Thursday 28 February 2008

Simon Turner - My Unfinished Reviews

One of the reasons I find myself so impatient with book reviewing in the broadsheets, aside from the increasingly conservative decisions being made behind the scenes as to what gets reviewed to begin with, is the restriction of the form. There is only so much one can do, only so far one can go, within the framework of the traditional review, in experimenting with form. The blogosphere, on the other hand, represents a totally free space, and if this sometimes results in show-boating and self-indulgence - Gists & Piths can certainly be found guilty on both those fronts on occasion - it is more often the case that the same freedom opens up the reviewer to greater critical independence and rigour than the mainstream press can allow for. So, with that in mind, and in tribute to Marcel Benabou (and latterly George Steiner) I want to inaugurate a new(ish) form of review: a compilation of unfinished - for various reasons - scraps and fragments, which on their own amount to very little, but which compiled make up an interesting stop-gap article until I can muster the energy to create something more substantial. Enjoy.

1. John Burnside, Gift Songs (Cape, 2007)

A difficult one, this: I've been a fan of Burnside's work for a long time, since I first read his poetry in the Morley-Hulse-Kennedy edited Bloodaxe volume The New Poetry in college. The review of his most recent collection remains unfinished due to the fact that I proved incapable of making my mind up about it. On the one hand, he is an immensely accomplished stylist, and there are many wonderful lines and images here. But I also worry that his work feels as though it has been composed on auto-pilot: so many of the phrases - and subsequently, so many of the poetic effects - in this book comprise a variation on the formula 'an x of y', for example: 'the salt of distance', 'the music of midsummer's eve', 'the lull of gospel', 'the perfection of shadows', the shimmer of eyes'. Granted, it might well be unfair to take the isolated elements as indicative of the collection as a whole, but the minutiae of a poet's technique can often give us an insight into their more expansive qualities. The jury's still out on this one.

2. Three from Shearsman: Spencer Selby, Twist of Address; Peter Larkin, Leaves of Field; Isobel Thrilling, The Language Creatures (all 2007).

A difficult review to finish if only because of the wildly variant technique and quality on display here. I knew Spencer Selby best as the curator of Selby's List, an invaluable resource for finding avant poetry on the web, and this was my first encounter with his poetry, and I thoroughly enjoyed it: loosely language-centred, there is also a narrative joy to be found in certain of the poems here, such as the 'Cycle Synopsis' sequence, which upon first reading have the same disorientating effect of David Lynch's later work (Lost Highway, Mulholland Drive, Inland Empire), revolving as the poems do around disturbing and paradoxical circular narratives from which there is no escape for the reader. Reminiscent, too, of JG Ballard and Donald Barthelme, though I am less sure why. Elsewhere, his poems demand and reward close attention; indeed, if the poems have a subject, it is precisely the close attention to language, and language's mutability, which the collection cries out for the reader to enact.

Larkin's work is language-centred in a different way: dense blocks of text which seem to mirror the impenetrable foliage of a climactic forest (the space of nature is often Larkin's subject, though this does not mean his work falls into a Romantic category). I must admit to finding Larkin's work 'difficult', but it is not without its pleasures: "Like threads of leaf-sepals seem incisions, in the tree of deep ruts of twining licence. A canopy no longer super-exposable once what it gives as shelter is stood up under, plantation station out tall in swirl." Out of the swirl of colliding registers and vocabulary emerges one fact: a sensuality of language which, if we put aside the complexities of meaning for one moment, really makes the poetry come alive in the mouth. There are no easy points of entry into Larkin's work - it is all of one part, really, and his chosen form is the same dense prose-stanza that dominates here (reading his work alongside Ron Silliman's landmark essay The New Sentence may help to clarify the reading process) - but I would recommend him without caveats. Just don't expect an easy ride.

Isobel Thrilling's poetry, meanwhile, is all too easy on the reader, and seems very much at odds with the usual rigorous editorial standards at Shearsman, and whilst there are pleasures to be found here - a clarity of expression, a deft hand when it comes to arresting images - the poems feel to neat, too polite, for my liking. In addition, I wasn't at all keen on Thrilling's tendency to close her poems with semi-moralistic statements ('We are all pieces of amber, / the universe remade running through our veins'; 'whatever our / composition, we are prisms of rain') that tend to close off any element of self-volition on the part of the reader: all the work of interpretation is done for us. That said, I think there are moments here where it becomes apparent that there is something of real value in Thrilling's poetry, but it exists in only nascent form as yet, and needs a more expansive space to develop, which the poems here do not offer.

3. Charles Johnson, The Feather-List Extracts (Five Seasons Press, 2005)

There are a number of reasons I never got around to completing this review, which can be summarised as follows:

1. When I began, I had just completed a review of David Hart's Running Out, also published by Five Seasons Press, and was worried that Gists & Piths might appear like a publicity wing of that publisher.

2. This was compounded by the fact that David Hart edited and wrote the introduction to this collection, and Johnson, like Hart and like myself, was originally from Birmingham. To avoid accusations of Brummie chauvinism, I thought it best to hold on to the review until we were better established.

