I’m told how nice it is to see that I T and E have their
books out I’m sure they’ll receive excellent reviews in the broadsheets
it’s no exaggeration to say that there are not enough minutes
in the day to give each the attention they undoubtedly deserve.
Poem 18 was when it struck me that something interesting might be going on in this collection. Up to then, the poems had not held my attention; they were overthought, a bit too flamboyant. That there are 81 poems, or that the poet obviously intends these to be the “austerities” of his title is evident; that “austerity” was “named word of the year by Merriam-Webster in 2010” is, as pointed out at the beginning of the text, a fact. But I felt there were too many things going on at once; Riviere was pulling in too many different directions. When I read poem 18, however, a refreshing rethink was forced upon me.
“Adversity in the Arts” diagnoses a situation of cultural overload and inattention, and throws up an interesting paradox – how are Riviere’s own poems to escape this situation? Manifestly, they hadn’t, up to then (at least not in my case). The paradox forced me to question whether I was being too inattentive – did the issue lie with me, the poems, or neither? Perseverance allowed me to discount the first two options – the remaining poems were enjoyable, so much so that I immediately revisited those overlooked by my earlier inattention, re-reading them, and with great enjoyment too.
So where did the issue lie? My temptation is to say in our “cultural economy” in general, which, as “Adversity in the Arts” recognises, is too clamorous, distracted and noisy by half to give even its finest fruits the attention “…they undoubtedly deserve”. Persevering with Riviere’s poems allowed me to recognise that they respond to this in a clever way: they are stylistic “austerities”, employing great economy of word and image to put forward their messages. What results is a series of snapshots that captures everyday urban life in Britain in refreshing ways. I got it all wrong in thinking these poems did too much – in fact, they cut prolix mercilessly, as governments might cut services if they possessed anything like the executive power of the poet.
Consistent themes run throughout: the arts and art funding, London and the tube, tourists, information technology, texting and the Net, sex and pornography, politics and the economy, music and 90s bands, introspection and self-indulgence. When Riviere channels these properly, the results are rewarding. He has a rich sense of paradox and humour (as witnessed in “Best Thing You Can Do Now is Do Nothing” or “The Clot”); however, there are other strings to his bow: “’94” is nostalgic, bittersweet and aware, “Rich/Poor Gap Widens” is a kind of post-“Occupy” movement haiku, refreshing in its bluntness, and “Help Yourself” sees Riviere searching for authenticity without the sense of irony that inhibits other such examples in the collection.
There are points where Riviere botches things. Sometimes, he comes across as a bit too “hipster”, too London-centric, too smart for his own good. But perhaps it is all too easy to make judgements like these. In fact, perhaps they are precisely the snap judgements that our contemporary cultural economy wants us to make; with so much creativity out there, just how much of it are we determined to see as yet more cliché, unfit for attention? Such are the judgements that good art is challenged to resist and undo today. It strikes me that Riviere is deeply aware of this, and that he faces up to the challenge creatively; his is a clever and creative new voice in British poetry.