On Sasha Dugdale’s ‘Welfare Handbook’

Eric-Gill-The-Sculpturea

A few days ago, a sequence of poems entitled ‘Welfare Handbook’ by Sasha Dugdale appeared in Mal, the online journal of sexuality and erotics. Its subject matter is difficult: the artist Eric Gill, a culturally significant figure who created many celebrated works and developed the Gill Sans typeface, but also a sexual predator who among other things abused his daughters (I won’t discuss his art and crimes here, they can all be found elsewhere online). Dugdale recognises the difficulty of tackling Gill but she has faced it down to produce a remarkable and, I think, important work which highlights some of the ways in which poetry can respond in measured and careful, but no less fierce – and proud – tones to subject matter that could all-too-easily be washed over with angry denunciations or indignant defences.
I would recommend reading the sequence carefully multiple times before continuing.
Dugdale is of course a translator, and she book-ends the sequence with quotes translated from languages other than English, the last lines being from Valerie Meyer Caso: “English is a language of water / and good for recording disaster”. And she tells us in the introduction that “The voice in the sequence is not Gill’s – it is the voice of water”. So, English as water is at the heart of the sequence: useful, dangerous, dominating, all-pervasive; water, with all its many and varied symbolic and practical qualities, but water as language, which not only flows through us but creates us. And this is the level from which the poet is working, from the level of creation; she is, in fact, re-creating the subject matter, translating it, even reclaiming it.
Reclaiming it for whom? Well, it seems to me that by getting into Gill’s very creative fibres, quoting snippets (phrases, individual words) from his diary, and surrounding his voice with her own (because the voice may be water, but the water is also the poet), Dugdale has carried out a profoundly feminist act – she has created an artwork-response which turns a male abuser’s artwork back on itself – this becomes clearer in a soon-to-be-published poem the poet shared with me (more on this in a moment) which graphically, hilariously and powerfully reimagines the Homeric scene of Nausicaa meeting Odysseus – a Gill frieze of which adorns the lobby of the Midland Hotel in Morecambe. The point is that this is a female work which, by taking us inside the Gill community at a creative level, both challenges the male gaze of the artist (his nude images of women famously have them looking down and away from the viewer, submissive even) and takes on the notion that abusers-who-create (or their defenders) can in some sense hide behind the art, justifying their abuse with ideas of ‘free-spiritedness’ and ‘Bohemianism’.
And this is an angry sequence. Dugdale’s rage comes across in the first poem, which establishes both Gill’s sexism and his religious hypocrisy, but at the same time sets out the poet’s aim for the sequence:

When I write about this, shall I bang my fist
on the pound of paper to puncture it
or shall I gradually entrap my subject
with words written in mucous…

But it is an anger which Dugdale has taken as a tool for her craft, it is the very antithesis of the flailing, wild, formless anger found on city streets and social media in 2019, anger given a voice (one ‘good for recording disaster’) – and I think this is where the sequence’s real importance lies, especially in these times when there are so many reasons to be angry.
I mentioned earlier the Homeric (as-yet-unpublished) poem the poet shared with me. This was during a brief exchange of emails in preparation for this blogpost, in which Dugdale was kind enough to share some thoughts on where the sequence came from and what it means to her. I asked her what had drawn her to write about Gill and she mentioned the strong, visceral reaction she had had when visiting the Ditchling museum during an exhibition in 2017 which dealt with Gill as an abuser: “There are truths we intellectually know but a moment can arise when we feel that truth as a physical sensation, and the Ditchling Museum’s exhibition on Gill’s art and his abuse was that moment.” It is this ‘physical sensation’, but controlled, targeted, that comes through so strongly in this sequence.
Another strategy Dugdale uses is that of allowing multiple texts to talk to, and through, each other. She tinkers with Odysseus and Nausicaa in the Homeric poem, and in ‘Welfare Handbook’ she reworks Catullus in a similar way though to different effect. By corrupting the beautiful ‘Catullus 7’, and answering Lesbia’s question about how many kisses would be enough not with “as many as there are grains of sand on the beach” or “as many as there are stars in the sky” but with “as many stinking binbags as there are grains of sand on the shore…perhaps a private beach now (or)…as many cotton buds as there are stars in the sky to behold the illicit fumblings of men in railway carriages”, Dugdale draws attention to the artist’s betrayal of his muse, evoking a kind of spoiling, a degrading of art, but at the same time suggesting that the dominating and controlling male gaze has been there since Roman times (and before). ‘Welfare Handbook’ also plays with TS Eliot’s Wasteland, repudiating the association of the wasteland image with either ‘mental breakdown’ or ‘infertility’ (“Just picture the deserts / of Mexico, blooming with cactuses like prosthetic limbs.”). I don’t know if Gill knew Eliot, but he certainly knew and was admired by the poet David Jones, who in turn knew and was admired by Eliot, so perhaps that’s the connection. There could be reference here to both Gill’s breakdown and also Eliot’s first wife Vivienne’s mental health problems, but over-layering that is the notion that the wasteland image is a male construct imposed on women, to make them fear infertility, independence, and perhaps post-menopausal existence entirely:

A wasteland is what we have been taught to fear,
unhusbanded, without the city walls, infertile

