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Monthly Archives: December 2015

Beneath by Simon Perril (Shearsman Books)

Beneath  by Simon Perril (Shearsman Books)

In the notes at the end of his earlier volume of poems linked to the lyricism of Archilochus, Archilochus on the Moon (Shearsman 2013), Simon Perril referred to the Greek poet’s ‘nuanced voice, full of many tones and timbres’. The poet’s voice, he suggested, ‘tastes of brine, sweat and handled coins; it has the viscosity of semen’:

‘Viscosity is caused by friction; it is a measure of its resistance to gradual deformation. Archilochus crafted an intimate yell seven centuries before Christ, and a good many before Mayakovsky and Frank O’Hara.’

These words echo Peter Riley’s comments made when he was interviewed by Kelvin Corcoran in 1986 for Reality Studios 8; talking about ‘the condition of poetry’, Riley bemoaned ‘the neglect of someone like John James’ which struck him as particularly reprehensible since ‘his poetry is actually a popular poetry in some ways, it refers to people like Mayakovsky and O’Hara, the self in it is a popular self: a brash, open, aggressive, stylish, perky sort of self…it speaks of public places, and should be heard in them, literally.’ It is no mere accident that this quotation should appear in Simon Perril’s introduction to his Salt Companion to John James, which appeared in 2010, since Perril’s own poetry possesses some of those same qualities displayed in James’s ‘The Conversation’ in which the poet refers to Jeremy Prynne’s leafing through pages and giving ‘some new sense of strengthening regard for common things’. In the Companion we can also find Perril’s statement which points us towards his own poetry, ‘He shares with the New York School poets a willingness to view everyday objects not simply as degraded commodities, but as potential talismans that might be invested with hopes and desires.’

The background to Beneath is made clear on the back cover: ‘A nekyia is an underworld story preserving a rite from classical antiquity wherein the living call up the dead, and are questioned about the future.’ In 1935 Pound thought that the Nekuia episode of The Odyssey was the oldest part. In the words of Hugh Kenner, ‘foretime: a remembering of rites already ancient when the tale came to Homer’. And in the early 16th century the Nekuia was transposed by one Andreas Divus Justinopolitanus (‘Et postquam ad navem descendimus, et mare…’). And from thence to the opening of Canto I: ‘And then went down to the ship, / Set keel to breakers, forth on the godly sea…’ (incorporated into Canto III in Quia Pauper Amavi, 1919, just after the end of the first Great War, before being chosen to open the Draft of XVI Cantos in 1925).

In Simon Perril’s exploration of what lies beneath the surface, the voice of Neobulé, the bride-to-be of the first lyric poet, Archilochus, who committed suicide after her father had called off the wedding, gropes towards an understanding of her shadehood:

‘Hermes took me down
each step
decreased in sound’

As absence causes presence to fade into what will become the unrealisable ‘Lethe dyed my thoughts / white’

‘and I wore them
anew, so fresh

they barely contained
you’

The visceral sense of dissolution is traced from different angles throughout these eighty poems:

‘Dionysus
god in the tree

whose limbs of ivy
curled ’cross Thracian seas

will come for me
and plant a wet kiss

reclaim his daughter
as a body

of dancing water’

As the solidity of ‘tree’ and ‘limbs’ move through an abbreviated verb of transport the physicality of consonantal ‘daughter’ melts to its rhymed counterpart in the lightness of the last line.
Dissolution, a presence of process, is evident in poem after poem in this magical sequence and we become aware of how ‘constant leaving’ is a ‘leaking’. Persephone, the ‘dark abductee’ gathers the speaker

‘for I soften
lose shape

find kin
amongst the wet things

palpitate
like a fountain tip.’

Elly Clapinson’s cover photograph explores a glimpse of the journey.

Ian Brinton 27th December 2015

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House At Out Mark Goodwin Shearsman Books

House At Out  Mark Goodwin Shearsman Books

I find that reading books is in no way a discrete business and the same, inevitably, holds true for writing reviews. Looking at the blurb on the reverse side of this new collection of Mark Goodwin’s poetry I see the words of Simon Perril:

In House At Out, Mark Goodwin steps beyond the physical landscapes of Back of a Vast, into a new topography: a world that is a “wild’s inf i
nite b its” approached through the gaps and hollows in the word. The holes are apertures as we zoom into language, crack open word hoards and find worlds of association, “hole keys” with which we open kinetic lands as nimble as “music thinking of water”’.

