Monday, February 27, 2006

Becoming the Poet I Am

Kelvin Corcoran's recent book did bring up some interesting questions for me. How does one become the poet one becomes?

Some of it is down to personality. TS Eliot could never have written something as "wild" as "Howl" because he just wasn't Allen Ginsberg. But if I'd stayed in Accrington, or if I'd done an English degree rather than a Theology degree, I would be a very different writer than the one I am now. If I hadn't discovered old copies of the Poetry Review full of terribly avant garde poetry I didn't understand, if I hadn't discovered the poetry of John Ashbery and Frank O'Hara...

...I might have stayed with Philip Larkin and Ted Hughes, with the poets in my local library or available at the local bookshop. Of course, you might need an investigative spirit even to crack open the spine of a writer you're not familiar with, but they have to available to you in the first place. If you never go into a second hand bookshop, you're never going to find that copy of George Macbeth's The Cleaver Garden. But there has to be a second-hand bookshop for you to go in.

The problem with a lot of the non-mainstream poetries in this country is not its incomprehensibility; but its unavailability. If there's a large Waterstones, and it's got a good stock, you might nowadays find the odd Shearman or Salt book in there; but West House? Equipage? Barque? Highly unlikely. I guess the same could be said for presses like Enitharmon, Peterloo or Smith/Doorstop. It's harder and harder these days to discover the outre, the out of the way, the not very popular.

There is the Internet, of course, and there's a lot of it out there. But the Internet is largely unregulated, and again you only come across the good stuff by accident or recommendation. You can't get a recommendation unless you know someone, who knows someone who knows someone... If you live in the city, there are groups you can go to, you can make friends. But how do you do that if you live in the boondocks?

Becoming the poet I became has been a long and twisted path, involving a lot of discovery, a fair amount of incomprehensability and a fair amount of amazement. But at times, it's been frustrating, trying to track down writers and books. There's lots more out there, I'm sure. As Captain Picard might put it, "Let's see what's out there."

Thursday, February 23, 2006

Kelvin Corcoran

One of the reasons that the perpetual divisions in British poetry don't make sense any more is that so many good poets languish in obscurity, unread and therefore unenjoyed by the readership they deserve.

One example of this has to be the poet Kelvin Corcoran. I first came across him by accident: a copy of one of his early books in Frontline Books, a radical bookshop co-operative that used to exist in Manchester. It was either TCL or Qiryat Sepher which I bought first, and later I found Melanie's Book in a second hand bookshop. Yesterday, I obtained the New and Selected Poems, published by Shearsman Books, and it's an absolute delight.

The division is often ridiculous because it is assumed that all non-mainstream poets must be terribly difficult and extreme. But there's as much - and in many ways, very much more - variety in the non-mainstream as the mainstream. Kelvin Corcoran is - supremely and unashamedaly - lyrical in his concerns. Take this example from Melanie's Book:


Saxon mouth, telling us how to live,
over the scabby allotments back there
but for the warmth in the name
even my sister, what do you expect?

It leaps up from the long table into your face:
at 1.20 dread wind slips into town,
at 1.20 total loss holds me.
There's no stepping back from here.

Standing outside the house I
thought we were dark bodies
walking, through the light of facing windows;
another family lives there now.

It means don't believe that broadcast,
the time of your life or.

Roll the sylables around your head for awhile. It's even a sonnet; not one that gives out its meaning too easily, it needs some working out; but it's as good as anything I've read this year. It's lyrical and it has a mystery about it that you want to explore. His use of the unrhymed sonnet throughout this collection is noticeable; I think he has a deep awareness of form, of that Poundian sense of condensare, of every word counting to the whole.

There's a political edge to his poetry which doesn't impinge or preach but which is a quietly insistent pulse of care throughout the book; or at least, the poems I've so far read. The latest poems have a Greek setting, and often invoke or write about the gods. This might seem old-fashioned, but it perhaps reveals something of his roots in modernism and his interest in Greek poets such as Cavafy. There are poems that refer directly to the refugees who regularly wash up on the shores of Europe, drowned through unscrupulous traffickers or upturned boats.

His earlier poetry is perhaps slightly too concerned to establish his non-mainstream credentials. No-one but a non-mainstream poet would talk of "the hot symbolism of dawn", for instance: a line too proud of its own awareness. But he soon grows out of that. The politics are perhaps a little too earnest early on; but they're a young man's poems so we can forgive him.

I haven't finished reading this book yet, so these are only interim statements. There are some terrific poems in this book: poems like The Empire Stores and A Shelley Poet. He makes me think; but he also makes your head sing with sound. And to think, if I hadn't found him in a small radical bookshop that no longer (alas!) exists, I would have missed him. That's why it's important to step out of the mainstream: just think of what jewels you're missing by sticking to the tried and the tested!

Monday, February 20, 2006


I've had a busy weekend. I went to two readings, and finally saw the film, The Constant Gardener, which was a good thriller with a pretty decent message, though at times I wondered if it overdid the preachiness. Ralph Fiennes was very good as the diffident English diplomat, and Rachel Weisz as his wife, the campaining woman whose meaning for life seemed to depend on making the world a better place.

But it's the readings I really want to talk about. Firstly, there was Anjum Malik, who is really a performance poet, who also happens to write for the radio. She may well be very good at that; she's got a serial on Woman's Hour and one on the Asian Network. Her poetry - well, lots of coy sexual references in poems about fish and chips, and the occassional serious poem with a message. A good performance, technically; but I didn't appreciate being jollied along and told to say "wa wa" if I liked something. It may be popular in Asian poetry circles; but the material wasn't really strong enough or challenging enough for me. It was OK as far as it goes; but that's not very far.

