March 2


Attention Shoppers: Ashbery Yet Again

Okay. I quite like John Ashbery’s poetry. Here is a link to a review by Helen Vendler of Ashbery’s new book, which I think is out in the UK later in March. Vendler has in the past been a little guilty of being pedestrian about Ashbery’s poetry, offering synopses of poems for which synopses are more or less entirely irrelevant. But here, she is big enough to admit to being wrong sometimes, so she’s okay. It’s also a good read of a review.

Here’s Another Great Offer

This is another good review, by which I mean it’s made me want to go and read people I’ve either not got on with in the past, or for some reason ignored. The people in question are Richard Caddel and Peter Redgrove. The review is by Keith Jafrate, and also includes his take on Michael Laskey’s “Permission To Breathe”, which I seem to remember reading a while ago.

This Is Also Great

If you happen to live in or near Oxford, I’m reading there on Sunday March 13th. All the information you will ever need to help you get there and then get away from there is here. It will be fun. I think I can promise that. Steven Waling is also reading, and he’s good. (I just hope he’s not better than me.)



March 4


Review by Ian Seed

Songs for Eurydice by Keith Jafrate (Stride, £9.50)

I blunder towards your kiss like a survivor from a burning house

This 130-page poem is a kind of hymn to the beauty lost in the way we live. The poem is highly ambitious, dares to be genuinely innovative, and at its best is intensely lyrical. "Songs for Eurydice" is not a retelling of the myth itself but a kind of continuation, a seeking out, of abandoned love. Given the length of the poem, I will attempt to briefly break it down, though this will not do justice to the overall complexity of the work. The book is divided into nine parts. In the first, "a magical submission", the narrator, or perhaps ‘singer’ is a better word, decides to submit to the desire to find his love, whatever the consequences:

I go to you
         as to death
      an assent
a season entered

However, there are rivals and ghosts to contend with: "the dead crowds of the river want to speak to you […] they carry us like water in their black hands." Again, there is no choice but to submit:

we lie like silence
we build nothing
with careless precision
we embrace and sleep

In part 2, the descent beckons, the narrator prepares himself for whatever has to take place:

I am clean for the journey
on a day of rain

Some of the vivid detail from the descent reads like updated scenes from Dante:

then the endless exhibition of sitting rooms
men masturbate
holding tiny photographs
some with tiny televisions
their pricks impetigo red
hands slowing
down speeding-up
wordless questioning noises
and some openly weeping
like absurd machines
they will never come is all she tells me

Parts 3 and 4 are songs celebrating love found ("your mouth’s soft method") and at the same time mourn the love irretrievably lost in a modern day hell of

…skulls of cars […]
beside the rot of crust and wrapper
rich pickings on the vomit trail

and where "rags of polythene show the wind’s temper."

In part 5 the singer describes his love in sensuous detail, mapping the particular to the universal, not unlike Neruda:

to say your single fingernail supports all history
here in the scar on your elbow every journey.

But this is followed by the "ghost tribunal" of Part 6 with its vignettes of petty people who exist in a kind of limbo ("clerks / their phrases like stones"), yet have the power, if we let them, to defeat us. A letter from a government bureaucrat is quoted at length. There is lament for the real life lost as a consequence:

but not to have looked at you enough
not to have been entered
by landscape’s shadows at evening

"The song of Orpheus", Part 7, is a kind of cry of agony. Love, and therefore life, may never be found again:

to die in the sun in our own lives
where dreams pester the shore
to die at the edge of ourselves

It ends with the ambiguous image of a "crow at the gutter" which "blinks like a toy and turns its head".

