About Eyewear the blog

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


Saturday, 30 May 2009

The Canadian Take On Padel

The Globe and Mail has an interesting article in today's Saturday paper on Ruth Padel and British poetry, for those who might want to check out the Canadian perspective. I'm quoted. Meanwhile, the University of Alberta has hired Derek Walcott to be poet in residence, starting this autumn semester.

Friday, 29 May 2009

Poem By Jim Dolot

Eyewear is very pleased to welcome American poet Jim Dolot this Friday - the last poet to be featured before the summer break. Dolot wanted a trimmed bio note and no photo, so here goes:

Dolot's poems have appeared intermittently on The Best American Poetry blog site since August 2008.

First Three Paragraphs of a Lower-Middle Class Novel Never To Be Written

There was a man who was so lower middle class that he had no name except Lower Middle Class. On his checks his middle initial was M. Friends called him Low, and some people, including professors, thought Lower M. Class a very prestigious, not to say upper middle class name. Live and learn.

Lower lived in a small one family house in Queens, New York, where his father, a not very successful and somewhat embittered accountant had brought them from the Bronx in the early 1950s.

Lower's best friend when he was growing up was Semi Conductor. Everyone laughed at Semi because he had only half a body - one leg, one arm, half a head - you get the idea - but nonetheless was often frantically exuberant as if conducting a symphony orchestra. It was only later, when arts funding cutbacks made it necessary to halve most orchestras that Semi became one of the most famous and sought after musicians in the world. But we are getting ahead of ourselves.

poem by Jim Dolot

Thursday, 28 May 2009

Simple Minds

Not, not a reference to non-Eyewear readers. Readers of Eyewear will know that I love Simple Minds - that grandiose 80s band founded in 1977 that has somehow survived until 2009, with a few of its founding members still extant (Jim Kerr and Charlie Burchhill). My love of Simple Minds is not entirely logical, and much of it has to do with the fact that I consider their album New Gold Dream to be, along with The Queen Is Dead and Closer, one of the three masterpieces of British "new wave" and alternative music. And that critical claim is based on feeling as well as thought, and that I was young then, and liable to swoon.

However, there is an aesthetic that supports this judgement, and it is this: the 80s "New Romantics" are not so far from the poetic 40s "neo-Romantics" - they both explored excess, emotionality, religiose mannerisms and personal symbolism, and verbally-dense textures. I happen to think excess is as valid as austerity - both have their place. Anyway, enough preamble - Simple Minds have a new album just out, called Graffiti Soul, and it is their best album since the 1986 classic Once Upon A Time, which cemented their US rep built on "(Don't You) Forget About Me".

Sadly, the 23 years since 1986 have seen many declines, falls, and reclimbs for the band - with a few moments of interest along the way, notably the promising Neapolis, and the so-so Cry - and many duds. They could have been U2 but never clicked. I think the problem is partially in their stars - they were, and remain - grandiose, flamboyant, silly, and portentous - and that's their fun. They express big emotions with shimmering sounds and dramatic beats. Their words are religiose and emotive. U2 were cooler, and more able to expand and contract their signature style. However, the problem has been that Simple Minds - and I blame Kerr - didn't stick to their strengths. Perhaps because their initial success was based on this flamboyance, they sought to both emulate it, but tone it down. This seems a bit like attempting to kill the goose with the golden eggs, if not quite kill it.

Graffiti Soul is bound to disappoint fans, like me. I doubt it will make many new ones. However, it is their most responsible address to their great period of 82-86. The producer Jez Coad has kept the drumming tight, and the guitars shimmering. There are a few classic touches (some choir-like backing vocals, some keyboard drama) but not quite enough to soar. Instead, it is a back-to-basics feel and tone for a band that were never about basics to start with. Simple Minds were more glam than rock, and with the glam trimmed, you get glum. Still, they were also synth-pop pioneers on their early, haunting and exciting tracks, that often referenced a European hinterland of ominous shadow, erotic chance, and political intrigue.

Opener "Moscow Underground" captures this superbly, and reminds me a little of their great "Love Song". The next best track is the last (before the bonus ones - why have them at all?) - "This Is It" - which actually lifts to a recognisably '86 feel of euphoria, even mania. I suppose "Rockets" and "Stars Will Lead The Way" are good, but the rest of the songs, while competent, resist the drive and passion that make older songs like "Up On The Catwalk" thrilling, even strange.

Guest Review: Noon On Forrest-Thomson

Alistair Noon reviews
Collected Poems
by Veronica Forrest-Thomson

This collection of Veronica Forrest-Thomson’s curious, witty, observant, crafted, exploratory poems includes, as your average Collected might do, a section entitled ‘Uncollected Earlier Poems’. But unless you’re a reader able to put a restraining order on all prior biographical knowledge, it’s hard not to read all of these poems as early work: Forrest-Thomson died at the age of 27. The obvious question is what another fifty-odd years of writing might have produced. Though one shouldn’t make too much of this of course: when Hendrix died, at the same age, he had demonstrated that rock can be art. Some people just get it all done faster.

Forrest-Thomson’s first book Identi-kit (1967) gives, in places, a sense of having being written by a young person. Late-teen/early-twenty-something cynicism comes through in the imagery of stasis and decay, the themes of banality and theatricality in conversation, and the use of psychological abstractions like ‘experience’, ‘self’, ‘personality’ and the ‘identity’ referenced in the title, objectifications of what we rather self-centredly refer to as the ‘first person’.

But these elements are part of a structure which is more mature. The writer behind the words is already merging her reading, thinking and living in poetry: the result is depth and interest of perception. I’m reminded more than once of early Bunting in the dense, taut line of concrete images alternated with Latinate abstractions. The poems of Identi-kit are actually the achieved poems of a young person, something we almost ipso facto don’t often get to read – early David Gascoyne, and the equally write-fast-die-young Keith Douglas come to mind. These early early poems are already as much performance as practice.

The title poem of Identi-kit derives from a sensitive young person’s take on the centrality and impermanence of sexual love, but has the more distanced analysis you might associate with an older poet. ‘According to the Script’ verbalizes a youthful disdain for the perceived falsities of conversation, but combines wisdom with form in a way that speaks beyond that moment. Some of the poems in Identi-kit refer to evolution and the human in ways that prefigure the ideas of Richard Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene of 1976 (I guess they were in the air at the time). They are also prescient of our own slightly later turbo-biotechnological age, and the probing if problematic anti-humanist arguments of John Gray’s Straw Dogs: Thoughts on Humans and Other Animals. ‘In the Greenhouse’:

The silent rhythm of pulsating pores
filling my lungs with filtered earth
is all I know or feel of alien shapes
that once were flowers.
I breathe their breath
until all definitions are dissolved,
and homo sapiens is nothing more to me.

These lines tie into insights from discourse analysis and applied linguistics that, despite Chomsky’s assertion of the huge number of novel sentences that our brains can and do produce, our conversation and communication are frequently not nearly as individual as we like to think. They very often follow analyzable patterns both in lexis and structure. Forrest-Thomson’s take is this:

Thus the individual ego (once called a soul)
must learn to let the transcendent go;
find fulfilment pulling puppet strings
and putting on an entertaining show.
(‘Automat’)

The argument is taken up again a little later in the uncollected ‘Individuals’:

But there is at least a case
that poetry should trace
the double helix
(those interlocking strands of DNA)
before it try
to straighten the spring.

Weaker pieces in ‘Uncollected Early Poems’ point up the strengths of Identi-kit, revealing in another way an early maturity, in the author’s critical judgement with regard to her own work. ‘Uncollected Early Poems’ also includes transitional forms evolving towards the poems of Language Games, employing a ludic approach with frequent plays on proverbs – ‘Don’t bite the hand that throws dust in your eyes’, ‘I’m an old mouth at this game’. We get the first of Forrest-Thomson’s literary parodies here, and a kind of punning and knowingness that fore- and overshadows Armitagian verse. And her first concrete poetry, with its word patterns, deliberate semantic reductionism, visual aspect on the page and anti-lyricism, parallel to Gomringer, Cobbing, de Campos et al. There’s something young-ish at work here, too, in the primary interest taken in the surface of language.

Four years apart in their publication dates, the two volumes of Forrest-Thomson’s poetry published in her lifetime are quite different, and require different ways of reading. Where Identi-kit impresses in an immediate way, a response to Language Games (1971) may be more delayed: the fairly traditional, if often loosened-up forms of the first book give way to poems where sense is less traditionally arrived at. In Language Games the forms are more deliberately individual, and there’s a parallel tendency in the titles: the first collection’s ‘Christmas Morning’ and ‘Through the Looking Glass’ contrast with titles like ‘Notes to Chapter 1,002’ and ‘It Doesn’t Matter about Mantrippe’ in the second

Language Games also opens up to the voices of others, through frequent quotation and paraphrase of other texts, including Wittgenstein, Proust, Pound and the O.E.D. In Identi-kit, Forrest-Thomson is making perception and statement, looking for and often finding the Image. In Language Games, she’s throwing a great deal up in the air again, becoming the poet of Text: one poem is a meditation on hyphens. The unifying thing in both books is the sense of Argument in the poems. In Language Games this is certainly a disrupted argument, but an argument nonetheless. The reading and thinking are made simultaneously more explicit and more opaque: Forrest-Thomson later describes this book as ‘a head-on collision with non-poetic language’ (from the Preface to On the Periphery).

