Wednesday, 23 March 2011

RED - an anthology of Contemporary Black British Poetry

Review under development

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

Of Mutability - Jo Shapcott

Jo Shapcott's recent prize-laden collection, of Mutability, shows everything that is best and worst about contemporary English verse. It's clever and full of cocky phrases, and unusual takes or strange angles on the subject matter. But somehow I also find it quite flat, even inert, at times.

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 ..........

your darling's head floating
above the rest, singing and whistling
all the way down to the Thames

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.

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

The Antidote: Review of 'A Cure for Woodness' - Michael Haslam

This is the last volume of a trilogy by Mike Haslam - which started with The Muse Laid her Songs in Language, continued with A Sinner Saved by Grace and now ends here, with this book full of beautiful, funny, humane, intoxicated post-modern pastoral verse.

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.

In a revealing introduction - a sort of Biographia Literaria - Haslam traces his own literary and intellectual development, and explains how over time he has rejected 'French' post-modern thinking, with its emphasis on experience as a form of text, and now believes that everything we do and dream is rooted in nature. However, far from this being some sort of reductionist socio-biological explanation of how we live, he has an expansive definition of what is natural. Thus, even forms of ideology, like Bush-era 'neo-con' belief, is natural, he explains. So nature is not an imprisoning set of rules, but an ever-expanding set of possibilities, some of which are marvellous, some, comic, or perhaps tragically ridiculous like right-wing thinking in the United States. Alas, he tries to prove this by saying that language - far from being some sort of post-structuralist construct - is a reflection of nature by reference to onomatopaiea. This is hardly persuasive.

Nevertheless, his commitment to the physicality of language means it's actually fun to read his verse aloud. And his range of experience and reference, and fertile imagination make this volume endlessly rewarding.