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Nothing Is Being Suppressed: British Poetry of the 1970s by Andrew Duncan (Shearsman Books)

Nothing Is Being Suppressed: British Poetry of the 1970s by Andrew Duncan (Shearsman Books)

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: I am glad Andrew Duncan has written his books about 20th century poetry, but I wish he’d do some proper research, reference material, and not be so opinionated (or at least use critical material to back up his arguments). But at least he is paying attention to what went on in the world of poetry (or parts of it), this time in 1970s Britain, the decade when I first encountered and paid attention to small presses and alternative bookshops, though in my case it was a weird mix of Brian Patten, Adrian Mitchell, Ted Hughes, Ken Smith and Julian Beck alongside T.S. Eliot and the WW1 poets I was studying at the time in school. For me though, postpunk and improvised music was in the mix, as well as experimental theatre and radical politics – and I wish poetry was sometimes considered in relation to what else was going on at the time.

There are, it has to be said, some great sections in this book, and it does feel like the most shaped and edited of Duncan’s critical volumes. That doesn’t of course, mean there isn’t his normal conjecture, assumption and generalisations, sometimes made using scant evidence. In fact the first chapter of Nothing is being suppressed is called ‘Generalisations about the Seventies’ which, despite my scepticism, is an intelligent series of statements ‘designed not to be controversial’ but ‘placed as the front as a basis’, a kind of foundation for what follows. It works well, even if one feels one can’t argue back to what is being presented as a given here.

Duncan it at his best when he writes at length about a subject, so chapter such as ‘Speaking Volumes’, a weirdly selective summary of what books were published when, and his quick dips into Conceptual Art and Visual Poetry are less successful. Yes, Michael Gibbs and John Powell Ward are good examples of the latter, but one can’t help feeling that Duncan is regurgitating information gathered up in a recent Uniform Books edition on the former, and that other visual poetry by the likes of Bob Cobbing also deserve attention.

Chapters on ‘Psychedelic Coding’ and ‘Post-western’ (not cowboys but Western society seen through fringe science, home and landscape: a good example of wider contextualisation) are better, if brief, whilst elsewhere Duncan seems to want to elevate a few selected names. There’s a whole chapter on Colin Simms and his poems of American experience, whilst the oddly titled chapter ‘The Bloodshed, the Shaking House‘ creates a kind of alternative history, or ‘folklore’, where ‘Martin Thom and Brian Marley are remembered as the supreme moments of the Seventies, the excelling goals for journeys to bring the dace back to life.’ Their work is interesting but one gets the feeling of a desperate attempt at literary mouth-to-mouth resuscitation long after the corpse has gone cold.

Elsewhere, another strangely titled chapter, ‘The Geothermal Turret: News of Warring Clans‘, turns out to be an erudite and considered critique of Prynne’s work; in fact one of the most lucid discussions of his poetry I’ve read. It’s a highlight of the book, along with chapters on Iain Sinclair, Allen Fisher (though I think this is mostly drawn from Duncan’s book of interviews with him – apologies if this is wrong), and a discussion about ‘Who Owns the Future?’, where Duncan questions the critical elevation of Ken Smith and Basil Bunting. This is mostly intelligent and well-reasoned, although I fail to see why Smith’s marvellous Fox Running prompts Duncan to ask ‘Why doesn’t Smith describe feelings?’ Because the reader can work them out from the events and description in the text; they don’t need to be explicit!

In a strange example of synchronicity, I’d been rereading and listening to Briggflatts before my copy of the book arrived. I can understand Duncan’s suspicions about the imposition of a new canon or hierarchy but it seems to me that there are obvious answers to be had. Ken Smith was one of two Bloodaxe authors who the publisher managed to get high profile publicity for: in Smith’s case this was mostly the result of him being writer-in-residence at Wormwood Scrubs prison. Bunting was very much a neglected modernist, and – as Duncan I’m sure knows – was reintroduced to the poetry world by Tom Pickard, at a time when modernism was being reconsidered, and ‘poetry of the North’, ideas of place and locale, as well as dialect and excluded voices, were in vogue. That doesn’t mean I don’t rate both these poets and texts highly, it’s just the way things happened. I for one am glad that both Fox Running and Briggflatts remain in print and continue to attract readers.

