Saturday, 26 September 2009

Another Day for Kent Johnson

A new book by Kent Johnson is now available. It's called Day and is published by Blazevox. It has had some good reviews, including the following by Juliana Spahr:

'If the 836-pp. Day established Kenny Goldsmith as without a doubt the leading conceptual poet of his time, the 836-pp. Day by Kent Johnson may well be remembered for nudging the politics of Conceptual Poetry out of blithely affirmative, institutional framings, and into truly negational critical spaces'.

Commendation indeed, if Spahr had actually said it, but it is a fabrication by Johnson, in keeping with the parodic tone he sets for the book, for indeed, Johnson’s Day is an exact reproduction of Kenny Goldsmith’s “work” of the same name. I’ve put “work” in quotes because Goldsmith would readily agree that the work in question was not “created” by him in any authorial sense. He describes his working procedure for the book as follows:

‘I am spending my 39th year practicing uncreativity. On Friday, September 1, 2000, I began retyping the day's NEW YORK TIMES word for word, letter for letter, from the upper left hand corner to the lower right hand corner, page by page’.

His term for this procedure is “uncreative writing”, which is,

‘a constraint-based process; uncreativity as a creative practice. By typing page upon page, making no distinction between article, editorial and advertisement, disregarding all typographic and graphical treatments, Goldsmith levels the daily newspaper. DAY is a monument to the ephemeral, comprised of yesterday's news, a fleeting moment concretized, captured, then reframed into the discourse of literature’.

However, this arduous undertaking of retyping the whole newspaper is not all it appears to be, for he later contradicts himself by saying:

'But in capitalism, labor equals value. So certainly my project must have value, for if my time is worth an hourly wage, then I might be paid handsomely for this work. But the truth is that I've subverted this equation by OCR'ing [scanning] as much of the newspaper as I can'.

Johnson’s appropriation of the “work”, therefore, can be seen as a logical extension of Goldsmith’s procedural stratagems, and perfectly within the ethical scope that Goldsmith has allowed for himself (and presumably others) in the publishing arena. Indeed, if Johnson, or anyone else, for that matter, had not done this, it could be argued, convincingly, that Goldsmith had proclaimed his aesthetic in vain.

However, such a compliment that Johnson has paid to Goldsmith’s aesthetic could be seen as something of a poisoned chalice, in that it has painted Goldsmith into a corner. For if he were to sue Johnson, he would be seen as something of a hypocrite, and thereby lose some artistic credibility. But if he doesn’t sue Johnson, he will leave his other “works” open to the same fate as has been visited on Day in this instance.

Of course, Goldsmith could have avoided such a dilemma by simply publishing the book anonymously, but that is, perhaps, too much a council of perfection that not even his aesthetic could countenance.

Incidentally, it could be said that Johnson’s appropriation of Goldsmith’s “work” is, perhaps, the more innovative and audacious act in comparison to Goldsmith’s “original” gesture, which, I think most will recognise, was based on an already established artistic precedent.

Day by Kent Johnson is priced at $30, plus shipping and handling. ($300 for each of ten numbered copies signed by the “Author”, no charge for shipping and handling.) All copies come with specially designed, affixed stickers (on cover, back cover, title page, spine, etc.) to impart authorship, copyright, blurbs, and co-production. It can be purchased at Blazevox:

Tuesday, 1 September 2009

Is Stephen Burt’s “New Thing” all that New?

I have just seen an article by Stephen Burt called ‘The New Thing: The object lessons of recent American poetry’ in the Boston Review in which he says:

‘For much of the past decade, the most imitated new American poets were slippery, digressive, polyvocalic, creators of overlapping, colorful fragments. Their poems were avowedly personal, although they never retold the poets’ life stories (they did not tell stories at all); the poets used, or at least mentioned, difficult ideas, especially from continental philosophy, although they never laid out philosophical arguments (they did not lay out arguments at all). Nor did they describe concrete objects at length. Full of illogic, of associative leaps, their poems resembled dreams, performances, speeches, or pieces of music, and they were, in M.H. Abrams’s famous formulation, less mirror than lamp: the poets sought to project their own experiences, in sparkling bursts of voluble utterance. Their models, among older authors, were Emily Dickinson, John Berryman, John Ashbery, perhaps Frank O’Hara; some had studied (or studied with) Jorie Graham, and many had picked up devices from the Language writers of the West Coast. These poets were what I, eleven years ago, called “elliptical,” what other (sometimes hostile) observers called “New Lyric,” or “post-avant,” or “Third Way.” Their emblematic first book was Mark Levine’s Debt (1993), their emblematic magazine probably Fence (founded 1998); their bad poems were bad surrealism, random-seeming improvisations, or comic turns hoping only to hold an audience’

He then sees a move away from this sort of poetry to that typified by (among others) Devin Johnston, Jon Woodward and Alice James. He describes this as follows:

