Surfing the void


Kim Kardashian's Marriage,
Sam Riviere (96pp, £10.99, Faber)


A while ago I had the idea that, if I wanted to make a name for myself as a poet, I should write poetry about a really popular celebrity. The famed name that sprang to mind was the second most googled entity of 2014, Kim Kardashian. After conducting a little research I found out that Sam Riviere had stolen my idea (by stolen I mean that he had the same idea as me). Oh well, not to be disheartened, Sam Riviere's haunted echoes of generation z reality TV driven, social media obsessed narcissism make him the perfect poetic partner for the world's most famous (...what is she actually famous for?)...(ah, yes) derrière.

Kim Kardashian's Marriage is the follow up to his very well received (Stride exempted!) first collection 81 Austerities. There are seventy two poems in total, one for every day of Kim's ill-fated marriage to basketball playing Kris Humphries. The poems are typically short, twelve are under five lines and the majority are under ten lines, they produce an effect that is, according to the bafflingly pretentious blurb, 'as refractive as it is reflective' (!). Essentially what the reader witnesses in Kim Kardashian's Marriage is not the development of style but the refinement of style. Sam Riviere's writing is already highly distinctive, its hallmarks are well displayed in 'Nobody Famous' from his previous collection:

   This is me eating not 1 not 2 but 3 pancakes
   this is me having Breakfast in America in paris
   with my creepy associates
   this is me punching a photographer

Flatly descriptive, sardonic, depraved and unpuncated. Nothing in Kim Kardashian's Marriage attempts to alter this formula, no new ground is broken, the poems are observations and elucidations of what could be seen as 'the nature of contemporary reality shifting away from you', which is how Seamus Heaney viewed John Ashberry. Ashberry, along with Frank O'Hara, remains a key influence. This is Ashberry's 'My philosophy of life':

   It's fine, in summer, to visit the seashore.
   There are lots of little trips to be made.
   A grove of fledgling aspens welcomes the traveller

There is something very similar in the way Riviere articulates the everyday in abstract terms. Here is Sam Riviere in 'the new pool':

   Summer is here. The glorious season
   of the year when most of us
   take life a little less seriously

Sam Riviere is always described, and often praised, in terms of his modernity. However it is not just the subject matter (celebrity culture, internet chat rooms, pornography) that make him a modern poet. It is not just that his poetry began on a blog. Its the way his writing style mimics the modern. 'Beautiful Sunglasses' reads like a junk email:

   I am keen in my profession so always
   want to look best and presentable

          looking for cheap we supply cheap

Other poems feel like the words scrolled out from the glass face of the internet and scrambled themselves loosely onto the page as poems (according to an article I read that is pretty much his writing process - collaging google searches). Poetry, as an art-form, is typically quite backward looking, therefore to be considered a modern poet it doesn't take much more than reflecting (or refracting!) the contemporary world, the art of being modern is the art of looking sideways. The main achievement of Sam Riviere is that he has found a modern way to mirror the modern. His buzz word, meme and LOL ready texts are the perfect encapsulation the culture they describe, or perhaps despair of. However, though this style has won him a considerable number of fans, the limitations of this trick are going to become more and more apparent as the trick gets repeated. In short: this could get repetitive. What seems hypnotically new and spellbinding in an award winning first collection may still shine on in a second collection, but the same novelty will be long lost ten collections deep. If Sam Riviere is going to continue to be held in such high esteem he will need to line his sleeves with a few more tricks. Perhaps he may have to surrender some of his instantly recognisable style to develop in other directions. Perhaps he should to map out new subject matter, either way, that shiny refractive and reflective effect he produces is not going to sparkle forever.

Disappointingly, for fans of reality TV, neither Kim Kardashian or her much vaunted assets are present in the poetry. Instead her name hovers over the collection as a kind of figurehead of the malaise. For better or worse Kim Kardashian's fame defines a generation, the section names (primer, contour, highlight etc) are culled from her make-up regime and the collection opens with an ironic Kim Kardashian original: 'I want that forever love'. Forever, as Kim found out in her second marriage, does not always mean forever, the contemporary is fleeting. Kim now has a new husband, a child and a famously extravagant third wedding. But even if Sam Riviere's durability as a poet is questionable, it is much harder to question his skill. Here's the poem 'spooky pool' in its entirety:

   This peeling faćade was once the grand entrance
   to a long gone attraction in what is now a slightly
   beautiful light at the end of the day, Saturday.
   The light will be dimmed for atmosphere swims

The poem contains two key internal rhymes, in the third line day picks up the day in Saturday and in the fourth line dimmed resonates with the final word swims. The rhymes add a sweetness to the poem, a sweetness that is matched by its contents: the crepescular charm of an abandoned swimming pool, the light lowering for 'atmosphere swims' which might be a spooky swimming session or literally the mesmeric front-crawl of the atmosphere itself.

Sam Riviere is as gifted a poet as his trophy cabinet and number of admirers would suggest, he is the prince of the web 2.0 poets. No other writer has managed to capture the vomiting pixels of cyber   society with such deft and delicate irony. No other writer is better suited to a marriage with the plastic and fantastic world of Kim Kardashian. I'm glad Sam Riviere stole my idea, he is an original and innovative 21st century poet, but what he needs to do now is re-invent his inventions. Just as web 2.0 will be superseded by web 3.0, his version of poetry 2.0 will one day grow stale. Perhaps he could ask his muse Kim for an idea, I'm sure a highly creative mind lurks behind those dark eyes and fake eyelashes.

      © Charlie Baylis 2015