Tuesday, 29 December 2015

Dystopia in Toyland

  In one pixelated news-image of the aftermath of the recent Paris shootings, Bataclan concert-hall is shown as a charnel-house of bloody corpses wrapped in body-bags, a venue dedicated to the hedonistic enjoyment of music transformed into a nightmarish vision from Dante’s Inferno. While we all share a common revulsion at the perpetrators of this massacre (who apparently may have been less hardline religious fanatics than disaffected young chomeurs high on drugs), is there not a sense in which our culture has become increasingly habituated to such imagery and that in the 24/7 media-feed which saturates our imaginations horror and hedonism, bloodshed and consumerism are surreally interfused, as though they exist as two sides of the same greedily-grasped coin?
    Equally, fact and fiction have imploded and (as Norman Mailer wrote many years ago), “Reality is no longer realistic”. The scenes at Bataclan are the savage end-product of the gun-violence regularly celebrated in thrillers and action-movies but never shown in all its gory, unglamorous brutality. Turn on the Breakfast Show and our warped morality, all but numbed to genuine empathy, regards juxtaposed features on novelty Xmas jumpers and female genital mutilation with the same complacent engrossment.
   Garth Bowden’s new paintings address this conflicted visual-field by asking us to reassess our position as innocent or privileged bystanders, instead plunging us dizzily into the ethical dilemmas that surround us all today. While superficially referencing a mash-up of artistic sources – neo-Pop, the messy Abstract Expressionism of de Kooning and Pollock, even the visceral impact of early Francis Bacon – these large canvases immediately draw the eye in with their bright, hectic colour-patterns and apparently playful, half-comical imagery. However, this bricolage of cartoon whimsy belies a darker subtext, its characters compressed uncomfortably into each other so that they merge and mutate into distorted chimera. What’s more, red spatterings criss-cross the paintings and undercut the frivolity of the faces crowding in on us, as though the horror-mannequin Chucky has gone on a knife-spree through the cast of Fantasia.
   These bold and bizarre works, effectively capturing the paradoxes of a culture adrift between disneyfied banality and murderous dehumanisation, were created as a response to the Paris shootings by an artist with strong links both to the city and his adoptive homeland of France. If “artists are the antennae of their race” (as Ezra Pound suggested) they could be said to be both emotionally timely and – as a warning against perpetuating the cycle of violence through retaliatory bombings – politically resonant.  They build on themes and strategies that Bowden has obsessively returned to throughout his career and represent a new resolve to explore broader events through the lens of his ambitious personal vision.
  Exhibition Notes for The Silent Crowd, new paintings by Garth Bowden which were shown at Brick Lane Gallery in December 

Monday, 7 December 2015

Omeros: Drama and Form

 If we agree that both phonetic immediacy and formal cohesion are both key elements of the poem in how it strikes the listener when read aloud, should technical devices such as rhyme and metre be conspicuous to the ear and be active components in oral meaning? Or should they be implicit in the speech-act of the performance, "ghosts behind the arras" which register on a largely subconscious level? Perhaps many poems hover between these two "zones of proximal development"(Vygotsky) - especially if we already have knowledge of them on the page - and thrive both as static texts drawing attention to their own artifice through particular lineation and as mutable voicings following the momentum of speech-rhythms we hear around us all the time.
  What about the even more liminal form of poetic drama, with its added variables of character, stage-craft and fictive setting? Cleanth Brooks suggests that “all poetry, even short lyrics or descriptive pieces, involve a dramatic organization. This is clear when we reflect that every poem implies a speaker of the poem, either the poet writing in his own person or someone into whose mouth the poem is put, and that the poem represents the reaction of such a person to a situation, a scene, or an idea. In this sense every poem can be–and in fact must be–regarded as a little drama.”
   I went to see Derek Walcott's own dramatisation of his long poem Omeros at the Globe recently, having not previously read this book-length epic. My experience was that I was so drawn into the vivid spectacle of watching the two actors elaborate the coastal St Lucia of Walcott's beautifully evocative, sensuously alive poem and its mock-Homeric narrative-thread that I didn't take too much conscious account of its form. The actors wove between different characters and used the small, almost bare stage to remarkable imaginative effect, the "little drama" of Achille, Philoctete and Helen quite spellbinding in its potent universality.
     Yet when I opened the volume a few days later I was astonished to discover the whole 300-page work is composed in much the same tight metre and rhyme-scheme, a version of terza rima used probably in reference to the form of Dante's great epic but without the tripartite interlocking quality (itself a nested microcosm of the three-part structure of the Divina Commedia). Instead, like the all too human projects of its characters and in spite of the three-line stanzas which promise more, the lines of Omeros fall short into double-rhymes (usually ababcdcdefef etc), ultimately allowing a greater fluency and fidelity to speech-rhythms than terza rima and carrying forward the narrative with the propulsion of its rapid echoings, the oral resonance of its linked sound-patterns.

