Saturday, 31 December 2011

Sir Geoff

  Chuffed to read in the Guardian today that in the New Year's Honours List Geoffrey Hill has been awarded a Knighthood for his 'services to literature'.
   Respect at last for our Greatest Living Englishman.

Friday, 16 December 2011

'More than your subjective rot': Geoffrey Hill at the Barbican

Goeffrey Hill reading at the Barbican last Sunday was exhilarating and wholly affirming of the longevity of hard-hitting, deeply-wrought poetry. Rather than a coherent review I'll merely post a few of my post-performance notebook jottings, particularly trying to record Hill's frequently very amusing between-poem remarks: "It isn't stand-up comedy; they're not paying me stand-up comedy rates...I've written 8 books since 2007; could it be dementia, I often wonder? It could well be ...I tell myself as long as I can write in strict forms - such as the Sapphic odes of Odi Barbari, Clavics derived from Vaughn and Herbert, or the rhyming quatrains of my forthcoming Daybooks-  then I'm still somehow in control...if you have read my books you won't be surprised by what I'm reading today; if not - if you've just drifted in out of the rain, then - you have my sympathy....my work is like iron spikes in a blasted landscape, like the paintings of Anselm Keifer which I think have been an influence on me and the poems of Paul Celan which Kiefer has so admired...this Anselm Keifer -Paul Celan tradition of art is weird and unlovely and has nothing common with Poetry Please! Thanks to The Economist for making Clavics one of its Books of the Year, fitting it should be in a publication in which a phrase lihe 'plutocratic anarchy' or 'anarchistic plutocracy' (which comes from William Morris ) might be used - as that is what in England we have now, an anarchistic plutocracy ...I finish with Hopkins' sonnet on our national genius Purcell (since the reading took place in the Purcell Rooms) ...I've always taken inspiration from the phrase that Hopkins used to one of his correspondents when they said they didn't understand this sonnet: ' it means something more than your subjective rot'..."
      Hill's reading was followed by an Echoes of Geoffrey Hill event in the foyer, in which James Byrne impressed, both with judiciously-timed voicings of Hillian poems from his most recent volume Blood/Sugar and with drafts of several new ambitious pieces from a satirical sequence called 'Soapboxes'. I enjoyed Niall McDevitt's readings of his own poems, such as the excellent sestina 'Wittgenstein in Ireland', but when he began intoning his settings of Hill's 'The Pentecost Castle' with the aid of a tambourine/burren, it was my time to leave.

Thursday, 8 December 2011

long poem

Like the Pist and Giths editors, I am also (and wholly coincidentally)linking to Long Poem Magazine on this site - futhermore I have the ulterior motive of having a somewhat lengthy text in the next edition. There's a launch at the Barbican Library on Jan 15th  - let's just survive the festive saison en enfer first...

Monday, 5 December 2011

Christopher Logue Has Died

 Another of the seminal figures of post-war British poetry, Christopher Logue, has died at the weekend aged 85. The importance and enduring worth of his Iliad versions can hardly be over-stated, but his Selected Poems (Faber) equally shows a varied and lively intelligence at work, never content to stick with one style or tone.
    He also lead a colourful, chequered life, as his highly readable autobiography Prince Charming (also Faber) details. Many of his adult years were passed in Notting Hill, just up the road from where I live, in Denbigh Close (just off Portobello Road). He bought his house for a song back in the 50s when - believe it or not - Notting Hill was a shabby, working-class district and a "mews" still denoted its earlier sense of a row of stables, with living quarters above.

Saturday, 3 December 2011

john fahey

  Love the open-tuned droney momentum of this,played with Fahey's characteristic amalgam of meticulousness and passion.
  Interesting what he says at the end, that its 'a quote from Holst's The Planets'. I'm not up on my Holst, so if someone can identify a connection between Red Pony and The Planets please let me know. (Fahey could well have been taking a rise out of the nice young woman, of course.)

Sunday, 27 November 2011

In the Shadow of Blossoming Young Girls

   I've at last reached the end of the first third of A la Recherche, a re-reading project I mentioned way back in April. Marvellous throughout, but interesting to see how Proust saves some of his profoundest reflections on art via the painter Elstir ( ironically offset by the narrator's beautifully-drawn, flirtatious liaisons with Albertine and her friends) for the last few hundred pages of A L'Ombre de Jeunes Filles en Fleur (how did Montcrieff ever get away with calling it 'Within a Budding Grove'?). There' ve been various speculations on which artist Elstir is modelled on, although this passage makes him sound rather Cezanne-like:

The effort made by Elstir to strip himself, when face to face with reality, of every intellectual concept, was all the more admirable in that this man who, before sitting down to paint, made himself deliberately ignorant, forgot, in his honesty of purpose, everything that he knew, since what one knows ceases to exist by itself, had in reality an exceptionally cultivated mind.

  All important literature (and this is the essence of its importance) imprints the reader for a short time at least with its own distinctive rhythms, syntax, perspectives and colourings - a distillation (at some remove) of the author's individual world-view. There are few books this is more true of than Proust's A la Recherche: reading it on the tube each morning and coming out at Liverpool Street during rush-hour felt like a wonderful corrective  - through sheer contrast and opposition - to the chaotic, money-minded, workaday world I was entering.
    It made me consider how Proust's mode of perception - endlessly concatenating, imaginatively generous, evasive about pinning down a thought or impression whose implications are potentially infinite - might be as impossible to sustain in our short-attention-span, quick-fix society as the kind of leisured middle- and upper-class milieu Proust depicts would be impossible now to aspire towards politically or socially.
    To borrow that rare mode of aesthetic perception, however, albeit briefly, can only amount to a beneficial widening of consciousness, a glimpse beyond the dumbed-down, black-and-white reductiveness and desensitisation we are continually, cynically fed.

