Friday 26 December 2008

Alistair Noon - Four Structures (4)

Hill with Bunker and Flak Tower

Go on then, plan for the eternal
with cupola, column and arch:
we’ll number their metres from here, and etch
their shape onto a steel panel,

then tilt and fix it to the top
of this slope that the women who walked
out of the thick dark walls
mixed together from scorched rock,

coating it with soil and seeds
as their husbands advanced beyond the Urals,
sending footpaths up in spirals
like icing around the new hillside.

The sirens have stopped.
The nightshift crew looks up,
dancing to techno till dawn. An eruption
deposits cut green bottles,

thin layers of new rubble,
across a fossil of concrete.
This hill just won’t keep quiet,
but fidgets on the viscous mantle.

Thursday 25 December 2008

Alistair Noon - Four Structures (3)

The Berlin Nationalgalerie in 1960

We walked through the maw of this lion
that lay with its paws out: its grimace
all pediment, step and pillar,
the dirt from the nineteenth century.

We found Agamemnon inside,
marbling a wall, and Friedrich’s ascent
of the crimson stairs
to greet his generals in the snow,

children in headscarves and pinafores
scampering at an Alpine brook,
while farmers stoked an iron mill,
each face turned from every other,

and a lipless bust from the Renaissance,
stone become skin become stone
as it took its second glaze
when the Russians came by on a group ticket.

Outside in the black-and-white sky
no one is planning to build a Wall,
and thunderbolts might strike right now.

Wednesday 24 December 2008

Alistair Noon - Four Structures (2)

Showing an Italian Friend the Redeveloped Potsdamer Platz

Si, si, it’s a piazza.
If cement and steel
perpend to the pavement,
sunlight in young branches
still tiptoes over it, as if
across a Florentine floor.
Angular glass
throws back the blue sky,
and squalls falter,
low steps lead
to flat-bedded pools
staffed by saplings,
and inside, the heaven
and hellward staircases
are fingers locked
in a mobile fresco.
Open stallfronts
stand behind, above
and beside us.
We excommunicate petitioners
and men in black cowls
who believe in no government.
No statues here but a sculpture
of upturned
steel. Yes, we burn
these red drinking tins
on pyres beyond the city
or ship them to Cathay,
and snip the promissory notes
we buy voyages through the air with.
Are you looking
for brushwood?
The Magistrati will be here
before you – a piazza,
a piazza, Savonarola,
such as the one
they strangled and burnt you on.

Tuesday 23 December 2008

Alistair Noon - Four Structures (1)

The TV Tower on Air

A minaret on the skyline, silent in the haze
that unscheduled rays don’t penetrate. Songbirds

elope with its pollen to rooftop pistils.
Action and mind will bud on screen.

Too tall for shrivelling leaves to smother:
storm the Palace and there’ll be sport on.

Its signals are flares that tumble through the air
to vanish on overcoats, a trail of pawprints.


The TV Tower on Air is the first of a four part sequence by Alistair Noon entitled 'Four Structures', and Gists and Piths will be publishing it serially over the next four days.

Friday 19 December 2008

Simon Turner - Lost in translation: an open letter to the Gists and Piths crew

Charles Olson: tall man, great poet

Dear Adham, George, Gloria and Holly,

Looks like you’ve got the jump on me in blogging on the Polish poetry evening the other night. My fault for taking so long over my post: in my defence, I spent yesterday variously travelling and at work, and by the time evening rolled around I’d run out of steam. Besides, you’ve all done a very good job of giving an account of the evening, and that’s not at all what I had planned, so I don’t feel quite so bad about failing to get my post together at the same time as you guys.

