The Lyric is in Another Castle: Poetry and Video Games

Intro: Huge thanks to a number of people I’ve bored to death by talking about writing this without actually writing the blessed thing. Particularly in the past while though, big shout outs to Harry Giles, Ron Villanueva and Heather Parry for kicking some of the bigger ideas around, and deep gratitude to Muireann Crowley for insightful close reading and structural editing. A reader’s note: this is a bit of a long’un, and it’s divided into three sections. Take them as you will. Video games and poetry. Here goes.

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Sidekick Books published the first volume of their Coin Opera anthologies back in 2009, and more recently I’ve noticed poets increasingly keen to introduce the worlds or experiences of playing games into their work: in Grun-tu-molani Vidyan Ravinthiran uses the buggy surrealism of Fallout 3 as a metaphor; Harry Giles has created a text-based video game, Raik; R.A. Villanueva has cited Mario’s design as a major influence on his artistic practice in Reliquaria; Will Harris uses Halo 2 as an arena for self-reflection in Ten: Poets of the New Generation; another Complete Works fellow, the twice Ted Hughes Prize-nominated Jay Bernard, notes how the falling platforms in the Mario games helped shape The Red and Yellow Nothing, specifically in terms of breaking down hierarchies of register, the ‘high’ poem and ‘low’ game.

But poets have been referencing and taking inspiration from other genres since day dot, and that doesn’t make a poem into a film or a painting. So, let’s quickly take a look from a reverse angle, at the ways video games have drawn on poetry. Here’s the first scene from Kentucky Route Zero (2013), the video is an hour long, but you only need to watch a minute or so, from 6m20s onward:

The game draws the player into its dreamy, surreal atmosphere by having the player compose, from a multiple-choice sequence, a haiku. There’s no fail-state; any combination you choose is legitimate and, as far as advancing the game is concerned, successful. The game isn’t ‘beaten’, just experienced; there’s no high score metric, only what the player invests in terms of thought and energy. The game uses poetry as a mechanic (layman’s terms: a way the player interacts with the game) to allow the player to enter the game’s headspace, to assert that there is no right or wrong way to play and that maintaining a state of interpretative alertness is what the game values most.

Here’s the first thing the player sees in Night in the Woods (2017); again, I’m focusing on the first minute:

Like Kentucky, the player is asked to fill in the blanks in a weird and allusive intro (much of which the game elaborates on in the main storyline), with short lines of left-aligned text with line-breaks, and, right at the end, and honest-to-god full rhyme. The game wants to establish an atmosphere of loss, unease and the occult, and chooses the slippery non-linearity of short-form poetry to do the work. Poetry recurs throughout the game: a major character is Selmers the poet, an important scene is a poetry reading in a library, a few portentous figures speak in riddles and rhymes. Night in the Woods is, in part, a coming of age story in a far more kitchen-sink-realistic setting than Kentucky, but it recognises the capacity of poetry to alter how the reader/player encounters language. The first scenes in both these games are, partly, invitations to the player to engage in a way that games rarely do, with emotional sensitivity and a generative, curious approach to meaning-making.

But games have been referencing and taking inspiration from other genres since day dot, etc. So, let’s take a look at a very well-known piece of level design, the first stage of the first Super Mario Bros game, developed by Shigeru Miyamoto and the team at Nintendo. Here it is in action:

How does this relate to poetry? Isn’t the same attention to detail and design present in fiction? It sure is, particularly in short/flash fiction, but what makes poetry and short prose different is their relatively urgent need to establish their terms of engagement. Where a novel can spend a relatively long time acclimatising the reader, for shorter artistic forms like a poem (even a book of poems, which can generally be easily read in one sitting) or a single Mario level, economy of expression is vital. auntie pixelante has written an extremely meticulous piece of analysis on how this level works. It’s worth reading in full, but the key question pixelante poses is:

How does the game teach the player what they need to know to play the game, just by playing the game?

pixelante goes on to explain how the positioning of Mario – the player’s in-game avatar, the game’s lyric self – relative to the world around him invites exploration and a gradual encounter with the inhabitants and obstacles of the game world. pixelante describes the sensation as “To the right, hold on tight” – Super Mario Bros was released in 1985, and to this day a huge majority of 2d platforming games hold “the goal is to your right” as a foundational principle. It’s tempting to pun on Mario’s movement across the screen and the rightward movement of words across a page, but this only works for languages that run left-to-right. The important takeaway is that the game equips the player with the necessary skills to beat the game’s challenges immediately before the player requires them.

This, I think, is a decent entry point to discuss how design priorities in poetry and video games overlap. Super Mario Bros doesn’t tell the player explicitly “you are Mario” or “you decide Mario’s movements within the limitations imposed by the developers”, but the player’s experience of other games, combined with the developers’ contextual design, make it an easy step. Poetry’s relationship with its own in-game avatars is somewhat more complex, to say the least, but the assumption “you are inhabiting/witnessing the poet’s point of view”, or “in the act of moving your eye across the page you are responsible for the poem’s progression” is fairly commonplace. The interpretive limitations imposed or suggested by the poet are usually much harder to articulate; partly, perhaps, because some of the conventions of lyric poetry’s dramatization of the self are so common as to be invisible. More on that later.

