Monday, 21 December 2009

Swift Report 2009

I'll write my report in early 2010, and, not only survey this year, but a decade of work. In the meantime, may I wish you all a holiday blessed by health, peace, and love. As a veritable UK-style blizzard snows down upon London let me wish you a Very Merry Christmas!

Say A Word

Sad news. Brittany Murphy, pictured, one of my favourite actresses, has died, at the age of 32. Murphy, whose best role was perhaps as the silent insane asylum girl in the Michael Douglas thriller Don't Say A Word, was also great in Girl, Interrupted, Clueless, and 8 Mile. She was infamously sexy and intriguing on screen, and, to her fans, endlessly captivating. However, her career had somehow seemed interrupted, too. Eyewear is in shock at her sudden totally unexpected death. In my third book, Rue du Regard, a collection which deals with scopophilia, desire and film, I have a poem called 'Brittany Murphy Adoration Society', which is not entirely apt to quote here, but which explored her effect on those who loved to watch her act. She will be missed.

Bink Noll

As an anthologist I enjoy the bittersweet experience of reading forgotten anthologies of yesteryear - those charming time-tombs. No point in observing that most art is futile and ends in oblivion for most artists; we are mostly not Horace. Save our souls, but forget our names. Chad Walsh that great Champion of CS Lewis from Beloit College edited thanklessly a long unused Scribners anthology from 1964, Today's Poets. 45 years later it mainly holds up well though we no longer speak of wild man poets. Ginsberg is absent. Walsh predicts great things for Walcott but doesn't particularly enthuse about Larkin. The great Eberhart is given his due. Carl Bode we don't much read now. Nor Gil Orlovitz. Good to have them here. Vassar Miller is an intriguing poet. However I most enjoyed encountering Walsh's Beloit friend, Princeton man, the poet Bink Noll.

Noll, born in 1927, has the best poet name, no? I love the name Bink Noll. Anyway, he is too obscure now, but wrote well, if not superbly, in the period style. Noll's life apparently turned in middle age, when he openly explored his gay identity but also sadly became encumbered by illness. He left his family and went on a new path only publishing a third book later in life. Christmas is, among other things, about encountering redemptive origins, small gestures of joy opening to greater demarcations. I wish to think of Bink Noll at Christmas. The least great and lesser are not lost ever fully if love survives.

Saturday, 19 December 2009

End of the world or fantastic day?

Last night I was happy for the first time in four months; for a few hours I forgot I have to take six pills a day and am often in pain or discomfort. Friends took me to Cadogan Hall to see Nick Heyward reunite with Haircut 100. This band had only one album, Pelican West, which went to 2 in the UK charts in March 1982 before Heyward quit the next year to make his masterpiece, North of a Miracle, the great upbeat pop album of the early 80s. The show was only slightly marred by Heyward's Mike Myersesque eccentric tween-song ramblings. Actually the band was tight and hearing Love Plus One again and Fantastic Day - as well as A Blue Hat for a Blue Day - was a pure retreat to when we were all teenagers. This was my Buddy Holly - sweet clever love songs and fun clean tunes.

The audience was almost all late 40s and facebook fans. After the show which was too brief Heyward mingled in the bar with several hundred fans, smiling and genuinely bemused by the adoration. I hope for a Pelican East soon. However while last night reminded me of the power of pop and ska in the early 80s to instill hope and offer change - good songs for good young people - the failure of Copenhagen today and the rise of a Simon Cowell world of corporate pap music makes me wonder if the past may be a kinder ghost of promise than the future.

Oxfam Young British Poets Launch

On Thursday night, Todd Swift and Martin Penny hosted a Christmas launch at Oxfam Books and Music for a new poetry DVD, ‘Asking a Shadow to Dance.’ This DVD, directed by Jennifer Oey, showcases the work of 35 young British poets selected by Todd Swift. The readings were filmed in various locations in and around London’s Southbank and UEA and they are a delight to watch. All the poets have unique but equally expressive and interesting poetic voices.

The event was low-key, attended by those who braved the snow storms on such a cold December night. The atmosphere inside was however warm and welcoming; it was a great night for the young poets to meet each other, share their ideas and also hear each other read. Those who attended were also lucky enough to hear a song performed by Michael Horovitz, poetry veteran and editor of 1960’s poetry anthology, Children of Albion.

There will be another event for this DVD in March, when Todd will hopefully be in better health. Till then, please support Oxfam and the young poets, including myself, who are featured on the DVD. It is available to buy on eBay and you can also get a copy from Oxfam Books and Music in Marylebone.

KJ

Friday, 18 December 2009

Robert Earl Stewart

I've been reading the debut collection from Robert Earl Stewart, Something Burned Along The Southern Border. It is from Mansfield Press and is a handsome book. It's an excellent first collection. I'd published his work over the years at Nthposition and in anthologies and so am pleased to see this finally out. As Emily Schulz says, it maps "a seldom-recorded region of Canada, the joint of Windsor-Detroit". From such a potential bleakness the poet has rescued surreal and darkly witty poems. This is one for last-minute Amazon shopping.

Wednesday, 16 December 2009

Guest Review by Rufo Quintavalle: White Magic and Other Poems by Krzysztof Kamil Baczynski

Rufo Quintavalle reviews
White Magic and Other Poems
by Krzysztof Kamil Baczynski

Krzysztof Kamil Baczynski was born in 1921 and died in the Warsaw uprising in 1944 leaving behind him a substantial body of poetry, very little of which, up until now, has been translated into English. This book, a selection of his poems in a bilingual edition seeks to remedy this lack. The book is translated by Bill Johnston, Director of the Polish Studies Center at Indiana University, and is published by Green Integer.

The claims made by Johnston in his introduction that Baczynski should rank alongside Czeslaw Milosz, Zbigniew Herbert and Wislawa Szymborska as one of the giants of 20th Century Polish poetry do him no favours. He is not (at least in translation) on a par with these poets. Better to consider him on his own terms, if we can, or failing that, to grant him the indulgence we would any poet who died at the age of 23. Excesses of religiosity, lyricism, grandiosity and morbidity – all of which Baczynski on this showing clearly has – are forgivable faults in such a young writer. Better to openly admit these shortcomings than, as Johnston does, state without any support that Baczynski was writing “mature work” at the age of 18 or that by 1942 he was already considered a “major poet”.

Where Johnston’s claims seem more justifiable is in his defense of Baczynski’s love poetry. The poems addressed to his wife, Barbara, are among the finest in this selection

Barbara stands at the mirror
of silence, and her hands reach
to her hair; in her body of glass
she pours silver droplets of speech


This is the opening to the poem, “White Magic” and even without the music of the original this is heady stuff. The untitled love poems on pages 91 and 95 show a similarly imaginative use of imagery.

This extravagance can at times get out of control. So “The Choice” which opens near perfectly:

After a scorching day, the night was green;

its depths soughed like black leaves in which had grown

a milky pith

descends into a lush and breathy exuberance

And so a massive quiet arose like water,

dark, deep, and warm, absorbing shapes and matter.

Above earth, a quiet angel took his hand

and they rose into the cloud’s unfolding flower.

This is bad, although I would argue it is bad in the same way Keats’ Endymion often is – a kind of necessary, free-associative unleashing of lyricism which in each case allowed the young poets to achieve better things elsewhere. So we have Keats’ Odes and so we have a poem like Baczynski’s “Generation” where he successfully contains this declamatory mode within a meticulously constructed architecture.

At other times we are tempted to forgive Baczynski his excesses not so much on technical grounds but because of the context. “Was it a bullet killed you, son, or was it your heart bursting?” concludes one of his later poems. This is overly dramatic but in the mouth of a 23 year old who would be dead six months later, it passes. Does it pass too because it is in the mouth of a Pole? Are Polish writers in particular (and Eastern Europeans in general – think of the cult of Brodsky) allowed a kind of tragic, patriotic lyricism, which would get a British or American laughed out of court? Certainly it is hard to imagine any British writer of the Auden/MacNeice era or even at the time of the First World War getting away with, or even coming out with, this kind of line. Does Eastern European verse serve much the same function as farmers’ markets or urban beehives do – a way to buy into a “reality” that Anglo-American city-dwellers otherwise prefer to keep at arms length?

To return to the matter at hand, these are not, despite Johnston’s pleadings and despite some great moments, poems of the first order. Nor can I imagine that they will have any great influence on contemporary Anglophone poetic practice – they are too much of their time and place for that – but in as much as they form a part of a poetic tradition that has since blended in interesting ways with our own, it is good to have them available. I do not know Polish so am unable to comment on the translations but they read well in English and, if only for the image of thunder rolling “like an apple from the sky” in “Autumn 1941”, I am glad to have this volume on my bookshelf.

