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Monday, 20 April 2015

Waiting for the Sunken Ship to Explode

   In literature the only thing better than finding a new word in the dictionary is hearing about an intriguing writer a description of makes you desperate to read. How Uwe Johnson (1934-84), one of the most significant post-war European novelists, "the Poet of Divided Germany", ended up in the terminally uninspiring backwater of Sheerness on the Isle of Sheppey in suburban Kent, is fascinatingly explored in the Radio 3 programme 'A Secret Life'.
   After defecting from Communist East Germany and living for much of the 60's in New York (during which time he worked on his magnum opus Die Jahrestage (Anniversaries), as yet untranslated into English), no-one is quite sure what drew Johnson to Sheerness, where he moved with his wife and daughter in 1974 and remained until his premature, perhaps drink-related death a decade later. The programme's oblique examination of his markedly unremarkable existence there (he was known as Charles to his neighbours and spent evenings in the local pub transcribing banal conversations) reminded me both of JG Ballard in his own bourgeois disturbia of Shepperton and Johnson's fellow German "emigrant" WG Sebald, who spent the last 30 years of his life in rural Norfolk. As well as being adherents of Flaubert's dictum "Be regular and orderly in your life like a bourgeois, so that you may be violent and original in your work", the three writers share an intense preoccupation with the dark depredations underlying apparently seemly urban existences, the "cracks in culture" Andre Gide spoke of wanting to probe.
     However, no novels or other books emanated from Uwe Johnson's residence in Sheerness. It seems he was "blocked" - semantically ironic, if we consider that it was the "Eastern bloc" he had veered away from. One of the few texts he completed was an essay on the SS Richard Montgomery, which had run aground and sank a mile off the coast of Sheerness with 3,172 tonnes of explosives on board.The essay seems indicative of Johnson's strange, imploded character in how he appears to relish this source of imminent danger and disruption submerged within the tedium of his internal exile. It describes how, due to the inherent danger and projected expense, the ship and its cargo had never been salvaged; and how, if the wreck were to explode, it would be one of the largest non-nuclear explosions of all time, perhaps sending a tidal wave up the Thames which would cause widespread damage and perhaps engulf large areas of London.

Monday, 13 April 2015

Sea and Sardinia

Ancient city of Tharros, Sinis peninsula
   "Comes over one an absolute necessity to move". In London we live so much in the virtual clouds our heads now resemble and by the abstracts societal pressures reify within our minds: clock-time, monetary status, group-approval. Until we travel we tend to forget we're primarily a body of which the brain is only one small component. We forget to look, feel and experience the world through sensory channels; that verbal explanations of phenomena are not always necessary. Through receptivity to otherness you can grasp experiences in a way that isn't either intellectual or culturally-circumscribed. Equally, there is always new learning to be acquired just by relinquishing the concept that living in a big sophisticated city gives us a privileged access to knowledge and understanding ie. the worldliness or knowingness - mediated through equivocating layers of irony - of the sceptical urbanite.
Torre di Castari, on the Costa Verde
  Wasn't this the impetus behind DH Lawrence's "savage pilgrimage"? You encounter this difficult, unwieldy sense of wonder, of the unkempt poem as "an act of attention" in Birds, Beasts and Flowers but in the novels set abroad - as well as travel-books such as Sea and Sardinia - the sense of frustration at not being able to turn off his critical intelligence and participate in the simpler, less cerebral life he encounters is palpable. But the expectation that Lawrence could ever discover a zone exempt from what he saw as the ravages of modernity - "Sardinia, which is like nowhere. Sardinia, which has no history, no date, no race, no offering... It lies outside; outside the circuit of civilisation" - seems inherently flawed, even if we still recognise the urge to locate this "uncaptured Sardinia" today.

Sunday, 15 March 2015

Unsung Women

    Last Sunday was International Women's Day and Radio 3 devoted their output to playing the works of female classical composers, whose historical marginalisation has been even greater than that of female writers and artists. The few I had heard of - Clara Schumann, Lili Boulanger, Germaine Tailleferre, Elizabeth Lutyens - took their place among a whole host of fascinating discoveries such as Élisabeth Jacquet de La Guerre (1665-1729) whose Céphale et Procris was the first opera written by a woman in France and Barbara Strozzi (1619-1677), the Venetian singer and composer. 
    I was particularly taken by this cantata by Strozzi, remarkably beautiful and somehow completely contemporary in how it communicates in this version by Mariana Flores.

