Monday 31 March 2008

Simon Turner - Facebook is Watching You

Very interesting article here by Tom Hodgkinson of The Idler magazine about the troubling undercurrents of facebook. Read it, pass it on.

Sunday 30 March 2008

"Is this a telling brushstroke?": Six poems from Jokebook by Thomas White

    The flaw called for, rectification taking
place in zest. For whatever reason
fault lines have to be navigated.
Perambulant flowers, snow-sculptures, soap dishes:
metaphors for geese or swans on

a lake, gaining interest with each
transaction, losing weight with each transaction

on their way to becoming symbols
and inflation. Balloons float off. Wealth
turns city to glass: through it,
arcadia John Nash landscape of haystacks
empty fields. Nowhere. With a little
effort, description clothes an emperor and
empire in dirty streets and blind
beggars. Pieces appearing in Paul Nash’s
Equivalents for the Megaliths. Wit drifts
off the ground to language: laughter
fills in, blue sky and immaculate


Beach charms queers (gents a bit crude). Fountain plashes, features calm, natural tears. Meant a bitter prude. Loo stinks. We chose spam, not rolls. A pent-up debtor viewed towing frozen rations. We pose, cannot hold. Towering chosen nation, repose. Can of old meat. Open, scoff. Let a loose hour intro sense. Up close man obsolete. The fun of it all to sour into cessation. Exposed and absolutely vulnerable to our interpretation: there is nowhere he can hide the hand that rests just above his stomach as if he still felt horribly ill. Here is now there, he connives. The sand contests. Lust or love is too much. Massive easel filled tolerably well. Ceres’ mouth, carefree, cons wives. This, and ton breasts. Must your grove itch? Screw such passive ease! Tell him to call her and he will see she’s ‘south’. Where beacons vie his phantom rests. Rust or mauve? Bitch poo. Clutch ass. If he sees, yell. Milk all their money, spill tea. Queer how the weekend dyes his pantaloons red (dusk). Shore woven with blue, much as if the sea swell’s silk. Trawl the muddy swill.


‘How like a headlamp
is that spotlight,’ he raved, ‘the headlamp
of an effeminate train – hi there! – and, right,
John Barry told Shirley to imagine
she was singing about a penis. I mean –
how many pricks like diamonds
have you ever seen?

I first met Cocteau at an all-male sex show – San Fran, I think
around 1890. He astonished me in lace panties
but wouldn’t expound,
just glared at the dancers on the pole
which is basically a vertical handrail
which gets you nowhere.
Possibility turned on its side and I felt desire.’

But the tracks converge and fade
for those of us who’ve gone the distance
to the blue wall of the horizon.

The track turned sideways

is the string of a balloon we need
not to float away
we need a past
weighed down with significance.

If we went back we would knock up
against shadow in a room full of furniture

but the past is much too big
and, in near-total dark,
where sequins lost down the sides
of sofas sparkle, resembles a nightclub
where we knock up shadows
(chair, key, rock, cup, cat chow)
and grip the pole, slippery
as the view flashing past the window


The fir’s point

blunted by a fairy. Pointy lines
hung with shiny baubles
deflect your face. Not me.

‘Firs point,’ slurred the fairy,
‘s tha iss limiless
cos ver isnafix

fix point, ri, so it don’t
haft uh ... hyoosh area.’
Can it be in question?


Is this a dagger I
see before me, handle
beside the point, where sawn

-off prose is a forest
wearing the scent of old
apples, off the shoulder

or just thrown on, showing
some leg? Foreshortenéd
but recognisable.

That stump as a handle,
a sawn-off leg nearby.
Adjustments over time.


hello and welcome

The SS officer takes the boy’s right
finger in his black grip, pulls back ’til it snaps
like wood in the fire: hellish
perhaps but in a grate.
Walls flicker. We’re warming up.

