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Monthly Archives: July 2015

Lee Harwood II The Miracle of Existence

Lee Harwood II  The Miracle of Existence

In January 2010 I gave a talk at Eltham College Literary Society alongside Lee reading his poems and these bullet-points are extracted from some notes I used as a handout for the boys.

• The epigraph to HMS Little Fox (Oasis Books 1975) is taken from Pound’s ‘Canto 77’: ‘things have ends (or scopes) and beginnings. To know what precedes and what follows/will assist yr/comprehension of process’
Pound’s lines are accompanied by the two ideograms placed at the head of this blog.

• ‘The Long Black Veil: a notebook 1970-72’ is the opening poem in the collection and Lee’s own notes on the cover account for the ordering of the poems in the volume:

‘This collection was written between 1967 and 1972. The work really has its seeds in my book The White Room (1968), and also is where The Sinking Colony (1970) left off, even though some of the work here was written at the same time as the work in that book, and a few poems even before that time. (I want to state here my sense of this continuity.) It is a development from there—towards a greater complexity and range. Not only containing varied information, but having an energy and necessity as well. The two qualities—presentation of informations and the art as mover, catalyst—to somehow work together, be one. The collection is set out to be seen the way you see a plant. It begins with the sequence ‘The Long Black Veil’, the end-product, the ‘flower’ of my work to date, and then moves on down to the origins, the roots of that work, the earlier poems and the poems written at the same time as I was writing ‘The Long Black Veil’. The whole book is one crystal in which things ricochet back and forth, echo and re-echo. In which light enters and bounces out again changed in form and direction. And the crystal itself alive and growing.’

‘There are very many references to enclosed spaces/gardens/cloisters in your work, right from the early days up until now. What are these metaphors?’

This question was asked in an interview with Andy Brown in The Argotist Online, August 2008 and in reply Lee related this sense of an enclosed space to a comment made to him by Douglas Oliver: ‘Inside the harm is a clearing’ and it is one of Lee’s finest qualities as a poet to make this ‘clearing’ more than something metaphorically abstract. In the same interview he referred to a ‘Reznikoff quality to these images too, in that they’re real, solid—the courtyard with the fountain is an actual place.’

• Charles Reznikoff, a Jewish New York poet 1894-1976 wrote the lines

‘Among the heaps of brick and plaster lies
A girder, still itself among the rubbish.’ (Jerusalem the Golden, 1934)

• The Objectivist poet George Oppen was deeply moved by these lines and wrote to his half-sister June Oppen Degnan in February 1959: ‘Likely Rezi could mull along and tell you what he had in mind. But how other than with this image could he put into your mind so clearly the miracle of existence—the existence of things. It is only because the image hits so clear and sudden that the poem means what it means. I don’t know that he could make it any clearer by talking about it.’
Late in the Second World War while he was driving a truck in a convoy, Oppen came under enemy fire and was forced to dive into a foxhole. Two other men also leapt in the foxhole, and both were killed, while Oppen was seriously wounded from exploding shrapnel:
‘…found myself trapped in a fox-hole, slightly injured, and with no apparent means of escape, certainly no possibility until night-fall. I waited, I think, some ten hours, and during those hours Wyatt’s little poem—‘they flee from me’—and poem after poem of Rezi’s ran thru my mind over and over, these poems seemed to fill all the space around me and I wept and wept. This may not be literary criticism, or perhaps, on the other hand, it is.’
(Letter to Milton Hindus, late Spring 1977)

