Tuesday, 20 December 2005

The Swift Report 2005

1. As I sit at my desk, and look out over the year that's been, I am seized by the poet's inevitable desire to boast, strut and advertise - or was it only poets in the 1940s who did this?

Not sure. I suspect the wish to tell others of what one has been up to is as old as Moses - and arguably the need has never been greater. When more than 23 million "blog" each day, it is hardly news for someone to send their signals in to the ether; more specifically, for poets, these are both rich and trying times: while there has never before been more media interest and money thrown at poetry, comparatively-speaking, the public is less concerned with the idea of poetic language than ever before, and even most literary critics and reviewers exhaust their time on prose. As an Internet and print editor of poetry I can attest to the thousands of decent, talented (but not very) people out there interested in wanting to write good poems - sometimes they succeed.

Speaking with Les Murray over tea in my kitchen a few months back, we discussed this idea - one he has based his latest poetry anthology on - that it is these poems, whether from the great or the unknown - that represent the true process of poetry today - and not, as seems so often the case in London - the few and famous in-between.

One thing is sure. Even many poets misunderstand the nature of their craft and art, however sullen: poetry is not merely a) form and wit; b) expression of a view or position or identity; c) an exploration of constraint, or innovation or d) an extension of prose by other means. It is, however, a balanced relationship between form and content, where either may sometimes exceed the other in exquisite tension - as sometimes the language stretches out more in the direction of having something to say, at other times, saying something, to have.

What seems clear in an opaque medium, is that language is both the source and basin of the poem, and therefore, it is right to keep a lively interest in both the practice and theory of how language relates to the world, to the mind, and navigates these twin shoals as an imagination-vessel. In short - call it avant-garde or call it traditional - but poetry is the philosophy of how one best uses words to describe beauty as if was a truth - and vice versa. This being said, I find the tedious arguments between so-called post-moderns and mainstreamers vapid and indifferent to the rich seams beneath such surface struggles.

This has been a difficult personal year for me - several deaths of close family members (like Fred Vickers), and a very serious illness for my father, as well. However, with the love of good friends and family, we've made it through, and there even seems to have been some very good medical news at the end of the year. As this isn't a personal blog per se, I'll leave it at that for now - except to say that my travels in Japan this summer were inspiring.

In 2005, I turned 39. It is a year I am very proud of, for a number of reasons. I completed my MA dissertation in Creative Writing at UEA, with tutors Denise Riley and George Szirtes. I edited two collections of writing, one at the start of the year, one at the end: the 2005 issue of New American Writing carried my special selection, "The New Canadian Poetry" - and I also edited the science-fiction anthology, Future Welcome, for DC Books.

My poetry also appeared in two major anthologies of contemporary Canadian poetry in 2005 - one at the start of the year, one at the end - Open Field, from Persea Books in New York (editor Sina Queyras) - and The New Canon, from Vehicule Press in Montreal (editor Carmine Starnino). I am particularly moved and even gratified to find myself in both these surveys of the best new poets of Canada, since the editors represent two sides of the language debate, Queyras being more open to experimental poetry, and Starnino being more intent on fostering an appreciation for the values of the traditional lyric form (but with a new energy and purpose). I happen to welcome both, and try to write poetry that expresses my broad-church views - a fact which utterly confounds most British poetry editors, who, less used to the broad-spectrum looseness of North American poets - see my sort of "abstract lyric" and post-modern work as falling between stools.

Poems of mine published in 2005 appeared in journals such as Agenda, London Magazine, Stride, Vallum and The Manhattan Review - and my interview with Al Alvarez (a true highlight of my 20 years as a poet) appeared in Magma. I published several reviews in good journals, such as Books in Canada. I was asked to write a poem for the Royal Wedding for The Daily Telegraph, and this story was covered in The Globe & Mail. I edited, for a fourth year, the monthly poetry section at the award-winning site, nthposition.

I read at several wonderful festivals and series this year (for instance was the poet-at-large in Winchester and was featured at the fine Essex Poetry Festival), but no honour was greater than being invited to read at Ledbury, arguably the UK's best for poetry - or at least poets and those who love them. In terms of teaching poetry, I was hired to be a visiting lecturer at London Metropolitan University, and ran seminars and gave lectures for Reading Poetry and Modern British Poetry modules. I was also hired - and this was a thrill - by London's renowned The Poetry School, to run group seminars and one-to-ones - I currently have 20 talented poets I work with regularly as their tutor. I also had the opportunity to mentor a fine young poet, Kavita Joshi, through the East-Side Trust program Write Up Your Street.

I had a few other special treats this year - such as having a photographic portrait displayed in The Poetry Cafe, along with the faces of many of the great and the good - taken by the poet-photographer Derek Adams, whose new book came out this year.

