Monday, November 18, 2013

What Is Good Poetry?

I was asked recently if I thought I was a good poet. I replied somewhat facetiously that I was just a working-class oik who liked messing about with words.

But the question of what is good poetry intrigued me. We all sort of know what bad poetry is: clich├ęd, rhythmically inept, sentimental etc etc... but what makes a good poem? It's harder to quantify, isn't it? Especially if your idea of a good poem is, say, a concrete poem by Bob Cobbing. Ok, if your idea of a good poem is something by Shelley or Tennyson; or if you have something by Duffy or Armitage, or Don Patterson, in mind. You've got a whole tradition behind you. There are certain criteria to do with the 'logic' of the poem, whether your rhymes if you have them are not too obvious, whether your underlying metaphors are subtle enough, whether the narrative hangs together or not.

But if you've rejected those 'mainstream' criteria in favour of disjuncture, cut-up, visual appearance on the page, a whole host of different 'modernist' or 'post-modernist' criteria come into play. What makes a good 'flarf' poem? Or even a good 'performance poem' (did people laugh in the right places?)

I've deliberately put all those words like 'modernist' and 'mainstream' in quotation marks because of course their meanings are largely in dispute; but it is nevertheless true that are different value systems running along side each other, and what makes a good 'mainstream' poem doesn't make for a good 'non-mainstream' poem.

By some criteria, even Shakespeare is a 'bad' playwright. He let comedy into his tragedies and vice-versa. This was against the rules of drama in his time; but of course, he was also a great playwright. A lot of very good poets do in some ways break the rules of their discipline. So it's not just about how closely you adhere to the instructions (for, say, making a sonnet...)

Does it all come down to personal choice? What floats my boat won't float yours. But does that make the inspirational verse of Patience Strong as good as TS Eliot? We'd rather not think about that, but a lot of perfectly nice people have found her verse comforting and inspirational. Who's to say they're wrong and we clever-trousers intellectuals are right?

We're no nearing answering the question are we? There are, I'm afraid, different criteria for different communities within poetry, and sometimes these criteria conflict. You can't judge Bob Cobbing in the same way you'd judge Armitage, and vice versa, and we will all have different likes and dislikes among the vast array of poetries there are in the world.

So I come up with the inevitable fudge: poetry is about messing about with words. Of course, there's more to it than that, but how you choose to mess about with words, you'll never really know if it's any good or not.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Ventriloquising Tragedy

I've recently begun to wonder about what the bounds of a poetic subject might be. Is it good for a poet, with the best possible intentions, to take on the voice of a holocaust victim or a female suicide bomber, or a victim of sexual abuse?

It's a question really about how far we can ventriloquise the voices of real people. In Charles Reznikoff's Testimony and Holocaust, we get the voices straight: these are transcripts from trials minimally poeticised with line endings etc. The same is true in the work of Elaine Randall, where it seems to me that proper attention is being given to the marginalised people she is writing about.

But to speak 'for' someone is a different matter. To put words into their mouths, thoughts into their heads, is another matter. To write from a privileged Western middle class position in the ventriloquised voice of a victim, or even a perpetrator, of violence, seems morally dubious to me. When I read a Celan poem, I read the poetry of a survivor of the camps. When I read a poem in the voice of either a real or an imagined survivor, all too often I read someone trying to appropriate someone else's tragedy to make art of it. Pretty art, art that is somehow failing to get anywhere near the enormity of the situation it's trying to describe.

The philosopher Adorno said that that there could - or should - not be a lyric poetry after Aushwitz. An extreme position perhaps; but one I think that poets should take seriously. An abiding image for me is the black-and-white footage of the camps coupled with the sonorous voice of Lawrence Olivier in The World at War: it was both horribly fascinating and effective: it's probably the reason my religious beliefs found a home in Quakerism for instance.

But I'm also aware that I cannot imagine what it is like to be a victim of genocide; and that it is presumptious of me to think I could. The same is true of female suicide bombers. Before writing that poem, maybe we should ask ourselves who we think we are. Comfortable Westerners writing from a place of privilege seem to assume too often that they can speak for anyone.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Not All Like That

Not All Like That

Ok - mostly on this blog I don't talk about my religion because I'd hate to come across as wanting to proselytise anyone or being in your face about God and all that. If you're happy with your own spiritual path or lack of spiritual path I'm not going to try and change you.

But for better or worse, I am a Christian -albeit a very liberal, very progressive Christian who is also a member of the Society of Friends. And this is important.

The problem with us liberal progressive types is that we tend to be quiet, non-aggressive, non-confrontational and nice. Unlike the fundamentalists who tend to shout a lot, whether on street corners or in the news, we tend to work quietly behind the scenes trying to change things by reasonableness. We're not as good at standing up for our faith as the haters and homophobes are.

