Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Reading Matters

I finally got hold of David Challoner's Collected Poems on Monday - by ordering it from my local library. I think I'll do more of this kind of thing - ordering books throught the library. That way, more books will be available to more people, and instead of paying £18.99, it'll only cost me 50p. I have to take the book back or renew it; but when I've finished, others can read it.

I'm not sure what I think of him on the whole. But I'll reserve judgement for now.


I've been doing a lot of reading recently. Chris McCabe's The Hutton Enquiry is also on my list. He's a youngish poet, originally from London, who now lives in London. Very lively, with a political edge and a kind of spikiness that I don't often find in poetry. I don't mean by that that he's one of those Charles Bukowski wannabees always writing "from the street", though he does have a very urban feel to him. Again, I'll try and do something more in depth later.


I've been trying to write as well. Half my poems these days seem to turn into unrhyming "sonnets" of one kind or another.


Then there's Lynette Roberts, who's proving to be a rather lovely find. What was it about the '40's that the Movement found so objectionable? There are a few characteristics: the use of the "I" for instance in lines like "I, in my intricate image..." (Dylan Thomas) where the "I" almost becomes a floating signifier, a sailor lost in the sea of selves. Then there's the seeming over the top image of lines like "Shall I make my disasters clear?" (Nicholas Moore) where the Movement poets wanted to return after the war to a kind of reticence about feelings.

It's good to see them republished, though. It feels like a gap in English poetry (a whole decade's gap) is finally being filled.

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

More on Readings & '40's Poetry

I've read in two places this week, and the contrast is fascinating. First is Linda Chase's Village Hall, as part of a Poets & Players event. Quiet, full of nice people who were very nice, and with more of that nice folk music. I enjoyed it, and the standard was reasonably good. There was a good group poem that was pretty interesting. One chap recited a ballad and we had a song from a young woman playing a wind organ. I read one poem, In Hitler's Bath, which I guess was semi-abstract. Because it was about Lee Miller, someone asked questions about it, and generally it went down very well. We had tea in little China cups and biscuits.

The other was the Trof, a bar, between lots of singers and a couple of other spoken word artists, including an interesting black poet whose accent sounded African. There was much more noise, and the whole thing was much less polite. Everyone was younger (students mainly) and there was a DJ playing everything from Kraftwerk to Kate Bush, ending up with The Fall's Hip Priest, still out-rocking the opposition twenty-odd years on. I read some of my more "performable" poems, and got a heckler. Then someone said I was better than Ted Hughes! Nice...

Two illustrations of the context where poetry can take place these days; it can either be treated with reverence as a kind of secular religious practice. The Village Hall is usually used for Tai Chi, so the metaphor is appropriate; we even had to take off our shoes. Or it can be thrown into the lion's den of noise that is a student bar. Somehow, through it all, the poetry comes through. Maybe I'm schizophrenic or something, but I enjoy both. I'm not so keen on slams, because of the competition element (capitalistic as it is) but I like the fact that both kinds of venue exist.


As well as reading in public, I've been rediscovering another neglectorino: the 40's poet Lynette Roberts. It seems that the 40's as a poetic era is being finally rediscovered, and I do wonder what it is that's prompting this. There's something in the air, perhaps. A lot of these poets seem to be writing out of an emergancy, a sense of not doom as such but certainly of big events that the individual couldn't control happening elsewhere, or even in front of their faces. There's a poem in the new Carcanet Collected Poems about a bombing raid on the East End of London, for instance.

Perhaps our own sense of emergancy: the Iraq War and its aftermath, 9/11, the London bombs last year etc, have made poets and readers look to the 2nd World War to see how poets then responded to the times. Whatever the reason, it's good to be able to read Burns Singer, Lynette Roberts and Nicholas Moore again; to see a full collection of WS Graham etc.

Friday, March 10, 2006

Wanting an Audience

I think a lot of us as writers exist in a kind of paradoxical relationship with readers. We want a large audience, we want to sell thousands of copies of our slim volumes. We want to be "famous writers", and we want to be loved by the public.

