Sunday, 28 June 2009

No More Unicorns

Richard Dawkins must be pleased with the emerging revelations that Michael Jackson appears to have been a cocktail-drunk drug addict, hopped up on numerous meds to keep the anxiety and despair at bay. After all - that's another myth gone - a genuine hero that people could love. Or maybe, Jackson was tarnished as long ago as 1995, anyway, and had no more to lose. Still, it rankles that Britain's top atheist has set up a summer camp for kids, where - I kid you not - there will be a prize for the best proof of the non-existence of unicorns. No doubt, they will also be taught (incorrectly) that there is no Father Christmas, too.

Now, it may be okay for Dawkins to peddle his sad and empty sophistry to adults, but surely he should resist the urge to hang with the kids, and steal what little wonder and innocence they have left. When adults do that to children, we have a name for it. Now, some may think taking a child's imagination is not a sin, so long as their parents have granted permission, but I wonder - isn't that frail and tentative thing called hope and wonder - that key aspect of being young - too-soon taken from us anyway?

Why encourage the young to kill their dreams, their beasts, their magic and their monsters, before 18? The adult world will tax them, will send them to war, and will subject them to mindless work - the least it can do is leave them alone until then. I have nothing against education, but there's that, then there's indoctrination. Dawkins is increasingly becoming a pest. When will Britain stop believing in him?

Saturday, 27 June 2009

June roundup

I thought I'd stop blogging so much, but the world keeps turning. A few quick things - I hear Tom Chivers has a book of poems out. I'd like to know more about this - can someone send me a review copy? He's such an active presence on the London scene, but I don't know his poems as well as I'd like. Want to see what he's put out there. Also, was in Selfridges the other day for their 50% off sale, and spotted Ben Wilkinson's poem on the ceiling by the Blink counter. There are poems which I selected by young poets all over the store, hope some of you spot some of them. I also wanted to say that Amazon's just delivered the two new Penguin modern classic reissues of those first two key Susan Sontag books of essays, Against Interpretation and Styles of Radical Will. They look great, and readers of Eyewear who don't know these books should get them - Sontag was, of course, one of the first to think seriously about popular culture in English - much-influenced by Barthes, but more American than that.

Also, I may (just may) be doing a Lifelines 3 for Oxfam, but we're still looking at budgets and numbers. It'll focus on the younger generations of British poets this time, if it goes ahead - maybe for 2010. Meanwhile, my interview at the Best American Poetry blog ran last weekend.

Oh, and it's pretty muggy and warm in London; can't complain, really. Meanwhile, swine flu numbers have reached a million in the USA, and 127 have died there so far. That's a death rate of - if my math is correct - .00127. Rounding up, that's more like .0013. Those are the same chances of dying in a plane crash, so still relatively safe, but I think we'll see mortality rates go up by the autumn, unfortunately. If one million have it now, exponentially, most Americans should contract it, by end of the year. On another note, I am looking forward to the latest edition of Poetry London, out soon. I've reviewed Chris McCabe, and others, for the issue, which is being launched in July at the Ledbury Poetry festival.

Finally, I have an urge to see The New World again, by Terence Mallick. I can't help thinking it's one of the best movies I ever saw, but I need to be sure. May rent it this weekend. Okay, one last thing - Murmur, by R.E.M. really is their best album, isn't it? I was listening to it today, and that jangly sincerity and yearning indieness was not much improved upon later. Oh, one last thing - if Jackson was the King, then Madonna is the Queen, of pop, yeah? She's 50 too. Hope she's with us for many years to come.

Friday, 26 June 2009

The King Is Dead

Sad news. As everyone in the world must now know, Michael Jackson has died. In a spontaneous act as moving as the lights dimming on Broadway, the web slowed worldwide at the news. I don't have much to say. I woke up, got out of bed, turned on the radio, and was met by the news, which stunned me. This is the greatest loss to pop culture since the death of Elvis.

As many commentators have been saying, Jackson was a sort of Elvis and Beatles in one - a triple-threat singer, songwriter and liver performer of extraordinary ability. He was the Mozart of the age - and the major figure of the 1980s, surely, in terms of cultural impact and influence. I don't happen to like the song "Thriller" but the album is a masterwork of its kind. Jackson was stranger than fiction - and curiously disliked in later years, when many other less brilliant, and less strange, entertainers were less sinned against. It is, for example, unlikely his excesses match those of The Stones. He was never as cruel as Marilyn Manson.

What was uncanny and upsetting about Jackson, of course, was that he was in a world of his own, in so many ways - having made the world's best-selling album of all time, owning the Beatles back catalogue, living in a Neverland, trying to buy the Elephant Man's bones - not to mention marrying Elvis's daughter, or slowly transforming into a humanoid figure - all this made him the ne plu ultra of weird, but never had the mainstream and weird been so closely aligned - not even in the case of David Lynch. Jackson, it seems to me, needed help, love, support - and like Tinkerbell - belief.

