About Eyewear the blog

Eyewear THE BLOG is among the most read British poetry blogzines, getting more than 20,000 page-views a month. It began in 2005. The views expressed by editor Todd Swift are not necessarily shared by the contributing poets and reviewers, and vice versa. Eyewear blog is archived by The British Library. Any material on this blog infringing copyright will be removed upon request.


Sunday, 30 September 2007

Lois Maxwell Is Dead


The great Canadian character actor Lois Maxwell has died, 80, in Australia.

She made an indelible impression on fourteen Bond films, initiating the series in 1962, as efficent, yearning, slightly-plain Miss Moneypenny (see above), with whom James Bond would harmlessly (?) flirt, from Dr No to 1985's A View To A Kill. Born in Ontario, she won a Golden Globe, and made many film and TV appearances - but she won us over in M's office.

Saturday, 29 September 2007

In a Ditch,


Ditch, is a good place to read about poets who might be said to have wandered off the beaten path a little, or who are simply worth reading about. Okay, I am their featured poet at the moment, I admit it.

Friday, 28 September 2007

Poem by Andrew Bailey

Eyewear is very glad to welcome Andrew Bailey this Friday. Bailey (pictured) lives in Chichester and works for the Poetry Archive, among other things.

He has also worked for various literature organisations, including the Poetry Society and Poetry International Web, and a number of theatre companies.

His poetry has appeared in various magazines including Poetry Review, Stand, Stride, Brittle Star and Vallum. A play (co-written) appeared in the Assembly Rooms in the Edinburgh Fringe 2002.

Bailey studied at the universities of Nottingham, where he won the Kirke White Prize for Poetry, and Sheffield, for an MA in Contemporary Poetry. He is the winner of the Geoffrey Dearmer Prize 2005. I've enjoyed publishing his work at Nthposition, and think he's a British poet well worth keeping an eye on.

consume

pinch the petals
from the blossom
wait

and lick the plasma
nectar
seeping sweet;

lift the mushroom
on knife and thumb
clean
from its tilth

subject to steam
eat whole
quick

this your world
your new eyes


poem by Andrew Bailey

Thursday, 27 September 2007

Guest Review: Rush on Merton



Philip Rush reviews
Beat Reality by Les Merton and The Moontones

Les Merton, with a Cornish accent smelling of tin and chapel choirs, recites his poems over a laid-back almost ambient backing provided by The Moontones.

I have a soft spot for poems read against music. The largely moribund poetry publishing system in England could be pepped up I think with a little more attention to sound. For years now, many books of new poetry in Spain, for example, have come with accompanying CDs of the poet reading his or her own work. Multimedia in the poetry library? What monster has been let loose?

I love The Blue Aeroplanes. Their guitar-playing is out of sight, for a start, but Gerard Langley’s own poems and his recitals of other people’s - MacNeice’s, notably, and Kenneth Patchen’s - are beautifully voiced and strangely re-invented. And I love the way the guy in Piano Magic - Glen Johnson he’s called I think - recites his understated pieces over avant-garde loops and squeaks. And Adrian Belew’s delivery on King Crimson’s Elephant Man and Theela Hun Ginjeet is nothing short of sublime. Poetry and music.

Les Merton has enjoyed a certain local success with those dangerously cutesy books of poetry you find in tourist towns, books with saucy-postcard covers and brutal rhymes. You might put this CD in your player with a certain trepidation. But Cornwall is not all coves and cornets: Redruth is a grey town with a lonely main street and odd shops which shut down suddenly and stand empty until they become landmarks. There is - well, there used to be, I haven’t checked lately - a charming antique shop at the top, full of art nouveau and Clarice Clift. It rains a lot. I like it.

Merton is trying to capture that side of Cornwall in this selection: the grey, rainy, shut-shop Cornwall away from the holiday crowds.

There are some highlights: “the dialect of sunsets” I like; “from nought to sunset in sixty seconds” I like. So, excellent on sunsets.

And there are some nice structures and shapes. Road Movie works well and knows when to stop. Paint it Grey has a neat feel to it, and though sometimes it’s a bit imprisoned by the rhyme-scheme, maybe that’s the point.

There are some highlights then, but mostly this collection wrestles with cliché and loses by a fall and a submission in the fourth round. Cliché is important and don’t believe anyone who tells you otherwise. Young writers and young readers have to work through cliché in order to achieve their own style; teachers who simply cross out clichés in a child’s writing book are missing the point. They’ve got to get through that thing, children.

But poets should be challenging the cliché, using it maybe how Dylan uses an old blues line, subverting it maybe like a serious Roger McGough, or eschewing it altogether. Merton uses cliché like a cricket-bat in the jungle, waving it around desperately in an attempt to imitate something more powerful but ending up defenceless and boxed in. “Uniting every colour and creed in universal meditation,” “borrowed time”, “death casts a long shadow”, “darkness is my blanket”. That kind of thing.

It all gets too much. The subject-matter is as clichéd as the language. It’s like listening to a lurid collection of back-numbers of the Falmouth Packet: a burnt car on the housing estate, youths drinking on the quayside, a tramp urinating in the park. And the Children suffers from this rather terribly: they “glug beer” and “swig bottles of wine” ; they’re “isolated, misunderstood” and when they’re up for it, they spend their evenings “fornicating in the streets”. And, later, in the jazz bar, everyone “hangs loose”.

It’s weird, I think, how all this cliché protects Merton from his readers. I have learnt nothing about him. He sounds like a nice guy. But he has disappeared into someone else, the someone which is expected of him when he wears his ‘beat reality’ teeshirt. The music is fine, diligently lazy and with some nice timbres especially in the percussion and bass clarinet departments. It’s like a fine brick wall or maybe a creosoted fence, against which Merton’s pieces stand out like graffiti.

