Saturday, November 28, 2009

Top Poetry from 2009

Michelle McGrane asked people to name their three favourite poetry collections of 2009. Here’s part 1, here’s part 2, which includes my own choices, and here's part 3.

When You Order a Book from Salt...'s what happens. As you can see, it's very hi-tec.

Friday, November 27, 2009

More on Gary McKinnon

Great article by Katy over at Baroque in Hackney on the pathetic decision by Home Secretary, Alan Johnson, not to stop Gary McKinnon’s extradition. That’s despite the fact that earlier this month, the Commons' Home Affairs Committee said the move should be halted owing to McKinnon’s "precarious state of mental health."

I dealt with the extradition treaties here a few months ago. Basically, no matter how often Alan ‘poodle’ Johnson says he can’t halt the extradition on medical grounds, what he means isn’t “can’t” but “won’t”. Johnson clearly sees himself as a future Labour leader, perhaps even a future Prime Minister and doesn’t want to get on the wrong side of the U.S.A. He seems to me to be a typical New Labour politician – without principle, ready to act as far as possible purely to his own advantage, and governed by faith in fudge and soundbite. His predecessors of decades ago must be spinning in their graves.

Let’s hope the European Court of Human Rights makes the correct decision.

As an aside: some of the comments on Katy’s post, however well argued, seem to me to betray a cluelessness about Asperger’s Syndrome. Yes, Gary McK has had a job, girlfriend etc and wasn’t formally diagnosed with AS until adulthood, but he was born in days when people weren’t diagnosed until adulthood. He’s obviously a highly intelligent individual with lots going for him. The job, the girlfriend, home, and all the rest of it combined to give necessary routine and stability. But these things, and his coping mechanisms (he’s clever enough to have devised plenty), will simply conceal the extent of his difficulties, which will be very real. Take that all away and you’ll have a very different scenario, but that’s what the U.S. prosecutors want to do.

Also the point isn’t that Gary McK is incapable of making a plea at a trial. It’s that the stress and the removal of all his support networks will be catastrophic and could result even in suicide.

The people who should be prosecuted are the idiot U.S security team who didn’t bother to create login passwords and enabled hackers around the world to look in on top secret data. No one in the prosecution team has suggested prosecuting them. Odd, that!

Wednesday, November 25, 2009


I haven’t blogged for a few days, mainly because I’ve used blogging time to revise a few poems, one quite extensively. I may submit them to a magazine soon. There again, I may not. Poems take such a long period of time to write these days. Only a few years ago, I could rattle them off - several per week if I felt like it. While I know I still can write them on demand, it hardly seems worth inflicting such poems on the world anymore. Of the four I’ve been revising, three are as finished as they are going to be. I’m a word of two short with the fourth.

In any case, I thought I’d mention Masters, a chapbook published by Claire Askew’s Read This! Press, and featuring graduates from Edinburgh University’s MSc Creative Writing Poetry Class of 2009. Only twenty copies of this chapbook were made and they’ve almost certainly sold out months ago, but I’m always happy to break the connection between reviewing and commerce.

Eight poets are featured, each with two poems. None are wildly experimental. For that matter, none are written in traditional form either. They all fall within the broad free verse mainstream. There are hits and misses, often both from the same writer. Sometimes the words were good but the form seemed wrong, sometimes most of the words were good but a few words seemed out-of-place. However, generally, there’s evidence of skilled writing in this chapbook and I’m sure some of those poets will go on to publish strong collections.

Aiko Harman’s ‘Hart’ impressed me by the way she never quite resolved whether she was talking about a hart or a human:

Your mates rally behind you –
a red herd. You knock your heads
into one another on the way
back to Ladbrokes.

So, human really, but the well-observed hart qualities seem as literal and real as the human ones. The poem is split into three short sections, three windows into a life, and the form is integral in helping the poem transcend straight narrative. The final section, revealing a vulnerable love after the previous drinking exploits, is genuinely affecting and surprising.

