Tuesday, 20 October 2020

To sink or swim...?

While the pandemic continues to rage with no sign of any light at the end of the tunnel (in supposedly libertarian societies at least, where a political obsession with the theory of individual freedom is ironically leading to its practical curtailment), as people and poets we mistakenly feel left with a stark, binary choice: to sink or swim.

In the early stages of this phenomenon, social media was buzzing with examples of surges in creativity, of creativity being put on hold, of extreme reactions to an extreme situation. However, everything seemed temporary and sudden, something we would soon be able to place in temporal brackets. As the weeks and months go by, so we're forced to come to terms with a long-term scenario, and our mindsets consequently change.

There's one analogy that I find useful on a personal level. When I first came to Spain as a student and language assistant, I loved it. There was always a clearly defined time period for my stays and I relished the counterpoint to my life in Britain. Nevertheless, once I made the decision to move out permanently, that buffer was removed and time yawned ahead of me, vast and disorientating. I took me several months to get to grips with the waves of homesickness that hit me.

And that's what we're dealing with now: a form of homesickness and longing for our previous lives, of not knowing when they might return. This process requires us to be patient, to reset our day-to-day routines and then by extension our reading and writing. It's not a question of sinking or swimming. It's a reconciliation with ourselves.

Thursday, 15 October 2020

A poem in The New European

I'm absolutely delighted to have A Poem for Europe in this week's issue of The New European...

Friday, 9 October 2020

Universality (on Louise Glück and the Nobel Prize)

I was pleased to hear that Louise Glück has won the Nobel Prize, as the championing of her work can only encourage non-readers of contemporary poetry to realise that the genre offers multiple interpretations beyond their preconceived expectations. However, I was struck by a quote from Anders Olsson, chair of the Nobel committee, which read as follows:

Even if her autobiographical background is significant in her works, she is not to be regarded as a confessional poet. She seeks universality...

The above statement is unfortunate, to say the least. It perpetuates numerous fallacies. For a start, no poem can ever be fully defined as autobiographical or confessional, even if the poet in question were to claim such a status or label. This is because role playing always becomes a factor once the creative process is set in motion.

And then there's the absurd implication (beyond reference to Glück herself) that a poet is somehow barred from universal appeal if their poetry is also partly autobiographical or confessional in its point of departure. How many of the greats would that rule out? Such a claim would definitely cast aspersions over certain previous winners of the same award!

All in all, Glúck's win is excellent news, but its annoucement was couched in terms that could at the very least be interpreted as critical shortcuts. Her poetry and the genre in general both deserve a more nuanced understanding of the role of autobiography in any and every poem.

Wednesday, 7 October 2020

On the Creative Writing at Leicester blog

I'm the featured poet today on the Creative Writing at Leicester blog (see here). There's a sample poem (taken from The Knives of Villalejo) together with an introduction that gives an idea of its genesis and of my method in general. Thanks to Jonathan Taylor for the invitation!

Tuesday, 6 October 2020

Larkin and women from a contemporary perspective

As a female herself, Nicola Healey is ideally placed to cast a critical eye over Sinéad Morrissey's reinterpretation of Philip Larkin's view of women, and she does so to excellent effect in her recent essay on Wild Court, which begins as follows:

In Sinéad Morrissey’s collection On Balance (2017), Morrissey selectively quotes from Larkin’s ‘Born Yesterday’ (1954) as the epigraph to her titular poem, ‘On Balance’. She decontextualises his lines, however, to bolster her poem’s feminist drive, distorting Larkin’s poem and misleading the reader from the outset...

Healey then goes on to address wider contemporary concerns about Larkin's stance, making pertinent points not only about recent bandwagons but also homing in on current unease, not just in Larkin's case, when considering pieces of art alongside the biography of the person who created them. She comes to the conclusion that...

...Larkin the man is not beyond reproach, but for the hard-won gifts he bequeathed to us, Larkin the poet deserves more than this.

However, rather than just  tasting these morsels, why don't you read the essay in full over at Wild Court (see here) and savour its nuanced flavours?

Wednesday, 30 September 2020

The looming shadow of the present, Robert Selby's The Coming-Down Time

When describing Robert Selby’s first full collection, The Coming-Down Time (Shoestring Press, 2020), there’s a danger that critics might reach for terms such as “traditional” or “nostalgic”, particularly as the poet evokes and invokes an England that’s about to undergo a seismic shift.

However, those afore-mentioned terms would do Selby’s work a disservice, as they would misinterpret his implicit contextualising of the past and the delicacy of his touch. Selby’s work rewards patient rereading: poems that might seem a pastiche or anachronism are in fact inviting the reader to engage in a dialogue with the present. In The Coming-Down Time, what’s left unsaid is often even more important that’s what actually stated, and the impatient reviewer can easily miss these nuances.

One such example is The Sycamore. A pertinent comparison would be between the opening lines to the first and final stanzas, which read as follows…

The black-faced smithy’s boy of Brig o’ Turk
propped his bicycle against the sycamore
before his final shift at the clanging hearth,
soon to head to war to escape the bore
of pouring coal into the firepot’s girth…

…Long since the blacksmith sold off the yard,
since war ended, resprouted, withered again,
and the Trossachs became a National Park,
the bicycle protrudes still, a man-made limb
mimicking new growth…

These two extracts clearly mark the passing of time, as individual and social histories are portrayed in parallel, while the natural and human world are also juxtaposed to fine effect. Nevertheless, the poem’s significance pivots around the moment at which its narrative stops. The Trossachs became a National Park in 2002, and Robert Selby is leaving unspoken all the changes that have taken place since then, inviting us to continue with his temporal journey, making it our own, implicitly encouraging us to carry on to the here and now.

In other words, contemporary England might be termed “the elephant in the room” in The Coming-Down Time. Selby is entirely aware of the looming shadow of the present throughout his collection and plays on the knowledge that readers will approach these poems via the lens of 2020 with its new conflicts, tensions and changes. 

It might be something of a cliché to state that we must understand the past in order to get to grips with the present and future, but that doesn’t make such an affirmation any less true. As a consequence, The Coming-Down Time is far from being behind the times. In fact, it could barely be more relevant.

Monday, 28 September 2020

A second poem in The Spectator...

 Just like that old cliché about buses, I've been waiting for years to have a poem in The Spectator and now two have come along in quick succession!

Here I am again in the 26/9 issue. And no, I still can't quite believe it...