Wednesday, 29 November 2006

Life Lines

Six poets read last night for Oxfam, Tuesday, November 28th, in support of the Life Lines project, at Oxfam's flagship bookshop in London, at 91 Marylebone High Street, from 7.30 pm to around 11 pm.

They were:

Tobias Hill is one of the leading British writers of his generation. Selected as one of the country's Next Generation poets, shortlisted for the 2004 Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year and named by the TLS as one of the best young writers in the country. Byatt has observed that "There is no other voice today quite like this."

NYC-born Eva Salzman trained as a dancer/choreographer. At Columbia University, she studied with Joseph Brodsky, Derek Walcott Stanley Kunitz, Jorie Graham, C.K. Williams and Elizabeth Hardwick. Awards include a Cholmondeley from the Society of Authors. Her writing has been widely published and broadcast on the BBC. Double Crossing: New & Selected Poems (Bloodaxe) was a Poetry Book Society Recommendation.

Ruth Fainlight was born in New York City, but has lived in England since the age of fifteen. She has published thirteen collections of poems in England and the USA, as well as two volumes of short stories, and translations from French, Portuguese and Spanish. Books of her own poems have been published in Portuguese, French, Spanish and Italian translation. She received the Hawthornden and Cholmondeley Awards in 1994. Her latest collection of poems is Moon Wheels, 2006.


Katy Evans-Bush was born in New York and moved to London at the age of 19. Her poetry has been published in numerous magazines and anthologies on both sides of the Atlantic. Her criticism and reviews have also been published in both the UK and the USA, and she is a regular contributor to the prestigious "Contemporary Poetry Review" in the US.

Ros Barber is a prize-winning poet and writer of fiction. She has been poet in residence in Herne Bay, on the Isle of Sheppey, in Embassy Court, at a barber shop, and at Arts Council England. Of her first collection, PN Review said ‘Barber’s special distinction … is that she has succeeded in writing a collection which grants as much to the general reader as it does to the devotee of contemporary poetry.’ Her second collection for Anvil is due to be published next year.

Michael Rosen has been writing books for children since the early 1970s but has always written poems and articles for an adult audience too. His Selected Poems is forthcoming from Penguin in February. He is also a broadcaster and university lecturer.

The night was frustrating for me. The quality of the readers was impressive - they all read and performed brilliantly within their own styles, especially Barber and Rosen - Rosen is the funniest reader I've seen - he brought the house down with uncontrollable laughter.

That part was great. But the audience was much smaller than usual - around 60 at the first half - with 20 or so leaving at the interval. Over half the people who had signed up didn't come, including a dozen people I know well, and usually support the series. The main problem was, donations were small - around £375. We usually take in between £600-1,000 on a good night. The series and the readers who donate their time are beginning to be taken for granted by some people, I think. I am still grateful for what was given, though.

I've decided to do just one more season of readings, culminating on December 6, 2007 - five events, three before the summer, and two after. Next year's series will continue the same tradition over the first three years of presenting major poets alongside significant younger voices from Ireland, the UK and beyond, with around 33 poets, such as Bernard O'Donoghue, Anne-Marie Fyfe, Maurice Riordan, Siobhan Campbell, Jeffrey Wainwright, John Fuller, John Hartley Williams, Tim Liardet, Chris McCabe, Melanie Challenger, Frances Leviston, Penelope Shuttle, Jacob Polley and Blake Morrison.

Allen Carr has died

Sad news. BBC is reporting that anti-smoking hero Allen Carr has died.

Of lung cancer.

Mr. Carr helped me quit smoking (though I sometimes lapse).

His method was simple and profound - to suggest that life without smoking was better (and less anxiety-prone) than with it (since most smokers feel they need the crutch of a cigarette) and celebrated every smoke free day as liberation from a terrible disease.

Meanwhile the legal sale of tobacco products by major corporations, resulting in millions of preventable (and often painful) deaths each year, is one of the world's enduring evils, and in a hundred years will be viewed with the same moral disgust as the slave trade.

Sunday, 26 November 2006

My father's 67th birthday

Had my father (pictured here with my mother) not died two months ago, he would have turned 67 today.

Here is what was written in his memorial booklet.


Thomas Edward Stanley Swift

November 26, 1939-September 9, 2006


The poet Larkin wrote: "What survives of us is love". Tom Swift survives in that he has left each of us - family, friends and colleagues - with a great sense of love: both for him, and radiating from him. Tom's signature character traits were gentleness, a sense of humour, modesty, protectiveness and tremendous empathy, especially for the disadvantaged (both animal and human). The defining element of Tom's life was his family, for whom he would do anything. And, at the heart of his family stands an extraordinary love story - the 41-year marriage that he shared with Mary Margaret Hume, his beautiful soul-mate, who stood by him through health and sickness and gave Tom his greatest gift of all: love like a flame that never once swerved or threatened to go out. This strong and deep union also generated his beloved sons, Jordan and Todd. Let us mourn, but also rejoice for Tom Swift, knowing that his life was truly enriched by love, received and given.