Struan Robertson’s ‘Dissociation’ has a similar oddness about it. The theme is set by its opening line, “Now, nothing much reminds me of anything,” and the remainder of the poem illustrates the dissociation, in the narrator’s mind, of things we’d expect to connect, including the past to the present and the external world to the narrator – “Even my favourite mug seems stained/ with somebody else’s tea-rings.” The poem hints at a relationship (present or broken-up?), but doesn’t quite explain it. The tension between revelation and mystery is held to the end, and the reader is left to draw conclusions over the narrator’s state of mind, particularly the attractively warped final line:

And if I think of you today, it’s not
one of your long red hairs that reminds me,
nor is it your shampoo and conditioner,
although they must have got here somehow.

My favourite poem in the chapbook was the last poem, ‘The Ladder and the Fish (Lapdog. John Bellany)’ by Hayley Shields. The poem is a response to a painting but it works without sight of the painting. The first lines create an immediate impact:

rot rotting smell of flesh, of flesh
and hacked-off fish-head. blind-
folded by a sheep-head, caught and
wrapped and in fleece and matted wool and
nose-to-nose with the warm red slap
of wet flesh…

Terrific stuff, I think. The repetitions, the way ‘and’ comes at the end of a line twice, the piling on of phrases, the rhythms, the visceral description (I love the “red slap”) – the style here is crucial to the poem’s success. It’s chaotic, a little deranged, and when you look at the painting, you can see why the poem needs to be like this. However, the chaos is created by the well judged timing of the poet. The mask of formlessness is the result of form. It’s the most distinctive poem from this selection and I hope Hayley Shields explores this kind of path further.

I don’t have time to go through a poem from every poet, but I’d say that all eight had at least one decent poem in here. I know Claire’s work and had heard Dave Coates read at the GRV (so no surprise to see good stuff from them), but the work of those mentioned above and the others (Niki Andrikopolou, Aileen Ballantyne and Natalia Herrero) was new to me. I certainly look forward to seeing what they come up with in years to come.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Dryden: Religio Laici

To conclude my brief series on Dryden, here’s Religio Laici. My Selected Poems only has an extract from this of the first 167 lines. The poem is essentially an argument for Religion over Reason. It was, I suspect, quite a counter-cultural poem. It was the Age of Reason and the Church of England was spending (wasting?) a great deal of its time in dialogue with a rapidly changing culture and felt the need to show how religious truths could be proved by human reason. Dryden wasn’t impressed by this:

Dim, as the borrow'd beams of moon and stars
To lonely, weary, wand'ring travellers,
Is reason to the soul; and as on high
Those rolling fires discover but the sky,
Not light us here; so reason's glimmering ray
Was lent not to assure our doubtful way,
But guide us upward to a better day.
And as those nightly tapers disappear
When day's bright lord ascends our hemisphere
So pale grows reason at religion's sight;
So dies, and so dissolves in supernatural light

When I first read this, I assumed this was a conservative stance. He is, after all, defending religion against the claims of human knowledge, and there is, clearly, a conservative strain in his ideas. However, in doing so, he was arguing against the accepted mode of thinking in his day, even within the church. So Dryden is both conservative and radical and the poem may have been an attempt to find out what he really thought rather than a setting-down of prior certainties. Many people write poetry to find out what they think - it's as good a reason as any. These days, when I hear of an anti-Christianity book or poem being described as ‘radical’ or ‘daring’ or even (laughably) ‘blasphemous’, I wonder why a stance that accords perfectly with contemporary intellectual/media opinion is considered at all radical. Today, it is far more radical to offer intelligent reflections that stem from belief in God, however tenuous or questioning, than from disbelief.

