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Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Writing, Being a Writer

When T.S. Eliot met the young Stephen Spender, who told him he wanted to be a writer, Eliot ticked him off, saying he could understand somebody wanting to write poetry but not the desire to ‘be’ a poet. I am reminded of the New Yorker cartoon of two women talking, one of them telling the other ‘My husband’s like Tolstoy. Except he doesn’t write.’ I too have never understood people who say they want to ‘be’ writers. Writing is an activity, not a state of being, like simply being a princess or an Indian holy man. I’m reminded of all this by seeing Sean O’Brien (not someone all of whose opinions I am likely to share...) announce in the current issue of Poetry Review that:

The preoccupation with ‘being a poet’ is part of the contemporary fetish with ‘creativity’, whereby an attitude and an identity as part of a scene are assumed to be the real thing, rather than the thing itself.


When in old age Georges Simenon stopped writing novels, he changed his passport to read sans profession. Write or don’t write, but don’t go around wanting to ‘be’ a writer. Or if you do, keep it to yourself, world. And so endeth the lesson for the day.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Jallywow, Catacoustics, Picassoesque, Spume

What a pleasure to come across Valérie Rouzeau’s Cold Spring in Water, as rendered by Susan Wicks from the original Pas Revoir, and published in an en face text by Arc. Its subtle and insinuating neologisms, contractions, torsions and short-cuts:

Toi mourant man au telephone pernoctera pas voir papa.
Le train foncé sous la pluie dure pas mourir mon père oh steu plait tends-moi me dépêche d’arriver.
Pas mourantir désespérir père infinir lever courir –

You dying on the phone my mum he will not last the night nor see dad.
The train a dark rush under rain not last not die my father please oh please the get there soon.
Not deadying oh not desperish father everlast get up run fast –

I always thought it was important that Joyce laid off the baby talk as quickly as he does in A Portrait, but Rouzeau manages to keep up an affecting but unaffected soup of endearment (‘papa dire papa dear dada pire’) amidst the bitterer pills of grief. In one of her first poetry writer-in-residencies, Stephen Romer notes in the introduction, she reconstructed ‘what she called her “cabane”, literally a kind of hideaway, made of old car seats and bits of roof and sides’ (her father was a scrap metal dealer). And there is something of the hideaway or latibule (latibule!) about this book. But if the cliché about post-war French poetry is that it spirals off into unreadable abstraction, this book is a pleasing reminder that the French are human after all (their football team I pass over without comment), and reminds me too to look up that anthology of contemporary French poetry I saw reviewed in the TLS the other month...

Much to admire in Roy Fisher’s Standard Midland, crepuscular and valedictory though it can seem. Ken Smith awakes from a coma and asks, ‘Wearily: “What’s /the word for chair?”’ The terminal visions of ‘The Skyline in the Wall Mirror’, catching a glimpse of a faraway pasture, made of ‘clinker /cinders and slag: dense, dead /unstable. I always /had cinders ready. I have ashes.’ ‘Hole, Horse and Hellbox: The Tabernacle Poems’ is the text of Fisher’s collaboration with artist Ronald King, repelete with Domesday Bookish genealogies of beefy midlanders. The closing ‘Rattle a Cart’

Peeling the present off the past
the better to show the wiring

through soot-flecked lines of washing
horse comes loping like a dog

spat on by losers, ya great jallywow!
rattling a cart of knocked-up planks

its bottom littered with research papers
on land use in the Fertile Crescent,

pamphlets, a Herodotus:
news of the stolen world.


Look at this:

pp. xiv; xviii catacoustics (1991)
p. 15 they
p. 17 that morning

... and so on. This comes from a poem in Tom Raworth’s new book, Windmills in Flames: Old and New Poems called ‘Errata to Collected Poems (2003)’. How I love that Webernian plink-plonk disconnectedness he has going on. No, wait it’s an errata slip to his Collected Poems! No wait, it’s both. I might be writing about this book elsewhere so might shepherd my thoughts for now, but how amusing, too, to find the following in the acknowledgements: ‘Thanks to Pierre Joris for recovering “Intellectual Compost 6”, written on the flyleaf of his copy of Collected Poems’. Oh for a compost-recoverer-bibliographer.

