Monday, 11 December 2017

About Sarah V. Schweig's "The Anxiety of Poetry" article

In The Anxiety of Poetry Sarah V. Schweig touches on several delicate matters in the course of analysing the reaction to Willian Logan's criticism of Jill Bialosky's "Poetry Will Save Your Life". As usual, Logan pulls no punches - "the real problem is that this book intended for adults has been written in a style that would embarrass a child of twelve. The editor of W. W. Norton’s distinguished poetry list writes as clumsily as a new-born calf.

What complicates the matter is that plagiarism is involved, that the book is a well meaning attempt to widen poetry readership (it deals with tragic deaths), and that a man is attacking a woman.

By criticising at all, Logan has asked for a backlash. As Schweig points out, "the unwritten rule in the poetry community that if you really don’t like someone’s work, you simply do not comment on it." She thinks that this is "because of a pervasive insecurity about the status of poetry in our culture", suggesting that "this incident exposes certain serious dysfunctions within the poetry industry and the way poetry insiders try to convince outsiders about the worth of their art, when they then undermine the worth of poetry as art in certain key ways".

She points out that "Poetry has the force to speak for whole generations", mentioning "Leaves of Grass", "Prufrock" and "Howl". but now, "in a frantic rush to sell itself, to be read by anyone at all, much poetry has become nothing beyond a handmaiden to identity politics". Moreover "Because those of us in the poetry world are so acutely aware that no one other than other poets or aspiring poets are reading the poetry being published today ... there is rarely ever a rigorous critique of someone’s work. And to win outsiders over, poetry is painted as therapeutic rather than rigorous, existentially challenging artwork. ... Accordingly, discourse and critique about poetry as art form takes a backseat to the right to express oneself. Any critique becomes perceived as a personal attack."

She concludes by saying "We need to have a conversation about how identity politics has shifted poetry away from the universalizing force it can be when expressing what is essentially shared and human. Otherwise, we will continue to alienate outsiders and each other in overt and sometimes inauthentic ego stroking on the one hand and silent contempt of our peers on the other."

The only poetry reviews I read are in poetry magazines and blogs, written for the poetry community. I see few lacerating reviews. "disappointing" is as nasty as it gets. I see reviewers play safe, avoiding situations where their limitations, blind-spots or oversights will be exposed and backlashes provoked, though let's not forget that praise too can provoke backlashes - judges have been criticized for their choice of prizewinners.

Nowadays, I see more poetry OutReach going on, sometimes grant-aided. The under-represented (in terms of Race, Class, LGBT, Gender, Age, Disability, etc) are being given more of a voice. Traditionally, form was supposed to be integrated with content. But form can be viewed as elitist heritage, something that's taught. Now content is likely to take precedence - content that isn't just private gushing about unrequited love or expressions of private angst, but describing experiences that exemplify public concerns. Borders are being transgressed.

I work at Cambridge University, a place often accused of various prejudices. I work at an Engineering Department where male students outnumber females by 4 to 1 (and male professors outnumber females by much more). I'm aware of various initiatives regarding these issues - campaigns, positive discrimination, promotion of role-models, collection of statistics. I'm aware of how powerless an institution (or poetry magazine) can be in the face of society, media, and reduced funding. I'm also aware of the risks individuals take if they speak out against the desired trends. I know of colleagues who are wary of criticising people from minorities, who would be wary of having to satisfy admission quotas of females or people from state schools, etc. They worry that "maintained standards" is no longer a convincing argument.

I feel nervous commenting on some poetry books. My target audience for such comments is poets, but my approach to reading can be rather like a prose reader's, ready to play call-my-bluff. "Birthday Letters" was a best-seller (controversially in some quarters given the Plath connection). I didn't see much in it. Recently I read Frieda Hughes' "The Book of Mirrors" (116 pages!) and didn't see much in that either. I thought Claudia Rankine's "Citizen" used old avant-garde methods to puff up a shortage of material, little of it new (micro-aggressions at work/school have been studied by conversation analysts for years). "Undying" by Michel Faber (about becoming a widower) was embarrassingly bad in places. These aren't difficult books to adversely review - such writers are big enough to look after themselves. Trickier to deal with are the books of friends, or books by one's (prospective) publishers. In such situations I've delayed and reconsidered reviews, but I don't think I've ever withheld a review.