• In the first interview with Kelvin Corcoran, published in Not the Full Story (Shearsman 2008), Lee referred to ‘little intense scenes shifting round…You do get these moments of goodness, whether it be in some of the pastoral scenes or a landscape of suburban railway tracks and oil refineries.’ When talking about his education at Queen Mary College, University of London, he placed the reading of literature firmly in the world of objectivity:
‘I did a degree in English literature and language. I had this terrific thing of walking from Mile End tube or Stepney Green—I was living in Stepney anyway—to lectures and then coming out of the lecture and walking back along Mile End Road. So all that business of maybe going to a place like Cambridge where you would float out of your lectures in your gown and walk to the quad, and you could keep on living in that world was avoided. It was knocked out of you because you immediately had reality in your face and you didn’t go to high table. You had bubble and squeak at the local transport café. I think that gave me a lovely sense of the importance of literature but also in the world, not in some isolated, privileged world. So you’d always have the measure of what you’d read, of the poetry existing in a working society.’
In the same interview he referred to a poem as ‘a bundle of stories’; ‘this building with fragments and suggestions’; ‘building up, like a chemical build up’; ‘a bundle of voices’; ‘getting to know the building bricks’; ‘an interest in displaced locations’ and ‘incomplete narratives’; ‘the heaping up of fragments’.
With reference to this last comment I suggested that the pupils might want to look at the accumulation of fragments in T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land; the ones he shored against his ruin. I also recommended them to look at Eliot’s 1919 essay on Hamlet: ‘The only way of expressing emotion in the form of art is by finding an ‘objective correlative’; in other words, a set of objects, a situation, a chain of events which shall be the formula of that particular emotion; such that when the external facts, which must terminate in sensory experience, are given, the emotion is immediately evoked.’

Part III of my Lee Harwood memorial will continue tomorrow.

Ian Brinton 31st July 2015

‘Living life totally…as a moving, growing thing’. In memory of Lee Harwood Part One

‘Living life totally…as a moving, growing thing’.  In memory of Lee Harwood Part One

On March 22nd 2009 I had written to Lee asking him to come to Dulwich College to give a poetry reading alongside Peter Robinson. I mentioned that I had been teaching ‘The Long Black Veil’ to my sixth form pupils and that I had also sent a copy of the poem to Michael Rumaker in New York. I thought that Mike would like to see this since he had been a close friend of both Olson and Wieners at Black Mountain College and after. Mike’s letter back was typically ‘on the nail’:

‘Finished Lee Harwood’s ‘The Long Black Veil’ this morning. Enjoyment more than I can say, except: herein, the process of a passion, lightly, deftly, touched on over wide, enchanting fields of language, spatially breathing, its poignancy leaving me breathless—passion worth anything beyond it, any pain, any pleasure before it. To have it, to have lived, to know one is alive. The singer is alive, his song alive. What more can one ask? Many thanks for sending me this lovely gift of a poem.’

On Friday April 24th the reading took place in the Masters’ Library in the College and in addition to the sixth form boys present the audience included the Australian poet Laurie Duggan and John Welch. We were also joined by Roy Fisher’s bibliographer, Derek Slade. As Peter Robinson wrote to me this morning, ‘It was such an honour to have the chance to read with Lee’. This, of course, was a memorable moment also on account of the review Peter had written for the TLS on 26th November 2004: ‘In the reader’s hands: Collected Poems of Lee Harwood’. A few days later Lee rang me at home to suggest meeting up for a drink in the Alleyn’s Head in Dulwich since he was staying in the area for a couple of weeks. We met up on May 6th and spent a lot of time talking about loss, the impossibility of registering absence in presence. I gave him a copy of Long Distance, the Ferry Press publication of poems by Lewis Warsh, since we had been talking about the famous photograph. Lee had sent me a copy of that Boston Eagles at Walden Pond, 1973, Judith Walker’s photo of John Wieners, Lee Harwood, Lewis Warsh & William Corbett, on the back of which he wrote ‘I thought this photo of four dodgy characters might amuse you. I don’t think you’d buy a used car from them, nor have them tarmac your drive. Though Mr Wieners’ gold lamé jacket and winning smile might fools some people.’ In May he also sent me a copy of The Hotel Wentley Poems which Joy Street Press put out in 2006:

‘This was, I guess, the final proof copy and they were ready to roll when Bill Corbett saw the many typos. It seems a Boston custom to have as many mistakes as possible, from my own experience of publishing there! Anyway Bill got it all right before the book was released’.

