Sunday, March 4, 2018

Hobbyism and the poet

The recent brouhaha over Rebecca Watts' essay for PN Review, 'The Cult of the Noble Amateur' , re-drew the battle-lines between the worlds of 'page' and 'performance' poetry in ways that were not always helpful. What interested me about Watts' essay, however, was the author's perception of the need to defend poetry from the idea that it is something done by amateurs rather than artists. While I sympathise with much of what Watts says about the elevation of artlessness to a measure of sincerity, this struck a chord with many of the conversations I have had with other poets.

I have heard writers describe themselves as 'professional poets', but most who write seriously, without actually making their living from it, bridle when anyone tries to tell them that what they are doing is 'a hobby'. Instinctively, most poets would feel that this reduces what they do the level of a trifling pastime, like building model railways or putting miniature ships into bottles.

Arguably, this resistance to the idea of hobbyism or amateurism seems snobbish. It seems to imply that all of those people growing prize-winning roses or carrying out conservation work in their spare time are doing something somehow less noble, less creative, than people who write poetry instead. It elevates poets to some higher plane, even above practitioners of other art forms that are carried out on a non-professional basis, like making music or painting.

Then again, the term 'hobby' itself is inherently demeaning. Its origin is found in the Late Middle English word 'hobyn', referring to a robin, but then later applied to a small horse that could only be ridden for pleasure, as opposed to being economically productive as a beast of burden or a means of transport. By the 16th century, it was used to describe a child's toy horse. Is that what poets are doing? Footling around with childish things? Surely there is a strong implication here that doing grown-up things is about earning some money.
Jean Renoir on His Hobby Horse by Pierre-August Renoir
Metropolitan Museum

For me, the only way out of a defensive stance, which rejects the notion of poetry as 'hobby' while seeming to denigrate the (often very creative) things that other people do with their time, is to embrace the idea that poetry is, at least to some extent, an activity which, for most of its practitioners, exists outside an economic rationale.

We have to ask very serious questions about a culture that has come to see the grown-up stuff as being about earning a living and anything else as childish mucking about. As the number of paid jobs in the Western world is likely to decline in the coming decades, the creation of identities in terms of what we get paid to do will increasingly come under threat. Poetry shows those of us who write it and don't earn our living from it that there are some things that human beings do that are valuable on their own terms, which have a 'use value' even if they don't necessarily have an 'exchange value', as Marx would have said. If that makes them 'just a hobby', then maybe it's time we embraced our amateur status. After all, an amateur is someone who does something for the love of it.

Tuesday, January 2, 2018

Fact or fiction?

Literary journalism loves lists, and lists are (usefully for literary journalism) always controversial. Robert McCrum's 100 best non-fiction books in The Guardian will be no exception, I'm sure, but what immediately puzzles me about the enterprise is the inclusion of a handful of poetry titles.

Anyone who, like me, spends a good deal of their time browsing second-hand bookshops will know that the classification of poetry can sometimes pose problems. Really, the best solution is to have a section marked 'Poetry' and leave it at that. However, poetry titles do sometimes get lumped in with the 'Non-Fiction' section and even (oh, horror!) with the other books on a shelf marked 'Literature' (I think 'literature' is being used here in the sense of 'to be read out of a sense of duty, not for pleasure').

I can just about understand McCrum's inclusion of Hughes's Birthday Letters or Plath's Ariel, given that they are on some level autobiographical works. I was recently re-reading Plath's poems in the Collected volume edited by Hughes and was struck by the way that Plath re-cycles experience almost immediately into poetry; she goes into hospital and writes hospital poems, then she starts bee-keeping and writes about a visit to a meeting of the local bee-keepers' association, etc. So far, it could be argued, so 'non-fiction'.
'Reading' by James McNeill Whistler
(Metropolitan Museum)

The case seems less clear for Eliot's The Waste Land or Edward Lear's nonsense verse, however, which also make it onto the list. McCrum offers the justification that, whereas the novel is easily defined, non-fiction includes just about everything else. I'm not really convinced by this, but there is a more important point here about the perception of poetry and the limitations that critics and readers impose upon it if they understand poetry as belonging to that over-arching category of 'non-fiction'.

