Sunday, December 30, 2012

What I Dislike About Damian Hirst

On the bus coming back home from Accrington today, I was thinking about what it is I don't like about the work of Damian Hirst. I have nothing against the Young British Artists so-called as such, but I just do not like his with a kind of passion. So what is it I don't like?

It's something to do, I think, with what I perceive to be a lack of heart. His lack of competency at painting, recently revealed in a couple of exhibitions, is neither here nor there. Neither is the fact that he gets his assistants to do a lot of the work; the same has been true of a lot of major painters and sculptors from the medieval age down to the present. Neither is it to do with his subject matter; often to do with death and decay, and the contemporary obsession with surface, with product and the quotidian. There is a tastelessness to his work: that diamond-encrusted skull for instance, that could be right up my punk street, if it wasn't for that lack of heart.

Art - whether it's painting, music or poetry - has to in some sense come from the heart: a lot of us accept that as a kind of truth, but it's very difficult if not impossible to define what we mean by that. This isn't just to do with 'feeling' or it just turns to sentiment and mush. nor is just the intellectual play of ideas, though that is good too. The word 'truth' keeps trying to creep in here; but it's less to do with putting across a, or The Truth. One need not have a message particularly; most of us spend most of our lives in a perpetual state of uncertainty about what's true or isn't true about the world. Out of that uncertainty, however, comes the sense of exploration, of search, that we find in some of the best art produced since the Renaissance.

You don't have to be any kind of believer, either in politics or religion, to be an artist. Hirst's art, however, seems to me to have neither a conviction nor a sense of search about it; just a cynical exploitation of the art market. His works are often essentially 'memento mori's' without any sense of angst. All life ends in death, we're all essentially meat, and nothing means anything. All these views are potentially very profound, leading either to angst or a calm acceptance of the inevitable. In Hirst's world, however, they become truisms, just another thing to sell in the art supermarket. A diamond encrusted skull, a dead shark in a tank, are nothing but product.

Which could be a comment on late capitalism, which knows the price of everything and the value of nothing; except I have the feeling that he doesn't care about that. He's making no critique, nor is he making us think. He's got more in common with the kind of art you find in commercial galleries on the high street: paintings to put in that place on the wall of your living room, that goes with the furniture, not art that disturbs or intrigues. It has more in common with Jack Vettriano than Picasso. Like Vettriano, his art is sentimental and shallow and overpriced.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Boxing Day Thoughts

So what have I learned this year? It's been a year of ups and downs. The biggest down of course was that my mother died. Even thought it was really expected from the beginning of the year. The euphemism "after a long illness" hides the truth of th long slow decline of dementia; by the end, my mother was barely existing, and I have sometimes the strangest feeling that in her last fortnight, she was allowing herself to go. When the doctor placed her on a care pathway, she took just a few hours to die.

When I was doing Christmas shopping I would see the odd thing that made me think, "Mum would like that." A collection of the Bee Gees, for instance. She'd have loved that.

Writing wise, happier times I think. I'm continually glad to have found the company and acceptance of the more experimental writing community. I know it sometimes annoys people of a more mainstream persuasion, that I sometimes make comments that reflect the old binary oppositions. I know also that my own writing is probably nowhere near the farthest edge of the experimental. I use techniques that are perhaps already a hundred years old; but I continue to feel more at home among the more exploratory writing community than with those who want to emulate Simon Armitage or the latest Faber poet.

The Other Room, and Writers Forum (North) have been hugely important for my development as a writer, because they give me ideas, they are relatively unjudgemental and they have helped to increase my awareness of neo-modernist writing by leaps and bounds. It was a real thrill to be part of the ensemble performance of Bob Cobbing's ABC in Sound, for instance. Bob Cobbing will never be flavour of the month; he's far too extreme for most people, and I can understand why. It just doesn't look like proper poetry does it?

But I'm also glad that I became part of North West Poets, and the forthcoming anthology is going to be fantastic. There's an incredibly mixed bunch of writers involved in it; which is really how it should be. I'm tired of homogeneity; I want variety. I don't mind if someone has written a sonnet on one page, and someone else is tearing up the rule book on another. Confusion isn't always a bad thing; and not understanding completely leads forward if you let it. Unfamiliarity is a spur to discovery; either that or it sends you back under the covers. Difficulty doesn't patronise the reader.

So I'm going out of this year thinking, what's next? I don't know and I love not knowing.

Friday, December 21, 2012

Some Post-Apocalyptic Thoughts

Well, I am disappointed - the Mayan end of the world hasn't happened after all. I was looking forward to the Rapture, or to being taken up in a UFO by the Interstellar Rescue Squad from Sirius or some such place. Maybe it's late. And maybe the company of a bunch of obsessive bibliolatrists or UFO obsessives would make me want to jump out of the rescue vehicle and join the burning masses anyway, so it's perhaps a good thing I'm not one of the chosen.

Anyroad up, as they say in deepest Lancashire, if it's not going to happen, it's not going to happen. I thought I'd bother you all with my thoughts about poetry and what I think is happening.

Over the last few years, I've observed a kind of opening out of the poetry world. This is no bad thing, though it's at least partly to do with the fact that there's now so much of it about. The proliferation of poetry on the whole I take to be a good thing; though it does mean that there is going to be an awful lot more poetry that I and indeed anyone else will never have time to read, or poetry names that I mean to follow up and never quite get round to reading. If you're among that number, I do apologise. But I thought I'd talk of a couple of my discoveries this year.