Rush lives in Stroud, Gloucestershire. He has had poems published in magazines.

Wednesday, 26 September 2007

United We Fall

The recent decision by the Anglican church in America to abide by the terms laid out by Rowan Williams, and desist from blessing the union of same sex couples, and also halt the ordination of gay clergy, is shameful. As Eyewear has argued before, there is no point in sustaining a union that continues to compel open-minded Christians to accept fundamentalist, intolerant doctrines - simply for the sake of a "broad church". At some point, fractures in the structure must force a moral break.

Poets For Oxfam Autumn Reading Last Night

The Autumn Poetry Reading for the Oxfam Poetry series went well last night - about 75 in the audience, we raised over £550. Seven poets read, their bios are below. There's one last reading in the series, on december 6.
---
Chris Beckett grew up in Ethiopia in the days of Haile Selassie. He studied languages at Oxford, then worked in Australia and Japan at various jobs ranging from shipping clerk to prawn-warehouse manager and beef importer. For the last 15 years, he has been living in London and trading sugar on the international market. Chris won first prize in the Poetry London competition in 2001 and his first collection, The Dog Who Thinks He's a Fish was published by Smith Doorstop in 2004.

Mario Petrucci has degrees in optoelectronics and ecology. Now a poet, broadcaster, educator and RLF Fellow, he has created ground-breaking residencies at the Imperial War Museum, BBC Radio 3 and Southwell Workhouse. Heavy Water (2004) won the Arvon Prize and was the basis of an award-winning film on Chernobyl. He reads tonight from Flowers of Sulphur (2007), winner of both an Arts Council and New London Writers award.

Fleur Adcock was born in New Zealand but has lived in England since 1963. Her previous collections of poetry, now out of print, have been replaced by Poems 1960-2000 (Bloodaxe, 2000). She has also published translations from Romanian and Medieval Latin poetry, and edited several anthologies, including The Faber Book of 20th Century Women's Poetry. She has two sons, six grandchildren, and a great-granddaughter. In 2006 she was awarded the Queen's Gold Medal for Poetry.

Chris McCabe was born in Liverpool in 1977. His first collection The Hutton Inquiry was published by Salt Publishing, in 2005. He discussed and read some of his poetry on BBC World Service on Armistice Day 2005 and featured a poem on the Oxfam CD Life Lines. A forthcoming pamphlet called The Borrowed Notebook will be published by Landfill this autumn. He currently works as Assistant Librarian at the Poetry Library, London.

Giles Goodland's last book was Capital published by Salt in 2006. Before that was A Spy in the House of Years (Leviathan, 2001).

Julia Bird works for the Poetry School and as a freelance literature promoter. She is currently working on a tour of poets and short story writers heading for arts centres and theatres in autumn 2007. Her poems have been published in various magazines and websites including Smiths Knoll, The Wolf, Tears in the Fence, and Limelight.

Matthew Sweeney. Most recent collection of poems Black Moon (Cape, 2007), and prior to that, Sanctuary (Cape, 2004), Selected Poems (Cape, 2002) and several earlier books of poetry. His work for children includes Up on the Roof: New and Selected Poems (Faber & Faber, 2001) and a novel, Fox (Bloomsbury, 2002). He is co-author, with John Hartley Williams of a chapbook, Writing Poetry (Hodder & Stoughton, 1997 – updated in 2002 and 2008) and has edited or co-edited a number of poetry anthologies including, The New Faber Book of Children’s Verse (Faber & Faber, 2001) and, with Jo Shapcott, Emergency Kit (Faber & Faber, 1996). He is currently working on a book of short stories. Born in Donegal in 1952, he has recently been resident in Berlin, Graz and Timişoara.


Oxfam Books & Music Shop
91 Marylebone High Street, W1

Monday, 24 September 2007

Das Leben der Anderen

The Lives of Others (Das Leben der Anderen, 2006) is recently out, in the UK, on DVD. The film is extraordinary, in any number of ways. Its central heroic figure was the actor himself, one Ulrich Mühe, whose gaunt, sad-beautiful face (as above) captured so many Academy voters' hearts and minds earlier this year, when the film won the best Foreign Language Picture Oscar - not least because the man later died from cancer after flying to Hollywood to be present at the film's success. It emerged that he had known he was dying as he made the film, imbuing his already-haunted performance with an other layer of stoic, even profound, grandeur. And it is a great performance.

News that Hollywood wants to do an English version remake seems rather gross, in the circumstances, laying a new actor over this beautiful, unique performance, but, worse, redundant. The Lives of Others is a curiously American film - complete with romantic score replete with soaring strings, three-act structure, and the infamous "Hollywood ending". Not less than some Speilberg film (as in Schindler's List) historical horrors once thought nearly unspeakable (one laments the death of the last mime to know that the Holocaust also asks for silence) - in this instance communist cruelty behind the Berlin wall, in 1984 (hardly a subtle year) - are terminated as in a happy therapy, with an ending that sees a completed character arc, and a lost man redeemed. Liberal humanism's values restore the balance. All is good.

I think The Lives of Others is a superb film, brilliantly photographed and acted, and the screenplay is complex, and flattering to the intellectuals (or film critics) who swooned for it (as did I, so quickly I revisit my love with some form of meditation). It flatters artists and intellectuals, because they are shown in a positive light - even the suicides and drug addicts are ultimately beautiful, either spiritually, or physically. At the heart of the film are several love relationships - between a writer and his actress, between a powerful and cruel government minister and the actress, and between the writer, who is handsome and good, and the "good Stasi" agent, who spies on the mythically wonderful artists, and thereby is redeemed by art.

