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.