The eternal symbol of 'fire' in part 8 is, unlike our traditional image of hell, what can ultimately restore us with its power, what can restore the "small flame / dumb in us". And "the darkness around" the fire is an image of hope

beginning then
and before then

the place within this place
the meeting point

a black flower
time’s gold hand reaching through its heart

The "body lyrics"of part 9 are the most fragmented in the book, where the singer explores and juxtaposes scenes and sense impressions. Orpheus is dead:

here is the body of Orpheus
a field of high grass
a white butterfly on a poppy
silent and a long
way away

But love can still be ours:

if not for us
whose is the city?
if not for love
to keep the rain from lovers […]

the river brings more waves
it is never tired of waves

Hopefully, the parts I have quoted will convey something of the strength and beauty of the writing. The book has also its weak points. The tone can be strident and sometimes I got an impression of we sensitive souls against the philistine world, though I am sure that is not what Jafrate intended. Certain archetypal symbols such flowers are repeated with a wearisome insistence:

when flowering things
when flowering
things when flowering things when

when flowering
things when flowering (etc)

At least, that’s way it comes across on the page. I accept that accompanied my music, as parts of the poem have been, the impression may well be altogether different.

The writing sometimes strays into cliché and sentimentality:





This reminds me too much of a Christmas card. Of course, other readers may respond differently. Yet given the overall power and beauty of this book, does it really matter if some parts of it are not as good as the rest? William Carlos Williams once said of Kenneth Patchen’s "The Journal of Albion Moonlight" that much of it was brilliant while some of it was truly awful, but that we desperately need writers like Patchen. Something similar could be said of Keith Jafrate.

© Ian Seed, 2005



March 9

1991. WHERE WAS I?


In 1991 (apparently it was 1991: all those years way back when are a bit of a misty hazy swirly befuddling fog) I was one of the lucky people to be at The Smallest Arts Festival In The World. The organiser of this great event, Michael Blackburn, has just posted a record of the proceedings online. There is even a photograph with me in it (so cool, so cool....) and pictures of some other people who, in those days, had hair. It's all great. Ha ha. Loads of poets and artists were crammed into a little room in a little house. We went outside into the yard for air. There was a tiny kitchen full of poets and artists. Everybody had a good time. It was 1991. Whatever happened to 1991? It went away and won't ever come back.


I have a couple of poems freshly online at Stride, by the way. I thought I'd mention it in passing.


There is a new collaborative project - "Offsets" - online at Trevor Joyce's SoundEye website. You can get to it by clicking here. This is the third Offsets writing project. The idea is that, starting off with one piece of writing, a bunch of writers respond to, or branch off from it with one or two pieces. These are then published, and then the writers respond to one or two of these.... It develops into a kind of tree thing. If you go to the site, click on "Start Reading" or "Get A Map". The writers involved don't necessarily know one another, and pieces remain anonymous until they've not been responded to within a specified time. It's quick and fresh and interesting, I think.


Miles Kington, the light-hearted sometimes humourful columnist at The Independent, has recently touched upon the wonderful world of poetry, which is something of a surprise, I guess. The full article is here, although one has to pay for the privilege of reading it all. It begins thus, and I think it's quite entertaining and has within it more than a grain of some truth.....

Why is it that almost all poets sound as if they were trained in the same read-a-poem school?

I can’t help feeling that there is something about poetry which draws all readers of poetry, all reciters of poetry, all performers of poetry, all Big-Poetry-Issue street sellers of poetry, towards roughly the same sort of voice. The poetry voice.

The poetry voice? It’s sing-songy without being musical. It’s incantatory without being hypnotic. It’s slow, it’s monotone, it’s somewhat self-important and it’s always slightly reverential. It’s not unlike the voice of a clergyman who is doing the daily service on Radio 4 and wants to sound a bit like God without actually giving himself airs.

I probably would not be expressing these thoughts on the churchy nature of the poetry voice if I had not found myself the other day listening to Andrew Motion. The Poet Laureate is presenting a series on Radio 4 in which he is grandly surveying British poetry, past and present.

Every time I hear him reading poetry, the thing that hits me is not whether the poetry is good or bad but how ecclesiastical his voice tends to be. Not in a grand cathedral manner, more in a plain, parish church, small-but-brave congregation sense. So I was not entirely surprised when the first person he introduced on his first programme as a witness to poetry was Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury. Rowan Williams? Expert on poetry? Not the first obvious choice. Nor the tenth. But as two churchmen go they sounded a good double act.