The posthumously published On the Periphery seems in some ways to be the synthesis of the Identi-kit thesis and the Language Games antithesis – proposition combined with the deep play of language. A kind of self-consciousness is still evident here, but put to good use: consciousness of self combined with technical control provide the power and appeal of many of the poems. Bits of the everyday – both town and gown – intrude: Cambridge university life pops up now and again – how could it not? There’s a pleasure in irony:

the abstract ditch we dig with our fundamental
disagreement about the proper form for a picnic.
(‘Approaching the Library’)

I can’t help thinking of W.S. Graham here – ‘abstract’ was a favourite word of his – and his recurrent theme of human communication. In On the Periphery, a Philosophical We reflects, sometimes in an almost taunting voice, on the arbitrariness of the world, with allusion, parody and authorial aside.

It’s Slow Poetry, and adherents of residual universalism in poetry – I mean the idea that it’s a great poem only if its ways of making meaning are already accepted and widely known – might decry much of this. Too intellectual. Too academic. Too Oxbridge. Too elitist. Check out the end to ‘The Aquarium’, a kind of Derridean supplément, or string of tin cans banging along behind the car:

Note: see Roland Barthes: S/Z, L’Empire des signes
Denis Roche: “Leçons sur la vacance poétique” in Éros énergumène
Alain Robbe-Grillet: La Jalousie
and Nathalie Sarraute: Le Planetarium

Are you going to ‘see’ these? And in French? If it’s a joke, it didn’t have me rolling in the aisles. I don’t buy the challenge argument sometimes made, with reference to references, by Defenders of the Difficult. I’m really not going to read, skim or google three books or essays of critical thinking and a couple of novels, in the original or in translation, to increase my understanding of this poem.

But then few people, except perhaps the writer of Penguin Key Notes, will have followed up all, or even any of Eliot’s parody-inducing notes to ‘The Waste Land’ (vide Martin Rowson’s comic book resetting of the latter as film noir, The Wasted Land, replete with notes, including one from Bakunin – in the original Russian.) The problem isn’t in the text, but in the social power and prestige too rapidly, and sometimes inaccurately, associated with it. Deal with it. And then read the poem.

What engages me in Forrest-Thomson’s work is the way it is demanding of my attention while still providing formal pleasure. The ‘Further Poems’ include ‘Cordelia’, an essay poem zipping in and out of Western literature and thought, which shows its author working her way up to larger forms. She pops herself into it in a way that is neither self-deprecating nor arrogant – ‘I, Veronica did it, truth-finding, truth seeking’ – but simply as a poet moving through the past. What ultimately wins through with Forrest-Thomson is the combination of intellectual probing with some down-to-earth yet worthwhile restatement of old themes, in her own way:

The motto of this poem heed
And do you it employ:
Waste not and want while you’re here
The possibles of joy.

‘The possibles of joy’. Can you say that? Well, she just did. Edwin Morgan wrote an elegiac sequence (‘Unfinished Poems’) for Veronica Forrest-Thomson, and I’m reminded of Morgan’s openness to and skill in both traditional and experimental forms (yes, there are scare quotes to be put round those adjectives). Her preface to On the Periphery, one of a series of prose statements that rounds off the Collected, talks of ‘recapturing the right to speak directly through the traditional ranges of rhymed stanza’. That goes hand-in-hand with the range of enquiry. In ‘S/Z’ – is it her or Barthes’ piece of the same name? what or who is the text? – are the lines:

Poems teach one that much:
to expect no answer.
But keep on asking questions;
that is important.


Alistair Noon’s chapbook At the Emptying of Dustbins recently appeared from Oystercatcher Press. He will be reading at A Midsummer Night of Poetry, at The Bear, in Camberwell, London, on July 2nd 2009. He lives in Berlin. He often writes for Eyewear.

Saving Salt

Many of my best friends - and some of the best poets - are published by Salt, in the UK. Its highly innovative marketing and production design has meant a state of the art online presence, superb distribution in shops, and beautifully-made books. Over the last few years, its publisher and main editor, poet Chris Hamilton-Emery, has written enthusiastically about the new wave of publishing strategies Salt ushered in to the UK, in books, and online posts. At times, there was a Salt swagger, and a suggestion that some poetry editors used amateur techniques. Now, Salt is in financial trouble (aren't we all?) and has thrown itself on the mercy of the poetry-reading world, with an email message asking that everyone buy a Salt book, since sales are down 80% (!) - and keep its liquidity above the red line.

I think that everyone should buy a Salt book. I also wish everyone would buy a Salmon book - my Irish press is also facing a toughmoment, if only because poetry sales are down everywhere. I personally buy several poetry collections each month, and perhaps as many as 30 or 40 a year. I tend to buy across the presses - Carcanet, Faber, Bloodaxe, Seren, and so on - and of course, Salt, too. Eyewear reviews Salt books, and I have some more to review later in 2009. If I don't conk out first. So, yes - buy Salt books, and keep a worthy press going.

But, what does it say about British poetry, and poetry publishing, that such a great and innovative press needs to basically beg to stay alive? Staying Alive, indeed. Poetry in the UK, it seems to me, subsists based on two general claims, which cannot both be true: a) poetry is flourishing and popular and if intelligently and commercially handled it will sell as well as many literary novels; and b) poetry is culturally important, even if it does not sell well, and deserves to be supported by the government via arts grants.

Wallace Stevens, for one, didn't agree with b. He thought poetry and poets should be self-sustaining, and, in fact, the equation, in Britain and beyond, between poetry publishing, and poetry writing and reading, is often equivocal. Places like Nthposition - often espousing copyleft ideals - prove poems can be offered freely - poetry needn't be sold to be art, and to make a mark. Can there be poetry outside of a capitalist system?

But, let's get back to a and b, above. I happen to think that both are partially true. The government should support poetry publishing, but across a broad spectrum, making sure old boy biases are broken down, and new aesthetic options are supported; and also, some poetry, sometimes, can sell well. However, it is surely a hard sell to say that poetry is truly commercial and also truly needy. Which is it?

Needy, more than commercial, seems closer to the truth. If we expect parliament and the banks to reconsider their models, then publishers who ask for tax payer money should also consider how they will move forward in future. Do they represent good value for our investment? How many poets can any press afford to publish in a year?

Tuesday, 26 May 2009

Phillips on Orwell and Plain Speech

The misappropriation of ‘Orwell’ (the mythical version of Eric Blair) by different factions has gone on for much of the six decades since his death. During the Cold War, and the years running up to the actual 1984 in particular, his last great fictional dystopia was routinely misinterpreted as a frontal assault on all forms of socialism and, in some cases, a defence of the individual libertarianism favoured, at the time, by Margaret Thatcher. Such distortions of both 1984 itself and Orwell’s ‘position’ generally were promulgated by right and left alike, the latter resorting to some quite peculiar means to ‘prove’ that the man who’d committed the fundamental leftist sin of criticising the Soviet Union in the 1930s was a reactionary. In Inside The Myth, for example, a collection of ‘views from the left’ edited by Christopher Norris and published in 1984 (of course), you’ll find Alaric Jacob’s ‘Sharing Orwell’s ‘Joys’ - But Not His Fears’, an essay which, in attacking Orwell’s depiction of preparatory school life in ‘Such, Such Were The Joys’ for being unduly negative, effectively defends private education. Orwell, it’s implied, was a greater enemy to progressive thinking than an entire nation’s socially unjust education system.

Post-Cold War, of course, there have been some more sober reappraisals but two serious misapprehensions persist. The first is that 1984's pessimism is the product of Orwell’s ill-health. Only the other week, on the 60th anniversary of the 1949 publication of the novel, the Observer’s Robert McCrum directly linked Orwell’s TB diagnosis with the grimness of the tale. No doubt, illness made typing up the manuscript difficult but, as anyone who’s read ‘Homage to Catalonia’ will have noticed, the experience of Winston Smith is noticeably similar to that of a certain Eric Blair, member of the Trotskyite POUM in Spanish Civil War Barcelona when the Stalinists turned on their former allies. It’s probably fair to say that 1984 owes more to Stalin’s paranoid intervention in Spain than it does to the novelist’s chest X-rays.

The second misapprehension is to do with language and form. Orwell, after all, made some seemingly unequivocal statements about the need for clarity, for language like a window pane. He also seemed to attack the avant garde (most noticeably in his essay on Salvador Dali and the more wide-ranging ‘Inside the Whale’). On the face of it, he was an opponent of experimentation, a champion of plain-speaking, one of Al Alvarez’s famously ‘negative feedbacks’ on post-war English writing.

It seems hard to refute this. And yet Orwell also championed the likes of Joyce and Henry Miller and, in his own fiction, proved a tireless experimenter. After the Forster-esque Burmese Days (arguably his least successful novel), there was the decidedly Joycean stylistic mixed bag of ‘A Clergyman’s Daughter’ (complete with playlet echoing the ‘Nighttown’ episode in ‘Ulysses’), the bitter streams of consciousness in Keep The Aspidistra Flying and Coming Up For Air (a blunt parody of Proust, with a watery sausage standing in for the famous Madeleine) and then, of course, the fables, Animal Farm and 1984 (which draw on European traditions as much as the legacy of Swift). Equally, all three of his full-length (so-say) ‘documentaries’ play with convention, pushing at the boundaries of the relatively new genre of reportage, The Road To Wigan Pier in particular throwing journalism and polemic up against autobiography and satires. This is not a literary conservative’s body of work. Opacity and self-indulgence were his enemies, not modernism and experiment.

