Monday, 30 June 2008

Reports of Poetry's Health Are Greatly Exaggerated

Truth lies between.

Between extremes, that is. Poetry is not dead - and when the media says it is, they are turning over sod on an old grave. However, irrational exuberance does no one any good, in the marketplace (even of ideas), either. There's a consensus building among some quarters in British poetry that Poetry Is Truly Popular! The argument then goes something like this: if We Only Knew How To Connect With Poetry's Hungry, Tech-Literate Masses, We Could Sell Oodles Of Poetry Items.

As my grandfather Ian Hume used to say - come off the roof! The truth is, there is a groundswell of optimism, and a sense of new possibilities, as a new generation of younger poets takes hold of the various means of production and distribution that the new media afford them - much as the photocopying and lithograph moment of the 60s and 70s allowed for the British Poetry Revival (duly crushed by the big publishers and mainstream critics, so the story goes). However, this undeniably thrilling rise of several hundred younger poets, and performers, and Internet impresarios and editors, does not a revolution - or a mass audience - make. Having worked with American slam and spoken word artists in the 90s, when that was a truly popular American art form, I can attest to how seeming popularity and interest rarely translates into the cash register's ching-ching.

In fact, take a look at Facebook. I admin a Poetry group, and it has over 2,400 members. This all sounds promising. But groups with names like "When I Get A Million Members I Will Punch An Astronaut" have 180,000 members, and soaring. Facebook is the viral method of the moment - and a useful barometer. Even in its wildly contagious, and viral form, Poetry and Poets tend to get a smaller percentage of members, than almost any other topic, theme or subject, under the sun.

Poetry is an art, with elements it takes time to truly appreciate, even understand; it has complexity, and formal style, and does not merely appeal to the heart, or the funnybone - it also appeals to the mind or soul - it requires that people who engage with it, work at it. Maybe not puzzling out work - but a work of attention, and seriousness, none the less. Poetry that is any good cannot merely be entertainment, whereas great movies and songs can be, because that is partly their genre's remit. Poetry asks of us, and yields as much as we give it.

Poetry rarely connects directly with the audience of its day - and the poetry that does, tends to be rubbish later on. Kipling diminishes in our estimation; Walter de la Mare more so. Poets barely read while alive (poor Whitman, who published his own books) and Hopkins prove this. The Georgian Moment had its tub-thumping publishers, like Marsh, and Monro, who managed to sell anthologies to tens of thousands of people (as I have done with Oxfam, as Bloodaxe does, as Salt does). However, novels sold far more widely - and still do.

Poetry is a minority interest, like chess, or mathematics, or philosophy. It is a noble, vital, and necessary part of human life - but it can no longer claim a central role. It appeals, generally, to the young, and the older - those filled either with enthusiasm and energy, or those with time on their hands, to reflect on timeless emotions and thoughts. Those in their middle years - busy parents, engineers, pilots, ad executives, accountants, violinists, etc. - less so. Time is priceless, and people prefer to spend their time, more and more, on other things - downloading films, music, or what have you. There may be harm and sadness in this - the idea that Poetry saves lives, and heals all is lovely, but unfounded (most poets do not enjoy much fruit from the Poetry Tree). However, it seems truer than claiming Poetry, like Destry, Rides Again!

I am glad publishers want to promote, and publish, good young poets. Salt, for instance, has published ten or twelve poets, recently, who should have had books out years ago, and in a less restricted and old-fashioned environment, would have had. Small dynamic UK presses can make an impact now, in the next few years, because there has been an extraordinary logjam. Publishing younger poets, though, before they have fully formed their own poetic, or sense of poetry, does no one any good, in the long run. If everyone gets published, no one does, because publication becomes virtually meaningless. Wearing shoes is no longer a noteworthy event in London, because it is so commonplace.

The idea that everyone will be a poet on their blog, or Facebook group, in the future, renders poetry banal, trivial, easy, and ultimately boring. Poetry is not a new dance craze, or the latest pop song. It is not a fashion - though poets and poetic styles go in and out of fashion. Poetry is an age old, ever-reviving, art of great beauty, power, and worth. It needs a thoughtful husbandry, unless it is to become wanton. Salesmen may claim poetry is more alive than ever, but they may be more likely singing of the death of Aesop's goose. Golden eggs of the sun, silver eggs of the moon.

Saturday, 28 June 2008

Salt: Into The Hands of the People

An interesting post from Curiosa Hamiltona on Salt's Brave New World pronouncements. A lot of Salt's blog post sounds like the sort of thing I (and many other poetry activists) have been saying (and fighting for) for the last ten or more years (i.e., open up a space for more poets, more readers, and use the net do so). My six-year-old essay for Vallum, above, for instance, suggests the idea of a fragmented, diverse, and lifestyle-based audience for poets.

This poetry activisim, on my part, was never done to make money - maybe even to lose money - (I am not a "salesman"). I have shown conviction, by sticking to a long-time policy of supporting various kinds of poetries and poetics (Fusion Poetry), and encouraging free or easy access to poetry, via new media. However, when I say this, some radical critics call me a capitalist or worse (though I advocate mainly free distribution via the Internet) - but when Salt puts it into practice, they are somehow suddenly above reproach.

The idea that poetry is "for everyone" is good in principle, but trite pap when put into practice. Read Bernstein, among others, on this. There is a little thing called "taste" - and sadly, in Britain, most people without much experience of poetry express an interest in precisely the sort of neo-Georgian slice-of-life empirical rubbish that Salt poets and poetics used to question, and present a viable alternative to. The Salt "brand" is in danger of becoming meaningless - all things to all people.

Salt is right to note that the arrival of an under-40 generation of poets and performers using the Internet, stage tours, and other digital means, signals a relatively new wave of production, and consumption of poetry (one that has, in fact, been happening, since the late 90s). I am an administrator of the first, and one of the largest, Facebook poetry groups, for example, with over 2,400 active members. This wave of writing is simply not reviewed, or discussed, with any seriousness, in the British media, even in that section concerned with literary coverage - nor is it represented by most publishers of poetry in the UK - although Eggbox and other small presses are starting to do it.

If there is a poem or poet for every reader, how soon do we devolve down the lonely path to a private-language scenario, or a "that painting goes well with my walls" attitude. Poetry can be difficult. It is not meant to only please, or entertain, or appeal to, readers - but to confront, provoke, and challenge (as Salt's own back catalogue establishes).

Guest Review: Oey on The Edge of Love

Jennifer Oey reviews
The Edge of Love

Directed by John Maybury and written by Sharman Macdonald, the film was released in the UK on June 20th following a lengthy mess and confusion of misdirected hype that has led reviewers and the public to expect a biopic of Dylan Thomas replete with a good old lesbian romp. This is a crying shame because it does a disservice to all involved in this bold interpretation of a complex relationship.

The film stars Keira Knightly as Dylan Thomas’s first love, Vera Phillips, and Sienna Miller as his wife, Caitlin Thomas, and focuses closely on the relationship these two women developed initiated by their shared love of the Welsh poet played by Cardiff born Matthew Rhys. The two men central to the story, Dylan and William Killick (Cillian Murphy), take a back seat in this case, as many wives and girlfriends have done over the course of film history.

Unfortunately it didn’t take the media long to invent a host of rumours (read: lies) about Knightly and Miller that effectively belittled their roles in the film. Mick Jagger’s threats to sue the BBC further confused matters: Jagger owns the rights to a large chunk of Thomas’s works, and took issue with Maybury’s inclusion of a reference to Map of Love (the title was shown in background of a scene) that resulted in post-production ‘removal’ to stop legal action from proceeding. Jagged Films is rumoured to be producing a Dylan Thomas biopic in the near future entitled, Map of Love. All of this attention focussed on Thomas and his poetry quite reasonably led folks to believe that his character would be more thoroughly examined than it is in this case.

