Thursday, 29 October 2009

Early morning

There's a superb piece of nature writing here - as someone says in the comments box, well worth the long wait.

Here in the Midlands, we're at that time of year when birds should be on the move everywhere. And they are, but I've been far too lazy at chasing after them just lately. I’m not good at getting up early, you see. Never have been. I made the effort this morning, though, after Dave Gray had reported a couple of Short-eared Owls hunting at Cossington Meadows last night. They’re not a bird we see locally very often, so I was there by just after 5.30 to see what I could find.

It was still pretty much dark then, and SEOs hunt in half-light or even full daylight, but I wanted to be in place well ahead of time. It helped that it’s very warm at the moment, so standing around in the dark wasn’t the freezing experience it usually is in the UK in October (well, in pretty much any month, for that matter), and I stood there looking out across the meadows, straining my eyes for any sign of life.

Of course, it’s in such situations that your hearing becomes your most vital sense, and once I’d learned to filter out the occasional sounds of movement from the cattle moving around in the next field, I started to pick up bird songs and calls from all directions.

Robins are never shy of making themselves heard, even in the middle of the night, and sure enough one soon started up from the nearby bushes, quickly followed by a more distant Blackbird and finally, as the sky started to grow light, by Greenfinches and Goldfinches passing up and down the hedgerows. Birdsong has a pretty uplifting effect at any time, but first thing in the morning that’s amplified. The birds are announcing their survival of the cold and dark – to their mates, to the other birds of their flock, to themselves, and to anyone else who cares to listen.

There was still only the faintest glimmer of dawn in the east at this stage, but something was moving out there. First one, then two Barn Owls faded into view somewhere near the centre of the meadow, ghostly against the murk as they quartered the grass with buoyant wingbeats. As I mentioned last week, they often seem to become so engrossed in their hunting that they’re oblivious to humans, and while I stayed statue-still, one came to within 10 yards, only finally lifting his intent gaze from the ground to notice me, and veering sharply but easily away. I watched them for another 15 minutes or so, until the increasing light and the arrival of some dog-walkers persuaded them to head for home.

Barn Owls are (not surprisingly) one of those sights guaranteed to draw hushed, awed tones from birdwatchers of all types. Wigeon, on the other hand, are one of those underrated, and largely understated, pleasures of the British winter. They’re lovely-looking ducks, for starters, but the male’s wheee-oooooo whistle is both evocative and exhilarating, and by now tight little groups of them were whizzing over from the pools towards the lakes nearer Leicester. A few Shoveler, too, with their oversized bills a dead giveaway in silhouette.

Finally, just as I began to give up hope, another shape started moving above the now recognisably green meadow. A Short-eared Owl, without doubt, with the orangey areas on the primaries visible, but I'd hardly had time to get the scope on it before it dropped into a fold in the ground, presumably having found a vole. Good news for the owl, bad news for the rodent and me. I hung around as long as I could, but it didn't reappear before I had to leave for work.

In all likelihood these birds are just passing through on the way from their upland breeding areas to the coastal marshes where they spend the winter, but some do occasionally hang around. Some of the former opencast mines near here I live have attracted them in the past, as in the early stages of their restoration they tend to have wide expanses of grassland, plus small conifers for roosting in. There's also a site in eastern Leicestershire, near Eyebrook Reservoir, that tends to get them every winter, so maybe we'll be lucky and these will stay.

Friday, 23 October 2009

Sounds in the Grass, by Matt Nunn

Nine Arches Press, 2009

All passions spring from the same well, they say, but the great joy of Matt Nunn’s poetry is that in it, all passions seem to exist in the same place, simultaneously.

So, he doesn’t slip from raging storm to dead calm via all points in-between – instead, they’re never more than a heartbeat apart, meaning that while his poetry is rarely less than very funny, it’s also satisfyingly true to the peaks and troughs of human consciousness.

