Thursday, June 29, 2006

5. Andrew Duncan

The fifth in this series.

I thought I was beginning to know what to expect from this anthology – fractured half-sentences, flickers from memory, snatches of meaning, ambiguity and blur, a quiet minimalism. And then Andrew Duncan comes along.

Duncan’s narrators are oracular. They delve into ancient history and mythology, they speak in an elevated language, full of latinates, with a voice that sounds as if it’s learned its lessons from the King James Bible, Rilke, and ancient Greek goddesses.

When it works, his writing can be extraordinary. From Wind and Wear in Aix-en-Provence:

…Pattern
Is the ruins of time; and time is feasting on us.

…A wind pours steadily from the Alps and
Is part of their being; the mountain
With its scarf of air
Is contoured by abrasion. The
Universe is edible; the universe eats
Living stone to dessert on airy men.

That poem was my favourite. That contrast between ongoing creation/change/pattern and erosion, and how each feeds off the other is the theme of the poem. A moth settles behind raspberries, and feeds from them, but the pierced fruits are “half lost/ Half-transformed into the robber, wings draggled,/ Sleeping in black veils under the red riches.”

Human beings have a “flickering solidity” between the “absolute transience of light” and the “sonority of massive stones”. And then the narrator gazes upwards:

The sun’s edge is not up there,
But deep in the earth, where the living surface ends;
I stretch my edge
Out on visible radiance to where the fruits are.
I get close the universe by eating it.

Duncan’s poems in this anthology often explore their harsh landscapes, and in doing so, make their human connections. At Cumae begins:

Whatever I know is carried away on the breeze
Blowing from the heart of the rock, where the wells
Of light are cut into the cold hill.
Sibyl of a hundred voices, what is my fate?

And in Almond Wind: formal lament for Osip Mandelstam, Duncan tells how the death of Orpheus led to a dying of nature. He compares this to Mandelstam, whose word:

…was spoken
In that stellar black;
A rhythm crossed the inner span of darkness.
Matter shook itself like dust on a cymbal,
Mountains froze along the globe’s chords,
And a green wind raised trees from clay and light.
Then rocks and trees moved at man’s command,
And all sang to greet the rising sun.

But after his death, the “snow cuts the tongues of rivers”.

Literacy has Carthage, “the bringer of letters to the Western savages,” at its centre, and the poem, in my understanding, is political, showing how literacy is a form of power that can be used to enslave. Even the poorest free person is better off than the person signed (i.e. written) over into slavery:

The peasant scraping in the mud
Pauses in the heat of noon.
The serfs entered in the Temple Rolls
Know no rest.

The modern-day excavators find tablets, analyse them, and process them. But Andrew Duncan has little sympathy for their efforts:

We squat for years and scrutinize the tablets,
Our gaze trapped in the interstices of the plates.
Bureaucratic class
Serfs of fat and rote memories
Oppressors of all that would deploy in passion.

At times, I found the poetry a bit purple, overblown, which was OK as long as Duncan was trying to say something in the process, but not when it had all been said in two lines and Duncan felt obliged to stretch it out for twenty. It could get a bit dense, humourless and turgid. Now and again, I got bored. The oracular tone came preciously close to parody on occasions as well.

On the other hand, it’s very hard to write like this and keep it up. I can’t read Rilke’s Duino Elegies, for example, and not feel astonished at how Rilke rarely puts a foot wrong, even in the most complex sections. Andrew Duncan manages to write quite brilliantly through much of the poetry on display here. He manages to say something more in them than the bland and obvious, and he is entirely unfashionable with his elevated, oracular diction when mainstream UK poetry circles seem obsessed with “natural-speak” (an obsession that they may now be outgrowing). That refusal to court populist style deserves a commendation in itself.

Roy Fisher is next.

Not the kind of review you'd want, ideally...

At first I think it’s a poem. Then I realise that it isn’t. Not exactly. Then I’m glad it’s not me he’s talking about. Then I start thinking about school and how it can knock all that’s good out of poetry. Then I think this piece should be posted on every classroom and lecture hall in the country.

