Sunday, December 19, 2010

À propos my previous post on the complete withdrawal of state funding from the Humanities in UK Higher Education:

"This scholar, author of inumerable books, spent a good part of the second half of her life fighting to save the Humanities...she brought home the point, again and again, and in all media willing to hold out a microphone to her, that ancient languages were the basis of contemporary ideas, not only those of democracy but the very sense of what it means to be human, and that every “honnête homme” had to study that field to some degree."

Pierre Joris on the Hellenist & Greek scholar, Jacqueline de Romilly who has just passed away aged 97. The complete post is here.

Friday, December 17, 2010

A Christmas present from Litter:

New work by Kathleen Bell, Adrian Buckner, Peter Dent, Rupert Loydell, Matt Merritt, Simon Perril and John Welch, plus a review of Kelvin Corcoran's new book.
I was privileged to be a guest reader at the Leicester launch of Matt Merrit's new collection, along with Marilyn Ricci and Malcolm Dewhirst. The event was held at The Looking Glass, a bar on the outskirts of Leciester city centre with a basement room complete with bar and small stage.

One of the pleasures of being involved in the poetry world is the sense of community which you feel at events like this, which was friendly and supportive. I don't have much experience of open-mic events, and I have heard bad reports, but this one was high quality, and included a contribtion from the excellent Mark Goodwin. Matt Merritt himself read very well, despite a cold, and I was glad to acquire a copy of his collection, which is full of measured, crafted verse, and which I'll try and review or have reviewed. In the meantime, here's a sample (the full poem is posted on Litter):

from 'Kilter'

...Silly to still be writing the same thing
years on, yet room, surely,
to hazard a different ending? Not happier,
maybe, but briefer and with better dialogue.

Read every book starting from the back
or work both ways towards the centre.
Be surprised by twists of plot or character

innovative use of unreliable narrators.
Live side by side with worse surprises.
Imagine a darkness that contains every colour.
Not everything that happens to you is fascinating.
First, remove all state funding from the humanities, and 50% from other subjects, creating a free market for Higher Education services. Then, invite your friends and business associates to the party:

"One of the world's largest publishers, Pearson, looks set to be given degree-awarding powers, as the government seeks to open up the university sector to more private providers" (BBC).

See more detail here.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Leicester Shindig!

Monday 13th December 2010

The Looking Glass, 68-70 Braunstone Gate, Leicester

Readings from 7.30pm - FREE ENTRY

This is the Leicester launch of Matt Merritt's second collection, hydrodaktulopsychicharmonica

With readings from Matt Merritt & special guest poets:
Alan Baker (yes, it is I), Marilyn Ricci and Malcolm Dewhirst.

Matt Merritt’s second collection of poetry, published in November 2010, is hydrodaktulopsychicharmonica. His debut full collection, Troy Town, was published byArrowhead Press in 2008, and a chapbook, Making The Most Of The Light, by HappenStance in 2005. He studied history at Newcastle University and counts Anglo-Saxon and medieval Welsh poetry among his influences, as well as the likes of R.S.Thomas, Ted Hughes and John Ash. He was born in Leicester and lives nearby, works as a wildlife journalist, is an editor of Poets On Fire, and blogs at

Marilyn Ricci began to write seriously about fifteen years ago. It’s no good asking her to stop now, it’s compulsive. Her work has appeared in anthologies and many small press magazines. Her pamphlet: Rebuilding a Number 39 was published by Happenstance Press in 2008.

Alan Baker founded Leafe Press in 2000 and is now co-editor. He's edited Litter magazine since 2005. He has published several short collections, and has a new book forthcoming from Skysill Press: "Variations on Painting a Room: Poems 2000-2010".

Malcolm Dewhirst - A poet, writer and filmmaker based in Tamworth who is project director of Polesworth’s Poets Trail. Malcolm’s poetry has been published in magazines and anthologies; he is working on his first collection of poems. His films include Pollysworda and the film poem Yell!

Open mic slots also available, please sign up on the door.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

John Bloomberg-Rissman's "Flux, Clot and Froth" is now avaiable in book form. This is what I said about this epic work-in-progress back in January 2010:

"My Leafe Press henchman John Bloomberg-Rissman has just completed 'Flux, Clot & Froth' (FCF) part 2 of his on-going project, of which 'No Sounds of my Own Making' was part one. FCF, published on John's blog, would run to around 800 pages in book form. The work is an exercise in sampling, that is, borrowing text from other writers - or people in general - to make a kind of boundless poetry that interfaces with all aspects of contemporary life, via the texts that document it. It's an epic project - just check out the list of names he's borrowed from - but it's at the same time a light-hearted (and affectionate) spoof of the epic works of High Modernism. The whole project is called Zeitgeist Spam. Long may it continue!"

Well, here it is at last:


Meritage Press is delighted to announce its latest poetry release with a SPECIAL RELEASE OFFER!

Flux, Clot & Froth, Vol. 1
Poems by John Bloomberg-Rissman
ISBN-13: 978-0-9794119-9-1
Price: $29.00
Pages: 714

Flux, Clot & Froth, Vol. 2
Apparatus to Poems in Vol. 1 by John Bloomberg-Rissman
ISBN-13: 978-0-9826493-0-5
Price: $21.00
Pages: 242

Meritage Press Book Page:

Meritage Press is pleased to release Flux, Clot & Froth by John Bloomberg-Rissman, a two-volume project comprised of poems in Volume 1 and "Apparatus" or Notes to Poems in Volume 2. To celebrate this unique project, Meritage Press is offering a SPECIAL RELEASE OFFER with discounted pricing (see further below for details).

PROJECT DESCRIPTION: On 23 Nov 08, John Bloomberg-Rissman finished transforming his crazy stacks of later 20th- and early 21st-century Anglophone literature into organized shelves. Looking at those shelves, he decided to "unpack" them through a longish poem: "Find something from the 1st book on the 1st shelf. Follow that with something from the 1st book on the 2nd shelf. Etc etc. Intersperse whatever I like from whatever source appeals to me. Intersperse a number of Autopoetic recursions. Form: hay(na)ku. I expect this to go on for several months.” Several became many, and the result is an epic-length mixtape composed of thousands of algorithmically/intuitively-derived fully annotated oft-mangled bits of écriture/parole. Truman Capote once famously said of Jack Kerouac’s work, “This isn’t writing, it’s typing.” Had he lived he would have said of Flux, Clot & Froth, “This isn’t typing, it’s cutnpaste.” But, as Heinrich Heine (or Ferenc Molnár?) is reputed to have replied on his deathbed when asked if he wanted last rites, “Nah. Whether or not he exists, God will forgive me. It’s his job.” Volume 1 contains the poem. Volume 2 contains 2,700+ notes which source the approximately 4,000 texts Bloomberg-Rissman sampled.


