Friday, December 30, 2011

Some Possibly Wrong Things I May Have Learned This Year

Poetry is a rhizome, a root system, a web of connections. It's not a tree with the best at the top and the worst at the bottom and lots of rather indifferent branches in between. It springs up in all kinds of ways and in all kinds of forms. It isn't just the Faber/Cape/Picador hegemony, nor is it just the experimental/post-avant. It takes in the visual and the sentimental: a Christmas card verse is still a poem, even if it isn't what many of us would choose to call 'good poetry'.

To say it's only poetry if it's 'good poetry' is to put a fence around certain kinds of poetry and say 'this is poetry and this is not' and poetry essentially had no fence. It includes Bob Cobbing and Helen Steiner Rice whether we like those poets or not.

That doesn't mean that all poetry is 'good' and there is no such thing as 'bad poetry': but what is considered bad cannot be rationally decided upon. A 'good sonnet' is not necessarily the most metrically correct; nor is good free verse just chopped-up prose. A good visual poem is aesthetically and visually pleasing; but isn't necessarily the one with the most paraphrasable meaning. If one writes a piece of 'inspirational verse' one isn't terribly interested in the subtlety of meaning, or even getting the metre absolutely correct. One is interested in inspiring certain sentiments.

No one anthology of any country's poetry can represent the whole range of poetry in that county. I'll believe that's possible when Wendy Cope sits next to Keston Sutherland in an anthology. Nobody can like everything. I've met people for whom doggerel is the only poetry worth reading, performance poetry the only poetry worth hearing, and others who generally confine themselves to avant garde, sound poetry, visual poetry, and everything in between. People who think if it doesn't rhyme it ain't poetry.

Poetry is a meadow. In a meadow, there are many kinds of plants, all fighting for attention from the sun (the reader?). Will we please everybody? Probably not. There is good and bad poetry (poems that survive and poems that do not may be one way of distinguishing) but not good and bad poetries. And survival isn't always the point: sometimes a poem is meant to be thrown away when read, or even written.

A Happy New Year to all poets.

Saturday, December 24, 2011



to all



Three Writers I've Discovered This Year

1. Ira Lightman
I'm currently making my way through three of his books: Duetcetera, from Shearsman, with its dual columns "conversing" with each other: sometimes you can read across, sometimes they seem to be arguing with one another, sometimes they're complementing each other. He includes some translations and I've just downloaded Trancelations (ubu editions) to read more. Mustard Tart As Lemon (Red Squirrel) seem to be a gathering together of poems that didn't fit into previous series; and Phone In The Roll: which reads like it's cut up from phone messages and other forms of communication. They all show a conceptual poet who isn't afraid of including both personal and spiritual perspectives into his work: and they repay rereading.

2. Amy De'ath 
A lovely little pamphet from Salt, which promises much more, Eric & Enide is ellipitical in a way that seems finally to be starting to reach through into more prominence in British poetry. She can be political in a subtle way, and there's a sense of ideas bouncing against one another in this collection. She has a new pamphlet which I must get hold of, from Oystercatcher.

3. Stephen Emmerson 
His book from Department Press, Telegraphic Transcriptions, is rather like listening to a whole host of voices at once. There are passages taken form medical literature, passages that seem like episodes of psychosis, passages of strange disparate voices coming in from all directions, and I'm still only part way through it: I have to take it a little at a time or if becomes overwhelming. Stephen is going to be someone to look for in the future, I feel: he has ambitions for his poetry that go beyond merely producing a group of stand-alone poems. He wants to write long, in series, with each poem referencing other poems, itself and the outside world, working on several voices not just one.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Some Optimistic Thoughts For Christmas

It's been an interesting year for poetry, hasn't it? I've bought and acquired loads on anthologies this year; it seems like it's been a year of change in the poetry world. The old guard - well, they still have the increasingly irrelevant awards for themselves - but it's been a year for young poets. The Salt Anthology of Younger Poets, Eighteens (Knives Forks & Spoons) and the Shearsman anthology of innovative landscape poetry all showcase a raft of new poets who are increasingly showing what they can do.

The energy levels of all this new poetry are often exhaustingly breathtaking. Poets like Jonty Tiplady, Amy De'ath, Emily Critchley, Sophie Robinson, Stephen Emmerson, Richard Barrett and many others are doing things with language that are elliptical, innovative and often quite quite beautiful and strange, in ways that didn't seem possible when I started writing 30 years ago. The days of innovation seemed to be over.

And in one sense, they are, in the sense that no-one is inventing a whole set of new forms; the 'heroic' age of the futurists, the dadaists and a whole sweep of manifestos has probably passed. But the fact that more young poets than ever have access to that history seems to be what makes these writers so adventurous. There are still poets being straight-jacketed into the mainstream, and maybe that suits their temperament; but when a click of the mouse can take you to the poetry of Mina Loy and you can access so much amazing stuff online, it's no wonder that things are opening up.

The categories are a lot looser than they were. Though they still exist: the mainstream is still the genre that pretends it's not a genre (the way 'literary fiction' likes to pretend it's not a genre); and there are still those fusty edifices of award-winning Faber/Picador/Cape poets who like to pretend they're the Best, despite history having passed them by. But there's a lot to be hopeful for.

With regard to that Best word: I can understand why Salt used it for their anthology; and why Puppywolf use it for their anthology of Manchester poets. It's a good marketing tool. It looks good in a bookshop. But neither anthology can be an objective view of what's 'best'; the Salt book is one man's view; the Puppywolf book has four editors' opinion. Either way, they leave out a lot of excellent stuff, and include some stuff that I wouldn't consider as good. There is no objective view of 'good poetry' though; and no doubt my choice would reflect a whole different criteria of 'best' than the ones in those anthologies.

They're both good anthologies, though. Occasionally, BOMP in particular has the kind of poem that makes me cringe ('This is poem about brown eyes is really about prejudice gay people' for instance: sorry to the poet concerned, but it just struck me as too much like it should have had the word 'Moral' pinned to its last line.)

I discovered some new writers this year, rediscovered a few older ones; and felt rather more optimistic about the state of poetry than I have done for awhile. A good year for the roses, and for poetry.

Friday, December 02, 2011

Launch of Best Manchester Poets (On The Eighth Day, Dec 1 2011)

It occurred to me in a moment of madness this morning how there is always somewhere a little corner of show-biz, the end-of-the-pier show, the TV variety show, in the arts world of Britain. Dominic Berry's performance as the master-of-ceremonies yesterday was one such example. As someone who finds all the bigging up Manchester somewhat embarrassing, I can't say I felt entirely comfortable with his performance, but that's not his fault. I used to cringe at the TV when Bruce Forsyth came on too (still do, come to think of it.)

What of the poets themselves? A mixed bunch, a gallimaufry, a Woolworths assortment of voices from surprisingly imaginative poems from old ladies to more dramatic performance poetry. Not all of it worked, and once or twice I wanted to say "cut the beginning," or "cut the end"; if the poetry was anything it was rather downbeat than upbeat, which might reflect the mood of the country. The age range was very wide, and the subject matter too, from Rosie Garland talking of cancer to poems about clubbing and a couple of rather rude poems which were subtly effective.

Apart from anything else, it was a kind evening. Everyone seemed to be listening and no-one was talking over the readers. Everybody who read got on, gave their reading and got off with great efficiency. Considering the panic beforehand about the number of readers, a surprising number of people read. It was a very inclusive evening.

As I am in the book, I perhaps ought to give some reflections on the book, but that will have to wait.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Poets & Players: Nov 26th 2011 Whitworth Art Gallery

One really should check the website before one goes somewhere. The one poet who might have been of interest on the bill had to cancel. Not his fault; a family bereavement apparently.

One should also not go to places out of boredom on a dull Saturday afternoon; I had just done the washing and was probably not in the mood for what was basically an afternoon of 'nice' poetry.

First up was a young poet, Kim Moore, who is currently trying to finish her portfolio for a creative writing degree at Manchester Met. It showed, I'm afraid; but there was sort of nothing wrong with the poems. Nothing you could put your finger on at least; these poems were 'well-made': nicely crafted, full of nice observations and images. You may by now have detected the 'damning with faint praise' of that word 'nice'. One poem seemed to touch on the real world, which mentioned a memorial service for those killed by a mad gunner in Cumbria not so long ago. It wasn't a great poem but at least it seemed to have some reference to a world outside the poet's own head.

Next up, a poet who went to a lot of galleries and looked at a lot of pictures. Which is nice. Rita Ray did have one poem that stepped outside the nice ekphrastic world she likes to live in. It was a found poem, based on an early twentieth century phrase book for an African language, published by SPCK as an aid for missionairies in spreading the Gospel. It had wit, and a political awareness entirely lacking in any other poem of the reading, simply through the juxtaposition of phrases. Again, it was a poem that stepped out of the comfortable world of the poet and took us somewhere other.

