It’s ten years since Christopher Logue died. His archive was recently acquired by the British Library and there’s going to be an event on Sunday afternoon, The Arrival of the Poet in the Library: A Celebration of Christopher Logue, with Tariq Ali, John Hegley, Rosemary Hill, Christopher Reid, Harriet Walter and Astrid Williamson, hosted by Andrew O’Hagan. It also marks the publication of the audiobook of War Music: The Author’s Own Recording. As August Kleinzahler wrote in the LRB, Logue’s ‘considerable work in theatre and film as actor, playwright and screenwriter nourished the poetry, much of which was dramatic in nature, and also helped make him one of his generation’s finest readers of verse’. You can listen to him reading an extract from Book 19 here.
In April, I asked Denise Riley if I could put her name forward as a possible Oxford Professor of Poetry. To my delight, she agreed; not because she wanted to win, or believed she would (we soon learned that Alice Oswald was in the running), but because, despite her strong reservations about the culture of literary competition, she thought that it would be good to present a field of female candidates. But Riley’s name did not appear on the ballot. Like several other potential candidates, Riley turned out to be ineligible because of her age.
d.p. houston’s poetry collection Boîte de Vers is completely unreadable, but not in the sense that it’s bad. It could well be, but I have no idea because it comes in a sealed box.
At a meeting on Tuesday of the Bruges Group, one of the proliferating and fissiparous Tory sectlets devoted to hatred of the European Union, Mark Francois topped off a speech of near-hallucinatory weirdness by lapsing into Poetry Voice – cod solemnity with pauses and emphases scattered at random – and sweating his way through the last few lines of Tennyson’s ‘Ulysses’, a doughty lump of patriotic Victoriana to ginger up a senescent audience.
The search to find the new poet laureate for when Carol Ann Duffy stands down next year is hotting up. In the past some poets have been reluctant to assume the role. Everything from mock modesty to anti-monarchic feeling has been used as a reason to say no.
‘Private armament firms, no matter how reputable and incorrupt, depend for their prosperity on the perpetual exasperation of international fears and suspicions … they thrive upon war scares, and they must have occasional wars.’ So concluded The Secret International, an influential pamphlet published in the early 1930s by the Union of Democratic Control. The international arms trade is no less a force for 'exasperation' now than it was then, and in Britain, as in most countries with a remunerative arms sector, it has become an adjunct of government. Britain's defence industry used to put out its wares for international consumption every year, either in Portsmouth or Aldershot, as a government-to-government trade exhibition, under the auspices of the Royal Navy or the British Army. In the 1990s the arms show was outsourced: Defence and Security Equipment International is now run by Clarion Events, 'a successful, dynamic and creative business' in Surrey. And business is booming.
'The past does not enlighten us – but still, it attempts to say something. Perhaps the crow knows more about us and about history's dirt than we do ourselves.' These lines from Tomas Venclova's poem 'In the Lake Region' often came to my mind as I read Magnetic North, a series of conversations between Ellen Hinsey and Venclova, in which the Lithuanian poet, essayist and scholar remembers his life.
Dear Sir Alan [Langlands]: a decade ago, when my late husband, Professor Sir Geoffrey Hill, was assembling his Collected Critical Writings, he decided to dedicate the work not to any single person, but ‘To the University of Leeds, in memory of Edward Boyle’. There was a reason for this. It was the Department of English at the University of Leeds, under the headship of Professor Bonamy Dobrée, that had appointed Geoffrey to a post as lecturer while he was still in his early twenties. It was at the University of Leeds that, for twenty-five years, he established himself as a poet, teacher and scholar of literature. It was at Leeds that he found the security to let his mind range, and to think and write. He was in the English Faculty at Leeds when he published his first four books of poetry; the first essay in the Collected Critical Writings was his inaugural lecture as a professor there, and the Geoffrey Hill archive now resides at the Brotherton Library. Geoffrey knew how much he owed the University of Leeds, and, reciprocally, the University recognised the degree to which he adorned it. It was Leeds that first awarded Geoffrey an honorary D.Litt. and it was at Leeds that I had the pleasure of meeting you at the memorial event that the English faculty held for him a year ago this month. All this is in my mind now as I write to urge you to consider changing your mind and your stance on the collective action by the staff of the University of Leeds.
