Saturday, 30 November 2013

THE PROBLEM WITH MOST BRITISH POETRY REVIEWS

When you read a film review in a newspaper or magazine, from The Guardian to Sight & Sound, a few things are assumed: one, the reader and the critic are both concerned with the same issue - is it a good film the reader may enjoy - should she go see it?  Two, they both generally agree on how to evaluate that key question of going to see the film.  The film will be discussed in terms of story, plot, acting, directing, and, if it is a more intellectual review, the camerawork and mise-en-scene; perhaps theme or genre will also be discussed.  The movie may be put into the broad context of other similar films (as in, the new Carrie film compared to the first adaptation by Brian de Palma).

The reader may then decide to go see the film, and they may either feel that the critic's three stars were too few, or too many.  But they will understand, broadly, that the critic did a fair job, and was acting, as one person communicating clearly to another.  Now, whenever someone reviews a poetry book in Britain, there is no such understanding between the reader and the critic.  Firstly, the issue of whether it is a good book the reader may enjoy may not even be broached, for reasons to be mentioned in a moment; and, secondly, the language used to discuss the poetry in the book, and the terms and elements focused on, may not be ones shared between critic and reader.  This is not the fault of any one person, but there is no agreed general critical spectrum or apparatus for even a popular mainstream poetry review anymore in the UK, perhaps anywhere.  Instead, every time a critic reviews a poetry book, they must build from scratch, their own jerry-rigged critical structure, for they cannot assume the reader will share any common ground.

This leads to a vicious circle of confusion.  Readers who are more interested in experimental, post-structuralist poetry and poetics may not pay attention to the lyric voice or narrative enjoyments of a poet; and, a reader who enjoys light, rhyming verse may simply not be able, or willing, to celebrate complex modernist, and late modernist, styles and strategies in other books.  More vitally, there is no agreed canon of new books and poems to easily refer to.  A film reviewer can cite any of a thousand films made since the 1920s and most people will know something about them, from Scarface to Jaws, Vertigo to Citizen Kane.  Few if any readers of poetry reviews will know any poems beyond the GCSE/A levels required figures - Heaney, Hughes, Larkin, Armitage, Duffy, Auden, Eliot, and perhaps Yeats, Plath, and Tennyson.

Maybe a few more. Because there is no academic, critical, or public, agreement on either the best critical terms and tools to use to evaluate a poem, or which poets should be read, still, or for the first time, each review becomes its own act of special pleading. Reviews of poetry, then, have become a special sort of rhetorical act, a bit like preaching to mute, invisible strangers on a desert island.  One cannot imagine them, but must somehow sell them some good soul potion they may not want or comprehend; reviews therefore are often entertaining, feisty, contentious, and even overly informative (going over old ground to establish some that is common); but too often they end up being cosy, uncritical, and even vague.

Sometimes, the poet under review gets either the blame or the praise for techniques and effects they are hardly responsible for.  Some poets are praised for their rhyme, form, or their metaphor, with little explanation that poetic language often has such things built into it.  What is to be done?  I don't know.  But until we establish a common language for critical popular discussion of poetry, we won't be able to do much more each time we begin a review than reinvent the wheel; the question remains - should critics encourage readers to "go see" the good poetry, or not?

GUEST REVIEW: MAYHEW ON MORT



Division Street
By Helen Mort

And what she sees she cannot tell,
But what she knows of distances,
And doesn’t say, I know as well.

(‘Fox Miles’)

Division Street is a collection marked by distance. Stirred by a sighting of a vixen in ‘Fox Miles,’ Helen Mort sees this knowledge embodied by, and shared with, the fox. There are many landscapes travelled in this collection, landscapes that are often strange, or disorientating. However, the poet handles these with subtlety, knowing what to keep concealed to brighten her scenes. This is a collection of division and reconciliation; whether of the miners’ conflict, relationships gone awry, or journeying to unknown places, things rendered are brought back together with the poet’s delicate touch.      

Mort’s fascination with distance is introduced in the first poem:

...staring out to sea, as if, in the distance
there’s the spindle of a shipwreck,
prow angled to a far country.

(‘The French for Death’)

The French for Death’ reveals an interplay between life and death, where the poet in her youth becomes, ‘a child from the underworld in red sandals/ and a Disney t-shirt.’ The poet’s name, despite the difficulties of translation, acts as an anchor; the distance here is symbolic, an imagined shipwreck. This exploration of name and distance culminates in ‘The Complete Works of Anonymous:’

...we’d spend a lifetime
on the vessel of a single verse, proofing our lines,
only to unmoor them from our names.

