Thursday 8 December 2011

Long Poem Magazine link added

Not that this is particularly timely, but just had yet another note from one of the loveliest editors around, Linda Black, about the latest issue of Long Poem Magazine.

The dedication to the sprawl of imagination known as the long poem, which is a rare beast, especially in the wild territories of print mags, is commendable in itself. Yet it's also a magazine that can make a firm claim to pluralism and a great eye for quality.

It's a wonderfully simple design, A4, clean as can be, better use of space than PN Review, which I find a little too dense, especially the italics there, where here it's more about space to breathe, which you need when a poem stretches over several pages.

I went to the launch party for issue 2 (I think), in the Barbican Music Library, ostensibly to see Andrew Bailey, who had an unfortunate bird/swine flu or something.* So I sat through a selection of unknown-to-me poets, including the astonishingly wonderful Sharon Morris (here and here), a tape recording of a US contributor's poem (but I think the battery ran out towards the end, it was that long) and a selection of others, all of whom were evidence that length is no barrier to concentration or entertainment in the right hands.

Anyway, Long Poem Magazine is a highly enjoyable and eclectic artefact, and I've been meaning for a while to both subscribe and submit, though haven't done much of any of that anywhere for a while. Too busy trying to wind Simon up with nonsense postings on here. (Though the Conan posting was NOT a joke, Simon.)


* Incidentally, Andrew's first collection is due out some time in the next year or so. I failed to make a proper mental note last we communicated, but I think Enitharmon, April 2012? This is an invitation to Andrew to correct me in the comments...

Sunday 4 December 2011

Simon Turner - A Look Forward to a Surrealist New Year

February looks set so be something of a bumper month, at least as far as my expenditure goes.  Not only are Alcest, my all time favourite shoegaze influenced French post-black metal band, releasing a new album, but there are two - count them, two - new publications on British Surrealism appearing almost simultaneously.  OUP are putting out Night Thoughts, a long-overdue biography of David Gascoyne, whilst Carcanet have an anthology on British Surrealism, On the Thirteenth Stroke of Midnight, waiting in the wings.  Edited by Michel Remy, a leading expert in the field, On the Thirteenth Stroke (hereby referred to as Stroke) is something of a pioneer, selling itself as the first anthology of British Surrealism in the world, which is true: it's certainly, by the looks of things, the first properly rigorous anthology of its kind, including not only poetry within its remit (never Surrealism's strong suit, either here or on the other side of the Channel), but paintings, manifestos (ah, that's more like it: the avant garde's real innovation in form) and 'declarations', which are always fun.  But Remy's anthology - which looks to be designed as a kind of companion to his academic work on the same movement - is not without precursors.  Specifically, it has one (problematic, though enthusiastic) ancestor, Edward B. Germain's 1978 Penguin anthology English and American Surrealist Poetry (retitled in subsequent editions as Surrealist Poetry in English, which smooths over at least one of the problems with the anthology that I detail below).

Where Remy seems to be restraining himself editorially to the historically specific movement of British Surrealism (taking in the big guns - Gascoyne, Penrose, Sykes Davies - and more subsidiary figures, like Conroy Maddox and the other Birmingham Surrealists), Germain lets himself roam across the entirety of English-language poetry in the twentieth century, and he seems to find Surrealists wherever he goes.  The Penguin anthology's very useful as a compendium of poets who might otherwise have fallen completely off the map - useful, too, in drawing the reader towards points of affiliation with Surrealism in poets we might never have thought capable of such antics (Robert Conquest?  John Crowe Ransom?  Hmmm...) - but its editorial omnivorousness is simultaneously its chief strength and its greatest weakness.  The problems with Germain's approach are spelled out in the conclusion of his introduction, where he states that:

"The spirit of surrealism has become the spirit of modern poetry: the search for the marvellous; the desire to break through the boundaries between subject and object, between desire and reality; the need to create a vision superior to the ugliness of contemporary civilisation.  Surrealism endures in its insistence on a vivification of language, so that pre-learned categories crumble, and desire can reveal the beauty that categories cannot.  Poets believe in this beauty."

Basically, Germain comes dangerously close to saying that surrealism - an historically specific, politically minded, and aesthetically revolutionary movement - is just a modern form of the universal poetic impulse, a formulation that suggests that all poems - and all poets, for that matter, in spite of their feelings on the subject - are potentially surrealist: it just depends on how you choose to read them.  Hence, I suppose, the out of nowhere choices of Ransom and Conquest. 

This ahistoricism explains the jumbled and decontextualised manner in which the poems that follow are arranged.  We are given no biographical details on the poets chosen, aside from what's mentioned in the introduction, so unless the names happen to be familiar (and some, but by no means all, are, relatively speaking, household names: Ashbery's in here, as are O'Hara and Koch; the Deep Image crowd are represented by Merwin and Bly; whilst the British Poetry Revival only manages to field Tom Raworth), we're very much navigating without a compass (or, indeed, a paddle.  Or a canoe, in many instances: Bravig Imbs, anyone?  No, I didn't think so.  Oh, and I've just Googled him, so don't try and palm me off with a half-digested Wikipedia entry dressed up as original scholarship: that won't cut any dice with me, sweetheart).  Germain does group the poets officially connected to the British Surrealist movement together, so there's a degree of concession being made to collective affiliation, but otherwise it's something of a free for all, with Deep Imagists, Black Mountaineers, New Apocalyptics and narrative surrealists like James Tate all placed on an equal footing, as if there were no way of distinguishing between them.  Biographical details would at least give the interested reader a starting point, a means of coming to the conclusion that, say, Tate and Bly were very different poets, rather than assuming - as we're pretty much forced to do - that their inclusion in this anthology implied an equal adherence to an agreed-upon set of aesthetic and political principles that have remained pretty much unchanged since the inception of Surrealism in the early 1920s. 

Considering surrealism's relation to post-war movements would have also helped draw attention to the rather odd editorial omissions: of the Beats, why McClure and not Philip Lamantia or Bob Kaufman, who were actively engaged with the heritages of surrealism to a far greater extent than any of their peers?  Why Bly and Merwin, but not James Wright?  Tate but not Charles Simic?  In addition, let's look at that title again, or at least its first half: English and American Surrealist Poetry.  'American' isn't an issue, but I suspect that the national affiliation implied by 'English' might come as something of a shock to Dylan Thomas (Welsh), Norman MacCaig (Scottish), and J. F. Hendry (also Scottish).  Again, such a seemingly minor oversight speaks of an editorial policy that tends to ride roughshod over complexities of affiliation and difference.

Of course, it's not all bad news, and Germain's anthology did - and does, as it's readily available in the form of second hand copies - proffer a great deal of interesting material that might otherwise have been denied the general reader who's not tied up in academia (where British Surrealism as a subject has languished for some time).  Moreover, Germain's rather cavalier editorial decision to bundle all his poets together under a generalised 'surrealist' label, in spite of the inherent shortcomings of this approach, does throw up some interesting juxtapositions: certainly, I can't think of another anthology that would place Robert Conquest and Tom Raworth in such close proximity, nor one that would rescue Norman MacCaig's Apocalyptic juvenilia from the poet's own aesthetic disavowal.  As I said, the anthology's weakness is also its greatest strength: we just need to be cautious, as readers, to fill out the over-simplifications, and fill in the gaps, of Germain's methodology as we go along.  Hopefully, Remy's new anthology might make that task a little easier.                            

Friday 2 December 2011

"a completely wilful assemblage of nervous 'images,' surreal/mechanic often enough in the worst NY manner."

--J.H. Prynne, in a letter to Peter Riley, April 8 1967.

George Ttoouli's Riley Ramblings

"I just don't see the point in such near parody's [sic] of Olson as, for example, that first poem—I mean, I'm interested to see what [John] Temple can do with his "roots" etc.—but must he swipe the means so obviously from Olson? . . . I know, it's easy to carp, and easy to be negative etc., but the whole thing seems to me to be an easy transcript into what is the currently fashionable American poetic idiom . . . at least it should be possible to avoid the more obvious sort of "I, minimus, of West Hartlepool etc."—or the nervous jerks of Creeleyesque."

--Gael Turnbull, letter to the English Intelligencer, 3 October 1967

"Jeremy has done a review of Dowden for me (which wasn't so much keeping up w/ the scene as that the terms of that particular book seemed to demand some kind of note: Albion arise and all that shit)."

--Peter Riley, in a letter to Andrew Crozier, December 3 1967.

"There hardly seems to be much force holding people together any more. Jeremy wrote (weeks ago) that he's completely disillusioned & lost interest in the whole American Olson/Ginsberg/Creeley thing."

--Peter Riley, in a letter to Andrew Crozier, undated, but after the end of the English Intelligencer.

I found these in an article called 'Wholly Communion, Literary Nationalism, and the Sorrows of the Counterculture', from Framework, Spring 2011 (you'll need some kind of academic login to access that).

The author, Daniel Kane, makes some excellent points about the notion of give and take across the 'big pond'. While explicitly pointing to the idea of a nationally distinguishing literature or poetics, he fails to read the signs of the inferiority complex that the British poetry scene seems to express in its secondary writings.

