Category Archives: poetry

Something concrete

Ian Hamilton Finlay, Poster Poem. Image: Iliazd, flickr.com/migueloks

Ian Hamilton Finlay, Poster Poem. Image: Iliazd, flickr.com/migueloks

To the Poetry Library, then, for a tour and introduction to the history of concrete poetry in anticipation of Poor. Old. Tired. Horse., courtesy of Poetry Librarian Chris McCabe.  The Poetry Library houses the Arts Council’s modern poetry collection, its definition of ‘modern’ being post-1911, and it pursues comprehensiveness in collecting the entire poetic output of the UK, including ephemeral magazines and self-published chapbooks, as well as a representative sample of international poetry publishing.

It’s a brilliant place: its collection is available in stacks in the library on the fifth floor of the Royal Festival Hall; you can just drop in and consult a text. It’s also digitising its poetry magazine collections and putting them online. I first discovered the library in the mid-1990s, and rather arrogantly dropped off two copies of my own chapbook, one for reference and one for lending, both of which I’m always gratified to see they still have.

McCabe introduces the place, and shows us the library’s current exhibition, Lucy Harrison‘s Poetry Machines, a work that takes scans of individual words of poems and cycles them across a row of video screens to produce an multiplicity of new poems in the manner of Raymond Queneau’s seminal Oulipo work Cent Mille Milliards de poèmes.  But the real treat is that upstairs, along the entire length of the St Paul’s Roof Pavilion, laid out for us along thirty or so feet of tables is the history of concrete poetry using material from the archive.

It begins with Lewis Carroll’s Mouse’s Tale, progressing through magazines of 1960s avant-gardeism like Second Aeon, and the curious letterheaded subscription mailings of Private Tutor. There’s a whole table devoted to the gorgeous works of Ian Hamilton Finlay, mostly in the form of fragile little pamphlets featuring boats, and also postcards (of boats) and a card of a lovely-looking neon work. A lot of Brazilian stuff (the combination of typeface, round vowels and Portuguese nasal intonations seem to all go strangely together). Oddities include Colin Sackett’s Black Bob, in which a single frame of the Dandy comic strip is repeated across 63 identical spreads and a curiously sealed package including the work of Tuli Kupferberg backed with a correspondence about the intellectual property rights in the name ‘Poetry’.

Hamilton’s son, artist and poet Alec Finlay is there too, and of course the library’s own collection of Poor. Old. Tired. Horse. itself, missing a few copies and containing some stunning work by Mary Ellen Solt, John Furnival, IHF, Bridget Riley and many others. The explosion of inspiration in concrete poetry is evident in the sequence of the magazine itself. It starts out as a simply folded poetry magazine with illustrations and evolves into something else entirely, with entire issues devoted to a single collaboration between a poet and a typographer. My favourite might be Ronald Johnson and John Furnival’s Io and the ox-eye daisy, in which letters morph and move through each other in a brown-blue moonscape.

On further tables there’s a beautifully colourful shape-of-the-sun poster by Dom Sylvester Houédard, and Furnival’s extraordinary lithographic renderings of the Eiffel Tower and the Leaning Tower of Pisa, densely packed with an inky allusive vocabulary. More recent works include Sam Winston’s Dictionary and a fabulous set of large fairytale-based prints, and Rick Myers’ limited edition boxes of texts and objects.

It’s properly impressive, and we all feel rather flattered that McCabe has taken the effort not only to get the stuff out of the archive, but also to construct an approachable intellectual history of concrete poetry. In some ways it speaks of its marginality; Finlay aside, there are few very well-known names here, and not many journals or publications dedicated exclusively to the form. You get the feeling that, like the villanelle or sestina, concrete poetry is now something that poets try their hand at as a demonstration of their virtuosity rather than a poetic tactic or affinity. In other ways, McCabe has drawn out an enduring tradition of the verse that pays attention to shape, and its ongoing exploitation of the tension between visual form and the internal ear. Either way, it feels like a privilege to be able to pick up and leaf through such an extensive display rather than gaze mutely at it through the glass of a vitrine. The more recent work that he has lad out for us, perhaps with an eye for our artistic sensibilities, comes in the form of limited editions, multiples and artists’ books like those produced by Coracle Press: poetry that has taken not so much visual inspiration from contemporary art as economic.