“At the heart of infinity is the accumulative event. John Bloomberg-Rissman, poet of mixmastery, dis-complicates a vastness of textonality, meticulously cites each source, then honors the poundage of forebears by locating a fresh, consistently revealing work, flush with ripening seeds. Flux, Clot & Froth accomplishes with specificity a surprisingly large, clear, deeply felt ceremony of the new poem that gleams across patens that protect and honor poetic roots, both past and current. The poem earns traction by unearthing the connections among a dizzying array of source material to discover a transcendent work. Unhesitatingly brilliant, Flux, Clot & Froth speaks beyond itself as testament to a rigorous and unparalleled synthesis of attention and humility.”
Sheila E. Murphy

“An extreme example of what I’ve elsewhere called “othering” or, borrowing the phrase from John Cage, “writing through,” Bloomberg-Rissman’s Flux, Clot & Froth is a 700+ page magnum opus constructed (almost) entirely from words or sounds appropriated from 1000 other writers. That this is done without any sacrifice of coherence or feeling or intelligence & in a voice that remains unified & “personal” throughout is a testament to the communal nature of language & thought of which our individualities are a crucial if sometimes questioned part. While Bloomberg-Rissman is not alone in the pursuit of such an outcome, his beautifully wrought & linked three-line stanzas & other groupings present what may well remain a milestone of a new communal poetics.”
Jerome Rothenberg

Both volumes of Flux, Clot & Froth are now available for a combined price of $40.00, a 20% discount from regular retail price of $50.00. As part of this offer, there will be free shipping & handling (a $7.50 value) within the United States. To order, send a check made out to "Meritage Press" to

E. Tabios / Meritage
256 North Fork Crystal Springs Rd.
St. Helena, CA 94574

This SPECIAL RELEASE OFFER will be good through Jan. 15, 2011.

For more information, including on international orders:

Monday, December 6, 2010

STUDENT PROTESTS: Sinister New Element

Police believe a new and sinister protest movement has aligned itself with student demonstrators. Senior officers believe that the inscrutable, white-clad protesters who have been sighted in every British city prove that greater surveillance powers are required by police. A Home Office spokesperson said "they have appeared in large numbers in the last ten days; their presence is provocative, and they have an uncanny ability to melt into the background when the things get heated. We have not yet ruled out possible links to Al Qaida..." (contd. p94)

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Roy Fisher in Nottingham

The Flying Goose is a small venue, but even so, to fill it to the point of having to turn people away - which happened last Thursday, is quite something. The draw was veteran British poet Roy Fisher, thought his co-reader, Matthew Welton helped by pulling in students from his creative writing course.

First, Matthew Welton. I don't like to crudely categorize Welton's poetry - but I will, for those who've never encountered it; it's influenced by Wallace Stevens and by process-driven poetry such as that of John Cage, and it combines lyricism with text-generation techniques; a lot of his poetic constructions are based on numbering systems. Anyway, it's very good. Welton read his entire set from memory; an impressive feat, though puzzling to me, as the gesture seemed at odds with the post-modern thrust of his poetry. On the other hand, it did add a performative aspect to the reading. Is reading from memory a conservative, anti-radical act? Is it denying Derridian notions of the primacy of writing? Interesting questions which probably should be discussed here, if one had time...

All but two of the poems read by Roy Fisher were from his new collection 'Standard Midland'; this was nice to see, as, aged eighty, he's not looking back, but concerned with the here and now. He opened with the very funny poem 'The Poetry Promise' - a send-up of the quality assurance platitudes we see everywhere. Fisher may be a little frail now, physically, but his mind is as sharp as ever; a number of other poems were dryly humorous; but not all: he read some poems made out of the close observation and description for which he's admired. August Kleinzhaler has described Fisher's poetry as 'devoid of charm' - as Kleinzhaler is a big admirer of Fisher, I take this to mean that he likes the way Fisher never uses ornamentation, doesn't employ verbal effects for their own sake. During the reading I was struck by how direct Fisher's language is, and how - no matter how abstruse it gets - is always based on language you would hear in everyday conversation. When Matt Merritt says that Fisher is 'willing to use whatever subject matter, and whatever tools, come to hand', I think he's right in the sense that Fisher doesn't strive for anything beyond what's needed to do the job; and his poetry therefore is about as grounded in the real world as poetry can be.

My review of Roy Fisher's Collected is on Litter, and there's a good article on him by Robert Sheppard here.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

The Beeston International Poetry Festival was a big success in the sense that the - admittedly small - venues filled up nicely, and in one case sold out. We heard poetry read in French, Greek and Spanish, and saw poets from half-a-dozen countries. The organiser was John Lucas; though John was ably assisted by David Belbin, Sue Dymoke and Sam Ward, John is the man who's able to conjure a poetry festival out of nothing and make it work. It's amazing what you can do without the internet; John doesn't use a computer, and wouldn't know how to send an email.

Last Tuesday saw a Leafe Press event; Leafe poets CJ Allen and Ernesto Priego read along with Faber poet and scholar Paul Binding. CJ (Clive) Allen has developed into a reader with a certain gravitas that doesn't at all distract from the humour of his poems, but does foreground their more serious concerns. Clive read from his Leafe selected poems, as well as work from the excellent collection 'Lemonade'. Ernesto Priego read poems from his three collections mainly in the English they were written in, though he did read one poem in Spanish. Ernesto also talked about the influence of Octavio Paz on contemporary Mexican poets. The fact that we sold a number of copies of Ernesto's book, and had some positive comments about the reading attested to its success. Paul Binding, multi-lingual scholar, expert on - among other things - Scandinavian literature, and Faber-published poet, gave an excellent reading; sadly, none of Paul's books were for sale - his Shoestring collection having sold out. Though he has an awe-inspiring CV, Paul proved to be very approachable and friendly. I'm currently reading his memoir of post-war Germany, St. Martin's Ride, which I'd recommend to anyone who wants to understand contemporary Europe, and Germany in particular.

End of Report. Next, I'll report on the Roy Fisher / Matthew Welton reading, but I can say that it ended the festival on a high.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

This week saw two excellent readings at the Flying Goose. On Tuesday, Deborah Tyler-Bennett, Andy Croft, N.S. Thompson, Mike Wilson gave an entertaining reading, with plenty of good left-wing politics. Thursday was even better, and featured Alan Dent, Vassilis Pavlides and Andrew Sant. Pavlides was an excellent reader, and read poems by Cavafy and Seferis with the opening lines in Greek. Dent read poems in French by Aragon, Prevert and Francis Combes, then read in English for his second set. Poltics was well in evidence here too, with Pavlides discussing Greek politics and its effects on poetry, and Dent talking about communism and French poetry. Australian Andrew Sant was witty and engaging, and all-in-all, it was a great evening.

