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Thursday, 19 January 2017

OUR EYEWEAR REVIEW OF THE TS ELIOT-WINNING COLLECTION JACKSELF, BY ROSANNA HILDYARD


by Jacob Polley
REVIEWED BY ROSANNA HILDYARD

Jackself is a scarecrow made up of lean meat and fat, frost, daws, lanterns, digestive biscuits, roundabouts and cow parsley. Jackself is Polley’s alter ego in this series of narrative poems, which work equally well individually as they do patchworked into a collection. Jackself is a wild pagan figure, a wodwo from ancient England, Jackself follows a snotty teenager growing up around the crumbling farms of Lamanby, in Cumbria.

Although Jackself is a hodgepodge of tones and references, it forms a remarkably coherent collection when read end to end. It is structured as a poetic bildungsroman, charting Jackself’s loss of innocence as he comes to terms with grief. Jackself is the love story of two friends: Jackself of Lamanby and Jeremy Wren, who bully and wrangle with each other, go fishing in Lamanby’s deserted tarns, and stay out at night to drink white cider and Malibu together ‘way out among the hedgerows’.

Jackself is lively, hilarious, cynical. In ‘Les Symbolistes’, Polley has Jackself, describe eating his own father as though in some weird rite: ‘carved so thin / I could read a rose-tinted poem through each slice’. It is a precisely conjured image, both disgusting and authentically symboliste. Yet it is Jeremy’s response that brings this scene to life:

 

A POEM! Wren roars

you’re creepy as a two-headed calf

and I’ve always thought so.

Poetic preening undercut. In fact, Polley does not have much time for self-conscious literariness: another moment comes in ‘Jack O’Lantern’, in which Jackself wishes to chronicle a frightening autumn night featuring ‘bedlamites’, ‘banging’ wind and dead ‘apple cores’ in a childish quatrain. But each time he tries to form his verse, the nursery-rhyme rhythm is broken, visually and rhythmically, with irritation:

 

the wind’s inside the apple core

the moon bangs like a drum

and         no           again      the sky’s a door

the year a slum

 

Jackself’s stubborn refusal to give up becomes increasingly funny as the truncated poem continues, reflecting a clash between teenage perfectionism and writer’s block.

Yet for all the humour, Jackself is bleak. This is a poetry book about the failure of poetry, of inarticulacy and two people’s inability to speak to each other. It is almost no surprise when, midway through the book, a fuming Wren suddenly turns on Jackself:

 

I’ll show you, he says

and he storms home, stamps upstairs,

throws a dressing-gown cord

over the rafter in his bedroom,

pulls the slipknot over his head

 

abruptly, leaving no note of explanation or farewell. Jackself is left dumb.

If Jackself has faults, they are due to its own inventiveness. Written as nursery rhymes, riddles, and cautionary fables, Polley must navigate several traditional genres of anonymous English literature as well as rushing through his particular narrative of a specific time and place. At times, telling apart the story of England’s Everyman Jacks from Polley’s own Jackself can be confusing. Yet on the whole, the narrative structure, each poem jumping from Jack to Jack, O’Lantern to Snipe, holds up well. Polley’s control over these deceptively simple forms and genres and his sense for aural and visual space, means that his poetry can bear the weight of intensely imagined language.

This year’s line-up for the T.S. Eliot Prize was a particularly rich one, but did appear to show a lean towards poets from the Reiver country and the North of England – J.O. Morgan from the Scottish Borders, Ian Duhig in the Vale of York, and Ruby Robinson and Katharine Towers from Sheffield. Polley, who lives and works in Newcastle, has been nominated twice before for the T.S. Eliot Prize, but it is Jackself that has finally won it for him – and in a collection which celebrates chance, superstition and English, colloquial tursn of phrase, it seems fitting that it is third time lucky.


Rosanna Hildyard is an editor at Eyewear Publishing, and a graduate of Oxford university. She is a writer and critic, currently living in Brixton.

