Saturday, April 23, 2011

And while I'm blowing my own trumpet, here's a link to a review of my Bonnefoy translation by Peter Hughes. It's on the PBS website. Click here.

Thank you Peter.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Variations on Painting a Room: Poems 2000-2010

Warning: Contains Severe Self-Promotion!!!

Now available from SKYSILL PRESS:

Alan Baker, Variations on Painting a Room: Poems 2000-2010

Variations on Painting a Room brings together ten years of small press publications by Alan Baker, together with two uncollected sequences, "The Book of Random Access" and "Everyday Songs".

It's available on Amazon, but it would help the publisher if you bought it direct from them: Skysill Press

Lee Harwood:

Elizabeth Bishop wrote "The three qualities I admire in the poetry I like best are: Accuracy, Spontaneity, Mystery". These are the qualities I find in Alan Baker's poems. The precise particulars that create a very real, clear and believable writing, a willingness to take risks, and an awareness that what matters is not to be found in the obvious but in the half glimpsed, half said, half understood. Equally admirable are the ambitions for what writing can possibly do. Right from the first prose poem in "Not Bondi Beach" to the long poem "A Lull" in that same book, "The Cardiac Diaries" in his "Hotel February" collection, and on to the larger sequences such as "The Book of Random Access", Baker spreads out an awareness of the working moving world, and its politics, around him, around all of us.

Todd Swift:

Baker represents an alternative ("other") British poetry tradition, and poetics, that, often quietly, in the so-called margins of a mainstream, continues to do excellent work. His work ...turns the British lyric subtly, and offers new angles on how a line may be shaped, or allowed to spin off in another direction.

Rupert Loydell: (on "The Book of Random Access")

'[It] is the recording of people's memories.' I don't think so. 'It's only a piece of make believe': the narrator says so, later on. And yet, and yet ... Of course these fantastic texts are made up, are just randomly accessed words assembled on the page, each section under a black and white hexagram. But they are subtle, delicate (but tough) evocations of the confused lives we live, seemingly confessional outpourings, full of surprising and alarming images and insights. These texts work by luring the reader in, by being so transparent that we believe them. The details and declamations entwine themselves into sense, the everyday phrases bump and jostle themselves into a momentary order that offers teaching and insight. There is no ego here, no polemic or rant, just an intersection and gathering of lived moments, each under the spotlight for a brief moment of time. 'Let's sit down at the table together and talk softly into the night'. Okay, let's. Perhaps you will read to me, grant me random access to your world.

Monday, April 11, 2011

More on ED

In 1896, Lavinia Dickinson, sister of Emily, took the stand as witness and plaintiff in a court case against Mabel Loomis Todd, the editor of E.D.s first three books, and long-term mistress of her brother, Austin. Lavinia, while not quite as withdrawn as her sister, was nevertheless a reclusive character, not given to leaving home much in later years. Like her sister, she was regarded as strange by the Amherst townsfolk; in one authenticated story, local children came to sing for the Dickinsons, but were asked to do so downstairs, while the two sisters listened, unseen, from an upstairs room. So how did Lavinia cope with the very public arena of a court-room? To quote Lyndall Gordon's biography:

"Her junior counsel, Henry Field, remembered Miss Vinnie 'distinctly' in after years when he himself had become a judge. He'd feared cross-examination might confuse her. 'But not at all. On the witness stand she appeared perfectly natural and composed, not in the least bit disconcerted by an array of opposing counsel and a Court-room filled with curious spectators'."

