Off the Beaten Track: A Year In Haiku ed. by Boatwhistle Books

Reviewed by Simon Zonenblick

Off the Beaten Track purports to document a year in haiku, and is accordingly arranged into twelve poets with a month apiece, with a black and white illustration by a different artist for each section. The poets produced one haiku for each day of the month: half the featured poets had already published large numbers of haiku, while the other six were known for other verse forms, but new to haiku. This mix, the editors felt, would result in poetry both informed by the experimental style of seasoned haiku practitioners, and the ‘beginner’s mind’ that is traditionally considered an important element of haiku in a more literal, perhaps purer sense… So while this is a book of English language haiku, it is one that is indeed off the beaten track. This information comes as an Afterword, and might have helped me as a reader to make sense of some of the entries, which greatly differ in style and substance from what I have come to regard as haiku. But more on that later.

January is entrusted to Hugo Williams, and begins beautifully:

What we have here
is a gate in a wall
with its timetable of opening hours

But the “haiku” soon veer into a less meditative territory:

Not much chance
of getting away this weekend.
But wait, there might be

and a tone of intellectual humour and wit which is ill-at-ease in the context of a 17th Century Oriental verse form derived from Buddhism:

You’re writing things down
because you want to.
But suppose you don’t want to.

Do you drop things?
We drop things all the time
(this includes breaking them)

The second example above is positively obscure, and would surely be more at home in an anthology of surrealism or as part of a longer poem spoken in the voices of different characters. It does not really seem to embody the essence of haiku in any recognisable sense. Nor are many of Williams’ offerings particularly evocative of January, from whichever viewpoint that month’s significance is interpreted.

I find myself in the strange position of defending traditionalist interpretations when I demur from pieces such as:

Never mind what you’re thinking about
its what you’re not thinking about
that counts

not because I favour an inflexible approach to poetry – I don’t – but because haiku itself is not inherently flexible. I was schooled in the form by the great Keith Coleman, a veteran haiku poet who counts among his achievements translations of Basho, and prolific publication in journals such as Presence and Blithe Spirit; he rejected the prevailing “rules” about using certain numbers of syllables (which may make rhythmic sense in the Japanese in which haiku were originally composed) in favour of the founding values behind haiku.  While I believe it is perfectly laudable to invert verse forms, create new ones from old, write in “neo” or related styles, or dispense with regulations altogether, I feel that to take a form like haiku, and use this as the name of the particular kind of poems you are composing (as opposed to simply “short poems”) does imply a moral obligation to abide by the precepts of that form. What differentiates haiku, with its essential traditions of reflecting two separate images juxtaposed by a kirji (“cutting word”) , from similar forms of poetry such as senryu is surely its detachment from personal, or personalised, observation and opinion, yet quite a lot of the poems in Off the Beaten Track do not adhere to these precepts. The piece quoted above reads like an aphorism from a fortune cookie, or the sort of thing sometimes posted on facebook, and is presumably intended to be profound. But it is surely more of a philosophical argument than a piece of haiku poetry.

Williams does, however, return to the presciently observational – and the poetic – with lines like:

The natural world
is shivering and shaking
as if it could see into the future

Febaruary’s haiku come courtesy of Hamish Ironside, and include such deceptively gentle depictions as:

cloud smothering sun…
secondguessing
my subconscious

my only query being why the poet chose to combine secondguessing as one word – surely the meaning of the phrase is more clearly underlined when appearing as two distinct words.

There are several true gems:

showing them
how it’s done –
the mason’s grave

the surgeon’s wink
just before
I’m under

small-town charity shop –
I tell an old lady
I’ll never be back.

and the following jest:

proofing a text
about mindfulness
without reading it

Earlier, I berated the inclusion of witty jokes as distinct from true haiku, and I still maintain that even the above poem says nothing about the month or season it is written in, but it posesses a certain self-deprecating humour that I can somehow imagine being employed by Basho. The same ability to have fun with haiku is found in:

a fuzzy tannoy
rendered dub poetry
by the busker’s reggae

while compassionate poignancy is delivered in:

long-distance-call –
years fall away
for a few seconds

a wren
explores the forest
of a single pine

In March, Matthew Paul delivers various thought provoking haiku which sometimes rest too much on name association or worldly knowledge. He does, however, serve up some delightfully tangible and plausible images:

over the railway
two ducks synchronize
their rapid descent

night rain
the warmth of her kisses
on my spine

In April, Michael Dylan Welch provides a slightly ironic feel:

pinker
against the blue
graveyard cherry blossoms

with a lovely twist of wit which, like that of Hamish Ironside, somehow feels appropriate:

national haiku day –
where’s a scrap of paper
when I need it

Matthew Welton‘s poems for May also experiment with ironic or contrasting images:

apricot tree
blossom the colour
of lichen

sometimes verging on the eerie or macabre:

birdless back yard –
too early to be
this awake

I do not intend to trawl exhaustively through the remainder of this collection, but it is sufficient to say that if the succeeding months pursue any sort of seasonal narrative, it is too frequently interrupted by irrelevancies that render it somewhat inconsistent or incomprehensible. For example, on a random page for October, we have:

They talk about going
To New York
But will probably stay in Berlin.

and

He failed in art because he was
Too proud
To suck Klaus Biesenbach’s cock.

The more I read and re-read this collection, the more I grew convinced that the vast majority of the poems would easily qualify more as senryu than as haiku, and the more it felt apparent that the sequencing, perhaps intentionally, does not particularly reflect a linear or seasonal approach to chronicling a year through verse. But whatever its pitfalls or anomalies, Off The Beaten Track contains a considerable number of truly enigmatic, moving and original pieces, which work as poems regardless of what name is given or not given to their supposed genre, such as :

the longest day
a tugboat tows a barge
towards the rising moon

(Christopher Herold – June)

rainy season chill
policeman on the edge
of the demonstration

(Bob Lucky – September)

and the beautifully surprising verses of Éireann Lorsung, whose December haiku round off the collection:

A bulb tossed months ago
in an empty bed
has two bright leaves

Hannah, Are You Listening? by Hamish Whyte

-Reviewed by Rishi Dastidar

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‘Charm’. And immediately, in front of your screens, I see your hackles rise, suspicion in your eyes. For ‘charm’ in the poetic context is dangerous. Very dangerous indeed.

