And look! It actually IS Thursday! A triumph! Anyway… here’s what I’ve been reading this week.
Alan Massie, Surviving
A murky and complex tale of murder, addiction and the risks behind getting involved with strangers. Part murder mystery, part morality tale, part sequel (the book features Belinda, the heroine of one of Massie’s previous works, and is set in contemporary Rome, obviously a favourite setting of his), Surviving follows the fortunes of a group of dysfunctional ex-pats pulled together by their Alcoholics Anonymous group. The book is an interesting study into relationships built on nothing more than a shared addiction, and it raises questions about morality and trust at every turn. Unfortunately, however, I was kind of turned off by Massie’s characters. The book is excellently written and Rome is minutely and affectionately depicted (to the point where I now want to go and live there!), but the characters came across as unrealistic and fantastical — all of them troubled ex-alcoholics, but all of them living serene, job-free, rich and glamorous lives in Rome? Really? As a result I just couldn’t get a handle on the book and found myself increasingly irritated by the unfolding plot, rather than drawn in. A book I may return to (you know how sometimes you feel “I didn’t get this, but I might if I read it again”?), but not one I would recommend…
Rachel Cusk, The Bradshaw Variations
A bittersweet and slightly strange family saga, following the fortunes of three brothers and their families as they negotiate middle-age, marriage and parenthood (yeah, sounds like a terrible British sitcom, I know. Bear with me). Thomas, the novel’s protagonist, is delightfully frustrating and highly elusive – Cusk skilfully sketches his character in such a way that the reader is desperate to understand him but never seems able to. Does Thomas love his family at all? Is he actually gay? Why is he so detached from everything but his piano lessons? Cusk’s main intention seems to be to point out that even the most ordinary – indeed, even the most boring (as all the characters’ lives are by turn ordinary and just plain dull) – of people can be fascinating when only a small snippet of their personality is revealed. The characters in the novel are beautifully drawn, and the power-struggles between husbands and wives, mothers and daughters (Thomas’ bitchy mother-in-law is fabulously hateful) and brothers and sisters are brilliantly realised. However, the novel is essentially plotless and ultimately pointless as its dedication to depicting ‘real life’ means there can be no climax, no big reveal; so for all the Bradshaws, life just goes on. A beautiful and accomplished piece of literary fiction, and surprisingly gripping for a book where very little is challenged or resolved. The kind of book I sort of wish I could write — one that really sounds like real life, but manages not to be boring. Well done, Rachel Cusk!
I’ve also been reading/encountering a lot of Marty McConnell lately, but that’s for another post. What about you?
OK, where better to start than with a rant, eh? Why oh WHY has this trend for whimsical, naive book covers come along, set up camp and refused to move on? I am really sick of being instantly put off a book because it has a cover that looks like it belongs on the front of something written for the female 8-12 age bracket. STOP IT, publishers! I mean, look at this cover. There are FAIRIES IN THE TREES. I mean it’s pretty, yes, but if you read the book, you’ll see how off-base the cover really is. Gah!
OK, there. Rant over. On to the book itself…
I’m seeing a pattern here, but as usual, I was not expecting to like this novel. The cover, as you may have already gathered, had a lot to do with it. But the person who wrote the back cover blurb should also be sacked (I think they were trying to mirror the book’s own stop-start, staccato narrative, but they just sounded a bit silly). Basically, I eventually gathered that it’s a modern take on the classic Gothic novel… and imagining a bastardization of all the Gothic books I’ve ever loved (why can people not just leave Wuthering Heights alone?!), I held my nose and prepared for horrors.
It’s actually not that bad. It’s not utterly fabulous and I probably won’t read it again, but it’s A Good Read. The story’s protagonist is supposedly the absent Lily — killed while undertaking aid work (I think; this is never made very clear) in Haiti. The four narrative ‘voices’ (promised by the blurb anyway — I only counted two, or possibly three, myself) are actually her children, twins Eliot and Miranda, her husband Luc, and their big creepy ghostly supernatural house/B&B, which not only talks but also eats people.
