Our critics pick up on some stand-out poetry from the past year.
William Letford is a poet, but he is also a roofer. The back cover of Bevel will tell you this, and if you put his name into Google, the titles of the couple of articles published about him will likewise proclaim his profession. I was a touch uneasy regarding the roofing business, as the focus thereon seems, perhaps, a little condescending. William Letford is a young man who writes poetry, who naturally has another job, but, what novelty! he does not work in a bookshop or in a bar; he engages in manual labour. Is this a fact of significance? My bias said not, but then, might his work as a poet and his work as a roofer be essentially intertwined in some way? See, for example, ‘It’s aboot the labour’:
heh Casey did a tell ye a goat
a couple a poems published
This poem is the fourth in the collection and, in the end, I felt comfortable beginning my assessment of Bevel with roofing, as that is how Letford begins it. All of the first five poems deal either with his own “day job”, or with others’ manual work.
The links are clear, really, or at least Letford makes them so. For roofing, of which most of us would have but a hazy appreciation, is shown to be about craft, and about the joys of physicality. Letford negotiates the solitary and the shared pleasures of work, of the body, with grace: in Italy, we find him working on a medieval village: ‘sweat beads arms ache heart pounding blue sky aware of my youth’. However, although alone, high up on the roofs, he is linked to those craftsmen who have come before him:
the craft of the hand that placed it his hand
my hand same sun same wall dirt beneath me alive (‘Sunburst’)
There are also those who share our labour at the same spot on the timeline… In a scene recognisable to many, he parries the attentions of an ‘American, young for her age / Thinks it’s more important to talk than have / something to say’.
Later, I heard her on the terrace, crying
[…] So I watch her more closely. Not out of
worry, or pity, out of interest. She is a person
of course, but she is also a story.
He brings something of the simplicity, the musicality which is the rhythm of reality found in his working poetry, to moments between people – though the reader senses a certain disconnect, as with the American girl, who is both person and story, in ‘The light and dark of Aedona’. Dancing, in ‘A bassline’, a girl ‘Turns to give me a grin so wide / I know it’s not for me It’s for the whole fucking world’. In ‘Sex poem number 3’, which is funny, familiar, and beautiful:
buckles belts buttons clips
stretch for the socks
negotiate the heel
negotiate the heel
[…] don’t get distant
make eye contact
if at all possible
The Scottish dialect, another key preoccupation of Letford’s, is subject to the same ambiguous distance. Whose voice is it, singing to the reader that ‘autumn’s taken its dagger and / opened up a vein’ (‘We are’), and whose, in ‘Thurs hunners a burds oan the roofs’, telling ‘wee robin rid tit peejin breesty lovey dovey / ruffle yer feathers show me yur plume’? Is this the distance of the craftsman from the object of his craft, or the distance inherent in any linguistic appraisal of the world? They are one and the same, the collection suggests, for what is poetry if not craft? The poet, as wordsmith, is linked to all who have come before him, just as the man who reshapes a stone is linked to he who first shaped it. This, then, is where this restrained and lovely collection, hard to put down, leaves us, with the apparently obvious statement that a poem ‘Is an object made of language’:
Should pass from fire to fire – from chest to chest
Does not belong to the poet
Andy Spragg’s third collection of poetry isn’t shy about making demands of its reader. Not that it’s perplexing or wilfully obscure; rather, it is unnervingly heavily on imperatives: ‘be straight now about the number and weight of your every / conviction’ the text commands. It leaves you guilt-ridden, as if you’re ashamedly trying to hide something from the exacting stare of the page. The tone throughout is dominated by a breed of bureaucratic matter-of-factness – ‘filed under general […] i filed this bit by bit under our observations’ – which evokes a labyrinth of floor to ceiling-tiled corridors without ever describing a specific place. Spragg’s deftness at conjuring scenes is impressive and is in part what his poetry explores: is it possible to read an uncompromisingly standardised text (a news report; hospital notes; a verdict) and retain a sense of the humanity involved? And is this desirable?
While over half of Cut Out’s poems are titled as numbered ‘Reports’, their tonal consistency is ruptured incessantly, as Spragg seems to run accounts and statements gleefully though a shredder; ‘Report #2’ informs you that ‘your anonymous letter was left ticklish and rouge for days’; ‘Report #10’ declares: ‘the group will be inevitable in their / desire to kick your face in or join you up’. This form of cut/paste resistance to management speak and its joined-up-thinking runs counter to the politicised monetisation of human emotion, as in ‘the infinite love whose / wealth will be taxed’.
