Tag Archives: poetry

Newyorkism

Trainee trapeze artists on Pier 40

Trainee trapeze artists on Pier 40

Jesse McDonough is a man who loves New York in a way that I’ve only ever seen people love London. Studying American History in Maryland, where colonial-era studies rule, he chanced on a professor whose speciality was New York and the bug stuck. Cycling being his other passion, his final project considered how bicycles literally paved the way for the coming of the automobile to America. Now he runs Bike The Big Apple, leading tourist posses on pushbikes round the city, cycling along streets that are normally intimidating enough just to cross. His outrider Wendy brings up the rear, sitting in front of SUVs and issuing admonishments to their drivers: as hardcore an urban cyclist on a fixed-wheel bike as you’d ever hope to meet.

Cycling across Manhattan and through the West Village, we see where some of the richest homes in Manhattan have been (the focal point of desirability has moved steadily up Fifth Avenue throughout history, but always sticks to the spine, the street furthest from the filthy water’s edge), now greedily absorbed by NYU’s property acquisition programme; Christopher Square, with its monument to the Stonewall riots; and Manhattan’s thinnest house. We stop at Pier 40 and climb to the top to see a trapeze school (learners are held from falling by bungees) and football being played on the rooftops: Jesse says he plays in a league whose games sometimes kick off at one in the morning.

Rounding the southern tip of the island to catch the sun setting over New Jersey, we cycle through Battery Park City, a westward extension of the island built in the 1970s on the rubble excavated from the site of the World Trade Centre when it was built (there’s still no sign of a replacement). New York’s ability to hold tight skyscrapers comes from its bedrock, Manhattan schist: they rise highest downtown and in midtown because this is where the rock is firmest and closest to the surface.

We cross the Brooklyn Bridge (a good boardwalk, but a squeeze when only a quarter of it is yours: half the cycle lane going one way). The Manhattan Bridge back is better: barely a soul walking and gorgeous views back over the Brooklyn Bridge and downtown Manhattan, flying fifty feet over the Lower East Side. On a small stretch of street where an apartment block now stands, Jesse stops and shows us the place where his great-great-grandfather, an Italian immigrant, opened a barber shop. This is how it isn’t for Londoners, whose passport is their Oyster card: returning to New York is coming home.

*

Along 125th Street, in murals and on badges and posters, the parade of heroes: Malcolm X, Michael Jackson, Barack Obama. Revolutionary, tragedy, politician: all, somehow, part of the same story.

*

At the Nuyorican Poets Café on 3rd and B, they signal their appreciation of a poem mid-flow with finger clicks, elegant and insect-like micro-applause. Host Jive Poetic, a Brooklyn schoolteacher, does the borough shout-outs; if you’re from out of town, he advises, say you’re from Queens. It’s a proper slam: three judges from the audience hold up Olympic-style score cards at the end of each poem and get cheered and booed in equal measure if the rest of the audience disagree. The styles are more varied than you might expect: stand-outs include the softly urgent ‘Ode to my junk’, a paean to the variety of vaginal pleasure; and an anti-evangelical rant by a poet left sitting at the roadside after a crash by a man wearing a ‘What would Jesus Do’ bracelet. There’s a dominant mode of verse, though: strongly rhythmic, laden with rhymes and assonance (only in this part of the world could you rhyme ‘think’ and ‘bank’); and subject matter revolves around personal identity, trauma, and social injustice. Fair dos: there are more poets here who’ve seen the inside of a prison cell than you’d get at an average reading above a pub in London, but all five finalists are men, all wearing streetwear (t-shirts over long sleeves, hoodies), all talking rhymes with a heavy hip-hop influence. The best for my money is Hasan Salaam, but there’s a good Christian poet whose name escapes me; his stuff circles round to refrains, and he removes his baseball cap and holds it in his hand as though to beg halfway through each poem. The night’s winner, Tre G. finishes with a horribly sentimental poem imploring a woman (‘baby girl’) not to have an abortion (her heart must be ‘cold as ice’), which leaves the evening’s end  itself more than a little cold.