This perception is common with many people who are starting to write and share their own poetry. When I work with writers new to the form, suggestions for changes are often resisted with the insistence that 'it really happened like that!' My (perhaps rather heartless) response is normally 'I don't care!' What matters is what works for the poem, not what really happened. This practical aspect of writing poetry tells us something about what poetry is trying to be.

In the 1970s, the critic Phillipe Lejeune proposed the notion of the 'autobiographical pact' as a way of distinguishing autobiographical writing from other kinds. Lejeune argued that autobiography was characterised by a conventional understanding between author and reader, namely that what the reader was being presented with was an account of a real life, which had been lived by the person whose name was on the cover of the book.

To extend Lejeune's notion of such a pact between author and reader, I would argue that non-fiction operates with a different implied understanding. Non-fiction books are those which, however artfully, want to say something about the reality of the world, or to reveal some aspect of how that world is in fact. They are asking the reader to share in an interpretation of the social or natural world as it can be found outside of the text.

This is not, to my mind, what poetry does. To adopt and somewhat adapt a notion from Niklas Luhmann, I would argue that what poetry does is to announce to the reader that it is not the world. The poem claims its own space, apart from the world, and leaves the question of its relationship to the reality of the poet's own experience, and that of the reader, open.

In other words, the poem is an aesthetic object that challenges the reader to make sense of the it in relation to their own experience. How they make that sense, and how the encounter with the poem might enrich their understanding of the world, is deeply personal. In this respect, reading a poem is an act of creative imagination.

To return to the example of Plath, the poet might easily have written a memoir detailing a spell in hospital, living with small children and a difficult husband, her experience of depression, and so on. Instead, she wrote poetry, which is not simply 'non-fiction' because the material she worked with was her own experience. Her work may get pigeon-holed as 'confessional', but it is the transformation of life into poetry, not into reportage.

Why does this matter? It has been observed often enough that the 'I' of lyric poetry tends to make us think of the poems as confessions, that is to say as accounts of personal experience, and therefore as somehow 'real'.

I remember being at a reading by the brilliant Jonathan Edwards when an audience member expressed shock that many of the poems that Jonathan had written about things that had happened to his family were, in fact, completely invented. Jonathan's straightforward response was that he was writing poetry.

Without putting words into Jonathan's mouth, what I think he meant by that was that he wanted to write something that would move people and that would open up their own thinking about what the experience of family might mean to them. The poems were not there to tell them what family is, but for them to find out what it means for themselves.

When we reduce poetry to 'non-fiction', then, we miss something fundamental about what reading poetry could be as an experience for readers, leaving us with an impoverished understanding of this art form. Let's hope The Guardian now does the decent thing and creates a list of the best 100 poetry titles. I have plenty of suggestions.

Wednesday, December 27, 2017

That was the (poetry) year that was

Somewhat contrary to expectations, the world seems to have survived 2017, and continues to produce plenty of new poetry for us to enjoy. It was hardly a 'thin' year from where I was standing (or, rather, sitting and reading). However, there are already plenty of lists of 'the best' of the year out there for you to take a look at (including this one from the Poetry School that kindly included Scare Stories), so I'm not going to add to that discussion. Nevertheless, as the year draws to a close, here are a few reminiscences of the poetry year 2017 as it comes to an end. My memory for dates is terrible, though, so the chances of this being in any kind of chronological order are slim.

In that spirit, I'll start with Rory Waterman's excellent collection, Sarajevo Roses, which came out in November. I enjoyed Rory's first book very much, but this second set of poems feels even more convincing. Whereas the autobiographical element was strong in his debut, the poet manages here to incorporate that direct response to his own lived experience (there are quite a few poems of travel here, for instance), while remaining attuned to the political and social moment. The poems are formally very assured too,  harnessing a direct and apparently colloquial form of speech to a subtle musicality. Trump, Brexit, and so on are all there in the background, but it's Rory's ability to bring that sense of history into the everyday life of the rural Lincolnshire he knows so well that is most impressive. I know many of the places he talks about myself, which adds an extra poignancy for me, but there is a strong 'state of the nation' thread running through these poems, which is all the more convincing for its lack of portentousness. Although he is sometimes angry, the poet is also generous and open-minded. If, in time, I'm ever asked by anyone what England was like at this time of transition and perceived crisis, I'll put this book in their hand.