Strangely, neither of these texts get a mention in the other fantastic chapter, where Duncan considers ‘the Long Poem of the 1970s’ by discussing the long poems, plural, of the era. Duncan makes a strong case for them being ‘a feature of the 1970s’, offers up a lengthy but selective reading list, and then offers brief comments on a strange selection of these, often ­ missing out texts I’m not alone in thinking important, e.g Ted Hughes’ Crow. Perhaps Duncan feels enough words and time have been spent analysing the more famous poems he names, perhaps he is attempting to be inclusive, write about his favourites, or draw attention to neglected work? There’s also, of course, the possibility that what he writes about had more of a presence at the time, although I’m not convinced.

Whilst it’s good to see long poems or sequences by W.S. Graham, David Jones (a bit of a shoe-in), Harry Guest, (An)Tony Lopez, Allen Fisher, and Andrew Crozier included, I’m far less interested in the work of Jeremy Reed, Ian Crichton Smith and George Macbeth (who Duncan disses anyway). There’s an interesting conclusion to the chapter, noting the practical and financial difficulties of publishing long poems in magazines, proposing that long poems were ‘a line of advance’, and suggesting that 

‘The starting point for these poems is questions which are rather older and which were often put by readers of poetry. The questions where, what is your moral and theological vision? And what is your political commitment and system? The long poems connect to the questions but don’t answer them […]’

I’m not convinced, although Duncan is astute in realising that long poems were often written due to ‘internal exile, a rejection of the values of the news media and of what political and cultural authorities were saying.’ He also notes that ‘rejection could either be from the Right of the Left and was certainly more to do with the failure of authority than with dislike of their success.’

He mentions Judith Kazantzis here, someone whose work I certainly feel is neglected, but mostly adheres to the binary notion of ‘mainstream poets like Thwaite, Hooker, Wain, Hill, Humphreys’ (despite recognizing that their work is ‘similar to the alternative poetry’) in opposition to ‘the Underground’, cynically suggesting that ‘[t]here was an alternative everything‘ and that in the end ‘[t]he unavoidable questions of the mid-70s were resolved by a wide-spectrum surrender to the power of capital’ and that ‘[a]lternatives became less fascinating.’

Yes, but… Resolved or defeated? Isn’t there a difference? And what about new innovative and experimental poetries that emerged despite the collapse of the so-called Underground? Just as small publishers found new ways to sell their books after the collapse of alternative bookshops, just as society changed and adapted after the end of the 60s utopian dream, poets found new audiences, new forms, new media, new ways of publishing, new ways to write. In his ‘Afterword’, Duncan offers a different picture, accepting that ‘you can see the Underground as a river that breaks up into dozens of shallow streams and finally runs into the sand.’ I’m a cynic at heart, but this seems simplistic and negative, reductionist even. I’m interested in some of those streams, and believe that some find routes to other lakes and oceans.

I can’t help feeling that Duncan sometimes strays too close to the mainstream, focussing on published books, whilst choosing to stay away from performance poetry (where are John Cooper Clarke and Attila the Stockbroker in Duncan’s 1970s?), theatre or stand-up. Maybe even song lyrics (Howard Devoto anyone?), let alone the freeform improvisations of Julie Tippets and Maggie Nichols at the London Musicians Collective which might be considered as sound poetry? And where is Michael Horovitz? Surely he at least deserves a mention?

No, nothing is being suppressed, least of all by Andrew Duncan. There’s no conspiracy, but I want a bigger, different picture. I know  that part of this is to do with taste (it always is), but I can’t help feeling Duncan doesn’t quite play his cards straight here: is this a survey, a critical book, or Andrew Duncan’s extended desert island books? How critically detached or emotionally invested is he? ‘There is grey sludge underneath consciousness’, he declaims in his discussion of liminality and the sublime, a sludge Duncan thankfully keeps well away from, preferring to stay in the sludge-free thinking zone.

In the end, the ‘Afterword’ lets Duncan cover his tracks. He notes that the defeat of Jeremy Corbyn in 2019 has added another layer to his and our perception of radicalism, and altered the underlying thesis of how he began this book, and acknowledges that ‘[t]here is a whole world of alternative poets today’, at the same time giving a nod to visual arts and literary theorists. He concludes by answering some of my questions, stating that he wanted ‘to rescue things that have never been written down and which are threatened with forgetfulness and decay’, and declaring that he is ‘describing what people said and wrote in the 1970s’ whilst flagging up the problem with setting aside ‘what people in 2020 [and presumably 2022] think about the time and what selective memory processes have been set in motion to cover up deception.’ If he almost undermines the whole project with his jibe that ‘any kind of marketing is better than total oblivion’, he then recovers enough for an upbeat ending, where despite ‘discontinuity’ there is ‘a whole theme park of abandoned poetic projects’ to explore. I can’t see how Duncan can dissociate himself from contemporary poetry and thought, but once again he has produced an intelligent, provocative and sometimes annoying volume.

