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Showing posts from July, 2008

Poetry Focus: Bernard Spencer

Peter Robinson on Bernard Spencer

Bernard Spencer (pictured above with an unknown singer), born a hundred years ago next November, is still read and admired.

Talking recently to the poet John Welch about him, I was pleased to hear that he had recited Spencer’s "On the Road" at a daughter’s wedding. Since Spencer, a British Council lecturer for much of his life, had died in Vienna, his body discovered by suburban train tracks in September 1963, I included his "Night-Time: Starting to Write" in a reading at the festival there to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the Council office’s founding in 1946.

Jo Shapcott, who performed with me, mentioned that she and Matthew Sweeney had chosen his "Boat Poem" for their Emergency Kit anthology, published in the same year. His poem "A Thousand Killed" is discussed by Christopher Hitchins in a 2004 article in Slate. From a collateral line of the Spencer-Churchill family, he can also be found on the peerage w…

White Keys For Bond

The James Bond theme songs have always been hit or miss. Often avoiding super stars or iconic singers for mediocrities, and expressing left-field production choices more enigmatic than M, they have nonetheless managed to feature, among others (and famously) songs by Shirley Bassey, Tom Jones, Nancy Sinatra, Paul McCartney, Madonna, Duran Duran, Tina Turner, Gladys Knight, and even Louis Armstrong. Songs by Garbage and A-ha were perhaps missed opportunities to have selected more interesting indie or alternative bands (U2? Depeche Mode? REM?). Why never Oasis, or, for that matter, Sting? Perhaps the saddest news is that Amy Winehouse and Mark Ronson, reported to be doing the song for 22, have been replaced, seemingly last-minute, by arguably the oddest couple ever assembled. Alicia Keys and Jack White (he penned the tune) are hardly in the same musical room, but are undeniably major contemporary American figures. What they come up with will no doubt be some, if not much solace.

Review: Fleet Foxes

Many critics have been suggesting that the eponymous album from Fleet Foxes is the best of the year (from an American group). It is surely one of the oddest. Eschewing a booklet with lyrics or photos, one is instead presented with a flimsy inner flyer, which is mainly a rambling diatribe against holiday snaps, and an argument for the "power that music has, its transportive ability" - as opposed to photographs, which ruin the imagination.

Well, it is hardly transgressive or even novel to argue that music is persuasive - music has charms, as we all know. However, striking out against images is less bland - though vaguely fundamentalist (one thinks of the breaking of stained glass windows, or the blowing up of statues) - and, as well as being politically dodgy, is not well-founded. Many mystics, and others, have testified to the power of a vision, sometimes based on an image, or fetish object, to assist in the concentration on higher truths. Yeats used, for example, a Japanese s…

Bad Brideshead, or, Arcadia Fire

Hollywood is so often blamed for ruining the great cultural objects, that it is worth noting that a mainly British team have managed to lay waste to the latest screen adaptation of classic 1940s novel Brideshead Revisited - or so the commentators have been lining up to claim (Eyewear will see the film in the fullness of time).

The irony is that Americans and Canadians (critics and audiences alike) grew up in love with the Granada TV series, which was aired on PBS. The fact that a vast audience in North America was primed and ready for a cinema version seems to have been overlooked by the cynical fire-sale crew who remade it ("everything must go") - who chucked out, apparently, the Teddy Bear, most of the Oxford stuff, and, of course, the religious subtext about grace, and Catholicism. This is like The Jewel In The Crown being remade, without "India".

It hardly makes sense for the current director (even if he is an atheist) of this lamed new version to claim to be &q…

Michael Bullock Has Died

Sad news. Michael Bullock, the British-Canadian poet, translator, and artist, has died. I am proud to own his original copy of his translation of the Siegfried Lenz literary thriller, The Lightship, made into a kitsch film in the 80s. It's one of my favourite novellas. Bullock warrants a Wikipedia entry - hopefully someone will set one up for him.

Beach and Crane

I've been reading, lately, The Cambridge Introduction to Twentieth-Century American Poetry, by Christopher Beach, who knows a thing or two about contemporary (and avant-garde) poetry and poetics. I'd recommend this book to anyone who wants to know more about the current state-of-the-art thinking on American poetry. Still, there's a strange moment in it, in the invaluable Chapter 3, "Lyric Modernism: Wallace Stevens and Hart Crane".

Beach, who should (and does, I think) know better, rather oddly parrots Yvor Winters, and his outlandish (if fascinatingly maverick) poetics, when discussing Hart Crane'sThe Bridge. Beach is excellent on Crane's excessive, exuberant rhetorical style (of great interest to my own poetry), but writes "if The Bridge is to be judged primarily as a modern epic celebrating the mythic and historical sweep of America .... then it must be considered a failure." This ain't necessarily so.

