Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Poetry, Criticism, and Moral Values

On my Facebook wall (for those of you who can see it) at the moment, there’s a very interesting discussion on a set of reviews and, by extension, on the nature of reviewing generally and, extending further from that, on the state of UK poetry today.

One of the most interesting points is how reviewers tend not to question a poem’s moral values and, instead, examine its technique, narrative and subject matter. But the moral outlook on the world (or lack of it) exhibited by a poetry collection is obviously an important part of what it does. One commenter suggests that critics maybe lack the confidence –or ability – to look at such issues. Or perhaps it’s because the current values of our society say that all moral truths are relative, and there is heavy pressure on critics to reflect only on how poems say what they say, but not on what they are saying, the values they espouse behind their narrative and subject matter.

Critics and reviewers aren’t moral censors. Poets have to be free to express the unpalatable, the difficult and offensive, without being censored. But if they do, they ought to expect critical reaction, some of it hostile, rather than silence and a quiet sidestep into technical considerations. Reaction is surely welcome or they wouldn’t have published the poems in the first place.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Report from the StAnza Poetry Festival 2011 - Part 3

I guess you’d need to pace yourself if you were the kind of person who gets invited to all the literary festivals to do readings, workshops, masterclasses and panels. Every day there are stimulating events, a constant melee of people to meet, and a mountain of food and alcohol to consume to all hours. It must become routine if you travel from one to another every week or two, and you’d need a strategy to survive. I know one reader at StAnza said that he got frustrated flying into festivals, reading and signing, and then flying out again only a few hours later. But the alternative would mean hardly seeing his family and friends and probably becoming massively overweight and alcoholic.

So, there is at least one advantage of not being a habitual invitee on the festival circuit, or that’s what I tell myself. When I make my annual Spring pilgrimage to StAnza, Scotland’s International Poetry Festival, I can have a good time knowing that normal life will resume a few days later with its customary vengeance. I made it to bed by 1am on the Friday evening, but I saw 2am on both the Saturday and Sunday. StAnza has a justified reputation as the ‘friendly festival’ and it is this buzz which makes it special, even if it seems rather less buzzy at 7.15am in a B&B with light streaming through the pale curtains.

My highlights were:

a) a panel event about the relationship between poetry and history, which might not sound immediately gripping, but the panel (Anna Woodford, Kevin Young, Hugh McMillan and Anna Robinson) got a great discussion going on the fluid relationship between truth and lies, imagination and history, witness and satire – all themes which are central to my own second collection-in-progress, so I was listening carefully.

b) Selima Hill and Philip Gross – Philip Gross read well. He has great ability to develop ideas and images throughout a poem and keep it interesting and surprising without resorting to absurdity or bizarre tangents (some poets do absurdity and tangents well, of course, but I guess it’s become no more than a technique for others). I felt his introductions were too long and covered matters best left to the poems themselves, but it was still a fine reading. Selima Hill polarised people. I am definitely a fan. Her poetry is entirely singular and so was her reading – from the four and a half minutes of awkward shuffling about preceding her first words, to the constant refrain of “I just want to go home” every few poems (my interpretation of this was that in a way she did and in another way she actually didn’t, but saying it was a help to her – all to do with Asperger Syndrome), to the idiot heckler who tried to derail her halfway through (and didn’t succeed), she crafted an experience as astonishingly weird as her poems. As someone remarked to me afterwards, “Whatever people thought of that reading, they’re all talking about it and will never forget it.” No doubt about that!

c) Helena Nelson & Durs Grunbein – Nell read very well, poems mainly from her new collection Plot and Counter-Plot. If people had only heard her read the light verse from her pamphlets before, some of these poems would have come as a surprise. Then came Grunbein, one of Germany’s top poets, with translations by Michael Hofmann (from Ashes for Breakfast) read by Don Paterson. It’s really good stuff and it was great to hear the sound of the poems in the original German, even though I don’t speak the language.

