Saturday, January 27, 2007

Zadie Smith: 'Read Better'

After reading Zadie Smith's final installment of advice for readers and writers alike in last week's Guardian Review ('Read Better', January 20th), I'm a tad confused. Has she never encountered the post-structuralist school of thought? Her otherwise interesting thoughts on reading and criticism seemed somewhat marred by her misplaced belief that ‘in the present literary culture, the idea of the individual reader [has] gone into terminal decline […] in writing schools, in reading groups, in universities.’ At Sheffield Uni, at least, this could not be further from the truth: the writings of Jacques Derrida, Helene Cixous, Deleuze and Guattari, among others, all being taught. These writers not only champion a reading open to the Other, to fluctuations in meanings and possibility, and to an individual and unique experience of literature that frees the potentiality of language, but also support the idea that, as Smith puts it, ‘the world is not as we say it is’. If any such ‘ur novels’ exist within the post-structuralist school, then, they are those inherently slippery and genuinely original pieces: Kafka’s The Trial, Woolf’s Between the Acts, Joyce’s Ulysses; in short, all those works that endlessly wriggle free from the blueprint of a single reading system. As one of Smith’s ‘young readers’, then, I am not, as she suggests, ‘struggling to choose from a smorgasbord of reading systems that are put before [me] in an average undergraduate week’. Far from it: my studies have made me well aware of the potentially infinite iterability and reinterpretation that all literary texts are open to; to the very ‘individual experience’ of literature that Smith would appear to be championing. Rather than being ‘trained to read only a limited variety of fiction’, then, I think that more and more readers are becoming aware of the importance of their individual experience of novels, and it is the post-structuralist ‘system’ of thought which Smith neglects that is, ultimately, helping to achieve this.

If anybody else has read the article(s), I'd be interested to hear what you think.

Friday, January 26, 2007

But of course they cannot see of course: review of Nick Laird’s To a Fault

I wrote this review some time ago for the Arts section of my University's paper, but having read Nick Laird's collection again recently, I thought I'd post it up here. Part of the motivation to do so is due to the fact that a fair number of reviewers of Laird's first collection were decisively cruel in their appraisal of his work. The main accusations were of Laird's supposedly more-than-clear Armitage and Muldoonian influences, which were to a small extent warranted, but at the same time, failed to give Laird's poetry the credit it deserves. Perhaps my review suffers in placing itself in near polar opposition to what the critics had to say, but then sometimes that's the best way to remedy a problem. I'm reminded of an argument with a friend I had over Roland Barthes' Death of the Author: he maintains that Barthes' account dismisses all authorial intention and importance, while I've always felt that Barthes did so simply to remedy the undue level of importance placed upon the author (and at the same time, the lack of acknowledgement of the importance of the reader), and would probably agree to a halfway house: the many and varied inputs and interpretations of a literary text by 'the Reader' en masse, combined with the political, social, and personal backdrop accompanying the text. At it stands, Barthes has probably faired better in naming his paper Death of the Author, than if he'd settle for something safer, and indeed, less debatable.


‘It’s a bit like looking through the big window / on the top deck of the number 47’ says Nick Laird of writing, and comprehending, poetry: ‘I’m watching you, and her, and all of them, / but through my own reflection’. It is the simple, the everyday, the near-mundane that gives Laird, almost paradoxically, a voice of such affirming vitality and awareness. That said, Laird’s poetry, despite its colloquialism, upbeat tone, and occasionally irritating New Labour slang (‘I remember poncing a fag off some guy at the bar, then downing the dregs of my last pint of stout’), is constantly dealing with – as the book’s blurb states – ‘the sharp side of relationships’, in a tone that is deliberately unsure, often detached, and full of wordplay (reminiscent of Paul Muldoon, a clear influence in Laird’s poetic stylings). Take ‘Done’ or ‘Aubade’: the latter is almost an inverted love letter directing the object of his affection to ‘Go home’, claiming that ‘If you knew enough you’d / know removed is how you’re loved’, while the former compares, through extended metaphor, the break-up of a couple and their moving out of a flat to ‘the scene of a murder. / Dustsheets and silence and blame’. Gritty, painful, and honest poetry. But then in the middle of all this comes refreshing and deftly placed comedy: ‘You wrote off the Volvo. I gave you verrucas’. Laird is a poet constantly shifting perspective, tone, and often focus, and yet his poems rarely sound disjointed or lacking in fluidity.