This effect is achieved partly by his use of seemingly runaway but actually beautifully controlled long lines, and the sheer relish with which he uses language. It occasionally reminded me of 1980s-era Peter Reading, or what Mark E Smith might have sounded like had he ditched The Fall and moved to West Bromwich, but such comparisons really don't do it any justice (although on the latter, Nunn does write a lot, and well, about music).

It also means that the poetry on the page is an accurate transcription of what you get if you hear Nunn read it, machine-gun delivery and all. There’s very little lost in translation, and that’s a pretty hard trick for a poet of any ilk to pull off.

So where do we start? Well, the beginning’s as good a place as any, and frankly there’s more wit, invention and innovation in the list of titles than a lot of us manage in a whole book.

From there, Nunn gets stuck straight into some of his major concerns, with What’s it about? kickstarting an ongoing debate about the tension between observing and documenting society as a poet, and the need to remain engaged within that society, as well as exploring society’s response to anything deemed intellectual. Try this, for starters:

So I, swarming with the visceral truth of sunrise
and extreme eggheadness,

told him I’d come to the park to float amongst strange congregations,
to measure the faith in the lush abundance of chirping Dickies
and the toning-up of morning

before later getting hooched-up on the taste of warring factions
then banging a dog dead to feel
the glorious buffoon buzz of a pointless thrill,

just to work out if I prefer it more
to this crap lark of gawping at cor blimey spectral vistas of beauty.

It’s a theme that runs through the collection, and Nunn doesn’t offer any easy answers, It’s an awful lot of fun, though, running through the questions with him.

He’s quite capable of changing the pace when he needs to, and another thread that emerges is the occasional snatching of peace and even joy from out of the urban landscape (in fact, that’s becoming something of a unifying characteristic with Nine Arches poets). Early on, there are the lines “In our little bit of lovely we don’t get do-lally / searching for the blessing of silence. / It is all around us. It is in us.” There’s a bruised but clear-eyed romanticism at work there, and it sets off the more in-your-face pieces superbly.

I’ll admit to being swayed in my praise for this book by the fact the poet keeps celebrating some of my favourite things – Two Tone, the late Grant McLennan of Aussie band The Go-Betweens, the M50 (Britain’s quietest motorway) and even the word “flobbed”, which I thought was long gone into the obscurity of the 80s but which re-emerges in the glorious Long Mynd, New Year’s Day. And while I’m at it, let me quote that last one in its entirety.

No, there ain’t no god to fix us,

so we drift, chewed up and flobbed out
from between the jaw-line of battering weather
and flaming expletives swirling abusively
down from the angry Black Mountains,
pausing only to pull moonies into the void
and for you to sprinkle erratically,

until we trip over ourselves, kiss
the high sky of sheep and fall
onto our muck-splattered throne
to feel our bonces, gone rotten with booze,
blast off over the valley

and watch cloud moods clear smoothly, daubing
oozes of sun onto people awakening
to the fabulous shades of hope gathering.

This could be a fucking brilliant year.

Come on – what’s not to like about that? It encapsulates all that makes Nunn’s poetry unique, and it’s a lot of fun to read aloud.

This book sees the poet reaching out into new territory, I think, in terms of both subject matter and style, but it remains as individual, and as enjoyable, a collection as you're likely to read this year. Just remember that you're likely to need to engage all areas of your brain...

Thursday, 22 October 2009

The TS Eliot Prize

The shortlist has been announced, and The Guardian ran a lengthy piece about the runners and riders here.

They seem to have spread the net a bit further than the Forward did (although their shortlist is twice as long, to be fair), but I think Simon Armitage might be slightly overstating the case when he says that the list reflects the "scope and breadth" of contemporary British poetry. Still, it's good to see someone like Philip Gross (a really underrated poet, IMHO) in there, and Alice Oswald, and Christopher Reid.