As Arendt, and others, have shown (and recent death camp footage confirms) it was possible to listen to (even play) Beethoven, and still be a sadistic killer. Art, it has long been known, does not redeem, or transform, the citizen. If it did, the wealthy few patrons who support opera and art galleries in America would be saints. They are not. In this lovely utopian film, a reading of Brecht's sensuous love poetry, and the observation of doomed, sexually-charismatic geniuses, compels a sea-change of the soul. I realise the film emphasises that one needs to "really listen, really hear" the music, to be changed for the better, but that seems somehow a circular argument, worthy of a theology of predestination - for who but an already angelic listener is capable of truly listening so well their soul can be made pure?

Of course, the villain is a system - Communism - that engineers souls. The hero, the surveillance man, like in The Conversation, but this time in Technicolour, finds a couple that short-circuits the system, and souls are allowed to escape. It is notable that the woman has to be sacrificed on the altar of drama, so that the two men can - in true Western buddy-style - bond at the end, sharing a trans-historical epiphany. If you write it, he will come.

What the film fails to suggest is how capitalism - the alternative economic system on the other side of the wall - sets its own destructive forces against artists - not least in the way it emphasises a competitive, market model, for the funding, creation, publication, dissemination, and reception / evaluation of art work. Damien Hirst is famous because he commands money for his work, as much as for any "inherent" value of the work. Artists in America, Canada, and England, "liberated" by a market economy, sell out, and are betrayed, in other, various ways. Hollywood, and the German film industry is a satellite of that system, is the first exemplar of such a punishing regime.

I want to believe this film is true. That a good man can be redeemed by beauty, and that art can in turn capture, and reward, such goodness. For history, good and evil seem too simple, the terms are far more compromised. Still, Germany has a new wunderkind director, and, also, another star, in the charismatic Sebastian Koch - who appeared in another great film of 2006, Black Book. Koch seems to me the most handsome, impressive European actor now working in film, and, on his way to greater roles, he would, at the very least, make a superb Bond villain.

Saturday, 22 September 2007

Bill Griffiths Is Dead

The British poet Bill Griffiths, some of whose work was published by Coach House in Canada, has died. He did a number of things remarkably well, it seems. Griffiths was a member of the British Poetry Revival, which briefly took over the Poetry Society, and the editing of the Poetry Review, before being basically ejected by a more mainstream consensus. This event has become the central mythic moment - the expulsion from Eden, say - in one version of the story of the battle between the Poetry Establishment and the free radicals, as it were ("The Conductors of Chaos") of British poetry. Unfortunately, this Manichean duality masks deeper, more complex, and sometimes even more fruitful differences, and similarities, between various poetic positions available to poets writing in the post-1945 world. It does seem the case, though, that after Griffiths and his cohorts were removed from their astonishing ascendancy in central London - an interregnum period if ever there was one - never again would marginal, experimental, and/or postmodernists be so recognized as part of the discourse of contemporary British poetry. It continues to be vaguely scandalous, or at least sad, for instance, the the usual list of T.S. Eliot nominees, never or rarely includes work by poets outside of the mainstream. For that matter, Geoffrey Hill tends to be overlooked too. Something contra Cambridge?

Friday, 21 September 2007

Poem by Richard Harrison

Eyewear is very pleased to welcome Richard Harrison (pictured) to this week's feature. I have known him - and his work - for, I think, twenty years (meeting him first at Concordia's Norris building in 1987), though we long ago moved to different parts of the world, and haven't seen each other, in person, since the early 90s, I'd say.

In '87, Harrison was a passionate, engaged thirty-year-old (he turned a valiant 50 this year) from the ROC (rest of Canada) who had come to Montreal, and surprisingly become the Quebec representative for The League of Canadian Poets.

I was immediately struck by his handsome, tall presence, his mellifluous voice, his energy, and his rigorous approach to poetry. Harrison is one of the significant male poets of Canada, because of the scrupulous way he has researched - no other word will quite do - the ethics of language in relation to sexuality, to gender, to desire, to stereotypes, to roles - in the process, creating poems of alarming tenderness, shocking in their integrity, that think through what it is to wear a mask (for hockey, or for being a superhero, or in bed), to wear a body - and to use words to touch, or harm. He's tested lyricism, and run it against the grain of truth. His poems sometimes hurt us, because they emanate from painful worlds, but they are written out of compassion. His work is moving, and it is measured by the most stringent craft of care, and I recommend it to you.

His poetry collections, many from Wolsak & Wynn, include Fathers Never Leave You (1987), Recovering the Naked Man (1991), Hero of the Play (1994), Big Breath of a Wish (1998) and Worthy of His Fall (2005). Big Breath of a Wish was nominated for The Governor General's Award for Poetry and he is winner of the City of Calgary Book Prize. He teaches English and Creative Writing at Mount Royal College, in Alberta.