Finally, my work with Oxfam continued, the series of readings that I organized in Marylebone featured many of the best poets now writing, such as Les Murray, Kate Clanchy, Eric Ormsby, and many others - and thousands of pounds were raised. In 2006, Oxfam is creating a major poetry CD, which I am helping to organize, and will edit, and this will feature the work of poets such as Wendy Cope, Andrew Motion, Benjamin Zephaniah, and many more.

In 2006, I hope to begin a PhD. I have a book to finish editing, with Jason Camlot, on Anglo-Quebec poetry. I have a fourth poetry manuscript collection to find a home for. I have more reviews to write, and readings to organize and attend.

Who knows, I might even keep writing this blog.

I want to wish all my friends, poets, and fellow readers, all the best for 2006.

In Brief: Three Good Books Of Poetry From 2005

I am one of those who believes that 2005 was a very good year for all sorts of poetry published in the UK and Ireland - just look at the T.S. Eliot Prize short-list - hardly a dud there, and arguably six books that could win without much fuss over any injustice or cronyism. I'd say which book I want to win, but a handful of the poets up for it are, admittedly, friends of mine - and, in fact, I am torn a little.

It does seem odd that Hill's Comus was not selected, along with a few other collections, that might easily have slipped in for notice, but, since this was a bumper year, did not.

Three collections of poetry which I very much enjoyed, and did not, perhaps, receive the accolades or gongs they deserved, include two from Bloodaxe, and one from the smaller Irish press Salmon.

Sally Read gave us her debut collection early in the year. The Point Of Splitting (Bloodaxe) from its edgy title to disturbing cover onwards, is a sexy, dark and actually at times twisted exploration of eros and thanatos, with stops along the way to deal with issues such as nursing, men teaching women to load guns, and the joys of anal sex. Sensationalism aside, what struck me was the ability to shape and control the competing claims of lyricism, form, wit, and a strong, even unique, visual sense. Poems like Soldier ("Exhausted, you trace my bare arse with one idle hand") or the haunting and even unforgettable "Instruction" are very good. Read is on my list of the best new poets now emerging in the UK, and I very much look forward to her next book.

I have known the work of Kevin Higgins since meeting him briefly in New York City three or four years ago, at a poetry launch. His reading at Bob Holman's Bowery Club impressed me - he was not like other contemporary Irish poets - more louche, more savage in his wit, with less need to toe a party-line (even though political in concern at times) - in short, more in the line of Swift than Yeats and heirs (who are often a little too concerned with the sublime decorum of things). So, yes, Higgins was funny, and bold. He also writes a sort of poem that no one else does, currently. To my ear, that makes him an original - after all, the hardest thing for a poet to do is actually sound as unique as each person thinks themselves to be. Let me be clear on this - Higgins has forsaken a direct interest in form, or the lyric, to stake out territory that is far more bleak, blunt and necessary - he speaks as an angry man at the turn of a new century, one who refuses to be bought or sold, but knows the value of words that aren't simply being used for display, disguise - he is a sort of master of expressing disgust, and praising the shabby.

Just as Read takes me in to worlds no poet has before (bedrooms where men and women openly admit to their interest in weapons; rooms where nurses pack the dead away with calm and indifference) Higgins actually invents a world as much his as Greene's was to him: a compromised, dusty edge of Galway, suddenly made shiny and new by Globalism; Higgins is the voice of discontent, and his next collection, when he shifts in to a more interior key, after mapping the outer edges of a world being transformed utterly, will be a revelation, I suspect. At any rate, no other younger Irish poet has written so many visually arresting and witty poems about the New Ireland as can be found in Higgins' The Boy With No Face.

Esther Morgan, whose work I have been pleased to publish at www.nthposition.com has produced a very fine second collection, The Silence Living In Houses (cover pictured above), out from Bloodaxe. A poem like "Balancing Act" presents her lucid, elegant and disturbing voice precisely: "The blood tilts inside her head: / in a continuous present / a girl is carrying a tumbler".

I found poems like "Small-boned" and "Half Sister" chilling, eerie, haunting - of course, the book takes as one of its aspects the Gothic theme of houses haunted - by former acts, by present memories. This is a difficult sort of trope to make new, and Morgan does this. Indeed, the opening section of the book, "The House Of" is a sustained, small-boned triumph, and is especially recommended. Once again, Morgan, like Read and Higgins, stakes much on a strong visual offering to the reader. At the end of "Endurance" the house as ship is figured so: "the house rigged in ice and going down".

