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 Canadian-British 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.


Tuesday, 30 September 2008

Gurkha Moment

I grew up with tales from my father of the fierce, brave, loyal fighting men known as the Gurkhas - some of the greatest combatants of the 20th century. Their case has just been won, in Britain, to allow them to settle and live here, should they so wish. Justice has been well served. Had the Gurkhas been denied this right, imagine the stiff dishonour meted out to savagely loyal and nobly sacrificing soldiers.

Monday, 29 September 2008

Capital, Capitol, Thanatos

In one of the oddest, and most potentially self-destructive moves ever in democratic history, lawmakers and politicians in America have voted down the package to save the American economy, even though Obama and McCain, broadly, supported it. I am speechless, not a normal Eyewear thing to be. I suppose this was to save their skins (average folk were mightily agin it). Where does this leave the presidential candidates, and, more vitally, the capitalist economy? By calling such a massive bluff, will these elected mavericks herald the end of the banking system, or prove that the death-knell was less close than argued. This is a weird moment.

Saturday, 27 September 2008

Paul Newman Has Died

Sad news. Great American actor Paul Newman has died. His major films include Exodus, Cool Hand Luke, and Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid. His period of greatest achievement in film was no doubt the fifteen years between 1958 and 1973, when he was Brick in Cat On A Hot Tin Roof, and Henry Gondorff in The Sting. During this time he was arguably the greatest male star, and the most desired. He was beautiful and magnificent in The Hustler, and Hud. He had something of an Indian summer in the 1980s, with The Colour of Money, and the haunting The Verdict. Newman was a leaner, subtler, and perhaps more intelligent method actor, in the Brando style - and almost as big a sex symbol. His death leaves few actors of that era, and that fame and talent, alive - one thinks of, perhaps, Robert Redford, or Warren Beatty, as contemporaries, or near-equals - but neither quite had the acting chops, the gravitas, of Newman. He will be greatly missed, and is immortal on the screen.

Friday, 26 September 2008

Flatlined?

A very good review here at Lemon Hound of a fascinating new kind of innovative inscriptive writing - that borders on drawing in its use of line, and avoidance of alphabetic text. Poetry was always thought closest to music by some. Maybe now, closer to architecture, engineering, or design?

Poem by Sarah Law

Eyewear is very glad to welcome Sarah Law (pictured) this Friday.

Dr. Law is a senior lecturer in creative writing at London Metropolitan University, and an associate lecturer in creative writing for the Open University. She writes both lyrical and more experimental poetry.

Bliss Tangle was published by Stride in 1999, and The Lady Chapel in 2004, also by Stride. Her latest collection is Perihelion (Shearsman, 2006). A long poem is forthcoming in the anthology Manifesto from Salt, and she is working on a fourth collection.

Law regularly contributes reviews for Orbis and Stride Magazines. She also researches issues of gender and spirituality: a chapter on medieval mystic Julian of Norwich is appearing in a forthcoming volume Julian of Norwich's Legacy from Palgrave Macmillan.


exhibition

these days, we hold hands
and go for daring themes:
the secretum was once prohibited:
impossible, or wrong,

its early japanese erotica;
an implosion of sketched smiles,
eyes bright as curves of song

as we once looked, through glass
at Leonardo's then untried inventions,
your breath on my reflection.

poem by Sarah Law

Thursday, 25 September 2008

Weird Scenes Inside The Bank Vault

Truly, these are historic, and strange days, indeed. Last night, Presisdent Bush appeared to speak to the "American people" - his microphone slightly muffled - and warned that the markets were no longer working correctly and needed to be fixed by massive government intervention; coming from a right-wing Republican, that's like Seamus Heaney asking Ron Silliman to edit his next poetry collection. Pretty unlikely, dude.

So, back in England, respected Churchmen have decided to take a page from The Cantos, and bee-in-bonnet Ezra, and start suggesting money trading is very dodgy - except, not really from Ezra's perspective at all, but rather, early Auden's. Marx has not been in such an ascendancy since the days of MacSpaunday.

Eyewear has long argued that a fusion of Marxism and Christianity (often known as Liberation Theology) was the best ethical position to adopt in a world of inequality, especially as it grounds Christ's teaching on a horizon of human need. Therefore, I am glad to see Rowan Williams wading in to these waters, at this time. However, established churches, who do use the capitalist system for their own purposes, should not cast the first stone, unless their vestments, as well as investments, are lily white.

Wednesday, 24 September 2008

Transparency

One of the differences between North American and British life, I think, is transparency. British society, older, and more traditional in many ways, still appears to often move forward through a series of nods and silent gestures - the patronage system that, in a monarchy, still means there are citizens knighted each year; much use of power, in the UK, is either rendered invisible, or less visible, than in, say, America - where, despite its many problems - one can currently see leading political figures openly debating the future of the US economy, and its failings - and problems with, for example, the Iraq war.

Yesterday's speech by Gordon Brown, for all its dullness with a human face approach, never broached the wars that Britain is fighting. Much gets dusted under the rug. Of course, Noam Chomsky is despised by mainstream America for seeking to delve deeper into the power structures of US finance and government - the entire West is based on smoke and mirrors (capitalism's trick of naturalising itself, as if competition was truly just what we are, what we do). Discussions of poetry, and poetics, in the UK, are often curiously distanced from the nitty-gritty: who publishes who, and why, and where - and who judges who, for what prize, and why - or even, how is a poem made, and why that way, and not another? I often strike some British poets as uncouth, as if it was wrong to actually question why, for instance, everyone (well, almost everyone) seems to think A is a brilliant poet, and master craftsman - or why B is still a minority taste in England. These questions are never personal - they are, in one sense, political - they seek to comprehend a system of judgements, that, with few engaged interlocutors, continues, mostly unchecked, and untested, by brunt of force - the force of those with the strongest will, and often, the best publishing jobs.

I was once told by a very good, serious, young avant-garde poet that no one can change the poetry system, all one can do is write good poems. However, that begs two questions: what is a good poem, and why can't one change the poetry system? Is it natural? Is it so entrenched, that it will last for a thousand years? In fact, the current poetry consensus is fragmenting, thanks to the rise of smaller innovative presses, like Salt, Eggbox, tall-lighthouse, and so on - and the emergence of dozens of young poets, often without vested interests (though many do seem linked to Roddy Lumsden, one of the most influential, engaged mentors that British poetry has ever had).

There do seem to be limits to who can rise, and how fast. I sometimes watch meteoric careers, with wonder. If anointed, will be protected, then boosted. This is fine, but it isn't about poetry - it's about the politics of the playground, and we all know it. Know it, but dare not speak out. It's not British to complain. However, the silence means that certain figures have amassed extraordinary influence, over the publishing, promotion, and reviewing, of poetry in the UK. This power has nothing, and everything, to do with poetry. TS Eliot blocked the publication of Wallace Stevens in the UK for some time - and that decision had a direct impact on the reception of the wonderful, sublime poetics that we now think of as Stevensian, within British poetry. That's just one example. There are many. Poetry editors, in the UK, exert immense power, and determine, more or less, what the mainstream thinks of as poetry.

I am not against influence - or even stewardship of an art form by leading practitioners. I would like to see more open discussion of the ways that poetry, publishing, and poetics, intermingle in Britain. Why does editor X think poet Y deserves to have a book, or prize, and not Z? Too often, the reason is, we are told, because the poet in question is "the real thing", or some other such fuzzy meaningless evaluation. British poetry seems to have moved away from clarity of judgement, such as was espoused by I.A. Richards. Poets rarely know on what grounds they are to be judged.

Why, for example, was Sean O'Brien's collection judged better than Edwin Morgan's? Not, as some think, sneeringly, for personal reasons. But, I think likely, due to poetics. Morgan's diverse, heterogeneity of style is more international than O'Brien's formal voice grounded in place. It's seen as "better" by many poets and critics here. This isn't just about language, or politics - it is, but not just - it's about laying cards out on the table: what's good poetry, and what isn't, and why.

I'd like to see a reasoned defense for the superiority of a fixed and constant voice, over a fluctuating verbal style (Heaney vs. Koch, for instance). What are the prejudices on which poetic preferences are based? Ironically, in the UK, the turn against elitism, and the rise of a literate working class (after 1945), saw poets like Amis, then Harrison, and now Paterson, avoid the pitfalls of so-called flamboyance, and rhetoric, in favour of a voiced but nuanced everyman-as-craftsman approach - the well-made lyric poem of experience and utterance; ironic, because this has become the new elite style. The old elite, academic, opaque, difficult, clever, educated - is now marginalised, and seen as "postmodern" and somehow unBritish (in some quarters). Whole styles have been shrugged off.

Morgan is a genius, who, in America, might be heralded as a major figure; here, he is lauded, but somewhat evaded. There is an anxiety in Britain about being too smart, too slick, too "American" - which is why Brown's presidential trick of bringing his wife out to introduce him yesterday was startling, and, though finally triumphant, momentarily embarrassing.

Eyewear is thinking of running a poll, to discover who its readers think are the most influential trend-setters, and style-makers, the true movers and shakers, in contemporary British poetry. If you can see something, then you can see for yourself. Feel free to suggest who should be included in the poll.

The world shall come to Walsingham

Today is the feast-day of Our Lady of Walsingham.

