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Vol. 3 No. 2 Jan 2004

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The Acid Tongue
Peter McDonald is ill with Saturday Night Fever

Selected By Cyril Wong

This, from the final issue of noted British journal Thumbscrew, is something dated, but it is one of the types of reviews I love to read and re-read as it digs right into the roots of what is probably still wrong with the literary scene in the UK: its downright snootiness and intellectual complacency.

The volume under attack is Neil Astley’s Staying Alive: Real Poems for Unreal Times, and the attacker is Peter McDonald. The ironic thing about this book is that its editor – also a poet – claims the right to introduce the idea of ‘real poetry’. This is a book, McDonald points out, for ‘real people’ who presumably would not mind being treated to the ‘therapeutic wonders of real poetry.’ In fact,

[I]ts editor... wants everybody to know that he has a pretty low opinion of those already interested in poetry, or committed to taking it seriously. So, would the following now please leave the room: poets (“most poetry anthologies are useless... produced by poets for other poets”); academics (“cocooned in academic isolation”, avoid any book of criticism published by a university press”); schoolteachers (“first killing the poems by careless dissection at school”); and finally anyone “whose understanding of poets is two hundred years out of date and whose awareness of poetry is either a hundred years behind the times or else still stuck in the 1960s”... All anthologies have their faults, but this is a rare case of an anthology whose faults of inclusion and exclusion are far less significant than the fault of its intentions, the nerve of its condescension towards readers, the bland confidence of its unintelligence, and the brass neck of its publishers’ logrolling.

Actually, this is basically the crux of McDonald’s criticism, but it is his logical putdown of Astley’s assumptions that makes the review. For example, when Astley refers to the poems he has selected for his anthology as ‘life-affirming’ in his introduction, McDonald asks:

‘[W]hat... does “life-affirming” actually mean? On the face of things, a poem would seem to be less “life-affirming: than say, a human being, or even (at the more modest end of the scale) an egg sandwich; but Astley is actually employing a self-improvement, or New Age cliché here, and like any cliché, it depends on our not pausing to look too closely. The soundbite cadences of Astley’s conclusion (“It is a book about... A book about”) are those fo contemporary politicians or media-communicators...’

McDonald talks a lot about Astley’s prose as there is so much of it like weeds in the crude garden of poems the latter has constructed, growing out in between poems by way of superficial commentaries. McDonald reveals:

‘The basic plot is simple enough, however: the sad poems (which don’t always look especially “life-affirming”) are followed by the happier ones: so, for example, “In the Dead or Alive section, poems about depression are immediately followed by others which lift you out of sadness into assertion”. There’s something strange about seeing assertion (of what?) as the counterweight to sadness...’

More clichés abound, as McDonald sarcastically points out, when Astley talks about poetry making us feel “more human” (‘Whatever we might think about a phrase like “more human”, that “almost” is tellingly out of focus: it doesn’t actually know what it means, but wants to sound good. This is bad prose; those 30 years of editing experience don’t really seem to have helped.’), or when Astley does a lame imitation of Brodsky (“A poem lives in its language, which is body to its soul”, happily mimicking similar guff from Brodsky [“poetry is essentially the soul’s search for its release in language”]).

This anthology, according to McDonald, ‘speaks the language of power, that unreflective, ultimately cynical dialect of condescension and manipulation, and offers poetry as a fully-operative element in the culture of self-esteem and intellectual complacency which currently calls the shots in Britain.’ The ending of this review is a real killer:

‘[R]eaders might find an appropriate response to a poem by Thom Gunn (not included here), which seems the proper farewell to Astley and the whole gamut of bad writers, anxious fashion-victims, dull raconteurs and in-the-know media wannabees he has done so much to promote: “They’re getting old,” Gunn writes, “I wish they’d stop.”’

Can our poets do the boogie? Drip acid in the Forum!

'The Acid Tongue' is a column that celebrates acerbic reviewing. Mail us if you know of any examples.

QLRS Vol. 3 No. 2 Jan 2004


About Cyril Wong
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  Related Links

Peter McDonald profile
External link to Tower Poetry.

Review of Staying Alive
External link to Poetry London.

Another review of Staying Alive
External link to PopMatters.

Neil Astley profile
External link to Bloodaxe Books.

Another Neil Astley profile
External link to Literature North East.

Neil Astley in some British literary politicking
External link to the BBC.

Bloodaxe Books
External link.


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