Eyewear raises a potent concern in a previous post, The Edge of the Map of Love, about the apparent incongruity of mass culture and poetry. Few films dare to put a poet at their centre and those that do (Sylvia, Molière etc…) do not expect a large payoff at the box office and aren’t usually disappointed in this respect. Those who are interested in a filmic exploration of Thomas’s life and career will have to keep their fingers crossed that Jagged Films follow through with Map of Love as it’s hard to imagine how anyone else could make an endearing film about the poet without access to his major works.

Edge’s story is actually about Caitlin – Dylan’s troubled alcoholic philandering wife – and Vera – possibly Dylan’s first love and subsequent lover/mistress. The focus of the film is the convoluted relationship between these two complex women: a work of fiction based on true events. Both Macdonald and Maybury have taken poetic license and neither has denied that this is the case; this is an exploration of the relationship between two strong and self-sufficient women who find friendship and comfort in their closest rival. Miller and Knightly have a calculated chemistry on screen and it is intriguing to watch these two women care for each other, watch each other, and nearly destroy each other. Dylan Thomas is obviously an integral character in the story and, if not for him, the story of these two women and the speculation about their relationship would not ever have been of interest to a wide audience (and it’s unlikely that it has more than a moderate audience now) and this cannot and should not be ignored.

People will likely be of two minds about Dylan: some will find him despicable and selfish, and others, like Vera seems to, will find him to be charming but destructively child-like. Rhys’ performance perfectly compliments Miller and Knightly. As the man who selfishly wants them both always within reach, he is at once charming and full of himself and his poetry; and yet despicable and cowardly. And Cillian Murphy’s William Killick is his perfect foil: fit and able to serve in the war, single-mindedly devoted to one woman, and justifiably driven to drink by the horrors he eventually witnesses. Maybury’s intention to shoot the film like a documentary has resulted in a slight lack of focus in the building tension and ultimate climax of the film, but is nonetheless an compelling and well-executed portrait of Caitlin, Vera, Dylan, and William – crucially, in this order.

The Edge of Love beautifully and richly evokes the era of the Second World War despite, as Maybury puts it, leaving some work for the audience to do. Unlike many Hollywood period pieces, and indeed the recent Atonement, this film (bravely) does not have sweeping scenes filled with period-correct cars and paraphernalia. Instead, Maybury lets the period seep through the perfect red lips, floral dresses, pert hairstyles, and daring performances. It is highly effective and lets the focus be on the characters rather than the sets. This is not to say that there is any lack of mis-en-scene: the ballroom the bomb strikes is suitably opulent; the bars and underground cabaret are seedy; and the Welsh house on the cliff is scratchy, cold, and fraught with tension.

A biopic focussed on Thomas and his poetry is certainly something to look forward to and many of us will pin our hopes on Jagged Films in this regard. The Edge of Love, when seen for what it is meant to be – and not plagued with out-dated notions that dictate a protagonist to be, by default, male – is frankly an Oscar-worthy achievement.

Jennifer Oey is a Canadian writer and filmmaker currently based in Britain.

Friday, 27 June 2008

Turner Prized: Simon Armitage Praises Alex Turner's Lyrics

The Guardian's been running a series, all week, of little pamphlet inserts, titled Great Lyricists (of what isn't made clear, but the mainly contemporary scene, apparently). Of the eight, two are Canadian, and one was born near the Canadian border (Cohen, Joni Mitchell, and Dylan). Three more are entirely American (Springsteen, Patti Smith and Chuck D). Two are British (which is very international of The Guardian: the bitter genius Morrissey, and Arctic Monkeys frontman Alex Turner). One wonders where John Lennon or Ian Dury are - and further back, the two undisputed heavyweights of song lyrics of the 20th century (in English) Cole Porter and Noel Coward.

Turner seems a little out of his league. What comes across - and this isn't the first time I have thought of this issue given I have been interested in spoken word poetry for the last 14 years or so - is how bare the lyrics mainly are. Chuck D's and Dylan's and Cohen's are the best, because they bring the music with them, into the words. Armitage admits that "songwriters are not poets" in his Introduction. He also makes big claims about British poetry: "Nothing, in my view, characterises British poetry of the last 50 years more than the 'sketch'. Modernism has sent up its pyrotechnics, but stories and scenes still fuel the hearth fire, and Turner is a storyteller and scene-setter."

This suggests a few of the problems with the current British "mainstream" approach to art and culture since 1950. Armitage's easily made differentiation between "modernism" on the one hand, and "storytelling" on the other, is not entirely useful. It seems to return us to the idea (that Larkin bandied about) that, on the one hand, there was something English, decent, and lucid (a la Orwell) about plainspoken poetry with nice stories in it - and then there was Picasso, Parker, and all that weird, indeterminate, and ultimately heartless jazz. Clarity is all.

Well, let's wheel out Adorno; or rather, simply observe that issues such as what the lyric does, and how it relates to experience, are problematic, and intriguing, precisely because the texture and materiality of text (and the complexities of the corporeally-based speaking voice) are rich and strange. What Turner does - very well - is replicate (or mimic) - how a certain kind of young British person speaks, usually among themselves, on a night out, in a bar, dance club, or in a cab on the way home. This mirroring of "nature" is impressive, and artfully, and wittily handled. But does Turner turn this reflection back onto the way of speaking, the mode of style, itself? What is Turner saying about saying it like it is on the dancefloor, or what his "regional identity" really has to do with his language? Tony Harrison, and Armitage, himself, among others, have written of, and through, their post-Butler Act poetic eloquence from intriguing regional perspectives. W.S. Graham, who was a modernist, but also proud of his regional identity, managed to speak something about whereof we can.

Well, see you later, innovator. Or hear you later, maybe. In the meantime, poems can and should move beyond the sketch (at least some of the time) or scene. TV and the novel do that better, anyway. What poetry "does" best of all is poetic, not ordinary, language. Artifice, not reflection, perhaps, of the way things "are". Says who?

Poem by Jenna Butler

Eyewear is happy to welcome Jenna Butler (pictured) this Canada Day Weekend. Butler was born in Norwich, England in 1980, but has spent most of her life on the prairies of Western Canada. The varied landscapes of the prairies and mountains feature prominently in her poetry and fiction. Her work has been awarded a number of prizes and has appeared in print, onstage, and on the air for several years, both at home and abroad. She lives in Edmonton with her husband, where, among other things, she teaches, is finishing up a PhD, and runs a small poetry press, Rubicon.

I got to know her during the year we both did the MA in Creative Writing (Poetry) at the University of East Anglia (UEA), Norwich - at that point she had come full circle.

Jenna's a poet of great gifts, with a brilliant mind and rare ear for the best, least expected word. I expect to hear much more of her work in future.


The light here just off-true;
sight blurred by cloud, by distance.

What opens: flint-riddled hills,
church cradled like balm.

Bridle path at dusk,
rank and white with hawthorn.

The rookery: a cuckoo
borrows dark wings.

Cow parsley shatters into bloom.
Our grief in the forgetting.

poem by Jenna Butler

Thursday, 26 June 2008

Gordon Brown and Paddington Bear

Paddington, who has turned "50" this week, lived with "The Browns". His childish, sweet, and decent manner fitted in perfectly with this 1950s family (and their awkward bicycle clips). Meanwhile, another Mister Brown, Gordon, turns "1" this year - well, anyway, as Prime Minister.