Then a reading in the Whitworth, with Grevel Lindop as the star guest. Now, he is a good poet; I liked the one about the six lemons, for instance. They were very well-constructed, basically School of Quietude but done with craft and a certain amount of depth of thought. I liked his reading. There were three other poets, who I won't embarass by naming. The first was the kind of woman one imagines drinking tea in a tea-shop in Buckhamshire while solving a murder in the vicarage. Very Home Counties, and she used the word "beau" in a poem. Now there is a word that really ought to have been taken out and shot in 1914, along with the perpetrators of that dreadful war. Poems about art, the kind of art that people in Cheshire like that doesn't frighten the horses.

Then there was a young woman on the MA course at MMU, who was very shy and not very loud but from what I could gather, very interesting and promising. She needs to practice using a microphone, and maybe be given some training in standing before an audience, but otherwise she might go far. Her poems had long, interesting sounding titles and actually seemed to go somewhere.

The third woman poet was a middle-aged woman who read something from memory that was in the voice of a woman who was possibly in love with someone, and there was one good line: "so what if there's no moon, let's make one." She hummed between each section, which made her seem even more soporific, and the whole seem rather sentimental.

So: two out of four ain't bad really. None of them, though, really challenged any boundaries. It was a very polite do with some mildly diverting folk at the beginning and the end, just the kind of thing you'd expect in a very respectable gallery setting. It would have been fun to see what a Geraldine Monk or a Bob Cobbing would have made of the place.

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

I seem to be having a month of publication. First, I receive my copy of the Moosehead Anthology X: Future Welcome, with my poem Every Planet Has a North in it. Then Poetry Nottingham 59/4 arrives with two of my poems in it. Then I get a poem accepted by a new anthology from a new press, University of Central Lancashire Press, for an anthology of food poems called Taste. That's interesting because the poem is an old one, that was in my collection Mee-Mawing in an earlier version. Now I've just had 4 poems accepted by a new internet mag edited by Ian Seed, Shadow Train. Things are looking up.

I still get a buzz from seeing my name in print.

Meanwhile, I'm still looking for more suggestions of English neglectorinos.

Saturday, February 11, 2006

English Neglectorino's

Over in America, there's now a website dedicated to neglected poets run by the poet CA Conrad ( and it occured to me to wonder who the English poets would be who are most deserving of reviving. I have a few candidates myself, in particular George MacBeth, Nicholas Moore, Veronica Forrest Thomson, Geoffery Holloway and many of the poets of the '40's such as Lynette Roberts, Paul Dehn, and others.

Some of these poets seem to have disappeared recently: George MacBeth died of motor neurone disease, then seems to have been forgotten until Enitharmon's Selected Poems. This was edited by Anthony Thwaite, and while useful, only showcases his more sensible formalist side; there's nothing of the hit-and-miss playfulness and games-playing side of him as seen in his Unwin Collected Poems, and nothing of his longer poems or experimental autobiography such as My Scotland.

Lynette Roberts has recently been published in a handsome edition by Carcanet, of course, and the forties poets might just be about to re-enter the canon a little. Their voice - anxious, committed and often more interesting than the Movement poets that pushed them out of the way - has been missing from contemporary poetry for too long.

Geoffery Holloway seemed to be stalwart of the small-press scene, and apart from two early Anvil volumes, never made it beyond that. But there was always something about his poetry that wasn't well-behaved, and he was always readable and often funny and wise at the same time.

Sometimes these neglected poets died, or became ill, or stopped writing too early to establish a reputation. Such was the fate of Nicholas Moore - though he later took up writing again, but by then the poetry world had moved on, and he never found a major publisher again. Lynette Roberts stopped writing when she got religion, then became ill as well. Rosemary Tonks is another poet who is neglected - two books, a couple of novels then she got born again. Why does being born again stop you from writing?

There are plenty of others I could name. Stanley Cook, Frank Redpath among the School of Quietude, early Denise Levertov perhaps, and of course Mina Loy. Derryn Rees Jones I think has recently been seeking to reassess Edith Sitwell. The surrealists, in particular Philip O'Connor. I'd be interested in any names of British poets (they have to be dead, by the way, and twentieth century) that my readers think are unjustly neglected.

Saturday, February 04, 2006

George Oppen's Psalm

A poem I wish I'd written by George Oppen:


Veritas sequitur . . .

In the small beauty of the forest
The wild deer bedding down —That they are there!

Their eyes
Effortless, the soft lips
Nuzzle and the alien small teeth
Tear at the grass

The roots of it
Dangle from their mouths
Scattering earth in the strange woods.
They who are there.

Their paths
Nibbled thru the fields, the leaves that shade them
Hang in the distances
Of sun

The small nouns
Crying faith
In this in which the wild deer
Startle, and stare out.

The concision, the beauty of the images, that wonderful opening out into a kind of secular faith at the end, is truely mindblowing. Not a very critical statement that. George Oppen was one of the leading members of the so-called Objectivist movement in America, and I guess this would be an example of that type of poetry. Except in another sense, it's just a beautiful nature poem. It's also - in that last verse - about celebrating the ordinary words, the everyday language, about finding spiritual value in the world around us, rather than the high-falutin'. In that sense, it's an incarnational poem: it doesn't find meaning by looking up at the skies, it finds meaning by looking at the dirt.