Tuesday, 29 January 2008

Canons To The Right

For many of the past 20 years, I have been an unpaid poetry activist (organiser, editor, anthologist), working to develop an alternative community of internationally-linked poets. Alternative to what? At any rate, the "revolution" has failed to materialise. Most poets, young and old, are so embedded in the mainstream marketing-based structures of publishing they do not either recognise any alternatives, or do not feel the need for one. The others, those restless atomised few, are either too aggressively individualised, or damaged, to form productive alliances. Herding cats, indeed.

Let us stop for a moment and ask ourselves, as a thought experiment, what the poet might wish for, might dream of - I avoid saying "in their career" - because the English tend to want to promote the idea of the modest, amateur poet (masking, sometimes, self-promoting careerism behind the scenes). Well, a poet might want, in this order: to write a good poem; to get the poem published in a good magazine; to have that poem, and others like it, collected and published by a good press; to receive some good reviews; to maybe be listed for, or win, a prize; and, either before, or after death, to be respected, or at least enjoyed, by either their peers, or poetry readers, or both. Now, all but the most hardened Dadaist would at least grant that this trajectory might accurately model the desires of most poets (I have yet to meet any who do not want to be published, or read).

These poets, who want these things, then enter into situations with other poets, and persons, to achieve these ends. However, here is where something very significant happens, which most poets do not accept. At the point where they enter into the world of publication, two roads diverge. One of those roads is marked The Canon; the other is marked Oblivion. Canons are problematic, and disputed, and there are currently at least three: Mainstream, Innovative, and Outlaw. These three canons are all represented by serious publishers of real merit. However, only a poet published by a Mainstream, large press, has any chance of avoiding "oblivion".

What is oblivion, as a literary term, and why does it matter? I am borrowing this use of oblivion loosely from Ian Hamilton - it that suggests that most poets, after death, become basically extinct - their work forks no lightning, and is lost to future readers. The poems, simply put, disappear, from the book of living verse - forgotten, unread, and worst of all, never quoted or paid homage to, in style or content, by other poets. I can give many examples of such poets, but one will do: Terrence Tiller, the 1940s British poet and BBC producer. Probably less than 20 people alive today know his work, or name. Unless his work was ever dramatically revived and championed, he will disappear, entirely.

Now, the generally-accepted position (which is basically a capitalist one) suggests that the forgotten are bad poets, the remembered are good poets. This in turn plays into the idea of the market deciding value. The problem with this position, is that it almost entirely positions evaluation into the hands of the editors for large publishers, and larger poetry imprints.

The mistake that most poets make, is that they think that, even if they publish with a small, well-meaning press, they have a chance, at perhaps winning a prize, or being reviewed in the TLS or The New York Times, say, of being "discovered". Far from it. The "tap on the shoulder" system of quiet approval and promotion, among the ranks of some contemporary-canonical poets in the US, and UK, occurs prior to publication - during, and before, the editorial process. That is, the business of criticism is often now the business of editorial approval, or rejection.

It is not quite but almost true, that to have a collection published by a small, or marginal press, in the UK (or Canada) is the same as having no book out at all - in terms of entering into a dialogue with The Living Canon of great contemporary poets and critics.

The sad truth is, almost all the ground for canonization is laid during the lifetime of the poet - as in the church, with future Saints. We do not know who the "major" poets of our time will be, exactly, but we can rest assured they are currently being published, somewhere in the Anglo-American world, by larger presses. If one looks at the mid-century greats, or even the early Moderns, they were mainly Faber, or other large-press, poets. There will always be small, pleasing surprises (the recent rediscovery of Lynette Roberts is one instance) but the for the main part, if you find yourself out while alive, your work is mainly out forever. That's a long time.

Why is this so? Well, the large presses have marketing budgets, and the clout to distribute the work to bookstores, and critics, in major cities, around the world. It really is almost as simple as that - get published by a large press, and your work will be sold and reviewed in many more places than if you are published by a small press, when it may happen you get no reviews, or very few. The tragedy, here, is that there are many good - very good - poets who fall outside the ambit of this market-driven system.

They have few options. They can a) try to enter the market system; b) oppose it; c) publish and be damned. Most choose some mix of b and c. And, they publish, and are damned - to recognition among their small group of peers, maybe. This leaves the so-called "mainstream" poets to become top dogs.

This would not be a problem, if reviews, critics, and the public recognised this state of affairs as being roughly as robust and problematic as politics, or business (where the ruthless often rise at the expense of the meek). The terrible irony - the one I often write about - is that, instead, a big lie is told. The lie is this - the best poets are published by the big presses, because they are "the best". No, they are good poets, and simply either a) "the luckiest" or b) the best-connected, or a combination of the two. In short, to become a "name" poet is perhaps as difficult as to become a "movie star". Well, not quite.

The truth is, you could try your whole life to be so published and feted, and never become so, no matter how good a writer you might be.Why does this matter? Colleagues and friends often tell me to "wait in line" or "forget it" - as if a) it was possible to queue for such canonical positioning - it isn't; and b) as if poetry was simply a hobby or bad habit, to be dropped when it becomes bad for one.

Friends, poetry is very important. I happen to think it is the greatest form of art, or close to that. I have spent more than 20 years, learning my craft, writing, studying it, teaching, sharing, promoting it. Consider my fate - not rare in this field - I am nearly as close to canonical oblivion today as the moment I was born. There are maybe 10-20 people in the world, whose opinion can change things. I go on, but find it extremely dispiriting, to see my work, and that of most of my peers, and friends, being disseminated in forms that, simply put, receive no proper respect - that have no authority, or opportunity, to reach, or move, that high severe place where judgement is made, and some poems live, and most, forever, perish.

If an alternative series of serious awards and recognitions could be established, that might help - but in the end, public opinion, and the established academic institutions (and libraries) attend to the mainstream organs of publication and review. It is hard to invent an alternative to The New York Times. Blogs cannot do this, as hard as they try. Only hundreds of very serious people, working together, could do this, and, as I observed at the beginning of this brief essay, poets, the most atomised of persons at the best of times, have not imagined their vocation as communal - because the writing of poems is so very private, so much of the time. However, so long as poets think of themselves as isolated, they will struggle towards goals of public recognition that are, simply put, impossible for them to reach. That way is madness.

Monday, 28 January 2008

Open Field

CNQ (Canadian Notes and Queries) ran a balanced, if at times robustly critical, review of Open Field this summer last (2007), written by James Pollock. He noted the energy of the editor, and also the surprising, and somewhat disappointing fact that Americans seem almost entirely disinterested in Canadian poets (as this was the first poetry anthology of Canadians published in America for 40 years or more). Pollock singled out a half dozen poets who he felt deserved their place in the book, including, I am pleased to say, myself.

He writes: "I also enjoyed the poems of Todd Swift very much, most of them skillful and moving lyrics in the stoical English tradition of Auden and Larkin .... I am especially attracted to his witty homage to Wallace Stevens. .... How could one not be charmed by such a display of metaphorical inventiveness, particularly if one shares Swift's love for Wallace Stevens (and who doesn't?). Of all the best poets in Open Field, Swift is the one I was least familiar with, and I am grateful to Queyras for bringing him to my admiring attention." The other poets he singles out include George Elliott Clarke and Karen Solie.

As for his question, who doesn't like Wallace Stevens - well, I'd bet the editor of Picador's poetry imprint, for one. You know, Michael Donaghy wrote about his dislike of "poems about poetry" - and surely Stevens' oeuvre consists mainly of that topic. Indeed, Stevens has never been much in favour over here in the UK, for reasons I am currently researching. Mainly, many British critics have mistrusted his "flamboyant" interest in language, often as ornament, his interest in aesthetics (and poetics and theory), and his obvious French influences. From the 1950s on, a sort of bluff indifference, even hatred, of anything too "rhetorical" or self-reflexive has marked the mainstream British approach to poetry - meaning that poet-critics like Mark Ford, who study and appreciate Stevens and Ashbery, tend to be in something of a minority (however enthusiastic) in England.

