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The Complete Poems of R.F. Langley edited by Jeremy Noel-Tod (Carcanet Press)

The Complete Poems of R.F. Langley edited by Jeremy Noel-Tod (Carcanet Press)

In 1978 Nigel Wheale’s infernal methods press published a chapbook of four poems by R.F. Langley, Wheale’s former English teacher at Wolverhampton Grammar School. Roger Langley had studied at Jesus College, Cambridge in the late 1950s, the same time as Jeremy Prynne with whom he was to remain close friends for the rest of his life. As Jeremy Noel-Tod puts it in the introduction to this splendidly produced new Carcanet edition of the Complete Poems: ‘In their final year, Langley and Prynne were supervised by the poet and critic Donald Davie’ who introduced them to the work of both Ezra Pound and Adrian Stokes. This is almost like an updating by ten years of the narrative told by Charles Tomlinson in Some Americans when he was tutored in the late 1940s by Donald Davie who introduced him to both Wallace Stevens and William Carlos Williams. In 1994 infernal methods published a second Langley volume, Twelve Poems, and it is this book which was referred to by John Welch in a letter to me from near the opening of this century:

The trajectory of a poetic career is interesting. As I think you know pretty much the only person to publish him [Langley] for years was Nigel Wheale, his friend and former pupil—and anything else that appeared appeared through Nigel. I was actually staying at Nigel’s when ‘it happened’—he’d just brought out a full-length albeit quite small collection of Roger’s when, out of the blue, Michael Schmidt rang up. I don’t think Nigel knew him at all—he’d simply sent off a review copy to PN Review. Anyway, Schmidt rang bubbling over with enthusiasm. Which led to the Collected and a good deal of subsequent interest in his work.

That ‘subsequent interest’ included Carcanet’s Collected Poems (produced in conjunction with infernal methods in 2000), The Face of It, a collection of 21 poems in 2007 and a regular slot in PN Review for the ‘Journals’. And the projection of this literary narrative has now given us this new Complete Poems, one of the most handsomely edited and produced collections I have seen for some time.
As Langley put it in the very well-known interview with Robert Walker from Angel Exhaust 13:

‘I didn’t start writing until I found out about American poetry. There was Donald Davie at Cambridge who talked about Pound. But Davie never talked about Olson. It was really Olson who convinced me that I might write something myself.’

It was very much that interview alongside the early poem ‘Matthew Glover’ that prompted me to write the first of my ‘Black Mountain in England’ articles for Michael Schmidt in 2005 (PN Review 161). But it wasn’t until 2010 that Roger wrote me an account of having first come across Charles Olson:

‘JHP introduced me to the work of Olson, of course, sending me copies of first ‘The Kingfishers and a bit later, I think, of the Projective Verse essay. Later on I saw the Donald Allen anthology, bought some copies of it, and used it to teach from while I was at Wolverhampton Grammar School. Obviously, from the very first, my own writing, although opened up to new methods by Olson, was always closely tied to my own immediate biography. The pleasure lay in writing about the little willow tree I knew and how it blew in the wind, the willow warblers I had watched in the bushes at dusk on the border of the parish. Nothing so personally particular in Olson.’

I shall be writing a review of this new publication for Shearsman Magazine on-line and that will concentrate more on the poems and less on the ‘chit-chat’!

Ian Brinton 1st September 2015

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