Poetry books, artlessly arranged.
I don’t know if I’ve read a single novel this year. If that’s true it must be the first year I could say that since I could read (novels). I won’t judge myself: I’m very busy; I’ve been reading a fair bit of poetry, some short stories, some dense and very rewarding non-fiction, and (oddly) quite a few issues of Awake and The Watchtower.
Articles too, of course – bits and pieces, fragments, sentences, status-updates, tweets. More and more of my reading is fragmented and interrupted, so poetry has the advantage in at least being (usually) relatively short.
I’ve still not found any poetry magazines or blogs I feel keen to develop a loyalty to, and this is probably not entirely unrelated to having had no success in submitting to any. The greatest enjoyment in my poetry reading certainly still comes from single-author collections, and they’ve been best represented in the year’s reading. In addition to library loans I’ve forgotten by this point in the year (oh – Merlin’s Lane by Robert Nisbett was hugely enjoyable), I’ve probably bought more poetry books this year than in any previous year. I’ve recently been enjoying two part-biography part-retrospective volumes about dead white women: Unicorn, the poetry of Angela Carter (whose title poem is worth the price alone) and Hope Mirrlees‘s Collected Poems, containing her unfashionable later work (which I naturally like) and the very striking (and very long) early modernist poem “Paris” for which she is sort-of quietly famous.
On the subject of dead people, I’ve been enjoying Walter de la Mare a lot, and I’ve rediscovered my Everyman collection of WB Yeats poems in a big way. I’ve enjoyed them so much, and felt the themes so relevant to the world today (and my own attempts to poeticize it), that I decided to read “The second coming” at my own poetry launch. The collection treats the poems abysmally, breaking them in the middle for the convenience of a page; it makes me very grateful that I have such a wonderful designer working with me on my own books, so that at least if the poems fail it will not be due to their presentation. My copy of Plath‘s Ariel (a desert island book, I reckon) has also been getting a good airing (and more; I unfortunately let it get sodden with rainwater while camping in East Landskeria) and the poem “Morning song” now gets me so much deeper than it did when I was young and child-free.
Pamphlets can be dealt with swiftly. I’ve only bought three, and they’ve all been excellent. (So I suppose I should read more?) I was lucky enough to attend the launch of Mark Fiddes‘s The Chelsea Flower Show Massacre, which is one of my books of the year – laugh-out-loud funny even on return visits, and also deathly serious at times. It even (perhaps unintentionally) taught me how to prepare a delicious nutritious snack with the poem “How to make Pan Catalan”. Josephine Corcoran‘s The Misplaced House deals elegantly with love, death and memory among other weighty matters. The juxtaposition of the comfortable and the uncomfortable association of words in “You say ‘drone'” is very clever, and the poem about Stephen Lawrence is quietly heartbreaking. I don’t like to pick a “best” because this isn’t the point of this post, but the biggest of the three is definitely Victoria Kennefick‘s White Whale (A4 pamphlets – who knew?) It comes highly recommended and after previewing a couple of poems (I think via the American magazine imaginatively titled “Poetry”?) I was sufficiently impressed to want to know more. Moby Dick, which I haven’t read but have some awareness of, is a foil threaded throughout to give a sense of shape and narrative to the collection, and the poet’s voice is clear, confident and striking. I especially enjoyed the uneasiness of “The preacher’s daughter” and the sweet sadness of “Zero”.
What else? I treated myself to another Matthew Sweeney: A Smell of Fish. Almost as good as Horse Music, but not quite. Nothing is. Quite. Having enjoyed “A thousand nights…” and On Poetry, I read Glyn Maxwell‘s Pluto, which was generally very good, occasionally sublime (especially lead poem “The byelaws” and “Birthplace”) but generally a bit of a downer. I finally got around to ordering a Selected Poems of Blake Morrison so I could enjoy the full-length version of “Ballad of the Yorkshire Ripper”. I say “enjoy”: it’s horrible, obviously, but definitely one of the best poems I’ve read this year. Any year, in fact. The others are good too, but struggle to flourish under its shadow. I enjoyed Paul Kingsnorth‘s Kidland early in the year. (Though not as much as I enjoyed his debut novel last year.) It has moments of near-Romantic beauty, and aims admirably high for a sense of (usually eco-oriented) artistic purpose. It hits mostly, and misses sometimes. The title poem, epic and impressive though it is, feels a bit too heavily allegorical to really engage the imagination, and the poem about not wanting to hear about someone’s baby because the world’s dying of global warming or something just makes him sound a bit humourless. Humour runs through Kevin Reinhardt‘s Birdworld like stringy bits in celery; it’s the spine of the collection I’d say (though I haven’t quite finished it yet). There’s also a surreal quality to the anecdotes and family reminiscences that frequently harbours more depth of thought and emotion behind it. The scrapbook-like presentation, including numerous scans and illustrations, many of which overlap with the poems, makes good use of the print format too. I can forgive the serifless font because the bold weight seems to add a certain deliberate volume and vibe to the poems. But I do have to read this book in small doses. I don’t know if this is something unique to me, but I frequently struggle with sans-serif reading. My pal Dave always sends his proofs in Ariel and it delays my editorial progress through his (otherwise very engaging) stories.
