Sunday, May 31, 2009

Shorts weather

I enjoyed the Newsnight Review poetry special on Friday - I was most impressed with Simon Armitage, who was eloquent, considered, authoritative and uncompromising on poetry's behalf. I was also very much interested in Josephine Hart saying that neither The Waste Land nor Four Quartets had 'a political line in them': The Waste Land speaks to, for and about both collision between cultures and the modernist moment, which for me makes it highly political; and Four Quartets similarly is strongly connected with Anglo-Catholicism, royalism, quietism, traditionalism (and several other variations of isms) – its apparent lack of politics is part of what its politics means.

Anyway. I'm reading David Gaffney's excellent (and so easily devourable) Sawn-Off Tales at the moment. Reading the one about the man who betrays his barber, I was reminded of an incident that happened to me ten years or so ago, just after I'd come to Sheffield. I went to the barber's to have all my hair off (a number 1 all over was my cut of choice in those days - nowadays I go for a short number 2). When he'd finished and I asked how much it was he said, slightly indistinctly, 'a pound'. I thought I'd misheard – it seemed insanely cheap, so I said, uncomfortably, 'How much, sorry?' We looked at each other shamefacedly, and he said, 'Well, fifty pee then.'

Friday, May 29, 2009

The Beauty of Arnold Bennett

Neglected master whom we should be reading

The poetry section of my local Waterstone's is definitely improving - though contained in two small columns of shelves, it has a good number of new collections from a range of presses.

Of course, downstairs there are oceans of fiction. But when I looked recently I was surprised to see they had not a single copy of a single novel by Arnold Bennett - neither on the A-Z shelves nor in the 'classics' section. (I put that word in scare-quotes because, while poetry and cookery and travel and what-not can be defined by subject matter or formal features, the definition of classics is a bit more nebulous, including: books published in the Penguin and OUP classics series; anything that's old and has recently been adapted for film or TV; anything old produced in a luxury edition – I don't blame Waterstone's, by the way.)

Bennett's reputation seems to have disappeared. I always thought of him as one of the big novelists whom I would read at some point. But now I've got round to it, it seems that nobody else is interested. It's odd, because he's a really impressive writer, capable of some brilliant moments (and, admittedly, some slightly lame ones too).

So far I've only read one and a half of his books. The Card is a sort of Sunday-evening-TV comic pastoral. The Five-Towns setting is the thing: rich, charming and nostalgic. It's true that the plot is flawed – the same pattern is repeated over and over without significant variation – and I wonder if this might be the case throughout Bennett's work: strong setting, weaker plot. Answers on a postcard, please.

Clayhanger, which I'm halfway through now, is a different ball game. The plot is stronger, but perhaps still secondary to the phenomenal setting. Again, that setting is the Five Towns, of course, and Bennett's treatment of it encompasses physical, social, political and historical details. As in The Card, there's a pastoral feel, but this time it's complicated by a contrary vein of grim-faced naturalism (the chapter where he describes Darius Clayhanger's life as a child worker could be straight out of Zola, or George Moore), with the odd socio-political comment thrown in when you least expect it. The total effect is hardly of straightforward realism (it's too affectionate and at times cartoonish for that), but the opposition of sober criticism and affectionate nostalgia creates a vivid and convincing picture.

Take chapter three, where Bennett describes the Clayhangers' printing shop and surrounding streets:

Edwin came steeply out of the cinder-strewn back streets by Woodisun Bank [hill] into Duck Square, nearly at the junction of Trafalgar Road and Wedgwood Street. A few yards down Woodisun Bank, cocks and hens weere scurrying with necks horizontal, from all quarters, and were even flying, to the call of a little old woman who threw grain from the top step of her porch. On the level of the narrow pavement stood an immense constable, clad in white trousers, with a gun under his arm for the killing of mad dogs; he was talking to the woman, and their two heads were at exactly the same height. On a pair of small double gates near the old woman's cottage were painted the words, 'Steam Printing Works. No admittance except on business'. And from as far as Duck Square could be heard the puff-puff which proved the use of steam in this works to which idlers and mere pleasure-seekers were forbidden access.

