Thursday, June 29, 2006

various diverting things...

Christian Bok's Eunoia is the biggest selling Canadian poetry book of all time. If that doesn't whet your appetite then I don't know what will. It's an Oulipo job, the most bafflingly successful I've ever seen. Basically it's a collection of texts, each of which contains only one vowel. Follow the link, you'll see what I mean. It's kind of like the opposite of Georges Perec's La Disparition, which is the famous book with no letter 'e'. Now, I'll be the first to admit that a little oulipo goes a long way. Trying to live on it would be like only eating food that rhymed (my friend Kerry once suggested this as a diet - ham and jam, parrot in claret, etc.). You wouldn't get your nutrients. Didn't Satie once live off of only white food? Or was that Strindberg? Anyway, oulipo. It's something I know only a little about. Bookartbookshop has a nice shelf-full of the stuff which I'll score sometime soon I expect. From a distance it looks very clever-clever and dry; the sort of thing people laugh short mirthless laughs at in salons. My suspicion is that it's a lot more than that. Christian Bok is a bit oulipo-lite I think, but it's a nice way to get warmed up for the hard stuff.

I ordered a couple of interesting looking things from Salt: D S Marriot's first collection, and a rather unusual project from John Seed. Look out for ill-informed attitudinising posts about them in the next month or so.

Mairead Byrne is a pleasure to read. Read a short musing on cellphones. 'Stungun of the inbetween' eh? If I'd come up with that I'd take the rest of the day off.

Martin Stannard has gone to China. I've not got much of a clue who he is, but his blog looks like it was great - there's loads of interesting stuff in there. I'm extremely jealous. Except he's stopped now.

(That photo's of Georges Perec by the way - Bok's quite boring looking)

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

a poem for breakfast

Here's a poem. Thinking about shapes of skylines, and about builders and their very early starts. It's come out all mix-up and smudgified. Anyhow:


I build up cities / clang clang,
build ‘em up. Not just me, is a
whole team of us, yes yes.
Build ‘em up. Thumb squint.
Identical hats with decals, all
fearless re girders ‘n such. Sure.
Human sure. Got plans, plants,
cherry pickers, conduit, masonry,
go out even in the rain, see.
For the vistas, for the skylines.

Manhattan and San Gimignano;
marimba theme of the chart wizard,
his helpers, lined up on the y axis
as it were muppets or drawn on,
say, eggs. All same hats. Look
where they cross the ‘much vaunted’ river
it seems a pontoon appears under their boots
to keep ‘em from what, dissolving.
Now listen you here to me gimpo.
Strut by strut I count them in boy.

That was the gaffer I mean the architect
we heard just then through that window.
Let’s look you said as we weakened.
Less venal more charmingly grabby,
we put one eye each to the split cheek.
At once the little pop song played,
marimba, bell curve, re-evaluate summer’s
rise and fall of towers as chimp via
thug to gent and back. Not with a bang but
a long diminuendo: thus palindrome.

I know it’s brick but it looks like brass,
the dawn blue milk sky still not spoken,
all cities are memorial at this lucky stage.
Songs on those little radios are active,
hydraulic pixie boogaloo, the yellow
sun right in the kisser. Clang clang.
Coffee, grapefruit juice, toast, eggs,
stewed fruit, more coffee, look how
crumbs cast shadows on belfast linen, allow
the day, its many and exemplary encounters.

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

a polite response to a polite response

When I said I found stuckism irritating and boring yesterday I suppose I should have expected that Charles Thomson would track the link back and comment. I was flattered he found the time to respond, and indeed to provide a link here from the Stuckist website for anyone interested in seeing me ‘have a go’ at them, so I did him the courtesy of going over to his website and checking out again what I thought I knew. A couple of things occurred to me.

- Stuckism is quite funny a lot of the time, and I like that. There’s not enough funny around as a rule.

- The much-vaunted ‘communication’ in Stuckist paintings seems often to mean communicating how perplexing women seem with their tops off (Charles Thomson excepted entirely from this observation). Either that, or the thunbnails chosen are not statistically representative and were chosen for another reason.

- Charles Thomson’s paintings are bright and smart and clean. He is very insistent that they are nothing to do at all with pop art, which he believes is soulless. I suppose I believe that he believes this, but it’s a bit difficult to look at the paintings and not think of ‘Yellow Submarine’.

- Whilst agreeing that lots of minimalist or ‘post modern’ art is a little bloodless, I don’t find that any more or less irrefutable an aesthetic judgement than that most Stuckist art is technically mediocre. Which is to say: both of these opinions do tell you something about the art, but not anything very interesting.

