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  • I don’t know, everything feels strange. As I write this the whole country is being lashed by a rogue wind that has been hammering my little windows in since last night, and filling my little garret with tumult. The sash in the bathroom is banging in its frame, the casements at the front rattle as if they’ll e off their hinges, and there’s no stillness in the rooms.

    The news out of El Paso and Mississippi has put a shadow over everything else, and turned out to coincide with the death of Toni Morrison, one of the least dispensable people on the planet. Dominic Cummings, Boris Johnson’s righthand man — and the guy who admitted in print that the Remain side would have won the referendum if it hadn’t been for the £350m lie — and he admitted it was a lie — has now been pared to Rasputin, while Johnson, even in this short time, is said to have ‘weaponised positive thinking’. Arguments about Brexit are thickening again.

    We in the UK do need to think about our own back yard. Considering how riveted we all are to the enormities ing out of America, it feels odd how no one seems to remember that time, a few years, ago when Byron Burgers (reliably great hamburger chain, if sometimes lacking in ambience) took all their workers on a ‘staff training day’, and when they got to the place, the goons from the Home Office came and took all the undocumented people away.

    Not 600 of them, of course. It made the news, but it did nothing more than that. No one ever asked if any of them had children, and no one suggested not going to Byron Burgers any more.

    The old Baroque brain is feeling a little wind-whipped. From within and without.

    Today’s postbag, therefore, very welely contained a copy of Frederick Seidel’s new collection, Peaches Goes It Alone. I can see that it isn’t his strongest collection; this is allowed, as not ‘everything’ can ever be ‘the best’. Ooga Booga was such an event; you can’t ask for that every time. In this new one, for pretty much the first time ever, a couple of poems strike me as being actually as ‘sexist’ as many people have always said Seidel was, which is disappointing. Some are weak, just dashed off. There are lots of sort of dangling last lines that should have been snipped. Including, in my book, the final couplet of the poem that follows.

    But there are several things to really like about it. First, that title! Who could resist that. Not me. Second, the fact that there’s no title poem. Thirdly, a poem called ‘Worst When It’s Poetry’. And one about Roupell Street, indeed titled ‘Roupell Street’, which is nice (though sadly it’s one of the weak ones). ‘Ducati Years, Ducati Days’ has the surface appearance that people hate, but the narrator es off worst, lacerated by the whipping tips of his own irony. And the colours on the cover are so sickly that I really love that about this book too, though clearly that bit wasn’t Seidel’s doing.

    And there’s this poem, which I’ll take the liberty of quoting in full because it’s so damn apposite.

    England Now

    I like to be dead.
    That’s what the dead say.

    I’d rather be dead than so-called alive.
    I like the lack of feeling.

    That’s my way.
    I’m feeling good.

    I haven’t been big on feeling.
    I haven’t been alive that much.

    It rains all the time and it’s cold in July.
    Somewhere down south,

    In the tropical humidity and heat
    Of my brain below the belt,

    That’s where I vote.
    I don’t want any.

    I eat what’s there.
    I don’t import.

    I am England
    Under these newish circumstances.

    A people who are proud to be dead said
    So loud and clear.

    Now, the serious bit. In a recent review in The New Statesman, Paul Batchelor wrote about this book alongside Niall Campbell’s new collection, Noctuary, saying that they herald, or typify, a rise in sentimentalist poetry. Campbell apparently relies on lazy moon tropes. Well, I don’t have a stake in his work the way I have in Seidel’s. And reading Peaches Goes It Alone, it’s hard to see how ‘sentimentality’ is a conclusion you could even arrive at. (Spoiler: it’s not reading, it’s projection.)

    Here is the Seidel bit of Batchelor’s review in full:

    Now 83 years old, Seidel began his career by courting controversy, titling his 1963?debut collection?Final Solutions. He still likes to cast himself as a subversive element: “Each poem of mine is a suicide belt.” In?reality his poems are gated munities. He is yesterday’s rebel, and his observations concerning life in the age of Trump and #MeToo sound bewildered, bored, non-mittal: “Many people these days are either Trump or trans or gay…” or “Masturbating in front of women who work for you or want to,/Women who have plenty to gain or lose in this,/Seems to be a new thing men in power do…” Despite the ubiquitous air of knowingness, there is no sign of Seidel having considered how much he has in mon with such men. In 2004 the essayist Philip Connors praised Seidel for being: “The writer willing to say the unsayable.” Today, these are the terms in which Trump voters justify their choice.

