Monday, May 30, 2005

Busy thoughts

I've been busy this weekend. First, with a party for the Lib Dems in Colne Valley, where I helped a friend's campaign (she didn't get elected.) It's the first time I voted for the Lib Dems in a General Election - since the invasion of Iraq, I've not believed a word that Blair said. I think he's basically under the spell of Bush.

Then I went to Accrington, stayed with Mum and went for a drink with my sister. The Crown is an Accrington Stanley club - which is fun, and makes a difference from it being either City or United. It's funny I never got into football, really - I didn't even watch the Liverpool match. Dad was never into it, of course, but maybe I ought to have got into it as part of my teen rebellion phase, the way I got into born-again religion? Maybe I'd been happier with sex, drugs and rock'n'roll though than the kind of religion that thinks having a libido is in itself sinful...

I've just found out about the Cambridge Poetry Summit, a weekend of poetry among the dreaming spires. I might just go down there. I think it's important to expose myself to all kinds of poetry, and this is going to be full of the avant-garde stuff that is informing more of my recent poetry than anything else. It might be a chance to meet people too, and talk poetry on a different (not neccessarily higher) level. I'd prefer it to the Hay Festival, frankly - less star names and fawning I suspect.

The text festival in Bury has already made a difference to me artistically; I won't suddenly become a visual poet a la Bob Cobbing, but I think it's helped me to have a go at more adventurous things, and be more happy with doing things in a less strightforward manner. When I started reading and writing poetry, my models were inevitably the ones down in the local library. As Accrington is only a small library, the choice was small: Larkin, McGough, Elizabeth Jennings and a few others. It was only when I found the poetry section of Manchester University Library that I found out that you could write more adventurously. It's only when we open ourselves out to outside influences that we can develop; but also those openings have to be there. I'm lucky that I found Ashbery in the shelves, alongside John Ash and others. Maybe if I'd have done the usual Eng Lit degree instead of Theology, I'd have stayed with the usual post-Movement fare.

Friday, May 27, 2005

Divide and concur

Ron Silliman, in his rather excellant blog, is always making assertions about the big division in poetry between what he calls post-avant writing and School of Quietude writing. Post-avant being everything experimental, from New American Poets of the late 40's & 50's (New York, Black Mountain, Spicer circle; in this country, it would be Cambridge school, Writers' Forum etc.) School of Quietude are all those poets who write neat little poems that are largely anecdotal, or formal, small in ambition, but often published by mainstream publishers and seeming to be able to grab the positions of power because they don't disturb the status quo or make challenging demands on the reader...

Which is fair enough; but I can't help feeling that at times he's trying to say that the poets he doesn't like are SoQ and the poems he does are post-avant, especially when he tries to say Shakespeare is on his side, and the "university (t)wits" (Ben Jonson, Marlowe etc) are on the other side. This is rather like me saying that Jesus Christ would have voted Liberal Democrat if he'd been around now. No he wouldn't; he would just as much have been the awkward cuss he was then as he is now; and Shakespeare would probably have looked at the post-avants and the SoQ's and said, "A plague on both your houses!"

Now he's trying to make claims for Chaucer - a man so in with the establishment that he was probably quietly killed off when the establishment changed. But he was a great poet; so he must have been an avant-garde of his time. Well, in the sense that he brought in and used forms from abroad and developed the iambic pentameter, and also broadened the subject matter to include very down to earth and even rude subjects, maybe he was. But it's a bit anachronistic to say the least to make out that people before such things even mattered belonged to poetic camps that are very 20th century.

Human beings like groups. We like to divide ourselves into the good folks (us) and the bad folks (them); the orthodox and the heterodox. And there's a lot of truth in what Ron says about these divisions when it comes to the 20th century. I'm sure too there were lots of rivalries and competiveness between poets in the more distant past. But there's a point at where extending contemporary fights becomes silly.

Anyway, just to let the listeners know, Not In So Many Words, poems and commentaries from the Poetry Business Writing School, is due soon from Smith/Doorstop with a poem of mine and a commentary about the writing of it.

Wednesday, May 25, 2005

Everybody Got Trouble

We've had an interesting few days here at Castle Grim. The phone-line went down, we've had new doors fitted, I got locked out of my own house for hours because there was only one key and my flatmate had it (she'd gone off to enjoy herself somewhere...) But I think normality is now being restored at last...

I was reading this morning an autobiographical piece by Anne Waldman from her book called Kill or Cure, a piece with the title Feminfesto, in which she suggested that it shouldn't be beyond the possibility that a woman should have a gay personality, or a man have a lesbian one. Which puts me in man of comedian Eddie Iszard, who once claimed to be a lesbian in a man's body...