Walking backwards to the sixties tables, something strikes me about the confluence of poetry, art and radical politics. I’ve been looking at some old ICA bulletins recently, in particular the November/December 1967 issue that includes Tjebbe van Tijen‘s own photo-story of a continuous drawing from the ICA to Amsterdam, involving sarcastic humour and confrontation with the police at the bottom of the Duke of York’s steps, and John Sharkey’s ‘Popular Cut-Out Piece’. It seems to demonstrate a convergence of the radical, poetic and artistic in the ICA’s swish new premises on the Mall that’s unimaginable now.

Of course, in most ways, this radicalism was an illusion: Sirs Penrose and Read’s rather aristocratic ‘playground’ was then still an elite institution, and as such could tolerate the kind of disruption that posed no real threat to its audience’s place at the top of the pile. This kind of spectacular radicalism also worked as a kind of inoculation against real threats to the social order, a demonstration that British society could tolerate the counter-culture (whereas in reality, it couldn’t tolerate real change like equal wages for women or civil rights in Northern Ireland), an alibi for its continued reactionary existence.

Still, it’s hard not to feel some kind of nostalgia for the time when it was possible to discuss politics, poetry and art with the same set of people. Radical politics hangs on somewhere in the recent G20 protests, and if the theatre of protest still exists courtesy The Government of the Dead, there’s certainly little revolutionary fervour in the new East End, where ‘emergent artists‘ seem to be more interested in producing mediocre car advertising than changing the world. And poetry… well, some people are still reading poetry. Some people, like Daljit Nagra and McCabe himself are even writing good poetry. But compared to making art, writing poetry today seems a rather perverse and recondite activity.

Both contemporary art and contemporary poetry share a position realms of the ne plus ultra, in that anything goes: there are no limits to experimentation in form, elaborations of concept or nature of content. It’s a situation similar to the way that academic discourse can only be challenged through the medium of academic discourse itself. They’re the places in which the extreme end of our social dreaming can take place: while this often limits their relevance to our actual lives, contemporary art and poetry both have an essential role in exploring the limits of human creativity.

In status, however, they are completely unequal. While in recent years contemporary art has more than ever basked in the luxury of international money and media attention, epitomised in the Frieze Art Fair, an event which each year has me reaching for the Taliban application form, even among the literati poetry seems to be fighting a losing battle against prose fiction.  While the Poet Laureate and the most recent winner of the Turner Prize seems to attract an equal measure of controversy and derision, Andrew Motion scarcely feels like a fair match for Mark Leckey. McCabe himself might be more like it, but there’s no competition for emerging poets that seizes the public attention in the way that even Beck’s Futures did for art.

In the end it seems hard to put this discrepancy down to anything other than our old enemy, the commodity. While both poetry and art share a similar social function, art can be bought and sold: it has literal value, and value attracts attention and social activity. That the power of the market has then affected the amount of attention that we pay to each form, and the access we have to each is unsurprising. The relationship has been distorted to the extent that capitalism itself is a distortion of life. Shelley’s ‘unacknowledged legislators‘ remain unacknowledged.

If poetry has derived any benefit from its non-object, reproducible status, perhaps it’s this: the Arts Council’s own collection of contemporary art, constrained by budget, foresight and all the other vicissitudes that make art buying a popular hobby of investment bankers, is actually a rather poor affair. By contrast, the collection of poetry belonging to the Arts Council that lives in the Royal Festival Hall is, as we have discovered through looking at only a tiny fraction of it today, an invaluable archive and an exciting resource. After McCabe has concluded our tour, I shyly-proud pull my own volume off the shelves to show my colleagues, hopeful that they’ll be impressed and petrified that they might actually read any of it: it’s a pretty appalling piece of juvenilia. But that’s the beauty of this place, and of poetry: looking after things, however little they apparently may be worth.