I say ’supposedly’ because I actually think the real protagonist is Miranda — her storyline is dominant, and I was far more interested in what she had to say than anything to do with her mother, who at times felt a bit like a cariacature… her absence allows Oyeyemi the freedom to be lazy in terms of depicting her, and you can sometimes feel that. Miranda on the other hand is very vivid, and fascinating — she suffers from pica, a rare eating disorder where the sufferer is compelled to eat inedible objects. I liked the way Oyeyemi used Miranda to strike a balance between traditional Gothic themes and contemporary female concerns. I also like the subversion of the Big House theme from Gothic literature — traditionally, the Gothic protagonist is trapped in a Big House which seems to be somehow alive and plotting against them. Here, the house really is alive, really is plotting against Miranda (and everyone else for that matter) — it’s also muscling in on telling the story, the ultimate unreliable narrator. That was the main thing I liked about this novel — on the surface, it was just a rather weird, dark little tale. Underneath, though, it was quietly really rather clever.
I was surprised to see people lining up to criticise this book on Amazon, though I guess I can see why people might not like it. It’s dressed up in a pretty cover and looks like a cosy, quirky little book. In fact, it’s bloody dark and more than a bit difficult. The narration is very staccato, fragmented and sometimes needlessly weird (single words hanging in the middle of the page for absolutely no reason, etc), and the ever-present-but-never-present Lily is actually more sacharine than intriguing. However, I’m assuming that the OMG-I’d-have-given-it-zero-stars-if-I-could brigade are missing the intertextuality and clever little nods to classic Gothic… because no matter what you think of the original/annoying (delete as appropriate) narration, you can’t get away from Oyeyemi’s skillful use of both.
Loads of Liz Lochhead
I’m also currently reading loads of Liz Lochhead poetry and Liz-Lochead-related theory for my PhD thesis. I have absolutely loved Lochhead since I first read her aged about fourteen — she never fails to inspire me and every time I pick up one of her books I notice something new about a certain phrase, stanza or poem that had never occurred to me before. Right now I am writing in detail about her highly intriguing poem ‘Almost Miss Scotland’, one of only a few Big Poems of hers I’d never seen until this recent foray. She’s so much fun to read and even more fun to write about… plus she’s one of only a few Famous Poets that I’d really like to ask out for a cup of tea and a chat. I bet Liz would be great craic! If you’ve never read any of her stuff or haven’t really paid much attention to her before now, go hunt her out. She’s brilliant — and like the Beatles, her ouvre offers something for everyone, so if you don’t like one collection, try the next one. They’re all refreshingly different!
If you’re already a fan of Liz, then head to the comments box and tell me this: what is your favourite poem of hers? You may end up mentioned in my thesis!
Sorry for the lack of TiRT post last week… Other Stuff got in the way, as is often the case. I have been nosy to hear about your escapades in the land of literature though, so please do let me know how your own reading is going in the comments box!
Various poetry books
The past two weeks I have been dipping in and out of a variety of poetry books in search of inspiration. First up, Sharon Olds’ Satan Says, her first collection, published in 1980 (I think). It’s an absolutely gorgeous book with its glossy red cover, and for some reason it came wrapped in cellophane which made it even more exciting. And of course it is full of the usual no-nonsense, straight-talking, thought-provoking and awesome stuff I’ve come to expect from Ms Olds. However, reading it I could feel that this was her first collection — the poems feel just ever so slightly less assured than her later work. I absolutely love her collection The Unswept Room, and think by this point (2003) she’d really grown into her voice. Satan Says feels just a little tentative… but that adds something new that I’d never before encountered in Olds’ poetry. Normally she’s so commanding, so sure of herself, so it was surprising and pleasant to glimpse a little something different. I am also in love with whatever typeface is used for the book’s “chapter” headings — if anyone has a copy and could tell me what it is, I’d be eternally grateful!
Next up is Samantha Wynne Rhydderch and her collection Not In These Shoes. I desperately wanted to like these poems, I really really really did. So many of them started off on a lovely trajectory, but I found so many times that I reached the end of them feeling a little disappointed, I’m afraid. Rhydderch has some truly fabulous ideas — you know, the kinds of ideas you curse yourself for not having thought of first — and every so often she’ll execute one to absolute perfection (her poem ‘Oyster Forks,’ for example, which was my firm favourite of the lot). However, all too often I was left thinking “yes, but what about…?” or “I wouldn’t have said it was like that, exactly…” Basically, I was often left wanting more at the end of a poem. Maybe this is Rhydderch’s trick? I kept reading after all. But I was left dissatisfied. I think it might have something to do with the language in these poems — it seems to want to be lush, poetic, unusual, original… but it’s almost as if Rhydderch is holding back for fear of going OTT. There are odd little phrases that are just delicious, really inventive — but they’re buried in the middle of an otherwise sparse and bland stanza, often. I can appreciate poets who don’t believe in linguistic fireworks and like to just say what they mean — Sharon Olds often takes this line, in fact. But Rhydderch’s pieces seemed to fall into an uncomfortable gap between the two extremes. As you can probably tell, I am still a bit bemused by it… I think it will be one of those collections I come back to and suddenly “get” at a later date. I hope so anyway.