Andrew Forster took us on a journey. Unfortunately, it was nowhere interesting. A poem about a childhood word and marbles; a poem about a train station in Scotland. Lots of neat images from South Yorkshire, Scotland and Cumbria. I can't remember anything else. I don't want to remember anything else.

Meanwhile, through the gallery window, I watched a man practising ball skills in the park; a car with sirens on it drove up the path slowly and then drove back again. The headlines in the paper were to do with strikes, Egyptian riots, the crisis in the Eurozone, there were people in curry houses in Rusholme having conversations, there was coffee in the coffee-shops.

The people in the room were quite interesting. I suspected there were a few Margo Leadbetters about. That would have made for an interesting study. But the poetry? No interest whatsover.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Minor Poetry? Attendent Lords and all that...

I doubt I shall be rushing out and buying their books any time soon, but I was interested in the review by Mark Ford of the Collected Poems of ASJ Tessimond and Bernard Spencer, both published by Bloodaxe. I was interested, not because I think that either of them are 'unjustly neglected' or even 'ripe for revival'; but because they represent what the world of poetry is largely like for a lot of practising poets.

Most of us do not get on sylabuses, do not get articles and essays written about us, do not appear in the major print publications, but simply get on with writing our poems and doing our best. We may well have politcally left-wing sympathies most of the time, but we don't get involved in writing political poetry the way some London avant-garde poets do; because we're neither so certain of our beliefs nor do we really think a poem can do much good. We have a tendency to follow our own obsessions and hope that people will follow along with us.

We send our poems out in the world and hope for the best. Sometimes, as has just happened to a friend of mine, we get our poems rejected by the big magazines, but we still persevere. Maybe we're exploring a section of the broadly innovative school of poetry, or maybe we're solidly in what has been called 'the mainstream', 'the school of quietude' or whatever (I still maintain that, like 'literary fiction', 'mainstream poetry' is a 'genre that likes to pretend it's universal') but any impact we're going to make is likely to be small. We're not 'princes', we're 'attendent lords.'

For some people, this is an uncomfortable place to be in. They really want to be 'princes': hence they make a big noise every now and then about so-and-so is poetically, politically or idealogically 'unsound.' Or that really, people should be reading us not that lot. And sometimes our complaints are fair: Carold Ann Duffy's recent 'Christmas Truce', published in the Guardian because, hey, she is the poet laureate, is dreadful and frankly unworthy of her, never mind what you think of her poetry generally. And sometimes accusations fly that are frankly unfair, as in the recent spat between Sean Bonney and Todd Swift. I don't think Todd Swift is some kind of pro-capitalist lackey, I like some of his poetry; but neither do I think him the most innovative poet on the planet. For that matter, neither am I. I like Sean Bonney's poetry too, for very different reasons: I'm less enamoured of his need for some kind of idealogical purity (I had enough of that with the Born-Again Christians; I'm not about to chuck out my own uncertainties to jump into bed with the Marxists, though I have more sympathies with them than disagreements.)

One of the things that Mark Ford talked of in his LRB review was that both the poets he reviewed were poets of uncertainty; and they were probably not as inventive and sure of themselves as the big boys of the time. There's a poem about cats by ASJ Tessimond that I've always liked: not a great poem, in fact a pretty minor one. (I like cats.) But not everyone aspires to be the next Ezra Pound; and they both had jobs and lives outside of poetry. Poetry doesn't always have to be major to give pleasure.

Wednesday, November 02, 2011

Of There Was A Lake, Some Trees, And You by Richard Barrett

I didn't know you'd be at the lake
I thought should I pretend not to have seen you
5 stops on the Victoria line
Or I guess about quarter of an hour in your car

You know my love for you is like this lake
In um the sense that
It's strange how we both ended up here
When you think about it though maybe it isn't

Please don't say you were waiting for me to kiss you
Let's jump in the lake now dressed just as we are
Something we can remember with warmth in the future
I see

Those fallen leaves you so lightly walk over
Are like leaves on the ground

This poem appeared in an issue of anything anymore anywhere, but I first encountered it in the Poetica group in Manchester library some time ago. I liked it then and I still do. But what makes it work for me?

This is a love sonnet, in the tradition of Wyatt, Sidney, Shakespeare - well, just about anyone who's anyone in poetry. Except in another sense, it isn't. It takes the tradition of clever, highly articulate and persuasive poetry and blows it apart. A love sonnet is supposed to show you through its highly wrought imagery, through its rhetoric, just how strong the lover's feelings are for the beloved, and often, how awful it is that this person has rejected the poet.

This poem almost revels in its inarticulacy, its inability to say what it wants to say or to persuade by the cleverness of its image just how serious and deep the poet is about pursuing this relationship. Here, the poet is attempting to be clever: "You know my love for you is like this lake" but then can't follow through: "In um the sense that" and tries to extricate himself from the attempt with "It's strange how we ended up here," as if he's changed his mind about the attempt to be clever.

He makes another attempt at the heroic gesture: "Let's jump in the lake..." but she's obviously not falling for it. There's an ambiguity at the end about whether this relationship will go anywhere; the leaves are just leaves, after all.

This sonnet works because it seems to me to be about how things actually work, rather than an idealisation of a situation. Like the stutter in The Who's My Generation, it's about not getting the right words out, about trying to impress and failing. Its rhythms are the rhythms of ordinary speech not of poetry, it rejects the whole idea of clever imagery and there is no attempt to create the perfectly-formed sentences of so much of today's poetry.

In fact, if I have a complaint about today's poetry it's just that: one complete sentence after another. One complete thought after another, like nobody actually thinks in real life. In this poem, with its false starts and stutters, we get the idea of a mind in action, not one that has already decided what it wants to say and only needs to find the clever, articulate and 'interesting' words to say it. So many poems and poets out to impress you with their 'depth of feeling'; but this poem cuts through all that by not even trying to impress.

It's a small poem, and probably not the most important poem Richard Barrett will ever write. Nevertheless, it shows the strength of non-mainstream poetry at the moment. It's unafraid and honest and true in so many ways. I hope you like it too.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

All The Rooms of Uncle's Head by Tony Williams (Nine Arches Press £6)

It's very satisfying to read a pamphlet with such thorough-going production values as this. Osetnsibly written by an inmate of a Mittel-European asylum in the first decades of the 20th century, these sonnets are presented visually as they might have appeared on the tiles they were purportedly printed on, so there are cracks, missing peices shown as black cut-outs, borders and the overall design of the book.

This impersonation of a writer who is supposed to be mad could very easily have been patronising and exploitative. Outsider artists have been appropriated before by "professional" artists who either use their work as a stimulus for releasing themselves from the bonds of artistic "standards" set by the establishment, or as a way of saying "look how wild I am! I investigate madness!" I don't think Tony Williams is doing this; partly because the poet here is imaginary, and partly because the poems themselves are a commentary on the process. References to the Professor, as in "Survivals of hope,/ HONESTY, Professor, your soul's fly's loop the loop/ Towards the chasms of daring I suggest" (Roundel Pit Iris) seem to be as much references to the how the poet's imagination is being released by his character as part of the impersonation.

There are other characters, like the menacing Azazello, a woman called Mary; some of them seem to be outside the character's head, others seem to be inside. There is an apocalyptic feel to these poems, warnings of forthcoming doom; and always the Professor/Poet seeking to analyse, make a sensible diagnosis, preparing 'to cut the flightless fowl/ That sulks upon the meat-plate's salty lake..."

The story of this anonymous poet only comes out in fragments, if at all. Williams has resisted the temptation to narrative closure, so we don't know much more about this man at the end of the poem than we did before; only the disordered visions of the mind he chooses to reveal. Sometimes, we catch glimpses of other inmates, such as the anonymous woman in Hut Love:

Her portrait's hung above the central stairs
All blue and white as Mary under years
Of dirt and lacquer that obscure her light
As if she looks upon a hall of BRUTES...

(Hut Love)

Because it is so thoroughly imagined and so well-written, my caveats about the sequence are small. There is only one 'tile poem' in which a word in the poem (as opposed to the border) is obscured, and I think that fragmentary idea could have been taken a little further: so that there a few more gaps. There is the question of how good these poems are, and whether that detracts from the impersonation; mad people don't tend to write this well. However, the examples of both Ivor Gurney and John Clare militate against this. Mentally ill people are not constantly ill; they can have long stretches of lucidity, and are not less intelligent that anyone else. So I argue against my self on that score.