Thomas Edward Stanley Swift was born in Montreal in 1939. He never forgot selling patriotic comics, as a kid, outside the vaudeville theatres of Montreal where magicians like Blackstone performed. Tom came from a close and loving family. His father, Stanley, was a gentle, thoughtful but gregarious man. His beautiful Irish mother Mary was an extremely hospitable and kind woman, who loved to sing, and it is from her he likely derived his musical gifts. His Auntie June was like a second mother to him. Then there was little Granny who also took great pleasure in spoiling the young children of the family. Tom's world was completed by his beloved brothers and sisters, Jack, Beverley, Graham and Brenda (a cousin close as a sister to him). The Swift family was a source of amazing story-telling and impressive verbal and musical talent. In the golden age of television, watching Hockey Night In Canada and The Ed Sullivan Show together was a regular family tradition.

Tom loved the world of popular enterainment. As a teenager, he'd cut classes to see matinees. Early films that inspired him were Shane and Rebel Without A Cause - movies he often returned to. As a teen, he used to wear his red hockey jacket like James Dean - he too felt like an outsider. He liked Bobby Vinton, Gene Pitney and most of all, Johnny Mathis. Tom grew to be a strikingly handsome young man and he began to write songs.One of his favourite anecdotes was the night he met Sammy Davis Jr. in his dressing room at a Montreal night club - the world-famous entertainer had invited him to speak with him at intermission, after Tom was the only audience member to correctly answer a question about Shakespeare. Tom walked in on the startled Sammy "pulling his trousers on"; they then spoke for fifteen minutes or so, and the great star, recognizing Tom's charisma, encouraged him to follow his dreams. Tom developed a promising career as a professional recording artist on the London and Allied labels in the early Sixties, cutting records and writing-performing songs such as "Blue and Lonely" and "There I Go Dreaming Again".

Tom had a beautiful singing voice.Even before graduating with a B.A.from Sir George Williams University, he was hired to work in the admissions office. Tom soon succeeded to the position of "Acting" Director of Admissions. He was still in his mid-twenties, and both the youngest director of Admissions in North America and a rock star, touring Canada, appearing on the charts, and on TV's popular youth show, Like Young. This posed a dillemma for university officials, and he was soon asked to choose if he wanted to have the "Acting" dropped and assume the full title (he already had the full responsibility). This was an impressive cross-roads for Tom to find himself at. Tom often talked about how his older brother Jack, a brilliant law student, made him apply to Sir George Williams. Tom was a good student at this point, particularly outstanding in Economics. Tom now chose the path of education. Tom's dedication to students complemented the Sir George Williams ethos where it mattered most, in admissions. He went on to later also become the Director of Admissions at the new university Concordia.

He worked in that position for 32 years.The most important event in Tom's life was his first meeting with Margaret. She was 17, he was 22, and they were both skating on the ice rink at MacDonald College on the West Island. Tom was instantly "struck by lightning" on seeing this beautiful young woman, and proceeded to chase her around the rink. Tom and Margaret were married in 1965, in the St. Lambert United Church, where we are gathered today. He formed a close and loving relationship with all the Humes.

The glamorous couple honeymooned in Jamaica. It was amid the barracuda-infested coral reefs there that Tom, diving, located one of his favourite stories. Seeking a glittering piece of coral that Margaret wanted, he plunged dangerously deep. Cutting away the piece, a larger section weighed him down. Refusing to let go, he was able to both achieve the prize, and ascend to safety. Margaret still has this treasure today.Stanley Todd, their first son, was born in 1966, three months premature. Tom, a nervous new father, announced to his astonished office that Todd was so small, he "had to be put in an incinerator" (instead of an incubator). From this linguistically-challenged incident came Tom's long-time study of E.B. White, H.W. Fowler and Strunk Jr.- in time, Tom became "a user of precise words".

In 1971, a second son was born, Jordan Fraser Knowlton. Tom was very proud of his sons, and supported them every step of the way, often by coming to their readings, gigs, and parties, blending in and becoming accepted as the friend he was. He told everyone he knew of Todd's champion debating and Jordan's successful career playing in bands like The Kingpins. Tom enjoyed watching his sons grow up, achieve much, and marry remarkable women.The family fondly recalls long summer road trips in their Volkswagen station-wagon from California to Florida. Later, the Swifts would spend whole summers up at Brigden Lake in a log cabin. Tom loved to row Margaret out on the lake to see the beavers and the incredible reflections of the rockcliffs in the water.

Another cherished family memory is day-long cross-country skiing treks with Tom through the woods of the Eastern Townships. Tom's love for animals began at an early age and through his life he was surrounded by a number of dogs and many cats all of whom he loved dearly - particularly Laddie, Rascal, Moushka, Bee, Kaila and Rosie.Tom was a superb all-round athlete. When young, he had tried out for the Dodgers farm team, and had been recruited. His friend Curly wasn't, and Tom, who always placed loyalty above personal achievement, declined the offer. All his life he engaged in team sports - especially softball. Tom won several trophies while playing for the team he assembled, The Bulldogs (which included Graham and famous hockey player Bernie Wolf): top batter for the League in 1979; and MVP in 1981. Tom was also a softball little league coach, and a Beavers and Cubs leader. He loved to take Todd and Jordan to Expos games.Tom was proud to have been an early ambassador of sorts by facilitating educational links with Hong Kong students, working alongside William Yip. After retiring, Tom was asked to become international student recruiter for The John Molson School of Business (C.U.), a position he held for 8 years.

