The poet and regular poetry reviewer Martin Stannard has over a number of recent weeks written starkly critical commentaries on three new poetry collections. Within each of these he makes observations regarding the intent and purpose of poets and their writing, drawing across the three a thread about what he sometimes likes yet mainly dislikes about their poetry in particular, but also in more general terms concerning the writing of all poetry today. He further links this to observations about the reviewing of poetry, feeling too many contemporary reviews avoid being critical and having instead a tendency to merely promote/compliment the work.
Stannard’s overall comments have subsequently generated lively debate in social media responses I have followed. These are primarily from poets, two of which in one correspondence are on the receiving end of Stannard’s reviews. There are those, naturally, who agree or disagree with much that he has said, including for the latter feeling, how he has stated this. Though I have my own strong feelings of both agreement and disagreement – like others – this is really neither here nor there, it all being opinion, and with an informed range having already been exchanged, I have not joined in the observations.
Until now, but only to pick up on the question of the purpose and intent of poetry reviewing. This includes consideration of a further piece of commentary from Stannard, his ESSAY – WHATEVER HAPPENED TO THE POETRY MANIFESTO? which can be read at Litter Magazine here.
And so that I can get on with my poetry review of Eye, Apocalypse, I’ll be quick on this: I don’t review poetry collections I do not like/enjoy. I do not personally see the point. I want to have a positive pleasure in writing a review – which I do within my parameters – and this will be because I have engaged with and enjoyed the poetry! I write music reviews here and follow the same principles, in general (now is not the time to explore the exceptions).
I mention because over recent months I have bought many poetry collections that I thought/hoped I would enjoy and perhaps want to review as well – this often prompted by others’ positive reviews – but not experiencing that joy, I could see no point in spending time articulating this. Therefore, I haven’t.
Interestingly, and to make use of all the above, I was drawn to Erik Fuhrer’s book from a review of it by the ever-idiosyncratic Barton Smock writing briefly in his own online poetry magazine Isacoustic here. I don’t recall Smock ever reviewing negatively, so I assume he shares a similar positive proclivity as me, and I have always enjoyed his observations, trusting these largely because of the poetry he has posted on his site – though this stopped since December 2020 and he now very occasionally posts his own book reviews.
From the start of my reading of Eye, Apocalypse I was fully engaged and enthused by its contents. To therefore make one final reference to the relevance of my preamble, I knew I would want to share that with others by reviewing it.
These days, something that is considered ‘apocalyptic’ is far more than generically revelatory – it is by contemporary default an existential crisis: a preordained darkness announced to threaten us individually or collectively. For Eric Fuhrer, his/the apocalypse is anything and everything from light to dark – though its brightness gets the dominant share as celebration in this collection, and delightfully so.
At first, the apocalypse is a love affair, though this is not sustained as romantically perfect. What begins as love that ‘swabbed me a piece of its heart’ – and this is met with ‘so I made us some lemonade from scratch with some lemon zest for fibre’ – does soon enough become a love that flees our writer ‘leaving a trail of scales in its wake that I taped to my eyelids’ and then ‘never returned’ – though it is later seen on a ‘late night talk show circuit’.
And here we have the beginnings of the poetic anthropomorphism in all its rich variety of representation that links it comfortably, if incongruently, to our everyday comprehension. It is immediately engaging and accessible at the beginning of our reading.
The second offering in the opening section Love Affair with the Apocalypse is a list poem Rules for Encountering the Apocalypse and this further establishes the random and familiar in the imagination of links and illusions within these poems,
‘Don’t pray to the apocalypse on your knees
Don’t pen a love letter to the apocalypse
Don’t open a bottle of chardonnay for the apocalypse
Don’t include the apocalypse on your list of new year’s resolutions
Don’t whisper secrets into the apocalypse’s ear
Don’t make reward posters for the apocalypse when it runs away
Don’t forget the apocalypse’s name in the middle of the night’
Out of such brief beginnings, what I want to know, and what has engaged me through the poetic allure of this, is the desire to discover what will potentially enthral next. The third poem Stonehenge shows the reader how panoramic the full ride will be, opening with
‘The apocalypse goes to Stonehenge during the summer solstice
and sings Joni Mitchell’s Blue while tripping on shrooms’
By the end of this section of seven poems, the concluding Meatless is a piece of arse poetica that is as much a non-manifesto of writing as it is an advertisement for pure entertainment – and I am already fully satisfied to be within its clever self-promotion.
In the second section Apocalyptical Time, the first poem of the same title might suggest a shift to analytical musings – tackling that ‘default’ anticipation directly if still surreally,
‘A child rests inside the neck of a flower while the rest of the world hardens around it
The apocalypse licks its stone lips and swallows a sparrow and a pocket of bees
It’s time to forget stories of the flood because the apocalypse has no time for Noah –
swallowed him whole a few days ago as he was waxing the kayak’
I don’t have/want an answer to whether there is such a shift, but does the following closing stanza reveal one for you?