Tom Phillips is a Bristol-based poet and writer. He reviews for Eyewear.

Without A Padel

The news that Ruth Padel has resigned from the position of Oxford's Professor of Poetry - after only holding this most-honoured post for a week or so - is sad enough. But seeing how the media has - as if this was a replay of Frost/Nixon - hounded a serious poet out of a serious house - makes it bad, too. Eyewear believes Padel, once appointed, should have been allowed to remain. While I think it was low to send out anonymous packages smearing Walcott, it is also clear Padel herself did not do this; and, it is also clear that Walcott's academic misconduct was documented and real. Why shouldn't a man or woman worried about harassment be able to mention this openly? There is something loathsome about the way a bunch of eminent older male establishment figures from broadcasting and academia began to pile on the abuse - against Padel, the brilliant poet, not against the allegedly-predatory older poet.

The media fuelled this crisis. It escalated because - almost uniquely for poetry in the UK - it was on the front pages for the last few days. Eyewear believes that, should journalists cover poetry more closely, they'd realise a lot of its doings are sub-Nixonian in terms of deals and secret agreements and other carrying on (a lot of backs get mutually scratched, a lot of people get blackballed) - but it seems a bit rich to start now, and act as if Padel was the first, or worst. Perhaps her crime was hubris. The literary types who run the show in London don't like people climbing above their station. Padel knocked out Faber's big boy, and that must have made a few people wince. Now, where are we? Oxford has lost out on two superb candidates - okay, perhaps flawed as humans, but not as poets - and what started so well has become a second-rate Greek tragedy.

Sunday, 24 May 2009

I Am An Uncle

Great news. I am happy to announce that my younger brother Jordan, and his wife, Jacinthe, have a brand new baby boy, Alexandre Swift, pictured, born today in Montreal.

Friday, 22 May 2009

Poem By Donald McGrath

Eyewear is pleased to welcome Donald McGrath this Friday.

McGrath is a Montreal-based poet, short-story writer and translator. He has had work in a wide variety of Canadian periodicals and reviews including Grain, The Antigonish Review, Prism, Poetry Canada and The New Quarterly, as well as on www.nthposition.com and www.danforthreview.com.
He has published a very good volume of poetry, At First Light (Wolsak and Wynn, 1995).

His work is characterized by arch wit and verbal exuberance, leavened with recollections of a rural childhood.


Washday

The glass was blueish green, like the sea
and furrowed like it, too. Unlike the sea's,
its waves all rose to the same height
and never broke, holding in their smoke
like a bunch of grapes. Braided like rope,
rough to the touch, they rubbed
the woman's knuckles raw as she scrubbed
clothes up and down, down and up, in
the wooden iron-hooped tub, spilling
fluffy suds upon the grass behind
the house where the white clothesline
tipped and tilted on its long green stick.
The woman next door would step up to the fence
and, palm on reddening cheek, praise
such industry as this that kept poor Hannah
busy until all hours. But soon she'd flee,
driven by some sudden recollection, or by jealousy,
back into the house. Then a finned car
with fierce shark teeth would ever so slowly
grumble up the gravel of the lane. The boy
would be there, too, next to his mother,
guiding his own little car or peeling dark
strips of bark off speckled chips of wood
piled by the chopping block, where the bright red noodle
leaped out from the chicken’s neck that special
day his father took down the axe.


poem by Donald McGrath

Morrissey At 50

Morrissey, as readers of Eyewear will know, is one of my favourite singer-songwriters. I've said in print he is Britain's leading pop musical genius, a sort of Mancunian Bob Dylan. So, it's good to see the man celebrating tonight back home, in Manchester. He's aged well, in terms of growing handsome, solid, and broad - but his recent work unfortunately pales in comparison to that of the 80s and the 90s. It's true, he had an Indian summer two or three albums back, but then the latest was miserable again, without the charm or wit. Morrissey's lyric style is predicated on repetition of key lines, phrases, and words - as well as sudden leaps in logic ("flying bullet for you") sung in surprisingly elastic ways, tricking the syntax and diction across the tongue. At its best, this is electrifying, and at times uncanny. This is why he is so Dylanesque - his words are brilliant, but the way he purveys them is more so. However, his broad themes of stymied eros and unloved romanticism, as well as frank disenchantment with post-Suez Britain (Morrissey is nothing without Mr. Bleaney), work when combined ("under the iron bridge we kissed") - generating a sort of Audenesque landscape of bleak possibility, where glimmers of hope and lust and humour escape from the glumness; just as Waiting for Godot is now seen as almost joyously comic and full of potential, the best of The Smiths, and Morrissey, is ultimately utopian: have tea, will whinge. And, so long as one is complaining, as Mildrew knew, one is alive. Therefore, to see Morrissey still alive and kicking at the pricks, half a century on, is good news. Many happy returns!

Auden Does Lenin

A researcher in the BFI archives has uncovered a few poems by WH Auden previously unseen for over 70 years, which is exciting news; less so only when one realises they are translations of "anonymous" Russian songs written in praise of Lenin, for a Stalinist propaganda machine. As an insight into Auden's 30s styles and affiliations, it is fun, even informative. There seems to be little of great poetic value in the new work, though. We knew Auden had Communist sympathies, and we knew he wrote work for film. This isn't news, so much as new grist for the mill.

Thursday, 21 May 2009

Obama Contra Congress

For those who wanted an activist Mr. Deeds style (even Chavezesque) US Presidency from Obama - well - you have it. Going it alone, against Cheney and Congress, Mr. Obama is pursuing a clear and presently controversial position on Guantanamo - it was a mess, and needs cleaning up. Following on recent moves to cut gas emissions by a third, and strong moves to support Kyoto-style global warming countermeasures - as well as the lucid defense of the right of a woman to have an abortion, Obama is increasingly becoming the most left-leaning, liberal, and decent President in history. Those who criticise him should do so with caution - it is hard to imagine a more coherently and sanely presented version of such a socialist / green agenda in a form able to capture the White House. Let's hope he keeps this up.

Thank You

I have been very moved by the replies to my post. The messages are bitter-sweet, because they both encourage me to focus more on my own work, but also remind me how many brilliant and talented writers and poets my words do reach, with this humble blog. Thank you, friends, for your advice. I shall still move Eyewear into a slower, quiter summer mode in June, and then revisit the vexed question of renewing its pre-summer levels, again in the autumn. But before then, there are still some good reviews to come.

Wednesday, 20 May 2009

Madness

No, not Eyewear's, or King George's - or even poor Speaker Martin's. Actually, the band. Madness, that great two-tone Ska sensation. Back, and, perhaps, better than ever. I bought and played The Liberty Of Norton Folgate (I am writing this from memory in a library so I hope I get the eccentric title right) last evening, and was deeply moved by its inclusive, upbeat sound and content - it is a sweeping love letter to London, and its people, and, the second track is generous enough to reference poets, along with plumbers, as a key part of the London experience. Indeed, the opening line, mentioning the Mosque near Baker street (my Marylebone area for years) brought tears of joy to my eyes. Madness is back, and not a moment too soon - their cheery, positive music was a tonic in the Thatcher era, and we need it again. This delightful album reminds us all that finding the seam of light in the dark is also artful. And that London can be a hell or a heaven, as they sing.

Tuesday, 19 May 2009

Enough is enough

By the way, I have decided to end Eyewear, permanently, in the autumn of 2009, or sooner. I'll start scaling things back over the next few weeks, and have a total break June-September. I have a number of books I want to get reviewed, and poets to feature, mostly because I promised them I would, and because - why I do not know - I believe that poets should be helpful to one another, and help to build a community online, given the relative indifference the wider society has to their art.

I have found blogging exhausting, and, even though we are coming up on Eyewear's 4th birthday, increasingly empty. While I am pleased to have 90 followers, my recent poll indicated I have, in any week, only around 66 people willing to vote - and, lately, most posts get 1 or no comments. Blogging is, I think, changing. Less and less rare, it is now slightly old-hat. There are newer, abbreviated ways to instantly message, and, more and more, blogs that do get readers are slicker, better edited, and, even, professional; in fact, as print media has died, blogs and online magazines have really become the new default place for journalists to go. How can Eyewear compete, and why would I want to?

I am currently completing a PhD, and dealing with various sorrows. I have a career as a teacher, and a critic, to think of, as well: the new economy is grim, and time spent on blogs is time not paid for. In a saner, fairer world, four years of Eyewear would, I assume, be lauded, or appreciated, by more than a handful of loyal, intelligent and far-flung readers - I think it's been a model of both eccentric expression and engaged fun cultural reporting, open to others and never afraid to be controversial, but never cruelly so. I feel its going will leave a small hole in the civilised discourse on poetry in the UK - but not one other blogs and bloggers won't - and can't fill. I ask you, though, dear readers, one question - aside from being a Canadian with a strong sense of purpose and some vision - what did I do in British poetry, all these years - aside from try to discover new talent and encourage it?

Borders patrol

I read at Borders today, as part of the Kingston Readers Festival, organised by Sandra (Sandy) Williams, who does an amazing job. Often, as you will know, readings in book chains are under-attended and poorly planned. This one was great. I had over forty in attendance, at lunchtime, and sold ten copies of my new and selected, Seaway. The audience listened well for over 45 minutes of poetry, asked questions, were supportive at the end, and was a genuinely wide-ranging group, of writers and readers of all ages, from about 20 to I'd say 75. It seemed the model of the sort of event one would want in one's own town. The Borders, in Kingston, is one of the only places to stock my work, so do support them, by getting a copy there, at Market Place, Kingston-Upon-Thames.