Is this a telling brushstroke? A blob of
narrative staining the tablecloth
around which a family sit, staring at a parcel.
The scene has been dubbed by scumble
into Eastern European. There are
significant islands of brilliance but the light
of the leaded window, the sad gathering, is hackneyed.
Follow a point in a mound of straw
across the surface instead of stopping for a moral.

I don’t know what kind of plant that is.
It’s a description. I have an idea
I don’t or can’t name
a mix of green and red

I can get to know. The false name
shocks like the false hand (the mask seemed
transparent until we found it smashed) he
unscrews, packages and posts.
What is description for if it’s partial?
The clerk picks up what I had taken
for a mark – it was a realist pfennig.

In exchange for a really sunny day
the wood for the trees. The shadow
of a branch points
to the sea, which I look over as if it’s a tedious document
pertaining to the lease on a house that doesn’t belong to me.
Nothing in the sky’s loft
to unpack. The point coagulates

in dusk then merges.
I’m so happy I can’t believe my luck.
The tree was a glove, then it emptied
its limbs into my lap. Dark is a good cover
for this sort of thing.

We’re moving too fast: rewind to
nude fingers smudging canvas
and sprinkling glitter. What
do you get if you cross an onion* with a truck?
Breaking on a joke cheapens the line
but keeps speed up. Juxtaposition
is singular logic. Pound pleaded insanity.
The truck slips
through the gap and smashes
into a trunk. It’s the fat lady for the villain.

*Poetry lives off the forest
all Christmas and no fir trees.
The onion, all fur coat and no knickers,
wrings its cracked hands, leather
thick as a bauble’s hide. An onion is rarely decorative.
It’s something you make sparkle yourself.


The author writes: "These poems are taken from Joke Book, a re-mix of The Goodbyes by John Ash. Each page I wrote had to reference that particular page in The Goodbyes. I wanted to see how that engagement would frustrate, coincide with and change my own writing." Some other of Thomas White's poems can be read online at Great Works, Dusie and Stride

Wednesday 19 March 2008

Four Poems by Jon Ware

Dimension Stone

On the Ysgyrd Fawr,
let your nailtips like dodmen turn
fault-lines in the bracchia,
onion-peel manifest in rot.
The cold certainty will crumb
apart to revetment fraction
and loess: this stone, which once
was knapped from Hereford hillside
by invaded cairn-slumberers,
encasing kneaded bronze, infant
marrow in an asphalt grip:
primed to blurt like magma into
a hiker’s transgressive embrace.

Dog Star

White Tiger, Krittika.
the Cross, Vulpecula:

silver serpents winking
in violet oblivion,
in clarity of nothing.

Bharani, Black Tortoise,
the Vermillion Bird.
Sirius, the watchhound,

alarming at distant
black holes and time
beyond our sight. You name

each new constellation
over the meadow; I
lie silent and regard

the gathered auspices;
every image dancing
in a darkling absence.

Doomsday Vault

The snow flourishes
and spreads, dawnlight
crossing mountains;
a diamond progress

that scatters last
footprints and heals
the broken brink.
Arctic winds shed

and gather in
afferent breath;
at the snow’s core,
below airlock

glass, an infant
spins in magnet’s
motion: blood-germ,
beggars’ harvest.

The Lovers

When the sea woke
at Portishead, our tongues
were opposed in rage
and our bodies would not speak.

Below trailless skies
we combine, sinking in
submerged karst, bones knotted
in wry androgyny.

Saturday 15 March 2008

George Ttoouli - Reading Elisabeth's Bletsoe's Landscape from a Dream

extract from Ooser



        the sea

gave up the dead that were in it

faces discoloured the nacreous

interior of a mussel, all

code, legacy & trace

overscribbled by the waves'


in constant erasure of the phenotype
     shattered skin;


Every so often, a poetry comes along that I find completely, inexplicably irresistible, partly for chiming with a stage I am at and partly for opening doors I'd not known were there. I found Elisabeth Bletsoe's writing at a time when I was struggling with 'medium-length' poetry - poems that resisted the intense brevity of the lyric, while also delivering their emotional punch without a dependency on narrative.

