Thursday, December 22, 2011

A Politically Correct Nativity

Joseph and Mary, in strict alphabetical order, which does not in any way imply that earlier letters are superior to those which turn up later in the alphabet or vice-versa, were on their way to Bethlehem, a small town in an area today known as the Holy Land, also known as the Non-Denominational Land, which includes all those who prefer through choice not to belong to any particular denomination. Moreover, we acknowledge that this is a positive choice as opposed to a failure to consider fully which particular religious or secular system or any other system of any description happens to suit them.

Mary and Joseph, this time in order of age at the time of travelling – remembering that ageism is wrong and that if a three-year-old proved able and willing to do the job of an atomic physicist, that’s OK – were going to Bethlehem because Augustus, democratically-elected Enabler of the People, had suggested that, if people were so-minded without any coercion on his part, there would be a census; a census that asked no invasive personal questions and gave full protection under current privacy and civil liberties regulations, which are fine as they go but are always open to suggestions for improvement.

Joseph and Mary – in order as their names appeared when written on rubber balls, spun around in a machine and drawn by electronic means live on BBC television with an independent arbiter present at all times in a manner acceptable to the International Code of Ethics and Fairness, directive 5/1.237 – were promised in marriage to one another. Marriage was not the only solution for them to work towards the aims and goals set out in their pre-birth, ideology-free mission statement, nor are religion, politics, gender, love, attraction, faithfulness, compatibility, or a shared interest in the scientific preservation of corn in tin ever relevant in discussion of marriage or its equal and entirely acceptable alternatives. Staying single, through choice or necessity, is also an equally valid lifestyle and we aim to affirm those lifestyles and all variations thereupon. A recently excavated document whose complete historical authenticity is maintained by formerly down-on-his-luck and now best-selling author, Bran Down, suggests that the ‘couple’ were in fact known to one another only through social networking opportunities and travelled virtually as tenuously-linked avatars.

Mary and Joseph – in the order necessary to balance up the ‘Joseph and Mary/Mary and Joseph’ thing, as we are committed to equal opportunities for all men and women and women and men, no matter what gender the men and women and women and men are or claim to be – travelled to Bethlehem and were in possession of the correct license and necessary permissions as recorded under the Freedom of Movement Act, section 4, part 3 sub-section 759. When they arrived in Bethlehem, the time came for Mary to have a baby. It would have been equally acceptable for Joseph to have had the baby or indeed for any other man or woman present in the town or other towns without reference to age, race, gender or other arbitrary measures of suitability, to have had the same baby.

There was no room at the inn, so Mary gave birth to the a baby in a stable, which had undergone the relevant health and safety checks as required under the Health Act of a non-specific year; non-specific to avoid offending individuals who prefer their own methods of calculating time, space and distance and who alone know where and when they are in relation to everything else. And that’s OK... We aim to meet the academic and emotional needs of anyone who evidences a challenging way of life. The stable’s work surfaces, appliances and hygiene were deemed to be of an acceptable standard, and a fire inspection and drill also took place several times during the labour.

A son was born, although it could have been a daughter or perhaps neither or both, and in no sense implies preference for one gender over another or any difference between genders. The child was wrapped in strips of cloth, and a social worker was appointed due to concerns over the parents’ inability to provide generally accepted accoutrements necessary in today’s competitive childcare market. A contract of care was agreed between the family and the Department of Community Education committing the parents to attend Government-sponsored parenting classes over a fifteen month period.

Angels appeared and sang a joyful song, although this part of the story has now been recognised as unacceptable to tone-deaf, depressed creatures without wings or halos. The term, ‘angels’, has been replaced in the story’s most recent editions with ‘journalists’ and the over-emotional reactions have become tabloid headlines which, as ever, maintain a careful neutrality in all matters. The music is now handled by the X Factor crew, featuring Little Mix's live concept album of Leonard Cohen covers.

The journalists soon left the couple and child to pass their days making sure they didn't get on the wrong side of anybody. At one point, the son, aged 12, got ideas above his station, but parents and child created a mutual agreement in which they agreed to tow the prevailing line, whatever that was at any given moment. They regularly visited the non-denominational and/or secular temple, in which all religious and/or humanist symbols were banned, and sat between the whitewashed and blackwashed walls thinking about nothing much until it was time to go home again. No one knew how it was all going to pan out.


(photo from the photoscreen of Klearchos Kapoutsis, used under a Creative Commons License)

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

My Favourite Poetry Collections of 2011

Well, these may be my favourite reads of 2011, but I may well have chosen a slightly different line-up yesterday and might feel tempted to change some of it by tomorrow. However, they are all good books and come warmly recommended by me, whatever that means.

10 Notable Collections

Notes for Lighting a Fire – Gerry Cambridge (HappenStance)
Hurt - Martyn Crucefix (Enitharmon)
Pandorama – Ian Duhig (Picador)
Six Children – Mark Ford (Faber)
Selected Poems – Jaan Kaplinski (Bloodaxe)
Finger of a Frenchman – David Kinloch (Carcanet)
The Frost Fairs – John McCullough (Salt)
Unfinished Ode to Mud – Francis Ponge, translated by Beverley Bie Brahic (CB Editions)
Illuminations – Arthur Rimbaud, translated by John Ashbery (Carcanet)
A Stone Dog – Aidan Semmens (Shearsman)

7 Notable Pamphlets

The Snowboy – Mark Burnhope (Salt)
Incense - Claire Crowther (Flarestack)
The Son – Carrie Etter (Oystercatcher)
What to Do – Kirsten Irving (HappenStance)
Apocrypha – AB Jackson (Donut)
Scarecrows – Jon Stone (HappenStance)
All the Rooms of Uncle’s Head – Tony Williams (Nine Arches)

A Notable Anthology

The Best British Poetry 2011 – ed. Roddy Lumsden (Salt)

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Do We Need the TS Eliot Prize?

I’ve been watching the furore around the TS Eliot Prize develop and have been wondering what’s it’s all really about. The administration of the prize is funded by Aurum (it used to be funded by the Poetry Book Society, whose arts council funding was abolished earlier this year), an investment company which specialises in hedge funds. Two shortlisted poets have pulled out in protest: first to go was Alice Oswald, closely followed by John Kinsella. The other eight nominees have stayed in.

Alice Oswald gave her views here in The Guardian. Gillian Clarke, head of the panel of judges, responded. John Kinsella released a manifesto in the New Statesman to outline his own position. In the Independent, David Lister attacked those who had pulled out (in what I'd regard as a rather bad tempered article).

Now, I am no fan of the banks or investment companies or hedge funds, particularly those individuals and groups whose recklessness, greed, and desire to win bonuses by meeting short-term targets have largely caused the current crisis, which we are now all paying for. So my instinct is to support the two poets who have pulled out, and I can understand their reasons for doing so. However, I am equally sure that poets such as Carol Ann Duffy and Sean O’Brien will feel similarly to me about the crisis and yet don’t feel any need to pull out of the TS Eliot Prize. I can understand their reasons too (of course, I am guessing those reasons).

I don’t care about the TS Eliot Prize, and my support (or lack of it) will make no difference to anyone. It’s easy to be a cheerleader for one side or another and quite another thing to play for real. Not that I am suggesting anyone is “playing” here, and those who accuse Oswald and Kinsella of pulling out simply to create publicity for themselves and their books are, frankly, talking bollocks. Some people do still have principles, y'know! Equally, those who say Aurum’s money is inherently “dirty” better remove all their money from their personal current accounts right now. All banks deal in dirty money, some to an alarming degree.

Some commentators have asked who would fund poetry if the financial sector walked away (tacitly criticizing Oswald and Kinsella for putting such funding at risk). I’d ask, in reply: would we miss the TS Eliot Prize if it weren’t there? Do we need a prize propped up by private funds now that a government hostile to poetry (hostile to thought of any kind, it seems to me) has pulled the plug? I think most people, including most poets and readers, wouldn’t miss it in the slightest. It does, of course, mean a nice surprise and a £15,000 payout for one lucky poet, a rare moment of recognition – but, in years to come, no one will miss it if it doesn’t exist, and we may even have a healthier poetry scene as a result.

I was struck (and I’m sure I’m not the only one) by Gillian Clarke’s insistence that the TS Eliot shortlist represents the 10 best books published this year. That is also complete bollocks. I really like some of the books, and I’m sure advocates could be found for every one of them, but the choices represent such a small range of titles and publishers that it’s impossible to take her statement seriously.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Poets, Reviewers and the Broadsheets

Two short reviews appeared in The Guardian a day or two ago, both written by Ben Wilkinson. The first is a positive review of Simon Barraclough’s Neptune Blue. The second is quite a negative review of Mark Waldron’s The Itchy Sea. I’d make the following observations:

1. Neptune Blue is a very interesting book. There are similarities to Simon Barraclough’s first collection, but he’s definitely not just treading the same ground. I’m not altogether convinced by the Armitage comparison, even if I recognise the similarities Ben points out. I think Neptune Blue does resist the pigeonholing and contains some decidedly odd, mysterious poems. Anyway, it’s just the book you need for a cold, clear winter evening.

