Thursday, March 26, 2009


Anonymous Intruder by Ian Seed. Pub. Shearsman Books, 80pp, £8.95 / $15. ISBN 978-1-84861-028-6

Ian Seed has lived on mainland Europe and worked as a translator, and the effect of European poetry is apparent in his work, quite apart from the acknowledged debt to Pierre Reverdy. Disembodied voices and unanchored narratives float through this evenly-paced and quiet verse, in which there's a hint of surrealism; glimpses of rooms, landscapes, and people are woven in and out of the poems. The theme of the first section, 'Rearrangements', is exile and separation, invoked through suggestion and atmosphere. Seed writes open poetry that avoids neat summings-up and obvious statement; but while there's instability and shifting perspectives, there's none of the disjunction of a poet like Robert Sheppard, more of a measured calm....

To read full review, click here

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Despite the world-weary tone of his poetry, it turns out that Rufo Quintavalle is in fact relatively young man (at least compared to me). Reading his poetry led me to look up Wallace Stevens, and to the ramblings below. This poem is from Quintavalle's pamphlet: (not sure when it was written, but if before the financial crash, it's prophetic):


The city is cold but somewhere figs
swell in an October sun

Today the huge idea of money stopped
but the force which makes money gather and burst,
which used to move through God
and some say will again,
will outlive money itself.

Because things are
they have a preference for life,
and we call good whatever lets them grow.

The final sentence of this poem is an assertion, to which we could respond with, "I agree" or "I disagree". But what have such statements to do with poetry? They belong to philosophy or science, don't they? Or newspapers. Taken on their own, statements like the final one in the poem above are in danger of being platitudes or homilies. But for me, the last sentence above works as poetry. I think this has something to do with it being part of a mini-world constructed by the language of the poem. In the first sentence we're presented with an image, or rather two contrasting images - the cold (therefore barren) city, and the warm, sunny elsewhere where figs are growing. Our reading of the next stanza is conditioned by that image, and modifies it, as it talks of a "force" and uses the word God, with all its associations. Coming after the first two, the meaning of final stanza is altered from what it would be if it were on its own; we agree with it, because it's true in the context of the poem's world.

Wallace Stevens is clearly an influence on Quintavalle; one of the poems in the pamphlet is a response to Stevens' poem 'The Planet on the Table'. It sent me back to re-read some of Stevens' late works. Stevens poetry is full of aphorisms and assertions: 'Poetry is the supreme fiction', 'It is an illusion that we were ever alive' etc. In his long philosophical poems, Stevens, rather than propounding any original philosophy, parodies and luxuriates in philosophical language - entertains us with it - so that when he presents us with an aphorism, like:

The poem is the cry of its occasion,
Part of the res itself and not about it.

we accept it, and we don't accept it at the same time. It seems 'right' in the context of the poem, but we're conscious that it is a poem, that we've entered that poem's constructed reality, and can't help at some level questioning whether that's really a statement about reality or not. The circularity of the logic in Stevens' long poems, the non-sequitirs, the impossibility, at times, of following the thread of argument; all that has directly influenced a poet like Ashbery, who seems to be continuing Stevens' project. Stevens also seems a major presence in post-modern poetry and langpo; given that he can be self-referential and playful and that he can put lines like these into a 'serious' philosophical poem:

At night an Arabian in my room
With his damned hoobla-hoobla-hoobla-how,
Inscribes a primitive astronomy

Across the unscrawled fores the future casts
And throws his stars around the floor.

The half-dozen Oystercatcher press pamhplets I bought a while ago represent an amazing variety of poetry, all of which, with the possible excepton of Alistair Noon and Rufo Quintavalle, are well outside the mainstream. Which means what? I don't know what 'mainstream' means any more, but for sure, non-mainstream cannot be categorized and doesn't conform to any narrow definition.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Thank goodness for George Orwell, because now, when we say something is 'Orwellian' , everyone knows exactly what we mean:

Gordon Brown: We are about to take the war against terror to a new level

Saturday, March 21, 2009

So many poets...

...and so little time to read them all. Spared the household chores because of an injured knee (don't ask!), I settled down to read some poetry. I finished Robert Sheppard's 'Warrant Error' and re-read some of Ian Seed's 'Anonymous Intruder', both excellent books which will soon be reviewed on Litter. I then read some poems by Elaine Randall, which I was bowled over by and must read more of. I then picked up one of my batch of Oystercatcher Press pamphlets - by one Rufo Quintavalle, who I've never heard of. A non-English sounding name, but what seemed to me to be an English-like droll humour. The poems were profound. And they were funny - not belly-laugh funny, but made me smile. The pamphlet's title was a reference to a famous Englishman - Auden - 'Make Nothing Happen'.

I don't care if there are 100,000 English-language poets, or a million, or whatever the latest figure Ron Silliman has come up with. If they're all writing as well as the poets I read this afternoon, then that's fine by me. Just give me time to read them all.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

What a funny thing the David Cohen prize is. It's just awarded 40,000 pounds to Seamus Heaney. In its short life - it started in 1993 and Heaney is only the ninth winner - it has been awarded to three Nobel laureates. Let's take someone who has been awarded the literary world's highest possible public honour, with all its associated money and fame, and give them another prize. Great idea! They don't need it, but at least it'll make our prize seem prestigious.

I'm getting terribly cynical.

