Monday, 31 January 2011

Milton Babbitt Has Died

Sad news.  One of America's leading avant-garde composers, Milton Babbitt, has died.

John Barry Has Died

Sad news.  My favourite film composer (along with Bernard Hermann), John Barry, has died at the age of 77.  Barry was the genius behind the best of the James Bond scores, as well as Born Free, Dances with Wolves, Midnight Cowboy, and many others.  His lush and romantic harmonies and melodies helped to establish the unique soundscape of the 60s and 70s.  His sound style will live forever.

Sunday, 30 January 2011

Poetry Renaissance?

The Renaissance will be facebooked - or rather, media-led, anyway.  Ho-hum.  When newspapers are not proclaiming the death of poetry, they are constantly rediscovering it.  Since poets know poetry is always there, like the sun or the nose on one's face, this hokum from both sides is a little tiresome.  Poetry is that which simply endures.  It isn't like herpes, a flare-up from time to time.  So it is the latest article in Saturday's Guardian celebrates the renaissance of poetry - without, this time, the sombre face of Don Paterson glowering out at us.

The best thing about this article is that it mentions the small presses that have done so much to help younger poets find a footing.  The fact that a prize has gone to poets two years in a row is a coincidence, not a sign of the times.  The truth is, poetry in the UK is embedded, too-much, in prize culture, and marketing.  Too often, a simple truth is obscured: poetry is beyond publication or acclaim - it persists despite that.  A good poem is a good poem wherever it appears, online or between the pages of a flimsy pamphlet.  For many UK readers, a poet only comes into their own if published by a big press like Picador or Faber - is "made" then, like a starlet signing with a studio.  Otherwise, poets are like "actors out on loan" - sort of lost, dogs without a bone.  I know this first-hand.

Without a large publisher in the UK, I rarely get invited to read at festivals (or anywhere) and am mostly off the map here, where I live; I am not alone - hundreds of very good poets published by smaller presses without a prize or nomination, float in a sort of limbo of mild disregard, or mild regard.  Indeed, most Canadian, American, New Zealand, Australian, Indian and South African poetry, in English, is off the radar of the British reader, poetry scene, and media - the full global good news ignored.

The TS Eliot Prize celebrates the best British-published books, and so includes some international poets, but leaves out many more.  This is not meant to be a rant.  I am relatively happy here.  The British love poetry in ways that North Americans don't.  I like that.  But please - this island is too parochial still, too self-describing, to fully embrace the differences and aspects from abroad that are also part of the larger 21st century poetry renaissance - one that started not this year, when The Guardian chose to notice it, but really around the time of the rise of Facebook, or earlier, perhaps in 2003.

As it happens, I believe this generation of younger British poets is the best in over half a century.  They will become better still if they redefine the structures that currently reward and judge them, and open out publishing options further.  The top three books of the British year, in terms of accolades and critical praise, by Heaney, Walcott, and Shapcott - all superb collections - were published by the major press for poetry.  One needs to start asking - what else is out there?

Friday, 28 January 2011

Featured Poet: Christian Campbell

Eyewear is very glad to welcome poet Christian Campbell (pictured) this rather crisp London Friday.  Campbell is a writer of Bahamian and Trinidadian heritage.  A professor at the University of Toronto, he studied at Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar and received a PhD at Duke.

He is the author of Running the Dusk, which was a finalist for the Cave Canem Prize and the Forward Poetry Prize for the Best First Book in the UK and is the winner of the 2010 Aldeburgh First Collection Prize.  Running the Dusk is his first book.

It is to be hoped that we can see a lot more of this fine poet over in the UK in the near future, hopefully reading for Oxfam, among other places.  He exemplifies the best in truly international writing.

Oregon Elegy             

for I. H.

I once told a friend, who was going
to Oregon for Christmas with his girlfriend,

he’d be the only black person there
and, in fact, if you shuffle Oregon,

like a seasoned minstrel, it spells Negro
but with an extra O as if to make

a groan, nearly a shout, perhaps
a moment of fright: O Negro in Oregon!

He died laughing and told me
that’s word-lynching, and I wondered

if we could also lynch words,
string them up, sever them,

tattoo them with bullets and knives;
if we could hold a barbecue

for language swaying with the branches,
soon picked to silence by crows—

words soaked in coal oil
then set ablaze, a carnival of words

sacrificed over rivers, from bridges,
from trees, too-ripe words dangling

from branches just beyond our reach.
Like Alonzo Tucker in 1906,

shot twice, then hanged
from the Fourth Street Bridge

by two hundred men arched into one
white arm because (we wonder,

we know) a white woman said
he raped her.  I want to tell my boy

blacks weren’t wanted in Oregon
at first, but what do I know, I’ve never

set foot on Nez Perce land where
exactly one hundred years after

Tucker, he could go west to one edge
of America because he loves

his woman enough to be
the very last Negro on Earth.

poem by Christian Campbell; reprinted with permission of the author
photo credit: Toni McRae

Guest Review: Van-Hagen on Ttoouli

Steve Van-Hagen reviews
by George Ttoouli

In Static Exile, George Ttoouli, who will be known to some as the co-editor (with Simon Turner) of Gists and Piths, produces a debut collection of thirty-three poems that is an exciting, energetic fusion of myth, legend, satire, dark comedy and sheer surrealism. Often esoteric and always eclectic, Ttoouli’s is a collection and an aesthetic in which a B-movie, jobseeking Godzilla who is being hounded by the immigration authorities, the M.O.D. and the tabloid press can (and does) rub shoulders with (no) Oedipus, (no) Spartans, Atlantis, New Orleans, Gomorrah, Poseidon, minotaurs, Crete’s White Mountains, Venus, the Gorgon’s reflection, Aphrodite, Sleepwalkers, Mnemosyne and the bay of Tarsos (indeed all of these appear in just one poem, in the selection from “Parchment, Scalpel, Rock”). Ghosts (of many varied descriptions), dryads, an AEginan, Athena, and Minerva also make their appearances while, at their more provincial, exoteric opposite, the Conwy Valley also figures in poem titles, and “Artefact” concerns, its epigraph tells us, “Riding the Bus Northwards from Tottenham Court Road to Finchley”. Likewise, in “For Lilly”, we meet material as everyday as:

a Mothercare bag a Tesco bag a dishcloth a collection of tea towels a
woman’s belly button ring with a turquoise stone a pair of women’s
pyjamas size 12-14 sold by BHS in 2002 a pair of women’s pants size
12 from Debenhams a pair of black socks shards of electric flex six
Miles from Stratford four miles from Alcester

