Thursday, January 22, 2009

Young British Poets in The Manhattan Review

An interesting, varied and substantial biannual publication, The Manhattan Review has long been featuring exciting work by leading American, British and international poets alike, from John Burnside to D Nurkse, Pascale Petit to Les Murray, Ruth Fainlight to David Constantine, George Szirtes to Penelope Shuttle, and of course the late, great Peter Redgrove, who remained a regular contributor until his passing.

But of special interest in the latest issue, as well as work by Tim Liardet, John Kinsella, Polish poet Julia Hartwig and a number of those listed above, is an important feature – something of a welcome, occasional aspect of the publication, taking stock of trends and developments in contemporary poetry across the globe – in this instance, ‘Seventeen Young British Poets’, edited and introduced by Todd Swift.

As a successful editor – having put together Poetry Nation and 101 Poets Against the War, both of which featured a broad, eclectic sweep of established and emerging poets, as well as the Life Lines: Poets for Oxfam recordings – Swift’s selection is a thoughtful one, and his understanding of British poetry as a partial outsider (a Canadian living in London, both British and North American influences are much in evidence in his own poetic sensibility and attitudes) makes his introduction and its justifications an intelligently written and largely convincing read. The seventeen poets featured, then, are a selection of those which both Swift and co-selector Philip Fried (longstanding editor of The Manhattan Review) suggest are currently most successfully drawing from, developing upon, and in rich conversation with the complex poetic ‘schools’ that precede them, most obviously the British lyric tradition (whose current talented practitioners, as Swift notes, include Sean O’Brien, Don Paterson, Roddy Lumsden, George Szirtes, and Hugo Williams) and the more modernist-influenced British avant-garde, whose linguistically interrogative approach is perhaps best exemplified in the work of J.H. Prynne.

Though bold and, as with all such predictions, less than certain, then, the central claim to the selection is not an unreasonable one: that ‘every one of these poets would likely be found on a list of the thirty most impressive, or original, new younger writers to start publishing in the 21st century’. So who are these poets? They range from the lyrically gifted Jacob Polley to the linguistically dextrous Daljit Nagra, and span from recent Eric Gregory Award winners and other emerging voices to those whose recent prize-winning books are slowly helping to reshape, develop and evolve British poetry today. Among them are the playfully inventive wit of Luke Kennard, the quirky and fresh lyricism of Emily Berry, and the markedly contemporary suburban tales of Kathryn Simmonds. They are seventeen poets at varying stages of their still collectively early development as writers, and this feature gives a taste of their early output with two new poems by each, something which, to The Manhattan Review’s great credit, few other magazines have the space or ambition for (also worth mentioning are its regularly featured lengthy essays on contemporary poetry, as in the current issue’s ‘Smuggled Under the Threshold of Listening: Encountering Alice Oswald’).

It’s well worth picking up a copy of the Fall/Winter 2008/9 edition, then, which can be ordered from the magazine’s website here, not only for the important and interesting Young British Poets feature itself, but to sample the poems, essays and translations of a publication worth subscribing to.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Nothing and Everything: An Essay on ‘The Trace’ in Don Paterson’s ‘On Going to Meet a Zen Master in the Kyushu Mountains and Not Finding Him’

Despite the title, it's not often that I overtly discuss Derrida and deconstructive thought on this blog, but as I've been working on a critical perspective of Patrick McGuinness' excellent poetry (particularly The Canals of Mars, a first collection which inexplicably missed the shortlist for the Forward Prize), I was pleasantly reminded of my undergraduate studies on poststructuralist thought and theory. So, forgive me if it's your idea of the epitome of tedium and/or you've heard it all before, but I've reproduced a short piece I wrote a while back below, exploring the notion of the trace and presence & absence in Don Paterson's textless poem, ' On Going to Meet a Zen Master in the Kyushu Mountains and Not Finding Him'. Any thoughts welcome.

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Nothing and Everything: ‘The Trace’ in Don Paterson’s ‘On Going to Meet a Zen Master in the Kyushu Mountains and Not Finding Him’


As a deconstructive concept, the trace is necessarily related to what Derrida coins différance: the constant play of each element of language within a system referring to other elements; calling forth differences between concepts and deferring any meaning a concept might be assumed to possess. In relation to the trace, then, this takes the form of the differences between, and echo of, each spoken or written sign within every other sign. Consequently, any concrete meaning that a sign might naively be thought to capture is permanently deferred, since each signifier constantly calls forth further signifiers in bearing the traces of them. Nothing within the linguistic system, then, is ever merely present or absent, as the presence and absence of concepts and meaning play out their differences, or, as Derrida states, ‘there are only, everywhere, differences and traces of traces.’