As a child of the Troubles, Laird predictably addresses the political and social issues facing past and modern day Ireland. However, unlike many of his contemporaries, Laird’s scope is wide, and shockingly so, not least in ‘The Given’, a poem that is carried along by internal rhyme at such a pace that the reader is forced to contemplate how fragile our political freedoms are. Each of the poem’s five verses addresses the loss of a sense, and the apathy and despair of those losing them (‘To accept these losses, we cover our faces, / then scratch Be our guest with a fork on the table’), especially poignant given the fast-paced world we inhabit and increasing disinterest in politics today.

Perhaps though, Laird is most impressive when considering his childhood home of Northern Ireland, as ‘Cuttings’, arguably the best poem of his collection, demonstrates. The poem revolves around his father getting a haircut, and is a microcosmic symbol of masculinity and Irish culture in itself. Laird considers those who have, and will, sit in the same seat as his ‘angry and beautiful father’: the ‘eelmen, gunmen, the long dead, the police’, whilst alluding to the sparse, diminishing ‘glories of Ulster’ on a wall-calendar ‘sponsored by JB Crane Hire or some crowd flogging animal feed’. But it is the beauty of Laird’s metaphors that make the poem, and his book, shine out amongst much contemporary poetry. The barber’s cape ‘comes off with a matador’s flourish’, the generic barber’s sign is transformed, with added political connotations, into ‘the bandaged pole’, while his father is ‘open as in a deckchair … / his head full of lather and unusual thoughts’. Further examples instantly spring to mind with their vividness: ‘A singular sprinkler shakes his head spits at the newsprint of birdshit’, and the radiance of the photocopier is ‘nothing but the dawn horizon / strapped into a plastic box’.

The mundane and ordinary become the beautiful and interesting. Love and relationships become uncertainty and dusting down, moving on. Despair becomes renewal and resoluteness. Nick Laird is a poet addressing difficult issues that poetry often shies away from, but he is clearly capable of rising to the task with a refreshing vitality and dynamism. As Laird forcefully proclaims of poetry in ‘Disclaimer’: ‘It’s not… the tremulous blow job you got in the Eurostar toilet… / Not just a smallholding. Not just moving parts. / And it’s not all the same. / It is joined up writing. / It’s not lifting the pen from this page.’

To a Fault (Faber, January 2005. £8.99)

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Patrick Wolf and The Magic Position

I had the pleasure to first hear Patrick Wolf’s music around about a year or so ago, October ’05 I think, supporting Bloc Party at a gig in Liverpool. Bloc Party’s performance was certainly impressive: calculated and meticulously delivered to the extent that hearing them play ‘Banquet’ was akin to hearing it blast through the speakers at any club night, but it lacked something, spontaneity perhaps; something that Patrick Wolf definitely delivered.

Patrick Wolf hasn’t been around – in a strictly commercial sense – for too long: releasing his first album, Lycanthropy, back in 2003, followed by Wind In The Wires in 2005, and, forthcoming in late February of this year, The Magic Position. But his life has been marked by a longstanding interest, and near obsession, with innovative musical production. Wolf is accomplished not only in playing such instruments as the guitar, piano, and violin, but also a plethora of unusual instruments including the harp, theremin, and ukulele. His music (which progresses as wildly as his hair colour from album to album) is a fusion of atmospheric strings, pop sensibilities, and well-placed percussion, layered together with an innovative laptop sheen. Anyone bored with the current crop of indie pretenders, then, who seem intent on ripping off the quality post-punk of Echo and the Bunnymen and Gang of Four (Kaiser Chiefs and Franz Ferdinand, to name but a few), should give Patrick a try. The video above is a live studio version of a new single, ‘Bluebells’, from his highly anticipated third album. It shows something of the gentle power of Patrick Wolf’s work, and more importantly, it’s truly innovative nature; paying homage whilst also managing to bring something fresh to a whole host of musical styles. When Alex Kapranos was eleven, he was probably busy working out how he could make himself look cooler by using hair straighteners. Patrick Wolf was recording songs with his violin and car-boot sale bought organs on a four-track tape recorder. Enough said.

