Finding Your Own Way

A Poetry Boom 1990-2010 , Andrew Duncan (329pp, Shearsman)
The Rottweiler's Guide to the Dog Owner, S J Fowler
(108pp, £12.99, Eyewear)
Dear World and Everyone in it  ed. Nathan Hamilton 
(336pp, £12.00, Bloodaxe)

Duncan's often oblique commentaries on the British Poetry Scene are welcome diversions from the more usual kinds of literary criticism on offer. In the introduction he manages to include a surprising note on the longevity (in the memory) of the pop hit Sugar, Sugar by The Archies and follows this through in a later chapter with perceptions on Folk Music, both topics which in his view are tangentially related to aspects of the contemporary poetry scene. There are early chapters here on a raft of new anthologies - he's very good on Identity Parade, for example, pointing out its strengths (in terms of the inclusion of poets such as Helen Macdonald, Peter Manson and D.S. Marriott, for example) as well as its weaknesses, a positive factor which most critics seem to have ignored. He comes to other unexpected conclusions and his compelling advocacy of Clare Pollard's later poetry makes me think I ought to take another look.

There's a whole chapter on the work of Andrew Jordan, both as poet and theoretician of 'nonism', which includes a wonderfully satirical opening written as a satire of Jordan's own style and content, itself intended satirically one thinks. He manages the astonishing dialectical feat of concluding that Jordan is 'a genuine malcontent' and that his poetry is 'full of bad feelings and doesn't take you anywhere', while having a genuine appreciation of what is undoubtedly Jordan's great achievement, notably his last book
Hegemonic, a powerful mix of politics and landscape poetry which nevertheless probably has its tongue firmly in its cheek. After this episode and Alan Morrison's spectacular epic exploration of Jordan's work in his online magazine The Recusant, Jordan can hardly claim that he's being ignored. Duncan's perceptions here are related to what he sees as the 'failures of the left' and so Jordan's hanging onto notions of alienation are perhaps as symptomatic of a generation as they are of an individual, a position I'm not entirely unsympathetic towards. I think that Duncan is too hard on John Berger however, reducing his output to that of polemicist. I agree that Ways of Seeing was a polemical account of art history, allied to a highly watchable TV series, itself a response to Kenneth Clarke's Civilisation, but his other reflections on painting are often more personal and include aesthetic appreciation within the political approach.

Elsewhere Duncan is good on Sean Bonney, again providing an analysis of Bonney's work as being essentially intuitive and emotional in its political responses (to Blair and Iraq, for example) while also acknowledging an intellectual element to the argument. Bonney, in fact, seems highly unusual to me in this mix of intuition and intellect, a sort of Barry MacSweeney with a Phd, as I think I've said before. Duncan is good on other political poets working within academia eg: D.S. Marriott and Jeff Hilson and also has useful things to say about Elizabeth Bletsoe's work. Someone he isn't so good on and who I think he massively underestimates is Robert Sheppard. He describes Sheppard's huge project,
Twentieth Century Blues (a project similar in some ways to both the work of Lopez and Goodland) as being 'thoroughly unsuccessful, overheated, loud and repetitive'. He's not too keen on Sheppard's critical work either so I'm wondering if there isn't some sort of 'personality clash' going on here. Sheppard's wonderful collection Warrant Error is for me proof that it's still possible to write political poetry at all and political poetry at that which combines both an emotional response with a tight formalist quality which contains and 'skews' the anger. Reason and emotion in perfect balance I'd say, in a book which really makes the grade. I haven't read all of Twentieth Century Blues (a vast project) but I've been impressed with what I have read and also find Sheppard to be a useful and perceptive critic.
There's an intriguing chapter which deals primarily with the work of Tony Lopez and Giles Goodland, which gives a sound background to their joint projects of montage and working with found materials, while also investigating the quality and outcome of these
Monumentally Formalist procedures. With Goodland he works primarily with Capital and A Spy in the House of Years, though there is an interesting aside on the  earlier Littoral (1996), a much under-rated book in my estimation, as Duncan now seems to agree. A Spy in the House of Years still seems to me to be Goodland's masterpiece and one which anyone working in this field really needs to take a look at. Its procedure of making a poem per page for every year of the 20th century, working with a variety of found materials, each page utilising work from the year at issue, throws up a whole host of questions and uncertainties about the changing nature of language, and remains a milestone. Duncan is exceptionally good on Lopez's recent and magisterially large collection Only More So, a book I have to admit to having
struggled with, and in a largely positive overview he combines appreciation with explanation and persuasive interpretation.