Another book from late in  the year was New Zealand poet Hera Lindsay Bird's Hera Lindsay Bird, the self-referentiality of which is announced in the title. Despite the apparent reference to autobiography or self-analysis, however, Bird is actually playing with the persona of the self-obsessed 'millenial'. By turns hilarious and bleak, these are fluid and troubling poems. They are deceptively easy to consume, and (on the face of it) brutally honest, but the apparently confessional mode in which they operate is both revealing and concealing at the same time. Are we hearing the voice of Hera Lindsay Bird or a poetic avatar called 'Hera Lindsay Bird'? The poems oscillate between cool insight and desperation. Unnerving but (even more unnervingly) highly entertaining stuff.
Henry Farrer, Winter Scene in Moonlight (Metropolitan Museum)

My own recent publisher V Press had a great roster of work out this year, and deservedly got themselves a Michael Marks Award nomination. I particularly enjoyed Stephen Daniels' debut, Tell My Mistakes I Love Them. Stephen's carefully conveyed sense of the surreal qualities of the everyday allows him to address the big themes from surprising angles, for instance in one poem where intimations of mortality lurk in the background as he describes getting a mole checked by his doctor. He's one of those poets who writes poems about things that other poets wouldn't write poems about, which is only ever a good thing.

Another big favourite of mine from this year in the pamphlet form was Paul Stephenson's Selfie with Water Lilies. As in Paul's previous pamphlets, Oulipo-like games, patterns and constraints structure many of these poems. Sometimes the effect is humorous, as in a poem about Alan Sugar that uses the word beetroot at the end of every line, but in others these surface effects provide a way into talking about more difficult topics, particularly the bereavement that dominates the collection. These poems don't emote, but find a way to pattern language so that the reader finds their way to emotion, which sidles up as if from just outside the field of vision. This writing feels like a kind of magic trick, but I never feel hoodwinked reading these poems. The poet wants to lead us to something true. I think Paul is one of the most interesting people writing at the moment and it really is time someone offered to publish a full collection by him.

Sometimes that move from pamphlets to full collections can take a good while, so it was great to finally see a book from Jacqui Rowe, an energetic promoter of others' work via the award-winning Flarestack Poets imprint. Blink showcases Jacqui's range, both emotionally and culturally, from occasional poems and ekphrasis to responses to Apollinaire and Verlaine; all held together by a characteristic clear-sightedness. Drawing as it does from Jacqui's previous publications, her first 'proper' collection is arguably a 'New and Selected', but it still feels remarkably cohesive.

A project very close to my own adopted home was Angela France's The Hill. I've walked on the eponymous Leckhampton Hill in Cheltenham myself a few times (although not for the decades Angela can boast) and her sense of the place, and of the meaning of place in all of its social, historical and political associations, is unrivaled. She interweaves the natural history of the hill and her own autobiography with the history of riots that took place on there in the early 20th century after a local quarry owner attempted to fence off the land local people had walked for centuries. As Angela points out when performing the poems, this protest pre-dated the Kinder Scout trespass, but is now largely forgotten, perhaps due to the working-class origins of the protagonists. The collection manages to encompass and transcend local history, however, and asks important questions about what it means to belong to a place in ways that cannot be captured in the title deeds of property.

Place plays a very different role in Michael Symmons Roberts' Mancunia, another of my favourite reads this year. Roberts has a particular voice, like someone whispering directly into your ear, conjuring worlds that are written like a kind of ghostly palimpsest over own lived reality. Ostensibly about the city of Manchester, the poems in the book offer many Manchesters, that is to say many possible versions of the city, in order to think about the end of things, the coming of utopia and utopia's likely failure. Here as elsewhere, Roberts is constantly inventive and compelling. 

