Tuesday, 29 January 2008
Let us stop for a moment and ask ourselves, as a thought experiment, what the poet might wish for, might dream of - I avoid saying "in their career" - because the English tend to want to promote the idea of the modest, amateur poet (masking, sometimes, self-promoting careerism behind the scenes). Well, a poet might want, in this order: to write a good poem; to get the poem published in a good magazine; to have that poem, and others like it, collected and published by a good press; to receive some good reviews; to maybe be listed for, or win, a prize; and, either before, or after death, to be respected, or at least enjoyed, by either their peers, or poetry readers, or both. Now, all but the most hardened Dadaist would at least grant that this trajectory might accurately model the desires of most poets (I have yet to meet any who do not want to be published, or read).
These poets, who want these things, then enter into situations with other poets, and persons, to achieve these ends. However, here is where something very significant happens, which most poets do not accept. At the point where they enter into the world of publication, two roads diverge. One of those roads is marked The Canon; the other is marked Oblivion. Canons are problematic, and disputed, and there are currently at least three: Mainstream, Innovative, and Outlaw. These three canons are all represented by serious publishers of real merit. However, only a poet published by a Mainstream, large press, has any chance of avoiding "oblivion".
What is oblivion, as a literary term, and why does it matter? I am borrowing this use of oblivion loosely from Ian Hamilton - it that suggests that most poets, after death, become basically extinct - their work forks no lightning, and is lost to future readers. The poems, simply put, disappear, from the book of living verse - forgotten, unread, and worst of all, never quoted or paid homage to, in style or content, by other poets. I can give many examples of such poets, but one will do: Terrence Tiller, the 1940s British poet and BBC producer. Probably less than 20 people alive today know his work, or name. Unless his work was ever dramatically revived and championed, he will disappear, entirely.
Now, the generally-accepted position (which is basically a capitalist one) suggests that the forgotten are bad poets, the remembered are good poets. This in turn plays into the idea of the market deciding value. The problem with this position, is that it almost entirely positions evaluation into the hands of the editors for large publishers, and larger poetry imprints.
The mistake that most poets make, is that they think that, even if they publish with a small, well-meaning press, they have a chance, at perhaps winning a prize, or being reviewed in the TLS or The New York Times, say, of being "discovered". Far from it. The "tap on the shoulder" system of quiet approval and promotion, among the ranks of some contemporary-canonical poets in the US, and UK, occurs prior to publication - during, and before, the editorial process. That is, the business of criticism is often now the business of editorial approval, or rejection.
It is not quite but almost true, that to have a collection published by a small, or marginal press, in the UK (or Canada) is the same as having no book out at all - in terms of entering into a dialogue with The Living Canon of great contemporary poets and critics.
The sad truth is, almost all the ground for canonization is laid during the lifetime of the poet - as in the church, with future Saints. We do not know who the "major" poets of our time will be, exactly, but we can rest assured they are currently being published, somewhere in the Anglo-American world, by larger presses. If one looks at the mid-century greats, or even the early Moderns, they were mainly Faber, or other large-press, poets. There will always be small, pleasing surprises (the recent rediscovery of Lynette Roberts is one instance) but the for the main part, if you find yourself out while alive, your work is mainly out forever. That's a long time.
Why is this so? Well, the large presses have marketing budgets, and the clout to distribute the work to bookstores, and critics, in major cities, around the world. It really is almost as simple as that - get published by a large press, and your work will be sold and reviewed in many more places than if you are published by a small press, when it may happen you get no reviews, or very few. The tragedy, here, is that there are many good - very good - poets who fall outside the ambit of this market-driven system.
They have few options. They can a) try to enter the market system; b) oppose it; c) publish and be damned. Most choose some mix of b and c. And, they publish, and are damned - to recognition among their small group of peers, maybe. This leaves the so-called "mainstream" poets to become top dogs.
This would not be a problem, if reviews, critics, and the public recognised this state of affairs as being roughly as robust and problematic as politics, or business (where the ruthless often rise at the expense of the meek). The terrible irony - the one I often write about - is that, instead, a big lie is told. The lie is this - the best poets are published by the big presses, because they are "the best". No, they are good poets, and simply either a) "the luckiest" or b) the best-connected, or a combination of the two. In short, to become a "name" poet is perhaps as difficult as to become a "movie star". Well, not quite.