I haven't ever read Harvey Shapiro poems. Are they so bad?

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

New Poem (deleted)

deleted

Harry and I

According to this test, my blog profile photo most resembles Harry Houdini!











Others who came unaccountably close were:

Aldo Moro
Dominic Monaghan
Richard Gere
Richard Hammond
Paul Newman
James Garner
Martin Sheen

Thanks to Sorlil for the test.

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Diets

Interesting article here about how the French manage to cram their diet with wine, cheese, and cream, and still stay slim. The obesity rate there is very small – only 11 percent of French citizens are obese compared to 22 percent of the UK and more than 33 percent of Americans.

I liked this observation:

"Researchers in the US once spent months looking into why the French remained so much slimmer than Americans. After intensive study, they came to a remarkable conclusion.

It was because the French ate less."


You can blame all kinds of things – the way people in the UK (and, I guess, the USA) eat on the move rather than taking their time, the way we eat too many convenience food rather than fresh produce, our addiction to fast food. And I know there are all those diet books and diet aids that often promise “Get slim – and eat as much as you like!”. The result is inevitable.

I hate diets. Most people I know who go on diets usually put weight on! – either during the diet or soon after they’ve come off it. And most people who diet go from diet to diet, in search for that elusive key to weight loss they think they’ll find there. But simply eating less must be the key ingredient.

The current obsession with celebrities – either their anorexic bodies, or the gleeful photos of any miniscule bulges in their waistlines – is a terrible thing, which does nothing but feed the greedy diet industry. It makes me want to devour six bags of chips a night just to spite them, but in my early forties, I’m at an age where I can no longer eat what I want (the way I used to) without putting weight on. I’m never going on a diet though.

One intriguing postscript from the article:

“Guess which country is home to McDonalds' most profitable franchise? Not the US, not Britain, but France - now due to reach US obesity levels by the year 2020.”

Sunday, June 25, 2006

4. Peter Dent

The fourth in this series.

I had read a little of Peter Dent’s work before and had found it strange and intriguing, but when I saw that the first of two poems in this anthology was a response to the work of Louis Zukofsky, I felt daunted, partly because I know hardly any of Zukofsky’s poetry, and because what I have read by him has been impenetrable. Also, I know he is an idol of many poets who operate outside the mainstream, and commenting on a response to an idol, without knowing the idol’s work, could be a treacherous business.

Bearing that in mind, let me say that I thoroughly enjoyed Peter Dent’s Naming Nothing, a poem in sixteen sections, each section consisting of 8 short lines, split into two stanzas of 4. Many of the lines have only one word, the longest has four words, most have two or three. Dent slows the pace right down, as though he wants his readers to give each line its weight before moving onto the next.

Often the two stanzas in a section offer a contrast one with another, but not in the sense that they are opposing ideas. Dent relies on the familiar poetic technique of juxtaposing two concepts or images and inviting the reader to make connections between them. However, the concepts and images are chosen so that subtle connections are possible without bypassing all sense. The effect is almost haiku-like, although Dent’s poems are quite different from haiku:

Falling now
the cry
but the gull
is gone


High cliff
of the mind
to hold
the song

These verses deserve to be approached in a spirit of meditation. They are not spiritual in an overtly religious sense (although I guess Buddhism is never far away), but they need a bit of time and space to be appreciated fully. Dent always goes beyond the obvious elements of connection. His words require pondering over. He combines abstract concepts with images of clarity to send the mind into overdrive:

Brightness
trickles
from the hour,
the pebbles fall


Gift
of the tide
re-satisfies
the tide

This is just a really good poem. All sixteen sections have something to offer, and continue to offer something more with every read.

The second poem, an excerpt from a long poem, Place to Place, is a tougher read. The lines are again short. Again there are 8 lines in each section, although this time, a section is made up of 4 stanzas of 2 lines, with 6 sections in total. There is no punctuation and normal syntax is often abandoned.