I went through a phase of trying to write ultra-short poems, inspired I think by A.R. Ammons (those tiny poems in that big font on those small pages), and ended up deciding there was a difference between the micro-poem and the regular poem that stopped a bit sooner than usual. Before the awarding of its rosette, the micro-poem must make at least one gesture towards its own briefness or inadequacy to its occasion. Mark Granier’s fine ‘Night, Wind, Dead Leaves’, from Fade Street (just by Misery Hill...) certainly qualifies on that score:

rattle and hiss, the sound so high
it is almost a whistle,

their bodying sigh
the air of something more palpable

than passing by.

‘I go among the Fields and catch a glimpse of a Stoat or a fieldmouse peeping out of the withered grass-the creature hath a purpose and its eyes are bright with it’, Keats wrote to his brother and sister. Granier, in ‘Crest’, catches a glimpse of a stoat too, but lingers after the ‘fluidly gone’ thing itself for the following absence as ‘sky readjusts to sky, //grass to grass, /drystone to drystone’. Imagistic repletion (or depletion) vie with a more expansive narrative impulse, and in a poem such as ‘Bicycle Seat Bull’s Head Bull-Leap’ pull with enviable tautness in the two directions before settling for a knot of coiled energy, pondering the Picassoesque ‘problem no one posed’ of:

how to release the bull
from the bicycle

so handlebar horns offer
a leap, charged with laughter.

I’d like to find something to say about Miriam Gamble’s The Squirrels Are Dead, which I’ve been enjoying (and I note the addition to that tricky poetic sub-genre, poems with writers’ names in them, in this case ‘This New Michael’, though for Michael Palin read Michael Longley), except my attempts to formulate any thoughts keep on stalling on its opening poem, ‘Medusa’, which I think is just exceptional – uncanny, unsettling, a piece of mythpoeic flotsam washed up from all manner of fabulous elsewheres:

The waters spin you like a dirty jewel: flushed out
to crusty deaths on beaches
or retained in the darkest of her vaults, the sea
would have you seem a thing of nowheres; soft spume
of unconsidered thought, she is tarrying for time
with you, dabbling for ways to rein you in.
But the sun makes honeycombed your playground
and your body pirouettes through gold-splashed avenues
lazily surveying what is there, your slow limbs tickling
at the borderline between two worlds of sound...

Here is Perdita found, or at least ringing home briefly before hanging up again. Wonderful.

Photograph taken on Kampa Island in Prague.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Two Swans

Their two-note tandem churning the air
over our heads and the whole way home:
you there you there

I am I am

Saturday, June 19, 2010

David Markson

If you can do it, it ain’t bragging.

Or was it possibly nothing more than a fundamentally recognizable genre all the time, no matter what Writer averred?

Nothing more or less than a read?

Simply an unconventional, generally melancholy though sometimes even playful now-ending read?

About an old man’s preoccupations.

Dizzy Dean died of a heart attack.

Writer’s cancer.

Christ, if my love were in my arms
And I in my bed again!

Then I go out at night to paint the stars.
Says a Van Gogh letter.

Farewell and be kind.


No, it really does end. David Markson has died, and the above are the final words of his 2001 text this is not a novel, as republished by the always-excellent CB Editions (next-day delivery too!).


Thursday, June 17, 2010

Eminent Booby

Speaking of eminent boobies, let me mention much against my better judgement the following letter by Irish poet Fred Johnston that appeared in last Sunday (June 13)’s Independent on Sunday:

It was heartening to read the letter (6 June) signed by eminent writers such as John Berger, Thomas Pakenham and others, urging an academic and cultural boycott of Israel. Doubly heartening to read that there is an organisation such as British Writers in Support of Palestine.

As an Irish writer, I have been vilified and insulted here in the Irish Republic when I have suggested, in letters or in online forums, that our writers and academics should make some kind of statement condemning Israeli action against the Palestinians and, more recently, the murder of nine Turkish citizens by Israeli forces on a Gaza relief ship. I have been publicly accused of attempting to ‘bully’ writers into making such statements. I have also asked Poetry Ireland, The Irish Writers’ Union and Aosdána (the Irish academy) to make a comment on recent events and have received neither reply to nor acknowledgement of my request.

