Posts Tagged ‘contemporary British poetry’


(To John Gawsworth)

The rose of all the world is not for me.
I want for my part
Only the little white rose of Scotland
That smells sharp and sweet—and breaks the heart.

A cub reporter he was cobbling up
in the hot Turkish sun
that dries and chaps noses, lips,
the freckly European skin,
how soldier’s flake out under canvas
sapped by flies, and inaction.
‘At first,’ he wrote, ‘the skirmishing
kept them sweet, but adrenaline’s
as much a drug, a poison, as any
you can buy on the Turkish street.’

‘Now month on month, while the season closes,
shops close, and beaches are deserted,
they’re still here, still camped among
the growing dunes of cans, skirting
the latrine’s no-go areas.
The last flight gone they linger, inert
in airports with low-slung rifles,
assertive in bars, or hammer, drunk,
on closed doors late at night.’

And the horror stories the military
could not hold down: the travel guide
dragged off was more lucky murdered
than others they took.

Now sub-editor, on his desk
a new cub’s update on his winning story:
Contacts inside say the soldiers’ home-pay
is used by top brass to invest outside.
And so when stocks fall
cheques bounce, families… fail.

From his high window, watched
as developers bulldozed
an office block in the next lot.
His favourite Turkish restaurant
cordoned off; he sipped coffee
from a plastic cup; a superstore ciabatta.
The photo of his wife fell flat;
his coffee a telephoto lens
focusing in, focusing out, as a rumble
shook the superstructure.
Some hot-head cowboy contractor
had not secured the foundations


after ‘Orpheus and Eurydike’, choreographed by Pina Bausch


They walked the beach as sun rose through cloud-bands
and the moon not yet down; the sands
like stars: the sun and moon in the sky together!
And all their heart’s desires in their hands.

A wave of the world broke over them, and he
was left sprawled among ruins . Where was she?
All he saw was horror, wreckage; no walls,
roofs… nothing. A voice said, Come with me.

Rocks and Stones
Reached for the light, there was none;
only shade; and alone, sprawled—
were those people? Or rocks, stones?
‘Who are these?’ They were the strangers
you shared that day with. ‘All these?
Will they ever wake?’ Some, maybe;
there are many though, who never wake;
who turn to dust. You walk on them.
His silent tread stirred up that dust;
it moved and flowed: the particles
of lives — lost to time, shadow.

‘There are people alive like this.’ he said,
‘If I am now to be honest… I’ve…
done this too.’  And now, his guide
answered, all those who, like you,
 wasted time, see here where it goes.

They entered an ingress of deeper shade,
a folded area of quiet, blackness.

Robert Oppenheimer in his wide-brimmed hat;
pensive in profile, shirt and tie – is he looking away,
or is it onwards,  towards the choices
that only appear in retrospect?

And Robert Oppenheimer in the physics lab,
all thumbs: ‘What you spilled now, Bob?’
A shadow across his brow in sudden light:
his raised then collapsing pillar of achievements.

Read into this a story, something Greek,
how reasoning and columns collude
with the all-out erotic rush
for conclusions, answers, a workable
solution. It is how a rational man
is ruined, undressed, by what hubris.
The McCarthy trial falling down about him;
a red stain on his vest, underneath
the academic gown.

One churning hour of exhilaration
before it settled in, the realisation
of what he has done. His wife and daughter
caught up in flash-bulb glare
as press-photographers rush forward, roar.

In desert exile, his profile carries the stamp
of the enigma of culpability.
If this was the image on a postage stamp

what letter would it bear?

Everyone who has studied modern American poetry will have come across the poem, Travelling Through the Dark, by William Stafford (for a copy, see


The poem has a clear through narrative. It is about finding a dead deer on a dark road (lot’s of d’s there!); it begins:

Traveling through the dark I found a deer
dead on the edge of the Wilson River road.
It is usually best to roll them into the canyon:
that road is narrow; to swerve might make more dead.

Succinct, factual, attitudinal. The poem was published in 1962, and carries all the baggage of that period; the New Criticism ideal of the way content, form and expression should work; the non-sentimentalism from Frost, and the civic duty attitudes of Eisenhower-Kennedy administrations merging with Civil Rights issues.
At the end of the poem, the dead deer which was found to hold its still living fawn, was unceremoniously pushed off the road into the river.


Unceremoniously? In the frame of the poem on the page it is anything but unceremonious. The poem may denote a matrix of implications, we may interpret in the direction of our own interests, but what is on the page is this and this. And that this is what it says in direct narrative, and implied ethics.