Monday, 21 November 2011

Pithy Prose and Reading RIP

   Delighted to see my sequence of prose-poems posted this week on one of the best UK blogs, Gists and Piths. Thanks, Simon and George.
   On the train home I read in the Evening Standard of the passing-away of Peter Reading - no doubt he would grumble to hear himself elegised in such a Tory rag. He was one of the true originals of post-war British poetry, a quietly rebarbative presence doggedly pursuing his own hard-won, hard-edged style in the face of a dominant flaccidity. As the guy in the ES said, his current neglect among poetry-readers is shameful, yet for a writer who has dwelt so obsessively on his own mortality (later volume-titles include Last Poems, Ob and Vendange Tardive ie. late harvest) his death could perhaps not be described as untimely.

Saturday, 19 November 2011

Creep Scanner/Impulse

    Just discovered the compelling music blog Creep Scanner (see Bloglist), notable as much for its acerbic, foulmouthed, misanthropic comments as for the wide-ranging, hard-edged musical choices. I presume the author-name 'Jerry Orbach' is an alias since the American actor of that name (whose photo appears on the 'About Me' area of the blog) died in 2004 and the blog is very prolific (up to 35 entries a month!) and up to date.
     Now I hate shopping as much as the next man but I feel obliged to let you know about an offer I encountered today in HMV. One of the coolest ever labels for interesting jazz, Impulse (the "House that 'Trane Built"), has done a series of 2-for-1 CDs by people like Archie Shepp, Art Blakey, Albert Ayler, Alice Coltrane and Keith Jarrett which are currently available in HMV on a 2 for £10 deal.
    Four Impulse albums for a tenner - you can't go wrong!

ultimate version

   Found by chance - and with astonishment - the source for one of the most beautiful tracks in the reggae canon, Lee Perry's haunting 'Bird in Hand'. Turns outs it's based on a Bollywood song from 1950 'Milte Hi Ankwen Dil Huwa'.Even within the versioning-friendly sphere of Jamaican music, this strikes me as an extraordinary act of cross-cultural recontextualisation by Perry as producer that's years ahead of its time, turning a Hindi love-song into what I'd always thought was a Rastafarian chant of some kind, joltingly conjoining secular and mystical resonances in a sublime dub soundscape.

Thursday, 10 November 2011

Reconstruction of the Fables


Taken at an exhibition called Aesop's Fables by Nicola Hicks at Flowers Gallery, Kingsland Road.

Tuesday, 8 November 2011

Thursday, 3 November 2011

Two Responses from William Rukeyser

In response to my posting of a Muriel Rukeyser poem last week, I was delighted to receive this email from no less than her son, William:

I saw your recent blog today and thank you for your kind thoughts about my mother.
The good news is that we've actually kept most of her work in print... or brought it back into print. As a matter of fact, recently there were more of her books in print simultaneously than at any time during her life.
Right now there's a really well done Collected which has numerous historical and biographical annotations (U. of Pittsburgh Press) and a slim book of her poems (the Library of America's American Poets Project series) that serves as a good introduction to her work.) Also, her thoughts about poetry, in prose based on her lectures at the California Labor School are in Print in The Life of Poetry (Paris Press)
William L Rukeyser
Davis CA
I replied that the point I was trying to make - no doubt ineptly - was that no UK edition of MR's work is extant. William Rukeyser responded:
My mother was acutely aware of the situation you mention. (There were exceptions, 29 Poems was issued by Rapp and Whiting; Deutsch. Her biography of an Elizabethan scientist and associate of Walter Raleigh was published as The Traces of Thomas Hariot by Victor Gollancz and The Orgy, a thinly disguised memoir about attending Ireland's Puck Fair, was published by Deutsch.) That's it in England as far as I can recall. And all those were a long time ago. She did have a number of staunch friends and advocates in the English literary establishment, but attributed the lack of publication (in addition to editors simply not liking her unique voice) to a general disinclination at that time to print American poets and women. She counted that as two strikes against her.

Tuesday, 1 November 2011

Root Out Usury

 In the fascinating St Paul's protest that's currently dominating the news, this slogan stuck out for me. Of course it was Christ who - showing his less than meek and gentle side - protested against the money-lenders in the temple at Jerusalem by unceremoniously throwing them out onto the street. The Christian Church's ban on charging interest throughout history ( a proscription also upheld in Islamic law) was the motivation for money-lending to be placed predominantly in the hands of the Jewish community. So it's all the more interesting that the Church is in such conflict over the issue of St Paul's, with some elements at least on the side of the protestors, arguing against their forcible eviction and openly criticising the Mammonites of the banking system.
  But of course the word usury - cast in this demonising light - can only bring to mind Ezra Pound and to me fundamentally begs the question: did Pound really get it so wrong? I'll be the first to admit I know next to nothing about economics but surely the gist of what Pound was saying about usury is broadly similar to what so many are saying now: that it's basically an inethical, exploitative system that creates false social relations ("with usura hath no man a house of good stone") and obstructs the flourishing of a healthy culture which values free thought, public spending and the arts.
   Of course Pound was catastrophically wrong to infer from this some malign cabal of Jewish bankers deliberately undermining Western civilization and no doubt he fell into the Shelleyan fallacy of believing himself an "unacknowledged legislator" and overstating the validity of his own theories - certainly he paid a heavy enough price for this, as we know.
   But he also talked about artists being "the antennae of their race" and considering that he was inveighing against usury and the banking system from the 20s onwards - linking it to the Wall Street Crash, the Depression and both World Wars - when everyone thought he was a tiresome crank to do so, seems startlingly prescient now that it's clear that we have unregulated credit to blame for perhaps the worst economic crisis in history. Perhaps it has taken 80-odd years for the Usura Canto - rhetorically overblown as it may be, but somehow resonant nonetheless - to finally start making sense.

