On Warsan Shire, Peter Riley and Poetry Criticism

Last week, Beyoncé released Lemonade, an hour-long multi-genre piece made by leading artists in film, music and poetry. London Young Laureate Warsan Shire’s poems “For Women Who Are Difficult To Love”, “The unbearable weight of staying (the end of the relationship)” and “Nail Technician as Palm Reader” are all adapted as interludes between songs. On the back of this peerless good news, Inua Ellams spoke about Shire’s permanent relocation to the United States, finding poetry culture in Britain hostile to her and her work (Pascale Petit, Shire’s mentor in The Complete Works, mentioned on Facebook how Shire had become frustrated with with the ‘struggle against the (white) grain’). Ellams spoke on Twitter (the whole thread is vital reading) about her epochal collaboration in Lemonade:

“My homegirl Warsan Shire just did a thing with Beyonce. An incredible thing and the only thing I am surprised about is myself response:

For not seeing it coming. It was inevitable. It only happened because Warsan left these shores.

She moved to where her voice would be included, taken for what it is, for the brilliance it is and shared exponentially.

If you disagree, consider this: even Beyonce could not have existed in Britain. The Music industry would not have supported her talent.

To the poets of colour reading this… follow Warsan’s lead. I’m not saying leave Britain…

… but find environments that are welcoming to the poetry you create, to what you write and the way you write them.

Most of us come from oral traditions. We tend to write accordingly. Most of our concerns are “real shit”.

Most of our shit references other real shit. Most of the shit we reference is found in “World literature” dusty sections of book shops…

…so when we pack our real shit with our deep shit, that nuance and intertextuality, the weight of its importance… isn’t even recognised.

Try and find spaces that welcome your poetry. And those spaces might not be in the poetry world.”

Shire is an incredible talent and we weren’t good enough to accept her. We couldn’t read her work the way it deserved to be read and she was compelled to find a place that would.

Poetry in these islands is not a billion dollar industry. The culture of entitlement and resentment towards positive change, however, does not reflect poetry’s reputation or self-image as unique, progressive, liberal, free-thinking. After a winter in which Claudia Rankine’s Citizen, Sarah Howe’s Loop of Jade and Mona Arshi’s Small Hands had the quality of their work recognised and rewarded (Rankine and Howe being the first women of colour to win their respective prizes), there was a backlash from upset, barely rational white men clutching at their degrees and lamenting the state of the union. Those complaints rested, predictably, on extra-literary matters of appearance, education, publishing ‘fads’, a disappointing narrow-mindedness about what ‘poetry’ might mean, anything but the work. A few weeks ago, Peter Riley began his review of Vahni Capildeo’s excellent Measures of Expatriation by venting spleen about “identity politics” (scare quotes his), how having an ‘identity’:

“seems to mean that any possibilities a poem might have of contacting existential realities is disallowed; the poem must arise directly from personal experience (standard practice in modern poetry anyway) and stay there.”

Riley very likely means well. He begins this part of his essay by quoting Capildeo’s own frustrations about feeling the expectation to perform her otherness by an extremely white publishing industry:

“I found that marketing and identity politics were combining to crush, like in the Star Wars trash compactor, the voice, the voice on the page, the body, the history… You had to choose, you had to be a sort of documentary witness wheeled around and exposing your wounds in the market place.”

But in trying to defend Capildeo from harmful stereotypes, he throws digs at poets for whom personal experience (their own or their peers’) is the urgent, beating heart of their work. His praise for Capildeo noticeably centres around not making too conspicuous a fuss about one’s suffering or marginalisation, while condemning unnamed others for drawing attention to it. Riley’s complaint that, ‘the poem must arise directly from personal experience’, is immediately reneged, arguing that ‘its admissibility depends not on experience itself, but on participation in a group and thereby involved in cultural conflict’. Riley does not specify who is performing the admission, which poet, group or conflict is being indecently referenced, or what the consequences are for poets who refuse to conform to these standards. His argument is a rorschach blot, empty of substance and ready for the reader to insert the ‘identity’ whose visibility in contemporary poetry they most resent.

