vErIsImIlItUdE (Ramsgate) 2015. 76pp
I’VE REVIEWED BOTH Simon Smith and Steve Ely recently (here and here) and their new books confirm what I found then: Simon Smith’s free-running obliquity powered by wit and perceptiveness, and Steve Ely’s alliterative drive powered by a sense of outraged injustice, battles and names, gospels of class warfare. But I wanted to bring them together now because they make an instructive comparison and both of the new books focus on “England” as a place to make you very angry, which is shared with a lot of other poets, especially the young and “innovative”. Navy contains two texts, the first a long poem called “England, A Fragment” and the second, “Navy”, a group of poems with much the same concerns, even repeating sections of the first poem—all concerning the condition of England. Englaland is about nothing else, in a more historical perspective. I don’t quite know how I manage to admire both of them when they seem in many ways to be deeply opposed to each other, but I do.
So we have here two angry poets complaining about the state of England, but disagreeing almost completely about what constitutes this “England” and what is happening to it, and also disagreeing about the forms of poetry which can address it. Smith’s position is adequately indicated by the quotation from John James which serves as an epigram to the book: “but it’s wonderful to wake up & know that / despite everything / France is still there”. England on the other hand is “dead space”—it is the worst place to be, not in terms of well-being exactly, but in political terms as they weigh oppressively on personal senses. The failure of English politics and the triumph of commercialism are felt as sources of a constant sense of disappointment and anger, a constant unavoidable witnessing of injustice and corruption, and everything’s getting worse all the time. France is there as conceptual escape from this, invoked in red wine or the distant lights of Calais across the Channel (the writing is all set on the south-east coast where Smith lives), though at one point France has been “defeated” by trainloads of English returning from Disneyland on the high-speed train. For Ely France means primarily William the Conqueror (known mainly as William the Bastard), an invading, colonising enemy who defeated England by a fluke, captured it and shared it out among his friends and relatives, who then subjected the English to brutal oppression, and who form the basis of a landed aristocracy which is still in power under shifted terms, and still dedicated enthusiastically to oppression, by budget if not by the sword. The valid population is, then, the Anglo-Saxon one, identified currently with the deprived and brutalised northern working classes. Englaland is a shifting chronicle of this occupation, a catalogue of the acts of brutality and injustice done under its power and uprisings against it, from the Battle of Brunanburh to the destruction of the manufacturing and extraction industries in the mid-1980s. To Smith the Anglo-Saxon invasion is probably directly responsible for establishing the horror which is England now, and it is suggested that they be sent home.
But none of this is poetry. It is belief, opinion, politics. Both poets have a developed skill in writing instrumental poetry, which is to say they are persuasive in broadcasting their beliefs, but it becomes necessary to separate the beliefs from the poetry, which is especially difficult with Ely because his poems are full of a passionate conviction which is integral to their creation.
Smith’s writing is a fragmented monologue which picks up its content from his immediate environment, tracing thoughts, readings and apprehensions, as he drifts through the day noticing signs of decadence and failure. It is a scenario of disconnected items, each loaded with alienation. But it is not a declaration of belief so much as a dismayed response to the country’s decline, and it is an internationalist and secular poetry as against the sacred native gospels and chronicles of Ely, many of which are accounts of battles of one kind or another. Narrative is at the heart of Ely’s poetry in an archaic alliterative mode of tribal declaration, an emphatic performance enacting a history. It depends on the muscular power of the poetry, whereas Smith depends on quick movement and reflective alertness.
IT IS OF COURSE always worrying when poets get involved in politics, especially poets committed to Modernist or innovative writing, as both of these poets are in their ways, mainly because the urge to verbal innovation seems to push poets towards extremes of belief and questionable observation. Strong positions are demanded, which can produce an unreasoned and sometimes uninformed rhetoric, but the poetry is held to justify the politics, which is not independently thought out. Ely’s position is extremist from the start, and it governs the poetry, which is made to seem the only medium by which such beliefs could be represented, though poets particularly honoured by Ely, such as Ted Hughes and Geoffrey Hill, kept their politics largely under their hats.1 Navy is not altogether a typical Smith product2, and it transcends his normal suaveness a number of times. One is when, mentioning one of the main occasions of the poem, the visit of UKIP to the town he lives in, he refers to them as UKKK, which is very much a modern-poetry sleight-of-hand in which the language leads the politics, for in fact the Klu Klux Klan is not at all like UKIP in either its beliefs or its acts, and arose from very different historical and social conditions. This brings him to asking (and remember this was written before the recent so-called “general election”)—