How many poets have you been? How many strangers’ emotional states have you embodied? How often, though, did the poet explicitly tell you, “hey, time to be me for a second, hope you like weird, inscrutable feelings”? The assumption that the speaking ‘I’ will a) correspond to the human whose name is on the front cover, much as Mario’s is on his; b) remain uncomplicatedly within the reader-player’s comprehension throughout; and c) demand some degree of empathic communion is as commonplace as a two-dimensional avatar advancing to the right. There are exceptions, beautiful ones, but contemporary poetry in these islands tends to abide by these autobiographical conventions unless clearly indicated otherwise. Work in persona, or fictional poetry tends to be formally marked, like the speakers from classical myth of Alice Oswald’s ‘Tithonus’, or Sandeep Parmar’s Eidolon, for example.

The most Mario poet I can think of from the past few decades (which I say with all love and respect) is Seamus Heaney. Here’s the first two stanzas of St Kevin and the Blackbird:

And then there was St Kevin and the blackbird.
The saint is kneeling, arms stretched out, inside
His cell, but the cell is narrow, so

One turned-up palm is out the window, stiff
As a crossbeam, when a blackbird lands
And lays in it and settles down to nest.

‘And then’ sets the poem in motion. The saint’s posture and location are established in logical order: Kevin appears, then his cell, then the episode’s obstruction. Though I hesitate to draw too neat a comparison, Miyamoto’s design of the first Mario level parallels Heaney’s in its presentations of protagonist, setting, antagonist. In other words, the blackbird as it ‘settles down to nest’ is the poem’s goomba. Also worth noting how Heaney builds the poem’s tension, by comparing a human arm to a beam in a building. It’s a natural progression, given that the only elements in the poem thus far are a human and his building, but the word ‘stiff’ is the poem’s first dissonance: Kevin’s arm is not masonry, he is in pain, and it will only get worse.

This is fairly elementary stuff, (which makes it useful for my purposes, if unrepresentative of Heaney’s oeuvre) but it’s worth noting how the nursery-school tone is already working to prepare the reader for what’s to come. The language is insistently ordinary and the syntax on-rushing and linear. Each clause adds to our ability to inhabit the scene without subtracting from anything that went before. The poet wants the reader to keep moving right: there’s no pressing need to go back up the page, or back along the line.

Kevin feels the warm eggs, the small breast, the tucked
Neat head and claws and, finding himself linked
Into the network of eternal life,

Is moved to pity: now he must hold his hand
Like a branch out in the sun and rain for weeks
Until the young are hatched and fledged and flown.

Kevin’s interiority and a huge spiritual concept are breezed over. Heaney probably doesn’t want the reader to linger on the implications of being ‘linked / Into the network of eternal life’, not yet at least, and it’s significant that it is contained by the poem’s first subordinate clause, a grammatically optional extra. That the clause sits between such unassuming words as ‘and’ and ‘is’ makes the sentence feel like it’s itching to get on with things. Likewise, the consequence of the blackbird’s nesting is almost parodically plain: Kevin must hold out his hand for weeks, no questions asked. The alternative is so unthinkable the poem doesn’t allow the reader a pause to consider it until the end of both the stanza and the drama’s conclusion; the reader cannot rest until Kevin does.

This is the end of the first half of the poem; twelve lines, only three sentences. Heaney has built a little obstacle course for the reader, in such simplistic language, imagery and syntax that it’s nearly invisible. But there’s an asterisk below these lines, a whole second half of the poem:

And since the whole thing’s imagined anyhow,
Imagine being Kevin. Which is he?
Self-forgetful or in agony all the time

From the neck on out down through his hurting forearms?
Are his fingers sleeping? Does he still feel his knees?
Or has the shut-eyed blank of underearth

Crept up through him? Is there distance in his head?
Alone and mirrored clear in love’s deep river,
‘To labour and not to seek reward,’ he prays,

A prayer his body makes entirely
For he has forgotten self, forgotten bird
And on the riverbank forgotten the river’s name.

If the first half of the poem has the reader going ‘to the right, hold on tight’, the second allows the platform to fall from under us: if the first half of the poem felt like a tutorial, that’s because it was, and here’s the test proper. The first line undoes everything in terms of drama and presents a whole new set of challenges, but ones the reader has been prepared for. The throwaway note about eternal life, the description of Kevin’s arms as ‘stiff’, the real sacrifice his ostensibly simple decisions imply are all laid out, one by one, more difficult versions of the questions a careful reader will have begun to consider already: the poem demands nothing the reader hasn’t been primed to encounter. Where Mario jumps to a flagpole with a congratulatory jingle, Heaney rewards the reader with what feels like a truer, deeper insight into the poem’s subject. The triple-repetition of ‘forgotten’ and the chiasmatic ‘on the riverbank forgotten the river’s name’ are a musical full stop, a syntactic flourish to impress a sense completion upon the reader. (I hear ‘in the name of the father, the name of the son, and the name of the holy spirit,’ in the rhythm of those last lines.) That conclusion wouldn’t feel half as satisfying, however, without the poem’s meticulous outfitting of the reader with the tools necessary to handle the poem’s final lines, to make that final victorious leap.

Few poets are as teacherly as Heaney, and few games as intricately designed as the Mario series, but I think the basic idea is sound. Shigeru Miyamoto designed Mario to be beaten, or at least beatable. The joy in the game is that its challenges appear difficult, and sometimes genuinely are, but an unambiguous win state can be achieved by internalising the game’s rules and conventions. Heaney is a more complex artist than I’m presenting him here, but I do think that his poems are often laid out with a relatively clear goal in mind, and a relatively clear means of reaching it. I think that’s one of the key reasons Heaney’s work was (and is) so popular; like Miyamoto, he baked into his ludic spaces the tools the reader needed for successful interpretation. His poems often push towards some formal or thematic closure; pay attention to how his metaphors are constructed, how the poem moves, and reach the castle at the end, the rhetorical dopamine hit of a linguistic puzzle completed.