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In “In AnOther’s Pocket: The Address of the “Pocket Epic” in Postmodern Black British Poetry”, Romana Huk writes:

“in current poetic projects, there is little reckoning of how the identificatory self is still at work, often with a nationalistic sub-project powering epic desire; the “other” still gets othered, if at the hands of more and more sophisticated theories of reading.”

Huk and Capildeo are, I think, talking about similar processes. Writing by poets of colour can no longer be entirely ignored by white readers; what can be done, by a culture still deeply uncomfortable with writing that does not recognise canon-endorsed standards of quality control, is corralling it into the kind of self-othering box that Capildeo denounces. Inclusion with strings attached is exclusion by another name, and Riley is not wrong to highlight the problem. The failure is in his sudden pivot to declare that actually, it’s about ethics in poetry prize judging:

“A glance at the big prize-winning results this season shows immediately how these ethics have been taken on wholesale by the establishment and now dominate popular perception of poetry’s function — a pre-existing function defined and formulated outside poetry to which it is now expected to conform. The basis of judgement shifted from aesthetic to moral very quickly.”

Poetry has few ‘big prizes’ and few winners. He is subtweeting Rankine, who beat Riley to the Forward Prize with a book that is both aesthetically unique and morally challenging; I wrote about it a while back if you’re curious, and if you’re even more curious you could read what black critics like Shaelyn Smith and Holly Bass thought about it. Riley’s objection is that judgement has shifted from the ‘aesthetic’ to the ‘moral’; these terms are difficult to define and deserve far more careful unpacking than Riley offers. A cynical reader might guess he means the lyric poetry supported by the canon and reified by generations of elite readers has, for once, been deemed second best to an experimental form written by a poet for whom the canon has little time. As Ellams notes, black poets engage deeply with poetic traditions, just not those valued by the British critical mainstream; refusing to acknowledge the value of alternative routes to poetic achievement is a powerful means of excluding black writing from positions of cultural influence. To put it bluntly, just because you don’t understand it doesn’t make it bad; it’s your job as a critic to learn.

Back in Riley’s essay, put-upon aesthetic poets are ‘now expected to conform’ to these moral standards; a strange concern for a poet who very clearly expresses contemporary moral concerns in his work. Riley employs wounded tones more commonly modelled by Piers Morgan, confusing criticism of his opinions with a threat to his freedom of expression; like Oliver Thring’s inability to acknowledge intelligence that does not come in his own image; like Craig Raine’s abysmal, Oxford-don-knows-best reading of Citizen, which he memorably dismissed as ‘moral narcissism’. It is an insult to Rankine’s achievement to dismiss it as ‘parad[ing] the wound’, which Riley praises Capildeo for refusing. His commendation of Capildeo’s work is deeply compromised by first deploying it as a weapon against other poets whose own work has been marginalised by aggressively careless white readers.


Poetry in the UK is making tiny, positive steps towards a more complex vocabulary with which to discuss race, sexuality, gender, mental health, income and other inequalities, but at a price. The backlash in poetry is not (as with video games’ harassment campaigns) from trollish men on 4chan with free time and a grudge against those whose inclusion and success they cannot abide, but from well-read men in well-regarded periodicals with notably similar grudges. Even framed as a battle for poetry’s heart, Riley’s critique is hamstrung by his refusal to acknowledge the racial inequalities that force poetry-as-witness, poetry-as-‘moral’ to be a function of survival; Citizen explicitly frames itself as a response to external threats to the wellbeing of black people in America. In an interview with Africa in Words, Shire’s approach to memory and witness is explicitly one of preservation, both of the self and the ‘history or the global ranges of perception’ Riley claims are under threat in British poetry:

“it’s being able to tell the stories of those people, especially refugees and immigrants, that otherwise wouldn’t be told, or they’ll be told really inaccurately. And I don’t want to write victims, or martyrs, or vacuous stereotypes. […] my family are really amazing – they’ll tell me, ‘I have a new story for you’, and I’ll get my Dictaphone and record it, so I can stay as true as possible to the story before I make it into a poem.”