Rufo Quintavalle, 2009

Tuesday, 15 December 2009

Best Of The Decade

The Sunday Times Culture section ran an intriguing list of the best of the 00s in film, pop, books, last weekend. It was a persuasive list. Best film: In The Mood For Love – which would have been my choice. Best book: Austerity Britain, by David Kynaston – a wonderful choice, and one that makes me particularly pleased because David is a colleague of mine at Kingston University, and also because my doctoral research is in the austerity years of the 40s and British poetry of the period. Best album: Kid A – not a bad choice either. Eyewear’s Top Films of the Decade would include The Lives of Others, The Bourne trilogy, Mulholland Drive, Elephant, The New World, Lost In Translation, Match Point (Woody Allen’s misunderstood film), Before Sunset, Let The Right One In, Casino Royale and The House of Mirth. The Lord of the Rings trilogy is also a noteworthy achievement of the time. In terms of albums, Bob Dylan’s Love and Theft remains the masterwork of the decade. Other acts that impressed include Fleet Foxes, Animal Collective, Interpol, Tegan and Sara, Grizzly Bear, Vampire Weekend, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Arcade Fire and The White Stripes. I am sure there are others I will recall later. The best book of the decade list would have to include Bob Dylan’s first volume of his autobiography; as well as Charles Taylor’s The Secular Age, and Girly Man, by Charles Bernstein. The cultural event of the decade remains the Digital breakthrough of the Internet and social networking, which changed the way younger poets organise their sense of community, their publishing, and their world. This decade was shaped by 9/11 the Iraq War, and it certainly changed the direction of my work with poets. It remains incredible to me, as I am sure it does to many, how Tony Blair, a war criminal, is still at large at decade’s end.

Guest Review by Kayo Chingonyi: ‘The Terrors’ by Tom Chivers

‘The Terrors’ is, by nature, a mysterious book. Even the preface, in
which the sequence is introduced as ‘a series of imagined emails to
inmates at Newgate Prison between […] 1700 and 1760’, is far from
explanatory. However, what might seem an overly complex book is shown
by attentive reading to be an engaging, if not always immediately
understandable, work of linguistic playfulness and incisive satire.

It is, perhaps, the juxtaposition of such a contemporary form of
discourse as the email with the style of the 18th century Newgate
Calendar which throws up the most questions. In some quarters it is
felt that since email has, in many ways, usurped snail mail we might
one day, as Michael Ravitch envisages*, appreciate the email as a
literary form rather than just a means to the end of relaying a
message.

The opening poem ‘A Guide to Email Etiquette’ serves as an orientation
to the world the reader is about to enter as well as an introduction
to the tropes at work in the book as a whole:

Don’t make personal remarks.
Don’t send unsuitable email.
Don’t mention Lilly’s hieroglyph.

The shift in register from the diction of an acceptable use policy to
the historical ‘Lilly’s hieroglyph’ hints at the tonal and referential
shifts that follow in the rest of the book. This approach suggests
that History (or, more specifically, Time) be understood as the
concurrent interplay of past, present and future. Well worn though
this notion may be; what is striking is the absorbing and, ultimately,
compelling way in which it is examined by Chivers.

Of the book’s successes the foremost, to my mind, are the emails
addressed to William Dodd, a clergyman, and sometime poet, who fell
into disrepute after being convicted of forgery. Dodd numbered Samuel
Johnson among campaigners for his release but not even an extensive
petition could save him and he was hanged. The plight of a prisoner
awaiting a very public death is captured with great skill in this
passage from ‘Terra Incognito’:

It’s a doddle, Will: just get yourself a pen to write
your soul’s way
outta there. In place of Shepherd’s rusty nail and
knotted sheets
you’ll have a memoir worth the reading.

This satirical look at the consolation offered by notoriety after
death not only brings into focus our morbid fascination with those who
teeter at the precipice but also the human need for recognition. This
is explored further in ‘speculate to accumulate’ which begins ‘Treat
this as fan mail, or whatever’ and goes on to explore the manner in
which criminality can bolster one’s ambitions for ‘infamy’. In the
face of an increased focus on the description of the ‘criminal
classes’ in today’s society it seems precious little has changed.

Elsewhere in the pamphlet Chivers muses on the fates of some of
Newgate’s other notorious inmates in fine style. Not least in ‘Other
Side’ where the parade to the gallows is described in all its horror
with an ear for the music of the words:

Ox-cart’s a pretty way to go. Clipping, shipping, scaling, lightening.
Thank god you were throttled before you were burnt.

This poem, in particular, is one in which the juxtaposition of
eighteenth century London and that of the present day is employed to
great effect in the shift from ‘Ox-cart[s]’ to ‘burger vans’ humming
in the following stanza.

Though I did find this approach illuminating I did feel that some of
the poems suffered because, since I hadn’t read the Newgate Calendar,
there were a number of references which I didn’t understand. For me
this challenged the notion that a poem must be ‘got’ to be enjoyed but
there are, I’m sure, some readers who would be turned off by the
pamphlet’s occasional murkiness. Ultimately, though, I found the
sequence to hold genuine interest beyond a single reading both as a
way in to the history of London and as an exploration of what can be
achieved in the email format.

What are we, then, to make of Chivers’ exploration of the email as a
literary form? For me the most useful way into the pamphlet is in the
description of the work as a set of ‘imagined’ missives. This sequence
announces a poet awake to the strangeness thrown up by flights of
imagination which variously place the snappy media-speak of our
information age aside the gratuitous crime reportage of 18th century
London.

The fact that this pamphlet was published by Nine Arches Press, a
relatively new player on the scene, says a lot about the freedom of
small press publishing. Here is a poet tackling the contemporary
sphere without recourse to the continual use of explicitly topical
references. It is this freedom which makes the small press and the
pamphlet an essential part of poetry publishing. Long may Nine Arches
release books of this calibre. The Terrors is well worth a look for
those who enjoy poetry that defies easy reduction.

Tom Chivers, The Terrors, (Nine Arches Press, 2009), £5

Sunday, 13 December 2009

Glorious Basterds

A retraction. I finally saw the latest Tarantino film, and think it a work of cinematic genius. While I continue to regret his adolescent violence, this film has at its heart two or three set piece dramatic sequences that, in terms of suspense and wordplay, are among the most brilliant ever presented on screen - most especially the cellar Mexican standoff. As everyone now knows, this is QT's movie about the power of film - to make everything happen. Historically subversive and yet paying knowing homage to Pabst and other classic German film-makers, it is a disquieting guilty pleasure, with superb casting. He even includes a sly reference to the script about Nazi killers I co-wrote, and which his company optioned briefly, A Necessary Evil.

Sweeping all before it

As if to confirm my recent posts, The Guardian's poetry round up this Saturday featured a photo of Don Paterson and a statement from Sarah Crown that his collection Rain "swept all before it" this year. I find such triumphalist language of very limited value, especially as it plays into a marketing-branding-prize-giving perspective that has badly damaged the poetry world over the last decade. It is truly amazing to me to see all the Internet-based poetry initiatives of this decade - most which empowered thousands of poets - continuously ignored or downgraded in the mainstream media's summaries of the decade. Main reason: you can't buy and sell free poetry. Anyway, how did Rain sweep all before it this year? I think, rather, that 2009 was a richly varied year, with many books worth reading. A pity that critics in positions of authority and with wide public reach continue to try to establish a star system for British poets reminiscent of the BBC's internal document, calling Michael Palin of limited appeal. Such instrumental ranking has little or nothing to do with poetry itself.

Wednesday, 9 December 2009

Eyewear's Albums of 2009

In no order, the following ten albums were the ones that Eyewear found themselves returning to most often, in the pop/rock category. The Priests have a new album that's worth checking out, for those inclined that way. The Pope does as well. Both rise above schmaltz to be genuinely moving at times, if obviously not for all. Anyway, here are the ten:

Fever Ray, eponymous;
Grizzly Bear, Veckatimest;
Yeah Yeah Yeahs, It's Blitz!;
Animal Collective, Merriweather Post Pavilion;
The xx; eponymous;
Lady Gaga, The Fame;
Hope Sandoval and The Warm Inventions, Through the Devil Softly;
Echo and the Bunnymen, The Fountain;
U2, No Line on the Horizon;
White Lies, To Lose My Life.

Others were close, but no cigar. A few were strictly guilty pleasures, like the latest Ah-ha, or Depeche Mode, or Simple Minds. The new La Roux, and the new Little Boots etc., the synth pop gals, were good but really rather limited. On another front, the best film of the year was Let The Right One In - but then I didn't see many. I look forward to finally seeing The Hurt Locker and also Bright Star. Alan Baban has promised us a round-up of the decade early in 2010.

Noon Time

Two new pamphlets from the indefatigable Alistair Noon, based in Berlin! In People's Park, from Penumbra editions, is only £4.00 and is beautifully put together, both as a physical object, and a series of texts. This is excellent poetry. Someone should give Mr. Noon a full collection soon - Salt? I love the last line: "Around the toppled reptiles ran the gnawing rats". He has also translated Sixteen Poems by Monika Rinck, from Barque. "Absolute romantic zero" indeed! Excellent writing from a German into English. These are both stocking stuffers for the poetry buff in your linguistically-innovative home.

TS Eliot Shortlist

The TS Eliot list this year is impressive. While there are (as always) unfortunate omissions (Lumsden's book was his best) it does feature fine collections from Szirtes, Gross, D'Aguiar, Oswald - perhaps the front-runners - as well as Williams and Olds - and others. It's an intelligent list. There were funnier, more experimental books this year, maybe, but whoever wins this will have competed among some of the very best.