The poem contains a journey at night-time in the open-air. There is a forest of elms. There are pine cones falling. There is a glorious night sky and a “world that pulls”. It’s all very mysterious. There’s no linear narrative. In fact, there may be no narrative at all exactly – more a haunting atmosphere that does get inside the skin.

The poem starts with the pine cones “falling/ out of night”, and a couple of stanzas later we have the “light failing”, and then “Nights/ And leaves and knowing/ Who we are that fall”. So pine cones become “we”.
And there is a fluidity in each scene. In one stanza, a home appears in the forest with a staircase to the stars. It seems to emerge naturally from the elm wood, from the “forest air/ We breathe”. Things like that happen in these stanzas, a surrealism that works well.

In the final stanza, “the old” tell “How time was stilled/ With darkness”. It’s familiar territory for the poets in this anthology so far – darkness and light are concepts they love to play around with. There’s plenty of scope in darkness and light, but I do have a nagging feeling that it can sometimes be a convenient way of avoiding more earthy human emotions. If your poetry is on a darkness/light plane, you can ignore the human heart effectively if you do it well. To his credit, Peter Dent does do it well, and comes up with a memorable, if rather odd, image to finish off:

Lifted stones A circle
Words would never leave

Alone make
Light their dance

So words, stones, and a flickering dance move in the still darkness of time –something like that?

In the first stanza, Peter Dent made use of a word that comes up with some frequency in the anthology. At least, I think it must do, because I’ve started to notice it. The word is “geometry”. The cones fall out of night, and Dent then continues:

The fine geometry
Of thoughts

We think askew


David Chaloner used it too a couple of times. I’m not sure about the other two reviewed so far, but I’ve seen “geometry” in poems later in the book. Now why should a word like “geometry” come up with regularity in a poetry anthology? The poems aren’t about mathematics and geometry isn’t a word that comes up much in casual conversation.

Peter Dent looks worth investigating further. I enjoyed his poems. Next up is another name I recognise – Andrew Duncan. And then three poets who have become almost well-known, even in mainstream UK publications – Roy Fisher, Harry Guest, and Lee Harwood – although their work isn’t mainstream.

Saturday, June 24, 2006

A Poem Worth Reading

William Baurle is back blogging again and has come up with yet another interesting poem. I’ve come back to Faking It several times.

I can detect some of its influences, but it leads you through a labyrinth all of its own.

Friday, June 23, 2006

3. David Chaloner

The third in this series.

The poets I’ve looked at so far, including David Chaloner, challenge preconceptions as to how language functions. They often leave out basic punctuation. They slap in a bit of white space. They speak in fragments rather than sentences. They place a fragment side by side with another fragment that bear no relation to each other. After a while the techniques become familiar, almost a new orthodoxy of the avant-garde, and you begin to wonder what’s left still to do. Not much, perhaps, but if it’s done well, that goes a long way.

For the most part, David Chaloner does it well. His opening poem, Revisions, consists of a series of short statements that bear no obvious connection to one another, but some of them are quite engaging:

The element of surprise makes hostages of us all.

That’s about as aphoristic as it gets. Not all of them are as pithy as that, and some sounded suspect to me:

The street is filled with debris and daybreak. Broken glass on the pavement mocks hysterical destruction but will not relinquish that state.

It’s the “mocks” that troubles me. I can’t understand that, even if “will not relinquish that state” presents an interesting angle.

Rural Pursuits, a poem in 4 sections, sets out most of David Chaloner’s concerns (at least, as evidenced by the poems in this book) – journeys and quests, departures and arrivals, repetitions in history, memory and doubt. He explores big themes:

…no return is mistaken
for arriving, and arriving
is only an interlude in something
of much grander scale,
that may fail exactly
as words fail to materialise
in appropriate manner.


