Friday 21 December 2007

Three Poems by Annie Katchinska


You pulled me through scabby streets
into a lift where drawings of fleshy girls
peeled from the walls. I was to be healed.

The apartment of cats breathing dust, cut-outs of kittens
and roses and shining blue eyes was meant to be a kind of heaven.
Black-draped, she gripped my hands and whispered, "Yes, yes.

Yes, yes" as you prodded the craters in my skin, said my face in home video
shurt you. – I imagined you, piously trembling as I ate lollies, ran
down a beach caked in salt and sand. – There were thousands

of eyes then, and fur against my legs as she slurped
holy water, scratched airy crosses, spat
in my face and moaned at the floor,

you hovering like the cruellest flower.
I tried to speak to you but my mouth seemed full
of roses, the light was smothered by cats,

her fingers lashing at my red marks and blisters
as far off somewhere you pressed yourself
against a wall and yowled at me to pray.

These days I remember the itch on my elbow
as we came home, you sniffing and cooking me bland potatoes,
running me endless baths, making a mental note:

things will always be wrong. We send you photos you dislike,
and you sit in your dressing gown skimming
the scraps of alien things, our wonky grins;

we think of your living room full of flawed children,
faces slammed down, chewing dust. How sick we are, you wheeze,
how sick we are.

French Politics

They stand on scraps of broadsheet leaves, behind
this red-brick building; he’s been talking since
they left; the alley’s dim, his speech unwinds,
unwinds, unwinds, newspapered fingerprints
smudge over her; he throws out figures, names,
analysis, statistics, sparkling things
economists have said, “it’s all a game”
he laughs; her neck is cold; he clings and clings
to her; the calculations crumble, she
tastes like a broken wine glass as he smears
her lips with numbers, begging her to see;
knowing, of course, he will not find it here
he presses her against the dark red bricks.
He knows she doesn’t get French politics.

Summer in the City

This afternoon postcards with the Queen's head on them
have been quietly disappearing from the soggy racks, as dozens
of us have scrawled I MISS YOU IT'S AWFUL on the back
not knowing where to send them. Or so I like to think.
Though perhaps there are others whose knees buckle on buses
crashing through Catford, sometimes, when Crazy Bus Lady, a local
celebrity, throws back her head to howl Amazing Grace
at us, the rattling cattle. There must be others who notice
rain-beaten cafe tables and secluded spots in parks
where someone is missing, who pass through a square remembering
its Legoland equivalent. By the way, the woman we saw
in her black and white silks and painted misery
is still there, sobbing on the street corner as if all her bones
are breaking to pieces, the hat by her feet glinting toothily
with pound coins. Everywhere I go I hear brass bands.

Annie Katchinska is originally from Moscow and currently lives in London, where she's in her final year of school. She has won the Foyle Young Poets of the Year Award twice and in 2007 came second in the Christopher Tower poetry competition. Annie is part of the editorial team of Pomegranate (, an online zine that publishes young poets. She also rambles a bit at

Tuesday 13 November 2007

Simon Turner - Marginal Notes (2)

The proliferation of media has resulted, too, in a proliferation of selves. We leave behind traces - in CCTV, digital photographs, emails, phone calls, comments on the internet - which take on a life independent of our bodies. When I die, the traces I have left behind will live on in a technological half-life, never to be erased. Such a thought is unsettling. When we write a book or compose a symphony, we are making a conscious choice to create an artifact that will, hopefully, outlive us. What is so unsettling about our technological ghosts is their ephemeral nature: we are leaving a monument of our most vacuous selves each time we send an email, every time we update our Facebook page. If we could clone ourselves from the virtual genetic trail of our technological journeys, I doubt that we would recognise the result. We would see a parody, a grotesque exaggeration of all those characteristics we had hoped would be airbrushed out of our obituaries. The proliferation of media does not allow for this rather old fashioned self-censorship: we are writing our obituaries on an almost hourly basis.


The self, in Buddhism, is a kind of learned behaviour: it is a matter, chiefly, of differentiation. 'I' is only 'I', that is, because it is not 'you', or it is not 'chair' or 'sky' or 'music'. It is a habit, in short, that we fall into at an early age, when we begin to learn how to distinguish objects and concepts in our immediate environment through the medium of language. Before this, before we take on the role of Adam, the world presents itself as an undifferentiated mass. Naming lends a certain clarity of purpose to the world and its objects. But at the same time, language serves to sever us, to deny us a total connection to the world. We can never know a tree, for example, if we have already named it, because the word 'tree' carries with it a whole universe of associations and embedded significances which are quite distinct from the physical fact of the tree in itself. Likewise, to truly know ourselves, we must do away with the semantic formality of 'I'. It, like 'tree', is simply a name - an arbitrary one at that - and as such an impediment to a deeper understanding of ourselves and our place in the universe. Sometimes I think this is why so many mystics and holy men choose to separate themselves off from the human community: the absence of speech means an absence of language, and the absence of language might well be the first step towards our reconciliation with the total being of the universe.


23/10/2007: A full moon tonight: a perfect silver-white disc. In the early evening I watched it make its first appearance, tentatively peeping from behind a chimney across the street, a peachy flush from the last of the sun tainting its colouration. Minutes later it was clear of the houses, more sure of itself now, slowly rolling towards the apex of its orbit. Later that night, walking home after a couple of drinks with friends in the local, I saw it flare from the centre of an absolute darkness, like a perfect unexpected thought.

Thursday 25 October 2007

George Ttoouli - Come on Guys, Give it a Rest (response) (response) (response)

This reminds me of a discussion I had with David Hart about whether (and how) poetry, or any creative writing, could be 'taught'. After batting the ball back and forth a few times, he 'closed' the conversation by responding with a poem. The nerve.

But yes, "directionless breeds demagoguery". At the same time, I'm starting to see the benefits of manifestos, perhaps because of your poem. In a way, you write that poem to the agenda, 'Manifestos are False'. And, as Infernokrusherism also shows, manifestos can be a source of creative output, just as any kind of form can be a release on the imagination.

What I'm getting at here, I think, is that there are good manifesto groups and bad ones. Some are hollow, like the ones that attack, deconstruct other poetries and return only with "we are better, we are the best" without defining why. Meanwhile the poetry produced is not fresh - it relies on a conservative approach to taste. Whereas a positive force - "we will do this" - constructs a new centre and uses the creative energy to produce new poetry. (That's possibly part of the reason centres move: as positive movements grow, they mutate, lose sight of their original focus - the doughnut theory of ideological spread.)

Tom's article celebrates the poetry world changing its marketing tack. Embracing Johhny Greenwood, the internet, modern celebrity. But let's not hope we end up with a thousand Luke Wright cut-outs (i.e. stand up comedians who rhyme). He also argues that "The traditional place of the established poet is academia". Actually, that's a fairly recent phenomenon. Poets go where the work is, traditionally, and recently (past thirty years) that means the exploding Creative Writing industries. Before that, libraries (those scummy insular places where nobody goes), banks (ditto), insurance sales (an insular profession if ever I saw one), medicine (all doctors are self-interested parasites), etc.

It winds me up that people think this is a tradition, when we've barely started to map the impact of having university departments chock with poets. In fact, in ten years time we could see a massive shift towards a reading public better able to decide for themselves what they like, reshaping bestseller lists to some other ends, non-Faber centres. It's still a lump, not a doughnut. Dana Gioia, who put this argument forward most eloquently (I'm being sarcastic) based his attack on a misreading of Virginia Woolf and traces things back to the modernists. Who he blames wholeheartedly for a lack of creative vision of his own.

The mainstream and avant gardist movements that are most established and get the most media coverage as a result have doughnutted (this possibly by default: they need to have been around for long enough that they start to spread from their corners and get noticed, so their centres are turning hollow). Look at Prynne's peers spreading about - John James, Andrew Crozier, Barry MacSweeney, the Pickards. And look also at the mainstream coterie - the New Generation poets of 1994, plus hangers on. They've splintered up, spread out; probably some aren't even on speaking terms by now. The more successful create new bases, or pericentres. The less continue to repeat, rant and hark back to halcyon days of artistic energy. (Or more likely, a mix of the two, depending on their mood.)

Aren't we really talking about the public displays of affection or hatred. The point where someone uses a slot in a journal, or other public space, to moan, bitch, denigrate, in order to secure their place and destablise others'. Tom's article points to "unfair but sometimes justified criticisms that poetry is elitist". Where do these accusations come from and where are they directed?

For example: Neil Astley's wild ranting about "the poetry police" in his spate of public appearances a few years ago (the 'Staying Alive' introduction, the introduction to the catchily titled 'Bloodaxe Poems of the Year: 2003: Celebrating the 25th Birthday of Bloodaxe Books', and his StanZa Festival 2005 lecture). Now, what side of the fence was (is?) Astley actually on?