- Mr Thomson objects to being called ‘embittered’. I think if I’d had the dispiriting experience he describes having had at art college I’d have been a bit bitter as well. Although I think I’d have got over it by now. (Actually I can hold a grudge effectively forever, so, maybe I wouldn’t)

- I pretty much stick by what I said about spirituality. I was not surprised to find Mr Thomson refer to himself as a student of the Kabbalah.

- There’s something I can’t quite put my finger on that seems aggressively unpleasant in Stuckism. It’s only a whiff, but it’s there. Being a small-ish group of like-minded artists who feel they have something in common and put on shows of each other’s work – fine. The odd manifesto – we’ve all done it (although not since I was 20). But this constant barracking and insulting other artists who plainly don’t give a shit is unattractive and boring and slightly creepy. If, as Dan’s jacket says, painting pictures is what matters, then what’s all this other stuff?

- The issue of Michael Dickinson seems pretty clear cut though, eh folks? Write to your MP then.

Anyway, this blog is supposed to be about poetry so that's it as regards stuckism. Comments box is fine, but I'm going to try and keep it to poetry up here. I'm getting mission creep. Or it could just be these trousers.

Sunday, June 25, 2006

sun sun sun

Over the last few days issues of ‘spirituality’ have seemed to loom rather large. First of all, I attended the opening of an exhibition that my good friend Dan Belton has arranged in a gallery / bar here in Brighton. There’re four painters in the show, Dan’s work is easily the strongest – it’s funny, angry with itself, has a recognisable – what? – poise? It’s distinctive, and it looks good. Like good food looks good.

However, Dan is also (difficult this) a Stuckist. Let me be clear – I liked the show. If you’re in town you should check it out – It’s at the Arthouse Bar opposite the Providence on Western Road. But personally I find Stuckism irritating and boring. It seems to exist as a kind of embittered alter ego to conceptual art, taking muddled pot-shots at YBA’s, installation artists, Turner nominees and so forth, all done in full tweeds and deerstalker with a surprising flair for media and celebrity. The fact that they reserve a special place in their grimoire of britart demons for Tracey Emin when to me she seems to exhibit exactly the kind of angsty neo-expressionist narrative stuff they claim to prize so highly is evidence that there are things other than aesthetics driving this movement. (She stole it all from Billy Childish? So her ideas are rubbish...and they're stolen from a Stuckist?...ok...)

As a general rule, I don’t pay much attention to what artists say about their work, or what their gallery owners commission critics to write about them in catalogues. Some of the most strangled, airless and indigestible prose outside of the legal profession is to be found in manifestos and fine art catalogues, as everyone knows. I figure it’s politest to just pretend it’s not there, like a small fart. Unfortunately Stuckists are by temperament addicted to proselytising tracts, manifestos, slogans and bullet points. It’s not a small fart, you can’t ignore it. Especially when (and here I come to my point) they persist in mentioning spirituality, spiritual values, some kind of neurotic strained quest for authenticity.

My friend Vaughan once said to me, with a kind of clear angry pride, ‘I have no idea what a spiritual side is. I haven’t got one.’ That more or less sums it up. I understand spirit to refer to a kind of animating energy or principle which the physical body or mind partakes of, but which is not identified with it, not contiguous or coterminous with it. Breath, but not my breath. To me this seems a dangerously mistaken idea. I will say this as clearly and simply as I can: I believe there is no god. I believe the links between me and the outside world including other people, family, loved ones, originate inside individual (my, your) private, unshared apprehension. I do not think that for the most part very much is gained from (nonetheless very diverting) speculation on how exactly these links are constituted – the mix of genetic predisposition, physics, clustering, memory, atavism, that I privately postulate probably says more about the culture I live in than it does about the phenomenon I hope to describe. What is important to me is that the patterns made by these links are harmonically related. Things can clang, or hum; sigh, or shriek. That is to say, it is possible to experience the world in a disordered and anxious way. It is also possible to experience peaceful ease and pleasure. The solution to the problem of how we can all stay as close to the sunny side of the street as possible can’t be found inside single separate subjectivities, nor does it lie in some supra-human spiritual dimension. It lies in the variousness, the multiplicity of the individuals, all alone inside our subjectivity, but able to see out, able to make links, to share information, to recognise each other. It’s social. It is the complex musics of these links, their harmonic structures, that are what people mistake for spirit. It’s not spirit. It’s US. If I am ill because my family can’t afford to feed me because their life as farmers was destroyed when the valley we live in was flooded to make a hydroelectric dam so that the governor of my region could advance his political career, well, what’s my spirit gonna do? My spirit isn’t strong enough to move a match across a kitchen table without my body. Spirit, like soul, is a word, not a thing. And the way my illness will be cured will be by other human beings seeing me out of their eyes, or seeing a sign that means me in a newspaper, or hearing me down a phone line, and hearing a kind of dissonance there, some thing they don’t like, something they wanna put right. And ways get invented of doing it, slowly slowly. A lot of this is done at very boring meetings. None of it is done in religious ritual. Rituals have all kinds of possibly useful side effects, but raindances? Prayer? Anybody says spirit did it, or that anyone one this blue earth was ever saved by anything other than real people, they’re wrong.

