Thursday, 29 May 2014

POETRY FOCUS: ADAM WIEDEWITSCH

Eyewear is thrilled to be offering a clutch of poems by an emerging poet of some note.


Adam Wiedewitsch (pictured) is a founding editor of Tongue: A Journal of Writing & Art and poetry editor at The Prague Revue. In 2009, he co-founded the international association of writers and artists,The Pirogue Collective, and co-edited the anthology Imagine Africa and The Rule of Barbarism, poems by Abdellatif Laâbi.

He has received fellowships from the Gorée Institute (Senegal), the Eva Tas Foundation (Holland), DAAD (Berlin), The Millay Colony (New York), The Ledig House International Writers Residency (New York) and his poetry has been published or is forthcoming from Carapace (South Africa), New Contrast (South Africa), Salamander (USA) and Azul Press (Holland).


Nature Morte

                In memory of Seamus Heaney


Offal held at bay by a boar’s rugged hide
cannot keep the monkeys, cats, and dogs
from picking up the market-fresh scent
of death. Neither can the paintbrush.
In even the most morbid nature morte
their razor sharp eyes size up the haul in the pitch
beneath the fishmonger’s slab like wolves
forest-black, troops of paws and fangs pinch guts
and grapes the minute the butcher looks away.         
But they alone do not grant the old Dutch
larders and market stalls such ravenous life.
The wild forms of what once were, are,
simply for having been athletic hares
and speckled fawns, catfish and king salmon
before the hook, the last dance upstream.

 *** 


Commentary On / “Commentary LXIII (van gogh)”

                        after the poem by Juan Gelman

What with his sea-
changes / catching up with
the Dutch preacher
rumored to pace
the Belgian slag / or
the absinthe dragon
at Arles / or any other Zola-
born thrust / burned hot
and out / is
a bit like
wrangling a ghost / yet
without a stroke 
of pretense / that tendency
to think we know
we know / an / other’s
furious worn-out
shuffle / and on a day
when prisons
exiled your mind / you knelt
without two-shits for
self / in his lavender fields /
Las Pampas / if not
for all this Provence /

 ***


Communion Freedom Tower


She looks spent but there’s no doubt
it’s me cast over her knees
on the edge
of the subway seat
and by she I mean we
are crippled by cell-phone screens
the off-chance someone might blow us up
or like school kids
we wish to rescind a text
wish we hadn’t read
what we just read
but cannot for the life
of us stop: America, the tower
flaccid from the Q train bridge
by the gold-
leafed East River
is girder-by-girder
our master these days
and don’t ask me why
don’t ask me why she sat up
straight as a shot
when we climbed out the tunnel,
ask me why or why not
another tower
when nothing will ever do.

 ***


If Night You Were a City


I’d return in a jacket
of gold leaves

drawn tight
against a city-wind

whipping around corners
and through the button-holes over

cobbled streets
park lanes

cordoned off
barbarian herds

of steel and glass and concrete, ground zero
for the crowds

of absence. We’d lift off
beyond the brick

toward choked-stars, moons
out-shined by neon signs

and by anxious day moons
perched on dark spires

gold lions
we wrap our naïve wings around

to embrace the artifice
of it all

and the reality: the heat here
is unbearable

and I miss the need to be warm
the need to look forward to

nights alone with you
with no morning on our minds

no time
no need to claw through

restaurants packed with bridge
and tunnel drunk
on the filth
and the beauty.

For here
there is no comparison to

autumn as autumn
no snow to justify

a hot drink or a fat meal
the fish is delicious yes

and the beer
even better but it’s not the same.

Some say the grass is greener
as if it’s God

and more
that I try to recreate

New York each time a baobab
drops a beetle

to flee every time
winter floods the sand

to mute the night-
boats eclipsing the mainland sprawl

trading with another language
transformed before my ears:

tell me how you lived
your dream and I will tell you
who you are.

Every night I mean every single night
and with a wingspan

I resurrect in a cool sweat
and off in the distance

there are drums drums
beating the island like drums

and right outside my window
an unexpected laugh

in concert
with the percussive horn

of the ferry
to you.

There’s nothing romantic about this
absolutely nothing

absolute
I am reminded of

everything that went wrong
and of everything that went right

but when I wake if I wake
may the flash not wax

our feathers

may it not melt our wings


ALL POEMS COPYRIGHT THE AUTHOR 2014

Tuesday, 27 May 2014

THE HARM OF COMING INTO EXISTENCE

Fans of True Detective the TV series may know that one of the influences that shaped its nihilistic vision was the anti-natalist position as espoused by philosopher David Benatar, who believes that "coming into existence is always a serious harm".  His infamous book on the subject, while cogent and serious, is perhaps the funniest book I have ever read, probably unintentionally so, as it reads like A Modest Proposal as dryly written by a logician.  Sometimes, well-argued philosophy can sound insane, and this book often does. I do not wish to use an ad hominem attack, though, to dispense with the central idea of his anti-natalist position, which is that no one should be born (all should be aborted, and the human race gradually made voluntarily extinct) because it is better to have never been born than lived at all.

