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What Possessed Me by John Freeman (Worple Press)

What Possessed Me by John Freeman (Worple Press)

When I wrote about John Freeman’s work in my book last year about Dulwich College poets, Infinite Riches, I focused upon the strong influence of the post-war American poets. In an interview the poet had given to Gavin Goodwin (published in Tears in the Fence 59, 2014) he spoke eloquently about what had been his early reading:

“I’ve always been interested in the border country between speech, poetry, prose and verse; and since Whitman, Pater and the French symboliste poets there has been a great deal going on in this zone. But it’s much older than that, really. In my teens I lived close to the Old Vic in the years when it performed all Shakespeare’s plays, of which I saw a good few. The prose spoken by Hamlet and Falstaff thrilled me as much as the verse. Everyone knows, as Ted Hughes said, that the prose of the King James Bible, some of which I heard read out at school, contains some of our greatest poetry. Studying modern languages and having personal connections with France, I came across the prose poems of Baudelaire, Rimbaud, and others. The exciting modern practitioners for me were William Carlos Williams and some contemporary British poets who were open to American influences, including John Riley and Jim Burns. I discovered Williams’s late verse in my gap year by taking a volume at random from a bookshop shelf, Pictures from Brueghel and Other Poems, and finding ‘Asphodel, that greeny flower’. From there I proceeded within a year or two to the prose poetry in Kora in Hell and Spring and All. What is liberating about Spring and All is the way prose and verse alternate, as they do in [John] Riley’s prose Pieces, and the rapid transitions within the prose, which allow for a condensed thinking on the page with the dutiful connective passages left out.”

The collection from Worple Press, What Possessed Me, reveals those influences threaded throughout a remarkable volume of honest and engaging writing. However, there is also another voice which can be heard firmly reiterating “endlessly / What no man learnt yet, in or out of school”: the reflective tones of a man who took Shakespeare’s Sonnets to war with him in 1917. Edward Thomas’s influence on Freeman’s work strikes me from the very opening poem, ‘Me and the Gatepost’:

“On the front of the gate are three numerals
in hard plastic, the colour of clotted cream,
with screw-heads aureoled in rust.”

Although of course we can hear the voice of Carlos Williams in these words distinct in terms of precision and colours we can also hear that quiet tone, that exactness which is a hallmark of Thomas’s work: this is language as painting and the next four lines of brush-work move us forward:

“……………The post leans
as if exhausted, while its thickness tapers
to the shape of a pitched roof, bleached, pale grey.
On the slant surfaces ravines have opened,
a wave of wood, a wave of shadow.”

As if peering through the immediate, the surface of the canvas, the poet’s mind is opened to the subtlety of memory and loss as he thinks

“…of the lavender, grey and blue,
growing to a sturdy hedge with gnarled stocks,
and the yellow privet by the other gate,
past which we push our bikes to the back yard.”

The placing of the word “growing” at the beginning of the line echoes Thomas’s own hymn to the artemesia, “Old Man, or Lad’s-Love”, where the poet shows us the “hoar-green feathery herb, almost a tree,”

“Growing with rosemary and lavender.”

But the influence of Thomas is much more than this wistful reminiscence and the poem I am most reminded of is the first one Thomas wrote, ‘Up in the Wind’. John Freeman introduces a note of mundanity, a sense of exact recall in the portrait of his mother which rises to memory’s surface:

“Its fascination is unconnected
with my mother’s vigorous red arm
and its pointed funny bone, the funnier
for the spread thickness of the muscled flesh
surrounding it, resting on top of the gate.”

The publican’s daughter at The White Horse in Froxfield also possesses a physical sense of reality as

“Her eyes flashed up; she shook her hair away
From eyes and mouth, as if to shriek again;
Then sighed back to her scrubbing.”

The mother in Freeman’s poem is leaning on the gatepost talking with a reliable monotony and the poet’s recollection of a long-gone past has “nothing to do, I’m sure, with her voice, / going on and on, talking not to me, / luckily, but to a passing neighbour…”. In Thomas’s poem the daughter who draws the ale repeats what must have been told time and time again:

“…Here I was born,
And I’ve a notion on these windy nights
Here I shall die. Perhaps I want to die here.
I reckon I shall stay. But I do wish
The road was nearer and the wind farther off,
Or once now and then quite still”.

The words F.R. Leavis wrote some eighty-five years ago about the poetry of Edward Thomas hold true today and reading John Freeman’s quiet awareness of the importance of moments, glances, brush-strokes, I am reminded of them:

“A characteristic poem of his has the air of being a random jotting down of
chance impressions and sensations, the record of a moment of relaxed and
undirected consciousness. The diction and movement are those of quiet, ruminative speech. But the unobtrusive signs accumulate, and finally one is aware that the outward scene is accessory to an inner theatre.”

It is no mere chance that this book by John Freeman was awarded the Roland Matthias Poetry Award at the recent Wales Book of the Year Awards. I urge readers to contact Worple Press and get a copy NOW.

Ian Brinton, 12th December 2017

2 responses »

  1. Pingback: Recent reviews of What Possessed Me and The Tree Line | Worple Press

  2. Pingback: What Possessed Me by John Freeman | Worple Press

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