A few days ago, in my review of The Cambridge Companion to British Poetry 1945—2010, I didn’t have sufficient space to say what I wanted to about Perril’s excellent contribution about ‘High Late-Modernists or Postmodernists?’ but now I am prompted to return via this topographical reference to Goodwin’s work. Early on in Perril’s essay he refers to Geraldine Monk in terms of the emotional geography of place, most especially her native Lancashire:

‘Her habitats are haunted by a sense of inequalities and injustices that the landscape has preserved as its own memory, and that charge the language with both neologistic verve and a sense of regional historical witness.’

This combination of neologisms and ‘historical witness’ is central to Mark Goodwin’s work as in ‘Our Shoulle’:

‘a round voice in the bottom of an impossible tube is
nearly silent yet ticks away a shiny poem coils of a
whole other place pull me in it is thin in a last place
a shell makes so wide at first a thrush has smashed a snail

shell on a doorstep think of bricks think of your family
we always wonder why sky doesn’t flatten a shell with its
simple vast coiled solid song song of wafer stone stone
that is a song a crab may live in an on & on song a snail

carries around exchanges for size & no size we do not live
in shells because our feet are too big they would not fit into a
tight pink compartment where a shell goes no further into
the round of all a world slates so slight against her round

voice bright raging sky with a rain in a bottom of impossible’ [.]

There is a Hopkinsian quality of the music of ‘things’ here (‘choses’ as Ponge would have had it) as we are offered ‘a round voice’ in which stones might ring, as they do in the second stanza as ‘song song’ becomes ‘stone stone’. The voice may be ‘nearly silent’ and yet its insistent measuring of Time pulls both poet and reader into a new world. The comparison of shell to brick, of wafer to stone, takes us back a page to the title of this section of the book, ‘A Bachelard’s Château’ and Gaston Bachelard’s comment in the opening pages of The Poetics of Space

‘all really inhabited space bears the essence of the notion of home’.

In the world of Bachelard, imagination can build walls of impalpable shadows and, to refer again to Ponge, imagination can compare the human to the hermit crab:

‘The monuments built by man appear like offcuts from his own skeleton: but they don’t raise the spectre of a creature of comparative size. Compared to a shell, the portals of the greatest cathedrals open to release a crowd of ants and the most wealthy villas or chateaux, home to one man only, are more akin to a hive or an ants’-nest divided up into its separate rooms. When milord departs from his manor-house he certainly appears a lot less impressive than that gigantic claw of the hermit-crab swelling out of the mouth of that cornet shell which he calls home.’
(‘A Note addressed to SHELLS’, translated by Ian Brinton, Oystercatcher Press 2015)

There is, to my ear, a roundness, a completeness as ‘slates’ move to ‘slight’ and, round, to ‘bright’; an echo coiling round a spiral ‘in a bottom of impossible’. I recall Harriet Tarlo’s wonderful anthology published by Shearsman four years ago, The Ground Aslant, in the introduction to which she wrote ‘I have focused here on poets whose formal techniques are exploratory and experimental enough to be called radical, poets whose ideological pushing of the boundaries is to be found integrated into the forms their poems inhabit’. Mark Goodwin’s work was, naturally enough, featured in that volume as ‘the lock of the sun clinks its heat’. And when Robert Macfarlane reviewed the anthology for the Saturday Guardian (16/4/11) he referred to Mark Goodwin’s landscape details as providing no reliable resting place for the eye or the mind:

‘It simply refers the subject onwards in an effortful relay of attention from speck to speck. Keep going. Move along now.’

In this world of spatial vectors and Heraclitean flux I hear the opening lines of one of the poems in Prynne’s The Oval Window:

‘In darkness by day we must press on,
giddy at the tilt of a negative crystal.’