d) Antonella Anedda & Carrie Etter – I thought Italian poet, Antonella Anedda, was terrific and I traded one of her books (in Italian) for my own collection (she laughed when she saw my poem featuring Berlusconi). I might try to translate some of her poems, just for fun in the first instance to see how they turn out. I hadn’t met Carrie before despite ‘knowing’ her online for a while, but I wasn’t surprised that her reading was lively and diverse – she read from The Tethers and from Diving for Starters. What was interesting is that these poems, on the page, seem to come from different ends of the poetic spectrum, but they fused together for the reading so that it wasn’t always obvious which book she was reading from.

e) The Poets Market – I was on the Magma stall for four hours on the Saturday afternoon. I met loads of people and sold a decent number of copies of the magazine. I also managed to have a quick look at some of the other stalls. There were few quiet moments, which was all to the good and the time shot by.

f) Kevin Williamson – Kevin recited/performed poems which Robert Burns had written anonymously or had been lost from his official writings for one reason or another. They were often political and, with Kevin’s delivery, sounded highly contemporary. He may be doing a complete show of these at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe this year and I’d recommend going along.

Monday, March 21, 2011

StAnza Poetry Festival 2011, Part 2

I’m back from StAnza and, of course, had a good time. I’ll say more soon, but I have a work meeting tonight and need to get ready for it. But here is a list of books/pamphlets I bought, swopped for, or was given:
Velazquez's Riddle - Lyn Moir (Calder Wood)
Cloud Pibroch – James McGonigal (Mariscat)
Notti di Pace Occidentale – Antonella Anedda (Donzelli Poesia)
Five Days – Hugh McMillan (Roncadora)
The Thing to Do when You Are Not in Love – Steve Ronnie (Red Squirrel)
The Mermaid & The Sailors – Claire Askew (Red Squirrel)
Ashes for Breakfast - Durs Grunbein (Faber)

Friday, March 18, 2011

The Sadness of Unambitious Poetry

“How sad it is when a luxurious imagination is obliged in self defence to deaden its delicacy in vulgarity, and riot in things attainable that it may not have leisure to go mad after things that are not.”

(Keats, 1818)

StAnza Poetry Festival 2011, Part 1

I had a good time at StAnza yesterday. Great to meet up with people I hadn’t seen in a while, even if only briefly, and to run into new people too. The poetry? Well, it was a mixed bag. A couple of very enjoyable and interesting readings though. Didn’t get to hear Yang Lian, as I had to get home. As I left the Byre Theatre to catch the shuttle bus to Leuchars, I saw him through the Byre’s glass panelling, eating dinner with a bunch of people, but I didn’t want to disturb him by going back to say hello while he was enjoying a relaxed meal before his reading. I’ll be back in St Andrews tonight and will report after the weekend.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Off to StAnza 2011

I’ll be making my annual pilgrimage to the StAnza International Poetry Festival for at least part of today. I hope to catch Matt Merritt reading later this morning, but that all depends on time – perfect bus and train connections after dropping my daughter off at school. I’ve a feeling I might be fractionally too late, but we’ll see.

There are a few interesting events this afternoon e.g. Jo Bell, Belgian sound poetry, the StAnza lecture from Robert Crawford. I can’t decide yet but will go with my whim at the time. I slept badly last night and feel tired this morning, which might mean I’d fall asleep in a poetry event if it isn’t extra-special. So pull out all those extra stops, folks...

At 5pm, Natasha Trethewey is reading with Brian Johnstone, and I’ll make a point of getting to that one. Brian is very good, of course, and I’d recommend anyone who doesn’t know his work to check it out (his Book of Belongings, published by Arc in 2010, is excellent). But, for me, this also is a one-off chance to see Natasha Trethewey, a very interesting U.S. writer whose poetry is difficult to classify - a good thing, probably. I don't know her work well, but I like what I've read.