One slightly sad aspect was how everyone expressed their delight at hearing my poetry, and saying how well I'd read it. After my reading on 30th May, I have no events booked for the rest of 2009, in the UK. I have read at Ledbury once, years ago, and at Cheltenham, via Oxfam - but since then, nothing. Meanwhile, my Seaway has had no reviews in Canada, and, as far as I know, just two in Britain. I am a sort of invisible man, though people tell me "I am everywhere". Well, everywhere but in bookstores. Basically, Irish and Canadian books don't get much distribution in shops, as we know.

The lack of interest in my poetry, after two decades writing it, is stunning, and, frankly, wearying. What is moving is that good, decent, smart people, when exposed to poetry well-read, enjoy it.

Speaker! Speaker!

For anyone interested in parliamentary debate - or democracy - today is truly historic. For the first time in 300 years a Speaker of the House of Commons (UK) has had to step down, basically because of near-total MP disdain. Of course, he is being scapegoated - most of them are, it turns out, greedy and corrupt, or maybe just unethical and inept - but we can't ditch every last rotten bum out, can we? The danger is - who do we replace them with? At a time when Obama is making American democracy seem invigorated by decency, intelligence, energy, culture, and high purpose, the lack of any potential British figure to step forward is a little astonishing. What has become so rotten in this state? And why?

I suspect a cultural rot: the media, and other elites, in business and politics, along with many in the upper class, have connived for years, or rather, simply let things happen with an invisible hand - to allow British culture to degenerate into a medley of celebrity, shagging, uneducation, aimlessness and booze, with some trendy and repulsive Britart and bad pop music tossed in too. Mostly misplaced is the essential decency of the English, and their sense of fairness - or rather, it is there, but paved over by crass and angry TV ("you're fired!") and a lazy atheism bolstered by obesity and indifference.

What needs to happen is that Britain reclaims its sense of purpose, and becomes a leading force for the coming Green Age. We need a new sort of political landscape, one less divisive and no longer about Labour or Tory. Greed is not good. God exists. Poetry, if trusted, might almost save us. In short, we need a 21st century Arnoldian vision.

Chapman on Star Trek

Space. The New Frontier.

JJ Abrams’s new Star Trek film opened recently to spectacular business and critical acclaim. It’s the first time Trek has intersected with the mainstream since the movie First Contact in 1996 but to do so, it had to reinvent itself. This is not the first time that Star Trek has become new. Over the decades, it’s started again several times, to varying degrees of commercial and artistic success. Often, its creative rebirth has been at the hands of outsiders, fresh perspectives bringing new ideas. Let’s go back to the beginning of the final frontier and have a look at those incarnations, bearing in mind that every generation gets the Star Trek it deserves. Or, to put it more positively, Trek does well not just when it’s in touch with the times, but also when it coincides with moments of optimism.

Forty-five years ago a former motorcycle cop and fighter pilot, Gene Roddenberry, tried to sell NBC on a show he described as ‘Wagon Train to the Stars.’ As pitches go, this one was simple and brilliant. The show was called Star Trek, and NBC turned it down. They deemed that first pilot ‘The Cage’ to be too cerebral. They thought Captain Pike, played by Jeffrey Hunter, not enough of an action man. They were looking for thrills, adventure, fisticuffs. Roddenberry had given them a relatively sophisticated tale heavily influenced by the then-gold-standard in mainstream sf cinema, Forbidden Planet, which was itself an adaptation of The Tempest. He had also given them the U.S.S. Enterprise, and the character of Spock. It was probably more than they could handle at the time. To their credit, when they turned down his first pilot, they asked him for another. Jeffrey Hunter proved unavailable, so the character was renamed and recast. Enter William Shatner as James T. Kirk. Spock, despite network unease at his alien appearance, remained, now promoted to First Officer. In the pilot, this role had been filled by a woman, which the suits weren’t too keen on, either. That woman, Majel Barrett, married Roddenberry and would go on to voice the ship’s computer in every Trek since, as well as taking on other roles in the show.

In a time of both hope and strife, the five-year mission began, and the classic Trek crew assembled on the bridge of the Enterprise: Kirk, Spock, Bones, Scotty, Sulu and Uhura. Chekov would come later, as a result of the popularity of the Monkees – the producers thought a Davy Jones lookalike would help attract a bigger audience. That original Star Trek was full of brash post-Kennedy optimism. Its central relationship was that between Kirk, Spock and Bones. Though produced by Roddenberry, other creative influences made as great a mark on the show, notably Gene Coon and Dorothy Fontana. Star Trek’s best episodes were classics, to name a few: ‘City on the Edge of Forever’, ‘Balance of Terror’, and ‘The Trouble with Tribbles’. However, like all TV shows, Trek was capable of appalling lapses. The episode ‘Spock’s Brain’ is so bad you can tell the actors wished they were elsewhere. By then, Fred Freiberger had taken over as producer and Star Trek went downhill towards cancellation.

Then something unprecedented happened. Star Trek, running in syndication, started to find its audience. Millions who had missed it the first time around, began to turn Trek into a pop phenomenon. The suits realised that they had killed the goose while it was still pregnant with the golden egg. Trek’s first revival was a Filmation cartoon in 1974, starring the voices of most of the live-action cast. Though Roddenberry dismissed it, the animated series is often as good as its parent show, with several episodes out-classing its more grown-up incarnation, and introducing many of the concepts that would be explored later in the franchise, the holodeck being the most obvious example.

Star Trek went fallow for a few years until the studio decided to relaunch the Enterprise for a second five-year mission: Star Trek Phase II. Scripts were written, designs were commissioned, sets and models were built. Roddenberry was back, as were most of the actors. Leonard Nimoy, who had earlier defined the role of Spock, was at that time in the process of distancing himself from the character, having recently put out an autobiography called I Am Not Spock. It’s an interesting read, if slightly barmy. The book works as a dialogue between Nimoy and Spock, and is cod-philosophical, though well-meaning and very 1970s. He would follow it years later with a second volume called I Am Spock, having reconciled his human side with his Vulcan alter-ego. In Phase II, Spock was to be replaced by a young full-Vulcan called Xon.

Then Star Wars hit cinemas, and revolutionised the idea of the space epic. The studio decided that instead of a TV series, they’d make a blockbuster Star Trek film. Star Trek: The Motion Picture, directed by Robert Wise, came out in 1979 (so the new film appears 30 years later). It drew on a script for the abandoned series and bumped it up to movie length. Trying for seriousness, the film ditched the joie de vivre of the original show in favour of Kubrickian coolness. Even though the film’s new Enterprise is the best-looking of all the ships to bear that name, Wise spent too long admiring it. Effects shots dragged. Performances were mannered. It felt like Space: 1999, but with better jumpsuits. To cap it all, The Motion Picture wasn’t even properly finished in time for its release. A story of an augmented space probe’s return in search of its creator – putting Earth in danger – this first big-screen Trek would have worked better as a shorter film, or as a different film. All of the old crew returned, Kirk now promoted to Admiral, with characters from Phase II added temporarily to the story. Interestingly, this film has aged rather better than it should have, Wise having made a superior director’s cut for DVD years later. In 1979, though, critics called it Star Trek: The Slow Motion Picture.

Three years later a new producer, Harve Bennett, and a fresh director, Nicholas Meyer, made a bold move and totally overhauled the series. Going back to the original inspiration for Trek, a sort of interstellar Horatio Hornblower, Meyer’s Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, was more or less a great submarine movie in space, crossed with Moby-Dick. Ricardo Montalban played Khan, a wonderfully camp villain out for revenge on Kirk, with whom he had crossed paths in the original show. Set fourteen years after the first film, Trek II had the good sense to allow its characters to age, their mortality being one of the core themes of the story. Kirk finds out he has a son by an old girlfriend, which makes him question his priorities in life. As is by now well-known, Spock dies at the end of this film, which kicks off a loose trilogy. The next movie, The Search for Spock, appeared in 1984, and was a low-key middle-entry that has many great character moments. Kirk and crew endanger their careers by stealing the Enterprise, taking her on a journey to reunite the soul of their fallen comrade with his body. They succeed, but Kirk’s son dies pointlessly, breaking the Admiral's heart almost as much as the loss of Spock, or the destruction of the Enterprise, which Kirk sacrifices to save his crew. After III came IV: The Voyage Home, in 1986.

Our intrepid heroes, now including a revived Spock, return in a Klingon vessel to Earth where they will face court martial. En route, they discover that the planet is being destroyed by another alien probe intent on contacting an indigenous life form: humpback whales. The trouble is, in the 23rd Century, these creatures are extinct. Kirk and company travel back in time to the then-present day, where they find the whales, bring them back to the future, save the world and return to Starfleet’s favour, enjoying plenty of knockabout comedy along the way. Plus Kirk gets to chat up a hot 20th-Century marine biologist. It's better than it sounds, and a gentle lesson in ecology to boot, at a time when Al Gore was still busy inventing the Internet. By the end of the trilogy, Admiral Kirk is 'punished' by being demoted to Captain and given a new ship called Enterprise.

