Category Archives: News and reviews

Links to reviews I’ve published elsewhere or other things I have done. Mostly poetry.

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.

2 reviews: Hannah Lowe and Stewart Sanderson

I enjoy doing OPOIs (it stands for ‘one point of interest’) for Sphinx Review, the brainchild of Helena Nelson at HappenStance Press. The form, 350 words on one thing you liked about a new pamphlet, works like all forms – the restriction becomes a kind of freedom. If you haven’t written any criticism before it is a good, supportive place to start. By ‘criticism’ I mean any kind of reflection on how literature does and doesn’t work, though these days the word will seem negative to many people. There is no reason why this has to be the case.

For me, the beauty of the OPOI is that because of the word limit you have to direct that attention on the poems. There’s no room to speculate. Two recent efforts are below, on Stewart Sanderson’s An Offering and Hannah Lowe’s The Neighbourhood.

In the first, I talk about how rhyming can help a poem carry an argument or a narrative. I’ve been thinking about this again recently reading Pope properly for the first time, most of which is in rhyming couplets. Pope’s ‘Essay on Criticism’, incidentally, argues that the point of criticism is to encourage what is good. Hannah Lowe’s pamphlet is very close to home: my street in Brixton is on the front cover. In the OPOI I talk about how one poem in the pamphlet deals with different kinds of distances.*

An Offering, Stewart Sanderson

The Neighbourhood, Hannah Lowe

*Even if you agree with Pope that criticism is a positive thing, the question then, is – who wants to put themselves forward as the arbiter of what is good? To which you can only really ask: who else is going to do it? Books want readers! At the end of the day, you are only explaining what you like and it is worth bearing that in mind…

Another Way of Forgetting?

I wrote something about ‘A Very Expensive Poison’, a play on at the Old Vic last year about the Litvinenko poisoning, how I enjoyed it (the play, not the poisoning) and what I thought it said about the way in which we think about ‘Russia’ for the Observer/Anthony Burgess Foundation prize for arts journalism and it ended up being shortlisted.

The review is now online with the rest of the shortlist and the winning piece by Lucy Holt. This the first time I’ve been published in a newspaper since a highly prophetic but entirely ineffective letter to Nick Clegg about the 2010 election.

The Observer also gave us all these nice plastic blow-ups which make the article look like a real thing in a broadsheet, which is sweet. Reviewing is an unnerving job, and any critic with any self-awareness will feel like an imposter. So, it is good that the prize is encouraging new writers, and I would encourage anyone who even vaguely thinks of themselves in those terms to look out for it next time.