(This was reinforced in the second programme when Motion said that, after considering “borders” in the first outing, he “would like to think about ‘heartlands’ in this programme”. That is such a parish clergyman kind of thing to say. A broadcaster always says he would like to “talk” about something. A clergyman says he would like to “think” about something. “This week I would like us to think about free will and choice.”….)

What keeps me cheerful is that I have also recently heard poetry on Radio 4 which was not in the least churchy, mostly because it was read in voices rooted in region. Ian McMillan recently presented an edition of With Great Pleasure in which his own Barnsley voice was well to the fore, but the outstanding feature of which was a slow reading of “Ilkley Moor” by a Yorkshire chap whose name I didn’t catch. I have always known “Ilkley Moor” as a jolly chorus number, so to hear it rendered as a slow, dark, very grim Yorkshire poem was wonderfully chilling…….


I have my kid Timothy to thank for this website address, but it's going to be so much of a surprise for you I can only sit here chuckling into my (what's that thing you chuckle into? Your beer? Close parentheses....

I know this is supposed to be a poetry & music site, filled with intelligent stuff, but click here and surrender to a different kind of magic.



March 10


1I was putting my socks on today and the thought fluttered into what I call my mind how “Exultations and Difficulties” is a year old this month. I don’t know exactly when the birthday is, because a deadly webworm alien being wiped the original site clean, and so I can’t check the date. So I’ve decided it’s tomorrow. Or the day after. One of those. I think why the thought occurred to me was I was idly wondering if I wanted to carry on doing this, or if I should pack my bags and go see some of the foreign world. I’d been cleaning the flat for an hour, and all sorts of things occur to you after a while, when the dust you’ve disturbed settles on your brain. Then I wondered how long I had been doing this, and that was when I realised it was a year. A whole interesting year, and it’s been a lot of fun. It has, and is.



March 11


I am pleased to be able to present, almost by popular demand, another play by Mark Halliday and me. This is one of the short ones. It's what Thespians call a "one-hander", I believe. Actually, that doesn't sound right at all. It sounds kind of rude. Forget I said it.


(Character: Comedy’s Dark Hero. Scene: A sandy desert.)

Comedy’s Dark Hero: Oh woe is me to be Comedy’s Dark Hero and all alone in the middle of this sandy desert.

(Enter a camel, stage right)


© Mark Halliday & Martin Stannard, 2005



March 14


So anyway, Jez is in China, and he can't look at this website. When he tries, it says "Material unavailable for unsupervised observation." They know what they're about, these Chinese.

And China sounds wonderful: "I've got a semi-palatial pad in a gated enclave for teachers and similar salaried upmo New Chinese. I sleep in a double bed under a mosquito net like some character out of Graham Greene. I still get bitten nightly - great red welts that look like pus-filled sores ....."



March 18


Candy was in The Poacher this evening when I stopped off for a drink on the way home from the call centre. I don’t think Candy is her real name, but since she never tells me the truth ever, it doesn’t really matter. She was with Pete. I don’t think Pete is his real name, either. I suspect recreational drugs or illegal downloading comes into it somewhere, but there’s no point me asking because whatever answer they gave I wouldn’t believe it. Pete is very tall, and notices the rain sooner than most other people. It wasn’t raining today, because it’s been officially the first day of that thing, what is it? Sounds like bankruptcy, means the same as bankruptcy. Perhaps it’s bankruptcy, but that wouldn’t make any sense. Candy seemed smaller and thinner than last time I saw her. She said she’d just started a new job but it had only lasted a couple of days. It wasn’t the work she disliked, but she preferred to let someone else do it. I didn’t believe her when she said it had been as a front desk receptionist at a BMW showroom. I didn’t believe her when she said she’d seen me at The Rescue Rooms last week but had decided not to say Hello because I was with a girl. I never let Candy know I know she's a liar. I prefer to let the entertainment continue unabated. Briefly I wondered what the girl I hadn’t been with was like. Pete said he’d had some poems accepted by a magazine called “Black Bouquet” and had I come across it. Of course I hadn’t. But I said I’d heard it was pretty good, although I hadn’t seen a copy. Pete’s a liar like Candy is a liar. He has a couple of books out of print. Beyond inconsequential nods and yeses, this was the first time I’d ever become creatively and verbally complicit in one of Candy and Pete’s tales from the crypt. I said how Marcus Holdall was the editor and he was an okay sort of poet. It kind of threw them both. It threw me, too, because I was all of a sudden afraid of finding myself inhabiting a neck of their make believe world. There were buildings and people in it, and a dark place out back where mystery happened. It’s not that make believe scares me, it’s just I feel safer with my own than with someone else’s.



