Tuesday, 28 February 2012

The Poetry Society and Poetry Review

I haven’t written about the Poetry Society since its AGM in September voted in a new board.  There hasn’t been much to discuss except gossip, some of which was well-founded.  No doubt a lot of hard work was going on in the background.  Roger McGough was chosen as president, which seemed a thoroughly positive move.

Enough to say that the new board’s declaration, just before Christmas, about looking forward to continuing work with both the director, Judith Palmer, and the editor of Poetry Review, Fiona Sampson, seemed unrealistic in the face of what looked to outsiders like a stalemate, with Sampson working from home.  However the Arts Council must have been satisfied with the new board’s governance - early this year it released the funding withheld since last summer.

Two of the board’s members, Polly Clark and Edward Mackay, weren’t happy, and resigned in December.  The first PoSoc members/voters heard of this was when Clark announced it on her blog in February, because PoSoc hadn’t.  Two new members have now been co-opted: Neil Reeder and Jon Sayers, who were candidates in the election at the AGM.  The board needs a communications strategy - lack of openness was one of the problems last summer.  
The trigger for writing this now is Fiona Sampson’s resignation from Poetry Review a few days ago.  This appears to have come about suddenly since PoSoc are going to appoint a guest editor for the summer issue, presumably to fill the gap while they are hiring. [Update, 29 Feb: guest editor is George Szirtes.]

There’s been discussion on Facebook about the editorship (by people who know a lot more about editing poetry magazines than I do).  But I think common sense is sufficient qualification to talk about most aspects, so I’m going to.

Should PR continue to be edited by just one person? I’d answer that with a resounding No. For two main reasons.  First, the quality and nature of the magazine. Multiple editors should bring editorial breadth and minimise bias; also reduce perceptions of bias.  (The fact that this didn’t happen with Potts & Herd doesn’t mean it’s not possible.)   It’s OK, in fact expected, for any other poetry magazine to be biased; but the national one’s different.  There’s so much variety in contemporary poetry, UK and international, to represent.  PR should also keep its readers up to date with the thriving UK poetry scene, especially small presses - addressing the bias in major prizes and mainstream literary media.  And I’d love it if PR commissioned a few good, accessible pieces on poetics, a subject PN Review does better.     

Second, efficiency.  No-one can deal sensibly with 60,000 poems a year and the burden of expectations of a wide-ranging membership.  All poetry editors must have a masochistic streak, but to expect one person to take on all that is madness. 

There’s no doubt that whatever the difficulties in her editorship, Sampson produced an interesting magazine with an international perspective, and brought some good new poets to light.   I wonder how she managed this while reading every poem submitted, which apparently she did. 

It’s no coincidence that the most efficient magazine I know, and one of the nicest, Smiths Knoll, has two editors.  Of course PR is a much bigger enterprise, but the principle’s the same.  I once asked Michael Laskey how they manage to return people’s poems within a fortnight, and his answer had a lot to do with two people sharing the work: taking it in turns for the bulk of the reading, and then making final decisions together.  In that situation, backlog-inducing events such as illness or holidays aren’t such a strain.  And becoming misanthropic is perhaps less likely. 

To prevent blandness or fallings-out, a duo / trio could take it in turns to lead for each issue.  Another option, which I fancy, would be more like the Magma model: a panel of editorial consultants, from whom a couple of editors would be chosen for each issue.  This model would also make diversity easier: gender, background, ethnicity, age, interests, taste. 

The main snag with a plural editorship might be cost... Maybe PoSoc could move away from a salary model to paying per issue; and supplementing with volunteers.  Maybe they should start an editorial training programme (The Rialto’s about to do something like that, with its new Arts Council funding).  That might be one internship nobody would have ethical problems with.  It would help with sifting the poems, which seems to me an entirely acceptable thing to do. 

The editors will need not just the usual skills, but some softer qualities too.  What’s known as interpersonal skills: for getting on with other Poetry Society staff, with whom they have to share resources, and with the Poetry World.  Independence of mind, open-mindedness, and a love of poetry powerful enough to get them through their editorial term.  (I nearly added sense of humour, but this was starting to read like a lonely hearts ad.)

