Various Poetastings

I’ve been out and about a fair bit this last week, handing out flyers for London Word Festival of course. A promoter’s job is never done.

Eavan Boland

Firstly, The Poetry Society’s annual lecture at The Bishopsgate Institute on 31st January. This is where I organised London Lip with Iain Sinclair et al. and I’ll be seeing quite a bit more of The Bishopsgate and its lovely staff over the Spring when I take up my official poetic residency there. The lecture was given by the US-based Irish poet and critic Eavan Boland (above). A striking speaker whose poise lent her words an air of urgency. But not as fierce as she looks in the photo! As she explained, the topic was ‘The Cartography of Poetry’ – ie. a state of the nation address – but she would limit herself to an evaluation of ‘the political poem’. An apt topic, I thought, and something more potentially controversial than, say, a reappraisal of the sonnet or the villanelle (as Boland herself pointed out). It’s also a topic that has been much in the mouths of writers and literary commentators. Since the millennium, we’ve had 9/11, Afghanistan, Iraq II and 7/7. And all that political instability alongside a growing sense of the threat of climate change. All of this brings the private, the domestic and the personal into the open, and forces writers and artists to question the value and purpose of their work.

Boland began by citing the well-known literary bust-up between Denise Levertov and Robert Duncan, a dispute founded on their divergent views on ‘public poetry’. Specifically, Duncan resented Levertov’s involvement as a writer in the Vietnam protest movement and considered her political poems not only to lack, but to actively betray, the poetic imagination. Duncan’s own position is that ‘the poet’s role is not to oppose evil but to imagine it’. This example sets up a number of complex distinctions, both ethical and aesthetical, which I won’t even try to unpack here. Boland herself argued (and it’s a position I applaud) for ‘a disabling of the either/or’ approach to poetry. She also spoke of the need for ‘a rich, diverse and risky poetry’. This last adjective is most important and gives away her true position on the Duncan/Levertov argument – Boland calls for a political poetry that takes risks, that avoids easy conclusions.

‘The political poem is a way of writing myself to the position to ask questions.’ (Boland)

I’m with her on that. When ‘political poetry’ resembles the lazy doggerel Pinter and Harrison came up with in response to the Iraq war, it’s not worth reading – that kind of work is politically and artistically safe; it asks no questions; its constituency is self-assured to the point of being self-regarding. Preaching to the converted, in other words. Rather, Boland advocated ‘a disintegration of we’. I’m with her on that too. That’s partly why I like Chris McCabe’s work (see below…).

Lastly, Boland touched on the politics of the environment, prophesising future conflict over nature poetry between, on the one hand, eco-poets who are socially, environmentally and politically engaged, and, on the other, those who espouse a largely Romantic, Wordsworthian approach (the latter being the more popular and well-established). Or to put it her way – a battle between a natural world which provides moral/spiritual instruction for the poet, and a natural world scarred and violated by human activity. This made me think of David Caddy’s work – rooted in the natural world and a small rural community, but international in character and politically and socially engaged. Readers might also be interested to note that political poetry, and specifically writers’ responses to climate change, is the subject of Making Nothing Happen, one of my London Word Festival events at The Bishospgate. Friday 29th February with Mario Petrucci, Melanie Challenger, Caspar Henderson and Neil Astley.

If there’s anything I took issue with in Eavan Boland’s lecture, it’s that I don’t really believe in a clear distinction between the political poem and the non-political poem. In many ways, all poetry, all acts of representation, are inherently political. I guess I agree with Jamie Wilkes on this one. So the argument is not between political and non-political, but between different kinds of politics. Then again, perhaps it’s just a matter of semantics…

The rest of the evening was spent in The Water Poet, Folgate Street with Simon Barraclough and Isobel Dixon (whose responses to this post I await!). We wedged ourselves in the only space not entirely overrun with loud city workers – the pool room. Conversation ranged from poetry (obviously) to soap operas. Coronation Street was a favourite of mine and Simon’s, whilst Isobel introduced us to the South African soap Egoli (meaning ‘Place of Gold’). I also argued hard for The Bill, which I was missing at the time.

