The opening sonnet in Joachim Du Bellay’s sixteenth-century sequence of Les Regrets is immediately assertive:
‘Je ne veux point chercher l’esprit de l’univers,
Je ne veux point sonder les abîmes couverts.’
This tone of defiance eschews the world of sublime aspiration; it turns its back on any plumbing of depths; it draws no architectural designs from a skyscape. This is a mode of writing which is the product of ‘l’aventure’ and ‘accidents divers’. In Philip Terry’s fizzing rendition he doesn’t ‘paint my pictures in such rich colours’ and his sonnets enclosed in this fine Oystercatcher’s beak don’t ‘seek such lofty subjects for my verse’. In the world of ‘l’aventure’ he keeps his ‘eye on shit that happens’ since after all
‘I moan right here if I have something to moan about,
Make a joke of it or, if I wish to act the whistleblower, speak out loud,
In the sure knowledge that no-one ever reads poems.
I don’t tart them up to look presentable at award ceremonies,
Knackered times require knackered words,
But regard them as no more than minutes or blogs.’
These twenty-four sonnets are published ‘In Memory of Stephen Rodefer’ and they bring to mind of course those energetic masterpieces, Four Lectures, published by The Figures in 1982. The ‘Pretext’, an excuse perhaps for what comes first, gives the tone:
‘Then I stand up on my hassock and say sing that.
It is not the business of POETRY to be anything.’
Rodefer sees his job as ‘quality control in the language lab, explaining what went / Wrong in Northampton after the Great Awakening.’ The reference is to the religious revival in Northampton, Mass., led by Jonathan Edwards, 1739-40, in which Edwards held that true conversion was marked by, if not uniquely distinguished by, distinct bodily signs (of emotion and personal submission to God’s power), although later he qualified and even rejected this belief. Philip Terry’s poetic outburst is certainly palpable but it moves far beyond the physical into the realms of outrage:
‘It is not the rubbish-heaped banks of this Essex river,
It is not the exhaust-filled air, nor North Hill Barbers,
Which makes me pour out my misery in verse…’
It is instead the manner in which ‘Capitalism unrolls its business plans on campus.’ The campus, which is fast-becoming ‘a space allocation’ where every academic has ‘a workload allocation’ (represented by everything which ‘must be measurable and quantifiable’), presents us with a world in which ‘everything is run on a business model’.
‘We are now “stakeholders”, students “clients” –
This campus of the University of Essex was once the place of Donald Davie and Andrew Crozier and it hosted a trans-Atlantic push from Ed Dorn and Charles Olson. Now ‘We don’t spend our time here writing poetry’ and if you really want to know what goes on then here are one or two granites:
‘There is no time for teaching, we are too busy on curriculum review,
There is no time for real conversation, we are too busy on email…
There is no time for literature, we are too busy on transferable skills,
There is no time for thought, we think only of outcomes.’
In the ‘Preface’ to Four Lectures Rodefer’s poetry was ‘painted with every jarring colour and juxtaposition, every simultaneous order and disorder’ and that anarchic energy, that uplifting sense of anger and urban spleen, sparks off the pages of these twenty-four sonnets. Philip Terry’s collection is exhilarating to read and I recommend it to every teacher of English within the university system. It is, to quote Rodefer once more, ‘as deep as a museum and as wide as the world’.
Ian Brinton 31st July 2016