Sunday, 1 January 2017

THE BBC, JEREMY IRONS AND TS ELIOT

I once had the pleasure of having a poem I had written directed, and recorded by, the brilliant director-actor Fiona Shaw. Or rather, it was a treat but also a shocker. For Ms Shaw spent an hour trying to wrest a performance from my reading of my own work to get to the heart of the matter - a kernel of truth she sensed I could not quite hit with my voice, my vocal performance. Finally, in something akin to desperation, she admitted that actors, for her, were far better readers of poems than the poets themselves.  In fact, she confided, if actors did poetry readings more often, people might actually enjoy poetry.

Such a viewpoint is partly behind today's event in British radio broadcasting - a New Year's Day special seeing Jeremy Irons (that immortal ham, best-beloved for Brideshead Revisited and Die Hard 4 or whatever) - reading ALL OF TS ELIOT'S POETRY (!) over the course of the day, on BBC Radio 4 - directed by, you guessed it, Fiona Shaw. Meanwhile, it must be said that the main broadcasting event of today, for most people in Britain or beyond, will be the new Sherlock episode tonight, 8.30 pm, GMT.

I am not anti-Eliot. Far from from it. He would be on my top ten list of poets who have influenced my own sense of what poetry is and can be; I recently wrote a chapter on his influence for a Palgrave primer; I think his 'Prufrock' the great short poem of the 20th century. I even think every thinking person should know his work.

That being said, Eliot is a bizarre, unimaginative, tone-deaf and retrograde choice for such an all-day broadcast event, for 2017.

Now, I realise centenaries of modernist accomplishments are heaving into view. I also know that a sort of frozen sense of the canon - antithetical to Eliot's own view - has paradoxically established Eliot, in some British circles, as the last poet to be universally considered "great". Other moderns sanctioned by the BBC establishment as truly major would be, of course, Larkin, Hughes, Heaney, Auden and Plath. And few others.

Things move slowly in UK tradionalist circles - the bestowing of honours is still a huge event several times a year - as if we needed the Queen to tell us Ray Davies is a great songwriter - but even still, given the year of Farage/Trump we have just seen - an angry year of xenophobia, anti-multicultural popular uprisings of contempt, the year of Black Lives Matter - Eliot is a terrible choice.

Firstly, the bigger story of poetry in 2016, is that poetry HAS moved on from 100 or 80 or 50 years ago. The BBC could have had a whole day of new poems being read.  Or recent classics. They might have read ALL the poems of Denise Riley. They might have wanted to look into the extraordinary rise of poets of colour, poets speaking out across the UK and the world with new accents, visions, and ways of speaking. If that is too "PC" for you, well then, I am sorry for you. But this was the time of Lemonade.

I am sure Shaw would explain that Eliot has a lot to say about hollow men, the death of society, loss of purpose - an ennui or anomie that may be seen as endemic now in certain circles - but that is half the story. Eliot was an enemy of multiculturalism (though a fan of right-wing France), who though England had too many Jews floating around in it (his words not mine) - the England he wanted would have been royalist and very Christian.

He would have not wanted many if any Muslim refugees coming in. Eliot was not, as is often thought, a cosmopolitan man open to all times and places - he was a magpie and a bit of a charlatan (all great poets are) - and his genius has been exaggerated by people who forget that The Waste Land was a provocation dreamt up by Ezra Pound, a violent edit-job to a very different text. Eliot's casual racism and sexism infected his texts as much as Wagner's influenced his operas. We still perform Wagner, and can enjoy him, just as I still love The Four Quartets - but we must inoculate ourselves against much of the vile thinking behind the words, in order to do so.

More worryingly, however, is the false bias against poets reading their own work, perpetuated by theatrical luvvies who over-value their own inflections. I have never heard an actor not murder a poem, in a cathedral or elsewhere.

Actors over-compensate, and dramatise poems - poems are not meant to be dramatic - that is dramatic verse, or a play. The voice of the poem is its own self-controlled, self-offering form, diction, music - the poem already is the performance of itself. I do not think poems are machines etc. - but they are definitely not things needing improvement with the mellifluous tones of an act-tor.