Monday, 24 October 2011

Music for Diwali

  It's Diwali this week so here's some Indian-influenced sounds from the stable of the mighty Bill Laswell.This is one of the tracks on his City of Light project recorded in the Hindu holy city of Benares (or Varanasi, as it's now called) and taking its title from the fascinating book about the sacred geography and history of Benares by Diana L. Eck, which I read many years ago when spending time in the city.
   Augmenting Laswell's vivid tambura-heavy dubscapes are an intriguing roster of contributors including (on this tune) Coil and elsewhere the Japanese electronica-master Tetsu Inoue, Trilok Gurtu and (adding sleevenotes) Hakim Bey. No doubt this would sound even better after smoking a chillum of Himalayan charras, such as is legal and openly sold in a 'Government Shop' in this labyrinthine city sacred to Shiva. I must return there one day.

Saturday, 22 October 2011

New Wolf/Muriel Rukeyser

 The new Wolf is out, well up to scratch and full of substance. Good to see an old aquaintance from a poetry workshop, David Barnes, in there with both a poem and an essay: his Pound piece is enthralling and impressively researched, debunking quite a few shortsighted commonplaces about the inexhaustible yet woefully under-read Cantos.
    Niall McDevitt on Ashbery's Rimbaud versions also offers a pithy critique, especially good on foregrounding the London contexts of Illuminations - slight shame he had to posit a 'mystery woman' and turn the sequence into some kind of encrypted hetero-love-poem - a gauche literalisation which John Ashbery would surely not assent to.      
    Sandeep Parmar on Daljit Nagra I also loved - timely corrective to the uncritical and largely ethno-tokenistic praise DN has all too often garnered. As I think is the case with the hugely-overrated Salman Rushdie, priggish white reviewers seem to baulk at an honest appraisal for fear of being imputed un-PC or not down with multiculturalism.
    Marilyn Hacker, in the Wolf interview, has a few interesting things to say but (sorry to be pernickity) she's wrong to suggest that Muriel Rukeyser had nothing to do with the Objectivists- as Andrew AcAllister shows in his Intro to the Bloodaxe Anthology The Objectivists, Rukeyser was "on the fringes of Zukofsky's group, and it is clear now that (her) work stands alongside the core of Rakosi, Reznikoff, Zukofsky and Oppen".
   Rukeyser is a marvellous poet, unpindownable and ambitious but at a slant to the masculine "grand projects" of Modernism. Her parallel vocation as a political activist informs both the atypical form and searching content of the work. A quick trawl through Amazon suggests that there are no English editions of any of her books: scandalous. Here's a typically fierce and wonderful poem of Rukeyser's, its title a caustic challenge to the "time-poor" frivolousness of consumerism ( off the cuff I'm just wondering whether the phrase "mystery and fury" in the 2nd line could have been the source for Rene Char's  1948 volume-title Fureur et Mystere) :


The fear of poetry is the
fear     :      mystery and fury of a midnight street
of windows whose low voluptuous voice
issues, and after that there is not peace.

The round waiting moment in the 
theatre : curtain rises, dies into the ceiling
and here is played the scene with the mother
bandaging a revealed son's head. The bandage is torn off.
Curtain goes down.     And here is the moment of proof.

That climax when the brain acknowledges the world,
all values extended into the blood awake.
Moment of proof. And as they say Brancusi did,
building his bird to extend through soaring air,
as Kafka planned stories that draw to eternity
through time extended.     And the climax strikes.

Love touches so, that months after the look of
blue stare of love, the footbeat on the heart
is translated into the pure cry of birds
following air-cries, or poems, the new scene.
Moment of proof.     That strikes long after act.

They fear it.    They turn away, hand up, palm out
fending off moment of proof, the straight look, poem.
The prolonged wound-consciousness after the bullet's
The prolonged love after the look is dead,
the yellow joy after the song of the sun.

Monday, 17 October 2011

London Magazine and Sunken Temples

   Received the latest London Magazine this week and I'm pleased to see I have a poem published in this prestigiously historical journal which dates back to 1732 and has seen the likes of Wordsworth, Keats, Shelley, Hazlitt and - more recently - Auden, MacNeice, WS Graham, Hughes, Plath and Pinter within its pages.
   The current edition is an interestingly-rounded gathering of contemporary and older materials from pieces on Rousseau, Pepys and Yeats to articles on Adonis and Mahmoud Darwish, reviews of Houllebecq and Iain Sinclair and poems by Reid, Gross and Alvi. Well worth a look at.
   The poem I contributed derives from the travels I made in South-east Asia two autumns ago and is set in a Buddhist temple in Ayutthaya, the ancient capital of Thailand when it was Siam. You may have seen on the news that this remarkable, beautiful city is currently immersed in floodwater, causing who knows how much damage to its unparalleled array of temples and other holy sites.

Sunday, 16 October 2011


Hadn't listened to any new music for awhile so checked out 'Best Albums of the Year So Far' on The Quietus (www.thequietus.com) and found the beguilingly indefinable sound of Aethenor's En Form for Bla, fuelled by such as Stephen O'Malley of Sun O)))) and the renowned Improv drummer Steve Noble. Improvised ambient prog-drone, anyone? Bracing.