The epigraph of “Gists and Piths” is a Poundian homage – “A Japanese student in America, on being asked the difference between prose and poetry, said: Poetry consists of gists and piths – Ezra Pound” – and the eclecticism of the collection’s referentiality, its blending of the esoteric and exoteric, obviously recall Pound at several stages of his career.

            A number of recurrent styles and themes are apparent in Static Exile, however imaginatively they are sometimes invoked. A (very) selective list might include: the natural world (“Driving through the Conwy Valley”, “Optimism”), relationships (“Dear K”), politics, either in specific geographical locales of the world (as in “Ghosts” or “Noise Reduction”) or in a more general concern with outsiders, aliens and exiles, and the place(s) the marginalised (are forced to) occupy (“Static Exile”, “For Lilly”, “Fable”, “To Joe, from Kris”). Several poems engage with postmodern self-referentiality (“This Poem all the Time”; “Peaks”). A number of poems evince a fascination with the boundaries between ‘poetry’ and ‘prose’ (e.g. “Mutatis mutandi”, “The GNER ‘Flight’ ”) and, playing with the idea of the poetry collection in competition with one of the pre-eminent visual home entertainment media of our day, the DVD, the satirical-epic title poem is followed three poems from the collection’s end with “Static Exile: DVD Extras”, containing “Deleted Scenes > Monster in Hiding”, and “Audio Commentary > The Monster Speaks”.

It is in its writing about politics, however, that for all of the evident influences of Greek mythology and experimental, late- / neo- / post-modernist aesthetics, and despite the references to bags from Mothercare or Tesco, that Static Exile brings us most sharply into the present moment. In “Love on a Monday Evening”, for instance, we are unmistakably in the present when the speaker informs us:

            An Arab sat opposite me on the train.
            I had taken the first carriage,

            the one we had imbued with likely death
            in a way we can only substantiate for each other.
            My fingers filled with static and my blood turned

            to white noise. I could describe him for you,
            a quick photo-fit sketch, but mostly it was his stubble
            and the wart on his left cheek, like in

            news reports. I have a spot in the same place
            on my right cheek. You’ve never called me
            a terrorist when I’ve not shaved for that long ...

The mixture of absurdity, comedy and the cutting satirical point is characteristic.

This same dissection of the socio-political present is apparent nowhere more than in the eleven-page title poem that arguably towers over the other works in the collection, much like the Godzilla-cum-Frankenstein figure whose story it largely tells. The monster is – as monsters usually are – a symbol of an all-encompassing ‘other’ figure, representing the poor, those without work, immigrants, the victims of petty officialdom and power-hungry authoritarian regimes that masquerade as democracies: it “has swum upstream for years / in its Sunday best / seeking employment” with a birth certificate that the authorities claim “has not been issued / by a recognised government” because “That regime ended decades ago –“, despite the fact that it has “today’s date” on it. The poem is presented as if in the form of a film that is being shot, at the same time as news crews are reporting on the story being told as part of this film, so emphasising the focus in the media on the style and presentation of the narratives they deliver up to us, without thought for the ethical dimensions of these stories (or the ethics of presenting them to us in sensationalised ways). “MORE EXPLOSIONS MORE FUCKING EXPLOSIONS”, we are told as the monster is being hunted, as if the wishes of a director, film crews and the authorities have coalesced. The scene is set for us as if we were reading a film script: “EXT. EAST VIEWOF THAMES FROM LONDON BRIDGE”; “EXT. TYPICAL LONDON STREET”. The poem’s targets are various, but the rhetoric of the tabloid media and its cynical demonisation of otherness in all its forms, looms large; as does the sinister, Orwellian manipulation of language by the authorities, and the abuse of anti-terror powers granted to them post-9/11. Mock tabloid headlines form a chorus, marking the (anti-)progress of the narrative: “MONSTER STEALING JOBS / FROM INDIGENOUS JOBS”; “CUSTOMS LET MONSTER IN: HOW DID THIS HAPPEN?” / “MONSTER’S ANCESTRY TRACED / TO ANCIENT CIVILISATION”; “MONSTER’S E-MAILS INTERCEPTED / BY COUNTER-TERRORISTS”; “GOVT. PASSES BILL / OUTLAWING MONSTERS”; “SWAN POPULATIONS DECIMATED BY MONSTER”; “M.O.D. PLEDGES: MONSTER WILL NOT LIVE ANOTHER DAY”. The monster’s final speech, although (significantly) relegated to an ‘Audio Commentary’ in the “DVD Extras”, reveal him, in an obvious allusion to Frankenstein’s monster, to be the most articulate speaker involved in proceedings:

            I was born in a snowstorm
            of English cherry blossom
            a red sunrise in April where light
            could have fallen for the first time
            and I stitched my mouth shut with every X
            I wasted on the ballot.