Rupert Loydell 31st March 2022

Tears in the Fence 75 is out!

Tears in the Fence 75 is out!

Tears in the Fence 75 is now available at https://tearsinthefence.com/pay-it-forward and features poetry, prose poetry, translations, fiction, flash fiction and creative nonfiction by Mandy Pannett, Greg Bright, Penny Hope, David Sahner, Stephen Paul Wren, Alexandra Fössinger, Mark Russell, Maurice Scully, Gavin Selerie, Mandy Haggith, Lynne Cameron, Sarah Watkinson, Jeremy Hilton, Gerald Killingworth, Lesley Burt, Nic Stringer, Sam Wilson-Fletcher, Lilian Pizzichini, Paul Kareem Tayyar, Beth Davyson, Rethabile Masilo, Tracy Turley, Olivia Tuck, Elisabeth Bletsoe & Chris Torrance’s Thirteen Moon Renga, Wei Congyi Translated by Kevin Nolan, Basil King, Robert Sheppard, Lucy Ingrams, John Freeman, Mélisande Fitzsimons, Deborah Harvey, David Harmer, David Ball, Rupert M. Loydell, Jeremy Reed, Alexandra Corrin-Tachibana, Sian Thomas, Chaucer Cameron, Huw Gwynn-Jones and Simon Collings.

The critical section consists of editorial, essays, articles and critical reviews by David Caddy, Elisabeth Bletsoe Remembering Chris Torrance, Jeremy Reed on The Letters of Thom Gunn, Simon Collings’ ecocritical perspective of Rae Armantrout, Isobel Armstrong on Peter Larkin, Barbara Bridger on Barbara Guest, Andrew Duncan on Elisabeth Bletsoe & Portland Tryptich, Frances Presley on Harriet Tarlo,  Simon Jenner on Geoffrey Hill, Steve Spence on Sarah Crewe, Mandy Pannett on Charles Wilkinson, Clark Allison on Ken Edwards, Guy Russell on Paul Vangelisti, Norman Jope on Ariana Reines, Lyndon Davies on Elena Rivera and Scott Thurston, Harriet Tarlo on Carol Watts, Morag Kiziewicz’s Electric Blue 10 and Notes On Contributors.

A Democracy of Poisons by Tim Allen (Shearsman Books)

A Democracy of Poisons by Tim Allen (Shearsman Books)

This is a very rich collection of challenging, finely written prose poems, with numerous surreal touches, fairly unreservedly among the best I’ve seen. There is though something of a self effacing or deprecatory tone, as the unappealing title would suggest, which can make the writing dense and either understated or uncertain of what it’s accomplishing.

There is actually something telling or impressionable on just about every page. The narrative is discontinuous, but threads run through it. It might be a fault or limitation of the book that a sense of narrative progression is mostly lacking. Indeed, each of the 100 prose poems is pretty much self sufficient. There are no claims to continuity as we might find in fiction. 

That said the book is great to dip into, each poem consists of four stanzas or paragraphs about 7 lines long, and the title markers, all of just one word that appears in the text are there for orientation. Some key or highlighted phrases are also italicised. The first titles open out with ‘Walk’, into a forest, ‘Lunch’ and ‘Growing’, but perhaps a fairly indicative one might be ‘Cynic’ (no.34), surely indicative of present philosophic inclinations.

It’s a rich heady brew. One might say though that it somewhat lacks an upbeat quality, it is kind of deflating, or challenging as to how we deal with that cynicism or feeling low. So that would appear to be a deflating lack, indeed the last poem is called ‘Desert’.

It is useful I think to indicate where that acidic title gains mention which is most closely matched in poem 17, ‘Flock’. Part of the relevant passage is:

‘Don’t dismay, a simple book read by nobody special gallups uphill as fast as it descends the hill of be careful what you wish for but how to be careful when the world is a democracy of poisons’. (p23)

stated quite dystopically. Plainly Tim Allen feels this is apposite, right, in what some might take to be resentment; but he doesn’t dwell on it or offer a longer exposition. This might even be consistent with an amount of cynicism. Elsewhere in no.67 we find:

‘In the outside world the books earned differing amounts but here in the library of democratic poisons having no time for books gave them all equal space on the shelves.’ (p73)

There might be something of a thesis here, perhaps of the one size fits all, lowest common denominator, greatest happiness number that the book sits ill with. Elsewhere Allen says ‘I work underground too writing subversive literature only blind moles read’ (p29).

