REVIEWS - ISSUE 27
Sticky is derived from the Russian stikhi, meaning poems, and some of the pieces here are set in Russia where Andy Croft has been on a reading tour. As an old communist, he has a nostalgia for the place, which is perhaps slightly misplaced, like Emma Bovary’s conviction that certain places on earth are propitious for happiness. The failure of democratic socialism, or rather its systematic hobbling, is a constant undercurrent in Croft’s work; we should never forget that what undermined socialism more than anything, was its excessive expectations. Nye Bevan’s warning remains pertinent: those who want to do everything at once end up doing nothing at all. Radicalism needs to be resolutely practical. The way to change the system holus-bolus is to do it piecemeal, but that takes courage, diligence and sacrifice. Not the stuff to appeal to romantic sensibilities. Croft’s persistent regret at the loss of the promise of more egalitarian circumstances is that of the principled, stalwart man in the midst of a culture of trimmers, time-servers, fribbles, flibbertigibbets and narcissists. It gives a hint of bewilderment to his work, the agony of the British left, as you might say. The old maps no longer show us where to go. My view is that the right has been far cleverer in winning the culture war. It grasped very early that the masses have to be made to identify with their own exploitation. The Beatles, Madonna, David Beckham, these are the new capitalists. Pop stars are capitalists with guitars and the “fans” make a complete identification. The struggle has moved from the material to the psychological. The masses narcissistically adulate the super-rich who represent the values of capitalism. Even very intelligent people argue this is fine because they are choosing to do so. Such psychological naivety is both touching and distressing. Pop culture didn’t rise from below, it was manufactured and imposed by clever and cynical executives. Behind the pop stars, the film stars, the celebrities of one shade or another are the CEOs, the shareholders, the boards of directors, the multi-million-pound tv rights deals, corporate hospitality, big business. Convincing people the factory owner was exploiting them was easy; convincing them they are conspiring in their own debasement by the adulation they think gives them esteem, is much harder. The right has won this battle hands down because the left has failed to shift onto the new ground. It is the culture war that must be won and the narcissism of the adoration of celebrity which must be defeated. David Beckham isn’t super-rich because he can kick a ball but because football is corporate business; but the celebrity culture claims his talent makes him rich and, by implication, all rich people are talented and deserve their wealth. This then feeds into the workplace: the boss is talented and deserves both big rewards and power.
Croft’s poetry hasn’t yet moved onto the new territory of the struggle. He’s still regretting the loss of the simple bosses versus workers, rich versus poor model. Yet out of this he has produced a terrific collection. Most of the poems rhyme or follow a strict form. This ought to feel anachronistic but it is fresh and cheering. It stands in such stark opposition to “the modes of modern writing” it at once makes you realise how so much contemporary work is trite, exhausted, rehashing, polite, formulaic. Free verse was once radical, but as someone said to me recently, abstract painting has today lost much of its zest and chutzpah and representational work, in the light of this, begins to regain its edge. The same may be true of poetry. Certainly, there is much bland, repetitive work, a lot of it appearing to have been written with the specific aim of pleasing competition judges; and the so-called “leading poets” seem, for the most part, lost up a dark snicket. My bet is, if you gave this book enough publicity, put it in front of enough readers, you’d find it very popular. It takes us back to the essence of poetry: rhythm, rhyme, cadence, parallelism. It re-enchants us. It reconnects us. And it is expertly written.
There’s a lapse here and there but Croft’s ability to handle his chosen forms is superb. His rhymes are inventive and robust, as good as any in the entire span of English poetry. The discipline of form drives him from excessive subjectivism, possibly one of the prevailing sins of modern poetry, and helps create the sense of inevitability all authentic writing needs. He’s always writing about something serious. Even Either or Eyether, which has fun with the pronunciation of English place names, touches on the way class distinctions become embedded in vowels. There’s a lovely piece entitled A Theory of Devolution which links the vote against regional democracy for the north-east to Darwin and the apparent discovery of a new missing link, Homo Hyperboreus. It’s clever, funny, perfectly sustained and uses very subtle ideas in a very clear way. The book ends with the third part of Croft’s letter to Randall Swingler, subject, of course, of the poet’s remarkable biography. Swingler has never received much critical support and there is reason to argue that his bending his writing to the communist cause did harm to his gift. All the same, Croft devoted years to researching and writing about him and in this final letter he brings him up to date with the state of Britain. This neat conceit allows Croft to poke much bitter fun at the debased ignorance of popular culture, the elevation of war to a principle of good government, the emptying of politics of all serious content and, through the revelation of the diligent spying on Swingler, the establishment of a snooping State which sees its citizens as enemies and their most commonplace activities as potential subversion. It’s an excellent end to a thoroughly delightful book. That’s not to suggest its delight means lightness: it deals with some of the most harrowing facts of our time, but, as always, Croft knows how to stay this side of despair, to remain gently and convincingly compassionate, friendly and human in the face of the worst we are capable of. Everything about this book works at the highest level and it confirms Croft as a writer everyone with an interest in poetry should be familiar with. Let’s hope the queen and the prime minister soon read him. It seems they need to.
