Wednesday, April 02, 2014



after Marina Tsvetaeva

for H.

Where did our tenderness come from?
As if yours were the first curls
I’d felt close, ran fingers through.
You’ve kissed lips darker than mine.

The night came cold and starless,
snowstorms swept in from the east.
Though others’ eyes have met mine
with that same, uncertain peace.

But I've never known songs like these,

songs that still go on … the dark
pulled close, my head on your chest,
and the world clear-cut for once.

Where did our tenderness come from?
What to make of it? Love,
I imagine you passing me by –
your azure eyes, sharper than anyone’s.

poem by Ben Wilkinson

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Poetry in Motion


Why one Reds supporter is committing his love for Liverpool FC to verse

Feature and poem in the Official Liverpool FC Monthly Magazine, issue 20, April 2014
(click the link to buy a copy)


Monday, March 10, 2014

Review: Christopher Reid's Six Bad Poets

A farce-in-verse about the japes of a bunch of hapless poetasters might not sound like the most gift-worthy of reads. Yet Christopher Reid's latest volume looks to have been packaged with an eye to the festive market. Or at least a readership bigger than that of your typical slim volume. A hardback with claret endpapers, its dust-jacket features sketches of the eponymous sextet, looking suspiciously like the gaggle of writers manqué in Posy Simmonds's Tamara Drewe. As the poet Alan Jenkins once quipped, where poets used to be mad or bad, now they're mostly just sad. But if Reid proves one thing in his versified tale of a poetry scene gripped by ambition, hubris, lust and stupidity, it's that there's life in the old (and not-so-old) dogs yet.

The leading light in this spoof is the aging Charles Prime. Back prowling the streets of Soho, he is an all-but-forgotten poet, fresh from a decade doing time for crimes undisclosed. "Weather eye tuned to the main chance", in "gingery hacking jacket and tight jeans", he cuts an effete, poverty-stricken and self-infatuated figure; when not trying to bed former lovers, he gatecrashes any event where free booze and nibbles are found: art galleries, poetry readings, even a funeral reception ("but be fair, a man must eat").

Like all of the poem's characters, Prime is as much a hackneyed caricature as he is utterly recognisable, especially to those who have attended a literary gathering or 10. Stereotypes, after all, tend to exist for a reason. The lives of Reid's five other bards gradually coalesce around his, lending the story cohesion, improbable as these chance overlappings can feel. Antonia Candling, one of Prime's exes, is the "doyenne of London poetry", happily editing an anthology of elegies in the wake of her husband's death, and appears as cheerfully mean and tritely middle-class as her friend-cum-rival Bryony Butters, "poet, novelist, and more besides", who never misses an opportunity to brag about her meagre achievements. Between them comes the arrogant Jonathan Wilderness, a young gunslinger who likes to "fly the flag of his own genius as conspicuously as possible", and fancies making his name as Prime's unofficial biographer. Meek Jane Steep, a waitress and poet "still in search of her voice", is the most underdeveloped of Reid's characters, but does act as ill‑advised love interest to the pitiable Derek Dufton, a poet and academic who we first find, in a comic masterstroke, dozing off in one of his own lectures.

The main thing to admire about Six Bad Poets is its readability. Eschewing the formalities of Byron and Pope that are the hallmarks of satirical verse, Reid pitches his lines between poetry and prose, though he is not beyond the occasionally brilliant end rhyme. Take one of Dufton's university colleagues, recalling a student's complaint: "Some second-year wants to blame her depression / on his lectures. I know he can be prolix, // though the term she actually used was 'complete bollocks'." Quite.

As a poet who first appeared as part of the weird-metaphor-toting and mercifully short-lived Martian school, Reid also puts his (now earthier) gift for memorable description to nifty use. Jonathan Wilderness comes in for particular flak, impressed with himself "like a puppy with his first erection", or else looking like "some new-fangled poncy kind of pirate". Doubtless a few paranoid and fresh-faced poseurs will half-suspect themselves the model here, but of course, half the fun is guessing just who Reid might be lampooning. "Does chopping / a person's head off in reality necessarily follow / from the menacing metaphors in some – / fuck, was it a poem?" worries Jane Steep, and while the image may seem naggingly familiar, Reid is also sending up our tendency – whether readers, critics or poets – to conflate art and life, and the grubby business of poets with the alchemical magic of an unforgettable poem. Without giving away the tale's ending, it is telling that the last scene finds the sensational memoirs of a minor talent being "quietly remaindered". Alongside the slapstick, wit and antics, Reid's playful tragicomedy often feels like a lament for all our modern fakery, self-obsession and celebrity-chasing, a situation far from unique to the world of literary affairs.