To his credit, Benatar admits few other human beings are ever likely to assent to his view; that it seems counter-intuitive; and that it may even fly in the face of most biological imperatives; nor does he recommend killing already living humans.  Indeed, since his moral outlook is based on attempting to remove as much harm as possible, once born, he seeks to limit human suffering, and he sees death as the major cause of that pain.

Benatar's argument falls at the first hurdle though, because it is either a) a tautology or truism and thus uninteresting; or b) it is fallacious and/or both.

I would argue firstly that to define harm, as Benatar does as "pain" (versus pleasure) and then say that even the smallest pinprick is a harm, renders his statement tautological:

consider this logic:

a) to be born all humans must come into existence
b) all humans are mortal
c) all mortals eventually die
d) to come into existence one must eventually die
e) to die is a serious harm
f) humans that come into existence will suffer a serious harm

I think this is very clear, and also, uncontroversial.  Benatar, however, then argues that:

It is better not to suffer serious harm than to suffer serious harm by coming into existence.

But really, he has not offered a meaningful choice, because his choice is between either coming into existence (birth = harm) and not coming into existence (no-birth = no-harm).

Benatar claims that no-birth possible persons cannot feel, as they do not exist, so they do not suffer.  This is tautological.  Anything which does not exist is therefore better than what exists.

The same argument could be phrased as it is "better to be a non-existent purple God than to come into existence".

In short, Benatar is simply arguing, not that there is a better option than existence, but that existence is imperfect. That is, existence has both pain and pleasure.

Benatar sets the bar at viable life too high - he suggests that perhaps godlike creatures that lived to be 240, had wings, and super-human IQs, and never felt pain, hunger, or desire, or suffered disability, would have a better life quality - but even then due to the law of thermodynamics, their world would end, and they would suffer extinction - thus, even their lives would include some measure of harm, and be not worth living.

Like the most finicky human ever, Professor Benatar equates ANY HARM with A FATE WORSE THAN NON-EXISTENCE, even though he admits most humans, other than suicides, would not think so.  He argues that due to the possibility of rape, torture, starvation, murder, war, disability, cramping and ageing, anyone using the sort of Rawlsian idea of an Ideal Starting Point might conjecture the risk of coming into existence without suffering serious harm would be too great - especially since there is 100 per cent likelihood of species extinction one day.

This makes no sense. It is not anti-natalist, but anti-biotic.  It is a view which suggests that ALL SENTIENT LIFE is TOO HARMFUL to bring into existence.

Dr Benatar's argument, if not truistic ("being born is painful; pain is to be avoided; being born must be avoided") mistakes degrees of harm.  He suggests we are Polyannas making sweet lemonade from our suffering, but, though he cites pestilence and disaster and war as reasons not to live, he need only have observed that being born is the first moment of alarm (a harm for Benatar) and more than intolerable from his zero-harm moral position.

But what good is a moral position that, in seeking to protect life from harm, advocates that no life should exist.

Think thusly:

Benatar's model can be restated as:

a) the best possible world is one without serious harm
b) sentient beings coming into existence is what causes serious harm
c) therefore a world without sentient beings coming into existence is the best possible world

However, this fails to address the following:

in the ideal world, without any coming into existence, who would be able to frame the moral position above?  In the absence of sentient beings, what sense is there in advocating ideas about best or worst?  Best is only valid in terms of comparison to what is.  A world that never was is not better than a world that was, or is, for it cannot be meaningfully compared - since non-existent worlds are fictive, one can say what one wants about them - they will always be weight against what is, and found excelling - so, it is better to not-exist because not-existence is like having a billion orgasms at once is a plausible argument for Benatar; now, Benatar thinks non-existence (rather pre-existence) is harmless, because he defines moral existence as a thinking wakeful living being with interests.  As such it is better to be awake than asleep, but that does not mean one must only choose one state.

Benatar has confused the idea of choosing between goods and evils.  Choice is not necessarily zero-sum - you can choose to be awake more than asleep. You needn't choose between a zero-harm and low-pleasure state (pre-existence versus existence).

In short, Benatar is arguing for the best world being one that could never have existed vs.a world that we know did come to be.  He has used his hindsight to argue for an impossible (ideal world) - for the best possible world would not have Benatar, thus Benatar's ideas, in it.