The poem celebrates – it celebrates the attitude of tough decisions being made for the benefit of all – motorists on that road in the dark, that is. It celebrates form and content, and their relationship to a way of life in post-war, early 1960s America. Maybe it could be argued that this adherence to form and structure rather than the focus on ‘soft’, the malleable, mirrored the social and racial tensions of those times.

A modern commentator gave us the option ( of actually getting our hands dirty and rescuing the fawn. The attitudes have changed, and changed substantially.
We consider now the status of the deer, of borders – have we trespassed onto the deer’s grounds/habitat, or the deer onto ours? At best the roadway can be considered a liminal place, it is part ours in their habitat, and part theirs in ours.

We have approached the moral sphere, to find we were there all the time.
It is a sphere because it can be all-encompassing, but also limiting.

I would like to follow my own trajectory and consider a poem by another author from another period. Is it a response-poem?

HUMBLES, by Frances Leviston, published 2007 (

It begins:

If you have hit a deer on the road at dusk;
climbed, shivering, out of your car
with curses to investigate the damage
done, and found it split apart and steaming
far-flung in the nettle bed, utterly beyond repair,
then you have seen what is not meant to be seen,
is packed in cannily, coiled, like parachute silks,
but unputbackable, out for the world to witness:….

In this poem there is no living fawn; the connect at the end is with an unstrung Judas Iscariot, found on his tree next morning,

still tethered to earth
by all the ropes and anchors of his life.

We have moved from the personal morals of the lone driver and the deer, to the almost totemistic image. We move from particular to universalised.
The language of the book this poem introduces us to (PUBLIC DREAM, Picador Poetry, 2007. ISBN 9780330440547) has a lovely flow, rhythm and rhetorical ease that is almost hypnotic. As a debut book of poetry it is remarkable, and well-deserved all the accolades it gained. The poems range from longer almost meditations, to the short detonations:


The crackle that pulled
the darkness tight

was the sound of the rose
on my bureau, unfolding

The rhythm and metre builds up an expectation, which is confounded. Did we expect a ‘night’ rhyme at the end? A return to the two-beat line? The language moves by way repeated sounds interspersed by changing time durations. What we have is a greater emphasis on language, and it is by this means the potentially grisly description is rendered artful.

Here is another spin of the moral sphere: like a soap bubble it gives different hues as the light changes. The light? Let’s call it the intent of the poem. We are no longer in the world of rocks and stones, rivers and immediate action to safeguard other drivers, here we open out into polysyllables, the images and similes of language use.
We are moving into the world of subjective appreciation. This also is a liminal world; it is like being on a Wilson River Road of the word.

The moral immediacy is no longer an imperative, it has been divorced from the disturbing impact (!) of the living fawn in the dead deer, and so, the later commentator’s need for rescue. The dead deer is transfigured from road-kill into learned image: Judas. This religious image is not backed up by calling upon the root-horror of the betrayed-then-crucified savior figure. This use of image gives a slightly off-centre reflection of personal response to the burst deer, separated from the self by the arts of language.

The arts of language here I find greatly inviting. Why is that? I think it is because they allow ease of movement: we are not corralled into stances, opinions, sides, or any form of arrogant presumption that we now have all the answers. There is also the play on the older meaning of the title, Humbles – referring to lites/innards. We are also, indeed, humbled by the sight of the dead deer: this is us from another perspective.
Inherent here also, and continuing from the previous poem, is the old anti-metaphysical position. Despite the religious imagery of this poem.This mismatch exhilerates.

So then we come to Sam Buchan-Watts. His debut is a pamphlet for Faber and Faber: FABER NEW POETS 15 (Published 2016. ISBN 9780571330416).

I was reading this pamphlet with great enjoyment, and thinking, this writing reminds me of… then there, in his Acknowledgements, is:
‘These Days Go By Just Like That’ is indebted to Frances Leviston’s ‘Humbles’. This is a paired-poem.
He begins his first of the pair like this:

These Days Go By Just Like That’

If you emerge from the glove of woods –
the trail’s patchiness like jaundiced spliff paper
and the dry powder bloom of a fire extinguisher
let off by kids last night —
blinking, feeling skew-whiff, confused, to find this:
a medieval re-enactment
in medias res….

