Thursday, 17 November 2011
In addition, there are well-written and scholarly reviews on , amongst others, Ashbery’s brilliant new version of Rimbaud’s ‘Illuminations’, Daljit Negra’s new collection and reading Ezra Pound (without avoiding his Fascism or trying to sever it from the mainstream of his work). A nice retro touch which reminds me of the little magazines of a quarter of a century ago, there are also some photos of an art installation using language as a raw material.
Normally, I wouldn’t bother to review a magazine, but I think the poetry in it, and the poetics this reflects, deserves to be more widely appreciated. Byrne seems to welcome poetry which draws on ideas and disrupts language through surreal shifts, concentrated rhetoric and metaphorical density. He likes the New York school (publishing the genuinely funny Ron Padgett and the somewhat pretentious, Robert Kelly) as well as a talented acolyte of Alan Ginsberg, Nina Zivancevic.
Her poem, ‘Under the Sign of Kybele’, begins:
I was: then a junky woman who
buried so many husbands
some of them poisoned by too
much light too much happiness too
much powder too little hope
It flies along inchoately, springing memorable phrases: ’some/of his wrinkles got onto your body they/made a lace pattern out of my memory’
These seem to suggest that this is an elegy of mixed emotions for past relationships: ‘I told you stay stay always that way in me’
Mad it may be, but it’s great to read something so unconstrained by writing group norms.
I’m also very attracted to the work of Carol Watts. Her poem, ‘Bay’, consists of a series of fragmentary cut up lines which force the reader to mull over word sounds and aural connections whilst being hit by visceral splinters of meaning.
The lineation has the effect of tearing at meanings, both in the sense of grasping for them and striking them down:
block the borrow pits
in silted mouth
care nothing spoken
Language is clearly a concern, but the lines also represent the ebb and flow of emotion in sympathetic association (or perhaps more than that, something empathetic, unifying) with the bay of the title. The worse lines are ‘I stood on the jetty/ and loved you’, partly because this banal confession detracts from poem’s intensity, which tries to rope together the inner and the outer worlds through violent distortions in language (aka metaphysical poetry) :
Preternatural holding or/ half turned gesture// already letting go/to inroads//inundation.
However, the best lines in this edition of ‘The Wolf’, for me, are translations of the Chinese poet, Bei Dao
If death is love’s reason
then we love infidelity
love the defeated
whose eyes keep checking the time. (‘Concerning Eternity’)
I read the first two lines like this: death is love’s reason because it makes us understand the urgency of love, but because we fear death, we love infidelity (perhaps that’s why we can always be unfaithful even to those whom we love?) and love those who are defeated by time. Is this final love a universal or individual matter? Are we really talking about a development in the self from passion to compassion, from one to all? There are a lot of possibilities and this is what I find so absorbing. But the verse is much more than a conundrum hiding many possibilities. It is based on traditional means of expression (I wonder how this works in Chinese which was supposedly the source of the resolutely concrete particularity of the imagist style that allowed modernist poets to break with traditional poetic forms and tropes?). It begins with statement as metaphorical proposition and proceeds to examine it in unpredictable ways, ending in something concrete but also general. And who are the defeated? There is nothing in the rest of the poem to say which group of people this might be (if it is not a proxy for all of us). Uncertainty and instability of subject/ object is all the rage in ‘The Wolf’; it helps infuse the poems with an in-being life of their own.
This is poetry with a head as well as a heart and a life.
Overall, the values of ‘The Wolf’ seem to be internationalist ; it also welcomes the diversification and particularity of English, and it is openly – unfashionably – intellectual. Please support it!
Sunday, 23 October 2011
Saturday, 17 September 2011
PN review is arguably the most authoritative and most interesting poetry magazine published in England and Wales. The PN stands for Poetry Nation which gives you an idea of the importance it places on poetry. For the editors and contributiors, poetry is not a niche interest, it is a subject that should concern all intelligent people.
