Photograph by David Secombe, via Esoteric London
Hello, Best American Poetry World! I guest-blogged here a couple of years ago and am delighted to be asked back.
Last time I spent my week developing a little theme about a particular strain of "formalist" (though we don't really call it that here) poetry in England that emanates, if you trace it back, from the old vaudeville-style (for want of a better comparison) music hall tradition. That was fun, and included some YouTube work, and amusing photos.
This time I was thinking about micro-reviews of some UK poets, and I still plan to do that; but I see that Todd Swift has pipped me to the post with an excellently comprehensive roundup of some current poets over here. So I'm going to go straight in on an up note, spreading cheer around me like a veritable Jonny Appleseed.
The big news in the UK right now is a cataclysmic government spending review, announced last Wednesday, which stripmines the UK's public purse of over 20% - the biggest cuts since 1918. That's the umbrella figure; the details are just too horrifying to go into, whether or not you agree that radical action was necessary to deal with the (banker-induced) deficit. Even PriceWaterhouseCoopers, the gigantic corporate consultancy firm, predicts a possible million jobs lost. (And England is smaller than New England.) So it's very scary, and that's before you talk about the services that will be cut. But I'm not here to talk politics. What I want to do - or have to do, really - is to ruminate on how, in a daily, practical way, poetry (and one's almost mystical belief in its power) will coalesce in this brave new world.
I ran into a friend in Whole Foods yesterday (I know: the neighbourhood grew pretensions around us, and it was raining and I couldn't face the trek up to Morrisons), and she made me laugh. She said: "It's - it's like a dystopia!" Funny thing when that's funny: I was so happy she said it!
I mean, it would be one thing if even the tubes wereworking properly. In my part of London there have been many days recently when an hour and a half to get to work seems almost reasonable. Last week there was a power cut on the soi-disant Jubilee Line, and 4,000 people were stuck in the tunnel for nearly three hours. Pitch black. People were fainting, panicking, falling ill. 2,000 of them made it out by walking along the (non-electrified, thanks to the power cut) rails. When they finally staggered out into the ticket hall, they found staff on hand to remind them to touch their travel cards to the machine to pay for their journeys!
So how does our little flower, poetry, manage in a dystopia? I mean, it managed in the old Soviet bloc, even while its practitioners were being shipped to the mines. It manages in certain parts of the world today where people can be imprisoned for taking certain names in vain. It manages under harsh repression precisely by being a metaphorical form of thought. The forms of words become overarchingly important, as image and symbol come to stand in for empirical subject.
That's not really going to be our problem, though; it's going to be more that everyone's in a state of panic and dismay, walking in tube tunnels and struggling to pay the rent when both the housing benefit and the jobs have been cut. We're talking about "the New Austerity," as if it were wartime again: we're being asked to Make Do and Mend.
There are worries about arts funding, though I personally feel that's a little last week, except where it impacts on jobs. I've been saying for several years that I could see poetry going samizdat, and slipping back under the main, money-feeding stream - and that's happening, with tiny presses springing up all over. There are constant debates about the role of these little publishers, and what structures would best serve the artform.
Normally I'd spin out some words and end with some lovely little rounding-out anecdote proving that yes, poetry is going to blossom like a Shakespearean rose in this hard, dark time. But I guess right now I'm actually asking. I've been struggling for words all week. How will it?
Will it politicise UK verse? Will poetry carry on the same as ever? Will we all, as I've done this week, clam up while we process the new reality? Will the social divide ("Tories" and "everyone else," as in the eighties) be played out in poetry, with technique once again being seen as retrograde and elitist? Will it be impossible to get published at all?
There is one criticism of English poetry these days, that it's insular, unambitious in its cosy addiction to anecdote and quotidian epiphany. Will this tendency be swept away on the tide of mounting fervour? Will my versification class at the Poetry School be mobbed with students who all want to know the rhetoric to create truly ringing stanzas and clarion refrains?
Will we put our faith in poetry, because we have nowhere else to put it?!?
Last week, on the night before the spending review was announced, my class spent two rather thrilling hours reading and talking about trochees. Two things were for sure. One: with a trochee you certainly have sómething yóu can cóunt on. Except when it gets slippery, and puts on a yellow tie and joins a coalition and starts facing the other way so it looks líke a héadless íamb. And two: when I was reading out to the class to demonstrate the stresses, it felt great banging the table.
Aux armes, poètes!