The structure echoes Frances Leviston’s Humbles, but the poem takes us further out of immediate-world descriptiveness, and into the world of language. He carries through the idea of the religious imagery, moved forward to medieval re-enactment, mystery-play reference.
I have to admit I love his language; I love this pamphlet, and hope he carries on writing like this forever.
He won’t.
Writers grow, change, develop; times change, and the demands of those changes on our responses change.

There is here, maybe it’s in his titles like this one, a reminder of John Stammers in his first two books, Panoramic Lounge Bar, and Stolen Love Behaviour, both published by Picador Poets, 2001 and 20115 respectively. It is also in the way, his ‘why’, of use of language.

This world of language, the arts of language, separate us off from immediate reality. This is the rhetorical purpose, and it comes to us from the beginnings of the use of language: it persuades, tricks us even, but also it pleases, and pleasures us.

We see an indication of it here in the reference to spliff papers. We see it in the many contemporary fictions that deal with drinking/hangovers, drug-taking, any description of a different awareness, with different bases of reality.

So where are we with this poem? The two poems form an almost chiasmus, but the second repeats the moves and gestures of the first in the same order. This of course gains its emphasis from the line,

…as if history were a thing to be administered
amidst the afternoon.

In the second poem we encounter the disorientating effects of woodland light, and shifting perspectives; this is suggested and emphasised by reference to drugs: benzedrine, hash. There is a build-up of suggestions of the unreliability of mental states, time-awareness, of sensory input.

What we have here is the New Scepticism, in application.


Also see
In his PDF, Alva Noe states:
The new scepticism questions whether we even have the perceptual experience we think we have. According to the new scepticism, we have radically false beliefs about what our perceptual experience is like. Perceptual consciousness is a kind of false consciousness; a sort of confabulation. The visual world is a grand illusion.

He takes this to be a misreading of actual research.
There is nothing in new in misreading: the Romantics did it with Hegel, and I cannot believe nobody misread New Critical writings. They certainly have with Wittgenstein. The misreading of grand narratives is a way of creating one’s own secret garden, a place for play and creativity surrounded by the mapped out, explained, too well known and brightly lit: a place to breathe, to move freely. It doesn’t mean the world doesn’t exist, that its demands are not legitimate and pressing – what is does mean is that sometimes the person needs space to reconfigure in order to find, if not answers to the problems, at least ways of dealing with them.

Wherever language is used, wherever people are, is the moral sphere. It may not appear spherical, more of a non-euclidian, constantly changing flux, but it is us, ours, what we have made, and what we live by.




 after David Hockney

Beyond the cross roads, sage scrub,
stone packed hard on hard shoulders
furred black by tyre rubber, is the strewn
necklace of the highway, lined by boulders
like beads on pale desert.

At sun up the sky litters light down
like diamonds on glass; a swathe of heat.
Furnace Creek cracked under a four-year drought.
She had followed tail lights as they snaked
from San Andreas Valley; drove east from L A.
The night still crackled circuits; owls flickered
like B-film UFOs; but none came her way.

The Cronkite News had shown highlights
of the Tet Offensive raising a casual hand
to shoot point blank: how the blood pumped
from his temples, he slowly fell and —
memory replayed in slo-mo — slumped….

A static of blue-grass guitar; a rusted truck
parked up. The road read Stop, Ahead;
the sky speckled with cloud. A patrol car sped by
windows open for cooling air, a trade-off
for not investigating. Ahead
Chuckawalla, gila, stopped in mid-sidle
scuttled off.

Her city was collapsing in on itself,
she said. It superimposed its networks,
the personal memories of lit streets,
onto the open dawn desert. Like circuits
in a silicon chip.

She was the current through both; her red car
the bead of energy, like blood, sparking
beer cans, glass, metal of a wrecked car
lit up by her passing.


thinking of better days….

A strong slow gliding of white cloud eastwards,
the sky in the zenith amethyst, but then look
stratus slide across at right angles on high levels;
the blue shows through thin worn floc-white.

The cloud in the blue amethyst I keep for later.
Coffee on the hob, aromatic, the still morning
hanging spice; birds build roosts of noise
to nest in; the blue hole deepens to indigo.

Skeletal beech trees, a rose bush breaks bud.
Bushes of evergreen in disturbed air, a cup full
of agitations; starlings follow their sounds around,
sparrows chuch, a thrush tunes its clacking wheel,
knocking, solid, dull. Clots of cloud in the west
turn peachy, discolour.

A chill just beginning, a high somewhere
zipping open, not settling into any garment.
What’s left of April — everywhere dew-wet,
and another dampness damping down staleness,
slinking to gaps between soil grains malts the mash
of simmering rot.