‘The poets of the New Thing observe scenes and people (not only, but also, themselves) with a self-subordinating concision, so much so that the term “minimalism” comes up in discussions of their work, though the false analogies to earlier movements can make the term misleading. The poets of the New Thing eschew sarcasm and tread lightly with ironies, and when they seem hard to pin down, it is because they leave space for interpretations to fit. Woodward’s Rain, with its five-word lines and five-line elegiac stanzas, makes a good example:

the slick
of rainwater converts each thing’s
outside to an image of
inside the only object without
a soul is the sun

So says one stanza; six pages on, another reads:

the tar they use to
fill the cracks shines orange
from the orange streetlights but
is blacker than the asphalt
which doesn’t shine

We may have to reread to see, amid these scenes, the grief (for Woodward’s dead friend Patrick) that guides the whole book.’

My apologies for being obtuse but how does this sort of poetry exemplify anything new? Granted, in contrast to the poetry that Burt sees as non-descriptive and elliptical it is different. Nevertheless, it is not historically new in the development of poetic writing since High Modernism. On the contrary, it seems merely to represent a style of poetic writing that has always been active in mainstream poetry, namely that which has always relied on an empiricist aesthetic in describing phenomena. Indeed, Burt seems to acknowledge this:

‘This turn among poets to reference, to concrete, real things, has parallels, if not contributory causes, in literary academia. By 2001 there were books, articles, and anthologies devoted to “thing theory,” showing how literary works depend on the structures and histories of the “solid objects” (Douglas Mao’s term) that they might depict.’

Therefore, it is curious that Burt sees this as novel. He adds:

‘Reference, brevity, self-restraint, attention outside the self, material objects as models, Williams and his heirs as predecessors, classical lyric and epigram as precedents: all these, together, constitute the New Thing.’

This statement could have been made at any point in history about mainstream empiricist poetry.

By the way, some of what I say in my article ‘Empirical and Non-Empirical Identifiers’ in Jacket magazine, may inform any discussion this blog entry fosters.

Tuesday, 25 August 2009

Has British Poetry Had Any Significance Since Wordsworth?

This may seem an outlandish question, but I think it has some force behind it. Of course, the influence of Wordsworth on contemporary British mainstream poetry need hardly be stressed, and I have written extensively about this elsewhere. It is because of this influence that most of the celebrated British poetry of the Twentieth Century tended towards mediocrity when compared to American poetry of the same period. Certainly, there will be individual lines or stanzas from British poetry that belie this statement, but generally, I believe, the statement to be accurate.

In my last blog entry, ‘Can There Ever Be Another High Modernism’, I suggested that since High Modernism poetic innovation has been slight. Nevertheless, what little of it there has been seems to have been the product of an American sensibility, the most acute example being, perhaps, Language Poetry. Indeed, the more I look at the poetry of the last century, the more I see it as having been predominantly the manifestation of this American sensibility, incarnated in American-born poets such as Eliot, Pound, Stein, Stevens, Kerouac, Ginsberg, Ashbery, Bernstein and others. The only exception to this American ascendancy was Joyce, who was Irish.

Even before the Twentieth Century, America was, for the most part, producing the better poets, such as Whitman, Dickinson and Poe. It is certainly true, one could argue, that from Poe to Eliot the influence of French poets such as Baudelaire, Rimbaud and Verlaine was very much present, but it was American poets rather than British poets who seem to have had the perceptiveness to see something of value in these French poets and appropriate it.

British poetry, conversely, has continued in the tradition of Wordsworthian empiricism and parochialism, largely antagonistic to any use of a poetic language that basis its effects on aspects other than descriptiveness and anecdotal confession. How long this will remain the case is uncertain.

Friday, 7 August 2009

Can There Ever Be Another High Modernism?

This post is developed from a comment I left on Adam Fieled’s blog Stoning the Devil, in relation to his 'Flarf Time' post which was his response to Nana Gordon’s 'Flarf: Memorable? Novel?' post on her blog. The exchange between Adam and Nada revolved around poetic value and cultural significance: Adam arguing that poetry should ideally be able to encompass these concepts, and Nada arguing (if I understand her position correctly) that such concerns were not necessarily applicable in evaluating poetry’s “worth”.

My own view is a position held between these two opposites. Whilst I accept that ultimately a poem’s emotional value cannot be objectively estimated outside of its personal significance to individual readers, I believe that each poem has within it a potential for historical significance by either moving poetic language forward or, as in the case of Ginsberg’s Howl, having a cultural impact largely independent of linguistic concerns. As is probably the case, very few poems written since the appearance of Howl have achieved anything near a national or international cultural significance.