Andrew Duncan’s commentary in his back cover blurb might also be worth citing:

‘As the prose units of democracy of poisons develop, their polished and surreal surface becomes more and more convincing. The title presumably refers to a 24-hour media slew in which toxic ideas try to win popularity contests. There is a camaraderie of bad ideas.’

which I find pertinent and useful and indeed promisingly speculative. There surely is an unqualified seeking after of popular kudos, more likes on Twitter, more hits on YouTube and so on. Does anybody question the quality of those moments or instances that are getting the most hits, some of which are into the millions?

It is no doubt worth mentioning that Allen was associated with the very interesting and well wrought Terrible Work website, now defunct. This is his third Shearsman book following The Voice Thrower (2012) and Settings (2008).

What I might surmise is that the book kind of insists on a stubborn title, but that this belies a rather complex but fairly accessible design given that each poem is subdivided into four accessible chunks. Many of these poems I suspect will hold up well to rereading.

This then, one might say, is classic prose poetry, albeit with an amount of difficulty attached;- the title poses a barrier as much as an invite. It is, certainly, not aspiring to be a thing of beauty, but of perhaps acerbic plain, surreally inflected speech that would rather be true or authentic. This book is Allen’s first from Lancashire having moved on from Plymouth. The book is dedicated to his associates back there, the ‘Truth Brothers’. Allen also mentions that the recommendation of the title came from Joanna Ashcroft after a reading. (p108)

Allen’s poems seem to convey that they are driven in part by a wilful perseverance but also an amount of anger, which might seem inevitable, if one puts craft before popularity. I suspect it’s a little compromising and down to find a conclusion at no.100 ‘Desert’, but then this may simply be telling it like it is. There is in a sense too perhaps a defensive formalist sticking to, in the sense that the formal design fully encompasses the entire book. But it is full of great insights and often inspired phrasings and sits very well with the most striking examples I’ve seen of contemporary prose poetry.

Clark Allison 3rd January 2022

Tears in the Fence 72 is out!

Tears in the Fence 72 is out!

Tears in the Fence 72 is now available at https://tearsinthefence.com/pay-it-forward and features poetry, multilingual poetry, prose poetry, flash fiction, fiction and translations from Mandy Haggith, Andrew Duncan, Elzbieta Wojcik-Leese, Charlotte Baldwin, Jeremy Reed, Lynne Wycherley, Joanna Nissel, Mandy Pannett, Sam Wood, Genevieve Carver, Sarah Acton, Alexandra Corrin-Tachibana, Mike Duggan, Daragh Breen, Tracey Turley, Karen Downs-Burton, Barbara Ivusic, John Freeman, John Millbank, Olivia Tuck, Rowan Lyster, Sarah Watkinson, Greg Bright, Robert Vas Dias, Lucy Sheerman, Andrew Darlington, David Punter, Beth Davyson, Michael Henry, Judith Willson, John Gilmore, M.Vasalis translated by Arno Bohlmeijer, Paul Rossiter, Charles Wilkinson, Rupert M. Loydell, Reuben Woolley, Kareem Tayyar, Peter Hughes, Zoe Karathanasi, Lucy Hamilton, Lydia Harris, Lucy Ingrams, Mark Goodwin, Simon Collings, Aidan Semmens, Vasiliki Albedo and Ian Seed.

The critical section consists of David Caddy’s Editorial, Jennifer K. Dick’s Of Tradition & Experiment XIV, Andrew Duncan Apocalypse: An Anthology edited by James Keery, Lily-Robert-Foley on Jennifer K. Dick’s Lilith, Clark Allison on Geoffrey Hill, Alice Entwhistle on Frances Presley, Belinda Cooke on Peter Robinson, Nadira Clare Wallace on Ella Frears, Ian Brinton on Ray Crump, Norman Jope on Menno Wigman, Oliver Sedano-Jones on Anthony Anaxagorou, Steve Spence on Gavin Selerie, Morag Kiziewicz’s Electric Blue 7 and Notes on Contributors.

Tears in the Fence Festival 10-13 September 2020

Tears in the Fence Festival 10-13 September 2020

The Tears in the Fence Festival this year is on 10-13th September via Zoom video conferencing.