He travelled extensively throughout the Middle East, Asia and other countries on their behalf. Once again China became a major focus for the recruitment of students and the development of agreements with many Chinese Universities. In March, 2005, at the start of yet another flight to China on behalf of the School, Tom collapsed just before take off and was rushed to hospital. He was diagnosed with the most aggressive form of brain cancer. Tom faced this terrible disease with stoicism and bravery. Dr. Del Maestro operated masterfully on two occassions. Tragically, Tom was taken from us suddenly while recovering from the second round of treatment at the MNI.

Tom Swift was an unforgettable, lovely man. He was so very kind. He possessed a wildly-inventive sense of humour, based on puns, slapstick and absurd insights. This comedy was used to mask a shy, intensely private and complex personality. Tom gave new meaning to the word Swiftian. We will love him forever.

Most favoured nation?

In order to get votes in Quebec, the governing Tory party has made a gesture that will satisfy only seccesionists and nationalists, by putting forrward a parliamentary motion that the Quebecois form a nation within Canada.

Nationalism has a long history, and it has rarely been a good one; pandering to nationalists is a bad idea.

Quebec is not a nation, for several reasons - chief among them the fact that Quebec is instead a province of a federation.
It was founded by the English and the French, after being violently removed from its indigenous first peoples. The land now called Quebec is not by some kind of mystical union strictly identical to the aspirations of its "Quebecois" (that is French-speaking) people. Quebec belongs equally to its native and multicultural inhabitants, including the large Anglophone minority, none of whom wishes to see Quebec as a separate nation outside of Canada.

Canada has but one nation, which is Canada. It is subdivided into various provinces, which each have different, compelling histories and cultural experiences. Either all provinces are equal under the law, and each beholden to the federal system, or not. Saluting amporphous and emotionally-designated nations within provinces is disruptive and against the multicultural fabric of the larger nation of Canada itself, already a bilingual system that fully answers to Quebec's needs.

Friday, 24 November 2006

Poem by Kimberly Burwick

Eyewear is very glad to welcome Kimberly Burwick (pictured) to this feature.

Burwick obtained her B.A in literature from the University of Wisconsin, and her M.F.A. in poetry from Antioch University- Los Angeles. Her poems have appeared or are forthcoming in The Indiana Review, The Literary Review, Fence, Conjunctions and others.

Her first book of poems Has No Kinsmen was recently published by California-based Red Hen Press.

She currently teaches at the University of Connecticut, and lives on a farm in northwestern Massachusetts.

I first met her in New York at the panel discussion on politics and poetry I was chairing, which featured Paul Muldoon, Pascale Petit, Mimi Khalvati, Glyn Maxwell and Simon Armitage, during the week-long series of events celebrating the launch of Short Fuse, an anthology I co-edited a few years back for Rattapallax.

Since then, I've been following her work with much interest, and have been glad to publish her at Nthposition. She strikes me as being one of the best innovative poets of her American generation.


There is shame
in marking the passage,
praise in objecting.
The mind is driven
to the not lush,
the feather
of no robin,
the symbol
of the lamb
and yet—
when you carry
her to me,
white as she is,
your hands
clayed with milk
and magnolia –
It is not ungodly.

poem by Kimberly Burwick

Wednesday, 22 November 2006

My favourite museum

Last week-end was one of the happiest in my life. I spent it with my wife in Berlin, as I was there for a poetry festival.

I was last there 19 0r 20 years ago. I have many memories of that time, but one of the best was when a painter friend of mine brought me to see the works of the artists kept in the Bruecke (The Bridge) museum - the earliest Expressionists, all of whom were later described by the Nazis as "degenerate".

One of the smallest museums in the world, it was designed to house just these artists, and its modern style, set among trees, makes it both beautiful and solemn.

Even the chairs were designed to be exactly where they are. I love sitting in them, quietly meditating on the work of Fritz-Rotloff. I hope to return again. Few places on the planet make me so glad. I think it is the passionate use of colour in these troubled painters that, in such thoughtfully-controlled surroundings, is so moving. Order and chaos together are always lovely when in tangible equipoise.

Screenburn: New Writing Types 2006

I'll be chairing a panel called Screenburn on Writers and the Internet at the Norwich-based conference tomorrow. Hope to see you there.

Tuesday, 21 November 2006

Robert Altman Has Died

Robert Altman (pictured) was one of America's greatest film directors, and his death is very sad news.

The Player is arguably the best anti-Hollywood film ever made. The Long Goodbye remains a marvellous revisionist take on Chandler and film noir. Gosford Park would be nearly note-perfect, were it not for the miscue that is the Fry character's silliness near the end.

Sunday, 19 November 2006

Poetry Hearings 2006

I am just back from Berlin where I was reading as part of POETRY HEARINGS 2006, the Berlin Poetry Festival run by poet and emcee Alistair Noon.

