Saturday, May 29

Binary Myths

A review by Clive Allen

Binary Myths 1 & 2 Ed. Andy Brown. (Stride)

The cover of “Binary Myths 1 & 2” is a very serious-looking glossy black with an inset panel of regular blue, yellow & red stripes, a bit like something you’d find in an electronics lab from the 1970s – which makes it look as well as sound like some sort of Open University maths text book. It isn’t of course. The subtitle ‘conversations with poets & poet editors’ tells us what we need to know.

“Binary Myths 1” came out in 1996 & was followed up by Binary Myths 2 (The Revenge – sorry, that sounded funnier in my head) in 1999. The two books are now made available in a single volume.

The “Binary” bit of the title refers to the underlying theme of the book, namely those hoary old oppositions … Populism vs Modernism, Everyman vs Eliot, ‘My six year old could do that’ vs ‘Yes, well that’s just my point, you see …’ In short the book is dedicated to exploring both sides of the fence & posing the question: to what extent is there a fence there at all?

It has some well-known (in the poebiz sense of that expression) contributors – John Burnside, Michael Donaghy, Sarah Maguire, Eva Salzman & John Kinsella, as well as some major left-fielders like the late Richard Caddel & the still very much with us Peter Finch.

Andy Brown, the editor, sent the 24 featured poets the same or at least similar questions, then selectively explored their responses in more depth through further correspondence, finally editing down the whole shooting-match into an altogether compelling collection of interviews-cum-essays on the – deep breath now – State of Contemporary Poetry.

The questions asked range from the fundamental: ‘Should poetry be difficult?’ ‘What do you think poetry is capable of?’ ‘Does popular necessarily mean simple?’ through to the personal & direct: ‘What are you reading at the moment?’ & ‘Are you prolific?’ (my favourite answer to that one … ‘No’ – Sarah Maguire). This ‘from-all angles’ approach to the topic offers a pleasingly split-screen view. Not only do we get an individual’s poetic credo, but we’re also granted an insight into the day to day working lives & preoccupations of poets & poetry editors.

A few things that keep cropping up throughout the book: contemporary American poetry is generally seen as healthier, more robust, & The Way Forward; the New Generation Poets promotion of a few years back receives a rather qualified reception, being regarded at best as a moderately successful means of promoting poetry to a wider audience & at worst as fatally infecting the poetry scene with tacky commercialism, cheap soundbites & mediocre taste; Jorie Graham (the American poet) seems to appear on quite a few of the contributors’ current reading/influences lists; reading poetry is every bit as important as writing it; no-one ‘in’ poetry makes any money.

“Binary Myths 1 & 2” showcases an astonishing array of ideas & opinions about the contemporary poetry scene - & whilst it keeps returning to its central theme of looking at opposing stances & viewpoints & exploring the extent to which these make any sense - there’s so much else that comes through thick & fast it can, at times, seem a tad bewildering. And of course some writers are simply more entertaining. There are one or two moments of New-Age-ish-sounding baloney. An example from chris cheek (that’s not a typo, by the way, he spells his name e e cummings-style):

Pursuits, undertaken with appropriate energies of engagement, mindful of integrities to each pursuit, frequently produce ‘results’.

Which I think means: if you try to do things, sometimes something happens.

But these lapses are rare & what few there are find themselves overwhelmingly counterweighted by, for instance, the jaggy wit of Eva Salzman, the plain, clear-headedness of Michael Donaghy & the altogether winning sanity of Rupert Loydell. Try this …

I am open to all sorts of poetry, but want the poetry to be working with the language anew. I am sick to death of the poem that is a kind of shaggy dog story, where once you get the joke or the punch-line, that’s it.

We’ve all read too many of those sorts of poems, haven’t we? We’ve probably all written too many of them as well. Here he is commenting on the more experimental end of poetry …

I particularly enjoyed … dipping into ‘The Conductors of Chaos’ [anthology] when that came out – though in the end I probably disliked more of the poetry than I liked.

Me too. And on the ‘Is-there-simply-too-much-poetry-being-written?’ dilemma Rupert Loydell has this (amongst other things) to say:

We are … suffering from creative writing syndrome, with everyone being told they have something to say and the means to say it. I’m all for creative writing, all for reading, even for a bit of therapy sometimes – but it has to go hand-in-hand with critical development; this simply isn’t happening. Poetry has become something every Tom, Dick or Harry now thinks they can do – without reading any poetry or learning to edit themselves.

“Binary Myths 1 & 2” really does try to make a case for an open environment for poetry, for lots of different poetries. Although there are 24 separate voices here - ranging from Faber mainstreamers like Don Paterson to fugitive pamphleteers - there is a remarkable sense of agreement about the need for such openness, about, as Andy Brown writes in his introduction, ‘removing obstructive oppositions that are based on simplistic binary arguments.’

Andy Brown & Stride have brought together a rich, complex & stimulating mix of ideas & perspectives. All too often discussions of the type that are aired in ‘Binary Myths’ seem to mire themselves in bloodless academic jargon or become embarrassingly self-involved. The good news is there’s very little that’s dull or po-faced here; the debates in this book go to places where poetics can be seriously & sincerely explored.

And what’s more, it’s fun to read. I mean fun to read if you enjoy reading about contemporary poetry. After all, we should face facts: this isn’t a book for the casual reader. It’s aimed at those of us actively engaged in the curious & oftentimes wacky business of writing & writing about poetry. But that’s you & me, right?

© C. J. Allen, 2004

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