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Give me your painting hand: W S Graham and Cornwall by David Whittaker (Wavestone Press)

Give me your painting hand: W S Graham and Cornwall by David Whittaker (Wavestone Press)

This beautifully designed book is an affectionate portrait of the poet, W.S. Graham’s life in or near Praa Sands, Carbis Bay, Mevagissey, Gunard’s Head, Zennor and Madron, Cornwall. Whittaker provides a broad impressionistic view of Graham’s life and career, makes excellent use of his correspondence, charts key publications in his poetics and poetry, and his connections with numerous artists in Fitzrovia and Cornwall. The monograph includes more than sixty photographs and portraits of Graham and others in Cornwall, includes his major poems on Cornish artists Alfred Wallis, Peter Lanyon, Roger Hilton and Bryan Winter, as well as a useful bibliography.

Early on Whittaker quotes a 1981 letter to Gavin Saunders, where Graham acknowledges that his early poems are as good as his later poetry ‘with their own particular energies’. Graham’s sense that his poetry was producing a meta-language with sound and vision uppermost has deep connections with Dylan Thomas and the neo-Romantic and modernist artists of the St. Ives community. The St. Ives connection might be said to be their joint concern with objects and process. There is the related sense that they are also variously concerned with self and place. The second is that to some extent they are mostly living and working as exiles. Although Whittaker does not make the first connection explicit or pursue deeper links, he certainly acknowledges the second. He sees Graham’s connection with artists beginning with his work on the translation of an essay on Paul Klee by Polish artist, Jankel Adler for Horizon magazine in 1942. Adler’s art, particularly his stylized faces, can be seen in the sketches and doodles that decorate Graham’s letters.

Graham first lived in gypsy caravans at some distance from the creative hubs of St. Ives working hard at his craft. From April 1945 Sven Berlin, a sculptor concerned with process, became an avid drinking partner and supplier of Benzedrine tablets, and commissioned a poem on Alfred Wallis for his Poetry London Editions book on the artist. The relationship between the two built around Wallis and the sea is clearly important to both figures. Graham used Berlin to get a copy of David Gascoyne’s Poems 1937-1942 and introduced him to Johnny Minton visiting from London, who in turn taught Berlin how to monotype. There was clearly a strong work ethic amongst the St. Ives community at this time, and the impact of Wallis as a fisherman and sailor resonated with both Graham. He was drawn to the process of journey and return, something that Wallis had done as part of his working life. Wallis’s paintings are significantly devoid of human figures. He was not painting his life as such. It is tempting to consider these early connections with the sea, its language and local idiolects, and ‘Unenglish’ landscape’ as the reason that Graham chose to settle permanently in Cornwall. This local material finds its way into his subsequent poetry.

Graham worked on his poetics ‘Notes on a Poetry of Release’ first published in Poetry Scotland in July 1946, which Whittaker quotes extensively from:

‘The most difficult thing for me to remember is that a poem is
made of words and not of the expanding heart, the overflowing
soul, or the sensitive observer. A poem is made of words. It is
words of a certain order, good or bad by the significance of its
addition to life …

Each word changes every time it is brought to life. Each single
word uttered twice becomes a new word each time. You cannot
twice bring the same word into sound …

The poem is more than the poet’s intention. The poet does not
write what he knows but what he does not know …’

About the poem, ‘The Nightfishing’, he wrote to Charles Causley that
‘Leonardo da Vinci has curious drawings in his notebooks of poured water and its currents and momentum and storms and driven tides and in a way I wanted to use those kinds of very physical phenomena in whatever real action was represented.’

Whittaker shows Graham living a materially meagre existence in remote Cornwall participating within a community of outsiders drawn to work individually on the edge of society. This community allowed access to intelligent explorers in the visual arts. Roger Hilton, for example, saw painting as a self-contained object with its own self-referential rules of coherence based on colour and form without external referents. Clearly Hilton’s approach has parallels with Graham’s poetics.

Whittaker delineates Graham’s friendships with successive generations of St. Ives artists, from Berlin, Ben Nicholson, Peter Lanyon, Bryan Winter through to Tony O’Malley and Bill Featherston and his various love affairs with Elizabeth Smart, Nancy Wynne-Jones, Ruth Hilton to produce a handy overview of the some of the important relationships in his life. Graham, who was not a loner, nevertheless appears as a lone figure, as distinct as his poetry. This is a useful celebration of W.S. Graham in Cornwall.

