Literary reviews by Tim Love.
Warning: Rather than reviews, these are often notes in preparation for reviews that were never finished, or pleas for help with understanding pieces. See Litref Reviews - a rationale for details.

Saturday, 15 February 2020

"The luckiest guy alive" by John Cooper Clarke (Picador, 2018)

I've long had a soft spot for him. I couldn't find much to like in this book though. The odd line faintly amused me - e.g. "Startled eyebrows pencilled in. Taking compliments on the chin" (p.37). My favourite poems were "Crossing the floor" and "Trouble @ t'Mall".

Other reviews

  • bookmunch (In this age in which people pussy foot around saying anything that might offend anyone in case it, you know, destroys their careers, we need JCC more than ever.)

Wednesday, 12 February 2020

"helium" by Rudy Francisco (button poetry, 2017)

He's a Spoken Word poet. There are some good lines, some of which are presented as short poems -

  • "I have solar-powered confidence/ and a battery-operated smile./ My hobbies include: editing my life story,// hiding behind metaphors,/ and trying to convince my shadow/ that I'm someone worth following." (p.15)
  • "I held you the way a boat holds water. I should have have left when I felt us sinking" (p.29)
  • "depression ... getting out of bed has become a magic tick. ... I treat my face like a pumpkin. I pretend that it's Halloween. I carve it into something acceptable" (p.31)
  • "Why did you leave? Because you wouldn't let me love both of us at the same time" (p.34)
  • "When you choose to be a poet, you become a place that people walk through and then leave when they are ready" (p.39)
  • "There was a moment in my life when I couldn't tell the difference between a window and a mirror. I could look into both and see everything but myself" (p.47)
  • "Being black is one of the most extreme sports in America. We don't need to invent new ways of risking our lives because the old ones have been working for decades" (p.59)
  • "Forgiveness is the well that all of my water comes from. I pour it over my past, apologize to my reflection. He accepts." (p.83)
  • "it doesn't matter if the glass is half full or half empty. There's water in the cup. Drink it and stop complaining." (p.93)

Other reviews

Saturday, 8 February 2020

"The long haul" by Alan Buckley (HappenStance, 2016)

Poems from Ambit, The Dark Horse, Oxford Poetry, The Rialto, etc.

"Flame", "Sherbet Lemons" and "Being a beautiful woman" all start well, keep going and end even better. I won't quote from them because it might spoil your future reading of these pieces. "Loch Ness" has a good plot but is too long, or doesn't have enough of a twist.

4 poems in, and I've already read enough to justify the pamphlet. After that though, there's nothing quite as good. "His Failure" uses assonance between pairs of lines.

Other reviews

  • Marion Tracy, Carl Tomlinson, Charlotte Gann (There are ghosts, and hauntings: gaps where people have been lost or never born. But time and again I’m struck by the choice of frame)
  • Matthew Stewart (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.)
  • Alison Brackenbury (Buckley’s work is assured, often unshowy: ‘I bring you no fireworks.’ But I remember this claim with admiring disbelief at the end of his astounding poem, ‘Sherbert Lemons’.)

Wednesday, 5 February 2020

"Rainstorm with goldfish" by Martin Edwards (HappenStance, 2012)

Poems from The Interpreter's House, The North, The Rialto, etc.

"Morning Song", the first poem, begin with the stanza "There was a frog/ memorized/ under ice". Each line-break precedes a surprise. The 2nd stanza is "and a bird-skull/ there/ on the palm of my hand:". Fewer surprises there. Then in the next stanza, 3 surprising comparisons in a row - "little perched ghost,/ go-between,/ empty tent". Such comparisons need to stretch the reader without baffling them. I suspect different readers will have different breaking points. I like "memorized". I don't get "go-between" though I like"little perched ghost".

A few poems (e.g. "Birthmarks") were short, straightforward, and not too interesting. Most poems had some enviable imagery. "The possibility of snow" begins with "The pages of the snow-fall/ are opening, they flicker/ and the little/ derelict school/ shivers", and "Grief" has "All the palaces of your voice were empty;/ all the labyrinths of your fingerprints".

Other reviews

  • Hilary Menos, Nikolai Duffy and Matt Merritt (Edwards' subject matter is various, but he treats it all with the same sure, deft touch (Menos); There’s a restraint and precision about Martin Edwards’ work that’s apparent from the first poem here (Merritt))

Sunday, 2 February 2020

"Fleche" by Mary Jean Chan (Faber and Faber, 2019)

Poems from Poetry Review, Poetry London, PN Review, London Magazine, Rialto, Magma, etc. The book also won the Costa Book Award for Poetry in 2019. I had trouble liking it. "Practice" was the first poem that I thought ok. The "Riposte" section contains my favourite pieces - "At the Castro", "They Would Have All That". Less so "Names (1)", "Safe Space (II), "11". Later I liked "an eternal &".

