Monday, 15 October 2018

Scottish Roses

  On a visit to Glasgow at the end of the summer I chanced across the Scottish Poetry Rose Garden in Queens Park, just up the road from where we were staying. Walking around the pathways inlaid with the names and dates of Scottish poets from Henryson and Dunbar to Edwin Morgan and Carol Anne Duffy (as well as some lesser-known figures like Violet Jacob (1863-1946)), some of the stones decorated with fallen rose-petals, I was reminded of the astounding richness of this tradition and the vital contribution and influence it has exerted on the history of poetry in English, even as (like Scotland itself) it's had to continually fight for recognition of its distinctive voice and linguistic vigour. 

   It seemed fitting to find this craggy monument to Hugh MacDiarmid at the head of the garden, that dogged proponent of Scottish nationalism who argued for poetry as an ambitious, polymathic tool for change, very much with a modernist, internationalist agenda at its heart. The poem inscribed on the stone is a brief but resonant quatrain:

"The rose of all the world is not for me.
I want for my part
Only the little white rose of Scotland
That smells sharp and sweet—and breaks the heart."

   MacDiarmid's white rose has become a symbol of Scottish independence, in fact, since SNP MPs took to wearing the flowers to parliament for the Queens Speech in 2015. As Scotland is dragged towards the fiasco of Brexit, an impending calamity which the majority of its citizens never voted for, it will be intriguing to see if they're given another opportunity to make a choice about their own independence and whether they will use it to finally break away from our increasingly disunited kingdom in order to remain a part of Europe.

Thursday, 26 July 2018

Review: Cenotaph South by Chris McCabe (Penned in the Margins 2016/17)

   The notion of poetry’s immortality is one of its most abiding and validating tropes, originating in its earliest manifestations both as sacred utterance offered up to the gods and as a repository of oral myth and tribal history. In both cases it was the musical, formal qualities of poetry which endowed it with the memorable (and indeed memorisable) property of transcending the flux of everyday speech and living on into subsequent generations. With the advent of printed books in the 15th Century, the poet was able to construct him or herself even more concretely as a kind of vatic time-traveller projecting their works forward into a posterity that would outlive their own precarious moment of acclaim. This aspiration became a rhetorical device itself, employed most famously in Shakespeare’s Sonnets and made the motivating theme of Edwardian poet James Elroy Flecker’s ‘To a Poet a Thousand Years Hence’:

O friend unseen, unborn, unknown,
Student of our sweet English tongue,
Read out my words at night, alone:
I was a poet, I was young.

Since I can never see your face,
And never shake you by the hand,
I send my soul through time and space
To greet you. You will understand.

    But what of today’s far faster-scrolling cultural landscape, where we barely find time to read a poem before the next newly discovered, media-hyped prize-winner demands our skittish attention and where – with libraries and bookshops rapidly disappearing - half the poetry we encounter doesn’t even exist as print upon a page but is floating in a cloud somewhere on the vast hypothetical repository of the internet? Our sense of history and time has blurred, hardly helped by ominous global events that seem to undermine any concept of a secure futurity. Within such a flickering maelstrom of fake news and the otiose verbiage of social media, what body of poetry can stake its claim to survival into the next generation, let alone what used to be known as “immortality”?

  Such anxieties seem to haunt the margins of Chris McCabe’s ongoing project to investigate the obscure poets buried in London’s Victorian cemeteries, hoping to uncover a “mute, inglorious Milton” who has somehow (in Pound’s phrase) “’scaped immortality”. The opening instalment, In the Catacombs: A Summer Among the Dead Poets of West Norwood Cemetery (Penned in the Margins, 2014), initiated an alluring prose-hybrid form that collaged documentary, literary criticism and autobiography in a multifaceted narrative which owed something to later works by Iain Sinclair (eg. London Orbital and Edge of the Orison), tracing intersections in time and location that eventually forge a deep-rooted, almost occult coherence.

