So after the TS Eliot Prize reading on Sunday, I went along to the award ceremony on Monday, which was conducted this year live on television – possibly because of being, as the Guardian put it, ‘the most controversial TS Eliot poetry prize in decades’. But once Oswald and Kinsella had dropped out, I thought the controversy receded to bits of grumbling. Nary a placard in sight on the night.
And then I stood too close to the cameras. Nobody told me they were on…! So half the world saw me on the Channel 4 News, over a report that apparently lasted six minutes. You too can watch it, but I have not yet been brave enough.
I’m very pleased with the win – I’ve got John Burnside’s and Leontia Flynn’s books both on order. Arguments with my ‘Leontia-blind’ friend continue, very amusingly – apparently my ‘can’t stand too much reality/ television’ is a ‘the Michael McIntyre of line breaks’ – see what japes we get up to! But soooo many other people have told me they thought her ‘Letters to Friends’ was a high point of the shortlist. I’m really looking forward to both these books. I wanted them both when they came out. In a perfect world, of course, you’d get the lot, and plus all the others you wanted to read, such as these.
Though I was disappointed with the lack of slogans and tents. It might have been fun to occupy the Haberdashers’ Hall, and in such a great neighbourhood for good coffee.
Then last night, a similarly apolitical launch for the new issue of Poetry Review (oddly, entitled ‘Everything in its Season’, with an autumnal scene on it). It was held in the Swedenborg Hall, but my hopes of a mystical enlightenment never materialised either.
The two readers were Fleur Adcock and Sam Riviere – than whom it might be hard to find two poets more different – aged 77 and 30 respectively, Adcock anecdotal, gentle, delicate, humorous, distinguished…
from ‘At the Crossing’
Traffic swings around the corner;
gusts of drizzle sweep us along
the Strand in the glittering dark,
threading to and fro among skeins
of never-quite-colliding blurs.
All this whirling’s why we came out.
…and Riviere intellectual, experimental with form, cool, ironic, up-&-coming, with a rare, lesser-spotted first collection from Faber coming out later this year:
from ‘My Face Saw Your Magazine’across the moonscapes of skateparks you are 13 yrs old& no longer allowed to play with boys / on platform 6wearing your amazing cape you are not in fact youbut someone else / while I’m a guy who mishears lyricsresulting in a more beautiful but private understandingwith your dark fringe white shirt & straw hat you arethe palest goth at the picnic / resolutely uncharmed…
Someone said afterwards in the pub, they are similar in one important respect: they’re both almost Macneicean (Manichaean?) in their devotion to things, to the material world we live in, the people and animals and things we live among – though for mystical correspondences, one might want to go back to Burnside.
Which reminds me of… something. Years ago, now – in 2003, in fact – I received an email quoting a review of Burnside’s book, The Light Trap, in Craig Raine’s annual magazine Areté. I made the mistake (I received this email one morning at work) of printing it out quickly, because I was just going into a meeting. In the meeting I discreetly unfolded the email and read it among the sheaf of work papers we were discussing:
…The problem is that ‘the unsaid presence’ is impossible to write about satisfactorily. If ‘mystery’ is Burnside’s theme, his writing is always going to be a record of failure. It is possible, as Paul Muldoon has demonstrated, to make this record entertaining and meaningful. But you have to be exact in your meaning, as well as your mystery. Burnside lacks exactness. All through The Light Trap the poor man goes through a pantomime of precision – which is actually a parade of imprecision. Burnside’s favourite word, apart from ‘someone’, ‘somewhere’ and ‘sometimes’, is ‘something’; and a fun game to play when reading Burnside is to find a word to substitute for ‘something’ whenever it appears in the text (for some reason, ‘dogshit’ often seems to work):
they said we were born with souls
and I thought of something paper-white
and empty, like the sweet communion host…
(‘Blackbird (dream catcher)’)
And this is how darkness works: an alchemy
of chalk and silver, all our memories
of other gardens, distance, moonlit streams,
transformed to something punctual and slight…
(‘The Light Trap II’)
…one bright afternoon,
something will come from nowhere
and touch a man
(‘After Lucretius I’)
something like guesswork
happens amongst the leaves
I know it’s unworthy. But I did explode in a small explosion of involuntary laughter, right there in the meeting, and a few people looked at me. Then that awful, very physical, strangling poetry pain of suppression. I continue to this day sometimes to substitute the word ‘dogshit’ when something seems vague, and it does usually do the trick.
And I love these poems. I remember before this review what I particularly liked about them was partly expressed precisely in this kond of somethingness, which seemed to me a very meaningful way of aiming to arrive at this – this something – which after all does describe – somehow – the unknown… the review is a little unfair, after all.
I’m about to write both Fleur and Sam up for the Poetry International Web, along with Michael Symmons Roberts; I’ll link to that when it’s up, it’s a really interesting juxtaposition of work, all three of them.
I’ve been told off, by the way, for saying I was at ‘someone’s house’ the other night, instead of ‘a friend’s house’. I see I’ve just done it again!! OMG what am I like. Two different someones. Both highly esteemed friends. Then I’ve got other friends who would prefer not to be mentioned at all, but are happier to be the vaguest possible someone. Perhaps when I say ‘someone’ I am aiming for the ineffable unknowable, the correspondent mystical value of a corporeal ‘friend’, ‘the mysteriousness’ which alone, as Douglas Dunn said of a poem by MacDiarmid (are you still with me?) ‘is exact, not the meaning’.