As Edmund Wilson observed, in Axel's Castle, the English poetic tradition has not favoured a too-intensive emphasis on theoretical musings - most of the poets in the English tradition are rather empirical, even pragmatic. I'd suggest the divide here, often described as mainstream versus experimental is rather more often simply between those interested in theory, or poems-about-poetry, and those who are not. Stevens, of course, is seen as a dandy - and is therefore also not entirely appreciated by the more severe avant-garde practitioners in the UK - his sense of humour, for one, is often seen as too whimsical.

Therefore, followers of the Stevens line, in Britain, such as myself, tend to get very short shrift indeed - seen as too deeply into theory for a no-nonsense Worsdworthian poet (like, say, Heaney) - but far too decadent to be one of the Prynne school. A shame really. Sadly, third parties in the UK don't do that well. Stevens is in such a party. Meanwhile, Pollock ends his review with something of an apt lament: "just and clear-eyed critics of Canadian poetry have their job cut out for them. And we desperately need their services." He could have even cut out the "Canadian" part, or inserted the word "British". Clear-eyed most criticism of poetry ain't.

Saturday, 26 January 2008

Money and Amis

Martin Amis is a famous British novelist - maybe the most famous - and he thinks of himself as something of an Orwell, too - an essayist lucidly battling dogma and cant where he sees it. He is also a university lecturer, and his hourly rate has just been published, as £3000. That's just under 100 times more than most any other lecturer makes (it tends to be around £37). Obviously, the department was buying a brand, as well as a creative writing teacher - and the number of applicants went up by 50% when his position was announced. However, creative writing departments in the UK are dangerously close to making the same cheapening and trivialising mistakes the poetry community has already made of late - that is, in the process of seeking to popularise what they do, they have begun to use the marketing and PR techniques of the advertising and political spheres.

It is often said, sotto voce, that British Poetry needs a "Saatchi" - that is, a rich, spin doctor, to "sell it" to the public. Stuff and nonsense. All this branding and selling smacks of desperation, and sends the signal that creative writing departments are only relevant if, like at sexy London cocktail parties, you get to network with big names. Actually, the aim of such creative writing workshops, is to learn to write - and sometimes, the best workshop leaders are not the most famous, or the most over-paid. Amis is very aware of money's tasteless effects - others should be, too.

Scottish Genius

The Guardian has an interview, today, with the 88-year-old poetic genius, Edwin Morgan, Scotland's greatest living poet, who should have won the TS Eliot Prize for this year. His loss will, in time, be seen as both emblematic of the current climate in certain British poetry circles, and quite sad - but also deeply silly. Not only was he clearly the deserving winner, anyone with class would have decided it was a just and fitting bit of icing to a great cake of a career. Sadly, lesser minds, and more importantly, spirits, are currently bossing things about - without an ounce of Morgan's wit, open-minded playfulness, or international curiosity. In listing his influences, Sarah Crown the interviewer, notes that some names are less popular now - and then mentions Hart Crane. Only in the UK, where many in the new gang of poetry top dogs thinks anything even slightly modern, rhetorical, or American, is rubbish, would Hart Crane be so thought of - elsewhere, Crane is still beloved as one of the finest, and most thrilling, of 20th century poets.

What has happened, basically, is that Morgan (an engaging gay man with a great mind) represents the cosmopolitan wing of the British poetry world - a wing that has otherwise been mainly shut down by the so-called current mainstreamers - people who edit for Picador and Cape, say. The international poetry that gets in, almost under darkness, to Britain, gets in with the help of Salt, Bloodaxe, Carcanet, and a few other smaller presses. Even then, there is sometimes an overly sombre take on things - something Morgan, like Ashbery, in some ways a very similar figure for American writing (but far more influential over there) - avoids.

Basically, Morgan is open to the full play of poetry, word, and world - he has not morally, or aesthetically, edited his poetry before the ink flows, and he has no portentous, ego-driven agenda. Sadly, the force of Heaney's shadow has called forth a great many neo-emulators in Britain, men and women without Heaney's ability, or, for that matter, striking source material - therefore the countless dreary translations of classical poems of the last few years coming from London. This small group of influential neo-classical poets is trying to fight for the great seriousness of Poetry, but in the process, have managed to drive the life out of it. They've forgotten what Morgan always knew - a glad heart, and a big one - has more wax on which to burn a wick. Most poets in the UK are afraid to openly question this neo-classical crew, though some, deep down, feel alienated by its gruff, male, dour tone.

It's time to recall that, before poetry societies, and poetry prizes, there was poetry, full stop. Too much careerism means there are few fearless, clear, and direct poetry reviewers operating over here. Crown was right to feature Morgan now - it sends a good signal.

Friday, 25 January 2008

It's Broke, Fix It

The international money markets, and the world capitalist system, were thrown into turmoil this week, and it now seems an eccentric lone young French man, like someone out of an existential novel, had much to do with the problem. His $7 billion losses may have done more financial damage than any terrorist - or anarchist - could have dreamed of. This raises questions, some of which may not put the banking system in a good light - and one of the questions is, surely, what connection to reality does some of this "trading" bear? If it is possible for one person to concoct a virtual, imagined alter-ego, or series of identities, and therefore conduct business in this post-modern, post-identity fashion, has the economy become a cyborg, or cyber-untrustworthy? I imagine a poetics of money - or economics of poetry - can be derived from this - he was, after all, into derivatives. What is the difference between imagining one is a billionaire, and being one? No difference - all the difference. It depends on whether you are the trader, or the bank.

Poem by Sina Queyras

Eyewear thinks Sina Queyras (pictured above) is one of the most refreshing, innovative and provocative poets to appear in North American writing over the last few years, and is glad to welcome her here, today.

She edited the key book, Open Field: Thirty Contemporary Canadian Poets (Persea, 2005), which is one of the first anthologies published in America in the last few decades to consider the new poetry now coming from Canada. She is is the author of Slip (ECW, 2001) and Teeth Marks (Nightwood, 2004).

Her third collection of poetry, Lemon Hound, won the Pat Lowther Award and a Lambda Literary Award. Expressway is due out from Coach House in spring 2009. She is currently writer in residence at the University of Calgary where she is working on several projects including Autobiography of Childhood, a novel.

This happened before. Then we ran. And the cable
hooked us to a big Dish. We signed up for more. Golden
arches nosed up out of concrete and we were delighted.
Everyone bought a Ford or Chrysler. Roads appeared and
women disappeared down them. Millions were served.
Some of them waved. This happened before. Then again
maybe not. Anyhow once we walked to the television.
Once your little sister stood and changed the channel
from 2 to 3, one hand on the antennae. This really
happened. At the end of the line there was a person.
Whole lives ticked by on salaries. Everyone wore
polyester. Blouses with imprints of European landmarks
abounded. People dialed and the numbers rumbled like a
bank vault. Shag appeared in avocado green and harves
tgold penetrating every corner. Coffee tables thickened
over night. Lights morphed into plastic balls hung
from chains. Little girls rhymed couplets, index
finger poised, waiting for the plastic rotary to hit
zero. This really happened. Women clicking on manual
typewriters. Whole offices of scritch, scritch,
scritch and ping, ping, ping as the carriage released
and rolled up. How we embraced the correctable ribbon.
How we coveted white-out. Listen, once people sent
letters with words crossed out. This all happened.
People placed vinyl on turntables and lifted needles
jumping slightly when the scratch blared out of the
cross hatched speakers from Radio Shack or Sears.
Rumors of a Japanese take-over surfaced. There was
talk of importing fathers. Then again maybe I am
lying. Anyone knew it was true. Anyhow we didn't run.
We bought bigger cars and women embraced the MuMu.
Everything was arriving all at once. Lapels sharpened.
Soul music sweetened the air. People drove their cars
to Drive-ins and hung aluminum speakers on the side
windows. How we embraced the wire.

poem by Sina Queyras

Thursday, 24 January 2008

World and Earth

Poet-critic Adam Kirsch has an interesting, if arguably somewhat simplistic, essay on the relationship between Heidegger and contemporary mainstream English-language poetry, in the January 2008 issue of Poetry. One of the essay's problems is that Kirsch tries to suggest that the early High Moderns (Yeats, Eliot, Stevens, for example) were "world" oriented, trying to impose a vision of mastery, remaking the order of things, while the "earth" poets, like "post-Catholic" Heaney (and I think the post may be a little overdetermined here) modestly, and ethically listen to things, and show the ordinary in an extraordinary light, unforcing nature's hand, but being midwife to its exposure and celebration.

