Sunday, November 25, 2012

Now's the Season to be Poetic.

The Christmas markets may be open and the John Lewis adverts on rotation, but there's also quite a lot of poetry things going on in the NW at the moment. Earlier in the week, I was pleased I was able to make the 2nd Manchester Poets for Pussy Riot event organised by Richard Barrett. Richard had been instrumental in getting so many NW poets to contribute to the excellent English PEN anthology Poets for Pussy Riot which is available as an eBook and print on demand. My poem "Her Jazz for Pussy Riot" made the explicit link with 90s Riot Grrrl, and Richard had read it out on my behalf last time.

This time around a dozen poets - mostly from the NW - gave a reading at Thomas's Restaurant in the Northern Quarter. Its a really great room at the top of the restaurant, where you're away from bar noise or some of the other problems you sometimes get in venues. I arrived just as Richard was making his introduction, fashionably late, but with the excuse that I'd been up since 4 that morning, having flown back from Krakow. I think my critical faculties on the event are a bit dulled as a result, but I have to say, I thoroughly enjoyed the evening. Most of the poets had some kind of take on the subject matter - which, now that two of the Pussy Riot girls have been sent to prison in Siberia, is not just about that, but the wider repression of ideas and thoughts in Russia that it represents. In a room where everyone was in sympathy, there wasn't much need for polemic, and so the poetry took centre stage. The evening was topped and tailed by "cover versions" - Richard Barrett reading an excellent long poem by Ariana Reine's Mercury, and Steven Waling finishing with Tim Atkin's translation of Tsvtayeava's 'I Love The Rich.'

In between there was sweetness, light, polemic and poetry - reflecting the new diversity of Manchester's poetry scene, there were memorised performances - an excellent selection from StephPike - alongside the avant garde - a soundtracked eulogy to a dead animal rights activist by Leanne Bridgewater, and a "found" and profound filleting of a day's newspapers by Gareth Twose - and the ever entertaining John Calvert accompanied himself with both Korg Monotron and guitar. I read mostly new poems, as well as "Her Jazz for Pussy Riot" from Catechism: Poems for Pussy Riot anthology.

Recordings of Leanne Bridgewater, Susan Birch, Steph Pike, John Calvert, Judy Kendal, Gareth Twose, Anna Percy, Steve Waling, Ursula Hurley, Richard Barrett and myself are here

Coming up: I'm reading at Sand Bar at Stirred Poetry, thanks to Anna Percy, on Monday 3rd December.

Gathering Moss

Its hard to recall how unfashionable the Rolling Stones were in the early 80s. Whereas the Beatles were neatly packaged in nostalgia; long ago broken up - and, with Lennon's death - never to reform; the Stones were still there, chugging away, with bad hair, bad denim, and worst of all, bad songs. The first Stones album I remember coming out was, in fact, a bit of a return to form - "Start Me Up" was the lead single from "Tattoo You" in 1981, and I liked it, as I did "Undercover (of the night)" a couple of years later. But recall hearing some of the former album played on Radio 1, and its lyrical S&M and tired riffs sounded dated. My dad had the "Rolled Gold" compilation and I used to play that now and then, though mainly those glorious sixties hits like "Satisfaction", "Get Off of My Cloud" and (mostly) "Paint it Black."

The first Stones albums I bought was a cassette double pack of "Aftermath" and "Beggars Banquet" from a Woolworths in Australia in 1985. I liked them both, but the tight mod pop-rock of "Aftermath" was my favourite then, and remains so now. I guess the only sense of the Stones being "cool" came with seeing Jagger in "Performance" - a revelation in every way.

So, I was always interested, but their back catalogue was in a bit of a state - all those ABKCO albums released in the seventies; and the tendency of radio to only ever play the sixties hits. I'd pick up Stones songs in the oddest places: Dream Syndicate's live cover of "Under Assistant West Coast Promo Man"; the Sisters of Mercy doing "Gimme Shelter"; hearing the lovely "Angie" on the radio one afternoon. I don't even think their albums tended to make the "best albums of all time" lists of the time. (I've checked - the "best 100 albums" of all time from NME writers in 1985 only had room for "Exile on Main Street" - preferring albums by Lloyd Cole and the Commotions, Jimmy Cliff and the Buzzcocks to "Let it Bleed" or "Beggars Banquet.")  Not everyone was listening to the critics of course, and Primal Scream were one band whose love of the Stones combined with their own classic coolness.