There are two pages or so more of this, absorbing to read but too lengthy to quote. Then:

The history of human manners is crunched and embedded in the very macadam of that part of the borough, and the burgesses unheedingly tread it down every day and talk gloomily about the ugly smoky prose of industrial manufacture. And yet the Dragon Hotel, safely surviving all revolutions by the mighty virtue and attraction of ale, stands before them to remind them of the interestingness of existence.

This principle and technique, showing the landscape as a historical record by describing its familiarity and everydayness in detail, reminds me of Naipaul's The Enigma of Arrival and, particularly in the attraction to architecture (i the novel Edwin wanted to be an architect), of WG Sebald.

It's not flawless. The extras (such as the old womand and the constable) are excellent – part of the setting really – and the main characters have depth and sympathy, but some of the minor characters have a kind of sub-Dickensian simplicity which dulls their interest. For example, you have to try to ignore the rather fawning depiction of the middle-class Orgreaves, which I rather think is supposedly to reflect ironically Edwin's view of them, but which comes across as a bit Enid Blyton.

But such wobbles are worth it for the cumulative sense of a historical world, punctuated suddenly by little, pithy sentences with great imaginative leverage. For example, two hundred-odd pages in, there's a big event to celebrate the Centenary of Sunday schools (trust me). Everybody's going, except the cook:

Families must eat. And if Mrs Nixon was stopped by duty from assisting at this Centenary, she must hope to be more at liberty for the next.

Such sly, concise, elegant social comment. And then, on the next page, everybody's dressed up for the big day. We get a sudden glimpse of the direction the novel might have taken were it straight naturalism:

The humblest was crudely gay. Pawnbrokers had full tills and empty shops, for twenty-four hours.

And then, a paragraph later, on of the church processions passes, including a 'lorry' (float):

and the horses of the lorry were ribboned and their manes and tails tightly plaited; on that grand day they could not be allowed to protect themselves against flies; they were sacrificial animals.

Such modern, unexpected, imaginative sympathy. Bennett's a great writer. Read him.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

You know who gets all the best tunes

Things to do when you should be marking students' work #572: rewrite the lyrics to Stalinist personality cult songs.

No Motherland Without You
a perhaps untrustworthy translation of the North Korean song

You warded off the nuclear storm,
or so you told us, Comrade Kim Jong-il!
Without you we're dead meat?
Our state would not exist without you!

Our future and hope depend on you
if you take my meaning, elderly Comrade Kim Jong-il!
Without you we're dead meat –
our state would not exist without you!

Global changes mean fuck-all to us.
We believe in the devil, Comrade Kim Jong-il, and he wears a khaki suit!
With you dead everything would be different –
our state would not exist without you!

You told us it would be OK, Comrade Kim Jong-il!
Our state would not exist without you!

Based on Wikipedia's translation:

No Motherland Without You

You pushed away the severe storm
You made us believe, Comrade Kim Jong Il
We cannot live without you
Our country cannot exist without you!

Our future and hope depend on you
People's fate depends on you, Comrade Kim Jong Il!
We cannot live without you
Our country cannot exist without you!

Even if the world changes hundreds of times
People believe in you, Comrade Kim Jong Il
We cannot live without you
Our country cannot exist without you!

You gave us belief, Comrade Kim Jong Il
Our country cannot exist without you!

Johnson to Boswell

'Read Cheyne's "English Malady:" but do not let him teach you a foolish notion that melancholy is a proof of acuteness.'

Letter of July 2, 1776.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Good scran

Peter Bennet. The Glass Swarm. Flambard, 2008.

It's heartening that the Poetry Book Society Choice of Autumn 08 went to Peter Bennet's The Glass Swarm, partly because it shows that small presses can get a look-in, but mainly because it makes Bennet's work more visible to a wider readership. These strange, narrative, wistful poems deserve it.

Bennet's subject is history, and how history and memory determine identity. His poems, historical vignettes and elegies, take place in country parks and houses, populated by ghosts and servants. And though, as poems like 'The Green Corn' make clear, his politics are those of the man rather than the master, he is fascinated by both sides of that divide. His broad sympathy brings life to the history.