This is a fascinating pamphlet, one of the best things I've read all year. It probably won't win any awards; but it probably ought to.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Untidy Up Your Head

If there's one thing certain about the poetry scene at the start of a new decade of the 21st century, it's that nothing certain can be said about it, and that part of the reason for this state of affairs is Roddy Lumsden. I was thinking this as I read the Best British Poetry 2011 anthology: an intriguing attempt to copy the David Lehman-fronted series Best American Poetry.

That an anthology can veer from the experimental to the formal in such a way as this shows that Lumsden at least has a much wider appreciation of the varied poetries in Britain at the moment than most previous anthologists. One can see it too in the anthology he edited for Bloodaxe, Identity Parade, which includes both Peter Manson and the much more mainstream, Jacob Pooley. It could, in fact, be the first anthology to reflect the actual situation of poetry in this country since Edward Lucie-Smith. I'm sure that not a few of the poets in Identity Parade are not even on speaking terms with each other; but that seems to me to be preferable to the tidied-up versions of poetry we've seen in the past.

I suspect that the Salt Book of Younger Poets will continue this trend, and that is surely a good thing. Lumsden's support for young writers is one of the things I like best about him; and the fact that he doesn't expect them to fit into his own aesthetic is also admirable. He himself seems to have a shifting aesthetic, than can take in experimental and more formal concerns.

I can't say I like all his choices in the Best British Poets anthology; but then why should I be expected to? I like the fact that the experimental poets are rubbing shoulders with more mainstream names; that the two kinds of poetry are at least starting a fitful conversation in print with one another. For me, the experimental speaks louder and more interestingly; but that's my opinion.

For too long we've had arbiters of taste telling us that this aesthetics or that is the way to go. From the Movement anthologies to The New Poetry, we've had one route of empirical, narrative verse prioritised over another, more disruptive, more surreal perhaps, more focused on sound perhaps, verse in one set of approved anthologies. But then the 'alternative' too has its own anthologies, its own networks of distribution, its own aesthetics, at war with what it sees as an opposition.

I don't entirely want to get rid of those oppositions; poetry is passionate and ought to be something you get passionate about. But today's poetry is messy, untidy and seems to be going off in all directions at once. Roddy Lumsden, whatever you might think of some of his choices, has at least recognised that, and is trying to reflect the messiness of poetry, not give us it the way he thinks it ought to be and leaving out the rest.

Thursday, October 06, 2011

Being Not Boring: Some Thoughts

I find a lot of poetry frankly boring.

I'm sure a lot of people find my poetry boring.

Am I a good poet? I like to think so. Others no doubt disagree.

The poetry I find boring tends to be, but is not exclusively confined to, mainstream in its general direction.

People who just write about their fairly uninteresting lives in fairly plain language are probably not going to the top of my must read list. Then again, I know several people who write like that who's work I actually do like.

Something other than the meaning of the words, or the story, has to catch my mind for me to be interested further than one reading.

Sometimes I can't get to the end of a poem because I already know where it's going. Sometimes I read a poem backward to see if it's more interesting that way around. It sometimes is...

A poem 'should surprise with a fine excess' as Keats wrote.

A lot of poetry does what a lot of poetry does. A little of the poetry I read does something I didn't know it was going to.

Most poetry is not rubbish. It's crafted well enough.

Craft is a meaningless concept when it comes to art.

What strikes me about great poetry is not how well it is written (anyone can follow all the rules and write a sonnet) but how the language catches onto the brain and won't let go.

Craft doesn't cover up a lack of ideas.

Friday, September 09, 2011

Concrete Poetry, vispo, the whole 'mess' of it...

I've always had a kind of likeing for concrete poety, visual poetry and all that. The use of chance techniques, cut-n-paste and all that have often attracted me. The problem with a lot of the avant garde, though, is probably to do with evaluation. How do you evaluate a poem which is entirely based on chance proceedures, is a 'sound poem' or is, like Bob Cobbing, a piece of writing that had been photycopied repeatedly and turned into something that doesn't even look like writing anymore?

'Messy play' was a big thing in the '60's and '70's, and probably a lot of what was produced was, in the long run, pretty crap. Andrew Duncan reckons about 90% was rubbish; which sounds like a statistic worth working with, because probably 90% of any art is rubbish in the long run. Though it might have been fun at the time, it might also have been pretty boring too. A performance of Kurt Schwitter's Ursonate might be pretty remarkable; but listening to someone doing random dog noises may well get pretty grating. One poet I heard went on for an hour, about twenty minutes of which was the limit of tolerance. I'm still not sure whether watching someone eating book pages was interesting or a waste of my time.

But how do you evaluate this stuff? I still don't know; but I think there are a few clues. Firstly, I think a work of art, whether visual or literary, has to have a heart somewhere. Not a message, but a reason for existing beyond just doing an experiment with materials, or you feel like being random. Now part of this heart is actually that Stevensian phrase, "It Must Give Pleasure": both to the audience, and, actually, to the writer. Sometimes I write a poem out of some emotional state; other times I write out of some idea; other times I write because I just enjoy the process of producing something to see what might happen.

Secondly. if you're going to evaluate something, it has to be evaluated on its own terms. It's a waste of time expecting a Bob Cobbing poem to read like a poem by JH Prynne, because he's doing different things. And if I were to say that Bob Cobbing could as easily be put alongside Jackson Pollock, for instance, as against any poet of the age, is to acknowledge that a large part of Cobbing's appeal is visual, pre-literary and aural. You don't get very far by putting him against Larkin and saying that Larkin makes sense but Cobbing doesn't; because it is not part of Cobbing's purpose to 'make sense' in the way that Larkin does. The same goes for pitting Cobbing and Prynne together: unless you understand the context of a work of art, you can't get very far in evaluating it.

Thirdly, you have to acknowledge that you on your own cannot like everything out there. Nor should you. You are likely to miss out on some good stuff because you don't happen to like it; I like Bob Cobbing, but I know people who hate him and refuse to call it poetry. That's OK, as long as you can recognise that your opinion is as legitimate as mine.

Fourthly, I think you have to acknowledge the messiness of poetry. Poetry from the late 19th century on has been a 'messy' art form, like all the other arts. There were once rules that made poetry stand out form not-poetry, just as there were rules that made art stand out from non-art. In an age when a messy bed can be placed in a gallery and called art, those rules become merely one option among many. And there's nothing you can do about that. There really isn't, despite the fact that 90% is still going to be forgotten, including writing that you might actually enjoy if you came across it.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Lobe Scarps & Finials - Geraldine Monk - Leafe Press £8.95

Here's the promised first review, and it's a doozie:

Geraldine Monk is one of those poets who one gets the feeling would be much wider known, if only she weren't one of those darned "other poets" who get left out of the lists when it comes to official verse culture. She is funny, wise and playful, and she probably has as much understanding of the physicality of language as any poet living in this country. In this book, as in many of her other books, sound and meaning clash and merge, dance around each other like two lovers still working each other out.

Her poems are often difficult to quote from in a blog review, because she places words very carefully on the page to emphasise their relationship and to add a visual dimension to her poems. This is often called "open form" or "projective verse", and is where we see the influence of Olson and the Black Mountain poets; but hers is also a profoundly local as well as international poetry.

In Poppyheads, for instance, she takes her inspiration from the carved at the end of pews in a church in Rotherham, not far from her home in Sheffield. These short verses evoke both the carvings and the natural magic of the North of England:

to the
edge of my pond -
flutters bug me. Litter. Water louse.
Damsels in. Nothing is for ever. Floozies
ply. So long dragons - fly now nymphs.

I see dragonflies over a river or a millpond, and I hear them too, in the alliteration, in the rhythm that dashes about. Throughout her work, there is this reaching out for a language that doesn't just explain or evoke the world, but reaches into it and brings it to life for us.

This book, in some ways, is a gathering together of various pieces rather than a fully unified collection, which her last, the sonnet sequence Ghosts & Other was. Nevertheless, the sequences do hold together and explore the mysterious edge of the natural world. She even manages, in Glow in the Darklunar Calendar to reinvigorate that old standby of poets, the moon. Though I'm always aware of Mina Loy's line from The Lunar Baedecker, about that familiar symbol of mystery "pockmarked with personification", she manages to range widely between the scientific, the mythic and the mystical in often beautiful lines that show there is life in the old satellite yet.

Perhaps not her most essential read: for that I recommend Interegnum and Escafedd Hangings; but this is nevertheless a very enjoyable book. It brings together sequences that add further to our understanding of one of the best poets, and really should be enjoyed much wider than she is. And I do say enjoyed: the gusto of these poems, the linguistic play and the brio of the dancing words is not something to be worried over. They should be read quickly first, to get the music of them, and then savoured, read aloud. She wants you to join in the dance.

