Tuesday, December 09, 2014

The Write Stuff


Award-winning Reds poet Ben is composing more verse about his beloved Liverpool FC

Reds fan and award-winning poet Ben Wilkinson is composing a brand new short collection of verse dedicated to Liverpool Football Club's greatest players.

Guardian book critic Ben, who was featured in the magazine at the start of the season, recently published a book of poems entitled For Real.

Kitted out in the colours of LFC, the collection won the prestigious Poetry Business Competition, judged by University of Liverpool graduate and Poet Laureate, Carol Ann Duffy.

More of this feature, and a new poem, 'King Kenny', in the Official Liverpool FC Monthly Magazine, issue 27, November 2014


Thursday, November 27, 2014

"Never have met me, know me well": Glyn Maxwell's Pluto - review

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

Thursday, November 20, 2014

For Real among the TLS's Best Poetry Pamphlets 2014

The entries for this year’s Michael Marks Poetry Pamphlet Awards provide strong evidence that small presses are producing some of the most engaging, innovative and accomplished poetry being published today.

Good to spot a round-up review of the best pamphlets of the year in this week's Times Literary Supplement. Andrew McCulloch's wide-ranging piece takes in memorable slim volumes including Christopher Reid's Yesterday’s News, Blake Morrison's This Poem, Mimi Khalvati's Earthshine, Michael McKimm's Fossil Sunshine, Matthew Sweeney's The Gomera Notebook, Ian McMillan's Jazz Peas, and Samantha Wynne-Rhydderch's Lime and Winter

An honour to see my pamphlet For Real included in the mix:

“I can’t make you feel what I felt” (David Foster Wallace), one of the epigraphs to Ben Wilkinson’s For Real (Smith Doorstop), is a challenge to which Wilkinson rises with considerable success ...

You can read more in the print edition of the TLS, and copies of For Real are available through this site, £5 with free postage.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

What Poetry Can Do

Reading at Shindig! November '14. Fine ales, great crowd.

Ben Wilkinson's pamphlet For Real, winner of the Poetry Business competition, was a real advance on the anyway highly accomplished The Sparks, and his reading from it confirmed all those good first impressions. It's poetry that thinks very hard about what poetry can do, but it's never less than accessible and engaged with the real world.

Thoughtful write-up of the Shindig! gig at The Western, Leicester, by local poet Matt Merritt over at his site Polyolbion. Read more here.

Friday, November 14, 2014

You're Never Really Asleep /////////////////
///////////////// You're Never Really Awake

Is all that we see or seem but a dream within a dream?

An inspiring new online course I'm running with The Poetry School this Spring 2015: Dream On - Waking Up Your Poems with the Phantasmagoric.

Booking is open NOW. Why not treat yourself, and bring the best out of your poems in the new year. Course starts Monday 26th January. Book your place on the link above.


Join me to uncover the power of dreams, nightmares, reveries and more besides...

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

"The waking dream-world through which we blunder":
Don Paterson's Selected Poems - review

The title poem of Don Paterson's first collection, Nil Nil (1993), tells the sped-up tale of a football team's inglorious decline. Yet its panoramic sweep takes in much more than sport. The comedy and search for ontological significance typify the mix of the quotidian, the surreal and the mystical which remain a hallmark of his writing. "From the top, then, the zenith, the silent footage" we witness a "fifty-year slide / into Sunday League", but the missing dash found in a football score also makes the title a strange double negative. "Nil Nil" is both nothing and everything, it seems to say. Both poem and collection introduced readers to a striking new voice.

Sean O'Brien has written that "few poets can have covered as much ground in 20 years as Don Paterson". Reading this remarkable Selected Poems, which ranges from the ludic depths of Nil Nil to the plainer cadences and frankness of 2009's Rain, one is inclined to agree. Yet, coupled with "Nil Nil", Rain's title poem brings us full circle, as another double negative surfaces between release and restraint: "and none of this, none of this matters". Alongside the poetry's stylistic variety and bids for tonal authority, what Paterson's selection from his six volumes to date reveals is the underlying thematic consistency of his oeuvre.

The poems are often full of seeming paradox and contradiction, a feature which can wrong-foot and frustrate just as it provokes and delights. "I took myself on for the hell of it," says the poet of playing pool against his double in Nil Nil's "The Ferryman's Arms", a sense of poetry's artifice jostling with the conviction that a poem should enact some seriously complex thinking. The persona is swaggering yet (literally) divided; the planetary order of balls on the pool table is undermined as "physics itself becomes something negotiable"; the false doppelgänger ends up seeming truer than the departing speaker; strangeness swells up everywhere through initially grounded reality. Nothing is ever quite as it seems. Just as the speaker's lover in "The Trans-Siberian Express" is seen "shedding veil after veil", these poems seek truths beyond the waking dream-world through which we blunder. The darkness comes to envelop Nil Nil. A handful of poems explore social class, not least the punchy "An Elliptical Stylus", but these also tend towards eerie territory, or else unpick an unusually keen sense of the constructed nature of the self.

