Monday, April 19, 2010

Gray’s Anatomy: Selected Writings, by John Gray

The future will be dominated by wars of resources and faith, predicts John Gray in this collection of his writings over the past 30 years. He attacks “liberal fundamentalists” and neo-cons and Blair-style “messianic politics”, accusing his opponents of “a weakness for uplifting illusions” that he doesn't share. A liberal conservative, Gray still clings to some beliefs: humans are predatory and violent, and civil society is worth defending. “Poetry and religion are more realistic guides to life” than science and technology, he concludes, although religion gets all the attention here. In fact, there is little sense of what Gray means by poetry, other than Keats’s “negative capability” and his admiration for “the greatest twentieth-century Tory poet” Philip Larkin. Also included here – among essays on Thatcherism, “evangelical atheism”, environmentalism, torture and globalisation – is a reverent piece about Damien Hirst, which ignores the fact that the multi-millionaire artist is a product of the same speculative bubble Gray correctly predicted would burst.

Dublin 1916: The Siege of the GPO, by Clair Wills

“Did that play of mine send out / Certain men the English shot?” Yeats wondered after the 1916 Rising. Quite probably, says Clair Wills in this excellent cultural history that gives due emphasis to “the literary elements of the Rising – the staged drama at the GPO, the impetus for rebellion found in the theatre of the cultural revival, the poetic manifestoes”. Yeats’s “Easter 1916” was too equivocal for some, but Irish “Rising verse” flourished after the brave rebel leaders had been summarily executed by the British. In the north all memory of the Rising has been suppressed, Wills notes, while in the south an authorised version of events prevails. The Easter Rising became a symbol of Irishness (most evident in the availability of “Rising kitsch”), but also an inspiration. “The Easter week rising in Ireland by its very failure attracted,” Jawaharlal Nehru observed. “For was that not true courage which mocked at almost certain failure and proclaimed to the world that no physical might could crush the invincible spirit of a nation?”

Friday, April 16, 2010

Cameron's Great Ignored v. Baudrillard's Silent Majorities

‘For some time now, the electoral game has been akin to TV game shows in the consciousness of the people. The latter, who have always served as alibi and supernumerary on the political stage, avenge themselves by treating as a theatrical performance the political scene and its actors. The people have become a public. It is the football match or film or cartoon which serve as models for their perception of the political sphere. The people even enjoy day to day, like a home movie, the fluctuations of their own opinions in the daily opinion polls. Nothing in all this engages any responsibility. At no time are the masses politically or historically engaged in a conscious manner. They have only ever done so out of perversity, in complete irresponsibility. Nor is this a flight from politics, but rather the effect of an implacable antagonism between the class (caste?) which bears the social, the political, culture – master of time and history, and the formless, residual, senseless mass. The former continually seeks to perfect the reign of meaning, to invest, to saturate the field of social, the other continually distorts every effect of meaning, neutralises or diminishes them. In this confrontation, the winner is not at all the one you might think.’

Jean Baudrillard, In the Shadow of the Silent Majorities

Monday, April 12, 2010


In London last week I picked up this copy of The Paris Review (Winter 1972) for £1 in Any Amount of Books on the Charing Cross Road.

It struck me as an exceptional issue, featuring:

· an interview with John Berryman (who committed suicide in January 1972), in which he is asked: ‘What about Eliot? You must have had to reckon with Eliot in one way or another, positively or negatively.’

Berryman: My relationship with Eliot was highly ambiguous. In the first place, I refused to meet him on three occasions in England, and I think I mentioned this in one of the poems I wrote last spring. I had to fight shy of Eliot. There was a certain amount of hostility in it, too. I only began to appreciate Eliot much later, after I was secure in my own style. I now rate him very high. I think he is one of the greatest poets who ever lived. Only sporadically good. What he would do – he would collect himself and write a masterpiece, then relax for several years writing prose, earning a living, and so forth; then he’d collect himself and write another masterpiece, very different from the first, and so on. He did this about five times, and after the Four Quartets he lived on for twenty years. Wrote absolutely nothing. It’s a very strange career. Very – a pure system of spasms. My career is like that. It is horribly like that. But I feel a deep sympathy, admiration, and even love for Eliot over all the recent decades.

· Joe Brainard’s Amazing But True: ‘A Portfolio of Visual Works’
· John Ashbery’s ‘The System’, probably the most important poem in Three Poems (and if you don’t believe me, see David Herd’s John Ashbery and American Poetry (pp.134-7)

· a portion of The Sinking of the Odradek Stadium by Harry Mathews (described by Edmund White as ‘a comic masterpiece’)

· Three Sonnets by Ted Berrigan

· Allen Ginsberg’s ‘Elegy for Neal Cassidy’

· Sonnets by Alice Notley

· A long poem by Lou Reed of the Velvet Underground – here’s a stanza:

Mister Moonlight
succulent smooth and gorgeous
isn’t it nice
number one and so forth
isn’t it sweet, being unique

· Poems by James Schuyler, David Shapiro and Anne Waldman

It’s a strong contents list – but is it just me or is it more experimental than anything we’re offered today (and not just by The Paris Review*)? The crazy energy has gone.

*Though it’s good to see Schuyler in the current issue.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Poetry Review launch

To the British Library last night for the launch of the spring issue of Poetry Review (100:1 Spring 2010), which features the National Poetry Competition winning poems.

Glyn Maxwell was there to present Maitreyabandhu with the Geoffrey Dearmer Prize 2009, which is given annually to the best Poetry Review poem written by a poet who doesn't yet have a book.