Which brings me to Spiritual Peeve no.2. Anybody who’s spent any time with me in pubs has heard all this before and can safely go straight on to the next paragraph. I spend a fair bit of time over at Silliman’s Blog where the American Language Poet Ron Silliman keeps a well-stocked bar. There’re few more bracing pleasures than watching Silliman anatomize a poem, or share an insight into a neglected writer / little magazine / new anthology. Last week, though, in the course of discussing Charles Olson’s Proprioceptions he mentioned that Olson had some small interest in the occult, hermeticism, yadda yadda. This ended up in a discussion in the comments box about acupuncture, crystals, and all this one. I’d direct you over there to have a look but Ron had to turn the comments off after some unrelated abuses. Anyway, I felt I couldn’t stand by and watch, so posted saying why is everybody saying these awful things? Why are educated people talking about homeopathy? And I more or less got swatted away in a very polite californian way. But it made me think – why do people who are reasonable, educated people believe that, for example, homeopathy works, when it plainly doesn’t. It’s that little viral spirit idea again, making it seem ok to ignore the truth, centring responsibility for deciding whether something is true or not just far enough outside of the self that you avoid having to question it. It’s a mistake. If people can be made to believe in homeopathy then they can be made to believe other fantastic notions. The market knows best. You’ll feel better if you look at these celebrities. You need six months extended warranty. This crystal might help. It’s probably the fault of the jews / muslims / travellers / somalis. The Green Party could govern. There’s no end to the possibilities.

And thirdly: We’ve got Jerry Springer The Opera coming to Brighton. Which means we’ve also got those Christian Voice fuckers leafleting. Which is about as much as I can stand. They seem determined to pick a fight with all of us. Are you an artist? Seen any art you liked, ever? Or maybe you’re homosexual? Or at least not a rabid swivel-eyed homophobe? Ever had an abortion? Are you broadly speaking against rolling back 50 years of feminism and getting back to gingham-clad trank-zombie housewives? Then these bastards hate you. They’ve got money, time and influential friends. So, yes, write to your MP, join the National Secular Society, write to the papers, but more simply, just go down there and get in a row with them. Amanda tells me they’re around Pavilion Gardens and New Road. Go on your lunch hour. Ask the people around you if they like having homophobic religious fundamentalists on the streets of Brighton. A lot of towns have given in. I’m as cynical about the ‘Place To Be’ bullshit about Brighton as anyone, but if this town’s good for anything it’s good for sending these dried up hate filled fuckers up the road with their ears ringing.

I promise that’s the last moaning I’ll be doing for a while. I bought two volumes of Mayakovsky in Oxfam for £3 each. They’re beautiful Raduga editions, clothbound, illustrated, abebooks has them listed at about £35 each. That’s not supposed to happen anymore is it? Mayakovsky’s got a slightly dubious rep – he was a party man to his fingertips, and doesn’t have quite the rebel cache of Pasternak or Mandelstam, but I like reading him. Admittedly some poems in praise of the new hot-water-flats for workers seem inadvertantly comic, and the translations are a bit clunky, but the crazy brilliant optimism and confidence of a poem like An Extraordinary Adventure is irresistible to me. It’s linked in my mind with Frank O’Hara’s A True Account Of Talking To The Sun At Fire Island, Donne’s The Sun Rising, and also with a lovely Bill Griffiths poem in his Salt anthology The Mud Fort about the guys who drive the sun like a giant sci-fi tractor. Poems about the sun! I’m all for ‘em! In fact, come to think of it, about this time last year I did a little thing called Five Short Songs For The Sun. I’ll post them if I can find them.

Monday, June 19, 2006

did I say that out loud?

OK, maybe shit-eating weasel was a bit harsh. David Harsent never did anything to annoy me apart from being a bit boring. Blake Morrison blighted my undergraduate years with his stultifying Anthology of Contemporary British Poetry, but that was in the 80's and I'm over it now. But am I wrong about Motion, his co-editor? Am I? Well, am I?