Sunday, August 21, 2011


Hopefully soon, I'll be able to include a couple of reviews of books I've read recently. In the meantime, I've been thinking about poetry again, and expectations.

There was a comment I came across in an article, to the effect that there were these "bastions of neo-modernism", and it caused me to ask who they might be. Two possible candidates came to mind: Geoffery Hill and JH Prynne. They're both "difficult" poets and they could both be described as "neo-modernist"; but I wonder how much either poet sees themselves as "bastions" of anything. Personally, I lost contact with Geoffery Hill about the time of the The Mystery of the Charity of Charles Peguy, which I remember being very good, but then he was silent for years and came back with a rush of books I've never really had time to keep up with. My loss no doubt; but there's so much to read it's not possible to keep up with everyone.

JH Prynne I know through pieces in anthologies, some of which I find frankly baffling and some of which I find bafflingly beautiful. Which means I don't know what they're about, but I kind of like them. But again I haven't really followed him up to the Collected, and perhaps I should.

But it leads me to thoughts about influence. Another article, a review of the Selected Edward Thomas, informed me that he was a really important poet for the development of English poetry. And I guess he is, but again all I've read is the stuff in anthologies. Or - I tell a lie - I have picked up his Selected in libraries and read a few poems in them, probably more than either Prynne or recent Hill. If this amounts to influence, then I'm influenced, but not much.

Of the three, I probably like Hill the best; but I can't say that any of them mean that much to me. They don't - to use a lovely Quaker phrase - speak to my condition. Other poers who may be influenced by them, or by some aspect of them, maybe do; but I don't see much influence of Prynne in, say, Lee Harwood or Tom Raworth, for instance.

Edward Thomas and Prynne, and probably Hill too, are important to some for particular reading of English poetry. Edward Thomas leads to Larkin, leads to Armitage and Duffy, say; Prynne leads to the current crop of avant garde poets; Hill, no doubt, to another kind of poet. And then you start to take sides: Thomas vs Prynne vs Hill.

I like all three poets in their way. I like Hill's depth of reference, the strange surface music of Prynne and the quietly assertive values of Thomas. But not so much that other poets don't come first on my reading list. Maybe I'll get round to Prynne; I should probably have kept up with Hill; and Thomas would be pleasant to look at. But poetry in England is not one line, or two lines, or three; it's a field full of folk, and there's so much more to listen to. I'll be missing something by not studying all three, of course I will; but then I'll miss other stuff if I don't pursue that too.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

A Note On Humour & the Avant Garde

Can avant garde art be funny? I don't mean ironic; lots of art is ironic without being in the least bit funny, whether avant garde or mainstream.

But I was at a performance last night by a group of improvising musicians called Centrifuge, and there were aspects of the evening that were funny. Watching a man using his flute as a snooker cue to send marbles across the floor, as part of an otherwise very intense and serious performance, certainly made me smile. It was, frankly, rather absurd, and it did help to break the tension of the evening. Or at least deflate it for awhile.

There is, of course, the old cliched image of the serious avant gardist, intense and brooding, looking not unlike Poe's Raven as he broods over the language. But absurdism, clowning and taking the piss have always been part of the experimental project, and many of the avant garde poets I read make me laugh at their antics. Poets such as Roy Fisher and Peter Finch can certainly be serious, but they can also make the reader smile; and the same is true of poets such as Geraldine Monk.

Geraldine Monk in particular has an times wicked sense of humour, as she shows in parts of Interegnum with its satirical portraits of born again Christians and bikers. Her use of vernacular and dialect speech, and the broken rhythms she uses, are also intended to make the reader smile, as well as having a serious intent.

Mind you, there are times when I've read poems by ever-so-earnest poetic politicos trying to inject their poems with humour and jokes where it's come across as no more than heavy-handed satire. In poets such as Jonty Tiplady, however, an absurdist streak makes for an exhilarating experience.

The spectacle of a serious musician chasing a marble down the aisle of St Anne's Church in Manchester is deeply amusing. Hearing Christian Bok and Jaap Blonk doing a rendition of Schwitter's Sneezing Songs is laugh-out-loud (indeed, anybody who doesn't find Eunoia funny has had a humour bypass.) Jokes are subversive of everything; and if we can't take the piss out of ourselves, someone else will.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Arab Spring for Poetry?

It's been awhile since I've been here, and I've been following with a kind of awed fascination all the stuff that's happening both with News International and the Poetry Society. Both stories seem to be about openness and accountablity; does anyone for instance believe that Rupert Murdoch didn't know what was happening at the News of the World? If he didn't is that a sign that he's losing his grip? It's certainly a failure of good governance if he didn't.

The Poetry Society is not something I have very much to do with; but again it seems to be about people doing things behind closed doors: deals and counter-deals going on without the membership knowing about it. It may or may not turn out to be a storm in a tea-cup; but what does it say about a society's trustees if they can't even follow correct proceedure? I'm a trustee of an admitedly much smaller organisation, and unless I'm called in to do a specific job, I do not interfere in the daily running of that organisation. That's up to the staff, and as long as they are working for the best interests of the organisation, and are not doing anything illegal, it's not my job to decide to change policies.

Why the secrecy anyway? this is poetry, not the national debt.

Not that it doesn't confirm what a lot of people are thinking anyway: that the Poetry Society is just one more Establishment organ run for the benefit of a few at the top while the ordinary members get nothing much. Which is, of course, deeply unfair, as the Poetry Society do a lot of good work in educating the country about poetry. If Judith Palmer's claims that it represents 'all poetries' are somewhat exagerated (all mainstream poetries, maybe... which is a wide stream but not 'all poetries') it does nevertheless do a lot of good work.

Lots of Cassandras seem to be saying that the very existence of the organisation is under threat. I'm not sure I buy into that; but I certainly think that it should get its act together at the EGM tomorrow. It's a valuable organisation, as long as it remains open to its membership, not a closed shop for the poetry elite. Maybe we could have an Arab Spring for poetry as well...

Thursday, June 30, 2011

Poetry Society conspiracy theories

One of the things that must be quite delightful for some people about the recent rumbles at the Poetry Society is the delicious possibility of creating a few conspiracy theories around the story. Mutterings about mysterious cabals of "mainstream" poets and publishers trying to control the public image of poetry; disgruntled poets sitting in corners complaining about how the Poetry Review rejected them so it must be run by some poetic branch of the Illuminati, and if someone doesn't mention Mossad, the CIA and MI5 I'd be very surprised. Or maybe not, but at least, we'll be mentioning that strange many-headed hydra, "the establishment."

Poets like me, with an interest in the experimental and the down-right weird; or poets like my friend Angela, a solid, perfectly mainstream poet of personal lyric, probably both have some reason to complain that the Poetry Review (and, by extension, the Poetry Society) doesn't represent them. To quote Morrissey, "it says nothing to me about my life" but, on the other hand, why should it? Fiona Sampson as editor is entitled to her taste, and if it doesn't agree with ours, it's not as if we don't have outlets for our own writing elsewhere. It's just that it's not as public as the Poetry Review; but has the Poetry Review ever represented the whole of the poetry spectrum in this country? Even in the heady days of Eric Mottram, it still only represented one kind of poetry, only this time it was the experimental end of the spectrum.

The poetry world is larger and wider than any magazine, or any society, can represent; but it's also largely ignored unless someone is kicking off about mysterious goings on at the Poetry Society. Then you'll find the newspaper comments boxing filling up with splenetic philistines complaining about how much money is wasted on a 'hobby' that only requires pen and paper... and how nobody rhymes anymore and it's all incomprehensibel rubbish... and then the whole thing dies down and poets go back into obscurity until next time... We don't have much power on the whole, and that includes the editor of the Poetry Review; but that doesn't mean there are mysterious dark forces trying to dominate British poetry and trying to ensure that only "establishment" poetry is acceptable. There are only lots of people vying for attention and booksales.

I don't see lots of people becoming suddenly interested in the kind of poetry I write; and, although I'd love to have as many readers as the latest Harry Potter, it ain't going to happen. We can help people to understand what we do better; we can be open and generous to those who find what we do puzzling; but in the end I'm reasonably fine with having a small audience for what I do, because I'm stuck with it. I'm not about to start blaming mysterious dark forces for that; or editors of national poetry magazines that have a different taste from me. Even if I think her taste is largely rubbish...