Here we are then, in 2012 and the Stones are 50 years old. That their relevance was over thirty years ago doesn't really matter, as they had a good couple of decades. Never having broken up, despite losing the odd member - tragically in Brian Jones case, they are part of the triumvirate with Dylan and the Beatles that still towers above our memory of the sixties. Whilst the Beatles were writing for everyone, and Dylan was the ultimate ideas magpie, the Stones made a very little go a long way. They never strayed that far from the idea of the group composition - the band as an integral part of any song that Jagger/Richards wrote. Keyboards and piano were only included on their records as another blues instrument; and if in the seventies they dabbled in funk and disco (quite well) and reggae (less so), then it seemed a natural progression for an R&B band. I've still never got on with the bluesy earthiness of "Exile" - but their soulful psychedelia always had a little of the devil in it, explicitly so on "Sympathy" and hardly needed the bandwagon chasing of their psychedelic album (though it includes another song that I heard first elsewhere - "She's a Rainbow" which was covered by Manchester's World of Twist). My own Stones pantheon would run from 1964-1981 at a stretch. That they managed to take the simple blues template and - without ever going too far from it - extracting so much else, that seemed entirely relevant to the times they were living through, remains a wonder.

A personal Stones Top 10

1. Sympathy for the Devil
2. Paint it Black
3. Play with Fire
4. Salt of the Earth
5. What to Do
6. Gimme Shelter
7. You Can't Always Get What You Want
8. Miss You
9. Angie
10. Wild Horses

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Most Modern

In 1999 I wrote a slightly tongue-in-cheek article called "As if Ulysses had never been written". It was primarily about fiction, but asked the question of what legacy modernist fiction had had on the contemporary literary landscape. I (correctly) predicted that me might see, at the time of the millennium, big, baggy, linear novels though owed very little to Joyce, Woolf, Stein et al. I probably wouldn't have asked the same question of poetry, partly because I felt somewhat unqualified to do so, but also because surely the answer was evident: modernism was a foreign plant that had never quite flowered in our tough soil. The existence of "The Movement", our veneration of Larkin, the popularity of Heaney and Hughes, were all evidence enough that the modernist project had stalled on these shores.

That British poetry still fears modernism seems a silliness, but I think it's still there. In his otherwise excellent biography of Edward Thomas, Matthew Hollis (just appointed as Faber poetry editor), ends the book by bigging up the Thomas strand of English poetry. Our poet laureate is quoted on the cover; and the Wikipedia entry for Thomas mentions Ted Hughes' quote that Thomas was "the father of us all." British poetry had its post-modern tribes, but they were thin on the ground (or at least, have been squeezed out of the narrative) compared to their American cousins. Our confessionals, our beats, are either minor figures or tend to be assimilated into a mainstream narrative.

I'll come back to this. In the way that one's reading tends to beget one's reading; I was fascinated by an exemplary article in this month's Poetry by Clive James. He is talking about "memorable lines" and how whereas some poems may cluster them together in a series of unforgettable "hits", other poems may have interminable gaps between the lines that have somehow survived. He speaks of Heaney's luck to be bought up in a landscape that almost guaranteed a musicality to his poetry. My thoughts on that of course, are, perhaps at the heart of my discomfort with the romantic/natural world tendencies of so much British poetry: for surely if we're not "lucky" enough to be born with the beautiful acoustics of a church at hand, then we have to find music elsewhere? It is notable that many of the great American poets of the 20th century haven't necessarily eulogised that country's monumental landscape but something else entirely. We need, I think, to follow on from Ginsberg, and find Whitman in the supermarket.

