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.