There’s surely near-consensus on limiting the editors’ term.  People mention 3 or 5 years as a good span.  It needs to be long enough for the editors to realise whatever their distinctive vision is.  Changes in an editorial team/board could be staggered.  Standing down may not be enforceable in law (though payment per issue might change that), but weight of opinion would probably be enough for most people. 

These editors need to be thick-skinned enough to cope with serious pressure (according to the Guardian, Sampson had death threats!) but not so thick-skinned they’d get dictator syndrome.  The latest example of this is in Senegal, whose president was responsible for a constitution allowing himself two terms only, but has now managed to arrange standing for a third.  The BBC reported on Sunday:

A crowd at a polling station in the capital, Dakar, booed Mr Wade as he cast his vote.  They could be heard shouting: “Get out, old man!”

What poetry editor would want to experience that?

Tuesday, 21 February 2012

Radical Landscape Poetry

That phrase comes from the subtitle of The Ground Aslant, an anthology published by Shearsman last year.  It tells us that we needn’t fear finding a regression to the pastoral inside this book.  The 16 poets also approach landscape more as psychogeographers than ecopoets: these British writers seem to take it for granted that landscape is a co-product of humans and nature.  They all use form and language in more or less experimental ways. 

The editor, Harriet Tarlo, provides an introduction that’s interesting and helpful. You can read it online here. She places the work in a modernist tradition going back to Basil Bunting and Ian Hamilton Finlay, to Lorine Niedecker and Charles Olson.  Although none of the contributors are published by mainstream presses, Tarlo says: “Landscape poetry often challenges the divide between experimental or innovative and traditional or mainstream which has haunted British poetry… since the nineteen-thirties.  The challenge emerges from the fact that, however innovative, this work.. clings to its hold on the local and physical world”. 

Indeed it often seems, in this book, that landscape is running through the language, and language through the landscape.  After reading for a while, when arriving at a new poem or poet, I started to feel that I was orientating myself: which I suppose one does anyway in poems, but the process becomes more explicit when they are set in landscapes.  Here’s the top third of Frances Presley’s ‘Triscombe Stone’:

Which wood are we in?  Maritime   to  scan   five   newspapers  and
sessile oak.  No, which wood are   discovered for the first time that
we in?  I  thought  it  was  scrub   we only  had  eighty  years  left,
oak.  Triscombe  stone half fixed   the   pink   columns  of   the  FT
in concrete,  a hazard  to cars at   provided the most accurate and
the meeting point,  in a declining   factual  information,   and  were
sun.  It  is  thought  to  be from   most  likely  to  provide  source
the  Bronze  Age.    The  ancient   references.  She says  that only
of days  lowers  himself  onto its   two degrees  of warmth  makes

Various sorts of reader orientation are going on in this monologue: the physical location, its human history and natural elements; the eco-politics of the poem; the humour; the stand-point of the narrator; how to orientate one’s reading, down first, across, or both at once; how all these relate to each other.  There are more if one reads the whole poem (the end of the first column does read up to the beginning of the second, newspaper style). 

Poll Salach: limestone pavement with burnet rose.  Photo 
copyright Dr Charles Nelson (see note at end).
Now I’m going to confess that when I first opened the anthology, in rural Ireland last summer, I found some of the poetry hard to read.  It could have been that I found it difficult to absorb other people’s landscapes, while learning a mostly new one myself.  Also, maybe I wasn’t in the right mood for the serious, intense tone of some of the poetry; or for its denseness and complexity.  I remember finding some of the specialist vocabulary, which some contributors use, a bit self-conscious. 

Anyway I put the book aside and now, in winter London, have enjoyed it very much.  It repays close and repeated reading: for how the poets combine form and content; for the concentrated detail of observation; for the comedy, irony and bleakness extracted from the juxtaposition of landscape and human. Some of the extracts I most want to quote convey the physical feeling of being in a landscape.  In ‘The New Bridge’, Zoë Skoulding writes:

the lines of the landscape
                        run through me to somewhere else

And here’s an untitled piece by Tarlo:

my self

a hair-hooded
over bright grass
into     twisted

in eng land

The centring of this piece (against current norms of good practice) mimics the figure at the centre of a space.  The splitting of ‘eng land’ might make one think of ‘eng’, German for ‘narrow’. 

