Saturday, March 31, 2012


I’ve had a few conversations recently about writing reviews – something that I do fairly regularly and, truth be told, rather enjoy. It can be tricky territory, for all the obvious reasons; one author I know stopped doing them because he kept bumping into writers whose work he’d been (shall we say) frank about. On the other hand, there’s the danger of too cosy a job. So what’s the conscientious reviewer to do?

Having these conversations recently, I found myself returning to one key idea: that the best reviews criticise on principle. (By ‘criticise’, I mean act as a critic – which might, of course, include praise.) This has the advantage of maximising the general interest and value of a review, by engaging in discussion of something greater than any one individual work – and thereby (hopefully) avoiding a limited ad hominem perspective.

What, then, does it mean to criticise ‘on principle’? As well as paying close attention to the detail of the work in question, I suppose that it means judging by reference to its wider implications. What does it add (or do) to the culture – and how? What does the pleasure (or displeasure) it provides say about the human mind? And – without getting too Kantian – what can we infer about the character and potential of all such works? I.e., what does this book of poetry do for (or to) the idea of poetry in general?

This method considers the general (even the universal) in the particular – and the particular in the general. It gives the writer some credit. And it means the review stands a better chance of being worth reading in its own right, too, because it becomes a place where principles – whole matrices of ideas applicable in any number of ways – might be found and articulated. Furthermore, such a method keeps the critic’s mind focused on quality – not in a static or dogmatic sense, but the infinite ways in which a work might achieve value and authority. And hence – ideally – both the poet and the critic end up looking for the same thing.

Sunday, March 04, 2012

The Voice of the Blackbird’s Shadow: Milorad Krystanovich

Last Friday night I had the pleasure of attending an evening of poetry that will stay with me: a celebration of the life and work of the Croatian-born, Birmingham-based poet Milorad Krystanovich, who died last autumn aged 61. Though I knew some of his work – initially from The Yasen Tree (Heaventree Press, 2007) – I never knew him personally, but many poets, editors and friends that did know him read from his poems, which also served as the launch of his fine posthumous collection, Moses’ Footprints, published by the excellent Nine Arches Press (who organised the event).

As Jane Commane (of Nine Arches) said, it had the feel of something special. The room at the Moseley Exchange in Birmingham was full, and there was a pervasive feeling among those there of having been touched, both through poetry and in person, by an extraordinary human being. As George Ttoouli observed, Krystanovich appeared to embody a kind of fantasy ideal of the poet – someone who had truly made poetry his way of life. This is all the more remarkable, given that when he first came to Birmingham as a refugee in 1992, he had little English. Within a couple of years, however, he was writing poems in his second language with the long-established Birmingham poetry group, Cannon Poets, and went on to become a founder member of Writers Without Borders.

One of the most interesting ideas to surface, among the readers’ memories of him, was Jon Morley’s account of Krystanovich’s views on the politics of Eastern European poetry – particularly the celebration (common enough in Britain since the 1960s) of the understatedness of much work from that quarter as a kind of magisterial minimalism. For Krystanovich, this simply wasn’t the case; rather, that very minimalism marked the sad, insidious effects of state suppression upon language itself. The freedom of poetry – its capacity to stake the claims of individual truths, you might say – had been squeezed out of it. Instead of this, without being loose with words, or sentimentalist – in work ‘that combines deep melancholy with a hard-won sense of joy’, as Luke Kennard has put it – Krystanovich craved a more direct relationship to human emotion, and the more emancipated politics it implies. This put me in mind of something Novalis wrote: ‘The world must be romanticised’ – where ‘to romanticise’ means ‘to potentialise qualitatively’; ‘to give the dignity of the unknown to the familiar’. To re-articulate the world through words – to re-enchant it – is to re-make that world, and that will always be a threat to totalitarianism of all kinds, whether statist, theocratic, or plutocratic. The daring of that ambition – to disturb, renew and yield afresh – is one of poetry’s most serious and exhilarating powers.

Revolutions don’t necessarily have to smash windows, burn cars, or set up barricades. They are happening, latent and waiting to happen, in the very activity of the mind – and in the well-placed word. The phrase in the title to this entry is from Krystanovich’s ‘Lilac Tree Growing in Me’, and seems to me a case in point: its language quietly dilates the consciousness through the gap between what is seen and heard.

On my way home, a fox emerged from a wooded footpath directly across the road from me. I stopped. It stopped. We eyed each other. Then, warily but untroubled, it loped across the road just to one side of me, and carried on to its next encounter in the edge-of-country darkness. I tried not to read too much into it. But maybe I shouldn’t have worried about that.