It is true poets often seem to read their own poems badly - William Carlos Williams is a case in point - but frankly, the very idea of reading poems out loud is secondary to what a poem is, anyway - most poems are written to be read by an inner ear or eye or spirit. Silently. On a peak in Darien or in your chair. New performance poetries are emerging to valuably challenge the silent rule I cite, and that is to the good. But despite Eliot's reading of his own work at small parties, his work, for all it's religiose rhetoric, is best read on the page - or read without an over-elaboration.

Now I agree that The Waste Land benefits, perhaps, from various voices being "done" - and Shaw has done that masterfully. No one would want less poetry on the radio; and I suppose there is an argument for getting the youth into poems via ageing movie stars. So why begrudge this event? I should be glad for a chance to hear, yet again, timeless great poems...

True enough.

I just think Eliot is not the poet the UK needs in 2017 - unless Brexit means Beidecker.









Saturday, 31 December 2016

99 NOTABLE DEATHS OF 2016

Aside from our personal losses, 2016 was the year when everyone apparently began to socially mediate the death of beloved others - famous people known universally, or to many. No other year - not even 2001 - since the new century began, has been so reviled by those living in it. Fuck you 2016 was a common refrain.  The year almost became a running joke, coming to symbolise all that was mean, unfair, cruel and random about existence - it was the most existential year in decades. certainly, the death of so many talented, brilliant and creative persons underlined the compelling fact that WE ARE ALL GOING TO DIE, SOONER OR LATER, no matter what. So we better get right with ourselves, the world, and decide how best to deal with the fate we have been thrown - stoicism advised.

Claims that no more well-known people died than usual this year are basically besides the point (THOUGH the BBC now reports 50% more celebrities died this year than in any other on record) - in the sense that it did not feel this way to us, the popular common folk, mourning our losses and grave wounds. But more accurately, those of us born in the 1960s or later, for the first time, experienced the deaths of key figures of the 60s, 70s and 80s - icons in the least-exaggerated sense of the term.

It is true that Elvis, Monroe, Dean, Kennedy, Sinatra, Lennon, Heaney, Plath, Derrida, Kubrick, Ginsberg, Warhol, Lou Reed, Michael Jackson, for example, had died previously - but never all in one year. It took decades, once, it seemed, for the truly great, pivotal, or merely loved, to die in droves - not this year.

For instance, these 99 were culturally notable losses *(some of the figures are of course controversial):

1.     AA GILL – sometimes cruel, well-respected British food and TV critic;


2.     ABE VIGODA – popular TV and film actor perhaps best known for Barney Miller;

3.     ALAN RICKMAN - versatile actor, unlikely sex symbol, and film villain in major franchises, from Die Hard to Harry Potter, he memorably "cancelled Christmas" in his bravura role in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves;

4.     ALICE ARLEN – American screenwriter best-known for Silkwood;

5.     AMBER RAYNE – American pornographic actress;

6.     ANDREW GLAZE – American poet who often appeared in Poetry;

7.     ANDRZEJ WAJDA - great Polish film director;

8.     ANITA BROOKNER - Booker-winning novelist;

9.     ANTON YELCHIN – popular young actor famous for reprising the role of Checkov in the Star Trek franchise;

10.                 ANTONIN SCALIA - notoriously conservative Supreme Court Justice;

11.                 ARNOLD PALMER - one of golf's leading players of all time;

12.                 AV CHRISTIE – American poet of note;

13.                 BARBARA TURNER – actress and screenwriter best-known for Pollock;

14.                 BARRY HINES – British novelist behind the novel that became the beloved film Kes;

15.                 BERNARD BERGONZI - important British literary critic and scholar;

16.                 BLACK – singer-songwriter famous for the ‘Wonderful Life’ song;

17.                 BRIAN BEDFORD – charismatic British stage actor who did much of his best work in Canada;

18.                 BRIGIT PEGEEN KELLY - brilliant American poet;

19.                 BUCKWHEAT ZYDECO - bandleader, accordionist, made famous by working with Paul Simon on the masterpiece Graceland;