This year was a good year for anthologies, too. Nine Arches Press did the poetry world (and the world more generally) a great service in producing Stairs and Whispers, an anthology of D/deaf and disabled poetry. As a non-disabled person, the value of the book for me was two-fold. Firstly, and perhaps rather obviously, it confronted me with the reality of other lives. In a world apparently short on empathy, that is a valuable contribution. Secondly, the editors' choices go far beyond poetry that simply talks about disability to consider how differently inhabited subjectivities might make formal innovation necessary, not just in terms of composition, but also in terms of how poetry reaches its audience and makes itself accessible in all kinds of ways. If the poetry 'scene' wasn't talking about these issues until this anthology was published, it must do now.

I'm also going to sneak in Sophie Collins' anthology Currently and Emotion, despite the 2016 publication date, as I only became aware of it later and it feels like one of my 2017 books of choice. If you think that you know what translation is and does, then those notions will be challenged by some of these occasionally weird and occasionally wonderful approaches to translation as a creative process. The book itself is a beautifully produced object, too, as I'd expect from its publishers, Test Centre.
The New Year – 1869 – Drawn by Winslow Homer,
Metropolitan Museum

So, not a best of, then, but a list of 'poetry highlights', perhaps. These are the poetry books I'd be most likely to mention if asked 'what did you read this year?' Clearly, 2017 was indeed a good year, not least in terms of the richness and variety of what contemporary poetry has to offer. And that's without mentioning all of the great poetry events the year gave us (Jan Wagner giving the Poetry Society lecture, Verve Festival, Ledbury, Cheltenham Poetry Festival...). Here's to 2018!

Sunday, November 12, 2017


Today is the UK's Remembrance Sunday. Seeing the preparations for this commemoration in the last few days, during the country's four-year-long programme of events to mark the centenary of the First World War, I am reminded of our connection, for better and for worse, to Europe's history. Let us hope that such commemorations are meaningful commitments to keeping the peace in Europe, which was an important motivation for the founding of what has become the European Union.

My first collection, Arc, contains a poem for my great uncle, a man I never knew who died in the First World War. I'm sharing it with you here.

Friday, November 10, 2017


The results for the Resurgence Poetry Prize 2017 are out and I am pleased to see that one of my poems, 'Fractures', has been commended by the judges. Resurgence draws attention to ecological issues as well as attracting a very high standard of entries, as you'll see from the winning poems and the rest of the commended poems, which can all be viewed here.
My poem was inspired by the documentary Gasland and reports about the consequences of melting tundra as a result of global warming.

Friday, September 22, 2017

Pretentious? Moi?

People find some curious ways to promote poetry. One strategy I've often noticed (and already complained about when journalists do it) is to flag up to the prospective audience that the poet or poetry promoter is already aware of their potential objections. No! It isn't like that usual poetry you've probably come across before - you know, the obscure, boring, pretentious kind! Ah, the p-word. How often have I seen it used to promote some poetry event. 'Poetry without the pretension', the flyers will say.

Bronzino, Portrait of a Young Man (Metropolitan
Museum of Art)
I'm not sure where the organizers get their ideas about marketing, but using a negative as an opening gambit doesn't seem like much of a winner to me. I realize there is a confectioner who promises 'a lighter way to enjoy chocolate', but offering poetry 'without pretension' is more like trying to sell me one of those slabs of fat and sugar by first reminding me about what they are likely to do to my waistline.

Of course, I'm all for those who try to promote poetry. More power to them. But there's something I find oppressive about that most English of put-downs: the accusation of pretension. To be pretentious is to pretend to something, to stake a claim on something to which you have no right. In the language of literary criticism, to be pretentious is to be showy, to make a greater claim for one's importance than is justified. But if we are all afraid of being pretentious, then how will we ever create anything?

Whenever an artist of any kind produces work they are making a claim for the importance of what they want to communicate to the world. They are also making a claim for the importance of the way they are communicating. As an audience, we may find form and content disappointing, risible even in their failure to persuade us of their importance. But that is just plain old artistic failure, which may in itself be bound by the tastes of the time.

