Wednesday 23 February 2011

US/UK poetry again

I like reading about US/UK poetry comparisons, mostly because I find them useful introductions to US poetry. James Rother's review-essay of "New British Poetry" (Edited by Don Paterson and Charles Simic, Graywolf Press, 2005) deals with many points. Here are some extracts with belated comments

  • in a review-article for The New York Review of Books titled "Anglo-Celtic Attitudes." ... Vendler began by blaming the decline in deference among American authors to things English on the U.S.'s having acquired superpower status after World War II and on American writers no longer feeling that they need to remain current with regard to trends emerging in the British Isles and Ireland. -
    Maybe. And, as he says, the deaths of Eliot and Auden severed more links. As a consequence, people like Armitage can be unknown even to dedicated US poets. Besides, there are so many US poets and styles that it's hard for US readers to find time for UK ones.

  • what isn't the least in doubt is the degree of animus which Paterson feels toward the corrosive swindle known everywhere as "Postmodernism." It may have originated in the United States, but in his view it left virtually an entire generation of British poets moldering soullessly in its swath. -
    I'd guess that (for different reasons) neither Paterson nor Simic explored the all nooks and crannies of UK poetry.

  • Simic: American poetry is by its very nature eclectic and therefore "always already" contemporary, whether its practitioners wish it to be or not. Unlike British verse, its life force derives less from European crosswinds than from what Simic traces to the "limitless faith" expressed by Ralph Waldo Emerson "in the power of the individual to make a new beginning, reinventing everything from his identity to the art of poetry ..." -
    I don't see many continental influences in British verse.

  • A majority of its inclusions seem, despite the occasional lurch into the memorable, to lack assuredness and in some cases even basic skills. Under cover of "populism" (i.e. "grammar school" ties over "public school" ones) a plethora of skivvies and ragged knickers flaunt their working class threads -
    Maybe I'm too close to see how class-ridden UK poetry is, or maybe the selection is skewed. Nor do I see pervasive nostalgia for empire (or indeed, much political/global awareness at all) in UK poetry.

  • As far back as the early '60s, critics such as Charles Tomlinson had noted problems arising out of British poets' having too precipitously dismounted the twin high horses of '20s modernism and '30s Noël Cowardice-with-a-Marxist-slant. -
    I can see this why people might note this schism.

  • The "mainstream" had morphed over time into a difficult slipstream for any British poet to stay afloat in, so choppy had the cross-currents buffeting England from across the Channel become. -
    I don't think French poetry or literary theory has changed the course of UK poetry.

  • At a stroke, Carlos the Jackal married the deconstructionist muse and set up housekeeping in the flat in Paris where Louis Althusser's wife experienced terminal massage at the hands of the luftmensch responsible for, among other unstringings of the lyre, Pour Marx and Lire le Capital. -
    Oh. Uh?

  • In the UK, the mainstream has been shaped and narrowed by the closing banks of that cheery and generally none-too-clever verse of recognition humour [sic] or undisguised moral exhortation; and by Postmoderns on the other-and how strenuously Left-bank. -
    I can more or less go along with that

  • From this company I exempt-even where a modicum of promise is perceptible-English knock-offs of American items already mass-produced in this country (e.g., John Ash, Mark Ford, and other clones milling about the memory of Frank O'Hara); Glückische handmaids of feminist expressionism who hold the "truth" that all men are awful to be inalienable (Carol Ann Duffy and Selima Hill, to name but two); nationalist Scots whose pibroch tootlings on the pipe of Robert Burns and Hugh Mac Diarmid might engage some local imaginations but are otherwise non-exportable (W. N. Herbert and Kathleen Jamie, for example); and finally, poetic apples that didn't fall far enough from their trees (whether Dylan Thomas's, or whosever) to avoid over-close identification with their respective fruit. (In this group may be found, among others, Gwyneth Lewis, Alice Oswald, and, to further belabor the point, Andrew Motion.) That leaves some rather old and "dark familiars" (to cop a phrase from Malcolm Lowry), such as Simon Armitage, Christopher Reid, and Michael Hoffmann -
    it's good to see him name names. I've not read this anthology, but I can see where he's coming from.