But having said this, Flarf’s “frivolity” of approach is (if albeit depressing) perhaps apt for our times, as is its estimation of poetic “value”. Perhaps poetry should not be taken very seriously, at least not that which has been written during the past 50 years, or so. However, many poetic schools seem to take themselves very seriously. Perhaps, this is why such schools form in the first place. It is certainly a fact that, historically, many poets have written a particular style of poetry as a way of being accepted by one of these schools, if only to potentiate their publishing opportunities—poetic schools are more marketable than desperado poets are

Of course, alongside this state of affairs there arise the inevitable rivalries and poetic factions. Perhaps, I am mistaken, but the only exception to this seemed to be the relationship between the Beats, the New York School and the Black Mountain School. They seem to have got on very well together—at least from what I have gathered from reading biographies of Ginsberg and Kerouac.

As we know, poetry is not read much now. Consequently, poetry has become culturally insignificant. I read somewhere that if all the poets now writing vanished from the earth, their absence would not affect the culture one jot. I am afraid this may be true. This cannot be accurately said for practitioners of the other arts such as music, painting and film. They seem to now do for us what poetry used to do.

Of course, a similar state to that which is present regarding poetry now was present before High Modernism, as can be seen in the poetry anthologies of the first decade of the Twentieth Century. Nevertheless, I do not see an equivalent to High Modernism on the current poetic horizon—or at least not that which doesn’t involve a multi-media approach, which I think would not really count as a multi-media’s affects would rely more than on words alone. Although, I accept that a poetic sensibility can be expressed in most art forms to some extent, I think that what we have come to know as poetry—i.e. that which is read on the page or heard being spoken—would be lost in a multi-media approach.

Wednesday, 5 August 2009

Linda Thompson Appeal

I have just heard that Linda Thompson, singer-songwriter and former singing partner to Richard Thompson, is having some difficulty funding her next album due to various changes in the music industry, which some of us regret. She has set up an appeal for funding at a site called The Hector Fund (a site which is something of an innovation in these matters). Her page on the site can be found here:

Linda says:

“I’d like your help. I’m trying to raise money so I can record the music, and be able to pay the excellent musicians, engineers and studios a fair wage and release the album to the public. So I am asking for financing - not charity (please save that for a more worthy cause) - but a business transaction. You, the audience, put up some money and I return the favor by sending you the music and much, much more!

I’m trying to raise $50,000 to cover ALL of the costs associated with independently producing, manufacturing and marketing an album in today’s marketplace.

When I started playing music in the sixties and seventies, we shared everything– perhaps some things we shouldn’t have. I’d like to return to a little bit of that spirit now. You the audience can share in the experience of making my record with me and be the first to hear it when its done - and I get to stick it to “the man” (whoever passes for the ‘man’ these days) by working outside of the system.”

Having been a fan of Linda and Richard for many years, I think it is a disgrace that someone who has contributed so much musically over the years has to be put in a position whereby she has to resort to financial help from fans and public alike. It just goes to show the appalling state of the music business, which even in the folk/country genre is only thinking of the bottom dollar.

So I hope some of you will help Linda, and, as she says, don’t think of it as charity but more as sponsorship.

The Dissembling Poet: Seamus Heaney and the Avant-garde

Originally posted on my old Tripod blog on Saturday, 21 March 2009

I came across an interesting interview with Seamus Heaney (a recent recipient of the David Cohen prize for literature, being awarded £40,000) by Dennis O'Driscoll (‘Beyond All This Fiddle’ ) where Heaney says about the avant-garde:

‘It’s an old-fashioned term by now. In literature, nobody can cause bother any more. John Ashbery was a kind of avant-garde poet certainly and now he’s become a mainstream voice. The work of the “Language Poets” and of the alternative poetries in Britain—associated with people in Cambridge University like J. H. Prynne—is not the charlatan work some perceive it to be; however, these poets form a kind of cult that shuns general engagement, regarding it as a vulgarity and a decadence. There’s a phrase I heard as a criticism of W. H. Auden and I like the sound of it: somebody said that he didn’t have the rooted normality of the major talent. I’m not sure the criticism applies to Auden, but the gist of it is generally worth considering. Even in T. S. Eliot, the big, normal world comes flowing around you. Robert Lowell went head-on at the times—there was no more literary poet around, but at the same time he was like a great cement mixer: he just shovelled the world in and it delivered. Now that’s what I yearn for—the cement mixer rather than the chopstick.’

Several things about this statement need to be addressed, so I will go through it step-by-step to do so. When Heaney says that the term “avant-garde” is old-fashioned, what does this really say regarding the term’s significance in relation to his own poetic ideals? Indeed, many critics have accused Heaney’s poetic, itself, as being distinctly old fashioned, a sort of neo-Georgian retrogressive “poetic” utterance. It is as if Heaney recognises the accuracy of this criticism, and in an effort to deflect its force feels the need to reflect it back at his detractors. That he is sensitive on this point is suggested by his saying (as if an afterthought) that ‘in literature, nobody can cause bother any more’. This is a curious thing for a man of letters to say in the absence of a defensive posture. What does he mean by “bother”, anyway? Is he referring to poetic innovation as being troublesome, or simply referring to personal “bother” caused by negative views of his poetry by observant critics? Whatever the case, to say that the term “avant-garde” is old-fashioned is beside the point, as Heaney, practised in casuistry and dissembling, knows all too well.

