song 'True' is one of the, yes, true classics of the period. While the new Frankie compilation is mainly a rehash of the hits, SB have rerecorded their greatest songs for this album. The results are both disarming and sometimes disappointing. 'True' is given new life. 'Chant No. 1' is simply rendered safe and MOR. Simon Cowell is now America's highest paid performer - a far cry from the days when people like Orson Welles ruled radio. His bland if rude style fits with the retooled SB. I am sure some of these tracks could become hits. But while it is fun to hear remakes from older men sometimes it is wiser perhaps to prefer the prison of our early days.
Wednesday, 25 November 2009
Monday, 23 November 2009
Sunday, 22 November 2009
Wednesday, 18 November 2009
Sunday, 15 November 2009
Tuesday, 10 November 2009
Matthew Arnold described Shelley as 'a beautiful and ineffectual archangel, beating in the void his luminous wings in vain.' A poet too delicate for this world - as Jay-Z says, for this 'hard knock life.' As Eliot's recent letters - just-published - remind us, even the most classical minds have romantic agonies. KJ
Monday, 9 November 2009
I for one selected - before falling ill - about 30 young UK poets for an Oxfam DVD, directed by Jennifer Oey, to be launched around Christmas. I was spoiled for choice, and hope there is a sequel, as there are many other superb poets I was unable to reach, some of them featured here in the past. My modus operandi is well known: to affirm, encourage, support and announce new talent. I much believe, to paraphrase Bono, that the sweetest song is that yet to be sung. Youth and poetry are naturals together, and while the next 40 years may, in some cases, be the hard part, tell that to Rimbaud, Keats, Shelley, Dylan Thomas, and Plath. They only got the first half, and it was fine. I also think of the poet manque, Scott Fitzgerald.
Anyway, I hope to run an indepth review of that Guardian review soon. In the meantime, let me just say it revealed three interesting things: 1) a conservative reluctance to praise or accept a good thing at face value; 2) a suspicion of anything that might smack of Alverism; and 3) the Faber pamphlet poets were identified as the strongest out of the 21. Number 3 I suspect may be a coincidence - the Faber poets are all good. That's why Clare and James chose them. However, I missed mention of Sandeep Parmar and Emily Berry, among several others. The main odd bit of the review was that a third or more was a critique of the Intro.
I actually think the Intro is weak - taking potshots at wine and bookshop events seems unfair, especially as London thrives on such things. But many Intros are weak or contentious - one thinks of the Motion-Morrison Intro for their Penguin. In this instance, might it not have been better to debate less about the editorial contraption and perhaps simply read as many of the poets as possible? Lord knows, Guardian reviews are often laudatory, so this one rather stuck out for its contending tone.
It seemed curious, to me, to question the central thesis of the book - that a new generation has emerged, galvanised by events, online and off. True, other generations three stars up the charts, and had readings and magazines and pamphlets. But this one seems the most lively, and differently-engaged and empowered, since the Sixties. One can mention Armitage and co. forever, but this latest "gen" has exploded without marketing or artifice - like Topsy it just grew, a force to be reckoned with. This will become clearer when the Lumsden Bloodaxe survey comes out.
The Guardian, so young and hip it is painful in their film and music pages, sometimes seems square and very traditional in its book pages - despite blog references and little cartoons. Perhaps the young guns of British poetry are to be squared off against, but for now, let's throw open the saloon doors and buy them a milk in a dirty glass, shall we?
Tuesday, 3 November 2009
Next, Dream Catcher issue 23, is the Canadian Issue. While I find the poets included in that section a little pell-mell, it's still a good thing to read if you're interested in Canadian poetry; what the issue does confirm is the fact that most people in the UK haven't a clue as to what the central line or lines of Canadian post-war poetry are - and neither do most Canadians. The situation is quite dire - a very weak tradition of poor critical evaluation has meant the ten thousand Canadian poets are at a loss to see the forest for the trees.
Finally, the Scrumbler, edited by Canadian-in-England, Mike Kavanagh, is a new children's poetry magazine. It's exquisitely produced, with remarkable illustrations. Poets both children and professional adult writers are included and welcome. You can order this amazing magazine from 3 Holly Bank Cottages, Wooton near Woodstock, Oxfordshire, England OX20 1AE.
My own news, Seaway received a very good review in the latest issue of Ambit, which was lovely to read. Also, Kavita Joshi is back from Verona soon and hopefully will get a few reviews online second half of November.