The truth is, you could try your whole life to be so published and feted, and never become so, no matter how good a writer you might be.Why does this matter? Colleagues and friends often tell me to "wait in line" or "forget it" - as if a) it was possible to queue for such canonical positioning - it isn't; and b) as if poetry was simply a hobby or bad habit, to be dropped when it becomes bad for one.
Friends, poetry is very important. I happen to think it is the greatest form of art, or close to that. I have spent more than 20 years, learning my craft, writing, studying it, teaching, sharing, promoting it. Consider my fate - not rare in this field - I am nearly as close to canonical oblivion today as the moment I was born. There are maybe 10-20 people in the world, whose opinion can change things. I go on, but find it extremely dispiriting, to see my work, and that of most of my peers, and friends, being disseminated in forms that, simply put, receive no proper respect - that have no authority, or opportunity, to reach, or move, that high severe place where judgement is made, and some poems live, and most, forever, perish.
If an alternative series of serious awards and recognitions could be established, that might help - but in the end, public opinion, and the established academic institutions (and libraries) attend to the mainstream organs of publication and review. It is hard to invent an alternative to The New York Times. Blogs cannot do this, as hard as they try. Only hundreds of very serious people, working together, could do this, and, as I observed at the beginning of this brief essay, poets, the most atomised of persons at the best of times, have not imagined their vocation as communal - because the writing of poems is so very private, so much of the time. However, so long as poets think of themselves as isolated, they will struggle towards goals of public recognition that are, simply put, impossible for them to reach. That way is madness.
Monday, 28 January 2008
He writes: "I also enjoyed the poems of Todd Swift very much, most of them skillful and moving lyrics in the stoical English tradition of Auden and Larkin .... I am especially attracted to his witty homage to Wallace Stevens. .... How could one not be charmed by such a display of metaphorical inventiveness, particularly if one shares Swift's love for Wallace Stevens (and who doesn't?). Of all the best poets in Open Field, Swift is the one I was least familiar with, and I am grateful to Queyras for bringing him to my admiring attention." The other poets he singles out include George Elliott Clarke and Karen Solie.
As for his question, who doesn't like Wallace Stevens - well, I'd bet the editor of Picador's poetry imprint, for one. You know, Michael Donaghy wrote about his dislike of "poems about poetry" - and surely Stevens' oeuvre consists mainly of that topic. Indeed, Stevens has never been much in favour over here in the UK, for reasons I am currently researching. Mainly, many British critics have mistrusted his "flamboyant" interest in language, often as ornament, his interest in aesthetics (and poetics and theory), and his obvious French influences. From the 1950s on, a sort of bluff indifference, even hatred, of anything too "rhetorical" or self-reflexive has marked the mainstream British approach to poetry - meaning that poet-critics like Mark Ford, who study and appreciate Stevens and Ashbery, tend to be in something of a minority (however enthusiastic) in England.
As Edmund Wilson observed, in Axel's Castle, the English poetic tradition has not favoured a too-intensive emphasis on theoretical musings - most of the poets in the English tradition are rather empirical, even pragmatic. I'd suggest the divide here, often described as mainstream versus experimental is rather more often simply between those interested in theory, or poems-about-poetry, and those who are not. Stevens, of course, is seen as a dandy - and is therefore also not entirely appreciated by the more severe avant-garde practitioners in the UK - his sense of humour, for one, is often seen as too whimsical.
Therefore, followers of the Stevens line, in Britain, such as myself, tend to get very short shrift indeed - seen as too deeply into theory for a no-nonsense Worsdworthian poet (like, say, Heaney) - but far too decadent to be one of the Prynne school. A shame really. Sadly, third parties in the UK don't do that well. Stevens is in such a party. Meanwhile, Pollock ends his review with something of an apt lament: "just and clear-eyed critics of Canadian poetry have their job cut out for them. And we desperately need their services." He could have even cut out the "Canadian" part, or inserted the word "British". Clear-eyed most criticism of poetry ain't.
Saturday, 26 January 2008
It is often said, sotto voce, that British Poetry needs a "Saatchi" - that is, a rich, spin doctor, to "sell it" to the public. Stuff and nonsense. All this branding and selling smacks of desperation, and sends the signal that creative writing departments are only relevant if, like at sexy London cocktail parties, you get to network with big names. Actually, the aim of such creative writing workshops, is to learn to write - and sometimes, the best workshop leaders are not the most famous, or the most over-paid. Amis is very aware of money's tasteless effects - others should be, too.