Entertaining and admirable as it is, then, Six Bad Poets makes for a strange sort of book. If Reid hopes that it will be more than sniggering schadenfreude for poetry insiders (and surely he must), for the intelligent, casual reader the poem too often and too easily confirms their worst suspicions about, as one of Reid's poets puts it, "this whole world of nasties, nuisances, nincompoops and nutters". Poets, agents and publishers (and, perhaps worst of all, a boozy gathering full of them) can be awful, but they are hardly a species apart from those in any profession where there are perennial tussles for power and influence. In a rare and unfortunate moment in which Reid elects to tell rather than show, he bids us to ignore the "minor peccadilloes" of an "author-editor / schmooze-session". Rather, he suggests, we should "seek out, identify and skewer / the world's more pernicious moral murks". Noble enough, you might think. But coming from a former editor, in a satire that persistently picks at the inconsequential wheelings and dealings of the London poetry scene, it is also a bit rich. In spite of these failings, though, Six Bad Poets shows Reid at the height of his mordant comic powers, and remains an ambitious, fun, and engrossing read. In an age beset by the cult of personality, it is also a very welcome one.

Monday, January 27, 2014

Gazza Agonistes

The boy could not sit still, could not keep quiet. When told off, he would be contrite, but the itch was plain to see: none of this talk really mattered. And when he took to the field, he played not for the team-plan but for himself, or so it seemed. Sometimes, according to Sexton, he was like a 'chicken with no head', running in all directions, needlessly frantic and aggressive. He hogged the ball, held onto it too long and frequently lost possession in his own half of the field.

But then of course he would do something wonderful - like beat three men, curl a free kick around the wall, split the defence with an outrageously angled pass. At such moments he was indeed a little gem.

Sound familiar? Recent years have seen foreign players vilified for their apparent selfishness - Christiano Ronaldo and, most recently of course, Luis Suárez. It's a legacy handed down from Alf Ramsey's World Cup success and a footballing culture that has always prized dependable work-rate far and above erratic flair.

But Ian Hamilton is writing about Paul Gascoigne here, and we maybe forget how many improbably talented home-grown players have suffered, as much at the hands of their own recklessness, with flying too close to the burning glare of English footy's peculiarly resolute (and resolutely peculiar) attitudes.

So long as it goes on, we will never win another World Cup, or the Euros.

Monday, January 20, 2014

Review: David Herd's All Just

Despite the promise of political satire in its title, David Herd's first collection, Mandelson! Mandelson!: A Memoir (2005), wasn't about New Labour's infamous spin doctor. Nor was it much of a memoir. Instead, its concern was "the age of Mandelson": a world of hyperreality, sinister anonymity, confusion, mis- and disinformation overload, surface sheen and little substance. The book's brisk, tumbling, disorienting poems supplied a mimetic equivalent to our early twenty-first century, where politics, and indeed the language we use, have become increasingly divorced from any stable sense of reality. Herd's style was not a new one. The influence of John Ashbery and the New York School is apparent in any postmodern attempt to make poems a direct record of the muddled process that engenders them. Nevertheless, Herd's mixture of broad societal concerns with that particular kind of poetics produced a first book that was as provocative and freewheeling as it was deliberately baffling and infuriating.

His new collection, All Just, sees a continuation of that project. Its title strikes a note of exasperation and inequity, but also gestures towards the shortcomings of language: semantic slipperiness, contextual imprecision and redundant cliché may be permanent problems, but these, the poems imply, are exacerbated by the babble, officialese and celerity of our times. The book's opening poem, "3 a.m.", looks beyond Ashbery and back to Arthur Rimbaud, one of the original pioneers of lyrical abandonment, recasting the prose style of the enfant terrible's letters as an embryonic poetics. Its appeal to Herd surfaces in a mixture of Rimbaud's staccato syntax and swatches of fractured phrases, the twin bases of All Just's disjointed bricolage. Yet Herd also shares Rimbaud's appetite for sensory disorder and self-abnegation, part of a professed attempt to free language (and thus, in an Orwellian sense, thought) from its customary structures, returning the world to itself through willed objectivity. "Objective Song" formulates this position with unusual clarity, its speaker remembering how he once "wanted things / fixed", before his recognition of the undecidable flux of the world took hold. Rimbaud's drunken boat even makes an appearance.