Tuli Kupferberg and Ed Sanders met in New York City in 1962, in front of the Charles Theater, two blocks north of Tompkins Square Park. Kupferberg was selling issues of Birth, a mimeographed publication he'd started in the 1950s. Sanders, who'd just launched his own mimeographed magazine, knew a few things about him. 'I'd seen his picture in a number of books,' Sanders later recalled. 'I learned a little bit later that he was the guy "who'd jumped off the Brooklyn Bridge", as described in Howl. (Actually it was the Manhattan Bridge.) I later asked him why. He replied, "I wasn't being loved enough."’
‘Trains show us that freedom and constraint are a matter of dosage,’ Patrick McGuinness wrote recently in the LRB. He quoted Klaus Kinski’s character in the 1966 film of Dr Zhivago, ‘shaking his chains, an anarchist headed for the camps’: ‘I am the only free man on this train. The rest of you are cattle!’ ‘Soul’, a poem Pasternak wrote in 1956, is one of 20 on display in another meditation on poésie des departs, in Bloomsbury Square until tomorrow.
'Part of John Ashbery’s charm,' Mark Ford wrote in the LRB in 1989, 'is his self-deprecating uncertainty about the whole business: "Some certified nut/Will try to tell you it’s poetry."’ The LRB published more than fifty poems by him, the first of them in 1995 (a late start for us, nearly forty years after his first collection and twenty after Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror).
‘First we are going to cut it off, and then we are going to kill it.’ That was how Colin Powell described the battle plan he and his generals came up with for the war they were about to wage against Saddam Hussein’s army in 1991, and that is, more or less, what happened. After the US A-10 tank-buster bombers known as Warthogs had finished off the Iraqi armoured brigades on the Basra Road, Harold Pinter, disgusted by the gratuitous carnage, wrote a poem called ‘American Football’. He sent it to several publications, including the London Review of Books, where I then worked. He had it faxed to the paper's office on Tavistock Square. None of the editors much liked the poem, but because it was by Pinter there was some further deliberation, and as the afternoon ended we thought we'd defer the decision to the following morning.
‘Can you speak Russian? No? So why go to the theatre when you can’t understand a word?’ My challenger (English) was incredulous that I’d asked one of the Russian helpers on the British Council tour, whose mother had been a principal dancer with the Kirov, to find me, if at all possible, a ticket to a play. There was a performance of Anna Akhmatova’s poetry, she’d told me. The legendary Alla Demidova would be performing; the director was Kirill Serebrennikov, a daring force in the Russian avant-garde; and it would be taking place in the Gogol Centre, a former warehouse designed in industrial cool with gorgeous Constructivist lettering that makes the word Гоголь look like the limbs of an Alexandra Exter puppet.
The interim president of Brazil, Michel Temer, didn’t win the bid to host the Olympic games in Rio or organise the event. But he could regard the opening ceremony as a personal triumph. All over Rio last Friday there were protests against his leadership, which many are calling the result of a coup d’état. The words ‘Fora Temer’ – ‘Temer Out’ – could be seen on the beach, outside the Maracanã Stadium, painted on people’s bottoms. But the billions of viewers who tuned in to watch the beginning of the Olympics did not see this outcry, and the booing which accompanied the president's official opening of the games wasn’t obvious over the television.
I’ve been thinking about some lines of a poem by Wallace Stevens called 'Sad Strains of a Gay Waltz': There are these sudden mobs of men, These sudden clouds of faces and arms, An immense suppression, freed, These voices crying without knowing for what, Except to be happy, without knowing how, Imposing forms they cannot describe, Requiring order beyond their speech. Too many waltzes have ended. The lines are the work of an American poet writing in the 1930s, and the first thing that may come to mind is the hunger marchers of the Depression. But there were other mobs then, in Germany, Italy and elsewhere.
Underneath the A310 in Twickenham, in the grounds of Radnor House prep school, lies the grotto of Alexander Pope. It once looked out over the Thames, but now its view takes in the walls of the sixth-form art block and an astroturf sports pitch. But the magic of what Pope called his ‘shadowy cave’ is not lost. The grotto smells of flint. Its walls are encrusted with geological curiosities. There is a piece of basalt hacked from the Giant’s Causeway and there was once a stalagmite from Wookey Hole, supposedly shot down from the roof of the cave at Pope’s request.
