Friday, 18 July 2014

Holiday Reading

        Karthika Nair                                
   The heatwave this week has coincided with the start of my summer holiday so I've been revelling in a rare sense of untrammelled reading and writing-time, often on the balcony with the sun on my face. Like most teachers and parents, I'm also celebrating the news that Michael Gove is no longer allowed to dismantle our education system by reverting it back to his own hubristic version of a private school classocracy from the 1930s where only English authors are studied (ie. not even any Irish, Welsh or Scottish ones), only English history is taught and the arts are sidelined in favour of more utilitarian subjects - is that so different to the "narrow monoculture" the Islamic faith academies he ordained then disowned have been villified for?
   Among other things, I've been dipping into the new edition of The Wolf, whose wonderful opening poem by Karthika Nair is a potent blast of strange, estranging language; the nested, protean form of Sophie Mayer's prose-poem 'Silence,Singing', incorporating criticism, history and autobiography in a compelling assemblage, also stood out for me. There are thought-provoking reviews of Muriel Rukeyser's Selected and a collection of the envelope-poems of Emily Dickinson (this also by Sophie Mayer) - in both cases convincing me that these are books I need to acquire.
   I also took receipt of Soapboxes, a new KFS pamphlet by Wolf editor James Byrne. In it he turns his hand to the somewhat disregarded genre of the political satire, excoriating with savage wit both the media-saturated, hyper-commodified banality of Little England and the bible-wielding, war-mongering American Far-Right personified by Sarah Palin. With Pound's scabrous Hell Cantos as a reference-point, Byrne elaborates a powerful invective in a time of wholesale political disaffection and apathy.
    Byrne's clearly been writing intensively of late as he also has two full collections forthcoming later in the year, one from his UK publisher Arc (White Coins) and one from US imprint Tupelo Press (Everything That is Broken Up Dances). An intriguing sampler of work from these books can be read in the new Blackbox Manifold 12, alongside poetry by Zoe Skoulding and Kelvin Corcoran:

Monday, 7 July 2014

The Fascination of What's Difficult

   One of the upshots of the recent, tiresome Forward-orchestrated Paxman mini-controversy was the news that UK poetry book-sales have fallen (as have - to put it in context somewhat - all UK book-sales) from not very many at all to even less. One recalls Todd Swift's bleak estimate a few years ago that hardly any debut volumes sell more than 200 copies. As a response to this ever-dwindling market-share, there seems to have been a tendency among some publishers and poets for their first books to play it rather safe and go for a pacey, jokey, zeitgeisty effect of surface phrase-making without much grit or linguistic texture and with little sense that the writing of these poems was what Ted Hughes called "a psychological necessity" for their authors. As for ideas or political resonances - well, let's not put off what few readers we have with anything too taxing or provoking.
   Toby Martinez de las Rivas's excellent debut Terror resolutely baulks this trend and it's to the credit of such an established mainstream publishing-house as Faber that they've been willing to take on board a collection that's powerfully non-mainstream and challenging in its approach, difficult and dense in a way that harps back to Modernist poets like David Jones, Basil Bunting and early Geoffrey Hill but - also in the manner of a neo-Modernist - highly allusive both to earlier English poetry and history and to the literature of other countries. Despite being a formally exploratory volume which frequently calls into question what one poem calls "stability in the text" - for example, through the use of strange marginal annotations and diacritical marks - it's also an impassioned, glossolalic one, full of invocations, prayers and entreaties, and the kind of quasi-mystical struggle with religious faith and the possibility of the numinous that feels nearer to Blake, Smart or Hopkins than it does to the likes of Burnside or Symmons Roberts.
   There was a further reason to be cheerful last week with the news that my publisher Penned in the Margin has been awarded £135,000 of Arts Council funding over the next three years. Perennially innovative in the projects he's tackled and with a bold intention to blur the boundaries between poetry, drama and live performance, this is a well-deserved achievement for Tom Chivers and - like the publication of Terror - a clear indication that the impetus of UK poetry doesn't reside solely in the mainstream and the populist.
   PS: Falling sales-figures are affecting not just poetry but the novel too :http://www.standard.co.uk/comment/richard-godwin-dont-be-so-fast-to-write-off-the-printed-word-9594149.html

