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The Small Henderson Room by John James (Ferry Press, 1969)

The Small Henderson Room by John James (Ferry Press, 1969)

A Paper given at the John James Conference, 11th March 2017

In his introduction to the Salt Reader for John James Simon Perril, referred to a ‘politics of poise’ in the poetry and to my mind this related closely to James’s wry sense of transience, his concern for the particular time and for a creative atmosphere. It is as if, in the words of the artist Peter Cartwright, “Two effects strike me as running through his poetry, in the form of an interaction of a consciousness of the visual with an acute flow of perceptions”. James came across the work of Peter Cartwright at the Survey ’67 exhibition of Abstract Painters at Camden Arts Centre which he and Andrew Crozier visited. It was there that he also came across the catalogue which included Cartwright’s comments upon his art:

“I am concerned with growth, movement and tension. Certain work is influenced not directly by, but by reaction to, natural forms and structures…I am aiming to establish a reality which will exist independently from myself. My intention is to make a vital tension between forms, to induce speculation, to create a relationship which is a synthesis between the formal and the unpredictable. Any references in my work are oblique and are references to mood.”

That statement found its way into the poem ‘Waiting’ which appeared in The Small Henderson Room published by Crozier’s Ferry Press in 1969 where the fifth section of that poem opens

“In a new blue room I rearrange
the mantelpiece, opening on it
the catalogue of the Survey ’67 Exhibition at Peter Cartwright’s
Three. Those anonymous forms wait, shakily
menacing to change shape, making
a new & unpredictable arrangement
of themselves.”

It was after seeing Cartwright’s work in the Camden gallery that James asked him to produce a cover for the Ferry Press publication and Cartwright later wrote about his surprise at seeing his own catalogue statement appearing in James’s poem prompting him to say a few words about ‘Waiting’:

“The poem moves through events and situations, producing the sensation of a shifting range of experience. It reveals in John’s work an integration of allusions to art, to living encounters and to language and the centrality of a range of phenomena in which the aesthetic experience is a potent and even a fundamentally social element…Two effects strike me as running through his poetry, in the form of an interaction of a consciousness of the visual with an acute flow of perceptions. I am aware in John’s poetry of a constant perceptive response to the tactile, to the nature of light, of physical presence and one’s own physical transience.”

He also made some comments upon the particular nature of that cover:

The Small Henderson Room was the last of the covers I made, and was designed with more concern for the curious and oblique relationship the cover would have to the work within. Did I receive a copy of the poems before designing the cover? At this distance I’m not sure but I think not. The cover was designed as an entity but with some intuitive response to the words The Small Henderson Room. The cover-work, a formal abstract image, was a response to the unknown nature of that ‘room’. My intention was to create a spatial ambiguity, tension and even a sense of unease.”

The illustration may well have been the last of the covers that Cartwright made but only by a month or two since he had also produced the cover for the last issue of the magazine The Resuscitator that John James and Nick Wayte had begun in Bristol in 1963. The last issue of that magazine appeared in February 1969 and Cartwright commented upon the way he had designed the cover pointing to the image of “a stark black formality on a white ground’ with the ‘embossed whiteness of the title” which “meant that no text was immediately visible. THE LAST RESUSCITATOR – the title’s ambiguity chimed with the need to physically tilt the book to decipher it”. The same is true of the Ferry Press book and both suggest to my mind something about the act of reading: the words are not simply visible, they need to be tilted to reveal the seemingly invisible.
The opening poem in The Small Henderson Room presents us with a world in which “we are aware of ourselves as persons with a / particular history”. It originally appeared the year before the Ferry Press publication in 2R2, Resuscitator Second Series and it opens ‘on the move’

“& so I open myself again as we wheel
down over Crickley, chivalrously high on our seats
you see across the gleaming generous screen
right to the Severn valley, tawny with the broad
spread of distant grain, & beyond
is where I’m going, where the mountains
put up their profiles & in the moister
air of that high altitude, the woods and valleys
will be deeply soft & made greenly
vivacious again”

When the poem appeared in the following year’s Ferry Press collection the opening lines had changed a little, perhaps to emphasise that sense of movement and the second published draft is what appeared in the Salt Collected Poems of 2002. The first line starts now much further towards the right margin and is heralded by three dots as if to suggest the continuance of a line of thought. Both the second and the fourth lines are closer to the left-hand margin giving the impression that the main body of the poem is indented. These small details are perhaps part of what Cartwright was referring to when he suggested that James’s poetry presented an interaction between a consciousness of the visual with an acute flow of perceptions. Or as Romana Huk put it when writing about the early poems there is a quality of repetitive artifice and voluptuous spontaneity. This is of course recognisable in ‘The Postcard Sonata’ which contains “40”, the collaborative sonnet written with Andrew Crozier which was to reappear in the 1970 Ferry Press publication IN ONE SIDE & OUT THE OTHER where it also joined forces with Tom Phillips: a writing over what has already been said. The second sonnet in ‘The Postcard Sonata’ is “for Andrew Crozier” and it contains a brief critical comment on Cartwright’s work:

admiring Peter Cartwright’s One Two Three
Four & Five all menacingly fluid but
precise, a relationship between the formal

& the unpredictable.