Monday, 10 October 2011

Attila Blues

My brief review of The Iron-Blue Vault: Selected Poems of Attila Jozsef (Bloodaxe) is up on the BookGeeks site :


To compare and contrast the quality of these Bloodaxe translations by Frederick Turner (often over-strict in metre, to my mind, and at times wonky in diction) I found an interesting e-book featuring around 20 versions I think from the 60s by diverse hands, including Michael Hamburger and Vernon Watkins - this selection also reprints Jozsef's fascinating autobiographical 'CV' from 1937, the same year he died:


Thursday, 6 October 2011

Then A Rising

Tomas Tranströmer has won the Nobel Prize for Literature today (oh hell, its National Poetry Day, but what's that got to do with real poetry?), a deserved accolade for one of the world's most compelling living poets, although in England at least - like John Ashbery, Czelaw Milosz, Adonis and Geoffrey Hill - he's perhaps a poet more lauded and debated than actually read.Tranströmer has also not always been best-served by his translators, but you can see how in the poem I'm posting here - even in this less than immaculately-crafted rendering by Robert Bly (eg. the awkwardness of "globe glows")- the characteristic timbre of dream-like resonance and destabilising eeriness of imagery glimmers hauntingly through, including two of the vividest, most unusual metaphors in all poetry:


They turn the light off, and its white globe glows
an instant and then dissolves, like a tablet
in a glass of darkness. Then a rising.
The hotel walls shoot up into heaven’s darkness.

Their movements have grown softer, and they sleep,
but their most secret thoughts begin to meet
like two colors that meet and run together
on the wet paper in a schoolboy’s painting.

It is dark and silent. The city however has come nearer
tonight. With its windows turned off. Houses have come.
They stand packed and waiting very near,
a mob of people with blank faces.

Monday, 3 October 2011

The Cloud Corporation

  It's not that often I get excited about a contemporary volume but here comes Tim Donnelly's The Cloud Corporation (Picador) to replenish our sense of what's possible once again. It's a style I seem to have been waiting for for a long time: an American poet who's actually been able to utilise and build on the rich, distinctive resources inherent in the achievements of Wallace Stevens. There's a good deal of Stevens in Ashbery, of course; and Ashbery seems to be Donnelly's second major influence, though tellingly what he takes from Ashbery is less the disjunctive, skittish manner of The Tennis -Court Oath than the more sentence-lead, meditative poetry of Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror.
   Stevens is immediately evident in the beautifully elaborate titles Donnelly gives many of his poems - 'Partial Inventory of Air-borne Debris', 'The Last Dream of Light Released from Seaports', 'Team of Fake Deities Arranged On An Orange Plate' - whereas 'The Malady That Took the Place of Thinking' is clearly a play on Stevens' 'The Poem That Took the Place of a Mountain' (with a possible further nod to the line "The malady of the quotidian..." from 'The Man Whose Pharynx Was Bad'). The sequence of poems which gives The Cloud Corporation its title seems intimately related to Stevens' great modulation-piece 'Sea-Surface Full of Clouds' in the way its three-line sections spiral off from a repeating phrase - "The clouds part revealing..." ( and to acknowledge this reference, in the final section we find " and warm, saturated air on the sea-surface rising".) Donnelly also frequently favours an "essential gaudiness" of diction and sound which - albeit more wryly deployed than in Stevens - works towards a playful undermining of the poetry's abstract leanings - rather like the "counter-eloquence" Montale spoke of aspiring to.
   There's also something very interesting in the way Donnelly handles syntax, as he straddles his long sentences over lines that seem too short to contain them, almost as though he's thinking in terms of the extended, groping, musing, tentacular "sentence-sounds" of a Whitman or CK Williams but wants to abut it against the formal restraint and shapeliness of a shorter line and stanzaic patternings. The effects can be - as you can see here - extremely beautiful:
   " To notice wind incite the branches to interact in a manner
      mistakable for happiness when happiness has stopped

     seeming so implausible.Just to see the gold bolt through air
     is explanation enough, a knowledge that opens itself up
     without ending, an end in itself without having to conclude.
     Just to breathe on purpose is an act of faith in this world."
                                                                   ('Explanation Of An Oriole')

Friday, 16 September 2011

Hats Off to Michael Schmidt

 Been reading the new PNR this week, with my review of the recent Penguin translation of Leopardi's Canti in it. I was bowled over in the summer to receive an email from its American translator Jonathan Galassi ( to whom Michael Schmidt had shown my submission ), thanking me for the review and even promising to send me some books. Little did I know, when I'd gauchely wrote in the review that I hadn't heard of JG but that (based on the acknowledgments page in the Leopardi volume eg. Muldoon, Bidart, Gluck, CK Williams) he keeps some illustrious poetic company, Galassi is actually the president of the prestigious American publishing house Farrar Strauss and Giroux, as well as being a renowned poet in his own right. That'll teach me not to research authors I'm writing reviews of...Anyway he very kindly sent me a collection of his Montale translations, which are absolutely stunning and I hope to do a post about Montale on here soon.
   Also this week PN Review held a party for their recent 200th edition, which I had an invite for but was unable to attend, being in sleep-deprived hoochy-coochy babyfather mode rather than rapier-witted poete maudit (or even someone able to string a coherent sentence together.) Hats off to Michael Schmidt, though, for 200 issues of by far the best-written, best-edited, most consistently engaging, arresting and provoking poetry journal we have and here's to at least 200 more...