The problem with this is that the so-called "metaphysical" approach of poets like Heaney, with its strong, neo-classical emphasis on an austere diction, and an ethos of silence and epiphanic apprehension, is deeply moral in precisely the ordering way of late Eliot - and the critical demands made by those poets who argue for such an earth-based (pace Kirsch) credo are not nearly as unassuming or modest as might be assumed. I also don't feel that all contemporary poetry can be easily subsumed into this dialectic. As Alain Badiou argues in his recent The Century, it was precisely the argument of Two Into One, that is, the refusal to agree as to the nature of dialectical synthesis, which leads to a celebration of power, reality, war and violence, in the 20th century. Kirsch's attempt to synthesise the various poetries into a neatly-defined twosome is admirable, perhaps, but perhaps incorrect. I think the quarrel that various poetics have with each other, language, decorum, tradition, and the world - let alone possibilities of enchantment in a disenchanted time (see Charles Taylor's new A Secular Age) is more complex, and unresolved.

But Kirsch is correct, I think, in noting that metaphysical issues are at stake. However, is it enough to want to notice (as Thomas Hardy did) such things, the small felicities of nature and the world, and inscribe them in words for others? Does poetry - does visionary writing - not have, potentially, more to do than that? The decline of the idea of the role of poet as visionary (after Dylan Thomas) - a tale of two Thomases - is part of this story, though Hughes and Heaney obviously are seeing things, too.

I am enjoying, and reading, his new book of criticism, The Modern Element. While Kirsch is an apologist for one dominant style of poetics, he is also a very insightful critic, and hugely enjoyable to read. Some of the essays in the new book have the wit, verve and apt quotations one associated with the great Poetry and the Age, by Jarrell - someone Kirsch has clearly closely attended to.

Quantum of Solace

The new Bond film's title has been revealed, and it is Qauntum of Solace. No, really. I am impressed. This is a talking point - the weirdest title of a mainstream film since The Silence of the Lambs, and surely much weirder than that. This may be up there with "A Toccata of Gallupi's" or something quarkian from Joyce.

Wednesday, 23 January 2008

The Death of Heath Ledger

I am very sad to have heard, last night, of the death, apparently by overdose of sleeping tablets, of the fine young actor, Heath Ledger. The loss of any young person is a tragedy - and is perhaps especially moving when so much promise is left unfulfilled.

Surely, the media, and everyone in general, must be more sensitive to the toll that "celebrity" is taking - the news recently has been filled with shocking tales of drug abuse and public misconduct, involving genuinely talented actors and singers, that many people love. Ledger was, by all accounts, including his own, sensitive to the glare of public interest and media comment; and obviously a highly gifted actor. Personal problems had recently impacted on his fragile nature, with the result that, apparently, he had trouble sleeping. All creative artists know that state. I don't have much more to say, now, about this sad sad news - except that this feels very large, indeed, like the death of a James Dean for our time.

Ledger's Brokeback Mountain performance was a star turn, and powerfully revelatory of great things ahead. His Joker role looks terrifying and very dark, indeed, from the stills I have seen. Ledger had many more films than Dean in his oeuvre, though perhaps less of an established screen persona. But no one expected this, now. And it has hit around the world, on the day of the Oscar nominations, as if nothing else had happened. Our thoughts must now go out to those who knew and loved him well, and hopefully the spotlight will no longer torment the brilliant young man. The BBC has some tributes here. David Thomson has a good post here.

Tuesday, 22 January 2008

Review: Girl In A Coma & Morrissey Live At The Roundhouse

I happen to think that Morrissey is one of England's great, living geniuses - in the realm of provocative culture, and, more specifically, as a singer-songwriter. His earlier work with seminal band The Smiths created the most significant indie back catalogue of the British 80s, and his own songs, although somewhat patchy or worse (more on this in a minute) at times, have continued the brilliance - "Everyday Is Like Sunday", and "Irish Blood, English Heart", are already modern classics, for instance. Therefore, Eyewear was genuinely thrilled to attend the first night of his week long residency last night (in support of his Greatest Hits, out on February 11) at Camden's fabled Roundhouse (serving only vegetarian food for the week), in London - easily one of the most commodious and clean venues possible (and generously intimate). Crushed up near the front of the Main Space - but out of harm's way (much body surfing and thrashing occurred later on) - I was able to observe, and enjoy, the spectacle.

But before the main event, let me pause to mention the opening act, special guests in from Texas, the three-person Girl In A Coma. Performing from 8.05-8.35 pm, you'd think their role slightly thankless, but the feisty, indie threesome quickly captured the audience's affections, with sonically-dense, alternative guitar rock fusing elements from The Breeders, Sonic Youth, Nirvana, The Cranberries and even 50s rock. They were great - singing and playing with great intensity, and good humour. After the show, I met them, and they signed a copy of their CD, Both Before I'm Gone, for me, which I've been playing today. If anything, it shows them in a different, more stylishly nuanced light. Anyway, they're a cool new act to follow, and I'd recommend their work, highly. They're also incredibly fun, relaxed, and genuine.

Morrissey appeared onstage at around 9 pm - a 20-minute screening of iconic/campy film footage was projected onto a giant sheet beforehand, which covered the stage. Those familiar with the singer's peculiar obsessions would not be surprised to hear that the artists featured included James Dean (Girl In A Coma's album title is from a Dean saying) and The New York Dolls. He played for exactly 90 minutes, including the final, one-song encore, which ended with his shirt off ("The Last of the Famous International Playboys"), and had his fans in his hands. One of them made it onstage mid-way through the show, and held on to him for a minute, whispering in his ear, before leaping back to the throng - Morrissey seemed unconcerned. The set opened with Smiths classic "How Soon Is Now?", and featured just a few others from that older time, emphasising new songs, including "That's How People Grow Up" (he thanked Radio 2 for playing it). Complaining of a "frog in his throat", he was in good form, nonetheless, physically fit, and dramatically active. His backing band (dressed like Prisonbreakers) were short-haired and sinister, and their instruments featured a giant J. Arthur Rank-style gong. Lights were effective, and the backing touch was classic Smiths-era iconography - a triptych of a young Richard Burton, holding a pint glass.

Now, one of the songs that Morrissey chose to perform was "National Front Disco" - easily his most risible, and controversial song. He's been in the news lately for espousing a nostalgic monocultural vision for England. In this, he is paradoxically conservative and radical - as if the wit of Wilde had entered the grumpy ideology of a Betjeman (which makes genetic sense, actually, and is perhaps the war at the core of his caustic, divided heart). That seemed maybe provocative, as did the fascist saluting at one point - which was clearly ironic. However, what most emerges, watching the man live, is how good an old-fashioned entertainer he is - a crooner in the sweating, crowd-pleasing Vegas mold (he obviously studied Elvis and Sinatra in terms of stage presence) - complicated by possessing an explicitly neo-Godot take on the world ("life is a pigsty").

Fabulous, polemical, mixed-up, funny - and designed to offend and charm in equal measure, the showman was disturbing, powerful, and quite impressive. It's a shame the artist's evident openness to divergent talents and styles, and his loathing of draconian leaders (Thatcher, Bush) hasn't yet translated into a more welcoming, multicultural stance, overall. One lives in hope.