March 21


Review by Luke Kennard

Apology for Absence by Julia Darling (Arc Publications, £6.95)

Let us begin with ‘Impossible’:

to understand the way a teenager hears questions,
like a whine, disturbing their inner hum.

This is a lovely image – and is particularly apt as there are several lines in “Apology for Absence” that disturbed my inner hum. It was disturbed by the gaggle of g’s in “They stagger amongst the giggly girls”; and ruffled by the vague exaggeration of “we made a thousand detours.” The self-consciously twee, “Come eat strawberry flan / while we can, while we can” had me storming up to my bedroom in a huff and slamming the door so the paintings shook – shook on their hooks like little frightened animals.

Such moments are not characteristic of Darling’s style, but there are enough of them to leave one feeling rather irritable and sulky. Be that as it may, there are people (among them lovely, courteous people whom I know and love) who will consider the poems in this collection playful, delightful and celebratory work – and I have been severely clipped round the ear for complaining about that before, so allow me to assert that I harbour no grudge against light verse. I feel just the same about light verse as I do about strawberry flan. I can take it or leave it. I’d rather have a coffee.

As ‘Impossible’ suggests, Darling is actually a much better writer than this. “We are an English family in an endless terrace.” is the understated, assonant conclusion to ‘Probably Sunday’, wherein Darling captures an essential ennui of English life and renders it poetic instead of mundane. Furthermore, some of her images are delightfully unusual – in ‘Night Sweat’: “You wake up with your face melting, / An evangelical bird calling you.” Gotta love that “evangelical bird” – at once summoning the over-enthusiastic grace of its song and the protagonist’s curmudgeonly stirring from sleep. And later in the same poem:

You attempt to plead
with night. You make a promise.
You say that if he lets you go

you’ll give him all your furniture,
sew up the armholes in your clothes,
donate your family to science.

According to the blurb, Darling is both a surrealist and a realist. This made me laugh when I read it, but it actually holds water. The best poems in the book are the result of the two poles combining. ‘My Thumb in Leeds’ begins with the wonderfully plain statement: “My thumb is on holiday.” Elsewhere, old coats smell of “snails and unwashed flannels” and “there was music in the folds / of a pensioners skirt.”

‘My Complicated Daughter’ explores the theme of familial alienation with tact and subtlety. “What can I do for my complicated daughter, / my terror, my dark heart, so lost in this house?” asks the narrator. “We collide in the bathroom, by the terrible mirror, / so apart, so unable to give or receive.” There is real poignancy here – and that’s rare in confessional poetry – and I think it comes from the implications of the “terrible mirror”. In other poems there may well be poignancy, but I feel apart from it – as if I had just identified poignancy in a field-guide. ‘Days of Terrible Tiredness’, for instance, is a tired person talking about being tired:

These short days, when I try too hard
to get there, to make myself,

to sit and push, to pull in words,
pull up weeds, take vitamin C...

The reader may reflect that s/he has his/her own family to empathise with about this sort of thing – and, being a dutiful son or daughter, I’m sure they do so regularly. I’m not sure how it functions in poetry. Actually, yes I am. It functions to annoy me. This is where good writing meets flan. You can probably tell I don’t usually pick up books with paintings of vases on the front cover. They tend to contain poems called ‘Phone Call From the Hospice’:

You know when it’s Sunday
because the chef isn’t here.

Other days are the same,
Pop Idol, magazines.

