Friday, 25 March 2011

Foreign influences

  • "Unlike British verse, [US poetry's] life force derives less from European crosswinds" (Simic)
  • "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" (James Rother)

Well, maybe, but I've not noticed such a strong European influence. The French poets barely get a look-in, though our theorists mention their theorists. You can't go wrong in claiming that Rilke's one of your favourites, but the proof of influence's not very clear. We were quite keen on Holub and Milosz once. Nobel prizewinners are briefly famous.

I'd have thought that Commonwealth influences would be stronger than European. Alzi was born in Pakistan. Linton Kwesi Johnson was born in Jamaica. Fred D'Aguiar was born in London then moved to Guyana. And there are many 2nd generation writers - Daljit Nagra for example, Jackie Kay, etc. Walcott's a frequent visitor. So is Australia's Les Murray. These writers have widened the mainstream. Have they influenced others? We write more ghazals but do we read more Tagore? Maybe. I suspect however, that WASP poets are more cautious than they used to be about dealing with "exotic" topics and multiculturalism.

Translations of course are a source of influence too. Cavafy and Seferis are quite often translated, but not as much as Homer or Dante. I sometimes wonder if a UK poet's interest in decades-old European poetry is a reaction against modern US poetry trends - languages considered more important than L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E and its aftermath.


I try to keep up with Italian poets - see my Italian focus page. There's perhaps more of a USA-Italy link than a UK-Italy one, though Jamie McKendrick lived in Italy for a while, editing an anthology. I wonder how many 20th century Italian poets could be named by UK readers? Are Montale or Ungaretti listed as influences by any UK poets?

Tuesday, 22 March 2011

Variety in poetry books

Variety: the spice of life, or something to disguise the blandness?

I was surprised when I read in Iota 88 that "I found the variety of shapes that the poems make on the page refreshing; a factor in keeping my interest and attention" (Angela France). I guess I shouldn't have been, but I prefer layout to be more than eye-candy. I'd like visual variety to be "organic", a consequence of the different styles and approaches of the poet. The following distribution of stanza-lengths is a typical for the free-form poetry books I read.

2 line stanzas5
3 line stanzas14
4 line stanzas17
5 line stanzas7
6 line stanzas4
7 line stanzas1
Misc stanzas3
There are many dimensions along which variety can exist in a collection: poem-length, line-length, the formal-freeverse spectrum or process-product spectrum to name just a few of the obvious ones. Poets are quite adept at varying stanza length from poem to poem even if within a poem the stanza lengths are all the same. I'm unconvinced however that all poets who stay in a narrow band on (for example) the "language transparency" spectrum while twiddling with stanza lengths are sufficiently aware that uniformity is more than just a visual effect.

Variation from a norm is common in poetry. Variation of rhythm in metred work isn't gratuitous though - it leads to expressive effects. The effect depends on the norm, the context, though to say that all depends on context - on what's being written against - is over-simplifying; many layers of norms/conventions exist. A line with initial Caps may break the norms of the poem it's in, or the book it's in, or habits of the poet, or the genre, or the prevailing national trend, etc. What may look like a meaning-laden variation in one context may be the transparent default in another, and a poem can be read in several contexts. And anyway, readers normalize as they go along if they see little value in the Caps (or the line-breaks) so poets might have trouble making readers treat these features as significant.

In the past few months I've read more poetry books and fewer mags than usual, and hence have contextualised at the book level more often. A poem with initial caps will stand out in a book where the other poems don't use them (in a way that it wouldn't in a magazine, where there's too much background noise). But my most abiding reaction to variations from norms in the books I've read lately is that they're not significant (or if they are, they're far less significant than word-selection, etc). They make the pages look different from each other to stop readers becoming visually bored. Before I'm far into the book I start to edit out the line-breaks and stanza-breaks in order to focus on the less visual variety. Maybe I over-estimate the importance of a poet's ability to write in various ways, but masking a lack of underlying variety visually doesn't work for me. Why not use different fonts or different colours?