I am slightly baffled by what they say about Hugo Williams, mind you. Now I absolutely love his books, going way back, but one of the reasons I love them is precisely that he seems to be forever rewriting the same poem, trying to perfect it. West End Final's a really fine book, but I can't honestly see it as a great leap from Dear Room, or Billy's Rain. Good to see him there, though.

Wednesday, 21 October 2009

'The owls are not what they seem...'

Yes, the giant warned Agent Cooper in early 90s cult classic Twin Peaks, and I'm here to tell you that he was right.

Last night, I was driving home from Nottingham, at about 11.30pm. It was rainy and windy, and I’d got about two miles from home, on a straight, downhill stretch, when I saw a Tawny Owl standing upright at the side of the road.

I slowed right down and managed to avoid it, and pulled to a halt a little way further on, hazard warning lights blazing, before going back with a torch. To my surprise, it was still there, and didn’t fly away even when I got to within almost touching distance.

Now I was worried. I assumed it must be injured, so I started trying to work out ways to pick it up without hurting it, and without suffering severe injury myself (the wildlife photographer Eric Hosking famously lost an eye to a Tawny Owl). Quite where I’d have taken it, I’m not sure, there not being any all-night owl surgeries in the vicinity. I went back to the car, found a padded photographer’s case to put it in, donned gloves, and prepared for the difficult part.

It had gone, thankfully. I had a good look around the area, drove back up and down three or four times, but it had clearly flown away rather than just hopping into the ditch.

Thing is, this is the third time something like this has happened to me. The first, ten years ago, was on a similarly lonely stretch of road near Bourne, where I was living at the time. That time it was a Long-eared Owl, which was stood in the centre of the road, stock still. I only saw it late and was terrified that I’d hit it, but when I got out to walk back, it watched me part of the way, then flew easily away.

Just a couple of months after that, the same thing happened with another Long-eared Owl (odd because I don’t know of any breeding locally) just about a mile from where I saw last night’s bird.

So, I’m baffled. Roads must be great places to catch voles, etc, as they emerge from cover, but I can only assume the owls get rather dazzled by headlights and are unable to fly away from approaching cars. I’m trying to get an owl expert to explain more, but I'd love to know if anyone has had a similar experience.

PS: I incorporated one of the above incidents, very fictionalised and with some extra drama added, into a poem, The Mad Mile, which appears in Troy Town (the road’s known as the Mad Mile because it’s long, very straight, and includes one rollercoaster-style dip).

Thursday, 15 October 2009

After The Goldrush, by Peter Carpenter

Nine Arches Press, 2009

You think you know someone, and then…

That thought kept occurring to me as I made my way through Peter Carpenter’s thought-provoking and thoroughly entertaining fifth collection.

Partly that’s because, in many of the poems, he concerns himself with probing the layers of mystery surrounding people, whether they be ageing relatives, former schoolmates, strangers observed in day to day life, or even historical figures such as the long-since disappeared body from the Sutton Hoo ship burial.

Sand Person, which deals with the latter, concludes:

Now I’m a shadow curve.
Then people knew my name.
Make me out. I challenge you.

It’s a challenge that Carpenter lays down again and again, not to indulge in intellectual game-playing, you suspect, but instead out of a desire to enable the reader to participate in the difficulties, the ambiguities and, yes, the excitements, of creating or recreating these lives.

The thought also returns when you start to consider Carpenter himself. Just when you think you’ve got a handle on him as a fairly traditional lyric poet of the type that forms the backbone of the UK small press scene, he wrongfoots you with a subtle shift of tone, technique or subject that sets you wondering all over again.

Towards the end, for example, there’s an elegy for his father, called Nightwatchman. I like it, and I hope not just because it describes the sort of low-level club cricket situation I’ve found myself in again and again. But although this is far better realised than most of its type, plenty of poems of this sort get written and published all the time.

It’s immediately followed, though, by a poem called Beautiful Game, which on the face of it carries on the sporting theme, but quickly moves into rather odder, slightly surreal territory – a footnote reveals that it’s based on a dream recounted by the artist James Cockburn.