Its lineage can be traced back to Leavisite critics like CB Cox, but it has a taste for the new and avant garde, and an openness to ideas which has ensured its survival, whilst preserving an old-fashioned cutural zealotry which helps sustain serious poetry and debate about poetry in the UK. Nowadays, it is the fiefdom of Michael Schmidt, a man of powerful intellect, who relishes both vivid generalisations and detailed analysis, and wry wit for whom the word 'consummate' and 'champion' seem to have been fashioned.
The event was divided into three parts: a lecture by the intensely clever and sensitive Patrick McGuiness (see below for my review of his latest collection) about Donald Davie, one of the poets and critics who founded PN review in the seventies.; a roundtable of poetry magazine editors and then a reading from the 200th edition, including Jeffrey Wainwright reading his new poem Beyond Enigma.
Before all of that, I am sad to say that it opened with a short message from Arts Council North West. Holding a little red book of criteria in her hand, a reedy voiced bureaucrat (with a background in publishing apparently) explained how PN review and Carcanet had ticked all the boxes and that's why it still had funding. What she didn't seem to realise is that the audience included the editors of Arc which has been cut, perhaps fatally, notwithstanding the unique service it provides. Nothing could have demonstrated the Arts Council's lack of understanding of the bigger picture more clearly.
I have to say I was fascinated by McGuiness's lecture, which required both alertness and mental agility from the audience. As a portrait of the intellectual concerns of a deeply eccentric man (i.e. Donald Davie) I thought it was excellent, particularly as it gave a strong impression of the development of Davie's ideas and did not dwell on his eccentricities overly. I thought it was less persuasive when attempting to define the value of PN review itself . McGuiness - whom, I have to say, is fairly traditional in his use of tropes and his understanding of poetic measure - became rather entangled in post-modernist concepts about the instability of meaning. This, he seemed to confuse with debate, and suggested that totemic PN Nation terms such as 'form' and 'tradition' had no fixed meaning because people disagreed on what these terms meant and how to apply them. He went on to say that it was the passion of the debate rather than its content which was really attractive, but I thought that was faint praise. If you don't agree with the debate and don't relate to its content then its passion is surely more likely to seem misplaced? The point is - even if you fundamentally disagree - that it engages you with its substance rather than just its approach.
The roundtable discussion included the editor of Wolf, the excellent Carol Rumens and some well-meaning and agreeable guy from Leicester University who seems to have founded a magazine (good luck to it, I say). After the editor described himself as an 'elitist', I subscribed to Wolf next day.
Wainwright's poem - which was essentially a philosophical reflection on narrative, history and morality - was excellent, concerning versions of the 'truth', narrative etc. surrounding an act of martyrdom in a concentration camp and suggested that meaning/ history could be unstable without being meaningless. The poem contains moments of struggle with meaning but also empathy, which is eventually achieved before sliding back in the last lines into a confession of humble failure, which is its own form of tribute to an act of self-sacrifice:
" a good man cannot be harmed",
there is only a human voice
to say it', as though
I could listen hard enough
to catch it
Saturday, 16 July 2011
Friday, 15 July 2011
Notwithstanding Carol-Ann Duffy's participation in the campaign, I am less bothered about cuts to the PBS than I am to a couple of small publishing houses: especially Arc. This concentrates on bringing foreign poets in translation to the attention of UK readers. Its list includes the only comprehensive roundup of poetry being published in eastern Europe at the moment. Its loss or diminution will be hugely felt because it does something that no one else does, so the cut seems to stem from ignorance or negligence, particularly as the overall budget from the Arts Council to literature is increasing.
In contrast, the PBS rarely highlights the most interesting collections (I was a member for a year and I learnt to dread its dreary offerings) and adds little to the service provided by poetry prizes (like the Costa or Forward) which highlight collections to the small number of people who constitute the poetry buying public. Amazon generally provides books cheaper too. The internet allows poetry lovers to discover poetry from small independent publishers or access new work free online. There seems to me to be very little persuasive argument which can be brought to bear to save the PBS. Hopefully, its disappearance will tear open a little more space for more ambitious and innovative work to appear. The sort of stuff you can hear in the PBS's sister organisation, the Poetry cafe, in London, every Tuesday, in fact.
