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The New Statesman's Poems of 2014

New voices join old friends in our selection of the best poems published in the New Statesman over the past 12 months.

Driftwood Houses
Clive James

The ne plus ultra of our lying down,
Skeleton riders see the planet peeled
Into their helmets by a knife of light.
Just so, I stare into the racing field
Of ice as I lie on my side and fight
To cough up muck. This bumpy slide downhill
Leads from my bed to where I’m bound to drown
At this rate. I get up and take a walk,
Lean on the balustrade and breathe my fill
At last. The wooden stairs down to the hall
Stop shaking. Enough said. To hear me talk
You’d think I found my fate sad. Hardly that:
All that has happened is I’ve hit the wall.
Disintegration is appropriate,

As once, on our French beach, I built, each year,
Among the rocks below the esplanade,
Houses from driftwood for our girls to roof
With towels so they could hide there in the shade
With ice creams that would melt more slowly. Proof
That nothing built can be forever here
Lay in the way those frail and crooked frames
Were undone by a storm-enhanced high tide
And vanished. It was time, and anyhow
Our daughters were not short of other games
Which were all theirs, and not geared to my pride.
And here they come. They’re gathering shells again.
And you in your straw hat, I see you now,
As I lie restless yet most blessed of men.

 

An earlier version of this poem was first published in the New Statesman of 18 April 2014.
Clive James is a poet, critic and broadcaster. His most recent book is Poetry Notebook: 2006-2014 (Picador).

 

First World War Hero
Dannie Abse

Often away on business though no-one
seemed to know what Uncle’s business was.
He’d return from Timbuktu, North Pole or Mars,
cigar-smoking, proud of his new bought Bentley.

Not always a Bentley. Sometimes a cavalier Rolls
or some other post-war car made in Heaven.
“Sam juggles cars like he juggles lemons,”
Dad grumbled. We owned an Austin 7.

Once, with three lemons, Uncle entranced me.
He danced over watchful one-eyed daisies
juggling a choreograph of lemons. Funny, freckled
red-haired Uncle. Such beauty of balance!

He could do it with whisky wizardry,
kneeling on the floor, singing a Fred Astaire song
but Mother disapproved of war-hero Sam.
“Generous with other people’s money. Scab. Cheat.”

“Not a cheat,” Dad frowned. “A juggler, yes,
a meshugana charmer and chancer, yes. Always
was, always will be till his name’s on the slab
he’ll throw up Sour till it comes down Sweet.”

No exemplar, but misled, I was in awe of Sam.
They said at Ypres he had killed ten Huns.
Asked about his medals he fled into silence,
then winked, “They gave me them for juggling lemons.”

That was whisky-glib years ago. Now no more
cars, leaping lemons. At Sam’s funeral, drama:
Aunt numb and an unknown woman weeping
comforted by a freckled, red-haired son.

In the trance of Belief there are spaced-out gurus,
wild messiahs, and can-do men like Sam,
tight-rope stars, in god-fearless equipoise,
they speak to a child and to the child in man.

 

First published: 8 August 2014.
Dannie Abse, a Welsh poet and former doctor, died on 28 September 2014, aged 91. His final collection of poems, Ask the Moon, is newly published by Hutchinson. He was awarded a CBE in 2012.

 

 

The Hinds
Kathleen Jamie 

Walking in a waking dream
I watched nineteen deer
pour from ridge to glen-floor,
then each in turn leap,
leap the new-raised
peat-dark burn. This
was the distaff side;
hinds at their ease, alive
to lands held on long lease
in their animal minds,
and filing through a breached
never-mended dyke,
the herd flowed up over
heather-slopes to scree
where they stopped, and turned to stare,
the foremost with a queenly air
as though to say: Aren’t we
the bonniest companie?
Come to me,
You’ll be happy, but never go home.

 

First published: 28 February 2014.
Kathleen Jamie’s most recent collection of verse is The Overhaul (Picador) and her essays are published in Findings and Sightlines. Her poem commemorating the Battle of Bannockburn was inscribed on the monument at the site in 2013.

 

Ex-Industrial (a trailer)
Helen Mort

Zoom in: near sunset in a town where everything’s ex-this,
ex-that, an artificial pond poured in to fill the gaps.
Just out of shot, your neighbour the ex-smoker smokes
behind the flats and feels ex-touches shivering down his back.