As Morgan says "I worry at my argument of bone" - and she does so with terrible care, alerting the reader to the sinking and the rising spirits that haunt each dwelling place, whether that be a home, or a poem. Morgan's third collection, when it comes, will almost certainly establish her, once and for all (as if more than this book was needed) as one of the best younger poets now writing in the British isles.

Future Poetry

Just a little note to say, I was glad to see this week-end's The Guardian (in the shape of Robert Potts) mention some of the more witty and well-written avant-garde books from the UK in his all-too-brief recent round-up, as well as the latest book by G. Hill (Comus) which I thoroughly enjoyed.

Of course, one of the major books (republished with new poems) of this year, which gets a mention, is J.H. Prynne's Collected Poems, from Bloodaxe, a key work for me over the last few years, since I discovered his work late in life.

Key in the sense it is a benchmark for how I like to imagine where poetry and language can extend beyond, a sort of horizon of possible speech and inquiry. I usually tarry well clear on this side of that linguistic border, but am keen to know it is there.

Due to David Wheatley, who kindly quoted a section of a post on this blog a few weeks back, sharing it with a few hundred poets on a well-known list-serve, and rather poor reading skills on the part of a few, word has gotten around that I actually said "Prynne look out!" as if I meant it (as if poets, critics or texts are never ironic or ambiguous...). Well, actually, I meant that the mainstream and the avant-garde in the UK are seriously misaligned, and need to converse more.

As for those still perpelexed about my relationship to post-modernism - do check out my latest anthology, Future Welcome, which features speculative, innovative, as well as mainstream, poetry and prose by a number of writers from Canada and elsewhere - dealing with issues such as nanotechnology, environmental science, and, well, okay, sex robots (see picture above - still from the much-maligned but delightful - to me - TV series Buck Rogers).

Monday, 19 December 2005

Review: King Kong

Naomi Watts (to the right) endures another "Darrow escape" - or does she? - as the peril-prone Ann in Peter Jackson's three-hour epic, King Kong.

The T.S. Review is reluctant to offer this film - as a sort of jungle-drum sacrifice, bound and heaving - its highest review, Four Quartets (out of four) - but must do so, for reasons to be proffered below, in less robust circumstances, and with fewer blazing torches.

King Kong - the idea and the beast - like cinema itself (and this allegory is one that Jackson belabours like a man attempting to give birth to a Welles) - is a titanic and at times self-defeating thing - compromised by trying to be two things at once: massive (in appeal and profit) and tender. It is hard to hold nuances in an ape's gigantic fist, but a blonde girl's sweet face can sometimes be stroked profitably in such a grip.

All this to say, Jackson nods to the contradictions in his subtext (firstly, by referencing Conrad's Heart of Darkness, hardly a novel filmic homage; secondly by constantly using the word subtext in his script, in reference to the love between Watts and Brody; and thirdly, by actually having a character say, at about the first hour mark, "this isn't an action movie anymore" or something to the same effect) without actually confronting the two big ones:

1. King Kong is a film that purports to expose the callow "savage" in the concrete jungle of Western man's cities, like New York, who would destroy what is sacred, mystical, and mysterious, just for a fast nickel - doing so in terms, and within the medium, of, the most developed industrial process for creating and selling (false) images known to capitalism: the movie; Jackson's only semi-witty self-referencing of cinema history and practice via a few of his venturesome characters (the earnest bespectacled "Preston" who is no doubt Sturgess being one). In Jackson's defence, he loved the original on which this oversize love-letter is based, and so, even as he rakes in the billions, he can claim a certain sincerity amid the Barnum.

2. The second contradiction is more ideological still. Kong, as a film, may be a classic, and even represent Jungian depths of male turmoil, but it also dishes up, well, a blonde dish who tames a typical inarticulate male bully by showing a bit of leg and fainting a few times - and nothing in the film, aside from a veiled critique of "live animal capture" and lantern-jawed flying aces, really questions the male-dominated patriarchy. The question remains: why did Kong never fall in love with one of the (shall I put this delicately?) less-than-American-looking indigenous women of Skull Island? There is something in the gyrating ugliness of the "savages" on the uncharted isle that are less innocent in Samoa and more unruly in Alabama, and a sort of punitive put-down seems part of what the camera fails to gaze upon with admiration.


All serious politics confronted, let us admit, and admit it with a chest-thumping grunt: this is a superb piece of film-craft.

There are many sequences in the film (the ship running aground on the rocky shoals of Skull Island; the sacrifice scene; Kong's struggle against three dinosaurs to save Ann; Kong's heart-rending defeat at the hands of far lesser men; the Kane-like Theatre scene, leading to Kong's id-swelling smash-out from his massive chrome manacles; and of course, Kong's futile stand-off on the top of the Empire State Building, without a doubt one of the most memorable moments in all of cinema, here less reimagined as burnished by time) that stand very strong comparison to the best work that Steven Spielberg has ever managed - which is saying a lot.

