Friday, 19 November 2010

One Review

Billy Collins - Selected Poems: Taking Off Emily Dickinson’s Clothes (Picador, 2000)

by Joshua Jones
I think people are far too harsh on Billy Collins (I almost wrote ‘poor Billy Collins’, but the man has probably sold more books than all of his harshest detractors combined). Sure, he’s not exactly doing anything exciting or original, or using his position in the world of poetry to open readers up to the kind of writing they’d not otherwise encounter (not that he has any obligation to do this), or deconstructing the stable self; sure, when he writes about lighting cigarettes on a long drive (‘Driving With Animals’, pp. 5-6), that is about as edgy as he gets; sure, when he dabbles in magic realism or whimsical symbolism it is pretty cringeworthy. You’re not going to have some linguistic revelation reading him, or have your faith in the force of poetry validated or redeemed. But Updike was right in his appraisal: Collins writes lovely, limpid, gentle poetry. He’s a perfect read when it’s raining outside and you’re hungry and can’t be bothered to get off your arse and make lunch. Maybe he’s an American equivalent of someone like Wendy Cope. And, as the tone of this review suggests, I’m counting myself in the people who are far too harsh on him, condescending him as if I’m so much better. (I managed to resist drawing comparisons with Pam Ayres, though, so go me!)

So. Good things about Billy Collins: his poetry is resoundingly clear, meticulously concrete in its depictions and musings. It’s tediously mimetic a lot of the time, but there are also striking images; whiskey and ice, for example, being described as “cold rust” (‘Bar Time’, p. 18). There are funny, self-deprecating lines: “The more you clean, the more brilliant/your writing will be” (‘Advice to Writers’, p. 23). He is engaged with the world, shows a warm and humble representation of Billy Collins and The World in many of the poems taken from Questions about Angels. And there are a few poems that are simply perfect. Three, in fact: ‘Another Reason Why I Don’t Keep a Gun in the House’, ‘Forgetfulness’ and ‘The First Dream’. Each of these quiet masterpieces explore their subjects so delicately and so clearly that one cannot help but be moved, cannot help but smile in recognition, these gentle but strong poems, imbued with a tone of melancholy that never congeals into negativity. However, three brilliant poems in a Selected Poems collection that is 148 pages long, spanning twelve years, is not exactly something to jump for joy about.

But it is too easy to criticise these poems for what they are not, to mock them for their populist style. It is also wrong. I’m sure Billy Collins’ poetry has affected a lot of readers, has had an effect on the lives of far more people than the average practising poet ever will, and while he’s not a technically groundbreaking writer, the clarity of his writing is impressive, his ability to pinpoint in accessible, common language complex emotions and thoughts is something admirable. And if he proves a stepping stone for just one reader into the murkier waters of the poetry world, then I would say that he has done a good thing.

Wednesday, 17 November 2010

Two Poems - Gareth Trew

Kalgoorlie In Five Senses

The gentle, dry chill of winter;
the thrill of saltbush on my tongue.

The endless stretch of red-dirt road;
the smell of almond flowers, smoke.

Nan's quavering voice;
Pop's slow, shuffling steps.


More years have passed
than are comfortably countable,
since that day I chased you

across our school oval,
shrieking your triumph

You no longer care for art – spend the days
plotting getaways with your boyfriend,
planning for a mortgage –

but that doesn't dull the moment
when at last I'd caught you up
and my words began to register:

the slow ignition of your grin;
your blush; the pride in your eyes
as they teared with disbelief.

These days, it's my turn
to smile and cry.

Gareth Trew is a young Australian poet who lives in a state of constant confusion. As well as creative writing, he is keenly interested in the performing arts -- particularly acting, though he does dabble in directing on occasion and likes to think he can sing.

Thursday, 11 November 2010

UEA Writers #3: Todd Swift w/illustration by Natalie Orme

Etcetera is flattered to be featuring three poems by Todd Swift. Todd, for those who don't know, is a major figure in the world of UK poetry. His blog, Eyewear, is full of good things, and Todd is continually championing new writers, as well as helping bring British poetry to others around the world. So it is with great pleasure that we offer you three of his poems, alongside illustrations by the excellent Natalie Orme.

Essay Number One

What is different is the availability
Of information regarding disease
And financial options, in relation to
The globalization process, enhanced

By internet-driven technologies. Or
Does technology drive the net? This
Chicken-egg dilemma may prove
Insoluble. In practice I am quite sad.

Alienation theory would once have
Been a useful indicator of the climate.
It seems rather simplistic, though,
Post-Iraq (and so on), to claim any

Unique relationship to ennui or despair.
Nearly two-thirds of the world’s people are
Without clean drinking water, and some
Of us are born with conditions

Which mean that their skin sloughs off
Like tissue paper at the slightest touch.
In the context of new forms of super-bug
Which know no treatment or prevention,

And increasing destabilization due to
The rise of small groups sworn to destroy
The “Western” hegemonic system; not to
Mention proliferation of a number of

Equally disturbing trends relating to
Genetic and nano as well as bio tech issues;
Better to leave it unsaid. The increase
In poetic dissemination of material suggests

Not a triumph of content over discontent,
But instead the lack of demand triggering
An anxiety of production – a terrible
Struggle to produce something worthy.

"These women, dreams"

These women, dreams:
How they come to me,
Remain. Dragged
From the wreck of sea,

In chainmesh, to wake,
And a puritan challenge.
The small church (my body)
Rolls on the hill beneath

A sky purpling with fire
And will not break, but does
Reflect a faith’s quake.
The heart’s encased in fluid,

Palpates like immersion
In her, in the modern flood.
Little thieves, they steal sleep,
Desecrate the pews.