Only really by evaluating The Bridge w…

Viva NASA!

Eyewear wishes NASA a very happy 50th birthday today, tomorrow (its precise anniversary), and in the future. The space agency has, famously, put men on the moon, and used a Canada arm to good effect. Hopefully, it will redouble its efforts, in years to come, to get men and women onto Mars. Terraforming the Red Planet needs to be one of the later 21st century's goals. Meanwhile, the unmanned probes go on, allowing us to extend, literally, human knowledge. While I have never been an Asimov-addict, or a slide-rule afficionado, I do believe that hard science, heavy lifting, and all systems go can inspire. Houston has sometimes been the Cape of Good Hope. Talk about retro: Obama as Kennedy, NASA back in the news (in a good way). Is it time to release the clones of Elvis from captivity?

Knol How

The rise of knol is upon us. It will be interesting, and informative, to read how poets, and particularly, poets with both a sense of history, and poetics, make use of this communications tool to display knowledge of the poetic field - and its various, and competing, trajectories. Orwell would no doubt have mused on the power this will permit, or provide - for good, or mischief - for a little knol is a dangerous thing.

Poetry Focus: Jack Gilbert

Jack Gilbertby Don McGrath

A Slate magazine review of Jack Gilbert’s Refusing Heaven (2005), his fourth volume in a 50-year career, bore the title Rescuing the Poet Jack Gilbert from Oblivion. In 1962, Gilbert’s first volume, Views of Jeopardy, obtained the Yales Series of Younger Poets award and was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize. Gilbert was roundly fĂȘted and even given photo spreads in Vogue and Glamour. But after attaining literary celebrity, Gilbert turned his back on it the following year, when he moved to Europe to live a hand-to-mouth existence. This was the first stage of a long self-imposed isolation from the United States in Italy, Greece, Denmark, Japan and England.

Gilbert began his poetic life in the company of the Beats but felt their casual and often boisterious style at odds with his own ascetic impulses. He felt a need for solitude and the pared down, hard-won style he developed within it became, at times, a source of anxiety over his American reception. In Views of …

A Lot Can Happen...

... in a week. Eyewear goes off to walk in Exmoor National Park, and low and behold, the silly summer season turns baldly interesting: Brown down, Obama OTT in Berlin as JM glumly trudges around Berlinsvilles "back home", and, of course, the deranged war criminal masquerading as a hippie. Not to mention "Batman" getting arrested in a posh hotel for having a "disagreement" over money with his Mum. What a week. Meanwhile, let me say this about that, as Nixon used to: England's coombes and seacoasts are as beautiful as any anywhere else - and, when the sun's out, you don't need to fly off to that elsewhere, either. Exmoor Cream Teas are to be enjoyed, but, in moderation. Oh, by the way, Eyewear is thinking of supporting Scottish Independence. Scotland would be one of the great nations, culturally, politically, and even in terms of natural resources, on its own, unmoored from the English-Welsh ball and chain. Then, if Quebec separated too, they co…

Canadian Invasion?

Anglo-Quebecer Leonard Cohen is (finally? again?) taking Britain by storm. Britain, about to become Austerity Britain Mark II, is falling under the spell of Montreal's most beloved son. His recent concerts have been applauded by no less than the beleagured Chancellor, Alistair Darling; the UK economy may be at its worst off since World War Two. Meanwhile: Germaine Greerrecently claimed Bob Dylan isn't a very good writer, at all. And, famous formalist British poet Wendy Cope has been asked to write poetry for the anniversary of the BBC. One of her poems is, to say the least, dismissive of Dylan Thomas. Trouble in the towers of song?

British Invasion?

Perhaps there's a reason Eyewear is no longer based in Quebec. Former Beatle and cultural legend, Paul McCartney, has discovered the province's dark side. Offering to celebrate the 400th anniversary of Quebec, the musical genius has discovered a strident xenophobia among the stranger, and louder, separatist quarters: there's been a zealous reaction, demanding the "British" pop star not perform his show, lest he remind the francophone community of the terrible wounds of being conquered (on The Plains of Abraham) centuries ago. Be Montcalm. Music is meant to soothe savages.

Kay Ryan Is The New Laureate

Eyewear is just a little surprised to learn that the new American poet laureate (a one-year term) is the comparitively little-known Kay Ryan. Inspiringly, perhaps, Ryan has risen to prominence only quite recently (her first book was self-published). Looking forward to reading her New and Selected when it's out. Congratulations are in order.

