Monday, October 24, 2005

Open Letter to Sean O'Brien (and others)

I read your article on Rilke in the latest Poetry Review, and very excellant it was too. I'll spend some time next week re-familiarising myself with the Picador translation of Stephen Mitchell's. Thanks for that. I liked your poem too.

But you just couldn't resist a quick jibe at the avant garde could you? "These problems are mirrored among the avant garde, where the pleasure principle is tirelessly punished." What does that mean exactly, that all avant garde poets are basically puritanical over-serious disdainers of the pleasures of language and they all look down their noses at people who still find pleasure in rhyme and metre? Or what? Don't the avant garde believe in giving their readers pleasure, only in making their readers' heads hurt?

It was certainly a comment that had little or nothing to do with Rilke. It was tossed off casually, rather as one might say in the middle of a conversation about the driving skills of Ayrton Senna, "of course, women can't drive to save their lives."

There are no doubt huge arguments to be had over whether the range of avant garde techniques and schools that are currently around have anything to offer the world of poetry. But I for one have recently experiencecd great pleasure in reading the poetries of Geraldine Monk, Alan Halsey, Robert Sheppard, Rupert Loydell, Elaine Randal, I've just discovered Chris MacCabe, then there's John James and Lee Harwood, and the inimitable Tom Raworth. Quite a range of poetries there, and I've just confined myself to British names. I saw a terrific set of readings by people like Micheal Haslam & Vahni Capildeo that was most pleasurable. Difficulty has its own pleasure.

There's plenty of mainstream poetry I like; I'm the ultimate fence-sitter. Mathew Sweeney, for instance, John Hartley Williams. Jean Sprackland for another.

Vague remarks about the avant garde this, or the avant garde that, are not criticism. I'm not even sure these days what exactly constitutes an avant garde: how can poets who've been around for forty years still be considered avant garde (Harwood, Raworth - and Prynne, of course?) It's about time we got some proper criticism in this country, that wasn't about making snide remarks in otherwise useful essays. That's just petty; and is unworthy of the art.

There is a debate to be had about the various poetries in this country, or even across the world, but it would be helpful if people were at least polite with one another.

Anyway, I've got that off my chest. I'll return to Rilke now. "You must change your life." Phew! Gets me every time.

Saturday, October 22, 2005

John Siddique

I went to Manky poets last night, where John Siddique was giving a reading, promoting his new book, The Voice. I was full of a cold, have been since Tuesday, but I still enjoyed myself. The read-around was full - 21 readers - and I read my poem about a train ride to Bristol through fog. The others were often good - including one by Rosie Garland, and poems by Helen Clare, John Lindley and others. It was really good to see John Lindley again - I don't often get to see him and his partner Jane. They read good poems too. Some of the poems went through my brain without impacting on my brain cells, but that was more to do with my cold than anything else.

Jon's reading was good - I like his poems a lot. Their quietness has a man in them, to quote Frank O'Hara - sensitive, but tough, often musical but in a very unobvious way. A full review of The Voice will come to these pages soon, but suffice it to say that a first collection has been a long time coming. I've always thought that the really good poets are not the ones that are published by the big boys, Faber, Picador, Cape (FabPicCap?) but the ones published by smaller presses - Salt, Rialto, Smith/Doorstop, Shearsman, Arc etc...

We went to the pub afterwards, where I talked for a bit to an old friend, Julian, who I haven't seen for ages. He's forty now - and I'm going to be forty-seven next Friday! I'm going to the final Matt Welton workshop today, so a report on that will come soon, methinks!

Monday, October 17, 2005

Matt Welton's workshop & stuff

I did another workshop with Matt Welton at the Whitworth Art Gallery on Saturday, which was most enlightening in some ways. We looked at an extract from George Perec's A Void (the English translation by Gilbert Adair) which is a lipogrammatic novel that misses out the letter "e" altogether - even in the translation. The short extract we read sounded over-the-top and overly vatic but was quite fun. Then we were asked to write something about the Thomas Joshua Cooper exhibition using the same technique.

I came up with this (revised since):
Still air. A vast and liquid loss. Look.
What do you know? What draws
to this coast, this wild placidity? Nothing
but light, that burns and
coils, that calls
to nothing down in a darkful hold. A sun
finds its horizon off to south, to north,
to all points. What world is this? The sky
I sail a cloud across.

It sounds a bit like WS Graham, circa 1945 - no bad thing I guess. Maybe I should continue it.