Static Exile makes a compelling case for the power of satire, dark comedy and surrealism in contemporary experimental / linguistically innovative poetry, particularly when married with political conviction and commitment and even, when it is justified, anger. Some of the poems are very funny, though they remind us, to paraphrase the words of the critic L.C. Knights, that comedy is a serious business, concerned with serious, urgent subjects. Ttoouli’s work is challenging and multivalent; sometimes resisting definitive interpretation, it repays rereading. Those who like the sound of its ambition could do worse than get hold of Static Exile and, having made it to the DVD extras at the end, treat themselves to a repeat showing or two.

Steve Van-Hagen is the editor of James Woodhouse’s The Life and Lucubrations of Crispinus Scriblerus: A Selection (Cheltenham: The Cyder Press, 2005) and currently has two books forthcoming from Greenwich Exchange Press, The Poetry of Mary Leapor and The Poetry of Jonathan Swift.


The 7th issue of this Ottawa-based online zine is now out.  Worth reading.

Thursday, 27 January 2011

Tradition and the Individual Prize

In The Guardian, on Saturday, Don Paterson wrote about how older poet-editors need to speak with poets in their 20s, to keep up with the new poetic styles - agreed.  He also discussed the roots of the new Picador Poetry Prize.  He was careful to position the prize in the lineage of the Yale series of poets.  While it is in that lineage, there are far more recent and obvious precedents, and it is telling that these were rather notably overlooked.  The first is the Crashaw Prize, which Salt has successfully run the last few years.  But, more to the point, there is the general American experience of publishing, where almost every debut collection at every credible poetry publisher is adjudicated on in a prize setting.  I just wanted to mention this, because while the nascent Picador Prize may wish to bask in the glow of the Yale series, it really is the nothing new.  A fine venture from one of the major places to find mainstream, excellent BILP - British-Irish Lyric Poetry - but not an original endeavour in the least.  Then again, as Paterson has been wont to argue, The New in Poetry is rather besides the point, and Tradition is equally valuable.

Guest Review: Woodward on Larbey, Farmer, Foyle, Noon and Lehrman

Catherine Woodward reads five recent pamphlets

There is a strain of poets I call lexiphiles whose joy of language has at some point become completely subsistent on itself. They are a strange bunch, very passionate, particularly about phonemes and sibilance and glottal stops and I’ve read a lot of their poetry which is, suffice to say, heavy. It’s often hard to find the exact image that is being smothered by the exotic, word-horny enthusiasm that is meant to evoke it. Lexiphiles are important to a review of Ruth Larbey’s Funglish because it is a pamphlet that walks the line between lexiphilia and excellence, and with a fantastic display of skill, manages to remain consistently on the side of excellence. A clever, creative, intuitive lexiphile can indeed be excellent and I believe that’s exactly what Larbey is. Clearly her masterful understanding and control of language are only surpassed by her love of it.

                Larbey has recreated Babel as an exact science, her poems are about liminal spaces, places where much is said but where words resolve into a terrible and inevitable silence. Often these poems give their reader a remarkable deaf-blind feeling, where the world is unstable, half formed and volatile. Because of this, in the opening poems and echoing throughout the pamphlet there is a sense that every word is a desperate attempt against this silence, that the world is in danger, the world is at war and language is the battle ground.

Larbey is urgent not indulgent and her clever, sparkling management of language and syntax subtly bring out multi layers of meaning from her words. She over saturates or over exposes words so that meaning is lost with increased specificity as in ‘“luscious red berries...’ which fades out into  ...high in disease-fighting phytochemicals...”’. Or transforms language, loading the dramatic turn of the poem on a single word, as in Divine Intervention, where God is played by the word ‘orange’, and is expressed and traced in ‘orange’s’ variations and incidental appearances. Or plays with double meanings as in The Northern Line ‘Here, recession sucks air from the vacuum tube’, tuning into the low wave frequency at which can be heard the communication of a city that the city cannot even hear itself. Larbey makes us aware of the pivotal importance of words to human understanding, and of the precarious position that that puts us in. These poems are highly affecting, disciplined and very clever.

This language war is tempered by a running romantic narrative and as such, there comes to be less a war and more of a terrible tension of which language is the crux. Yet this too is perfectly illuminated, providing a decent counterpoint to the depersonalised darkness of war.

Funglish is quite an achievement for Larbey, a very impressive first collection.

I was far less impressed with the lexical experiments of Gareth Farmer’s Dawn’s Resolve and Dusk Falls.

It has to be said that Dawn’s Resolve and Dusk Falls (in twenty-four snatched scenes) is good but not great. The premise and the way that Farmer tackles it are the cause for some confusion. When I read the title I made two predictions about what the pamphlet would be, either Farmer would give us the same four moments – dawn, morning, afternoon, dusk – from multiple perspectives, in which case the scenes would be peopled by multiple characters, styles and voices; or the same day, mediated by the progress of the sun, would be recorded incrementally in twenty-four scenes and following the progression of a narrative in a consistent style and voice. But Dawn’s Resolve was an amalgamation; it instantly throws in multiple pronouns with direct address, running one disconnected scene on after the other but in the same tone and style, both of which are in no way dazzling, and I might go even further in saying that they are frustrating and at many points incomprehensible.  Furthermore, the middle batch of scenes are metaphysical musings on writing and knowledge, diverging greatly from the original premise and the sun and time of day only make three appearances, the last two of which are very vague indeed. The overall impression one receives is that Farmer’s project is something of a lame horse, that the intended poetic endeavour of Dawn’s Resolve never really got off the ground at all, or was veered from completely.

                The typography of the pamphlet needs mentioning. The snatched scenes are split into twenty-four sections of five lines each, all sectioned off into boxes. I showed Dawn’s Resolve to a friend of mine and the instant he saw it his response was ‘I don’t like it’. Typography counts for something. The boxes come across as a product of the book’s limitations, the sections would be better written on the slips of paper inside fortune cookies and discovered in secret, or something equally as fanciful. The boxes give the poems a contrived, limited, inorganic edge. They ought to have been left out all together.