In any case, those opening lines offer a superb extended metaphor and you don’t need to agree with Dryden’s conclusions to appreciate that. Dryden’s couplets often constitute complete phrases, so when he uses enjambment (i.e. when one line spills over into the next without a syntactical break), you really notice it. Here, he delays ‘Is reason to the soul’ until the third line after the slow second line, which gives the clincher maximum impact. There’s a lot for contemporary poets to learn from Dryden, and the clever manipulation of syntax would be one area worth taking a close look at.

Dryden had his own assumptions, probably held without much question. For example, on the subject of the Bible, he writes:

Whence, but from Heav'n, could men unskill'd in arts,
In several ages born, in several parts,
Weave such agreeing truths?

I know some people can still talk away more or less every set of contradictory verses in the Bible, but I prefer to live with the contradictions and find them fruitful to explore. That is, in itself, a way of thinking popular with my era, as I’m well aware. We all live with assumptions, consciously and unconsciously, and may be confronted with them in reading Dryden’s poem. That’s got to be a good thing.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Dryden: 'Sylvia the fair...'

Dryden likes his rhyming couplets and nearly all (or perhaps just ‘all’) his major poems seem to be written in the form. I read a section (167 lines) from Religio Laici, an interesting poem in many ways and I’ll try to say something about it soon, but it was something of a relief – after all this Religion and Reason – to find a short poem about a young woman.

A New Song: ‘Sylvia the fair’ may (almost) be written in couplets, but the anapaestic rhythm fairly drives the verse along. Poor Sylvia:

…had heard of a pleasure, and something she guessed
By the towsing and tumbling and touching her breast:
She saw the men eager, but was at a loss
What they meant by their sighing and kissing so close

Despite the country being full of Christians, they can’t come to the young virgin’s aid. Not even the parson and priest seem able to instruct her and the politicians are helpless. Fun stuff!

Finally Cupid comes along and, well, he:

…showed her his arrow, and bid her not fear,
For the pain was no more than a maiden may bear

Of course, Dryden doesn’t go into the consequences of the discovery, whether she became pregnant and ended up being thrown out the village – nothing like that. He stops with the discovery. As a poem, it’s full of rhythmic and verbal energy, and highly memorable. He calls it a song and I’m sure it would work to music. I wonder if Dryden ever sang it.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Sphinx, Magma and Salt

A few quickies. First, the new issue of Sphinx is out. I always recommend this magazine and it looks particularly good this time round. It begins with a terrific interview with Tony Frazer, editor of Shearsman Press.

Secondly, check out this fun, free-to-enter competition at the Magma blog, in which you choose a poem to ban from the school syllabus and say why in less than 300 words. The winner gets a poetry anthology and an annual subscription to Magma – so well worth entering.

Thirdly, all UK orders of Salt books before Christmas will be sent with free postage. If you want to surprise your friends and relatives, I’d guess my book would be among the more unpredictable gifts of the year. Anything called The Opposite of Cabbage is the last thing most people would expect to receive – but none the worse for that. I’d also recommend recent Salt collections by Tony Williams (The Corner of Arundel Lane and Charles Street) and Liz Gallagher (The Wrong Miracle), which I plan to say something about on this blog if I have the time. Of course, there’s also Emily Benet’s Shop Girl Diaries, even if we male types might pretend we don’t read the Christmas book we buy for the women in our lives.

Readers from other countries, don’t despair. The Book Depository will also send Salt books with free postage, although my book appears to be out of stock at the time of writing this…

Dryden: Macflecknoe

Dryden’s MacFlecknoe would have been the literary romp of his day, a satire that makes today’s poetry wars look somewhat well-mannered. Wikipedia offers a very useful, short commentary on the poem’s background. The poem is essentially a satiric attack on a certain Thomas Shadwell, a poet and playwright, and a contemporary of Dryden with whom Dryden had various disagreements – mainly about poetry, although politics was also an issue. Shadwell may have seen himself as an heir to Ben Jonson, but wasn't anywhere near the same standard, and Dryden makes fun of his pretension (Dryden didn't seem to think much of Jonson, in any case).