This year, I discovered the amazing poetry of Andrew Crozier. I guess he would be classified as belonging to "the Cambridge School", a loose association of poets who were captivated by the anthology, The New American Poetry, published in !960; and by the slightly earlier Objectivist poets such as George Oppen, Louis Zukovsky and Lorrinne Neidecker. They tried - with varying degrees of success - to find a British route through this poetic movement. This way of writing produced - for me - some of the best writing of the last 50 years - from Lee Harwood to John James, to Peter Riley, to J H Prynne - and of course, Andrew Crozier. But this stream of British poetry has often seemed hidden and been dismissed as 'difficult', 'obscure'
but the vast majority of the poets of this stream (actually, it's more like a full blown river) are nothing of the sort. They just don't look like the left-justified, neatly-boxed poetry of the officially-sanctioned schools of English poetry, best represented by the so-called English line poets, from Edward Thomas through to Andrew Motion.

Motion (along with Blake Morrison) infamously said that 'nothing much was happening in poetry' in the '60's  and '70's - which is ironic if you actually look at the evidence. There was so much going on, it almost bears comparison with now, when there are so many young poets, it sometimes feels like a glut. I worry about these young poets, that in all the courses in creative writing that there are now, they're still not being given access to the full range of English poetry. I hear rumours of poetry teachers telling their students to avoid the poetry scene in the cities where they study, and I hope that isn't true. I worry that teachers only teach a narrow range of poetry - whether that is only Carol Anne Duffy and friends or only Sean Bonney and friends is immaterial.

Poetry - as Stephen Burt recently said - is a continent. It's not a single stream that you stray from at your peril. I love that image: it avoids that whole idea that there is a 'correct' way of doing things. At the edges are probably the experimental poets, the neo-modernists, the visual poets, and a lot of people who live in the middle. Personally, I'm a fan of the edges; other people prefer living in the middle. That's OK; but I hope we can get over the continual war between the middle and the edge.

I also discovered the work of Tim Allen, a poet I mistakenly called a Language poet, a movement which is really confined to America. His poems have a swing about them, and a real understanding of the riotousness of language. His single-book poem The Voice Thrower was one of my favourite reads of this year. I recommend it to everyone; but it takes a little while to get into its method. You have to read it without unduly looking for those logical narratives that you might find in Simon Armitage, say. That's the thing with negative capability, though: it's actually something you have to learn how to do in order to be able to read a lot of the more experimental, neo-modernist poetry. You have to switch off the need to be 'told' something, to have an 'epiphany', and you have to learn to go with the flow. It is, in fact, often based around autobiography (though obviously not just that): but when you learn to go with the flow, you pick things up as you go, rather than have them thrust upon you by the wise poet.

I could go on; but I'll leave it for now. More later (apocalypse permitting.)

Monday, December 10, 2012

Paper Patterns by Angela Topping (Lapwing £10)

This is a very enjoyable collection of largely mainstream poetry by a very skilled poet who writes about family, personal recollection and love in closely-woven verses that repay reading. Angela will hate my use of the word 'mainstream' of course; but in that these are largely straightforward, plain-dictioned and linear narratives, that's precisely where they are. Names like Edward Thomas and Thomas Hardy come to mind: that English line that is only part, but still an important part, of the map of English poetry.

That said, they are often deeply felt and the sequence dedicated to Matt Simpson in particularly gives the whole collection an elegaic feel that is often very moving. This extends to poems such as The Gypsy Camp, which reveals an empathy for the underdog and the oppressed traditions of English life:

One autumn day the bailiffs called. We fought
to stay. Then 'dozers came, my mum was bashed
and all our pitches wrecked, our friends forced off.
I doubt I'll ever see my girl again.

One of my favourite poems in the book is Sparrow, revealing a real ability to celebrate the ordinary, without trying to imbue it with over-symbolic significance. Its close observation ('a chirrup like a giggle fastened/ in its throat like a comedy brooch') shows what is important to Angela Topping: the beauty of simplicity, the simplicity of beauty; the life everybody lives being celebrated for what it is. She writes too about lemons, cauliflowers, jam; and about loving Doctor Who (John Pertwee's version  at least).

There's so much more to be said about this poet. Her sequence The Lightfoot Letters continue a theme from her first book: the life of her father, this time through a series of letters that came to light recently. One gets the feeling of a hurt that's never quite gone away, and from an early poem about her father's violin, to a poem here about her father skating, it still produces some very moving poems about a working-class family trying to survive in a previous 'age of austerity.'

The collection as a whole feels ever so slightly too long. A poem about The Shawshank Redemption doesn't really add much to the experience of the film, and there are a couple of don't quite work for me, including the first poem in the book. But I've not known many collections that haven't included makewheights; and there aren't that many here.

With that very slight quibble (and it is slight), I'd recommend this collection to anyone who likes good plain food, properly cooked and properly filling.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Pussy Riot Event: Thomas Restaurant, Manchester, 20th November

Last night, a collection of some of Manchester's finest poets gathered in the upper room of the Thomas St restaurant to protest against the completely over-the-top convictions of the Pussy Riot protesters in Russia, now languishing in Putin's gulag for the 'crime' of being critical of the state in a public place. The poets included Richard Barret, reading from Ariana Reine's Mercury; Lianne Bridgewater performing an elegy for an animal rights activist over a backing of avant-garde noise that was quite painful to listen to, but somehow entirely appropriate, Anna Percy's feminist performance poems that skirt the edge of stridency by hiding an unexpectedly lyrical heart, David Keyworth's poems with a Russian theme, and a host of other delights.