This quality that James noted about Cartwright’s work haunts his own poetry and Simon Perril noted that 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”. Noting the influence of Wordsworth on John James’s poetry Perril pointed out that “characteristically, this aesthetic moment of contemplation contains an element of rhapsody that compels the listener to ‘look up’ and take further notice of his environment.” In terms of the Conversation Poems of Wordsworth/Coleridge, shared walks, interests, focal moments there is a “communitarian sense of the lyric voice forged not in isolation but in the friction of relationships, friendships and reciprocal hopes and fears” It is as if the “we” is that path via which “I” am. That untitled opening poem from The Small Henderson Room proposes that: “In a mutual presence / catastrophe may be averted” and this thought is taken up in A Theory of Poetry published by Street Editions in 1977 where there is a reference to

“particular people at a particular time
& in a particular place
these people are the others
without whom you would not exist”

It is within that context that I wish to point out what will appear obvious to sensitive readers of the poetry of John James. His early work is in no sense a hearkening back to the pastoral nostalgia of the Georgian poets. In the first collection that Crozier published for Ferry Press, MMM… AH YES, 1967, there appears a poem ‘An Open Letter to Jim Workman, Landlord, at the Rose & Crown, Withy Mills, North Somerset’. The title itself gives a nod to Wordsworth and it celebrates the natural ability of a pub landlord to find ‘sustenance’ in his rootedness in “the earth your / feet press on”. Now what I mean by saying how different John James is to the Georgian ‘Nature’ poets who focused on geographical rural particularities can be seen when you look at a little piece written in 1910 by W.H. Davies, friend of Edward Thomas and known mostly for being the author of The Autobiography of a Supertramp and for possessing a wooden leg. The poem celebrates a particular pub in the Sevenoaks Weald named The Harvest Home. It is little more than a jolly record of a moment and, as of course might be expected, the pub no longer exists. Neither does the Rose and Crown at Withy Mills near Paulton in Somerset. And that’s where the similarity ends. Whereas Davies’s poem is locked into a particular moment of stasis, a diary note that could be added to a social history of the local area, James’s poem is ‘on the move’. It recreates the character and personality of Jim Workman through the landlord’s actions and advice. There is the local humour of characterisation contained in the recollections:

“& if I brought you a poem
what would you do with it?
what would your hawk’s nose,
your dry sniff, pulled down
corners of mouth,
mockery of Old Winsley,
scrounging his way, the way
you made him an iced birthday cake
of wood, set light to his hat

And there is the admiration of folk-lore knowledge that doffs its hat to Edward Thomas’s figure of Lob:

“the way you know the way
foxes kill young cuckoos
in long grass…

You showed me the
way to bud the
briars in June,
splicing with
raffia. Told me
dung burns the roots off
beans, to repair
the rung of a ladder with
pitchpine

But there is also that Wordsworthian title, the inclusion of words from Pound’s ‘L’Envoi’ from 1919, that recognition of the influence of Charles Tomlinson in “the fields / multiplying through / division by hedges”. The landlord, Jim Workman, finds “sustenance” in his natural rootedness “from the earth your / feet press on” and James’s poem echoes the short review he published in Resuscitator 4, May 1965, of Anselm Hollo’s here we go:

“In this and in other poems in this little book, Mr. Hollo presents the humdrum details of family life in such a way, with such choice and ironic juxtaposition, that escape is not only unrealistic but unnecessary. Such apparently trivial details – queuing for public transport, children asleep in their cots, undressing for bed – matter for Mr. Hollo and for all of us because without them we would not exist. Once they are accepted they become meaningful, a source of happiness and enlightenment. Such acceptance of the common place in literature is not new of course. One thinks of how central it was to the poetry of Wordsworth and to Ulysses; and it survives as an attitude in the poetry of Charles Tomlinson…”

The reference to Charles Tomlinson is important and his poem, ‘A Given Grace’, later published in American Scenes, is the opening moment of Resuscitator 1, Autumn 1963. It presents challenge and replenishment. A few months later Resuscitator 2 appeared and Tomlinson took his place alongside Zukofsky, Corman and Olson. In January 1968 the second series of Resuscitator was started from John James’s home in Trumpington High Street and the contributors included J.H. Prynne, Gill Vickers, Jeremy Mulford, Elaine Feinstein, Andrew Crozier, Nick Wayte, Wendy Mulford, John Hall and James himself. It is worth noting the dedication to that new magazine:

“This series of Resuscitator is dedicated to Charles Tomlinson with thanks for his generous help over the first series”.

IN ONE SIDE & OUT THE OTHER presents the reader with a writing over what has already been said and words push off the page through new designs. It is almost as if you need to tilt the book to see what lies beneath and I return to the influence of Charles Olson whose poem from January 1950, ‘These Days’ opens with the injunction to “leave the roots on” whatever it is that you have to say, “let them / dangle / And the dirt // Just to make clear where they come from”.
For John James ‘sustenance’, the ground on which your feet press, can be located in ‘The Conversation’, a poem he contributed to the last issue of Grosseteste Review in 1984 with its illustration on the front cover by Franco Beltrametti:

“to say nothing of you Jeremy when you leaf
your pages to that summer & and have before you
all we make of what we are when every day
gave some new sense of strengthening regard for common things
& all the land gave up a breath of gentler touch
but for the undertow of darkness
in the phones

And it is there in Songs In Midwinter For Franco published less than three years ago by Equipage here in Cambridge:

in tranquillity
is difficult simplicity

as ever the table set
not to forget

Ian Brinton 20th May 2018

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