The jury is still out. Polls are in - he's the least popular of his ilk since John Major, or, some say, ever. Did he get into a spot of bother over some buns and marmalade? More like Northern Rock, a bottled election, and other dithering. The most unlikely supporter, recalling Marilyn Monroe (like Paddington, but less content), has stepped forward, to "sing for" Gordon Brown: none other than significant British poet-critic-publisher, Michael Schmidt.

Eyewear has long felt that Brown has failed to deliver the principled, and left-leaning, direction his originally-exciting ascension promised, last June - however, the Professor of Poetry makes a good case for giving the good man more time. And, surely, anyone Mr. Mugabe wants to excorcise from Number Ten should be allowed to stay a little longer. Brown is not yet a "tragic failure of leadership". David Cameron, that slick salesman, might be.

Poetry Focus: Jay Meek

Jay Meek by William Stobb

A great American poet and teacher passed away last fall. After a four-year decline due to Alzheimer's disease, Jay Meek passed away at age 70. From Jay, I learned that men can be calm, speak with reason and proportion, and engage the world with a precise kind of care. And I learned that poetry- this slightest, most fragile form of writing- can fully honor our experience of the world.

Jay published eight collections with Carnegie Mellon University Press. He earned fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Guggenheim Foundation, and the Bush Foundation. He read his works by invitation at the U.S. Library of Congress.

Working toward a Master's degree under Jay's instruction, I had one of those rare experiences- a period of time where I knew I was receiving a very special gift, even as it was being given to me. Since then, I have continued to be grateful to Jay's instruction as it comes to me in his poems, and in his remarkable letters, which graced my life until he became ill in 2003.

More than ever, our young people need a mindfulness at the core of their being - so little of our cultural discourse models that.

May we all live without self-importance or apology,
work at what matters, and listen
while others talk about the things they know well.

from "Internal Exile," one of the new poems in Jay Meek's Headlands: New and Selected Poems (Carnegie Mellon 1997)

Note: a longer version of this remembrance can be heard on William Stobb's miPOradio podcast, "Hard to Say."

William Stob is an American poet.

Tuesday, 24 June 2008

Review: The New Collection by A.F. Moritz

The Sentinel
by A.F. Moritz

The Sentinel’s title poem emphasises the lonely plight of the one who waits, in the dark, poised between enemy fire ahead and friendly encampment at one’s back. American-born, Canadian-based poet A.F. Moritz, surely mindful of cultural and other borders, implies such a position is even more that of the poet, pressured to “innovate” into the absence ahead, but lapped by the traditional what-has-been always pressing at his ear. Either way, one is somewhat damned – poems thrown too-forward are not deemed reliable reports of future incursions, and if one becomes too comfortable, straining to make out the shadows, the accusation is worse, of sleep or sloth. As such, this collection seems a noble attempt to ride on the sounds of the past (mainly the modern moment of the first half of the 20th century), while gesturing at contemporary diction, and detail, from time to time.

The collection consists of 63 poems, divided into three sections, “Better Days”, “In A Prosperous Country” and “Better Days” (again). The collection is announced by an opening poem, “The Butterfly”. The presiding spirit of the collection is perhaps Wallace Stevens, or late Eliot, with something of Richard Wilbur and F.T. Prince in it, too: that is, the tone represents a style more than a voice: a vaguely dandified, discursive eloquence, at once capable of stoic observation and melancholy reflections on the passing of time.

At times, the diction shifts, as in Laforgue, or Corbiere, from high to low (and here Moritz fails to live up to his greater ancestors). Over the whole collection, which seems polished to some form, or idea, of perfection, is the sun (the last poem is titled “The Sun”), and particularly the Stevensian sun of “Sunday Morning”: “We live in an old chaos of the sun, / Or old dependency of day and night, / Or island solitude, unsponsored, free, / Of that wide water, inescapable.” In short, the splendid munificence of Harmonium bleeds across these pages, staining the poems with, at times, a Floridian radiance.

There are fifteen or sixteen poems in this book as good as any a Canadian has written, in this particular, mannered, abstract, lyric style, and a few of them are beautiful, in a way so old-fashioned as to be utterly admirable, and brave. Several of these moved me to tears, in the way that Housman or Hardy (or Larkin) can use form and emotionality, and a particular rhythm, to do so.

I’d like to name the poems I feel are excellent, before narrowing in on a special few, and also discussing where the book’s tone perhaps fails to live up to its full potential. Here are the ones that any reader who might want to test Moritz against the very best poets should read in this book: “Better Days”, “Cassandra”, “Failure”, “Childish Willow”, “Memorial”, “Poet And Sister”, “The Ant”, “Old Pet”, “Swiftness No Longer Trusted”, “In A Thunder Shower”, “Place”, “Cleanliness”, “The Moment”, “Flower In The Crannied Wall”, “The Source”, and “The Sun”. I should explain that I have selected here poems of rare achievement, and also, as Moritz would agree, those which are closer to a sense of “pure poetry”, less cluttered by the intrusions of a sometimes too-clever contemporary toxicity (no doubt part of the test, but fun, of being a Toronto poet now).

Since Moritz has seemingly political, or at least, semi-didactic aims in places (some of the poems bear the stamp of valedictory Tennyson) his work is not all timeless, or classical; instead, a sometimes inept hipster shift in diction emerges (one that Geoffrey Hill has latterly assayed as well, to better effect) to capture the dross of communication in our idiotic time; this is handled cleverly in “Vermin; or, Weariness” where household pests “have vice-presidentially overturned/ the garbage can and spread the repast” – obviously a Life Studies moment, but accurate and wry nonetheless. Indeed, this poem builds to a kind of Iraq of local trouble with its “smashed abdomen of an hour ago” and a crescendo of bile aimed at all that is officious and relentless about the current world.

No, the problem is with poems such as “The Titanic”, which is actually a clever idea: the ship never sank, and circles, housing infamous missing celebrities. Ah, but who shall appear? Why, John Kennedy, Elvis Presley, Hitler, and “the Roswell alien”. Moritz skirts the blandly expected with such references – something younger Canadian poets, like David McGimpsey, do far better, by knowing how to extend the audacious, near-empty bubble of such allusion and make it pop with real oomph.

Moritz, who clearly admires Stevens (see “The Jar” for damning evidence), sometimes lacks that great poet’s necessary saving angel, always-accurate (and enriched) verbal aim. In Moritz’s lesser poems sometimes the expected word, the first word, appears, and not one that seems fought for, and won.

In “The Butterfly”, a poem about an unearthly event, sublime and wondrous description is sought. We have “roiling gardens”, the creature is seen “hovering” and it even dives like “a fighter jet”.

Nothing terribly wrong with this, but in a poem about amazement, somehow all-too-poetic, the default moves are simply made. In “Your Story”, once again, “the perfect police erased you” – “erased” being the right word, maybe, but not the astonishing, revelatory one. It may be that Moritz is here testing the warring aspects of his art he delineates in “In A Thunder Shower”: “plain style” and “decadent decoration”.

Moritz has a strange sensibility, which at times has a sci-fi aspect to it. When treated whimsically, it leads to poems which are unusual, and charming, but perhaps less offbeat than he might’ve hoped (we are used to strange things, now). It would be inaccurate and malicious to criticise this collection, further, however, for it contains more than a dozen poems of the first rank.

One of the poems that works very well in the weird style he sometimes adopts is “Old Pet”, with the metaphysical, startling opening lines: “Come, my body, leap up, while you still can, / onto my knees, into my lap. Come let me pet you, / comfort you and take comfort while there’s time”. In this poem Moritz orders his lines well, and his images are fresh.

