Saturday, 31 March 2012

Review: Mentioning The War, the Kevin Higgins book of essays

There are several strands of Irish poetry criticism by practitioners worth reading - one thinks of the serious Heaney essays, the playful, Quixotic Muldoon ones, and then those by a variety of more experimental Irish poets.  And then there is the Kevin Higgins essay.  Unlike any other poet-critic in Ireland, Higgins is now virtually unique, also, in the UK, for his prose style and approach.  Higgins, a very good, and clever, poet, is always lucid, straightforward, honest, to the point of bluntness, and funny; that he is also politically concerned without being (anymore) a fanatic is a plus.  He has modelled himself, clearly, on Orwell - but Orwell was not a poet.  Sean O'Brien comes to mind, or perhaps Randall Jarrell, but Higgins is not as dandyish as the latter, or as partial as the former.  Mentioning The War: Essays & Reviews 1999-2011 from Salmon, is therefore a welcome book, because it gathers together scattered hack work and puts it in the hands, potentially, of anyone who wants to sit back and enjoy a dose of Higgins.

This is by no means a perfect book.  It is riddled with typos, which is a pity, and some of the shorter pieces are really best kept in scrapbooks (some are a page and a half and quite local in scope).  His take on Muldoon's rock band is very slight.  Some reviews feel dated.  And like many such books, an editor might have tried to smooth over the inevitable repetitions - or perhaps, the hobby-horses are best spotted in this way.  Clearly, Higgins is most interested in arguing against the political in literature at the expense of good writing.  He has been a left-wing activist, and has now recanted, and feels entitled to chasten those still fanatical.  As he wrote a lot for Books In Canada in the mid-00s, too, a few of his assignments concern rather leftfield books, such as that by the grumpy Quebec figure, David Solway.

At his best, Kevin Higgins is tactically blunt, and this is a gust of Atlantic air over the sometimes stale, stuffy establishment world of contemporary poetry, where people, like in Hollywood, are often afraid to say anything lest it hamper their next gig, or instead, puff-piece like mad.  Few other critics let you know where they stand so promptly.  A Higgins review is therefore always worth reading.  His essays on Orwell, his take on anti-Iraq war poetry, and on slams, are all significant interventions - he became the de facto champion of the art of slam in Ireland this last decade.  It would be good to see other Irish poets (like David Wheatley) gather their essays and reviews.  They might be as erudite, but would they be as frank?  As such, this collection, for all its faults and eccentric homeliness (the book opens with very moving, personal recollections that seem out of place), is required reading for any young poet-critic who wants to engage with 21st century Irish poetry and literary criticism.  Highly recommended, then.

Friday, 30 March 2012

Adrienne Rich Has Died

Sad news.  One of the great 20th century American poets, Adrienne Rich, has died.  Few others matched her integrity, sense of vision and vocation, political concern, and ability as poet, writer and critic.  Her greatest work, for me, remains Diving Into The Wreck, of forty years ago.  As a young poet, that was a touchstone collection for me.  Her essays on poetry and politics were also inspirational.  The world has lost a major figure.

Tuesday, 27 March 2012

Guest Review: Dekker On Williams

Nikki Dekker reviews
by Nerys Williams

Nerys Williams’ Contemporary Poetry is a difficult book to finish. To be fair, textbooks are hardly suited to be ploughed through cover-to-cover, but Contemporary Poetry is an especially demanding read. Every page contains at least two references to a poet (not simple theoretical footnotes, but enthusiastic endorsements of their work). With these frequent mentions and tangents, the reader is likely to leave for the library every other page, effectively being stuck with this book for months.

And what a way to be stuck. In six chapters, Williams sketches the scenery of contemporary poetry in great detail. At the end of the book, one will be fit to distinguish between the different directions and underlying poetics of contemporary work – which is, after all, the reason I personally wanted to read it. As a young poet writing in her second language, I am insufficiently schooled in the Anglophonic tradition as well as unaware of the current poetic climate. Contemporary Poetry takes care of both problems. Williams details the current situation from a theoretical background firmly rooted in the English and American canon.

The aim of the book, as detailed in its introduction, is to go beyond a simple collection of contemporary work - that’s what anthologies are for. Williams wishes to familiarize students with debates, ideas and movements surrounding contemporary poetry. The first half of the book deals mostly with its foundation: discussing the lyrical subject, politics and performance, it focuses mostly on 20th century movements. The second half of the book details our contemporary literary environment, for instance eco-criticism and multilingualism.