To put it another way, this background bitching is an indicator of status anxiety, rather than an indicator of serious aesthetic concerns. It seems both facile and misguided to suggest that there's a colonisation, rather than a refreshment, a renaissance taking place, when overseas influences enter a local poetics. The stagnation begins at home. The logic of Prynne's argument seems to point towards a wider picture of paranoia, whereby certain Anglo-American modernists resided in the UK so as to exploit the intellectual resources of Albion and France, relaying back a line of experimental oil from early 20thC European deposits, thereby powering the Buicks of post-War US avant poetry, yadda yadda.

Yet the relationship is a two-way resource, as with any renaissance. The smaller, less capitalised partner - English experimental poets - find a greater, more engaged audience overseas. In fact, quite a few have built their reputations abroad, before being 'imported back', like chopped up tuna in the form of sushi, to our bookshelves - Roy Fisher being a prime example. Ditto on the scale of publishing houses, like Carcanet, or Shearsman, who depend upon US distribution for a relevant portion of their income streams.

At an aesthetic level, the interchange might seem to do with eroding identity, as Prynne and Turnbull seemed to think (as represented in Riley's statement), but then you could also look into the stagnation that's setting in, the need to cut out the deadwood. By 1940, surrealism is old hat; whatever movements are emerging in Europe - Lettrism and Situationism for example - seem to be rehashed derivatives of something fresh.* Understandably, they translate poorly beyond their locales. The localised avant writers in the UK find themselves locked into a struggle with a domineering backlash against experimental writing, as Kane points out: "poets challenging the restrained formalism and hostility to the modernist project characteristic of the British "Movement" poets."

How do you break a struggle? How do you break the entrenchment between two warring nations? (I'm sorry to militarise the struggle between avant and Movement, but--no wait, I'm not sorry. I'm just goading you on again.) You appeal overseas to someone with bigger guns. Olson, Creeley, the Beats: they're the atomic weapons of post-war experimentation in English language poetry. The alliance might seem to renege on locality, on "roots", as Turnbull calls them, but actually this is a misperception. You can't change or escape from where you came from, as many UK-based North American writers will testify - that core of casual xenophobes who call themselves 'English' (Albionians?) won't let you forget, even after a few decades in this country, that you're a foreigner at heart.