 

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A second note: something video games do better than almost any other genre is embodiment, allowing a player to manoeuvre a body through a three-dimensional environment. Many of the most popular titles in gaming involve some kind of enactment of power-fantasy: with a few inputs you might climb a building, kill an enemy half a mile away,  or be an indestructible goat. For the purposes of this essay, I’m more interested in games that refuse or subvert these expectations of power.

In the beautiful, odd and addictive Diaries of a Spaceport Janitor (2016), the player-character is the eponymous cleaner, an unnamed Alaensee girlbeast. Earlier in the essay I talked a bit about how Mario carefully teaches the player the game’s rules with the intention of guiding them to victory; Diaries does not. The player is dumped unceremoniously into the janitor’s (literally) cursed life and must figure out everything from sleeping to eating to avoiding cops by trial and error, working toward a victory state that may never come. Unlike Mario, there is no castle at the end, and the fireworks are for everyone but you. Here’s the trailer:

The game tells you that you feel sick, you feel hungry, you are exhausted: you buy medicine, you eat, you sleep. So far, so human. After two in-game days, however, a new command appears: your body feels weird and itchy, you need to gendershift, and leaves you to it, as the screen starts to wobble and in-game text glitches beyond legibility. Managing her gender is just one more tick on the janitor’s embodied to-do list, something she has dealt with long before you started piloting her through her day, a fact so banal the game didn’t even think to mention it. There is something like an ‘ending’ to the game, but unlike Mario, life goes on as normal afterwards; there is still trash to pick up, and you’re the one who’s going to do it.

There are points of reference in the janitor’s experiences I understand: the feeling of being overwhelmed, confused and dog-tired chimes with the game’s thoughts about, and my own experience of, wage labour. But there are many things that are alien, both literally and metaphorically, and the game waits patiently, if uncompromisingly, for the player to work their way across that initial gap of understanding. The feelings of satisfaction to be had in Diaries of a Spaceport Janitor are not the buzz of overcoming a set-piece challenge like a skilful jump, but in finding a way to survive, long-term, in a hostile environment; the game isn’t going to let you turn your rags to riches, but you can make a life here, if you are patient and attentive to the world. The game is difficult, but not punishingly so; you might flail around for a while, but it’s a colourful, bright, upbeat place to flail around in, and you’ll almost certainly get there eventually. There are at least a couple of ways of looking at this kind of design. It may be a critique of big-budget games that spell out the means of success to the player, or rely on the player’s familiarity with generic conventions, and in doing so detract from the fun of achieving that success. Possibly, it is about establishing a relationship with the player on much more flexible terms, a relationship based on trust, that the player is an intelligent being who can process something more complex than direct commands.

The first poem of Emily Berry’s Stranger, Baby (2017) is ‘Sign of the Anchor’. Here’s the first line:

I stood at the dangerous shore.

Already this is a bit weird. The tense is odd: this action was completed in the past. The heavy adjective ‘dangerous’ feels ungainly, leading, even as the sentence itself is decisively self-contained.

Sleeves rolled up to my shoulders.
My fringe lifted in the wind in a long salute and I pushed it back.
Live your wish, Live your wish, said the sea.
I wanted to be like the shells on the beach, rubbed smooth and cracked open.

This feels something like mock-heroism, bathos: rolling one’s sleeves speaks of defiance, but rolling them up to one’s shoulders is, in terms of meaningful gestures, somewhere between illegible and comic. Likewise, the speaker’s untameable fringe saluting the sea is hard to parse, particularly as the speaker seems to immediately repress it. The degree of irony present in the sea’s wishy-washy speech or the speaker’s desire to be like sea-shells changes every time I meet it.

It feels like the sea’s words have prompted the speaker’s wish to be ‘rubbed smooth and cracked open’; though they are possibly heard only in the speaker’s mind, the poem’s magical realism means there’s no reason why it shouldn’t have literally expressed itself, though in that case the sea is a deeply unhelpful character. The act of being rubbed smooth and cracked open, meanwhile, speaks of a long process of erosion, of being worn down to a literal breaking point. The somewhat comic lines that preceded it make it easy to breeze over this distressingly explicit wish for self-destruction, however drawn-out and unspectacular.

And I held my arms out, tipped my head back, pictured my protective symbols.
I opened my eyes and saw the sign of the anchor burning.
I had to go.

If the previous line didn’t alert the reader that something untoward is afoot, now it’s clear the poem has shifted into something occult and uncanny. The flatness of the speaker’s tone, which earlier in the poem contributed to the archness of their self-presentation, does not modulate as they describe what seems like a supernatural or magical rite. What was affecting in its restraint is now unsettling in its absence of concern. The poem’s title appears, in flames in the sky: to the speaker, the meaning of the sign is obvious; to the reader, the import of ‘the sign of the anchor’, either in its natural state or in combustion, either does not matter or cannot be directly accessed.

I shouted some words but they were lost when the waves crashed.
And ash rained from the sky.
I was far out, in wet denim, and the shore was a jolt when I looked back.

Suddenly the scene is apocalyptic. The vagueness of ‘shout[ing] some words’ feels like a lost cause when pitted against the force of the sea, while the ash raining from the sky – from the burning anchor? is it an active, physical presence? – sounds almost biblical, a holy plague. The speaker is lost and alone in the middle of a catastrophe, in wet denim.