He attacked shadowy cabals of poets around the country, but rarely named names. He was hardly attacking the avant garde - he, more than anyone, knows the damage his and Bloodaxe's credibility would suffer were he to start laying into poets like JH Prynne. (In fact, hasn't he just released an extended version of the 'Collected'? Maybe we can get a review copy. Or someone can write a review for us.)

Astley's rhetoric at the time was incredibly vehement, but really, didn't take any direct casualties. He indirectly implied that certain lists - Carcanet's, Potts and Herd's, etc. - may have lacked diversity, and favoured experimental, alienating poetry, but anyone with half a brain could do their own research and see that the accusations were distorted, or plain untrue, or too generic to be more than wild ranting at the world. Hence the lack of legal suits following what was essentially polemic.

But what Astley did do was adopt the rhetoric of mainstream and avant garde tribalism, laying into the poetry world's infrastructures, editorial lines/tastes and close-minded attitudes. What Astley did do was mimic the only thing that most largescale media channels tend to care about in poetry - the infighting and divisiveness that makes for a few column inches of scandals. It's like the East Coast/West Coast hiphop ruck. Something that the media latches onto because it's an easy angle to follow. But it's all very '70s, just like the "all poets are academics" line. The ideas are hollow today.

So, Neil Astley, doing what he does anyway: marketing. That's a creative mind at work if ever I saw one - media hijacking, in fact. Frozen lightning off the page. What this highlights for me is the sense that some arguments, some battles within the avant garde/mainstream debates and so on, are very hollow. Whereas others are charged, driven by a positive creative spirit. And a lot of the rhetoric boils down to marketing, because it appears in media spaces that are increasingly geared to PR or marketing. Which doesn't make for a healthy critical atmosphere.

But enough already. (And don't expect a bloody poem out of me either.)

Tuesday 23 October 2007

Simon Turner - Come on Guys, Give it a Rest (response) (response)

Nice comeback. And I think you're perfectly correct that the arguments pertaining to the "nature and meaning of poetry" tend to come to the fore at moments when one is least involved in the process of making, when one is least happy with one's own aesthetic choices. Directionlessness breeds demagoguery, in essence: the creation of a manifesto is so often the need to define a mode of writing - indeed, a mode of being - which does not yet exist. 'Vorticism', of course, never really took off. 'Modernism', a term which evolved organically and stuck, resolutely did take off, and continues sailing through the outer reaches of the galaxy, finding new planets with each curve of its trajectory.

Two addenda: Here you can read an excellent article at Culture Wars by Tom Chivers of pennedinthemargins, which covers much the same ground as my original post, though in a far less melancholic tone.

Below, meanwhile, is a shard of a mock manifesto I made by splicing and rejigging words I'd found from various sources. Make of it what you will:

Manifesto for the False Millennium
page 94

but the Marxists have reduced the poem to a paranoid geometry of suffering. How can we analyse the body in a discontinuous universe? Is the text nothing more than a spoof of nature, a chaos of sexual artifice? Yet still we must persist, recognising the underlying distortions of our readings. It’s time to expel the economy of meaning. Let’s build our writings on emotional concrete, though it seems futile. Let’s freeze lightning and call it a poem. Let the body write the universe as clusters of discontinuous texts. We’ll let the Marxists analyse the underlying “meaning” of our mathematics. Nature persists in its imperfections, its rough instructions. Our ideals reduce the artificial economy to a spoof of its own distortions; chaos is pleasant, after all, like random photographs of paranoid sex. (Observation: the poem, when it contacts us, is like a voice coming through a distorted phone line: rough, sexual, discontinuous.) Switch on the body and the text will write itself. “Meaning” is nothing but the recognition of an underlying emotional futility. There are no ideals in nature. So how might we expel this persistent paranoia? Moreover, how are we to read mathematics in the light of Marxist analysis?

George Ttoouli - Come on Guys, Give it a Rest (response)

Yes, yes, but where does all this posturing come from?

I'm thinking about Lynda Barry's cartoon strip, 'Two Questions', in which her cartoonist persona, hard at the creative act, reminisces fondly about how easy it used to be to create, to enter into the creative flow and enjoy it. And then two questions begin to take over: "Is this good?" and, "Does this suck?"

Barry can't answer these questions. They are unanswerable and eventually she gives up admitting she doesn't know. But this is the point: "To be able to stand not knowing long enough to let something alive take shape! Without the two questions, so much is possible. To all the kids who quit drawing... come back!"

Ideology is an adult club. It means: 'We believe we have the answer to what sucks and what's good." The two camps, by deduction, are full of people who have (temporarily?) forgotten the joy of creating poetry. When you've got it, you're doing it, but when you're hung up on the questions of what constitutes good or bad poetry, you're often flailing away in private, producing nothing of merit. The response of many to this is flailing about in public, representing principles of artistic value (not, I stress, 'worth', as the imposition of ideology on creativity is clearly a commodification of the unquantifiable[1]) that are indefensible, but give a sense of community through tribalism.

The hollowness of these values are what probably makes most people despair - readers and the more benign writers of poetry as well. Announcing an artistic manifesto - as the Vorticists prove - is a call to arms as well a way of raising the defenses around a tribe. The media, also, like a good ruck, so they will often latch on, in a minor fashion where poetry is concerned, favouring whichever side is willing to make a bigger fool of themselves in their pages. The extension of this kind of tribalism, through various modes, conceits and also stabilisation within mainstream [2]bastions, is probably worth investigating through the window of anthropological study, as I'm sure it comes in cycles which stack upon the correct traditional Hanoi towers with minor progressive inflections.

But ultimately, "an investigation of the nature and meaning of poetry" when it's based on analysing these self-appointed hierophants (they've been 'vaticinised' like in that godawful opening line of Sean O'Brien's 'Drains' poem), is going to end up biting its own tail because of the inherent emptiness of ideology.

What is interesting is that postmodernist experimentation has managed to parody these ideological movements in order to recapture the childish joy of creativity. For example, the 'Infernokrusher' movement, ("Explosion is the new transgression. Demolition is the new deconstruction") is a context for generating art, rather than a serious group, just as Oulipo isn't really a movement - it's a process for creating work.


[1] See Lewis Hyde's The Gift for more detail (yes, I'm a convert, it's a form of ideology for agnostics), or if you're lazy, the opening lines of Robert Graves' The White Goddess, where he describes poetry as having no yardstick by which it can be measured.

[2] When I say mainstream here, I mean ideologies that are accepted widely within marginalised groups as well - for example, the JH Prynne camp is a form of mainstream within the avant garde, despite having only a handful of acolytes within its boundaries and those being of greatly varying styles.

Simon Turner - Come on Guys, Give it a Rest

I was struck recently by a comment in David Jones' collection of prose writings, Epoch and Artist, in which he poured cold water on critical dismissals of abstract art, arguing - persuasively, I think - that abstraction, which Jones takes to be specifically formal in character, i.e. pertaining to questions of compositional balance, tonal characteristics, and so on, is a central component of all visual art, whether abstract or figurative. To reject abstraction out of hand, Jones goes on, is to mis-read, almost wilfully, the direction of modern artistic developments.

The argument in question is taken from a letter Jones wrote to the Listener in 1950, but the views expressed remain pertinent; and whilst the debates surrounding abstract art, and its figurative opposite number, have largely dissipated in recent years, occasionally resurfacing in the form of public spasms over the Young British Artists, or Turner-prize winners whose work involves sheds or animal dung [1], the same argumentative terms have remained a staple, though translated and mutated, within poetry circles. Mainstream commentators have a tendency to occasionally blow off steam about inevitably unnamed 'postmoderns', who are allegedly clogging the universities with dangerous radical ideas, and running 'subversive' literature classes where the entire Western canon is thrown in the rubbish chute in favour of the collected works of JH Prynne (boo, hiss!), which are, of course, treated with an almost god-like reverence [2]. The 'postmoderns' themselves have a tendency to react with quiet dignity, no doubt in private intercut with deep clefts of scorn, though their own polemical reactions to the mainstream are equally visible, in their aesthetic choices rather than their public statements: their places of publication, their shared discourses, their chosen forms and modes of address, all scream 'marginal' from the rooftops.

All this is merely background, however: the crux of the matter is that both ideological camps - and I do truly believe that ideology is at stake here: this is a ruck about the very nature and meaning of poetry in our current socio-economic epoch - seem to be communicating in entirely different languages. In some regards they are, but they share enough of a vocabulary - often revolving around the notion of the aesthetically and ethically correct (sometimes the two are conjoined) - to mean that communication is a possibility, that there might (just might) come a time when the squabbling could be put aside, and everyone could both write and read in an environment where such sectarian politics did not come in to the equation.