*

18 miles of books at the Strand. Books seen on prominent display in more than one place: The Coming Insurrection, Huey Newton’s Revolutionary Suicide, and The Works: Anatomy of a City. Closest match to the ICA bookshop: The New Museum bookshop.

*

The punters with the audio guides know which paintings are important: they cluster round them like flies on a favourite turd. At the MoMA, two floors of the History of Modern remain as absurd and tedious as ever: the galleries below remain dedicated to whatever comes after Modernism; the best of which might be the exhibition of art-punk artefacts in Looking at Music: Side 2, though there’s something equally irritating about seeing the, you know, actual Marquee Moon cover (the same one you have at home) stuck to a wall, and watching the Rapture video on a big square gallery video box with headphones. These were artists who eschewed galleries, says the interp. That’s because album covers look stupid in an art gallery, and the same goes for Jonathan Monk’s collection of Smiths 12” covers.

The Whitney persists with a thematic hang of its collection, though far more minimally: the gallery invigilator laughs when he sees the little start I give as I notice I’m standing on a Carl Andre: he suggests I walk backwards along it. The Guggenheim hang is, of course, spiral: we learn that the best way to appreciate Kandinsky is to play word association games with the paintings, and that the later paintings have pleasing geometry. The Met surprises with a retrospective of Robert Frank’s The Americans, contextualised with social history and contact sheets from which the final selections were made (in a similar manner to the Barbican’s Capa show). Roxy Paine’s maelstrom of metal branches entangle the rooftop garden, and Argentino-brit Pablo Bronstein’s subtle pisstake in painstaking architects’ drawings of the neoclassical pomposity of the Met itself is quietly outstanding.

A lightning visit to the New Museum to see a retrospective of Black Panther Minister of Culture Emory Douglas’ art in posters and on paper. The Panthers’ combination of revolutionary attitude community politics is immanent in the work: women both carry guns and demanding the means to feed their families. One curious thing: for art that is first and foremost good and honest propaganda, the words of the slogans themselves are very small.

It would be a cliché to say that New York’s best art is on the streets; besides, subway cars remain resolutely silver these days. Nevertheless, Art in Odd Places, taking place this year from one end of 14th Street to the other is a far better game of hide-and-seek than spotting signature styles in an uptown gallery. Water-poems by fire hydrants, cut-up installations in shop windows, a campaign for Monty Burns for Mayor, and most beautiful of all, string crochet wrapped around razor wire protecting a vacant lot.

*

In Williamsburg, an earnest exposition of the roots of the current economic crisis is pasted on yellow paper to the wall. Across it someone has scrawled in pencil: Fuck Hipsters. The disease daydreams that it’s the cure.

*

In successive waves of immigration, each new ethnicity displaces its predecessor as they move out to better suburbs: this is the Lower East Side on the Tenement Museum’s Immigrant Soles walking tour, tracing paths through what was once a German neighbourhood replete with beer gardens, then Jewish, with shtiebels in houses until the Eldridge Street synagogue was built, now Chinese, with Buddhist house-temples much the same. ‘Little Italy’ is now merely a tourist island in Chinatown: profitable restaurants sitting under Chinese-owned, Chinese-occupied apartment blocks. When the Chinese move out, someone else will be here to replace them, says Nick, our ruddy-faced & enthusiastic ‘educator’ from Williamsburg.

This narrative of the endless racial recycling of the reserve army of labour is familiar from tours of London’s East End: the parade of immigration, the normalisation of new communities. It only falls apart a little when Nick points out a ventilation hose poking from a building window. An indicator of a sweatshop, he says; this particular ‘sweatshop’, which supplied stores in the city, was closed by the city after 9-11 when the neighbourhood was more-or-less shut down for a while. Pushed, he doesn’t seem to be able to say quite why; someone else on the tour explains that in fact this was a unionised garment factory (the kind of US-based labour force that American Apparel boasts about), and it closed because in the wake of the towers’ collapse, city stores outsourced the tailoring, and the factories never reopened.