The Festival has a long history back to the 1990s and has always attempted to showcase a range of alternative voices associated with the magazine and workshop group. Each themed event stems from the issues of the day and attempts to continue conversations from the previous Festival. The Festival consists of readings, discussions, conversations, and is a gathering of friends and an opportunity to make new friends. Previous themes have included ‘Difference and the Other’, ‘Visionaries and Outsiders’, ‘Hidden Connections’ and ‘The Politics of Engagement’. This year’s theme in the shadow of Covid-19 and Black Lives Matter is ‘Lost Connections: Light and Darkness’.
There will be sessions around migration, environmental, multilingual, power and gender dynamics, colonial issues as well as the solitudes and vicissitudes of lockdown. There will be talks, videos, conversations with celebrated poets and the opportunity to question readers and panellists. Above all, there will be stimulating readings and conversations. We shall also be using breakout rooms for further late night social discussions.

Amongst our guests will be Sascha Akhtar, Sarah Cave, Simon Collings, Rachael Clyne, Jennifer K. Dick, Andrew Duncan, Allen Fisher, John Freeman, Mandy Haggith, L. Kiew, Hari Marini, Rethabile Masilo, Geraldine Monk, Jessica Mookherjee, Joanna Nissel, Rhea Seren Phillips, Jasmina Bolfek-Radovani, Gavin Selerie, Aidan Semmens, Maria Stadnicka, Cherry Smyth, Harriet Tarlo, Olivia Tuck, Molly Vogel plus some surprise guests.

Tears in the Fence encourages social inclusion and welcomes under-represented poets and writers to attend this year’s festival. 15 free bursaries are on offer to anyone who might not otherwise be able to attend.
Bursary applicants may identify as (but are not limited to) any of the following: BAME writers, writers on no/low income, working class writers, writers from areas of rural or coastal deprivation, writers who have experienced homelessness, refugee writers, writers in the LGBTQ+ communities, writers who have survived abuse, disabled writers, neurodivergent writers, and writers with chronic health conditions. To apply for a free pass to all festival events please email tearsinthefence@gmail.com with the subject line ‘2020 Festival Bursary’. These will be issued on a first come, first serve basis.

David Caddy 18th August 2020

Tears in the Fence 70

Tears in the Fence 70

Tears in the Fence 70 is now available at https://tearsinthefence.com/pay-it-forward and features poetry and prose poetry from Jeremy Hilton, Charles Hadfield, Mandy Pannett, Lisa Dart, Robert Sheppard, Simon Collings, David Ball, Tamsin Blaxter, Seán Street, Jessica Mookherjee, Peter J. King, Lucy Hamilton, Andrew Henon, David Sahner, Rhea Seren Phillips, Beth McDonough, John Freeman, L. Kiew, Andrew Duncan, Charles Wilkinson, Rhys Trimble, Ruby Reding, Peter Hughes, Maria Jastrzębska, Jane Joritz-Nakagawa, Hazel Smith, Lucia Daramus, Vik Shirley, Julie Mellor, Michael Henry, Cora Greenhill, Maggie Giraud, Paul Matthews, Adam Horovitz, Sarah Barnsley, Beth Davyson, Paul Green, Caroline Maldonado, Lesley Burt, Jonathan Chant, Jane Wheeler, Miranda Lynn Barnes and Reuben Woolley.

This issue is designed by Westrow Cooper and features a cover photograph by Emile Guillemot.

The critical section consists of Ian Brinton’s Editorial, Jeremy Reed on Bill Butler, Mary Woodward on Turin and Pavese, Barbara Bridger on Hari Marini, Ruth Valentine on Isabella Murra & Caroline Maldonado, Mark Prendergast on Chris Wallace-Crabbe & Kris Hemensley, Richard Makin on Ken Edwards, Caroline Maldonado on Mandy Pannett, Ian Seed on Martin Stannard, Duncan Mackay on Eleanor Perry, Sarah Connor on California Continuum Vol. 1, Nigel Jarrett on Rhys Davies, Cora Greenhill on Lena Khalaf Tuffaha, Lisa Dart on Kay Syrad, Nic Stringer on Michelle Penn, Adam Coleman on Duncan Mackay, Fiona Owen on Paul Deaton, Notes On Contributors, and David Caddy’s Afterword

Tears in the Fence 67 is now available

Tears in the Fence 67 is now available

Tears in the Fence 67 is now available from https://tearsinthefence.com/pay-it-forward