Anyway, that’s more than enough excuses for now. First and foremost, I want to put my cards on the table: I believe absolutely in poetry. Indeed, it’s about the last thing I do believe in - religion, Marx, mankind and Tintin have all fallen by the wayside as personal gods which have failed, but poetry remains as a constant and an absolute. But what does it mean to say I believe in poetry? Obviously, I believe it exists, but I would never say ‘I believe in this table’ or ’I believe in this pen’ or ‘I believe in Peter Mandelson’ and expect you to take it to mean the same thing. Poetry is, then, an article of faith for me, and I am genuinely of the opinion that true poetry can effect a sea-change of consciousness in the listener or reader, a profound alteration at a spiritual level. Again, I need to clarify: what I do not mean by spiritual here is the wishy-washy brand which encompasses horoscopes, crystals and the like, but something closely akin to what Charles Olson means when he writes, in ‘Projective Verse’, of poetry which is written by the whole person, the total being, and not simply by one isolate facet of that same being.

The spiritual, then, as I would define it, is a concatenation of the mental, the emotional, the physical, the animal: all facets of being brought into alignment. In Zen Buddhism, there is a term, satori, which describes a heightening of consciousness - it is not an otherworldly state, but a recognition of the interconnectedness of all things in the here and now. Not another reality, but, in overly simplistic terms, reality-plus. It is in this way that I view poetry: as a heightening of consciousness, as a means of being in the world. Obviously, this level of consciousness, of spiritual awareness, is difficult to maintain, which is why, I would argue, real poems come only rarely. Real poems are pieces of art or states of consciousness - it does not have to be a poem merely, or writing merely, but a painting, a scene in a movie, a conversation, or simply a few moments in the day - where this heightening of consciousness, of the spiritual faculties comes readily into play, when we are most fully human and at the same time less ourselves than we are at other times in our lives; where the social and historical structures by which we define the human, the individuated ego, come tumbling down, albeit for a moment, and we are wordlessly immersed in the interconnected web of the universe’s ecosystem.

So, that’s poetry - at least for me. What poetry is not is a bourgeois past-time designed to mirror and validate the aspirations and opinions of a bourgeois audience. That’s not poetry, that’s Radio 4. I guess where all this is coming from is a recognition of the limitations of a certain kind of poetry, safe and cosseted, with no real ambition, with no fear or anger or joy contained within it. Poetry, said Auden, makes nothing happen, and whether he was right or not, my feeling is that we should always write as if it did, with total commitment and seriousness as we set about the task at hand. This is not to suggest that poetry should be dour and humourless, but that whatever subject we take as our starting point, we treat it with the total being, and try, in our efforts to communicate, to push the language to the limits of the possible, of the sayable. Commitment, really, that’s what I’m talking about, commitment to the real work of poetry.

That’s enough from me for now. I’d be interested to hear your thoughts.


[Originally appeared on the Poetry International blog during Gists and Piths' period as part of the blogging team at the festival.]

Monday 15 December 2008

Tom Chivers - Hasty Excise

It started in Europe’s busiest railway station, a kind of troglodytic labyrinth: sixteen lines in, no way out. You enter, as I did, through a grossly underwhelming shopping arcade, a glorified thoroughfare. Whitewashed corridors lead inside and then up. A vast runway of tracks and platforms; a boy in a blue tracksuit spitting at the rails; and beyond, the close menace of tower blocks.

The speed is astonishing.

Not the speed of the train, but the speed of forgetting. The streets below do not exist. Battersea, Nine Elms, Vauxhall are just the shitty verges of this eight-laned beast. I reach into London. Waterloo greets me with its velvet concourse, its has-been grandeur. The crowds, expecting my arrival, block the way. Outside, the air is moist. It is 10pm. A fat baby gurgles from his or her pram. A skinny man in a grey suit sits with his back to the station wall, skinny legs drawn up to his face. He has no shirt and no shoes. The mother swerves to avoid the warm trickle of urine.

There are so many people here. The heat brings them out. Below the footbridge, three obese tourists pose with Nelson Mandela’s head as a disintegrating fireball of ash scuds along the concrete.

I am moving so fast.