And here, clearly I think, the voice is that of women – or perhaps ‘Woman’. Here also the female ‘water’ of language clashes with the male imposition of ‘dryness/barrenness’, and so a fuller significance attaches to Dugdale’s use of language-as-water trope – a female symbolism being used to flood and cleanse the world (her world, the world of Gill’s daughters) of masculine domination and debasement.
I for one hope that this sequence expands, even to book length. I hear in the language a natural evolution from her collection Joy, and particularly in the ‘Joy’ sequence itself, which does not contain the same anger but also fashions, extracts perhaps, a female presence from an overly dominant male one.
I will finish by mentioning something which struck me about the poem which cannot be ignored and which Dugdale told me was “probably the hardest poem to write because it refers to more recent sexual crimes against children”. It is towards the centre of the sequence and it begins:

sex with children upsets us
more than it used to. As my friend’s mother
once pointed out: stay away from him
you know what he’s like. They’re manipulative
said the policeman, they often ingratiate themselves
with the parents

There is something shockingly blunt about the phrasing of that first line, statement of fact that it is; to see not ‘abuse’ or ‘rape’ or ‘paedophilia’ but ‘sex with children’ knocks the reader off-kilter I would suggest. We sit up. We absorb the bluntness. We wonder whether the rest of the poem will increase our sense shock – and perhaps hope that it will. We try to decide how we feel about the shock: Will it become outrage? Will we call for the poem to be pulled from the website? We may not yet have read the later poem ‘Sexual Antinomianism’ with its evocation of “St Euph, patron saint of euphemism” but on a second reading we might wonder whether those words (abuser etc.) which we think still shocking are themselves becoming euphemistic, and then return to the line, thinking: sex with children? Really? Those words together? And perhaps we also aim some anger at our parents and grandparents – yes, you ignored it, you glossed it over. But do we do any better (Jimmy Saville)? And finally, we are faced, worst of all, with the old fear and knowledge that if it happened then, it’s likely to be happening now.
Later in the poem the victims are described, achingly, wrenchingly, as “those lonely exquisite pickings” and “the anxious child who fears not pleasing”; but the poem ends acknowledging the strength inherent in developing coping strategies, in learning that pleasure

is a structure like a tent, erected on sand
pack it up take it with you
it will never catch you unawares.

As I said at the beginning, it’s a difficult topic. And this is a difficult poem. Difficult to read, difficult to write about. And undoubtedly it was difficult to write. But now it is with us, and perhaps by being with us, it can help.

The Prose Poem and Radical Ambiguity

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The Penguin Book of the Prose Poem, edited by The Sunday Times poetry critic and Senior Lecturer at UAE Jeremy Noel-Tod, has already been reviewed several times, both positively and negatively, and I’m not going to add to them here; but I would like to pick up a few points made in those reviews – particularly the negative ones – which I find interesting for various reasons relating to my own attempts to grapple with the prose poem as a form.
Kate Kellaway in The Guardian, while her adjective choices are sometimes a little breathless (“stupendous”, ”exhilarating”), makes some good points and she notes correctly that “the prose poem has always been a liberating space”, a nice phrase that sums up the general feeling of Noel-Tod’s introduction. The Telegraph and The Times reviews are behind paywalls, but they must also be positive as they awarded the anthology five and four stars respectively.
Such reviews are, in the opinion of that combative and grizzled Old-Schooler Craig Raine, “abject” and “docile” due to Noel-Tod’s “intimidating” introduction. He has a great time tearing it to pieces in his magazine Areté. Now. As much as I enjoy Raine’s habit of stalking the world of contemporary literature like the Phantom Raspberry Blower of Old London Town, his aim here is way off. It is motivated surely by bad blood (Noel-Tod is his former deputy editor at Areté and his former student at Oxford) rather than any real failing in the introduction, which is, for the general reader, very informative and accessible. Raine’s ostensible beef is, I think, that Noel-Tod writes too vaguely, using rhetorical flourishes and overly extensive end notes in order to hide his fuzzy thinking on prose poems. Even by Raine’s exacting professorial standards, he is being too harsh. This is “not an argument” he says derisively, but no ‘argument’ is intended: the introduction is meant to provide perspectives on a literary form that is more-than-averagely difficult to pin down; Noel-Tod is assembling a range of thoughts from people likely to be interesting and instructive, not developing a thesis. It is true that his own definition (“a prose poem is a poem without line breaks”) is a bit too minimalist to be much help, and that expressions like “….wayward relationship to its own form…” go the other way and ask the reader to make too great a leap from signifier to signified, but given that he is discussing a form “with an oxymoron for a name (Michael Riffaterre)”, the strategy of providing a spectrum of attempts to express its ‘whatness’ is as good an approach as any. And he compliments this with some features that are common to many prose poems (such as expansiveness, a tendency towards the imagistic, and towards metonym over metaphor), also supplying thoughts from various writers and critics on the two forms separately, poetry and prose, which fuse in this simultaneously too-difficult and too-easy hybrid. Again, this is a good strategy, which, although it didn’t leave me with a solid understanding of some pocket-sized definition, did provide enough different perspectives to allow me a ‘feeling’ for what a prose poem ‘might’ be, i.e. an expansive, loose, imagey, notey, cage-bar-bendy, echoey, metonym-y kind of thing. And I think that is about as much as I can hope for. Really, I don’t think prose poems want to be defined – they are radically ambiguous.
It is this sense of having to accept the form’s essential non-definability which I think lies at the heart of Jason Guriel’s complaint in his review in The Walrus. Guriel is a poet, and as far as I can tell not a bad one, who takes a reserved approach to what a poem ‘should’ be and so finds himself uncomfortable with the prose poem’s radical ambiguity. His tone is less splenetic than Raine’s, though he still sounds rather irritated. He does, however, raise the one point I struggle most with in connection to prose poems – that is, how are we supposed to know a good one from a bad one if the rules which govern what it is are so loose? To an extent this is a question that goes for a lot of contemporary poetry that doesn’t follow traditional forms, and critics often use that equally indefinable reason for their criticisms, that “it doesn’t work on its own terms”. The prose poem must present a double headache for such critics because it doesn’t even provide any terms on which it may or may not work. Guriel plays a sly trick halfway through his review, inventing a prose poem and adding it to a list of genuine ones in order to illustrate how craft-less their cod profundity really is. I have to admit that I was caught out here, and I felt (as Guriel no doubt hoped his readers would) slightly ashamed and ‘copped’ at not having been able to distinguish the genuine from the forged. Of course, with hindsight I can go back and backfill all sorts of reasons for being duped; and re-reading it I can see how he has used Noel-Tod’s introduction to write a sort of prose-poem-by-numbers.
Here is Guriel’s prose poem in full:

