Vote for Pedro

It’s the weekend and I’m in my house listening to House Every Weekend by David Zowie. I don’t do this every weekend but perhaps I should because it’s a great song:

‘…I work hard
And if I don’t let myself go, let myself go, let myself go
I just might explode, I just might explode…’

So immediately after a long day at work earlier this week, I dashed to the train station and travelled to a small café for a poetry gig. The last time I was at the same venue, the place was teeming with people, mostly poets of course. Not this time, despite the fantastic headliner – funnier than your best mate and more intelligent than a nodding, murmuring intellectual on late night BBC2. My dodgy puns could not be compared to led zeppelins, as this would convey that they had some form of substance. No, they went down like economy party balloons, and my similes didn’t do much better.

Perhaps at my next poetry gig, I should just whip out a stereo and move like Jon Heder in Napoleon Dynamite. No words.

Massive Monikers

I’ve become a little too obsessed with running lately. I watched the recent Indoor Athletics Championships with the same concentration and joy that I usually reserve for football. I was genuinely excited by the pole vault and the performance of another large Pole in the 4x400m relay. The regular disqualifications spoiled it, but for me at least, the staged entrances – athletes’ names in size 15,000 font above their heads, enormous sparklers – nearly made up for that. It was almost as bombastic as the WWF wrestling I remember from the 1990s.

But, even so, all the forced glamour can’t quite remove the perception that it’s just really good PE on the telly. When I was at school, I was dreadful at PE, and so it’s been quite a thrill 20 years later to run reasonably well. I was going to say that I like the steady progress and clarity of results, though the Indoor Athletics Championships were, as I said, spoiled by disqualifications: people running the race of their lives, celebrating in front of millions with their name in giant letters, only for that happiness to be over-ruled by an invisible panel identifying a tiny accidental violation of a tiny rule.

With poetry competitions, I’m used to a judgement being made by people I will never meet, resigned to disappointment as soon as the work is sent and the amount is paid. What are the rules? Why are so many writers disqualified? At least at ‘fun run’ level, away from the panels and their expensive equipment, running is a pure meritocracy: you’re 1st or 6th or 50th or whatever and there’s no debate. Through talent and a few sacrifices, you can run with the elite. It’s like being published in a Faber anthology with Larkin and Armitage!

So, if like me, you have a vast ego and like to imagine your name being projected to a size larger than your actual self, go for a run and see where it takes you.

The Lady’s not for Turner

‘I can’t tell you what art does and how it does it, but…I know…that the powerful fear art.’*

Do they really? I can’t imagine Theresa May or Donald Trump or the invisible people who tell them what to do worrying in the slightest about the impact of a picture. Would a film or a song make them slightly nervous? I doubt it. Remember when Rage Against The Machine achieved a Christmas #1? Simon Cowell expressed momentary annoyance.

Fear? No. It’s interesting to think that art could somehow inspire millions of people to become involved in sustained activism that would truly make the powerful fearful. In the US, children are marching miles and miles in protest against the NRA/Trump, but a picture or a lyric didn’t make them do this. I like the occasional ranty poem, especially when I’m reading it to 20 people, but it’s just howling in the wind, followed by an expensive pint, followed by facebook comments and memes and distractions… Meanwhile, the powerful count their money.




‘Are you an unpublished working class prose writer trying to get into print?’

Does this blog count as prose? Ah, I see: the emphasis is on ‘working class’.

‘Submit to Common People for a chance to be published in this ground-breaking anthology celebrating working class writing.’

I have a piano – does this make me middle class? I can’t play it – does this make me working class?

Some of my poetry friends are divided on the value of inviting people to submit specifically working class writing. I think I see both sides of the argument: possibly patronising yet allowing an opportunity for hitherto undiscovered and gifted writers. But, as one has said, ‘I had never thought of appending my class as a label to my writing.’ Does the poem below – yet another sneering piece about Thatcher – make me working class? Does having a job that involves *using my hands* make me working class?


Thatcher refused to fly with a panda,
Not even for the sake of propaganda.

As far as I’m aware,
No one asked the bear
Whether they were keen
On being seen
With a violent animal.

Journey to the End of Decency

‘The pseudo-paradox of the artist who is also a shit has abiding, morbid interest.’*

Indeed, it is abiding. I wrote this in July 2013:

‘It may be true that you don’t have to agree with someone’s political views to appreciate their music, but if Radiohead announced that they had joined UKIP, I’d certainly struggle to enjoy ‘The Tourist’ anymore.’