David Caddy 12th May 2016


Timeless Man: Sven Berlin by Sonia Aarons (Millersford Press)

Timeless Man: Sven Berlin by Sonia Aarons (Millersford Press)

The substantial biography of the sculptor, painter, writer and poet, Sven Berlin (1911-1999), records the whirlwind of a flamboyant, non-conformist, bohemian who upset the St Ives artistic community and paid a price for challenging their exploitative treatment of Alfred Wallis. Berlin was a self-taught artist and his erstwhile friends, Peter Lanyon, Ben Nicholson and Barbara Hepworth, used this against him. He was a key and integral part of the St Ives arts community, being particularly close to the critic and artist, Adrian Stokes, the poet, W.S. Graham, and painter, Terry Frost and sculptor Naum Gabo. He was a hard-living, Romantic figure more in the mould of Augustus John than some of his genteel contemporaries. His article on Wallis in Horizon magazine and subsequent book, Alfred Wallis: primitive, published by Poetry London in 1949, made him an outcast from the art establishment and he moved to live among the New Forest Gypsies, with his second wife, Juanita, who subsequently became a successful writer in her own right. His fantasy novel, The Dark Monarch (1962), based on caricatures of St Ives, exasperated matters and he retreated again to the Isle of Wight after it was banned. The novel received four libel actions, including one from his friend, the poet, Arthur Caddick. He finally moved near Wimborne Minster, with his third wife, where he found some degree of recognition in later life.

Aarons has amassed a considerable volume of information about Berlin’s diverse artwork and writings, his connections and fluctuating career in and out of the public eye. What emerges is a telling history of how a notable figure can be ostracised and fail to recover with the result that their many talents can be obscured by time. He only had one item in the 1984 Tate St Ives exhibition. He was exiled by the art world. Yet he was a significant figure during the Forties to both Adrian Stokes and W. S. Graham, with whom he was deeply connected. The exchange of letters between Graham and Berlin are featured in The Nightfisherman: Selected Letters (Carcanet, 1999). Malcolm Mackintosh, a friend of the editors, Michael and Margaret Snow, produced a limited edition of Berlin’s poem ‘Jock Grim’ dedicated to Graham. Berlin’s wartime letters to Stokes were used for a diary-like novel about warfare experiences, I Am Lazarus (1961). Berlin’s main artistic theme became an intuitive movement towards timelessness exploring the vagaries of creation and destruction with reference to diverse life forms and situations. His relief carving, The White Buck, (1958) captures the agonising moment when a stag is caught between life and death. His drawings and paintings focused upon harbour and forest life, fishermen, shipping, animals and labourers. His expressionistic use of colour imparted a mood of mythological intensity, and was at some distance from art market requirements in the Eighties.

Aarons shows that even when his sculptures, drawings and writings were not selling sufficiently to make ends meet, he was still lauded in the media by the likes of John Arlott, John Boorman, Lawrence Durrell, Roy Fuller, Robert Graves, Adrian Stokes, Tambimuttu, Denys Val Baker and Philip Ziegler. Despite being ignored by the art world, he was a regular figure on local and national television featured in documentaries and current affair programmes. We effectively have a rebellious figure unable to find buyers for his sculptures being kicked out into the long grass where he continues to create and write whilst being part of the New Forest Gypsy community. His writings on fishing, Jonah’s Dream (1964) are well anthologized. He also wrote extensively on the New Forest, published three volumes of autobiography, collections of poetry, and Pride of the Peacock – The Evolution of an Artist (1972). His knowledge of gypsy counter-culture emerged in his novel Dromengro: man of the road (1971), as was as in numerous film items.

Berlin’s exile in a way makes his art and writings more acute, more distinct in relation to the now world famous Nicholson and Hepworth. The Dark Monarch furore and split with the competitive St Ives art colony has rather obscured his fine sculptures, in particular the enigmatic, The Timeless Man, Madonna, Serene Head, as well his Creation pictures. He was close to Wallis, Stokes and W.S. Graham, and thus well worth discovering.

David Caddy 17th April 2016

I Heard It Through The Grapevine: Asa Benveniste & Trigram Press (Shearsman Books)

I Heard It Through The Grapevine: Asa Benveniste & Trigram Press (Shearsman Books)

As with the best contextual histories Jeremy Reed’s account of the Trigram Press and of Asa Benveniste’s poetry has a clear narrative quality to it. As readers we are drawn into the world of the ‘submerged cult’ which ‘takes as its resources a US-inflected tone’:

‘…an image-packed line as individual as any you’ll get in the blue transitioning air-miles of seventies trans-Atlantic poetry.’

