Sunday, December 30, 2012

What I Dislike About Damian Hirst

On the bus coming back home from Accrington today, I was thinking about what it is I don't like about the work of Damian Hirst. I have nothing against the Young British Artists so-called as such, but I just do not like his with a kind of passion. So what is it I don't like?

It's something to do, I think, with what I perceive to be a lack of heart. His lack of competency at painting, recently revealed in a couple of exhibitions, is neither here nor there. Neither is the fact that he gets his assistants to do a lot of the work; the same has been true of a lot of major painters and sculptors from the medieval age down to the present. Neither is it to do with his subject matter; often to do with death and decay, and the contemporary obsession with surface, with product and the quotidian. There is a tastelessness to his work: that diamond-encrusted skull for instance, that could be right up my punk street, if it wasn't for that lack of heart.

Art - whether it's painting, music or poetry - has to in some sense come from the heart: a lot of us accept that as a kind of truth, but it's very difficult if not impossible to define what we mean by that. This isn't just to do with 'feeling' or it just turns to sentiment and mush. nor is just the intellectual play of ideas, though that is good too. The word 'truth' keeps trying to creep in here; but it's less to do with putting across a, or The Truth. One need not have a message particularly; most of us spend most of our lives in a perpetual state of uncertainty about what's true or isn't true about the world. Out of that uncertainty, however, comes the sense of exploration, of search, that we find in some of the best art produced since the Renaissance.

You don't have to be any kind of believer, either in politics or religion, to be an artist. Hirst's art, however, seems to me to have neither a conviction nor a sense of search about it; just a cynical exploitation of the art market. His works are often essentially 'memento mori's' without any sense of angst. All life ends in death, we're all essentially meat, and nothing means anything. All these views are potentially very profound, leading either to angst or a calm acceptance of the inevitable. In Hirst's world, however, they become truisms, just another thing to sell in the art supermarket. A diamond encrusted skull, a dead shark in a tank, are nothing but product.

Which could be a comment on late capitalism, which knows the price of everything and the value of nothing; except I have the feeling that he doesn't care about that. He's making no critique, nor is he making us think. He's got more in common with the kind of art you find in commercial galleries on the high street: paintings to put in that place on the wall of your living room, that goes with the furniture, not art that disturbs or intrigues. It has more in common with Jack Vettriano than Picasso. Like Vettriano, his art is sentimental and shallow and overpriced.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Boxing Day Thoughts

So what have I learned this year? It's been a year of ups and downs. The biggest down of course was that my mother died. Even thought it was really expected from the beginning of the year. The euphemism "after a long illness" hides the truth of th long slow decline of dementia; by the end, my mother was barely existing, and I have sometimes the strangest feeling that in her last fortnight, she was allowing herself to go. When the doctor placed her on a care pathway, she took just a few hours to die.

When I was doing Christmas shopping I would see the odd thing that made me think, "Mum would like that." A collection of the Bee Gees, for instance. She'd have loved that.

Writing wise, happier times I think. I'm continually glad to have found the company and acceptance of the more experimental writing community. I know it sometimes annoys people of a more mainstream persuasion, that I sometimes make comments that reflect the old binary oppositions. I know also that my own writing is probably nowhere near the farthest edge of the experimental. I use techniques that are perhaps already a hundred years old; but I continue to feel more at home among the more exploratory writing community than with those who want to emulate Simon Armitage or the latest Faber poet.

The Other Room, and Writers Forum (North) have been hugely important for my development as a writer, because they give me ideas, they are relatively unjudgemental and they have helped to increase my awareness of neo-modernist writing by leaps and bounds. It was a real thrill to be part of the ensemble performance of Bob Cobbing's ABC in Sound, for instance. Bob Cobbing will never be flavour of the month; he's far too extreme for most people, and I can understand why. It just doesn't look like proper poetry does it?

But I'm also glad that I became part of North West Poets, and the forthcoming anthology is going to be fantastic. There's an incredibly mixed bunch of writers involved in it; which is really how it should be. I'm tired of homogeneity; I want variety. I don't mind if someone has written a sonnet on one page, and someone else is tearing up the rule book on another. Confusion isn't always a bad thing; and not understanding completely leads forward if you let it. Unfamiliarity is a spur to discovery; either that or it sends you back under the covers. Difficulty doesn't patronise the reader.

So I'm going out of this year thinking, what's next? I don't know and I love not knowing.

Friday, December 21, 2012

Some Post-Apocalyptic Thoughts

Well, I am disappointed - the Mayan end of the world hasn't happened after all. I was looking forward to the Rapture, or to being taken up in a UFO by the Interstellar Rescue Squad from Sirius or some such place. Maybe it's late. And maybe the company of a bunch of obsessive bibliolatrists or UFO obsessives would make me want to jump out of the rescue vehicle and join the burning masses anyway, so it's perhaps a good thing I'm not one of the chosen.

Anyroad up, as they say in deepest Lancashire, if it's not going to happen, it's not going to happen. I thought I'd bother you all with my thoughts about poetry and what I think is happening.