In the evening, Yang Lian (with translator Brian Holton) is reading with Poetry Review editor and Carcanet author, Fiona Sampson. I’d love to get to this as Andrew Philip, Katy Evans-Bush and I read with Yang Lian and Brian in London last year, a fantastic experience with two great people. Yang Lian writes poetry like no one else – I have two of his books, Riding Pisces (Shearsman), and Lee Valley Poems (Bloodaxe). Unfortunately, I need to get home and will have to pass up the chance to go to this one but, if you’re anywhere near St Andrews, don’t miss it!

I will be back in St Andrews over the weekend and, on the Saturday afternoon, you’ll find me on the Magma stall at the Stanza Book Fair.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Explaining Poems

You can find this quote all over the Internet:

It’s art if can’t be explained.
It’s fashion if no one asks for an explanation.
It’s design if it doesn’t need explanation

— Wouter Stokkel

Nicely done. I suppose it means that poems which can be explained or paraphrased, which lose nothing from being recast as prose, aren’t really art at all.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

The Troggs - With A Girl Like You (1967)

The Art of Recklessness

I’ve just ordered Dean Young’s The Art of Recklessness, which sounds really good to me. I like the way he attempts to prove the need for recklessness by using the example of Shakespeare, Wordsworth etc, not just the modern writers we might typically expect to hear from. The blurb says:

How can recklessness guide the poet, the artist, and the reader into art, and how can it excite in us a sort of wild receptivity, beyond craft? “Poetry is not a discipline,” Young writes. “It is a hunger, a revolt, a drive, a mash note, a fright, a tantrum, a grief, a hoax, a debacle, an application, an affect . . .”

Here's an interesting review of it. The author of the review admits his own bias in its favour, but still goes on to say interesting things about it.

Of course, craft is important, as millions of badly written poems on the Internet will ineloquently testify, but it’s just as important to ignore every guideline you’ve ever learned if the poem demands it, to go with the poem and not with your internal censor. The fine tuning can then cut out the misplaced word, dodgy rhythms and sonic blandness etc, as long as the reckless energy remains.

Monday, March 07, 2011

Magma, Issue 49, and the E-Newsletter, Issue 12

The new Magma, issue 49, is all ready and you can read a few poems and articles from it online, including my review of Katherine Gallagher's Carnival Edge: New & Selected Poems (Arc £11.99), Alan Wall’s Doctor Placebo (Shearsman £8.95) and TEN: New Poets Spread the Word ed. Bernardine Evaristo and Daljit Nagra (Bloodaxe/Spread the Word £8.95).

In addition, if you sign up to receive the free bi-monthly e-newsletter (halfway down the page at the link to sign up), you’ll find me doing the ‘subscribers workshop’ in which I comment on a poem someone has asked for help with (perhaps 'set loose to run riot over someone else's poem' might be just as good a way to put it, but I hope it's a constructive riot), along with articles on ‘poetry and catharsis’ by Jacqueline Saphra (which includes a nice mention of Andrew Philip's collection, The Ambulance Box) and a review of Matthew Sweeney’s The Night Post (Salt 2010) by Laurie Smith. Definitely worth signing up for.

Three Snippets

I have two reviews in the latest issue of Sphinx online, issue 16, both of pamphlets from the ‘innovative’ or ‘radical’ or ‘experimental’ (or whatever word is being used these days to pin down what can’t be pinned down) end of the poetic spectrum: here’s my review of Ralph Hawkins’s ‘The Size of a Human Dawn’ and also this one on Nathan Thompson’s ‘A Haunting’. Both are published by Gratton Street Irregulars.


I’m spinning out the theological implications of a very different WS Merwin poem to ‘Home for Thanksgiving’, which I wrote about on this blog on Saturday. In the same book, he has a one-liner called ‘Savonarola’, which goes, “Unable to endure my world and calling the failure God, I will destroy yours.”


Yesterday, it appears my daughter left a message, in a very posh voice, on her friend's parents’ answerphone:

"Hello. I'm the prime minister, David Cameron. Can I help you? If I can, press 9. If you don’t want my help, press 0.”