Williams has a keen interest in poetics, which she gathers from manifestoes and informal interviews, and relates to larger models of thought. It seems self-evident that lyrical subjectivism can’t be discussed without a mention of Barthes, but to include Lefebvre in the poetics of nature, or Lacan within the reflection on language, is surely to go beyond the bare minimum of theoretical support. The insightful research underlying Contemporary Poetry really makes the book worthwhile – especially since these philosophical backgrounds are both short and relatively easy to understand.

Contemporary Poetry is a textbook. While each chapter details a network of relating subjects and theories, it is concluded in a handful of scholastic ‘key points’ such as

“Poetic travelogues offer a further perspective on identity, community and environment”[1] and
“Poetry has a political role in excavating past histories and granting articulation to silenced voices.”[2]

These general summaries hardly relate to the detailed and nuanced arguments they are said to conclude. Instead, it would have been more helpful to reiterate the bigger picture: how do the different roles and perspectives relate to each other? The book often goes off on a tangent, and the student may need some guidance putting the pieces together.

On the other hand, the lack of generalizing statements and birds-eye conclusions is the great strength of this book. Williams always starts from the contemporary work itself and sticks to logical observations. This is not to say that the content of this book is predictable – to the contrary, it is very original, widening the perspective on poetry. When discussing the notion of performance, Williams quickly moves beyond slam poetry to discuss the visual performance on the page and the way a poem can ‘perform’ (see Judith Butler) with irony and mimicry. The focus in all these instances is not on the poet, as performance is commonly understood, but on lingual performance. 

While it could be read as a formalist, language-oriented study, Contemporary Poetry does not shy away from politics and their relation to literature. The book appreciates the poetic variety globalism has introduced in poetry, while never losing sight of its colonial history. Williams does not romanticize the historical events and details the embedded power inequities in international poetries. I personally found her chapter on Multilingual Poetries the most compelling. It considers “bilingualism as a sort of simultaneity in the writing”[3], linking it to the politics of everyday: “the co-existence of cultural models within the same society, and the internal multiplicity of personality”[4].

In comparison, Williams’ conclusion on ‘electronic writing’ seems a bit insufficient. While it defines electronic writing as digitally ‘born’, it fails to consider the younger demographic of poets who have actually ‘grown up’ online. It might have been interesting to consider the differences between paper writing (definite, concrete, static) and electronic writing (fragile, intangible, dynamic), or the online interaction between different languages. While the book is focused on Anglophone writing, it seems unreasonable to extend that focus to the online realm, which readily provides translation and “enables a mass audience and speedy dissemination.”[5]

Contemporary Poetry is rigidly focused on the poetic work – and it ought to be praised for that. It offers a perspective on contemporary poetry as a genre, practice and theory. This book transcends the standard anthology by examining poetics and relating these to philosophical concerns, thereby enhancing the student’s understanding of both craft and art. As Lyn Heijinian’s observed: “theory asks what practice does and in asking, it sees the connections that practice makes.”[6] This is precisely how Contemporary Poetry works: it offers ideas, effectively inspiring further reading and writing.

Nikki Dekker is an MA poet at Kingston University, who holds a BA in Literary Theory from the University of Amsterdam (Netherlands). She blogs at

[1] Nerys Williams, ‘Contemporary Poetry’, page 165
[2] Nerys Williams, ‘Contemporary Poetry’, page 92
[3] Nerys Williams, ‘Contemporary Poetry’, page 188.
[4] Tzvetan Todorov, ‘Bilingualism, Dialogism and Schizophrenia’ in Williams, page 188.
[5] Nerys Williams, ‘Contemporary Poetry’, page 208.
[6] Nerys Williams, ‘ContemporaryPoetry’, page 6.

Saturday, 24 March 2012

D. Nurkse, American Poet, On Campus At Kingston March 29

D. Nurkse, the respected American poet, whose most recent poetry book was short-listed for the 2011 Forward Prize for Best Collection, is visiting Kingston University on March 29.

He will be reading his poems and answering questions about his work, in room JG1004 on Thursday 29th March, 5.00-6.00pm.  This is in the John Galsworthy Building on The Penrhyn Road campus.