What has happened, basically, is that Morgan (an engaging gay man with a great mind) represents the cosmopolitan wing of the British poetry world - a wing that has otherwise been mainly shut down by the so-called current mainstreamers - people who edit for Picador and Cape, say. The international poetry that gets in, almost under darkness, to Britain, gets in with the help of Salt, Bloodaxe, Carcanet, and a few other smaller presses. Even then, there is sometimes an overly sombre take on things - something Morgan, like Ashbery, in some ways a very similar figure for American writing (but far more influential over there) - avoids.
Basically, Morgan is open to the full play of poetry, word, and world - he has not morally, or aesthetically, edited his poetry before the ink flows, and he has no portentous, ego-driven agenda. Sadly, the force of Heaney's shadow has called forth a great many neo-emulators in Britain, men and women without Heaney's ability, or, for that matter, striking source material - therefore the countless dreary translations of classical poems of the last few years coming from London. This small group of influential neo-classical poets is trying to fight for the great seriousness of Poetry, but in the process, have managed to drive the life out of it. They've forgotten what Morgan always knew - a glad heart, and a big one - has more wax on which to burn a wick. Most poets in the UK are afraid to openly question this neo-classical crew, though some, deep down, feel alienated by its gruff, male, dour tone.
Friday, 25 January 2008
She edited the key book, Open Field: Thirty Contemporary Canadian Poets (Persea, 2005), which is one of the first anthologies published in America in the last few decades to consider the new poetry now coming from Canada. She is is the author of Slip (ECW, 2001) and Teeth Marks (Nightwood, 2004).
Her third collection of poetry, Lemon Hound, won the Pat Lowther Award and a Lambda Literary Award. Expressway is due out from Coach House in spring 2009. She is currently writer in residence at the University of Calgary where she is working on several projects including Autobiography of Childhood, a novel.
poem by Sina Queyras
Thursday, 24 January 2008
I am enjoying, and reading, his new book of criticism, The Modern Element. While Kirsch is an apologist for one dominant style of poetics, he is also a very insightful critic, and hugely enjoyable to read. Some of the essays in the new book have the wit, verve and apt quotations one associated with the great Poetry and the Age, by Jarrell - someone Kirsch has clearly closely attended to.
Wednesday, 23 January 2008
Tuesday, 22 January 2008
But before the main event, let me pause to mention the opening act, special guests in from Texas, the three-person Girl In A Coma. Performing from 8.05-8.35 pm, you'd think their role slightly thankless, but the feisty, indie threesome quickly captured the audience's affections, with sonically-dense, alternative guitar rock fusing elements from The Breeders, Sonic Youth, Nirvana, The Cranberries and even 50s rock. They were great - singing and playing with great intensity, and good humour. After the show, I met them, and they signed a copy of their CD, Both Before I'm Gone, for me, which I've been playing today. If anything, it shows them in a different, more stylishly nuanced light. Anyway, they're a cool new act to follow, and I'd recommend their work, highly. They're also incredibly fun, relaxed, and genuine.
Morrissey appeared onstage at around 9 pm - a 20-minute screening of iconic/campy film footage was projected onto a giant sheet beforehand, which covered the stage. Those familiar with the singer's peculiar obsessions would not be surprised to hear that the artists featured included James Dean (Girl In A Coma's album title is from a Dean saying) and The New York Dolls. He played for exactly 90 minutes, including the final, one-song encore, which ended with his shirt off ("The Last of the Famous International Playboys"), and had his fans in his hands. One of them made it onstage mid-way through the show, and held on to him for a minute, whispering in his ear, before leaping back to the throng - Morrissey seemed unconcerned. The set opened with Smiths classic "How Soon Is Now?", and featured just a few others from that older time, emphasising new songs, including "That's How People Grow Up" (he thanked Radio 2 for playing it). Complaining of a "frog in his throat", he was in good form, nonetheless, physically fit, and dramatically active. His backing band (dressed like Prisonbreakers) were short-haired and sinister, and their instruments featured a giant J. Arthur Rank-style gong. Lights were effective, and the backing touch was classic Smiths-era iconography - a triptych of a young Richard Burton, holding a pint glass.