Here is a posit: that ‘charm’ is an even worse word to use in the description and criticism of poetry – even worse than that workshop crutch ‘admirable’. Worse, because ‘charm’ is effectively a synonym for ‘glib’,  ‘seductive, in the shallowest possible way’ and worst of all ‘insincere’ – for a poem can be many things, but never, ever that. The words must always be meant.

Charm is dangerous, poetically, let alone anything else.

I do not believe this by the way. Charm is not all bad, far from in fact. To delight, attract, fascinate others – to even control, or appear to achieve something as if by magic – if they are bad things, then I wish to be on the wrong side of them more frequently.

So when I say that not only did I find Hamish Whyte’s Hannah, Are You Listening? charming, but that I was charmed by it also, I do not mean anything other than the highest of praise.

Whyte, a poet new to me, is deft in his craft: his enjambments are unshowy, and mostly work. Rhyme, when it is deployed, brings a smile to the face. And his language has a most wonderful transparency, that allows for feelings to be accurately, comprehensively pinned down – whether that is the simultaneous love and fear that grandparents have for their grandchildren, the notion that clothes might be myths, or the easy pleasure of watching skilful people at work.

A less intense Hugo Williams comes to mind, for example in ‘That Weekend We Forgot About The Dog’:

We were entirely unBritished
by love and lust.
We writhed on the sheets
on the carpet
anywhere that took a back
or a front or hands and feet.

The dog was too good-mannered
to disturb us.
How it got into the fridge
and fed itself
we never found out.

If Whyte does have a failing it is perhaps that, sometimes, his poems seek an epiphany where they might not bear the weight of one. But then, you would keep searching for them too, if you were as good as he is at delivering them. I was caught particularly by the denouement to ‘A Letter To My Long-Lost Uncle’, where an internal discussion about how facts can change memories leads to conclusion that, “I have a picture and a story and that’s enough / in a world that bleats family family, / that asks who do I think I am. / where Google knows nearly everything.” And while there might be points where you think, ah, now you are being too knowing – ‘Ferry to Itea’’s “wine-dark sea and honey light”, there is more than enough good-natured bonhomie and quiet bravado to pull it off.

There’s only one place where Whyte’s charm wore thin for me, and that was in the final poem ‘What The Editor Said’. Now, of course, we all have poems tucked away about the unpredictability, the sheer bloody unfairness of how some our words get seen by the wider world, how other don’t, how some godawful poets make it, while other geniuses remain unappreciated in their lifetimes and beyond. Some of these poems get written down, and some are published too.

But really, do we need to see them? Do we need to read them? In the same way that we should always be suspicious of films about Hollywood or plays about plays, there’s something a wee bit too showy off for my tastes about a poet with a successful track record of publishing – who indeed knows the other side, being a publisher too – sharing a rejection note, however tongue-in-cheek it might be. After all, a large part of the attraction of someone charming is the implicit presence of grace in their handling of the vicissitudes of life, as well as its victories.

But that is a very small cavil over what is an excellent pamphlet. One does hope Hannah has been listening indeed, and is charmed by what she has heard.

And a postscript, lest I have not convinced you of the virtues of charm as a life-affirming good thing: here is photographer Robert Capa’s (and Irwin Shaw’s) note to Ingrid Bergman, when all three happened to be in Paris in June 1945:

Subject:           Dinner. 6.6.45. Paris, France.
To:                  Miss Ingrid Bergman

Part 1.             This is a community effort. The community consist of Bob Capa and Irwin Shaw.

  1. We were planning on sending you flowers with this note inviting you to dinner this evening – but after consultation we discovered it was possible to pay for the flowers or dinner, or the dinner or the flowers, but not both. We took a vote and dinner won by a close margin.
  1. It was suggested that if you did not care for dinner, flowers might be sent. No decision has been reached on this so far.
  1. Besides flowers we have lots of doubtful qualities.
  1. If we write much more we will have no conversation left, as our supply of charm is limited.
  1. We will call you at 6.15.
  1. We do not sleep.

Signed:
Worried.

Capa and Bergman began their affair three months later.

 

 

 

The Forward Book of Poetry 2014

-Reviewed by Rosie Breese

Books

Any anthology claiming, as The Forward Book of Poetry does, to provide readers with ‘a strong sense of the variety, vitality and wit present in poetry today’ has given itself a tall order to fill. Can a panel of five judges really distil a fair selection of what’s current, interesting and incisive? Can they rely on journals and presses to have carried out the first stage of this process? And can they adequately meet the needs of the ‘Common Reader’, who, as judge Jeremy Paxman points out in his introduction, could be anyone, anywhere? Add to this conundrum Paxman’s headline-grabbing suggestion that poets should answer to their readers through some kind of gruelling, presumably televised, ‘inquisition’, and this year’s Forward Prizes seem to have been well placed to stir up debate.

As well they should. Reading, to quote shortlister John Burnside, is a political act. And selecting a group of poems to be positioned as an overview of 2014’s best work and a guide to the current landscape of poetry for new and regular readers alike, raises age-old questions about the writing of poetry itself. What is new? What is interesting? What is worth reading, and why should we read it? Similar questions come up in the reviewing of anthologies. It’s nigh-impossible answer these, or to cover the sheer variety of content within the scope of one review – so please forgive me for taking a reader’s tour of poems that resonate with the themes picked out.

