Monday, 31 December 2012

Review of 2012

The most memorable poetry event of 2012: Geoffrey Hill reading in Ryland's library, Manchester. Hill, looking like an old Testament prophet, was self-deprecating and funny, 'Don't worry', he intoned, 'I'll probably only read for three or four hours'. He spoke to us as fellow poetry obsessives, and read his own work and that of other poets, giving a particularly vivid rendition of Lawrence's 'Bavarian Gentians'. It was an evening full of warmth and friendship, with a strong hint of the valedictory.

The best collection of 2012: no idea, of course, because I haven't read them all. Jorie Graham's caught my attention though, as someone on Hill's level, so to speak. I also really enjoyed 'The Ninjas' by Jane Yeh, which was exquisitily entertaining and funny. I skimmed the new Roger McGough in a bookshop and it looked really great, but it had been bought next day, and he's not fashionable, so I didn't go out my way to get a copy. And I'm still waiting for Simon Armitage's 'Black Roses: the Killing of Sophie Lancaster', which sounds really well written. I think you have to be really humble to be a great writer and I suspect Armitage, when he's not inflicting his prose on us, is a great writer, capable of profound imaginative sympathy, born out of a highly skilled but straightforward approach. I really liked 'The Overhaul' by Kathleen Jamie too, even if I do find her style, dare I say, a little bit too self-denying and worked on.

Most overrated books: 'The Salt Anthology of best British Poetry of 2012'. Boring, really, despite including Mike Haslam. You'd never guess we were in the middle of an important period of redefinition, like the 30s, 60s and 80s, from the poetry being written at the moment. Lots of good poems, of course, just few really valuable ones.  'Bevel' by William Letford (see below). Dark Film by whatisname (see below), though it spawned a remarkable review by John McAuliffe in 'The North'.

Wednesday, 17 October 2012

By Fits and Starts: A Beginners review of 'The Reasoner' by Jeffrey Wainwright

Jeffrey Wainwright's new collection, The Reasoner, is a study of epistemology and ontology, of how we know and the relationship between knowing and being. It makes these fundamental concerns concrete through the voice of 'the reasoner' in a series of 95 mainly short poems.

Unlike most contemporary poetry, it is concerned with knoweldge, thought and understanding. In a contemporary scene that is dumbing down and becoming more homogenised, this collection is an important example of what poetry can do.

Wainwright's style is painstaking, words from the world around us, from the mundane and familiar, are rolled around the poems, often in lists, gaining weight and significance:

the crucial kitchen-drawer always has
the wrong batteries, withered elastic bands.

Wainwright prefers a sort of hardness in the sound of his verse to soaring melody:
nothing rich like persimmon or lavender
(no sightless pansy or brash lorikeet)
but - a spade chunk of marl perhaps

And his frequent humour is ironic, even Northern and blunt:

Lucky fuck. That's me I mean. Fucking lucky.

but always with an underlying seriousness.

Think of the crab's outrage when it insists
'I am not a crustacean
I am a crab, and myself'.

I can't do justice to this collection without reading it closely ten times and producing a detailed academic review, and that's not the purpose of this blog - which is to share opinions and enjoyment, and encourage you to read the work itself. So I intend to begin at the beginning, go on a short way making comments and then stop.

The first poem introduces the reasoner, an unprepossessing bookish eccentric, who is also a kind of mediocre everyman, searching for a revelation of persistent reality:

I am one who would know,
and thus be happy

The seond poem questions the nature of a specific phenomena (a spiders web illuminated by a ray of light) and the problem of language, or more particularly, simile.

By looking at one thing am I missing another?

The third poem is a witty meditation on belief and life, which it is suggested is a struggle between doubt 'and so on/ and so on and so on'. There is something Beckettian in this painful vision of human life, trapped in the skull trying to make sense of things with faulty apparatus. At this point, Wainwright's style is heavily indebted to Geoffrey Hill, to the extent that a simulacra of Hill's voice is in danger of overtaking Wainwright's own very distinctive tone and set of registers. For instance, he uses abbreviations like Hill does 'circs.' for 'circumstances'. Its a mannerism that could be easily lost with no prejudice to the integrity of the poems.