One might - more cynically - suggest that such a rapprochement is an impossibility by virtue of the fact that both parties need the mutual antagonism. The mainstreamers can only defend their position - post-Larkin, semi-interesting - if they can persistently raise the spectre of Olson-chewing, Deleuze-spewing barbarians mustering at the gate. The barbarians themselves, meanwhile, might equally be said to thrive upon a narrative in which they are the oppressed and subjugated indigenous populace of some far away land called Experimental Poetry, stomped upon at every turn by the oak-thewed hegemon of the Mainstream Marines. This seems like the most realistic scenario. First of all, both camps are effectively fighting over a ghost - a general poetry readership - which, if it ever existed (and really, there is no evidence to suggest it ever did) no longer does. Moreover, if we take the proliferation of media into account, it becomes impossible to talk about single ideological blocs in some bipartite power struggle. The mainstream is a chimera that we should, frankly, quit whining about all the bloody time: all the energy wasted ranting about the London poetry scene, and how Picador would never publish John James - would John James want to be published by Picador? - would be far better spent writing more and better poems that would blow the mainstream's own rather pedestrian output out of the water. By the same token, the mainstream's bug-bear - a sinister, Prynne-spearheaded cabal of postmodern eggheads lurking in every English department across the country - appears equally illusory: 'postmodernism' cannot be defined in such monolithic terms that it can be used so frequently as an umbrella noun covering a multitude of sins (or virtues, depending on how we read the situation).

The internet, in particular, has unveiled the sheer ridiculousness of the Sharks vs. Jets mentality that seems to dominate certain sectors of the poetry community, revealing as it does a total aesthetic democracy, where any number of styles of writing, from the gentle and Larkinesque to the balls-to-the-wall radicalism of L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetics or flarf, can find a suitable home. Who edits Poetry Review in any given year is not the be all and end all of our definition of poetry's health; we have to stop using the centre ground as our yardstick. Aside from anything else, the poetry cake that we're all fighting for a share of is too small for such playground politics anyway. Can't we just stop all the fussin' and the feudin'?


[1] The Daily Mail, as in so many things, is particularly idiotic on this score. Every year they run an 'alternative' Turner prize, where they give an award to a purveyor of 'proper' art - their definition, of course - which is invariably a byword for landscape paintings or portraiture in a god-awful tradition of semi-literate realism, which examples invariably display the visual flair and compositional imagination of a beige turd.

[2] The terms that the mainstream bulldogs use are strangely similar to the aggressive insult 'tenured radicals' which was hurled at survivors of the counter culture on American campuses during the various 'culture wars' that rocked our cousins on the other side of the big drink in the 1990s.

Monday 22 October 2007

Alex Pryce - Three Poems


Your name is a digit
because your parents were counting down
on their combined fingers.
You were a day early.

You are a single
undotted i. A prime number but
an unusual name.
You were always first

on the roll, last in exams.
You saw her figure, took her number
and soon were multiplying,
dividing at five kids.

You are again single,
undotted i. You are always first
in the personal adverts.
Searching for sequence.

Black Coffee


Black, she explains, because it’s quicker
to buy, quicker to make, quicker
to drink in a hurry. Just

She smells like a café on a Saturday,
four cups by half past ten.

She runs her hand through brown hair
and widens her eyes; thinking, I assume,
of the mugs she knows so well
still lukewarm and cradling in her lips.
The moment is spilt, passed and
the coffee is cold and stale on her desk.

Back in the staff room
she is thinking of her quarter past eleven

English Morning Breakfast

You tell me, picking up the list,
that there is something innately beautiful
about the vocabulary of coffee.

Spilling your Latte, Espresso, Americano,
spitting Mocha and dribbling Cappuccino.
You are pouring the menu over the table

between us; by the time you’ve reached
Café au Lait, I’m ordering tea
to silence you,

but you are still boiling, bubbling
over. My tea is Assam, Ceylon, Earl Grey
in this English Morning Breakfast.

Alex Pryce was born in Bangor, Northern Ireland in 1988. She is currently studying English at the University of Leicester. In 2006 she received a fellowship from the National Endowments for Science, Technology and the Arts (NESTA). In 2007 she received a bursary from the John Hewitt Society. Her poetry has appeared on the BBC Northern Ireland website, in Speech Therapy, and is forthcoming in other magazines. Alex is the creator and developer of PoetCasting (

Tuesday 16 October 2007

Simon Turner - What I See in Prunella Clough's Paintings (I)

"Works of art await use" - John Berger

Irregular swathes of turqouise set amid a flat field of white, jagged edges rimming the sea-coloured patches: peeling paint's gaping gnashers, or foam-jets roaring up the massive sides of cruising tankers. The whole effect is startlingly physical, the flat surface pushing at the bounds of two dimensional space, as if the embedded textures were somehow alive, straining to push through from behind the suface of the image and out into the 'real' world.

What I just wrote is a description of a particular wall in a partciular street in a particular town of the English Midlands, but could just as easily have served as an attempt to render into words one of Prunella Clough's canvases. Patrick Heron has already noted Clough's ability, in her art, to change the way we see, her painting's capacity to not only reflect, in an astonishing and idiosyncratic manner, the urban world around us, but also to challenge us to see that world in an entirely new capacity - as a series of textures and patterns waiting to be found and transformed into landscapes.

I first discovered Clough's work - in the form of her painting 'Vegetation' (1999) - during one of my regular visits to Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery. My method during these visits was usually one of aimless wandering - I rarely went there with an exhibition or a particular artwork in mind, though I always made a detour to see a priapic Picasso sculpture, a primitive Christ in varnished wood - hoping something would catch my eye each time. Sometimes it did, sometimes there was nothing, no shock of the new. In the case of 'Vegetation', I was immediately taken with its strangeness, the fact that it was something other than the (admittedly beautiful) Pre-Raphaelite superabundance for which Brum's art gallery is demi-famous to those in the know. No alabaster lunatics floating down river here, just an axpressive abstract arrangement of - well, pebbles, aren't they? Or is it a landscape seen from above, from a great height? One of my first thoughts - one of the images the painting deliberately suggests, I would now argue - was of the primitive cave paintings at Lascaux, buffalo etched in 'crude' but infinitely vivid terms on the sweating rock; and that chain of association led on next to crop circles and Mayan ground-sculptures and aerial photography. The painting seemed - seems - possessed of an almost limitless capacity for expressiveness. This is its power, the power of Clough's work considered in totality, in fact: the paintings are never wholly abstract, certainly, but neither do they (for the most part at least) go in for definitive signification. We are by no means in the realm of social realism or urban documentary when we are witness to Clough's canvasses, in spite of early gestures towards these modes. These earlier pieces, even, are characterised by a tension between, on the one hand, a tendency towards abstraction, and, on the other, a refusal to dismiss figuration outright. (Her grand canvas 'Lowestoft Harbour' (1951) is arguably the most achieved of these earlier works.) Later, the human body is gradually discarded as a subject, perhaps precisely because of its corporeality, its status as a grounded singular signifier, rather than a floating, potentially infinite suggestion of an image, or network of images. The body always means too much: it both reaches out to a world beyond the borders of the canvas, and back through previous representations of the human figure in art. It denies the polysemy that Clough's canvases are so clearly striving towards.

But Clough's later paintings are by no means dry exercises in academic abstraction, and viewing them can often be a highly sensual experience, the artist clearly taking delight in her compositional method, the interplay of colours, their feel, their energy. 'Waste-land' (1979), for example, has the ryhtmic vibrancy and fludity of a jazz quartet, jagged black lines like trumpet blasts blocked out over the tinselly rhythms of gravel, and the sinewy guitar lines of coiled rope. This abstract swings, and knows it. Yet it's real too, and not just jazzy interplay. I've noted the gravel, but note, too, the Allen key to the bottom right of the composition, and the bursts of colour scattered throughout the painting's largely monochrome surface like scraps of dayglo packaging. This both is and is not a real wasteland, realism and abstraction meeting and colliding, leaving charred metal and pellets of stone in the aftermath.

Friday 12 October 2007

Some More Poems by James Brookes

after Catullus 5

Let's live and love,
and not have a penny's worth
of dreary old men's gossip.
Suns withdraw and recoup;
when our day's trade runs out,
we must sleep on
through one limitless recession.

Kiss me, a thousand kisses, a hundred kisses,
a thousand more, a hundred more, until
in hundreds and in thousands we lose count.
In love's ledger of so many alleged kisses

not even the audit of an evil eye
could put a price on such a quantity.

In Clitheroe Keep (I)

The point was still to hold the pass, control
the pack-horses' route over the Pennines
- thus, Clitheroe. Up on its hill-spur. Small
infringement, herald of a bad time
like the taxman's strongbox on arrival.
Households squabble, huddle into being
below. A hill-fort's Norman reversal.
Clitheroe as was, where no-one was building
Clitheroe. A rest-home, heroes in choky,
imprisoned beings et al, though never likely
owt to kindle hope, like flame from clinker
but what surmounts the walls, outstays the captive -

A bright wind-marching, east for Pendle hill;
a sinew beneath its heather-coat of mail.