This last detail is casual, but says so much about what this poem is trying to do, I think. It’s such a humdrum thing to mention when the world is almost literally on fire, and in doing so alters the tone of the poem immensely. It calls back to the speaker’s sleeves and fringe in the opening lines, their relatively petty discomforts; bringing them back here, at the poem’s climax, is such a deflation of sea and fire and ash as to be a potent statement in itself. The speaker is still in danger, the distance from shore and safety is still the poem’s final consideration, but the merely unpleasant discomfort of wet denim is of at least comparable urgency. The poem has almost come full circle, giving full voice to a state of catastrophic hopelessness but maintaining a grip on the mundane; it leaves the reader poised between the two.

My first encounter with ‘Sign of the Anchor’ was something much closer to mere confusion: the above is a reading informed by a close engagement with the rest of the book. What most closely connects Berry’s approach here and the design behind Diaries is in their willingness to place the reader or player in a state of productive uncertainty, over a fair proportion of the book or game’s duration. Where Mario and Heaney present their tools and related obstacles in such close proximity it’s impossible to miss the context in which they are best employed, Diaries and Stranger, Baby first provide a potentially confusing environment, and place their faith in the reader to adapt their strategies accordingly. That the title of the first poem in Stranger, Baby – its level 1-1 – refers to an inscrutable element within the poem (an anchor weighs one down? holds one steady? a ward? a warning?) prepares the reader for a book that resists easy summation, whose difficulty harmonises with its emotional complexity.

 

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A recent trend in single-poet collections – to my knowledge, at least – is the incorporation of relatively straightforward prose sections into the main body of the poetry book. Nuar Alsadir’s Fourth Person Singular (2017), Sophie Collins’ Who is Mary Sue? (2018), and Inua Ellams’ #Afterhours (2017), for example, all prominently feature critical or narrative prose. These sections make space for the poet to step out from behind the lyric curtain, to communicate in a register much closer to direct speech. The game of lyric interpretation, of the reader’s triangulation of meaning, is temporarily suspended.

As is the relationship between poet and reader: this kind of suspension could not adequately be performed by a poet like Heaney, who – for better or worse – figures the poet-reader relationship in similar terms to teacher-pupil, master-apprentice. However kindly and nurturing Heaney’s work often is, it is predicated on a power differential that is either absent or more fluid in Berry’s work (and that of many of her peers). For Heaney to step down from the lectern would necessitate an abdication of authority or control, which, for Alsadir, Collins and Ellams, seems less of a concern. While they have no fewer ideas to communicate and explore than Heaney, and certainly no less ambition to render them poetically, the means by which these ideas are communicated – plainly, conversationally, without the messy and vatic apparatus of lyricism – allows the reader to become something more like a collaborator, a co-conspirator. Here’s Alsadir in Fourth Person Singular:

‘Only to this you [a figure that allows the poet to speak into a “social imaginary”] can one speak as (I), in the fourth person singular. You are that indefinite stranger. Can you hear me? I’m writing from elsewhere. This book is for you (whoever you are).’

Ellams in #Afterhours:

‘I chose #Afterhours as a title because it summoned three aspects of the project: 1/ In poetry, the tradition of subtitling a poem informed by another poet with the word ‘After’ and the author’s name. 2/ Turning 30 and approaching the ‘noonlight’ of my years, frames my youth as ‘early hours’, and the subsequent years as after those hours. 3/ For writers, the stereotype of ‘burning the midnight oil’ – working late after the standard hours of work.’

Collins in Who Is Mary Sue?:

‘I note that, in literary fiction, when a female writer’s female protagonist is considered up to scratch, she is often taken to be a thinly disguised version of the author’s non-idealised self.’

For these poets, appearing out from behind the lyric mask (arguably into a lit-crit mask, which is at least a less cryptic mask) and speaking plainly about their artistic goals is no great loss of stature. It’s wonderful to see #Afterhours recognised in the Ted Hughes Prize shortlist; I do wonder, however, whether Ellams’ decision to include exploratory essays and memoirs alongside and in dialogue with his poems counted against him during the rest of prize season, challenging as they do the reader’s preconceptions about what a poetry book looks like, and what it contains. (It’s worth that the Ted Hughes Prize has a history of recognising formally unconventional projects.) Are such prosaic interludes a distant cousin of videogaming’s ‘casual’ modes, which take lengths to make games playable and enjoyable to everyone and not just the initiated, time- and resource-abundant few?

Broken fourth walls are somewhat harder to categorise in games, and it’s also rare that the game is the work of a single developer. A noteworthy exception on both counts is The Beginner’s Guide (2015). Here, real-life developer Davey Wreden voiced an in-game character named Davey Wreden who had stolen a series of short games made by a friend and arranged them as his own game with his own critical commentary, which he named The Beginner’s Guide. This briefly but embarrassingly short-circuited a critical community ill-equipped for drawing nuanced distinctions between game creators and their creations.

An altogether less metatextually fraught example is Getting Over It with Bennett Foddy (2017). Foddy is the developer and narrator of the game, and perhaps it’s no coincidence that, in a game so preoccupied with failure, loss and perseverance, that the player’s continual, massive failures are consoled by Foddy reading lines of poetry, by Blake, Dickinson, Rossetti, Gibran and many others:

(Yes, that is a man in a cauldron using a sledgehammer for locomotion. In a lovely twist, his name is Diogenes, the philosopher whose truth-seeking lantern Heaney takes as his symbol in his 1987 collection The Haw Lantern. A coincidence, sure, but a fun one.)