Regarding the Q top albums of the year, was sorry not to see the group XX in the top 50. And, finally, when sick, will watch films. Saw Let The Right One In finally. I think it is extraordinary - the most ambiguous and disturbingly sweet portrait of desire, love, friendship, abuse, need, murder, and childhood I have ever seen; will the boy become the man? Terrible indeed, the train ride. Be well.
Friday, 30 October 2009
Wednesday, 28 October 2009
Monday, 26 October 2009
Wednesday, 21 October 2009
Thursday, 8 October 2009
Thursday, 1 October 2009
Monday, 28 September 2009
Monday, 21 September 2009
Wednesday, 16 September 2009
Wednesday, 9 September 2009
In Sight of Home
By Nessa O’Mahony
It would be too simple to evaluate Nessa O’Mahony’s most recent work, In Sight of Home, on the basis of whether or not it succeeds as a ‘verse-novel’. And yet with the current surge of interest in the form (to the great excitement of ever-present forefinger-wagging genreists) each verse-novel sets itself a near impossible task: balancing the presence of often tedious narrative (see Ruth Padel’s Darwin: A Life in Poems) with the exploration of character through lyric. The trouble, in the case of Padel’s book, is the spectre of Charles Darwin, transmuted through the poet-biographer, whose voice clangs over epistolary prose. O’Mahony could have operated via a similar procedure: we know that some of her book is based on what appears to be twenty-two letters from Margaret Butler, a nineteenth-century Irish emigrant to Australia, but thankfully O’Mahony departs from the day-to-day recounting of domestic life to make an implicit inquiry into the nature of the archive and the relationship between the reader/scholar and the historical subject. She inserts a figure of herself, the author—in the form of a twenty-first-century Irish woman, Fiona Sheehan—as discoverer, hoarder, and voyeur of a woman’s ‘failed’ life.
In Sight of Home brings together three narrative strains: Margaret’s departure from Kilkenny with her brothers and sisters and their subsequent life in Australia; Lizzie, another young Irish emigrant who finds herself in service of the Butler family; and Fiona, a poet who is seduced into writing Margaret’s story by letters she receives from a Butler descendant. Fiona has her own self-exile to contend with—she moves to North Wales to sever family commitments, only to find herself identifying heavily with Margaret’s life as a spinster, overburdened by a woman’s responsibility to her kin. Contemplating leaving her life in Ireland behind, Fiona is drawn to the letters:
I picked up the pack of letters
I’d been flicking through
for the past few days.
Although the writing was faint,
the slanting scrawl near illegible
I could still glean some of their meaning.
And one can see what this ‘meaning’ is. Margaret’s life is entirely wound up by the living and dying of her relatives; her own fears, at least for herself, are harder to articulate:
in my ribs
Must we stay
in this wood
yet I dread
O’Mahony has inserted Fiona’s thoughts whilst reading these suffocated, tight-lipped letters (and trying to shape them into poems) in the right margin: ‘Exile is easier now. / An hour in a car queue, / two hours bounced / in a tin-plate catamaran, / a day-trip to a new life.’
The pull towards archetypal femininity is evidenced by Fiona’s superimposed romantic indecision; she resists settling down and moving in with her lover, preferring instead her crumbling quarters, her stacks of dusty books, which are all there to evoke her obstinate grip on individuality. After a pregnancy scare, Fiona finds mixed comfort in the return of her menstrual flow:
O’Mahony’s book is compulsively readable, especially for those who are attracted to the possibilities of archival research. To those who feel somehow cheated by the actual existence of Margaret Butler’s letters or who are wary of their fictionalisation, I would say that O’Mahony never makes claims to factualness and the result is far more beguiling and intelligent than verse-biography—that supposedly unbiased, murky sentimental mask-wearing. In Sight of Home veers between wry cynicism (on the part of the ‘biographer’ Fiona, who becomes increasingly possessive over Margaret) and genuine beauty, observed off-handedly:
On the sand-bar
shadows search for pickings,
fill their bags, move on.
Closer to shore clockwork
oyster-catchers bob, then take to air
as a radio pips noon.
A black-backed gull
pulls at something
A car kerb-crawls
for a spot on the sea-front,
fails, resumes the circuit.
I watch a man walk his dog, pause,
read the sing he has seen
every day for a lifetime.
O’Mahony success is that she doesn’t naively enter into her project. In fact she purposefully changes one basic premise to her story: the letters of Margaret Butler aren’t in the possession of a (self-proclaimed) unrecognised writer, they are in a library. By setting them in a private, unauthorised and highly subjective setting, O’Mahony indulges in a scholarly sin. But better that than pretend that the formation of ‘lives’ hangs from cornices of truth. The poet’s genre-bending isn’t a lack of skill or a flagrant misapprehension, it is what brings the story to life.