This is like saying the best houses are ones that cannot burn or collapse - since houses are made of things, and things can burn or collapse - then the best house is the one that is never built.

This is the sort of argument for the existence of God in reverse (God must exist because the idea of God contains the idea of perfection, and to be perfect, you must exist), except here, to be perfect you must not exist.

Indeed, the absence of any mention of an after-life, souls, or a God, makes Benatar's arguments unpersuasive, if only because in order for his logical definitions to be plausible, life must come into being in a world without a) Heaven; b) God; c) Reincarnation.

Heaven, by definition, is a future pleasure so great it undoes all past harm. If we come into existence with souls, in order to reach Heaven and come into union with God, then coming into existence does us a serious pleasure.

In other words, Benatar's nihilism only works in a mechanistic and atheistic world, which, though a hypothesis, is not a given.  It is hard to advocate phased extinction before checking to see if life may have some countervailing anti-harms.

For he says little of anti-dotes, the anti-harms of music, thought poetry, love - obviously to him, sweet lemons.  But if a pinprick is worse harm than never being born, then isn't a kiss a better pleasure than a pin prick?  We can walk on coals without noticing, if focused on something better.


Saturday, 24 May 2014

DISINTEGRATION

The trouble with getting older, aside from fear, boredom, and the only end of age, is, of course, you keep hitting milestones and anniversaries like unwanted speed bumps on the road of encroaching senility.  Eyewear, the blog likes to note some of these as well as the next media outlet (see the recent post on Pulp Fiction).

It comes as a shock to read in NME that it has been 25 years since The Cure released Disintegration, even still.  From a North American perspective, certain bands from the UK created a certain moody indie romantic feel, that spoke to the suburbs and made those lost places feel enchanted with an outsider's chance of escape.

It was poetry for the adolescent, in all but name - music yes, but far more impactful even, still - it was a bible, it was poetry, it was our wine and our dregs - and that group of 7 must include Depeche Mode, Echo & The Bunnymen, The Smiths, Simple Minds, Tears For Fears, Joy Division/New Order, and The Cure among its key players (add the Americans R.E.M, Pixies, Sonic Youth, Iggy Pop, The B-52s, Talking Heads, and The Replacements, and you have a good idea of the 14-heavy playlist of an era, just before Nirvana,  Smashing Pumpkins, Soundgarden, Pearl Jam, Metallica, Oasis and Radiohead broke over us in the 90s).

The Cure - like all the best of the bands mentioned above - defy categorisation, and form their own demi-monde of reception. This particular album has all the faults of the genre it is the epitome of - doom-laden, emotive goth indie - kohl-eyes, Geisha-white pancake make-up, red lipstick on boys and girls, black hair, black clothes.  This was my time, and for a while, my garb, my tribe.  Yes, I was a goth at one stage.  It seems like a different person, of course.  You don't easily move back from 90 kg to 66 kg, from being pale and skinny and 23 and shy, to being 48 and pale and chubby and scared - though Robert Smith was always as chubby as a eunuch, or is that cherubic?  Anyway, Disintegration is the masterwork of its tone, and aim, and mood-mode: as melancholy, drifty, haunting, love-lorn, and world-weary as Apollinaire.  In the end you are weary of this ancient world - indeed.

The album, inspired by the suicide of some fans, among other things, is about running out of time, of closing down, of ageing, of leaving behind what was once the thrill, the defining thrill, of touch, desire achieved, that kiss in the dark damp park under the trees, her mouth tasting of cigarettes and lipstick and wine.  The shiver-shudder of half-innocent lust-hope, of love-art, that makes the young person's thrill like Rilke's violin strings.  We age and forget, but if you play back this LP a flood of memories, faces, parties, crushes, and crushed hopes, comes in, on the new wave, the last hurrah of that great 80s new wave. You make me feel like I am home again.

Friday, 23 May 2014

3232

The previous post was the 3232nd posted at Eyewear since I started running this webzine on blogger, in the summer of 2005 - so, that's nine years of surveying the territory, of life in the 21st century, and more specifically in celebrity-obsessed, Bank-supporting, UKIP-supporting, semi-broken Britain - only semi-broken, because Britain showed the world, in 2012, it could hold a world-class Olympics with high spirits.

Unfortunately, Britain continues, despite an economic recovery, to be confused about its role at home and abroad - is it a world copper?; is it a multicultural place, or a Xenophobic one that wants to pull up the drawbridge?; does it want to keep the NHS and support people with disabilities and trouble finding work?  Britain has a huge disparity between its London billionaires, and its London poor - let alone the rest of the UK.  Meanwhile, culturally, it produces some of the best music, drama, acting, cinema, art, fashion, writing, comedy, TV, cooking, sports-persons, and cars.  It has a world-class airline, and the world's most famous Queen.  It has the BBC.