Another thing I’ve enjoyed is poems that splice landscape and thought patterns, as in Peter Riley’s ‘Vertigo’:

Moving out of the tree border into the top grasslands.
This is the earth, and this is us here very close to it,
watching the great valley below, everything clinging to the ground
small black ants on my arm butterflies here in the grass
I’m working on a statement of political hatred black
flies gentle breeze clinging to the hillside…

Helen MacDonald seems to have inherited some of his wry humour.  I found her poems some of the most exciting in this book.  They are dense, and their syntax is often dizzying.  The brilliantly observed and felt detail gives them a kind of impartial authority.  Here is part of ‘Monhegan’, subtitled ‘or: why I am not a painter’:

                                        First, second, and third year gannets

distinguishable by the distribution of hues.  The patch of black
falls into the open eye like the bird into surf and sets up a ratchet
mechanism the wind and land dries the cornea and the sea’s
slack tangent catches you like a tune & you turn, to sleep surely

in blue and red with salt in your hair…

Erratics at Poll Salach, after rain, The Burren.  Photo copyright
Dr Charles Nelson (see note at end).
Some poets are represented by sequences, or extracts from sequences.  In ‘Zeta Landscape’, Carol Watts addresses not an alien planet, as one might expect from the title, but the economics of hill farming.  There is alienation in this theme, and in the language; according to the anthology intro, Watts describes this as “lyric nature poetry put under pressure”.  Here’s the beginning of ‘7’:

do these add up  are they outside subsidy  or
logged  in magnitudes of adjustment  the value
of a warm animal  less  than the cost of quantifying
its warmth  or inspecting animation  each sixteen
days  the collisions  of neighbouring hillsides  result
today  in corpses by the river  seven blown  fleeces

I wanted to quote one of Mark Dickinson’s poems from ‘The Speed of Clouds’ but its grid form caused problems.  You can read some of them here.  I loved finding my way along the narrow columns in Zoë Skoulding’s ‘Through Trees’. This is the beginning of the second poem:

trees print on skin
a birch kiss  burns
shadow   on   your
epidermis  flushed
by  wind   or   sun
peeling      slightly
scratch    off     to
reveal the winning
answers all correct

Thomas Clark’s sequence ‘The Grey Fold’ runs for 12 pages; each page contains a beautiful miniature poem, becalmed in white space.  I’ll end with the first of these.

lifting your eyes
take the small voyage
out to the horizon
and back again

Note: the painting on the front cover is Poll Salach by Julia Ball.  I googled this and found it’s a place name in the Burren, Ireland, though it’s not on my OSI map of the Burren.  I then found the photos: copyright Dr Charles Nelson and licensed for reuse under the Creative Commons Licence.

Tuesday, 14 February 2012

Poetry reviews and poetics: is poetry doomed to charismatic legitimation?

The most-read piece in PN Review’s archive is an essay by Marjorie Perloff (vol 115, 1997) called ‘What We Don't Talk About When We Talk About Poetry’.  Intrigued by the title, and not being a PNR subscriber, I read it in the Poetry Library last week.  It’s about literary journalism: reviews of books of and about poetry.  It didn’t feel out of date.

What we don’t talk about, according to Perloff, is the difficult stuff: the history, the theory, the context.  Reviews tend to be amateur, poet-on-poet.  She contrasts this with the expertise behind reviews of books about anthropology, say, or architecture.  It’s a long and complex article; here are some things I thought were interesting, and still relevant, at least in the British mainstream of literary journalism.  

Perloff, an American critic, quotes the French philosopher Pierre Bourdieu (from a 1983 essay):

Poetry, by virtue of its restricted audience… the consequent low profits, which make it the disinherited activity par excellence, and also its prestige, linked to the historical tradition initiated by the Romantics, is destined to charismatic legitimation. 