Frank Lists

The Guardian Review has frankly ceased to represent its papers' own social or editorial values. Of late, it has toed an increasingly establishment line. In its recent "50 Books of the Decade" - which featured English-language books from America, the UK, and beyond, only one poetry collection was mentioned: Don Paterson's Landing Light, from Faber. Now, given that Paterson was the only poet selected the week before, for the Christmas list, it is becoming tedious. But what is problematic is not Paterson's being listed - this collection is one of the major Scottish books of the decade, certainly - it is the utter absence of any other poetry books. Where is Alice Oswald? Carson? Muldoon? Something from a smaller press maybe? Some Giles Goodland? Or, .the utterly funny and experimental and daring Girly Man, by Charles Bernstein? Or, for that matter, the most politically inclusive poetry book of the decade, 100 Poets Against The War? Instead, by selecting a collection by a poet who opposed the poets against the war movement openly, and openly villified "postmodern" avant-garde poetry in the decade, the Guardian is exhibiting a rather provincial and conservative streak.

Tuesday, 8 December 2009

Guest Review : Zoë Brigley on 'Language for a New Century'



A New Hybrid Muse

Language for a New Century: Contemporary Poetry from the Middle East, Asia and Beyond, ed. Tina Chang, Nathalie Handal and Ravi Shankar, New York and London: Norton, 2008. ISBN: 9780393332384. Pbk, 734pp.

Language for a New Century begins with a question about the meaning and value of poetry. Yet in this anthology, the question of value acquires all the more meaning, because the poetry comes out of postcolonial and diasporic settings. In their preface, the editors suggest that ‘Where the opportunities for fatal destruction, between people and between nations, are intensified, the same age-old questions still exist: What is the role of poetry? What can it do? Can poetry still matter?’. What this anthology offers is a poetry attuned to needs of particular cultures. It is a poetry that works for these needs, by reinventing form, syntax, the lyric mode and themes such as childhood, identity, politics, war, homeland, spirituality and the body.

The writers included originate from regions traditionally sidelined by the West: South Asia, East Asia, the Middle East and Central Asia; as well as other territories like Morocco and Sri Lanka, and the diaspora in Western countries. Some of these poets are well-known while others are relatively new, and the editors only include one poem by each poet, a strategy that aims for the highest possible inclusivity. To create an anthology that gathers these voices together is a remarkable achievement in itself. It is also admirable not simply because it points away from traditional poetic canons, but because it makes such great claims for the value of poetry as a tool for representing the identity and politics of postcolonial and diasporic subjects.

In 2004, Brent Hayes Edwards noted that postcolonial poetry had gained less attention than the short story or the novel and he suggested ‘The point is not that poetry is less prevalent or less important … but that it is less convenient’. The editors of Language for a New Century do not try to make the poetry presented into a convenient product. This can be seen in the structure of the book, which is not defined by an A-Z of poets, but by particular themes or issues. Take the section ‘Buffaloes under Dark Water’. The title is taken from Moniza Alvi’s ‘The Wedding’, a poem in which a bride describes an arranged marriage to a man and a country. Written out of Alvi’s connections with Pakistan, the poem is about encountering a strange or alien person/place that must soon become familiar, and Alvi describes how this dictates sacrifice for both parties who repress their thoughts ‘like buffaloes under dark water’. The editors explain in the preface that this phrase works as a section-title to represent ‘mysterious, shrounded, duende­-tinged luminescent bursts of lyric that resist the notion of taxonomy’. The approach to structure may not serve the researcher so well – what theme is ‘Earth of Drowned Gods’? can anyone guess what ‘Bowl of Air and Shivers’ means?! – but it does present the idea that concepts like home, war and spirituality are complicated, poetic and cannot be reduced to simple concepts.

But this is an anthology that never claimed to be simple in its outlook, and how could it be when it covers such a multitude of voices and outlooks? What is fascinating though is that many of these poets are Anglophone, though the anthology does contain some translations to English too. ‘Slips and Atmospherics’ is a particularly important section in relation to language, because it gathers together poems that ‘stretch[es] the cords of syntax, exploding normative lineation and familiar imageries to present an avant-garde sensibility’. This statement applies to a great many poems throughout the anthology, which feel refreshingly detached from traditional forms and from the kind of uncomplicated lyrics that sometimes dominate Western poetry. The poets writing in English are certainly deterritorializing the language and making it their own, forcing it to work for their own purposes and political needs. It seems to be what Jahan Ramazani in The Hybrid Muse describes as ‘a rich and vibrant poetry … issued from the hybridization of the English muse with the long resident muses of Africa, India, the Caribbean and other decolonizing territories’ – in this case the Middle East, Asia etc.

In Language for a New Century, poetry humanises the experiences of poets working in this hybrid muse, allowing them to maintain their cultural specificity, whilst also creating a seed of familiarity that flowers to understanding. Tina Chang sums this up in introducing the section on the lyric. ‘What is it that we seek to glean from poems but a shadow of our own human experience? When we subtract rationale, logic, even narrative consistency, we are led by the essence, feeling and raw energy of the song, the purity of a given moment.’ And this sympathy, of course, is desperately needed. The East is still a mythic place created by Orientalist discourse, as has been shown more recently by Judith Butler’s Precarious Life which considers how the suffering faces of subjects in the Middle East are not grieved and are even incomprehensible as lives in Western discourse.

This kind of perception unravels in poetry. When, in Saadi Youssef’s America, America’, the speaker challenges the soldier: ‘Why did you come to me from your Nevada desert, soldier armed to the teeth? / Why did you come all the way to distant Basra, where fish used to swim by our doorsteps?’. When Nadia Anjuman writes of ‘The Silenced’ finding a voice: ‘I am not that weak willow twisted by every breeze. / I am an Afghan girl and known to the whole world’. When Suji Kwock Kim writes of the peace in ‘The Korean Community Garden’: ‘All things lit by what they neighbour // but are not, each tint flaring without a human soul, / without human rage at their passing.’

Altogether the breadth of work in Language for a New Century is hardly broached by a short review like this one. It is a pioneering anthology that, for myself, is a roadmap to poetries that I have never encountered before and I find it both inspiring and heartening. Overall, I am inclined to agree with Carolyn Forché , who in her foreword to the book, laments poetry’s lack of meaning in Western culture but tells us to ‘take heart’: ‘We have entered a different epoch, and this anthology is, let us say, our guide and interpreter’.

Zoë Brigley

Sunday, 29 November 2009

Best Of Lists?

In the world of poetry, there is always a fine line between cronyism and advocacy. After all, as I posited in another post, given the relative neglect of poetry books, friendship between poets is a vital part of getting the work "out there". Eyewear itself selects some books and poets to review and mention; logically, this excludes others. However, an issue may arise, when the main newspapers (I am thinking in this context of the British ones, but the point applies more widely I suspect) run their end of year Christmas Books lists. There is sometimes something farcical about the process; though not always. Naomi Klein, for example, used her space in The Guardian to draw attention to a Canadian book little known in England, which seems noble and useful. The poetry book that got mentioned the most (three times) in The Guardian was Rain. Published by Faber and Faber, and written by Don Paterson, it is a strong collection from a major Scottish poet. However, it is not even the only good Scottish book of the year - one thinks of Roddy Lumsden's latest, which is an extraordinary exploration of various forms. And there are many other books, some from smaller presses, by less well-connected poets. I invite readers to leave the titles of their favourite books here. I suppose my point is well-known and inevitable: some reputations snowball, and accrue a momentum of their own. Paterson now has the sort of momentum once connected to Seamus Heaney. This is in part due to the work itself, and partly due to branding and extraordinary success at winning prizes and accolades. It does not hurt when a poet is advanced into the market, and the papers, by a leading publisher. Given the relative ubiquity of Rain on best of the year lists, a paradox emerges - is it a wasted vote to draw attention to an already widely-acclaimed book on such a list - or a useful thumbs-up only swelling the consensus? The poetry world, like all other fields, is a pyramid, that narrows at the top. Those at the pinnacle of their careers attract more attention and are more widely read, which perpetuates their position. My research into the Forties poets offers many examples of excellent poets, like Terence Tiller and Lynette Roberts, who somehow failed to make it to that pinnacle position. The regretful nature of memory, among poetry readers, is that so often, those not at the very top end up entirely forgotten all-too-soon; until another generation dusts a few of them off.

Friday, 27 November 2009

Enfin, 35 Poets for Oxfam

While I have been on sick leave, Jennifer Oey, Martin Penny and Etienne Gilfillan, have managed to put together a fine film and DVD, for Oxfam, featuring 35 young and youngish British poets, selected by myself earlier in the year. The DVD will be ready for purchase on Dececember 17, when it is being launched in London, at 91 Marylebone High Street, London, W1, at 7 pm. The DVD is called Asking A Shadow To Dance: 35 Young British Poets for Oxfam. It features a number of fine poets, including Luke Kennard, Lorraine Mariner, Emily Berry and Luke Wright. It was filmed at UEA and the Southbank Centre, and also at the Manhattan Review launch of last year. Well worth supporting, for a good cause; it will be ready for online purchase after the 17th.

Strong Medicine

Thanks to friends for asking about me. I am on ever-higher doses of a medicine to help heal my esophagus. I hope to have this process under control within the next few weeks. I have very good doctors. I am not in pain all the time anymore, but still often uncomfortable. It's been a depressing time, becoming ill like this, with what may be a chronic problem. My new diet means I have lost 16 kilos in the past three months. I am now wearing suits from my twenties that I couldn't fit into for decades. That makes me sound like a former Fatty Arbuckle, but all I mean is I am now oddly slim. I hope to be stable or on the road to recovery in early 2010.

