This latest poetry offering by Sam Riviere fails to impress as it continues that Modernist tradition without offering anything – modern?

The primary colour of Sam Riviere’s latest poetry collection, the provocatively and obliquely titled Kim Kardashian’s Marriage, could be called irony itself. It could be said likewise that Kim Kardashian epitomises a supreme irony: that the most fame is being earned by an individual of least evident talent within the sphere of celebrity – something that was, once, dependent on the presence of high ability. Once upon a time, as peoples present and unborn will tell you, one’s level of fame on the plain of celebrity was in direct proportion to the evidence and value of one’s talents.

Kardashian herself, of course, is so famous because she deftly straddles two liminal boundaries in fiscal culture, the self-seller and the pure businesswoman, combining them to such effect that she approximates the glow of a conventional celebrity while in fact being of decidedly different DNA. She has used skills valuable to one world to become an arriviste in the other. Being quite so famous for this ‘no talent’ may in a way be perceived as one of the world’s most bewitching talents, even though the conclusions we are led to along this road are depressingly indicative of the consumer base which constitutes Kardashian’s celebrity.

While Kardashian is, regardless of the polarities of general observation, an emblem of modernity, Sam Riviere’s poetry collection named in her honour is certainly not. Ruth Padel once instructed me in a lecture that all aspiring poets of the present stand on the shoulders of Eliot and Pound. This statement is both true and indifferent to the crushing indictment it yields towards the status of poetry as a living form. You see, Riviere’s Kim Kardashian’s Marriage is modern not as Kardashian herself is modern, but as Eliot and Pound were themselves Modern. The pair of them had rather a fine collection of barriers to transcend and gaps to fill when they began breeding the Modernist school of thought: the ornate and repressive aesthetics of the Victorian era, the possibilities of Imagism, a voice of the age that still had no language. Their nearest antitheses, who we might regard as Kipling amidst the colonies or Tennyson as the nucleus of cultural Victorianism, were only a few years behind them.

Near enough, a century after Pound and Eliot made their seminal strides, here we have writers such as Riviere still hopelessly ensconced on their shoulders, having barely moved forward and having made no kind of gutsy reaction. Kim Kardashian’s Marriage is modern, and therefore antique by almost a hundred years. The irony.

Poetry has, to some degree, moved in the ensuing decades and decades; this is basically inevitable. However, as poetry’s cultural precedent was diluted enormously by the advent of the pop song, displacing it by and large in the twentieth century’s cultural spectrum, many of its tropes at the point at which it remained tremendously important have become frozen in time.

In Riviere’s poetry we see much of Eliot’s will towards the poetically ethereal and a little of Hart Crane’s ambivalence of disposition towards his own age – there is certainly gloom to Riviere’s style and stance but warmth too. These tropes are not bad ones in and of themselves, but they epitomise many of the last few decades of poetry’s most frustrating tendencies. Kardashian herself is not even a vague fulcrum for many of these works, Riviere’s cosmetic chapter and poem titles notwithstanding. Her presence in the title seems emblematic of much modern poetry’s constant bid for obfuscated emptiness and smirking provocation.

Returning inevitably to an irony as present here as Kardashian is in pop cultural discourse, Riviere’s work is likewise drenched through with it, not least in his apparent bid to enshrine Kardashian in poetical immortality for doing (in the confines of the poetry, at least) nothing. Likewise, though he hints at a message throughout, Riviere’s intent with these poems is as difficult to grasp as the molten turns of the language. It was the desire of the Modernists that their work be sincere and subjective, even at the cost of being remote. However, Kim Kardashian’s Marriage simply plays this to the border of self-parody in the manner of much of the last fifty years of poetry. Perhaps it is intentionally that these works under this title are notably bereft of an accessible human element and exempt from logical coherency, in the way that Modernism claimed as its right.

Where Riviere’s collection is redeemed at all is during moments of real wit. For example, in ‘St John’s Cosmic Revelation’, found near the end of the 71-work volume, Riviere rapidly transmutes ideas of a new heaven and a new earth as had by a modern tech-user into a mere set of decorations for a blogging platform. It is a dazzling turn in its scope, teetering on the profound but without graspable context to prop it up there. Ironically it is at moments like these, interjections of real substance against a great torrid wash of consistently untellable style, that Riviere shows his hand and demonstrates his talent. However, amid the far less distinguished pieces such as ‘Infinity Weather’ these moments become undifferentiated movement in a realm lacking in proper verbal dimensions, even by the standard of Modernism.

Kim Kardashian’s Marriage is certainly an achievement, and may in fact be remarkable precisely for the reason that its little-mentioned muse can be a compelling concept. Its worth is perennially uncertain, its ventures a little more daring in their appearance each time you consider them, and it provokes thought. Riviere’s problem is that his work mimics Kim all too much: its worth is uncertain but it certainly is not noteworthy when deprived of its context. It’s daring without any higher purpose or visible ideal, and the thoughts it provokes may not be all that useful in and of themselves. If you find the poet’s aesthetic appealing, you will without doubt find at least some accomplishment in these works, but they carry profundity’s abundance of airy space without any of its dense nucleus.

Riviere’s new work is as much a study in poetry’s halt as it is of a decreasingly nuclear society’s cultural chaos.The stagnation evident in Riviere’s work, arguably offers an ideal climate for a wholly new school, with new values, ideals and aesthetic ideas, to come striding forth, taking no prisoners – much like the original Modernists envisioned. As it stands, Kim Kardashian’s Marriage encapsulates many of the flaws of its time; an admirable, impenetrable and generally ungraspable document of our age of intervening flux.

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