Keep it moving as fast as you can, citizen! And Mark Goodwin writes ‘thoughts escape leave us free and we are poem coils / of a whole i am’.

Ian Brinton 23rd December 2015

Muted Strings: A Study of Louis MacNeice Xavier Kalck Presses Universitaires de France—Cned 2015 www.cned.fr

Muted Strings: A Study of Louis MacNeice  Xavier Kalck  Presses Universitaires de France—Cned 2015 www.cned.fr

A close friend of mine used to herald the onset of winter each year with a re-reading of MacNeice’s ‘Autumn Journal’. There always seemed to me to be something apt, a string plucked with a tone of melancholy leisure, about the opening of that fine poem:

‘Close and slow, summer is ending in Hampshire,
Ebbing away down ramps of shaven lawn where close-clipped yew
Insulates the lives of retired generals and admirals
And the spyglasses hung in the hall…’

A little like the taste of an almond cake, lying beneath the burned parts, in the opening pages of Proust, MacNeice’s rhythms brought to mind those shadows ‘on the perfect lawn’ that were the ‘shadows of an old man sitting in a deep wicker-chair near the low table on which the tea had been served’ some forty miles from London in Henry James’s most famous novel about how an archer’s aim had been brought low by a genius for upholstery. This is a world of muted strings and Xavier Kalck’s title for his book about MacNeice’s posthumous collection of poems, The Burning Perch, has been chosen with great care:

‘Muted Strings draws attention especially to the dynamic that exists in MacNeice’s poems from The Burning Perch between muting as a means to soften the tune of the song, and muting as a symptom of the deadening of the song.’

This delightful little introduction to the late poetry of Louis MacNeice clearly adheres to a formula and is aimed at students who are going to write essays and dissertations on the volume of poems published in September 1963, some ten days after the poet’s death. With a quietly unassuming sense of dignity Xavier Kalck, who lectures in American literature at the Sorbonne, tells me that the whole affair is rather standard although ‘I hope there was room enough for some small measure of originality’. There certainly is!

I had a good feeling about this book when a review copy arrived quite recently. This feeling was partly based upon my awareness of the careful attention Xavier Kalck had given to the poetry of Anthony Barnett, whose Shearsman Selected Poems he introduced ten years ago. In that introduction he had written

‘The origin of poetry, much like that of language itself, is a matter of the poet dealing with whatever origin he finds, finding out when and how it resists, letting the poem originate its own resistance, a language pared down to its first poetics.’

Given that focus it was no surprise when I opened up this little introduction to MacNeice to discover a quotation from Modern Poetry: A Personal Essay (1938): ‘However much is known about the poet, the poem remains a thing distinct from him’. I was cheered by the knowledge that this book, however much it may adhere to a formula, would focus upon the poetry itself and therefore introduce readers to the ‘formal gymnastics’ of a poem ‘rather than psychological or biographical concerns’.

The opening poem in The Burning Perch is preoccupied with space and time. ‘Soap Suds’ presents a circular movement and Kalck quotes from Peter McDonald’s criticism of the poem before going on to suggest some subtle new approaches:

‘In terms of imagery, visual and otherwise, the poem resolves into an expanding (or contracting) series of circular figures: the soap, the ball, the globes, the gong, the hoops, and finally again the ball and the soap. The circular movement of the poem itself brings the reader back to the adult hands of the beginning.’ (MacDonald)

‘The pattern is unquestionably relevant. We are told the speaker visited the house with the lawn “when he was eight” (1), and mathematically, the return visit doubles that time into sixteen lines. However, the lines do not only pick up speed as they stretch within this highly circular poem. To put it tautologically, the linearity of the lines works against, as much as in accordance with, the overall cyclical pattern. The length of the lines conveys the distance that separates the childhood recollection from the speaker’s present.’ (Kalck)

Perhaps the real quality of this little book is that it takes one back, again and again, to the text itself and by looking with such care at Louis MacNeice’s last volume of poems one is compelled to recognize how good this poet is.