Sitting in the Alleyn’s Head we were talking about O’Hara and Lee gave me a copy of the piece he was asked to write by Robert Hampson, a personal angle, titled “Generosity of Spirit, Memories of Frank O’Hara and Israel Young”. We talked about Charles Tomlinson’s poem written soon after George Oppen’s death and about Lee’s own poem from In the Mists, ‘For Paul / Coming out of Winter’:

‘On a bright winter morning
sunlight catching the tops of white buildings
a tree outlined against the sea
a wall of flints

To be able to stop and see this
the luxury of being alive
when the waves crash on the shore
and a fresh wind streams up the narrow streets
A moment like this lightens the darkness
a little, lifts the heart until
you can walk down the hill near careless

How can that be? suddenly slammed up
against a wall by memories of the dead
loved ones completely gone from
this place

Shafts of sunlight cutting through the clouds
onto the everchanging sea below

How many times we discussed the sea’s colours
all beyond description words a mere hint
of what’s beyond our eyes then and now

On October 24th I drove over to Abertillery to stay with Ric Hool. Lee was staying as well and we three drove over to The Hen and Chicks in Abergavenny. Jeremy Hilton, Phil Maillard, Chris Torrance, Will Rowe, Lee and myself did an evening of readings in memory of Barry MacSweeney. We talked of Reznikoff and Oppen and Lee wrote to me in January of the next year:

‘To have the tangible, to have real objects in a poem. To be believed that what happens in a poem happens in this world we live in, not just in books. Reznikoff’s ‘girder’, or in that marvellous sequence by Oppen ‘Of Being Numerous’:

‘The great stone
Above the river
In the pylon of the bridge

‘1875’

Frozen in the moonlight
In the frozen air over the footpath, consciousness

Which has nothing to gain, which awaits nothing,
Which loves itself

Ian Brinton, 30th July 2015

A Quick Note on César Vallejo

A Quick Note on César Vallejo

Selected Writings of César Vallejo, ed. Joseph Mulligan, various trans. (Wesleyan University Press, 2015) is a badly formulated publication, in contrast, for example, to the same publisher’s magnificent handling of Victor Segalen’s Stèles (2007). It has to be said that it is not infrequent that seemingly all-embracing selected volumes make uncomfortable reading. The Selected Poetry and Prose of Andrea Zanzotto (University of Chicago Press, 2007) is another case in point. This is not to say that one should not buy this Vallejo. Probably one should because some eighty percent of its contents have never been translated into English before. The problem is that the wonderful wealth of decently translated and annotated prose, extracted from a great deal more: articles, chronicles, stories, plays, letters, has, interspersed among it, selections from Vallejo’s poetry, some in previously published translations, all anyway previously translated many times. This makes for irritating intrusion, not the helpful context the editor or publisher presumably intended. And that space could have been taken up with more of the prose. Two other points, just for example. Firstly, the earliest Vallejo prose includes quotations from poems by two other poets, which are not translated. Why? This book is offered as a translation. Doubtless many of its readers will be unable to read Spanish well or at all. So why is it assumed that these quotations do not also need to be translated? Secondly, that part of the bibliography, while described as selected, devoted to “Works by Vallejo in English Translation”, is nevertheless grossly negligent in important omissions, including Shearsman’s The Complete Poems, Allardyce Book’s The Black Heralds, and others.

Anthony Barnett 15th July 2015

Tender Geometries by Mark Dickinson (Shearsman Books)

Tender Geometries by Mark Dickinson (Shearsman Books)

When I came across the following two lines in Tears 60, published at the end of last year, I realised that I was facing a writer of the most serious kind:

‘Sews the crews’ eyes drizzling fugue bells totes lozenges throats the swollen craw! Hope’s the carriage, to prescribe the sooth for this irritable tissue.’

The lines come from a twenty-page prose poem by Mark Dickinson titled ‘The Tangles’ and the whole of that piece now appears in this enormously impressive new book put out by Shearsman. These tender geometries, a gift as well as a register of sensitivity, contain five sections: ‘Sentinel-Stone’, ‘The Tangles’, ‘Nylonase’, ‘Sea Pens Pastoral Net’ and ‘microsleeplessbyclay’.

