A Gelynion collaboration from Robert Sheppard and Alys Conran in Bangor, May 2015. The poem is published in the Spring issue of Poetry Wales.
Eurig Salisbury and Zoë Skoulding’s collaboration for Gelynion – Enemies Cymru. Published in the Spring 2016 issue of Poetry Wales.
Emily Blewitt and Rebecca Parfitt’s collaboration for Gelynion – Enemies Cymru. Published in our Spring 2016 Issue.
What do Pam Ayres, R.S. Thomas and Frances Leviston have in common? Not the set-up to a bad joke overheard at the T.S. Eliot Prize ceremony, but a question I pondered as I read ‘A Mug’s Game’ (subtitle: ‘The Modern Poetry Career’), the third chapter in Jeremy Noel-Tod’s invigorating pamphlet, The Whitsun Wedding Video, a zippy tour d’horizon of the contemporary British scene. All three are poets, of course, but beyond that I’d struggle to imagine three more starkly triangulated figures in the history of modern verse.
The more nuanced answer – and one that it took someone with Noel-Tod’s specialised antennae to detect – is that they all have a varyingly acquiescent relationship with commerce and self-promotion. Ayres sold out to a frozen food company, lending her ‘good-humoured doggerel to the animated story of a flying potato’; less willingly, one suspects, Thomas had his likeness filched by a posh crisp manufacturer after his death. At the far end of the spectrum, Leviston is called upon to provide evidence that a certain ‘dignity of intellectual independence is something that the uncommercial career of poetry still offers the serious-minded’. Turning down various invitations to take part in high-profile industry promotions, Leviston has stood her ground. In a recent article, cited by Noel-Tod, she argues ‘that one need not be appointed to one’s own life: that no sanctioning government, no official position, is required for the business of taking oneself seriously, in whatever sense seems right’.
This omnivorous, scattershot approach is both the joy and the frustration of The Whitsun Wedding Video. To start with frustration, I find the slide from Ayres to Leviston – which happens across two brief pages – clever, and funny, but glib. It elides two connected but separate matters: first, the barefaced shilling that poets might do for advertising companies (a moral crisis many more poets would love to face, I’m sure) and second, the more insidious culture of networking, commissions, prize circuits, promotions and mutual blurbing that undoubtedly compromises almost everyone in the British poetry mainstream these days. Only one of these types of artistic compromise has anything much to do with what Noel-Tod calls elsewhere – with mordant precision – ‘the etiquette of the modern poetry career’. It isn’t the type that may lead to a lifetime’s supply of potato-based convenience food.
Joking apart, I have genuine doubts about whether Noel-Tod’s own jokey style – moreish and enjoyable though it is – can do justice to the bigger arguments it attempts. In the Ayres-Thomas-Leviston example, he ends up crowding out the composure and challenge of Leviston’s words, ushering her too swiftly offstage with that condescending epithet ‘serious-minded’. This is strange because Noel-Tod comes at poetry from an avowedly modernist angle, skewering the bluff, matey parochialism of recent British verse – the popular sort, that is – in favour of ‘stronger, stranger drink’ like J.H. Prynne and Geoffrey Hill. He seems to be on Leviston’s side, in other words, though he clambers into the Trojan horse of witty, accessible table talk to make his point. ‘Rumours persist,’ he quips at one stage, discussing how the T.S. Eliot Prize has betrayed the modernist instincts of its benefactor and namesake, ‘that excellent poetry is being written by poets who are not venerable names rehearsing old themes’. The overall effect can read like Evelyn Waugh writing in defence of Samuel Beckett: an amiably sharp ironist standing up for more austere virtues, the mockery blowing a little in all directions.
If The Whitsun Wedding Video has an overarching argument, then it’s summed up in its opening anecdote. Quoting Philip Larkin’s story of how he almost had a car accident while an emotional reading of Wordsworth played on the radio, Noel-Tod adds:
If Larkin had careered into the hard shoulder trailing clouds of exhaust, British poetry today might look a little different. As it is, thirty years after his death from natural causes, he remains the post-war poetic monument to be – depending on your point of view – saluted on parade days or pulled down when the revolution comes.
This notion of Larkin as a shibboleth, dividing traditionalists from iconoclasts, holds more water than the vivid though fanciful counterfactual of his early death diverting the course of British poetry altogether. Was Larkin such a lonely exception that without him British poetry would have gone the way of wild, postmodern America? He might have liked to think so, but I can’t see it.
