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Monthly Archives: September 2015

Modernist Legacies Ed. Abigail Lang & David Nowell Smith Palgrave Macmillan

Modernist Legacies Ed. Abigail Lang & David Nowell Smith Palgrave Macmillan

On 18th February this year David Caddy posted a blog about the Manchester University Press publication of essays edited by David Herd, Contemporary Olson. The book itself arose out of a conference held at the University of Kent in November 2010. As the Acknowledgements section in this recently published collection of essays from Palgrave Macmillan stresses ‘Like so many collections of essays, the current volume has its beginnings in a conference titled “Legacies of Modernism: The State of British Poetry Today”, which took place at the Université Paris-Diderot, Institut Charles V, June 9-11, 2011. The Charles Olson book was terrific in its range of essays and is possibly the most important book on the American giant who coined the term ‘Postmodernism’ to have appeared for some considerable time. This new book, subtitled ‘Trends and Faultlines in British Poetry Today’, is also a very powerful introduction to the world of contemporary poetry in Britain. Divided into three sections (‘Histories since Modernism’, ‘The Modernist Legacy’, ‘Poetical and Political Commitments’) the book looks at major poets such as J.H. Prynne and Barry MacSweeney, Anthony Barnett and Allen Fisher, Andrea Brady and Wendy Mulford, as well as focussing upon a wide range of other poets whose work is central to the world of contemporary poetry: Caroline Bergvall, Jeff Hilson, Drew Milne and Keston Sutherland.

I was fascinated by the interview between Allen Fisher and Robert Hampson dealing with the ‘Interaction between American and British Poetries 1964-1970’. The background to much contemporary poetry comes to life as we can read about Better Books and how Tony Godwin enlarged the shop on Charing Cross Road to incorporate shops at 1, 3, and 5 New Compton Street in November 1964. As Fisher had made clear in an earlier interview with Adrian Clarke, Better Books did not just sell books but also created ‘a space where you would find out about other activities going on’. The shops became informal meeting places for the building-up of a subculture and as such they were perfectly in tune with a world that Fisher recognises as connecting John Ashbery and Wendy Mulford. Referring to a poem from the late 1960s in Mulford’s Bravo to Girls and Heroes, as well as poems by Andrew Crozier, David Chaloner and Roy Fisher, Allen Fisher says

‘What these poems share with Ashbery is a self-consciousness made explicit in the form—the poem discusses its own processes in the script of the facture en route. But also, it’s self-analysis not so much as questioning as rather indicating its dialectical thrust—the logic of the particular having a larger interest as if—or, rather, so that—the simple description or fragment of description feels metonymic for a far larger philosophical position.’

This interview gives us fascinating insights into the world of American poetry’s effects upon what was happening in Britain and if I have any quibble it must only be about one tiny piece of misinformation given as a footnote. Allen Fisher tells us about Jonathan Williams (Jargon Books) often being at the Dulwich poetry readings in South London but the footnote says that the readings were held upstairs in “The Crown and Sceptre” in Dulwich village. The pub was actually named “The Crown and Greyhound” and it still stands there today!

How refreshing to find a chapter devoted to the work of Anthony Barnett. As Xavier Kalck, associate professor at the Paris-Sorbonne University, points out ‘Barnett’s work opens Andrew Crozier and Tim Longville’s landmark 1987 anthology A Various Art, and his work then and since epitomizes the well-known connection pointed out by Crozier and Longville in their introduction: “Certainly, at the time [the 1960s], one of the means by which many of the poets in this anthology were identifiable to one another was an interest in a particular aspect of postwar American poetry, and the tradition that lay behind it—not that of Pound and Eliot but that of Pound and Williams.” Kalck also highlights Barnett’s central position within the world of contemporary British poetry when he refers to the newly collected poetry and noncritical prose numbering no less than 647 pages.