As Robert Lowell wrote, in his great, grandiose, Four Quartets riposte, "The Quaker Graveyward In Nantuckett":

VI

OUR LADY OF WALSINGHAM

There once the penitents took off their shoes
And then walked barefoot the remaining mile;
And the small trees, a stream and hedgerows file
Slowly along the munching English lane,
Like cows to the old shrine, until you lose
Track of your dragging pain.
The stream flows down under the druid tree,
Shiloah's whirlpools gurgle and make glad
The castle of God. Sailor, you were glad
And whistled Sion by that stream. But see:

Our Lady, too small for her canopy,
Sits near the altar. There's no comeliness
At all or charm in that expressionless
Face with its heavy eyelids. As before,
This face, for centuries a memory,
Non est species, neque decor,
Expressionless, expresses God: it goes
Past castled Sion. She knows what God knows,
Not Calvary's Cross nor crib at Bethlehem
Now, and the world shall come to Walsingham.

Sunday, 21 September 2008

Is Poetry Better Than TV?

1.
Nick Laird is one of the best of the younger Northern Irish poet-critics now writing. His recent articles on poetry, in The Guardian, are ways to reach new readers for poetry, and they mostly do some good. So, it is with some regret that I have decided to disagree with some of the things he has written in his most recent brief essay, published yesterday.

I do so, not to disagree with Nick Laird, note, but with some (not all or even most) critical, serious ideas he has put forward. In the UK and Ireland, to disagree with someone is often seen as throwing down a personal gauntlet, but I think criticism needs to be more robust, collegiate, and relaxed than that, now, for younger poets. Unless we're free to openly express gentle disagreements, and differing opinions, without fear of being struck off some invisible register, then the whole literary project is finally doomed.

Anyway, in his essay, Laird argues for an important thing: complexity in poetry, its right to have difficulty as part of its make-up. He's wrong, though, to say that "Poetry has always been a minority sport, of course, but directing anger towards it for being complicated feels new." Or rather, it may feel new to him, but such anger has been around since, at least, the 1920s, when Ezra Pound and Eliot defended the need for more complex uses of metaphor and diction in modern poetry. Indeed, John Press published a good critical study of obscurity in poetry exactly fifty years ago (1958), arguing for precisely the same things as Laird, but also observing that poetry had been difficult at least since the time of Donne. However, what has occasioned my response to Laird's article is really his critique of TV, which seems like Plato's of drama.

It is ironic that Laird, also a novelist, has set up the strawman of television (and, oddly radio, that most literate of mediums) to pose as the enemy of poetry in our age, when, in fact, it is clear that is is the novel that has done the most damage to poetry's reputation. It is the novel, with its often pseudo-literary mannerisms, that has stolen poetry's mantle of importance, relevance, and popularity, leaving poetry the scraps. Most novels make most poets cringe, their style is so bad. Poets know how to write, line by line, in a way that many popular, even prize-winning writers of prose do not.

Anyway, I am a former TV writer, and I can agree with Laird that, at its worst, TV is lazy, and insipid - as is much prose (and poetry). However, his comments are extreme when he writes: "Television teaches us to have false connections with each other: it prevents real emotion by simulating it. It imitates real relationships, real conversations, but it does it very badly, drilling us to communicate as if we live in TV-land, in displays of verbal grooming and brute joviality, in the repetition of cliché and received narratives." Well, Laird has not been watching the TV I, or millions of others, have been, including Brideshead Revisited, Star Trek, Dr. Who, The Singing Detective, House, and, of course, The Wire. American TV, and the best Canadian and British TV as well, deals with real emotion, and, more to the point, novelistic elements like plot, and character, as well as most novels. Well-written television (like film) is an art, and a craft, like poetry - the modern inheritor of the drama that Plato despised for its mere simulation of reality. I do not understand why Laird has made this claim about TV, except that perhaps the death of genius David Foster Wallace made him go back to read the essay where that writer claims that TV has become too ironic, and is damaging us, as when he wrote: "I think TV promulgates the idea that good art is just art which makes people like and depend on the vehicle that brings them the art."

The error that some well-established, neo-classical poet-critics in the UK and beyond make, when they try to defend their beloved poetry, is to attack popular culture, as if it was simply another political party the common reader had switched allegiances to. It's more complex than that. TV is one of the elements of the current media landscape (and hardly the most fragmenting, dangerous, or alienating, I'd have thought) - but the failure of literate engagement with poetry is as much the fault of the poetry regulators themselves, as with the readers who have abandoned it as a form they love and attend to.

Poetry that is presented as always serious, or anti-pop culture, does no one any favours, and in fact stresses the differences, not the similarities. I would say that most mainstream British poems are indeed written like well-made TV episodes, full of wit, incident, and imagery. That could be a way of bridging a gap.

Finally, Laird suggests that poetry is free from the pressures of capitalism: "A capitalist society - as opposed to a barter society, say, or a society based on gift culture - teaches its citizens to think in terms of selling. Poetry manages, almost uniquely, to be outside of that, and this allows poets to make real art, without recourse to the market - to empty sentiment, to the cliffhanger, the canned laughter, the safe dramatic arc and pat denouement."

2.
Poetry is not outside the market as much as it could be, or would like to think. Poetry is marketed in some quarters as ruthlessly as TV (recall Chris Hamilton-Emery calling the poetry business a bear pit). Poetry is sold. And, the Faber "brand" of poets is among the strongest.

Poetry styles, and poetics, even ways of imagining the world, are also packaged in the process, which is why many so-called mainstream poets are uncomfortable with avant-garde writing that promotes a more troubling vista, and less enjoyable fit between reader and writer. I have long suggested that more poetry should be freely available, via the Internet. Wendy Cope, a leading British poet, resists this idea, because it infringes copyright, and many others share her position.

Poetry is a literary commodity - or, sadly, becomes one. All too often, the rights are protected, and poems need to be paid for, to be used. All one needs to do is to read The Guardian's guide to writing poetry, in today's Observer, to note how a certain sort of branding has occurred, in the selection of poets being quoted: talented poets, but almost all from major presses (Faber and Picador, mainly).

If only poetry was free from the manipulation of the markets. If only poetry, in the UK, and beyond, was not manipulated by trumped-up prizes, and other gimmicks. It is poets who do resist capitalism, in their language, such as J.H Prynne, or Charles Bernstein, that are routinely mocked by more conservative poets, because of a deeper complexity, that resists the empirical pleasures of the well-made British poem circa 1990-2008.

Poetry is not merely, easily organic - it is also profoundly artificial, and also sometimes engaged, and the way that poetic utterance relates to language, and wider socio-economic pressures, is more complex than a sometimes naturalising position might presuppose (one that would have poems and poetry lift off, into another magic realm of pure form, pure making). It is true that poetry, more than other art forms, seems to resist the pressures of the world of money - but how does this wider world impinge, perhaps subtly, on the conventions, fashions, and styles, of any one period. As Sean O'Brien's Deregulated Muse shows, poems get written out of various class, and economic, environments. Ken Smith, for instance, could not have written the good, powerful poems he did, without the capitalist and other political elements of his age.

Poetry needs to be difficult, yes. And popular culture can be damaging to us. But so too is a culture that encourages an uncritical promotion of a homogeneous vision of poetics, in the media and beyond.

Friday, 19 September 2008

The New Deal

Eyewear, last Sunday, predicted this week might look like the 30s. Well, at week's end, in some ways, it does: the current projected US Government intervention in the economy is historic, and reminiscent of the sort of measures that FDR had to undertake, during The Great Depression. This time, the aim is to head things off at the pass; currently, there is a market rally. We must see. How will this play out with Obama vs. McCain? These are thrilling, frightening, new times for capitalism, which is evolving into a new form, one highly-regulated, and underwritten by government. So - is America, (again) to be a mixed economy? Is this the end of old-school capitalism?

Poem by Annie Katchinska

Eyewear is very pleased to welcome poet Annie Katchinska (pictured) this Friday. She seems to me to be one of the most impressive young poets currently writing in London, perhaps England, which is why I was glad to publish her work recently, online at Nthposition.

Katchinska is 18 and lives in London. She has been a Foyle Young Poet of the Year twice and in 2007 came second in the Christopher Tower poetry competition. She is on the editorial team of Pomegranate, an online zine publishing poets under 30.


Too Many Storms

Often, pretending to sleep, I hear my father
in the next room, importantly flicking his books.

Sometimes he hums –
a song from the summer he said he’d hung a thousand wind chimes
in high places, dark places my eyes could never reach –
He hasn’t been himself.
He says there are too many storms on this island,
not enough elsewhere. He won’t explain this word,
insists I learn to play chess then snaps
that I hold the king too tightly
and scatters the pawns. I sweep up bewildered ivory.
Now he walks among the trees, kicking all the foliage;
now he’s taken to wearing robes
of boiling velvet, whirlpools of blue. He kneels by the shore,
his hands running through bright shells,
half-weeping over the clockwork tides,
promising freedom to the air.