We took that from him after the sexual misconduct allegations with kids, which, if true, would be damning. However, as his millions of fans insisted, he was "innocent". It may be that, if this childlike genius was simply a misguided Prince Myshkin figure, then we all killed Michael, by removing what he needed most: our love.

Still, death comes to all men, and in the case of Jackson, it came just before his rebirth - had his 50 London shows gone ahead. He was poised tantalisingly on the edge of destruction or redemption. It seems oddly right that he died middle-aged, at 50.

It is hard to recall when someone so world famous died. Princess Diana, I suppose. Jackson would have been moved by all the attention his death is getting, I think. Sadly, he may no longer have expected it to be so even-handed, and, rightfully, mainly positive. For all his faults, he was the King of Pop.

Thursday, 25 June 2009

Farrah Fawcett Has Died

Sad news. Farrah Fawcett has died. She may have gone on to do other things, but her status as a major pop cultural icon of the 1970s is secure - she was the televisual Marilyn Monroe of her time, as an actor in Charlie's Angels, perhaps the quintessential cheesecake 70s TV show; and, she married Lee Majors, the Six Million Dollar Man. Her life was variously rewarding and tragic, but she was greatly loved (and desired) - often imitated, never bettered. She will be missed.

Saturday, 20 June 2009

Eric Gregory Award Reading 2009

Eyewear attended the Eric Gregory readings last night at the cool Farringdon-area pub Betsy Trotwood - Ms. Baroque was also there. This annual event was created 9 years ago by a former Gregory winner, Scottish poet Roddy Lumsden, an indispensable force on the UK scene (few do more for young emerging poets). Lumsden hosted with an informal, informative style, and the readings were in three sets, spaced by 15 minute breaks, that seemed to go on forever; they were needed though, the venue became stifling at times, and a no open-windows rule was enforced. There was a good crowd - maybe sixty or so, mainly younger people, with a few parents and older types like me. The little stage is ideally placed, and the sound system was crisp and clear.

It was an immensely positive vibe - everyone seemed glad to be there, and generally happy for the winners. It felt like an ideal situation - new poets being welcomed to the pack - not with envy, but admiration and support. This sort of event should be the model of how poets engage with each other at each stage of their careers. I felt blithely free of ego, since I had brought a poet I mentor along (22-year-old Kavita Joshi, a fine emerging poet) to see another of my Poetry School students, Alex McRae, read.

I'm very pleased that McRae's work was given the nod this year, especially as I had included her in the recent round-up of younger poets I put together for the Manhattan Review. I'm sorry another very good younger poet, Nathan Hamilton, wasn't a winner - but the five who read did themselves proud. I would think they all have a more than good shot, in a few years or less, at a debut collection from a good press.

McRae read well, selecting poems that showcase the imaginative clarity of her poems that often express a potent and deep central image as the formal governor of the text, and, since I have already included her work in that section, I will move on to the others in this post. Sam Riviere, who I mentioned in the Intro to the MR, but did not include, is now doing a PhD at UEA, and is someone to watch. He seems intelligent, down-to-earth, effortless, and free-wheeling, with the lanky slim energy of a rumpled rock star, but without the immodesty. He's funny, and his work has range and brains, a little like a Muldoon who'd spent time with O'Hara. Faber is publishing his pamphlet soon, so he's on his way. He read last, and was slightly tipsy, it seemed, or maybe just adrenaline-powered. To some, he was the best of the night.

I actually think that nod might go to James Brookes, by a hair. I didn't really know Brookes work. I do now. He is only 22, so his win on his first try was most impressive. His poems commanded immediate respect from the assembled - they were both supple and traditional, richly informed by classical images. He came across as brilliant, inspired, good-natured, decent, and in formal control of his aims. I think his debut has some of the immediate gravitas of Geoffrey Hill's in the early 60s. Someone should snap his first collection up, he feels like the genuine article.

Everyone was good, though, so let's not split hairs. Liz Berry (another Berry wins a Gregory!) read first of the poets, and was glamorous, poised, very sure of her self as a performer, and her poems, unknown to me previously, were well-made, often very funny, and sometimes startlingly moving. Again, a poet I could imagine becoming one of the best of of the next decade.

The most unusual of the bunch was the one with the most delightful name: Swithun Cooper. Cooper is handsome in a camp way that he cultivates by wearing Buddy Holly glasses, and his hair in a conservative science teacher style. Tall and confident, he delivered poems at once the most hip of the night, and perhaps the most ethical (one was about the feminist approach to slasher films). As a performer, it was hard to keep one's eyes off of him, but to my ears, while he is very promising, a few of the poems, in their complexity, still felt unfinished. It may be his style and themes are the closest to my own, in some ways (pop culture and authentic feeling) so I might be too close to see his work whole. He's one I want to come back to, and see more work from, before I make a more certain claim. I hope he emails me work for Eyewear (that goes for all the five) so I can feature them in the autumn.

The Eric Gregory Awards turn 50 next year. No other nation has such an impressive example of an award that has almost single-handedly supported and announced so much talent. Reading the list of former winners is a blueprint to mainstream British (and Irish) poetry of the last half-century. These five join that august tradition. Time will tell. but the odds are at least a few of those young poets we saw last night will be respected older poets one day.