                That I considered Farmers tone and style ‘frustrating’ and ‘incomprehensible’ also needs elaborating. Farmer’s grammar and syntax are often very ambiguous; adverbs as nouns, nouns indistinguishable from present tense verbs and swathes of abstracts in small spaces. His poems come in mid shot, they are fragments which cannot be connected by standard sentence structure. I would be keen to defend this usage as experimental if this ambiguity ultimately served to clarify something more abstract or was emotionally affective, but Farmer’s usage smacks of pretension and contempt for the reader which I can’t defend.

                But to rephrase my opening statement Dawn’s Resolve isn’t great but it’s good. Farmer does shine at times; he mixes the abstract with the physical well ‘bulging with self help’, ‘shower of worst cases’ in bursts of clarity. Some scenes are better than others, capturing a disembodied emotional charge which sparkles among the other more dull scenes. The problem for Dawn’s Resolve is that all my complaints could only be resolved by changing the poems in ways that would compromise Farmer’s artistic integrity and his very palpable sense of personal style. Farmer has put himself in a Catch 22 situation; an improvement cannot be made without denying his particular artistic flare, which is a negative move.

Dawn’s Resolve certainly has its merits, but ultimately it reads as a piece that has been held back, which hasn’t fully flourished or successfully explored.

After reading Farmer’s pamphlet it was a delight to read Naomi Foyle’s Grace of the Gamblers. With its simplicity of theme it expresses a new joy in writing, which is at times sorely needed.

Grace of the Gamblers: A Chantilly Chantey is a refreshing read; the pamphlet comprises of a short ballad vociferating the life and deeds of legendary Irish heroine Gráinne Ní Mháille, or Grace O’ Malley, and is backed by a chorus of sewing girls who listen along with the reader and provide some added dark, cultural grounding.

The darkness of the sewing girls, working their fingers to the bone under threat of starvation during the harsh Irish winter, is complementary, because the main narrative of the ballad is often peculiarly light in the telling. Among the boisterous, bounding music of the ballad is a mixture of Gaelic dialect and contemporary slang which has left me somewhat ambivalent about the poem. On the one hand I found that lines such as ‘The old fella guffawed, took her on board’, ‘O Granuaile’s story is shaping up swell’ and ‘The O’Flaherty clan said ‘thanks, now scram’, made the ballad anachronistic in an incongruous way which disrupted the historical narrative and caused such lines to fall a little flat. But on the other hand this incongruity seemed to give the poem a very special edge. The style is as ‘wanton and bold’ as the poem’s heroine, bounding and vivacious, this curious mix brings ‘Grace of the Gamblers’ and her remarkable story to life. In Foyle’s telling the story is cause for raucous celebration at the same time as it is the dark legend coursing through Irish veins and sewing needles. The whole poem is exciting and uproarious; not only does Foyle introduce us to a fascinating history, but she bowls it along with the palpable joy of the telling. Grace of the Gamblers is different and certainly unusual, perhaps not suitable to all tastes but this is a taste that is easy to acquire. Foyle’s legend is here and now in Technicolor, as well as culturally essential as all good legends are.

Also touching base with history, albeit in a more conventional way, is Alistair Noon’s new translation of Pushkin’s The Bronze Horseman.

I was very impressed with this translation, it is an ambitious project and one that Noon has pulled off with virtuosity, but the poem’s technical success is not its only virtue. Noon manages first of all to sharpen and strengthen the passionate and ambivalent undercurrents in Pushkin’s poem, and second of all to confer upon the poem an unexpected contemporaneity which forges new links between the poem and our time.

                Noon’s version of Pushkin’s Petersburg is an organism beyond the rule of nature; where other translations cite the city’s growth as ‘fated’ by nature, Noon’s makes ‘a slave of nature, it ‘hack[s] a window through to Europe’. Immediately the city becomes darker, stronger, more supernatural than seen before. Noon subtly mixes organic and architectural in his opening love poem to the Russian city, fusing it with the will of its founder Peter I, making it both despotic and beloved. These pragmatic relations which often stay pragmatic in other translations come to the fore here. Noon’s Petersburg reminds me of Eliot’s The Wasteland, his description of the city is tantalisingly masochistic and always passionate, as is Eliot’s description of his London. The Modern connection gives Noon’s translation the impression of spanning time, it seems to contain the historical impact of The Wasteland within itself.

                Yevgeny too, the poem’s protagonist, has curiously contemporary speech. When he bewails his poor and feckless state ‘many contented souls/whose intellectual aims/weren’t high – the lazy sods! -/ were on holiday all year round!’ it seems to express the anger of our time as well as Pushkin’s.

                But returning to that briefly mentioned supernatural feeling; I felt that this was one of the translations great achievements. Noon’s rhyme is beautifully unobtrusive, giving his poem a lulling natural quality, and slipped in among this natural appearance are strange breaches. There are two moments in the poem where Noon breaks from past tense narration into quite extensive periods of present tense. These moments then appear removed from the main narrative, at an odd angle alongside it, but these are effective in that they create dreamlike interludes that strengthen the ongoing flirtation between the real and surreal.

                I would say that this is one of the best translations of The Bronze Horseman that I have read; it has a very palpable feel for Pushkin’s poem and at the same time appears to do more with it than I have ever seen.

Successfully combining trans-cultural and trans-historical elements with experimental lexical ingenuity, Rachel Lehrman’s pamphlet Second Waking stands somewhere between all of these, and establishes itself as a one-of-a-kind piece.

From what I can make of Second Waking the pamphlet seems to explore the assertion Lerhman makes in the poem Worship Tendency, that ‘the desire to worship’ is ‘a prerequisite of our faith’. The pamphlet captures this intense desire for worship of something greater, this essential, organic spirituality without the coercive shape of any particular religion. This lack of dogmatic form is what makes Lehrman’s poetry so intense and exciting.