To labour the point, well-respected literary white men don’t need recording equipment to keep their stories alive. Suggesting that such poetry sacrifices its aesthetic-ness is a deeply conservative gesture, both artistically and politically, one that figures the white male poet as the normal, central, rightful inheritor and the black woman poet as interloper, over-promoted, aesthetically invalid.

I’m acutely aware that while making these criticisms, my whiteness etc more or less means that my place in this community is safe come what may. I’m also aware that in all my previous encounters with radical thinking in other forms of art, it’s not cishetero white men leading the way. If we want art that leads us to better ways of thinking about each other, if we believe that poetry does make something happen (more than awards, tenure and hardback Collecteds), that it is a function of the heart and soul (whatever that means) as well as meter and rhyme, we must listen to those who are most vulnerable to the violence our culture has been designed to carry out, and from which we benefit so richly. That means changing how we read, how we write, questioning how much space and praise we assume to be our birthright. It will take a lot of work, and a lot of what will look like giving away what is ours to take, but if we can make a culture in which the next Warsan Shire can feel at home, welcomed, valued, in charge, it’ll be worth it.

Further Reading: Inua Ellams on Twitter

Shaelyn Smith on Citizen at TheRumpus

Holly Bass on Citizen in The New York Times

Interview with Warsan Shire at Africa in Words

Profile on Warsan Shire in The New Yorker

‘Decolonise, not Diversify’ by Khavita Bhanot at Media Diversified

‘Responses to a Tantric Poetics’ by Nisha Ramayya at datableed


Some (But Not All) Of The Good Books I Read In 2015, According To Ill-Defined And Highly Subjective Criteria

Full Disclosure: I, too, dislike end of year lists. They’re usually either confusingly partisan or uselessly inclusive, have as much potential to upset as to enlighten, and given that I literally spent the year talking about what books I like, this might well be a waste of time. HOWEVER, I do think there’s something to be said for taking stock of the year, doing a bit of memorialising before pushing off into a big bright shiny new one, and maybe underlining a few things that you might have missed first time round.

So this piece is less about which books I thought were Best Poetry Books 2015™, which would rely on a largely arbitrary and probably deeply compromised set of aesthetic norms and value systems (specifically, my reading history as an academically-trained white bro), and more about which books changed how I read, shed light on the (often unconscious) assumptions I bring to this or that poem. Maybe that’s not the kind of recommendation you’re really after; maybe you’ve already crossed these bridges; maybe this all misses the point in ways I can’t imagine.

Whatever the case, thanks for reading.


Ten: The New Wave (Bloodaxe)

In October, the poet and critic Sandeep Parmar wrote in The Guardian about Claudia Rankine’s Citizen, praising its formal innovation and timely examination of racism both daily and structural, concluding that ‘In Britain, we don’t talk about race and poetry enough’. In December Parmar published the essay ‘Not a British Subject: Race and Poetry in the UK’ in the LA Review of Books. It’s a clear-eyed, intensely well-researched and damning appraisal of how monolithic British and Irish poetry remains; it demands that white readers work harder to make space for BAME poets that doesn’t insist on a kind of self-exoticising that leaves the white-as-central/normal, BAME-as-other binary untarnished.

Ten: The New Wave, with its generous selections of, among noteworthy others, Jay Bernard, Kayo Chingonyi and Warsan Shire, is not only a great example of how to anthologize (relatively few poets, a large enough selection to allow the reader to inhabit the poet’s idiosyncracies), but provides concrete ballast for Parmar’s argument: the dominance of white poets in the UK is not for want of talented BAME poets. What is it for?

Claudia Rankine – Citizen: An American Lyric

A poetry book that reached a huge readership, and a powerful response to the question of whether poetry needs an active social conscience.  Citizen is a beautifully, intricately composed piece of poetic work; every word is purposeful, each tableau masterfully pitched and weighted. If Citizen isn’t poetry, we all need to get new hobbies.