But this collection is far more than a recasting of the bureaucratic text; this is also a poetry deeply concerned with justice, work, intimacy and identity. Running throughout is a cloying sense of suspicion that seems to bleed out from a police environment into personal relationships and vice versa –
later on lying in bed in the safehouse i thought through
your face and tried to recall your jaw so as to pick you out of
the footage currently under review and i wondered if you too sat
and worked your way through the footage of me with such
Here we find tenderness and a kind of hope buried in the grainy footage of a crime scene. Our suspicions and expectations are constantly reconfigured in order to keep up with Spragg’s style. This collection is shot through with bathos, or “brave anticlimax” as Sprag puts it – sometimes it’s very funny (‘the grey decades, the / ghastly few my shirt is stained with lasagne’) – and at times the re-examination of expectation is painful: ‘and here’s the photo of the de-facto wedding / we underwent’. This is also why we have to be straight about our convictions – in both senses – from the off: Spragg won’t let us get away with clinging to them too tightly. This is a hugely satisfying collection that proposes poetry as a form to be stalked through for evidence and connections – as the closing lines reveal, these poems are ‘leaving clues to their questions [and] it is in a / manner of speaking’.
The Literateur published Andy Spragg’s ‘It’s a little to get but keep moving’ in February 2012.
Between Two Windows takes its title from the definition of the word ‘interfenestration’ on a website which compiles rare words. The second poem in the collection, ‘The Inability to Recall the Precise Word for Something’, is a found poem which takes the definitions of these rare words and spins them together until we arrive, in a way that feels curiously organic, at ‘The space between two windows’. This will become a hallmark of the collection: sustained and deliberate formal experimentation in which poet’s craft usually manages to find success.
The influence of John Ashbery, whom Hazzard is currently researching at the University of Oxford, is keenly felt: the poems do not suffer systematized readings gladly. Ian Pindar picks out the parts of the work which show Ashbery’s influence most markedly:
Ashbery is an influence (“Some Shadows”, perhaps, and “Four Landscapes” has something of “The Instruction Manual”, plus there’s that familiar Ashberian sudden drop in pressure: e.g., “but that’s probably just today talking” in “A Later Stage of Discipline”)
I will suggest another, less elegant term for the ‘Ashberian sudden drop in pressure’: conversationality. Ashbery is undoubtedly a master of this technique. ‘Vetiver’ which begins 1987’s April Galleons, for instance, describes an ornate and philosophically resonant garden scene for sixteen lines, before we get ‘Well, it just kind of came apart in the hand’, and the scene takes on a different kind of profundity.
Hazzard’s poem has, up to this point (and indeed after it) maintained a high and varied register, and a charged tone that might be called furious, were its points of attack not so disparate. The poem continues, after the drop in pressure Pindar mentions,
Or the next day, or whenever you’re free
We might gift you
an oasis diadem in gratitude
for your lifetime, and pen thirteen juicy
zebu in a tomb of gingko trees
to enshrine the legacy
The wide frame of reference prods at the reader’s knowledge: ‘diadem’ is a very rich word, etymologically, and I could just about recall what a zebu was from an episode of The Simpsons (the joke is Lisa teaching Maggie about exotic animals). I had to look up gingko trees, and they are a singular species redolent with their own field of symbolism.
The poem is a satire which uses a preternatural grasp of irony and a chiseled, esoteric vocabulary (or rather, a vocabulary which plays on the nature of esotericism) to lampoon bizarre manifestations of authority. Hazzard’s speaker is fluid, and stays in dialogue with the reader through the little touches of conversationality which punctuate the elaborate reference points: ‘This garden, say,’ and ‘He’s pleasant enough’.
‘Martedi Grasso’ (‘Shrove Tuesday’) is another example of well-conceived innovation. The poet is able to dam off what might be a mystifying torrent of sources (the note to the poem professes it to combine writing and speech from Peter Ackroyd, Jorge Luis Borges, Marcel Duchamp, and David Starkey) into a mellifluous, and comprehensible, stream. It is written in staggered, unrhymed tercets, in which the lines are typeset into regular lengths initially:
An infant left unexposed
To linguistic stimulus
will automatically begin to speak
Enochian, the language
of the angels. Black
and white, boy and girl operate
The regularity of length eventually breaks down, but the lines stay staggered. There is certainly a semiotic point to be made here, as the poem goes on to deal with what might loosely be termed the cruces of communication, but I would prefer instead just to focus on the fragile beauty the poem possesses as it is printed on the page, which adds the dimension of straightforward enjoyment to an ambitious and broad lyric.