Round about the same time as taking on the Forward collection for review, I came across Steve Ely’s article for the Poetry School, in which he calls for ‘more poetry that goes beyond the passive, reactive and personal tendency that currently dominates and has the ambition and confidence to engage with public issues, to be about something’. The distinction between these two loose ‘types’ of poem, as identified by Ely, seemed particularly pertinent to a collection purporting to provide an overview of the best poetry in circulation. I was tempted to try and identify poems fitting these rather broad categories within the collection; to name the saints and sinners, as it were. However, the side-by-side pairing of Beatrice Garland and Kevin Powers’ poems immediately brought Ely’s generalisations into question:

You are sitting eating an orange,
not giving me any
and staring straight out to sea.

The sand in front of me
is pocked with little craters,
every one a wild salt tear

– Beatrice Garland, ‘Beach Holiday’

 

Here is where appreciation starts, the boy
in a dusty velour tracksuit almost getting shot.
When I say boy, I mean it. When I say almost
getting shot, I mean exactly that. For bringing
unexploded mortars right up to us
takes a special kind of courage I don’t have.

– Kevin Powers, ‘Great Plain’

Despite the gulf in subject matter and with this, it might be argued, wider relevance, both of these are personal poems of ‘occasion, experience and impression’, as Ely puts it, engaging with huge themes – love, war – through the first-person lyric lens. So what is it about Powers’ poem that has brought me back to it again and again?

For me, it’s the language. Powers’ lines are unadorned and unpretentious, but they break unexpectedly, flip back and reassert themselves; they are self-aware as a mode of representation. The artistry is more than picture-perfect description. There’s an insistent urgency: ‘I mean it […] I mean exactly that’, redolent of Carolyn Forché’s poetry of witness, in particular ‘The General‘: ‘There is no other way to say this’.

From this experience, it seems that it is the engagement, the work inherent in reading linguistically inventive poetry, the mental leaps you take, that draw you into the world of a poem. A recent conversation with fellow reviewer Charles Whalley led to similar conclusions: there is a certain level of dependence, in poetry, on recognition by the reader. If that recognition comes too easily, it seems the poem is too close to our world. Little has been asked of us; we might mentally pat ourselves on the back for ‘getting’ the poem and go back to business as usual. But a poem that makes us question our viewpoints, shift our frames of reference in order to attain some twinge of recognition, has succeeded in drawing us into its world from outside. It speaks, to pinch a line from SJ Fowler’s commended poem ‘Trepidation’, ‘from the centre of a language’. We have been somewhere new.

For any reader, there will be plenty of poems in this year’s Forward collection that won’t bring surprises. Which ones these are, and whether this is a turn-off, will vary from reader to reader, so it’s hardly worth making a personal list here. There is no anthology that will please every reader with every poem.

However, for me, there were certain poets whose work stood out in its insistence on speaking its own language. Felix Dennis Prize shortlister Liz Berry’s poem ‘Nailmaking’ initially stopped me in my tracks because, being from the Midlands myself, her representation of the Black Country accent and dialect seemed curiously selective to me. But this confusion compelled me to read and re-read, and then to look up her readings on YouTube, and through this, to begin to feel something of the shining, real world of the poems under their layers of sepia and soot:

Marry a nailing fella and yo’ll be a pit oss
fer life,
er sisters had told er,
but er’d gone to him anyway in er last white frock
and found a new black ommer
waiting fer er in ‘is nailshop
under a tablecloth veil.

Other poems whose ambition and inventiveness stood out a mile included Hannah Silva’s ‘A mo in a \_/ jar’, a half-story garbled in text-speak, itself a mode rapidly falling into obsolescence with the advent of predictive texting. In this way, the language doesn’t merely refer to ‘the ineffable’ – it enacts the layers of thought, of words, between speaker, reader and memory:

d tyms we weren’t blind
bac from d pub stumble
he spoke as f he’d raped me
n d tree’s branches brushd
agenst us 4 a mo.

Amongst the other commended poems, Daniel Boon’s ‘Crescendo’ certainly deserves a mention for its stupendous collisions between Dutch and English: ‘shards of glas / rend open the lucht and pan-tiles smash into vuur-dust ..’, whilst Andrea Brady’s ‘Export Zone’ dazzles and disorientates in equal measure: ‘the cash transfer from London / lite to salt lick has some chick as its / sole beneficiary. Would I like her / whipped or salted..’

David Harsent’s graphic elegy for martyred sixteenth-century poet Anne Askew also makes use of language from the world it speaks of, quoting from the notebooks of contemporaries as well as Anne herself:

Anne, you are nothing to me. Only that you knew best
how to unfasten your gown while they waited at the rack.
Only that she was hard prest
which I now can’t shake from my mind. Only that black
flux flowed from you, that they let you void and bleed.

There’s something uncomfortably voyeuristic about this fascination with macabre detail: Hard prest. Black flux. Why write this down and, if I find this so distasteful, why do I read it time after time? What does Anne mean to Harsent, or to me? What have we understood from the words he has appropriated? The focus here is turned as much on the reader as the subject.

For all this harping on about linguistic invention, an uncomplicated approach can also function as the bridge to a surprising world. Best Collection shortlister Colette Bryce’s poem ‘Derry’ begins without fanfare: ‘I was born between the Creggan and the Bogside / to the sounds of crowds and smashing glass’. ‘Creggan’ and ‘Bogside’ were just empty signifiers at the beginning of this poem. By the end, although my grasp of the geography of Derry is still fuzzy to say the least, I felt I had glimpsed something of the place and its turbulent history. Similarly, shortlister Hugo Williams’ ‘I knew the bride’ is all the more haunting for its short, simple lines. This poem is like a gutted house; its clean bones hint at the weight of the past, and a heart-wrenching story: ‘When you first crossed over / into that wintry place / you said you had a feeling even then.’

