Friday, December 30, 2011

Some Possibly Wrong Things I May Have Learned This Year

Poetry is a rhizome, a root system, a web of connections. It's not a tree with the best at the top and the worst at the bottom and lots of rather indifferent branches in between. It springs up in all kinds of ways and in all kinds of forms. It isn't just the Faber/Cape/Picador hegemony, nor is it just the experimental/post-avant. It takes in the visual and the sentimental: a Christmas card verse is still a poem, even if it isn't what many of us would choose to call 'good poetry'.

To say it's only poetry if it's 'good poetry' is to put a fence around certain kinds of poetry and say 'this is poetry and this is not' and poetry essentially had no fence. It includes Bob Cobbing and Helen Steiner Rice whether we like those poets or not.

That doesn't mean that all poetry is 'good' and there is no such thing as 'bad poetry': but what is considered bad cannot be rationally decided upon. A 'good sonnet' is not necessarily the most metrically correct; nor is good free verse just chopped-up prose. A good visual poem is aesthetically and visually pleasing; but isn't necessarily the one with the most paraphrasable meaning. If one writes a piece of 'inspirational verse' one isn't terribly interested in the subtlety of meaning, or even getting the metre absolutely correct. One is interested in inspiring certain sentiments.

No one anthology of any country's poetry can represent the whole range of poetry in that county. I'll believe that's possible when Wendy Cope sits next to Keston Sutherland in an anthology. Nobody can like everything. I've met people for whom doggerel is the only poetry worth reading, performance poetry the only poetry worth hearing, and others who generally confine themselves to avant garde, sound poetry, visual poetry, and everything in between. People who think if it doesn't rhyme it ain't poetry.

Poetry is a meadow. In a meadow, there are many kinds of plants, all fighting for attention from the sun (the reader?). Will we please everybody? Probably not. There is good and bad poetry (poems that survive and poems that do not may be one way of distinguishing) but not good and bad poetries. And survival isn't always the point: sometimes a poem is meant to be thrown away when read, or even written.

A Happy New Year to all poets.

Saturday, December 24, 2011



to all



Three Writers I've Discovered This Year

1. Ira Lightman
I'm currently making my way through three of his books: Duetcetera, from Shearsman, with its dual columns "conversing" with each other: sometimes you can read across, sometimes they seem to be arguing with one another, sometimes they're complementing each other. He includes some translations and I've just downloaded Trancelations (ubu editions) to read more. Mustard Tart As Lemon (Red Squirrel) seem to be a gathering together of poems that didn't fit into previous series; and Phone In The Roll: which reads like it's cut up from phone messages and other forms of communication. They all show a conceptual poet who isn't afraid of including both personal and spiritual perspectives into his work: and they repay rereading.

2. Amy De'ath 
A lovely little pamphet from Salt, which promises much more, Eric & Enide is ellipitical in a way that seems finally to be starting to reach through into more prominence in British poetry. She can be political in a subtle way, and there's a sense of ideas bouncing against one another in this collection. She has a new pamphlet which I must get hold of, from Oystercatcher.

3. Stephen Emmerson 
His book from Department Press, Telegraphic Transcriptions, is rather like listening to a whole host of voices at once. There are passages taken form medical literature, passages that seem like episodes of psychosis, passages of strange disparate voices coming in from all directions, and I'm still only part way through it: I have to take it a little at a time or if becomes overwhelming. Stephen is going to be someone to look for in the future, I feel: he has ambitions for his poetry that go beyond merely producing a group of stand-alone poems. He wants to write long, in series, with each poem referencing other poems, itself and the outside world, working on several voices not just one.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Some Optimistic Thoughts For Christmas

It's been an interesting year for poetry, hasn't it? I've bought and acquired loads on anthologies this year; it seems like it's been a year of change in the poetry world. The old guard - well, they still have the increasingly irrelevant awards for themselves - but it's been a year for young poets. The Salt Anthology of Younger Poets, Eighteens (Knives Forks & Spoons) and the Shearsman anthology of innovative landscape poetry all showcase a raft of new poets who are increasingly showing what they can do.

The energy levels of all this new poetry are often exhaustingly breathtaking. Poets like Jonty Tiplady, Amy De'ath, Emily Critchley, Sophie Robinson, Stephen Emmerson, Richard Barrett and many others are doing things with language that are elliptical, innovative and often quite quite beautiful and strange, in ways that didn't seem possible when I started writing 30 years ago. The days of innovation seemed to be over.

And in one sense, they are, in the sense that no-one is inventing a whole set of new forms; the 'heroic' age of the futurists, the dadaists and a whole sweep of manifestos has probably passed. But the fact that more young poets than ever have access to that history seems to be what makes these writers so adventurous. There are still poets being straight-jacketed into the mainstream, and maybe that suits their temperament; but when a click of the mouse can take you to the poetry of Mina Loy and you can access so much amazing stuff online, it's no wonder that things are opening up.

The categories are a lot looser than they were. Though they still exist: the mainstream is still the genre that pretends it's not a genre (the way 'literary fiction' likes to pretend it's not a genre); and there are still those fusty edifices of award-winning Faber/Picador/Cape poets who like to pretend they're the Best, despite history having passed them by. But there's a lot to be hopeful for.

With regard to that Best word: I can understand why Salt used it for their anthology; and why Puppywolf use it for their anthology of Manchester poets. It's a good marketing tool. It looks good in a bookshop. But neither anthology can be an objective view of what's 'best'; the Salt book is one man's view; the Puppywolf book has four editors' opinion. Either way, they leave out a lot of excellent stuff, and include some stuff that I wouldn't consider as good. There is no objective view of 'good poetry' though; and no doubt my choice would reflect a whole different criteria of 'best' than the ones in those anthologies.

They're both good anthologies, though. Occasionally, BOMP in particular has the kind of poem that makes me cringe ('This is poem about brown eyes is really about prejudice gay people' for instance: sorry to the poet concerned, but it just struck me as too much like it should have had the word 'Moral' pinned to its last line.)

I discovered some new writers this year, rediscovered a few older ones; and felt rather more optimistic about the state of poetry than I have done for awhile. A good year for the roses, and for poetry.

Friday, December 02, 2011

Launch of Best Manchester Poets (On The Eighth Day, Dec 1 2011)

It occurred to me in a moment of madness this morning how there is always somewhere a little corner of show-biz, the end-of-the-pier show, the TV variety show, in the arts world of Britain. Dominic Berry's performance as the master-of-ceremonies yesterday was one such example. As someone who finds all the bigging up Manchester somewhat embarrassing, I can't say I felt entirely comfortable with his performance, but that's not his fault. I used to cringe at the TV when Bruce Forsyth came on too (still do, come to think of it.)

What of the poets themselves? A mixed bunch, a gallimaufry, a Woolworths assortment of voices from surprisingly imaginative poems from old ladies to more dramatic performance poetry. Not all of it worked, and once or twice I wanted to say "cut the beginning," or "cut the end"; if the poetry was anything it was rather downbeat than upbeat, which might reflect the mood of the country. The age range was very wide, and the subject matter too, from Rosie Garland talking of cancer to poems about clubbing and a couple of rather rude poems which were subtly effective.

Apart from anything else, it was a kind evening. Everyone seemed to be listening and no-one was talking over the readers. Everybody who read got on, gave their reading and got off with great efficiency. Considering the panic beforehand about the number of readers, a surprising number of people read. It was a very inclusive evening.

As I am in the book, I perhaps ought to give some reflections on the book, but that will have to wait.