Bennet's technique is typically iambic, with some use of traditional form (a couple of impressive pieces of terza rima, for example), but many of the poems do not utilise strict metre, instead varying the number of stresses on a line. This can be off-putting (maybe it just takes some getting used to), but at its best it achieves a relaxed musicality of some power. 'The Naturalist' begins with two lines of pentameter before dropping into tetrameter:

Inland we have another burning day,
but you, I trust, are cooler by the sea
in that calm haven out of reach

– and so on. This poem pits a father's Victorian, religious orthodoxy against a son's modern, Darwinist progressiveness. This double portrait recalls Turgenev's Father and Sons, with the father's conservative wrongness, more loving and likable than the son's inconsiderate rightness, shown thereby to be righter than we thought. The close, humble and pathetic, stands as a gentle rebuke:

Meanwhile, this five-pound note and scribble travel
with love from one no longer young or clever.

Earlier on in the poem the father asks if his son has noticed that 'when one decides to free/oneself from something – duty, or a place/...a pause occurs/sufficient to allow the future/to squeeze into a smaller space?' This ambivalence about liberation is a presiding mood of the collection; elsewhere Bennet writes:

The past is something a wise man discards,
but there are episodes to mention.

The first section of the book presents various narratives drawing on this mood; there are poems about revisiting and recapturing the past, about Alzheimer's. They are cloudy and tantalising, as most attempts to capture the past must be. Bennet makes use of the gothic in this connection, and it feels appropriate: ghosts provide a useful figure for the past and the dead; the big houses which are his habitual setting are typically gothic; and the gothic tropes of the uncanny and of changeableness allow him to overlay times, places and ideas. Perhaps my favourite poem in the book, 'Cuneiform', offers a glimpse of arcane and archaic knowledge – letters in an untranslated book lying on a desk in an empty house. 'A lidless eye has overlaid the moon', and this notion of identity or resemblance continues through the poem. The crows leave prints in the snow which are the letters in the book; the poem's addressee is the blank page on whom their 'inky beaks' will rite the riddle of identity.

The second section, a group of fourteen sonnets, is less elliptical, and more variable. One or two ('Memorabilia', 'The Parting', 'Fancy Dress') are modest in scope and technique; the more interesting ones ('The Deep Settee', 'The Archaeologist', 'The Tourist', 'The Doll') are strange, even violent versions of the form. After this comes 'Folly Wood', a dark, historical fantasy of thirteen monologues, again drawing on the gothic and taking as its theme alchemy, rebirth and transfiguration. Again there is a country house and park; again there is arcane knowledge, violence, sex, power and religion. The house is populated by Goldilocks, an automaton, a floating harp, and the alchemist speaker, who addresses a visitor to his house. The historicised diction, while occasionally overdone, is suited to the material, and enjoyably undercut by moments of comedy and plain-speaking:

but turn your eyes from her beguiling body
and let your thoughts continue dancing
the Great Word with their feathered arms unfurled.
The daft girl has a pretty face,
but such allurements, and the scran she brings,
are merely echoes of a world
through which we have already passed.

The speaker's objectification of the girl is literal: she and the automaton Malkin are 'nothings in the shape of things'. But (and) it's thrilling and unsettling to see his cunning, sinister speeches rise to climaxes of lyrical power:

Your task
will be to praise him when he wakes,
as we shall, into paradise.
Unlatch your tongue and then rejoice.
They are in each of us, the thin
dissecting cry a baby makes,
the soothing remnant of a deeper voice.

Later sections of the book continue the themes of identity, class, power and history, and the use of historical settings. I particularly enjoyed 'Lord Blaxter's Apology', a recapitulation of Browning's 'My Last Duchess', and much else besides. It's a charming, unusual, rewarding collection.

Just One Book campaign for Salt

You've probably seen this already elsewhere, but if you haven't, please read the following and act on it, to help save one of the world's most exciting independent literary publishers:

A message from Chris Hamilton-Emery, Salt's director:

"Here's how you can help us to save Salt.


1. Please buy just one book, right now. We don't mind from where, you can buy it from us or from Amazon, your local shop or megastore, online or offline. If you buy just one book now, you'll help to save Salt. Timing is absolutely everything here. We need cash now to stay afloat. If you love literature, help keep it alive. All it takes is just one book sale. Go to our online store and help us keep going.

Salt UK and International Store

Salt USA Store

2. Share this note on your Facebook and MySpace profile [and on your blogs]. Tell your friends. If we can spread the word about our cash crisis, we can hopefully find more sales and save our literary publishing. Remember it's just one book, that's all it takes to save us. Please do it now.