This issue is designed by Westrow Cooper and features poetry, fiction, flash fiction and talks from Peter Riley, Angela Gardner, Jeremy Reed, Geraldine Clarkson, Mike McNamara, Khairani Barokka, Caitilín Gormley, Beth McDonough, Nigel Jarrett, Mark Dickinson, Colin Honnor, Jessica Sneddon, Lesley Burt, Charles Wilkinson, Colin Sutherill, Doug Jones, Radka Thea Otipkova, Maria Stadnicka, Richard Makin, Fiona Moore, Tess Jolly, Gerald Killingworth, Norman Jope on Lessons From A Left-Behind Laureateship, L. Kiew, Rupert M. Loydell, Jill Abram, Harriet Parker, Gram Joel Davies, Judy Darley, Charles Hadfield, Amy McCauley, Lucia Sellars, Tim Allen, David Ball, Jay Ramsay, Lydia Harris, Rosie Jackson, Rachael Clyne, Maitreyabandhu, Michael Farrell, Andrew Henon, Anna Backman Rogers, Andrew Shelley, Alexandra Sashe, Kris Hemensley, Cat Conway, Morag Kiziewicz and Jeremy Reed on Starman: Temenos Academy Talk.

The critical section features Ian Brinton’s Editorial, Isobel Armstrong on Carol Watts, Andrew Duncan on Steve Ely, Frances Presley on Hazel Smith, Rosie Jackson on Cora Greenhill, Melinda Lovell on Sheila Hamilton, Richard Foreman on Leonora Carrington, Vanessa Gebbie, Ian Brinton on Douglas Woolf, Elaine Randell on John Muckle, Lesley Saunders on Josephine Balmer, Mandy Pannett on Jay Ramsay, Fiona Owen on Matthew Barton, John Freeman, Andrea Moorhead on Pansy Maurer-Alvarez, Charlie Baylis on Rupert M. Loydell, Richard Foreman on Alan Moore, Suzannah V. Evans on the 2017 T.S. Eliot Summer School, Elizabeth Stott on Kathleen Jones, Jonathan Catherall on Robert Vas Dias & Julia Farrer, David Caddy on Stairs & Whispers, Morag Kiziewicz’s Electric Blue 3, Notes on Contributors and David Caddy’s Afterword.

Article 50 by Kelvin Corcoran (Longbarrow Press)

Article 50 by Kelvin Corcoran (Longbarrow Press)

1n his 1981 book The Political Unconscious: Narrative as Socially Symbolic Act Frederic Jameson argued that reality presents itself to the human mind primarily in the form of narrative. Two years later in Waterland, one of the most moving examinations of the interwoven sense of History and Fiction, Graham Swift put the following words into the mouth of a South London teacher of History who is facing redundancy. Addressing his last Sixth-form he preaches:

“Children, who will inherit the world. Children to whom, throughout history, stories have been told, chiefly but not always at bedtime, in order to quell restless thoughts; whose need of stories is matched only by the need adults have of children to tell stories to, of receptacles for their stock of fairy-tales, of listening ears on which to unload those most unbelievable yet haunting of fairy-tales, their own lives…”

In Kelvin Corcoran’s recent chapbook of poems, so exquisitely produced by Longbarrow Press, we are also presented with the weaving fabric of history and fiction as the signing of Article 50 of the Treaty on European Union, enacted by the Treaty of Lisbon on 1st December 2009, set in motion that procedure for a member state to withdraw from the European Union. In the satirical portraits of some of the main characters promoting the cutting adrift of this sceptered isle one can almost hear the cracking open of champagne bottles on the side of a craft as it slips down the beach. In the sequence of three poems titled ‘Biographies of the Brexiteers’, with its little echo of that famous gallery of miscreants portrayed in The Complete Newgate Calendar, we read of ‘The Quiet Man’ (Ian Guido Smith), ‘Boris Johnson and Seventy Two Virgins’ and ‘Twisting Michael of the Gove’. The tone of Corcoran’s writing is unmistakable as we are presented with vignettes of these three political figures. ‘The Quiet Man’ looks over the Channel:

“As the girl Europa struggled all at sea, Guido looked on dreaming,
arranged the limbs of the drowned to spell Breakthrough Britain;
and gathered the spoils to build a new nation for old time’s sake.”

And there’s the rub! The launching of the Brexit boat for nostalgic reasons, the leading backwards “into an England of last resort”.
What is most valuable about this new collection of poems is the ability and determination of the poet not to rest contented in a satirical mode however successful that may be. Kelvin Corcoran moves the reader forward with a tone of anger and anguish, a tone which requires us to take account of what is truly meant by loss both personal and social. The third poem in the volume is titled ‘Radio Logos’ and it conjures up a portrait of a thinker who sits on a cliff-top watching the inexorable movement of the Brexit vessel:

“I sit here on the edge of time gazing out to sea;
if history is an account of semantic drift
it can be read backwards to the well of speaking.