What Prynne and Turnbull point towards is not necessarily nationalism. Riley goes a little far in calling Prynne's attitude one of "Albion arise and all that shit", as funny as I find the statement. Prynne's quotation points more specifically to an idea of US-influenced poetry being a false direction for poets to take,** and his review of Dowden (which I've not tracked down, but assume Riley's assimilated before making his statement) suggests that he's promoting a refreshment from English localities as against state-defined nationalism.

~~~ [another of my famous digressions, so go put the kettle on and come back to it in a bit if you're blessed with a short attention span.]

I've lately been immersing myself in Riley's Alstonefield, which is in itself a quest to find alternative meanings for what he sees as the irrational presence of landscape as pre-meaning, yet asserting importance. Why is landscape so important, why this landscape? He rejects, immediately, any effort to align place with national significance: that way lay/lies war. And he classes Prynne's arguments into the nationalist waste bag, rather than giving this taxonomy space to breathe, to become a counter to the Movement's domineering assertion of national identity in formally cleaned up, anaesthetised lines.

Aesthetics is both an enabler and disabler of community and disagreement is a healthy state when multiplicities can co-exist. Movement poetics and avant poetics couldn't co-exist in the minds of critics, but Prynnism and Rileyism was a space, in the '60s, to explore alternatives to the Movement's debasement of 'the language of the tribe'. The dirtily realistic Beat dialects and processes were one way through to an alternative stance. Prynne's counter, that there ought to be an alternative poetics rooted in English landscape, implies a need for taxonomising a distinction against the Movement, against state control, against foisted identities that didn't sit with personal feeling.

There's an indication, then, that the Beats, as a model for British poetics, is as false as the Movement's return to a Victorian, or Georgian formalism as a way out of contemporality. In fact, the challenge facing all post-war poets, perhaps all poets at any age, is not just 'make it new', but to make it discernibly new.

And to celebrate one's locality didn't have to fall into a category of nationalism, despite the dominant trend underpinning recent disastrous ideological expression and, arguably, underpinning the Movement in a crude manner (at least through the squinty lens of the opposing camp). As Kane puts it: "The Beat poets in particular saw no contradiction in positioning themselves as antiestablishment figures while maintaining a marked patriotism that distinguished them from their more internationalist peers."

But I think I'm in Riley's pocket at the moment, reading his poetry. There's nothing quite as alienating as plastering a street with red crosses on white backgrounds, particularly when it's done by people who don't acknowledge the absurdity of culture and nationality.

* Yes, this is an opportunity to come back at me with something a bit more solid and intelligent, but I'm using shorthand, because I'm a blogger.

** I've since heard on good authority (Dan Katz, a Spicer expert) that Prynne was in fact Olson's typist for a brief period - see Tom Clark's 'Charles Olson: The Allegory of a Poet's Life'. This contextualises Prynne's attitude somewhat differently. He's had it from the horse's mouth and perhaps there's a combination of seeing other poets as derivative of Olson et pals, along with a sense of wanting to shake off his own ghosts/literary daddy. This is speculation for the time being, until anyone with a bit more knowledge can add clarification.

Friday 25 November 2011

Oliver Dixon - Proses for Hal Incandenza (6)

Prolonged sobriety – it turns out – is the strangest high of them all. Waking straight and staring out at roof-tops and satellite-dishes, first symptoms of autumn on the uppermost plane-leaves, stoned wasps pottering between them as if lost: it’s all here, if you want it, things are exactly as they seem. The barest facts hold true. The bald mechanic mooching past keeps throwing his keys up and catching them again like some tiny clinking instrument; there’s a ceremony inherent in the mundanest gesture today, the rhythm upholds us if we let it.
     There’s a pause between the simmer in the plane-leaves and the second you feel the first scraps of rain begin to wetten your arms and hands, a barely-perceptible hiatus: the moment opens if you listen for it, a mouth about to speak; it receives you in the downpour as you move through.


Oliver Dixon is a poet and writer based in West London whose poems and reviews have appeared in PN Review, the London Magazine, The Wolf, Frogmore Papers, Blackbox Manifold and other places. His first volume of poems is forthcoming from Penned in the Margins. He blogs at Ictus, and his day-job is as a college lecturer working with students with learning disabilities.

Thursday 24 November 2011

Oliver Dixon - Proses for Hal Incandenza (5)

(After Rimbaud – the speaker has made a counter-journey to his, from Harar to London via France)
‘I am a transient, not-too-downtrodden inhabitant of a metropolis assumed up-to-date because every criterion of taste has been disregarded as much in the architectural design of its office-blocks and new-builds as in the panopticon of its urban planning. ‘Monuments to superstition’ are subsumed within the retail-facades. Morals and discourses are reduced to binary-codes. These millions of beings with no need to acknowledge each other’s existence conduct their educations, careers and retirements with such uniformity and lack of will that the duration of their lives is several times longer than what accredited statisticians have found to be the case in ‘the Developing World’. Hence, from my fourth-floor window, I make out a new species of apparition jay-walking through the fetid exhaust-fumes these never-dark summer nights – a new breed of Furies haunting the benefit-hostels as squalid as in their home-lands, but everything for them is no better than this: Death, like a social-worker, removing an unwanted baby; Love an unaffordable marketing-ploy; the pretty one with a police-record, snivelling for a fix by the bins.’

Wednesday 23 November 2011

Oliver Dixon - Proses for Hal Incandenza (4)

Memory: waterboatman in a frozen puddle, rowing deeper far from any pond. Sense: the faint line of down between navel and pubic hair. Response: if witch-hazel smell, then pain. Dream: as demons scale fire-escapes to riot and loot in heaven, angels are parachuting down to aid the damned. Sign: THIS WINDOW OPENS ONLY PART WAY. Text: he opened his veins with his father’s gold-plated fountain-pen, he claimed to be crossing himself out. Recording: the black-headed oriole, a restless bird with beautiful cries, feeds on berries, nectar, caterpillars, even butterflies in flight, taking the bodies only and letting the wings fall aimlessly to earth. 

Tuesday 22 November 2011

Oliver Dixon - Proses for Hal Incandenza (3)

Need any help?’ In the labile porousness of an extreme hangover you interpret the pert shop-assistant’s civil enquiry on multiple levels. Adrift in the mall, putting off everything, stationary objects and strangers keep grazing against you. Wiry overhead light-fittings, exposed by operatives from Third World countries (stymied Whittingtons in corporate overalls), threaten to tentacle down and incarcerate you.
     You hole up in Waterstones, staking out the Poetry shelves for any ‘spark of sedition’. (It borders on Fiction, not Autobiography, mind).
     Ambushed by random dipping, caught unawares, the Levine poem suddenly protrudes out of the book, like a Magic Eye Picture turning 3D.


Back home, suppurating with toxins, you carefully remove your liver, lungs and heart and rinse them through in the kitchen-sink, wringing them out and leaving them to dry in a row as neat as an upwardly-mobile butcher’s.
     Standing there eviscerated, you feel so feathery and hollow, you must be held up by whatever ‘spirit’ might mean.
     Try praying now: how will you fit the pieces back inside?

Monday 21 November 2011

Oliver Dixon - Proses for Hal Incandenza (2)

From every direction, a different noise penetrates my room. The feet of the Scandinavian man upstairs, dancing alone to his heavy techno. The tinny arguments of the soap-opera from the right; the tinny arguments of the couple aping the soap-opera from the left. The baby with colic screaming from below. In a shadowed corner, waiting to eat, the mosquito’s tremulous theremin. Even from outside, the night-racket of car-stereos, teenagers and drunken obscenities infiltrates the rattling window.
     The only way out is in. I block my ears hard and listen to the fluid undulating around my brain, and imagine myself flotsam on that viscous, bone-locked sea.

Sunday 20 November 2011

Oliver Dixon - Proses for Hal Incandenza (1)

i.m David Foster Wallace

Just as your life begins to assume the format recommended in the award-winning weekend supplements – your life-partner and offspring appropriately medicated, lawn plaid-mown with the aid of a theodolite, favourite reality-show pre-recorded and shown on a loop – the moment you’ve braced yourself against since early childhood is somehow a pixellated shadow flickering at the bevelled glass of your door: the policeman from the drama-series, helmet cradled like unexploded ordnance, bearing revelations you would harm anyone not to hear?

Sunday 13 November 2011

Simon Turner - Notes on Alice Oswald's Memorial

Pound's concept of translation is often seen as 'idiosyncratic' (this on the back of having picked up a copy of his collected translations in a charity shop, and entering into a conversation with the volunteer there regarding Ez's wayward approach to the original text), somehow flying in the face of accepted modes of translation.  My own feeling: that EP is drawing attention to the fact that every translation is making it new, is a brand new construct in the target language, which closely resembles the poem being translated, but is distinct from it.  Pound isn't destroying or blowing razzies at the discipline of translation: he's making it more honest, more self-aware.


In the absence of a fully theorised corpus of 'civilian war poetry', poets at home who want to write about conflict have for the most part been forced into two modes of writing.  On the one hand is protest poetry, following in the tradition of Sassoon's satiric assaults on military hierarchy and the evasions of jargon; one the other, there's what we might call the Owen-ite tradition, which concerns itself less with anger than with the 'pity of war', transforming Owen's own startling assertion of his choice of subject matter into cliche in the process.  Case in point: yesterday's poem in the Guardian by our current laureate went for the Owen mode, seemingly thinking it enough to enumerate the received iconography of the trenches, clumsily welding military iconography onto the landscape (the moon is 'like a medal', naturally; frost 'winks' on the barbed wire like 'strange tinsel' - it's a poem about Christmas, remember?), and falling back on that hoary old cliche, the Christmas football match.  The poem doesn't need to do any work: all the effort's been achieved by decades of popular memory.  For all the good it does, 'The Christmas Truce' might as well be a series of boxes for the reader to tick: Barbed wire?  Check.  Tommy and Fritz?  Check.  Trenches?  Check.  Rats?  Check.  Mud?  Check.  Soldier-poets?  Check. 


Memorial begins with a list of names: the dead of the Iliad.  It's reminiscent of Maya Lin's Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington - austere black stone etched with the names of the Americans killed during that conflict - and doesn't feel like a reduction of the Iliad, but rather a concentration.  Oswald is forcing the poem to speak across centuries: the numbering and naming of the war-dead is as vital an act of public memorial and mourning now as it was 100, 500, 3000 years ago. 