It's questionable, of course, whether such an event can achieve anything directly, beyond giving some comfort to the Pussy Riot girls that they are not forgotten, nine months on from the original 'offence.' Except that it adds to the record of dissent: that the powers-that-be are not going to silence those that want to stand up and protest against the status quo. Last night, there were issues aired that went beyond the particular incident that we were meeting for: especially with regard to the treatment of women in Anna Percy and Stef Pike's poetry; but also, in John Calvert's poem from the book Catechism, 'They Spruce Themselves Up', the wider issues of top-down political and economic power. This was also addressed in Gareth Twose's Top Ten Tyres.

I actually think that the girls' protest, in the power centre of the Russian Orthodox Church, was as profound a spiritual act as Jesus' cleansing of the Temple in Jerusalem, something which ultimately led to his execution. The association of the church with the powerful has had a terribly destructive and corrosive effect on Christianity over the centuries, such that its original message of reconciliation and love has got buried under a pile of guano known as 'orthodox theology.' So, in the end, I think they were right to do what they did, and were not guilty of 'hatred of religion'. Instead, they were guilty of 'love of the oppressed, the poor and the so-called sinners' that the church rejects in its bid for power and influence.

But - rant/sermon over - back to the event. What I really liked about the event was its variety. - from Susan Birchenough's hastily-written but rather beautiful pieces about climate change, to a delicate love-song; from experimental to performance, to mainstream, to Judy Kendal's lovely bird-poems (especially the one about the chaffinch with its gorgeous use of word-sounds.)

I hope Tim Atkins doesn't mind, but I ended with his wonderful, angry version of Tsvtayeava's 'I Love The Rich' - a poem full of viscious irony even in the rather more sedate Elaine Feinstein version. It led to the possibility of poets who want to speak about politics getting together in the future, and hopefully we'll find a way to be more engaged in future, and poets and artists across Manchester will be less timid about being political.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Some Thoughts Around The Red Wheelbarrow

I recently posted a couple of 'experimental' poems on One was William Carlos Williams' The Red Wheelbarrow. Some positive comments, but some negative ones too.

1) Some people seem terribly suspicious that people are being fooled by these types of poems. They, however, are 'immune' from this, because they've guarded their imaginations against this somehow. What they can't seem to realise is that some people actually enjoy that kind of stuff and seem to be of the opinion that their taste is the only legitimate taste. The emperor may have no clothes, but maybe he really wanted to be a naturist...

2) Poetry for some seems to exist withing very carefully defined barriers, and what's outside 'isn't poetry'. Others have much more fluid boundaries, and others still seem to almost have no boundaries. It seems important to some to have these boundaries, but to others it's not as important.

3) Ideas of authority - who gets to define what poetry is/isn't - seem to bother some people a lot. There are questions of tradition around this too: as if Western white male poetic tradition were the only 'legitimate' tradition, and, say, Chinese womens' poetry, or African praise song, or haiku, say, were not really poetry.

4) How to define 'good' and 'bad' poetry seems to bother some people. What is bad poetry when any form is allowed, a poem can be visual or sound-based and still be a poem? For me, bad poetry is whatever sets my teeth on edge.

5) The question of meaning is another difficult area. A poem that doesn't have much meaning, or in which there is real difficulty working out what it does mean, seems to bother some people. Though in fact these problems are opposites, they both seem to be bothersome. If it's either too simple (like The Red Wheelbarrow) or too difficult (JH Prynne perhaps) it's somehow keeping out its audience.

6) It seems to bother some that some poetry is not going to be enjoyed by everybody, or a lot of people. Accusations of 'elitism' come up; as if somehow you're only supposed to like what everybody else likes. But most of us who like experimental poetry probably like it much the same way that we might like Thai food; because we like it. Because it gives us good feelings or experiences. Or we might prefer Captain Beefheart to Kylie Minogue because we just prefer that kind of music. Insert your own likes/dislikes.

Monday, August 27, 2012

Wot No Philip Larkin?

After so long away, what else can I do but give you a list of all the British modernist poets you really should read before you die? (Note: it doesn't include Seamus Heaney or Simon Armitage.) In my ever so humble opinion, of course...

Lee Harwood,
Denise Riley,
Geraldine Monk,
Tony Lopez,
Carol Watts,
Maggie O'Sullivan,
Roy Fisher,
Allen Fisher,
Tom Raworth,
Robert Shepherd,
Frances Presley,
Gael Turnbull,
Edwin Morgan,
Harry Guest,
Kelvin Corcoran,
Nicholas Moore,
Douglas Oliver,
Lynette Roberts,
Mina Loy,
Barry MacSweeney,
Hamish Henderson,
Peter Riley,
John Riley,
David Jones,
Douglas Oliver,
Elaine Randel,
Wendy Mulford,
Dylan Thomas,
Peter Finch,
Christopher Middleton,
Ken Edwards,
Andrew Crozier,
Veronica Forrest-Thompson

and I can't think of any more for the time being. But that's just the basics, and only includes the ones I've personally got to grips with. So no JH Prynne (apart from Kitchen Poems and a few others.) I will continue to edit this list and increase it when my memory gets better...

I haven't included a lot of the younger poets and there's obviously names missing that ought to be there; but if you're going to pretend to be any kind of expert on British poetry and haven't read at 10 of these poets, then who are you kidding? Get to a library immediately.

Monday, July 16, 2012

'Exclusive?' Or just a safe space?

I went to Writers' Forum (New Series) in London on Saturday. A really good event, even if extremely male dominated (there were no women readers.) People read from their work, not in any order, but sort of 'as the spirit moved them' - rather in the manner of a Quaker Meeting, which apparently the founder and eminence grise of the original series was when he set it up way back in the late '50's, early '60's.

It was great to hear so much new avant garde poetry, in the lovely atmosphere of the Fox pub not far from Old Street. Next time I go, I'd love to visit Bunhill Fields, Blake's old stomping ground, which is five minutes away.