That’s fluent writing that’s likely to expand anyone’s mind and vision. However, at times I felt Chaloner overstretched himself, and the same could be said of Guy Birchard and Richard Caddel too. Sometimes it’s better to say something simply and mean something complicated (even if you use an unusual linguistic strategy) than to say something in a complicated way but leave the reader feeling that you’re not saying anything much. The poem continues:

This assumption is another strategy
composed of dissimilar events.
And so disorder preconceived
is heir to deceit.
No artefacts, remains or tangible
evidence to produce.
History in the making.
An immaculate shift.

That sounds like waffle to me with a complete lack of economy, although I may have misunderstood.

That said, when David Chaloner writes well (and he often does), the results can be startling. In part 2 of Rural Pursuits, the narrator comes to a road he claims to know, but one can never be certain of this, or anything. The voice here is strong and distinct:

Look, that group of buildings, that hill,
this junction.
This sensation, I know this sensation.
It is being here, it is recognition,
it belongs with travelling
this road.
I know this place.
I have never been here before.
Today is the first time.
Do I know this road? Can you tell me,
can you, do you know this road?

Memory encounters doubt and the result is unreliability. The journeys in these poems are uncertain affairs, pursuits without arrival, stories that may or may not have happened, and a concept of time overlapping even itself:

At this hour, where you have gone
comes to the same place,
and something that did not happen once,
long ago, does not happen now, here.
When you arrive, they have moved on,
any moment now
to where you are.

Chaloner makes effective use of repetition to take you inside the minds of his subjects with their urgent questions, and he also creates atmosphere, a sense of place, in a similar way. Count the references to darkness at the beginning of part 4:

He was driving and it was dark.
He was driving in the darkness of winter
towards the house. Lights were visible
over the hedges, beyond the fields,
in the distance, in the darkness,
in the winter darkness.
The sky was blue-black, flickering
with starlight. He was driving and
it was dark…

And then again at the end:

A shadow of nausea,
a concentration of pain and darkness.
A winter darkness through which he was driving,
towards the lights. The lights at the base-line
of the sky. Towards the lights, coldly,
steadily, glowing.
Towards the cold, glowing lights
in the darkness.

That fourth section of Rural Pursuits is my favourite piece of poetry by anyone in the book up until now. The sounds and echoes that build through the poem make it memorable and worth reading again and again.

Further Instructions is another poem on journeys and time, retracing steps and resolving for an unknown future. The action appears to me to take place inside someone’s head, and the poem is a mirror to the process of thought. Chaloner delights in linguistic play and comes up with a fine image:

True earth. What lies. What lies in wait is the lie
of the land, crowned in copper light. Light sloping
over a ridge pulled free, pulled from free air.


This wrestling with memory, to look back and be ready to re-discover unfamiliarity in the world and confront it, even if it appears similar to what’s been seen before, is the urgent task, not merely to repeat the past:

The world outlines its utterness.
Utterance to circumscribe the world’s unqualified
lineaments. To state discovery as its journey.
As though return bore likeness but not familiarity.
To repeat. For nothing. For nothing but the ability
to confront. Slipping light.

Three poems under the heading Foreword from a collection called The Edge conclude Chaloner’s section of the book. I was wondering whether any of the poets were going to get political, or if they were only interested in politics at a linguistic level, and Chaloner played his hand (curiously, with upper-case letters at the beginning of each line – I say “curiously” only because so much of non-mainstream poetry tends to eschew capital letters altogether):

Land economies confound
The transient labour force
Whose trade is erased
Farms surrendered to ruin
Signify audacious outposts of failure

The second poem takes place in barren terrain. A departure takes place, guilt festers at the heart, time speeds past. But the third poem starts with a degree of hope:

Wherever you settle contradicts
The evidence of self-deluding quest.

However, it doesn’t last long, although I confess the density and complexity of Chaloner’s argument (if it is an argument) didn’t quite get through to me. But the images didn’t appear too upbeat:

Death’s fix cavorts with fractured dialogue
Bleached raiments hiss as you pass
As you turn a corner and the lush meadows
Deploy their hideous green laced with vetch

Needless to say, the poem ends on an ambiguous note, as these kind of poems tend to do:

…recurrent images laden with truth
Continually move away
Tracking the flawed course of unnatural lineage

One thing I’ve noticed about all three poets so far, and with others I’ve glanced at later in the book, is their preoccupation with light, darkness, absence, silence – as if they are straining towards the inexpressible and have found a convenient way to express it. I’ll leave that as a simple observation at the moment, but I wonder why these concerns and concepts are so ubiquitous.