Thursday, 19 February 2015

The Poet Who Vanished Comes Back

  The most exhilarating and refreshing poetry-volume of last year wasn't by some audacious new upstart but by a remarkable rediscovery from the 1960s whose language sounds to me more vibrant than any recent debut. The Collected Poems of Rosemary Tonks - Bedouin of the London Evening - appeared only six months or so after the passing away of the latter-styled Mrs Lightband as reported in this post from last May. Neil Astley of Bloodaxe has done an exemplary job not only of editing and bringing to light the long-out-of-print oeuvre so rapidly but also of providing a comprehensive introduction which finally details the whole poignant narrative of Tonks' transition from feted Hampstead literateuse, traveller and bohemian to devoutly-Christian eccentric living the second half of her life in solitary seclusion in Bournemouth.
   These days poets are in general such a polite, worldly, often business-like bunch  - always keen to market and promote themselves and further their careers through networking and social media: as in some ways we all have to now, the market for any kind of readership or critical attention being so marginalised and competitive. It no longer seems enough just to be able to write good poems and hope that a receptive audience will discover and appreciate them.
    Since the Movement's rubbishing of the neo-romantic model of the poet (typified for them in the bibulous demise of Dylan Thomas), it's remained largely unfashionable in mainstream quarters to re-invoke the older and indeed ancient notion that many poets (like writers and artists in general) are not sensible, rounded types with a canny sense of how they fit into the publishing market and moreover that this unworldliness  (and in some cases, lack of balance) is part and parcel of their immersion in poetry as a deeply-engaged personal quest or wrestle with forces beyond him or herself - what used to be called "a commitment to the Muse", a perhaps quasi-religious undertaking. "The lyric poet",as Nietzsche describes it in The Birth of Tragedy, "himself becomes his images, his images are objectified versions of himself...only his 'I' is not that of the actual waking man, but of the 'I' dwelling, truly and eternally, in the ground of being."
    The apparent breakdown and attendant rejection of literature and society Rosemary Tonks went through may seem unfortunate given the imaginative flair and linguistic dexterity evinced in her published work. Seen as such, the tragedy of her abandoning poetry in the late 70s is that - like Keats or Keith Douglas - she left a tiny amount of poems of tantalising brilliance. Astley has not uncovered any other unpublished or fugitive texts, meaning that the Collected Poems is just the two volumes brought out in the 60s, Notes on Cafes and Bedrooms and Iliad of Broken Sentences. One could go further and suggest that her debut, although distinctive, was somewhat indebted to other models (chiefly 40s poets like George Barker and WS Graham) and it was mainly only in her second collection that Tonks began to establish her own form and voice.
    The poems throughout bristle with an impetuous, nervous energy, the questioning intensity of one living on the edge, exploring the underbelly of the city in an endless inquisitive flanerie: "I find exactly what I want to say, then I test it a hundred times with life to make sure it's true"(Interview with Peter Orr). Bundled up in collisions of surreal metaphor that seem closer to the Lorca of Poeta en Nueva York than any English forebear, the sense of dissolution and possible dissociation (paralleling Rimbaud's "je est un autre") keeps breaking through what John Hartley Williams called her "haughty, self-ironising contempt":
                                       " For this is not my life
                                          But theirs, that I am living.
                                          And I wolf, gulp, bolt it down day by day"
   Yet from Astley's description of her later, sequestered existence (based on journals and letters) the same internal pressure and struggle to assert her own meaning on the flux of the everyday is still apparent:
       " Ever restless in spirit, she fought daily battles with her inner demons, plagued by self-doubt and debilitating depression...birds were her soundscape, and birds were associated with her mother, whom she called 'Birdie'...she would base decisions on what to do, whom to trust, whether to go out , how to deal with a problem, on how these bird sounds made her feel".
    In other words, there seems a continuity in Tonks' psychological perception of reality between this kind of augurising, animistic "magical thinking" and the often hallucinatory urban vistas and flickering cognitive metamorphoses of her poems. Again in some ways like Rimbaud - or indeed Emily Dickinson, with her complex scepticism towards even showing her poems to others - it seems Tonks' intensive spiritual project ultimately lead her into areas where the idea of communicating to the outside world through poetry and publication no longer seemed relevant, so private and symbolic had it become. But equally it's the radical individuality and uncompromising integrity of such a vision which informs the bravery and vigour of her poems, and makes it such an important event that we now have them to read and study together for the first time.

Saturday, 24 January 2015

Seeing Patterns


Apophenia /æpɵˈfniə/ is the experience of seeing patterns or connections in random or meaningless data.

