Friday, October 28, 2011

(ix) 02:50: Newtyle


Remember that poem right at the end of Don Paterson’s God’s Gift to Women (1997)? The last in the book’s muddled sequence of poems that take their titles from the defunct Dundee-Newtyle railway line, it comes a handful of blank pages – actual blank pages, just to be clear, not the blank-page poems Paterson has a proclivity for – after the notes, isn’t listed in the contents, and got up the noses of a fair few critics with its mid-parentheses, mid-sentence, ostentatious ending. Really, though, nothing can disguise its intrinsic revelatory weight and significance, how ever much the poet seems at pains to undermine any naïve, earnest hunt for intellectual or spiritual meaning: the white page of its printing likened to snow, which in turn becomes a deity’s “shredded evidence”, falling from the skies.

Well, for those who haven’t spotted this already, you might want to check the copyright page of Landing Light (2003), Paterson’s equally acclaimed follow-up volume (if one discounts the magnificent “spiritual portrait” of his Machado versions, The Eyes (1999).) Here, for those who, as “A Talking Book” puts it, “drag each sentence through their fine-toothed combs, / all set to prove the Great Beast lies at slumber / in the ISBN or the barcode number”, is the follow-up quatrain, just below that italicised bit about not lending, selling, copying, rebinding, or reading choice pages out to random passers-by like a grade-A nutter.

I’m not quite sure what I make of it, but despite its apparent sincerity and lyrical solemnity, it seems like Paterson is joshing here, specifically with the kind of person who he half-expects would a) notice this kind of thing in the first place & b) bother to link the two quatrains up and pore over ’em for a while (i.e. me), and what he/she might make of it all. I get the feeling that a part of Paterson reckons – and maybe on the whole, he’s not totally wide of the mark – that many a literary scholar lacks the requisite sense of humour when it comes to scrutinising poems to understand his point here, which is that, essentially, if you look hard enough into anything, you can in turn, if you like, see pretty much anything you want reflected back – maybe, say, your own straight-laced critical brilliance if you’re so inclined. But make no mistake, the poem suggests, you’re wasting your time, since such an approach does great poetry no service whatsoever. You might just as well apply your dazzling exegesis to the dullest of shopping lists and look forward to much the same result.

So the poem’s a bit of a joke, perhaps, but a joke that makes a serious point. Whether the forgivably naïve gusto and application of the serious undergrad, or the wasteful idiocy of brilliant minds who really should know better, looking for meaning as something already resident within any text, the poem suggests, is just plain wrong. The journey, the road, the natural process of reading for what the text might meaningfully generate, is where the interesting stuff happens; not at the oasis, a mirage of intrinsic transcendental meaning, where the tortuous, minutely scrutinised road meets its imaginary end.

This is, then, a defence of poetry as something which means – in that reified and wholly false sense – nothing at all, yet at the same time, far from meaning whatever you want it to mean, is charged with huge transformative power and an unrivalled sense of possibility. Though if you feel like asking why Paterson didn't just damn well say that, you might not be getting this.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Review: Siân Hughes's The Missing



Siân Hughes’s The Missing is a short collection of, typically, short poems; a fact that belies this debut’s exactitude, hard-won emotional truths, and long road to completion. It is some thirteen years since Hughes’s vignette “Secret Lives”, appearing here in book form for the first time, first graced London’s tube trains as part of the Poems on the Underground project (and winner of a TLS competition), depicting a familiar suburban world of complex relationships with magical panache; where dressing gowns meet in the middle of the night to “head for a club they know / where the dress code is relaxed midweek, / and the music is strictly soul.” As much of The Missing demonstrates, Hughes has a real talent for capturing such fleeting, subtly significant incidents: a blend of delicate suggestion, invention and colourful wit characterizes her best poems, expressed in unobtrusive, idiomatic language. “The Girl Upstairs”, for example, treads the line between personal happiness and polite society’s expectations with conversational ease. Elsewhere, “The Stairs” provides a familiar snapshot of the difficulties of modern, often fragmented, young families, describing a party “where the children have taken the seats / in the living room”, and “no one consoles / the woman in a low-cut dress sitting outside the bathroom.”

