Thursday, 29 January 2009

And as for Paul...

Following on from my previous post about the development in Douglas Dunn’s work and the difficulties thus posed for me as a reader, I’ve been wondering about other poets who also seem to have taken a similar journey. By this I mean that their work has evolved towards greater mastery and density of technique, more poems within poems, an ever-increasing enjoyment of erudition and a waning appeal to my personal tastes.

I thought and think that Paul Farley’s The Boy From The Chemist Is Here To See You is one of the most outstanding first collections I’ve read. I love its distinctive set of voices, colloquial verbal gymnastics and playful connection with the reader. A vast majority of its poems have stayed with me since 1998, which is always an excellent sign.

I bought Farley’s next book, The Ice Age, as soon as it came out, read and reread it over the following few weeks. Without knowing quite why at first, I realised the poems just weren’t hitting home. Right now, off the cuff, I can’t dredge up any of its pieces without opening the book and refreshing my memory.

The same goes for Tramp in Flames, Farley’s third collection. I admire both later books in technical terms, perhaps even more so than Farley’s debut, but I’ve stopped enjoying them as much and connect with fewer and fewer poems. Something of a blow, bearing in mind that this is why I read!

It’s easy to speculate about what’s happened. As therapists would have it, both of us must probably share our guilt! The fact is that the three collections have grown in length – from 48 to 54 to 72 pages - as has their density. Since The Boy From The Chemist Is Her To See You, Farley’s life has grown further away from Art College and Liverpool, moving more into the world of workshops, academia and readings, etc.

Farley’s still young enough to surprise us with new directions. I’ll be straight out to purchase his next collection, because I still believe he’s one of the most idiosyncratic and inventive poets writing in the U.K. today. It’s just I’m not sure how much longer we’re going to last together…

Thursday, 22 January 2009

Douglas and me

I dipped into my set of Douglas Dunn books once more yesterday and was reminded how much I admire a great deal of his poetry.

No matter how often I re-read him, Terry Street still stands out alongside Elegies, despite the occasional wobbles in voice that characterise so many first collections. My battered copy was printed before I was born and apparently cost more new (60p) than I paid for it second-hand, which lends it extra kudos. I particularly relish the tension involved in Dunn’s self-imposed ambivalent status as an outsider living on Terry Street. His detached observations are juxtaposed with sharp notes of personal engagement, as in “Incident in the Shop”:

“…I feel the draughts on her legs,
The nip of cheap detergent on her hands…”

Memorable lines, not Kitchen Sink, nor derivative Larkin.

Dunn’s later collections certainly contain excellent work, but his writing also seems to revel more and more in its own ever-improving standards, entering into a dialogue with itself. An exception is inevitably the outstanding Elegies, where the dialogue is of course with Dunn’s memories of Lesley. Immediacy is regained, now combined with consistently dazzling skill, studded with turns of phrase that have been with me ever since I first read them eight years ago…

“…these days of grief
before the grief..”

“…The clinic of “sympathy” and dinners…”

“…the muddle of lost tenses…”

Plus numerous others I could mention.

Since Elegies, I’ve tried and failed to engage with Dunn’s writing. I admire its excellence but cannot warm to it, as in this example from the collection Northlight…

"…Time lets its scientific minutes drop
On the Australian emptiness, a brown
Rugged geology where clocks are baked
In God’s kiln…"

Virtuosity that leaves me cold.

The aim of this post isn’t to bash the way Dunn has developed as a writer, rather to point out that the relationship between a poet and his reader can mirror that of a couple who grow apart as their tastes change. No matter what I may think of the latest work, I treasure Terry Street and Elegies, which says as much about me as it does about Douglas Dunn.

One final point – Dunn’s choice of work from Terry Street to be included in his Selected very much reflects his developing ideas. I thoroughly recommend the original collection and original running order.

Thursday, 15 January 2009

English in Spanish, Spanish in English

After his excellent reading in Zafra few years ago, I was lucky enough to share a few tapas with Antonio Gamoneda, whose unique body of work I’ll describe in more detail in a later post.

