Tuesday, July 19

A Blizzard of Fake Epiphanies

Review by Paul Sutton

Counting the Chimes, New and Selected Poems, 1975-2003 by John Mole (
Peterloo Poets, £9)

Funny how some titles are predictable. “A Refulgence of Sunken Mirrors” could be another, or “A Blizzard of Fake Epiphanies”.

But the blurb on the back made me queasier, especially George Szirtes’:

“There are many poems here that might have appeared in earlier books [?!]…some of them are quite perfect encapsulations of a milieu which, as far as poetry is concerned, is Mole’s alone. It is less foreign ground for novelists, and in some ways such poems may be read as novels in miniature.”

With friends like these, who needs reviewers? Here’s Helen Dunmore:

“John Mole’s poems are beautifully formed things. His needle-sharp feeling for language feeds both his humour and his seriousness. Mole’s people make gardens, children, poems but their eyes are open and they see death camping a little nearer each night.”

In the midst of life we are in debt, etcetera. All those ready-made phrases – “needle-sharp”, “beautifully formed”, there must be a software package for them. Jesus, these people are from a crony emporium in Staffordshire, there’s a continental rupture between the breathless praise and Mole’s writing – observe the “feeling for language” and “technical brilliance” in this:

Passing the Parcel

While the music was playing she passed him the parcel
And he passed it back to her slowly at first
As if guessing its weight or perhaps just admiring
The shop-window gloss of its polka-dot wrapping
But faster then faster they thrust it between them
Away and way like a short-fused explosive

Until it was there in his hands and no music
Which meant that he had to begin to unwrap it
By layer and layer and layer and layer
But he took his time and she wasn’t watching
As if they had somehow decided already
The party was over and nothing was in it.

Mole has won Gregory and Cholmondeley awards (funded by Mr Chumley-Warner?), and been Poet-in-Residence in the City of London. Gosh, maybe this book will win the Cheesecake and Harry Lime prizes.

Yeah, cheap jokes; it’s more important to wonder what’s produced this writing – which is typical of so much “mainstream” work. To me, it’s the fatal completeness and balance, draining energy and interest. Self-satisfaction is the tone, anecdotage in that low-voltage, knackered “workshop” voice. One poem especially got me: “Travellers” has Mole on a train, castigating an angry “thug” in a suit for being irritated at some girl chewing carrots.

It’s probably a set-up anyway, but I’m with the suit here. At least he’s alive, ruffling the poet’s serenity. Good Lord, a poet is far too well-adjusted to get pissed off with ostentatious vegetable consumption. Maybe that’s the problem: lacking reactions that aren’t cleared by an internal “poetic” censor, they’re so bloody perfect, always on call to observe some scene and then serve it up as a parable for these degenerate times.

Doubtless it’s better not to be wound up by someone munching carrots (better still not to write about it). But all the poem does is tut; Mole doesn’t even seem to give a toss himself – it’s “good material” and he’s not angry, just smug. Mind you, imagine Mole had to sit next to some bloke chewing a kebab and ranting about immigration. Of course he’d give him both barrels then – at a distance. I can just see the poem, contrasting the egregious gourmand with his own sophisticated tastes.

Some of the pieces rise above the level I’ve been abusing, but they’re all so familiar – painting, travel, paeans to domesticity. It’s so flabby and complacent, never stopping to worry if it’s any reason to exist. That’s why we get this conceited insider-dealing guff about “practising his right art from the start” (Bernard O’Donoghue).

And how many more parasitical poems can be done about paintings? Art has become increasingly conceptual (for a reason) yet I can’t find any ideas here – except that we’re all going to die and nice things are better than nasty.

I guess people argue that Mole is readable and avoids obscurity. Not for me; I find it impossible to read such poetry. And this idea of “accessibility” is a con-job anyway, perpetrated by people who want funding. They imagine an audience of dunces awaiting enlightenment, whereas the “general readership” moved on years ago, somehow able to get by.

What a psychopath I am. But something’s gone very wrong, as many are now discussing. There’s an obsession with absent readership, so endless awards and back-slapping take their place. Far more damaging is the lack of any part in a wider artistic culture, which might force the writing to fight harder for its place and actually be interesting.

Of course, many British writers from Mole’s generation (e.g. Tom Raworth, Roy Fisher, Prynne, Peter Reading, John Barnie) have avoided this dead-end; and some are gaining in reputation all the time. But how many others missed out on the mutual gongs and vanished from view? I’ve researched John Mole on the net – he sounds a nice bloke and his poetry attests to impeccable liberal credentials and tastes. So what? The fact that this gets published with Arts Council funding says everything.

© Paul Sutton, 2005

Powered by Blogger

British Blogs. Listed on Blogwise Subscribe with Bloglines

Song Lyrics

Search Engine Submission and Optimization Blogarama - The Blog Directory

Get Firefox!