Monday, 31 December 2012

A Poetic Riddle


"When Chuang-Tze explains that the Tao experience implies a return to a sort of elementary or original frame of mind, where the relative meanings of language are inoperative, he resorts to a play on words that is a poetic riddle. He says that this experience of returning to what we originally were is like ' entering a cage of birds without making them sing'. Fan means both 'cage' and 'return'; ming both 'song' and 'names'. The sentence therefore equally means 'to return to the place where names are superfluous': to silence, to the kingdom of the unsaid. To the place where names and things melt into one: to poetry, the domain where naming is being"
                                                                 Octavia Paz, quoted in the Preface to For The     
                                                                   Birds: John Cage in Conversation with Daniel

Sunday, 23 December 2012

Burying The Year


Deryn Rees-Jones

 If you're looking for something to read as a distraction from the grotesque ordeal of Xmas shopping  - or stuck at home like me with this horrible noro-bug that's doing the rounds - try the latest online edition of New Welsh Review (98). It's a remarkably diverse and substantial gathering, laced with ideas and politics to spice up the literary offerings; a brilliant refutation of Richard Dawkins' atheistic bullyings, for example, a travel-piece on Havana, and a rescusitation of the brilliantly-named Welsh prose-writer Oliver Onions. I have a review of Deryn Rees-Jones' strikingly elegiac Seren volume Burying the Wren right at the end, certainly the most moving book of poems I've read this year.
   The round-up of the year edition of The Wire magazine ('Rewind 2012: The Year in Underground Music') is also well worth checking out, whatever your musical allegiances. Mostly alerts me to all the interesting stuff that has passed me by this year. Are their tastes softening perhaps? Bryan Ferry is featured on the Invisible Jukebox and I never thought I'd see a new Bob Dylan album at no.7 on the Releases of the Year rundown...
   Also just got a link to the new Blackbox Manifold, another trove of strong writing with poems by John Peck, Carrie Etter, John Wilkinson and Ian Seed and a lengthy appreciation of Peter Robinson.

Saturday, 8 December 2012

I Too Was a Shoe-Gazer


 Bemused this week to discover that this year's winner of the Turner Prize, the video-artist Elizabeth Price, was a founding member of the 80s indie band Tallulah Gosh. Like Alex Petridis of The Guardian, who wrote an appreciation on Tuesday, I must admit to having been quite a fan as a callow undergraduate, drawn to the band's tweely ramshackle guitar-jangle and alluringly retro-styled female members, although by the time I saw them live in '87 I think Price had already left the band and Eithne Farry had taken over as second vocalist (Amelia Fletcher, now of Tender Trap, was the other).
    In fact on that dimly-recalled occasion, attended with my best friend Rob at some forgotten London dive, our drunken enthusiasm saw us accost the band after their performance and fervently entreat them to give our own fey guitar-duo (entitled The Chattertons after the legendary suicided teenager-poet) a support slot at their next gig...
    Needless to say we never heard back from them - nor indeed did The Chattertons ever get to the stage of playing a gig - but that's (as they say) another story...
    What's also interesting about Petridis' article is how he reveals that most of the other Gosh members have gone on to dayjob careers as successful as Elizabeth Price's - Fletcher, for example, is Chief Economist at the Office of Fair Trading.
    From the perspective of those shoe-gazing, C86 days, when shambolic unworldliness and child-like naivete were often counted as virtues, who'd have thought it?

Tuesday, 27 November 2012

New Review

   Great to receive the new PN Review last week after a bit of a lapse on my part. Among new poems by John Ashbery and fascinating essays on Elizabeth Bishop, John Clare and Edwin Muir, my brief review of Peter Riley's superb collection The Glacial Stairway may be found. There are also two pages of striking photos of 20thC American poets such as HD, Denise Levertov and WC Williams.
   But the stand-out for me is the poem The January Man by Beverly Nadin, a sort of 'broken Britain' post-pastoral written with remarkable conviction and vigour. 

Wednesday, 14 November 2012

Maximus: A Life

  Graham Robb's enthralling biography of  Balzac (1994) unspools a narrative as picaresque, improbable and multitudinous as any of its subject's novels. If, as Oscar Wilde suggested, Balzac "created life...he did not copy it", he was perhaps his own vividest character: a maximalist on every level, from his girth to his unstoppable profligacy, he seemed to compress several existences and careers into a hectic life characterised by spectacular peaks and troughs - the wonder was he died at only 51. Robb (also author of a superlative biography of Rimbaud ) writes with a finely-seasoned balance between admiration and bathos, often wryly deprecating the hubris of Balzac at his most grandiloquent and conversely showing him in a favourable light when he seems most absurd or close to failure. He's also particularly adept at locating Balzac within his historical context, demonstrating how profoundly he was "both the embodiment of his age and its most revealing exception".
   But it's Balzac's extraordinary work-rate which most dizzies the reader: La Comedie Humaine, a vast cycle of intersecting novels, stories and other prose-works, comprises over 100 volumes and was only begun in his thirties. Like several of his heroes, Balzac transcended his beginnings as the penniless Romantic outcast immured in a Parisian garret and transformed himself through a hypertrophied, over-caffineated version of what Yeats calls "sedentary toil" into the archetype of the Realist observer and chronicler of society, with the ongoing irony (never lost on Balzac himself) that much of the time he was writing to pay off debts incurred by his very explorations into that society.
    Examples of writers whose work has suffered from being produced out of financial necessity could easily be enumerated: closer to our time Julian Maclaren-Ross, a brilliantly promising stylist when he emerged in the 1940s, failed to fulfill anything like his true potential in the midst of a life hounded by debtors and eventually given over to pot-boilers, journalism and scraping together advances on never-to-be-completed books. (Another excellent biog. I've been reading, Fear and Loathing in Fitzrovia by Paul Willetts, relates Maclaren-Ross's story with a louche, murky gusto worthy of its subject.)
    That Balzac - unlike Maclaren-Ross - was able to weigh the demands of a commercially-marketable prolificness (in this aspect more comparable to Dickens than ,say, Flaubert) with a high standard of artistic integrity in the majority of what he wrote attests to his status as one of the seminal masters of the 19th C novel. How few of us can hope to even read the whole of La Comedie Humaine, let alone begin to match his achievement on a writerly level?
Julian Maclaren-Ross