We are presented with a liminal, dreamlike space which is dangerously amorphous and terrifying and the reader is forced into the position of the spiritually directionless subject. It is not only the poems but the typographically interesting nature of the pamphlet itself which manages this. The pamphlet lacks a contents page and page numbers, even the titles, our only point of reference, are disconcertingly vague. So we wind our way through the poems without guidance and Lehrman makes us aware of an urgent desire for shape and order (even in the small sphere of a poetry pamphlet) and makes us understand the alienation a subject feels in a world they cannot objectify.

                Even though this formless, universal desire to worship lacks religious direction the tropes of religion and spiritual practises are not absent. Yoga makes its incidental appearances, connecting universe and individual body, Adam and Eve are quiet but unshakable as schemas for humanity and sin. Largely the flavour of this spirituality is pagan and oriental. Lehrman’s poetry is truly trans-religious and trans-historical and for that has a contemporary feel. But she uses these techniques subtly, without academic pretence, so that at no point does she detract from the elemental, primal gage in which her poems are written.

                Lehrman’s style aims at something in the pit of our brains, tapping into an ancient fear. Her poems are fragmented, with very little punctuation, never is a sentence entirely complete. The result is the expression of sudden, holy incidents in what seem like chants, mantras and spells. Her writing is hypnotic, particularly in that all her poems are rigidly present tense, composed of fragmented statements of things which are, and the reader mentally connects these into an all purpose liturgy. Lehrman captures with extraordinary clarity the breadth of the present moment, the simultaneity of events which are at the same time, immoveable and immemorial, entrenched in time. Lehrman uses language to get outside ordinary dimensions, generating the impression of communion with all things. Lehrman has given us a sparkling advance in poetry of the self. This pamphlet is quite an experience.

Catherine Woodward is a British poet and critic.

Wednesday, 26 January 2011

Of Mutability

The good news is that a poet has won the Costa Book of the Year prize two years in a row - for the best popular book of the year, beating out impressive novels and non-fiction.  The poet this year is Jo Shapcott - a brilliant and likeable figure who is widely admired in British poetry circles - for her first collection in a decade, Of Mutability, which, among other things, explores surviving breast cancer.  An important subject, a fine poet, and superb poems.  So, hats off to Shapcott.  The only question is - why wasn't such a loved and admired book on the ten-strong TS Eliot shortlist?  The answer, I suppose, is that the judging of poetry remains an art, not a science - so it is good that poetry prizes are as various as the poets they seek to support.  Are they as numerous as poets, too?  Almost.

Picador Prize Winner

Congratulations to London-based poet Richard Meier for winning the first Picador Prize for Poetry.  Meier beat out other highly-touted (and many better known) poets to achieve the honour of having his debut collection come out from this important press.  His book will be widely anticipated.

New Words For Old Vessels

Good news.  Several poets with an interest in faith and Englishness have been working on writing a new liturgy for the Anglican church.  Eyewear awaits the results hopefully.

Tuesday, 25 January 2011

R.F. Langley Has Died

Sad news.  The great English poet, R.F. Langley, has died.  I wrote about his work here a few years ago.  Here one can find him reading.  One can purchase The Face of It here directly from Carcanet.

Monday, 24 January 2011

Eyewear At The Eliots

Spending time among firs and mountains in sub-zero Nordic conditions puts poetry competitions blessedly out of mind, and in touch with what makes poetry sing originally - the elements confronted by the human body. Returning to London, I attended the TS Eliot awards tonight, and was pleased to hear that my favourite poetry collection of 2010, White Egrets, won. It is to be hoped The Guardian fixes its link soon, as there was no poet Brian Roberston up for an award, but rather Robin Robertson.

Three Days Is A Long Time In Politics

I left Thursday night to go cross-country skiing in the mountains of Central Norway, along the Peer Gynt Trail, following in the footsteps of Scott, who trained at Fefor Hotel for his polar expedition (it is near enough the Arctic circle to afford the requisite extreme conditions).  Returning this morning on the 7.40 flight from Oslo (seated near Jeremy Clarkson, thereby putting me in a bind - should I not want the plane to crash?) I found that the Irish government farcical, Alan Johnson cuckolded and replaced by Ed Balls (the phallic puns just roll off the tip of the uhm tongue), and Mr Cameron mired in his own Watergate scandal of sorts (his spokesman resigning, he partying with Murdoch), Obama back up in the polls, and Palin down.  Gosh.

Thursday, 20 January 2011

So which is it Mr. Cameron?

This past week, David Cameron has been talking up his "grenade" being thrown at the NHS, as if it were the kindest cut of all.  He has spoken of his respect for the doctors and nurses, and love of what the great institution does, while also pushing for a massive change of direction, so big "it can be seen from space".  Indeed, the NHS has never been remade so completely in its 60+ year history.  At heart, along with allowing private health providers much more access to the market, is the demanagementising of the system, with groups of GPs replacing managers to run the NHS in local clots.  Never mind that GPs are doctors, not public planners.  Mr Cameron has been evangelical about the ability of the GPs to handle this big ask.  So, what to make of today's news, that GPs bungled their ordering of flu jabs so badly this year, it is being recommended that the government resume running the yearly influenza vaccination programme itself.  This seems a warning sign, at the very least.  If GPs can't handle running even one national health matter properly, how will they not bungle running the whole NHS?  I want a second opinion.

Guest Review: Sensier On Rumens

De Chirico's Threads

Carol Rumens’ fifteenth book of poetry, De Chirico’s Threads, is wide-ranging, deeply intelligent, and surprising. Unlike most poetry collections, it has a central character running alongside the authorial voice: Giorgio de Chirico, the early Greek Surrealist whose painting, The Uncertainty of the Poet (featuring a disembodied classical white torso and a bunch of bananas) has become a keystone image of surrealism. The artwork has already inspired one humorous poem by Wendy Cope, but Rumens’ play with the painting is extended across a miniature verse play and a whole collection.