A dead man lies on the floor with arms outstretched, his legs crossed. Beneath him are the words: ‘seja marginal, seja herói’ (‘be an outlaw, be a hero’). The image, created in 1967 by Hélio Oiticica, became an emblem of the resistance movement against the military regime that ruled Brazil between 1964 and 1985. When they displayed the picture on a flag at a concert in Rio, the musicians Caetano Veloso and Gilberto Gil were arrested, jailed, then sent into exile in London. But the word marginal does not only mean outlaw, it also means, simply, ‘from the margins’. Oiticica’s dead hero demands status for the marginalised in a country where the poorest have always been exploited by those in power.
Basil Bunting wrote his long poem Briggflatts over the course of 1965, much of it while on the train commuting from Wylam to Newcastle, where he worked as a subeditor on the financial pages of the Journal, then part of the Thompson newspaper empire. Bunting had published nothing in the previous 13 years, nor had he written any poems, as such. Aged 65, he was struggling to support two children and his second wife, Simia, whom he had brought back with him from Persia to Northumberland in 1952 after being expelled by Mossadeq.
There’s a scene in Ewan MacColl’s autobiography in which his father, boozy after a weekend trip to Heaton Park, begins singing on the tram back to Salford:
In ‘Stubbing Wharfe’, a poem from Birthday Letters, Ted Hughes writes about sitting with Sylvia Plath in a pub ‘Between the canal and the river’ in Hebden Bridge, West Yorkshire:
Aira Force is hidden beneath a strip of thick deciduous woodland on the banks of Ullswater. The waterfall drops 70 feet from the beck above, forcing itself through a narrow opening in the limestone, framed above and below by two humpbacked footbridges. It was near this spot that William and Dorothy Wordsworth saw their crowd of golden daffodils. The waterfall itself features in a handful of his poems; in ‘The Somnambulist’, the ‘drooping Emma’, separated from her lover, Sir Eglamore, begins to sleepwalk, drawn by the mesmerising sound of the beck: The moon is not more pureThat shines aloft, while through the woodShe thrids her way, the sounding FloodHer melancholy lure! The modern idea of the Lake District derives from the Romantic poets. Before they reimagined it, most people had feared and avoided the landscape of what is now Cumbria. It wasn’t hard to see why last week, as I trod carefully across the slippery bridge at the top of the falls. Storm Eva had followed close behind Storm Desmond, bringing unprecedented rain.
Last month, I took the 6 train down to Spring Street to hear Richard Hell and Luc Sante read together at McNally Jackson Books. Sante read first, from his brilliant, unclassifiable book (history? miscellany? catalogue? atlas? threnody? love song?), The Other Paris: 'Until not so long ago it was always possible to find a place in the city,' he said.
‘Comrades,’ Jim Callaghan told the Labour Party Conference in his first speech as leader in 1976, ‘there is a line of poetry which is a good line for socialists, even if it was not intended to be: “A man’s reach should exceed his grasp/Or what’s a Heaven for?”’ He was quoting Browning’s ‘Andrea del Sarto’. A line of poetry intended to be good for socialists might have been found in Brecht, but Browning would be more familiar, and less alienating, to the wider audience beyond the party.
There's an exhibition of Christopher Logue's poster poems at Rob Tufnell, 83 Page Street, London SW1, until 7 November.
Northumbria police have launched an investigation after a photo was posted on Facebook of a man apparently strangling a seagull. Councillors in seaside towns are considering using drones to kill seagull chicks in their nests. Although the numbers of most gull species in the UK are in decline, they have an 'increasing presence in urban areas'. The RSPCA is looking into reports that people in Cornwall are attacking gulls with fishing line. Meanwhile the birds have been accused of attacking people and killing pets, and in Namibia they've been spotted pecking out the eyes of baby seals, as if they weren't already hated enough.