The Ship of Fools in Flames

Bound as they are in oil
the damned
do not fear drowining.

And the jokes are easy and clever
and we're buoyed by mirth
and it's no trick
to draw wine from the river.

We're going somewhere,
it's out of our hands. . .

Only something like a memory
or a pen and ink sketch of this day
without distracting colour,
tinder-keeled and thin as touch-paper,

is phosphorous in water,
is caesium
under oil, is naphtha

or those souls like flames
testing their entropy against the waves.

Wednesday 10 October 2007

Simon Turner - Marginal Notes (1)

Borges, in an essay on the Kabbalah in Seven Nights, notes how the concept of the sacred text is dependent upon the divine status of the words themselves. The words are not simply dictated by God (or Allah, or whosoever we might want to name the deity), but is “an attribute of God, like His rage, His pity, or His justice”. Karen Armstrong, expanding upon the theme in an essay accompanying the British Library’s recent exhibition of sacred texts, explains how sacred texts are built around the possibility of the immanence of the deity within the text:

“A hadith qudsi (holy tradition) has God say: ‘When someone recites or reads the Qur’an, that person is, as it were, entering into conversation with Me and I into conversation with him or her’. The Word is still speaking to men and women; the original revelation continues. Whenever a Muslim quotes from the Qur’an or suddenly recalls a Qur’anic phrase, he or she comes directly into the presence of God. When Muslims memorize the Qur’an, it is as though they take the divine Word into their very depths […]”

All poets strive after a similar textual immanence, hoping to recreate the conditions of the originating event – whether that event be an emotional state, a landscape, a vision, or simply an apology taped to a refrigerator door – using words alone, in such a way that they are not simply telling their reader something, but re-enacting it as far as is humanly possible, recognising, of course, the essential futility of the exercise. Borges again, from his short story ‘A Yellow Rose’:

“Then came the revelation. Marino saw the rose as Adam might have seen it in Paradise. And he sensed that it existed in its eternity and not in his words, and that we may make mention or allusion of a thing but never express it at all; and that the tall proud tomes that cast a golden penumbra in an angle of the drawing-room were not – as he had dreamed in his vanity – a mirror of the world, but simply one more thing added to the universe.”


Self-censorship: How many poems have I edited out of my own life? It’s a strange experience to deliberately – or even unconsciously – erase one of your own poems. It’s the equivalent of cutting off a finger or a toe. This is especially true earlier on, when the poet has not yet learned how to separate themselves from their work to a degree commensurate to long-term survival as a writer. Possibly some writers never reach this point of maturity, which explains why so many of them get so snippy when their writing is criticised. I know I had not learned that lesson in my early twenties, when two friends, independently, tore one of my poems to shreds, critically. Believing they were right, utterly – and still believing it, more so than ever – I destroyed every copy I had of the poem in question. A couple of years later, at a poetry reading, it was mentioned – not to my face, I might add – that one of the poems I read allegedly displayed a contempt for the poor. Worried at this misreading – it had certainly never been my intention to give the impression that I hated the poor – I simply stopped reading it in public, although in this instance I did not take the drastic action of destroying every copy. Maybe I am waiting for a time in my life when I feel contempt for the poor in actuality and not just in my poems, and I can read the piece in public again with a clear conscience.


Nietzsche once wrote that to improve one’s style means to improve one’s ideas. He’s absolutely right: language circumscribes what we do, how we think; it defines our capacities as living beings. What we say, moreover, is intimately bound up with how we say it. Think of onomatopoeic words (splash, boom, crack): they are short and sharp, specifically designed to return us to the originating reality behind them – a frog jumping into a pond, a cannon firing from a warship, or a branch breaking in an empty wood. Conversely, words designed to describe or explain philosophical abstractions or states of being which go beyond everyday human experience, tend in themselves to be far more diffuse and elongated, as if the terms had no grounding in factual experience. Transubstantiation, for example, with its portmanteau status and Latinate roots, represents an imposition upon reality. The concept of ‘transubstantiation’ is dependent upon the existence of the word: the signifier and the signified are a unity, equally fictitious, equally alienating.


An irony of poetry is that the emotional states or experiences with which it is so often concerned invariably go beyond, or exist below or behind, language’s capacity for logical explication. A poem, at heart, wants to convey pure being, and words get in the way of this project, imposing their own alien meaning, which is never, finally, what the poet had intended to say. The poet, in fact, never intended to say anything. Every time I set pen to paper, I wish instead that I could compose a piece of music, or paint an abstract: anything to escape the tyranny of logic, of signification. Just this morning, standing on the back step with a pair of muddy workman’s gloves on – I’d been taming the overgrown hops shrub by tying it back against the trellis with string – I was watching the birds come to the feeders in the garden. I stood absolutely still, absolutely silent, but the silence and stillness were only external. Inside, a manic lexicon roared into life, naming everything in site like some demented Adam, wandering a world still damp from the egg – finch­, said the lexicon, and blackbird, coal tit, goosegrass, rain-clouds, alleyway. The poem is always interrupting at the moment of its own conception.

Friday 14 September 2007

Shearsman @ Swedenborg Hall

The Shearsman series returned this month after its summer hiatus, with two poets I'd previously unheard of (not that that is difficult) - Scott Thurston and Ian Davidson. Both came across as very interesting page/process explorers on the whole, though with a political edge that worked extremely well, when employed.

Scott Thurston kicked off with a piece that drew parallels between the felling of Saddam's statue in Baghdad and Ozymandias; I enjoyed the execution much more than I'd expected, but most especially for the introductory quotation he read out about a leg from the statue worth £6000 being impounded by UK Customs for not having a valid bill of sale to accompany it.

But his work really began to solidify after this piece. I marked him down as a poet psychoanalysing himself at the page, in the moment of arriving at the creative space, just before genesis. And so the poems produced were often about producing poems. There was a lot of self-reflexivity in his work, a dash of the abstract - talk of spaces, blankness. Two significant quotes I half-recorded, both of which indicate recurring ideas:

"Emotions are the same in poetry as in real life"


"Showing up at the page with a sexual core burning"

Ian Davidson used his travel experiences in Greece, the Baltics, Wales and elsewhere as a way of pointing the pen at himself, his own body. And again, a strong political edge brought in through the locational history, such as the KGB in Riga, Latvia.

There was a sense of the names of things becoming detached by change and decay and a sense that political factors had a hand in this, or an inability to keep up with the meaning of things, as they decayed, while the words stayed the same.

This carried through to an emphasis on the physical - a deep understanding of the immediately physical - organs, senses, bodily decay and construction and so on. The introduction to his recent book, which I bought at the event, talks about how he actually took up smoking and quit repeatedly while writing and actually ended up hospitalised for a while with severe throat problems. Something warped, but also pioneering about this.

Similar to Thurston, he was a poet who described the act of creating poetry, but his approach was more tangible. He met words, on the page, but also acted in dialogue with them, with the writing process, even if the experience didn't answer him in speech. The idea that took hold of me best was that words had a sensory effect upon the poet in the moment of creation.

One of my favourite of his metaphors (and my favourite in recent times), was of walking between words almost blind, between their leaf rustle, brushed by their branches. I'm paraphrasing, but the effect was to put me in mind of the wardrobe to Narnia as a paralell for poetic genesis.

Anyway, a series well worth going to if you're in London. It's free, you get to sit under the unnerving gaze of a bust of Swedenborg himself:

"At the age of fifty-six he entered into a spiritual phase, in which he experienced dreams and visions. This culminated in a spiritual awakening, where he claimed he was appointed by the Lord to write a heavenly doctrine to reform Christianity. He claimed that the Lord had opened his eyes, so that from then on he could freely visit heaven and hell, and talk with angels, demons, and other spirits."

The choice of venue is oddball in a good way, as are a few of the poets I've seen there this year, although Christopher Middleton's visit earlier this year has left me with absolute faith in Tony Frazer's tastes. Next month Erín Moure is over from Canada. She's one of Shearsman's translators, but will read her own work.

Sunday 9 September 2007

Rapunzel of the North - George Ttoouli

Eleanor Rees, Andraste's Hair: Salt Publishing, £12.99 (ISBN 9781844713042)

I know it's completely unfair and it's no way to start a review, but do we really need another young urban poet writing about 'the city'? OK, sure, Liverpool's only famous for that band and those poets who cashed in, so it's high time someone else took a good go, but really?

Writing about the city is marginally better than writing about classical music forms, or botching a Dante or Iliad, or rabbiting on about (Australian) Shiraz, (Tesco's) French roules and referencing mythology to try and elevate what is obviously doggerel to the level of art. If it's done well, anything goes. But the number of poems I've read which use "the city" like it's instant endorsement for a tired big-theme-a-comin' style or license to drawl on for 70 pages like Edward Carpenter on ketamine and coke, really ought to be a lot smaller than it is.