Although de Chirico’s story does not really begin till part three of the book (entitled, like the book, ‘De Chirico’s Threads,’ and described as ‘a verse-drama, with soundscape’), he or his influence can be seen in many poems in the first two sections (‘Ice and Fire; Sonnets for Late-Elizabethan Lovers,’ and ‘Itinerary Through a Photograph Album’). De Chirico becomes implicit in many associations: classical Greece, interdisciplinary art, new beginnings, the dead. But although the fourth sonnet is dedicated to him (De Chirico Paints Ariadne on Naxos) as well as the book title, no biographical information appears till the verse drama. Coming to a direct discussion of de Chirico late like this enables his 1890s landscape to collide with the contemporary life seen in the poems of the first two sections. The nonplussed, but life-affirming inclination of the famous bananas blossoming from the torso are echoed in Rumens’ surprising work.

The sonnets of the collection’s first section take on different voices as well as speaking in the abstract; and the second section is more heavily tinged with the poet’s personal voice. Carol Rumens is a thoughtful poet though, and there is nothing here not touched by a slant through knowledge, or through humour. A description, ‘East Ending,’ of her East London neighbourhood full of ‘names too big for it, old working names/ Blitzed by re-development’ comes with the comment ‘we hate and love this torpor of museums. Hate it, mostly.’ The slick addition of the second sentence onto the perfect iambic pentameter already put down does what Rumens does well in this collection; she presents a seemingly simple form or thought, and then problematizes it with an aside. There is always a lot going on in a Rumens poem, both formally and in the poems’ content, and the strong acknowledgement of history’s burden, its ‘torpor’ - coming in the middle of a praise poem - keeps the reader sharp.

A similar effect is reached in ‘A Christmas Home-Coming,’ a meditation on the poet’s birthday and her parents’ relationship during World War Two, which slips into its conclusion the thought that ‘there are soldier-dads this Christmastime/ Not coming home. For these too, sip your birthday wine.’ This coda to a long introspection seamlessly updates the remembrances which make up the rest of the poem, running contemporary and past together expertly.

Greek sculpture, last-century painters, modern poets. Lenses of different times. They slide together here, from the first poem, ‘The Birth of Venus,’ which couples the notions of Venus felt by people today – a planet whose ‘oceans warmed and went,’ who warns us about climate change – and by Bernard de Fontenelle, a late-seventeenth-century writer (who knew?), to the concluding verse-drama.

And to top things off, Rumens never forgets the bunch of bananas. The ridiculous, the witty, is not missing from these poems. True, the salute to dead soldiers mentioned above goes with laments on global warming, a mourning poem to Mick Imlah, and more than one Holocaust lyric; one of these names the ‘hell’ of genocide as the ‘language everyone understood.’ One global warming lament stands out for its pathos and light touch, ‘2084,’ running

The children want to burn
anything that burns. They say we stole
the magic brand [...]
it’s their turn to hit the gas [...]
Just let us be children.

But these things are counterbalanced with jokes and surprises. In ‘A Winter’s Prayer,’ grief is hailed as ‘crystal-complex,’ and its power gains strength from Rumens’ integration of many other elements. Humour isn’t the least of these. In one poem, Count Dracula comes down from the Romanian steppes to create an online dating profile; though deciding to ‘’fess up to his years (six hundred),’ he eventually wins his prospective ‘middle-aged English rose’ with an ‘Eton smirk’ and the first part of his title. Humour and tragedy are very close when seen through the lense of surrealism, as Rumens makes clear in her description of a surrealist dealing with grief,

I was drawn by the same old sadness
Of seeing our furniture wander
outdoors [...]
It’s an earthquake, the death of a father.

‘De Chirico’s Threads,’ the verse-drama which concludes the book, doesn’t shy away from the different connotations of surrealism, interweaving its biting satirical quality with Greek mythology in ‘De Chirico’s Threads.’ It carries off the slanted seriousness with aplomb, helped by the chords which Rumens’ tense modernism has already struck in the collection’s other sections with such lines as:
                I closed the programme. Me. The mouse ran down
And sideways over a diminished future.

In this final section, Rumens treats the classical world, art history and philosophy with a satirical thoroughness which replicates de Chirico’s own joking distortion. The painter was famous for his juxtaposition of realist, natural objects in a way which seemed ridiculous. Rather than leading to ‘uncertainty’ for this poet, the approach works for Rumens, partly because of the expert timing and pace of lines such as ‘The Dithyrambs of Dionysos! Nice!’ uttered by a cynical arts editor.

Rumens’ writing is marked by its embrace of different qualities of art – evoking both scholarship and abandon, for instance, in a speech by ‘Le Poète’ (Guillaume Apollinaire):

Boum boum bongo boum
The dithyrambs are dumb as doom.
The only echo’s Doric.
Come on boys, get choric.

Eventually, the verse-drama takes the form of a labyrinth, unrolling the artist’s life, atmosphere and ideas with subtle rhythmic interrogation. However, early on in a poem in the first section of the book, ‘De Chirico Peeling Ariadne on Naxos,’ it’s stated that ‘You can’t unpeel the dead/ from their dirty sheets, their wrap of liquefied stone.’ Ultimately, the characters in the verse-drama prove unknowable, their art forming a facade – a ‘double-dim perception,’ as poems are described earlier on in the collection’ - as well as a communication point. Another hint from that early poem is relevant: the final statement ‘Art is brief. Life longer is.’ De Chirico is a lense for this collection, a focus point allowing the poet to access myriad points of view; the verse-drama is a fine piece of work, but the real power of this collection comes from the diversity of sensibilities which inform all three sections.

Colette Sensier is a young British poet.