We ended up discussing his collection, Blues Castellano, a remarkable attempt at using the tools of The Blues in Spanish verse. Our conversation then ended up at Borges’ door – I’ve always felt specifically English cadences, structures and devices permeated all Borges’ work, especially his prose. Bear in mind that his childhood reading included authors such as Chesteron, while he collaborated with his translator on the English-language versions of his work.

Gamoneda’s Blues Castellano is an intensely Spanish re-interpretation of the form, as he uses it to engage with personal and social melancholy brought about by the darkest period in Spain’s recent history; Borges, meanwhile, linguistically spooks me – at times I feel I’m reading Spanish in English or English in Spanish, both languages playfully enriching each other, such is his knowledge of the cultures and connotations involved.

Tuesday, 13 January 2009

True Life Stories

Circumstances took me into W.H. Smiths the other week (my son’s urgent need for Thomas the Tank Engine books!). Glances along the shelves provided a brutal reminder that a poetry section doesn’t exist there (in the Chichester branch, at least), although “True Life Stories” seems to be growing at an alarming rate.

And there was me thinking poetry was also a genre that excels at bite-sized morsels of Faction.

Wednesday, 7 January 2009

Black Pudding and Angel Gonzalez

Contemporary Spanish poetry often appears to live very much in the shadow of its immediate predecessors in many senses, none more so than in the way critics and poets themselves constantly pigeonhole work in a “school” or “movement”. There seems to be some sort of belief than this is the only way to emulate the 98 Generation (1898) or 27 Generation (1927) in their originality.

The idiosyncrasy of Angel Gonzalez, a poet from Asturias in northern Spain, stands out even more in this context. His death last year drew a definitive line under my vain and vague hope that I might one day attend a reading by him. This hope had always been kept on hold by his exile in Alburquerque, New Mexico, where he’d taught and then retired, meaning that readings in Spain became few and far between.

Gonzalez fought against being pigeonholed throughout his poetic life, realising that the battle lines drawn up by others were in fact limits instead of marks of identity. His work varies greatly in metrics, aesthetics and semantics, from pithy pieces that provide tremendous poetic sound bites to lengthy humanistic landscapes. I have to admit that I fell in love with the former, as few other contemporary Spanish poets hit the spot as concisely as Angel Gonzalez. Here’s a renowned extract from Glosas a Heraclito, a great example of how to grab the beat-up old myth kitty by its short and curlies…

Nada es lo mismo, nada
la Historia y la morcilla de mi tierra:

se hacen las dos con sangre, se repiten.

An impossible translation might fail along these lines…

Nothing’s the same, nothing
History and my homeland’s black pudding:

both are made from blood, both repeat.

Great (and brave) stuff when you bear in mind that this poem was written in the context of the Civil War and its aftermath.

Tuesday, 6 January 2009

Evangeline Paterson

Despite never having met her, I’ll always remember Evangeline Paterson with gratitude – she gave me my first decent magazine credits as editor of Other Poetry several years ago, backing my work every time I sent her off a batch. That encouragement was crucial to me at the time.

I chased down a copy of her New and Selected, titled Lucifer, with Angels and published by Dedalus (1994), enjoyed her poetry and desperately hoped she saw something of herself in my own incipient voice.

Perhaps the dispiriting part of this story is that news of her death reached me as I was immersed in her book, wondering how such talent had been sidelined by the contemporary poetry scene. Evangeline wrote clearly, imparting music and life to specific examples of universal issues. She was an excellent storyteller, squeezing her tales into concise verse, an undervalued attribute. Her self-effacing wit stood out, as in the ending to “A Wish For My Children”:

“and may you grow strong
to break
all webs of my weaving.”

Any educated reader not used to poetry could engage with her work immediately, which is an acid test that I ask any poet to pass. Evangeline Paterson deserves a wider readership now, just as she did during her lifetime. If you can get hold of her poetry, I thoroughly recommend it.