Around midway through, however, the overall tone of the book changes: a shift from the playful, albeit tense feel of these earlier poems, to the brave and compelling pieces of the latter half. The focus here is parenting, particularly its many unforeseeable difficulties, with a number of poems addressing time spent in and out of hospital. These are as affecting and effective for their evocative, yet rarely merely decorative, description (“Fireworks on Ward 4C”), as for their arresting and deft use of speech patterns (in “Mengy Babies”, a distressed mother is found crying: “‘I kept phoning and telling them, something’s gone wrong.’”). But it is in a provocative elegy, “The Send-Off”, that Hughes’s writing seems most urgently committed. A haunting, touching address to the poet’s lost child, diagnosed with Down’s Syndrome before birth, it is difficult to examine the poem in typical critical terms: honest, and devoid of any agenda as it is. Along with many of the poems in The Missing, it memorably reveals the work of a writer capable of addressing emotionally difficult subjects with exceptional clarity and feeling.


first published in the Times Literary Supplement

Difficulty, Academia, and the Young

V: I’ve been quite disappointed recently at how polarized the poetry world can be. When I’m in London speaking to young poets and people there, they like a range of poets — then I get back to Oxford, and talking to graduate students it can seem sometimes like the only poets taken seriously are Hill, Muldoon, Prynne — these are the serious poets.

CR: You can see why. There is a great difference between those poets, but they all have something in common — difficulty. If you’re a graduate student — this is professionalization again — you want to admire something that other people can’t read, where there is work for you. Those three poets represent an employment opportunity. They wouldn’t like Elizabeth Bishop because she is, relatively speaking, quite easy, although she isn’t really that easy — as you know. But there are so many local pleasures, and you persist. ‘Filling Station’ — how can anyone resist it? Well these people can. Because it’s witty, it’s lovely, and they understand it. It appears to offer them no opportunity … what critics want is a pommel horse they can pirouette around, which will continue to support them while they’re being brilliant themselves. Elizabeth Bishop — well, there’s no place for your brilliance, because the thing itself is brilliant. It’s made out of glass. It’s a piece of sculpture. Young people always like difficulty. You want to be outdistancing people. When I started doing a doctorate, it was on Coleridge’s philosophy — and the reason I did it was because I wanted to be able to say to people at a dinner party, ‘I think if you’d read Kant’s Critique der Reinen Vernunft, you’d know that … ’ I wanted to be able to silence people. It’s a terrible impulse. But of course in the end I couldn’t get through Kant, it was unintelligible. But that’s what I wanted to do — so I recognise this impulse in all these graduate students. I suffered through it myself once...

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Making Writing Matter



To those wondering how on earth Autumn has crept up so quickly despite having arrived late – September’s the cruellest; Eliot & Pound had it all wrong, man – I’m right there with you. 2011 looks to have sped on by, and it doesn’t seem a year ago that I was writing about Matter 10 – the decade anniversary issue of the mag published out of Sheffield Hallam University’s renowned MA Writing course – in this meagre corner of the internet. Yet here we are – or I am, at any rate – typing this up hot-on-the-heels (well, almost) of the launch of Matter 11, a rather funky, hot little pink number, as you’ll see from the above, that wouldn’t look out of place on a coffee table in some swanky hairdressers frequented by gaggles of rich-kid fashionistas.

Were it to find itself in that unfortunate situation, however, unlike the tedious fuckwittery that would odds-on make up the glossy pages of its idiotic neighbours, Matter’s pages are crammed with sharp, witty, gritty, honest, often edifying and, above all, entertaining writing of the highest order. An infuriatingly admirable combo of brains and looks. Something which the editors of Matter 11 have, in part, the guys and gals at Eleven Design to thank for, who not only supplied the striking boards and endpapers, but the fantastically spiky graphics and artwork that pepper its contents.

And what contents. I could point to the guest contributions, not least on the poetry side of things where there’s two new poems apiece from Colette Bryce and Paul Farley (“Brawn” in particular is the kind of fizzing lyric we’ve come to expect from the latter, yet are always surprised by: earthy yet dizzying, familiar yet eerie). But, as ever, the quality of the work here from MA students is easily just as striking. Listening to readers at last Wednesday night’s launch and following up their stuff on the page, I was particularly grabbed by Brigidin Crowther’s “Sylvia’s Wig”, a short story that mixes deadpan wit and fun-poking with an odd seriousness; the bite, quiet desperation, and unshowy wordplay of Matt Clegg’s sonnet “Raw Poem in Smooth Room”; and the almost Martian-like avian reimaginings of Suzannah Evans’ poem “Catalogue D’Oiseaux”.