His citing of Ashbery as a belated mainstream voice also makes little sense outside of Ashbery being published in the UK by Carcanet. Certainly, he can’t be referring to Ashbery’s poetic which has yet to receive unreserved approbation by mainstream criticism, at least in Britain. Regardless of the truth of the matter, even if Ashbery was now part of the mainstream this does not demonstrate the emasculation of avant-garde concerns, which is the stated thrust of Heaney’s argument. Interestingly, if Ashbery is a mainstream voice this would imply that he and Heaney are both writing poetry. To re-position Ashbery within the boundaries of mainstream verse, all Heaney seems to be doing is to flatter his own poetic practice by association.

When he says of the alternative poetries in Britain that it ‘is not the charlatan work some perceive it to be’, who are the “some” he is referring to? No doubt, the main body of the mainstream, but I think, also, Heaney himself. His acknowledgment of Prynne, here, seems to be little more than an attempt to distance himself momentarily from the “some” he alludes to. If it were not this, then his saying that, ‘these poets form a kind of cult that shuns general engagement, regarding it as a vulgarity and a decadence’ recoups the generosity he grants Prynne. It seems not to have occurred to Heaney that any “cult” status these poets have acquired was, perhaps, the consequence of being marginalised by the mainstream. It is certainly not true that they shun “general engagement”, if he suggests by that term an aspiration for their work to be read and for it to communicate with a significant readership. In this respect, there is very little dissimilarity between mainstream and avant-garde poets.

Heaney’s appropriation of the criticism he sees as inappropriate regarding Auden (‘that he didn’t have the rooted normality of the major talent’) and conferring it upon the avant-garde, implies that major talent can only be an outpouring of an unadventurous character. If the history of art tells us anything, it is that this is categorically not the case. That Heaney uses Eliot, of all poets, to argue his point is another instance of his use of misdirection and redefinition, similar instances of which can be seen littered throughout his The Redress of Poetry. Whilst it is certainly true that Eliot was a conservative figure in both temperament and ideology, and that his later work was not as effervescent as that of his major period, Heaney’s suggestion that Eliot’s poetry evinces the ‘normal world’ is only accurate regarding content, the treatment of phenomena in Eliot, however, is seldom “normal” and usually problematical.

An expanded version of this blog has been commissioned by Jacket magazine and can be found here:

Responses to it, both positive and negative, can be found on the right of the page.


William Wyler's 'Wuthering Heights'

Originally posted on my old Tripod blog on Tuesday, 3 February 2009

Looking at the barrage of overrated and over-produced contemporary films it is easy to forget that film once aspired to be an art form. One such film is William Wyler’s 1939 underrated version of Emily Bronte’s novel Wuthering Heights which is, for me, the best film adaptation of that novel. Whilst the film deals with only the first 16 chapters of the novel’s 34, it compensates by capturing perfectly the emotional essence of the book, which for me resides in the relationship between Cathy and Heathcliff. When read in light of having seen this film, the rest of the novel’s 18 chapters seem almost like an afterthought or padding.

Wyler’s use of camera, lighting and mise-en-scene take much from the German Expressionist cinema of the 1920s, which is to be expected since many of this school’s filmmakers and technicians had, by the early 1930s, relocated to Hollywood and become part of mainstream film production there. This expressionist style is well suited to the film, as it provides a visual equivalent to the novel’s gothic atmosphere.

The film quite deservedly won an Academy Award for Best Original Score, by Alfred Newman. Indeed, it is difficult to separate film and score, so entwined and essential are they that they become almost dyadic. To listen to Newman’s score alone is a deeply emotional experience.

However, Wuthering Heights did not win the Academy Award for Best Picture, which went to the unfortunately titled Gone With the Wind. In my view, this was an oversight because Wuthering Heights is the far superior film. One cannot help but suspect that Gone with the Wind won because it was an adaptation of a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, which dealt with a “big” subject. However, for me, the really timeless and universal themes are dealt with in Wuthering Heights.

Empirical and Non-Empirical Identifiers

Originally posted on my old Tripod blog on Friday, 28 November 2008

I have an essay in Jacket Magazine called 'Empirical and Non-Empirical Identifiers':

This essay looks at certain effects of language that I call Empirical Identifiers because of the ways in which they encourage exegetical closure through their functioning as referents to phenomena. It also looks at their opposites, which I call Non-Empirical Identifiers because of the ways in which they invite readers to participate in the creation of individual meaning and significance from language that is autonomous and non-referential. These identifiers, by enabling a ready recognition of empirical and non-empirical writing procedures in poetry, may prove useful as diagnostic devices for literary and stylistic criticism. The essay examines a range of poetic works from the last century and assesses the extent to which they exhibit a reliance on either Empirical Identifiers or Non-Empirical Identifiers.