Small as God

It’s his voice on the phone.
And I couldn’t write this poem
except a century of machines
spread our families across
the terrain, and drew
every city along black arteries
for miles from its name – and still
we called them the same cities.
We have asked, How few
are the intimacies we need
to make us believe we are all
together? The telephone answers:
a voice alone, like a poem.
Hello, reader. Hello.
We cannot reverse the way
my father’s brain is forgetting
his memory – cell by cell,
taking its time, the way a river
erases its water with silt.
You’d hardly notice day by day.
But he might go suddenly, too;
his heart is weak, where two
years ago that heart beat back
the dead from their second attack,
this one on the table, and I remember
the day that he, full of donated
blood and drugs still had it in him
to make a list with me of all the things
that tried to kill him:
The Imperial Japanese Army, it began,
a big joke now between son
and surviving man: Acute
Appendicitis in Singapore.
The Anti-British Army of Malaya.
More: The time that fuel line dropped
to the tar, spitting sideways sparks
and gasoline down Highway 401
.
And we were laughing then, so I did not say
the ruptured ulcer, when I was 10,
and he was never again immortal.
But he came back, wrapping his words
in his cartoon-dog-with-the-mailman’s-
pants-between-his-teeth wheezy chortle:
50 years of marriage. Today he whispers,
Catastrophic from his hospital bed.
He, who’d placed his fingers
across the width of the world
at its farthest shores, he, with my own
consent for the final bars of the song of
his life to fall without a last,
heroic measure should all
that given blood collapse and pool
in the great basin of his veins, he’s
saying catastrophic though nothing
has exploded beyond the orbit of
the sharpest human sight,
but shrunk overnight
to fit what the ordinary eye
can hold – and less. You never know
how solitary a single room can be
until it frames the portrait of
your reach and grasp. He clasps
the phone (again the phone)
and his voice quickens to my ear.
Catastrophic, he said, alone,
like the first man, who prayed for
the invisible to listen, and,
having listened, reply
with a word as small as God.

poem by Richard Harrison

Hill Top

Eyewear believes that the English poet Geoffrey Hill (pictured) is the greatest living poet currently working in the language of Milton, and will rank with Pound and Eliot as one of the major poets writing since 1914 (that is, the last 100 years or so). I have loved his passionate, intelligent, religious poems since I came across "Genesis" by him when I was thirteen or so (he signed last evening my childhood, treasured copy of the Longman's Poetry 1900 to 1975, where I first read his work and swooned). That poem, which he wrote at the age of 20, and is the first (suitably) in his Penguin Selected, is the one that, more than any other, made me want to write poems of my own.

So, it was a treat to see him read, and talk, last night at the London Review of Books bookshop in Bloomsbury. Hill, who claimed to have taken four tranquilizer pills of some kind, was on grand (grand, not good) form. He seemed furious with the shop for having "curtailed" his reading time to 30 minutes, as he kept reminding the attentive serious audience of 80 or so, so that there would be time to sign and sell books after. It did seem odd to limit such a great poet, who wanted to read more. Hill read just four our five poems, mainly from his latest collection, A Treatise of Civil Power - "On Looking Through 50 Jahre im Bild: Bundesrepublik Deutschland", "In Memoriam: Gillian Rose" (whom he never met, but wished he had), "Before Senility" and "Coda", as well as a few from Scenes from Comus. He mostly talked. He was very open. He expressed disappointment that he was thought of as a difficult poet. He said he did not underestimate the intelligence of his readers, as recognising the intelligence of fellow citizens was a profound act of democracy. He said that his ars poetica was to forge "covenants with language // contra tyrannos".

Hill, during the rich Q & A, admitted he was working on a Death Bed version of his complete works; that he loved the work of Dylan Thomas, R.S. Thomas (he said he was proud to be partly Welsh, a fact recently uncovered), and Rosenberg; that he believed the BBC was good on holding politicians to their word, but not poets, that most contemporary poetry was "crap" and "loose"; and that he had an erotic attachment to his own work. His presence was commanding, almost magnetic. We were in the company of genius, generous, humane, wrathful and prophetic. If God was from Bromsgrove, he might be like this.

His last commandment? When asked if he had any advice for a young poet (a classic, good question, after Rilke surely). Hill: "Don't". Laughter from the room. Then, pausing, he retracted that severity, and said, poets need to read hundreds of poems, and learn them by heart.

Hill is often misread as being cold, heartless. He is not. The code to his work is in his fervent love of poetry itself. How poetry cries the miracles of God.

Thursday, 20 September 2007

Why Brownlee Stayed

Good news. The New Yorker is going to get a truly world-class poet to be its poetry editor. Paul Muldoon will take over the famous magazine in the world's greatest city, confirming his decision to move there as the right one. Muldoon did a good job editing the Best American Poetry anthology a few years ago, has won a Pulitzer, and his last book, Horse Latitudes, was brilliant. He's the Auden of his generation (with perhaps some different habits) in terms of precocious ability, verbal style, intellectual vigour, and expatriated address. Hopefully he will get the magazine to publish more poems and more poetry reviews. Meanwhile, London, apparently laying claim to New York's fabled status as greatest city, cannot point to one major mainstream general interest magazine of international standing that publishes major poetry, other than the TLS (which is not quite the same thing) - and, while New York poetics, poets and poetry continues to be vibrant, celebrating a variety of styles, influences, and formal options, English poetry seems all-too-often stuck between an us-and-them trad-or-avant position, which is very 90s - and publishing of new dynamic poets is somewhat lax. Get with it, and follow Muldoon's lead, I say: poetry can be quicksilver and many-faceted, open to various positions.

Wednesday, 19 September 2007

Reviewery

I've been reviewing for Books in Canada over the past three or four years. Now, thanks to the magic of the Internet, those persons not based in Canada, or able to secure a subscription, can access many of the reviews online (by others, as well). The typography is a little off - dashes appear as gobbledygook - but otherwise, it is all coherent. For instance, my review of the controversial Paterson and Simic anthology of British poetry that was published a few years back, or that anthology of Irish poetry, Breaking The Skin. There's also something on a recent collection of essays by Al Alvarez. I am most proud of my review of the Welles book by Simon Callow.

