The Quick and the Dead

In a recent post on his always thought-provoking (and, crucially, given what I had to say the other day, short) blog ‘Rougue Strands’, Matthew Stewart asks whether poets are reading enough new poetry.

It is a fair question. Stewart suggests that well-reviewed books often only sell around 200 copies. As I understand, debut novels will often only shift a few thousand, and the difference probably reflects the difference in ‘market share’ between fiction and verse. The truth is, when I review, it is never with any expectation that it is going to sell books. They are responses to the poems.

For some time now, I have been trying to read more widely in twentieth-century poetry, whatever that means to you. Mostly it means coming across more poets I don’t feel I have enough time to read more of, but want to. Someone, in person or print, will recommend them to me, or I will find them in an anthology.* To take a few more recent names at random: Edwin Morgan. Langston Hughes. The Welsh-Jewish poet Dannie Abse. Thom Gunn, who I had read but not really read.

But I also keep trying to go further back in time, to Wordsworth and John Clare, for instance, both of whom I have read but never properly digested. I am still half way through Paradise Lost (it is good). Each one of these poets is, by any reckoning, a major figure. It will take me years to really appreciate any one of them. And I have a lot of novels and trash non-fiction to get through in the meantime.

Regardless of how much reading is really going on, all new poetry is competing, within a small readership, with every poem ever written. It is not simply that there is a lot of good new poetry out there: there is a lot of seriously good poetry out there from ten, twenty, thirty, forty, or even 400 years ago. Suddenly, selling 200 copies to real, living, breathing humans begins to look like very good going indeed.

The vast majority of poems I read are by dead people (dead men, if those examples are anything to go by) and probably always will be. But that also helps explain why I take an interest in ‘contemporary’ poetry in the first place: it is as much about being social, about offering solidarity, about, ultimately, placing a bet on the future, as it is about the poems themselves.

*I have the Bloodaxe The New Poetry anthology, from 1993, in the loo (I presume this is what the editors would have wanted) and it is the source of a lot of discoveries, but also a lot of anxiety. There are so many great poets from the 80s and 90s in there. None of them are very new any more.

In Praise of Magazines (a Via Negativa)

To arrive where you are, to get from where you are not / You must go by a way wherein there is no ecstasy.

– T S Eliot, ‘East Coker’

In the last few months, in one of my vain attempts to use the internet better, I tried signing up to some of those newsletters, the ones where an individual writer sends their articles direct to your inbox. The idea was that I would read more and spend less time scrolling through social media.

I do not read them. Whether it is a cause or an effect, I have never paid for any of the ‘extra’ content. I do not think this is because of my attention span, either. The ones I sign up for, thinking I will get something out of, are often very long and wordy, and I find reading anything long on a laptop or a phone difficult: we are in the realm of distraction. Something else is just a click away. The habit is too ingrained.

Then there is the fact that the kind of thing I keep signing up for, writing about culture or ideas or whatever, really does, it turns out, need an editor. This is a sad thing to learn for someone writing a blog, but one person’s interests, especially on anything vaguely complex, are not enough – and, to be frank, should not be enough – to sustain the attention of an audience of other individuals, even if they find that person particularly interesting.*

It is not just the quantity. When anything first gets written, and especially about something complex, the first draft is effectively the writer talking to themselves. You leave all kinds of things unsaid and assume knowledge on the reader’s part you shouldn’t. This is inevitable: the reader is a little repressive dictator (“why are you saying this, why aren’t you saying that”) and you have to think about them as little as possible just to get the thing out.

Without editors as intermediaries all writing risks being a kind of droning on, all talk and no ears. I think this is why a lot of people who could write, don’t. Not because they are afraid, or uninterested: they just do not want to be bores. They are probably right.

Blogs (I hope) are a bit different, and there are some very good newsletters which are effectively blogs, like Oliver Burkeman’s ‘The Imperfectionist’. They do not tend to be very long. They are more informal, so an editor would defeat the point, whereas the phenomenon I am griping about is marketed by the author as the sort of thing you might find in a magazine or from a book. A blog also sits there waiting its turn, which is, frankly, better manners.

The problem is that the writing which comes into my inbox is a bit like being rung up and talked at by the same few strangers every week. I could pick out a particular time of the month to get through them, but just makes clear how much the whole ‘Substack’ phenomenon has in common with another way in which our current digital habits are so depressing – under the illusion of control and personalization, you lose variety, choice, and, ultimately, community.