The problem is that the majority of the poems in All Just do not fully live up to this ambitious agenda. There is often a satisfying sense of serious play in Herd's writing. "Outwith", which takes its title from a Scots word for "outsideness", cuts and pastes together descriptions of a landscape with snatches of a recorded phone message, conjuring the homogenized non-places contemporary society creates, while also undermining any coherent sense of self in its abandoned lyric "I". Elsewhere, "3 poems becoming elegy" posits cellular duplication as an analogy for "what the poem hankers after": "another poem, / splitting itself off" provides a curious image for the abrupt departures and collisions of register, syntax, rhythm and sense that Herd's poems deploy. Pithy vignettes, billed as "songs", also pepper the book with a pared-back imagism. But too often Herd's poems merely reflect and revel in disorder and fragmentation, rather than attempting to reimagine and renew their subjects. This is the work of a keen intelligence, so why it frequently fails to recognize that difficulty, never simply a virtue in itself, requires a reward commensurate with the effort demanded of the reader is more of a puzzle than the poems themselves.

The book's more directly enquiring pieces are the most rewarding. In rendering sociopolitical issues personal, "The hearing" allows its human subject - an immigrant woman and her complex circumstances - to emerge in a powerful blend of perspectives and languages, while "Fact" borrows the title of William Carlos Williams's "This Is Just To Say" to signal the disturbing lack of rights afforded to an immigrant detainee. Herd deserves recognition for broaching such difficult material. Yet, despite this, All Just remains a book that offers too little to frame the chaos it reflects, asking more of its readers than it tends to return.

first published in the Times Literary Supplement, March 15 2013

Thursday, January 09, 2014

Louis MacNeice

‘World is crazier and more of it than we think, incorrigibly plural’. Even if you’re not that well-versed in modern British and Irish poetry, chances are you’ll still know ‘Snow’, or a line or two from the poem will seem naggingly familiar. While still in his twenties, Louis MacNeice wrote it in 1935, and since then, it’s been a favourite with readers, writers and editors, cropping up in every kind of poetry anthology.

Weird, then, that MacNeice’s work has often been seen as a footnote to that of his illustrious pal W.H. Auden, when he’s so clearly a hugely original poet in his own right. And when, among more recent generations, the likes of Seamus Heaney, Michael Longley, Derek Mahon, Don Paterson and Conor O’Callaghan have all cited him as a major influence in their own writing. It’s not like ‘Snow’ was a one hit wonder, either. Despite some of the less exciting – and often lengthy – stuff he wrote in the early 50s, MacNeice only got better, perfecting his moving, atmospheric and powerful lyric poems until his final and best collection, The Burning Perch, appeared in 1963, shortly after his death.

How can I convince you of how good The Burning Perch is, without just saying its worth forking out the thirty quid for MacNeice’s hefty Collected Poems, just for this short book’s appearance in it? Well, if you want to know where some of today’s best poets get their linguistic tricks from, you needn’t look much further.

For starters, MacNeice is the master of time travel: ‘Soap Suds’ opens with youthful memories before fast forwarding to adulthood and spinning back again; ‘Déjà vu’ is the closest anything I’ve ever read has got to getting that sensation down on paper. There are also some amazing poems that capture the dark, sometimes isolating, and more haunting aspects of modern life. ‘Goodbye to London’ is a personal history of the city, where, after the war, ‘the people once more were strangers / At home with no one, sibling or friend’, and there’s no way to really begin to paraphrase the surreally brilliant ‘The Taxis’.

Many of the poems in The Burning Perch attempt to use the past – both in a personal and shared sense – to make sense of the present; something we often do (writers or not) in our own lives. But in the final poem of the book, ‘Coda’, MacNeice seems uncertain:
So much for the past; in the present
There are moments caught between heart-beats
When maybe we know each other better.
Either way, the desire in so many of MacNeice’s poems is to more fully understand himself, others, and the world around him: something that all of us can relate to. What’s more, in reading his best poems, you come away with a wider – but never prescriptive – perspective on all sorts of things, not least your own life. He is, as one poet once described him, ‘the laureate of in-between-ness’: his writing as relevant now as ever to our fast moving, changing, and sometimes disorienting times.

this article was first published by The Poetry Society in 2010, in YM: New Work in Poetry

Monday, January 06, 2014

Review: Glyn Maxwell's Pluto

In his witty manifesto “This Is Water”, David Foster Wallace argues that in order to survive the trenches of everyday existence, we should recognise that we have a choice in how we construct meaning from experience. This freedom – to see from differing perspectives, opening the blinkers of self – involves, Foster Wallace suggests, “attention, awareness, discipline, and effort”; the zombifying alternative is “unconsciousness, the rat race – the constant, gnawing sense of having had and lost some infinite thing.” This rings painfully true, but in daily life, it also presents some obvious challenges. Glyn Maxwell’s ninth collection, Pluto, is the work of a writer who properly subscribes to this ethos, and who figures poetry as that fresh look and listen which might, as Kafka put it, smash the frozen sea within – or at least throw the self into serious doubt.