On the way back, Gareth Twose and I talked about a problem we have with our own small version of Writers' Forum in Manchester. We have someone coming along who is not in the least bit avant garde, in fact is more in the manner of Pam Ayres than anything else. Nothing wrong with that, of course,  but it isn't avant garde. He said we shouldn't declare ourselves as avant garde because it might 'exclude people'.

Well, we've decided against this: we're going to, in all publicity, make sure that this is known as an avant garde space. For two reasons: one, to enable those who are interested in avant garde and experimental poetry to come to a space where they can present their work in a supportive atmosphere; and two, to exclude those who have no sympathy with the kind of writing we're interested in doing.

Which sounds terribly elitist, doesn't it? The problem is that there are precious few places where avant garde and experimental writing can find a supportive space, one where you're not immediately derided for producing something that doesn't fit into either the mainstream bracket or the performance bracket. Or not derided, but patronised, or looked at with general incomprehension. I don't think any of us set out to be 'difficult'; but the number of times I've heard work that I value and love dismissed as 'emperor's new clothes' or 'just chucking words on a page' is legion, I'm afraid.

Having tried to fit into many poetry groups over the years, where everyone was talking about Simon Armitage while I was reading Ashbery and other Americans, I know how it feels to feel excluded. Not that anyone is trying to exclude you; but the baffled looks when you mention some of the greatest English poets currently writing kind of get to you after awhile. I make no apologies anymore when I say that Lee Harwood, Tom Raworth, Geraldine Monk and Maggie O'Sullivan have written greater poems than anything that Heaney, Duffy, Larkin or Armitage could ever manage.

I don't think that the avant garde should lock themselves into their nice safe spaces and never engage with the rest of the world. Of course they should. But they should also be able to talk to one another and exchange ideas without always having to explain themselves, and that's why Writers' Forum (North) is a space for experimentation and avant garde explorations. If you have an interest in that, in any form and however you define those terms, do come along to the workshops. They are open to all; though perhaps they are not for all.

Monday, June 04, 2012

Review: Lung Jazz, Young British Poets for Oxfam

There's been a blizzard of books and features about 'young poets' over the past few years. There's a new generation of poets that are, apparently, blowing new breezes through the poetry world at the moment. 'Lung Jazz' joins two Bloodaxe anthologies, The Salt Book of Younger Poets, a Penned In The Margins Book, and a feature in Rialto magazine in attempting a generational survey of the poetry 'scene'.

Its task is made a bit more difficult by only assigning one poem per poet; and it's harder to assess a poet's possible contribution to the new generation from one poem rather than from a selection. Todd Swift would have us believe, rightly bigging up his own choice, that these will be the poets to read in the future. Well, some of them will be some of the poets to read in the future: inevitably, there are so many young poets around these days, that no one anthology can contain all of them.

Already, there are some names that could be said to be ubiquitous. Luke Kennard, Chris McCabe, Amy De'Ath, Joe Dunthorne and Ahren Warner are all here; though Sophie Robinson is missing. Emily Berry is here too, and other newly-familiar names, all with good poems. In fact, this anthology has a lot of good poems; though there are a few indifferent ones, there's nothing really bad. Perhaps a reflection of the creative writing boom: there are a lot of young poets now writing 'good poems'.

All well and good; but what's missing from this anthology is also significant. There are a lot of poems here in which all the feelings and ideas have been packaged into neat and tidy little boxes, complete in themselves and often perfectly livable in. "Little boxes, little boxes, and they all look just the same." Even the ostensibly more experimental poets here, like Emily Critchley and Amy De'Ath, look rather too tidy here. Partly the nature of the beast: one poem per person tends to favour the individual poem against the sequence, or the fragment.

But there is precious little political poetry here: though it does exist, as anyone who's experienced the work of Stuart Calton and Sean Bonney can testify. The collectives around Oppened and The Other Room, and other experimental reading series, are scarcely represented. Of course, they may well have felt that it wasn't for them, or have ideological reasons for not participating (as they often do...)

OK, no one anthology can represent everything, and it probably represents the rather more mainstream to hybrid tastes of the editors. But you can't really be representative of young British poets without them, however good your selection is.

There are significant inclusions however: and this includes prose poetry. The rise of the prose poem in the last decade is one of the more interesting developments in modern British poetry, and there are about a dozen in this selection. Phil Brown's Health & Safety and Siddartha Bose's The Muckworm are my two personal favourites; but the others are great too. They perhaps make the book less tidy than it otherwise would be.

Which brings me to the introduction, a little. The poems are described as 'original, formally skillful and, in some way, thrilling.' Which is about right for most of them; but I think, worryingly, gets its priorities slightly wrong. 'Formally skillful,' in particular, suggests there is a particular skillset that a poet has to 'master' before becoming a 'good poet'. Formal skill is important; but it doesn't in itself make for a thrilling poem.

One further comment. I find it odd that no-one in this anthology seems to be acknowledging the Internet for its formal possibilities. Many of these poets are on Facebook, Twitter and are no doubt familiar with Google and other forms abound on the net. Helen Mort's marvelously disturbing Thinspiration Shots is the only poem which gets its subject matter directly from the Internet, but how about the poem as status updates, twitter feeds etc...? There are poets using flarf, for instance, as inspiration; but you wouldn't guess it from this anthology.

All of which is not to gainsay the poetry in this book. Which on the whole is very good. Despite some reservations, I'd recommend everyone buying a copy of this book from your local Oxfam. Partly because that way, all the money goes to Oxfam; but also because it does give a very good idea of a lot of what is going on in the poetry world. Just not everything.