All readings took place at Salon Rosa, a remarkable anarchist style squat in the East of Berlin; audiences were small (40-50) but attentive. Poetry sales were low. There was a film crew on hand and the poets were interviewed. The mood was very warm, and the readers soon bonded over the three days, creating a genuine sense of creative dialogue and sometimes exchange. The hosts were friendly and expert, and the emceeing spot on. I had a great time.

Friday 17th November

Todd Swift
John Hartley Williams
Giles Goodland
Cralan Kelder

Saturday 18th November

Chris Jones
MC Jabber
Michelle Noteboom
Leo Mellor

Sunday 19th November

Mark Terrill
Jeremy Hilton
Jennifer K Dick
Rod Mengham

Salon Rosa
Sophienstr. 18
Entrance H (same entrance as the Sophiensaele theatre)
10178 Berlin-MitteU-Bahn Weinmeisterstr., S-Bahn Hackescher Markt

Friday, 17 November 2006

Poem by Philip Fried

Philip Fried (pictured here) is a New York-based poet, little magazine editor, and poetry advocate. Eyewear is very glad to welcome him as this week's featured poet.

Fried’s poems have appeared in numerous journals and anthologies, including Poetry After 9-11: An Anthology of New York Poets. His three books of poetry are Mutual Trespasses (1988); Quantum Genesis (1997), which A.R. Ammons called “a major new testament”; and Big Men Speaking to Little Men (Salmon Poetry, 2006).

In addition to being a poet, Fried is the founding editor of The Manhattan Review, an international poetry journal that critics have called “excellent” and “lively.” And he collaborated with his wife, the fine-art photographer Lynn Saville, on a volume combining her nocturnal photographs with poetry from around the world: Acquainted with the Night (Rizzoli, 1997).

As a poetry advocate, Fried organized a successful nationwide campaign to increase the number and quality of poetry reviews in The New York Times. I first met Fried in London a few years ago, when he was reading for a launch of Poetry London. We had a good conversation one night about the state of poetry writing, publishing and reviewing, and it was clear he knows his stuff; in fact, Fried seems more engaged with developments in the UK than most any other contemporary American poet I've met.

I've invited him back to read in London for the Oxfam series in February 2007.

The Angels Laugh

And we, who are the vice presidents of creation,
promoted and promoted but only so high,
we, the company’s flesh and gristle, sinew

exposed by the slash of the heavenly accountant,
we laugh just like vice presidents charging expenses,
dining in solidarity, displaying

contempt for shame, that overcooked emotion,
we guffaw with bravado, shoulder to shaking shoulder,
like sides of beef displayed in a butcher’s window,

we howl so that even vegetables are meaty,
huge heads of broccoli, bulging beef tomatoes.
Red-faced and helpless in our strength, we belly-

laugh at heavenly or hellish curses,
those maliferous wisps, friable chars of language,
until our laughter splinters the floorboards and rafters,

from rib-eye sniggers to sirloin exultations,
we are the marbled flesh and fat of forgetting,
thick with oblivion, moist with amused juices.

poem by Philip Fried, from Big Men Speaking To Little Men (Salmon, 2006)

Thursday, 16 November 2006

Review: An Other Cup

The idea that Cat Stevens would convert to Islam, disappear for ages, and then suddenly reappear years later with a popular folk-rock album, now calling himself Yusuf, seems faintly absurd. There is something decidedly naff about the idea of Cat Stevens / Yusuf and no doubt many Eyewear readers, and others, will not explore this new album with the respect it actually deserves. Others will have been waiting for this with great eagerness.

This is Yusuf's moment, at least in Britain. Surely no album's release could be more relevant in the week that Al-Jazeera English launches its world-wide television broadcasting news service, that Bush reels from his Iraq-induced losses at home, or that debate continues to rage about the role of the Muslim community in the UK and, indeed, everywhere. Yusuf is no apologist for his faith, but this grave, solemn, and at times preposterously upbeat recording, with its 12 songs (only nine original to the artist, and two brief spoken word poems, really homilies), sounds a bit like Dylan or Marley at their most fundamentalist, at their moments of greatest conviction. It does provide a portrait of a serious Muslim artist who is relatively moderate and interested in a world at peace, and that's an invaulable thing in itself.

Yusuf directly addresses love, devotion to religious ritual, and divine judgement. He clearly celebrates his rather strict belief that the "good's going high" and the evil go down to punishment, that "you can't bargain with the truth". However, this is not an entirely restrictive address, as Yusuf also quotes in his liner notes from Zen and even rather secular sources, including the witty, sour critic of genius Cyril Connolly.

Musically, the whole thing is a divine throwback to the early 70s - and, once you've shuddered - think again: some of this has the haunting quality of tender Led Zep; but mostly, what Cat Stevens did best. The melodies are superb, the vocals warm and passionate, and the arrangements stern or lush as the occasion demands. All is superbly crafted, and burnished with a spirit of decency that is without guile. An Other Cup brims with a generous offering to the listerner ready for songs of faith and devotion (and not the ones that Depeche Mode gave us).