Now, one of the songs that Morrissey chose to perform was "National Front Disco" - easily his most risible, and controversial song. He's been in the news lately for espousing a nostalgic monocultural vision for England. In this, he is paradoxically conservative and radical - as if the wit of Wilde had entered the grumpy ideology of a Betjeman (which makes genetic sense, actually, and is perhaps the war at the core of his caustic, divided heart). That seemed maybe provocative, as did the fascist saluting at one point - which was clearly ironic. However, what most emerges, watching the man live, is how good an old-fashioned entertainer he is - a crooner in the sweating, crowd-pleasing Vegas mold (he obviously studied Elvis and Sinatra in terms of stage presence) - complicated by possessing an explicitly neo-Godot take on the world ("life is a pigsty").
Fabulous, polemical, mixed-up, funny - and designed to offend and charm in equal measure, the showman was disturbing, powerful, and quite impressive. It's a shame the artist's evident openness to divergent talents and styles, and his loathing of draconian leaders (Thatcher, Bush) hasn't yet translated into a more welcoming, multicultural stance, overall. One lives in hope.
Monday, 21 January 2008
The mise-en-scene is controlled, and exact. The camera is steady, and it is eagle-eyed. I very much enjoyed the book this movie is based on, and can attest to the verisimilitude of the transition from page to screen - the look and feel of the imagined moment is complete. There are several key locations - signalled by the John Ford reference near the beginning (watch the vehicles throughout as a key image-system) - that establish this is the modern, serious Western films like Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid, or even Unforgiven, tried to kill off.
Lust, Caution wants to be a great film - a stylish, exotic thriller of the first order - and, compared to works of deep, sublime composition, like Vertigo - it fails. Ang Lee is often considered one of the most significant contemporary directors, and The Ice Storm and Brokeback Mountain are lovely, important movies, so Eyewear went in very much wanting to approve of his new feature.
I was especially drawn in, because the theme - being a lover in the house of spies - is not original at all (despite what some breathless critics have written) - but rather old hat. And I like old hats, especially fedoras. In fact, Lust, Caution is Lee's very well-crafted version of a Grindhouse retro-homage, a la Tarantino: an examination of themes, tropes, and subjects, from propaganda and film noir and soft porn cinemas - Sade meets Said. It is, of course, first and foremost about Orientalism - the villains and the heroes are all Asian, removing that Hollywood ban that says the inscrutable other must be wicked.
And then again, ho hum, about how the body of a sexual victim is also like a country raped by Imperialism. I say ho hum because this tired idea was aired by The Jewel In The Crown, among others, and it is high time male directors stopped raping women in their movies simply because they think the violence is a useful metaphor for what they really want to talk about, which is dominant men. The sexual relationship in this film is expressed mainly through many longing, smoke-filled glances, one weirdly savage scene, a few montage sequences, and brief dialogue. The motto is: loyalty is skin deep. Or, in otherwords, our bodies are true to their own desires, not higher (ideological) callings (or nations).
This may be a plea for radical, sexual, and even gender freedoms, or maybe just a way of defending the work of sadistic police officers, and the undercover agents who sleep with them. The problem, for me, is that there was insufficient preparation for the sudden, twice-expressed warning, that gives the game away, and leads to many innocent friends killed. I felt that the mise-en-scene, acting, and soundtrack, were exquisite, summoning the lush, glamorous period, perfectly - but, unlike, say, The Year of Living Dangerously, the film was unable to fuse the entirely convincing menace and glamour of the time, with the menace and glamour of a doomed sexually extreme affair. Four Specs.
Saturday, 19 January 2008
Friday, 18 January 2008
A Fischer king among pawns, yet arguably a dunce among men, he got as much wrong as right in his life, but in the world famous Cold War battle against his Soviet rival, became as defining an icon of his age as Sputnik, or The Beatles. New obituary in The Guardian worth reading.
She’s been widely published in poetry journals and in 2003 one of her poems, "Lifeline", was workshopped at the Aldeburgh Poetry Masterclass. I've been following her work closely for the past few years, and can recommend, highly, her good-looking collection, A Stash of Gin, which has just been published by Mainsail.
As you swirl them from the bag
magnolia walls throb.
My mouth bubbles platitudes
which you prick,
deft and quick,
sousing me with relish of
my mother’s shudder
at mothy velvet dressing-gown,
stained crêpe de Chine dress
and fug of patchouli,
her shameful desire,
like a secret stash of gin,
for me to be dropped
on someone else’s
by a twinset and pearls.
They gush down your legs.
While I snip and staunch,
you’re singing a song
I’ve never heard.
