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Monthly Archives: September 2015

Ianthe Poems by Peter Philpott (Shearsman Books)

Ianthe Poems by Peter Philpott (Shearsman Books)

All art is in the past, acting as a record of what was seen or felt upon some occasion, and, as John Hall reminded us in his contribution to David Kennedy’s Necessary Steps (Shearsman 2007) the Oxford English Dictionary gives the etymology for ‘occasion’ in terms of the falling of things towards each other:

‘It is not just the things that fall towards each other, though there is always, I would say, a sense of conjuncture or convergence that marks something as an occasion, even for those with their attention on the everyday.’

A poem may appear to be occupied with a dramatic present (‘It is an ancient Mariner, And he stoppeth one of three’) but once the storyteller weighs in with his narrative it is firmly past tense (‘There was a ship…’). And it is the past’s intrusion into the present that is a mainstay of all Art. A poem, if it is worth anything, interrupts the even flow of the day-to-day; it appears in the manner described by Lyn Hejinian which Peter Philpott uses as the introductory presence to the first section of this sequence of poems which revolves around his grand-daughter, Ianthe:

‘The desire to tell within the conditions of a discontinuous consciousness seems to constitute the original situation of the poem. The discontinuity of consciousness is interwoven through the continuity of reality—a reality whose independence of our experience and descriptions must be recognized.’

When I first read a piece of prose by Lyn Hejinian it was in the Salt anthology Vanishing Points edited by Rod Mengham and John Kinsella over ten years ago and a line that struck me there was to do with children’s play; ‘They bend, the hour is bound somewhere.’ Fluidity and stillness, children’s ‘present’ and the adult’s binding of a moment into a poem.

If I were still school-teaching I would use some of these fresh, innovative and delightfully playful lyrics from Peter Philpott’s new volume. I often used to present a world of childhood through the eyes of ee cummings and his little lame balloon-man as well as through the binding loss of Blake’s priest in black gowns. Now I would include Peter Philpott’s ‘non-poetic coffee shop’

‘where babies gather in their buggies
& a man gives a tutorial on public health
and the staff chat about what they bought on holiday’

I would include this world in which ‘our ease is sweet here / luscious and dropping’; a world of ‘persistent bird cries / like little lyric poems’ which ‘erupt’ to intrude upon the mundane. These poems are unafraid to be serious. These poems are unafraid to be personal and to evoke domestic connections of the highest quality. These poems remind me of the point Peter Robinson once made when he recounted how the Italian poet Franco Fortini had approached him at a poetry festival in Cambridge to ask ‘Why do all the English poems end with a little laugh?’ It seems almost as if an ironic tone is adopted in order to protect the poet from being seen as nakedly serious and wanting to refer to genuinely felt emotions. This is absolutely not true of these poems by Peter Philpott:

‘what you read here is
what wisdom in these words
uncountable but singable not
what is said but how
each word points at this world!’

The lines of a poem, the binding of a moment, the words (already an echo of the past by virtue of being language) reflect what Philpott recalls from Keston Sutherland about ‘The pressure to think and sing’. The poems constitute a type of absence:

‘a silence
or opening
that isn’t
silence but
lies underneath

the darkness enclosing
that too…’

Ian Brinton, 7th September 2015

The Messier Objects by Michael Zand (Shearsman Books)

The Messier Objects by Michael Zand (Shearsman Books)

In a talk given at Barrack’s Studio, Newcastle-under-Lyme, 6th May 1995, Roger Langley referred to those moments which, rather akin to Wordsworth’s ‘spots of time’, seem to assert themselves like islands within the time schemes that dominate our everyday lives. George Simmel had referred in 1911 to adventures that interrupt the everyday as ‘islands’. Not like a state which is part of a continent, in that its boundaries are generated from within itself, against the opposition only of an altogether different medium, the sea, which is forced to comply with the directive from the land. After all, episodes in ordinary life have their beginnings and ends determined by boundaries which are, in a sense, mechanical, not organic like those of the island, since they are drawn by mutual pressure from both sides from similar things, as are the boundaries of a state on a continent amongst other states, where frontiers are set by equal pressures and compromises between them. Langley goes on to add ‘In this way, then, the adventure is a foreign body in our existence, yet it also speaks of the unity of all life in a way that normal events woven into the surface daily routine of our lives cannot. The adventure shows things which seem essential. As such it has affinities with three other types of event; the game played by a gambler, the dream, and the work of art, the poem.’
In his Foreword to this collection of poems, Michael Zand tells the reader a little about the background to the Messier Objects:

‘Messier was a comet hunter and was frustrated by seeing objects in the sky that he thought were comets, but turned out to be random and uninteresting clouds of dust. He drew up the list to avoid comet hunters wasting time on what he regarded as the “worthless detritus of the skies”. Ironically it was later discovered that these objects were in fact galaxies, nebulae and other deep sky phenomena…’

The moving sequence of these poems highlights the importance of what we can too easily be tempted to overlook. There is a sense that the importance of life is in the smallest things which can be dismissed as detritus. And this constitutes ‘loss’. ‘M1’ opens with a mythical feeling of beginning ‘vaguely in the shape of an apple tree’ and many of the later poems and prose-poems record a history of a Fall.

‘how much time do you have
these star clouds are all that’s left

anything you say
anything with a word in it
has been exhausted’

The draining of language that is used by ‘the methods/ of our society’ (‘Lyra’) is a matter of ‘cheap shots’ with an unavoidable violence contained in the layers of meaning tucked into that last word. Michael Zand plays with language and hints and shifts; he avoids the classification of words which can permit behaviour of narrow-mindedness, cruelty and ultimate blindness.

M 89

‘they seems impossible . these stars
but they are part of us . and remains so beautiful

even though it messes things up
who cares . let them

they are our horses they—

In his introduction to Roger Langley’s Complete Poems, the editor, Jeremy Noel-Tod, quoted from J. H. Prynne’s speech in Bramfield church on 12th February 2011:

‘[For Roger] the smallest things were absolutely everything—if you knew the difference between a martin and a swift you knew everything—not just something—you knew the whole universal truth of things if you knew one thing deeply and exactly and carefully.’

These words came as no surprise to us as we sat there in St Andrew’s and recalled Prynne’s own poem about inclusiveness, the importance of what can so easily be overlooked, ‘L’Extase de M. Poher’, in which ‘Rubbish is / pertinent; essential; the / most intricate presence in / our entire culture’. In Michael Zand’s world of messier objects, The Messier Objects, in which the ‘messier’ ob-jects,
We have pauses of lyric grace and watchfulness:

‘fig and parsley and drift wood
percussions revolve around the—’

And those dashes with which so many of these pieces conclude, as if there were so much more I could say about—

Ian Brinton 2nd September 2015

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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