This is ideal rainy day music, the kind students who burn incense and sip camomile will adore; so what? That's sometimes a gentle comfort zone in which to reside. Meditative, reflective and relgious music has perhaps the longest tradition, after war music (the beating of drums) so no need to carp too much about this.

For the record, several songs here are among the artist's best, surprisingly, given he might have returned rusty: "Heaven/ Where True Love Goes" and "I Think I See The Light" especially.

Eyewear gives this four specs out of five.

Tuesday, 14 November 2006

Review: Depeche Mode, The Best Of, Volume 1

The new Bond film premiered last night in London. More on that later. What was missing on the red carpet was a band: Depeche Mode. Somehow, the Bond producers never got it - there has never been a group whose music so perfectly meets the special needs of their franchise - whose every song has always fused sex, violence, technical precision and strange passion - in short, pop songs for the age of everyday psychopathology.

Perhaps what makes almost every one from critic to mogul to man in the street, in the UK, somehow underestimate DM is that, in a secular climate, their heat is partially generated by the frisson of Deep South Bible Belt spanking.

"Personal Jesus" is a good place to start. It opens their best of (18 tracks, only one new, "Martyr). The song broke DM in America in a way that has never happened, say, for Robbie Williams (a blessing). It became the template for later Depeche Mode songs, even albums, and remains their most striking and frankly disturbing work - DM meet the devil at the cross-roads and erect a cross instead - it seems they've tried to sell their soul and eat it too. This Kraft-Ebbing / Kraftwerk / Good Works mix makes DM strictly unique - no one else crawls to Calvary on knees and wearing a gas mask.

Songs like "Master and Servant" and "Strangelove" - sublime hymns to the deviant uses of language and the body, expose and also perversely endorse, the complex relationships between desire, faith, sin, pain, power, love and redemption.

It's never been entirely clear, as in "Shake The Disease", whether, like Kierkegard, their negative theology is mostly based on fear, or trembling - or either / or. Steeped in the erotic gap that opens when religion and rubber intersect, they propose a gnostic journey that travels to the One via the Many. Depeche Mode wittily festishize (as Donne did) the way that church and sexual beloved can be praised in equal terms - and both know that sometimes love is not enough.

Is this a seamless, delightful listening experience, say like the albums Violator or Music for the Masses, their masterpieces? No. But it does represent an impressive 25-year-old career (!) and establish a solid canon, and thus a basis for later serious interpretation and study of work that deserves the attention accorded to Joy Division or Madonna, two other decadent, intelligent and often religiose acts; indeed, DM find themselves exactly between those two thieves (one saved) on the spectrum of style and strategy.

A vaguely jarring schism has opened, between their earlier material, which is lighter, optimistic and pop-oriented ("People Are People") and their sordid, sleazy latter-day Texas-synth pop, which of course swaggers with a crucifix between the teeth like a tooth pick. What emerges is that later singles and minor hits, like "Dream On" and "Suffer Well" are not simply poor cousins to the major songs, but actually compare favourably.

Their tastes may be catholic and their lifestyles hedonistically protestant, but at heart Depeche are lost souls, aiming to find truth, beauty and pleasure's release somewhere below heaven, just west of Death Valley. One day Bond may realize they were his salvation all along.

Four specs out of Five.

Prisons and Prizes

The superb Irish poet Sinead Morrissey (who has read for the London Oxfam series in Marylebone and is pictured here) wrote one of the finest poetry collections of 2005, The State of the Prisons.

It is now short-listed for a major UK prize for the best book by an author under the age of 35. Several of the poems in the collection are among the handful of the very best written in English since 2000 and one or two at least will endure. May she win.

Saturday, 11 November 2006

Review: Tyrannosaurus Rex Versus the Corduroy Kid

Simon Armitage, pictured here, has a new collection of poems out from Faber & Faber, with the intriguing title Tyrannosaurus Rex Versus the Corduroy Kid.

Armitage is one of the most popular and widely-imitated poets among some of the better poets of my generation and those slightly younger; and is becoming an iconic figure of his generation, much as Auden or Hughes were, for theirs.

I have heard Armitage read several of the poems from it, firstly at Ledbury last year (where I read as well), and then again more recently at the launch of the Oxfam CD, Life Lines, where he kindly volunteered to read.

These new poems are some of his best, and also take him in a different direction - one similar, in tone and emphasis, to the lyrics on Thom Yorke's recent The Eraser. So I was somewhat surprised to read, in the Guardian, Robert Potts write that: "He still writes as well as anyone, in his particular vein. But the limits of his language really are the limits of his world; and there are some worrying signs here that those limits have indeed begun to contract."

What does Potts mean by "as well as anyone"? Armitage may be imitable to some degree, but has an original voice, for sure. He writes better than most, not just as well as his peers. Secondly, and more interestingly, what does Potts mean by "in his particular vein"? The vein is the main artery of contemporary British poetry, and should not be shrugged off.

Potts I think mainly favours another vein - the more modernist one represented by poets like J.H. Prynne - roughly speaking this is the experimental wing. I happen to find much of value in both wings - having what is sometimes called eclectic taste. Indeed, I write poetry that oscillates between clarity and playful ambiguity, between form and open form.

