Monday, 21 December 2009
Noll, born in 1927, has the best poet name, no? I love the name Bink Noll. Anyway, he is too obscure now, but wrote well, if not superbly, in the period style. Noll's life apparently turned in middle age, when he openly explored his gay identity but also sadly became encumbered by illness. He left his family and went on a new path only publishing a third book later in life. Christmas is, among other things, about encountering redemptive origins, small gestures of joy opening to greater demarcations. I wish to think of Bink Noll at Christmas. The least great and lesser are not lost ever fully if love survives.
Saturday, 19 December 2009
The audience was almost all late 40s and facebook fans. After the show which was too brief Heyward mingled in the bar with several hundred fans, smiling and genuinely bemused by the adoration. I hope for a Pelican East soon. However while last night reminded me of the power of pop and ska in the early 80s to instill hope and offer change - good songs for good young people - the failure of Copenhagen today and the rise of a Simon Cowell world of corporate pap music makes me wonder if the past may be a kinder ghost of promise than the future.
The event was low-key, attended by those who braved the snow storms on such a cold December night. The atmosphere inside was however warm and welcoming; it was a great night for the young poets to meet each other, share their ideas and also hear each other read. Those who attended were also lucky enough to hear a song performed by Michael Horovitz, poetry veteran and editor of 1960’s poetry anthology, Children of Albion.
There will be another event for this DVD in March, when Todd will hopefully be in better health. Till then, please support Oxfam and the young poets, including myself, who are featured on the DVD. It is available to buy on eBay and you can also get a copy from Oxfam Books and Music in Marylebone.
Friday, 18 December 2009
Wednesday, 16 December 2009
White Magic and Other Poems
by Krzysztof Kamil Baczynski
Krzysztof Kamil Baczynski was born in 1921 and died in the Warsaw uprising in 1944 leaving behind him a substantial body of poetry, very little of which, up until now, has been translated into English. This book, a selection of his poems in a bilingual edition seeks to remedy this lack. The book is translated by Bill Johnston, Director of the Polish Studies Center at Indiana University, and is published by Green Integer.
The claims made by Johnston in his introduction that Baczynski should rank alongside Czeslaw Milosz, Zbigniew Herbert and Wislawa Szymborska as one of the giants of 20th Century Polish poetry do him no favours. He is not (at least in translation) on a par with these poets. Better to consider him on his own terms, if we can, or failing that, to grant him the indulgence we would any poet who died at the age of 23. Excesses of religiosity, lyricism, grandiosity and morbidity – all of which Baczynski on this showing clearly has – are forgivable faults in such a young writer. Better to openly admit these shortcomings than, as Johnston does, state without any support that Baczynski was writing “mature work” at the age of 18 or that by 1942 he was already considered a “major poet”.
Where Johnston’s claims seem more justifiable is in his defense of Baczynski’s love poetry. The poems addressed to his wife, Barbara, are among the finest in this selection
Barbara stands at the mirror
of silence, and her hands reach
to her hair; in her body of glass
she pours silver droplets of speech
This is the opening to the poem, “White Magic” and even without the music of the original this is heady stuff. The untitled love poems on pages 91 and 95 show a similarly imaginative use of imagery.
This extravagance can at times get out of control. So “The Choice” which opens near perfectly:
After a scorching day, the night was green;
its depths soughed like black leaves in which had grown
a milky pith
descends into a lush and breathy exuberance
And so a massive quiet arose like water,
dark, deep, and warm, absorbing shapes and matter.
Above earth, a quiet angel took his hand
and they rose into the cloud’s unfolding flower.
This is bad, although I would argue it is bad in the same way Keats’ Endymion often is – a kind of necessary, free-associative unleashing of lyricism which in each case allowed the young poets to achieve better things elsewhere. So we have Keats’ Odes and so we have a poem like Baczynski’s “Generation” where he successfully contains this declamatory mode within a meticulously constructed architecture.
At other times we are tempted to forgive Baczynski his excesses not so much on technical grounds but because of the context. “Was it a bullet killed you, son, or was it your heart bursting?” concludes one of his later poems. This is overly dramatic but in the mouth of a 23 year old who would be dead six months later, it passes. Does it pass too because it is in the mouth of a Pole? Are Polish writers in particular (and Eastern Europeans in general – think of the cult of Brodsky) allowed a kind of tragic, patriotic lyricism, which would get a British or American laughed out of court? Certainly it is hard to imagine any British writer of the Auden/MacNeice era or even at the time of the First World War getting away with, or even coming out with, this kind of line. Does Eastern European verse serve much the same function as farmers’ markets or urban beehives do – a way to buy into a “reality” that Anglo-American city-dwellers otherwise prefer to keep at arms length?
