Poetry Chronicle 4: Tim Kendall
An act of criticism is, at best, also an act of creativity: they are hemispheres of the same world. Historically, in the West at least, criticism and creative writing are two phases of the same activity, and criticism illuminates most sharply when practical experience of writing is at the bottom of it.
The best criticism creates new open spaces for creativity. Criticism, like creative writing, is another open space for engaging an audience, and engaging with the world. Leading critics and interpreters of literature have themselves had substantial experience of imaginative writing at the deepest level.
Many of our best writers have also been among the more insightful critics, among others: Sir Philip Sidney, Ben Jonson, S.T. Coleridge, Percy Shelley, John Keats (from his letters), Matthew Arnold, T. S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, George Orwell, W.H. Auden, Randall Jarrell, Virginia Woolf, William Empson, Saul Bellow, V.S. Pritchett, Geoffrey Hill, Ted Hughes, Joseph Brodsky, Thom Gunn, Adrienne Rich, Seamus Heaney, Eavan Boland, Chinua Achebe, John Ashbery, Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Les Murray, Margaret Atwood and Paul Muldoon. Harold Bloom cedes that, ‘criticism…is either part of literature or nothing at all…’; but take heed of John Gardner, ‘Nothing is harder on the true writer’s sense of security than an age of bad criticism, and in one way or another, sad to say, almost every age qualifies’.
However, in the same way that translation theory has little effect on the practice of translation, so literary theory generally has a negligible impact on the way creative writers go about their business. It has to be said that some writers find it creatively disabling to read literary criticism; they find it stalls them in the act of making, or it alters their expectations of literature in ways which are simply false or destructive. Many writers simply write for themselves, and reading about writing can undo a writer’s useful selfishness to an extent. The poet Elizabeth Bishop warned a would-be writer, ‘you…are reading too much about poetry and not enough poetry. […] I always ask my writing classes NOT to read criticism’.
As I see it, the world of the poet-critic is vexatious and interesting, and these vexations and interests not only inform Tim Kendall’s work, but how we might read his poetry. I acknowledge “The Guardian” Review where this essay first appeared; and the OuLiPo, for the manner in which it was written – the “game” of the piece was to mention as many contemporary poetry collections as possible, but make them seem an inevitable part of the prose. A prize will not be awarded for whoever spots them all – a scaffold can help create a structure, but it can also hang.
The Long Game
There is a passage in Frederick C. Crews’s send-up of EngLit studies The Pooh Perplex in which “Simon Lacerous” (a parodic F.R. Leavis) claims that, ‘The trouble with Winnie-the-Pooh is that it constitutes a vast betrayal of Life’. As Lacerous’s fictional biography states, ‘He and his wife, Trixie, were the guiding spirits behind the now defunct but extremely influential quarterly, Thumbscrew’.
There were some of us who thought that the work and manoeuvres of certain poets and anthology-editors of recent years constituted a fairly vast betrayal of poetry. Not many people did anything about it except Tim Kendall. With his friends, the critics John Redmond and Ian Sansom, he took Lacerous’s title for the gift it was and set up the real thing: Thumbscrew.
With Kendall as editor, the magazine waged an intelligent, thumb-biting war against faked-up poetic reputation. It championed unsung poetic heroes such as Dorothy Nimmo and Michael Foley alongside some of the best international poets. Thumbscrew was funny but it was never silly. An editorial or review felt like clear cold water in a rare time of rain.
But the magazine went further. It exposed some fairly shocking cartels in the poetry world, and took a strong, positive stance on work produced by small presses. It was a bad day for the unsung dynasty when the magazine wound up after a decade, but Kendall had done the job. With hindsight, Thumbscrew gave poetry criticism back a purposeful semblance of integrity, humour and bravura, and in its turn influenced a number of new journals including Areté and Metre.
Ten years of setting standards, of unscrewing the powerful from their self-claimed thrones, could leave you vulnerable to a revengeful critical counterblast. Tim Kendall had been re-establishing some first principles for poetry. Strange Land is his first collection. Could he do what he expects the others to? The answer is an enormous yes, and this is partly because he’s learned from the errors of others, and has evidently decided to play a long and cleverer game – waiting and whittling at his work until it could stand up for itself.