“The Source”, one of the last poems, and very nearly a sonnet illustrates the entirely successful command of the high modern tone (by way, perhaps, of Ashbery): “”What would silence be? The song/ of a tempered shining, almost too small / to hear – the song itself of the sun, / hushed as it is by distance, and so, hidden/ in the ear’s ignorance, but in good time / for no reason it comes to notice”. This sublime mustering of lyric sensuality and cosmic distances is light of touch, and resonant.

Less lofty, and even truer, the finest poem in the collection is the lovely “Place”. It has something of Dante in its sweet style, and the last few lines are impeccable:

…… Then I remembered
the molecular diagrams she used to send to me
in her letters: I’d look and see her eyes, where each
thing that exists tumbled yet held all space
like a ring in a box. And O, I thought, if only
I could go back and write her, why did you go
and what are you doing there, love, my only place.

In such poems, Moritz gifts contemporary Canadian poetry with something subtle, graceful and precious: the absolute right to be both emotive, and intelligent, with style.

Monday, 23 June 2008

Radical Poets

Smokestack Books has organised a British tour of "radical US poets" for the summer.

Rereading Rafferty

This just in - and Eyewear is glad to hear it.

Seán Rafferty: A Revue
Edited by Alistair Noon

Ahead of Seán Rafferty's birth centenary in 2009, this symposium takes a rare and overdue look at a 20th Century British poet whose name and work, despite the efforts of some illustrious supporters and publishers, remains little known.

Beyond early magazine publications in the 1930s, and a small collection in 1973, Rafferty's work didn't resurface till much later, with chapbooks and collections from Poetical Histories, Babel Verlag and Carcanet in the early 90s, shortly before and after his death. The work is currently kept in print by Etruscan Books, with two volumes: Poems and Poems, Revue Sketches and Fragments, corresponding roughly to a Collected and Uncollected.

The contributions this week begin with an appraisal of Rafferty's writing life and impulses, continue with readings of individual poems, and round off with a comparison between Rafferty and a couple of contemporaries. Readers are invited to comment at length or in brief on what they find, maybe writing further pieces to extend the symposium onwards.

Monday - Peter Riley, 'Seán Rafferty's Echoes'
Tuesday - Kelvin Corcoran, 'Reading Seán Rafferty for the first time. . .' and Seán Rafferty's 'I would be Adam'
Wednesday - Catherine Hales, 'The Heron Rising: A moment of affirmation in Seán Rafferty's poetry'
Thursday - Edmund Hardy, 'Barefoot Ballads'
Friday - Alistair Noon, 'Implements in New Places: Rafferty, Graham and Bunting'

Saturday, 21 June 2008

Darkness Visible: The Arms Trade

It seems ironic that, on the longest day of the year (with the most light), so much darkness should be made visible. Today, The Guardian comments on how Britain is currently the world's number one exporter of weapons. Eyewear has long expressed its total opposition to the arms trade. Like the fabled Captain Nemo, it believes that weapons, their manufacture, and sale, are a manmade evil - and one that can be controlled.

Unlike Nemo, Eyewear recommends legal means to restrict this industry. Surely, it is tragic that Britain, which prides itself on being a beacon of "civilisation" and "Western values", allows its economy to be so heavily based on a trade which, bluntly, thrives on death. Since Britain is also (still) associated with the tobacco industry, this is a compounded problem. Whenever one reflects on the financial gloom of the current Western economies, it is wise to also reflect on the sort of unethical products created to oil the wheels of industry. On the Solstice, as on the shortest day of the year, humankind must do far more to keep the light of our better selves lit.

Poetry Focus: Dylan Thomas

Eyewear is beginning a new occasional guest feature. Its Poetry Focus series of poets will showcase poets writing, in pithy prose on a poet that's meant something to them, and been, in some way, sidelined, undervalued, or even misread. It's an opportunity to correct the way we've been reading, and thinking, about "poet's poets", and other mavericks.

Dylan Thomas by Kate Noakes

In the pouring rain I tramp along the boat house lane, press my face against the window in the garage-turned-writing shed and squeeze in between the tongue and groove to breathe the same air, finger the crumpled paper and look out over Dylan’s heron-priested shore. Call it improbable, madness, love.

Disdained by some for his over-loaded language, Dylan is my first poetic hero. I was brought up on his breathless sentences, imaginative collective nouns, tightly observed stories and revelry with words. Language is what’s important, like these kennings:

‘………I, a spinning man,/glory to this star, bird/ roared, sea born, man torn, blood blest………’,[1]


‘And death shall have no dominion.
Dead men naked they shall be one
With the man in the wind and the west moon’[2]

and extended metaphors:

‘Over St, John’s hill,
The hawk on fire hangs still;
In a hoisted cloud, at drop of dusk, he pulls his claws
And gallows, up the rays of his eyes the small birds of the bay
And the shrill child’s play
Of the sparrows and such who swansing, dusk, in wrangling hedges
And blithely they squawk
To fiery tyburn over the wrestle of elms until
The flash of a noosed hawk
Crashes, and slowly the fishing holy stalking heron
In the river Towy below bows his tilted headstone.’[3]

"I write like Dylan Thomas" boasted one heckler at the Laugharne festival this year. I doubt that very much. Travestied, satirised, but never bettered, Dylan is the man and writer of the greatest villanelle.[4]

Hopefully the new film of his love-life will bring readers back to his work. The pity of it now is that there’s a phone mast over St. John’s hill.

[1] Prologue to 18 Poems
[2] "And death shall have no dominion"
[3] "Over St. John’s hill"
[4] "Do not go gentle into that good night"

Kate Noakes' first collection, Ocean to Interior, was published by Mighty Erudite Press in 2007. She runs Boomslang Poetry ( offering readings, workshops and an eponymous poetry magazine.

Friday, 20 June 2008

Poem by K. Silem Mohammad

Eyewear is very pleased to welcome K. Silem Mohammad (pictured) this Friday. When I was speaking with Charles Bernstein in London a few weeks back, he recommended his work to me, as being among the most interesting, and funniest, contemporary American poetry being created today. His work, which will strike some British poetry readers as merely rebarbative, is precisely so, aimed at taking poetic language out of the realm of a discourse that validates mere craft or the well-made. Instead, here is language writing in uncomfortable zones, disconcertingly able to inscribe the usually unsaid, unwritten. Plus, it's zany.

K. Silem Mohammad is the author of Breathalyzer (Edge Books, 2008), A Thousand Devils (Combo Books, 2004) and Deer Head Nation (Tougher Disguises, 2003).

His work has appeared in numerous journals and anthologies, including New American Writing, Fence, Bay Poetics, and The Best American Poetry 2004. He maintains the poetry and poetics blog Lime Tree and the film blog Lost in the Frame.

With Anne Boyer, he edits Abraham Lincoln, a journal of poetry. He teaches creative writing at Southern Oregon University in Ashland.


I am not a whore but many of my friends are
it is an ugly time but they should look at me and vomit
and then probably commit suicide

at age 45 a woman in her early thirties
was very important to my stupid twig bones
under the gaze of that elusive hard-on Picasso

each time you fly you kill a bird
and also you fail for being a little bandwagon
and hating RuneScape

if only I wasn’t such a dowager
done up in murders
just like the Babylonian

and as for this white power nonsense
I spent about a year on that game
baby got big and she’s gonna get bigger

“but whore’s the lodge?” demanded Miss Maria
“hero ma’am” replied Dorcas
these tastes pop and vanish in my mouth

everything on this planet
every toothless polar bear
the name of the blog hasn’t changed

reload this page look at me
I am a stupid man
I have nothing

no one cares about my work
I have wasted my life
I guess you could combine spam and football

poem by K. Silem Mohammad

Thursday, 19 June 2008

Winter Tennis Reviewed In Summer Issue Of Poetry London

The summer 2008 issue of Poetry London is now out, featuring Pauline Stainer on the cover, and with reviews by, among others, Nathan Hamilton, Peter Robinson, Kathryn Maris, and Anne-Marie Fyfe. It also features new poems from Emily Berry, Canadian poet-novelist Steven Heighton, Polly Clark, and Chris Beckett - again, among others.

