Poetry in the Papers 8/6/15-14/6/15

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 hereStand 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.



Poetry in the Papers 25/5/15-31/5/15

First up, a couple of interesting stories from the wires in the Mail. One on Raymond Antrobus’s Spoken Word Education Programme in Hackney. The story follows the usual template for these kinds of article (‘Art saves teens from life of crime’ sort of thing), but does highlight a useful project. See http://spokenwordeducators.org/ for more details. [Edit – also see Antrobus’s own take on the language used in the article here.]

The other is on Walter Skold, of the Dead Poets Society of America (really), currently on a tour of poets’ graves – looking to draw attention to African-American poets, especially. A bit of an odd project, but if it succeeds in its aim, fair enough.

Poetry is in better health than we might think, according to the Mirror. An article listing e-petitions which only managed to get one signature includes a petition headed “Stop poetry being taught in schools”. Heartening, I suppose.

Various shades of schadenfreude on display in the Evening Standard and the Guardian over the TLS’s misattribution to Philip Larkin of a poem by Frank Redpath.

Finally, in this list of stories about poetry that are not really stories about poetry, the Oxford Professor of Poetry election trail meanders on. Wole Soyinka is not too old or too far away to do the job, according to the Times and the Guardian. Meanwhile Simon Armitage is everywhere: the subject of a long interview in the Guardian, the main conclusion of which appears to be that he is quite good at not giving anything of himself away; having his new travelogue reviewed in the Sunday Times; being recommended for the OPoP post by Melvyn Bragg in a letter to the Guardian; contributing to the same paper’s series of anti-climate change poems; and finally being exhorted by Sophie Heawood to beware the pitfalls of the literary high life (advice I imagine he probably doesn’t need) if he should get the post. The column (again in the Graun) isn’t really about anything, but does contain this description of some unnamed poets:

I wouldn’t have minded so much if any of these men had written poetry to match their levels of dastardliness; but one night they’d tell you their marriage was a sham for complicated reasons to do with the electoral register, and the next morning they’d be back in their marital homes, ready to pen another ode to the murmurations of starlings in Suffolk. Or 20 verses on their earth-shattering memories of the boarding school dormitory, and the epic tug-of-love between Matron and Teddy.

Still not quite poetry: the Observer has a review of Jean Moorcroft Wilson’s Edward Thomas biography, and the Telegraph has an interview with poet Rebecca Dinerstein because she has written a novel.

But at last we come to – a review! And, what’s more, a review of a book by a non-big 5 publisher! Roger Cox’s review in the Scotland on Sunday of Ryan van Winkle’s The Good Dark, printed by Penned in the Margins, is pretty short and insight-light, but it’s something. Of course, an Edinburgh-based paper reviewing an Edinburgh-based poet who is very active in the Edinburgh literary scene maybe isn’t quite as surprising as all that.

But here’s another one; and again of a small press-printed collection (although of a very well-established poet). And this one is even relatively detailed, albeit Aingeal Clare’s review of The Boys of Bluehill by Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin in the Guardian is a very good example of a classic critic’s trick. The reviewer first raises a possible criticism of the work, before saying “Ah, but actually this criticism isn’t applicable after all!” If that’s the case, why mention it? The answer is that it is a valid criticism, but either the reviewer nonetheless likes the collection and wants to indulge in a bit of special pleading, or the reviewer has a phobia of saying anything too openly negative, and so merely hints at the problem with the work, while not wanting to fully identify themselves with anything so vulgar as actual criticism.

Still, it’s the nearest thing to a proper poetry review in last week’s papers. Maybe this week’s press can do better.

Poetry in the Papers 18/5/15 – 24/5/15

Hello. Welcome to the first in our series of daily weekly features – that is to say, there will be features daily, each recurring weekly. Yes?

This one is fairly self-explanatory: I go through the websites of the previous week’s papers (see list at the bottom of the post), and try to find poetry. The methodology is straightforward: I enter the terms “poetry” and “poem” into each site’s internal search function and, once I’ve winnowed out all the results featuring phrases like “Peter Crouch’s close control is poetry in motion,” or, “There’s pure poetry in a grilled cheese sandwich” (a real headline last week – thank you, The Independent), I report back on what’s left.

There are a few issues with this methodology – mainly that it relies on newspaper websites having good internal search functions (or having one at all – oddly, Britain’s most popular newspaper does not seem to have this function on its website: it’s almost as if The Sun doesn’t really think its readers view it as a viable research tool). It also means that in the case of The Times, which uses a paywall, I can only report back on the headline and first paragraph of any article I find there, as I’m not getting expenses for this and I’m certainly not giving Rupert Murdoch any of my own money.

There are also questions which could be asked about the endeavour on a wider scale. Aren’t we constantly being told that people get all their news from their Twitters and their Facebooks and their Friends Reuniteds these days? Unfortunately, it is impossible for me to quantify how much poetry ends up in people’s social media newsfeeds. More importantly, the method also ignores online-only news sources – Buzzfeed, Vice, etc. These are fair criticisms, but if the recent election has taught us anything, it is that ‘old’ media still has a pretty big influence over how a substantial portion of the British public thinks, and that looking at what makes the papers is still a pretty good way of measuring a subject’s profile.

A further point would be that, if one wants to find in-depth discussion of poetry in the semi-mainstream media, one can go to the TLS or LRB or NYRB or another of those journals which are so literary that even their titles are tl; dr. Well, although these organs certainly have a wider readership than poetry magazines, they are still pretty bloody niche, and what I want to do here is find out what people who are not regular patrons of Snipcock & Tweed are reading. (Also, the chances are these journals will feature in Friday’s feature.)