I was delighted with this book, the most recent contribution to a fine series devoted to ‘Modern and Contemporary Poetry and Poetics’ promoting and pursuing topics in the burgeoning field of twentieth-and twenty-first-century poetics. It is a goldmine of information and suggestion, constituting a perfect starting-point for anyone interested in what can sometimes feel like a difficult territory to map out.

Ian Brinton 30th September 2015

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Versions of Martial by Alan Halsey (Knives Forks And Spoons Press)

Versions of Martial by Alan Halsey (Knives Forks And Spoons Press)

This whole collection brims over with outrageous delight. Of course there are the smutty sexual innuendos, the more direct insults, and the bitter spitting from carious teeth. But there is much, much more and it is a tonic to be able to recognise the satirical sharpness of some of these versions of Martial’s ‘Epigrams’ given the mixture of crocodile tears in today’s world: a child’s body is washed up on the shores of a Greek island; the International Arms Fair opens in London where DSEI ‘will host around 300 seminar sessions and keynotes across seven theatres…facilitating knowledge sharing and networking around key topics and technical areas’. Give me an ounce of civet good apothecary…Or, a page or two of Alan Halsey’s Versions of Martial:

Book III: XXXVII

‘How explain why the conspicuously rich
are so easy to offend? Ask their accountant.
He probably won’t tell you but he’ll know.’

Book V: LXXXI

‘In the Big Society the poor stay poor
and cabinet ministers stay millionaires: it’s a law.’

Book VII: LXXIII

‘I know all about the houses you own,
you’ve described them so often
in such detail—I know the views from
their every window—but, Maximus,
you’ve never told me your address.’

When Laurie Duggan’s Pressed Wafer edition of The Epigrams of Martial appeared five years ago he introduced the little bombshell by saying that ‘faithful translations of satires, while possibly of use to historians, tended to lose the satirical element altogether. For satire to bite as it ought to its objects should be at least generically recognizable and as so much of Martial’s work is ad hominem a good dose of the particular was essential.’ This approach is very much in the style of Charles Tomlinson whose review of the Loeb Classics 1994 edition of Martial praised the unpretentiously accurate approach of the translator by suggesting that ‘it helps the reader to the mental possession of the original’. I am also reminded of the preface Tomlinson wrote for his Faber edition of John Dryden’s poems in which he suggested that the Augustan poet’s Fables Ancient and Modern (1700) ‘made it new (in Pound’s phrase) especially for poets themselves’. August Kleinzahler wrote a brief afterword to Duggan’s Martial giving an account of how these pieces had originally been published in the Melbourne journal, Scripsi: ‘This Martial bit then. It bites still.’
For satire to ‘bite’ we have to be able to recognise the scale of values that has been so debased by the object of the satire. Urbanity and friendship, directness and honesty: it is in their absence that we recognise the power of their presence. Many of Alan Halsey’s poems give us the self-portrait of a man who is saddened by rudeness and contemptuous of arrogance:

Book II: V

‘I don’t mind the two-hour walk
it takes me to see you, Decianus.
I do mind the two hours it takes
To walk home when for reasons
Of your own you haven’t seen me.’

The tone captured here is reminiscent of that biting edge Ben Jonson put into his ‘Epigrammes’ when he damns ‘The Townes Honest Man’ or confronts ‘Captayne Hungry’:

‘ Doe what you come for, Captayne, with your newes;
That’s, sit, and eate: doe not my eares abuse.
I oft looke on false coyne, to know’t from true:
Not that I love it, more, than I will you.’

Halsey’s updated version of this type of barb will sound familiar to quite enough ears, I suspect:

Book III: XLIV

‘Myself I like to lounge on my sofa,
take a stroll, a shit, a bath and a nap
in peace and quiet. Who doesn’t?
You, Ligurinus. That’s why we feel suicidal
when we meet you. What you call life
is a solo nonstop poetry recital.’

Buy this book from http://www.knivesforksandspoonspress.co.uk and carry it around in your pocket like an orange pierced with cloves in a plague-ridden city.

Ian Brinton 25th September 2015.