The fourth poem touches on utopian hope: perfect understanding, both in the abstract and in a memory of Wainwright's youth in leftist circles in the North Midland potteries, when internationalists were keen on promoting esperanto. Wainwright suggests gently that beneath their pious idealism these internationalists were in fact Little Englanders out to spread the gospel of tea (and maybe teetotalerism) and cricket.

The fifth poem doesn't really hold just at this moment but I suspect the sixth is a comment on The Waste Land, as it partly concerns 'house agents' clerks'.

Poems six, seven and eight, all of which begin, as did four and five, with the phrase 'is our language complete?' play with the effects of language and question the relationship between signified and signifier, before returning to the spiders web, in a final metaphor which links expression with our species being: 'our creature tongue'.

The reasoner is at once trying to dispense with language and to use it to unload/ and exalt the mind'.

Exalt your mind by reading this collection several times.!/2012/10/a-triple-launch-jeffrey-wainwright-jon.html

Friday, 14 September 2012

The Dark Film by Paul Farley

If you want to get a flavour of this book, there's an excellent review on another blog which I have commented on which you might like to read

There's no point in repeating what it says in the blog and the comments. I'd rather say what I think about Farley's poetics and look at what I believe is the best poem in the book, Cloaca Maxima.Farley in my view is a class act, but I find it strange that, nothwithstanding all the autobiographical poems in the book, I don't feel I really know anything about the guy. It's as if he's being too abstract and creating a strerotype of his own experience:

I'd look up to them looming on street corners,
or down on them through my bedroom blinds,
crashing home from the Labour Club, mad drunk
Yes, he tries to make it specific by mentioning his bedroom blinds, but this could be any literary story of growing up in the midst of working class families. It isn't half so specific as Roger McGough's tales of his Liverpool family or anywhere near as touching as Peter Sansom's on-going poetic chronicle of working class familial decencies in Nottingham. After reading McGough and Sansom I feel I know loads about them and their relatives, and share some of the sadness they feel about them, but something about the way Farley approaches the subject of his own upbringing leaves me cold.

Inner City Liverpool in the Late Sixties. Children swinging on a dead tree amongst rubble with new high rise council flats in the background.
On the other hand, Cloaca Maxima  is a magnificent poem that plays to all Farley's profound rhetorical strengths. It records a moment - an epiphany - when the poet was a child and sewer jumping and suddenly understands the pain of preceding generations of labour, who created the place. I think it's a moving exploration of history and forgetting. Part of its appeal is the struggle of the poet to give expression to his compelling sense of human alienation in the process of labour i.e. the lives that most of our forebears forebore. Thus he writes about:

the pearlescent blind eye we need 
to grow to keep the world under our noses
safely removed.The millions of mixed shades
are still running beneath our surfaces

and visible to those who just step sideways

For those of us with a working class hinterland, these are very profound words about how we experience contemporary life, apparently so cut off from the past and yet so dependent upon it.

Bevel by William Letford

There's a kerfuffle in the poetry world at the moment about William Letford's entertaining first collection, Bevel. The Guardian even referred to the collection's 'transcendental insight', though this was probably the work of a sub editor as it appeared on a strapline under the headline.

Amongst all this excitement,  I hate to sound a note of caution. Bevel is being universally praised, but it is a flawed, though enjoyable and promising collection.

First, the good stuff. The Guardian review goes on to accurately describe his work as follows:
Letford's poetry, while it has the look of early experimental modernism – that William Carlos Williams/ee cummings thing – has the cadences and accents of ordinary, reported speech
Letford has a distinct voice and his work is memorable. Unlike the denser stuff in Roddy Lumsden's anthologies of recent poetry, Letwin opts for clarity. His short poems showcase brief striking images e.g.

The chapel on the hill has no roof. For five hundred years its four walls
have framed the universe. The locals laugh at the Sistine chapel
and call it the coffin lid
(In the mountains of northern Italy)
Now that is the whole poem in its entirety. I find it immediately striking, but also it makes me think about something familar (the Sistine chapel) in a new way, by incorporating a pithy local saying from a different part of Italy which isn't Rome.