Poem by Steve McOrmond

Steve McOrmond’s poetry has appeared widely in literary journals and magazines across Canada, as well as online at Jacket (Australia) and Nthposition (UK). His work also appears in the anthology Breathing Fire 2: Canada’s New Poets (Nightwood, 2004).

His first book of poetry, Lean Days (Wolsak and Wynn, 2004) was short-listed for the Gerald Lampert Memorial Award, which recognizes the best first book of poetry published by a Canadian in the preceding year. A second (fine) poetry collection entitled Primer on the Hereafter came out in 2006.

Originally from Prince Edward Island, McOrmond (pictured here) currently lives in Toronto. Eyewear is very glad to have him here, as he is undoubtedly one of the forty or so most compelling younger poets now writing in Canada today.


Stockholm
(for Matthew & Charmaine Tierney)

To dwell between the snowy fastness
and the ice-locked sea, in a city of blondes.

One must have heard the existential scream,
hands over ears, the huge Os of mouth and eyes.

Know it…

Poem by James Midgley

Eyewear is pleased to welcome James Midgley (pictured) this Friday. Midgley was born in Windsor in 1986 and now alternates between Henley and Norwich. A few months ago he completed his undergraduate degree at UEA, where he will be studying for an MA in creative writing next year.

His work has recently appeared in publications such as Fuselit, Magma, The Rialto, Stand and Stride, among others. He was a runner-up in the 2007 Poetry Business competition, and this year received an Eric Gregory Award. He edits the poetry journal Mimesis. He's one of the younger British poets now worth reading and watching over the next decade (at least) to see what happens.


"Something circled the house while we slept"

Something circled the house while we slept.
Here are the prints in the snow.
I don’t think we pay enough attention to silence,
the way you cradle a bauble of whisky
snug in your palm. These winter nights
I feel that glass could be my shrunken skull, and you
swirling a lantern’s afterbirt…

Is Britain Scared Of Canadian Genius?

According to this Guardian article, Britain is "scared" of the Canadian genius, Frank Gehry. Although Gehry is widely considered the most important innovative North American architect of the postmodern period, and perhaps since Frank Lloyd Wright, Gehry has never been commisioned to design a major building in the UK, even now as he nears his 9th decade. Pity - it seems a lost opportunity. Why does Britain resist some North American innovators, and not others? Crane, Stevens, Olson, Ginsberg, Cohen, O'Hara, Ashbery - all have had their admirers, in poetry, but rarely a mainstream welcome.

Review: Black Kids' New Album Partie Traumatic

It is becoming increasingly obvious that something there is that loves the 1980s - despite many naff failed attempts to bring the decade back. The zenith of the 80s is the great John Hughesfilmography (Sixteen Candles, The Breakfast Club, Pretty In Pink, etc) that nailed some true colours to the mast. Songs from those movies became the New Wave American Standards (often from British bands less loved at home, like Simple Minds). Black Kidsis an American New-New Wave band - they probably have another term for it (indie isn't sufficiently blunt): this music is almost homage, almost pastiche - and all Cure.

I can think of no higher praise for this fun, playful, deliriously derivative album of ten punchy songs* than to say that Partie Traumatic (due for US release July 22) is 21 years too late - and just on time. Taking as its template Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me, from 1987, and mixing it with 1982's The Youth of Today, Black Kids create a timeless upbeat pop sound, whose Robert Smith

July Poems Now Online At Nthposition!

Eyewear's 1,001st Post

Eyewear began a few years ago, in summer. Here it is, 2008, with heavy English rain outside, and a cup of tea (with milk and honey) inside. Reflections on a blog, One Thousand And One in? Not many. I regret, perhaps, some of the angst, some of the complaints. I am proud to have kept my friends and family, and my new haircuts, mostly out of it - this was never meant to be personal in that sense - perhaps impersonal, in the Eliotic sense. I am glad to offer space for widely known and lesser known poets, to review and share their poems.

It's often misread - as some sort of "with a hammer" riposte to entrenched British poetic positions; it's not meant to be. It is meant to get people thinking - particularly about the ethics of poetry in all its aspects, from publishing, to editing, to reviewing - even if that means being, at times, a gadfly. I'd say there is fear in a handful of poets in the UK trying to move up in the mainstream ranks, who know that there are element…

Tom Disch Has Died

A relatively unknown (though admired) American poet has died: Tom Disch. Disch appeared in the canon-forming The Best American Poetry series (five times!). I didn't know his work well. Not many did. Perhaps his divided time (he was also a SF, Horror, and Children's fiction, author) confused the reading public. Or maybe, as well all know, but try to forget, there is barely any general interest in poems, even ones as well-crafted, smart, and funny as Disch's. Why?