What characterises much anti-war protest poetry by non-combatants is an absence of witness.  The moral and aesthetic weight of the work of Sassoon and Owen, Douglas and Lewis, derives from the fact that they were witnesses to the events they describe and respond to.  John Stallworthy's brilliant 'Poem about Poems About Vietnam' dissects this problem ruthlessly, creating opposition between those poets, like Owen, whose acts of witness were achieved at a high price, and home front poets content to derive their opinions from newspaper reports on the conflicts they decry.  But in the process of lambasting the very concept of a war poetry not based on first hand experience, Stallworthy suggests that such a thing might be possible: rather than the simple minded paltitudes of protest poetry, an ethicaly and aesthetically engaged civilian war poetry might resemble Stallworthy's own poem - a poem engaged not with the actualities of frontline combat (such an engagement would be fraudulent according to the terms of Stallworthy's own argument), but with the moral and ethical questions raised by war poetry's confrontation with historical violence.  The trench lyricist might ask: what happened?  The homefront poet confronting the same topic might ask: what is the correct response?  What forms of language are appropriate? 


Memorial differes from previous poems that have used Homer's poetry as a jumping off point - Logue's War Music and Simon Armitage's version of the Odyssey spring to mind - because its act of reduction is formal rather than narrative.  Logue strips the Iliad down to brass tacks to tell the story of Achilles' rage more readily, whilst Armitage recasts Homer in his own blokey idiom, chopping two thirds of the tale in the process.  Oswald is as ruthless in her editing, but her interests lie elsewhere: her intention, it seems to me, is to make the poem more contemporary by, paradoxically, stripping it of all but the aspects of Homer's work that precede Homer.  Writes Oswald in her preface: "This version . . . takes away its narrative, as you might lift the roof off a church in order to remember what you're worshipping.  What's left is a bipolar poem made of similes and short biographies of soldiers".  Oswald sees these two poles of the poem as deriving from distinct sources: the pastoral lyric and the formal lament, both with their roots in the oral tradition.  (Tellingly, Oswald has also released a CD of herself reading the entirety of Memorial, suggesting the poem is as much a vocal as a printed object.)  The poem itself is startling, relentless in its close focus on violence and death, like the first fifteen minutes of Saving Private Ryan spread across 80 pages.  With the narrative gone, the function of the Homeric simile - where the action pauses momentarily and we are whisked away from the combat zone into the realm of the natural world - becomes doubly important: there'd otherwise be no breathing room at all.  Oswald seems to have been aware of this, with the similes in many instances being repeated, like the chorus of a song.  The reader is literally being forced to slow down for just a moment before rushing back headlong into the afray.  It's very effective, no more so than at the poem's conclusion, which provides an epilogue of disembodied similes that might be read as collective elegies for the war dead (the similes in the body of the poem emphasise singularity; here, collectivity seems the dominant theme), or, more troublingly, images suggesting the inherent tendency of nature towards violence.  There's no easy comfort here; we're a long way from Duffy's platitudes here.                              

Friday 11 November 2011

Anticord: Renegade Angles: Xavier

In between musing about the possible representation of landscape sans meaning in Peter Riley's Alstonefield, this arrived in my inbox, courtesy of Peter Blegvad.

Warning, mature content, antilinear structures, etcetera...

Yes, Simon, I will take this seriously once again.

Tuesday 1 November 2011

Simon Turner - War Poetry Thoughts (1)

In the run-up to a planned review of Alice Oswald's new contraction of the Iliad, Memorial, in the next week or so, I thought I'd set down some thoughts I'd been having on the question of war poetry as a means of framing some of the more outrageous claims I'm likely to make about the poem.  First of all, Philip Larkin (look at him there, with his face and his suit, all gussied up like a tax inspector on the first of April), who, in a 1963 review of Wilfred Owen's Collected Poems, made this fascinating commentary on the cultural status of the war poet: "A 'war' poet is not one who chooses to commemorate or celebrate war but one who reacts against having a war thrust upon him: he is chained, that is, to a historical event, and an abnormal one at that.  However well he does it, however much we agree that the war happened and ought to be written about, there is still a tendency for us to withhold our highest praise in the grounds that a poet's choice of subject should seem an action, not a recation."  (The review in question appears in Required Writing.)

Given the almost religious character of war remembrance, and the seemingly high regard that Owen and Sassoon are held in, Larkin's reading of the field might seem to be wildly counter-intuitive.  Aren't 'the war poets' (always the poets of the trenches, of course, never Douglas or Jarrell or their equivalents from other conflicts) taught with clockwork regularity throughout the school curriculum?  Hasn't 'Anthem for Doomed Youth' taken on the status of a kind of alternative national hymn?  Well, yes, that's true, but on closer inspection, Larkin has a point, and a troubling one.  The speechmarks around 'war' in the opening sentence of the quotation I've chosen say it all: war poets are bracketed off from the mainspring of 20th century poetry, critically and culturally.  Where they're taught, they're taught in terms of content, not form: a generalised fog of cliches envelopes the work of Owen and his fellow trench-poets, summed up by the catch-all term 'the horror of war'.  There's comparably little room to consider, say, Owen's musical innovations (the half-rhyme), or the problematic place of the war poets within the bipartisan literary politics of the period.  The very designation 'war poet' means that we don't have to trouble ourselves with these questions.   

In a way, war poetry is beset by the same problem of any perceived deviation form or genre: it becomes ghettoised the moment it is clarified and named.  (Or even earlier: consider how HG Wells' fictions were classified as 'scientific romances' before science fiction existed as a publishing category: rather than treating them as literature, pure and simple, works such as The Time Machine and The Invisible Man were forced into the straightjacket of an existing literary mode.)  And although the demarcations of genre help critics and readers to find a path through what might otherwise be an incomprehesibly complex field, they can also be incredibly limiting.    

Wednesday 31 August 2011

Penned in the Margins New Website!

A quick update about Penned in the Margins for you, which is also an excuse for committing the Eighth Deadly Sin.

PitM have launched their redesigned website, with even slicker information, shopping and poetry information. Yes, totally shameless to be telling you this, but there are some good reasons to go over, read the blog, browse the shop and buy a poetry book or two.

Tom Chivers, he of the Legendary DigiSkills, among other things, is producing some of the most exciting new poetry around. Better still he's shit hot at promoting it, with reviews all over the place for a stable of mostly brand new poets in their twenties and thirties, who have genuinely (I speak from experience) been edited into shape, for an improved reading experience (etc. etc.). This is old style publishing for post-Generation Z; soon you'll be able to sniff these poetry books off your iPhone screen in the form of iParticles, once you've installed the necessary iNostrils, of course.

In particular, this lovely gem of a collaborative poem, a sonnet for the royal wedding. Fourteen poets, fourteen lines. It's full of exactly the kind of horrific puns ("fornicate", "placate lust's will", "embroiled", etc.) I'd have hoped for from fellow stablemates (ok, embroiled is a bit weak, but that was mine). It almost makes sense, too.

Friday 26 August 2011

Typical Editorial Discussion #7852


Question: why don't you use paragraphs in your emails, bastard? I keep trying to refer back to the things you say and can't find any functional breaks. Also, have you seen [Poet Y's ebook] thing? I think Luke recommended it.[*]

I'm not sure I entirely trust it, from what I've looked at so far, but I've not gone into detail. It feels like it's been cheapened by trying to capture the cheapness of contemporary society. Like trying to do a send up of the Devil Wears Prada, you can't help but be held back by the shallow sentiments of the original...?


[Poet Y]: meh. [Y's] work feels utterly empty to my mind, though that might be the backwash of [Y's] choice of subject matter, as you suggest, but it smells to me like the death of linguistically innovative poetry: third hand avantism for a generation with no ideas of its own. I've been reading a Geoff Dyer essay about jazz - 'Is Jazz Dead?' [**] (I'm tempted to write a response: 'Please God, I hope so') - which seemed of particular interest here. His basic argument is that, yes, jazz in the traditional sense is dead, but it thrives at the margins of places it's influenced and colonised over the years. Basically, jazz persists as 'world music' (and Dyer's as sceptical of that phrase as I am, but it's a useful shorthand), but Jazz with a capital J is a museum piece: its most exciting releases are now re-releases of the classics. A good essay in its own right, but all the way through, I kept hearing the word 'jazz' as 'experimental poetry' to see if the any of the arguments held, and they do. There's a great quote from Dizzy Gillespie about how the only direction jazz can go is forwards. If it's not moving forwards, in Dyer's gloss, it's not jazz. Couldn't we say the same for the linguistically innovative crowd? That it's basically a heritage industry, riding on the coat-tails of a previous generation's innovation, but not really moving things forward. The avant garde thrives on its marginality, but that's the only place where it's outlaw status derives from now. It's not marginal because it's avant garde: rather, it can play at being avant garde because it's marginal. All its modes and practises are thirty, forty, 100 years old (Collage and found text? Done. Linguistic mutation? Done. Ellipsis? Done. Open field composition? Done) and yet because it's off the radar, it's created a myth around itself that it's the wave of the future. It's exactly the same attitude you see in indier than thou hipsters, chasing the latest craze on twitter: it's so boring, frankly. Obviously the mainstream's no better, but at least they're not pretending to be re-inventing the wheel every five minutes.

Hhmm, that was rather relentless, wasn't it? But I suppose it's inevitable: what happens when you're stuck between two camps you find equally despicable? You go rogue, I guess. But I don't know what 'going rogue' looks like in literary terms. Any suggestions?


How about this?

That's about the level of my literary practice these days. At least it's a step up from [Poet Y].

The Dyer argument looks interesting, if you cut out the 'get this past the editor' crap about jazz/poetry 'being dead'. But yes, it sounds like you're really on a quest to find the pulse of contemporary experimental poetry. I'd put it in places like Voiceworks. Birkbeck's Contemporary Poetics Centre are keeping the language laboratory open through experiments in mixed media.

One of the questions you're raising is: 'what does experimental poetry call itself these days?' If 'jazz moving forwards' is typically 'world music' these days, then there ought to be an equivalent for 'poetry moving forwards': performance poetry? rap?

Thinking like that makes me realise that Dyer's finger is as far from the pulse as most other pop commentators. It's wrong logic, because world music is only the latest shelf category in HMV to feature jazz elements, or something like that. I.e. it's a published/historical moment, already passed. Performance poetry, slam, that's old hat, it's no longer underground it's an educational tool. Like what tricking is to parkour.