There is a Facebook page for the festival, it's here.

And for the full programme, click here.

Next up, C.J. Allen, Ernesto Priego and Paul Binding. Tuesday 26th October, 7pm. Flying Goose Cafe, 33 Chilwell Road, Beeston, Nottingham, NG9 1EH.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

They say you can't judge a book by its cover...

...but can you judge it by its title? This question occurred to me at a reading in a library in Nottingham at the weekend. On a table arrayed with poetry books - presumably for National Poetry Day - I spotted "Taking off Emily Dickinson's Clothes" by the feted American poet Billy Collins. Would the contents of the book be as crass as the title, I wondered? I'll never know, as I've read enough of Collins' poetry not to want to subject myself to any more, but I could guess. I can understand why Collins would wish to associate himself with Dickinson, as her poetry scaled the very summit of poetic achievement, while his saunters around the base of the foothills glancing longingly but ironically at the heights. The title of the book foregrounds Dickinson's assumed lack of sexual experience, contrasting it with Collins' own (presumably) ampler knowledge, and implying that what that buttoned-up spinster needed was a man like him to... it also implies that Collins is generally more sophisticated, not just sexually, but poetically and personally. I reflected, on the bus home after the reading, that although the title of Collins' book is smart-arse, supercilious, sexist and presumptious, it's main attribute is in fact vanity. I further mused on the notion that there is perhaps no person in the world as vain as a writer who, at some profound level, is compensating for the yawning gap between his public recognition and his actual achievement; the opposite in fact, of what Dickinson experienced during her lifetime.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

This blog has been scant lately, as I've been working hard at earning a living, and travelling around - London, Prague, Bracknell. Last Thursday I met Ernesto Priego for the first time in London. We found a pub which I swear I haven't been in for about 20 years - 'The Hole in the Wall' under the railway arches opposite Waterloo station. I'm glad to report it hasn't changed a bit, and still serves Young's bitter. Not only is Ernesto an erudite scholar and a fine multi-lingual poet, but - even more impressively - he's also a member of the Campaign for Real Ale. I hope to introduce him to the delights of the Castle Rock brewery when he visits Nottingham in a couple of weeks.

The Present Day - Ernesto Priego

Click here for details of how to acquire this book.

This is a sequence of poems on contemporary Mexico through the voice of a Mexican living abroad, a commentary on Octavio Paz's chapter 'The Present Day' in 'The Labyrinth of Solitude' and a meditation on the passage of time and the ways in which it's viewed differently in different cultures. The writer lives in London, and the poems reference his beloved English literature, including Dickens and Shakespeare. Don't expect an easy read - it requires work from the reader - but equally, don't expect impenetrability; Priego writes an English - though some short passages are in Spanish - of remarkable simplicity and clarity.

Here's what Ed Baker had to say on reading this book:

"I wasn't sure what to expect especially after first (re) reading Paz's
The Present Day chapter out of The Labyrinth of Solitude...
thought/feared, maybe, trickery and gimmickery

was pleasantly surprised... Ernesto's humanity shines through

I appreciate the form that these pieces have taken and the absence of
(most) punctuation

he lets the lines do their own "punctuate" breathing where 'things'
work ... they REALLY do their job

I like his method.... needs be that a few of the pieces have several
images competing unnecessarily nothing major to detract fr4om his thrusts


I ain't no critic.... the entire book held my attention... and I read
it straight through without a single pee-break!

I also think that production-wise this is a clean presentation/print
job. Good type-font selection..."

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Beeston International Poetry Festival.

Held in Beeston, Nottingham, October 16th-28th 2010. Poets from Africa, Asia, Australia, France, Germany, Greece, Italy, Mexico, the USA and Leeds.

Saturday 16th October.
Opening Party with music from the Tony Elwell Trio and readings by Derrick Buttress, Sue Dymoke and Sarah Jackson. nibbles and paybar. The Commercial Inn, Wollaton Road. £6.00

Monday 18th October.
Sheila Smith will be launching her new collection, Woman Surprised by a Young Boy. 1-2pm
Cavendish Lodge in Devonshire Avenue.

Tuesday 19th October.
Smokestack Press present Andy Croft, N.S. Johnson, Deborah Tyler-Bennett and Mike Wilson. 7-9pm, Flying Goose cafe, 33 Chilwell Road.

Wednesday 19th October.
Kathryn Daszkiewicz and Cathy Grindrod. 7-8.30pm, Beeston Library.

Thursday 21st October.
John Lucas and Sam Ward read poems by John Clare and other poets in the Clare tradition. 1-2pm Artworks, 86-88 Chilwell Road.

Thursday 21st October.
Alan Dent, Vassilis Pavlides and Andrew Sant. 7-9pm Flying Goose cafe, 33 Chilwell Road.

Saturday 23rd October and Sunday 24th October. Literary Events at Nottingham Contemporary. Free to all. See LeftLion or NC for details.

Monday 25th October.
Rosie Garner. 1--2pm, Cavendish Lodge in Devonshire Avenue.

Tuesday 26th October.
Leafe Press presents C.J. Allen, Paul Binding and Ernesto Priego. 7-9pm Flying Goose cafe, 33 Chilwell Road. !!!!!!!!

Wednesday 27th October.
Michael Schmidt and Gregory Woods, 7-8.30pm, Beeston Library.

Thursday 28th October.
Mahendra Solanki. 1-2pm Artworks, 86-88 Chilwell Road.

Thursday 28th October.
Roy Fisher and Matthew Welton. 7-9pm Flying Goose cafe, 33 Chilwell Road. !!!!!!!!

FREE ADMISSION to all lunchtime readings at Bookwise and Artworks
£3.00 ADMISSION to all evening events at Beeston Library and Flying Goose cafe

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Roy Fisher in Nottingham 28.10

I've been reading Roy Fisher's new collection, and very much enjoying it. Fisher is a master, and, at
eighty, writes like someone who has nothing to prove. There is some moving poetry in this collection; there's also the trademark wit, and the spare, undorned language Fisher is famous for. You get a feeling that he enjoys practising his craft.