It is a confusing place, because for every conservative position there is a radical one, and bowler hats and skinheads mingle, still, in the cultural and social consensus.  We see the face of the optimistic new Britain in Ping Coombes, a British amateur cook who recently won Master Chef - she is of course not the typical White Middle Englander of some UKIP daydreams - but instead a relative newcomer to these isles, who has married, prospered, and fused her family's past culinary culture with those of her new home.  I too am now British.  Seeing as the poetry world is as divided as a Rubik's Cube, I still have work to do.  It would be nice to think this blog will be here in 2015, for its tenth birthday - but who knows? Life is tough, publishing a long walk on a short pier, and, frankly, Mr Shankly, I didn't know you were so bloody awful to poets.  Give us money!

As for the wider world?  Intractable and stupid seem words to apply to the never-ending belligerence and cruelty and murder we see in Ukraine, in Syria, in Nigeria, for instance.  The human beast has not tamed its breast.  Meanwhile, scientists explore new viral infections that can wipe out billions; the great glaciers calve, and sea levels rise.  Winds howl more wildly, even in placid England. Trees topple.  Seas, acidic and plastic-addled, and cetacean-depleted, die.  We are an insane species, capable of some great art and thinking, but much less impressive when it comes to action.  We have a 50% chance, I suppose, of destroying human life in the next 500 years.  I expect 2514 to be rather hellish - a nanobotic, domed, weird place of androids, cyborgs, clones, and perfected bodies, living to the age of 200 (rich bodies).  Sex and violence will continue to be major sources of entertainment, permutations so vivid and complex as to almost be alien to our current sensibilities.  There will still be Christianity, atheism, poetry, and debates about science and faith.  Non-greens will be viewed as the fascists of their age.  In general, our century will be considered vile, but decisive.  Or, the world will be a wasted blasted place of withering fronds and a few cruelly evolved beings munching cacti in 50 C degree winters.

GUEST REVIEW: WONG ON MACKENZIE

Jenny Wong reviews
The Good News
By Rob Mackenzie

Deft, purposeful and precise, Rob Mackenzie’s latest collection The Good News examines from different perspectives the human need for faith, love and truth. His poetry fuses imaginative scenarios with prophetic voices, whilst it conjures a somewhat surreal yet familiar contemporary reality.

It is a delight to see the poet’s risk-taking experiments with form result in highly original satires such as ‘Tippexed Speeches on Scottish Independence'. In measured pace, Mackenzie taps into the latent meanings of a politician’s language, reworking the news-speak by David Cameron, Nick Clegg and Alex Salmond. By highlighting the different interpretations of ownership through the different use and repetition of ‘I/we/us’, and by leaving out parts of their speeches, the poet exposes the politicians' craft in swaying the crowd with deliberate, emotive language, such as the following imagined speech from David Cameron:

I also understand why people
  want a Scotland where more people own
    where more people keep more
  where business can                (p.17)

In looking at the question of Scottish independence, Mackenzie adopts a language of his own and presents both sides of the argument with artless humour. In his poem ‘The Point’, he explores the inclusivity and exclusivity of the pronoun ‘we’, as the people are confronted with an uncertain future:

…We cannot trust ourselves
to talk about how we think the things we've thought.
Our independence, our politics, our fitting demise

are not worth retweeting.                    (p.16)

Inspired by Ian Pindar’s ‘Chain Letter’, ‘A Scottish Cent(o)ury’ is a powerful poem that projects a present reality illuminated by the past. With lines chosen from 100 Scottish poems, this is a piece of refashioned vernacular kindled with hope, in the context of changing social and political expectations.

In his previous interview with Robert Peake for Huffington Post, Mackenzie talks about the difficulty to trust in a world full of subterfuge, and sees poetry as a way of countering fakery:

Poems can capture moments like undoctored photographs - as evidence against fakery and unreliability - but they can also enact fakery and unreliability by (in effect) photoshopping the past. Good poems don't try to fit in. Good poems don't pander to expectations. They know the official versions of events and subvert them.’

Divided into three sections – ‘The Lingua Franca Happy Hour’, ‘Autistic Variations’ and ‘Human Manoeuvre’, the book explores the needs and expectations of an individual, and reflects a constant adjustment process of perception and interpretation, of self-acceptance and self-renewal. Using the metaphor of an autistic child, the second section offers a moving account of self-exploration and understanding. For example, in ‘Torino in Furs’, a child grows up within and apart from the Torinese community, as an outsider, and his un-belongingness escapes the ‘untrained eyes’, and the place itself feels unlike home, as if it were ‘a whole city with Asperger Syndrome’.