A text, resting on a table, having been turned to a page of illustrated finches years before. (The page was torn out years before.) And beside it, the tumbler of water. And beside themselves, the finches. And where the page was torn, an edge. An absence. A muted singing.

If nothing else, we could perhaps say that it is an expansive, loose, imagey, notey, cage-bar-bendy, echoey, metonym-y kind of thing. And you know what? I still quite like it, the way I might like a painting I know is actually crap but which gives me a pleasant feeling to look at, and so I keep it on my wall almost as two fingers up to the world. I think a lot of poems are ‘good’ in this sense – and of course there are those who are concerned that this is part of the ‘dumbing down of poetry’, and perhaps the recent increase in collections of prose poems, or including them, is seen as part of this trend.
But it is worth going back to the Noel-Tod anthology to see what the genuine prose poems have got that the fake one hasn’t. Here is The God of War (1949) by Berthold Brecht (trans. Thomas Kuhn), another poem that would fit my silly non-definition above:

I saw the old god of war standing on a stump, one side an abyss, on the other a cliff wall.

He smelled of free beer and carbolic and he showed off his gonads to the teenagers, the while some professors had rejuvenated him.

In his hoarse wolf’s voice he declared his love for all that is young. And there was a pregnant woman standing by, and she shivered.

And he continued without shame, presenting himself as a great champion of order. And he described how he created order in the barns, by emptying them.

As a man may scatter crumbs for the sparrows, so he fed poor people with crusts of bread he had taken from poor people. His voice was sometimes loud, sometimes quiet, but always hoarse.

In a loud voice he spoke of the great times to come, and in a quiet voice he taught the women how to boil crows and seagulls.

All the while he was uneasy in himself, and he looked over his shoulder time and again as if in fear of a stab in the back.

And every five minutes he assured his public that he was minded to make his entrance brief.

This is a poem that I don’t just want to look at but to touch, climb onto, open up, root around, delve into, investigate. Even though it is in translation (perhaps because it is in translation) there is something in the word choices, the images, the surprises, the repetitions, the themes that pulls me in, demands not only that I read and speak it but that I speak and write about it. Something, well, indefinable. And I can only express what I want to express about how the poem affects me through the metaphors of the previous sentence – how fuzzy is that? There is nothing in the Guriel fake that makes me feel anything like I feel when reading the Brecht. I used to mock Christians (when I did such things, git that I was, back in my Dawkins days) for their use of metaphor: “Well, of course you’d say God is Light because there is Light whereas there is no God”. But now I see that some things just do not trade in clear definitions – they need metaphor and analogy because they are made of something that conventional clarity cannot capture. And that’s okay. After all, a simple biological definition of ‘The Human’ would miss an awful lot of fuzziness around the question of what a human really is. If we were looking for a literary form to fit the contradictions and contrariness of the human character, perhaps we would choose one “with an oxymoron for a name”.
What Noel-Tod’s anthology has helped me understand is that knowing what a prose poem, or any poem for that matter, is is not the point, the point is what it does. I know a good prose poem when I read it because of the way it makes me feel, what hidden truth about the world it points me towards, what it makes me want to do after reading it, where it takes my imagination; and you can call it what you want. Some poetic forms afford us the comfort of a clear definition and Audenesque memorability, while others don’t. Equally, some readers require such clarity, along with the security of being able to say ‘I know this is good because it fulfils criteria A, B and C, which are all good things, and it bends criterion D, which is clever’. While others don’t.

You can buy The Penguin Book of the Prose Poem here.