Interior: your ex-face in that photo on the shelf
is less than half the shadow of your former self.
Crowned with a plastic rose, the TV’s talking to itself.
A coat pools on the floor. Real shadows take the walls by stealth.

Zoom out: that man-made lake again. The fishermen
and geese have left, the sun slinks off towards the west.
The camera pans across the water, comes to rest –
and there: the sun beneath the surface holds its breath.

 

First published: 6 December 2013.
Helen Mort was born in Sheffield in 1985. Her debut collection, Division Street (Chatto & Windus), was shortlisted for the 2013 Costa Poetry Award and the T S Eliot Prize. She is the poet laureate for Derbyshire.

 

Scar
Philip Gross

             : a heart-
        shaped scorch-
    patch in the bracken.
Today a spat of Valleys rain has stopped it there

but each Easter makes tinder of this hillside,
a swathe of crisp brown question-marks,
fire in them itching to run where it will

and how could you resist it, being fourteen
and full of the slack of the day, of the nothing
to go home to, with a lighter in your jeans,

the others looking on? A fair wind, luck,
and there’ll be sirens this evening, smoke-
signalling We were (are still) here

where they’ll already be too late,
those flatfoots in vizors and fire suits,
cartoon spacemen in the wrong film. Watch

them chasing the last of the flame-snakes,
wriggling here, there. Different greynesses
into the night sky: smoke and steam.

That’s a good day, when everyone wakes
to sodden rakings-over, world restored
to black-and-white, shoots shrivelled

to wisps, bared rocks and birch trunks
scorched, a stink as alkaline as birdlime,
valley like a morning-after ashtray

(yes, you in the dinky estate by the station,
we’ll rub your noses in it), like a riddled grate
of clinker, where coal was. Not far

beneath the skin of new-turfed green,
        dug under but still
            smouldering, the
                heart. The scar.


First published: 18 July 2014.
Philip Gross’s collections include The Water Table, which won the 2009 T S Eliot Prize, and Later (Bloodaxe). “Scar” will appear in A Fold in the River, a collection set around the River Taff in south Wales, to be published by Seren in 2015.

 

Grip Stick
Mark Granier

The man emptying bins on the prom might 
be my age,
though healthier looking, tanned, bare-armed
in a hi-vis jacket and black ski-cap.
He plucks at stray bits of litter with that familiar
metal rod with its Dalek pincer – the same

as the one I bought for my mother in Fannin’s
some years before she died – a gadget
so starkly ingenious surely it’s a branch
of a family tree of similar inventions, of Bakelite,
whalebone, leather, wood . . . going back, back

to that afternoon in her nursing home
a year and a half ago, when I hold her hand
and feel it loosen then go slack, and call
the nurse, who says quietly “yes, she’s going . . .”
and I look out the window

to see the usual glorious rubbish, clouds
not stopping their tumble over Killiney Hill’s
huddle of slates and satellite dishes, while I am
abruptly in a different country – the vast
landscape of her open palm –

tiny in the grip of what gave way.

 

First published: 6 June 2014.
Mark Granier is an Irish poet and photographer. He is the author of three collections of poetry: Airborne, The Sky Road and Fade Street. His fourth, Haunt, will be published by Salmon Poetry in 2015.

 

Aubade
Roger McGough

Needler Hall, the University of Hull

Woken at four to the sound of jazz
coming from his room on the floor above,
as he opens the door and slips out.

The flop of moth-eaten brocade slippers
along the corridor. The knock. “Come in.”
He stands in the doorway plain as a wardrobe.

“Sorry to . . . Unearthly hour . . .”
He stays just on the edge of vision,
“Thought you might be able to help.”

There is no escape. The curtain-edges grow light
and the room takes shape. “Work has to be done.
What year was the Beatles’ first LP?”

“Nineteen sixty-three,” I mumble.
“ABBAB. Excellent.” And he is gone.
The sky is white as clay, with no sun.

 

First published: 4 July 2014.
Roger McGough is the president of the Poetry Society and presents the BBC Radio 4 programme Poetry Please. His most recent book is It Never Rains (Penguin).

This article first appeared in the 19 December 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas Issue 2014

Nicola Snothum / Millenium Images
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The end of solitude: in a hyperconnected world, are we losing the art of being alone?

In the end, Solitude feels a bit like an amiable cop-out. 