Three New Books

I have been reading three new books worth buying for oneself or a friend this Christmas: She Walks Into The Sea by American poet Patricia Clark (Michigan State University press); The Girl with the Cactus Handshake by Katrina Naomi (Templar) and Blood/Sugar by James Byrne (Arc). The last two just launched last few days in England. Naomi is a former student of mine at the Poetry School, and her work is witty, dark and deeply surprising in places. Byrne is one of the key figures in the London scene, as editor and young poet - now also based in New York. This is his second collection, and, as John Kinsella says, "here is a unique mytho-poetic". No one else thinks or writes like Byrne, and how he blends international and British traditions together is fascinating.

Douglas Campbell Has Died

Sad news. The great Scottish-born, Canadian actor who made the Stratford Festival in Ontario a world-class place for the Bard, has died. I remember seeing him several times in productions, in my teens, when my Uncle Jack took me to plays there.

Review: New Moon

Eyewear saw New Moon and, while it was not swoon-inducing, thought it very good. The director lost his Pullman franchise when America balked at the Dark Materials atheism. So, he got a new film franchise to work on (though only one). Curiously, he opted not to keep Carter Burwell's brilliant, witty score, and went with something more traditionally romantic. The new film's key moments are a rotating camera over a quick montage sequence that sums up three months of despair in a teen's lovelife as autumn turns to winter; and a scene where a young werewolf pulls his t-shirt off to reveal Grade A beefcake - every girl and many boys in my cinema howled with lusty delight. New Moon is sweet tender romance. It reminded me of a James Dean film. But with less angst or terror. For a horror film, it is is lightweight. The main struggle is for the heart, not the heart's needle, or blood. I like this tenderness. It is a welcome break from torture and gore. When a main plot twist can be a hand being held, or a promise between young lovers broken, that's Romeo plus Juliet territory. The books are talky and so is the film. Michael Sheen is always going to be Tony Blair for me. Still, it's good to see this doing so well. One curious absence, given the author's Mormon faith: God. Abstinence and damnation are present (the undead may not have souls) but religion - for small town America - is airbrushed out. Given the True Blood season currently on British telly, it is telling to note that in the US (and in UK too), everything can be shown - sex, murder, monsters - more easily than a pursuit of faith.

Review: Spandau Ballet

The 80s seems to have produced an endless supply of clever and often pleasingly
eccentric pop, much of which has been revisiting us this year, twenty years after
that decade ended. There's a new Moyet Best Of just out for instance. And since
the year began new albums from Simple Minds, Depeche Mode and Echo and the Bunnymen, to simply name three of the major bands of the time - each of which made it equally big in America as at home. Now comes the reunion album from Spandau Ballet after
almost Smiths-size acrimony. SB were not as big as Duran Duran or Tears for Fears
stateside, but bigger than OMD. They were part of the New Romantic wave at its height. Their unlikely name and likely look were of the moment, and song 'True' is one of the, yes, true classics of the period. While the new Frankie compilation is mainly a rehash of the hits, SB have rerecorded their greatest songs for this album. The results are both disarming and sometimes disappointing. 'True' is given new life. 'Chant No. 1' is simply rendered safe and MOR. Simon Cowell is now America's highest paid performer - a far cry from the days when people like Orson Welles ruled radio. His bland if rude style fits with the retooled SB. I am sure some of these tracks could become hits. But while it is fun to hear remakes from older men sometimes it is wiser perhaps to prefer the prison of our early days.

Wednesday, 25 November 2009

Mainstream Love Hotel

Todd launched his new collection Mainstream Love Hotel this September. Unfortunately, he has had to cancel his remaining public events in 2009 due to illness. For those who would like to support his book, it would make a particularly festive gift this Noel, not least because it’s jolly, red and all about love. Please order a copy direct from the tall-lighthouse website. KJ

Monday, 23 November 2009

Atheism For Kids

The latest atheist stunt is an unrolling of UK-wide billboards decrying the fact that children get labelled by their family faith before they can choose themselves. Philosophically this is facile and poorly considered. How else are adults to arrange the lives of children? Parents decide the names, schools, diets and doctors of children; what books they do or don't read; what bedtime stories they are told. Parents and other adults help shape childhood's imagination. Atheist parents are free to raise their kids sans God. It hardly makes sense for a Catholic family to do so. The atheist campaigners argue children should not have to decide a belief system until they are adults. That is rather like saying children should not have to go to school or eat greens until they are 18. Adulthood is precisely the moment for questioning childhood beliefs: not the moment for adopting them. Further, the soul is present at the start and cannot be left unsupported for so long. If adults choose to become atheists that is their rational choice. The soul of a child and a child's mind need loving guidance. Love is forever ignored by such campaigns as if faith was mainly about malice. It doesn't have to be.

Sunday, 22 November 2009

"Bright star, would I were stedfast as thou art"

Ben Wishaw and Abbie Cornish give stellar performances in ‘Bright Star’ as John Keats and his muse, Fanny Brawne. The film is directed by Jane Campion, who also directed Oscar-winning film, ‘The Piano,’ and it is adapted from Andrew Motion’s biography of the poet. Slender with a sensitive face and shabby clothes, Keats is a great contrast to his brash friend and flatmate, Brown, played by Paul Schneider. He is also a contrast to Fanny- who is vivacious and always dressed beautifully in clothes of her own making. Fanny and Brown’s banter is a source of humour in this tragic story of a great young poet burning out. Love thrives between Keats and Fanny in a world which recognises the physical, temperamental and monetary differences between them. Nevertheless, they are always surrounded by great natural beauty. The film is set in Hampstead, home of some of Keats’ loveliest poetry. This film is beautifully made and captures the Romantic ideals without being clichéd. As Shelley says in his elegy on Keats’s death, ‘Adonais,’ let us hope “The soul of Adonais, like a star, / Beacons from the abode where the Eternal are.” KJ

Wednesday, 18 November 2009

David Zieroth wins GG‏

Congratulations to David Zieroth, Vancouver poet, who won a Governer General's Literary Award this year!

Sunday, 15 November 2009

Byrne and Brookes Have Forthcoming Books

Eyewear is looking forward to the new Arc press collection from James Byrne, Blood/Sugar. Byrne is one of the best of the younger British poets and also an important editor and organiser; he currently spends much time in NYC. Also out with a book soon is James Brookes whose pamphlet will be available before Christmas; Brookes won an Eric Gregory this year and is Hill-like in his qualities. More on that pamphlet later. Both young men were filmed for the Oxfam DVD project, also out at year's end.

Tuesday, 10 November 2009

Beating in the void

Poets are sensitive creatures...

Matthew Arnold described Shelley as 'a beautiful and ineffectual archangel, beating in the void his luminous wings in vain.' A poet too delicate for this world - as Jay-Z says, for this 'hard knock life.' As Eliot's recent letters - just-published - remind us, even the most classical minds have romantic agonies. KJ

Monday, 9 November 2009

Heavy Weighs In Crown

Sarah Crown of the Guardian has weighed in on the new Bloodaxe anthology, Voice Recognition, edited by James Byrne and Clare Pollard. Following on from Sean O'Brien's recent review of the new Faber pamphlet series for younger poets (including Heather Phillipson), which ends with his bracing reminder that the hard part is the next "40 years" of a poet's career, it is intriguing and informative to see how key critics of the British poetry establishment are beginning to welcome and receive this sudden generational bounty of new poets.

I for one selected - before falling ill - about 30 young UK poets for an Oxfam DVD, directed by Jennifer Oey, to be launched around Christmas. I was spoiled for choice, and hope there is a sequel, as there are many other superb poets I was unable to reach, some of them featured here in the past. My modus operandi is well known: to affirm, encourage, support and announce new talent. I much believe, to paraphrase Bono, that the sweetest song is that yet to be sung. Youth and poetry are naturals together, and while the next 40 years may, in some cases, be the hard part, tell that to Rimbaud, Keats, Shelley, Dylan Thomas, and Plath. They only got the first half, and it was fine. I also think of the poet manque, Scott Fitzgerald.

Anyway, I hope to run an indepth review of that Guardian review soon. In the meantime, let me just say it revealed three interesting things: 1) a conservative reluctance to praise or accept a good thing at face value; 2) a suspicion of anything that might smack of Alverism; and 3) the Faber pamphlet poets were identified as the strongest out of the 21. Number 3 I suspect may be a coincidence - the Faber poets are all good. That's why Clare and James chose them. However, I missed mention of Sandeep Parmar and Emily Berry, among several others. The main odd bit of the review was that a third or more was a critique of the Intro.

I actually think the Intro is weak - taking potshots at wine and bookshop events seems unfair, especially as London thrives on such things. But many Intros are weak or contentious - one thinks of the Motion-Morrison Intro for their Penguin. In this instance, might it not have been better to debate less about the editorial contraption and perhaps simply read as many of the poets as possible? Lord knows, Guardian reviews are often laudatory, so this one rather stuck out for its contending tone.