However, it also made me think about my own penchant for writing by people with "queer" sexualities. Somehow, I seem to have been attracted to writing by gay men (Frank O'Hara, James Schuyler, John Ashbery) or men who hung around gay men (Kenneth Koch), or lesbians (Elizabeth Bishop.) Big macho writing somehow puts me off; even Charles Olson's "Lordly and Isolate Satyrs" (bikers) just makes me want to gag.

There's two things that I don't like. There's the macho thing: look at how rough and ready and gritty and tough my writing is. I've never much gone in for the Bukowski style of writing, with its "down to earth" feel. I like artifice, beautiful language even if I don't know what it means. If there's a bit of style about its use, I don't object to rhyme that much either. I love Byron's Don Juan - another poet of dubious sexuality.

The other thing I don't like much is purity. I know that in certain circles, the Objectivists are revered - all those spare, honest, true poems that are so spare, honest and true you want to throw a spanner at them. I mean, get a sense of humour, put on a bit of slap! Don't get me wrong, George Oppen, Cid Corman, etc are all very good - and Neidecker is brilliant. But then I read O'Hara, or laugh out loud at one of Ashbery's seemingly throw-away one-liners, and it seems like I'm back in the real world again, where people tell jokes and drink good wine and go to coffee-bars.

Susan Sontag wrote about camp in the sixties, and I wondered if it was that. I don't think I've a gay bone in my body (well, maybe the little finger of my left hand; I think it likes Barbara Streisand) but I don't like purity. I like music that mixes things up, collage, the kind of post-punk that mixes dance with rock (Talking Heads, Blondie), poetry that's inbetween high-modernist and mainstream. I can't entirely take myself seriously; after all, I'm a poet ("here I am, the centre of all beauty! Imagine!" as Frank would say.) Today I was playing Bill Frisell's album The Willies, mixing country music and jazz.

But heck, maybe it's just post-modernism.

Saturday, May 21, 2005


First, I should clarify one thing from yesterday's post - I was intending no criticism or comment on the poems in Rialto with the poem that I wrote (though what I said earlier still holds about a lot of magazine verse). It was actually a serious experiment to see what would happen and I'm rather pleased with the result. It's almost a kind of hidden Ashbery poem, and I think it's rather melancholy; which probably reflects my mood at the moment. I just need a title now.

Anyway, having cleared that up - I went to Manky Poets at Chorlton Library for a reading with Grevel Lindop yesterday. A long tall glass of a man with very white hair, and softly spoken but very clear. Not my favourite kind of poetry; a bit too formalist for me, but there were good images scattered about and on the whole it was reasonable. Don't take that as faint praise, by the way; this is just my opinion and is more to do with my current taste in poetry than anything to do with how good or bad a poet he is. Everyone else seemed to enjoy it immensely, and he managed to sell all the books he'd brought with him.

Helen Clare, who was in the audience, made an interesting comment in the pub afterwards. She said she was bored by straightforward narrative. That goes for me too, and I wonder if that's an increasing tendency even among the more mainstream poets. Little stories, anecdotes etc. are less and less prevalent, and people are now playing around with putting things in the wrong order, leaving things in the air etc... Less and less poems these days end with that smug little thump of meaning that wraps everything up in the last verse (there's a poem in Rialto that has 3 three terrific verses and ends with this awful summing-up verse that someone should have told him to cut. I didn't take a line from that for my poem because I'm hoping he'll realise himself.)

I'm thinking very seriously of going to Cork for the Cork International Poetry Festival - Tom Raworth, Lee Harwood and a whole host of the avant garde, British, Irish & American are going there. The line-up looks terrific.

Friday, May 20, 2005

Magazine verse

Have you ever gone through a whole magazine, reading the first line of each poem and not wanting to read a single one through to the end? Frequently happens with me, I'm afraid. I read a line like, say, "The garden was damp with dew..." and think, this is going to be one of those domestic little epiphanies that the little mag world is full of, where the narrator will inform us of the incident with the fox, or cat, or bloke with a lawnmower next door. Or they've been to Italy and seen a statue. Now if the statue were buying a pizza, for instance, that might just perk up my interest.

Still, they're were a lot of writers try things out and make a reputation, and (watch this space) it looks like Brando's Hat the magazine may be returning.

Anyway, in the interests of linguistic innovation, I thought I'd try a little experiment. Using first lines culled from the latest Rialto, taken at random (well, not strictly random, but certainly with little or no forethought), I'd create a poem "before your very eyes" as it were:

Under a promising moon
I met someone like you once on the train.
Who was I that summer?
The journal mentions the summer rain.
Supine under starlight
A white butterfly comes to rest.