There's much more of interest here, especially in Duncan's unsurprisingly overwhelmed attempts at dealing with 'the contemporary poetry scene' in all its vast multiplicity and also the usual frustrations entailed when 'confronting' his critical mind. There is a lot of jumping about, connections which are stimulating but prove to be more like disconnections when you think them through and ideas which either don't add up or which I'm not bright enough to master. That said, I still find him one of the most probing and intelligent critics on the poetry scene and one who is probably indispensable if you're someone who is hungry to find out what's going on. This is his most 'up-to-date' book so far, bringing us directly to the here and now and I think he makes a pretty good stab at describing the scene. Dip in and go with the flow.

The following 'cameo' from 'meditations on Strong tea  (for Val and Tom Raworth)' provides a useful introduction to the often quirky and witty poetry of SJ Fowler, a poet who I've only recently discovered. The homage to Raworth is unsurprising as Fowler shares something of the quick-movement comedy so evident in Raworth's work, as well as a political (small p) focus which comes through in his engagement with the minutia of everyday living that also includes 'the bigger issues'.
     my tea is

     will it run the risk
        of being misunderstood?


Later in the same section we have this:

     I bring you seaweed
        and yet, you just want tea…
       this will not work out
      migrant labourers died for this day
                   I am a cup, a hand, a liquid
           the first in order, the last to run
                       my wire lined servants suit
                          I am butler to fools

If you wish you can expand outwards from this 'brief encapsulation' as there's a whole history implied in these few snippets and you can also have a lot of fun working with the individual lines as they play against each other. So there is critique here as well as aesthetic judgement but it's all presented in a sort of throwaway immediacy which feels very democratic and open, even where the writing is puzzling and strange, as it often is. Fowler's poetry is filled with such moments and I'm sure I'm going to revisit this book as well as look out for new material. There are longer poems and prose pieces here, such as 'Leaves' where the writing seems to meander around a 'given subject' pulling in material from a host of sources while playing with language in a manner which can appear abrupt as well as at times, shocking. He also has a good eye for the 'arresting opening', as in - 'were it not for the spines/would it not be a fish backwards' (from 'Leaves') and although his writing can seem to 'resist the reader' at times, you always feel impelled to continue reading because his work is filled with interest. He may be wayward, but this is subversive poetry that I feel very attracted towards. This is a short review and not in any way comprehensive but I can highly recommend this book which I was very pleased to happen upon.

There have been several recent poetry anthologies attempting to map the contours of contemporary poetry practice and these have inevitably concentrated on the emergence of younger writers. This new collection from Bloodaxe takes a snapshot of the work of over sixty poets and attempts in so doing to give us some idea - inevitably a partial scanning - of what things are looking like in the early part of the twenty first century. Some of the names here are familiar to me and many more are not and I'm not able to produce any sort of substantial overview in a short review but a few things become clear quite quickly. One is that this is in no way a 'definitive' anthology, the 'scene' is fractured and atomised and any number of potential anthologies could come up with very different pictures although we would hope for some overlap which might suggest an agreed notion of quality and difference. It's also quickly clear that a majority of writers included here have M.A.'s or Phd's or are studying for such, mainly but not entirely within the 'Creative Writing/Literary practice' sector and that there is almost a 'business model' for these courses which suggests a 'career path' which is largely illusory, although a number of these writers will become or already are academics working within the 'industry'. I'm not making a judgement here, just trying to suggest how the wind is blowing and how this effects what gets published and to some extent the poetry that gets written. The other point I'm hovering over is my reaction on reading this work to a 'general perception' that any notion of political poetry is redundant, as the work of Keston Sutherland, Chris McCabe, Hannah Silva, Stuart Calton and Luke Kennard, among others, would appear, in their various ways, to refute such a suggestion. The starting point for this anthology seems to have been the 'Younger Poets' section which featured over two issues of The Rialto a while ago and certainly led to some unusual inclusions in such a high-profile magazine