    Both of these writers are sentimentalists. Campbell’s fumbling attempts to manipulate the reader are easier to identify, but Seidel is just as mitted to a joyless caricature of passion. Here are two books that blunt the faculty of sympathetic patience. They require and reward placency. If you like them, you’ll love vaudeville.?

    Well. I have neither the time nor the mental energy right now to write the 3,000-word essay that needs to be written about this. But what Batchelor hasn’t done is reviewed the book. As I’ve written above, at a time like this it’s important to keep our wits, to see things for what they actually are, and not to fall prey to sentimentality ourselves. Cynicism is the deepest form of sentimentality there is; it’s either the pre-existing condition of sentimentality, or the necrosis it leads to. If anyone here seems sentimental, it’s Batchelor, because he wants the poet, and maybe by extension poetry, to be one way and not the way he really is.

    Seidel isn’t a cynic. He is very open, not vain, and often surprisingly emotionally vulnerable. His most famous line, ‘A naked woman my age is just a total nightmare’, from ‘Climbing Everest’ in Ooga Booga, is the one most monly cited as evidence of his horrific arrogance and misogyny, but it seems clear enough that ‘my age’ is the key phrase there. Just before this line, of sex with a much younger partner, he says, ‘It’s almost incest when it gets to this’. In other words, it’s self-examination and merciless clarity of observation. Not of the older woman, but of his own ageing. As all poets know, what you leave out is often as important as what you put in.

    Alex Halberstadt writes in the other article I’ve linked to that the poems ‘are both ruthlessly honest—in the words of Seidel’s editor, Jonathan Galassi, “unpromising to the point of cruelty”—and unflinching about the serious business of pleasure’. Sentimentality, were it present, would be in the flinch.

    Batchelor’s review hints at some awfully big accusations. Suddenly Seidel, a poet, must consider whether he sounds too ‘non-mittal’ (again, not ‘sentimental’); he must reflect on ‘how much he has in mon with such men’ as those ‘men in power’ who masturbate over female employees. Why? What men? Men like Harvey Weinstein? Suddenly he’s a gross abuser on a global scale? I’m not seeing how this extrapolation works, unless you reduce it to rich men, camels, and eyes of needles. No one has ever to my knowledge accused Seidel of any sexual abuse at all. It’s potentially a serious allegation, or would be, if anyone thought Batchelor’s words were worth taking seriously. Fortunately it’s obvious that he’s just flinging them about. It’s a pretty reductive way to review a book of poetry.

    No, calling his first collection Final Solutions did not make Seidel a Nazi. (For one thing, he’s a Jew.) ‘Each poem of mine is a suicide belt’ may seem like a provocative statement, but for one thing, poetry operates almost entirely in the realm of image and metaphor, so no, he’s not talking about blowing anyone up, and he’s not advocating terrorism. For another, the poet has chosen to say ‘suicide belt’ rather than just ‘bomb’. So we have a metaphorical line in a poem, which is about poems, and indicates that the poet himself will be the first person taken out by his own work. Naturally it does get a bit of charge (sic) from the term ‘suicide bomber’, but I thought that since Modernism nothing was off limits in poetry. Would anyone (on ‘the right side of history’, as the current saying goes) plain if someone like Abby Hoffman had written something like that, someone like Allen Ginsburg, back in the day, or someone like Angela Davis?

    Batchelor quotes Philip Connors, who in 2004 — at the height of the Iraq war, in the Blair-Bush years — called Seidel ‘The writer willing to say the unsayable’, and then remarks, ‘Today, these are the terms in which Trump voters justify their choice’. If someone can draw a line from one of these statements to the other, please be my guest. Lots of sayings and phrases ‘persist from one life to the next’, as James Merrill writes in his great poem, ‘The Kimono’ (of ‘desires ungratified’). It seems a little too much semantic unpacking to try to say why it was all right to say the unsayable in 2004 and it isn’t now.

    Trump voters also justify their support for DT by saying he seems like one of the guys, like a normal person. They feel understood by him, in just the way people feel understood by poetry. They say he sticks up for the little guy, just like they said about John Brown. They say he’s on their side. Do we just find every phrase that sounds like one of these lines the Trump base uses, and then excoriate anyone else to whom it might, in whatever context, also apply? James Baldwin (another notable sentimentalist) also said the unsayable. So did Jane Austen, for that matter. So did Voltaire. Being a way of saying the unsayable is precisely what literature is. As Alex Halberstadt writes of Ooga Booga: ‘While I can think of a more likable book of poems, I can scarcely imagine a better one’.

    ‘Both of these writers are sentimentalists’, continues Batchelor, undeterred by his argument refusing to stack up even within its own terms, as Seidel is also ‘mitted to a joyless caricature of passion’.