2. Some people may not have liked Ben’s criticism of The Itchy Sea, and I can understand why. I don’t know Mark Waldron and have no idea what Mark himself thinks of this review (and silence is usually the best reaction in such circumstances). If it had been my book, I wouldn’t be applauding. When a poet spends years writing and revising poems and publishing them in a book, it’s perfectly natural if they feel aggrieved when dismissed inside a short paragraph in the Guardian. I know some people say we should all consider negative reviews carefully etc, but poets are human and get cross and upset as much as anyone else.

3. On the other hand, the sting doesn’t last. The next review might be highly favourable. Someone (a reader you don’t know, not a critic or reviewer) will email you to say how much they’ve enjoyed the book. Your book will be selected by the Poetry School staff as one of their top ten books of the year – such as, this year, Mark Waldron’s The Itchy Sea! A future reviewer will ‘get’ what you’ve been trying to do, which is a good feeling. Such experiences are fun but adulation doesn't tend to come the way of poets often. Those who crave it ought to stop writing poetry and instead take up the guitar or enter the Big Brother house or try to be photographed often with a celebrity.

4. The Guardian is often criticized for publishing anodyne, positive reviews without any hint of real criticism. We can’t express a wish for a more rigorous reviewing style and then get annoyed when Ben says what he genuinely thinks. It’s not his fault that the word count he is offered doesn’t allow him to make his points more fully. It’s also clear that there’s no personal motive here. After all, he does recommend Mark Waldron’s first book, and feels that some poems in the second book are “very good”. He had reviewed Mark’s first collection very positively in the Times Literary Supplement.

5. But on the other hand again, the bland, anodyne style usually comes into play when the book under review is that of an ‘established’ poet (hard to find the right word here but ‘established’ will have to do). It’s tricky to work out why that is. It could be because the established poet is being reviewed by another established poet who would cause major controversy by writing a negative review (and consequently may elect not to review books by fellow established poets whose work they don’t like much). I’m not sure whether established poets feel that way or not, but would be interested to know. I could certainly understand why they might feel that way. It could also be that poet and reviewer are friends and review one another with regular positivity. Or it could be that the reviewer isn’t an established poet but would like to be and feels intimidated to write a negative review of someone they imagine (usually erroneously) holds massive influence in the poetry world and will nurse their grudge for decades. Or it could be that the newspaper broadsheets don’t want negative reviews of established poets and won’t publish them when they’re written.

6. Perhaps, broadsheets need to search harder for reviewers who are fair but who aren’t concerned with what anyone thinks – independent critics, poets who have stopped writing poetry, poets who couldn’t care less about their own ‘careers’ (but who aren’t, without good reason, simply out to diss those who have had mainstream success).

7. It seems wrong that critical engagement seems only to be allowed in the broadsheets when a book is written by a poet published by an independent publisher. There are occasional exceptions, almost all of them written by critics rather than poets e.g. Kate Kellaway’s review of Carol Ann Duffy’s The Bees.

8. I had read some of Mark Waldron’s The Itchy Sea. He’s a good writer. One concern I had with it was that it seemed similar to his first collection, although I’m basing that impression on a random read through a fairly small number of poems – so it’s not something to pay any attention to. Interestingly (to me) Ben clearly implies in his review that The Itchy Sea isn’t like the first collection. That actually makes me want to get hold of The Itchy Sea and read it properly – so a negative review may not have the negative consequences people might expect.

9. Ben writes one thing that struck me as of particular interest. Whether it correctly applies to The Itchy Sea is another matter, but it does sound like a feature of many contemporary poems, those which are:
“... latching on to outlandish similes in the hope that they might lead somewhere new. You have to admire the intention...”
I’m quite fond of outlandish similes when they do lead somewhere new. Or when, as in John Ashbery et al, their outlandishness fits perfectly within the little engine of the poem. But when they are merely fashionable attention-seeking beacons or empty vessels designed to sound meaningful (Ashbery's aren't), that’s not so good.

10. I’m definitely going to read The Itchy Sea over the next few weeks and see what I think.

Saturday, December 03, 2011

X Factor 2011 - Semi Final: Live Blog

I notice I haven't blogged since last Saturday and this is supposed to be a poetry blog, not an X Factor one, but I have been busy reading submissions for Magma 53 and and things like that. Back tonight though for the live X Factor semi-final, which I'll update as usual as the show progresses. We are minus Janet Devlin this week, as expected. It was getting clear that Janet wasn't interested in the songs she was being asked to sing. Her outburst after her elimination that the show had turned her into a 'karaoke singer' is fair enough. I suppose she ought to have known this would happen before applying, mind you, but on the other hand, she is only 16 and may have thought the show was actually about talent. And, indeed, that they would recognise her talent and allow her to put more of a personal stamp on her material, play guitar, maybe even try one of her own songs. However, the show is not about talent (I saw a gospel choir the other week and several of them had as much vocal talent as any of the current X Factor finalists). For the show's producers, it surely has to be mainly about viewer ratings and money. For the audience, it's all about family entertainment on a Saturday night. Talent may be a by-product now and again. But good luck to Janet, easily the most 'talented' of the finalists. Let's see if she can recast herself as herself again. Last week, Kelly recommended she sing some Cranberries songs. No, Janet. That would be such a bad idea, although I reckon you'll know that anyway. Don't be a Dolores version II, as even version I was no great shakes. You could do better if you set your mind to it.

So to this week. Show just about to start...

It’s Motown night. First tonight is Misha B. The judges keep putting her through, but people don’t seem to like her. So she’s gone to a children’s hospice this week. Do you see the psychology behind that? Thought so! She may be genuine, but the marketing behind her is transparent. Imagine a world without music, she says. Uh... yes, let’s do that. OK, done that? Let’s move on now. She’s whooping and clucking through ‘Dancing in the Street’, rather forced I think. Trying too hard to be ‘Misha B’ the way she’s been asked to by the judges over the last couple of weeks. Yellow and black suited dancers, like Partick Thistle on an cloudy day at East Fife. The judges love it. I thought it was bland. I’ll give that 5, wife says 7, daughter says 8.

'Ain’t No Mountain High Enough', from Amelia Lily. Tartan dancers this time. Who makes those decisions? Is it because we have high mountains here in Scotland, at least in British terms. The difficulty tonight is that Motown songs are well known and also 40-50 years old, so freshening them up isn’t easy. Amelia has gone for the big sound. But I’m not that interested. She sang it well, but I don’t know. I’ll give her 6, wife went off somewhere and missed it, and daughter says 9.

Now it’s Little Mix. They will have fun with Motown surely. Fun! That’s what I need at this point of the show. They went to a movie premiere and saw Charles and Camilla this week – that’s what it’s all about girls! Not... They’re doing the Supremes, ‘You Just Keep Me Hanging On’, and I’m actually enjoying this more than the other performances. There’s an energy...oh, one of them forgot the words. Criminal, of course in the X Factor. Louis didn’t like it much. He is a plonker. Gary and Louis want one of them to be the focal lead singer. Tulisa disagrees and wants all of them to take their turn. Kelly says there’s always a lead singer in a group. Don’t be different, girls! Be the same as everyone else! And then whenever Louis calls anyone ‘original’, wonder about that just a bit. I’ll say 7, wife says 7, daughter says 9.

Marcus really ought to have an advantage this week, given that he’s a soul man and this is Motown. He’s doing ‘My Girl’. He’s smiling a lot. Almost as much as Marti Pellow from Wet Wet wet used to do. That always used to annoy me for some reason. Too much smiling makes me distrust people e.g. Tony Blair. A good scowl does the trick every time. Marcus kind of strolled through that song. Very safe choice. The judges liked it. Smooth. I’ll give that 7 as well. Wife says 9, daughter says 9.

Round 2. Misha B is going to have to pull something out of the bag now if she’s to survive, I think. She is sitting on her own personal smoke bomb. She’s ballading now. And this is certainly better. Towards the end it’s getting a bit histrionic, but I liked the first half. Louis says she stands out from the crowd. Depends who is in the crowd. Gary says she was previously wrongfully accused of being a bully and she won’t win because of that, not because she isn’t good enough. He might be right. But it’s also because she somehow doesn’t always connect with her material (and therefore with audience). She did there though. I’ll say 6. Wife says 8, daughter says 8.

Amelia says ‘I want this so much’ like so many X Factor hopefuls before her, and indeed she has used that phrase on several shows herself. As though, if she wants something enough, it might come true. She is power ballading. It’s so not my kind of music. But I think she is really singing this well. From quiet to loud, intense to explosive, precision. Tulisa says it’s one of her favourite songs of all time, which shows what a very strange and different planet she lives on. Gary says her shouty voice is great but her soft voice isn’t quite there, which I think is complete nonsense. Perhaps a bit of politicking? Anyway, I’ll give her 8. Wife says 9, daughter says 9.

Gary wants Marcus in the final because it would change his life. But it would change anyone's life, so no argument there. It’s ‘Can You Feel it’? Hmmmm, not really. Don't feel much, maybe a faint pinprick on my left ankle. Sounds a bit dodgy, and the sound balance might be a wee bit off, or maybe it's the wrong key for Marcus. but he seems to have settled down. Took him about 30 seconds to get going but he’s doing OK now. The judges all agree this wasn’t one of his best performances. They said it was the wrong song. I don’t know, I think he didn’t sing it all that well. I’ll say 6. Wife says 8. Daughter says 8.