Monday, 15 October 2012

Great Leaps Forward


Peculiar goings-on at the 2012 Forward Prize the other week - they've only gone and awarded it to one of the world's most important living poets, Jorie Graham. And there's me thinking your surname had to be Burnside, Paterson or O'Brien to be even in with a chance...And what's this? One of the UK's most important (and most woefully underrated) poets, Denise Riley, who's never had a full volume brought out by a mainstream publisher, has also won the Best Single Poem prize - I can scarcely credit it...
    But if this is true and not some viral hoax then it's immensely good news that two such uncompromising voices should gain the wider exposure in this country they've long deserved. I've been an admirer of Jorie Graham for many years (three parts intellectual enthusiasm to one part pathetic crush based on photos like this one on the right) - I haven't read all of PLACE, her prize-winning book, but early volumes like Erosion and The End of Beauty are as exploratory and spellbinding as any poetry of the 20thC, powerfully combining fractured lyricism with philosophical and political scope (the Carcanet Selected Dream of the Unified Field is a good place to start if you haven't come across her).
    Denise Riley,similarly, has consistently forged an individual style which one might term post- Cambridge School but which initially emerged out of the 70's climate of critical theory and Eric Mottram's avant garde-oriented Poetry Review. But if her work is informed by feminism and a deconstructionist, self-interrogating view of language (broadly, in these ways, comparable with Graham's) it has nevertheless always been more approachable and couched in the everyday than most of her fellow-experimentalists. The quirky play she makes with the elegiac mode in her winning poem 'A Part Song' is typical of this fine touch.
    With trendy young whippersnapper Sam Riviere also among the prizes for his debut Austerities, does this all reflect a salutary broadening of taste for the Forward? Might the judges even have read Peter Riley's brilliant broadside about 'Poetry Prize Culture' in the Fortnightly Review earlier this year?
   Or is it just that the O' Burnterson conglomerate hasn't produced any volumes this year?

Thursday, 4 October 2012

Cage Open

  To Cafe Oto in Dalston last week for an evening of compositions for electronics, tapes and radios by John Cage, performed by the ensemble Langham Research Centre. A wonderfully blurry tension between aleatory and structural elements permeated the music, bleeding in the Music for Five Radios into a caustic soundclash of contemporary antinomies: celebrity gossip against catastrophising headlines, grime and bashment against classical and MOR, banal jingle against dissonant interference.
   The performance was part of a series of events for Cage's centennial and showed how colossally ahead of his time he was. Equally, in LRC's hands, his work has never sounded more contemporary, with the open-ended, chance-determined nature of the scores meaning that each performance is unique and of its moment. For example, the version of Fontana Mix I'd previously heard made it seem like a precursor of musique concrete, whereas LRC's looser interpretation added a female vocalist improvising a kind of tongue-in-cheek sprechstimme as she wandered through the audience to disconcerting effect.
   Here's Cage himself, wryly playing with his own image as an 'experimental composer':

Thursday, 13 September 2012

The Kaleidoscope of Sounds

    When I mentioned Hope Mirrlees in the previous post it reminded me that I'd planned to re-up the review of her Collected Poems which appeared on Eyewear earlier this year but which got only the briefest of showings before another post superseded it. Here it is (apologies for repeating myself if you've already read it):

    TS Eliot’s assertion, in Tradition and the Individual Talent, that genuinely new works of art force us to readjust our sense of the whole tradition that lies behind them, so that “the past (is) altered by the present as much as the present is altered by the past”, is equally true of genuinely innovative editions of non-contemporary poets, jostling our preconceptions about a period or movement and obliging us both to reassess what we assumed we knew of literary history and to question the criteria by which that history has been formulated.  Peter Robinson’s illuminating Complete Poetry and Translations of Bernard Spencer (Bloodaxe) from early last year was one such edition, reshuffling our awareness of mid-century English poetry ( all too often dominated by what might be termed the Auden supremacy) by elevating a figure whom Edward Lucie-Smith once described as “the type of the excellent minor poet” to definite major status.

    Sandeep Parmar’s enthralling Hope Mirrlees: Collected Poems(Carcanet) forces a similar re-evaluation of in fact several different areas of critical interest. Mirrlees’ long experimental poem Paris (1920) is perhaps the nearest any English poet has come to negotiating the vortex of continental High Modernism, yet prior to this edition the text has been all but unknown despite its startling, kaleidoscopic brilliance and its presaging of both The Waste Land and Mrs Dalloway. It also jolts us into a reappraisal of the role of female authors in the inception of Modernist advances, contra the well-established tradition of lauding Joyce, Eliot and Pound as heroic, exiled pioneers. Paris may be located within a context of other ‘vers libre’ poets like HD and Mina Loy (on whom Parmar has also written), the non-linear, ‘stream-of-consciousness’ prose of Dorothy Richardson,  Katherine Mansfield and Gertrude Stein and the intellectual endorsement of Mirrlees’ friends Jane Harrison and Virginia Woolf, who with her husband Leonard first published the poem under their Hogarth Press imprint.