One of the unfortunate aspects of the current UK poetry scene is that outriders for both camps cannot find terms of agreement, or even of mutual recognition, and are locked in a battle of misreadings. But that's a bigger story, and one which is familiar in other countries too.

So, then, what does Potts mean by saying that Armitage's "limits of his language really are the limits of his world"? He is saying, I think, that Armitage's world, created and endorsed by his language, is not fully open - is, in effect, limited. In short, that Armitage's language is not open to going beyond its limits. Going beyond language's limits, for Wittgenstein or Habermas, is an act of deep philosophical and theological import. It may even be a strategy for some poets and writers (Joyce comes to mind as getting close; Beckett, closer).

The limit is normally known as silence - "whereof we cannot speak". Simon Armitage, like most poets, sees his proper function as working within language and its limits - and it is not entirely fair to blame the explorer for not sailing off the edge of the world, but finding it instead well-rounded.

What has Armitage done, in this collection, to suggest a shrinking of his world, his perspective, and his use of language? In these new poems, he has, instead, broached questions relating to class, politics, and the ill-judged actions of the Blair government in Iraq – hardly signs of diminution.

It is true that Simon Armitage writes a verse that is pleasing, performative, broadly popular, normally intelligible, well-crafted, and written to communicate ideas and feelings, in much the same way that a good song or short story might. The failing of his language, then, if it is a failing, a limitation, or shrinkage, can be said to be in scope or ambition; or it could be described as a moral decision – that is, a decision to write a certain way, for an audience of intelligent, “normal” adults.

What is fascinating about this decision, and I think it is fair to rather credit than blame Armitage for being aware enough of his faculties and talents to be in control of his poetic effects, is how much faith it puts in human nature and the mind. If anything, it could be argued that poetry’s presumption that, if you build it, people will come, is predicated falsely on the assumption that people still exist – that is “people” in the sense of decent, interested, concerned, humane persons that want to be moved by poems and think about the world through image, sound and sense.

Some poets express a deep pessimism about the nature of mass media, about the so-called reading public, about the idea of being popular, or “accessible” - because, from a certain vantage, the world where a poem can be valued, or validated, has long been destroyed by capitalism and our reification. In this world, poems are no longer shared messages between human beings, but angry, desperate and sometimes random acts perpetrated by isolated figures in a decentered universe without a god, or, indeed, a utopian horizon.

Armitage does not write for, or from, such a radically negative perspective regarding language; he continues to act as if words, roughly-speaking, signify, to most people, most of the time, things – emotions and thoughts, mostly, but also images that are somewhere in-between. This is a rich, deep vein, and, most importantly, it is one that carries blood, still, to the human heart.

note: photo is copyright Simon Armitage and taken from his site

Friday, 10 November 2006

Poem by Cath Vidler

Eyewear marches on, like time, or a newsreel from an Orson Welles film. Each Friday it features a poet worth reading, based somewhere in the English-speaking world. So it is that I am very glad to welcome to these storied flat-screen pages, this particular Friday, the one and only Cath Vidler.

Vidler (pictured above) is an Australian poet I think particularly intriguing for her wit and innovative practice. She is also editor of online journal Snorkel ( Vidler founded Snorkel in 2004 after returning to Sydney from New Zealand, where she spent three years immersing herself in the literary culture of Wellington. Snorkel aims to bring together the creative writings of Australians and New Zealanders, while also featuring contributions from the wider international community.

Her poems have appeared in Sport, Turbine, Trout, Tinfish, Cordite, Alba, Otoliths and, most recently, Nthposition.

10 Domestic Alternatives

1. The succulents are entirely underwater or completely dried out.
2. Quiche Lorraine is very friendly, or very not.
3. Telephonic exchange is followed by whitespace, or commas.
4. The toothpaste aisle gleams with possibilities. The toothpaste aisle is in decay.
5. The wine glasses are blushing with excitement, or paling into insignificance.
6. The dress shop is located on the corner of progress, or perhaps slipping into something more comfortable.
7. This afternoon recites like a prayer. This afternoon has clamped its lips.
8. Did the deli owner really relieve the loneliness, or simply slice it thin?
9. The roundabout is ringing with reason. The roundabout is a vicious circle.
10. The private sphere is found all around the world. The private sphere has become lost in the bubble-bath.

poem by Cath Vidler

Palgrave Omissions

Sarah Broom now gives the world her study, Contemporary British and Irish Poetry.

Eyewear welcomes her broad church attention to both mainstream and experimental (as well as performance-oriented) poetries and poetics, and the inclusion of Don Paterson, Denise Riley, Simon Armitage and Jackie Kay for serious study is all good news.

However, to say "future books of this kind will no doubt include the likes of" or "there are many I would have loved to include but could not" followed by names like: Pascale Petit, Paul Farley, Alice Oswald, Caroline Bergvall, John Burnside, Derek Mahon, J.H. Prynne, Tom Paulin W.N. Herbert, Lavinia Greenlaw, etc, is to be slightly too limited in scope; and George Szirtes, Roddy Lumsden, Polly Clark, David Harsent, Michael Donaghy and Sinead Morrissey are not even regrettably excluded.

