Wednesday 23 June 2010

Review: The Sparks, by Ben Wilkinson

The Sparks might be Ben Wilkinson’s first pamphlet, published as part of Tall Lighthouse’s Pilot Series, but this is a young poet showing his mastery of varied techniques rather than trying them on for size.

Wilkinson’s work is meticulously structured and layered, displaying great turns of phrase such as “the sudden void of shadows” or “the prayer-still street”, yet his language isn’t flashy. Every word is doing a job. There are hints at wide reading and multiple influences - Wilkinson has a growing reputation as a reviewer - but he manages to limit their intrusion by deftly subverting them into his poetics.

One of the main strengths of The Sparks is its terrific evocation of the tension between individuals and the social and physical hubris that surrounds them, as in this example from The Quiet:

I was drinking my way through a fifth pint of lager
and sparked up a fag as the tidemarks grew larger,
walked to the bar as the music grew louder

and noticed in minutes I’d clocked up two hours
when stumbling away from the urinal’s cowl
I turned to the exit to make for your house…

Our journey through the urban labyrinth certainly preoccupies Wilkinson, even impinging on settings beyond the city. Booze, fags (and more!) are images that reflect this jostling and come to the forefront once more in the pamphlet’s closing poem, Reflections…

…as we sat on the shingle drinking lukewarm
cans of lager. Not even my Zippo flame could
captivate the water’s oil-black darkness…

…Well, after I sparked that joint up, just then,
from where we were sitting I swear the ocean
was held like that for one hell of a second…

In The Sparks Ben Wilkinson stakes out a poetic territory, both in stylistic and thematic terms, yet there’s clearly even more to come over the next few years. Conor O’Callaghan, a fine poet himself, provides a key insight on the back cover, stating that Wilkinson is beginning “the difficult task of unlearning”. This excellent pamphlet demonstrates he’s already a fair way along that route. I look forward eagerly to his first full collection.

Sunday 20 June 2010

Lyrics in contemporary poetry

Bearing in mind the ever-growing aural presence of lyrics in our daily lives, it's worth noting that more and more poems make use of them.

My current favourites include Matt Merritt's terrific I'm Your Man (from his Happenstance pamphlet, Making The Most Of The Light) with its references to Leonard Cohen, plus Maura Dooley's The Spoils (from Kissing A Bone), in which she invokes the singers and songs on the records that are being divided up by a separating couple.

As for myself, I've even alluded to a cheesy Paul Young song in a poem that might well find its way into my pamphlet. Dangerous territory indeed!

Wednesday 16 June 2010

Congratulations to Happenstance

This year's winner of The Michael Marks Awards for Poetry Pamphlets is Happenstance. Here's a quote from the corresponding press release:

Ali Smith, Chair of the Judges, commented: "HappenStance proved outstanding in the elegance, thoughtfulness and clarity of their design, and the infectious interaction, open-mindedness and energy of their publishing ethos."

Terrific news and deserved recognition for Helena Nelson's work!

Tuesday 15 June 2010

Review: In and Out of the Dark Wood, by Jeremy Page

Jeremy Page is both an editor and a poet. This combination has served him well in his excellent new pamphlet, In and Out of the Dark Wood, recently published by Happenstance Press.

He pulls off a delicate trick: there are few fireworks in the pamphlet, an absence of obvious devices, wordplay or heavy musical patterning, yet this collection is far from being chopped-up prose. In fact, it's packed with terrific poetry.

Page builds an unobtrusive music that's intrinsically married to his semantics. Language grafts here, enabling us first to identify with scenarios and then to transform them into a new creative process in the context of our own lives. All this sounds slightly pompous and theoretical, but few poets achieve time and time again as he does in this book...

Being here

Here, on the garden bench in high summer
we can agree it's over while the kids indoors,
oblivious, carry on and bicker and half watch TV;
we can agree that, no, we never expected
things would turn out like this, and pour ourselves
another glass of wine; agree that this is
somewhere that we never meant to be,
that in high summer it's a cold and godless place.

This poem displays an extraordinary understandings of how effects are obtained. The melody of everyday language is heightened by subtle repetition, while the killer word is "somewhere" at the start of the penultimate line. It doesn't need to shout its status as a metaphor from the poetic rafters. Instead, Page allows its ramifications to creep up on us, us just as they did on the participants in the scene.

In and Out of the Dark Wood might seem an intensely sad collection in much of its subject matter: the slip of generations, the loss of memory and the aftermath of divorce. Nevertheless, it's also a celebration of Page's generosity of sentiment. Experiences and observations are shared with such an acute and playful eye, the editor-poet revelling in life even when pain abounds.

I thoroughly recommend In and Out of the Dark Wood, one of the most understated yet outstanding pamphlets to have been published so far this year. Jeremy Page writes poetry that's been carved from experience.

Monday 14 June 2010

Escuela de Calor

Once we get to mid-June, the sun becomes relentless in Extremadura. Daytime temperatures regularly reach well over 40ºC and you have to be brave/mad/an Englishman to venture out of the house between 10 a.m. and 10 p.m..

In that context, it's time to invoke Escuela de Calor, a gorgeous subversion of a summer song, Radio Futura and Santiago Auserón (aka Juan Perro) at their best...

Thursday 3 June 2010

Review: Parade The Fib, by Rhian Edwards

I first encountered Rhian Edwards when we both read at a London Magazine launch a couple of years ago. She read her poems from memory with great intensity of feeling and rhythm yet managing to dodge theatricality. I later spotted some of her work in Stand and then got hold of a copy of Parade The Fib, her Tall Lighthouse pamphlet.

Parade The Fib might only contain fourteen pages, but it's packed with verve. Critical shorthand might put these down as "relationship" poems. However, that term doesn't do them justice...

"She wears her head
on the bone of her shoulder,
wraps his cold hand
in the skin of her own."

These pieces evoke scenes superbly, none better than in Marital Visit, the pamphlet's final piece. A slow-burning poem that defies quotation, it underlines the talent on show here.

Despite the publisher's references in the blurb to an "un-English sound" and "Celtic bass-line", Edwards' poetry relishes the music of British English with a delicate ear for its rhythms of speech, lyrically compacted. What's more, her treatment of the subject matter gives an implict nod towards Hugo Williams and Billy's Rain.

Once or twice, Edwards' linguistic drive and lack of inhibition lead to slips, like a rich sauce smothering a delicious steak...

"Tongues, once swaggered
with muscles of mirth, now flap
at the table, starved of all rapture".

Nevertheless, the overall impression is excellent: this is poetry in a contemporary idiom, dealing with relationships in a way that discovers them afresh. Poetic ambition and accessibility coexist in Parade The Fib.

I'll be intrigued to see how Rhian Edwards' work develops over the coming years. Will she sustain this intensity of tone and themes through a full collection or will she extend and deepen her range? Either way, she's a poet who's sure to find acclaim.

Wednesday 2 June 2010

Poetry at the Hay Festival

When reading the Guardian's feature on the Hay Festival yesterday, I was struck by the absence of poetry. Hay seems to verge on a denial of the genre's existence, as if active involvement with verse could marginalise the festival!

I was thus delighted to see in today's edition of the same paper that Simon Armitage used his appearance at Hay to make that very point:

"...he felt rather a lonely figure at this year's festival. "I wish there were more poetry events," he said. "There are more bodyguards here than there are poets."

Hay is terrifically popular with readers of novels, while access to such people in the context of a festival is just what poetry needs in its search for a larger audience. I very much look forward to seeing next year's programme in the light of Armitage's remarks.