But as usual, the disgruntled outcome from judging this book by its cover needs to be kicked to the kerb. I'll start with the obvious: who is Andraste and what's so hot about her hair?

The first thing to note is that the Celtic goddess Andraste was linked to a 'hare'. Boudicca and a hare. No sign of Andraste's hair in what I've read, though unfortunately I left my Larousse in the platform toilets in Liverpool, obviously. (But perhaps there was a sign of the hare, or perhaps Andraste, in Jane Holland's book. If anyone else gets there first, let me know.)

The poem of the book's title does what I'd have hoped all poems that reference some kind of classical mythology would do: it turns a contemporary story into a legend. This was something Cavafy was a master of. Tilting myths to his own ends, turning seemingly irrelevant arcana into allegories for his contemporary world. This perhaps explains the dead-ender of the hair vs hare. It's a pun, but really, would anyone in Liverpool care, when the poem's content is what matters. Three men burning a woman's hair in the forest and the insistent refrain at the start, "she let them" do it, giving the sense that a rape has taken place.

A subtle accumulation of vocabulary tints the setting - a phrase like "the area is cordoned off" repeated just once, lending the atmosphere a police-investigation tone, that carries through. Alongside is the woman's resistance - carrying the burnt remains of her hair to the river, "to spread in the warp of water." This is a new narrative joining a longer chain, a poet recording a history that she doesn't want forgotten.

The piece is carefully woven, like the whole collection, with recurring moments, the vicissitudes of signs to themes (to paraphrase Eco) that start to build up a picture of Eleanor Rees' Liverpool. And given the potency of this poem alone, the clear craft that's gone into it, pulling it down to only the necessary, it's only fair that I now try to push out all thoughts of stereotypical Scousers in shellsuits nicking car stereos, to focus on the poetry.

There is a powerful sense of time in the collection, with tenses changing to fit the poet's eye and memory. Some poems begin with a sense that something in the past needs to be recalled - "Later, houses know" (in 'Or snow'); or literally in 'Seams of Dust':
The pavement erupts and the past
- tail twitching -
rises from the cracks.

But really what strikes is the present tense used throughout - every incident, no matter how occasional the content might seem, is tackled in the lava of being. I can imagine Rees undergoing a form of self-hypnosis, struggling to get back to the spontaneous overflow of experience and re-live it, or rather, to not let these moments fade completely. At the same time, each memory is tied to a tradition, be it Celtic, classical, or the dynasty of White Goddesses to which Andraste has been associated with.

The content of the poems has a sense of importance, as though the poet were earnestly turning a model of the city around to show you something you'd missed. People run over by cars, lying in the road; moments of passion between lovers; hidden places, like Olwyn's Valley, the Mersey countryside; or the tarmacked streets turned strange and mythical. These have fingers pointed at them - an impersonal finger, but one that highlights the emotion in the scene by offering it to the reader to create - and the sheer beauty and strangeness depicted is enough to keep the eye fixed, as in 'A Nocturnal Opera':

Morning scold of dark
touches eyes shut dark

to see old dark waning.
All shades of dark,

frayed edge dark,
are now hollow head dark...

window flat glass dark

in the street dark
in flowerbed dark

in gutter, wheels,
parked car dark

The repetition is stretched but not exhausted, turning the city into a gothic journey into which the poet places her narrator, "barefoot, bra-less, / flung westward." The ensuing poem is worth the cover price alone, for the scope and freshness of its construction, though it does leave some of the shorter pieces looking like filler.

This particular urban city poet seems to be trying to escape from the city that people know. Hers is not the Liverpool of docks and the Beatles, not the European Capital of Culture. Andraste's Hair defines the city as Rees has experienced it - not the real experience, necessarily, but the emotional truth, the weight of tradition, and the range of facets presented build to a more authentic picture than the abstract constructions that many established poets were conjuring in their early writing.

Perhaps it's the need to know themselves that drives developing poets to look into their roots, to ground themselves in a landscape. I'm not going to tackle the whole 'writing and place' thing here, but more the sense of writing place as a starting point for material. Think, for example, of Roy Fisher's early work about Birmingham (too embarrassed to reference the place at first, his first collection was entitled simply 'City'), or Cavafy's Alexandria (although the city featured throughout his work).

But perhaps what I'm thinking more is that urban landscapes have been dominated by men - Hart Crane, Tony Harrison, the Beats; rural ones too have men like Ted Hughes and John Burnside standing astride them, but whereas I can name several women writing about rural scapes with great credibility - Penelope Shuttle, Elisabeth Bletsoe, Alice Oswald, for starters - I fall short on women tackling urban landscapes (Catherine Walsh being one obvious exception). Suggestions on a postcard - perhaps there's a reading list I'm not aware of.

Thursday 30 August 2007

Vend Vend Vend - Simon Turner

Stumbled across this article on the novel idea of a poetry vending machine. That article's critical, but I quite like the idea. The next steps: advertising hoardings serialising Briggflatts, or recordings of Ted Hughes and Susan Howe piped in to multiplex cinemas before the trailers, instead of the awful aural pap that movei-goers normally have to endure. It could be the beginnings of a trend, just wait...

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.

Friday 10 August 2007

Simon Turner - Reading Jeremy Hooker (Part One)

Jeremy Hooker, The Cut of the Light: Poems 1965 - 2005 (Enitharmon, 2006)


Last night, drinks and music, the usual yammer with George. I mentioned my discovery of the week - the last three lines of Hooker's poem 'City Walking (1)': "Sharp and bright / above petrol dusk / the evening star". Is discovery the right word? Implies some effort on my part, but Hooker did all the work in making the lines, surely? Still, they are beautiful, the effects of the lines revolving round the use of the word 'petrol', a component of our everyday language here made fresh and mysterious. So much use of metaphor or simile has the effect of closing down the possibilities of generating meaning, forcing the reader to see in a particular way. Here, 'petrol' opens up the field completely. So much meaning accrues to the word almost silently. That same evening had closed with a brilliant sunset, a gash of fuchsia set amid smudges of grey, the whole effect just visible behind the houses. 'Petrol', yes.

This morning, not yet fully awake, and flicking almost randomly through the pages of the book, I came across 'New Year's Day at Lepe', with its "delicate industrial sky", and was struck again by the simplicity of Hooker's language. He does not strain after effect, and every word is common currency: one or two syllables for the most part. Where he dazzles is in his arrangement, the music he creates from such small particles: like the shingle in that same poem, which "tinkled and grated as it dragged".

10/08/2007 - Later:

"What I love is the fact of it" ('Itchen Navigation')

Struck with the constant presence of the sea in Hooker's poems, and reminded of a conversation I had with Jon just the other day, about how my own writing was 'land-locked' - this was not an insult - but how he imagined me years down the line, living in some tiny fishing village, writing obsessively about the ocean, making up for lost time. Right now, as I'm writing this, I'm on a train heading down to London. It's evening, the light a subtle haze of apricot, the sun flickering like an old movie as it passes behind the trees. Tomorrow: Brighton, and the ocean waiting. Reading Hooker means, somehow, reading the world through Hooker. What will Brighton look like after absorbing all these poems about the ocean, after so many years spent inland, 'land-locked'?

Hooker's name: appropriate, his consonants like minute barbs catching the throat: "The curve of its cry - / A sculpture / Of the long beak: / A spiral carved from bone" ('Curlew'). I was cut off in my writing after that last sentence; our stop. Trees took the last of the sunlight, shades of tangerine, their long shadows roaring across the rutted fields, the ridges tinged with a heavy russet where the darkness struck. A shock of birds massed into a loose wedge flew before the sun, and vanished instantly.


Hooker writes, in 'A Poem for My Father', of "the painting of a cornfield / he could no longer see, / splashes of bright red, / bluish-green elms, the fullness / of summer days we could feel and smell." Painting is a recurrence in Hooker's poems - in one of the prose pieces in Their Silence a Language, he tells us how "A sleeping painter and a sleeping sculptor come awake in my senses" in the presence of the land-scape (the ocean, again) he has just described - but it is not used in any way which would suggest a post-modern focus upon the processes of the poem's own construction. Rather, it suggests (if this is possible) post-modernism's opposite: where post-modernism (usually) draws attention to its own processes in order to accentuate an essential difference, a gap, between the world and the word, Hooker employs painting metaphorically in order to voice a sensed continuity between being in the world, in the everyday, and the art made from those very same quotidian materials. Just as "the fullness / of summer days we could feel and smell" can be evoked, even reenacted, by a painting, so too is the painting (the poem) evoked by the landscape before it has been painted (written). Charles Simic wrote once that: "First comes being, then come words, then comes the poem". If I am reading Hooker right, he seems to be collapsing this succession of processes into one, simultaneous action: we see in order to make art; me make art in order to see. The best poems will sharpen our vision, almost imperceptibly, like a clear lens interposed between ourselves and the world.

