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 7 November 2015

"Tears in the Fence, No 62" (Winter 2015) by David Caddy (ed)

A mixed bag of poetry and prose, with a lot of material that's hard to get from elsewhere.

Poets and poems

The "Notes on Contributors" contain several references to Shearsman, and many, more mainstream successes - people long-listed or short-listed in the NPC, winners of (or short-listed in) the Poetry Business competition, long-listed for the Costa Prize, National Poetry Prize judge, a pamphlet published by Acumen. My favourite pieces were by David Greenslade. Several of the rest I didn't finish.

Of Tradition & Experiment XII

I liked Jennifer K Dick's account of how the poems that enthralled her long ago with their sonic and visual effects have led to their successors. She quotes from a Carol Snow poem (an extract I like) -

     I saw the houses across the street and thought paper dolls,
a picket fence, the innocence

of repetition
because houses
have no business wounding me.
                    Not pleasure; I did not take pleasure in

the angles and planes which man makes, that light
shared by the painted surfaces-

saying this on p.113 -

the poem is a dance of music and sight - punctuation and italics adding layers and depth to the poem, the line breaks and indentations destabilizing the flow, or rather carrying it aloft. The force mentioned when speaking of Donne, Hopkins and Frost is still here, as evidenced in the internal rhymes of fence/ innocence // surfaces or the Hopkinsesque use of 'Not' in the fifth line, as well as the way that line repeats itself on two sides of the caesura-creating semi-colon. But the visuality of the poem adds also to the sound, the italicized words in the above section perhaps stemming from an internal voice. The punctuation here is used in both visual and sonic ways, cutting into the flow of the music, holding it back, visually, where the semi-colon acts as a kind of dam where the normative choice would have been a comma, then releasing it again via the use of the long dash and the end of line 7

The release or stretching from one line towards another as if they are quite far apart is also accentuated by the use of line breaks and how the enjambment crosses over the stanza break between lines 2 and 3 and 5 and 6. In the case of the stanza breaks, the space acts as a visual and sonic gap, the white of the page actively participating in the poem, slowing or stretching out its progression so that the time of observation takes place, the 'in' is felt.

I wish there were similar descriptions of the workings of some of the magazine's poems. Or better still, a devil's advocate description of a poem's abuse of such effects. I don't agree with (or even understand) all of this description, but at least I've a better idea now of how people justify their impressions. It takes more than a line break to destabilize my flow (when I read prose I don't pause each time I hit the right-margin, and many line-breaks in poetry are margins in disguise) and what does "carrying it aloft" mean? And why make a dam out of a molehill? To me, the use of "wounding" is a bigger deal than anything that the formatting provides.

Later in the article she writes that the poets she likes "cross linguistic borders - at times losing me entirely, but not unhappily" (p.116) and "These authors collage, cross-out fragment and stutter, include visual images and diagrams on their page, incorporate foreign languages and mix or include English errors - as space for the illegible and unreadable in the reading process, and as a method of revising the History of the self and its nations". If nobody likes/understands a particular passage of a poem, I'd claim it's misjudged. If only some people like/understand a passage, then maybe in a hive-intelligence way they could help the other readers who could call their bluff. Also the use of an approved, fashionable technique doesn't assure that the result is any good, just as the use of unfashionable ones (rhyme, closure) doesn't mean that the writer has antiquated notions of self and nation.

Steve Spence

In his review of Steve Spence, Alan Munton points out that "readers want to read as they have always done. That is, to construct meaning from the sentences (not only the words) before them. This gets difficult when the sentences are not meant to help" (p.118). He ends with a quote from a poem, then a comment.

Here we have a media house
of mirrors when what we all
need are more windows on the

It doesn't matter if that sentence approaches cliché such brilliantly critical poetry as this is indeed a window upon the always-speaking world that we necessarily live in.

I've read several Spence poems now. I liked the first one or two, then the novelty wore off. I've no expectation of constructing meanings. He seems to have a list of sentences using "yet", a list of sentences with numbers in them, a list of sentences from manuals, etc, and deals lines from these lists to make poem after poem.

Kevin Nolan

Andrew Duncan begins his review of "Loving Little Orlick" by Kevin Nolan with "The starting line is that I think this may be the most important new volume of the 21st century. I find it endlessly fascinating and yet indefinable". He goes on to say -

  • I don't think it is, really, similar to White Stones - but the resemblance in terms of bebop-like rapidity is enough to make it an envy-object. After all everyone has tried to write like The White Stones - at least in Cambridge/ This poetry is supremely difficult to describe and master at the same time that its individual parts are perfectly clear and fluent (p.120)
  • it shifts themes with quicksilver fluency and that velocity is a key tonal value (p.123)
  • Close reading seemed to be pitiful in its lack of celerity, and anything else seemed inaccurate and disappointing (p.128)

I like how Duncan's prepared to say that he thinks something is "good" even if he feels he can't explain why. Significantly, he tries hard to explain why first.

Lyric Shame

David Caddy reviews Gillian White's The Lyric Subject of Contemporary American Poetry

  • The 'lyric' has become increasingly persona non grata in American literary circles since the Seventies with the expressive use of lyric subjectivity being associated with egotism, decadence and political conservatism
  • Poets have since the Modernists applied pressure on the category of the lyric
  • In an engaging chapter she explains how Sexton's poetry exposes and explodes lyric reading assumptions about poetic interpretability
  • White sketches the history of the ascendancy of Language poetry as it brought the concerns of poststructuralism into poetics and was critical of the personal, expressive lyric and its surrounding canon of taste and acceptance
  • She notes ... how some traditional lyric poets have begun to align themselves closer to the avant-garde since it has become institutionally powerful
  • A close reading of J.H.Prynne, Tom Raworth, Denise Riley, and others in the Sixties and beyond reveals that there are more diverse ways of expanding the lyric and the speaking subject than might be suggested by American anti-lyricism.

Caddy recommends Anthony Mellor's Late Modernist Poetics

Jackson Mac Low

Robert Vas Dias tries to "investigate what systemic-chance operations are, give examples of some of the poems and procedures, ask how they affect what we mean by 'poetry' - and, indeed, art itself - and summarise why they're influential". He writes that "using the word 'poetry' to describe such work, I'm up against the view of those who say it isn't - something that doesn't concern me too much any more, but which used to". He points out that "Where language is concerned, many people will not put up with a content of what they consider to be 'non-meaning'.", quoting Mary McCarthy (Partisan Review No3, 1972) - "language, unlike painting and sound, can't slough off its primary function of saying something. When it tries, we simply stop listening". Later he writes "Essentially what Mac Low is doing represents a new stage in the movement begun by Pound and other sixty years ago to do away with conventional poetic and syntactical structures"

I'm happy to accept that the method of production can be a contributing factor when appreciating or assessing a work of art, and that the resulting text may have some conventionally poetic attributes (especially if you start with a Tagore poem). I agree that by widening the notion of the term "poetic", the generated text may have a type of poetic value that's easily eclipsed in more conventional texts. But why bother?

The reviews

The non-essay reviews use a familiar review vocabulary "exquisite ... graceful ... compelling ... language that is lyrical and precise, cryptic and playful, syntactically structured in ways that are unexpected and original ... a poem I find so painful I can hardly bear to read let alone write about it ... Poignant, heart breaking words ... the sense of precious fragility ... almost too painful to read ... assured ... muscular"

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