And there's some great poems in it too.

Friday, April 27, 2012

Vain Attempt to map British poetry

Yesterday, I attempted to put down in a map all the different influences/tendencies/movements I'd heard of in British poetry over the last 60 or so years, and came up with this list (in no particular order):

Formalist, fractured narrative, eco-poetry, comic, New York, Lang-Po, linguistically innovative, vispo, concrete, narrative, sound, Movement & Post-movement, the Group, post-modernist, performative, conceptual, issue-based (gay, feminist, black, political), modernist & late modernist, British Poetry Revival, New Gen, nationalist/regional (Scotish, Welsh, North-South etc), free verse, confessional, nature mysticism, metaphysical religious/spiritual, collage, prose poetry, conventional lyric, neo-dada/surrealist, oulipo, urban pastoral, pastoral, radical landscape, landscape, flarf, Cambridge school, avant garde, performance, London school, black mountain/objectivist, Facebook poets, devotional, amateur, card verse.

I've probably missed lots of movements and tendencies, and conflated some together (as in issues-based and regional), and I'd appreciate any additions to the list. I wrote this on a landscape piece of paper, and scattered them across the page. These would be the towns and villages of the map, and different poets would make their own routes through them. My own route would start at devotional (I was a born again Christian trying to convert "the lost") and end up somewhere in the linguistically innovative, via conventional lyric, New Gen and urban pastoral.

Why is it important to do this? Well, I think if you're going to assess a visual poet, you can assess him or her by the same values as you assess a post-Movement poet. They're not going to share very many values in common. Yet they would still both call themselves poets. It's also why there's really no such thing as 'just poetry'.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Some Comments On Bad Poetry

Someone said on Facebook recently that "bad poetry is barely poetry."

I wonder what this means.

All poets worth their salt probably write more bad poetry than good poetry. What is really bad stays in notebooks, or gets thrown in the bin, or doesn't survive. But is it still poetry? I confess I don't really know...

But sometimes the definition of 'bad poetry' is more like 'the kind of stuff that I don't connect with'. A poem, say, at the extreme end of experimentalism such as Aram Saroyan's


(that's the whole poem, by the way, not just the title.) How is that a poem? is the question that gets asked, frequently, at great length sometimes.

Yet for others, that definitely is a poem. They also speak at great length about what it means: they talk of the 'flicker' of the word like a lightbulb flickering. The one side thinks the other is mad, or a con, or taking the piss.

'Taking the piss' might of course be a perfectly legitimate reason for writing a poem, good or bad.

Then there is the other end of the "is it really poetry?" debate, where the Patience Strong and the Purple Ronnie poems sit. Are they really poems, or just (contemptuous sneer at the ready) "verse"?

What I think is bad, what you think is bad, are probably two different things. But it's too easy to dismiss something I don't like as "not really poetry." It makes me feel good to dismiss whole swathes of writing into the outer darkness. But if poetry is a field (rhizometric), rather than a single line, then I don't think we can easily dismiss as "barely poetry" whatever section of the poetry world we don't happen to connect with.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Some Gentle Thoughts on Gentility: A Quiet Word

There was an interesting review in the London Review of Books recently about the exhibition, Picasso in England, at Tate Britain. this exhibition pits Picasso against his English imitators, which include Wyndham Lewis, Henry Moore, Ben Nicholson, Graham Sutherland and others. It's obvious who comes off the best: there are few painters of the 20th Century who come anywhere close to Picasso; but when I went to see it, I didn't think the English painters did all that badly.

The reviewer of the LRB, however, went for the usual argument that the trouble with the English was their gentility. Picasso took risks and was revolutionary and did things that no-one else would dare; while the British 'prettied things up' and made a much more modest modernism that was more acceptable to the patrons and buyers in Britain. Britain as usual is portrayed as being suspicious of Modernism, hanging back and trying to incorporate a more 'traditional' approach.

Well, yes, there is some force in this argument; but it's also somewhat unfair to suppose that British artists were always hampered by their 'gentility'. Ben Nicholson, for instance, was not just influenced by Picasso, but  by the neo-plasticism of Mondrian, the 'folk art' of an old sea-dog and other things. His pictures have a quiet grace about them that insinuates itself into your head. Graham Sutherland's tortured landscapes are not conventionally pretty, and seem as influenced by his Catholicism as by Picasso.

We English people have a habit of doing ourselves down. Self-deprecating humour was probably invented by an Englishman. We also like to think of ourselves as somewhat apart from what is going on elsewhere. Sometimes, our modernist instincts are quieter, less noisy than, say, Cubism or Dada; despite its desperate attempts to be radical, Vorticism seems like a late guest to the party, who's only dressing up in radical chic.

Sometimes European and American modernism can seem a bit shouty: look at how radical I'm being!!! Sometimes we need to shout more, and not be so gentle.

With poetry, I find myself loving the quietness of a poet like Lee Harwood; whereas I've only ever been able to admire Charles Olson's more insistently radical poetry. Again, with Roy Fisher, I find a quietly insistent voice, not an inyerface shouty man on a soapbox, which is how Olson sometimes comes across.

Gentility definitely has its bad side: too many mainstream poems read like 'polite literature', not really saying very much. Not that you could accuse Larkin of gentility; but many of his followers seem like they'd never frighten anyone's horses. Edward Thomas is the very model of a modest voice; which is all very well, and no-one can deny he was a good poet. Not, I think, a great one though; because, like so many mainstream poets, he was afraid to take risks. He rejected Pound because he was too scared of the opinions of others.