I read his books in secret,
thumb the pencil-scratched footnotes
he keeps me awake with. In them,
children have wings, monsters are conquered
by other monsters, men who look like my father
line their wrists with stars and everywhere

there is furious physics,
a sense of time running out,
talk of splintering ships

poem by Annie Katchinska; photograph copyright Oleg Katchinski

Another Way To Die

Eyewear readers know the profane calendar can be divided into years, months, and days, that do, or do not, feature a James Bond film. In one of the great pop culture moments of all time, the cult singer-songwriter Warren Zevon, dying of cancer, said it would be "a drag" if he died before the next Bond film came out. Paul Muldoon, as we know, worked with Zevon - what the world needs now is a Muldoon long poem on Bond. In the meantime, we have the new theme song (well, we did until it was removed from Youtube for copyright reasons) from Jack White (and Alicia Keys) for the Qauntum of Solace film; the song's title is not the title of the film, which seems needlessly busy (but Bond movies do that sometimes, think of the classic Louis Armstrong ditty), but is instead, Another Way To Die. Well, okay, it isn't Duffy, or Amy Winehouse - they would have been elegantly, or at least retro-great, with the Ronson treatment. But, in the same cluttered offbeat tradition of Paul McCartney's Live and Let Die, White's song captures some of the uneven, even stilted violence and suspense at the core of the Bond mythos, with moments of stuttered grandiosity and sampled trumpets. It'll do.

Wednesday, 17 September 2008

Poetry Focus: Stevie Smith

Stevie Smith by Gerard Wozek

As a graduate student in my first British literature course, I fell passionately in love with poet Stevie Smith and certain compelling elements of her work that underscore her infatuation with mortality. Smith was a poet enamored with death. Her later poems suggest that eternal life was more of a threat to her, rather than a theological promise of redemption or damnation.

Quick to criticize the dogmas of her Anglican background, Smith spent the latter portion of her life questioning the validity of organized religion. She was quoted once as saying, "There are some human beings who do not wish for eternal life."

For this bold poet, a child of eight who often contemplated suicide as a happy release from the routines of a caustic boarding school, death was often viewed as a merciful friend. The power of passing away is envisioned in many of her poems as a source of great strength, yielding solace and an utter, almost welcome, finality.

These ideas seem to be implanted in Smith's poem, "When One," in which death is seen as that force which breaks the tedium of conflict. Smith begins the poem by suggesting "When one torments another without cease/It cannot seem/It cannot seem/That death is the only release." Smith draws our attention to pain and to the relentless chafing that may accompany times of change. The speaker in this poem repeats her assertion that "It cannot but seem/That death, as he must come happily,/should not delay." In this poem, Smith reinterprets the idea of death as having a positive connotation, since it comes "happily" and with speed in order to dissolve the frustrating conflict:

Why do I think of Death
As a friend?
It is because he is a scatterer,
He scatters the human frame
The nerviness and the great pain,
Throws it on the fresh fresh air
And now it is nowhere
Only sweet Death does this,
Sweet Death, Kind Death,
Of all the gods you are the best.

Smith takes on a celebratory tone in this homage to the natural force which "scatters" and breaks things up. Like the Hindu worship of Shiva, the embodiment of the mighty force of destruction, death is revered as a great "friend" who has the power to dissolve "nerviness and the great pain."

Only "Sweet Death, Kind Death" can take all of this sorrow and transform it into a new existence. Smith has formed an alliance with this kindest of gods and honors the potency of its irreducible finality. For Smith, mortality is not a fearsome prospect, rather, it is interpreted by the poet as a fact that must be acknowledged and respected. Death, in other words, preserves the balance.

For Smith, it appears one's bereavement must be entirely accepted in order to live a fully conscious existence. Smith refuses to be cajoled by myth or the promise of an eternal life. Rather, Smith wants to live with her mind alight with wakefulness, ever conscious that death is standing outside the door with the intent to keep us honest. In her poem "Come Death", Smith reveals her understanding of this profound human paradox :

How vain the work of Christianity
To teach humanity
Courage in its mortality.
Who would rather not die
And quiet lie
Beneath the sod
With or without a god?

Foolish illusion, what has Life to give?
Why should man more fear Death than fear to live?

Smith is able to look at humankind's unwillingness to fully acknowledge and embrace the reality of death in life. Smith cuts through the hypocrisy of an opiate religion that "comforts" its followers with illusory promises of Heaven as a reward for a life lived by certain prescribed standards or morals.

In her plea to death, Smith asks, "what has Life to give?" and uses her poem as a clarion call for all her readers to live a life that is free of illusions and angels. Smith wants to live with a consciousness that is able to embrace the unity of death and life. This poet refused to give into the easy answers offered by a doctrine. Rather, she was stoic in her view that death must be viewed as inextricable from life.

For Smith, and indeed for all poets, death prescribes a life lived bravely. Smith leaves behind a body of work that presents the human experience as a procession of little deaths; from the moment we leave the comforting waters of the womb we progress through a series of cycles, each having their own endings and beginnings. We must all pay our due to the sweet god of death, but in doing so, Smith describes a conscious life that can be embraced without fear, and a death that can be not only acknowledged, but accepted and even welcomed.

Gerard Wozek is the author of the short story collection Postcards from Heartthrob Town. His debut book of poems Dervish won the Gival Press Poetry Book Award. His short film Dance of the Electric Moccasins took top honors at the 2005 Potenza Film Festival in Italy. He teaches creative writing at Robert Morris College in Chicago.

Tuesday, 16 September 2008

Is Carmine Starnino an Enfant Terrible?

Poetry magazine is one of the oldest, most respected, and significant magazines devoted to poetry in the world. The September 2008 issue has a few lively letters, by and about Canadian poets, that are worth reading in full. In the UK, there tends to be radio silence when it comes to much North American poetry, so it is good to see the Canadian-US border opening to more convivial mutual dialogue. Evan Jones, a good younger Canadian poet studying for a PhD in Manchester, writes to defend Al Purdy, the quintessential free-verse rowdyman of Canadian poetry, from his detractor(s).

And, Nicholas Bradley describes Carmine Starnino, one of Canada's leading younger poet-critics, as Canada's literary enfant terrible. Eyewear would like to weigh in on these controversies in the following way: a) Al Purdy is over-rated in Canada, but under-rated elsewhere, and it is likely he is as important for North American poetry of the 20th century as a Robert Creeley; b) Carmine Starnino is an infant no more, and increasingly less terrible - his critical interventions were a broom that Canada's niceness required - and, as he has developed his argument, especially in The New Canon, his major anthology - his position has become both more impressive, and less abruptly confrontational. Starnino became infamous mainly for being honest about his likes and dislikes, and failing to curry favour with the powers-that-be, taking on canonical reputations built on sand and trumped-up reps.

Where, for instance, is the poet-critic in Britain willing to ask (perhaps incorrectly) the true merits of a Paterson, a Raine, or a Duffy? Imagine the poet who would critique them all heavily (along with Prynne, and every other hero of the moment), and you would have someone of Starnino's ilk; then imagine the poet was writing at least as well as, say, anyone else under the age of 50, in formally flexible style. He's becoming formidable.

Science and Religion Collide

The big bang you're hearing is the noise of science and religion colliding, in the UK. The resignation, today, of a respected scientist, who also happens to be a Christian, from an important scientific post, because he suggested that creationism too could be taught in schools, alongside the theory of evolution, is a shame. Dogmatic anything is bad news: whether that be theism, atheism, or Darwinism. Clearly, evolution, a highly-robust theory, is assumed to be true, though unverified - but does not rule out the value of appreciation of alternate views on how the universe and sentient life in it came into being. There are versions of creationism (intelligent design, for instance) that are complex enough to dovetail with science, and surely some aspects of creationism are symbolically, if not philosophically, intriguing - for instance, the idea that nothing comes from nothing, or that, at the start, some being or great force conceived of existence itself. Science should not rule out the possibility of a God - God (separate from how religions may define her) - could co-exist within the natural laws as we so far know them to be. Religion and science work better in tandem, not in glorious isolation, where fanaticism breeds contempt.

Monday, 15 September 2008

Richard Wright Has Died

Sad news. Founder Pink Floyd member Richard Wright has died. Pink Floyd are, of course, one of the great bands of the 20th century.

Guest Review: Wood on Howell and Auerbach

James W. Wood reviews
Ghost Test Flights by Bill Howell
and
Radius of Light by Joshua Auerbach

Canadian writers face an unwelcome task in trying to create a recognisably Canadian literature. Living under the hulking shadow of the world’s most powerful and, to some, culturally imposing nation, Canadian writers are too used to being subsumed into their neighbour’s traditions by foreign commentators to find the phenomenon worthy of comment most of the time.

Added to this, Canada’s writers have at their disposal a smorgasbord of traditions that generations of immigrants have brought to their country, imparting French, Irish, Scots, English, Welsh, Portuguese and, more recently, Chinese and Korean influences. And native Canadian stories and poetry have their own compelling power that clearly influences the nation’s output, as best seen in Michael Crumey’s recent and brilliant novel River Thieves. Given all of these factors, it’s easy to see why writers such as Atwood and Robertson Davies have more often been described as “the novelist Margaret Atwood”, rather than “the Canadian novelist…” – in literary terms, Canada’s independent identity is an unstable, shifting presence, ghosting it between the financial power of the American cultural machine and the much-cursed blessing of the European tradition.