The Death of Jonny Dollar

Sad news. I just read the obituary for the great music producer Jonny Dollar. I confess I didn't know his name before now, but I knew the music he helped to create: trip-hop. It seems like the distant paleolithic, but was really only a generation ago, in the 1990s, when the trip-hop style was the most exciting and fresh around - it really felt like the sountrack to the lifestyle of my friends and peers on the streets and clubs and cafes of Montreal, in the summers that made up the mid-90s on St. Laurent Boulevard (once Grunge had died). Nothing was stranger, sexier, or more of the moment. Of the songs that came from this period, Unfinished Sympathy by Massive Attack, was the masterpiece, and Dollar co-wrote that. It was the music that played on the first date with my (now) wife. Dollar's part of my life, and his genius, unknown to me then, is now plain. What a loss, he was only 45.

i before e except in UK?

Curious news. Schools in England have been told to no longer teach the catchy mnemonic "i before e except after c" because it is "irrelevant". I may be thick, but I still use the rule several times a day - it's one of the only things I do remember from school, along with "seven eights are fifty-six" (sung to a particular tune). Hope they reconsider.

Thursday, 18 June 2009

The Other Side

As I was reading The Guardian today, I was struck by a strange sense of horror and nostalgia, as two key figures from my childhood - offbeat though they were - had died and had obituaries on opposite pages. So - sad news: Bob Bogle and Hans Holzer have died. Bogle was lead guitarist with The Ventures - that Sixties instrumental surf band whose delightful cool twangy Walk, Don't Run was my favourite song and album for a long time when I was a kid; in Japan, they were, literally, bigger than The Beatles.

Holzer is the eerier guy. He is of course the famous ghost hunter, a writer on the In Search Of... series from the Seventies that used to scare the hell out of me and my brother, and part of that whole ESP-reincarnation-haunting vibe that - along with fear of nuclear war - really shaped the zeitgeist of the period.

I can still see those books of his at my house in St. Lambert, newly-bought from a church book sale, dog-eared and full of weird yarns. That was over 30 years ago, but the music and the schlock of that time is as fresh to me as yesterday. I miss St. Lambert these days, perhaps as much as ever, because my brother Jordan and his wife Jacinthe recently had a little baby boy, and I have yet to see him. They live near where we grew up. Near the St. Lawrence Seaway. The summers are very warm and humid - in the 30s - and in those days, boy were they long.

Seeing Through Things

What part of transparency doesn't power get? In Iran, the digital revolution continues, and it is - for now - more heartening than dispiriting - to see bravery, allied to new technology, attempt to express the natural human wish to have a say, and to be counted. Meanwhile, as Obama swats flies and millions cheer (a new form of charisma), that unkempt and awkward man, Brown, holds on to his plans for a secret inquiry, to learn more lessons. If, as reported today, both Butler and Hutton - even those whitewashwers of yore - consider the need for some sort of open exploration of how Britain came to go to war - then how much longer can the PM hold out?

Tuesday, 16 June 2009

Pleasurable moments

Speaking of which, I just spotted this at Lemonhound. It kindly mentions a poem from my New and Selected, Seaway, in the same breath, or breadth, as several poets I admire. Thank you.

Saunders on the Canadian National Magazine Awards

This sent in from Craig Saunders

At a gala ceremony on June 5, Sina Queyras won the National Magazine Award for poetry. The NMAs are Canada’s top prizes for magazine writing. The author of four books, including Teethmarks, Lemon Hound and the newly released Expressway, the Montreal poet won for “Her Dreams of the Expressway,” published in the Malahat Review.

The silver award went to Vancouver poet Jennica Harper for “Liner Notes,” published in Prism International. Honorable mentions went to Warren Heiti, Michael Lista, Peter Richardson, Barry Dempster, Sylvia Legris, Amy Dennis, Lorna Crozier and Jan Zwicky.

It was a banner night for the Malahat Review, which publishes out of the University of Victoria, British Columbia. The literary journal also won the gold and silver awards for fiction with stories by Andrew Tibbetts and D.W. Wilson, and a silver in the “personal journalism” category for “Bad Day” by Joel Yanofsky.

AlbertaViews was named magazine of the year. The Walrus won the most awards with five golds and a silver, followed closely by Toronto Life and explore, a small adventure travel magazine with an impressive history of good writing.

[editor's note: particular hip-hip-hoorays for Sina Queyras, a long-time blogger and friend of Eyewear's]

Craig Saunders is a Toronto-based writer and reviewer.