Dr. Sandeep Parmar is a leading American-British poet of her generation, and an expert on Mina Loy and Hope Mirlees. She makes her home between (in) London and New York. Her poetry appears in the new anthology from Bloodaxe, Voice Recognition: 21 Poets for the 21st Century, which I hope to review this autumn.
Poor Mr. S. Fry has begun to discover too much occasional tweeting is damaging his rep. A Sunday Times article lambasted him for being so obnoxiously omnipresent. Fry has the Welles status - media type with big brains - but sadly, looks more like Wilde than contains that man's genius. Good luck to him.
I am currently facing a diagnosis of having a disease of the oesophagus, which, while treatable, can lead to worse things, and has some painful implications. Not a great time to take up throat singing.
There a few new poems for my father in my new collection, to be launched on the feast day of Our Lady of Sorrows.
I noted in the weekend papers that religion might be "hardwired" into our brains. The ambiguity continues. Some will see this as proof of God's design, others of the strictly mechanistic explanation of the universe. To my mind, since love, taste, desire, sight, and all other of the things that make existence rich and deep, stem from the brain and its chemistry, it can hardly be a small thing for belief or faith to reside there as well. Since neuro-chemistry is part of the fabric of the miracle that is being, how can it be used to disprove the mystery of things?
Tuesday, 1 September 2009
The novel, on which this TV two-parter was based, is, as we know, one of the greatest books in the English language. Its passionate exploration of the psychology of intense, obsessive and transgressive love is exemplary, and comparable in darkness and power to the works of Dostoyevsky, and, in terms of insight, Freud. Nothing about this new version expresses this inner power. Instead, by divorcing the teleplay too often from the actual original text (not in terms of plot incident, but in terms of language) and displaying the fevers and bad behaviour too literally, almost all consequence and symbolic power is lost. Instead, one wishes to call the police and get Heathcliff slapped with an Asbo. He is just a moody good-looking stalker guy now, isn't he? Cathy is just someone who's "perfect guy is torn".
I understand the impulse to make this masterwork of romantic extremism relevant to "kids today" - but in the process, the love and depths have gone. I suppose the problem is, in Britain today, everyone is Heathcliff on a Saturday night, and everyone wakes with a Swinburne-sized headache on Monday mornings. The UK - secular, sexed-up and sentimentalised - is now about as Romantic as Byron could have hoped for - without much of the saving subtlety, pathos and vision of Keats. It will be fascinating to see what Bright Star is like when it opens this autumn. It will hopefully dumb up.
Meanwhile, the just-closed BBC poll to find out "the nation's favourite poet" left me cold. The longlist seemed rigged (no Elizabeth Barret Browning?!) from the start, with a certain slant of lightness. Five women, out of 30 poets? That seems barely acceptable, doesn't it, after the long struggle that feminism has endured in the 20th century.
Or: What does it matter what the masses think about poetry? Look around us, citizens: is this a landscape inwardly-shaped by a deep relationship with poetry and poets? No. Nor is it likely to get better soon. Figures in the arts like Carol Ann Duffy have begun to support the latest in what seems a never-ending series of initiatives to stop global warming - 10:10. It demands one cuts 10% of one's emissions during 2010. A good idea. Let's hope it works.
However, will the 10s of this century not, in some ways, mitigate against the sort of mindset that embraces poetry for the pleasures it instills, and the depths it helps trace and plumb? Myself an activist in the past, I have seen the dangers of letting good-willed people converge on poetry for their own purposes.
Poetry, maybe, should never be second fiddle to any cause, though it can join the party as it wishes, to help urge along a dance or march. Poetry is either blessedly above the fray, capable of swooping down like an angel or eagle, as it wishes, or it is nothing. If the world turns very committed and serious and austere, it may be hard to justify the luxury (of time, of learning, even of attitude) that poetry often requires. An odd irony is emerging - even as the popular image in capitalism of the poet-as-lover becomes founded ever more solidly - the swing against capitalism will require a different kind of poet - more radical, and less poetic. What percentage of themselves can poets trim off before they cease to be poets, and are civil servants, or campaigners?
Eyewear, too, has snapped into a new form, and has new, post-summer purpose. Over the next weeks, I will hopefully begin to start featuring poets again on a regular basis. I also have many reviews to roll out. But not too quickly. The next few weeks are very full of other things to do. On the subject of reviewing, let me say this about that: I get many more offers for review copies than I do for reviewers. It is very difficult to persuade people to review books for free (even if they get paid with the review copy). One of the challenges of running a dirt-cheap blog on no-budget is finding willing and able guest writers. Eyewear is lucky to have built up a strong team of regular writers, but still needs more. If you feel you have what it takes, and the time, do contact me.