Anybody who reads poetry in any great quantity has probably had the dubious pleasure of reading a poem about a waiting room whilst sitting in a waiting room. The feeling is not as uncanny as you might imagine – it is rather a recognition that, hey, the poet is right: the duller, more painful passages of life are, indeed, dull & painful; accompanied by the urge to hurl yourself against the automatic doors whether they open in time or not. All of us have this stuff – tragedy and suffering befalling ourselves or our loved ones – and maybe it’s more helpful to write poems about it than it is to read them. Personally I find it rather depressing even to write about it, but I guess I’m an escapist. ‘Weight’ begins:

I am weighed down by carrier bags
of duty, cans of obligation.

Think about your own writing. Are the notes you make while waiting for a train ever about a train delay? I mean, unless you’re filling in the complaint form. Poetry should make the familiar strange, not render it all too familiar. And Darling can make strange – in fact she does it in the very next couplet:

A bowl sky hangs above my head
It’s like sitting in a tent in the rain.

Unless we’ve chosen lightness (which, as Kundera argues, has its own hardships), we’re all weighed down by carrier bags of duty (and even the unbearably light still have to go grocery shopping). So why not keep the title and start the poem with the bowl sky? It’s a good image, but it gets crushed beneath the cans.

There are poems in "Apology for Absence" that confirm Darling’s admirable ethos with eloquence and warmth:

we all matter, we are all
indelible, miraculous, here

There are also several which don’t – and that’s mostly because they’re written in strict accordance with the Realist Poet’s Code. ‘My Old Friend Hospital’ charts the boredom of charts and temperatures, “humming lifts”, tiresome sorts like “Fionas, Paulines, Marylins and Dots” and ends portentously,

Whoever would have thought
I might love a hospital, but I do:
you know me now, and I know you.

“Whoever would have thought”? Actually it’s a voice most readers will have come across time and again – exactly the kind of irritable, knowing voice that would half-ironically say it loved a hospital. Just as we’d expect a hard-line Language Poet to cover the same ground by writing the word “hospital” backwards with commas between the letters. I’m sure our narrator actually finds the hospital as much of a drag as the unwell Marilyns, Fionas and Dots do. (Note that the narrator sort of looks down on these gals, and I find that sort of troubling – the poet’s innate superiority is another common element of anti-esoteric urban realism – and I’m always sort of left thinking, “Egalitarian, my arse”).

However, in my less irked moments, I think many of my opinions are just category errors. I’m admonishing a table for not being more like a bicycle and feigning surprise when I can’t ride it to the newsagents – and I’m sorry for doing that. I guess it’s just that Julia Darling, without the occasional jangly rhyme and the domestic/sarcastic elements all too pervasive in contemporary poetics, would be a writer I could really like. As it is, there are plenty of people who enjoy the very qualities I find annoying – and I suspect their boat will be rocked just barely by the collection’s more dynamic moments, exactly the way they like it.

© Luke Kennard, 2005



March 24


Just for an Easter change, I'm stealing links from my son Tim's site, because I think they're good. I have his permission. He's a good kid. He's inherited my charm. These are all web-based digital media things, and if I knew what their correct name was I'd probably still call them that, or something like it. A couple of them are not fantastic resolution on a desktop PC because they are made for DVD, but still they make good watching, I think.

You can get to all these via Tim's site. The post you want is March 19th. He has a way with language. I don't know where he gets it from. Otherwise here are the links:

The first one is at Tokyo Plastic. You have to hunt around a bit, but if you do common sense things like click in the places it obviously wants you to click, you will get a kind of tree thing. The top right hand branch of that leads you to the drum machine. Go for the drum machine. Turn it up loud. And be patient. It takes a while to get to where you're going, and at one point you think it's done but it isn't.

Next, there is the fly. You need to go to recent work, and click on the naked fly link.

If you think George Bush is really cool, you might like to skip this next one. What Barry Says is better on a full screen TV/DVD, which is how I first saw it, but it's still good stuff. Beats me how these animators can be so clever but still, on a computer, you have to watch it really small.