Readers (especially those not based in the UK) would find a subscription to this lively, increasingly wide-ranging magazine would give them a pretty good idea of mainstream British poetry, which is recovering, thanks in no small part to the influx of younger and emerging poets over the last few years who have begun to get the logjams moving again. That being said, readers of Eyewear know, this wouldn't be Eyewear if I didn't mention a certain UK tendency to want monolinear utterance from the lyric, rather than the polysemous (let alone perverse) multiplicity of voices, and options, available.

Winter Tennis (my collection published in Montreal, Canada, in summer 2007 by DC Books) is also reviewed (along with Faber's Nick Laird, and Mario Pettruci from Enitharmon) in this issue of Poetry London, by Tom Chivers. Chivers is a poetry organiser, and good young poet, who disregards the tradition of British amateurism in poetry, and prefers the Donald Davie/ Ezra Pound trajectory of activism and serious enthusiasm (as do I). I won't quote his review in full, but it's mostly positive (buy the issue!). That being said, the review opens with a dramatic flourish:

"There are at least two Todd Swifts in Winter Tennis. The first, the one I like, is spiky and enigmatic, an anthropologist of contemporary culture, and a real craftsman. The second slips into grand gestures and an overwrought high lyricism. Swift is a proponent of 'fusion poetry' so this diversity of form, whilst confusing, is hardly surprising. Ambitious writing that breaks the mould like this is needed more than ever, and in this new collection there's plenty of the first Swift to satisfy my tastes."

I am very glad (indeed, even moved) Chivers thinks my fourth collection is "ambitious writing that breaks the mould". One thing of note, though - this matter of the Jekyll and Hyde aspects of my writng - what ever happened to an appreciation of verbal complexity and hybridity of style and language? The title of the collection is meant to be ironic, or more, oxymoronic - "winter" signifying death, and quietude, and bitter cold, and "tennis" rather life, play, and sunlight on the garden.

The two terms come together, breeding lilacs out of a dead land, mixing, as it were - in Eliotic fashion - Laforguean unities from fragments of various styles and tones - snatches of differing phrases. Pound said one of the ways of criticism is to write in the archaic or antiquated styles of other poets. The archaic and flamboyant utterances in Winter Tennis are playing on that aspect of modernist inheritance, which is often neglected (it's not enough to translate Dante, but to write one's own poems as Dante might, mon frere). In short, I do like to fuse high lyricism with a disrupted, smart alec lyricism. This leads to textual stylistic textures that are not always smooth, but fun to write, and, after Corbiere, hardly surprising.

Tuesday, 17 June 2008

Language Acts A Finalist For The Gabrielle Roy Prize

The Association for Canadian and Quebec Literatures (ACQL) has recently sent out a press release, dated 6 June 2008, announcing the winner, and congratulating the two finalists, for the 2007 Gabrielle Roy Prize, which each year honours "the best work of literary criticism published in English".

One of these was Language Acts: Anglo-Quebec Poetry, 1976 to the 21st Century, edited by Todd Swift and Jason Camlot, and published by Vehicule Press, in Montreal. The press release says of the work that it is "a thorough and provocative collection of critical essays on English-language poetry in Quebec, since 1976, when the political and cultural repositioning of the Anglophone community engendered new creative and aesthetic directions in its literature."

The other finalist was Sam McKegney's Magic Weapons: Aboriginal Writers Remaking Community After Residential Schools (University of Manitoba Press). The winner was the magisterial three volume History of the Book in Canada (University of Toronto Press), by Carole Gerson and Jacques Michon.

Monday, 16 June 2008

Gay Priests Should Be Allowed To Marry In Church

Eyewear's mostly pro-Anglican leanings buckle, but don't break (O my chevalier), on reading the news a good man's been hounded from the priesthood for a gay marriage that's perfectly right and meet. As has been argued here before at these pages, it's a tragic misreading and misuse of Scripture to argue against full tolerance of love that dares to tie the knot. What's sacred are the vows, not the genders, involved.

I'm Reading In Reading

I'm reading in Reading with the hirsute performance poet A.F. Harrold on the 20th of June, 2008, at the Poets' Cafe; come for 8 pm.

R.F. Langley In His 70th Year

I was in Cambridge on the weekend, browsing for books in Heffers, and came across The Face Of It, the latest (2007) collection of poems from R.F Langley, pictured, now in his 70th year. I'd say Langley was one of contemporary poetry's best kept secrets, though his work is known and loved by many; in some ways, his current reputation is analagous to two other Carcanet poets, C.H. Sisson, and F.T. Prince - both late or neo- modernist in style, poet's poets, and really deserving of a wider readership. I've bought the new Langley, and look forward to reading it this summer. His style is wonderfully cursive, bending around corners, swooping and darting in fresh circumstances.

Friday, 13 June 2008

The Irish For No

The Irish have voted against the Lisbon Treaty for EU enhancement. Pity. They benefited from it for so long, it might have been considerate to continue to support it now.

A Little Too Hollywood?

Eyewear isn't the only Quixote in town. David Davis has been mainly branded a Quixotic loser by the British press, since beginning his one man crusade against 42-day detention. What's curious is to see how such a principled stand is being played out in the UK. British papers often wax lyrical about "American style politics" - but when it emerges in their own backyard, they balk, puzzled, or disconcerted by the "loose canon" in their midst.

British social and political life is still often governed by rigid codes of decorum, and breaking ranks, even to voice something good or necessary, is tantamount to going "mad", or becoming "unreliable". No wonder it is so difficult to voice well-meaning opposition in the UK, without becoming quickly marginalised. One is meant to "work within the system" - even if, as Davis proposes, that system has failed everyone. It's sad to see a brave, decent man so quickly pilloried. The press might have championed him more.

Poem by Chris Kinsey

Chris Kinsey (pictured here) is one of the poets Eyewear believes deserves more attention for her unusual and often unexpectedly powerful poems.

She received an Arts Council of Wales writer’s award in 2000. This enabled her to give up her day job and focus on writing and rescuing greyhounds. She derives much inspiration from living a long time in a small town, and from Welsh landscapes.

Her poems have been widely published in magazines and anthologies, such as In the Criminal’s Cabinet & Reactions 3 & 4. Her first collection, Kung Fu Lullabies came out from Ragged Raven Press in 2004.


We turn our backs
on window-shopping and sales
walk away from town.

Seven drakes, heads and necks
green from dipping the depths,
scull the slow bend.

A willow leans from pale chippings.
Old saw wounds are a quiver
of amber arrows.

At a gap in the alders
the weir makes water back flip.
We watch stones grow beards.

A whistle shrills us heron-still.
Before we tune to its signal
our eyes see a dart so swift

the beak pierces from turquoise flights,
draws us to our toes.
It pauses on a branch,

but the branch is a fired bow.
River-rush erases colours,
ripples make us squint and doubt.

poem by Chris Kinsey

Thursday, 12 June 2008

Veronica Forrest-Thomson: Why is Poetic Artifice So Hard To Find?