Thursday, 17 January 2008
Atonement will likely win Best Film. The Bourne Ultimatum should win Best British Film, though Control may do. The Bourne trilogy was astonishingly good genre work, and has rejuvenated The Bond series in the process, so deserves the kudos. Film Not In The English Language should go to The Lives of Others. Lead Actor will be Daniel Day-Lewis. Lead Actress will be the brilliant Julie Christie, whose work in the superb Canadian film Away From Her was so brave, and moving. Javier Bardem, for the weird killer role, will win the Supporting Actor gong; Cate Blanchett, for the weird musician role, will win for Supporting Actress. Radiohead musician Jonny Greenwood should win for the There Will Be Blood soundtrack. And, this year's Rising Star? No star was more provocative, or instantly noticed, than sensual Tang Wei in Ang Lee's ravishing, deviant thriller, Lust, Caution.
Note: Spotters of contradictions in Eyewear (do I contradict myself? Very well then!) may ask why I can celebrate movie awards, but question the use of them for poetry? The reason is simple: movies were invented, in the early 20th century, as glamorous delivery systems for images that would captivate audiences - their artfulness has emerged in tandem with their never-concealed popular appeal. Film awards are all about sight and sound - seeing the stars step out from behind the big screen. Poetry awards are pale imitations of this phenomenon - for poetry is not a spectacle, nor a spectator sport. There is no need to "see or hear" poets beyond their work, written or spoken. And, film awards are watched by millions, even billions, so the level of scrutiny is high - we know when a gross injustice has been perpetrated. Because so few people know, or care, about the poetry collections competing for prizes each year, there is far less open debate - or transparency - in the process. Finally, I must confess, I have always loved movies, and they delight me, as does pop music, almost equally to poetry.
Monday, 14 January 2008
In recent years, O'Brien has scooped up prizes like some great cruising cetacean, swallowing smaller fry, and the pilot fish that surf in his wake. Now, he has pulled off a remarkable feat, tonight, winning the T.S. Eliot prize for 2007, in its most robust form yet (the purse has swollen) - all these water images refering of course to his book of water, The Drowned Book (Picador).
‘What still still stillness,/as Yang-sul's wife,/ covered in snow, goes out to draw water,/ puts down her tiny little water jar/ and picks up the gourd dipper but forgets to draw water,/ watching snowflakes die:/ that still still stillness.’
(from ‘The Little Spring’, Ten Thousand Lives, Volume 3, 1986)
Such moments of ‘stillness’ seem central to many of the poems in Ko Un’s Ten Thousand Lives. Perhaps it is this ‘stillness,’ a certain quality of awareness learned from his Buddhist training, that helped Ko Un to create a small still space inside himself during his years of solitary imprisonment in the dark.
It was during one of these periods of imprisonment that Ko Un began to compose the ongoing work that was to become Ten Thousand Lives. He began it, not on paper, but entirely in his head.
Twenty volumes of Ten Thousand Lives have been completed so far, with a further five planned. This publication, translated by Brother Anthony of Taizé, Yung-moo Kim and Gary Gach is merely a selection from the first ten volumes.
It would have been easy for Ko Un to manipulate the music of these voices, using them to ventriloquise political messages. Instead, he simply remembers and honours each life, without sentiment, with tenderness and often with humour. He lets each life speak for itself.
Together, the poems tell other stories: a story about the way in which we can use our minds, even in the most difficult circumstances, to overcome fear and pain; and a story about the importance of re-establishing and experiencing our interconnectedness with the people and the natural world around us, even if that world has become limited to one cramped, dark room and that connection can only take place in memory and poetry.
In one sense, the lives Ko Un records for us here are particular lives from a particular time and place; but in another sense, Ko Un seems to be saying, these stories are everyone’s stories, aren’t they?
Friday, 11 January 2008
The Color of Memory
Oh the air, cool to cold to dark, in the sky: police
agitate the faces into oblivion. A feeling of silence, a lot.
With the right words a good feeling can be dropped -- the pistol -- a
all my own.
When the rent is due I start to "reign in" my spending. I laugh
a bit in the darkness of my spankings.
A look of real life altitude, zenith, punishment.
I spray my eggs into a cauldron of lice.
Ice pancakes, a thinking person's attitude of corn.
Little brown notebook, little brown meat, swimming meat (that's me)
floating in the subway and dizzy in the air (water).
When the wind blows: a hiccup, the cool portion of charm
when a neighbor sobs or when the water makes a faint rainbow
surface bubble: clothing is good for the spirit of remembrance.
