Friday 27 January 2012

Larkin's influence

In the light of the recent publication of Philip Larkin's Complete Poems, it's interesting to note a changing attitude to his work among contemporary British poets.

Back in the 1990s, emerging figures rushed to reject his verse. For example, Bloodaxe's The New Poetry seemed very much a representative reaction against it. It appeared forever tainted by misogyny, lack of ambition, racism and an insular view of the world, representative of a Britain that was seen as being backward both in poetic and social terms.

In the last few years, however, a certain balance has started to be restored. Few would deny that Larkin's views on certain subjects were distasteful to say the least, but there does seem to be a growing awareness of how he played to the gallery and cultivated a persona, such as in his stage managed pretence that foreign poetry hadn't influenced him. As a consequence, his poems are shaking off the hubris. Their depth of ambition is being acknowledged beyond their simple facade.

This change is noticeable in the number of poets who mention him in interviews. Even if they do so with qualified disparagement, there's an implicit recognition of his importance. What's more, he's also quoted frequently without the poet in question fearing a pigeonholing of his/her poetics. For example, Allison McVety uses an extract from his work at the start of a section of Miming Happiness. In fact, she also quotes from Wallace Stevens elsewhere in the book, showing that both poets can be read alongside each other. 

Well, I myself first fell in love with poetry thanks to Larkin's work. Even back then, I was aware of not sharing much of his world view, but I was captivated by the way he achieved new and precise clarity via a mastery of his particular poetics. His influence is still there in my work, albeit under layers of further reading and experience, just as I now spot him more and more often peeking out from under the stanzas of certain other contemporary British poets.

I'm not hinting at the take-off of some new "Movement", but I do have absolutely no doubt that a fresh perspective on Larkin is at work in parts of new, emerging U.K. poetry, not rejecting or kicking back against other influences in some insular way, but blending and enriching. These are exciting times!

Monday 23 January 2012

Fito y los Fitipaldis

Contemporary Spanish pop might be as frothy as Anglo-Saxon stuff for the most part, but there still seems to be a niche for certain groups and singers who manage to retain a degree of ambition within the boundaries of the genre. Fito y los Fitipaldis are one such group. Without being ground-breaking, they are extremely successful while also reaching beyond the most obvious stereotypes. This live version of Soldadito Marinero shows just how a great tune can also be combined with lyrics that tell a story.

Thursday 19 January 2012

Gerry Cambridge's Notes for Lighting a Fire

Bearing in mind that Gerry Cambridge's Notes for Lighting a Fire has come out with HappenStance, who also publish my pamphlet, Inventing Truth, I suppose I must be biased when saying it's excellent. For that reason, I don't feel I can credibly write a full-blown review of it as such.

However, I will say I'm thoroughly enjoying it. Only HappenStance's second full collection, Notes for Lighting a Fire is first-off a gorgeous object to hold. There are top-notch production values involved in this hardback book, plus an elegant design. As would be expected, typsetting and proofreading are first rate.

The poetry itself really hits the mark for this reader: accessible yet with demanding resonances, Cambridge's craft is not obtrusive. His effects creep up, moving you imperceptibly at first, gathering strength and then hitting home. In that sense, the poems in this book very much lend themselves to the slow-burning, cumulative force of a full collection.

Nature is a key focus for Cambridge, yet it doesn't exist as some stand-alone concept to be revered. Instead, it plays a role in everyday lives, contextualised by other situations as in "Gorse in Middle Age", in which the smells and memories of a hillside of gorse are brought back to life for the narrator by the scent of the coconut butter that his partner puts on before bed.

In linguistic terms, meanwhile, Cambridge is playful in his use of register yet also coherent - every choice of word is deliberate, as in the following example from "Christmas Oranges":

"... the shades of pips
in the cool translucence -
the thrawn wee buggers, the embryos

lavish with thought of perpetual groves".

There's a juxtaposition of Scots, colloquial language, delicate physical description and abtract nouns here, all working in unison to create a terrific effect.

I could quote umpteen wonderful poems, but that would end up like a spoiler for a film. What's more, I started the post with a disclaimer that this wouldn't be an actual review,so why not get hold of a copy of Gerry Cambridge's Notes for Lighting a Fire and let the story unfold for yourself? You won't regret it.

Monday 16 January 2012

Matt Merritt on Ink, Sweat and Tears

Helen Ivory continues to publish all sorts of interesting stuff over at Ink, Sweat and Tears. Most recently, I've especially enjoyed Matt Merritt's terrific poem, Chirimoya. You can read it here. Merritt's piece chimes with my interest in food-related poetry, plus there's the inevitable Hispanic angle.

I still remember the first time I tried a seemed almost alien, but was actually grown on the Granada coast, along with a wide range of tropical fruits that thrive in the microclimate down there. These days you can find it in shops all over Spain, as the fashion for tropical fruit reaches Iberia too.

Wednesday 11 January 2012

Bilingual Borges

I'm grateful to Kathy Bell for posting a link on Facebook to a fascinating resource that can be found here. It's the audio recording of Jorge Luis Borges' Norton lectures in 1967-68.

I very much recommend a listen, but with a decent pinch of salt: Borges is always provocative, especially in articles, lectures and interviews. He loves playing games, juxtaposing contradictory statements or leading us down blind alleys. They are his ways of challenging us, reflecting his view of the everyday as a labyrinth that he then extends into art. Critics and students of his work often snatch at some quote that seems to sum him up, quite forgetting how easy it is to find him apparently stating the opposite elsewhere. In other words, he's more of a stirrer than a teacher.

In this specific case, these audio files are also particularly interesting as a record of Borges' command of English. His bilingualism is a powerful element in his work - both Hispanic and Anglo-Saxon influences converge in Borges.

When he writes in Spanish, I'm very aware of English-language lexical structures and devices running through his syntax. When listening to his Norton lectures, I can feel Spanish-led thought feeding into how he expresses himself. This duality lends an extra texture and freshness to Borges' use of language, playing a significant role in making him so unique. Instead of diluting his command of language, Borges' bilingualism adds immeasurably to his writing.

Tuesday 3 January 2012

Pen and paper

When asked about their creative process, a growing number of poets seem to mention that they write verse directly onto a screen. We're not just talking teenagers here - many of them are from my generation or older.

I can't envisage myself ever doing so, not only due to the ritual of picking up a pen, looking at a blank page and feeling its crisp, smooth touch. Instead, my preference for paper is mainly practical: my work might take ages to come to physical fruition, more often than not preceded by lengthy conscious and unconscious thought processes, but the initial actual act of writing is a dash. I rush to get down ideas and turns of phrase before they escape, first taking one route, then another, doubling back or careering onwards, all of this in a burst of concentration that might only last a few minutes but forms the basis for the poem.

If I were writing directly onto a screen, the delete button would be far too accessible during that intense tumble. In fact, the final poem comes later (if at all!). Days or weeks afterwards, there's a slow-motion reenactment of the rush, something that would be impossible without pen and paper having been used in the first place. No matter how often you save a draft from a screen, no way can a string of saved files provide a complete "paper" trail.

Pen and paper give me a complete record of the drive that set me off, letting me back in to my poem's core. Via the afore-mentioned reenactment, I retrieve and discard an element, recall how and why I took a certain path, and above all find a new perspective that helps the piece come together as a whole. I can't imagine writing without these two tools, but so many other poets appear to be doing so. Another question might be how their poetry is changing as a consequence...