Poetry Collection

Originally posted on my old Tripod blog on Sunday, 13 April 2008

I have a short collection of poems out with cPress called Slimvol:

The ebook version is free.

'Carrier of the Seed' Available as a Free Ebook

My poem Carrier of the Seed is now out as a free ebook with Blazevox. You can download it at:

What the critics have said about it:

Jake Berry:

'Excellent, mythopoeic, my kind of stuff.'

Marjorie Perloff:

'It’s very striking. The reader is propelled forward, thematically and mythologically. The result is extremely interesting.'

Hank Lazer:

'An engaging avalanche of a poem, and I like the collision of various registers of language throughout the poem. Overall, a feel of contemporary myth-dream propelled narrative to it. A truly contemporary quest.'

Andrew Duncan:

‘It negates a whole repertoire of well-loved effects and also demands the reader to switch off their routine response and find a new way of reacting to the text. Carrier, presented as one long continuous strip, has a straightforward phonetic organisation: every line is three words long. This disconnects the line break from the flow of sense of the text. The telltales, which show someone's emotional state, which make it possible to slip into the rhythm of a text and a situation, are effaced. The text thus breaks free from the limits of a soul and could for example be the voices of several different people, standing at different points of a situation. It ceases to be owned by a personality, which we could try to reconstruct in order to identify with it and share what it owns.’

Pam Brown:

‘The poem is breathlessly written, imbued with distinctive imagining and, perhaps surprisingly, it also maintains a satisfying, dynamic-yet-steady rhythm, reading like a long, measured monologue or song. Side intersperses antiquated traces that sometimes suggest classic fairy-tales - robes, kingdoms, forests, parlours, maidens, minstrels, pilgrims, with a contemporary everyday lexicon of cybernetics and with plain speech. The made-up language overtakes the poet intrinsically and emphasises the suffusion of feeling that pulses throughout the poem.’

Adam Fieled:

‘Reading the poem is like riding on a high-velocity train; it doesn't get sluggish, and there are no breaks in the continuity of the sustained, rapid rhythm. This is a poem that takes what someone like Barrett Watten did and extends its range. It has the kind of heart and soul that Watten does not, yet it maintains the sleek feeling and pungent sharpness of Watten.’

John Couth:

'All the way through to the poem's conclusion, with its implied continuation, the reader will have embarked down an extraordinary route of languages, registers and vocabularies, which function to arrest, surprise and disrupt, languages that flow together, collide and cut across each other's current like a plaited waterway. In turn, this flow has been enriched by the assimilation of artefacts from different generations of writers; these deepen the work interlacing it with echoes and experiences from different times and cultures. The integration of so many disparate elements into one cogent construct is the poem's triumph.'

John M. Bennett:

'Say, this is an excellent piece.'

Michael Rothenberg:

'I like it a lot.'

Reviews of it can be found at the following sites:

Stoning the Devil:



Big Bridge:

Exultations & Difficulties:


The haunting cover photo was done by my friend Rachel Lisi whose other photography, artworks and writings can be found at:

Ezra Pound's Romantic Roots

Originally posted on my old Tripod blog on Sunday, 28 October 2007

I have an essay called 'Ezra Pound and the Romantic Ideal' at:

The essay examines the poetic ideas of Ezra Pound and shows that they have similarities to the poetic ideas of William Wordsworth, especially with regard to Wordsworth's advocating a naturalistic and descriptive mode of poetic writing that became the principal style of poetry for the rest of the nineteenth century and the greater part of the twentieth.

The essay also argues that the received opinion that Pound's poetical radicalism was largely motivated by his antipathy to Romantic poetry is exaggerated. Rather his radicalism was the result of his reaction to the stylistic excesses of late Victorian poetry, and as such can be paralleled with Wordsworth's reaction to the stylistic excesses of late seventeenth-century poetry.

To this extent, Pound's poetic ideas can be seen as a continuation of certain Romantic ideals in poetry; ideals primarily articulated by Wordsworth, having been developed from seventeenth-century empiricist philosophy.

Veronica Forrest-Thompson Article

Originally posted on my old Tripod blog on Monday, 24 September 2007

I have an article on the poet Veronica Forrest-Thompson at Shadow Train called:

'Multiple Registers, Intertextuality and Boundaries of Interpretation in Veronica Forrest-Thompson'

To Connote or Not to Connote

Originally posted on my old Tripod blog on Saturday, 14 April 2007

It is not often that I’m quoted, so when I came across George Szirtes 2007 StAnza Lecture and saw that he’d quoted the following statement (which I’d made on an online poetry forum last year) I was quite flattered until I continued reading and saw his response to it. The quote from me is:

‘I don’t think there is such a thing as difficult poetry, only poetry that connotes or denotes. The former is always considered difficult by opponents of it. The Waste Land is more connotative than a Simon Armitage poem, for instance, that is why The Waste Land is seen as difficult.’