Admission free - all are welcome to attend

D. Nurkse is the author of numerous collections of poetry, including The Rules of Paradise (2001), The Fall (2003), and The Border Kingdom (2008), from Knopf.  In the UK he is published by CB editions.  His writing has appeared in Atlantic Monthly, The New Yorker, The Paris Review, Poetry, The Kenyon Review and other leading magazines.

Nurkse lives in New York and has been named poet laureate of Brooklyn.

D. Nurkse has received a Whiting Writers’ Award, the Bess Hokin Prize from Poetry, grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, and a Tanne Foundation Award. He has taught at Sarah Lawrence College, the Stonecoast MFA Program in Creative Writing, and Rikers Island Correctional Facility. He has also worked for human rights organizations, writing on human rights issues under his full name, Dennis Nurkse, and was elected to the board of directors of Amnesty International USA.

The Kingston Writing School
Penrhyn Road
Kingston upon Thames KT1 2EE

Friday, 23 March 2012

Jay Macpherson Has Died

Sad news.  Jay Macpherson, a poet of eccentric genius, and one of Canada’s greatest writers, has died.  Evan Jones and I quickly agreed she was one of only a handful of poets who definitely had to be included in our 2010 anthology for Carcanet, Modern Canadian Poets.  Born in June 1931 in England, she remained a quasi-reclusive  figure for most of her adult life, albeit a professor at the University of Toronto.  It remains a mystery to me as to why she is not known as one of the last centuries best poets – her  work was as if Stevie Smith had the academic mind of Northrop Frye.  Her style – quirky, mythic, brilliantly lyric and concise, inspired me when I began writing.  She showed it was possible to write intelligent, elegant, sophisticated formal poems in Canada.

Wednesday, 21 March 2012

Poem by Todd Swift for World Poetry Day

The Ailment

What got there, got there
Then it stayed.  Like glue
A doctor implied.  Like prayer
Argued another clad like a father
Black as grease.  It stung
And stuck inside.  A thorn

She cried; a hornet having died
The priest complained – unsin
Thy side!  It was presented
In a finding so I had to decide:
Pull out the fervid pin or wasp
Away to little else besides lather

On a shaved boy’s chin.  Its clasp
Was like wax on a ski or an LP’s skin.
It slid about, it grooved, it played
The length and lines of me, a musicness
Unto breath.  A tiny ceaseless death
The dentist opined then wanted cash.

It felt like wine-slosh in my brainpan.
All night I travelled in my bed, a train.
Each carriage disgorged an ailment
But this main thing only grew in size.
It happened finally to emit a claim
On my own name.  It wanted out

But as me.  I feigned indifference
To my external self, retained some
Dignity.  Soon though, unguents came
And took the resourceful fluid for a stroll.
It shook off the air and walked upright, so
Everyone who saw it nodded at my soul.

March 21, 2012

poem by Todd Swift

Tuesday, 20 March 2012

World Poetry Day Is Coming!

This in from Web of Stories...

"World Poetry Day is on March 21st and what better way to celebrate than to present your poetry to the world!

Web of Stories is an online site which offers viewers the opportunity to watch the video life stories from some of the world’s greatest thinkers and achievers. But it also offers members of the public the chance to tell their stories for future generations to enjoy.

There are a number of channels which you can add your video to, including the Poetry channel where you can record a reading of your work to showcase to the world. Why not even include a brief synopsis of your poem and your intentions, thoughts when you wrote it?

Web of Stories is open to all kinds of stories. You can talk about virtually anything you like, including how and why you became involved in poetry and how it has affected your life. There are a number of great poets already on the site such as Donald Hall, Julia Hartwig, WD Snodgrass, Richard Wilbur and to mark World Poetry Day a new speaker will be added to the site – Lithuanian poet Tomas Venclova.

So why not give it a go and record your poem?"

Sunday, 18 March 2012

Hockney's Late Style Flowering

David Hockney - who I long dismissed as a graphic designer slash hedonist with a line in pools and big glasses - has grown into his 70s as a grand old man of painting.  His vast new exhibition in London is movingly brilliant. It confirms him as a genius, as, room by room, the sheer scale of his old-age vision blooms into visually splendid life.  Hockney has become an expert on seeing things with an eye unjaded by the camera, a master of perspective and its lack, and someone who, like Hardy, notices things.  His unabashed rural East Yorkshire empiricism is, to me at least, the best thing to happen in the arts in Britain in decades - it is so fresh, naturalistic, simple, and yet profoundly engaged, with the seasons, with time, with trees - one could hardly ask for a more universal theme.  Hockney, a superb draughtsman, is able to render thistles, twigs, leaves, grass, and shoots, as well as fields and hedges, lanes and blossoming or bare bows, with aplomb, flair, and sometimes Van Gogh-like colour.  His iPad sketches, printed out, show that the desire to depict the visual world continue to be evergreen.  Every poet, artist, and lover of beauty should seek out the show at the Royal Academy before it closes.  We may never have a chance to have all these masterworks under one roof again.