Tuesday, 10 November 2015

Yellow Studio

A Review of Stephen Romer: YELLOW STUDIO (Carcanet, 2008)

   In a Radio 3 interview with Clive Wilmer conducted 20 years ago, Stephen Romer (a long-term resident in France and professor of French literature) speaks of the engrained disparity between the “post-Mallarmean reflexiveness’’ of French poetic idioms and an English tradition benched in the quotidian world of people and things: he related how a French academic, on being presented with a Larkinesque poem of urban mundanity, found it so alien to his sensibilities that he declared ‘Ceci n’est pas une poeme’. (A hint of Magrittean surrealism enters the picture here.)
    A major element of Stephen Romer’s project over his five published volumes has been to work through a complex negotiation between these two apparently divergent poetries and the epistemologies that accompany them, an impressive attempt to marry the philosophical elegance and linguistic clarity of contemporary French styles with the more worldly, experiential, noun-cluttered demotic of their counterparts in English. His new collection Yellow Studio furthers this ongoing dialogue through its five sections, plotting a kind of ironic narrative from the opening’s ambivalent francophilia, through a satirical American divagation, back to the poet’s English roots in the beautiful cycle of uneffusive elegies for his father which close the book.
     It’s as though, from the perspective of rueful middle-age, Romer is dismantling the bookish pretensions towards high-flown theory and aestheticism he may have indulged in when younger (just as in one poem he dismantles his library) in favour of the looser, more provisional modes of understanding that broken love and grief force upon us. In a characteristic paradox, however, the  pastoral withdrawal of aging is also ironised, and in the title-poem Vuillard’s stylised ‘Yellow Studio’ comes to symbolise the “humane heaven” of art he now regards “with nostalgia, with homesickness” – is its “sweet, autarchic rest” really to be longed for, though, if it provides only a “lumpy mattress” to lie on ie. hidden imperfections would always trouble you, such as the social contexts of the artist’s studio evoked earlier in the poem? The unusual word “autarchic” is also troubling, alluding both to an anachronistic notion of absolute power (attainable only in the abstract world of art) and perhaps even to a condition of autism that implies exclusion from human discourse and reality.
    This is a telling example of how subtly Romer “loads every rift with ore”: the wry, sophisticated surface of each poem often gives way on closer inspection to an unstable inner pattern of evasions and problematics, frequently hinging on nuanced ambiguities or oblique references to other source-materials. In this way, the oppositions the book initially seems to set up – between art and life, France and England, exile and home, youth and age – are consistently skewed and disjointed into more intricate relations. Equally, the urbane, knowing narrative ‘I’ who bobs elusively in and out of the poems keeps adroitly pulling the rug from beneath his own feet (the “two-tone shoes” he mentions hint at his doubleness): one is reminded of what one critic said of Rilke, that “by most revealing, he was most concealing himself”. Implicitly fighting shy of the unitary confessional voice which is all too often the default-setting of contemporary English and American poetries, Romer hives himself off into different registers, slants and postures which enact multiple perspectives on recurrent situations and locales.
      A further way the poems attain this polyphony is through the use of translation and adaptation to create personae, in the Poundian sense: four haunting versions of Apollinaire’s war-poems modulate familiar motifs of lost youth and thwarted love through a newly modernist tonality lent by unpunctuated parataxis and “calligrammatic” lineation. ‘Yehuda Halevi to His Love’ seems to wryly ventriloquise the 11th Century Hebrew poet-philosopher, while the longer, obscurer piece ‘Jardin Anglais’ uses material from de Nerval’s Sylvie to set up a dialogue between conflicting historical voices, a ‘malentendu’.
     The book begins in a contemporary Paris kitsch with “sprinkle-glitter” and “seafood-platters”. Several of section one’s poems seem distant parodies of the bathetic amorous liaison typically encountered in Laforgue: the self-deprecating narrator struggling to seduce a markedly less literate (and in this case much younger) ingénue-figure. This ‘mid-life crisis’-type situation is mined for its comic potential, especially in ‘At the Procope’, when his young American dinner-date unexpectedly reveals hidden literary credentials in the form of

                                 “a snatch of Stevens- was it
        ‘The Idea of Order’? - indelibly tattooed
         On her back, just along the pantyline.”