And

The Dances of Albion by John Milbank (Shearsman Books)

The Dances of Albion by John Milbank (Shearsman Books)

In his contribution to The Oxford Handbook of Contemporary British & Irish Poetry Michael Symmons Roberts writes about ‘Contemporary Poetry and Belief’. He quotes from David Jones’s Preface to The Anathémata where the Anglo-Welsh poet asserts that ‘The arts abhor any loppings off of meanings or emptyings out, any lessening of the totality of connotation, and loss of recession and thickness through.’ This acts as a prescient introduction to the work of John Milbank and Roberts goes on to quote from Milbank’s Introduction to The Mercurial Wood:

‘Poetry is not fiction, but the most intense of real interventions…Of its essence, poetry makes, but it makes only to see further, and to establish something real in the world: real, because it further manifests the ideal and abiding. In this context it can be seen that its unavoidable detour via fiction is paradoxically a sign of its necessary humility: it must, in part, conjecture, since it cannot fully see and create in one simple intuition, like God himself.’

This idea of seeing further reminds me of Hopkins and his ideas of ‘inscape’, an expression of individuality that can be perceived by the fully engaged onlooker. It reminds me of Roger Langley in his interview with R. F. Walker in which he referred to standing for an hour and a half by a track with the feeling ‘that you might get through to what was really there if you stripped off enough’. It reminds me of those lines from a late John Riley poem ‘the absolute is a room / without doors or windows’. Or as John Milbank puts it in ‘Dorset Song’

‘These yearnings outlast
all understandings’

Milbank’s Albion is a living world held poised between the lyric / and the hymnic’, a psychogeography of a land from Pembrokeshire to North Kent, from Dorset to East Anglia. It is a world that reminds me also of the almost amphibious reality to be found in the novels of John Cowper Powys:

‘It is only a very few human beings, however, in each community, who are able to slip out of their skins and share this super-mundane observation of themselves. For the most part the inhabitants of a given locality—or aquarium—just go blindly on, unconsciously swimming about, following their affairs, obeying their necessities, pursuing the smaller fry, making their weed-nests or their mud-nurseries.’ (A Glastonbury Romance)

Milbank’s world is alive in such a manner that his reassurance leaves the sceptical emptiness of a failure of belief to be recognised as it is: dust.
Instead of a late-secular aridity we are presented with the ‘infinitely many crystal-droplets’ which ‘merge as one lucidity, older than the sun, / more like the moon’s echo of but one star.’ The poet’s re-creation of myth and belief, humility and intense observation makes

‘solidity sing, flow stay and burning warm.’

The lyric quality of these poems is infectious and it merges a Romantic response to landscape with a Post-Modern awareness of how it is our business

‘to dig and merely wonder
at the limit, at the outside,
in the outlasting.’

Ian Brinton 24th September 2015

Excess Measures by Adrian Clarke (Veer Books)

Excess Measures by Adrian Clarke (Veer Books)

As I sat down this morning to read this little book I became engrossed by the mixture of urgency and outrage which threads it way through the linguistic labyrinth of Poetry and University, Creative Writing and Consumerism. The book is a delight!
In the opening section, SO WHAT, extradition to a poem sequence, we move from Godard to Bruce Andrews—I Don’t Have Any Paper So Shut Up (or, Social Romanticism)—from Schloss on Joyce to Prynne on ‘performance poetry’. Interleaving its path through the outrage and humour we are confronted by some extremely disturbing ideas which cannot be easily dismissed:

‘So is what I say something else? or is that what I do? As for a common language, if you really believe it’s enriching itself at an ever-increasing rate, it’s in willful ignorance: overall, variety of and within languages—mine included here?—is withering fast. Basic English dropped the adjective. And buzz words and argots usefully alter no-one’s perception of anything with the redundancy of their faddish affectedness and phony exoticism.’