Joseph Brodsky would have turned 75 on Sunday. In March, the Moscow publisher Corpus released Бродский среди нас (‘Brodsky among Us’), a memoir by Ellendea Proffer Teasley, who met the poet in 1969 in Leningrad and remained friends with him until his death in 1996. She was a graduate student at Indiana University when she went to the Soviet Union with her husband, Carl Proffer, who taught Russian at Michigan. In 1971 they set up the Ardis press in Ann Arbor, to publish the work of writers banned in the USSR, including Mandelstam, Tsvetaeva, Bely, Nabokov, Sokolov and Aksenov.
Xu Lizhi threw himself from a Foxconn workers’ dormitory building in Shenzhen on 30 September. He was 24 years old, a migrant worker and a poet: neither line of work looks promising in China at the moment. In the 1980s ‘poet’ was a prestigious job-description, and did wonders for your love life. Now none of the papers would waste space on a poem, even as filler; if a self-advertised ‘poet’ turned up on a dating site there’d be no takers and plenty of eye-rolling: poets must be weird or poor, or both. Modern poetry was more or less buried, along with China’s golden 1980s, in the year we’re not suppose to mention.
There's a poem in the new issue of the LRB by August Kleinzahler, 'A History of Western Music: Chapter 74’. In 2007, in a Paris Review interview, he was asked what prompted the series: I was in Ireland and everywhere I went they were playing the Adagietto from Mahler’s Fifth. It seemed so odd in that context of airports and supermarkets. Then I went to London and in every pub there was Frank Sinatra. There was a special on Sinatra on TV and they were running Tony Rome on TV late at night for a week. So I began writing about Ireland and London through the filter of Mahler and Sinatra.
After years working as a subeditor on the Grauniad – where, as the joke went, his job was to put in the typos – my brother Adam now bakes sourdough loaves for a living in his flat in New Cross Gate. He delivers the bread to the residents of Telegraph Hill in the pannier of a cream-coloured converted 125cc Taiwanese scooter. He also owns a small hand-operated lever-press made by Adana of Twickenham, and uses it to print poems that he encloses with each loaf. A spindled roller passes over a revolving disc painted with ink and passes it onto the set type, which is then clamped against the platen holding the paper as the lever is depressed. Typesetting is time-consuming – setting a poem (his preferred font is Garamond 12-point) can take several hours – and the composited formes use up most of his type, so he keeps a poem, once typeset, for a month at a time.
I was rung by the radio about thirty minutes after hearing the news of Seamus’s death, and the interviewer reminded me about ‘Room to Rhyme’, the poetry and music sessions across small towns in Northern Ireland in the late 1960s or early 1970s, paid for by the Arts Council of NI and featuring Seamus Heaney, Davy Hammond and Michael Longley. If I had not been prompted, I might not even have mentioned it, I was so thrown by the prospect of having to think about what I would like to say about Seamus at fifteen minutes’ notice, and had some difficulty in mastering my emotions as I spoke. Since then, the memories have been flooding back. I think I went only to a handful of the Room to Rhyme sessions – the first one, perhaps, to report on it for the Irish Times, the others just to follow the magic. For me it was also an introduction to Northern Ireland, which few Irish journalists, or indeed few denizens of the Republic of any stripe, were able to enjoy during the 1960s.
Two poems by Seamus Heaney were published in the first issue of the LRB. A couple of dozen followed over the years, the most recent of them, versions of Rilke, in 2005. Two years ago Andrew O'Hagan wrote about travelling through England, Scotland, Ireland and Wales with Heaney and Karl Miller: Karl always imagines, in the Edinburgh style, that a beer means a half pint, but Seamus is a proper drinker and you see pints when he’s around.
On 17 May I received an email from a stranger in Qatar, telling me that someone in England had plagiarised one of my poems. Patty Paine, who teaches at the campus I did not know Virginia Commonwealth University has in Doha, and edits Diode, an online poetry magazine, pointed me to the site of another zine. There I saw a something that reflected my poem as if in a mirror that’s been through a house fire.