Finally, it’s Little Mix. Wonder why they were third in the first half and last in the second half? SyCo TV are trying to disorientate us, like being in the center of Bucharest after lights out. The first girl singing here looks a bit drunk, although I’m sure she’s not. Something about the way she was swaying with a detached look on her face, like she was having a sudden out of body experience. It’s a Beyonce song. And another decent performance. Gary says the vocals weren’t good enough. I think he’s trying to erode their vote, so that his act, Marcus, can win. Mainly I think that because I didn’t hear anything wrong with the vocals. I’ll give them 7, wife says 9, daughter says 8.

Ok, I think Misha B will be leaving us tomorrow after a sing-off with Amelia (if there is a sing-off in the semi-final? Can't remember). As for the final, that's anyone's guess. There is no obvious winner this year, which does make it a little more exciting than normal, but the lack of a real stand-out also raises the suspicion one is a stand out. Except, every now and then, Janet who is no longer with us.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

X Factor 2011 - Week 8: Live Blog

I am back with the live X Factor blog this week after missing out on week 7. This week, everyone has to sing two songs, which means I will keep my comments as succinct as possible. As ever, I will update as the programme progesses. Four minutes to go...

Little Mix are up first. The theme of part 1 is ‘guilty pleasures’ – songs you’re not supposed to like but do. They’re doing Justin Bieber with a sprinkling of Diana Ross. I thought that was pretty boring. Awful Bieber song. One you're not supposed to like because it's ...well... so overwhelmingly unlikeable. Nothing cute about it. Gary liked it. Louis says we need some ‘girl power’. Little Mix is all about ‘having fun’ says one of the band. Well, that wasn’t much fun... I’ll give that 5. Daughter says 8.

Janet is next. She sounded as if she was auditioning to be a Cranberries vocalist last week. This week it sounds cheesy, which is the idea, I guess, but somehow lifeless as well, and she forgot her words. She’s really lost the fragile intensity of her first audition completely. Ooh bop dibbeedap a doo bop. Along with Janet, that’s about all I can say. Gary says it’s a “real mess”. There’s always a second song, says Kelly. Oh dear. I’ll say 4. Daughter says 8. Daughter keeps faith no matter what!

Here comes Misha B. Can she bring some class to the show. She’s doing ‘Girls Just Want to Have Fun’. Don’t think her voice really suits the song - almost too powerful. She can rap though! That ought to bring in a few teenage votes. It’s got better towards the end. “Now the show has started,” says Gary. So much better than the first two. I’ll say 7. Daughter says 7 as well.

Apparently Marcus is doing a Wham song. He is the best performer left in the competition, I think. Odd white-suited people writhing away behind him – a bit unnerving. “If you’re going to do it, do it right (do it with me).” I’m your man, says Marcus, and he is really. The dancers are annoying and unnecessary. Marcus could carry this by himself, no problem. I do wonder, mind you, how boring a Marcus album would be. He’s a fun performer though. I’ll give him 7. Daughter says 9.

Finally Amelia is up. She says she was disappointed by her performance last week of Aretha Franklin’s ‘Freedom’ (or whatever it’s called) which left her in the bottom two. I thought it was pretty good. Maybe it wasn’t a big crowd-pleaser and Tulisa had somehow never heard it before (Aretha! Tulisa). Tonight it’s T’Pau’s ‘China in Your Hands’, which I hated at the time and it doesn’t sound any better now. But Amelia can sing and she’s giving us those huge-voice licks tonight. Tulisa says she loves Amelia’s passion and that her face (when she sings) looks as if it’s in a music video – what a weird comment! Gary says he’s glad to hear the song sung in tune – a barb at the original. Ha ha. Dermot gasps slightly. OK, I’ll say 7. Daughter says 10.

It’s round two, and they’re singing songs by their heroes. Little Mix say their hero is Christine Aguilera. Well, I suppose someone in the world must feel that way. Doesn’t make it any less astonishing when it actually happens though. Must be ’Beautiful’, I suppose. And yes, it is. Started well – very moving. But now they’ve lost it – going for vocal histrionics rather than sheer intensity. But they do clearly mean it. Louis again says we need ‘girl power’. No, we don’t, because the phrase means nothing whatsoever. Apparently they’ve had a bad time with the press slagging them off because they don’t look like models. The same papers who run shock reports on size zero models being a bad example for young women etc. Hypocrite journalists, as ever! I’ll give that 6. Daughter says 9.

Now, can Janet rescue her evening after her initial disaster? Well, this is certainly better, but it’s not that good. She sounds like she means this song just as much as it was obvious she couldn’t have cared less about the earlier one. It’s Red Hot Chilli Peppers. Mind you, she’s never been in the bottom two and must have a large fanbase. That might save her yet even though the judges seem to have decided to put the pressure on. I was bored again, to be honest. I’ll give her 5. Daughter says 6.

Misha B again. Her dress looks like it’s made been made from strips of black gaffa tape arranged in a random collage. It’s Killing Me Softly (with his Song), the dance version. This is good, I reckon. I’d go as far as to say I’m genuinely enjoying this performance. Real quality. Louis says ‘consistent’, but I thought it was better than that. I’ll say 8. Daughter says 9.

Marcus is doing Stevie Wonder. That’s no surprise. I hope it’s good SW as opposed to later boring SW. Ah yes, this is how I like Marcus. Drop the silly dance routines please and let Marcus sing. He is a soul man. He’s getting real feeling into this. Great performance, which did Stevie proud. I think Marcus has pulled ahead of the pack this week. Gary says people know him as the entertainer but now as the voice. I much prefer the voice side of Marcus... I’ll say 9 as well. Daughter says 10.

Finally, Amelia returns. Oh dear... Amelia’s hero is Kelly Clarkson. She is only 17. I suppose she will find better heroes given a bit of time. She has a rare quality of seeming very nice and humble and yet also incredibly driven. The pink trousers don’t suit her. Not that they would suit me either. At least she had the courage to wear them. It’s huge-voice territory again and she does this as well as anyone - soft MOR rock this time, as opposed to power ballad. It’s definitely not my kind of thing. In fact, I can't stand it. But she can sing it. Not much to say here. I‘ll give her 7. Daughter says 10.

Who is in and who is out? Janet should be out. But... she must have people voting for her in large numbers not to have been in the bottom two ever, even after some dodgy performances before tonight. I think Marcus and Little Mix will get through. Misha B and Amelia, despite doing very well tonight, have both been in the bottom two before and can't be counted as safe.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Edinburgh Needs Trams!

If you’ve driven around Edinburgh recently, you’ll have noticed that every second street seems to be blocked or partially blocked by roadworks, traffic cones and temporary lights. Even Princes Street, the main road through the city centre, is entirely closed. Roads that remain open and free of obstruction are jammed with slow-moving traffic. Serious delays have become a way of life. I must admit, I am surprised that no one has worked out how to fix the travel chaos, as the answer is obvious. What Edinburgh needs is a modern, cost-efficient, ecologically-sound tram system – preferably one extending from Haymarket train station to the shopping mall at Ocean Terminal.

Why has no one thought of this before? Well, I don’t know. As I walked around Princes Street last week, I noticed that there are already ancient tram tracks on the road! Many of them are in appalling condition and will need to be re-laid and some of them are clearly inadequate for the weight of a modern tram, but I’m sure we can trust the council to do its homework right. Let’s say we import the wrong weight of tram from Spain and have to send them all back. It would cost around £300,000 to send them here and (I suppose) about the same to return them. That’s only £600,000, which is not bad for a bit of ill-researched speculation! Even if that doesn’t include the costs of the trams themselves...

It amounts, in fact, not even to a “small glitch”, which a bigwig at Edinburgh City Council has set at £200 million. Losing that amount of money in a major public project is only a “small glitch”, quite normal and not a problem, she seemed to say, which is a great relief. For one minute, I thought losing £200 million of taxpayers’ money might be grounds for mass council resignations, but it’s reassuring to learn that such losses are unimportant. We can always pay more council tax and shred spending on public services like education, rubbish collection and health services, and we’ll have that £200 million back in no time.

Some people have pointed to one of the best bus services in Britain and questioned the need for trams, especially as they will end up costing more than £1 billion. That’s not the point. Buses can’t get round the dug-up streets and temporary lights any better than a car. But with trams, you can build the tracks anywhere. For instance, there’s a patch of land down by Broomhouse which was dug up and tram tracks were indeed placed there – must have been some bizarre social experiment. There’s now no question of trams going anywhere near there and the land is now being dug up again for no apparent reason (although it has created employment, don’t forget that). The point is that it proves digging up random wasteland is possible and if a tram theoretically could go down there one day, it’s been worth doing as far as I’m concerned.

Others I have spoken to about this have looked at me with a glazed expression and argued that building the tram tracks will close off even more streets. This is true, but tram tracks are easy and quick to lay. I’d estimate – if we started now – the trams would be up and running by summer 2013 at a cost of only £545 million. There may be several “glitches” (I’m not sure how many “small glitches” are normal and acceptable, but let’s say five are acceptable – that’s only an extra £1 billion) and there’s always the possibility of contractual disputes, but I can recommend a German company who specialise in sorting these out and will not tolerate the inconvenience of work taking place until everyone is happy. Even if establishing mutual happiness takes years. And happiness is what it’s all about, right?