    The fact that, after Paris, Mirrlees didn’t publish another full-length book of poetry until 1976 - just two years before her death and  written in a far more traditional, formal style - might be seen to point towards the seemingly anomalous nature of her Modernist experiment but equally begs questions about the hostile reception its publication was met with and the poem’s subsequent burial from any sort of readerly access – ironic, when only two years later The Waste Land (also published by Hogarth) found acclaim from within the literary establishment Eliot was already a part of.

   Such questions, among others, are amply addressed in Parmar’s lengthy and insightful Introduction. Careful to locate Paris “within the context of (Mirrlees’) wider oeuvre, her life, and her networks of influence”, Parmar examines the biographical backdrop to the poem, detailing her progression from Classics undergraduate at Newnham College, Cambridge, to sometime member of the Bloomsbury set. Indeed, prior to this edition, more readers will be familiar with Mirrlees’ name from footnotes to the Diaries or Letters of Virginia Woolf than as a writer and one wonders if the association with Bloomsbury (often slighted for what has been seen as its dilettantism and snobbery) might be another factor in Mirrlees’ later critical neglect.

      It was at Newnham that Mirrlees first met the anthropologist and “first woman intellectual” Jane Harrison, who was originally one of her tutors but who rapidly became the key influence in her development.  Parmar is tactfully circumspect about addressing the nature of their relationship, although by revealing the private codes the couple used when talking about each other (eg. Elder and Younger Wife, both betrothed to a totemistic Bear-figure) she leaves us in little doubt that there was what Virginia Woolf called a “Sapphic” element to their long-standing co-habitation. But equally it was an intensely intellectual partnership, with the two women learning Russian, attending academic conferences and travelling throughout Europe together.

   Harrison’s ideas about the primacy of ritual as a bridge between Art and Religion, derived from her study of Ancient Greek culture, powerfully inform the structure and movement of Mirrlees’ long poem from the use of Harrison’s anthropological term “holophrase” in the opening line onwards.  Paris can be read as an improvisatory striving to discover an underlying ritual within the flux of quotidian urban life: “I want a holophrase” (defined by Parmar as “a primitive linguistic structure that expresses a complex concept in a single word or short phrase”, a description which tellingly resonates with Pound’s characterising of “ the image” as “that which presents an intellectual and emotional complex in an instant of time”) signals an attempt to encapsulate the teeming diversity of a single Paris day into a patterning of imagistic and linguistic flotsam inclusive enough to dismantle poetic hierarchies and find as much value in adverts, street-talk and signs as in the official high culture of the Louvre and the Arc de Triomphe.

   As such, Paris is both marvellously attuned to the cross-currents of pre-1920s Modernist movements – its collage of disparate perspectives and registers seeming to point towards the Cubist principles of Braque and Picasso, its enthusiastic embrace of urban multiplicity holding parallels with Futurism and Vorticism – and also astonishingly prescient of later open-form poetries, particularly the kinds of “process-poems” which attempt to plot unstable ontologies across both a timed duration and the typographic space of the page, from the psychogeographic London-forays of Iain Sinclair right up to the disjunctive Language poetry of Armantrout, Silliman and Howe. Sandeep Parmar and Carcanet Books can only be congratulated for making widely available for the first time this seminal, groundbreaking poem, a suddenly-recovered piece in the Modernist jigsaw.

     Based on her research into the Mirlees archive, Parmar does a good job of tracing some of the other, less obvious intertexts for Paris, such as two French poets Hope was acquainted with personally – Madame Duclaux(also known as Mary Robinson) and Anna de Noailles – both salonnieres and interesting re-interpreters of the flaneuse-figure in their poems. Parmar also cites Cocteau and Mayakovsky as plausible influences. Her own persuasive reading of the poem is as an assertion of the individual, female voice – “the breaking down of identity and individual experience in favour of the life of the city that threatens to destroy the ‘I’” – attempting to find itself within the conflicting onrush of modern Paris (both Classical and demotic, filled with symbols of Religion and Art but also the ‘dreck’ of the contemporary) and ultimately – paradoxically - discovering that “Paris liberates the speaker from individual life and experience...The self returns to its private, secret tongue.” (Julia Briggs’ Notes at the end of this edition are also invaluable signposts for elucidating Paris.)

     After participating in the exhilarating dérive of Paris, it feels like quite a jump to turn the page onto Hope Mirrlees’ 1976 collection Moods and Tensions, so different in form, tone and subject-matter as to seem written by another poet. While it might be futile to entertain the “If only...” hypothesis of wondering what kind of work Mirrlees might have produced had she built on the style of Paris, there must surely be a sense of loss involved in considering that such an exciting and momentous poetic masterpiece – moreover, by a female English poet – remains a one-off, a youthful tour de force by a writer who later turned to novels, biographies and academic essays, as well as these technically-conservative late poems.

    However, Parmar is alert to this kind of denigrating of Paris as a mere flash-in-the-pan period-piece and argues for meaningful links between the early poem, the later ones and the prose-works. She posits that the major turning-point of Mirrlees’ life was the death of Jane Harrison in 1928 and her subsequent conversion to Catholicism, entailing a long-term repudiation of the life she had previously lead, including perhaps the intellectual daring and iconoclasm that had engendered Paris. The late, overtly academic poems – rhymed and metered in most cases, and heavily reliant on literary and Classical allusions – often pivot on the opposition between the resolved stasis of Christian faith (associated with cultural tradition and book-learning) and the enticingly sensuous but less than worthy (or at times “pagan”)appeal of love and desire: an opposition also apparent in a Victorian poet Mirrlees sometimes here resembles, Christina Rossetti. There is a significant passage in ‘Et in Arcadia Ego’- a poem which begins “I have no wish to eat forbidden fruit” – where the strategy of Classical reference seems to encode more worldly sexual temptations :

        “I can watch the droves of little singing maids
         (They are so close, just out of reach!)
         Turning Aeolian lyres upon the Lesbian beach”

  Old-fashioned and generic as these poems undoubtedly are, there are enough well-crafted, resonant lines (“Unharrassed by the voracious dead”, for example, reminds me of early Geoffrey Hill) to make their wistfully ironical tone of reminiscence work effectively. 