Last year the Turkish pianist and composer Fazıl Say retweeted some lines attributed to Omar Khayyám: You say rivers of wine flow in heaven,is heaven a tavern to you? You say two huris await each believer there,is heaven a brothel to you? Say was accused of inciting hatred against Islam and taken to court. As a schoolboy fan of Khayyám’s epigrammatic rubais (Persian quatrains) about wine and women, I once wrote an essay entitled ‘From Omar Khayyám to Karl Marx: The Struggle for Freedom’, in which I made some bold claims about the revolutionary role I believed he had played in the middle ages, based on my selective reading of some of the more than thirty Turkish translations of Khayyám that appeared during the 20th century.
You crazy people! I myself don’t know,I just don’t know which way this is –In straying to the black abyss,To death itself, or paradise,I’ll take you with me as I go. Anna Akhmatova, Moscow, 10 October 1959 (afternoon).
The Oxford Student recently ran – and later retracted – a story about a Bullingdon Club initiation ceremony which allegedly included burning a £50 note in front of a tramp. Whether or not the story’s true, it pales beside Baudelaire’s narrative prose poem ‘Let’s Beat Up the Poor’.
Just in, some promotional material for Poetry for Now: A Collection of Verse from the Heart of Modern Britain:
This book is rather unorthodox in that it contains poems exclusively written by people who work within Britain’s corporate sector. This includes surgeons, dentists, CEOs, solicitors and bankers. Some of these professions are unpopular with the media and are not often associated with the creative arts. Even so, during the past few years there has been a small but growing community of professional workers who are expressing themselves via the medium of ‘corporate poetry’.
The Scottish poet, artist, gardener, toymaker, publisher, provocateur and agoraphobic Ian Hamilton Finlay died in 2006. His afterlife has been tended mainly by the art world, which may have come as a surprise to Finlay, an art-school dropout, who wrote to a friend some time in the 1950s or 1960s: ‘The art racket must be broken... O Fat old dealers, O Art School Professors, O shoddy virtuosos – you are all going to hell.’ This attitude gave way over time to a vendetta against ‘state-aided’ art. His enemies included the Scottish Arts Council, Strathclyde local authority and Catherine Millet (now better known as Catherine M.), the editor of the French magazine Art Press. ‘People have always found me challenging,’ Finlay said in a 1996 interview. ‘I don’t know why, when I am only being myself.’
Next Tuesday (4 December) there will be an evening Celebrating Christopher Logue at the Southbank Centre's Purcell Room, featuring Craig Raine, John Hegley, Kate Dimbleby singing songs from Peter Cook’s Establishment Club, an extract from The Devils (in which Logue played Cardinal Richelieu, shown here), scenes from the 1965 poetry r
If you are a graduate student working on poetry, or a critic writing about an unfamiliar period or tradition, you will probably find yourself opening the Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics, for a few decades now the best point of departure for such questions as: what was Lettrism? Who are the major Flemish poets? What are the origins of rhyme? The first PEPP appeared in 1965; two of its three editors died in the 1980s, midway through the lengthy task of turning the second edition into the third. The fourth PEPP, published in August, is not only the first in twenty years, but the first with an all new editorial team: Roland Greene, Stephen Cushman and three associate editors rode herd on 1100 articles, some wholly unchanged, many lightly rewritten, and 250 entirely new. (I rewrote ‘refrain’.) It’s a big brick of a volume, almost the size of a child's head, and it may be the last edition of PEPP to take shape as a physical printed book.
Tomorrow night (Tuesday, 12 June) from 7 till midnight there will be a tribute to Christopher Logue at the Wreck, 65 Camberwell Church Street SE5, with poetry readings and music. Tickets £5.
On Saturday, the Guardian published a short poem called ‘Stephen Lawrence’ by the poet laureate, and recent Costa Prize-winner, Carol Ann Duffy. It was embarrassingly bad, I thought. But to judge by the response on Twitter, I was in a minority. 'This is what I want of a poet laureate! Brilliant Carol Ann Duffy poem re Stephen Lawrence,' Jon Snow tweeted enthusiastically, backed up by his Channel 4 colleague, Matthew Cain, who said the poem was ‘short but so very moving...’ The poem ‘sent a shiver’ down Tom Watson’s spine; Adrian Lester said ‘Succinct. Short and effective. Please read this.’ Other tweets included ‘a darkly moving summation’, ‘a powerful new poem’, ‘Another brilliant Carol Ann Duffy poem at the end of a momentous week’ and ‘Very moving. This is precisely why we need a Poet Laureate.’