And finally, there’s Paul Farley’s Tramp In Flames. I bought two Paul Farley collections last summer — this one and The Boy From The Chemist Is Here To See You — and I’ve been deliberately saving them because I knew they’d be damn awesome. And they are, if the first quarter of Tramp In Flames is anything to go by. Farley has an uncanny way of describing ordainary things; he really can make you see the everyday in a totally new way, which is a rare and special talent. “Rain thick as diesel slicking the windows” is a line from The Front, the first poem of the collection — at about this line I new I was onto a winner with this book. That poem is really brilliant actually — Farley turns a cloud into a gunship, a giant bird’s nest, a geological phenomenon… it’s awesome, in the true sense of the word! I haven’t read many of the other pieces as I’m savouring this one, but I can tell already I’m going to really love Farley’s stuff.
OK, now you! Tell me what you’ve been poring over and perusing this past week! Also, I know I need to announce the Lianne Strauss giveaway winner… I’ll do it asap! Watch this space!
What is the current state of poetry? Opinion is apparently pretty polarised. Ask one person and they’ll say “poetry’s irrelevant, no one reads that stuff anymore.” Ask the next person you meet and they’ll say “poetry will never die.” I’ve also heard answers like “only school and university courses are keeping poetry alive,” “rap is the poetry of today,” and “poetry isn’t relevant which is why no one reads it any more.”
Last year there was a lot of kerfuffle happening over poetry audiences — Newsweek reported that readers were turning away from poetry in droves, which led to a lot of “is this the end?” kind of stuff. This whole is-poetry-dead thing is nothing new — Martin talk-first-think-later Amis read poetry’s obituary at the 2007 Hay Festival, for example. And hey, as a poet, this stuff is quite disconcerting — particularly when you have jerks writing articles titled “Poetry is Dead. Does anyone really care?”, and claiming that in order to understand a poem, you have to “read [it] 20 times before the sound and sense of it takes hold.” There’s a lot of doom-mongering and mass generalisation out there, folks. But what about the flip side? What’s the optimist’s view?
Let’s talk about my mother (don’t worry, I’m not going to get all Freudian on you). My mother is your average modern careerwoman — house, car, cat, two kids at Uni, seriously high-pressure public sector job with a lot of responsibility, aging relatives to worry about, bills to pay, etc etc. Unsurprisingly, she does not read poetry. Like many people, she doesn’t really read anything, except for the odd novel when she’s on holiday or has a long train journey to endure. I am pretty sure my mother would not pick up a poetry book of her own volition (I just bully her into it sometimes), regardless of the pretty cover or delights promised in the blurb. HOWEVER, my mother firmly believes that right now, we are all living through poetry’s Golden Age.
When she first said this to me I have to admit, I scoffed. I rolled my eyes and thought ‘if only you knew,’ and carried on moaning about the state of literature and how Martin Amis is probably right (ouch) and blah blah blah. However, over the past few months, she’s worked on me. And I have to say, her argument is kind of interesting…
I won’t say how long my mother’s been on this planet, but it’s long enough to Know About Stuff. And as she points out, people not buying poetry books is really NOT A NEW THING. She points out that at school and growing up, she never knew anyone who had (or at least, admitted to) an interest in poetry — in fact, no one really knew anything about it, apart from what they were taught in class. As for the generation above her… well, my gran would never have had the time to read a book of any kind, and would have thought reading was a lazy waste of good cooking/cleaning/gardening/knitting time anyway. Poetry was for academics, students and schoolteachers. She wouldn’t, she says, even have really known how to go about accessing poetry if she’d wanted to. Did it come in books? At the time, all she really knew was that poetry got chalked up on the blackboard at school, and she had to memorise it. As for poets, they were people like Wordsworth and Colderidge — they’d died a long time ago and now had their pictures put on Kendal mint cake packets, and Americans occasionally came into my grandpa’s paper shop looking for souvenirs to do with them. No one my mother knew ever claimed to be a poet, or even to know one. There were no poetry readings, no writer’s workshops, no creative writing MAs, and no small presses. You think poetry’s bad now? she says. It’s only recently that it started to exist!