In Praise of the Poetry Sloth

poetry sloth

The sloth, that most beautiful and temptingly anthropomorphic of animals, has for too long been used unfairly as a metaphor for idleness (unfairly metaphormosed, perhaps – ho, ho). It’s time, in my view, to celebrate a creature which should represent not laziness, listlessness, and inertia but careful and, yes, slow – but fully alert and thoughtful – movement through the branched entanglements of modern life.
It is almost a truism that we should all slow down and bit in the face of early twenty-first century existence, whose pacemaker is no longer the movement of the sun or even the tick of the clock but the constant and frenzied whirl of social media, powered by ‘likes’, those ultra-addictive ‘bright dings of pseudo-pleasure’, as Justin Rosenstein, their Facebook inventor, called them. Of course, we all need to step back and recalibrate. But if there is one activity in life where we should really, really slow down, surely it is as readers. This goes for reading any text but I’m principally thinking about reading words, i.e. literary texts. On Twitter at the end of last year (and this is presumably not the first year this has happened but the first I’ve noticed) was the peculiar sight of people advertising to the world the number of books they had read that year (and the numbers tended to be unattainably high by most people’s standards 100, 150, 200…and higher), the subtext of course being: the higher the number, the more literary/intelligent/skilled etc. the reader. Frankly, I would have preferred to see someone bragging about having read only one book in a year, having spent a day on each page, considering it, weighing up its effect and the techniques and strategies used by the writer. I think I would have tapped the ‘like-heart’ on that tweet. That show-off would have won my respect as a Literature Sloth – because there are not enough of them around.
Marcel Proust began writing A La Recherche Du Temps Perdu in 1909 and it was, famously, still unfinished at his death thirteen years later in 1922. This massive tome is not only the masterpiece of 20th century literature, it is (more importantly today perhaps) the Anti-Tweet. I began reading it, by a coincidence that I’ve only just realized as I write this, exactly 100 years after Proust began writing it, in 2009. I’ve still not finished it in 2019 so I guess I have three years left if I want to complete it in less time than it took the great man to write it; but I must admit I don’t, particularly. I like my slow approach. I pick it up, read a few pages, put it down, think about it, read other things, forget about it for a bit, pick it up again two weeks later, read a few pages, put it down again, etc. Over the last ten years it has become an important part of my life, which I really don’t want to lose, and so I’m happy to keep plodding through it (I’m about a third of the way through The Prisoner, the fifth of its seven volumes) and if I happen to die before I finish, well, that’s okay. This is, I suppose, a humblebrag as I’m advertising the fact that I’m reading Proust, even if I’m doing so slowly. It’s also a little disingenuous because it’s not like I’ve got much choice, I’m a slow reader by nature – I’ve never been able to read quickly and never taken the time to learn (the speed-reading book by Tony Buzan that I got in my teens sits on my shelf now as it has for thirty years). But I use myself as an example of the Literature Sloth because I think I’m getting something from Proust that those who dash though him in, say, six months, miss. I’ve had time to get to know intimately Marcel, his family, his girlfriends, his social acquaintances etc. And I’ve had time to forget parts of the earlier books, books which I read nine or ten years ago during a part of my own life which was very different to my life now – so Remembrance of Marcel’s Things Past becomes indivisible from remembrance of my own life.
In some ways, prose asks for a quick reading, narrative whisking readers along the way it does, sucking them into its ever-present event-horizon; our eyes slipping easily along the slick rail of the written line. Long novels especially tempt us to rattle through them, skipping words and sentences – subordinating stasis (looking un-movingly at a single word or even letter) to the ever-unattainable light-speed flash of meaning-consumption, story arc, and the need for conclusion. From one side of the page to the other, over and over, the actual words disappear, and they are replaced with a different world, the world of narrative – or at least a world built through narrative. This is all no doubt fairly 1.01 Prose Theory stuff and I mention it only to contrast it with poetry, which tends towards the static rather than the dynamic, prioritising word-choice over the sentence flow, and exposing individual letters amongst words. Narrative is there sometimes of course but even then, when compared with prose, the number of words involved is so much lower (how much longer would even the Iliad have been if it had been written – all of it, without edits – in prose?) that the relative value of each individual word is much higher. To one degree or another, poetry tinkers on the periphery of stasis. It is not a chaotic city, but a complex jungle. And this is the realm of the Poetry Sloth, because any reader who rushes through a poem at prose-speed will see at best the distorting perspectives from a train rushing through the countryside, and at worst little more than a blur. The eye must slow down, so that the brain can engage poetically rather than prose-ishly.
To continue my sloth re-metaphormosis (because I’m enjoying it) the Poetry Sloth is a sub-species of the Literature Sloth, but even slower, even more careful, and even more discerning of every leaf of language it chews on. Literature as commerce – i.e. the industry – wants us all to be Poetry Dogs dashing around the forest floor sniffing madly and gobbling down whatever we find before moving on to the next morsel; and social media brings out the dog in all of us. But up in the trees I think everyone will find, if they look, the peaceful face of a Poetry Sloth considering in careful slow-motion every mouthful it chomps and gazing sagely at a single piece of tree.
Hurray for the Poetry Sloth!

The Idea of John Bercow at Key West (poem)

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The Idea of John Bercow at Key West

(After Wallace Stevens)

Translated there from a blustering sea
Where the waves rise into anger and fall
Into panic, a tidal morass
Of lunged air and green-leather bladderwrack,
Where fear is the lady and hate is her song.
The dolphin, the leatherback, both are gone.
There from the sandbanks of oak-panelled noise,
A referendum’s unpleasant surprise,
To the sighs the unmetaphorical
Ocean denies, through me. There he goes.

Off he pops. And just above the tropics,
God-like-zilla, barnacled, he rises.
The man who wrestles order from ordure
Stands tall above this southern pin of light,
Presses his feet through the roofs of houses,
An Englishman doing what Englishmen do.
Squat. Not here. Sandcastles all along the beach.
Oh dear John. Or dare, John, or-dur, or DUH.
Squash. Squash. The sandcastles fall one by one
As an old-man/child lopes along a stretch.

It’s not you, John, but something in your skin.
I’m in here too, man. We’re both ghosts as our sun
Completes its epic fail, we walk conjoined
Between the rusty links of driftwood in
The darkness of this frankless, guilt-charged vale.
The very idea, sir. A very idea.
A very sky. A very song. A sea.
Key West is translated into Hong Kong.