Finally, it is really important that not everyone is allowed to use the trams. Pensioners shouldn’t be allowed to use their passes. We don’t want old people on those beautiful new forms of transport. Nor do we want habitual bus-users – carriers of colds and wearers of old clothes – to soil the trams, so season tickets for buses shouldn’t cover tram-use. Trams should be reserved for people who have cars with four-wheel drive, especially those who currently drive them to work with no one in the passenger seats. They will, of course, continue to do this when the trams are built, but it’s all about opportunity. I believe strongly in creating further opportunities for people who already have more that they can realistically cope with. That’s the measure of a developed society, after all. It's also vital that trams stop as infrequently as possible, so that no one gets taken where they want to go. Long brisk walks will cut the current strain on the National Health Service.

I hope Edinburgh City Council are listening. And Alex Salmond and the Scottish parliament. I know new ideas like trams will take a bit of getting used to, but I’d recommend councillors take a number of trips to beautiful cities in southern Europe where trams are already established and, over a few glasses of Rioja, sign up for trams and make sure the cost of getting out of the contracts is astronomical. That way there’s no temptation to turn back if things are going disastrously. Until the trams arrive, I also demand that they provide every household with computer-generated images of trams gliding silently down a Princes Street without traffic cones, wire fences and the constant racket of pneumatic drills. There are, as all theologians argue, trams in heaven for those who believe.

(acknowledgement: I got the photo at the top from this site)

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Facebook, Poets and Writers

Facebook is fun. There’s no doubt about that and the number of users testifies to it. You’ll never get millions of people to sign up voluntarily for something that takes up time and bores the pants of everyone. For writers, it’s also an effective way of putting people in touch with one another, of making new links and cementing old ones, of keeping up with what’s going on in the literary world via a multitude of links, videos and status updates.

But there are problems. Serious problems. Everyone bangs on about privacy issues, sometimes with good reason and sometimes as knee-jerk reaction. The amount of time it can swallow is colossal, even if you think you’re on top of things; it’s hard to stay out of a debate you’ve contributed to for long, and good newspaper headlines make effective links you just can’t help clicking on. Some people talk about being addicted, but it’s often less of an addiction and more a feeling that you need to know what people are saying about what you’ve said, so that you can respond.

And so much of what’s on Facebook is interesting! Within fifteen minutes your head can be swimming with David Cameron’s latest idiotic soundbite, an atrocity in Uganda, a murder in Essex, the latest Guardian blog on why literary prizes mean everything/nothing, the discovery of ancient lakes on Mars, a new chocolate bar, glowing reviews of the latest Faber effort in all the broadsheets, an old Pavement video, an interesting fact about a little-known marsupial, A.N. Other’s latest poem about eating breakfast cereal while looking out a window at clouds...

And this is the real problem, I think. To write poetry requires focus, not a narrow focus, but focus that leaves space for the unexpected intruder. Intrusion has to come from a deeper place than fifteen minutes worth of noisy and tangled links, videos and discussions. A poem often begins to work when it is focused and then shoots off at a tangent, a tangent that somehow feels inevitable by the end of the poem. Social networking gets in the way both of the focus and of the welcome intruder. Instead there’s a crowd jostling at the walls of your brain for entry and, really, almost none of that stuff should have an invitation. The one intruder who matters usually gets lost in the baying crowd.

In the latest Magma, issue 51, Maitreyabandhu writes:

For a poem to communicate profound thought, the poet needs to think deeply; for a poem to express deep emotion, the poet needs to feel deeply; for a poem to be beautiful the poet needs to experience beauty.

Social networking can be detrimental to depth of thinking and I’m beginning to think that it can also act to limit our emotional depth too. I suppose it’s the same with any form of information overload: we may feel many things in quick succession about a huge variety of events and facts, but we’re denied the chance to go deeper into how we feel about anything. We might discuss things and learn things and discuss how we feel about things, but it’s all instant, buzzing communication, and usually has nothing to do with the specific piece of writing we’re trying to get done. Expressing how we feel in poetry without resorting to cliché, obscurity (always good for hiding the fact that we’re not saying anything! Although I am not suggesting that all obscurity implies this...) and overblown sentiment is one of the most difficult things to carry off in a poem, and social networks have made it that bit more difficult.

I’m not sure what the answer is. One solution is to abandon all social networks, and some writers I know have gone that way, but they do, I think, have value. Another solution is radically to limit time spent using them, but this is notoriously difficult to achieve and it only takes a few minutes for your head to be clogged with every subject under the sun. Emptying it of all that stuff can take hours. Maybe going for a run or taking up squash could help. Anyway, I’ll now post this article and, of course, link it to my Facebook wall...

Saturday, November 12, 2011

The X Factor - Week 6: Live Blog

I haven't bothered to do this up until now this year but I think it's about time I started this blog's X Factor round-up. As in previous years, I'll update it in live time as the show goes on. So if you can't be bothered to watch or indeed can't face it, then have no worries. With some acts, this blog will be better fun in any case.

It’s Queen and Lady Gaga week – help m’boab. No one can sing Queen and anyone can sing Gaga, so the Queen-mob are going to be at a disadvantage. But first they have to replace Frankie Cocozza, who is supposed to have broken the rules of the competition by taking cocaine. The tabloids have portrayed this as shocking and transgressive, but Frankie came over to me as a complete prat, about as ‘transgressive’ as Plastic Bertrand. How many people have taken cocaine? Millions probably. Join the back of the queue, Frankie. Bye.

First up is Kitty singing Queen. Kitty is another who thinks she is original and transgressive. She wanted to sing ‘Born this Way’ and is emotional about not getting to sing it – I’m rather glad, I must admit. It would have been an ego-fest of a song for her. She has a lion-mane on her head. What’s that about? Her vocal limitations are really being shown up by ‘Don’t Stop Me Now’. Terrible. Do stop her. Please! Tulisa likes it. So does Kelly. Maybe the volume of the live show has obscured how weak some of that was? I’d give that 3 out of 10. Wife says 7. Daughter says 7. They are in a generous mood!

Now it’s Craig, who wants to be “unique” and “have his own sound.” You’re on the wrong show, Craig. Maybe you should have joined a band and written some songs and played in grotty wee pubs for a few years to develop uniqueness. He’s doing Paparazzi. He’s singing it well enough as a ballad. But Lady G’s original had a degree of fun about it, which this entirely lacks. However, Craig at least seems like a nice guy and he is a good singer. The judges are all saying how great it was. It wasn't 'great' by any stretch of the imagination, but at least he tried to do it differently from the original. I’ll give that 8. Wife says 8. Daughter says 9.

It’s Little Mix now. They can at least sing in tune. However that doesn’t help them become any more than a-girl-next-door version of The Saturdays. Here they come, astonishingly with Radio Ga Ga!! No, they were fooling us, they’re doing Lady Gaga’s Telephone. That’s more like it! That’s what we expect and they’re doing it in exactly the way we expect. And they are doing it well. Louie loves everything about it. Kelly says the vocals were shaky at the beginning (and she is right, although they did get better). Gary says it was predictable, which is putting it mildly. Oddly, two of the girls who looked nothing like one another at the beginning of the series now seem to get more alike with every week. Spooky. I’ll say 6. Wife says 9. Daughter says 10. Crikey...

Now we have Janet. She started really well in the competition, but her first audition sounds far better to me than anything she’s done since. And they’ve styled her all wrong too. Ha... Kelly seems to have realised that and wants her to "go back to who she was" (and actually is). She’s singing a very strange version of Somebody to Love. It’s like they’ve taken a Queen song and Clannad-ed it or something! She is singing OK, but I don’t really like it. Louis loved it. Tulisa says she’d have to be in a certain kind of mood to listen to her. Gary says he’s bored. I’d have to be semi-comotose to appreciate that performance. A shame, as I genuinely like her. I’d say 6. Wife says 9 for her voice, as opposed to the arrangement. Daughter says 10 (she loves Janet).

Now it’s Markus. Now, Markus really is good. He has real soul, although we’ll see how long it takes for Cowell to knock that out of him. Sounds like Another One Bites the Dust crossed with Phil Collins singing Motown. Can you imagine? Who writes these arrangements? The song arranger should be locked away with bread and water for week. Markus is singing well, but really they all sing well at this stage. The arrangement is truly awful. Ugh... People in leather trousers are dancing weirdly in the background. Some tactical comments from the judges who want to elimintae the stronger acts so their own acts benefit. Naughty, but they're all at it. Oh, I’d give Markus 7 for his performance. Wife says 10 for his vocals. Daughter says 10.

Misha B is next. They gave her a nice hairstyle last week, very natural, and she looked all the better for it. Sometimes they’ve put a curious modernist sculpture on her head, which I’m told may have been made from her hair. I hope it’s the natural look tonight. It is. Good, as I’m sure it helps. She’s singing Born this Way and I’m sure she’ll make a better job of it than Kitty. The clattering drum sound is really annoying. What are the dancers? Glam traffic wardens with shiny pyjama bottoms? She sang it well though (yawn, as ever). All the judges loved it. I’d give her 8 for the performance. The arrangement isn’t her fault. Wife says 8. Daughter says 9.

Now we're going to find out who has been chosen to replace Frankie. It should be Amelia Lily, I think, as she should never have been put out in the first place. But I heard some tabloid rumour that it will be '2 Shoes'. God save us...

