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.

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