Brown's Whitewash

It wouldn't be Eyewear if it didn't mention the illegal Iraq war from time to time - and it wouldn't be Britain if there wasn't an establishment urge to cover the whole thing up. It seems almost absurd that, at a time when even in Iran the supreme authorities are having to rethink their anti-democratic shenanigans, so strong is the democratic pressure from the people, Gordon Brown - Prime Minister in name only - continues to try and pull the hood over our eyes about the mess he and Tony got us into (with a little help from George). I won't wax polemical here - you can imagine the rest. Only one thing though - how did Brown think this anti-transparent whitewash would get past us, so soon after he promised a brand new listening-and-improving self? He's the same-old-Brown, alas. Willing to learn lessons - but only if some other anonymous person's results are graded for him, in secret, in a dark room, under the seabed, where everybody is truthful and intelligence never fails.

Monday, 15 June 2009

School's Out For The Summer

The Poetry School group I work with has disbanded for the summer. A bittersweet moment, as such partings after a project well done always are. I have so much enjoyed working with them - they're talented, smart, and very good at supporting but also honestly critiquing each other's work. This year, the group included Kai Adams, Emily Berry, Mike Kavanagh, Samantha Jackson, Katrina Naomi, and Alex McRae. They've won prizes, have books out or pamphlets out, or on the way, and have completed or soon will commence, MAs, and PhDs. They're active.

Whenever I count my blessings - and should more often - I consider the chance to work with these (and other) poets through the Poetry School, and at Kingston, high on the list of good things. Poetic faith is renewed by such mentoring, by such fine students - students who become peers, and colleagues, and sometimes, friends, with their dedication and goodwill. I sometimes hear writers question the value of teaching creative writing, but surely, at least one of its virtues, however selfish, is this - it replenishes and inspires the teacher, since the students can have exciting new ideas about writing, and, among other things, are often reading unexpected works.

Saturday, 13 June 2009

Sir Andrew Motion

Sir John Betjeman - it has a ring to it, and signalled an important establishment respect, even admiration. Now, the UK has Sir Andrew Motion, after the Queen has bestowed new honours, announced today. As the acceptable face of British mainstream poetry, Motion has excelled. His poetry extends and strengthens the line of new-Georgianism that Larkin returned to post-war. Sir Motion will hopefully continue to do good work on behalf of poetry, for years to come. Meanwhile, though, Eyewear feels that a gulf is opening, between the reality that is how poetry is read and written, and the false hopes and claims often made on its behalf by apologists everywhere.

I feel that poetry is actually in danger, from all sides - from both those who would make it entirely experiment-driven and Adornoesque in its austere claims and hermetic techniques - and those who think it can be a laugh-a-minute vaudeville act - comedy with rhyme basically. Poetry needs rigour, intelligence, a sense of form, and some sense of purpose - but also a sense of play, drama, and even popular emotional appeal - and it needs these human aspects combined. Poetry is a human art, not a science for robots designed for the surface of Mars. But humanity can be, at times, dull, stupid and vain, as well as arrogant, pretentious, and willfully-obscure. The human strain in poetry demands that poets write against the grain of the common denominator, as well as at times, for it.

I recently met with a ferociously smart young poet from America, completing a PhD there, who thought poems should be cerebral, serious - and could not be self-reflecting or emotive. That's one tradition, and one to be respected. But it cannot be all the story. Is Prynne the new Pound? Many in American universities now say so. The question becomes, is such a claim meaningful? How do we explain the gap between Motion and Prynne? Need we?


Eyewear has predicted for weeks that this would be a difficult autumn in the UK, and now, unfortunately, the swine flu pandemic has been confirmed in the last few days. I have become rather tired by the stiff-upper-lip attitude of many of my British friends. They are being a little too stoical, I feel. Obviously, there is no need to panic, but neither does complacency seem in order. Latest figures suggest between 12 and 16 million Britons will get the swine flu this winter. Of those, between 25,000 and 30,000 are predicted to die. In a usual flu season, that number is more like 4,000 deaths. An almost 8-fold increase in mortality, especially one that will predominantly effect young people under the age of 60, is a pending tragedy, not a ho-hum situation. That many of the victims will be those with AIDS and underlying conditions alarms me, as I have close friends who are ill in such ways. Also, as a lecturer, I am concerned for my students, who always seem to have a flu or cold at the best of times. There is a blase Darwinism, or false sense of machismo, that steels a lot of the nerves responding to this coming medical disaster. But, as far as I can see, there is a chance, and not a slim one, that some of those we love will not survive the year, due to the first pandemic in 40 years. That puts elections for poetry positions in perspective.

Wednesday, 10 June 2009

Guest Review: Paine on Petit

Vicky Paine reviews
The Treekeeper’s Tale
by Pascale Petit

The poems in Pascale Petit’s fourth collection are located firmly in the outside world, in forests and rivers, beneath permafrost and in star-filled skies. But her poems are not simply observations of flora and fauna; rather, the many creatures that appear in her poems inhabit mythological landscapes and spark off imaginative narratives. These landscapes form a backdrop for subtle meditations about our sense of self, what it is to be at home in the world, and the wondrous diversity of life.