 The lines ripple with wordplay: the double-entendre on the Americanism “snatch”; the adverb “indelibly”, seemingly tautologous until you consider that not all tattoos are permanent and indeed, in our throwaway culture, how few texts of any kind are indelible anymore – even those of Wallace Stevens, that lofty, metaphysical poet whose appearance along a girl’s pantyline seems surreally incongruous to say the least? What “idea of order” remains plausible in this kind of context?
      At the same time, as we read on through section one, a subtext develops implying recourse to frivolous sexual adventures is merely a diversion from the grievous breakdown of a more serious relationship (or marriage?) The mood rapidly darkens: the despondent parting in a Paris cafe sketched in ‘Recidivist’ hinges on two pregnant images. “The eternal Lipton’s teabag/laid genteelly on the saucer” works as an understated metaphor for something used-up or redundant, as well as carrying the cultural connotations of being the only brand of “English tea” available in France (and seemingly only ever drunk by the English abroad). Even more subtle is what the poem doesn’t say: that a Lipton’s tea-bag label is yellow, making it a tiny synecdoche of the ‘Yellow Studio’ that is an over-arching trope throughout the book.  The closing image - “The way your blue dress rises” - seems initially a straight visual-impression charged with misgiving, but it seems also to bear a buried memory of another wife poignantly mourned-for by an English poet, the “air-blue gown” of Hardy’s great ‘The Voice’: the rising-up is both the erotic uncovering of the narrator’s raw loss and his mediation of it through literary echoes and language.
     Section two steps back into the rural France of a middle-aged Horatian quietism not without its disquiets. Two exquisite landscape poems (‘A Small Field’ and ‘Loire, August’) and a concerted attempt to cultivate his own garden (‘pruned expectation’) give way to deflating incursions of loneliness and sexual frustration: he “check(s) the personals”, sees in a “full-bottomed urn” a former lover’s buttocks, sleeps guiltily with one of his young students (“the aging Don” is both university lecturer and ironic Don Juan). The Apollinaire versions shatter any further pretence at bucolic seclusion by bringing conflict and history back into the frame.
      This leads on to section three’s more measured and politicised slant on contemporary France, with side-sweeps at cloistered academia and its reductive over-analyses. The liberalism, both cultural and social (“the sensual life of art”), which France had represented to Romer as a young man is vividly mourned in ‘Farewell to an Idea’: he now feels “we are old, and exiled /into more frightening country”. Section four transposes this sense of political malaise to America in the context of 9/11: rather than simplistic condemnatory invective, however, Romer restores historical perspective to the “toxic darkness” he finds there, subtly alluding both to the pioneer-spirit of “the Founding Fathers” (ironically foisted into the setting of a Back-to-Nature weekend) and, via Coleridge’s “pantisocracy” and ‘The Tempest’, back to the United States’ conceptual origins in the French Enlightenment and Voltaire: this great intellectual tradition has disastrously terminated in the “autarchic” debasement of

                                    “a President
     sitting among children in a classroom
     with his reading-book upside-down.”

    Stylistically, Romer taps into the abundant resources of American poetry to work through his perennial French/English dichotomy: whereas Section One had included an unexpected reference to Frank O’Hara’s ‘Having a Coke with you’ (‘Alas Without Constraints’) to signal its experiments with urban demotic, and the concluding lines of ‘Today I Must Teach Voltaire’ seem to borrow a tone and cadence of trans-political obloquy from George Oppen (‘He must explain to all of the children/this blazing love of death’), the excellent ‘Adirondacks’ takes a leaf out of Elizabeth Bishop’s magisterial later books, with its coolly defamiliarising outlook on a travelled-through landscape and its all-too-human inhabitants, obliquely summing-up a culture’s contradictions and discontents in a few off-hand, resonant images.
      What is so striking about ‘An Enthusiast’, the twenty four interlinking elegies for the poet’s father that conclude the book, is the way they explore intimately personal material in a manner quite new to Romer while at the same time drawing together and recapitulating many of the themes and images of the earlier sections. The tentative endeavour to posthumously settle differences becomes a continuous self-association with his father – whether in attachment to music, gardening (“my hedges gone haywire”), flirtatious encounters, religious belief, marriage – all these counterpointed by instances from preceding poems. Memory and imagination fuse as Romer reconstructs episodes in his father’s life from a “strictly private diary”, a writerly disclosure which once more unites them. Like Lowell’s ‘Life-studies’ (a memory-book ‘An Enthusiast’ has some formal kinship with, especially in its use of short-lined, irregularly-rhyming free-ish verse), there is also the attempt to read back current crises from family history: the repressed, privileged middle-class England Romer’s father was heir to perhaps lies behind the “silence, exile and cunning” of his son’s later defection to France and to poetry.
     In a final variation on the volume’s key-image, the ‘Yellow Studio’ of art becomes the “yellow attic room” of childhood, to be revisited in memory but not reclaimed, the poet reconciling himself to his father’s work of “clearance” out in the sunlit garden so that he can move forward and growth can begin again: the writing of these elegies has no doubt been a similarly cathartic labour for the son. Such subtlety and reluctance to polarise is typical of Romer’s art in this consistently-enthralling book – an object-lesson for less meticulous contemporaries in how to construct a complex, full-bodied book, not just a résumé of disparate pieces.
                                               (First published in The Wolf, 2008)