It would have been a grey September day in Melbourne 25 years ago, lunchtime, that I was sitting in a car outside the ABC’s Broadcast House, listening to Christopher Logue being interviewed by Terry Lane, a former Church of Christ minister, who was laying into Logue with an unholy fury. The onslaught culminated in Lane declaiming: ‘Did you, or did you not, Mr Logue, claim the Queen of England is the Anti-Christ?’ There was a long pause, after which Logue remarked: ‘Well, I don’t remember exactly, but it does sound like something I might have said.’
There’s a TV reality show in the US (Same Name) about people with the same name swapping lives. I feel confident that the producers won't be calling on me. But a few weeks ago, Google alerted me to the improbable existence of another Ange Mlinko.
Ever since it began, years ago now, I've bought frocks and stuff from the Toast catalogue and online. In their first couple of outings they even had some over-40-year-old models. They are long gone, but I've remained loyal even though, as a young friend said, their clothes look like a conscientious but ironic remake of Miss Marple. It's hard growing old and still wanting to wear vintage-looking clothes. Two pluses so often make a minus. But recently, Toast has been alarmingly taken with its retro image, believing itself apparently to be more Virginia than Agatha.
Jessie and I were making our way to the Métro from the Jardin du Luxembourg when we literally stumbled – I think I tripped over a microphone cable – into the 29th annual Marché de la Poésie, an open-air, weekend-long festival of poets and poetry, with enough tents, booths, temporary stages, lecterns, folding chairs and rope lines to take up the whole of the Place Saint-Sulpice. The festival is big enough and famous enough to have developed a fringe (périphérie), a set of poetry-related events that continue until late June, in venues from the Portuguese consulate to the Halle St-Pierre in Montmartre. The organisers say that last year there were 509 exhibitors and 60,000 visitors.
The writer Arnošt Lustig died on Saturday. Born in Prague in 1926, Lustig was sent to Theresienstadt in 1942. He was later transported to Auschwitz and Buchenwald, but in 1945 escaped from a train taking him to Dachau when it was bombed by an American plane. He returned to Prague in time for the May uprising against the Nazis. His novels include Night and Hope (1957), Dita Saxová (1962), and A Prayer For Katerina Horowitzowa (1974). In 1989, the LRB ran a poem dedicated to Lustig by Rodney Pybus, called 'Ciao, Fighter!', later included in his collection Flying Blues.
The LRB came late to the poet R.F. Langley, who died this week: ‘Still Life with Wineglass’ was the first of his poems to be published in the paper, in 2001. By then he was in his sixties with half a dozen short books, including a Collected Poems (72 pp.), to his name. To cast one’s eye back over the list of early publishers – infernal methods, Poetical Histories, Equipage – is to understand Langley’s vivacious interest in the hedgerow and his singular indifference to the arterial road. His wonderful, slender body of work developed quietly, intermittently, in the world of the very small presses. No mistaking this kind of poet for a celebrity wordsmith or a national treasure: Ted Hughes and Johnny Morris are out, though nature is insistently present; Larkin and Eric Morecambe are likewise absent, but comic elegy is there in the mix.
Those who should hear, they hear no more,Destroyed is the army that went to war,With thirteen thousand their trek began,Only one came back from Afghanistan. These lines weren’t written by Andrew Motion or Carol Ann Duffy but by the 19th-century German novelist and poet Theodor Fontane. Between 1855 and 1859 he was the Prussian ministry’s foreign correspondent in London: he found himself increasingly frustrated by the local fondness for drinking and dancing (‘Music, as many have pointed out, is England’s Achilles heel’) and the class system (‘England and Germany relate to one another like form and content’).