I walk down the aisle of them,
Bereft by the booklets
They’ve torn into figurines
Of paper and torment.

I wake in the glean, lament
The fuzz and brisk of you
And she and her and then
All is parchment and ancient

And the hull of the earth
Breaks on stone and dries
And the sea-swung girls
Turn like tides.

On The Sublime

Green is the widest colour other than black which extends
Like an ocean, as far as the mind’s hand; it is edible, lush,

Can be found in the iris, on scissor handles, ballpoint pens.
To leap your horse across the test, from Orion to Point X

Without felling steeples is a minor miracle, a major turn,
And suggests godlike prowess, the sinews of the angelic

Or years of practice in the heavens with atomic jodhpurs
Made of gold peeled from Midas as he slept cold dreams.

Todd Swift is a lecturer at Kingston University in English Literature and Creative Writing and a tutor for The Poetry School. His most recent collections are Seaway: New and Selected Poems (Salmon, 2008) and Mainstream Love Hotel (Tall-lighthouse, 2009), and a free-to-download ebook from Argotist, Experimental Sex Hospital. Todd has edited or co-edited many international anthologies, including Poetry Nation, 100 Poets Against The War, and (with Evan Jones) Modern Canadian Poets (Carcanet, 2010). Todd recently blogged on The Young British Poets for The Best American Poetry blog. His poems have appeared widely, in places such as Poetry London, Poetry Review. He has been Oxfam GB Poet-in-residence, and runs the London-based Oxfam Poetry Series. He has an MA in Creative Writing from the University of East Anglia (UEA) and is currently conducting doctoral research. He lives in London. He blogs at Eyewear.

Natalie Orme is a freelance illustrator and graphic designer. She co-edits Etcetera, and blogs here. Her work has been exhibited in Norwich and London, and she would like to collaborate with you.

Tuesday, 2 November 2010

Four Poems - Alexander Williamson

I cannot stand tears

The first at the station:
her Oyster broken, a bosomy
attendant swiped her through,
bloom of sorrow blossoming
just beneath her fringe.

The second on a Friday,
third week of March,
Piccadilly Circus, near the Windmill,
where they've opened a new
hole in the world, I saw
her skirt the building blindly,
tissue twisted in her hand,
face a waterfall of frustration.

Lastly in SW1, on St Patrick's,
the blond browbeaten moll
of some atypical drunken
brute, enfeebled by drink
and failing affection, reason
and sense foreign as France.

And I cannot stand tears,
so I hasten to the Tube,
furling my umbrella as I go.

People Not Profit

Some committee meetings make history.

Once a week, above News from Nowhere
on Bold Street, we met - in a office
facsimiled from the Militant 80s.

Our chairman was Paul, a balding scouser
with a squint and a semi-permanent sniffle,
stifled yawns when stating the obvious.
Evertonian Michael drove a red Ford Focus,
Tom was a vigilant Scottish Marxist vegan
who pilfered socialist tracts from Waterstones.
Big Mike had a flat cap and a limp. On Sundays
he'd push a granny trolley's worth of leaflets
through every post flap in the red terraces
of Sheil Park, Kensington, Anfield, Huyton.

Our specialist subjects were the selected works
of Gramsci and Chomsky; the cuntishness
of Liverpool City Council; the cost of a cuppa
down the Egg. We parted company not long after
the country went to war: I knew the jib was up
when Tom and Michael called me a 'sophisticat'
for smoking liquorice rizla roll ups.

When the Americans went into Falluja
I pictured them, sat outside Liverpool Lime Street,
stopping nothing but the traffic. Maya Evans and I
shared a journalism class at the college.
She sang The Smiths in the street back then.
Now she has five paragraphs in Wikipedia.

None of the names have been changed.

The Chinamen

25 years young outside Payless,
wan-faced, three waxy Durex
in my pocket.

Cramped and restless
on the London-to-Brighton:
a quick blade unseaming
quilted fields of Sussex.

Kidding myself in a pink shirt
and pin stripes, pinched and steamed
like a flushed summer pudding.


They gave it a silly name
to keep the yuppies at bay
but down under Manhattan Bridge overpass
flea market traders make a fucking mint.

If sex sells, all poets should be virgins.
Even Lorca, O'Hara and Hart Crane, although
each being dead is a considerable impediment.
Time, perhaps, for a career change.
Artists won't last long in D.U.M.B.O.

Brooklyn Bridge straddles the East River's
mochachino twist of water, determinedly noses
into the supine crotches of Manhattan's towers.
Promiscuous glints wink in the sunlight.

O! you fallen harp and altar of industry!

In Empire Fulton Ferry State Park
four repeat perps perch on a bench,
bumming cigarettes and shooting shit,
skin thick with post-clink DIY tats,

talking a dense lyrical drawl that you assumed
belongs in the larynx of Spike Lee's hoodlums:

"I'm goin' to see my baby girl,
I don't give a flying fuck what they say,
my social worker got my back anyway."

"Fucking A.
Just put out that smoke
or you know they'll throw you back
in the can."

"Man, fuck dat shit."

They suck on their cradled cigarettes,
doomed to failure, doomed to despise,
poets of another impoverished world.
You realise how 'Wall Street' earned its name.

It's the economy, stupid.

"Fucking A.

An occasional poet and sometime photographer, Alexander Williamson lives, works and writes in London. His poems have appeared here and there.

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