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."