Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Last Saturday Sam Ward and myself drove up to Sheffield to attend the opening the new Banks Street arts centre. What would normally have been a municipal evening with predictable artistic fare was transformed by the fact the the organiser was Geraldine Monk. So the evening sparkled with jazz, performance poetry with music, and excellent straight poetry readings. The highlights for me were Harriet Tarlo reading the poem 'Love/Land', a musical duo with a woman on violin and a man on trumpet (I'll have to find out who they are), a reading by Alan Halsey of a poem consisting of vernacular phrases lifted from 'Tristram Shandy' and finally, Geraldine Monk herself. The latter's set consisted of poetry transformed into a sort of primal sound, with a guy on a synthesizer as backing. Wonderful stuff.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

I had trouble finding the Shearsman reading on Tuesday night, got there late and had to slip in quietly at the back. Ken Edwards gave an excellent reading, followed by Mercedes Roffé: Tony Frazer read the poems in English followed by Roffé in Spanish. It was good to meet Tony at last, and he turned out to be as relaxed and genial as I imagined him to be. I got Mercedes Roffé to sign her book for me and we chatted and exchanged addresses - so expect to see some of her work on Litter soon.

I had an panic order for some Carrie Etter pamphlets from a bookshop in Bath - she's reading there tomorrow night and the shop forgot to order. As I'm working away this week I had to call my distribution manager (my wife) and ask her to post the pamphlets by Special Delivery.

Forthcoming on Litter soon: poetry by Peter Riley, Andrea Brady and Todd Swift, and artwork by Bob Rissman

Monday, May 19, 2008

I'm sitting in an empty office trying to sort out some computer problem before I wander back to my soulless hotel. I'm stuck in Bracknell, Berkshire all week. But there's hope! Tomorrow night I'm planning/hoping to take a train into London and attend the Shearsman reading at Calders Bookshop near Waterloo. It's Argentinian poet Mercedes Roffé and UK poet Ken Edwards.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Ashbery and the Baroque

I've just re-read Ashbery's long prose poem, "The System" from his 1973 book "Three Poems": forty pages of highly-wrought prose, in which it's impossible to follow the thread of any argument for more than a few lines, and yet which is somehow a seductive, highly enjoyable read. The reader soon comes to realise that this poem is a self-contained, sealed unit. Once you stop expecting it to yield a 'literal' meaning, you can enjoy it, and, more importantly, allow it to yield up much less obvious meanings. Soon after reading the said poem I came across this description:

"... he has been criticised for his emptiness. If we substitute the work "superficiality" we are closer to his poetic conception, for he is simply attempting to construct - "counterfeit" the world of appearances. ...plot counts for very little, and the philosophical content, if it exists, counts for even less. Everything is a pretext for descriptions and digressions, and each dissolves in turn into images, antitheses, and rhetorical figures. If anything moves in the poem, it is ... the imagination of the poet. He... halts at a word or color, fondles it and prolongs it, and makes of each period an image, of each image a world. The poetic discourse flows slowly along, divides into "leafy parentheses" that are like beautiful islands, and continues to meander among landscapes, shadows, lights and realities, all of which it redeems and immobilizes... Hence, there is no conflict between substance and form because he turns everything into form, into a crystalline or tremulous, polished or undulating surface."

This is in fact Octavio Paz talking about the sixteenth century Spanish baroque poet Luis de Góngora, but it seems it could equally apply to certain periods of Ashbery's work, and certainly to the "The System" and the other works in his 1973 book "Three Poems". I'm lent support in my musings by a review of Ashbery by David Lau, in which Lau speaks of "The various baroque formal means immanent to the syntactical sublimity of what used to be called literature", which, Lau asserts "are one way of representing a frayed-beyond-repair ... hope for radical aesthetic invention". It could be argued that the baroque, at least in seventeenth century Spain, came out of the decadence of that culture in its decline. How far that may be said of Ashbery's baroque poetry in relation to our present state is a moot point.

John Bloomberg-Rissman had this to say when we discussed this subject during some email correspondence:

"Re: Ashbery, the baroque, etc. I went into LA yesterday to meet Bob and found myself w/some time on my hands before his arrival. I read a bunch of the 1st of JA’s Three Poems. While those are “of a period” and certainly not fully representative of his entire oeuvre, I’d have to say (thinking through the Three Poems lens, but trying to keep his entire career in mind) that he’s not baroque, at least not in Paz’s Góngora-sense. I think JA’s a destroyer of surfaces in that one never knows where one is. At least a destroyer of surfaces in the sense of surface relating to representation of a specific place/time “out there”, i.e., he doesn’t “"counterfeit" the world of appearances”, he renders such a world moot, because it’s constantly shifting out from under one, as in a dream. Further, while one could, however argue that in JA “there is no conflict between substance and form”, I don’t’ think that's because JA “turns everything into form, into a crystalline or tremulous, polished or undulating surface.” I think, in fact, he is actually quite expressionist in a weird way, because what keeps I can’t say one I can only say me moving through his oddly mutating language-landscapes, is the depth and truth of the emotions that somehow barnacle themselves to the flow (odd image, but somehow fitting, at least at this moment). Now that I know how to read him, and it took years, I always find his poems deeply moving. Maybe not some of the early ones, in the first few books, or at least not so much, they are in a way explorations of how far he can push beyond the conventions, (tho I know the early books are many people’s favorites). Tho that’s to periodize too much. And even many of the early ones are moving in their way."

Saturday, May 3, 2008

I've just finished reading 'Aurora' by the Mexican poet Pura López-Colomé. It's a book I've been looking forward to for some time, and I wasn't disappointed: an astringent verse and a poetry that hovers between the concrete and abstract; a concentrated writing that still gives an impression of space and light. The translation, by American poet Jason Stumpf, is fine poetry in its own right:

Day had shone
its finest robes.
the outline of its seduction
left a wall of penetrating
night sky of magnificent

With that red-hot coal
in the cave of the eye,
I heard a faint knock
at the window.
The half-open blinds
revealed a smooth
flower without omens.

The book is, of course, infused with Mexican culture; with its religion and its pre-Colombian fascination with death, and with surrealist influence. It's a surprise then to find quotes from Philip Larkin at the head of two of the poems. The quotes themselves are quite striking, and its interesting to consider how Larkin must appear through the lens of another language and without the polarization of poetry into 'left and right' that British readers inevitably bring to his work. I have seen Larkin's pessimism compared to Samuel Beckett's and bracketed into the same post-War despair and absurdism, so maybe it's not so strange to see him referenced here.

López-Colomé's book is published in the UK by Shearsman, who are doing a great job of introducing me (and many other people) to current Latin American poetry. Their next London reading, on 20th May, is by Argentinian poet Mercedes Roffé, and that's one I'm hoping to get along to.