*Naming no names, but the most common problem a magazine faces is an extension of this: always commissioning the same people, who always write the same thing.

The Memory Police

Like all ordinary people I worry I am not making a thorough enough record of the books I have read. I do not know when I started having these compulsions: I have not always been like this, and the fact is the worry is never motivating enough to sustain any commitment to one method. Instead, every now and then, I tell myself I am going to come up with a new way of keeping track, whether that is a personal reading diary, or a blog like this. After a few weeks, the compulsion burns off.  

My most recent attempt to find a method was a reading diary: I resolved to make a brief note on every book I finished, month by month. Like all the others, this attempt has fallen by the wayside. Which in retrospect makes the first entry, The Memory Police by Yōko Ogawa, from December 2020, rather fateful: the novel is about memory and loss, and memory, loss, and literature.

Since the beginning of lockdown in 2020, I had been on a run of reading or rereading classic science-fiction: lots of John Wyndham and H. G. Wells, trying pulp classics like Dracula (fun beginning, fun ending, otherwise a stodgy detective novel) or I Am Legend (very different to the Hollywood film) for the first time. But I also wanted to expand my own definitions of ‘sci fi’ beyond the usual suspects. Ogawa is one of Japan’s most acclaimed novelists, but I think it is fair to say she does not have a big profile here: The Memory Police was shortlisted for the 2020 International Man Booker Prize (for works in translation), but the original was published in 1994. It is a remarkable book.

I also felt I had to read it for professional reasons: one of the quotes on the cover compares it to Nineteen Eighty-Four, a story deeply concerned with memory, and the struggle of the individual to defend those memories from an overweening state, and which I have a responsibility to through my day job. In The Memory Police, which is set on an unnamed island, long since disconnected from the mainland, the intimidating Memory Police play a role in policing the islanders’ relationship with the past: those who continue to hold onto it live in constant fear of being found out and disappeared.  

Beyond those superficial similarities, however, they are very different books. The Memory Police has been described as a ‘dystopia’, but it is more like a slow, icy nightmare; comparisons have also been made with Kafka (who also came under my expanded definition of ‘sci fi’). Entire categories of objects regularly disappear. They literally depart, as in one memorable image of the petals on all the island’s flowers flowing downriver, but they also lose their meaning for the inhabitants before they finally go, so that by the time they are gone, the islanders do not even know what they are missing. In the case of human possessions, the islanders will often set about destroying the next set of objects, seemingly without instruction, burning photographs and books in their gardens.

There is none of the world-building, none of the political, social, or even psychological mechanisms you might expect from a ‘dystopia’. These things just happen. The Memory Police themselves have a walk-on role. They are a threat, especially to the few islanders who have the ability to remember, who they hunt down mercilessly, but otherwise seem to largely mind their own business. This could be a comment on indifference. But it means the novel reads like a meditation on memory, on holding onto objects and the histories they carry like smells. On what it means to resist decay.

Memory is not a theme science-fiction has any exclusive domain over. Because of its cultural status, it is easy to forget that Nineteen Eighty-Four is as ‘literary’ a book as any ‘literary fiction’: Nathan Waddell writes in the introduction to The Cambridge Companion to Nineteen Eighty-Four that the reason the novel has achieved that cultural status it has is not simply because the problems of power it poses but because of how engaged the book is with the process of writing itself, ‘with how literary production can be influenced by the most diabolical pressures.’

In The Memory Police, the connection between memory and literature is far more explicit: the main character is a writer, attempting to write a book which is slowly slipping away from them, who finds themselves having to hide their own editor from the Memory Police. But in the absence of the normal dystopian trimmings, in the facelessness of the enemy, and in the novel’s sustained focus on ordinary, domestic life (much of the book is spent describing the process of constructing the editor’s hideaway), the pressure the characters are under feels far more diffuse than in Nineteen Eighty-Four, more akin to time itself; less ‘diabolical’, but seriously chilling.    

Poets Dropping from the Sky

I have a very admiring review of Peter Didsbury’s new collection A Fire Shared in the new issue of the (excellent) Poetry Birmingham Literary Journal, which you can get here. When writing any kind of criticism, people often talk about poets like they drop from the sky, so I think some openness about how we (in this case, I) encounter them would be a good thing and perhaps even go a small way to making poetry, and criticism, less intimidating. Despite the navel-gazing, how I came across Didsbury’s poetry is particularly relevant in this respect because it goes back to how I got into ‘new’ poetry in the first place, and because I could easily have never come across him at all.