So, I was excited to learn that Fisher is reading at my local poetry cafe; the Flying Goose, in Beeston, on 28th October. The reading is part of a two-week Beeston International Poetry Festival, organised single-handedly by the redoubtable John Lucas. I'll post more details on the festival shortly, but one of the events is a launch of Ernesto Priego's new Leafe Press book, combined with a reading by Leafe poet C.J. Allen.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

With the demise of the traditional pub, the cafe seems set to take over as a venue for communal activities, a more hopeful alternative to the ubiquitous bouncers-and-shots production-line bars that fill our city centres. The Jam Cafe in Nottingham's arty Hockley District is a great venue, and tonight it hosted an evening of poetry and a little music - see the Nottingham Shindig post below. It was nice to meet Simon Turner at last, and to get a copy of his new book (more on that later), and to hear some well-delivered readings. There was a book stall run by Nine Arches Press, and even the open-mic readings were of a reasonable standard. The atmosphere was relaxed and friendly. I hope readings continue there, and I'll certainly be back. My only criticism of the event was that it was a little too long - a consequence, I guess, of combining open-mic with a formal reading - which meant I had to dash off early without saying goodbye.

Friday, September 10, 2010

the straw which comes apart

by Ivano Fermini.

An excellent publication from Oystercatcher Press. This pamphlet contains translations of poems by Italian poet Ivano Fermini (1948-2004) by poet and translator Ian Seed. The text includes the Italian original, which must have been tricky to translate, requiring a good knowledge of the language. At first reading, the poems are baffling, but appealing. Fermini reads like Tom Raworth, but with less Pop Art and more surrealism. However, there are, as Ian Seed pointed out to me, connections within the poems which reveal themselves gadually. Here's the poem 'carnival':


on the horizon not even
was I mute but you held the pearls
and they gather around a thunderclap
the small eagle will carry the rags
I haven't added up the waves
only fire with eyes the headstones
passing among men
the tears with a great rise and fall


I feel nothing but minced
air and strawberries
inside my eye
the confusion of furrows
packed with iron
up to the cone which hangs them
even we didn't trample on
the smile
which at the swing of the pendulum
I pulled back into my belly
a land of dead
carefully begins and it's fire
more than - the hands having been torn from the body -
I don't know the clouds

Ian Seed says:

"in 'carneval' the connections [are], by association, between 'pearls', 'sea/waves', 'headstones' ( perhaps the towering waves?) and 'the tears with a great rise and fall'.
I was so fascinated by Fermini because of the mixture of intense lyricism and disturbing qualities, and all the tenous connections. "

Interesting work, and well worth a visit to Oystercatcher's site (and a click on the Payal buttons).

Nottingham Shindig!

Nine Arches Press & LeftLion Magazine present...

Sunday 19th September 2010 from 7pm onwards
At Jam Cafe, 12 Heathcote Street, Nottingham NG1 3AA

FREE ENTRY. Sign up for open mic on the door.

The first ever Nottingham Shindig! - join Nine Arches Press for open mic readings and special guest poets Wayne Burrows, Roz Goddard, Éireann Lorsung and Simon Turner.

Wayne Burrows' first collection Marginalia appeared from Peterloo Poets in 2001, and his second appeared from Shoestring Press in 2009. His work has featured in the British Council anthologies New Writing 12 and NW15, as well as the Forward anthology for 2002 and many magazines and anthologies. He is editor of Staple magazine and currently lives in Nottingham.

Roz Goddard’s fourth poetry collection is The Sopranos Sonnets & Other Poems. She is a former poet-laureate for Birmingham. Her poetry has been broadcast on BBC Radio 3 and 4. She runs writing workshops and courses, including for the Arvon Foundation and mentors individual writers. She is currently studying for an MPhil in writing at Glamorgan University.

Éireann Lorsung is the author of Music for Landing Planes By (Milkweed Editions, 2007) and Projet Linguistique (forthcoming, Milkweed Editions). Her poems appear widely in magazines and in two recent anthologies. Prior to coming to the UK, she lived in Italy and France. She is the organiser of the Nottingham Poetry Series.

Simon Turner was born in Birmingham in 1981 and his first collection, You Are Here, was published in 2007. Difficult Second Album is his second collection, launched by Nine Arches Press in April 2010. With George Ttoouli, he co-edits Gists and Piths, a blog dedicated to the publication and discussion of contemporary poetry. He lives and works in Warwickshire.

Friday, September 3, 2010

I've been inolved with an interesting discussion on Steven Waling's blog, Brando's Hat, which started on Todd Swift's blog, specifically, on his post on Seamus Heaney, quoted below. Waling asked the question "[why do] different people ... appreciate different things". The discussion then revolved around why some people prefer innovative poetry, others more conventional poetry. I was accused by Steven of thinking myself "better than" readers of mainstream poetry because I said that enjoyment of innovative / experimental / avant-garde type poetry was a sign of increasing reader sophistication. I stand by that position, and I don't think it implies a value-judgement. I argued that innovative poetry vs conventional poetry was analagous to modern jazz vs standard pop music. some things are an acquired taste, and to acquire a taste is to become more sophisticated. An appreciation of standard pop music doesn't need to be acquired, as it's the dominant form in our culture; we absorb it from an early age. For the same reason, one could argue, an appreciation of more conventional poetry, such as Heaney's also doesn't need to be acquired; that doesn't mean it's better or worse, just that it's the dominant form. I don't know whether my argument is right, but it's an interesting line of thought. Maybe the best way to appreciate any poetry is to approach it with a completely open mind. That's difficult to do, of course, but we need to try. Maybe afficionados of innovative poetry (or, in Andrew Duncan's phrase, "art poetry") - and I include myself here - may have to re-acquire the taste for more conventional poetry to perhaps discover insights they didn't realise were there.

Monday, August 30, 2010

"They resonate with their intent. They telegraph their import, even, paradoxically, their modesty. How many poems about Virgil, about the underworld, do we need? How many carts, wagons, bails of hay, can any one reader stomach?"

Todd Swift on Seamus Heaney. Read the full post here.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

New from Leafe Press


John Bloomberg-Rissman

This is an adaptation of a manual from the State of California's Department of Correction and Rehabilitations. It outlines the officially-sanctioned techniques and standards for carrying out a state execution.

In the words of the author:

"The above is the cover of a brand new publication, which clearly puts paid to the Conceptual Writing/Flarf debate of this past spring, as well as the eternal ephemeral distinction between SoQ and Post-Avant. Not to mention that people can no longer say that philosophy missed its chance.

It IS NOW available from Laughing / Ouch / Cube / Publications, an occasional imprint of Leafe Press. You'll learn more about some crucial stuff, like how we kill people here in Cali, than you ever wanted to know, which is good for you, like some kind of vitamin. You'll be highly amused. "

R.I.P. Edwin Morgan

A poet I admired for his variety, for his lack of regard for finding his own "voice" and for the sense that the writing of poems was, for him, a making of something; a craft.