Reed highlights for us the way in which Benveniste’s poetry ‘involves the real work of making language physical’ and he relates this most naturally to the poet’s acute awareness of the world of printing. The story of Trigram Press, based at 148 King’s Cross Road, London WC1 is told with an energy and sense of mystery that draws us in as we confront the mainstream British poetry of the post-1950s which Reed sees as ‘obdurately resistant to US experimentation via Black Mountain and the O’Hara / Ashbery bouncy New York influence’ which was feeding energies into the subcultures ‘like pop, sex, drugs, and the whole urban streetwise dynamic that was the signposting of modern life, and the breaking-up of formal poetics into edgier reconfigurated patterns.’

Towards the end of this lively little book we have a Trigram Press Bibliography and it is now possible to see how the world of Anselm Hollo and Tom Raworth moves towards an interest in George Barker and J.H. Prynne as At Thugarton Church is published in 1969 and Prynne’s News of Warring Clans appears in 1977 alongside two of Zukofsky’s “A” poems.

This volume contains a sequence of Jeremy Reed’s own poems about Asa Benveniste as well as the latter’s 1980 short essay ‘Language: Enemy, Pursuit’. In addition it contains Benveniste’s sequence Edge which appeared from Joe Di Maggio in 1975 and a further essay by Reed which is not a biography of Asa Benveniste and Trigram Press ‘but a personally selective mapping of significantly great aspects of both’. In the twenty pages of this section we read of Barry MacSweeney’s Odes, which ‘triggered a socially dissident and subversive thrust to the Trigram quota’, and how Ed Dorn recommended Benveniste to publish Prynne’s News of Warring Clans, ‘as a partial concession to the Cambridge curators of language-poetry’ which Benveniste preferred to call ‘wallpaper’.

One of the attractive elements of this book is the way Jeremy Reed talks about the importance of poetry as well as his own immense debt to this maverick man-in-black:

‘Even today I test what I write against his imagined approval or disapproval. If it isn’t weird enough then push it out further to the edge and saturate the image. Always write like you’re inventing tomorrow, that’s my reason for doing poetry, unlike mainstream poets who are frozen into a largely redundant past.’

Referring to Benveniste’s work as a publisher we are offered a picture of the late sixties which includes both Cape Goliard and Fulcrum Press. For my own money I would most certainly add Ferry Press to this list. After all, Andrew Crozier’s early productions made significant attempts to bridge that pond between the US and little England when he published Fielding Dawson and Stephen Jonas along with John James, Jeremy Prynne and Chris Torrance. In 1966 Ferry Press was responsible for Jonas’s Transmutations with its drawings by Black Mountain artist Basil King and introduction by John Wieners.

Perhaps I should conclude this short review by quoting from one of the many delights to be found in this short book:

Statement from Trigram 1969 catalogue

‘The writers and artists whose books have been published under the Trigram imprint appear to work in acute conditions of exile, living and thinking on the edges of society, some outside their own countries, others within, hallucinated by a series of mental doorways. In common, they have striven for an individual voice that in any circumstance has to be heard. No artist can do more or should do any less than that.’

Ian Brinton 4th March 2016


Rebels, Beats And Poets by Jim Burns (Penniless Press Publications, 2015)

Rebels, Beats And Poets by Jim Burns (Penniless Press Publications, 2015)

This sixth collection of informative essays and reviews showcasing Jim Burns’ encyclopedic knowledge of twentieth century bohemianism contains thoughtful insights into the current scene and is by no means set in the past.

His first substantial point is that literary criticism by highlighting a few writers and poets from the Fifties and early Sixties overlook the wider social and cultural circumstances and sheer excitement of the period through an excess of analysis. Burns opens out the artificial boundaries and distinct categories of official criticism to reveal a more confused, floating world of writers and poets, little magazines, small presses and the ephemera of bohemia. Here we glimpse through essays on political rebels, beats, jazz musicians, poets, writers, filmmakers, artists and photographers a somewhat looser field of connection and relationship as well as a deep enthusiasm to move forward to a better place. Underlining this is the contention that minor figures may well yield as much social, cultural and literary insight as some of the major figures. Burns is quite clear in understanding that, for example William Burroughs, whilst linked with Allen Ginsberg through friendship, is clearly drawing upon very different sources and techniques. His essay on Cities Of The Red Night portrays Burroughs as a moralist with the power to shock, provoke and disturb, employing humour, visual effects and shifting action from within the American tradition of outlaws and pirates.