Tim reckons all this is pretty much state of the art, and he's probably right. His girlfriend is at college learning to do these things, and she's pretty good at it herself. Sadly, none of her work is available for showing at this cinema today. Perhaps another day. Meanwhile, this Mogwai video (Hunted by a Freak) is spooky and disturbing. At least it spooks and disturbs me.

Finally, this may not be state of the art any longer and, as Tim says, it's a bit old -- but still it's damn fine. If only it was bigger! It's one of my favourite music videos, although I guess there are a few of those, come to think of it.

On a different tack -- I just switched to using Firefox as my browser. This site looks different on Firefox than it does on Internet Explorer. Colours are different, and some of the formatting doesn't sit right. I'm trying to find out why, but I suspect the answer is really boring and means more work for me. So, if you are looking at this via Firefox you are getting a slightly altered version of things. It's nothing serious. But if anyone knows about technical stuff like that, I'd like to hear from you. Meanwhile, although I think Firefox is a way better browser than IE, and I now use it for general moving around, this site is still best viewed using Internet Explorer, if only because that way it looks more or less as it should, instead of more or less how someone else thinks it should.



March 25


For the past five or six weeks I have been slowly reading John Ashbery’s “Selected Prose”. It’s not the kind of book I’d sit down and read from cover to cover to the exclusion of all else. For one thing, I always seem to have several books on the go at the same time, and sometimes forget one or two of them and when I come across them under a pile of more recently arrived stuff try and remind myself to remind myself to resume reading where I left off. Sometimes I don’t, usually. Other times I get wonderfully absorbed, of course. I this week decided I wanted to re-read some George Eliot, and hauled a pile of things out: “Middlemarch” and “Silas Marner”, and “Daniel Deronda” and “Felix Holt”. When I say “re-read”, I mean the first two. I’ve never read the other two, but there’s always a first time. Anyways, I’ve just read “Silas Marner” over the last two days. It’s good to be reminded how good these things are. Reader, I almost cried when Eppie said she wanted to stay with old Silas, and not go to the big house and live with the big shots.

When it was all over and folk were living more or less happily ever after, and I’d composed myself with the aid of a fresh salad and a cup of tea, I turned to Ashbery for a change of tone. (I’m having one of those reading days. I don’t want to go out and have Easter with people. Holiday days always seem to be a good reason to barricade the doors and shut the hordes of holiday-makers out.) I love reading Ashbery’s reviews and articles. He’s always very readable, even when he’s writing about someone or something you don’t have a clue about, or perhaps have never heard of. Perhaps it’s not surprising to find him writing interestingly about an artist, but it’s a delight to read about an artist and feel that you’ve encountered the paintings and, at the best moments, the artist in person. This was the case this afternoon, reading his piece about Louisa Matthiasdottir. Who? Quite. And Ashbery is always saying things that seem to reflect back on his own poetry and which, to my mind at any rate, never cease to throw light on those vague areas of art process you think you know about but which too often elude you:

It is this ambiguity, projected not for its own sake but as a means of getting more content into the picture, that is one of the major rewards of Louisa Matthiasdottir’s painting. At a time when artists tend increasingly to consider single aspects to the detriment of wholeness, she reminds us that it is not only possible to be and to do many things while being oneself and doing one thing, it is also impossible not to.

He is also, of course, great on poets. Here he is on John Wheelwright, an American poet I’ve heard of but have never read:

….. the difficulty proceeds less from arcane allusions than from Wheelwright’s peculiarly elliptical turn of mind which convolutes and compresses clarities to the point of opacity. There is no more point in doing one’s homework first than there is with the Cantos: one has to wade in, grasping at what is graspable and letting the extraordinarily charmed lyrical climate accustom one little by little to the at first blinding brightness or darkness…..
It is best perhaps to start with the shorter, seemingly easier poems, not because they are actually much easier but because they contain some of his most radically original poetry unburdened by a narrative or dialectical function. This one, “Familiar,” is from Dusk to Dusk:

O, gilded Boston State house; O, gleaming Irish hair!
I saw Lady Bountiful taking a walk in clean sunlight.
A goodlooking girl, if only she hadn’t lips for eyelids.
I thought I saw two persons, and I got all mixed up.
You see, it was this way … Lady Bountiful was modestly, even stylishly
dressed in two dimensions. But Lady Bountiful’s shadow
had three dimensions, and crept behind like
pickpocket stenches of belches of Welch wenches.