The style undermines meaning rather than enhances it, and I can't help but draw a comparison to the late Victorian poet, Algernon Swinburne. Highly regarded in his own day, later generations became disenchanted with the monotony of clever rhymes and insistent verse rhythms which distracted readers from the subject matter.
Harsent's approach is a strange mixture of Armitage like contemporary streetwise reference and diction (...I gave the door a little back heel/ then ferreted round in the fridge for an ice cold Coors) and traditional verse forms (e.g. he use of ballad form). Yet the urgency of the verse seems to speed one away from its meaning (unlike Armitage whose use of form strongly reflects subject matter and sense), or make it read like an adept exercise in the love of language and verbal interplay for its own sake.
Thus, The Duffel Bag, for instance, starts off in Armitage territory:
into a duffel bag and hooked up with the halt and the lame,
with the grifters and drifters, the diehards, the masters of bluff,
the very bastards, in fact, who are lifting the last of your stash.
and ends up referencing Homer's Odyssey (more recently Armitage territory too): your dream/ of Ithaca, that ghost town'.
It finishes with the words 'from the open road to the sight of the open sea', which is admirably mimetic but somehow lacks the real sense of personal - even folk - connection which you get with Armitage (as in 'Uz folk round 'ere, lad, don't like offcumdens').
The subject of Moppet the next poem gets buried under (sometimes) anaepaestic metre and internal rhyme. And so on... to be frank, I lose interest.
Perhaps the judges are right and this is a much better collection than I think. PerhapsIi should read, 'Elsewhere', the long poem which ends the collection, but I just can't motivate myself to do it. On reflection,I hope Geoffrey Hill wins, with the amazing Clavics. A collection I've read three times and will read many more, to unpick its subtle riches.
Wednesday, 23 March 2011
Just started reading Red: Contemporary Black British Poetry edited by Kwame Dawes, published by Peepal Tree. Every poem in the anthology appears to refer in some way to the colour red, or its derivatives. Inevitably, this orientates the anthology towards the visceral and the political, which is probably why I like it. I can't say for sure however that this anthology accurately represents the range of contemporary Black British writing because an anthology of contemporary white British writers using the same reference point might be just as visceral, and just as political.
Even so, there appears to be a tremendous range here, from the poised and polished (John Lyons) to the rough hewn and engaged (Bernardine Evaristo). There's some fairly crap political poetry, heavy on rhetorical abstractions, and some very personal wiriting, with strong political and philosophical resonances. It's very difficult therefore to generalise about the work in here. Instead, I find myself drawn into an exploration of new(ish) writing, which comes at its subject from a surprising direction, allowing the reader to consider the familiar and unfamiliar afresh.
I confess that I like the uneveness of some of the work in here because I value ambition over creative-writing-school playing it safe blandness, engagement over professionalism. Rather than toil through the anthology though, trying to take it all in, from Linton Kwesi Johnson to Jackie Kay, I thought I'd live dangerously and focus on one poem, which whilst not quite epitomising the contents of the book, has some of the major features of it: namely, John Siddique's poem, Promises.
Friday, 18 March 2011
To give some examples, she has this trick of mixing the prosaic and the boldly abstract. Thus, in Era, she writes
The twenty-second day of march two thousand and three
I left home shortly after eight thirty
on foot for the City. I said goodbye
to the outside of my body: I was going in.
She also goes in for a lot of juxtaposition and contrast. In Sinfonietta for London, she describes the nosies of the City (i.e. as we Brits arrogantly call the City of London, as if there's only one real one on Earth)
Integral are the living sounds of Fenchurch Street,
the mechanised city with its patterns
of soft and loud ..........
She plays the same trick on facing pages by placing two poems called Religion for Girls and Religion for Boys next to one another. In some ways, they lack bite and energy (e.g. Bacchus is for 'giving sparky life') but there's plenty of room and semi-concealed opportunity to extrapolate loads about gender, ancient history, anthropology.
your darling's head floating
above the rest, singing and whistling
all the way down to the Thames
I think it's telling that the most unified and convincing poem in terms of subject matter, language and tone is an adaption of Rilke.