These days, poets tend to carry out their arguments in prose, which is a loss for all of us, I think. Those who just want everyone to get along and stop fighting, laudable a notion as that may be, are trying to overturn what history has shown as inevitable, but Dryden’s approach at least has the merits of literary quality and entertainment for generations to come.

A minor poet (and priest), Robert Flecknoe, is characterised as a King of Nonsense looking for a successor and, according to Dryden, Shadwell is the ideal heir:

…'tis resolv'd; for nature pleads that he
Should only rule, who most resembles me:
Sh——, alone my perfect image bears,
Mature in dullness from his tender years.
Sh—— alone, of all my sons, is he
Who stands confirm'd in full stupidity.
The rest to some faint meaning make pretence,
But Sh—— never deviates into sense.
Some beams of wit on other souls may fall,
Strike through and make a lucid interval;
But Sh——'s genuine night admits no ray,
His rising fogs prevail upon the day:
Besides his goodly fabric fills the eye,
And seems design'd for thoughtless majesty

Don’t hold back, JD! I guess this poem is all most people will ever know of poor old Flecknoe and Shadwell. Towards the end comes a passage of biting satire, this time mocking Shadwell's writing:

With whate'er gall thou sett'st thy self to write,
Thy inoffensive satires never bite.
In thy felonious heart, though venom lies,
It does but touch thy Irish pen, and dies.
Thy genius calls thee not to purchase fame
In keen iambics, but mild anagram:
Leave writing plays, and choose for thy command
Some peaceful province in acrostic land.
There thou may’st wings display and altars raise,
And torture one poor word ten thousand ways.
Or if thou wouldst thy diff'rent talents suit,
Set thy own songs, and sing them to thy lute.

Just as well Dryden isn’t around today...

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Dryden: Absalom and Achitophel

I started off my tour of Dryden by reading the 1031-line Absalom and Achitophel (Part 1), which I suppose might come under the category of ‘mock epic’. It tells how the nasty Achitophel influences Absalom to rebel against King David’s peaceful reign. Along the way are excursions into the nature of ambition and desire, the divine right (or otherwise) of kings, and the courage of the faithful remnant who stand by their king in times of trouble. The poem is written in rhyming couplets in iambic pentameter – impressive in itself, in a way. I guess few modern poets would fancy tackling something like this!

I enjoyed it to an extent, but I confess that I didn’t feel really gripped by it. There were a few tedious sections that were just too drawn out. On the other hand, the poem is sprinkled with pithy phrases:

Some truth there was, but dash’d and brew’d with lies,
To please the fools, and puzzle all the wise.
Succeeding times did equal folly call,
Believing nothing, or believing all.


So easy still it proves in factious times
With public zeal to cancel private crimes.

I can why Pope drew aphoristic inspiration from Dryden and, although Pope probably hit the mark with greater consistency, Dryden’s efforts still impressed me. His characters, however, didn’t have the same impact as, say, Milton achieves in Paradise Lost. Dryden’s plotting Achitophel is no match for Milton’s Satan, and Absalom also seems pretty thin. On the other hand, the psychology of ambition and Absalom’s dilemma (his ambition versus his denial of it) is handled well and the philosophical tangents are quite interesting. Dryden also can’t match the complexity of Milton’s diction and syntax, but I guess Milton had the advantage of writing a supple blank verse which allowed for more expansive phrasing compared to Dryden’s tight rhymed couplets – two different aesthetics.

