March 22, 2010

The Battle Between Books

The newcomers

I have run out of shelf space. Even the ‘pretend shelves’ – those Stonehenge temporary structures of plank and brick that end up standing for years – even they are crammed and complaining. You remove a single book and the rest of its companions close the gap with relief: there is no getting back up there. Like a packed tube train, the door slams and the whole shelf slides off – no room, no room.

New arrivals can be shocked; they have to be strong to stay. But old travellers must fear against strong newcomers, especially when they come as an army. Thus, the arrival of the twenty volumes of the mighty Oxford English Dictionary and its two-volumed polyglot lieutenant, The Historical Thesaurus of the Oxford English Dictionary led to sharp skirmishes and fall-outs. The Oxfords won, at such cost my local charity bookshops are now almost all abandoned anthologies. The Writers’ Room at Warwick University is home to thinner survivors of this combat – at least two hundred reviewed poetry volumes sought a new home there.

The books say there is no room, but what they mean is there is no space. But there is always space on this desk, or across this bright and flickering desk at which we sit right now, writing and reading to each other. Above and beyond the books I get sent for review, or which I buy for that matter, there are always a snow of extra books which, like overhearing a world outside my mind, find me home. And I think these often surprise more than the books you think you like or were looking for in order to create more books of your own. Here are three which arrived unprompted - and are staying.

Andrew McMillan is studying creative writing a Lancaster and is the co-editor of a good, new magazine called “Cake”. A press that is new to me, Red Squirrel Press, published his first pamphlet last year. Every Salt Advance is a delightfully imaginative debut. The key to it is generosity. He’s a young poet, and sometimes young poets play up the most cynically to gain a reader’s attention. But here, there’s no pose, no urbanity or cringing English irony. He writes feelingly and allusively (a mark of good apprenticeship) and believes in language as a vehicle for play. He believes in language, not in using poetry as a means to a different end than poetry can offer.

Angela France’s Occupation is published by Ragged Raven Poetry, and I read the poems through with interest before leaving the book to work away in my mind for a few weeks. Did it stay in there? Did it possess me? It stayed and unfolded itself. Occupation has a depth to it which shouldn’t seem so surprising except that so few poetry books are possessed by any resonance beyond one reading or hearing. I remember a mental test that Charles Tomlinson applied to poems: does the language of the poem stand up to any sustained pressure? does the poem crumble into lettered debris after one or two readings? Angela France should be better known for making poems that are keenly focussed and wonderfully made. (I would argue that George Ttoouli’s recent first poetry book Static Exile possesses a similarly striking kind of depth and resonance. I am also aware that George and I work together at Warwick but that I’d still think this were he working on the Moon.)

The English Sweats by James Brookes is a really solid and inventive pamphlet, published by Pighog Press. Pighog are a new press but their publishing standards are astounding. Beautifully produced and printed, I’d have liked even if James Brookes had joined George Ttoouli on his Moon mission. For James is a former student of mine so you might regard my words as puffery, but I am also certain that James is going on to be one of our most interesting poets; and every volume of the long dictionary is standing to attention knowing they have another friend on the earth.

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