(‘The Complete Works of Anonymous’)

Again, the use of sea imagery here shows distance, but this time, the distance of personal obscurity.

The distance explored in this collection is also physical. Mort explores the landscapes of the North with a lively eye, always giving a sense of travel. The ‘North of Everywhere’ sequence emphasises this revision of location, when Mort says: ‘dragged from a latitude/ I couldn’t even dream,’ her body becoming the compass needle (‘North of Everywhere: I. Hermaness’). In the second poem of the sequence, ‘Shetland,’ the words ring with the sound of the wind that the poet evokes:

Wind-whittled, turned on the sea’s lathe too long,
...the trees scoured off, the houses pared down
to their stones, the animals less skin than bone.

(‘North of Everywhere: II. Shetland’)  

The sound echoed through the lines emphasises the sparse emptiness of the text. This adds to a sense of displacement that threads throughout the sequence. The fourth poem ‘Aurora Borealis,’ re-imagines the landscape of Shetland in the form of a B movie:

the Shetland hills huge UFOs,
or the whole island slumbering beast whose back
we clung to...
(‘North of Everywhere: IV. Aurora Borealis’)  

The strangeness of this third stanza reflects the disorientation of the characters, leading to the bathetic fourth stanza, where the characters miss ‘the sky’s brief fire’ because they are looking down at their feet.

Mort is skilled at hazing reality and fantasy in her poetry, without losing her anchor. In ‘Deer,’ the speaker recounts ‘The deer my mother swears to God we never saw.’ (‘Deer’) The memory of the animals brightens with every recall, becoming almost mythic, and yet still rooted in the day to day, stepping with ‘pound-coin-coloured hooves.’ There is a moment of surprise when the speaker discovers her mother watching the much-denied deer.   

One of the strengths of Division Street is the location and portrayal of the gaps between – between miners and police, between people in relationships, between cities. In ‘Rag and Bone,’ the speaker reclaims objects that are ghosted by others, ‘a mattress moulded by another’s bones.’ They lay claim to this between world:

No-one will miss
the world tonight. Let’s have the lot.

(‘Rag and Bone’)
   
The title of the collection and poem ‘Division Street’ is taken from the name of a street in Sheffield. We see the larger conflict between miners and police in ‘Scab,’ violence hanging over the text like the stone that was ‘lobbed in 84.’ However, where Mort presents separation, she also shows reconciliation; later, in the same sequence, miners and policeman come together in a re-enactment.  

Mort is adept at zooming into these microcosms of personal relationships from a wider landscape. ‘Outtakes’ discusses the deconstruction of film shots, lingering on the mechanics of desire, showing, ‘a leopard cub/ who scrupulously licks each paw.’ This poem shows the reader how:

It’s all a matter of perspective.
Look close enough, you told me once,
And anything’s significant.   

(‘Outtakes’)

The poem reveals a separation between two people through film, ending with the striking image of watching life go on from outside, through lit windows. The way that lives come together is another interesting thread throughout the collection. In ‘Other People’s Dreams,’ Mort explores the lives we have in other people’s heads with a skilful, light touch, before gathering these divisions in her own dream:

Each morning, you must gather up these lives
and hold them tight, walk carefully downstairs,
slow as the girl in your own brief dream...

(‘Other People’s Dreams’)
           
In ‘Outtakes,’ Mort recounts:

It’s all a matter of perspective.
Look close enough, you told me once,
and anything’s significant...

(‘Outtakes’)

This sense of perspective is what really shines through Division Street. Whether it’s the backwards-looking view of the miner/police conflicts, the minutiae of disintegrating relationships, or the distance of an unknown landscape, Mort’s perspective is clear and focused. Division Street is an accomplished and engaging debut.  

Jessica Mayhew is a young British poet.

Death On The Clyde

Eyewear is very sad to learn of the terrible accident in Glasgow last night, on the eve of St Andrew's Day.  Glasgow is a city this blog loves, and we hope its people can recover from this tragedy with the resilience, good humour, and dignity they show in adversity.  Our wishes are with the families of the victims, dead or injured. We wish the city, and its people, as quick and full a recovery as possible.

Friday, 29 November 2013

SWIPE RIGHT REDRAFTED


SWIPE RIGHT

 

No point harassing the Niceday highlighter.

The busted bust of Palas in the palace, alas,

Is all the marbles you get in Poetrydom,

More or less.  Poetry tends to get, fast,

 

Unfriended, in this pacey age of sub/dom.

My poetry job ended at half-time, ushered

Out with the blinded majorettes (pom-poms,

Falling).  What remains on the field are

 

Meatheads bulleting each other’s hurtlocker

Torsos. Ever rooted for a side you shouldn’t

Have, mate? Taliban verse was reviewed

I gather. Favourably? Not sure.