  • Similarly adept at bringing lattés of existentialist resignation to froth are John Glenday, Roddy Lumsden, Alice Oswald, and Jo Shapcott. The remainder of those represented range poetically from the tolerably and intolerably competent to the merely unaccomplished -
    I'm unsure whether he's praising or condemning Glenday et al. Either way, it doesn't sound too fullsome, though I can't easily plonk Oswald and Shapcott into the same category.

Online there's also a review by John Drexel (it's also from Contemporary Poetry Review) which quotes the editors' views on the UK poets' engagement with the past:

  • Simic - "the poets in this anthology assume that they are part of a tradition, addressing a community that may neglect them now and then, but is there nonetheless"
  • Paterson - "[the poets] are engaged in an open, complex and ongoing dialogue with the whole of English tradition"

The review compares the anthology with Schmidt's and Morrison/Motion’s. It notes that this anthology includes nearly all the New Generation poets, and that the "each head note ventures a brief critical appraisal of the poet in question. Though "critical" is hardly the right word-in essence, these are little more than puff pieces, attempts to sell the poet to the reader"

In Meagrely provided, Andrea Brady mentions Tuma's more inclusive "Oxford Anthology of Twentieth-Century British and Irish Poetry" (I'm surprised that the reviews didn't mention it), then questions Paterson's comments on post-modernism - "This is so fanatical a diagnosis that all readers might as well ignore it. We could ask why the editors of Graywolf cleared it for publication, and what Charles Simic was doing collaborating with such rabidity. But why tangle with such unsubstantiated and feckless rubbish when Paterson incriminates himself very capably? ... His essay is useful as a demonstration of how conservativism operates in the arts according to the same principles as it does in the capitals: its lynch pins are assimilation, veneration, and subordination; it is maintained by the controlled flow of resources, false proclamations of vulnerabilities, and a dark fixation with scapegoats".

Those interested in more recent UK poetry anthologies can look at my Recent UK poetry anthologies article.

Tuesday 15 February 2011

The Persona and the Person

"Readers like to assume that the 'I' in a poem is the author - and this tends to give poets less freedom than fiction writers" - Jo Shapcott, The Telegraph, Jan 29, 2011

Dear Editor,

I like reading small press magazines—all human life is there. After a while I find I've read so many contributions by some authors that they're like old friends, the kind who send letters only when there's bad news. The frequency of heart-rending incidents makes me wonder whether tragedy triggers writing or whether writers are prone to disasters.

I feel sorry for you Web magazine editors; editors of printed magazines know authors' changes of address, and from subscription cheques can see joint accounts become single ones. The biographical notes you supply say so little - concerned readers like me can piece together these broken lives only by subscribing to many magazines. I pick one author (Tim Love) but I could have chosen many others like him who have chosen to share their personal tragedies in this way, unburdening themselves gradually, trying not to upset readers too much.

In "Autumn and After" (Summit 2) his wife died when they were childless. We read how he decided not to marry again, instead going to India where, in "New Life" (Dream 13), his mother died. Eventually he does remarry, but "Taking Mark this time" (Staple) tragically describes his wife's death when their son was only 4.

A sonnet "Wither the Love" then appeared in Poetry Nottingham. Trauma can induce formalism as the only way to keep the emotions under control (see Dana Gioia). Sometimes though, mannerism is sloughed off in an attempt to reach the heart of things through understatement (Douglas Dunn). As related in the free-verse "Love at First Sight" (Smith's Knoll 11) his new wife gave birth to a daughter who died before she was an hour old. This is the kind of tragedy from which women in particular never quite recover. So it comes as little surprise that his wife deserted him and their 6 year-old son in "The Big Climb" (Staple).

It would be easy to attribute blame to the author for driving successive spouses to despair, but as with Ted Hughes, it may be that there's something in his temperament that fragile women find attractive. Again, and even more remarkably, he recovers only to be dealt another cruel blow - "Late Night Shopping" (Staple) chronicles life with an autistic child. Perhaps the genes that help a writer produce such diversity of writing also manifest themselves in a less helpful gene diversity in offspring.

To the first-time reader his follow-up, "Rejection" (Envoi), would seem to be about failed submissions (it's encouraging to see that even he gets them!), but our worst fears were confirmed when in a 2004 prizewinner ("Being Open" on the Cambridge Writers web site) we saw him sink into a private hell of alcohol and inflatable dolls.