A Bridge Too Far

The body of the church - and the body of Christ - were both (symbolically, at least) - broken on the cross. Both survived, and that is the good news. The bad news is that, to preserve a union of 77 million in the Anglican communion, the Archbishop of Canterbury (a poet as well as a prelate) is determined to compromise with hardliners, who wish to demonise gay members of the clergy. What is the point of that? Either the church believes in something, or it doesn't, and, to my mind, the sticking point - that many fundamentalists consider homosexuality a sin according to The Bible - is simply unacceptable. Firstly, there is no coherent argument against homosexuality in the canonical record, and, secondly, and more significantly, the actual example of Christ - to be open to all, from the lowest of the low to the highest of the high - would seem to set a standard of tolerance, indeed, forgiveness, that no compassionate Christian would be wise to abandon. Eyewear hopes that either the Episcopal, American Church, defends its broad-minded position, or some other conclusion is reached. But the time for punishing men and women because of what their bodies, not their souls, do, is long past. About 500 years past.

Tuesday, 18 September 2007

Borderline offensive


Canada's great Seaway

The Economist dated September 15th 2007 is offensive to the democratic principles that Canadians hold dear, and is borderline racist, as well as far to the right of most readers of their own magazine.

The unsigned article, on page 68 of The Americas section, is headlined "A haven for villains" and beneath that, "The political reasons behind Canada's controversial asylum policy."

Controversial to who(m), exactly?, as a linguistic analyst might ask of the above phrase. The CIA? For immediately, we are told that "America has been criticising Canada for lax border controls" - but not America, surely, but, really, the Bush government.

The main concern is that the Canadian border is "porous" and lets criminals and madmen drift across into America, to try and blow it up. However, this alarmist critique masks discomfort with Canada's tolerant, generous, and, indeed, open-minded, immigration policy. As The Economist states, "Attracted by an entitlement to the same legal rights and social benefits as for Canadian citizens, some 25,000 asylum-seekers make their way to Canada every year". Enlightened this may be, but hardly disastrous. British readers might panic at the thought of 25,000 such new citizens each year, but consider - Canada's economy is booming, relative to most other Western nations, driven by their oil supplies, and the amount of land available for habitation is vast, compared to far-smaller European nations. Further, Canada's entire settler-colony history is based on immigration, in succesive, and succesful waves.

Then comes the offending sentence: "All three national political parties pander to the ethnic vote."

Such language, and such terms, are unCanadian. The "ethnic vote" was a racist phrase coined by a disgraced Separatist Quebec leader, in 1995. It was widely condemned by all media at the time.

Canada is a multicultural and pluralist society - a model Britain might some day aspire to, if it ever gets round to forming any interest in its Northern daughter - and so, there is no such thing as an "ethnic Canadian" - all are equally so, and therefore, none is. Or does The Economist think some Canadians more ethnic than others?

Monday, 17 September 2007

Horizontal Position In An Age of Anxiety

Eyewear was flipping through an issue of Horizon the other day - Vol. XIX from May 1949 - and came across a review by one Mr. Patrick Dickinson. The shameful notice by Dickinson of Auden's The Age of Anxiety was not seemingly sympathetic to his kind of writing.

He writes that "a general kind of obscurity suits best the superficially oracular as it also suits best any literary period dominated by homosexual taste which causes the expression of the emotions to be obscure, or symbolic, or dishonest, Such taste prefers a precocious adolescent kind of literature and criticism - it is a taste which has perforce certain gaps in experience, violent prejudices, and whose critical judgements are formed for other than literary reasons."

This example of its own kind of violent prejudice would be startling, if not sadly quite a common position, then (and now) with regards to certain tendencies in Modern British (and American) poetry of the 1940s (and beyond). It's curious that the obvious bias of some evaluative criticism is not more clearly recognised by those doing the critical judging.

Mr. Dickinson, of course, tries to conflate the terms "obscure", "symbolic" and "dishonest" - and can just about get away with this, given that, from Wordsworth on (and surely via F.R. Leavis and Scrutiny) a kind of honesty was earned by a lack of complex, rich, or overtly oracular diction. What is interesting is how this so-called "homosexual taste" - basically, the opposite of the coming Movement's austerity - is still active in American poetry, via, say O'Hara and John Ashbery - and happily so.

In the UK, though no longer publicly expressed in the crude way of this Horizon notice, many similar prejudices of taste occur among some reviewers who desire a robust, clear, and vocally mainstream (less ornate, less oracular) approach in poetry. Several major contemporary British poet-anthologists have lamented the "hysterical" and "florid operatics" of Dylan Thomas, for instance. According to one critical perspective, the kind of rhetorical exuberance that Auden - and also Thomas, in his own way - expressed - was not what poetry was meant to be. I think, and often write, otherwise.

Saturday, 15 September 2007

Kane enabled

There's a new blog, A Year In The Dark, all about film from 1941. As Eyewear knows, and you do too, that's one of the very best years for cinema, ever. Worth a look. Not only was Citizen Kane released then, but other major classics, such as Dumbo, Meet John Doe, The Wolf Man and Suspicion.

Friday, 14 September 2007

Poem by Angela Hibbs

Eyewear is delighted to welcome Angela Hibbs this Friday, and not just because, as you can see, she is wearing glasses. Her first collection of poetry, Passport, came out in 2006, from Montreal's DC Books New Writers Series. It's an impressive debut. As major Canadian poet David McGimpsey said, she writes "with tender insight and passionate care."

Hibbs has been published in good magazines: Exile, Matrix, Fireweed, and Antigonish Review. She is a graduate of Concordia University's Creative Writing Master of Arts Degree. Born in Newfoundland, she has lived in most Canadian provinces and now in Quebec. Aware both of Sexton's wry confessional urgency, and De Lillo's ordered, pop-savvy postmodernity, she is one of the best emerging Canadian poets, tossing the salad of the style of what's said. Look out for her next collection.