Well, the good news is that this - in America at least - is beginning to change. More people are coming out of the woodwork and publically declaring that we're Not All Like That. Which is great isn't it? It's taken a long time for it to happen, but thanks largely to a man called John Shore, it's beginning to get more and more militant.

I think personally I'm not so much a NALT Christian as a Won't Take It Anymore Christian. I won't take the smug triumphalist hateful nonsense of the fundamentalist bad news gospel anymore. I'm fortunate in that the Society of Friends is fully supportive of LGBTQ people, but nobody much notices you in the media unless you shout a lot. So, to misquote Ginsberg, "I'm putting my (un)queer shoulder to the wheel."

I'm sick and tired of the misrepresentation of Christianity by these sorts. If Jesus was about anything, he was about love. True faith does not cast people into the outer darkness for being different; it is welcoming and open and radically inclusive of everyone. True faith doesn't deny the questions, it lives in the tension of those questions.

I know that the atheists among you might want to tell me that I shouldn't be believing in God anyway; and it's complicated by my own rather apophatic (look it up) approach to the traditional creeds and beliefs of Christianity. But I don't want to get into arguments about the existence or non-existence of divine beings; this is too important. People are still being villified for being gay, young men and women are still contemplating suicide because they think they're wrong, and people in Russia and some African countries are still being jailed because of their sexuality. And in the name of Christ, Allah, or any other God you care to name, it has to stop.

Saturday, September 14, 2013

The Ethics of Collage

There's been a lot of righteous outrage about plagiarism in the poetry world of late. Rightly so: to take someone's work, change a few words and then pretend it's your own is an awful thing to do. Poets, of course, will continue to be influence by other writers and there's nothing wrong with that. Poets will borrow from each other freely, hopefully; but in their own words not the words of the borrowed.

Some have 'justified' their stealing as 'sampling' or 'collage'; and it's true that collage is almost the modernist technique par excellence, seen in the work of Pound and Eliot, for instance . The difference between Pound and Eliot and the average plagariser, however, is that both those poets were very open about what they were doing and they were creating entirely new works from collage, not pale imitations of the original texts, with just a few words change.

So I think, for those of us who do use collage extensively, it might be good to put down on this blog what are my personal 'rules of appropriation.'

1) It must be a completely new work Not an imitation; like a Yellow not a Red Wheelbarrow, but a completely new work. The notes at the back of the Wasteland tell you the sources he used, but they don't tell you anything about what the poem is about, because he is using the sources rather in the way Picasso uses collage: to make a new work.

2) Wherever possible, literary sources should be acknowledged, especially if the person sourced is alive; or pretty darned obvious if not. Not literary sources (I've used signage on shop windows for instance) need not be specifically sourced (in my case, I can't always remember which shop or advert I used) just generally acknowledged.

3) Tributes are ok as long as they're acknowledged. Centos: it would be better if the sources went with the poem, but if that proves awkward, then at least call it a cento.

4) I personally would never use the work of a living poet without their express permission. In the heady world of New York School poetry in the '60's, some poets, Ted Berrigan in particular, often recycled both his own and other peoples' lines; but he was part of a particular scene where that would probably be tolerated among themselves. And what he did with it was always new, often amusing and the original writer probably wouldn't have minded a bit.

5) Do not enter competitions. (That's a personal rule).

6) Make it new. Whatever else you do. If you can't manage that, take up painting by numbers or something.

Saturday, September 07, 2013

The Major Poet Syndrome

Interesting rather 'mixed' review of Nathan Hamilton's Dear World & Everyone In It anthology in The Wolf magazine. Interesting not so much for its opinion about the book, so much for what it says about what the reviewer (Todd Swift) seems to be looking for. He seems to be rather anxious to find The Next Big Thing. This seems to be a common thing among reviewers and critics: everyone seems to be looking for the next Auden, the next Larkin, maybe in some circles, the next Pound or the next J H Prynne, if that were possible.

In Todd Swift's case, he mentions that some of the poets could be the next Larkin, Plath or Hill. What he doesn't do, and what I suspect the standpoint of the anthology is getting at, is actually question whether we need a next Major Poet at all. Because whether that major poet likes it or not, it is assumed that this or that Major Poet is the way for everyone to write. He or she becomes the influence de jour as it were.

But what if, instead of trying to look for the one who will turn into the next Major Poet, as if there could only be one top dog, we look to value poets for what they are, not as part of some imaginary league table with winners who get to influence everyone else?

Hamilton's anthology betrays a whole panoply of influences in its pages. Prynne, Bunting, Barry MacSweeney - and yes, probably Carol Anne Duffy and Simon Armitage. No-one can deny the influence of Roddy Lumsden on contemporary poetry, but there's also Rupert Loydell and Robert Shepherd there too. There isn't a single set of influences on young British poets anymore.