A crowd of sparrows and starlings comes to the garden to feed on scraps of bread and fallen apples, the radio crooning from the kitchen. Dew still on the grass, insects thronging the air. The day is fresh and still, waiting for us to make something from it.

Saturday 21 July 2007

Simon Turner - What is an 'important' writer?

I'm in the process of devouring as much of B. S. Johnson's output as I possibly can in a short space of time. I've already chomped through Christie Malry's Own Double Entry (don't be too impressed, it's very short) and Albert Angelo, and am now in the midst of The Unfortunates, Johnson's famous 'book in a box', composed of 27 loose-leaf sections designed to be read in any order (with the exception of a first and final section, marked as such).

I mention Johnson, as he seems to be something of an interesting test case for how difficult or neglected writers can become (even partially) absorbed into the mainstream over time. And Johnson was certainly neglected, at least by the reading public, even if his books were capable in their time of garnering reviews from such literary heavy-weights as Anthony Burgess and Samuel Beckett. If Johnson (who died in 1973 at the age of forty with seven novels and a raft of other writings and projects under his belt) is enjoying something of a resurgence of late, it's in no small part due to Johnathan Coe's biography of him, Like a Fiery Elephant. Surprisingly, considering its rather esoteric subject, Coe's book received quite a lot of attention in the press (all of it, as far as I could tell, glowing), and succeeded in putting Johnson back on the literary map. Indeed, Coe had stated this aim in his introduction to a 1999 reissue of The Unfortunates, where he claimed it was time to rescue Johnson from literary purgatory, and place him firmly within the bounds of the mainstream.

Of course, that's not quite happened, and it's unlikely that we'll ever live in a world where Johnson sells as much as, say, Jodi Picoult or Tom Clancy, though it would be interesting. But Coe has certainly got people thinking and talking about Johnson, at least within those circles which do think and talk about such things (like the poetry blogging community, for instance), and that can be no bad thing. What is regrettable is that such a resurrection of Johnson's fortunes had to happen so long after his death. Gertrude Stein once noted how, once a great work - Ulysses, say, or Picasso's 'Guernica' - has gained a degree of respectability over time, it's difficult to look at or read those works with the same degree of shock, even anger or distaste, that original audiences and readerships must once have felt. Once something becomes a classic, Stein argues, the heat goes out of it. Not that the 'heat' has gone from Johnson's output, but the fact that his life and work is being discussed once more by the mainstream literary press suggests he is now sufficiently in the past to become an 'important', a 'classic' writer. Mark Twain's definition of a classic was "a book which everyone praises but no-one reads", and it would be a shame if this fate were to befall Johnson, as reading him fresh, as it were, without the weight of reputation, is a wonderful, invigorating thing.

All this is linked in my mind (bear with me) with a review of Sean O'Brien's translation of Dante's Inferno in the Guardian, back in December of last year, or rather, links with the response the review received. The author of the review, Eric Griffiths, is a Dante scholar, and the co-editor (with Matthew Reynolds) of a wonderful anthology entitled Dante in English, which does pretty much what it says on the tin. All this is useful background: Griffiths, as a reviewer of any translation of Dante, must be given the benefit of the doubt: he probably knows a thing or two about the subject. However, as I suggested above, it's not the substance of the review I'm concerned with so much as the response the review garnered on the letters page the following Saturday. Fiona Sampson, currently editor of Poetry Review, took Griffiths to task in the following terms (I'm quoting the letter in full):

"Eric Griffiths rehearses old chestnuts from the translation wars such as the challenges of anachronism ("Down with the damned", December 9). But his misapprehension of Sean O'Brien's project - of creating a Dante for our times - does a grave disservice to an important book. Griffiths objects both to the inevitable loss of the music of the Italian original and to those reworkings that make a poem anew. He misses altogether O'Brien's grave, English music of stress and vowel; the authority and originality of his invention. Given these lacunae, it's perhaps a relief that Griffiths concludes by eschewing translation: but his proposal that we read exclusively in the original fits uncomfortably with any intelligently wide-ranging literary appetite."

For the record, I should note that Griffith's main objection was not to "reworkings" on O'Brien's part, but outright mis-translations which completely altered - one might even say mutilated - the meaning of Dante's original. What's most fascinating about this letter, however, is the fact that Sampson feels it necessary to speak of O'Brien's "authority" and "importance". A question presents itself: if the work is as "important" and authoritative as Sampson claims it is, does it really need the defence she gives it? Moreover, the letter seems to give the impression that literary importance can be ascribed at will by the marketplace, rather than developing organically as readers and critics gradually reach a consensus as to the classic status of a work. The importance of O'Brien's Dante must be proven over time, as Johnson's has been.

Wednesday 6 June 2007

Holland & Co.

Simon Turner reviews Boudicca & Co by Jane Holland (Salt Publishing), £9.99, ISBN 1-844712-89-3

What is most striking about this collection upon first delving into it is the sheer range of material on display. We have a number of poems detailing domestic everyday life; strong evocations of landscape; Anglo-Saxon translations; echoes of medieval songs; and, most impressively of all (but we can come on to that later) we have the long sequence to which this collection owes part of its name, an imaginative excursion into the life and career of the Queen of the Iceni. This range may well have something to do with the collection's vintage: nearly ten years in the making, the poems in this collection represent a great leap forward from Holland's enjoyable debut, The Brief History of a Disreputable Woman.

If the collection is 'about' anything in particular, it is 'about' notions of Britishness, and notions of womanhood. I'll start with womanhood, as it is the less controversial, and less problematic, of the two central themes. Specifically, Holland seems concerned with opening up, and dismantling, traditional notions of femininity. From the book cover (reminiscent, at least to my eye, of the famous jacket photo for Germaine Greer's feminist classic The Female Eunuch) through to the Boudicca poems, Boudicca & Co. is packed to the brim with unconventional representations of women, not all of them positive - the 'Dragon Woman' in the poem of the same name is a particularly unsettling presence - but all of them transcending the preconceived boundaries of what it means to be a woman. Early on in the collection, this attempt to go beyond the patrolled borders of 'correct' female behaviour is enacted in 'Hot Days in the Eighties', where the speaker - employing a familiar syntactic trick of talking about herself in the second person (it's all 'you you you') - remembers how

You chopped your locks in the back
of the car one day, dyke-short.
Kept dental dams in the glove box,
grew the hair under your arms
to a mousy fuzz. Purchased
a map of the highways, went native.

The car - as any reader of Kerouac or fan of the Boss's seemingly endless series of songs about the open road could tell you - is a good old fashioned symbol of masculine freedom and self-reliance, and Holland's re-appropriation of it here is charged with significance. I was reminded a little of Lavinia Greenlaw's own tales of Thatcher-era delinquency in Minsk, but Holland's take on similar material seems to have a lot more punch and muscle.

Arguably the most remarkable component of Holland's poetry, however, is actually stylistic rather than thematic, for she is among a very small number of female poets (Alice Oswald being another) for whom Ted Hughes is a vital influence upon their poetry. Oswald, of course, has written about her love of Hughes' work elsewhere ; in the case of Holland, I'm just extrapolating what I see in the work - in short, it's guesswork. That said, if we take a poem of Holland's like 'The Song of the Hare' ('She sang the song of the hare / and the hanged man hung // as the god in the tree / put forth branches of sorrow // and the lark climbed high / in an ecstasy of cloud'), replace the word 'hare' with 'crow', throw in a little more blood and guts and atomic annhilation, and presto! We have a Ted Hughes poem circa-1974.

Okay, granted that's a parody of Hughes, and wilfully unfair to Holland's poem (which is beautiful), but the bigger point I'm making is that for a woman writer - especially - the presence of even a ghost of a Hughes influence is, I would argue, a pretty big deal, considering that for most of the 80s and 90s, Hughes was a byword in some circles for poetic / political conservatism and spousal abuse. If the rehabilitation (or, more correctly, rediscovery) of Hughes began with the publication of Birthday Letters in 1998, then it has arguably reached something of an apotheosis in the ardent championing he now recieves from writers like Oswald. The Hughes influence on Holland's work is perhaps quieter than it is in Oswald's poetry - Holland, for example, has not inherited Hughes' occasional tendency towards adopting a strident rhetoric of cumulative imagery and over-abundant sonic effects - and is perhaps most noticeable at the level of the telling image, of the perfect phrase. Take, for example, these lines from 'West Kennett Long Barrow':

Rain condenses its euphoric mass
to a single blessing

filtering through
the intestinal silence of rock.

Though compelling in their own terms, there is a distinct ghost of earlier Hughes poems like 'Pibroch' here, and much of the collection is shot through not only with Hughes' gift for image and phrase, but also with his concerns with landscape, and with landscape's relationship with a sense of identity, both personal and collective.