A conversation I had with Kwame Dawes a while ago, about reggae, comes to mind. He said that reggae, by its nature, is a collaborative, hybrid music genre. Reggae artists are always seeking mergers, renaissances, crossovers, so I had the sense there's a very lively practice taking place across frontiers, in localised areas and with limited range.

The festivals that showcase projects like Voiceworks seem to be the point of exchange for the hippest poetry stuff, lively crossovers - the Hay Jamboree to an extent, but chiefly text/art, sound/eye, nose/mouth, whatever they're called (maybe we should do one called ear/fingers, or tongue/face, or mouth/dance). Festivals & live readings seem to be the place to catch all that cutting edge stuff we talked about elsewhere - publication is historical, a capture of past moments, but performance is where the messier, in-progress material is aired. There's more verve to that kind of stuff.

Have you checked out Holly Pester's recent work? Her News Piece series hovers around unlistenable tension/viscerality/humour, while also maybe failing to solve the problem of the breathing being overplayed and a stall to my expectations of wanting a 'reward' for listening.

And think about this: the roguest thing we've done was that homonymic translation performance based on your Purple Toadflax poem. That had the most energy out of anything I've written or performed. And, strangely enough, the poetry itself was fairly tame, flarf-y stuff. The performance context was where the energy came from - blind reading, outline of laboratory conditions, presentation of material. What does that say to you?


[*] Luke didn't recommend it, someone else did.

[**] This is from his essay collection Working the Room. There's something similar online by Dyer here.

Wednesday 24 August 2011

An antidote to high budget waste

Interesting enough in itself to see YouTube hosting free films.

More interesting that Plan 9 from Outer Space is up there for free. (You do need to sign in to view, but given Google owns that and half the free internet world, you can use pretty much any online account, from gmail to blogger, to your Tesco Clubcard (note: unverified).)

The Editors often have conversations about failed masterpieces.[*] In exaggerated language, the conversation runs along these lines, with editors interchangeable for each other:

Ed: I am always far more impressed by the failed ambitions of an auteur--

Ed: Especially when that ambition fails by the naivete of the Artiste's technical understanding--

Ed: Of the medium operandi.

Ed & Ed: HA! Aren't we pretentious?

Ed: It's satisfying to see so much mad energy arise from what some call 'mistakes'.

Ed: Maybe if we 'dulled our senses' with a little more of this Thai whiskey, we might come up with something as good.

Ed: Chin-chin old chap!

(Two hours later.)

Ed & Ed: *blllluuuurrbbbble bbbbuuuuurrrrrble*

[*] Unfortunately, 'Plan 9' doesn't really have masterpiece status written into it, but it's very watchable for the wrong reasons.

Thursday 11 August 2011

Of all the Atrocities...

... Hollywood has directed towards my childhood, this has to be the greatest offence.


"You shall all drown in lakes of blood."


"Now they will know why they are afraid of the dark. Now they will learn why they fear the night."

Thursday 4 August 2011

This week's improvised cut up...

... brought to you by Bob Dylan.

(With thanks to Jon Mycroft for the pointer.)

Thursday 28 July 2011

Is This a Penis?

George Ttoouli responds to some letters to the Editors.


Dear Editors,

I write knowing that both of you are fans of Baroness. I have a query regarding the cover image of The Blue Album.

Some months after buying it, my eight year old daughter happened to be playing with the CD cases in the living room and suddenly shouted out, “It’s a willy!” Obviously I scolded her and have written to her primary school teacher to find out where she learned such language.

However, on returning to the image on the cover, I suddenly noticed for the first time – and to my great horror – that the breaking egg looks distinctly phallic! While breasts are a perfectly natural thing to display to children (I regularly used to breastfeed in public places and see no problem at all with it), genitalia are otherwise something I feel should very much be protected from the gaze of children, or anyone for that matter. 'Packages' should be delivered from pants to pyjamas, without being unwrapped.

Yet still, I feel the most troubling aspect of this is how I failed to notice the egg wasn’t an egg. Or was it? Is the egg an egg? Or is this a penis? This strikes me as a distinctly poetic problem that you may be able to help with.

I can’t have my daughter developing some kind of Freudian complex which manifests every time I serve her a fried breakfast. It’s bad enough with my husband.


Mother Metaphor

Dear MM,

First of all, HAHAHAHAHA! Did it really take you that long to work out there was cock on the cover? Next you’ll tell me you missed the vagina!

Talking seriously now, this is a wonderfully deep question you’re asking. At the heart of the question, ‘Is this a penis?’ is the question, ‘What is a metaphor?’ Beyond that, ‘How do we understand the world through language?’

The question of whether the egg ‘is’ a penis or not is exactly the conundrum posed by every metaphor in associating two distinct objects and, arguably, every attempt to represent the world in artistic, or even non-artistic terms. For example, when you say ‘package’ I take it to mean genitalia. More than that, it reveals something of your understanding about the world: you are prudish about talking about cocks and cunts.

Metaphor therefore becomes a revelation of the observer’s state of mind. This is all about context, of course. So we must look at the context of The Blue Album in order to understand if it is a penis or not.

Baroness are working on what appears to be a series of albums. The Editors have occasionally debated the context for the series. My own feeling is that it is a quadrilogy based on the four elements: Red for fire, Blue for water, with following albums being Brown and possibly White for air. However, my co-editor’s theory suggests that traces of the next album can be seen in the latest album’s cover art – elements of blue in the Red cover and yellow in the Blue, suggest the next album will be yellow.

What is clear is that the first two albums are elementally connected, so there are liquid symbols throughout The Blue Album’s art, alongside pagan fertility symbolism. The egg is a distinctly female symbol, yet appearing in the shape of a phallus blurs gender boundaries. What we have is an almost archaeological sense of liquidity, in which boundaries not only between concepts, but between physical things, people and animals, people and people, people and objects, are fluid.

By describing an egg as a phallus, John Baizley is making a unique association that ties in with his philosophy, the philosophy of the music. Rock, folk, bluegrass, are some of the fluid influences operating on the music. Similarly, there is fluidity in the ideology of the content.

The metaphor of egg and phallus evokes a Bataillean notion of eroticism and sexuality, which doesn’t necessarily know where it’s going until it’s arrived. In other words, at this level of art, first one comes up with a fresh association, secondly one asks oneself if it says something valid, if it ‘works’ within the context of the project. There is a mystery to the metaphor that demands self-exploration as much as interrogation of the object, to determine whether it rewards the viewer.

In other words, the answer to the question is one you must decide for yourself. I reiterate your question back at you: “Is this a penis?” Is it? Well?

On a side note, your separation of breasts from other bits is a decidedly inconsistent approach, showing a naively developed understanding of social mores. Furthermore, your use of “packages” as a metaphor for genitalia is both unoriginal and very simplistically positioned in the context of your letter. This could be considered an example of clarity in communication, but also shit as poetry. To put this in poetic terms: a mother wunwilling to tongue her child’s wounds would offer that same child's heart in human sacrifice, even though the gods have not demanded it.

Our condolences to your daughter,

The Editors.

Sunday 17 July 2011

Simon Turner - The Ledbury Files (1)

I hate anything new, so I've spent days prior to the trip out to Ledbury for the festival obsessively tracking the streets and landmarks on Streetview.  Lots of slightly paranoid libertarian arguments about Streetview have muddied the waters somewhat: it's a fantastic tool, an autist's paradise.  If, like me, you find all forms of travel stressful - even travel to somewhere as near at hand and small-scale as Ledbury - then Streetview is absolutely vital in calming one's nerves beforehand.  It's like visiting a place without the messy impediments of having to buy tickets, book a room and leave the house.  Perfect.


Monmouthshire first, then Ledbury tomorrow.  I'm sure the checkout lady in the Monmouth branch of Waitrose thinks M. and I are a gay couple (we're not).  We buy wine, gin and ice cream: it seems like we don't plan to make it to our forties.  Or, indeed, the end of the evening.


Ledbury has 'quaint' scrawled all over it in rose-scented felt tip pen.  It's what the whole world would look like if the National Trust had the monopolistic reach and imperial hubris of NewsCorps.  I rather like it, and feel instantly at home (Streetview, thank you).  I've already memorised the nearest pubs, artisan chocolate outlets and chippies: the essentials.  Though the first thing I do is blow my hard earned poetry dollars on a copy of Matthew Hollis' new biography of Edward Thomas.  More later, if you can contain yourselves.


These are the kinds of conversational topics I can expect from the week ahead: realism as mania, an hallucinatory project; Flaubert as anti-realist, pushing realism to its limits to the point where its tensions and contradictions show through like ribs through degraded flesh; the impossibility of translation, whereby sense can carry over into the target language, but sound remains forever trapped in its originating linguistic nexus.


New Order: Hungarian Poets (Saturday 2nd July, 1.15)

This room feels designed expressly to kill poetry off.  A microphone faces the blank yellow wall, impassive and speechless, like a Gitmo detainee.  A young woman puts away the City Lights paperbook she's been reading, and attempts to eat a cherry, fails, tries again and succeeds.  There's more poetry in this than whole swathes of poetry readings and open mic events I've been to over the years.  I feel ancient.  

Excellent reading, for the most part: Anna T Szabó is a mesmerising reader of her own work, and András Gerevich is very engaging as well, though working in a different, much more colloquial register, as far as I can tell.  The problem comes when we get to translation.  George Szirtes is great, clear and simple, letting the poems speak for themselves (I've noted a similar absence of egotism in readings of his own work), but the secondary translator falls foul of the old trap of the Poetry Voice, delivering the work.  In a breath singsong.  That places.  Random pauses.  In the sentence.  To lend.  I suspect.  Dramatic.  Emphasis.  To the line.  In.  The process.  Killing.  The music.  And muting.  The sense.  Clear, precise reading styles are all the more important when it comes to poetry in translation, precisely because as non-native speakers, the audience needs to get the sense as cleanly as we can.  The drama should reside in the original poem, not in its English counterpart, especially when the imposed drama flies in the face of the original's structure and sonic sense.       
Where does this Poetry Voice come from, that's what I want to know?  Who's teaching writers to perform their work in such a way that buries the normal rhythms of human speech under a one size fits all mu mu of breathy insincerity?  I think the Arts Council should stump up some funds for a full scale investigation, before all live poetry events are swamped.