More persuasive than the Larkin thesis is Noel-Tod’s view that, generally speaking, the contemporary moment tends to favour poets that will fare less well in the halls of posterity – or, simply put, the popular romantics of today become the winsome fuddy-duddies of tomorrow. One of my favourite moments in the pamphlet arrives with a provocative comparison between Marianne Dashwood’s passion for William Cowper in Sense and Sensibility (a marker of passé or gauche taste even in Austen’s time) and our current mania for Seamus Heaney. ‘Like Cowper,’ Noel-Tod writes,
Heaney is a reflective, rural poet, moving easily between man and landscape, and finding a moral in humble objects evoked with a sumptuous accuracy of phrase…
It’s characteristic of Noel-Tod’s open-minded discrimination that he can do justice to Heaney’s talents even while relegating him to the second division. Doubtless, Larkin may well fall victim to a similar type of reputation fade, in time; maybe he already has done, with the likes of Frank O’Hara and Rosemary Tonks (Noel-Tod’s examples) emerging out of relative obscurity as the key ‘60s influences for switched-on contemporary poets.
But this would just be an instance of the wider phenomenon; Noel-Tod doesn’t quite convince me that Larkin’s example is especially definitive of the contemporary moment. Indeed, by citing Daljit Nagra’s recent ‘Domes of Britain’ and its reference to the speaker’s ‘Larkin train-brain’, he seems at once to undermine and confirm his final prediction that ‘in the century to come, migration and climate change will remake the little island-world that Larkin cast in verse’. Yes, that ‘little island-world’ is being remade, but contrary to what this wording implies, Larkin’s influence isn’t standing in the way of such change. Rather, his writing has so far proved remarkably fertile ground for reinterpretation, as Nagra’s subversive tribute demonstrates.
I quibble with Noel-Tod’s larger arguments because this is the sort of contentious yet generous book that invites one to. Clocking in at a mere 50-odd pages, The Whitsun Wedding Video is impressive for what it does manage to pack in, and it’s the brief, glancing insights that linger, not the rather provisional headline thesis. Apart from neo-Romantic reputation fade, we should be grateful to Noel-Tod for coining the idea of the Shy Tory Poet. As he says, it ‘stands to statistical analysis’ that some contemporary poet or other will have opinions towards the right of the political spectrum, as Larkin famously did, but I’m damned if I can think of one. Modern poetry has become the province of the cultural, ecological and political left – all constituencies in which I’d readily position myself, so this isn’t a complaint as such. You could come up with cogent reasons to explain why poetry lends itself to leftist ideology (that it’s a tool of empathy and therefore solidarity; that it prizes originality and truth in language rather than market-driven efficiency; even that its negligible economic value fosters a bracing knowledge of capitalism’s pitfalls). Nevertheless, I worry about poetry’s fate in this relatively new order. The more that our art becomes a political monoculture, the more embattled and marginal will be its position.
This is the sort of meaty topic I would love to see Noel-Tod tackle in a serious study. For the time being, The Whitsun Wedding Video is more or less the perfect pamphlet: a broadside fired off from the trenches of occasional journalism, peppery, well-intentioned, spiked with social media gossip, and without fail very interesting. It’s surely the only place you can read in codex form about Dave Coates’s essential blog, or John Clegg’s Prynne-dow at the LRB bookshop. Read it now, before a phrase such as ‘Earlier this year, in a review for the Guardian newspaper, Sean O’Brien played Socratic doorman to the debut collection of the poet Jack Underwood’ loses too much in relevance as well as pedantic truth. Most of these pugnacious sallies on the vicissitudes of literary fortunes make as much sense at the start of 2016 as they did in 2015, and will likely do so for a time to come.
The River (Bloodaxe Books, £ 9.95) by Jane Clarke reviewed by Tony Curtis
It is a pleasure to read this debut collection of poems, handsomely produced and finely judged in terms of its orchestration of elegy and celebration; especially as I encountered many of these in workshops in my last years teaching on the Masters at Glamorgan: I watched some of them grow. I must therefore declare an interest in and commitment to this writer.
Jane Clarke’s first collection comes after years of working to capture the west of Ireland rural community in which she was raised and to reflect the challenges of one’s middle life years. There have been many magazine and anthology appearances and several awards. The opening poem ‘Honey’ has the power of both Frost and Heaney in its telling of the shooting of a sheep dog accused of wreaking havoc with a neighbour’s flock:
thirty ewes dead of dying,
mangled in barbed wire, lamb-beds hanging out.
The poet’s father
…drags her by the scruff,
leaves her at their feet. He says nothing
when he comes in, says little for weeks.