At first some of the paraphrasable matter (e.g. in "Vigilance") interested me, but too many poems go on about the same subjects (mother dealing with lesbian daughter; a women wanting to be accepted though she's mistaken for a man and likes woman; multilingualism; assimilation), arbitrary variation being introduced by way of typography - slashes instead of line-breaks; wide-margined double-aligned; stepped lines.

Analogies aren't striking - "as when a great wind / pushes a small boat out to sea / before it is ready" ("Vigilance"); my arms are weak as hand-pulled noodles"" ("song"); "all the sounds a body makes when it becomes its own instrument, rehearsing the songs it has learnt across the centuries" ("One Breath")

"Wish" uses extended analogy - "my lover often says look up!/ as she admires a canopy of green ... my languages are like roots/ gnarled in soil, one and indivisible/ except the world divides me endlessly ... lately I've been trying to write/ a poem that might birth a tree/ a genuine acceptance of the self/ continues to elude me"

The title poem and The window (Shortlisted for the Forward prize for best single poem) are online.

Other reviews

Wednesday, 29 January 2020

"Spirit Brides" by Togara Muzanenhamo (Carcanet, 2006)

In "Captain of the Lighthouse" the narrator and his brother are on an anthill, playing make-believe. "We man our lighthouse - cattle as ships. We throw warning lights whenever/ they come too close to our jagged shore. The anthill, the orris-earth/ lighthouse, from where we hurl stones like light in all directions.". At the end the narrator writes that he misses his brother now. It's a rather wordy poem. I like the plot. I liked "Half Untold" except for the format. "Man in the Bowler Hat" was ok. "The Conductor" contrasts a conductor with baton to a head-master with cane. Poems on pages 18-20 seem rather slight.

"Six Francs Seventy-five" is a sestina. "The Dawn Chorus" is a sonnet. The book ends with "Gamiguru", a 10 page piece mostly laid out as prose. He inserts passages of purple prose (with mixed results - I don't think irony's being used), and passages of adjective-rich prose. Here are some phrases that caught my eye

  • Turning in the distance are the white tri-sails of a wind farm
    Strange and quiet - those tall metal ghosts writhing in unison,
    Their bladed arms glinting like broad scalpels slicing the slow shine
    Where the last folds of daylight ache before the gathering storm
    How do the turbines writhe?
  • the night staggers through the empty streets, the cold wind whistling out of tune (p.28)
  • Drivers eating meat-pies, listening to radio shows hosting phone-ins at three in the morning, or playing games to pass the time - counting the centre white lines or cat's eyes, trying to figure out how many pass within ten seconds or so, how many pass in a mile (p.30)
  • the German car rolling into the garage as safe as warm honey twirling into a jam jar (p.32)
  • These thoughts in the late hour, face after face falling into the dark; each dead portrait lost to hopeless memories framed beneath quiet glass. And tonight they come with stones, whole mobs with sticks and fire - chanting, readying to break every window of the years (p.33)
  • The old projector's fan hums through each guillotine changeover, and specks of dust float casually in front of the hot white light of the lens (p.37)
  • The nights unfold on flash-lit crests of waves beneath a full moon,/ The wind rushes at frosted windows like the wraith of a blood bull (p.53)
  • At meetings they called him Cenotaph because his eyes held the fire of their long lost dead and the spirit of those still fighting (p.59 - the ending)

Saturday, 25 January 2020

"The Craft" by Rishi Dastidar (ed) (Nine Arches Press, 2019)

I have a few book on how to write poetry, amongst them -

  • Judson Jerome's "The poet's handbook". An old classic. "Most good poetry is metrical writing", it says, with chapters on accentual syllabic meter, end rhymes, etc, ending with chapters entitled "Sensationalism in modern poetry" and "Finding and audience: publication."
  • Paul Hyland's "Getting into poetry". This is much more about the UK poetry scene - movements, readings, small-press, competitions, organisations, where to get help.
  • Ruth Padel's "52 ways of looking at a poem". This has articles about particular poems. I like it.

Nowadays a book to help poets develop needs to be more than a text book containing the rules of sestinas, the use of line-breaks, etc. Sections on Marketing and Networking are useful too, as are sections on various moral and psychological issues, and how to avoid scams. And the examples shouldn't just be from old, canonical poems. What brought this home to me years ago was reading John Redmond's How to write a poem, which dealt with several broader issues and used a Jorie Graham poem in the final chapter ("one of the greatest poems of the late twentieth century") to bring together the ideas from earlier chapters. It's not a beginner's book.

This new book, "The Craft", has articles/essays by many practicing poets. In his Foreward, Dastidar notes that craft "can become a way of excluding people from the art, through suggesting ideas of standards that are unclear to beginners - and even to those who have been writing for a while" (p.11). I've experienced this when others are admired for their mastery of line-breaks. He goes on to write that the book's aim isn't "to supplant craft in poetry or overthrow it, but rather to broaden and deepen what it means in the 21st century".

The sections deal with Forms, Making Poems, Bringing Poems to Life, and Craft meeting Real Life. I like the approach. It mixes informative sections with sections that focus on the poet. Indeed, I'd be tempted to have sections that pull back even further from the text itself. Why are you trying to write poetry rather than prose? Why write at all? Why show your work to others? Creative Writing tutors alas have a vested interested in keeping people writing.