20.                 CARRIE FISHER - the most iconic character of the most beloved American film of all time - and a leading feminist voice in Hollywood;

21.                 CD WRIGHT – major American poet;

22.                 CHARMIAN CARR - actress famed for her role in The Sound of Music;

23.                 DAME ZAHA HADID – key post-modern architect;

24.                 DARIO FO - Nobel winner for literature, major playwright;

25.                 DAVID BOWIE - the leading musician of his generation, a genius and hugely influential on all music since 1970;

26.                 DEBBIE REYNOLDS - hugely popular actress, who starred in the finest film musical of all time, Singin' In The Rain;

27.                 DG JONES – significant Canadian poet and translator;

28.                 EARL HAMNER JR. - creator of beloved and much-lampooned TV series The Waltons;

29.                 EDWARD ALBEE - arguably America's greatest absurdist playwright;

30.                 ELIE WIESEL - Nobel laureate; famed concentration camp survivor and public intellectual;

31.                 FAROUK SHOUSHA - Egyptian poet;

32.                 FIDEL CASTRO - one of the most famous revolutionary leaders of the 20th century;

33.                 FLORENCE HENDERSON - beloved TV icon from The Brady Bunch;

34.                 FRANCA SOZZANI - influential editor of Vogue (Italy) for decades;

35.                 FRANK ARMITAGE - important Disney artist;

36.                 FRANK SINATRA, JR - less-distinguished singer than his father;

37.                 GARRY SHANDLING - creator of The Larry Sanders show - and one of the most influential comedians of the past 30 years;

38.                 GARY MARSHALL - creator of hit TV shows of immense cultural clout, like Happy Days and Mork and Mindy; and force behind Pretty Woman;

39.                 GEOFFREY HILL - considered by many the major poet of the English language;

40.                 GEORGE JONAS – Canadian writer whose novel was the basis for Spielberg’s Munich;

41.                 GEORGE KENNEDY – one of the greatest of American character actors, often playing the heavy, he tough guy, cop or soldier; famous for spoofing his roles in Airplane!;

42.                 SIR GEORGE MARTIN - the "fifth Beatle" - the most influential and significant music producer since 1950;

43.                 GEORGE MICHAEL - one of the most popular and best-selling musicians of the last 30 years;

44.                 GLENN FREY - key member of the major American group The Eagles;

45.                 GREG LAKE- seminal British prog-rock figure;

46.                 GUY HAMILTON - director of the greatest Bond film, Goldfinger;

47.                 HARPER LEE - quite possibly the most beloved American author at the time of her death;

48.                 HENRY HEIMLICH - inventor of the world-famous eponymous lifesaving technique;

49.                 JACK ELROD – cartoonist and creator of Mark Trail;

50.                 JACK HAMMER – singer-songwriter best-known for co-writing the great rock and roll anthem ‘Great Balls of Fire’;

51.                 JIM CLARK – Oscar-winning British film editor;

52.                 JIM HARRISON - hard-living, popular US novelist and poet, famous for Legends of the Fall;

53.                 JOHN GLENN - iconic US astronaut and politician;

54.                 JOHN MONTAGUE - one of the greatest of all Irish poets;

55.                 JON POLITO - character actor famed for major roles in Coen Bro. films.

56.                 KEITH EMERSON - seminal British prog-rock figure;

57.                 SIR KEN ADAM - most influential film set designer of the modern era, creating the sets for Dr Stranglelove, and the James Bond villain's lairs;

58.                 KENNY BAKER - famed for playing R2-D2 in Star Wars;

59.                 LARRY DRAKE – Emmy-winning American actor;

60.                 LEONARD COHEN - a key counter-culture figure of the 60s, 70s and beyond - to many, the finest singer-songwriter never to win the Nobel for Literature;

