Friday, September 19, 2014

A Place to Make Sense of the World

For Real (smith|doorstop Books, 2014).

Ted Hughes said writing is about trying to take hold of the reality of your life. Why else work away at poems, redrafting and honing them? For me, the poem’s a place to make sense of the world and your place in it – to conjure up things that move, thrill and scare you. The poems in this pamphlet chart a period of intense personal change. Clinical depression hit me. For the first time I understood what others, friends and family alike, had fought with. I understood more about myself – how it was something I’d always carried, but also how hope and happiness come from the (sometimes painful) self-knowledge that poetry confronts. No coincidence one of the best-selling anthologies out there is called Staying Alive. I’m after emotional truth in these poems, though, not the documentary truth. Truths I hope anyone can recognise, rather than the illusion of a reliable account. I’m interested in different ways of seeing. We fall in love, and the world takes on a different shape and colour. A young boy stands in a football crowd, awestruck and scared and excited, caught in the moment. The hairs stand up on the back of your neck. Life goes on.

Notes on For Real, a pamphlet of poems by Ben Wilkinson.
Winner of the Poetry Business Prize and the Northern Promise Award
First published in The North #52, 2014.

For Real is now available to UK readers for £5 with free p&p, through PayPal with debit/credit card payment. More info here.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Next Generation Poets 2014 In Focus:
#4 Sam Willetts's New Light for the Old Dark

With the Poetry Book Society's Next Generation Poets 2014 list landed, announcing 20 new voices who're lighting up the British poetry scene right now, I thought I'd have a rummage around the Wasteland archives, and revisit those few reviews of their first books I scribbled, invariably published in the Times Literary Supplement, The Guardian, or elsewhere. Today it's Sam Willetts, and his debut collection New Light for the Old Dark.

It is an audacious move for a poet to include a poem titled “Digging” in his first collection.

Fortunately, the similarities between Seamus Heaney’s celebrated meditation on work, identity and tradition and Sam Willetts’s vivid portrayal of heroin addiction and recovery end there. Willetts’s “Digging” concerns the junkie’s search for a vein, the “lantern-show flicker of tail-chasing, nameless days // spent waiting, cheating, waiting”, before “the waking-up to all that’s lost”. It’s a remarkable poem, owing to the manner in which the subject matter is handled - jangling rhythms and vivifying phrasing - and not merely the subject itself. Poignant firsthand experiences never guarantee good literature: many a misery memoir testifies to that. Yet the blurb for New Light for the Old Dark is keen to draw attention to the autobiographical nature of Willetts’s material. More should be made of his descriptive finesse, plain yet telling observation, and ability to transform despair into affirmative revelation.

Aside from the harrowing world of drug dealers and addicts, this volume contains poems on complex personal relationships, Willetts’s mother’s escape from the Nazis in Poland, and much fraught foreign travel. “Tourist” in particular successfully combines these themes, depicting the poet’s visit to Warsaw in pursuit of a fuller understanding of his mother’s history. Here, a failure to find answers leads “back to tourism” and the effacing effects of development, where “huge cranes were moving, courtly, confident, / building another new Warsaw”. This sense of erasure - the past collapsing before we can truly come to terms with it - is central to Willetts’s work. It pervades poems addressing twentieth-century horrors (in “August 9th”, the atomic bomb is seen “blowing out the walls and windows of history”), as it also filters into quieter pieces such as “Honest John”, where the poet John Clare, exhausted and delusional, keeps “walking back to what does not exist”.