Returning to Burnside’s quote in the foreword, the stand-out poems of this collection demonstrate that poetry is indeed often ‘a defence of care over the language’, and that active reading may well encourage questioning of the self and others, and even of ‘the deceptive myths peddled by certain politicians and salespeople’. This may seem a grand assumption, but once something of the fallibility, the assumptions, the politics of a language is made evident, another viewpoint is unlocked; the door is open to change on some level, no matter how personal and small.

So I’m going to say something controversial here: Paxman’s comments about writers needing to answer to an inquisition of sorts were bang on. But let’s not take them too literally. Whilst a panel show featuring the man himself haranguing literary heavyweights on their appropriation and punctuation of human suffering would certainly be entertaining, the real ‘inquisition’ might be a more gradual, more personal questioning on the part of the thousands of readers, poetry lovers or otherwise, who will encounter these poems for the first time. Despite the limitations arguably inherent in publishing and prizegiving, the gift of this anthology is the gift of language, of inventiveness with language, of the immersive environments this language creates, and the issues these will raise for reader and writer. What is new, relevant, irritating, boring, is slippery to define. But to question is valuable in itself.

Mimic Octopus: an anthology of poetic imitation (ed. Will Harris & Richard Osmond)

-Reviewed by Ira Lightman

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A “mimic octopus” isn’t a chameleon, a mere canvas. It mimes its whole body to act like another creature: either unpalatable prey or a fearsome predator. The main weakness of The Mimic Octopus is that almost no poet here takes such a steer from a source poem. The poets’ poems would fit better in their own collections than in an anthology of the art of translation and imitation – and such anthologies usually think harder about whether derivation should sit next to the original or work in its own right. In an anthology of imitation, we should ask is the imitation working as a poem for any poetry community or any time, or as a poem by that particular poet?

The website gives the list of imitatees the poets are imitating. The chapbook doesn’t. Neither give the titles of actual poems worked from, as an anthology would. Instead there is room for tangentially related and at best pleasantly diverting scans of drawings and collage art around the poems. The only poetry anthologies I know (usually four times the length of this chapbook) with ubiquitous artwork are Grandchildren of Albion (1991), in which the artwork works well, and anthologies of children’s poetry and established classics. One picture in The Mimic Octopus is of an ambulance parked in the corner of an empty urban car park, between one male poet’s poem to a naked woman in the bath and another male poet’s poem to a naked woman’s naked arse.

Some of the sources are presented in this review, and perhaps have not been asked for or seen by the editors wanting to enter the heavyweight debates as they say they do. We need more answers than a gosh-gee aphorism like

What separates a painting by one Dutch master from another in his school? The texture of a fur cap or an embroidered cloak, perhaps… Only through craft can we hope to discover such brilliant anonymity.

– (in this chapbook, it certainly is “his school”). The risk of generic anonymity is becoming Rupert Pupkin, with studied imported passion, and professionalism to ward off feet-shuffling embarrassment. Is The Mimic Octopus a book all the poets named on the website, including the passionate ones, could enter? If not, then it’s not about craft. Previous ages of English poetry have held Latin as a model of compression and stony form. William Wycherley, while he would have enjoyed the (to me, also, fun) smut of Andrew Zurcher’s ‘Upon his lover’s backside’ would never have written

Rain down, kind heavens, easing lubricants
to slip the sphincter of my eloquence.

because it’s a mess. The 20th century poet Douglas Oliver once explored the etymology and feel of the word “kind” while using it – here it’s waffle like Peter Cook improvising cod Shakespearean pentameter. How does rain ease? If there is a lubricant, “easing” is a superfluous word. Doesn’t “slip” mean “escape”, not, again, lubricate? (A Freudian slip of wanting out, perhaps?)

Some of the poets here imitate poems by each other – sadly, the imitated poems by the also-writing poets are not in the book. Paul Muldoon has a poem to ‘Alvaro de Campos: Belfast 1922’ and a poem ‘Sushi’emulated loosely by Mina Gorji:

But they don’t have a heart,
you said.
We moved on to dessert-
further apart-
your thoughts soon turned
to horseshoe crab.
Manoeuvre past
its unimpressive claws,
infiltrate
the armament
of oval shell…

…Along the coast
the horseshoe crab
scuttles away-
alone in the Creation.

The pattern from Muldoon is (as with many of the poems here) taken at arm’s length and myopically. Here is some of ‘Sushi’

“Why do we waste so much time in arguing?”
We were sitting at the sushi-bar
drinking Kirin beer
and watching the Master chef
fastidiously shave
salmon, tune and yellowtail…

I saw, when the steam
cleared, how this apprentice
had scrimshandered a rose’
exquisite petals…

Is it not the height of arrogance
to propose that God’s no more arcane
than the smack of oregano,
orgone,
the inner organs
of beasts and fowls, the mines of Arigna,
the poems of Louis Aragon?…
the Master so gravely weighed
from hand to hand
with the look of a man unlikely to confound
Duns Scotus, say, with Scotus Eriugena.

Glory is not borrowed for Gorji without uncomfortable comparison coming too. She lacks scrimshandering in her vocabulary. Muldoon puts his opening line in speech marks. Gorji italicizes, both there and in the middle of her poem, and in the middle it is no longer with the advantage of surprise or a clear graphic design on the page (a problem with this chapbook generally). She has a shuffling non-committal waffly ending line, and too little detail. The poem feels addressed to others who go on restaurant dates far more than I or Muldoon’s old childhood pals do. There is an assumed, narrow audience.

One can be grateful that Gorji does not wallow in Muldoon’s trademark echoing cognates. His oregano, organs, and orgone; Duns Scotus and Scotus Eriugena. As with Hill, it’s not so much a unique style as having bought up all the puns in the lexicon. If imitations could free this up, then good.Muldoon in his Oxford Lectures on Poetry dwells on possible associations, echoing cognates, that any one word in a de Campos poem may throw up in the subtle reader’s mind. His poem here names Barrow-in-Furness but is set in and about the 1922 Belfast shipyards. Pessoa imagined de Campos was an engineer working in another country at the same time, in Barrow-in-Furness (where Pessoa never visited). The website says de Campos is Muldoon’s imitatee, but Muldoon seems to be doing no more than imagining a place (of the past) he has never visited, as Pessoa did.