No other single poet-critic is arguably as important for post-war British poetry (not even Empson, Alvarez , Hamilton or Heaney) as Veronica Forrest-Thomson, one of the eccentric geniuses that the UK seems to produce every so often. To simplify, she took Wittgenstein's ideas about language and the world, and applied them to the language games within poetic practice. Her influence on the alternative poetic traditions of the British isles is immense - indeed, she also inspired Charles Bernstein and the "Language poets" of America (her Introduction to Poetic Artifice lays the groundwork for his Artifice of Absorption, when she writes, "all norms of other kinds of discourse are changed when absorbed by a poem"). Alison Mark's Veronica Forrest-Thomson and Language Poetry is a good place to start, for those who want to read more.

So, here's the question, how come it is so hard to locate copies of her brilliant, significant masterwork, Poetic Artifice? Does anyone know of a reprint currently available, from Shearsman, Salt or Carcanet, say? The original goes for over £100 on the Internet. It seems strange, even almost scandalous, that such an important critical work, whose thoughts and implications underpin so much of the Cambridge school of poetry, and beyond, should lie out of the reach of many of those who might want to easily own a copy. Yes, it is in (some) libraries, but hardly in great numbers. I look forward to someone clearing this up.

The Edge Of The Map Of Love

Posters are all over London, featuring two beautiful young starlets, for the new movie The Edge Of Love, opening in Britain on the 20th of June. Nowhere do the posters suggest that the protagonist, and main theme of the film, is Dylan Thomas. At some point, Eyewear will want to review the film. For now, what's telling is how the people behind the marketing campaign (probably grosser versions of mediocre Lee McQueen) thought it best to hide, rather than share, the poetry at the heart of this romantic biopic.

Ironically, Dylan Thomas may (just barely) be one of the only modern poets the average cinemagoer can still name. And, his life of apparent drink and erotic encounters (or erotic encounters with drink), is hardly of zero interest in the time and place of Amy Winheouse et al. Anyway, this marks another low point in poetry's intersection with mass culture. The fact that a key element of the film, the poet's attempt to get the law to punish a drunken accidental gunman, has been "dramatised" (in "real life" Thomas was sympathetic to the man) hardly fills one with much hope. It seems like a missed opportunity, concocting false drama in the life of a larger-than-life cultural figure, who, from the sounds of it, experienced more than enough real drama for several people.

Speaking of McQueen, The Apprentice is a show trial for all that is wrong with contemporary Britain. Each time Alan Sugar had the chance to reward creativity (as in the tissues advert) or style, he opted for the lowest common denominator (and usually a man). It's particularly unfortunate that a self-confessed liar and CV-cheat should be rewarded so publicly. What signals does this send to our children, etc? No truth in film or advertising! What is the world coming too?! Sigh.

Mr. Davis Goes To Westminster, Then Home

David Davis has done something new in British politics today. His resignation, on principle, with a plan to refight for his seat as an MP, against the 42-day limit for arrest under new government "anti-Terror" legislation, isn't the usual parliamentary tactic, and seems, further, to have caught even David Cameron off-guard. Davis is in uncharted, and mostly unsupported, waters here. On the one hand, he may be admired for sticking to his guns, or mocked or more for gesture politics. If he wins, he may be better placed to challenge Cameron, at some point, for leadership of his party; a loss could signal oblivion, or some sort of quasi-obscure UKIP identity. What matters, though, is this act is dramatic, and calls attention to the authoritarian heartbeat of Brown's horrific government.

Wednesday, 11 June 2008

Britain needs a major poetry prize for innovative writing like the Turner Prize

In architecture, and in plastic arts such as painting and design, Britain leads the world, in innovation - and high-profile, and controversial - prizes, often connected to handsome cash payouts. The Turner Prize is a leading example. Critics of these prizes tend to argue the gongs and nods go to the more experimental, cutting-edge, and contemporary practitioners - and not those who support more traditional, even outdated, modes. Not so in the British poetry world, where the key prizes - TS Eliot, Forward, and Costa spring to mind - are almost always given to good, traditional, mainstream poets. In otherwords, and perhaps paradoxically, it is the innovators who tend to be excluded. Now, I am sure these innovative writers likely don't ask their presses (Barque, say, or Reality Street) to submit their work, all the time - and there is a legitimate oppositional tendency among the experimentalists that would, I think, tend to recommend against the giving of such awards - however, as The Griffin in Canada evidences - it is possible to have a popular, rich prize that also recognises literary pioneering. What would such a prize be called? How about "The Bunting"? Time to start seeking sponsors.

Tuesday, 10 June 2008

Dorm-room touches

Dear me. A Montreal writer has got his hands on my latest collection, and found a whiff of the undergraduate about it. I'd suggest any critic who uses phrases like "dorm-room touches" has a bit of spring break fever themselves. Anyway, it's an interesting, violently mixed review. As the reviewer writes: "The voice which might have knit these elements together into a powerful whole seems, as yet, to lack confidence in what it is attempting to say." Well, yes, except what the poems are saying is that the idea of one voice, and one powerful whole, remains elusive, for poems, for texts - especially in bleak midwinter. However, the "excess" of reference to other authors in the collection (and other figures, in general, from Hirohito, to Brando) was intentional, and valedictory. I happen to think allusion and homage are viable poetic tropes - and excess is also, at times, a literary option. Many conservative Montreal critics tend to want poetry to be austere, epiphanic, and vocally coherent. You see, folks, North Americans can be stiff and quaint in their poetic needs.

Monday, 9 June 2008

Review: Coldplay's Fourth Album, Viva La Vida or Death And All His Friends

Since I do like some popular culture, and I understand the need for exuberance and light-hearted joy in life, it feels churlish to review a Coldplay album with too much gravity. However, three things have arisen in connection to the new album, that require comment. The first is the use of the Brian Eno card (genius producer reinventing a band's sound); the second is the general response so far from reviewers, which has tended to suggest the album is so-so (a three star state) but no barn-burner; and the third is the idea that bands like Coldplay are, in any meaningful way, able to finetune, or even transform, their "sound" - raising the critical issue, can style be more than fashion, can style be purposeful? I think it can be (Talking Heads had sonic shifts of note; as did The Beatles; as did Scott Walker).

Well, firstly, Eno's mainly a hack by now. His works such as My Life in the Bush of Ghosts are masterful, and significant. His work with U2 was formative. By now, it hardly matters how he twiddles the knobs for a Paul Simon or Coldplay disc, surely. As a hired hand, he has the ability to add a sheen, to suggest nuances, or redirect energies. But he can't add soul; merely texture. As such, the new album under discussion here sounds very much like the upbeat work of U2, Simple Minds, and even, astonishingly, the unhip Supertramp. In short, this is work from around 1975-1995, that shimmered, and promised hope - and was counter to the more alternative and avant-garde work that Eno himself had pioneered. The fact that in photoshoots Coldplay are dressed like they're about to go over the Paris barricades, in rags and little beards, doesn't mean they're revolutionaries.

Which leads to question three: need they be? What is their music for? Transformation, aesthetically, or politically? No. Unlike, say, John Lennon's work, this is music bled entirely free of any commitment or position, except the most "universally" humane. Life good. Death bad. So, it's capitalist pop music, meant to please, and appease, the consumer, and add lustre to a summer. In this way, only, is it offensive, and even reprehensible. As well-made product, it is actually as good as their last album - and often as artificial (which sounds intriguing and ambient in places, a la Eno).

It seems unfair to critique a band that seem to have genuine social and political concerns, but if they do, they might want to spend a little less time trying to shift 9 or 10 million units, and more trying to generate a sound that relates to the period they're in. Or maybe not. Perhaps simply being decent, hardworking craftsmen amid much noise and violence is their reactionary stylistic redress. I'll listen to it, certainly, and even enjoy it. But I'll also hunger for more.