 

Music is, to them, over-rated, while drones

Rake down.  Wake me before you drown-drown.

My partner joined a LGBTQ

Group at her investment bank to be inclusive;

 

Or rather, more inclusive. I felt a cold shoulder

At the wheel of corporate ownership.

I remain impossibly pre-facebook, queer,

But never more bisexualist than Tiresias.

 

Money, meanwhile, is comfortable eyeless,

Communes with fags, hags, and stags,

So long as they hold moneybags between

Their legs.  History ended again yesterday

 

When we made peace with Iran. We now means

China too.  I waited my whole middle youth

For Pixies to release new material and when

They do, no Deal.  Poetry is a gang of thugs

 

Unable to move units at WH Smith,

Whose verbal skills, like Toby Jugs, shape

National mirth in streams of urinal force.

Thus, when one drinks a poet’s piss, we really

 

Toast healthier sales of all the horsecrap prose

Our novelist friends managed to e-book.

I learned around an oak table at school

That spanking fiction pays if the wood is birch.

 

The greatest living poet in our tongue is Hill.

I too take the occasional pill.  My soul is ill.

It sobs like a fat man at a slim WC door.

My voice broke last week, the same time

 

As my will to compete with the love brigade.

That’s the arseholes with keyboards, iPhones.

Having sold my soul at the demonic crossroads

To Harold Bloom, I should have swerved

 

To celebrity, but he said, look, lack

Is what poesis ravenously adores to crave,

Feed on what you don’t get paid. Again.

Poesis is how you don’t get made a man

 

By picking up a pen, friend, in this mean town.

The canon, he informed me as only he can

In Latin, Greek, Hebrew and gobbledygook,

Knows that for the bard, being ranked A-list

 

Is like being sun-kissed with wax wings.

Avoid being classed too high, drowsy,

Drugged or straight edge.  Compose

Yourself on a thin ledge, and don’t jump

 

When your many followers invite you to fist

The ferro-concrete floor with brain matter.

In short, don’t die when the Commander-

In-chief says take them, take them all


 

And out of the sky falling like Tennyson hawks

Or falcons or eagles, crooked out of some

Droning hook of fate, meaning clashes

Cymbals, to detonate a small meeting of things

 

That might normally not have met, like bodies

And fire, ice and wire, weddings and hate.

The resulting shit smear is drain of life incarnate

Delivered from the man who claimed to be good,

 

Which is just the way they talk in the neighbourhood.

I bend to pick up old women, and pieces of their

Old men.  I am stooped with a rushing loss

Of faith such as blood streaming from

 

An artery might appear to be.  My

Belief in faith is at a total low ebb.

These wedding shrouds that are my eyeballs

Offer as a timely gift obliteration’s

 

Pall, a purple answer to shade

When arterial spillage is waste.

Taste demands we pay victims of a quake.

I swipe right to slake my desire

 

To kiss every face I can see on my screen

For free, or if they give A service, a hundred.

Don’t dread the ban on the dark net,

Margins peddle images out of Spiritus Mundi,

 

All those in Westminster Abbey

Rise to bow.  Nevermore lick any firm's helmet

Of flesh or blood.  My dick a platinum catalyst

And the rest is fusion, confused as history.
 
 
NEW POEM BY TODD SWIFT; COPYRIGHT 2013

 

 

 

 

