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Ditch Vision: essays on poetry, nature and place by Jeremy Hooker (Awen)

Ditch Vision: essays on poetry, nature and place by Jeremy Hooker (Awen)

In the first essay of this remarkably wide-ranging book Jeremy Hooker refers to examining an entire life of a district. He looks at Gilbert White’s consideration of the “human (including antiquities) and nature where he found them, side by side; he did not need to go beyond the bounds of his parish to find the fullness of nature”. Hooker is looking at the idea of what might be contained in the word wilderness and recognises that there has been none in the British Isles since the Middle Ages:

“…even in the sense of the word given by Dr Johnson in his Dictionary (‘a desert; a tract of solitude and strangeness’), wilderness is nowhere to be found upon an American scale in these islands.”

I was tempted here to recall a passage from the ‘Anoch’ section of Johnson’s Journey to the Western Isles where the urban figure from the world of London finds himself sitting on a blasted heath and, in the words of the fine Shakespearean scholar, Wilbur Sanders, seems to find the sort of subversive drag upon his humane habitations as shook Macbeth’s footing so drastically:

“We were in this place at ease and by choice, and had no evils to suffer or to fear; yet the imaginations excited by the view of an unknown and untravelled wilderness are not such as arise in the artificial solitude of parks and gardens, a flattering notion of self-sufficiency, a placid indulgence of voluntary delusions, a secure expansion of the fancy, or a cool concentration of the mental powers. The phantoms which haunt a desert are want, and misery, and danger; the evils of dereliction rush upon the thoughts; man is made unwillingly acquainted with his own weakness, and meditation shews him only how little he can sustain, and how little he can perform.”

As Hooker suggests to us, the “wild…is not determined by the presence of wild beasts” and a focused scrutiny of our own immediate world can awaken in us an awareness of the non-human.
On a cold, bright East Suffolk afternoon, 12th February 2011, a number of people congregated in At. Andrew’s Church, Bramfield, for a memorial service following the death of R.F. Langley. Langley’s old friend from the Cambridge world of the 1950s, Jeremy Prynne, gave an address in which he was admirably clear about the importance of ditch vision:

“[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. What this means is that Roger’s special signature of stillness and silence were marks of the profoundest spiritual intensity.”

This is of course the quiet focus that Langley comments on in his interview with R.F. Walker (Don’t Start Me Talking, ed. Tim Allen & Andrew Duncan, Salt, 2006) when he refers to standing under a tree for an hour and a half having walked out of the village at dusk:

“And it just occurred to me that I ought to stand without moving at all for that length of time and see what happened. Not even turning my head. A lot of rabbits came up and sat on my feet. And moths whipping about within inches of me. A feeling that you might get through to what was really there if you stripped off enough…if you stand absolutely still, then you might not be part of any map at all. You ‘see’ the place when you haven’t got any designs on it…”

In October 2010 I remember writing to Langley about his early poem ‘Matthew Glover’ and at the end of that month he wrote back:

“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 would guess my deepest feelings have always been for Coleridge’s Conversation Poems, the Lime Tree Bower, the shock which begins where the particular strikes, beyond any general concepts, geographical, historical or whatever. The movement of the leaves as they are shaken in that particular little cutting by the water of the stream stirring the air around them, not even worrying too much about ideas of the One Life for instance.”

One of the most powerful things about Jeremy Hooker’s new book of essays is precisely that awareness of where the particular strikes; this is ditch vision. Given this concern it is of course entirely appropriate that the second essay should be about Richard Jefferies and it opens with a quotation from ‘Hours of Spring’:

“The commonest pebble, dusty and marked with the stain of the ground, seems to me so wonderful; my mind works round it till it becomes the sun and centre of a system of thought and feeling.”

When I opened this short review with a reference to the wide-ranging scope of Hooker’s new collection I was thinking about the quiet intelligence he brings to bear upon the poetry of George Oppen, Charles Olson and Lorine Niedecker as well as his passionate understanding of the work of John Cowper Powys. In ‘Notes on Poetic Vision’ he quotes a short poem by John Riley, possibly the last lines that the Leeds poet wrote before his murder in 1978:

“at the boundary of mind’s reach
at the edge of heart’s sensing
violence of colour
and the wind rising”

The last work of Riley’s that was published as a book was his translation of Osip Mandelstam’s ‘Second Voronezh Notebook’ (Rigmarole of the Hours, Melbourne, 1979) and with that in mind I want to conclude with a quotation from Nadezhda Mandelstam’s memoirs of her husband:

Attention to detail, he noted in one of his rough drafts, is the virtue of the lyric poet. Carelessness and sloppiness are the devices of lyrical sloth.”

Read Jeremy Hooker’s new collection of essays for an understanding what that attention to detail can really signify.

Ian Brinton, 4th December 2017

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