Carefully poised and sometimes unsettling, Mackenzie’s poems tackle the gap between what seems and what really is, being arriving at what truly matters, such as the moment of clarity in ‘The Boxer’:

…I have been working on
a lyric called The Boxer, a sort of Kate Moss
vs. Simon & Garfunkel growl mix, but it’s really
about longings and other howlers I have made. (p.72)

Moving between political satires and introspective poems, Mackenzie’s book is full of optimism, vision and acerbic wit. Borrowing from a vast range of materials and voices, his poems puts forward questions or hypotheses of our existence, which are at once profound, unsettling and yet uplifting.

Jennifer Wong is a British-based poet born and raised in Hong Kong.  Eyewear reviewed her recent poetry collection a few posts back.


Thursday, 22 May 2014

TIMELINE: New Poem by Todd Swift

TIMELINE

I loved the moon
Then they invented fire
I loved water
Then they invented steel
I loved air
Then they invented song
I loved the ground
Then they invented walls

And all these new things
Took my heart away
So I loved them more
And loved the old ones less
As a suitor’s heart sinks
At the sight of a sister’s dress
And how it clings softly

I loved The Word
Then they made the press
I loved the poem
Then they made the book
I loved the film
Then they made radio
I loved The Shadow
Then they made TV

And all these new things
Took my heart away
So I loved them more
And loved the old ones less
As a suitor’s heart sinks
At the sight of a sister’s dress
And how it clings softly

I loved the box set
Then they gave us games
I loved the joystick
Then they gave us Internet
I loved facebook
Then they gave us apps
I loved tweeting
Then they gave us Tinder

And all these new things
Took my heart away
So I loved them more
And loved the old ones less
As a suitor’s heart sinks
At the sight of a sister’s dress
And how it clings softly

Moon, fire, water, steel,
Air, song, ground, walls,
Word, press, poem, book,
Film, radio, Shadow, TV
Box set, games, joystick, Internet
Facebook, apps, tweeting, Tinder

I loved them all, tenderly,
As each broke and fell and gave
Way to the following wave,
And the beach is littered
With what I forgot to save
And recall, and all I loved

Fit best in the palm of my eye,
In the corn of a stalking poem,
In the ray of the green sun,
The first beam that was undone
When shade as intercession
Moved between the lover

And the making hand
On the wall where blood
And paste dyed caves human:
Image makes heaven
Descend and a fearless angel
Lie down with the uncombed lion

And all these new things
Took my heart away
So I loved them more
And loved the old ones less
As a suitor’s heart sinks
At the sight of a sister’s dress

And how it clings softly


poem by Todd Swift, copyright 2014

Sunday, 18 May 2014

DO NOT GO MAD MEN. REVIEW OF THE NEW BBC DYLAN THOMAS BIOPIC

The BBC - perhaps feeling guilty over its infamous internal memos of the 40s and 50s outlining how Dylan Thomas was never to be described as the pre-eminent poet of his age (that was Eliot or Auden according to the Beeb)has -for the centenary of the Welsh poetic genius - produced a classy 80 minute TV show, written by Andrew Davies, king of the literary TV adaptation, and starring Tom Hollander, one of the best actors of his generation - that sucks the life out of the legend, and comes across as an episode of Mad Men.

Part of my PhD was on Thomas - I admire his work a great deal, but think him to have been a little shit, who manipulated friends and family, and lied and schemed to get money and free drinks and attention.  These are hardly unusual actions when it comes to alcoholics, let alone self-obsessed geniuses.  Thomas is often accused by critics of his work of being a narcissist, which is sort of like calling Poe morbid, or David Lynch weird.  Yes, sure, but then what?

The script, set in a neon-lit New York before the Internet, and almost before TV, when poetry read in theatres was still imaginably capable of drawing large crowds nightly, and sexual groupies, is pared back to mostly the facts.  Anyone who has squired an alcoholic British poet around for a week (as I have several times in my life) for literary events, will recognise most of the plot as about as sadly real as possible.  The regrets, ego tussles, broken promises, vomiting, hacking coughs, semi-comatose sex acts, half-miraculous performances, and general sense of being conned, are all eerily contemporary - are likely timeless.

Davies is clear-eyed about Thomas and his use of his sad-sack impresario friend, John Malcolm Brinnin, a minor poet who Thomas never once, tellingly, treats with any interest or respect.  It seems that Thomas saw people as tits or bank tellers, or barmen - an audience of servants for his damaged ego.  His extra-marital conquests are not far from those of Don Draper's - another self-loathing brilliant drunk and con artist - but without the looks of the adman.