Schadenfreude is definitely in play here, but poetry also seems to have paved a way for the developer to speak seriously and plainly to the player, just as the game speaks to them mechanically. You make a mistake and fall, losing minutes or hours of progress with no choice but keeping going or giving up; Foddy persuades you to try again, with poetic wisdom:

“She smiled in defeat,
With unconquerable eyes.”
– Atticus

The two modes of communication work in harmony, serving the player at least the appearance of equal footing with the artist whose work is the site of collaboration, however frictive the collaboration might be. Throughout the game, Foddy intervenes to apologise for the game’s difficulty, comment on the disposability of much of digital culture, reassure the player that rest is necessary and important; he is a determinedly nurturing presence in a game he has designed to be punishing. In the final sections, Foddy narrates how, to get this far, the player must share certain priorities around artistic failure, and about the paradox inherent in how failure, sadness and frustration is something the reader-player avoids in life, but seeks out in art.

 

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I hope you can excuse a lack of a definitive conclusion here; I’m sticking to the roots of the word ‘essay’ – to weigh something up or test something out – and I think trying to tie a neat conclusive bow around these ideas might ask too much of them. Maybe it’s that approaches to critical reading that overlook poetry’s potential as a space for play miss a lot of what makes art worth experiencing, or that the poet-reader relationship is not necessarily instructional or confrontational.  If nothing else, I hope they’ve given you a new way of thinking your way into poetry (and video games!), and I certainly hope you’ve enjoyed it.

Thanks for playing.

 

Works Cited:

Poetry

Kirstin Irving and Jon Stone (eds.) – Coin Opera & Coin Opera 2: Fulminare’s Revenge

Vidyan Ravinthiran – Grun-tu-molani

Harry Giles – Raik

R.A. Villanueva – Reliquaria

Karen McCarthy Woolf (ed.) – Ten: Poets of the New Generation

Jay Bernard – The Red and Yellow Nothing

Alice Oswald – Falling Awake

Sandeep Parmar – Eidolon

Seamus Heaney – The Haw Lantern, The Spirit Level

Emily Berry – Stranger, Baby

Nuar Alsadir – Fourth Person Singular

Sophie Collins – Who is Mary Sue?

Inua Ellams – #Afterhours

 

Games

Cardboard Computer – Kentucky Route Zero

Infinite Fall – Night in the Woods

Nintendo – Super Mario Bros

auntie pixelante – To the Right, Hold on Tight

Coffee Stain Publishing – Goat Simulator

tinyBuild GAMES – Diaries of a Spaceport Janitor

Everything Unlimited Ltd. – The Beginner’s Guide

Bennett Foddy – Getting Over It with Bennett Foddy

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Some Books That Came Out This Year (Or So) Which I Enjoyed For A Variety Of Reasons And To Varying Degrees

2016 has been shit. On individual terms a number wonderful things have happened, but it’s hard to look back with any fondness on a stretch where so much evil has been visited upon so many. A lot of illusions have been broken forever, a lot of hard truths have emerged about the kind of fight we’re in for. We’ve been challenged to put our hearts, minds, bodies on the line for the kind of world we’ve told ourselves we believe in. It’s going to be shit! Rule of thumb number one though; there are a lot of people who’ve been fighting these fights most of their lives, and if we haven’t been listening to them before (we evidently haven’t), there’s no time like the present. I’m here, you’re here, let’s make things better, let’s be better, one day at a time.

Right so I do poetry and things so here are some poetry books I liked this year.

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Vahni Capildeo – Measures of Expatriation

If I did an end of year awards thing this would be my winner. It’s extraordinary in the most basic sense, and it’s hard to remember a book by a poet in these islands that so thoroughly questioned our understanding of what a book of lyric poetry looks like, or what it can do. It’s a book I’ll turn back to for years to come. For what it’s worth, it’s also hard to think of another book that managed to carry such heavy subject matter while transmitting so much humanity, warmth and wit, or made these things such a core aspect of its enterprise. Suffice to say I want you to read Measures of Expatriation and then talk to me about it.

Denise Riley – Say Something Back

The sustained intensity of this book’s opening sequence, in elegy for Riley’s son, is unlike anything I’ve ever read; the emotional situation the reader is permitted to share in is often brutal. Riley spares herself very little, and in criticising the elegiac impulse, or what might appear to be a very natural grieving process, creates poems that cut deeply. Like MoE, it’s painful, it pulls no punches, it is generous beyond understanding. As above, read it and tell me about it.

Alice Oswald – Falling Awake

This is the first of Oswald’s collections I’ve really sat down with, and more fool me for leaving it so long. Falling Awake is the best nature poetry I’ve read in years, capturing a heartfelt love of the living world without quite romanticising it, keeping a healthy realism about the effect of an observing consciousness on what’s being observed. The book also has an attitude to time and mortality, the long distance and the big picture, that I find deeply heartening, if only for a moment or two. Falling Awake’s near-complete non-engagement with contemporary poetic trends is also very calming, if only, again, for a moment or two.

Melissa Lee-Houghton – Sunshine

I first read Sunshine in one sitting, in Glasgow, on a rainy day trip where I had too much caffeine and felt basically inconsolable for days after. I’m not well-versed on confessional poetry (if that’s the best way of thinking about Sunshine, and I’m not convinced it is), so I feel a bit underqualified to talk about it, not least in experiential terms. What’s clear is that the concentrated urgency of the work is damn near unrivalled, there’s zero fluff, cover to cover. I know several readers who find Lee-Houghton’s work deeply empowering in its clear-eyed discussion of mental illness, the basic message that this is something that happens to humans, that it can be survived. I’d just as readily give fair warning that it’s emotionally taxing; while it absolutely needs to be read, it needs to be approached with respect. Hope to write something a bit more substantial in the near future, but for now this is an exceptional book, one that’ll be on my mind for a long time.