So: I do like the gentleness one sometimes finds in English poets, at least some of the time (though there are radical poets like Maggie O'Sullivan and Geraldine Monk for whom that's not a good adjective.) But I dislike the way much mainstream poetry is almost afraid of its own shadow. Explore the shadow of your English reserve, however, and you may just find something deeper than the nicely modest poetry of an Andrew Motion.

Wednesday, April 04, 2012

Some Notes on Collage

I was reading the first chapter of Ian Davidson's "Ideas of Space in Contemporary Poetry" yesterday. It made the point that collage is probably the 20th Century's main contribution to avant garde technique. Introduced by the Cubists in the period 1911-13, then taken up by Dadaists, Surrealists, installation artists and all manner of modern artists, it's almost become part of the atmosphere of contemporary visual art.

It's also been a part of modernist poetry and non-mainstream poetry right from the off. From T S Eliot, Ezra Pound, William Carlos Williams, Zukovsky and many Dadaist poets, through to the present day poets like Tony Lopez, who use it as a large part of their practice.

For me, it's become almost second nature. I'm either cutting up my own words, or cutting up articles from newspapers, writing down and rearranging overheard conversations, mixing in slogans from shop windows, flarfing (using phrases from webpages) or making use of found material.

The effect of this is to attempt to get away from the chronological, to the poem as a kind of field, in which interesting encounters of sound, meaning and image can be found. It also - hopefully - helps to reader to complete the poem for themselves. The number of possible meanings is increased; but none of the meanings are complete, and all are subject to uncertainty.

Collage is paratactic: it puts things side by side to see how they feel together. It juxtaposes, it disturbs settled orders, it creates coincidences and relationships between things and words that weren't there before. It can shift register sometimes mid-sentence, burst out in all directions, imitate the semiotic overload of contemporary culture, confuse and dazzle.

Finally, here's Tristan Tzara's instructions on writing poetry:

Take a newspaper.
Take some scissors.
Choose from this paper an article the length you want to make your poem.
Cut out the article.
Next carefully cut out each of the words that make up this article and put them all in a bag.
Shake gently.
Next take out each cutting one after the other.
Copy conscientiously in the order in which they left the bag.
The poem will resemble you.
And there you are - an infinitely original author of charming sensibility, even though unappreciated by the vulgar herd.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Some Thoughts on Issue Poetry

So this was prompted by reading a poem in which a mother celebrates the engagement of her son. A rather dull poem on the whole - except the son's fiance is a man. Oh, I think, an Issue Poem. She can't have been unaware of the implications of what is an explicit reference to The Gay Issue (see how I use those capital letters.) It must be deliberate - to highlight the issue of Gay Marriage.

Except, reading the poem, it isn't really. It conveys a mother's delight at her son's happiness, that is all. But because the son is gay, it becomes an Issue. Then I think of all those gay and lesbian poets who talk about their boyfriends or girlfriends, their love affairs and encounters, and wonder what my reaction says about me. I think of John Ash's poems Following A Man or Cigarettes, two wonderful poems about his gay experience, or I think about Thom Gunn's poetry about his experience, and how uneasily they actually fit into the boxes that we have a tendency to put Issue Poems in.

I also realise that I'm still at the back of my mind bothered by the idea of poetry being about issues. It could be any issue: peace for instance. As a lifelong pacifist, I've written relatively few poems about peace. I also consider myself to be a "person of faith": how do I write about that without coming across as strident, or preachy? So far, I've found one solution in using collaged voices; but there's probably other solutions. I'm wary of too much message, because I've learnt over the years that this is A Bad Thing. I also don't like being preached at even when I agree with the message.

Really, what makes Thom Gunn a good poet is his humanity, his honesty and the accuracy of his observation; but the fact of his sexuality is not a by-the-by; it's part and parcel of who he is; just as my straightness is part of who I am. In the past, gay people used a lot of coding and hidden symbolism because it was illegal to be gay. Nowadays, you can say what you like; except, if you do, you will immediately be classified as an Issue Poet. Thom Gunn wrote about being Thom Gunn, not about Being Gay (again with the capital letters!*); and his poetry was all the better for it. Apart from possibly Frank O'Hara, Jack Spicer and a few others, I think he was one of the earliest poets who didn't cloak his sexuality in symbols.

One day, maybe, the sexuality of a poet will be something so boring as to be hardly worth noting; or at least be acceptably normal. Until that day, my reaction to the rather dull poem I started with might be repeated: oh dear it's an Issue Poem.

* A note on Capital Letters: of course, all poets who are not white, anglo-saxon middle class males are going to at some point be accused of being an Adjective-Poet. White Anglo Saxon middle class male poetry is, as we all know, "just poetry". If you happen to mention your colour, gender, sexuality or class anywhere in your work, or if you are in anyway experimental, you are an Insert Correct Adjective Poet. That is a Fact of Life.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Some Thoughts On Quirkiness

I've been told my poetry is 'quirky' a lot over the years. Here's what the Urban Dictionary says about that:

737 up162 down
something that is strange/not normal but cool
Wearing long stripy socks that are odd...
2.quirky426 up198 down
Unconventional, surprising, odd.

A word often used by narcissistic scenesters when they describe their oh-so-unique selves in their Livejournal user info pages in attempts to sound like interesting people.

It is a word best used by one person to describe another. Those who apply "quirky" to themselves thereby call into question their very own "quirkiness" by seeming gleefully self-aware (just like everyone else).

I've never called myself that, so I hope part two doesn't really apply to me. I am, I guess, attracted to the unconventional, surprising and odd. I've never worn long stripy socks that are odd, though. Maybe I should start...