ONLY IN THE SUN
and THE FIX
William Wantling was born in 1933 and died in 1974. He came from small-town Illinois, joined the Marine Corps after a somewhat troubled youth and was sent to the Korean War. Though his life had taken a perilous turn before his time as a soldier, the war seems to have defined most of what came after. Given morphine for a wound, once out of the army, he turned to drugs. Like all addicts, his cravings took precedence, and he engaged in crime to pay for his narcotics. Not a life then, which had much in common with the majority, and inheriting something of la nostalgie de la boue and the spirit of the poet as l’ame damnee, Wantling’s work is firmly embedded in the unpleasant side of life. The question his work poses is whether from the material of his experience he was able to create a memorable and distinctive poetry. I would say so, though he isn’t a highly original writer. There’s an obvious debt to Bukowski which is more or less inevitable for an American exploring this territory in this kind of language, but even more, there’s a legacy from Baudelaire and Rimbaud whose relentless kicking against the pricks of bourgeois life has had such a deep if often unacknowledged influence on modern culture.
The technique of Wantling’s poetry rests on the conviction that nothing resists subjective expression; the resolutely subjective voice and perspective will ultimately tease out all the truths, lies, ironies. This may be true in poetry, though not for other forms of knowledge. The strength of this approach is its elaboration of a down-beat, familiar persona and the creation of a sense that ultimately we all face reality with the weak instrument of our own mind. On the other hand, it tends to resist excursions into the bracing territory of the impersonal. It may be that, overwhelmed by experiences which almost destroyed him, Wantling had to retreat to a “minimal self” in order to gain any purchase on reality. Certainly that feeling pervades a little poem like this:
It’s deliberately provocative and leaving aside the romantic associations of drugs, the pharmacology and physiological action of heroin detract from its possibilities both as a means of liberation and a form of social protest. Wantling’s is the poetry of keeping going in the face of defeat.
Alienation is his common experience. He tries to pin it down in straightforward language, usually successfully. As a poetic guide to the dead-ends and back alleys of a sensibility rubbed raw by contact with a prevailing culture of lies, greed and hypocrisy, this is in touch with the best of Bukowski. Most poets have limitations to their vision and technique and Wantling is no exception, but Michael Curran has done him excellent service in these beautifully produced volumes. A true labour of love in a time when doing anything without asking what can be earned from it is rare.
Underhill spent two decades as an academic and it shows in his poetry. He’s a skilled writer, but cautious and there’s usually a little effort to get the point across, like in a seminar. There’s a poem, Bother With Whitman, which is clear and precise, easy to read and slightly funny. Elements of that appear here and there in this collection. Some of the longer poems lack the linguistic surprise to keep attention close and my suspicion is this is an effect of being used to a captive audience. Probably the best way to test your poems is to try lines and images on blokes in the pub watching their favourite team in an important game: if they show the least interest, you’ve got something that will work. Seriously, the influence of the academy on poetry needs to be thought about. The limits within which academic writing has to stay don’t work for poetry. Underhill is a good writer and my guess is he’ll appeal to graduates in English who studied in the early post-war period. He’s solid, reliable, competent but he doesn’t sweep you along, like Whitman.
TELL IT LIKE IT MIGHT BE
Well-constructed for the most part but betraying here and there insufficient attention to detail (Adultery-on-Sea begins : He became entangled in a cliché/ The moment that he started to erect; the relative pronoun is redundant – except for scansion, but the poem isn’t strict - and just makes the line seem clumsy; a more severe, critical rewriting would have eliminated it) these poems are sought for. Bartholomew-Biggs, that is, doesn’t have an urgent need to write. He searches for subject matter and constructs a piece out of and around it. In most of the poems this works well enough to elaborate these miscellaneous poems into a pleasant little collection with a handful of memorable lines. Perhaps in his next collection he can think about structuring the book so the poems gel into a world-view or perspective which is greater than each of the parts. All the best poets convey that.