Is that not a good thing? Do we need another Armitage or Duffy? Not that there won't be poets influenced by other poets; I can already see Luke Kennard as an influence on newer poets even than these; but another stream is going to be influenced by Keston Sutherland. And another stream is going to be influenced by (name your own...)

A lot of people have been grieving over the death of one of the last Major Poets of this age, Seamus Heaney. Though I suspect he's not that much of an influence on younger poets, certainly he was on a lot of poets my age. Not me, however; much as though I like some of his poems, I can't say I ever hung on his every word. My influences were outside the mainstream, at least once I got to Manchester, and often not even English (I even prefer Appollinaire as a war poet to Wilfred Owen.)

If we can away from the frantic search for the next Major Poet, maybe, just maybe, we can begin to acknowledge the presence of various streams in British poetry that have always existed but haven't fitted into this singular narrative where there always has to be a Top Dog, a capo di capo of poetry, and start to be able to look over at what the other people are doing as simple another part of the rich tapestry that we're all making together.

Friday, September 06, 2013

My Objection to Competitions And Other Thoughts

I'm not a big fan of competitions. Competitions encourage the idea that there are winners. And if there's winners, there's losers. Especially in poetry, the idea that you can win competitions with a certain kind of poem means that the conservative notion of poetry as a kind of compressed narrative which doesn't rock the boat or challenge expectations is preserved. The same is true of slams as far as 'spoken word' is concerned. It's not necessarily the crowd-pleaser that wins, but the judge pleaser.

Then again, competitiveness encourages poets to compete with one another rather than exist as a supportive community. It's a form of capitalism, whichever way you put it: and slams are even more so, poets competing in a kind of bear-pit of 'verbal dexterity'. Not that it doesn't produce good poets; but that it produces lots of losers, who with a helping hand might find their own poetic stream to swim. Like capitalism, it produces conformity not diversity. Poetic revolution it is not.

Which brings us to another thing. A friend of mine came to a poetry workshop with a poem written in the shape of a square. A 'shape poem' as it were. Not unusual in the world of poetry; but I suspect rather unusual in the common or garden poetry meeting. What would happen if someone came to your writing group with a shape poem? Who would be the first to say 'that's not a poem'? There is a whole tradition - dating from as early as the beginning of last century - of concrete poetry, 'sound poetry' and experiments with the look of poetry on the page. How many people are even aware of this history, much less have an opinion on it?

Fortunately, that person met me: because I myself know about this history I can say to someone who brings something like that. "actually, you're not an aberration, you're not completely out on a limb, you're not mad, have a look at this, and there's that, and you might be interested in this..."

Sometimes, it's not about 'good' poetry or 'bad' poetry; and while standards exist for each type of poetry, they are never entirely objective. A good competition poem would make a bad experimental poem etc. That's why I think categories matter; not as a way of dividing one poet from another, but so that those who do things in a different way, are not totally isolated and made to feel 'mad.' Going to poetry events where everybody is telling you how wonderful Carol Anne Duffy is, while you're reading Robert Creeley, can feel terribly isolating.

Poetry is the glory of "things being various"; and ought to be a community not a bearpit. Which might be terribly utopian and naive of me; but I can't help but dream.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

My Debt To New York

I just posted on my Facebook page a video of Anne Waldman and Ted Berrigan reading their historic collaboration, Memorial Day, and I thought I'd try to express a few thoughts about what it is that the New York School means to me as a poet in 21st century Manchester.

Firstly, they are for me the great enablers. Every poet needs enablers: poets whose work you read and identify with immediately, who make it possible for them to write the poems they want to write. For many, it might be Thomas Hardy, or Philip Larkin, or even Simon Armitage. Thomas Hardy, however, never struck me as someone who spoke my language. I have no complaint with anything he wrote; I just never got struck by its lightning the way I did when I first read Frank O'Hara. For awhile, I wanted to be O'Hara: a gay man in New York, meeting great artists and going to lots of parties. Of course, I'm neither gay nor do I work for the Museum of Modern Art; but I learnt more than I know from him about how to structure a poem, about how to hold several thoughts into one line and how to go on your nerve.

Secondly, and I see it in the performance of Anne Waldman and Ted Berrigan, there is a seriousness about the New York School that is leavened with humour, irony and a deep awareness of the world around them. I say humour; but it's not 'comic verse'; although Koch for instance can be hilarious, he's also intensely aware of language, of love, of despair. These poets are not putting on an act; but neither are they taking themselves so seriously that they fall over into bathos.

Thirdly, there's a freedom in their verse that I think we can all learn from. They're not constrained by the thought-policeman that says that you can't put that in a poem. Take Ron Padgett's silly little poem:

I will sleep
in my little cup

- that's the whole poem. Just that. No attempt at making some poetic epiphany, or "myself am hell" self-dramatising. Just a little daft quip; and instead of hiding it in his notes, he puts it in a book. It's in his Selected Poems along with a whole bunch of more 'serious' verse that is much more involving and deep! Daftness is OK! And sometimes I like to be daft.