Letwin is also very good at writing about doing the pleasures of physical labour because he's a roofer by trade. No one else can do this because most contemporary poets seem to work in academia or publishing.

On the other hand, he can be crass.

A blonde haired angel in a pair of red hotpants
Turns to give me a grin so wide
I know it's not for me.It's for the whole fucking world.
(A Bassline)
I'm sure us men have a tendency to experience the world primarily through our bell-ends, but when we grow up we realise this and try to stop speaking like complete dicks.

The shortness of the poems not only charms me, it bothers me because I'm not sure what else Letford has to offer other than these sudden - often randy - epiphanies. In a sense, he can be a metaphysical poet because he sees some of his poems as a kind of flirtation in which he ropes in all sorts of amazing scientific facts about the universe and applies them to a specific situation. There's no question that he has some genius, the problem is that he seems to be using it to say 'look at me, aren't I the fucking One and a Bit'.

Charming, striking, clever, different from the rest of the crowd, I shall certainly be buying his second collection in the hope that he can apply his substantial gifts to a more grown up set of subjects.

Friday, 20 July 2012

Odi Barbare by Geoffrey Hill

In The New Pelican Guide to English Literature (1995), Martin Dodsworth  - in his essay on Ted Hughes and Geoffrey Hill - writes:
Hill is difficult because he says so many things at once.
It's interesting to reflect on the continuity this suggests between Hill's work before Canaan (1997) and his later obscure, condensed and allusive style. Certainly, the later work is as vital, as explosively cerebral and intensely visual and dramatic as his earlier poetry. His wonderful new collection, Odi Barbare, is composed of some of the more attractive aspects of that later style, with an added element: a sense that the end of life is imminent.  Once again, the shadows of the first and second world wars fall on the text. There are incredibly moving evocations of the English countryside interspersed with splenetic outbursts of anger. Hill also reflects on his craft.

There are some passages I cannot follow, but even those possess an urgency, a desire to say something complex, multi-faceted, all at once. As yet, I haven't got a sense of its overall design but I suspect that it will grow on me over time. Hill's work is a living embodiment of the concept of organic writing, where thought and experience are unified. In a sense, the poem is a performance of the coming into being of his thought, at the nexus between experience and the mind. And it's worth re-reading. I find new delights - and sometimes challenges - when I do so.

I'd strongly suggest that, if you like poetry, you should give this collection (which is in effect an extended poem in many sections) a go. You will be richly rewarded if you do.

Friday, 1 June 2012

The Grass is Singing

I believe that there is a political crisis going on in South Africa. A populist politician, with questionable personal morals, is president. There are attacks on the freedom of the press and artistic expression - legislative ones from the executive, literal ones from individuals with no formal connection to the government acting ultra vires to preserve the 'honour' of the president. Whilst the pattern that is emerging might so far resemble Putin's regime more than Mugabe's (though there are similarities), the South African constitution is robust in defence of liberty, due process and accountability. So far, at least.

Its survival will depend on the speed with which the country progressively realises the economic, cultural and social rights of its poorest citizens - in a society that is still far too unequal, and where wealth and power are highly concentrated and unaccountable.

Out of this context, I welcome a poet with a remarkably direct and personal voice, who writes about life in South Africa as it is now, with no false distinctions between the political and the personal. Karen Press's poems show what can be done when the whole of a person's being is deeply engaged with the world around them and then channelled with wit, openness and compassion into poetry.

Therefore, I find it surprising that on the blurb on the back of her new book published by Carcanet, 'Slowly, As If', the South African Sunday Independent is quoted as saying 'It is largely a poetry of whispers, of hints, of indirect statements...' when I find poems with titles like:

Your Saddam
Cyrus Vance Sat on my Couch
Statistics South Africa Says
Hotel Rwanda, 1 January 2006
Monument to the South African Republic
she gave birth while prison guards tortured her and laughed.

The only explanation is that South African poetry today is characterised by didactic agitprop and that by comparison Press's work is positively Anglo-Saxon in its obliquity. The evidence for this comes from a book I bought a couple of years ago called Beyond Words, at an evening of South African poetry at the Contact Theatre, Manchester. The poetry was read by the authors themselves. I open that book now and I come across lines like this:

When Europe cuts up the continent into little pockets of its imperialist want....