    ‘Here are two books that blunt the faculty of sympathetic patience’, he writes, though I have to say his review has also done that to me. Far from requiring and rewarding placency, Seidel challenges it, partly by never being ‘like’ what you think he’s like, or want to think he’s like. He’s Mister Unpindownable. I doubt he himself has managed to figure out what he’s like. But the one thing anyone can see is that he’s not like Trump.

    And yeah, I do like a little bit of cucumber now and then.

    In ‘Worst When it’s Poetry’, Seidel writes, once again about himself:

    Here’s a naked fellow dressed up in some clothes,
    Arrogantly flaunting what he actually loathes —
    The Savile Row swagger and the nonchalant pose!
    He’s who he isn’t and he makes sure it shows.

    Reading a book of poems by Ian McMillan is like talking with an old friend. (I can even hear that sentence in his voice, which of course to the sorts of people who like that kind of thing is so familiar from his Radio 4 programme, The Verb.)

    So when I saw that he had a new pamphlet of poems out I was pleased. And when I heard that That’s Not a Fishing Boat, It’s a Giraffe was Responses to Austerity, I immediately contacted Smith|Doorstop, who publish it. If that’s not my subject, after being like ‘the Girl Forrest Gump of Austerity’ all the way from 2011 to now, I don’t know what is. My fortunes have been more or less decided by the Conservative government’s favourite policy ever since they implemented it: I lost my job in the cuts, in the so-called Bonfire of the Quangos, and just took it from there, straight into the so-called New Precariat.

    In a nice twist, because when they first implemented ‘the new austerity’ I was doing munications and social media in the Energy Saving Trust — itself a quasi-autonomous non-governmental organisation — I was actually at my desk trying to interpret it for our audiences. We wrote fairly lighthearted blog posts about how people saved water and energy during the War, invited readers to send pictures of themselves wearing jumpers in the office, and that sort of thing. A few months later the news came that EST was going to lose over half its funding, was going to turn itself into a lean, mean B2B consultancy machine, and was going to have to drop over half its staff.

    Hello real world!

    Since then, for those who haven’t been reading A Far Cry from Hackney, I will just say that — since I lost my flat in 2018 to a 45% rent increase and a failure to bounce back the decimation of my old sector, particularly of my work role within it — well, you can just call me Forrestina. I’ve been gentrified out of London, I spent months sofa-surfing and was then saved by a bell, and I’m now rather gingerly living outside London for practically the first time ever. I’m lucky not to be trapped in a temporary acmodation unit in a disused office block somewhere just outside Birmingham.

    In top Forrestina style, I even turned around at a book launch party one night and found myself being chatted to by Boris Johnson’s dad, Stanley.

    That's Not a Fishing Boat, It's a Giraffe: Responses to Austerity

    So you can imagine that I was intensely interested to see this pamphlet. And rightly so. I sometimes feel that Ian McMillan’s radio persona, the avuncular humour and Barnsley drawl, make him so approachable, so much a great listen in the car or whatever, that people forget what a seriously good poet he is.

    There is a massive vogue for political poetry at the moment, of course. At our particular moment, to those of us not pletely out of touch with developments everything feels political. And we know what we think about things, politically, so everybody has a lot to say. This is kind of as it should be. And of course, when people are really lost for words — even now, in digi-tele-image culture, as well as places and times when we’re not allowed to say anything straight out — we reach for poetry.

    But so much political poetry is about the certainty that perforce remains unexpressed. One of the things I generally go to poetry for is the expression — embodiment and resolution, maybe — of uncertainty. The secret of a lyric poem is that it’s usually made of two things, not one. An opinion or a reaction to something isn’t enough: you need plication — something to spark off something else, and make a new spark. The new spark is the poem. The poems in Ian McMillan’s pamphlet embody uncertainty in several different ways, all of them fruitful.

    In ‘Eight Poems Translated from a Lost Language’, images present themselves one at a time in aphoristic, haiku-ish bursts: ‘The banks of steel flowers… rusting’, ‘unbuilt wall’, ‘uncarried infant in the arms of the uncle’. These are fleeting snapshots of images we carry in our minds. But ‘milk seethes/ in bottles’. ‘The sunrise reminds us/that nothing is permanent’. And ‘the moon is in the well’. We’re not allowed to be always quite sure what we’re seeing, or why; we just know it’s there. (There’s humour, too, but I try to observe a no-spoilers policy.)

    They’re written from observation, of course. The poet spends a lot of time on trains and buses. ‘Platform 2’, from ‘Our Transport Correspondent Speaks’, is mainly notes about other passengers. What do we know about each other? Even with ‘train intimacy’? ‘I’ll tell you this. Keith shouldn’t be allowed near one of those’.