Michael Harris is a Canadian writer who lives in a big city and whose life is defined and circumscribed, as so many Western lives are now, by digital technologies. He finds it hard to leave his phone at home in case he misses anything. He worries about his social media reputation. He uses apps and plays games, and relies on the internet hive mind to tell him which films to watch or where to eat. Here is what happens when he goes on holiday to Paris:

Disembarking from the train from London, I invited a friendly app to guide me to a hotel near the Pompidou . . . The next morning, Yelp guided me towards a charming café in the Marais. There, wizard-like, I held my phone over the menu and waited for Google Translate to melt the words into English. When the waiter arrived, I spoke into my phone and had it repeat my words to the grinning garçon in a soft, robotic French. Later, at the Louvre, I allowed a Nintendo-sponsored guidance system to track my steps up the centuries-old Daru staircase as I squinted confusedly at its glowing blue you-are-here dot . . .

Terrifying, isn’t it? Well, I thought so as I read it, and Harris thought so afterwards. It was situations like this, during which he realised that his life was controlled, confined and monitored by distancing technologies, that led him to wonder whether solitude – the act and the art of being alone – was in danger of disappearing.

Harris has an intuition that being alone with ourselves, paying attention to inner silence and being able to experience outer silence, is an essential part of being human. He can remember how it felt to do this, before the internet brought its social anxiety and addiction into his life. “I began to remember,” he writes, “a calm separateness, a sureness I once could live inside for an easy hour at a time.”

What happens when that calm separateness is destroyed by the internet of everything, by big-city living, by the relentless compulsion to be with others, in touch, all the time? Plenty of people know the answer already, or would do if they were paying attention to the question. Nearly half of all Americans, Harris tells us, now sleep with their smartphones on their bedside table, and 80 per cent are on their phone within 15 minutes of waking up. Three-quarters of adults use social networking sites regularly. But this is peanuts compared to the galloping development of the so-called Internet of Things. Within the next few years, anything from 30 to 50 billion objects, from cars to shirts to bottles of shampoo, will be connected to the net. The internet will be all around you, whether you want it or not, and you will be caught in its mesh like a fly. It’s not called the web for nothing.

I may not be the ideal reader for this book. By page 20, after a few more facts of this sort, I had already found myself scrawling “Kill everyone!” in the margins. This is not really the author’s fault. I often start behaving like this whenever I’m forced to read a list of ways in which digital technology is wrecking human existence. There are lots of lists like this around at the moment, because the galloping, thoughtless, ongoing rush to connect everything to the web has overcome our society like a disease. Did you know that cows are now connected to the internet? On page 20, Harris tells us that some Swiss dairy cows, sim cards implanted in their necks, send text messages to their farmers when they are on heat and ready to be inseminated. If this doesn’t bring out your inner Unabomber, you’re probably beyond help. Or maybe I am.

What is the problem here? Why does this bother me, and why does it bother Harris? The answer is that all of these things intrude upon, and threaten to destroy, something ancient and hard to define, which is also the source of much of our creativity and the essence of our humanity. “Solitude,” Harris writes, “is a resource.” He likens it to an ecological niche, within which grow new ideas, an understanding of the self and therefore an understanding of others.

The book is full of examples of the genius that springs from silent and solitary moments. Beethoven, Dostoevsky, Kafka, Einstein, Newton – all developed their ideas and approach by withdrawing from the crowd. Peter Higgs, the Nobel ­Prizewinner who discovered the Higgs boson particle, did his best work in peace and solitude in the 1960s. He suggests that what he did then would be impossible today, because it is now virtually impossible to find such solitude in the field of science.

Collaboration, not individuality, is fetishised today, in business as in science and the arts, but Harris warns that collaboration often results in conformism. In the company of others, most of us succumb to pressure to go with the crowd. Alone, we have more chance to be thoughtful, to see differently, to enter a place where we feel free from the mob to moderate our unique experience of the world. Without solitude, he writes, genius – which ultimately springs from different ways of thinking and seeing – becomes impossible. If Thoreau’s cabin in the woods had had wifi, we would never have got Walden.

Yet it is not only geniuses who have a problem: ordinary minds like yours and mine are threatened by the hypersocial nature of always-on urbanity. A ­civilisation can be judged by the quality of its daydreams, Harris suggests. Who daydreams now? Instead of staring out of the window on a train, heads are buried in smartphones, or wired to the audio of a streaming film. Instead of idling at the bus stop, people are loading up entertainment: mobile games from King, the maker of Candy Crush, were played by 1.6 billion times every day in the first quarter of 2015 alone.