I'm thinking about poetry podcasting. I mean, that could work couldn't it? There're loads of recordings available now all over the place, and with a bit of judicious, y'know, talking and that, I reckon it could be fun. I'll look into it.

I was really enjoying reading Marianne Moore and then I started to notice how many of her poems were about animals, and that made me think of D H Lawrence, and I'm afraid I've got an irrational dislike of Lawrence, and now I'm not enjoying it so much. This dislike goes back to being taught Women In Love for 'A' level. All that queasy sexual ripeness, Lawrence's Robin-Cooky-Likey pinched little face, his why-can't-I-be-like-the-animals/mexicans/bigger boys whining, all played against a stifling classroom full of 17 year olds fermenting their various exudates, together left a nasty scab on my brain right by the D H Lawrence lobe. So, sorry Miss Moore. I'll try and concentrate.

Saturday, June 17, 2006

poetry is not a horse in a field

It may have seemed ill-tempered to have had a go at Larkin the other day. To some perhaps it may look like little more than cripple kicking – shooting a straw fish in a rotten-apple barrel. A brief flick through the Review section of today’s Guardian quickly suffices to remind one of how miserably, suffocatingly provincial the mainstream British scene is. It’s always interesting to note how many of the hacks muttering their plausible sixth-formisms about each other are actually poets; Blake Morrison, Craig Raine, Andrew Motion, David Harsent. Why, then, you might wonder, do they make hardly any mention of their own metier? Ashamed? Motion, in a dull review of the forthcoming Rebels and Martyrs exhibition at the National Gallery, makes a cringeingly apologetic reference to Bunting’s ‘What The Chairman Told Tom’, an angry poem about poetry’s undervaluing by capitalists, by bosses. Motion more or less shrugs his shoulders at this, extending Buntings philistine enemy to include, well, more or less everyone. Compared to visual artists, he says, “…poets are so evidently the poor relations that the public can’t even be bothered to typecast them any more.” And that’s it. A fawning review of a new collection by Grace Nichols, repeatedly referring to her as ‘Caribbean’ (she was born in Guyana, lives near Brighton with the poet John Agard), and her book as ‘vibrant’, but underwrites its status as real poetry by referencing Eliot, is the kind of perfunctory shit that passes for criticism around here. Why bother at all? It’s no wonder that, as Alan Warner mentions elsewhere in the same section, less than 300 people in the UK buy contemporary British poetry, if this kind of third-rate defeatist crap is what our most powerful poets preside over. Talk about pulling up the ladder after you. During last year’s poetry week David Harsent wrote us all a poem describing what poetry was. Poetry, it turned out, was a horse in a misty sort of field in a non-specific part of England some time in The Past. These are powerful people, remember. They could help, instead of just awarding each other commissions and prizes and writing memoirs about their fucking Dads.

To this lamentable pack of shit-eating weasels I offer two rebukes: one to their preposterous passive vanity from the great Denise Riley – her shortest poem and one I long ago memorised as a talisman against the likes of Andrew Motion and Monty Don (ask me sometime):

Not What You Think

wonderful light
viridian summers
deft boys
no thanks

And the second to their refusal to accept the seriousness of their job from the early 20th century American socialist poet John Wheelwright (I was gonna do Shelley, but hell, no man would wear a fur coat better until Peter Perrett):

Train Ride

After rain, through afterglow, the unfolding fan
of railway landscape sidled on the pivot
of a larger arc into the green of evening;
I remembered that noon I saw a gradual bud
still white; though dead in its warm bloom;
always the enemy is the foe at home.
And I wondered what surgery could recover
our lost, long stride of indolence and leisure
which is labor in reverse; what physic recall the smile
not of lips, but of eyes as of the sea bemused.
We, when we disperse from common sleep to several
tasks, we gather to despair; we, who assembled
once for hopes from common toil to dreams
or sickish and hurting or triumphal rapture;
always our enemy is our foe at home.
We, deafened with far scattered city rattles
to the hubbub of forest birds (never having
"had time" to grieve or to hear through vivid sleep
the sea knock on its cracked and hollow stones)
so that the stars, almost, and birds comply,
and the garden-wet; the trees retire; We are
a scared patrol, fearing the guns behind;
always the enemy is the foe at home.
What wonder that we fear our own eyes' look
and fidget to be at home alone, and pitifully
put of age by some change in brushing the hair
and stumble to our ends like smothered runners at their tape;
We follow our shreds of fame into an ambush.
Then (as while the stars herd to the great trough
the blind, in the always-only-outward of their dismantled
archways, awake at the smell of warmed stone
or the sound of reeds, lifting from the dim
into the segment of green dawn) always
our enemy is our foe at home, more
certainly than through spoken words or from grief-
twisted writing on paper, unblotted by tears
the thought came:There is no physic
for the world's ill, nor surgery; it must
(hot smell of tar on wet salt air)
burn in fever forever, an incense pierced
with arrows, whose name is Love and another name
Rebellion (the twinge, the gulf, split seconds,
the very raindrops, render, and instancy
of Love).
All Poetry to this not-to-be-looked-upon sun
of Passion is the moon's cupped light; all
Politics to this moon, a moon's reflected
cupped light, like the moon of Rome, after
the deep well of Grecian light sank low;
always the enemy is the foe at home.
But these three are friends whose arms twine
without words; as, in still air,
the great grove leans to wind, past and to come.