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Ruined gothic

Pancras Halfspider: Paul Day's The Meeting Place

Pancras Halfspider: Paul Day's The Meeting Place

Like an Edwardian cinema, a Victorian train station has two parts: the frontage that welcomes you, and the hall where the business of departure is done. The front is generally shallow and tall, the shed long and low. Together they form a supine letter L. The building that faces you on the street is typically the more impressive half (such buildings’ fantasy architecture returns to haunt them: the colonisation of former cinemas by religious organisations is not limited to Pentecostal churches. Is it surprising that a former cinema once owned by Mecca Leisure has become a mosque?). But even cinema sheds are not without their merits, as watching even the most meagre arthouse fare in the Finchley Phoenix or the Duke of York’s in Brighton will show you.

So it is with the dreaming Gothic spires of Sir George Gilbert Scott’s Midland Grand Hotel and William Barlow’s vast single-arched train shed at St Pancras. The monumental vision of an architect, and the architectural vision of an engineer combine gloriously (engineer Brunel alone was good enough for the earlier Paddington). But alas, now split between the glassed-off fortress of the Eurostar showroom and the far-off extension for the spurned Midland platforms, the undercroft filled with a standard-issue transport shopping mall, and enhanced with a Betjeman-themed pub, St Pancras has been multiplexed.

Is it possible to love gothic without also loving its abandonment? The Gothic Revival was born from the appreciation of picturesque ruins, but even a twentieth century hipster might talk of wabi-sabi, the Japanese aesthetic appreciation of transcience. “Nothing lasts, nothing is finished, and nothing is perfect.” Like Brighton’s West Pier which periodically burns and folds slowly into the sea, the Midland Grand gained something from its ruin and emptiness. We cherished the tiny glimpses that we caught on Open House weekends, the impassive facade we drifted past on the nightbus, even if we didn’t know what St Pancras station, like its near-namesake vital organ, was really for.

Margaret Thatcher’s London manufactured dereliction. City-based representation was stripped away, the rights of the suburbs to veto progressive transport policy were enforced, and corruption was funnelled through borough councils. This wasn’t just about a recession: even in the boom years the Tories were more interested in beginning again in the Wild East on the Isle of Dogs than the city or even the City. Though the channel tunnel rail link was signed off by Heseltine, it was only with the election of a Labour government, less than a year after the Spice Girls symbolically reopened the doors of the hotel in the Wannabe video, that the regeneration of the Midland Grand Hotel became an inevitability. As Iain Sinclair says, you can’t make policy decisions to preserve decay, but a five-star Marriott and penthouse suites promise to be as showy and tasteless as the Peyton and Byrne pastries on sale in the arcade.

Tubby little John Betjeman, St Pancras’s own Paddington Bear, holds onto his hat and gasps in awe at Barlow’s train shed. Appointed patron saint, the man who through the medium of the Victorian Society is credited with having saved the building from modern hammers. Though his heirs in the Society relish regeneration, he himself invested a very gothic wistfulness in the building, deeming it ‘too beautiful and too romantic to survive’ (though almost certainly it was the labour economics of a building without ensuite bathrooms or central heating that did for the hotel itself). He’s a fusty figure for a fusty restoration: the author of A Subaltern‘s Love Song, is a bit too metropolitan (in the wrong way) for London today. In fact, Betjeman was at his best when satirising exactly the kind of middle-century, middle-English existence that we now use him to typify, and not just on the subject of Slough.

The dead hotel is haunted not by Betjeman but by an upstart and a ghost. The Euston Arch is the Midland Grand’s dead twin, the unsaved glory of the Euston Road, a baleful classical monstrosity borne of the architectural monomania that decreed every public building from a bank to a school should be modelled on a pagan temple. Those who would reconstruct it, return it to a zombie heritage half-life, are guilty of the same neurotic fixation with the past that led the city government of Berlin to demolish the Palast der Republik and replace it with a facsimile of an eighteenth century palace. Rebuilding the Palast now would make as little sense. It is a building that we can now only access through memory and historical record: all that will ever happen there has happened. The construction of the lines into St Pancras itself involved the destruction of half St Pancras churchyard (under the supervision of Thomas Hardy). Should we reconstruct that too? History is human jam: you can’t make strawberries back out of it.