We got into a discussion about whether poems have to have meaning. Matt's a kind of formalist of the Stevens school - poems are about things like sound, the feel of the language, they don't have a specific meaning. Well in one sense, I agree that sound is an important factor. But meaning happens even when you look at abstract pictures - people create meaning, even where the poet intends none. That doesn't have to be narrative, or rational meaning; it can be a purely (is there such a thing?) emotional response; it can trigger off a train of thought, a memory, even if the writer has no idea that it means or can mean that. I often find myself incorporating other peoples' interpretation of my poems into my interpretations.

Just a few final thoughts on Prynne: I suspect that there is a lot of deeply organised thought in his work that I'm just not getting, and I'm perfectly fine about that. I don't think he's a bad poet; he may even be a brilliant poet, and I'm missing something vital. Well, fine. We can't like everyone, and why should we? We identify with the poets that move us, that stimulate us to feel and to think; and if someone doesn't do that, we move on. Too often, we get angry about the so-called dross of "post-avant" or "school of quietude" poets we just don't take to. OK, Andrew Motion is the most boring poet on the planet and he's the poet-laureate and I'm not (that's £10K a year I'm not getting...) but that's not everyone's opinion. "Always accept the possibility that you might be wrong" as the Quaker Faith & Practice has it.

Friday, October 14, 2005

Prynne and Dandy

I keep sneaking the odd look at JH Prynne, and wondering why I don't find him in the least bit conducive. I'm reasonably open to a lot of modernist and post-modernist poetry; but I can't warm to his poetry. Maybe if I have a really good go at, give him space, etc etc... But, while I sometimes find bits and pieces uncannily beautiful, I'm not sure I really want to engage at a really deep level with him.

Which is probably terrible; how can I just dismiss him like that? I can read, and love, Tom Raworth's equally difficult poetry. I love the work of Geraldine Monk, and a lot of other so-called post-avants. If anything I prefer to read the post-avants or poets influenced by them to poets of the School of Quietude. I'm probably not thinking hard enough for Prynne. Well, so be it.

I read a comment recently about poets who just write lots of poetry and never sit down and write criticism and reviews and such. It was a remark made by someone form the Philly Free School blog. They were saying it's not a good thing; except I know a lot of people who are like that. They don't write reviews and they don't write critique, sometimes because they aren't confident of their own views, sometimes because they don't want to be unduly influenced by someone else.

The second objection can be easily dealt with. Writers should be unduly influenced. They should be obsessed by poetry - maybe not to the extent that Ron Silliman is, recieving as he does hundreds of books a year - and they should be widely read and interested in things outside of their own artform too. Whether this be the news, or visual art, or music, or philosophy, or the language of conversation, there should be things going on in their heads beyond the details of their personal lives.

Louis MacNeice said something to that effect when he said that poets should be readers of newspapers. They don't have to be drily intellectual, or to be experts in this or that, just interested. Open to influence. Open, in fact, to the world. Otherwise, what are you going to write about except yourself? And after a while, that just gets boring. In fact, you get bored with yourself.

I've got sidetracked from Prynne, I guess. Which is what happens when I read him, so that's OK.

Monday, October 10, 2005

This weekend

Good grief - less than a week and I'm back again!

Well, I had an interesting week. I've been doing some workshops with recovering drug addicts at a centre here in Manchester. I really enjoy it - and I hope even if it's only for a bit that the people me and Tony are writing with manage to escape for awhile. There's also a lot of stories in what they're doing; and I sometimes wonder if I don't prefer working with these people than with ordinary writers. They do have something to write about, and can be a lot more imaginative than they think they are. But there's often the same problem: "I can't write." By this, they often mean they can't spell, or use good grammar.

Well, good grammar doesn't make a good writer. It helps with presentation; but being able to spell imagination doesn't mean you've got one, and not being able to do good grammar doesn't mean you haven't got a story to tell. A story or a poem or any piece of imaginative writing doesn't become better if it's written in complete sentences; in fact, sometimes, it sounds more interesting if it's more fractured, more basic than sentences.

I like doing practical workshops where I get people writing. But I went to one on Saturday at the Whitworth Art Gallery around the photographs of Thomas Joshua Cooper. We seemed to spend an awful lot of time talking about writing, looking at a William Carlos Williams poem and an article on "ekphrasis" (writing about paintings, basically) and precious little time actually writing. I'd have preferred more time writing; but then I'm not doing much at the moment. There is a need to think about writing, perhaps; but I wanted to write. I went with Fran, and I think she agreed.

