I've just learnt, via Alan Baker's Litterbug blog, that Roy Fisher (one of the most important poets of the post-war period, as any fool know) will be giving a reading on October 28th, as part of the Beeston International Poetry Festival (when I was still living in Nottingham, that phrase alone would have been enough to send me into paroxsysms of joy for an uninterrupted month). The festival, running for two weeks and organised by John Lucas, the head honcho of Shoestring Press (like Alan Baker's own Leafe, a Nottingham cultural institution to be ranked alongside Alan Sillitoe and Shane Meadows), looks set to be of great interest. More details are available at Shoestring's website. I'm hoping to attend the reading, but if I fail to make it - public transport being something of a bum wrap between Warwickshire and Notts County - G&P will be sending at least one of its spies to make notes on proceedings. That is all.
Bob Mould - formerly of noise-pop pioneers Hüsker Dü, godfather of grunge, latterly something of a devotee to electro pop (no bad thing) - was also, briefly, the frontman of Sugar: a similar beast to Hüsker Dü, in many ways, but this time they threatened to spill over into mainstream success. 'Tilted' is from Sugar's second album, the harrowing Beaster, which is arguably the best album about self-loathing and religious crisis ever made. Enjoy.
I have a second collection out with Nine Arches Press, with the attention grabbing title of Difficult Second Album, as some of you may know. I'm using this as an excuse, both for some shameless self-promotion (George does enough of that himself, the tart, so I felt obliged to join in) , and to celebrate some of my own favourite 'difficult second albums'. First up is Siamese Dream, by Smashing Pumpkins, a kickass record. Not sure if it classes as 'difficult' in any real sense, but it's a good excuse to put up my favourite track from the album, 'Cherub Rock'. More substantial posts are on their way: we have been rather lax, but George is in Botswana, and I've been holed up finishing an essay on the Oulipo, which, in spite of my best efforts, turned in to something of a monster. Poor excuses, I know, but we'll make up for it with a September bonanza. In the meantime, enjoy the rock...
It pains me to see that Salt are on the trail again for reader support. This time around I caught the campaign in passing at first, which is interesting in itself: perhaps a certain degree of fatigue in passing email references, like "Salt are in trouble again", but with no link to the campaign or explanation for what was up. It's the third time now and it's kind of depressing to see that things haven't got better for them, for all the hard work, innovation in poetry publishing and exciting, diverse lists of authors. And the worry is that people are going to get tired of repeated bail outs.
There's an interesting post over at Alan Baker's blog, Litterbug. He makes a nice comparison to micro-breweries, 'beer publishing'. Specialist ends of industries can survive on the small scale with dedicated readerships and recessions don't really affect them. Neither do profits, of course. But that's not really what Salt's about.
The mission behind Salt that's always interested me is, loosely phrased, (and might be reading too much between the lines on my part) that there are more audiences out there for poetry than can be assumed: poetry readerships are multitudes. (I could phrase it better, but I'm going for the soundbite.) Salt have a fantastically experimental backlist, as Alan points out in his post. But they also have mainstream poets like Tobias Hill and Jane Holland. I have Silliman, Monk, Kennard, Abi Curtis, Tobias Hill, Holland and Montejo kicking about on my shelves. The list is diverse and that's something to be celebrated. I don't expect to buy every book Shearsman or Faber put out, or that they should exist to satisfy only my tastes (even if I pine for the lack of flavour in certain publishers' lists from time to time) and the same goes for Salt.
And it saddens me to think that this audiences-principle doesn't seem to be holding. Is the problem, like Alan suggests, that Salt is spread too thin? That they've adopted a corporate model which doesn't hold weight? Is the 'long tail' a failure in the long term?
As with any business, the option is open to vary the model for different audiences. What Alan describes - public subsidies, viability of sales - is what Salt are falling back on. They're relying on a core demographic to buy books regularly; to some extent they are operating on a subscription model. Call it the 'Just One Book' campaign, or call it 'Buy three books a year', or call it 'Arts Council funding', it amounts to the same thing in any case: a fixed, core operational funding stream from a given source that permits survival, within certain goalposts. The most irritating aspect of this is how it restricts editorial freedom, forces certain choices down lines that might not be fruitful, in a wider aesthetic picture ('This poetry deserves to be in print' goes out the window when you're relying on an unpredictable commercial funding stream). And that in turn leads to brand damage - witness how far Faber have moved from the Eliotian dream.
But brand loyalty is what the subscription model relies on, in contrast. Do we save Salt because of the brilliant personalities driving it? Or because the poetry's shit-hot? The poetry has to be there too, right? And the poetry is there, for me, just glancing at the new and forthcoming on their homepage: the John James companion, the new Rachel Blau DuPlessis Drafts, and stuff I've not heard of that looks exciting, like Lisa Dart's The Linguistics of Light (revamped metaphysics in short, clear lyrics, with references to Greece that tickle my mental g-spot).
What's missing here is a proper subscription model: why not turn the 'Just One Book' campaign into a full on, 'Save us by picking x books from our catalogue for £x a year' service? I'm thinking here of an article I read, some time ago (which I think I've confused with this one by Blake Morrison on editing - a great article in any case) which mentioned in passing a Swedish publishing collective with something like 30,000 annual subscribers. Is that viable in the UK? It should be, especially when publishing in English, with overseas reach.
But it just doesn't seem to happen. Salt already have the Poetry Bank and the Story Bank, but I get the feeling that they are nowhere near as successful as the Just One Book campaigns have been.
