Tuesday, 22 June 2010

Tradition | Poetry | Simon Says

‘The jacket does not at first refer to Seeing Stars as containing “poems”, but eventually relents, and uses the p-word. If you have a very loose definition of “poem”, you’ll concur. I make it seven poems and 32 fictions.’
-Bill Greenwell, The Independent

“Are they poems, or prose poems, or flash fiction? I’m not sure, but they’re very more-ish.”
-Paul Batchelor, The Guardian

‘Is it a dog? Is it a horse? Or is it a poem by Simon Armitage? To say these poems resist classification is an understatement”
-Kate Kellaway, The Observer

Good art leaves us with more questions than answers. When we read a book, see a film, hear a band or watch a play that we particularly enjoy, we instinctively go and find out what the critics thought. We do this for a variety of reasons; partly because we want to find out if we were ‘right’, if our opinions are congruent with the people who are paid to have opinions, partly to see if there is anything that we missed and partly because it is uniquely pleasing to have our reactions enriched by other perspectives.

I shall tie my colours to the mast here – I particularly enjoyed Simon Armitage’s latest collection, Seeing Stars. I enjoyed it so much that I took it on a night out last Saturday and was secretly very happy whenever the lady I was with needed to go off to the bathroom, not because of the quality of her company, but because it meant that I could read a bit more of Armitage’s witty, idiosyncratic new collection. I woke up the next morning feeling fairly rough around 6AM, incredibly glad that I was awake bright and early so that I could have an undisturbed run at finishing off the last 20 pages before the day had even properly begun.

That said, I was left with the exact same question that every reviewer to touch the book seemed to be asking – ‘is this poetry?’ Let’s take an exemplary opening section, from the poem Knowing What We Know Now:

‘The elf said to Kevin, ‘You’re probably wondering why
I’m sitting here at your breakfast table this morning,
helping myself to your condiments, Kevin, I’m here to
make you a very special offer – let’s call it a once-in-a-
lifetime opportunity. Today you’re forty-four years and
thirty-six days old, and that’s exactly how long you’ve got
left! …’

When I spoke to my friend about my ‘is this poetry?’ conundrum (the friend whose bathroom breaks afforded me time to read more Armitage) she said “well it certainly looks like poetry.” And she was right. Go stand a few steps away from your screen… that chunk of Knowing What We Know Now is an absolute dead ringer for a bit of poetry.

But then this is purely cosmetic – the only consideration for the line-breaks appears to be the aesthetic of making the lines look even, for there is no sign of a meter or stress-pattern or any of your lyrical hallmarks. We’re not dealing with blank verse, free verse, fixed form, OuLiPo, calligrams or any of the old faithfuls that would usually help me bullshit my way through a review.

The best-fitting hat for this particular collection would appear to be ‘prose poetry’ for the mellifluous, fictional absurdity of the various vignettes at play in the collection – but even this is somewhat out the window as Armitage has gone to great trouble to line-break his work into the shape of verse.

Line-breaks or otherwise, the collection is still ideologically rooted in the prose poem tradition. Consider this passage on the subject of prose poetry from Luke Kennard’s excellent phd thesis, The Expanse: Self-Consciousness and the Transatlantic Prose Poem (many thanks for the author’s kind permissions):

When I first started writing about the prose poem I was drawn specifically to what I perceived to be its many authors’ sense of humour. Everything I read, from Charles Baudelaire’s Petit Poèmes En Prose to John Ash’s The Goodbyes engaged me first by making me laugh. Seeing as this wasn’t humour of the “set-up and punchline” variety – and that laughter in itself isn’t a considered critical reaction – I realised early on that I was going to have to formulate this response. Gradually it emerged that what I was really reacting to was self-consciousness, which is not necessarily a quality we aspire to in writing or life. Nevertheless, humour in the prose poem seemed to arise from a writer making a deliberate mistake: a metaphor which oversteps its own correlation; a situation woefully (if wilfully) misread or inverted; a self-deprecating aside after a sophisticated and complex passage; even a tacit admission that the very act of writing poetry feels somehow pretentious.”

I cannot think of a better introduction to the rich tradition behind both Kennard’s work and this latest offering from Armitage. Consider this idea of the “tacit admission that the very act of writing poetry feels somehow pretentious” as you read this section from Armitage’s My Difference:

‘I’ve been writing a lot of poems recently about my
difference but my tutor isn’t impressed. He hasn’t said as
much, yet it’s clear that as far as he’s concerned my
difference doesn’t cut much ice. He wants me to dress my
difference with tinsel and bells and flashing lights, or sit it
on a float and drive it through town at the head of the May
Day Parade. ‘Tell me one interesting fact about your
difference,’ he says, so I tell him about the time I lost my
difference down the plughole in a Bournemouth guesthouse
and had to fish it back with a paperclip on a length of
dental floss.’

So, in response to the satellite question, currently orbiting this collection – yes, it is poetry. And not just because I found it in the poetry section of Foyles. And not just because Simon Armitage wrote it. In eschewing the aurality of lyric poetry, the patterns of fixed forms or the margin-hugging shape of prose poetry, Armitage has left himself free to soak up a less worn out combination of elements from various traditions such as surrealism and satire.

If you like your deadpan wackiness and have a hankering for something that will leave you humming and giggling in equal measure, or if you simply can’t be bothered waiting for the next Luke Kennard or Ross Sutherland collections to come out, then you need to buy this book. Was this a review? Discuss.

Phil Brown
Poetry Editor

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