DANCES WITH VOWELS
Cadwallender is an excellent poet because he has something to say and says it in interesting and clear ways. If Carol Duffy, Simon Armitage, Jo Shapcott, Sean O’Brien, Don Paterson, Robert Crawford, Alice Oswald, Jackie Kay, Ruth Padel and Lavinia Greenlaw, to name just a few of poetry’s golf club, produce more interesting, memorable, better-written work than this I’d like someone to prove it. Cadwallender is serious but full of fun and puns. He never strays for a moment from the terrible facts of our modernity but never forgets for an instant how lovely life can be despite them. Best of all, his work is a pomposity free zone. He is never ponderous, won’t take himself too seriously, always grants that a poem is there for the reader not the poet. Cadwallender’s is a sensibility Eliot would have despised. If he thought Bert Lawrence a heretic he would have thought Cadwallender a madman. It’s the sensibility of the underdog, the fully qualified survivor, the tough but tender-hearted man of the mean streets who knows that waving your mean street credentials is pretentious. A very clever, subtle, wise and generous sensibility. It’s not because his writing isn’t brilliant that Cadwallender isn’t dubbed a “leading poet”. It’s because of that sensibility. It prefigures a new society. That’s it’s threat. Safer to read Alice wittering spiritually about weeds and wild flowers. Cadwallender knows the cracks in the pavement where the weeds push through and the junk in the canal where the wild flowers grow. This is simply superb poetry and it’s long overdue that a substantial collection of new and selected should appear. All credit to Smokestack for flying in the face of the poetry mafia and giving voice to this Whitman of the Wear, this Byron of Byker. And if Oxford are looking for somebody really interesting to take the place of the unfortunate Ms Padel, they need look no further. But then again, such a spacious mind would be trammelled in such a narrow context. It’s because the Establishment is essentially sniffy about writers like Cadwallender ( though no-one else writes like this) that small presses are vital. Cadwallender’s work will live when much of the highly-praised twaddle of our time his been consigned to due oblivion. Why aye !
Faber must be kicking themselves: another superb poet from Smokestack. Mike Wilson’s debut collection signals the rise of a new poetic sensibility. He shares with Cadwallender a down-to-earth, street-corner, tarmac and straight-talk mentality but that isn’t to suggest lack of sophistication; on the contrary, Wilson is highly literary, remarkably skilled and able to do that rare thing: fashion a poem which bears his unmistakable signature. Many of the poems adhere to strict form and as in Andy Croft’s work this reappropriation of the time-honoured resources of poetry is put to up-to-the-minute use so the accusation of old-fashionedness doesn’t hold. Poetry is changing. The snobbish defeatism of the Movement, the cocky, cliché-hugging street-talk of the late eighties onwards, the look-at-meism of the poets who had to fight for their lives as the new economic settlement of post 1979 Britain made publishers and critics nervous of anything which couldn’t be subsumed to populism, are giving way before a willingness to face the truth of our new sensibility and the atrocious loss of the opportunity for better. Wilson knows this territory through and through and explores it with brilliance, wit, great insight and grace. He’s exercised by the Left’s failure. The New Brutalism has triumphed. Yet out of that victory of vulgarity and philistinism which can offer its people nothing higher than Britain’s Got Talent, Big Brother and the Iraq war, comes this kind of resistance. The voice that has been silenced in politics is starting to define a new poetry. Not propagandist. On the contrary, shaped by a recognition of the severe limits and reductivism of propaganda. Able, rather, to speak with the authentic voice of the defeated, without a flight into wilting pastoralism or a pretence that poetry is the people’s joy. A thoroughly urban poetry which gains its perspective from a brave recognition of where we are. Wilson is an important and thoroughly modern poet because he writes of the loss of the maps which once guided us. Yet, through their loss we are forced to make new ones and we do so out of a far more subtle understanding of how society functions than Marx could have dreamed of. This Be Averse, for example, which turns Larkin on his head is very astute as to how relations between parents and children have been transformed by a culture which has had to obliterate the distance between offspring and adults so as to turn the former into consumers. Like all the best poets, Wilson allows his imagination to lead him to the truth and in giving expression to what he discovers he has written a thoroughly delightful, excellent and highly relevant book. This points to the future. Who needs a poet laureate ?
THE BLUE CAT WALKS THE EARTH
This collection was written to be accompanied by jazz and it comes with a CD on which Don Davis plays sax and percussion and Joe Deleault piano as Reeve reads. He has an actor’s capacity and you can here where his son got his talent from. The musicianship is excellent and complements the words without ever being intrusive. It captures too the wry humour of the poems which chart the peregrinations of The Blue Cat, a self-possessed outsider, coolly unimpressed by contemporary reality, going his nonchalant way through a world of fools, madmen, conformists and irreducible ambiguity. Reeve writes in a deceptively simple style and has a highly individual way with images: they’re never forced or recherché but, beyond denotative meaning, they work hypnotically, especially in Reeve’s delivery. In their totality, the poems amount to an argument, or at least a perspective, never stated – though there is one direct assertion:
no-one of conscience can avoid a call
( this is clearly ambiguous, as many who have rallied to that call and been manipulated and cheated know); but Reeve is a true poet and avoids polemic. He has written a delightful, humanising collection and the inclusion of the CD makes me wonder if this shouldn’t become a commonplace of poetry publishing. The technology is readily available and hearing the poet deliver makes all the difference. The jazz accompaniment too ought to be imitated: musicians with enough manners to leave room for the words can really enhance the writing. One thing though: in Paris the Blue Cat won’t find a café called Les Deux Maggots. It’s Les Deux Magots. The masculine form means a monkey, an ugly little man or a grotesque, the feminine a secret stash of money. Take your pick.