When I first looked at the above quotation I was struck of course with the Homeric reference to Odysseus who blocked the ears of his crew so that they should not be seduced by the song of the Sirens as they passed that isle. The shift from ears to eyes accentuates helplessness, dependency, and echoes perhaps the invocation Macbeth speaks to the ‘seeling night’ which can ‘scarf up the tender eye of pitiful day’ as a prelude to the pre-arranged murder of his supposed friend Banquo. In the Shearsman edition of Dickinson’s work the complete text of ‘The Tangles’is prefaced by a series of epigraphs, one of which is from J.H. Prynne’s poem ‘Lashed to the Mast’ first published in The Wivenhoe Park Review in early 1966 and then included in The White Stones. The importance of the poem was emphasised by Prynne when he wrote to Andrew Crozier about it in the autumn of 1965 suggesting that the poem should stand at the beginning of a series of poems which were due to appear in the Essex magazine. The Prynne quotation (slightly misquoted by having capital letters at the beginning of two of the lines) concludes with ‘hope is a stern purpose’ and here we have not only the serious propulsion towards a future but also the play with language that is enjoyed by both Mark Dickinson and the elder statesman.

Mark Dickinson’s awareness of how language and commercialism share properties is central to the section of this book dealing with fish-farming, ‘Sea Pens Pastoral Net’. Not only does the writing, the penning, reflect a record of transfer but also it possesses a lyric grace which weaves a pattern through ‘Brilliant pulses of light’ and we become aware of the ocean as ‘a function of language’. The sailor whose journey is world-wide, a cosmonaut, is juxtaposed with the feeding process as perceived by a citizen in the opening scene of Coriolanus, the ‘cormorant belly’. When Menenius tries to pacify the hungry citizens whose complaint is that the store-house of government does little in terms of real work he tells them that the ‘grave belly’ is the ‘shop / Of the whole body’ that sends the ‘natural competency / Whereby they live’ throughout the entire system.

‘Desolation shall be in the thresholds, a voice shall sing in the windows.
The cormorant clings determinate, its wings held out to dry like a totem
to the sun, the cosmonaut’s alien plunging and darting down through
origin where the mythic shears from the blink of corridors. Prey maritime
ocean crow.’

The association of underwater farms and the body politic is brought into focus from the very outset:

‘Under precipitous horizons of nephrology the formation of floating
farms. Terrestrial surfaces granulate periods of deposition skirting the edge between slight and magnitude. Drops of earth entrained in gravity, hover Aeolian graphemes, crest a loop where dunes in wavelets loess bind its loss to a carriage of transfer.’

The grinding exceeding small of these mills of commerce associate the financial terminology of deposits with the ‘language of transfer / to the human account’ (‘In the Long Run, to be Stranded’, J.H. Prynne). The fine blurring of sight with the loess, the ‘dust’, ‘all of this braiding the air’, clouds our recognition of human greed in a world ‘where the edge of collateral makes to cover credit risk as ‘options’ and ‘futures’ project the net gain or net loss being held as margin’.

There is a terrific thrust of lyrical indignation glinting and gleaming through the caged lines of this work and I know that I shall return to Mark Dickinson again and again.

Ian Brinton 14th July 2015

Selected Poems of Charles Baudelaire trans. Jan Owen (Arc Publications)

Selected Poems of Charles Baudelaire trans. Jan Owen (Arc Publications)

The arrival of a new translation of Baudelaire is always a moment of real interest and this recent publication which appeared last month is no exception. The Australian poet Jan Owen introduces her translations by highlighting what it was that drew her to Baudelaire’s work in the first place:

‘I was drawn to Baudelaire not through any intrinsic resemblance but by his ‘sorcellerie évocatoire’: the distilled power and daring images, the combination of intensity and grace, and the unpredictable mix of formality and intimacy. Those memorable first lines and resonant last lines, that shifting emotional terrain between!’

This is a fine introductory comment and I turned to one of my favourite ‘Spleen’ poems to see how the power and unpredictability came over. The poem, ‘Quand le ciel bas et lourd pèse comme un couvercle’ always seems to be to be a good test of a translator’s sensitivity. It is the poem written about by the great Erich Auerbach in an essay titled ‘The Aesthetic Dignity of the Fleurs du Mal’ where he talks of the temporal clauses describing a rainy day with low, heavy hanging clouds; a sky like a heavy lid closing off the horizon ‘leaving us without prospect in the darkness’.