Wednesday, 25 June 2014

Multiple Things Happening At Once

Review of The Taken-Down God: Selected Poems 1997-2008 by Jorie Graham (Carcanet 2013)      
    If the adrenalin-fix rollercoaster of consumerism has in recent times juddered into reverse and left us dangling, our pockets upturned, where does this leave poetry, that ecumenical resource once deemed “classless and free”? With rent, energy-bills and inflated food-costs taking up most of our flatlined incomes, a £10 outlay for 60 pages with a lot of white on them seems an extravagance. The libraries and independent bookshops where one could dip into and browse new authors are becoming as rare as hen’s teeth. Publishers like Salt, faced with dwindling sales-figures, have decided to forego poetry-books altogether.
      How should poets adapt to the crisis? Cut the high-brow folderol and seek a wider audience by acting as “a branch of the entertainment industry”(Hugo Williams), offering zany or epiphanic  frissons to console us through this dark age? Or – as Nathan Hamilton’s recent anthology Dear World and Everyone In It implies go the other way and locate a new hip readership among poetry-admirers bought up on the jumpy fractals of the internet but perhaps too young to remember A Various Art and the Second New York School?
     If poetry-sales are down, we are in fact undergoing something of a creative boom in terms of the quality and range of what’s being written, and the sheer number of able poets emerging. This ferment of poetic energy at a time of economic downturn seems to speak of a questioning of bankrupt dominant paradigms and – like the resurgence of interest in self-directed activities such as rural walking – a turning away from the spurious, profit-driven hoohah of Cameronite Britain, where the ‘grand projects’ of multicorporate enterprise give way, like MDF stage-scenery, to reveal a gaping moral vacuum and the insidious ‘managed decline’ of public services and local communities.
      Yet in the context of the international scene, the hemmed-in, self-limiting nature of much British poetry, quietist and apologetic rather than confrontational even where the approach is not mainstream, still seems apparent. If we are looking for a figure of global stature whose work embodies the determination to elaborate a more authentic discourse, a more ethically -invested  voice which could help us come to grips with this bankruptcy and “make reality feel real” again, Jorie Graham would be a natural choice. One of the prime indications that we have recently entered some kind of poetic renaissance was last year’s awarding of the Forward Prize for Best Collection to her most recent book PLACE, almost the first winning volume that wasn’t a predictable safe bet by an established British mainstreamer – notably, she was only the fourth woman to have won the prize in its twenty year history and only the second American. Coming in the same year that Denise Riley, an excellent English poet who had been relegated to the avant-margins throughout her career, won Best Single Poem, Graham’s recognition seemed a momentous one.
       Although The Taken-Down God doesn’t include work from PLACE, the appearance of a new Selected Poems this year can only augment the groundswell of interest fomented by the Forward win, as well as provide a necessary continuation for readers - like myself – who were enamoured of Graham’s earlier Selected, The Dream of the Unified Field (1996, Carcanet). Despite possessing a remarkably distinctive register and manner that owes little obvious to any other poet, Graham is not the kind of writer to find a mature style and stick doggedly to it; rather, the plot-curve traced by her eleven volumes is characterised by the same restless, exploratory energy as their individual poems, a concern with pushing at the boundaries and straining the limits of what the previous book had seemed to accomplish, which is frequently at the same time a straining at the limits of poetry itself and what poetry can ask of its readers. Graham makes this explicit in her Paris Review interview (http://www.theparisreview.org/interviews/263/the-art-of-poetry-no-85-jorie-graham) – by the way, a source of invaluable contextual insights for anyone wanting to engage with her work – when she talks about each book being born of  “the need to explore new terrain", of having not only their own thematic drifts but their own rhythmical impetus and how these two facets are intertwined.
     The evolution of Graham’s poetic in Dream of the Unified Field, from the short-line stanzas and metaphysical “argument-building” of early books like Erosion through the transition to the more expansive, multi-layered syntax of Region of Unlikeness and Materialism was a gripping enough journey, although one that sometimes left the reader footsore at the roadside or temporarily waylaid in an interpretive ‘selva oscura’. The Taken-Down God charts a pathway that is at times more challenging still, progressing further in the direction of open-form, paratactic structures that seem to hover around clusters of imagery or references without ever settling into unitary narrative or formal resolution.
      The difficulty we encounter in coming to terms with these poems, however, is inextricable with Graham’s long-term desire to “implicate the reader” in the whole complex process of generating meaning. Of all the contemporary poets who have assimilated literary theory into their work, consciously or otherwise, Graham (a student at the Sorbonne in 1968, as the earlier piece ‘The Hiding Place’ delineates) is perhaps the most convincing. Highly “writerly” in Barthes’ terms ( ie. demanding that the reader proactively and playfully collaborates in restoring the text to legibility) her poems work hard to problematise the dualism between text and audience, insistently hauling her or him into the scenario of the poem to confront them with the paradox of how language brings sensory-data across and attempts to motion-capture the flux of time; language that is saturated with historical and political residues: “How does one separate the acts of human will from those very acts of observation the poems undertake? There’s moral entanglement there. Is there a way of taking in the world that is not manipulative?(ibid.)
        Whereas a recurrent preoccupation of the older books was to revisit and recontextualise memory-deposits from her childhood and youth, the vividest passages in The Taken-Down God arrive when Graham manages to envelop the reader in her immediate experiences even as they unfold, “porting rather than reporting” in a startling way that somehow reconfigures the writing-process of the poem as the reading-process. Part of this is Graham’s attempt to incorporate as many levels of cognition as possible into the poem’s purview and to enact “multiple things happening at once…the punctuation involves an attempt to nest everything into the here”(ibid.)
        In ‘Woods’, for example, from the volume Never, the I-narrator flicks hesitantly between wanting to evoke a sighting of a goldfinch and a reluctance to stake a claim on the bird and fix the “wind-sluiced avenued continuum” in language, the poem ultimately parodying the complacent set of tacit conventions any realist text rests upon (“Can we put our finger on it?/…I cannot, actually, dwell on this./There is no home”). This flags up a further theme within The Taken-Down God that was less evident in Dream of the Unified Field: an ecological anxiety placed in the context of man-made depredations, the poems’ harried sense of time related to Graham’s awareness that “the rate of extinction (for species) is estimated at one every nine minutes”(Footnote to Never). This concern for the endangered living world is linked to a groping towards the numinous and devotional (cf. the several pieces called ‘Praying’ in Overlord) which seems a search for a frame of reference beyond the destructive human one.
       The exhilarating formal experimentation of this Selected – from the short, spaced-out single-line units of Swarm, through the rangier, prose-like rhythms and found-language in Overlord to the heavily-indented patternings of Sea-Change – manages to track audacious forages through philosophy and the history of ideas that amount to the most ambitious ongoing project into the role and scope of poetry we are privileged to have access to; yet at the same time these are vibrant, breathing poems in themselves, shot through with urgency and hard-won beauty. Against middlebrow assumptions that poetry should be a humanist salve in this difficult economic climate, Graham reminds us again and again “what poetry can, must, and will always do for us: it complicates us, it doesn’t ‘soothe’; it helps us to our paradoxical natures, it doesn’t simplify us. We do contain multitudes.”
            (First published in Tears in the Fence, Winter 2013)