“June I would snog in a heartbeat, pausing only // to think about it”, yearns the title poem’s speaker, before an existential crisis hits home: “Where the hell did she go? / Where the hell did they all go? Where did I go?” The collection has already been described as disclosing “a life of making patterns from the litter of experience”, even as one which “suggests a poet is someone for whom making poems is the only defence against the dark.” That seems rather a doom-laden verdict, but you’d be hard pressed to find a more fiercely self-scrutinising book of poems. Pluto frequently echoes the loneliness of the decommissioned planet it is named after. It certainly awakens the Larkinesque sentiment of being pushed to the side of one’s own life. But what is striking is how successfully Maxwell merges genuine, often painful emotion with a postmodern embrace of ironic cross-examination and reflexiveness. “Where are you?” implores the narrator in “The Case of After”, blunt dissection and bittersweet feeling mingling in the fallout of a love affair:
To you I was what I was, there was no more
to know, I am written down. A faintest tone
of poor endeavour and a stranded song

might cling like moss a while to my inscription
but one moves on and you are all that one.
The pathway’s not so long you’d turn again,

and not so wide you even could. Were there
more, not a future tense but a case of After …
“You master form you master time” Maxwell wrote in On Poetry, his recent volume of essays-cum-ars-poetica (TLS, November 23, 2012). As in earlier collections – from Time’s Fool (2000) and its nightmarish time-travelling train journey, to Hide Now (2008), where our fourth dimension “expands to wonder at the point of it” – Pluto finds Time hounded and hounding, personified as a “slum-lord”, laughing at lovers in a fluctuating amour that was “always nearly over”. Whether overtly or not, Maxwell’s bravura formal skill has forever been part of a face-off with, and an attempted bulwark against, that element which gives us what it will, but rarely what we desire. In Pluto, preoccupied with loss of all kinds – family, home, friendship; but above all, love – it meets head-on with passion and grief, to coruscating effect:
Never have met me, know me well,
tell all the world there was little to tell,
say I was heavenly, say I was hell,
harry me over the blasted moors
but come my way, go yours.
Punningly titled “The Byelaws”, this paradoxical list of parting imperatives sets the metaphysical tone. Formally crafted, yet forever on the brink of metrical collapse; earnest and echt, but with an eye for poetry’s artifice and contradictions: Maxwell excels at casual delivery of complex philosophical thinking. “The Window”, an elegy for a departed friend, achieves some concise evocations of camaraderie and childhood (“To walk till home is all of the horizon / and the world sits on the window-sill again”); but it also develops the conceit into a heady treatise, as dedicated to honouring the addressee’s memory as it is to poking fun at “verse as separate / from other verse as what, / a pane of glass rained-at / from its neighbour-pane of glass rained-at.” Satirical, but also questing, the poem posits how “the whole of science / waits”, since “astonishment, the infant’s blink, / made way for recognition / every bit as blank.”

The ideal immediacy of address that Maxwell seems to be after here – “the sound of light arriving at the moment”, as he has grandiosely put it elsewhere – might seem at odds with his burnished, guileful forms. Acolytes of the New York School’s more freewheeling excesses would certainly argue as much. Yet we only need think of Keats’s “This Living Hand” or Robert Frost’s “West-Running Brook” to know that the feverish care inherent to rhythmical craft can lead to the most intimate, urgent, provocative poetry. Where Maxwell differs from his lyric allies, however, is in his engagement with the genuinely experimental side of the so-called avant-garde. Plenty of poets can conjure a voice with a contemporary edge, but few have a gift for demotic speech as mocking as it is accurate:
August went hey man so I went hey man,
anything going down later? And we just smoked
and trod our shadows. One of us said those chicks
were really hot I’ve a horrible feeling I did.
Immersed in traditions belonging to both sides of the Atlantic, Pluto often reads as an unholy mix of Edward Thomas, John Ashbery, e.e. cummings and T. S. Eliot; unholy because of what – as a book of mainly long poems – it devilishly pulls off, while retaining narrative coherence. The yearning and timewarping intensity of “Dunwich”; the blank page figured as an unforgiving mountain in “This Whiteness”; “Birthplace” and its hometown merry-go-round of nostalgia: all are the work of a poet who, having moved beyond a preoccupation with technique that rendered some of his early poems flat and superficial, is now producing witty, serious, dazzlingly reflective and stirring writing. It is poetry that few of his contemporaries can rival.

first published in the Times Literary Supplement, December 13 2013