With my best wishes to everyone

I'm calling in at a certain well-known bookshop this afternoon to buy a copy of Katy Evans-Bush's Me and the Dead; and then I was reminded this morning about David Gaffney's Sawn-Off Tales, which are by all accounts brilliant, so I've ordered that too. Buy books and do good at the same time - what could be nicer?

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

...and back on again?

Well, twenty-four hours is a long time in publishing, or somesuch lazy paraphrase.

It's now looking more hopeful that Salt will be able to publish the rest of 2009's list, including The Corner of Arundel Lane and Charles Street. I'm very pleased, if not entirely at ease, on my own account. The future's still looking tough generally though. You can help by going to the Salt website and buying one (or more) of their excellent books. 

Thanks to those who've been in touch today. I appreciate it. Here's hoping the wonders, and dedication, of the Salt team will never cease.

Off the menu

Some disappointing news for me personally and for UK poetry generally – Salt have had to cancel all future publications owing to a financial crisis.

This is a real shame – Salt have been a major new force in poetry publishing, and its loss leaves the industry much the poorer. And for me, of course, it means that my book won't now be published by them. But it's hard to feel too down-hearted on that score – these things happen, and it's just a book, after all – I feel more sorry for Chris and Jen at Salt, who have given so much to their business (and livelihood) only to see it falter now.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Pamphlets by Matthew Clegg and Ben Wilkinson

Matthew Clegg. Edgelands. Longbarrow Press, 2008.
Ben Wilkinson. The Sparks. tall-lighthouse, 2008.

Matthew Clegg's pamphlet Edgelands is a collection of 50 tanka (there's a fold-out matchbox edition with 6 additional tanka, but I'm not sure I approve of such – well – gimmicks). The theme is the end of a relationship, but it's mainly expressed through the depiction of a landscape and the projection of mood on to landscape. The speaker notices grim and bathetic details which reflect his state of mind and his sense of isolation. The 'edgelands' are various areas at the edge of Sheffield, some of which I know well, but they're also, of course, mental and social edgelands.

I don't know much about tanka, and the most obvious kinship that occurred to me here was Frank Kuppner. I'm already dealing with the formal means of this sequence at a (parodic) remove. In fact, reading Clegg's work I've been interested to realise that Kuppner's 'Chinese' poems draw on formal and tonal materials just as much as thematic ones - his emperors and concubines are obvious chinoiseries, but his technique too, the sequence of discrete units and the deadpan tone and the agglomeration of seemingly insignificant details, seems to draw on tanka; it bears strong resemblances to Clegg's work here, at any rate.

There are some strongly Kuppnerian moments, such as the moment when 'two paths diverge in a wood –/He takes the one less travelled by', only to find that it peters out: 'What next? Check for ticks. Turn back.' But on the whole Clegg's handling of tanka seems to be less parodic, more serious. There's an attention to the striking image which Kuppner doesn't pursue: running badgers have 'rugby-players' shoulders'; there's 'A hubcap like a felled star'; some of the more beautiful poems here are wonderfully restrained in keeping their attention to the image:

Three horses – black, auburn, white.
Black: in its feet, shaking off flies.
Auburn: on its side, head up.
White: flat out, ear to the ground,
Listening for its own stillness.

I find it interesting that I like least the poems which deal with the failed relationship, or social concerns generally, more or less directly. The contrast between the speaker counting coppers into bags with people in the bank talking about ISAs is rather indulgent and self-romanticising; much more interesting and complicated and charming is the old man who puts litter 'on the tines of railings, fences'. It is the poems' record of otherwise unrecognised 'care' which generates the sense that this is a living landscape. Similarly, depictions of the speaker himself tend to lack the openness, the looking-outwards, of the landscape-focused pieces. Several early poems show the speaker morose in his house – you can see how this is necessary narrative, but it feels rather static. The best poems reach out from personal mood into a world which bewitches and redeems:

He's been too inward-looking.
The slug-trail on his window
Traces a perfect love knot
Before stopping abruptly.
It has a fine pelt of dust.

