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.