Treks III and IV were helmed deftly by Leonard Nimoy, who went on to have a successful but brief second career as a movie director. For the next film, William Shatner was given the reins. 1989's Star Trek V: The Final Frontier is often cited as the worst Trek movie. Its lame story of finding God at the centre of the galaxy doesn’t help. Neither does the budget, which didn’t allow for the great set-piece finale Shatner had in mind. It all comes across as rather flat and pointless, after the brashness and spirit of the Reagan-era Treks. Also, Uhura does a fan-dance to distract some ugly blokes with guns; Scotty bangs his head on a low beam, with hilarious consequences; and there’s a very daft Spock-baiting singalong around a campfire in Yosemite. Believe me, it’s silly.

In 1991, Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country brought Meyer back to the helm in a Cold-War parable of a dying Klingon Empire, falling apart because of its closed society and not helped by a Chernobyl-like disaster. It isn’t difficult to see the parallels in the real world at the time, and VI is a brisk political thriller that is a fitting end to the original-era Star Trek. The actors’ signatures animate at the end, and the film is dedicated to Gene Roddenberry, who had just died.

Four years earlier, Roddenberry and Paramount had revived the show on television. With a largely unknown cast crewing a newer, bigger Enterprise, Star Trek: The Next Generation made its bow in syndication, nobody holding out much hope that it would go beyond one season. The cast was headed by veteran English actor Patrick Stewart as Picard, the French captain with the English accent. Stewart once said that all his time sitting on the throne of England at the RSC was merely a rehearsal for the captain’s chair of the Enterprise. Also of note was Brent Spiner as Data, originally your standard-issue android-who-wants-to-be-human, but whose character would gain depth over the years. TNG got off to a slow start that clearly showed Roddenberry’s influence. Its first season seemed to have the production values and story sense of the parent show, which is to say it would have worked in the sixties but twenty years on looked a bit dodgy.

TNG improved with age, however. With Roddenberry’s death in 1991 Rick Berman took over. By the third season the scripts and characters had simply got better, until The Next Generation became appointment viewing, overtaking its predecessor creatively, if not in historical cultural significance. TNG showcased the writing of such talents as Ron Moore, Ira Steven Behr, Brannon Braga and Michael Piller, and it defined television space opera for the nineties. Great episodes included ‘The Inner Light,’ a meditative fable in which Picard lives an entire alternative lifetime in minutes; ‘The Best of Both Worlds’ in which the crew battle the Borg (in a plot and cliffhanger ripped directly from Blake's 7); and ‘Chain of Command’, which saw Picard captured and tortured by alien nasties called Cardassians.

The Next Generation lasted seven seasons, until 2004. It was a massive hit and the studio wanted another. Deep Space Nine arrived in 2003 and is arguably the finest Trek show. Set on a space station at the mouth of a stable wormhole near the post-occupation planet Bajor, DS9 took risks the other Treks didn’t dare. Many of the best writers from TNG moved over to the show which, again, had a shaky first season but which by the end had become a rich and powerful epic of war and religious politics. The ensemble cast was excellent, with Avery Brooks playing the widowed Starfleet Commander (later Captain) Benjamin Sisko; Nana Visitor as the former terrorist/freedom fighter Kira Nerys; and René Auberjonois as the shape-shifter constable Odo. The writing team was headed by Ira Behr, given a free hand more or less as other producers concentrated on the next Trek show, Voyager. Notably, Ron Moore helped create a deep and rich culture for the Klingons. DS9 lasted seven seasons and went out on a high.

In the movies, Original Series and Next Generation characters featured in the transitional Generations, with Kirk and Picard joining forces to stop a villain destroying a planet. So far, so dull. Malcolm McDowell played the bad guy perfunctorily. The film is memorable chiefly for the crashing of the Enterprise on a planet’s surface, as well as the underwhelming death of Kirk, who is crushed by a bridge. The ironic comment of the time was ‘Bridge on the Captain.’ It would seem that the writers, Ron Moore and Brannon Braga, were hamstrung by the need to include too many ‘must-have’ elements in this film, rather than trusting the story. Or maybe they were just TV writers trying to do a feature, and learning on the job. Their TNG finalé, ‘All Good Things’, is rightly regarded as an exemplary lesson in how to end a show. They made up for Generations with the following film, directed by Jonathan Frakes, who also played Riker. Star Trek: First Contact was a fun adventure, the best Next Gen film, in which the crew of the Enterprise must travel back in time to stop an alien menace from destroying the Earth. Notice the pattern yet? The Borg, who stole everything they know (except costume design) from Doctor Who’s Cybermen, were a formidable villain – singular because they’re effectively one consciousness. James Cromwell played Cochrane, the inventor of Warp Drive, with irascible charm. The other actors were mostly on form – Stewart in particular found praise for his performance as an intellectual action man who listens to Berlioz and suffers from post-traumatic stress. Alice Krige was good as a creepy Borg Queen. Brent Spiner had fun with his portrayal of Data. Alfre Woodard did well as Lily Sloane. The film looked great, the Earth was saved and first contact was, indeed, made. Oh and Roy Orbison’s music survives into the next century, which is nice.

In deliberate contrast, the eighth Star Trek film, Insurrection, went low-key again. Written by Michael Piller as ‘the first Star Trek date movie,’ it was a pleasant, touchy-feely Trek about plastic surgery and ethnic cleansing ­­– good in parts and gentle on the brain, but it didn’t set the box-office alight.

On television, Star Trek: Voyager debuted in 1995 and was headed by Kate Mulgrew as Captain Janeway. It replayed the hackneyed story of a starship far from home trying to avoid peril on the long journey back. The reset button predominated on this show, as no matter how beaten up the ship became during an episode, it was usually pristine at the beginning of the next. There seemed to be an inexhaustible supply of shuttlecraft, and many plots and characters were recycled from earlier shows. Ron Moore, who had long since left Trek, later developed the critically embraced Battlestar Galactica, in which the ship got very beaten-up indeed.

In the movies, Star Trek Nemesis in 2002 reverted to the old themes of an alien menace threatening the Federation, with the Enterprise crew out to stop him. A treasured crewmember, Data, gives his life to save the captain, as in Khan with Spock twenty years earlier, but this time, the film undercuts the suspense by having the character’s replacement – an identical android body – arrive on the ship early on. We also learn that the Klingon Worf doesn’t like Irving Berlin. Nemesis is an example of how Star Trek repeats itself, the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce, the third time as boredom. It bombed at the box office and the movie series was put on hiatus.

As Voyager ended, yet another new show began. Enterprise was the first Star Trek to do what Abrams’s movie has done so successfully, and return to the roots of the Final Frontier. Featuring Scott Bakula as Captain Jonathan Archer – originally intended to be called Jeffrey – Enterprise attempted to be Star Trek’s version of The Right Stuff. The first crew of the first Enterprise – never mentioned before by the original crew of the original ‘first’ Enterprise – this show rewrote Trek history in a way that didn’t go down well with fans, and didn’t engage the general public. Its first main villains, the ‘Suliban’ – guess the influence – weren’t much cop. However, like some of its predecessors, Enterprise gradually developed into an interesting series. Its third season took the form of one long story arc in which Earth is attacked by an alien menace in a manner intended to recall 9/11. Captain Archer takes the ship in search of the bad guys in order to destroy their weapon. Of course, they have to meet some ‘Space Nazis’ along the way, and kick some Suliban butt. It’s all part of a ‘Temporal Cold War’ plot that doesn’t quite come off. The real improvement came half way through its four-season run when Rick Berman and Brannon Braga brought in a new writer, Manny Coto, whose excellent Showtime series Odyssey 5, was unjustly cancelled after one season. Coto, who had grown up with Star Trek, swiftly helped the other two refocus Enterprise. In a fourth series of generally excellent episodes, Enterprise finally found its feet. Then it was cancelled, but not before a real stinker of a final episode, which gets just about everything wrong. This, after the disappointment of Nemesis, was the last we would hear of Star Trek for a while.

Much like Russell T Davies’s reinvention of Doctor Who, JJ Abrams’s new movie Star Trek ditches the old while preserving it. He and his writers have managed to start fresh while keeping contiguous with what’s ‘gone before,’ even though the film recycles many plot elements from past shows and movies in the franchise. There’s nothing original about the villain or the plot, except what it does to the Trek universe, which is quite bracing. One Alderaan-echoing incident sets out Abrams’s stall. This is a new Trek universe in which anything can happen. The film looks gorgeous, the tone is brash, the pace is breakneck. It’s Star Trek: The Fast-Motion Picture. The new cast more than do justice to the material and to the roles, even though you suspect that in reality Starfleet wouldn’t let a bunch of kids crew its very new and very expensive flagship in case they’d crash into something. Chris Pine nails it (and a green Starfleet cadet) as Kirk. Zachary Quinto is uncannily perfect as Spock. Karl Urban is faithful and new at the same time, as crochety old McCoy. Simon Pegg is witty and fun as Scotty. Nimoy as Spock works fine in his torch-passing cameo. Uhura, after a strong introduction, is relegated to the role of receptionist. Just like the sixties, then. This film is mostly about Spock and Kirk and their bromance, which is fine, but it would be a good move for Abrams to give Uhura more to do next time, since she's pivotal to events here but gets sidelined. The ship’s first captain, in this movie, is Christopher Pike, so in a sense we’re back to where Star Trek began in the original 1964 pilot. While the film itself lacks depth and has nothing to say about the world in which we live, it’s one hell of an entertaining ride. Abrams and company have succeeded well in making Star Trek vibrant and engaging again. Now let’s see what they do next with this new universe.