The prize was presented by the chair of the judges, our old friend, Andrew Motion.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

My 12-year-old daughter attends a large secondary school in Nottingham. Like a lot of state schools it makes extensive use of information technology. It wouldn't be possible for a student to study without using the school's network, if only for downloading homework assignments. This week I had to sign an 'agreement' that my daughter be able to use the school's IT system on the understanding that she/we agree to the school monitoring the following:

- all emails sent and received
- whether emails have attachments, and the content of those attachments
- what time students log on and for how long
- what websites are visited and for how long
- when files were created, edited and deleted, by whom, and the contents of those files
- what terms were typed into search engines like Google
- what websites are visited, by whom and for how long for

The list continues, at length, but you get the idea. Now I can see the argument for this; that the school needs to guard against on-line abuse, cyber-bullying etc. But the effect of this type of thing is that we're raising a generation of children who are used to being spied on; who think it's normal and who are told by the adult world that it's for their own good, to keep them safe.

In the same week I read in a national newspaper about the latest step in the Britain's ever-enlarging surveillence state: plans to make everyone who leaves the country, for whatever reason and for however long, to register their trip with the government, to tell the state authorities where they're going, for how long and why. Failure to do so will be a criminal offence. This is unprecedented in any democratic nation. Why does the state feel the need to follow my movements in this way? For my own good? To keep me safe?

Thursday, March 12, 2009

New Work on Litter

Andrew Duncan certainly is one of our more astute (and entertaining) commentators and critics. But he also, of course, excels as a poet, and lately I've been enjoying his Shearsman collection 'Savage Survivals Amid Modern Suavity'. There's a good review of it here. It's not especially experimental or disjunctive poetry, but its language is alive and stimulating. The range of its concerns and interests is immense. It's a collection I'd recommend to anyone, so I'm very pleased that Andrew has agreed to publish a sequence from it on Litter. Read and enjoy.

While Andrew Duncan is evolving into a senior figure (aren't we all), the other new arrival on Litter is a young poet, Simon Turner, who I think is one to watch. His first collection, reviewed by C.J. Allen, is a series of forays into different poetic styles, and I'll be interested to what direction he settles on. The new sequence on Litter may be a pointer.

Finally, I'm excited to be in receipt of some new work from Robert Sheppard which will be appearing soon. Sheppard is also one of our major figures, with his Twentieth Century Blues being a landmark publication. His Pages magazine is well worth a visit. See below on his recent reading in London.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Being in a critical mood (re previous post), I thoroughly enjoyed Ron Silliman's demolition of Andrew Motion. Does anyone actually read Andrew Motion's poetry? I'm prepared to admit that there are plenty of good poets in what might be called 'the mainstream', but Motion isn't one of them. He seems a classic example of what a shrewdly-managed career and the right contacts can do.

That said, Silliman's knowledge of current British poetry sometimes seems sketchy, at least compared to his encyclodaedic grasp of the American scene.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Mark Wallinger won the 2007 Turner prize for his reconstructon of peace campaigner Brian Haw's protest outside the Houses of Parliament against Britain's war in Iraq. Wallinger picked up the lucrative and prestigious gong courtesy of Brian Haw's heroism, without actually subjecting himself to any of the difficulties Haw faced during his long, arduous and dangerous vigil. I thought of this after reading that Wallinger has won a commission to put a lifelike sculpture of a horse in the Kent coutryside. The only imaginative element of this creation will be that it will be "so huge that a person standing next to it will be no taller than one of the horse's hooves" (The Guardian). Someone should have told Wallinger the real meaning of the phrase "big ideas". As it is, the sculpture looks set to become an eyesore for years to come. There's a similarly monstrous creation in St. Pancras station: under the magnificent (and beautifully restored) Victorian ironwork there's a gigantic bronze of a man and woman. It doesn't take a Jonathan Swift to point out that the more the human figure is magnified, the more grotesque its features become. From whence did these artists get the notion that enlarging things to immense proportions makes them intelligent or interesting? Or is it just that they needed projects that justified a huge grant, but didn't risk challenging authority or any preconceived ideas?

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Shearsman reading, London: Robert Sheppard, Philip Kuhn.

First up, Philip Kuhn, who who publishes hand-crafted books and runs poetry readings at his home in Devon. I didn't know his poetry before, but enjoyed his reading; the poetry is one of Jewish identity and spirituality, which draws on the sacred texts of Judaism, and is densely-textured and allusive. Highly unfashionable, but none the worse for that. The work lent itself well to reading aloud, and Kuhn's measured pace brought out the musical aspects of the text.

Next, Robert Sheppard, reading from his new Shearsman book "Warrant Error" (that's "war on terror". ed.), a series of 100 sonnets culled from the public rhetoric and private fears of the post-9/11 world. Sheppard was how I imagined him to be: bullish and energetic, with a booming voice, and a reading style that mixed registers and emphasised phrases with jerky movements and fidgety energy. I'd bought the book and read some of the sonnets as I listened, which I don't normally do, but felt I needed some anchoring as the unstable and disjunctive text was hard to grasp at first listening. Great stuff, very enlivening.

I chatted to Laurie Duggan and Frances Presley at the break, and afterwards Tony Frazer went to a restaurant and assorted others went to a pub. I, by some misunderstanding, did both, so was lucky enough to chat to Tony over a meal and Philip Kuhn over a beer.

6am the next morning, when I got up for work, was painful, but it worth it.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Here's something remarkable: a BBC radio programme about poetry which is actually half-decent. Nay, truly excellent in fact. It's about the poetry renaissance in Newcastle in the 1960s, and was made by Lee Hall, director of "Billy Eliot", a Geordie who turns out to know his stuff. You'll hear bits of readings by Basil Bunting, Hugh McDiarmid, Bob Cobbing, Yeats and Pound, and enlightening interviews with Bunting, MacSweeney, Tom Pickard and Connie Fisher, among others. Some great snatches of Bunting reading Whitman and Wordsworth. It's called A Strong Song Tows Us.