The makers are changing, look north, look south,
Where the body’s physiognomies
Refuse to stay tied down, our heavenly bodies,
Political; see what the satellite
Strains to see through clouds of diffusing light,
The DNA, twisting, theoretical,
Of history dividing, subdividing
Those points X and Y into eternity.

I’ve not said what I meant to say.
There is no he or she or sea but hate and fear.

Oh! Pale John Bercow, tell me, if you know,
Is every moment such a bow in time
Where all the tight material of now
Loops into past and future crimes
And contains the means to let them go?

The Zero-Sum Game That Isn’t

A strange and sad essay was published in the American online journal Utne Reader this summer by the poet Bob Hicock (The Promise of American Poetry). Strange, sad and actually quite annoying.
In the essay, Hicock, a successful white male poet with nine collections behind him, waxes mournful at the apparent tailing-off of his career in recent years (a phenomenon he aligns with the growing number of non-white-male poets getting published and scooping up awards) while at the same time cogitating on the necessity of old white guys like him being sacrificed at the altar of multiculturalism. It’s a thoughtful essay, don’t get me wrong, and genuinely felt; but there is rather too much of the Noble Captain Oates about it. A sense of the “It is a far, far better thing I do”…
The poet has already taken something of a roasting on Twitter, and Timothy Yu has responded comprehensively in The New Republic (The Case of the “Disappearing” Poet) so I don’t want to blog about the essay just to pile in, but Hicock’s response to a perceived taking-over of a cultural space that he has become used to occupying by some ‘other’ group is worth pausing over; especially as the issues relate equally to the UK poetry scene.
The problem, if it is a problem, is not that more people of colour are writing poetry but that more people in general are writing poetry, it’s a more popular genre than ever before. But as Yu points out, the audience for poetry is growing too and this is borne out in poetry book sales, competitions, festivals etc. There is evidence that this growing world of poetry is more diverse than many older poets are used to, but the world is more diverse than they are used to so why would poetry not reflect this? To an extent one can understand the reactionary right-wing pushing back against this change in demographics (they would not be right-wing reactionaries if they did not react this way), but heartfelt expressions of personal loss from the liberal, progressive side are almost more difficult to stomach.
The best metaphor I can think of is of a spoilt child who has been told he has to share his toy. 
It brings to mind the recent complaint from a male British writer about a poem by Kim Moore, which I blogged about here. He complained that her ‘objectification’ of men represented a school of thought which ultimately wanted to eradicate men from existence entirely. This is the child’ s tantrum. Hicock’s reaction, the plea for understanding of what is framed as a quite reasonable sadness, equates to the child’s glum sulk, or perhaps their quivering-lipped acquiescence.
These are men who are culturally privileged – and have been for their whole lives – and they see that privilege being taken from them. The reader would be forgiven for feeling that a more dignified response would be simple silence. But let’s face it, in the literary world we all want to say something because if we’re not saying anything, we’re nothing – literally.
Part of this might be that every poet secretly thinks and hopes they will be the one to be remembered by generations to come, theirs is the poetry that will last forever and enter the Canon (whatever that is). To this extent, poetry is (to contradict a phrase I keep reading) a Zero-Sum game. Only a tiny fraction of all the poetry published in the last fifty years will remain in print and on undergraduate reading lists in another fifty. Even most Poet Laureate work is likely to be forgotten other than by a tiny number of academics (who reads Alfred Austin or Robert Bridges these days?) especially as it is no longer a life position. So the more poets there are out there, the lower the chance that any one will be one of those few who stay in print. And as other younger poets become popular and the realisation sets in that ‘actually perhaps I was just another poet’ there is bound to be some sense of loss.
The question is whether Hicock would have felt the same intensity of loss if the younger poets he saw coming through and displacing him were white. Possibly he would; but what is interesting is that he links his perceived loss of status not with younger poets per se but specifically with those poets of colour who are among the new generation. This is where a residual racism lurks, behind the conscious mind, a place where progressives are as defenseless as reactionaries until they notice and self-correct.
But, in my view, the culprit here is not only the racisms hidden in patriarchy, it is also an increase in poetry being thought of as a form of entertainment, the success of which is measured in book sales, festival invitations, public readings, competition wins etc. (intelligent, consciousness-altering entertainment maybe, but entertainment nonetheless) This is a winner-loser mentality which, again, is a Zero-Sum game. If you win, I don’t. If publisher X publishes 25 poetry books each year, then the other 500 poets who have submitted collections lose out. 
But these are not the only criteria for successful poetry, or even the best. What about that one poem which said exactly what you wanted it to say, even if no one else ever read it? What about the poem on your website about which a single person wrote to you and said ‘thank you, that helped me out at a difficult time’? What about that one piece of positive feedback from a person whose poetry opinion means more to you than anyone else’s? What about the poem you wrote or read which changed the way you look at the world or helped you understand another perspective on an issue? These amateur, small scale measures of success will never hit The Bookseller’s statistics but they are surely the most meaningful measures in this shared cultural space we call Poetry?
Amateur painters the world over don’t expect to see their work hanging in national galleries so why should every poet expect to be published or to win a competition? Beyond the warm glow of validation, what does that kind of success mean? Of course it sometimes means money to those who need it, but poetry is not yet the go-to genre for those who prioritise wealth over art…poetry and careerism is perhaps best left for another blog.
As an unpublished poet, I will not take this point further or I’ll end up sounding bitter (of course I’m still sending poems and manuscripts off to publishers! I crave validation as much as the next person).
But here’s a thought to take away: Poetry is not a Zero-Sum game, but the Poetry Industry is. Perhaps if poets like Bob Hicock thought more about the former and less about the latter, they would not feel so upset, and be less likely unwittingly to reveal those hidden racisms which would be better off analysed in their poetry than blindly bumped into in a public essay.