The Troubadour

Then onto The Troubadour,West Brompton (above) on Monday night to witness the long-running Coffee House Poetry series coming head-to-head with Salt Publishing. A whopping ten Salt poets read (though I missed one or two, sneaking in during Tamar Yoseloff’s set) in the atmospheric basement venue. All the poets I saw were excellent and representative of the diversity of Salt’s growing stock of writers. Particular highlights for me were Isobel Dixon, Luke Kennard and Chris McCabe.

Isobel’s work is gently pervasive. She reads with a confidence and firmness that belies the lyrical lilt of her poetry. Every consonant of her finely-tuned lines is articulated, which I like. All too often poets rush through readings, aiming no doubt to capture the rhythms of speech, but ultimately mushing all the language into some comforting but unrecognisable pulp. I remember a particularly good line of Isobel’s about how her father’s beard hid a small face, or something like that. I paraphrase. Clive James is also a fan of Isobel’s book A Fold in the Map.

It’s always a pleasure (I initially wrote ‘joy’ then crossed it out) to hear Luke Kennard read. I’d heard a few of the poems he performed before – like ‘The Murderer’ for instance. His newer work was excellent too; in particular a piece about a couple meeting in an elephant’s graveyard. Luke’s a proper satirist, and also a very nice man with a fine selection of jackets. His poetry is popular even with people who don’t really like poetry, like the barmaid at The Troubadour, who asked him to post her a copy of The Harbour Beyond The Movie. This is always a good sign.

The real highlight of the evening was Chris McCabe, who I’ve known since I published a poem of his in Keystone (Issue 5, 2004). Chris works in The Poetry Library on the South Bank and has recently become a father for the first time. His work combines linguistic experimentation and plenty of tonal disharmony with a genuine accessibility and, importantly, wit. I’m never shy about giving my opinion, so here it is: Chris is the most exciting poet currently writing in London. There you go, I’ve said it… His first book The Hutton Inquiry is an impressive debut but too long and a bit patchy. His second book, also from Salt, is due out this year, and if I remember correctly from our conversation is entitled Zeppelin. I for one can’t wait. In fact I don’t have to, because David Caddy has accepted some of his work for the forthcoming Tears in the Fence. My recommendation? If you get the chance to see Chris read, take it up.


  1. I was at the Eavan Boland lecture too. I would love to be as articulate and persuasive as she is. I think I’m with you as regards the political poem in that I think poetry all exists somewhere along a continuum. By imagining it, we are often taking as step towards its opposition or at the very least throwing a light on it.
    My own feeling was not so much that Boland was saying something new, but that she was inviting us to question again what we are doing as poets, and sharing with us a wider perspective on the poetic map, born of her own long experience.

  2. Naomi Woddis says:

    A pity I missed you there, as I was there too. Firstly let me thank you for writing this, it’s good to have an intelligent and heartfelt summary of what, I thought, was a very important lecture.

    It can always be argued that everything is political and in the sense that writing engages the minds, hearts and cultural location of all its writers and readers this is true. However I felt that Boland was looking at poetry which actively contained a political discourse within in, that addressed issues of power, place and identity (for example) in an overtly political way.

    I am also thinking of the many performance poets I know and know of who live in the US. It is not unusual to hear them describe themselves as activists.

    So, I do think there is a difference between the politics of a latter day eco-poet who talks about ownership of the land and the resultant effects of this, and, for example, a more traditional ‘nature’ poet whose discourse concentrates on something very different.

    I am not sure whether these two poets do exist on the same spectrum. This would imply that one ‘leads’ to the other and I do not think that this is so. I think one can compare some poetry within a political framework, and use models that will broaden our understanding as well as helping to contextualise where these poems might exist in the wider scheme of things but I do not think this means that all writing exists within one spectrum or place.

    The most important thing I took from the lecture was the distinction between ‘I’ and ‘we’, the individual and the collective voice.

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