Excerpts, Excellence and
some recent poetry books
I've just been come across Jed Rasula and Steve
McCaffery's Imagining Language. An Anthology [MIT, 1998] in the university library. It's good to be reminded of
the extremes of poetic form and experiment. Shift & Switch, New
Canadian Poetry [eds. Derek Beaulieu,
Jason Christie & Angela Rawlings; Mercury Press] has a similarly
energizing and liberating effect. I'm pleased that people out there are still
experimenting with collage, comics, concrete poetry, photography and
performance, as well as linguistically innovative and post-L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E
I'm particularly taken with Frances Kruk's excerpts from 'Thought Process', a
mix of typographical experiment, minimalist poetry and scratchy drawing. If I
have a problem it's that the illustrations are by someone else... it's hard to
see how the text could stand alone, such is the close inter-relationship
between the visual and verbal here. Elsewhere Jamie Hilder documents poetic
interventions in the landscape, with his photographs of banners hung above
highways; Matthew Hollett offers both found poems and striking photos; and
Gustave Morin takes collage toward both visual pun and thoughtful
abstraction. I'm less convinced by Chris Fickling's reworkings of famous
paintings or Rob Read's rather staid and dull 'Hieroglyphs' where he makes
images from the letters of a word, although his treated spam poems are
What is interesting is how much of this anthology features excerpts from
sequences, which of course has a downside as well. Although it's good to see
people planning and undertaking thought out projects, excerpts leave you
wanting more and feeling as though you've simply dipped your toe in – perhaps
that was the idea? To act as a taster or primer, in the hope that readers
will go out and buy the complete works of certain authors. Not a bad plan,
and Shift & Switch is
certainly an enjoyable and intriguing publication.
Away from experiment, the main thrust of interesting
writing seems to be happening where the lyric is being reinvented [or
resurrected?] in the light of 20th century experiment. John Burnside can be
relied on to bring us startling and surprising images of the landscape as
well as chart emotion and effect in relation to society and place. Recent
work has drawn heavily on the stepped line and the Scottish landscape, so
it's good to be reminded in his new Selected Poems of his harsher, grittier earlier work. Selected
Poems [Cape] is a generous and
wide-reaching selection, and includes the marvellous prose-poem sequence
'Suburbs' which I'm especially fond of. All his books are well-represented
here, and if not all my favourites make the selection, there's still a clear
indication of the breadth and achievement of Burnside's work, as well as a
log of poetic movement. Recently, Burnside has made the light and space of
landscape his own, with extended sequences, sustained and inventive
metaphors, and an attention to detail and effect. He seems to have gained a
sense of 'home' and a certain contentment seems to have descended, but the
earlier work here charts darker territory and thought processes, with the
poems' narrators and characters uneasy in their physical and emotional
relationships. Burnside is one of the few who can make happiness and
contentment, wonder and delight interesting and poetically effectual, whilst
continuing to question the world around him.
David Grubb is another writer who continually questions.
His poems are rooted in the sensual and playful modernism of authors like
Peter Redgrove and W.S. Graham, as much about thought and language as the
memories and locations which spark the poems. Out of the Marvellous [Oleander Press] is his best collection yet, a 116
page paperback in three sections that continues to chart his ongoing
obsessions: madness; nostalgia; lost places, people and memories; what it
means, or meant, to be English; faith and doubt; war and peace; the very
nature of poetry and language itself.
Having previously organised his books thematically, this volume is in many
ways a hodgepodge of work, with images and ideas reoccurring throughout.
Bizarrely, it works, as the reader gradually builds up an overall picture of
Grubb's concerns, for example returning to meet Grubb's grandparents in 'the
orchard', or his constant niggling obsession with the idea of belief or God.
Inbetween these kind of poems there are intriguing one-offs: snapshots of the
landscape seen afresh [hidden under snow, for example], eulogies for or
commentaries on writers and historical characters [Henri Michaux, William
Burroughs, Samuel Beckett, Jenny Joseph and others], bizarre surrealistic
excursions, playful poems about poetry, beautiful meditations and witty
Grubb is often accused of writing too much, but I like the way he returns to
subjects, pecking away from many angles, each time bringing something new to
our attention. Peter Redgrove did something similar in his work, detailing
his ongoing occult and sensory explorations. I also like the way Grubb can
take a phrase, such as 'Look at us not dancing here' or 'The priests are on
strike' and run with it, generating a poem and keeping the lines flowing from
there on. The poems are all carefully revised and worked, but have that
wonderful illusion of spontaneity and linguistic ease about them. In one of
the first poems in the book, Grubb posits that '[m]en are really listening
all the time', and Grubb's poetry bares this out – here is an author writing
and watching and listening all the time, someone with the past and landcsape
flowing through them, constantly inspiring and challenging him, just as his
poems challenge and inspire the reader. Out of the Marvellous is truly marvellous.
Tomaz Salamun is one of the authors Grubb writes about [in
the excellent 'Drums Of Winter', where 'the words do not have to obey
anything at all']. Salamun's last book was a complete disappointment but his
new one, Row [Arc Publications] is
much more interesting. If at times I still balk at the cod surrealism or
coyness of an opening line such as 'You don't know how to behave parrot' [or
the poem's title, 'I'm Not Used To It, Lieutenant, I'm Not Used To It!'] or
the verbiage of a line such as 'Karakorum of the obliterated, lukwarm halva'
which opens 'Poet Leaves The House And Doesn't Leave The House', elsewhere
there are poems and images which surprise and delight:
I am a gulp.
I am the
blessed munching body.
he declaims in 'Love', while in 'Sirens'
I throw the
sphere of a horse into cranberries.
This is imagery pushed into new places, although we also have to deal with
mundane phrases such as 'I'm falling apart my love, I miss you.' ['Karst']
and the occasional long ramble where Salamun simply riffs on a theme. So a
bit of a mixed bag, nowhere near as good as the American Four
Questions of Melancholy: New and Selected Poems, which remains for me the touchstone of Salamun's work.
Billy Collins' The Trouble With Poetry and Other Poems [Picador] is much more clear cut. When I first
read Collins' work it was refreshing, lighthearted and clever poetry; now
it's often merely banal or smartarse, sometimes both.
in a bombed-out city
we are told in 'Building with Its Face Blown Off'. Wow! Collins has noticed
when a wall falls of a building you can see into the rooms.
morning I ate a banana
like a young
and worked on
a poem called 'Nocturne'
afternoon I opened the mail
with a short
and when dusk
began to fall
I took off my
'Sweetheart of the Rodeo'
and soaked in
a claw-footed bathtub.
This is a dreadful attempt to be witty. It doesn't make me laugh, or even
grin, truth be told. It's the sort of thing every writing student in the
country turns out when they are asked to make the known unknown or the
familiar unfamiliar. 'It was then that I heard / a clap of thunder and the
dog's bark,' he goes on, 'and the claw-footed bathtub / took one step
forward'... Great! A storm makes
the dog bark, and to emphasise the point, and attempt make it surreal, the
bathtub the narrator is in leaps around the room. Wake me up when it's over.
Or at least pull the plug.
In the title poem, Collins perceptively says 'the trouble with poetry is /
that it encourages the writing of more poetry'. I have to say in the case of
this book I veer between total despair at why anyone would publish this
half-baked collection, which makes me want out of poetry; and the simple fact
that, thank goodness, there's a lot of poetry out there which is a damn sight
Rupert Loydell 2006