Earlier this year the TLS took a couple of digs at Infinite Difference, an anthology of 'Other' (i.e. experimental, overtly difficult) poetry by women, edited by Carrie Etter. J.C. made fun of the poems' apparent incoherence: 'If you come across one that is prepared to meet shared experience even halfway, you catch yourself thinking you've got it.' Marianne Morris, one of the writers the TLS mocked, retorted on her blog that of course her poems did not make prose sense, since 'critical language and poetic language are different orders of discourse.' But she welcomed the harsh spotlight: 'That my work is quoted in the TLS at all is merely evidence of the ambitious and peculiar task' of trying 'to bring poetry that is written against mainstream regulations into the mainstream'. If you take these sorts of argument on their own terms you may end up either implying that all poems should make prose sense, or else defending all poems that do not (because they oppose a mainstream, break down barriers, and so on). Better, far better, just to read through the anthology,
It takes guts to name your blog after a book by Henry James; as well as guts, Steve McLaughlin has the time, the energy and the open-ended Greyhound bus ticket to crisscross the USA and Canada interviewing semi-prominent figures in experimental, or semi-experimental, poetry for a series of podcasts. McLaughlin, who recently graduated from the University of Pennsylvania (which is sponsoring the podcasts), has been recording his travels on his blog, The American Scene. There you can see his photographs of graffiti and his portraits of the people he has interviewed in Montreal, Toronto, Boston, Maine, Georgia, New York City and New Orleans; you can even read his brief, flattering notes about his interview with me.
If you want to distinguish poetry, the multifarious, sometimes ridiculous ongoing enterprise, from ‘poetry’, the set of prestigious texts (most by people long dead) found on school exams, and if the poetry in question is your own, you can attempt to make the verse you write as shockingly informal, as anti-academic, as unmonumental, as your other aesthetic goals permit. We recognise the New York School poets, and the poets who would be their heirs, by such attempts, which is why scholars who work on them face a paradox.
I get dozens of books and chapbooks in the post, unsolicited, every month, singly or in sets. One set stood out even before I cut the pages: five slender, staple-bound items with off-white covers, instalments of Lost and Found: The City University of New York (CUNY) Poetics Document Initiative: hard-to-find essays, letters and other archival discoveries by and about American ‘experimental’ poets from the last half century, meticulously edited and lightly annotated by graduate students at CUNY, under the general editorship of Ammiel Alcalay.
Now that Tiger Woods is making ready to pull the sock off the head of his driver once more, and with our concern and warm wishes going out to Sandra Bullock in her moment of heartbreak, who among us can ignore the devastating toll sexual addiction takes, not merely on the celebrities we love and admire, but on the broader society, a society reluctant to even acknowledge this serious mental health issue and the countless lives it affects, inevitably in the most damaging of ways.
From Christopher Ricks's forthcoming book True Friendship: Geoffrey Hill, Anthony Hecht, and Robert Lowell Under the Sign of Eliot and Pound, about 'A Certain Slant': This is finely 'Etched', at the edge of the first line, with 'Edged' likewise at the second line. In its precise finesse, in its unembarrassed self-consciousness, the effect is echt Hecht. (I know, I know, but our poet did advocate 'mens sana in men's sauna', and he metamorphosed Horace's 'Pyrrha' into 'piranha', as well as Wallace Stevens's 'Le Monocle de Mon Oncle' into 'Le Masseur de Ma Soeur'. And he is the justly proud author of Civilisation and Its Discothèques.)
A properly sceptical article by Anthony Gardner on the creative writing industry, in the latest Royal Society of Literature mag, quotes one teacher explaining that ‘creative writing schools in the US teach that a poem needs to have what they call “redemption”: something at the end which lifts the reader up.’ And you will know of course that all stories (including novels) need a beginning, a middle and an end. Also that short stories need to have a surprise final sentence, that all fiction must be written about what you know and rooted in your own experience and that paragraphs must never begin with ‘and’ or ‘but’.
Jacques Audiard’s new film, A Prophet (which won the Grand Prix at Cannes and best film at the London Film Festival), is a prison thriller, yes, but an odd one. In the best scene our hero, Malik, is handcuffed in a car, being taken by a rival gang through the countryside near Marseille to the beach for negotiations (he’s on day release).
In a villanelle mood, Colm Tóibín started the following poem. The immediate context was a remark by a colleague that our students (and indeed most of our colleagues) don't seem to get excited about theory the way they used to. The title and first stanza are Colm's, and therefore so are the rhymes. You can tell from the word ‘skid' that I'm running out of options. A Structuralist Lament They don't thrill at the sign as we once did. They see Saussure as one more dead white male Trapped between the ego and the id. The Elementary Structures all are hid, No Lévi-Strauss is heard to tell the tale: They don't thrill at the sign as we once did.