As poets, Bill Howell and Joshua Auerbach evince this sense of a culture still trying to find its own voice between the shadows of other, more established literatures. For instance, Joshua Auerbach leans heavily on the American confessional tradition whilst translating Eluard, and references both Robert Frost’s work and that of Rilke as having inspired some of the pieces in his volume. Similarly, Bill Howell’s poems are often confessional in the style of a more humorous Robert Lowell, say – but again, the European tradition of the prose poem, Scots words such as “fusty” and the rhyming quatrains of the romantic balladeers all point to another set of influences from the other side of the Atlantic.

Optimistically, one might hope to say that the direct address and compelling voyeuristic thrill of reading the best kind of confessional poetry is mixed with the deft handling of form commonly found in the European tradition to deliver unforgettable verse from these poets – though sadly, this is too often not the case.

Bill Howell is a long-time and well-respected CBC radio dramatist, as well as being a poet. His Ghost Test Flights comes as thirty pages of verse wrapped into an A5 chapbook format. The poems are sometimes self-referential to the point of being hermetically sealed off to anyone who does not know the poet, as seen in the long poem “Metaphysical Weather Report”, which occasionally uses italics for no obvious reason, slips into quatrains (in italics) and launches into an extraordinary if breathless attack on God, Fate and Nature: “ Fuck God for making Nature so lovely-looking/After the fact.”

Things improve a good deal later in the volume, when the self-conscious need to say “something” is subsumed into a raw desire to express feeling, the driver at the core of any successful writing. Poems such as “Big Stars, Off Halifax” and especially “Grief”, come closer to succeeding by throwing away the unwelcome formal tics of a poem like “About The Dog”, and just say what they mean. Again, though, there are unwelcome, unexplainable intrusions from literary references – stars are described as being as “big/As Lorca’s fists” – not an analogy that immediately suggests anything obvious, given the Spanish poet’s notoriously passive nature when it came to physical confrontation.

“Late Light” is the most successful poem in this volume, combining Howell’s understated tone with lovely descriptions of the natural world, “those thoughtful clouds/misty quilts, smoky blankets, dusted pillows; the rusty/industry of distance, the instant since of dusk”. Whilst the loading of sibilants in the last line of this stanza might be too much for some, it does at least achieve a hypnotic, incantatory rhythm that sets up the poem’s central argument about the “imaginary angel-moths circling/their own questions” – in other words, the limits of what we, as people, can hope to achieve both in our lives and in loving others, “the wonder of our wondering”. If one of the poems from this chapbook were to be anthologised in some fashion, this would have to be it. Indeed, Howell’s strengths seem to lie in his understated tone, his modest, self-deprecating humour and his keen eye for nature.

Joshua Auerbach is another Canadian poet who shows a strong feeling for nature and a knack for descriptions of the physical world. Here he is in “Boreal”, describing a scene by the side of a lake: “We look out on to lakes/thrushes, bulrushes and small perch/that glide on mirrored light” – the scene springs into vivid life in Auerbach’s hands. Whether what Auerbach is seeking to achieve is always necessarily welcome, however, is a different matter: the powerful message of impending environmental catastrophe in “Night Train”— “Come, cries the crow: the dark is now” shows him at his best, whilst “Herniated Disc”, and, “Concinnity” are guilty of the worst excesses of the confessional school, displaying the concern with self that delivered the confessional movement’s unwelcome reputation in the seventies and eighties.

There is no doubt that Joshua Auerbach is a poet of potential power and, at times, strong delivery. Poems such as “Gatineau Hills”, or, “Reading Frost in a Clearing” are of an international standard of achievement, along with perhaps ten or twelve other pieces in this book. It’s worthy of note that the most accomplished poems in Auerbach’s book come from an awareness of the possibilities of form coupled with an emotional urgency, the desire to express mentioned above in the reading of Howell’s shorter volume.

Too often, though, Auerbach’s book is content to revert to the vertical pronoun (“I”) as a means of asserting the truth of any situation, rather than creating an internal logic in his poems which will persuade the reader.

Perhaps, like their Scottish counterparts, Canadian poets should learn the gift of grabbing what luck hasn’t given them in the shape of a cultural identity, and then forge something new, different and compelling from the experience of being Canadian.

James W. Wood is a poet and critic based in Scotland.

Sunday, 14 September 2008

Squeezed Lehman

It isn't 1929 yet - or the Great Depression. But, 79 years after Wall Street bankers and brokers lept from ledges, ruined - well, disaster is striking the money markets, again. Tonight's news that Lehhman Brothers may go bankrupt is disturbing, even ominous. It was the fourth largest of its kind in America - and the ripple effect of its collapse may become a domino one. The next decade may be the most lowdown since Auden's Thirties. Meanwhile, America seems bent on electing Palin as President-in-waiting - America's second most incompetent president is in the wings.

David Foster Wallace Has Died

One of America's greatest prose writers of the last half-century has died, by his own hand - David Foster Wallace: novelist, essayist, and infinitely talented wordplayer; genius might be a word to use in relation to his work. He was also, by all accounts, a gifted and caring creative writing teacher (no mean feat). It is a tragic truth of writing that one never really realises the pain and sorrow behind the exuberant verbal masks that writers put on, and publish. Writers are so very vulnerable, even the best, and most beloved. Readers, take care of them. Fellow writers, be more gentle, too.

Friday, 12 September 2008

Poem by A.F. Harrold

Eyewear is very glad to welcome A.F. Harrold (pictured) this Friday. Harrold is a poet and performance poet based in Reading. His publications include a book of love poems, Logic And The Heart (Two Rivers Press, 2004), two collections of comic prose and poetry, Postcards From The Hedgehog (Two Rivers Press, 2007) and The Man Who Spent Years In The Bath (Quirkstandard’s Alternative, 2008) and the shortly-forthcoming limited edition collection of nature poems, produced in collaboration with internationally exhibited artist Jo Thomas, Of Birds & Bees (Quirkstandard’s Alternative, 2008).

Harrold has performed poetry, comedy and cabaret in many places – including Paris, Copenhagen, Vancouver and LA – and has been part of the line ups at Cheltenham and Swindon Literature Festivals, Essex and Ledbury Poetry Festivals, Leicester and Reading Comedy Festivals, as well as taking a comedy-oriented rock or roll band to the Edinburgh Fringe (The Most Boring Man In England and Other Love Songs, 2003).

In 2008 he was the Glastonbury Festival’s Official Website’s Official Poet-in-Residence and had more fun than he expected. He runs several regular nights in Reading – the monthly Poets’ Café at South Street Arts Centre, and, for almost ten years, has compered the open mic music night Bohemian Night in the Town Hall – and is often a part of Oxford-based Slam organisers Hammer & Tongue events, having been their overall Slam Champion for two consecutive years (2005-7). He is also the current UK All-Stars Slam Champion – the regular giant poetry slam at Cheltenham Festival of Literature.

A true fusion poet, he also has poems published in magazines, such as Smiths Knoll, Iota, Pulsar, The Nail, Boomslang Poetry, Smoke, Tears In The Fence and The Unruly Sun, and poems have been Commended, Highly Commended or awarded Merits in the 2005 Bluechrome, 2006 Salisbury House, 2007 Leaf Books and the 2007 Nottingham Open Poetry Competitions.

I was very much impressed (when I finally met him) with Harrold, as poet, person, and emcee - it's rare to find great good humour, humanity, excellent poetic ability, and charming manners rolled into one being - especially a tall being with a funny beard and a hat - but if you're looking for such a rare bird (or beast), then he's your man. I am glad he'll be reading for Oxfam, in London, this December.


A Letter From The Cheltenham Lawn Hotel Sunday 14th October 2007
(for C.S.)

Just grateful to be booked into a B&B
at somebody else’s expense
(finally, the riches of this lifestyle
make themselves known to me),
I never thought to ask, in advance,
for a copy of the chef’s CV,
listing as it might his likes, dislikes
and personal quirks of morality.

There’s one thing that makes these nights
away from home in odd-shaped beds
(and not the sort that, in other lives,
might house exotic, erotic sights),
more sleepless then well-rested…
that makes them all turn out all right,
and that’s the hanging vision there
of breakfast cooking through the night.

The scent of frying fat hangs in the air,
the hiss and squeak and spit of it
(I remember Sunday mornings as a boy,
when dad took charge of kitchenware)
fill what dreams slip in and buffet
the sleeper with taste-buds that dare
to wake expectant, alive, erect,
while the rest is still only half-aware.

So I stumble to the dining-room all set
to eat everything that fits onto my plate
(so long as it’s hot, that is, and not
one of those fortified cereals you get).
I order tea; oh, the tea here is first-rate.
I pour orange juice; cold, fresh, well-met!
And now the landlord has returned,
I order the full cooked English, and yet…

First I should say, generally I spurn
breakfast as a meal when I’m at home
(food and conversation are not welcome
at a time of day that seems so taciturn),
the effort it demands when I’m alone
outweighs any good feelings it might earn.
But let someone else do all the work…
then I’ll happily risk a bout of old heartburn.

So, having had the perfume of bacon lurk
in my thoughts, lingering on from dreams
(not exclusively, I ought to add,
some sausages loomed in the dreamy murk),
I say the words ‘full cooked’ like one who means
to power up a body set for work,
like a builder, say, or a farmer or a bloke
who writes poems and who hates to miss a perk.