Yet, for all the isolation and darkness, the strength of Willetts’s poems stems from their uncovering hope and beauty in unexpected places. “Starlings” sees “a vast / reach of birds” as “the opening and closing of a hand”, while the anchor in an unusual riddle poem is beautifully envisioned: “best man / in the wedding of the sailor / to the sea”. At times syntactically clumsy and given to overreaching for effect, Willetts’s work is not without faults. But New Light for the Old Dark introduces a poet of compelling talents, whose best work is both affecting and cerebral.

first published in the Times Literary Supplement, 25 February 2011

You can find out more about Sam Willetts and his work here.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Michael Hofmann's Manifesto of the Flying Mallet

Poetry is—as the poet said, though his subject was butterflies—an army of stragglers. Contemporaries, aeons, and cultures apart slog wordlessly through the mud together, not at all pally, not at all like Virgil and Dante. There’s no uniform, no team shirt, no battle or plan of battle, no weapons, no organization, no hierarchy, no ranks or badges except for homemade ones that don’t count, enemies and detractors everywhere. Its colors you should think twice before rallying around (I don’t know what they are, perhaps sable on sable), and its only cavalry is the reader, and there’s only one of him or her, sitting at home minding his or her own business, without a horse to hand, or a thought of you. There are plenty of fellow travelers, whom you can tell from their air of confidence and impunity, and because they tend to get there faster. (Even though of course there is no “there.”)—How can I call anyone to the barricades?

What really matters in relation to poetry has probably never been said—Ezra Pound’s “logopoeia” (doing things with words) the nearest thing. All there is is confusion, pretense, contradiction, and instinct. Most of what proposes itself—or is hailed or dismissed—as poetry at any given time probably isn’t. Poetry is soluble intelligence, but it reserves to itself the right on occasion to be stupid. (And sometimes it is nothing but feeling or eyesight or glossolalia or journalism.) Poetry is subtle, but sometimes “as subtle as a flying mallet,” as the man says. Poetry isn’t about rules or about infractions, but there is something by definition rebellious in its use of speech for its own purposes. Poetry may be effective or ineffectual, but it is never overly designing. Poetry is delayed, instant; unending, brief; electric, tiny. Each poem is an insurrection against the world before it existed—or a desertion from it.

There are no plurals, only chance or temporary agglomerations. The only plural forms are what Wallace Stevens—plural himself, as you might think—referred to as “functionaries” or “hacks,” and Lou Reed as “jim-jims.” As the world shrinks and grows, there is only one thing: be singular. Ezra Pound said: be against all mortmain. Gottfried Benn said: disappoint the season-ticket holder. Say not the straggle nought availeth.

by Michael Hofmann
published with permission of the author
first published in Poetry magazine

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Next Generation Poets 2014 In Focus:
#3 Emma Jones's The Striped World

With the Poetry Book Society's Next Generation Poets 2014 list landed, announcing 20 new voices who're lighting up the British poetry scene right now, I thought I'd have a rummage around the Wasteland archives, and revisit those few reviews of their first books I scribbled, invariably published in the Times Literary Supplement, The Guardian, or elsewhere. Today it's Emma Jones, and her debut collection The Striped World.

The Striped World must have seemed to Australian poet Emma Jones an almost inevitable title for her debut collection, replete as it is with images of tigers, cages and containment.

From the “bright barred ... empire animal” of a pearl, a recurrent symbol throughout the book, to the “barred heart” of “Sentimental Public Man”, these poems reveal an abiding - at times exhausting - interest in barriers of all kinds, and in particular, a Cartesian fascination with our own marooned consciousnesses; how we inhabit our minds, as one poem has it, “like a paradisal ape / lives in a garden”.

At its best, Jones’s work is capable of enjoyable duality, taking historical events and gleaning an intimate, personal significance off them. The sequence “Zoos for the Living”, for example, relates the relocation of Adaminaby, New South Wales (a town that was moved uphill to construct a lake, but whose old infrastructure resurfaced due to drought), as an extended metaphor for the poet’s own mixed heritage and ongoing search for belonging. “Zoos for the Dead” reveals a similar approach in its engrossing story of a parrot which, having once been owned by now dead Aboriginal siblings, is the surviving guardian of a dead language. In their sprawling, vatic and inventive nature, these poems show both Jones’s narrative skill and her unusual imagination.