Kate Tempest – Let Them Eat Chaos

If poetry!facebook is anything to go by, many people have pretty firm opinions about Tempest. I’d bet that Let Them Eat Chaos is unlikely to radically change those stances. It is, partly, an explicit condemnation of the country’s dominant political narratives, but it’s worth noting that the poem has seven speaking parts (eight if you include the narrator), and the outspoken doomsayer is only one of them. Even if we presume this particular character to be closest to our readerly understanding of Tempest Prime (there are strong textual arguments for it, after all), they remain a fictional construct as much as the rest of the cast, and are probably best read in that light. The fact I’m pre-empting criticism here, mind, is probably indicative of what I assume the general response is/will be. But aiming the most common critiques at the book (preaching to choir/simplistic ideology/general ubiquity) would miss the trees for the wood. Let Them Eat Chaos is occasionally stunning, not least for the realisation that no other poet published by one of the big houses is saying these things so plainly. There are vital questions to be asked of poetry’s political efficacy, now more than ever, but suffice, for now, to say my year of reading would be much poorer without this book.

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Some Other Rad Books That Would Reward The Time You Spent With Them, With Briefer Notes Than Those Above, In The Order I Found Them On My Desk

Chloe Stopa-Hunt – White Hills

The pamphlet from clinic is weirdly beautiful, with its old-timey wallpaper design, and the lack of page numbers leaving the words on the page as the only focus. The poems are tiny, airy curiosities with disconcerting undercurrents. One of the purest lyric works I’ve read in ages, one that keeps unfolding and unfolding each time I pick it up.

Padraig Regan – Delicious

Speaking of lyric, Regan’s pamphlet from new press Lifeboat is a real cracker. The poems are warm, tactile, sharp-witted, with a handful of real masterpieces. It’s a book to get you through winter, a hopeful and beautifully crafted collection.

Choman Hardi – Considering the Women

Hardi’s book was rightly recognised by the Forward Prizes, a collection that is on occasion difficult to read. Her long sequence, ‘Anfal’, marking women survivors of genocide in Kurdistan, is a massively important contribution to poetry in these islands, and deserves attention.

Ocean Vuong – Night Sky With Exit Wounds

An urgent and beautiful book. Vuong is almost impossibly candid, and his poems ask to be read with the openness and vulnerability by which they are given. One to save for a time you can run the risk of getting a bit weepy.

Modern Poets One – If I’m Scared We Can’t Win

Sometimes a book comes along that reminds you how much you still have to learn. The generous selection of Anne Carson’s was weird and unsettling; Berry and Collins both have collections out in the coming year, and this book is a brilliant taster. On a side note, the series almost unfairly exploits my completionist tendencies.

If A Leaf Falls Press – Sam Riviere

Pick one and treat yourself, they’re beautiful objects, the poets are amazing, I’m delighted they exist. This year’s highlights Kathryn Maris’ 2008 and AK Blakemore’s pro ana. (NB I lost track of this for a while and missed a few.)

Tiphanie Yanique – Wife

A powerful collection and deserved prizewinner. Yanique’s poems are like sitting down with someone who knows exactly what she’s talking about and is keen to enlighten you. Wife is angry, brilliant and completely uncompromising.

Luke Kennard – Cain

Cain asks some rudimentary questions about how readers construct the poet of their imagination, pressing back against the reader’s presumption of intimacy. I found the anagram section technically dazzling but kinda tough going, though flashbacks to Infinite Jest might be colouring my opinion. A rare blend of emotional intelligence and formal critique.

The BreakBeat Poets: New American Poetry in the Age of Hip-Hop – eds. Kevin Coval, Quraysh Ali Lansana, and Nate Marshall

This anthology covers decades of a nation-wide poetry scene (if somewhat focused on the editors’ home of Chicago) and provides the necessary context and criticism for outsider readers. It’s been a long time since I read an anthology with such a density of exciting, challenging, and various work.

Currently and Emotion: Translations – ed. Sophie Collins

I’m still only partway through this, so can really only give honourable mention to a beautifully laid out and thus far fascinating anthology which, like BreakBeat, gives a generous welcome to the uninitiated.

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Hope this has been enlightening! There’s been a hell of a lot of great poetry published this year, so if I’ve missed something obvious I apologise. I also apologise for being less productive than I’d like this year; there’s been times when other work commitments have made writing here difficult, times when writing anything felt simultaneously superfluous and nowhere near enough. I intend to be on here far more often in 2017.

I hope you’re well, I hope you have good people around you. Thanks for reading.

Alice Oswald – Falling Awake

Disclosure: Normally this would be super short, just saying that I’ve read some of Oswald’s work previously but have no personal connection to her. Jack Underwood’s Brief Manifesto for Kindness, however, has important questions about how ‘full’ these disclosures actually are. He notes that having this section at best does a half-job, publicly clearing one’s conscience without really troubling one’s right or capacity to pass judgement, particularly on writers who experience more oppression than I do, i.e. just about everyone. And I guess there’s real danger of doing the same right here, so suffice it to say Underwood’s note about ‘tactical soul-searching’ has been bugging me constantly, I recognise the irony of doing this at the prompting of another privileged white man, and as ever, I hope you trust me – I’ll do my best to earn it.