Paterson's follow-up, the irony-laden and brashly titled God's Gift to Women (1997), is represented here by some of his most arresting poems. "A Private Bottling" beguiles with heightened lyricism and colloquialism, achieving a gently damning commemoration of the poet's former lover, both lifted and undermined by its intoxicated context of late-night whisky sampling. The tonal range is extraordinary. Where "Addenda" develops delicate snapshots of the poet's brother's lost life, the unsteady formal prowess of "Imperial" reinforces just as it collapses notions of male authority in a subtle send-up of the Renaissance love poem. Combined with the unreliable narrative of its Marvellian centrepiece – part dramatic monologue, part seemingly confessional catharsis – God's Gift documents the struggle between Paterson's showboating sassiness and a meditative lyricism fighting for more ground.

These issues were neatly sidestepped in The Eyes (1999), a book comprising loose "versions" after the Spanish poet Antonio Machado. Notable for their unabashed spiritualism, the poems also deliver a refreshing anonymity amid the clamour of much contemporary verse. As "Poetry" has it: "Beneath the blue oblivious sky, the water / sings of nothing, not your name, not mine." Similarly in "Sigh", a fountain "sings", yet "speaks / its love-song / to no one".

It will be a shame if The Eyes – not least "Advice", "Profession of Faith" and "Siesta", all included here – is solely remembered as catalyst to the marked turn in Paterson's work evident from Landing Light (2003), in which the dark ego of the divided self blends with the emotional scope inherited from Machado. A sizeable, even baggy fourth collection, it is represented here by more work than from any other volume. Starting with "Luing", a declaration of our capacity for love, we come to poignant sonnets for the poet's sons, moving through rehearsals of the doubling motif and a reworking of "The Forest of the Suicides" from Dante's Inferno, before arriving at arguably Paterson's most ambitious poem to date, "The White Lie". This philosophical treatise expounds – just as this Selected Poems reveals – what he has long seen as poetry's transformative responsibility, as the world we think we know is "reconsumed in its estranging fire". It sets the tone for 2006's Orpheus, a version of Rilke's masterwork which sharpens the questing at the sonnets' cores: "But is that true?", "What was real in that All?", "O, where are we now?"

For many, Paterson's most recent collection, Rain, placed him among the front rank of English-language poets now writing. It is well represented here, with poems such as "The Swing", "The Circle", and the disquieting elegy for the late Michael Donaghy, "Phantom", all testifying to a stepped-up musical intelligence, a pithy idiomatic ease that owes debts to Robert Frost and Robert Garioch, and the undiminished ability to elevate and surprise, revivifying traditional forms with panache. Dynamic, interrogative and unsettling; crafted yet open-ended; fiercely smart, savage and stirring – like it or not, from the get-go, Paterson's poetry has been essential reading. This Selected Poems blazes with the best of his meteoric ascent.

first published in The Guardian, Saturday 19 May 2012

Monday, November 03, 2014

"Assholes and good guys are one of a kind":
a poem after Paul Verlaine

Outside a bar in the City, London

Joie de Vivre

after Paul Verlaine

Now you suckers and saps might fall for nature
but that confidence trickster doesn’t fool me.
All those touched-up pastorals of half-arsed
emotion are the last thing I want to see.

Art’s a fucking joke, and we’re no better –
I laugh at verse, the churches’ fawning spires,
and worse, Canary Wharf’s effervescence,
that Midas touch turning the whole lot to shit.

Assholes and good guys are one of a kind.
I’ve left behind faith, daydreams, and as for
love – please. Let’s wave all that goodbye.

Like a useless toy boat that’s miles offshore –
too tired to go on, but who can’t pack it in –
I’ll wait on the shipwreck still gunning for me.

poem by Ben Wilkinson

first published in The Poetry Review, 102:03

This poem is part of an ongoing portraiture project, in which I have drawn, haphazardly, on the works of Paul Verlaine (1844-1896) to produce new poems of my own. It is also an attempt, in some small way, to honour and revivify interest in a great French poet whose work deserves to be held in higher regard. Poems from this project have appeared in Poetry Review ('Joie de Vivre'; 'October'), the Times Literary Supplement ('The Nightingale'; 'The Young Fools'), and Poem ('Once'; 'Marine').