Monday, 21 January 2008

Review: No Country For Old Men

No Country For Old Men has been hailed as a bona fide masterpiece by just about every living critic, so I want to make a few comments slightly to the contrary, maybe like one of the ornery 'ol coots in the film itself. The directors are smug as smug can be, and always have been. Their triumphs (like Fargo) seem to be achieved despite their winks and nods. Compared to sublime, dark masters of the post-modern, like David Lynch, their cinematic works seem like the Mad Magazine spoofs of the real things. That was their skill and brilliance, this pastiche-style. This new picture is being rewarded with awe, and shucks it's great, because it has none of that. It is as if someone stripped off all the layers of paint on some old farmhouse floors, and let the original grain earn its keep.

The mise-en-scene is controlled, and exact. The camera is steady, and it is eagle-eyed. I very much enjoyed the book this movie is based on, and can attest to the verisimilitude of the transition from page to screen - the look and feel of the imagined moment is complete. There are several key locations - signalled by the John Ford reference near the beginning (watch the vehicles throughout as a key image-system) - that establish this is the modern, serious Western films like Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid, or even Unforgiven, tried to kill off.
It is, of course, like The Searchers, except this time, the one searching is pure evil, and, essentially (but not certainly, the film's hinge) wins. Though in The Searchers, Wayne was morally tainted, too. What I am getting at is, this is a reverent take on America, men, and The West. Tommy Lee Jones is terrific as the mainly passive, measured, ruminating, ageing, Good Sheriff, the man who lost the West, but did so with gravitas, dignity, and decency, intact. His final dream-soliloquy expresses this vision utterly - his father is riding into the darkness, with a horn of fire, to blaze the trail. The truth is, it is darkness ahead, God may be mainly absent, but there will be fire, there will be fathers. I love this sad, nostalgic tone - captured well, oddly enough, in Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings Trilogy, also a Western in genre - and also about the fading of a whole way of life, an enchanted, fabled past - in this case, America's frontier expansion, at the expense of much blood and treasure, and many Native American lives.

The wide open spaces are now sun-bleached, and a mess of corpses, and meaningless money just left in the open, as good as gold, or oil, and as bad. The biblical monotony of this film is unleavened by the Avenging Assassin, plated by Javier Bardem. He seemed to me to be channeling Nicholas Cage, The Coen Bros.'s own cut-rate Cary Grant, in terms of sullen nerdiness and weird danger. The role has been described as star-making and brilliant, but, when the dust settles, will likely be seen as simply dull and strange. The best performance is from Josh Brolin, who comes from nowhere and has a solid, manly Cowboy presence that seems uncannily sturdy. The main lack in the picture - which at times is as thrilling as the best Hitchcock (especially in the three key motel/hotel sequences, all homages to Psycho) - is the one central to the ultimate theme: that there is no final confrontation between man and devil on this soiled earth. That is, the Showdown, the gun battle, is deferred, endlessly - the West is the victim of some eternal recurrence, where evil gets its scalp, and god-fearing, gun-toting men, take their chances - or, as Moss's wife decides, much to her credit - they don't. Because there can be no final meeting of the mad killer, and the good man, the suspense dries up when Moss's blood gets shed for the final time. The last reel is a hollow, mournful coda to a beautifully-rendered, oddly-inert drama. Less a film than a morality tale, this is latterday Bergman in Texas, bone-dry and emblematic as hell. I guess what I am finally trying to say here is this: all the other Coen movies were Genre Movies Playing at Being Art House - this one here's an Art Film, Playing At Genre. Go in thinking this is going to be just a funny, dark thriller, and you'll be puzzled by its fearsome, slow-running depths, and arid desert spaces. Four Specs.

Review: Lust, Caution

Lust, Caution wants to be a great film - a stylish, exotic thriller of the first order - and, compared to works of deep, sublime composition, like Vertigo - it fails. Ang Lee is often considered one of the most significant contemporary directors, and The Ice Storm and Brokeback Mountain are lovely, important movies, so Eyewear went in very much wanting to approve of his new feature.

I was especially drawn in, because the theme - being a lover in the house of spies - is not original at all (despite what some breathless critics have written) - but rather old hat. And I like old hats, especially fedoras. In fact, Lust, Caution is Lee's very well-crafted version of a Grindhouse retro-homage, a la Tarantino: an examination of themes, tropes, and subjects, from propaganda and film noir and soft porn cinemas - Sade meets Said. It is, of course, first and foremost about Orientalism - the villains and the heroes are all Asian, removing that Hollywood ban that says the inscrutable other must be wicked.

And then again, ho hum, about how the body of a sexual victim is also like a country raped by Imperialism. I say ho hum because this tired idea was aired by The Jewel In The Crown, among others, and it is high time male directors stopped raping women in their movies simply because they think the violence is a useful metaphor for what they really want to talk about, which is dominant men. The sexual relationship in this film is expressed mainly through many longing, smoke-filled glances, one weirdly savage scene, a few montage sequences, and brief dialogue. The motto is: loyalty is skin deep. Or, in otherwords, our bodies are true to their own desires, not higher (ideological) callings (or nations).

This may be a plea for radical, sexual, and even gender freedoms, or maybe just a way of defending the work of sadistic police officers, and the undercover agents who sleep with them. The problem, for me, is that there was insufficient preparation for the sudden, twice-expressed warning, that gives the game away, and leads to many innocent friends killed. I felt that the mise-en-scene, acting, and soundtrack, were exquisite, summoning the lush, glamorous period, perfectly - but, unlike, say, The Year of Living Dangerously, the film was unable to fuse the entirely convincing menace and glamour of the time, with the menace and glamour of a doomed sexually extreme affair. Four Specs.

Saturday, 19 January 2008

The Oxford Forum

Asked about message pictures, the director famously said he'd use Western Union if he wanted to send a message. I've just sent one, via The Oxford Forum, on British Poetry and the Internet.

Friday, 18 January 2008

Bobby Fischer Has Died

One of the strangest, and most controversial, American geniuses of all time - in some ways a bizarre echo of Pound (the early stylishness in London, the later radio-racist rants, the anti-American later years in enigmatic exile, even incarceration, the bearded phase, the undeniable mastery and innovation of his chosen form) - Bobby Fischer - has died, in Iceland, age 64.

A Fischer king among pawns, yet arguably a dunce among men, he got as much wrong as right in his life, but in the world famous Cold War battle against his Soviet rival, became as defining an icon of his age as Sputnik, or The Beatles. New obituary in The Guardian worth reading.

Poem by Emily Dening

Eyewear is very glad to welcome Emily Dening (pictured) this Friday. She was born in London and lives in Cambridge. Dening studied English Language and Literature at the University of Newcastle upon Tyne, and is currently working in a sixth form college library.

She’s been widely published in poetry journals and in 2003 one of her poems, "Lifeline", was workshopped at the Aldeburgh Poetry Masterclass. I've been following her work closely for the past few years, and can recommend, highly, her good-looking collection, A Stash of Gin, which has just been published by Mainsail.

The Red Trousers

As you swirl them from the bag
magnolia walls throb.
My mouth bubbles platitudes
which you prick,
deft and quick,
sousing me with relish of

my mother’s shudder
at mothy velvet dressing-gown,
stained crêpe de Chine dress
and fug of patchouli,
her shameful desire,
like a secret stash of gin,
for me to be dropped
on someone else’s
doorstep, replaced
by a twinset and pearls.

They gush down your legs.
While I snip and staunch,
you’re singing a song
I’ve never heard.

poem by Emily Dening

Thursday, 17 January 2008

Heard The One About The Starlet and The Writer?

Last year, Eva Green won the Rising Star award at the Orange BAFTAs - and this year the ceremonies promise to be even more glamorous. The old joke goes that the starlet was so dumb, she slept with the writer - but the striking film writers in America silenced the Golden Globes, and look set to do the same for the Oscars, which means London may get a world-class awards night. Eyewear, like all UK citizens, has yet to see some of the films nominated (members get sent copies to watch at home in some instances before general release), but can make some predictions - want to bet?

