Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Bunting Re-Evaluated

The role of Basil Bunting as poet laureate of Northumbria is re-evaluated here by Tynesider Keith Armstrong. The essay was drawn to my attention by Alistair Noon. I think Armstrong makes some valid points: I'm all for questioning the power of the 'vast cultural umbrella' bequeathed by twelve years of New Labour, and the consequent 'hegemony ... of local authorities and the Arts Council and many other unaccountable quangos'. It's also fine by me to re-evaluate Bunting in general, and, as I said to Alistair, I certainly wouldn't hold Bunting up as a moral paragon - his attitude to women, and ridiculous views on 'southrons' aren't things I'd admire (though to call him 'fascist', as one contributor does is just plain wrong). However, the article seems incoherent, and lacking in a clear argument. Armstrong rails against the 'literary intelligentsia' as opposed to the 'grass roots' (in fine 1970s-style Old Labour language), but it's hard to see exactly why he objects so much to Basil Bunting. He quotes Peter Riley's objection to Lee Hall's recent radio programme, and the way it propagated a North v South mythology; but that's hardly Bunting's fault, and more to do with the fantasising of Barry MacSweeney. He trots out a series of poets who don't like Bunting's work, though as none of them substantiate their views with quotation or detailed comment, they are really just matters of opinion. A number of contributors question the authenticity of Bunting's accent; I agree that in the recordings I've heard it's over-exagerated, but I can detect authentic pronunciation of Northumberland (as opposed to Tyneside) speech under the put-on, and, in any case, Bunting's poetry wasn't a poetry modelled on everyday conversation. So, as I've said, it's hard to work out precisely what his objection to Bunting is. One clue might be his comments on Tom Pickard's and Barry MacSweeney's poetry:

" [their] collections make monotonous reading... Their work is virtually inaccessible to those unable to share the crude and simplistic emotions or tolerate the inarticulateness of the language which goes as near to using words without meaning as one can. "

Whether it's actually possible to use words 'without meaning' is a moot point, but, by contrast, talking about the poetry of working class poets like Joseph Skipsey, the coal-miner, and Tyneside shipyard worker Jack Davitt, Armstrong says "What these poems lack in literary technique they more than make up for in their refreshing openness and accessibility". The question here is: is there something fundamentally different about poetry when it's written by - or written for - 'working-class people'? It seems rather patronising to suggest that the working classes (however that's defined) can only cope with "openness and accessibliity". The mental processes and the perceptions of the world experienced by a coal-miner or truck driver aren't essentially different to those of a doctor or lawyer. W.S. Graham was a working-class poet; apprenticed as a shipyard engineer at fourteen, he remained until he'd served his time at twenty-one, and throughout his life worked at casual jobs, including work as a fisherman on a trawler. But his poetry addresses philosophical and perceptual questions, and can be as complex as any. And when does a working-class person cease to be working class once he / she becomes a poet, or gets an education? Is Keith Armstrong working class? Maybe, but he also has a PhD from Durham University. Growing up, as I did, in a working-class community, one thing I learned is that you can't pigeon-hole people. The shipyard workers and miners who were our neighbours were as complex and contradictory as any other human beings; any poetry written or read by such people would have needed to reflect that.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

A hopeful thought for 2010 on:

"When I realize that any chapbook publisher with a Blogspot page and PayPal account can sell directly to readers worldwide, I feel hopeful. I just hope we can find time to read & enjoy this great bounty."

Ron Silliman

To read Ron's full post, click here.
Cid Corman, Ed Baker, Theodore Enslin and Chuck Sandy

Turns out Ed Baker, regular visitor to Litterbug, is a friend of Theodore Enslin (see photo). Ed reminded me that the poem to George Oppen was called 'The Weather Within'; it's a wonderful piece of work, and it's still available on-line, here.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Follow follow follow after following
flow flowing follow after flow
a milk of light the nacre flowing
into follow milk flow as follows
milked of its colors let them
follow flow sun's bent a lasting
milk in light its nacre sheers to
touch as flow feels following after
flow touch to feel against light
against a following flow to after
let be on what is flowing it
follows as let of nacre after
sun to color dogged it will appear
a following discreet as distance follows

Theodore Enslin

I haven't read much Enslin for a long time, and today, when I knew I'd have to wait in the car for a family member to arrive at the station, I grabbed a book of his poetry on the way out. The book was In Tandem published in 2001 by Stop Press, which I believe was run by artist Basil King. Being on my own, I could read the poetry aloud without people thinking I'm mad. It's like listening to, or playing, a piece of music (Enslin,of course, is a composer), and as you read, you notice the careful, sound-based composition, and the way phrases are introduced, then re-worked and developed. It's an exhilirating experience. I don't know of any other poet who writes quite like this, with the possible exception of John Taggart, who is a friend of Enslin's.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Here's good blog: it's not poetry, but highly amusing satirical comment on the goings-on of British politics, with a grotesque set of characters - drawn from life - including The Vicar of Downing Street, The Glorious Successor and Lord Mandelbrot the Ever-Recurring. It's called The Curmudgeon.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

I'm off to Frankfurt tomorrow, after a three-hour search all over the house for my missing passport, which we (the whole family joined in) finally found. Phew! If it hadn't showed up, I simply couldn't have gone. So much for freedom of movement, or even just Freedom. Anyway, there would have been serious repercussions had I not been able to go, and I have a living to earn. So very relieved.

