On a press not very familiar to me (and therefore immediately intriguing) comes a rather large form book of poems named simply b/w (Black and white? An associational obsession with Blake? The curtness of an abbreviation? A mystery skirted over or around?)
The assumption being that we’re in a realm of opposites, of assumptions quietly named, tagged and put away… not that this is the view of the poems held herein, but the critique and goal of them? A satire on the “clarity” of group hypnosis when faced with a fascist all-party/no-party/one-party government? The with-us-or-against-us genome?
Or simply, as I say, an unfolding mystery, immediately presented to the reader.
The blurb sings: “The poems are always about more than they are about, suggestive of the zeitgeist”. Am I comfortable here? This fragile modernity wafts its slightly stale rays over the pages of the book as they turn… zeitgeist, anyone?
But let’s not rush to judgments. Further mysteries entaileth the reading.
An opening quote sports this pidgin English from A New Bislama Dictionary:
‘Tok we oli raetem blong narafala mani ridim i blong kasem stret tingting we man we i stop harem long hat blong hem.
(Talk where all he write him belong another fellow man he read him belong catch him straight think think where man where he write him stop hear him along heart belong him)’
The ‘translation’ is McDevitt’s. To this reader, unfamiliar with different forms of pidgin, it needs reading over. And over. Slowly the beauty of this sentence begins to seep into the mind. A koan-like gem of a sentence that tells of the wedding of reader and writer, that makes you question the way language functions, and makes you enjoy the fact that it functions away from rules familiar to you, and particularly reveals the London of the following poems thru a filter of its myriad languages, the awareness of the homogeneity and fracturedness of language, possibly after Tony Harrison or the more pluralistic attitude toward language of certain Irish poets, but perhaps with a broader and more articulate sweep?
O.K. You have me hooked. Let us breach this unique shore…
Amongst the haiku sequence dedicated to the poet Michael Hartnett, Horseshoes, some strange and interesting leaps of imagination:
‘In Tesco Metro,
The Plough and Harrow.
Ancient men nickname it
‘the departure lounge’.’
The first piece exemplifies much of what McDevitt’s sense of how the ‘traditional’ in this collection, or the historical contained/maintained within the present, functions, something actually quite obvious, but quite lacking in contemporary poetry… a studied-ness, let’s say. The ephemeral is still there, however… the assumption that society is three quarters instant throwaway still exists, but always framed within the larger English historical landscape. That word ‘English’ immediately informs other concerns:
‘of the news in England of England in English delivered in English
I am fly-on-the-wall-impotent to but listen to the received
pronunciations of it
and know that I am in mid-Jihad and be suspicious of every syllable
that issues forth from politicians and professional-all-too-
…from the poem Babel. And it is a revelation. FINALLY a poet able to cut the crap re: our political present… and to simply state the bleeding obvious without being jingoistic or attention seeking (again, given aforesaid zeitgeist it is nice to see McDevitt coochie-cooing it one minute and giving it the finger the next… a delightful, and surprising, tac that affirms the blurb’s “Here we depart from the ‘whatever you say, say nothing’ school”). The poem continues:
‘my crapped-out paranoid history-warped baked-potato-with-
beans of a mind
thinks: “England is buttering up the muslims by giving them lots
by interviewing them all the time about mosques Koran hijabs
and generally making them feel included, listened to, included,
nice, not all terrorists
etc. (even while the police are shooting innocent Muslims in their
Koran hijabs Ramadan halal… inane? Stereotypical? Well, yes… but the public broadcast world is half-inane, half stereotypical (maybe I’m being overly kind here?). So it is good to hear this in a poem from a country where, at least publically, people have stopped talking, and most contemporary poets have followed suit. I’d differ in my conclusions on language here… McDevitt is keen to point out that he, as an Irishman, wasn’t interviewed in the same way when London was bombed in 2000. An interesting comparison… but perhaps explained only by the fact that it seems, to this reader, that we’re into the hard sell (the hardcore nitwits) on international terrorism now… so that the citizen (of every creed and colour) must be media-beaten to a pulp in order to be divided along his/her own thin familio-cultural stripe (often one that he/she may have been only barely aware of? Remember, if they can’t find one, they’ll invent one)
Regardless, it’s a poem that employs long lines reminiscent of Ciaran Carson, and is made up of Enquiry and thought… a poem aimed at producing thought, another rarity, and the same approach generously frames many of the following poems, in that many deal with, from multiple directions, this tawdry political boxing-in of the personal identity that all but the very few living in Britain are now subject to.