61.                 MARGARET FORSTER – British novelist famed for Georgy Girl;

62.                 MARION PATRICK JONES – vital Trinidadian writer and activist;

63.                 MAURICE WHITE – major soul singer-songwriter, with Earth, Wind and Fire;

64.                 MEL HURTIG - progressive Canadian publisher;

65.                 MICHAEL CIMINO - major American director, famous for The Deer Hunter.

66.                 MICHEL TOURNIER – major French writer;

67.                 MUHAMMAD ALI - a moral force, and considered by many the finest athlete of modern times;

68.                 NANCY REAGAN – one of the most influential, and controversial, of modern First Ladies;

69.                 SIR NEVILLE MARRINER - leading British conductor;

70.                 PETE BURNS – infamous Dead Or Alive singer;

71.                 Péter Esterhazy - major Hungarian writer;

72.                 SIR PETER MAXWELL DAVIES - the major British composer of his generation;

73.                 SIR PETER SHAFFER - playwright and screenwriter, responsible for modern classics Amadeus and Equus;

74.                 PHIL CHESS - co-founder of the influential R and B, blues and rock label, Chess Records;

75.                 PIERRE BOULEZ - the major French avant-garde composer of his generation; a great conductor;

76.                 PJ MARA - Ireland's most famous political press secretary of the modern Haughey era;

77.                 PRINCE - the greatest and most prolific musical genius of rock and pop of his 80s generation;

78.                 PRINCE BUSTER - the seminal Ska pioneer;

79.                 RICHARD ADAMS - author of the beloved classic Watership Down, which has sold over 50 million copies;

80.                 RICK PARFITT - a great rock guitarist and key member of top UK band the Status Quo;

81.                 ROBERT BATEMAN - songwriter of rock n roll classics such as 'Please Mr Postman';

82.                 ROBERT STIGWOOD – influential musical impresario, manager, and producer of Grease and Saturday Night Fever;

83.                 ROBERT VAUGHN - priapic actor best known for his iconic TV role in The Man from UNCLE;

84.                 ROBIN HARDY - director of possibly the greatest British horror film The Wicker Man;

85.                 ROD TEMPERTON - British songwriter of genius, who composed most of the best-selling seminal Thriller album for Quincy Jones and Michael Jackson.

86.                 RONNIE CORBETT - one half of the funniest comedy duo of their time, Ronnie was also a decent and generous person in private;

87.                 SHARON JONES - beloved singer for the soul revival group The Dap-Kings;

88.                 SHIRLEY JAFFE - abstract expressionist artist;

89.                 SYLVIA ANDERSON – co-creator of Thunderbirds, and voice of Lady Penelope;

90.                 STANLEY MANN – Canadian screenwriter who wrote or co-wrote scripts for popular films such as The Mouse That Roared, Firestarter, The Omen 2, Meteor and Eye of the Needle.

91.                 TAMMY GRIMES - award-winning US stage actress;

92.                 THORNTON DIAL – African-American artist of note;

93.                 UMBERTO ECCO - one of the leading European post-modern novelists of the age;

94.                 VERA RUBIN – major scientist who discovered dark matter;

95.                 VILMOS SZIGMOND – cinematographer of classics like Easy Rider and Close Encounters of The Third Kind, pioneer of sunburst effect;

96.                 WILLIAM TREVOR - one of the best Irish prose writers of the 20th century.

97.                 WP KINSELLA - leading Canadian prose writer;

98.                 YVES BONNEFOY - major French poet;

99.                 ZSA ZSA GABOR - TV and film actress, glamorous wit, comedienne, and world-famous divorcee.




* every death is equally tragic - the end of a world, as Derrida famously put it. These are just a few of the millions who died this year, a small but pertinent focusing on some lives that touched many others.







Friday, 30 December 2016

THE BEST OF 2016 IN POPULAR MUSIC, TV, FILM AND POETRY



MERLIN WAS THE FUTURE, ONCE...
Eyewear, The Blog, usually enjoys compiling end of the year lists. 2016, now arguably the punch line to a Kafka-Beckett comedy routine, doesn't seem the sort of place to lodge too many enthusiasms, but of course some of the finest films, songs, and poems, have been created during wartime, and The Great Depression, and other major moments in recent history.