I'm sure that's meant as a compliment, but I always feel slightly uncomfortable with the term. A lot of the poetry I read is only odd to people who don't normally come across things like that. When I read Tom Raworth or Geraldine Monk, I don't think, "I say, this is rather quirky, isn't it?" It seems to be the way things should be written. It attracts me in a way that a straightforward narrative doesn't; it just seems natural that is the way the world is.

Oddness, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. Those of us attracted to modernist/postmodernist practices don't think about their oddness all the time.

Calling something or someone quirky is a way of putting them into a box and saying, well, they're a bit odd, so we can smile wryly at them, tolerate them, but not take them seriously. The challenge of challenging poetry is in the way it doesn't conform to expected norms; calling it 'quirky' means you can accept it without taking up its challenge. You can carry on in your own, sweet, 'normal' way as if nothing has changed. Don't mind him, he's a bit odd, but he's all right really.

But when I write a poem that uses found material or cut'n'paste; or when I notice something 'odd' about the world, something no-one else has noticed perhaps, or not noticed in that way before, I'm not trying to be quirky. I'm trying to reach for some kind of truth: however compromised by language and the media such a concept is, I still believe that it's the job of the poet to seek truth. Truth is often hiding in some odd places, and that's where I like to go looking.

Friday, March 09, 2012

Some Questions On Voice

1. Does everyone have only one authentic voice, or can we have many authentic voices?

2. How much time do we have to spend 'finding our voice' or do we just get on with the writing and 'the voice' will come to us?

3. Can I lose my voice, and can I find it again if I do lose it?

4. If I lose one voice, can I use another, or must I stick with the same one all the time?

5. What is an authentic voice anyway?

6. Can I use different voices in the same poem?

7. Can I use the voices of other people or must I stick to my own?

8. Granted that all my poems are probably going to sound a little like all my other poems, does that mean they all speak in the same voice or do they speak in different voices that have similarities?

9. Can I put on a robot voice now?

10. Can I do the police in different voices?

11. Can I be authentically inauthentic, or inauthentically authentic?

12. If I keep hearing voices, on the train, in the air, out of the radio etc., do I write them down or do I ignore them because they aren't my authentic voice?

13. If I have nothing to say and am saying it, does that mean that I have no voice?

14. How do I voice voicelessness?

15. Am I voice or a chorus of voices?

16. Whose voice am I using today?

17. Does silence have a voice?

18. Have you got some linctus for my voice? I think I'm losing it...

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Some Thoughts on Reading Abstraction

This came from a comment of a friend of mine. She said she did not understand the poems of Amy De'Ath, a young poet whose first book, Erec & Enide, was published last year from Salt Modern Voices. Now, I don't have any problem with, in fact I think the collection is really strong. It occurred to me that it must have something to do with the different ways people read poetry.

My friend is very intelligent (in fact she has three degrees), but I think it would be fair to say that she thinks linearly. That is, she thinks in a logical fashion: one idea follows either logically or chronologically from another. Which is perfectly fine with most mainstream poetry, which usually has some kind of argument, or narrative; but it doesn't work very well as a way of approaching much contemporary non-mainstream writing. Hence the difficulty.

Reading non-mainstream poetry is not a question of 'difficulty' as such. None of Amy De'Ath's poems are in any real sense of the word, about difficult subject matter. A lot of them could be described as 'occluded love poems', and in poems like Poetry for Boys, there is a feminist approach that again is occluded. What is a difficulty is not the subject but the approach to the subject. The approach (approaches?) is indirect, circular, deliberately imprecise.

It's like the painting in Frank O'Hara's Why I Am Not a Painter, in which a painting called Sardines ends up as a painting without sardines in it, because "it was too much." The idea of sardines is in the title but not in the painting anymore. So this kind of poem is partly an abstraction from the world, rather than a direct reflection of the world.

It's fair to say that even the most ostensibly realist poem is aware of itself as ultimately failing to live up to the actual experience, or the emotion, that begins it. Language always fails to describe a sunset; or an experience in exactly the way you wish it to. The non-mainstream poet is intensely aware of that fact, highlights that failure, makes it a feature of the poem.

There's also another feature that I want to call the "atmosphere around the poem." I sometimes read poems by mainstream poets that seem to be perfectly fine in themselves; they express an emotion or relate an experience in clear terms, and I know what they mean. Except there's another poem surrounding that poem, a kind of invisible poem that is everything that the poet has left out. So a love poem is surrounded by all kinds of implications about how women are seen by men, about the society that accepts certain romantic tropes and ways or relating but not others, about the whole history of courtly love poetry from Wyatt to the present day, etc...

There is, in other words, a map of meanings, not just a particular route through that map. The mainstream poem, generally speaking, is a route through all those meanings. The contemporary non-mainstream poem is heading toward a more rhizomatic way of reading, where particulars routes are not privileged over other ways of reading, and this means that a mind more used to a singular, linear view might have difficulty because it's looking for a linear reading, an argument or a narrative that isn't there.

As Deleuze and Guattari have it in A Thousand Plateaus, it is the difference between a map and a tracing. A map offers many routes through; but a tracing only offers one. In this sense, the old AtoZ books offer a multitude of routes, but the SatNav only shows you one way: the supposedly more efficient, more direct route. It gets confused if you veer off course, however, and go exploring through the back streets and back routes; or decide you're not going there after all.

So it is with non-mainstream poetry: it has no particular destination, or a series of destinations, or only one destination with a variety of different routes to getting there. Or, as in Amy De'Ath's Letter to John Clare, we have a poem that is approaching the eighteenth century poet, but not biographically, and by a variety of routes that are surrounding the poet's life and work. Maybe it never gets there, maybe John Clare's presence was "too much"; but he's actually still there, under the layers of language.