It seemed curious, to me, to question the central thesis of the book - that a new generation has emerged, galvanised by events, online and off. True, other generations three stars up the charts, and had readings and magazines and pamphlets. But this one seems the most lively, and differently-engaged and empowered, since the Sixties. One can mention Armitage and co. forever, but this latest "gen" has exploded without marketing or artifice - like Topsy it just grew, a force to be reckoned with. This will become clearer when the Lumsden Bloodaxe survey comes out.

The Guardian, so young and hip it is painful in their film and music pages, sometimes seems square and very traditional in its book pages - despite blog references and little cartoons. Perhaps the young guns of British poetry are to be squared off against, but for now, let's throw open the saloon doors and buy them a milk in a dirty glass, shall we?

Tuesday, 3 November 2009

1, 450

This is the 1, 450th post at Eyewear. Not bad, all things considered. Just wanted to briefly recommend a few books I've been sent lately. First, A Tiara for the Twentieth Century, the collected poems of Suzanne Richardson Harvey. I published her work often at Nthposition, and think she's a fine American poet well worth reading.

Next, Dream Catcher issue 23, is the Canadian Issue. While I find the poets included in that section a little pell-mell, it's still a good thing to read if you're interested in Canadian poetry; what the issue does confirm is the fact that most people in the UK haven't a clue as to what the central line or lines of Canadian post-war poetry are - and neither do most Canadians. The situation is quite dire - a very weak tradition of poor critical evaluation has meant the ten thousand Canadian poets are at a loss to see the forest for the trees.

Finally, the Scrumbler, edited by Canadian-in-England, Mike Kavanagh, is a new children's poetry magazine. It's exquisitely produced, with remarkable illustrations. Poets both children and professional adult writers are included and welcome. You can order this amazing magazine from 3 Holly Bank Cottages, Wooton near Woodstock, Oxfordshire, England OX20 1AE.

My own news, Seaway received a very good review in the latest issue of Ambit, which was lovely to read. Also, Kavita Joshi is back from Verona soon and hopefully will get a few reviews online second half of November.

Regarding the Q top albums of the year, was sorry not to see the group XX in the top 50. And, finally, when sick, will watch films. Saw Let The Right One In finally. I think it is extraordinary - the most ambiguous and disturbingly sweet portrait of desire, love, friendship, abuse, need, murder, and childhood I have ever seen; will the boy become the man? Terrible indeed, the train ride. Be well.

Friday, 30 October 2009

Dorothy Molloy's third book

Dorothy Molloy, the Irish poet, died in 2004, ten days before her Faber collection was published. It was a tragic debut. Her second collection was prepared posthumously, and also came out from Faber. Now, her partner has brought out her third and final collection, Long-distance Swimmer, with Irish press Salmon. As Andrew Carpenter writes in his Introduction, "Dorothy would have been delighted to know that Salmon was publishing her work." I've yet to read the book in depth, but it seems an image-rich, dark, and lively collection that I look forward to reading. New books from other Irish writers that have appeared recently, include C.L Dallat's, and the new one from Siobhan Campbell, Cross-Talk.

Wednesday, 28 October 2009

Queyras and Starnino

Good news. Canada's major poetry award, the GGs, has shortlisted two key 21st century poet-critics, Carmine Starnino and Sina Queyras, who represent widely divergent poetics. Both edited major Canadian anthologies recently - Open Field and The New Canon. As poets their work represents the major trends in new Canadian poetry. It'll be interesting to see who wins.

Monday, 26 October 2009

Introducing Kavita Joshi

Friends, the new assistant editor of Eyewear is Ms. Kavita Joshi. She is a fine younger British poet and recent university graduate from Leicester, where she studied literature. From time to time she may update the site. Mainly, she will oversee it in a caretaker capacity. Hopefully, pending reviews can be added later in the year.

Poetry and illness

Thank you, friends and followers, for keeping me on your radar. I saw my doctor again today. I am unfit for work, require more investigations, and am currently switching to a new treatment regime. I am in great pain most of the time. What a beautiful October weekend it was: the end of the British summer, and the best weather of the year. I am deeply moved by love and friendship now - more even than art, it endures, and matters. I cannot imagine what I ever had to complain about - if I did. What I had, before this ill health came, was a great treasure. The treasure remains. A dear true love. One thinks of poets and illness - Keats the best known, and not just because of the new film, Bright Star, which I hear is superb. Dylan Thomas, too. Eliot's nerves. Plath. The list is long. I am not sure pain makes things better creatively, though Delmore Schwartz thought so. Be good to each other. Don't take poetry prizes too seriously - I suppose my two main messages. If I had a third, it would be: poetry can also be grandiloquent without need to apologise. Austerity, opacity, difficulty, strangeness, plainness, the ordinary, the demotic - it's all language. Poets try their best with it. Enjoy the light while it lasts.

Wednesday, 21 October 2009

New Religion

The surprise move by the Catholic church to welcome dissenting Anglicans, even married priests, into the fold, is disconcerting. I'd take advantage of it as I am an Anglican moving towards Rome, however the main reasons most want to switch not fight are intolerant; namely, homophobia and other small-minded positions. This sort of thing means that when Stephen Fry recently debated against the Church he was able to use the subtlety of a Dan Brown to shoot fish in a barrell. A pity, because the good that Catholicism does in Britain and the world is greater than the evils its detractors claim.

The Fountain

Echo and the Bunnymen have an 11th album, if not an 11th hour conversion. But they have made a pop album that is almost annoyingly upbeat, and it sounds like Snow Patrol too often. While the fabulous wordplay surrounding sacharine, Shroud of Turin, and sack you're in is fun, nothing here reaches the splendour of Ocean Rain, or the erotic danger of Lips Like Sugar. A disappointment after Siberia, but worth listening to if a true fan.

Joseph Wiseman Has Died

Sad news. The great Montreal-born character actor, Joseph Wiseman, unforgettable as the first major Bond villain, Dr No, has died. He was also in The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, that important Canadian-American film set in Montreal.

Thursday, 8 October 2009

Update On Poetry Day

I was reading Helen Gardner the other day on the "art of TS Eliot" and it struck me that the phrase he borrowed from Julian of Norwich, for his Four Quartets, "and all shall be well..." has come to be, I think, widely seen as his. Allusion begets authorship. Today is National Poetry Day in Britain. I am still dealing with a condition that basically has three outcomes - one, it clears up in a few months; two, it becomes chronic, and I am on medication for life; or three, it becomes chronic until treated with surgery. It isn't, currently, life-threatening - though it can become pre-cancerous if not treated thoroughly and effectively. The problem is, the medication has side effects, and the condition itself is unpleasant, and sometimes alarmingly painful. I don't want to belly ache: there are many people with worse conditions. However, because I have erosive esophagitis, it means that there is near constant burning down the length of my food pipe; and, too much speaking means I sometimes lose my voice. I had never been ill before in my life - sure, a few colds, a flu here and there. Some anxiety. But never ill in the sense of getting a disease which you don't necessarily recover from. Hard to rally without a clear goal. Improvement has been slow, after 30 days on the pills. I have missed several readings I wanted to give, a dear friend's wedding, and work - all things I would love to be a part of. I need to stay in the world, but not too involved, because I do need rest. Being ill requires a constant dialogue with the self. One either slips into a rather brutal drill sergeant "just get on with it" message; or into a groove of worry and self-pity. Neither feels right. It isn't business as usual; nor is it (quite) the end of the world. But, watching Lord of the Rings: Return of the King last weekend on the telly, I did get a sense of the end of one way of life; the Elves are sailing away; the leaves are falling. Autumn, especially one as sunny as ours has been, can break the heart and fill one with many thoughts of the oncoming greater bleakness. I need to rally, to keep on, to hope this condition will clear up, and won't get worse. Knowing my throat and esophagus is being eroded by acid is alarming. Knowing the condition opens me to serious other diseases is also worrying. I find friendship and love the only consolations; that and shaving and dressing well each day. Music helps a little - John Adams more than Madonna - her new Best Of sounds a hollow brass, though Dress You Up continues to delight me; it reminds me of how I danced when young to her songs, holding the edge of my sleeves as she did. I had wanted to recommend Voice Recognition, edited by James Byrne and Clare Pollard. Readers from abroad will find it a great Intro to the new British poetry. Been reading more Terrence Tiller. Do buy his books at Abe or where you can find them. He is such a fine 40s writer. Be well.

Thursday, 1 October 2009

Roman Knows

Thanks for all the get-well comments. My condition is ongoing but hopefully can be managed by the treatments on offer. At the moment I am mostly in some pain throughout the day. I don't intend to return too often to these pages for a month or so, but did want to briefly mention that, after thinking about it, I agree with the arrest of Polanski. Chinatown is a great film, and was once my favourite, - as is Fearless Vampire Killers, Bitter Moon, and Frantic - but what he did (which he admitted to) is a crime that warrants punishment. As with Pound, we can have the man, and the work, and need not tar the one with the other. Polanski's tormented, oddly unfortunate life deepened the filmic intensity of his best projects, but the films rarely open out onto any apology or remorse, for evil. They're works of genius; but a genius inflected darkly.

Monday, 28 September 2009

Still Ill

I am doing my best to recover. Find this more challenging than expected. Have a lot to say about new poets and collections, hope to do that when better later this year. Will write more in 4 weeks hopefully. Yours, Todd. ps thanks for the comments.