As in Robert Frost, reported speech in its choice of words and tone is key to the characterisation of many of these poems. The narrative often seems spare and plain:
Some summer’s day take the ferry to Clare Island,
see a black and white tower overlooking Clew Bay,
where I first heard my mother say the rosary for sailors,
watched her fry herring on the wood-burning stove.
Though the music of place names and the internal rhymes carry the reader confidently into the remembered or, in the case of this poem ‘Lighthouse Keeper’, the imagined past. The juxtaposition of the rosary and the frying are telling: belief and faith are a daily matter as necessary and natural as breathing. ‘…since they unmanned the lantern’ the keeper’s days are ‘landlocked’ and he’s ‘washed up like wreckage'; Jane Clarke is memorialising in her poetry both departed individuals and the disappearance of the lives they led.
Place names and the cadence of a regional saying are what one expects from any poet rooted in rural Ireland. As in Seamus Heaney ( how can one not mention Heaney?) Jane Clarke’s poems employ the lexicon of her bro, her patch: we have references to a ‘haggard’, ‘callows’, ‘flaggers'; there’s loosestrife, bell heather, jewelreed and ling growing.
Another point of reference might be Michael Longley, with short, spare, jewelled pieces such as ‘Let there be’, ‘all I will need’, and ‘Dropping Slow’. Again, the space between lines, the precise movement and economy of words is consummate. These qualities are exemplified in ‘Back of an envelope’ which I shall quote in its entirety:
I don’t know what’s come over your father,
my mother says on the phone. He left
a note on the back of an envelope –
gone herding, won’t be long.
Where did he think I’d think he was gone?
All those years if I asked where he was going,
where he had been, he’d act like I’d tethered him
to a post, and then today he leaves a note.
That monologue catches the voice as it works out the import of language and tone and carries the reader with that process to the realisation that a shift in lives has taken place; the farmer knows it and will lead his wife to that recognition. A point in the aging of one’s life has been reached: they will both have to prepare themselves for darker days. His life and their marriage, like everything else, is finite.
The River is a collection of poems, not prose masquerading as poetry. Jane Clarke’s lines are honed, measured, finely and finally settled on. She has many of the qualities of her mentor and name-sake Gillian: strength and originality of metaphor, an ear for the music of language and an ability to allow the poem space to accommodate the reader. I recommend The River to readers and writers of poetry.
The Devolved Voices project based at Aberystwyth University is investigating the state of Welsh poetry in English since Wales’s devolution ‘yes’ vote of 1997. A series of interviews and filmed readings with a whole host of poets associated with Wales is available at: www.aber.ac.uk/devolvedvoices/. The latest in the series is from Sarah Corbett. Sarah also reads a poem ‘At Flint Castle’ which is published in our Winter 2014/2015 issue. You can watch it below.
I’d give my life for his. This poisoned fruit
that could cut short his breath or break his heart,
this leg of pork that makes him sick for days
or weeks slips easily across my lips
and down my throat. You get a feel for this,
a nose, and do the work by weight, by touch,
to cut the chance, the risk. The merest hint
of something strong in a pitcher of milk,
or in this tender flesh a tint, a fleck
to make a bite of it – just one – a bite
of death. I work alone and with my friends:
the apparatus of pipettes and scales,
the grim art of this business and the science
of my instinct. Does one drop in water
bubble or change colour, does a bit
dabbed on the wrist, just here, affect the skin,
cause it to itch, to rise and, more than this,
can chef this morning look you in the eye?
What do you know about his wife, his mother,
the sous chef’s background or the politics
of the waiter? I would give my life for his.
I’ve never seen him but I’ve heard he eats
like a pig: a mouthful of mutton, chased
with a fistful of capon, spitting words
and food across the table. Today, I face
this bird, this side of beef, this bread, this meat
and this forkful, right here. The one I’m raising
to my lips now as I feel them burn.
Originally published in the Winter 2014/2015 issue of Poetry Wales.
Jonathan Edwards won the 2014 Costa Poetry Award for his debut poetry collection My Family and Other Superheroes.
I started writing an editorial about violence. I realised that this was going to be a violent issue. I wrote myself questions like this: Is Wales safer than Mexico for women? Why partake in poetry when poetry cannot on the face of it do much about violence? When does a depiction of violence become a re-enactment? What is the violence that uses no force?
I wrote down some statistics: There are 43 student teachers currently missing in Mexico, handed over to drug cartels by corrupt officials. Four women were killed by men within the space of a couple of months in Wales in 2009. Still in the UK in 2014, 2-3 women are murdered by men every week.