That question brings doctors, priests, and critics running through the fields, to answer - but no one can blame modernism, or mass culture, alone. It seems to me that poetry, however courteously it knocks on a person's door, isn't always let in. Poetry's a special guest that we want over only when we're at our best (or worst) it seems. Few readers turn to poems on a day to day basis. Few churchgoers attend mid-week.
The sadness of the neglected poet is often ignored, or mocked - but it's a true ac…

Women Bishops

I am not sure if there is something oddly inverted about this being the 999th post, but here you go: Eyewear celebrates the decision to welcome Women Bishops into the Church of England. There was weeping (and no doubt gnashing of teeth) from some anti-women-bishop church leaders, who felt this was going too far. My own sense of this issue is rather clear: Christianity, as a faith, and a series of churches, is bound to relinquish its relevance, and its mission, if it does not soon adopt tolerance as its most central doctrine.

The religions of hellfire and damnation are retrograde, punitive, and unbelievable in this age - but a religion based on kindness, goodness, mercy, compassion, and love, is timeless, enduring, and, more than anything else, rational. No "God" of love would hate a human due to their gender, or their sexual orientation - or seek to engage any one person less fully than any other. That, at any rate, is my basic theology. It's derived from The Sermon on th…

Review: In The Valley Of Elah

The best American film of last year featured actors Tommy Lee Jones and Josh Brolin - but was not No Country For Old Men. Instead, it may well have been In The Valley Of Elah, which Eyewear only recently had the opportunity to view. Briefly, this is a supremely downbeat film, stoic, and lonely, about a father searching for a son - the son being a soldier just back from Iraq, and gone AWOL. Jones plays the spit-polish ex-army cop and Nam vet, with rigid solemnity - his duty is to country, and to his child.

Meanwhile, there is stuff about barely decipherable garbled digital footage captured by a mobile phone, lines not to be crossed, competing jurisdiction between civil and military investigators, and the right way to hang a flag, which provides the haunting, if overly simplistic, final symbolic image (for example, was Viet Nam really a more noble moment?). The women in the film are exemplary, if compromised, mothers - Susan Sarandon plays the wife whose two children are sacrificed to Am…

Oxford Poetry '08

Collectors of ephemera, and little magazines, will seek out the enigmatic, if feisty, Oxford Poetry '08 magazine, edited by Benjamin Mullen and J.C.H. Potts. At 147 pages, it is quite something.

Its end of transmission "and of transmission" statement (is that a typo?) in the manifesto section makes startling reading: "Oxford Poetry is a name. We have no premises, no freephone, and certainly no savings account. Printing costs this year were donated. We have no committee of bosses, neither any constituting documents nor cubby hole for their preservation, and by summer 'we' too will have gone. Oxford Poetry 2009 (Vol. XIII, no. 1), therefore, is open for conscientious editorship to anyone, so long as they can claim simultaneous connection both to place and thing. No appointments will be made, no mantles conferred, no batons passed with patted backs. Mail forwarded from Magdalen to St Anne's will be Magdalen's again, and details of such subscriptions as r…

Atlas: Don't Shrug

I'll be reading at the Poetry Library, at the Southbank Centre, on the 9th of July, at 8 pm, as part of an evening to celebrate Atlas, featuring poets Patience Agbabi, Fred D'Aguiar, Jane Draycott, and Sudeep Sen, among others.



Poetry Focus: Alun Lewis

Alun Lewis by Tom Phillips

Alun Lewis is a poet whose name is more familiar than his work. Although there have been new editions in “selected”, “collected” and even “miscellaneous” variants since his death in 1944, his reputation has pretty much dangled from a single thread: his much-anthologised, Edward Thomas-echoing poem, “All Day It Has Rained…”.

This, it’s true, is one of his finest poems, a masterpiece of understatement with a bitter flourish at the end, but his two long-out-of-print volumes, Raiders’ Dawn (1942) and the posthumous Ha! Ha! Among The Trumpets (1945) show him to have been far more than simply “the second best poet of World War 2” (after Keith Douglas) or, as some have claimed, the “missing link” between the 1930s and the Movement.