Ian Brinton 21st December 2015

A Poetry Boom 1990-2010 by Andrew Duncan Shearsman Books

A Poetry Boom 1990-2010 by Andrew Duncan Shearsman Books

On the back cover of this energetic book Andrew Duncan, blurb-master, tells us that in the years 1999-2001 ‘roughly as many books of poetry were published as in the whole of the 1970s. This is a poetry boom’. And his book has a reverberation to it in keeping with that little statistic. It is a very strange book indeed comprising a selected Whos Who of the contemporary poetry scene and some waspish attacks which are rather funny. It offers highly interesting insights into what it means to read a poem and dismissive strokes to the boundary for those who may have thought themselves in for the long innings. It reminds me a little of Falstaff’s comments about Mistress Quickly whom he suggests is like an otter. When asked ‘Why an otter?’ his reply is prepared for maximum target-hitting:

‘Why, she’s neither fish nor flesh; a man knows not
where to have her.’

Let me give you an example from a subsection, ‘Powers of Intuition’:

‘People who read poetry prefer the line of intuition, first person insight, creativity, personal symbols. This predisposition got them to the poetry section in the library, allowed them to be attracted by a book of poetry, and guides them into the meaning of the poem’

Yes, indeed, one has met these people and the emphasis upon that mean little definite article in the last clause gives us the closed shop of poetry readers, and, I shudder to say, many secondary teachers of English!

Now, try this from the same sub-section:

‘My idea of poetry sees it as a zone where suggestibility, collusion, identification are enhanced and made effortless. Take Kenneth Allott. (editor of Mid-Century Poetry, Penguin) If he thought 40.6% of the significant British poets (1918 to 1960) were Oxford graduates, that shows that he had taken collusion a long way. He was reading signs of authenticity but he defined them as signs of having been to Oxford—as he had. Prominently, he carried out repetitive acts of judgement and pleasure.’

This raises interesting issues about the role critics play as readers and I rather relished Duncan’s following paragraph in which he makes comment upon THEORY:

‘Everything taking place under the label of theory acts to reduce the value of artistic connoisseurship and of individual taste. The only purpose of poetry is the first-hand experience of someone inside the poem, where everything happening depends wholly and solely on individual judgements and acts of appreciation.’

This prompted me to recall a short section from the Notebooks of Philippe Jaccottet:

Inside, outside. What do we mean by inside? Where does outside end? Where does inside begin? The white page belongs to the outside, but the words written on it? The whole of the white page is in the white page, therefore outside myself, but the whole word is not in the word. That is to say there is the sign I write down, and its meaning on top of that; the word has first been in me, then it leaves me and, once written, it looks like strapwork, like a drawing in the sand; but it keeps something hidden, to be perceived only by the mind. It is the mind that is inside, and the outside is all the mind seizes on, all that affects, touches it. In itself it has neither shape, nor weight, nor colour; but it makes use of shapes, weights, colours, it plays with them, according to certain rules.’

If I am left dissatisfied with Andrew Duncan’s burlesque at any points it will come down to the ease of that Falstaffian response! For instance, in a sub-section titled ‘Prynne Follower’ I am confronted by the following passage in which Lockwood Laudanum, that well-known Classicist of the very best school, is being interviewed. Upon being asked ‘What would you pick out as a perfect purchasing experience?’ L.’s reply is forthright:

Twelve Poems, by R.F. Langley, which I bought from Peter Riley in Sturton Street in 1993. This just absolutely summed up what I like in poetry. Obviously anything not based on Prynne is second-rate and out of date and doesn’t really count. Obviously anything that isn’t impenetrable isn’t really modern and doesn’t repay the effort. I find most modern poetry tedious but I obtain my supplies by following a particular genealogy. It’s like inheriting an estate, the closer you are to the primogenitary bloodline the more of the estate your share is. Pound goes to Olson and Olson goes to Prynne. It’s like the Da Vinci Code really.’

Ok, shades of Jonathan Swift and Henry Fielding but I would like to know more about Duncan’s views on Langley who, incidentally, inherits far more from Olson that he does from Prynne. The fun of mischief-making is often delightful although, when it stretches to three-hundred pages I wonder if a little more variety might have been offered. I’m being fussy since after all I did enjoy so many of the side-swipes. Get a copy from Shearsman and decide for yourself!