When I arrived at university a decade ago my idea of a contemporary poet was someone who had featured in the modern sections of the GSCE or A level anthology. So, Gillian Clarke and Seamus Heaney were contemporary poets but so, in a way, was W. H Auden. (Arguably he still is.) That, plus anything recent-looking I could find on the shelves at home, which by any standard was probably an abnormally large amount of poetry: Larkin, Plath, Walcott, Hughes, more Heaney. The odd anthology.

At university, however, I met people interested in poetry who were not my teachers or my immediate family. From them, whether by osmosis or direct instruction, I learnt there was something called ‘contemporary poetry’, which was different to the poetry I knew, because it was being written now. I also learnt that, if I wanted to be interested in, let alone write, poems, I needed to read it. Initially, I did not like this one bit. There were enough poets already, and I already knew what I liked! Besides, surely art was universal? The discovery of this world, which I did not know about, also hit a real anxiety. It is hard enough being a kid interested in words in a world which, for the most part, is not. Now, suddenly, here were people who not only liked poetry as much as I did, but knew more about it, and no amount of mentioning Auden would cover up my ignorance. The embarrassment of being interested in poetry was compounded by the embarrassment of being an imposter.  

Because I am nothing if not a diligent student, I went away and did my research. The problem was where to start. A friend mentioned Bloodaxe (the idea that people other than Penguin or Faber published poetry was new to me too), so I scoured their website. Because I was stubborn, I still did not want anything too new. Because I was a snob, it still needed critical approval. If change over time was important, and one of the reasons why I could not simply read the old stuff was that poetry had to change to keep up with the times, there was also no sense in diving straight into the new. I needed poets who would form a bridge with what I knew already.

In retrospect this was pretty strange behaviour. However, I got lucky. The two books I chose were Fleur Adcock’s Poems 1960 – 2000 and Peter Didsbury’s Scenes from a Long Sleep: New and Collected Poems. The idea of buying a single collection of poetry, on a student budget, and picking in the dark, seemed astonishingly bad value. Why on earth I did not get an anthology, I do not know, but perhaps it was for the best: anthologies are important, but a collection is a personal initiation, and more powerful for it. Both poets, from what I could tell, seemed to be in that next generation after Larkin and Hughes, and both were, crucially, still writing. (Adcock is actually in the same generation as Hughes and Plath but she had to get over here from New Zealand first.)

They are both superb writers. In a way, they did also serve as a kind of bridge: most recent poetry is far more subdued than anything I was used to from school, far less metrical, far more conversational, and far more ironic (change is on the horizon: there is a romantic wind in the air). Though each individual, and have other qualities, Adcock and Didsbury are those things too. All that says to me is they are as contemporary as anyone. Literature does not progress in a linear fashion. Sean O’Brien once described Didsbury as the kind of writer who makes you realise what you have been putting up with in the meantime. With no disrespect to the meantime, I think he is right.

I want to finish with a quick word on Adcock’s book, because I cannot help but see the two as a kind of pair, so owe it that much. The front cover is very striking: a full reproduction of Hans Holbein the Younger’s A Lady with a Squirrel and a Starling. That, surely, was one of the reasons I chose it. The artwork matters. The back cover is covered in admiring quotes, and these probably played a role too. Looking at both Poems and Scenes from a Long Sleep what is striking is now is how individual the quotes are. Of course, it is easier when you are picking from a long career. Most of the quotes would have been taken from longer reviews and articles, and so talk specifics: the reason most puff quotes today are so awful is they are not, and do not.

Arguably, the most telling quote on Fleur Adcock’s book comes from ex-laureate Andrew Motion. “Throughout her writing life [it goes] she has made a fine art of folding on to principles of orderliness and good clear sense; but she has made an even finer one from loosening her grip on them.” I agree. Though I do love Adcock’s “poised, ironic… tense and tightly controlled” style, whatever the subject, my favourite poems, like the much anthologised (and very funny) ‘Things’, the eerie, sci-fi infused ‘Gas’, or ‘A Surprise in the Peninsula’, are those in which menace is very close to the surface.  

Though I do not know the full context, there is something patronising about Motion’s quote: he begins by claiming “most of Fleur Adcock’s best poems have something to do with bed”, which, besides being simply not true, I do not think is the sort of remark someone like Motion would make about a writer they recognised as their equal. It implies a narrowness of subject, which is not born out in the poems. For my money, Adcock is more than a match for Motion. Arguably, she pioneered a particularly contemporary style – poised, ironic… tense and tightly controlled – of which plenty of poetry published since often reads like a pale imitation.