Maitreyabandhu lives and works at the London Buddhist Centre. He told me he had just emerged from a rather fraught and unpleasant meeting at the Centre when an e-mail appeared in his inbox telling him he'd won the Geoffrey Dearmer Prize. That put a smile on his face.

So there you have it, even Buddhists have fraught meetings.

Getting known II

That local press coverage in full (for my parents, you understand):

Front page of the Abingdon Herald

A terrifying close-up in the Oxford Times

A terrible pun in the Oxford Mail

Facts are Subversive: Political Writing from a Decade without a Name, by Timothy Garton Ash

The historian Timothy Garton Ash is proud of his scholar-journalist status. A master of this “mongrel craft”, he composes perfect “essays in analytical reportage”. A major theme in this outstanding collection is how national identities are constructed, the narratives we tell ourselves – and how in this "decade without a name" these narratives begin to lose their shape and coherence, especially in Britain (“We have gone from a simplistic, misleading mythical story – ‘Our Island Story’ – to a condition where we have no story at all”). What does it mean to be British anyway? he asks. (He is pointedly an “English European”.) Elsewhere, he observes that when politics and the media meet there’s usually an element of “fact-fixing”. The runup to the Iraq war – towards which he maintained “a position of tortured liberal ambivalence” – being the obvious example. (“I was wrong,” he admits.) To call the last decade the noughties is “like strapping a frilly frock on to a sweating bull”, Garton Ash concludes. It was a decade dominated by disastrous US foreign policy and probably deserves to remain nameless.

A Radical History of Britain, by Edward Vallance

Magna Carta, the Peasants’ Revolt, the Levellers, the Chartists, the early Labour movement and the suffragettes are all proudly invoked in the 2005 BNP manifesto. Proof, says Edward Vallance, that the “radical tradition” appeals to both fascists and liberals. They look back to “a misty Anglo-Saxon Utopia” that never existed. This ambitious history of British radicalism sets the record straight, starting with Alfred the Great (“the first British radical”) and progressing through all the rebellions and martyrdoms and people’s charters and reforms to which we owe most of the political rights we enjoy today. A mischievous Vallance also reminds us that many of these radical movements were in favour of reducing taxes and the size of the state: “The urge remained at root individualist, or at best localist, rather than collectivist.” This book joins several others by young historians tackling British radicalism and liberty. Like them, Vallance ends with a warning not to be complacent about democracy and to do something to end “the untrammelled power of parliament”.

Monday, April 5, 2010


I travelled a lot by train over Easter and read Elie Wiesel’s Night.

It differs from, say, Primo Levi’s If This is a Man (to which it is often compared) in that Wiesel is not alone in Auschwitz. He is accompanied by his father. The father-son dynamic. Is the son in need of the father’s protection or the father the son’s?

At the heart of Night is the question “For God’s sake, where is God?”

At one point the SS hang two men and a boy in front of the inmates, who are made to file past them:

The two men were no longer alive. Their tongues were hanging out, swollen
and bluish. But the third rope was still moving: the child, too light, was still
breathing . . . and so he remained for more than half an hour, lingering between
life and death, writhing before our eyes. And we were forced to look at him at
close range. He was still alive when I passed him. His tongue was still red, his
eyes not yet extinguished.

Behind me, I heard the same man asking: “For God’s sake, where is God?”

And from within me, I heard a voice answer:

"Where He is? This is where – hanging here from this gallows . . .”

It reminded me of those devastating lines from Celan's "Es war Erde in ihnen" ("There was earth inside them"):
. . . And they did not praise God,
who, so they heard, wanted all this,
who, so they heard, witnessed all this.
Somehow these musings have combined with Samuel Beckett’s Molloy, which I have been listening to every evening, in particular the relationship between the stern paternalist Moran and his son Jacques in the second part. “I am done for,” says Moran. “My son too. All unsuspecting. He must think he’s on the threshold of life, of real life.”

Beckett was born on Good Friday 1906 (“You first saw the light of day on the day Christ died”, Company).

Molloy (1951) and Wiesel’s masterpiece (1958) share the same French publisher – probably my favourite publisher (they also publish Deleuze and Guattari) – Les Éditions de Minuit, founded during the Occupation.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Getting known

It feels good to be on the Poetry International Web, where it is even possible to sample a few poems from Emporium.

It feels odd to be in the local paper, especially when I am supposed to have implausibly, not to say immodestly claimed to have the laureateship in my sights. I explained at the time that I was a republican, so the post held no appeal. But they've done a good job otherwise.

Friday, April 2, 2010

Horowitz: Poetry Olympian

Message from Michael Horowitz:

Any audio/radioheads among you might like to know that at 4.30pm next Sunday April 4th BBC Radio 4 is marking my 75th birthday with (& repeating on Saturday 10th April at 11.30pm) a programme called POETRY OLYMPIAN – supposedly accounting for some of my life and work. It will include contributions from comrades over the last half century including Pete Brown, Laurie Morgan, Libby Houston, Roger McGough, Barry Miles, Annie Whitehead, Pete Lemer, Valerie Bloom, John Hegley and Damon Albarn.

Message ends
But while we're on the subject of Radio 4, there's an interview with John Ashbery on the Radio 4 website.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Could I have smiled more? . . . No, probably not

From left to right: Yours truly, Ruth Padel (Judge), Neil Rollinson (Judge), Helen Dunmore (Winner), Daljit Nagra (Judge) and John Stammers (3rd prize).