It is quite clear what these distinguished:
Things, more solid than we are,
As if the light let go along
Trees lining this road, now bare.
This is the climactic scene:
He was climbing up the pulpit steps,
Clonk! Oh the excitement - seven, up and alone!
To think that I will never write that year
Time put an arm around my shoulder -
Inside the house it was like gold, a pool -
It was not the reality she would have chosen.

I don't know, it makes a kind of sense, there may even be a narrative buried deep in it. To all those poets who contributed lines, and who happen to come along and see this, my gracious thanks. Now if anyone can suggest a title...

Wednesday, May 18, 2005

Golem, Golem, gloop

I recently went to Prague for a holiday, and have so far written 4 poems as a result. It was interesting, then to read Geraldine Monk's poems in Noctavigations, a wonderful book from West House Books. She mentions some of the things that I saw and experienced and others I didn't - though I saw Hotel Europa I never went in, for instance. She gets the dark atmosphere of the place down really well, and manages to incorporate the history of it in a way I haven't:

Darkly clever jokes fill darker
pubs at weedle-ends glace cherryful eyes
stain-cults of fine bohemian isinglass
intensely lumes from nooks
older than digged up roman teeth.
- it wasn't a million years ago miners used fishskins
for light in tin mines in-ingland -
but if Chamberlain sold them down
the river
a more beautiful
river is
hard to be sold down

But the next part of the sequence I have a problem with. It's just as good as the rest; but it's called (Golem Watch) - and I think hmmm, bit obvious that. It's a bit like going to Blackpool and saying Oh look, it has a tower! There's two things I've avoided writing about in Prague: the Golem and Kafka, both of which are so representative of the city that they've become part of the tourist trail. It's that thing that sometimes happens when you go somewhere and want to write about it; you end up writing tourist poems. This is an exceptionally good tourist poem, written using very linguistically innovative methods derived from Olson et al; but it doesn't really add to anything we didn't know about Prague.

This is the only reservation I have too with Iain Sinclair's White Chappel Scarlet Tracings: he goes to the East End and lo and behold, the ghost of Jack the Ripper pops up his head. Not that you shouldn't write about these things; but I suspect that the reason Olson wrote about Gloucester and Williams wrote about Patterson was because they were not well-known places with lots of familiar stories told about them. The poems bring forth something new about places not something that's been written over thousands of times.

In both cases (Sinclair's and Monk's) the writings themselves overcome my reservations, and there's plenty of other good stuff in Noctavigations; such as a poem with Jeremy Paxman interviewing Faustus. There's a lot of invention in the book; she mixes dialect with standard English, neologises and deconstructs language with abandon. I recommend it.

Monday, May 16, 2005

Had my first comment, via e-mail, from my friend Angela Topping:

As for the 'lavender bath oil comment', in some ways I agree but I don't blame Astley for jumping on the 'soul' bandwagon. After all, Daisy Goodwin's similar anthologies have done really well. I think it is a pity that poetry has to be wrapped up in some fancy 'toiletries for the soul' package just because a hopelessly secular world is searching for something to replace god with and all it can find is yoga and herbal essence. It's a commonly held belief that booksellers are wary of poetry 'because it doesn't sell', but the real reason it doesn't sell is the poverty of the advertising, and the fact not enough booksellers stock a decent selection. People need information before they know what to buy. A few poets are hyped and they sell books (for example Simon Armitage); they are good poets but not necessarily any better than the unhyped ones. Poetry books are expensive and you never see them on the 3 for 2 tables, so people don't want to take a risk. I deplore the state of the market when Bloodaxe need to adopt populist tactics to sell poetry. You notice I am not commenting on the work itself: as with most anthologies, there's good and bad within, but if a few people buy it who wouldn't normally buy poetry, and maybe get the information about which poets they might personally enjoy the work of, then it just might make up a little for the meagreness of available publicity. Of course, Astley's anthology only works if you're a Bloodaxe poet - the books are basically a shop front for Bloodaxe. Maybe we should do our own? But instead of a lavender bath oil product, make it more of a sauna/ice cold plunge pool experience?

There's a lot to agree with there; though curiously enough, it's not the populism that bothers me, but the kind of populism, and I think she's hit the nail on the head with the comment about finding something to replace God with. I think it's the fact that it's being sold as some kind of sticking-plaster for the soul, rather than for its own sake, I don't like. Poetry - if it's good enough - should be able to stand up for itself, on the merits of its language and its own ideas.