Steve's Monologue

slip and snivel
spine & knees; scabs
abound like knots
in wood. Sydney nibbled
her scabs. Smooth,
even on feet & elbows.
Smell her skin.
Drying between her toes
after a bath, her milk teeth
standing at attention all along
her laughter. Her teeth,
eyes, eyebrows and hair
white, her body blue black, a negative
of herself.

Quick heart
scurries, her small
feet strike the stairs.

Felled; a pencil tip
stabbed into her palm, right angles & bisections;
her hand fills the frame.
I popped it out, patted her hair
‘til her sniffling stopped. A decimal of lead remained.

The sap of her,
spills, sticky,
wets the yellow hair on her legs.
Young trees bend before breaking.


poem by Angela Hibbs

Thursday, 13 September 2007

American Poets In The 21st Century: The New Poetics

According to the editors of this new book (Wesleyan, 2007), Claudia Rankine and Lisa Sewell, there are new poetries emerging from the "turf wars" between mainstream and avant-garde, of the 90s - between, say, the new formalism and the Language positions. I hope so.

This book just arrived on my doorstep the other day, and I look forward to seeing how its thirteen poets look at poetry and poetics. Now, I'm a well-read kinda guy, and what took me aback, pleasantly, was how few of these names were known to me - yet they are representative American figures, which began to get me worried. Not about them, about me. I must be slipping. A few names I knew - Karen Volkman, D.A. Powell, Kevin Young and Tracie Morris, especially. It looks very promising, indeed. I'd welcome such a British or Canadian book of post-division-era poets.

I'm working on a PhD that looks at the way second-generation modernism may be the way forward. More about all of this, hopefully, much later.

The Separate Ways

In an exchange of comments yesterday, at Eyewear, David Wheatley and I discussed the nature of poetry and reviewing. It wasn't a comprehensive discussion, of course, but it did yield a very significant statement from Wheatley, who is, after all, one of the best of this generation of Irish poets. He wrote: " [....] I don’t see poetry as a community of ‘shared goals’, because I don’t have your goals or anyone else’s, I only have my own. The only ways in poetry are separate ways."

I think this is, and fair play to him, one of the most lucid expressions yet, of this kind of perspective, or opinion, about the nature of poetry. It's revealing, and also useful.

And I don't think he's entirely wrong, either. But, there's a confusion of terms here, which I'd like to help clear up.

"The only ways in poetry are separate ways" may be a credo, or ars poetica, or some kind of lone-wolf private self-description, and is, for many poets - simply because poetry is an isolated and isolating craft, in so many ways, and, also, because, unlike, say, film, or theatre, it does not comfortably or impressively lend itself to successful collaboration, at the level of the work-process itself. When I write poetry alone I prefer to be by myself might be another way of putting it. And that's true, up to a point. Very few poets have composed lines of worth, on bridges or elsewhere, while having a busy conversation with someone else.

Still, I think Eliot was probably, more or less, correct in observing the way each poet's writing is linked to that of the overall tradition that has come before. Some would demarcate that tradition, so that it ends at the ungrateful dead, others at the far more crowded mackerel seas of the ungrateful living throng of fellow poets (some poets have admitted they don't much like reading much contemporary verse), but in either case, one hardly writes alone, or separated from, the voices of Dickinson, ot Yeats, or Larkin, or Bernstein in one's head. How the poet shakes those voices off, or transforms them, within, their head, is the private work, but it has a complicity with the public, historic canon that she knows so well.

But that isn't the point I really want to make.

I don't care what kind of poems David Wheatley writes. Or any poet writes. The critic's job is also to suggest that there may be other ways, sure, but surely not to guide-dog poets to some inevitable spot on the map. So, in that sense, let him go his separate way.

What isn't the case is that poetry - as a community of fellow practitioners - need be so isolated, or atomised. Though the act of composition is a singular one, that need not mean that poets cannot gather together, in common cause, or even in a union, to establish some common goals, interests, even practices - not least of which might be an ethics (poets have long resisted a Hippocratic-like oath, which may be why doctors are more universally respected as a group). All I am saying is (not give peace a chance, but that too) poetry is needlessly divided and even divisive in Britain, and some form of commonality could be established, to bridge wider disparities, and work to establishing practical goals, relating to reviews, funding, and even, down the road, pensions and health issues. Actors - hardly at one time seen as practical or even ego-free agents - banded together in Hollywood, and Canada, and created fraternities, such as Actra, which protect aging and weaker members of the trade. Canada has its League of Canadian Poets which - before you mock the name, consider - disburses hundreds of thousands of dollars to poets annually. These are not Stalinist groups that mandate the how or what to write, but can assist.

I am sometimes very sad these days - the death of many friends and family members in 2005 and 2006 knocked me for a loop, and I also badly miss home - and so perhaps I am more sensitive to how isolated and challenging the role of the poet can be, in today's Western, capitalist society. I think having communities that support and encourage would be a welcome model for the British poetry (publishing) establishment - currently, it seems more based on a Darwinian model, where poets are seen as competing against each other, for prizes, funding, readings and book deals.

This has come about because, since the New Generation project, poetry has been projected to the media as being part of a marketplace - so that certain "star" poets are treated as if their work was somehow actually better than others, because it was better known. I still meet many otherwise intelligent poetry readers who believe that if a book is published by, for example, Faber, it means the poet is actually a better poet. Was Wallace Stevens a better poet before or after Faber published him, I ask? Harmonium was just as magnificent in manuscript. But, in the UK, as elsewhere, publishing confers a distinction that is also a fiction: poetry is not what is "published" - it is what is created by - the poet. This is why, in a nutshell, there is a marked bias against orally performed (non-transcribed) and digitally inscribed poetry - because the system here has yet to decide how to confer distinction to non-published work.