Consider de Campos’s poem to Barrow-in-Furness. It’s not like this one. Muldoon has the line “…the dun in dunnock/ doesn’t allow for the dash/of silver in its head and throat feathers”. All very nice, less taut than in ‘Sushi’, Muldoon imitating himself, and not escaping this by working on de Campos.

…the dunchered shipyard men are no less peaceable
than those of Barrow-in-Furness.
Souped-up, staid, swerveless, supple,
they hold in equal reverence

the penny whistle and the plenilunar
pigskin of a Lambeg drum…

This isn’t de Campos. Pessoa saw de Campos as his Whitmanesque self, and slapped exclamation marks all over him:

…Corre, raio de rio, e leva ao mar
A minha indiferença subjetiva!
Qual “leva ao mar”! Tua presença esquiva
Que tem comigo e com o meu pensar?

(from Barrow-in-Furness, a sonnet sequence by de Campos)

Roughly this translates

…Run, damned river, and lead to the ocean,
my indifference’s subjectivity
which “leads to the ocean”! Your presence, slippery,
holding in me, in my inner thinking..

Muldoon has a lovely implication here that the Belfast shipyard men, “souped-up, staid, swerveless, supple”, are like the Furness river as de Campos writes about it (without having seen it, so it could be any river). This is a generosity towards other humans not easily found in de Campos, moodily and narcissistically brooding on existential questions and elemental forces. If one knows de Campos, one sees Muldoon’s clever repurposing. One questions, though, why Muldoon is idealising the unthinking brute workmen. Why is he flattering them for being swerveless when they were both unstinting and did swerve, not to die of heavy moving metal ship parts, and probably didn’t have long retirements after all that stress? Pessoa leaves the better aftertaste with his more openly sad and more brusquely comic poetry (at his own expense).

For me, Sarah Howe’s riffing against the tone of the Cathay poems of Ezra Pound is the only triumph in the chapbook. The tone is well chosen and languid. The self-reflexive fascination with penmanship to describe the insects buzzing by the river and all the movement isn’t narcissistic but effective. No audience is assumed, and the background of the Jesuits landing at Canton is informative for all. If we are told new things, we are put into the poem from all our communities and see each other thinking there. Howe’s poem is hard to quote because it flows so well part to part.

And then I come back to carping. The Andrew Motion poem in the book seems to show the poet having learned little from his public run-in with the World War 1 historians whose work he used in found poems a few years ago. Admitted, the tone of his poem is refreshing as one turns to it from the other poems in the chapbook

When the time came to see them off-the-cuff
I dressed laboriously in a wool vest and long drawers.
a shirt and two sweaters,
comfortable knickerbockers made of windproof gabardine,
a pair of soft elastic Kashmir putties,
ankle-boots soled with English leather
and nailed with Alpine nails,
a fur-lined cycling helmet,
goggles,
and a leather mask covering every part of my face
not protected by my beard.
A thick grey hand-knitted muffler completed the costume.

The chapbook gives no context. The website says Motion’s imitatee is Wade Davis. But these lines are by Edward Norton, from an account of the 1924 Everest climb in which men died, quoted by Davis in his Into the Silence: The Great War, Mallory, and the Conquest of Everest:

Personally I wore thick woolen vest and drawers, a thick flannel shirt and two sweaters under a lightish knickerbocker suit of windproof gaberdine the knickers of which were lined with light flannel, a pair of soft elastic Kashmir putties, and a pair of boots of felt bound and soled with leather and lightly nailed with the usual Alpine nails. Over all I wore a very light pajama suit of Messrs Burberry’s “Shackleton” windproof gabardine. On my hands I wore a pair of long fingerless woolen mits inside a similar pair made of gaberdine. On my head I wore a fur-lined motor-cycling helmet, and my eyes and nose were protected by a pair of goggles of Crooke’s glass, which were sewn into a leather mask that came well over the nose and covered any part of my face which was not naturally protected by my beard. A huge woolen muffler completed my costume.

I don’t know if Motion naturally corrected “gabardine” in his poem, as it is spelled with e and a in Davis. He certainly has corrected to add lightness, and the word “goggles” by itself on a line is lovely, and well-quarried from the original. My joy, though, at skimming Motion’s poem settled into unease and a bad taste in the mouth. In his poem Motion retells Wade’s retelling (from journals of different men on the expedition) of how Mallory and Irvine were lost but one member of the party thought he saw two dots like Mallory and Irvine ahead on the ascent, in a setting so mesmerizing the writer could believe that he had had a vision of how Mallory could have been bewitched by it and not turned back, despite the likelihood he would die, which he did. Many dispute that it could have been Mallory in this (perhaps) vision. Mallory wasn’t found until 1999.

Motion has reshaped Norton’s paragraph into very pleasant verse. More Lowell-like than the Robert Lowell tribute in The Mimic Octopus by André Naffis-Sahely (spelt “Naffs” on the website). Indigestibilities remain, and translations and imitations less effective than the original or existing translations.

A poet who works from historical sources like Ezra Pound would never have flattened the distance between then and now in the name of a giggly frisson of mocking a dandy (who wasn’t a dandy). Pound would have been fascinated by the sources, and have let their quiddity come through. Again, the octopus has swum into view, and had nothing but a few pictures projected onto him. Motion seems himself too present.

Worse, it wasn’t Norton who had the vision of Mallory (probably already dead) at the end of Motion’s poem. It was Odell, another member of the expedition, whose words are also used by Motion as part of the borrowed words of the same one narrator. If this “Norton-Odell” compound is meant to convey a rollicking ghost story in the generalised tone of the time, it’s at most a limited success, and ghoulish. They’re dead, when am I going to be? it seems to say, up to the final two lines

It was the beginning of their mystery and no mystery at all.