While “the ruthless loneliness of war” is, by default, his “headline” theme - a theme which began long before his wartime posting to India physically and, as it turned out, permanently separated him from home and loved ones - he was also pr…

Guest Review: Robinson on Barnes

L.K. Robinson reviews
A Thaw Foretold
by Mike Barnes

This is a second collection from a Canadian poet whose first collection Calm Jazz Sea(Brick, 1996) was shortlisted for a Gerald Lampert Memorial Award. The poems in this collection were written over a calendar year "from one January to the next" and are ordered in two sections – January to May and August to January (presumably the poet went on holiday in June & July).

The book itself is well presented by the publishers, it feels good to hold given its mottled/embossed cover, unfortunately the copy I had has too much glue hanging from the binding but it does not devalue the overall quality of this publication. Does it feel as good once read?

The back-cover could be a little daunting in its explanation of the poems: exploration, desolation, consolation, suspension, tension. However once inside the poems are rewarding. Particular favourites are "Moleskine", "The Purple Finch", "Garbage Day", "…

Poem by Dara Wier

Eyewear is very glad to feature, this Friday, July 4th, the American poet Dara Wier(see photo).

Wier's books include Reverse Rapture (Verse Press, 2005), Hat On A Pond (Verse Press, 2003), Voyages In English (Carnegie-Mellon, 2000), Our Master Plan (Carnegie-Mellon, 1997), Blue For The Plough (Carnegie-Mellon, 1992), The Book Of Knowledge (Carnegie-Mellon, 1988), All You Have In Common (Carnegie-Mellon, 1984), The 8-Step Grapevine (Carnegie-Mellon, 1980), and Blood, Hook & Eye (University of Texas, 1977).

Her limited editions include Fly On The Wall (Oat City Press, 1996) and The Lost Epic (co-written with James Tate, Waiting for Godot Books, 1999).

Her work has been featured in Best American Poetry, American Poetry Review, Conduit, Fence, Verse, Green Mountain Review, New American Writing, Volt, and Denver Quarterly.

Wier directs the MFA program for poets and writers for the University of Massachusetts in Amherst and, with Noy Holland and Lisa Olstein, co-ordinates the Juniper In…

Barker Bites

Sebastian Barker, who was editor of The London Magazine over 34 issues for six years, before the Arts Council cut its funding, has had a potent, and pointed, letter published in the latest issue of The Rialto, Number 64, one of the UK's leading poetry magazines. Barker argues that "the Arts Council has lost its way", because it seems to be, in his view, run by "blindfolded" civil servants and co., with little or no appreciation for poetic history. He also condemns "some of those in our prize culture (cabals awarding themselves the prizes), who by this means bring about a degradation of talent." Eyewear thinks this is perceptive. There's been a bottleneck at the top of the prize structure recently, in Britain, which is not accurately reflective of the broad and deep poetic talent at work currently in the UK.

Michael Mackmin (the editor of the magazine) observes in the same issue, "when I saw that the Scottish Laureate Edwin Morgan was on the sh…

Guest Review: Stannard On Yakich

Julian Stannard reviews
The Importance of Peeling Potatoes in Ukraine
by Mark Yakich

The poetry of Yakich is full of gags, dildos and literary muggings and I applaud it for that. Poems often sell themselves by their titles and Yakich has a natural gift for publicity. The title of the volume is instantly intriguing and it’s difficult not to be sympathetic to poems which introduce themselves so brazenly: "After the Flood All the Condoms Fall Off", "Pretzels Come to America", "The Supercomputer Finally Answers Charles Manson", "Spell to Bring Me Osama bin Laden" or, right at the end of the collection, "An Untenable Nostalgia for Chernobyl".

If you’re thinking this sounds like a poet strutting his stuff, a charismatic mago showering us with glib conceits, you would be wrong. Yakich’s poems are disturbingly serious. Take, as an opening example, "A Truth Is Subject to Its Title". We’re now in Rwanda at the museum "that is the Afri…

Boyd Up

Good news! Toronto poet Alex Boyd has recently won the Gerald Lampert Memorial Award for his book of poems Making Bones Walk. The award, named after an arts administrator who took a particular interest in young poets, is handled by the League of Canadian Poets, and always goes to a first book of poems published in the previous year. Boyd has also been busy co-editing I.V. Lounge Nights, an anthology of 29 poets and fiction writers who appeared in his series, the I.V. Lounge Reading Series. In addition, he's the reviews editor for the online journal Northern Poetry Review, and putting the finishing touches on a novel.

It might be fair to say that Eyewear saw this coming. Here's the endorsement I'd written for the back of the book: "Alex Boyd gives us back the world, as if remade by thoughtful, inventive and always engaged language, in this excellent debut collection. Boyd's concerns are strikingly mature for a young poet - to examine closely, to record faithfully, a…