Two other full books I’ve been reading this year are printed in serifless font, and I’ve struggled with both for that (and, I think, only that) reason. Jackie Biggs‘ The Spaces in Between contains delicate observations on nature and human relationships (often both), and draws inspiration from visual art as well as the more usual poetic sources. I’ve enjoyed many of these poems live (she attends a West Welsh open mic I sometimes go to) so it’s nice to see them in print and hear them in my head, even without the serifs. Donna Sørensen‘s Dream Country (which I won on Twitter, believe it or not!) is a stark contemporary work thematically (loosely) connected around the theme of home. It feels both spiritual and metaphysical and is as far from what I write as you can get – which is usually a sure sign I’ll really like something. Indeed, I think I could like it very much, but I’ve as yet found it too dense to really get into, and I am 100% sure this is because of the font of the poems. I probably sound mad by this point. But this sort of poetry for me I ideally want to hear, and I find it so hard to read, and to internally vocalise, with that DAMN font. I either need to print them all out in Garamond or have some time away from children and social media to clear my constantly buzzing brain so I can read into a clean mind, and overcome the shapes of the letters.
The lack of headspace is an issue. It’s rare that I even get through a poem without being interrupted by a child, a spouse, a pet, an electronic device, or something else of that kind. The need to read does battle with the need to write, and the need to blog, and publish, and market, and graft, and grift.
What else? Mab Jones‘s Poor Queen was hugely enjoyable. Rude, raucous, sharp and funny. Richard James Jones‘s Little Man. I picked that up after seeing him read at an open mic. It’s short, perhaps fittingly, but doesn’t waste words. It’s pleasingly plain, linguistically, for academic poetry; indeed, there’s a fair bit of prose-iness/prose-etry creeping in, but always with some sense of a song in the background. The creepy “Snow Globe” and contemplative “Len’s engineering services” are highlights for me. Words by Simon and Julia Indelicate is an oddity I suppose, given that it includes lyrics from their collaborative musical project The Indelicates; but the poems part beautifully contrasts Julia’s “difficult” (I quote them; I’m not distancing myself from the word) short poems – whose lines are always in danger of breaking, whose meanings lurk below murky depths then rise up to bite your face off – with Simon’s bittersweet elegy to childhood “The Principle of Quicksilver…” and a few other pieces. If I didn’t love their music so much I’d mourn poetry’s loss, imagining what their first full-length collections might have read like. Indeed I do mourn it still, but hope they haven’t entirely abandoned the less popular, less lucrative and less current artform. Another part-time poet (bloody part-timers) is Simon Sylvester, who includes a couple of fantastic poems in his latest short story collection Dare. “Coffin Routes” was one of my favourite poems of last year. And “Was I Scottish” is a timely examination of belonging, patriotism, and nationalism, warts and all. It speaks very clearly and directly to me as an Anglo-Welsh neither-nor child, and it makes me think he should spend more time writing more poems for me to enjoy rather than doing the other things he does; although I gather he does have another novel to write or edit, so I won’t press him too hard.
Emma Hammond‘s The Story of No might just be the most difficult book I’ve read this year. Possibly one of the easiest too. It’s hard to explain really. It took a few reads and rereads of the first couple of poems to attune to the strikingly modern stream-of-consciousness style (sort of like picking up an Irvine Welsh book; it seemed dense to the point of impenetrable, and suddenly I’d broken the surface and plunged right in and had to learn how not to drown) but it was really the juxtaposition of hilarious highs (the brilliantly observed awkwardness of Hairdresser and digi-currency of Thinkpiece for example) with existentially bleak lows (especially in End, Trinity, Utility). This is a diary entry, not a review, so I won’t quote or even link (you know how to find things, and this site’s SEO is hopeless) but anyway, this is really brilliant stuff. I took out Clive James‘s celebrated Sentenced to Life from the library the other day and have very much been enjoying its plainness and exactness of language and sentiment; and his finesse with form. But that hasn’t really excited to the degree EH’s “…No” did (and no doubt will again).
Finally, a couple of collections. I’ve dipped in and out of For Books’ Sake’s “warrior women” volume, Furies, and enjoyed its variety of mythologically-inspired voices, tones and styles very much. But perhaps my most enjoyable poetic reading experience of the year has been in slowly ploughing through Owen Sheers’s A Poet’s Guide to Britain. I’ve been reading 5 poems a week (each at least three times) then discussing them on the phone with my mother, who has been doing the same. What a wonderful way to read a book! And so many fine poems. Too many to list. But some new names I have to explore: Alice Oswald, Alexander Smith, Douglas Dunn, Tony Harrison, Paul Farley, Fleur Adcock, Lynette Roberts, Kathryn Gray, William Barnes, Paul Henry… to name but a few. All this along with your Larkins, Blakes, Plaths and other existing joys.
For 2016, I’ll be continuing with and rereading some of the above, and taking recommendations (please recommend away here or @AlexanderVelky on Twitter!). I’ve probably forgotten some of what I read (especially those I had to return to the library) but there we go. If I have time I’ll do a similar (but shorter) blog about what I’ve written this year and another (yet shorter) about what I’ve performed.