The book is divided into four sections. The first, ‘The Treekeeper’sTale’, focuses on the enormous redwood trees that grow on the westcoast of North America. The poet speaks from the canopy of these huge trees and her new perspective creates a heightened sensory awareness: ‘Silence has small sounds I have learnt to listen to with my skin –the sap’s slow rise up three hundred feet of xylem.’ The sibilance of these lines suggests the hiss of the fluid as it eases up the trunk and the spondaic ‘sap’s slow rise’ imitates its creeping pace. Although Petit only occasionally makes use of end rhymes, her poems are always pleasing to the ear. Within these tree poems many ideas reoccur, particularly that of the musicality of the forest. Each poem echoes and reverberates off the last, creating layers of sound and sense. Petit emphasises the need to allow time for listening and paying attention, until eventually, ‘we begin to see ourselves as part of the forest’. She isn’t anthropomorphising the redwoods so much as allowing the speaker of the poem to identify herself as part of the living world, and consider what she may have in common with all living things.

Although many poets have explored the idea of not feeling at home inthe world from a human perspective, Petit broadens this concept to other living forms: an uprooted redwood leaves a ‘crater in the sky’,a wonderful reversal of the image the reader might have expected. The suggestion is that trees exist as precariously as we do, not least because of the threat of the chainsaw. In ‘Exiled Elm’ the tree’s seeds are ‘searching for new worlds’, hinting to the reader that perhaps nothing is truly at home on earth, since everything has only a brief existence before death.

The second section of the book, ‘Afterlife’, shifts its focus to frozen Asian landscapes. ‘Siberian Ice Maiden’, one of the longer poems in the collection, describes an exhumed body and is full of rich detail about the rituals of the original burial (‘a hole cut in myskull / to insert incense and pine cones’) and the luxurious garments the maiden is buried in: ‘these still supple thigh-high riding boots to protect my skin from chaffing against the saddle –all made it through the centuries unscathed.’

This is contrasted with the body now displayed naked in a museum, her clothes and ornaments behind glass. Petit builds a personality for the human remains, creating empathy with the person who is now seen as an artefact. Petit’s previous collections have been in the confessional mode and although the first-person voice still dominates this new collection, by speaking through Siberian priestesses and golden eagles among various other living creatures, these poems feel less autobiographical and rather more symbolic, whilst still being concerned with intense emotional experiences of the individual.

Many of Petit’s poems are sequences of enjambed couplets, allowing plenty of space on the page for her detailed imagery without breaking up the flow of meaning. She makes use of line breaks and very short lines to emphasise meaning and explores her subjects with precise and vivid language. She is an expert at the simple but dazzling image, for example describing newly opened white moth wings as ‘a book of frost’ and a salmon ‘in pyjamas of pearl and ash’.

Occasionally the flights from reality leave the reader behind emotionally. The conceit of ‘Baby Moon’, whereby the speaker suggests she is taking care of a ‘baby moon’, feeding it ‘star gruel’ and watching her thin out and fatten during a month, feels devoid of any meaning beyond the conceit itself. However this is rare and usually the reader is fully convinced by what Les Murray has called Petit’s ‘powerful mythic imagination’.

Petit is an artist as well as a poet and her interest in visual representation is evident in such startling images as, ‘the air painting itself on my eye’. Petit has published ‘The Wounded Deer’, a series of poems written in response to paintings by Frida Kahlo and is currently at work on a full-length collection inspired by her work.T his is obviously a technique that Petit finds fruitful and the third section of this book, ‘War Horse’ is inspired by the German expressionist painter Franz Marc and his dramatic, brightly-coloured images of animals. He strived to achieve what he called a ‘pantheistic empathy with the throbbing and flowing of nature's bloodstream in trees, in animals, in the air’, which clearly resonates with Petit’sown poetic aims.

One of these poems, ‘War Horse’, has a wonderful metaphor of a comet, with an ‘icy mane’ but the images in the poem feel disconnected and the poems don’t seem as strong as the other sections of the book. For example, ‘Pegasus / groaned in great pain like a human / wakened froma vivid dream.’ This simile seems rather weak; humans don’t usually groan when wakened from dreams and the comparison doesn’t add any resonance to the pain of the dying horse.

The final section, ‘The Chrysanthemum Lantern’, consists of seven poems by a number of different poets translated by Petit from Chinese. These are the fruits of her participation in the first Chinese/EnglishYellow Mountain Poetry Festival, and their appeal to Petit is clear: these poems abound with creatures great and small, with locust trees and rivers and moons, and like Petit’s own poems they are intensely visual and exquisitely detailed.

Paine reviews for Eyewear.

Harold Norse Has Died

Sad news. According to Silliman's Blog, poet Harold Norse has died. Norse was the author of The Beat Hotel.

Grizzly Bear: Veckatimest

Earlier this year, Eyewear predicted that 2009 would prove to be a superior annum for popular music. There have been dozens of exciting releases since January - but one, half-way through the year, stands out for me, so far - Veckatimest, from East Coast hepcats Grizzly Bear. They've been heralded by some critics as the new Vampire Weekend, or even Fleet Foxes - which is all wrong, but close, in that it expresses the fact they're young, interested in sophisticated sounds, and genuinely fresh.