Thursday, 29 May 2014

Early Summer Round-Up

Matthea Harvey
Kathryn Simmonds
Pleased to find myself in two early summer publications which came out this week. New Welsh Review 104 has essays on David Jones and Dylan Thomas (surely you can't be bored by his centenary celebrations already?!), a travel piece about Burma and poems by Damian Walford Davies and Jonathan Edwards. My contribution consists of two poetry reviews: one of Kathryn Simmonds' 2nd volume The Visitations and one a pamphlet round-up including Samantha Wynne-Rydderch's latest:
   I also have a poem (or a sequence of four, depending on how you read it) in the new summer issue of  Poetry London. I haven't seen a copy yet but there was a launch this evening (I was unable to attend) which included readings by Niall Campbell, D. Nurkse, Matthea Harvey and Angie Estes, all intriguing poets so should be a strong edition.
   Afterword: I have it now and it's definitely worth a look. Poems by Denise Riley, Colette Bryce and Eoghan Walls, reviews of books by Christopher Middleton, Gottfried Benn (translated by Michael Hofmann) and Derek Mahon.

Monday, 12 May 2014

JHW 1942-2014

    And now John has died. I realise I reflect too often in this blog on the passing of poets - no doubt a sign of aging - but there always seems to me something especially tragic when a poet leaves the world. What was it Pasternak called them? "Hostages of eternity in the hands of time". Something of this although there is something assuring about that quote too; perhaps something also like this line from a Lorrie Moore story: "What is beautiful is seized".
   But John was a friend. He would have laughed at me for bandying such grandiose quotations. Like most genuine poets he didn't have much time for the pretentious baloney that's spouted about poetry and literature; he preferred to get on with it and let his work do the talking. I can only echo the generous tribute written by Todd Swift on Eyewear the other day about both John the man and John the poet, although I knew him for a much shorter time than Todd.
    I missed John when he made his final trip to England three weeks ago to read from his new volume The Golden Age of Smoking at the LRB Bookshop and I had been meaning to email him to see how it had gone ever since I've been back in London. On the other hand I'm really glad I had the opportunity to conduct an interview with John last autumn on this blog and I hope now it reads as a last summing-up of his views on poetry and a potted autobiography for those wishing to look back.
   What comes through, however, is the sense of himself as a figure somewhat eclipsed by the poetry scene he had not so long ago been a distinctive part of, a disillusion born of struggling to get quirky, unconventional poems like his heard above the chugging drone of mediocrity. I hope that John's death will occasion some form of revaluation of his achievement (perhaps a Collected, for example, will appear before long) and see his reputation restored to its proper standing.
   I just flicked through my favourite book of his, Canada, for a line or stanza appropriate for this moment but I could find nothing mournful or gloomy in the whole collection. In fact almost every poem is full of energy, good humour and zing: he was very much a poet "on the side of life" and as a person too. All the sadder, then, that he is now gone.
   Obituary by his friend John Lucas here.