According to the author: "this book has been written, for the most part, in New Zealand". Indeed, this would have been a fine manuscript in 1999, but the 21st century has seen major shifts of emphasis, and new directions, that are simply not tracked or traced here, at all.

Perhaps the book's largest blindspot is the absence of any mention, even in the extensive bibliography, of the "poets against the war" movement of 2003-2004, which, after all, involved thousands of poets, use of the Internet, created much debate about the role of poetry in relation to politics, and resulted in at least three key anthologies, from publishers like Faber and Salt.

Broom's Introduction offers a sentence or two about the Internet, as follows: "The internet in particular, which has since its beginnings been crucial to the experimental poetry scene, offers the possibility of truly international exchange and awareness, something which is currently being actualized by online magazines like Jacket and Contemporary Poetry Review, as well as many online discussion lists."

Broom misses an opportunity to mention any of the several very good long-running British or Irish online magazines, and instead mentions two, from Australia and America - and then mentions that CPR often has "700" visitors a day. Nthposition's e-book was downloaded over 150,000 times (as reported in The Times) and has had as many as 10,000 visitors a day, but is not mentioned.

The book does offer excellent insights in to poets I admire, and it at least sets out to explore issues and themes that deserve an airing. The work on Muldoon is very good.

Three specs out of five.

Wednesday, 8 November 2006

Review: Blasted (in German)

The Barbican was last night bursting with writers, film-makers and actors (such as the couple Natalie Portman and Gael Garcia Bernal) drawn to the intriguing spectacle that is Blasted, as interpreted by Germany's most infamous, if not preeminent, theatre company Schaub├╝hne am Lehniner Platz, Berlin, under the direction of wunderkind Thomas Ostermeier.

Eyewear was not hugely impressed by one of Ostermeier's productions shown in Budapest several years ago - a typical instance of Ordeal Theatre - blaring industrial noise, a shaven-headed man in a wheelchair shoving rotting sausage into the faces of the bourgeois audience, and a real writhing snake, all set in a pit; sometimes it seems that in Europe to be a respected auteur one just has to do angry, sexual, loud and nihilistic.

Which leads to Sarah Kane.

Kane is the Cobain Slash Plath of contemporary British Slash European drama. Famous by 23 for Blasted, which was pilloried in the philistine UK press as being essentially the most vile piece of work ever performed live outside of Soho, she was tragically dead before 30, in 1999, victim of suicide and dark thoughts that were never, let us be honest, short of self-regard or Storm and Stress.

Lighten Up was not in the Kane lexicon. Kane's small oeuvre(basically five plays) is now part of 90s Kulchur - but better loved outside of Blighty, where David Hume's brand of empiricist scepticism consigns such moody metaphysical intensity to the fringes of acceptable British discourse, if not the flames. Once again, the curse of UK Decorum (so little in evidence in music or conceptual art) seems to want a lid on theatre, on written language - likely because, since Shakespeare at least, it has always threatened to upset the apple cart. Britain is not particularly drawn to Expressionism or OTT expressions of feeling in its art. And Blasted is surely OTT - one part "Bring Out The Gimp" S&M from Pulp Fiction (of Kane's era, did she see it?) and two parts Ratko: the play, as written, includes (all this in full view, so to speak) masturbation, anal rape at gun point, sexual blinding, and the eating of a dead, rotting baby - as well as the graphic verbal description of many war crimes against women, men and children.

One thinks of Frank Wedekind's work here as a sort of precursor, or, of course, King Lear. The audience going to Zerbombt (Blasted translated into German) observes a rich irony, then - the most famous, gifted, savage, strange and disturbed (perhaps we need to bring back the word genius for such an assembly of qualities in one person) English-language playwright of the contemporary world, somewhat neglected in her homeland, is revisited and returned to the English by, of all people, The Germans. It is an irony redoubled when one considers the play's central themes - war, sexual perversity, love and football - are ones that the English feel they do much better than their brethren on the Continent.

The Berlin company acts as if they don't know this, or don't care. What is thus presented is a chilling recreation of a 5-star Leeds hotel room in the mid-00s (Iraq is on the flat screen telly), and three characters (Ian, Cate and Soldier) who, despite the fact they should have strong UK accents, look and feel basically British. Kane was uncanny in anticipating the obsessions of her age - like Kafka one third of her fame rests on her foresight, one third on her relevance, and the last third on her writing. - after all, Blasted is about extreme war and terrorism barging in to the everyday sphere of sexual politics (sordid little rapes in hotels, the average English sex crime that Orwell would no doubt have mourned the decline of) - and it is also very much about the media. The Soldier asks Ian if he is a journalist before raping him, of course.

The play can't help but suffer in comparison with the world that has caught up, slightly, with Kane's brand of Uber-Angst. Death and sexual torture are now featured in mainstream cinema hits, like Saw the vile trilogy. And Abu Ghraib , etc. - that loathsome litany of Rumsfeldian crimes (so faintly punished recently) - have upped the ante. Genocide and sexual perversity in Leeds is still an astonishing vision of a collapsed world - both in terms of reportage and complicity, but just. Nonetheless, the company has managed to put on a visually and aurally spell-binding show, that uses the full advantages of live theatre production (which Welles, the arch-Expressionist knew so well in New York 70 years ago) such as light, sound, and elaborate stage design.