Saturday, 24 October 2015

Stupendous Cocky Turpitude: Prynne on Podcast

   Like many people, I don't find much time to read these days. I could bemoan the skittering atomistic banality-fest of post-historic consumerdom and our brains' doddering over-reliance on the mental prosthetics of cyber-gadgetry but then Horace was sighing alas that the fugacious years were slipping him by in 23BC. The amount of books on my 'Must Read' list (not to mention the perhaps even longer list of 'Must Re-Read'), however, seems to burgeon in exponential correlation to the dwindling of my reading-time - the resultant line-graph might bear some relation to the same chiasmus besetting contemporary poetry-volumes: never so many being published, never so few bought and read. We are stumbling towards a strange tipping-point in what passes for cultural production where almost everyone is "publishing" something - whether in the form of blog-posts, Instagram photo-feeds, self-published e-books, GarageBand "tracks" uploaded to SoundCloud - but no-one is paying much attention because they're too busy expressing the hell out of themselves. It's like a coked-up party where everyone is speaking at once, tipsily pleased with the sound of their own voice, and no-one is listening.
    Listening to podcasts on my smartphone  while driving is a makeshift expedient, if by no means an actual alternative to reading books. TLS Voices grabbed my attention the other day at the traffic-lights on Finchley Road with an unexpectedly apposite yoking of a non-mainstream poem with a contemporary news-story. Robert Potts' examination of Prynne's To Pollen in the light of the recent media furore over images of the drowned Syrian toddler Aylan Kurdi pointed up the continued incisiveness of the poem's invective, travestying from within a consciously doubling, slippery poetic discourse the linguistic duplicities and slippages that coverage of the two Gulf Wars was almost wholly composed of, laced with the kind of confused post-imperialist xenophobia which informs the rhetoric of many commentators on the recent migrant crisis .
    The silent redaction which transformed the word "immigrant" into "migrant" in permitted news-vocabulary pretty much overnight is a telling example of such semantic drift, although obviously in this case moving away from potentially negativising terminology. (The priggish undergraduate deconstructionist in me wants to signal the denied subjecthood hiding in the banned letters "im/I'm" and to bandy the phrase "interpellated by their elision" to denote the likes of Aylan Kurdi, immortalised now as a tiny dead body washed up on a beach.)

Sunday, 30 August 2015

A New Dance No Tango

  Here's something for Carnival weekend. This has been the tune of the summer in my car, at least when my teenage son's on board. 
   The lyrics are as catchy as a mnemonic and have a loopy momentum whereby (to echo Yeats) the content seems driven by the desire to find the next rhyme:
   "You might see me in a Lambo,
     Camo snapback: Rambo
     Five hundred horses: Django
     Two-two chicken: Nando"

  If that's not poetry I don't know what is.

Wednesday, 19 August 2015

British Figures

Untitled Nude, Tom Phillips 2015

                                                     Men of War, Nicola Hicks 2015                                              
Finnan Smokers
     John Bellany, Finnan Smokers 1992

(from the exhibition The British Figure at Flowers Gallery, Kingsland Road until 29th August)

Sunday, 26 July 2015

In Search of Missing Persons


    Fernando Pessoa has always been one of my favourite poets. His theory of heteronyms - the concept that a writer could hive off different aspects of his sensibility and imagination into a diversity of poetic voices and registers - is central to the key Modernist trope of fractured identity and multiple selves. In all he invented a total of 136 heteronyms, some with their own biographies, astrological charts and visiting cards, as though his very authorial presence were a work of fiction. Indeed, Pessoa goes so far beyond related strategies such as Poundian personae or Yeatsian masks that he seems eminently post-modern, his entire work posited on the elaborate deferral of subjectivity and the unstable, arbitrary nature of poetic style and language, debunking the egotistical sublime of later confessional modes. Similarly, Pessoa's multitudinous, refractive oeuvre gives the lie to the received platitude that poets should develop a "mature voice" and stick to it, supposedly expressing autobiographical epiphanies in a simplistic traffic between lyric-I and experience recollected in tranquillity.

    Fernando Pessoa the man (1888-1935) is as elusive and self-eliding as his poetry might suggest. The biographical facts we have are remarkably few - after early years in Durban, he spent most of his life in Lisbon and never married or had children. His remorselessly bleak prose-work The Book of Disquiet (fathered by the heteronym Bernando Soares) invokes a penumbrous, liminal existence trapped between the futile tedium of office-work and the isolation of sitting in cafes or in a rented room alone, its narrator a desperate, reality-doubting marginalist combining aspects of Malte Laurids Brigge with the anti-hero of Knut Hamsun's Hunger. The shabby, uninspiring streets of Soares's Lisbon seemed a world away from the colourful, exhilaratingly sunlit city I visited the other week, where old and new architectures vibrantly offset each other and the hilly layout provides dizzying perspectives down narrow backstreets where Pessoa might once have conducted his nocturnal flaneries.

 From our hotel near Saldanha it was a relatively short walk to the Casa-Museo Fernando Pessoa or should have been, were we not distracted by such sights as the Basilica da Estrela and its garden of welcome shade (36 degrees heat that day), an indoor artisanal market and the antique-shops around Rato with their intriguing arrays of bric-a-brac and retro artefacts.

  The Casa Pessoa has the excellent policy of half-price entrance fees to teachers, no evidence asked for, and to students - again no proof needed on this occasion. We were met with a lengthy introductory lecture in English about Pessoa and the house now dedicated to him, rather over-zealously delivered by the tour-guide and a little hard to take in after our walk in the sweltering heat. It was the poet's residence for the last 15 years of his life and houses his library, which contains a high proportion of English books. What surprised me was the fact that - as the guide described it or as I understood him - Pessoa wrote so much in English, perhaps as much as "50/50 between Portugese and English". Some of the work in English remains unedited and unpublished - and is certainly little-known in the English-speaking world.
    (The next day I managed to find a little volume of selected English poems called No Matter What We Dream in a bookshop  and bought a copy. Although some of the work penned by heteronyms like Alexander Search and the Mad Fiddler prefigures the more familiar Portugese poems in its themes and imagery, a lot of the texts read like slightly wooden pastiches of English models and the editors are right to say "Pessoa's English was bookish, old-fashioned in diction and generally lacking the grace of a native speaker".)