Friday, 9 September 2011

For a Baby Son

A poem today for our new baby, a second son born on Tuesday evening. In the blissed-out non-routined strangeness of these first days back at home (thank goodness for Paternity Leave) and while mother and baby sleep I've been flicking through the old Faber anthology The Naked Astronaut: Poems on Births and Birthdays.
   So few of the poems capture anything of the unparalleled intensity and rawness of childbirth; most are by male poets elaborating their own thoughts and feelings after the event - understandable, of course, since the experience is so overwhelming,although the degree to which major figures like Yeats and Lowell seem wrapped up in themselves and their own poetic processes is dismaying.There is rarely much focus on what the woman has gone through or indeed the infant; indeed there are only a few pieces by female poets, which in an anthology about births seems ridiculous.
  I've chosen a passage from Sylvia Plath's beautiful stark 'Three Women' - our baby was a little bluish and white with vernix when he emerged, giving him a slightly alien appearance, so it seems to fit:

"Who is he ,this blue, furious boy,
Shiny and strange, as if he had hurtled from a star?
He is looking so angrily!
He flew into the room, a shriek at his heel.
The blue colour pales. He is human after all.
The red lotus opens in its bowl of blood;
They are stitiching me up with silk, as if I were a material.
What did my fingers do before they held him?
What did my heart do, with its love?
I have never seen a thing so clear.
His lids are like the lilac-flower
And soft as a moth, his breath.
I shall not let him go.
There is no guile or warp in him. May he keep so."

Monday, 15 August 2011

mc solar

  My main holiday read this summer was Ian McEwan's Solar, an appropriate title for a Greek island which hit forty degrees most days. Like most late McEwan, it manages to combine the virtues of being both compellingly readable and intent on tackling heavyweight ideas, although what's distinct about Solar is that the readability derives from an almost picaresque comic mode quite new to McEwan and that the main idea is an overriding contemporary bugbear often sidestepped by novelists: climate change.  
   McEwan admirers (like myself) who came across Frederick Raphael's brilliant, clinical demolition of On Chesil Beach in PN Review (185) a couple of years ago were afforded an unfamiliar perspective on a novelist who's long been subsumed into a mainstream critical consensus of unwavering superlatives.Despite garnering further extravagant plaudits,On Chesil Beach immediately stuck out as McEwan at his weakest, but it took a prose specialist of Raphael's stature and experience to meticulously unpick the flaws in McEwan's style and deflate the creaky suppositions the book's opening and plotline rest upon. Like all good criticism, furthermore, it forced one to reflect back on the other work and wonder if the same shortcuts and novelistic cliches had accompanied - and in fact eased -  McEwan's rise towards mainstream lionisation.
   Raphael's main objection to On Chesil Beach's narrative strategy was that it relies too much on the diagetic, putatively omniscient narrative-voice of an 18th or 19thC novelist and too little on dramatic "showing" to push the action forward: this leads to a patronising tendency to tout doxologic generalisations as though they were insights (eg "a conversation about sexual difficulties...is never easy") and manipulate characters as illustrations of ideas rather than through interaction or plot-development. Overall, the tone is de haut en bas, clunkily authoritative; what Raphael calls "the hullo-folksiness of the people's laureate, the pundit who has come here to mark our cards about Life." This represents a disappointing step-back from the genuinely exploratory and disorientating work of McEwan's middle period - in key novels such as The Child in Time, The Innocent and Enduring Love - where "pseudo-realist" effects created beguiling contexts for Ballardian themes of violence, loss and disorder.
     The same more conservative, over-determining narrative-voice is certainly there too in Atonement, Saturday and indeed Solar, though perhaps more organically blended-in with materials that are inherently more interesting and complex. A further aspect of what one might call McEwan being the victim of his own success is a grating inclination in these later novels to focus on highly-successful, middle-class characters. After the implausibly brilliant family top neurosurgeon Henry Perowne is endowed with in Saturday - the undergraduate daughter who's already an acclaimed poet in the manner of Craig Raine (ie. a meretricious smartarse, some might say) and the bassist-son who's had lessons off Jack Bruce - Michael Beard, the anti-hero of Solar, is even more egregious in his talents: a Nobel-prize winning physicist, no less. Indeed, one wonders how much the jet-setting, conference-attending existence Beard follows contains elements of McEwan's own internationally-lauded, globe-trotting lifestyle. Certainly the episode set within the Arctic Circle at Longyearbyen had its origins in a trip to observe the effects of climate change McEwan made (see photo above). Beard not only (in one of the book's funniest passages) loses his penis to sub-zero congellation, but is also pursued by a polar bear.(Startling fact-meets-fiction overlap in the news recently, in fact, when a young English student was attacked by a polar bear while camping in Longyearbyen...)
   However, Beard's intellectual prowess and scientific ambitions are continually undercut by the bumbling, appetite-driven unconcern with which he conducts his personal life: a serial adulterer and all-round bibulous glutton, he's a kind of grotesque allegorical figure for the excess and over-consumption which are endangering the planet even as he plans to save it (and rescusitate his flagging career) by harnessing solar power on a massive scale. The comic brio of Beard's self-deluding misadventures carries the novel forward with an impressive queasy momentum and provides the vehicle for an ongoing vein of social satire that's quite new for McEwan.
   In many ways, Solar could be seen as McEwan attempting to encroach on the pan-critical caustic sweep of Martin Amis, and the novel it most reminded me of was Money. Michael Beard has much in common with that embodiment of consumerist greed John Self, both blundering egotistically through their novels with little consideration for those around them before reaching a devastating plot-denouement where all their past failings and evasions catch up with them. Similarly, Solar mirrors the narrative-arc of Money in plotting the trajectory from boom to eventual bust for Beard, ending the novel in our current frustrated predicament of wondering where all the money's gone.
     In attempting to open up the debate on climate change in the form of the novel, McEwan's adoption of an Amisian mode of black comedy and parodic farce (although lacking Amis's acidic bite, his lampooning of post-modernist political correctness is especially sharp) seems appropriate as a way of undermining woolly, idealistic thinking in this area and suggesting that scientists and politicians both need to face the worrying facts of impending ecological disaster more squarely and proactively. It also signals a stylistic progression - with  encouraging hints of what Bakhtin calls the carnivalesque mode, more often seen in writers such as Marquez, Grass and Pynchon -beyond the more staid,realist, 'knowing' manner other recent books found him slipping into.