The opening of Jan Owen’s version is very effective:

‘When the long low sky weighs down like a lid
on the spirit groaning with disgust and doubt,
and in at the far horizon rim is poured
a day that’s sadder than the darkest night;

when earth is changed to a narrow, fetid jail
where Hope, a frantic bat, twitching and reeling,
scrapes her timid wings on every wall
and knocks her head against the rotted ceiling’

I like this much more than the Richard Howard poem I have become used to from 1982:

‘When skies are low and heavy as a lid
over the mind tormented by disgust,
and hidden in the gloom the sun pours down
on us a daylight dingier than the dark;

when earth becomes a trickling dungeon where
Trust like a bat keeps lunging through the air,
beating tentative wings along the walls
and bumping its head against the rotten beams’

The alexandrine metre of the original French makes it clear that this is a solemn poem, to be spoken in grave tones. It includes allegorical figures written with capital letters and the reader is trapped between the lofty tone of the exclamation and the indignity of the emotional imprisonment. Reading Jan Owen’s version I like the drawn out lines with their beat of emphasis, nails in a spiritual coffin, and I like the merging of ‘disgust’ with ‘doubt’. The second two lines of that first stanza provide an interesting image of the day being poured in as if from a jug to a dish whilst the Howard version lacks that visual precision. In the second stanza Jan Owen’s bat (Hope) twitches and reels with a sense of the frantic prisoner trapped inside the cell of a room as opposed to Howard’s more nightmare-like noise of the bat ‘bumping its head’.

In his 2007 notes on ‘Some aspects of poems and translations’ Jeremy Prynne suggested that ‘Teachers of a foreign language often say to their students, if you can read and understand poems written in the foreign language, then you will have insights into the very heart of another culture; but the tasks are often very hard, and also frustrating, because it is mostly not possible to know whether an attempted understanding of a poem has been successful or not.’
He also suggested that translation is a noble art’ making bridges for readers who want to cross the divide between their own culture and those cultures which are situated in other parts of the world.’

Jan Owen’s translation of Baudelaire is a noble attempt and it is already becoming for me the version which I want to recommend to others.

Ian Brinton 10th July 2015

Whether by Alan Baker (Knives Forks Spoons Press)

Whether by Alan Baker (Knives Forks Spoons Press)

The critic G. Wilson Knight is perhaps best known for his work on Shakespeare: The Wheel of Fire, The Imperial Theme, The Crown of Life. However, he was also a great admirer of the novelist John Cowper Powys and wrote a short account of that underestimated Dorset giant, The Saturnian Quest. In Wilson Knight’s last book, Neglected Powers, he wrote about Powys as well as presenting us with a ninety page essay on ‘Poetry and magic’. In this essay he directed us towards chapter 14 of Coleridge’s Biographia Literaria suggesting that ‘there is a reality being apprehended as surely as in ordinary sense-perception’. In that chapter Coleridge quotes from Sir John Davies’s 1599 poem ‘Of the Soule of Man’:

Doubtless this could not be, but that she turns
Bodies to spirit by sublimation strange,
As fire converts to fire the things it burns,
As we our food into our nature change.

From their gross matter she abstracts their forms,
And draws a kind of quintessence from things;
Which to her proper nature she transforms
To bear them light, on her celestial wings.

Thus does she, when from individual states
She doth abstract the universal kinds;
Which then re-clothed in divers names and fates
Steal access through our senses to our minds.

Wilson Knight commented on this: ‘Sublimation is a term from alchemy. Piercing through matter to essential forms, imagination grips what is universal, which is then re-clothed. The result is addressed to a new sense-perception, resembling yet transcending ordinary sense-perception.’
And then I turned to Alan Baker’s sequence of ‘Thirteen Spells Against Global Warming’, the second half of this fine little volume from last year with its intricate title that shifts from the conditional to the state of play, from ‘Whether’ to ‘weather’. I find these poems wonderfully eerie; they create a living world where the magical pierces through the mundane to tap on our windows.

‘Walk through rain
and dark
spitting leaves, cold
and here’s sleet.
Breath on the window
freezing frames
(what rhymes with breath?)
wind wails or is it squeals
and in silent rooms
curtains move by themselves.’

The sense of a living presence of the outside world, the non-human, is terrific here and it seems entirely appropriate that the poet should then take us to the world of Old English Charms and Gnomic Verses:

‘Shrink like water in a bucket.
Shrivel like coal on the hearth.’