3. I had, prior to beginning the review in earnest, received a (very lovely and apologetic) rejection note from Johnson, who edits Obsessed With Pipework and Flarestack Press, and was worried that I might not be able to maintain enough critical distance in my account of his collection.

4. 2005 was quite a while ago: to write a review in 2007 / 2008 felt a little belated.

So, personal reasoning aside, what did I think of the collection? Overall, it had the feel of being somewhat cobbled together, though this is as much a result of the editorial process as Johnson's own writing: the poems were gathered from far and wide, rather than written with a single collection in mind. That said, so many slim volumes are so neat and tidy, so written to order, that the slightly anarchic quality of The Feather-List Extracts is refreshing. Inevitably, the collection is somewhat of a mixed bag: some of the poems are very successful, some less so,but the poems I enjoyed I enjoyed immensely. 'Hints for Travellers' shows all of Johnson's greatest strengths - simplicity, lack of pretension, a keen eye for detail - to their best advantage:

I drove an unfenced road
open to the grail
as a wide flower is open
to the idea of summer rain ...

If the diction recalled Edward Thomas or Robert Frost, that brilliant image at the heart of the opening stanza is all Johnson's own, and all the more effective for being revealed in such simple language. Elsewhere, Johnson is not afraid to experiment, the strange final section, 'Indices', tantalisingly suggesting a whole alternative career as a card-carrying experimentalist, quite at odds with the quieter poet Johnson shows himself to be throughout the remainder of the collection. We need more poets like Johnson: writers uninterested in aesthetic fashions, or the various style wars that seem to be wrecking the poetry community at present. And if it doesn't all succeed, so what? Just leave it and go on to the next thing.

4. Sarah Maguire, The Pomegranates of Kandahar (Chatto & Windus, 2007)

I have friends who are slightly at odds with me on this one, and can't quite work out why I like Maguire's work. I plan to give no robust defence here of my personal taste. Suffice it to say that I enjoy her poetry immensely, and here is one reason why, from 'The Physic Garden':

Look, even in July,
the leaves of the
are learning to yellow:

lemon and gold
leavening the green.


As good a place to end as any, I suppose: until next time. Don't have nightmares.

Wednesday 13 February 2008

Simon Turner - An interesting link for those in the know...

This is just a brief heads up to alert readers to a Guardian blog article by Billy Mills - poet, critic, Kurt Vonnegut lookalike, small press publisher and all-round top bloke by all accounts - about Chris Torrance's Magic Door sequence. I'm a big fan of Chris' work, and am involved in getting the Heaventree volume together at the moment, so it's wonderful to see his work getting the exposure it deserves.

Sunday 10 February 2008

What is Postmodernism?

Postmodernism is "all intellectual play of surfaces and depthless reification of the commodified body in a post-industrial epoch." (Simon Turner, Gists & Piths)

postmodernism is a convoluted term
postmodernism is rotting our social fabric
postmodernism is "a loathing for 'bourgeois values"
postmodernism is the rise of political correctness and the attempt to purge dissenting opinion from the ranks of the academic
postmodernism is largely a reaction to the assumed certainty of scientism
postmodernism is generally viewed as a critique of modernism
postmodernism is the foolishness
postmodernism is about and
postmodernism is most likely the most important
postmodernism is the idea of the collapse of grand narratives
postmodernism is all about process
postmodernism is notoriously difficult to define
postmodernism is a move beyond the limitations of reductionism and rational analysis—beyond rationality
postmodernism is epistemological relativism
postmodernism is moving that pace to exponential levels
postmodernism is againist modernity and progress
postmodernism is still a
postmodernism is what you have when the modernization process is complete and nature is gone for good
postmodernism is not a term that appeared in our vocabulary from nowhere
postmodernism is like the loch ness monster
postmodernism is one of the most dangerous movements of the century for christians
postmodernism is the cultural worldview that now penetrates and owns our society
postmodernism is not what you think
postmodernism is a hospital where the beds must remain empty
postmodernism is a term which attempts to describe the condition of contemporary society coming to grips with the failings of modernity
postmodernism is pragmatism; we find ways of accommodating ourselves to the debased norm

Postmodernism is self-referential like this definition (George Ttoouli, Gists & Piths)

Friday 8 February 2008

Simon Turner - Close Encounters (1) - Lee Harwood, 'Gorgeous - yet another Brighton poem'

Lee Harwood has become a definite fixture in the pantheon of poetry gods who've influenced the way my work has developed over the years, but my discovery of his work was, in a lot of ways, a stroke of good luck. His poetry had been recommended to me by my uncle, who had seen him read a couple of times. Harwood's name, however, was completely unknown to me, though this was the first year of my undergraduate degree and, frankly, I knew nothing. Still don't. But on a whim, I looked for a copy of his collection of the time, Morning Light, in the University of Warwick bookshop and found one [1]. I looked through the list of previous publications at the back: no titles I knew, and no presses either. Obviously I was familiar with the Penguin Modern Poetry series, and had heard of John Ashbery, who was in the same volume as Harwood, but who was this Tom Raworth fellow who made up the trinity? Who ran Pig Press, and why hadn't I ever seen any of their books at the local Waterstone's? Who was Tristan Tzara, and why was Harwood so keen on translating him?

