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81 Austerities by Sam Riviere – review


Ruth Padel on a vision of a world ruled by twin demons: austerity and information overload

In 2002, introducing a book of poems by 52 living poets, I said most British poets didn't work in universities but earned their living in other ways such as teaching, journalism, publishing or arts administration. In 2007, introducing 60 more poems in a follow-up book, I found myself ending each poet's biography with the university where they taught creative writing. It was that fast – creative writing embedded itself across British universities within five years.

The turnaround coincided with the rise of the internet. For young poets, this combination meant new routes to publishing, new ways that your writing might fit into your life, and some very intense group reading, especially of the previous generation of poets. What it meant for poetry was that young poets focusing on workshop and craft also rethought fundamentals like persona and voice. Now we are getting the results.

In 2002, Sam Riviere was 21. He wrote poems at art school, then did an MA (and is now doing a PhD) in creative writing. He's made YouTube videos of his work, and the poems in his debut collection are self-referentially literary, political and confessional, very funny, almost punctuation-free – and began as a blog. When the coalition government announced austerity measures, Riviere began a series of "poetry posts" on writing poems in the age of cuts.

The blog acquired a cult following, and this is its book. "Cuts" apply to almost everything in it, including the feeling, form and content of poetry itself. (Not the book's length, though. Eighty-one is a lot of poems.) This is a vision of a world ruled by twin demons, Austerity and Information Overload. We resolve that paradox, Riviere suggests, by cuts. "This is me eating not 1 not 2 but 3 pancakes / this is me having Breakfast in America in paris / with my creepy associates / this is me punching a photographer / this is me listening to my ansaphone messages / these are my new converse all****s / this is me logging into my email / I think my password 40 times a day / here I am inside the reptile house".

As in a film, attention cuts constantly to new things while the line spools on seamlessly. "Whatever you can think of / someone's already done it. / There's a new kind of content / pre-empting individual perversions / I've seen my missing girlfriend's face / emerge cresting from a wave of pixels," says a poem called "POV" (as in "point of view") about watching late-night porn.

A poem called "Cuts" is a tribute to the American modernism that is, I suspect, Riviere's heaviest influence. Here it is, uncut:

I can see that things have gotten pretty bad
our way of life threatened by financiers
assortments of phoneys and opportunists
and very soon the things we cherish most
will likely be taken from us the wine
from our cellars our silk gowns and opium
but tell me what do you expect Chung Ling Soo
much ridiculed conjurer of the court and last
of the dynasts of brooms to do about it?

Nine (as in muses) is the book's magic number, and this key poem has nine lines. The language of the first three marks Riviere's debt to America; of the second three, Ezra Pound makes his presence felt in "silk" and "opium"; the last triplet, with its fake Orientalism (Chung Ling Soo was the stage name of an American magician) and buttonholing apostrophe ("tell me"), openly echoes "The Cantos", reminding us of Pound's whole cut and paste of politics, chinoiserie, cultural allusiveness, high lyric and crooked finance.

The backdrop to all relationships in 81 Austerities, including linguistic, is social networking. Whether on blogs or Facebook, in tweets or poems, what matters in confessionalism is not the dirty or trivial detail itself but the writing of it. These poems are both body and screen, the site of endless re-pinging between self and other ("did she know she'd have that effect / 'accidentally' hitting videocall somehow / so when I answered I was looking up / into her face from inside her handbag"), and their underlying subject is editing the way others see us. Creative writing means creative cutting. Edits to a poem mirror the ways we cut and paste ourselves.

"His subject is the nature of contemporary reality shifting away from you," Seamus Heaney once said of another American modernist, John Ashbery. Following the steps of Paul Muldoon (often alluded to, sometimes by name) – and also drawing, I'd like to think, on the manic confidentiality of Paul Durcan – Riviere has found his own new take on that shiftiness. Some will love it, others may call it superficial and repetitive, or say he's using social networking to push his poetry. I think it's the real thing. He has a powerful lyric gift, the vowels, rhythms and cadences precise as brushed steel; the insights, and how the words behave together, are convincing and surprising; the poems are both intimate and universal and have a lovely energy.

If you want to know what new things poetry can do, you'll find this an exhilaratingly authentic way to confront the inauthentic, both in ourselves and in society. On the surface, Riviere's poems are about promoting poetry in a Twitter-stuccoed landscape where "each thing finds its hollow place". But the poems also, elegantly and honestly, do what poetry does best: try to make sense of their world.

• Ruth Padel's The Mara Crossing: Poems and Prose on Migration is published by Chatto & Windus.

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