But this essay played into a conversation I'd been having the night before at the launch of Lindsey Holland's debut collection "Particle Soup." We've had conversations before about where particular poets and poems "fit" - and it seems that there are quite a few writers I know who are not comfortable or particularly interested in the old arguments between the "mainstream" and "avant garde." It's possible after all to like Simon Armitage and Geraldine Monk; and also, I suspect, to question some of the differences and distinctions between different "schools." It can work the other way of course; I'm not particularly interested in Prynne or Heaney. Thinking aloud, as you do after a poetry reading, when you're sat in the pub, I mused on how useful or not these distinctions are to our own practice. I've often been surprised, in conversations with contemporaries, how much of their influence - if that's the word - comes from their peers. Perhaps coming as a bit of an outsider to poetry has its advantages: I puzzle a little at "generations". There are plenty of poems and poets coming to my attention apparently fully-formed; less, I think, in the fifteen or so years I've been taking an interest, where I've seen an obvious development. Part of this is about the proliferation; partly about the very idea of "schools." But also, there is something of influence. I'll be honest, there's been very little I can take as a poet from, say, Armitage. I know I can't do what he does with anything like his skill or effectiveness. Yet, at the same time, his method doesn't actually have a lot of use for the kind of poetry I want to write. Discovering both Les Murray and John Ashbery in the late 90s, I didn't consider them to be opposite ends of anything; but both have been helpful models.

And that's what this comes down to, I think. We all have books that meant something to us; and as time flattens things out, rather than fixing the narrative ("Modernism began in 1912 and ended...blah blah blah") I feel that, in art at least, though its probably equally as true of history, we have to look again at the story, and revisit with our contemporary eyes and ears. Though you might not find much that bears similar characteristics to Eliot or Pound in the 19th century's Empire poets; there are echoes of intent going back further - Eliot saw this in the metaphysicals; Pound in Chinese poetry amongst other forms. James in his article makes the salient point (one that I'd made the night before, actually) that Tennyson was exempted from the general early 20th-century disdain from the late Victorians. And rightly so. His words sing, they have "hits", they do not go "clunk." Of course, fascinating ourselves behind modernism we begin to notice other difficulties. Outside of Eliot and Pound, there is no shortage of "clunking". H.D. and Richard Adlington have their moments; Joyce hardly qualifies as a full-time poet - though he was certainly a modernist - and by the time we get to Auden, we have a voice that is doggedly non-modernist, though is perhaps inconceivable without the example of modernism. Larkin, like Tennyson, survives all movements and "Movements" because he was so good. Thom Gunn always seems an exception to any box you put him into, and though I'm not much of a Hughesian, his influence is large - and, vitally, different.

Which takes us back to the poems - the lines that matter - and whether you'll find these as easily in Bunting or Olson or Prynne as in Billy Collins or Andrew Motion or William Letford. (If there is one fault in the James essay is that he rarely strays into the contemporary minefield: the past is easier to negotiate in this way, but it would be good to know what his thoughts were on, say Sam Riviere's "81 Austerities". The most modern he gets is with his description of Martian poetry as "all climax, no build up" - which seems brilliantly apt, and possibly explains why the first time you read martianism, it's wonderful, but by the time of "History: a Home Movie" there's little left to be excited about.) So how do we negotiate the modernism argument? I guess by sidestepping it. In Holland's poetry, for instance, we rarely linger on a particular image for that long, this is neither imagism or still life, but more a roving camera, "movementism" rather than "The Movement" if you like, and its a quality (it is a quality) that I find in quite a lot of contemporary writing. We live, after all, in an age of alacrity - but whereas the Futurists needed to exalt the fast and modern - our age; a virtual one; has its Larkinesque moments: the English countryside passing by his eyes as he travels south one Whitsun for instance. This is no longer technology as the motor of our times, but us, being to some extent cog-parts of that technology. How we fuse that with our humanity is perhaps a quintessentially poetic questions? Do poets wear glasses, I often wonder? And if they do, why don't the write about them more - the answer is that a poet always has a short- or long-sightedness to deal with however much they profess to 20/20 vision.