    What gave this launch of the project a further edge and scope was McCabe’s collaboration with visual artists who were creating a “site-specific art-trail” within West Norwood Cemetery during 2013, so that the book and its dead poets could be experienced in a concrete, physical dimension. Interested readers could visit the cemetery (as I did that summer) and follow the trail with McCabe: he also deposited small oval stones printed with words from each of the poet’s writings at the sites of their burial (some now overgrown or displaced) and there was also a limited edition anthology of the poets placed in the columbarium. The leaving of poem-stones seemed a gesture in keeping with the overall project of seeking a perpetuity for poets’ words: one wonders how many of the stones are still there in West Norwood Cemetery today?

    Cenotaph South is a more personally-invested book, interspersed throughout by McCabe’s diaristic notations of his mother’s cancer-scare and memories of his dead father, lending the sense of a poignant self-pilgrimage to McCabe’s investigations, albeit often counterbalanced by the redeeming innocence of playful interactions with his son Pavel. There is also a more writerly level whereby McCabe strives to validate his place within the historical continuity of poets by constantly scanning  his surroundings for links with his antecedents, eventually elaborating a “coffin-shaped” path on the map of Nunhead, Dulwich and Peckham Rye which demarcates the area of his dogged psychogeographic research.

    The network of associations he traces is remarkably rich and diverse: he initiates his enquiries by trying to locate the tree on Peckham Rye in which Blake had a vision of angels as a boy, then visits Dulwich College, where Barry McSweeney did his last poetry reading in 2000, before visiting the house where Robert Browning lived on Telegraph Hill and the site of a pub in Dulwich Village where BS Johnson used to attend poetry events in the 1960s. He also comes across the grave of Henry Mew, brother of the poet Charlotte, who wrote a vivid monologue addressed to her brother called  ‘In Nunhead Cemetery’.

    By invoking such outsider-poets as Blake, Mew and McSweeney (significantly it’s the proto-Modernist Browning of the experimental Sordello he’s drawn to rather than the later renowned man of letters) McCabe seems to be attempting to delineate his own alternative poetic history, an idiosyncratic “historical grammar of poetic myth” perhaps modelled on one of the many books he cites, Robert Graves’ The White Goddess. This is underlined in the chapter ‘At Home with the BBC: Reconsidering the Canon’, where his reflections on a BBC documentary suggest how the poetry establishment typified by TS Eliot and Faber worked with the BBC to endorse a particular narrow canon of mostly white male mainstream poets.

   As for Nunhead Cemetery itself, the buried poets McCabe identifies (with the help of historian Tim Stevenson) are a motley selection: mostly Victorians, like the once widely-anthologised ‘Laureate of the Babies’ William Cox Bennet, their often staid, sentimental verses hardly stand the test of time, although McCabe is a generous and knowledgeable enough reader to find at least something positive in all of the poets, especially George Thornbury whose documentary prose about London seems a precursor of McCabe’s own.

   Despite its potentially dark subject-matter, Cenotaph South culminates on a positive note, with news that McCabe’s mother is in recovery from her chemotherapy and that a new poetry-scene seems to be flourishing in the gentrified environs of Peckham and Nunhead, reminding us that “this is how the dead poets still speak – through the living”. An undiscovered poet of genius is yet to be unearthed from the tangled undergrowth of Nunhead Cemetery and therefore McCabe’s quest must continue to another of London’s Victorian cemeteries, leading the way for the next instalment of what is becoming a compelling and highly original sequence.

Friday, 13 April 2018

From Metamorphosis to Molossus: Riley on Middleton

Just came across Peter Riley on Christopher Middleton's Collected in the excellent Fortnightly Review, a book I reviewed myself but I feel didn't get to the nub of as Riley does here:

"there is immense variety, but there is throughout the same pressure in the writing, which pushes the initial material forwards towards a transformation through progressive figures and modes, or sometimes seems to follow a kind of poetical demonstration to reach a condition which was not predicated at the start. Almost all the poems begin from an experience, which is pushed through to a meaning, often by steps which are far from rational or evident, and the resulting meaning can be evasive, or cancelled at the last moment...there is nothing that could be taken as anything but a poem by Christopher Middleton, and this is because of that characteristic restless transformative drive which will let nothing remain at the normative level which makes it possible to get started. The language itself is forced to yield a further and further version of what it is doing until we are somewhere we could not have foreseen, or no longer speak the language with which the poem opened. You could call it metamorphosis: the objects of the poem turn into something else"

Doesn't this hit on a process which occurs in all effective poetry, a "transformative drive" which enacts a corresponding shift within the reader, his or her brain and body and nervous system; certainly a jolt that runs through one's auditory/linguistic proprioception (so to speak)? I also like the fact that Riley - a not inconsiderable poet himself of course - spends quite a while examining the opening poem in the Middleton, 'Objects at Brampton Ash', which was always a favourite of mine (having come across it in the Penguin Modern Poets three-hander in which CM appears - number 4 I believe - before I'd got hold of before any of his full volumes), an enthusiasm apparently shared with RF Langley and JH Prynne.