_____‘what do the people
___________of Kent actually want?’
would it be quite wrong
_____to write a beautiful book
___________in these ugliest of ugly times?3
This adaption of Adorno’s famous remark about poetry and the Holocaust delocalises the writing in an alarming way; the threat of UKIP could be serious (I’m more inclined to view it as a joke) but it is not the Holocaust itself. When he writes in dismay of “the light quite depleted / the day already lost. . . ” and we ask, lost to what, what are the forces which are banishing the very daylight from our lives? the answer is “markets & account”. Would it be fair to call this “romantic bohemianism”? Smith is also less confident than usual when, finding there is no help to be gained from poetry he adapts a well-known remark of Auden’s (to me meaningless, always has been) which in its totalising declaratory mode seems to go far beyond what is called for, though he does well to go on to be more specific –
& all the poetries of the World
____won’t change the World
________ the sloganised rant
or the poets of academe
__________pus ça change, plus c’est la même chose
But how to change the World is not the question we encounter in Navy, which is the testimony of a particular person to the signs of ill he finds in his back yard. These instances of transgression are cruxes of interpretation, because I’m sure that Smith knows perfectly well what he is doing there and how he is breaking the mode he has set up and creating impossible equations. This raises the possibility of a speaker’s voice which is not Smith’s, but not sufficiently distinct as to cast the whole poem as a fictive monologue. There are contrary episodes of staged naivety, as when he characterises the enemy, whether UKIP members or bankers, “most of these people / are just not nice people” and launches off again into the varieties of living and their depressing shadows. This inconsistency of persona is probably perfectly deliberate, and most likely the voice remains that of Smith himself but a Smith not bound to consistency of person or thought, a Smith who jumps from being a puzzled bystander to being a revolutionary agitator in two or three lines. If I’m right, and I prefer to read it this way, it is a semi-dramatic summation of the self-conflicting positions any concerned witness of current English politics is necessarily put through, shown in a voice which is both Smith and not-Smith but not consistently or evenly, liable at any time to lurch in any direction away from pure Smithness. Ely’s voice, on the other hand, is at any point Ely himself or one of the parallel not-Elys he has elected to become, but whoever it is they all sing in the same key.
I HAVE SAID MORE about Smith than Ely, because I find Navy particularly revealing in this context, beyond personal considerations, whereas Ely’s book confirms impressively the unique position he has established for himself, and does so more fully and in greater variety of genres than his first book, including a dramatic scenario in which the “swinish multitude” are courted for recruitment by opposed sides in a conflict which they finally reject, and a fairly horrific narrative in couplets about men boxing each other to the point of blindness and death. He deals always in the larger structures and the book is sectioned to form major thematic divisions, always giving a sense of completion and a dramatic thrust so powerful that whether you “agree” with his view of England seems beside the point.
The opposition between these two poets goes beyond a difference of opinion about English history and has the makings of an entire cultural rift. As such it is a good deal more interesting than (but participates in) the old, boring and endlessly iterated conflict between “innovative” or Modernist on the one hand, and mainstream or conventional poetry on the other, accounts of which from either side are normally distorting in their representations of the opposition, sometimes violently so, and which anyway is showing signs of wearing thin. Here we have two actual belief structures set against each other, tied to two very different cultural positions, native and internationalist, both of which, of course, could have negative aspects and arguably do at times in both books. The cultural resources Smith appeals to for a sense of hope or relief now and then (John James, Philip Guston, Debussy, Evan Parker and others) are not available to Ely because his focus is more ideologically distinct and localised. Instead he barrages us with names which are far from the common repertoire, and are thrust out as a challenge, to reveal our foreshortened sense of what has taken place. These names include not only Northumbrian kings but also Islamic assassins, miners’ leaders, names from local graveyards and others, as the central mediaeval thesis is echoed in further instances of oppression, struggle, and defeat. It is difficult to imagine how Smith could drop the name “Arthur Scargill” into a poem, whether as hero or villain. When you consider that these two opposed world-views (which they almost are) are projected through two very different ways of writing poetry occupying different traditions and anchored in far different sites, it looks like something far beyond the skills of ACAS to mend.