Here we go. Who has won the public vote to re-enter the competition? With 48% of the vote the winner is Amelia! Well, at least that’s justice. Now can she cement her place? She’s singing The Show Must Go On. She singing it on stage all by herself, no dancers in ridiculous costumes in sight. Perhaps they didn’t have time to rehearse an idiotic stage show with the ‘possibles’. And all the better for it. She is in the Leona Lewis mould. Not my kind of music, to put it mildly, but she sang it with passion and conviction. I’d give her 8. Wife says 9. Daughter says 10.

And that’s it for tonight. It's a fairly middling line-up, I'd say, even for the X Factor. No one is obviously favourite, which is different from most previous years, but may also point to a worrying lack of something. Markus, Craig, Little Mix and Misha B could all steal it. I reckon Kitty and Janet are in trouble after tonight and will sing off tomorrow.

Wednesday, November 09, 2011

Short Update with Three Books

It’s been a month since I last blogged and here are my excuses...

No, I’ll save you all that. Being sorry for not blogging is faintly ridiculous. Since my last foray into blogland, I read some of my poems at the University of Basel, Switzerland along with Katy Evans-Bush (at the kind invitation of Andrew Shields) and then went out to try one of the region’s sausage delicacies with a few members of the audience. I stayed in Basel Youth Hostel, which had an affordable bar (in Swiss terms) and a buffet breakfast, and also an inevitable snorer in the room. I walked the cobbled streets and admired the window shutters. I walked along the Rhine and brought back chocolate for the family. A very enjoyable couple of days! I also took part in the Bugged! event at the fabulous West Port Festival in Edinburgh, which went really well. I read a few pieces from the anthology and later that evening went to see a fine reading by Rachael Boast and J.O. Morgan. And the submissions period has opened for Magma 53, which means that Kona Macphee and I have spent the last ten days working out a strategy for keeping up with the poems that flood the inbox daily. Working out strategies is always a good way to spend time.

But this post is really to recommend three books as much as anything else. First of all, Mark Burnhope’s The Snowboy, a Salt pamphlet of real quality. Any poet who can address a wheelchair with, “O wing-black, spectral-silver mass;/ crass imposition upon the meadow” (‘Wheelchair, Recast as a Site of Special Pastoral Interest’) deserves to be read widely, and there are many other poems which make this small collection an exciting experience. Burnhope’s ability to create memorable phrases and recast language in imaginative ways mark him out.

Secondly, Ian Duhig’s Pandorama (Picador) is a great read with a wide variety of forms and styles. You can never quite guess where Duhig is going to take you next. He seems to know about things that few people have ever thought about knowing and uses his learning lightly but with genuine emotional and intellectual impact. This collection is satirical, funny, disturbing and mysterious, often simultaneously. Moving elegies for David Oluwale, a Nigerian immigrant who died following years of racial harassment by police, line up alongside navvies, seed-fiddles, and ‘Closed Enquiry’ which celebrates “Santon Bridge’s Annual Lying Championship”; politicians may be barred from entering but agriculture holds plenty of scope:
cattle so huge they need individual postcodes,
rams’ horns winding up in different time-zones.

And finally, there’s Gabriel Josopovici’s Touch, which is described as a prose essay musing over “the central question of how we can feel at home in the world.” In fact, it’s a fascinating group of essays clustered around that theme, probing ideas of distance with reference to Charlie Chaplin, transgression and self-delusion with reference to Proust, power with reference to the $50m trade in Nazi memorabilia, and the difference between walking in England and walking in Egypt with a nod to Tristram Shandy (which, by coincidence, Ian Duhig also references). Touch, not mere observation, binds the essays into one. Josopovici deals with complex ideas without resorting to jargon or meaningless abstraction and there’s a passionate and intelligent engagement with the world behind every enquiry.

Wednesday, October 05, 2011

The Forward Prizes 2012: Predictions

Tonight the results will be announced for the Forward Prizes (or Backward Prizes as they are now popularly called) for Best Collection, Best First Collection and Best Poem. I haven’t said anything about this up until now. The more I look at the poetry awards in the UK, the more I realise the whole thing is caught up in the poetry biz. Awards sometimes resemble ‘rewards’ or mutual back-slapping parties between judges and recipients. Maybe tonight will prove otherwise. ‘Outsider’ figures have won awards occasionally in the past and there is always that chance.

But predictions are always fun. The shortlists are here. I predict that John Burnside will win Best Collection. Sean O’Brien and David Harsent will both have a strong appeal for the judges, but I guess they may feel John Burnside’s time has come: he hasn’t won it before. Geoffrey Hill hasn’t won it before either, but he will no doubt divide the judges down the middle.

I predict that Rachael Boast will win Best First Collection, although I am particularly unsure of my guess in this category. Anything on the shortlist could win.

The Best Poem category contains two poems from Poetry Review (the editor is one of the judges, although there are five judges. Can't make the judging process easy, mind you), one from the London Review of Books, and one from Poetry London. I have only read Sharon Olds’s poem in the Best Poem category, but that won’t stop me having a guess. I predict Alan Jenkins will win.

I am not very good at guessing winners of anything, by the way, so don’t rush down to the bookies and place money on account of my tips.

*Edit: actually, my advice at the end was wrong. You should have gone to the bookies and invested your life-savings on my first two predictions - as John Burnside and Rachael Boast both won*

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Poetry and Emotional Impact

Just spotted this curious review of Lavinia Greenlaw’s new collection, The Casual Perfect, in The Independent. Its curiosity isn’t altogether the reviewer’s fault. She’s obviously been given a maximum word count and 281 words is hardly sufficient to review a poetry collection with any real insight. It may even have been edited down by someone else to emphasise an attitude that might not have been prevalent in its original draft. Maybe. It’s impossible to tell. The attitude is represented by:
"There is some emotion to be gleaned from these cool, opaque poems."

So the reviewer is analysing the poems to glean emotion from them and largely isn’t succeeding. When she does glean some emotion from a poem, she writes:

"Nicely earthy, it contrasts with the cerebral tone of much of this collection."

Now, a poem’s emotional impact is one measure of a poem’s success. But it is hardly the only measure. We can enjoy poems because they turn our brains inside out, because they transform the way we’ve always looked at something, because their words sing in a way which isn’t merely clever but somehow invigorating, because they coolly hit the nail on the head, because they connect ideas and themes in ways we’d never before imagined, and so on and so on.

I have read some of The Casual Perfect and I think “cool” and “opaque” are both fair words to describe the poems I’ve read, but their payback doesn’t depend so much on a gleaning of emotion as a surrender to and engagement with mystery. Why demand emotional impact when a poem is offering something else entirely?

Monday, September 26, 2011

On Katharine Kilalea's 'Hennecker's Ditch'

One poem I didn’t write about in my review of The Best British Poetry 2011 was Hennecker’s Ditch by Katharine Kilalea, and perhaps that’s just as well, as Don Share has just posted a fascinating reading of it at the Carcanet New Poetries blog, a better way of reading it than I would have managed. The text of the poem is also at the link and, although it’s long, it’s well worth taking time to read it.

I read it a couple of times when going through the anthology and felt taken aback. I had read (indeed, had reviewed) her first collection, One Eye’d Leigh and had liked it a lot, but I didn’t remember it containing anything quite in this mould. It felt like a step forward rather than a repeat of what she’d already done. There was so much going on, so much that wasn’t obvious, that I mentally filed it under Go Back to Read Again Later. I now have done and am intrigued, as I often am, to reflect on why I can enjoy a poem when I don’t understand much of what’s actually happening in it. Each phrase is in itself entirely clear – nothing muggy or vague about them – and the syntax is relatively standard. But the poem doesn’t occupy a linear time-scheme and it took a few reads before details of the world it creates began to map themselves in my head. So what makes the poem so effective?

Partly it must be memorable lines and images (“the trees walk backwards into the dark”, “the washing machine shook so badly/ that a man asleep four floors down reached out to hold it”), partly the sound, rhythm and the music Don Share mentions. The language, with its shifting tones, is is never predictable – the first section alone contains the lyrical “pages of a book/whose words suddenly start to swim”, the informal “Wow. The rain”, the strange “Ickira trecketre stedenthal, said the train”, and the consciously poetic, “Dear Circus...the painèd months are coming for us”. Perhaps, also, it feels like I am being taken to a half-lit world and shown something beautiful, haunting, and intimate, and then I’m left there to build my associations at first hand – the dark, the many different kinds of light that emerge, the trees and coastline, the human relationship(s), the bath and water, the dog, the moon, the different winds, the bakery, the house and the surrounding houses and gardens, the curious addresses to the Circus. Some obscure poems send me to sleep. Nothing about them draws me in, but the world of Kilalea’s poem feels like a place I am happy to spend time in.

You can hear her read part of the poem here on YouTube (where it's called 'Dear Circus'). You can read the full poem online at the link above or on paper in New Poetries V or in The Best British Poetry 2011.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

The Troubadour Poetry Prize 2011

I thought I’d bring the Troubadour Poetry Prize to your attention, if you don’t yet know about it. The deadline is 17 October, judges are Susan Wicks and David Harsent (who both read ALL the poems: no sifters). The first prize is £2500 and there are several other prizes. Full details and entry process is at the link. The entry fee is £5/€6/$8. Your fee, of course, (as well as paying the costs of holding the competition) supports future live poetry at the Troubadour – a good cause.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Review: The Best British Poetry 2011

I wasn’t sure whether I would like The Best British Poetry 2011. I know some of the poets in it and was fairly sure I would like their poems but I was more interested in what I’d think of the rest. I tended to avoid reading the British mainstream (until, of necessity, I had to engage with it through becoming Magma’s reviews editor) and much preferred to spend time with American and European poetry collections, along with a few Scottish favourites, and I had the fear that an anthology of British poems selected from magazines would contain too much bland and boring work.

