Saturday 30 June 2012

Review: The Dark Film, by Paul Farley

Ever since the publication of his first collection, The Boy from the Chemist is Here to See You (Picador, 1998), I've been a firm admirer of Paul Farley's poetry. Later books did seem to indicate he might be following the well-trodden path of an ever-increasing enjoyment of erudition. However, his new collection, titled The Dark Film, marks not only a return to form but a raising of the bar, at least to this reviewer's tastes.

So why is The Dark Film such an achievement? Well, first off, it's a reconnection with what made Farley's poetry so outstanding in the first place: a keen awareness of the individual within a wider social history and landscape, a distinctive set of voices, colloquial verbal gymnastics and a playful connection with the reader. Nevertheless, this time Farley manages to go further. This is in no small part thanks to his growing consciousness of his positioning in the canon, of how his work fits with that of his predecessors.

Three examples from The Dark Film will show what I mean. Adults is a good starting point. Its opening lines read as follows:

"I'd look up to them looming on street corners
or down on them at night though my bedroom blinds,
crashing home from the Labour Club, mad drunk..."

Here is a poet who's read Douglas Dunn's Terry Street and is aware of possible comparisons and contrasts. Unlike Dunn's outsider's eye and academic's perspective, Farley is situating himself as one of these people in his childhood. Nevertheless, he's also clear on the dangers of playing up to that role now he's left those surroundings. Big Fish is a superb piece and underlines the point:

"...your birth street greets you with an ambush of smells:
teatimes in doorways where no-one remebers your name."

Farley is also pushing onwards and forging his own vision of Britain, all in the context of other poets from previous generations. One such example is Gas. The first stanza reads as follows:

"Seeing the country from a train
I've grown convinced its gasholders
in fact are used to house the spite
and gloom of post-industrial towns..."

There's an obvious nod towards Larkin's The Whitsun Weddings in the opening line, a knowledge that the remainder of Gas must necesarily evolve in the light of the earlier poem. Farley is recognising the inevitability of those afore-mentioned comparisons and contrasts, and embracing them. This is a different, updated, "post-industrial" view of Britain. In simplistic terms, if Larkin was projecting "love, hate, love" for the country, then Farley's line is more "hate, love, hate".

The Dark Film demonstrates that Paul Farley is coming to terms with his own idiosyncratic capacity for projecting a personal vision of contemporary Britain. It's a terrific book in its own right, but the most exciting part is that the best should be yet to come from him.

Wednesday 27 June 2012

Minor poems, major effects

Many of my favourite poets are associated with certain renowned poems, pieces that bear their hallmarks and are thus invariably chosen for anthologies. However, I find that often one or two of their so-called minor works stick most in my mind.

One such example is Keith Douglas and a little-mentioned poem, Canoe. For all its defects, Canoe entrances me from the start ...

""Well, I am thinking this may be my last
summer, but cannot lose even a part
of pleasure in the old-fashioned art of

...through to its ending, precariously balanced, somehow pulling off a success, as if Douglas were indulging in poetic excess in the context of war,as if he were writing an elegy for himself...

"...when this boat

travels with you alone towards Iffley:
as you lie looking up for thunder again,
this cool touch does not betoken rain;
it is my spirit that kisses your mouth lightly."

Canoe captivated me when I first read it at the age of eighteen, and I've carried it with me ever since. It might be a minor poem in the context of the body of Douglas'work, but it's had a major effect on me.

Thursday 21 June 2012

Maria Taylor's first collection

Maria Taylor's first collection, titled Melanchrini, is now available on the Nine Arches Press website. You can read an extract and purchase a copy here.

I first met Maria last year when we read together at a Nine Arches Shindig in Leicester, and I very much enjoyed listening to her work. Bearing in mind my own interest in identity and belonging as channelled throughout nationality and upbringing, I was especially drawn to the way she wove together her Greek-Cypriot background and U.K. based life. Melanchini will definitely be on my summer reading list!

Saturday 16 June 2012

Tom Duddy

I was deeply saddened yesterday to hear of Tom Duddy's death. He was an exceptional poet and his humanity shone through every line of his verse.

In a fairer world, Tom Duddy's collections would sell in their thousands. Even so, his popularity is guaranteed among those of us who are still convinced that poetry can be an accessible and entertaining art without losing its depth. His capacity to capture and transform moments, especially in terms of love, accompanies us now and in the future, as in this example from The Small Hours:

"...As thought gives way to love, the rhythm falters,
her breathing lurches and comes fitfully,

a name, hardly a name, is drily mouthed,
and I enclose her hand all-roundedly
and hold it, hold it, while the dream rages."