But I think the division is healed, and not just in a few evident convergences, as when Ely cites Bunting as well as Geoffrey Hill, and in his densely name-ridden poems sounds quite like the Pound of The Cantos, similarly refusing to contextualise. The meeting lies in a sense of the presence of modern poetry itself, which transgresses their opposed notions of what their own poetries are. There’s a whole thesis to be written on this (unfashionable) concept, and I’m not going to elaborate it here, except to say, vaguely enough, that there is a convergence, and a complementarity, in the reading acts elicited by these texts, which share a form of attention to the word and a willingness to trust it which results from the realisation of an active and essentially poetic intelligence in both cases. This is not just an appeal to “the nature of poetry” but involves the specific modernity of both poets, that they do not explain themselves but rather create a substantive texture, a grammar of events, places and names forming a theatre in which their shouted complaints are appeals to a sense of reality beyond the walls. Their modernity doesn’t let them snare the reader in strings of consecutive sentences which steer elliptically back to the poet-self, but they are intensively and objectively engaged in story (Smith too in his way) and song (Ely too in his way), and for all the anger, both create a kind of entertainment by default. This is what happens in poetry when it is properly gained: Ely’s bloody battles and tales of political deceit become fairy stories; Smith’s tableaux of dismay become pastoral idylls. I’m not saying we don’t take them seriously: we do all the more because we are dawn into and enmeshed in them, by an attraction that we don’t understand.
THE PITY IS A COLLECTION put together by The Poetry Society to mark the centenary of the First World War. Five poets were asked to write a “sustained response” to the war. They are, of course, separated from any experience of it by at least two generations, and they address it, if at all, through its results, historically or individually. All are sincere and adept, but three particularly drew my attention. Steve Ely’s eight poems form an entire and coherent sequence concerning oppression and persecution of populations, which is how he sees the War, from Israel in Egypt to present-day Islam, all in the substantive rhetorical manner we would expect. The central section on the War itself, as we also might expect, spares the reader nothing in its detailing, especially that of the bodily functions of a man who has lost both arms and both legs, the grimmest of its kind I can think of.4 He also exploits explicitly the long-term results of the War, which embrace far more than the 1939–45 war.5 Denise Riley’s nine poems are concerned with critique of post-war memorial sloganning and other devices of false comfort designed to mask the reality, such as a feature in Vogue on elegant and fashionable forms of mourning dress, but they are also involved in larger-scale considerations of bereavement. A number of the poems are in a crude rhyming quatrain format which she associates with “music-hall jingles” of the period but which reads to me more like amateur verse-making at almost any time. Pound wrote in a similar way in the 1910s. Warsan Shire writes of her own parental war (Cameroon, 1980s, itself a product of 1914–18) but she certainly can write.
MARIANNE MORRIS’S WAY of writing has changed in recent years in favour of a more direct relationship between language and experience. I think that her wish now is to create an accurate account of what happens in the world through a poetry of specific personal experience, a serious and ecstatic writing from the self outwards. Anger is at the heart of it: the reach out towards the world is inscribed almost constantly as an invective against the world’s inimical forces, which are identified from source out. Face-to-face social or sexual encounters are traced outwards without limit, until they become global lapses. I can’t see any clear attempt to trace good in the world—it is as if she thinks there isn’t any. The poetry is entirely first-person and issues forth realisations in experience of what I won’t go so far as to call “evil” but at least pervasive wilful damage, in big and small, as (rather like Simon Smith) she goes about her day-to-day life. The difference is in the poetic language which must not fully declare itself. The scope is too large to be dealt with by statement, or such use of language would itself contribute to the harm. Instead she contorts language itself into weird and impossible formulations. This operation on language says that the harm is total and constant, which puts the reader in something of a fix: he/she is told, rather angrily, that all is wrong but in a language which is too phantasmagorical to refer to any harm in particular except linguistic harm, which is indeed at the heart of the matter, especially in its gender implications. To start at the easier end of the scale, one poem (‘de Sade’s Law’) begins
Amongst the angels that season frog-tying was the cool thing to
do and they would exchange. Frog ties which were long green
strips made from dead frogs, the skin cured and moulded until
___________They were expensive because everyone wanted one.
They were inexpensive because everyone had one.