I cringe and then I celebrate with gloom and doom. My efforts, how stained
with light they are, how bold when nothing occurs but powder and day.
poem by Todd Colby
Thursday, 10 January 2008
Wednesday, 9 January 2008
Tuesday, 8 January 2008
Of the poets on the list, one or two strike me as too newly-emerged, or yet again oft-laurelled, to necessarily require this garland. It seems to be Carcanet's year - the poets they have fielded are particularly impressive.
So, who would be on the my shorter list? Strong contenders would be Matthew Sweeney, or Sophie Hannah - who take humour, formal style, and the surreal, into new places for poetry. Mimi Khalvati writes exquisitely, and is a kind of master of what she does. However, two collections demand ever closer attention, for any number of reasons. My head says Fiona Sampson, my heart Edwin Morgan.
Monday, 7 January 2008
John Carey's review is laudatory, as he ends by saying "no more absorbing biography will, I predict, come out this year". Oppenheimer is fascinating - I had never realised he was quite so wealthy, or quite so cold. Now we turn to the review of the new, odd-sounding paradoxically-titled George Steiner book, My Unwritten Books, with its chapter, "The Tongues of Eros" that details many (imagined?) sexual encounters with women. Steiner employs schoolboyish euphemisms like "taking the streetcar to Grinzing" to signify "respectful anal access".
Steiner, like the atomic scientist, is fascinated by language(s), but less so by science, and here we see what that gets him - short shrift, from reviewer Christopher Hart, who seems to have no time for high culture qua high culture (he approves of the sex). He writes: "although scornful of the obscurities of post-structuralism and deconstruction, Steiner's own writing is little better, suggesting all too vividly a world of comfortably tenured academics, talking among themselves, in a language which deliberately excludes the rest of us, and effectively saying nothing anyway." He also suggests that such "mandarin" language reveals that "Steiner may not actually want common readers". No doubt, not Hart, anyway.
What is a common reader? Who does Hart mean by "us"? Why would someone think another writer, by using complex ideas and the rich heritage of Europe, was being exclusive, or worse, "saying nothing". Behind this rather gross, even lazy series of claims lies an example of a common British response to Europe, politically and culturally, especially the French. British empiricism, and common sense, rubs up against foreign depths that, rather than offering new possibilities or legitimate claims on our attention, are merely "a congress of bats squeaking" - whereof we can't speak, as it were. Occam's razor, or Wittgenstein's saw aside, Steiner is clearly reaching for uncommon readers, ones who might be seduced by, or enter into the erotic, Barthesian play of, textuality.
I think about the idea of common readers often because poets are often accused of having neglected them, when, as I counter, it is the reader who has neglected the poets. Just as churches go more and more empty in England, so too does much good poetry hardly get visited, let alone revisited. Writing down to an "us" that is common will not bring readers back. This coarsened view of the arts is not the one endorsed for science, of course - we can excuse a physicist of genius for being arrogant and polyglot; but expect our bookmen and women to speak and write in Plain English.
But you don't get exceptional work by being ordinary, very often. Steiner's provocations, of taboo, and high style, explore that very border, between genius and brilliance, between what can, and cannot be approved, in a society that more and more has emptied itself of all but what is easy to consume.
I'll be selling and signing copies of my latest collection, Winter Tennis (2007). Do come by if in town.
Monday 7th January: 8pm at the Troubadour
Epiphanies—a time of gifts:
with Linda Black, Alan Buckley, Maggie Sawkins, Todd Swift, Martina Thompson, Helen Mort, and Claire Crowther.
8 to 10 pm, tickets £6 concessions £5
265 Old Brompton Road London SW5
Tube station: Earls Court (District & Piccadilly Lines)
Friday, 4 January 2008
Finch is, to my mind, one of the most significant (and witty and experimental) Welsh poets of the second half of the 20th century, into this the 21st. He is also a key cultural activist: organizing, editing, publishing and writing about, poetry - in its many guises.
He is a superb performer of his work, as I've witnessed on several occasions, once in Hungary on a very humid summer day that felt like Alabama, then again in Cardiff, which was much colder, and at the London Life Lines launch, in 2006.
I've been happy to include his work in several of my anthologies, including In The Criminal's Cabinet. He is openly and optimistically aligned with poetry that both innovates and reaches out to audiences - in short, almost singlehandedly defining the kind of poet I thought represented the future development of the art, when I wrote about fusion poetry.
