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State of the Art

Time to take stock - or is it?  On National Poetry Day, thousands of events are taking place, to "celebrate" poetry and poets.  And yet, there is a sense that the mainstream (and this may be just the media, especially the BBC) and received consensus on poetry is comfortable, tired, and, perhaps, behind the times.  Last night, The Forward Prize for Best Collection went to Seamus Heaney, for Human Chain.  Heaney can now do no wrong, and is, in the words of Radiohead, "bulletproof".  In such an atmosphere, the air is taken away from living criticism.

I think Human Chain was a very good book, at times deeply heartfelt, but it is by no means sure it was the best book of 2010.  Meanwhile, Hilary Menos (who received a rather poor review at this blog, from a contributing reviewer, I am sorry to recall) won for Best First Collection.  Over on the BBC this morning, Melvyn Bragg recounted how he had ferreted out a poem of Ted Hughes from his archives at the British Library, which he has had dutifully published in The Spectator today; subject: the death of Sylvia Plath.  I am afraid the interest in this poet and poems are 99% for the wrong reason: human interest.  The pity should be in the poem, the poetry, not the publicity.

And, the BBC has kindly offered an audio slideshow of famous British poets, such as Betjeman and Larkin.  It is an oddity of the times that the two most highly-awarded poets of the age over here, Sean O'Brien and Don Paterson (one a Northener, the other a Scot) have never been entirely taken to the bosom of the metropolitan media in the way that Simon Armitage has been; and more ominously, very many key and vital British and Irish poets (forget about being an American or New Zealander over here and making a dent) remain powerfully overshadowed by the gloom of false glamour engendered by a lumbering behind-the-times behemoth of "public" sensibility, which can no longer be relied upon to show much discernment in matters poetical.  National Poetry Day is nominal - but in reality, poetry is not spread evenly across the land, does not exist in everyday life for most people, and, frankly, barely trickles down.  When arts cuts come in a few weeks, an early trick not treat, we shall see how poetry bodies fare.


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Wheeler Light for 'Life Jacket'.

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Wheeler Light currently lives in Boulder, Colorado.

Life Jacket

summer camp shirtsI couldn’t fit in then
are half my size nowI wanted to wear
smaller and smallerarticles of clothing
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of an afterthoughtin a sinking ship body
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With the death of the poetic genius John Ashbery, whose poems, translations, and criticism made him, to my mind, the most influential American poet since TS Eliot, 21st century poetry is moving into less certain territory.

Over the past few years, we have lost most of the truly great of our era: Edwin Morgan, Gunn, Hill, Heaney and Walcott, to name just five.  There are many more, of course. This is news too sad and deep to fathom this week.  I will write more perhaps later. 

I had a letter from Ashbery on my wall, and it inspired me daily.  He gave me advice for my PhD. He said kind things about a poetry book of mine.

He was a force for good serious play in poetry, and his appeal great. So many people I know and admire are at a loss this week because of his death. It is no consolation at present to think of the many thousands of living poets, just right now. But impressively, and even oddly, poetry itself seems to keep flowing.