I don't think the Poetry Society keeping schtum helps, and I support (from a distance...) the people who want an EGM to resolve things; but there's no cabal at the 'head' of British poetry. If British poetry even has a 'head' that is.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Poetry Soc and the Real World of Poetry

Apparently, funny things are going on at the Poetry Society. Directors and Presidents resigning all over the place, and lots of rumours abount Editors of the Poetry Review only being interested in a certain cadre of poet-friends. Etc etc...

But frankly, I can't say I care very much. When was the last time that the Poetry Society was actually relevant to the real range of poetry going on in Britain today? Oh, sure it does lots of work in education... but is it just reinforcing a certain staid establishment view of poetry, or is actually reflecting poetry as it is? Poetry as it includes the mainstream and the non-mainstream, the page and the performance, the literary and the visual. Philip Larkin and Bob Cobbing.

And yes, it's full of arguments and disputes about what constitutes "real poetry": just as every other art form does, and should. If people don't get passionate about it, what's the point of it? I don't like all of it, and you won't like all of it. If the Poetry Society wants to be representative then it should reflect these things.

Poetry (Chicago) has been quite successful in reflecting the different forms of poetry by having 'specials' on visual poetry, flarf/conceptual poetry and translations. Can you imagine the current editor doing a special on visual poetry these days? If not, why not? Does she ever step out of her office to see what's going on in the non-mainstream scene, or in the regions?

The Poetry Society is largely irrelevant to most poets in this country. Maybe it's time to ask what its enormous grant from the government can do if it's redirected to something useful.

Thursday, June 02, 2011

Where Have I Been? Where Am I Now? Where Am I Going To?

I have to think about where I've been, where I am now and where I'm going to next for a university funding application interview.

This is difficult, because a part of me doesn't want to know the answer to any of those questions. Who wants to second guess their future or pin down their past? But here are some initial thoughts.

1) I have been, and still am, basically a lyric poet. That is, a poet of personal experience, a poet who derives much of his material from his own life, from an attempt to understand his own life in the late 20th/early 21st century.

2) My interest in the non-mainstream, the experimental, the frankly bizarre and the extreme complicates that. It's always been there: even when I started I was more fascinated with the strange edges of poetry than a lot of the centre. But I hid it well: I went to readings with mainly mainstream poets because they were the only things available, and even bought the books; while secretly looking at books by Olson, O'Hara, Ashbery; while looking for British equivalents.

3) I found them too: Lee Harwood in a bookshop in Grasmere; the Collected Edwin Morgan lying unreviewed in the City Life offices, ditto with Mina Loy; review copies of Tempers of Hazard; a pamphlet of Geraldine Monk's in Frontline Books in Manchester. Ditto for Penniless Politics by Douglas Oliver.

4) I always did have an interest in the experimental, but I never knew what to do with it until I took a pair of scissors to a crap poem and it became a good one. That released a flood of ideas: turn the poem on its head, write the thing backwards, mix up the verses, stop stop stop making sense!

5) And then it started happening here in Manchester. Suddenly, there was a community of writers I could actually identify with. The readings in the Attic of Alan Fisher, Scott Thurston etc, meeting the editors of Parameter, Matchbox, later ZimZalla and if p then q, feeling part of something exciting happening for the first time.

6) Meanwhile, I'm get older. I spent 20 years trying to fit my poems into a box they didn't want to fit in. Thank goodness I no longer do that. But I don't want to alienate my friends from the Manchester Poets era and say that everything they do/did was rubbish. a) because it's not really true b) because they're all largely nice people.

7) Nevertheless, I do sometimes rubbish their stuff. Sorry about that. When you've felt like square peg in a round hole for 20 years it's easy to say the wrong thing sometimes. What you do is fine; I just no longer want even to try to do it myself. And remember: there are writers I feel I'm supposed to admire that mean nothing to me, so if I rubbish your favourite, it's because I can't see what the fuss is.

8) Reading at The Other Room, in front, as it were, of the home crowd. I bottle it a bit, incredibly nervous like my first reading. And I can't read from thesmall print of my latest pamphlet. Get good reception nevertheless.

9) But where is my writing going? Away from strict cut-n-paste, to a kind of collage, use of found text, forays into conceptual writing; but looking for a spiritual theme in it all. Still basically exploring my own environment and life, trying to understand, to create a poetic analogy to the energy of the life around me. I want the poem to happen now in the reader's head, not to be a record of a happening sometime in the past.

10) I find it puzzling that some poets admit to only writing with a small audience of friends in mind. I want everybody to read my poetry; but without just writing what they want to hear. Writing should be a surprise for the writer and the reader; that Wallace Steven's line about resisting the intelligence almost successfully, and the importance of that ALMOST.

11) Sometimes I feel like Jake the Peg: I still have a foot in mainstream, probably at least a whole leg and a bit in the non-mainstream, and an extra leg in performance. Poetry is an oral art, an aural art, a music, a language, an unread book in the hand and an unexpressed thought in the back of the head, a word on the tip of your tongue.

12) The word that comes out of reviews of my books: the demotic. I'm interested in the language of the street. The language of signage, text, journalism, advertising. At the moment I dip in and out of the academic, and would like to plunge more systematically into it.

13) I would like to do something bigger in the future. I don't know what the future will hold. I'd like to explore my own faith/politics, my own opinions about the world; I would like to find a way of talking about those things that doesn't feel dishonest, disengenuous or otherwise declamatory. I'd like to talk about truth, whatever that means.

14) This is a provisional statement. It will always be a provisional statement.

15) There is no fifteenth statement.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Rambling Thoughts of the Post-Avant

So what does it mean to be 'non-mainstream' in this age? Having recently seen the extraoridinary Ursonate performed in a dank basement in Bury, a 'sound-poem' in sonata form (roughly) first performed in 1930's Germany, it's hard to think that there's any point in the term avant garde anymore. Ron Silliman, of course, has, along with others such as the late Reginald Sheppard, coined the term Post-Avant for what comes 'after the avant garde.'

Everything has been done before, at least in terms of shocking audiences and provoking the reaction, "but that's not poetry/art/music/etc..." in an audience used to the familiar shapes of poetry before modernism came along. These days, most readers don't expect poetry to always rhyme; nor do they always expect it to 'make sense' in the way it used to do, supposedly, in some mythical golden age of simple lyric poetry.

There are still people who get shocked by sound poetry and concrete poetry; but I suspect there's much less than there used to be of shocked responses. These days, people who like it like it, and those who don't get bored by it, except possibly in the fulminating backwaters of the odd Neo-Formalist magazine, still fighting battles that everyone else got exhausted by long ago.

There are still people around who remember the so-called Poetry Wars at the Poetry Society of the late '70's; and the fact is that a lot of really interesting writers went into the wilderness for a good few years, only emerging years later with egos and reputations still bruised. Most young writers, I suspect, look on it all with some bewilderment.

That 'experimental writing' still survives, and is being practised by young writers fresh out of university, is a sign of health for the whole of the writing community. But it's no good pretending that we're any kind of avant garde. Even the 'flarf' and 'conceptual' schools of poetry are only going places that somebody has been before: flarf is a form of collage and conceptual art has been around since the '60's.

What marks out the 'non-mainstream' from the 'mainstream' then? Well, to be honest, it's partly a tribal allegiance, isn't it? Going to The Other Room, I hear plenty of snide remarks about Duffy and Armitage, and I'm as guilty as many in making the same remarks about Andrew Motion. The fact that I don't at all find his poems interesting or engaging is not really his fault though. That he's more likely to be reviewed by the Guardian than, say, Robert Shepherd or Maggie O'Sullivan says something about the values of the mainstream; but it does get dull to be always harping on about it.

There are still, I think, two basic approaches to writing: one is the direct, denotative, logical, descriptive route which is largely the approach of the mainstream; the other is associative, fractured, disruptive, illogical, indirect route favoured by the non-mainstream. Both can produce great writing, and bad; and we all have out preferences for one over the other. Then again, the direct route is not always as direct as it seems, and the indirect isn't always as indirect as it seems: or, you tak the low road and I'll tak the high road, and I'll be in Scotland afore ye. But we're both getting to Scotland, as it were.

Monday, May 02, 2011

Ursonate in Bury

The final event of the text festival was all to do with Kurt Schwitters. First, there was a seminar in which people who had performed or responded to his sound-poem Ursonate talked about it, and we saw pictures of the Merzbarn in Ambleside, one of his last remarkable works. I learned something that I had never known about Bury: that for a short time, Schwitters had been interned in Bury at an old mill called Warth Mill, as an enemy alien, before going off to the Isle of Man where many European artists, thinkers and writers were sent before the British Government recognised that they weren't Nazi spies.