I wrote and rewrote this piece. Because the poets in this issue whose work I was thinking about, assembled over the late summer in 2014, can never be solely defined by the violence their writing bears witness to. From some of the poems by three Mexican poets translated by Richard Gwyn – Julián Herbert, Luis Felipe Fabre and Fabio Morábito – to Hannah Silva’s ‘Kathy Doll’, to two War Reporter poems by Dan O’Brien, Mir Mahfuz Ali’s poems reviewed by Joey Connolly and Ilya Kaminsky’s poems of a ‘Deaf Republic’ at war. This work considers violence but is much more than this.
So could the act of grouping these works together like this under what we might call editorially, perhaps suspiciously, ‘a theme’, be a form of re-enactment? It’s possible. But in placing this writing side by side I was struck by the different ways poetry deals with violence. And empathy. I was struck by the way these writers ‘open both eyes in the dark’ and write what they see, as Roberto Bolaño put it more than once. Bolaño himself was such a writer. His enormous novel 2666 is dominated by the ‘part about the killings’ in which he describes in flat stark detail the repeated brutal murders of women in a fictional city, based on Ciudad Juárez in northern Mexico. Instead of becoming desensitised to each of these descriptions – and they really do go on – many readers report of being sensitised like I was. Disturbed.
The shock of the scale and repetition of violence can do this. Should do this. ‘One skull next to another next to another skull’ (as Luis Felipe Fabre puts it) or ‘invisible house by invisible house by invisible house’ (Ilya Kaminsky in ‘We Lived Happily During the War’). Writing that shocks, antagonises, bears witness to or imagines violence can create radical empathy. ‘At least touch what you kill’ writes Julián Herbert in ‘Dark’, his speaker telling of a night spent with his arm in the crack between two beds trying to prevent his young son from falling to the floor.
In this way poetry can, I think, create empathy – however incomplete, however nonintentional on the writers part. But it can also critique the structures in which violence is allowed to be repeated. In ‘The Kathy Doll’ Hannah Silva takes words from Fifty Shades of Grey and intersplices them with Kathy Acker’s texts. She changes words from FSOG: ‘dominant’ becomes ‘child’ and ‘submissive’ becomes ‘mother’. In a recent interview Silva reports reading FSOG for her related project Schlock! It was ‘uncomfortable and disturbing. I find it shocking that the woman doesn’t want a BDSM relationship and yet Grey doesn’t accept this. When she asks if he could please not hit her again because she doesn’t like it, he replies “you’re not supposed to like it”. Yet teenage girls are reading it unquestioningly as if it’s today’s Pride and Prejudice .’
In Dan O’Brien’s poems the War Reporter Paul Watson is looking at the photograph that won him the Pulitzer Prize: ‘The world has become a frame. You’re looking/ at yourself. And we are violating/ whatever makes us human.’ O’Brien’s poems, made in close collaboration with Watson, seem to be about reconstructing or even failing to reconstruct empathy in the face of dehumanisation – including your own dehumanisation as witness. The poem attempts to come to terms with the moment in which Watson took a photograph instead of helping a soldier being mauled to death in front of him;
And I hear
a voice as clear as yours, clearer even,
saying, If you do this I will own you
forever. Forgive me, just understand
I don’t want to do this. No. We have to
do this. Yes. We have to do this until
We have to do this until we don’t. The snippet hints at both a belief and disbelief in this mission – a compromised empathy, because perhaps all empathy is flawed. And a confusion over who is doing the violence. To be sure, the radical empathy of poetry and all art is needed alongside inhuman and staggering statistics if we are to stop the violence that comes in patterns, one skull after another. So I hope this is an issue about empathy as much as it is about violence.
The new Wales PEN Cymru initiative is one way people can work together to create empathy and solidarity in and through literature. I’d encourage readers in Wales to become members.
Whilst writing this editorial the fact of violence came shockingly close to home into the poetry community. On Saturday 1st of November the poet Anne Cluysenaar was found murdered in her farmhouse in the Usk countryside. Anne was not and never will be a simple statistic or someone to be remembered only for the circumstances of her death. As well as a poet she was a renowned educator, thinker, painter, smallholder and friend to many. ‘Sharing with others a “language of natural signs”, was what Anne as a poet did. It describes her special gift of creative friendship’ writes Jeremy Hooker in a tribute to Anne in these pages – a beginning of an attempt to remember her in the fullest way we can.