Saturday, 20 March 2010

Planisphere by John Ashbery

When I read Ashbery’s later selected poems, ‘Notes from the Air’, I began to have doubts about a poet whom I had thought of as perhaps the greatest living poet in English. His poems were so open that they all began to feel as if they were about everything and nothing in particular. In fact, they all began to feel a little bit samey.

Notwithstanding this, his latest collections, ‘A Worldly Country’ and Planisphere’, have proved to be delightful reads. Clearly, Asbery does not benefit from over-exposure.

Rather than write an academic piece, I thought I’d provide a list of reactions/ thoughts which I tend to have to his poems in ‘Planisphere’. The list is non-exhaustive, but many of his poems tend to hit a number of the items on the list below.

• Modern slang/ jargon ‘maxed out’, even swears colloquially (‘For Fuck’s Sake’). Best title of poem ever: ‘um’
• Opens in middle of conversations ‘such an attractive idea’
• Epigrams which don’t refer to anything in particular – or nothing at least you’re likely to know about - but which feel totally exact
• Parody of epigrams
• Sense of imperial (turning post imperial) guilt (less so perhaps than the previous collection ‘A Worldly Country’)
• Jokey, super modernity

Spray on sex, he botanized.
That could never happen.

He is being held by Egyptian matrons.

• Direct address
• Sense of time passing, regret
• Poems feel whole but are in fact often a series of non sequiters, some of which gesture in similar directions
• Naughty bo-ho snidey observations: ‘God-fearing, ass-wearing blokes’
• Funny, playful
• A few poems have identifiable subjects
• Wit about people, time, language ‘the acrostic lost its apples’
• Self-deprecating persona
• Striking poetic effects, using personification and concretizing the abstract
• Some references to God, not exactly respectful – rueful – perhaps, but not blasphemous
• Obvious debt to later Auden, without the need to explain, but the manner, the (off) bearing the same(ish)
• Sometimes I just don’t care what it means, or if it actually means anything at all, it just feels right, like a box you can keep bringing ideas from: I’d/ expected the new bill/ to be unbreakable. Like marble./ Instead: handheld/ receivership’

Sunday, 7 March 2010

Favourite Collections

Usually I write reviews of poetry collections which takes a lot of energy and commitment. Today I thought I'd do something a little more fun and compile a short 'Desert Island Disc' list of contemporary poetry books I really rate. By contemporary, I generally mean published in the last 5 years although I accept the definition might apply over at least the last 25 years:

Derek Mahon - Harbour Lights
Geoffrey Hill - Without Title
Julia Darling - Apology for Absence
Geoff Hattersley - Back of Beyond
Paul Muldoon - Horse Latitudes
Hugo Williams - West End Final
Alice Oswald - Woods etc.
Charles Tomlinson - Cracks in the Universe
John Ashbery - A Worldly Country
Michael Haslam - A Sinner Saved by Grace
Patrick McGuiness - The Canals of Mars
Selima Hill - Gloria
Matthew Welton - The Book of Matthew
Roy Fisher - The Long and the Short of It
John Ash - The Parthian Stations
Louise Gluck - Averno
Mahmoud Darwish - The Butterfly's Burden
Steven Waling - Travelator

Saturday, 6 March 2010

David Attenborough, I think not!

As you can see, Derek Mahon’s latest collection (Life on Earth, Gallery Press 2008) passed me by somewhat. Perhaps I saw the title and mixed it up with book of the more famous TV series. Unlike that epochal venture, this is on the whole a slight collection. In my view, I have to add that some of the poems are weak and pretentious: e.g.

She sits there tinkering with an ice-cream
She wears a hat, gloves and a frilly blouse
If only time could stop like this before
life choices, childbirth and the coming war.
(An Ice-Cream at Caproni’s)

We are not talking William Carlos Williams here. The last line is about as subtle as a hurling stick and entirely made up of abstract noun phrases. This is bad writing, pure and simple.

Others are marred by cliché and prosaic generalisations. For instance, in Biographia Literaria, we are told that Coleridge had:

a troubled soul torn between fear and rage

(You don’t say, Derek). If you’re going to write this sort of verse, and I’m a fan of thinking poetry, then the thoughts have to be novel, deft and interesting. Otherwise, what you end up with is heavy-handed doggerel (i.e. a bit like Eskimo Nell but nowhere near as entertaining). If you want an example of how this sort of thing can be done well, look up For Danton by Charles Tomlinson.

Thankfully, there are a number of specimens of novel, deft and interesting verse in this collection, not least in the collection of 9 poems in rhyming quatrains, collectively entitled Homage to Gaia. This includes an Ode to Bjork, which is really good and surprising from the old fella. I mean, he has always struck me as militantly high brow. Suddenly, I have to revise my image of him in his library re-reading Robert Graves’s Myths of the Ancient Greeks and translations of Basho. Now, I have to add to my thoughts that whilst he’s doing that, he may be listening to Venus as a Boy and not to the piano music of Robert Schumann. That just shows, you should never underestimate the man.

It will not have escaped the notice of my readers (or should I say, reader, Hi, there) that the collection has a few Green bits in it. In fact, Mahon seems to have fallen in with Green thinking hook, line and dolphin-friendly sinker. There’s mention of solar panels, helium air ships, and various references to the tell-tale signs of environmental catastrophe, which we are all happily ignoring in the hope that we’ll keep our jobs not doing anything you can really put your finger on.

He also seems to be engaged with ideas about cycles of natural re-birth – this has a sort of New Age-y spirituality about it. It feels a long way from the young firebrand who once wrote so vividly about ‘The Troubles’ in Northern Ireland e.g.

We hunted the mad bastard
Through bog, moorland, rock and the star-lit west
And gunned him down in a blind yard
Between ten sleeping lorries
And an electricity generator
(As It Should Be)

Or the guy who mixed traditional poetry with resonant references to modernity, creating unique registers which make some of his work, unforgettable:

You with your light meter and relaxed itinerary
Let not our naive labours have been in vain!
(A Disused Shed in Co. Wexford)

Mahon has moved on – in some ways very radically in this engaged new collection - but sometimes there are echoes of the past, when he mixes registers, drawing on the dialect of his urban Northern Irish background to lend the verse more saltiness:
Once a tomato sandwich
And a pint of stout would do
but them days are over
(At Ursula’s)

There are poems, like Insomnia, which are as alive as anything he’s ever done, absorbing precise sensory impressions (‘Boats knock and click at the pier/ shrimps worship the stars.), incorporating the demotic (‘That woman from/ the Seaview, a ‘blow-in’/of some kind from a foreign shore) and opening up on ideas rooted in the environment of the poem (a soul screams/for sunken origins, for the obscure sea bed/ and glowing depths, the alternative mud haven/we left behind). The last poem, Homage to Goa, sums up, in wry, precise and vivid terms his own, slightly detached, engagement with metaphysical notions of reincarnation:

Given a choice of worlds, here or beyond,
I’d pick this one not once but many times
whether as mozzie, monkey or pure mind.
The road to enlightenment runs past the house
with its auto-rickshaws and its dreamy cows
but the fans, like the galaxies, go round and round.

This is thinking poetry of the highest order.