New Poem by Michael Egan

Eyewear is pleased to feature a new poem by Michael Egan today.  Egan is from Liverpool.  A pamphlet, The River Swam, was published in 2005 by Paula Brown Publishing and a second, Folklores, in 2010 by The Knives Forks and Spoons Press.  His first full length collection Steak & Stations was published by Penned in the Margins in December 2010.  Two further pamphlets are due out in early 2011 (I Went to the Ship, Erbacce; After Stikklestad, The Knives Forks and Spoons Press).  He is currently working on an anthology of poetry in his Motivist form and a second full collection, Monsieur Dassonville and His Duck.

He Never Got To Caen

Pratt was his Norman name and Ramavath his wished for Indian grandmother’s.
His true name he kept hidden in hollows beside rivers or down the crevices of pub couches.
When he was done with raking dunes so they sloped at the right angles down to the Irish Sea
he’d cross flat sprout sprouting fields to Burscough and his corrugated hut, his flotsam bed.
I met him on an old road near Snape Green when I’d been walking since winter
so my feet were as black as the brogues I’d set off in and as hard as tanned leather.
“I never even got to Caen,” he said, draining his mild, pulled out a bitten through rag
and mumbled “my father gave me this pennant, this peace munching dove.”
Repeated it three times like Tolstoy's hermits, but drunk we didn’t feel the high summer heat
anneal our necks and the midges like awls piercing our skin; melted metal, bored out wood.
“I was an ancient son of Scarisbrick,” he said when we reached his hut by a bend in the Alt,
“last of a lost lot, I promised to take this rag to Caen where others like it might flutter still.”
As summer ending rain titter-tattered on his shack’s roof he sucked on the cloth
like he was sucking out the memories of his walking, the flavours of his guilt.
“I slept on a bench in Portsmouth, woke on a ferry to Cherbourg, naked and bruised,
spent that winter raising marquees searching for Mont St Michel but only found giants
living beneath the stones of Carnac, ran from them along a spit of land
then, naked still, let my body fall into Biscay’s Bay and was found by a fisherwoman
near Suazon before she tossed me back, more bruised, with the day’s bad catch
so I was drowned and drowned again until I was pulled into Brest’s bosom
and taken for a myth, a man made from the depths of the sea’s tossing dreams,
given over to a writer who wintered in a villa on the Isle-de-Batz looking south to Roscoff
but all the words of my story had left me and I clung only to my cloth, now torn, now ruined,
so he let me take passage to Rosslare where I fell into a sleep and did not wake
until I’d wandered my way home and saw those ragged dunes, all piled upon and crumbling,
so wiped my brow with the last colours of my cloth, the faded heralding of my name,
and for months I raked the sand, forgot that name and with each reshaped dune
I thought of Caen, her cathedral and stone, her leftover Norman sons, their scalps
no longer harshly shaven, heads hanging in the lessening of memory, wavering, lost to time.”

poem by Michael Egan; published online with permission of the author

Wednesday, 19 January 2011

Guest Review: Oswald On Boss

Helen Oswald reviews

Todd Boss comes from Midwestern farming stock; he plants his words carefully, judiciously spaced, with no wastage, like precious seed, and his lines grow up lean and tall through the centre of the page. The first two sections of the debut collection Yellowrocket, deal with the poet’s early years. The title poem tells the story of a family engaged in a bleakly biblical struggle with stubborn soil, trying to make the best of bad land but not without some Job-like grumbling:

The work was clay
deep, the debt was
north slope steep…

We were the unsung
angels of our portion

of the plat. And for
all that, on Sundays
the Lord gave us halos
of hat hair and gnats…

Boss’s talent for internal rhyme gives his often very short lines a pleasing musicality and the literal poverty of the setting is wittily contradicted by lyrical riches: “Had holes been coins,/ our gloves and boots/ would’ve jangled.”

Many of the lines display the tough wisdom and bone dry humour of those who have fought against the odds for survival. Wit is often a consolation, but the poems are also characterised by a melancholy beauty that comes in flashes, like lightning. In ‘In the Morning We Found’, the narrator’s parents are described walking through the wreckage of the aftermath of a violent storm:

My parents walked,

 alone and paired,

through the weird

 carnage, mourning

–downed trees still

 green and breathing

as soon they would

 no more–fallen

as in a war.

The difficulty of connection between those who live closely-bound lives – so simply expressed in “alone and paired” – pervades the collection and suffuses it with sadness. Love, like the rest of life, is not easy here, where marriage can easily become ‘a bicker’. The heart of the book examines the cut-and-thrust of an embattled relationship and the cruel intensity that can accompany intimacy:

“You asked me how,” she said.
                                                            I said,
“How what?” and reached to shut
the tap, but she stopped me, her nails
in my veins.


The love poems take us into the painful heart of a crisis of failed communication and separation. ‘Six Nights in a Hotel’ evokes the cold chill of this state: it starts simply with “My wife and I/ a mile apart” and, through the dispiriting details of the “crusty screws” and “crack of tile”, finally arrives at the unflinching confessional stanza:

My pride
is a fire
retardant blanket

It covers but it
does not warm.

Here again is the precise imagery and distilled style that Boss employs with such ease and effectiveness. Mostly his touch is assured, almost magical at times, but occasionally he approaches a little too close to the prosaic, as in the poem ‘Don’t Come Home’:

Don’t Come Home

ranks first among
the worst things
someone you love
can say. Not even
the common I
hate you does
the damage Don’t
come home will

Here, the short lines and carefully chosen line breaks cannot do quite enough to elevate the poem, despite some bird imagery that arrives too late and feels somewhat forced, as if the poet perhaps sensed the weakness. This ‘talky’ tendency occurs again later in ‘She Rings Me Up’, where the frisson created by a misunderstanding between the narrator and a check-out girl does not carry enough narrative interest or poetic charge to earn the poem’s five pages. The title of this poem (like nearly two-thirds of those in the book) doubles as the first line – “She Rings Me Up/ four frozen dinners/ and a pint of politically/ correct ice cream” – and this may encourage the temptation to run away with a somewhat loose narrative. A well-chosen title provides the reader (and writer) pause for thought at the start of a poem and again at the end where, reconsidered, it can lend another layer of meaning. It is a shame that a poet such as Boss, who considers his every word so carefully, so often misses this opportunity.