    Equally, the essays which Parmar places at the end of the book often find Mirrlees both brooding over the past and postulating why she is so drawn to do so – in ‘The Religion of Women’ she concludes that, more than men, “women are the slaves of Time” through being more physically attuned to seasonal cycles. Yet her memories are not necessarily regretful ones: ‘An Earthly Paradise’ is a lively, witty recounting of part of her time in Paris with Jane Harrison and affords a glimpse into the colourful swirl of new experience which fed into Paris the poem. In ‘Listening In to The Past’, again a ludic piece rather than a plaintive one, Mirrlees confesses to being “haunted by the Past” and explores how history can be made to live again through imagination. Her final, brilliant image for this process, of a kind of “ kaleidoscope of sounds” containing one’s own “collection of scraps”, brings us back to the pattern-making ritual of Paris where history and the here-and-now are so strikingly conjoined.

Monday, 3 September 2012

A Decade of the Wolf

   The craze for anthologies in recent years has often seemed a market-lead phenomenon pandering to readers' increasingly short attention-spans and reluctance to explore the work 
of untested poets for themselves. Equally, publishers faced with dwindling book-sales are eager to provide user-friendly samplers of their catalogue by rubberstamping compilations that may well shift more units than individual poets' volumes. This is not to suggest that all recent anthologies have been poor, just that their very preponderance has perhaps lead to a dilution of impact, a lack of original or defining character.

   Historically, however, the anthology was seen more as an act of criticism, a carefully-weighed contribution to the taste-making criteria of its specific moment. I've often thought that an instructive overview of post-War British poetry could be mapped from a diachronic survey of some of the major anthologies (and their introductions) from the 50s to the present, each not only signposting a new tendency in poetic practise but also setting out the terms of its (eventual) acceptance. Such a survey might delineate the fluctuating dynamics of poetry's internal politics and as such go some way to sketching out a diagram of how the suspect canons of 'major' and 'minor' poetry have been shaped in this country.

     Between Robert Conquest's New Lines(1956) - which ushered in the Movement - and Al Alvarez's The New Poetry (1963) there is a clear reactive arc; from the Hughes-Plath-Lowell-Berryman poetic of Alvarez (I'm loathe to call it "confessionalist") to Michael Horovitz's Children of Albion (1969), a flared-trousered gathering of underground and performance poets, a more complex development could be traced. Horovitz's "counterculture" anthology was published by Penguin, and it's telling that the following year they offset it with Edward Lucie-Smith's excellent British Poetry Since 1945, a much more rounded and intellectually-robust conspectus which proved influential by finding its way onto the A-Level English syllabus. Roddy Lumsden mentions his indebtedness to this book in his Intro to Identity Parade, and likewise it gave me my first brush with contemporary poetry: I've always loved Lucie-Smith's little blurbs on each poet, full of lines I've baffled over for years such as (of Geoffrey Hill) "a kind of Rilkean symbolist struggling in an unfavourable literary climate".

    A more partisan construction returned with Morrison and Motion's 1982 Penguin Book of Contemporary British Poetry, a rearguard action apparently sealing the mainstream victory in the "poetry wars" of the 70's. The Carcanet collection of Cambridge school and other avant garde poets, A Various Art (edited by Crozier and Longville), which appeared in 1986 but which included a good deal of work from the 70s, somewhat pulled the carpet from under the previous book's feet by revealing the depth and vigour of a wealth of different writers operating outside the strictures of mainstream publishing.

    Which brings us neatly on to The Wolf: A Decade (Poems 2002-2012),James Byrne's new accumulation of poems which originally appeared in the ground-breaking magazine he's so deftly edited throughout this period. It seems to me an anthology of the earlier kind, a selectional act of criticism representing both a summation of The Wolf's not inconsiderable contribution to the gradual widening of our reading-tastes and a powerful sonar for hidden undercurrents and sunken treasures well outside the range of most poetry-editor's purview. If a further role of a good anthology is to make hitherto-unsuspected linkages where none had seemed apparent, The Wolf: A Decade does an admirable job of joining up the dots between poetries from a remarkable diversity of cultures and traditions, justifying Byrne's suggestion that "this is one of the most international poetry anthologies ever to be published in England".

    The inclusion of a tranche of Hope Mirrlees' proto-Modernist tour de force 'Paris' (we can no longer call it 'lost') signals the genuinely revisionist trajectory of Byrne's project, tracing a ley-line from there through to later American mavericks such as Eshleman, Simic, Bidart, Kleinzahler, Anne Carson and CD Wright (not to omit the great English maverick Peter Redgrove) but equally unearthing a similar edgy intensity in a host of poems in well-turned translation, from Arabic, Burmese and East European sources, and by major figures such as Adonis, Bei Dao and Tomas Saluman. A third strand, notionally emerging out of a shrewd marrying of the other two ( Modernist and xenoglot), is the plethora of interesting younger English poets Byrne has been able to pick out and push forward, names like James Womack, Jonathan Morley and Toby Martinez.

    The anthology scarcely puts a foot wrong in terms of quality, though a few personal favourites stand out. Womack's version of Mayakovsky's 'Brooklyn Bridge' captures the vim and dash of the Russian Futurist like nothing else I've read and has both a classic opening ("Hey, Coolidge!/Nice bridge!") and ending ("Brooklyn Bridge -/Fuck me!") Valzhyna Mort's 'Sylt I' manages to be both touchingly evocative and woozily disturbing, like its last lines "So the bird sits on the ocean patiently/and feels it kick slightly now and then." And 'Diorama' by Adam Day, which I remember vividly from the magazine, still blows me away with its radically-unsuspected jump-cuts and eerily beautiful sense of dissolution: " and outside,/ the honeysuckle like a pattern of bloods/repeating itself/neurotically around a fence."