Patrick Chapman is an Irish poet, screenwriter, novelist, short-story writer, and science fiction expert. He was written for Eyewear on several occasions, recently on Dr. Who.

Sunday, 17 May 2009

Padel Is Oxford Professor of Poetry

Good news. Ruth Padel - one of the best British poets - has just become the first woman to be elected to the post of Professor of Poetry at Oxford.

Saturday, 16 May 2009

Maxine Cooper Has Died

Sad news. Maxine Cooper (pictured) has died. She starred in one of the major 50s noirs, and an Eyewear favourite, Kiss Me Deadly, the anti-atomic hardboiled flick with the erotic sucker punch. She was also basically blacklisted for being an activist and too smart for her own good. Hollywood doesn't know where to put women's minds, sadly. I hear the new Jane Campion film about Keats may win at Cannes this year, by the way. Campion is one of only several female directors in a tediously male game. Time to break the glass ceiling for the silver screen.

James Mason's Centenary

As David Thomson so ably wrote the other day, James Mason was a class act. He's one of the actors I most love - especially for his work in 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea, Odd Man Out, and The Man Between. And, of course, Lolita and North By Northwest. Eyewear would like to saulte this greatest of British character actors on the centenary of his birth.

Friday, 15 May 2009

Poem by Andrew O'Donnell

Eyewear originally recently came across the young, and talented poet Andrew O'Donnell (pictured here) at a Manchester poetry reading - and then again at the Essex International Poetry Festival, where he came third in the poetry competition judged by Roddy Lumsden.

O'Donnell is from Lancashire. He studied Literature and Philosophy at Staffs University and wrote an opera libretto entitled 'Transmission' in '97, performed at Huddersfield College of Music the same year.

He's travelled and lived for years in Asia. His poetry and short stories are published on the net at Unlikely Stories and Nthposition, and in Orbis, The Wolf, and Grain.

A Weeping Page

To Raul Zurita

Satellites beam the news to a screen
in a tank filled with strangers both
strange to each other and strange
to themselves. Then the weeping starts.

I turn on a tap because my own
weeping has started; wash my hands
in the tears of strangers, mark this shift;
tear-threshed, to begin the fresh weeping.

In the street the houses are weeping
with rain and the shops are selling it
in bottles and the people are drinking it.
And the streets pass on their cupless

drizzle to the rivers that weep, the inlets
that weep, the lighthouses that weep,
the bays that weep, the oceans that weep –
drumming themselves down each history.

Then the broadcast is halted. Strangers
watch the screen go blank – from a drop
caught in the eye of a gunned-up dove –
they find each other, in this glance. Spied.

And we wait, as the main parts of each
local piece: minted mice, three-legged cats,
mute mynahs, are air-lifted out like glottal
stops – paged over the sea’s furring lingo.

poem by Andrew O'Donnell

Michael Murphy Has Died

Sad news. The poet, critic, and editor Michael Murphy has died. There is a good obituary in The Guardian. I am currently reading the collection he edited of Kenneth Allott's poems, for Salt.

Thursday, 14 May 2009

Event no. 32

I am reading at the Kingston Reader's Festival next week, 19 May, as Event no. 32.

Saturday, 30 May, at 7.30 pm, I am reading with Judi Benson and David Perman for the long-running and popular London series, "Poetry in the Crypt", at the Neighbourhood Centre next to St Mary's Church, Islington.

A chance to get a signed copy of Seaway.

Obama and Walcott

Barack Obama has recently hosted a "Poetry Jam" at the White House, inviting performance poets and Jazz musicians, among others. I didn't recognise any of the guests, and do hope the great Patricia Smith and Bob Holman get invited soon. It appears that the "coolest man on the planet" - and easily the most cultured US President since Kennedy - likes poetry (we knew he wrote it); indeed, he was seen lately with a collection of Derek Walcott's "in his back pocket". The meteoric rise of Walcott's reputation in American political circles has been matched by an equally catastrophic fall in Britain.

Sadly, he had to withdraw from the running for the position of Professor of Poetry at Oxford, after a dodgy dossier was sent around to academics (and voters) alleging harassment claims. It's an awfully shabby way to treat a poetic genius, and Nobel prize winner. I think it might be wise to postpone the elections for a year, to let the dust settle. However, Ruth Padel would be a superb choice; her new Darwin collection is a masterwork.

Still, one wonders at the way in which such bland moralising has been used to humiliate a major poet of our time - after all, none of the claims made against the man were proven, were they? I am utterly disgusted by the idea of harassment, and oppose it, but believe in fair play, too, and would have liked to see Walcott selected, or not, based on his poetic, not priapic, adventures. I wonder if Obama will removed his copy of Walcott from his trousers, once he gets wind of this downfall? Maybe not, he's able to stand up to Netanyahu, he could probably handle Oxford, too.

Alain Bashung Has Died

Sad news. The great French singer-composer Alain Bashung has died. As a Montrealer, I have fond memories of his songs and videos, especially "Vertige de l'amour" and "Gaby, O Gaby". His growling voice and Elvis Costello sneer (he actually looked a bit like Bourassa at times) endeared hom to my brother and I instantly.

Wednesday, 13 May 2009

Ian Hamilton's Collected Poems

I've been reading the slim handsome new Faber Ian Hamilton Collected, recently published. It's a corrective reading, because no one else, really, writes in his style now, as Alan Jenkins observes in his intelligent, honest, and compassionate Introduction. This is impressive, because it means that Hamilton's terse, controlled, famously minimal manner seems almost unique, and as remote as from another century. Most influential and respected as a poet in the 1970s, it may be hard to believe, now, but Hamilton was, along with Larkin, and Hughes, arguably one of the three best-known and respected English poets of that decade (Heaney was of course the major Irish figure). Before the Motion and Morrison 80s, and, setting aside for a moment the other tradition being pioneered by Prynne, Riley, Crozier, Raworth, Hamilton was a major figure. Is he still?

The new edition of his work is austere in its claims and offerings. There are not many more than the famous 60 poems. What is new does not radically shift one's reading. However, what is impressive is precisely the often-mentioned austerity, and modesty, of delivery. Hamilton did not believe in poetry as research. He waited for poems to come, out of extreme moments. These he then shaped - and they feel agonisingly pared back. I can think of no other 20th century poet, writing in English, with anything like such a reputation, with such a small body of work. It is perhaps a dubious critical approach to praise a poet for extra-poetic values, such as morality, or workmanship, or modesty - but British criticism is often weighted, with such unspoken, and spoken, claims. What is often admired is precisely how character and/or values are invested in work (craft, skill, form, mastery, discipline, rigour, seriousness and so on) - so that excessive, or indeed, prolific, poets, sometimes appear unruly and can be censored as such.

The big paradox is Dylan Thomas, who was personally amoral and disordered, but apparently disciplined in his poetic craft. The Movement, of course, was all about an alternative moral or personal austerity, a controlling, that fed into the poetic style. I wonder if enough work has really been done to examine the relative meaningfulness of such a position, as ancient as Seneca, that a writer's ethics are their writing. What is intriguing about Hamilton's poems is that they read, seen again now, powerfully. Without rebuking anyone, they are artifacts of an impressive other way of writing poems, worth reconsidering. Reading them is a tonic, is bracing.

For, Hamilton, despite his attack on the Forties (he preferred the severest of the war poets, especially Keith Douglas), was no mere Movement type. He read and admired Lowell. He knew and respected Al Alvarez (whose own late poetry reads much like Hamilton's). Hamilton wanted to pack extreme, confessed emotion in to the poems, but, in a more impersonal, if not Eliotic way. As such, the form of each of his poems is an extremely striking microcosmic version of the whole; in genetic terms, each poem is a gene; the whole is the Collected.

I find myself persuaded that, for all the pathos of the tiny achievement, in terms of finished, published poems, Hamilton was a tremendously serious, gifted, and dedicated poet. He was scrupulous to the extreme. His work warrants such a new publication, and is no mere vanity project. It will last - perhaps not because he is central to what the British 80s to the present actually became, in poetry (Hamilton surely would not have enjoyed the emphasis on comedy and 'democratic voice') - but despite what happened. Hamilton has become a very intriguing road not quite taken. Never too late. I know his nephew, the fine young poet Nathan Hamilton, has been thinking along similar lines.

Guest Review: Campbell On Fritz And Dancing Bear

Nancy Campbell reviews
Going, Going…
by Leah Fritz
and
Conflicted Light
by J.P. Dancing Bear

In Going, Going… we find Leah Fritz ‘under Westminster Bridge’ contemplating ‘the world out on parole’. Wordsworth is the first of many poets whose shadowy footsteps she traces through London and beyond. Yeats and Plath are remembered – and their deaths contrasted – by means of their tenure in Primrose Hill. Fritz locates herself by literary tradition as much as by geography, slipping between poetic forms just as an experienced traveller integrates with customs and cultures. This selection includes a ballad, ‘As We Speak’, that comes with ‘apologies to William Blake’, and a sonnet about, and after, Elizabeth Barrett Browning (‘Death in Florence’). Yet this is no mere fan-worship; Fritz’s distinctive voice reads like a conversation with her forebears. While her gaze is predominantly retrospective, she also acknowledges her contemporaries: a sonnet dedicated to Mimi Khalvati betrays ‘What teachers get up to when they’re not in school.’ Fritz quotes Robert Browning ‘The best is yet to be’, but her poems don’t bear out this optimistic sentiment. Despite evident strength of character, she expresses a feeling of powerlessness in the face of change. The title poem ‘Going, Going…’ is a winsome meditation on the aging body’s perversity: ‘… I feel I am a faint/ Shadow in the backdrop, something that the artist/Tried unsuccessfully to hide, something too quaint //For the production that the playwright had in mind.’