I feel deeply ashamed that so many Irish writers seem quite terrified, and even angry, at being asked to make a public statement against such inhumanity as is practised by Israel upon the inhabitants of Gaza and the criminal arrogance that permits her armed forces to commit murder on the high seas. I fear something has died in the cultural soul of Ireland and will not be revived.


As I am the person he means when he describes being called a ‘bully’ for oh-god-not-again trotting out this party-trick (I used the phrase ‘playground bully’ to him in exasperation on facebook, and was rewarded for my trouble with a threatened lawsuit!), let me summarise in words of as few syllables as possible my feelings on the political stance he takes in the above letter.

Fred Johnston has now spent several decades responding to this, that, and the other thing he has seen on the Six One news or read about in The Galway Advertiser in the following manner: he writes a letter to The Irish Times or wherever (latterly his facebook status updates have been his pulpit of choice) accusing other Irish writers of not being political. Of not being political like he is, in the sense, presumably, of writing letters to The Irish Times. Letters in which, presumably, they could attack the other Irish writers who have yet to write letters to The Irish Times accusing other Irish writers of etc etc etc. This is not a serious political stance. It is self-righteousness. It is moral superiority of the most pharisaical kind. I’m sorry (well, in fact I’m not), but I cannot take his views on Palestine or anything else political seriously, because I do not believe Palestine or whatever is the real issue. The issue is self-image and stone-throwing. He appears to believe that ‘being political’ is in itself a virtue, as though the political views of Ezra Pound, Knut Hamsun or Céline, were also brave acts of resistance to the cowardly refusal of whoever was refusing to write to The Irish Times in the 1930s. If I worked for any of the organisations he names above, I would put his letters in the same place reserved for people who write in with their theories about moon landings and fluorine in tap-water, i.e. the bin. Give it a rest, Fred Johnston. You are an almighty bully of humility. This is a literary reference. It is drawn from a novel by Charles Dickens. And finally, you are also a complete waste of everyone’s time. For the love of The Galway Advertiser, desist. This is not a subject I hope to revisit, ever.

I would also add that anyone who infers from the above that I, too, am not capable of being disgusted by Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians, or doing something about it politically, is no less an eminent booby than Mr Johnston. My or your political views are not the issue here. The issue is political good faith, and the belief that writers are to be cattle-prodded by holier-than-thou lectures into toeing someone else’s party line. And I would invite letter-writers and other public nuisances who do believe in this kind cattle-prodding, most respectfully, to sod off.

The Good Soldier Svejk

Fine poem, ‘The Hoopoe’, by Justin Quinn in today’s TLS. It begins by remembering a political murder in the Czech Republic and the assassin’s getting away it scot-free, before taking a sudden and unexpected ornithological turn:

The hitman, he gets rich
and lives beyond the scope
of the curious and the keen

much like the hoopoe which
is native throughout Europe
and nowhere to be seen.

Is it not marvellous the way he gets to the end like that without a single comma? And indeed, I’ve never seen a hoopoe, though I did spy a fine jay the other afternoon on Petřin hill in Prague, a photo of which I’ll post anon. Not the least of the pleasures of being in Prague was reading, at last, Jaroslav Hašek’s The Good Soldier Švejk, or ‘Schweik’ as my antiquated Penguin would have it. ‘He did various odd jobs as a journalist and soon became known as a comic character and a practical joker, who was fond of associating with the devotees of taverns’, runs the back-cover biography. Could it be because of their experience of being the coachmen and valets of empire that authority figures in Hašek and Hrabal (whom he resembles closely) are made to seem so innately ridiculous? What better recipe for comedy, in both authors, than success through, rather than in spite of, stupidity? How endlessly amusing characters like the ‘eminent booby’ Colonel Friedrich Klaus von Zillergut with his addiction to explaining what things such as postage stamps and windows are (‘Do you know what a ditch is? A ditch is a sort of cavity dug by a gang of labourers’), and who dies when he steps into the road to explain what a footpath is. How I laughed when the inn-keeper was hauled away for sedition for allowing flies to shit on the emperor’s portrait behind the bar, and Švejk finds himself arrested and then hauled off to a lunatic asylum for shouting ‘Long live the emperor!’ in public.

