THe Dark Horse, Uncategorized

The Dark Horse


I’ve been very much enjoying Gerry Cambridge’s account of the first twenty years of his journal ‘The Dark Horse’.  Available from Happenstance Press, this is a beautifully produced book utilising elegant typefaces and layout. This is fitting since Cambridge is a specialist in print design and typography. Illustrations include front covers as well as correspondence from and portraits of, many of the characters involved in the magazine’s story.  This book is a must read for anyone who is involved or thinking of becoming involved in  poetry magazines, and it will also be of interest to anyone who has ever purchased or submitted to a ‘little magazine’ .

Cambridge is a fine prose writer and his light and witty style makes for a lively read.  As well as details of the natty-gritty of obtaining finance and the physical aspects of printing and distributing a little magazine, there are sketches of the  (mostly memorably idiosyncratic)  poets and critics he has encountered along the way.
Other topics include poetry politics, cliques and prize-giving culture, the relationship between poetry and academia, and issues of editorial independence.  If all this sounds a little too niche for the general reader, it isn’t. The book moves swiftly from one anecdote or topic to the next, and the writing is often elegant and never less than nimble.
As an occasional reviewer of poetry, I was particularly interested in the section that touched on that subject.  When considering who to approach to write reviews, Cambridge states that he likes to ‘ assign books about which honest opinions may not be forthcoming to more senior, less easily impressed critics. They blow through the smothering hype around much current poetry, which is often mutually congratulatory, like a gust of January air through a mim-moue’d cocktail party. ‘ I must admit that I don’t know what ‘mim-moue’d’ means, but I get the gist. Cambridge continues

‘It is not that such critics are deliberately combative; they are merely unafraid. Fear of creating offence is a major issue in the contemporary poetry world, which is a relatively small boat; rock it, and you may be thrown overboard. And there is no large, popular readership to be validated by; there is only the sea.’

Cambridge implies that contributors (such as my own editor and publisher John Lucas, who has occasionally written for the ‘Horse’ over the years, ) had and have the integrity and independence to write candidly. These are reviewers who  ‘enjoy, indeed, relish swimming’ in the aforementioned sea, and their lack of fear allows the sort of writing that might eloquently point out that an emperor of the poetry world is in ‘the altogether.’

Cambridge’s anecdotes of his encounters and exchanges of opinion with the great and good often have a sense of mischievous glee, as he depicts quirks of personality and points of contention over literary matters. He is also keen to point out his own moments of ignorance and naiveté as he navigated various poetry worlds equipped with nothing more than with what he subsequently came to see as misplaced confidence.

It is clear that Cambridge enjoys his status as a poetry outsider; as a non-academia (he is self-educated) who can hold his own in academic circles, as a Scot with Irish heritage, as a poet and publisher geographically removed from the London-centric poetry elites, and as someone who has created and sustained a well-regarded journal through nothing other than passion and perseverance.  It is also clear that he has frequently re-evaluated the direction and values of the magazine in order that The Dark Horse evolves and reflects developments in the wide worlds of poetry.

Cambridge concludes

‘Like poetry itself, at heart a poetry magazine is a celebration of the human spirit beyond awards, issues of reputation and all the attendant palaver. It is a free space of expression that transcends commercialism and other involved interests. It aims for the high ranges even as it scrabbles in the foothills.’

While reading this book I remembered that George Harrison named his record label ‘Dark Horse’. And later that morning I encountered another dark horse.  Crossing a field, I came to a stile where this chap stood and refused to budge. I didn’t fancy trying to get past his head and navigate the space between his ample flank and the fence.  I reasoned with him for a while before deciding on a three-field detour. I thought how Gerry Cambridge’s choice of name for his journal was not only apt for the reasons he gave – ‘the outsider ,  the unknown quantity, the unexpected winner’.Perhaps it also reflects a certain dogged determination to stand and remain exactly where one wishes, regardless of persuasion, expectation or unrecognised command.



A dark horse


Searching for the ‘right’ word

I’ve been diligently (intermittently) writing three poetry book reviews.
Fortunately, all three collections contain some very fine poetry, and I’ll be glad to have them on my shelf to return to when the reviews are finished. When I write a review I jump straight in, reading through each poem and jotting notes by hand. Then I’ll open a word document and begin the long process of refining my notes, hammering away until sentences flow, checking that meaning is clear, that repetition of certain phrases or words is avoided .