Personal mentors also want the people who pay them to continue writing, though I heard on a podcast recently a mentor who said that she sometimes only had a single meeting with clients. A mentor can ask the client what they want and help them achieve it. Or the mentor may begin by finding out what the client really wants - if they think they were brought up badly, publishing poetry about their experiences may not be the best option.

I suppose it has to be the pupils' choice in the end so why shouldn't they write poetry if they want to, even if they might be more successful - even by their own definition of "success" - if they wrote prose. And this book will help them. Anyone who writes poetry will find help here, along with things to argue against. The articles all include practical advice.

Marvin Thompson gives useful advice about choosing sestina end-words and breaking rules - see also my sestinas article. I don't agree with Carrie Etter's definition of the prose poem, or with the idea of producing such a definition (though I agree with her observation that "writers generally fall into one of two camps: those who 'spill' or overwrite and them slash away, and those who build a piece of writing word by word" - I'm a builder). I prefer Tania Hershman's article showing how assumptions and techniques can be sneaked across the border between prose and poetry - "I often find with both stories and poems that I have buried the beginning in the middle, because I've had to write my way into it, the way a high-jumper has a run-up before she leaps. So I delete the first paragraph, the first few lines".

Karen McCarthy Woolf gets a bit heavy - "The possibility to expose and resist the binary via the couplet's duality, which can simultaneously rupture and repair, was also compelling". Caroline Bird makes several points I'm going to bear in mind -

  • "When you reach the line you instinctively suspect is the end (perhaps it neatly sums up an an emotion or brings the situation to a close, or lands on a particularly beautiful image) slalom through it"
  • "A metaphor doesn't know it's a metaphor, it thinks it's real, just like a dream believes itself, so the poet's job is to dream the dream not translate it"
  • "keep writing until the subject matter is no longer what the poem is about"
  • "If you commit with enough gusto and grit to following the impetus of language, writing into the nothingness, focusing on the pictures as they appear in your head, then literally any subject matter can and will lead you to profundity whether you like it or not"

Monizi Alvi tackles line-breaks - "it's as well that reasons can be given for them in terms of what they're doing, or achieving, in the poem" she writes. Indeed, but even when she can choose the poems to comment upon, I don't find her explanations convincing. She writes "I was also keen to to avoid any possible rigidity of form" yet in the accompanying extract the left-alignments are regularly organised. Antosh Wojcik's piece might work better as a live demo.

The pieces are enthusiastic rather than balanced, not mentioning downsides. Rishi Dastidar suggests that poets try the very types of (gimmicky?) titles that make me distrust the poem. Liz Berry's advocacy of the vernacular could be viewed as privileging of one's own language over that of the majority of readers - should the English abroad really continue speaking English, only louder?

Dean Atta discusses writing in other voices, a topic whose controversies are largely evaded here. If people are impressed by a poem in the voice of a racist homophobic white man, it shouldn't matter who wrote it. You might think that a non-racist female would have more difficulty writing this than a racist homophobic white man would, but knowing that Patricia Smith wrote the poem doesn't make the poem better - it makes the poet more impressive. And if Patricia Smith's poem wasn't good, I don't see why it's any more shameful than writing a poem unconvincingly set in Paris. Atta suggests reasons why poets might want to adopt personae - "Do you want to better understand and empathise with someone who has wronged you? Do you want to write a bridge between your experience and theirs? Do you want to highlight some universal truth that transcends race, gender, sexuality, age, etc? Or are you simply just bored or writing about yourself?"

Clare Pollard in her article on translation points out how it can lead to friendships and to escaping the limitation of local trends. She admits to admiring Somali poetry "which can seem clumsy ... the politically charged rhetoric ... the seeming bagginess, the extreme alliteration, the shifts in address, the digressions" thinking that "they just use techniques which are currently deemed 'unfashionable' on Creative Writing courses".

Harry Man, dealing with tech, points out that "It's often said among the security services, their successes are private and their failures are public, where for poets the inverse is true". I've never used Instagram. He points out that "Instapoetry's craft is in its hashtags and the timing of posts, in its similarities to famous quotes, its combinations of backdrops and text, consistency of style and approach, community interaction, keywords .... These elements of an instapoem's craft have usurped a lot of the techniques we're used to seeing ... So nobody panic, the instapoem is just as well crafted, it's just that we can't always see the brushstrokes". The list of apps (for AR, etc) is eye-opening. I might try a few.

Joelle Taylor points out that spoken word "is bound with the politics of class, race and gender", and that "Authenticity is a key word in the art. When dissected 'authentic' invariably means 'working class'".

Julia Webb offers tips on how to write about others without upsetting them. She also points out that "Changing or losing some of the details of a real-life event can make it more believable as a poem".

The nearest I've come to writing this type of article is Truth to materials and Heather McHugh which fits in with the Craft theme, but is short on practical advice.

Other reviews