Saturday, 7 June 2008

Osprey Up

Osprey, a thriving new Scottish online journal, has a new issue out. Bird lovers everywhere, have a look.

Quixotic tilts

A recent anonymous message to Eyewear reads:

"Todd, enough already with the Quixotic tilts and generalisations aimed at the perceived poetry establishment in the UK. How do you know how well known Blaser is or not here? Are we really expected to know all poets from around the world, even those of waist-deep in this business. How up are you on Filipino poetry, or NZ poetry, for example? How many North American poets have heard of Morgan? Had you before you came here?As for 'a measure of the insularity of Britain's main gate-keepers of poetry', that's camp hyperbole - take it out of eye-scratching code and say what you mean. Do you think he should have been invited here to do readings, that he warrants a Faber edition - let us know rather than bark. Who exactly are these 'gate keepers'? Why exactly are they insular?"

Notice the aggrieved tone. I marvel at how selectively people who read blogs read them - never bothering to trace the history of a blog, or its nuances. Instead, here I am, being typified, again, as a mere grumpy complainer, banging on about how dreadfully mean the British are. As if. Much British poetry is in happy rude health, as I often mention (see how many British poets I feature each Friday). Carcanet, Salt, and other smaller presses share important work with an international perspective. Ironically, when I question more conservative values, I get it, and when I don't, Sean Bonney shows up like a bull in a china shop.

Anyway, I wanted to reply to Anonymous in a new post. Firstly, it's a measure of the insularity of some poets and poetry readers in the UK, that they don't even recognise how narrow their tastes are, or how limited their ability to cope with the very wide spectrum of new poetries and poetics currently developing around the world. In short, the very fact this nonplussed messenger (cowardly in being anonymous) needs to ask how or who is insular in the British poetic communities (whether mainstream or beyond) is telling. I refer this anonymous person to the history of British poetry criticism of the 20th century - and certain key moments - from Donald Davie describing British taste as insular (especially in ignoring Basil Bunting for so long) to Don Paterson's more recent polemical Introduction to a new British anthology, that took potshots at "postmodern" poetry. This person, seeking insularity, might read John Burnside's recent article in Poetry Review, bemoaning the fact his otherwise talented poetry friends don't like, and actively mock, leading US poets, like Jorie Graham.

This isn't a story I or Richard Caddel (see his Intro to Other) made up. The history of modern and postmodern British poetry is one of establishment and oppositional poetics, and poetries. It seems that the various groups almost feed off of the reckless disregard they express for the others. It seems to boil down to the idea that language is a transparent medium to express experience and the self in the lyric and narrative modes, or, rather, that language constructs the self, and the world ("writes us"). It's a tussle between artifice and authenticity. And it's a tension between American and other foreign influences, especially after the humiliations of Suez. Most post-1955 mainstream UK poetry has resisted "going abroad" unless it could be home for tea, for a reason - either fear, or resentment, of American influence. This influence, from Dorn, Ginsberg, and more recently Language poetry, has been roundly resisted. The UK poets who learn from Pound, or Olson, or Zukofsky, in "these isles" are often treated as if they were mental patients by those who think poetic tradition is all about local voice, and "British themes".

I'm not, by the way, a member of any British school or camp - they won't have me. I'm interested in hybrid forms, between the High Modern lyric mode, and disrupted and abstract lyric utterances, that make my work as unsettling (or boring) to Neil Astley as to Rod Mengham. However, as in America, a younger generation is emerging who wants to move beyond the entrenched past. But anyone who thinks I am being "Quixotic" in pointing out the reception history of North American poetry (Wallace Stevens was long resisted by Faber under Eliot, for instance) in Britain hasn't done their homework.

As for the gate-keepers - they're the editors of the big London presses, mostly - particularly Paterson and Robertson - whose critical taste, I believe, is of less interest than their own poetry, which does have the virtue of being well-made. They and a few others have a rather limited sense of what poetic language can, and should do; their emphasis on music, and everyday speech, stems directly from Adam Smith's Belles Lettres lectures; this isn't personal - this is critical. I am responding directly to the critical and poetic statements they themselves have made, both in their writing, and the editorial selections they make. It isn't that these lists are bad - not so - the poets on them are often very "good" - but they're the tip of an iceberg.

John Ashbery is a good example. Ask your poetry friends what they think of his work. You'll soon see the litmus test at work. Then ask what they think of Lee Harwood. Or Susan Howe. By the way, I knew who Edwin Morgan was since I was ten. I discovered his work early, in anthologies, and loved it. I also know many poets from around the world. That's what I do - I've been editing magazines, and anthologies, since 1988, when I was 21 - seeking out new poets, wherever they may live.

The default insular British position lamented later in life by Donald Davie (not shared by all, but typified by Hobsbaum) is that there is an "English" tradition entirely different from the "American" language. This is the anti-international, anti-modern perspective. I take a different view. I welcome poetry, poetries, and poets, from any and all destinations.

I say this to the anonymous grouch: read your Leavis, your Wain, your Hamilton, your Alvarez, your Sheppard, your Lopez, your O'Brien - and trace the development of how some poetry was, and wasn't, encouraged, in these isles.

Friday, 6 June 2008

Poem by Tim Dooley

Eyewear is very glad to welcome Tim Dooley (pictured) this Friday. Dooley has taught in and near London since 1974. He has reviewed poetry for the TLS, and has worked as a creative writing tutor for Arvon, Writers’ Inc and The Poetry School. His first collection The Interrupted Dream was published by Anvil in 1985. This was followed by The Secret Ministry (2001) and Tenderness (2004), both winners in the Poetry Business pamphlet competition. Tenderness was also a Poetry Book Society pamphlet choice.

Dooley read for the Oxfam poetry series, and appears on Life Lines 2. As a critic, and reviewer, Dooley has long had an eye and ear open to possibilities in poetry and music from across the pond (writing on Ashbery, for instance, as long ago as 1982, in an issue of Poetry Review, and following Bob Dylan's work closely) but he is also aware of British lyric traditions - and this is how the tenderness enters his work - which is often humane, and subtly attentive to linguistic nuance and implication. He's a fine, significant, ludic, open-minded writer, and it's good to see his new book out - Keeping Time. Dooley will read from the new collection on June 10th, with Peter Robinson, at the Calder bookshop.

Sunday Morning

Stevens, MacNeice and The Velvet Underground.
A lightness rising to a cloudless sky.
Too tired for sleep or love we drive together
out of numbness to a different town.
The long ponds where we used to feed the ducks,
the stretch of green that climbs to the cathedral,
the breakfast, the bookshop we trust will
take gravity from us, floating away.

But now the radio plays Haydn, a piece
in F sharp minor, contrived we’re told
to solve a problem in the Esterhazy Court,
so in the last movement the players left
singly, snuffing out their candles, leaving
the last couple to hold the stage alone.

poem by Tim Dooley; reprinted with permission of the author, from his new collection, Keeping Time.

Ashbery In Canada

The Canadian Griffin Prize for poetry has recently been awarded to two very deserving poets: Robin Blaser won the Canadian prize, and the international prize (both for best book of the year in their respective categories) went to John Ashbery. Both poets are (wonderfully) octogenarians, inspiration to all poets of all ages. Ashbery noted that he'd listened happily to CBC radio as a boy (as did I) which was a lovely aside. It is a measure of the insularity of Britain's main gate-keepers of poetry that Blaser is little known in the UK, if at all, except by a few, and Ashbery continues to be something of a guilty pleasure. Just last year, for instance, the TS Eliot panel passed up the opportunity to shortlist his latest Carcanet collection (the same panel failed to award genius Edwin Morgan the top prize). Well, Ashbery's one of the two or three finest living poets, whose music is hard to shake once heard. Glad Canada's on the ball.