Wednesday, 14 March 2012

Wolfish grin

The Wolf - a leading international poetry magazine - returns to London to launch issue 26 at the Poetry Cafe, Covent Garden, London on Wednesday, 4th April, 7.30pm

An excellent cast of readers featuring: Ruth Padel, Helen Moore, Alfred Corn, Giles Goodland, Sophie Mayer and Michael McKimm.

This is a FREE event. Limited seating.

Hosted by James Byrne, Editor of The Wolf

Wednesday, 7 March 2012

Santorum Demonised

Somehow, the definition of mainstream has slipped, via the liberal media, over to the fringes.  As a Catholic with a leaning towards Liberation Theology, I am on the far-left of the Church, and find many of Rick Santorum's positions unwelcome - he makes Mel Gibson seem like Rowan Williams.  However, whenever the British media like the BBC describe Santorum they call him the "anti-abortion, anti-gay marriage" candidate, as if these positions were utterly alien and horrific in and of themselves.  Not so.  For there to be sensible and credible democratic discourse the liberal media must be willing to acknowledge the large subsection of the American populace (the majority?) for whom abortion is an evil; and so on.

Further, the positions that Santorum espouses are mainly those of the mainstream Catholic Church as typified by the current Pope, Benedict.  It is true they are shocking and offensive to feminists, Marxists, and most college professors on the East Coast.  But they are hardly unique to him.  Taken out of context, Santorum seems like a ranting madman.  In context, he is a product of a narrow reading of a religious tradition with millions of American followers.  We need to engage with this tradition, in thoughtful discourse.  To demonise conservative Catholics is to simply entrench their views, not all of which are necessarily wrong or offensive.  It seems that the Church needs to rethink its staunch views on homosexuality, and the ordination of women, especially; and Santorum should respect the distinction between Church and State.

But we need to respect his right to hold his views, just as we may wish to hold other, far more liberal ones.  And, do note, conservatism is not, in itself, a bad thing - in a fast-moving increasingly capitalist world, the Church is one of the last bastions of a different vision of humanity, especially after the fall of Communism which it did so much to bring about.  Eyewear, finally, feels that Rick Santorum would be a better candidate for the Republican party, for two reasons: 1. He has more integrity in that he is unafraid to speak his mind on controversial issues and thus represents the core views of the party unlike Romney a sleek corporate clone; and 2. He is unelectable.

Monday, 5 March 2012

Nietzsche Stronger Than Ever?

There are three songs in the March 4 2012 BBC Top 40, I have heard today, that each contain direct reference to the most famous German philosophical maxim of all: 'Whatever does not kill makes me stronger', which as Hitchens has argued, is a load of crock.  Maybe, but it has certainly entered popular culture with a vengeance (one recalls it was promimently in A Fish Called Wanda).  But what are the odds of Kelly Clarkson's 'Stronger', Ed Sheeran's 'Drunk', and No. 2 new arrival, 'Rockstar' by Dappy each taking such grim cheer from this old saw?  Nietzsche must be rolling in his grave.  Or perhaps not.  For the second most famous German sentence is 'God is dead'.  And the same man wrote that.  Surely, FN is the Shakespeare of Germany, not Goethe.  His influence is vast and expanding, in direct exponential relationship to the shrinking of the enchanted, God-filled world.

For, in the absence of direct religious consolation available in song (many pop songs are about heaven, or angels, for instance, but usually as tropes that refer to their loved ones or love), what is more comforting than a nihilistic slogan that essentially justifies any level of self-harm or harmless mooning for pretty boys and girls - in short, a rule that means precisely nothing, but offers plenty.  Alain de Botton's attempt to construct a religion without God for atheists flounders here.  For we see that secular wisdom is immediately susceptible to corruption and idiotic cheapening, because it is not grounded on a belief in some sort of supernal higher power that (for all its many problems, such as potential absence or worse) at least presumably underwrites dogma.  But FN was a man, and a madman at that, so now, any popstar can borrow his words and spend them frivolously.  Imagine The Sermon On The Mount set to a pop song.