But enough of that: I had an interesting weekend. I discovered a poet I've taken no notice of before, for two reasons. One, she's a Peterloo poet, and they tend to be rather pedestrian, anecdotal and dull, frankly. Second was the name: Meg Peacocke. Stupid prejudice no doubt, but it did give a picture of a rather dowdy middle-class middle-aged lady poet who wrote about cats. Well, I give myself a slap on the wrist. She's not only better than that, but she's actually rather fine. Her latest collection - under the "more serious sounding" name of MR Peacocke (or lower-case m r peacocke as it has it on the cover) - is called Speaking of the Dead.

And yes, there is a strong vein of elegy through the poems I've read so far; but not nostalgia, which is a kind of arthritis of the soul a lot of writers suffer from. Instead, there's a concision that's almost condensare and a metaphysical depth, wrapped up in the same ordinary language that for so many poets is a limitation. The language is simple but the poems aren't. I can't quote from her yet, because I only read a few of her poems in the bookshop. But I might well go back and buy.

This, of course, brings up all kinds of issues about those old divisions between avant-garde and mainstream. There's a comment on the back by Stephen Knight to the effect that even when she's being experimental, she's still down-to-earth; but I suspect the reverse is also true.

Saturday, May 14, 2005

Infamy, infamy, they've all got it in for me...

I got a mention in Neil Astley's Stanza diatribe the other week, for daring to say something not very complimentary about his "Being Alive" anthology. The fact that anyone would actually want to take notice of something I said was a bit of a shock; most of the time, one presumes that the only people listening are one person and his dog...

But it made me think. The problem I had with the anthology was as much to do with the way it was being sold as the content. Although, frankly, the content wasn't that great; it was full of those anecdotal story-poem where someone tells you of their last Significant Moment and I think you're supposed to nod sagely and say, "yes that happened to me too!" A lot of the poetry was just dull, like that: nothing surprising, nothing to make you scratch your head, nothing to scare the horses. So far so what.

But it was being sold like - I think I said - lavender bath oil - as a kind of balm for the soul, as it were, and I didn't like that. Funnily enough, I wouldn't mind if it was sold like cans of beans; most books are (57 varieties: lad-lit, chick-lit, police proceedural, horror etc...) But I objected I think to the idea that poetry is "good for you."

On the other hand, if someone finds comfort in a poem, why should I object? If someone finds comfort in Patience Strong or Helen Steiner Rice, there's nothing wrong with that. If someone reads Auden at a funeral, it's because they find something in the poem that connects with the way they feel at that moment. And that's fine. But now it's being sold like that, as in "All the poems you need to say hello/goodbye", I think there's something of the feel-good therapy culture creeping in and it bothers me.

I have to read some poems to a service dedicated to conscientious objectors tomorrow. As a dedicated Quaker peacenik, you'd think I'd have a whole raft of peace poems to read. I don't; I'm hard put to make up 10 minutes' worth. I never sit down and think, I'm going to write a poem about peace, or I'm going to write a poem for this or that. Not usually anyway, though I have done the odd commissions. I don't think writers write to comfort people, or to offend people. They write because of some inner compulsion to get stuff down on paper, and they write to give themselves and others the pleasure of language well-used. Sometimes, people find something they can identify with directly in their own lives, and it touches them in a way the writer never imagined, but it's a by-product, not the main product.

I think it's great when people find something that helps them in the words of a poem, don't get me wrong. But I don't think, unless you're Patience Strong, it's actually what you're trying to do. You're trying to explore some idea, some feeling, some situation as truthfully and as well as you can, not write homilies for the edification of your reader.

Friday, May 13, 2005


Hi, well, this is my first venture into blogland. I intend this space to be a repository of all my thoughts and idea about poetry, religion and life in general. And possibly other peoples' writing too if I find things I like. And reviews of books too.

I'm a poet with an interesting development. Lately, I've been largely reading linguistically-innovative poetry - Alan Halsey, Geraldine Monk, Robert Sheppard - but I started off reading Larkin, Hughes, Brain Patten, etc because they were in my local library (Accrington at the time.) Then I went to Manchester University to do a Theology degree (yup, I'm religious; a sort of Liberal Quaker type with a side-order of High Anglican) and there I found Ashbery & O'Hara & the rest of the New York mob. I'll talk later about how that affected me; but let's just say I've been a fan of the New York school since then.

I think I'm probably going to be somewhere between linguistically-innovative and mainstream for the rest of my life. After reading too much linguistically innovative stuff, I have to confess to what I've taken to calling "the drum-solo effect." You know, when prog rock bands descend into twiddly, muso, look at how long I can keep this sustain going mode? It's like that. Then I read a lot more mainstream for awhile; and when I get bored with reading little closed in narratives with beginings, middles and ends, I go back to the weirder stuff.

Well, there's a lot more to be said, but this will do for now.