The danger of appealing to that multitude of readers who want to buy when & what they want to buy, is that they'll think they'll not get the books they want from a subscription, or they'll want to spend their pennies on presses other than Salt. At the same time, you may well be thinking, 'I want to help save Salt!' which is great. But instead of buying just one book, why not chip in for a subscription to one of their Banks instead? (This is assuming, given the pages are still live, that the subscription is still available, of course. I've not seen it promoted for a while, but I'd thoroughly endorse a change to the system even after I've bought one - e.g. 5 softbacks instead of 4 hardbacks, or somesuch.)
Or maybe you're just thinking: 'Why has he used so many colons and semis in this blog?' Your prerogative, ultimately, but it would be a sad lacuna in modern poetry publishing if Salt did fold, especially if that was due to your punctuative fixation. And Chris H-E's recent fb status is that they've only £1000 left in the bank. That's a sad place to be for a publisher that managed to hit £124k turnover a year, through selling poetry (OK, and other stuff, but their core is still the unsellable, 'the opposite of money', as David Morley calls it). Don't let it be said that Salt didn't prove there was a bigger market out there than we could have imagined. It just hasn't been consistent enough to keep them safe.
For those of you who were expecting a newly productive G&P after the summer, think again. Apologies for anyone hoping George and I would be applying our quick wit and gargantuan intellects to the pressing issues of the day for the last month or so, but we've both been on holiday and drinking, so there. But there's a great deal in the pipeline, including a review of Roy Fisher's latest collection, and some new poems by, among others, G&P favourites Hannah Silva and Mark Goodwin. In the meantime, enjoy a track by the Editors' (okay, my) new favourite band, Eagle Twin, the band every doom metal and Ted Hughes obsessive's been waiting for. Don't say you weren't warned...
Because this is how I generally spend my evenings, and because the Spain-Porugal match is infinitely less enlightening than it has a right to be - the general rule of "Catholic countries = amazing football" being undermined in this instance - I found myself, whilst hunting for material on F.T. Marinetti, everyone's favourite Futurist and apologist for Fascism, stumbling across Marjorie Perloff's website. Both of the Editors have been heavily influenced by Perloff's work - 21st Century Modernism: The "New" Poetics (2002), in particular, opened our eyes to a fascinating, if idiosyncractic reading of the history of Modernism - and it's a small tribute on our part to give her a plug here. Her website, I should add, is exemplary, with archived reviews, essays and book extracts, with a great rolling keywords widget that is more fun (for a poetry nerd at least) than a sack full of otters. Read and learn...
- The University of Greenwich is running the Cross-Genre Festival from Wednesday 14th-Friday 16th July 2010. Line-up looks astonishingly good!
- Probably there's lots more to say, but as a round off, to save the other editor the embarrassment of committing the 8th Deadly Sin, his new book, Difficult Second Album, is out from Nine Arches Press, as is Milorad Krystanovich's Improvising Memory. Two beautifully designed, bolshy publications.
- Oh wait, just remembered, at risk of committing aforementioned sin myself, Polarity Magazine UK, eggspawn of the New Surrealism, will be launching in London at 6pm, Sunday 27th June, at The Slaughtered Lamb.
rattled and smarted word clumps
that spored and blew off course.
Once a noisy grubber
now a Buster Keaton.
In this deficiency muteness unnerves, it is suggestible:
verging on emergency prostrate, it is also to be
as in go to and dig deep
as in membrane barrier from interference
as in photograph the derelicts
isolate damage, erosions and drag.
Burr of goose grass that primes these witnesses,
trims the mane where swirls sinuate.
Can’t Can’t Say
can’t can’t say can’t can’t say can’t can’t say
ohh ohh ohh ohh ohh ohh ohh ohh ohh
ohh ohhh ohh ohh ohhh ohh ohh ohhh ohh
can’t can’t say can’t say can’t say can’t say
tr tr tr tr tr tr tr tr tr tr tr tr tr tr tr
tr tr tr tr tr
still got plenty o’ words in head
in my head tt tt try try trying
Yes my only word Yes
when I should say No
tr tr tr
ht ht ht ht ht ht ht ht ht
In this becoming bodily sounds affirm
tttt tits words don’t keep directions
as much as lip teeth pressure
dispersed with call and flap of wings
m m m em em em erm erm erm
mm mm mm em em em mm mm mm
mem mem mem mem mem mem
Ain’t seen Paul. I sez he’s dead. Dead.
nnn nnn nnn nnn nnn nnn Yes
Don’t need no mind changing
Don’t need no left or right decisions
No static new circuit No new codes
can’t can’t say can’t can’t say can’t say
ohh ohh ohh ohh ohh ohh ohh ohh ohh
ohh ohhh ohhh ohhh ohhh ohh oh oh
can’t say can’t say can’t say can’t say
What I want is one foot in front of the light. The delicate choice of where to catch that old pike, the old wound beneath its crust of blood, slipping between lily pads,clogged artery of logs, branches; hip flask of sin
After The Author died His improvised foundation seized his laptop in the name of historical research. "Just think!" enthused a spokesman, "years of labour have been saved through this coup, now we do not need to guess when He was working, all the data is in this stronghold." A team of hackers worked on deciphering his passwords with relative success: "We still can't access his facebook account, but we suspect it includes the word 'jizzwizz.'."
His room was stripped, bills surgically reconstructed from the shredder, and photographic evidence of the contents of his fridge stored. The number of odd socks in his drawer was meticulously catalogued.