The sequence is an accumulation of small miracles like this. Their modesty is a risk: when they don't come off they slide over into the banale (the tow-rope 'like life. Like love' is one example); but such failures are rare. A more unavoidable limitation is in the form. This is a true sequence, not simply a collection of individual poems; as with Kuppner's work, the units accumulate their effects into something larger, but not into a narrative to speak of. You couldn't go on reading (or writing) them forever. Of course it is mean-spirited to cavil at what these poems are not. The discreteness of the units, like the style's lucidity, is a strength; but I'll be interested to see Clegg working in other forms and using other arguments.

Ben Wilkinson's The Sparks is not a sequence; it follows the other pattern of the pamphlet, offering a sampler of his work for readers and prospective editors. On the back Conor O'Callaghan says the work is 'responsive to the elemental layers that underscore the material sheen of our early twenty-first century'. 'Elemental' is an apt word here; what strikes me most about Wilkinson's poems is their discursiveness, their willingness to extrapolate from the phenomena they record towards moral and philosophical conclusions. Such a method reminds me of the Romantics, and particularly of Wordsworth; but here Nature is replaced by the complicated, unsatisfactory, urban contemporary landscape.

In several poems that landscape is, explicitly, Sheffield; and there is both geographical and tonal overlap between Clegg's and Wilkinson's work. But while Clegg's speaker views the (edges of the) city from a marginal position, Wilkinson's seems to inhabit it comfortably, even if he doesn't see it as idyllic:

When I leave with Jes, the sky has cleared:
a van trundles down Sharrowvale past
the shell of a butcher's, boarded and barred;
the sun and bulky nimbus in weird contrast
as I open up the Marlboros, offer her one,
struggling to recall if it was accident or arson.

That ambivalence, like other moments in the book, show the influence of Michael Hofmann; but on the whole Wilkinson is more discursive than Hofmann, and less ironic. The danger of a reflective style like this is that the reflection takes precedence over the poetry (Wordsworth again), so that the imagery becomes mere ornamentation, when it needs to be the engine of the reflection. (The imagery of 'Hex' seems to fill in the gaps, rather than providing the structure, of that poem's argument.) Paradoxically, these poems have most to say when their imagery obscures or smothers their argumentative structure. 'Filter' tells an almost lucid story about a trawler, which manages to break free of its syntactical controls into strange territory, ending with the satisfyingly puzzling idea of 'how the Egyptian cobra shed its skin,/intact, carefully rubbing its head, leaving behind a perfect replica of itself.' (The rest of the poem justifies this closing, but not in a literal way.)

In fact my favourite poem here is one where Wilkinson eschew reflection completely, allowing material to speak for itself. 'Byroads' is a series of four rural vignettes. There's so much delicate material here (movement, tension, narrative, tone), and it's stronger for not being interpreted:

Hanging baskets frosted white
in the orange blur of a maple wood dusk,
ice stalactite rigid towards the pavements.

The firing of some gun from the wood's
clearing. A bus rumbles on, coughing,
and a local makes his turn at the pub's carpark.

I also like a lot the jangling music of the first section of 'The Quiet':

I was drinking my way through a fifth pint of lager
and sparked up a fag as the tidemarks grew larger,
walked to the bar as the music grew louder

and noticed in minutes I'd clocked up two hours
when stumbling away from the urinal's cowl
I turned to the exit to make for your house.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

The reviews that never come

I've got an ever-increasing list of books which I read and plan to review, yet never do. So, in the next week or so I'm hoping to clear the backlog by posting some mini-reviews of books I've liked here. I'll be looking at Matthew Clegg's Edgelands, Ben Wilkinson's The Sparks, Geoffrey Hill's A Treatise on Civil Power, Andrew Philip's The Ambulance Box, Luke Kennard's The Migraine Hotel and, er, probably also some ecstatic ravings about Borges and Arnold Bennett.

Promises, promises!

Friday, May 01, 2009

Broken Tiles in Shearsman

Shearsman 79/80 is out, and I'm really happy to have six poems from my sequence Broken Tiles featured in it. I'm grateful to the editor Tony Frazer not only for accepting them, but also for his work and patience in making them work (the originals are in two colours and have a different shape and size from the magazine's pages).

I've enjoyed what I've read of the magazine so far - there are sonnets, other than mine, by Nick Potamitis and Catherine Hales, and some entertaining, breathlessly long-lined translations of Edoardo Sanguinetti by Ian Seed, the editor of Shadowtrain.