There is no other reason that explains why they chose to stay.

Which aren’t in Davis, from what I can see.

Finally, I was glad that Anthony Adler’s poem ‘Near Extremes, after Jon Stone’ led me to Jon Stone’s cluster of poems all called ‘Near Extremes’. Stone’s four poems (not included in The Mimic Octopus) all begin “Where I come from it’s the other way round” and then do some nice topsy-turvy work with expected tropes. They’re better than Adler’s pleasant enough homage of first drafty lines.

Stone’s imitation in The Mimic Octopus, though, is a prose poem based on Alan Jenkins. Jenkins shared the late 80s slightly porny tendency of Craig Raine when Raine ran out of similes, the big shot literary magazine editing bad boy. Unusually for The Mimic Octopus, Stone works sardonically on his source. But it doesn’t quite come off. As one would guess, many of Stone’s lines are quotes from Jenkins, though it’s interesting to observe which aren’t. Stone’s frames his quotes with hackneyed coy stage legalese. Stone stands against something sleazy. But vocalising for the Jenkins’ mentioned cat is unsuccessful. Adding “pliant whip”, making soap thin itself when it washes the beloved’s “nether parts” (Stone’s locution) and “traitor breast” (Stone) is awkward and clumsy. No narrative clues of setting, or progress over time, are in the Stone imitation, and not a lot of true daring with taste. One takes the overall point, that Jenkins’ poem is making exclusionary gestures, and Hugo Williams (quoted by Stone) on Jenkins is adding to the exclusion by calling it “daring”. Where though is the way forward, the actual new erotic poem in one’s hands?

 

In conversation with Ira Lightman

-In conversation with Claire Trévien-

Ira Lightman makes public art around the UK, regularly appears on BBC Radio 3’s The Verbs, writes and performs, and spent a lot of 2013 tracking poetry plagiarism.

Claire Trévien: It’s been a busy year for you – it began with the Christian Ward scandal – you quickly became known as the ‘poetry sleuth’ for your work in identifying further poems plagiarised by Ward and others. It must be uncomfortable on some level getting attention from something like this, do you feel it’s overshadowed your own poetry or been beneficial in some way?

Ira Lightman: I could probably have been a lot more busy. I still have two or three big leads to follow up but, as you indicate, it can be dispiriting work, for several reasons. I won’t complain about flak because there’s been little. I won’t complain about being overlooked by editors with my own work, because the same editors who were interested are still interested and I’ve always been someone who exists for people more as a performer than a poet, so there was hardly any overshadowing to be done of the massive crowd of people who were poring over my books, because it never existed. I will admit I’ve been a bit reluctant to go out and perform since becoming identified with plagiarism, but then it would have been hard to travel to do so anyway. I have young kids who rely on me heavily to be at home a lot, and I’m not getting the work I used to do, travelling, so I can’t get out and do free gigs as an offshoot of that any more.

I quite like chatting with people about my plagiarism work, socially, at general poetry events or just parties, and perhaps it’s the gossip in me that does. I don’t think I particularly would want to chat like that at any gig – you know, one always hopes someone might say “I was listening to that 3rd poem you did, and this was what I thought”. I don’t really want to discuss that thing they’ve always wanted to ask me about plagiarism, I’d rather they emailed me with it some other time. Martin Figura introduced me at a Norwich gig as “Dr Who lookalike and scourge of plagiarists” and that was ok, and nobody asked me about plagiarism that night. My shtick is to be off the wall and enigmatic, anyway, so it’s working if nobody’s asking me a mundane question about plagiarists straight after.

If I’m honest, if it’s been beneficial, it’s as part of the general thing, with social media, which I do a lot of (especially Facebook), of trying to post interesting things, and generally taking some role that, since poetry friends seem to check my Facebook page, making a good and socially beneficial use of it. I’ve often wanted to be on Facebook to put a friendly face to the sometimes rebarbative and inaccessible writing I like to write and to read (and I like trying to be funny, and Facebook has been great for me trying out jokes). So I enjoy the thought that maybe I could post a video of someone reading a poem that people were ignoring on the page, and then they’re starting to take the work more seriously. Similarly, I think the plagiarism scandal could have turned into postmodernism-bashing very easily, and I felt able to put a different slant on that. People have objected that plagiarists act in a detached magpie way because they have no soul to write original work from, or that one can be prolific and not realize one has nicked something. I would myself freely admit that I can look back on work I made a year ago and not recognize it as mine. But I also know it’s second nature to me not to take credit for work that isn’t mine. So I won’t just say “I can’t understand this, it’s a foreign mentality to me” because that’s untrue. I did once copy a paragraph from someone else’s critical work for a school essay (and my teacher said to me, very wryly, “this paragraph here is unusually well written for you”, and I blushed, vowed never to do it again, and also made a note to learn to write better). I don’t understand being nearly caught, and then taking the risk again (this seems impersonal to me) but I do understand the impulse to copy and paste and try it on. I also have been very moved by seeing how plagiarists do often grow in confidence in their own style by the very act of getting away with it, of having someone else’s work mistaken for their own.

Christian Ward, in particular, was starting to write work “in the style of”, but his own, just before he was caught. One craves attention so as to get through, or not give up. I can understand why anyone would play this risque game because they felt too lonely, not brave enough to try emulating another in a merely playful or apprentice like way. And I deeply understand the desire to collage and manipulate surface, in making poetry.

