Monday, 19 April 2021

Anecdotal Poetry...?

Anecdotal Poetry. What does this term mean to you? In my experience, it's often invoked disparagingly and dismissively by certain critics, reviewers and editors to describe work that seems to take a rooted place or experience as a point of departure. It's used to imply the poems under scrutiny are somehow lacking in imagination and of less consequent artistic value than pieces that have been written via other approaches.

In fact, this perspective isn't just a slight on the poetry in question, but also a misinterpretation of the very essence of the genre's transformational powers. In summary, it encapsulates a wilful confusion of the nature of poetic truth, as if such poems were a simple relaying and portrayal of fact.

What term might be used in its place? Realist Poetry is useless, as it also imposes similar pigeonholing limits that are equally and intrinsically absurd. For example, surrealism is simmering away just under the surface in any decent so-called realist poem. On second thoughts, I'll leave this last question to people who are obliged to answer it by academic demands and constraints...

Friday, 16 April 2021

A poem at One Hand Clapping

I'm pleased to report that I've got a new poem up today over at One Hand Clapping alongside excellent work by the likes of Julia Copus, Samuel Tongue and Mat Riches, etc, etc. You can read it by following this link.

Wednesday, 7 April 2021

The archaeology of home, Brian Johnstone's The Marks on the Map

Brian Johnstone’s new collection, The Marks on the Map (Arc Publications, 2021), takes those afore-mentioned maps as a point of departure, observing their landmarks and the consequent parallels that can be drawn with our lives, particularly with the ageing process.

One excellent example can be found in ‘Outfield’, which evokes the development of an Ordnance Survey map…

…A slow collapse
to dereliction – flagged as ‘ruin’ there,
in brackets, on the map – then nothing

on the later OS sheets…

The poem comes alive via Johnstone’s deft description of the human changes that mirror the building’s decline:

…The hillside
clear of habitation, bar the farmhouse
standing empty, your father

gone, bedded in a care home,
blind; the light I saw each evening
switched off, disconnected at the mains.

In the above piece, Johnstone draws mainly on implicit comparisons that can be made between the building and the people around it. However, in other poems, he portrays the contrasts, as in ‘Primrose’, which also begins with a reference to the Ordnance Survey before homing in (sic) on the specific connotations and ramifications of a landmark on the speaker’s own life:

...New housed ourselves, and wed the year before,
we wondered what the place had left to share,
what archaeology of home we might obtain.

Some floor tiles, red and heavy fired clay, we left
an age ago in a cottage long moved on from,
and this small plaque still with us here today.

A finger plate, it holds the touch of generations,
the shepherd it depicts guiding them like flocks
to lower pastures for the coming autumn days.

This extract contains a pivotal, beautiful turn of phrase, the archaeology of home, that very much encapsulates the drive behind The Marks on the Map. Moreover, Johnstone’s tracing of the gradual loss of the souvenirs plays a pivotal role in pitching his own ageing process against that of the building. Of course, the evocation of autumn in the last line invites connection with the four seasons of life, human beings, nature and buildings all coming together. There’s no instruction to the reader, just juxtapositions that allow implicit connections to be made.

Brian Johnstone’s interpretation of the role of maps, landmarks and buildings in our lives is not only skilled and infused with experience, but it also provides a personal perspective that encourages us to view those roles afresh, leaving us to ponder the marks on our own maps. It might be time to stow our Sat Nav and dig out those old Ordnance Surveys once more.

Tuesday, 30 March 2021

Forget, forgot, forgotten...

When I was chatting to my friend Mat Riches the other day, he reminded me of the comparisons and contrasts that we could make between the likes of George Kendrick (whose poetry was the focus of my latest essay on Wild Court) and the likes of Maggie O'Farrell (whose poems from the 1990s have featured recently on my Twitter feed). 

If the former might fit into a category of forgotten poets, then the latter could well be included in a separate grouping for poets who forgot about poetry. In O'Farrell's case, she abandoned verse for prose in the shape of the novel, although she did so at a far earlier stage in her literary development than many others. However, I get the feeling this journey has been made by several well-established poets over the past few years, and I wonder about their motives: artistic, financial, size of canvas, readership...? Moreover, I don't often see them making a return trip. Or am I wrong...?

Friday, 26 March 2021

Harry Guest (1932-2021), the ephemeral nature of poetic fame yet again

When John Greening posted on social media the other day that Harry Guest had died, I was taken aback to note that the news didn't then spread far more widely.

I'm not at all qualified to write an obituary of any sort, but I do know that Harry Guest was a significant figure in British poetry who published with Anvil/Carcanet and was widely anthologised. In fact, I even have a battered copy (picked up from an Oxfam shop in the early 1990s) of the Penguin Modern Poets that featured his work...

In other words, his passing seems to me to be yet another example of the ephemeral nature of poetic fame. Of course, as Bob Mee mentioned on Twitter, the poets who "disappear" are often among the most interesting to read.

Wednesday, 17 March 2021

Thank you, Eleanor!

Now that Eleanor Livingstone’s stint as Director of StAnza is coming to an end, I’m sure there are many people who are better qualified than me to provide an overview of her long-term contribution to the festival’s development.

However, as a poet who read at StAnza in 2019, I just wanted to put on record my thanks to her. During my days in St Andrews, I was struck not only by the scale of the event and by the countless details that were required to ensure its smooth running, but also by Eleanor’s capacity to pause and treat every individual poet as a person. Moreover, her love of the genre shone through at all times. It’s no exaggeration for me to state that she played a huge part in making StAnza a magical experience.

In other words, thank you, Eleanor! I now hope you get to enjoy the festival from the other side of the fence (and without quite as much stress) in 2022…!

Monday, 15 March 2021

George Kendrick's poetry

My essay on George Kendrick's poetry is up at Wild Court today. Here's the opening paragraph to give you a flavour of the piece...

Let’s take a forgotten poet who went from publishing with Carcanet, garnering a PBS Recommendation and receiving excellent reviews in the broadsheets in the process, to barely appearing in Google searches for his name. Let’s chuck in an almost cinematographic biography with enough intriguing details and mysterious gaps to set a screenwriter’s pulse racing. Let’s top it with off with a dedicated small publisher who’ve finally managed to bring together a Selected that’s taken from an unpublished manuscript and a generous wodge of work from the first book. Let’s assume his work must have been neglected for a valid reason, and let’s guess that the poems themselves probably aren’t much cop when we read them decades later. Except they are. In fact, several of them are outstanding and deserve a place at the top table of 20th century UK poetry...

You can read the rest by following this link.