Some reading, and sonofabook


This picture from Humans of New York is speaking to me at the moment;  the caption reads: ‘When I came out of the closet, everything came out of the closet’. Here in Baroque Mansions we can only applaud his hat.

I’m sitting here in a favourite café in Newington Green, with a frankly ridiculously sunny and springlike day playing out all over the place. It’s been a funny old time in the World of Baroque; both everything and nothing happening, and an air of urgency overlaid with the patina of stasis – or maybe just indecision. Or like one of those dreams where you can’t wake up, or where you dream that you’re awake, only to surprise yourself when you do wake up. You get the idea. The spring air is as clear as glass and has a similar quality of seeming to hold us all in it, as if it were going to stay like this forever. But in reality we know it will keep changing, this afternoon, and slowly deflate…

I’ve not been reading much. For months. I know the Baroque version of ‘not reading much’ probably still puts me in the top 5% or something – just as ‘nothing going on’ often makes other people ask where I get my energy from, to which I say, what energy. But I haven’t yet read a novel in 2015. And aside from teaching and reviewing, not much poetry. I’ve been reading practical books. I’m reading on one starting your own business in the vague hope that it might turn out to be actually practical – but alas it is me who has to be that, ultimately.

I also read Matt Haig’s brand-new book, Reasons to Stay Alive – a great little book about his depression, and the general experience of it which is, let’s face it, so common – especially in our arena of life, the artistic and creative one. I firmly recommend this little volume, not just to sufferers of catastrophic depressions and their nearest and dearest, but to anyone interested in what makes us humans tick. And in short sentences. I like its mishmash of forms, with bits of memoir and bits of research and some tiny chapters and lists and bullet points and a whole section of encouraging tweets… and it’s completely brilliant if you don’t have much of an attention span.

You also don’t need much of an attention span for poetry, as it happens, though you do need some concentration in the moment. I haven’t been reading that much, but I reviewed four new books for the next Poetry London and am about to review three more for Magma. (And I have got a poem in the next Poetry Wales, about which I’m very happy even if that isn’t strictly ‘reading’.) There is some great stuff coming out.

And just yesterday I read this article by Dan Chiasson about James Merrill – my hero – a new biography of. It’s not even out yet. I mean, it’s a review of a nearly-published book, but in the meantime I have my poems and prose of Merrill…

Biographers are sometimes chastised for drowning their readers in trivia. Merrill’s work exists in part to reverse our bias against trivia. We need to know the origins and the importance of the prisms and cups and mirrors and kimonos that Merrill collected on his travels abroad and his rambles closer to home and then preserved in his poems. These constituted, as Hammer puts it, “a lexicon he used for self-expression”; the objects Merrill selected used him, in turn, “to express themselves.” His work is replete with the transfigured commonplace, bits of the world reclaimed in his daily imaginative raids: an “Atari dragonfly” on the Connecticut River, a joint smoked on a courthouse lawn, a trip to the gym, a Tyvek windbreaker. Hammer, the chair of Yale’s English department, is first and foremost a gifted poetry critic, which means that he knows how to tell a story, without hype, about how poems are made, and he appreciates the irony of an art that made ski trips and wallpaper central to American literature. And Ouija boards: Merrill made the most ambitious American poem of the past fifty years, seventeen thousand lines long, in consultation with one. The result, “The Changing Light at Sandover,” was a homemade cosmology as dense as Blake’s, which Merrill shared with the “summer people”—retired naval officers and frisky elderly Brahmin ladies—who lived near him in Stonington. He knew that posterity alone would decide on his greatness; he would not be around to enjoy the proceeds. He hedged his bets by driving a small Ford with a license plate that read “POET.”

I spent a few weeks reading essays. I  read some Montaigne and have had to admit, finally, that he just annoys me. I read Rebecca Solnit’s new book, Men Explain Things to Me, and she does not annoy me, even when I don’t quite agree with her. What I need to be doing is writing essays, for my own book, which is going to be called Forgive the Language. The title is a phrase from a poem by the wonderful Mr Duhig. And having it makes the book that much more real… but never fear, lots of it is written already and I am circling round the structure of the manuscript.

Last week I went to the first sort of ‘event’ I’ve been to since January – TS Eliot Prize time – which was, yes, ages ago.  It was the launch of the new  magazine, Sonofabook, published by CB Editions. (See the top of the sidebar.) The first issue is edited by CB’s own editor, Charles Boyle, and the contents reflect CBe’s publishing list.  Which is to say, it is exciting and varied and unabashedly, completely literary in the best possible sense of the word. It has a longish essay, ‘My Creative Method’, by the French Oulipo writer Francis Ponge:

Superiority of poets over philosophers: they know what they are expressing in its own terms.
From the particular to the general:
the particular in the outside world;
one rhetorical style per object;
all language always tends towards the proverbial.

It also has more work by some of my favourite writers: a long poem sequence by Nancy Gaffield; fourteen poems by Andrew Elliott; new work by Dan O’Brien, and three stories by Agota Kristof. I’ve not read it yet because it actually needs proper reading, and it looks wonderful on the bedside table, too.

Subsequent issues will be edited by guest editors, and the first of those (the magazine is semi-annual) will be the book critic Nicholas Lezard. He has had the sense and taste to be very CB-friendly all along, and I for one am looking forward to seeing what he does with it.

The event was lovely, in the august but tiny environs of John Sandoe books in Chelsea, with its panelled bookcases and higgles and piggles of piles of enticement everywhere. It’s the sort of place where they have ladders up to the shelves. There was a decent crowd, which meant it was almost impossible to get through the rooms – a really nice event. I saw friends there and met some lovely people.

You can look at, buy, or subscribe to the magazine via the CBe website.

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