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.