Dunnocks have a permanently harassed look, one eye continually searching shrubs and brickwork for food, either grain or insects: the speed at which I've seen a dunnock take a spider from a leaf is startling, its feeding both delicate and remorseless - the other scanning the skies for any sign of a predator.  This is compounded, if would seem, by their relatively plain appearance: there is almost nothing to notice but their activity. 
Brian Turner and Matthew Sweeney (Saturday 2nd July, 8.15)
Brian Turner's one hell of a reader: no wistful singsong here.  Not showy, by any means, just very sure of the way the poems are built and meant to unfold: aware of their music, and that music's relationship to the meaning it's been designed to carry across to the audience.  He seems oddly perturbed by the politeness and passivity of the audience, in fact: I suspect American audiences are more involved in the reading, in the same way that virtually every aspect of American life - religion and politics in particular - are marked by the kind of boisterous interactivity that feels so alien to British life.  I guess the cliches are true: we are buttoned down to the point of madness.  Interesting, too, that Turner pulls back from calling his poems 'war poems', stating outright that they are poems of love, loss, etc, using war as a background.  War poetry is a deeply restrictive term, creating a series of expectations of form, content and tone that the war poet is duty bound to deliver.  It is a construct of a social and historical moment, not the poet, really.  Turner doesn't need to actively disassociate himself from the form that's been ascribed to him: his poems already do that, challenging the boundaries of the 'war poem'.  This is especially true of his more recent work in Phantom Noise, which forgo the trench lyric in favour of pieces dealing with the veteran's life back home, where the war is present as memorial trauma and dream, as a phantom noise underpinning the mundane operations of day to day life.  It's a powerful collection, and several steps on from Here, Bullet.  
I feel rather sorry for Matthew Sweeney having to follow Turner's mesmeric reading.  There's nothing wrong with Sweeney's work - it's lively, funny, formally astute - but it comes across as troublingly flippant and easy after Turner's poems of violence and historical trauma.  His reading feels concomitantly hypertrophied, as if he knew the poems needed the extra legs of rhetorical bluster in order to keep them upright.  Comparing the two is, of course, wildly unfair, but it's an occupational hazard of the poetry double bill.  Imagine screening Clueless and Apocalypse Now back to back: on the one hand, you have an era-defining masterpiece of cinema, which is visually arresting, highly literate and articulate (incidentally, this movie's a masterclass in literary adaptation), boasting an astonishing script which somehow manages to get away with that clunky old device, the voice over (few films survive a voice over: see the original cut of Blade Runner for an example of how not to do it), whilst the cast put in uniformly excellent performances, in some instances the best of their career.  And, on the other hand, you have Apocalypse Now.  It's not a level playing field, really.            

Friday 8 July 2011

Simon Turner - Promises of Future Rewards...

It's been all quiet on the Gists and Piths front, though those fearing / hoping for a hiatus on a par with the Editors' previous lapse will be pleased / sorely disappointed to hear that this is only temporary.  I have no idea what George has up his sleeve, but I have a journal of my time at the Ledbury poetry festival to whack up.  Originally I'd planned to post as and when I'd been to an event, but had no internet access, sadly, so what had been written serially will have to be flung your way in one big undigestible lump.  Apologies.  More soon.

Friday 3 June 2011

Getting Shifty

A very brief pointer to something, other than piles of marking, taking up my evenings.

Co-editor Simon very kindly pointed me to the fact that the whole first series of a bizarre situational comedy from Iceland, Nightshift, is available on BBC iplayer (sorry, UK only international fanz! :-((().

It's still on for about 4 days. All 12 episodes. They're just shy of half an hour each. That's about 6 hours of your time, not a moment wasted.

I can't review it beyond that because everything Simon said about the show to me in advance basically upset me while I was watching it. Every bit of comedy he pointed to, which sounded hilarious in description, turned out to be extremely upsetting material when presented in character context. It was almost as bad as that time he told me about that Faulkner chaper in As I Lay Dying, "My mother is a fish." At the time it sounded hilarious, but when I read it, it made me want to cry.

Worse still, it's taken four years for this to make it over to the UK and since then, they've released two more series (Day Shift and Prison Shift) and a full length film based around the insane shift manager. It apparently outdid Avatar in Iceland. Look, just go watch all of it, quickly, then post up some comments explaining to me why I should have been marking instead, if you can.

Tuesday 31 May 2011

George Ttoouli - Notes towards a review of Ashbery's Planisphere (with analysis)

George Ttoouli discovers notes made over a year ago in red ink on a scratty piece of lined A4 paper, upon speed-reading Ashbery's Planisphere (Carcanet, 2009), ISBN: 978-1-84777-089-9.

Each poem feels tricksy, yet chatty.


The colloquial style is engaging, but also distracting.

"The land stretched away like jelly into a confused cleft." ('Planisphere')

"Why what a lovely street /
blank canvas / pause / orb /
old person / new song / milestone /
caned seat this is!" ('Tous les Regretz')

Elements occur where writing about writing becomes a dominant theme. At these points Ashbery's verbal dexterity shines.

The collage effect means, ultimately, most of the poems don't in themselves work by contextual build, accrued overall power. If anything they seem anti-framework, against the idea of interest and meaning.

Some poems seem gentler, more cohered, less playful, but where he works in the dominant mode I'm familiar with from reading earlier work, these are extremely satisfying, perhaps more conventionally shaped, but dialect play + voice + colloquialism is pushed and tested and delightful.


[NB. I read the book in about an hour, made the notes as I went along. This seems a more effective review than anything coherent I could shape out of the notes.]

Monday 30 May 2011

Simon Turner - Rain(e)ing on Craig's Parade

Obviously, I knew I probably shouldn't have expected a balanced appraisal of the Vorticists from Craig Raine (the occasion: an exhibition at Tate Britain starting mid-June), as if there's anything that our Craig does with any degree of competence, it's robust critical invective (and very entertaining it is too).  Besides anything else, he's entitled to his opinions, and I don't have any real disagreement with the main thrust of his argument: the Vorticists were, as Raine asserts, rather belated and parochial in comparison with their continental cousins in the Cubist and Futurist camps, even if individual artists and writers - Wyndham Lewis, Ezra Pound, Gaudier-Brzeska, CRW Nevinson - were exceptional, and need to be judged on their own merits.  However, I did want to address a couple of minor points in the article which gave me pause.

[1]: The dismissal of Nevinson.  Raine, early on in his article, provides a list of artists affiliated with the Vorticist movement - including CRW Nevinson - and rather high-handedly asserts that none of them were "touched by talent" (not 'genius', note, but 'talent').  I can't speak as to the quality or otherwise of the majority of the artists in Raine's Rollcall of the Talentless, as I'm largely unfamiliar with their work, but Nevinson, frankly, deserves better than this.  During the First World War, he spent time at the front, and produced some of the most startling and enduring art of the conflict: he's second only to Paul Nash in this regard.  If his post-war work failed to match up to the high standard he set himself in wartime, this fact should in no way tarnish the achievement of those visual dispatches from the front.  There's an exhibition of Nevinson's Great War paintings at the Imperial War Museum which is running until the end of June, if anyone's interested in making their own minds up as to Nevinson's contribution to Modernism.

[2]: Problematic points of comparison (i).  Raine, it must be said, can 'do' analogy (apparently he wrote an epoch-defining poem some decades ago about a guy called Martin writing a post it note for his parents, which was composed almost entirely of analogies), and in his description of Gaudier-Brzeska's 'Hieratic Head of Ezra Pound' he proves this again, comparing the back view of G-B's monumental sculpture of the poet to "a scrotum and an impressive glans".  Not only did this make me laugh out loud, but it succeeded, neatly and economically, in getting to the heart of the dick-swinging, chest-beating, hyper-macho dogma underpinning the Vorticist movement.  All well and good; but in the same appraisal, Raine notes how G-B has managed to tame Pound's notoriously wild mane of hair, so that it "resembles a Zadie Smith turban", which phrase rather stuck in my craw.  Why not simply "turban"?  To draw Zadie Smith into the analogy feels gratuitous, a motiveless judgmental sneer at Smith's (entirely practical and reasonable) sartorial choices.  Must do better, Mr. Raine, must do better.

[3]: Problematic points of comparison (ii).  During a discussion of two works - one by Gaudier-Brzeska, the other by Brancusi - both entitled 'Fish', Raine pulls this arresting phrase from his writer's toolkit: "Brzeska's Fish has some of the ugly angularity of modern Israeli jewellery".  I'm not sure if I can see the function of this.  Is modern Israeli jewellery any more 'ugly' and 'angular' than its equivalent from any other country?  Not that I can see: a great deal of modern jewellery seems to be almost uniformly hideous, regardless of its national origin.  Is it any uglier or more angular than a motorway pileup or a building site or a Portsmouth multistorey carpark?  Or, indeed, anything in the world to which the adjectives 'ugly' and 'angular' can be attached?  Again, as with the jibe at Zadie Smith noted above, this feels to me like a burst of directionless opprobrium, serving no other function (as far as I can tell) than to elicit snorts of elevated derision from the no doubt hyper-liberal and entirely prejudice-free readers of the Guardian Review ("Ugly angularity is exactly what one would expect from modern Israeli jewellery, isn't it, Crispin?"  "Of course, Jocasta.  Another Fairtrade latte?"), which amounts to little more than Pavlovian bell-ringing dressed up as normative and reasonable critical opinion.  Frankly, I would expect more from the mainstream media. 

In spite of Raine's rather flailing attempts to dampen my enthusiasm for the Tate's exhibition of Vorticism, I'm still planning on finding time in my diary to make a visit.  I'd urge you to do the same.  I can think of far less productive ways of spending my time: stewing impotently for days on end over Craig Raine articles and then venting (equally impotently) on my blog, for example.       

Sunday 22 May 2011

Simon Turner - Post-Apocalypso

A triffid, yesterday.

