The Catch

For you, the catch wasn't something caught:
not word or contender, attention or fire.
Not the almost-missed train, or the sort
of wave surfers might wait an entire
lifetime for. Not the promise that leaves
the old man adrift for days, his boat
creaking, miles offshore. Nor what cleaves
the heart in two, that left your throat
parched and mute for taking pill
after yellow-green pill, the black-blue
taste the price you paid to kill
the two-parts sadness to one-part anger.
No. The catch was what you could never
let go. It's what you carried, and still do.


poem by Ben Wilkinson
from For Real (Smith|Doorstop Books, 2014)


"An unfashionably honest poet":
Andrew McMillan's physical (Cape, July 2015)


Raw and urgent, these poems are hymns to the male body – to male friendship and male love – muscular, sometimes shocking, but always deeply moving. We are witness here to an almost religious celebration of the flesh: a flesh vital with the vulnerability of love and loss, to desire and its departure. In an extraordinary blend of McMillan’s own colloquial Yorkshire rhythms with a sinewy, Metaphysical music and Thom Gunn’s torque and speed – ‘your kiss was deep enough to stand in’ – the poems in this first collection confront what it is to be a man and interrogate the very idea of masculinity. This is poetry where every instance of human connection, from the casual encounter to the intimate relationship, becomes redeemable and revelatory.

Dispensing with conventional punctuation, the poet is attentive and alert to the quality of breathing, giving the work an extraordinary sense of being vividly poised and present – drawing lines that are deft, lyrical and perfectly pitched from a world of urban dereliction. An elegant stylist and unfashionably honest poet, McMillan’s eye and ear are tuned, exactly, to both the mechanics of the body and the miracles of the heart.

High praise there - but precise and intelligent praise, too. This from the blurb to Andrew McMillan's physical, due out from Jonathan Cape in July. From what I've seen of McMillan's work and his long apprenticeship in the art of poetry - and he is a poet who not only understands, but whose poems evince, that we must always speak from both the head and the heart - this long-awaited debut will warrant these words. In fact, I'll go so far as to stick my neck out and say, first collection or no, it will make for one of the stand-out poetry collections of 2015.


But don't take my word for it. If you want to hear and judge for yourself, McMillan will be performing at the South Yorkshire Poetry Festival on Sunday 24th May, alongside the inimitable Bard of Barnsley himself, Ian McMillan, and the talented Cumbrian poet Kim Moore, who will be reading from her recently published collection The Art of Falling (Seren, 2015).  

Tickets £8 in advance or on the door.

Find out more here, and why not check out the various gigs and events across the week (18-24 May) while you're at it.


Does 'abstract' or 'experimental' really mean 'elitist'?

Charles Olson (1910-1970)

an interview with Michael Donaghy by Andy Brown, 1998

Yes. Not that there's anything especially wrong with that. But look at those sexy words used all too frequently to describe contemporary art and literature, 'experimental' and 'revolutionary'. The first is a metaphor filched from science - experimental art doesn't have a control group, doesn't collate and publish its findings. And 'revolutionary' properly describes a brick thrown at a police cordon, not a poem in Parataxis. Among the most cherished illusions of the avant-garde is the idea that bourgeois art consoles, pleases and mollifies with received notions of beauty, whereas avant-garde art shocks and challenges and doesn't seek to please. I'm always dismayed by this kind of self-delusion. The audience for avant-garde art is a middle-class audience that pays to be shocked, bored or insulted, much in the same way that Mistress Wanda's clients pay to be horsewhipped. It's an audience that knows what it wants and is comfortable with its rituals and cliches. Whether it's a urinal on a pedestal in 1910 or a poem composed entirely of semi-colons in 1997 ('everything changes but the avant-garde', said Auden), the audience expects to retreat from a direct and complex experience of the craftsmanship, to ideas about art.

The most common of these ideas can be phrased as 'Justify your instinctive reaction that this is not a work of art.' In other words, the burden of proof is placed with the audience, where in former ages it belonged to the artist. Whatever the quality of your work, if it strikes the critical powers-that-be as 'anti-poetic', it is de facto worth talking about. Fine. I enjoy avant-garde work from Duchamp to Damien Hirst, to poets like Clark Coolidge, but let's not delude ourselves with the naive and sentimental notion that such art is 'progressive'. I'm angry about that pretence. Capitalism long ago defeated the avant-garde by accepting it as another style. Yet artists continue to present themselves as an offence to the establishment even as they accept fat cheques from the Saatchi Gallery or attend academic conferences on 'oppositional' poetries.

I feel very strongly that we have to be vigilant about naked emperors, otherwise mediocrities become cultural referents. Any random shape, crash of noise or verbal incomprehensibility can become comfortingly familiar - the perfect representation of itself - by answering its own echo or after-image in our unconscious. Say your dog pees on the carpet. Every day we see the stain and eventually we get used to it. Put that stain on a wall, track lit, in a gallery, run a debate on its merits in the Sunday supplements, refer to it archly in advertising - sooner or later it will become iconic. It will have cultural importance, because we all recognise it. It becomes a cultural referent and will provide all those bourgeois satisfactions that the avant-garde professes to despise. And all because no one stood up and said it was piss.

interview excerpt from The Shape of the Dance: Essays, Interviews and Digressions,
a collection of prose by the late Michael Donaghy.


Depression and the power of words

I've written about my experience of depression for Mind, the mental health charity. The piece talks about the roles that reading & writing, poetry and running all played in my recovery. It also includes my poem 'Hound'.

My hope is that it speaks to others, and that it might even help someone. Do share if you think it could.