Review: Insofar as a book as meditative as Falling Awake can be said to have a clear thought-line or theme, it may be the deconstruction of the primacy of human voices and bodies. The book features several ‘talking’ animals (albeit speaking a language to which the reader has no access) and humans in various states of decrepitude. This preoccupation with primacy is in tension with Oswald’s extremely precise control of pacing – although the imagistic element of the poetry may be of, for example, a swan’s decayed corpse or a badger falling to its death, what each poem has to say is delivered with a miniaturist’s attention to the information conveyed  by every odd detail. So the corpse in ‘Swan’ is ‘the plane-crash mess of her wings’, ‘getting panicky up out of her clothes’, climbing out of her own cockpit’, ‘the clean china serving-dish of a breast bone’, ‘the leather underdress / of the heart’, ‘my own black feet / lying poised in their slippers’, ‘the / frozen cloud of the head / before it thaws’, ‘the bride has just set out / to walk to her wedding’. Connecting the uncommon abundance of unique imagery is the swan’s own surprise at finding herself so suddenly grounded –

‘bending back for another look thinking
strange
strange’

– and the list of metaphors can be roughly sifted into two groups, ‘flight’ and ‘(wedding) clothes’, and although the connection is never made explicit, the poem seems to purposefully weave between these domains before arriving at its final image:

‘the little black-lit church
it is so cold

the bells like iron angels
hung from one note
keep ringing and ringing’

What starts with a swan’s dismembered body ends with a traditional church wedding, via several backward looks. There’s an entire short story’s worth of narrative here if the reader wishes to reach for it, and it doesn’t sound like a happy one. Extrapolating a defined plot, though, would risk distorting what seems to purposefully lie a degree out of reach, the poem’s uncertainty (which the swan seems to share – ‘strange / strange’) integral to its meaning. Behind its lyric ambiguity is, I think, a very pointed arrangement.

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The opening poem, ‘A Short Story of Falling’, I think is partly intended to prime the reader for precisely this intensity of composition, to read an organising force behind the book’s disappearing meanings. The poem is ten couplets in irregular pentameter, with polysyllabic rhymes that more often than not finish on an unstressed syllable; the last couplet echoes the first and the entire poem formally embodies the cycles of water and life. As in ‘Swan’, there’s an empowering dissonance between the poem’s formal solidity and its unstable substance. The poem relies on its music as much as its sense, the constant falling away and returning:

‘if only I a passerby could pass
as clear as water through a plume of grass

to find the sunlight hidden at the tip
turning to seed a kind of lifting rain drip

then I might know like water how to balance
the weight of hope against the light of patience’

The last of these three couplets feels almost too neat, leaning heavily on its rhetorical power to convey two relatively loud abstractions for a poem (and a collection) that finds its meaning almost entirely in the concrete, observable world. That such a noticeable exception to the rule appears in the opening poem seems significant. I think the line points towards ‘Tithonus’, the book’s closing long poem/performance piece about a mortal who fell in love with the dawn, who was granted immortality but not eternal youth, and thereafter waits every morning for a glimpse of his love. Maybe it’s a reach, but the book’s preoccupation with creatures (including humans) that barely survive or struggle to communicate might be rooted in the opening poem’s surprising note of optimism. There is certainly suffering, there is certainly decay, but there is survival, of the natural if not necessarily the human world. Maybe it’s only optimistic the way Beckett is optimistic.

Beckett might be a valuable touchstone in Falling Awake. The sequence ‘Village’ is the only poem that features reported human speech, and it renders that speech as almost-nonsense, perhaps attempting to make speech sound the way birdsong sounds to an untrained (human) ear, a gathering of stock phrases from which – like ‘Swan’ – a narrative could be inferred, if not one that could be easily or accurately translated:

‘somebody out thankfully not me out lost in the mud
somebody lost out late again say what you like
a boot by the granite not many of us left
living in the slippery maybe the last green places are you listening’

Like much of the Irish writer’s work, ‘Village’ is populated by folk just barely surviving, the poem relishing describing their bodies in unflattering terms: ‘that’s him bursting full of himself hook-nosed sinister walk / scars on each side of the wrist no teeth’, ‘spillikin legs always wet for some reason’. Oswald balances the sequence between a failure of communication and the will to keep going regardless, the poem’s last line sees its speaker(s) ‘living on the fluff of green of the last little floes of the earth’. Perhaps the undercurrent of Beckett’s apocalypticism makes this a far more troubling line than it might have been – those ‘very last floes’ sound rather conclusive.

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Although many poems in Falling Awake take place in the poet’s immediate physical space, along the River Dunt or in the poet’s back garden, more often than not the centred speaker is non-human, or, like Tithonus or Orpheus’ dismembered head, are subject to powerful debilitation of their senses of self. Arguably, of course, these alternate consciousnesses are filtered through the human and there is no escape from our own minds, but placed on a sliding scale it’s definitely towards the ecocentric end of the spectrum. Also arguably, this retreat from or occlusion of our own biographical selves is achievable for white people in a manner unavailable to poets of colour; Capildeo’s Measures of Expatriation has at its heart this very problem, of recognising the essential shiftiness of selfhood while being compelled by colonialist politics to navigate someone else’s fixed and false expectations.