The upstart is Colin St John Wilson’s British library building. Though it’s the UK’s largest public building of the twentieth century, it bears a mere 10 million bricks to Scott’s 60 million (Bazalgette’s majestic shitpipes put them both to shame with 318 million). Wilson was a member of the Independent Group alongside brutalists par excellence the Smithsons, but his library is associated with the warmer nordic humanism of Alvar Aalto, and fellow Independent Eduardo Paolozzi’s Newton After Blake graces the courtyard. We can tell the building is a modernist masterpiece because that eminent Palladian Prince Charles said something rude about it. He called it “an academy for secret police”, but in fact it’s Babcock House just down the road, a building of Grecian proportion, that once housed our secret services. The library may look a bit like a suburban Tesco, but with five subterranean floors extending twenty five metres down into the London clay, Wilson’s behemoth is an iceberg. Its form nobly follows its function, if only we could see the form.

If there is a single focus point for all these contradictions, it is in another structure found on the Euston Road, one also on the brink of obsolesence. Scott’s own son, George Gilbert Scott Jr died mad and cirrhotic in the Midland Grand, but Scott Jr’s son, Giles Gilbert Scott’s architectural achievements rival his grandfather’s. He designed not only Liverpool Cathedral and Battersea Power Station, bringing gothic home to the modern, but also the archetypal K2 red telephone box. Whence the inspiration? From the self-designed mausoleum of a man of the other party, arch-classicist Sir John Soane, which can be found in in the undisturbed half of St Pancras Churchyard. See the echo of the curved pediment? Take a picture on your phone and text it to someone. If you’re lucky, one day it may be all you have.

The above owes a great deal to drink and conversation in the Betjeman Arms with Nathan Charlton and Rich Cochrane. The podcast we made on the night [mp3 | subscribe: xml]  is available on the Big Ideas website.

Fuck the Creative Industries

Fuck them first and foremost for their exclusiveness, for drawing a line between them and you and putting themselves on the creative side of it. Fuck them for saying that what they do counts and what you do doesn’t. Fuck them for the over-inflated notion of their own ‘creativity’.

Fuck them next because what they actually do create is awful. Acres of anxiety-inducing advertising, tedious dadrock and festering beehives of migrainous office blocks. Because it’s cancer before it’s even left the drawing board. Because they treat housing as sculpture, text like pictures and everything they do as an excuse to invite celebrities to a party.

Fuck them then because they really are an industry, an ugly, landscape-scarring, mind-polluting industry, treating talent like a mine and inspiration like dirty fuel. Fuck them again because of the frequency with which they demand subsidy and succour for their industry when they decide it’s an art. An entrepreneur wearing a t-shirt of a band you like is still an entrepreneur. And an entrepreneur is just a small maggot who wants to be a fat maggot.  One day, he’ll grow up to be a fly and shit in your food.

Fuck the creative industries because they promise to bring change, innovation and ‘disruption’ to the table before serving the same old bitter vinegar in impractically-shaped new bottles. People who think that product design ‘shapes the way we live’ should be permanently rehoused on a Midlands sink estate and mugged repeatedly until they develop better theories about the relationship between aesthetics and social formation.

An office with distressed plaster walls is still an office
An office full of folding bicycles is still an office
An office with a ping-pong table, pool table or football table in it is still an office
… and the people working in it are still drones.

Fuck them because they flood our eyes and ears with media like a backed-up sewer. Their whip pans, crash zooms and tedious electronics soundtracks are the vectors of a deadly, suffocating cholera of distraction. Their synchronised escalator adverts are a Nuremberg rally of the imagination.

