Sunday, 14 September 2014

Old is the New New

   The PBS Next Generation list of "the most exciting new poets" is extraordinary in that there is nothing new about it. Every poet selected either already has an established reputation or has been a prize-winner or had a debut that's been a PBS Choice. Is this promotion primarily about taking risks on encouraging and nurturing new poetry or is it rather on the whole a desperate bid in the face of a shrinking market to bolster the careers of poets with proven track-records of achievement, an exercise more akin to hedge-fund management than to the discovery of fresh, unheard styles and voices?
   I say desperate because some of the choices are a little baffling. Adam Foulds is a fine writer but he has only published one book of poetry The Broken Word (impressive as it was) and that was back in 2008; since then he's produced two novels and as far as I know no poetry by him has appeared in magazines or journals. In other words, the impression is that Foulds is now concentrating his energies on prose and indeed is invariably described as a novelist . I can't see by what stretch of the imagination Foulds could be described as a new poet "currently lighting up the scene"; but he's a successful writer, he's won awards and prizes and I'm sure Cape (part of Random House) could do with selling a few more copies of The Broken Word.
    Equally, Sam Willets brought out one book in 2010, New Light for the Old Dark, which has some good poems in it but has published nothing since. Like many people, I like Mark Waldron's work: his idiosyncratic friskiness with language can appeal to admirers of both the "post-avant" and the more mainstream (though these facile definitions have inter-curdled of late.) He's had two volumes out and is a well-respected figure on the scene, looked up to by younger poets, getting towards being something of an eminence grise: but "sparky" new poet?
   It's positive that there are more women than men on the list, of course, with some genuinely worthy inclusions like Heather Phillipson and the performance poet Kate Tempest (also nominated for the Mercury Prize - now that's an exciting first). And positive that a poet published by an independent press like Penned in the Margins - Melissa Lee-Houghton - should be recognised, although this is very much the anomaly among a preponderance of Faber, Carcanet and Cape authors.
   I'm aware that having an existing reputation within the poetry world doesn't mean that any of these writers couldn't do with their work being further talked about, promoted and marketed. It doesn't of course mean that you're making a steady income from poetry or have in any way "made it" as a writer. Given sufficient funding it would be beneficial if more than one initiative like this could be happening, with more backing awarded to promising poets who have yet to have their first book published; but something I learnt at the Penned in the Margins discussion panel last week (part of their ten year anniversary celebrations) is that more poetry-books are being published by a greater number of publishers than ever before but in fact less copies are being sold. That's quite a bleak conundrum, isn't it?
   In that kind of scenario, with smaller presses and of course online printing gathering in importance, it's clear we need to be looking beyond PBS promotions to locate where the genuinely new and exciting currents in British poetry are coming through.
   Check out the Next Generation 2014 here:

Saturday, 6 September 2014

Optic Nerve

   Pubs and poets go together like the yin and yang of the known universe, inseparable and insoluble. In every pub in the UK there is a poet sitting in the corner scribbling gnomic fragments with prosodic marks over them, mouthing odd syllable-shapes, waiting to be bought another drink: they are part of the fixtures and fittings inherited from one landlord to the next along with the jukebox, the darts-board and the large dark stain on the carpet. The Dream-Songs would not be the randomised jibber-jabber conflating lyric profundity with maudlin prattle they are if Berryman had not composed many of them in bars and Dublin pubs: they boldly enact the woozy decline into incoherence, the loss of all sense of epistemological proportion and the sheer joy of talking bollocks that accompanies the pub-philosopher's nightly (or daily) downward spiral, immersed in this zone of permissible transgression like Hamlet's king of infinite space, deferring the bad dreams of next morning.
   I say this by way of preamble to a new blog myself and some friends have embarked on, with a focus on writing about interesting or characterful pubs we come across both in London and outside it, posting reviews that will hopefully also be interesting and characterful. It's intended as a celebration of the pub in all its diversity in a time of widespread decline (31 pubs closing a week) when for God's sake we need it more than ever. What other manifestations of communal interaction do we have to offer in the UK that we haven't stolen from other cultures? Morris dancing? The greasy spoon cafĂ©?
    How else are you going to escape from the diurnal grind of quiet desperation that 'austerity Britain' has pushed you into? Sit at home reading poetry?
    The blog's called The Optic - see what I've done there? - so please take a look at the opening chapter:

Tuesday, 19 August 2014

In Their Own Words

    If you missed it here's the first part of an interesting new BBC4 series comprised of old BBC footage of 20th Century poets edited together in chronological fashion to form a (very) basic history of British poetry. The opening clips of Pound show what an amazing place the castle in the Tyrol he came to live in towards the end of life was: he seems serene there, as against the impression the last fragmentary Cantos and Donald Hall's Paris Review interview (1960 I think) give of an old man "mired in depression". Great to see Hugh MacDiarmid speaking on film, especially in the context of the forthcoming Scottish referendum ("England must disappear") and equally RS Thomas talking in his flinty way about Wales and the way religion and poetry co-existed for him - were, in effect, one. 
     Auden on Parkinson is an amusing oddity, although Betjeman on the same programme is merely a low-brow showman (not shaman). And if I hear Dylan Thomas doing that ridiculous hammy singsong on 'Do Not Go Gentle' once more this year I'm going to scream:
   Afterword: the link to iPlayer is no longer live but you can catch the two parts of Great Poets In Their Own Words on YouTube. It's chopped into 15minute segments so I'm not going to provide links to all the parts.

Monday, 18 August 2014

'Measuring the Dead': McCabe's In the Catacombs

    Last summer I participated in the walk around West Norwood Cemetery which was the culmination of Chris McCabe's project reflecting on the resting-places and reputations of twelve poets buried there and examining  whether any of them warranted being rescued from the oblivion of the unread. As well as being a fascinating exploration of the lives of obscure writers (contextualised with intriguing tangential information from local historian Colin Fenn), it was a beautiful sunny day and the walk around the leafy, placid cemetery stands out in my memory as among the vividest moments of that long summer. I tried to capture a sense of this in the pictorial record I posted afterwards, Ephemeral Stones.
    A year later Chris's prose-narrative about the project - In the Catacombs: A Summer among the Dead Poets of West Norwood Cemetery - has appeared and its a compelling read in a diverting, Iain Sinclair-like compound-form: part-autobiography, part-poetry criticism, part-literary and social history, part-Gothic fantasy/prose-poem. The delineation of his research into the obscure poets' lives and works is illuminated by pointed insights into figures like Hopkins, Dickinson and Rimbaud - whose masterpieces very nearly escaped the posthumous acclaim we now accord them - as well as the formerly-lionised Tennyson and Swinburne whose august lines seem to be embedded within the intricate Victoriana of the cemetery. In following McCabe's obsession with deceased poets and their place within history and society we come to realise that this is very much a personal journey in itself, an attempt to locate himself and his work within the shifting currents of poetic tradition as well as a struggle for reconciliation with a past represented by memories of his dead father.
    It's encouraging to witness a comparatively young poet attempt to engage with the historically-grounded poetry of previous eras like this, disowning the unsatisfactory templates deployed by his contemporaries and disentangling the roots of his practice through a sensitive recognition of form and rhythm to gain a renewed sense of his own potential claim to literary posterity.

Thursday, 14 August 2014

Coffee With Joyce

  As part of a camping trip to Istria in northern Croatia, I discovered this tribute to my favourite writer James Joyce at Cafe Uliks (Croatian for Ulysses) in the beautiful Italianate town of Pula. The bronze statue seems a substandard second-cousin of Gaudier-Brzeska's head of Ezra Pound - whether that's a deliberate reference given their connection I'm not sure.
   Pula was the first place Joyce lived in after he had eloped from Dublin with Nora Barnacle in late 1904, then called Pola and part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. He taught English here at the Berlitz School for some months before moving onto Trieste, the first city of the famous peripatetic trio of locations cited on the last page of Ulysses. It seems a suitably multicultural, polyglot meeting-place for a writer who incorporated so many languages into his prose: I recall there being Serbo-Croat and Hungarian words melded into Finnegans Wake from the time I studied it intensely although the references escape me now. The head of the Berlitz Schools in Pola and Trieste, the euphonious Almidano Artifoni, is immortalised in Ulysses by lending his name (somewhat improbably) to Stephen's music-teacher, to whom he speaks Italian in the 'Wandering Rocks' chapter.
    I also came across an allusion to Pula in Dante, Joyce's favourite writer:

"As at Arles where the Rhone sinks into stagnant marshes,
   as at Pola by the Quarnaro Gulf, whose waters
   close Italy and wash her farthest reaches,
the uneven tombs cover the even plain..." (Inferno, Canto IX, tr, John Ciardi)

  Basically Dante's drift is that Pola was the site of an extensive Roman cemetery (ie. a pagan sepulchre comparable to the one he finds in the City of Dis). Pula today still boasts some impressive Roman monuments such as the amphitheatre and Forum.

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)