Those bandying about the notion of the pretentiousness of poetry fail to see that poetry is trying to be important. I don't mean that it is always trying to be weighty or serious, but it is trying to be important to its audience: to move them and shift their perception of the world and their place in it. Most poetry, if we're honest, will fail to do that for many people, but that doesn't make poetry any different from other art forms. And we should see failure as something worthy, as an honourable attempt to be important. Sneering at so-called pretension does not embolden anyone to make better poems, but makes them more likely not to try.

Saturday, September 2, 2017

Top ten poetry pop songs

Okay, this is a frivolous post, but there's nothing I like better than a pop song that gives a nod to the world of poetry. True, there's always the danger that songwriters will turn to poetry to add a little easy intellectual 'credibility' to their output, but poetry in song also reminds us that the medium still has the power to inspire work in other art forms. Some of these are silly, some of them profound, but all of them show poetry's influence in our culture.

1. Peter Gabriel - Mercy Street (for Anne Sexton)

Peter Gabriel's moving response to the life and work of Sexton, who struggled with mental illness, manages to engage obliquely with the poetry while taking on an existence all of its own. And the song also did the service of introducing Sexton's name to a new generation of readers.

2. Joni Mitchell - Slouching Towards Bethlehem 

Although basically a setting of Yeats' 'The Second Coming', Mitchell's adaption of the original text manages to make it work as a song lyric. Her impassioned delivery and the pounding percussion on the track give such a sense of urgency to Yeats' words that you can't help feeling that the crisis is a very real one and very much in the present moment. In the context of one of Mitchell's most political albums, Night Ride Home, the poem takes on a new resonance.

3. Talking Heads - I Zimbra

It may sound like David Byrne is singing nonsense on this track from 1979's Fear of Music, and in a way he is. But the song is also an adaptation of a sound poem by Dadaist Hugo Ball, founder of Zurich's famous Cabaret Voltaire. Talking Heads turn this into a great dance tune, but Ball's invented language also takes on a strangely sinister feel as Byrne and the backing singers bark the words at us.

4. They Might Be Giants - Hate the Villanelle

Anyone who has ever taken a writing class and had to write a villanelle will relate to this one. A catchy ditty about the difficulty of writing to strict form that manages to keep to the form as well.

5. My House - Lou Reed

Lou Reed was briefly taught by the poet Delmore Schwartz and dedicated a song on the first Velvet Underground's first album to his former professor. Schwartz is euologized more directly on 'My House' from Reed's The Blue Mask. Critics rave about this album, which I'm not so persuaded by, and this song verges on the corny at times. Reed's singing is a little strained, too. Somehow, though, this manages to be a sweet tribute and a moment of genuine gratitude to someone who was a key influence on the musician.

 6. Iron Maiden - The Rime of the Ancient Mariner

I'm not sure I can entirely get on board with Iron Maiden's interpretation of the underlying message of Coleridge's poem, but this is a great big slab of rock bombast that wrings ever last drop of drama out of the original story.

7. Sparks - Metaphor

Maybe not strictly or exclusively about poetry, but a great reminder that, as every teenage poet in the tradition of Adrian Mole surely knows, 'chicks dig metaphors!'

8. Suzanne Vega - Calypso

Suzanne Vega re-tells the encounter between Ulysses and the nymph Calypso from Homer's Odyssey. In this version, however, Calypso is not so desperate to hang on to the Greek hero. She sounds like she might actually be glad to see the back of him.

9. Regina Spektor - Apr├Ęs Moi

I'd been listening to this song, one of my favourites by Regina Spektor, for years without realising that the Russian sung about half way through apparently quotes lines of verse by Russian poet and novelist Boris Pasternak. I don't understand Russian, but if Wikipedia says so, it must be true. I'm not sure if it makes this surreal song any easier to understand and it maybe even complicates matters.

10. Suede - Heroine

Quite a tenuous one, given that the band start with stealing that famous line from Byron for their opening, before going off in quite a different direction. Still, I think the mood of obsession from the original poem gets carried over here, with a nicely decadent twist.

I'd be fascinated to hear suggestions for songs inspired by, referring to, or even adapting poetry. I'm sure I'm only just scratching the surface here...

