Recent books of essays

Another Future. Poetry and Art in a Postmodern Twilight, Alan Gilbert
     [Wesleyan, $24.95]
Berger on Drawing, John Berger [Occasional Press, unpriced]
Modernist Essays: Yeats, Pound, Eliot, Donald Davie [Carcanet, £14.95]
Music Downtown: writings from the village voice, Kyle Gann
     [University of California, unpriced]
101 Ways to Make Poems Sell, Chris Hamilton-Emery [Salt, £14.99]

Alan Gilbert wants to question, and us to question, how we might think, make or write about poetry and visual art at the end of postmodernism. It sounds ridiculous, but when Gilbert is interesting, he's interesting... and when he's not, boy is he dull. I think I'm fairly wide read and culturally aware, but too many of these essays use obscure examples in their discussion which I have never heard of.

When he writes about something I have some knowledge of, then Gilbert is a riveting writer. 'Form and Culture' comes at its subject from four angles: documentary, hybridity, localism and culture, and uses examples of photography and music to discuss his themes. The essay is wide-ranging, precise and clear-minded, intriguing and challenging. At the end of the book he discusses Brenda Coultas' brilliant prose-poem documentary The Bowery Project, and as well as offering a critical review discusses the nature of public space, and of localised history in relation to cultural, national and global histories. It's a superb piece of reviewing and contextualisation, but I wonder what readers who don't know Coultas' work would make of it? Perhaps it simply proves that pluralism and specialised knowledge exist everywhere, and that for the time being we will have to learn to walk in the dark.

Another approach is , of course, to simply not write about your subject at all. This is what John Berger does in
Berger on Drawing. It isn't about drawing at all, it's about people who draw, why they draw, and the nature of art. There's nothing at all about mark making, about texture, line or tone. Berger is a romantic. He says 'All genuine art approaches something which is eloquent but which we cannot altogether understand.' Later in the same paragraph he adds 'We do not know. We simply recognize.' Mystifying art in this way does no-one any good, and is a cop-out. If Berger can't be bothered to learn the vocabulary, or vocabularies of art, it's his fault. But don't use mumbo-jumbo to excuse writing around your subject. I wanted to grapple with drawing itself, not vaguely related issues. This beautifully produced book is a big disappointment.

Donald Davie's book on Modernism is much clearer cut and focussed. Modernist Essays opens with a definition of Modernism itself, in 'The Poet in the Imaginary Museum' and then goes on to discuss the three authors named in the subtitle at some length. From 1957 to 1991 the essays come at the authors from a number of critical stances and creative angles. He's particularly strong and clear on the elusive and difficult work of Ezra Pound, whether concentrating on a particular canto as in 'Cypress versus Rock-Slide: An Appreciation of Canto 110' or the more general subject of 'The Universe of Ezra Pound'. Davie is not afraid to change his mind either, as shown by his 1991 reconsideration of Eliot's 'The Dry Salvages'.

Several essays spread their net wider than the work of the three named subjects. This works well in essays such as 'Poets on Stilts: Yeats and Some Contemporaries' where the focus remains on Yeats but the discussion encompasses others and their work in relation to him. But it is less succesful where one of the three is simply a walk-on part in someone else's story: I felt that 'The “Sculpture” of Rhyme', 'Michael Ayrton's
The Maze Makers' and 'The Mysterious Allen Upward' were somewhat out of place in this volume. But I quibble; in the main this is a super gathering of some important essays about three very important poets.

Music Downtown provides a similarly important service for new music in New York City in the 80s and 90s. Kyle Gann's reviews and articles from the city's essential weekly newspaper are an intriguing review of review, discussion and polemic. He conveys the various excitements and disappointments of the times, observes movements, fads and experiments come and go, and isn't afraid to question insularity or point out the emperor's new clothes. He's particularly lucid on the games of cult, fashion and cultural politics that promoters, musicians and reviewers are prone to. He astutely wonders why those performers or composers who claim a musical plurality don't know that they are recycling secondhand concepts from other musical genres; asks why second-rate improvisation still happens; and despairs of the way funding, grants and prizes are given out in the music world. Throughout, the book is full of enthusiastic engagement with new music of all types. It's a heady, ennervating read.

I'm always disappointed when people don't question the nature of marketing in relation to any art form. Chris Hamilton-Emery has written 'The Salt Guide to Getting and Staying Published' which I have been looking forward to it ever since 'Making Poetry Submissions' (which turns out to be the first chapter, of four) was published online. It's witty and informative, no-nonsense approach is exactly what is needed in the world of would-be poets. 'There ought to be a law...' says Hamilton-Emery, where

     Poets are not allowed to submit a new manuscript until they have read
      two hundred single-author volumes of poetry, published since 1980.

Hurrah for common sense! 'In fact' he goes on, 'there ought to be several laws about it:'

    Poets writing in the manner of the nineteenth-century Romantics are
      advised to seek publishers from the same era.

That one has upset several submitters to Stride. Hey ho. Anything to discourage bad writing.

Hamilton-Emery is first class when he focusses on the whys and wherefores of writing. He's pretty hot, too, on editing, shaping and submitting a book manuscript too, reminding authors that it's the publishers job to design and promote the book, and that they should keep away from the process once their work has been submitted. It's the marketing part of the book I don't like.

I may be jaded after 20-something years of publishing, or it may be that the whole thing stinks of an outmoded capitalist model, but I simply don't accept the marketing rules and ideas that Hamilton-Emery suggests. He reminds me of the Bloodaxe man Simon Thirsk, at a Warwick University forum as few years back, suggesting that selling is a cut & dry affair: you do this, you do that and punters buy the book. But I've been there and done that and it doesn't work. I've spent my own and authors' money, public money from the arts council, in fact any money I could find, on launches, drinks, advertising, schmoozing and readings. Sometimes far too much money. And pretty much all for nothing. We've had a good time, people like the pretty bookmarks, the invitations, and applaud the poets, but we have rarely sold any more books that we would have. Of course, Hamilton-Emery doesn't suggest that authors shouldn't be promoting their own work, nor does he deny that word-of-mouth enthusiasm works wonders. And I don't want to deny that books need promoting to sell. I'm just not convinced that a lot of the marketing strategies outlined here aren't relics from an age where bookshops were actually interested in books, where independent bookshops even existed, and where print-on-demand technology didn't exist. And if it's so easy to market then why aren't Salt books in the bestseller lists?

Personally, I think in our fragmented and confused world networking and virtual or print-on-demand publishing are the answers. As is a focus on readership not sales: do poets want to be read or sell a few hundred books? (And, yes, I still love books; I also like my poems being read around the world though.) But I digress. Despite my reservations - to which you can add a question about the over-large typeface, this guide is in the main a useful, no-nonsense publication which I've already recommended to my creative writing students and to several authors, and have ordered for the college library.

         © Rupert Loydell 2006