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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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