So long as the Poetry Publisher - and not The Poet - is in the ascendant in Britain, there will be a need for poets to guard their own interests. Further, there is much need for a new generation of fair, balanced, scrupulous younger poet-critics, who will fearlessly review books by even major figures. Too many of the major mainstream figures are untouched because either their friends review them, or "smaller" poets fear incurring their wrath. At any rate, as I mentioned in my earlier post, too many poetry reviews in the UK are either of the friend-on-friend kind, or the pit bull kind. Surely, there is room for a distanced, nuanced approach, which is neither too friendly, or vicious for viciousnesses sake.

Wednesday, 12 September 2007

War, poetry

While doing research yesterday, I came across the recently-published The Oxford Handbook of British and Irish War Poetry (Oxford, 2007), edited by scholar-poet Tim Kendall. It is a hefty tome - likely to stop a bullet on the front if held close to the heart - and one that presents itself like an academic survey of the field.

Imagine my disappointment, then, when I came across the essay by David Wheatley (UK-based younger Irish poet-critic), which basically takes a sten gun to an anthology I edited in 2003, and mows it down with the frenzied precision of Violette Szabo. But Wheatley does not merit a medal, nor does this particular critical effort on his part mean his name will be carved with pride.

Mr. Wheatley says this about 100 Poets Against The War (Salt, 2003) - perhaps the most infamous UK poetry book to come out of the post-9/11 landscape (to be current), one of the most widely discussed and read, and surely the most derided - and he says it with the same definitive, indeed, authorial, belittling voice of certitude as one might expect from Leavis (FR or QD): "Swift's memorably dire collection". He then goes on to quote three or so poems from the anthology, and dismiss the work as sub-Marxist agit-prop ranting of the lowest kind. He then goes on to suggest that Charles Bernstein had a better collection, and mentions it. And he praises David Harsent's fine book, Legion.

Okay, you might ask, what's wrong with that? Well, several things are wrong with this, not least of which is the fact this rather serious-sounding book will be around when we're all dust under the feet of some latter-day Tiberius. So, if this is down on one's permanent record, as it were, it would have been nice to see some sort of objective description of the anthology (which was, after all, worthy of half a page of DW's time).

What might a fair, objective (as opposed to polemical and satirical) description of the same book have revealed? Well, it might have informed readers that the anthology has excellent poems from, among others, Charles Bernstein (who Wheatley elsewhere, hypocritically I think, praises, as an alternative to my anthology, as opposed to being a presence in my poetic and editorial vision as well), David Harsent (ditto), Sean O'Brien, Michael Donaghy, Marilyn Hacker, Mahmoud Darwish, and many other major poets, from America, Ireland, Australia, Canada, the UK, and beyond.

So, rather than Wheatley pointing out that both Bernstein and Harsent were early supporters of, and participants in, the 100 Poets Against The War project spearheaded by Nthposition, he sets them up as what the 100 Poets anthology wasn't - a truly false dichotomy. He also fails to mention it was edited in a week, under immense time pressure, used the e-book form in a new way to reach tens of thousands of readers, and was an openly activist, polemical survey of the pulse of the moment. He doesn't bother to locate one - even one - good poem in the anthology, though there are dozens, among the many that are, obviously, relatively weak in the eyes of commanding posterity.

But who is Wheatley, from his lofty prominence, to belittle, so shabbily, this work, that tried to do good, and was, of its time, of some interest?

His example of nasty, dismissive, and yes, cruel, criticism, not bothering to contextualize or empathize, with the practices, aims, or even genre, of such works, is what is chiefly wrong with the UK and Irish poetry community today. Poetry is not just a schoolboy prank.

I am entirely opposed to this kind of unkind, arrogant, and savage prose criticism, and think that, while it has a place in the history of letters, and can be very funny to read from an armchair's distance, and removed in time, it is not any way to help build a future where poetry is read and appreciated by the many, instead of merely the few.

On that note, I read a comment from Don Paterson, the other day, in an interview collection published in 2004, saying he thought more than "30 books of poetry" published in the UK every year was too many - because there aren't that many good poets out there.

That's wrong, as far as I am concerned.

That approach means that publishers became the gate-keepers to consensus, keeping a lid on the poetic ferment beneath. Better, I feel, to let the poems out there, to circulate, so that readers and reviewers can make their decisions (of course, with some attempt at fairness).

There are more than 30 good books of poetry or typescripts currently circulating among editors in the UK. The lack of openness to receiving and publishing them merely controls and limits what appears to be the "mainstream". It allows for marketed successes from major-press-published poets, who seem to rise from nowhere, like Venus on a shell. Ironically, in the name of a new democratic openness, publishers often continue to enact rituals of elitist discrimination that have nothing to do with the actual quality of poetry to hand. New presses, like Salt, and Tall-Lighthouse, don't do that. This suppression of the poetic actual is divisive and damaging, and, more importantly, unnecessary, and it plays into the hands of those who fund the arts, and think less funding is better.

Poetics have consequences - when will we begin to question, seriously, the decisions and opinions of the gate-keepers - to change how things are done?

Monday, 10 September 2007

Seam No Evil, Tonight!


Seam 27
will be launched tonight at 6.30 pm
at Foyles 113-119 Charing Cross Road
London

Their special guest reader is Sheenagh Pugh
and there will be short readings from other contributors, including moi.

So far confirmed: Gill Andrews, Mike Barlow, Pat Borthwick, Ken Champion, John Clegg, Chrissie Gittins, Allison McVety, Caroline Natzler, Sue Rose, Julian Stannard, Todd Swift and Kearan Williams


Entry is free.

Ideas In Poetry?