I have to say that my eyes have been opened. I really enjoyed some poems in this anthology from writers I knew by name but had somehow bypassed. It’s certainly a positive introduction to contemporary writing in Britain – a far wider range of styles and schools (and both the famous and lesser known, both the established magazines and the new) than is customary in British publications. I will pay more attention in future. Poems that struck me (not counting those by my friends) included those by Emily Berry, Judy Brown, Fred D’Aguiar, Sasha Dugdale, Ian Duhig, Giles Goodland, Patrick McGuinness and Deryn Rees-Jones, and there were several others I much enjoyed. OK, there were also poems that struck me as pretty ordinary, but nowhere near as many as I had expected, and no one is ever going to like everything in such an anthology.

Fred D’Aguiar’s ‘The Rose of Toulouse’ got my attention with its opening section in which the streets are “not a scene for former slaves”:

Or their feisty descendants, wearing their life
Savings, nursing wounds from history, no track
Record in an ocean with bones for a library.

The poem is an evocation of French city life, into which is woven a subtext centring on the poet’s children and another one focusing on justice and domination in history. At the back of the anthology are 40 pages of short author biographies and a few paragraphs on the poets’ impetus for writing their poem. I noted from Fred D’Aguiar’s reflections that the poem seemed to me to be about more or less what he also thought it was about.

That wasn’t always the case. Sasha Dugdale’s ‘Shepherds’, according to its author, “is an elegy for the last dwellers on the [South] Downs, and a hymn of praise to the hills themselves.” Now that she mentions it, I do see how that makes sense. But I felt the poem centred on questions of religious faith. There’s an ambiguity at its heart – the Bible-carrying shepherds also read the earth’s Bible – the one written “in chalk, in rabbit droppings, and lady’s smock” which now has “no meaning for anyone, except the shepherds/ Who are gone.” The pastoral world of the Bible (both the literal one and the metaphorical Bible of the earth) is rendered unreadable in an urban age. That may be a statement of how the poet views the world, but the elegiac tone also suggests to me that something seems lost by this shift.

I found the variance between my own interpretations of poems and those proffered by the poets to be a source of considerable fascination. Both the writer’s and the reader’s ideas are admissible, of course, and a difference between them isn’t evidence of failure on either side. It may even point to a welcome complexity that the poem can’t be summed up in explanatory prose. Several poets expressed a discomfort about offering comment on their poem and I felt an initial scepticism at first glance, but I have been won over. It is simply interesting and doesn’t negate other readings. Now and again, I did realise that I hadn’t read the poem carefully enough and saw it with new eyes after reading the author’s thoughts. Sometimes, the comments were just a little pretentious..., but not as often as you might expect in an anthology of poets.

I am always happy when poets come across as unusual people and when Samantha Wynne-Rhydderch confessed (in her prose comment) that “lining objects up on tables has always fascinated me” and that she attended a “table etiquette course in Somerset three years ago,” I found new reason to trust her advice in her poem, ‘Table Manners’:

..........................Do not remove your shoes or
show any flesh. Tilt your soup’s light towards
her, like an invitation to swim. Sip
as though you’re working on it.

Perhaps not all of that will impress on a first date, but I hope someone puts it to the test. But remember the sting in the tail, that "cutlery is a code" and "ten to five means it's over." Don't say you haven't been warned. So, yes, there are more good things happening in British poetry than I had expected and The Best British Poetry 2011 will offer, to most readers, a number of welcome surprises and send them rounding up the back catalogue of at least a few of the featured poets.

The Best British Poetry 2011, ed Roddy Lumsden, is published by Salt, £7.99

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Courtesy of Shiraz: Geoffrey Hill's Clavics - 1

It’s 10pm, my wife is out being an actress, my daughter is asleep. I have settled down with my laptop, a glass of Shiraz – an inordinately large glass – and a review copy of Geoffrey Hill’s Clavics, posted to me by Enitharmon Press. The collection is described in the dust jacket as “an elegiac sequence for William Lawes, the Royalist musician, killed at the Battle of Chester.” So we’re in the 17th century during the ill-fated reign of Charles I. It isn’t the first time I’ve picked up Clavics, which consists of 32 page-long poems, each in two fetchingly-shaped sections. I’ve read poems at random off and on for some time now. I recognise that certain names, phrases, and ideas slip from one poem to another and several long, coherent, note-taking reads are no doubt necessary to review it properly, but I am not going to review it properly. I am simply going to record a few impressions and I’m going to begin with the first poem. In future posts, I plan to say more. I am intrigued, for instance, by the relationship between the two sections of each poem which sometimes seems tenuous, and this is a question which (strangely?) no previous reviewers have addressed. How can they possibly not address that?! One good thing – in the course of writing this paragraph, the Shiraz, pretty rough at first, now tastes much smoother. This has ridiculous metaphorical possibilities when it comes to discussing a Hill collection, but I will refrain.

All this talk of Shiraz etc will no doubt have got rid of the Hill acolytes who swoon theatrically at every syllable he writes. Not serious enough, y’see. There are people who just can’t fathom why readers find Hill “difficult”. They know it all, are vastly more intelligent than ...well... anyone who suggests that there might be a few complexities to overcome when reading Hill. It is reassuring when they use Hill to assert their intellectual superiority without (of course) offering us the slightest proof of their unique understanding. I always enjoy that. Hill knows very well that he is difficult and thrives on the fact. Anyway, the Shiraz is going down nicely and I feel like raising a toast to Astraea, goddess of justice for whom this world was unendurable. Perhaps that owl with the mouse in its mouth, which adorns the cover of Clavics, was one reason why Zeus placed her within a constellation in the night sky. Cheers, Astraea, wherever in Virgo you are (according to that reliable source, Wikipedia, there is also a ‘La Vida es Sueno’ reference, as one of the characters in that play takes on the name ‘Astraea’ when in court. ‘La Vida Es Sueno’ features heavily in Hill’s ‘The Orchard of Syon’). We really need you down here, by the way, Astraea. And Hill also knows it:

Bring torch for Cabbalah brand new treatise
Numerology also makes much sense,
O Astraea!
Indeed. This is how poem 1 begins, so we’re in the realm of metaphysical digging. The Cabbalah is a way of understanding everything, more or less, although it has no agreed canon and can incorporate internal contradictions with aplomb, which is extremely handy for everyone. Hill adds to the mishmash and invokes the goddess who is watching from her starry haven. I read the invocation as angry, sarcastic. As such, I’m taking a rather different view of this poem to Lachlan Mackinnon in his now infamous “sheerest twaddle” review, where Astraea represents Elizabeth I. Hill is trying his best to get to the truth, to the centre of things, but he is locked into his tradition (as we all are, whether we recognise it or not), and moving things on from it is no easy task. He is unhappy with Astraea’s chilled distance and calls her a “bitch” in his typical politically-correct way. She may have been physically exalted but, in Hill’s eyes, she has returned “rich/ To the low threshold of contemplation”, which at least has given Hill the opportunity to prove himself, as ever, the undisputed master of spitting irony (even rhyming ‘bitch’, ‘ditch’ and ‘rich’ is supremely ironic). I should mention at this point that the poems all rhyme and are technically demanding, to put it mildly – plenty of lines with two (or sometimes one) accented beats. Try the form and see how far you get! Anyway, seeing as Astraea isn’t playing her full part, we’re left with the poet/artist/composer (I presume) as:
Her servile master subsisting on scraps
Keeping station
As one pursuing ethics perhaps.

Astraea seems to function as a pitiless form of Muse here, an object of devotion who nevertheless feeds the artist only on scraps. It is a particularly religious feeling, a severe Kierkegaardian sense of the utterly transcendent God who can barely be approached, yet must be obeyed humbly by e.g. the pursuit of ethics. Time to fill up my glass, although I note there is not enough left in the bottle to fill it up more than half.

The second section of the poem riffs on the writing process, partly through the metaphor of musical notation. It can be done with “care” (like prayer) or with “flair” (which I suspect is not so good). He makes reference to musical stress marks, also surely a mischievous allusion to the curious stress marks which adorn some of his poems in other books. If these are simply flair, mere affect:
Dump my clavic books in the mire
And yes bid me strut myself off a cliff.

No, don’t do that! I quite like Poem 1 and it’s obviously been written with a great deal of care (and flair too, I think, and just as well). Some readers will be saying, “But that’s quite an ‘easy’ poem, relatively speaking.” And I agree. It is highly compressed writing, a more radical compression than most poets would employ and this, combined with the tight rhyme and accentual scheme, necessitate a degree of odd phrasing and strange syntax, which make certain sections of the poem hard to make sense of – but not impossible. Later poems do present more formidable challenges.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

A Few Odds And Ends

It’s been a strange few months. Not that anything obviously out of the ordinary has happened, but I’ve found myself busy at every turn. There are the usual things which make life busy, none of which are relevant to this blog, but on top of that several reviews had to be written and I found myself writing poems too. I thought I might have enough to draft a new manuscript. When I slotted them together, it turned out I had more than enough – to my considerable surprise. For some reason, I’d been feeling highly unproductive and every poem I tried to write was taking me ages to finish, but I suppose three years of writing adds up.