So, in short, I do think my work on plagiarism has been beneficial in that it’s brought through a moment of understanding the real work of making poems that aren’t distillations of experience and effusions of self. It’s helped bring that poetics forward. For me, personally, it’s been beneficial to read so much work by the people who were plagiarized. I read it with greatly more sympathy because it’s been the victim of a crime. I note where it’s better in the original by comparing it closely to the plagiarism, which has been a bit vandalized to cover the plagiarist’s tracks. I’ve written more “mainstream lyric” work since reading all these victims. And poetry people know my name, and would perhaps click on a link of my work because they know my name. One would have to offset these against people who really dislike me for doing the plagiarism work, of course. But I do have mixed feelings. I don’t know that I want to pursue the links to new cases that I’ve been given. I don’t know that I want to write a critical book or essays about poetry plagiarism. That would feel a little smug, and a little exploitative. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that I began my plagiarism work the week I started my first ever university lectureship, this January. It felt academically serious work, and also my own academic specialism (because one needs to have critical work to write up and publish about, in modern academia, everything written up, everything made into output). If I get another lectureship, I probably would try to write a book about plagiarism. But since my (temporary) lectureship finished, I haven’t really had the stomach for the plagiarism work. I’ve been trying to find my creative side again, and also figure out employment possibilities.

CT: Several things interest me in your answer which I’ll try to articulate into a question or two… First the concept that in borrowing from other poets the plagiarists improved, and secondly that you imbibing so much ‘mainstream’ poetry has had an effect on your poetic practice. Obviously there is a big difference between the two, on the one hand publishing virtually unchanged poems, on the other reading, and yet do you think the effects are similar? My related question is, now that you’ve become less involved in the plagiarism, do you still feel a ‘mainstream’ hangover on your writing?

IL: Well, several things there.

1) On a simple practical level, I would say Christian Ward took the style of Kathryn Simmonds’ wacky zebra poem and (while plagiarizing it and placing it under his name as a horse poem, which was wrong of him) came up with, afterwards, the horse poem he placed in Poetry Review which is his own piece. Moreover, interestingly, Simmonds herself never collected her zebra poem, and thought of it as a little wacky and untypical of her work. It was fascinating to watch this process, which I guess only a scholar looking at papers would have seen, if Ward had never published his plagiarism. My heart went out to him a bit, because Simmonds wasn’t massively bothered, it wasn’t a cathartic poem for her as Helen Mort’s deer poem was to Helen, and some good would have come out of it. I’ve been looking at Alan M Kent, who was caught in the Times in the mid-90s, poetry-plagiarizing, but I can find no plagiarism in his work since (I don’t like it much, it has some of the boring tin-ear prolixity of Ward’s early non-plagiarized work, which is why one can spot lines of Ward’s that are too smooth, but Kent’s later work is not plagiarism, I think). So, yes, I think that some of the plagiarists were doing a kind of workshop work, in overwriting, but for whatever reason decided to publish it as their own. For some of us (you and me?) the temporary hit in the workshop, or to ourselves, of reading out an apparently cathartic or passionate poem derived by a kind of mucking-about… well, it is a boost, and one does perhaps take the music away or the quirk of phrasing. The trouble with plagiarism is that it resembles this but it’s done to get more attention and it’s a short term reckless move – like any kind of faking it. Nevertheless, the person can calm down and has learned something. Plagiarism is a little bit wild child, a little bit growing up in public. I personally would have no qualms whatsoever about seeing what poem the plagiarist attempts next. I don’t want people caught as plagiarists to stop writing. And, again, in Ward’s case, I think there was fear of postmodernism in him. He wrote a very nice visual poetry/concrete chapbook that was quite good. I think a lot of plagiarists fear to go into postmodernism, fear to learn proper citation and so on, and so get themselves in this silly mess.

2) For me, I started out, in the late 80s, writing Larkinesque work and being much more interested in what poetry there was in big circulation magazines like the New Statesman or the London Magazine or the TLS – the poetry clips in the Guardian and so on would have been thrilling to me, then. It was weird reading Alan M Kent, who’s the same age as me, because his early work is so like mine of the late 80s and early 90s – we were clearly both influenced by this period of the waning influence of Larkin. But then I went to New Zealand, in 1990, and all my assumptions fell away. My British jokes didn’t work. My whole tactic of being an alienated bookish Brit who’d watched lots of Woody Allen, being a scatching young fogey (which is what Larkin liberated in we young blokes of the time often), just didn’t work. All my lugubrious speech inflections and studied deflations didn’t work. And the city of Wellington was so beautiful, and spacious, and slightly hippy. The men weren’t routinely butch (for all the cliche of the sheep shagger etc, NZ had no cult of army macho etc) and the women were quite forward and colourful (for my experience). And the bookshops weren’t full of Brit poetry as the norm. And I was the other side of the world! So I started reading Modernism, especially Pound, because it’s the key first movement of poets travelling and seeing the whole world , and it allows in non-correct non-standard English. And I was off! But the experience also made me prickly about my old interests in Larkin and so on.

I hope I wasn’t merely prolix and incompetent, as most of the plagiarists were (so you can spot the plagiarism a mile off). Certainly, I liked the Cantos (and John Cage) because it allowed in the prosaic. But, as a former Larkinite, I was also looking out for quirks of phrase or organisation of the whole poem; or, if not that, then some passion. What gets me about the passion shown in Ward’s early work, or throughout David R Morgan’s, is that it assumes that it’s passionate to talk about death, murder, and sex. Whereas to me those subjects, as introduced by them, are the male equivalent of the adolescent rubbish that certain commentators used to snark drew very adolescent women poets to Plath. In male poets, the figure of fun beat poet in Peggy Sue Got Married shouting snot and piss and fuck in his poem is kind of the standard I mean. Whereas, for me, Pound and Cage and others were geeking out, introducing lots of esoterica in a stamp-collecting way sometimes. Geek passion.