Sunday, 4 May 2014

Rosemary Tonks 1928-2014

  One of the most interesting and enigmatic British poets of the late 20th century, Rosemary Tonks, passed away last week. Even to call her a poet, however, shows up the inadequacy of our terminology since she hadn't written any poems since the '60s and had foresworn the two short collections she published at that time. Brian Patten made a radio documentary about her a few years ago called The Poet Who Vanished. Like Rimbaud (whose influence seems traceable in these marvellous, effervescent, offbeat poems, as well as Laforgue's and that of the French Surrealists) she renounced the daring verbal forays of youth in favour of what she came to see as more important concerns; in this case, a reclusive devotion to her Christian faith. A more exact parallel, in fact, could be drawn with the life of Hope Mirrlees, who similarly gave up poetry after a single tour de force - the book-length masterpiece Paris - deeming it incompatible with the demands of her religion and only returning to writing poetry right at the end of her life.
    I wonder if a secondary motive for not seeing a career in poetry as a viable option for either Tonks or Mirrlees (or equally Laura Riding, another apostate) was the anomalous nature of being a female Modernist poet who didn't wish to conform to the inherited stereotypes foisted upon them by the literary establishment. Tonks was clearly never going to be a mainstream poet and what few notices I've found about her (written by men) do often focus somewhat belittlingly on the frisky, sensuous loucheness of her work, which is one of its great appeals and makes it so redolent of its time: how many male poets of the '60s capture the flavour of the period so well? (The Liverpool poets, for example, seem juvenile in comparison.)
   For a taster of her brilliantly-titled volume Iliad of Broken Sentences try this discontinued blog.
   Guardian obituary here.

Wednesday, 30 April 2014

Florence, Siena, Dante

   I spent a week in Florence and Siena over the Easter break, a welcome transfusion of sunlight, culture and architectural splendour. Among other fascinating explorations we chanced upon the Casa di Dante in a backstreet near the Duomo, just after enjoying the most wonderful lunch of ribollita and chianti in a tiny, narrow trattoria round the corner.
    The Dante museum was less than illuminating but Florence, so well preserved despite the incursion of designer stores, MacDonalds and multinational crowds - and even more so the mediaeval labyrinth of Siena - felt like the perfect spur to inspire me to revisit the Divina Commedia and immerse myself not only in what CH Sisson calls the "luminous clarity" of Dante's early Italian (and me only a Duolingo novice, hoping the poem will "communicate before it is understood") but also in the complex historical contexts of this densely-wrought masterpiece, poetic cross-currents and echoes which seemed to resonate around me as I walked. 
    "But the first sight of Dante, for one who catches a glimpse from afar, is of a tailor narrowing his eyes to thread a needle, or a gaggle of cranes stretched across the sky. That does not give you a style to imitate; it gives you a perception of the maximum which can be done, in a few words, to evoke a physical presence." (Sisson again, 'On Translating Dante')                                                 

Wednesday, 26 March 2014

The The - This is The Day

    I was reminded of this when it appeared on an episode of Fresh Meat recently. As much as the first Smiths album, Prefab Sprout's Swoon and Postcard-era Orange Juice, Soul Mining by The The was part of my teenage vinyl-pantheon, laconic anthems for bedroomed youth that seemed to vindicate and feed my sociophobic introspection.
     And as with Morrissey, McAloon and Collins, it was the lyrics that seized my interest as much as the music. Where Matt Johnson diverged from the wittier, more tongue-in-cheek tristesses of the others - and in this allying him to another of my favourite lyricists, Ian Curtis of Joy Division - was in an approach seemingly grounded in the gloomy, no doubt self-obsessive existentialism I had begun to explore in my early reading. I remember the thrill of connectivity I felt when I came across a line from another single from Soul Mining, 'Perfect Day', in Sartre's Nausea: "What is there to fear from such a regular world?"  Johnson's lines had the feel of diary-jottings from a soul in crisis: what a brilliant opening couplet "You didn't wake up this morning cos you didn't go to bed/You were watching the whites of your eyes turn red" is. The incongruity of pairing such angst with catchy, jaunty melodies played on instruments like accordion, harmonica and acoustic guitar was no doubt the secret of Soul Mining's unique - and continuing - appeal.
    (Unlike Jean-Paul Sartre and existentialism, whose appeal didn't last beyond those teenage, bedroomed years.)