His response to it is:

‘I am not sure how this writer can draw a sharp distinction between connotation and denotation in any speech, let alone poetry. Connoting and denoting are simultaneous processes.’

Semantically and cognitively, connoting and denoting may be simultaneous processes but their creative usage in poetry necessarily modifies to some extent the balance Szirtes observes. If this were not the case then literary criticism would not be as problematic as it is.

Besides, most readers would, I’m sure, agree that The Waste Land is more connotative than an Armitage poem. This is not to say that Armitage’s poems do not connote; the difference is in the extent that they do when compared with The Waste Land.

Neil Astley's Apologia for Populist Poetry

Originally posted on my old Tripod blog on Saturday, 4 November 2006

Rupert Loydell of Stride Books alerted me to an article in New Statesman by Bloodaxe Books editor Neil Astley called (rather clumsily) ‘Give Poetry Back to People’. In it, Astley laments what he mistakenly sees as the lack of interest poetry publishers display in the sort of poetry he champions: namely that which is populist, descriptive and prose-like. He says, ‘When poetry publishers and reviewers ignore their readership, this is called “maintaining critical standards”’. He argues that this indifference is inappropriate given that ‘more people write poetry than go to football matches, and poetry is popular in schools, at festivals and at the hundreds of readings staged every week in pubs, theatres, arts centres and even people’s homes’.

Moreover, ‘Poetry has reached a wider audience through films, radio, television and the internet, as well as through initiatives such as London’s Poems on the Underground, which has been imitated around the world’. That is not all:

‘Big names in world poetry read to full houses at Scotland’s poetry festival, Stanza in St Andrews, every March, and at Ledbury in July. This month, hundreds of poetry enthusiasts will flock to the biennial Poetry International at the South Bank Centre in London (24-29 October), where the international line-up includes Elizabeth Alexander, Martin Espada and Jane Hirshfield (US), Michael Longley and Paul Muldoon (Ireland), Tua Forsström (Finland), Tomas Tranströmer (Sweden), Arundhathi Subramaniam (India) and Gabeba Baderoon (South Africa). The following weekend (3-5 November), Aldeburgh Poetry Festival will fill the town’s Jubilee Hall with readings by writers from Kurdistan and Catalonia to the US’.

He adds that despite the extensive promotion by major bookshop chains of poetry that is ‘aimed at a broader readership’; nevertheless, ‘all the talk in poetry publishing is of crisis’. He says that,

‘The producers of poetry aren’t in tune with the lovers of poetry. Many poets and publishers are actually hostile to the promotion of poetry […]. They see marketing as a dirty word instead of simply the means by which their books are made available to more readers’.

Because of this state of affairs, ‘Bookshops stock less and less poetry, concentrating on safe bets such as anthologies and selected poems by big-name authors’. The solution to this problem is, he says, to publish ‘a range of books and authors that people actually want to read’. Furthermore, ‘Continuing to package their books to appeal only to an intellectual elite has severely disadvantaged’ poetry publishers. He says, rather patronisingly, that if ‘readers find a book visually unappealing, they won’t pick it up. And if the back-cover blurb is a piece of turgid literary criticism, new readers will be scared off’.

For Astley, ‘Too often, poetry editors think of themselves and their poet friends as the arbiters of taste, selecting only writers they think people ought to read. […] Ignoring the readership would be commercial suicide in any other field, but this malpractice in poetry publishing and reviewing has survived into the 21st century thanks to “academic protectionism”.

He continues: ‘Editors’ “personal taste” is too often an excuse or disguise for elitism and arrogance. In my view, my responsibility as an editor is to be responsive to writers and readers, and to give readers access to a wide range of world poetry’. As long as it is populist, descriptive and prose-like, one presumes.

He says that ‘Contemporary poetry has never been more varied, but what the public gets to hear about are the new post-Larkin “mainstream” and the “postmodern avant-gardists” (with their academic strongholds in Oxford and Cambridge respectively)’. I would have thought Astley’s own poetic preferences have now replaced the post-Larkin “mainstream”. Moreover, as for the postmodern avant-gardists; surely they are somewhat marginalized.

He concludes with echoes of a liberal humanist aesthetic: ‘The establishment must be responsive not to literary and academic cliques, but to readers, especially at a time when public interest in poetry is growing so rapidly. Poetry’s dinosaurs have to realise that our country, culture and economic climate have changed, and so have their responsibilities’.

In his article, Astley seems to be in something of an unnecessary dilemma. On the one hand, he laments the failure of establishment poetry publishing houses to churn out even more populist, descriptive and prose-like poetry, while on the other hand he boasts about such poetry already being the dominant strain in contemporary British and international culture. Hasn’t he the slightest notion that poetry should be an art form and not a sort of social realism to be blindly marketed like reality TV?