Fuck their unshakeable faith in the importance of what they do. Talking to a graphic designer shouldn’t feel like talking to a Moonie. And fuck their “communities”, an insect-hive circle-jerk, a babbling repetition of the same meaningless cliches.

Fuck their ant-like colonisation of our intellectual culture. The only idea in the ‘business idea’ is the business of persuading people there’s an idea when there isn’t even a clue. They waste trees like an illegal Amazonian logger and  they waste our time as if it belonged to them: they are the windbags of superficial change.

When they call marketing poetry, they piss all over poetry
When they call conferences playful, they shit on play
They are lipstick on the mouth of a corpse

Fuck them because they think they are life, and they are only life’s dull echo.

Me, me, me

I’ve been writing about old British films and old American terrorists; I’ve been talking about kiwi earthquakes and banging on back at BIGI. Time for a lie down.

Self-promotion round-up

Recently I’ve been getting poetic at nthposition; reading at writLoud and at Decongested; and talking memory at Big Ideas.

What they don’t teach you in creative writing class

I used to go to writing groups, in Brighton, more than ten years ago. Some were fiction, some were poetry; some just workshops, some long-running. They were emphatically not writing classes: no teacher to teach you anything about writing: you were there to express yourself and get feedback from others. There was usually somebody responsible for the organisation of the group (keeping the keys to the room where we met, setting a schedule) known as a ‘facilitator’. Sometimes the facilitator of a workshop would be paid, and paid for their writing-specific expertise, but their job would be to set and organise an exercise rather than give informed feedback. We generally paid something to belong to the group or attend the workshop, but the fees were well within reach of a parsimonious unemployed or badly-paid person.

The ethos of the groups was egalitarian; the underlying principle that everyone has a story to tell and a right to write (there were, of course, always unspoken intellectual hierarchies within this). Feedback on your work came from all other members of the group, and nobody would tell you that they didn’t like it or it was rubbish. Comments, in poetry especially, would concentrate on the feeling and mood of a piece rather then technique. The kind of writing and writing practice that resulted from this was mixed: at best, you read stuff that had both personal meaning and decent technique; at its worst, the work was sloppy and self-indulgent, therapy-writing.

Though the umbrella organisation under which many of the groups sat was oppositional, and saw itself representing a counter-culture against the world of a few well-known authors and many unknown readers, some of the people working within the milieu inevitably saw themselves as ‘proper’ writers trying to ‘make it’. But I’m not sure how much the groups led to improvement in our writing. A year in a poetry group certainly made me happier with what I was capable of producing as poetry, but mostly through practice and feedback: the group offered discipline and organisation rather than instruction or inspiration.

For the past two years I’ve been studying a ‘proper’ creative writing certificate course offered by a London university. The course fees are not trivial, but not beyond reason either: the annual cost of a modest holiday, perhaps. For two and a half hours a week, thirty weeks a year, we have a class led by a teacher, marked work, grades and termly; individual tutorials. A first year divided into a term each of prose fiction, poetry and drama is followed by a year of specialisation in one of these. The certificate’s credits work within the overall national scheme of continuing education. It’s about as legitimate as you can get.

Nevertheless, in many ways it’s not too dissimilar from the writing groups. Explicit or unspoken ground rules prohibit direct assessment of any work’s overall value; constructive criticism is encouraged. Despite the fees, usually the most useful feedback on your writing comes from your fellow classmates, who act as a kind of well-informed mirror for the work – if most people in the class don’t get what you’re writing, you’d better redo it, because no-one else will get it either.

Students look to the tutor for expertise, but expertise of a particular kind. When it’s time to scope out next term’s tutor, or make a choice for the second year, what students tend to ask is ‘how much have they published?’ Given the lowly status of the certificate course (the MA is where the action’s really at), it’s often surprising how much some tutors have published: a lesson already to those hoping to ‘make it’. The actual teaching ability of the tutors, however, is both widely variable, and certainly not related to the quantity of their output, just as high profile research academics do not always make good teachers. One tutor in particular implicitly relies on her own ‘success’ as a writer to avoid justifying their answers to questions about method (how best to draft, and edit, etc), just telling us that one way ‘works for her.’ Some make clear their disappointment at having to teach to support their writing.