Saturday, August 26, 2017

Running a poetry book group

As some readers of this blog may already be aware that I have started running a poetry book group in cooperation with my local independent book shop, The Suffolk Anthology in Cheltenham. For six months of the year, we meet monthly and discuss one recent, single-authored collection of poetry. Later I produce a list of discussion points for other readers or groups to use. This doesn't seem to have inspired a mass movement as yet, but I'm hoping it might still encourage other readers of poetry (and other poets) to organize and facilitate similar groups elsewhere.

Our group seems to work pretty well, from the reactions I have had so far, which emboldens me to offer the following pointers for anyone else thinking of setting up a similar project. There are probably many ways to do this, but this is the way that we've done it, and it seems to be working so far.

1. Choosing your venue

As already mentioned, we work with an independent book shop, but I know that larger and smaller chain book stores are amenable to hosting groups. It works for a shop if you can guarantee that those attending will buy their copy of the book to be discussed from the venue, but it is good to be clear with those attending about this, so that they are not tempted to visit on-line retailers offering discounted copies.

It's a good policy to work with your venue so that copies of the book for discussion next time are available at the end of each meeting. Make sure your venue orders the books well in advance, as it can be trickier that you imagine to quickly get hold of ten or a dozen copies of a book from a small press.

Groups of friends may want to run a book group like this and host it in one of their own homes, but we've chosen the route of using a book shop so that people who don't already know each other can participate. It really helps with the diversity of the group, and new friendships are formed!

2. Choosing your book

There may be avid poetry readers (and writers) in the group, who are clued up about the latest releases. To make sure that the book you choose isn't one that some people have already bought and read, you need to keep a close eye on forthcoming titles. Most presses keep an up-to-date list of what is coming out next on their websites.

There always seems to be a lot of poetry being published, but if you actually follow the 'big' publishers (like Faber, Cape, Picador, Bloodaxe and Carcanet) and the reputable small presses (e.g. Nine Arches, Shoestring, Shearsman) you'll see that they publish only a few new titles each quarter. Publishers often have a sample of new collections available to download and Carcanet even has a full preview facility for selected new collections.

When choosing a collection to discuss, thematic cohesion  is a key consideration. A book of occasional lyrics on no particular theme is not as easy to start a discussion about as is a collection with a clear thematic focus. Issues-driven writing isn't automatically the best writing, but it does mean that everyone can discuss how well they feel that those issues have been tackled.

Poets are also more interesting to discuss when they have an awareness of the cultural tradition(s) in which they write. Where they drew draw on the influence of other writers, philosophical ideas, mythology, other art forms, intertextual references, and so on, they will provide lots of avenues for the discussion in the group to explore.

Finally, you may find that more 'experimental' writers, whether avant garde or postmodern (for whom language itself is a stronger concern than theme, situation, the expression of personal emotion, and so on) are quite hard to address in a context like this unless you have a very specialized group of enthusiasts.

3. Facilitating the discussion

Our group isn't a class, but it is facilitated by me. As a poet and reviewer myself, I have a strong interest in recent poetry and am willing to spend the time before the meeting working out some basic areas for discussion and chasing up any obscure intertextual or cultural references the poems may contain.

We don't always stick to my 'plan' of the key themes and ideas that could be discussed, but it does help to have someone in the room who has an idea of a basic structure for the discussion so that the evening feels like it has direction and purpose.

Discussing poetry in a group and discussing prose fiction are two quite different things. Even if a reader of fiction has no interest in style, the construction of the narrative or the use of language, they can still talk about the characters and what happens to them, and about their own subjective reaction to the book. Without (in most cases) extended narrative and character to fix onto, discussing poetry collections necessarily means a more technical focus, although there also has to be room for subjective impressions of the work. Having someone to facilitate (even if that role rotates within the group) helps to maintain this focus.

4. Organizing your time

Two hours seems to be about the perfect length of time for a discussion of this kind. It can be quite intense, so its important to include a break of ten to fifteen minutes, not least so the group can enjoy socializing and discussing the book in a more relaxed way if they'd like to. Sometimes, individual conversations throw up new ideas that get discussed in the second half.