‘There is the time in the poem when the child grows up to be the apocalypse
and we watch it through the seams in the poem as it swallows each word
one by one’
The poem Antediluvian seems to prompt more inquisition rather than basking in the poetic revelry,
‘The apocalypse is antediluvian
its puckered tongue plicked
the bottom of Noah’s ship
and was scattered about the world –
an invasive species in God’s perfect land of twos –
and grew into mouths teeth bone
and every second animal
became a meal for the apocalypse
who by this point had grown large and verdant and swole’
Mine isn’t a serious question of intent and purpose. I simply note the growing range. In The Chase, there is a sense of history in its referencing, as well as cultural touchstones (quite playful) and another list poem The Apocalypse Slipped once again revels in its lively alternatives.
The poem I particularly liked in this section is Cowboy Apocalypse which features John Wayne. Go on – imagine it.
In the third section Being the Apocalypse, the first poem Apocalyptical Doorways is as frisky as it gets, riffing off word echoes – ‘whisking their whiskers’ – and pushing the boat out on potentially troubling metaphor/nonsense waters like ‘through the felt of my terrycloth heart’ and ‘light other than the flame in a rub a dub tub’ which, though it isn’t the exact same, reminds me of the occasional spirit of The Mersey Sound experimenting, and no doubt other countless signposts.
What I mean is I still thoroughly enjoy, like I do the poem Frank O’Hara Apocalypse which is wonderfully surreal.
All these sections are, by the way, introduced/headed by the interior art (prints) from the author, and later on there are the Odes to the Apocalypse and then Apocalyptic Flashes.
The final section is The Revelation of the Seven Dead and I have yet to read this properly having immersed myself in the poems about the apocalypse rather than those ‘spoken from the voice of the apocalypse’ via an erasure of ‘the Book of Revelations using the Oxford Annotated Bible’.
For more details and to get the book, go here. Highly recommended.
Hi Mike. I’m interested to see your comments. You might perhaps have mentioned that in my review of Tim Allen I referred to the fact that I’d not done any reviewing for a couple of years because I was fed up reading books I didn’t like. The extension of that is that I was also fed up writing about them. I agreed to review the 3 books you mention and fully expected to like them. I was familiar with all 3 poets, and was surprised at how poor they were. But I’ve always looked upon reviewing as a way of engaging with poetics, and while I know others who only review what they like and see no point in being negative, I’d argue that if the so-called negative review has something to say about poetry and process, and explains why something has failed, then it has its uses. I think in 2 of the reviews I say that the processes used are OK, but it’s the approach to them, and their overuse and lack of wit and imagination that is so underwhelming. The 3rd book is just bad writing. Since I don’t use social media I have not been privy to any of the discussions the reviews and essay may have provoked. The only responses I’ve seen have been from people emailing me their agreement and support. Nobody has bothered to argue with me directly; I’m not sure why. Although I don’t use social media I’m not difficult to find. Cheers, and best wishes, Martin.
good to hear from you.
There are many things I could have said, but it wasn’t my intention to engage in an expansive debate. I acknowledged there was agreement and disagreement about your recent reviews from a variety of social media responses I had read, and was clear that I both agreed and disagreed with things you said.
Two of the poets you reviewed critically – and I’ve no problem with that and you doing so – I have recently written about positively in reviews. This is neither here nor there! For the third one, I felt you were correct, based on the evidence you quoted. Again, neither here nor there. If you felt interested to scroll through recent posts on this site, I actually used a quote from this latter to prompt a poem/response, but it was precisely that: a personal nudge.
So, I hoped I had reflected very generally on some of the issues your reviews, and the recent ‘manifesto’, had raised. Indeed, in linking to your essay, I felt I was providing proper access to the context you feel I avoided. The social media discussion your comments prompted was lively and engaging: I think you’d enjoy – it’s easy to access without being ‘on’ social media yourself. It’s on Facebook in a thread begun by Steve Spence. There is certainly far more ‘engaging with poetics’ than anything else.
And as I hoped I’d made clear in the review I wrote on ‘Eye, Apocalypse’, I simply wanted to make the particular comment I only wrote reviews about work I liked. I entirely accept your observations about reviews needing to also be critical if that is how the writer feels – certainly not just positive for the sake of being positive – and I have over the years enjoyed your trenchant observations, whether celebrating or not celebrating. I just don’t write the latter, but wouldn’t – and didn’t suggest – others shouldn’t.
A final observation: the main reason I write reviews on this site is so that I do choose work I enjoy and want to share. Like you, if agreeing to write for other outlets, you don’t have that personal selection. I’m so glad to see Stride back, and some reviews, but previously when there were many more, these were a consistent and continuous engagement with poetics: you making a significant contribution to this. My one ‘negative’ review was for Stride, because I agreed to a collection I didn’t know! I guess I could have declined, but… I didn’t feel apologetic for it, just didn’t get the pleasure I normally look for.
Fair enough. (But you have to have a Facebook account to access Facebook threads. Twitter you don’t need an account to see stuff . . . But I still avoid it . . . ) And having stuck my head above the parapet it’s time to go back to sleep. Poetry World goes on, as ever, and will go on, as ever. I really should learn to keep it at arms length. maybe at two arms’ lengths.
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