Saturday, 20 May 2017

Permutations Of A View


Whether the lake is shaped more like an egg-timer

or a barometer is difficult, from this angle, to say.

The park is sedated with revolving sprinklers.

The water, green as thrift-shop chrysoprase,

has made an Ozalid of the trees and sky,

a mackled draft. You doze, no longer able to see

the playground for the infringement of leaves.

Our zen transient the heron, neck like a question-mark,

is stationary as a decoy, a sculpture depicting Appetite

Deferred. The people drift here and congregate,

milling as though a spectacle were imminent.

That being there in sunlight was the communion

they hoped for they walk home, beneath a sky

of tattered chiffon, benignly unaware.


Whether the lake moves more like a harbour

or an estuary is open, on this occasion, to doubt.

The park is a centrifuge of brusque if-onlys.

The water, choppy as a just-stirred bromide,

has made a counterclaim against the trees and sky,

a foolscap screed. You peer, angling to see

the willow-leaves twirl sidelong like helixes.

Our two-tone resident the magpie, wings like jagged oars,

is banking where the gale projects her, sheering

with the on-go. The people trudge here in ones and twos,

clasping their hats and hoods against aviation.

That struggling through this imbroglio of gusts

could be a trial-run for entropy they trudge home,

beneath a leaf-hectic sky, ultimately unconcerned.


Whether the lake looks more like a pewter tray

or skating-rink is a question, in this light, of perspective.

The park is preserved in ice until a later date.

The water, transposed to a sheen of opacity,

has made a tabula rasa excluding trees and sky,

an Etch-a-Sketch deletion. You flinch, preferring to see

the want of leaves from the warmth of your room.

Our late itinerants the gulls, whiter than the gelid grass,

are standing where a day ago they sailed, ‘not

helplessly strange to the new conditions’.

The people stay home, whelmed in their bundled systems.

That traipsing out through this static duress

could enact a mind’s decluttering they stare out,

across the monitor of sky, morosely unconvinced.


Whether the lake sounds more like tokai being poured

or a distant gamelan is a stretch, at this juncture, to decide.

The park is fleshing out with a new-found colour-scheme.

The water, lucid as a hydrotherapy pool,

has made an aquarelle of the trees and sky,

a synecdoche of our desires. You rally, eager to see

the latest developments in the field of leaves.

Our clockwork stay-at-home the coot, sleek in bombazine,

is conducting her chicks across in bobbing convoy.

The people come to wander here, lovers

and circles of friends, pausing on benches to read

or graze on fruit. That all Time is not contained

in this moment they trail home, beneath a sky

of muzzy turpentine, palpably undeterred.               

                                                                      (first published in Poetry London)

