Faber New Poets 5-8: Joe Dunthorne, Annie Katchinska, Sam Riviere, Tom Warner
The confessional poets of the 60s, such as Sylvia Plath and Robert Lowell, appeared to be exposing their deepest psyches in their poetry: letting rip with a no-holds-barred (especially in the case of Plath) lyric assault of personal exposure - a poetic Jeremy Kyle Show, if you will. The confessional style reinserted the poet into the work as a subject to be considered instead of being an impartial, external observer of natural phenomenon or a remote god, passing judgement from on high; we could feel their pain, know their minds, their preoccupations.
In reality, this style raises questions about the illusion of intimacy being presented by the writer. When the writer says 'I', does she really mean 'I', or a fictionalised version of 'I'? Where does the personal stop and the fiction begin? It's something that as readers of poetry we'll never know, and as writers of poetry we can delight in blurring those boundaries.
This (apparently) intimate approach in poetry has stayed with us, as can be seen in the Faber New Poets selection 5-8 - particularly with Joe Dunthorne and Sam Riviere.
Riviere's long poem "Myself Included" leads the reader through an ironic maze, confounding the idea of the confessional. What reads at one level as an amusing personal travelogue (and journeys can always be considered personal as well as spatial) can also be read as an attempt to situate the poet in the work, only to be deliberately unsuccessful -
'I was frisked at check-in by a fat Hawaiian
when I asked to keep a copy of my fingerprints.
I felt sure I'd unlock the mysteries of my experience
From those soft-looking whorls and grains. As it was,
They told me very little.'
The personal (in this case, a fingerprint is intimately personal and physical - and completely unique) is having trouble making the transition to the page. The poem's narrator later wonders if Tom Cruise's face adequately represents his soul and comes to no conclusions. Riviere seems to consider the difficulties of style and appearance versus reality and the problems of seeing clearly. Another of his poems, 'Paris', also considers the notion of seeing although this time with physical blindness as its subject, and 'Observation of a Neanderthal Colony' sees an event through the distancing medium of a video camera. I enjoyed this intelligent approach to the author's responsibility to description, and its knowledge of the impossibility of seeing (and then representing) things clearly.
Joe Dunthorne's 'Sestina for My Friends' is tongue-in-cheek, and like a lot of the work in his collection, has a casual and contemporary feel. Joe is a character in his poems in more than instance:
'I bet Joe put that there so I see it. More likely, they'll say,
Huh, such a clever book just lying there next to his football boots'
And in 'Filters':
'My big sister rings to say she is riding around
on the back of Richard's motorbike
and would I like to meet for a drink
Richard is a married man.
My sister is gay and I am always
Dropping this into conversation.'
Interestingly, as well as these insights into Joe's 'life' (and remember, we are always treating that assumption with caution), we also see into Joe's dreams, and at the same time his vision of his own place within the poetry community. In 'Workshop Dream' Dunthorne literally follows in the wake of Sean O'Brien; as a female poet myself and fan of the avant-garde, I found it perhaps telling that the only mention of a female writer is that of someone unread, and also that despite 'All poets lived in one low-rise resort', experimental writers have apparently been dismissed and told to 'go play' by the grownups:
'We shooed away the avant-garde,
who sold necklaces made from shattered
I'm sure that Dunthorne's tongue is firmly in his cheek in this piece as it is with so many others, and indeed poking fun at the unnecessary divisions in the poetry world and highlighting the disenfranchisement of the alternative at the hands of the popular elite.
I hope that Annie Katchinska's fabulous debut will be followed by a full collection, because I was blown away by the fresh voice, intense imagery and dextrous language in these 16 poems.
There is a strong engagement of the senses in these poems: colour and light is important, as is texture and the visceral. For instance, in 'Orthodox':
'Dust bread, dust boy, blood rug, the-eyes-
of-rusty-nails-on-flesh. I make
my church names up instead. I'm eight,
a crumbling flower.
My head is scarved in choir, a crowd
of flame who must have floated down
last night. I call them candle clouds;
they sing for hours.'
The opening poem, 'Bergamot', does what poetry can do best: take a small event, an ordinary object, and transform it into something remarkable: see it and sense it anew. Here, tea-making and drinking was never so beautiful:
'Not tonight, at least. Not tonight. Now turn your spine
to plainsong, turn the main light off, and shut the door
on the evening's fried buttery food. Time yourself only
to a kettleclick, pour it, stir out the day,
let it darken like a wandering angel. And breathe
in bergamot, the juice of brittle leaves you want
to press against your head, or weave into a dress
in which to rustle on dry lightning nights.'
I found these poems to be visionary and full of wonderful depth; a bell-like resonance. However, Katchinska also has a great modern sensibility and successfully captures the chaos and pop culture of modern living with poems such as 'Summer in the City', 'Toni Braxton', 'Kids' and 'Crash':
'OK OK OK listen. You mincepied? You roastpotatoed? You goosefatted?
You burping in public? No worries, no worries, come, come and see
what we have here. We have Lycra, pink, green, leopard-print,
and pumping pumping muzak - top 40 type, you'll recognise -
gym membership, yoga mat, swimming costume, Lucozade coupons' (from 'Crash')
When reading Tom Warner's collection, instead of confessional overtones, I was struck by the strong preoccupation of nature in the poems, and of its measured and delicate tone that conceals a darker set of imagery. 'Mole' addresses the savage nature of wild animals and compares the similarly savage behaviour humans perpetuate, and 'Rabbit' manages an undercurrent of fear:
'He has a recurring dream
in which he's a rabbit;
the familiar black night,
the narrow track
which he must cross.
His rabbit heart is furious,
'Wisteria' images the imperceptible pull of old age and decay, again with the natural analogy:
'Insidious, advancing in imperceptible shudders,
Spiralling the sunflower's stake. We hadn't noticed
Until it spread a question at the window,
And rolled out a reddening arm towards the doorstep.
My grandfather is in the hospital,
My father is older than I thought.'
'Under the Moon' considers the threats that exist in our society now as much as they ever have, and the poem articulates this worry with the language of natural phenomenon:
'Under the parents, the unmentioned monsters
that slam doors are tonight locked down in the cellars.
The children are hurt. O mothers, fathers!
They are lying at school, and they don't tell us.
The morning snow has made grottoes of the cars.
A blackbird stitches the front lawn with scars.'
Warner's collection is a gentle meditation led by a skilful hand. I liked it very much.