Blue Toboggans

scarves for the apaches
wet gloves for snowballs
whoops for white clouds
and blue toboggans

stamping for a tingle
lamps for four o'clock
steamed glass for buses
and blue toboggans

tuning-forks for Wenceslas
white fogs for Prestwick
mince pies for eventide
and blue toboggans

TV for the lonely
a long haul to Heaven
a shilling for the gas
and blue toboggans

Monday, August 9, 2010

Thou Shalt Not Comment

Ron Silliman is no longer allowing comments on his blog. Before I go on, I must say that I think Silliman's blog is a superb resource; a fantastic list of links almost daily, and Ron's own posts always have something interesting and insightful to say. I like his poetry too.

As for the banning of comments, of course, Silliman has has every right to do what he's done; however, it does change the nature of his widely influential site from a democratic forum to a cultural authority and arbiter of taste. In fact, I've always understood Silliman (the public figure that is - nothing personal) to be an old-fashioned American patrician figure, despite his counter-culture credentials. I guess it's the old story of poacher-turned-gamekeeper. My view of Silliman changed after his response to the brilliant spoof anthology containing the names of 4,000 avant-garde poets over machine-generated poems. Silliman publicly threatened the college-students who produced this with financially ruinous legal action, to protect his 'brand': 'Ron silliman the author'; the very notion that LANGUAGE poetry has sought to undermine. They shalt not take his name in vain!

The removal of comments from Silliman's site is in response to offensive comments about the work of some younger poets he's promoting. Destructive commentators are a problem on public forums, I agree; but it is possible to edit the worst ones out, which Silliman has told us he's done in the past. Personally, I'd prefer to risk offense than shut down critical comment altogether.

Joseph Massey, one of the poets who's flaming by commenters led to the decision, seems to have reacted very sensibly to situation, witness his comment on poet Jessica Smith's blog:

"While the comments — most of them — are irritating, they wouldn’t — couldn’t! — stop me from writing. The work is the work and has nothing at all to do with its reception. The noise is disruptive but pretty transparent — and I’m already over it."

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Just back from a week languishing on the shores of the Adriatic, Croatia to be exact. Sun, sea and sand (or at least rocks). One of the books I took with me was "War Music" Christopher Logue's celebrated versions of the Iliad. This has been reviewed on Litter. Logue makes skillful use of anachronisms to situate the concerns of the protagonists in a zone which encompasses our own concerns (as does Kelvin Corcoran's version of the Paris / Helen story, as noted here). Logue's verse isn't particularly innovative, being mainly a series of variations on iambic pentameter, but he has a good ear, and the immediacy of the poem, and it's pacing, is just right. Logue provides a sonorous rhetoric for his bombastic boy's-own heroes which still manages to convince as realistic speech:

My wedded Illians -
Cool Dardan North, dear Ida, dearest south;
And you who come from Lycia and Cyprus:
I reign with understanding for you all.
Trojan Antenor, being eldest, shall speak first.
Our question is:
How can we win this war?

'And I reply', Antenor says,
'How can we lose it?'

This translation is one for our times; the Trojan Anchises' description of the Greeks could be applied to certain parties on the contemporary scene, though I leave you, dear reader, to choose which ones:

They are a swarm of lawless malcontents
Hatched from the slag we cast five centuries ago,
Tied to the whim of their disgusting gods,
Knowing no quietude until they take
All quiet from the world. Ambitious, driven, thieves.
Our speech like footless crockery in their mouths.
Their way of life, perpetual war.
Inspired by violence, compelled by hate,
Peace is a crime to them, and offers of diplomacy
Like giving strawberries to a dog.

Logue is in his mid-eighties now, and it looks unlikely that he'll translate the whole poem; but it seems appropriate for our post-modern condition that our age's translation of Homer should be fragmentary and incomplete.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Kelvin Corcoran has started a new press (or, rather, revived an old one): his Gratton Street Irregulars intends to specialise in pamphlets, with current ones by Nathan Thompson (lately of Litter) and Ralph Hawkins.

Click here.

I also hadn't realised that Andrew Duncan now has a blog - using it to continue his Angel Exhaust musings - full of articles and reviews written with his usual panache. Click here.

Friday, July 23, 2010

There's an excellent review of Abdellatif Laâbi's "Fragments of a forgotten genesis" on Shadowtrain. Poet and translator Ian Seed does the book justice. Thank you Ian.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Salt in the Wound

Salt Publishing is in trouble again, and has renewed its "just one book" campaign; I’ll be buying a book or two to support it, as its back catalogue is excellent and I'd hate to see it all disappear. But I don’t feel hopeful. Salt has always been stridently pro-market and has enthusiastically embraced the corporate model; but asking people to invest in your business as an altruistic act requires something different; a writers' / readers' cooperative perhaps, or even just a supporter / subscriber arrangement like the one Reality Street uses.

I hope Salt survives, but I believe that the corporate model they’ve adopted doesn't work for poetry; accountants don't like it, which is why OUP jettisoned its poetry list. The publishing of contemporary poetry is not viable without subsidy, whether it be public or private. As a business, you produce products that people want (or can be persuaded to want) or you go bust; you need products that sell in bulk, and since the end of the UK’s Net Book Agreement (whereby book prices were fixed, enabling publishers to subsidize work that sold in small quantities), there’s been no place for poetry (and much else) in commercial publishing. How long would Bloodaxe and Carcanet survive if their public funding was removed? Not long.

As our millionaire rulers roll back public spending and the Big Society has us all working longer hours for less pay and fewer rights, Salt won't be the only poetry publisher to suffer. Maybe the only publishers left will be self-funded micro-publishers. In the UK brewing industry craft-beer is now almost exclusively produced by micro breweries. In a sense, that means the big boys have won, but at least you CAN still buy craft-brewed beer. The same might happen in the poetry world. We can only hope that the micro-publishers keep poetry-publishing alive until (if?) times get better.

Monday, July 19, 2010

I've been reading the poetry of Larry Eigner this last week or two. John BR kindly sent me two of his books: a Selected Poems, and "readiness/enough/depends/on" his last collection published shortly before his death. John has just bought Eigner's monumental Collected Poems, which reproduces his original typescripts, which is why he could send me books. I don't know why I haven't paid Eigner much attention in the past; I've been missing out in a big way. I started reading these poems aware of Eigner's disability, but I soon forgot that, as the poems are universal. Eigner reminds me of Joanne Kyger; the latter's Buddhist acts of attention being mirrored in Eigner's diary-entry observations of exactly what he sees. But more than that, both poetries give us poems of thought, that is, the poems that re-enact a thought process, mirroring the way the process evolves and simulating the spontaneous associations of thought. I have found some these poems profoundly moving. But they're also intellectually exciting. Eigner has been a huge influence on the LANGUAGE poets, I guess due to his foregrounding of the text, and isolation of words as units partly due to their placement on the page. He also pursues the no-ideas-but-in-things" notion to the nth degree.