But none of that should obscure the fact that I found a lot to like about David Chaloner’s work. He’s my favourite so far.

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Woman's Hour

Olive Dehn, author of poetry chapbook Out of my Mind (HappenStance Press, 2006), will be on Woman's Hour, on BBC Radio 4, this Thursday 22nd June, between 10-11am.

You can listen to Woman’s Hour on the Internet at this BBC link. Whether this works internationally I don’t know (probably not, but it's worth testing). As long as you tune in the same day, you can hear the programme at any time by pressing the “Listen Again” button. Should be well worth hearing.

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

2. Richard Caddel

Here’s the second instalment of eighteen on the challenge I set myself in this blog entry.

It might be worth mentioning, in case there is any doubt, that I have no obvious qualifications to comment on these modernist poets. I come, not as an expert, but as an average reader of poetry interested in what poets are doing beyond the mainstream. My response is purely personal and I have no doubt that academics and literary theorists could do a much better job.

Richard Caddel, as I suspected, is a challenging read. At first, I thought he was also going to be an unrewarding read, but there are rewards to be had if you go looking and don’t give up too soon. I was at a loss on how best to describe his poetry. Fortunately Richard Caddel came to my aid, with three lines that provided me with an entry point into what he’s trying to do.

The first two of these lines are at the beginning of the first poem by him in the book, a five-page extract from a longer poem called Fantasia in the English Choral Tradition. It starts:

lost in everyday deposits
of bedrock

There is a lostness, there is a mundanity in the “everyday deposits”, but these deposits are fundamental, the “bedrock”. So three points of a triangle, each very different – even contradictory – but each dependent on the position of the others for their particular angle. The fundamental solid ground goes into tension with the lostness, which in turn is in tension both with the bedrock, which aims to give solidity rather than lostness, and with the everyday deposits, which you might think would be too familiar to get lost in and too unimportant to be genuinely fundamental.

The poem begins with what feels like a creation myth. It has an almost liturgical surge, with lines repeating like a religious incantation, and the phrase “the face of the earth” recalls the creation myth of Genesis 1. Caddel has human beings appearing and moving over the earth “like a great dance         like cloud spray”.

The poem is made up of fragments that echo one another, but the minute the images begin to pull together, they slip apart again. Caddel could almost be talking about his poem when he writes:

These fragments come
                                                    bounding
out of time
                          to call to
the heat of the world

(My efforts to replicate the white space Caddel employs haven't succeeded so far, despite my attempts to follow Julie's html directions. I'll try again later. For now, just imagine that each line doesn't always begin on the left margin! Apologies). Images and phrases come and go, repeat, connect and disconnect. Whenever the poem threatens to come into focus, Caddel makes sure it blurs over again. One section of the poem is structured like this:

dealing with         the anger of a friend
                                    …watching a cow blink
                                    …hearing a car go down the hill
                                    …when it’s still moist with rain


I’ve taken these out of sequence to illustrate what he then does in the next section:

…the grass still moist from hate         dealing with a friend’s cow         a car anger         blink in the moist evening…

He takes phrases from the previous section and mixes them all up. Sometimes the new phrases make unusual sense, sometimes not. I suspect this is one deconstructive literary theorists would enjoy putting under the microscope. He finishes this section with the revealing phrase:

hoping for a light to steer by but not touch

That’s what I was thinking too. There’s nothing to hang onto, but now and again a little light helped me to find a route through, although hardly a definitive one.