The foundation evicted the rest of his building and listed it a grade II. No 203 was transformed into a menagerie for the life forms found in The Author's bedsit. "This is invaluable!" exclaimed the spokesperson, gingerly pointing to a cockroach, "now we know the source of inspiration behind His epic poem 'Quit Bugging Me'."
The under-the-bed magazines that, in his case, were slumping against his DVDs were also confiscated for a new government-funded PhD: 'No Sex Please, We're British: a Study on the Influence of Print Pornography on The Author's Later Work.'
Sign recalling women thrashing the ice with sticks
to drip yellowing sheets in rain water: twist
and turn it, only clockwise, the other way brings the devil.
To drip yellowing sheets in rain water twist
inside. The machines have caught flies, and shake
to rid them. Three men and a woman are frozen.
Inside, the machines have caught flies, and shake:
they are making themselves a fable made of underwear.
The clock on the timer lies, you have to multiply it.
They are making themselves a fable made of underwear
to rid them of the three men and a woman selling perfume
on the benches as I scramble to hide my bras, my bones, .
The clock on the timer lies: you have to multiply it,
but I still waited too long to collect my exposed veins
from the only quiet, and now dark, washing machine.
The blackbird calling in the tree has found a mate
and the trees themselves are sprouting leaves
and we are wearing sandals
and swinging home with shopping bags
eggs, potato bread and beers
and my parents text from the queue
to the Eurostar
excited about their new trip to the Loire
and the drug dealers swerve their souped-up
engine down the wrong-way street
and Richard from upstairs is talking out his window
about sunshine and summer and ash
and inside you put on a CD
the kind Virginian lady singing of
night-time drives and gardens
and the dandelions have come up out of the ground
and the maple tree is blossoming, the jays
are being uncharacteristic
and the drug dealers’ stash is safe in the fence
and we fry the eggs, the bread,
sit at the table where the light comes through
the slatted blinds
and down the road the blackbird is calling out a new tune
and there is nothing in the sky
for the first time in my life
but space and air and big bold perfect blue.
Michael McKimm is from the Giant's Causeway, Northern Ireland. He graduated from the Warwick Writing Programme in 2004 and won an Eric Gregory Award in 2007. His poetry has appeared in Magma, Oxford Poetry, PN Review and The Warwick Review, and Dossier Journal (New York). His first collection, Still This Need, was published by Heaventree in 2009.
Not that Peter Gizzi is an entirely self-reflexive meta-poet, but a lot of the poetry he read at the event gravitated towards an awareness of poetry's potential, or more specifically, of the imagination.
"death in the imagination equals life itself"
Many lines stood out for their crafted punch. He's a poet working with pieces, assembling from many jigsaws a coherent collage, the parts often glued together by a semi-philosophical meditation. Conscious of how this can sometimes become self-indulgent, or too alienating, over a stretch, this was often punctuated by onomatopoeic bursts of sound - tings and whumps and crashes that served to jolt the reader back to relevance of the poetry to the real world.
[This same idea as I expressed it raw in my notes: "A deceptive line, a philosophical syntax, on the whole, broken by devices that restore access to the 'self' - the reader's humanity, presence in the room. They [the devices] feel like acts of generosity, not populist concessions, because they don't break the stride or tone of the whole - as he puts it, he writes 'strangely upbeat pieces'." The work had a dark undercurrent, fo'sure, especially when he tackled issues of US politics, such as the war.]
"It is on the tongue the sun abides"
This, literally: the sun shines out of the mouth, out of communication, both for the understanding conveyed by expression, and the delight. Gizzi's work was delightful, in a cerebral way, and though perhaps the balance didn't sit so well through his work consistently at first, perhaps that was my lack of familiarity with his work, except perhaps for a few pieces on PennSound and 'Beginning With a Phrase from Simone Weil' in particular (here as audio).
until the last two poems he read.
'Chateau if' is a masterful piece, a list of potentiality, a subtle paean to the imagination, and all that kind of bombastic over-praise that a great poem deserves. But really what I found myself thinking was, "Simon Turner would be fucking proud to have written a poem as good as this. God knows he tried and failed a few times." [*]
Peter closed with an extract from a similarly constructed list-poem, also built around a 'what if' repetition. This poem capped the whole reading, utterly sold to me the quality he's writing at right now, wiped out any doubts I may have had. He's purported to be on a meteoric rise in US letters, and this piece, from 'A Panic That Can Still Come Upon Me' is all the proof I need (audio here for parts 1 & 3).
(That said, we had a great time in the bar afterwards, swapping recommendations. Peter's a voracious reader, listing a truly diverse set of British tastes - Armitage & Duffy alongside Carol Watts, Tom Raworth, most of Shearsman and work from Rod Mengham's Cambridge outfit, Equipage. In return we threw Luke Kennard, and yes, Simon Turner at him, as well as Elisabeth Bletsoe and the forthcoming Shearsman anthology, The Ground Aslant, ed. Harriet Tarlo. I also ended up with a solid Jack Spicer reading list - Dan Katz, who hosted Peter's visit, is a bit of a specialist and recommended Spicer's After Lorca (extract here) and Poet by Like God, by Lewis Ellingham and Kevin Killian.)
"the cage he paces like Rilke's panther"
To another beast then, but one not so different. Heller's work shows great 'flow'. I've heard that word bandied about awkwardly in creative writing environments, but for a definition of how to capture 'flow' in poetry, one couldn't do better than turn to Heller.