BUT BLACK AND WHITE IS BETTER
Ken Champion’s first collection is intelligently divided into five sections. The grouping gives a cohesive feel and a sense of the themes or interests he returns to. His technique is very restrained: poetry holding its breath, as if the slightest false note will destroy the effect. There are two things going on here: a search for precise focus, which fits with Champions work in art and photography, and an elaboration of sensibility. Champion is wary of effusiveness and some of the poems which show how absence of restraint can admit violence and violation, give the clue to his mentality. The sense of withholding in the work can at first appear a barrier, but each piece gives up its meaning with enough courtesy for that to be succeeded by admiration for the way the aloofness of the poem becomes the source of its communication. Always impressive is the way the apparent emotional restriction gives rise to rich experience and association. Each poem takes you on a little journey at the end of which you have glimpsed a little more of the world as seen and felt by the writer. He is a poet of astonishing clarity, sometimes to the point of initial discomfort or shock, but he’s clever enough to know this will make his work memorable and what will stay in the mind is both the clenched, chateau-fort style and the sensitivity it permits to seep through. Nobody writes quite like Champion and his originality will make him endure. This seems to me like poetry which will never go out of fashion.
One of Palestine’s most interesting poets, Ali was born in 1931 in Saffuriyya, a village destroyed during the Arab-Israeli conflict of 1948. He lives in Nazareth where he runs a souvenir shop, an apposite occupation for a poet. Inevitably much of his work is informed by the stupidity of the Middle-East confrontation, essentially a proxy war between the USA and those perceived to be a potential threat to its interests. This tragic little patch of the big earth is testimony to the worst human potentialities.The Palestinians, of course, by no means wise angels, have been treated appallingly. That such wisdom, humour, compassion, tolerance and joy in life as rests at the heart of Ali’s work can emerge from such defeating circumstances is testimony to the best in the human mind. He is an extraordinarily subtle poet who can turn a cow swallowing a rope and having to be slaughtered into an evocation of the humanizing force of home, even when home is small, poor and demanding. He treats without melodrama or moral strain the most alarming examples of violence or injustice and elaborates a poetic persona at once involved and dispassionate, entangled in history’s barbed-wire skein, yet downbeat, low-key: a quiet voice of puzzled reason amidst the raucous howling of demented conviction. Most impressive is his ability to address serious issues in a tone which never rises to the rhetorical. The persuasion of his poetry is accomplished by refusing to persuade. His language is simple, assured, apparently relaxed. He works hard to eliminate stridency. His control is perfect:
This from a piece entitled Fooling The Killers. The book is named after the story which ends it: delightful, witty, beautifully written. It’s the kind of writing much disdained by commercial publishers: it can be sold only for its literary quality. That is exceptionally high. Ali is a superb poet and prose writer whose ability to imagine the real and to render it in memorable lines is of a very rare kind.
A Tapestry of Absent Sitters,
A (slight), personal criticism -not shared in the reviews which the book has had previously recorded- might be that one of the volume's sequences (set in Sweden) is a little over-long. A change of tone is introduced with 'Now Barabbas', in which Arthur Koestler meets Monty Python on mutually agreeable ground. An epigrammatical section works well, as does a passage dealing with the fallout from a broken relationship. I'm caused to wonder if 'Organ Grind' -in which Morrison struggles with the 'Rubble' of his Roman Catholicism- is a 'Church Going' for the twenty-first century. 'Elocution Lessions' is nicely-nuanced, whilst 'Laughter in the Bathroom' is an effective piece (just sufficiently 'Artful' but also pithy and well-observed).
Whilst justifiably sceptical of 'Hype', I feel that in its own understated, even apologetic, way A Tapestry of Absent Sitters lays down a similarly gem-encrusted gauntlet to those once thrown by Lyrical Ballads, North of Boston and, even, The Less Deceived. Such challenges cannot exist entirely independently of the cultural milieu which has helped engender them -they require the 'oxegyn' of informed debate. Art has, in this sense, always been adversarial. Quiet, but insistent, Morrison's 'muse' has much to be angry about.