Perloff says, of poetry reviews on both sides of the Atlantic: “The mandate - to say something telling and original about 5 or 10 unlike and generally unexceptional volumes of short personal lyrics, is not easy to fulfil.”  Two things are missing: a sense of history and a sense of theory.  Insufficient space to define the reviewer’s terms contributes to “haziness of vocabulary coupled with the need to make definitive judgements”.    The lack of signposts means we don’t know what poetry is or should be now, so don’t know what to look for.  This is one reason why the main literary reviews concentrate on relatively few mainstream poets, many of whom are dead.

This comfort zone approach is still prevalent in 2012 - another article on Philip Larkin, anyone?

The phenomenon of one poet reviewing another comes, says Perloff, from the poetry workshop, which is “still dominated by a repressively Romantic concept of the poet as man speaking to man (or woman…), by the notion that poetry is emotion recollected in tranquillity, the poet speaking for all of us”. 

The world of poetry is democratic “because, to put it bluntly, there isn’t enough at stake”.  [I think Perloff would replace this democracy with a strictly modernist hierarchy - but one of the delights of 20th and 21st century poetry is its variety.]  She samples some reviews, full of the kind of empathetic commentary and adjectival striving we still get in 2012. 

It needn’t be so, says Perloff, because there is lots of good 20th century writing on poetics, often by poets, from Ezra Pound and Gertrude Stein through 50’s manifestos for concrete poetry to Susan Howe.  They may diverge widely but have this in common: “From Futurism and Dada on down, the international poetic impulse has been constructivist rather than expressionist: it is committed, in other words, to the basic theorem that poetry is the language art, the art in which the ‘what’ cannot be separated from the ‘how’, in which the said only exists in the saying.”  Also, there’s consensus in poetics (as opposed to literary journalism) that  “poetic language is never simply unique, natural, and universal; it is the product, in large part, of particular social, historical and cultural formations. And these formations demand study.”
“um movimento” by Noigandres poet Décio Pignatari, Brazil, 1956
Perloff takes hope from the increasing diversity of poetry publishing, and from the study and discussion of poetics at universities; and foresees (from 1997) the internet’s potential to disseminate all this.  But she doesn’t seem to expect any of it will penetrate mainstream literary journalism.  On the contrary: she thinks that the middle-class poetry public is a thing of the past, and that poetics is now “at least as specialised as is architectural discourse”.     

15 years later, the poetry public is expanding, and has become more (though not sufficiently) diverse: workshops, open mics, small presses, competitions, blogs, online forums, magazines, MA’s.  But mainstream literary journalism is much the same.  I’ve just done a very quick online search of 3 mainstream British publications for articles that refer to Philip Larkin and J H Prynne.  (I’ve no idea how many of these take either poet as their main subject; but the ratio of mentions does give an idea of these publications’ frames of reference.)
Times Literary Supplement:   PL 537       JHP 38
London Review of Books:      PL 205       JHP 24
Guardian Books:                  PL 1,209    JHP 19              

Does all this matter?  I think it does.  Reviews with a hinterland, at least, that includes history and theory tend to be more rigorous and interesting.  And it would be very good to see a widening of subject matter: less Larkin, more Prynne, and more on books about poetics.  Those of us who lack a background in poetics would learn from such changes, at all levels, from the basics of metre to theories about language.  We might read more widely; that includes people who read mainstream literary publications for things other than poetry.  The general discourse about poetry and poetics would improve. 

Now for the reviews in poetry magazines.  I enjoy reading many of these.  The poetry world needs them.  I enjoy writing about poetry, though get frustrated by my own lack of knowledge - I need stuff on poetics as much as anyone.  I agree with everything in praise of poetry reviews that, by coincidence, Helena Nelson’s just posted on her blog.  But I do think there’s too much easy, empathy crit, too much that’s blandly positive.  And it would be great if things could be mixed up more, with brainy reviews, and reviews of difficult poetry, not just left to brainy magazines like PNR or Jacket, and to blogs etc like some of those listed on the right-hand side of this one. 

The worlds of serious poetics and mainstream poetry discussion seem far too separate.  Both mainstream literary reviews and poetry magazines could bring them closer.  Let’s not be doomed to charismatic legitimation!

