Where We Are
Recent Reading, Autumn 2012

81 Austerities, Sam Riviere (115pp, 9.99, Faber)
The Moon and Other Inventions
, Kristina Marie Darling (62pp, BlazeVOX)
Standard Form of Language Resentment
, Freke Räihä
   (51pp, 12 euros, corrupt press)
road song for
, lars palm (87pp, 12 euros. corrupt press)
Sancti Clandestini
, Maggie Butt (75pp, Ward Wood)
So Here We Are
, David Caddy (153pp, Shearsman)
The Long 1950s
, Andrew Duncan (308pp, Shearsman)

I thought, when it arrived, that I could co-opt Sam Riviere for my post-confessional narrative poetry campaign (see the Smartarse anthology) but 81 Austerities is a typical example of a mainstream publisher's version of the experimental. Riviere is mostly a straightforward narrative poet who tells anecdotal stories; there is little of the slippage or fragmentation required to truly evidence or evoke contemporary life; and the images and jokes are mannered and forced. In '101/1' Riviere comes close to tenderness when his answer to '...feeling depressed about the inconstancy / of meaning in the world' is to consider the face of a loved one (or perhaps the reader) in slow motion thought, and compare it to the moment when he is '...looking up to see /a train has pulled alongside / mine I'm swapping eyes / with the eyes I met.' I find this much more moving and interesting than the surface gloss of poems about the surface gloss of the contemporary world.

Mind you, having casually invoked the myth of big vs. small press, I present two cases of failed small press experiment. I was looking forward to Kristina Marie Darling's beautifully produced book, which is subtitled Poems After Joseph Cornell
, but unfortunately the book contains only blank pages with some evocative footnotes along the bottom. It's a format that's been used so many times over the last 50 years that it instantly bores. There's also a question to be asked about what happens if a reader doesn't know Joseph Cornell: will this text be decipherable or readable in any meaningful way? I'm all for readers doing lots of work, but this is a case of a missing editor: someone needs to remind an author when a form or idea has run its course.

Freke Räihä's book is a mix of flarf and conceptual writing which collages, reorganizes and patterns text selected from correspondence with a number of publishing houses which Räihä has presumably submitted work to. It's funny for a couple of pages and then it isn't. We've all been rejected, sometimes in offhand and ill-informed ways, not to mention via standard format letters or emails, so this book doesn't come as much of a shock or as news to anyone. And as it says in his book: 'Since we receive a large amount of material we can only rarely write personal reviews.'

Lars Palm's book is also published by corrupt press, and is only conceptual in that it loosely groups what the back cover calls 'verses and prose poems'. The same blurb writer also succinctly points out tha 'Palm's work is carefully built to look effortless', which hits the nail right on the head. Palm's texts remind me of Robert Creeley's: short burts of music documenting thought process apparently as it happens. There are frozen images, declarations of love, narrative prose poems, and moments of jet(or travel)-lagged surrealism. Palm also boasts a superb beard on the back cover, which he comments upon in one of his short poems:

     (stockholm city
            1 1:ix: 10)

                          people in terror
                          of my beard

This is a wonderful book of impulsive and magical, lyrical poetry.

Maggie Butt writes a more traditional kind of free verse, rooted in description and storytelling, with little in the language that feels new or memorable, but her book is so wonderfully presented, with a bevy of illustrations by numerous artists, and her idea of 'undercover saints' so witty and well-executed, that I like it anyway.

Butt slyly engages with enthusiasts, stranded souls due to missed connections, Sunday mornings, rank outsiders, undelivered letters and a wide range of other characters and subjects, each time summoning up a patron saint and delivering a witty homily on her subject. If occasionally it descends into C of E sermon land, most of the time it doesn't; if you don't mind a sense of jollity tinged with occasional earnestness, not to mention great illustrations, then this is for you.

David Caddy would make a good saint, perhaps for forgotten & ignored poets, perhaps for the rural or gentle, perhaps for the small presses of the world. So Here We Are is a collection of 18 talks originally issued as podcasts on the internet, and evidences a careful, assured and informed approach to his subjects.

For me, the book takes a while to warm up: it doesn't really hit its stride till 'Letter 4: Blake's Marriage' and isn't at it's best until 'Letter 7' onwards, where Caddy mainly discusses individual authors and their work. Here are Bill Griffiths, Allen Fisher, Thomas A. Clark, Bunting, Tom Raworth, John Kinsella and Prynne, Crozier, Riley and Gascoyne, all carefully introduced and discussed in warm, enthusiastic tones.

In the end this is perhaps the problem. These figures have long been welcomed back into the alternative canon that emerged at the end of the 20th century, and all have been extensively written about and their work reconsidered. Those interested in this work will ultimately find little new here; perhaps the audience was intended to be new readers, or those unaware of innovative poetries? I don't want to sound negative, because I enjoyed this accessible collection of talks, but I guess I don't quite know where to place it. I hope Caddy will find ways to extend his critical writing to make new connections and arguments, ways to re-present truly neglected or new poets; having now carefully delineated where we are it is time to discuss where we go next.

Andrew Duncan's critical books are, in the end, about Andrew Duncan. In his erratic and ongoing series of poetry overviews, Duncan now presents The Long 1950s
, in which he gets to hold forth on cultural fields, Oxford, christian poetry and secularism, postmodernism, singer-songwriters and a whole swathe of other topics, filtered through Duncan's own enthusiasms, dislikes and critiques into a series of rambling polemics.

There are so many interesting ideas in all of Duncan's books, but they are seldom fully explored or backed up with examples, let alone referenced or clearly linked to the next point. There is an over-reliance on the author's own response as a critical given: rarely can Duncan accept a poet's work may be good, or of interest, but not to his taste. Seldom does Duncan acknowledge where his statistics, ideas or information come from.

Perhaps we should be grateful that Duncan is trailblazing his way through the latter part of the 20th century in such a way, throwing so much into the air? Surely, there will be others to reconsider and document these issues and ideas more fully and in a more reasoned and careful way? I hope so. Duncan's writing here is exhilarating, enthusiastic, and as tiresome as ever. I want more clarity and depth, more editing and argument.

    Rupert Loydell 2012