I say struggling - I'd written something to the tune of about 120 lines, in seven parts. Though the whole had a unity, each part depending on the others, I couldn't bring myself to take action and let them flow together, so it fell into distinct lyrics. Yet these didn't satisfy. I was struggling, I realise now, because I lacked models for what was acceptable. I wasn't trusting where the poem wanted to go, the demands it was making.

The culmination of this, was that I chose to chop the whole down to a single poem of about 30 lines. This probably made for a better poem, but I wasn't happy with the end result - I kept seeing the amputated lines ghosting around the poem I had left.

And then, Tony Frazer of Shearsman Books introduced me to Elisabeth Bletsoe's poetry while we were working on his Guest Edition of Poetry International Web - UK. I was stunned by the ideas opened up for me. In fact, all three of his choices blew me away, from Frances Presley's perfect balancing of self, language play, politics and voice to Peter Riley's wonderful experiments with depth of field in bolding and italicising words and all three's blending of prose poetry with deftly-considered linebreaking and surprising associations. Enough gushing, though. Back to Bletsoe's writing.

Something else chimed. Her casual engagement with all the issues I've been obsessed with in poetry for the past decade: geology, history and natural history, mythology and newly mythologised landscapes; love and sex; spiritualism - or rather, the ability to transcend accidence into substance, the sublime.

Her work - in particular The Separable Soul - made me realise that the short lyric isn't capable of containing these multitudes, unless you force yourself into the density (and, some say, inscrutability) of Geoffrey Hill. And the other models I was aware of at the time were distinctly American - Gary Snyder being one of my favourites - or Greek - dead Greek modernists, like Seferis and Elytis - so the landscapes, the approaches, felt as if they lost something in translation. My previous models were not close enough to where I was; I always feel like a thief, or pretender, trying to compete or enter into dialogue with them.

From here, I fell to thinking about where the medium-length poem had gone. I've read (in BS Johnson's Aren't you a bit young to be writing your memoirs?) that the short lyric was the natural haven for poetry after the novel took ascendancy in narrative forms. But the medium length poem can do something that short fiction, intense lyrics and prose poetry can't quite. It's also a very demanding form, unless the poet focuses too much in favour of style over substance. To some extent (argued elsewhere on G&P recently), John Burnside is guilty of this washing over of sound, yet he also demonstrates the ability of medium-length poems to pull the reader entirely within their world, to envelop in atmospherics.

There's also the extended argument or essay of the poem - a demonstration or investigation of a subject that can process through permutations of an idea, or scene. Perhaps the sequence rivals this, but not without breaking the flow of the atmosphere. And of course, being closer to the long poem, narrative isn't out of reach. Bletsoe plays with emotional narratives, intense bursts, even a version of Gawayn & the Greene Knight.

So why are these qualities often overlooked? A better question would be: Why is the industry so obsessed with the short lyric; with the '40 lines or less' competitions? Is it sheer laziness - editors not wanting to read more? The ability to fit those poems onto a single page, thereby saving paper? Or the constraints of space in general, in magazines and anthologies, that enforce page limits on editors and publishers?

There's definitely something in this that's connected to the capitalised markets in which poetry has been trying to function; a sure sign, yet again that capitalism is stifling creativity - the lack of diversity in the more commercial publishing houses' lists shows this, even where the editors are widely read and extremely open-minded, they're within capitalist business systems, which are beholden to capitalist economics: profit margins, annual growth, forecasting.

OK, if I haven't lost you already, I should say, I'm not a raving leftie. I like to consider myself critical of the current system and its effects on the things I love, both negative and positive. And so I also see the internet (a place I've been highly critical of in the past, for making room for so much of the slushpile, thereby undermining my democratic championing of poetry) as a place to bring back the medium-length poem, a place where poetry is not beholden to column inches, or cost per square inch of paper. That said, I am secretly worried that this may just open the doors to a lot of baggy self-indulgence.