Or there's the excellent False Oat Grass – A Figure Of Eight Walk, which uses repetition, near-repetition and a structure only half-grasped (by the reader) to turn what could have been a run of the mill piece into something far more intriguing.

It’s a book full of surprises of those sorts – unshowy but expertly deployed, so that things never get predictable.

Beyond those half-glimpsed lives I mentioned, Carpenter is also a fine poet of the urban pastoral. In some pieces, such as the lovely To A Pipistrelle ("...full tilt Billy / Whizz, gut-curving bullet dive, liquorice sheen,/ an even giggle and then back on up…"), or In Brief, with its:

.........those transmission
towers above
.........Crystal Palace

that do for me
and over again

it’s celebratory and even transcendent. Others, such as Settlers, paint a grittier picture, with the chicory which is colonising waste ground inviting “study, scuffed kicks, hurled stones sometimes”, and concluding with the gloomy “You lot might just make it through to September – / a gang-mower and shaven heads the standard fate.”

It hardly needs saying that the resonance of a poem like that goes far beyond botany, but Carpenter is far too good a poet to feel the need to point that out to the reader.

Let’s finish by going back to what I was saying earlier, about Carpenter initially seeming like a typical small press poet. In fact, I think this book helps make the point that there is no such thing, with Carpenter eventually coming across as a subtly distinctive traveller across the various factional boundaries, in the same way as someone like Geoffrey Holloway.

Far from pushing every poet into a homogenised, workshopped middle ground, then, perhaps the scene is allowing poets like Carpenter to find their own niche and flourish quietly. Well that's my theory, and you'll find few better arguments for it than this book.

Coming next week: Full review of Matt Nunn's Sounds In The Grass.

Wednesday, 14 October 2009

Autumn's here

Despite the glorious Indian summer weather, the last week or so has seen the year tip over decisively into autumn, ready for the downhill run to midwinter.

The leaves are turning every shade of gold and brown, of course, and birds are on the move. On Monday night, it was a flock of Golden Plovers skimming over the A1 just after I left work, and yesterday, a much larger cloud of them close to home. On the way to work yesterday, my first Fieldfares of the autumn, and then last night the thin calls of Redwings going over on their nocturnal migration.

I hate winter with a passion these days, I really do, but the journey towards it takes some beating.

Monday, 12 October 2009

And I thought I'd been a bit hard on Don Paterson...

Issue 3 of Horizon Review is jam-packed with all sorts of goodies, and a fairly brief trawl through it at lunchtime was nothing like long enough to do it justice.

I put the poems themselves on hold for now, and the podcast on West Midlands poetry, and turned instead to the interviews. There's a really good piece on Hugo Williams, always a favourite of mine. I love what he says about line-breaks, especially that last line about the broken thermometer. Carrie Etter and Claire Crowther's piece is good too, as you might expect if you read the interviews with them both on these pages earlier this year.

And then there's Vidyan Ravinthiran's interview with Craig Raine. Among other things, he has some pretty harsh words to say about Don Paterson, words I'd struggle to agree with, despite my previously mentioned lukewarm response to most of Paterson's work. I think there's quite a bit of 'previous' between the two, though, and it's probably safe to assume that that's where all this coming from.

There's one thing Raine definitely gets wrong, though. No one decides to support Leicester City arbitrarily. Why on earth would you, on a whim, decide to subject yourself to a lifetime of gallant, underachieving mediocrity, punctuated by an all-too-brief golden era and not-so-occasional periods of grinding misery?

Thursday, 8 October 2009

Not entirely surprising...

So, Don Paterson's collection Rain won this year's Forward Poetry Prize, as was widely predicted, while Emma Jones' The Striped World took Best First Collection, and Robin Robertson's At Roane Head Best Individual Poem.

