In ‘A Performing Art’, one of the short pieces of discursive writing from the last section of this collection of anecdotes, reminiscences and prose poems, Peter Robinson quotes from a postcard written in February 1934 by Ezra Pound to Mary Barnard:
‘Thing is to cut a shape in time. Sounds that stop the flow, and durations either of the syllables, or implied between them, “forced onto the voice” of the reader by nature of the “verse”’
The context for Robinson’s quotation is the world of the ‘Poetry Reading’ and he highlights the Cambridge International Poetry Festival which was held every two years between 1975 and 1985. He cuts his own shapes in time by giving us clarity, sharp outlines:
‘I can still quite clearly picture Hans Magnus Enzensberger at the third festival in June 1979 on stage in the darkened Corn Exchange at Cambridge. He was reading from his poem The Sinking of the Titanic in German and his own English translation. Enzensberger’s face was extremely mobile: ingenuousness, sarcasm, disgust and pity passed across his features as he read. He had been in Italy and was wearing a white summer suit that seemed slightly luminous under the spotlights. When he reached the end of the poem where imaginary and symbolic passengers are swimming away from the ship, Enzensberger seemed to have turned the darkness of the Corn Exchange into an Atlantic Ocean.’
Timing and presentation! Atmosphere and an awareness of the power of what you are reading! Shades of Basil Bunting’s ‘Villon’:
‘precision clarifying vagueness;
boundary to a wilderness
of detail; chisel voice
smoothing the flanks of noise’
In the previously unpublished autobiographical sketch, ‘Hit the Road, Jack’ (composed for the centenary of Linacre Infants and Junior School), there is a moving sense of attempting to give formal boundaries to a past long gone. The formality of the reconstruction is there in the precision:
‘There were two playgrounds, divided by a wall. The one on the left, if you were facing towards the Mersey, was for the Infants; the larger one on the right, for the Juniors.’
With the introduction of a class photograph, ‘a black and white class photo that lay around unconsidered in my parents’ house for years and years’, the past tense becomes the present tense as a long-gone world is brought back into focus. This is the way with photographs: they can make you realise that there are things you know that you didn’t know you knew! Names of people unmet for sixty years emerge out of a darkness:
‘On my immediate left in the photograph is Barbara Penny. On the other side of her is Colin Wells. On the back row, three from the left is Billy Morrison. When the school’s centenary was announced in Liverpool, with a call for memories and memorabilia, Billy heard about it from his family, found me on the Internet, and sent a message from British Columbia, in which he added some more names to the faces.’
Prompted by the catalyst, the photograph, ‘It comes back to me as I write that we learned how to tell the time in this class’ and Ray Charles’ song ‘Hit the Road, Jack’ emerges from being a US number one and a UK number 6 hit in 1961 to the fore of the author’s mind:
‘I can recall clearly standing on the asphalt of the playground of the Junior School at about home time thinking it would certainly hurt if you hit the road, and wondering why Jack would want to do it anyway.’
A few days ago Jeremy Prynne said to me ‘You know, Ian, I borrowed a line from Tim Longville’s last poem in his collection Familiarities for one of my poems.’ The words borrowed, ‘then back’, come from Longville’s ‘Back Out’ (1967) and they emerge, repeated, in one of the poems from Her Weasels Wild Returning (1994). When I mentioned this to Longville he replied ‘at Spartylea, I encouraged and led group-chantings of that little piece, in an exaggeratedly rhythmic cod-Northern-style—chantings in which, improbable though it may seem, Jeremy was an enthusiastic participant. Those occasions, and hence that poem, may well have stuck in his mind. So much, after all, does.’ In Peter Robinson’s delightful little vignette Jack may well ‘hit the road’ but he most certainly does come back.
This book of thoughts and recollections is another of those most handsome publications given to us by Paul Rossiter’s Isobar Press (available from London Review Bookshop) and, needless to add, it is well-worth getting hold of. Not least for the deeply moving account of the events surrounding the author’s discovery he was suffering from a brain tumour, and how after its removal he was able to return to his teaching in Japan.
An earlier quotation from that Pound postcard reads ‘Precision in KNOWING how long the different notes take in a given place’. Peter Robinson’s delicate care in his writing gives us that precision in KNOWING.
Ian Brinton 29th November 2015