If you’ve ever wondered at the behaviour of those lines of people at the train station or in the street or in the café, heads buried in their phones like zombies, unable or unwilling to look up, Harris confirms your worst fears. The developers of apps and games and social media sites are dedicated to trapping us in what are called ludic loops. These are short cycles of repeated actions which feed our brain’s desire for reward. Every point you score, every candy you crush, every retweet you get gives your brain a dopamine hit that keeps you coming back for more. You’re not having a bit of harmless fun: you are an addict. A tech corporation has taken your solitude and monetised it. It’s not the game that is being played – it’s you.

So, what is to be done about all this? That’s the multibillion-dollar question, but it is one the book cannot answer. Harris spends many pages putting together a case for the importance of solitude and examining the forces that splinter it today. Yet he also seems torn in determining how much of it he wants and can cope with. He can see the damage being done by the always-on world but he lives in the heart of it, all his friends are part of it, and he doesn’t want to stray too far away. He understands the value of being alone but doesn’t like it much, or want to experience it too often. He’ll stop checking his Twitter analytics but he won’t close down his account.

At the end of the book, Harris retreats, Thoreau-like, to a cabin in the woods for a week. As I read this brief last chapter, I found myself wishing it was the first, that he had spent more time in the cabin, that he had been starker and more exploratory, that he had gone further. Who will write a Walden for the Internet Age? This book is thick with fact and argument and some fine writing, but there is a depth that the author seems afraid to plumb. Perhaps he is afraid of what he might find down there.

In the end, Solitude feels a bit like an amiable cop-out. After 200 pages of increasingly disturbing facts about the impact of technology and crowded city living on everything from our reading habits to our ability to form friendships, and after warning us on the very last page that we risk making “an Easter Island of the mind”, the author goes back home to Vancouver, tells his boyfriend that he missed him, and then . . . well, then what? We don’t know. The book just ends. We are left with the impression that the pile-up of evidence leads to a conclusion too vast for the author, and perhaps his readers, to take in, because to do that would be to challenge everything.

In this, Solitude mirrors the structure of many other books of its type: the Non-Fiction Warning Book (NFWB), we might call it. It takes a subject – disappearing childhood; disappearing solitude; disappearing wilderness; disappearing anything, there’s so much to choose from – trots us through several hundred pages of anecdotes, science,
interviews and stories, all of which build up to the inescapable conclusion that everything is screwed . . . and then pulls back. It’s like being teased by an expert hustler. Yes, technology is undermining our sense of self and creating havoc for our relationships with others, but the solution is not to stop using it, just to moderate it. Yes, overcrowded cities are destroying our minds and Planet Earth, but the solution is not to get out of the cities: it’s to moderate them in some way, somehow.

Moderation is always the demand of the NFWB, aimed as it is at mainstream readers who would like things to get better but who don’t really want to change much – or don’t know how to. This is not to condemn Harris, or his argument: most of us don’t want to change much or know how to. What books of this kind are dealing with is the problem of modernity, which is intractable and not open to moderation. Have a week away from your screen if you like, but the theft of human freedom by the machine will continue without you. The poet Robinson Jeffers once wrote about sitting on a mountain and looking down on the lights of a city, and being put in mind of a purse seine net, in which sardines swim unwittingly into a giant bag, which is then drawn tightly around them. “I thought, We have geared the machines and locked all together into interdependence; we have built the great cities; now/There is no escape,” he wrote. “The circle is closed, and the net/Is being hauled in.”

Under the circumstances – and these are our circumstances – the only honest conclusion to draw is that the problem, which is caused primarily by the technological direction of our society, is going to get worse. There is no credible scenario in which we can continue in the same direction and not see the problem of solitude, or lack of it, continue to deepen.

Knowing this, how can Harris just go home after a week away, drop off his bag and settle back into his hyperconnected city life? Does he not have a duty to rebel, and to tell us to rebel? Perhaps. The problem for this author is our shared problem, however, at a time in history when the dystopian predictions of Brave New World are already looking antiquated. Even if Harris wanted to rebel, he wouldn’t know how, because none of us would. Short of a collapse so severe that the electricity goes off permanently, there is no escape from what the tech corporations and their tame hive mind have planned for us. The circle is closed, and the net is being hauled in. May as well play another round of Candy Crush while we wait to be dragged up on to the deck. 

Paul Kingsnorth's latest book, “Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist” (Faber & Faber)

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble

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