Thursday, 11 August 2011

The Revolution will be Televised

The Revolution will be televised as a YouTube clip of a shop-front being smashed, video'd on a mobile by one of the attackers as evidence he was there. Or later as a Crimewatch reconstruction, with middle-class drama students putting on Ali G voices as they play the 'mindless thugs'. (And if the tabloids are to be believed, some of the 'mindless thugs' were probably middle-class drama students, if not their teachers.)
   Except it wasn't a revolution at all, of course, unless - as 'each nation gets the government it deserves' - perhaps this was us getting the moronic, depressing non-revolution we deserve: amoral, nihilistic, driven by narrow greed and self-interest. Yes, exactly like the Tories, in fact; and for Cameron to bark on about 'pockets of our society' being 'sick' yesterday reminds me of what Karl Kraus said about psychoanalysis: "It is the disease for which it purports itself to be the cure."
    Many have called the riots "unpolitical" but this implies a limited sense of the political. If, as Cameron's ideological mother Margaret Thatcher famously stated "There is no such thing as society" then behaving in an "anti-social" way doesn't come into it - you merely take what you want and don't think about the impact of your actions on those around you: this is what we follow the US in doing to Third World countries across the globe; this is Thatcherism in extremis.
    The phrase 'pockets of our society' has an ominous euphemistic slipperiness about it, furthermore,  gesturing towards the bleak neo-medieval future Cameron and Osborne seem to want to drag us to, in which whole inner city areas will become largely lawless, no-go zones and residential enclaves will turn into gated communities for the rich, with their own security forces and self-referential lives in which they never have to come into contact with sub-class proles.
     Looting is the logical extension of consumerism, commodity-fetishism taken to its violent extreme; this is what happens if the fiscal cycles ensuring a steady flow of capital to consumers break down thanks to bad economics and top-heavy banking-systems, meaning that huge quantities of individuals are excluded from the shiny celebrity-like amazingness the adverts tell us is just within our reach and can be purchased readily just by having,say, a certain tiny logo on your breast-pocket or on your trainers (strangely akin to the "participation mystique" identified in primitive tribes by Levi-Strauss).
   If the riots help us see that the sickness within our society is less that of disaffiliated, often marginalised youths with little in the way of a future to look forward to, and more that of a callous, out-of-touch government and the climate of divisive, unjustified austerity they've inflicted upon social groups impoverished in the first place, perhaps we might all wake up to the terrible situation we're now in. "Burning and a-looting tonight...burning all illusions tonight".

Tuesday, 19 July 2011


 Had an up-and-down weekend at the Latitude Festival in Suffolk with my son, obviously let down by the mostly miserable weather. Camping out together was fun and the kids' activities are good, but I'm too old and grumpy to find slipping and squelching through deeply-mudded fields in the rain conducive conditions for experiencing live music or literature. However, I wasn't the oldest, squarest person there by a long shot, trust me - not only hordes of middle-age Home Counties couples in designer wellies with their Charlie and Lolas in tow, but even proper well-to-do oldies in Barbour rain-proofs carrying thermos-flasks. Forget any notion you might have retained that going to a festival is in any way cool...
  When I could distract my son with unhealthy snacks long enough I kept popping my head into the Poetry tent hoping to see Linton Kwesi Johnson or Simon Armitage (whose last book I really enjoyed) only to be met with sub-Hegleys doing what amounts to rhymed stand-up.
      In fact overall, as "boutique festival" the Latitude seems a synecdoche of middle-brow style-over-substance skim-culture. The effect is thin-spread overload:you dip into a bit of Literature, bit of Music, bit of Theatre and convince yourself you're getting a cultural fix but really perhaps it's just a weekend-supplement frisson, a glimmer of precious dayglo-sheep frivolity seen through beer-goggles.
  Echo and the Bunnymen were fantastic though, sounding as vital and spellbinding as they did when I saw them at Crawley Hawth Centre when I was 15. Spare us The Cutter!

Wednesday, 6 July 2011

local history 1

Early man – hirsute,
    breakfast-averse -
                stomps sockfoot
onto Portobello Rd.
          weathered acoustic
                                         aloft –
hendrixes it
              to atonal smithereens
bawling ‘THERE! I
                          WARNED YOU!’
just by
             the fish-stall tub
where splintery crabs’-legs
                                 writhe out
their dry
and a chucked orange
         festered back to green
bursts up
                 in smoke
like a pantomime

First published in The Wolf

Sunday, 3 July 2011

Bizarre Antics

   Came across this in the college library recently, for some reason in the Philosophy section. Its an amusing foray into Artaud's life and work, with line-drawings that make David Shrigley look like Rembrandt and the overall adolescent drift that AA was a misunderstood counter-cultural visionary hounded into madness by the philistine bourgoisie, just like poor old Baudelaire, de Nerval and Rimbaud before him:

 Artaud was an interesting writer and theorist without a doubt, but a lot of his bizarre antics are amusing in themselves. I love the story of him travelling to Ireland in the 30s with a cane he believed was St Patrick's in order to discover the secrets of the Druids: after running out on several unpaid hotel bills and walking through Dublin smiting people with his cane (" My cane imposes silence on my persecutors!") he was finally arrested and sent back to France to be certified.
   Maybe I should follow this model in writing about contemporary poets - how about JH Prynne for Beginners with illustrations by my 9 year old son - " My heterodox vocabulary unravels the cultural hegemonies enshrined in normative discourse!" etc

Saturday, 25 June 2011

Libyan Front

Rather than the Victorian cliche about good poems being 'timeless', some texts resonate across intersecting historical co-ordinates. I was forcibly struck by this when I came across 'Libyan Front' in the excellent Bloodaxe Complete Poems, Translations and Selected Prose of Bernard Spencer. Its uneven, metrically-inconsistent lines intercut with the brutal refrain '"Libyan Front" (like an awkward phrase reverberating in the brain) forge a jagged shape across the page, rather like that of Rimbaud's 'Marine' (whose 'braiding design' Christopher Middleton describes as 'reinventing the (...) pedestrian world where inertia is king and metaphor the fool' ).
   'Libyan Front' was apparently the first poem that Bernard Spencer wrote upon arriving in North Africa in 1941 and the sketchy, disrupted form it assumes speaks of his sense of disorientation and unease at finding himself in this displaced theatre of WW2 conflict. Yet how more displaced is our awareness of current fighting in Libya, caught between an unequal civil war (Gadaffi, of course, acquired most of his weaponry from the West) and hypocritical NATO interventions.To us it seems another 'virtual' desert war in which we've little idea what's going on other than what we receive through media-channels clogged with daily reports about other dubious Middle-Eastern war-scenes, other sombre lists of fatalities and casualties.
    What's consistent between the two conflicts, however, is their underpinning contexts of colonial and neo-colonialist agendas. In the 1940s, when Libya was an Italian/Axis outpost and therefore a strategic area to be overcome in enabling the advance of Allied forces towards southern Europe, indigenous cultures were brushed aside in wide-angled tank-battles like Tobruk. Spencer sums up this marginalisation by describing the embattled Libyan landscape as "cratered...unploughed, unsown" and later in the line "Very distant the feet that dance, the lifted silver and the strings." Furthermore, the nasty business of war - the "routine and dirt and story-telling"- are linked to political machinations in London or Berlin rather than having any immediate human motive - in a typically nuanced wording, Spencer descibes them as "triggered to something far". "Triggered by" might have been the more expected construction here and might have created a more direct, condemnatory meaning - but "triggered to" forces a double-take on the line, and infers a complex trail of dark interrelations, like the internal mechanism of a gun.
    The poem's clinching line - "Poets and lovers and men of power are troops and no such things" - can be read in several ways. The ironic reference to Midsummer Night's Dream twists Shakespeare's lines "The lunatic, the lover and the poet /Are of imagination all compact", slyly suggesting that "men of power" in this trio are comparable to "lunatics" (no change there then cf. Jon Ronson's new book about pychopaths occupying society's positions of power). But then the paradox: all three types of men have been forced to become troops in the context of war (and conscription) but are hardly suited to the task, actually "no such things". Is in fact any man suited to it? Spencer seems to be extending both his own imaginative sympathy and a graded offsetting irony here: some of the soldiers fighting and dying are poets and lovers who should never have been caught up in the conflict; other poets, like Spencer himself (a non-combatant observer) are literally no such thing as troops; but what about the men of power who control the fighting and bloodshed from afar - field marshalls and generals are uniformed troops, for example, but in another sense "no such things" (the phrase has the added childish sense of something made up or untrue)?
   These are examples of the understated brilliance you find everywhere in Spencer's poems, always foregoing the obvious or showy or rhetorical phrase in favour of a worked-through, layered, compacted semantic field that is nevertheless implicit in their phonetic structure (the "sounds and echoes" of another poem) and their insisted-upon condition as made objects arising from a nexus of specifics in terms of time, place and social dynamics. Although his style has the 30's Audenesque as its starting-point, it progressively transfigured into what I would see as a more interesting, historically-porous poetry than much of what Auden wrote after he left England. Borrowing the terms of Stevens' The Comedian as the Letter C, you could say that Auden never quite got beyond the stage of thinking "Man is the intelligence of his soil", whereas Spencer - the constant traveller and translator, fascinated by other cultures and their artefacts - always worked from "His soil is man's intelligence". 
     This new edition (expertly edited by Peter Robinson) does nothing less than re-shuffle our whole awareness of mid-Century English poetry (always something of a grey area in literary histories) by elevating a figure whom Edward Lucie-Smith described as "the type of the excellent minor poet" to definite major status.

Saturday, 18 June 2011

Thursday, 9 June 2011


Morning after the row, I stare down
from our fourth-floor window to assess
the damage: blocking the drain,
his last plunge re-enacted, my Complete Hart Crane
has bloated threefold; come unstuck, with fractured spines,           
Kierkegaard and Lowry languish beside the bins.

And there in the cherry-tree’s leafless sticks,
wedged open – so a passer-below
could gaze up and discover two pagesAusterlitz
by Sebald, like a clump of vestigial snow.

                 (first published in Frogmore Papers)

Friday, 3 June 2011

Heidegger on Interpretation

"The river is an enigma (Ratsel). But Heidegger relates this to Raten, giving counsel, and Rat, counsel, but also "care." To give counsel means to take into care. That the river is an enigma does not mean it is a puzzle we should wish to "solve." Rather, it means it is something we should bring closer to us as an enigma. We must understand this poetry, therefore, in something other than a calculative, technical way."
                                      Wikipedia entry on Hölderlin's Hymn "The Ister" by Martin Heidegger

    This gives another perspective on the John Fuller piece discussed previously. George Szirtes has some thoughts on it too (link in Blogroll on the right).