I also went to the closing party of the last ever poetry festival in Manchester. Next year it will become a "literature festival." I'm sorry if I sound cynical about this, but does this mean we're going to get some bloody soap star promoting their biography, or the latest Booker prize winner touting their ever-so shiny fiction? Methinks it's being taken over by the bums-on-seats brigade and we'll get all the usual fluff and hype. I hope I'm wrong about this.

Saturday, October 08, 2005

Manchester Poetry Festival

I'm doing only ten minutes in it myself - at a performance evening on Monday at Trof in Fallowfield. It's called Verberate. Be there or be square.

But I did go to the launch of Citizen 32, a magazine with a political agenda and lots of poetry in it. It's the usual left-wing stuff, of course; but from what I can tell, quite reasonable in quality. Of the guests reading on the night, Helen Clare was good as usual, and Todd Swift was too, more political than he was at Manchester Central Library, and Aoife Mannix whose work is new to me was a really good performer. There were people from the magazine reading too, including Geraldine Green and Cath Nichol. A good event, apart from the openers. You know you're going to be cringing when a group of poets call themselves the "Wylde Women Poets." Oh dear. Well, they weren't as bad as that sounds. But it's the kind of self-conscious supposed transgressiveness of that title that makes me cringe - like some boring accountant type telling you they're "crazy". Just because you can neck ten pints of lager in an occassional evening of "letting yourself go" doesn't make you crazy, and calling yourself "wylde" doesn't make you any less middle-class and dull. Sorry. Try again.

I don't believe in dressing up to be wild. I suspect all the best poets are wild inside; they have things burning to be said, and nothing they ever do quite says it. They're not wild for an audience. And they don't misspell words to sound "crazee" either.

Anyway, enough of that. I also saw the great Pat Winslow give a storming reading from her latest book. Had I some money on me at the time I would have bought it. Todd Swift said that all the best poets in the country are not well-known enough, and this is surely the case with Pat. Passionate, humane, sometimes funny sometimes serious, and always immaculately controlled. Beautiful.

Monday, October 03, 2005

Typecasting, Bob Dylan & stuff

I've got a lot to say in this one I think, as I've not been around here for awhile.

Firstly, I watched the Martin Scorcese documentary on Bob Dylan last week, and it was really interesting not so much for the stuff about Dylan itself as for what it revealed about the audience and his early "radical" promoters. I've always thought there was something terribly po-faced about folkies, and my opinion wasn't altered by that documentary; it was in fact reinforced. Everybody wanted Bob Dylan to be the voice of their generation, to speak for them rather than having to speak for themselves ("Don't follow leaders, pay the parking meters" as the man said.)

I loved it when he called himself "a song and dance man." So self-deprecating, so Jewish somehow (I wonder if anyone's done a study on the Jewish influence in his work.) Of course, he's more than that; his words and music work so well together and he's written some terrific songs ("Tangled Up In Blue", "Like A Rolling Stone", "Dreams of Johanna" etc...) but he's not what anyone wants him to be. No real artist ever is. Van Gogh was never mad when he painted; Sylvia Plath was not a feminist; Mayakovsky was not a very obedient communist etc... Artists don't fit into anyone's pocket.

It's even evident in the so-called radical anthems like "Blowing in the Wind:" full of poetic phrases, not political analysis. The picture of Bob Dylan looking embarassed at all the "voice of his generation" stuff, avoiding questions or making funny remarks when people try to pigeonhole him, tells it all. Avoid the pigeonholes. Don't let them pin you down, a moving target is harder to hit, etc...

Next, I got a couple of interesting responses to my talking about thinking in terms of a book, rather than just poems. Todd: I sort of agree that putting random poems together is as good a way as any, that it can produce good books. But I want to try and work slightly differently this time, to work on the book as I'm writing the poems as it were. It will keep on changing shape as I work on individual poems, and I'm not about to start writing my version of Cantos or the Maximus poems. It's somewhere between the two extremes: I'm writing individual poems, then seeing where they might fit and alter the overall shape. Maybe for the next book after that, I'll go back to random. Anyway, it's a while off yet.

I agree with Scjallah too that there's an awful lot of avant-garde so-called poetry that leaves me cold. In the end, a good poem isn't just a bunch of words that don't hang together, it's something that sets up a resonance in the heart and the head. Fragments can work, but only if they add up to an interesting picture.

Anyway, I think I'll leave it there. More thoughts later.