The key, here, in Babel, is an ending where the poet turns the argument around and uses intelligent satire to mirror the way that satire on authoritarianism itself can be re-directed into an equally authoritarian voice (which IS zeitgeist if ever there was one).
Again the historical bent amongst our budding-Brit-police-state pops up in Notes from Wetherspoon:
‘Here I turn from technocratic city-state
Back to the plough
via the time-machine of a glass vessel
cutting with starry edges.’
This consciousness; of history/histories being constantly enacted/re-enacted/buzzing around like flies is unique, and allows McDevitt a lot more psychological room for maneuver within his poems, and where he resolutely, and with determination, departs from the majority of poets out there. Again, we see this in Abel and Cain, which is subtitled “150 Years After Baudelaire”… a vicious satire with more bite than bark, and a poem that I’d like to quote in its entirety (thus risking the usual wrist-sawing copyright infringement issues)
‘ABEL AND CAIN
150 years after Baudelaire
Race of Abel, dine at The Ritz;
capitalism is such bliss.
Race of Cain, Big Mac and frites;
capitalism takes the…
Race of Abel, your gram of coke
powders the nose of seraphim.
Race of Cain, inject or smoke
your 5 pound wrap of heroin.
Race of Abel, your haute couture
is so chic, so pleasant.
Race of Cain, your cheap sportswear
brands you ‘urban peasant’.
Race of Abel, you’re from good stock;
success begets success.
Race of Cain, you breed like dogs
-gratis – on the NHS.
Race of Abel, your fat cat premium
is a tad invidious.
Race of Cain, your 5 pound minimum
is insulting and injurious.
Race of Abel, money fucks
in its penthouse suite.
Race of Cain, in towerblocks,
poverty sucks its teeth.
Race of Abel, fill up your arks.
The flood is coming. Flee!
Race of Cain, your Christ, your Marx
haven’t set you free.
Race of Abel, there is one bother:
money can’t bribe death.
Race of Cain, kill Big Brother
and distribute his wealth.’
In plain spliced quatrains McDevitt does what absolutely no published poet living in England, of his generation, is currently doing: observing the world around them and reporting back in a plain, no-holds-barred conversational manner, with precision of purpose, with studied technique, and with an awareness of the literary and cultural heritage which the poetic imagination brings to expression. The poem is a Mask of Anarchy for the 21st Century, but the reader must decide if ‘killing’ Big Brother is, literally, the correct exhortation. This reader, within this brand of satire, might suggest laughing, from a great height, on Big Brother.
The ‘skeleton in my flesh’, of another biting, sensitively conceived poem; The One Rule is Never to Fall in Love, again echoes the sense of lineage within the present, an almost perfect metaphor for this sense of the past within the present, brilliantly emphasized physiologically…
‘I walk in the public world like a guillotined ghost.
Charm’s the veneer. Inside is a tissue of lies
nourished by barium meals and by chickenfeed.
The skeleton in my flesh has been somehow turned…’’
The poem (wrongly understood by Tom Phillips as a simple philosophical nod to Plato) is both a poetic near-autopsy of the individual psyche, post-20th Century, post-9/11, post July 05 London bombings, and comes from a poet aware of historical and media manipulations, and of the lies of a country’s past, forced on the Epsilonic perambulations of the current teachers of our current university generation. From an earlier section:
‘…the lion-tamer is – in fact – a taxidermist
who’ll never admit that the lions he tames are stuffed.’
If this isn’t the most efficient breakdown of the current body-Politic’s concerns in Britain/Europe then I don’t know what is. The first trick of the conman is to make the individual believe his lies are in some way useful and significant, even to the tiniest smithereen of a degree. NOTE: great poetry is important things said concisely, and without fanfare.
The pre-occupations with language return in Savej Singsing:
‘taem blong hot
taem blong ren
mun i gowe
mun i kambakegan
no jioj! no bang!
no trak! no ofis!
no kot! no mani!
no klos! no polis!’
Regardless of what the reader takes from this pidgin, perhaps the effort is behind one’s reading of it, so that we become vaguely aware of ‘an emergency’ being enacted within its narrative, even if the details elude us (no job?… no bed? no money? no clothes? no police?)
In 2010, if the human is he who ‘dies off-screen’ (to quote Jarvis Cocker) then the pidgin poems are, again, an efficient way of using language as television or headline with ‘the emergency’ of Big Brother government buried (but still breathing) below (Mandelstam: “I am under the earth but my lips are still moving”).
It is also a subtle and effective exhortation for the reader to pay attention to the entire picture, rather than the limited spheres of political, cultural, literary, familial and linguistic affiliations.