I spent an awful lot of my writing life trying to be something I'm not. the New York poets stopped me from trying to be whatever that was. They opened up the world of urban writing to me. I live in a city, not the rural England of Thomas Hardy; and the New York poets showed how it was possible to be a poet in the city. Not simply by 'writing about it'; but by hearing the energy and the music of the city. Or wherever you are; it's about being in the 'now' not the 'then'.

Hardy, for me, is all about 'then'. O'Hara was about the 'now'. The New York poets made it possible for me to escape the lure of 'then' and write about my 'now.'

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Now That's What I Call Chugadelica, Vol 95

My flatmate Fiona created a new musical genre recently. It's called Chugadelica and basically consists of any music that is reasonably well-put together, that chugs along at a medium pace from start to finish and that never really does anything exciting all the way through the song. Examples of the genre might include the complete works of Travis, Oasis and Coldplay, for instance. Inoffensive, bland but not so bland it never becomes an earworm, mildly pleasurable but nothing to get excessively excited about.

When I first heard punk, I heard music that deliberately offended, either lyrically or musically. It was often deliberately offensive to the ear. But it was undoubtedly exciting; and it made you at least sit up and take notice. Unlike a lot of contemporary rock/pop music which is perfectly tuned for the market, it wasn't trying to impress you with its musicianship or pluck your heartstrings with its sentiments. Its motto was, Fuck Art Let's Dance.

There's quite a lot of British poetry that reminds me of Chugadelica. It's not bad poetry, let me be clear about this. Bad poetry abounds too, but it can easily be spotted; obvious rhymes, de-dum rhythms and a plethora of cliches. Like playing Chopsticks on a piano. No-one would give it a second glance. But the OK stuff, the chugadelic stuff, is given awards, is published in magazines and is generally well-represented in the anthologies.

The thing about the really interesting music is that it never was found in the usual venues. Those of us who preferred the noisy blast of punk and the fractured funk of post-punk, who would rather listen to the Fall to the musical conservatism of Phil Collins (grandfather of Chugadelica) and Mike & the Mechanics, had to turn to John Peel's show to hear anything worth listening to.

It's the same with really interesting poetry. It's almost never found in the Poetry Review or other organs of Chugadelic poetry; but it is to be found in alternative magazines and publishers, among reading series and poetry nights where literally anything goes, and it's out there ready to be discovered.

Fuck Art. Let's Poet!

Wednesday, August 07, 2013

On Conceptualism and stuff

I'm not, I'll freely admit, the world's biggest fan of conceptual poetry; but I've recently been rather amused by the hoo-ha about in American literary magazines and blogs of late. It's accused of being all concept and no affect: all head and no heart if you like. Which strikes me as odd because those poets conceptual poets I do like, Caroline Bergvall and Christian Bok, don't strike me that way at all. I haven't read much of Kenneth Goldsmith either, but he strikes me as a profoundly comic writer as much as he's anything else.

The thing about comic writing, though, is that it isn't supposed to be 'affecting'; it's supposed to provoke a reaction. Hopefully to make you laugh. The idea of printing out the whole internet is not a serious idea; it's ridiculous, silly, absurd; and if it provokes you to squeal in protest, "but how is that poetry?", then it's achieved its effect. It affects you by making you angry or amused, or possibly even both.

Now I personally learned how to write by carrying Frank O'Hara around in the pocket of a leather jacket I affected to wear at the time. Humour and seriousness go together like Laurel and Hardy in my mind. The idea that one should be grimly serious all the time in this ridiculous world of ours strikes me as one of the funniest jokes around. I like some flarf too though being British, I don't keep up with it very much. There's also the whole alt lit schtick which I've barely scratched the surface of.

I've fortunate to live in a city with its own conceptualist writers. In a bid for literary infamy, I'm going to refer to them as the Manchester Conceptualists, who use Oulipean and permutational methods to create poetry that is often funny and serious at the same time. Tom Jenks created a wonderfully funny text from chat-room comments about Putin that was read to support Pussy Riot. Phil Davenport, for my money, is one of the best poets in Manchester; his use of the techniques of visual poetry, his juxtaposition of his own diaries with found material, and his work as writer in the community often create texts that are both very conceptual and profoundly moving.

The problem with a lot of people is that they want poetry to be one set of things; but not another set of things. They want poetry to be about feeling; fine. But all poetry involves concepts, ideas, forms into which the feelings are put. Free verse is one form; sonnets are another, visual poetry yet another. Sometimes the feelings are on the surface and we can all go "aaah"; but sometimes they are deeper underground. Laughter is an emotion too, remember.