However, she breaks one of the stony faced rules of white English middle class poetry by writing a political poem, though only on safe territory: against the Iraq war. The poem's called St Brides, it's excellent, and builds to a passionate very personal and immediate climax about a war which is very far away from our day to day lives.
I find the collection intriguing, and I can return to it again and again. I'm glad it won prizes, but I wish the style wasn't so omnipresent in contemporary English verse, and there was more room for people like Mike Haslam (below) and for the sort of engaged and visceral poetry in Red, a new anthology of Black British Poetry.
But more of that, as they say, anon!
Wednesday, 9 March 2011
In a decent world, its publication would be a seen as an important literary event. However, the literary world seems to have shrugged its shoulders, smiled politely and passed on by, which is a shame.
It's difficult to describe Haslam's work except in a set of paradoxes or antitheses. It is both traditional and experimental, elegiac and funny, narrative and abstract, social and mythological, political and pastoral, silly and passionate. The subject matter of his poems is never entirely stable, surfaces are exposed, words take on a life of their own, even the poems sub text is sometimes made explicit and then done away with. This is language poetry which is being pulled towards narrative and then away again, elegy which is drawn into light verse and vice versa.
In an earlier volume, he identified Michael Drayton as a model for his work; Woodness is much nearer to the spirit of Robert Herrick. It's obvious theme is getting older and remembering the joys of sex, but the verse is drenched with sounds and images of nature which suggest an on-going passionate reaction to the physicality of the world around him and its capacity to be rendered in language, which he sees itself as a natural object.
Friday, 18 February 2011
Wednesday, 26 January 2011
He wrote the sort of poetry I yearn to read: about history, philosophy, how he feels, about his marriage, his family, about contemporary mores. There is a restless quality about his work which I find attractive, and a love of memorable phrase-making which has the capacity to light up often dense, complex but always rewarding text.
I return to this book again and again, and I am indebted to Sean O'Brien, for his brief but excellent introduction, which defends Porter against those detractors who accuse him of relying on allusions rather than images. As O'Brien says so elegantly:
the constellation of overlapping worlds which his work evokes is open to anyone interested to explore for themselves, and his reflections on art are always connected to its human sources'.
I suppose the particular attraction I feel towards Porter's poetry is partly related to the influence of later Auden, whose work from the 50s to the 70s has never been fully appreciated in England. In a similar way to Auden, Porter writes disquisitions on culture (the phrase is Porter's own from Civilisation and its Disney Contents), but ones in which landscape plays on the inner forms of the psyche ( see The Ecstasy of Estuaries). Yet he does something which Auden generally didn't do - except in the form of gossipy asides or in relation to the landing on the moon in 1969- in his later work, he satirises the particular historical moment, such as in An Ingrate's England, The Workers or A Sour Decade.
Another point of attraction is Thomas Hardy. Thus, one gets beautifully ambivalent formal poems - part lyric, part narrative - like the amusingly entitled Let me Bore you with my Slides (appropriately enough about his family, of course), which finishes with the lines:
love's face peers between husband and wife,
a cautious colour like afternoon.
In fact, if I ever tire of reading the poems, I think I could spend half an hour oggling their titles: Fair go for Anglo Saxons, The Porter Song Book, the Automatic Oracle, The Easiest Room in Hell, That War is the Destruction of Restaurants etc. etc. etc.
Some mention must go to the poems from The Cost of Seriousness, which Porter wrote partially in response to the death of his first wife. My favourite poem from that collection is The Delegate, a post funeral poem which mediates not only on the sense of despair he still shares with his wife but on his relationship with poetry:
is a story forcing me to tell it. It is not
my story or my truth. My misery
is on a colour chart - even my death
is a chord among the garden sounds.