Elsewhere in The Striped World there is the sense of an emerging poet trying on various personae, not all of which come off. The confessional tone and eerie imagery of “Waking”, for example - “Here it is again, light hoisting its terrible bells” - smacks too much of Sylvia Plath: that voice so often imitated, yet seldom equalled. Fortunately, this influence is typically offset by Jones’s descriptive gifts, as well as her depth of thought. Despite its thematic repetitions and minor stylistic faults, The Striped World is a lively, provocative and intelligent debut.

first published in the Times Literary Supplement, 16 October 2009

You can find out more about Emma Jones and her work here.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Next Generation Poets 2014 In Focus:
#2 Alan Gillis's Here Comes the Night

With the Poetry Book Society's Next Generation Poets 2014 list landed, announcing 20 new voices who're lighting up the British poetry scene right now, I thought I'd have a rummage around the Wasteland archives, and revisit those few reviews of their first books I scribbled, invariably published in the Times Literary Supplement, The Guardian, or elsewhere. Today it's Alan Gillis, and his third collection Here Comes the Night.

Alan Gillis’s third collection, Here Comes the Night, borrows its title from a song by the 1960s rock band Them: an upbeat, breezy pop tune that masks a lyrical tale of loneliness and unrequited love. It is a fitting anthem for a book of poems whose bounding rhythms, fizzy slang and runaway clauses waver between melancholy and contentment, typically when the poet loses himself amid the bustle and blur of modern city life. Formal yet freewheeling, mixing descriptive detail with breakneck pace, most of Gillis’s poems run to several pages: the opening piece, “Down Through Dark and Emptying Streets”, kicks off unpromisingly with its references to Google, Facebook and MySpace, but its cinematic sweep develops over twenty quatrains into an unnerving appraisal of the virtual world and memory’s corridors. As with Gillis’s last collection, Hawks and Doves, MacNeice often seems the presiding influence: from the “going here, going there, getting nowhere” of “Rush Hour”, where “traffic passes like money”, to the grievous excesses and grim characters of the title poem’s sprawling dreamscape; from the jump cuts of “Everyone a Stranger” with its odd mixture of the sinister and absurd, to the vision of Death as a loan shark in “The Debt Collector”, which views life through the lens of financial crisis.

Yet, while the thematic scope of certain poems justifies their length, others read as rambling bids for a significance they fail to deliver. “Looking Forward to Leave” convincingly adopts the voice of a female army cadet, skilfully segueing from the clarity of childhood to the confusions of war, but pieces such as “On Cloughey Beach”, though not without descriptive flair, lack both impetus and focus. Such misfires would be less frustrating if they came from a poet of less ample talents. What impresses most about Here Comes the Night is its capaciousness and inclusiveness. Lovers, police officers, gangsters; cyclists, revellers, soldiers and shelf-stackers: not many collections of verse nowadays are crowded with so many characters, while fewer still depict and inhabit them so fully, or so funnily. The book is too long by far: two protracted sonnet sequences pad it out to nearly 100 pages. But it also contains some highly memorable poems - not least the ambitious “On a Cold Evening in Edinburgh”, which bites and stings in the way Kafka recommended - leaving the lasting impression of a poet of invention and verve.

first published in the Times Literary Supplement, 22 April 2011

You can find out more about Alan Gillis and his work here.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Next Generation Poets 2014 In Focus:
#1 Mark Waldron's The Brand New Dark

With the Poetry Book Society's Next Generation Poets 2014 list landed, announcing 20 new voices who're lighting up the British poetry scene right now, I thought I'd have a rummage around the Wasteland archives, and revisit those few reviews of their first books I scribbled, invariably published in the Times Literary Supplement, The Guardian, or elsewhere. First up, Mark Waldron, and his debut collection The Brand New Dark.