"the worst thing is to feel only irony"
And so his poems refute pithy summations, epiphanic rising out at the end. Whole poems are built on the idea of the epiphanic moment, as if everything in the poem is a realisation, one long exposition of feeling. Here the idea of the 'spontaneous overflow' feels at work.
"a man eating dictionaries, avidly, passively" [**]
At the same time, Heller shows great learning, great intertextuality. I have to confess to being a bit off about closing circles between books these days; there's a danger that the snake bites its tail and starves too much.
[Or as my notes put it: "Much more immersed in intertextuality, referenced philosophy, rather than captured diction. e.g. Kierkegaard, Rilke, etc. The images feel more occasional, he creates a space in his head as a poem where connections forge."]
But he can do titles, oh yes, there's a lot to be said about Heller's titles:
'Like Prose Bled through a City'
Yes, marvellous. He's less keen on pronouncing words the way I'm used to, which was endearing, if a bit of a trip up:
'niche' pronounced 'nitch'
'irony' pronounced 'iyónny'
'swathe' pronounced 'swoth' (or did I mis-hear this?)
Heller ran with a lot of poems about poetry, and this was also a bit misjudged for my tastes, though all were written with a great weight to the rhythms, a beautifully refined ear for sound.
"In breath, out breath, aria of the rib cage equalling apse" [***]
There was a strong flow to all the poems, but also an imaginative jump-cutting at work, a sense of 'dissolve' to the image overlays. The overall impact far outweighed the precision, in contrast to Gizzi's writing; I had to say I withdrew a little at some of the descriptive language - fish were "silvery", the Thames "flowing", birds "taking flight" and somewhere something was caught "whispering silky words". But these minor gripes shouldn't get in the way of a poetics that's built on decades of practice, of course, a conscious decision to elevate movement and pace over precision. The urge to put out feeling and intent, over image.
When I asked the poets about this afterwards, Heller described working to the "arc" of the idea, playing out a totality, a total expression. He gave out a definite feeling of poetry's worth.
Gizzi, in contrast, worked to precision, through cutting down. He offered a helpful suggestion for his revision process in closing, one I'll be trying: when going over drafts of poems, try reading back just every other line and see what you lose or gain. He works by cutting lots, and this technique allows essentiality to rise out more clearly.
[**] I may have misremembered this phrase, there was a hefty clip to the poem's pace and a large amount of irritating background noise coming through the walls.
[***] I had a question mark by the word 'apse', not sure I'd actually heard it, though it made sense in the context of bone structures, breathing and arches. But I've found the extract online, from 'Eschaton' (last few lines). You also get to look at the real linebreaks. Cool, huh?
The last few days I've been delving into Tim Kendall's War Poetry blog, and wish I'd discovered it earlier, not least because I learnt via one of his posts that Geoffrey Hill gave a lecture earlier this month in Oxford on, unsurprisingly, poetry and war. Frustrating that I missed that, but extremely happy to have discovered Tim's blog. I look forward to reading more in the future.
Tom Chivers, in his pre-award nomination days. Wall provided by Ducat & Legbrace of Evesham.
The next Nine Arches Shindig! is happening this Sunday, May 16th, at Wilde’s in Leamington Spa. Guest readers include Lydia Towsey and Bob Mee (co-editor of Ragged Raven Press), and there's cracking musical support from Matt Campbell. Doors open at 6.30 and the whole shebang kicks off at 7.30. The Editors hope to see you there: we'll certainly see ourselves.
In other news - this is the really exciting bit - two of Nine Arches Press’s beautiful pamphlets, Tom Chivers’ The Terrors and David Hart’s The Titanic Cafe closes its doors and hits the rocks have been nominated for the Michael Marks Poetry Award. You can read more about this nomination here. The Editors would like to be among the first to offer Jane Commane and Matt Nunn, the head honchos at NAP, a hearty congratulations. The awards ceremony takes place at the British Library on Wednesday 16th of June at 6.30. Further information and tickets for the event are available here. Spread the word, my lovelies.
Ted Hughes, second from left, with Louis MacNeice, T.S. Eliot, W.H. Auden, and Stephen Spender
Ted Hughes’ poetry is a body of work profoundly interested in language as a subject. If this sounds like something of a redundant statement – very few poets can be said to lack interest in their basic medium – what I mean to suggest is that Hughes’ work is as concerned with language as subject as it is with language as form or medium. A key passage from Poetry in the Making should help to illustrate this point. In this instance, Hughes is discussing the ways in which a writer might use language to bring to life an everyday image, such as “that crow flying across, beneath the aeroplane.” “[H]ow are we to say what we see in the crow’s flight?” Hughes enquires. “It is not enough to say the crow flies purposefully, or heavily, or rowingly, or whatever. There are no words to capture the infinite depth of crowiness in the crow’s flight. All we can do is use a word as an indicator, or a whole bunch of words as a general directive.”
Language, for Hughes, is very often incommensurate to the task of representing reality: even a relatively simple fragment of reality as a crow flying beneath an almost empty sky. Words, argues Hughes in the same piece, “tend to shut out the simplest things we wish to say.” Hughes’ method after, say, Lupercal, might be seen as an attempt to try to find an appropriate language with which to represent nature, remaking the language afresh with each line, like Adam in the Garden, improvising variations on phrases and conceits in order to get at the subject as closely as possible, rather than worrying overmuch about the finish of the poem. But what happens to language when confronted with the facts of historical trauma and atrocity? Quite a number of poems in Hughes’ earlier volumes – most notably in The Hawk in the Rain – deal with the matter of the First World War, and the question of language seems to me to be central here, too. For Hughes, the First World War was the defining trauma of 20th century British life, much more so than the Second. In a review of First World War poems in the Listener in 1965, Hughes called the war Britain’s “number one national ghost. It’s still everywhere, molesting everybody”, whilst in a letter to Nick Gammage dated March 15, 1991, he reiterates the same point, stating that “the whole country was traumatised” by the war, and that as a child the war had dominated adult conversations, and his own consciousness to a startling extent.