The two best and most effective moments are when Ian and Cate sport and lurch on the slowly rotating bedroom set, as increasingly ominous shadows and positions emerge, suggesting a kind of sad and local evil lurks in Ian's pornographic heart; the intensity was reminiscent of the ritualistic choreography of the cage-release-twirling-baton-Bach-and-cop-murder scene in Silence of the Lambs. The second highlight was the exploded view of the hotel room, which was rather too Iraq perhaps, but certainly powerful. Perhaps because Germans are thought to shout so much in real life, it was something of a shock to have the Soldier's weird and psychotic soliloquy faintly whispered. It might suggest menace in Berlin, but at the Barbican, it seemed merely low-key.

The final image, of post-human reconciliation between the surviving girl and the semi-dead man, is, in its dignity among indignities, memorable, moving, if not, intentionally, redemptive. But the last two words are so English and so apt as to be marks of genius - after all the death and humiliation - a simple, a profound, a polite - Thank You.

Four specs out of Five.

Good Riddance

Now For Some Good News...


Monday, 6 November 2006

From Jimmie Walker Swamp

from Thirty-Eight Sonnets from Jimmie Walker Swamp


The declined summer seemed to call for white wine,
then the sun sank and I was lost in time. Night takes
half my hours, lately, and the reading light burns

the page until I am insensible. What seemed light
is dark, the dark a riot of burning. The ferris wheel
in town blares its incandescence; the stage show

can be heard for two kilometres. I can't know
much of the world beyond. Land stretches to the limits
of morning, much as, when I was a child,

the map went to the edge, then kept going, to the wild,
unlettered future, as shadowed as the past. Half
my life has been knowing the dark earth of here,

and not the promised secrets of the universe. I have it
all here in my head. I don't know what it's worth.

poem by Robert Allen (pictured above)
first published in Standing Wave (Signal Editions, 2005)

Saturday, 4 November 2006

Robert Allen Has Died

One of Canada's greatest contemporary writers, Quebec-based, Bristol-born Robert Allen, has died suddenly of cancer, peacefully, at Jimmie Walker Swamp (his home in the Eastern Townships) with many who loved him at his side.

Rob Allen (pictured) was many things - cult novelist with a linguistic turn that was Joycean in its word-play, but Nabokovian in its themes (Napoleon's Retreat); lyric poet with many collections (such as Wintergarden and Ricky Ricardo Suites) who wrote both of nature and zany pop culture icons with equal brilliance; and, throughout his career, a poetic natural scientist, who, encouraged by his teacher A.R. Ammons at Cornell, in the '60s, began possibly his greatest work, The Encantadas - a long poem inspired by Darwin and Melville, two of his heroes.

This last poem, which I think is one of the finest ever produced in Canada, and certainly in the last 40 years, was recently republished in a beautiful new edition by Conundrum press.

Rob Allen was also the expert and busy editor of Matrix, Quebec's longest-running English literary journal, The Moosehead series, and an editor of the DC Books New Writing Series. At readings, in collaboration, and as a teacher, he inspired and touched many other writers.

Rob was a very good friend of mine. He was my creative writing professor when I attended Concordia for my BA, in the late '80s. He was a room-mate of mine in the late '90s. He edited my first collection, Budavox, for DC Books. He accepted my first poem for publication when I was 18. He was a true mentor.

This loss is terrible and sad. Rob will be much missed. Readers not yet born will one day delight in his protean learning allied to such exuberant wit.

Thursday, 2 November 2006

No More Fish

I found this rather more apocalyptic than even the news is wont to be these days....

Drive Time

Eyewear has long enjoyed the cinematic worlds of David Lynch. Even Dune.

Good to see poetry trying to explore them with pleasure, intelligence, oddity.

See the call for poems below:

Lady or Tiger

Eyewear has always loved Sylvia Plath's poetry. Therefore, it considers the discovery and online publication of a new poem by her cause for some celebration, even at such a solemn time as on All Soul's Day. For Plath, in her way, was great-souled, and open. The link to the poem is below.

As an aside, "Ennui" (a title that harks back to decadent French poetry of the 19th century) is also a title of one of my poems, published in the collection Rue du Regard (Montreal, 2004). It is below.


These narrow proud hours, afternoon’s,
imprisoned in the footnotes of the day: three
to evening’s commencement, want so much
out of themselves, and me: their ambition

aches, the heart knowing its bored mistress
has selected a finer suitor for enjoyments.
In this period: august, terminal, promising
all, desiring more, I refuse royal decrees,

the slow time’s purple writs, its arrogance
of minutes, illuminated spring, and hot
summer, building to release behind showy
hesitations cloud-cover introduces. Instead

of agreeing to create, a coy lady entowered;
throw down their ladders, pleas, enjoinders,
curl to my own pleased bed, undiminished.
Many the works best left than ever finished.
poem by Todd Swift


A WORK IN PROGRESS... I am writing this first part on the eve of New Year's Eve day - and as new remembrances come to me, I may well...