This is just some of the poetry publications that have arrived in Baroque Mansions over the last week or so. Let me say, they are a gorgeous lot, but it’s been one of the busiest weeks I can remember having in living memory, so I’ve barely cracked them.
Following all the excitement, preparations and general staying-out-lateness of the National Poetry Cmpetition awards – that was on Wednesday night and very exciting it was too with my loosely fitting Poetry Society hat on – Thursday night was the launch event for the one in the middle: Adventures in Form, edited by Tom Chivers and published by his wonderful small press, Penned in the Margins.
I’ll just add here that to go to this I missed the launch of Richard Meiers’ first collection, Misadventure, from Picador. There is never a night in London when you aren’t double-booked. The title poem is very black and chilling.
AndI know I say everything’s exciting and wonderful. Never mind. Adventures in Form is an anthology of new and experimental form in poetry, with poems by poets ranging from Chrissy Williams (that’s her first pamphlet, The Jam Trap, on the left) to senior mess-up-meister Paul Muldoon – from tousled sonnets by Tamar Yoseloff to Hannah Silva’s absolutely thrilling and sophisticated textspeak Urn poem (smoke THAT, Geoffrey Hill).
Now I want to be reviewing the book, but I also want to describe the launch event, because it was so unusual (and everyone was heartened by it, afterwards) to have such a diverse range of poets meeting on such common ground in one book, one reading, one project. The project of demonstrating the oceanic reach of ‘form’ in poetry beyond the boring coastal regions of ‘rhyme and metre’ or the villanelle, which is something I seem to spend half my life banging on about to various people. Oh, wait. They’re my students.
(And don’t get me wrong. If someone offered right now to take me to an actual boring coastal region, I’d be thrilled.)
Richard Price, who for my money is one of the best poetry readers we have, gave a mesmeric and delicate reading of his ‘Left Neglect’, a literal interrogation of neural damage. Interestingly, Paul Stephenson’s poem ‘Notes on Contrbutors’, which is about something entirely different, unwittingly enacts a similar syndrome as in Richard’s poem. Paul was over from Holland and read several of his poems, which use diction to subvert syntax. Ira Lightman, down from Newcastle, was 6’5″ and manic in green trousers, and had George Ttoouli holding up a Sudoku diagram on a board so that he could explain his Sudoku poem – which he then recited as it’s meant to go if solved. Energy was flowing. And even before either of those we had Nathan Penlington (Uri-Geller-free on this occasion, sadly) to open the night: always fun. Alas he declined to read his ‘annotated silence’.
Jon Stone, fresh from his (second) National Poetry Comp commendation. Kirsty Irving. Patience Agbabi, using the sonnet form as a platform for agony aunt letters. Tim Wells. The evening was capped by Hannah Silva, who if you don’t know her is a performance poet – spoken word artist? – of massive accomplishment. The best thing she read isn’t in this book, unfortunately: a new piece that uses a simple technique we all used as children. And several conversations after the event all came down to this sense of play in experimentation, the idea of openness (as opposed, of course, to pretension and general up-yourself-ness) and just doing something because you can, and taking it where you can to see if it works, just for the joy of it. In this case it did. Basically, she just inserted the word ‘Gadaffi’ after every clause. Obviously, the word ‘Gadaffi’ is like a firecracker in a poem. Roddy Lumsden on Facebook yesterday was calling it a ‘political poem’, which I guess you cant deny, but it feels to me bigger in its reach than what the phrase ‘political poem’ suggests. But yes. Maybe it engages with how we engage with politics, too. It was a longish recited piece, and Gadaffi lost its meaning (while still retaining its power), and then became like a punctuation mark, and then she acknowledged this by addressing Gadaffi in the poem, so it went ‘”Gadaffi”, Gadaffi’ – see, with two literal meanings there, one as a punctuation mark, one as a name. In the end it began to acquire other new meanings, and the very end is an onomatopaeic victory.
So that was the reading. The book itself is a gem, gorgeous as always from Penned in the Margins, and ambitious. It’s stuffed full of sweets. The day my copy arrived I was in the Poetry Society office, and it got passed round the place with great interest. I had to go rescue it, then forgot and left it there when I left, and the next morning it was yet again in a different place!
My quibbles: some of the forms are really barely forms at all so it was hard to see what was added… Some of the forms are actually older and more traditional than is perhaps stated in the book – George Szirtes’ ‘cracked verse’ seems based on Anglo Saxon verse form, only without the alliteration; he uses it in a liturgical call and response mode, which is an addition; but this makes it reminiscent of Christopher Smart’s ‘Jubilate Agno’, a massive and ambitious work of the 18th century (from which, these days, we mainly know the little free-verse gem, ‘On Considering my Cat, Jeffery’).
Because, really, although this book crackled and sings with the new and the contemporary and people who are alive like us right now, not that much is that new under the sun. And I’d have been tempted towrite a longer, more contextualised, and more polemical introduction. It’s probably to Tom’s credit that he didn’t!
The explanations of the forms – many of which are highly abstruse, having been invented by the poets – could have been given more space? And instead of an index or a complete table of contents, the poems are listed under each contributor’s bio at the back of the book. This is fine but I have found it slow finding things. But these remarks are just about apparatus, not the anthology itself. And it feels as if it has a very defined scope, so that you can feel the core project coming through. I love the section on digital forms. The book is a joy. It’s full of discoveries. It marks a new era where poets of different kinds can work together on an acknowledged shared project, instead of dicing up the whole project of poetry into tiny bits, which then become as hyper-specialised and boring as a Ford production line. Everyone at the launch was heaving a sigh of relief over this very thing.
I know I’ll be reading it and using this book. Poetry to go back to, agayne, and agayne.
Phew! And now I have to go have my bath and get out of here in 45 minutes: Spring and Rebirth workshop today.