To return to the matter at hand, these are not, despite Johnston’s pleadings and despite some great moments, poems of the first order. Nor can I imagine that they will have any great influence on contemporary Anglophone poetic practice – they are too much of their time and place for that – but in as much as they form a part of a poetic tradition that has since blended in interesting ways with our own, it is good to have them available. I do not know Polish so am unable to comment on the translations but they read well in English and, if only for the image of thunder rolling “like an apple from the sky” in “Autumn 1941”, I am glad to have this volume on my bookshelf.
Rufo Quintavalle, 2009
Tuesday, 15 December 2009
The Sunday Times Culture section ran an intriguing list of the best of the 00s in film, pop, books, last weekend. It was a persuasive list. Best film: In The Mood For Love – which would have been my choice. Best book: Austerity Britain, by David Kynaston – a wonderful choice, and one that makes me particularly pleased because David is a colleague of mine at Kingston University, and also because my doctoral research is in the austerity years of the 40s and British poetry of the period. Best album: Kid A – not a bad choice either. Eyewear’s Top Films of the Decade would include The Lives of Others, The Bourne trilogy,
‘The Terrors’ is, by nature, a mysterious book. Even the preface, in
which the sequence is introduced as ‘a series of imagined emails to
inmates at Newgate Prison between […] 1700 and 1760’, is far from
explanatory. However, what might seem an overly complex book is shown
by attentive reading to be an engaging, if not always immediately
understandable, work of linguistic playfulness and incisive satire.
It is, perhaps, the juxtaposition of such a contemporary form of
discourse as the email with the style of the 18th century Newgate
Calendar which throws up the most questions. In some quarters it is
felt that since email has, in many ways, usurped snail mail we might
one day, as Michael Ravitch envisages*, appreciate the email as a
literary form rather than just a means to the end of relaying a
The opening poem ‘A Guide to Email Etiquette’ serves as an orientation
to the world the reader is about to enter as well as an introduction
to the tropes at work in the book as a whole:
Don’t make personal remarks.
Don’t send unsuitable email.
Don’t mention Lilly’s hieroglyph.
The shift in register from the diction of an acceptable use policy to
the historical ‘Lilly’s hieroglyph’ hints at the tonal and referential
shifts that follow in the rest of the book. This approach suggests
that History (or, more specifically, Time) be understood as the
concurrent interplay of past, present and future. Well worn though
this notion may be; what is striking is the absorbing and, ultimately,
compelling way in which it is examined by Chivers.
Of the book’s successes the foremost, to my mind, are the emails
addressed to William Dodd, a clergyman, and sometime poet, who fell
into disrepute after being convicted of forgery. Dodd numbered Samuel
Johnson among campaigners for his release but not even an extensive
petition could save him and he was hanged. The plight of a prisoner
awaiting a very public death is captured with great skill in this
passage from ‘Terra Incognito’:
It’s a doddle, Will: just get yourself a pen to write
your soul’s way
outta there. In place of Shepherd’s rusty nail and
you’ll have a memoir worth the reading.
This satirical look at the consolation offered by notoriety after
death not only brings into focus our morbid fascination with those who
teeter at the precipice but also the human need for recognition. This
is explored further in ‘speculate to accumulate’ which begins ‘Treat
this as fan mail, or whatever’ and goes on to explore the manner in
which criminality can bolster one’s ambitions for ‘infamy’. In the
face of an increased focus on the description of the ‘criminal
classes’ in today’s society it seems precious little has changed.
Elsewhere in the pamphlet Chivers muses on the fates of some of
Newgate’s other notorious inmates in fine style. Not least in ‘Other
Side’ where the parade to the gallows is described in all its horror
with an ear for the music of the words:
Ox-cart’s a pretty way to go. Clipping, shipping, scaling, lightening.
Thank god you were throttled before you were burnt.
This poem, in particular, is one in which the juxtaposition of
eighteenth century London and that of the present day is employed to
great effect in the shift from ‘Ox-cart[s]’ to ‘burger vans’ humming
in the following stanza.
Though I did find this approach illuminating I did feel that some of
the poems suffered because, since I hadn’t read the Newgate Calendar,
there were a number of references which I didn’t understand. For me
this challenged the notion that a poem must be ‘got’ to be enjoyed but
there are, I’m sure, some readers who would be turned off by the
pamphlet’s occasional murkiness. Ultimately, though, I found the
sequence to hold genuine interest beyond a single reading both as a
way in to the history of London and as an exploration of what can be
achieved in the email format.