In John Stammers’ first two books, Panaromic Lounge Bar (Picador, 2001; Stolen Love Behaviour, Picador, 2005) the runs of street-life images echo the work of mid Jeremy Reed at his mid-best.

In Panoramic Lounge Bar, we have ‘House on the Beach’: ‘The shadows mediated by the black slats of the venetian blind/ stripe the silk finish ceiling; / I am reminded of the sheen on the ocean….’. In Jeremy Reed’s Red-Haired Android (1992) we find perhaps an earlier prototype: ‘The louvers of the venetian blinds snap shut,/ phasing out a beach scene, a turquoise sea…’ (‘Love in the Afternoon’). Jeremy Reed’s love of colour (‘A Coke can’s red paint peeled to a glitter…’: ‘Things That Stay’, Red-Haired Android, 1992), and intricate sound modulation, do find echoes in John Stammers’ first two books, taking the form of an obsession with light itself: ‘The mackerel sky elides lackadaisically across.’ (‘Spine’, Panoramic Lounge Bar), where image and sound, the emphasised ‘a’ and emergent ‘i’ sounds, set up a lightness of tone, a concordant sound-to-image relationship. Also, we have ‘…trinkling glass/ do nothing but vie with the C-sharp of Lambrettas/ that dopple off down the street to G.'(Furthermore the Avenue, ibid)

The main difference between these last two particular pieces is in the use of the ‘i’ sound. In Jeremy Reed the vowels moves towards a nervy high, like a suddenly fizzing coke can; in John Stammers the high becomes a stretched out level that is modulated by the insistent ‘a’ sound. Both carry an onomatopoeic charge. Stolen Love Behaviour is indeed very much a summer book, it is lit up with images of glorious skies, with hot days, sunshine and cloud shapes.


I think Jeremy Reed wins out with his attention to detail: ‘Indoors, indispensible utilities, / the glint of car-keys, a bracelet of change…’: ‘In and Out’ (Nero, 1985), or; ‘Wristwatch off, silk shirts, head slanting back/ beneath a regulated eye-dropper – /your bathroom scene, mirrors frosted with steam,/ a cologne bottle minus its stopper;..’: ‘Bathroom Scene’ (Nineties, 1990). Compare with John Stammers’ ‘tiny crabs are spots of cochineal on saffron rice...’ (Further the Avenue, Stolen Love Behaviour.’, ‘your profile against the duck-egg blue sun blind… (ibid)

Jeremy Reed:


But then : ‘…the shadows mediated by the black slats of venetian blind/ stripe the silk finish ceiling’ (: ‘House on the Beach’), must come very close behind. John Stammers appeal to the larger vista: ‘... the stucco wedding cakes of Campden Hill...’ (Younger, Stolen Love Behaviour; ‘The air today is so brilliant you have to breath it in sunglasses,/ the clouds in their short-sleeved cotton shirts...’ (Flower Market Street, ibid). Larger vista, and different order and intent. He aims, and succeeds, to capture the event of the human response as part of the experience.

They both share this fascination with colour, and the effects of light; they seek out contrasts, sometimes configured by Japanese people, as if seeking out the exotica of the everyday: ‘Two Japanese girls at Bank Station provide an instance/ of ultra-black with their hair, their acidity/ all expressed in the citrus colours of their clothes…’: ‘Two Japanese Girls at Bank Station’, (Stolen Love Behaviour, 2005) and Jeremy Reed’s, ‘Your dresses spilled across a hotel bed/ were like a hectic dispersal of flame….Your Japanese lover’s black kimono…’: ‘Blue Lagoon’, (Engaging Form, 1988); ‘Mostly it’s the accidental attracts/ a Japanese girl bending to a rose…: ‘Kodak’ (ibid), and ‘The lilac ash cone on a black cheroot,/the Japanese girl flicks it on her boot,//and purses her mouth to a strawberry’: ‘Nineties Shade’ (Nineties, 1990).

John Stammers:


So what do I imply when I say echo, and prototype, here? Is there any direct evidence John Stammers knows Jeremy Reed? Apart from both being born almost the same year? There is a minor sexually ambivalent charge to be found in Stammers, compared with the major sexually ambivalent tone of Jeremy Reed’s writing. In John Stammer’s ‘The Tell’ (Panoramic Lounge Bar, 2001): the photos of a same-sex kiss are kept and valued. It could be argued that the poem charts more the time period, the sexually experimental nineteen-seventies, than any commitment to sexual ambiguity, as in Jeremy Reed.