    In ‘Plain’, ‘Each hotel bar is a cardboard cutout of loneliness’. There are reports here from the barber shop, the opticians, the charity shop, the kitchen, ‘The Food Bank in the Primary School’. It’s all recognisable, including the bewilderment. Looking, for Ian McMillan, involves questions: what am I seeing? What does this mean? And, because this is a book about living inside austerity, not telling us about it, many of these questions are allowed to remain unanswered. As the joke goes, when asked whether he thought the French Revolution had been a success, Zhou Enlai replied, ‘It’s too soon to tell’. We can only look, and many of the images in this collection recur in subtle ways, from poem to poem, imposing themselves on us only gradually.

    Some of the poems are about memory; ‘Covent Garden and the Bald-Headed Bloke in the T-Shirt’ is funny, but with a sucker punch. Punched by your uncle. ‘Uncle Charlie’s Moon’, a character sketch in a single moment across time, is tender and heartbreaking.

    There is satire, too, of course. There’s the characteristic McMillan surreal imagery, as in ‘Fruit Solar System’; we can’t quite believe anything, can we? the mysteries are so much bigger than us. ‘Jupiter is a grapefruit/ But a grapefruit so big you’d have to get/ your mate Harry to help you carry it home.’ There’s time travel, even aside from the time travel of memory.

    My favourite two, I think, involve switches: the fiendishly clever and very beautiful ‘Penny’ (‘Monocle-gleam on the pavement,/ Fallen moon. Joyce bent to grab it…’) and one about a tin of baked beans — and I’ll give no spoilers there.

    These poems occupy a dreamlike space, on the whole, emitting the same air of unreality that my friends and I all say we are feeling all the time lately. Several feel as if they might be written from dreams, which are an inherently uncertain space. ‘My Austerity Face’ is Cubist. In ‘Somebody Spoke and’, images float in and then out again and all you know is that nobody knows. And the pamphlet ends with a short prose piece called ‘Three Dreams Rendered Prosaically’ — presumably as a transliteration from their natural language, poetry. But these dreams feel almost more realistic than the ones about just being in the world: ‘Spokesman stops speaking. Is overe with emotion. Whether laughter or tears is difficult to tell. Wipes his eyes with his pocket square. Nice touch that’.

    In short, the pamphlet feels like a whole book. Order it from The Poetry Business for a quite affordable £5.

    Street poet: a winter story for the heat wave

    26 July 2019
    Thumbnail image for Street poet: a winter story for the heat wave

    Kids and typewriters. It’s a match made in heaven. The resurgence of typewriters in recent years has not only given given rise to a new phenomenon of ‘street poetry’ – you pay a fee, tell the poet what you want your poem to be about, and they write it for you on their typewriter, right […]

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    Baroque is Back!

    16 July 2019

    I never officially closed it down; I just stopped posting. Anyone who doesn’t yet know the story of the apocalypse that befell in Baroqueland can find it on the blog I started a year and more ago, A Far Cry from Hackney. Though that one has also been intermittent, for perhaps obvious reasons. The cataclysm […]

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    Last minute! I’m adding a daytime advanced poetry workshop starting this ing Weds

    4 January 2019

    A little flurry of emails over Christmas, and I’m rashly starting a new group with only days to go! It’s a new advanced poetry workshop that will meet on alternate Wednesday afternoons. Starting this week, 9 January, the term runs over seven fortnightly sessions. The group is limited to seven members, so if you join […]

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    An earnest chestnut in place of a poppy on the centenary of the Armistice

    11 November 2018

    NOTE: I first wrote this post in 2009, what seems a lifetime ago. Although it seems a lifetime, it is less than ten years, and it was the first year on which there were no veterans of the Great War to take part in the memorations. It really is not that long a time, one […]

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    A few thoughts on Christmas

    25 December 2017

    Well… maybe I get a little too much time to think on a Christmas Day. The festivities ended hereabouts at about 12:30 and the darkness descended… I had a lovely, quirky cup of tea with a friend who’s alone today – we thought of the Jewish bakery but it’s shut, but a pub turned out […]

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    ‘So Glad I’m Me’ at the Betsey: so glad I went!

    24 November 2017

    ‘Home Sweet Home’ So, last Sunday. A celebration (rather than a ‘launch’, as it’s already been out for a while, and there were very few copies for sale on the day) of Roddy Lumsden’s new collection, So Glad I’m Me. I will be writing more about this book in due course, as it’s shortlisted for […]

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