Monday, 10 April 2017

Heap of Broken Images

The triggering of Article 50 last week was widely spoken of as an "historical event", an example of that common doxological trope that positions national events involving soi-disant important dignitaries as "history in the making" and the events and actions of ordinary people as mere un-newsworthy flux ( I'm reminded of the line from In the Cave of Suicession: "It was not a day that changed his life but it was a day in the change of his life".)
    One of the least egalitarian men in Britain, Jacob Rees-Mogg, compounded this fallacy by working himself into such a lather on March 29th that he actually believed that comparing Teresa May to Elizabeth 1 ("a modern-day Gloriana") represented a meaningful analogy and invoking Sir Francis Drake (and by metonymic extension the Spanish Armada, in the same week that other Tories had waxed gung-ho about fighting to keep Gibraltar from post-Brexit Spanish control) was something other than public school-boy wooden-sabre-rattling of a particularly embarrassing kind.
   Although at the current rate of ill-planning, lack of foresight and high-handed ineptitude in diplomacy (as though when against all logic you choose to divorce someone you get to dictate all the terms and settlements) Brexit may never actually come to pass, March 29th will be come to be remembered as momentous for all the wrong reasons. It's the lack of a sense of historical context among Euro-sceptics which is so damning, leaving them blind to the importance of us remaining part of that European (and world) culture whose influence has given us almost all that is valuable and enduring in what passes for own cultural heritage. The essence of our traditions - the legacy not only of being a small, mercantile island but also of being the most voracious colonial expansionists of all time - is that they are largely an engrained palimpsest of other borrowings and plunderings, rather like Barthes' image of the text as textile, inwoven from other intertexts. What would we have left - in literature, art, music, cuisine - if we were really to remove all the elements we haven't over many centuries imitated, absorbed or pillaged from other cultures? Surely it would amount to very little: the World According to Jeremy Clarkson, the Wurzels' Greatest Hits and the fry-up breakfast, perhaps?
    And yet it's one of the abiding strategies of not just the political Right but of liberal humanism in the arts to promote a vision of British history and tradition that manages to subsume influences from extraneous sources as though they were both nationalised and naturalised. In his fascinating study The Origins of Modernism (1994), Stan Smith explores how Eliot, Pound and Yeats all participated in this rhetorical process within their poetry, often at odds with the iconoclastic vigour of their engagements with language and form.
   Especially relevant here is Smith's identification of what Eliot saw as the crisis overtaking Europe after the First World War as seminal to the thematic currents of The Waste Land, showing how even at this early stage Eliot's ideological stance was rear-guard and xenophobe:
   "What The Waste Land laments is the loss of that cultural-political homogeneity which Eliot was to advocate in his lectures at the University of Virginia in 1933, , published as After Strange Gods. Eliot's desiderata here consciously spell out the implications of 'Tradition and the Individual Talent' and they identify precisely what is absent from the modern waste land: 'at least some recollection of a "tradition" such as the influx of foreign populations has almost effaced'; 'the re-establishment of a native culture only possible for a people less industrialised and less invaded by foreign races'.
   Like Eliot's notional period prior to "dissociation of sensibility", was there ever really a time of "cultural-political homogeneity" to harp back to, any more than the immigration-free, closed-bordered Albion many Brexiteers deludedly pine for? In its stark, anxious vision of the fracturing of European culture and history, fragments of which the macaronic text "shores up against its ruin" - another palimpsest of borrowings -, perhaps The Waste Land will ironically come to seem one of the prescient poems of our times:
  "The poem speaks not of reconstruction and restoration but of disintegration and decay, emerging from that moment in which time and space, history and geography, were rewritten and redrawn at Versailles, and post-war frontiers fabricated new and factitious 'organic wholes' and instant national traditions out of Europe's heap of broken images".


Sunday, 19 March 2017

Morte de Blogger

 Inching my way back in after a four month hiatus (partner had a baby girl just before Xmas/bought a house and moved out of London/my old Vaio all but unusable due to the malware bundled onto my hard-drive the last time I tried to download an album that wasn't condoned by iTunes), I've had several moments of doubt as to the virtues of recommencing and in turn have fallen to wondering if blogging (poetry or literary blogging, I mean) is still the vital force it was five or six years ago when I embarked on Ictus and so many poets seemed to be adopting this medium and sending out regular posts with the alacrity of a William Caxton discovering print (and imagine how easy you have it with your MacBook Air compared to a hand-operated wooden printing-press). Looking down my Blog Roll, I see that the number of poetry blogs whose last post was over a year ago has risen to half a dozen or so, which is dismaying - and I already did a spring-clean of defunct blogs from this list only last year. (Gists and Piths, after a lengthy furlough, just escaped this by thankfully returning to the ranks last spring).
    For my part, last year was a lean one for Ictus as I only completed 11 posts, part of a pattern of decline since 2011 when I wrote what seems now the extraordinary number of 59 ,albeit glancing back I see that many of those were brief squibs or YouTube videos rather than considered pieces. I've certainly had less time to devote to writing in general the last few years and I suppose when I've had opportunities to write I've prioritised poems and other "proper" forms over what I see as the very much secondary, incidental jottings that comprise this blog. Secondary - but with the genuine value of keeping my hand in and allowing me to write in different, perhaps less convoluted or crafted formats and registers than other compositions allow, a narrow but refreshing tributary of the ongoing writerly process which I try to hold onto as of almost equal significance to the products that sometimes emerge from it.
   What are the reasons for poets turning away from blogging? The rise of Twitter has something to do with it, I'm sure, being both a more immediate and less time-consuming platform with more assured returns in terms of often instantaneous responses from your followers, far more effective than blogging if you want to draw notice to a reading, review or new publication or even to alert fellow-poets to a particular issue or news-story. I'm not a great fan, as it all too easily leads to the "Just had a bag of cheese and onion McCoys " attention-seeking tittle-tattle of Facebook, but I can see it has its uses, which strike me as distinct from the virtues and purposes of blogging.
    Which are? The possibility of a more expansive engagement with the contexts and processes of our writing; the beginnings of some kind of critical practice about contemporary poetry, sorely lacking outside a handful of specialist journals. Not that most blog-posts (and certainly not mine) often attain the status of serious criticism but just that they are able to contribute to a meaningful cultural debate about poetry and poetics, that the medium is used as something more valuable and enduringly readable than mere self-advertisement or diaristic anecdotage. It may be that some of the bloggers who had these kinds of aims when they begun have found other forms of internet platform better suited to their needs, which is the reason they've now moved on. In fact, who knows but that the demise of widespread blogging might have a positive aspect, if it means that the more resonant kind of poetry-blog (like Gists and Piths and the posts of Michael Peverett and Robert Shepperd) will gradually gain wider readerships and continue to develop and thrive? 