Anyway, I'm off next week on my annual jaunt to the island of Arran. I may well come back and report on it. Or I may not, I'll see how I feel.

Tuesday, July 09, 2013

Performance vs Page?

Just wanted to put down some vague thoughts about the performance/page thing.

I often find that I really like a performer when I see them perform. Then I read their work, and without their voice, it doesn't lift off the page. What's that got to do with?

Often, it seems there's too many words. Too much waffle around the subject perhaps. Too much trying to explain what you're saying perhaps. Like we won't get it if you don't explain it.

If I want to red-pencil a poet's work, it's because it's not working for me. Too many words. But some performers do get it right for the page as well as the stage.

Many performance poets are very dramatic and exciting to watch. That's in contrast to the mousy quietness of a lot of 'page poets.' However, sometimes they can overdo it and come across as stagey.

Many performance poets actually learn how to use a microphone. This is in contrast to page poets who seem afraid of it.

Performance poets are often refreshingly direct and don't go round the metaphorical houses to say something. Sometimes they're too obvious, but then page poets can be too subtle sometimes and avoid actually saying anything.

They're not afraid of jokes, though quite often they tell bad jokes and that's not good.

Page poems are often quieter and more reflective than performance poets, but that's not always the case and sometimes quieter voices get lost among the noisier ones.

There's a lot of sniffiness about which is best, the page or the stage, from both sides. I've been guilty of it myself. 'I don't like performance/page poetry' is often like saying 'I don't like carrots' though you've never eaten a carrot in your life. Or the one time you ate it it was overcooked.

Both page and stage poets can get stuck in doing things in over-familiar ways, or just pleasing one's audience. Don't, in otherwords, be afraid to experiment for yourself.

Monday, June 10, 2013

The Word 'Innovative'

I recently got into a discussion on Facebook in which someone actually declared that Carol Ann Duffy was an 'innovative poet.' Now, I don't want to get into a discussion about the relative merits of CAD as a poet, whether she is good or bad, but I would like to ask, in what way, if the word 'innovative' is to mean anything at all, a poet like CAD can be called that.

One person suggested that it was because she'd written love poetry as a woman to a woman. Hello? Did the 1970's feminist poetry never happen? Or perhaps the people saying this never read past the '80's, and a very narrow definition of the '80's at that? The 'Penguin Book of Contemporary British Poetry' not the Paladin British Modern Poetry' version of poetic history perhaps? An '80's British poetry without 'Conductors of Chaos' might make Carol Ann Duffy into an innovative poet, just about, but even then I doubt it.

Or: it's her use of the vernacular that marks her out as 'innovative'; and here we get even further into the realms of historical revisionism. What happened to Chaucer, for instance, or coming within living memory, Philip Larkin? Her use of the dramatic monologue is derived from Browning, including even her use of rather unsavoury characters (psychopaths and the like: see Porphyria's Lover and My Last Duchess.) Her use of ordinary working class characters isn't too original either: Wordsworth's Leechgatherer springs to mind, though perhaps she's less philosophically allegorical.

Which isn't to say anything about how good or bad she is at doing these things. There are good things in The World's Wife and Meantime that any mainstream poet would be proud to have written. But none of them do anything but develop forms and methods that were already around; often very well, I have to say. She's a consolidator, and perhaps, due to her exam board status, a populiser, not an inventor of new forms or an explorer of new themes. Which is perhaps what you'd expect from a laureate poet; someone who is always on the outer limits of linguistic daring is hardly going to appeal to your average Guardian reader.

The word innovative would, it seems to me, imply that the poet is stepping out into new territory, trying something new that might not actually be very popular but would prove to be an influence on future generations. Gertrude Stein comes to mind as someone who is still innovative: someone who changed and increased the possibilities of writing both poetry and prose. Are there any truly innovative poets today? I'm not sure there are; even the non-mainstream poets of today are basically riffing off the revolutions of the past.

However, at least they are experimenting and taking things forward. Carol Ann Duffy, whatever her virtues, is not; not that she ought to of course. Many poets are content to develop what has already gone before. That's fine, and nobody should be criticised simply because they don't want to be experimental. We should all be criticised for what we do, well or badly, not because of what someone thinks we ought to do. If I don't think much of her latest laureate poem, it's not because it's not experimental; it's because I don't think it's very good.

There are lots of good poets who are not in any meaning of the 'innovative'. Despite my interest in experimental writing, I don't think I am, really. I just like mucking around with language, rather than just 'having something to say,' like a lot of people in the non-mainstream camp. I use cut-n-paste and collage, juxtaposition and various other 'avant garde' techniques; but I haven't invented a new way of writing.