Thomas was dying of several conditions at the time, including asthma, potentially TB, and liver disease, and even if his quack doctor hadn't shot him full of morphine on the night he famously drank 18 whiskey shots, he might have died soon anyway - afraid of the thousand a week he was about to get to tour America for years.  Of course, we also get flashbacks to a wee Dylan, asthmatic but fast on his feet, running on the dingles, and enjoying the grass green as fire; and of course, in the teleplay's best moments, talking to his dying father, a disappointed intelligent teacher whose own love of poetry was squandered - or, being talked to as he dies, by his hysterical, and genuine wife, Caitlin (pulled away by hospital orderlies in a reference to Kubrick's Lolita, another story of a doomed American tour).

The film, then, is mainly factual,- and accurate in portraying how petty and lonely poetry tours can be - and how lost poets in foreign lands often are. Hollander restrains the eloquence and roll of Thomas - he would be hard put to sound as beautiful as the original - and one thinks of actors who try to become Orson Welles - great voices of the genius are the hardest to mimic, which is why we loved Hoffman as Capote.

It also isn't bad in giving us a few poetry readings (even if the poems are edited) - it seems audiences can't bear too much real poetry - but over all, the show fails to light any fires.

The reason?  In falling between the bar stools of realism and hagiography, the show neither convinces us of the poet's actual charismatic charm and verbal originality (instead he becomes a wry wit, which is an Englishman's ironic take on new romanticism, but is really more apt for Auden) - Thomas was more bombastic than he was rueful - nor does it entirely strip away the legend to consider how he may have been killed; nor is his alcoholism named or shamed, as such, though the AA movement was a big deal in the US in the 50s.

Neither, then, as funny as Barfly, or darkly informative as The Lost Weekend, instead, we get a watered down shot of something bitter, shot through with the red tint of nostalgia for the White Horse tavern - those seedy dives that poets love to imagine themselves ruining themselves in.

As such, Poet In New York (pace Lorca), is a well-acted good costume drama that could almost be a pilot for a series set in New York in 1953, a world 60 years and more gone, and in some of its style and innocence, is as remote as the small boathouse our hero fled, in the longest way home ever.  Oddly, after the show aired, there was a link suggested, to a show called WHY IS DYLAN THOMAS SO POPULAR IN AMERICA?  Well, to ask that question is half the problem - the English intelligentsia have always been unsure as to what to do with such rhetorical genius - the better question is WHY NOT MORE SO IN ENGLAND?



Friday, 16 May 2014

PULP FICTION 20 YEARS ON

Is there a person over the age of 18 alive who hasn't seen Pulp Fiction - or some offshoot of its pop culture impact? Like exploding brain splatter, Pulp Fiction became the film hit of 1994, and is, arguably, the greatest American film of that decade - perhaps of all time (in a short list that includes Blue Velvet and Apocalypse Now and Taxi Driver, to be sure). A sort of sexier, even darker Touch of Evil for our time.

Soundtrack to our twisted dreams
Tarantino, despite or because of seeming to be a nerdy creep in "real life" is, in reel terms, a cinematic genius of B-thrills and Cannes insight - a rare balance.  Indeed, only a few other Western directors have ever managed to fuse art and thrills better or as well - Welles, Hitchcock, Spielberg, Scorsese are peers.

That poster!  That gimp scene! That watch monologue! That dance! That heroin! That soundtrack!  That amoral ultra-violence! I still remember seeing it with a friend.  When it ended, we turned to each other in amazement.  It was the first time since Indiana Jones when I had seen, in the cinema, a film that felt completely a work of genius, a work of visual pleasure, nihilistic, pugilistic, aesthetic.

Tarantino has never made a better film - and he won't.  Ethically sick, visually jam-packed, verbally slick, it is wit mainstreamed. It's perfect, and structurally so splendid, so surprising, so respectful and yet disruptive of its source genres, and thus, unbeatable.  That's okay, because we will always have his original hit of heart-racing adrenaline.

Saturday, 10 May 2014

JOHN HARTLEY WILLIAMS, BRILLIANT BRITISH POET, HAS DIED

I am sad to hear of the death of my friend, the poet, John Hartley Williams.  For a few years, in the mid-00s, he and I would meet, have a few pints (or more) every few months when he was in London, and talk about poetry, life, and the relative oblivion awaiting all of our work.