I've spent the week, on the back of the Guardian Review's feature on science fiction last Saturday (which fulfilled the Review's remit of publishing at least one interesting article every six or seven months) immersing myself in post-apocalyptic fiction, because I'm exactly the kind of happy-go-lucky, optimistic type who revels in tales of speculative human catastrophe.  Let's leave aside for now the thorny issue of mainstream reviewing's tendency to ghettoise genre fiction as though it were 'literary' fiction's (Christ, I despise that term: it's utterly rancid with received notions of what the novel is expected and permitted to do, and there's an unhealthy sheen of snobbery attached to it as well, as if anything not originating from the pens of Atwood or Amis were deemed un- or anti-literary) dunce of a cousin (periodically patronising it with its own feature, just because the British Library has an SF exhibition on, which translates roughly as 'That's our populist remit out of the way: now we can get back to artificially inflating the reputation of whichever lyrical realist mediocrity we happen to be salivating over this month'), because it's not why we're here, and besides, it only makes me angry (see above).  The fact of the matter is that SF, considered as a cogent body of work in every narrative field, represents one of the cornerstones of human imaginative achievement.  It extrapolates from our current situation and considers the possible ramifications of certain developments (sometimes scientific, sometimes social), showing us not only where we might be heading but, often in the starkest and most troubling of terms, where we already are.  In effect, science fiction is a subset of the novel of ideas, but unlike 'literary' novels of ideas, SF deals with concepts and ideas that matter, that people might actually care about.

This is where post-apocalyptic fiction and film fits in, as the extrapolations and projections from the contemporary world in this instance are injected with an urgency that is absent from other breeds of SF.  We're not only looking to possible futures in works like I Am Legend or The Day of the Triffids, but possible futures where mankind has well and truly fucked things up.  In that regard, post-apocalyptic SF doesn't really have to take the form of SF at all: it might be, say, a perfectly normal virus that screws us, or a famine, or an atomic holocaust, all of which events have been, and remain, horribly plausible.  It's not the event itself that's of import (Cormac McCarthy's The Road takes this to an extreme, giving us the sketchiest apocalypse in literary history: it might be a nuclear war that wipes out human civilisation, or it might be environmental degradation, or a combination of the two, or neither - it might as well be the Rapture for all the information we're given.  What matters to McCarthy is the (monstrous) behaviour of those left behind) but rather the aftermath.  In effect, the post-apocalyptic scenario is a projection, not of society as it is, but of how the author conceives of society.  Which is to say that what happens post-event will match the political and social ideas of the author.  Two post-apocalyptic novels roughly contemporary with one another - John Wyndham's The Day of the Triffids (1951) and John Christopher's The Death of Grass (1956) - bear this out quite neatly.  Wyndham's novel is the better known, having been filmed a number of times (most recently by the BBC), and its opening scene - the hero comes to in hospital to find the world irreversibly changed, and wanders dazed through the empty streets of a shattered metropolis - has influenced any number of other post-apocalyptic narratives: see 28 Days Later for an excellent homage (HBO's The Walking Dead more recently pulled a similar trick).  It's also strangely quaint, very much the product of a society that had just defeated Nazism and, in the process, created the NHS and laid the foundations of the welfare state.  Wyndham is, in short, an optimistic left-leaning liberal democrat (that's small l and small d: I don't want to insult the man), and the message of the book seems to be that, however grim things get, some form of British left-leaning liberal democracy will survive: in this instance, on a heavily fortified Isle of Wight (and, no, I didn't make that up).  Tellingly, his apocalypse is man-made: not malicious, just horribly short-sighted (appropriately enough, in a novel where most of the world's population gets blinded in the opening pages).  The triffids have been farmed (and perhaps genetically engineered) as a cheap source of cooking oil, whilst the 'comet shower' that causes the mass blindness I've already mentioned might not be a comet shower at all, but the result of a malfunctioning series of weapons satellites.  And a man-made apocalypse can be overturned, or at least countered, by the same inventiveness and cunning that created it, at least in the optimistic universe that Wyndham's characters inhabit.

 A tripod, yesterday.

Far bleaker is Christopher's The Death of Grass.  Readers of a certain age might remember the BBC's adaptation of his genuinely harrowing childrens' books The Tripods, which has haunted me to this day.  I suspect, having just read it, that The Death of Grass will likewise shadow me for the remainder of my life.  It's a truly shocking and troubling book, the dark and brutal flipside to Wyndham's Bevanite optimism.  The scenario is simple: a virus emerges in China that wipes out rice crops.  It swiftly mutates to decimate all grass crops, including wheat, rye and barley, leaving the entire world facing starvation.  The novel concerns the attempts of one family and a number of hangers on to make their way from London to the north of England, where the protagonist's brother keeps a (now-fortified and famine-ready) farm.  Anything else I might add would likely ruin the novel for any newcomers, so I won't pull any spoilers from my sleeves.  But I will say that I cannot recommend this novel highly enough.  It's still in print (there's a Penguin Modern Classics edition, in fact, and rightly so), so there is, frankly, no excuse.

But these are very English apocalypses.  Across the pond, the States has a rich record of post-apocalyptic scenarios of its own, and one of the most interesting is Richard Matheson's I Am Legend (1954).  Like The Day of the Triffids, I Am Legend has been something of a draw for film-makers: most recently, Will Smith was given the lead in a rather flaccid adaptation, and in the 70s, Charlton Heston (the king of post-apocalyptic science fiction movies, having appeared in Planet of the Apes and Soylent Green, both of which rule, in a pessimistic, post-Altamont kind of way) starred in The Omega Man, which is far better than the more recent attempt in every way, but still oddly unsatisfactory as an adaptation of the novel.  Part of the problem for any cinematic translation is that I Am Legend is very literary, very self-aware, and much of the novel's energy is given over to a critique of the genre from which it arose.  Matheson's novel proposes that vampires, far from being creatures of legend and folklore, are real and scientifically explicable: in the wake of an atomic war, a plague, the symptoms of which are eerily similar to vampirism as defined in classic horror and Gothic fiction, has ravaged the planet, leaving the novel's protagonist Robert Neville as (potentially) the last human alive in the States, or at least in LA.  Different in temperament though Wyndham's and Christopher's novels are, they share at least a sense of forward momentum: they're linear narratives, warped hangovers of the Medieval quest, with their protagonists searching for (and mostly failing to find) safe haven.  Matheson's novel is comparably static and claustrophobic: Neville spends his time holed up in his fortified house, his wife and daughter long ago having succumbed to the plague, fending off nightly attacks from marauding vampires, and spending his days desperately (and futilely) searching for a cure for the plague.  Neville isn't a typical resourceful SF hero: he drinks, he's inarticulate (mostly through isolation), sexually frustrated ... Indeed, there's far more in common between Neville and the narrators of Richard Ford's novels or Raymond Carver's stories, than between Neville and his adventurous and resourceful precursors in Wells or Verne, another facet that's failed to translate across into the movie adaptations: Charlton Heston and Will Smith are too heroic, frankly.  This is Matheson's greatest innovation, arguably, and it makes the horror of the situation all the more troubling.  The end of the world won't be survived by strong-jawed messiahs who'll save the human race at the eleventh hour: the last man on earth will be you, or me, and we'll be utterly powerless and monstrously alone.  I think I need a stiff drink.                                                          

Saturday 14 May 2011

Simon Turner - Bergonzi on war poetry

This is not so much an article, more a signpost to an interesting online resource that might otherwise be overlooked: earlier today I read the text of Bernard Bergonzi's 1990 Byron Foundation Lecture, which is available here.  The lecture, entitled 'The Problem of War Poetry' (a markedly similar title to a paper I gave at BAAS last year, which might suggest an unacknowledged influence, but I can honestly claim, hand on heart, that I wasn't aware of Bergonzi's lecture until today), has as its main argumentative thrust the thesis that the poetry of the Great War has, in spite of its strengths, a problematic effect upon subsequent poetry of conflict.  In effect, when we collectively speak of 'war poets', it's Owen, Sassoon, Graves and Rosenberg that we invoke with the term, reducing poets of comparable calibre (Douglas and Lewis spring readily to mind) to the status of a footnote to their achievements.  In addition, Bergonzi - pre-empting, in embryonic form, the underlying arguments in Nicholas Murray's The Red Sweet Wine of Youth - asserts, correctly, that a problematic mis-reading of the poetry of the trenches as being chiefly anti-war in character has created the impression that all war poetry in the 20th century must therefore be pacifist in order to be of literary value, with moral and aesthetic 'good' becoming problematically conflated.  That's a summary, at least, and I have probably done Bergonzi's ideas a disservice through over-simplification: hence the link above.  Well worth reading: it's though-provoking and compellingly argued.             

Tuesday 10 May 2011

A New Addition to the Links Sidebar

Oliver Dixon, who was kind enough to comment on my rather unwieldy post from a few days back, also has his own blog, entitled Ictus, which is very good.  I was particularly pleased to see a video of Swell Maps posted a few weeks back.  Swell Maps, in case you were wondering, are the second best post-punk band to come from Birmingham.  These guys are the best: fact.  Just listen to the woozy, echoey guitar loping into view at around three and a half minutes, and the squalling saxaphone it drags in its wake: just plain lovely, in a discordant way.     

Wednesday 4 May 2011

Simon Turner - Recent War Poetry Criticism

In the conclusion to a review of Ivor Gurney's Collected Poems, republished in Ways of Life (2008), Andrew Motion asserted that: "Gurney, like - [Edward] Thomas - secured and sustained a poetic line that was specifically English but nevertheless flexible and inclusive, at precisely the moment when the radical, cosmopolitan techniques of Pound and Eliot seemed to overwhelm it.  For a long time we have been told that the modernists were a race completely apart, and the only people to face up to the modern period.  Now we are beginning to know better."

In effect, the closing moments of Motion's review essay are a quiet and unassuming manifesto for a form of fractured Georgianism: Ivor Gurney, like many of the poets of the First World War, was a writer firmly in the 'English line', with a close affinity to a particular rural landscape (in Gurney's case, Gloucestershire), whose pastoral aesthetic was challenged, maybe irrevocably damaged, by the abrupt intrusion of the war.  Gurney, though not included in the Georgian anthologies, wrote of them positively in a number of his war-time letters, and shared the underpinning creeds and enthusiasms of the poets gathered under the Georgian tag.  The literary response to the conflict, in fact - David Jones' In Parenthesis and Ford Madox Ford's Parade's End aside - is almost exclusively Georgian or Georgian-affiliated in character.  Whatever our feelings on Modernism and its aesthetic antagonists, Motion's assessment of the period is valid, and needs to be acknowledged. 