First collections can, after all, be a weird species: sometimes premature in their birth, sometimes immature in their craft, and unoriginal in their ideas, themes and structure. A first ‘slim volume’ can be ‘slim’ for the wrong reasons. However, if you can afford to wait – or better still dare to wait – you can, like Kendall, sift a book from a far larger body of work. Your reader will trust you more for your patience. For this very reason, his Strange Land reads more like a Selected Poems:
This is the time being, this is my life:
a nothing moment as a child in bed
while shadows crept up walls like shadows do
and I thought I will remember this,
this nothing, every night the same
but not tonight, tonight’s distinct
and stored to recollect remembering.
I sing the time being, I sing
the getting there, not knowing where to get
and whether I should not not care
as rumours of progress dwindle to farce.
I sing the happy malcontent, whispering
to the slipstream goodbye, goodbye,
and loving it all, for the time being at last.
from ‘The Time Being’
Kendall wrote a prize-winning and delightfully readable study of Paul Muldoon’s poetry. Muldoon is one of the finest and most polyvalent poets writing, but I’d argue that his influence, particularly the richness of his diction, can be garlic-pungent in the voice of a younger author – in a way that Ted Hughes’ or T.S. Eliot’s used to be. Kendall chews the parsley of the late great Augustans to escape it. Indeed, one of the fascinating aspects of Kendall’s work is that he resists explicit influence and cuts his own clear ground in prose poems like ‘Tomatoes’ and ‘Divorce’:
He intends to write of his parents’ divorce.
He remembers the view to the sea, and the rock vanishing at high tide. He is four years old. He owns a container of coins with pictures of ships, Spanish galleons. He strokes them and afterwards his hands smell of rust. Coins cold on his tongue. He feels the feel of swallowing one, the feel all the way down.
Yet Kendall also experiments within reinvented traditional modes: his bristling metrical parodies and fables, and the marvellous cento ‘Hwœt’ which presents a playful history of the poetic line from Langland’s ‘Piers Plowman’ to Heaney’s ‘Exposure’.
In the long poem ‘Ship of Fools’ dedicated ‘to my fellow poets’, Thumbscrew view becomes verse, attacking, yet affectionate in its attentiveness to the vanity of human wishes:
Of how our nation lost its appetite
for music, learning, culture, I must write
condemning all the loutish bourgeoisie
who drowned our flower of poets in the sea
and, showing no remorse, claimed boys and girls
slept safer now that certain eyes were pearls.
He writes of a time, more recent than you’d guess, when poetic reputation grew so skewed by market visibility, a poet might make it almost by image alone, by twofold possession of a fine voice and a face fighting for the camera. As Kendall has it: ‘It was a carnival, with party-hats / masks, music, fancy dress, clowns, acrobats, / and smiles on every face’. As the bad ship Poetry cruised (mostly up and down the Thames) some good poets found themselves in charge, and some had themselves smuggled aboard by those at the wheel. Mediocre – but eye-catching – writers found themselves also sharing their cabins. Tim Kendall scuttles them; and the whole boat too:
Imagine, if you can, how it must be
to live among such intellects at sea
without the limits of a normal mind.
Knowledge was our drug; later, we’d unwind
by dashing off short lyrics with a drink
of something spirited to help us think.
One small clique, homesick, managed to devise
a clever scheme where each received a prize
by taking it in turns to win and judge.
It seemed a bit cold-hearted to begrudge
their innocent pursuits, but soon there came
a group of hecklers who denounced the game
as tacky, crooked, shameful and inbred
and pointed out they should have played instead.
The rest of us had serious concerns:
should poems sit around like well-wrought urns
or socially engage, redress, offend?
For hours we’d argue, then, exhausted, end
with bons mots which united everyone:
however weighty, POEMS MUST BE FUN!!!
Rather like his magazine, Tim Kendall’s excellent first collection is sprightly, challenging and surprising. Most markedly Strange Land is beautifully diverse in its address; and rooted in its variousness around a powerful title-sequence which exemplifies Geoffey Hill’s testament of poetry as a sad and angry consolation:
Exspectans exspectavi – though Christ
seems in no great hurry to return.
I am vouchsafed one instant
(of God, or something very like)
a lifting sky and all too late
I understand a contour,
an after-image on the eye,
like the exquisite sense of loss
at homecoming, that familiar
difference, homeless at home
where I wait and continue to wait,
and yet since when, nothing,
nothing but silence, infinite
and subtle in its shades.