Saturday, 16 July 2011

Great Ginsberg! A selected Ginsberg worth reading!

I came across a selected edition of Ginsberg's poems published in the UK by Faber and edited by Mark Ford and at last I've found a volume which goes beyond Howl and Kaddish (just about), and does justice to Ginsberg's great talent.

Previously, I struggled with Ginsberg's own selected poems, published in Penguin, which, at over 400 pages, suffers from the inclusion of too many poems that reflect his monotonous ecstatic self-absorption. In contrast, Ford has sifted Ginsberg's work down to a few essential nuggets. About two thirds of it consists of work from the two great collections, the rest covers the period from 1962 - 1997 (the poet's death). There are only two poems from the 1980's, three from the 1990's, but, as a result, the reader gets to focus in on marvellous poems such as Wichita Vortex Sutra, Wales Visitation, and that accidental masterpiece Mugging, which records an unexpected trauma that forced him to set aside self-indulgent habits and write with the intense honesty - and hurt - which marks out his best work.

This honesty is supported by a style of writing which often eschews metaphor for accumulations of concrete nouns, dialogue and quotes from the media. However, the concrete details are those apprehended by the poetic consciousness (and sometimes varied by the telegraphic insertion of abstract forms which testify to the poet's spiritual state) The nouns work by accretion and overall the force and rhythm of his poetry is achieved through psalm-like rhetoric.

So rather than read me, read this. His best poetry is full of humanity, and, if not always completely free of humbug, endearingly free of pomposity - truly, he managed on occasions to achieve a universalising egotistical sublime. I should also add that the best of the political verse makes Poundian bricolage readable and enjoyable - quite a feat!

Friday, 15 July 2011

Arts Funding Cuts

There have been a number of severe funding cuts to poetry orgnisations in the UK since the coalition government was elected. As a result, there is a high profile campaign to save the Poetry Book Society, which chooses 4 books per year and recommends a number of other to readers. It also provides a poetry bookshop and produces a quarterly newsletter.

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.

Night by David Harsent

Harsent is a highly accomplished poet who has also written verse libretti for the great avant garde English composer, Harrison Birtwistle.His collection Legion spoke of the conflict in the former Yugoslavia with immense power. Yet the same driving rhythms and dense use of rhyme ( like a latterday John Masefield) which helped give that collection its urgency and authenticity in my view undermine his latest collection, Night, which is apparently one of the main contenders for this year's Forward prize.

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.