Such identity - in Holland as in Hughes - is most often bound up with a sense of the ancient forces underlying the recent (and implicitly inauthentic) accretions of national boundaries and political institutions. 'Elementals', the sequence of which 'West Kennett Long Barrow' forms a part, re-imagines components of the ancient landscape of the British Isles (going futher afield in 'Almost Iceland') in terms steeped in myth and folklore, bringing the land to life with a startling admixture of personification and physical descriptions, even enactments, of its components. Writing of an isolated house in the middle of a wind-swept landscape in 'Almost Iceland', Holland writes:

Its single chimney grinned up at the sky
like a maniac.

For miles around, whole islands lay down
and withered. Stones

stunted themselves in its shadow.
And always the wind

hammering for the house
to be absent.

Elsewhere, the capacity for the landscape to signify notions of belonging and identity is rendered explicit in poems such as 'Warwickshire' ('England // my beleaguered sunken island') and 'Benediction', where Holland describes what can only be described as a visionary experience brought on by the landscape itself:

[...] something
vast and intricate
charging the space in my head
with moths dancing - dust in the beam
and the smudge of a spire
glimpsed above sycamores -
the spirit of the tribe.

This emphasis upon landscape as a marker of belonging is potentially liberating when set against the political (and implicitly exclusionary) abstractions of nationhood or 'cultural identity': anyone can belong to a landscape; it is simply a question of being there, of living on it, and in it. Conversely, however, Boudicca & Co.'s employment of ancient (British and Anglo-Saxon) history, mythology and literature as a guiding principle in its representations of place might equally be read as problematic: a reader of a liberal cast of mind, for example, might well balk at the use of the word 'tribe' (which recurs more than once in the collection), with its connotations of the narrative of national 'belonging' associated with, and propagated by, the far right.

Of course, I do not wish to suggest that Holland's poetry is in any way right wing or regressive in its national politics, and Boudicca & Co., in totality, cannot be easily co-opted by the racist rhetoric of the far right in the way in which, say, Tolkein's Lord of the Rings trilogy can. What is apparent, though, is that words such as 'tribe' are loaded with significance, and cannot be used lightly, particularly when the paratextual material for the collection frames Holland's poetry within the ongoing contemporary debate on the meaning and value of 'Britishness'. Holland succeeds in her articulation of 'Britishness', I would argue, because of her willingness to challenge and critque the founding myths and narratives upon which the political idea of Britain is based, and not simply fall back upon the meaningless pieties and generalisations (all too easily capable of spilling over into the jingoistic racial nationalism of the BNP), which most often characterise the political classes' attempts to tackle the very same subject.

This effort to engage with British mythology and history from all angles - positive and negative - is most persuasively articulated in 'Boudicca', the sequence of poems dealing with the legendary Queen of the Iceni which concludes this collection. Where a lesser poet may have simply recapitulated the old myth of Boudicca as a heroic warrior queen routing the invading armies of Romans, and in the process cementing a romantic notion of Britain as a unified coalition of disparate tribes, Holland is brave enough to show the horror and violence enacted by both sides of the conflict. Certainly, the Romans are not portrayed as exemplars of civilised behaviour, but neither is Boudicca an entirely innocent player in the theatre of war:

Once, I slipped on a brain
in the road: decapitated owner
half-lying, half-sitting
against the ruins of her house.

I couldn't help laughing;
she looked so comical,
feet dragged in the dirt,
spare head grinning.

('Headless Woman')

Equally, and futher complicating the portrayal of Boudicca presented in the sequence, Holland is not afraid to show us a tender side to the warrior queen, as in the beautiful poem 'Boudicca's Son':

[...] I had a son once.
For three days.

The pale bluebell of his eyes
closed after sunset

and his whining breath
rattled into silence.

The sequence is littered with anachronistic references (hand-grenades and rifle butts play a part in the skirmishes with the Romans), which lends a further depth to the poems, and rescues 'Boudicca' from being simply an effort to flesh out a myth, pointing us towards more contemporary paralells (I don't need to point out the resonances of a poetic narrative detailing a violent response to an invading imperial army whose methods have a tendency to contravene the basic tenets of human rights legislation, so I won't).

In the process of dismantling the Boudicca myth, then, Holland has opened up new avenues for the possiblity of an engaged and visceral war poetry written by non-combatants, which evades the pitfalls of much protest poetry - we need only compare Holland's work with the anti-war 'poetry' of Harold Pinter to gain some indication of how rich and rewarding her response to modern conflict is - by shifting methods towards the imaginative and narrative elements of poetry, rather than the rhetorical and political. In this sense, the 'Boudicca' sequence has a great deal in common with David Harsent's Legion, which represents a similar attempt by a non-combatant poet to engage intelligently with the realities of war. This is, frankly, an outstanding collection, and Holland, as a result, can now count herself amongst the front rank of contemporary British poets.

Sunday 3 June 2007

i-Pods and Jellyfish

Simon Turner reviews Generation Txt (Penned in the Margins, 2006), 75 pp. £6.99 ISBN 978-0-9553846-1-5

Tom Chivers, who edited this anthology of six young poets, opens his introduction to the selection in combative mode with a quote from Kate Clanchy that is almost parodically idiotic: "I started writing when I was 28. I don't think people really write anything worth reading before that." Mr Chivers is clearly more forgiving than I am - he is Darth Vader to my Emperor Palpatine - as he doesn't make the obvious comment ("Yes, Kate, and some people don't write poetry worth reading even after they're 28"), letting a list of young prodigies - including Keats, Shakespeare, Wilfred Owen, Chatterton and Plath - do the talking for him.

The basis of Chivers' polemic is simple, but undeniable: that the establishment, although making some notional nods to new writers every few years or so, goes out of its way for the most part to ignore work written by younger writers. And when it does make tokenistic efforts to promote 'new' writing (witness the PoSoc New Gen poets promotional bumph from all those years back) it spectacularly misreads what 'new' actually means. Young writers do flourish, but it's on the fringes of the poetry 'scene': in the poetry slam and open mic circuits, or amongst little presses or internet operations, like Penned in the Margins, strangely enough. As such, this collections isn't doing anything monstrously ground-breaking, but what is interesting is its all-purpose quality, and the multimedia brouhaha which goes with it: not only do we have the anthology itself (more on the contents in a moment), we have the nationwide tour, a MySpace page, and an official website too. It's certainly far more real - and far more effective - as a means of conveying the work to the public than the media-saturated razzle dazzle of the approved Faber and Bloodaxe types who dominated the New and Next Gen lists; and what's more, it gives us both page and performance poetries, closing the gap between the two, which can only be a good thing.

What's most impressive, though, is the genuine (formal) diversity on display here. Joe Dunthorne, who opens the anthology, gives us sestinas and villanelles; Inua Ellams gives us great rolling hymns of poems designed for the open space of the theatre; James Wilkes has his postcards and vertical poems; Abigail Oborne has her square sonnets and fractured herky-jerky prose poems. So, what of the work itself? Dunthorne's a nice opener, with a strong line in knotty language and rhythmic solidity:

Rubens milks filth from the bib-heavy maid's basket
of fruit. No ambiguity here as the hand of a cad
with a ya-know-ya-would smirk parts the labia
of a clit-stoned fig. I'm thinking Viz.

('Rubens' paintings at the National Gallery')

Lovely, mouth-filling stuff; the reference to Viz really makes the passage, I feel. Though this quote strangely points to both Dunthorne's strengths and his weaknesses simultaneously; and whilst he's assured when employing this highly wrought idiom, his work seems more fulfilling when he tones it down a little, as in the likable poem that closes his selection, 'Taking a Photo of Workmen in Chapelfields Gardens', or the strange surrealist narrative of 'I Made a Grown Woman Cry Last Night'. One of his poems contains jellyfish, which is always a gold star in my book.

Inua Ellams' material would, I suspect, work best in performance, as on the page some of its rhetorical flourishes and alliterative effects didn't quite achieve lift off for this reader. That said, there's a lot of power and passion in these poems, and the best of his selection - 'Epic', 'Lizards and Lollypop Sticks' - achieves a cumulative force reminiscent of Ginsberg circa-'Sunflower Sutra', or the performance poetry of Saul Williams.

Arguably, Laura Forman is a more consistent poet than either Dunthorne or Ellams, but seems to take fewer risks than either. As such, though there isn't anything particularly wrong with what she's attempting, and there were some lovely moments here - the use of estate-agent speak to talk about death in 'For Sale', or the arresting opening line of 'Attention' ('You let me abseil down your forehead') - I can't honestly claim that her work particularly engaged me. I've seen material like this in any number of mainstream collections, and the more interesting material here (the aforementioned 'For Sale', for example) had the quality of workshop exercises. Forman clearly has a talent for well-wrought images - 'The sky was up early today, / Scrubbing away last night's stars / With summer soap and an old, thin cloud / For a healthy blue glow' - but I would have liked a more formal daring to go with it.