In one ear, tinny samba. In the other ear, a raging chorus of violins. I am stereo. The river has drawn back.

Rest In Peace, Timo Baxter, skateboarder, thrown from the bridge when it was Hungerford, rusted, unlit, high tide. In the middle of the river, the stink of weed, an oil slick. I am moving so fast I almost miss her, poised, phone raised in right hand, head covered with a white lace scarf, on the exact point of speech. A boat passes below, heading east. The water disturbs.

I am moving so fast, take the steps down two at a time. This is another place.

Motion is a good name for a club. Young men in off-the-rack suits refuse to queue. Dark poppies appear on their white shirts. This is a bad place for a club. The sudden light of the Tube is like waking from a dream, or falling into one. Something gathers inside. I apologise. The woman is so large, I struggle to get by. I find a seat. We pass through Cannon Street without stopping. The lights are dimmed. The Israeli girl with the palest face and jet-black ringlets looks back at me in the window. When I stand up, I am taller than the man she is with. When we arrive and he struggles with a suitcase, I begin to hate him less.

I am thinking about Zoroastrianism and the White Tower.

I am thinking about how fast I am moving towards Aldgate.

I am thinking about the cunt outside the hotel, and the man he is with, his olive skin and pencil moustache, and what my chances are with the girls on the Minories, or the American who says as I am passing it is brutal and sadistic or the City boy crossing who says win or lose, he’s gonna get fucked or the rude by the church who leans in as I lean back and in the alcove someone’s sleeping, foetal, wrapped in white like a mummified corpse, a horseshoe of ham in grease paper.

I never expected the hole, an absence behind hoardings, diverted bus routes, a space for the sky, and I see now how things are made vertical. A renamed avenue. The empty car park. The butcher’s hooks swinging in the wind. This light is like falling into a dream, or waking from a coma. I don’t care what you think, this is landscape. Goulston Street falls away. The city spreads out to the north like an endless ocean and I’m just on the edge. Salt on my tongue, tonsils, lips. I swerve to the right. Nobody is watching. Everyone is watching. Somewhere a casserole has been served. Somewhere unembarrassed laughter.

My laptop boots up. The screen whitens.

I am typing this now to make sure I forget.


Tom Chivers is the mastermind behind penned in the margins, a poetry publishing and promotions venture, based in London, and the London Word Festival. Recently he was poet in residence at the Bishopsgate Institute (you can read the residency poems here). His own blog, this is yogic, can be found here: 'Excursion' originally appeared as one of its entries.

Thursday 11 December 2008

Andrew Bailey - Beyond the Horizon: Great Trustworthy Doubts

[Andrew Bailey sent me this wonderful response to an essay I wrote for Horizon Review, originally published here.]

It was a pleasure to read your piece in Horizon, George, especially with some underlinings for applause, such as "Leavis crossed with Hovis" and "for 'oak' read 'jacaranda'". But I don't find myself agreeing with an undercurrent I found in it; stop me, of course, if I'm misunderstanding, but aren't you asking for one Great Trustworthy Voice to hand down opinion on what's worth reading? Or, rather, "a critic able to measure today's society and to establish an acceptable coda on how modern readers can choose which poetry sits on their bookshelves."

Partly I want to tease - are you volunteering? - and partly I want to demur, not least in comparison with the wine industry where there's an argument that all the interesting old-world wines are being pushed out by Robert Parker's taste buds - he who, according to the Guardian, "can make or break a French vineyard" - in favour of the round, fruity, easy-drinkers he prefers. One critic, one taste, one type of production grows to be too prevalent and the pleasure of exploration is lost.