Coningsby and Friends: Some Books in Brief

One of the first reviews I ever wrote was of a pamphlet of poems by Jonathan Davidson, called ‘Humfrey Coningsby’. In a turn of events I will not explain but which involves Twitter and Jonathan’s new collection of his and other people’s poems, A Commonplace, I discovered the website the review had originally been published on was no more.

This was a small lesson in the transience of the digital record, but it felt appropriate to Humfrey, the subject of the pamphlet, an obscure traveller forever passing in and out history. However, I still had a copy, and it is now on Jonathan’s blog.

I really enjoyed both ‘Humfrey Coningsby’ and A Commonplace. Reading one and rereading the other, I think one of the hallmarks of Jonathan’s poems is the power and memorability of his final lines. Final lines are often the most difficult to get right.

There are plenty of books I have read recently that I would like to give a response to which is more than just a social media post, but I have not had the time and do not think I will. In lieu of anything longer, here are some highlights:

sikfan glaschu — Sean Wai Keung, Verve Poetry Press (2021)

I reviewed Sean Wai Keung’s pamphlet ‘you are mistaken’ for London Grip. sikfan glaschu is his first full collection. I would have liked to see some of those earlier poems included, and I hope new readers will go back to ‘you are mistaken’ too, if the Rialto have any copies left, but I can see the point behind starting fresh: sikfan glaschu takes the themes of migration, insecurity, family and food dealt with so arrestingly in that pamphlet, adds a city, and makes something distinct and whole out of them.

The collection is in three parts: a series of ‘reviews’ of eateries in Glasgow (‘glaschu’), a section from lockdown, and a final, more meditative section on food, family and identity. It is funny and heart breaking. Wai Keung has dropped the ‘+’ sign which tied together some of the earlier work and the poems move down and across the page with what feels like a newfound freedom. The best praise I can offer is that I was genuinely excited to get my hands on sikfan glaschu and that my expectation was more than rewarded. It includes ‘stay inside’, the best ‘lockdown’ poem I have come across, a poem about KFC, and a very good example of a rare category: a poem about council tax.

That Old Country Music – Kevin Barry (Canongate, 2020)

I first came under the spell of Kevin Barry’s short stories when I found them on a shelf in a cabin in Ireland. The location helped: we were a few minutes’ drive away from the hotel in which one of the tales was set, and the fjord that floods it. I do not know anyone that writes like Barry. It is intoxicating.

He writes novels too: I have read one of them (City of Bohane), and will try the others, but the short stories are what ought to get him the Nobel Prize (which being, in his own words, a ‘raving egomaniac’, he makes no bones about coveting). This new collection is in some ways less varied than ‘Dark Lies the Island’, with a narrower cast. Each time I was a little disappointed when I realised it was another story about a lonely, mysterious, and unaccountably alluring man. There was a piece in the TLS last year asking whether men had lost the nerve to write about sex. The author had not read Kevin Barry.

Soon enough, however, once you are a few sentences in, the intoxication takes over and all is forgiven. Someone ought to chain him to his desk until he writes more.

Song for Our Daughter – Laura Marling (2020)

Not a book but definitely ‘written’. In many ways this feels like Marling’s most straight-forward album, musically and lyrically, though I did not listen to the last one and now will have to. It was, apparently, an attempt to write ‘confidences and affirmations’ to an imaginary daughter, inspired by Maya Angelou’s ‘Letter to My Daughter’.

I only just read that: what is interesting is that these songs are so entirely convincing they each feel more ‘real’ than any of the more obviously autobiographical songs Marling used to write. The other thing that has changed is the melodies, which are beautiful. This was not always the case. Her earlier albums got by more on her charisma as a writer and singer. These you want to play again and again.

There is an interesting story behind the last track, ‘For You’. Apparently, it is a homage to Paul McCartney, was never meant to be a ‘proper’ song: “I had a fight with a friend of mine, weirdly, defending Lennon against McCartney and I took it so personally. For some reason I felt like Paul McCartney was the good one and Lennon was the bad one and I was somehow embodying the bad one – so I thought it’d be interesting to see why I felt that strongly about it.” In the end, she realised how good a songwriter McCartney really was. For my money, the difference between the two Beatles is not so much moral as musical. McCartney wrote melodies. Proper or not, melodies are what lasts.