HappenStance published Duddy's first chapbook, which took its title from the afore-mentioned poem, while Arlen House brought out his first full collection, The Hiding Place, in 2011. I gave the latter book a richly-deserved glowing review on this blog back in December, and Tom Duddy found the time to write and thank me even in the immediate aftermath of the diagnosis of his illness. I'm just pleased he witnessed the slow-burning growth of his reputation.

I gather there was a new collection in the pipeline and I very much hope that it sees the light of day. Tom Duddy was acquiring an ever-larger band of poetic followers, and the best memorial would be to encourage more readers to discover his work. For the moment, I'd like to finish this post by pointing you in the direction of the recordings of four poems that he uploaded to SoundCloud, the last of them just a few days ago. Duddy was a terrific reader of his own verse. Listen, enjoy, remember him and spead the word!

Wednesday 13 June 2012

Learning poetry by heart

Learning poetry by heart seems to have become a political issue over the last few days. All this was started off by Michael Gove's proposals, followed by responses such as Simon Armitage's piece in The Guardian.

Leaving aside the wider educational and political ramifications and homing in on the poetry itself, I'm convinced that learning verse by heart is extremely positive. This learning is generally done aloud, as the pupil works at making the lines stick, at which point the cadences and rhythms of the poem take over. Poetry concentrates and heightens the music of everyday language, a fact that only becomes apparent once the link between the spoken and written word is established. Learning verse by heart facilitates the process.

I recall the moment when I realised I wanted to write poetry. The repeated reading aloud of verse at school had intoxicated me with the musical effects that it obtained, and I was determined to find out just how to achieve the magic myself. Once poetry gets hold of you, it accompanies you for life!

Wednesday 6 June 2012

Sheenagh Pugh on writers and displacement

Sheenagh Pugh has posted a thought-provoking article about writers and displacement on her blog. I very much recommend you read the full version here, but I was especially drawn to the following remark:

"...the writers who fascinate me do not have a sense of place so much as a sense of displacement..."

And on certain former students:

"...they observed the place where they now lived differently; they noticed and highlighted things that for a native-born poet might not have stood out, and over and over, their sense of the place where they were was informed by their equally keen sense of that other place where they had once been, but now were not..."

This ties in with my own feelings. The experience of living in a foreign country, immersed in the local language, culture and society, forms the core of my work. Not only does my background as a Brit inform my view of Spain, but my perspective of Britain is also conditioned by Iberia's counterpoint. I've learned how foreigners see my own place of birth, what surprises them, what they value and disdain both of the U.K. and their own homeland. I consciously and unconsciously sift through these angles, contrasting and comparing them, and I'm convinced they enrich my writing.

What's more, if we're talking about an enriching process, the learning of a second language to bilingual standard very much enlightens the use of a native language. My understanding of English has deepened thanks to having been surrounded by Spanish for the last sixteen years. My greater knowledge of the effect of words has played a key role in the development of my poetry.

Many thanks to Sheenagh for posting her article - it certainly got me thinking!

Friday 1 June 2012

Richie McCaffery's Spinning Plates

Richie McCaffery's Spinning Plates (HappenStance Press, 2012) is a book that I've been carrying around for the last few weeks while I grappled with it.

This is poetry that lures the reader in with inital accessibility and firm ground, before undermining its own point of departure, thus leading to puzzles, intrigues and challenges. A lazy critic might dismiss these as insubstantial games, but that would be to miss the point completely, as I'll now explain.

Let's start with the excellent example of the pamphlet's first poem, The professional. McCaffery offers us a first line that seems clearcut, before immediately casting doubt on it in the second line:

"You ask what I do for a living
and I don't think I can say..."

Meanwhile, his use of adjectives also shifts as the poem progresses. Stanza one sees "tell-tale", stanza two moves on to "pointless" and stanza three features "faint", "subtle" and "half-bearable". These tell their own story.

McCaffery is highly skilled in his use of language, high and low registers bouncing off each other as everyday contexts are illuminated. For instance, Brother finds a "sports-day race" alongside "obsidian wools" and "laurelled gloaming", while Mother juxtaposes a "Geoff Hurst kick" and "pink obelisks". Such a technique often seems flash, but it actually works very well in this case.

That is because McCaffery is harnessing his enjoyment of words. He's portraying an uncertain world of shifting perspectives (and thus registers), in which situations are as tenuous as the "spinning plates" of the collection's title. In Still, for example, the reader sees that only death is, like the corpse of a mouse, "sure as stone".

Demanding but eventually offering up rich rewards, Spinning Plates is a terrific first chapbook. Its merit lies in the way McCaffery manages to align his view of life with his poetics. Such coherence is a huge achievement for a poet of his age. I'll be following his progress with great interest.