Hughes’ own approach to the war is entirely continuous with the discourse of language outlined above. In particular, Hughes’ critical writing suggests that the failure that he sees in much Georgian poetry of the conflict might be a failure of language itself. In the same Listener review previously cited, Hughes notes that:
“apart from Owen and Sassoon, the poets lost that war. Perhaps Georgian language wouldn’t look nearly so bad if it hadn’t been put to such a test. It was the worst equipment they could have had – the language of the very state of mind that belied and concealed the possibility of the nightmare that now had to be expressed.”
Tellingly, the only poets – other than Owen and Sassoon – that Hughes sees as surviving aesthetically are Ivor Gurney and Osbert Sitwell, both of which “used a plain unpoetic language, which makes an impressive lesson in preservation among the other tainted fruit.” A binary system is being erected here ,with the “plain unpoetic” diction of Sitwell and Gurney operating as foil to the allegedly high-falutin’ rhetoric of the Georgians. The first succeeds, the second fails, because in the latter case, the language is incommensurate to the task at hand. Where Own and Sassoon fit is unclear, as neither fell foul of the excesses of Georgian poetry, yet neither could be said to write in a “plain unpoetic” style. (This is particularly true of Owen, I feel.)
This same opposition can also be seen in an encounter Hughes recounts his discussion of Orghast, a play written in an invented language which he devised with Peter Brook and Geoffrey Reeves in 1971. Researching a poem about Gallipoli, Hughes “had an enlightening encounter talking to two of the survivors – one eloquent, one taciturn ...” The eloquent veteran, whilst full of anecdotes, ultimately communicates least to Hughes (“dramatic skill concealed everything”), whilst his monosyllabic comrade “released a world of shocking force and vividness” through his very inarticulateness.
Bearing this in mind, I’ll turn now to an analysis of one of the ‘war’ poems in The Hawk in the Rain, and consider the ways in which it enacts the critical framework that Hughes erects in his prose writing on the subject of the war. ‘Griefs for Dead Soldiers’ is tripartite in structure, and revolves around three acts of memorialisation of the war dead. In the poem’s first section, a public memorial is erected; in the second, a war widow receives a telegram informing her of her husband’s death; in the third, soldiers in the field are observed burying their dead comrade. The language employed in each section suggests a kind of hierarchy of experience and suffering. In the first section, public memory – at the furthest remove from the atrocities of combat – is conceived of in highly wrought purple language. Heavy, Greco-Latinate abstractions – ‘mightiest’, ‘universal’, ‘monstrousness’, ‘cataclysm’ – combine to create a mock-Shakespearean rhetoric that, I would argue, seeks to satirise the way in which war is memorialised in public. The language Hughes deploys is the linguistic equivalent of the grandiloquent blood-and-thunder of most war memorials, the very same rhetoric that Mya Lin’s Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial sought to overturn:
“Make these dead magnificent, their souls
Scrolled and supporting the sky, and the national sorrow,
Over the crowds that know of no other wound,
Permanent stupendous victory.”
The section dealing with the war widow’s grief is less rhetorically overblown, deliberately so: there is a mundanity to Hughes’ portrait of her, which is all the more effective for being offset by the dramatic linguistic violence of the preceding section:
“To a world
Lonely as her skull and little as her heart
The doors and windows open like great gates to hell.
Still she will carry cups from table to sink.”
Yet it is the final section of the poem where the ‘truest’ grief resides. Where sections one and two re-enact violence and motion in linguistic terms, here the aftermath of violence is portrayed in the calmest, most motionless language possible. The language is reduced, for the most part, to monosyllables – inarticulate articulacy, once more – and where words which overstep those Anglo-Saxon bounds occur, they are of a far more colloquial quality than the abstractions occurring earlier in the poem. Hughes’ language here is by no means ‘unpoetic’ – it is unclear precisely what might be meant by that term, anyway – but it is plain, and as such, according to Hughes’ own critical terms, the closest language can come to an expression of genuine grief; whilst the dirt being shovelled upon the war dead by men who are “[w]eighing their grief by the ounce” becomes, in the poem, the one true honourable monument to the conflict.
Ted Hughes, Collected Poems (London: Faber, 2003)
---, Winter Pollen: Occasional Prose, edited by William Scammell (London: Faber, 1994)
---, The Letters of Ted Hughes, selected and edited by Christopher Reid (London: Faber, 2007)
I realize that The Editors have, collectively, been rather lax in their duties of late. Two months is rather a long time to wait for a substantial post. In our defence, April has been something of a difficult month for both of us. I've been jetting around the country - and overseas - with a new book out, and George has just returned from a sojourn in the woods, where he goes to recharge his primitive batteries every now and again. This has been compounded by the fact that I've been waiting to write a big review of Brian Turner's new collection, Phantom Noise, but Icelandic volcanoes and stock levels have slightly slowed my copy's arrival from the States. As an interim, and just to prove that I've not been completely slacking off, here's the text of a paper I delivered at the British Association of American Studies Annual Conference in April. If it's a little drier than what I normally produce, apologies, but academic form necessitates a slightly more formal approach. I still had more gags than any other paper I saw, though. For which I deserve a pie.