That was lesson 4 – were you even listening?
Were you just smiling at the pretty dial-light?
So here it is again – call it Terms of Resistance.

Lesson 4: you must trust the people, their erudition
from unlikely sources, from the stream of first meaning
from the mouths of all the people under the ringing sky.

As surprising as the beauty of recalled trade routes
the acquisition of obsidian, highland cedar and coral,
the expansion of ritual activity, the invention of sailing.

As surprising as the small pool of cool water
found high in the mountains, that bright ellipse
keeping a cold eye on the arching blue.”

I can almost hear the urgency of Tom Crick, history-teacher in Greenwich, whose subject is being shut down despite his Headmaster’s assurance that “I’m not dropping History. It’s an unavoidable reduction. There’ll be no new Head of History. History will merge with General Studies.” And I wonder if that fictional Headmaster ever read that fictional account of a fictional future in 1984: “He who controls the past controls the future. He who controls the present controls the past.”

The overarching sense of loss in these poems is placed with quiet and humbling reflection as, in the nine poems that make up ‘A Footnote to the Above’, we encounter the shades of Lee Harwood, Roy Fisher and Tom Raworth. In this Dante-like underworld they appear held exact in a moment of time:

“Roy read as he wrote with no show, no pomp;
in Newcastle-under-Lyme twenty years ago
standing with Carl Rakosi and Gael Turnbull:
come up, come up my thinking shades”

The past merges with the present as the poet thought he saw “Robert Sheppard in the market / Place Dumon, Brussels, bright for business / wearing a leather Fedora and a fine jacket” and Corcoran makes the past “most alive living nowhere now”. It takes us back to the interview he gave with Andrew Duncan (Don’t Start Me Talking, Salt, 2006):

“Imagine that the classical edifice of mythology is no such thing but an overlaying and retelling of competing localised myths and songs, arising out of a sort of civic pride, giving back meaning to the specific group. The ancient landscape overlays the modern and I see the mythology as local and useful and not detached from the everyday. I think it’s also a sort of code which tells us exactly what is happening in the present Oil Wars for instance, it is a type of ignorance to behave as though such things have not happened before and it’s only in the interests of the perpetrators to act as if such things have not happened before.”

This beautifully produced little book should be read by anyone who values lyric poetry and by all those who can still call to mind the closing lines of Shelley’s poem written just over two-hundred years ago:

“My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings,
Look on my Works ye Mighty, and despair!
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away”

Ian Brinton, 26th March 2018

http://www.longbarrowpress.com

A Poetry Boom 1990-2010 by Andrew Duncan Shearsman Books

A Poetry Boom 1990-2010 by Andrew Duncan Shearsman Books

On the back cover of this energetic book Andrew Duncan, blurb-master, tells us that in the years 1999-2001 ‘roughly as many books of poetry were published as in the whole of the 1970s. This is a poetry boom’. And his book has a reverberation to it in keeping with that little statistic. It is a very strange book indeed comprising a selected Whos Who of the contemporary poetry scene and some waspish attacks which are rather funny. It offers highly interesting insights into what it means to read a poem and dismissive strokes to the boundary for those who may have thought themselves in for the long innings. It reminds me a little of Falstaff’s comments about Mistress Quickly whom he suggests is like an otter. When asked ‘Why an otter?’ his reply is prepared for maximum target-hitting:

‘Why, she’s neither fish nor flesh; a man knows not
where to have her.’

Let me give you an example from a subsection, ‘Powers of Intuition’:

‘People who read poetry prefer the line of intuition, first person insight, creativity, personal symbols. This predisposition got them to the poetry section in the library, allowed them to be attracted by a book of poetry, and guides them into the meaning of the poem’

Yes, indeed, one has met these people and the emphasis upon that mean little definite article in the last clause gives us the closed shop of poetry readers, and, I shudder to say, many secondary teachers of English!

Now, try this from the same sub-section:

‘My idea of poetry sees it as a zone where suggestibility, collusion, identification are enhanced and made effortless. Take Kenneth Allott. (editor of Mid-Century Poetry, Penguin) If he thought 40.6% of the significant British poets (1918 to 1960) were Oxford graduates, that shows that he had taken collusion a long way. He was reading signs of authenticity but he defined them as signs of having been to Oxford—as he had. Prominently, he carried out repetitive acts of judgement and pleasure.’

