On Deja Vu

Is there such a thing as a visual cliché?

Intruder, Jill Bialosky Public Dream, Frances Leviston

Both are poetry collections. One is ‘a study in the nature of reality, selfhood, and the different levels of consciousness we inhabit’; the other is much more concerned with ‘ideas of the waking world, and the world as it is imagined or dreamt’. Ahem.

I don’t suppose this particular coincidence says an awful lot, really: a misty, light-flecked, snowbound scene, evocative of Narnia and Manhattan parks and lonely childhoods, sells poetry. I wish I didn’t find it symptomatic of the slushy state of the poetry marketplace in general. As Peter Hughes puts it, rather majestically: “Hundreds of books and magazines continue to print thousands of poems in which a person wearing sensible shoes modestly observes how some rhubarb reminds them of their dad”.

Every gushing review I read of a new collection of ‘crystalline poems remarkable for their precision and focus’ (for instance) makes me want to torture a fairy. If you do by any chance stumble across a bad review, be sure to ignore it and if possible buy the collection in question. Normally, it’s just a bit different; perhaps it doesn’t include the word ‘heft’, or any reference to dusk, foxes, or childhood. Perhaps some poems in it avoid lapsing into trite epiphany  – what’s known as the Damascus Syndrome, a common affliction. Perhaps the poet is under 30 and not working in academia and doesn’t like the Goldberg Variations and certainly hasn’t written a ‘ecstatic and utterly crystalline’ poetic sequence about them.

The poetry I read is often dull, and the reviews altogether deadening. It’s all a matter of taste, I suppose, and mine could be off – I do after all have a thing for McNuggets. I wish, though, more of what I read were like Roy Fisher’s long poem ‘Furnace’, which I’m reading at the moment. I intend to write more fully about it down the line, but here’s a snippet of this subtly refracted lyric:

approaches my passive taking-in,
then surrounds me and goes by
will have itself understood only
phase upon phase
by separate involuntary
strokes of the mind, dark
swings of a fan-blade
that keeps a time of its own
made up from the long
discrete moments
of the stages of the street,
each bred off the last as if by

O! Such an irresistible, crystalline intelligence.

NB. I own Public Dream and actually enjoyed it. This is a pretty fantastic poem. August Kleinzahler’s written quite a good review of Fisher’s ‘Collected Poems’ here.


3 responses to “On Deja Vu

  1. I’ve recently discovered Salt Publishers who specialise in poetry and who have some pretty fine writers on their list. I bought a book by Peter Abbs called Voyaging Out and it was great – not slushy or feeble at all. It can be very hard to get hold of good contemporary poetry and the identical covers on the collections have nothing good to say about publishers’ intentions to take risks and make experiments at present…

    • I’m glad you’ve heard of Salt – I agree, they’re really excellent. They publish Luke Kennard, a really interesting poet who writes surreal, witty little poems, unlike anything I’d ever read. Well worth a look.

  2. Invictus- William Henley

    Out of the night that covers me,
    Black as the Pit from pole to pole,
    I thank whatever gods may be
    For my unconquerable soul.
    In the fell clutch of circumstance
    I have not winced nor cried aloud.
    Under the bludgeonings of chance
    My head is bloody, but unbowed.
    Beyond this place of wrath and tears
    Looms but the Horror of the shade,
    And yet the menace of the years
    Finds and shall find me unafraid.
    It matters not how strait the gate,
    How charged with punishments the scroll
    I am the master of my fate:
    I am the captain of my soul.

    Humbles. Yes. Good poem.

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