Sarah Howe – Loop of Jade

Loop of Jade is a curious, angry and humane collection that makes lyric poetry carry an uncommon amount of emotional and philosophical freight. A book that does that lovely thing of slowly releasing its deeper arguments as you pay closer attention. Incidentally, Howe’s critical prose is also staggeringly good.


Okay so turns out writing these blurby things is causing me borderline physical pain. The above three books are the ones I would happily and without reserve recommend to just about anyone. Here, in alphabetical order and by no means authoritatively, are some other really good books I read for the first time this year, which I’d also happily lend to people that I like and who like reading poems. NB: my memory sucks, and I’m not necessarily as up to date as I’d like to be. If you’ve recommendations please leave them in the comments; BAME, LGBT and women poets are preferred.

AK Blakemore – Humbert Summer [sharp, dramatic, making alt lit/post-internet tropes FUN]
Harry Giles – Tonguit [probably the best politically-minded poetry I’ve ever read, also funny af]
John Glenday – The Golden Mean [humane, elegiac, heartbreakingly graceful]
Melissa Lee Houghton – Beautiful Girls (2013) [stark, clear-eyed, narrative poetry at its best]
Kathleen Jamie – The Bonniest Companie [mindful, deep time-y, bolshy as fuck]
Rebecca Perry – Beauty/Beauty [generous, earnest, far stranger than I think I gave credit for first time round]
Warsan Shire – Teaching My Mother How to Give Birth (2011) [can’t believe yous let me go this far without reading this book, get your shit together]

Tl;dr: next year I’m keeping a spreadsheet. Thanks to everyone who reads this thing, and particularly to the folk contributing to my work via Patreon – it not only makes it so much easier for me to keep doing the work I’m already doing, it’s also the best motivator I’ve ever had. See you all in 2016, and from the bottom of my heart, thank you.

Sarah Howe – Loop of Jade

Full Disclosure: Met Howe at this year’s Sabotage Awards on a panel regarding the Culture of Criticism. Review copy provided by Vintage Books.

Review: Loop of Jade is Howe’s first collection, in part an account of the poet’s journey to Hong Kong and China to learn about her and her mother’s past, in part a set of imaginative lyric adventures taking in Kung Fu-tzu, Pythagoras, Titus Andronicus, LA Confidential, Cormac McCarthy and Chinese political blogging, amongst others. I’ve slated writers before for wielding their education like an overseer’s whip; Howe’s poems are close-read and empathetic explorations into each text that recognise their value as real-world artefacts above and beyond their capacity to bestow literary authority. The giddying breadth and scope of attention the book achieves is held together by Howe’s calm-but-engaged, precise-but-emotionally-present narrative voice, its open-minded, casually unshakeable dedication to presenting uncomfortable and occasionally devastating stories and ideas, turning them to the light and making them shine. Loop of Jade also features some of the most sure-footed long-line narrative poetry I’ve read: she’s up there with Longley for loading up a line and keeping it airborne.

RHAPSODISING MUCH. So that para’s an attempt to get to the heart of a book with so many overlapping ideas and interwoven narrative strands (the epigraph is from Borges, for pete’s sake) it’s hard to know where to begin. The Borges poems, concerning ‘a certain Chinese encyclopedia’ and its weird classifications of animals, form the a kind of formal backbone and a kind of parallel stream to the book’s more historical-biographical (or geographical) work, as themes and ideas from one overflow into the other. The overriding sense is being taken on a strange and unpredictable journey by someone who knows exactly where they’re going. If you’ve the time I’d recommend reading Howe’s diaries for Best American Poetry, both for its insights into the book’s themes and a straight-up fascinating bit of travel writing.