They were expensive because everyone had one.
This is fine pointed comedy at the same time as sermonising, especially as it goes on from this satire on commercialism and its victims to leap into politics, aesthetics and widespread harm in general, as the language gets thicker and thicker and more and more violent. Figures and instances (enemies) are jammed together, producing, among others, a figure called “Jimmy Blair” who “doesn’t give a shit about injustice on a world scale”. An amalgam of Tony Blair and Jimmy Saville (which I take it to be) is meaningless unless all harm, sexual, political, commercial or anything, is one harm. That it is, is a fundamental belief in this whole dynamic and virtuosic line in recent British poetry, deriving ultimately from Cambridge poetry and sometimes almost explicitly proclaiming its belief in the corruption of the entire globe or the Fall of Man (perhaps not so categorically in Morris’s case).
Always someone is under attack and the difficulty is in identifying him (usually a he) in any way operable in the real world. The masked personae and the strong tone of blame inevitably make the reader feel that it is himself (or even herself) who is to blame, along with everyone else. But if we accept that blame, as we perhaps should, we still don’t see a way out of it. This is basically the same difficulty as that of untangling the knotted webs of invective which are not held to the realities of commercial or political worlds, and being left with nothing but a raw hatred of all concerned. This is to say that authorial sensation is privileged above objectivity.
But the texture of the writing is highly elastic and remarkably volatile, and more commonly than scenarios such as the frog ties episode, is cast as an argumentative statement to an individual or a question asked of experience, which the reader has to disentangle from all the contorted language. The opening of the poem “Turquoise”:
not knowing anything or her name. Rich
susurration of words at soil’s thumby reach
and he gluey gibbers, love is here love has
still remained and nothing is mine alone.
Walks that brief mountain repeatedly, up
in four and down in seven repeatedly, God
ot’s black mirage its culmination never to
This is a comparatively mild passage but it is clear here and much more so elsewhere that an acquiescence is demanded of the reader, in order to be a willing witness to a cri de coeur which is full of passionate intensity within its resentment, and does not really take the figure of the reader into consideration. Hence all the unanswerable questions in which private or contextual details are folded into the text which may or may not extend to a recognisable sense. There is hardly a line without a problem: “her name” (whose name?), “thumby reach”, “gluey gibbers”, “brief mountain”, four and seven, and the Beckett reference, scissored to what purpose? (I would have thought the original Godot a better invocation here than the Deity). We know that any questions we ask about these out-of-control figurations, are not going to be answered, indeed it is as if the speaker is not in a condition to deal with questions, being so harassed by . . . by what? men? humanity? language? God? . . . In any event the reading of the world is undoubtedly negative in this passage, ending in a dark hopelessness.
The On All Said Things Moratorium is her first collection and goes back ten years or more. It establishes Morris’s poetry as a bold and ambitious venture offering to recognise and clarify the presence of widespread structures of harm in our slightest acts and thoughts, especially in emotional linguistic currency, in the form of a critique. There is an insistence that the slightest gesture, especially in the field of interpersonal relationships but elsewhere too, bears an immense weight of commercial, philosophical and political matter which is blameworthy, because it is an acquiescence to an endemically corrupt and mercilessly unjust society, to which there is no alternative. This is not an observation but an ideology, on which the poetry rests its case. There is no way out of this and inevitably we are left with a locked pessimism.
THERE IS A GREAT VARIETY in this book, alongside a great and stubborn singularity, a lot of it governed by a verbally focused academic feminism. The persistence is in the concepts, which as motivations lie outside the poetry; the variety is in the writing itself, which however pessimistic the messages obviously shows the author taking delight (a fiendish delight) in all kinds of verbal and poetical fireworks, defiant knots and wild gigues. Once she gets going she builds up a lot of energy which is liable to break out in things as far away from diatribe as Dada-esque word-play (“The traumas reproduce / a diffuse truce; reduce puce with chartreuse / misuse, the traumas reproduce / Zeus mousse / seduce Zeus, Zeus caboose.”—though even this is not without possible sinister implications.) Marianne Morris’s poetry can best be read as a performance, like watching some high-speed modern dance, by someone like Pina Bausch, with events and attitudes and pronouns running all over the stage as fast as they can trying not to crash into each other, picking each other up and flinging them to each other, and sometimes standing still slowly performing acts which defeat understanding. This is to say that the anger which I assume to dictate the substance does work itself into an impressive display of poetical virtuosity, crammed with all sorts of rants, swearing and curses, violations of grammar, soliloquies and near-surrealist anecdotes, morality tales which inflate at the end into bursting balloons.