This strange connection of Bury to European art and the Entarte Kunst (Degenerate Art) that Hitler was so against made for a remarkable performance of the whole of the Ursonate in the basement of this mill. It was dark: there were candles, one anglepoise lamp and the light from mobile phones to illuminate the text for the four readers. We were inside a space with plaster peeling from old red-brick walls, lots of bare central heating pipes and a picture of the man himself at th front.

And what a remarkable piece it is: full of rolling 'r's', labial 'l's', 'k's' and in amongst this the structure of a sonata, including a rondo, a scherzo, a beautiful largo and a cadenza. The readers included Christian Bok, himself a remarkable experimental poet whose pieces in the Text Festival include a poem programmed into the DNA of a bacillus, and Jaap Blonk, himself a sound poet and musician of considerable achievement.

I left the dark of that room into the brilliant sun shining onto the tarmac a very ordinary industrial estate in a very ordinay part of a very ordinary town in North East Lancashire, reflecting on connections. The connection between Bury and international modernism, as seen both in this performance and in the text festival itself, is all the more remarkable for being so unexpected. It's almost like one of Kurt Schwitter's Merz collages: ordinary materials transformed into the extraordinary. Which is how one of the participants of the Schwitters seminar described as the purpose of art: to take bits of the world, treat it and return it back to the world transformed.

Text Festival

Quite an amazing few days on the whole. First, there was a trip to the very baroque old city of Bruges, with its churches oppressively over-decorated on the inside but quite restrained outside, with its strange fountain of a man's head with two snakes coming out of his mouth. No doubt symbolic of something or refering to one of the more bizarre Greek myths. Then there was the chocolate, which is all gone now; but I've still got the nice tin box it came in.

No chance of pretending that I wasn't being terribly touristy, I'm afraid. I was not being all superior and pretending I was travelling. I went into the ferry's piano bar and joined in the singing of Billy Joel songs and even requested some Sondheim.

That was Tuesday to Thursday taken care of. What to do about the Royal Wedding? Well, I did a very good job of ignoring it, instead. Went to the park and watched ducks. Ate an icecream.

But the highlight has to have been the Text Festival, which was a remarkable event. First, the exhibition has lots of interesting things in it: and is spread across three sites. Phil Davenport's piece in the Transport Museum was very good, and I loved the way that one had to search there for these text pieces among the horse-drawn trams, buses, lorries and other transport paraphernalia. A wall full of old station signs seemed almost to be a kind of poem in itself; and the small postcards from arthur + martha were very moving in a way that there work with often marginalised people often is, because they use those peoples' actual words.

The first performance in Bury Art Gallery at 11pm was very good; with the highlight being a wonderful mix of sound and text poetry from Helen White & Moniek Darge; Márton Koppány and Marco Giovenale were also very good. Of the pieces in the exhibition, I really liked Tony Lopez's piece; but there were many highlights. Even some of the small works were interesting.

At 4pm we all traipsed into the Parish Church, which was a very strange venue for a reading of avant garde poetry but somehow seemed to work. Phil Minton's Bury Feral Choir was the first act, who filled the hall with some at times very unspiritual sounds, included laughter, what sounded like the chatter of a lot of old women, long o's and um's and all kinds of sounds. Somehow, in that setting, it did seem to sound spiritual, which makes one wonder about the meaning of place in the work. Then Satu Kaikkonen & Karri Kokko from Finland filled the space with the sounds of the Finnish language. Because there was no translation, there was no way of telling if there poems had a meaning, but the sounds and their performances were both beautiful. Finally, we had Ron Silliman. I don't really know his work as much as perhaps I should, but then it's always seemed a rather daunting read. He read an extract from Northern Soul, a poem he started at the last Bury Text Festival; and I rather revised my opinion having heard his voice. His neon piece in the exhibition is not the highlight, and isolated sounds a bit patronising ("Poetry has been bury, bury good to me")
but in the context of the larger piece, which meanders from Bury to America in a very entertaining way, it doesn't seem so.

I shall be back to this blog later to finish off the account of the Festival, but the last event deserves a blog all to itself: the remarkable Ursonate by Kurt Schwitters.

Friday, April 22, 2011

A very tentative 'I believe'

Today is Good Friday - the day when we're told that Jesus died for our sins - and I'm going to go to church. Not because I'm a particularly orthodox kind of believer, or because I'm even that sure if there is a god or not, but because despite all the doubts, I still call myself a Christian.

Now part of the reason for this is a refusal to give up the title to the fundamentalists and dogmatists who insist on telling me I'm going to hell for not believing that God created the world in 6 days in 4004 BC; but some of it has to do with the sense that there is something inexplicable about the universe. And to say that there is something about the figure of Jesus, whether or not he is the 2nd person of the Trinity, that is attractive. His teaching that love of God and love of neighbour are basically one and the same thing in practical terms (that by loving your neighbour, you're loving the God in them) seems to be still axiomatic for me.

And I'm fully aware of the questions, and they don't scare me. They don't scare those whose faith is not dependent on literalist readings of scripture, or ticking the right boxes in the Creed, because we are always aware that any faith formulation is only ever an approximation of what the divine might be like. I've been fortunate enough to meet several people recently whose faith is not limited by the formulations, and they're all actually poets themselves. I think a 'poetic' understanding of religion is the only one to take: the Bible is a book full of poetry and story. There isn't much literal history in it; even the life of Christ is essentially a series of stories, not a literal history.

I still find it difficult to read the Bible, since I rejected my evangelical beginings; but it's actually getting a bit better now. I can read Jonah without thinking about how a man can live inside the belly of a whale; I can read the Gospels without wondering how it's possible for someone to walk on water, because ultimately, that's not the point of those stories. The Biblical writers were not concerned with how miracles happened; in fact, the writer of the Gospel of Mark seems very anxious at times to play down the miraculous stories, in order to get to the nub of the message. I can sometimes read the gospels now without being sidelined by questions of historicity; but I still have some way to go before I get to just reading them as stories.

The questions of spirituality are all around us, I feel. Not, how do I prove the existence of God, because ultimately it's a non-question. God doesn't in anycase 'exist' in the way a computor or a table exists. Some theologians - taking a lead both from ancient mystics and the work of Paul Tillich and Deitrich Bonhoeffer, would say that any god that 'exists' is a kind of idol. God doesn't look down on us from a great height like some ancient middle-eastern satrap, nor does he direct the traffic of life like the Fat Controller from his office in the sky. If God is in any sense real, then he/she is intwined in the fabric of life, immanent, among us, not apart from us. I suspect (let's try out a very tentative, 'I believe' shall we?) that there is no God out there, only the God in each one of us.

And that's why I'm about to go to church: not to celebrate the judgemental God who needs constant appeasement, but to celebrate the God who comes down among us all the time, who lives - if he lives at all - in the secular heart of the world.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Poetry Eating Itself

The last Other Room was a really terrific night - to think that it's already got to three years is quite stupendous. Derek Henderson live-streamed from Utah was one of the highlights, as was seeing the poet and editor Carrie Etter reading from her Shearsman book, Divining for Starters. Ken Edwards was also good, as was Alec Finlay. It was an interesting evening that brought up some issues.

I really liked Derek Henderson's reading, for instance, which was a conceptual piece based around taking out every repeating word or phrase from Ted Berrigan's Sonnets. I enjoyed this because I'm aware of, and have probably been influenced by, that very seminal book; but it also brought up a question. Not the obvious one about 'ownership' of Berrigan's words; but of the very fact that I knew the derivation of these poems; but not everyone who might read Derek Henderson's book would have read the original. So it seems that's it's essentially art talking to art again.

Which is all very well and interesting to those of us who are artists; but does it not seem a rather solipsistic game to those who are not so well-versed in the arts as we are? It is a very enjoyable game to play with other writings in this way; but how much does the reader need to know before he or she can take part in the game?

It's not simply a question of elitism; none of the people I've met are at heart in the least bit elitist. If asked, I'm sure they could all explain in relatively simple terms what they're about. It would be in part a distortion, because about art there is always an unspokenness, a silence around the concept that can't be put into words. But it would be a start.

However, I find myself worrying when poetry just feeds off other poetry in this way. I liked the result of it; and this is not a criticism of Derek Henderson's poems. But if this were all that poetry was, I'd wonder if it hadn't become rather clinical and distant, and maybe a little decadent.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Nicholas Moore.

Just wanted to big up this, from Peter Riley, which is a pdf of 10 npublished poems by Nicholas Moore, a nearly forgotten poet of the '40's who stopped writing in the '50's and didn't start again until the late '60's:

They have something of the linguistic brio of Wallace Stephens, with a very English obsession with the detective story.