I suppose Eigner's disability provided a constraining mechanism in the same way that a strict poetic form does; the sparseness of his text necessitated by the slow and painstaking way in which they were put onto paper. It’s interesting that in one sense Eigner’s work is very-modern(ist), in another his poems are tied to their mode of production, in which the typed and scrawled page is as much part of the work as the scroll in a classical Chinese picture-poem.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Exciting times at Leafe Press! John and I have been working hard to bring a multi-national cast of poets to your attention. We have books forthcoming from the following poets:

Ed Baker - Stone Girl (a 500-page poem)
Ernesto Priego - The Present Day
Tom Beckett - Exposures

Add to this a new book from Jean Vengua and Alistair Noon's translation of Mandelstam; not to mention our very own John BR...

This is a lot of work for two part-time enthusiasts, so this list will take us well into 2011.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Check out Litter for new work by Jane Commane, Nathan Thompson and Kelvin Corcoran. Soon to be followed by more, including Mexican Ernesto Priego and New Zealander Ian Britton.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

I've just purchased the latest book from Skysill Press, this time "Gospel Earth" by North Carolina poet Jeffery Beam. I bought the hardback edition, beautifully put together and with nice cover artwork (by Laura Frankstone). Like the previous Skysill book from Jess Mynes, this one is also driven by "the urge to produce the irreducible poem". Many of the poems are one-liners - a form Beam has made a study of:


Another field cloudless sky becomes a revolution.

Many of the others are short haiku-like poems. but these are no mere syllable-counting metaphors, but poems of depth and a certain mystery:


Bees sense crowshadow across dry pavement

I am pilgrim on this vegetable earth

I like that. I don't really know why; I just like it. A lot of the poems strike me in that way - "irreducible", I suppose; concentrated, and often needing to be re-read and slowly absorbed by the reader, like a mini-meditation, a Zen Koan:


What whispered place from visions spring always springness

Some of this poetry, especially a sequence called "The Green Man", reminds me of Ronald Johnston. But in fact, the influences are wide and fully acknowledged; Beam cites

"the spiritual literature and folk traditions of the East & West - Japan, India, China, Korea & Malaysia - the Dao, the I Ching, canny Biblical fragments, the Desert Hermits, Gnosticism, Sufism, Ancient Greek poets & philosophers, the French and Spanish Surrealists, the Symbolists & Decadents, Shape Note Songs,bluegrass & African-American gospel music, women's poetry throughout time, Native American poetry, & the poets of the contemporary small poem movement in America & Britain - particularly..."

Beam then goes on to name ninety-five poets across cultures and centuries. The first section of the book, "A Gathering of Voices" is a sequence of short quotes from some of those poets. I like this inclusiveness and sense that the poetry is part of a continuum spanning various human civilizations.

I can't do this book justice in a brief blog post, and I hope to review it properly at some point (promises, promises) but for now I'd just say it's recommended.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

The previous post is in response to similar pictures at the blogs of John Bloomberg-Rissman and Richard Lopez. We have a household rule that my poetry books are restricted to one room, and we operate a strict one-in, one-out policy for books (though I often flout it). In the shelves on the left in the top photo, the books are two rows deep, which makes it rather difficult to find stuff. Note the family photos and other objects on the shelves: my books don't have any privileges (like shelves to themselves).

My Bookshelves

My wife and I went to the cinema last night to see The Four Lions. I'd recommend the film, it's funny, though quite disturbing after things take a sinister turn half-way through. The film supports the view that many people in this country subscribe to: that the British-born terrorists of July 7th 2005 and other attacks, were not part of some disciplined, global terrorist network, but were in fact inadequate, misguided buffoons, susceptible to propaganda, and unaware of the enormity of their actions.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

A Delightful Old Tradition

Once upon a time, British poets were chaps who'd 'come down' from Oxford and gone straight to their Oxbridge contacts in London to arrange to have their slim collections published. These collections were then read by the vulgar masses (or was it, rather, by other Oxbridge graduates?). Sadly, those days are over. Its interesting though, to know that the old ways still persist in some of Britain's quainter tourist enclaves: that there's still a post called "Oxford Professor of Poetry", and that it has just been filled by a certain Professor Geoffrey Hill (78). In continuation of a delightful old tradition, Prof Hill is paid a 'stipend' to deliver a 'Creweian Oration' every other year, and to speak in a sonorous voice in an oak-panelled 'lecture theatre' once a term.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Good new poem from C.J.Allen published online by Red Ceilings. Click on the cover image above to see it.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Belated report on Drew Milne's reading

Tuesday 18th May
Centre for Creative Collaboration, Acton Street WC1

Milne read from three groups of texts, the first being architectural in both layout on the page, and in content (i.e. they were 'about' architecture) and which appeared to be constructed from other texts. He preceded the reading by playing a recording of well-known architects discussing their work; the recording was spliced to make a sort of audio-collage. This was very effective, and set the tone for the rest of the performance (which is what it was, rather than a 'reading'): no lyric 'I' in sight, constructed texts and a reader who sat throughout and dispensed with anecdotes and small talk. The effect was very different to most poetry readings I attend, which are usually conventional, and in which the poet is expected to put his or her personality on show. With Milne, you were given a sense of poetry as a medium made from existing materials, and as something which is an "addition to the world" (to quote WS Graham) rather than a comment on it or a story about it. It struck me that Cambridge-style poetry like Milne's, or J.H. Prynne's would be better appreciated by most people as a performance-text, rather than something you would sit down and read in the conventional sense.
A new book from Martin Stannard is available here:

This is early poetry repackaged. I have the original in an artist's large format book with illustrations etc. You don't really see that sort of thing anymore, what with standardised technology.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

My daughter introduced me to the music of the English guitarist John Renbourn, whose work she'd been studying for her degree; last night we went to see him perform in a small bar in Nottingham. Renbourn is sixty-six years old, but that doesn't seem to have dimmed his virtuosity, or his friendliness and good humour. It was a privilege to be in such intimate surroundings - around forty or fifty people - and to hear over two hours of spellbinding music from just one man and his acoustic guitar. He played everything from delta blues to ragtime to Celtic folk, and included the three old English songs shown in this clip:

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

This looks good, and it includes Leafe poet CJ Allen, and Litter poet Mark Goodwin:

Companion Stones: an exhibition of 12 sculptures designed by poets and artists of the Peak District, each bearing directions to the future.