On the evidence of this film, and the previous Rings trilogy, Jackson is the new major popular film-maker of the century. He also has some virtues Spielberg lacks (as well as the vice of thinking a creepy-crawly or a dinosaur can swell a scene or keep it moving when simple motivation might do): he is less obsessed with childhood as a trope, so lets adults steal the show - and is, in general, and perhaps for not being American, more subtle, or at least neutral.

But what of Kong and Watts?

Well, she is slinky sexuality with a next-door tang par excellence, and Kong is the next level of Gollum-goes-to-Hollywood.

Together again for the first time, as the saying goes, Jackson teases out subtleties of desire, and a profoundity of commitment between the zoologically-thwarted pair, which is truly moving. One glimpses, in the elegiac last moments of the picture, when the truly vast and mysterious presence that is Kong is literally slipping away, from life but also off the screen and the tower, down to the street-level and its indifference crassness below, a note as sad and true as at the end of Middle Earth.

Jackson's theme, or at least, leitmotif, seems not to be childhood's end - but more universally - the decline of wonder itself. Such a loss of appreciation for the magic in the heart of darkness every poet knows, as we long ago slipped from the radar, knocked off the tower by the sniping bullets of a prose-worn media that might as well be bi-plane pilots.

There is a majesty of loss in this film that, like a mini-Vertigo (also about the gaze and sudden plummeting), will break the heart. If there is a consolation, it is that the lonely beast found love at least once in his mighty life, even if having to go to New York to die, in order to taste its sweet destruction.

Thursday, 8 December 2005

What To Do About Barker?

George Barker (pictured here) was one of the major British poets of the brief period sometimes described as "New Romanticism" - roughly late 30s to end of the 40s. I have recently been preparing a lecture on the poetry of this time, and reading work by the Apocalyptic Henry Treece, W.S. Graham, and of course, Dylan Thomas.

What struck me instantly was that, wherease Treece has gifted posterity with no memorable poem (and is thus almost fully neglected now by 21st century readers); and Graham moved on to create his best work in the 50s-70s; and Dylan Thomas wrote perhaps a dozen of the greatest modern lyrics - well, George Barker didn't quite do any of these things.

That is, his poems are not instantly unmemorable, nor did his best work flower in him later to allow us to ignore or forgive his youthful brilliance, nor did he - and this is the delicate part - ever seem to write a poem that quite works all the way through - that is, Barker seems to have written perhaps a dozen of the nearly-greatest modern lyrics.

Don't misread me. I think he is a very worthwhile poet, one unjustly less-read these days - and he is dreadfully ill-served by a lack of a very slim, tighly-edited Selected, which could clear the air, and present him not as the author of long, intermittently weak or rambling verse - but as someone who was at home in shorter forms.

If I was to edit such a slim Barker Selected, the heart of the book would contain the following poems, all drawn from anthologies of the period (these are some of the poems for which he was known, loved and respected then): "The Seal Boy"; "Summer Idyll"; "He Comes Among" (this chosen by Yeats for his Oxford book); "To My Mother"; "Summer Song I"; " ' Turn on your side and bear the day to me ' "; and "To Whom Else".

There are maybe four or five more of these kinds of brief, lyric poems, and a few dozen more could be found to round the collection off.

Of even these better poems (one hesitates to claim them as the best) a stumbling-block, surely, is the urge to make puns. What might be generously termed "word-play" can become a tedious tic. I can accept "mourning" in to "morning" and vice versa, but am somewhat repulsed by the dog/god binary - it is simply too obvious to be of much lasting interest or resonance.

Barker's strength is in his force, his immediacy, his energy, his passion, his drive - he had no less of a green fuse than Thomas.

"Summer Idyll" seems, to me, very lovely, with a superb ending, and might stand as one of his great poems. Surely, the author of such poems as these needs a new editor, and new readers, to realize what we have been missing - an exemplary lyric voice at the great mid-way point of the last century, and a daring rival for the crown of eloquence all-too-easily bestowed on Thomas.

Friday, 2 December 2005

Did We Do Enough For Gunn?

Thom Gunn, one of the English world's major poets of the last fifty years, died summer of 2004.

Have I missed something?

There does not seem to have been the promised events celebrating and commemorating his work, here in Britain, which I would have expected - readings, special publications from Faber, talks on Radio 4... or perhaps I was asleep at the time.

If Gunn's passing was not properly marked, this is a pity. And it might not be too late to mark what would have been his 80th birthday, in 2009.

If anyone wants to ask me to help organize such a celebration of the great poet, on any terms, even fighting, please do let me know.


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...