The late American comic Bill Hicks once infamously began a stand-up routine with the deadpan line “If you work in advertising or marketing, kill yourself now”. He may well have made an exception for someone like Mark Waldron, a poet who writes adverts for a living. His debut, The Brand New Dark, is far removed from the clichés and superficiality of modern commercialism; witty, subversive, often darkly comic poems which are full of unusual images and curious turns of phrase. But the world which Waldron deftly unpicks is also a bleakly decadent and harrowingly pertinent one, uncovering “The King … in his counting house / not counting out his money, but making some swanky / kind of love to his secretary”, while elsewhere, a man dressed in a Mickey Mouse suit at Disneyland becomes a chilling metaphor for our increasingly isolated and virtual lives.

The success of the book, however, stems from the way in which Waldron handles the sinister, noirish aspects of contemporary life; a darkness which frequently rears its head in the commercial branding satirized in the volume’s title. One might expect a fug of depression or moralizing to pervade poems on mass production, sex as commodity, and the drawbacks of technological advancement. But Waldron’s gift is to approach these subjects from novel, oblique angles, often with a tone that is more implicating than accusatory. And so in “The Sausage Factory”, the meat is figured as “wee circus elephants, / gripping the tail of the one that goes before, / marching uncertainly away from death”, while in a series of dramatized poems focusing on a fictionalised, attractive young woman, the narrator is candid about his sexualizing of her: “Oh Marcie, I’ve watched you come half to yourself, // … and, / Oh, say it! watched your body, / a scented buddy to yourself, your self’s pork dolly, / dreaming its own fuckable dream”.

Overall, there is much to admire about The Brand New Dark: only a few squib-like failures occur where the humour misfires, dotted about an otherwise wide selection of engaged and engaging poems addressing modern life in all of its complexity; like the manatees that close the book, “arranging and rearranging themselves / into what we might call stories”. It confirms Mark Waldron as an emerging talent to watch.

first published in the Times Literary Supplement

You can find out more about Mark Waldron and his writing here.

Friday, September 05, 2014

Talkin' 'Bout My Generation

With the announcement of the Poetry Book Society's Next Generation 2014 promotion impending - a PR exercise that follows on from the New Generation of '94 and the Next Gen of 2004, aimed at introducing a mildly skeptical but smart reading public to some of the new British poets worth reading and listening to, and generally doing good by raising contemporary poetry's profile - the inevitable wave of minor back-biting and upset is already doubtless gathering a little inconsequential pace. Namely, among those who fear they/their pals won't be included in what they've ostensibly decided is the definitive Who's Who of contemporary British poetry just now.

The Next Generation 2014 won't be that, of course - but then the blinkered conceitedness of the 'snubbed' poet can be a terrible and amusing thing. We're only human, after all.

What, I think, we can hope for is that the promotion, run by the estimable Poetry Book Society of T.S. Eliot's conception, will bring a host of new readers to some very good poetry, and help to promote the work of some really grand new poets, younger and older - age being a frankly meaningless criteria, and props to the PBS for recognising that after the New Generation of '94.

So here's to the Next Generation 2014, and all who sail on her. The included poets will all have published a first full collection in the past 10 years (from 1 May 2004 to 30 April 2014), and I for one look forward to seeing 'em in our papers, on our tellys and radios, and reading up and down the country. Catch 'em if you can.

Meantime, here's some choice quotes and food-for-thought from a piece Don Paterson - himself a poet who took part in the inaugural NewGen promo of '94 - scribbled in 2001, seven years on, and which appeared at the time in The Poetry Review.


Shortly after the New Generation promotion hit the beach, I received a phonecall from Michael Donaghy.
"Hey Don - I've had this guy on the phone looking for you".
"Oh really?"
"Yeah. He got my number from the Poetry Society and then asked if I could put you on ... he just assumed we were all living in one big house. Y'know. Like the Monkees."