A lighthouse does indeed appear in the next section. Caddel’s view seems to be that true expertise in steering comes through loving, naming, singing. Not that there is a structured argument in the poem of any kind, but that’s what I took from it. Humans are part of this world, lost even in the everyday’s solid ground, but they can steer themselves through:

I am back in thought
                                               in the hills
with scope
                          to sing
the things I love
                                    as they occur
this instant

everyday

The second poem, Rigmarole: Block Quilt, is like this over three pages:

not that you asked for a poem
curled asleep         insight of mountains
to place such pieces         spirall roundles…
conical sections, circular pyramids

stem pulled into breathing         repeatedly
clarity of thought         capture of brindled ox
capture of cauldron         escapers
storming the glass castle


I must admit, I read through the whole poem, and almost gave up. It seemed to offer nothing but isolated fragments. However, I lived with the poem for a few days and gradually I realised that the fragments weren’t completely isolated. Phrases repeated or were changed slightly or added to. And the poem is about a block quilt, so I might expect separate blocks in a whole piece, many parts stitched together, each part distinctive in itself.

It’s in this poem that I found my third line to describe Richard Caddel’s poetry:

body falling into its own absence

That’s how this poetry feels to me, although I’d be hard-pushed to explain exactly what the line means. The whole stanza goes like this:

body falling into its own absence
common range         a shoe-leather handshake
recalled         lose the file
curling asleep under an old steep root


Fragments are let loose, built on, chopped and changed, and a patchwork is created, but not one with any central focus. The poem ends with phrases that will be familiar from the rest of the poem, but without forcing them into a cohesive meaning:

it’s what remains         when the slate is wiped
just wanted to say         I love you
and all of this too         pieces laid out side by side
for clarity         no easy way

of breath         no wasted effort
the songs finding themselves         curled asleep
miles away         escapers in tender
common range of visible things

It was interesting to explore, but I doubt it would enjoyable to read an entire volume full of stuff like this poem. I prefer poems that offer a little more to reader, a sharper focus at times, even if that focus continually blurs over. Here, there didn’t seem to be any focus, quite deliberate I’m sure. Fragments are what postmodernism is all about after all. Of course, as John Kinsella has reminded us, not all poetry is written to please, and this may be a poem written, as he says of his own poetry, to “suggest and to bother – to irritate and to instigate.”

The final two poems from Richard Caddel are highly accessible in comparison, although still intriguing, a bit disturbing. The Ash Tree that Bears Apples pictures two people walking through an orchard in silence. They feel happy, yet the poem ends ominously with “bitter fruit”. The Coat has a frail light, frost, sea, wind, going alone with a dark faith, the casting off of fear (at least, I think it’s the fear that’s cast off), and then:

                                …Song lifting
                  and going on alone
        in frost, the same and yet changed


Strange, but I’d guess that most readers of mainstream poetry could easily enjoy these third and fourth poems. The first one might intrigue enough to hook people who wanted to make the effort, and there are some startling lines throughout. The second poem is tough to get to grips with.

Generally, I was pleased that I managed to enjoy bits of Richard Caddel’s poems, because at first I thought I wouldn’t.

The next head on the chopping-block is David Chaloner. Soon.

Monday, June 19, 2006

Shameless Self-Publicity and some New Links

Another review, from White Leaf Press, of The Clown of Natural Sorrow. Again, quite positive. Critics always seem to have their reservations, but the reservations have been different with each critic. Fair comments here I think (although I am hardly the one to judge).

*

Nice of Bernardine Evaristo to recommend In the Last Few Seconds.

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I’ve added two new lists of links in the right-hand column of this blog: sites that offer resources and information for poets, and a list of poetry zines, both print and digital, which appeal to me for various reasons. Also some new blog links – Books Inq, C E Chaffin, Katy Evans-Bush, vmh, and William Baurle

White Space

Does anyone know how to create white space between words in Blogger?
I mean - if I wrote "even though", but wanted five or six spaces between these words, rather than one, how would I do it? I am clueless when it comes to html.

Sunday, June 18, 2006

Poem (deleted)

Here's a brand new poem.

It's now deleted, but thanks to all who read and to those who commented. Much appreciated.