The echo is of the Anglo-Saxon ‘Charm Against a Wen’:

‘Wen, wen wenlet little,
build not here nor find a home
but pass to the north to the next hill
and there discover your brother in pain.
He shall place a leaf on your face.
Under the wolf’s foot under the eagle’s wing
under the eagle’s claw grow into nothingness.
Collapse like a coal burnt in a hearth;
shrink like plaster in a ruined wall…’

In 1923 William Carlos Williams was convinced that ‘so much depends / upon / a red wheel / barrow’ and perhaps his conviction was based upon a feeling that American culture was based in a realization of the qualities of a place in relation to the life which occupies it. His little poem was written only a year after the publication of Eliot’s The Waste Land where the American hope for cultural distinction seemed to be based upon an inheritance of a European and classical tradition of placing oneself in a very different context from the one asserted by Williams. The doctor from Rutherford wanted to start with local materials, ‘lifting these things into an ordered and utilized whole’ (The American Background, 1934). However, if so much is to depend upon this localization of background then it must be because firm observation of the local will lead to greater insights into thoughts and emotions which transcend what could otherwise become simply parochial.
Reading Alan Baker’s poems this morning I found myself tempted into a slight frisson, a sense of an otherness which I shall want to return to many times again. He certainly takes the reader far beyond the parochial!

1
‘I wish she’d tap
at my window
and smile
when I’m far from home.’

2
‘Path, leading me
to the riverbank
to meet our ghosts
at daybreak:
so pale and wan
and fond, like lovers
expecting rain.’

Ian Brinton 9th July 2015

juli Jana’s ra-t (Shearsman, 2014)

juli Jana’s ra-t (Shearsman, 2014)

This ground level portrait of London’s history through the figures of ra-t and puss-in-boot-s sears with sonic booms and majestic word-play swivels. The figures, with their split names suggesting that they are broken, hesitant, slippery and under stress, draw upon our knowledge of their past as street survivors. This is more of a third person exploration than a giving of voice to those that are mute. The rats and cool cats of the underground mingle with the weeds, vegetables and butterflies, scurry between gaps and the people that walk the streets. Puss in boots in the fairy tale was capable of guile and deceit, and here, with ra-t, offers an alternative view of the city. Puss in boots, or the booted cat, dates back to sixteenth century Italy and spread across Europe with its various incarnations as helper and trickster. The most durable and adapted version being by Charles Perrault from 1697 and the one recently used in the film Shrek. Jana’s puss-in-boot-s plays on this and is more of an appropriation than adaptation of the figure. Similarly ra-t far from being an harbinger of death and disease is more of a witness. ra-t sings with vibrancy and colour, a breath away from stench and fire.

Here’s an extract from ‘fires of london’:

O : ring the bells. Ring the bells backwards for the city to be read. So
many dead.so many dead.all fall down.dance a circle…sing with the
frogs: red dead
*red the cockney slang for gold
the fire-fighters of London wore crimson livery cloth. Their
commander died in the fire of 1861 pausing to undo the red silk
paisley kerchief from his neck

The poems have a deep sense of London’s history, its natural environments, markets and are full of ecological and botanical record sumptuously polyphonic, with clear instructions as to how to read, producing an exciting and strident sound. There are echoes of Bill Griffiths, Paula Claire, Bob Cobbing and others in their discontinuities and slippages. Jana, though, has her own voice(s) and authority. I was particularly taken with the way that her sonic work built out of word lists and clusters to produce a sinuous musicality through the colour of a second voice. The poems are singular; yet allow and seek the potentiality of another voice that is more than an echo or supplement of the first. Above all, Jana’s poems are open, fun and happily patterned for effect.

paradise lost paradise found what a day in paradise smell the stench
grab the wench on the stairs alongside st.pauls remember john donne
he was all done for
cock-a-doo-dle-doo buckle-on-his shoe lord mayor do us a favour
don’t cut London pride. there shall be a queen still

The poems are alive with voices, sounds, announcements and movement. This is not a static poetry. It moves from shape to sound. Ra-t and puss-in-boot-s are voice less. It is other voices that read the announcements and narrate their stories. Yet the figures, representatives of an under-class, are constants in London’s dramas and haunt the poems as participants in a wider dissident narrative.

This joyous chapbook of sound poetry is a bargain at £6.50

David Caddy 4th July 2015

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