You've dealt with that, of course - your "casual readers" are those without the time and interest to dedicate to exploration, presumably wanting a guaranteed hit of the good stuff. On the part of the committed readers, there's a failure "to promote quality use of language" which lets the casuals down, so that they're faced with a wall of poetry - or a shelf or two, depending on the shop - and don't know where to start. A Great Trustworthy Voice, henceforth GTV, would be able to tell them what to start with. Am I misrepresenting? If not, isn't this precisely what the Poetry Book Society aims to do? Admittedly, I left in horror one year at the thought that they thought the book they had sent me was the best of the quarter, but that's a failure of execution, not intention.

That's a thing that does the decisions for you, though, and I think you're after informing the decisions that people make themselves. Doesn't a single GTV work against that?

There's also a measure of obedience here that I think bears looking at. There was a music reviewer on Teletext I used to love purely because his taste was so opposed to my own; I knew, from having followed his recommendations in the past, how to read them. I don't think I'm terribly special in that; someone who loves romantic comedies probably reads Mark Kermode differently from the way a zombie fan does. So "readers must also decide which of the many struggling critics put forward by mass and local media they should trust". I think they'd cope.

It's not a lack of criticism I see; not even a lack of good criticism. Nor the lack of it being bound to a moral yardstick. I sometimes see people unprepared to give time to a slow art, but it's a powerful critic who can change a reading style, rather than draw out a book's good points. It might be possible, but I don't think it's Eliot who's the model so much as David Attenborough, or maybe Maggie Philbin. You need the energy from somewhere to give the thing enough time to become enjoyable - as with smoking, with ballroom dancing, with coffee - and trying to do it by creating more palatable poetry is just the alcopop approach.

Let's have a Private Life of Poetry; not Daisy Goodwin's little acted-out self-help dramas, not the tragic life story to which poems are handy sources of illustrative quotes, but people who can transmit their enthusiasm as well as - maybe even before - their knowledge. Realising the joys of food may lead you to recognise the flavours of cumin and oregano, may help you decide which kinds of restaurants you want to go to, spot the difference between an acquired taste and a nasty one - but joy first.

It's the enthusiasm of people - friends, teachers, other poets and, yes, critics - that has given me the urge to pursue things I didn't initially enjoy, to drive me past being a casual reader, and that's almost always been about shaping ways to like, not shaping a list of things to try to like.

Best wishes, as ever -


Sunday 7 December 2008

Simon Turner - Mmms and Rrrs

[This post, rather old news now, originally appeared on the Poetry International blog, but some of the points raised seemed worth keeping alive. To me at least...]

In last night’s post, I hinted that one of my main concerns this week would be the function of poetry: what it can do, what it should do, how it impacts upon our lives. Yesterday evening’s reading in the Purcell Room tackled this question, to a certain extent, and succeeded in raising a number of new questions and concerns along the way, the most pressing of which was the problem of translation. The event consisted of four readers - normally a terrifying prospect, but the performances themselves, and the festival organisation, made it more than a bearable reading - from across the globe: Valzhyna Mort from Belarus, Mourid Barghouti from Palestine, and Jorie Graham and Mark Doty, both from the States.

Both Mort and Barghouti read their work in its original language, whilst a vast screen behind them relayed the poems in English translation. Useful at first, but after a while, I ignored or skimmed the English words and dived headlong into the torrent of words that both Mort and Barghouti poured forth. What was fascinating was the sense of dislocation accorded the poems by this disjunction between meaning and music. A poem is a total event, where meaning is determined by the sonic possibilities of the language under intense pressure: the meaning cannot be separated from the anner in which it is conveyed. Here, except for those in the audience who were fluent in the poet’s original languages, this separation had very much taken place. So where does that leave the poem? It leaves it, I guess, in the complicated middle ground of translation, where the poem exists fully neither in its target language, nor its source language.

This was why, of course, it was vital to hear Barghouti and Mort reading their work: on the page, all we have access to are the English cribs, but in the context of performance the original language is allowed to sing and soar, and the sonic effects and complexities which get buried by translation are once again brought to the fore.