P.S. I wonder how many poets gave their money to appear in the show; and I wonder how many paid not to.

Ian Brinton 20th December 2015

The Cambridge Companion to British Poetry 1945-2010 Edited by Edward Larrissy Cambridge University Press

The Cambridge Companion to British Poetry 1945-2010 Edited by Edward Larrissy  Cambridge University Press

In his introductory comments to this new Companion, a collection of sixteen essays purporting to ‘explore the full diversity of British poetry since the Second World War’, the editor, Edward Larrissy, points us to some comments made by Andrew Crozier in his seminal essay ‘Thrills and Frills: Poetry as Figures of Empirical Lyricism’. Larrissy refers to the ‘Metaphor Men’ Christopher Reid, Craig Raine and David Sweetman in the following way:

‘The identification, in the period of the so-called Metaphor Men, of poetry with the striking use of simile was seen by at least one critic in terms of the easy gratification sought by a consumer society.’

He goes on to focus on the Crozier essay:

‘Whether or not this is a valid connection, the claim does not establish that good poetry could not emerge from such a supposedly inauspicious context. The real target of the critique is a supposed superficiality and narrowness: superficiality of the presentation of experience; narrowness of linguistic register and of intellectual and cultural horizons.’

Now that the Selected Prose of Andrew Crozier, including that essay ‘Thrills and Frills’, is readily available in a Shearsman publication from 2013, readers can see for themselves how linked Crozier was with the Objectivist poets and how suspicious he was of a world of poetry in which ‘tropes proliferate and are uniformly highlighted, like consumer goods in a shop window’.
In Edward Larrissy’s earlier book Reading Twentieth-Century Poetry, The Language of Gender and Objects, published some twenty-five years ago, he highlights Crozier’s comments on a poem by Charles Tomlinson. Referring to ‘Geneva Restored’, a poem from the mid-1950s, Crozier wrote:

‘Not only is the poem’s point of intersection with the world realized in detail, and in terms of particular, local qualities, the place is also remembered to possess a history, to be charged with it indeed as associations, with Protestantism, with Ruskin, which feed into the present. Yet none of these, it can be argued, owes its presence to the poet’s intervention; they occur because the poet finds them interesting and they sustain the poem accordingly.’
I was heartened to read of Larrissy’s inclusion of Crozier in his introduction to this new Cambridge book and the reference was made, perhaps, even more pertinent in the closing comments to that introduction. After highlighting The Penguin Book of Contemporary British Poetry as initiating a debate about who was in and who was out (and both Tomlinson and Crozier are firmly out) there is a reference to the Bloodaxe anthology, The New Poetry (in which both Tomlinson and Crozier are out), in which the editors announced that ‘plurality has flourished’. Larrissy suggests that ‘it might be claimed that the characteristics of the poetry represented therein were not markedly different from those of the poetry in Morrison and Motion—and the same might be said, allowing for a slightly different selection of poets, about New British Poetry (no Crozier here either!) edited by Don Paterson and Charles Simic in 2004. Nevertheless a sense that there have been too many exclusions in British poetry is gaining ground among many readers and in the academy’.

Having read that last statement I was a little intrigued to note that Larrissy refers to the Morrison-Motion anthology four times in his introduction and twice to the Paterson-Simic. However, I looked in vain for a reference to Conductors of Chaos, A Various Art, Other, or Vanishing Points.
A less serious point, but still a little alarming, is the incorrect date given on more than one occasion. Bunting’s Briggflatts did not appear in 1960! That said, this is a wide-ranging book which offers an impressive introduction to the period and that wide range can be seen in the titles of the chapters themselves: ‘Poets of the Forties and Early Fifties’, ‘The Movement: Poetry and the Reading Public’, High Late Modernists or postmodernists?’, ‘Poetry and Class’. Separate sections on Scottish Poetry, Welsh Poetry, Northern Irish Poetry, Black British Poetry, ‘Poetry, Feminism, Gender and Women’s Experience’. And a splendid last piece by Jon Glover on ‘Poetry’s Outward Forms: Groups, Workshops, Readings, Publishers’.