It highlights something insidious about the story of foreign people redeemed through their immigration… when will rich countries run out of poor people to import as workers? What happens if they organise and refuse to accept their natural position at the bottom of the pile? Market-based arguments for multiculturalism are no arguments at all.

*

The Cyclone is closed for the winter and there are only two things left to do on a cold October day at Coney Island: eat a Nathan’s hotdog and shoot the freak. Five dollars for fifteen paintballs that splash harmlessly on the Freak’s shield, and a two dollar tip for the Freak’s college fund.

*

At the Hotel Chelsea, the central staircase used to look down on reception: they built a floor above it because residents used to throw bottles down. Residents still live there, leaving bikes in the hallways and taking dogs in the lift. But changes are afoot: mysteriously appearing on the streets around are flyers taped to lampposts and shop windows declaring that for the avoidance of confusion, Stanley Bard is no longer running the show. Someone has taped the word BARD large and then some other words in their first floor window. The front desk staff won’t be drawn on the situation.

Though David Combs’ famous painting of the Chelsea itself is under lock and key, the rest of the place drips with art: along corridors, in rooms, alongside every flight of stairs along the central stairwell. A sheet banner strung along a whole flight declares undying love for and devotion to the photographer Marcia Resnick. It’s hard to tell if she made it herself. The lobby is adorned with an erect dog. Heritage plaques on the outside say that this is the place where Dylan Thomas sailed out to die. Outside Sid and Nancy’s room there’s a picture of Nancy and a needle.

*

Tastes of the city: pancakes piled high in a lumberjack breakfast; cheese melted over a classic Reuben; fat, thick-rind bacon and grits at Sylvia’s soul food restaurant; a bowl of chilli at Katz’s deli; thin black coffee refills and ice water before you order; hand-pounded hot guacamole at Dos Caminos; nearly-liquid Kobe beef in delectable cubes at Joel Robuchon’s concession at the Four Seasons

*

A night at Jonas Mekas’ Anthology Film Archives with the short films of Pawel Wojtasik. They’re contemplative, with a touch of Brakhage-ish tension between the world represented and flat light falling on the screen. There’s something human about the porcine routine of Pigs: wake, squeal, piss, eat; but also something aestheticised in the rippling piggy hides, and the final money shot of a wall of pigs at war in the direction of a single trough is both hypnotic and repulsive. The Aquarium contrasts wild Alaskan waters with the Exxon-funded aquarium built in the wake of the Exxon Valdez spill: neurotic sea-creatures engaged in repetitive swimming routines. Nascentes Morimur is a film of an autopsy, from first incision to the removal of the brain. It approaches coyness with a digital apertures opening and closing on the work of the scalpel and saw through human flesh, hinting, but also taking something away. Afterwards, Pawel is in conversation; someone asks about filming the autopsy. He shot several autopsies, but used the first: the element of surprise and discovery was present for him as well for the audience. Even a dead person still looks like a person, he says, until they peel away the face.

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Recent acquisitions: poetry

Recent Acquisitions flickr.com/dannybirchall

Recent Acquisitions flickr.com/dannybirchall

The horror of buying a novel is having to read it. Fascinating discoveries from second hand bookshops and chainstore threefertwos alike pile up on the shelves, taunting you with your laziness and their unreadness; novels that have been read are no better, merely taking up space as you slowly forget their plot and characters, destined to either be lugged from house to house as you move, or given away as fodder for Oxfam in its quest to become the Tesco of secondhand bookselling.

A book of poetry, on the other hand, is never finished. The most dog-eared and memorised volume of verse is all the more valuable for that; the smallest anthology is always capable of revealing new lines and new perspectives. And never being finished, starting is easy. Dip in, find one good line, one satisfying couplet or image, one short poem that you can read to your other half in bed, and the book has already paid for itself. Moreover, there’s never any reason not to buy a book of poetry today just because you bought one yesterday.