    That the Casa Pessoa is a well-curated and important museum is beyond doubt: it incorporates interactive technology to good effect and utilises animated video-clips to draw children into Pessoa's world. It also acts as a cultural hub by having a room for poetry-readings and musical performances and as a study-centre by having the library not just as an archive of the author's book but of translations and critical works about Pessoa from many countries.
What repeatedly struck me as I walked around the museum was admiration that an original and in many ways experimental poet like Pessoa - certainly not a mainstream or populist figure - should be so amply respected and memorialised in this way, bespeaking a literary broad-mindedness seldom encountered in England. (I was trying to think of an equivalent British poet but there really isn't one.) Unknown outside avant garde circles and largely unpublished during his lifetime, Pessoa has ultimately become (alongside Saramago, bacalhau and the fado divas of the bairro alto) one of Lisbon's cultural icons - deservedly so given the distinctive quality of his writing yet strangely ironic when we consider the depersonalising, self-disguising nature of his aesthetic. Like the last line of his poem 'The Cat' (printed on the wall of the restaurant at the back of the museum where we ate lunch after our visit), Pessoa seems always to be saying " I know myself: I'm missing".

Wednesday, 22 July 2015

A Prayerful State

"But to poetry — you have to be willing to waste time. When you start a poem, stay with it and suffer through it and just think about nothing, not even the poem. Just be there. It's more of a prayerful state than writing the novels is. A lot of the novel is in doing good works, as it were, not praying. And the prayerful state is just being passive with it, mumbling, being around there, lying on the grass, going swimming, you see. Even getting drunk. Get drunk prayerfully, though."
   Love this quotation from Robert Penn Warren, very appropriate for poets like me who are also teachers just beginning their summer holidays. 'Prayerful state' sums it up beautifully, although I would hasten to add there's invariably a focussed, active work-phase after the initial passive one when you're waiting for the words to emerge.
   Some prayerful drunkenness tonight, then...

Tuesday, 16 June 2015

I'm A Believer: Robert Wyatt

  A thrilling and rarely-seen performance from Top of the Pops from 1974 with Nick Mason of Pink Floyd on drums and Fred Frith on guitar. However, as this passage from Wyatt's authorised biography Different Every Time suggests, seventies TOTP was not only a hotbed of tacitly-accepted underage molestation but of outrageous disablism too: there was a "squabble centred on Robert's wheelchair, apparently deemed unsuitable for family viewing. 'The BBC were astonishingly stupid about it'  says Fred Frith, who recalls the disagreement lasting throughout the day. Richard Sinclair even remembers having to prop Wyatt up in his chair at one point, when someone insisted on removing the arms. The BBC  did eventually allow him to perform from his wheelchair...but TOTP was a nasty surprise for Robert: 'It was the first time anyone had made me feel unsightly. And it was a shock. I thought other people must think that, but they don't say it. It did upset me.' "
   As the author of this fascinating biography, Marcus O'Dair, puts it when discussing Wyatt's choice of the Neil Diamond-penned, Monkees pop classic, "whether Robert anticipated it or not, a line about disappointment haunting his dreams had a very different resonance when delivered from a wheelchair".