Quentin Tarantino is currently fending off accusations of unpleasant behaviour. Will his many fans stop watching his films? When I first started reading Philip Larkin, I had no idea that he was a three-timing, Tory racist. Furnished with this knowledge, have I stopped reading his poetry? No, but I have to try hard to forget his views. I learned from the TLS article from which I’ve quoted above that Ezra Pound was awarded a prize by a jury of T.S. Eliot and friends. In Simon Armitage’s poem ‘Poundland’** (which I think is great), I couldn’t detect any reference to Pound’s fascist beliefs. Should there have been? Should literary merits outweigh hate speech (or writings, such as in the case of Céline)? The pseudo-paradox will continue to be debated into the night…




Stop your mechanical raspberries

Are you aware of the row that’s split ‘the poetry world’? Surely it’s one of the most interesting things to happen in the poetry world for ages…If you’re part of the poetry world. How do you become a citizen of the poetry world? A love of words should do it. That’s your ticket. You don’t need to write best-selling works or write scathing articles for PN Review. Rebecca Watts proclaims in said publication that ‘we must stop celebrating amateurism and ignorance in our poetry’ and uses a lot of words to criticise Hollie McNish, whose success she attributes to ‘a cult of personality’*. I haven’t met Hollie McNish, so can’t judge her personality. I first became aware of her through her poem ‘Mathematics’, which, in almost five years, has been viewed 2 million times on YouTube. The only poem I can think of that has more YouTube views is Neil Hilborn’s ‘OCD’ (13 million views. 13 million! For poetry!) Both are, in my opinion, wonderful. Here’s an excerpt from ‘Mathematics’:

‘…And sometimes one can add three more
And sometimes two times two is much much more
Than four
And most times immigrants bring more
Than minuses.’

I like the words and I like them even more listening to McNish read them. She’s a ‘page poet’ and a ‘spoken-word artist’ – terms that she probably dislikes as much as I do. Indeed, let’s not bother with categories: she is a poet. But Rebecca Watts doesn’t think so; she thinks McNish is a ‘noble amateur’. Well, if only based on ‘Mathematics’, McNish is certainly noble, honourable, principled and moral (thank you, Microsoft Word thesaurus). An amateur? Who gets to decide if you’re a professional poet? Is there a test? McNish earns a living through poetry: surely that makes her a professional? I’m going to think of other professional poets right now…Luke Wright, Simon Armitage, Carol Ann Duffy, er…I’m sure I’ll think of some later.

Watts concludes, having referred to Donald Trump and Nigel Farage:

‘If we are to foster the kind of intelligent critical culture required to combat the effects of populism in politics, we must stop celebrating amateurism and ignorance in our poetry.’

I refer back to ‘Mathematics’ and its 2 million views: can it be claimed that any other recent poem has done more to ‘combat the effects of populism’ or, in other words, encourage more humanity? Perhaps Brian Bilston’s poem ‘Refugees’ – an enormously clever poem that was widely-shared on Twitter and, I presume, was the catalyst for his fantastic collection ‘You Took the Last Bus Home’. Watts’ article is a lengthy attempt to justify the view that popular poetry is not intelligent and therefore bad. She then implies that poets should have a political responsibility. I don’t agree, though McNish and Bilston are political, popular, intelligent and good.

George Orwell wrote in his essay ‘Poetry and the Microphone’ (1945):

‘There can be no doubt that in our civilisation poetry is by far the most discredited of the arts, the only art, indeed, in which the average man refuses to discern any value…Poetry is disliked because it is associated with unintelligibility, intellectual pretentiousness and a general feeling of Sunday-on-a-weekday…It is a question of getting people to listen instead of uttering a mechanical raspberry.’**

Hollie McNish, Brian Bilston and many other current poets have encouraged people to listen to poetry and read poetry and discern value in poetry. I like McNish and I like MacNeice – as Don Paterson wrote in The Guardian in response to Watt’s article, ‘one can worship at more than one altar.’*** It’s obviously unfair of Watts to suggest that popular poetry is ‘artless’ and only popular because it’s honest at the expense of craft. I hope that she changes her mind soon and, in the words of MacNeice, feels and enjoys ‘the drunkenness of things being various’ in the poetry world.





Norwegian; good

I’ve finally bought a copy of Siamese Dream, a mere 24 and a half years after it was released. I’d forgotten how exhilarating the start to Cherub Rock is. Talking of absolute joy, Strangers by the Norwegian singer Sigrid is the best thing I have seen, heard and – yes – read in ages…

Just like in the movies
It starts to rain and we…
We’re the broken beauties
Blindfolded minds collide
And we fall
When the curtain drops
Our touch is just a touch
Not like in the movies
Our story’s after the end
Like strangers
Perfect pretenders
We’re falling head over heels
For something that it ain’t real
It could never be us…

Written in a foreign language over a beautiful melody and, for the chorus, a glorious beat. It all sounds so happy, yet look at those lyrics! ‘Broken beauties’, ‘our touch is just a touch’, ‘our story’s after the end’… I love that last one: how to succinctly sum up the messiness and incompleteness of life. But if you watch the video, you’ll see someone dancing around a studio like they’ve just won the lottery. The video so cleverly echoes the ‘perfect pretending’ concept of the song by showing the crew and assorted film paraphernalia and one particularly mesmerising shot at 2:37 of Sigrid pretending to film someone who is presumably pretending to film the made-up house that Sigrid was in earlier in the video.* It should be irritatingly self-referential, but the lyrics require it and it’s so well put together, it could be in the movies: Krzysztof Kieslowski and Roy Andersson would be proud.