And so, recent acquisitions include:

Jerome Peignot, Typoesie
A gorgeous anthology of visual poetry, bought for me as a leaving present by my lovely colleagues at the ICA. It contains some beautiful flower poems by concrete poet Mary Ellen Solt, who shares with abstract animator Mary Ellen Bute not only a first name but being a true pioneer in a field dominated by men. I have a small dream of one day curating a small Mary Ellen festival devoted jointly to the work of both.

Tom Chivers, How to Build a City
I did my little bit to save Salt by buying this (great though they are, their constant self-publicising does border on the annoying). The author is not to be confused with the London Paper hack of the same name, though this book is all about London. Dense, allusive stuff. Contains the word ‘lozenge’ in the first line of the first poem.

The Norton Anthology of Postmodern American Poetry
Poor. Old. Tired. Horse. led me here, looking for Robert Creeley (title) and Clark Coolidge (Guston collaborations), as well as some Beat context. Postmodernism’s a dirty word: postmodern less so, the further you get from the 1980s. Very familiar names rub up against very (to me) unfamiliar. There could be a lot of education in this one.

The Collected Poems of Kenneth Koch
A P.O.T.H. impulse probably led me here, too. I wish that Koch’s name rhymed with Hanhan Höch’s, but instead it rhymes with Coke. Seven hundred-plus pages of poems I will probably never read most of, but a few short beautiful and funny ones including  ‘Permanently’ and ‘Variations on a Theme by William Carlos Williams

Johannes Kerkhoven, Mixed Concrete
Acquired in Housmans and published by Hearing Eye, a book of contemporary visual poetry. Intriguing, but some of it borders on the tritely aphoristic.

Pot! Poetry Olympics Twenty05
An output of Michael Horovitz’s small empire. I saw Horovitz, editor of Children (and Grandchildren) of Albion,  perform at a recent London Liming at the RFH. Coming on with his ‘anglo-saxophone’ after a young woman had read a rather self-righteous poem about how she preferred the power of words to the power of drugs, he performed an excellent poem about being stoned out of his gourd which was many times better than hers. Later he could be seen by the side of small the stage tapping his foot to the dubstep poetry of Spaceape. This book also contains the very funny ‘Spam’ by Stacy Makishi, who performed at London Liming’s QEH outing last year.

City State, New London Poetry
Edited by the aforementioned Chivers, a sampler of new London writers from Penned in the Margins, every one of which is younger than me. More by Chivers himself, Chris McCabe and Caroline Bird (another Liming performer). East London references probably win out over any other corner of the city, but the range of poetic practice is satisfyingly wide.

Generation Txt
Another Penned in the Margins/Chivers effort, a self-consciously zeitgeisty collection of six young poets. Better than it sounds: there are already some favourites here, including Joe Dunthorne’s ‘Sestina for my Friends’ which he performed at the recent Oxfam launch of The Manhattan Review. James Wilkes’ ‘A Postcard from the New Forest’ is a piece of visual poetry curiously reminiscent of Ben Marcus’ invented worlds.

Peter Finch, Selected Later Poems
Signed by the author, and acquired at a reading at the ICA. Hearing Finch read was like feeling poetic horizons physically widened. The fact that his reading was so viscerally oral is neither undermined nor lessened in  works committed to dead tree. Some of it borders on the concrete, some of it can be heard with the mind’s ear; all of it adopts a relentlessly unforgiving playfulness with language (From ‘Paint’: “Winter Arse …  Blueberry Sandinista … Mango Vagina”). This is the second book in the list to contain a parody of William Carlos Williams’ ‘This is Just to Say’, entitled ‘The Plums’. (Tom Leonard has written another: I may devote a tiny aberrant corner of my Mary Ellen festival to this form).