Wednesday, 27 May 2015

Make Some Noise

 Made it along to Café Oto in Dalston the other week for an evening of 'Brighton noise-poetry', an oddly alluring tag for a scene bigged-up in a recent piece for The Wire magazine by one of its proponents, Daniel Spicer. I'd missed the article but had friends who were involved in the performance; the proposition of a live amalgam of poetry and noisy/improvised sounds was inviting too as this kind of interface has always fascinated me.
    We're all aware of poetry's archaic origins as words (or vocalisations) set to music: Nietzsche goes further and suggests that "the poet cannot tell us anything that was not already contained, with a most universal validity, in such music as prompted him to his figurative discourse". We all know the other quotes about literature aspiring to the condition of music and poetry atrophying when it gets too far from music but when we turn to famous poems that purport to be composed in musical forms - Bunting's Sonatas, say, or Zukofsky's "A" or (ho-hum) Four Quartets - you discover, despite a foregrounded musicality of language, that the form is being employed more as a structural analogy than as an actual acoustic principle (as, more impressively, Joyce used the fugue in the 'Sirens' episode of Ulysses) and that on the whole, when compared with the vastly more complex arranging and orchestrating of impalpable tonal textures and ideas which composers have to deal with, poets are little better than apathetic scatterbrains merely writing down the ready-made verbiage they find around them and sometimes counting the syllables and inserting homophonic parallels. Equally, compared with the expressive skill and dexterity born of years of dedicated practice displayed by a concert pianist, a jazz drummer or a Tuvan throat singer, most poets are complacent loafers who merely stand there and read out their lines from a sheet in the funny, over-earnest voice we're all supposed to use.
    Not to say that interesting things haven't been done in trying to marry music and poetry in areas outside the mainstream, white, academic field: I'm thinking mainly here of jazz-, rap- and dub-poetries as well as the sound-poetry of writers like Bob Cobbing and Tracie Morris. Of course, playing with the inherent rhythmical currents and cross-currents of language and being alert to oscillations between sound and sense are what makes poetry compelling in the first place so there is considerable potential to explore links between this and musical collaboration, although the challenge for me remains in transferring the density and complexity of language associated with more page-based poetry (ie. poetry that does not yield all its meaning on a first hearing but bears repeated re-reading and contemplation) into a live context with other auditory materials (as well as performance dynamics) to compete with.
   Although bracing and far from run of the mill, the Café Oto night was a mixed affair for this very reason. Several of the acts fell down on a lack of balance between voice and musical backdrop, both on a sound-engineering level (ie. you couldn't always hear the words) and on a conceptual level, where to me the music was more engaging than the spoken text and therefore distracted me from connecting with the texts properly (extraneous noises, during quieter pieces, were also an issue at times.) The duo Map 71 more successfully welded jagged beats to Lisa Jayne's declamatory utterances, closer in delivery to a female Karl Hyde than any other poet I could name. Alan Hay, sans backing, came across as a performer whose poetry held one's interest on its own merits: mercurial, disarming, with a Frank O'Hara insouciance and fluidity about it though equally tinged with an O'Haran downbeat edge.
   Compared to Hay's aslant beret and goatee, Keston Sutherland came on in conspicuously unbohemian guise: short hair, Todd Swiftian glasses and a pair of those reddish chinos usually only seen on Clapham Common or perhaps at Henley regatta. I'm an admirer of his work, in particular relishing the development from the more demonstrably Prynnean stylings of his earlier poetry to the more recent 'Ode to TL61P' where a more articulately transgressive energy is hit upon. Live, in collaboration with the grime-like beats and discords of THL Drenching (don't ask me what he was playing), Sutherland presents like the Professor of Poetry that he is having an apoplectic seizure and venting random tranches of garbled post-Marxian theory in every direction: ranting, spitting, stuttering and jerking his arms as though to vocally reinforce the already disjunctive intransigence of his texts, delivered at relentless breakneck velocity.
   I stepped out into the chilly Dalston night bewildered as to whether this was one of the most cutting-edge performances by a contemporary poet I had seen or a bizarre and impalatable mismatch. Or both. What it certainly wasn't was a complacent loafer merely standing there reading his lines from a sheet.

Sunday, 10 May 2015

Guest Poem: The Modern by Chris McCabe


Rimbaud’s stickleback skull
claws from a Lambeth puddle

his scales riffle hologrammatic

over Apollinaire’s ID card

as if he, Guillame, could head
to Royal College Street

and X-ray his jawline for the dead kid’s bones

rattling down inside his clavicle,
He walks from an Islington redbrick
checks his notebook for directions
Retour à Angel
Tube en face passé
Demander Clapham Road

as if London is the metric of the mind
French poets arrive
by night-boat to Victoria

Southbound to Clapham

for fog & depression
for “great tits & a behind”

Rimbaud for a bullet’s vowel
his pink cock in some milk


who puts the crows in trench coats

hooded like Germans

on Grosvenor Road SW1

a pink balloon scrotums the rails

- Owen strewn maitre d’ - Apollinaire snotted by Eros -
chaffinches arson their waistcoats,
natural gases in the bowels of a tree
- Picabia Napoleon’d in a sling -
Celine plugs his wounds with London soot -
the fog through which
Mallarme said
God cannot see -

O Tommy, Tommy Boys

it’s 1-nil carrion 2-nil corvus

(reprinted with the publisher's permission)

   To stave off post-Election blues I'm pleased to feature a poem this weekend from Chris McCabe's Speculatrix, one of the most compelling books of poetry to have appeared last year, with its surreal take on the historical layerings of London and its repositioning of contemporary culture as a macabre Jacobean revenge-tragicomedy. 'The Modern' plays with a juncture I'm particularly interested in: the presence of French poets like Rimbaud and Apollinaire in London during the years of Modernism's inception (also notoriously catalysed by the First World War) and the influence they drew from locales radically altered or non-existent in today's city. 

Monday, 4 May 2015

Poems For Sale

   Due to the proverbial 'technical hitches' (in this case a euphemism for a frank lack of internet know-how), I've just realised that the Paypal button I added to this blog allowing people to purchase copies of Human Form hasn't been working.
  So I'm officially relaunching it now - the book is now available for the reduced price of £7.99 directly from me and with free UK postage and packaging. You can also contact me at: oliverdixon91@gmail.com
  Here's a taster from the book, including the lines Tom Chivers adds to the page about Human Form on the Penned in the Margins website:   
So many things have come apart
in my hands or somehow gone astray

they could form a museum,                                                                  
a mausoleum of errings and shortfalls.