So what of the poems? Mort, I felt, was probably the strongest poet of the evening: strange and often disturbing poems, touched with the Eastern European inheritance of Surrealism - Popa, Holub, Milocz - but also her own poet, her own vision of the world. Robert Lowell, I think, noted of himself that he suffered from ”a mania for phrases”, and the same can be applied, though for different reasons, to Mort. What became apparent was a constant pushing of the envelope of sense in the form of wildly disruptive and unsettling similes and metaphors, and other phrases that fit neither description. I only managed to note down one: “every night is a winter”, from her shortest and most delicate poem. Elsewhere, her language took the body as its starting point, ripping it apart and reassembling it on the page. More importantly, her performance was strong and authoritative: this is a poet I will return to again and again, I feel.

Barghouti had an avuncular appearance - mustard-coloured jacket, grey slacks and a neat bushel of snow white hair - and at first his performance was suitably relaxed and disarming. But what became apparent as his rolling poems developed - his preferred form is an open, often repetitious poem that is capable of containing any number of approaches and emotions within its framework, from humour to rage, gentle irony to existential despair - was that his presence on stage was almost Biblical in character. His reading had the qualities of a chant at times, or a recitation from a holy text. I could have listened to his voice all day: at one point, he rolled a series of R’s in quick and savage succession, and they took on the character of distant hilltop gunfire. Unsettling. Again, this was dependent entirely upon his speaking presence upon the stage: another, weaker reader would have sapped the poems of their gravity through mumbling or a lack of rhythmic sense.

What both Mort and Barghouti share, to a point, is a sense of the prophetic importance of poetry. This is often an unfashionable concept in the cossetted West: we don’t want our poets to speak grand truths about the human condition - we’d rather they wrote small measly little poems about drains and babies that we can nod along and say mmm to. Jorie Graham, too, follows the unfashionable ‘poet as prophet’ path, and whilst her performance did not feel quite so strong as either Barghouti’s or Mort’s, her poems often being lost in a rather staccato reading style that did no justice to their sprawl and ambition, I admire the seriousness of her project. Earlier in her reading, Graham noted the importance of art in imagining, in bringing to actual and not simply abstract scientific life, the ecological crisis we are facing, for the sake of posterity. An excellent approach, as it neatly sidesteps the problems of a too overtly partisan and polemical political poetry: her work is simply about seeing the world with the eyes and mind fully open, in order to record and clarify what will soon be lost.

Her work, appropriately, operates something like an ecosystem, employing repetitious structures - there’s an argument to be made that repetition and lists represent a specifically American nexus of poetic form, but now’s not the time - to create an open field of images and phrases where no component is seen as superior to or subordinate to any other: everything exists in relation to its neighbour. My feeling is that these poems might well work best on the page - tellingly, Graham made a quip about missing the presence of her words on the screen behind her - as they are marked by a high modernist seriousness, a density and complexity that cannot fully be carried across by the speaking voice. As with Mort, I only managed to note down one line of Graham’s reading, but it was one I wish I’d written: “The sky opens its magazine”.

Mark Doty is a poet whose work I have enjoyed in the past, in collections such as The School of the Arts and My Alexandria, but here his poetry did not come across as well. Perhaps it was the high prophetic seriousness of the company he was keeping that made his work seem smaller and less weighty in comparison, or perhaps there has been an unfortunate slackening off in his writing style. In either case, his reading felt like something of an anomaly in relation to the poets who had preceded him. Not that it was bad, by any means, and his stage presence - chatty, informative, self-deprecating - made for a nice change in tone, but the poems he chose to read lacked a certain something: depth and gravitas. Only the final poem of the evening, an ars poetica entitled ‘The House of Beauty is Burning’, showed what he is truly capable of at full pelt. A shame. Tellingly, his poems drew a large number of mmms from the audience, the bovine hum of liberal arts-appreciating consensus, where Graham, Barghouti, and Mort drew only stunned silence after each of their own pieces. There’s a message in this somewhere, but I’m damned if I can tease it out.