Sunday, 19 August 2012


 Beautiful fusion between Ethiopian and Indian musicians in this multi-textured jam - Ethiopian vocalist Gigi leads the way, with Bill Laswell on bass and Zakir Hussein on tablas. Gets better and better so don't give up half way. 

Friday, 10 August 2012

With Usura

  Last year I suggested how ahead of his time Pound was to castigate the toxic effects of usury now that all Western economies are plunging into freefall because of the deregulated credit-plundering the international banking system has indulged in. Here's that stentorian voice itself to hammer home the point (scroll down to find the Usura Canto, XLV):


Tuesday, 7 August 2012

The Crime of Sharing

  After a fairly lengthy break from downloading music from the blogosphere, the other day I checked out some of the 'sharity' blogs I used to acquire interesting stuff from - such as Weird Brother, Know Your Conjurer and Bruitage et Mon Cri Dans L'Escalier - only to find they had been 'taken down' in recent weeks. Worst of all, the amazing archive Blaxploitation Jive - featuring the more or less entire discographies of most of the great figures from soul, jazz and funk - seems to have gone the same way.

   There's obviously been a clampdown on file-sharing sites, although as yet I've been unable to find any news about it on the internet. Of course technically those who host these blogs are breaking copywright laws by sharing their music collections in this way, but the truth is the majority of them are passionate and committed enthusiasts who feel it's important that certain no longer available or hard to come by albums are still given an airing and a cultural circulation, usually among other appreciative music-lovers with refined or specialist tastes. Albums,moreover, that are frequently impossible to purchase either in what few music shops remain on the high street or on online providers like Amazon.

    It's symptomatic of the rabid commodifying of the internet we're increasingly seeing - as well as of the deliberate manipulation and narrowing of musical tastes that goes with it eg. Spotify's predictive playlists - that this magnanimous act of sharing should be somehow turned into a crime. One of the most consistently remarkable and ear-opening 'sharity' blogs still extant is Mutant Sounds: last year its founder Eric Lumbleau justified its continuing pertinence as follows: "beyond anything else, Mutant Sounds stands as a rasberry-blowing rebuke to the fates that have marginalised some of the most crucial musical information in history...here, finally,was a means by which the entire shabby and ass-backward script that cadres of careless critics had foisted on successive generations of music fans could be undermined in one fell swoop." (The Wire 334, Dec '11) Maybe it's this rewriting of what Lumbleau calls "lazily recycled memes" that represents the real threat to the market-force hegemonies which now police the Web.

Sunday, 29 July 2012

Time Permitting

Summer has come to this: the sky invaded
by parachutes of cloud; abrupt random downpours
no sooner sheltered from than giving way

to precarious outbursts of sun. All season
has seemed this waiting for the season
to begin: waiting for the weather to include

us in its plans, or settle into patterns
no sooner framed than autumn will abridge
them, hauling down the coloured tents of summer;

moving on. It will come soon to this: swallows
giving way to the veering pipistrelle;
the ash-tree going to pieces on the lawn.

Thursday, 26 July 2012

Howlin' Filf

    I got round to watching Howl on DVD last night. Wasn't expecting much, but in fact found it quite a well-made movie, interesting structurally in how it flits between James Franco as Ginsberg reciting the poem, the court-room drama of  Howl's trial for obscenity, Ginsberg in interview reflecting on how the poem got written and then strange animated interludes that vaguely illustrate passages from the poem. Franco makes quite a convincing young Ginsberg, especially in the interview scenes, despite being endowed with film-star looks which Ginsberg notably lacked.
   What fails to keep one's interest, of course, is Howl itself, which after the famous opening - which has a certain uplift and attack - degenerates into a repetitive and thoroughly adolescent whirligig of titillating silliness that makes you wonder what all the fuss was about. One of the justifications Ginsberg gives for his poetic style - at least according to one of the interview parts - is that poetry should be as untrammelled and unexpurgated as when you chat to your friends about your private life. Shame he didn't take note - even to some degree - of Eliot's "It is not in his personal emotions, the emotions provoked by particular events in his life, that the poet is in any way remarkable or interesting. His particular emotions may be simple, or crude, or flat." In Ginsberg's case, all of these - well, perhaps not flat - more tiresomely self-absorbed.
    On the other hand, Ginsberg doesn't deserve to be excised from the history of post-war American poetry, as Helen Vendler tried to do in the Faber Book of Cont. American Poetry. He wrote better poems than Howl .The vatic orality of his  Whitmanian long lines freed up a ranginess in poetic form which has been influential, not least to readers-aloud; equally, the homocentric sexual frankness of his imagery and diction gave license for important new areas of expression.
    And hold on to your hats - James Franco has now made and stars in a film about Hart Crane! (see Silliman's Blog for yesterday)

Sunday, 22 July 2012

Pindaric Mode

  Ian Pindar’s Constellations is the most intriguing new volume I’ve read this year for a number of reasons. Like Tim Donnelly’s Cloud Corporation (which I wrote enthusiastically about last year), Constellations finds a way of utilising the great Modernist forebears - chiefly in this case Stevens, Aiken and late Eliot, with perhaps a few Continental masters like Valery, Rilke and Seferis thrown into the mix  – and remoulding their rhetoric of high-flung abstract lyricism into a more contemporary idiom.