If only it were that simple.

Saturday, March 05, 2011

On WS Merwin's 'Home for Thanksgiving'

I’ve badly misjudged WS Merwin. I’d read only a few poems by him, mainly written in the last decade or so, and these hadn’t done anything for me, so I paid him no attention, not until a week ago when I wandered into a charity shop in Edinburgh’s Gorgie Road and found Merwin’s 1963 collection, The Moving Target, a 1966 hardback reprint to be exact, from Atheneum Books, New York. What route it took from New York in the 1960s to Edinburgh in 2011 is anyone’s guess, but I’m glad to be its latest recipient.

It contains plenty of good poems, but I was immediately struck by the opener, Home for Thanksgiving (full text at this link), which is well worth printing out and reading carefully. My first thought was that it would have been a more conventional poem, the kind of poem commonly written by many, many decent poets, if he had begun at the third stanza, the memories of women and the regrets at how things had panned out. I wonder if that’s how the poem began life, if the dramatic opening stanzas arrived later and then went on to affect those following. Impossible to know, of course.

In any case, the first two stanzas employ astonishing imagery – the streets opening like “long/ silent laughs”, the “knowing wires and the aimed windows”, the “crusty/ unbarbered vessel”, and this brilliant combination on the limitations of freedom:

...the months of plying
Between can and can, vacant as a pint in the morning,
While my sex grew into the only tree, a joyless evergreen,
And the winds played hell with it at night, coming as they did
Over at least one thousand miles of emptiness.

He’s come back from all that, from all that promised happiness, which never really was open to him. Or, at least, the promise might have been real enough, but the reality was that possibilities proved vacant, the evergreen proved joyless, and (from the third stanza) Vera had a “small fat dog named Joy” and Gladys had “watery arms”. The refrain, “well this is nice,” suggests ironically that coming back from it all isn’t nice either, even if the billboard informs him that things have “now improved”. The regions of pure hope had proved an illusion and nothing can alter the natural imperfect human state. The best he can do is half-hearted dishonesty, to say things are “nice”. Happiness couldn’t have come from these particular women – he knows they would have drunk his bottle (the same one that launched his hopeful boat in the first stanza) dry or smashed it to pieces. Instead he’s left with misery (repeated three times!), which fits him perfectly, and he even makes it painfully plain that he’s thankful (it is thanksgiving after all) for this discovery, that he’s done “the right thing after all.”

The structure of the poem elevates it above the typical memories and regrets poem and instead sets it within an existential struggle – one human being (who is all of us) against all the forces which conspire to snuff out hope, a man resigning to the perfect fit of misery. But the resignation is also the site of discovery. “I bring myself back...” he keeps saying – back home, back to his senses, the one place where he can begin from truth, reality as it actually is. This is, of course, his own perception of himself, reality through the narrator's lenses.

Another way to read it might be that he saw only the bad points of imperfection and ended up wrapped in his misery like a comfort blanket as a result, whereas he could have done better to settle for an imperfect happiness. The final "I did the right thing after all" then reads as unconscious irony. It's his own attitude that keeps him locked up in misery rather than reality itself, the fear of letting go of his comfort blanket. I guess we all know people whose misery gets them attention, and they prefer the devil they've become over-familiar with. To his credit, Merwin doesn't judge the issue and I think either reading could at least be partly correct.

The vocabulary is straightforward, nothing you’d need a dictionary for, but there’s no way you could confuse this poem with prose. The syntax plays a part in that. Merwin spins out sentences like little webs – the word “from” in the first line keeps finding new nouns to govern throughout the stanza. The same goes for the same word, “from”, in the second stanza where it makes its first appearance in line five. It means the reader needs to stay awake but rewards are well and truly there for doing so. He also keeps sentences going by using commas when full stops would have been technically ‘correct’, as if to keep things flowing with the required intensity. The rhythms also aim to capture the reader with their intensity, right from the first line and a half:
I bring myself back from the streets that open like long
Silent laughs

The strong stresses are woven between weak stresses, almost anapaestic, until “long/ Silent laughs”, the line-break adding emphasis to the heavy enjambed spondee, and suggesting immediately that these laughs aren’t the kind to chuckle merrily along with, silently or otherwise. And so it proves, although black humour survives the misery; some of the descriptions are priceless, although my favourite is probably the aforementioned billboard, “Which says NOW IMPROVED and I know what they mean.”