Then I got involved in writing a cento of a century of Scottish poetry, using 100 lines from Scottish poems, one from each of 100 poets, and fusing them together into something new. I probably don’t need to say that such an undertaking is liable to drive anyone mad. Looking back on it, it seems like I must have had a lot of fun, but I’m certain that wasn’t how I felt during the process of writing the thing.

I went to hardly anything at the Edinburgh Festival and have hardly been out anywhere since. I hardly read a blog post all summer. The poetic side of my life has been writing and revising poetry, along with a few reviews. I couldn’t think of anything to blog about, so I didn’t. Yesterday, I woke up buzzing with ideas for blog posts, so it seems a good time to start up again. Not that I have much more to say today.

It is a rainy Sunday afternoon and the forecast is for rain on each of the next five days. It is the 50th anniversary of my church and I am off to an event there tonight. I am looking forward to finding out how Kona Macphee and Sophie Cooke got on in their week in Lvov and I read a few Zbigniew Herbert poems last night in anticipation. I am listening to the Waterboys playing Yeats. I have just finished The Best British Poetry 2011 edited by Roddy Lumsden and enjoyed it – will say more later. I read the September issue of Poetry and enjoyed that too. I just wish we had a magazine of similar quality and range on this side of the Atlantic. I was pleased with the list of people elected to the Poetry Society board, and I hope they can make a difference. And I have perused a mountain of books sent for review in Magma – still trying in vain to narrow it down to 12. I could tell you what I had for breakfast but that would be pushing at the far margins of what this blog can contain.

Tuesday, August 02, 2011

Things That Happened When I Was In Turkey

Firstly, the death of Sam Hoare, the journalist who blew the whistle on the News of the World phone hacking scandal. It appears that his death was self-inflicted, according to police reports, but I believe investigations are still going on.

Secondly, the Poetry Society EGM. I had arranged my proxy vote before I left for Turkey. Since my return, I’ve been catching up with what happened. My jaw has dropped on several occasions. In a previous post, I asked whether the lack of transparency had been caused because either:

1. The Poetry Society had something to hide
2. The Poetry Society was beyond useless at public relations
3. The situation was much worse even than it seemed, so bad that things couldn’t possibly be made public [without severe embarrassment]

It now looks as though all three of these possibilities were accurate! What has happened has been much worse that I could have believed and several questions remain unanswered. The best (and most chilling) summary I have read has been that by George Szirtes. There is a petition to reinstate Judith Palmer as Director, which I have signed. Clearly, the PS needs to get back in line with what the Arts Council expected of it. Whether it can do this with the current board over the next couple of months is open to serious doubt. Also, the question of Poetry Review and of the Editor’s line management both clearly have to be resolved without delay, but I have no confidence in the current board to deal with these matters properly.

Thirdly, the death of Amy Winehouse. I feel sadder about this than some of my friends might expect. It is, of course, the death of a young person in circumstances common to many families and every one of those is a private grief and torment. But, in a more public sense, I feel sad because I don’t think Amy had reached her peak, in contrast, say, to Kurt Cobain – I doubt Kurt could have improved on the final two Nirvana albums if he’d lived to 100. Amy’s Back to Black, on the other hand, contained a few brilliant songs, showing immense talent, but also several fillers. She might have fulfilled her potential if she hadn’t fallen into bad company, bad drugs etc. We’ll never know now.

Fourthly, Norway was all over the Turkish TV channels, as elsewhere. Watching the reports in Turkish, not understanding a word but understanding the images all too well, was a sad and sobering experience.

Friday, July 08, 2011

Meltdown (2011): Poetry Society

Very funny satire on the Poetry Society's current woes. Not exactly the first attempt to do something with this film(!), but really well done.

Thursday, July 07, 2011

Poetry Society: Wheelbarrow and Plums

I have been taking my customary July break from blogging (is it customary? Well, if not, it should be). I guess anyone wanting to keep up with the Poetry Society story can do so elsewhere, at Baroque in Hackney and Raw Light etc. A General Meeting has been called by the Poetry Society on 22nd July at 2pm, but it’s unclear whether the agenda will address members’ concerns expressed in the requisition (which did achieve far more than the required 10% of signatories to call for an EGM). The red wheelbarrow delivering the signatures was met with a gift of plums. But any attempt to get clarification results in a reply which says more or less nothing except that an agenda for the GM will be produced next week – typical of the way the Poetry Society board have managed this situation from the beginning. They act like politicians, full of evasions and anodyne language, unwilling to provide a direct answer to anything. But, like politicians, they are dependent on an electorate...

Thursday, June 30, 2011

Quick Word on Moderator Controls

I’ve installed moderator controls, more as a precaution than anything else, as I’m out a lot at the moment. But I’ll continue to publish anything that isn’t nasty or libellous. Apologies to all readers for the inconvenience of comments not appearing instantly, but it’s only a temporary measure. Promise.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

The Poetry Society Chaos Update

Since I first posted about the Chaos at the Poetry Society three weeks ago, quite a lot has happened. Or, rather, nothing has happened. Or, I’m not really sure. Katy’s article at Baroque in Hackney sums up pretty much all anyone knows about what’s going on. Three weeks ago, I made a low level plea to the Poetry Society, which now must seem humorous in an uncomfortable kind of way:
“ becomes important to make some kind of statement. Not a bland statement which says nothing, but a statement which accurately and as fairly as possible tells the story...”

The Poetry Society has released two statements since, one of which said “business as usual”, and another which said, “moving forward”. Three possibilities suggest themselves to me from these statements:

1. The Poetry Society has something to hide
2. The Poetry Society is beyond useless at public relations
3. The situation is much worse even than it seems, so bad that things can’t possibly be made public

It’s hard to know which to go for. Of course, all or none could be true. I am impressed with Fiona Moore’s assessment of the situation from a public relations perspective. It won’t make happy reading for the Poetry Society, who ought to start listening before it’s too late. Into the vacuum has come a great deal of speculation, culminating yesterday with an article in the Daily Telegraph, which suggested the dispute was mainly about money. This explanation may have some truth, but it doesn’t add up. The Poetry Society received an increase in its grant from the Arts Council of England. The application must have been for specific purposes and must have been in accordance with its own stated aims and objectives. If people on the board, after receiving the grant, want to spend money on something different to what they’ve just received it for, they simply can’t do it. Unless they are “reinterpreting” what the application means, when it will still have to be generally in line with what ACE understood it to mean. This all smacks of politicking behind the scenes, people with opposing visions seeking dominance. The Telegraph suggests that ACE is becoming uneasy. If so (it is a big “if”), that’s not exactly great for staff morale, given that their jobs depend on this money, but I doubt ACE would want to pull out. I imagine the silence must be due to current sensitive negotiations between ACE and the Poetry Society and between different schools of thought within the society. Apparently there is a July deadline for a report on precisely how some of the funding will be used. That document should make interesting reading!

Lemn Sissay stepped in with a blog article a few days ago. I'm sure it's written with integrity and the best of intentions, but I also think it’s fair to say that he doesn’t really present a coherent argument. The main thrust of the article is to defend Fiona Sampson, editor of Poetry Review, the magazine of the Poetry Society. He feels that FS is being stitched up by people with a vested interest in her being removed. I guess there are a number of people who would like to see her booted out. I have no view on this, as I'm not a subcriber and haven't submitted anything for years. I think Fiona Sampson has offered the magazine strengths (translated work) and weaknesses (lack of range). But the extent of Fiona Sampson’s involvement in the current disputes is impossible to determine. Lemn Sissay says she has nothing to do with it. Other people say she is central to the arguments. People argue about these things on Facebook, on blogs, on newspaper comment sections, on the basis of facts which may not be facts. An entire discourse develops around happenings which may not have happened, figures which may not tell any story let alone a whole story, personalities which may be phantoms.

Charles Boyle summed it up well when he wrote:

I have no inside info; I don’t even have gossip. But what to me is a little bit interesting is that in the absence of hard fact, the speculation that fills the vacuum can become what a thing is about and start to influence what happens next.

Very true. But speculation requires a vacuum and the Poetry Society, in my opinion, is largely to blame for creating one. Its public statements have been evasive and cagey and the resulting speculation has led to a vast number of people joining the society simply to sign a petition calling for an EGM to get full answers. Some of the questions I have seen mooted for a potential EGM don’t seem quite adequate in that they can be answered ‘yes’ or ‘no’ and a few monosyllabic answers won’t tell us any more than the Poetry Society’s press releases. I reckon questions need to be open enough to require a thorough explanation.

I know Kate Clanchy initiated a call for names to call an EGM (around 340 are required, I believe), but I’m unsure whether that has now been derailed or not. (Actually, it's still on track. Katy EB writes in the comments, "Kate C is definitely still collecting names; anyone who wants to be on the list should email her at kateclanchy at gmail dot com. She has a barrister advising as to process and content of a possible EGM; email her for more information"). If anyone else is leading the call with an agenda set up and specific questions on the table (as required), I don’t know who it is. But I'm sure we'll find out sooner or later...

(incidentally, I don't mind comments on this, but please keep them from being abusive to individuals. I will delete comments which contain either abuse or libellous material)

Monday, June 27, 2011

Tennyson; In Memoriam - 10

Poem number 10 from In Memoriam continues the theme of the previous poem that the ship carrying Arthur Hallam’s body will make it back safely to England. Tennyson knows he would feel better if his friend were buried than if he should be lost at sea.