While it would be churlish to deny that the NewGen publicity helped some of us a whole lot, many of us also spent years getting it in the neck for something that didn't actually happen. NewGen consisted of a few photocalls, an appearance on TV and two or three gigs. That was it. For whatever reason, though, the stakes are now perceived to be worth fighting for in a way they weren't before NewGen. (They aren't, never have been, and by and large are as low as ever. Blessedly - despite everyone's best and worst efforts - poetry continues to be its own reward; this will guarantee its amateur status among the arts. Though you would never think so, given the number of younger poets that now talk of their "career". Writing poetry? A career?) This has afforded the jealous and the thwarted a far clearer sense of project than their jealously and thwartedness entitled them to ten years ago.


NewGen was one of the more visible manifestations of a general trend - a trend which mired us deeper in a lot of bad things: the cult of the individual voice, the cult of youth, the silly dogma of "show not tell" (fine advice for beginners, but an insane line for an experienced practitioner to tow), and worst of all, the provincialism of the contemporary. I recently sat in a room listening to a certain eminent litterateuse enquire of the air why anyone, in 2001, for God's sake, would want to write like Louis MacNeice. Well, y'know. If you have to ask.  

After NewGen, reviewing got much worse. I've been back and had a look. It was always terrible, but far too many reviews now seem to fall into one of two categories: elegant vituperation and semiliterate praise. Writers such as John Kinsella - as eloquent in their advocacy as their criticism, and alive to the whole spectrum of the art - are depressingly thin on the ground. The kind of review that shits from a great height on a book is almost invariably - you have to make exceptions - written out of a snivelling insecurity, regardless of its apparent swagger ... I know, because I wrote a ton of them. Artificially pumped full of the confidence I thought I was supposed to feel - but somehow didn't - as a NewGen poet, I came on like a young gunslinger, and wrote reviews that were pointlessly cruel, and disgracefully ad hominem. I only quit when one review provoked a well-orchestrated series of death-threats from friends of my victim. You have to realise when you're crap at something.)


I quite agree that the NewGen were a bit too homogenous a group. Iain Sinclair dismissed the lot of us as "pod people", and I concede at least half the point. The poets he collected in his Conductors of Chaos were just from another pod - however infinitely various they may feel themselves to be - but some deserved, and have never received, proper attention. Exactly the same goes for performance poets. A whole lot of useful cross-pollination could have taken place that didn't. Denise Riley and Jean Breeze on the same stand: why the hell not? In retrospect, I think Carol Ann Duffy was quite right to exempt herself from the promotion; none of the rest of us did, simply because we couldn't afford to.


The best thing to come out of NewGen was the chance for poets at the opposite ends of the country to meet up and talk to each other; the friendships made resulted in several of us having a profound influence on one another's work. All this makes it a crying shame that there weren't far more poets involved. NewGen also kickstarted a much more professional approach to the marketing of poetry, which it badly needed.


Kingsely Amis once dreamt up a brilliant advertising campaign for alcohol, along the lines of: Drink Beer. It Makes You Drunk. It works, because the selling point also happens to be an intrinsic property of the thing you're advertising. If you have to go looking for it - Beer Makes You Look Sexy, Beer Brings You Closer to God - you should really be selling something different, like lingerie or religion. Anyway here's my slogan: Read Poetry. It's Really Quite Hard. This will appeal immediately to the target audience (aye, the literate classes: why does that always sound like a heresy?) who will be thoroughly intrigued, and then - as we all know - deeply rewarded for the investment poetry will ask of them. It also has the merit of throwing the emphasis back on the poem, where perhaps it should have been in the first place.


National Poetry Day. I forget the year. I receive a call - in my capacity as a NewGen poet, I assume, since the caller thinks I am Michael Donaghy - asking me to appear on Newsnight. The researcher suggests that I might want to talk about how poetry has been trivialised by the media. I laboriously put my case. "Yeah!" she exclaims. "Just the sort of thing we're looking for. Now, if we send a cab over at half past five, do you think you might put these thoughts into verse?" I looked at my watch: it was half-past four. I will spare you my response.

excerpts from Don Paterson's 'The Legacy of NewGen', published in The Poetry Review, 2001.