"The map is not the territory, as they say, and yet most of us live the majority of our lives with a continuous internal chatter that narrates our inner and outer experiences. This internal noise is so habitual we are almost unaware it is there, except for those precious moments when it is stopped short, like when we are caught by the sound of exquisite birdsong or hypnotised by the sound of rain as we lie in bed. In these moments the mind falls silent and we become that sound. There are no descriptions. There is no duality. There is only the sound."
                                         Garth Bowden, Exhibition Notes
         


                                                                     

Monday, 19 January 2015

Brain In A Bottle

Intriguing taster for Thom Yorke's new album Tomorrow's Modern Boxes which he's wisely made available as a torrent for a mere, January-friendly $6. 

https://bundles.bittorrent.com/bundles/tomorrowsmodernboxes

Tuesday, 30 December 2014

Brain Detox

 It's not only our bodies that undergo a glut of inertia and unhealthy torpor during Christmas; our mental faculties can also face a kind of catatonic shutdown under the weight of endless repeats and festive specials on TV, Roy Wood, Noddy Holder and all the other anthems churned out on a mind-numbing loop, the logorrhoeic reiteration of banal cliches and marketing slogans thinly disguised as messages of Christian goodwill. Geoffrey Hill might now resemble a grouchy Santa Claus, but what was that old line of his about "wild Christmas": "What is that but the soul's winter sleep?" I also like this obstreperous chunk of early Christopher Middleton:
                                      " Shit
                                        On
                                        You,
                                        Mother.
                                        All I wanted was out:
                                        To be free
                                        From your festoons
                                        Of plastic
                                        Everlasting
                                        Christmas cards."  ('The Hero, On Culture')

  I had fun, sure, and it was great to spend time with my son and wider family. But also good to get the brain back in gear with some challenging reading whose intellectual rigor seems to counteract the prevailing mood of self-indulgent sloth. Robert Sheppard on Middleton, for example, in The Wolf 31 is a superb delineation of this poet's unique and far-reaching approach towards poetic form, with particular reference to the essay 'Reflections on a Viking Prow'. Sheppard's enthusiasm and willingness to draw significant principles from Middleton's theories echoes my own post on the essay from last December, No Longer A Mere Blob.   


    Andrew Duncan's piece about his critical explorations of contemporary British poetry - 'Lost Time is not Found Again' - communicates an insistence parallel on the need for an impersonal poetic, a seeing beyond the glib appraisal of a period by merely looking at its few most acclaimed poets. Similarly, Jerome Rothenberg is a figure whose tenacious endeavour over many years has been (in seminal anthologies like Technicians of the Sacred) to bring to light poetic voices well outside the literary mainstream and its predilection for male, white, university-educated liberal-humanists: the interview with Rothenberg in this edition of The Wolf demonstrates how active and tireless this under-appreciated project remains.


    The magazine also contains my review of Hill's Broken Hierarchies: Poems 1952-2012, by far the most difficult text of this kind I've had to write. As a point of comparison there's an excellent, illuminating review of the same book by Karl O'Hanlon in the new Blackbox Manifold, where you can also find interesting poems by Helen Tookey, Allen Fisher and Karthika Nair.


   Also worth a prolonged look is the online journal Prac Crit edited by Sarah Howe - its title presumably a nod to IA Richards, not a bad figure to revaluate. I particularly enjoyed the interview with Tim Donnelly conducted by Dai George and Olli Hazzard's intricate, beguiling interpretation of 'Last Dream of Light Released from Sea-Ports' from The Cloud Corporation.
 

Monday, 22 December 2014

Sunday, 30 November 2014

The Syntax of Memory: Morrissey's Autobiography

           

   For all its strengths and weaknesses, the biggest surprise about Morrissey's Autobiography is that, when he turns his hand to prose, the author of some of the most memorable and soaring lyrics of our time flounders on the deck like Baudelaire's albatross, the giant wings of his literary pretensions impeding his progress at every turn. From the first four-and-a-half page paragraph, with its attempt at indentless stream-of-consciousness retrospect, you immediately wonder where, out of all the myriad books Morrissey has always talked of drowning in, he ever derived his sense of prose style from. If "le style est l'homme", his writing appears to suffer the same condition of being irredeemably arrested at some point in a troubled, self-absorbed yet desperate-to-impress adolescence as the book demonstrates his character to have always been. 

   It seems to me that Morrissey's earliest yet most abiding models are less Oscar Wilde or Dorothy Parker than the gonzoish poetasters of 70s music journalism - Charles Shaar Murray, Nick Kent and even the Julie Burchill he later meets and hissily satirises - those purveyors of streetwise counter-cultural diatribes and flighty paeans to the likes of Patti Smith hammered-out for the NME in an English where cynical, resonant chutzpah and gauche wordplay invariably wins out over syntactic cohesion or actually telling you anything insightful about the artist. The later post-punk generation of Ian Penman, Paul Morley, Dave McCullough et al - some of whom championed The Smiths during the 80s - were perhaps too much his contemporaries (and potential rivals, since journalism was one of Morrissey's youthful career-aspirations) to have impacted much on his style. Their reviews, although at least more considered and well-referenced, often had the opposite failing of becoming clogged up in their own attempted cleverness and weltering under the weight of half-baked, ill-digested critical theory: epitomes of that malady of pseudo-intellectualism which would culminate in Factory Record's hubristic implosion a few years later.