What are we, then, to make of Chivers’ exploration of the email as a
literary form? For me the most useful way into the pamphlet is in the
description of the work as a set of ‘imagined’ missives. This sequence
announces a poet awake to the strangeness thrown up by flights of
imagination which variously place the snappy media-speak of our
information age aside the gratuitous crime reportage of 18th century
The fact that this pamphlet was published by Nine Arches Press, a
relatively new player on the scene, says a lot about the freedom of
small press publishing. Here is a poet tackling the contemporary
sphere without recourse to the continual use of explicitly topical
references. It is this freedom which makes the small press and the
pamphlet an essential part of poetry publishing. Long may Nine Arches
release books of this calibre. The Terrors is well worth a look for
those who enjoy poetry that defies easy reduction.
Tom Chivers, The Terrors, (Nine Arches Press, 2009), £5
Sunday, 13 December 2009
Wednesday, 9 December 2009
Fever Ray, eponymous;
Grizzly Bear, Veckatimest;
Yeah Yeah Yeahs, It's Blitz!;
Animal Collective, Merriweather Post Pavilion;
The xx; eponymous;
Lady Gaga, The Fame;
Hope Sandoval and The Warm Inventions, Through the Devil Softly;
Echo and the Bunnymen, The Fountain;
U2, No Line on the Horizon;
White Lies, To Lose My Life.
Others were close, but no cigar. A few were strictly guilty pleasures, like the latest Ah-ha, or Depeche Mode, or Simple Minds. The new La Roux, and the new Little Boots etc., the synth pop gals, were good but really rather limited. On another front, the best film of the year was Let The Right One In - but then I didn't see many. I look forward to finally seeing The Hurt Locker and also Bright Star. Alan Baban has promised us a round-up of the decade early in 2010.
Tuesday, 8 December 2009
A New Hybrid Muse
Language for a New Century: Contemporary Poetry from the Middle East, Asia and Beyond, ed. Tina Chang, Nathalie Handal and Ravi
Language for a New Century begins with a question about the meaning and value of poetry. Yet in this anthology, the question of value acquires all the more meaning, because the poetry comes out of postcolonial and diasporic settings. In their preface, the editors suggest that ‘Where the opportunities for fatal destruction, between people and between nations, are intensified, the same age-old questions still exist: What is the role of poetry? What can it do? Can poetry still matter?’. What this anthology offers is a poetry attuned to needs of particular cultures. It is a poetry that works for these needs, by reinventing form, syntax, the lyric mode and themes such as childhood, identity, politics, war, homeland, spirituality and the body.
The writers included originate from regions traditionally sidelined by the West: South Asia, East Asia, the Middle East and Central Asia; as well as other territories like
In 2004, Brent Hayes Edwards
But this is an anthology that never claimed to be simple in its outlook, and how could it be when it covers such a multitude of voices and outlooks? What is fascinating though is that many of these poets are Anglophone, though the anthology does contain some translations to English too. ‘Slips and Atmospherics’ is a particularly important section in relation to language, because it gathers together poems that ‘stretch[es] the cords of syntax, exploding normative lineation and familiar imageries to present an avant-garde sensibility’. This statement applies to a great many poems throughout the anthology, which feel refreshingly detached from traditional forms and from the kind of uncomplicated lyrics that sometimes dominate Western poetry. The poets writing in English are certainly deterritorializing the language and making it their own, forcing it to work for their own purposes and political needs. It seems to be what Jahan Ramazani
In Language for a New Century, poetry humanises the experiences of poets working in this hybrid muse, allowing them to maintain their cultural specificity, whilst also creating a seed of familiarity that flowers to understanding. Tina Chang sums this up in introducing the section on the lyric. ‘What is it that we seek to glean from poems but a shadow of our own human experience? When we subtract rationale, logic, even narrative consistency, we are led by the essence, feeling and raw energy of the song, the purity of a given moment.’ And this sympathy, of course, is desperately needed. The East is still a mythic place created by Orientalist discourse, as has been shown more recently by Judith Butler’s
This kind of perception unravels in poetry. When, in Saadi Youssef’s
Altogether the breadth of work in Language for a New Century is hardly broached by a short review like this one. It is a pioneering anthology that, for myself, is a roadmap to poetries that I have never encountered before and I find it both inspiring and heartening. Overall, I am inclined to agree with Carolyn Forché