A brief, hopefully relevant aside: in the first six reviews of Falling Awake returned by google, Oswald is compared to: Don Paterson, Ted Hughes (x4), Tennyson, Homer, Marvell, John Clare, Whitman, Larkin, Beckett, Dylan Thomas, Heaney, Blake, Eliot, Dickinson (x3), Anne Carson, and, bizarrely, Claudia Rankine. Of note here is that if you make your favourite poets public reviewers will take that little shortcut to heart, also that this list has many men. In some ways it makes sense: Oswald is a classicist, and in an interview with Max Porter the poets she names are mostly male, Ovid, Hughes, Clare, Shakespeare and Edmund Waller outnumber Dickinson and Jorie Graham. Graham is the only living poet and one of only two from the last century. Judging by that same interview, in which she agrees with Porter’s statement that ‘I think it’s one of the great problems of our culture that we aren’t allowing people to think in certain ways’, Oswald doesn’t seem much taken with recent British poetry or its adjacent culture, arguing ‘We allow [poets] to be marketable, which means they must be categorised in order to be sold’. Those statements need a lot of unpacking: maybe ‘we’ indicates reviewers and publishers, and as ever it’s not clear who imbues these individuals with powers of censorship, but the fact Oswald reaches so far back into the word hoard so matter-of-factly seems significant. As Charlotte Runcie argues, Oswald ‘has made a career of writing powerfully about earth, strength and physicality – tropes many poets would earmark as masculine’: it’s a powerful thing to acknowledge that dividing subject matter into ‘boys’ and ‘girls’ piles is nonsense. The fact that such topics remain gendered, however, is an indicator of how entrenched such gender norms are in anglophone poetry, and how important is Oswald’s occupation of that space. Perhaps the fault is not with poets being faced with either engaging hundreds of years of canonised poetry (some of which isn’t terrible) and being fixed in a hierarchy of dead men for life, or working further from the mainstream and being ignored/wilfully misunderstood. Reviewers could work harder to take poets on their own aesthetic terms and not be so eager to quick-fix someone’s authority/authenticity by invoking the dead. (I realise I mentioned Beckett earlier – I hope that was sufficiently contextualised.) What’s important, I think, is that Oswald gives gender essentialism exactly the respect it deserves; when in ‘Fox’ the poet mentions that the fox arrives in the poet’s garden:

‘in such serious sleepless
trespass she came
a woman with a man’s voice
but no name’

there’s probably some manner of reclamation work going on. As Runcie also points out, addressing gender so directly is not Oswald’s usual way. The fox appears ‘in her fox-fur’ and ‘her black gloves’, depicted in women’s clothing in a notably similar way to the swan in her ‘black feet … in their slippers’, is referred to by female pronouns and ‘trespasses’ in an effort to find food for her cubs (‘hungrily asking’):

‘as if to say: it’s midnight
and my life
is laid beneath my children
like gold leaf’

On one level it’s an uncanny encounter with the wild, a moment in which the comfort of the human is contrasted with the uncaring objectivity of nature; but gender is woven into the short poem’s fabric. It doesn’t seem a grand leap to read this as the female poet’s unwelcomed (‘no name’) intrusion on the comfortable ‘house’ of the anglophone canon; that it appears to be an exercise in self-sacrifice also rings true, considering the recent ignorant outbursts from such literary policemen as Private Eye and the Spectator (not to mention the much quieter, more respectable exclusions by the TLS and LRB, as noted by the VIDA count). Falling Awake may be primarily concerned with the difficulty of maintaining consciousness, but it bears in mind how this difficulty intensifies where it intersects with gender.

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The book’s finale is ‘Tithonus’, mentioned above. The book’s pages collaborate in the performance, as page numbers are discarded, not exactly replaced by a vertical line somewhat like a musical stave, denoting measures of time. Like much of the collection, ‘Tithonus’ is largely unpunctuated, except where space on the page is unable to represent pauses in speech (Falling Awake is rather remarkable in being so closely tied to traditional lyric yet so focused on recreating a human voice in action). Beyond the innovative presentation, though, is a profoundly sad telling of the myth. The poem is superabundant with skilful and keenly observed renderings of the dawn’s beauty into language:

‘here come cascades of earliness in
which everything is asked is it light
is it light is it light
the horizon making only muffled
answers but moisture on leaves is
quick to throw glances
and bodiless black lace woods in
which one to another a songbird asks
is it light is it light

 

 

not quite’

It is also keenly aware of Tithonus’ suffering among all this beauty, his inability to speak back to it (‘like a traveller staring through a / newspaper mouthing the headlines’), to communicate in it, only to observe it over and over in its constant variability. By the time the dawn has fully risen the poem  has considered the dawn from an incredible number of angles (‘every morning the same repeti- / tion spreads its infection a kiss gives / off a swoosh’), allowing humour and beauty and death a similar weight, Tithonus’ final, unbearably humble ‘may I stop please’ pulls at my heart even the third or fourth time round. It’s a remarkable piece, and I can only hope a live performance (which was staged with a harpist) gets recorded for posterity. One can dream. In any case, the poem’s tension between death-wish/acknowledgement of beauty reverberates throughout the book, quietly but firmly, and forms a powerful undercurrent, a constant reminder of the stakes in play. Runcie notes in her review that Oswald is at a remove from the London/BBC poetry scenes, and it may well be true that Falling Awake moves at right angles to the any of the prevailing aesthetic winds, to the point of feeling adrift in time. But it is a powerful, thoughtful, often funny book, with a significant message about the natural and human world.

Further reading:

Charlotte Runcie – review in The Telegraph
Max Porter – interview in The White Review
Theophilus Kwek – review in The London Magazine
Alice Oswald – lecture, ‘The Bearer-Beings’: Portable Stories in Dislocated Times

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