Friday, 11 March 2011

Magazine updates

  • The Interpreter's House has a new editor and address - Simon Curtis, 9 Glenhurst Road, Mannamead, Plymouth, PL3 5LT.
  • Ben Wilkinson gives "14" a favourable write-up on his blog, listing some magazines that have disappeared over the years (most recently "Pen Pusher")
  • Litro's deadline for "Street Fiction" is 10th April.
  • For their summer issue Ambit wants poetry and prose and illustration from writers under 35 years old. Deadline Monday 24 April.
  • The latest issue of "The Dark Horse" has arrived. The editorial (like that of the Rialto) mentions gender balance. The final page includes a letter from a poet who feels that their work was mis-reviewed in the previous issue.
  • Rialto 71 has arrived. The poetry as usual ranges from thin (2 words/line) poems to fat prose layouts, from trad sonnets (Neil Powell's has initial Caps, and ends with "For first love never disappears; it sets,/ A pearl one neither loses nor forgets") to multi-indented pieces (though in other ways Rosie Shepperd's piece is fairly mainstream). There are long poems, and one-idea 4-liners. Some pages have 3 poems. There are poems by Cowper and Robert Burns, by poets with many books to their names (Brownjohn, Neil Powell, Peter Bland, etc), and by at least one first-timer. My favourite poems were by Andrew Nightingale, Christina Dunhill, Katrina Naomi and Andrew Bailey ("Glass", though the layout's quirky)
    The type of prose ingredients vary in each issue. In this issue Mackmin's editorial fills an A4 page. Later, 3 poets present 2 drafts of a poem, describing the effect that a workhop had on the re-writes. There are 2 pages of poetry news and 2 letters.
    Most significantly, Nathan Hamilton brings his "poets under 35" selection to a close with an article that includes a couple of brief critiques. He writes: it's my feeling that, unless the primary subject of a poem remains language (directly or indirectly) ... it is likely to appear naive or drift towards unexamined cliché .... If one has a 'subject' to write about ... one might be better off writing in prose. Later he writes: Jacques Lacan, who has filtered into the literary education of all young poets now ....
    I remain unconvinced that one repeatedly needs to shout about linguistic instability in one's poems. Like sound effects or many other linguistic features, it's unavoidable whether or not one foregrounds it, and the amount of foregrounding can vary considerably within and between poems. I think most poets (and many readers) know by now that it's risky to wax lyrical about rainbows or the moon. I don't think we need "touches [that] gesture within the poem text as well as, from without, in, and, from within, out ... at the same time evoking (or ironising) an older style lyric utterance of a gesturing poem". I think Andrew Nightingale's "The Pioneers" manages to be entertaining while providing fans of Lacan or semiotics all the essay material they need.
    I didn't like this issue's selection of U-35 poets as much as previous selections. I didn't get what Miriam Gamble's game was, nor did I understand what Ben Borek's Wordsworth re-write was for (and why does only one line begin with a lower case?). Holly Hopkins' piece was ok but nothing new.

Monday, 7 March 2011

Litref Reviews - a rationale

The style of the reviews on Litrefs Reviews doesn't appeal to everyone, not even to all of those who read theory, so I thought I'd better offer this rationale

On his blog Rob MacKenzie asked "What the best approach for a reviewer? Is it best to be tentative and say you're not certain about various things?". Sheenaugh Pugh replied "If I don't get what is going on, I will say so. Folk can think me incompetent if they like --- What people think of the reviewer is not in the end the point". I tend to follow the Pugh approach. I know that some people feel that poetry's under threat and that poets should stick together. I also know people who think that the world of reviews is ridden with mutual back-slapping, with inhibition, and that only 20 or so poetry books per year are worth publishing. I think I'm somewhere in between.

I used to keep these notes to myself, but a decade or so ago I decided that given it's just as easy to put the stuff online as on paper, I might as well do so. Of course I could play safe. In a few months even I might not agree with what I've written. I note that Rob's most recent blog entry begins "I've badly misjudged WS Merwin. I'd read only a few poems by him, mainly written in the last decade or so, and these hadn't done anything for me". Yep. I know the feeling. I sometimes go back and change write-ups.