Her favourite argument is this: if poetry’s so dead, why the hell does everyone suddenly want to use it to sell things? She makes the point that poetry has never really been used in adverts until very recently. OK sure, advertising has always used rhyme and catchphrase, but that stuff’s written by copy-editors. It’s pretty new to have Actual Poets being commissioned to write Actual Poems, or for an advertiser to use an Actual Poem by a Famous Dead Poet to sell their stuff. She will then proceed to rattle off a list of current adverts using poems. Check it out:
This poetry-is-on-TV-all-the-time-and-that-has-to-be-a-good-thing argument was seriously fuelled by the BBC’s recent season of shows on poetry, in which people like Benjamin Zephaniah and Owen Sheers presented entire programmes dedicated to the stuff. My mother saw this as a real Told You So opportunity. Would this have happened ten years ago? Maybe, “but no one would have watched it”, she says. People care about “this culture stuff” now… enough to watch it on TV. Enough for it TO BE ON TV. Yeah OK, you told me so…
My mother also makes the point that measuring readership and success through book sales is kind of stupid in this day and age. Just because no one is buying poetry books does not mean they are not reading poetry — after all, people aren’t buying newspapers half as much as they used to, but they still read the news. In this sense, I agree and have always agreed with my mother — OK, so people aren’t buying poetry books, and that sucks because eventually, it’ll probably get to the point where we can no longer keep going down that road with poetry. HOWEVER, thanks to the internet — Twitter, Facebook, Youtube and the other usual suspects — we now have access to an audience so huge that it’s mind-blowing. We can now spread the word about poetry to people we’d never previously have been able to access through book-publishing alone. We now have the use of podcasts, videos, blogs and all sorts of other weird and wonderful stuff, not only to put poetry out there but to revolutionise the way we make it. 140-character poems? Heck, people are even making poems out of those anti-spam verification codes you sometimes have to type into websites. The internet has fundamentally changed poetry and its audiences… the people who are still whining about book sales really need to get up to speed!
But I think the most important point my mother makes is this: poets have partly done this to themselves. Sure, she doesn’t read poetry and she doesn’t get involved with the poetry community at all, but she’s my go-to person when I need to moan and mope about things, and I often need to moan and mope about bad behaviour, snobbery, elitism and narrow-mindedness I’ve encountered in the poetry community. As a result, my mother has kind of caught onto the fact that poets are — not exclusively, but they can be — snobby, cliquey, negative and afraid of change. Why, she says, would you want to read the output of people like that? How, she asks, do poets expect their audiences to grow when they violently defend their apparent ‘right’ to be “difficult,” “obtuse” or “elitist”, and readers can just “deal with it” (Andrew Motion, I’m looking at YOU). Why is it, she asks, that the poetry community all too often value the elitism, snobbery and deliberate pushing-away of readers while vilifying those who strive to make poetry more accessible — Carol Ann Duffy, Billy Collins, etc? How can they really turn round and whinge about reading figures when they’re the ones causing the problem? My mother has money that could potentially be spent in bookshops, but as she points out, she doesn’t want to buy a book by someone who’s publicly announced that people who find poetry difficult are basically stupid and shouldn’t be reading it anyway. And when that person is the former Poet Laureate of this country — ie, one of the most visible poets and one of the few that your average non-poetry reader might have heard of — that’s going to put off a lot of people… not just people like my Mum who get to hear the gripes of their poetry-obsessed daughter. We need more people like Billy Collins, who says ‘anyone can read poetry, and poetry should be happy about that,’ and less… well, just less Andrew Motion would be a good start.
So what do you think? Is my mother a naive and misguided fool or does she have a point? Maybe poetry needs to move with the times a bit still, but in this light, it does look pretty good. However, the poetry community does need to get its house — and its attitudes — in order.
Have I just borrowed my mother’s rose-tinted spectacles?