Saturday, 28 May 2011

Full of It

  Penned a 'Disgruntled of Ladbroke Grove' type email to the Guardian Review last week to complain about a poetry article by John Fuller last Saturday, which was not only quite remarkably asinine for a poet of his standing but also factually wrong. My 'letter' didn't get published, but the three responses to Fuller that were included covered similar points as I was making (perhaps more lucidly or concisely).
  For what it's worth this is what I wrote:
  'John Fuller's assertion, in his article about "the puzzles of poetry" (Riddles in the sands, 21.5.11) - "No-one really seems to know, for example, why Coleridge calls his lime-tree bower ( ...) a "prison" in his poem This Lime-Tree Bower My Prison " - is itself extremely puzzling.
   Coleridge's prefatory note to the poem explains that "In the June of 1797 some long-expected friends paid a visit to the author's cottage; and on the morning of their arrival, he met with an accident, which disabled him from walking during the whole time of their stay." The poem is perfectly clear in evoking a scenario of its I-narrator being left behind against his will while his friends have gone out walking, making the bower in which he sits a gently ironic, metaphorical "prison".
   But Fuller's whole piece is off the mark: his suggestion that poems can be reduced to crossword-like puzzles that can be "solved" is a deeply misleading over-simplification of how poetry operates. He fails to acknowledge that his crude reading of Wallace Stevens' The Plot Against the Giant' is only one interpretation of many, providing an example of how the symbolic resonances of poetry are marred by having this kind of literalising story superimposed upon them. As Stevens wrote elsewhere: "The poem should resist the intelligence almost successfully."

Tuesday, 17 May 2011

The Poetry's Not in the Pity

  A fascinating post on First World War poets by Simon Turner on Gists and Piths recently sent me back to John Silkin's Penguin Book of First World Poetry (1979). The lengthy, carefully-weighed introduction is one of the most far-reaching and cogent considerations I know both of the particular issues arising from our reception of poets like Owen, Sassoon and Rosenberg and of the broader reverberations of war poetry through history. 
   Silkin's critical prose works with a deeply-pondered, self-qualifying slowness which marks it out as distinctly old-fashioned in many respects, but in a very good way. Its emphasis on words like 'feeling' and 'compassion' may seem to harp back to FR Leavis and DH Lawrence before him, yet reading Silkin you wonder how far what passes for contemporary criticism suffers from a lack of this painstaking moral depth and seriousness, this "delicacy with vigour". His explanation of how important the stressing of one syllable in a line from Keats' To Autumn is to a proper reading of the whole poem is a brilliant example of Empsonian "close reading" and an index of how lax and impressionistic the attention we accord poems has all too often become.
  Like Simon Turner in his piece, Silkin is assiduous in delineating the complex interrelationship between Georgian poetry, the First World War poets and the later, harmful persistence of Georgian models.Turner wisely posits that the continuous inclusion of poets like Owen on exam syllabuses has inculcated many young minds into viewing Georgianism as the default setting of English poetry. Silkin identifies a construction of Englishness emanating from narrowings of the canon of "English lyricism": the worst perpetrator of neo-Georgian revisionism, Philip Larkin, by selecting the simplistically elegiac (and potentially patriotic) 'Anthem for Doomed Youth' for his bloodless 1973 version of the Oxford Book of English Poetry over more nuanced later Owen poems like 'Strange Meeting' , feeds into the particular tradition of sentimentality Silkin so accurately diagnoses:
  "The (southern) English tendency is to elevate compassion into a religiose sentiment, and thus remove it from the earth, making innocuous any inquiry as to the state of the victim and the cause of his suffering that a more earth-bound and singular tenderness might have made. It is at once politically expedient and morally less taxing as a mode." (p.62)
   To me this encapsulates the whole sorry spectacle of Wootton Bassett's endlessly-reiterated, telegenic funeral marches, "politically expedient" indeed in transferring our attention from the context and justification of the conflict in Afganhistan itself to public, ceremonial outpourings of "saccharine pity". It's not so far from here, in fact, to the even more depressing pantomime of the recent Royal Wedding, a cynically-orchestrated display of nationalistic pride in English tradition steeped in cloying sentimentality to form a sop for us poor disgruntled commoners, a feel-good Bank Holiday spree to distract us as our whole social fabric is ripped from under our feet.(Anyone who had the misfortune to read through the Carol Ann Duffy-endorsed collection of poems for the  Wedding in the Saturday Guardian the week before the event was given a dispiriting reminder of how firmly engrained those mawkish and complicit neo-Georgian orthodoxies remain.)
   Over and beyond his Introduction, Silkin's choice of poems in the anthology is excellent and inclusive, giving as much space to Modernist-inclined voices like Rosenberg, Herbert Read, David Jones and Richard Aldington as to the more familiar rhymed verse of the Georgian figures. He also seeks fresh perspectives on the war experience in contextualising the English writers with a generous smattering of European poems in high quality translation, begging the hypothetical question:how come most of our First World War poets were using conservative Georgian styles to confront the violence of conflict, while their German counterparts (like Trakl, Heym, Stramm and Klemm) were writing innovative, forward-looking Expressionist poetry that seemed to embody violence in its very language?
   I've just realised via Amazon that Silkin's collection has in fact been superseded by a more recent Penguin Book of First Word War Poetry edited by George Walter (2006). One suspects that the Silkin book was always too good to become a mainstream anthology or a big seller.