What Peter Riley has done to keep the memory of this poet alive is remarkable, and I applaud him for it. The '40's are a neglected era in British poetry, where there was a lot more experimentation and openness to ideas and influence from both America and Europe than the traumatised '50's poets would have us believe. Where Larkin closed up, poets like Nicholas Moore opened up.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Make Perhaps This Out Sense Of Can You

Listening to the Bob Cobbing programme yesterday, I was struck by the question of how people actually find out about experimental writing. One of the advantages of a university education is that there is at least access to a reasonably good library; though they're not always as well-stocked as they should be. So there will be some: maybe some of the big names like Olson, for instance.

But a lot of experimental writing has been in underground, ephemeral, here-today-gone-tomorrow publications that were sold at readings in the back of pubs, and in a few select bookshops. Now those bookshops have mostly gone, there's a lot on the internet; but where do you even begin if you don't have a clue of what you're looking for? Bob Cobbing's Gestetner and all those cheap off-set machines have long gone, but there are still people producing lovely pamphlets to sell at readings.

The situation is so much better for artists, who have galleries, arts networks, colleges; and a kind of tradition of experiment that is very much more public. It's not so much better for experimental music, which again is very much a back-of-the-pub genre (I think of Counting Backwards and The Noise Upstairs in Manchester, for instance.)

Experimental writing is always going to be a minority interest perhaps; and that's not necessarily a bad thing. But I hope I'm not alone in wanting other people for whom it's all a bit strange to know more about it, so that they can have the choice. A constant diet of meat & two veg is not going to kill anyone; but there is so much more on the menu to try. Except you're not going to try what you've never heard of before.

So it's great that the BBC did a programme on Bob Cobbing: whose attitude to experiment was wonderfully refreshing: try and see!

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Questions: Square Pegs

How valuable is it for a poet to have an education in creative writing/poetry/English?

I've somehow managed to go through most of my life without having acquired either an English degree or a degree in Creative Writing. This had something to do with an instinctive feeling that if I studied English I'd somehow not become a writer: fear of the inferiority complex perhaps. Was I right? Does a creative writing degree encourage poets to basically follow a roughly similar course or does it encourage experiment, accidental discoveries, individual paths, in between learning lots of theory, reading set texts and writing essays on semiotics and poetic theory?

It's the thing that worries me about young poets: are they being encouraged to find their own path, or are they being directed into the acceptable path? Could a poet as different as Geraldine Monk or Tom Raworth come out of a creative writing degree? I know some people who have done creative writing degrees and come out the other side as non-mainstream writers: Tom Jencks, Mat Dalby and Tony Trehy to name three; though Tony was probably there already. One doesn't arrange a festival in which the star readers are Ron Silliman and Geoff Huth without some prior knowledge.

I think there's enough of a breadth of poetry to say that the effect of all those creative writing courses hasn't been to make everything monotone, at least. As the Rialto young poets features showed, there's everything from fairly mainstream to non-mainstream: poetry has lots of balls in the air. But I still worry: if a teacher comes across a student who's literary tastes are very different from their own, how do they seek to engage with them? Do they try and fit square pegs into round holes, or do they look for the right shaped hole for that poet? And how do the students themselves feel about it?

My own experience of being a square peg in a round hole at various poetry groups makes me sensitive to this. I was recently described as 'eccentric' by one young performance poet. In terms of international modernism, I'm squarely in the middle of the pack; put me up against Ron Silliman or Bob Cobbing, I'm not even particularly experimental. Only in a nation that thinks Seamus Heaney and Philip Larkin are 'great' poets could I be described as 'eccentric.'

So what is it like to be a young experimental poet? Do you feel like square pegs?

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Edith Sitwell

Here's an Edith Sitwell poem for you:

Heart and Mind

SAID the Lion to the Lioness-'When you are amber dust,-
No more a raging fire like the heat of the Sun
(No liking but all lust)-
Remember still the flowering of the amber blood and bone,
The rippling of bright muscles like a sea,
Remember the rose-prickles of bright paws
Though the fire of that sun the heart and the moon-cold bone are one.'

Said the Skeleton lying upon the sands of Time-
'The great gold planet that is the mourning heat of the Sun
Is greater than all gold, more powerful
Than the tawny body of a Lion that fire consumes
Like all that grows or is the heart

More powerful than all dust. Once I was Hercules
Or Samson, strong as the pillars of the seas:
But the flames of the heart consumed me, and the mind
Is but a foolish wind.'

Said the Sun to the Moon-'When you are but a lonely white crone,
And I, a dead King in my golden armour somewhere in a dark wood,
Remember only this of our hopeless love
That never till Time is done
Will the fire of the heart and the fire of the mind be one.'

I've been remembering recently an early enthusiasm of mine for the extraordinary poet, Edith Sitwell, so I thought I'd share this poem, especially as it's Womens' Week this week, and I think that a lot of early modernist women writers are still not appreciated enough. I like her poems as much for their sounds as their meaning, though often, as in Colonel Fantock, for instance, there are memories and references to her awful upbringing. Even in this poem there is a sense of struggle between the demands of the heart and the demands of the mind. She was brought up to be an aristocratic lady, to be a silent 'support' for some rich man; but she was too clever and strange looking (she looked like a crane, as she herself saw.)

I don't know if she was a great poet, but like other women poets of a modernist bent, she deserves to be remembered. Gertrude Stein, Mina Loy, Lynette Roberts, Lorinne Neidecker and others are all on the 'neglected' list, and they're all worth revisiting.

Sunday, March 06, 2011

Do They Ever Revise?

This interesting question apparently was scribbled on a submission note to the editor of The Rialto, Micheal Mackmin, in response to Nathan Hamilton's selection of around 50 young poets, all under 35, published in the last three issues. It brings up interesting questions about 'finish' in poetry.

In his second editorial for his selection, Mr Hamilton notes that there is a distinction between a poetry of 'product' and a poetry of 'process.' Product oriented poetry emphasises 'the relability of language in emulating or capturing, and then presenting, an external reality.' Process oriented poetry, on the other hand, is concerned with a way 'of speaking about the world that simultaneously presents the difficulties of doing so.'

One can see this in the choice of poems in the two issues: it swings from the juxtapositions, opaque language and verbal play of Keston Sutherland and Marcus Slease to the little slice of socially-engaged remembrance of Tom Warner. This could be described as a struggle between non-mainstream and mainstream; but I think it's more interesting than that over-simplistic binary suggests. Many of the poets in all three selections (the last ten are in the latest issue, 71) are actually better described as existing on a plain somewhere between the two.

But back to 'finish': and the question we started with. Suppose one were to put a landscape from the 18th century and a landscape by Cezanne, say, next to one another. Which one is more 'finished'? The 18th century landscape has an overall, smooth, finish: and the Cezanne looks more rough, more, dare I say it, 'unfinished.' In the earlier painting, the difficulties of seeing have been smoothed over beneath layer after layer of paint, until we get to something that looks like a landscape. Sure, it's constructed: that landscape, should you find it, wouldn't look exactly like how it does in the picture. But we 'know' what it's about; it's recognisably part of the world we live in.

The Cezanne, however, is more fragmented, more unfamiliar; we can recognise it's a landscape, but he's also incorporated an awareness of the difficulties of seeing that landscape. It looks incomplete, because we are being asked to complete the picture, to see it as if for the first time, in a new way.

That, I think, is something to do with the difference between 'product' and 'process' in contemporary poetry. Poems of 'process' may go through as many drafts as the average mainstream poem; but they don't serve to make the poem 'clearer', or to 'finish' the poem; they aim instead to emphasise that difficulty of seeing. Cezanne led on to Cubism, an even more disorienting way of seeing the world. To me, that's the way of the world: it's in constant flux, it's never finished, it never completes itself. It just carries on changing, moment by moment, and we, and our ways of seeing, are part of that flux.

I have to confess that I have enjoyed this series, and I congratulate the editor of The Rialto for his courage in encouraging this. What is also encouraging is that there are so many young poets who are engaged in these new ways of writing; not always at the far edge of it, but sometimes, as in the poems of Luke Kennard and Helen Phillipson (and the strange not-quite-hanging-togetherness of Emily Berry's poem in this issue) in the middle of this. They are, I think, less concerned with the old dividing line of mainstream vs. non-mainstream. And that, to my mind, is a good thing.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Wild Poetry

It's not, I've discovered, the simple difficulty of non-mainstream poetry that I like.

I've been viewing the recently uploaded Veer About anthology at - which is a wild and willfull collection of poet, visual poetry, art mixed with poetry and often very strange word-play, language poetry, straightforward modernism mixed in with all kind of avant-/post-avant poetry techniques, and while I've only just scratched the surface of what it does yet, I find myself drawn further and further in.