In order to transcend these McDevitt (as a poet rightly should) has marked out language as both the revealer of truth and the battlefield where it is discovered. And, just when the reader thinks he is full to bursting with the innovations of a truth larger than the poet’s most immediate materials provide, we get the concision of:
‘Original sin is being born into a society that asks only of its
in Ode to the Dole. Surely the great life-mantra of the post-Microwave generation?? and a sentiment that every person who has reached their early thirties (and perhaps beyond?) will understand. While the public realms still strive after ideals (which are fake and conceived to divide mankind) what is most immediate in the life of all born after the aftermath of the sixties is that, qualitatively, the message, in all areas of life, affirms McDevitt’s clarifying clarion bell… the great thinning down of all other concerns, whether you be in England, Iceland or the Ivory Coast. One does not need to be a poetry reader to understand a statement like this… it is always-and-consistently-apparent whether one is in need of a loan, getting a job, choosing hobbies, travelling, moving between country and city… moreover, it is an unanswered, psychic conundrum lying in wait for a more communally spiritual perspective, an obstacle still sitting there, the elephant in the proverbial modern poetry room. And yet, who, in poetry, has actually said it? These are discussions that go on around poetry, whereas this poet bravely chooses to use the world as material, rather than to use poetry as refuge, or partial refuge, from world.
McDevitt widens the use of the senses far beyond his reflections on language, as he toys, in Hyacinths, with the subject of Brion Gysin’s “dreamachine”, an artwork, McDevitt explains, meant to be viewed with eyes closed…
‘pink light of the pink lanterns
pink dreamachines of winter
purple-blue illumined bulbs
pink-flight mind of cherubs
spinning white into hypnosis…’
…Kandinsky painting images he sees within his mind’s eye, European and American Abstract Expressionism and the Beats are all echoes of this strange circling poem, that, like the poems by the Italians of Dante’s era, limits its rhymes to the very few (in the English idiom; even trickier). The visual metaphor implicit in the note to this poem makes the reader pay attention to the wisdom available in not seeing, the role that the unconscious mind (denied by modern poets and scientists alike) plays in, and relates to, conscious human awareness. So; another thread the poet is not afraid to touch upon; the illusion of the separation between labels of conscious and unconscious, sight and blindness.
So, I return to the claim: ‘The poems are all about more than what they are about’, and having lived with the poems for a while, these pieces DO affirm the subject matter that they don’t necessarily include, achieving this through the synthesis of the intuition of the importance of specific material found In The Reality of the World and an ability to bend this material into their most communicating and respectful facilities…
Don Paterson asserted, many a year ago, that syntax is what really separates great poetry from the merely good, ordinary or mediocre. I’d say that these are simply concerns of technique. The poetry displayed here has a particular way of carrying its world of associations into newer and more important sounds and meanings… sounds and meanings that I think might give a greater clue regarding what great poetry can do, right now and further into this century. If the fascinations and associations both chime with a focused reality and throw off a particular energy, linguistic and physical, then I think this would give you a sense of what great poetry is.
McDevitt’s collection exemplifies a lot of these facets of material that he has both worked on and worked out, and as such one can begin to glimpse a poetry that is shamanic, meaning; an act of both body AND mind… thus ignoring/bypassing the limiting designations of page, stage and academy etc.
One proceeds, largely, from intuition; as Henry Miller touches on… when asked how he wrote, Miller replied “by writing”. For example it is very difficult to learn to drive without getting into a car. What has happened to approaches to poetry as we have progressed into the new millenium is we have simply increased the shouting and screaming that goes on around the picking up of a pen (as if the idea of the expression of a particular truth is such a communal surprise to us that we must mould ourselves to its door without doing the amount of reading and practice required to create great work. In this, we have mechanized and institutionalized a natural human process, thereby tranquilizing its ability to lay claim on truth, and our ability to accept and investigate that truth).
Applied to this problem of the current approach to the composition of poetry; is what I’d term the ‘shamanic approach’ which, to all intents and purposes, could be called ‘human poetry’ in the near future, once humans discover the artistic processes of which they are already conscious, but have forgotten because of continually being bombarded by institutional and media-created societal ‘concerns’ rather than following their own instincts, curiosities, and their own creative urges (certain artists, from different arenas, have peeped above the ugly robotic morass in the 20th Century, to affirm this spirit, some to a greater degree than others… Pound, Yeats, Vallejo, Olson, Ginsberg and Pasolini; a poet not in ‘the visionary tradition’ but an artist intelligent enough to see the ‘guidedness’ of the political landscape beyond mid-century)
All of this comes at a price. The modern poetry reader (along with poetry publishers, editors, even… in short, our current Literary Guardians), buried under the mountains of mediocre volumes which the publishers themselves have produced as a short term fix on a long term problem (the need for capital and the lack of faith in humanity when it comes to accepting open-minded readers), may have largely forgotten how to read poetry, and thus how to recognize good from bad (or they are subject to the whims of corporate forces which they would very much prefer not to talk about).