Like the one we drifted into when at a loss
that unrepeatable afternoon

we explored the historical market-town
in the rain. The vitrines of stuffed curiosities –

faded hoopoe with its punkish mohawk,
a pangolin like an outsize fir-cone

 endowed with limbs – amounted you said
to a ‘colonial mortuary’. The crude diorama

of a blacksmith’s forge – ventriloquist’s dummy
about to smite a horse-shoe while his wife

 and child look blankly on – was so unlife-like,
I wondered what a diorama of our lives

might resemble, a tableau vivant of Post-Everything
Ennui: mannequins of the three of us

watching adverts, waiting for the sky to clear,
my finger poised to hazard a futile suggestion

(like exploring an historical market-town)-
locked into our stances for the duration. 

Monday, 20 April 2015

Waiting for the Sunken Ship to Explode

   In literature the only thing better than finding a new word in the dictionary is hearing about an intriguing writer a description of makes you desperate to read. How Uwe Johnson (1934-84), one of the most significant post-war European novelists, "the Poet of Divided Germany", ended up in the terminally uninspiring backwater of Sheerness on the Isle of Sheppey in suburban Kent, is fascinatingly explored in the Radio 3 programme 'A Secret Life'.
   After defecting from Communist East Germany and living for much of the 60's in New York (during which time he worked on his magnum opus Die Jahrestage (Anniversaries), as yet untranslated into English), no-one is quite sure what drew Johnson to Sheerness, where he moved with his wife and daughter in 1974 and remained until his premature, perhaps drink-related death a decade later. The programme's oblique examination of his markedly unremarkable existence there (he was known as Charles to his neighbours and spent evenings in the local pub transcribing banal conversations) reminded me both of JG Ballard in his own bourgeois disturbia of Shepperton and Johnson's fellow German "emigrant" WG Sebald, who spent the last 30 years of his life in rural Norfolk. As well as being adherents of Flaubert's dictum "Be regular and orderly in your life like a bourgeois, so that you may be violent and original in your work", the three writers share an intense preoccupation with the dark depredations underlying apparently seemly urban existences, the "cracks in culture" Andre Gide spoke of wanting to probe.
     However, no novels or other books emanated from Uwe Johnson's residence in Sheerness. It seems he was "blocked" - semantically ironic, if we consider that it was the "Eastern bloc" he had veered away from. One of the few texts he completed was an essay on the SS Richard Montgomery, which had run aground and sank a mile off the coast of Sheerness with 3,172 tonnes of explosives on board.The essay seems indicative of Johnson's strange, imploded character in how he appears to relish this source of imminent danger and disruption submerged within the tedium of his internal exile. It describes how, due to the inherent danger and projected expense, the ship and its cargo had never been salvaged; and how, if the wreck were to explode, it would be one of the largest non-nuclear explosions of all time, perhaps sending a tidal wave up the Thames which would cause widespread damage and perhaps engulf large areas of London.

Monday, 13 April 2015

Sea and Sardinia

Ancient city of Tharros, Sinis peninsula
   "Comes over one an absolute necessity to move". In London we live so much in the virtual clouds our heads now resemble and by the abstracts societal pressures reify within our minds: clock-time, monetary status, group-approval. Until we travel we tend to forget we're primarily a body of which the brain is only one small component. We forget to look, feel and experience the world through sensory channels; that verbal explanations of phenomena are not always necessary. Through receptivity to otherness you can grasp experiences in a way that isn't either intellectual or culturally-circumscribed. Equally, there is always new learning to be acquired just by relinquishing the concept that living in a big sophisticated city gives us a privileged access to knowledge and understanding ie. the worldliness or knowingness - mediated through equivocating layers of irony - of the sceptical urbanite.
Torre di Castari, on the Costa Verde
  Wasn't this the impetus behind DH Lawrence's "savage pilgrimage"? You encounter this difficult, unwieldy sense of wonder, of the unkempt poem as "an act of attention" in Birds, Beasts and Flowers but in the novels set abroad - as well as travel-books such as Sea and Sardinia - the sense of frustration at not being able to turn off his critical intelligence and participate in the simpler, less cerebral life he encounters is palpable. But the expectation that Lawrence could ever discover a zone exempt from what he saw as the ravages of modernity - "Sardinia, which is like nowhere. Sardinia, which has no history, no date, no race, no offering... It lies outside; outside the circuit of civilisation" - seems inherently flawed, even if we still recognise the urge to locate this "uncaptured Sardinia" today.

Sunday, 15 March 2015

Unsung Women

    Last Sunday was International Women's Day and Radio 3 devoted their output to playing the works of female classical composers, whose historical marginalisation has been even greater than that of female writers and artists. The few I had heard of - Clara Schumann, Lili Boulanger, Germaine Tailleferre, Elizabeth Lutyens - took their place among a whole host of fascinating discoveries such as Élisabeth Jacquet de La Guerre (1665-1729) whose Céphale et Procris was the first opera written by a woman in France and Barbara Strozzi (1619-1677), the Venetian singer and composer. 
    I was particularly taken by this cantata by Strozzi, remarkably beautiful and somehow completely contemporary in how it communicates in this version by Mariana Flores.