The echo of Syme’s work on the Dictionary in 1984 (‘It’s a beautiful thing, the Destruction of words.’) is uncomfortably close and it is followed by the sort of self-questioning which is increasingly necessary in the global political arena:

‘There’s a social orchestration of me-meaning in which the “me” is still usually white, at least as rich as Croesus in an African villager’s eyes and mindful of its moral duty to trade any pretender to a share in the action off the planet’s face. You don’t need the subjunctive for that.’

In terms of what goes on within the world of universities it is refreshing to read about the ‘Communities of poets’ who ‘risk becoming marketing strategies before or after the event.’ And, of course, those marketing strategies lead right on to the awarding of prizes. Judith Palmer, director of the Poetry Society, is quoted from The Guardian concerning the fact that prizes have a role in the marketplace:

‘Within the arts, the measurability, the ability to make excellence quantifiable and defined has become much more important. So you’re trying to offer your arts funders evidence that you have met key performance indicators of excellence’.

Aaagh! I detect a word like ‘Impact’ lurking beneath this maelstrom.

However, just as you might consider the author of this window-smashing little pebble to be simply of the side of some brave new world we read the following:

‘Tangentially, J.H. Prynne thinks that the printed poem’s sound is donated by the language—or rather “a distinct sub-variant of the generic phonology of a specific language”—and nothing is added by “performance of poems in their author’s own voice”—an attitude I might be inclined to characterize as anal-retentive if I could take Freud seriously. The poetic text may be more than a musical score, but, when available, it would be stupid to ignore the information from its creator’s performance of its rhythms, tempi, volumes, emphases and pauses’.

Very recently a retired university Professor commented to me that in his opinion Prynne spoke different languages. He wasn’t referring to German, French, Old Norse or Mandarin but to the different registers which the poet uses, a register that includes a rich sense of humour. My response to this very reasonable suggestion was to include words like Plantagenet Palliser, Christopher Tietjens and Jonathan Swift. And so when Adrian Clarke concludes his sideswipe against Prynne by adding ‘as I’ve observed elsewhere, unignorable poet though he be, it’s hard imagining any question of a debt to pleasure when Mr Prynne is auditing the books’ I find myself reminded time and again of the humour behind those shifts of register referred to by that Professor. They come to mind as cool as a mountain stream.

This is a most refreshing book and it should be looked at by all first-year undergraduates and by Vice-Chancellors. When I had finished that twelve page introductory piece I turned to the poem ‘After Oppen’ and delighted in the shrewd understanding Clarke has of the American Objectivist’s style:

‘sensed at
their limits
numerous means
rootless wanting
a language
a state
of matter
the city
would appropriate
to know
ourselves in
its reflection
a light
for the
times rolled
over before
the mineral
fact’

The gentle humour behind pastiche suggests that it certainly is the ‘road of excess’ that leads to the ‘palace of wisdom’. Thank you, Adrian, I shall return to this book again. After all, I want that word ‘Excess’ as a noun as well as an adjective!

Ian Brinton 22nd September 2015

Tears in the Fence 62

Tears in the Fence 62

Tears in the Fence 62 is now available from https://tearsinthefence.com/pay-it-forward and features poetry, fiction and essays from Simon Smith, Nancy Gaffield, Patricia Debney, Andy Fletcher, Michael Farrell, John Freeman, Afric McGlinchey, Anamaria Crowe Serrano, Anamaria Crowe Serrano & Robert Sheppard, Sarah Connor, Samuel Rogers, Rose Alana Frith, Michael Grant, Charles Hadfield, Mike Duggan, Dorothy Lehane, Vicki Husband, Hilda Sheehan, Andrew Darlington, David Miller, Karl O’Hanlon, Amy McCauley, Rupert Loydell & Daniel Y Harris, Sam Smith, Rodney Wood, David Greenslade, Lesley Burt, L.Kiew, Graheme Barrasford Young, Andrew Lees, Michael Henry, James Bell, Rhys Trimble, Sophie McKeand, Haley Jenkins, Alexandra Sashe-Seekirchner, Richard Thomas, Alec Taylor and Steve Spence.