Sean O'Brien and Seamus Heaney Redefining the Mainstream

Originally posted on my old Tripod blog on Sunday, 15 January 2006

In Sean O' Brien's piece (‘Rilke and the Contemporary Reader’) in Poetry Review (issue 95-3) he rightly acknowledges that much contemporary poetry in Britain is 'indulgently anecdotal'. He sees this anecdotalism as traceable to Philip Larkin (for older exponents) and Frank O'Hara (for younger ones). He says that these influences,

'trade on an attachment to authenticity which is felt to outbid both technical reach and thematic scale. Both serve a misconceived 'democratic' notion of poetry as entertainment, in which equality (a notion misplaced in this context) emerges not in diversity but as sameness'.

This seems strange coming from a poet whose career could be said to have embraced and championed realist tendencies in poetry. Indeed, he seems to have won every mainstream poetry prize going (including the Cholmondeley Award, the Somerset Maugham award, the E.M. Forster Award, and the Forward Prize). And Poetry Review (with typical hyperbole) describes him as 'the poet-editor-critic of his generation'. Peter Forbes in issue 91-1 of that publication reasserts O’Brien’s mainstream credentials:

'The members of this group of mainstream-poets-who-are-currently-making-the-running (they need a handy name but we'll come to that later) have been winning the prizes in the last few years: Carol Ann Duffy (virtually everything); Sean O'Brien (Forward), Don Paterson (Eliot and Forward First), Michael Donaghy (Forward), John Burnside (Whitbread), Jamie McKendrick (Forward), Jo Shapcott (Forward), Ruth Padel (National Poetry Competition), Ian Duhig (National Poetry Competition), Paul Farley (Forward First Collection). Prizes may not sell many extra copies of books but they play an important role in the consolidation of poetic reputations'.

Peter Porter in his review for Poetry Review (issue 91-1) of O’Brien’s Downriver includes O’Brien with, among others, Don Paterson, Glyn Maxwell and Simon Armitage as poets who 'bring back intellectualism and populism to British Poetry'. Porter sees these poets as 'delivering us' from 'the hermetically sealed Old Experimenters in J. H. Prynne's Cambridge'. Of these "saviours" of British poetry, Porter says that they 'cared enormously about versification' and that their material was 'sharply observed' and (echoes of the anecdotal?) 'wittily presented'.

Porter notes that O’Brien 'writes with the ease and assurance of a poet so at home with the real world'. This need/desire for realism is further expressed in O’Brien’s entry under the academic staff biographies list of Sheffield Hallam University:

'His poetry often combines demotic and more literary language and is strongly aware of its northern location - a poem such as 'Cousin Coat' creates an angry presence of historical injustice, closed mines and cenotaphs, by enhancing the rhythms and rhymes of ordinary speech. This means that when a more extravagant word is used, it feels necessary'.

Thus, we see realism (as geographical location and linguistic functionality) emphasised and esteemed. For Porter, such realism is preferable to what he sees as O’Brien’s former less-functional language, which 'sometimes tended to be strangled Laocoon-wise by their ramifications, their lineation and syntax tangling like roots in a pot'.

David Wheatley, in his Guardian (October 5, 2002) review of the mainstream poet John Fuller’s Now and for a Time, notes that O’Brien, in The Deregulated Muse, sees Fuller as a postmodernist poet. This is a designation which, says Wheatley, 'must have left readers of Jeremy Prynne and the Conductors of Chaos poets scratching their heads in disbelief'.

Given all this, I fail to understand why, in recent years, mainstream poets such as O’Brien have been willing to bite the hand that feeds them. Could it be that they sense the Hand’s "imminent" demise, and are preparing for the time when they will have to jump ship and adequately explain themselves to their new crew in terms of a redefinition of their poetic lineage?

Something of this can be glimpsed with Seamus Heaney in his The Redress of Poetry where he appears to want his cake and eat it. He says:

'Poetry cannot afford to lose its […], joy in being a process of language as well as a representation of things in the world'.

His empiricism is unavoidably evident in this statement. However his about-face on the nature of poetic language is puzzling. Could this turnaround perhaps indicate that Heaney realizes that his poetic modus operandi is beginning to lose currency in the more progressive circles of academic poetic discourse, and that to fully safeguard his posthumous poetic reputation he has to enable future critics of his work to capably defend his reputation against charges that he is a merely descriptive poet?

Yet, his continual wariness of the linguistic and formal properties of a poem is still very much evident. This can be seen in his cautious praise (also in The Redress of Poetry) of the descriptive poet Edward Thomas:

'Thomas came through with a poem in a single, unfumbled movement, one with all the confidence of a necessary thing, one in which again at last the fantasy and extravagance of the imagery and diction did not dissipate themselves or his or his theme'.