The Silence of Sound (review: Deaf Republic)

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Deaf Republic (Faber & Faber)

by Ilya Kaminsky

It almost seems from the plethora of online and mainstream media reviews, and the extensive Big Gun quotations on the front and back dustcovers of Deaf Republic, that there are very few people left who have not heaped praise on Ilya Kaminsky’s second full collection. So, is another review really necessary? A book can be over-reviewed after all. A great deal has been written, much of it is very insightful, and Kaminsky’s book is as good as his yay-sayers claim; but even after all the clamour and commentary, I feel there are a few things which have, surprisingly, been left out of the conversation so far.
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The first is that for all its originality and power, Deaf Republic is not the only recent book to have looked through the prism of poetry at the cruelty and oppression that comes with the arrival of an authoritarian, militaristic regime. The rather under-reviewed The Illegal Age by Ellen Hinsey provides a different, less narrative-driven, and in some ways more devastatingly intimate evocation, which puts totalitarianism itself under the microscope, breaking down the lyric almost entirely, rather than commandeering it as Kaminsky does. Both approaches work, and together they could be seen as key political/poetical texts of our time; but they should be read in tandem, and why Hinsey’s work has not attracted more attention mystifies me (although her social media invisibility as compared to Kaminsky’s enthusiastic embrace of Twitter could be one explanation, and his startlingly charismatic public readings could be another).
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Secondly, the name that leapt into my mind as I read Deaf Republic, but which appeared in none of the reviews I have read is that of Bertolt Brecht, whose non-Aristotelian drama surely provides the framework within which Deaf Republic’s aesthetic develops. The work fits a Brechtian reading in several ways. The action pushes forward in ‘scenes’ with the narrative drive of theatre and it includes two acts and a dramatis personae, and yet each scene is a discrete poem which also stands effectively on its own, resisting the flow of traditional drama as Brecht’s drama does. The opening line of Act One, “Our country is the stage”, is both Shakespearean and Brechtian, as is the play-within-a-play technique hinted at by the puppet theatre and the frequent puppet-related references to characters – in both cases the reality of history and society subordinate any ideas of ‘entertainment’. Both the use of a fake Ukrainian town and the bookending of the narrative with a prologue and epilogue are strategies that work to alienate the reader, distancing them from the emotion inevitable in the contemporary America of the final poem, which juxtaposes a cop shooting a man through his open car window with the President’s wife clipping her toenails. Is this not something close to the Verfremdungseffekt? The lack of back story (who actually are Alfonso and Sonya?) and resolution (what becomes of Anushka?) also serve to create a distant and universal “folk-drama that feels archetypal” as Andrew Motion’s front-of-book blurb has it. And, without wishing to (further) labour the point, the lyricism of the poetry, or certain heightened moments of it, could also be seen as analogous to Brechtian songs, not used so much to entertain as to underline, to jolt and to ‘teach’. It would only take a small leap to imagine these lines from the end of Act One being sung to the music of Kurt Weil:

“Such is the story made of stubbornness and a little air –
a story signed by those who danced wordless before God.
Who whirled and leapt. Giving voice to consonants that rise
with no protection but each other’s ears.
We are on our bellies in this quiet, Lord.”

But these lines invoke and address God, which Kaminsky does frequently, and which suggests, along with some wonderfully light-touch eroticism, a passion at work here which goes beyond the Brechtian/Marxist passion for social change. The tragic lovers and even Alfonso’s incongruously Hispanic name suggest that perhaps someone like Federico Garcia Lorca may be another influential poet-dramatist. And there will be others as well, unknown to me, but to be clear: none of this detracts from the originality of a tone which is, in the end, Kaminskian.
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Third, there has been a lot written about the what of Deaf Republic and a fair amount about the why, but relatively little about the how, not on the level of how specific language attains its effect, anyway. Raymond Antrobus has written rightly in The Telegraph about how the varyingly-lengthed lines buzz along the white of the page like the course of a bullet or a piece of spit, but most commentators have focused on his overall lyricism, the breadth of his imagination and his metaphors rather than the technical effects of Kaminsky’s language choices. Reviews are generally not long enough to have space for such specifics, but this is my blog, I have as long as I want, and I feel compelled to make an observation:
The short, simple (i.e. single-clause) sentences linked with punctuation rather than conjunctions (which are rare so that when they do occur the reader sits up – “On earth / a man cannot flip a finger at the sky / because each man is already / a finger flipped at the sky” – combine with generally uncontracted verbs and negatives (see above ‘cannot’ rather than ‘can’t’, for example) to maintain a rhythm and register that can be read, certainly by western European and American readers, as Slavic, peasant-like (perhaps the simple structures encourage us to feel it has been translated from a more vernacular original?) and therefore redolent of Peter-and-the-Wolf-style folk tales (as per Motion’s comment). This in turn combines with frequent moments which utilize a dated register to punctuate particular, vivid imagery:

“Observe this moment
– how it convulses –
The body of a boy lies on the asphalt like a paperclip.
The body of a boy lies on the asphalt
like the body of a boy.”