I can taste the bacon, taste the bacon smoke,
the sharp succulence, before it even comes
(oh! happy melange with beans piled on,
and egg and mushroom sharing in the joke),
and then the landlord says, ‘Vegetarians.’
I cock an ear. I think that he just spoke,
but I have to stare to get him to repeat it:
‘We’re vegetarians here.’ ‘Oh,’ I croak.

This statement of his, I’m not sure how to treat it.
I’m not evangelical about my need for meat
(unlike some folk we know, who resent
any vegetable they see, who’d just delete it).
There are any number of greens I like to eat:
take celery, say, it’s frankly hard to beat it
for crispness, crunch and scent – oh yes, indeed.
But my daydream breakfast’s suddenly de-meated.

Like a Viking given Babycham, not mead,
I’m confused, all expectations buggered
(a vegetarian cooked breakfast’s like a eunuch:
there might be a sausage, but it won’t fulfil my need).
Christ, what a disappointment! No big nugget
of iron pyrites, movie trailer, religious creed
has ever misled and pissed on its apostles
as much as that righteous landlord’s pissed on me.

Well, to be fair the pain isn’t really that colossal,
but hyperbole is fun once in a while
(as an Englishman I don’t complain that often,
what bile I have’s deep-buried, like a fossil):
so I sing the song of the outraged carnophile.
When my plate arrives I see the mushrooms jostle
with tomatoes and poached egg (‘we do not fry’).
They forget the beans. I don’t bemoan the loss. All

the rest is tasty. The mushrooms give the lie
to anyone who says vegetables are worthless
(although, to be fair, they’re not really plants at all:
to the two kingdoms they’re simply passers-by):
oh, they melt like butter in the mouth! This
breakfast’s not that bad, or so I try
to tell myself, but I know there’s something missing:
with every bite some poor piggy hasn’t died.

Of course, the pig as an individual isn’t wishing
that someone put a bolt straight through his head
(unless, perhaps, he’s been shunned by the one sow
he thinks might stop his heart with kissing),
but the species as a whole might well be dead,
except for some wild boar who find their bliss in
some remote corner of some untrod wood:
but porciculture’s kept the pig from going missing.

Whatever. In conclusion, ‘though I wish I could
have had some bacon on that breakfast table
(crisp-crackled round the edge and still sizzling
(served from the frying pan is always good))
it was only the dashing of dreams that made me quibble,
my expectations missed that said I should
feel grudging, ungenerous and not say ‘thank you’.
But those mushrooms, as I said, oh! they were good.


poem by A.F. Harrold


Thursday, 11 September 2008

Friendship and Poetry

The relationship between friendship and poetry is rarely openly remarked upon, or studied, and yet, it is perhaps the single strongest force acting upon the development, and distribution, of published works of poetry, since 1800. Without small groups of friends, often acting in sympathetic concert, as mentors, co-editors, sponsors, and allies, both Romanticism and Modernism would not have generated the works they did (one thinks of Wordsworth-Coleridge, or Eliot-Pound). The friendship between Thomas and Frost was seminal for them both. Again, in the 30s, there was Auden, and his group.

Or, in the 50s, and beyond, The New York School. Or, Lowell and Bishop. Or, in the 60s and 70s, Heaney and Mahon and Longley. Or, the current friendships among the Language poets. Still, such friendships are something of a taboo subject. It was therefore surprising to read the recent article by Chris Hamilton-Emery, poet and publisher, in the latest (2009) version of The Writer's Handbook, where he recommends to emerging poets that one of the best ways to have a book published is to befriend an established poet-publisher, perhaps by studying with them.

I found this a breathtaking suggestion. The problem with openly advocating such a strategy is that it begins to entrench what is, unless carefully handled, either nepotism, or an apprentice-system. The problem with the idea that one essentially only publishes one's friends is that, bluntly, it rules out the possibility of dispassionately publishing one's enemies - or those one is merely indifferent to. And yet, exactly just such cold-blooded, disinterested editing and criticism is badly needed now, in Britain and beyond, where most poetry reviews are either puff pieces by friends, or hatchet jobs by enemies. Given that perhaps six or seven men (and they are mostly men) decide who gets published by a big British press (a life-changing decision, for readers and for poets), few active, younger poets dare speak their mind, openly - lest they incur the editorial wrath of the gods.

This sort of friendship = publication equation, now out in the open, and in print, is chilling. What are poets to do who, for whatever reason, are shy, not particularly social, or maybe isolated, due to health, work, or geography? How does a good poet interest a publisher-editor-poet? The answer should be, by work alone. Poets will always be friends (and, alas, foes). But we need critics, and editors, and publishers, able to see beyond their current crop of students and friends, who are willing to publish simply the best work, regardless of how they feel, personally, about the writer. Of course, in prose, the matter is different - because novelists can bring in money, one can be an odious wretch and still be supported - but, since poetry is so often a labour of love - it is, therefore, those one loves, one publishes.

Still, Emery is not idealistic - his advice, on his Salt website, to poets - is more like Machiavelli than anything. Here he is on being "a player":

The world of poetry is not filled with gentle suffering creatures (to call upon Eliot). It is not fair, just, or particularly caring. It can be supportive, but it is not a self help group. It is not a world based upon power sharing. In fact, the world of poetry can be a bear pit, and like any industry it is competitive and has moments of confrontation and even dirty tricks. Be prepared to take some knocks along the way.

My problem with this sort of real-politik writing is that, substitute "poetry" for "politics" and it might as well be Dick Cheney writing. Poetry is not (despite the Salt model) an "industry". Publishing may be - but then again, that's only one way of looking at it. I happen to believe that poetry should be far more "caring" about its practitioners - and that an ethics of publishing and editing is, if not desirable, at least possible. If it can be posited, it should be considered. Emery seems to relish the Darwinian bearpit.

Here he is on knowing "who's who":

However, the more experience the poet has of knowing who’s who, of knowing whom to call upon to further their career as a writer, is very often a key to commercial success.

Furthering their career... it's all so Sinatra swagger.

The truth is, since neither the marketplace, nor the general public, nor even most intelligent creative people, care enough about new poetry to buy and read it in any great numbers, poetry is left in the hands of poets, and those who want to control poets (throw their weight around). In any real "business" - to borrow Emery's analogy - competition would be so fierce that mediocre bullies would be tossed out, and far more rigorous discipline, and scrutiny, would be applied. The swaggering few who like to run the poetry business as a business are playing with Monopoly money.

Poetry, since it is an art, needs to be handled with care, and without all this City Boy guff. Bottom line: the best poets should be published. Now, here is the hard part, friends: what do anyone of us (really) mean by "the best"? That's the debate worth having. In public. Bravely.

Mimesis Digital Chapbook Competition Winners Announced

I was one of the judges for the Mimesis Digital Chapbook competition. Congratulations to the joint winners, Alistair Noon and Jeff Calhoun. It was a strong field, and the runners-up deserve close reading, too. Mimesis is, increasingly, a worthwhile place to send poems and prose to, and a magazine worth subscribing to.

Guest Review: Porco on McGimpsey

Alessandro Porco reviews
Sitcom
by David McGimpsey

David McGimpsey’s Sitcom (Coach House, 2007) marks the writer’s much-anticipated return to poetry (it’s been six year since the release of his Hamburger Valley, California [ECW Press, 2001]). As expected, Sitcom is sometimes uproariously funny, always pop-acculturated, and intimidatingly literate. Of course, McGimpsey’s humour has always been thoroughly noted by critics, while the formal, thematic, and philosophic scope of his work (i.e. the more literate elements)— omnipresent in Sitcom— often willfully ignored. Critics will grant that McGimpsey’s humour succeeds; however, that very humour is also used by those same laudatory critics to dismiss McGimpsey’s efforts as trivial or light. An even greater problematic: because McGimpsey has shown repeatedly he possesses a capacity to access and effect a comic mode with ease, it’s wrongly assumed that McGimpsey’s always only working within that mode. Thus, those poems that seemingly challenge such a purview of his work are either misread as exercises in hip postmodern irony or damned to be, in the end, utterly heteroclitic works in his oeuvre.

Thus, his moving elegies to Alan Hale, Jr., Hank Williams, John Kordic, for example, have suffered damning fates, as have poems like “As Seen on ER” and “Ancient Rock Mythology” — the former, a seemingly simple ekphrastic study of an episode of ER, though in fact an expression of empathy for a TV character-actor lost in the background (not quite an extra, but definitely not a star); the latter is a lyric meditation, in four parts, on the process of losing child-like whim and sovereignty in an adult world governed by “codes of maturity” (10).

With regard to McGimpsey’s poetry’s pop acculturation, a problem not unlike that of his humour presents itself: the subjects, lexicons, and intertextual references that populate McGimpsey’s speakers’ imaginations are presumed to be trivial and light. Correspondingly, the poems often take on those adjectives as deadweight; and, at the same time, in a strange twist of fate, self-interested critics cleverly maneuver to impose totalizing “ironic” readings upon McGimpsey’s poems, therefore making said poems appear to be substantial enough for consumption by virtue of the irony’s supposed immanent negative critique of a (supposedly) substanceless pop culture.

