Tuesday, 17 October 2017

The Editors Converse - Reading Lists (2/4)


Lot’s to chew on there, but before I carry on, two points of note: one, your mention of the E.T. Atari game - which is rightly notorious - reminded me of a wonderful thing I stumbled across a while back, a vintage-style game based on The Shining, which is a thing of beauty and a joy forever; and two, I’m very tempted to put the word ‘foray’ in the foregoing into scare-quotes, just to get the rumour mill grinding away.

But these are passing fancies. Back to the poetry. It feels like, however disconnected you might be feeling, you’re still a little more plugged in to proceedings than I’ve been. The work that’s most exciting me at the moment, pretty much across the board, has been translation, often of poetry with a well-established vintage. Peter Hughes’ Cavalcanty is foremost in this list - his versions of Petrarch are one of the primary reasons to keep reading in the 21st century, and Cavalcanty is on a par, though it’s a shorter collection. I’ve not read the whole caboodle yet, but it already includes one of my favourite stanzas in history (both human and geological):

      the worst thing about being a dalek
      is how remote you feel from tender flesh
      & how every sexual position
      makes you feel more like a fucking bollard

I could probably babble on about Hughes’ control of the line (there’s a musical play of line endings against run on sentences, with syntactic units seeming to end with the line, only to continue and throw the reader into a momentary tailspin), his employment of competing registers and vocabularies, and the sheer vigour of his ear, but all of that would be rather academic and pointless: what matters is that the poetry’s never boring, the biggest sin. Every line’s an event, which you could unpick and unpick, but there’s a motive force to the music that keeps driving you on: a lot of this is probably due to the ‘voice’ (old-fashioned concept, I know, but it suits) that Hughes creates here, and in the Petrarch.

Who else? NRYB have just reissued Paul Blackburn’s Proensa, a translation of Provencal troubadours, and a precursor in terms of its technique to Hughes’ own work (they’re both offspring of Poundian and Buntingesque notions of translation). It’s arguably not as immediate as Hughes, but then I think Blackburn’s intention was more ‘trad’ in that he was creating workable translations rather than versions or new poems in their own right. But any translation’s a new poem in its own right, right?, and PB’s troubadours have a lot of energy and music. The versions of Bertran de Born, in particular, are exceptional (Pound turned his hand to BdB, too, in some of his earlier poems).

I’m sure there’s plenty else that’s been on my radar, but that can wait until further into the conversation. Excitingly, a copy of Michael O’Brien’s Sills has just touched down in the front hall, so that’s the rest of the day accounted for. Also, as a final thought: what’s more authentically punk than a book that’s been dipped in black gunk?


Well now, ‘foray’ sounds a little more polite than, say, ‘fray’ or ‘fracas’ but let’s not throw petrol on that fire just yet. (*nudge nudge*)

I’ll stick to the poetry because I realise I do have a backlog of reading in my head. I could blab about a couple of other things I picked up second hand

Joseph Moncure March’s The Wild Party is fun, but dated by the spate of scatalogical open mic doggerel proliferating around and about. You also have to think yourself into the age, and that’s a difficult job when you’re trying to squeeze your way past the somewhat male-fantasy drawings in the illustrated-by-Art Spiegelman edition; and I’m trying to re-read Astrid Alben’s Ai! Ai! Pianissimo, which, a bit like AK Blakemore’s book reads like it’s had a little bit too much of the energy edited out of it, but really only a couple of names stand out from the last year or two: Maggie Nelson and Claudia Rankine.

I guess it’s the form that attracts me most. A kind of prose-poetry series of stanzas/blocks. Where Christian Bok’s Eunoia (and some of Susan Howe’s collections) shapes the ‘paragraphs’/‘word-squares’ very rigidly, Nelson’s poetry and Rankine’s Citizen feel completely organic, open, instinctive. The form drove me through their work like teenage joyriders on methamphetamines, but this despite the absolutely serious, intellectual backbones.

Rankine you probably know all about already. Citizen weighs a hundred times more than the paper it’s printed on. I feel like it deserves more than a couple of throwaway sentences here, but it has been reviewed and acclaimed extensively. My main interest is that it’s an essay-poem, which is a tradition, and as with a lot of these sensationalised texts, there’s not much discussion of that form: Arkadii Dragomoshchenko, Charles Bernstein being two of the more recent exponents I’m aware of, but the tradition is French (and, a quick online search suggests, commonly French Canadian) with exponents in Victor Hugo, Montaigne and others. The form needs more attention, as it serves a very strange purpose.

Especially in Nelson’s work. I was lucky (I think) to read bluets before The Argonauts. They’re both great, but they’re also pretty much a set; bluets (I have no idea why I’m spelling it lower case, it just feels right) pretends to be an essay about the colour blue, but extrapolates into autobiography, gender, social commentary, identity politics, liberalism, depression, difficult relationships, asides about the state of academia, all that stuff. It’s brilliant, though maybe a little bit too intellectual in places, but those heightened moments of thinking are off-set by the other extreme - some incredibly difficult, honest moments of emotional exposure. The stuff on blue, also, made me happy someone had set out to challenge William Gass’ On Being Blue, which, despite some sharp insights and a wealth of intelligent magpie-ing, left me thinking it was an unredeemably creepy book.

The Argonauts feels a little more self-conscious by comparison: perhaps knowing people are watching makes for language that’s a little more, I don’t know... Intentional? A few moments felt as if they were intended to be read by certain people, statements that needed to be made, but they didn’t weave smoothly into the rest of the essay. It is, however, a much more positive book than bluets, with childbirth, family, finding feet, etc. One of the funnier moments, from my perspective, is her moments of liberal doubt about naming their child something they later found out suggests a Native American identity, and oh hashtag cultural appropriation what?

Nelson’s work has a way of using prose-block fragmentation that made me wonder if it’s still a valid form. I tried re-reading Annie Dillard’s Teaching a Stone to Talk, and it struck me as heavy-handed masturbation. And then I’m tilting over into those little square till-books, with aphorisms and random life advice, which function in similar ways. I can’t help feeling there’s a very rich range in the ‘book-of-paragraphs’ genre which Nelson has steered away from by going more toward ‘essay-poem’.

But, like you said, that kind of categorisation starts to sound like academic wrangling over imaginary horses. So I’ll stop with one of the quotes that jumped out at me from Nelson:
once something is no longer illicit, punishable, pathologized, or used as a lawful basis for raw discrimination or acts of violence, that phenomenon will no longer be able to represent or deliver on subversion, the subcultural, the underground, the fringe, in the same way (The Argonauts)


Does it get better? Does it ever get better? Find out tomorrow with Part 3!

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