5. Reading the poems

Discussing a novel largely relies on remembering what happened. With poetry, what 'happens' is the poem itself. Once you have identified an issue everyone wants to discuss, it is a good idea to home in on one poem and discuss that in detail. There are usually plenty of suggestions from the floor, but to get the discussion going it is important to read the poem out. You can take this in turns or ask for volunteers, but it is definitely the best way to start looking at the collection in detail.

6. Giving the poems time

Related to the issue of reading out the poems to help with close reading is the problem of sticking with the poems until everyone feels they have really engaged with them. Particularly with a very good collection, it can be tempting to read a poem out, say a few things about it and then move swiftly on to the next one. It's more rewarding for everyone, though, if they have time to really think about and discuss each of the selected poems, drawing out all of the things that interest them. Reading one poem closely can often be the cue to move to another poem on a related or contrasting theme, but there's no need to rush.

Well, that's a distillation of everything I think we have learned together at the Suffolk Anthology in the first season of our group. I hope it proves useful to anyone with a similar project in mind!

Monday, August 14, 2017

Not a defence of Philip Larkin

Hull is currently UK city of culture for 2017, so you would think its most famous literary resident, the poet Philip Larkin, would be getting something of a boost. However, whenever I see his name recently, it always seems that he is being held up as an example of what poetry is not supposed to be. Just in the last week, I have read a review of the work of a poet whose rejection of 'parochialism' was contrasted favourably with Larkin's own alleged failings in this area; and a restaurant review for an eatery in Hull (yes, a restaurant review!) that began with a quip about Larkin's 'rhymed misanthropy'.
When I read or hear such criticisms, I am reminded of Tony Hoagland's poem 'Lawrence', in which he experiences rage at the fashionable denigration of D.H. by those whose talents and achievements pale in comparison (take a listen here). I am not unaware of Larkin's failings as a man. Reactionary, racist and misanthropic in his private letters, he did at least have the luck to write in the years before the famous could express their jaw-dropping opinions direct to the world via Twitter. There are doubtless those who feel that all of those writers who had unpleasant views or behaved appallingly in the past should now make way for more virtuous, open-minded and cosmopolitan alternatives; that there is an injustice in the prominence of someone like Larkin who, despite apparently not having been a very nice (or particularly happy) man, still resonates so profoundly with readers today.
The major problem with this view is that it lacks moral complexity. Larkin's work is, on one level, bitterly, perhaps even tediously preoccupied with his own failures: there's an early poem, for example, where he is already bemoaning his life being over in his mid-twenties. And yet, few other poets have looked the nature of human existence so squarely in the face, have found words so telling for a life that is experienced as 'sweet, meaningless and not to come again', as he puts it at one point. Whatever Larkin the man was, Larkin the poet is capable of a simultaneous distaste for and aching sympathy with ordinary lives, among which he ultimately counts his own. Hopefully most of us are more enlightened in our personal views than he managed to be, but aren't we all in some way like him: flawed, sentimental and cowardly one moment; courageous, generous and awe-struck the next? The poems don't so much transcend the arguable weaknesses of the personality that created them, but transfigure those weaknesses so that they become key to the power of the work. That does not mean, of course, that any reader is required to accept or condone Larkin's personal politics, but it seems simplistic to me imply that appreciation of the poems has to equate to supporting those politics. Larkin was a formative reading experience for me, for example, despite the fact that I share none of his views on these matters.
I have no interest here in mounting a defence of Philip Larkin the individual. However, what I do want to raise my voice against is the lazy dismissal of work by writers whose personal attitudes are deemed not to be up to scratch. It seems to me that this is merely a strategy for avoiding an engagement with the ambiguities and difficulties of their work, escaping into moral platitudes that only demonstrate the limits of our own imaginations.

Saturday, August 5, 2017

Short and sweet

As the title of this blog suggests, when I write here, I write about poetry. However, my own reading fluctuates between phases of only wanting to read verse and gluts of prose consumption. As much as I enjoy fiction, reading it also also makes me realize why I love poetry so much. I have a fairly short attention span, I'll admit, so there is something about the concentrated power of poetic expression that I find attractive. For a few minutes, I see another reality that reflects back on my own. Or, if I am reading a full collection of poems, I may spend a day or so in one poet's company as they guide me through their version of reality. Of course, fiction does this too, but a longer novel means committing to live in the world the author has created for more than just a few hours. Frankly, I have to feel like that world is especially compelling to make that commitment.