Dryden drips with irony and was clearly born to be a satirist. The poem clearly is as much about events surrounding his own king, Charles II, as the biblical King David. It’s a public poem, engaging with some of the key issues of his day. Dryden ironises to considerable effect and even more so in Macflecknoe, a lighter poem, which I probably enjoyed more and will come to next time.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Kevin Blechdom and Jamie Lidell

I was listening to a seven-year-old CD I'd got free from Wire magazine and enjoyed a track by Kevin Blechdom, who (to my surprise) turned out to be a woman. On YouTube, I discovered this performance below, which was apparently rehearsed from scratch in under one hour. It's something else. Jamie Lidell has quite a voice - I also really like his song Another Day, even if it's far more conventional than this one:

Friday, November 13, 2009

Dryden and the Contemporary Reader

In the mid-eighties, John Peel asked listeners to his alternative music radio show who they felt was the least trendy band in the world. Peel’s answer was Status Quo, and he played track after track by them for weeks to prove it. In poetic terms, who is the least trendy poet? I’d guess John Dryden (1631-1700) would come far up many lists. Even the name, Dry-den, is enough to confirm the prejudices of many.

I’ve been reading the introduction by Roger Sharrock to an old Selected Poems of John Dryden (Heinnemann, 1963, 1968), which I must have picked up secondhand some years ago. The former owner has written on the book only once, on the inside title page – “Is Gulliver’s Travels a Novel?” – so his/her mind may not quite have extended as far as the contents. This is a shame, as it’s a splendid introduction to the predominant ideas of the 17th century, how they influenced Dryden, what he himself questioned, and what made him stand out from the pack. Sharrock certainly demonstrates how easy it is to nod assent to contemporary fashions as if they possess innate truths rather than simply being products of an age, which ages to come will pull apart under their own microscope:

“The modern reader, whether consciously or not, is usually guided by notions of what a poem should be which derive from symbolism. It should be, not do; it should not state something, but offer a unified experience not definable in any other terms, so that its operation may be better compared to that of a flower or a musical phrase or to a dance movement than to the non-poetic use of words in discourse. Dryden’s poems emphatically do things; they point to purposes outside the poems, they make statements which can be paraphrased as political manifestos or logical arguments.” (p.15)

I can see some of my assumptions in there, and assumptions are always worth questioning – both at an intellectual level and in the practice of writing and evaluating poetry. Anyway, I’m going to read a little Dryden over the next week or so. He has a reputation for ordered reason and neo-classicism. The Romantics disliked his work, feeling that there was too much mind and not enough heart in it, but Eliot spoke out in his favour, as did (perhaps even more commendably) Hopkins before it had become trendy to do so. Sharrock says of Dryden’s work that “its predominant qualities are energy and exuberance,” and also that “absurdity is given a certain poetic grandeur and even beauty in his humorous passages.” I’ve read Dryden before, but never with a great deal of attention, and I’m looking forward to the experience.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

StAnza Virtual Poetry Festival

I’m very much looking forward to this Saturday’s Distant Voices: StAnza’s Virtual Poetry Festival (that’s Saturday 14th November). Live on your computer screen, you can hear poets reading throughout the day from Tblisi, St Andrews, Mumbai, Vicenza, Skye, New York, Amsterdam, Sacramento, and other places besides (the programme with times of broadcast is at the link). You can only watch this live as it unfolds on Saturday – it won’t be left online afterwards.

The event is also being screened in the Byre Theatre in St Andrews. It would be fun to go there, but I’m not going to make it. I will tune in on my computer though. A unique event, which you can watch wherever you are in the world.

New Magma Newsletter

I just got my Magma Poetry Newsletter by email today. I’d recommend signing up for this, wherever you are in the world. It’s free and means only one email every two months. It’s very good stuff: this one has an article on reading poetry to an audience by Roberta James, a summary of what’s on offer in Magma 45, short reviews (not in the print magazine) by Andrew Neilson on the Faber New Poets Pamphlets, and by Matt Merritt on George Szirtes’s The Burning of the Books and other poems, and a critique by Laurie Smith of the first poem to be chosen for the Subscribers’ Workshop – it shows how an editor might look at a poem you’ve submitted, why he might accept or reject it, what he’s looking for etc. All very interesting!