The exhibition continues until mid July when the sculptures will be transferred to the moorlands, each as a companion to a Derbyshire Guide Stoop.


Monday, May 24, 2010

I was sorry to read that Peter Philpott is planning to run down Great Works; that magazine has been a real encouragement to me and to many others. But, of course, like a lot of presses and magazines, it's run by one person, and dependent on their energy and enthusiasms. Philpott comments that:

"contemporary avant-gardish poetry as a social/cultural institution has evolved into something that is best dealt with by younger, hipper, cooler etc etc persons and coteries (eg Openned), especially with access to academic networks and status. A 1990s hobbyist accumulation of homepages will probably put people off rather than involve them."

He may be right, but I think he's being very hard on himself and his sites; his is a excellent project - a great place for anyone who wants to gain access to innovative poetry. His statement also rather contradicts what he said recently about how poetry needs to to have a life outside of Academia. But maybe he's just accepting the inevitable. It's certainly true though newer ventures like Openned, Intercapillary Space and Gists and Piths generally involve reading series, and are collaborative in nature, which is encouraging, as I think the whole of contemporary, innovative poetry, is one big collaborative project.

Read Philpott's full blog post here.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Peter Gizzi reading in London

Tuesday 18th May
Centre for Creative Collaboration, Acton Street WC1

The space was nice: white-walled, with art installations around the place. Peter Gizzi read from "Some Values of Landscape and Weather" - I think most of the pieces were from this book, and I don't believe he read from anything earlier - "The Outernationale" and some new work. Both the readers were allowed a good length of time; I think it was around 40 minutes each - so that I had to dash off at the end and catch my train.

Like his work generally, his reading was balanced between a knowing, modernist approach, and an acknowledgment of the audience, and of the personal element of his work. He was an engaging, slightly nervous reader (which improved the delivery) and he gave a little background to some of the poems, which was useful. I learned, for example, that "Overtakelessness" - the title of one of his poems - is a term coined by Emily Dickinson to denote a quality that deceased people have, and that the title of a poem in the "A History of the Lyric" sequence, "Objects in the mirror are closer than the appear" is the text on a sticker found next to the wing mirror in American cars. I also learned that the poem "A Panic That Can Still Come Upon Me" was inspired by the work of the artist Jess Collins - the long-term partner of poet Robert Duncan. Collins used to buy amateur paintings and "improve" them, and Gizzi commented (tongue-in-cheek I believe) that the text he was improving in this poem was "The New York Times".

Gizzi read the whole of several long sequences, including the following:

Homer's Anger
A Panic That Can Still Come Upon Me
A History of the Lyric

I found that Gizzi's American accent gave a different rhythm to the poems from the one I'd assigned when reading them myself. In fact, I mistakenly thought of American accents generally as 'flat' compared to British, giving a more quantitative measure to poetry; but Gizzi's reading wasn't like that at all, with stresses and rising and falling intonation very much in evidence.

It was nice also to find that Gizzi was friendly and approachable, and generally seemed like a nice guy. One of the good things about being a poetry buff is that the artists you admire aren't on some distant stage or surrounded by security; you can just introduce yourself to them and start chatting.

Please note: Drew Milne, the Cambridge-based poet read with Gizzi; he gave an excellent performance which I'll write about separately.

Monday, May 17, 2010

The poem below came out of my visits to the Joseph Wright paintings in Derby; the municipal art gallery in Derby has around twenty-five paintings by the artist, including the one shown below. They must be worth millions. The gallery doesn't even have its own entrance; you get in round the back of the library. I go occasionally during my lunch-break, and I'm often the only person in the room; like a private viewing, which is quite a privilege.

Joseph Wright

A lamp in a darkened room
picks out a folk memory

I know where the the mills were,
and the ironworks, the union banners,
a river that runs underground now,
the labour of children


Tax concessions and flexible labour
open up this town. The world is waiting,
crowded into Cromford Mills:
building workers from Poland and Croatia,
maids from the Philippines, competitive rates of pay.

Open up this town.

Arkwright, trailing smoke and sparks,
steps into Arcadia with engines and workers,
mills and ironworks, incidental light


Mechanics of perception,
a white canvas, ghosts
stalking the geographical wonders,
the great coaching inns fetching trade
along the routes of industry,
a Grand National Trades Union
a layered perception flowing underground,
science of hope, mechanics
of a new society.

Somewhere, the notion of a better life,
a river, a town, its ghosts,
a geography of common wealth,
if we could only find it.

I had a notion that
layered experience lay in this town,
lamp in a darkened room.


A notion of light
and mechanics of perception,
layered geography, ghosts
of past masters, open up a route
through the Derwent valley,
past the mills and forges
to landscapes of feeling,
alchemy of craft and enlightened views.
Under a dark outcrop an earthstopper
works by lamplight.
In the library of a great house
a philosopher is giving "that Lecture on the Orrery
in which a lamp is put in place of the Sun"
to work the motion
of light, swaying
through the minds of the people,
and gravity, in perfect balance,
energy, to pump the mills,
coal, smoke, sparks
strange machines in the lit air
of Derby's workshops, in place
of handwork “these cotton mills, seven
stories high and filled
with inhabitants, remind me
of a first-rate man of war,
and when they are lighted up
on a dark night look
most luminously beautiful”


Cars cross St. Mary's Bridge, office workers
lie in the sun at lunchtime, the mill
inhabits a silence, two girls
are dazzled by an ingot's glow

The crags of Derbyshire darken,
landowners pose for portraits, and the friends
of a young artist, his writers and poets,
are young still, in perfect balance,
with gravity, mechanics, the construction
of strange machines
out of canvas and painted light,
most luminously beautiful,
first-rate, and filled with inhabitants.


(Joseph Wright of Derby, lived 1734-1797)

Copyright © Alan Baker

Sunday, May 16, 2010

I've decided to head down to London on Tuesday for the Peter Gizzi reading. I'll arrive at St Pancras around 3.30pm and intend to allow myself the luxury of an hour or two in the British Library. Then the reading, followed by the 9.30pm train arriving home somtime after midnight. I'm sure it'll be worth it; I've been re-reading Gizzi's collection "The Outernationale" this weekend, and it's wonderful poetry. Why the poetry itself isn't sufficient, and I need to see the man in the flesh I don't know. But why not? He's over here for a limited time, and you could do worse with your time than seek out the best poets of the day.

I'll give a full report.