Thursday, 19 February 2015

The Poet Who Vanished Comes Back

  The most exhilarating and refreshing poetry-volume of last year wasn't by some audacious new upstart but by a remarkable rediscovery from the 1960s whose language sounds to me more vibrant than any recent debut. The Collected Poems of Rosemary Tonks - Bedouin of the London Evening - appeared only six months or so after the passing away of the latter-styled Mrs Lightband as reported in this post from last May. Neil Astley of Bloodaxe has done an exemplary job not only of editing and bringing to light the long-out-of-print oeuvre so rapidly but also of providing a comprehensive introduction which finally details the whole poignant narrative of Tonks' transition from feted Hampstead literateuse, traveller and bohemian to devoutly-Christian eccentric living the second half of her life in solitary seclusion in Bournemouth.
   These days poets are in general such a polite, worldly, often business-like bunch  - always keen to market and promote themselves and further their careers through networking and social media: as in some ways we all have to be now, the market for any kind of readership or critical attention being so marginalised and competitive. It no longer seems enough just to be able to write good poems and hope that a receptive audience will discover and appreciate them.
    Since the Movement's rubbishing of the neo-romantic model of the poet (typified for them in the bibulous demise of Dylan Thomas), it's remained largely unfashionable in mainstream quarters to re-invoke the older and indeed ancient notion that many poets (like writers and artists in general) are not sensible, rounded types with a canny sense of how they fit into the publishing market and moreover that this unworldliness  (and in some cases, lack of balance) is part and parcel of their immersion in poetry as a deeply-engaged personal quest or wrestle with forces beyond him or herself - what used to be called "a commitment to the Muse", a perhaps quasi-religious undertaking. "The lyric poet", as Nietzsche describes it in The Birth of Tragedy, "himself becomes his images, his images are objectified versions of himself...only his 'I' is not that of the actual waking man, but of the 'I' dwelling, truly and eternally, in the ground of being."
    The apparent breakdown and attendant rejection of literature and society Rosemary Tonks went through may seem unfortunate given the imaginative flair and linguistic dexterity evinced in her published work. Seen as such, the tragedy of her abandoning poetry in the late 70s is that - like Keats or Keith Douglas - she left a tiny amount of poems of tantalising brilliance. Astley has not uncovered any other unpublished or fugitive texts, meaning that the Collected Poems is just the two volumes brought out in the 60s, Notes on Cafes and Bedrooms and Iliad of Broken Sentences. One could go further and suggest that her debut, although distinctive, was somewhat indebted to other models (chiefly 40s poets like George Barker and WS Graham) and it was mainly only in her second collection that Tonks began to establish her own form and voice.
    The poems throughout bristle with an impetuous, nervous energy, the questioning intensity of one living on the edge, exploring the underbelly of the city in an endless inquisitive flanerie: "I find exactly what I want to say, then I test it a hundred times with life to make sure it's true"(Interview with Peter Orr). Bundled up in collisions of surreal metaphor that seem closer to the Lorca of Poeta en Nueva York than any English forebear, the sense of dissolution and possible dissociation (paralleling Rimbaud's "je est un autre") keeps breaking through what John Hartley Williams called her "haughty, self-ironising contempt":
                                       " For this is not my life
                                          But theirs, that I am living.
                                          And I wolf, gulp, bolt it down day by day"
   Yet from Astley's description of her later, sequestered existence (based on journals and letters) the same internal pressure and struggle to assert her own meaning on the flux of the everyday is still apparent:
       " Ever restless in spirit, she fought daily battles with her inner demons, plagued by self-doubt and debilitating depression...birds were her soundscape, and birds were associated with her mother, whom she called 'Birdie'...she would base decisions on what to do, whom to trust, whether to go out , how to deal with a problem, on how these bird sounds made her feel".
    In other words, there seems a continuity in Tonks' psychological perception of reality between this kind of augurising, animistic "magical thinking" and the often hallucinatory urban vistas and flickering cognitive metamorphoses of her poems. Again in some ways like Rimbaud - or indeed Emily Dickinson, with her complex scepticism towards even showing her poems to others - it seems Tonks' intensive spiritual project ultimately lead her into areas where the idea of communicating to the outside world through poetry and publication no longer seemed relevant, so private and symbolic had it become. But equally it's the radical individuality and uncompromising integrity of such a vision which informs the bravery and vigour of her poems, and makes it such an important event that we now have them to read and study together for the first time.

Saturday, 24 January 2015

Seeing Patterns

Apophenia /æpɵˈfniə/ is the experience of seeing patterns or connections in random or meaningless data.

"The map is not the territory, as they say, and yet most of us live the majority of our lives with a continuous internal chatter that narrates our inner and outer experiences. This internal noise is so habitual we are almost unaware it is there, except for those precious moments when it is stopped short, like when we are caught by the sound of exquisite birdsong or hypnotised by the sound of rain as we lie in bed. In these moments the mind falls silent and we become that sound. There are no descriptions. There is no duality. There is only the sound."
                                         Garth Bowden, Exhibition Notes


Monday, 19 January 2015

Brain In A Bottle

Intriguing taster for Thom Yorke's new album Tomorrow's Modern Boxes which he's wisely made available as a torrent for a mere, January-friendly $6.