So, I look at where we might find that "movementism" in the past, and its there before the age of mechanical reproduction; I guess we can find it in "The Seafarer" or in the narrator-narratee structure of "The Canterbury Tales"; but we also see it, mostly, I think, in those pre-modernist modernists. I'm thinking of Hardy and Hopkins in particular. Their poems are rarely still lives. The ever enervating "The Darkling Thrush" sees the self-conscious (modernist?) narrator move from darkest depression to elation; this could be the romantic euphoria of Wordsworth of course, turning a corner and being hit in the face by the wonders of nature; but in Hardy the narrator hasn't moved, other than through the course of his day (and the course of his moods.) Like reluctant Larkin travelling on a bank holiday, the fin de siecle Hardy is feeling the pains of the age; yet can still be lifted. The still life is never less useful a model, I think - and here we have the beginnings of a sensibility that survives modernism, but certainly pre-dates it - an ability to view the world from different angles. Less the painter fixed on his muse, and more the child on the beach, prefiguring the Instamatic or the digital camera, and taking the kind of shakey camera shots that tell us something about how our minds work. Neither us or the landscape is unchanging. We can re-frame the shot to avoid the pylons if we want, but importantly they are still there. This is the lesson, I think, that contemporaries have extracted from Modernism, but actually, have found it was already there in the proto-modernists such as Hardy and Hopkins and is there again, in the post-war poets. In this viewpoint, modernism becomes a useful touchstone, a project, a movement; post-modernism, a sidetrack, and those post-modern confessionals, beats or New Yorkers, who its easier to put in a vast, slightly awkward box, called the "avant garde", are now clearly in sight again, as part of an ongoing narrative that exists without need for labels.

And going back to Clive James one last time, one wonders if the "line", the "hit", the memorable is what matters for more than the utilitarian view of Heaney and Hughes' "Rattle Bag" to memorise poems by half. As James says, half joking, when someones starts on reciting Milton or whoever, there's rarely any one of us there with the text to check they've got it right. There is, I think, a difference between acting and reading, after all. If there's anything to be said about this somewhat egalitarian view, its that it seems inevitably echoed in recent anthologies of younger poets - where its not clear where their influences come (other from their peer group or the wider world), but they certainly don't seem to have bounced directly down from those just a few years older. There is, after all, no contemporary Auden or Eliot to bounce all questions off. That would require a series of "hits" of Beatles proportions.

Monday, November 05, 2012

Clarity and Complexity

There seems to me to be a bit of a false dichotomy between "difficult" and "accessible" writing, whether in poetry or prose. Perhaps its the same in other art forms. Certainly if you're watching the X-Factor you'll only see a transparent, linear art - for with the odd exception, these are interpretations which - in the "saving" song, for instance - tend to want lyrics that reflect the situation. Yet even the most apparently simple of pop songs can be obscure, with no real lack of meaning or understanding. If the "love song" is the main theme of pop music, then love is a perfect medium for both the clear and the complex - for as a concept it is simple, understandable; yet our endless artistic (and personal) ruminations on it tell of its infinite variety, and its complexity. So though you can sing "I love you" in a pop song, you can also sing "you're my wonderwall" or "left the cake out in the rain" and the obscure has meaning. Of course, the tune is often a clue. (And it can work the other way - Springsteen's Born in the USA may be a cynical anti-war song, but its punch-the-air chorus belies that - so no wonder it has often been co-opted by the right.)

One of the reasons, I think, that Carol Ann Duffy is so well read is because she doesn't just do simple, it just appears simple. A poem comparing love to an onion is simple in terms of its image, and could appear (and probably does, in its many workshop imitations) banal, but actually such simplicity is hard to come by. Similarly with Simon Armitage, his poetry manages to sneak the metaphysical into even the most anecdotal of situations. Yet there's that false dichotomy we see where Geoffrey Hill is referred to as "difficult" and Duffy as "accessible." Taking those broad brush themes such as love and death and you can make them either. Hill's poetry at its best doesn't seem particularly difficult to understand the heft of it; but you may struggle with the references. I guess the question I always ask is if a poem (and a poet) is being true to itself. I'd feel uncomfortable researching something just for a poem; yet that's different, I think, than writing about something one is already interested in. It's why "The Wasteland" remains so much of a touchstone - you can read it either way, and perhaps the scholarly approach to the poem might cast less light than the emotional one.

But poetry always has a little bit of a veil over it. Fiction shouldn't be hard, should it? Again, I'm not sure what we are talking about here. Henry James can be hard, because he spends so long getting to the nub of what he is saying, yet he can also write one of the best ghost stories in the language in "The Turn of the Screw." Language, it seems, can get in the way of understanding, and perhaps in James there are times when it does; in Conrad or say, Saramago its the density of the writing that creates any difficulty, yet "Heart of Darkness" or "Blindness" have an ability to express quite simple truths with a depth that resonates along time after reading.