Finally, a couple of things I won’t talk too much about in this feature after today: readers’ competitions and reprints of old poems. The Guardian has a monthly Poster Poems feature (meaning poems posted to the site by readers, not poems on posters or something like that – am I the only one who finds this confusing?); the FT has an honestly baffling Workplace Haiku competition in which bored office workers who are too good to doodle instead send in a 5-7-5 haiku on a different work-based theme each week. (“Murray, give me the / stapler. Give me the stapler. / Murray, give me the –”.  You can have that one for free.)

The FT also prints a monthly-ish poem: here is the most recent one. The Guardian has two separate weekly poetry features, one, on Saturdays, usually printing something from a new collection (last week from Marine by Alan Jenkins and John Kinsella) and one, on Mondays, sometimes old, sometimes new, with a commentary by Carol Rumens. Last week’s was a fairly superficial discussion of a fairly shallow poem, in my opinion. The poem is by no means bad, but doesn’t seem to have very much under its surface, and Rumens doesn’t find a great deal to say about it.

The Herald publishes a poem daily (although often no longer in the physical edition). Usually these are older poems, although the last two weeks have included poems from pamphlets entered for the Callum MacDonald Memorial Award, like this.

The Morning Star is the only national paper that regularly prints new, unpublished work, in its weekly Well Versed feature. The poems are usually, like this one, on a political theme. Last week saw an extra poem. Over the last couple of weeks, the Guardian has been printing a series of newly commissioned poems themed around climate change – Jo Bell’s was probably the best of last week’s.

The exercise has been “curated” by Carol Ann Duffy – whatever that means. The poems were specially commissioned, which is not the same thing as curation (and it’s unclear who did the commissioning in the first place – the paper, obviously, as far as cash is concerned – but on Duffy’s recommendation, I presume: the point is that curating is not the same as commissioning/recommending artists to produce new work) – this is a small point, but if poets don’t care about the use of words, who will?

The “curated” poets are mostly the usual roster of documentarians – well-known names often found propping up The Verb. Comparing the poets who generally turn up in these things (The Guardian usually produces one or two of these sorts of commissions a year) with the poets who turn up in Well Versed is rather interesting. One is a who’s who of prize-winning Big 5-published poets; the other is a pretty good guide to exciting and often – though not necessarily – new, small press and spoken word poets.

Why this should be is maybe a question to come back to another day. This post is already too long, and I haven’t even got to the meat of this feature: a round-up of reviews of, and articles on, poetry.

So: reviews. One, in The Times, of a biography of Edward Thomas. One, in the Guardian, of Clive James’s new last collection. And that’s it. One actual review of an actual poetry collection in the whole of last week’s press. Clive James is a… good poet. Occasionally he’s better than that. (Occasionally, he’s much worse – the less said about his bizarre royalist mini-epics of the 70s and 80s the better.) But this is not why his work is now being reviewed. Nor is it because of his health problems – a reappraisal as reward for a life in poetry. It’s because – I hope this isn’t too shocking an insight – he used to be on telly.

Another poet off the telly is children’s writer Joseph Coelho, who reads a poem on video for The Telegraph from Hay. The Mail is similarly impressed with England flanker Maro Itoje, a young rugby player who writes poetry. Bloody awful poetry, but as the piece seems to be more about the astonishing idea of a sportsperson having any kind of intellectual life that hardly matters.

Being famous in another walk of life is not the fault of James, Coelho or Itoje of course, but I could wish that poetry made the news more often on its own merits, rather than because of its association with other media. There are a number of pieces on musicians interpreting poetry. In the FT, Algerian singer Souad Massi discusses setting poems from the Arabic canon as a political act, with relation to the Arab Spring. In the Scotsman, composer Rory Boyle, who is collaborating with Dilys Rose, talks a little about the morality of interpretation: “Isn’t it funny? […] We take somebody else’s words, which exist on their own level, and do our own thing with them; which is, when you think about it, a bit arrogant.” In the Independent, Kathryn Williams makes a similar point when she argues against viewing Sylvia Plath’s poetry through her life – many musicians being keen to emphasise Plath’s suicide when responding to her work. Williams makes this point by writing music drawing on The Bell Jar, which seems an odd way of going about it, but it’s a good point nonetheless.

The Indy has the best poetry articles this week (as well as reporting on the “Shakespeare portrait” nonsense). Ian McMillan’s bit on ‘The Whitsun Weddings’ is a mixed bag – “I think a train journey is like a poem; it begins, it ends, it travels somewhere.” The refreshments are too expensive, the plumbing is often dodgy. Choo choo! However, Arifa Akbar’s piece on Pakistan’s “national poet”, Allama Iqbal, and the question of ‘translatability’ is good, as far as it goes.

Last, and coincidentally, least, The Sunday Times reports on the Oxford Poetry Professorship. Maybe I’ll have mustered the energy to care by this time next week, when the various controversies will no doubt still be rumbling away like so much partially-digested pheasant.

List of newspaper websites consulted (including results for sister papers). If a paper in this list isn’t mentioned above, it is because it contained no recognisable poetry content:

Daily Express

Daily Mail

Daily Mirror

Daily Record

Daily Telegraph

Evening Standard

Financial Times

The Guardian

The Herald

The Independent

The Metro

The Morning Star

The National

The Scotsman

The Star

The Sun

The Times

Let me know if I missed anyone.