John wrote poems like no other established British poet of his time - fearlessly, with a ribald appreciation of vocabulary, the zany, and the musical - tempered by a strong sense of form, and the tradition.  He was a sort of insider's punk - the most radical "mainstream" poet, somehow outside but always on the verge of being "in".  He was, after all, published by big presses for much of his career, and was nominated for a TS Eliot Prize.  John's poems are always larger than life, ferociously imaginative.  To hear him read, in his beautiful, theatrical voice, was to have already very vivid poetry roar to life.

There are very few poets who read every poem as if it was an event you are glad to be part of - and John was like that.  His poems exploded off the page, and left audiences amazed at his brilliance, wit, and imaginative reach. Typical of John's Monty Pythonesque sense of comedy was that he could title a book of poems Canada, and yet have never visited the country - for him, even whole nations were absurd - as words, as ideas to conjure with.

It is often said that poetry needs a better audience, and this has to be true of John's work - as poet, critic, writer on poetry, and novelist - for he was a great British poet, with not a very large audience. Partly this was because he lived abroad for many years.  But also, I think it has to be said, that John's work proves that poets these days are often throwing pearls before swine.  For if any British poet wrote funny, daring, dazzling poems likely to light up one's mind, and grab one's lapels, it was him - and the fact more readers didn't line up to buy his books in droves says more about the readers, than the poet.  I think John was one of the best poets writing in English in the last forty or more years.  I'd like to think he knew that, and somehow, enjoyed the fact, but he had a melancholy about him, that, conjoined with his warm, smiling, and charming demeanour, somehow continental yet English, marked him apart.

He was like the saddest cool Jazzman you could meet, dapper and delightful, tinged with the Blues, blowing his horn only after midnight, in small rooms, his heart in the music, generous as laughter, ringed with smoke and unspoken regrets.  His poems are surprising eruptions of more than anyone could expect, always delivered with panache.  He had brio in his blood.

Thursday, 8 May 2014

Review: THE GHOST IN THE LOBBY BY KEVIN HIGGINS

I used to be a close friend of the poet Kevin Higgins; I am not especially close to him anymore - by that, I mean, we haven't seen each other in three or four years, at least, don't speak on the phone, and rarely email, if ever - but of course have some facebook contact, now and then.  I was very sorry when his mother died, and told him so. I mention this because, though I am fond of Kevin, and he wrote an introduction to a book of mine from his own publisher, Salmon, there isn't any literary back scratching going on these days, if ever there was any, between us. Things just drifted, as they do, as people in middle age become embroiled in their own days and ways.

I can write what I am about to say without fear of feeling compromised, or in any way, hindered.  If anything, my own familiarity with the man and all his poems (I have met him on perhaps a dozen occasions, sometimes with his talented partner, on two continents, and in major cities like Paris, New York, London and Galway) enables me to say this, with something approaching certainty.

The Ghost in the Lobby, his fourth collection, just out now from Salmon Publishing, is a major work of Irish poetry - it is a masterpiece.  Were it not for the very odd politics of place, publishers, and prizes, Higgins - who is, of course, highly regarded by many of his peers already - would by now be seen as the leading Irish poet of his generation, South of Dundalk, anyway.  He is, in fact, a genius, much like Patrick Kavanagh was, despite and because of, his faults, regional influences, and personal vision.

Now, many poetry critics refrain from the word genius, because they mostly refrain from poetry criticism anyway.  Instead, they shore up what is mostly boring, worthy and cautious work, unwilling to rock the boat and smash the emergency glass.  Higgins is a genius, because he does something only great poets do: he writes with a voice that is entirely his own, in a style he has invented, about themes and concerns that now are instantly recognisable as his terrain.  Compasses belong to John Donne, Boredom to Larkin, and Yew Trees to Plath.  Post-Tiger Ireland and its drab attractions and failures belong to Higgins.

Higgins is often called a satirist, and a comic poet, because he is one of the only funny poets who has ever lived.  I don't really laugh out loud at Muldoon, Billy Collins or even Paul Durcan.  I chuckle.  Higgins is funny like Wilde or Woody are: genuinely so, not merely literarily.  Perhaps he is the funniest Irish political writer since Shaw.  It is true, Higgins has a formula, where similes accrue, comparing absurd political moments in Nazi Germany or Stalinist Russia to mundane moments in Galway - but it is a formula I dare you to crack.  It's mostly original to him.

On top of that aspect, the humour, there is the seriousness of moral vision - for Higgins has a message: the people fixated on politics are, pace Yeats, missing the smaller picture, which is the genuine one.  All the sad posters and broadsheets from 1979 or 1983 never changed a thing.  Marches have evaporated.  The madmen in small rooms who plan the first against the wall are doomed to have their meals repeat on them.  It is territory that seems poetically unlikely, but here is a whole book of more than 100 pages, exploring failed political missions, the cruelties of small-minded anti-abortion Ireland, and the way that love and cancer both happen despite, or because, of, the gurgling drain and the cracked window.  Everything post-crisis, post-crash, is just a little sadder, but so is life sad, but also hugely vivid and worthy of anger, and reply.