Atonement will likely win Best Film. The Bourne Ultimatum should win Best British Film, though Control may do. The Bourne trilogy was astonishingly good genre work, and has rejuvenated The Bond series in the process, so deserves the kudos. Film Not In The English Language should go to The Lives of Others. Lead Actor will be Daniel Day-Lewis. Lead Actress will be the brilliant Julie Christie, whose work in the superb Canadian film Away From Her was so brave, and moving. Javier Bardem, for the weird killer role, will win the Supporting Actor gong; Cate Blanchett, for the weird musician role, will win for Supporting Actress. Radiohead musician Jonny Greenwood should win for the There Will Be Blood soundtrack. And, this year's Rising Star? No star was more provocative, or instantly noticed, than sensual Tang Wei in Ang Lee's ravishing, deviant thriller, Lust, Caution.

Note: Spotters of contradictions in Eyewear (do I contradict myself? Very well then!) may ask why I can celebrate movie awards, but question the use of them for poetry? The reason is simple: movies were invented, in the early 20th century, as glamorous delivery systems for images that would captivate audiences - their artfulness has emerged in tandem with their never-concealed popular appeal. Film awards are all about sight and sound - seeing the stars step out from behind the big screen. Poetry awards are pale imitations of this phenomenon - for poetry is not a spectacle, nor a spectator sport. There is no need to "see or hear" poets beyond their work, written or spoken. And, film awards are watched by millions, even billions, so the level of scrutiny is high - we know when a gross injustice has been perpetrated. Because so few people know, or care, about the poetry collections competing for prizes each year, there is far less open debate - or transparency - in the process. Finally, I must confess, I have always loved movies, and they delight me, as does pop music, almost equally to poetry.

The Fortunes

Sad news. Rod Allen, lead singer of The Fortunes, has died of cancer, at the surprisingly young age of 63. To some, they may have been pale imitations of "The Beatles kick", as my father used to call it - but to me, their sound was one of the highlights of my childhood. I recall the first time I pulled out my dad's copy of the Decca LP (he was also a Decca recording artist at the time, a slightly older contemporary of theirs), and played that vinyl, hearing Allen sing "You've Got Your Troubles". I played that song over and over that day, and for many years to come, would play it a few times a week. It remains, mostly a memory now, as one of the most haunting, thrilling, tuneful songs from that era. The Fortunes had three or four top ten hits in the US and UK, then faded from chart glory - but they kept on recording, and touring. They're not a major band, but they are a great part of what made The Sixties not only swinging, but fortunate.

Monday, 14 January 2008

Strong Stuff: TS Eliot Prize 2007

Sean O'Brien (pictured at the far right with me and Polly Clark, at one of the first Oxfam readings, which he kindly supported) has long been one of the strongest poet-critics in the British Isles - a big-shouldered future rival to the kind of muscular mastery of the traditional lyric that is basically the Heaney line, descended from Hardy, Frost, and others. He reads most impressively, with a beautiful voice.

In recent years, O'Brien has scooped up prizes like some great cruising cetacean, swallowing smaller fry, and the pilot fish that surf in his wake. Now, he has pulled off a remarkable feat, tonight, winning the T.S. Eliot prize for 2007, in its most robust form yet (the purse has swollen) - all these water images refering of course to his book of water, The Drowned Book (Picador).

It is a curiously apt, even portentous, moment to win, since the UK is braced for earth-threatening floods tonight. Eyewear is not entirely surprised at this audacious win, but still a little surprised. O'Brien was the head judge of these awards last year, and was already well-laurelled for this collection, and is something of a poetry insider, the UK King of the Cats. I thought Morgan, a great genius, and an octogenarian, might have his moment.

Is Heaney God?

The BBC has been reporting on the TS Eliot poetry prize with alarming frequency. It is as if suddenly a giant memo got handed down: POETRY IS NOT DEAD! - okay, but almost off-kilter in its perspective (because baffled media types tend to always ask the same questions about poetry). On the famous Today show, today, one of the judges of this year's Eliots (to be adjudicated tonight), W.N. Herbert, was asked about having been up for the award last year. I was up against Heaney, he said, - ah said the presenter - and then he continued, humorously - there should be a law against that.

I know what he means. Eyewear concluded that the 2006 Eliots had to go to either Heaney or Muldoon, and ultimately was perhaps better given to Heaney. However, there was something about the presenter's sigh of understanding - far surpassing Herbert's playful modesty - which says something deeper, about the condition of British / Irish poetry today, and its general reception, among the chattering classes.

Heaney really, truly, is the only living poet they know and admire - other rivals would be Wendy Cope, Andrew Motion, Craig Raine, James Fenton, Sean O'Brien, maybe Simon Armitage, and Carol Ann Duffy, in terms of recognition - but no other poet yet has that aura, here, on these isles, of invincibility. Don Paterson, or Ian Duhig, are important younger poets (in the sense of generations) - but there is only one Heaney.

This is deeply unfortunate, for any number of reasons. One is, it would be good if a woman poet, for a change, was more widely read - or perhaps a Black or Asian poet; but, more importantly, how about an innovative one?

The new controversial Arts Council report makes much of excellence, and innovation. The two, for poetry, are not the same. No living poet, in English, is a better traditional lyric craftsman than Heaney - his excellence is supreme. Is he the master innovator of our times? No. One might then want to name other poets, such as Bernstein, Ashbery, Riley, or Prynne, or Trevor Joyce.

Two things, with Heaney, have become conflated, creating the sense of the suprahuman - one is his fame (Nobel, etc) from such a young age - the other is his immense ability. Poets, because they cannot fathom such luck, such fortune, put the two together, to create a sense that mastery of lyric can lead to such a pot of gold. As such, the poets are to blame, with the media, in lazily equating Contemporary Poetry with that sigh of ah, Heaney. As in, well, if you were up against Heaney, you had to lose. Heaney is one of the gods of poetry in the current age. Set against Larkin, or Hughes, or Hardy, or Yeats, or Auden, or Eliot, or Lowell, or Frost, he is not invincible, but simply one of the vert best at what he does, in his later lifetime.

It is time poets lost a little of the sighing deference though, and moved on a little, looking ahead - there is a new generation of under-40 poets in the UK and Ireland, of some brilliance (Kennard, Nagra, Higgins, etc.). They'll be inducing the sighs on the radio, soon enough.

Guest Review: Nicholls On Ko Un

Sophie Nicholls reviews
by Ko Un

‘What still still stillness,/as Yang-sul's wife,/ covered in snow, goes out to draw water,/ puts down her tiny little water jar/ and picks up the gourd dipper but forgets to draw water,/ watching snowflakes die:/ that still still stillness.’
(from ‘The Little Spring’, Ten Thousand Lives, Volume 3, 1986)

Such moments of ‘stillness’ seem central to many of the poems in Ko Un’s Ten Thousand Lives. Perhaps it is this ‘stillness,’ a certain quality of awareness learned from his Buddhist training, that helped Ko Un to create a small still space inside himself during his years of solitary imprisonment in the dark.

Ko Un was born in 1933 in a rural village in Korea. The Korean War killed or harmed many of his relatives and friends. In 1952 he became a Buddhist monk and he began writing in the late 1950s. He was active in the pro-democracy movement in South Korea, becoming a spokesman for the struggle for freedom, writing prolifically and, as a result, being imprisoned four times (in 1974, 1979, 1980 and 1989).

It was during one of these periods of imprisonment that Ko Un began to compose the ongoing work that was to become Ten Thousand Lives. He began it, not on paper, but entirely in his head.