Even while beginning to wonder what this is all about, one notes its crotchety sense of conviction. I think it succeeds, just as I think the very next one, “Stranger, doesn’t:

(While Boston blossoms into one brown rose)
how is it, Girlie, on your way
from Saroyan’s whimsy play
Over the Hills and Far Away
to suffocate black incubator babies
that you carry a tall walking stick
embossed with the many-breasted Artemis;
but rubbed on its prepuce nether tip?
Did you lift it from my steady’s mother?

In both cases I am unsure of what is being said, but also fairly sure that it doesn’t matter, that we are in the presence of something as dumbfounding as Cubism must have seemed to its first spectators and as valid as it now looks in retrospect.

Ashbery and his New York pals have always had this open and liberating quality about them. Sometimes, for sure, one might suspect a certain disingenuousness about a profession of not understanding something, but it strikes me as by the by, because it’s largely irrelevant. And anyway, what are those poems about? It’s the being somewhat amazed by them that is important, and Ashbery reminds us about this time and time again – what he elsewhere calls “the surprise that is the one essential ingredient of great art.”


There is a good piece (I might say "a great piece". Yes, indeed) by Clive Allen on Ashbery's prose, and his latest book of poems, at Litter.



March 30


Review by Martin Stannard

Ready-Made Bouquet by Dean Young (Stride, £8.50)

I have a bee in my bonnet at the moment about reading poems too fast, and I shall try and make this the last time I mention reading poems too fast anywhere. At the same time I shall refrain from talking about reading poems slowly, which is the same thing in a different frock. The reason it occurs to me again now is that I have been reading (for the second time) Dean Young’s “Ready-Made Bouquet”, and the first time I read it was one Saturday afternoon a few weeks ago. I suspect I even had Sky Sports on the TV at the same time to keep an eye on the football scores. I am ashamed to admit to this, but you have to admire my honesty. Anyway, this time I just read the first two poems, and then I stopped, because it occurred to me what I already knew but had not previously thought about enough –

these are damn good poems, and they deserve more attention than I’m giving them. Then I wondered if this isn’t a danger with all this kind of poetry, by which I mean this fast-moving, discursive, seeming sometimes flippant and wise-cracking smart brained wide-ranging poetry of which I am, I admit, somewhat fond. There is, after all, a necessary pace to things like this:

In the beginning, everything is mingled
and joined, all the halves hooked up,
nothing reft or twain, no missing buttons,
no single baby shoes lying by the off-ramps.
In the beginning everything’s combined
smaller than a grapefruit and that’s the first
happiness which makes all the later happinesses
like threads snagged from a tapestry.
So fine: everything’s all smashed together…..

(from “Myth Mix”)

and unless one stops a moment to take a breath there is a risk, because everything is all smashed together, of too quickly skimming over that lovely “reft or twain”, of missing the eye in the delightful mystery of those single baby shoes. Or even, perhaps, just letting “and that’s the first happiness which makes all the later happinesses like threads snagged from a tapestry” go by too quick, because there’s surely something equally readable a little ways up ahead. And there is, of course:

but then along comes coyote and pisses on it….

In a poem not in this book, Young has written “A poem should be/ a noise then it should shut up” and when asked in an interview if he considers a poem to be a kind of “psychic burst” he says “we spend so much of our time like dumb animals. Our psychology is a little bit flat, and we're consumed with the materiality of life: maintaining our bodies, getting things done, going here, going there. But then, when these portals of almost clairvoyant empathy open up for us, they're amazing. That's what we look for in art—the moment when something comes rushing in. All you have to do is make yourself available, accessible, perhaps in ways you haven't done before. Of course, you can't live in that state. There are also long periods when you can't find it, and they're terrible. They’re like being in a desert. Everything you read just plays across your eyeballs.” In a marvellous poem called “Lives of the Poets” he says

…. the life of a poet
is always passing from one world to another, dream
to dream…..