The critical section consists of David Caddy’s Editorial, Anthony Barnett’s Antonym, Jennifer K. Dick’s Of Tradition & Experiment XII, Alan Munton on Steve Spence, Andrew Duncan on Kevin Nolan’s Loving Little Orlick, David Caddy on Gillian White’s Lyric Shame, Robert Vas Dias on Jackson Mac Low, Laurie Duggan on Alan Halsey, Chris McCabe on Reading Barry MacSweeney, Mandy Pannett on Angela Gardner, Mary Woodward, Ric Hool on Ian Davidson, William Bonar, Steve Spence on John Hartley Williams, Linda Benninghoff on Beauty is a Verb: The New Poetry of Disability, Notes On Contributors
and Ian Brinton’s Afterword.

21st September 2015

Half-light by Yevgeny Baratynsky (translated by Peter France) Arc Publications

Half-light by Yevgeny Baratynsky (translated by Peter France) Arc Publications

Pointing to the similarities to be found between the poetry of Leopardi and that of Baratynsky the editor of this fine new translation of the early nineteenth century Russian poet suggests that these might include a ‘clear-sighted, bleak vision of man and society’ and an ‘awareness of human fragility and ephemerality’. The sequence ‘Half-Light’ was published in 1842, two years before the poet’s death, and it contained ‘a gathering of poems written since 1834 and presented as a unified whole’; the title is significant since by then the poets of the Golden Age, such as Pushkin, ‘had largely gone out of fashion’. At the same time, however, 1842 saw an imperial decree which seemed to promise a reform, or even an end, of serfdom: ‘timid and abortive though this was, it was greeted at first with enthusiasm’.

There is a haunting seriousness in this Russian poet’s gaze; his ‘sculptor’ sees Galatea buried in stone:

‘Plunging his gaze into the stone,
the artist sees the nymph within,
an ardent flame runs through his veins,
and his heart longs to touch her then.

His desire for her is infinite,
but the sculptor holds himself in check,
unhurrying, deliberate, quiet,
he strips off all the veils that hide
the goddess deep within the rock.’

And, in return for such careful homage, such unfaltering concentration and focus, the spirit within the rock recognises the ‘passion beneath the cool caress’ and responds by leading the artist (‘sage’) ‘to the triumph of voluptuousness’. In Henry James’s late novel, The Tragic Muse, about an aspiring painter who eschews politics for the quiet concentration of the artist, Nick Dormer turns from the lady who has been seeking his love/success and looks round his studio:

‘It was certainly singular, in the light of other matters, that on sitting down in his studio after she had left town Nick should not, as regards the effort to project plastically some beautiful form, have felt more chilled by the absence of a friend who was such an embodiment of beauty. She was away and he missed her and longed for her, and yet without her the place was more filled with what he wanted to find in it. He turned into it with confused feelings, the strongest of which was a sense of release and recreation. It looked blighted and lonely and dusty, and his old studies, as he rummaged them out, struck him even as less inspired than the last time he had ventured to face them. But amid this neglected litter, in the colourless and obstructed light of a high north window which needed washing, he came nearer tasting the possibility of positive happiness: it appeared to him that, as he had said to Julia, he was more in possession of his soul.’

Baratynsky’s artist spends ‘Hours and days and years’…‘in his delicious, dim travail’ as he works carefully to tear the final veil from the ‘guessed-at, wished-for shape’.
The solitude of the artist who works with quiet intensity at full engagement with the outside world is brought into focus in another of these contemplative poems, ‘The Goblet’.

‘Goblet of solitude! You never
give new credence to the cheap
impressions of everyday existence
like some common loving cup;
nobler, richer, you awaken
with a wonder-working might
heavenly dreams or revelations
of regions hidden from our sight.’

Baratynsky recognises the value in removal away from the ‘old sterile distractions, / common passions, social lies’ and heralds the ‘solitary intoxication’ which ‘clears the mist that clouds our eyes.’