The array of forms and models the collection deploys is impressive. There is a palindromic poem (‘Are We Not Drawn Onward, We Few, Drawn Onward to New Era’?), a pantoum (a form which is ostensibly related to the villanelle, with repeated lines, but which actually adapted from the Malay pantun form) and a somewhat barely titled ‘Sonnet’. The collection has been likened to a playground, with the poet as a child playing games with words. This shows a fundamental misunderstanding of the art of poetry, as I see it. To borrow Pound’s analogy, Between Two Windows is a laboratory in which forms, phrases and words are experimented upon with scientific rigour.
Some experiments succeed, some do not. I feel, for instance, that ‘Sonnet’ misjudges the balance between enjambment and end stopping which is so vital in binding the form together, and that a little bit more fiddling could have given the palindromic poem a title that agrees grammatically. These are minor detractions, though, to the thrill of reading such dedicated expansion of poetic language and form.
The Literateur published Oli Hazzard’s ‘Contagious Fire’ in April 2009.
 Ian Pindar, ‘Oli Hazzard’s Between Two Windows’from ianpindar.blogspot.co.uk, (retrieved online at http://ianpindar.blogspot.co.uk/2012/10/oli-hazzards-between-two-windows.html, 2012).
 Greg Emilio, ‘The Unpronounceable in Oli Hazzard’s Between Two Windows’ from Trop (retrieved online at http://tropmag.com/2012/the-unpronouncable-in-oli-hazzards-between-two-windows/, 2012).
 Ezra Pound, ‘The Wisdom of Poetry’, from Selected Prose 1909-1965, ed. William Cookson (New York City: New Directions, 1973).
Two long poems dominate this year’s Forward selection, such that while each might have overbalanced the volume they act as counterweights to one another, making the rest seem slight in comparison. For this reason, in the interests of brevity and because some of the other outstanding work in this ever-reliable yearly anthology is treated at greater length in the reviews above and below, I will confine my reflections to these two long poems.
The first is Loretta Collins Klobah’s ‘La Madonna Urbana’, representing The Twelve-Foot Neon Woman on the shortlist for The Felix Dennis Prize for Best First Collection. A sprawling Spanglish text, the poem revolves around a twelve-foot woman sprayed onto a wall in Puerto Rico, ‘framed by a graffiti spell of petroglifos geométricos’, her hair painted ‘con el sabor del café del campo’, and ‘her scooped blouse off-shoulder’. The woman is an alternative saint, a patron of the unofficial life of the city, and a way, in the ‘Barrio Obrero’ (worker’s quarter), via her magical, whispered advice to those who pause by her wall, of voicing the concerns of the community. This is essentially the poem’s conceit, and it’s a good one, its constant slipping from English to Spanish and back again reflecting the textures of linguistic life in a place that is both North and Latin American. This graffiti-age miracle allows Klobah to give a voice to the dispossessed, like Juanito, a beggar ‘who wears yellow rubber starfish earrings in both ears/and says, Mamita, se ve bién, que linda eres/and Mira, tengo hambre’.
The second long poem is Denise Riley’s ‘A Part Song’, winner of the prize for Best Single Poem, and deservedly so: both a deeply personal elegy for the death of her son that asserts the irreducibility of the experience of loss, and a reflection on its universal nature. How to talk about death without resorting to cliché? The formal territory of the social or public seems so inherently inadequate or badly-equipped, in the language of the commonly understood and inherently unspecific, for the subject it must propose to tackle. The poem’s prolegomenon prepares for or acknowledges this insufficiency of the linguistic resources of mourning in the tradition of asking, as its first line does, ‘You principle of song, what are you for now’?
Riley’s interrogation of the function of song and elegy as a way of remembering continues. The poem moves in numbered stanzas of varying length and form, a mixed elegy in the manner of Auden’s ‘In Memory of W. B. Yeats’, and one that eschews the consolations of poetic, and especially pastoral, imagery:
I can’t get sold on reincarnating you
As those bloody ‘gentle showers of rain’
Or in ‘fields of ripening grain’ – oooh
The play of reference and personal experience are allowed to come together – ‘to shepherd you back within range/Of my strained ears’ – in xix, the penultimate stanza, where this fragmentation and reformulation of Milton’s ‘Lycidas’, a pastoral elegy that also reflects on the degree of its own sincerity, is a verbal stretching of that text’s rendering of ‘loss to shepherd’s ear’. It is also an attempt to shepherd the deceased back into the realm of the living, a conjuring act of which this (part) song proves incapable:
Won’t you be summoned up once more
By my prancing and writhing in a dozen
Mawkish modes of reedy piping to you
– Still no?
