Monday, September 28, 2009

There's some new artwork on Litter from Peterjon Skelt, complementing the poetry already published from Frances Presley.

Forthcoming: new poetry from Mark Goodwin, and a review of Goodwin's collection Else.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Last week I visited relatives in Newcastle, going there and back in a day, by train. As reading I took W.S. Graham's New Collected Poems. Of course, WSG is one of my Poetic Heroes, and the book, published in 2004, which has a beautiful hardback version, contains all Graham's published work, plus a lot of stuff from previously unpublished manuscripts. It's an awe-inspiring collection. I enjoyed burying myself in his 1940s collection "The White Threshold". But one thing that spoils the book for me, is the 6-page "Foreword" by Douglas Dunn. It's hard to see what purpose it serves, as there's already a brief and interesting Introduction by editor Matthew Francis which talks about the text and sources. Dunn's "Foreword" is too short to say much about a collecton of such scope, but too long to be ignored, and in fact veers into unsubstantiated opinion, culminating in this:

"Literary history invites us to choose between Graham and Larkin, or Larkin and Hughes, or who and who... it's the owl-cry of bores attempting to make a name for themselves by 'revising the canon'. God rot them."

which is no more than a rant. Really, it seems to have no place at the head of a book like this. Personally I would choose between Larkin and Graham, and would assert that the latter is a more important poet. This would make me a "bore" who is "revising the canon" in inverted commas. Yet in the very next sentence, Dunn says "... literary history is often wrong...". So, it's OK for Douglas Dunn to question literary history and the canon, but anyone else who tries it is to be rotted by God (at least that phrase has the virtue of originality, as I've never heard anyone use it in all my years on the planet). But hey, I've wasted enough time on what is really just a sloppy opinion-piece. To get to the point; Douglas Dunn is a British poet of the "mainstream", or what Ron Silliman has dubbed "The School of Quietude". Silliman's phrase points up how what we call "mainstream" poets are really just another school or faction within the Byzantine complexity of contemporary poetry. Pretending they're not a School, and that they're a gold standard which everyone else deviates from, is a longstanding tactic. It's this tactic that forms the rationale for Douglas Dunns's piece.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

My attention's been drawn to two new books that look more than interesting:

Alistair Noon's translation of August Stramm - Alistair will be known to readers of Litter, and is producing some interesting translation work at the moment. I wonder if he'll be translating W.S. Graham into German anytime soon? Germanophones are really deprived there.

Peter Gizzi's new book New Depths of Deadpan, which I can't wait to get my hands on.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

I thought this response to the recent BBC radio broadcast on Barry MacSweeney - from someone who knew the man personally - ought to be lifted out of the 'comments' stream and put on the main blog:

"An interesting programme, which I caught up with rather late. Didn't really tell me very much I didn't know already, but I was staggered by Iain Sinclair's remark that Barry 'was nothing but a poet'.

I know, and have known, many people who also knew Barry, some of them quite well, who had no idea he was a poet at all."

Aidan Semmens

Sunday, September 20, 2009

The Terrors

The Terrors
Tom Chivers, Nine Arches Press. ISBN: 978-0-9560559-2-7. £5
Image (right) copyright © Emma Robertson, 2009

This chapbook is "...a sequence of imagined emails sent from the author to inmates at London's Newgate Prison incarcerted between roughly 1700 and 1760." When I first read that I suspected that it might be a little contrived or gimmicky. I ordered the chapbook thinking that if I didn't like it I just wouldn't mention it. I needn't have worried; it's excellent. The emails provides titles for the prose-poems, and a framing device, which then allows the poems to play with language: the mixing of registers and the anachronisms work well, and because we see just one side of the correspondence, the inmates have a kind of spectral presence. We get glimpses of the horrors (terrors) of their lives, which the chatty emails throw into stark relief:

"Barbara, is it true? They tied you to a hurdle, hauled you screaming from Newgate to Tyburn? If a woman kills her husband, right, that's treason: regal submission writ small Babs."

It's powerful stuff - one email says "I attach evidence of your crimes in high res jpeg" followed by descriptions of some nasty physical abuse. But it also has energetic language, knowing irony and the textual sophistication.

The chapbook is well-produced in a kind of old-fashioned style, and includes good line-drawings from Emma Robertson. John Bloomberg-Rissman has asked me to collect some UK pamphlets for him for when he visits in the autumn. This one will be on the list.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

The UK government's plan to require every adult who has contact with children not their own (such as volunteers at youth clubs etc) to be cleared by the Criminal Records Bureau is yet another step in removing from UK citizens the presumption of innocence. From now on, you have to prove your innocence; you're not a valid person until you been cleared by the authorities.

Craig Murray talks sense on this. As some of the commentators on Murray's blog point out, for those of us who grew up with a certain level of personal freedom it's bad enough, but the generation now growing up under constant supervision and instilled with fear and suspicion, is in danger of buying into the idea that the government needs to control you in order to protect you.

What of the role of poetry in all this? The usual vexed question. Given that we have an education system that seems designed to breed conformity - Peter Philpott has pointed out that it would be impossible to put innovative poetry into the reductive, target-driven curriculum - poetry might provide a way into less constrained mode of thinking. I heard a story about how W.B. Yeats once dismissed a poet's work by saying 'it lacks chaos'. Maybe chaotic thinking is one useful thing poetry might provide us with.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

A new sequence of mine has been published in the latest issue of Shadowtrain. It's called 'Driving Songs'. Click here to read it. This sequence is from a short (unpublished) collection called 'everyday songs', which also includes 'Kitchen Songs' and 'Reading Songs'.