Sunday, 30 October 2016

Blue Period

   A few years ago I wrote a post about finding out a fellow-teacher at the London college I work at was a former member of post-punk band Swell Maps. Earlier this year I moved to a different college and was intrigued to learn that one of the other teachers in my staff-room is a member of the Blue Aeroplanes, an indie group I used to listen to in my 20s but who are apparently still gigging and recording.
    Refreshing my memory with YouTube clips, I remembered that they were certainly one of the more poetic bands on the scene, their vocalist Gerard Langley intoning his lyrics in long meandering monologues rather than singing them, rather like a less irascible and more garrulous Mark E Smith. One song on the early album Tolerance  is inspired by MacNiece's 'Bagpipe Music'; the video is a single from the same album. 

Tuesday, 20 September 2016

Corbyn as Joycean

  Another good thing about Jeremy Corbyn is that - as revealed in today's Evening Standard - his favourite book is Joyce's Ulysses. One would hardly expect the Standard to be awash with Corbynistas, but the way they wheel out some faux-academic who clearly hasn't read the book to beat the embattled Labour leader over the head with it is shameful.
   The blatant inaccuracies come thick and fast, more demeaning to Joyce than they are to Corbyn. How can anyone think Ulysses "a novel without a single working class character", that most of the text "is about sex and crapping" or that Leopold Bloom is "an old man who is disappointed in life"? John Sutherland, a Professor of Modern Literature at UCL who hasn't read the key novel of Modern Literature, wants to imply that Jeremy Corbyn's choice of reading-matter is as overrated as his performance as leader of the Opposition and somehow unconducive to his leftist political agenda. However, anyone who has seriously engaged with Ulysses will understand the novel as a profound embodiment of Joyce's life-long socialism in theme, form and linguistic range, an unparalleled celebration and vindication of the lives of the ordinary working people Corbyn has always spoken of defending.

Saturday, 13 August 2016

Magnetic Needles: Montaigne on Poetry and Poetic Drama

"Here is something of a marvel: we now have far more poets than judges and connoisseurs of poetry. It is far easier to write poetry than to appreciate it. At a rather low level you can judge it by the rules of art: but good, enrapturing, divine poetry is above reason and rules. Whoever can distinguish its beauties with a firm and settled gaze does not in fact see it all, any more than we can see the brilliance of a flash of lightning. It does not exercise our judgment, it ravishes and enraptures it; the frenzy which sets its goads in him who knows how to discern it also strikes a third person who hears him relate and recite it, just as a magnet not only attracts a needle but also pours into it the faculty of attracting others. It can more easily be seen in the theatre that the sacred inspiration of the Muses, having first seized the poet with anger, grief or hatred and driven him outside himself whither they will, then affects the actor through the poet and then, in succession, the entire audience - needle hanging from needle, each attracting the next one in the chain."
                                                                                  from Essays 1:37 'On Cato the Younger'

Tuesday, 5 July 2016

No Pattern Left to Record: Geoffrey Hill 1932-2016


   Amid the weltering turmoil of recent days, now our greatest poet Geoffrey Hill has passed away: would it be too fanciful to suppose that the tawdry spectacle of England descending into mean-minded, parochial nationalism might have speeded the decline of a figure George Steiner described as "our most European" poet? Hill was a model of that older sensibility that managed to be both engrainedly English ( even critics who quail at his mandarin "difficulty" seldom begrudge the astonishing lyric beauty with which he captures the landscapes and countryside of his beloved West Midlands) and as thoroughly immersed in the poetic traditions and historical dramas of mainland Europe as any writer since Browning. He achieves this sense of the Matter of Britain being inseparable from the wider context of European history by applying the same remorseless moral imagination and linguistic vigour to the First World War, Stalinist Russia or the Holocaust as he does to the Battle of Towton, the Reformation or his own boyhood remoulded as Offa's.