I probably won't end up liking everything. David Crystal's visual 'sonnets', which consist of brush strokes with a Chinese brush and ink? Hmm, maybe not... But then maybe... why not? There's material that probably will go above and to either side of my head, and not really make much purchase. Fair enough; but it's the wildness I like; the idea that has been planted somehow in these poets' heads: anything is possible. Anything probably isn't possible; but why not see if it is? There's a cover by Jennifer Pike Cobbing, wife of the late Bob: and remembering that lion of avant-gardism and what he considered to be poetry, I can see again how throughout the history of British poetry, since the '60's, there has been a wildness.

In fact, not just the '60's. One can see it in the early poems of Roy Fisher, Gael Turnbull, in Basil Bunting. It's a more confined wildness; but in that it didn't see the personal lyric as the soul voice of poetry, it was the beginning of poetry escaping its cages. One can see it too in the heteronymic profusion of Nicholas Moore, in the neo-romantics still not fully recovered. In the peculiar music of Lynnette Robert's Gods With Stainles Ears, or Joseph McCleod's The Ecliptic. One could go further back, to Blake and beyond...

In fact, one of the pervading influences must be that of Gertrude Stein, whose idea of writing as a form of sculpture and language as a non-referential medium affects a lot of the experimental writing going on at the moment. That, and the experiments of the dadaists, futurists and others from the early part of the 20th century. Here, language becomes not just about meaning, but about shape, sound, place on the page. It becomes sculptural and gestural, a form of abstract dance, and one makes one's way through it feeling confused, disoriented, and constantly in a state of anticipation. Which can get wearing in bulk. Sometimes, one longs for a straightforward statement.

But, even if I don't like all of this, I like the fact that it's possible. I like the fact that tennis players with words are doing without nets.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Modern Canadian Poets ed. Evan Jones & Todd Swift (Carcanet £18.95)

Anthologies of a nation's poetry are tricky beasts. Are they truely representative of that  nation's poetry, or do they just represent the editors' idea of that nation's poetry? A British anthology without Larkin would generally be regarded as unthinkable; but should that anthology also include Bob Cobbing, or JH Prynne? Is an anthology without those names reflecting what is really going on across the whole spectrum of British poetry?

I ask these questions at the start of a review of a major new British anthology of Canadian poetry because this is really the only view of Canadian poetry most readers are going to get, unless you have a special interest in Canadian poetry. And I have to say, right at the start, that what it does include is largely worth reading, often excellant and it was good to get acquainted with many writers I'd never heard of before. Margaret Avison's spare lyricism, John Thompson's ghazals, Anne Herbert's softly surreal meditations - I'm glad to have made their acquaintance.

But when I began to read these poems, and do some research around the whole field of Canadian poetry, several absences began to seem odd. There are several poets like Norm Sibum or Kociejowski who are immigrants from the United States or Europe; and there are several emigrants such as the feisty'40's lyricists Joan Murray, both of whom I enjoyed. But no Robin Blaser, who postumously won the Griffin Prize with his Collected Poems just a few years ago. And no Earle Birney, author of the acclaimed Bear On The Delhi Road. The more experimental poets such as Bp Nichol and bill bisset are also absent, as are senior figures such as Erin Moure and George Bowering. Steve McCaffery, leading light of the Language movement, is also not there.

I'm glad to have met the poetry of John Glassco and his translations of Garneau. particularly The Game: with its glorious first line: Don't bother me I'm terribly busy... Anne Carson's poetry sparkles as always. The rural voice is well-represented, and many of the poets seem to display a metaphysical bent that I very much warm to. Anne Crompton is one such, as is Anne Wilkinson:

Little Men Slip into Death

Little men slip into death
As the diver slides into water
With only a ripple
To tell where he's hidden.

Big muscles struggle harder in the grave.
The earth is slow to settle on their bone,
Erupting into mounds or sprouting flowers
Or giving birth to stones.

And how to stand a tombstone
With the ground not quiet yet,
And what to say, what not to say
When moss is rooted and the stone is set?
Very traditional, formal but beautiful. And there does seem to be a bias towards formalism in this anthology, which makes me wonder if it's really like all those anhologies of British poetry that have neglected our own native experimental writers. So is this mostly then an anthology of 'mainstream' poetry, as opposed to 'experimental'? It does include the poetry of Lisa Robertson, and many of the poets do show a distinctly modernist bent; but there's also a tidiness about the poetry that maybe reveals a distate with extremes.

I enjoyed this anthology, despite my misgivings about its exclusions. I like the fact that it includes some translations of French Canadian poetry. It made me think of what anthologies are for, why people put them together. That in itself is a mighty fine thing to do.

Friday, February 04, 2011

The Other Room & Counting Backwards

An oral feast over the last two days.

Firstly, Posie Rider, Joe Walton/Jow Lindsey and Stephen Emmerson in the Old Abbey Inn. In many ways, as good as usual. I really liked the 'conversation' between Posie Rider and Jow Lindsey, that was in turn, apaocalyptic, funny, associative, tender and edgy. Jow Lindsey started off by speaking in a very unconvincintg woman's voice; and there was a sly smile on his face throughout the proceedings. I liked it very much, and purchased a copy of The Woman by another Joe Waltong heteronym, Yolanda Tudor-Bloch, in the break.

Stephen Emmerson came into his reading like an express train, read a short poem that he pretended was by Simon Armitage, then a very long extract from a very long piece that seemed to be partly about schizpphrenia. I have to admit there were times when he was reading when - like Coleman Hawkins once said to John Coltrane - I wanted him to "take the fucking horn out of his mouth..." There were lots of associative leaps, uses of technical/medical language, and he very rarely slowed down long enough to take a breath. Or for the audience to take a breath. But when he did slow down, there were moments of extraordinary beauty. He writes a very edgy, energetic poetry; and I did enjoy it, but afterwards I felt like going to a darkened room and putting John Cage's 4'31" on repeat.

Counting Backwards was a revelation. I sometimes miss this because it comes straight after The Other Room and I don't feel like going out two nights in a row; but I'm glad I went last night. First, there was the conceptual/minimalist poetry of James Davies, reading using a projector from his acronyms series and from a piece called Two Fat Boys. I'm not always a big fan of minimalist poetry; but this was really rather good, especially the second part which was in turns funny and disturbing. There was a final poem of visuals: boxes with dots strategically placed in some of them and phrases. Throughout, James sat in an armchair directing the whole thing.

Then Helen Shanahan painted onto the back of the sheet on which James had projected his acronyms; there was a film of what looked like Dungeness showing and she described a set of photos which we couldn't see. The piece seemed to be about memory as much as anything, and the emotional connections we make to images. It was rather lovely.

The second half was extraordinary: the first performance of Juxtavoices, led by Martin Archer. They were a largely amatuer choir that included Alan Halsey and Geraldine Monk, and the most standout piece was probably Three Iterations of a Poem by Samuel Beckett. But the blend of voices, the use of clicks, whistles, harmony and disharmony was extraordinary in all the pieces.

The Phil Davenport read just one piece: partly about and around the death of Micheal Jackson, but also taking in the torture at Abu Ghraib. He read quietly and simply into a microphone, with no special effects, and was very effective.

There's something very wonderful going on at the moment, when these extraordinary events can take place in one city. We have, I suppose, a fairly small community; but it's busy. Pretty soon, there's going to be a Writers' Forum North, which will hopefully help to cement the scene together. I'm looking forward to the future of poetry beyond the mainstream in Manchester.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Tuesday, January 04, 2011

John Calvert: Some Poems

Occassionally, I'd like to be able to publish a few poems by friends. Here are some from fellow member of the Accrington diaspora exiled to Manchester by the lack of anything worth staying there for, John Calvert:


Outside the penalty area
Trains went in and out
Embankment trees weren't letting on
Afternoon and all to play for
We lay on neglected turf
Studied hand and mouth co-ordination
Blurring to bramble and poppy
The city rolled back
July pressed the sky flat
My fingers eased into extra time
Your eyes drowsing toward blue
Through the grass the faint chanting
Point, and shoot and score


Poke anywhere Rome superceded
Your spade soon taps into red
Iceni in the layer cake
Trace of icons kicked into touch
An emperor's features. hacked-off
Spun to cesspit
Temples run to ash and blood
Precincts squared in fire
Soil gagging screams
Vanishing queen goes civic
Burns hatred into marl

(To the memory of Frances Bellerby)

Now at the core of night
The vixens howl over the nerve ends

Like nothing on earth
Mouthing your freezing fear

Far away the world drags
Across the ice of space

The broken blackness carrying time. Again
Your pulse beat tracing the warm

The stars will wait forever
The years are staring

You are being called
How will you answer?