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

The Latest Magma - Issue 45

The new edition of Magma, issue 45, edited by Clare Pollard, is just out. I’ve only had time to read some of the prose so far. Got to say, Jacob Polley’s piece on Poetry and Prose is excellent (in print only, not online) - a very thoughtful and intelligent angle on a subject that often yields little insight. I have three reviews in it – of recent collections by Roddy Lumsden, CL Dallat and Angela Kirby – and these are online and in print, as is Tim Turnbull’s fascinating article on the poetic legacy of the music hall.

Poetry at the... GRV and a Poetry LoveFest

Another good night at Poetry at the…GRV on Sunday evening. Each poet was distinctive – from Morgan Downie and his island poems (my favourites of his, although I thought his ‘work’ poems were also interesting) to Tessa Ransford, who read a miscellany of work from several decades, to Robert Alan Jamieson, whose commentary on ‘the language question’, illustrated starkly in the poems, made for a thought provoking and memorable set. There were also three ‘3-minute’ poets: Colin Donati (his Scots version of Jabberwocky was astonishing), Jon Zarecki (normally the barman in our room at the GRV) who was reading his poems in public for the first time, and Ross Wilson, who I’d first heard read at an open mic during StAnza – all three did well.

The February date at the GRV would be Valentines Day, 14 February. Rather than doing the usual line-up of three poets, I’m considering holding a kind of Poetry LoveFest. The nascent plan is to get 20-30 poets to write a poem (or a short prose piece) each inspired by a different verse from the Song of Songs, which I would provide for them. On the night, all the poems would be read, mostly by their authors, but some might be written by folk at too much of a distance and I could get skilled readers to read these ones. But would people go for that (and bring their loved ones), or are people going to prefer a quiet, romantic evening for two around the dinner table? Only one way to find out, I suppose…

Friday, November 06, 2009


Just reminding myself that Blondie were really quite a good band back in 1978. This is live, raw, and fantastic. Also worth reflecting that Debbie Harry is already 33 here. Most new bands seem to have an average age of around 17.

And from about a year later, Picture This (live from Glasgow, I think). The song contains one of the great lines of the modern rock lyric:

"I will give you my finest hour,
the one I spend watching you shower."

Poetry at the...GRV Taster - Sunday 8 November

To say the least, I’ve been ‘blogging lite’ recently, for which I apologise. Most stuff I have posted in the last month or so has been no more than a pointer to some poem or event or book or reading, and it’s the same with this post. Normal service will return soon, maybe next week. I’ve been really busy and thought that going easy on blogging would enable me to get more done. Oddly enough, that hasn’t really happened. I get about the same amount of stuff done whether I blog or don’t blog. As my American friends would say – ‘Go figure!’

I’ve posted a poem and bio from Morgan Downie over at the ‘Poetry at the…’ site. Morgan will be reading this Sunday 8th November from 7.45-9.45pm, along with Robert Alan Jamieson and Tessa Ransford, at the GRV, 35 Guthrie Street, Edinburgh (£4, concessions £3).

I’m still trying to decide whether to continue the reading series in 2010. I’d like to, but it takes time and energy to organise. The audience size has been not bad and the level of finance is OK, but a few low audiences would make things very precarious. It’s been hard to find people who want to help with the organising. Maybe I’ll decide after this Sunday. If I decide not to have any more, I’ll organise one more poetry event in 2010 to use up any money that’s left in a constructive way. So this Sunday could be the last ever. But perhaps after Sunday, I’ll feel the need to come up with a 2010 programme.

Monday, November 02, 2009

November 2009's 'Poetry at the... GRV'

This Sunday coming, November 8th, will be the final ‘Poetry at the…’ meeting of the year. As usual, it’s from 7.45–9.45pm at the GRV, 35 Guthrie Street, Edinburgh – entry £4, concessions £3. On display will be the considerable poetic talents of Morgan Downie, Robert Alan Jamieson, and Tessa Ransford. You can read a bio and poem from Tessa at the link.

There will also be three or four 3-minute spots from assorted poets, which seem to have gone down very well in the last couple of events.