"The quick thrush cocks his head,/bunching his pectorals" was what got me: the stressed syllables are bunched too, attentive and alert, bristling with assonance, getting ready to launch off into the poem. Also, a metrical feature I always look for (as Charles Tomlinson said that he always looked out for spondees), an example of the molossus - three stresses in a row, an intense compression of pent-up energy which is then furthered by the spondaic impact of head/bunch and only finds release in the run of unstressed syllables in the second line. A whole mimetic drama is played out here just in these two short lines, capturing the transfer of energy the jumpy thrush embodies, asking the reader to cock their head and bunch their pectorals too, ready to take on board both the other objects encountered at Brampton Ash and by extension the whole astonishing world of Middleton's Collected.

Read the poem and Peter Riley's review here.

Wednesday, 21 February 2018

Embracing the Gap

  The belated recognition of Eileen Myles, as celebrated in an interview with Emma Brockes in The Guardian Review last weekend, seems one of those novelistic turnarounds of destiny which sees proponents of outsider-art eventually welcomed into the mainstream and applauded for all the qualities that made them weird and unpalatable twenty or thirty years ago when they were struggling for any kind of look-in. You usually find, moreover, that this volte-face of taste is less an arbitrary lottery-win than the reward for decades of unremunerative hard work, dogged persistence and stubborn self-belief. A veteran of the seminal St Marks Poetry Project and its artistic director in the eighties, Myles's poetry sits somewhere within the third New York School yet equally comes out of the movement of women’s poetry of the 60s and 70s: it foregrounds the voice of personal experience pushing uncomfortably hard against the alienating constraints and sharp edges of urban reality, couched in a slangy demotic candour that feels at once hard-won and throwaway. 

    I returned to Myles’s work in two big anthologies I frequently go back to as source-books for richly atypical writing: Up Late - American Poetry since 1970 (ed. Andrei Codrescu) and PostModern American Poetry - A Norton Anthology (ed. Paul Hoover). Its her O'Haran “personism”, her reluctance to separate lived experience from the experience of writing poems, which still seems so rawly compelling, and perhaps it's this that has endeared her to more recent readers who have misread her work as a set of transparent portals on a complex, unconventional personality: “The process of the poem…is central to an impression I have that life is a rehearsal for the poem, or the final moment of spiritual revelation…As I walked I was recording the details, I was the details, I was the poem”.

     This keys in with something Myles talks about in the interview about embracing the process of writing rather than always striving for crafted products: “it’s like how do you learn to write poems that look easy? Just writing in this wasteful way all day long.” This strikes me as intriguing in the context of Rebecca Watts’ phrase “the rejection of craft” as applied to poets like Hollie McNish (see previous post). Perhaps there can be a positive rejection of craft in the service of a focus on process and revelation which a poet like Myles embodies, as well as plenty of the various other “post-modern” poets in these anthologies, unified only in their repudiation of academic traditionalism.

     I say this as much as anything as a reminder to myself not to make a cult of craft and form as I have often done in the past; not to become bogged down in technical minutiae and endlesssly redrafting old poems rather than ensuring I invest enough of my writing process and myself into each poem to make it resonant, communicative and - indeed - alive. Serendipitously I find the opposite tendency summed up in a brilliantly mordant poem by August Kleinzahler on the adjacent page from Myles in the Norton book:

 “Too daunted to field what he might,
    (He) Takes refuge in a text
     of a text, 
     finding tickle points of nyceness
     there to stay him…

    Backing off from the authentic
     like a jackal from the lion’s scent”.
                                          (A Case in Point)

    I also warmed to Myles' definition of poetry and its physicality on the page which culminates the interview: "The difference between poetry and prose, and why if you're not acculturated to poetry, you might resist it: that page is frightening. Why is it not filled? The two categories of people who don't feel that way are children and prisoners. So many prison poets: they see that gap and experience it differently". Emma Brockes goes on to say, in a beautifully-turned sentence, "The gap, of course, is where we all live, in the space between conventional categories, and it has been the project of Myles's work to celebrate it; the indeterminacy of where one thing ends and another begins."

