Monday, February 25, 2013

Excess All Areas?

"In New Lines (1956) Robert Conquest advocated 'a sound and fruitful attitude to poetry', after the self-expressive 'excesses' of the poetry of the 40s, the mistake of the generation was to give 'the Id, a sound player on the percussions side under a strict conductor, too much of a say in the doings of the orchestra as a whole.' Instead, felt Conquest, a 'new and healthy general standpoint...[demonstrating a] reverence for the real person or event' was required [my italics]."

Nathan Hamilton from the introduction to Dear World and Everyone In It, the new anthology of young poets from Bloodaxe.

This is interesting: are we seeing a new revival of excess in poetry, a new generation of poets who, like the 40s poets, feel they have nothing to lose by going over the top in terms of imagery, feeling, ideas, in terms of the shape of poems and the page? It seems like there are very few, or certainly a lot less, younger poets writing those well-behaved, sensibly-clothed poems the Movement advocated. Maybe it's a consequence of the recession and its continuing uncertainties, or the rise of new media and the access to all kinds of ideas provided by the Internet; but there does seem to be a seachange in poetry, away from neat lines, controlled metaphors, regular verses and tentative feelings into something wilder.

This is true I think even of those young poets who are now beginning to be published by Faber & Faber: such as Emily Berry, a poet who is not wildly experimental, and maybe owes something to early Armitage but who is really entirely her own voice. There's something devil-may-care about the poetry of young poets which is, to my mind, very refreshing. So it's not just about the old binaries of avant verses mainstream; it's about wearing a very unsuitable pair of pumps to walk up Goat Fell, and surviving the attempt. In fact, some (not all by any means) of the new experimental poets look a bit too like the previous generations for their own good.

I don't know how long this will last, or whether it will have a lasting effect; all I know is that I like it. It's about time for a little excess: maybe we're partying while the Titanic of this nation's economy is sinking and we're ruled by a party of puritanical blame-the-poor-but-not-the-bankers Tories, but it's producing some great poetry.

Friday, February 15, 2013

More categories not less?

One of the perpetual arguments in the poetry world is the old old binary position of non-mainstream verses non-mainstream. The most common response is to say that 'I'm just a poet, I don't need categories.' The problem with this is that clearly there is more than one kind of poetry out there. However, the old binaries don't really seem to operate anymore; or at least in the same way.

In the '60's and '70's, there was clearly an official  culture; the stuff published by the major publishers, for instance, the Movement poets and others were in the ascendant. Then there was the 'poetic underground': the experimenters, the beats, various forms of poetry that were shoved together into one block and largely dismissed as irrelevant by the so-called mainstream. This meant that the '70's could be dismissed by Andrew Motion and Blake Morrison as the era of 'nothing much happening'; whereas an awful lot was happening.

Even then, however, it's clear that the binaries didn't really work. How could one put the work of, say, Peter Riley and Bob Cobbing into the same category? They were both poetry, or labelled as such; and they were both seen as being in the 'non-mainstream' category; but in what way do they have anything in common apart from 'not being mainstream?'

We could, of course, just call it all poetry and be done with it. But that's to ignore the fact that it's impossible to assess a poem by Andrew Motion in the same way as you'd assess the poetry of, again arbitrarily, the poetry of Bill Griffiths. And it also doesn't seem fair to so-called mainstream poetry, as if all 'mainstream' poetry were the same.

I've been reading Janet Rogerson's A Bad Influence Girl, a pamphlet of seemingly straightforward narratives that often start off in the ordinary world, and end up somewhere strange, dreamlike, a bit nightmarish sometimes. The techniques are fairly straightforward, but the results are not. Is it mainstream? It seems to have no influence from the Duffy/Armitage school, except in technique. It reminds me of Charles Simic - but also of Russell Edson, whose surreal narratives are placed somewhere between experimental and mainstream.

Younger poets now especially seem much more able to slide between categories, to avoid binary oppositions, than they ever did before. There are many who explore different forms of experiment, and combine it with a much more approachable surface. So are we all justpoets?

I don't want to be the one to make a lot of new categories; but it's always seemed odd that in other art
forms, and even other forms of literature, there are lots of categories, but in poetry, we're all justpoets. Science-fiction, detective, fantasy, thriller, 'mainstream fiction' are all out there. We have cubist, abstract, landscape, portrait, installation, land art etc etc. The major problem with this, of course, is that it further divides readers. A science fiction reader might not look at a good historical novel. Someone who writes surrealist verse might not read formalist verse at all. We all might miss stuff we might otherwise like, or become terribly sniffy about other kinds of poetry to the one we like, the way science fiction readers are all thought of as geeks.

Nevertheless, it is important to remind ourselves that different kinds of poetry require different kinds of attention; you can't read a visual poem the way you read a narrative poem, anymore than you can listen to a heavy metal track the way you'd listen to Monteverdi.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Political poetry and stuff...

Been thinking recently about the vexed problem of how to write about the political situation of the present age. I had a poem accepted and printed in The Robin Hood Book, one which was a cut-up including the words of Bob Diamond, CEO of RBS and a commentary on a picture by Paul Klee. Now, that is definitely political - its intent is at least partly satirical - but its other, and perhaps major, impulse, is aesthetic. The mixture of two languages - corporate speechifying and art crit - is what interested me as much as any message it had.

Being in such an avowedly political anthology, however, has made me think about how poetry can be 'political'. I have a great deal of sympathy for the position of George Oppen, who gave up poetry rather than become a mouthpiece for a political ideology. Poetry is about language, primarily; and its duty is to language not to ideology. Oppen's poems nevertheless have a sympathy for, and involvement with, 'the small nouns' and with the ordinary life of the planet; but they're not trying to impose an idea of the world onto the world. The same is true of Charles Reznikoff, whose documentary-style are incredibly moving without ever trying to impose a meaning, or indeed a feeling, onto the reader.

This is often what's missing from political poetry. A lot of political poetry seems preachy to me. I often find myself agreeing with the sentiment, disagreeing with the way it's stated. Besides which, it's often stating the bleeding obvious: capitalism is bad, poverty's bad, let's all get together in solidarity and fight The Man or The System.

Ultimately, what I like about the Objectivists, including Lorinne Neidecker, and the English poet Elaine Randall, is that their poetry allows the voice of the other through the words of the poem. They take a step back from imposing their meaning on the world; they're looking for what the world can say to them.

It's not the only way to be political, though. I was rereading Ian MacMillan's The Er Barnsley Seascape Poems yesterday: a sequence that is as political as it is funny, that sets up the absurd notion of Barnsley as a seaside town, celebrates the non-word 'er' and manages to be very moving and angry about the decline of Yorkshire mining communities all at the same time. His poetry can often be very funny, and sometimes that's all it is, but often the humour comes barbed with a political edge that makes it catch on your mind and sympathies like a fishhook.

Politics isn't just about ideas; though ideas are important. It's also about the way we live together. Poetry isn't always the best place to preach ideas; but it can be about how we live together. That, to me, is where political poetry is at its most effective, and that's where I'd like my poetry to be. On the side of the 'small nouns' not the big imposing ideas.