Ian Brinton 17th December 2015

The Time We Turned by Martyn Crucefix (Shearsman Chapbooks)

The Time We Turned by Martyn Crucefix (Shearsman Chapbooks)

In Mary Lavin’s short story ‘The Widow’s Son’ a woman waits outside her gate for her son to come home from school. A passing neighbour stops and comments upon the steepness of the hill next to the farmhouse and suggests that it is a feature of such prominence that it will be found on the Ordnance Survey map:

“If that’s the case,” said the widow, “Patrick will be able to tell you all about it. When it isn’t a book he has in his hand it’s a map.”
“Is that so?” said the man. “That’s interesting. A map is a great thing. A map is not an ordinary thing. It isn’t everyone can make out a map.”

The conversation is central to the story because the widow is incapable of seeing ahead; she is incapable of recognising how her bullying manner in bringing up her son will lead to her losing him. Maps not only refer to the way places relate to each other; they also bring back memories and arouse expectations. They reveal a sense of how we relate to the world around us.

In his powerful poem ‘The map house’, the opening piece in the volume The Time We Turned (Shearsman Chapbook, 2014), Martyn Crucefix presents us with a delicate and moving understanding of how maps and memory intertwine.

‘When I knew him I knew him in the city
then in this northern town

there he was walking towards me
still balding aggressively though slate-grey tufts

and corkscrews the colour of the skies
on that morning above the fells

proliferated over and round his ears—
there beside him the son I’d never seen

though by then he was already six years old
and that morning already two Easters ago

The man recalled! The opening statement in the past tense, emphasised by the placing of ‘then’ as the first word of the second line, gives way to movement as ‘was’ is juxtaposed with the present participle, ‘walking’. The looming reconstruction has a cinematic effect with the phrase ‘towards me’ and the vista widens to include ‘the son I’d never seen’. An elegiac tone is introduced with the sense of a particular moment of the past being high-lighted with the distance of ‘then’ giving way to ‘that morning’ and the poet’s removedness from the picture, the map, is offered to us with the finality of ‘already two Easters ago.’
The second section of the poem gives us the context for the thoughts which have returned now although the poet lost touch with his friend. The owner of the temporary accommodation in which the poet sits has ‘decked’ (note the association with oceans of travel) the house ‘with maps of all kinds / both upstairs and down’. In looking at these maps Crucefix discovers what Philippe Jaccottet was to term an ‘ouverture’: a rent in the world, an opening through which the past becomes immediate once more:

‘One of those evenings we met in the city
he confessed his love of the thrill

of standing on the ground floor of Stanfords
on Long Acre of being surrounded

by maps and globes and charts in books’

The shop in Covent Garden, on Long Acre, merges the rural and the urban in its placing and the poet remembers that what really excited his friend about maps was not to do with dimensions (‘the length or breadth of a map’) but with its ‘other hidden dimension…something always there if you look for it’.
This is a serious elegy and its conclusion points to a dimension which goes far beyond the particular:

‘I’d want to tell it right—some obscurely-
inherited sense of debt or what promise is it
we make to those we hardly see for years—

I’d want to say it was past seven o’clock
or perhaps by then even seven-fifteen—

I’m sure of it now—a quarter past the hour
was the time we turned and part of what it meant’

The tone of voice is that of W.S. Graham’s ‘The Thermal Stair’. But as I re-read the poem for the third time what came most to my mind was a letter written in 1842 describing Matthew Arnold’s reaction to the death of his father, Thomas, the famous Headmaster of Rugby School:

‘Matthew spoke of one thing which seemed to me very natural and affecting: that the first thing which struck him when he saw the body was the thought that their sole source of information was gone, that all that they had ever known was contained in that lifeless head. They had consulted him so entirely on everything, and the strange feeling of their being cut off for ever one can well imagine.’

The Time We Turned
is a chapbook of ‘New Poems’ and it contains a sequence of sixteen sonnets inspired by the writing of the Galician Rosalia de Castro and, as the blurb on the back of this lovely little book states, these sonnets ‘explore the way in which we inhabit time’. I urge you to get hold of this little thirty-page volume: you will return to it time and time again.

Ian Brinton 2nd December 2015

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