While this theme can potentially become a one-trick pony on which a poet rides to the grave, for Fritz the body’s fate is just the starting point for ruminations on social and moral decay:‘Brecht where are you when we need you now?…Where/Are your daughters, where your sons, to blast/Away the dust-motes of despair?’ She writes from a deeply personal context of protest. In an unusual anti-war poem, ‘Women in the Park (Sketches from the Vietnam years in New York)’, the conflict is viewed through the eyes of‘mothers pushing English carriages and talking (yes) of Michelangelo, their infants piggybacked through galleries,aware that they are privileged…’It is an honest account of bourgeois outrage, all the more powerful for being located beyond the conventional heroic guise of the outsider. The most plaintive poems conclude with droll couplets, cast off with a debonair shrug of the shoulders, as a cynical belle might pull a rueful moue on losing the love of her life. The reader gets the feeling that passions run deeper than the poems admit. Some capture the sardonic tone of holiday postcards home, written by an under-whelmed visitor. New York City ‘shines too much as if denying life’ while the poet is ‘seated facing sprawling thighs/trying ostentatiously to read.’ ‘Fruit’, Fritz’s narrative of the Fall, sums up the flight from the garden in an aside ‘How sensible of Eve/to pack a lunch.’ Such light heartedness borders on the bathetic at times, but it saves the poems from becoming sententious.

The mocking tone is most effective when sending up intellectual pretensions, such as the discovery of evolution, which is described as a belief that ‘… heaven [is] not upabove at all, but all around, and man emerged,/not from the hand of God, but more absurd,/anonymously from some thumbless ape.’ ‘Book Review’, an ambitious long sequence, concludes the book appositely. It is reminiscent of Breughel’s vast canvases that depict everything at once – both secular and religious scenes, distant landscapes and intimate exchanges. Like ‘Fruit’, the poem’s narrative attempts to explain a religious instinct it is overwhelmingly tempted to mock:‘Men worship what they do not understand./It’s in their fickle nature to adore/what seems impenetrable. They have a gland/for this.’ Fritz begins with Genesis, then charges through the Old Testament, the New Testament and Greco-Roman myths, by way of any of the ‘Books some people long ago…/inscribed on parchment scrolls’. She cultivates a reviewer’s dead-pan tone:‘Notably, some disagreements deal with supernatural events around the Hero’s birth and death. I won’t reveal the plot…’ The idea of a biblical spoiler is a nice irony, and of course we know already that the plot will get steadily worse as we enter the modern period. Eventually Fritz abandons her reviewing persona for a more exasperated invective, on witnessing ‘love /and peace dismissed as jam tomorrow.’ The poem implies that a lot of the blame for faction and violence lies with religious texts:‘These books are never out of print,Though now as relevant as chariots Or the ox-drawn plough.’Whether humankind is better off without the religious sensibility (or ‘gland’) which generates such impassioned beliefs, and hence conflict, is an impossibly complex debate. ‘To sum it/up requires more than a final couplet…’ Indeed.

The danger of Fritz’s stance is that her indignation has the potential to sound as bigoted as those she derides. Are books really to blame for extremism? As a poet, she is right to acknowledge the power of the written word. However her exegesis fails to acknowledge the literary and philosophical qualities of a work which, ironically, was part of the canon for many of the writers referenced elsewhere in this selection. Could antagonism be part of the human condition, rather than something we can petulantly blame on studious ‘Zealots’? We come back to the mothers pushing their prams in Central Park.It’s a complicated matter, as Fritz acknowledges, declaring (one might almost say back-tracking) in ‘a final couplet’ – after Sontag – ‘I recommend this with one reservation:For heavens sake, avoid interpretation.’A hearty warning to reviewers, which I take as a welcome injunction to stop interrogating the poem.

Conflicted Light by J.P. Dancing Bear also investigates mortality and the body’s fragility. Despite the subject matter, these poems display a supple movement and an exuberant dedication to life – rather like the salmon swimming upstream which is the publisher’s logo. A central section, ‘Exit Strategies’ examines the death of the poet’s grandmother, the brittleness of his own health, and other, unnamed departures. These losses are cues for an exploration of life and the role of language within it. For readers who aren’t familiar with Dancing Bear’s work, which is less well known in the UK than it deserves to be, a good comparison is Galway Kinnell. Both poets are adept at framing an idle moment as the locus for a transcendental realisation. In ‘Canaries’, a variant sestina, the poet is moved to tears by the impossibility of his grandmother ‘trying to communicate/after the stroke stole her voice/locked inside her head’. This poem delicately articulates the frustration and pathos of aphasia without mawkishness. Dancing Bear feels the old woman’s hands ‘slipping’ but also sees them as enchanting ‘canaries’. Another poem, ‘Oral History’ laments the consequences of not listening when collective memories are passed on. Too late, the poet ‘strain[s] to hear my her voice’ retelling family history. The reader is left with a poignant sense of the importance of shared stories in understanding identity. ‘After the Diagnosis’ is a masterly comparison of the body to the society of medieval Europe.

Good writers avoid clichés, but the best attack and transform them. Here Dancing Bear reworks textbook tales of the Dark Ages, capturing both their romance and malevolence:‘In these times, it is easy to fall into the belief of dragons,the sleeping princesses and winking old vagabond soothsayers;so easy to see fairy circles, phookas, and ghost kings at midnight.’I love the word ‘phookas’ and my imagination is still racing as it wasn’t in my dictionary. Dancing Bear’s language is always astute.

As if taking a cue from the cold investigative light of the hospital room, definitions are taut and verbs acute, but this clinical accuracy is softened by a sensual rhythm. The long line seduces like a plainsong chant:‘Only the Church keeps the written word alive with its monksscribbling into the dank nights of candle smoke and silence.’ From this historical standpoint, the present is yet to come. As well as descending from multiple whispered histories, Dancing Bear is head of a line of distinguished children:‘My Shakespeare, my Da Vinci are waitingin their fetal positions…’References to Orpheus, the mythic poet who ‘leaves this world one more pure anonymous note’ (‘Eurydice Lost’) are scattered through the book. This Orpheus is not only the falliable lover who looks back, but also a prophet anticipating the future. However, inheritance is now dependent on humanity’s ecological legacy as well as on genes.

Dancing Bear’s pantheistic writing is redolent with respect for the natural world, and sharpened by a keen sense of humanity’s small place in the cosmos. Arrogance is explored in several poems, as when ‘Orpheus was gifted a godly lyre/and assumed he was The Best’ (‘Idol’). This flaw inevitably impacts on the world around the idol, and ultimately destroys him. While these are warning poems, they depict an imagined paradise rather than the apocalypse. We could all be animals (‘When we are Stewards’).

We all have the potential to enjoy a symbiotic relationship with nature, as the poet does, feeling a hummingbird with a tongue in his ear (‘Auricle’):‘I was the drum in the redwoods,the tongue of green prophesies…awakened to the canopy songsthat had lain in the linens of leaves.’Dancing Bear imagines himself in the body of a wasp, extolling its qualities, and concluding:‘I do not want to leave that eloquent bodyfor this lumbering giant’s.’But in the end he proves himself equally eloquent, a worthy spokesperson for the insect’s cause – and for the rest of us.

Nancy Campbell is a poet, printmaker and the editor of Ellipsis, a new writing series published by Sylph Editions. Her most recent publication, After Light, is a collaboration with the photographer Paula Naughton. She will be writer in residence at the Upernavik Museum in Greenland during 2010.

Tuesday, 12 May 2009

David Marcus Has Died

Sad news. One of Ireland's leading supporters of other writers (as well as being an editor, anthologist, writer, and poet), David Marcus, has died.

A Parliament Fouled

We've had parliaments of fowls, now we have one fouled. The "mother of all parliaments" - that in London - the seat of British democracy - is now it appears the floundering seat of entitlement, hypocrisy, and pitiful corruption (expenses claimed for moats, helipads and manure). British pundits are suggesting this might be a collapse in the public acceptance of politics as we know it - a sort of latter-day let-them-eat-cake moment. Will there be an English Revolution, at last? This is the worst of times, and the worst of times, but I don't see too many heads rolling yet - though the red-faced, blustering Speaker of the House should go, and soon. European elections are coming, and, should this utter fiasco, which leaves few moral compasses left unsmashed and pointing due North, swing to the right, Britain might get darker, before it gets a proper dawn.

Saturday, 9 May 2009

Robin Blaser Has Died

I just saw this sad news on Charles Bernstein's blog. Robin Blaser has died.

Brinton On Prynne

Good news, Ian Brinton's book on the major British poet, J.H. Prynne, has been published by Shearsman, that important poetry press. I should add, my (mixed) review of the recent Shearsman book, Avia, by Nathaniel Tarn, is out in the latest Wolf.

Observers of the British scene - from afar - might be puzzled at the excitement in the media, this last week, surrounding Carol Ann Duffy - a formidable and intelligent poet to be sure - and the absence of any mention of Geoffrey Hill, or Prynne, as alternate potential laureates.