And yet it is telling that this reading of Georgian poetics as just another means of being modern in a crowded literary marketplace should appear in the guise of a critical consideration of a war poet.  The First World War, for all its devastating effect upon the lives of an entire European generation, was responsible, paradoxically, for keeping the Georgian flame alive.  When schoolchildren are spoon-fed Owen, Sassoon and Blunden, they're officially learning about 'war poetry', but they're simultaneously imbibing Georgian poetics unawares, via intravenous drip.  The question, of course, presents itself: Would Georgian poetics have survived without the War intervening as a subject that could ennoble the output of the movement's more notable affiliates?  Literary history is, of course, full of 'what ifs?' - what if, say, Max Brod had taken Kafka at his word and burned his as-yet-unpublished manuscripts? - and it's rarely very fruitful pondering them, but in this instance it's inevitable.  Any revisionist reading of the Georgians must also be, by default, a critical appraisal of the poetry of the Great War.

Two recent studies of the war poets - Nicholas Murray's The Red Sweet Wine of Youth and Harry Ricketts' Strange Meetings - would seem to bear this out.  Both books tackle the Georgian influence on the poetry of the war (Murray chiefly in an early chapter delineating the literary squabbles of the period, whilst for Ricketts, a radical re-examination of the Georgian inheritance forms the backbone of his thesis), but in both cases the more original aspects of the authors' work feel strangely clandestine, as if they were at odds with what might be expected of a mainstream study of war poetry aimed at a general rather than academic readership.  The covers themselves give some indication of the tensions involved, falling back as they do on the visual shorthand of poppies 'n' Tommies to convey the message "This is a solemn account of the hardships and sacrifices endured in the trenches by those who fought" as swiftly and as simply as possible.  The packaging of both books, sadly, does each a great disservice, as I hope to show.            

Ricketts' Strange Meetings takes a more abstracted approach to its subject than Murray's more linear narrative in The Red Sweet Wine, but both studies throw up their fair share of surprises.  Ricketts' approach, as his title suggests, is to structure his chapters around meetings between a number of the key poets of the war, some of which are familiar, others far less so.  Indeed, it's the most tangential 'meetings' in the book that are the most interesting: Owen and Sassoon's encounter in Craiglockhart War Hospital will be familiar to anyone who's read Pat Barker's Regeneration trilogy, and, though deftly handled, is less essential reading than the account of the awkward and tentative meeting between David Jones and Siegfried Sassoon, with which Ricketts closes his narrative.  It's interesting to note, in fact, that the most effective chapters are precisely those where the focus is honed upon the literary tussles of the period, rather than the effect of the conflict upon its poetic practitioners.  Ricketts' account of the 'meeting' between Rupert Brooke and Edward Thomas is exemplary of this: Ricketts delineates Thomas' strained attempts to write a fair review of Brooke's 1914 & Other Poems and, in the process, renders concrete the abstract truism that Brooke's poems, for the later war poets, represented a kind of negative example of naive and Romanticised heroism that simply became impossible to sustain as the scale of the war's mechanised destruction grew more and more apparent. 

The real strength of Ricketts' study, however, lies in its re-examination of the Georgians.  For a long time, the Modernist caricature of the Georgians - that they were a Romantic hangover, with an atavistic preference for formal poetics that went hand in hand with a pastoral subject matter that seemed blithely unaware that the Industrial Revolution had been going on for some decades - seems to have been taken at face value in readings of the period.  Ricketts, however, makes a strong case for the Georgians not as the antithesis of Modernism, but rather as its counterpart: the Georgians, remember, saw themselves as supremely modern, and were as concerned with reversing the deadening effect of late Victorian abstraction on poetic composition as Ezra Pound at his most aggressively polemical.  Their differences might simply be a matter of degree: Pound and his cohorts were arguably the more absolutist camp, whilst the Georgians saw their modernity as arising naturally, organically, from an existing English tradition [1].  Moreover, and more radically, Ricketts notes that some of the Georgians - for a while at least - had the march on the Modernists, with the trench poetry of Robert Nichols arriving at a far greater degree of disruptive deconstruction of poetic form and meaning than, say, Eliot had achieved at that point in his career.     

Read in this light, the concluding meeting between Jones (the neglected High Modernist whose density of allusion makes the Cantos read like Making Cocoa for Kingsley Amis) and Sassoon (almost parodically exemplary of the Georgian camp: an arch-traditionalist in matters of verse composition, crashingly posh, and a big fan of horses) comes across as a (failed) motion towards a rapprochement between Georgian and Modernist aesthetics.  Tellingly, it's Sassoon who's most snippy in the aftermath of their chat, describing Jones some weeks later to a friend as "a pathetic, helpless seeming little man [...] Have you tried reading him?  Father Sebastian specialised in The Anathemata - quite beyond me".  Jones, meanwhile, betrays a charming degree of boyish enthusiasm in his own account: Sassoon, he wrote in a letter to René Hague, was "extremely nice, gentle and pleasant [...] he couldn't have been more friendly and agreeable."  That's also quite a concise summation of Ricketts' strengths as an author. 

Murray's The Red Sweet Wine of Youth, though superficially the more conventional study of the two, is arguably more radical in its intentions and critical processes.  First and foremost, as Murray states in his preface, the book is motivated by the desire to counter the misrepresentation of the poetry of WWI as anti-war in character, a misrepresentation that Murray, framing his argument (as Ricketts does in his own preface, oddly enough) in terms of a personal reminiscence from his own school days, places squarely at the feet of educators.  Rather, Murray posits, "the British poets of the First World War were not anti-war but 'anti-heroic'", which is to say that they critiqued the language of heroism by which the war was justified through their unsparing depictions of trench life, taking a 'pragmatic' rather than ideological approach to the conflict.  In this regard, Murray's book is a breath of fresh air, a counter to the more sentimental (mis)readings of Owen and Sassoon that can arise when we falsely conceive of them as pacifists themselves.  

One of the other outcomes of Murray's study is an increased focus upon the quality and centrality of his chosen poets' prose.  Indeed, for a study of war poetry, there's remarkably little poetry discussed with the same level of depth and precision as the prose accounts, letters and memoirs of the protagonists.  In Murray's appraisal of the work of Edmund Blunden, for example, Blunden's poetry feels strangely incidental to proceedings, with far more weight being given to the various prose narratives that Blunden published throughout his lifetime.  Arguably, this editorial decision is correct (Blunden's reputation as a war writer rests far more squarely upon the reminiscences in Undertones of War than on his charming but comparatively minor poetry), but still seems incongruous in the context of a study of war poets put out by a mainstream publisher.  Of course, it might equally be a natural correlative to Murray's stated counter-intuitive critical intent: just as he rescues Sassoon, Owen, Rosenberg and company from the damnation of classroom mis-interpretation, so Murray places greater emphasis upon the prose of the poets under discussion precisely because it isn't as well known.  This is, obviously, speculation, but if that was Murray's intention, it's worked, and there are a number of leads in the book that I feel a strong need to follow up, not the least of which is Blunden's De Bello Germanico.  (Amazon's claims of unavailability be damned: I will acquire a copy before the month is out.) 

The flaws in both books arise (at least to my mind) because of the essential tension between authorial intent and marketplace function.  Both books' rather cliched covers have already been noted, but I think a more generalised tension can be detected in the texts themselves.  During Murray's discussion of Sassoon, for example, a great deal of time is devoted to Douglas Jerrold's 1930 study The Lie About the War, a cantankerous appraisal of the spate of war memoirs that sprang up in the years between 1928 and 1930.  Jerrold's take on the situation is that by focusing upon the sufferings of the individual, memoirs such as Graves' Goodbye to All That and Blunden's Undertones served to elide the socio-political actualities of the war, providing instead "a peculiar, unhistoric, and absurdly romantic vision of war which was popular, and that under the clever pretence of telling the truth about war, a farrago of highly sentimentalised and romantic story-telling was being foisted on to a new, simple and too eagerly humanitarian public."  Strong stuff, and quite a nice surprise to find overlooked material like this in a mass market, as opposed to academic, publication.  The problem is that not enough time and space is allowed to really get to grips with the implications of Jerrold's argument - some close textual analysis of, say, Graves or Blunden would serve either as refutation of, or support for, Jerrold's case against the memoirists - so that the matter is too swiftly dropped, Sassoon is returned to, and Jerrold's counter-attack continues to hover unmentioned in the textual background, like Banquo's tattered ghost.       

One can sense Ricketts and Murray striving to break away from the potential conventions and pitfalls that a study of war poetry might engender, Ricketts through his tangential structure that, through necessity, almost elides the front line altogether, Murray through his refusal to fall back on sentimental GCSE cliche, and his inclusion of unexpected primary and secondary sources that favour, surprisingly, prose over poetry.  Moreover, both Murray and Ricketts, by foregrounding the old debates between Modernist and Georgian poetics, have between them snuck in, Trojan-style, a fascinating, perhaps even radical, reappraisal of the Georgian contribution to the poetics of the twentieth century.  In less bombastic terms, though, both The Red Sweet Wine of Youth and Strange Meetings offer some incidental pleasures, due to the shock of recognition that these debates between opposing aesthetics (from the Georgians and the Modernists, through the Movement's over-throw of the New Apocalyptic crowd, on into the controversies of the Poetry Wars in the 1970s and their aftermath on the contemporary poetry scene) are as old as the hills, and don't become any less heated, however many times they're rehearsed in new settings.  Pleasure, too, upon learning that, for all the vituperative invective fuelling these aesthetic contretemps, the great British public stuck to their preferences for Kipling and Bridges during wartime: the new poetry, whatever flavour it came in - Georgian or Imagist; Futurist or Symbolist - failed to make the slightest blip on their radar.  Quite a liberating thought, that.                                      


[1] Those who are interested in such things might want to read Alexandra Harris' Romantic Moderns, a recent winner of the Guardian first book award.  Harris study looks at the ways in which continental Modernism was absorbed and modified by the native English traditions in painting, design and literature, creating a kind of meliorative aesthetic that is distinctly 'modern', but which eschews the more polemical tendencies of that adjective's attendant 'ism' to draw inspiration from the English landscape, folk traditions and architectural heritage.  It's a compelling account, though flawed: Harris is much stronger on painting than literature, and some of her literary choices (the Sitwells, Vita Sackville-West) seem marginal figures in comparison to the more vitally modern work being produced by Eric Ravilious, Ivon Hitchens and John Piper in the same period.