A terrific poem, I think, and not the only really good one in the collection, which I am currently halfway through.

Thursday, March 03, 2011

Nick Clegg and Gary McKinnon: Before and After

Ah yes, here is an article in the Daily Mail, (not a paper I habitually read but now and again it comes in useful for something, as here) written by none other than Nick Clegg on 4th August 2009. Clegg is writing about the planned extradition of Gary McKinnon by the then New Labour administration. McKinnon was due to be deported to the USA to face trial for computer hacking, despite the fact that he has Asperger Syndrome.

Here are a few choice quotes from Clegg’s article:
“It appals me that, so far at least, no one in government seems prepared to lift a finger to help him. You can be sure that if the situation was reversed, American politicians would be moving hell and high water to protect one of their citizens from such a gross injustice. It is an affront to British justice that no one in the Labour Party has the courage to do the same.”

“...this case is about more than legal technicalities and political treaties. It is about compassion, knowing the difference between right and wrong - and the sorry truth is that the Labour Party lost its moral compass long ago.”

“It would be fair and it would be right to try Mr McKinnon in Britain. But the clock is ticking. The Prime Minister just needs to pick up the phone to make this prosecution happen. I urge him to do so, before it is too late.”

Well, OK, that was Mr Clegg back in 2009. He obviously felt very strongly about the case. In fact, here he is with Janis Sharp, Gary McKinnon’s mother, at a demonstration calling for McKinnon to be tried in the UK (photo from the Free Gary McKinnon campaign site).

So, you’d assume that Nick Clegg would now be using his influence as deputy prime minister to influence the coalition on Gary McKinnon’s behalf. After all, he had called the previous administration’s attitude “an affront to British justice,” and talked about “compassion, knowing the difference between right and wrong” – strong words from a politician.

Unfortunately, and this may not exactly be a surprise, Nick won’t now meet with McKinnon’s mother even to discuss the case. Photos with her were fine before the election, but now he won’t even talk to her. But don’t worry, his parliamentary spokesman is on hand to clear things up:

"As these are live legal proceedings the Deputy Prime Minister has been advised that it would not be appropriate to meet Gary's mother and discuss the details of the case."

So it’s not allowed for you, Nick, to meet in private with the mother of someone you're on record as supporting to discuss a case that someone else, the Home Secretary, is dealing with? Yeah, right... Looks to me as though Clegg has abandoned both the "courage" and the "moral compass" he demanded of the previous government. Pathetic.

Janis Sharp says it for us all:

"I trusted Nick Clegg to the core - I really believed in him. The Lib Dems used my son's case pre-election and as far as I am concerned it was 100% commitment to him. How can we have any trust in politicians when they behave like this?”

Wednesday, March 02, 2011

David Orr on Reviewing and Criticism

An interesting interview at Lemon Hound's blog, from which here are a couple of short extracts:
"If you’re a poetry critic writing for a general audience, it’s essential to realize that the overwhelming majority of your potential readers think of your art form the way most people think of Renaissance faires. That perception is wrong, of course, but it’s one you ignore at the risk of having your audience read your opening sentence and promptly assign you to a pigeonhole adjacent to the jousting fanatics..."

"I’ve always thought that criticism is its own art form. It’s true that only by reading poetry can we have the experience “reading poetry,” but it isn’t clear to me that that experience is richer or better than the experience of reading criticism, if the criticism is good enough. So I guess by “writing about writing” I hope to achieve something at least as interesting to the reader as a decent poem or pop song."