I hear the noise about thy keel;
I hear the bell struck in the night:
I see the cabin-window bright;
I see the sailor at the wheel.

Thou bring'st the sailor to his wife,
And travell'd men from foreign lands;
And letters unto trembling hands;
And, thy dark freight, a vanish'd life.

So bring him; we have idle dreams:
This look of quiet flatters thus
Our home-bred fancies. O to us,
The fools of habit, sweeter seems

To rest beneath the clover sod,
That takes the sunshine and the rains,
Or where the kneeling hamlet drains
The chalice of the grapes of God;

Than if with thee the roaring wells
Should gulf him fathom-deep in brine;
And hands so often clasp'd in mine,
Should toss with tangle and with shells.

I don’t find this one of the stronger portions of In Memoriam, but it has its moments. The opening stanza with its repeated “I hear” and “I see” and end-stopped lines has rhetorical power and brings the scene right before the reader’s eyes and ears. The positive list in the second stanza closes with the idea that the ship is also carrying a “vanish’d life”, which is a great phrase – very moving.

I really like the third stanza. It’s not quite what I was expecting – idle dreams, home-bred fancies – a detour into the hearts and minds of those waiting for the ship, which continues in the ideas expressed in the closing stanzas. He wants Hallam to have a proper burial: the earth is fed with sunshine and rain, and the prayerful people are depicted as the hamlet where the chalice of God’s grapes is drained. There is nurture and peace compared to the “roaring wells” and “toss with tangle” of the final stanza’s sea. It may be possible to read this as a depiction of Tennyson's own emotional state. At the beginning, he's beset by anxiety, noise and turbulence, and his hope for a resting place for Hallam's body may reflect his own hope that a burial might bring about some comparable inner peace.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Tennyson; In Memoriam - 9

Tennyson imagines Arthur Hallam’s remains being carried home by ship from Italy. Poem 9 of In Memoriam is a ‘prayer’ (invoking the ship) that the remains will be carried safely. The poem shifts along fairly well itself, without mishap, until the final two stanzas in which it really takes off.


Fair ship, that from the Italian shore
Sailest the placid ocean-plains
With my lost Arthur's loved remains,
Spread thy full wings, and waft him o'er.

So draw him home to those that mourn
In vain; a favourable speed
Ruffle thy mirror'd mast, and lead
Thro' prosperous floods his holy urn.

All night no ruder air perplex
Thy sliding keel, till Phosphor, bright
As our pure love, thro' early light
Shall glimmer on the dewy decks.

Sphere all your lights around, above;
Sleep, gentle heavens, before the prow;
Sleep, gentle winds, as he sleeps now,
My friend, the brother of my love;

My Arthur, whom I shall not see
Till all my widow'd race be run;
Dear as the mother to the son,
More than my brothers are to me.

The penultimate stanza pleads the weather to be calm and still and then Tennyson uses some extraordinary language to describe loss in the context of two men whose friendship was platonic:

My friend, the brother of my love;

My Arthur, whom I shall not see
Till all my widow'd race be run;
Dear as the mother to the son,
More than my brothers are to me.

“The brother of my love”, “My Arthur”, “my widow’d race”, and then those final comparisons to his mother and brothers: Tennyson views himself as a wife who has lost her husband, the repetition of “my” from line to line building the intensity. It still seems extraordinary 200 years later and I guess it must have seemed extraordinary at the time. I wonder, when he first wrote “till all my widow’d race be run” or "more than my brothers are to me", if he ever thought, ‘I can’t write that!’ because that’s often the moment that lifts a poem out of the ordinary and soon-to-be-forgotten. As long as the poet doesn’t score it out which I suspect often happens.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Tennyson; In Memoriam - 8

Tennyson really took me by surprise in poem 8 of In Memoriam. I suspect most poets would have stopped after the third stanza feeling they’d done a decent job, but Tennyson wants more than just decent.


A happy lover who has come
To look on her that loves him well,
Who 'lights and rings the gateway bell,
And learns her gone and far from home;

He saddens, all the magic light
Dies off at once from bower and hall,
And all the place is dark, and all
The chambers emptied of delight:

So find I every pleasant spot
In which we two were wont to meet,
The field, the chamber, and the street,
For all is dark where thou art not.

Yet as that other, wandering there
In those deserted walks, may find
A flower beat with rain and wind,
Which once she foster'd up with care;

So seems it in my deep regret,
O my forsaken heart, with thee
And this poor flower of poesy
Which little cared for fades not yet.

But since it pleased a vanish'd eye,
I go to plant it on his tomb,
That if it can it there may bloom,
Or, dying, there at least may die.

The poem starts with him imagining a man visiting his lover and finding her absent. He’s very sad about this, as if all his expectations have been dashed. Her entire house, it seems, has been “emptied of delight”. Then comes the first terrific line at S3 L1:

So find I every pleasant spot

What’s good about that? Well, there’s the dramatic contrast between the lover’s temporary loss and Tennyson’s all-encompassing one, enacted in a single, simple line. And look at the rhythm! You could scan it as purely iambic, but each of the first four syllables has a heaviness about them, even the technically unstressed first and third syllables – “SO FIND/ I EVery... “ That’s the sound and rhythm of anguish.

That could have been the end of the poem at the end of that stanza: a strong expression of personal sorrow – “all is dark where thou art not.” But Tennyson isn’t content with a decent poem and he goes for broke. The action switches back to the absent woman from the first two stanzas. She is out walking and finds a flower “beat with rain and wind” she’d once taken care of. Tennyson finds in this a metaphor for how he feels about Arthur Hallam, his late friend, particularly in poetry. And the great lines mount up poem by poem:

...this poor flower of poesy
Which little cared for fades not yet.

We could stick that on our fridges or Facebook statuses and wear it as a badge of hope. But Tennyson still isn’t finished, but has saved the best lines for last. He will plant his poem-flower at Hallam’s tomb:
That if it can it there may bloom,
Or, dying, there at least may die.

Morrissey may have said that he was more Wilde than Keats or Yeats (in 'Cemetery Gates'), but he may not have been accurate in saying that and his famous lyrics from ‘There is a Light that Never Goes Out’ have at least one prototype here in Tennyson’s poem. The flower may die at his friend’s grave, which would at least be something. But, carefully placed only on the penultimate line, it also may bloom.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Tennyson; In Memoriam - 7

In poem 7 from Tennyson’s In Memoriam, I’m struck as much by the skilful manipulation of rhythm and metre as of anything else. The poem has Tennyson visit his late friend Arthur’s house by night, but of course he comes away feeling only his absence, made all the more acute by the busy, unaffected universe trundling along as usual.


Dark house, by which once more I stand
Here in the long unlovely street,
Doors, where my heart was used to beat
So quickly, waiting for a hand,

A hand that can be clasp'd no more—
Behold me, for I cannot sleep,
And like a guilty thing I creep
At earliest morning to the door.

He is not here; but far away
The noise of life begins again,
And ghastly thro' the drizzling rain
On the bald street breaks the blank day.

In the first stanza, Tennyson doesn’t reveal the precise nature of his syntax, which only becomes clear by line 2 of stanza 2. Each line in S1 begins with a heavy stress – a trochaic or spondaic foot – a rhetorical device we often use unconsciously when making an address. The first line of S2 then echoes the final words of S1, “a hand”, emphasising acutely that it can no longer be clasped. Then in S2 L2, we realise for certain that he is addressing the house, asking it to “behold me”.

Just imagine if Tennyson had been writing bad free verse (hard, I know)! He might have begun:

I stand by the dark house
in the long unlovely street
at doors where my heart used to beat
quickly, waiting for a hand

that can be clasped no more.
I cannot sleep...

Many contemporary poems, even some which are published in magazines, aren’t far away from that – dull prose, and that’s only with a few changes. Am I exaggerating? I don’t think so. The basic sense and narrative is all still there, but Tennyson’s rhetorical and emotional intensity has been ripped clean away. I write mainly free verse myself, of course, and it’s not free verse that’s the problem. I’m no formalist dinosaur. It’s all about recognising how poetry works and how important style, rhythm, music, manipulation of syntax, and...well... imagination are in making a memorable poem.

Tennyson imagines he is under the house’s gaze, a poor wretch creeping to the door of absence. The first line of S3 is terrific – “He is not here; but far away”, which sounds roughly what we might expect, but the following line removes even that far-off consolation:

He is not here; but far away
The noise of life begins again

The noise of life is far away, not Arthur Hallam. Tennyson did of course believe in an afterlife, but “far away” wasn’t far enough for that idea.

I’d probably feel the same about the ending as I did with the previous poem. How do modern readers feel about those adjectives being used to create emotional mood – “ghastly”, “bald”, “blank”? Put it this way, contemporary poetic sensibility would ask anyone producing a poem like this not to rely on them – show, don’t tell; avoid possible sentimentality. And yet, the final line is beautifully crafted. The rhythm is broken up by the two unstressed syllables at the beginning, then three stressed, one unstressed and then two stressed to finish. But yes, it can all scan as iambic tetrameter. The interrupted rhythm, the strong –b alliteration, combined with the different vowel sounds slows the pace of the line right down. It’s as heavy as the day is about to become. Form mirrors sense.