All of these questions would, in the fullness of time, be answered, up to a point, but what mattered right now was the fact that Harwood's work felt like it had dropped out of an alternative universe - which, in a way, it had. I knew nothing at this stage about the aftershock of the so-called Poetry Wars of the 1970s, nor about the internicine struggle between mainstream and experimental poetics that underpinned much of the aesthetic debate about poetry in the post-war years. Nor was I familiar with the important trends in American poetry that had so influenced Harwood's own approach: I loved Williams, liked some Pound, had 'issues' with Eliot, blah de blah de blah, but hadn't yet fallen in love with the Black Mountaineers, and L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry seemed as alien a landscape as the moons of Jupiter, frankly. Jack Spicer could have been a radio DJ for all I knew, and James Schuyler a copy editor toiling in obscurity for some local interest rag in one of the red states.

What this is all a prelude to is the purity of my reading of Harwood at that time, unhampered by prejudice, not tied down by history and socio-political affiliation. The poems just were, but I knew they were something special; they sang in a way that a lot of contemporary poetry didn't at that time - or, rather, the contemporary poetry I had either found in bookshops, or studied in class. What was apparent first and foremost was Harwood's clarity: the language was so simple, so unadorned, as too seem entirely without artifice, though, as I've come to realise, it's extremely hard to write simply and to write well at the same time [2]. Yet it was also apparent that this style had been worked at, that the phrasing, simple as it seemed, was opening up entire worlds in the space of a few words. Suggesting enormity, rather than showing it.

My favourite poem in the collection at the time - it remains one of my favourites by Harwood to this day - was 'Gorgeous - yet another Brighton poem'. In some ways, everything I've written since has been an effort, however oblique, to rewrite that one poem. I've never quite recovered from it. The title alone is worth the price of entry: there's a wonderful deadpan humour to it, entirely at odds with what usually passes for 'humorous' verse. Indeed, that's one thing that makes Harwood's poetry special - his refusal to differentiate between registers, his shifts in tone from the comic or the whimsical, to the darker shades which have always been present in his work.

From the title, let's move - with tubthumping obviousness - to the first line: 'The summer's here.' Which is about as plain and unadorned as it's possible to get. Yet it also does everything a first line needs to, whilst jettisoning the gubbins that a great many poets would feel the need to include. The first stanza goes on:

Down to the beach
to swim and lounge and swim again.
Gorgeous bodies young and old.
Me too. Just gorgeous. Just feeling good
and happy and so at ease in the world.

The trick here, of course, is that Harwood gives the impression of speaking just to the reader: he makes himself an active presence in the poem, whilst at the same time evading an unproblematic use of the lyric 'I'. That is to say that the 'I' is not assumed, but is physically inserted - 'Me too' - into the fabric of the poem, quietly drawing attention to the gap between author and text. I'd call it 'postmodern', but that would give the impression that the poem is all intellectual play of surfaces and depthless reification of the commodified body in a post-industrial epoch, which it isn't. Indeed, what stands out is the sensual quality of the poem, the physical impact of its subtly adjectival method. The sea is 'silky', the air 'soft and warm, / like fur brushing my body'. In some regards, the poem is a collaborative effort between author and reader (or text and reader, more correctly). The poem, rather than simply forcing an impression or narrative upon the reader, actually opens events up for a second degree of experience. The reader becomes a part of the poem not in any passive way, but in such a manner that they are engaged physically with the mechanics of the text. We ask questions: in what way is the sea 'silky'? What is the exact experience of soft, warm air, and how does that relate to the physical sensation of being brushed by fur? Slowly, imperceptibly, the poem enacts a sensual narrative upon the body.

Immediately, though, the sensation of being suspended in the poem - appropriately, given the central motif of the ocean - Harwood pulls the rug out from under our feet by including a dictionary definition of 'gorgeous':

The dictionary says
"gorgeous - adorned with rich and brilliant colours,
sumptuously splendid, showy, magnificent, dazzling."

This succeeds in drawing attention to the constructed nature of the text, rendering all that has gone before a kind of illusion. One might be reminded of the word glamour, which has a similarly duplicitous nature, redolent of both dazzling beauty and deceit. Harwood seems unsure, almost, of the sensual effects of his poem; in some regards, we might read the dictionary definition as preceeding the poem, and the 'showy, magnifient, dazzling' lines which Harwood has achieved as being a response. The poem, Harwood reminds us, lest we fall foul of a too-easy reading, always begins in words, and an untroubled relationship between word and world can never, finally, be achieved.


[1] This is remarkable, as his books weren't - aren't - easy to come by: Harwood's long been a staple of small independent presses, whose books simply don't get the same degree of distribution and promotion as the big hitters - Faber, Cape, Picador. A shame, as the work being done by the small press world deserves far better recognition than it is currently given.

[2] As a test, try writing like Harwood, or Raymond Carver. It's tough: on the one hand, there's the constant difficulty of making sure your studiedly 'simple' phrasing isn't simply flat and uninspired; on the other, there's the need to constantly check one's tendencies towards the baroque, towards purple euphoria. What results is usually unspeakable.