In relation to Don Paterson’s poem, ‘On Going to Meet a Zen Master…’, the concept of the play between traces is particularly relevant. First, the textlessness of the main body of the poem turns the traditional prevalence of presence over absence on its head, as the poem seems to speak entirely from ‘the Other’: the traces of signs which would traditionally lie behind the present signs (within a text poem) seeming to hold the dominant voice. However, it is important to note that the poem does not completely invert this presence/absence hierarchy, nor could it: for one thing, the presence of a title causes the reader to construct the poem him/herself from the play and difference between the traces within it, and even if the poem were titleless, presence would emerge from its absence. Consider looking at a blank piece of paper, for example: its whiteness calls forth purity, perhaps the image of snow, or maybe absolute silence, but whatever you construe it to mean (and surely you must), some presence is borne out of its absence, and further traces come to bear on these; presence necessarily proliferating from absence. In occupying a presence, then, the ‘otherness’ of absence inevitably becomes the selfsame, and absence and presence are revealed to be necessarily tied-up in one another. This is the very essence of the trace at work.

Turning back to the poem as it stands, then, (textless but bearing its title), the potential play of differences and traces within it are seemingly infinite. What is the reader to make of the emptiness of the page? At first glance it may call forth the solitude of the narrator and surrounding mountains, or perhaps his silent contemplation at having not found the Zen Master. The pure silence conjured by the space where we expect the text to be, in turn, may even call to mind a pure Buddhist or Zen meditation. Furthermore, what are we to make of the narrator ‘Not Finding Him’? Initially, this would seem to be the narrator failing to locate the Zen Master in physical terms, but given that the search for him may be part of a spiritual or quasi-religious quest, the narrator may have been unable to ‘find him’ in a spiritually fulfilling sense; failing to comprehend the advice he perhaps sought from the Master. On a general level (returning to the idea of the poem speaking from ‘the Other’), the textlessness may also hint at the impossibility of writing a Western poem that could sufficiently deal with ‘the Otherness’ of the East. This is echoed in the traces of the written sign of the ‘Kyushu Mountains’ : initially signifying the physical concept of the mountains themselves, but simultaneously alluding to an area that is often considered to be the birthplace of Japanese civilisation. Indeed, ‘On Going’ itself seems to bear the trace of such a continual, and in this case futile, operation.

And these examples, it must be remembered, are just a handful of considerations. Any individual reader approaching this poem could potentially come to create an infinitely long poem from the traces which play out not only in its title, but also in the very absence of its text. In short, in containing nothing, Paterson’s poem contains everything. But all this is not to say that the concept of the trace allows for a text to mean whatever anyone might want it to mean. If anything, the inverse is true: in allowing ‘the Other’ within a text to speak, the critical analysis of the trace must listen to that which speaks before an act of reading begins; surely a difficult task. Nor is such a textless poem (as may seem the case) unique in this seemingly paradoxical potentiality. For in every single poem, in every piece of literature; in short, in every single instance of spoken or written discourse, différance and the play of traces are at work. Though I believe I have a firm understanding of the sentence I have previously constructed (and you may feel, as a reader, the same in your reading of it), it is nonetheless inherently unstable in its meaning and conceptuality, and as open to the constant fluctuations of meaning as those observed in Paterson’s poem. Everywhere, and as seen, in a seeming ‘nowhere’ or ‘nothingness’, there are only ever differences at play, and traces of traces proliferating ad infinitum.


Ben Wilkinson, 2006


For those interested in properly exploring deconstruction and its ramifications beyond my own half-baked thoughts, there are numerous texts worth looking at. Bennett and Royle's Introduction to Literature, Criticism and Theory is a good introductory volume, and more specifically, Martin McQuillan Deconstruction: A Reader and Jonathan Culler's On Deconstruction are both excellent. Where Derrida is concerned, the best of his ideas and his own most lucid explanation of deconstruction (which, given his propensity towards linguistic play, deception and deferral isn't always easy to follow) is contained within Of Grammatology. Paradoxically, it's perhaps best to approach the McQuillan or Culler before Derrida's work itself.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Pomegranate meets PoetCasting

There's a new feature on the PoetCasting website today, which, for those not in the know, is a varied, interesting and always-growing collection of poets reading their work, put together by the enterprising Alex Pryce.

The new feature includes 18 poets who've previously been published in Pomegranate, an online poetry mag which publishes work by poets under 30, edited by a dedicated team of previous Foyles' Young Poet of the Year winners. For each poet there are two recordings - one of a poem which previously appeared in the mag, one of a new piece - and among the contributors (as chosen by Pryce and the mag's editors) are talented young poets including Claire Askew, James Midgley, George Ttoouli and Martha Sprackland. I'm also featured with the latter, reading a short sonnet and one of the poems from my tall-lighthouse pamphlet, The Sparks. Handily, there are also pdf docs of the recorded poems so you can enjoy them on the page while you listen to them, should you be so inclined.