Now, just a few months later, we read in his biographical notes that he's married with 2 sons; triumphant confirmation to all us writers that we should never give up. I wish him luck.

Mel Vito, Cambridge, UK

(first published in Folly)

Tuesday 8 February 2011

Games Poets Play

The writer, formerly mythologiser, prophet, or at least specialist on love and death has become expert in subtle and wayward intellectual sophistries. Of these, poetry games are the most advanced. Often they are acknowledged only at a subconscious level - but the reader is always the innocent victim (see Tag below.)

  • Piggy in the Middle - The author and text engage in teasing allusions - the reader in the middle never catching on
  • Snap - The poet quotes from other poets without acknowledging sources openly. Recognition by readers convinces them that they have won some of the 'cards'
  • Murder in the Dark - A traditional poetic form has been slaughtered: readers must discover which one, how, and (the hardest bit) why. Sonnets are frequently the victims.
  • Ain't it Awful - The game is borrowed from Berne, who suggests it is also played on a social level. Also known as I can make you cry.
  • Hunt the Thimble - The poem suggests a hard nugget of eternal truth can be found if the reader works hard enough. Text may also implant 'getting warmer' and 'getting colder' indicators.
  • Chase the Lady - Coined re Shakespeare's sonnets, a sequence in which some individual poems can be understood, giving readers the idea that if they work hard enough all can be understood; there are, however, deliberate decoys ('They that have the power to hurt but will do none..')
  • Pop goes the weasel - Here the last word of the poem appears to provide a sudden 'answer', which is, of course, not the answer.
  • Pin the tail on the donkey - Readers are asked to add a good final line to an otherwise hopeless poem.
  • What am I? - Deliberate conventions of poetry are challenged to make reader insecure.
  • Musical Bumps - Unexpected disruptions of rhythmic patterning when least expected. Readers tolerate this in anticipation of the 'prize'.
  • Charades - For some reason that is never explained the most sensible and informative mode of expression can't be used, so the poet must resort to obscure, sometimes risible, alternatives
  • Pass the Parcel - Each break in the poem's musicality is assumed to reveal part of the mystery
  • Blind Man's Bluff - Disorientated by initial obscurity, the groping reader is pleased with anything they can manage to grasp.
  • Tag - The reader is always 'it'.

The modern reader is no longer content with easy forays into Spot the rhyme or I spy with my little i. Instead, a range of sophisticated after-dinner-party games have emerged

  • Life-swapping parties - 'Keys' are thrown onto a table, and picked at random. Popular with confessionalist poets.
  • Karaoke - the poet supplies only the background - a template (workshop) poem
  • Trivial Pursuits - the ultimate in poetry games

Poets live in fear of the moment of 'Switch' which allows 'the player to move out of the game by choosing to express his authentic need directly.' This is sometimes expressed by the words: "This poem is crap." Pre-empting this ploy is so important that it has engendered a new genre - post-modernism (don't worry, I'm only joking).


  • Games People Play, Berne, E (1964), Penguin
  • Transactional Analysis Counselling in Action, Stewart, I (1989), Sage
  • Games authors play, Peter Hutchinson, (1983) Methuen

By Tim Love and Helena Nelson

Tuesday 1 February 2011

Notes about "he understands but doesn't love"

Rather than have footnotes or endnotes in my "Moving Parts" collection (on sale at the HappenStance shop) I decided to add some notes here. "he understands but doesn't love" is the only piece in which was previously unpublished (indeed, it was rejected several times). The title's a quote about Picasso (by a fellow artist, I think). The Chinese room is a thought experiment by philosopher John Searle. A person in a room receives slips of paper through a slot. The paper has squiggles on it. The person looks these squiggles up in a book which has instructions on what to scribble on a piece of paper that's pushed back through the slot.

Unbeknownst to the person the squiggles are Chinese and the notes being passed out are reasonable responses to the received messages. The people outside think that the person in the room understands Chinese. Does s/he? Does "the room" understand? If not, what does? How can you tell? How much do you understand of what you say?

The note on the fridge is William Carlos-William's, but what does it mean? Is the writer who's sending words away any different to the insecure lover interpreting signs?

Should you walk out of the Chinese room, or open the fridge door to check the plums? How can you tell if the light goes off when the door is closed? Is the light (understanding) inside really outside?