Tuesday, 25 August 2009
The third coming of AM is Humbug, produced, recorded and engineered in sunny America, mainly by Queens of the Stone Age main man Josh(ua) Homme. That this seems an absurd mix of tones would be like saying that who would have expected Elvis Costello to hook up with T. Bone Burnett. Turner is not as good a lyricist as Morrissey (nobody is) but he can turn some phrases that, at least, are more elliptical and strange than your average songsmith - but this time around his wry laddish chip-shop wit has been dulled by too-obvious sexual wordplay just a step above the cunning linguist level, and a few too-many references to circuses and dangerous animals. His tropes suggest he's been listening to The Doors, and seeking a cabaret volta to turn his words to darker subjects, mainly, it seems, pill-box hat types and other hangers-on, as well as devil women who would put him under heel, cracking the whip in furs.
The music is an about face too - these are harder, lurid, and often theatrical rock songs, and The Doors, and other 60s freaks hang over the proceedings; Homme adds his trademark sense of heaviness.
Turner's voice sounds irritatingly twee and faux-English at times, a Herman's Hermit singing over something close to Metallica, or at least, Nirvana (Serve the Servants?). I admire this attempt to do something new but also familiar, this hybridity - U2 did it with Joshua Tree, only much better. Still, Humbug has some very good, persuasive songs, that are louche, genuinely sinister, and the attitude of darkness is beguiling, if not entirely becoming. What seems a little lacking is either exact sexual candour (how wild is their wild new life?) or irony (are they just embracing Brooklyn point blank, or at an angle of repose?). Never are the lyrics less than sly, and rarely satiric or cutting.
This is unlike the other two AM albums - which is good, because the second is dull rubbish, and the first was a tour-de-force by wunderkinds who have now moved on. It remains to be seen whether the Arctic Monkeys are merely a spent force like The Strokes - a very early 00 group whose day has come and gone - or the next Radiohead or Coldplay - British bands able to break America and sustain a career for decades.
Monday, 24 August 2009
The sadness of England.
The coming storm.
The exodus from Tesco.
The death by flu.
The disused factory.
The walk under the rail bridge.
The can of lager in the hand.
The silence of certain streets.
The man smoking by the nursery.
The internet in the video store.
The broken espresso machine.
The 11.30 Mass.
The sunbathers on the Green.
The uneven footing.
The broken pavement.
The methadone clinic.
The shelves outside the shop.
The closed inquiry.
The rain at five to six.
The word path.
The hot and cold.
The end of the class.
The poets of promise.
The ground floor flat.
The geraniums in the box.
The sense of an ending.
The slow growth for another year.
The fear of the impending.
The autumn after the summer.
The unsigned contract.
The request for information.
The loss of nerve.
The godfather agreement.
The leukaemia email.
The post on the floor.
The revolutions elsewhere.
The rubber band left untouched.
The locks on the door.
The friends over after dinner.
The bra being modelled.
The detector vans.
The five novels from Amazon.
The artificial night of a storm.
The brother’s child.
The return to either/or.
The despair of small things.
The respect for the brickwork.
The reading light turned off.
The way a list is.
The book by Goodland.
poem by Todd Swift
He also has here rescued Anthony Thwaite from semi-obscurity (and let's face it, undeserved and general disinterest)by championing his work, an unexpected apologia from someone on the margins that I am sure Thwaite (as a Larkin ally) might be wary of if it wasn't so comprehensive and erudite a championing. Duncan can also be obtuse, naive, funny, and odd, in the same paragraph. Reading him is like reading something by Blake, if Blake read about neuroscience and was an idiot savant. You never know what you are going to get in a Duncan book - they are almost like Gysin cut-ups, with throw-away lines and observations of sometimes near-genius. I think I disagree with 80% of him, but treasure what I don't agree with, when he says it, anyway. He's the informative, engaging and punk edge of experimental UK poetry, in his new role as Greil Marcus to the Prynne Era.
There are too many important elements in this book to explore, or ignore. If you are a British poet, or critic, or want to know about the "poetry wars" and poetics, then you have to read this. It's about as unmissable as Avatar will be for sci-fi film buffs this winter. It's the Future. It's also the Past. Duncan in this book sets out to explore ways of imagining how we might go about solving the differences between the Cambridge avant-garde, the conservative postmoderns (Muldoon, Fenton, his designation), the mainstream, and the British Poetry Revival types. He has many important things to say and suggest, not least that there are maybe "eight or eleven factions" not two. He is the first critic to really bluntly state the fantasy aspect to all poets' imaginary positions, and his comparison of Raine's and Mottram's is useful and striking.