In a landmark essay on Robert Antelme, Georges Perec makes note of what he perceives to be an ambiguous attitude in critical responses to the literature of the Holocaust: “The literature of the concentration camps,” asserts Perec,
does not get attacked. The moment a book speaks of the camps [...] it’s more or less assured of being everywhere received with a certain sympathy. Even those who don’t like it won’t want to say hard things about it. At worst it won’t be spoken of at all.
However, this treatment of Holocaust literature with such critical kid gloves tends to place a value upon it solely in terms of its usefulness as historical documentation, whilst the question of literary merit is relegated to a secondary status. As Perec notes, “it’s clear that a careful distinction is being drawn between books like these and ‘real’ literature,” but whether this is due to a reverence for authentic historical experience as opposed to the potential inauthenticity of literature; or whether, conversely, it is Literature that is being elevated above ‘mere’ historical experience, remains uncertain.
Whilst Perec’s comments are specific to a particular body of work, and a particular political and historical moment – the early 1960s – they are at the same time more widely applicable to a critical attitude which pertains to the generality of various literatures arising from conflict and historical trauma. In his article ‘Combat Gnosticism: The Ideology of First World War Poetry Criticism’, James Campbell interrogates a tendency on the part of critical readings of WWI poetry to reinscribe the underlying ideological assumptions inhering in the poems themselves. Mainstream war poetry criticism, argues Campbell, “has formed around itself a certain set of aesthetic and ethical principles that it garners from its own subject.” Campbell reads this critical inwardness in relation to the phenomenon of ‘combat gnosticism’, which he defines as “the belief that combat represents a qualitatively separate order of experience that is difficult if not impossible to communicate to any who have not undergone an identical experience.”
Both Perec’s and Campbell’s observations remain relevant to the critical reception of the literature of historical trauma, and the ideology of ‘combat gnosticism’ that Campbell identifies has been nowhere more notable than in the ways in which Brian Turner’s debut collection, Here, Bullet, has been generally received by critics and reviewers. Here, Bullet was first published by Alice James Books in 2005, appearing in a British edition in 2007, and in both instances the book generated a great deal of attention, much of it emblematic of the critical paradigms detailed by Perec and Campbell. Much of this attention is due, in part, to Here, Bullet’s relative isolation in a literary field where memoir, journalism and political commentary have dominated in discussions of Iraq. It is easy to overstate the case of Here, Bullet’s cultural singularity: other poets, including the Iraqi Dunya Mikhail, in The War Works Hard, and the American Eliot Weinberger, in What I Heard About Iraq, have tackled the war from different perspectives to Turner; whilst the 2008 poetry anthology Language for a New Century, edited by Tina Chang, Natalie Handal and Ravi Shankar, necessarily expands the horizon of the west’s exposure to Middle Eastern war poetry through its inclusion of a number of contemporary poets from that region. However, it is undeniably true to say that Turner’s first collection is to date the most significant imaginative response to the war in Iraq written by an American serviceman. As such, Here Bullet has proven instrumental in a critical field that has placed a premium upon authorial authenticity, with Turner’s poems being read chiefly in terms of their ‘accuracy’ and utility as historical documentation, with matters of literary and aesthetic value being consistently relegated to a subordinate position. The concerns of this paper are, therefore, twofold. Firstly, I want to examine the ways in which this critical framework is expressed in a number of reviews and responses to Turner’s collection in the British and American press; but in addition, I will go on to examine the ways in which Here, Bullet, far from uncomplicatedly adhering to the ideological and aesthetic paradigms being erected around it, deploys a number of strategies and authorial modes quite at odds with a reading of the poems as pure, unfiltered documentary.
In 2007, shortly before the appearance of the British edition of Here, Bullet, the Guardian published an article by James Campbell [not the same James Campbell cited previously], in which the author repeated a question that C Day Lewis had first asked in the early years of the Second World War: “Where are the war poets?” Perceiving a comparable paucity of front-line poets from the contemporary conflict (with Turner providing the single notable exception) as Day Lewis saw during the earlier war, Campbell restates the cultural importance of the soldier-poet through a consideration of the work of Sassoon: “[W]e value [Sassoon’s poetry]”, writes Campbell,
as the work of a man who was there, as something beautifully crafted, coolly observant and morally irrefutable. [...] Two world wars, and the collective response in the face of danger abroad and hardship at home, have given us the nearest thing to a national myth. We continue to trust to the poets – good men writing honestly out of dire experience – because they cleanse and clarify the myth.
Campbell’s position is clear: war poetry – which Campbell defines as “writing that is intimate with the facts of battle” – is of value chiefly as an historical document, whilst the poets themselves (“good men writing honestly out of dire experience”, which would be an eccentric judgement of the greater proportion of poets considered in any other context than that of warfare) are reduced to the status of documentarians.
Whilst Campbell’s article is by no means the most egregious response to Turner’s poetry, it does set out the terms in which Here, Bullet has been read clearly and concisely. Praising Turner’s poetic “detachment”, Campbell notes that “the particulars are so shocking that they need no sentimental boost”. Content, here, is praised above form: the ‘shock’ of the poems derives not from any authorial intervention, but from the historical facts – the ‘particulars’ – to which they refer. Literary adornment – a ‘sentimental boost’ – is unnecessary, and might even prove detrimental to the material.