It is, of course, in the inevitable failure of these modes and willingness to face up to their mawkishness that ‘A Part Song’ succeeds – if ‘success’ is a proper criterion for mourning, or even poetry – and a fragmented picture of a mourner who, more often than not, feels she is playing the part of a mourner, emerges. The distancing and splitting of any fictively unitary bereaved voice or self into formally and tonally distinct units is astutely mimetic of grief’s compartmentalized nature, sometimes social, sometimes individual. So crisp, ironic-sounding Prufrockian couplets are the best vehicle for lines on the ‘beaming show’ of ‘howling-guise’:
A soft black gown with pearl corsage
Won’t assuage your smashed ménage.
The more seemingly individuated stanzas, by contrast, often work with marine imagery that could be personally specific or equally drawn from the reservoir of past elegy. ‘She do the bereaved in different voices’, the speaker notes in xix: she does, we feel, because that is the closest way to approximate between private and social.
Sam Riviere has an MFA, a Tumblr page, and a poetry debut published by Faber & Faber. He tweets regularly. Social media and poetry seem to go hand-in-hand, both suited to a manner of publishing one’s self-doubt in self-deprecatory fashion. Take ‘Crisis poem’, the first of the collection: ‘my work has thrived since 2008 / I have written 20 or 21 poems’. Or ‘Dream Poem’: ‘I know what you’re thinking / it’s dull unless they’re sex dreams … / mine are pretty banal’. Riviere’s poetry queries the worth that the poetic voice holds today, in a country that has begun producing institutionally-trained poets through MFAs, but whose government is cutting funding to the Arts. What worth is popularity on social media when placed against the cohorts of other more-visited Tweeters and Tumblrs? In an age of information overload what’s one more penny in the fountain?
Andrew Neilson, in his review for Magma Poetry, locates in Riviere ‘an appetite to reveal the workings or consequences of […] pose.’ For Nielsen, lyric poets concerned about the poses they make are inherently ‘poseurs’, etymologically affiliated with pretentiousness. Yet, this is not solely a poet’s domain. Hipsterdom’s self-conscious posturing makes it a generational thing. Take ‘Closer’ as perhaps emblematic:
this is the part where
he faces an ornate mirror
prods his varnished complexion
and demonstrates genre savvy
by changing his accent
an ambiguous clone ending
in the right hands creates
a powerful sense of an indifferent universe
in the wrong hands creates
Does the ‘he’ have to be a poet? He could be just about any sucker posing in the mirror. The poem’s speaker may distinguish between what ‘the right hands’ and ‘the wrong hands’ create, but the binary is hardly so clear cut. Surely such posed knowingness hints at a dual condition: doubt with a swagger; bravado with a stammer.
With regard to these equivocations the footnotes are a case in point. For ‘Closer’ Riviere redirects to the footnote of the previous poem, ‘Confessional Poem’. Here, almost perfectly arranged – but not quite – in Herbert-esque angel wings, the speaker ‘watching TV’ receives a call. The poem turns, in the fold between the two wings:
—-were calling from the scene
of a serious car accident
—-in fact you were dying
———-of all the friends you
————–could have rung
———you’d chosen me to find
—–a meaning of some kind
to end your life or rhyme
Riviere’s footnote quibbles the schmaltzy sincerity: ‘– not sure this does anything except say, ‘I’m different, I’m better’’. These footnotes niggle as doubts do. It is as if Riviere cannot let his poems into fixed print without a few last caveats. Like he wants to keep some of the blogpost feel, leaving himself room for comment.
Perhaps the doubts are justified. In spite of hipsterdom’s love of equivocations, online, opinion is frequently voiced as polemic. It comes as either total approbation or abrogation, as exemplified by reddit’s up/downvote or Facebook’s Like/[Dislike] option. Riviere’s Tumblr page cites the first Amazon review of 81 Austerities, headed ‘J.I. Smith gives 1 star, ‘1 Austerity: Don’t Buy This’ [Format: Kindle Edition]’:
If this is 21st-century poetry, what a sad indictment of our time. Have we become so solipsistic and insensate? We live in a world where high art consists of expensive kitsch and expensive trash, where contemporary music consists of hisses, farts and sequenced loops of traffic noise, where poetry consists of simian grunts, newspaper cuttings and a muddied bog of consicousness. [ed. his/her spelling] If only we could have austerity where it’s needed.
Online, in the luxury of anonymous comment spaces, castigation is the name of the game. Perhaps Riviere writing himself into his collection as his first critic simply shows ‘genre savvy’.
Riviere’s debut flags up many things difficult to stomach about the ephemeral way we live today. In doing so, the demands for attention it makes, although at times quavering, hold it above the run-of-the-mill doubters churning out their brand of contemporary lyric poetry.