Duncan also offers correctives and explanations, to help understand the emptying out of the speedier, more abstract style of experimental British verse, and suggests - heretically I think - that the best way to read it is not to try too hard to understand it. It's meant to wash over one. He also wryly observes that maybe the reason so many people objected to the Mottram-era Poetry Review is because most people don't "like" experimental poetry. Duncan is good on remembering that poetry has or needs readers, and that they have wishes and needs too.
His main point is that there needs to be some sort of truth commission, where poets, and cultural managers and editors on all sides of the battle from 1960 to the present, the battle over the limited resources and assetts that poetry has to offer (and he notes these are real, often editorships for commercial presses where "seedy businessmen" hold sway), can meet and express their differences, truthfully. This is a Utopian dream and he admits it. Duncan's thinking through of why and how there are different poetries and receptions for poetry is confused, at times, I believe. Sometimes he is lucid and accurate, as when he notes that most poetry opinions are formed without reading the books of our enemies; and that since most poetry decisions are made in private there is no historical record of the injustices. However, he seems to want to say that readers may legitimately find modernist work as off-putting as ugly tower blocks, but that also it is ultimately the truer path for poetry.
Duncan is charmingly honest - he never pretends to like most "mainstream poetry" - though he lists some of the books by mainstreamers he does like, like Oswald's Dart. He believes that private mythology passionately expressed is important, so he approves, for instance, of Hughes. If Duncan does want to effect a rapprochement, he might have tried harder to edit out some of the cheap shots that mar this important and smart book. Jibes like we might need to decommission the poetry wars by having a controlled explosion of Don Paterson, or claims that all mainstream poets lead boring lives, seem jarring (especially since most experimental British poets are hardly models of thrilling lifestyles, either; indeed, a lot of poetry's Dad's Army-Shamanism seems pathetic, a bit like the pseudo-Satanist sent up in Polanski's The Ninth Gate). His claim that Auden is a chief problem with mainstream Anglican poetry and its light-verse conservatism also apparently ignores Auden's support for Ashbery, hardly a mainstream-Christian poet.
Duncan traces many problems to Anglicanism and Englishness, and Nonconformism, and the class struggle - yet praises Rowan Williams. Other confusions and errors appear - he claims there needs to be some work on narcissism and the artist, as if the work of the London Freudian school had never explored such things. He calls Ed Wood the Ed Wood Story. He also cites an anthology by the wrong title at some stage. He also claims to have never read critics on how diction claims can be related to suppression of alternate political positions and movements in history - well, he hasn't read Donald Davie then. These seem more like eccentric errors of the fast-thinking math whiz, mere untidiness amid the brilliant clutter. Perhaps his biggest error is to claim that the test case historical moment of observable conflict and suppression of the experimental wing in the UK was the Poetry Review Mottram episode.
Duncan, in general, doesn't think much has happened since 1980 of interest, and that the revolution was essayed in the 70s (and failed). He might have read his comrade, Ian Brinton, and his recent Cambridge guide to contemporary poetry, to see that the best test case was in fact the experimental poems about the Iraq war, and the attempt to suppress them (see Kendall, Tim). Duncan also seems to have missed the fact that the Internet has been effecting a depolarisation since 2002 at least, when Nthposition began publishing global poetry from all known schools and styles; nor does Duncan mention the "fusion poetry" movement, nor the recent Norton anthology of "Hybrid" poetry. There are attempts to reconcile styles and concerns.
What ultimately impresses me is Duncan's claim that such differences between schools and styles have "meaning" - and in fact, in a market, offer the greatest choice for readers. What remains insufficiently explored, for me, is why poems that explore domestic arrangements, and the personal voice, are necessarily poorer or duller than poems that empty out grammar and syntax, and present sped-up, verbally hyperliterate texts. I personally feel that much poetry of all kinds is dull and poor, but enough is worthwhile, across the spectrum. My own work attempts to explore some aspects that Duncan respects - the riotous, the artificial, the rhetorical, the passionate, the mythic - but also wants to be able to speak of the personal, and my experiences. After all, in a capitalist world, perhaps the only thing we almost possess is our self, and even that, of course, is not true; but trying to explore speaking through the almost-self is a valid "procedure" too.
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