But we also don't want to "give the public what they want." We want to challenge their expectations, perhaps, alter their perceptions of the world etc... We want to be original, originality being the big idol of art since at least the Romantic movement. The more post-avant, modernist, post-modernist we are, the more we want to disrupt expectations, disorient readers, challenge them to, as it were, write their own meanings into our poems.

But then we don't want to disorient them so much that they don't come back, and so we're constantly torn with between the desire to be original, challenging etc. and the need to find an audience to read what we write. So we write for the kinds of people who will like the kinds of things that we like to write. If you write rhyming doggeral, you will find a willing audience who like that stuff; if you write viso-poetic works, you will find a willing audience for that too. We group ourselves into camps because we all like to be accepted by people, at the same time as we like to think of ourselves as challenging others. We create our own "us" and "thems".

I was listening to a Gang of Four compilation recently and reading about how they put together songs according to certain rules of democracy. They were trying to resist the consumer society's demands to please the audience; but they were also acutely aware of being part of it. They were purists aware of their own impurities, unlike those rock and roll heroes who think that a guitar solo is, by itself, an act of rebellion, rather that something that lots of perfectly unrebellious folk expect from rock and roll. As the phrase about turning "revolt" into "style" has it, it's not something any of us can escape. Even the most uncompromising follower of Prynne needs an audience, and will probably find one.

Gang of Four made paradoxically moving records by using what is on one level a very cold and calculated method, because through them, they expressed their own frustrations with the process, their own uncertainties. Too self-aware to be fooled by the rock and roll hero stances of other bands (like the Clash) but also wanting to rock out themselves. Wanting an audience and wanting to disorient the audience. Wanting to be original, and knowing that complete originality is a chimera. Wanting to defamiliarise, and wanting to bring the audience into your world.

I suspect that those of us who want to be "serious writers" all find ourselves in this dilemma, or maybe a series of dilemma. We'll find different solutions and positions along that spectrum; and that's why I find the whole avant-mainstream fascinating.

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

It's been a sad month. First, Barbara Guest died, now Ivor Cutler. I saw him years ago at the Lancaster Literature Festival, playing his harmonium, singing his strange songs and reciting his strange poems. His Life In a Scotch Sitting Room, vol. II is a classic; but I wonder now how he will be remembered. He was never part of an grouping, whether avant or mainstream, his poetry doesn't make the big anthologies, but anyone who can write a poem like this:

If your breasts are too big
you will fall over
unless you wear a rucksack

deserves to be remembered.


Talking of being remembered, I thought I'd post my favourite poem by Nicholas Moore, 40's poet and neglectarino supreme:


'Ingenious as it may seem, the Emperor Caligula
Was in the habit of sharing his bath with a tiger.
Its huge muscles gleamed; and the black stripes on the orange
Fur brought him lascivious delights. Its vigour

Reminded him of his manliness and of
The manliness of all emperors.' I smiled.
Anecdotes flew from Mr. Tabbeney's mouth, but
Could they be true? His surmises were all wild;

The strangest creatures populated his fancies.
'And when his bath was over, the Emperor would laugh,
And his wife, who loved to hear him laughing, would come in,
Beautiful as a re-touched photograph,

Her bronze hair strung in waves upon her shoulders.
And she would kiss him, naked as he was.'
'And what about the tiger in the bath?'
I asked. 'He sat and watched them. In his paws

He trapped the soap, then chased it like a fish
Around the slippery walls. He would seem to grin
At Caligula and his mistress, happy
In the warm water, impervious to the din

Of her kisses and faithful sounds, gay as a child
In the water. He was tame. And his stripes were the blackest of black.'
I conjured up the scene, the emperor, his mistress
And the tame beast, and I gave this man a look,

Observing the spots on his coat and his unpressed trousers,
The dirty, small ends of his moustache, his cigarette-stained fingers.
Anecdote, I thought, anecdote. And is
Every anecdote a meeting ground for strangers?

Nicholas Moore, 1950

It's a beautifully unexpected piece; I love the anachronism of that "beautiful as a retouched photograph," and the details of the strange man telling the tale. It came from his second major collection, Recollections of the Gala, in 1950.

If this poem were included in some of the major anthologies of 20th Century poetry, I'd think a lot better of them.