Thursday, June 15, 2006

1. Guy Birchard

Here’s the first instalment in the challenge I set myself here to read an anthology of late modernist poetry and report back on each of the 18 poets represented, a challenge I hope I don’t regret accepting.

It’s hard to read 11 poems by a writer and then put your finger on where they are coming from. All I can do is record a few impressions and make a few snap judgments.

Guy Birchard is a Canadian poet in the modernist tradition. The main impression I got from his poems was of disjunction. There is a scrambling of conventional grammar and syntax in his poems, but a more important form of disjunction comes in the way Birchard uses imagery and ideas. He makes leaps of logic that ask questions of the reader as to how the images and ideas in a poem connect and at what point they cease to connect. However, the poems are not internally fragmented in such a way that no cohesion exists. There are connections, even if they are, at times, tenuous.

For example, his poem Triptych (every poet has to write a poem with that title, I guess) begins quite conventionally, with an imaginative lyric drive:

the melancholy young man sees
wildlife in terms of roadkill:
the romantic young man in transit
drives shy of the soft shoulder
but yearns: the aesthetic young
man travelling light writes long
hand ignorant of word processors


Good writing, I think. The only unconventional aspect comes with the line-breaks – young/man and long/hand hint at the disjunctions to come, especially as “young man” has occurred twice without being split or held apart.

The poem continues with more descriptions of the men. S2 picks up on ideas from this first stanza, but then in S3, the connections become more hazy. The poem is structured conventionally with each stanza looking at different aspects of the three men, but there is a shift at the level of ideas in the third:

the melancholy young man reaps
pleasure footloose flushing
whitetails and coyotes upwind
so they lope or bound away –
he loves to tell one
raptor from another: the romantic
anticipates – he is mindful:
the aesthete distinguishes
tansy from millet, pigeon
grass from pig weed,

barley from buck
wheat among the fall
rye, the wild
oats

The poem offers a description of three men and invites the reader to reflect on them. There’s no attempt at logical argument and the connections between the ideas of S1 and S3 aren’t laid out on a plate. But I find the poem haunting and intriguing, and it’s a good example of how sound and rhythm work well in a poem.

In Objet TrouvĂ©: Coin, Birchard describes an old coin and asks what the symbols and images on it mean – the numbers are just numbers, the lion is waving, the dates don’t appear to subtract, add, or multiply or divide anything (the narrator appears to expect that they should). It closes with the crest, which

invests the piece with a value even more
singular to a lad who’s found the silver
coruscating…

To me, the poem is about the found object and the significance it can have for the individual finder with the imagination of a child, which might be very different from its market value or meaning to others.

Orientation appears to be about a long-distance relationship that has recently ended. The woman travels the world with her job, but the narrator works nearby. The phone never rings (apart from salesmen) and the mailbox is empty. The poem centres around a maple tree in autumn, its browning leaves seeming emblematic of the relationship, but the narrator doesn’t want to let go.

This poem is quite conventional, apart from the lack of punctuation and use of white space. The images are strong and neatly understated, also a feature of Birchard’s poetry:

some of your shoes remain in the closet
you follow your pursuits 1000 miles
more…
…I tend a bar a ten minute walk away and wonder
what to do with the bulk of our possessions
the phone connection’s
too good


Sometimes, I thought Birchard overreached himself, although some of the poems may have been deliberate pastiche. But Twenty-Ninth Birthday Suite was about as seductive as a wet slug:

…tasselled silk of thighs’
stroke guides knees, mine,
invites kisses to succulent
folds, tickles to gracious
behind,..

Often in modernist poetry, the emotional is subjugated to a cool factual intellect, but I detect a false note here, irrespective of whether the experience described is factual. Truth emerges in the telling.

On the other hand, Shriven has to be a pastiche:

The Poet of Fair Anyo, that be me,
dear office, I limn her.
By God, today
my mind pangs for that blessed wench…

Birchard’s poems present some challenges, but they are by no means inaccessible. I enjoyed them in the main. There were a few I found boring or too clever-clever. I enjoyed his humour, as in the final poem Behind the Lines. The narrator parrots away in several languages, and has learned them with variable success, but in some of the languages he understands nothing of what he speaks. He concludes:

British girls, for my accent, have chucked
me under the chin but my words, undetectable
origins, incomprehensible intentions, dammit
my English words baffle English ears.