   Coincidentally I have just been reading Andrew Duncan's marvellous collation of four different pieces on Hill in a recent Angel Exhaust blogpost. In the context of Canaan, a volume excoriating against the "slither-frisk" of Thatcherite privatisation and social division, this sentence of Duncan's rings particularly true in our current climate:

   "My country sometimes appears like a vast refugee camp, without shared symbolic structures, patrolled by officers alien to their subjects; any rebel who can talk convincingly for five minutes can achieve more following and reputation than the camp authorities."

   Then, in his discussion of A Treatise of Civil Power, Duncan reminds us of the magnitude of Hill's poetic accomplishment and the unparalleled manner in which he has gone from the highly-wrought, hard-won density of his early works to the far more free-ranging and prolific later books, an arc incredible both for its consistency and its diversity:

  "At the outset, at his virtuosic debut, Hill wrote in a cloud of doubt which was equated with the ebbing of the Anglican consensus, letting poetry survive into a new era of autonomy and anxiety. Later, he represented rectitude as far as it was possible in a society based on possessive individualism. Hill's poetry was not hedonistic like some others: he wanted to reach an ethical solution, not wallow in emotions while retarding an outcome to the problem. There is a link between the scrupulousness of his work up to 1971 and the anxiety which, in common opinion, cut the flow of his creativity in the following decades. The master of painstaking truth was seemingly shaving grains off the judgement until there was no pattern left to record. The revival of Hill’s career was astounding not because his work of 1953 to 1993 had not been wonderful, but because his new found creativity and enthusiasm were near miraculous." 

Tuesday, 28 June 2016

Brexit Blues

  While England behaves like a spoilt obnoxious child who refuses to participate in interactions of mutual benefit both to themselves and their immediate neighbours, it's already becoming clear that the gloomiest prognostications from the Remain camp have come true and we are spiralling towards a disaster which is economic, ideological and cultural all at once. The most dismaying phenomenon to observe in the last few days is that incidents of xenophobic hate-crime have already escalated, authorised by the opportunistic rhetoric of the Brexiteers as both major parties implode: at the moment our only hope is in the bankrupt disarray of politicians whom extremity and recession will force into either calling a second referendum or indefinitely stalling the calamitous break-up no-one really wants except venomous bigots like Farage, Nuttall and the madman who murdered Jo Cox.

Sunday, 19 June 2016

Review: Never Any End to Paris by Enrique Vila-Matas

Rather than immersing us in a recognisable scenario fleshed out by either a first- or third-person narrative voice, as in most realist novels, Enrique Vila-Matas immediately plays so many tricks with his readers’ expectations that we begin to wonder if this is a novel at all. For much of the book, the narrative is more like a personal memoir or autobiographical account in the way it evokes the author’s formative years living in Paris in the 1970s, yet his experiences are disclosed in such a tongue-in-cheek, non-linear manner - often highly implausible in the way they casually record encounters with cultural celebrities (Margarita Duras, Isabelle Adjani, Roland Barthes) - that it is almost a surprise when you turn to Wikipedia and discover that the story of Vila-Matas’ time in Paris is apparently true,  the hapless bumbler caught up in an absurdist comedy of his own making no more a fictional character than any of our remembered younger selves might seem.

   To further blur the division between fact and fiction, the novel frames the retrospective materials in the form of a three-day lecture on the theme of irony which Vila-Matas is delivering to a projected audience, again foregrounding his authorial presence by making us imagine the memories articulated in his own wry, ambivalent voice. The lecture in turn is prefigured by a comical opening scene in which the novelist enters an Ernest Hemingway lookalike competition in Key West wearing a false beard, only to be told he possesses “an absolute lack of physical resemblance to Hemingway”.