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

I'm back and I'm a bit fatter

Oh, we had a lovely time in Italy. We basically ate all the time we weren’t sleeping or driving. I might post some pictures if anyone’s interested.

A little burst of interesting books have come my way – some from abebooks, some from amazon, some from good old fashioned secondhand shop trawling. Here’s a list of what’s falling slowly off my lap as I sleep on the train home:

Rachel Blau Du Plessis: Drafts 1 – 38 Toll. A difficult long sequence of Pound – style cantos about memory, writing, what poems are for, bits of Stein and HD, actually very readable for this sort of thing, full of sometimes rather gauche and self conscious wordplay, occasional bursts of intensely visual lyric stuff. Good to finally get to grips with this US heavy-hitter. Something to go back to for a long time to come I think.

Lark In The Morning: An anthology of translations of Troubador Poetry. 12th Century poetry from Provence and the Languedoc, including the bafflingly fantastic and beautiful poems of Arnaut Daniel, inventor of the sestina and wrangler of stanzaic form second to none in all of history. Truly there’s nothing like him before, and after him it’s next stop Dante. Interesting speculation in some notes about the possible Arabic roots of some of these forms dating from the 11th century clearing of the moors from Spain. Follow the line of european verse back far enough and you end up in an Arabian tiled court, fountains plashing, plates of sherbet.

Marianne Moore: Poems. Shameful that I did an English Degree and no-one ever mentioned Moore in the whole three years. A lovely big hardback edition, Penguin Viking. Those American-made books are so much better than ours – better paper, better boards, stay open on the table, often UK editions are disgraceful when directly compared. I bought a US copy of Dylan’s chronicles in NYC last year and it makes the UK edition look like a vanity published autobiography of a provincial mayor. Any way, a lovely big book of Moore. I’m slowly working through it. Early poems bright and enchanting. She’s got that Bryn Mawr thing going on – think of a cross between Wallace Stevens and Katherine Hepburn.

Tom Raworth: Lazy Left Hand and Heavy Light. Picked these up in a bookshop in Brighton run by Paul Brown who published these two little books out of his Actual Size press. Charming guy – slight air of an old cowboy living a quiet life these days. The Raworths are delightful – sequences of short bright kind of day-book notes in his trademark inventive light fast direct but odd style. Also picked up a little book of Peret translations by Mr Brown, which seem good to me, but what do I know.

Faber Anthology of 20th Century Italian Poetry. Holiday reading. I really wanted to get a bilingual edition, but this is all I could find in time. I don’t like Faber books much. They seem to have page size, font, margins, point size all set by committee so they’re not elegant or flowing. They’ve got weird plastic coated covers that feel greasy and have a kind of fake card endpaper which keeps flicking the pages out of your hand. Anyway – I knew next to nothing about Italian poets, apart from a few names and that ‘M’illumino d’immenso’ thing. I now know that Eugenio Montale is a kind of Italian T S Eliot mini-me, even going so far as to write a kind of ‘on Margate sands..’ poem, except about Eastbourne. And that my favourite of the lot is called Quasimodo. Dunno though, I don’t really trust this anthology.

Also the last – but – one Ashbery, Chinese Whispers, and Carcanets excellent New York Poets Volume 2, especial delights of which have been a proper look at Barbara Guest for the first time, Harry Mathews and Kenward Elmslie. I’m off to NYC later this year if all goes well and plan to bore Amanda stupid by making her look at insignificant landmarks rather in the way that Japanese tourists look with awe upon Camden Town’s Good Mixer pub as evidence of a time when Menswear walked the earth and all was well.

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