The valuing lies in the life-experience contained in the encounter: the writing of oneself, in true psychological practice. John Stammers is charting his points in time, the cultural high moments of time and place. Hence we have ‘Out to Lunch Poem’ whose details capture the yuppie phenomena of the nineteen-eighties boom years. The admirable poem ‘Younger’ is the market-stall poem of Stolen Love Behaviour, and the younger self/selves the main theme of the book. All we can say for certain is that there are similarities of approach, detailing, choice of subject.

For Jeremy Reed, as his introduction to Black Sugar makes plain, the intent is to write from within the experience, and not as the alienated outsider, the position inherited from previous generations. John Stammers inherits “language-games”; he engages with the experience on different levels. Jeremy Reed asserts a source of poetry within an experience, that the writing is the poetic aspect of the experience, a responsive aspect that falls within a paradigmatic role and dynamic. For John Stammers the poetry inhabits the experience in a different way; the focus of the paradigm is towards the recognition of a shared dynamic. His use of language is always expressive of identifying markers: “I speak, as most of us do, in the ironic, Americanised, pastiched mode of that culture’s diction (adolescent sarcasm being the most primitive form)”: the Wolf Magazine interview. Even such a poem as XEMAE (Stolen Love Behaviour), utilizes a recognizable and accessible pattern; the terminology and referencing may be obscure, generally unknown, but the sense of the poem is easily retrievable.

There is one degree of separation between John Stammers and Jeremy Reed; it their appeal to the writing of Frank O’Hara and the New York School; this also expresses itself in an openness to the poetry of Baudelaire. There is also one degree between John Stammers and Mark Ford. That also is Frank O’Hara; Mark Ford edited and selected Frank O’Hara in 2009. But then we also have Mark Ford’s Soft Sift book of poetry from 2003, and Stammers’ selection of Gerard Manley Hopkins (2008), from whose ‘The Wreck of the Deautschland’ this is a quotation. It is becoming to seem that there is no degree at all.

See also:




Posted: December 23, 2015 in Chat
Tags: , ,

Every time you turned the street turned with you:
the languages, distractions, sales, and somewhere
a street band. You turned and the current flowed
around you, through you; kept moving. The window display
was there for you. Streets of bodies eddying, surged.

You still felt their tug in a doorway. Turned, and
lifted away; it fell from you. You rose
quickly and above it all; shop lights far below.
Rose past cornices, pigeon spikes, to colder air;
the smells of fast food, music, muting.

A sudden panic; the city lights indistinguishable –
you were rising faster, ‘How will I breathe?’
Higher, higher to break through to sudden
openness, emptiness,
and strung there
were huge chains of lives, channelled
across darkness — people connected, singly,
as far as sight was possible.

A policemen next to you, his difficult face;
the barrista who snubbed you, the shop assistant
who had seemed distant,  all there together,
connecting.  And listening revealed
high tones, metallic, different timbres. The planets,
ringing in the openness.

Linked lines of lives stretched from planet
to planet and the sun’s radiance. All connected,
attuned  to a vast, opening sense
of awareness, completion.




I was the new louche lover
of a wealthy lady, young still; her husband
filthy with family money.
Seduced her discreetly in front of all,
her husband seeing business only.

Scene two, and already
my undertones sly, heavy with allure
but  generous with praise
to entertain wife and husband seperately.
Then two pan-handlers
suddenly on stage. Quickly we adjusted,
improvising –
now two young movie hopefuls,
their idea quite compelling:
a giant ape and a helpless lady,
an impecunious hero.

My lover gave her most yearning of looks,
I saw her lonely youth in this:
father a widower, wealthy in Springport;
shipped in her dresses from Paris.
Across the tracks a young lieutenant, wounded;
meetings in coffee bars,
toying with fears, he finding his heart again.
Did I remember? she asked.

The youngest of the gatecrashers
a handsome South-Asian man
now lost to his family; how it broke
our stage hearts to see him
so abandoned, and so, knowingly
bought into the story.
Under the guise of our lover’s trysts
worked up plot-lines:
a wealthy ruthless backer, leading lady,
the hero handsome, poor.
The backer bought the two strangers out,
the lady stood by him;
the hero kept on, it was well meant,
for entertainment.

The IRS brought down the tycoon.
Tied up in regulations,
gave up the movie business for oil,
smoothing the wheels
of industry, governments, all for to get
his armaments shipped.

Later in our Sunday clothes, the playwright
furious we ruined his script.

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