Meanwhile, I've not said very much about Elisabeth Bletsoe's Landscape from a Dream. But I'm still reading it, like it says in the title to this post. So you'll just have to wait, or buy a copy yourself and make your own mind up.

Wednesday 12 March 2008

Simon Turner - Multiple Things

Philip Larkin: Britain's greatest postwar writer. Apparently.

There is a very interesting article in the current issue of Pomegranate, in which Emily Tesh lays into the notion that the sole function of any young poet is the finding of one's voice. Tesh's chief complaint, aside from the argument that the critical focus on voice is an example of lazy reading, is that sticking to one voice fails to reflect the multiplicity of the world as it is currently lived by the majority of people. She writes:

"If I had to describe what life in the twenty-first century is like to a passing time-traveler, I’d call it multiple. Different media are everywhere, blaring a hundred thousand different messages that reach our ears as a dizzy mess of thoughts and fashions and brands. The world wants us to know that iPod and iTunes are meant to be together like attractive models making out, that McDonalds eaters everywhere are lovin’ it, that you should just do it, that property prices are rising or falling again, that all right-thinking people hate the Iraq war and George Bush, that all right-thinking people hate immigrants and gays, that Elton John went to a party last night and that people are starving in Africa, that shares in X company rose point three percent the other day and that this is the Hallelujah Chorus from Handel’s Messiah and that that was My Chemical Romance with Teenagers and that COMING SOON from New Line studios and that A-levels are being devalued and that A-levels are just fine and that you should look both ways before crossing the road..."

Work written according to the precepts of voice within this epoch is automatically a failure, precisely because it is an exception to the rule of modernity. If novels, movies, and kid's cartoons can keep up with the pace of technological and communicative change, why not poetry? It's a sound argument, and one which - perhaps accidentally - manages to restate some central issues in the ongoing clash of civilizations between the mainstream and the alternative poetry scenes. On the other side of the Atlantic, Ron Silliman made much the same argument in a post on his own blog back in 2003 (March 14 to be exact):

"Imagine the life experiences of a person relatively unfamiliar with poetry coming to a reading in the United States the year 2003. This person lives in a society in which the Talking Heads had a hit record singing the zaum poetry of Hugo Ball in 1977. The most surreal songs of Bob Dylan were released – and not on any indy label – some 36 years ago. Eminem crams in more social observation into any given quatrain than some Pulitzer poets have managed in their entire careers. Ditto songwriters like Townes Van Zandt or Dave Carter, to pick on a completely different musical genre, or groups like Public Enemy & NWA. And Van Zandt & Carter are both dead, and those rap groups already consigned to the remainder bins of history. Or consider, for that matter, Prince, another golden oldie who managed a career without the benefit of a word for a name for several years. The most popular motion picture of the past two years had substantial portions of dialog spoken (with subtitles) in Elvish. To pick another medium altogether, television, the audience coming to this reading will have had everything from the close attention to the spoken that is Buffy, to the narrative ambiguities – including the backwards speaking dwarf – of Twin Peaks to the multiple layers of Max Headroom, all in the range of recent references as they gather to hear somebody read a poem. This is in 2003, 172 years after the first of Aloysius Bertrand’s prose poems. Over a century after Rimbaud & Lautréamont. Forty-seven years after Allen Ginsberg published Howl, a book so obscure that it made him a millionaire. All of the above, up to & including the Vampire Slayer, require at least as much sophistication in communication skills on the part of their various audiences as the poem submitted by Noah Eli Gordon. And when we consider the number & kinds of discourses that occur simultaneously on a single screen of CNN’s Headline News channel – let alone consider the signage visible at any instant as we walk or drive down any commercial street in America – we see that it is the surface of the univocal poem [...] that is the deviant experience. Whether or not we approve or disapprove is entirely another matter – but the one-dimensional surface profoundly is the exception to our experience of language, not the rule."