So, for me, I’m not imbibing the victim poets I’m reading as a way to at least write well for a moment, to be outrageous or daring in a phrase. I’m learning again some of the chutzpah of being a mainstream poet. People think that doing “out there” wacky poetry takes chutzpah. But it can be water off a duck’s back. I see chutzpah exactly in this cutting away of anything wacky, in this occupying of a style, and we all do it. But I’ve enjoyed the thought of revisiting the ritual anyway. Most plagiarists are incompetent writers. Ward was just starting to become competent. Most of the others would never have got there. And Ward, too, read widely in mainstream lyric. Much wider than I do, and many do (which is why people didn’t spot his plagiarisms). The same is true of Graham Nunn in Australia. Wide reader. Good eye for a poem I’d probably have missed. There are anthologists, maybe, but I probably wouldn’t have looked at the poems in an anthology either. It’s the transgression that deepens my reading experience, the sense of a victim being there, maybe. And the fact I’m good at finding them. If one plagiarism comes up, I can find more in the plagiarist’s whole body of work than most others can (though on Facebook some have helped me with Andrew Slattery, who does “cento” plagiarism). That’s what draws me to the work. Sometimes I’m bored by all the work involved. But I have had these little hits of “mainstream style”, as transgressive because of the attractiveness to plagiarists I’m adding to my own work maybe?

I think I’m left with a new sense of audience, which is nice. I always had the sense of a large audience when I write songs (where I’ll sometimes rewrite a poem to make it a more “large audience” song). I don’t think of mainstream lyric as a large audience. It’s just an audience, and a corner of the market, and a chance to speak another language (and behave respectfully).

CT: One often hears of the London-centricity of poetry and how its ‘scene’ can seem insular, is this true of your experience? How does it compare to other ‘scenes’ you’ve experienced? 

IL: Well, I started out in London, being at UCL 1986-1989, and having tea with Hugo Williams, and meeting Ian Hamilton, and magazines based in London taking my work. I couldn’t really stay healthy in London (not for any drink or drugs, just got rundown easily) and got funding to study in New Zealand, where I got really well and cheerful.  After that, I couldn’t really cope with anywhere that didn’t have a hippy quality and big skies, which Norfolk and Northumberland have, although I tried London again for six months in 1995, got insomniac quickly, and left again.

I do travel around, and have performed a fair bit in Manchester, in Yorkshire, and in Birmingham and the Black Country. The scenes strike me the same each place: there are usually a few slightly seethingly intense intelligent poets around, and the good and the bad sides of camaraderie. Mostly the scenes are very fond of their own local heroes, including those who wouldn’t travel so well and would shrivel up in a more anonymous event away from home. The seething intense ones aren’t always the same as the local hero ones, and the former act a bit like they’re bored and also feeling a bit out of shape and flabby. The local hero poets are partly clung onto as the region’s ambassador, but also with a hint of angry resentment that the same poem the hero has just performed would bomb in another region; because it’s working with the language and streets all around one, and because performance nights need to have a slightly hyped “whoop whoop” feeling when the hero mounts the stage of “ooh, this’ll be good, makes the night worthwhile”. Local scenes all sort of work towards that effect, because they’re not just (or at all) about visiting poets – in the North East, these come to the Durham Book Festival, and the events can be really arid and stuffy.

London seems to me to have the effect of a warm group who know each other, a greater habituation to just anyone dropping by (none of the scenes are hostile, so I’ve found, because any new audience member is a boon), but sometimes doesn’t know it’s just as parochial. I often wonder whether a London poetry reading would feel happier if it could make local references in just the same way as a Newcastle one would to Newcastle. Instead, perhaps, there is some deference and obligation (and condescension if they don’t get it) to London references which you wouldn’t have to live there to get. There seem far fewer out of shape seething characters in the London scenes I’ve seen. I’d say the main culture clash is that London poets feel the burden of being both London and national, and sometimes seem prickly towards poets from elsewhere who don’t seem burdened by having to be national. It certainly seems to me to be like the too-edited too-workshopped poem. One can read, say, W S Graham, in his Collected Poems, and locate him, imagine the physical landscape he was writing in, once one has sat down and really lived with the book. That takes time, and maybe it wouldn’t come across so redolent in a workshop or in a performance. It seems to me that a lot of editing is there to take away that possibility of meh. The possibility of the work which feels so good when you can feel its soul just falling flat. The other local scenes I’ve taken part in… they don’t have that feeling of rush, and wearing your armour.

I’ve taken part in other scenes. I was far less successful than I’d like to have been in the Cambridge experimental scene, though I certainly hung around like a bad smell. The London experimental scene of the 90s was very welcoming. But everywhere’s more welcome nowadays, albeit with a slight group therapy politeness.  I don’t know that I would have taken the work I do in Birmingham or Newcastle in 2013 to less obviously experimental places in the 90s. I don’t know that I would have attempted a poem of the lyric I in the experimental London scene of the 90s. Interestingly, I’ve found there is more likely to be somebody nowadays in a London performance who’ll fold their arms and glare at me when I do wacky shouty arm wavy experimental stuff. It certainly isn’t the case that the London scene is uptight or too cool for school (as Brian Stefans once said of the New York scene). I’ve had plenty of really warm responses in London. But I have definitely had more incidents of someone looking fed up and hating it. I don’t think someone would go to an event in the regions if they were likely to hate it?

It’s true that the part of the country that most snarked at my plagiarism research was London. Plenty of voices there telling me that I was too harsh, or some kind of vigilante, or the “poetry police”. The only comparable reaction was from the Brisbane scene, when I took on Graham Nunn for plagiarizing there, and that was because they said I was unhip and too academic. I was somehow gross, inhuman and feral for the London complainers.

I don’t sense in London quite the same whoop effect of heroes taking the stage, in a local London poetry reading. And I sense there’s much more catty takedowns of bad lines and bad poems done behind people’s backs. Maybe they protect their own from others if others do the takedown, and plagiarism accusation feels like a takedown? I don’t know. I know that in the experimental scenes, people very quickly close down against someone attacking one of the poets.

CT: If you could recommend just one book/show/album/person/object to a poet starting out, what would it be? 

IL: Your last question is really tough. The Cantos is my favourite book of poetry, from which I continually learn. The anthology In The American Tree, probably.