I don't want to slag off individuals, and I'm not a believer in some great poetry conspiracy, but those choices do seem entirely predictable. Obviously any competition comes down, in the end, to the subjective views of the judges, but I think they could have shown a bit more imagination, with the shortlists as well as the eventual choices.

I have to admit Paterson leaves me rather cold. I've got all his collections up to this one (although some were bought from remaindered stock, or in charity shops), and although I can see how well crafted they are, they don't really excite me or move me much. Again, personal taste, but the same thing keeps happening as did with Elvis Costello after about 1981 - with each new release, I listen to the flood of critical praise, decide that this time it must be the real thing, go out and buy it, and end up rather disappointed.

Elsewhere, the BBC's poll to find the nation's favourite poet did spring a surprise, for me at least, although perhaps that says something about me. TS Eliot won - I suppose I expected someone more, I don't know, accessible. I've seen it suggested that Cats had something to do with his popularity, but anyway, I found it quite heartening that such a major poet is actually held in wide public esteem.

Sunday, 4 October 2009

Tom Leonard

Glaswegian poet Tom Leonard is Leicester Poetry Society's guest reader at the Friends Meeting House, Queens Road, Leicester, this Friday (October 9th), starting at 7.30pm.

Now Professor of Creative Writing at Glasgow University, his work has attracted praise and controversy in equal measure. His Intimate Voices: Selected Work 1965-1983 was banned from Central Region school libraries in the same year that it shared the Scottish Book of the Year Award. Definitely one not to be missed.

Saturday, 3 October 2009

Bird poetry

It's always good when poetry and birding collide - have a look over at Gists & Piths, where a series of David Morley's bird poems are appearing as part of the Midlands poets season.

Poetry in Polesworth

To mark National Poetry Day (this coming Thursday), the first poem in the Polesworth Poets Trail is to be installed this week.

Jane Holland's The River Anker has been etched into copper plate and fixed to five large pieces of Mancetter stone, donated by Tarmac at Mancetter Quarry, and have been sculpted by Planet Art. The stones will also include Michael Drayton’s poem, To the Ancor, and will be placed on the riverbank in Abbey Green Park, close to the footbridge.

It's the first of 10 contemporary poems that will be installed over the coming weeks - two commissions and eight pieces chosen from a national competition. As I've mentioned before, I'm always delighted to see anything that raises the profile of this blog's guiding spirit, so I'll be going to have a look ASAP, and I'll come back with photos. Perhaps I'll combine it with a run all the way into Birmingham to have a look at the newly-discovered Anglo-Saxon hoard.

Project Director, Malcolm Dewhirst said “This is the culmination of a lot of hard work from a dedicated team of people who shared the vision of bringing poetry back to Polesworth. We hope that the poetry trail will attract poets from all over the world to come to Polesworth and that this will be the first of many poetry events to be held in this literary town, which saw the greatest poets of the 16th century meeting at Polesworth Abbey.”

Friday, 2 October 2009

Margaret Griffiths

When I finally started taking the writing of poetry a bit more seriously, and looking to get work published in magazines and webzines, I was lucky enough to stumble across The Works (originally the Pennine Poetry Works, I think). Poems were workshopped by email, and its great strength was that it had a lot of good poets and perceptive critics to point you in the right direction.

Foremost amongst these was Margaret Griffiths, better known online as Grasshopper (and sometimes just as Maz). She always managed to be scrupulously honest, to push you to revise and hone your poems again and again, without ever giving offence, always a difficult thing to do in a poetry workshop (and even more so online, when the tone of remarks can so easily be misinterpreted).

Very sadly, she died, aged just 62, a couple of weeks back, and was buried this week. The full story is here.

It's heartening to see, both on the comments after the story, and at Eratosphere, that she's so fondly remembered. She was a really fine writer of both formal and free verse, but spent far more time and effort helping improve other people's poetry than trying to get her own published, so it would be great if her work could eventually be collected and published.