This year will be remembered for the Dylan Nobel, Brexit, the slaughter of Aleppo, the deaths of Castro, Bowie, Ali, Carrie Fisher, and the Trump election - probably little else, except the rise of social media/iPhone ubiquity in the techno-cultural sphere.
 
 
BEST MUSIC
 
A cruel trilogy of masterful albums, two almost posthumous, are clearly in the top five - by Leonard Cohen, Nick Cave, and David Bowie. Then there's Lemonade, by Beyoncé. Drake and Rihanna dropped major new LPs, as did Solange. Warpaint, PJ Harvey, Animal Collective, offered fine new LPs. Lady Gaga reinvented herself. Massive Attack and Hope Sandoval created one of the best dream pop songs ever. Iggy Pop, Suede, The Tindersticks, Paul Simon, The Rolling Stones, Wire, ABC, Pixies, The Monkees, Gwen Stefani, Metallica, Radiohead, The Violent Femmes, Kings of Leon and Barry Gibb all returned with good to excellent new work - reminding us never to assume people are quite done yet. Merchandise crafted a very cunning fusion of The Smiths, Simple Minds and Joy Division. A young  British Asian lad, wonderfully, in this year of hateful Trump/Farage, produced the best Top 40 single: 'Pillowtalk' by Zayn.
 
 
BEST TV
 
The BBC started the year with a double-punch of two great mini-series - War and Peace, and The Night Manager. These got attention, but were promptly eclipsed by The Game of Thrones episode, 'Battle of the Bastards' - easily the finest one hour of TV action ever filmed; and then came the nostalgic favourite, Stranger Things - a perfect synthesis of all that made us love the 80s. Best TV movie - Netflix's The Siege at Jadotville. The Fall, Halt and Catch Fire; Humans, The Americans, Homeland, Goliath, The Affair, Designated Survivor, all good fun... but I think Stranger Things wins. The BBC ended the year with a clever mash-up, a romantic modernist version of Christie's The Witness for the Prosecution, set in 1923, which heavily referenced poems of TS Eliot (including 'Prufrock').
 
 
BEST FILM?
 
It is too early to tell - too many of the best films come out in the UK in late December, early January. At this stage, the best American film of the moment may be Hell and High Water. Sentimental favourite is the NZ family film, The Hunt for the Wilderpeople, a very charming and stylish event. I am looking forward to Personal Shopper, Hacksaw Ridge, Silence. Nocturnal Animals is a profoundly disturbing film about style and emotional violence. I have yet to see Arrival and hear it is superb. Guilty pleasures included the charming Irish musical comedy Sing Street, the inventive punk-thriller Green Room, the reviled but destined to be classic Costner vehicle, Criminal, and the one about the sexy surfer staving off shark attacks.
 
 
SOME OF THE BEST POETRY BOOKS
and books about poetry*
 
The Poems of Basil Bunting, edited by Don Share;
 The new book of essays by Stephen Burt, the poem is you;
 Cain by Luke Kennard;
Moments of Expatriation by Vahni Capildeo;
Holy Toledo by John Clegg;
Through by David Herd;
Trammel by Charlotte Newman;
The Seasons of Cullen Church by Bernard O'Donoghue;
Exile and the Kingdom by Hilary Davies;
Anatomy of Voice by David Musgrave;
Selected essays by Richard Price, Is This A Poem?;
 The new essays by Charles Bernstein, Pitch of Poetry;
Paul Muldoon, Selected Poems, 1968-2014;
Phillis Levin's Mr. Memory;
 Stephen Heighton's GG winner, The Waking Comes Late;
 and a major new poetry collection by Denise Riley, Say Something Back, which is arguably the greatest work of British poetry this century.
 
 
*Excluding Eyewear titles.