Friday, 22 November 2013

JAMES A. GEORGE ON THE NEW RIDLEY SCOTT FILM

OUR CRITIC WONDERS HOW MUCH SEX AND DEATH IS GOOD FOR SCOTT

A script written by one of the, if not the, best contemporary authors, Cormac McCarthy. Directed by Ridley Scott. A leading cast both A-list and prodigious: Michael Fassbender, Penelope Cruz, Javier Bardem and Brad Pitt. It seems like a sure winner, but alas the critics have been harsh. Perhaps rightly so, as The Counsellor is not the sum of it’s parts. But is it bad, or just odd?
McCarthy’s familiar devices appear. The Counsellor, played by Fassbender, is our nameless protagonist who makes one bad decision from which seemingly unavoidable consequences entangle him and his loved one. The tragic fate characters run into isn’t played out on screen, thankfully for the sanctity of the viewer, but the absence of an identifiable face or avatar or symbol for the antagonists, visual or audible or whatever, voids of the film of a lot of potential tension. I think it may be a sign of a larger issue surrounding Scott’s more recent work.
For a graduate of the RCA, the creator of Blade Runner, etcetera, Ridley’s more recent work has little of his creative vision. A few inventive compositions flare up during The Counsellor, and exciting use of lighting is quite consistent, but on the whole not often enough, and his camera movement was rather dull. His cinematic language seems to have grown more conservative, which is not something you’d expect of the prolific mastermind behind Alien. I wonder if this is the issue? With so many projects constantly going on for him, and an apparent pride in finishing his shooting schedules early and promptly, I wonder how much love is put into the projects. The man that battled to get the final cut on Blade Runner, to have huge sets built and scripts re-written, against all advice, so that it was his vision on screen, I hope it isn’t a case of churning out product now.
But, Scott is still one of the best working in Hollywood! And I’m not sure there are many directors that could attract such a stellar cast to such a dark, twisted and unconventional script. Of course, Cormac McCarthy’s name is on that title page, but one has to trust the director with such words. Such words that bounce and linger, playfully and poignantly. Such words are magic when given to Javier Bardem and Fassbender, who get the chance to exercise the lyrical nature of the dialogue. However, as much as I hoped this would be an expose of Cameron Diaz’s acting chops, her blundering tone and delivery of the words on the page feel more like a superhero baddie than sinister “McCarthian” conniving evil. So when she scowls and pouts to declare that she is not cold in her attitude towards loss, since “truth has no temperature,” the audience can be easily forgiven for chuckling. And given the importance of her character, it does the film some damage.
The film has a ‘theatre of the absurd’ atmosphere that is embodied well into the lavish production design and tremendous and grandiose costume design. It adds a sheen to an otherwise bleak and scary story that does exactly what you’re not expecting – and that is truly a breathe of fresh air.
I can’t imagine this is what McCarthy envisioned as he wrote it, but he was on set, he must be aware (and willing) for it to turn out this way. And I’m glad it has! Should critics really be digging at the film for its resistance to conform to regular moody thriller cinema, to deliver typical plot describing dialogue? What we get are some powerful themes from some horrible characters, and that is quintessentially Cormac McCarthy successfully adapted!

So while Ridley has made a good film, one can’t help but wonder what the Coen Brothers would have done with it. Not because they have successfully adapted a McCarthy novel, but because the explosions of sex and violence, greed and excess, are aesthetics and themes they handle so well and that Scott seems to handle without much “pizazz”. But then again, this one film, as it stands, has the most bonkers sex scene in recent cinema, and the most brutal and outrageous murder projected on cinema screens in some time.

EMILY BERRY WILL BE THE JUDGE

Great news - the excellent British poet Emily Berry (Dear Boy, Faber 2013) will be judging our third year of the Melita Hume Poetry Prize for the best debut (unpublished) poetry collection by a poet based in the UK, aged 35 or younger at the time of entry - minimum of 45 pages of poetry.  She follows judges for 2012 and 2013, Tim Dooley and Jon Stone. The Prize is a thousand pounds, and publication in May 2015 with Eyewear Publishing Ltd! Poets can enter as of January 1 up to the closing deadline of March 31st.  Winner to be announced in May, 2014.  We will have more details up soon, with the submission form.

JFK

Fifty years since Lee Harvey Oswald did not act alone.  Fifty years since a book depository (had we ever used that term before?) ironically revealed the sword mightier than the pen.  Fifty years since the man with the umbrella, the troops standing down, the epileptic fit, the magic bullet, the three hobos, the manhunt, the swearing in on the plane.  Fifty years to create a new American myth - one never equalled - in terms of complexity, and paranoia. Fifty years since it became possible to imagine the mob, the FBI, and Castro in bed together. Fifty years since a few seconds of gunfire put a Texan in the White House.  Fifty years since JFK became LBJ. In my home town, there are schools and streets named after JFK.  My brother's initials are JFK (Jordan Fraser Knowlton) in honour of the fallen Irish Catholic president.  What was his legacy?  Publically, decorum, vigour, culture, a sense of Cold War hope.  In private?  Whoring, and ballot stuffing. Was JFK a great man?  He was certainly the most charismatic US president - the best-dressed, the most openly visionary since the Depression. Arguably, Martin Luther King's death was more terrible, for the world, for America - but every assasination is dreadful. In fifty more years, it will all seem as remote as Lincoln's death.  Historical, intriguing, but not, possibly, tangibly sad.  But today, it is different.  Across the world, anyone over the age of 55 likely has some recollection of one of the darkest most shocking days in US history.  A day in Texas.

GUEST REVIEW: PAUL S. ROWE ON BEN MAZER'S SELECTED POEMS

Possibility Glimpsed Through Windows: A Review of Ben Mazer’s Selected Poems Ben Mazer.  Selected Poems . (Ashville, NC: MadHat Press,...