     Whereas Donnelly’s style seems an understandable extension of what’s happened in American poetry in recent decades, where Stevens channelled through Ashbery seems a prevalent line of influence, Pindar’s feat seems all the more admirable within the context of an English poetry which has been fairly resistant to these kinds of writers since the Movement declared its highly-damaging moratorium on Modernism back in the late 50s – remember Larkin’s asinine rejection of “Pound, Picasso and Parker”?( His estimation of Charlie Parker as a radical Modernist -  a saxophonist who in the light of subsequent jazz-explorations now seems decidedly old-school – suggests how limited and partial his critical viewpoint was.)

     Even the more experimental British poets who have been interested in American Modernism, such as the ‘Cambridge school’, have taken more from the skinny-lined, syntactically-disruptive Objectivist/Black Mountain lineage than from the lusher, reflective manner typified by Stevens: “the tradition of Pound and Williams rather than the tradition of Pound and Eliot” as Crozier and Longville put it in their Introduction to what’s seen as the ‘Cambridge School’ anthology, A Various Art.

    What’s particularly important about Constellations is the way Pindar has forged a style based on Modernist and non-British role-models that sets it bravely apart from the run-of-the-mill complacencies of so many volumes published today. In so doing, it reminds us both of the restrictive set of tacit conventions many poets are writing by, and of the vastly wider possibilities embodied in looking beyond these same conventions and towards areas of poetry far more ambitious, complex and powerful than anything written in the UK in the last 10 years (the usual source of influence for new poets.)

   For a start, Pindar returns to an essentially impersonal aesthetic in Constellations, avoiding the  autobiographical-foregrounding which all too often dominates mainstream poetry. We learn nothing about Ian Pindar’s personal life or past in these poems because he is too absorbed in the task of crafting beautifully-measured lines and stanzas and allowing these to speak for themselves:

       “Old cars and roses. The yard prepares for evening.
         It knows the colour of yesterday,
         as the shapes in the yard are angles of themselves.”

Without the need to put himself in the frame of the poem, Pindar is free to evoke subtly-modulated scenarios which are frequently both painterly – the luminous semi-figurative landscapes of Matisse or Dufy spring to mind – and musical, with playful variations made on the sounds and meanings of words: “New vistas and visas, new rooms with new aromas”; “each particle part-icicle”; “engendered/in the consciousness, endangered in the consciousness”. The overall structure of the book, which indeed can be read either as a single long poem or as a linked sequence, is also more symphonic than narrative-driven, with themes and motifs (eg. the changing of the seasons) recurring and reconfiguring throughout its length. This is another key device used by Modernist poets, of course, with Four Quartets being only the most obvious example: the effect is to allow a complex, open-ended meditation on certain ideas and images without pinning down meaning to the kind of glib, unitary conclusion invariably encountered in the post-Movement poem.

    Despite its many virtues, my main reservation with Constellations is that the style often sails a little too close to Stevens and ends up sounding almost like an imitation; this is where the book diverges from Donnelly’s Cloud Corporation, which seems like a bold bringing-forward and revivifying of the Stevensian poetic, spicing it up with dollops of absurdist irony and post-Modern  weltschmerz. In attempting to capture the airiness and grace of Stevens at his most lyrical, Pindar sometimes overdoes the mellifluous “gaudiness” of his language and comes out rather over-alliterative and flowery (eg. “The rose/is a replica of a rose in a replica reality”); equally, there is occasionally a naive tweeness of expression which the political poems of the middle sections do not sufficiently offset: “ Life is a holiday. For love and sudden joy”;/ “How nice to make a Paradise./ How nice to know white pansies and white peonies.” Stevens brought darker tones into many of his poems (eg. at random “A little less returned for him each spring”) - as did other Modernists like the early Eliot, Montale and Vallejo – and one might say that Constellations could do with a touch more of this harsher, bassier octave.

  Still, airiness, grace and unEnglish jouissance are perhaps exactly what we need when there is so much dull and unimaginative poetry around.  It is summer, after all (allegedly). Far better poems that are too redolent of Stevens than poems that are too redolent of Don Paterson and Carol-Anne Duffy.

Tuesday, 10 July 2012

New BowWow

 Michael Glover
   BowWow Shop 9 is up and running now at http://www.bowwowshop.org.uk, a strong and strident edition with an Ashbery interview, some Plath translations of Ronsard, prose by John Hartley-Williams and Marius Kociejowski, more of Tom Lowenstein channelling Coleridge and poems by the brilliant Christopher Middleton, Sebastian Barker, Alison Brackenbury and  - myself. (I also have a piece on Chris McCully's Selected Poems in the Review section.)
     Hats off to Michael Glover for singlehandedly compiling this excellent poetry website, certainly among the most consistently engaging now available. Its internationalist sweep and indifference to contemporary fads and factions pushes it head and shoulders above UK equivalents.

Saturday, 7 July 2012

skrillex !

    I was introduced to this by my 10 year old son - luckily he's not yet at the stage where he actually wants me to say " Turn that bloody racket off !" (Having listened to Einsturzende Neubaten, AMM and La Monte Young in my time I have a fairly high racket-threshold...)         Skrillex seem a vibrant collision of rave,dancehall and dubstep ( I was there, downloading Skream's Midnight Request Line in 2005, although dubstep's more recent overground manifestations have left me cold) but this amazingly imaginative video is what grabbed my attention.

Sunday, 1 July 2012

Dead Cats and Slime

  Great interview with John Banville in the Guardian yesterday, full of rueful wisdom.
  On the writing process: 'When you're writing there's a deep deep level of concentration way below your normal self. This strange voice, these strange sentences come out of you. When I was young I thought I was in control of everything. Now I realise it's much more a process of dreaming."
   On hating his own novels: "They embarrass me because they're all failures...The only person who can't read (my own) book is me because I bring to it all the history, all the dead cats and slime and that Tuesday afternoon when you said 'Fuck it' and you let the paragraph go."
   On ageing: "A friend of mine visited Beckett in his old folks' home in Paris and he said he was getting so old he was forgetting so many things. My friend sympathised and Beckett said ' No, no - its wonderful!' I know what he means : so much trivia gets wiped."