Carol Ann Duffy is good at what she does; if it doesn't interest me much, that's because of a different approach to poetry and language.  But don't make claims about her that can't be backed up. Carol Ann Duffy has never 'innovated' in her life.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Thoughts After Cusp 2

Never underestimate the value of a good library. Somewhere I came across the poetry of Frank O'Hara. It must have been the poems read in anthologies in the John Rylands University of Manchester Library. I remember I bought the book Lunch Poems from a bookshop no longer there on John Dalton Street. Then I carried it around with me, heaven in my pocket, for ages and ages, even across Europe because I couldn't bare to part with it.

Strange things in little magazines: there was for awhile, a collection of filling cabinets in Withington Library, which included back copies of 2nd Aeon, the Eric Mottram era Poetry Reviews and a whole host of weird and wonderful stuff. I was fascinated and barely understood half of it. It was where I first saw my first visual poetry.

Getting an understanding of what makes someone follow the less well trodden paths of British avant garde and experimental poetry whilst others go down the more mainstream paths isn't easy. I was fascinated, I suppose, rather than put off, by things I didn't understand. At various times, I was involved with working class writing, with wanting to be a performance poet, with wanting to write like Simon Armitage or other mainstream poets (Tony Harrison for awhile) but they never seemed to fit.

I never really knew many people who were experimental. Rupert Loydell of Stride magazine and press was one. I went to visit him at his studio in Crewe once; and an early publication was in Stride magazine, when it was still a paper edition. There I was exposed to another set of adventurous writers.

I never showed my most experimental poems to people, didn't know what to do with them. I went to Manchester Poets group, where everybody was extolling the virtues of mainstream poets I secretly found a bit dull. Craig Raine's reading was memorable only for his snazzy jacket. I used to go to Peter Sansom's workshops in Huddersfield, which at first were great and I learned a lot. There was at least an awareness of the New York School there, and I still like the underrated Geoff Hattersley's work from then, like a slightly later more cynical and funnier Jim Burns.

I borrowed John Ashbery from the library. I increased my book collection because of reviews through City Life.

But the central mystery remains. I like the odd stuff, the outre, the outside the mainstream stuff. In the end, however polite I am sometimes about it (and I'm not always), the poetry that interests me is experimental, strange, outside the obvious. Finding a community hear in Manchester, however small we are, has at least made me comfortable about that.

Friday, May 03, 2013

After 'Cusp: The Event'

It was a great reading: hearing poets read not their own work mainly but the work of other poets. Geraldine Monk was the hostess with the mostest, and the readers included Jim Burns, Tim Allen, Ian Davidson, Frances Presley, Nicholas Johnson and sundry others. Readings of Roy Fisher, Gael Turnbull, and other luminaries of British Modernism; but one of the highlights for me was hearing part of a poem by Elaine Randell. Cusp the book is a kind of collective biography of regional poetries throughout England, so the whole event sent me down my own set of memory lanes.

Jim Burns talks in the book of how hard it was to find friends who liked the kinds of things you do in the '50's. Not much call for Beat poetry in Preston; and there wasn't much call for poetry of any kind in Accrington in the '70's either. We did have a bookshop, and I got into Ted Hughes because of it; and two libraries: the one in Accrington and the one in Blackburn. I remember going to a day dedicated to Ted Hughes in Padiham Library once, at which Glynn Hughes was the guest reader. There was another event in Blackburn library; I can't recall much about it but there was a Lancashire dialect poet there.

It was when I got to Manchester to do a theology degree that I began to discover other poetries than the standard ones (Larkin and Co.) Frontline Books on Newton Street were a great help: I was introduced to Geraldine Monk, Kelvin Corcoran and the Pig Press edition of Beyond All Other by Elaine Randell. Lee Harwood's work I first began to read extensively via a bookshop in Grassmere of all places, on two successive Quaker Meeting retreats. I'd read a few of these people in the Paladin Book of British poetry and I got a few of the Paladin books via writing reviews for City Life magazine. Unfortunately, in a fit of anti-modernism, I gave some of them away. But I still have Iain Sinclair, Douglas Oliver and Christopher Middleton.

There was nothing much going on regarding readings. Manchester Poets was essentially very conventional. I used to go just to meet other poets. The workshop was quite helpful, but it seems to me that for many years there was a division between what I was writing and what I was reading. It wasn't until I started taking a pair of scissors to my poems that I began to properly explore my experimental side; though there are things in files that are attempted experiments. Sometimes they fail miserably, but I was working in a kind of vacuum. I was aware of all this stuff that didn't get attention and it fascinated me even if I didn't understand it.

There's more to be said; but I'll come back to it in Part 2.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Anthologies and stuff

I've been reading lots of anthologies recently. There's been a lot of them about, from Identity Parade to the new anthology of North-West Poets, Sculpted, only just out, beautifully packaged and full of poets from the North-West of England, including me. (Of course you all want one don't you?)