Wednesday, 14 February 2018

Pop-Poetry Will Eat Itself

  A work-colleague asked recently "What kind of poetry do you write?" and I was stumped for an answer. Not only did no coherent response come to mind, but as I hemmed and hawed I was confused as to the kind of reply that might be expected. On a Lit History level, of course, there are generic categories of poem (lyric, narrative, elegy, satire etc.) which are still often employed by poets and critics, although in many cases they feel inapplicable to the hybridised, mashed-up forms we now write in; but surely this wasn't the kind of answer she was looking for (eg. "Well, my work flits puckishly between the ode and the dramatic monologue, with occasional forays into the epic.") 
    It's difficult to surmise the kinds of poetry that exist in what is sometimes bizarrely called "the popular imagination", but the teacher gave an inkling of one of them when she rescued me by saying "Is it the really heavy, depressing kind?" (presumably shorthand for any poetry written with serious or, broadly speaking, literary or artistic intent.) For want of any better designation (and almost detecting a kind of back-handed compliment ie. at least I'm not a flippant rhymester in the mould of Purple Ronnie or Pam Ayres), I said "Yes, probably" and we left it at that.
   What this odd exchange brought home is our lack of meaningful terms for the large array of subtypes at play within the field of poetry, in comparison, say, to music where there's an abundance of different styles each with its own name, tradition, values and audience. Some (classical, jazz, art-rock ) are more artful and crafted than others at the pop end of the spectrum which tend to be both more immediate and more simplistic but are also usually more commercially successful in terms of their reception. Other musical styles dwell somewhere between these poles, striving to attain a level of popularity while also maintaining some semblance of artistic integrity.
     Is there a kind of "pop poetry", as well as (again, very much for want of a better word) a "literary poetry" whose practitioners align themselves with the making of something akin to art? I'm straining the analogy here in reference to the rather heated discussion that arose the other week after Rebecca Watts' essay in PN Review in which she inveighs against several female poets, in particular Hollie McNish and Rupi Kaur, for "the open denigration of intellectual engagement and rejection of craft that characterises their work". It's hardly a balanced work of criticism, and the somewhat lofty, de haut en bas tone does run the risk of accusations of a snobbish condescension (as its detractors have been quick to point out). I found myself thinking of that old Alexander Pope line "Why break a butterfly upon a wheel?"
    I do, however, find myself in agreement with many of Watts' points. I have to admit to a sense of bewilderment whenever I go into Waterstones and approach the poetry shelves only to discover that a proportion of the ever-dwindling book-space allotted is taken up by small decorative volumes you might expect to see in a twee gift-shop, their pages adorned with wistful line-drawings of flowers and snowflakes amid which brief clusters of lines nestle, each a sentimental cliché or banal pseudo-profundity you might be more likely to find on a poster in a morose teenager's bedroom or perhaps biro'd on the back of a doodled exercise book in a moment of angst. This, in case you haven't encountered it, is Rupi Kaur's "Instagram poetry" (now there's a genre for you), a "short-form" production which seems to exactly conform to a public perception of what poetry should be - emotionally tortured, introspective, "spiritual", romantic with a small r. If you think of the word "poetic" within everyday parlance, these are the connotations it invariably evokes. (It would perhaps be an intriguing study to look at why The Dictionary for Received Ideas' entry on Poetry is stuck somewhere between post-Georgianism and watered-down Confessionalism and seems to omit from its definition the rest of its richly heterogeneous history.)
   The first time I read some of Hollie McNish's verses - and indicatively I think it was in The Guardian - I thought they were a parody or post-modern ruse cleverly aping a gauchely rhyming, agit-prop type poem of the kind (again) that many of us wrote as moody adolescents. I had to read it several times before deciding with a mixture of mirth and perplexity that no this was an actual poem and The Guardian was actually printing it. And Picador is publishing her new book and now she's won the Ted Hughes Award!
    Rebecca Watts' argument that the literary establishment's acceptance of McNish in a kind of disingenuous Emperor's New Clothes consensus is a valid one and seems to say more about the ever-looser criteria some publishers and promoters are holding to in an age of shrinking readerships and depleting returns than it does about any genuine new impetus towards populism. Populism, after all, is nothing new; as I suggested above, there has always been a vein of what used to be known as "light verse", often written by specialists who are far more skilled and indeed often artful than McNish or Kaur. Some will remember a few years ago (ok I just looked it up and it was 20) a somewhat analogous controversy being sparked when the unfunny comic poet Murray Lachlan Young reportedly signed a contract with EMI for £1m in 1997 (for recordings of performances rather than against his book-sales) - the ludicrous soundbite "Poetry is the new rock'n'roll" was widely touted at the time and many more serious poets (such as Michael Horovitz) waxed wroth about Young's sudden acclaim, saying that this was not real poetry and that he was debasing the art-form etc. 
    The point I'm attempting to make in a laborious way is that poetry continues to be as multifarious as music, yet we often lump it together as though it didn't contain diverse strands each with their different audiences and different channels of exposure: inevitably these will overlap and rub each other up the wrong way at certain points. The positive "takeaways", perhaps, are firstly the huge potential book-buying readership for poetry it shows at a time when, as I say, "literary" poetry seems to be selling less than ever - Kaur's Milk and Honey has apparently sold over half a million copies, which is incredible in the context of the tiny sales of most UK volumes. I'm certainly not saying that we should all embrace "Instagram poetry" and write like Rupi Kaur in the future - far from it - but just that we should perhaps consider all those readers who are showing a perhaps new or reanimated interest in poetry. Secondly, the debate which Watts' essay has provoked demonstrates an appetite and need for informed critical discussion about the status of poetry in the UK; it implies we're a broad church and that there's a great deal of scope for the interaction and cross-pollination of voices within this bustling community.