Higgins is the master of unexpected and unwarranted mediation and reaction - like only the greatest poets, he sees things no one else imagined worth writing about, and makes them seem essential, and necessarily urgent.  Once, this was a prostitute, or a snow-capped peak, or a girl on a bicycle, or a hawk in the rain, but now, for Higgins, it is about seeing into the monstrous ego of humanity, in all its maimed glory and pathos.  He pokes fun at us like a doctor cures boils - with a needle we need, though it makes us wince.

Some critics demand levels of craft, form, and so-called seriousness that this new book may appear, on the surface, to lack - after all, Higgins is witty, but he is not experimental, or in fact particularly formalist - neither cerebral or anecdotally sentimental - he is not from Prynne's Cambridge, and he is not from Heaney's North.  His tropes are new, dry as a bone after an acid bath; sharp as any surgery.  He doesn't reach for the easily classical or shockingly Dadaist.  He doesn't have to rest on laurels he didn't grow.  He has that rare thing - a mind of his own.  Perhaps he is closest to Orwell, another writer who was funny, and debunking, and totally original - a prose stylist whose style was pared down mightily.

Long after better celebrated Irish poets are dead and remaindered in the grave, someone somewhere will be reading Kevin Higgins.  If he was a pop singer, these would be the lyrics of a generation.  But he is not.  He is a poet, so his audience is counted in hundreds, not thousands.  But Ireland has a great writer in him, and should be proud. I haven't quoted here from the poems - order the book and see for yourself.



Wednesday, 7 May 2014

AMY BLAKEMORE WINS THE 2014 MELITA HUME POETRY PRIZE!

AMY BLAKEMORE WINS THE £1,400 MELITA HUME POETRY PRIZE 2014

THE COLLECTION “SPEAKS FOR A GENERATION BORED OF ITS IDOLS”

Faber award-winning poet Emily Berry (Dear Boy, 2013) – the 2014 judge for Eyewear’s Melita Hume Poetry Prize (now in its third year) – has chosen East London poet and model Amy Blakemore (pictured below) as the winner, from an international shortlist of 11. The prize – the richest of its kind – also comes with guaranteed publication and launch in spring 2015 from the indie publisher known for its stylish hardcovers and international roster of talent. Any poet living in the UK or Ireland 35 years or under at time of entering is eligible – the prize is for the best full, original and unpublished collection of poetry submitted in that year.  Previous winners include Granta-listed poet Caleb Klaces and Scotland’s Marion McCready.
Amy Blakemore was born in Deptford, London in 1991. She started writing poetry at the age of fifteen, “primarily out of spite” she says. She was named a Foyle Young Poet of the Year twice, in 2006 and 2007, and read English Language & Literature at St Edmund Hall, Oxford. Her work has been published in a number of magazines and zines, and is featured in Bloodaxe’s zeitgeist anthology, Voice Recognition: 21 Poets for the 21st Century (2009). The Guardian has named her one of ‘Top Ten Rising Stars of British Poetry’. Last year she performed her poetry at a BBC Prom Plus event at The Royal Albert Hall. Blakemore is a model with the Anti-Agency. She lives in East London.

Judge Emily Berry says in her judging statement: “Amy Blakemore’s collection Humbert Summer had my attention from the outset; the more I returned to it, the more it hooked me in (and by the way, it has claws). This is a book written in a rebellious spirit – playful, defiant, sure of itself – a burst of quickfire poems delivering twisted despatches from modern life. Blakemore’s voice is that of an anti-heroine who isn’t shy to show her hand – a hand that might have nails like ‘bright important spikes’, contain ‘chipped glass’ or sometimes wield a knife. The poems seem to speak for a generation bored of its idols, somehow turning disaffected youth’s trademark ennui into something altogether more celebratory. Bad dreams become good ones. ‘know that i am serially unkind / to those that love me’, the poet warns – it’s worth the risk.”

Blakemore responded to the news: “I'm delighted to have been named the winner of the Melita Hume Prize - particularly as the prize was judged by Emily Berry, whose work I love. Eyewear publish beautiful books, and having my debut full-length collection published by them will be a real honour.”

AMY BLAKEMORE, MELITA HUME POETRY PRIZE WINNER 2014


AMY BLAKEMORE will be presented with her prize at the London Review Bookshop 21 may, at 7 pm, where she will read a few poems from her brilliant debut.

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