Monday, 7 July 2014

The Fascination of What's Difficult

   One of the upshots of the recent, tiresome Forward-orchestrated Paxman mini-controversy was the news that UK poetry book-sales have fallen (as have - to put it in context somewhat - all UK book-sales) from not very many at all to even less. One recalls Todd Swift's bleak estimate a few years ago that hardly any debut volumes sell more than 200 copies. As a response to this ever-dwindling market-share, there seems to have been a tendency among some publishers and poets for their first books to play it rather safe and go for a pacey, jokey, zeitgeisty effect of surface phrase-making without much grit or linguistic texture and with little sense that the writing of these poems was what Ted Hughes called "a psychological necessity" for their authors. As for ideas or political resonances - well, let's not put off what few readers we have with anything too taxing or provoking.
   Toby Martinez de las Rivas's excellent debut Terror resolutely baulks this trend and it's to the credit of such an established mainstream publishing-house as Faber that they've been willing to take on board a collection that's powerfully non-mainstream and challenging in its approach, difficult and dense in a way that harps back to Modernist poets like David Jones, Basil Bunting and early Geoffrey Hill but - also in the manner of a neo-Modernist - highly allusive both to earlier English poetry and history and to the literature of other countries. Despite being a formally exploratory volume which frequently calls into question what one poem calls "stability in the text" - for example, through the use of strange marginal annotations and diacritical marks - it's also an impassioned, glossolalic one, full of invocations, prayers and entreaties, and the kind of quasi-mystical struggle with religious faith and the possibility of the numinous that feels nearer to Blake, Smart or Hopkins than it does to the likes of Burnside or Symmons Roberts.
   There was a further reason to be cheerful last week with the news that my publisher Penned in the Margin has been awarded £135,000 of Arts Council funding over the next three years. Perennially innovative in the projects he's tackled and with a bold intention to blur the boundaries between poetry, drama and live performance, this is a well-deserved achievement for Tom Chivers and - like the publication of Terror - a clear indication that the impetus of UK poetry doesn't reside solely in the mainstream and the populist.
   PS: Falling sales-figures are affecting not just poetry but the novel too :http://www.standard.co.uk/comment/richard-godwin-dont-be-so-fast-to-write-off-the-printed-word-9594149.html

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