However, this album's sonic influences (why do we always cite influences now?) are more intriguingly confused and far-flung: The Doors, Steely Dan, composer John Adams, post-50s experimental Jazz, and of course, The Beach Boys by way of The Beatles. That makes the album sound either a little obvious, or perhaps outlandish. Instead, it's beautiful, complex, and at least for now, ever-renewing to the ears. It's one of those rare albums you can listen to intently, savouring each smart shift in tone, or keep on in the background as easy-listening. I highly recommend it. It'll be in my top 10 end of the year, and, if it wears as well as I suspect it will, may even come first.

Tuesday, 9 June 2009

Ambler Into Fear

Good news. One of Eyewear's favourite authors - British spy-book Thirties genius Eric Ambler - is back in print, after a decade in the wilderness. 28 June marks the start of his centenary birth year, and Penguin's done a good job on five of the books. Pity they haven't reprinted his first - the spy spoof The Dark Frontier, which I think is one of his best.

I loved Ambler almost more than Greene. His books made great noir films, too - The Mask of Dimitrios, with Peter Lorre, was one of my boyhood faves, and inspired one my earliest poems (in an Audenesque style).

We often think of the Thirties landscape as ambiguous amoral territory, with debates between fascists and socialists, in a crumbling Europe, as mapped by Auden or Greene, but Ambler is the third part of that imaginary triumvirate, I think (well, one might want to add Orwell). Speaking of which, Orson Welles (there is a weird name echo there) quasi-directed the Ambler classic Journey Into Fear, and made it a madcap farce, with the infamous assassination scene in the rain (with the grossly obese killer, and the Victrola).

Monday, 8 June 2009

Gordon Brown's Meltdown

It was a strange night for politics in Britain, and a sad one. The EU election results are Labour's poorest since 1918 (beaten in Wales and Scotland, with far-right parties getting a toehold), with less than 16% of the popular vote. Eyewear feels the only way forward for Labour is radical and dramatic renewal, instigated by drastic change at the top. That this likely won't happen only redoubles the Labour tragedy - and the potential destruction of the party for a generation is a tragedy - and it likely won't because a) Brown is stubborn enough to cling to power until next May and b) his peers and MPs seem so demoralised and/or craven as to resist the bold steps necessary. This means Labour is dead on its feet - like someone stuck at the edge of a diving board, shivering, unable and unwilling to climb down or make the leap. It seems obvious that any leader would be better, since Brown cannot communicate with human warmth and will never win voters around now. Someone else just might find a bit of that Obama spark. Meanwhile, the right is gaining ground in Britain, and looks set - in more or less acceptable forms - to be driving the agenda for the next decade (much as they have this decade, anyway). What a mess Blair and Brown - that unfunny duo - have got us into this time. But then, since at least 2003, they've been abandoning all of Labour's core values simply to curry favour, anyway.

Friday, 5 June 2009

The Best American Poetry Blog and I

Good news. Greg Santos, the Canadian poet based in New York, has intro'd me today at The Best American Poetry blog, as part of his research into Anglophone Quebec Poets. My modest foray into the American consciousness continues, with a poem that has just appeared in the latest issue of New American Writing 27. I also have work in the latest issue of Gargoyle and Steam Ticket, and forthcoming poems in Fulcrum. Thanks to all those editors.

Sleepwalking With The Enemy

Yesterday night, the cabinet member James Purnell, made a brave move. He opened the way for those in cabinet, and backbench Labour MPs, to voice their discontent with Gordon Brown. It all seemed to play for. Incredibly, though, instead of rallying to the young visionary's letter today, the fearful Labour cabinet has rallied around their embunkered leader as he accomplishes a semi-shuffle. It's a terrible day for Labour. They seem incapable of not bottling things. Whenever a strong clear decision to lead and make hard choices is called for, they retreat. This was the chance. Now Alan Johnson has been co-opted - a cowardly act on his part, revealing him as venal and small. Britain will likely have another year of this gang - unable to lead, unwilling to move on.

Thursday, 4 June 2009

David Carradine Has Died

Sad news. The great TV and B-movie actor, David Carradine, has been found dead in a Bangkok hotel room. Kung Fu is one of the great TV shows, and his work on that was brilliant.

Griffin Prize Winners Announced

C. D. Wright's Rising, Falling, Hovering and A. F. Moritz's The Sentinel are the International and Canadian winners of the ninth annual Griffin Poetry Prize. Eyewear had reviewed Moritz's book recently, and thought it was very good, indeed. Good also to see Wright do so well.

Wednesday, 3 June 2009

Voting Intentions

The Guardian today calls for Gordon Brown - that hapless Scot - to go. I wish he would. It seems that voting for Labour is currently a bad idea - if only because of Iraq; the failure to address the poverty divide; and due to current incompetence and cowardice. The Tories are worse - anti-EU (and aligned with fanatical homophobes in Europe) and still too Thatcherite for our own good. The Greens are angelic in the abstract, but too left of the centre to be a valid mainstream option - for now. Therefore, it seems the Lib Dems have a window of credibility we need to open for them. I don't much like atheistic babe-magnet Clegg, but Vince Cable is a great leader-in-waiting. If I were to vote tomorrow, it would be for the Lib Dems, then.

