Saturday, 27 July 2013

Ephemeral Stones: West Norwood Book of the Dead 2

 Having made a visit to West Norwood Cemetery about two weeks ago in glorious sunshine, I followed the Curious Art trail, of which Chris McCabe's Clotted Sun project is part. It was a wonderful forage through the overgrown labyrinth of this remarkably serene, unspoiled trove of Gothic Victoriana, which some of the installations provided startling new perspectives on. (Others, it must be said, added little to the memorials or the green spaces of the cemetery.) 

  However, Chris's trail of deceased poets seemed under-represented, showing itself only in the anthology of the 12 writers he has deposited in the eerily moving store-house for cinerary urns, the Columbarium (beautiful word with a beautiful etymology: originally it had the meaning of a dove-cote or pigeon-house but - because it also included many small "pigeon-holes" - came by extension to denote the reliquary-room for such urns.)

  I commented about this on Chris's blog and since others had apparently said the same, he offered to conduct a tour of his site-trail linking the twelve forgotten poets. Colin Fenn, head of the Friends of West Norwood Cemetery and custodian of a history as intricate and convoluted as the graveyard itself, would assist.
   The tour went ahead last Thursday, with Chris's diligent research (partly from the Poetry Library, where he works) and poem-readings offset and contextualised by Colin's amazingly detailed factual knowledge of the cemetery and its other noteworthy occupants. He told us, for example, that in Victorian times West Norwood was thought of as "the millionaire's cemetery", which explains the preponderance of large-scale, grandiloquent monuments and mausolea here, often giving it the feel of a necropolis, a microcosmic conurbation resisting the flux of the bigger, noisier city which surrounds it.

  Such thoughts keyed in with one of the themes of Chris's project, which is to explore the concept of posterity in regarding poets and their works: by what criteria do certain poets survive and endure, their books lasting centuries after their own deaths, whilst other writers - even those perhaps celebrated and widely-read in their own lifetimes - become as forgotten as these twelve whom Chris has painstakingly unearthed? What meaning can posterity possess within our increasingly attention-deficited,digitised world where the physical entities of books themselves are beginning to be superseded and our memory-spans - rendered jittery by a constant drip-feed of subsidiary data - can hardly stretch to recalling what we read this morning, let alone memorising whole poems, as was common practice until comparatively recently? 

   The desire to attain the "immortality" of posthumous renown is a consistent theme throughout the history of poetry, of course, Shakespeare's Sonnets providing only the most obvious locus. From a liberal-humanist perspective, the giftedness or "genius" of the poet was usually thought to be the guarantor of a poem or volume's longevity but a more nuanced reading might question whether other factors weren't in operation: gender, class, ethnicity and political/religious affiliations are clearly recurrent issues impacting on both the publication and readership of poetry, as indeed they remain now. Even Gray's 'Elegy In a Country Churchyard' from 1742, ambivalent within its orderly Augustan stanzas, flags up the link between "Penury" and the obscure, unpublished status of a dead poet - the "mute inglorious Milton" I alluded to in my previous West Norwood post.
  A nice example arose when Chris and Colin directed us to the grave of Menella Bute Smedley, the only female poet of the twelve although in terms of the quality of her writing, perhaps one of the more noteworthy. Her grave was actually obscured by brambles and undergrowth and the poem-stone that Chris had given her was just visible in the grass, fittingly inscribed: SUN UNSEEN.
  A further resonant irony around the theme of permanence and memorialising was that in several cases the poem-stones that Chris had laid at the beginning of the summer had already migrated or in some cases gone missing: perhaps dislodged by a mower or even taken home by a curious child. Our party was at times engaged in a heads-down search among the grass of a particular area, as though for a lost purse. As Colin suggested, and as the tilting, crumbling, subsiding state of many of the headstones attested to, "Stones can be ephemeral".

 The final poet of the tour was Theodore Watts-Dunton, more famous for taming the wilder proclivities of Swinburne than for his own writings. Synchronicities often suggest the presence of energies that persist and can influence us: the next day I was rushing through Putney on my way to an appointment when absolutely by chance I came across The Pines, which Chris had mentioned, a large house with its blue plaque commemorating that it had been the home of Watts-Dunton and Swinburne.
      Thanks to Chris and to Colin for the tour. I've just realised that today (28th July) is the last day that the Curious Trail is up so if you haven't seen it go and take a look.
      I hope that Chris's poem-stones endure a little longer.