In fact, Miss Vinnie put on an impressive and assured display, with not a small amount of guile, and she won her case - about the disputed ownership of a strip of land - despite having, on a purely factual basis, the weaker case. To me, this is interesting as it lends weight to the increasingly-held opinion that Emily Dickinson's withdrawal from the world was not due to diffidence or timidity - attributes absent from the accounts of those who actually met her - but was a conscious decision that the independence (from social and marital expectations) provided by seclusion in her father's house was necessary to allow her to practice her chosen profession of poet. Just as Lavinia impressed on the witness stand, so Emily impressed those who met her with her wit and verbal intelligence; often leaving them feeling upstaged and shaken; as was the case with T W Higginson, who famously declared 'I have never met anyone who drained my nerve power so much'. Many reasons for ED's seclusion have been suggested; but while there may have been contributory factors - medical or psychological perhaps - it does seem that artistic independence may have been the primary one.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Eigner and Dickinson

I've been much-inspired lately by the poetry of Larry Eigner and Emily Dickinson. After my incursions into digitized cut-and-paste techniques, these two poets take me back to the basic materials of pen, paper, typewriter; and in Eigner's case, the poetry of immediate perception.
The work of both these writers is also resistant to print and publication; in Dickinon's case because almost all her poetry came down to us hand-written, with no authorised print version, and in Eigner's case, because his disability meant that he produced text using a typewriter with great difficulty; his typescripts, with their positioning of text and his corrections and annotations, are arguably the most authentic representations of his poems.
Yet the manuscripts of both of these poets are hard to see; in Eigner's case, his big Collected from Stanford University Press is set in Courier, and is doesn't consist of scanned originals. In the case of Dickinson, her handmade fascicle booklets are available in fascimile, but at a cost - around 300 pounds; but why aren't the originals of her poems available on the web? There are a few, if you look for them, but why haven't the been scanned and made available as a public resource? Why can't we buy selections of her work with the original manuscripts alongside, as you can with Blake? It's incredible that, one hundred and twenty five years after her death, Dickinson's work is not out of copyright. As Dickinson scholar Betsa Erkkila puts it "[The Dickinson papers] are now owned collectively by Harvard University and Amherst college, where access to and circulation of her writing are vigorously policed and controlled. If you want to quote from or publish the work of Dickinson, you must ask for the privilege and pay the price." All of which is ironic, when the poet herself said:

Publication - is the Auction
Of the Mind of Man -

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Napolean in Rags

I was driving up the M1 last week, and, for old times' sake, I put on a CD of Bob Dylan's 'Highway 61 Revisited. It's hard not to feel a surge of adrenalin at the crescendos of 'Like a Rolling Stone', especially as I was a fervent Dylan fan in my younger days. The song features a contextless narrator / singer addressing a female subject who seems to have been socially privileged, but who has been brought low and forced into homelessness. The music and lyrics invite the listener to join in the triumphalism of the singer, who revels in the subject's downfall. But as soon as this invitation is mentally declined, you realise how extraordinarily vindictive this song is. It's a sustained attack: 'How does it feel?' .i.e. 'I feel bad; I want to know that you feel bad too, and I think you deserve to'. And the song goes on long enough to make it seem obssessive in its malice.

This judgemental streak seemed to increase in Dylan's work from that period on, and can be found in other songs like 'Positively 4th Street' ('you've got a lot of nerve to say you are my friend'); it also looks forward to the ultimate judgements during his conversion to fire and brimstone Christianity. What's lacking in these songs, and, one could argue, in Dylan's work generally, is self-awareness on the part of the singing persona: the singer is infallible, but the subject is judged and condemned. Nowhere in Dylan's work will you find the painful self-criticism of John Lennon's first two solo albums.

It may be due to this lack of self-knowledge on Dylan's part that I found his autobiography - the loftily-titled 'Chronicles' - impossible to read. Or rather, I read it compulsively, but when I put the book down, I didn't feel like picking it up again (and didn't even finish volume one). 'Chronicles' presents a man who believes in his 'destiny' - a concept I find hard to accept. Dylan even uses at one point the phrase 'my destiny had become manifest'. As an echo of the notorious doctrine of 'Manifest Destiny', which justified the US colonisation of the American West and its brutal campaigns against the Native Americans, this phrase shows remarkable insensitivity and ignorance on the writer's part.