It’s the scale of things you notice first in John Ashbery. Plenty of his poems have a way with the short line and the ‘regular’ fit. But the long line, extended into the deafening silence that’s always about to ensue – this is the Ashbery signature. It’s an old, American question: from sea to shining sea, what is all that space about? And why are we here, if not to fill it? Ashbery prefers the urbanity of the coast, but he has a sense of the wide and worrying expanse at his back. It’s wrong to think his poetry doesn’t go there. It spends a lot of time roaming in the middle of nowhere, but it doesn’t advertise its adventures with spurs and chaps, or commendable species identification, or intimate encounters with the void.
People in England found it very easy to love the Queen Mother. She was, it seemed, a perfect repository of the national theme, Past Caring. She stayed in London during the Blitz, she didn't like foreigners – especially foreign women, especially Wallis Simpson – and she drank like a fish. She liked a party, loved a wheeze, adored a jape, and not far into William Shawcross's very admiring official biography, published this week, we find Elizabeth Bowes Lyon kicking up her heels in Paris in 1924. Elizabeth was assuredly a bit of a one. Apart from shopping, there was tea at the Ritz and dinner at the British Embassy. They also visited the Casino de Paris, 'where for the first time in my life I saw ladies with very little on, & somehow it was not in the least indecent'.
1. In the 11th century, Hsiao Kuan dreamed that he was taken to a palace where the women were goddesses or transcendents. All were dressed in green. One of them gave him a piece of paper and said: 'This is ripple paper. Would you please write a poem about a winter morning?' He wrote: The twelve towers of the palace hide women dressed in green. Wine flows from lion-spouts, spiced and fragrant, trickling through tubes called 'thirsty crows'. A servant turns the pulley, red liquid jade spurts out. Incense barely smoking, lotus candles almost gone, the five dragons of the clepsydra overflow with chilly water. Unaccompanied ladies, fish pendants dangling from crimson sashes, stand on tiptoe to watch the sun come up, far off in Fu-sang.
Last week, the Palestine Festival of Literature organised a discussion about travel and writing at the Dar Annadwa cultural centre in Bethlehem. One of Palfest's star guests, touring the West Bank and East Jersualem, was Michael Palin, whose early glories, before his reinvention as a traveller, were much on people's minds. He spoke well about growing up in Sheffield and cultivating a passion for Hemingway, but the audience was delighted when someone suggested that living under Israeli occupation was a bit like being in the Terry Gilliam movie Brazil. As the panellists stood up and tidied their books, a young Palestinian in the seat in front of me said she couldn't believe we were all with Palin in Bethlehem – Bethlehem! – and no one had thought to ask about Monty Python's Life of Brian. But with two other writers on the stage, there'd been a lot of ground to cover.
Something that seems to have been overlooked in all the fuss about who is and who isn't going to succeed Christopher Ricks as the Oxford professor of poetry is the new benchmark that's been set in voter apathy. After Derek Walcott pulled out of the race, Ruth Padel defeated Arvind Mehrotra by 297 votes to 129: that's a decisive ratio of 7:3, the kind of winning margin that political leaders, apart from those with the power to fiddle the results, can only dream of. On the other hand, since all graduates of the university are enfranchised, and there must be, at a conservative estimate, at least 100,000 of them walking the earth, the turn-out of 426 amounts to less than 0.5 per cent, which hardly counts as an overwhelming mandate.
On an unused door in Bristol, birthplace of Banksy, someone has stencilled, several times, in silver spray-paint: ‘Carol Ann Duffy for Poet Laureate’. And then in thick black marker between each glittering demand: ‘Yes!’ – I imagine they came back, ecstatic, on Friday to graffiti their graffiti. I didn’t know anyone cared so much. I thought everyone was with Ian Hamilton, who wrote in the LRB, just before Andrew Motion was appointed ten years ago, that ‘the whole thing is now generally agreed to be a joke.’ The post did, in fact, begin as a joke. The modern poet laureate evolved from the court jester.