Worth checking out, anyhow. And while you're there, have a browse of the other poets that've appeared reading on PoetCasting - plenty of interesting writers, established and new, including Alison Brackenbury, Tom Chivers, Matt Merritt, Joe Dunthorne, Leontia Flynn, Andrew Philip, Fiona Sampson and Roddy Lumsden, to name but a few.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Mick Imlah

Talented poet, journalist and TLS Poetry Editor Mick Imlah has died, aged 52, of motor neurone disease. I never had the privilege of meeting Mick, though I will always be grateful for his publishing a handful of my poems, and later, reviews, the first at a time when I had no real biog note to speak of or much of a publication record. His encouragement helped immeasurably, and I am sure that many, many other poets have received similar help and encouragement from Mick along the way, during his 17 years at the TLS - Carrie Etter and David Wheatley two such writers.

This is a huge loss for the world of poetry, as indeed for the world of journalism and literary criticism. It seems odd that, only last week, I completed a critical perspective of his poetry for the British Council's Contemporary Writers website, and had been in touch over a review I recently finished for the TLS. The perspective of his work has now been duly edited and will appear along with his forthcoming profile on the site - one of many appraisals of his work and life which I expect to appear over the coming months.

Wednesday, January 07, 2009

A Poem a Week

I just noticed on poet Carrie Etter's blog that Oxford Brookes have set up a weekly poem service as part of their Poetry Centre webpage.

If you sign up, you'll be emailed a poem each week by a poet published by one of the following presses: Anvil, Arc Publications, Cinnamon, Enitharmon, Heaventree, Landfill, O’Brien, Oversteps Books, Peterloo Poets, Salt Publishing, Seren Books, and tall-lighthouse.

Looks like an interesting initiative that'll be worth following.

Hotel Dusk

I’m not much of a video game player these days, but like many others, I had a handheld Nintendo GameBoy as a kid and I always enjoyed playing adventure role-playing games, namely the excellent The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening for the original GameBoy console.

It was this that prompted me to fork out for the GameBoy’s successor, the Nintendo DS, back in 2006: I’d randomly heard that later that year another game in the hugely successful Zelda series was to be released, and a childish and nostalgic excitement briefly gripped me. (Ten years after its release, Ocarina of Time for the Nintendo 64 is still considered by many as one the greatest games ever made). After several delays, then, The Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass eventually appeared in late '07, and I duly bought it, became quickly engrossed in its excellent gameplay and storyline, and after completing it, let the DS sit around gathering dust for the whole of last year.

That is, until I received a game as an unusual gift for Christmas which I’d spotted months ago but never bothered buying: Hotel Dusk – Room 215. As Phantom Hourglass demonstrated to me, the DS is almost the perfect console for an adventure game with a good plot, given both its duel screens (one of them a touchscreen which you use to control the action with a stylus) and its clamshell design, which makes the gaming experience akin to holding a book sideways. In Hotel Dusk, however, a small video game developer called Cing have produced something which has had me strangely hooked unlike any game I’ve played before.

Set in 1970s America, the game centres around Kyle Hyde: an ex-cop turned salesman trying to track down a missing friend who betrayed him. The game opens with clues that lead you to an eerie, old hotel which is rumoured to have a strange room where wishes are granted. Playing as Hyde, your role is to unravel the mystery of the hotel and Hyde’s missing cop partner, Bradley.

What makes it so engrossing, enjoyable and playable, however, is the aesthetics and feel of the thing, the believable and complex plot, and the brilliantly scrupulous attention to detail. Holding the DS sideways – a feature unique to this game which actually makes playing it feel like reading an interactive novel – is more than just a novelty, and the dialogue in the game not only conjures believable and well-crafted characters, but is matched with altering facial expressions, gestures and movements which add colour and depth to the storyline. The aesthetic feel and design of the game itself is modelled on that of many graphic novels: think Sin City but sketchier and less extravagant, the artwork rougher round the edges to add a sense of movement and fluidity. In fact, I since found out the distinctive animation technique used in the game is called rotoscoping: perhaps most famously used (and most similarly to Hotel Dusk) in the video to A-ha’s hit single ‘Take On Me’.

This, combined with plenty of (sometimes quite demanding) puzzle solving, touches of humour in dialogue in which you make decisions to effect the progression of the story, and a plot which ends with a satisfying and largely credible conclusion makes for an excellent game, and one which those who enjoy a good story and have little experience of gaming can take pleasure in as much as the more accomplished player. It won’t be to everyone’s liking given its relative lack of involvement compared to more rapid and eventful games (the plot is essentially the game itself), but as the many positive online reviews of the game testify to, many will enjoy its unique charm and visual expressiveness. And if you’re one of those with a DS who uses it for nothing more than that brain training stuff, you could do much worse than pick up a copy of Hotel Dusk to enjoy what I reckon the console was pretty much made for.