Friday, May 14, 2010

The fact that a Lib-Dem/Conservative coalition has given us the most left-wing government we could possibly have had out of the recent General Election shows what the Labour Party has become. We had a choice between conservative, neo-conservative (New Labour) and centrist. At least the worst excesses of a Tory government may be offset by Lib-Dem protests.And there are other Reasons To Be Cheerful:

The coalition agreement promises, among other things, to:

  • Scrap the ID card scheme, the National Identity register, the next generation of biometric passports and the ContactPoint Database.
  • End the detention of children for immigration purposes.
  • End the retention of innocent people’s DNA on the DNA database.
  • Defend trial by jury.

Maybe we won't turn into a Police State after all, which we surely would have done had New Labour won a majority.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

"Now look here Clegg, I'll want my room cleaned, my shoes polished and the toothpaste squeezed onto my brush in the mornings...."

An old British tradition: Fagging

Good new work from Ed Baker, in a publication by by The Red Ceiling Press in New Mills, Derbyshire. Just down the road from here. It's called DE:SIRE

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

R.I.P David Chaloner


we have lost our sense of ease and are gaining
a tact that is almost becoming

they employ restraint against the trick of illusion
releasing "it wasn't meant to end this way" and
"the entire situation has become odious"

we are quite calm and working well within our limits
which have no distinction there is much to be done
and although we don't know where we are we make a place

David Chaloner, 1944-2010

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Peter Gizzi

US poet Peter Gizzi is over in the UK, reading at the following venues. If I'd known earlier I would have tried to get to Monday's reading at Warwick. As it is, I may try to make the London one.

University of Warwick
Monday 10 May @ 3 p.m. with Michael Heller
WHERE: The Chaplaincy

University of East Anglia
Wednesday 12 May @ 7 p.m.
WHERE: Arts 2.51

Cambridge University
Friday 14 May @ 8 p.m. with Jimmy Cummins
WHERE: Bowett Room, Queens’ College

University of Sussex
Monday 17 May @ 5 p.m.
WHERE: Arts A 155

Royal Holloway Poetics Research Group

Tuesday 18 May @ 7 p.m. with Drew Milne
WHERE: Centre for Creative Collaboration, 16 Acton Street, London WC1

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

I've been browsing Ernesto Priego's manuscript "The Present Day"for his forthcoming Leafe Press publication; the book is a critical response to a chapter of that title in Octavio Paz's classic book on Mexican culture "The Labyrinth of Solitude". I'm looking forward to Ernesto's book being in print with us, and reading the ms makes me wish I had more time to devote to publishing and promoting good poetry. Ernesto's poem is amix of politics, poetry and philosophy in unadorned language - mainly English, some Spanish:

Here & now
I was going

to write
a poem.

I needed
as always

an image.

what I want

is copyrighted.

Ernesto Priego

Saturday, May 1, 2010

May Day!

You that in love find luck and abundance
And live in lust and joyful jollity,
Arise for shame, do away your sluggardy!
Arise I say, do May some observance!
Let me in bed lie dreaming in mischance,
Let me remember the haps has most unhappy
That me betide in May most commonly,
As one whom love list little to advance.
Sepham said true that my nativity
Mischanced was with the ruler of the May:
He guessed of that I prove the verity.
In May my wealth and eke my life I say
Have stood so oft in such perplexity.
Rejoice! Let me dream of your felicity.

Thomas Wyatt c. 1538

Friday, April 30, 2010

T.S. Eliot has a massive reputation that extends beyond poetry afficionados and into the larger world. Reading Adam Fieled's article, and re-reading Eliot's work recently, I can't help thinking that rarely has such a big reputation been built on so slender an achievement. I do value much of Eliot's poetry, and I wouldn't like to be without such poems as Prufrock, Ash Wednesday and Marina. But there are many other twentieth century poets whose work seems much more substantial, and some of Eliot's work, like the Sweeney poems, seems rather dated now. The concept of "The Waste Land" entered the popular imagination in the same way that the concept of "Waiting for Godot" did; but "The Waste Land" was co-authored with Ezra Pound, and, re-reading "Four Quartets" I can't help thinking that that poem would have benefited from Pound's red pen.

"The Four Quartets" has some striking images, and some fine passages, which are deservingly well-known: the passage with the thrush, the children and the pool in sunlight (forgive the paraphrase) in "Burnt Norton", or the opening of "The Dry Salvages":

I do not know much about gods; but I think that the river
is a strong brown god...

But much of the poem reads like a long-winded sermon, with way too much verbiage. "The Dry Salvages", following the passage just quoted, descends into line after line of this type of thing:

I have said before
That the past experience revived in the meaning
Is not the experience of one life only
But of many generations - not forgetting
Something that is probably quite ineffable...

I can't be persuaded that this is skillful writing; that last line reminds me of the unintentional bathos in some of Wordsorth's late poetry. Overall "The Four Quartets" reads like a series of
striking images and short, pleasing passages - usually when the poet uses concrete imagery - padded out with long sections that are simply verbose and badly written; including the version of Dante in "Little Gidding" which makes a mockery of Dante's fast moving and snappy dialogue. Is this a heresy? Or is Eliot's reputation not what it was in academia or elsewhere?


I re-read "Four Quartets" at the same time as re-reading Beckett's "Worstword Ho" - a piece written much later, but about the same length, and the contrast was marked. Beckett's poem espouses an outlook that's unredeemably bleak - no consummating final image ("the fire and the rose are one") for him; and yet, "Worstword Ho" is not depressing to read: the language is innovatory, and the poem, paradoxically, feels like a celebration of language, and thereby of human endeavour.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Discussing the way fairy tales have moved in and out of oral culture over time, Marine Warner cites the medieval story of Saint Dympna, which provided an archetype for a whole category of tales:

"this is a story which enjoyed a wide circulation in different languages and was directed at audiences of different social registers and occupations, from the tavern to the parish church. The migration, from the vernacular to Latin and back again, itself casts doubt on glib distinctions between high and low culture."

I mention this mainly to highlight that last point. I'd been reading an article on The Argotist by Adam Fieled: Century XX After Four Quartets. This article claims that T.S. Eliot's "Four Quartets" is the high-water mark of twentieth century poetry in English, and that nothing that came after measures up to it; a proposition so absurd that I'm still not sure it isn't a joke. Field's argument hinges around the notion that Eliot's poem is an example of "High Art", and that the motley crew of American poets who came after failed to achieve this level. What are we to make of such an argument? We could remind Fieled that the playhouses of Elizabethan England were regarded as vulgar entertainment by contemporaries. Plays were barely regarded as literature, and Ben Jonson was roundly mocked for publishing his collected plays in book form. Fieled would no doubt regard these plays as the highest of High Art. As for "The Four Quartets", more on that dreary sermon in a later post.