Monday, 21 September 2009

Eyewear Wide Shut

Until I recover from my illness, I won't be posting here. Hope to return in late October or November. In the meantime, please do enjoy the numerous reviews, features and essays already provided. In its small way, Eyewear has become a resource. I hope to be able to continue adding to this resource in the future, with many good reviews and features in the pipeline. Thanks to all those who have followed this blog over the years.

Wednesday, 16 September 2009

Dan Brown's Lost Art

Dan Brown's new book, launched at midnight, has sold more books in its first seconds than all the poetry books in the world will sell this month. Or than all the Booker books will sell this year. This is a fact - combined with his relatively artless prose - used to demonise Mr. Brown in certain quarters. But as a film buff and creative writing teacher, I have thought about this. What Brown does is eventing. That's right, a new genre title: eventing. That is, it isn't just writing, or entertainment, but creating an event. It's not just event publishing - the event is the sort of book it is. The use of plot, the style, is pre-cinematic, or post-cinematic, or maybe supra-cinematic - the book-as-movie-as-shared-experience. The popular interest means there is no use in saying it shouldn't be popular - it is popular. We can analyse why and how. But perhaps it is not a bad thing that it happens. I don't think it adds to literacy - people are not reading but consuming these books. But this kind of format, this hyper-fact and complex sort of engaging thing, makes a book an informative game. Borges knew this a while back. Most poets make books that are thoughtful games too. But Brown seems on a different sort of track. Should he be emulated? I say, go ahead. It is harder to combine elements like he does than it looks. Otherwise, there would be more such books. But then again, he has a niche, and the brand name, now, too. How many code-breaking books does anyone need? At least one more, I suspect.

Mainstream love hotel launched and update

Thanks to all those who came, or wrote, or called, about last night's launch. It was a resounding success, and very moving. The Calder Bookshop on The Cut was packed, we sold almost all the books we had, and many of my dear friends, and very fine poets, were in attendance - and on a night of monsoon-like rains. I must thank especially Emily Berry, Les Robinson, and my wife, for making the night so special. The book is now on sale at the tall-lighthouse site, for those who couldn't be there. And, thank you to those who have written about my health. I have a painful but treatable condition which can usually be resolved in a few months, without surgery, and there is no current worry it is pre-cancerous (though it can go in that direction). My spirits were raised by the launch. But the weeks ahead will be a challenge. I am juggling teaching, co-editing a Carcanet anthology, finishing my PhD, and the usual writing and organising. I may well have to take it easier. I move back to Maida Vale on Friday, after 6 months of renovations on our flat. Looking forward to that to. I will try to start to post the backlog of reviews and features in October, sorry for delay.

Wednesday, 9 September 2009

Belated Review: Only By The Night

I suppose in a year I'll like the new Kasbian, too. On that note, let me admit, I finally fell under the spooky spell of the Kings of Leon, whose 2008 Only By The Night, reveals itself, now that I have listened to it, as 11 dumb, sex and religion fuelled, unbelievably catchy cornpone clearance style American rock songs that together make up a soundtrack that could easily have underscored all the best Miami Vice moments. It's cool music for people who think cool means trailer parks, shot guns, mojo, torn t-shirts, biceps, tats, rattlers, beer, gals, and the darkness of the devil that must be obeyed and resisted in equal cross-roads measure, with a goatee, beard, or one of those beardy things under the lower lip. A great album of its range and aims. Very satisfying to listen to when very ill and on meds, and feeling a swooning menace all around.

Todd Swift For Sale

I cannot hope to compete with The Beatles, who roll out this week their video games and remastered mono tracks. How many fans got mono from the fab four fellers? Anyway, I too am rolling out my latest (sometimes music-themed) collection of love poems, and poems that love poetry (maybe too much). For those abroad, or bored, or all-aboard, they can go here to the mainstream love hotel site and order a copy. Thanks! Canadian orders will be possible soon, too. I'll suggest they do a US thing too.

Guest review: Parmar On O'Mahony

Sandeep Parmar reviews
In Sight of Home
By Nessa O’Mahony

It would be too simple to evaluate Nessa O’Mahony’s most recent work, In Sight of Home, on the basis of whether or not it succeeds as a ‘verse-novel’. And yet with the current surge of interest in the form (to the great excitement of ever-present forefinger-wagging genreists) each verse-novel sets itself a near impossible task: balancing the presence of often tedious narrative (see Ruth Padel’s Darwin: A Life in Poems) with the exploration of character through lyric. The trouble, in the case of Padel’s book, is the spectre of Charles Darwin, transmuted through the poet-biographer, whose voice clangs over epistolary prose. O’Mahony could have operated via a similar procedure: we know that some of her book is based on what appears to be twenty-two letters from Margaret Butler, a nineteenth-century Irish emigrant to Australia, but thankfully O’Mahony departs from the day-to-day recounting of domestic life to make an implicit inquiry into the nature of the archive and the relationship between the reader/scholar and the historical subject. She inserts a figure of herself, the author—in the form of a twenty-first-century Irish woman, Fiona Sheehan—as discoverer, hoarder, and voyeur of a woman’s ‘failed’ life.

In Sight of Home brings together three narrative strains: Margaret’s departure from Kilkenny with her brothers and sisters and their subsequent life in Australia; Lizzie, another young Irish emigrant who finds herself in service of the Butler family; and Fiona, a poet who is seduced into writing Margaret’s story by letters she receives from a Butler descendant. Fiona has her own self-exile to contend with—she moves to North Wales to sever family commitments, only to find herself identifying heavily with Margaret’s life as a spinster, overburdened by a woman’s responsibility to her kin. Contemplating leaving her life in Ireland behind, Fiona is drawn to the letters:

I picked up the pack of letters
I’d been flicking through
for the past few days.
Although the writing was faint,
the slanting scrawl near illegible
I could still glean some of their meaning.

And one can see what this ‘meaning’ is. Margaret’s life is entirely wound up by the living and dying of her relatives; her own fears, at least for herself, are harder to articulate:

Dead heat
damp clothes
dead weight
breath
caught
in my ribs
no shift
in sails
Must we stay
in this wood
tomb
yet I dread
the jolt
that takes
us further
nearer
what

O’Mahony has inserted Fiona’s thoughts whilst reading these suffocated, tight-lipped letters (and trying to shape them into poems) in the right margin: ‘Exile is easier now. / An hour in a car queue, / two hours bounced / in a tin-plate catamaran, / a day-trip to a new life.’

The pull towards archetypal femininity is evidenced by Fiona’s superimposed romantic indecision; she resists settling down and moving in with her lover, preferring instead her crumbling quarters, her stacks of dusty books, which are all there to evoke her obstinate grip on individuality. After a pregnancy scare, Fiona finds mixed comfort in the return of her menstrual flow:

Drought over,

so why
no smile
today?

O’Mahony’s book is compulsively readable, especially for those who are attracted to the possibilities of archival research. To those who feel somehow cheated by the actual existence of Margaret Butler’s letters or who are wary of their fictionalisation, I would say that O’Mahony never makes claims to factualness and the result is far more beguiling and intelligent than verse-biography—that supposedly unbiased, murky sentimental mask-wearing. In Sight of Home veers between wry cynicism (on the part of the ‘biographer’ Fiona, who becomes increasingly possessive over Margaret) and genuine beauty, observed off-handedly:

On the sand-bar
shadows search for pickings,
fill their bags, move on.

Closer to shore clockwork
oyster-catchers bob, then take to air
as a radio pips noon.

A black-backed gull
pulls at something
long-tailed.

A car kerb-crawls
for a spot on the sea-front,
fails, resumes the circuit.

I watch a man walk his dog, pause,
read the sing he has seen
every day for a lifetime.

O’Mahony success is that she doesn’t naively enter into her project. In fact she purposefully changes one basic premise to her story: the letters of Margaret Butler aren’t in the possession of a (self-proclaimed) unrecognised writer, they are in a library. By setting them in a private, unauthorised and highly subjective setting, O’Mahony indulges in a scholarly sin. But better that than pretend that the formation of ‘lives’ hangs from cornices of truth. The poet’s genre-bending isn’t a lack of skill or a flagrant misapprehension, it is what brings the story to life.

Dr. Sandeep Parmar is a leading American-British poet of her generation, and an expert on Mina Loy and Hope Mirlees. She makes her home between (in) London and New York. Her poetry appears in the new anthology from Bloodaxe, Voice Recognition: 21 Poets for the 21st Century, which I hope to review this autumn.

America can go to heck

The way many Americans have treated Obama lately - calling him a national socialist, a socialist, or a non-citizen - well, it is just too much to accept. Americans, who somehow briefly contrived to appear brilliant and brave when they elected the radical man, now appear dim-writted and reactionary at their reluctance to support him. Kick the yes-we-can hard as you want, Obama is still great.

Foulds Up, Fry Out

Adam Foulds was a poet. Now he is a Booker nominated novelist who writes about poets - and a poet. Foulds is on a meteoric trajectory. Good luck to him. I think all poets should write novels. They pay better and get more attention. Do more people read them? How many poetry books get optioned? What is writing for in the 21st century of celebrity?

Poor Mr. S. Fry has begun to discover too much occasional tweeting is damaging his rep. A Sunday Times article lambasted him for being so obnoxiously omnipresent. Fry has the Welles status - media type with big brains - but sadly, looks more like Wilde than contains that man's genius. Good luck to him.