And later in the same poem:

It’s hard to believe how strong silk is
considering it comes from a bug’s butt
and often it’s quite constructive to try
ripping some parachute, some net, some flouncy
party dress, to try and break these ties
that bind us o my lord. Imfuckingpossible.

I’m very wary of even daring to think about the possibility of suggesting there is a remote sliver of a slim chance that one could perhaps just possibly by some stretch of the imagination read this passage as a metaphor for “the poem”, except perhaps…. But things do come “rushing in” in these poems, and the ties that bind them are very strong. I don’t suggest, particularly, that you spend a lot of time trying to work out what those ties are, and how these poems are constructed, but I do suggest that time spent with a poem like “Lives of the Poets”, more time than the time a mere reading of it from beginning to end entails, is time well spent.

Dean Young is an American poet more than one of my American friends have said they thought I’d like. They were right. This book contains selections from Young's last two collections, “First Course in Turbulence” and “Skid”, plus a bunch of “new poems”. The poems from the first book set off brilliantly as they mean to go on. “If Thou Dislik’st What Thou First Light’st On” is a composite of well-known and not-so-well-known first lines from a variety of poems and poets, and probably, although I’m not sure, some stuff of Young’s own.

I had come to the house, in a cave of trees,
I had dreamed of the perfect gray pants,
I have a life that did not become,
a young sister made of glass.
I have done it again….

As a first poem in a book it’s one of those that had me wondering if there was any hope the rest could be as good as this. They pretty much are. “Skid”, with its first poem starting out with

When Dean Young vacuums he hears
not just time’s winged whatchamacallit
hurrying near but some sort of music
that isn’t the motor

(from “Sunflower”)

seems to signal a subtle shift toward poems that are slightly more prepared to foreground the poet’s whatchamacallit? Personal circumstances? Actually, I don’t even know if this is able to be demonstrated scientifically or empirically. I’m pretty sure it doesn’t matter much, because the poems are continuing delights, and here are some lines to prove that Dean Young leads an ordinary and dull life:

In the distance Valhalla is burning
and the old gods calmly await their pupation
in unprotected crevices. There is a part
of the spirit that can not be destroyed.

(from “Changing Your Bulb”)

These poems are so full of overflowing experiences and the sparkling of things and the boiling pots of the imagination they absolutely refuse to be pinned down and described. I suggest you approach them with your coat flung open and, I think, don’t wear a hat. I had this idea that having said how the poems in “Skid” did a somewhat more personal thing, compared to the poems in the first book, which did a kind of impersonal thing, then the new poems kind of brought the two strands together and

But then I figured I wasn’t sure if it was true, how it was probably all a misconceived hypothesis of the critical kind, and then my mum phoned, after which I couldn’t be bothered to say anything, and anyway come to think of it and hang it all, it was hardly the most important thing reading the poems made me think about. So what was it the poems made you think about? you ask, almost as one. Well, aside from a really irritating “Shit, I wish I’d written that! And that!” which kept pushing itself into my head, and which I had to get over with so much difficulty I absolutely hurt my back as if it had been a gigantic wall I’d been clambering over, it was this: I will only agree to kill Dean Young if he gives me his recipe for writing poems first. Then he can go.

To where? Into solar flares? An angel’s hair?
The next one over there who’s not yet
an embryo?

(from “Inverness Gray”)


ps. Sometimes it’s good to read these poems fast. Not slow. Read them both ways. Either way works. Live life to the full. Oh, and it occurs to me if I kill Dean Young then he won't be able to write any more terrific poems. Okay. I won't kill him.



March 31


In the interests of making the world a better place, and in particular making Poetry World a better place and filled with people who read poetry and also go to the bathroom, I'm happy to put here a link (here it is!) to Neil Astley's recent StAnza (do you like that capital A? Very hip) Lecture. Neil Astley, who is also known as Mr Bloodaxe Books, was last seen carrying a very large shovel. It was to dig a hole with.