    It was Hemingway’s memoir of his early days in Paris, A Moveable Feast, which first inspired the young Vila-Matas to undergo his writerly apprenticeship in that city, like so many other would-be artistic geniuses before him. In flagging up his lack of resemblance to the more straight-talking realist Hemingway, whose narrative romanticised the bohemian loucheness of 20’s Paris, Vila-Matas is again inferring how unreliable and slippery his own story will be, and indeed how unromantic; it will in fact debunk the nostalgic mythology of what living in Paris is like by showing how “very poor and very unhappy” he was there.

    As well as being a parody of A Moveable Feast, Never Any End to Paris also plays with the conventions of the bildungsroman, the coming-of-age novel typically depicting a callow protagonist maturing towards disabused understanding. Vila-Matas’ memoirs of Paris are a catalogue of false starts and self-thwartings in his struggle to become a writer: he manages to rent out a garret owned by Duras but cannot understand her “superior” French when she gives him advice; he steals the idea for his first novel from Nabokov’s Pale Fire; he self-consciously poses as a Sartrean intellectual by adopting a black polo-neck, glasses and a pipe, performing the role of ecrivain before he has any accomplished any writing.

   Ultimately, Never Any End to Paris is an ironic anti-novel about the novel: it begs reverberating questions about the form’s limitations in being able to capture the protean reality of memory and identity but also argues for its continuing pertinence (taking its cue from writers like Barthes, Perec and Queneau who appear in its pages) as a post-modern game of ideas, a thought-provoking and critical  jeu d’esprit. Equally, it throws into doubt the role of the novelist as an authentic, credible witness relating the true essence of experiences he’s lived through and casts himself instead as a self-declaring fabricator, a comic poseur who nevertheless manages to draw the reader in to follow his often hilarious misadventures.

Tuesday, 17 May 2016

Green City

  Llubljana is a city poised between its two forefathers, Plecnik and Prešeren, whose respective principles of architecture and poetry define the character and dynamics of this beautifully understated version of the modern polis. Josef Plecnik(1872-1957), whose house in the Trnovo district I visited on a recent visit to Slovenia, redesigned the city from the 1920s in keeping with the principles of ancient Greek and Roman urban planning, with spaces for habitation, worship and commerce/social interaction (the agora) given balanced consideration. His curious marriage of neo-classical minimalism with odd anachronistic flourishes such as Egyptian pyramid motifs bespeak the near-autistic, monothematic vision of this pious and idiosyncratic solitary, as evidenced by his self-designed house and even his desk with its meticulously-arrayed clutter.
   Against this Apollonian paradigm, also writ large across the city is the more Dionysian image of the national poet France Prešeren(1800-1849), a figure embodying the heady contraries of Romanticism: progressive and democratic politics matched with vatic individualism; a patriotic, Dantesque embracing of the vernacular tempered with an equally Dantesque idolatry of a younger muse whose unattainable form crosses into the symbolic and transcendental. His 'Wreath of Sonnets' - a sonnet redoublé of fifteen poems in which the last line of each becomes the first line of the next, the final sonnet being a recapitulation of these preceding fourteen repeated lines* - is a masterful suite of Orphic laments inwoven with allusions to myth and folklore, a poem circling endlessly around itself, as self-thwarting and incantatory as de Nerval's Les Chimeres.
     Yet visiting the restaurant Preseren was supposed to have frequented, Sestica on Ullica Slovenska, we found in place of bohemian artiness a very old-fashioned, brown-toned Slavic eaterie with a gruff waiter who seemed appalled that we didn't want to order meat (example from what seemed at times a surrealist menu: "foal goulash with dandelion pudding"). More Eastern Bloc than Alexander Blok.
    But as ever I'm intellectualising the appeal of what is simply one of the most charming, unspoilt and laid-back cities in Europe, drawing influence and savour from all its surrounding nations: Italy, Austria, Hungary, Croatia. It has come through state-Communism and the internecine dissolution of Yugoslavia (all notably recorded in the Museum of Contemporary History in Tivoli Park) and more recent economic hardship to being applauded this year as the European Green Capital 2016, a title the briefest walk or cycle-ride along the Llubijanica River through the pedestrianised city-centre and across its bridges will show to be amply justified. The puckishly surreal, oppositional spirit of Slovenia's two most feted contemporary voices - Slavoj Zizek and Tomaz Salamun - no doubt born of previous ideological turbulences, seems apt yet somehow distant.
* More recently George Szirtes has produced some marvellous sonnet redoublés and one wonders if Prešeren was his point of departure in this.