Sorry to offload so much text from other sites, but both Tesh and Silliman put their case so much better than I might have been able to in rehashing it. In essence, both writers are expressing a sense of boredom with the well-made poem, with neat conclusions and easily definable surfaces; both are pressing the case for 'multivocality' as the default experience of language in the everyday and, by extension, as the ideal mode in which to produce poetry. One would have thought that this was old hat, considering that modernism exploded onto the scene some time ago, and has been thoroughly declawed over the decades ever since. But this is not the case, and in a critical environment where Erica Wagner can declare Philip Larkin to be England's most important postwar writer and not be laughed all the way to the moon, these debates between ease and difficulty are all the more pressing [1]. If one expects these arguments from Silliman - he has, after all, got his finger on the pulse of modern poetry in a way that many of us simply don't have the knowledge for, and besides, his aesthetic affiliations are certainly of the multivocal stripe - it is heartening to hear them emanating in nascent form from a young poet-critic. Find a copy of Zukofsky's A as soon as possible, Emily: it'll knock the univocalists clean out your ears.

[1] Jorie Graham, at a recent reading at Warwick University, noted the essential problem in the use of the term 'difficult' to desribe poetry, as it tended to put people off, and open up the critical field for popularisers like Billy Collins to fill the gap, and decalre simplicity 'in', at the expense of more complicated writers. (Neil Astley's is effectively fulfilling Collins's role in a British context.) Graham favoured 'complexity', as it is much less of a loaded term: 'difficulty' when applied to artistic productions is only ever two dainty semantic steps away from 'elitism', and no one likes elitism, do they? So, following Graham, 'difficulty' is hereby banned from Gists and Piths for good, unless the context calls for it - for example, 'I have difficulty reading Ian McEwan, because his books are awful', is acceptable; 'J H Prynne is a difficult poet' is not.

Monday 10 March 2008

"It is all so obvious"

Isobel Norris reviews Snow Negatives by Enda Coyle-Greene (Dedalus Press, 2007)
This is the sort of collection one imagines critics raving about for giving us a glimpse of the everyday or an insight into common or garden thoughts and emotions. In fact, the collection won the Patrick Kavanagh Award in 2006, and the judges declared that the collection put the world we live in under pressure, that Coyle-Greene’s poetry was ‘strong, sure, and totally trustworthy’. But Snow Negatives falls far short of expectations.

The first poem ‘Road Sign’ tells us about mistaking a baby fox beside the motorway for a cat. Well, great. Cool. Nice moment. But the poem doesn’t give us anything beyond that. It doesn’t claw out any emotion, it doesn’t put a new spin on the world around us; it is simply a short and somewhat dull anecdote, broken up by curiously placed line breaks.

And sadly the collection begins as it intends to go on. That is, blandly. The title poem, ‘Snow Negatives’ shows us, as the title may suggest, a series of snapshots, such as:


The cathedral swells to fill
the rear–view mirror,
a pillar of salt.
On the left a petrol station
is a brazen light; on the right,
trees dip their silver heads
and shiver.

But Coyle-Greene doesn’t go beyond the snapshot. She doesn’t explore the picture; she doesn’t offer us a view, an opinion, a sense of why the cathedral in the mirror is important enough to write a poem about. She doesn’t even explore the words themselves – her language is bland. By this point in the collection, I’m beginning to think that Coyle-Greene’s idea of poetry is a photograph with line breaks.

Another issue the collection has is that some of the most engaging lines are ones Coyle-Greene has stolen from elsewhere, for example in ‘Witches’, she borrows a line of Caroline Lamb’s infamous assessment of Byron:

As it was, we were fools,
unkissed by the lights
bright smile of the sun,
only happy when sad,
aching for boys
who were mad, bad,
dangerous to know.

Some of whom were poets.’

It’s okay to borrow the odd words and lines here and there, but Coyle-Greene repeats them exactly, without offering her own take on the mad, bad, dangerous to know poet-boy species. When you’re quote-poaching, you really need to put your own spin on things, because otherwise you’re just repeating what’s already been said by someone rather more original than you.