When it comes to prose fiction, one of the course’s unspoken assumptions is that what we are all writing, or trying to write, is essentially literary fiction, which isn’t very well-defined. Some people’s personal styles are on the edge of pulpy, but few people are committed to writing ‘genre’ stuff (science or detective fiction for example), and it’s always noted when a piece looks ‘genre’. Most of us speak about ‘page-turners’ with derision, and though few would deny any dreams of making it professionally as a writer, if you wanted lessons in how to produce hack fiction you’d have to look elsewhere.

Consequently, the course concentrates on getting the traditional attributes of lit.fic. right: consistent point of view, developed characters, credible dialogue, tight description, etc. To some extent, the tutors succeed in teaching this, discussing not only how to punctuate dialogue properly, but how to avoid over-explanation; little exercises in character profiling to produce rounded, believable protagonists; pacing the relationship between action and scenery.

What isn’t discussed much is storytelling. Perhaps it’s like a life drawing class: you’re expected to actually learn to draw elsewhere, or to have the innate talent. One of the greatest surprises was to find that the drama module, rather than being ‘good for writing dialogue’ as everyone had expected, turned out to be best for discussing the actual mechanics of storytelling. Narrative was broken down into scenes and characters without the support of appearance or interior monologue: character objectives, arcs and story resolution were discussed in a way that would have seemed almost obscenely functional in the prose fiction module.

It can be socially awkward talking about doing a creative writing class, and not only because stories are where you put it on the line, expose yourself the most. Like drawing, many people’s attitude is that it ‘can’t be taught’, that if you knew how to write you would be writing; if you’re going to a class you’re just an optimistic failure. An Arvon course might be permissible if the ‘nov’ is already underway, but not much else. This might be more common among my generation and/or people I know who consider themselves ‘creative’; many members of the class itself have no problem reconciling the personal enjoyment of writing with the social enjoyment of the class.

Myself, I like both learning or being taught (I’ve got a few more problems with being taught badly), and I think I’ve got something to learn. Grades can be encouraging, if not inherently wholly trustworthy. The combination of scheduled submissions to class and group feedback is valuable: it’s all about the practice, and I wouldn’t turn up, let alone pay, to hear any of my tutors’ ruminations on character and location alone. Being part of the course also opens up a network of formal and informal opportunities for you: publication in the yearly journal (which can even attract the passing interest of a literary agency) and reading series open to course students only: from there it’s easier to start submitting to other reading series and publications. That’s when you begin to seriously think about what it’s like to have an audience for what you write.

The ineluctable beauty of the tube strike

Legions of the lost: like moles above ground, Londoners flood through the streets clutching A-Zs, trying to navigate their way between tube stations, slowly solving the jigsaw of London in their heads.

The slight tinge of fear I imagine I can hear under the contempt in John Humphreys’ voice when he mentions Bob Crow’s name.

Red-faced twats who work in accounting explain their frustration to the television cameras. It’s so difficult, so hard to get to work. They need to get to work. They will be late for work. They all look like people who work makes miserable. One day the contradiction in their heads will either liberate or kill them.

Walking through the park to Victoria, hundreds of people. Treading new paths across the grass.

BE REALISTIC, ASK FOR TUBE STRIKES!

BENEATH THE PAVING STONES – THE TUBE STRIKE!

IN A SOCIETY THAT HAS ABOLISHED ALL ADVENTURES, THE ONLY ADVENTURE LEFT IS THE TUBE STRIKE!

THE TUBE STRIKE IS UNBELIEVABLE BECAUSE IT’S REAL!

I TAKE THE TUBE STRIKE FOR REALITY BECAUSE I RECOGNISE THE REALITY OF THE TUBE STRIKE!

THE POINT IS NOT TO PUT POETRY AT THE SERVICE OF THE TUBE STRIKE, BUT TO PUT THE TUBE STRIKE AT THE SERVICE OF POETRY!