Joel Brouwer’s short notice in the New York Times in November 2005 expresses critical conceits similar to those found in Campbell’s article, but in a far less nuanced manner, framing his review in the following terms: “The day of the first moonwalk, my father’s college literature professor told his class, ‘Someday they’ll send a poet, and we’ll find out what it’s really like.’” Which is, at best, a questionable statement: personally, should I wish to know what the moon was really like, I would be more inclined to send a geologist or a photographer, as a poet can rarely be trusted to truthfully describe the colour of the shirt on his own back. Moreover, Brouwer’s critical judgements swiftly transform into assertions of the autobiographical verisimilitude of Turner’s output: Brouwer draws attention to the “hurried quality” of much of Turner’s verse, but rather than providing a negative assessment of Here, Bullet’s compositional method, this becomes indicative of the “terrific immediacy” of the poems. Tellingly, the poems are praised above all for being “earnest and proficient”, adjectives which tell us far more about Brouwer’s own preoccupations with truthfulness and ‘accurate’ observation than about the poems themselves.
Imogen Robertson’s reading of Here, Bullet in a 2008 issue of The Wolf is more nuanced than Brouwer’s, but still falls foul of some of the same critical problems. Robertson is correct to assert that, whilst Turner’s work is valuable, at least in part, due to its status as a first-hand account of the war in Iraq, it is not necessarily any more ‘accurate’ in its portrayal of war than contemporary poetry of conflict, such as David Harsent’s Legion, composed at an imaginative distance from events by non-combatants. However, by situating Here, Bullet within the context of a “poetry of witness” – Carolyn Forché’s formulation from her landmark anthology Against Forgetting – Robertson, like Brouwer, suggests that the documentary elements of Turner’s poetry represent its most valuable component. As Robertson suggests, “Reading the collection is somewhat like looking through a book of war photography,” whilst the article closes with the assertion that Here, Bullet is “required reading for anyone who wishes to know about the current war in Iraq and its effects.”
Aaron Baker, in a long and considered piece from 2006, published in Contemporary Poetry Review, proffers one of the most sustained and even-handed responses to Here, Bullet to date. Baker, though his article is not entirely free of the restraints of the critical paradigms he interrogates, writes of the potential for the poetry of first-hand experience to deploy a “cudgel of authority” in its dealings with readers and critics. This seems to me a useful summation of the critical responses to Turner’s writing: whilst Turner’s poems, for the most part, refuse such a claim to culturally privileged authority, the critical idiom in which they are discussed tends to assume that same authority as a given. I would like to move on now to a consideration of a number of the poems in Here, Bullet, to give some indication of the narrative strategies and poetic tropes that Turner employs, and the ways in which his poetry upends the normative critical response it generates.
‘Ferris Wheel’, concerning a search along a river for survivors of a helicopter crash, seems at first glance to reaffirm the critical readings of Here, Bullet as chiefly a factually accurate documentary record by an experientially privileged witness to warfare. “The history books,” the poem asserts, “will get it wrong”: the implication being, of course, that the poet will get it right, or, at least, wrong in a more accurate way. It is not a new sentiment – the erection of a binary opposition between historical (inauthentic) and literary (authentic) representations of combat is central to the New Journalistic aesthetics of Michael Herr and Norman Mailer, in Dispatches and The Armies of the Night, respectively – but the images Turner deploys to make his case for poetry are very much his own:
There will be nothing written
about the island ferris wheel
frozen by rust like a broken clock, or
about the pilot floating unconscious downriver, sparks
fading above [...]
This is not a belligerent assertion of the soldier-poet’s elevated cultural position, his right to speak: it is a great deal quieter than that, presenting instead a strange, even surrealist portrait of the landscape which is more generally indicative of Turner’s eye for the incongruous detail, deployed throughout Here, Bullet.
If ‘Ferris Wheel’ is the closest Turner gets to beating us over the head with the “cudgel of authority”, then ‘Night in Blue’ represents a refutation of those same authorial claims. ‘Night in Blue’ is, I would contend, a key to understanding Here, Bullet. The poem is characterised by a startling degree of uncertainty on the part of the speaker as to the value of his experiences of combat, and this uncertainty is delineated through a series of binary oppositions. “I have no words to speak of war,” writes Turner,
I never dug the graves in Talafar.
I never held the mother crying in Ramadi.
I never lifted my friend’s body
when they carried him home.
These, according to the schema of the poem, are ‘authentic’ moments of combat, whereas the speaker can only claim access to more conventionally ‘poetic’ memories and images:
I have only the shadows under the leaves
to take with me, the quiet of the desert,
the low fog of Balad, orange groves
with ice forming on the rinds of fruit.
Traditionally, war has been seen as an initiation into manhood, something that the speaker reiterates in a series of rhetorical questions: “Has this year made me a better lover? / Will I understand something of hardship, / of loss . . . ?” Yet war – or rather, active combat – might also be characterised in terms of an alternative initiation: into authentic subjectivity. The speaker’s own assessment of his achievements in combat seems to suggest that neither of these initiations – into masculinity or authenticity – has been undertaken successfully.