On the other hand, when Coyle-Greene writes more formally, her poems become instantly stronger. For instance, the series of modern sonnets, ‘In Latin, to the lake’, stand out in the collection because of the subtle couplets at the end of each sonnet, and because the sonnet form itself has forced Coyle-Greene to cut her work down to fourteen lines. She has had to club her good lines together rather than break them up with fuzzy meanderings. As a result, ‘In Latin, to the lake’ boasts some lines that sound fantastic when spoken aloud, such as:

a field in almost-dark, the lake, its face
ice-cauled and scraped – like happiness, heart-shaped.

It seems strange that Coyle-Greene doesn’t write in form more often – with her subtle rhymes, the sonnet in particular really works for her in a way that her free verse doesn’t. It actually seems quite hard to believe that the poet behind:

… my pen became a cage
that held you in and only let you go
like a skim of stones on water, grey
as air, in air a trace above the flow.

is the same person who wrote the dull and lifeless observations on the other pages.

Another ‘condensed’ poem is ‘Hope’, which is probably the best in the entire collection. As in ‘In Latin, to the lake’, Coyle-Greene abandons her excessive line breaks. She also doesn’t clog up the poem with what can only be described as ‘fluff’, as she does throughout the rest of her collection. She wraps the poem up with a neat little almost-couplet:

Oscillating, she assumes the shape, skin-
slipping to a place where she can wait.

The half rhyme in ‘shape’ and ‘wait’ offers us a sense of finality and completes the poem neatly and succinctly.

Elsewhere, Coyle-Greene seems to have an issue with knowing when to stop. Often, a poem jumps out as being intriguing and innovative, but then you turn the page and find it goes on. An example of this is ‘Pineforest’, which, on my first reading, struck me as being her best poem, by a long shot, with neat little lines like:

There is an obscenity involved
in such honesty, an exposure of souls
in the looped Ls, in the Os
closed tighter than his arm
around her shoulder in the photograph.

She goes on to say:

It is black and white.
It is all so obvious.

These lines are striking because Coyle-Greene has said exactly what she has to in order to suggest to us what is going on. At this point, she has not spelled out the situation or explained the unnecessary. It is sharp, it is mysterious, and it is moving.

And then we turn the page. And oh. It goes on. It really doesn’t need to go on. She’s already put it to us, she’s told us it’s so obvious – so do we really need to go through the next two stanzas? Really?

Snow Negatives as a collection forces us to consider what makes a poem a poem. I’ve been trying to draft a mental checklist while reading, and I reckon that for something to be poetry, it needs to do at least some of the following things. Firstly, it should use language well – it needs to sound interesting, or look interesting on the page. It also needs to bring something to our attention or cast a new light of something we can already see. It needs to give us an emotion, a sense of the atmosphere it wants to create. Very simply, it needs to be more than just a snapshot.

When Coyle-Greene writes formally, the form tightens and condenses her language and her poems work well. But too often her poems seem like bland snapshots. They remain as negatives – under-developed.

Tuesday 4 March 2008

Two Poems by Andy Webb

Mná or Fir

after Amy Clampitt’s 'Sea Mouse'

Despite the Smoky Honeyeater of Foja,
this orphanage of possibility contracts:
there are no names for the mutant
children you kill, their deaths concealed
by the forest, there are no names
for their mutant mutant unborn:

beyond even the lacuna’s pale, they
have no sigh or image to show you
the lie of choice when paths diverge -
like the time you were faced with Mná
or Fir and the options made you see
what already has been decided.

John Barleycorn

Between the cured air and the cauterised land,
he burns off his skin, discards his bakelite eyes.

A flute of memory he can’t be sure is his own:
how he died and died among the strawed husks.

The crown of the hill is a fire that saps the hardwood
of the moon and splits the ox-hide of an oak tree,

its blackbirds, musical boxes unwinding into silence
and the limbo of uncertainties.