Newcomers to this book, particularly those who are schooled rather than ‘readers’ (i.e not the rest of us, the ‘plebs with eyes’ without their certificates for reading) will need to spend weeks or months with a book of this kind before the penny is allowed to drop. For the rest, we have a feast of innovations to ponder and return to. Let us hope that, for the benefit of Niall McDevitt and future poetry (particularly younger writers and readers), the penny will do just that sometime in the near future.
But, having been (up to now) all praise, certain negative things do come to mind. You have to be careful around a book like this. It is alive, and will suggest things, simple or complicated, over larger periods of time.
To try to be balanced I’d say a certain masculinity of tone pervades that could be lessened in later work, also the danger of imitating, rather than using, one’s influential beacons (the title The One Rule Is Never to Fall in Love is Rimbaud over McDevitt… I’ll temper that with the view that if everything and nothing is original then it is simply a question of picking the right influences, and one cannot criticize McDevitt too much here, but it is something for poets in this highly innovatory vein to watch out for).
Possibly a more pervasive international focus could be developed or encouraged, but again this is a game of focus-juggling… the familiarity of an artist’s materials need to be absolutely honed tight and McDevitt is a poet who obviously understands the importance of not sounding off on a subject even mildly unfamiliar. Also, in this way one can understand the need for a community of poets rather than the prevalence of untouchables who reign supreme in a shower of media emptinesses and awards ceremonies… this, in itself, represents the loss of touch with the materials which immediately helped the artist gain the thing that has made his work so exemplary.
Another important concern is whether one needs to re-affirm evils like Tesco Metro by mentioning them in one’s poetry (this is/should be a big debate in poetry). My jury is personally out on this one, but it is worth a mention, and if McDevitt were to heed Blake’s visionary exhortation in Jerusalem ‘They became what they beheld’ he may well excise these portions of text in order to move closer to the “poetic envisioning” this reader believes is his goal.
One also wonders how far a talented poet can take the satirical ball and run with it. If one believes that life in Europe and beyond will become increasingly fascistic and authoritarian (and I do not lower myself, in this, to speak of the ignorant that believe the aristocratic order and the parliamentary system in Britain, as it stands, can be upheld by simply ‘going on’, and without a gigantic psychic change in the individuals in this area of the world) then the poet, after highlighting the issue (the all-important first step made in this collection) must “go beyond” the taxidermist-lion tamers of the public mind and access the information that these enforcers of culture are hiding, exactly… and, for this, one must be more radical and open-minded than even Blake was in his own time.
McDevitt, for the most part, has much more than the strain of satire intertwined through these complex, and spiritually revealing, pieces and honours the spirit of his influences while reaching for new revelations (and one would want to leave open the question of where satire ends and the work of finding causes for the lunacy and the eventual emancipation of the individual begins)
So, nit-picking aside, McDevitt has understood the control mechanism that Europe is in the grip of… and, without intending one iota of condescension, time will tell if further collections will, like Blake before him, allow the less-socially-acceptable-bite prevail over the bark of the mediocre. I say this hoping that the muse allows him access to expound upon or have full awareness of the even larger hidden levers of power, the hoax of the conservative/liberal paradigm, the hidden Fabian socialist leanings of the Blair years, the anti-environmentalism of “climate change” and other soporific apocalypses, and the oh-so-PC silences that, by the hour, have created the global mess that his poetry, within the local crucible of London, so brilliantly and forthrightly unmasks, regards, and siphons off for its own purposes.
The eager and sane will need to read this book at least 6-7 times to fully understand the innovation and import of it, the rest may take 20-30 times, many will never understand… particularly poets who do not deserve to scribble in its shadow. (Note to self: is this why we still don’t have a decent complete edition of Shelley’s poetry?)
My instinct, beside difficult attempts at negative critique, tells me that this book is going to stick for a very, very long time, and will be very hard to better, even by the author himself… and as the various awards ceremonies roll by every year, readers of this book who do masochistically choose to run in ‘poetry’ circles may hopefully begin to wonder why they are so consistently being served up such turgid, fantastical nonsense to read.
