Sunday, 27 September 2009

The Bloodaxe Book of Contemporary Indian Poetry edited by Jeet Thayil £12

This is not a review. Sometimes poetry books don’t lend themselves to definitive judgements. Particularly anthologies, which cover so many different experiences and styles. If they’re really good, and this one is, they become more like an old friend. You don’t necessarily agree with everything they have to say, or how they say it, but when you meet, you feel a deep sense of engagement. Sometimes you can go for ages without reading them, but when you do, there’s no sense of discontinuity.
This anthology, which extracts from the familiar and the obscure, places side by side one of the world’s most energetic but disparate diasporas. For the first time in the UK, we have an anthology which juxtaposes Kamala Das with Vikram Seth, Kolaktar with Daljit Nagra. Styles are either modernist/ post-modernist or brilliantly traditional (e.g. Nagra’s almost Kiplingesque light verse in the mixed codes on Hindi English and Seth’s elegant narratives). Backgrounds range from Zoroastrian priest to marketing executive, sometimes that might even be the same person! One of the joys of this book is that each writer is introduced briefly by the editor so you get a sense of the remarkable communities which have informed the writing of the poets contained in this volume. Generally, speaking, there are Indian writers who increasingly seem to be part of the New Capitalism of graphic designers and public relations consultants. Then there are the American academics and the British poets, the latter engaged with the very particular struggle against racism and stereotyping, though please would someone explain why Moniza Alvi is missing, please (OK! OK! She’s of Pakistani origin but hey, let’s not be sectarian!).
I want to avoid the cliche about everything Indian being essentially various. But I would dare to venture there may be a sort of openness in the verse in this volume - whether it touches on sex or badminton or politics or love or history or philosophy - which is characteristic. When you read it, you are not left with a sense that the poets were playing safe when they were writing their verse, they do not edit out their passions or ideas, which is why the book is exciting, and why it is a friend and companion.

Sunday, 13 September 2009

Charles Tomlinson: New Collected Poems

Charles Tomlinson is one of the best poets to have written in English over the last 50 years, but his work rarely seems to attract the attention it deserves. A poet who often focuses on observation and description, interrogating the concept of viewpoint, he also writes poems about music, people and history and seems genuinely engaged with left-wing revolutionary politics, which captures his imagination, if not, entirely, his approval.

To mark the publication of his New Collected Poems, I thought I'd write about a poem I came across recently which expresses the tragic but heroic history of revolutionary failure in the 20th century. It's called - appropriately enough - 'Prometheus'. There are three elements in the poem: a Summer storm, the revolutionary piece of music by the Russian composer Scriabin which gives the poem its title and the poet's reflections on what took place in Russia after Prometheus was written.

These elements and the reasonably regular 6 line stanzas make the poem into an Ode. Think of Coleridge's Dejection - an Ode for a comparison.

There are a number 0f features in the poem (personification, periphrasis, juxtaposition) which challenge the reader. In some ways, it is fairly traditional poetry, but it is not accessible like Larkin:

Cymballed fireseeps. Prometheus came down
In more than orchestral flame and Kerensky fled
Before it..........

However, the great men have now departed and we live in a more pluralistic, kinder, less interesting time:

History treads out the music of your dreams
Through blood, and cannot close like this stops. The trees
Continue raining though the rain has ceased
In a cooled world of incessant codas.

Reality is not like the romantic dreams of Scriabin or Lenin who wrote 'the daily prose such poetry prepares for'. Instead of an ending which provides some sort of culmination there is anti-climax and continuation, in the form of the English traditional tune, Greensleeves, played on the bell of an ice cream van: ice cream van circulates the estate
Playing Greensleeves, and at the city's
Stale new frontier even ugliness
Rules with the cruel mercy of solidities.

Not an easy poet to read then ... he doesn't adopt the saloon bar matiness of Larkin, yet in his seriousness and variety, he is in a sense more like a Victorian than the reactionary Larkin, who hated everything modern.

If the New Collected Poems seems to be too demanding a place to begin, try the Poetry Archive site and listen to Tomlinson reading from his work, including the beautiful, moving and restrained poem, entitled, 'The Door'.

Wednesday, 2 September 2009

It's a Bomber! Zeppelins by Chris McCabe

There is a view that modern poetry is written by a small, self-reviewing clique, which is highly critical of outsiders but praises mediocre work highly if it is written in an approved style by 'one of us'. Personally, I think that this view is too simplistic. There is a lot of very good contemporary poetry which should be more widely read. However, there is a grain of truth in it too.

Take, for instance, Chris McCabe's second collection, Zeppelins (Salt hardback, £12.99). This was praised by Poetry London, which I think was a pity because a talented and original poet - who works in London for the Poetry Library - has taken a wrong turning and needs some critcism to get his work back on the right track.

McCabe's first collection, The Hutton Inquiry, is a must-buy book which is likely to be seen as a signature collection for the age which is just (sadly imho) passing: New Labour's attempt to reconstruct Britain around a progressive consensus. This fell apart partly as a result of the foolish decision to join in with Bush's invasion of Iraq but also because it was based on an uncritical acceptance of modern neo-liberal capitalism. McCabe picked up on this at just the right time - when the 'chattering classes' were beginning to turn on Blair and Blairism.

Clearly influenced by the New York school of poetry (and maybe poets like Charles Olson?), McCabe's style was both immediate and highly intellectual. Here were ringing phrases reflecting an well-educated and eclectic mind in action (and reaction) to the events around him (or to his own random associations). For instance, in the poem #255:darwin, the subject rolls forward accruing ideas which are vividly and directly expressed:

greatest mystery
story ever
inquisitorial simulacrum
copies of copies
without a template
even and squatting
twelve inches in front
a train speeds
epiphanies of gulls
sliding down
history's banister

Whilst there are still poems written with a similar wit and energy in his second collection, there are also some idle stinkers, the worst of which is his poem about getting married, The Nuptials, which includes a cute little doodle and lines like these:

I write each night
as you take your bath

the poured rioja
connects us together -

"We're having a great holiday
aren't we?"

Strangely (or should I say, entirely predictably) his wife never actually materialises as a person in the poem at all although she does get compared to a Greek goddess (yawn):

like Aphrodite was back
against the tide of fashion

This is jigsaw poetry with bits missing. The pieces supplied by the poet are supposedly witty and vivid and we, the readers, are supposed to be spurred into completing the scenes in our head. Unfortunately, I find that increasingly the poet's pieces are pedestrian or pretentious, or both:

life is good
but the rules
don't work,
make up
your own
and never live
by them
(Poems Overhead)

The best piece of advice to give McCabe is to keep on writing but stop publishing so much. He may have to find a mature style and perhaps a little self-doubt might ultimately assist him in doing so. Perhaps the powerful title poem shows the way ahead and I like to energy and confessional reflectiveness in Dovecot, Liverpool, one of a number of sonnets with some very good features.