The motive for this maneuver is one McGimpsey is acutely aware of: Poetry functions as a socio-economic marker, what Pierre Bourdieu refers to as “cultural capital,” a “way of arranging respect, / a second car parked by a bungalow,” he writes in Sitcom (“Susan #42” 46). The poem “Rejection” is a satire enumerating certain aesthetic-poetic prejudices — inextricable from socio-economic considerations — upon which the aforementioned “respect” (a dubious term) is founded; prejudices which, ultimately, have stunted McGimpsey’s growth into a major figure in Canadian poetry: “Tired of the gimcrack catachresis, / the meretricious pettifoggery / and farouche intemperability / of kids raised on Gilligan and powdered juice, / we ask poetry to retain its own mien,” argues the all-too-real anxious poetry-editor of the mock-Canadian poetry journal Tearsea (89). And that same editor writes, “We welcome those… who compassionately tune lexicons / away from gum-stuck seats in nosebleeds” (90). Here, in the these two passages, the interconnectedness between poetry, language, and class (or economics) is articulated. Aesthetics, here, become an issue of capital-power: who has it and who doesn’t.

With all that said, if the speakers of early McGimpsey poems, specifically his “chubby sonnets” (16 lines rather than 14), sometimes tended toward caricature, now, in Sitcom, there is, instead, an insistence upon mapping the ever-changing interiorities of said caricatures. The result: it’s near impossible to apply simplistic and reductive “comic” or “ironic” labels upon these poems, as there are equally sufficient doses of pathos looming and complicating matters.

Moreover, there is an emotional transparency that charges the opacity of the flora and fauna of Tvland and English poetry to which McGimpsey’s speakers’ allude, and vice versa. It’s this shift that marks the occasion of McGimpsey’s Sitcom as a significant one: composed entirely of demanding, extended monologues and intermittent ventures into the sonnet, the collection— McGimpsey’s most accomplished— repeatedly foregrounds the essential interanimation of humour, pop culture, and literary learning within the complex and (more often than not) damaged psyches of his various dramatic personae. And the source of this damage is, and always has been for McGimpsey, the imminence and immanence of loss. Thus, what his early work only suggested, and what Sitcom finally makes irrefutable, is this (stand back: here I go very much against the grain of popular opinion): McGimpsey is first and foremost an elegiac poet— a designation, to be clear, that still allows for his timely comic touches.

To begin, it’s important to discuss the central intertextual reference in McGimpsey’s Sitcom: Shakespeare’s Timon of Athens. Both Timon (as play) in the context of Shakespeare’s entire works and the character of Timon are of thematic and generative significance. Perhaps a very short mention of the plays who’s-and-what’s is in order: Timon, a wealthy Lord of Athens, having over-extended his means (he gives gifts, lends money, is patron to the arts), is forced to ask his friends for financial assistance so that he (Timon) might pay off his hounding creditors duly. Timon’s friends deny his requests for assistance, and these denials reveal to Timon the ethical vacuity of an Athenian high-society in which he exists: “When Fortune her shift and change of mood, / Spurns down her late beloved, all his dependents… / let him slip down / Not one accompanying his declining foot.” In response to such an ethos as well as his own complicity, Timon escapes beyond the walls of Athens: “Timon will to the woods.” (That famed declaration serves as the epigraph to “Act I” of Sitcom.) And, upon finding a treasure of gold in the woods, Timon takes it upon himself to perform various acts of misanthropy against Man, who has so disappointed him (“Grant, as Timon grows, his hate may grow / To the whole race of mankind, high and low!”) before dying there in the woods.

How, then, does this all function in relation to Sitcom? First, Timon of Athens, as Donald MacKenzie writes, is “the Ugly Duckling of Shakespearean tragedy and no critic [. . .] has advanced a reading which persuasively reveals it as, in the end, a swan.” Its action is unbalanced, its generic classification impossible, and its structure incomplete — it is the most problematic of Shakespearean “problem” plays. Many of McGimpsey’s speakers, too, are “ugly ducklings,” dramatis persona non grata: for example, the aforementioned pop culture poet of “Rejection,” who relies to heavily on American content; the doggerel-writing dogs (literally, “a fox terrier and an Afghan hound” [92]), not invited to the “‘beautiful people only’ affair” (“Manhattan” 92); the spurned lovers of McGimpsey’s Sonnets (in particular, see “Guelphadelphia” [48]); the middle-aged failure-of-a-man attending his high school reunion with nothing to show or tell for the years since graduation (his “news” is nothing but a punning zero-looking “noose” ready to strangle); and then there’s the “preposterously obscene” university student of “B-/C+” who refuses to anaesthetize his language and conform to the linguistic mandates of academic discourse (34-36). In this last example, the poem’s speaker, a professor to the young student in question, states,

In fact, many of the things you say strike me
as original. One of the few times
you actually came to class you said
Timon of Athens was an unreadable play
about ‘a fucktard who has a hissy fit
when he realizes he can’t buy friendship.’
Though preposterously obscene, I thought
yours was the best reading I heard in class. (34-5)

Timon’s “ugly duckling” status also has a second function as a critical gloss on McGimpsey’s poetic style. That is to say, McGimpsey’s baroque admixture of disparate lexicons, subjects, and rhetorical registers is as difficult to resolve as Timon of Athens’s ambiguous action, structure and generic classification (the first half is satiric, the latter half classically tragic— though either designation isn’t quite adequate so as to make a something of a whole). I f critics have been consistently unable to see and reveal the “swan” within Timon’s “ugly duckling,” then perhaps two things might be said: first, sometimes a duck is a duck; second, if there is a problem, it is in our limited vocabulary, aesthetic categories, and methods rather than the duck’s ontology.

That’s how McGimpsey reads Timon, and that’s how we might begin to read McGimpsey. For example, we must accept his “rare sympathy / for both Osric and Arthur Carlson” (“B-/C+” 34), and subsequently we might begin to read how such a rare sympathy works to effect certain feelings and ideas; or, another example: in attempting to capture the flux of emotional and psychic interiorities, the monologues depend upon what one speaker refers to as “impertinent interruptions” (“Architeuthis” 32) — interruptions which indicate a moral, dramatic presence and at the same time contest the myth of organic wholeness which seems to leave Timon (the play) out in the cold.

Finally, there is the action of the character Timon that needs to be considered. Most significantly, his determination to leave Athens for the woods: it is a pastoral gesture, and it is one that occurs repeatedly in Sitcom. However, to be clear, the pastoral in Timon of Athens and Sitcom is not that of Theocretian idyll. No, McGimpsey’s is a more Virgilian pastoral: there is a sense of historicity that always infringes upon the beechen cover — in Virgil’s case, there is the extant reality of land seizures, political treaties, and war; in Timon, the eponymous character abandons the material obsessions of Athens only to find in the woods a treasure of gold and to be, once again, bombarded by requests for financial help; and even in Tim’s woods, I would add, there is the politicking of War and Art.

In Sitcom, the pastoral pleasures of Tvland and Academia are constantly infringed upon by the speakers’ working-class history in “oil refineries / deep in the east end of Montreal…” (96). The smoke stacks are never out of view. For this reason, Sitcom cannot shake-off— and, most importantly, has lost faith and interest in the possibility of shaking off— the grip of Death. Death, McGimpsey writes in the collection’s best poem, is “irresistible.” (I will return to the poem momentarily).

The pastoral move I describe above occurs repeatedly. Consider the collection’s first poem, “Invitation.” McGimpsey rewrites Ben Jonson’s wonderful poem, “Inviting a Friend to Supper.” “Please join me,” begins McGimspey’s epistle, “on the occasion of my / thirty-ninth birthday” (12):

Gifts are not necessary,
but should you be strolling downtown and see
some nicely framed limited-edition print
of a sad battlefield where a general’s
caprice cost thousands of lives, or a pair
of antique binoculars, or a vintage
board game where the Happy Days characters
have to rush Fonzie to the hospital,
knock your self out.(12)


Like Jonson, McGimpsey’s plain style is easy and conversational (“Conversation’s the most important thing” [13]); there is a certain intimacy effected by his cultural specificity.

Furthermore, as the poem proceeds, it becomes more and more evident that the speaker— he who hasn’t quite succeeded in life— is the damaged failure in a group of more successful middle-aged friends who take “trips to Barcelona,” have “remodeled homes ‘not far from the city’,” and whose “adventures” in the “bronzed thighs / of lovers old and new” distinguish them as more sexually potent (13). We might read the speaker as more local, markedly less wealthy, and possibly impotent. And, as the gifts proposed in the passage quoted indicate, he desires via sympathy that which is “limited,” “antique,” “vintage”— that is, objects which are obsolescent, like him. McGimpsey’s speaker, then, is very much modeled after Jonson’s, if you recall that Jonson’s poem begins with an announcement of a similar meekness: “Tonight, grave sir, both my poor house, and I / Do equally desire your company; / Not that we think us worth such a guest / But that your worth will dignify our feast.” But as McGimpsey’s poem nears its finale, we come upon the pastoral move or (re)-move, the Timon-like gesture “to the woods”:

If, unexpectedly, I excuse myself
from the party and walk into the cold air,
even forgetting a jacket, you can
rest assured I will not be gone for long,
no matter how tempting it would be
to go see a movie uptown, alone. (15)


That detail about “forgetting a jacket” is brutal; it suggests that in walking “into the cold air,” the speaker doesn’t really intend to return. He’s walking into certain death; he’s Berryman, headed for the Washington Avenue Bridge. And it’s McGimpsey’s speaker’s death-drive that distinguishes the poem, ultimately, from Jonson’s. There is neither “innocence” nor is there “liberty” from painful social realities, not even for as auspicious an occasion as a birthday party amongst friends.