Two threads of commonality: four of the books contain poets who I have recently seen perform. Five of the books in some way relate back to the ICA’s Poor. Old. Tired. Horse. All of them remain resolutely unfinished books. Forever.

RIP Seething Wells

Seething Wells, Tough Tonka Toys for Boys/Tetley Bittermen

It wasn’t the music journalism, it wasn’t the dressing up as a woman on the Old Grey Whistle Test, it wasn’t the novel. It wasn’t even when I found out that he used to go out with my boss and she told me the story of how he puked bright pink pepto-bismol all over Dollywood. Well, it was some of that. But really, it was the poetry.

Sometime during the 1980s I walked into a ballroom bar in the Derbyshire Miners’ Holiday Camp in Skegness just in time to hear a skinhead on stage declaiming ‘If I was a man I’d be at the bar, ‘cos only poofs read poems.’ It was hardly surprising: this was the SWP’s annual Easter getaway, and Seething Wells was part of the evening’s entertainment. But already dimly aware somewhere in my adolescent heart that writing poetry was indeed an effete and shameful activity, something struck home.

I’ve been taught to write better poetry than I used to, and I’ve read many poets I admire, but I think that, slight oeuvre though it may be, the ranting verse of Seething Wells forms the third point of an unholy trinity (alongside The Mersey Sound and Childish’s Hangman Press) that first made me really love poetry. Atilla the Stockbroker made a better career of it (even immortalising Swells himself in verse), but I always thought Wells was the better poet: there was something about the way the words came rolling straight out, their righteous hatred intact, no trace of technique, all sneer and attitude. Like the lyrics to a song you listened to every day, I can still do big chunks of Tetley Bittermen verbatim.

Until I gave up reading music mags, I’d read his stuff, and more recently the Philadelphia Weekly columns whenever Anna sent me a link. I particularly loved his all-out balls-out attack on hipsters. But none of it came close to the ranting verse, and I always missed it. Once, in the mid-nineties it came back, around the time that (the seriously good) Tits-Out Teenage Terror Totty was published. I remember seeing him doing a reading in an arch under the seafront at Brighton alongside Stewart Home and Tony White. He did some of the poems too, and they were every bit as good as the first time I heard them. I remember him (perhaps not entirely reliably) contorting his body as he read, wrapping himself around the mic, twisting himself to wrangle out the fury that still underlay the words.

I didn’t even know he was dying, hadn’t read the cancer stuff, wasn’t prepared for the news I read today. And because I wanted to hear the words again, because I couldn’t find them anywhere else, I dug out the tape I made more than twenty years ago from my old man’s Rising Son of Ranting Verse EP (a double header with Little Brother, not the Attila one), and made this rather scratchy MP3

There were four of us, and five of them
But they were poofs, and we were men
TETLEY TETLEY TETLEY Bittermen

Update: I’ve since discovered the whole EP: here’s the full first side from Seething Wells:

and for good measure, here’s the other side, from Little Brother

Update 2

Here’s another seven inches of Swells, from the Radical Wallpaper EP Live at Wandsworth, featuring Godzilla Vs The Tetley Bittermen

and the other side, this time from Atilla The Stockbroker

Babylon is burning

Babylon, Dir Franco Rosso, UK/Italy, 1980

Babylon, Dir Franco Rosso, UK/Italy 1980

Sometimes it feels like independent cinema is a charity case itself, so it’s pleasantly surprising to find a new independent cinema just around the corner that sustains a South African community project on its proceeds, even if Sunday matinee tickets are a tenner each. The Lexi Cinema, ensconced since last October n the Pinkham Lighthouse, a refurbished Edwardian theatre in Kensal Rise, is the first ‘social enterprise’  digital cinema in London. Set up by entrepreneur-turned-philanthropist Sally Wilton, it’s located right in the corner of North West London that suffered a freak tornado three years ago, ripping a handful of streets to pieces. It’s a strange kind of tribute to community on a heading-to-dull suburban road.