One thing I've noticed about all of them is that they all represent a fraction of what is happening, even given the restrictions they placed themselves under. Anthologies of young poets, for instance, that don't include so-and-so. Why don't they include who-je-ma-flip? But that's OK; because look, here they are in this anthology of young poets. This is true even of regional anthologies: I can think of a few poets missing from Sculpted, for instance, some who joined the group after the anthology was already in production or some who are not yet members of the group or might not want to be part of it.

Even an anthology of young often experimentally inclined poets such as Nathan Hamilton's Dear World and Everything In It, does not include every deserving experimental young poet in the country. If we can have Keston Sutherland, for instance, why not Sean Bonney? Or where is Richard Barrett? Etc... I'm sure there's people all over the country saying, where's she, or he?

Anthologies used to be representative of at least the best of the trends in poetry at the time, whether that was the mainstream as represented by the Movement-influenced Penguin Book of Contemporary British Poetry, or the more radical, Modernist influenced Conductors of Chaos. No anthology includes everybody; but pretty much anyone who you'd expect to see, plus a few surprises, tended to be in them all.

But there's so many poets writing now, that it's become impossible for one anthology to represent the whole scene. Perhaps it always was the case; and there have always been good poets who never got into the anthologies; but it's even more so now. Sculpted, with 62 poets, represents a fragment of what's being written now, and is worth reading, in the North-West region alone.

Which is all to the good, but no-doubt confusing. There are names that keep cropping up in many of the anthologies: Luke Kennard, Emily Berry, Ahren Warner and Heather Phillipson seem to be the names do jour of the present crop of young poets. No-one however is dominating in the way that Carol Anne Duffy and Simon Armitage did. One thing that is evident is that there is a spread of formal possibilities, from variations on traditional forms to the opennest of open forms (it that a word? It is now!) and they're all mixed up together in the one anthology, not cordonned off into their own corraal where they only ever speak to like minded individuals. In Sculpted, for instance, we have prose poetry, dual-column poetry and rhyme rubbing up against one another, arguing with one another, making friends with one another perhaps. It's not been like this since - maybe the Sixties (when according to Andrew Motion, nothing much was supposedly happening.)

I think there's two possibilities. Either we can get over the binary thinking that puts experimental and mainstream in two camps firing potshots at one another; or we can embrace the pluralism, get with the programme as it were. Poetry in this country is enjoying a renniasance, even if the media hasn't cottoned on yet.

Monday, February 25, 2013

Excess All Areas?

"In New Lines (1956) Robert Conquest advocated 'a sound and fruitful attitude to poetry', after the self-expressive 'excesses' of the poetry of the 40s, the mistake of the generation was to give 'the Id, a sound player on the percussions side under a strict conductor, too much of a say in the doings of the orchestra as a whole.' Instead, felt Conquest, a 'new and healthy general standpoint...[demonstrating a] reverence for the real person or event' was required [my italics]."

Nathan Hamilton from the introduction to Dear World and Everyone In It, the new anthology of young poets from Bloodaxe.

This is interesting: are we seeing a new revival of excess in poetry, a new generation of poets who, like the 40s poets, feel they have nothing to lose by going over the top in terms of imagery, feeling, ideas, in terms of the shape of poems and the page? It seems like there are very few, or certainly a lot less, younger poets writing those well-behaved, sensibly-clothed poems the Movement advocated. Maybe it's a consequence of the recession and its continuing uncertainties, or the rise of new media and the access to all kinds of ideas provided by the Internet; but there does seem to be a seachange in poetry, away from neat lines, controlled metaphors, regular verses and tentative feelings into something wilder.

This is true I think even of those young poets who are now beginning to be published by Faber & Faber: such as Emily Berry, a poet who is not wildly experimental, and maybe owes something to early Armitage but who is really entirely her own voice. There's something devil-may-care about the poetry of young poets which is, to my mind, very refreshing. So it's not just about the old binaries of avant verses mainstream; it's about wearing a very unsuitable pair of pumps to walk up Goat Fell, and surviving the attempt. In fact, some (not all by any means) of the new experimental poets look a bit too like the previous generations for their own good.

I don't know how long this will last, or whether it will have a lasting effect; all I know is that I like it. It's about time for a little excess: maybe we're partying while the Titanic of this nation's economy is sinking and we're ruled by a party of puritanical blame-the-poor-but-not-the-bankers Tories, but it's producing some great poetry.

Friday, February 15, 2013

More categories not less?

One of the perpetual arguments in the poetry world is the old old binary position of non-mainstream verses non-mainstream. The most common response is to say that 'I'm just a poet, I don't need categories.' The problem with this is that clearly there is more than one kind of poetry out there. However, the old binaries don't really seem to operate anymore; or at least in the same way.