In a recent post to the poet Todd Swift’s Eyewear blog McDevitt writes:
“I’m also really trying to address the complete change in reality that has occurred in the first decade of the third millennium. It amazes me that so many poets carry on Larkining/Muldooning/Patersoning about as if nothing had happened.”
I, personally, would go further than ten years. What has occurred in English, Scottish and, for the most part, Irish poetry* since the early-to-mid seventies is really a sham (or a shame?) in the sense that the discipline, the seriousness, of an endeavour which has truth as its goal was so diluted, so anti-social, so navel-gazing, so in-need-of-attention that it had chunnering minorities as its elitist goal rather than the broad candid sweep, CARRYING the illucidation of an innovating truth, as in say someone like a Pound, Yeats, or a Ginsberg**. However, this is not a vote for ‘political’ poetry or ‘public’ poetry, it is a vote for good, well-honed and crafted verse with the goal of truth on all its horizons.
Yet, still, in this approach, there is often the criticism of looking back, of doing ‘an elegiac turn’. But a poet must always work with The Good as lineage, and not with what is closest to hand if it does not spiritually satisfy… which makes pronunciations on the current and the mediocre necessary (‘To the pricks, cunts, glandes and clits / Who ‘sex up’ the same old mediocrity / For a bourgeois / PC / moral majority: / History will consign you to plague pits.’ –To the Intellectual Proprietors), a tension that McDevitt further expands on, in History:
“I cannot go naked in history’s fields.
I am clad in the body of my father”
With this book let’s be brought back to the notion of poetry as simply a revealer of truth, dig in, and re-focus on the illusions and realities of what we are presented with daily, because I believe it is a book we can be made great by, and the publishers should be heartily congratulated for having the good sense to put it out.
I also believe that a renaissance in a humane, generous and forthrightly curious poetry is long, long overdue, particularly after 1/the dark post-WWII years 2/the failure of the poets of the sixties to take Pound’s economic hot potato and run with it*** 3/the selfish, indulgent and ignorant approaches in poetry of the last 20-30 years.
“I treat poetry as an art, not as a competitive sport or an academic discipline” writes McDevitt.
Perhaps this book will initiate, or be part of, a wider movement toward the fundamental restoration of the art that poetry is, and has been.
Andrew O’Donnell, Sept 28th 2010
*There are still the marginal figures in all countries, and other innovators in Ireland, and cut the cultural cake however you want to slice it… it is, indeed, this urge, of the individual, toward the boxed-in demographic and comfort-blanket-lies of polls/statistics which will make mince-meat of us all, if we let it.
**While each poet had his own political affiliations, we must remember that Pound’s fascism, while suspect in-and-of-itself, and in terms of what it was for (Mussolini) was also directed against the banking systems of Europe, who now quite openly, and, in most cases legally, ride roughshod over the citizens they profess to protect within Europe (over 70 percent of Britain’s laws originate, in bill form, from within the European Parliament in Brussels, which the banking cartels populate and survey).
This is also where Blake and Pound are not so far apart as they might seem, at first glance… and also where McDevitt may also enter the debate through the contemporary poetry scene via the satirical, and particularly via such visionary pieces as Song of the Jinn, Lilith, and The Jewess (could the satirical, alone, in the long term, only be a beginning, while being a great loosener of poetic energies… in the long-term is it simply a symptom of a malais; the knowledge that the communal lack of the will toward knowledge is severely lacking? Knowledge that will not be pushed into new territories, and can act as an extension of self-policing authoritarianism? This I leave open as a question for further debate).
In this discussion it is rare, however, even in poetry circles, that most want to investigate beyond Pound’s journalistic extension of Blake’s criticism of the banking networks, as manifested in his work on the carefully constructed lie of capitalist economies (Selected Prose 1972, New Directions) in his protege Eustace Mullins’s prose work Secrets of the Federal Reserve (commissioned by Pound) and Mullins’s little known (and out of print) biography of Pound This Difficult Individual. Here the majority are split between retreating into robot-dom or waxing satirical into eternity.
***The more significant reason for why Pound was arrested and incarcerated in an insane asylum, meaning the absolute corruption and conspiracy of the ‘Cold War’ before, during, and ever since WWII, which books like Antony Sutton’s National Suicide unmask as a series of opportune trading deals between The Soviet Union and The West, and not at all the ‘daggers drawn’ scenario we’ve been fed. Sutton also provides ample evidence for the argument that Bolshevism was, for the most part, an invention of Wall St.