I heard a most amusing paper at the Prague James Joyce conference out there (and still going on) by Paul Fagan, applying Gricean linguistic theories to Finnegans Wake, specifically the four maxims of quantity, quality, relation and manner, failure to observe any of which leads to conversational ‘ligatures’, and the comic misunderstandings these in turn generate. But Švejk too turns the smallest conversational exchange into a Gricean ligature. ‘How long have you been working on the railway?’, he asks a worker after a Father Dougal-like moment in which a discussion of the importance of not pulling the communication cord on the train leads to, surprise surprise, the pulling of the communication cord. Then:

As the railwayman did not reply, Schweik proceeded to explain that he had known a certain Frantisek Mlicek of Uhrineves near Prague who had also pulled an emergency brake and it had so scared him that he had lost his speech for a fortnight and only recovered it when he was paying a visit to a gardener named Vanek at Hostivar, and had a fight with somewhere there. ‘That happened’, added Schweik, ‘in May, 1912’.

Or consider the exchange with his landlady on that perennial Czech theme of defenestration:

‘If you want to jump out of the window’, said Schweik, ‘go into the bedroom. I’ve opened the window for you. I wouldn’t advise you to jump out of the kitchen window, because if you did, you’d fall into the roses in the garden and squash them and then you’d have to pay for them. If you jump out of the bedroom window, you’ll land nicely on the pavement, and if you’re lucky, you’ll break your neck. If your luck’s out, you’ll just break all your ribs, arms and legs, and then it’ll cost you a pretty penny in the hospital.’

I love the knockabout picaresque fatalism of all this, the endless cock-and-bull stories, the hero’s obliviousness of all that’s going on around him, the beery sensuality and pub philosophising. This is more or less my worldview, my idea of how to spend my life writ large, I suppose, one amusing and quite possibly pointless distraction after another. And I’m still only halfway through the book. And don’t you just love Joseph Lada’s illustrations too.

If you want a good place to feel Hašekian or Hrabalaisian in Prague these days, or to maltreat yourself to your health’s contempt, as the Wake puts it (thanks Paul: your paper was fantastic), you could do a lot worse than here. I liked the dark Herold and the house Rauchbier, but stopped sadly just short of double-figures. That’s a mistake I won’t make the next time.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

The World Cup

Last-minute recruitment of Jamie Carragher adds crucial tournament early exit experience to England squad.

Arizona sheriff patrolling half-way line against vague possibility of USA-Mexico tie, has ‘ways’ of dealing with ‘you folks’ back home.

FIFA cave in to Irish demands, force Thierry Henry to celebrate all goals with half-hearted somersault and give post-match interview in Tallaght accent, and enough already, you big cry-babies.

Argentina eyeing immediate invasion of small offshore islands of Brazil/Holland/North Korea/whoever after embarrassing quarter-final exit.

UN imposes sanctions on North Korean ‘nuclear’ sub jokes.

Slovakian FA offers players free consonants for life in event of victory.

Big lumbering German bloke ‘one of the more attractive continental defensive midfielders we’ve seen in recent years’.

Rio Ferninand ‘proverbialled’ over last-minute injury to whatever, innit.

Nigerian fan in crowd’s skin actually is green, is jumping up and down in spasms of embarrassment.

Neo-fascist-garbage-spouting, heavily-tattooed Italian has something very, very important to say to his mother/that model he’s banging.

Seventy-two per cent of Brazilian breasts now swaying in time to Kaka’s dinking runs on goal.

‘He knows what it means to them’, commentator says of robotic Swedish playboy mercenary Sven Goran Eriksson as he completes ‘lucky’ glasses-adjusting routine during Ivory Coast national anthem.

Middlesborough/Stoke/whoever fans will ‘need no reminding of’/‘know all about’ some Honduran/Greek/Slovenian who was useless on the wing for them before he got sold/put down, whenever that was, isn’t Harry Hill on ITV now?