Monday, December 7, 2009

The World Seen from the Air

Stuck for a Christmas present for that hard-to-please family member, that discerning friend? Try this. New from Nottingham's own Skysill Press, and with a beautfiful cover design from Sam Ward, this 22-page booklet contains poems I wrote about three years ago. The work is, I guess, lyric poetry, and uses repetition and variation, as in musical form.

Support an enterprising new press and a struggling poet by buying a copy from the Skysill website.

22 pages. £4 including postage.

Many thanks to Sam for all his hard work and support.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Yet more on...

In reponse to the the previous post, I'd first of all say to Ms. Litherland - if she's reading this - thank you for taking the trouble to comment on my post, and for your interesting take on the subject. I do take issue with a couple of things however, as will be apparent below. But to take up one point at the outset: I'm sure Sean O'Brien was indeed moved by MacSweeney's poetry; I don't doubt his sincerity on that. The reason people objected to him being a major source in the documentary is that he represents a faction in poetry which has held cultural dominance (though that appears to be changing) and has, in his written statements, consistently attacked - I could dig out the quotes if I looked hard enough - what might be called 'innovative' or 'radical' poetry and poets; these latter being the very people who sustained MacSweeney over the years with friendship and practical help. It was this that made people feel that O'Brien's prominence in the documentary was incongruous.

As for MacSweeney's poetry, I have my own views on it, which differ from Ms. Litherland's and also from Andrew Duncan's in 'The Council of Heresy'. Duncan identifies 'Pearl' as MacsWeeney's masterpiece, and regards 'The Book of Demons' - with reservations - very highly. In my view however, the best work is the mid-period of 'Ranter', 'Wild Knitting', 'Jury Vet' etc. While there's plenty of rage and passion in these works, these emotions are lent force by a level of restraint, and by impersonal elements - historical in Ranter, sociological in Jury Vet, for example. I read these works, and 'Hellhound Memos', before I knew anything about MacSweeney the man, and what have learnt about him since hasn't added anything to the work. In Wild Knitting, there's a section which the fury of the speaker leads up to the tenderness of the lines:

You the wronged woman. You the complexity. You the seeker
of buses and trains. You the wandering wife far from home.

The change of tempo and blending of emotions in this poem is subtler and more skillful than anything found in 'The Book of Demons'.

For me, the least interesting thing about MacSweeney, or about his poetry, is the man's alchoholism. In terms of emotional and intellectual content, 'The Book of Demons' is thinner than the earlier work, though it's undoubtedly rip-roaring and would have come across well in performance. I thing Pearl is more complex, but still not as rich as the mid-period work. I didn't know MacSweeney personally, but to say that "he had no skin" as O'Brien did, is implying that he was a uniquely sensitive individual in line with the Romantic stereotype. But he worked as a reporter - a notoriously hard-nosed profession - and as Adian Semmens has pointed out, plenty of people knew him as a reporter and nothing else. Wilfred Owen's contention that 'the poetry is in the pity' was controversial at the time, and was objected to by Yeats, for example. To say 'the poetry is in the pain' doesn't do justice to MacSweeney's work. Everyone suffers pain, but not everyone writes great poetry.

More on MacSweeney

I really must check my blog comments more often. The following post consists of the comment posted by Jackie Litherland in response to the discussion of the recent BBC Radio programme on Barry MacSweeney. Ms Litherland was Barry MacSweeney's partner in his last years, and is the dedicatee of 'The Book of Demons'.

"The type of programme described by Alan about Barry's poetics we would all love to hear. As Tom said you could have several programmes about Barry and why not? Music has just this kind of coverage on Radio 3. I have always been bemused that poetry is not given the same serious space.
I thought, however, that in 30 minutes, Tom and the producers managed to give a taste of Barry and his work.
As to the reference to Barry's alcoholism, it is not a side show away from the main stage. Barry wrote The Book of Demons to make sure that did not happen. It is not just a question of separating the poetry from his life, the poetry is the pain, just as in Owen's work the poetry is the pity.
Barry was never one to shirk a fight. Once he started to try to renounce the demon drink, he threw himself into the cause. I use the language of messianic zeal deliberately.
Of course a complicated and complex poet and man such as Barry saw the humour and irony of such a battle as well as its terrible consequences.
He wasn't ashamed of his alcoholism, he was part of a movement that treated it as an illness.
As for Sean's presence in the programme, I thought his comment about Barry having no skin was very perceptive.
The Poetry Book Society Recommendation for The Book of Demons came from Sean (who was one of two judges) who wrote a strong appreciation of the book.
The reference to 'a bucket of lava flung over the listener' in his poem Coffinboat quoted on the programme is not about Barry's reading style but about his late night telephone calls.
Sean told me he was moved to tears when he heard Barry read his Pearl poems at Morden Tower.
However I do agree that a poet from within the avant garde circle that Barry belonged to should have been interviewed. Ric Caddel would have been the ideal candidate had he lived. But Maggie O'Sullivan, Nicholas Johnson come to mind."

Jackie Litherland

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Tom Chivers: 'The Terrors'