After the emotional storm at the centre of the book, the last two sections breath more easily and begin to restore the possibility of the “melancholy joy” that is the natural territory of this voice: “Everything’s a mess/ and genius all at once…” in ‘The Day is Gray and the Lake’; and in the tender love poem ‘To a Wild Rose’ the poet asserts, “There is a way/ in this world for beauty,/ for good.” The possibility of redemption underpins this collection, connected to a religious sensibility worn lightly and often with a sense of irony. Although seldom overt, it is there right from the start in the language’s biblical undertones; in the struggles with the enormous forces of nature; in the capitalised features of human failure (“Pride, Ruin’s bride-to-be”); in God’s dealing of ‘Another Hand’, and at the “brick altar” of ‘Wood Burning’.

The difficulty of negotiating a relationship with God is examined most openly in ‘Worst Work’ where, even if some of the language is distinctly modern, the metaphysical conceit and syntactic struggle with “the great provocateur” are reminiscent of John Donne’s heart/head tug-of-love with his Creator. Here, the narrator places himself in the humorously awkward position of having to give God feedback on a bad poem written about the poet himself – both poem and poet being his “worst work”. But, despite the cheeky tone, love is never in doubt:

I owe it to my faith to give the old fart
the benefit of doubt.
It’s hard to write a poem
about someone you love,
for one thing. And for another,
it’s hard to take a lesson from
your own worst work.

Some of the later poems that explore life’s more temporal epiphanies also demonstrate Boss’s talent for sharp observation through a whimsical lens and bring to mind the serious play of his fellow American poet, Billy Collins. In ‘Things, Like Dogs’ a laptop is capable of climbing onto a table and eggs of cracking themselves into a skillet in a bizarre but benign act of welcome; and, in ‘A Man Stares into the Same Painting Day after Day’, a brief moment where a small domestic detail is noticed afresh, is transformative:

And then one day something appears
in a window that wasn’t there before.

A curled cat or an ornate crack or a
stack of folded linens, it’s hard to tell.

And a window is opened in him, and
and he is placed upon his understanding’s
gritty granite sill. His life has a fresh
smell. It tingles.

This, of course, is also the effect of good poetry: Boss’s first collection most definitely has the power to generate that tingle. Its poems vibrate with a sharp and sensitive awareness of the pains and ecstasies that every life must bear.

Helen Oswald’s Learning Gravity, from Tall-lighthouse, was nominated for the Forward Prize for Best First Collection 2010. She works as a writer and editor from her home in Brighton.

Tuesday, 18 January 2011

New Poem by Tamar Yoseloff

Good news.  Eyewear has a new poem today from Tamar Yoseloff's forthcoming fourth collection, The City with Horns, published by Salt in May 2011.

Yoseloff is also the author of Marks, with the artist Linda Karshan (Pratt Contemporary Art, 2007) and the editor of A Room to Live In: A Kettle's Yard Anthology (Salt, 2007). She lives in London where she teaches for the Poetry School.

The poem below is from a sequence about the American painter Jackson Pollock.


I wanted people to sit still
for one goddamn minute but they
flash through your life –

                        portraits are for the dead.

Trees construct themselves into a solid mass
as the horse picks up speed

see, everything's knotted
the way notes on a staff spell music, a factory
churns out things, each thing
itself, but also a component.

How easy it is when density
unlaces, and you find holes you can
crawl through –
            light, a parting:

                        Navajo bucks round
a campfire, dancing

if I half-close my eyes, I can make them
leap straight in.

poem by Tamar Yoseloff; published online with permission of the author 

Monday, 17 January 2011

New Poem by Todd Swift

It’s not a poem unless it’s seen

It’s not a machine if it’s home-grown.
It’s not a phone if it types by horse.
It’s not a hearse if you get out born.
It’s not a horn if it never blows.

It’s not a rose if it smells like glass.
It’s not a pass if you fail to kiss.
It’s not a miss if you hit it park-out.
It’s not a parka if it’s sprayed on.

It’s not a tan if you wash it off.
It’s not a cough if you want it to be.
It’s not a bee if it floats like a bag.
It’s not a nag if there’s no dream.

It’s not a scream if you smile.
It’s not a mile if seven leagues.
It’s not cigs if you’re running rings.
It’s not sings if it speaks.

It’s not weak if it is song.
It’s not wrong if you write it down.
It’s not clown if you can’t mime.
It’s not rhyme if you can’t recall.

It’s not small if it fits in your head.
It’s not dead if it stands up to pee.
It’s not me if you dream it instead.
It’s not lead if it’s gold in them hills.

It’s not pills if you don’t feel better.
It’s not a sweater if it’s a garter snake.
It’s not cake if there’s no ice cream.
It’s not a beam if there’s no mote.

It’s not a quote without fingers.
It’s not singers if it’s just faked.
It’s not a lake if there’s no lady.
It’s not shady if you start to blister.

It’s not sister if there’s no kid.
It’s not id if you forget your ego.
It’s not meagre if there’s plenty.
It’s not mentis without the compos.

It’s not piss without the taking.
It’s not making unless you’re breaking.
It’s not talking unless you listen.
It’s not glisten unless there’s light.

It’s not sight unless there’s Milton.

poem by Todd Swift


A WORK IN PROGRESS... I am writing this first part on the eve of New Year's Eve day - and as new remembrances come to me, I may well...