If the subjectivity of the speaker seems uncertain in ‘Night in Blue’, this can be seen to become exacerbated when we consider one of the recurring poetic methods in the collection: the absence or erasure of the lyric ‘I’. This is often remarked upon in the reviews and critical responses cited previously, but has usually been read in terms of the author or speaker’s detachment from events: the ‘I’ recedes so that the speaker can reduce himself to the status of an observer, like Isherwood in the opening chapter of Goodbye to Berlin: “I am a camera with its shutter open, quite passive, recording, not thinking.” This is certainly a component of Turner’s authorial strategy, but I would contend that the removal of the lyric ‘I’ allows Turner freedom to play covertly with masks, narratives, and fictional constructs: to evade, that is, an overtly singular subjectivity. In ‘2000 lbs.’, for example, singular consciousness is exploded, much like the blast the poem describes, and what results is a series of micro-narratives, in which Turner engages with the thoughts and actions of a number of figures, both Iraqi civilians and American soldiers, including a portrait of the suicide bomber who triggers the explosion: “he is everywhere, he is of all things, / his touch is the air taken in, the blast / and the wave, the electricity of shock [...].” Turner’s portrayal of the ‘obliterated’ martyr as almost omniscient takes on an ironic component, given the speaker’s own suggested omniscience throughout this poem. Turner’s status as a privileged witness to events might well have played a part in the close observation of particular incongruous images – such as the American officer blowing bubbles “out the Humvee window [...] / filling the air behind him with floating spheres / like the oxygen trails of deep ocean divers” – but any easy identification between the author and the work in this instant is rendered problematic due to the strategies Turner employs.
The use of narrative as a means of disrupting individuated consciousness recurs in a series of poems entitled ‘Dreams from the Malaria Pills’. There are three of these poems in total, one subtitled ‘Barefoot’, one subtitled ‘Bosch’ and one subtitled ‘Turner’. In the last of these, Turner implements possibly his most radical departure from an expected autobiographical aesthetic, presenting an inner landscape wholly in the third person (accepting, of course, that there is a correlation between author and subject to be inferred), and is indicative of a tendency towards an almost visionary or surrealist vision in Turner’s work:
This time it’s beautiful.
He’s in the kelp beds somewhere
off the California coast, floating
where green leaves touch the sun,
as if he’s disentangled
from thought itself, up from the depths
to release him to the crests and shallows
drifting wave by wave back to shore.
The poet’s raw material – language – is also central to Here, Bullet’s engagement with the question of experiential authenticity. The collection opens with ‘A Soldier’s Arabic’, which posits a rhetoric of inclusion and exclusion as it pertains to Arabic, describing “a language made of blood. / It is made of sand, and time. / To be spoken, it must be earned.” Upon an initial reading, ‘A Soldier’s Arabic’ seems to be reinforcing the culturally privileged position of the soldier-poet as authentic witness to historical events: the speaker, it would seem, has undergone some kind of initiation rite that means he has ‘earned’ the right to speak. Yet Turner has himself, in an interview with The Wolf magazine, challenged the reading of ‘A Soldier’s Arabic’ solely in terms of an appeal to “the authority of experience”, urging “artists to write about the war”, regardless of whether they have served in the military or not: “One does not need to stand in the streets of Mosul,” attests Turner, “to engage the streets of Mosul in art.”
Elsewhere in Here, Bullet, language is portrayed in decidedly slippery, even dangerous terms, representative of forces beyond even the initiated soldier-poet’s control. In ‘Dreams of the Malaria Pills (Barefoot)’, for example, the poem’s epigraph – “Tamaghis ba’dan yaswadda waghadas nawfana ghadis” – is glossed by Turner as an incantatory phrase (possibly in Aramaic) to be spoken before falling asleep, which will “cause the dream vision to be about the things one desires”; yet in the context of the poem, the phrase becomes bitterly ironic when the dream consists of such undesirable images as these:
He’s coughing up shrapnel, jagged and rough [...]
He’s questioning why blood is needed, and so much,
why he’s wheeled through his hometown streets
on a gurney draped in camouflaged sheets.
Ibn Khaldun takes each piece of metal from him:
These are to be made into daggers,
precious gifts, the souvenirs of death.
Turner’s use of this epigraph suggests the capacity of language to go beyond its original meaning and function, escaping the speaker and the author to generate its own meanings and realities. In the context of a poetry consistently praised for its accuracy and truthfulness, such an engagement with language is, potentially, highly provocative and disruptive.
The tumbling imagistic rhetoric of ‘9-Line Medevac’, meanwhile, cannot disguise the essential linguistic futility underpinning it:
I can name this spot, but cannot make it real, cannot give it the crackling stress of the air here, how heavy and charged it is, or the smell of trashfires drifting noxious and sweet, or the position of the gibbous moon overhead [...]
Even death itself is characterised in linguistic terms in the collection’s title poem, in which the speaker implores the titular bullet to “complete the word / you bring hissing through the air” by entering his body.
Those poems published in the interim between Here, Bullet and Turner’s sophomore collection, Phantom Noise, suggest an expansion of the traditional parameters of war poetry – that is to say, poetry of front-line combat – with Turner returning to the States to investigate the aftermath of conflict upon veterans and civilians alike. In doing so, Turner is embarking upon an exploration of territory mapped out already by a number of his predecessors, including Yusef Komunyakaa, W D Ehrhart, John Balaban and Bruce Weigl. A certain degree of self-consciousness, too, can be detected in certain of the new pieces, though this is nothing unusual in follow-ups to debuts which have received as much attention as Turner’s has. Phantom Noise only appeared at the beginning of April, so it remains to be seen whether it will generate the same flurry of interest as Here, Bullet (which also means, sadly, that I have been unable to incorporate a discussion of its contents into this piece), but one hopes that the facts of Turner’s biography will not prove such a draw for reviewers and critics second time around, and that a more nuanced picture of his achievements – and shortcomings – as a poet will emerge from the critical fog.
 Phantom Noise still hasn't arrived. As soon as it does, the sequel to this article will wing its way with alarming inexorability towards these virtual pages. You lucky people.