This raises interesting issues about the role critics play as readers and I rather relished Duncan’s following paragraph in which he makes comment upon THEORY:

‘Everything taking place under the label of theory acts to reduce the value of artistic connoisseurship and of individual taste. The only purpose of poetry is the first-hand experience of someone inside the poem, where everything happening depends wholly and solely on individual judgements and acts of appreciation.’

This prompted me to recall a short section from the Notebooks of Philippe Jaccottet:

Inside, outside. What do we mean by inside? Where does outside end? Where does inside begin? The white page belongs to the outside, but the words written on it? The whole of the white page is in the white page, therefore outside myself, but the whole word is not in the word. That is to say there is the sign I write down, and its meaning on top of that; the word has first been in me, then it leaves me and, once written, it looks like strapwork, like a drawing in the sand; but it keeps something hidden, to be perceived only by the mind. It is the mind that is inside, and the outside is all the mind seizes on, all that affects, touches it. In itself it has neither shape, nor weight, nor colour; but it makes use of shapes, weights, colours, it plays with them, according to certain rules.’

If I am left dissatisfied with Andrew Duncan’s burlesque at any points it will come down to the ease of that Falstaffian response! For instance, in a sub-section titled ‘Prynne Follower’ I am confronted by the following passage in which Lockwood Laudanum, that well-known Classicist of the very best school, is being interviewed. Upon being asked ‘What would you pick out as a perfect purchasing experience?’ L.’s reply is forthright:

Twelve Poems, by R.F. Langley, which I bought from Peter Riley in Sturton Street in 1993. This just absolutely summed up what I like in poetry. Obviously anything not based on Prynne is second-rate and out of date and doesn’t really count. Obviously anything that isn’t impenetrable isn’t really modern and doesn’t repay the effort. I find most modern poetry tedious but I obtain my supplies by following a particular genealogy. It’s like inheriting an estate, the closer you are to the primogenitary bloodline the more of the estate your share is. Pound goes to Olson and Olson goes to Prynne. It’s like the Da Vinci Code really.’

Ok, shades of Jonathan Swift and Henry Fielding but I would like to know more about Duncan’s views on Langley who, incidentally, inherits far more from Olson that he does from Prynne. The fun of mischief-making is often delightful although, when it stretches to three-hundred pages I wonder if a little more variety might have been offered. I’m being fussy since after all I did enjoy so many of the side-swipes. Get a copy from Shearsman and decide for yourself!

P.S. I wonder how many poets gave their money to appear in the show; and I wonder how many paid not to.

Ian Brinton 20th December 2015

Tears in the Fence 62

Tears in the Fence 62

Tears in the Fence 62 is now available from https://tearsinthefence.com/pay-it-forward and features poetry, fiction and essays from Simon Smith, Nancy Gaffield, Patricia Debney, Andy Fletcher, Michael Farrell, John Freeman, Afric McGlinchey, Anamaria Crowe Serrano, Anamaria Crowe Serrano & Robert Sheppard, Sarah Connor, Samuel Rogers, Rose Alana Frith, Michael Grant, Charles Hadfield, Mike Duggan, Dorothy Lehane, Vicki Husband, Hilda Sheehan, Andrew Darlington, David Miller, Karl O’Hanlon, Amy McCauley, Rupert Loydell & Daniel Y Harris, Sam Smith, Rodney Wood, David Greenslade, Lesley Burt, L.Kiew, Graheme Barrasford Young, Andrew Lees, Michael Henry, James Bell, Rhys Trimble, Sophie McKeand, Haley Jenkins, Alexandra Sashe-Seekirchner, Richard Thomas, Alec Taylor and Steve Spence.

The critical section consists of David Caddy’s Editorial, Anthony Barnett’s Antonym, Jennifer K. Dick’s Of Tradition & Experiment XII, Alan Munton on Steve Spence, Andrew Duncan on Kevin Nolan’s Loving Little Orlick, David Caddy on Gillian White’s Lyric Shame, Robert Vas Dias on Jackson Mac Low, Laurie Duggan on Alan Halsey, Chris McCabe on Reading Barry MacSweeney, Mandy Pannett on Angela Gardner, Mary Woodward, Ric Hool on Ian Davidson, William Bonar, Steve Spence on John Hartley Williams, Linda Benninghoff on Beauty is a Verb: The New Poetry of Disability, Notes On Contributors
and Ian Brinton’s Afterword.

21st September 2015

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