As he sat in solitary confinement in a tiny windowless prison cell, in darkness so black that he could barely see the glint of the coffee can that he had been given to use as a latrine, Ko Un began to reflect on his vocation as a poet and the strong connection he felt between his own situation and the sufferings of all Korean people. He began to make a mental inventory of all the people he had ever known, both in the real world and in the pages of literature and history books. He vowed that, if he was ever released from prison alive, he would begin to write a poetic record of each of these people. Having made this vow, we are told by Robert Hass in his Preface, Ko Un felt a greater sense of peace.

In fact, it was not until a general pardon in 1982 that Ko Un was to be released. In 1986, he was finally able to begin transferring to paper the work that had, thus far, taken shape entirely in his head. T his is the major work that became Ten Thousand Lives (or Manimbo, which might be translated as ‘family records of ten thousand lives’ or ‘the background people’ or ‘all the people’).

Twenty volumes of Ten Thousand Lives have been completed so far, with a further five planned. This publication, translated by Brother Anthony of Taizé, Yung-moo Kim and Gary Gach is merely a selection from the first ten volumes.

In one sense, Ten Thousand Lives might be read as a political statement. Ko Un gives each remembered life a voice and enables the ‘background people’ to be heard for the first time.
It would have been easy for Ko Un to manipulate the music of these voices, using them to ventriloquise political messages. Instead, he simply remembers and honours each life, without sentiment, with tenderness and often with humour. He lets each life speak for itself.

Together, the poems tell other stories: a story about the way in which we can use our minds, even in the most difficult circumstances, to overcome fear and pain; and a story about the importance of re-establishing and experiencing our interconnectedness with the people and the natural world around us, even if that world has become limited to one cramped, dark room and that connection can only take place in memory and poetry.

It is fitting that, in the final poem from Volume 8 (1989), Ko Un remembers the life of Sim Ch’ong, the heroine of a popular Korean folktale whom, he says, ‘surely embodies the burning resolve deep in the heart of every Korean daughter.’ He writes: ‘How could Sim Ch’ong be merely a girl in a tale?/ How could Sim Ch’ong be merely a girl in a song?… ‘Such a girl is everyone’s Sim Ch’ong, isn’t she?’

In one sense, the lives Ko Un records for us here are particular lives from a particular time and place; but in another sense, Ko Un seems to be saying, these stories are everyone’s stories, aren’t they?

Sophie Nicholls has had poems published in various magazines such as Poetry London, PEN International and Nthposition. She researches the use of creative writing in health and well-being and works with private clients and groups through her consultancy, Sophie Nicholls Personal Development. Her latest book is Hypnotic Journaling.

Ticking Boxes

In the UK, there is a sense of reckoning. The Arts Council has issued a new report, which is the basis of a Guardian editorial today. At the core of the report, and the deep cuts to many arts projects, is a false dichotomy made, between "ticking boxes" and "excellence". The report, in fact, confuses the idea of excellence with innovation (see the Heaney post, above), but worse, assumes that one cannot tick boxes while pursuing the "real" goals of artistic endeavour. In Britain, "ticking boxes" is a euphemism for multicultural inclusivity, and socio-economic outreach. Over the last ten years, the Arts Council funded any number of museums, galleries, theatres, ballet companies, orchestras, and publishing projects, and one of the criteria was the relevance of the work, in terms of reaching out, or relating to, any number of British (often non-White) communities. I have often heard that sneer, from the Oxbridge elite, about those damn boxes - because "excellence" all too often is simply a comfortable status quo zone, where one class, and one culture, see eye-to-eye. Ticking those boxes allowed my Arts Council-funded Oxfam project to be the success it was. I was compelled to think outside my own limits of experience, and stretch, to consider, and get into dialogue with, cultures, communities, and values, different from mine - and sometimes on society's margins. It is true that, for instance, a poetry world funded only to reach the margins, and historically-underepresented cultures, might punish the established heart of things, where much good traditional and mainstream work gets done. However, aside from the few success stories, like Apples & Snakes, the performance poetry, and multicultural, poetry communities in Britain, have yet to really come in from the cold, and become productively integrated with print-based lyrical work. My fear is, in the new environment so openly opposed to the ticking of boxes, resides a ticking time bomb - one that may go off, when a whole series of people, places, and concerns, are once again sidelined and left relatively mute.

Being Rood

Tom Paulin was on the Andrew Marr Start The Week radio show this morning, on the BBC, talking about his new Faber book. Asked by the intrepid Marr of the state of poetry, especially with regards to the digital age and the Internet, what did he do? Paulin didn't talk about blogs, or e-books, or web sites, or the way the Internet is the key to getting more poems to more young readers, etc. - no, instead, he talked about how the net is a great search tool for discovering the roots of old words, like rood. Indeed, the net is a very powerful series of search engines, and this quirky answer is most intriguing, and ambiguous as hell. But a bit of a missed opportunity, maybe, too.

Friday, 11 January 2008

Poem by Todd Colby

Eyewear is pleased to welcome Todd Colby (pictured) this Friday. Colby is a poet whose name could profitably be invoked at the start and end of any review of poetry (particularly in the UK) which concerns itself with words and phrases like "urban", "witty", "edgy", "hip", or "innovative". I am glad to have anthologized his work over the last decade. He has made himself indispensable to the future of a poetry that navigates by the stars of, yes, O'Hara and Co., but also is aware of Mr. Bernstein (the one in Citizen Kane, too) - but finally, teeters off the edge of the known map with his own post-punk contemporaneity, energy and - don't deny it! - sheer verve, panache and fun. So: a bit of individual with the tradition here. His advocates include Thurston Moore and Jim Carroll, so you know we're treading thrillingly. I often find myself counting to ten (as steam shoots out my ears) when I realize how little interest is shown, in London, World Capital of Poetry Inc., in the kinds of very invigorating, brave and broad poetries now surging in America: the cutting-edge writing that gets published by places like Soft Skull Press, which is pretty much as oppositional to the mindset of the Military-Industrial-Born Again-Complex as one can get and still be legal. Colby's collections include Tremble and Shine (Soft Skull, 2004). His anthology of new New York poetry, Heights of The Marvelous, is a touchstone, as his selected from 1999, Riot in the Charm Factory.

The Color of Memory

Oh the air, cool to cold to dark, in the sky: police
agitate the faces into oblivion. A feeling of silence, a lot.

With the right words a good feeling can be dropped -- the pistol -- a
all my own.

When the rent is due I start to "reign in" my spending. I laugh
a bit in the darkness of my spankings.

A look of real life altitude, zenith, punishment.

I spray my eggs into a cauldron of lice.

Ice pancakes, a thinking person's attitude of corn.

Little brown notebook, little brown meat, swimming meat (that's me)
floating in the subway and dizzy in the air (water).

When the wind blows: a hiccup, the cool portion of charm
when a neighbor sobs or when the water makes a faint rainbow
surface bubble: clothing is good for the spirit of remembrance.

I cringe and then I celebrate with gloom and doom. My efforts, how stained
with light they are, how bold when nothing occurs but powder and day.

poem by Todd Colby

Thursday, 10 January 2008

Viva America!

America is having an early springtime, to paraphrase Reagan, brought on by the extraordinary flowering of its grassroots democracy, as captured by the worldwide media over the last week or so. Despite the bias of many snobs in Europe and beyond, who sniff at American ways of doing things, and fear or loathe the American tendency for optimism, sentiment, and faith in public expression, the Obama-Clinton wave has been a corrective. It's impossible not to be impressed by the genuine force and energy of the people, everyday and humane, concerned and informed, who are the green fuse of these primaries. British papers, often known to mock America, are filled with editorials gushing with Niagra-like praise (the Canadian side of Niagara at that).

One thing is clear: America has, despite all its flaws and foibles, the most active and open democratic system in the world today, and almost any American (short of a convicted criminal) is free to rise to the challenge of running for the Presidency, as in Lincoln's day, but more so. As is often said, a woman, an African-American, a Mormon, all have a good shot.