Sunday, 21 July 2013

The Rise of Twitter Poetry

As an afterword to my slightly cynical take on becoming a Twitterer the other week, there was an interesting piece in The Independent a few days ago on how some poets are using the 140-character unit as a new formal constraint:


Monday, 15 July 2013

Poems in Wolf's Clothing


 To the LRB Bookshop in Bury Place last week for the launch of The Wolf 29, which includes my review of Alvin Pang's When the Barbarians Arrive. Good to have James Byrne and Sandeep Parmar back in London after sojourns in Manchester and New York with an edition that's to my mind stronger than ever. Brilliant interview with Charles Bernstein, for example, many superb poems in translation (Habib Tengour, Shamshad Abdullaev, Damir Sodan) and an "autography" by John Kinsella.
    At the LRB (great bookshop, by the way) there were readings by three considerable poets, all of whom have poems in the new issue. Forrest Gander was first: if this was a name in a novel (say by David Lodge) for a character who's a combat-trouser-wearing, geo-ecological, slightly long-haired American poet you'd think it was a bit obvious but here he is and that's his name: Forrest Gander. He was an endearing reader, both for cheekily enlisting the help of Byrne's mother and partner (Parmar) from the audience to elucidate how an interesting 3-part form worked in a translation from the Spanish and for the little shuffling dance he did with his feet as he seemed to bodily engage with the cadences of his lines.
    Victor Rodriguez Nunez is a major Cuban poet I hadn't - to my shame - previously heard of. He read sonorously and beautifully his original Spanish and then his American wife Katharine Hedeen would read, more quietly and soberly, her English translations: the contrast was effective, emphasising that "prolonged hesitation between sound and sense" where (according to Paul Valery) poetry resides.
    CD Wright - Gander's wife, in fact - was the big draw for me as I'm a huge admirer of her work in all its range and intensity. Slight disappointment, then, that her reading was so fleeting: one poem, tantalisingly good, and then she withdrew. Talk about leaving an audience wanting more...

Wednesday, 10 July 2013


  Delighted to hear that a poem from Human Form has been Highly Commended in the Forward Prize 2013 and will be reprinted in the Forward anthology which comes out on October 1st when the winners are announced. 'At Llantwhit Beach' doesn't seem the most natural choice and there would be quite a few others in the book I would nominate in its place but I'm certainly not complaining. It's nice that Claire Trevien - fellow Penned-poet I launched with - also had a poem Highly Commended, 'The Shipwrecked House II'. Interesting that both poems are ostensibly about the sea - do the judges perhaps think in terms of themes for the anthology?
  There's an article about judging the competition by Sheenagh Pugh here.http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/booksblog/2013/jul/08/judging-forward-prizes-for-poetry and the full shortlist can be read here: http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2013/jul/08/forward-poetry-prize-shortlists-2013.
The choices for Best Book seem fairly predictable and something of a step back from the bolder list last year when Jorie Graham's PLACE won. The First Book six seem a bit more adventurous: I'm only familiar with Emily Berry's book so can't comment too much on the others.

Sunday, 7 July 2013

West Norwood Book of the Dead

  I love Chris McCabe's recent project about locating the graves of little-known or forgotten poets in West Norwood Cemetery as described on Poems for Sale, a recent addition to my blog-roll: chris-mccabe.blogspot.co.uk
   I used to live in West Norwood and it's not the most vibrant corner of south London; in fact, now that the library has closed down, the cemetery is one of the few things it's got going for it. McCabe's painstaking interweaving of historical/literary research and pychogeographic divination in unearthing these twelve "mute inglorious Miltons" and creating a site-trail signposted with fragments of their lines will certainly draw me back to SE27 for a meander of my own this summer.

Friday, 5 July 2013

Joining the Twitterati

  I now have a Twitter account: @oliverdixon11. Expect regular updates on what brand of granola I'm having for breakfast, daily consternation ("!!") at irksome delays on the Northern Line and of course puckish asides on current affairs, Game of Thrones and The Apprentice. Oh yeah and maybe something about poetry...
  It's interesting that worthwhile poets like George Szirtes seem to be trying to actually use the tweet-form for snippets of text that are - if not exactly poetry - at least writerly. However, while the innate brevity of the format might perhaps lend itself to the concision of potentially good writing, if you spiel out your tweets as rapidly as George does the effect is somewhat lost. Call me curmudgeonly but I can't help holding to Pound's "Use no superfluous word" as the cornerstone for writing in whatever genre or context one is tackling: increasingly difficult to maintain within the public discourse of social networking where to be frank 90% of the words posted are superfluous.
    Reminds me of the opening sentence of an article I wrote a few years ago:

   One of the paradoxes of contemporary society is that while on the one hand we are privileged with access to an unparalleled abundance of communicative channels  - many now feel adrift and spurned if not granted a daily inundation of texts, emails, tweets and ‘Facebookings’ – on the other hand the general content of our communicative exchanges has never seemed more impoverished, more bereft of both meaning and style.