While they may not have been interested, these, and other significant British poets are of equal stature and seriousness, and the British media does the nation no favours with their simplistic equation of popularity/clarity and poetic quality. Blame Orwell. Orwell, the guru of the British journalist, was on guard against all complex and opaque language, suspecting what wasn't plainly spoken as being cant or worse.

However, what he argued on behalf of prose does not necessarily make sense for poetic utterance. The project of British late modernism is ongoing, is viable, and even exciting. Just don't expect to hear about it, much, on the BBC, even during their dedicated poetry weeks ahead. In Britain, it seems, the Establishment cannot bear too much variousness - which is reality.

Friday, 8 May 2009

Poem By Samantha Jackson

Eyewear is very pleased to welcome Samantha Jackson (pictured) this Friday.

Jackson is a poet and commissioning editor based in London. She graduated with a first class honours degree in English Literature from the University of East Anglia in 2000. During her time at UEA she undertook poetry workshops under the tutorage of Esther Morgan. Jackson went on to complete a postgraduate diploma in Publishing, during which she worked briefly at Carcanet Press. Jackson currently works commissioning books for Pearson.

Her poetry is alert to the sensuous and the symbolic, and is influenced by poets such as Redgrove, Plath, Keats, Swinburne and Baudelaire. Jackson is one of the promising younger British poets I have included in the Selfridges 100th birthday project, and a version of the poem below can also be found displayed at the flagship shop in London.

French Gilded Mirror, circa 1720

You’re winking at me again,
flashing your glass
across this crowded place.

I’m caught in your bottom right, a peninsula,
jutting out from the sea of mirror,
swirled in by a grooved border

snaking curls around my floating face,
adorning me in a Medusa crown,
oh the delight of a Baroque frame.

From office worker to femme fatale,
wan before and now a queen,
Rococo dancer dressed in shimmers,

drunk on crystal, washed in light,
marooned in heaven with gilded harps, golden cherubs, vine motifs,
not too much detail,

eyes pearled over, spoony smile;
I’m in the grove of fallen angels,
sunk in silver, too late to leave.

poem by Samantha Jackson

Wednesday, 6 May 2009

Blitz Spirit Vs. The Flu

It's official - or is it - swine flu, though relatively mild, is a pandemic in all but name, is spreading, and is closing schools, and stopping the US navy in its tracks, something not even pirates could do. Well, not in Britain. As if recoiling from their earlier gung-ho media frenzy, the British press is now taking an altogether stiffer upper lip in this new week of the epidemic - with plenty of commentators and hacks outdoing each other in terms of their indifference, even disdain, for the highly-contagious virus. "Slap people with masks" one journalist writes. Another mocks a young girl on her "deathbed" - with "cold symptoms". Even on Eyewear, sarcasm drips. It's as if, after the Nazi Blitz, nothing short of the Bubonic Plague is bloody well going to grind Blighty to a halt. Admirable sentiments. But loose lips sink ships - and cavalier attitudes can spread germs. Before dancing a jig on the grave of this swine flu, let's first give it another week, to see what it can do. Recall, a fortnight ago, there were no cases. Now, there are at least 30, with hundreds more suspected, in the UK. Flu cases double every three days. By Saturday, if there are 60 or so confirmed cases in the UK, expect Tuesday to bring news of 120. By next week, there'd be 240. Still okay, you might think - but that quickly doubles to 480, then a thousand. Once you are in to the thousands, you hit millions in a month. Everyone hopes this virus stops over the summer - and doesn't come back in the winter. Science says otherwise. The 50th anniversary of Snow's "two societies" claim was the other day - that literary types don't get science (and vice versa). Journalists should stop claiming this is either too dangerous, or too mild, just yet.

Tuesday, 5 May 2009

Guest Review: Bailey on Miller

Andrew Bailey reviews
The Day in Moss
by Eric Miller

Eric Miller is, quite clearly, a nature poet; The Day in Moss is packed with robins, redwings, rivers and river willows, alongside less immediately romantic elements such as snails, lichen and pill-bugs. It's probably no surprise, then, to find that one of his specialisms in his lecturer day-job is John Clare; the opening poem of the book, 'River Willow', even shares an image with that poet.

This is Clare's willow, from 'To Anna, Three Years Old':

The old pond with its water weed
And danger-daring willow tree,
Who leans an ancient invalid
Oer spots where deepest waters be.

Whereas Clare's poem promptly finds its personification in the "ancient invalid", Miller's willow sparks a question - "This crack willow, just who is she? Ophelia, I think [...] Likewise, this willow's Narcissus lucky [...] In fact, Ophelia and Narcissus couple here, living above and below the image, reaching down and reaching up in one gesture." In numbered prose sections Miller creates an ornate tangle of reflections on the willow and its reflection and the meaning of the image for a human observer, a "meditation in the midst of force" as the fourth section says.

That 'ornate' is important. There's a significant image in 'The Slacking of Necessity' where "Berries gather, a weight-gain of the breeze / globed with gratuitousness, gorged / to realization." The flux between elements is presented with what may initially appear to be the poet's weakness for alliteration (elsewhere you can find the "plump loop of puffed-up / pearls piped out of the brine's protean / blow-holes") that starts to make that use of "gratuitousness" look like it offers a weapon against Miller's sense of the sonic parts of rhetoric. When we're supposed to like the sophisticated sensation of near-unnoticeable sound effects, the great clatter of those connected spondees is highly noticeable, and I can imagine it coming across as gauche - as it clearly does to this reviewer.

However Quill and Quire recognises "a poet of baroque extravagance, soaring vision and sonorous rhetoric" in Miller, and I'm inclined that way. Take this, the opening of 'November rain and song':

Vituperative November. Yet the robins are voice
over voice, voice into voice coalescing and diverging
in a light cut with rain, rain cut with light, a hard sun's light,
light as solid as a thrown stone
or like the fractured columns of the rain.

Yes, yes, yes, it gives the opportunity to start calling purple or even to laugh - my wife's comment was that "I bet I can find the word 'effulgent' in here" - but over the space of a book, rather than a five-line snippet, it is very possible to acclimatise to the heightened diction and to find real pleasure in the sprung euphony of it.

That Quill and Quire quote also acknowledges that the extravagance can lead to "the occasional spectacular collapse", though, and the difficulty with drawing such attention to the noise a poem makes is that a single discordant honk can lead to such a collapse. 'The bridge', for example, aims at a genuinely sublime moment where lovers are surrounded by gulfs in each direction as the ends of the bridge they are crossing are obscured by mist; it succeeds, for me, save for two words - "We paused over the middle, / obliteration vivacious at either end" - and I can't get those out of my head while reading the rest of it (italics mine). That said, the commitment that risks such a honk is worth applause, and leaves me prepared to forgive an occasional squeaky reed.

As if to solve the problem of why a poetic with such an interest in nature should require such artifice to present it, the figure of Galatea appears throughout the book. Venus, in the retelling of the Pygmalion moment that closes The Day in Moss, is almost absent; it is through the sculptor's loving work that the change becomes possible, but "Vitality preceded Pygmalion... he altered / nothing." There is a sense of a belief that the highly-worked object changes, allows something alive to become manifest in it. She features in 'Crossing Halifax harbour' as a dissolved solid, as liquid, as airy spume "eternally / tipsy in her lucid drink" as the poem argues that the human creations are equally impermanent.

I note in passing that, aside from Galatea, the women explicitly introduced in this book are a dying mother and a post-coital nymph; the latter, in 'The Conception of Achilles' is silenced and sexualised to a point I felt uncomfortable with. There are so few human characters, however, in the book that it's hard to triangulate a response appropriately, particularly as it is the first and title poem of a section that deals with themes of violence, fate and absolution.

Mostly, humans other than the narrator of a poem appear as in 'Mud Creek', where "we enter" the ravine; there is no sense given of the companion, but then there is little of the narrator either, simply joy becoming awe at the squelchy, weed-thick creek where rats, grackles and pill-bugs may be found (and, in the last case, poked to watch them curl). This poem, conveniently available online , is one of the defining successes within The Day in Moss, and will probably do more to help readers decide if Miller's lilygilt pleasures are for them than a review can.

Andrew Bailey is a poet.

May Poems At Nthposition And A Farewell

I've been editing the poetry section at Nthposition since 2002. I am now stepping down for the rest of 2009, while I complete my doctoral research. Nthposition has replaced me with a very able acting poetry editor, Rufo Quintavalle. I like his poetry a great deal, and published him often over the years, at Nthposition. I look forward to what he selects over the next 8 or 9 months.

So, May is my bumper crop - enjoy!

Headmaster's report, Words spoke where coals are dug & Sally-Anne-Moose
by Alan Baban

May I now, Language and the gaze & My legs in the bathtub
by Anne Korff

Fire song
by Aseem Kaul

Longing & The wait
by Pierre Ringwald

Desertification & A Gurkha's take on the former workshop of the world
by Samuel Prince

Midnight at the Hotel Savaria
by Norman Jope

A sleeper at the station is aflame Part 2
by Brentley Frazer

Washington & Tremont
by ryk mcintyre

Community
by Christopher Horton

Willy Loman's twin
by Glen Sorestad

'And what is seen is what and what is seen', Air ambulance & Fibanacci pome
by Wynn Wheldon

I'm going to sour, are you?
by Nathaniel G Moore

The bone bed
by Padraig Rooney

Louis Slotin and Eumaeus
by Michael Lista

A good death, The day you heard your father died & Toothlessness
by Colette Sensier

The Library of Missed Ripostes
by David Briggs