Very often I’ll read over what I’ve written only to get a nagging feeling that what I want to say has not been said well enough, that the essence of how I feel about a poem or the book as a whole has not been captured. I feel a duty to do justice to the poet’s work, to try to get to the heart of what they are saying, to do my best to capture and express what is unique about each.

In the process I  try to avoid phrases that might be becoming meaningless with overuse, phrases that are difficult to substitute, such as ‘Tour de force’. I’ve noticed, reading over one unfinished piece, that I’ve used ‘delicate’ to describe a poem. But turning to the Thesaurus I can see that along with ‘exquisite’ , are ‘fragile,’ ‘flimsy,’ ‘silky’ ‘gossamer’, ‘wispy’ and so on. My brain is hurting a little this morning, but I realise I’m going to have to escape any temptation to lazily apply ‘delicate’ and decide exactly what quality I’m suggesting the poem has and why. I’ve written reviews in the past that I’ve been dissatisfied with, and I now understand it’s because I settled too easily for words which I could have interrogated more fully until I was absolutely sure that they were conveying what I meant.


So I’m learning. This is hard work, and, just as one should read contemporary poetry if one is writing poetry, I know I should read more reviews in order to get a sense of what is currently being done and what is not, what phrases are being overused and what it is possible to achieve.
I do read reviews, and have found some to be beautifully crafted and insightful. There are may ways of approaching reviewing, and I admire writers who leave space between the lines, who, rather than bludgeoning a book with statements about it’s perceived lack of skill or politically (at least to that particular reviewer) unpalatable themes, hint at these things or ask questions.

I suppose I find it harder to write about books I don’t like. If I’ve read several pages and the work seems flat or uninspiring, if the language torpid, or perhaps worse, overwrought and confusing, I really won’t want to write a review. If a book makes me wonder why I thought I liked poetry, I’d rather not go there, and since my reviewing is for pleasure, not profit, I don’t have to.

My current problem, and it’s a nice one to have, is that I admire some of the work I am writing about so much that I’m in danger of sounding gushing in my enthusiasm. Maybe this isn’t a problem at all. I’m a fan of brilliant poetry, and luckily for me, some brilliant poetry has dropped through my letter box. It only remains for me to try to explain why I think it’s brilliant, which, when things are going well and the right words are forming up on the page,  I will regard as a privilege.  Back to work.


A few brief thoughts on Poetry Reviewing

What constitutes a good poetry review? Are many reviews simply uncritical PR exercises and if so, are they bad for poets and for poetry?

I’m very new to writing poetry reviews myself, but I’ve written some a couple for Sphinx, which I found both challenging and enjoyable, and one or two for this blog. I’m writing some for a print magazine at the moment, so I’ve been thinking about how to be a good reviewer. Looking around on-line I found this interview with poet-critic Joan Houllihan in Contemporary Poetry Review. I was interested in Houllihan’s comments which I found  expressed my own feelings on the subject.
So  I’ve paraphrased and set out some of her statements in a sort of list of criteria for looking at and evaluating poems. Interestingly Houllihan also considers the qualities of the ideal reader. I hope to add to this list in time and would welcome any thoughts at all on the subject of reviewing poetry.

  1. Is the poem interesting?  If so, I’ll keep reading, and in that reading I’ll make other evaluative judgments; for example
    a) a poem can’t be interesting if it’s confusing (though it can be interesting if it’s mysterious)
    b) can’t be interesting if it’s pedantic (but can be if it’s intellectually challenging)
    c) can’t be interesting if it’s sentimental (but can be if it evokes emotion)
    d)  can’t be if it’s merely clever (can be if it’s original)
    e) can’t be if it’s predictable (can be if it’s surprising)So that one question: Is it interesting? Carries with it a lot of evaluative possibilities.
  2. What qualities should the ideal reader (me) have?a) Loves the art of poetry itself, not just individual poems.
    b) Is well-read, and not just in poetry (I’m working on this one).
    c) Meets the poem on its own terms, that is, without prejudice as to its form, content, style   and unfolding.
    d)  Enjoys being intellectually and emotionally challenged.
    e)  Is drawn to mystery but put off by obscurity.
    f)  Is thrilled by masterful writing of any kind, that is, by the way a line is constructed, how it  moves, word choice, syntactical grace.
    g) Likes to learn something new (in craft or content)
    h) Wants to be at least as engaged in a poem as in a successful magic act.Going back to the question of ‘Is the poem confusing?’ This is a big one for me. I’ve stopped short of hurling books at the wall, but I dislike being confused by poems.  As stated in 1a), mystery is a different thing.