'Driving Songs' contains quotes from the following texts:

Thomas Paine, "Common Sense"
Charles Darwin, "The Origin of Species"
The Guardian, January 2009
President Obama's inauguration speech

Henry David Thoreau, "On Walden Pond"
Ian Sinclair, the blurb for Bill Griffiths' "Book of Spilt Cities"
Travelodge borchure

Thanks to Shadowtrain editor Ian Seed.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Michael Haslam, The Quiet Works.
Oystercatcher Press. £4.00 A5 16pp. ISBN: 978-1-905885-21-3.

This pamphlet, which I've just bought, comes highly recommended. Haslam is one of our elder-statesman, a contemporary of Peter Riley and Lee Harwood. His work is like neither of theirs, consisting of highly-wrought lyrical utterances, though, like Riley, he investigates landscape as a palimpset, a layered record of social history, and the individual's place within it. "The Quiet Works" is "the latest, or last, of a Work, under the general title 'Continuale Song' in print (2009) in the following books: Mid Life (Shearsman 2007), The Music Laid Her Songs in Language (Arc 2001), A Sinner Saved by Grace (Arc 2005), and A Cure for Woodness (Arc 2009). Details of these publications may be found here.

The poetry works best when read out loud, which brings out its alliterative music:

Disquieted poor lover stumbles in defeat
as yelping plover tips the tumbril, tumbles
from a troubled youth his mill-shed fumbles
through to elders' umbral gloom and grumbles
where waters meet in derelicted darkness,
at a confluence of brooks: the spill of self disgorged
where goit-wall crumbles into streaming turmoil.

Great stuff from Peter Hughes' Oystercatcher Press; it was great to see it pick up the Michael Marks Publishers'Award (for outstanding UK publisher of poetry in pamphlet form).

Sunday, September 6, 2009

The radio programme on Barry MacSweeney was broadcast to an audience that probably new little about the type of poetry he represented, or about MacSweeney himself, and it had thirty minutes to position the poet and his work. Ian Sinclair, Jackie Litherland and Chivers himself did convey some important aspects of the poetry, namely its foregrounding of the oral - of sound patterning and repeated motifs - and MacSweeney's ability to create his own myths and maintain them within a poem or sequence of poems.

But, inevitably, the programme presented MacSweeney as the stereotypical Romantic doomed poet, born to live fast and die young (or at least middle-aged). Did we really need the gruesome detail of the effects of alcohol on his body? Probably not, though at least it was followed by him reading one of the Demon Poems for which it provided a context. You could argue that MacSweeney's poetry, like Ginsberg's, can't really be separated from his biography. Is that a fault in a body of poetic work? Discuss. But an inordinate number of those thirty minutes were spent discussing his alcohol habit, and all of the recordings of MacSweeney talking were of him talking about drinking.

The programme assumed that readers weren't interested in, or capable of absorbing, a simple outline of his poetic development, and the influences on it. There was little contextualizing in terms of poetic contemporaries or religious and political influences (like seventeenth century radical movements for example, or MacSweeney's late conversion to Christianity); no mention of Ranter, and its reference to the 17th century Ranters, and no mention of Pearl, and its reference to the medieval poem of that name. No mention of Thomas Chatterton, and the influence of that literary myth on MacSweeney. The best thing in the programme were the clips of MacSweeney reading his work; he was a very good reader. Unintentional humour was provided by the quote from a Sean O'Brien poem which likened MacSweeney's reading style to 'a bucket of lava flung over the listener'.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Barry MacSweeney on BBC Radio: tomorrow afternoon, 4.30pm, Tom Chivers presents The Poet of Sparty Lea. I'll reserve judgement till I've heard the broadcast, but it sounds promising. Will any non-poets tune in, I wonder?

Friday, September 4, 2009

John BR recently asked me "what's wrong with us?", following on from the same question in Angel Exhaust 20. Here's one answer: what's wrong with us is that we cling to the idea that there's an audience for contemporary poetry which doesn't consist of its practitioners. We also cling to the notion that this is a bad thing. We need to get used to the idea that the practice of poetry, at least in the US and Britain (and as far as I'm aware, in France) is no longer one where 'a poet' writes for his/her public. It's a participation sport. But "we" still retain an embarassment about that fact, and try to pretend, for example, that our publishing ventures are proper businesses. Maybe that was Salt's mistake (I see they've now had to venture into chick-lit fiction to balance the books).

"Innovative" poets, as much as anyone, still yearn for the poet-public paradigm, perhaps as a legacy of modernism. Witness this paragraph, from the otherwise excellent "Meaning Performance" from Tony Lopez

"There are always lots of poets who go in for competitions, belong to local writers' groups, and publish in small circulation magazines or vanity presses. They do no harm and they vanish in time."

Is it me, or does this sound like someone who thinks a select band of poets write the real stuff, and the myriad other scribblers ought to stop and listen to them? There are always lots of poets who go in for literary theory, belong to academic institutions, and publish with specialist presses and innovative magazines. They too do no harm, and, they (like all of us) vanish in time. In fact, the phenomenon Lopez comments on is the same one that sees thousands of creative writing graduates produced every year and poetry readings in Cambridge packed [sic] solely by poets. In neither case is this a bad thing, and in both cases it can produce exciting and beautiful poetry. It can also, in both cases, produce a lot of... OK let's not get negative.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

"God help me from ever completing anything. This whole book is but a draught - nay, the draught of a draught. Oh, Time, Strength, Cash, and Patience."

Melville, "Moby-Dick"