It’s hard not to read this as a self-conscious reflection on his own poetry, although I didn’t find his words as baffling as all that.

Next up is Richard Caddel, who looks interesting, but potentially more baffling.

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

A State of Independence

Browsing in the Scottish Poetry Library recently, I found a copy of an anthology called A State of Independence, edited by Tony Frazer, who is behind the Shearsman magazine and press, one of the UK’s most important outlets for quality, non-mainstream poetry.

The anthology, first published in 1998, features 18 poets, about 10 pages to each, all of whom come from outwith the poetic mainstream.

Tony Frazer writes in his introduction:

“If these poets are so worthy of attention, why is it that they are not all given the accolades accorded their more mainstream contemporaries? It may be that refusal to play the literary-political power game or not bothering to be a reviewer / reader / lecturer / biographer proves detrimental to a poetry "career" as it exists these days in Britain.

"Innovators of course — and some of those included here may justifiably claim that description — are always outside the canon, until such time as they are recognised as forgotten geniuses — as with Basil Bunting in Britain — or until the canon swivels about to accommodate them — as with John Ashbery in the USA (although his fecundity and intellectual playfulness still seem distrusted in Britain).

"No conspiracy, this, but simply the natural moves and countermoves made by political human beings, who seek comfort with their kin and the safety of their own walls rather than an exploration of the harsher country beyond.”

I’ve decided to read the book, and to write about each of the poets in turn on this blog. Obviously, I am not attempting to judge the work of these poets overall, but simply to provide a personal reaction to the work evidenced in the anthology – a reaction from one reader to poets who are attempting to write in a non-conventional way, and who have some skill in doing so.

The poets featured are mainly UK poets, but there are a few from other nationalities. They are:

Guy Birchard
Richard Caddel
David Chaloner
Peter Dent
Andrew Duncan
Roy Fisher
Harry Guest
Lee Harwood
Philip Jenkins
Grace Lake
Tom Lowenstein
Christopher Middleton
David Miller
Billy Mills
Peter Riley
Gael Turnbull
Catherine Walsh
John Welch.

I’ll be back with my reaction to Guy Birchard over the next day or two.

Sunday, June 11, 2006

This one isn't straightforward...

…but I hope reading it doesn’t prove a waste of time. I’d be interested to know one thing – whether the you of the poem's “profession” is reasonably obvious. The poem hangs on that, and yet I don’t want to spell it out too blatantly, as the poem also hangs on it not being clear at the beginning. However, if it’s not clear by the end, I’ll be back to the drawing-board.

OK, the poem has now gone, but I'll continue to work on it. There are one or two sections I might touch up a little in the interests of clarity, and a few areas where I might change punctuation. Thanks for reading, while it was here.

Friday, June 09, 2006

I'm Back

I had a good holiday in the south of mainland Spain. I wish I could say I feel refreshed, but a four-year-old on holiday and a mountainload of work waiting for me on my return have put paid to that fantasy.

On holiday, I read Edwin Morgan's New and Selected Poems, which I'll try to write something about soon on this blog. I'd read plenty of Morgan's stuff before, like any self-respecting Scottish poet, but reading his Selected cover-to-cover with a degree of concentrated attention showed me how good he is whether he's writing a metrical sonnet, an experimental wordplay, a metaphysical exploration, a science fiction narrative, or the most fluent blank verse you could hope to find. His poems make me think, they move me, they challenge me as a writer. Morgan doesn't have a single voice that travels through every poem, but every poem has its own distinct and memorable voice - intelligent, quirky, and bold. Brilliant.

Now I must go and open my massive pile of mail. Most of it will be rubbish and end up instantly in the bin, but I have to open it first to make sure. There is something deeply unfair about this.