Amongst the borders being transgressed are genre ones. Poetry books light on rhyme and wordplay but heavy on autobiography and politics may be criticised as indifferent poetry, but it may be fairer to praise them as adventurous genre-bending. Critics need to adapt. And so might competitions - "Citizen" is only partly a poetry book, so should it have been able to win poetry prizes?

Poetry or criticism aimed at one audience may cause trouble if it falls in the wrong hands - Bialosky's book may be for non-poets, and Logan's review may have been aimed at poets. But does the targeted text satisfy even the intended audience? Will anything tempt a novel reader to buy 30 pages of poetry for £10.99? Is the policy of being silent rather than adversely reviewing going to be beneficial for the poetry world in the long term? Are critics being cautious for their own sakes rather than for the benefit of the community? And anyway, why should saying that a book is bad require any more justification than saying it's good? But what if reviewers knows that the poet has suicidal tendencies? Should they self-censor? Or should the poet not have put themselves at risk?

Thursday, 7 December 2017

Tuesday, 28 November 2017

A book of articles about poetry technique

A draft book (PDF) containing some articles from my blog about poetry technique (section headings Difficulty, Features, Integration, The Real World, Psychology) is available at -

Wednesday, 22 November 2017

Orbis and Flash magazines

Two contributor's copies of magazines have recently arrived. Orbis issue 181 (mostly poetry and poetry reviews) has work by Jonathan Edwards, Julie Lumsden, Martin Malone, D.A. Prince, etc. In the past, Glyn Maxwell and Simon Armitage contributed. It encourages reader-participation by getting them to vote on an issue's poems and by printing letters.

It's the first time I've been in Flash. It comes from Chester University, claiming Margaret Atwood as a previous contributor. In this issue there's Ian Seed, Paul Beckman, Ingrid Jandrzejewski,etc. There are also some Flash plays. It encourages networking by being the journal of the International Flash Fiction Association (IFFA). Neither magazines contains bios, which has its plus features.

Monday, 2 October 2017

Can you earn a living as a poet?

In the latest Acumen there's this quote by Hilary Davies which sounds true to me - "it is now possible to make a living of sorts as a poet, as it never was before, but this does entail being willing to engage with the public in ways that were not there, or not required before." It's not an issue that worries me except when I do free workshops - am I undercutting people who are trying to "make a living of sorts"?

I missed the session about money at the Poetry Book Fair in London on Saturday. Fortunately some notes are online. They're worth a read. So is Poetry and Work from HU

Sunday, 1 October 2017

FreeVerse 2017

A rather short visit this year (I had other commitments) but it was still valuable. Amongst other books I bought Paul Stephenson's "Selfie with Waterlilies", Peter Daniels' "A Season in Eden" and (long overdue) Katy Evans-Bush's "Forgive the Language".

I had time to attend one reading, by poets from Gatehouse Press. Peter Daniels read some poems from his book. The Norwich-based press is run by about 15 volunteers. They produce the Lighthouse journal too.

Wednesday, 20 September 2017


I visited Morocco long ago, Interailing by myself. This time I was on a guided tour. We visited Casablanca, Rabat, Meknes, Volubilis (Roman remains), Fez (tanneries!), Merzouga (near the patch of sand bottom-right of this map), Todra Gorge, Quarzazate (abandoned), Kasbah Ait Benhaddou (it appears in "Gladiators" and many other films), Tijzha (a village in the High Atlas), over the Tizi'n'Tichka (2,260m above the sea level, the highest major mountain pass of North Africa), Essaouira (a fishing/sea-side town, once Portuguese - a back alley is below), and Marrakech with its Djemma el Fna. Motorways to mule-tracks, palaces to hovels, deserts to seasides. And we took in the French, Arab, Bedouin, Berber and Jewish influences. The New Town (French) / Old Town division was obvious in the big cities. The Jewish areas are still known as such, though most of the Jews left in a hurry. Some of the areas they abandoned are still no-go areas at night.