Drinking carpet cleaner/stabbing self in eye suddenly more attractive than listening to Alan Shearer’s explanation of ‘previous’ to Uruguay-Denmark ‘grudge’ match ONE SECOND LONGER.

Sunday, June 06, 2010

An Unofficial Roy Fisher

What a pleasure to see, never mind be in Peter Robinson’s An Unofficial Roy Fisher from Shearsman, a collection of tribute poems, collected stray reviews and essays, and uncollected poems to, on and by the man himself, who turns eighty on 11 June. Among the contributing poets are August Kleinzahler, R.F. Langley, Angela Leighton, and Peter Didsbury, who contributes ‘A Closing Prospect’, which waxes suburban-eschatological:

I think I could become quite passionate about hedgerows.
The thought seems to function
as an acceptance of things as they are,
which is incomprehensible
(and perhaps irrevocable) (...).

Richard Price considers Fisher’s alphabet-inspired collaboration with artist Ronald King, The Half-Year Letters, Peter Makin comes enjoyably to grief trying to provide map co-ordinates for where exactly Fisher stands in the literary landscape (‘I would like to think that Fisher’s position stands on mysterious demarcations that are so low-contrast as to be almost imperceptible’), his colleague Sue Stanford from the Birmingham Temporary Day College of Education supplies the information that his other colleagues back then (60s) included teachers called Attracta McCrudden, Concepta O’Shaughnessy and Avril Shufflebottom, and Ralph Pite writes on Fisher and water. And then there are the uncollected poems. Despite the presence of an updated bibliography by Derek Slade, there are no hints as to these items’ provenance or dates, and I’m guessing there is no crossover between them and the work about to be published by Bloodaxe in his new collection Standard Midland, but one poem I’ve now read and reread since getting the book yesterday is ‘Division of Labour’, which has been astonishing the brickwork here and then some:

I saw the dustmen drink the light
And remain dry;
I saw the grey wagon of dessication,
While the day raced in rivulets all about it,
Crawling along the gutter like a blind dog (...)

With a slight return thereof in the poem’s last three lines:

I saw the dustmen drinking light
And the grey wagon of dessication
crawl in the gutter like a blind dog.


I hope my prose contributions go some way to explaining my enormous debt to Fisher, and the whole gamut of possibilities I recognised in his work, and failed to recognise in so much of the rest of my reading, at the time. The poem I contribute to the book certainly comes, if not directly, then by a very self-conscious commodius vicus of recirculation, from the Fisher of City, A Furnace, The Cut Pages, and more, much more. Happy birthday, Mr Fisher.

Coming Attractions

An image from Hide, a collaborative book involving poetry, prose, photography and painting, due to be launched at this year’s Humber Mouth Literature Festival in a few weeks. Don’t you love a good waxwing. Place your orders now!

Louisiana Laughing Gull Wondering What It's Meant to Find So Funny

Thursday, June 03, 2010

Rafa Departs

‘I would like to thank Stevie/Nando/Jamie/whatever that guy’s name was I paid ten million quid for any never played, because he does always does a good game for asssss.’

Plans for last four finish in next year’s League Cup in ashes.

Drives to Manchester for valedictory refusal of handshake with/tetchy press-conference attack on Alex Ferguson.

Yes there is still time to be appointed manager of the UAE and take them of the World Cup in the first round.

As-yet Unnamed New Manager Must Go!/As-Yet Unnamed New Manager Victim of Anti-Liverpool Media Vendetta.

Steven Gerrard’s forehead crease setting upped two more notches.

Fernando Torres adjusts hair-gel setting, at Spain World Cup camp, to ‘¿Estoy molestado?’

Stevie working flat-out on fabricating ‘fraught’ relationship (hint hint Real Madrid) with as-yet unnamed new manager.

Rafa’s pitchside notes finally unveiled as lesbian detective novel set in Belgium; missed the Istanbul penalty shoot-out while he worked on cliff-hanger ending to chapter seven.

Hicks and Gillett still not sure who that guy was.

25/5/05 – YNWA – ¡Vaya con Dios, Rafa!

Tuesday, June 01, 2010