The alternative, of course, (and leaving aside the short story or even flash fiction) is the short novel or the novella. The German Romantics had plenty of theories about what a novella was, apart from just being a novel that wasn't very long. Then again, they had theories about most things. What I like about a good short novel is that, as with a poetry collection, I can be caught up in the world of the author's imagination for a relatively short space of time. Short novels don't outstay their welcome and maybe even leave you wanting more.

So, with one foot still tentatively planted in the world of poetry, here are my top ten short novels or novellas (in  no particular order) that are ideal for poetry fans, or perhaps just for people like me whose attention wanders easily. As a rough guide, I'm going for books of less than 200 pages. There is a 6/4 gender imbalance here in favour of male authors, but hopefully there's a good geographical spread. I'd love to hear your suggestions of other short texts for my reading list, especially suggestions by female authors, or perhaps even by some non-Europeans.

Thinking about this list has also made me realize that short novels and novellas also potentially offer the kind of intensity of experience that can also be the province of poetry. Many of the selections below deal with heightened states that would become overwhelming if sustained over a longer piece. They are small books, but they have a big impact.

1. Tove Jansson, The Summer Book

Not really a novel at all arguably, but an entrancing and subtly moving short book of stories about a grandmother and her young granddaughter spending summers on an island in the Gulf of Finland. A book about youth and age, about endings and beginnings, delivering its philosophy gently and with good humour. Nothing much happens, but it is a book about the whole of life.

2. Robert Walser, Jakob von Gunten

Jakob is enrolled in an eccentric institute whose educational purpose is unclear, if not dubious. He is a petty and pompous little character, whose aggressions and sublimated desires he does not fully comprehend himself. A surreal and at times hilarious book about adolescence and the tension between the need for conformity and the impulse to rebelliousness.

3.  Christopher Ishwerwood, A Single Man

Isherwood arguably recycled his Berlin years a little too often, but for me this short Californian book is his best work. A portrait of lost love and middle age, it deals with tragedy so compassionately and with such a lightness of touch that this remains ultimately a life-affirming read.

4.  Aki Ollikainen, White Hunger

Again, not a cheery read, but this description of the consequences of a terrible famine in Finland in 1867 is also clear-eyed, unsentimental and arrestingly cinematic. Pereine, the publishers, specialize in short European fiction in translation, and this is one of their most memorable publications.

5. Albert Camus, The Fall

A man confesses to a chance acquaintance in a bar, relating how he, who once enjoyed professional success and high self-esteem, came to realize the hollowness of his own existence and the values he believed he lived by. A classic of existentialist literature.

6. Elizabeth Smart, By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept

The term 'novel' or even 'novella' seems to fall short with this book, which is more of an extended prose poem that charts a love triangle based loosely on the author's own affair with British poet George Barker. Full of agony and exhalation, this psalm to love is heady stuff.

7. Beryl Bainbridge, Harriet Said...

A tale of adolescent hysteria and claustrophobic British provincial life in the 1950s. Harriet and the narrator are inseparable, but Harriet's almost demonic influence leads to a shocking denouement. A book full of childish grown-ups and scarily precocious children.

8. Patricia Duncker, Hallucinating Foucault

A novel about literary obsession and the blurred lines between the writer and the work, appreciation and appropriation. Queer romance, literary theory and feverish drama are all in the mix.

9. Theophile Gautier, The Jinx

A gleefully grotesque narrative about superstition and unconditional love. A tale of the uncanny that manages to be simultaneously very Gothic, very modern and very funny. A most disconcerting read. Like Pereine, the publishers Heperus offer many shorter works in translation.

10. B.S. Johnson, Christie Malry's Own Double Entry

Christie Malry is a dull little man, but he soon starts putting his skills as a book-keeper to terrible use as he rails against the injustices of the universe. Johnson manages to make the mad logic of Christie's crimes seem oddly plausible.