Would it become so stale, or would its words echo with constant challenge, promise and value? For, the problem, at core, with FN's famous sentence is that is is verifiably false, as Hitchens argues so well.  We are strong only until weak, and then strength is a miracle whose time has come and gone.  The enduring power of the Christian story, however, is that weakness and suffering are what is to expected, and thus embraced.  This stoic position - that pain will come, so deal with it - is far more potent than FN admitted.

Sunday, 4 March 2012

Swift Reviewed In Halifax

Good news for fans of England Is Mine - George Elliott Clarke, a major Canadian poet and critic, has reviewed it in today's Halifax Sunday paper.  This is especially sweet in the sense that some of my family (the Frasers) lived in Halifax, Nova Scotia, where they built ships.

Thursday, 1 March 2012

Spring Is Here: 12 Best Songs of 2012 So Far

March 1st, and music marches on.  It's been a major year for great pop songs.  Here are the 12 that have most delighted and instructed Eyewear:

1. 'National Anthem' - Lana Del Rey (remember her?) mixes hip-hop and David Lynch in this weird homage to the New Pop tunes of the early 80s that also manages to be a superb satire of capitalist America.  When she sings "give me a standing o-vay-shee-un" it is funny and sexy at once.

2. 'We Take Care Of Our Own' - Bruce Springsteen is back and sounds exactly as he always does.  Connecting to the blue collar indignation that makes his best songs moving and relevant, this is an ironically-observed state of the union that is also almost as catchy as 'Born In The USA'.

3. 'Young Man In America' - Anais Mitchell is one of the greatest folk singer-songwriters, and this haunting, moving song tells the story of a ravenous young man on the make in a desperate landscape, at once  The Great Depression and the depressing contemporary scene, of Santorum and Occupy Wall Street.

4. 'Darkness' - Leonard Cohen is back, and jazz-darker than ever, his High Bleakness reaching invisible new heights of the sublime in this funny, tuneful tip of the fedora to the encroaching oblivion. "I thought the past would last me/ but the darkness got there too" - terrible and wonderful.

5. 'Show Me Everything' - The Tindersticks are the natural heirs of Cohen, and make a comeback with this Doors-meets-Trip Hop tune, haunting, melancholy and sensuous. "We touch through glass, feel nothing".

6. 'Screws Get Loose' - Those Darlins have taken the new normal, girl-group New Wave mannerisms that so many bands are now accessing, and have made a truly fun, brilliant song with its sexy double-entendres.

7. 'Default' - Django Django have created a song as weird and exciting as any by Devo or Blancmange, and made it their jangly, herky-jerky own - by far the most original pop song of the new decade so far.

8. 'Somebody That I Used To Know' - Gotye is the other Internet sensation of the year, along with Lana - a heretefore obscure Belgian in Australia channelling his inner Men Without Hats to create tunes that capture the radio friendly 80s, with a sliver of Men At Work in their heart.  Best xylophone work in ages.

9. 'I Fink U Freeky' - Die Antwoord aren't the only incredibly weird, off-puttingly ugly underclass South African techno-rap group, but they are the best.  Okay, they are the only one.  No one else, ever, has managed to sound this sexy and threatening, in a genuinely subversive and menacing way.  Intriguingly, the gender tropes get subverted here - usually a young woman's praise of a love object is not this chilling.

10. 'Son Of A Bitch' - Highasakite are Norwegian, and this upbeat, soaring Jefferson Airplane-influenced pop song has very dark lyrics that cut across its upbeat nature, such as "hold my hair while I vomit"; it is very very hard to shake, and I love it.

11. 'Black It Out' - The Van Doos (great name) have crafted a classic power pop tune that is, well, classic.  It gets everything right, and is just purely satisfying within its own intentions.  If they can keep this up they'll be great.

12. 'Lafaye' - School of Seven Bells have created a classic New Wave gem, contemporary but also haunting in a Siouxsie & The Banshees meets Cocteau Twins way.  Propelled by synths and a great beat, its chimes and gongs give it a sublime goth-anthem texture.

THE BEST OF 2017...

Aim High, more often Year-end Best of lists are invidious, and, also, these days, ubiquitous, to the point of madness. But we have love...