Over the last few years, I've observed a kind of opening out of the poetry world. This is no bad thing, though it's at least partly to do with the fact that there's now so much of it about. The proliferation of poetry on the whole I take to be a good thing; though it does mean that there is going to be an awful lot more poetry that I and indeed anyone else will never have time to read, or poetry names that I mean to follow up and never quite get round to reading. If you're among that number, I do apologise. But I thought I'd talk of a couple of my discoveries this year.

This year, I discovered the amazing poetry of Andrew Crozier. I guess he would be classified as belonging to "the Cambridge School", a loose association of poets who were captivated by the anthology, The New American Poetry, published in !960; and by the slightly earlier Objectivist poets such as George Oppen, Louis Zukovsky and Lorrinne Neidecker. They tried - with varying degrees of success - to find a British route through this poetic movement. This way of writing produced - for me - some of the best writing of the last 50 years - from Lee Harwood to John James, to Peter Riley, to J H Prynne - and of course, Andrew Crozier. But this stream of British poetry has often seemed hidden and been dismissed as 'difficult', 'obscure'
but the vast majority of the poets of this stream (actually, it's more like a full blown river) are nothing of the sort. They just don't look like the left-justified, neatly-boxed poetry of the officially-sanctioned schools of English poetry, best represented by the so-called English line poets, from Edward Thomas through to Andrew Motion.

Motion (along with Blake Morrison) infamously said that 'nothing much was happening in poetry' in the '60's  and '70's - which is ironic if you actually look at the evidence. There was so much going on, it almost bears comparison with now, when there are so many young poets, it sometimes feels like a glut. I worry about these young poets, that in all the courses in creative writing that there are now, they're still not being given access to the full range of English poetry. I hear rumours of poetry teachers telling their students to avoid the poetry scene in the cities where they study, and I hope that isn't true. I worry that teachers only teach a narrow range of poetry - whether that is only Carol Anne Duffy and friends or only Sean Bonney and friends is immaterial.

Poetry - as Stephen Burt recently said - is a continent. It's not a single stream that you stray from at your peril. I love that image: it avoids that whole idea that there is a 'correct' way of doing things. At the edges are probably the experimental poets, the neo-modernists, the visual poets, and a lot of people who live in the middle. Personally, I'm a fan of the edges; other people prefer living in the middle. That's OK; but I hope we can get over the continual war between the middle and the edge.

I also discovered the work of Tim Allen, a poet I mistakenly called a Language poet, a movement which is really confined to America. His poems have a swing about them, and a real understanding of the riotousness of language. His single-book poem The Voice Thrower was one of my favourite reads of this year. I recommend it to everyone; but it takes a little while to get into its method. You have to read it without unduly looking for those logical narratives that you might find in Simon Armitage, say. That's the thing with negative capability, though: it's actually something you have to learn how to do in order to be able to read a lot of the more experimental, neo-modernist poetry. You have to switch off the need to be 'told' something, to have an 'epiphany', and you have to learn to go with the flow. It is, in fact, often based around autobiography (though obviously not just that): but when you learn to go with the flow, you pick things up as you go, rather than have them thrust upon you by the wise poet.

I could go on; but I'll leave it for now. More later (apocalypse permitting.)

Monday, December 10, 2012

Paper Patterns by Angela Topping (Lapwing £10)

This is a very enjoyable collection of largely mainstream poetry by a very skilled poet who writes about family, personal recollection and love in closely-woven verses that repay reading. Angela will hate my use of the word 'mainstream' of course; but in that these are largely straightforward, plain-dictioned and linear narratives, that's precisely where they are. Names like Edward Thomas and Thomas Hardy come to mind: that English line that is only part, but still an important part, of the map of English poetry.

That said, they are often deeply felt and the sequence dedicated to Matt Simpson in particularly gives the whole collection an elegaic feel that is often very moving. This extends to poems such as The Gypsy Camp, which reveals an empathy for the underdog and the oppressed traditions of English life:

One autumn day the bailiffs called. We fought
to stay. Then 'dozers came, my mum was bashed
and all our pitches wrecked, our friends forced off.
I doubt I'll ever see my girl again.

One of my favourite poems in the book is Sparrow, revealing a real ability to celebrate the ordinary, without trying to imbue it with over-symbolic significance. Its close observation ('a chirrup like a giggle fastened/ in its throat like a comedy brooch') shows what is important to Angela Topping: the beauty of simplicity, the simplicity of beauty; the life everybody lives being celebrated for what it is. She writes too about lemons, cauliflowers, jam; and about loving Doctor Who (John Pertwee's version  at least).

There's so much more to be said about this poet. Her sequence The Lightfoot Letters continue a theme from her first book: the life of her father, this time through a series of letters that came to light recently. One gets the feeling of a hurt that's never quite gone away, and from an early poem about her father's violin, to a poem here about her father skating, it still produces some very moving poems about a working-class family trying to survive in a previous 'age of austerity.'

The collection as a whole feels ever so slightly too long. A poem about The Shawshank Redemption doesn't really add much to the experience of the film, and there are a couple of don't quite work for me, including the first poem in the book. But I've not known many collections that haven't included makewheights; and there aren't that many here.

With that very slight quibble (and it is slight), I'd recommend this collection to anyone who likes good plain food, properly cooked and properly filling.