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.