There is so much for the reader to do to fill inbetween the huge leaps that Porter - perhaps driven by grief - is making. On the way, we can savour paradox: the artist's impregnable ego and his subjection to higher purpose, his misery and his love of creation. Then there is the phrase: my misery is on a colour chart. This striking phrase (so typical of this amazing phrase maker) simultanously suggests
- that his misery has a colour and his involuntary experience of the same is a form of synesthesia
- that it may vary in intensity, or be intense
- that it is a crude unformed emotion, not yet processed by Art
- that it is now ordinary
I'm sure there are other associations that could be teased out. The point is that the phrase is not just colourful (sic), but vibrant with implications.
Having mentioned Auden and Hardy, I think it's also important to reference Ashbery. The great leaps in meaning his poetry makes are there from his early work onwards (O'Brien usefully points to Wallace Stevens as a major influence), but become more marked during the 80s. Both frequently use personification and seemingly absurd but razor sharp juxtapositions of phrases. Porter is less abstract than Ashbery, more fixed both on a 'subject' and on objects, but I think the influence is detectable.
Finally, I think it is important to say something about Porter's politics. Throughout his life, he was a radical social democrat although probably of the Fabian persuasion - but constantly aware of exploitation and abuse. His famous early poem Your Attention Please shows that he was sceptical about the arms race and the peace-keeping potential of Mutually Assured Destruction (or MAD for short, if you're lucky enough not to remember). His devotion to high culture stems from his humanism rather from elitism. Yet he recognised the problems and limits of rationality and the absurdity of human behaviour and desire. This is part of what makes him interesting, and no consideration of his work should occur without referencing his social concerns and humanitarian values.
All in all, a wonderful poet, and, if I may say so, having met him a few times in the 80s, and drunk some beers with him, an open, interesting and kindly man. I miss him, man and poet.
Saturday, 22 January 2011
Then came a marked decline. From The Book of Matches onwards, there was a retreat from the 'street' towards small town identities. These use the local as the basis for the continuation of a 'them and uz' view of the world, which has lost some of its articulation around class struggle, though none of its sense of grievance. It was a more personal, petty bourgeois world, with few pretensions to speak on behalf of others or tackle universal themes. Ultimately, the poems became more parochial and less interesting, even if they continued to be enlivened Armitage's supreme technical ability and vivid imagination.
Even 'the millenium poem' Killing Time, which tried to find something to say about where our culture was in 2000, somehow lacked resonance. In the course of this poem, Armitage bravely tried his hand at philosophical verse. What he produced was pretty good, if technically a bit Victorian.
In the mean time, he also wrote a couple of novels, which were no worse than many being published at the time, with some good points, but lacking in characterisation and being marked by jejune (if well meaning) gender politics.
Yet, he's come good with his two most recent collections: The Not Dead and Seeing Stars. In the former, he writes in the voices of soldiers from recent conflicts who have been left with post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Technically, the verse has a Kiplingesque quality in the sense that it is formal, rhyming and demotic. Yet somehow, this mature return to ordinary speech patterns reasserts Armitage's poitical commitment to giving public voice to those whose socio-economic status generally means they are ignored. In the latter, there are a series of prose poems which present scenarios which spin wildly out of control. Full of humour as well as imagination, they also offer tangential comment on our social chaos in a contemporary setting of carparks, conferences and out of town shopping malls.
Wednesday, 5 January 2011
Whilst I am not a proponent of over-zealous deficit reduction, particularly when it serves political rather than economic ends, the proposed cuts in public funding might be an opportunity to reduce what I perceive to be an over-reliance on writing courses and groups, and allow poets to find other audiences and ways of connecting in less prescribed and freer contexts.
After all, poetry is extremely cheap to make, and to disseminate. The internet provides an accessible means for poets to expose their work, as well as forums to discuss poetry. Whilst the cuts may be a blow for those who were hoping to make a career out of writing, they could open up the contemporary scene, provided that some quality poetry publishers, like Bloodaxe, Carcanet and Arc, which publish new talent and (this is key) established international writers, continue to be funded.