The words “observe” and “how” (these lines can be read simultaneously as “look at the way this moment convulses” and “look at this moment, oh how it convulses!”) prepare the ground for this remarkable simile and its subsequent negation by raising the lines to a tone which gestures towards heightened nineteenth-century styles of literary expression (“Such is the story…” is another example). This style is consistent with the ‘universal parable’ nature of the story’s landscape, but one of Kaminsky’s great skills is to combine this use of language with references and word-choices that jolt us back out of the folk-world-feel into something that appears much closer and more real (“My people, you were really something fucking fine / on the morning of the first arrests”; “a helicopter eyeballs my wife”; “So much sunlight – / a t-shirt falls off a clothesline…”). In this way, Vasenka and its inhabitants become real/unreal, modern/historic, distant/up-close, and achieve an unusually plain and affecting power.
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Finally, reviews have noted glowingly Kaminsky’s extraordinary use of deafness/Deafness and silence as a means of evoking resistance and, as Dzifa Benson puts it in Poetry Review as “a will to power”. Benson’s use of the Nietzschean term is particularly interesting and although I’m not sure it’s quite right (even if power is taken to mean growth and self-overcoming), some further thought about what Kaminsky does with deafness/Deafness in Deaf Republic might be worthwhile because it is so central to the cumulative effect and originality of the book, and perhaps even to this poet’s particular claim to genius. Actually, Kaminsky does not ‘use’ deafness at all, he transforms it. And I think there are three levels to this transformation: 1) into a metaphor (deafness to authority as a form of resistance); 2) into an ability (to see past the ‘invention’ of silence); and 3) ultimately into a productive rather than receptive phenomenon. The first is complex and fascinating but already dealt with in existing reviews. The second is revelatory for hearing people as it turns a previously fixed notion into a relative one: just as those bodies with built-in air-vibration-reading machines create the idea of sound, so they must invent its opposite, or inversion, i.e. silence. To bodies which do not possess air-vibration-reading-machines there is no such thing as sound and therefore no such thing as silence. They are, then, able to perceive a world without the sound/silence duality, one where sight-signal and touch-signal are unfettered by such distractions and distortions as this duality can conjure. In Kaminsky, then, sound becomes silence before they both evaporate, leaving an altogether new landscape, a landscape represented at the end of the book where the final poem before the epilogue, unlisted in the contents page, consists entirely of sign-illustrations. The third level of transformation is part of the first two and yet more radical than both, the sum being greater than the parts as it were: by exploiting its metaphorical potential and energizing it positively as an ability as opposed to a disability, Kaminsky proposes deafness as a mechanism for output rather than a barrier to input. This, ultimately, is the central proposition from which much of the book’s power flows. The creative force of deafness issues forth from the story, its characters, and its aesthetic just as the globule of phlegm issues forth from Petya the deaf boy towards the sergeant in ‘Gunshot’. This is, as far as I know, a genuine departure from the way that deafness has been represented before, it is both empowering for the Deaf and awareness-altering for the Hearing. I might, therefore, tweak Benson’s “will to power” and suggest “will to empowerment”.

There is no doubt that Deaf Republic, along with The illegal Age, are the two recent collections which most effectively and intelligently provide the kind of insights into our increasingly charged political age that poetry is uniquely suited to offer.

You can buy Deaf Republic from Faber and Faber here.

You can buy The Illegal Age from Arc here.

The I that can be we (review: Skin Can Hold)

 

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Vahni Capildeo, Skin Can Hold (Carcanet)

Of all the contemporary poets writing in the UK today, Vahni Capildeo is the one who, with four or five books behind them, most gives the impression that they are only just getting started. Capildeo’s intelligence, learning, wit, anger, skill and insight appear to be, on the evidence so far, limitless; and it is a brave person who would hazard a guess as to what they will come up with next. Of course, it is not actually any of the above qualities that make Capildeo’s work stand out (they are adjectives that could be applied to any number of active poets), but it is the way those qualities are used – the purposes to which they are put.

When Geoffrey Hill died, Rowan Williams elegised him in the Guardian with these words: “He speaks from deep inside his language. The reader sees the ripple on the surface, puzzling, even apparently arbitrary; but not the fathoms-down movement on the seabed. To read with understanding, you have to join him down there, which is an arduous journey and often frustrating, but generates a sense of challenge and vital unsettlement.”

Capildeo’s poetry is not easy, and I would suggest that, as with Hill, their work provokes in the reader a “sense of challenge and vital unsettlement”, but Capildeo does not require us to dive to the dark seabed of language in search of understanding, as Williams had Hill doing, rather they bring it up into the joyful, harsh, sometimes blinding sunlight on the surface. Puzzling, maybe, but hardly arduous.

In some ways Skin Can Hold moves thematically away from the previous two Carcanet collections, Measures of Expatriation and Venus as a Bear, in as much as the constant questioning, testing, stretching and redefining of the ‘lyrical I’ largely shifts in focus from some of the strategies that have served the poet so well in the past (for example, using geographical dislocation as a metaphor for distancing inner from outer / mental from physical worlds, and some of the more Ovidian forms of metamorphosis to be found in, particularly, Venus as a Bear). Capildeo is clearly continuing their project of breaking down the I, but in this collection, we find more twisting together and opening-up of pre-existing texts (see the Muriel Spark sequence for the former and the Martin Carter section for the latter), as well as direct engagement with fellow contemporary poets (Mark Ford and Zaffar Kunial) and an ‘inviting-in’ of the reader (or audience) with several poems that include stage directions (e.g. ‘Four Ablutions’) or prose explanations as to the purpose of the poem (i.e. the syntax-ified Carter poem ‘I am No Soldier’).