Tuesday, 16 January 2018

Sleepwalking or Wake-Up Time?

  Whereas in real terms 2017 was an especially momentous year for me, primarily in moving to a new house in Hertfordshire and experiencing the first year on earth of our baby daughter, in writing terms it seemed a list of things missed, undone or unfinished. Understandable, perhaps, given the overwhelming importance of these other events and the fact that they took place within the context of a demanding full-time day-job; but in 2018 I've resolved to redress the balance and put all my efforts into devoting more time to my writing, chiefly by accomplishing what I've talked about doing for a number of years and going freelance, both as a writer/editor and as an educational consultant. More time for writing but equally more time for my daughter and partner.
     This feels both like an immensely exciting opportunity and a somewhat daunting challenge but sitting at home in front of the laptop at this slow, muffled start to the year, watching the bleak grey weather animate the birdless garden-trees (instead of attending a meeting about unmarked registers or a briefing in which I have to inform the teachers we won't be replacing the staff-members who've left because there's no money in the budget, as I would have been doing had I returned to my job as college manager), I feel tentatively vindicated - warm, snug and vindicated.
   I was listening to a podcast yesterday in which Richard Herring* was in conversation with the writer and journalist Johann Hari, who's just brought out an intriguing book called Lost Connections. It's concerned with the roots of the growing epidemic of depression within our society and how we attempt to address it through the routine over-prescription of anti-depressants. Hari's argument, based on his own experiences and on encounters with a huge array of researchers, therapists and depressives themselves, is that the drugs don't work and that rather than imbalances of brain-chemistry or other internal factors which lead to anxiety and anhedonia, they're largely precipitated by lifestyle-choices and relationships: the loneliness, disconnectedness and enmity towards others fostered by our atomised self-absorption. "A depressed person is not a broken-down machine but an animal with unmet needs", is how Hari encapsulates it. We're hardwired to live in tribes, as communal beings; the contemporary drive towards self-serving individualism and the "extrinsic motivators" of material acquisition fostered by consumerism are in fact inimical to our deeper natures.
    What particularly caught my interest was when Hari spoke about our experience of work being another aspect of this sense of disconnect in one's own life: in an American survey, the majority of participants said they didn't like their job or hate their job enough to leave it, but were merely "sleepwalking" their way through the weeks, getting through the days and surviving. This seemed to me to exactly capture how I felt about my career: from starting as an enthusiastic, committed teacher with an interest and enjoyment in interacting with special needs students, which I originally undertook as a way to pay the bills as a struggling young writer/musician as well as what I saw as a selfless corrective to the potential indulgence of a creative lifestyle, the job overtook more and more of my time and energy, elbowing writing to the sidelines until I barely found time to scribble a note or a few lines of poetry in spare moments.
     For years, in retrospect, I was merely sleepwalking through it, even as I somnambulantly progressed to becoming a manager and Head of Department, job-titles very far from my earlier aspirations and self-image. On another level, perhaps this sleepwalking was a refuge from confronting a long-standing lack of faith in myself as a writer; in other words, it was easier to muddle through in something I no longer took much pleasure in, but could do and even succeed at, rather than engage with the much more complex challenge and personal investment of writing books which I could potentially fail at; easier to keep postponing or sabotaging my vocation as a writer than knuckle down to completing the novel I've been tinkering sporadically with for around 15 years.
     Towards the end of last year, feeling myself in the fortunate position of having both a highly supportive partner and a small amount of savings to give me some leeway, I was at last frustrated enough with the budget-driven stringencies of working in FE in the age of austerity and assured enough that I could find a meaningful alternative to make the break with my college-job. I feel like my whole adult life I've blamed extrinsic factors for obstructing my access to the intrinsic compulsion to understand myself and the world through the process of writing and ultimately communicating this writing back to the world. As I say, I'm aware of the risks and challenges involved, but at the moment - the trees are still now, the wood-pigeons have returned to the upper branches, like words alighting into an uncluttered mind - I've never been surer I've made the right decision.