Another pastoral move is located in “Reunion,” where the speaker imagines himself and a female re-unioner excusing themselves “to some long-lost / stoner’s enclosure made for bra-strap / fiddling” (20). But, even in this instance, what cannot be excised from the scene, we learn, is the “smell [of] the factories” of Montreal’s east-end. While other examples are present in Sitcom, this action “to the woods” has precedent in Hamburger Valley, California’s “Où Est Queen Street?”, in which the speaker narrates “the art of the ditch, / the backwoods that spilled away… / through the backwoods… / to downtown Montreal” (15-16). In fact, Sitcom may be read as an implicit critique of that earlier poem’s action: the city inevitably fails as ideality, as the place of promise, as a meritocracy.

Finally, I’d like to make mention of “Irresistible,” the collection’s tour de force, a poem that — should there be any justice in Canadian Letters — will become both a standard bearer for poets and part of the growing list of essential McGimpsey, which includes “O Coconut,” “In Memoriam: A.H. Jr,” “Babe Ruth in Love” (from Lardcake), “Quincy on Lycidas” (from Dogboy), “Ancient Rock Mythology,” “Museum Sweet,” “As Seen on ER,” and “Hamburger Valley, California” (all from Hamburger Valley). The punning title, “Irresistible,” embodies that inextricability of love and death, both conditions attracting and repelling each other. The poem is singular in its bearing (with skill and ease) the mark of McGimpsey’s reading and learning from Robert Lowell, another great elegist (“I grew up loving the Confessional poets,” McGimpsey once wrote, in the essay “Sweet Poetry or Mystery Meat?”).

It begins with some mild braggadocio, if such a thing is possible: “I have always been proud of my powers / of resistance. I’ve said no to Betamax, / no to acid-wash jeans, no to condos, / no to the finale of Dancing with the Stars” (96). But this gives way to more frank self-accusation. The speaker admits such resisting was never always something he could do and, equally important, it’s not necessarily something he continues to want to do. A doctrine of fatalism proceeds to be articulated:

That’s the way I thought things were: on a track,
straight to the factories on the horizon
and I would find it impossible not to spend
my whole life in the oil refineries
deep in the east end of Montreal….
Fate rule me,
and time would just fix me where I was born. (96)

What follows at this juncture in the poem is a series of similes that, in number and in increasingly strange conceit, are attempts to extend, if possible, the Time of Art, as if in defense against certain ugly inevitabilities of Life. It’s an attempt that ultimately devolves into absurdity: “as the flunk makes it to sweet flunkydom, / as the skunk skunks up the skunktorium” (97).

Instead, a certain truth, for the speaker, is communicated: there is no reward for resistance. It’s futile. Life is neither just nor moral — it’s only consistently painful, whether one resists or not, whether one love’s or not, whether one writes poetry or not. The poem ends like so, with an uncompromised and unrivalled flourish:

Those of us who wrote poems in taverns,
and who thought we would just flailingly die
of ODs in 29th St. apartments,
or being chased by moustached creditors
through the streets of Rabat, or would perish
by a lakeside fire having caught a last trout —
we’re dying wholesale of complications
from high blood pressure, fighting cancer
in little hospital rooms calling out
for our mothers and for a cigarette.
To learn the art of fighting without fighting —
knowing death is the only thing irresistible. (98)


What else is there to say, except that with this poem, in particular, as well as other monologues from Sitcom (“Invitation,” “Reunion,” “Manhattan,” “Sitcom”), McGimpsey leaps to the front of a generation of essential Canadian poets — such as Stephen Cain, Jason Camlot, Kevin Connolly, Wayde Compton, and Steve Venright — now in (or soon approaching) the primes of their respective careers. And, ultimately, “Irresistible” should serve as parallax for McGimpsey’s entire oeuvre thus far: in other words, it’s the poem that forces previously unsympathetic, confused, or single-minded readers and critics (i.e. those who think he’s a surface comic poet only or he’s all-irony all the time) to re-orient themselves as readers and thus come to read McGimpsey’s work in a new, more comprehensive and evolved manner.

Alessandro Porco is a poet, critic, and scholar. His latest collection of poetry is Augustine in Carthage, and Other Poems (ECW Press, 2008). He is also the author of The Jill Kelly Poems (ECW Press, 2005). Currently, at the State University of New York at Buffalo, Porco is completing a dissertation on the subject of hip-hop poetics and the fate of American poetry. His monthly hip-hop column, “In Extremis,” is available at Maisonneuve Magazine Online.

Wednesday, 10 September 2008

What Is The Booker For, Then?

The latest Booker shortlist excludes Salman Rushdie, in favour of six novels that are "fun", "readable" and "page-tunring" - in short, that represent the rewards of entertaining commercial fiction. Michael Portillo, a failed politician, and now incompetent literary judge, has said he is "not a literary expert." I see. What then, is he doing judging the Man Booker prize? Another judge said they "want a book to tell me a story". How infantile. Readers need to stop wanting things from books and novels - they're not websites you can just click on for instant gratification, nor TV's flatscreen teat. Literature in Britain is now officially dumb.

If even the Booker prize seeks to merely select popular "big reads" what hope is there, for serious, intelligent, and, yes, sometimes difficult literary fiction? It used to be, this prize was meant to discriminate, for readers, and lead them to the best. The best, mind - not simply the most fun. Another judge derides the "finely turned sentence" and calls for moving "a story on in an engaging way". For that, page-turn to Dan Brown.

Eyewear believes in popular culture - but fears what was once a healthy tension between high and low culture, in Britain (where crossing between states created sparks) - has now been too-easily resolved, in favour of what seems to be a simplistic, and individualistic (even egoistic), aesthetic: that of the everyman, whose desire is to be pandered to, not questioned. Call it Literary Consumerism, but it reminds us that, as de Tocqueville noted in America, democracy leads to demands that are lowest common denominators in matters of taste. Style, the well-turned sentence, is the core of a great novel, not an impediment. What's Melville or James without style? Bring on the doomsday machines, after all.

Motion Sickness

Andrew Motion has done more than any other Poet Laureate to promote poetry. So, it comes as something of a sad shock to see him so openly complain about the thankless task of the role, and to hear him describe his challenges overcoming writer's block. Certainly, the role made him world famous - and he is still young enough to, when his term comes to an end soon, move on to bigger things. However, this intervention will, no doubt, raise new calls for the abolition of the role, at a time when either Simon Armitage, or Carol Ann Duffy, are poised to take it on. Of course, as Eyewear has noted, British poetry is in a curious state at the moment, as funding and other demands impinge on it.

Roughly-speaking, British poetry is going more towards performance, the digital, and the mainstream, but not really connecting with a wider audience, anyway (see next post about the Booker) - since even serious literary fiction is now struggling to connect. The problem with poetry, is that, despite its supposed musical charms, what makes it most interesting (and what delights and challenges its practitioners) is not mere empirical expression of fact or feeling - but a complex tussle with form, poetics, the tradition, and ever-new-ways of saying things, of putting words where they've never been before.

This proves problematic not for poets, though - but for the dwindling (or dying) poetry audience - because there is no longer an established literate base of readers committed enough to literature's deepest implications and rewards to take the poet's journey. As such, most poets haul trains that are only 5% full. This is an exhausting, anguish-fuelled journey. Motion is to be commended for his honesty, and encouraged to keep writing - his strange, moving narratives of loss and England are excellent, and as much the landscape of contemporary British writing as any Booker-winning novel.

Elbow Room

Britain's Mercury Prize for music (complete with Simon Armitage appearance) was awarded last night to another seldom-heard band, Elbow, instead of going to Radiohead, and their innovative In Rainbows. It is good to see smaller, less-known bands celebrated by such awards - but surely In Rainbows was, quite simply, the most important record event of the 21st century (so far)? Not only did it alter the way music is made available to the world, but it presented the most upbeat, and even lyrical, songs that Thom Yorke and friends had ever recorded. It's a great, great album. Perhaps its reward will be in heaven.

The Big Turn On: Not With A Bang

The BBC news (radio 4) had live coverage this morning of the turning on of the variously-named machine that will measure how the universe began. After the muted cheers and handclaps of the scientists (mostly, alas, men), champagne was passed around. It felt like the moon-landing, but somehow in reverse - all the fun was being had in the control room. This subterranean, coiled monster of an experiment may destroy the world, later today, or sometime soon - or instead merely explain how it was created.

In many ways, it recalls Eliot's poetry - the murder and create dichotomy is strong with science. Hopefully, our end will not, though, be in our attempt to find our beginning. It's been said, by the media, who like metaphors they can sleep with, that this is like a "cathedral", and that the search is for a "god particle" - but science, more often than not, peels back the layers where the onion god makes us cry, exposing less, not more.

What will the first things of the world be like? Meanwhile, let me suggest another sort of experiment. Take down and open an anthology of 20th century English-language poetry. Read its massive 1,000 plus pages. Tell me the mind and emotions of men and women are not engineered by souls. The spark of God is in language - poetry already curves us back to the big bang everytime it runs well, widely, true and around.