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The book’s opening and title poems both concern Howe’s mother, so I think it makes sense to start there. ‘Mother’s Jewellery Box’ is the first of several short-lined, impressionistic lyrics that act as breathing spaces between the more narrative-intense poems. This one is kind of a way in to the book, an exercise in seeing the way the book sees, magnifying the poem’s small, shining things and drawing them together with ‘lupin seeds’ and ‘horseflies’ eyes’ as items of equivalent worth. A sceptical reader might be put off by the poem’s niceties, even kitschness; the poem serves as an important bridge from the everyday to the collection’s special worlds, and the poem’s ostensible free-floatingness alters drastically as its images gather meaning across the book.

The poem ‘Loop of Jade’ itself is just incredible. Gunna put that out there. It’s an astonishing piece of writing, an intimate portrait of Howe’s mother, her life, her habits of speech, her struggle to speak and to be understood when she does; also, quietly, the poet’s own feeling of distance from the roots of these qualities: ‘like watching her wade, one dredged step at a time, out into a wide grey strait – myself a waving spot, unseen, on the furthest shore’. One of Howe’s great skills, I think, is maintaining a precise, almost disinterested narrative tone, to the extent that when a disturbing detail appears, its delivery in that same unflinching voice makes it all the more stark. So when she relates her mother’s story about her childhood tenement building, its communal toilet beside its communal kitchen, the impact on the reader’s imagination is visceral:

‘How despite themselves her eyes would follow to the nearby drain, as it sprouted – here she giggles, shivers – the glistening bodies

of cockroaches, like obscene sucked sweets.’

And this is another great ability, to house two apparently conflicting but wholly coherent details in the same lyric space; it would be easy to say the cockroaches were just horrifying, or kind of funny, but by doing both the mother’s perseverance and relief are both recognised and respected, two aspects of one response. Elsewhere in the poem is a long consideration of her mother’s speech patterns, a hesitancy implicitly prompted in part by her traumatic childhood and partly by her foreignness to the English language:

‘in her early forties, in a new country, she spoke more slowly than now, and with a subtle, near-constant nasal hum, more of a nnnnnng – so natural to Cantonese –

but which filled the gaps between her otherwise fluent English like the Thereminy strings in a Mandarin film score.’

The poem also puts the reader in the mother’s shoes (and it’s worth noting that Howe notes the strangeness of the word ‘mother’, only using it ‘at an immigration office, perhaps, to total strangers, or inside the boundaries of a poem’), by setting part of it in her voice; the section enacts these hesitations formally, challenging the reader to keep pace with hers, to render a physical voice on the page. It’s an unassumingly beautiful moment, and noticeable that humming itself is a recurring feature of the poems, like the cicadas in ‘Pythagoras’ Curtain’, the factory machines in ‘Faults Escaped’. The concluding section brings the jewellery of the title into focus, a bracelet blessed to protect the child wearer. The closing line manages to be both heartbreaking and clear-eyed, an acknowledgement of her mother’s faith and a sincere questioning of it. It’s too powerful to spoil here.

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PHEW right, believe it or not there are other poems in the book. Like I said up top, Loop of Jade consists largely of unusual, often pretty funny, lyric adventures, often with a fable-ish sting in the tail. Which all sounds rather tame, but taken en masse the poems have a genuine bite behind the calm, articulate front. Take ‘Embalmed’ (a poem with an epigraph from Chairman Mao about the mass murder of scholars) in which the smell of the thoroughly mortal Emperor’s rotting corpse is masked by piles of fish, or ‘Innumerable’, a deeply powerful piece about attending race day at Hong Kong’s Royal Jockey Club in the aftermath of Tiananmen Square:

‘On rainy race days the turf workers, still bamboo-brimmed, would wear transparent macs dotted with drizzle and the determination of a search party. Where they pressed the clumps back down, you would never know.’

On their own, they are strong pieces; the latter particularly conveys a powerfully empathetic political message through image alone. Over the course of the collection, this facility for conveying radically challenging political thought (note the implication of contemporary Britain in the Jockey Club’s ‘Royal’ moniker; caustic governmental policy is not a foreign concept, and for more on Britain’s history of economic violence against China, read Howe’s essay on Jardine, Matheson and the opium trade) almost subliminally is one of the book’s great strengths. Power structures are noted and critiqued, the poet’s own position as authority is constantly under scrutiny; ‘Sirens’, a poem that redresses the poet’s misunderstanding of a line from Roethke (and when did you last read a poem where the poet so enthusiastically acknowledges their fallibility?), also addresses the misconceptions and potential abuses of the elder poet’s relationship with his student:

‘A tutor watches a girl click-to the door
of his study with reverent care, one winter evening –
And understands Horace on reining in fantasy.’

