Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Things I'm Glad I Read in 2014 #4

I've already talked about how much I have enjoyed Jonathan Edwards' poetry - in fact, he was a guest poet on this blog only recently. Since then, his d├ębut collection My Family and Other Superheroes has gone from strength to strength, making the shortlist for the Aldeburgh first collection prize and the Costa Book Award. Some funny poems are a bit like jokes that you can only hear once, but Jonathan's work, although always infused with humour, repay re-reading, as I find this morning looking into this collection again. In language which is understated but continually surprising, Jonathan makes that humour a vehicle for talking about national identity, family, love and loss. These are moving and vivid poems, and I am glad to see them getting the recognition they deserve, not least in light of the discussions which went on this year about 'prize culture'  (for example, Jon Stone's essay or Fiona Moore's analysis of the statistics).

Monday, December 29, 2014

Things I'm Glad I Read in 2014 #3

I'm at the disadvantage of writing this post about Helen Mort's Division Street without the book in front of me. Not only is it one of the collections I have returned to most often in 2014, but the one I have most often leant to others. That is the real mark of quality: a book you pass on to others saying 'you must read this!' So, currently my copy is being enjoyed elsewhere.
Technically, I think Mort's book came out at the end of 2013, but I'm going to sneak it into 2014 on account of it having been up for (and having won) The Aldeburgh first collection prize this year. I remember buying it on a trip I made to London for reasons entirely unrelated to poetry. I snuck into the Waterstones near UCL one Saturday morning with a long day of conference ahead of me, bought this book and a cup of tea, then nearly didn't make the start of the conference.
Mort is a writer who is accessible in the very best sense of the word: You don't need to be 'into' poetry to get her, but her work is quietly sophisticated, full of wry humour, and pulls you along on an undertow of emotion which is stripped of all sentimentality. In some senses, she is an inheritor of Tony Harrison, working through her Northern heritage from the vantage point of  a metropolitan life, but Mort's take on this theme (especially in her poems about the Miners' Strike) is not guilt-ridden like Harrison's, perhaps for generational reasons. The ambiguous title of the volume hints at social divisions, but is best understood, I think, in universal terms. Mort's poems are often about growing up, breaking away, becoming an individual who emerges from a particular context, but who must gain some distance from that context. That process of division is cause for both celebration and mourning, and the best of these poems hold those contradictions finely in balance.

Sunday, December 28, 2014

Things I'm Glad I Read in 2014 #2

Like Rosemary Tonks, discussed in the first of these end-of-year posts, Bobby Parker seems propelled by the energy of pure honesty. In his collection Blue Movie, he addresses mental illness, addiction, his relationship to his parents, being a father himself, and the breakdown of relationships. Like Tonks' poetic subject, the self here is fragile but defiant. Parker's poems express a fear of the persona's own perceived inadequacy and the hostility of the outside world, yet joy pulses through these poems; joy in reality and joy in language. It is as if the poems themselves were an attempt to stave off the darkness which ends in addiction and reaffirm Parker's commitment to genuine happiness. At the end of 'Ducks Staring Into You', for example, the struggle between these two existential possibilities is expressed with shocking immediacy:

                                                   Forget about
your wife’s innocent leg hanging out the bed.
Your daughter, crawling faster with light to hug you
every morning. Every fucking morning. Smell her hair
and tell yourself, ‘This is what makes me happy!’
You liar. You bastard father. You darkness.

Despite the difficult terrain which the collection negotiates, Parker's gentle sense of humour and wide-eyed enthralment to all that is good make this an ultimately uplifting read; not in the sense of those gentle epiphanies of so much modern verse, but rather in the sense of what Larkin once called 'an enormous yes'.

Saturday, December 27, 2014

Things I'm Glad I Read in 2014 #1

Bedouin of the London Evening

Despite my continuing neglect of this blog, the end of the year brings breathing-space enough to look back on 2014, the year in poetry. There have been many reading highlights for me this year, but not all of them have been books published since January. For instance, this was also the year I read Cavafy, Yannis Ritsos, George Seferis (inspired by my Greek travels) and, a little closer to home, W.S. Graham and Peter Riley. I also enjoyed catching up on the early work of Mark Doty, collected in the volume Paragon Park. Nevertheless, in this post and several others to appear over the next couple of days, I'll reflect on the newly published collections which made me sit up and take notice in 2014. They come in no particular order, but are all warmly recommended.

My first choice, one of the last things I read this year, is a bit of a cheat, since the poems themselves are hardly 'new.' But Neil Astley of Bloodaxe has done an excellent job rescuing the poetry of Rosemary Tonks from the oblivion to which its creator once sought to assign it. I had become aware of Tonks through Astley's piece in The Guardian soon after her death earlier this year, and he has worked in double quick time to put this volume (Bedouin of the London Evening) together, including a fascinating introduction, which does as much interpretative work as many literary biographies in the space of a few pages.

As with any writer who, like Tonks' own favourite Rimbaud, disappears from the literary world after initial success, there is a danger that the romance of the doomed figure will overshadow the work or appear to lend it depth it may not have earned. In the circumstances, it is hard not to read the two fairly slim volumes of poetry collected here through Tonks' life and fate. However, there seems little doubt that this is a voice worth saving.

The first of her books, Notes on Cafes and Bedrooms (1963), contains a number of poems which foreshadow themes which solidify in the second collection, Iliad of Broken Sentences (1967). The settings are often seedy hotels, solitary bedrooms or other spaces of urban ennui, yet alongside these there are also declamatory, visionary poems like 'Diary of a Rebel' or 'Oath', in which the poet seeks to break out of a state of spiritual poverty through sheer force of will and rhetoric; swearing, for example, 'To thirst like a drunkard for the scent-storm of the trees.' As Astley notes in his introduction, there is something of the New Apocalyptics in Tonks' style at earlier on. In the later poems, which are more cohesive in terms of tone and theme, a cast of bohemians and students haunts Soho's coffee bars while the poetic subject slouches around her flat in an eternal dressing-gown, both overcome with disgust at the apparent 'waste' of her existence and defiantly embracing it. Here Tonks is like an English Baudelaire transplanted into the 1960s: Her writing is expansive and emphatic, her imagery both exoticising and down-to-earth (see, for example her poem 'Addiction to an Old Mattress'). While she clearly wears her influences on her sleeve, it is difficult to think of anyone quite like her in her own time or now.

What I also like about Tonks' poetry is its commitment to big feelings. In an interview reproduced in Astley's volume, she talks of how English poets seem to think that a state of mild disgruntlement is as emotional as they should allow themselves to get in their writing (surely a sarcastic nod to 'The Movement'), but Tonks is unafraid to head straight into the most challenging emotional territory. This would be reason enough to read her today, when we otherwise have so much orderly and restrained poetry to read. That this commitment to emotional honest is paired with linguistic energy and invention makes hers a compelling voice.