When my father turned our house
into a club it cost ten and six to get
in. People were aghast. A few
got the wrong idea when
Joan invited a Caribbean
to play boogie in the upstairs
parlour. But they needn't have
shown concern. Uncle Jim used a huge
mallet to knock a tap into a beer
barrel, first I'd ever seen, while
Pop reluctantly showed them all
his desk full of two pole wire
and rolled-up string. Bored
by this adult fantasy I slid into
Miss Winton the lodger's room
where I tried on the contents of her
knickers drawer. I can tell you now there
was little excitement. They were old,
yellowed and large. I'd read somewhere
that this is what adults did to pass
the winter nights. No TV just darkness.
I've spent my life since in a struggle
with passion; what is it, where is it,
how does it go?
Joan and Jim I could
understand but Miss Winton?
God only knows.
poem by Peter Finch
Thursday, 3 January 2008
edited by Elsie K. Neufeld
with Robert Martens and Leonard Neufeldt
Half in the Sun is a collection of prose and poetry from west coast Mennonite writers, including such well known names as Andreas Schroeder, Carla Funk, Barbara Nickel, Melody Goetz, and Patrick Friesen, with an introduction by Sharon Butala. The voices in this anthology are diverse, yet reveal a textural quilt of shared tensions – surviving political cruelties of Europe, the angst of settling in a new world, and the attempts to weave faith, history and hard work into the new community.
The Mennonite church is present in the evidence of virtues here, but there is no preaching and no sectarian chauvinism. Faith comes through a family’s ordeals moving from a farm to a house in the city, in Schroeder’s humorous ‘Renovating Heaven’. It comes through in Darcie Friesen Hossack’s ‘Ashes’ as a woman and her daughter-in-law learn to deal with loss and grief together, in spite of their different interpretations of how to live well.
Hell is a place on earth for many, including ‘Katya’, the eponymous refugee desperately seeking to survive Siberia with her family in Louise Bergen Price’s story. Hell is normal for Oscar Marten’s ‘Safe Places On Earth’, although the protagonist (a thief and con-man) hardly notices as he goes about the tricks of his day, preying on the good hearts of Mennonites.
However, the good heart is open to honesty and refuses to euphemize violence. Most Mennonites come from the farming community; they know how meat is more than that package in a supermarket refrigerator. In ‘The End of Swinbourne’ written by Harry Tournemille, a young boy comes of age watching the breach birth of a calf, and is expected to get in there with all the stinking fluids. Neufeld’s poem ‘Yesterday’s Kill’ describes the harvesting of pigs. You can feel the fear and smell the “piss blood” while women in the kitchen merrily prepare sausage.
Sentimentality is absent but not missed between these covers. Life is full of danger as listed by Funk in her poem ‘Angel of Stupidity’. Giving up is not an option either. Nickel’s ‘Sestina for the Sweater’ knits an endless return that “casts me off, casts me on, sound of needles as we face the years”.
The sacred is in the mundane. In the many chores that chart their lives Larry Nightingale writes in ‘Barrel-burning’, “we’re white smoke in time’s orchard”. K. Louise Vincent confesses “Up close, I see the heart of the world/ is broken; it is winter and there is war” in her quiet protest ‘I Find all Devotion Difficult’. You can feel the presence of something larger than weather in Neufeld’s ‘November Snow’... “the dead come to life. Snow crafting bare limbs / into crooked white fingers”.
Between the activities of hard working people there are those private moments of despair. It is palpable in Funk’s poem “Nightwalk” where a “long mirror of sidewalk lights” take you to “the night to sudden nowhere”. Yet we are warned about contentment, the crescendo’s of self-congratulation in Marten’s ‘a little mennonite goes a long way’. We are told by the ads that “orgasm is immortal” and “if you’re having a good time” you need to locate that “little mennonite” to remind you, that no matter how full the banquet table “this could be our last meal”.
Friesen warns, in ‘Limoncino Road’, “There’s so much civilization, so much deception, to work your way through”, yet this book is a testimonial to the authenticity of the single creative voice embedded in a collective. These voices know of starvation, injustice and refugee camps; of farm labour, of trying to fit in the new world and of the thin line between coping and giving up. It rises from the experience of each writer and is as personal as the colour of an eye. It is a wisdom that comes from seeing, as Neufeldt observes in ‘Why Our Town is Replacing silver Maples with Better Trees’, your beloved “standing half in the evening sun and half in the shade wondering”.