While writing this, I discovered that Perloff’s essay is on her website, here.  I recommend ‘Strong Words’, edited by WN Herbert and Matthew Hollis, as a way in to 20th century poetics: published by Bloodaxe, it’s a collection of writings by modern poets on modern poetry. 

Monday, 6 February 2012

The Wrecking Light by Robin Robertson

Last year, at the end of a public discussion of the TS Eliot Prize shortlist, just before the evening reading, there was a vote.  Around a hundred articulate poetry readers chose their favourite.  The winner was Robin Robertson’s The Wrecking Light.  I’ve reviewed it in order to try to understand why I don’t like it, despite my admiration for Robertson’s skill. 

This book is like a charm necklace, each hermetically sealed poem-charm containing something strange, metamorphosed.  To wear these charms would not be safe: it could lead to anguish of the soul, and possibly to a very nasty end. 

Anguish in The Wrecking Light is surely heartfelt, as in the final poem:

But you’re not here, now, to lead me back
to bed.  None of you are. Look at the snow,
I said, to whoever might be near, I’m cold,
would you hold me. Hold me. Let me go. 

In a 2010 interview on openlettersmonthly.com, Robin Robertson said, “It is very tiresome when readers identify me as the speaker in the poem, and extrapolate an autobiography”.  But it’s hard not to feel that he is revealing something of himself each time, like the narrator of ‘Album’, the opening poem:

I am almost never there, in these
old photographs...
When you finally see me,
you’ll see me everywhere. 

This applies whatever persona he takes on, even a geisha’s client, or, in ‘The Great Midwinter Sacrifice, Uppsala’,  Adam of Bremen in 1075 witnessing a tree “decked simply with the dead”, animals and

that aren’t animals but hang there just the same,
black-faced, bletted, barely
recognisable as men. 
I look down at the spongy grass
and my boots are soaking red.  

As often, the horror is conveyed through simple language, with one unusual word, and extremely specific details. 

The cumulative effect of Robertson’s imagining of metamorphosis, death and mutilation can make one feel exposed, almost flayed – a bit like walking round a room of Lucian Freud nudes.   This feeling is heightened because his poems are so tightly controlled, as if to contain the emotion.  It’s no surprise that in a 2008 Guardian interview he talked of poetry as “this machine that could produce such beautiful sounds”.  

The intense tone of The Wrecking Light doesn’t vary much.  Nor does the form: Robertson writes mostly iambic lines, of varying length, with great skill.  He seems to have achieved line-break perfection.  Here, a lake is under ice:

A low grumble, a lingering vibrato, creaks
that seem to echo back and forth for hours;
the lake is talking to itself.  A loud
twang in the ice.  Twitterings
in the railway lines
from a train about to arrive. 

His nature descriptions tend to be highly wrought, but ‘Leaving St Kilda’, a journey round the islands and their place-names, is all the more evocative for being looser, long-lined:

on to... Sgeir Dhomnuill,
place of shags, who are drying their wings like a line
of blackened tree-stumps”. 

The sense, however inaccurate, of self-exposure is also there in poems of mood such as ‘My Girls’, about waiting for children to fall asleep,

till they smooth into dreams and I can
slip these fingers free
and drift downstairs;
my face a blank,
hands full of deceit.  

Later, his Forward Prize-winning poem ‘At Roane Head’ has a nightmarish description of half-selkie boys which includes this: “Beautiful faces, I’m told,/ though blank as air.” 

Robertson has cited David Jones as his greatest influence, with Yeats, Eliot, Lowell, Berryman, Bunting and Hill – an all-male canon.  The control, and the tension, seem to have tightened further since his last collection, Swithering (which had more humour).  It’s a characteristic he shares with Don Paterson, fellow Scottish poet and poetry editor, editor indeed of this book.  Robertson has described The Wrecking Light as “the last in a costive quartet”. 

The book has been much praised.  But the control can become too overt, too predictable.  I’d await Robin Robertson’s future collections with more excitement if I knew he could relax his grip, and move away from what he knows.     

The Wrecking Light is published by PicadorSee here for a recent article in the Daily Telegraph on the small (and male) world of top British poetry publishing.