Tuesday, 9 September 2008

The 2nd anniversary of my father's death

Today, September 9th, is the second anniversary of my father's death. I tend not to get personal at Eyewear, but the grief over his loss has shadowed these posts and pages these past two years, in different ways.

Firstly, I turned to this blog as an occasional diversion from the darker truths of existence: beyond poetics, beyond (even!) art, lies mortality. Some may feel another life waits, on some other side. Or not. I feel there are ghostly presences, if not demarcations, and have, at times, seen a dead one walking, if only in dreams (Orbison's tremulous sanctum). Where is my father now? Not here, is the only answer.

I think of him still, often, and he has become - death does this to perspective - both more clear, and yet, less full - sometimes I think I discern a pattern, a shape, a meaning. Then no. As with Milton's wife, one wakes and sees the beloved has fled. I am only writing this because death and loss are universal, not particular - everyone has this line across their life, this crack that opens onto shade.

Whenever I encounter petty struggle in the world - poetry has its share - I try to remember that each person is on their deathbed, at some point; I try to imagine holding their hand, in extremis. Picturing each other, not as we are when rude and robust, but as we shall be, in need, may help.

Meanwhile, I think that the truth of a life neither recedes, nor eventually emerges, in time - the truth was at the flood, the unfolding. My father did die, two years ago, and his time stopped then. From 1939 to 2006, though, he thrives and laughs and struggles in life, as much and more than anyone.

Guest Review: Harlow on Bordwell

Morgan Harlow reviews
by David Bordwell

The film, the whole film, and nothing but the film. David Bordwell focuses on the poetics of cinema, leaping over the various schools of criticism that have come into vogue over the last 60 years in research in the humanities, and, more recently, to film study. A prominent film scholar and Professor Emeritus at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Bordwell describes a poetics of cinema quite apart from the rhetoric and interpretations of methods-based theorizing.

How is a film made, with what effect, in what historical context? Poetics of Cinema, a collection of essays written over the last 30 years, aims, in Bordwell's words, "to produce reliable knowledge by pursuing questions within two principal areas of inquiry. First is what we might call analytical poetics. What are the principles according to which films are constructed and through which they achieve particular effects? Second, there's historical poetics, which asks, How and why have these principles arisen and changed in particular empirical circumstances?" (p. 23)

Bordwell has written a number of scholarly books and articles on film, film art and poetics, and writes the blog, Observations on Film Art and Film Art. Bordwell and his partner, film scholar Kristin Thompson, continue on the website what they started with the textbook, Film Art, now in its eighth edition. And Bordwell has just announced he is working on a new book. The Poetics of Cinema is a coherent assemblage, with some new essays and others previously published and revised for inclusion in the book.

Though a lot could be said for reading this book in order (the discussion of network narratives in Chapter 7, which I read first, hearkens back to points made in Chapter 3 about identifying the protagonist), even a reader that jumps around as I tend to do will find that the work as a whole and each piece communicates a consistent poetics by which to study and understand film craft, narrative, and style in artistic and historical contexts.

This is a book to spur the reader on, to read alongside others and in between watching films. Along the way, I dipped into Bordwell's The Way Hollywood Tells It, J.J. Murphy's Me and You and Memento and Fargo: How Independent Screenplays Work, and watched my first Ozu film. What made Chapter 7 stand out for me in my initial flip through this textbook-sized book was that Bordwell draws from an Italo Calvino meditation on relationships as "the design that emerges from the squiggles on the carpet," in his discussion of network movies.

Bordwell, in his discussions on poetics throughout, brings in observations not only by Aristotle and Coleridge, but also Samuel Johnson, W. H. Auden, Jorge Louis Borges, the work of Tolstoy and George Eliot, and many more to illustrate the what, how and why of film conventions. In Chapter 6, "Film Futures," Borges's story, "The Garden of Forking Paths" works as an interesting contrast to show that what theoretically works in physics and philosophy doesn't work in film narrative, which takes its cues from cause and effect in everyday life. Bordwell lay out the rules of forking path tales in two movies in particular, Krzysztof Kieslowski's Blind Chance (1987) and Peter Howitt's Sliding Doors (1998).

I won't hold it against Bordwell that he is clearly in love with Hollywood and the studio system. There is a science in the art of cutting. While for me loving studios would be comparable to loving big oil or the spin off toy industry, I have to confess to taking in film at the most primitive level, holding a fascination for the face and spellbound by narrative and music. Bordwell loves this as well, but there is so much more and he doesn't want us to miss it.

The medium is the message, you are what you eat, and Bordwell is film. I like philosophy and thought experiments, but I also like David Bordwell. Like a friend's mathematician father, Bordwell is comfortable with numbers, facts and what makes sense in the world. I have to say that the now obscure article on the male gaze, Laura Mulvey's "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema," was to me, meaningful and shall I say, eye opening in a way that something is brought to the discussion one has felt along the way but wasn't sure if one was just imagining it or not.

Bordwell, on the other hand, is big on evidence. And it has its advantages, slower moving, perhaps, but it's bound to be sure. Though not always, Bordwell will add, allowing for new and careful insights that could displace an older theory. In "Who Blinked First," (Chapter 11) Judy Garland not blinking on camera is tied to "the strength of the stare," a convention of "eye behavior" to enhance effectiveness in acting. Initially I was tempted to argue that, from my own experience as a mother of two relating to Garland as a stressed-out mom, there are just those days when it feels you barely have time to blink. Bordwell would discourage such psychologizing or cultural inferences. Where's the evidence? Bordwell is for scholarship, not guesswork.

And he always leaves room for theories based on good scholarship to be disputed on grounds of new evidence. Here, he clearly takes the high ground in mechanistic detail. Bordwell's commitment to film art is comparable to Harold Bloom's to literature. Both work against fragmentation in scholarship and worry about theory obscuring knowledge. Bloom opens his chapter, "Freud: a Shakespearean Reading," (in The Western Canon: The Books and School of the Ages) with a bruising comparison of Freudian literary criticism to the Holy Roman Empire, introducing his punch with, "Every critic has (or should have) her or his own favorite critical joke."

Bloom's "rant against cant," is partly why I read him; I think it's lovely, comparing theorists with hordes of lemmings bound for blindly leading each other off the cliff. Bordwell, too, can rant, but more as an ahem kind of clearing the throat, let's get real here, way. But here is Bordwell on Bloom, in The Way Hollywood Tells It, Story and Style in Modern Movies (2006). Bordwell notes, about his discussion of "the problem of belatedness" for film directors: "I borrow the term from Harold Bloom, but I don't mean to accept his Freudian theory of literary influence. I use the term to describe any situation in which an artist follows outstanding predecessors and must carve out her distinctive contribution." (p. 247, notes to p. 23).

I take it as a misreading of Bloom on the part of Bordwell, who is suspicious of any theory smacking of a psychoanalytic approach. As for a Bordwellian critical joke, search as I might I could not find an equivalent to match Bloom's. Bordwell's level good humor ranges from matter of fact to dry. One blog entry begins with, "My name is David, and I'm a frame counter," (January 28, 2007) and goes on to comment on the current state of, an explanation of the function of, and a historical discussion of, film cutting. Bordwell's humor always has a clear purpose, to lead in to serious scholarship.

Bordwell's introduction to Poetics of Cinema introduces the book as a group of essays concerned with poetics but also edges over to tipping the balance Bordwell maintains with keeping rant to a minimum, and therefore it might be best read as an afterward. The scholarship throughout speaks to the issue of poetics, and particularly the very fine essay, "Poetics of Cinema" (Chapter One).

The intro contains essentials about the mechanical aspects of putting together the book, but it also puts the reader on guard for a feud. It is one which Bordwell and film have already won, the right for film to be regarded as art and for academic film departments to be separate and distinct from cultural studies. Bordwell's evident love for film art is sanctified by his genius for film and a clear objectivity rarely seen in the humanities. His scholarship is lively and not mired down in extraneous theory. We've all been in the class or written the paper where we attempted to stick a theory as if with a wad of silly putty on to some song, movie or other art work to make a point. Not that all theory doesn't stick, but for a means to reliable knowledge a coherent poetics as Bordwell proposes can't miss.

One has to, I think, be an admirer of capitalism to put one's whole faith in such an art form. Because of inaccessibility in who will do the making, and its dependence upon big money and huge profits, film is a flawed art. Beautiful, powerful, but flawed in ways other art forms, including drama, and surely, poetry, are not. Perhaps that is why film is an easy target for culturally and politically minded theorists. And why auteur theory is so attractive, because we can believe that through the vision of an individual artist, through the sophisticated powerful and emotive art of visual storytelling, the business structures and cold machinery of film can be transcended and become art.

Can we draw a clear line between art and politics, and is it desirable to do so? Historical poetics takes politics into consideration, and there is no question that we are still being informed and shaped by historical patterns. Cultural studies is worthwhile but it isn't film study. Psychoanalysis has a grounding, but it isn't in film. But structures, money, space, and yes, art, are political. And these make up both culture and film. Bordwell doesn't deny this. His arguments for a poetics of film are informed by this, and argue for a demarcation that will serve everyone's interests.

Morgan Harlow is an American poet.