*As I found out from his Leicester Square Podcasts, Richard Herring also moved to Hertfordshire last year although I don't think he's disclosed exactly where

Saturday, 18 November 2017

Poet as TV Sleb

Image result for ovid
Ovid Banished from Rome by JMW Turner
   There's been a welcome spate of poetry programmes on the BBC this autumn, with documentaries on Auden, Charles Causley and the Liverpool poets all grabbing my attention. From the first, amid lovely old footage of interviews with WH, I learnt that one of our most eminent English bards and an Oxford Professor of Poetry was something of a closet druggy, writing for most of his adult life on a morning dose of benzedrine (Kerouac famously typed the scroll of On the Road while speeding on the same upper) which he would counteract in the evening with heavy use of alcohol and barbiturates. No wonder he was so prolific - I wonder also if the manner in which the tremendous linguistic energy and mobility of Auden's early to mid period poetry gave way to the tired, flabby prolixity of the later work speak of a talent which burned itself out in the daily rollercoaster of this chemically-assisted cycle.
    One of the archive clips shows Auden smoking and drawling his way through The Parkinson Show in the 1970s, probably at 7.30 in the evening not sure if he was up or down. It's startling to realise that a poet of Auden's calibre could have attained the celebrity to appear on a prime-time chat-show. What would be a contemporary equivalent? Les Murray on Graham Norton? The poetry world feels in a way more democratised now, we don't elevate mandarin figures so much anymore, and this can only be a good thing. It's actually easier to imagine slightly younger poets like Simon Armitage (who featured as a talking head on a couple of these BBC documentaries) on TV, or equally poet-performers like Kate Tempest.
   I caught another excellent programme on BBC4 the other night, this time about the Roman poet Ovid. The way Michael Wood's historical explanations and excursions to pertinent locations were woven around Ovid's own words, read sonorously by Simon Russell Beale, brought vibrantly to life what could have been a potentially heavyweight subject. Despite his classical stature, Ovid's story seems strangely contemporary in fact: he too acquired a kind of celebrity within Augustan Rome for the erotic sophistication of his early poetry but then fell foul of the Emperor, either for something he wrote or for a personal indiscretion. He was exiled from the republic and spent the rest of his life at Tomis on the Black Sea, at the very edge of the Roman Empire, in what is present-day Romania.