Tuesday, 2 June 2009

Guest Review: Muckle On Goodland

John Muckle reviews
What The Things Sang
by Giles Goodland

The structuring principles of Giles Goodland’s poetry are the list and the proverb, the proverb and the list: a list of proverbs, a proverbial list – of words, objects of perception, apercus, saws, definitions. He is a lexicographer by trade: alphabetical order is irresistible to him, as are all kinds of tidiness and symmetry – as is also a contrary impulse to subvert a policed language of fixed definitions by means of various techniques he has evolved for calling its orders into question. A proverb is a linguistic structure – if this that, as this is so that is, and so on: as many other kinds of ifs, whens and ases as he can dream up, a series of rhetorical figures, checks and balances, permutating propositions, additive arrangements, suggestions of similitude, and paradoxes, spooling on and on, melting into one another until we begin to fear that any notion of a proverb as an encapsulation of useful wisdom is gone, and a collection of them is not something that might hold your chosen people together in the wilderness but more likely send all twelve tribes gibbering in every direction into the tentless desert.

memory is an efficient way of disposing of the past.
The body is thick with contradiction

(p. 43)

The Book of Proverbs tells to ‘removeth not thy neighbour’s landmark’. Giles Goodland seems at first to have no such inhibition. But, taking Wittgenstein’s Zettel and an assortment of other philosophical wisdom books as points of departure, he has come up with a fascinating way of harnessing his saws into a sort of anti-narrative mock-epic; and the funny thing is that the would-be deconstructivist in him ends up being no less a retailer of folk-wisdoms than Benjamin Franklin. ‘Blake, pick up the telephone,’ he pleads at one moment, as if desperate for some guidance from the writer of Proverbs of Hell and Auguries of Innocence, while on another page a series of reflections on absence and presence of mind includes one about discovering that it is your own heart you are frying in a pan – a denied self queasily reappears, along with everyday responsibilities, affections, a sense of constriction, and the need for a private space.

He suggests a subject that is the object of determinations, without much agency, but still lets it bleat a little on the way to the slaughterhouse. Dreams are crucially important in this book, as a part of dailiness, and, in senses both Freudian and Surrealist, as a refuge and a subversive place of recovery of thwarted desires. Goodland thus stops short of being the most extreme kind of language poet: the things do indeed sing, they are indeed the things that once had ideas in them, as well as being, beyond mere language games, the irreducible and inescapable things in themselves of being and temporal experience, of our ‘multiple and polycentric’ political world. He is fairly optimistic that we will be able to make sense of it all.

the sun has been exploding for so long, it looks normal

the past is like the future, unlike the future

night explains in writing so dense, it eludes everyone

knowledge can be suspended in consciousness, not dissolved

your food has been consuming you, your buildings building you

nothing can be measured, although structures still hold up and no catastrophe occurs

Moses bears the first tablets of concrete poetry, but society is not ready to understand

(p. 52)

If I have any criticism to make of this hugely enjoyable book, it’s that, however many shapes the poet finds, they always turn out to be more ways of making lists – the reader begins to long for an argument to develop, a picture to swim up, a character to appear who is not the reflecting poet, or, contrary to this, for more disruption, more fragmentation – more difference of some kind, anyway. More narrative perhaps. After all, if everything had to be a description, an argument or a proverb, even a paradoxical one, we would soon throw existence across the room. But this is a brilliant work that is compulsively readable, witty, poetic, deep-seeking, and, in its own oblique, rueful way, cheerfully celebratory from start to finish.

John Muckle was brought up in the village of Cobham, Surrey, but has spent most of his adult life in Essex and London. In the 1980s he initiated the Paladin Poetry series and was the general editor of its flagship anthology, The New British Poetry (eds D'Aguiar, Allnutt, Edwards, Mottram). Among his books are The Cresta Run (short stories), Cyclomotors (an illustrated novella) and Firewriting and other poems (Shearsman Books, 2005). He has also written for children and published studies of Allen Ginsberg, Tom Raworth, Ed Dorn and others.

Monday, 1 June 2009

Goodwin vs. Darwin

Isn't it time the British media stopped using Ruth Padel as a whipping post? The latest installment was Sunday's column in the Sunday Times, by Daisy Goodwin, which basically argues that children (including her daughter) should not be encouraged to become professional poets, because it is a vocation that cannot really be taught, and that is best practiced by people in banks or offices like Eliot or Stevens, not creative writing profs, as work provides the humanity that drives inspiration; amateur poetry is the thing.

Her main example of the poet gone wrong is Padel, who is described more than once as "ambitious" for quitting her academic teaching post at the age of 44 to concentrate on writing poetry. The article is really ludicrous, and ill-informed, and, more to the point, badly damaging, I think, to poetry. I am beginning to recognise that the main enemy of British poetry is the British media - their ideas of what poetry is, or should be, are rather quaintly Victorian, patronising, or worse - and curiously moralising and demanding - the media really "wants" poets to be a certain way - rather than perhaps admitting that, if anything at all, poetry is about freedom (okay, play with a net if you want, but not one sewn by a journalist surely).