  One definition of bad style in prose might be writing whose rhetoric and figurations obscure rather than aid the narrative progression of the text. To return to Autobiography's opening, the adoption of a hackneyed, faux-literary journalese is all too apparent, where no opportunity to make a facile rhyme- or homonym-parallel can be missed (as in the clunking zeugma "Streets to define you and streets to confine you, with no sign of motorway, freeway or highway"), where for the sake of dramatic effect sentences wobble out of grammatical sense like old Coronation Street sets("we walk in the center of the road, looking up at the torn wallpapers of browny blacks and purples as the mournful remains of derelict shoulder-to-shoulder houses, their safety now replaced by trepidation") and where the imagery (to chance my arm at a Morisseyan epiphet) is laid on with a hefty trowel the size of Hemel Hempstead. His depiction of the Manchester of his childhood makes Dickens on Victorian London seem as subtle and nuanced as Elizabeth Bowen: although some reviewers cited these passages as the best part of the book, they seem to me by far the worst, coagulating every dreary, belittling cliché about Northern grimness (cf. Monty Python's Four Yorkshiremen Sketch: "When I were a lad...") with that catastrophising of mawkish self-pity into full-blown persecution-complex which is so endemically Morrissey.

   Once we are done with childhood and the laborious horror-show of his school -days (dealt with so much more succinctly and effectively 30 years ago in the Smiths' song 'The Headmaster Ritual') the book becomes steadily more readable and engaging, the prose relaxing into a less self-conscious, event-driven momentum, often leavened with acerbic wit and a sense of the absurd. It's an undoubted shame that the story of The Smiths - surely the aspect of Morrissey's life most of us would go to these pages to learn more of - is rushed through so cursorily, as though such momentous artistic achievements have apparently now  been overshadowed by the subsequent, lengthily-dissected trial in which he feels himself (with some justice) betrayed by his former band-members.


   Far more space is given to the solo-career and in fact by the ending we realise that for all its subject's eccentricity the book follows pretty much the rags-to-riches trajectory of all celebrity-biogs, although unlike most contemporary also-rans who are famous for being very fleetingly televised, you do feel that Morrissey - with the blind self-belief and persistent integrity of the true artist - may genuinely have earned his late-in-the-day acclaim. Scores have been settled (with Geoff Travis, Tony Wilson, Judge John Weeks etc.), a kind of laconic wisdom has been wrung from decades of worldwide fan-adulation ("I am no more unhappy than anyone else") but whether Morrissey has finally learned to move on from those lamentable memories of his youth - or the lamentable prose he enshrines them in - remains somewhat unlikely.

Monday, 10 November 2014

Autumn in Grasmere

Dove Cottage from its garden
   Had an idyllic few days in the Lake District over the half-term, my first excursion to the region. I could wax Wordsworthian about the extraordinary autumnal landscapes I walked through until the rare-breed cows come home but of course you've heard it all before. What I found amazing was how the mountains, lakes and woods in fact lived up to the centuries-old hype and despite a highly-developed tourist-trade in the area, seem to remain irreducible to chocolate-box prettification or the "aw-shucks vision of immensities" William Logan mocked Charles Wright for. (Strange how we use "unspoilt" as a term of approval as though all natural environments were ultimately destined for spoliation.)

View from Hawth Castle

 The landscapes and bewilderingly wide skies, across which patterns of cloud-filtered light continually roam and shift, retain something inhospitably wild and barren about them which is the opposite of the "cramped and fearful" box-life of the indentured Londoner.(The quote's from MacDiarmid's great poem 'Bagpipe Music', quite germane to what I'm talking about). No wonder in the late 18th century certain ladies would be advised to observe the Lakes with the aid of a Claude glass - basically a mirror that would frame and render picturesque the otherwise unassimably natural abundance in front of them -  lest the vertiginous wilderness would throw them into a swoon.
Lake Windermere


 Now many of us use our smartphones and tablets for a similar mediation, a similar inability to take on board the enormous unhumanness of these locations society has yet to monetise and co-opt. Places where the depressing corollary of post-modernism - "il n'y a pas d'hors-texte" - feels like it's unravelled and where the outside goes on forever.