This kind of performance seems to inform all her poetry as does the downward slide into defeat at endings. But I’ve noticed one or two short poems, which I assume to be recent though I don’t know the chronology, which at least set out with head high and actually say what the question is in a form of directness which I find very refreshing, though this optimism doesn’t necessarily reach to the end of the poem—
TOO MUCH IN THE SUN
what is a means to access a force of good
to seek to be a strive for a
force to good meaning
nothing you can try
with conviction anyway
failing in whomsoever’s
deep into whomsoever’s
I don’t know why an honestly spoken desire should necessarily fail. Is it because its language is close to common speech and there is no commonalty left so the plea is meaningless? Is it because David Cameron is not listening to me? The closest to a rationale is the beard at the end which of course is a sign of the male so it is another gender sally, it is because men govern. I wouldn’t mind that so much, but “meaning nothing” is a bitter blow. We are actually denied the right to good, purposeful speech.
A more comprehensive and less defeatist view of her whole aesthetic is given in a prose piece, one of several with the same title—
ALL I HAVE IS THE BODY TO GO ON
Everything has always been this way. There is no greater allocation of suffering, no greater allocation of injustice. The lies are not less easy to believe. The fact of this is neither comforting nor consoling; the point is not to comfort or console, but to know how to approach living in the eye of a permanent storm with as much grace and ease as can be summoned, whether in the subtle psychology of belief or in the overt psychology of struggle, when the possibilities of sadness are immense and irrefutable—sadness is irrefutable—what can be refuted is this urge to take myself seriously.
You don’t have to accept the Calvinist world-view to see here the ground of a strong-willed, inventive, impassioned and dedicated poetry capable also of displays of sharply pointed wit, which is what we get. The concessions at the end to “sadness” and the distancing self-awareness are redemptive.
I have no final verdict on this book. It is the work of a highly skilled poet desperately concerned about the state of things, with whom (to my loss, no doubt) I cannot share the governing principles. What most encourages me is that there are a few poems in the book which show signs of a wish for peace of mind.
As a respite, my next column will be on “Poets, calm“.
Peter Riley, the poetry editor of The Fortnightly Review‘s New Series, is a former editor of Collection, and the author of fifteen books of poetry (including The Glacial Stairway [Carcanet, 2011]) – and some of prose. He lives in Yorkshire and is the recipient of a 2012 Cholmondeley Award for poetry.
Peter Riley’s latest book is Due North (UK/US) (Shearsman, 2015). A collection of his “Poetry Notes’ columns appears in The Fortnightly Reviews: Poetry Notes 2012-2014, published in 2015 by Odd Volumes, our imprint.
- There is a poem by Ted Hughes entitled “Crow’s Song about England” (1977) which makes it clear that England is pretty-well the source of all ills, but it is all given out in pseudo-mythical figures which make any direct meaning impossible. I guess that later the position of poet laureate made open rebellion difficult. ↩
- “I don’t normally do this agit-prop stuff” Smith said in a Facebook communication ↩
- All of “England, a Fragment” is set in this pattern of stepped triplets, derived from William Carlos Williams’ later work and probably forming in itself an appeal to America alongside that to France as redemptive distances, reinforced by references to Philip Guston’s later cartoon-like paintings, especially those depicting the Klu Klux Klan costume. ↩
- Except perhaps Blaise Cendrars, J’ai saigné. Like Ted Hughes, Ely often shows a certain relish in plunging the reader into all the physical details. ↩
- Ely (like Denise Riley) supplies quite extensive self-commentary and clarification of the poems in The Pity. Such intervention would have been welcome in Englaland where quite a lot of the text depends on recognition of persons and events with which not everybody is familiar. He reveals that one of the poems is spoken by Hitler, which is indeed “obvious” as he says, but I managed to miss it the first time through and found Ely apparently saying some unwelcome things about Jewry. ↩