Thursday, June 28, 2007


The book is finally out, and can be purchased from your local book shop, or for a 20% discount at, so go out and get it meanies! It's beautiful, hardcover and full of my usual demotic wit, verbal play and cut'n'paste po-mo shenanigans!

This Saturday there's another paperplanes workshop at Fuel, 11.30 - 3pm.

I have a reading with Chloe Poems at Manchester Central Library on 12th July at 1pm. It's going to be interesting. Chloe Poems is one of the few reasons why performance poetry isn't yet entirely dead, despite what the recent issue of Poetry Review thinks. There's a magazine that since its recent flirtation with avant-gardism has gone scuttling back to its nice little suburban garden of verse. Though it does have a token poem from Ian Davidson in the latest issue.

I've recieved Poetry London, Rialto and Smiths Knoll recently. All fairly decent, mainstream mags which all have fairly decent mainstream poems in them. Smiths Knoll often has good little poems in them. Poetry London is better this issue than the last; Ciaran Carson's two are very good.

I also recieved a lovely little pamphlet from Geraldine Monk, called Racoon. A sequence about a trip to America, I guess; and I love the way her poems move and sound.

I've started writing prose poems based on Chinese Fortune Cookie sayings. I shall have to see where this one takes me. As Frank O'Hara might put it - prose poems, I'm a real poet!

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

A Plague on Light Verse

One thing that gets my goat: light verse, what's it all about? I can get humour in poetry - anyone who doesn't sometimes laugh out loud at Ashbery or Tom Raworth has had a humour bypass. But those little verses about cricket ("Play up! Play up! and Play the Game!") or trains or some other such petit-bourgeois enthusiasm, usually written in a rollicking metre with lots of "funny" rhymes and ending with a neat and over obvious punchline - I just don't get why everybody else seems to like them.

I must be missing a circuit in the brain: maybe the cucumber sandwich circuit that sees writing verse as a nice little pastime equivalent to macrame or darning socks. Ron Padgett's "Nothing In That Drawer" creases me up, though (it's the same phrase, 14 times - a sonnet I guess!) Kenneth Koch can have me in stitches, and so on.

"Light verse" just has the flavour of weak tea served in a vicarage, with doilies and little cakes. A really good funny poem has more of the Lenny Bruce about it; though how many people do write genuinely funny poems? Poems, that is, that are not just gags wrapped up in verse? Not many, I suspect. Much so-called performance poetry is essentially light verse. Oh, it sounds a bit punk because the poet is shouting it through a microphone, but it trots along on its little metrical feet in just the same way as a Pam Ayres poem.

And I like "rude" poetry even less than "light" verse. Stuff that thinks that it's funny to leave a gap where a swearword should be, or the word "cock" or something. If you're going to talk about sex, don't be so fucking coy. At least Chloe Poems, for instance, isn't coy about sex. She comes right out and says the words, doesn't hide under innuendo.

I'd like to see/read/hear some genuinely funny poetry sometime: but I don't think it's going to come from a mainstream still addicted to safety, or a performance scence addicted to giving the audience only what it wants. A performance scene that still appears to worship at the feet at that arch light-versist and sentimentalist, Roger McGough. (Well, he is Liverpudlian: what else would you expect but sentimental guff from the city that still hasn't gone past the Beatles?)

Thursday, June 07, 2007

Elitism vs The Common Touch: A Few Thoughts

I was watching a programme recently about modernism and non-modernism in fiction. The whole Virginia Woolf vs. Arnold Bennet thing. Virginia Woolf couldn't stand Bennet's common touch. Arnold Bennet wrote a lot of books, had plots and stories and beginnings, middles and endings. Woolf said she was more interested in the movement of her characters' minds than the story.

But it all comes down to whether Woolf was elitist in her high art disdain for Bennet's "common touch."

Or does it really?

Personally, I'd rather read Woolf than Bennet, just as I would rather read Ashbery than Armitage. Armitage is the contemporary Bennet of poetry: producing well-written popular (if not strictly populist) poetry that most people can identify with at some level. You know what an Armitage poem is about. Ashbery's poems, I guess, are more to do with the movement and the clutter of his own mind. They're not "about" anything, in the sense that they have a single definable subject. So who's being the more elitist?

You could say that someone who writes "populist" literature is simply writing for the usual lower-middle class expectations of the "general reader", but who is Ashbery writing for? People interested in "high art", whatever that is? But who are those people? Some of them, like me, are, frankly, working-class to the bone. But we just happen to like something rather different from the usual diet of realism and fairly naturalistic language. We like the sound of words for their own sake, the juxtaposition of words and phrases that aren't "supposed" to go together. We might have some critique in mind about the way language is used to uphold the status quo. But even Andrew Motion is aware of that function of language.

What made Woolf a modernist and Arnold Bennet an anti-modernist? I still haven't really puzzled it out, but I don't think at route it's to do with elitism. I suspect that Bennet had as many small-minded prejudices as did Woolf, probably to do with the working-classes and coals in the bath. Woolf was definitely eltitist; she was upper-middle class. We all have a tendency to look down on others.

But at heart, modernist writers are just interested in different things. I find it difficult to read novels that have too much story in them; the last great novel I read was by WG Sebald and seemed to involve a lot of walking around and not much actually happening. What goes on in the mind of his character seemed much more interesting to me than some kind of event happening.

The same is true of the poets I like: they're not giving me little stories, or little insights into the world; they're giving me both the moving of their minds, and a sense of language as something fluid, ever-changing and musical.

A lot of the first generation of modernists were elitist; but less so than their populist cousins? HG Wells, for all his popular novels and his socialism, was no less elitist than Woolf; both were advocates of getting rid of inferior specimens in the human race.

In the end, what interests you as a writer, whether you want to follow in Woolf's steps or Arnold Bennet's, is down to far more interesting factors than looking down your nose at all those "populist writers" and thinking you're special because nobody reads you.

Saturday, June 02, 2007