All good reasons to get yourself a copy from the Blackwell’s on Hallam campus. The place has a top-notch modest poetry section, too, which being something of a rarity these days, is definitely worth a visit. Or, if you fancy listening to some of the contributors’ read in person over a glass of plonk or two, you can head to the London launch: 3rd November, 7pm, at the London Review Bookshop, so I'm told.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

In Brief reviews: Nerys Williams' Sound Archive and Julian Turner's Planet-Struck

Sound Archive, by Nerys Williams (Seren, £8.99)

"How to sing the texture of hair / drying near fire on a winter's night?" asks the narrator of "Shopkeeper's Song", one of several playfully serious meditations in this curious collection. A former sound librarian, Nerys Williams brings precision, scrutiny and colourful synaesthesia to her terse, contemplative poems: "my favourite perfume was a room of laughter" states the poet in "Aurascope", while words are put under the knife in "An Anatomy of Arguments"; "edges so fine their chords fray into light". Surreal imagery abounds, heightening the poems' examinations of the blurring between reality and illusion, truth and deception: Dublin's "Dead Zoo" of stuffed animals becomes an unlikely metaphor for the forgotten "unreleased singles and demos" that John Peel once championed, now there's "nothing left but teenage kicks". Throughout, Williams curates this mixture of jokey vernacular and high seriousness with varied success. Unsurprisingly, there is also a frequent fascination with lists and catalogues: in "Marilyn's Auction House", the larger-than-life cultural icon is reduced to an itemisation of her surviving possessions. It all makes for an unusually distinctive debut although, in its peculiar blend of exactitude and obfuscation, Sound Archive has a slightly medicinal flavour.

first published in The Guardian, Saturday 16 July 2011



Planet-Struck
, by Julian Turner (Anvil, £8.95)

The poems in Turner's third collection strike an eerie, haunting note: brimful of spooks, spirits and the seemingly mysterious movements of the elements. Reading them is often to sense a looming presence, glimpsed beyond the poems' shadowy edges. Alongside a measured musicality and lively language, a loose formality and anachronistic tone mark Turner's style. At best, this marries past and present with aplomb: several poems explore how knowledge brings its own fears through the terror of the possible. At worst, the poems overreach for effect. They are better when Turner finds a crossover between seemingly incompatible topics: the jetstream in one poem transformed into a deity of sorts, merging science with religion. But the triumph of Planet-Struck is the long poem "From The Arcades Project" which, in its refreshingly moral stance, addresses the warped ethics that money both engenders and disguises. Like much of this laudable collection, it digs deep beneath surface façades to find, as one poem has it, "all monsters that we nurture with our thought".

first published in The Guardian, Saturday 4 June 2011

Friday, October 07, 2011

Memorial



In her sixth book of poetry, Memorial, Alice Oswald draws on her classical education and longstanding fascination with the oral tradition – tales told rather than written – to produce a mesmeric reworking of the world’s greatest war story: Homer’s Iliad. Yet where most critics have praised, and most translators have sought to capture, what Matthew Arnold called the poem’s “nobility”, Oswald’s version abandons its narrative – the wrath of Achilles – approaching instead what ancient critics called its “enargeia”, or “bright unbearable reality”. The result is a darkly atmospheric poem which flits between biographical laments for the many war-dead and soaring, dramatic similes; “an antiphonal account”, as Oswald states in her introduction, “of man in his world”. Throughout, the unflinching, plain realism of the former – “DIORES son of Amarinceus / Struck by a flying flint / Died in a puddle of his own guts / Slammed down into mud he lies” – is often as gripping as the elemental blaze of the latter – “Like the hawk of the hills the perfect killer / Easily outflies the clattering dove / She dips away but he follows he ripples / He hangs his black hooks over her” – blending the human and the workings of nature to remarkable, incantatory effect.

You can visit The Poetry Archive today to listen to Alice Oswald read from Memorial, an excerpt taken from the accompanying CD audiobook to the hardback publication. I'd recommend it.