There is a huge irony in this new British enthusiasm for the American freedom to be, to say, and to express - since it is these energies, precisely, which are actively suppressed, and opposed, in the nativist English critical tradition in contemporary British poetry. That is to say, the English line defended and argued for, by the likes of critic Edna Longley, is precisely not about freedom.

Yet, the great theme of poetry is freedom. Modern poetry, which begins, properly, with two American geniuses, Emily Dickinson, and Walt Whitman, resolves to extend the canonical tradition, working with then beyond, formal structures, opening out into the infamous "telling it slant" or a "barbaric yawp". This slant yawp is modern diction and syntax, and it means that the American side wins the dream poetry match of the last 158 years or so. Or comes close.

At issue, so often, in British poetry circles, is concern with propriety, gentility, decorum, and subtle nuances of "voice". Also emphasised is command of form, and craft. Poetry, exactly, not carried away by itself, or a sense of language or moment carried on a wave of emotion. Irony often holds sway. Or a very gentle lyric self gets expressed, with no apple carts overturned.

Democracy offers more raw, more chafed, delights - the jumble and bustle, zip and hip-hip-hooray of anything-may-happen. This is the poetry of a Plath, an O'Hara. I hesitate to suggest that every society gets the poetry it deserves, but in England, at least, poetry, and society, are united, and both falling. In America, the more open options, the sense that the best poem is still out there, waiting to be written, means that, united, poetry and freedom stand.

Where is the Obama of British poetry? Who currently astounds, moves, inspires, and galvanizes? The British Big Boys of Poetry keep a lid on anything that might actually stir the young, the masses. Too often, what we get is a safe pair of hands.

Wednesday, 9 January 2008

The Rise of the Machines

In a surprising "comeback kid" moment that may have been partly inspired by the show of human tears (in an artificial way), Hillary Clinton has narrowly beaten Barack Obama into a winding, wounding second place (thought it should be recalled Bill only came in 2nd in New Hampshire himself, before going on to the presidency). What this seems to show is that Clinton has the machinery to get votes on the night. Looking at the numbers, Obama still appeals more widely, especially to Independents, who may yet decide the overall race for the White House - the question is, will the Democratic party take the risk and go with the attractive outsider, or opt for the safer route and back Clinton (thereby handing the final outcome to McCain). Then again, McCain, who also won for his party last night, has problems of his own. His age, for instance. But his experience, and bravery, are second to none. The race remains close, and intriguing, even exciting. I am just sorry Obama was deprived of a defining, historic, Kennedy-style moment.

Tuesday, 8 January 2008

Bond Will Be Back

Good news. Bond 22 is shaping up nicely. The chief Bond girls have been announced, as has the latest villain (suitably French). Dame Judi Dench is back, too, with, of course Daniel Craig. The plot will follow on from the new-classic Casino Royale, promising some continuity in a pastiche-and-judo jumble of a series. The top Bond Girl will be Ms. Olga Kurylenko (cue From Russia With Love cliches), a model-actor, pictured, who recently appeared in actioner Hitman opposite Prison Break's favourite cornpone psycho Robert Knepper; I have yet to see her act, but she looks the part. Keeping with the tradition of locating the villain on the continent, and in Art House, they've recruited Mathieu Amalric as the baddie. Eyewear looks forward to this one's eye-opener on 7 November 2008.

Who Should Win The Eliots?

I don't want to be polemical, but I feel the shortlist for the TS Eliots did not represent all the best of British poetry this year (it was a very good year and ten would never have been enough to capture this, however the list had been sliced, it must be said). I missed Luke Kennard, Annie Freud, David Morley, and Daljit Nagra, for instance, from this list - as well as John Ashbery.

Of the poets on the list, one or two strike me as too newly-emerged, or yet again oft-laurelled, to necessarily require this garland. It seems to be Carcanet's year - the poets they have fielded are particularly impressive.

So, who would be on the my shorter list? Strong contenders would be Matthew Sweeney, or Sophie Hannah - who take humour, formal style, and the surreal, into new places for poetry. Mimi Khalvati writes exquisitely, and is a kind of master of what she does. However, two collections demand ever closer attention, for any number of reasons. My head says Fiona Sampson, my heart Edwin Morgan.

New Year Poetry Now Online At Nthposition

Monday, 7 January 2008

Common Readers: A Streetcar Too Far?

The Sunday Times Culture section for January 6 ran several reviews which, taken together, expose, or raise, certain questions about the way in which exceptional talent is presented, and received, in contemporary Western society. The review of award-winning American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J Robert Oppenheimer relates the bizarre spectacle of a nine-year-old genius turning to his cousin and saying "ask me a question in Latin and I'll answer you in Greek", yet later in life refusing Einstein's advice, and subjecting himself to a ruinous grilling at the hands of the McCarthyite AEC inquiry. Oppie, Sanskrit-reading, was bullied terribly as a child, because he was exceptional, and most people, by definition, cannot be; exceptions are often picked on.

John Carey's review is laudatory, as he ends by saying "no more absorbing biography will, I predict, come out this year". Oppenheimer is fascinating - I had never realised he was quite so wealthy, or quite so cold. Now we turn to the review of the new, odd-sounding paradoxically-titled George Steiner book, My Unwritten Books, with its chapter, "The Tongues of Eros" that details many (imagined?) sexual encounters with women. Steiner employs schoolboyish euphemisms like "taking the streetcar to Grinzing" to signify "respectful anal access".

Steiner, like the atomic scientist, is fascinated by language(s), but less so by science, and here we see what that gets him - short shrift, from reviewer Christopher Hart, who seems to have no time for high culture qua high culture (he approves of the sex). He writes: "although scornful of the obscurities of post-structuralism and deconstruction, Steiner's own writing is little better, suggesting all too vividly a world of comfortably tenured academics, talking among themselves, in a language which deliberately excludes the rest of us, and effectively saying nothing anyway." He also suggests that such "mandarin" language reveals that "Steiner may not actually want common readers". No doubt, not Hart, anyway.

What is a common reader? Who does Hart mean by "us"? Why would someone think another writer, by using complex ideas and the rich heritage of Europe, was being exclusive, or worse, "saying nothing". Behind this rather gross, even lazy series of claims lies an example of a common British response to Europe, politically and culturally, especially the French. British empiricism, and common sense, rubs up against foreign depths that, rather than offering new possibilities or legitimate claims on our attention, are merely "a congress of bats squeaking" - whereof we can't speak, as it were. Occam's razor, or Wittgenstein's saw aside, Steiner is clearly reaching for uncommon readers, ones who might be seduced by, or enter into the erotic, Barthesian play of, textuality.

I think about the idea of common readers often because poets are often accused of having neglected them, when, as I counter, it is the reader who has neglected the poets. Just as churches go more and more empty in England, so too does much good poetry hardly get visited, let alone revisited. Writing down to an "us" that is common will not bring readers back. This coarsened view of the arts is not the one endorsed for science, of course - we can excuse a physicist of genius for being arrogant and polyglot; but expect our bookmen and women to speak and write in Plain English.

But you don't get exceptional work by being ordinary, very often. Steiner's provocations, of taboo, and high style, explore that very border, between genius and brilliance, between what can, and cannot be approved, in a society that more and more has emptied itself of all but what is easy to consume.

Troubadour Epiphany

I am reading at one of the best series in the UK, tonight, with a very good line-up of other poets.
I'll be selling and signing copies of my latest collection, Winter Tennis (2007). Do come by if in town.

Monday 7th January: 8pm at the Troubadour
Epiphanies—a time of gifts:

with Linda Black, Alan Buckley, Maggie Sawkins, Todd Swift, Martina Thompson, Helen Mort, and Claire Crowther.