My father's anniversary

This is the third anniversary of my father's death from brain cancer. I miss him. I do feel his presence, from time to time. My faith is shaken, I confess. Tested but not lost.

I am currently facing a diagnosis of having a disease of the oesophagus, which, while treatable, can lead to worse things, and has some painful implications. Not a great time to take up throat singing.

There a few new poems for my father in my new collection, to be launched on the feast day of Our Lady of Sorrows.

I noted in the weekend papers that religion might be "hardwired" into our brains. The ambiguity continues. Some will see this as proof of God's design, others of the strictly mechanistic explanation of the universe. To my mind, since love, taste, desire, sight, and all other of the things that make existence rich and deep, stem from the brain and its chemistry, it can hardly be a small thing for belief or faith to reside there as well. Since neuro-chemistry is part of the fabric of the miracle that is being, how can it be used to disprove the mystery of things?

Squinting at Eyewear

Readers of Eyewear will have to squint to find my British debut poetry collection mentioned in the PBS (Poetry Book Society) bulletin for this quarter. Too many books get published, and editorial needs are many.

Tuesday, 1 September 2009

Wuthering Bites

The dumbing down of Britain and America continues, with ITV's broadcast, over the last two nights, of a new version of Wuthering Heights, destined to be aired in America, too, and then let loose on the world in the form of a DVD. That this latest heap of rubbish was masterminded by the creator of Desperate Romantics - a bodice-ripping series that lays waste to the Pre-Raphealites - should surprise no one. The media has discovered - again - that high culture and emotionality and poetry can sell - if commodified and repackaged to be all about sex and violence - which, as Frankie said a while back, were "the new gods". Though Tom Hardy is rather good at being handsome and menacing as Heathcliff, everything else about this adaptation is beyond poor. I don't want to flog a dead horse, but le me briefly explain.

The novel, on which this TV two-parter was based, is, as we know, one of the greatest books in the English language. Its passionate exploration of the psychology of intense, obsessive and transgressive love is exemplary, and comparable in darkness and power to the works of Dostoyevsky, and, in terms of insight, Freud. Nothing about this new version expresses this inner power. Instead, by divorcing the teleplay too often from the actual original text (not in terms of plot incident, but in terms of language) and displaying the fevers and bad behaviour too literally, almost all consequence and symbolic power is lost. Instead, one wishes to call the police and get Heathcliff slapped with an Asbo. He is just a moody good-looking stalker guy now, isn't he? Cathy is just someone who's "perfect guy is torn".

I understand the impulse to make this masterwork of romantic extremism relevant to "kids today" - but in the process, the love and depths have gone. I suppose the problem is, in Britain today, everyone is Heathcliff on a Saturday night, and everyone wakes with a Swinburne-sized headache on Monday mornings. The UK - secular, sexed-up and sentimentalised - is now about as Romantic as Byron could have hoped for - without much of the saving subtlety, pathos and vision of Keats. It will be fascinating to see what Bright Star is like when it opens this autumn. It will hopefully dumb up.

Meanwhile, the just-closed BBC poll to find out "the nation's favourite poet" left me cold. The longlist seemed rigged (no Elizabeth Barret Browning?!) from the start, with a certain slant of lightness. Five women, out of 30 poets? That seems barely acceptable, doesn't it, after the long struggle that feminism has endured in the 20th century.

Or: What does it matter what the masses think about poetry? Look around us, citizens: is this a landscape inwardly-shaped by a deep relationship with poetry and poets? No. Nor is it likely to get better soon. Figures in the arts like Carol Ann Duffy have begun to support the latest in what seems a never-ending series of initiatives to stop global warming - 10:10. It demands one cuts 10% of one's emissions during 2010. A good idea. Let's hope it works.

However, will the 10s of this century not, in some ways, mitigate against the sort of mindset that embraces poetry for the pleasures it instills, and the depths it helps trace and plumb? Myself an activist in the past, I have seen the dangers of letting good-willed people converge on poetry for their own purposes.

Poetry, maybe, should never be second fiddle to any cause, though it can join the party as it wishes, to help urge along a dance or march. Poetry is either blessedly above the fray, capable of swooping down like an angel or eagle, as it wishes, or it is nothing. If the world turns very committed and serious and austere, it may be hard to justify the luxury (of time, of learning, even of attitude) that poetry often requires. An odd irony is emerging - even as the popular image in capitalism of the poet-as-lover becomes founded ever more solidly - the swing against capitalism will require a different kind of poet - more radical, and less poetic. What percentage of themselves can poets trim off before they cease to be poets, and are civil servants, or campaigners?

Back To School

September's here again. Soon, students and teachers will be back to school. Ah, pencils! Ah, paper! The thrill of the new pencil case. The delight in choosing the right binders. Also, buying all those required texts. As a lecturer, I must confess to a mood-swing as soon as August ends - a swing to a different mode, that of module leader - new seriousness and alertness enters the bloodstream, just as the air turns crisper, and then, yes, leaves begin to yellow and fall. Before then, perhaps, an "Indian summer".

Eyewear, too, has snapped into a new form, and has new, post-summer purpose. Over the next weeks, I will hopefully begin to start featuring poets again on a regular basis. I also have many reviews to roll out. But not too quickly. The next few weeks are very full of other things to do. On the subject of reviewing, let me say this about that: I get many more offers for review copies than I do for reviewers. It is very difficult to persuade people to review books for free (even if they get paid with the review copy). One of the challenges of running a dirt-cheap blog on no-budget is finding willing and able guest writers. Eyewear is lucky to have built up a strong team of regular writers, but still needs more. If you feel you have what it takes, and the time, do contact me.

Tuesday, 25 August 2009

Mainstream Love Hotel

My 6th full poetry collection - and debut British collection (after living here since 2003) - is being launched at the legendary Calder Bookshop, on The Cut, in London, at 7 pm, Tuesday, September 15th (three weeks from today). The publisher is that intrepid small press, now in its tenth year, tall-lighthouse, run by the great Les Robinson. The title is Mainstream Love Hotel. You are very welcome to attend the launch - admission and wine free.

Tears in The Fence 50

I'll be reading on September 5th as part of the celebrations in London for the publication of the 50th issue of Tears in the Fence, one of the indispensable, and more internationally-aware, little magazines of poetry and criticism from the UK. The latest issue features two poems by me, and poems by, among others: Melanie Challenger, John Kinsella, John Welch, Luke Kennard, Isobel Dixon, Jeremy Reed, John James - so you can see its an inclusive and intriguing spectrum. There are also some good reviews and articles by Jennifer K. Dick, Jeremy Hilton, John Stiles, Frances Spurrier, and Dfiza Benson (to name a few). It's a strong issue, and an impressive line-up of talents. Hats off to the editor, David Caddy, and associate editors, Sarah Hopkins, and Tom Chivers.

Alistair Te Ariki Campbell Has Died

Sad news. One of the leading New Zealand poets and writers, Alistair Te Ariki Campbell, has died.

Humbug

In some quarters, Arctic Monkeys are a sort of second coming of The Beatles, The Kinks, Joy Division and The Smiths combined - an authentically-British, regional, literate, and above all first-class band. Gordon Brown and Simon Armitage (and a handful of models) are among their best-known fans. Andrew Duncan, in his latest book, raises the question, how is that pop lyrics are popular, when poetry, which is often like pop lyrics, isn't? The answer, which he does not offer, might be: music. As poets are tired of hearing themselves say, poems are lyrics with the music in-built - poets are one-man or one-woman bands. Armitage is among those careful to delineate the subtle knife that divides a song by Morrissey or Alex Turner from a poem by Geoffrey Hill or Carol Ann Duffy. Duncan, when trying to ascertain the points of difference between "mainstream" and "avant-garde" poems (his terms), doesn't make enough of the ear/eye distinctions between traditional lyric poems that use verbal music, and text-based, "hyperliterate" works that are often more designed for direct intake by the eye-to-brain axis.

The third coming of AM is Humbug, produced, recorded and engineered in sunny America, mainly by Queens of the Stone Age main man Josh(ua) Homme. That this seems an absurd mix of tones would be like saying that who would have expected Elvis Costello to hook up with T. Bone Burnett. Turner is not as good a lyricist as Morrissey (nobody is) but he can turn some phrases that, at least, are more elliptical and strange than your average songsmith - but this time around his wry laddish chip-shop wit has been dulled by too-obvious sexual wordplay just a step above the cunning linguist level, and a few too-many references to circuses and dangerous animals. His tropes suggest he's been listening to The Doors, and seeking a cabaret volta to turn his words to darker subjects, mainly, it seems, pill-box hat types and other hangers-on, as well as devil women who would put him under heel, cracking the whip in furs.

The music is an about face too - these are harder, lurid, and often theatrical rock songs, and The Doors, and other 60s freaks hang over the proceedings; Homme adds his trademark sense of heaviness.

Turner's voice sounds irritatingly twee and faux-English at times, a Herman's Hermit singing over something close to Metallica, or at least, Nirvana (Serve the Servants?). I admire this attempt to do something new but also familiar, this hybridity - U2 did it with Joshua Tree, only much better. Still, Humbug has some very good, persuasive songs, that are louche, genuinely sinister, and the attitude of darkness is beguiling, if not entirely becoming. What seems a little lacking is either exact sexual candour (how wild is their wild new life?) or irony (are they just embracing Brooklyn point blank, or at an angle of repose?). Never are the lyrics less than sly, and rarely satiric or cutting.