The translations read so well. As Peter France puts it in his introduction, ‘I have tried to convey the details of Baratynsky’s meaning, the meaning his poems had for his contemporaries’ and he succeeds in what Yves Bonnefoy asserted when he pointed out that although you cannot translate a poem you can translate poetry.

Ian Brinton 20th September 2015.

Smoke Rising, London 1940-41 by John Seed (Shearsman Books)

Smoke Rising, London 1940-41 by John Seed (Shearsman Books)

The blurb on the reverse side of this important new arrival from Shearsman raises interesting and central issues for the reader of History as well as the reader of Poetry:

Smoke Rising is a documentary poem. Very much in the tradition of Charles Reznikoff’s Testimony, it utilises oral sources to capture the speech—and perhaps the experience—of those who suffered the London Blitz. However, its elective affinities are also to Walter Benjamin’s great unfinished Arcades Project: “to carry the principle of montage into history…to assemble large-scale constructions out of the smallest and most precisely cut components…to discover in the analysis of the small individual moment the crystal of the total event.”’

John Seed’s awareness of the relation between Poetry and History has been evident throughout his career and one has only to turn back to his contributions to the Crozier-Longville anthology, A Various Art, to recognise this. The poem which takes its title from Antonio Gramsci, “History Teaches, but it has no Pupils” , gave the reader ‘unimagined contradictions’ in terms of ‘Imagining the real’:

‘…to make poetry of these streets
Hours and days
contemplating a page a line a word’

And in ‘During War, the Timeless Air’ the image of Bede’s sparrow ‘swooping through the bright hall’ offered us the searchlight intensity of the fleeting moment. An emphatic sense of place can grow out of the singular and I am reminded that Charles Olson appended an epigraph to the first publication of The Maximus Poems, Jargon 24, in 1960: ‘All my life I’ve heard / one makes many’. The words were used by Cornelia Williams, cook at Black Mountain College, and incorporated into a letter sent by Olson to Creeley on 1st June 1953.
Other figures of course provide the backdrop to John Seed’s moving re-creation of ‘London 1940-41’. There are the figures of the Annales School of History and Le Roy Ladurie’s Montaillou; there is Charles Reznikoff whose first volume of Testimony reflected in verse the social, economic, cultural and legal history of America and its people from 1885 to 1890. When that appeared from New Directions in 1965 it had a comment from Robert Creeley on the back: Reznikoff ‘has used all his skill as a poet to locate the given instances sans distortion, in the intense particularity of time and place.’

John Seed’s poem is a very moving document and in a world of ‘violent and indiscriminate bombing’ (a statement from the Ministry of Transport, 11 September 1940) the poet moves outwards from the particular to the general. It doesn’t have to be the irony of that 9/11 coincidence to bring domestic chaos into focus; we recognise the shocking dismemberment of domestic life in the steady stream of refugees escaping from war-torn countries in the Middle East. Poetry makes things happen! The artist, more than the historian, recognises the interweaving images that constitute a fugue and this new Shearsman publication is haunting in its clarity:

‘Blasted windows clocks without hands glass

on stairs mounds of yellow

rubble poisonous tang of damp plaster

and coal gas the house still

smouldering scraps of cloth hanging bare

walls at the side still standing

burnt piece of wood like a

gibbet jutted out into the sky

weary blistered firemen grimy half-clad

homeless mirror swinging steeples scorched and

discoloured by fire the sound of

swept off the streets a few

seconds above the trees lines of

figures asleep scrawled over

obscene inscriptions

The picture is vivid and that last word, ‘inscriptions’, offers a historical perspective suggestive of life’s unchanging desolation. The gibbet which ‘jutted out into the sky’ recalls both Hogarth’s ‘Gin Lane’ and Dickens’s opening image of marshland in the first chapter of Great Expectations.
John Seed is a very important poet and I urge readers to get hold of a copy of this book. Whilst you are at it you might also search out SNOW 3 with his ‘Recollections of the Durham Coalfield’; this is poetry for our time!

Ian Brinton, 18th September 2015.

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