Saturday, 23 June 2012

Eye Focus

 I have a poem up on Eyewear today, where Todd calls me a ' young British poet' - inaccurate but nice to hear...
  The downside of Todd's prolific post-rate is that you get a very rapid moment under the spotlight before you're superseded - blink and you'll miss it.

Friday, 22 June 2012

Bombing of Poems

   This beautiful 'happening' - a dropping of thousands of poems on cities like Berlin to somehow (through a kind of reverse Butterfly Effect) heal or atone for the aerial bombardments they've suffered in their histories - is to be replicated next week in London as part of Poetry Parnassus at the South Bank.
   Typically, the organisers are watching the weather to see which day they'll do it on - on a gusty day who knows which part of London or the surrounding counties the poems might get blown to ( perhaps not such a bad thing), although on a really rainy day the poems' words might be washed off before anyone gets to read them...
   Equally typical of an English interpretation of a European idea is the elision that occurs between the original German concept of 'Regen Der Gedichte', explicitly connected to bombing in its contextual literature, and the literally-translated 'Rain of Poems' described in the South Bank's English version (see their website) where there is actually no mention of the metaphor of bombing the city with poems.
   I can see how any reference to bombing London might be controversial to some people in the light of the 2007 London terrorist attacks, but surely the artfully redemptive purpose of the 'happening' might persuade them that a graceful fluttering-down of carefully-crafted words in the form of poems - in every way the reverse of bombs - could only be a positive phenomenon and a memorable wonder.
   I say reverse, but what was it Sartre wrote in his essay on Mallarme? "Le poeme est la seule bombe".

Thursday, 14 June 2012

The Limits of Our Language Are the Limits of Our World

Another word-cube from Tom Philips, this time with text from Wittgenstein, from his new exhibition at Flowers Gallery in Shoreditch.

Monday, 11 June 2012


   Marvellous Jubilee-evading break in south-west France over the half-term exploring the countryside and villages around Carcassonne with friends, venturing into Les Montagnes Noirs and the foothills of the Pyrennees. The landscapes are starkly dramatic, sparsely-populated, alive with birds and flowers: the weather was beautiful, hot yet breezy. Well-cooked, locally-grown food - accompanied by decent wine and the odd pastis or two - were never far away.
    Deflating, then, to return to work today in chilly persistent rain and wonder what the hell I'm doing in this over-cramped, polluted, hate-infested looney-bin of a city within a country that has not so much gone to the dogs as to the wolves and hyenas, with an amoral blowhard at its helm who's too busy "chillaxing" to notice he's left his 8-year old child behind in the pub.
    I was perversely cheered, after getting home wet and exhausted as though my holiday had never happened, to read this remorseless indictment of our pitiful "sinking island", suggesting that as well as being culturally and politically bankrupt, we are also in terminal decline in terms of power and status:

 "In the hundred years from 1914 to 2014...the UK will have declined from pre-eminent global superpower to developing country, or "emerging market". The symptoms of this vertiginous plunge in the world's rankings are already starkly apparent: a chronic balance of payments deficit, a looming shortage of energy and food, a dysfunctional labour market, volatility in economic growth and a painful vulnerability to external events."
                                                                    (from 'Little Britain' by Larry Elliott & Dan
                                                                       Atkinson, The Guardian Weekend 09.06.12)

