Monday 25 July 2016

Jamie Baxter

I've blogged previously about the fundamental role that top-notch poetry journals can play in drawing our attention to new names and keeping us up with more established writers' recent work. Perhaps one of the most consistent over-achievers in this respect is The Next Review, and its latest issue is no exception.

On finally finding time to sit down and read through it, five poems by Jamie Baxter leapt off the page. They were keenly observed, measured, restrained yet packed with emotional charge. I googled him, of course, and encountered further excellent examples of his verse at The Literateur (see link here).  Another poet to follow and another reminder of why I value my magazine subscriptions so much!

Saturday 16 July 2016

Inspiring and depressing

Kate Clanchy's recent feature in The Guardian, titled The Very Quiet Foreign Girls poetry group, was both inspiring and depressing.

The inspiring aspect was the way Clanchy described how she used poetry to help her disadvantaged pupils, demonstrating once more just how powerful verse can be as a positive influence on traumatised children. The depressing aspect was her point of comparison with a very different group that she had taught some years before:

"I had judged the Foyle and run the course back in 2006, and seven years on, the Foyle young poets group I had taught were scything through Oxbridge, publishing poetry pamphlets with Faber, writing for the national press, and all the time networking frantically. By mixing together this group of exceptionally talented youngsters – many of them privileged but a few definitely not – that course had forcefully changed most of their lives. I wanted some of that for our students: not just the poetry, but the sense of entitlement, and, yes, the networking too."

I have absolutely nothing against the Foyle Young Poets scheme, quite the opposite in fact, while I understand and share Clanchy's well-meaning argument. My concern is with the portrayal of that first group's achievements, with the implicit definition of success and the conception of poetry as a career that revolves around "networking frantically". Verse is a vocation, never a career.

Tuesday 12 July 2016

The ache of possibility, Alan Buckley's The Long Haul

Alan Buckley’s new pamphlet, The Long Haul (HappenStance Press, 2016), sets out its stall from the title onwards.

The afore-mentioned title works on two levels. On the one hand, it’s the closing words to a delicious poem called “Stalactites”. On the other, it’s an implicit reference to Buckley’s poetic journey. Following a well-received pamphlet back in 2009, this is only his second publication. He represents the antithesis of a careerist bright young thing.

Hard-earned, slow-burning skill runs throughout The Long Haul. The pacing of lines is so measured and precise that the craft and ear involved go almost unnoticed. One specific example of Buckley’s deft pacing is his use of qualifiers, as in the following extract from “Loch Ness”:

“…Better, surely, to have
the doubt, the ache of possibility.”

Meanwhile, in another poem, titled “His Failure”, Buckley takes those qualifiers a step further into altered repetition:

“… I felt
Like a god. No – scrub the indefinite article –
like God. My hangover, though, was two days of hell…”

Only an extremely talented and experienced poet can pull off this device and make it necessary to the poem in hand. Moreover, Buckley qualifies his statements not to undermine them but to layer them and grant them depth.

Aesthetic texturing works hand in hand with pivotal thematic concerns. Buckley portrays the long-learnt absence of absolutes in language and life. The kid, the student, the young lover are all gone and are all still there in the older man. He dares to feel, again and again, as in “Flame”:

“…And lovers know too
how even a single
flame might raise
a scar that time can’t heal.

So come, stand next to me;
let’s flip this little box.
Strike softly away from the body.
See how it urges us.”

Of course, the key here is the sudden rush of “urges” after two weak syllables, cadence melded to meaning.

This is an unusual pamphlet by an unusual poet, one who quietly grafts and grafts away, before presenting us with sure-footed piece after sure-footed piece. A first full collection by Alan Buckley would be a book to behold. For the moment and for a fair old time to come, we’ll have to savour these nineteen chiselled poems. After all, he’s in it for The Long Haul.

Friday 8 July 2016

The cat flap

As part of the website for his new proofreading and copy editing venture, Copy Cats, Richie McCaffery has launched a poetry-oriented blog, titled The Cat Flap, alongside the business side of things.

There are already several intriguing and thought-provoking posts on subjects such as the value or otherwise of poetry reviews (see here) and the possible reasons why certain poets are forgotten while others are fêted (see here). The Cat Flap is an extremely welcome addition to the poetry blogging scene and I'll be following its progress with relish!

Sunday 3 July 2016

The unexpected

No matter how much craft and how many drafts I devote to certain poems, they never seem to come alive. However, their trail remains in my notebook. When I move on to a new one, I trawl back through its predecessor and start on the first page with a list of those clumsy pieces, with the challenge of previous failures.

When flicking through the pages of the full notebook, I spot that those drawn-out efforts are interspersed with sudden new poems in unexpected bursts. And that penultimate word becomes key. The unexpected is where verse is born, where the subconscious springs a surprise and I realise it's been brewing a new poem for weeks or months, or a fresh tangent turns stale stanzas on their head and one of the old drafts springs to life at last.