The cinema itself is a comfortable 80-seater; and the projection kit’s not bad at all: it’s set up to take the industry’s encrypted hard drives for recent releases like Telstar, but it also projects from disc, and I can finally see the point of Blu-Ray: in a small screening setting like this, the HD really makes a difference to the sharpness and clarity of the picture; unfortunately, this particular screening jerks every second or so, just enough to be noticeable on a fast-moving pan (I have a geeky conversation with the projectionist, or at least the bloke who pushes the buttons on the players, about this afterwards: he’s apologetic & thinks it’s about the aspect ratio; on reflection I reckon it’s a frame rate conversion problem; Blu-Ray discs can hold a multiplicity of different formats, codecs and broadcast standards).

But what’s on screen is far more interesting than the jerks: winding up the London on Film Festival, this is a chance to see Franco Rosso‘s Babylon, a reggae film from 1980, starring Aswad’s Brinsley Forde, and soundtracked by Linton Kwesi Johnson’s musical collaborator Dennis Bovell. The story has echoes of The Harder They Come: Forde’s Blue, an aspiring toaster with the Ital Lion soundsystem, booked for a clash with Jah Shaka, has to negotiate his way through the urban jungle and a long dark night of the soul on his way there.

The film isn’t an overt story of politicisation like Pressure or Burning an Illusion, but it presents a credible and depressing picture of a pervasively racist Britain at the end of the seventies: National Front slogans daubed across council estates, routine police brutality, and casual prejudice at work: Blue’s boss, played by Mel Smith, calls Blue a ‘coon’ and sacks him when he gets lippy. In the end Blue triumphs with a storming toast at the clash just as a police raid breaks through the doors and the credits roll, but there are no false victories: Babylon is all around. When a white woman interrupts the Ital Lion crew to tell them to get ‘”fuck off back to your own country”, Beefy yells back at her “This is my fucking country, lady! And it’s never been fucking lovely!”

Testament to South London’s unloveliness are the bits of scenery caught in the location shots: derelict Victorian terraces, waste ground and grim acres of council housing. Nobody would let nineteenth century housing like that rot today. On my way to Brixton a day earlier, I stumble across Niall O’Sullivan‘s You’re Not Singing Anymore, a book of poetry about half of which concerns Brixton. In Between Worlds, we get a bird’s eye view of the liminal zone between grit and suburb:

We’re just a few reels away from the cracking of skulls,
unshaven faces denting car bonnets,
flecks of blood, slivers of tooth, wasted beer…
But the bus that you’re watching from
turns the corner and now it’s Victorian terraces
flowering Forsythia, budding plane trees,
Audis and Volvos snoozing uncomfortably.

Then walking to the Ritzy via Suzie’s place, by the Somerleyton Estate’s barrier block (its hideous arse-backwards frontage aligned to protect the estate from a 1970s motorway that never was), the police have a family car pulled over to the side of the road and are going through the boot’s contents. Plus ça change: Brixton still hasn’t quite managed to commodify its edge in the way parts of East London have.

At the end of the 1980s, in 1991 New Departures published Grandchildren of Albion, Michael Horovitz’s sequel to his groundbreaking sixties anthology Children of Albion. Between its covers you’ll find recently-annointed laureate Carol Ann Duffy alongside John Cooper Clarke, Benjamin Zephaniah, Linton Kwesi Johnson and Attila the Stockbroker. Not only is there a cultural baton passed from Babylon to Albion in the form of dub poetry, but the whole collection coruscates with the energy of resistance to injustice on all fronts. If Albion’s children took a poetic engagement with politics to be a kind of provocation against an age of plenty at home and war abroad, its grandchildren found the war on their own doorsteps in the form of racism, sexism and mass unemployment. Poetry like this, and films like Babylon can induce nostalgia not only for the mind-blowing dub sounds of 1980, but for a decade in which poetry, music and struggle all seemed to matter together.

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.

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.