Thursday, January 11, 2007

Little Gods

There are plenty of interesting poetry collections to be reading at the moment, especially since the T.S. Eliot Prize shortlist was recently announced (in my case, working through a back catalogue of interesting collections I managed to miss, including Muldoon's Horse Latitudes and Robin Robinson's Forward Prize-winning Swithering). But if you only decide, or get chance, to read one poetry collection in the coming month, I'd recommend Jacob Polley's excellent Little Gods.

Published December '06, I'm yet to come across much critical reception to Polley's second collection, but I suspect the discussions circulating in the online poetry forums give an idea: ostensibly, that it's pretty damn impressive stuff. And if that brief and ineloquent critical summation of the many varied and interesting things people have had to say about Little Gods (not to mention many other poets and collections), isn't enough to have you surfing across to Amazon immediately, then why not read my review of Little Gods on The Poem? The 'Offshoots' and reviews section is here.

The picture, incidentally, was taken by a friend of mine, Alex Davis. The instant I saw it it called to mind Polley's poem 'October', the final piece in Little Gods. You can find it here.

Saturday, January 06, 2007

A Welcome Surprise

I'm writing this having sat down after opening my mail on returning to Sheffield (I've been visiting friends and family over the Christmas and New Year period). And the reason I'm sitting down is due to my current state being that of happiness mixed with a fair amount of shock. Yes, the electricity and gas bills for my housemates and I are enormous, and yes the place is a bombsite as the glaziers are only halfway through re-fitting the entire house, but we'll leave those things be. Because among the tedious mounds of bills, Tesco club card offers, and boiler insurance leaflets, I found a small, non-descript envelope which, at first glance, I assumed to contain a letter from a friend. It didn't, but finding a TLS postcard from poetry editor Mick Imlah inside made me near jubilant. He kindly informs me that a poem I sent off some weeks ago, 'The Mole', is being published in a future issue of the TLS. I'm literally ecstatic, which is why I'm excitedly posting this on here before I lose all self control and, I don't know, open a bottle of wine or something. Anyone care to join me for a glass?

And before I forget, many thanks to poets Ros Barber and Rob Mackenzie for kindly publicising my poem 'Byroads' appearance on Todd Swift's Eyewear.

Thursday, January 04, 2007

Excellent Eyewear

Thanks are due to Todd Swift, whose witty and informative blog Eyewear ( is featuring a new poem of mine from this Friday (5th January ’07) till next. I highly recommend his blog for anyone interested in contemporary UK (and indeed, world) poetry; it includes insightful comments on recently published collections, updates on prizes, awards, readings and other happenings in the poetry world, a featured poet each Friday, as well as occasional film and music reviews. I’d also recommend buying Life Lines: Poets for Oxfam, a recording of nearly 70 poets reading their work, edited by Todd. It includes such huge talents as Simon Armitage, Carol Ann Duffy, and Andrew Motion, as well as readings from emerging poets such as Melanie Challenger, Owen Sheers, and Nick Laird. And what’s more, all the profits from the sale of the CD, available from Oxfam shops nationwide, go to Oxfam’s work. A worthwhile buy if ever there was one.

The poem featured on Eyewear is ‘Byroads’, a sequence that’s gone through an extensive number of drafts, but I think (or at least hope) it's been worth the effort. I won’t say much more, as I hope what the poem’s trying to achieve is clear enough, and if it isn’t, I or it, something, failed. You decide. A particularly memorable aphorism from Don Paterson’s Book of Shadows springs to mind:
… we should stop defending [our work] this minute, that it might sooner learn its self-sufficiency.
Couldn't agree more.

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

On Cheese

Just popped over to the Poetry Archive this morning, and came across this comically ominous quotation by G K Chesterton:
Poets have been mysteriously silent on the subject of cheese.
It reminded me of a poem I wrote a while back, which appeared in the July issue of The Red Wheelbarrow (an excellent magazine of poetry and opinion published out of the English dept. of the University of St Andrews), so I thought I'd reproduce it here. I hope, at least, it goes someway towards readressing this terrible imbalance.


It was here, but now it's disappeared.

(First published in The Red Wheelbarrow, Issue 13, 'Food')