8 to 10 pm, tickets £6 concessions £5
265 Old Brompton Road London SW5
Tube station: Earls Court (District & Piccadilly Lines)

Friday, 4 January 2008

Dramatic Iowa Caucus

As Eyewear hoped, and predicted, Mr. Obama has placed first in the Democratic Iowa Caucus, held last night, beating Hillary Clinton. Less positively, the charismatic rightwing Republican candidate, Mike Huckabee, also came first for his party. It remains to be seen what happens in New Hampshire, next Tuesday, when some distance may open up between the few leading figures bunched at the head of the pack. It seems likely, given Mr. Edwards' second placing here, he will stay the course perhaps until Super Tuesday, in February, meaning the Democratic party has a three-legged race staggering on until then. The Republicans, too, should keep at least four men in the race until February 5, Mitt Romney, Huckabee, McCain and Giuliani. Ron Paul might just edge in, there, too, as his Internet-based support keeps his maverick status alive. The world may yet be saved...

Poem by Peter Finch

Eyewear is pleased to welcome Peter Finch (pictured) this first Friday of the new year.

Finch is, to my mind, one of the most significant (and witty and experimental) Welsh poets of the second half of the 20th century, into this the 21st. He is also a key cultural activist: organizing, editing, publishing and writing about, poetry - in its many guises.

He is a superb performer of his work, as I've witnessed on several occasions, once in Hungary on a very humid summer day that felt like Alabama, then again in Cardiff, which was much colder, and at the London Life Lines launch, in 2006.

I've been happy to include his work in several of my anthologies, including In The Criminal's Cabinet. He is openly and optimistically aligned with poetry that both innovates and reaches out to audiences - in short, almost singlehandedly defining the kind of poet I thought represented the future development of the art, when I wrote about fusion poetry.


When my father turned our house
into a club it cost ten and six to get
in. People were aghast. A few
got the wrong idea when
Joan invited a Caribbean
to play boogie in the upstairs
parlour. But they needn't have
shown concern. Uncle Jim used a huge
mallet to knock a tap into a beer
barrel, first I'd ever seen, while
Pop reluctantly showed them all
his desk full of two pole wire
and rolled-up string. Bored
by this adult fantasy I slid into
Miss Winton the lodger's room
where I tried on the contents of her
knickers drawer. I can tell you now there
was little excitement. They were old,
yellowed and large. I'd read somewhere
that this is what adults did to pass
the winter nights. No TV just darkness.
Such disappointment.

I've spent my life since in a struggle
with passion; what is it, where is it,
how does it go?
Joan and Jim I could
understand but Miss Winton?

God only knows.

poem by Peter Finch

Thursday, 3 January 2008

Guest Review: Vickers on new Mennonite Writing

Janet Vickers reviews
Half in the Sun: Anthology of Mennonite Writing
edited by Elsie K. Neufeld
with Robert Martens and Leonard Neufeldt

Half in the Sun is a collection of prose and poetry from west coast Mennonite writers, including such well known names as Andreas Schroeder, Carla Funk, Barbara Nickel, Melody Goetz, and Patrick Friesen, with an introduction by Sharon Butala. The voices in this anthology are diverse, yet reveal a textural quilt of shared tensions – surviving political cruelties of Europe, the angst of settling in a new world, and the attempts to weave faith, history and hard work into the new community.

The Mennonite church is present in the evidence of virtues here, but there is no preaching and no sectarian chauvinism. Faith comes through a family’s ordeals moving from a farm to a house in the city, in Schroeder’s humorous ‘Renovating Heaven’. It comes through in Darcie Friesen Hossack’s ‘Ashes’ as a woman and her daughter-in-law learn to deal with loss and grief together, in spite of their different interpretations of how to live well.

Hell is a place on earth for many, including ‘Katya’, the eponymous refugee desperately seeking to survive Siberia with her family in Louise Bergen Price’s story. Hell is normal for Oscar Marten’s ‘Safe Places On Earth’, although the protagonist (a thief and con-man) hardly notices as he goes about the tricks of his day, preying on the good hearts of Mennonites.

However, the good heart is open to honesty and refuses to euphemize violence. Most Mennonites come from the farming community; they know how meat is more than that package in a supermarket refrigerator. In ‘The End of Swinbourne’ written by Harry Tournemille, a young boy comes of age watching the breach birth of a calf, and is expected to get in there with all the stinking fluids. Neufeld’s poem ‘Yesterday’s Kill’ describes the harvesting of pigs. You can feel the fear and smell the “piss blood” while women in the kitchen merrily prepare sausage.

Sentimentality is absent but not missed between these covers. Life is full of danger as listed by Funk in her poem ‘Angel of Stupidity’. Giving up is not an option either. Nickel’s ‘Sestina for the Sweater’ knits an endless return that “casts me off, casts me on, sound of needles as we face the years”.

The sacred is in the mundane. In the many chores that chart their lives Larry Nightingale writes in ‘Barrel-burning’, “we’re white smoke in time’s orchard”. K. Louise Vincent confesses “Up close, I see the heart of the world/ is broken; it is winter and there is war” in her quiet protest ‘I Find all Devotion Difficult’. You can feel the presence of something larger than weather in Neufeld’s ‘November Snow’... “the dead come to life. Snow crafting bare limbs / into crooked white fingers”.

Between the activities of hard working people there are those private moments of despair. It is palpable in Funk’s poem “Nightwalk” where a “long mirror of sidewalk lights” take you to “the night to sudden nowhere”. Yet we are warned about contentment, the crescendo’s of self-congratulation in Marten’s ‘a little mennonite goes a long way’. We are told by the ads that “orgasm is immortal” and “if you’re having a good time” you need to locate that “little mennonite” to remind you, that no matter how full the banquet table “this could be our last meal”.

Friesen warns, in ‘Limoncino Road’, “There’s so much civilization, so much deception, to work your way through”, yet this book is a testimonial to the authenticity of the single creative voice embedded in a collective. These voices know of starvation, injustice and refugee camps; of farm labour, of trying to fit in the new world and of the thin line between coping and giving up. It rises from the experience of each writer and is as personal as the colour of an eye. It is a wisdom that comes from seeing, as Neufeldt observes in ‘Why Our Town is Replacing silver Maples with Better Trees’, your beloved “standing half in the evening sun and half in the shade wondering”.

Janet Vickers is a British-Canadian poet based in BC who recently won the first-ever Facebook Poetry competition. Her chapbook is You Were There (2006). Her poems have appeared at Nthposition, Eyewear and elsewhere.

Wednesday, 2 January 2008

Obama, Thank You Man

Who has been more exciting, and promised greater transformative energy, running for the American presidency, than Mr. Obama (pictured)? Lincoln, Kennedy (both). Few others. Eyewear predicts and hopes he will take the Iowa Caucus for the Democratic Party, on 3 January. This position is not as radical as it may seem, since today The Times (UK) declared for this thrilling, radically new candidate, as well. Of course, American presidents won't budge the US towards enlightened socialism, but they can tilt it towards a more nuanced form of capitalism, at least.

Tuesday, 1 January 2008

Resolution In The Air

The news that smoking has been banned in the cafes of Berlin and Paris (even if the laws will not be strictly enforced for months to come) is as good as it is unlikely. I, myself, was once a smoker, and spent several years in Paris, reading, writing, and daydreaming in my local cafe (Le Nemrod) accompanied by the plumes of tobacco that are the silky blue angels of seedy leisure and lazy desire. Cigarette smoke was once the airborne cinematic dada of the 20th century, as modern as death, chaos and machines in tandem. But, as we know from Mann's stylish The Insider, it is possible to have a mise-en-scene contra the cancer-giver extraordinaire. Smoking kills people, and is addictive (so is life, sneer cynics). Other cynics carp about the "nanny state" - as if laws against speeding, or putting rat poison in sandwiches, were also horrifying intrusions into the personal sphere. Art, and cosmopolitan, even bohemian, locations, should survive the cafe culture meeting the cult of health. So long as there is coffee, conversation, and newspapers, and passers-by to ogle or compare, cafes can, and will, thrive.


A WORK IN PROGRESS... I am writing this first part on the eve of New Year's Eve day - and as new remembrances come to me, I may well...