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Complete Poems by Jon Silkin eds. Jon Glover & Kathryn Jenner (Carcanet Press)

Complete Poems by Jon Silkin eds. Jon Glover & Kathryn Jenner (Carcanet Press)

In an Agenda interview from spring 1965 Jon Silkin referred to an idea of ‘density’ in poetry in such a manner as to shed some light upon his own powerful evocation of twelfth century York in his poem ‘Astringencies’ which had appeared in the 1961 volume The Re-ordering of the Stones:

There’s the density where you have, presumably, images that interlock and overlap to some extent and refer constantly to one another…you get this kind of density in a way in a long poem through the accumulation of narrative. Events impinge upon each other, or can be made to impinge upon each other. An event also becomes in a sense a metaphor in a long poem, and the various events by gradual association produce a density which will, I suppose, affect the language.

He also made the point that he liked the idea of poetry ‘making direct statements. It’s as simple as that really.’ Referring to his own preoccupations with language Silkin referred to the Hebrew classes he attended as a child:

‘I used to hear my grandparents speaking in Yiddish. I’d forgotten about this until a few years ago someone asked me if [Isaac] Rosenberg knew either language, and said he thought it important because it might account for the sort of bunched consonant effect in his poetry. I think that’s a pretty shrewd conjecture, and I think it might account for some of my intensifications of sounds in, say, ‘Crowfoot’. Sometimes when I’m writing I hear these explosive guttural consonants which I just can’t find equivalents for in English because there are none.’

It is this interest in the language of poetry that may well have prompted Jon Glover and Kathryn Jenner to comment on the ‘language of poetry, indeed any language’ not being applied to or stuck over ‘processes of life and death as a descriptor’ but being instead ‘integral to a whole substance.’
That poem ‘Astringencies’ is divided into two sections and the first, ‘The Coldness’ appeared as the opening poem in the Penguin Modern Poets 7 selection of Silkin’s work in which he appeared alongside Richard Murphy and Nathaniel Tarn. His inclusion in this influential series, which began in 1962 and ran to 27 volumes by 1975, will have brought attention to Silkin’s poetry from a far wider audience than would have been reached by the individual volumes published by Chatto & Windus. In this context Glover and Jenner point to an interesting and often overlooked fact about Penguin sales when they remind us that an agreement between Penguin and U.K. bookshops, including W.H. Smith, meant that to stock one Penguin meant that they had to stock them all, including Penguin Modern Poets.

In the late summer of 1965 Jon Silkin took up an offer from the North-East Association for the Arts to edit Stand from Newcastle-upon-Tyne. His collection Nature with Man was also published in that year and the acknowledgement network of journals which appears at the opening of that volume represented Silkin’s habitual ambitious and exploratory use of magazines and broadcast media as a method of extending contact, recognition and readership. The editors of this fine new Complete Poems draw attention to this pre-book publication process of individual poems as being part of Silkin’s way of life:

While it was time-consuming and arduous, it was, for Silkin, a vital aspect of being a poet, and forming the identity and existence of a poem. In some ways it exemplified Stephen Greenblatt’s “New Historicist” negotiation and exchange: the poem did not exist without the process in which it was formed and used. Silkin often handed or posted drafts to friends with invitations to comment. For him the hard work was natural and necessary.

This method of sharing drafts of poems with friends is something that was close to the heart of many other poets in the mid-sixties and the recently formed new Poetry Archive at Cambridge University Library contains correspondence from a wide range of poets including Andrew Crozier, J.H. Prynne, John James, John Riley, Tim Longville, Michael Grant, John Welch, Peter Riley, Anthony Barnett, Paul Selby and John Freeman. Much of this correspondence focuses upon the whole idea of drafting and re-drafting: poetry in the process of becoming the finished work of art which finds its way into collections such as this admirable volume from Carcanet.

In her contribution to Michael Schmidt and Grevel Lindop’s critical survey of British Poetry Since 1960 (CarcanetPress 1972) Anne Cluysenaar suggested that Silkin’s view of life involved a highly complex, articulated, multitudinous structure which allowed him to englobe, without smudging, the veins of contradiction to which he was agonisingly sensitive.

Ian Brinton 15th May 2015

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One response »

  1. ‘Agonisingly sensitive’.I really don’t think so.I did like his very early work in ‘The Re-ordering of the Stones’ e.g.Mistward this morning I went’ but by the time I knew him-Leeds,early sixties-he was writing the flower poems,constipated,tiny and hopeless.He took these-and himself,incredibly seriously.He was a simplistic Marxist,who surrounded himself with acolytes.I knew the poet Wendy Oliver,who had lived with him for some years.Oliver was far better than Silkin.I included her in ‘Five Quiet Shouters’ for Tarling’s Poet and Printer Press,along with Redgrove and Angela Carter,who I discovered in ‘Universities Poetry’.This was before Carter brought out ‘Shadow Dance’ and she was completely unknown,a student at Bristol Uni.Someone recently said that Silkin coudn’t have written the ‘flower poems’ without the work of Ponge.If this was true Silkin would certainly have said so.The publication of this monster volume,1100 pages says a great deal about just how bad things have got.The best Gregory Fellow at Leeds was Martin Bell.His Collected Poems,with a forward by Peter Porter is a favourite of mine.His Reverdy translations (White Knights Press) is a rare book and his translations of other French poets remains unpublished.

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