This said I enjoyed Amy De'ath's disturbing mix of 'fun and serious', as in 'Just Handcuff Me', and Stephen Emmerson's 'The Causeway', where - 'Everything is made out of papier-mache' which leaves a bad taste in the cat's/mouth and I really must stop biting my nails'. Holly Pester's sound poetry has me in stitches though it's not so easy to represent this 'on the page' and you really need to hear her work read out, while Tom Chivers' 'Security' has an easygoing tone which belies a dreamy hopefulness which merges into critique - 'on my island none of this would be true'.

Sandeep Parmar's poetry has a lyrical resonance which also packs a punch and mixes the traditional with the modern in a manner which combines music with focus -
'He who has not strode the full length of age, has counted/then lost count of days that swallow, like fever, dark chaos.' S. J. Fowler's various experimentalisms combine chance methods with an underlying 'dark vision' while Sophie Robinson's poetry has a conversational 'ongoingness' which pulls in different vocabularies and is both personal and more general, combining gritty lyricism with critical intelligence. Ben Borek's 'Lavender' has a nightmare quality which seems to owe something to theatrical scenarios and manages to combine absurd humour with melodrama: - 'Should I strike her,/kill her dead? My brother/will cut off her hands./Who will not/change a raven for a dove?

Mendoza's 'Signs for Notation' is an intriguing sequence, combining different 'vocabularies' with an analytical seriousness and this is among the most penetrating and intelligent work in the anthology in my view:

                                                                              A feeling of effort
                         Remember this. a sensation of arm telling the word.
    Remember this. Two figures.
One stands illuminated in the open
                            doorway. obscured by shadow he writes the other
                                                                              supposing the self.
Remember this. An awareness of self
                                                                        contingent on memory
                                                                     rapidly forgetting

                                                             (from 'Signs of Notation')

Hannah Silva is one of the best performers on the circuit and her work often combines sound poetry and montaged juxtaposition with a sense of political displacement and anger. Take this extract for example:

     I am not going to tell you my name, Gaddafi but I am
     going to tell you my age, Gaddafi my age is ten
     Gaddafi and I am going to tell you about a game
     Gaddafi a game that I play, Gaddafi I play with my
     friends, Gaddafi you can play it alone, Gaddafi
     or play it with friends, Gaddafi.

          (from 'Gaddafi Gaddafi Gaddaf)

For my money Chris McCabe is the most accomplished male poet currently producing work in Britain. (Talk about nailing your colours to the mast!). His reworking here of dramatic classics has a mixture of the old and the new which is quite shocking at times and yet he has his finger firmly on the pulse, having a strong sense of literary history while also being very much in the here and now. This is fabulous work:

          I have a real toy sword but am in the wrong play
     strung for a woman who circulates like oil  whorled
     with rubber and roses  
a bonnibell, the text said    a
     soft and buxom widow               to this live skeleton
                                  rattled with libido

          (from 'The Alchemist')

Other names to look out for are Emily Critchley, Marianne Morris, Keston Sutherland, Luke Kennard and Emily Berry but I'm sure you'll find your own way through this multifarious collection. You won't struggle too hard to find stimulation here even if you end up even more confused than before.

    © Steve Spence 2016