An awareness of one’s power over someone is one thing, refusing to exploit that power quite another. The poem lets no poet off the hook.

A struggle to find a voice, or means of expression, also appears repeatedly. The beautifully measured ‘Having just broken the water pitcher’ begins with a provocation from 13th century Chinese scholar Wumen Huikai: “If you cannot call it a water pitcher, what do you call it?” The poem then reads into the developmental similarities of kanji script and the punning that allows Chinese bloggers to circumvent official censure:

‘He ponders how strange it is (how useful…) […]
that sensitive words (as in filters,
crackdowns) sounds exactly like breakable
. Done typing, he clicks Submit.

Recall the old monk’s koan, the correct
reply to Master Baizhang’s question:
His pupil kicked over the pitcher and left.’

An apparently absurd or childish gesture can point towards a resetting of the terms of debate, a radical rethink of the question, or of the system of power that poses it. Similarly, the single densely packed sentence of ‘Banderole’ takes in the act of providing a voice to a character in a painting. The ‘boot-faced shepherd’ in the face of heavenly glory is granted ‘a Latinity beyond / his own lacked letters’ by a ‘tawny scroll’s / unfurling coil’. The artist giving their subject an inauthentic voice is as important to the poem as the act of making the ‘mute canvas speak’: the act is only partly a failure, only partly a success. See also ‘That from a long way off look like flies’, in which a dead midge squashed in a book becomes ‘a glyph in a strange alphabet’. The poem features perhaps my favourite line in Shakespeare, Titus Andronicus’, ‘how, if that fly / had a father and a mother?’ The play intends this as evidence of Titus’ ill mental health; the poem, in the line ‘At empathy’s darkening pane we see / our own reflected face’ suggests the act is not so very unusual, that it in fact requires far more conscious empathetic effort than simply ‘scrap[ing] her off with a tissue’ (note the personal pronoun), confronting the difficult what ifs of our activated mirror neurones.

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There’s a lot to admire in Loop of Jade: its surprising angles and insight woven into a warm and careful register, its acknowledgement that kindness and care are subversive political acts, its determination to foreground humanity wherever possible, even in the face of great cruelty. ‘Stray Dogs’’s account of Ezra Pound’s imprisonment in custody of the Allied forces manages to focus on a thoroughly human need to exercise his mind without losing sight of his own acts of racist violence. The poems’ formulae are never simple. Nowhere is this clearer than in Howe’s poems about home, her physical pilgrimages (see Raleigh’s ‘give me my scallop shell of quiet’, referenced twice in the collection) and empathetic journeys. Always at arm’s distance to the place she spent her early years, she is at pains to do it justice on its own terms, to get her own self, her own ego (though there are few books where that word is less appropriate), out of the picture. The closing poem, ‘Yangtze’, ends with the image of the forest ‘persisting’ under the surface of the Yangtze river, the trees’ ‘Roots rot deep in the hill / where buried rock / is still dry’:

‘Windows film,
doors drift open
in the empty concrete
shells of houses
towns that once
held hundreds
of thousands
slowly filling with
what, what is it
they fill with?’

The book asks direct questions only infrequently, often in moments of rhetorical intensity like this one, where the submerged city becomes a reflection of loss, of lost home, a lost ability to belong to a geographical place, even the poet’s ability to accurately describe it is ultimately out of reach. It’s a perfectly fitting end to a book that refuses simple answers to complicated questions.

Tl;dr: Absolutely read this book, several times and slowly. I hope it gets the attention it deserves, and, unless there’s a truly spectacular work in the Forward list I haven’t read yet, must be a strong contender.