Lifestyles are changing. The semi-nomadic people want to settle down for the sake of their children's education. They like their high walls, the Moroccans. They surround factories, palaces and farms, with towers at the gates. Some are made of clay and straw. Rain and wind easily damages them. I couldn't tell whether ruins were years or centuries old. Warring tribes in previous centuries meant that battles were small-scale, involving fortified houses and villages rather than huge castles. People in some places are gradually building themselves new homes, abandoning the old ones. Some towns are empty. Even populated villages can seem abandoned in the heat of the days. Clues are satellite dishes, washing on the line, dates drying on the roof, and goalposts on wasteland.

We stayed in a mountain village, walking for an hour to get there, our luggage carried by mules. It hadn't long had mains electricity. Once it arrived, people got fridges and they didn't need to harvest food daily. They saw what other people had and wanted it too. But people still use mules to collect crops and provisions.

Life can be very seasonal. Up in the mountains we saw a subsistence group of 10 people - 3 generations, semi-nomadic. Near the sandy Sahara we saw how labour-intensive farming and irrigation can coax food out of sand - date palms (easy to manage, low on water use) providing cover for cabbage, maize, alfalfa to grow, watered by a series of narrow channels whose tributaries could be blocked by mud to share the water around. There were some similarities with how we looked after our allotment.

We were driven for hours through landscapes that could have been in Westerns, and through mountain passes that reminded me of Italy (Morocco has skiing resorts). Photos don't do justice to the spectacular views. The deep red soil in places looked like Crete's. The exteriors of houses, especially in the medinas, can belie the wealth within. We stayed in some smart hotels (once we had a four-poster bed), and some quirky hotels. Other times there was neither TV or air-conditioning. Wifi was only sometimes available. Alcohol wasn't in all hotels and was difficult to get it at all in some places. Bigger towns had bottle shops - our first stopping place. There was a Jewish tradition of distilling which continues in places, allegedly. Sometimes the accommodation blended into its surroundings. This hotel on the side of the gorge had good views - a ribbon of green in the valley.

We stopped off at a weekly market which looked like a car-boot sale. We bought 2 packets of seeds, though we could have bought much more stuff - domestic ware especially.

In Essaouira we had a meal in a steamy back-street cafe where you took the fish that you'd brought earlier. I wouldn't have gone near the place normally, let alone eat there. And we ate street foot in the square at Marrakech. One breakfast up in the mountains included a kettle of water, a jar of Nescafe and a pot of porridge with honey.

And of course, we saw life in the Medinas - Fes with its confusing 9,400 alleys, Marrakech where you stay on the right to have a better chance of avoiding the mopeds and motorbikes that are let in. I'm still rather nervous about such places with their dark, narrow alleys, and I can't haggle. In some towns there are collectives where items are labelled. Going there first to check prices before haggling is a good idea.

I wasn't sure what to expect of the Sahara part of the visit, but as you can see, it's like you see in films. We went for an hour or so by camel until in a hollow we saw where we'd be spending the night. I slept under canvas. Others slept rough until the wind rose. The milky way was very clear.

In the morning I climbed a dune to catch sunrise. Then it was back on the camels for breakfast.

Yes, this is a tree of goats. Goats will climb Argan trees to eat the fruit whose nuts are used to make oil, but this particular scene is a stunt. Elsewhere we saw Barbary apes in more natural surroundings.

Near Volubilis is Moulay Idriss Zerhoun where non-Muslims were not permitted to stay overnight until 2005. Here for a change, colours were on the outside of the houses.

I knew I'd have lot of time to read so I took the story collections "Whoever you choose to love" by Colette Paul, "The New Uncanny" edited by Sarah Eyre and Ra Page, and "Tell her you love her" by Bridget O'Connor. I took poetry too - "Ticker-tape" by Rishi Dastidar, and the latest issue of "Orbis". I took some ideas for poems and stories with me, returning with a poem a piece of Flash and a page of travel notes.