Apparently, ‘every few years a debate breaks out about poetry and pop’.** But surely pop wins every time? Sigrid wins for her lyrics and because she makes me want to dance – and what’s better than dancing? The opening to Cherub Rock sets my cheeks and back alight…and there are no words! Just sonic bliss. ‘Just’? Give me 20 seconds of sonic bliss over shelves of poetry.

* Sigrid – Strangers


Come and ‘ave a go if you’re avant garde enough

I love parodies but has it all gone too far? Just before New Year, I managed to negotiate with my kids half an hour of music television. Ah, a classic straight away: Sum 41’s ‘Fat Lip’, which features a random Iron Maiden tribute at the end. Afterwards, it was Bowling for Soup’s ‘1985’:

‘Cause she’s still preoccupied
With 19, 19, 1985…’

To be fair, having read the lyrics, there is a genuine and sad narrative that is quite surprising for what sounds like a standard ‘pop punk’ song. I had thought that it was a brazenly nostalgic song written to justify a silly video with references to 1985, though ‘Addicted to Love’ was released in 1986 and ‘Faith’ was released in 1987!

So is a fondness for parodies based on nostalgia or is it simply laziness? ‘It’s easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism.’* I’d add that it’s easier to imagine the end of capitalism than the beginning of a music style that is truly new. There’s a van parked outside a nightclub in town that has ‘80s’ and ‘90s’ on the back and various photos and images associated with those decades. Can you imagine a van parked outside a nightclub with ‘2000s’ and ‘2010s’ on it? All the images would surely inherently be parodies…So do I love them or not? Yes, but wouldn’t it be great if, instead of the weary widespread acceptance of ‘nudge nudge wink wink’ postmodernism, we were part of something original?

‘Postmodern thought is broadly characterized by tendencies to…irreverence, and self-referentiality…’** Indeed, have you seen the video for ‘Finesse’ by Bruno Mars? Honestly, why don’t we just put our brains in jars and watch Fresh Prince on repeat?

‘Punk continues to fascinate because it was the twentieth century’s last avant-garde.’***

‘Avant-garde in music can refer to any form of music working within traditional structures while seeking to breach boundaries in some manner.’****

Come on Bruno, sort it out!






This Is Just To Say That I Hope These Words Move You

I’ve just written yet another letter to the paper about the NHS. I heard on the radio yesterday that a woman died, having waited almost four hours for an ambulance to arrive. She was struggling to breathe. Can you imagine the pain and fear? How did the thousands/millions of other people react when they heard this news?

Cyril Connolly wrote in 1938:

‘…Unless writers do all they can it will be too late; war will break out and the moment be past when the eloquence of the artist can influence the destiny of humanity.’

To think that ‘the eloquence of the artist’ can have such influence! Despite Orwell and, no doubt, many other tireless heroes, war obviously did break out. Maybe this poem would inspire millions of people to save our NHS:

This Is Just To Say

I have taken
the NHS
that was in
public ownership

and which
you were probably
for future generations

Forgive me
it was so profitable
so good
and so rich*

I like to think it would, especially as I wrote it (some credit also due to William Carlos Williams). I think the poem was re-tweeted 83 times. Aw mah gawd – I’m famous! Justin Timberlake’s new song had about 1.8mn YouTube views in about 16 hours. Tony Walsh’s ‘This is The Place’ has, so far, had almost 205,000 views**. The crowd he was reading to loved the mention of Emmeline Pankhurst. I’ve just glanced at the wiki entry for her – lots of activism, not much poetry.



Aware of the loud beating of my own heart

I rarely watch the telly, but it was Christmas Eve and I had to stay up till midnight so that the kids would have fallen asleep and I could invite Santa into the house so he could leave the stockings and eat the pies. I ended up watching The Great Gatsby and, during the first party scene, I wondered whether Baz Luhrmann had directed it. While the party scenes were inevitably immense, and the anachronistic use of modern music outrageous (yet somehow appropriate), the scene that sticks in my mind now is the one in which Gatsby meets Daisy for the first time in five years. Leonardo di Caprio conveyed the awkwardness that I remembered from the book. That seems to imply that I believe all adaptations should be faithful to the book but I actually agree with Anthony Minghella, who says in my Christmas present, ‘Minghella on Minghella’, that this shouldn’t be the case. I just think it’s a beautiful scene, in the book and the film, especially as it contrasts with Gatsby’s hitherto pristine confidence. He is utterly humbled by his love for a woman.

‘There must have been moments even that afternoon when Daisy tumbled short of his dreams – not through her own fault, but because of the colossal vitality of his illusion.’

So it’s Boxing Day, and I suppose I’m like most people now, thinking about what will happen next year. I hope dreams are achieved and, even if not, the colossal vitality of your illusions is enough to carry you through dark days. It works for me most of the time. Failing that, read some poetry: there’s plenty of it in The Great Gatsby.