In the '60's and '70's, there was clearly an official  culture; the stuff published by the major publishers, for instance, the Movement poets and others were in the ascendant. Then there was the 'poetic underground': the experimenters, the beats, various forms of poetry that were shoved together into one block and largely dismissed as irrelevant by the so-called mainstream. This meant that the '70's could be dismissed by Andrew Motion and Blake Morrison as the era of 'nothing much happening'; whereas an awful lot was happening.

Even then, however, it's clear that the binaries didn't really work. How could one put the work of, say, Peter Riley and Bob Cobbing into the same category? They were both poetry, or labelled as such; and they were both seen as being in the 'non-mainstream' category; but in what way do they have anything in common apart from 'not being mainstream?'

We could, of course, just call it all poetry and be done with it. But that's to ignore the fact that it's impossible to assess a poem by Andrew Motion in the same way as you'd assess the poetry of, again arbitrarily, the poetry of Bill Griffiths. And it also doesn't seem fair to so-called mainstream poetry, as if all 'mainstream' poetry were the same.

I've been reading Janet Rogerson's A Bad Influence Girl, a pamphlet of seemingly straightforward narratives that often start off in the ordinary world, and end up somewhere strange, dreamlike, a bit nightmarish sometimes. The techniques are fairly straightforward, but the results are not. Is it mainstream? It seems to have no influence from the Duffy/Armitage school, except in technique. It reminds me of Charles Simic - but also of Russell Edson, whose surreal narratives are placed somewhere between experimental and mainstream.

Younger poets now especially seem much more able to slide between categories, to avoid binary oppositions, than they ever did before. There are many who explore different forms of experiment, and combine it with a much more approachable surface. So are we all justpoets?

I don't want to be the one to make a lot of new categories; but it's always seemed odd that in other art
forms, and even other forms of literature, there are lots of categories, but in poetry, we're all justpoets. Science-fiction, detective, fantasy, thriller, 'mainstream fiction' are all out there. We have cubist, abstract, landscape, portrait, installation, land art etc etc. The major problem with this, of course, is that it further divides readers. A science fiction reader might not look at a good historical novel. Someone who writes surrealist verse might not read formalist verse at all. We all might miss stuff we might otherwise like, or become terribly sniffy about other kinds of poetry to the one we like, the way science fiction readers are all thought of as geeks.

Nevertheless, it is important to remind ourselves that different kinds of poetry require different kinds of attention; you can't read a visual poem the way you read a narrative poem, anymore than you can listen to a heavy metal track the way you'd listen to Monteverdi.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Political poetry and stuff...

Been thinking recently about the vexed problem of how to write about the political situation of the present age. I had a poem accepted and printed in The Robin Hood Book, one which was a cut-up including the words of Bob Diamond, CEO of RBS and a commentary on a picture by Paul Klee. Now, that is definitely political - its intent is at least partly satirical - but its other, and perhaps major, impulse, is aesthetic. The mixture of two languages - corporate speechifying and art crit - is what interested me as much as any message it had.

Being in such an avowedly political anthology, however, has made me think about how poetry can be 'political'. I have a great deal of sympathy for the position of George Oppen, who gave up poetry rather than become a mouthpiece for a political ideology. Poetry is about language, primarily; and its duty is to language not to ideology. Oppen's poems nevertheless have a sympathy for, and involvement with, 'the small nouns' and with the ordinary life of the planet; but they're not trying to impose an idea of the world onto the world. The same is true of Charles Reznikoff, whose documentary-style are incredibly moving without ever trying to impose a meaning, or indeed a feeling, onto the reader.

This is often what's missing from political poetry. A lot of political poetry seems preachy to me. I often find myself agreeing with the sentiment, disagreeing with the way it's stated. Besides which, it's often stating the bleeding obvious: capitalism is bad, poverty's bad, let's all get together in solidarity and fight The Man or The System.

Ultimately, what I like about the Objectivists, including Lorinne Neidecker, and the English poet Elaine Randall, is that their poetry allows the voice of the other through the words of the poem. They take a step back from imposing their meaning on the world; they're looking for what the world can say to them.

It's not the only way to be political, though. I was rereading Ian MacMillan's The Er Barnsley Seascape Poems yesterday: a sequence that is as political as it is funny, that sets up the absurd notion of Barnsley as a seaside town, celebrates the non-word 'er' and manages to be very moving and angry about the decline of Yorkshire mining communities all at the same time. His poetry can often be very funny, and sometimes that's all it is, but often the humour comes barbed with a political edge that makes it catch on your mind and sympathies like a fishhook.

Politics isn't just about ideas; though ideas are important. It's also about the way we live together. Poetry isn't always the best place to preach ideas; but it can be about how we live together. That, to me, is where political poetry is at its most effective, and that's where I'd like my poetry to be. On the side of the 'small nouns' not the big imposing ideas.