First up this week, a really weird piece about Claudia Rankine’s Citizen being shortlisted for the Forward Prize: “Running to 160 pages, Citizen, subtitled An American Lyric, eschews the likes of iambic pentameter and rhyme” – those are things they have in poetry, right? The sloppy reporting is bad enough, but the quote from Forward is almost as bad: it’s “a bold challenge to historic definitions of poetic form”. Well, it depends just how “historic” you want to get – prose poetry in English has been around since the seventeenth century, at least.
But reading this quote:
Forward prize judge Carrie Etter said: “People who insist that poetry is only poetry if it’s in lines are missing out. As Citizen is in prose, I anticipate some readers’ definition of poetry will exclude it, and so some may object to its inclusion on the list. So be it.”
one might be forgiven for thinking it’s just a half-arsed attempt to stir up some of that good Paxo-scented controversy from last year. Oh – is it poetry? Is it not? Do you think we can get a few Comment is Free pieces from people who haven’t read a poem since A-level out of this? Because who’s actually going to be asking this question? The only people who care about the Forward are people who already read poetry, and who are well aware that not all poetry comes in heroic couplets. This is especially annoying as this was a great opportunity to discuss a really interesting book on an important subject which is, yes, stylistically interesting, but hardly the avant-garde mindfuck this piece presents it as.
No such questions in the discussion of a new John Ashbery poem in the same paper: “There may be more wisdom in not researching Ashbery’s meanings. Why not be Taoist about it and go with the flow, enjoying the surreality as the words decide for themselves how to join hands and ride the narrative breeze?” I’m not saying there is a double standard here – the two articles have very different purposes – but it may be worth asking if a collection by a middle-aged, middle class, white man – no matter how “experimental” – would be discussed in the same way as Claudia Rankine’s. Would the “Is it poetry?” question be raised, even as a kind of dog whistle, as it is being used here? Would the legitimacy of the piece be questioned?
In more news from America, Juan Felipe Herrero has been appointed US poet laureate: the story is in The Guardian and The National with little detail. Thanks to the Mail’s policy of just reprinting stuff verbatim from the newswires, the Herrero story turns up there in triplicate, as told by Reuters, AP and AFP). But, as with AP’s “story” on Richard Blanco’s Bridges to/from Cuba project, context and analysis is lacking.
I don’t really know what being US Poet Laureate means – perhaps American readers can enlighten me. Does the US poet laureate have the same profile as the UK one? Or is it a largely meaningless bauble? Speaking of which…
I have never been entirely certain what exactly the Oxford Professor of Poetry actually does. I presumed it had little to do with the usual duties of an academic (preparing funding applications, admin, research, and teaching, in that order), but what it did include was a mystery. Now I know: “The duties – one lecture a term for five years – are almost as paltry as the annual salary of £12,000.” I’ve got to be honest – twelve grand for a few hours’ work doesn’t seem too shabby to me, especially as my own experience of teaching in a UK university (actual teaching – not making set-piece speeches) was paid at a rather less handsome rate (an awful lot of day to day teaching in British unis is done by postgraduate students in return for small – but often very necessary – wages, and the promise of CV-fattening “experience”).
Anyway, having been enlightened by the Guardian‘s article (as well as being given a brief history of the various controversies surrounding the role), I can now confidently declare that I could not give a flying Bragg about the outcome. The election happens later this week, and as soon as it does, we can all return to living in complete ignorance of the fact that the OxPoProf exists.
Elsewhere, some unpublished Katharine Mansfield poems have turned up. Normally I’d be annoyed at the article concentrating more on the biographical angle than the poems themselves, but Mansfield’s talent as a poet was minimal compared to her ability in fiction, so these are likely only to be of interest to those studying her life. Gerri Kimber, the academic who found them, is quoted as saying, “As well as Mansfield being one of the most famous modernist short-story writers, I believe there is a case to be made for reassessing her as a poet.” Nope.
What else? A quiz about WB Yeats: whatever the emoji for shrugging in a bemused fashion is.
The Sunday Times has what appears to be a more substantive article on Yeats, which appears to ask whether his poetry is being swamped by his persona as defined by the heritage industry. Of course, I’m only going by the first paragraph and a half (paywall), so whether there’s any more to it than that, I don’t know.
The Guardian has a review of Hans Magnus Enzensburger‘s new selected poems in English: Probably about the only living non-English language poet any non-trivial number of readers can name, but still. Reviewing over fifty years’ worth of poetry is difficult in such a short space, but Sean O’Brien could have tried. The review boils down to: “lots of acerbic political stuff here; sometimes succumbs to a tendency towards preachiness in later years”. Fine, as far as it goes – but if I can boil your review down to the length of a tweet and lose nothing of substance, that is a problem.
Owen Sheers is “contemporary literature’s renaissance man” because he’s a poet who writes in other forms too. Also, The Telegraph has a bit of Simon Armitage’s (non-poetry) book. Is he a renaissance man, too? Is every poet who does other stuff (which in practice means every poet anyone has ever heard of: they get heard of because of their radio plays, novels, BBC4 documentaries, etc. – not their poetry)?
A rather more interesting discussion of poetry’s engagement with other media (in this case, mostly music) in this write up of one of the Stand Up and Spit events in The Morning Star. I was at the talk, and this is a pretty good write up, considering the limited space. See more here. Stand Up and Spit are currently on a run of John Cooper Clarke related articles. And look here! A live poetry review in The Daily Record of JCC in Aberdeen!
In other Scottish poetry news, the aptly named McCash prize for poetry in Scots has just upped its prize money to £3,500. Perhaps a special award for criticism could go to Record reviewer Graeme Lynch for his write-up of Clarke: “Mention must be made of his first ever haiku (a strict format of Japanese poetry) – “To con-vey one’s mood. In seven-teen syll-ables is ve-ry dif-fic.” In case you don’t get that – the sudden ending, mid word, is the punchline.” Cheers Graeme.