I don't think I've ever had an ideal reader - though I probably write for people my own age, my own generation, and perhaps, with my own cultural reference points. I remember reading that Ishiguro things about what he writes in English now, knowing it will be translated. This seems a strange kind of compromise; but at the same time, if its not clear in your own language then what are you trying to do? I've read a lot of unpublished work over the years and I'd say that the one thing that sometimes lets new writers down is not their obfuscation, but that it sometimes appears that they don't know what is happening in their book. The uncertainty is there. I'm never quite sure I agree with the idea that its up to the reader to "interpret" - the death of the author seems to forget that the author is also a reader (an interpreter) of his or her own work - and though I don't think its the only interpretation, the intent is important. Anyone who has written with any kind of serious intent will know too well how often we fail to achieve what we set out to do. Language, and its complexities, seems to offer the best way out of this bind - that, rather than complexity. Books that I enjoyed, but felt suffered a little from the author's lack of intent, are often ones which seem to get the psychology all wrong. We can, I think, believe anything if the author makes us believe it. I often use the example of "The Godfather" movie, where Micheal Corleone moves from someone who is determined not to be part of the family business, to being a cold-blooded killer who is even more ruthless than his father. This shouldn't work, but the motivation is so well done (and the part so well played), that the change is inevitable.

With the unpublished writer having few readers other than friends and family, you tend to jump on particular comments - either as a sense you've got things right, or an acknowledgement you've got things wrong. A novella I wrote was read separately by a couple who came up with quite different views on the core relationship in the story. I felt that I must have done something right here; for the story was open to an interpretation - these imaginary characters have motives that I have given them, but which are only transmittable to the reader via my prose and their actions.

I don't think of myself as a particularly "clever" person in that I don't know science or languages or mathematics or music and I wonder what sort of writer I might be if I did? However, as an imaginative writer, you can pretty much imagine anything. The essay by James from which this blog takes its name, makes that very same point - that a writer doesn't need to have been a soldier to write about a barracks; but may well have been near a barracks at some point. (In "The End of the Affair" Graham Greene muses that she'd have probably had to have slept with a soldier at least.) So for me to write something complex is for me to know something complex to at least the extent that I can make it believable. What I can't legislate for is my readers being less erudite or more erudite than I am. Chances are I might know more about pop music and computers, but chances are also high that they'll probably know much more than me about nearly everything else.

But a writer tends to be a knowledge sharer in many ways - in which an academic, for instance, may not be. I've found out something good, or interesting, and I'll make a story from it and share that with the world. You should find something new from a novel I think, if only because of the work that has gone into it. "Wolf Hall" and "Bring out the Bodies" aren't a replacement for a history of the Tudors, but you don't need to know that history to enjoy the books - and oddly enough, how ever many histories you've read or seen, it can often be the fictional representation that sticks the facts more in your head than even the best scholarship. But this risks writing as being merely utilitarian. I was at a debate in Norwich a few years ago where a number of writers gave fascinating talks about advances in neuroscience. Here was the classic case; none of us were scientists, specialists in the room; some had spoken with specialists and got an insight that they were able to share; yet at the end of the day, it struck me that we were being a little too much in awe of the experts. Where, I wondered, was our experience in this matter? For if neuroscience is about what it's like to be human, then surely that is what good novelists and poets (and readers of good novels and poems) are experts in?

With the exception, I think, of children's books, which are clearly written, even at their best, with a compromise or two in language and form based upon the perceived audience, there is no monopoly on complexity, or indeed on clarity. A badly written book can be unecessarily complex, whilst a well written one by a good writer may sometimes be bland or banal. 

Because I've no "ideal reader" if I do think about readers its probably those friends I grew up with, or have made in later life. I want, I guess, people I know and like to enjoy or at least understand my writing. If I write something obscure then there must be a reason for it; there must be some clarity; but if I write something very plain, the same transaction is required - why am I doing it? And am I doing it right?

Over the last few years its been my poetry that has been read the most, and its been interesting that it seems to have gone down better with non-poets, and possibly non-poetry readers, than with poets. I guess that I'm writing a recognisable world, at least - for its often contemporary of theme and language. Yet, paradoxically, the poems that seem to resonate best are those where the meaning is not linear, where I'd have some difficulty in paraphrasing what I'm saying. I like to think that that's the moment where I've successfully managed to integrate clarity and complexity in such a way that one looks like the other, and its impossible to untangle either.