Saturday, 2 June 2012

Colossal Rearrangements: Katerina Brac by Christopher Reid

   A comment made by Todd Swift the other week at the end of a hyperbolic post about Jon Stone's new volume - "English poetry was perhaps last this differently, oddly smart with Christopher Reid's Katerina Brac" - sent me back to the book in question to check for myself if it was as seminal as Todd implies.
    To be honest, I've never given Reid's work much consideration. I confess to being guilty of lumping him glibly in with his fellow Martian, Craig Raine, whose characteristic early poetry seems to me now as much of an outdated 80's fad as the Sinclair C5 and the ZX Spectrum (no doubt some Hoxton retromaniac out there will tell me that these are now the height of cool...) Worse, its over-reliance on  flashy, gimmicky tropes at the expense of all other components of poetic meaning or emotional/intellectual/social resonance seems reflective both of the design-over-content ostentation prevalent during the decade and even of the deregulating,brashly acquisitive spirit of Thatcherism underscoring it. (Worse still, Raine continues to write in more or less the same, clever-tricksy manner today.)
    Although Reid's first two volumes seemed to be vying with Raine for who could come up with the silliest, most fanciful metaphor (a weightlifter compared to "a human telephone", indeed!), there were always more interesting undercurrents at work even in his most affectedly Martian display. Titles like 'Academy of the Aleatoric' and ' Holiday from Strict Reality' flag up the clear influence of Wallace Stevens, unusual enough for a young English poet of Reid's generation: viewed in the light of the "essential gaudiness" of Stevens' poetry, its linguistically playful dialogue between metaphysical speculation and "things as they are", we begin to discern a persistent philosophical vein in Reid that goes some way to justifying his ludic observational jugglings. It's in this, moreover, that he departs from Raine, whose poems are largely idea-averse, his similitudes amounting to visual puns serving an ultimately descriptive, realist purpose which on scrutiny unravels to a bland thinness of content (the self-defeating aporia of A Martian Sends a Postcard Home, for example, is that why should the recipient know what a mechanical bird or tracing paper is if he doesn't know what a book or mist are); whereas Reid in fact seems more concerned (like Stevens) with the epistemology of seeing or apprehending an ever-shifting reality, and how this is figured in poetic language.
    If the early Reid falls drastically short of the scope and depth (not to mention the formal mastery) of Stevens, he was at least mindful enough of the limitations of Martianism to attempt a more sophisticated mode of ostranenye in his third volume Katerina Brac (1983). While the sustained use of a hetronymic persona links Reid (via Hill's Sebastian Arruruz and Middleton's Herman Moon) back to the Pound of Hugh Selwyn Mauberley and Homage to Sextus Propertius, his complex elaboration of an East European poet writing during the time of Communism is refracted through several layers of equivocating distance even these distinguished forebears didn't employ, although the deliberate anachronisms and mistranslations of Propertius might have given Reid his starting-point. 
    The maladroit translationese of Katerina Brac fosters an off-kilter, wonky manner and rhythm that work in two ways: firstly, as a subtle parody of the often less than felicitous attempts to 'english' East European poets during what Ted Hughes called the "unique tidal wave of poetry translation that swept through English in the sixties and seventies". Few could doubt that this bringing-across of poets like Holub, Joszef, Popa, Celan, Herbert, Brodsky and Milosz (largely promulgated by Hughes and his friend Daniel Weissbort through Modern Poetry in Translation) amounted to an enormously important phenomenon; few also would dispute that a particular overfamilar style - often clunky and ungainly - grew out of the boom (it certainly fed into the purposefully "uglified" poetry of Crow). Secondly, Brac's wryly not-quite-correct-English, intensified by the inclusion (no doubt under the influence of the state censor) of fragments of ridiculous officialese, serves a defamiliarising function which subverts the totalitarian construct of reality she finds herself in. 
    These quirky, ironic observations on love, history and identity might bring to mind the whole tragic lineage of 20th Century poets who struggled to maintain their writing in the midst of brutal suppression and the obligation to conform to "social realist" tenets of literary value (not least Tsvetaeva, Ahkmatova and Ingeborg Bachmann), but also transcend their (imagined) moment by being rueful insights as resonant to a contemporary audience as to an earlier one. The task of confronting a received and politically-devious state-reality is a constant, Reid seems to imply; especially at the time of the volume's composition when Thatcherite policy was leaning towards a reassertion of top-down hegemony.
    With this task (gesturing back towards a Stevensian philosophy) goes the need to recreate a more open-ended and fluid sense of the real through the unpindownable, unlegistated ambivalences of poetic language, like the "pale-blue butterflies" of Katerina's first poem, suggesting "this would be the perfect time/to mend the whole of one's life"; or later in the poem the summer thunder that's like "colossal rearrangements/somewhere at the back of the mind".

Wednesday, 16 May 2012

The Night Keeper

Hunger transfigured you, reduced
you to your own bleak wraith. It animalised
the pious among us, and enflamed
savagery in the worst. My stomach
would wake you with aggrieved whale-song.

The night-keeper, for a cut, neglected
the main gate and we stole in,
secreting honed implements. Which cage
first? you urged: I poised the skeleton-
key, like the tuning-fork of our greed.

But Claude the historian clamped
my shoulder. Famished souls, granted
release and meat, have sometimes failed
to survive their too-eager wolfing. The
irony! he simpered, unhinged from his fast.

So we launched off small, in the Rodent
House, doing as the Romans
did, with raw dormice and gerbils as toothsome
amuse-bouches. Relief and revulsion
conjoined in unanimous tears.

As Victor the arsonist stoked
litter-bin braziers, we delved for bulkier
appetisers: you potted a brace
of dreaming marmoset, I bagged
an iguana and several boomslangs
braceleting my wrist in the dark.

Skinned and skewered by Camille
the butcher, they fattened the ranks
of coypu and wallaby, ibis
and ibex, already sizzling on spits,
wafting their symphony of odours...

We siezed on the flesh like hyenas,
rending hanks to gorge. But these were mere
hors-d’oeuvres: the orgy magnified
as night staggered on and locals thronged,
woken from meat-dreams by the reek of meat.

If hunger’s a delirium, so too
is sudden satiety after famine:
you giggle tipsily, hardly
crediting how sublime an underdone
tapir’s haunch can taste, or the devilled brain
of a sloth. But more and more citizens
clamoured in, lusting for a bite,

and more and more creatures fell victim:
I recall a mob with ropes and hatchets
felling the giraffes like a teetering pine-grove;

a clan of Congolese mountaineering
up an elephant to dismantle it
with their machetes, children darting
inside its gouged abdomen
to hack out the heart and viscera.

Devouring that still-pulsing bellows
of blood, they believe they inherit
the elephant’s soul, his vital animus.

Coming round next morning, sprawled
in the stable of what were probably
moose, the soul of every beast I consumed
bore down on me, their every essence
possessing my body, pleading their unsaid
grace. As deathly heartburn
assailed me you stumbled in, horror-struck:

‘The night-keeper tricked us – he eats
no meat. He’s locked us up inside the zoo.’

Footnote: “He stumbled into a city that was starving to death – the people had even been reduced to eating the animals in the zoo” Rimbaud: The Double Life of a Rebel, Edmund White.

(First published in Long Poem Magazine 7)

Wednesday, 9 May 2012

Haunted Weather

Best known for their emasculatingly satiric remoulding of 'Money (That's What I Want)' and subsequently written-off as what Dave Lee Travis used to call a 'one hit wonder', The Flying Lizards actually numbered as a member the seminal musicological theorist David Toop, a fascinating reflective monograph of whom- written by the excellent Simon Reynolds - may be read in the just-passed April edition of The Wire. This bass-driven tune proves that The Flying Lizards were more than just a post-modern frippery.