In the case of Emma McGordan, I'd like to dwell on the good (the concision of 'Punks & Patchouli', the telegraphic violence of 'Sonnet to the Soviet'), rather than the bad ('Sexy Anne's Plan', ''The System'). McGordon's only really just starting out, so her work might improve, but her work at the moment is rather undeveloped, lapsing into cliche on a regular basis, and some lines - see, for example, 'Sexy Anne would take / The circus stand / So to speak to every man / And tell them of / The Sexy Anne Plan' - are strikingly clunky.

Abigail Oborne, on the other hand, is the real deal, and if some of the poems here seem a little too eager to please, this is for the most part top-notch work. 'Suffering', in particular, is alert to how language is used and abused in everyday life, and focuses on our attempts (and failures) to talk eloquently about violence and trauma, with facts and figures from the newspapers jostling with inelegant attempts to give voice to personal tragedies:

when the tsunami
two hundred thousand people
my wife's mother

eight day's later we heard that she'd died
getting the chicken
her father dropped down dead

Oborne's blurb cites Frank O'Hara as an influence, and his 'I go here, I do this' mode of writing is inherited in 'The World' and 'Sunday Ten to Three', the second of which is one of the best things in this anthology; whilst O'Hara's New York fellow-traveller, Ted Berrigan, is a ghostly presence in Oborne's not-quite sonnets ('when I say I love you / it sounds like the flip / of a cheque book'). A-grade, and another gold star.

Jellyfish recur in James Wilkes' poems, which of course automatically puts me in a good mood, as does Wilkes' shape-shifting attitude to form. Arguably the most exciting of the poets on display here, this brief selection gives us postcard poems, permutational poems, vertical poems, collage and ecological satire. Which is a fairly good showing for a small handful of pages. Wilkes' thing seems to be the use of the page as an extra dimension in the construction of meaning; form is an element of content, and vice versa. The vertical poem, for instance ('Score for a Nocturne'), compels the reader to either read from left to right, or from top to bottom. The first method yields this first line: 'the hissing electric loops'; the second this alternative: 'the night cantata of patched mirrors passing city cinematic lighthouse swept past'. One poem contains at least two possibilities of alternative readings; there are most likely as many potential poems here as there are potential readers. 'Postcard from Rochester' similarly shatters the notion of linear reading, allowing for vertical reading, horizontal reading, circular reading, any which way. It would be very interesting to see how this work is performed on stage, as it seems dependent to a great extent upon the extra dimension of the page for its effects, but that's altogether another matter. All told, this is excellent stuff.

So, then, a mixed bag, but that's always the way with anthologies. I do, however, think that this anthology for the most part points to rude health amongst the youngsters on the poetry scene (though some of them are the same age as me, so I don't know where that leaves me...), and offers alternatives to the tedium of the current crop of mainstream not-so-bright stars. Young poets should get their hands on it, if only to give them a sense of the world beyond Picador hegemony. But the people who should really be reading - like Clanchy, perhaps - will no doubt be dismissing it out of hand before they've even scanned the cover.

Saturday 2 June 2007

Babylon Burning: Poems in Aid of the Red Cross

Here is yet another nice thing by that very nice man, Todd Swift. His Oxfam Great Britain Residency led to that very nice project, Life Lines which features an astounding 69 poets. But I've said 'nice' too many times and I don't want you to think I'm being disingenuous.

Babylon Burning, from nthposition (which Todd edits), is subtitled '9/11 five years on' and has a cartoon on the cover of the Towers as underground offices embedded in the rock strata beneath Ground Zero. I don't know how I feel about all that. But the book is a nice project, as the proceeds go to the Red Cross. And it contains loads of poets, including:

Ros Barber, Charles Bernstein, Tom Chivers, Elaine Feinstein, Peter Finch, [the wonderfully named] Wednesday Kennedy, Sonnet L'Abbé, David Morley, Ruth Padel, Myra Schneider, Penelope Shuttle, John Siddique, Todd Swift [mais oui! he's done it for free, it's only fair] John Tranter and many many more [a limp ending, but there are loads of poets in there, yes loads.]

And all this, for free as a PDF download, from nthposition. The catch? "If you enjoy these poems, please make a donation to the Red Cross." That's not too much to ask, is it?

I haven't reviewed the collection here, but if someone wants to send one in, please do.

Selections from Life of Conway by Andrew Bailey

(These are all visual poems: please click on the image if you'd like to view the poem seperately; and if you want to restart them at any time, just refresh the page. Enjoy!)

Cheshire Cat: The Fantastic Combinations of John Conway's New Solitaire Game "Life"

Cheshire Cat: Cheshire Cat

Beehive: Arrival of the Bee Box

Wednesday 30 May 2007

Hidden Forms

I was chatting with someone yesterday who described how he has lately been working with speech recognition software to edit his poetry. He takes one of his old poems and reads it into the computer. The software then invents its own version of the spoken poem as text. He repeats this process until he arrives at something he likes, or can work with.

I put that idea together with this one, from this article over at n+1:

Paintings, apart from the very occasional tondo or altarpiece triangle, all start out as rectangles... Its impolite rival and savior is now called postminimalism, but it went by many names: body art, performance art, conceptual art, land art, protest art, process art, anti-art art... Not having been there, we learn about these new art forms from the leftover paraphernalia. Books and museums show us black and white photographs, gallery invites, artists’ statements and manifestos—all of minimal visual interest—and the putatively unrectangular event gets reduced, through a ruse of history, into that very familiar rectangle: the 8 1/2 by 11 sheet of copy paper in a course packet.

It's amazing how unimaginative the process of poetry composition often is. Sitting with paper and pen - often described as the most liberating tools because they're cheap, readily available and can be used in most environments - is the stereotype, the cliché of composition. Strangely, not a lot has changed over the centuries. We've seen phases of oral composition and recital, but that's about it. Poetry on paper, or poetry out of the mouth. Public poetry, such as Gwyneth Lewis' poem for the Wales Millennium Centre, can seem downright experimental in light of the endless trend of paper and pen poets. It's fairly likely, though, that it was composed on a sheet of paper first.

The computer, another kind of paper, was a revolution for writing in some ways. One which many writers seem to reject - any number of them, from Peter Scupham through to A S Byatt, still compose their first drafts in the traditional manner. Those that embrace the technologies delve into the weird like gizmo-addicts - speech recognition software, machine translation tools and text scramblers are bells-and-whistle devices, fast action methods for older techniques of cut ups and language distortion. But the downside of computers is being forced to work within their parameters.

I always get annoyed when a process's limitation, which has been insiduously working upon me, becomes transparent. Some of the new ones are obvious like spelling and grammar checkers. They drive me mad, particularly the automatic capitalisation of new lines (a great, heterogenising act if ever I saw one) - I've heard some creative writing tutors even teach their students how to get rid of it.

It can be used in your favour though. Mario Petrucci used an automatic spellchecker's suggestions on WC Williams' 'This is to say' to make his own poem. Arguably, they bring everyone who can't type or spell competently up to a certain level of mediocrity. It also means they don't bother to read their work through carefully, leading to a neglect of language, perhaps even encouraging laziness. (The rise of blogging may be a sympton of enabling this neglect further.) It also brings people with a bit more deftness down a few pegs, particularly people who aren't so hot with technology and software and find themselves struggling to translate their weird and wonderful page drafts onto a machine.

Cross-platform poetry winds me up. Moving a poem from computer to computer, program to program; even trying to make a poem appear cleanly in blogger without some compromise of layout or font, is an effort beyond what it should be. As one West Indian poet said to me (about the after effects of colonialism on his homeland's language, though it seems relevant), "That's hegemony at work." In response though, poets like Charlie Dark create one-off poems (I think he called them 'dumplings') that he only reads at the particular event he's at and then never again. A kind of theatre improvisation poetry perhaps. It's a rebellion against the infinite array of storage chips, the Google Archiving, the digitisation of life.

Or there's the art-poems, painted straight onto their exhibition surfaces. In Athens during the German occupation, people could be executed for writing grafitti. In that context, a single epsilon, symbolising the Greek work 'eleutheria', or freedom, became challenging, avant garde. A kind of art poetry - the context created the depth of meaning. Banksy-style modern poets perhaps lack the context, but the form of placing your poetry onto walls, into the public domain, is similar, shaping the poet's awareness of audience, the font, the content.

Forms of process can both enliven the imagination and also leave it running in the same hamster wheel as everyone else. I started writing this with a vague sort of optimism at having heard about a new composition and rewriting method. Will it lead to great swatches of charged imagery, or just a fizzle of sparks in a snowstorm? Here at the end, fingers on the keyboard, eyes aching from a day staring at screens, followed by more screen-staring to muster this into the world, paper and pen don't seem so unappealing a recourse.

But at the same time, not much has altered - where is the next advance on the page, or the screen? What other ways do we have to resist? The page is the mainstream when it comes to the tools of the craft. More questions than answers, as usual.