Now, I agree that poetry is a vocation. But that doesn't mean poets have to "keep the day job" or avoid any human temptations, like ambition, or a drive to succeed. I find the tone of this article deeply negative to women. I mean, would Goodwin have cautioned Seamus Heaney against "leaving his day job" (he quit teaching to focus on poetry), or suggest that Don Paterson stop teaching poetry writing at St Andrews, roll up his sleeves, and become a surgeon or truck driver? No, the examples of the proper poets are all men - mostly dead white wealthy males - who were privileged or lucky enough to have money to set themselves up, and write as they pleased.

Goodwin fails to mention the great gains made for British women's poetry over the last 30 years, by women refusing to buy into the stereotypes about what poetry is. She also, rather puzzlingly, fails to mention how active Padel has been, working in all the various ways that poets do, around the poem. Goodwin, I think, makes the common mistake of defining a "poet" as someone who composes poems. That's like saying a surgeon is only doing their job when knee-deep in blood and gore. Poets are also working when reading poems, writing about poems, teaching poetry, organising events for other poets, editing other poets, putting together anthologies, and, speaking on the subject of poetry - or reading their poems aloud to audiences. None of this activity is futile, or outside the umbra of what can be considered the role of the poet.

Now, in the UK, a deeply conservative strain of thought wants poets not to have any roles other than the inspired, unambitious "natural" dispenser of poetic utterance - but in the 21st century this is facile. Indeed, there are many ways that poets can develop active, rewarding careers - in line with their vocation - as activists, editors, critics, researchers, teachers, and so on - and by keeping busy they whet their poetic talent for the next poem. Eliot, in fact, was pretty much a professional poet figure most of his life, as editor-critic - his other work entirely underwritten and rendered meaningful by his total commitment to the significance of the poet in relation to his culture and community.

Goodwin's simplistic ideas about poets would set any intelligent women or man, girl or boy, back decades. Poets now get out there and do things - make things happen - and this unsettling active poetics - a poetics of writing and communion with nature and others - is disturbing precisely because it is complex, hard to simplify, and not merely "romantic". Padel has done as much for British poetry since she "quit her day job" than any one I know. Her books on poetry inspire many, are touchstones, and brilliantly useful for teaching. Her own poetic research and travels made her poems better - her Darwin book is a masterpiece, and may win the TS Eliot Prize this year, if Paterson or Lumsden don't snatch it away.

Goodwin is wrong to think that Padel was uniquely pernicious in her choices - if anything, she's been one of the angels. The poetry world is highly competitive, filled with intelligent, educated, hard-working, serious, often decent and sensitive people. The ambitions that animate a superb poet are much more troublingly rich and strange than a newspaper article, or blog post, can explain or query. Milton's ambition was huge, as was Dante's. It seems a very ugly twist of fate that this poetic heroine for our times has become a gargoyle. The media in the UK is on a rampage, and is damaging good people. It should stop and smell the roses.

Eyewear Is Four Today

Today, blogs seem old hat - almost as antiquated as those phones in Dashiel Hammet movies that you have to pick up and dial. Somewhere along the line of the last year or so, I became middle-aged enough to no longer get the latest innovations in technology. I don't own a Blackberry, an iPhone, and can't tweet or twitter for beans. But I have tried to do something modestly innovative with my blog. Basically, it's a hybrid form, both personal enough to allow some laments for the dead, and hurrahs for the born, and impersonal enough to welcome other voices, guests, and writers, in, from time to time.

If I have had three main aims, they have been to 1) continuously represent an interest in poetry as a global interest, without constant reference to borders and nations; I happen to think that "English poetry" means poetry written in English, regardless of culture of origin, and am as happy to read a poem by Ranjit Hoskote, Patrick Chapman, or Nicole Blackman, as one by someone from the UK or Canada; I also read poems in French, and in translation; I resist the urge, on the part of many in the US and Britain, let's say, to try and make their narratives of what poetry is, or was, the only ones. 2) I try to bridge the worlds of poetry and popular culture, to see if there is a possible intelligent but fun rapprochement possible between them; and 3) I have tried to be a gentle and mostly polite gadfly in London, constantly asking more from those in the media and publishing who claim to speak on or about or for poetry, and instead often, frankly, speak only for particular vested interests.

I've been in the UK almost seven years now, and I am still told I am not a "British" but "Canadian" poet (though I am a landed immigrant). Identity is too complex and interesting to be packaged so narrowly. I will continue to blog over the summer, as best I can, but maybe not as often (but you know me). Last night, I read "The Whitsun Weddings" on Whitsunday, and reflected on the odd fact that almost no one ever notes that the last few lines are not a sunny metaphor only, but also deeply foreboding. The arrow-shower only looks like rain as it falls, but for each of those pierced, the heart feels the full fletcher's art.


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...