These thoughts are by no means complete; but I offer them to my readers as a possible way in to reading work that is perhaps 'beyond their comfort zones.'

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Some Thoughts On Dissent

As a Quaker, I'm a member of one of the more well-known Dissenting churches in the country. Dissenters are people who disagree, who refuse to toe the Established Church line, who seek their own interpretations of belief and scriptures and creeds; and Quakers have managed for over 400 years without the usual paraphernalia of creeds and dogmatic statements because they believe in direct access to the spiritual, not through ritual, priesthoods or rules.

So it is with my approach to poetry: and with my approach to the poetry I read. I've just started, for instance, to get my head around the multi-faceted world of Maggie O'Sullivan's poetry. Now there is a poet who dissents from the mainstream of British poetry in ways that probably ensure that she will never be part of any establishment. Blakean and wild, it's also as far from being academic as it's possible for a poet to be. Not that she isn't supremely intelligent, but this is not poetry that displays its cleverness. Like all the best dissenters, she doesn't spend too much time arguing against the establishment; she merely gets on with the job of providing an alternative space for the autocthonous speech of her own vision.

The same is true of poets like Michael Haslam and Geraldine Monk, and the best of the non-mainstream seems to me to have this sense of providing a space for vision and alternative ways of seeing that are excluded from the tidied-up social verse of the mainstream. John Ashbery once said of Frank O'Hara that he didn't so much as protest against the establishment as ignore it. I'm not sure that's entirely possible; but I can see that would be an attractive thing to do.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Some Thoughts About The Well Made Poem

1. Recently, I experienced the strange sensation of having to 'press return to factory setting' on a couple of poems.

2. They were poems that were going in a certain direction towards being 'well-made' in the sense of being perfectly engineering little machines of ideas and emotions.

3. But they felt wrong. In trying to create a poem worked I was trying to squeeze the poem into a shape that 'looked good'. In doing that, I was actually falsifying whatever it was that I was trying to say with the poem.

4. I was trying to be 'clever.' Or maybe to merely appear clever. I find myself prey to the same appetites other poets I like to criticise have: the idea that you have to appear to be 'clever' in your poems, to fill it with 'wit' and the kind of musical lines that get you admired.

5. But the poem didn't fit. I was, for instance, trying to write in regularish stanzas. Not strictly iambic but heading in that direction. I seemed to be going back to the time before I started cutting and pasting.

6. Writing can become habitual, which is why you have to constantly 'make it new'. When it feels like I've done it before, or very nearly, I get twitchy.

7. So I had these poems that weren't working. They were well-made in a sense. They may have been clever.

8. With the first one, I took the first two lines which I thought were good, and wrote about them and a lot of other stuff came out, whilst free writing around them. I started with the phrase "So I had these two good lines..."

9. With the second, I again rewrote if from scratch.

10. In both cases, I did it at night before I went to bed. My mind was loose. I wasn't trying to be clever.

11. They both work better now. They're freer, looser, baggier even. They don't look like little boxes one on top of one another.

12. So what do I conclude? That I can't do the well-made poem? That the well-made poem is, in the end, a back alley?

Monday, January 02, 2012

Some Myths

1) That we can do without 'labels' in poetry. Even the word 'poet' is a label we put on ourselves to distinguish ourselves from, say, prose-writers. The word 'writers' distinguishes us from 'non-writers', musicians, artists, etc... and from people who don't do 'creative' activities at all. Labels like 'avant garde', 'lingusitically innovative," "neo-formalist", "modernist" etc are often annoying and divisive when thrown around as weapons to put other poets down but help to understand where a poet is coming, and how the poem should be read (eg, if you know it's a "surrealist" poem, you won't be looking for the kind of logical sense you'd expect in a "movement" poet.)

2) That mainstream poetry is not in itself a style of poetry - that it is 'just poetry'. There is no such thing as 'just poetry', just as there is no such thing as 'just jazz': there is trad, be-bop, post-bop, free, modal,  hard bop, swing, 'm-base', fusion, indo- and several others that I've left out. Again, it's a matter of expectation: though it can be restrictive. A musician who moves from one style to another (like Miles Davis) may be in danger of being pigeon-holed, so the boundaries between styles ought always to be in flux. The same is true of poetry: John Kinsella, for instance, moves between avant-garde and more mainstream with ease.

3) That 'accessibility' is the first thing a poet should think of when looking at his/her poetry: perhaps "is it in some way honest in feeling, does it do something unexpected, does it make the reader think?" are more important questions. Nevertheless, a poet ought to be able to explain to somebody unfamiliar with the style they're working with, approximately what it is they're trying to do.

4) That the poet should always have something to say. A poem is not a message, though it may contain a message if the poet chooses or if the poem arrives at one. Poetry can be as much about discovery as about, say, the poet telling us of an experience that has already happened.

5) That young poets have to 'find their voice' and then stick with it. Poetry is at least partly a form of ventriloquism. But it's not a bad thing to find a style and stick with it. Some poets make a career out of being many voices. Edwin Morgan comes to mind. A poet who only has one voice might end up being very boring; or they might end up being Norman MacCaig. In any case, your 'voice' will find you: Edwin Morgan never sounded anything other than himself, whether he was the Loch Ness Monster or a Mercurian.

6) That any anthology representation of a country's poetry can ever be complete. I'd recommend getting several anthologies of writing from all sides if you want to get a fuller picture, and remembering always that something is always left out. How many anthologies of British poetry, for instance, include visual poetry as one of its components? I can only think of one: the Oxford Anthology of British & Irish poetry ed. Keith Tuma has Bob Cobbing next to Philip Larkin. But that's only one poet.

Happy New Year, dear readers!