The overall result is a feeling that this is a collection which Capildeo is holding out to the world, offering – as a teacher may offer to a student – a utensil that will help them participate and therefore understand: ‘Look’ they seem to say, ‘now it’s your turn!’ Perhaps it is increasing confidence that leads Capildeo to offer up their work this way, but I get the impression that this is the way things were always heading. The Carcanet volumes (the only Capildeo collections I am familiar with) all seem to be developing towards something which involves sharing a new way of looking through poetry (or looking, through poetry). We may not need to follow Capildeo to her ocean depths, but she would like us to take part in her language, to join her in the water so to speak – and perhaps the understanding is in the taking part. There is, however, no sense that this is the arriving at a destination, or the culmination of a previously incomplete sequence of work.

I think the continual development of forms and ideas, call it experimentation, is central to Capildeo’s work because it represents the poet’s vision of a fundamental ‘unfinishedness’ inherent in the human condition. (This is distinct from ‘incomplete’, as it is perfectly possible in Capildeo to be both complete and unfinished simultaneously). We see this directly in poems like ‘from The End of the Poem’, which is both complete in itself and an extract from another poem (and which contains the ultimate ‘unfinishable’ image, that “infinite tonguetwister” the self-devouring ouroboros), and we see it also in ‘Fragment of a Lost Epic from the Losing Side’ – which is in the most overtly political, final section of the book – in which both a city and an individual perch for eternity on the verge of destruction. Both these poems define themselves as just the visible element of a larger and more complex whole – complete in that they present as entire ‘units’ but unfinished in that what lies behind the visible remains impossibly always-to-be-arrived-at.

Language here is inseparable from the physical individual, and Capildeo makes chromosomal references several times, most overtly in the second section of ‘from The End of the Poem’: “The poem is Trinidadian, / is double x chromosomed, is one hundred and fifty cm, / is creatively crushing on a dead Scottish man / and imagines itself in medieval Italian / and is none of I, Lord have mercy, it is not what I am.” So, the reader would clearly be unwise to identify poem and poet as synonymous and yet the poet appears to run through the poem at an almost genetic level (I’ve written about linguistic DNA before, and find myself on an unfinished learning journey myself here too, as this link will show). But for Capildeo, individual identity, like gender and like race (which are of course inseparable from self) is fluid, creative, unfinished and ultimately not actually individual at all: Martin Carter’s I is described as “extensive, inclusive” and containing a sense of “the I that can be we” and this is also true of Capildeo’s own I (and all of ours) – this is both political (“I am this poem like a sacrifice” wrote Carter in ‘I am No Soldier’, whose poems Capildeo wishes to be “with and inside” through syntax poetry) and personal (“Do not SHE me” the poet puts it bluntly in ‘Shame’) In contrast with ‘she’ / ‘her’ the personal pronouns ‘they’ / ‘them’ are plural, inclusive and as such reflect the communality of a self-definition which seems to wrest the notion of ‘containing multitudes’ away from Whitman. Capildeo does not make any claims on ‘largeness’ but expands the I to celebrate all the unfinished, unfixed, and fluid plurality that the Skin Can Hold.

More than with any poet, I am aware of a ‘review’ format being inadequate to cover the myriad delights that Capildeo presents to the reader – and further aware that there will no doubt be many more delights I have missed because of my own lack of reading. My unfamiliarity with the work of Muriel Spark, for example, stunts my appreciation of one of the two central sections in the collection, ‘Sparks’, a knitting-together of various Spark stories with elements of Shakespeare, Webster, Marinetti and Two Knotty Boys (Google them if you need to. I did!) among others, but this does not prevent me from seeing the creativity of different ages being intertwined and thereby metamorphosed into something new and by extension, again, unfinished. And it also inspires me to seek out and read the work of Muriel Spark – which is not such a bad outcome – and then to return to these texts more fully-informed, perhaps to write a second review. So it may be that this review is itself unfinished.

I love Capildeo for their wit and rage, which often comes in one and the same expression (“Fuck that shit. Now that’s a poem”) but more than that for the complexities of life that they refuse to gloss over glibly, or ignore, as many do. This is poetry which is interested in looking for the truth with the only tool we have to do so, language. In other words, for me this is real – stop, slow down, read, think – poetry. And I make no apology for linking it as I did above to dead white male poet Geoffrey Hill in this regard.

I have had reason recently to quarrel somewhat bitterly on Facebook with a relative who is of the ‘science-tells-us-men-are-men-and-women-are-women-and-trans-women-are-men-who-pose-a-threat-to-actual-women’ school. I feel I argued the case-against successfully (although my relative would disagree) but how I wish I could find a way of having us sit with each other and for us to read Vahni Capildeo together, and to talk about the non-binary complexities of life and how art can help us see these complexities which science is only beginning to reveal in some cases, and to think about the multitudinous nature of selfhood and how language reflects that. I don’t think my relative would take the time required to do this though – they are filled at the moment with too much blind anger, panic and fear, those most contemporary of abstract nouns. But it seems to me that it is language as a defence against just those nouns which Capildeo holds out to us so generously in this collection.

Skin Can Hold is published by Carcanet, and is available here.