Wednesday, 4 June 2008

Action Stations!

The Guardian online has noticed Eyewear had a literary debate with Sean Bonney, recently, and mentions it within the context of literary feuds. It's a fun article, and good to see.

However, the criticism in the post, that I sometimes write on this blog in a sort of postgraduate-speak misses the point: sometimes I do, sometimes I don't - and the flexibility not to have to speak like a mouthpiece for Comrade Stalin, or Adorno trashing Jazz, is the difference in the world between those who think Goethe was a rebel or a philistine. He, was, of course, both. Hence, complicated, and neither.

Eyewear believes poetry can be, variously, fun, engaged, and postmodern in its reference to pop culture - but it doesn't have to be. Poet-critics like Bonney have a bee in their bonnet about what Poetry Has To Be. Such diktats don't do poets, or poems, any good.

Poetry should be ethically engaged, indeterminate, linguistically innovative, or lyric - as it wants. Style is the key. Better to read a good Larkin poem than a bad one by Trevor Joyce; and vice versa. Ah, but shouldn't we stop apple-and-oranging all the time? Read (and write) poems according to one's lights - not in darkness. Meanwhile, some literary feuds are sadly one-sided, and go on too long. Those who say politics has no part in poetry fail to realise how deeply many of the most serious poets are implicated in debates over poetics, which is politics by another name: how you write a poem says how you want to make the world.

Brain Cancer

Brain cancer has been in the news a lot lately. My father had the fastest-acting kind, and it killed him within two years of diagnosis, after his initial seizures. He had, as most people do, near-immediate surgery, followed by chemotherapy, radiation treatment, and then more surgery.

This form of cancer is meant to be rare (1 in 300,000 or fewer get it) but it is increasing, due to "environmental factors", that I believe will one day be traced, if not to mobile telephony, then other aspects of our contemporary techno-saturated world. This week, fashion genius Yves Saint Laurent died of brain cancer, and Ted Kennedy went in for surgery to remove his tumour, which is apparently of the more aggressive variety.

Researchers now suggest they have discovered a virus that may cause the disease, and have developed a vaccine that could halt the spread of brain cancer - and already extends life by another year or more. 33% more life, faced with brain cancer, is the sort of near-miracle that we prayed for - and didn't receive.

It saddens me that my Dad isn't around to benefit from this new discovery, but I am very excited by the prospects that this could happen, in our lifetime - a potential cure for one of the most cruel, and intimate, of all cancers - the one that eats the seat of reason, of emotion, of memory, of self.

Guest Review: Noon on Corcoran

Alistair Noon reviews
Backward Turning Sea
by Kelvin Corcoran

The seedlings of Kelvin Corcoran’s latest full-length collection are the poems "Helen" and "Helen Mania" from his New and Selected Poems (Shearsman, 2004), a book praised in the Guardian for the "simple magnificence" of its lines. The two Helen poems have subsequently grown into the extended version of Helen Mania published as a pamphlet in Peter Riley’s Poetical Histories, and made Poetry Book Society Choice in 2005.

The growth of this book seems to have been engineered using a genome mapped out by Basil Bunting, whose stint as a spy in Persia is the subject of one of the poems here. In Bunting’s magnum opus Briggflatts, sonata form is applied to the mid-length poem: themes of home and travel, age and youth are developed and recapitulated, and “something different” – the dream of Alexander the Great – interposed in the middle of five movements.

Corcoran applies a similar kind of structuring not to a single longish poem but to a book of shorter poems and sequences. The rewritten, refocused myth of Helen in "Helen Mania" (section 1) expands out into the poems of "The Subsequent World View", which touch on various places and people: Mogadishu, Teheran, Sappho, Dylan Thomas, as well as further Greek figures and locations.

The themes – in the musical sense – of (quasi-) Greek myth and contemporary observation are set off against “something different” in the third section, an engagement with the painter Roger Hilton in his Cornish setting. In the fourth section, myth rewriting reappears in a developed form: the figure of Alexiares, who speaks here, is wholly invented. Another group of more miscellaneous poems follow in section 5 under the title of "Ulysses in the Car". Here, a mythical character and one of modernity’s key icons are brought together. Formal devices such as first person prose asides or mock interviews recur in the sequence code of the book.

If the title alludes to the 2005 tsunami, it also ropes together the maritime aspect of the two main geographical locations in the book – Greece and Cornwall. It also creates a sense of the force of the events tangentially approached – the events of now. In the last ten or twenty years, terms such as "topical", "relevant", "contemporary" have often been used to promote certain kinds of poetry – some parts of Bloodaxe’s list spring to mind. They’ve also been thrown back by some critics as buzz words too often employed to gloss over a lack of depth of thought. Corcoran’s poems avoid superficiality of reference by situating recent events in texts able to go elsewhere too. Take these lines:

"the belief in mythology as fact
comes roaring out of the tunnel"

which echo the earlier line

"as in another country the sky is sucked down a roaring tunnel."

The 7/7 bombings in London and the total organ failure of Iraq are clearly meant here. Short of political reorientation on a world scale, however, future readers may – awfully – be able to fill these lines with a contemporary/topical meaning.

"Ambitious" is one of those loaded words in poetry. The prefix ‘over-’ often seems to be lurking in the background. It’s ambition, though, that creates a gulp-inducing breadth of reference, combined with a thick aural texture, in lines such as the following, about the Middle East as one of the simulacra of world culture:

"We had invented six languages in the dust,
mastered the olive, grape and grain."

Corcoran offers memorable phrases for the politics of our time, phrases I would like to see in a future Dictionary of Quotations: "the circuit of mineral rivalry", "the voting servants", "the war on abstract nouns". He also serves up vivid, surprising but apt descriptions: "the sun, a golden hand trailing in the water", "light picks its way down the mountain", "desire lifted us like the tide". I think these exemplify an approach to poetry which Corcoran mentions in the course of the book, the "sublime literal". The words are down-to-earth but aim for the sky.

Andrew Duncan’s characteristically flippant but amusing description of Kelvin Corcoran as "Britain’s best Greek poet" shouldn’t obscure the seriousness and novelty of this strand in Corcoran’s work. In taking the events of Ancient Greece and fusing them with contemporary references, Corcoran, like Seamus Heaney in the Bog Poems, has found a translocal correlative to the violent political events of his time.

Among the undergrowth, bushes, and trees of Corcoran’s previous work – in fact anybody’s – this collection stands tall. Somebody someday will do a study of poets’ responses to the early 21st century, and this book will be a necessary specimen. In the meantime, I’d urge any T.S. Eliot Prize Selectors reading this to proactively seek out Backward Turning Sea.

Alistair Noon has reviewed previously for Eyewear. Links to Noon’s work online can be found here. His translations from German, Chinese and Russian include Pushkin’s narrative poem The Bronze Horseman. He coordinates the annual Poetry Hearings festival in Berlin, coedits the magazine Bordercrossing Berlin, and is guest-editing an online symposium on the work of Sean Rafferty this June.

Sweet, Obama

Eyewear would like to congratulate Mr. Obama, the Democratic nominee for the 2008 presidential race in America, for finally reaching the "magic number" that will, hopefully, lead him to The White House within half a year or so. He's charismatic, and inspiring, and reminiscent of Kennedy (contra Nixon).

Now, he needs to articulate a foreign policy that is strong enough to offset his Republican rival, but broadminded enough to bury the Bush doctrines of imbecilic go-it-alonism. Role for Clinton? Hard to say - she's both liability and helpmate - much like a ship's anchor (much depends on the weather, for the need). Sail on, ship of state, sail on!


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...