My hearts percusion flows to my feet
As they play notes on the ground
At once linking past and present
soul and sound

I am attracted to the image of a continent being cut up into little pockets and I love 'my heart's percussion' but the poetry goes on to become about something - a thought, an interpretation external to the experience - rather than presenting something from within the experience or perception, summative as opposed to an enactment. Not all of the poetry is like this by any means. There's a wonderful poem by Lebo Mashile called God Blues for Mama which presents a marxist view of religion i.e. one that respects the beliefs of proletarians ("Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people" as Marx himself wrote). Mashile writes:

God never runs, Mama said
He died on a cross
Papa was cross
She bled from her head

God never hides, Mama said
She's at church every night
Close to him
The Lord lives inside

This poem doesn't seem too far away from Press's. She writes from personal experience and isn't afraid of the prosaic:

The chapter recounts how Stalin phoned Pasternak

Nor of the abstract and rhetorical:

Would he stand up inside the mask of his freedom
and burn his own fine-tuned tongue
to keep one of them warm?
(Pasternak's Shadow)

Thankfully, she has a capacity to keep the latter grounded in the former. For instance, she has written an evocative poem about when the Berlin Wall came down:

The red velvet kaffeehaus chairs are worn through,
the patrons are worn down with coffee and cigarettes
and the children they had when already somewhat mature,
slumped over wrinkled copies of taz at the pre-war wooden tables


History wants to
get its hands on this city
all over again.

(Over There,  Berlin, November 1989)

Her poetry reminds me of D H Lawrence and of Ted Hughes because of the way she is present in it living and breathing poetry. Certainly, she writes about nature and is capable of lyrical beauty because of an intense focus on an external natural work which affects her strongly:

Slowly the water lightens but there's black below,
and a silver shadown folding each bright ripple in -
the deepness and memory of the lake

it clings to, for the sky is far away
and blue without conversation
(Love Songs for Lake Como)

Sure, there is uneveness in her work, but a sense of complete engagement pervades almost everything she writes.

She might refer to South Africa as 'the dead republic' and think it's MPs 'clink clink clink/ like chocolate coins in the President's pocket' but the vitality of her work demonstrates that she still hopes, and that democratic sentiment in South Africa is strong:

Some people say
that what you're doing now
simpy confirms what your politics were
all along

I'm not one of them -
I think, Stalinism and the sneering shadow flitting across your eyes
notwithstanding, that you had something to fight for,
something greater than clothes and a car
more lithe, more radiant inside its own skin,.
You were so beautiful then.
(Do you Love Yourself Like This).

I should add that she also writes about love and the relationship between the soul and the material world:

The soul must be the bones
since they're what lasts
forever and ever, stark and serene.
Where else would a soul want to live?
(Three Meditations on Immortality or Are we nearly There Yet?)

In other words, she is a profound poet as well as an energetic one. There's a poem in the book called Be bear, which I think pretty much sums her up:

Be bear, the doctor says, be crane
and tiger and golden pheasant, be monkey and dragon.

Fold in and open, gather and strike

and attack, when necessary attack
or soften and fall, become a dragon
becoming a folding pheasant.

Wednesday, 30 May 2012

So Bad, it's Good (well, almost)

I'm a big fan of Alice Oswald's work. It is imaginative and lively with lots of verbal energy and passion. Her subject is often nature leading some people to compare her poetry to Ted Hughes's (imho Dylan Thomas could be another correlative because she seems to be able to inhabit the dream lives of lots of other characters).

Her attractively produced collection in Faber, Memorial, reminds me of one aspect of Ted Hughes's work: its occasional godawfulness. She's stripped away all the narrative from the Illiad and left us with a series of descriptions of the deaths of minor characters in the story. The effect is mind-numbing, though after a while the absurdity of this litany of doomed people rushing into the book to die becomes quite Pythonesque. It takes on a mad cartoonish quality, but I confess this doesn't get me beyond the first few pages.

I really admire people who boldly get it so wrong and am looking forward to her next book.

In the mean time, don't buy this one.

Forget it.