This is unlike the other two AM albums - which is good, because the second is dull rubbish, and the first was a tour-de-force by wunderkinds who have now moved on. It remains to be seen whether the Arctic Monkeys are merely a spent force like The Strokes - a very early 00 group whose day has come and gone - or the next Radiohead or Coldplay - British bands able to break America and sustain a career for decades.

A friend has died

Sad news. My friend Dr. Richard Berkowitz, beloved partner of Letty Dahme, has died, yesterday, in America. I met Richard on Hydra, Greece, an island we all loved. He was a witty, compassionate, deeply thoughtful, rational, and fine person. He was the light of Letty's life, and together with her - though he was already well into his 70s - he travelled the world, sailed, and otherwise acted like a person half his age. His dancing at my wedding, back in 2003, was spry and impressive and full of vim. I liked him immensely. I loved him. He'd been a talented doctor before retiring. He retained dignity and concern from that career. In Letty, he found a brilliant and literate interlocutor, and friend, and they sparked off each other, adding years of renewal and love and hope. Letty and Richard inspired all who knew them. They made one know that life and love are far less limited than some might claim. They opened doors to people, made unexpected links, and experienced each day as an opportunity to be good, and to be adventurous. His death, by leukemia, has left the world a poorer place.

Monday, 24 August 2009

Brian Jones Obituary

Sad news, the poet Brian Jones died this summer. Here is his Guardian obituary, published today.

A New Poem Inspired By Reading Giles Goodland

Hammersmith, June

The sadness of England.
The coming storm.
The exodus from Tesco.
The death by flu.
The disused factory.
The walk under the rail bridge.
The can of lager in the hand.
The silence of certain streets.
The man smoking by the nursery.
The internet in the video store.
The broken espresso machine.
The 11.30 Mass.
The sunbathers on the Green.
The uneven footing.
The broken pavement.
The methadone clinic.
The shelves outside the shop.
The closed inquiry.
The rain at five to six.
The word path.
The hot and cold.
The end of the class.
The poets of promise.
The ground floor flat.
The geraniums in the box.
The sense of an ending.
The slow growth for another year.
The fear of the impending.
The autumn after the summer.
The unsigned contract.
The request for information.
The loss of nerve.
The godfather agreement.
The leukaemia email.
The post on the floor.
The revolutions elsewhere.
The rubber band left untouched.
The locks on the door.
The friends over after dinner.
The bra being modelled.
The detector vans.
The five novels from Amazon.
The thunder.
The artificial night of a storm.
The brother’s child.
The return to either/or.
The despair of small things.
The respect for the brickwork.
The reading light turned off.
The way a list is.
The book by Goodland.

poem by Todd Swift

The New Andrew Duncan Book: Preaching to the unconverted

I received a review copy of the new Andrew Duncan book of polemical criticism, The Council of Heresy: A primer of poetry in a balkanised terrain, on Friday, and read it through over the weekend, as gripped as if by a thriller. Duncan is perplexing and exasperating and compelling in equal measures: he's arguably one of the most significant poet-critics now writing seriously in Britain (if not the most), because of his passion, wide experience, eccentric insights, and unexpected juxtapositions and references (often to obscure German or medieval or theological texts). He never writes as an academic, per se, but uses footnotes. He is definitely not of the "mainstream" yet he retains an open mind. And, unlike almost everyone else, he knows who Terence Tiller is (the best joke in this book is when he claims that the 40s poets failed because of their moderation, a paradox worthy of Wilde).

He also has here rescued Anthony Thwaite from semi-obscurity (and let's face it, undeserved and general disinterest)by championing his work, an unexpected apologia from someone on the margins that I am sure Thwaite (as a Larkin ally) might be wary of if it wasn't so comprehensive and erudite a championing. Duncan can also be obtuse, naive, funny, and odd, in the same paragraph. Reading him is like reading something by Blake, if Blake read about neuroscience and was an idiot savant. You never know what you are going to get in a Duncan book - they are almost like Gysin cut-ups, with throw-away lines and observations of sometimes near-genius. I think I disagree with 80% of him, but treasure what I don't agree with, when he says it, anyway. He's the informative, engaging and punk edge of experimental UK poetry, in his new role as Greil Marcus to the Prynne Era.

There are too many important elements in this book to explore, or ignore. If you are a British poet, or critic, or want to know about the "poetry wars" and poetics, then you have to read this. It's about as unmissable as Avatar will be for sci-fi film buffs this winter. It's the Future. It's also the Past. Duncan in this book sets out to explore ways of imagining how we might go about solving the differences between the Cambridge avant-garde, the conservative postmoderns (Muldoon, Fenton, his designation), the mainstream, and the British Poetry Revival types. He has many important things to say and suggest, not least that there are maybe "eight or eleven factions" not two. He is the first critic to really bluntly state the fantasy aspect to all poets' imaginary positions, and his comparison of Raine's and Mottram's is useful and striking.

Duncan also offers correctives and explanations, to help understand the emptying out of the speedier, more abstract style of experimental British verse, and suggests - heretically I think - that the best way to read it is not to try too hard to understand it. It's meant to wash over one. He also wryly observes that maybe the reason so many people objected to the Mottram-era Poetry Review is because most people don't "like" experimental poetry. Duncan is good on remembering that poetry has or needs readers, and that they have wishes and needs too.

His main point is that there needs to be some sort of truth commission, where poets, and cultural managers and editors on all sides of the battle from 1960 to the present, the battle over the limited resources and assetts that poetry has to offer (and he notes these are real, often editorships for commercial presses where "seedy businessmen" hold sway), can meet and express their differences, truthfully. This is a Utopian dream and he admits it. Duncan's thinking through of why and how there are different poetries and receptions for poetry is confused, at times, I believe. Sometimes he is lucid and accurate, as when he notes that most poetry opinions are formed without reading the books of our enemies; and that since most poetry decisions are made in private there is no historical record of the injustices. However, he seems to want to say that readers may legitimately find modernist work as off-putting as ugly tower blocks, but that also it is ultimately the truer path for poetry.

Duncan is charmingly honest - he never pretends to like most "mainstream poetry" - though he lists some of the books by mainstreamers he does like, like Oswald's Dart. He believes that private mythology passionately expressed is important, so he approves, for instance, of Hughes. If Duncan does want to effect a rapprochement, he might have tried harder to edit out some of the cheap shots that mar this important and smart book. Jibes like we might need to decommission the poetry wars by having a controlled explosion of Don Paterson, or claims that all mainstream poets lead boring lives, seem jarring (especially since most experimental British poets are hardly models of thrilling lifestyles, either; indeed, a lot of poetry's Dad's Army-Shamanism seems pathetic, a bit like the pseudo-Satanist sent up in Polanski's The Ninth Gate). His claim that Auden is a chief problem with mainstream Anglican poetry and its light-verse conservatism also apparently ignores Auden's support for Ashbery, hardly a mainstream-Christian poet.

Duncan traces many problems to Anglicanism and Englishness, and Nonconformism, and the class struggle - yet praises Rowan Williams. Other confusions and errors appear - he claims there needs to be some work on narcissism and the artist, as if the work of the London Freudian school had never explored such things. He calls Ed Wood the Ed Wood Story. He also cites an anthology by the wrong title at some stage. He also claims to have never read critics on how diction claims can be related to suppression of alternate political positions and movements in history - well, he hasn't read Donald Davie then. These seem more like eccentric errors of the fast-thinking math whiz, mere untidiness amid the brilliant clutter. Perhaps his biggest error is to claim that the test case historical moment of observable conflict and suppression of the experimental wing in the UK was the Poetry Review Mottram episode.

Duncan, in general, doesn't think much has happened since 1980 of interest, and that the revolution was essayed in the 70s (and failed). He might have read his comrade, Ian Brinton, and his recent Cambridge guide to contemporary poetry, to see that the best test case was in fact the experimental poems about the Iraq war, and the attempt to suppress them (see Kendall, Tim). Duncan also seems to have missed the fact that the Internet has been effecting a depolarisation since 2002 at least, when Nthposition began publishing global poetry from all known schools and styles; nor does Duncan mention the "fusion poetry" movement, nor the recent Norton anthology of "Hybrid" poetry. There are attempts to reconcile styles and concerns.

What ultimately impresses me is Duncan's claim that such differences between schools and styles have "meaning" - and in fact, in a market, offer the greatest choice for readers. What remains insufficiently explored, for me, is why poems that explore domestic arrangements, and the personal voice, are necessarily poorer or duller than poems that empty out grammar and syntax, and present sped-up, verbally hyperliterate texts. I personally feel that much poetry of all kinds is dull and poor, but enough is worthwhile, across the spectrum. My own work attempts to explore some aspects that Duncan respects - the riotous, the artificial, the rhetorical, the passionate, the mythic - but also wants to be able to speak of the personal, and my experiences. After all, in a capitalist world, perhaps the only thing we almost possess is our self, and even that, of course, is not true; but trying to explore speaking through the almost-self is a valid "procedure" too.

THE BEST OF 2017...

Aim High, more often Year-end Best of lists are invidious, and, also, these days, ubiquitous, to the point of madness. But we have love...