Friday, 22 May 2009

Antonio Vega, poems set to music

Antonio Vega has died at the age of fifty-one.

An exceptional songwriter, Vega managed to dodge cliché with intensely personal lyrics that became renowned all over Spain. He started out as the lead singer with Nacha Pop, later going solo. Here are two of his songs. This first clip is of El Sitio De Mi Recreo, an example of his later work:

The next song is La Chica De Ayer, an emblem for a whole generation of Spaniards. On rereading my previous sentence, I'm aware I seem to lapse into hyperbole, but virtually no one of my age from out here in Iberia could fail to identify the song after the first few bars. Enrique Iglesias recently ripped its heart out with a sickly cover version, but this clip is of the original, from Nacha Pop's first ever T.V. appearance:

Antonio Vega often stated his songs were "poems set to music". He was right.

Monday, 18 May 2009

Mario Benedetti

The main headline in today's online version of El País (perhaps Spain's number one paper) is the news of Mario Benedetti's death at the age of eighty-eight.

In spite of having published numerous novels and essays, this Uruguayan is perhaps best-known for his poetry. Exile and love are his main themes, the former forced on him by political repression. Benedetti is capable of remarkable turns of phrase, of sustained narrative strength within a poem and of achieving the heady mix of politics, metaphysics and reflections on daily life.

Leafing once more through my copy of his collected poems, Los Espejos Las Sombras, his brilliance makes it difficult to pick out just one quote, but here goes...

"...cantamos porque el grito no es bastante..."
"...we sing because shouting is not enough..."

Lyricism and commitment in a single line. Benedetti might have died, but his poetry remains to mark both the anguish and hope of a whole generation who suffered terribly under Latin American dictatorships.

Saturday, 16 May 2009

Jordi Virallonga, exceptional in every sense

Jordi Virallonga is from Catalunya and lives there, yet writes much of his work in Spanish. In the current socio-linguistic climate, this is exceptional in itself. However, Virallonga is also exceptional for the poetry he writes.

The Spanish poetry scene often seems to get tied up in knots about whether poetry should approach life in order to understand it or take an esoteric step away. Nevertheless, the most outstanding Spanish poets of recent years have risen above this navel-gazing, tending not to fit into the "Generations" and "Schools" that are so beloved of their contemporaries. Jordi Virallonga is one such poet.

Of all his collections, my favourite by far is Crónicas de Usura, published in 1999. It's an elegaic book, not a sequence but a series of interweaving poems that also work excellently as stand-alone pieces. Urban surroundings, metaphysics, everyday events and brilliant lists all work together as Virallonga seeks to express what none of us can. Many Spanish poets and critics would classify and separate each of these features as belonging to one "School" or another. In this case, the poet is brave enough to juxtapose them, using them as and when he needs them as poetic resources. Self-limitation is not for Virallonga.

What's more, he's not shy of brilliant turns of phrase. Not flashy, just providing a new way of viewing something familiar:

"una historia doblada como un avión de papel"..."a story folded like a paper plane"

Jordi Virallonga is exceptional in 21st century Spanish poetry - few other current Spanish poets have shaken off the critical shackles that their contemporaries seem to use as security blankets. I thoroughly recommend his work, above all Crónicas de Usura, an outstanding blend of transatlantic and Spanish influences that fuses into an original voice.

Saturday, 2 May 2009

Matt Merritt, a strikingly subtle voice

Matt Merritt has published two books of poetry, a pamphlet titled Making the Most of the Light (Happenstance) in 2005, followed by Troy Town (Arrowhead) in 2008, his debut full collection. Accessible yet complex, Merritt is one of the few poets on the U.K. scene to carry off this juggling act. His poems invite the reader in, before generating layers of nuance.

Making the Most of the Light goes way beyond most first pamphlets. Not just a “Best Of…”, it develops a number of themes, often via the use of subtle juxtaposition, as in the collection’s positive title alongside its dedication (For Rebecca Merritt 1968-2004). At the same time, Merritt also shows himself to be adept at great set pieces (Sweet Nothings), excellently executed extended metaphors (Comeback) and the undervalued English art of self-deprecation (Familiar). This pamphlet shows a poet in exciting evolution, capable of striking chords without resorting to facile gestures.

Troy Town displays a number of key differences. Unlike many other poets, Merritt didn’t draw on poems from the previous pamphlet when drawing up his debut full collection. Instead, the reader is offered a clean slate and a book that’s symphonic. In other words, this is a collection which compresses and reflects a couple of years in the poet’s life. Pieces bounce off each other, depend on their neighbours and are strengthened by their strategic positioning in the book. Less immediate than Making the Most of the Light, Troy Town does still invite the reader in, but Merritt’s capacity for creating nuance is building: we have to work just a little more to suss out where we are, what’s going on and what might hit us on the next line. Of course, his skill is always teasing away in the background, less blatant than before, but reminding us that our efforts will be rewarded.

Matt Merritt is a poet to watch over the coming years. His voice, already striking, will surely mature even further. I just hope it reaches the wider readership that it deserves.