Here, Heaney can be seen elevating poetic content over poetic language. This would seem to bring in to question his sincerity in saying that poetry cannot afford to lose its 'joy in being a process of language'.

The Anti-Modernism of Seamus Heaney and Philip Hobsbaum

Originally posted on my old Tripod blog on Sunday, 2 October 2005

I've been reading a Boston Globe article called 'Heaney Ponders the Powers of Poetry' by Robert Taylor, which praises Seamus Heaney's 1995 apologia for descriptive poetry, The Redress of Poetry. In the article Taylor writes:

'Seamus Heaney's recent Nobel Prize coincides with the publication of The Redress of Poetry, the lectures he gave over five years as professor of poetry at Oxford, ranging from the Elizabethan audacities of Christopher Marlowe to the bleak void of Philip Larkin, and illuminates a point of view of poetry as a force capable of transforming culture and the self'.

Yet from reading The Redress of Poetry, what I find is that far from advocating 'poetry as a force capable of transforming culture and the self', Heaney argues for a neo-Georgian descriptive poetic aesthetic that, if anything, can only inhibit supposed cultural transformations.

In The Redress of Poetry, Heaney's aversion to experiment and formal innovation, and his bias for a poetry consisting of obvious subject matter is evident in his criticism of Dylan Thomas. For Heaney Thomas has a 'too unenlightened trust in the plasticity of language'.

Heaney also has reservations about poetic artifice. Of Thomas’s use of it, he says that 'the demand for more matter, less art, does inevitably arise'. Elizabeth Bishop, however, has his approval because 'she never allows the formal delights of her art to mollify the hard realities of her subjects'.

In Seamus Heaney: From Major to Minor, R. Caldwell rightly criticises Heaney by saying:

'There is too often the feel with his poetry that the paraphrase is the end of the matter: there is little of the multifaceted richness of suggestion that invites one to probe further'.

Heaney, of course, was a protege of Philip Hobsbaum who made it possible for Heaney to get a publishing contract with Faber & Faber. Hobsbaum was also a founder of the 1960s British poetry clique, The Group. Originally based in London, The Group founded a wing in Belfast when Hobsbaum had to relocate there to take up a teaching post at Queen's University. Heaney met Hobsbaum while studying at Queens, and was invited to take part in Group meetings.

Hobsbaum was an anti-modernist - especially of the American variety. In his Tradition and Experiment in English Poetry he writes:

'Whitman’s abstractions and random collocations have a raw life of their own, a form even through their formlessness; and this has remained highly characteristic of American poetry ever since. The Waste Land is, indeed, a heap of broken images: this is its meaning, and, to some extent, its distinction. But that kind of writing has never worked well in England'.

His criticism of Eliot extends to what Hobsbaum sees as the negative influence on English poetry of Eliot’s use of the American idiom:

'Some damage was done to English verse by too close an imitation in the 1930s of the American idiom as evidenced in such poets as Eliot and Pound'.

Hobsbaum also sees a disparity between Eliot’s American writing style and traditional English poetic writing practice. Although Hobsbaum does not see this in itself as necessarily negative, the implication is that American modernism is largely a geographical and cultural entity, unable to successfully function within an English milieu:

'Again, Eliot’s work exhibits the characteristic American qualities of free association or phanopoeia and autobiographical content. English verse, however, has been at its best as fiction: an arrangement of what is external to the poet to convey the tension or release within'.

The approbation of Heaney is truly a retrograde step in the historical development of international poetry.

Dan Schneider's Article on Gregory Corso

Originally posted on my old Tripod blog on Thursday, 30 June 2005

I just read a very interesting analysis of Gregory Corso's work by Dan Schneider. What was most interesting was Schneider's rating of Corso above Kerouac and Burroughs in the Beat pantheon. Only Ginsberg came out ahead of Corso. Schneider says:

'the Beat Generation, i.e. - the Beatniks - really just consisted of 2 real poetic talents & a lot of hangers-on. The 2 being Allen Ginsberg & Gregory Corso. Kerouac & Burroughs were really prosists - & mediocre, at best, LeRoi Jones a token, & Anne Waldman & Diane Di Prima bedwarmers'.

While I understand Burroughs's placement, I think Kerouac should be awarded more credit. Yes, much of his prose is prosaic but his poetry by far makes up for this. His use of novel word juxtapositions in '211th Chorus': 'quivering meat / conception', and in 'The Thrashing Doves': 'all the balloon of the shroud on the floor' are, like Ginsberg's use of them in Howl ('hydrogen dukebox, starry / dynamo in the machinery of night'), truly inspired. It is difficult to imagine what early Bob Dylan would have been like had these lines not been written.

I think that Corso's placement in the pantheon (given that Kerouac was primarily a novelist) is about right. His poetry, despite a tendency towards the prosaic, does generalize sufficiently for connotation to operate. And Schneider is right in citing Corso's 'Last Night I Drove a Car' and 'The Mad Yak' as being particularly inane.