Much has been made, in the 21st century, in Britain, of the intersection of
"Science" and "Poetry".
Any number of known mainstream British poets are interested in science, the environment, and rational thought. Images and ideas gleaned from physics, math, and genetic science are interwoven into the writing of some of the best poems of respected, serious poets. Poets are expressively engaged with the dialogue between the varied fields of art, and science. Anthologies, books and collections of essays have begun to be published, studying, or at least discussing, how it may be that poetry can fruitfully interlink with the rational, intelligent progress of human "civilisation".

What, then, is the link, if any, between an idea, and a poem? In economic terms, what is the value added, by an idea, to a poem?

There is a rude fascinating paradox at the heart of these genuine questions - on the one hand, without a governing idea, or set of ideas, a poem (or text for some) can become merely vague, even lost, in something like pure language (or nonsense for some), So, some sense seems needed. But sense is not an idea, it is merely coherent argument. Ideas, in poetry, as in general life, can be good, or bad.

Let us consider a Cholera epidemic. The idea that the disease might be spread by a contaminated water supply is a good idea, in that, medically speaking, it is verifiable, and, if acted on, can save lives (by finding a new source of uncontaminated water).

Poetry doesn't work like that. Yeats had many "silly" ideas, Auden tells us, about gyres and history, and the occult, that seem outdated and basically useless. Auden's ideas, strained through Marx and Freud are of historic interest, but are not entirely sound, today. Wallace Stevens had ideas about the imagination that may not be correct. Claudel, too, had offensive political ideas, as did Pound. No banker using Pound's economic ideas would get a City Bonus in 2007. In short, the ideas contained in poems cannot be used to cure people of disease, or plan or man trajectories to any planet, cooling or otherwise. But, these poets wrote great poems. Poems may play with, elucidate, explore, or dance around, ideas, but they do not, in themselves, constitute ideas.

Poems, in short, are not ideas, but things.

And yet, poets, being human, sometimes have ideas. Where to put them? It would be a strange poet, indeed, who never considered introducing a poem to an idea. The odd thing is, it seems apparent that, it doesn't matter what the idea is, in terms of the success of the poem, so long as the idea is strongly-held, and presents a rich field of symbolic possibility. Ideas, as far as poetry goes, are interchangeable, so long as they add interesting words, and allow the mind, and emotion, to enter into those words, charging them with vitality.

So is it the case, then, that ideas are a delivery system for whatever it is - the green fuse? - that keeps poems moving, long enough for them to succeed. In this way, poems are (metaphorically?) like strands of DNA - facilitators that aid in the continuation of some greater, living thing. Just another idea, of course.

Sunday, 9 September 2007

September 9

My father, who is seen seated here in the corner of my family home where the poetry books are kept, with a young friend of our family, died a year ago today.

I pause to think of him today, in all his anguished complexity - a shy, sensitive and clever young man born into a working-class Irish-Canadian family with no history of education, who went on to be the Director of Admissions of two (ultimately merged) universities, for more than thirty years. During his time at Concordia, he was widely known, and loved, for his compassionate interest in students and their concerns. My father, who remains the standard by which I compare kindness and generosity, would literally do anything for someone, if he thought they needed assistance. The world as it is, with its indifference, and cruelty, pained him much. It is one of life's near-inevitably cruel ironies, then, that his death was a slow one, and dehumanising, in that he died in hospital, being poorly-cared for, of a very terrible form of brain cancer. I spent last August with him in hospital, sleeping by his bed most nights, and I consider it the best-spent, and most dreadful, of times.

Love poetry is often thought less of than other kinds of poetry. But the soul of the person not aflame with love is a husk for burning away.

Dear father, I think of you now, as always, and will do my best to continue the work you have done, to help and guide others, often lost or unfortunate, as best I am able, even in the most difficult of times.

Saturday, 8 September 2007

An Incomplete Concordance

Amazon.com are becoming interesting, for writers, in a new way.

They provide concordances on some of the books they sell. For example, my first collection of poems, Budavox: poems 1990-1999 (DC Books, 1999), yields the following results - the hundred most frequently used words in the collection being:

across again air always another away bed black blood blue body boy close cold colour come dark day dead death does done door down enough everything eyes face feel fingers floor four get girl glass go gone good green ground hair hands head hours house keep know left let life light long look love man may men moment moon morning mouth must new next night nothing now once open own part place put rain red room roses see set skin sky something soon still sun take things thought time touch turn upon wall want water white without woman words world

In terms of complexity, 52% of sampled poetry books use fewer complex words, and 52% have less syllables per word.

My second collection, Cafe Alibi (DC Books, 2002), yields the following most-favoured words:

again against air always another apart arms bed black blue bodies boy budapest call cannot cold cut desire difficult doors down else end even eye father fingers floor folded foreign girl glass go gone good green hands having home hot hours houses human know late leaves letters light line little long look loss lost love may mother move must nothing now old once own place return running say school sea see senses seven simply skin small somewhere space station step still suddenly summer table take things though time touch turn upon want war water whose windows wonders work world year

Now the complexity has shifted somewhat. 66% use fewer complex words, and 71% have less syllables per word.

My third collection, Rue du Regard (DC Books, 2004), has the following hundred most popular words:

again air behind best better body book came cannot charles close crossed cut day death door down even ever eyes face first full get girl give go good great hair hands head high home hours instead king know last life light little live long look loss love man may meets men might move name new night now old once own pain paris part past place poetry put read red room safety saw say sea see seems sense should side small stone street take thank things think though three time turn two walk walls want wife windows winter words work world

Now the numbers are 68% and 71%.

Finally, my fourth collection, Winter Tennis (DC Books, 2007) has not had a concordance done of it, yet.

What can be quickly seen, though, is that I favour not fire or ice, but certain other rather simple, even elemental, words a great deal, such as: again, air, body/bodies, down, know, love, move, sea, water, and world.