For self-education and calibration I allot a proportion of my reading time to authors I've not heard of before, or whose work I haven't previously liked. There are famous, highly regarded writers whose work I just don't get. I have blindspots both known to me and unknown. I'm not the only one ("You know I can't stand Shakespeare's plays, but yours are even worse" - Tolstoy to Chekhov; "Larkin had no literary talent ... Larkin never managed to write a good poem" - Andrew Duncan). It's not unusual, finishing a write-up, for me to have wanted it to come out differently, but there we are. If I read that Prynne's the most important living British Poet it doesn't make me like his work any more (though I might be encouraged to read his work again, and expose my incomprehension again).

As I read, I jot notes on a bookmark. I'm not trying to follow standard templates for reviews, or guidelines like "mention 2 things you like for each thing you don't"; "if you can't say something nice, don't say anything at all"; "write it as if it were a Reference for someone who might be shown the Reference, encoding all adverse comment"; "end with a judgment and an incitement to buy". I'm not even trying to be balanced - I link to other reviews whenever I can. If I gain an impression that's falsifiable (say, that an anthology has more male poets than female ones) I tend to do a count rather than trust myself. Once I go to the bother of doing a count I feel I might as well add it to the write-up. I don't think authors should have anything to fear from stats.

It's not a style that I'd recommend everyone to follow (especially in paper publications - my suggestions for those who want to be published are on Writing Book Reviews). My stuff's a side-show, a marginal voice - or at least it should be. What I would like is for many more people to write up their impressions - not just of the books by friends or by their favourite authors, but all the poetry books they read.

Thursday, 3 March 2011

Obscurity again

Anyone who's read my attempts at reviewing lately will note that I'm having more trouble than usual with poetry. I'm happy to enjoy poems that I don't "understand" but when I neither enjoy or understand a poem I start asking pointed questions. Sometimes the obscurity of one poem in a book makes me distrust others. I have a fair knowledge of literary/art movements. I need to see individual poems analysed. Books that have helped me in the past include

These tackle (sometimes successfully) poems by the likes of Prynne, Jorie Graham, etc. In Not so difficult poems and Obscurity I tried to explain how I deal with some common obstacles. Now it's time for me to look for more help.

  • Michael Snediker's review of "Infidel Poetics: Riddles, Nightlife, Substance" by Daniel Tiffany makes it sound like a valuable contribution to the obscurity debate - "The ambitiousness of Tiffany’s argument is exceeded only by the dazzling success of it.". However, the review's penultimate sentence might make one reconsider - "The delight in discovering, across the time of reading, that perceived tenuity patiently could await its being reassessed as a new and significant lucidity - that an infrastructure already had been in place without one’s registration of it - describes the good fortune of a new book so self-abiding in its convictions that we learn to trust it, such that an earlier sense of unfamiliarity alchemizes into the gratitude of learning where we least expected it." What I understand of this could surely have been said more simply.
  • I'm looking forward to reading Stephen Burt's "Close Calls with Nonsense" - ("If you are a new reader of poetry, Stephen Burt will help you figure out techniques for approaching difficult writers" "Burt pursues his argument in a manner which is always as rational as it is accessible")
  • "The Art of Recklessness: Poetry as Assertive Force and Contradiction" by Dean Young has its fans.

SF writer Arthur C. Clarke's Three Laws are unexpectedly apt -

  1. When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible, he is almost certainly right; when he states that something is impossible, he is probably wrong.
  2. The only way of discovering the limits of the possible is to venture a little way past them into the impossible.
  3. Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

I sometimes think that it's impossible for a certain text to be usefully described as poetry. I think it's necessary to go slightly beyond poetry to determine its limits. Most of all, I think that the "magic" of poetry is largely explainable in terms of technique and analysis. I think it's possible to speak simply about at least some types of obscurity. So I'll keep searching. Maybe Arduity: clarifying difficult poetry is useful