Monday, 13 August 2007

Simon Turner - What I like about Luke Kennard

What I like about Luke Kennard is the title of his new collection of poems from Salt, The Harbour Beyond the Movie. It has resonances.

What I like about Luke Kennard is his use of repetition. His poem 'The Murderer' contains the word murderer - and the verb forms 'murder', 'murdered', etc - 47 times, to my count. The effect is simultaneously infuriating and hilarious.

What I like about Luke Kennard is his way with simile and metaphor. I like in particular the final line of 'A Pergola of Exceptional Beauty': 'A tower block collapsed in his chest.'

What I like about Luke Kennard, in fact, is often his final - or 'punch' - lines. There are many examples throughout The Harbour Beyond the Movie which are almost as good as the 'tower block' line, but not quite. They are still, however, very good.

What I like about Luke Kennard is the fact that he doesn't really write like any other poet I can think of, which means I can forgo the execrable reviewerspeak shorthand of 'Like Andre Breton wrestling with Billy Collins dressed in a sumo suit, in a vat full of overdosing crabs', or some such nonsense, leaving me with my critical dignity intact.

What I like about Luke Kennard is, whilst his work does not immediately proffer up ready points of comparison with the contemporary poetry scene - which can only be a plus - it does seem indebted to certain strains within American literary postmodernism. I was reminded throughout of Donald Barthelme, a favourite of mine, particularly in prose pieces such as 'Blue Dog' and 'School'. Elsewhere, 'Photographs of the Notebook' reads like a pitch-perfect parody of the literary game playing of Paul Auster, remarkable for its concision and clarity.

What I like about Luke Kennard is his writing's capacity to make me laugh. But it is a bitter laughter, a cruel laughter. The laughter of a misanthropic book blogger with time to kill on a Saturday afternoon. The rain won't stop; I wrote all this in a red notebook I may or may not have stolen from 'Paul Auster'.

What I like about Luke Kennard is the wolf, his finest creation, who spends the prose sequence 'Wolf in Commerce' flirting with communism, moving through capitalism, and culminating in a shift towards 'plutocracy' ('rule by the coldest and furthest away'). Readers of a left wing bent might want to read this as some kind of 'allegory' for the ten years Tony Blair spent in office. I couldn't possibly comment.

What I like about Luke Kennard is the fact that his work has made me rethink my critical method. I am now of the opinion - or perhaps I was of the opinion before, and his work has clarified that opinion for me - that there is no distinction between the formal choices one makes as an artist or writer, and the formal choices one makes as a reviewer. There have recently been many passionate defences of the art of book reviewing, at a time when many newspapers are culling or radically reducing their review sections. These defences have often gone hand in hand with rather more negative criticism of online reviewing, as though there were some rigid hierarchy of opinion, as though print reviewers were gatekeepers, holding back the tide of some putative barbarian invasion from the Internet. This is clearly phooey. There are good reviewers and bad reviewers in cyberspace, just as there are good and bad reviewers in the 'real' world of print journalism: any other interpretation of the situation is rank stupidity. Certainly poetry reviewing in the mainstream press is growing increasingly poor: the books under review display an almost comical degree of aesthetic homogeneity; and the reviews themselves are written in the most uncritical of terms, very much geared towards the consideration of content, of emotional resonances, an approach which tends to leave aside the far more pressing question of whether such work has any value formally, as made work. What is increasingly apparent is that there is a received mode of mainstream reviewing, just as there is a received mode of mainstream imaginative writing. But where mainstream poetry is often vigorous and eloquent in its self-definition (and self-defence), mainstream reviewing is not so self-aware, and is therefore incapable of examining its own processes. Criticism which is written by the whole person, intellect and instinct in total harmony, I propose, must be aware of its own processes, must be willing to take the same formal risks as the work it is evaluating. An earlier attempt at this same article failed in this, and therefore failed outright: it was full of lazy insight and phony eloquence, replete with phrases like 'What this passage manages to achieve - in a remarkably deft and undogmatic way - is to stage all the facets of the debate pertaining to the representation of historical atrocity (pious and phony assertions of the 'death of irony' on the one hand, callous disregard for the loss of human life on the other), whilst remaining unscathed by the ideological excesses of either camp'. It was, in short, written to a formula of academic writing that preexisted the review itself; preexisted, in fact, my reading of Kennard's book, hampering in the process the immediacy of my response.

What I like about Luke Kennard is his brevity. He knows exactly when to stop.

1 comment:

Patrick Hart said...

What I like about this review is that it articulates what I hadn't been able to see that I liked about Luke Kennard before.

What I like about this review is that is was actually a formal pleasure to read.

What I like about this review is that it reminded me why criticism.

What I like about this review is that it sends me back to the book(s).