His second provocation concerns the role of the little magazine. He echoes Samuel Beckett’s publisher, John Calder’s point that the Fifties sowed the seeds that sprouted in the much vaunted Sixties, and examines the world of Merlin, a short-lived little magazine in the Parisian bohemian world of the Fifties, which drew attention to Beckett’s writing. Merlin subsequently spawned a publishing house, which published editions of Watt and Molloy. In the essay, ‘What Will You Read Tomorrow?’ he laments the passing of the ‘alternative’ bookshops, which grew out of Sixties unrest and offered reading matter far removed from the big publishers and distributors. Given the decline of the independent and second hand bookshops, the narrowing range of Waterstones and Borders, and the fact that the Internet cannot always supply writing that is beyond the ordinary and fashionable, Burns sees a vital role for the little magazine as an outlet and resource. He writes:

And it seems to me that little magazines, for all their problems,
are a way of providing us with a system of exchanging ideas and information about the overlooked and the unusual. Isaac Rosenfeld once said of little magazines that they were outlets for ‘a small but vigorous and very vital, active and conscious group which knew fairly well the sort of thing it stood for even if it had no specific programme and whether or not it had any political allegiance.’ He also
said that one of the characteristics of a conservative age is ‘the shrinkage of extremes’ and he added: ‘I am used to thinking, because of my upbringing, of the writer standing at one extreme from society; I mean, of course, the serious writer, the conscious writer, then, as a man who stands at a certain extreme, at a certain remove from society.’
He asserts that the little magazine could provide the variety missing elsewhere, and the reassurance that there are other dissidents who don’t believe the big publishers and mass markets can supply everything that the imagination needs to keep it alive and alert to the world.

His essay on David Gascoyne’s life reminds the reader of the importance of the Parton Street Bookshop in Bloomsbury as a gathering place for young poets and their readers. It was there that Gascoyne met George Barker, Norman Cameron, Geoffrey Grigson, Roger Roughton and others, as well as where he bought imported surrealist publications. From there he would walk to Zwemmers Bookshop in Charing Cross Road to chat with Ruthven Todd and compare their imported stock. The key is that Gascoyne had a range of places to increase his reading and knowledge.

There are other fascinating essays on a range of subjects from the Paris-Amsterdam underground, Surrealistic Prague, to Henry Miller, B. Traven, and the Edward Dorn / LeRoi Jones correspondence, as well as the extensive Beat Scene interview with Burns by Kevin Ring from Spring 2014. This compelling volume of essays is a joy to read and contains much information and material that is hard to find.

David Caddy 13th April 2015


Openings, A European Journal by Jeremy Hooker (Shearsman), Silent Conversations, a reader’s life by Anthony Rudolf (Seagull Books)

Openings, A European Journal  by Jeremy Hooker (Shearsman), Silent Conversations, a reader’s life  by Anthony Rudolf (Seagull Books)

I have recently been reading two fascinatingly different accounts of a personal life, a life lived with intensity and passion. Anthony Rudolf’s examination of his collection of books and papers, an extensive and serious library which must be the envy of all bibliophiles interested in Modernsim, owes much to Walter Benjamin’s essay ‘Unpacking My Library’ (Illuminations). It also raises the ghost of Marcel Proust:

‘Moving indoors, Proust plays the ‘proprietor in a room filled to overflowing with the souls of others and which preserves the imprint of their dreams…’ As a proprietor myself, I intend to begin sorting out the books in my sitting room.’

Anthony Rudolf’s account of his library is a personal document and the importance of this reckoning-up is emphasised from the very start:

‘Now that I am approaching seventy, when I am supposed to have put aside childish things, the experience of literary time and its double, literary space, remains a major consolation.’

Throughout the five hundred or so pages we see history come to life as Rudolf comes across book after book on his shelves, under the desk, in a pile on the floor; each one has its own provenance; each one reminds both writer and then reader that these documents were written by real poets, travel-writers, translators, philosophers. This ‘silent conversation’ is the reflection of a collector, a person who seeks in Walter Benjamin’s words ‘to renew the old world’; and this collector gives us the history of the acquisition of his books so that the names and faces of those now gone appear again in front of us.
Jeremy Hooker’s journal reminds me more of Edward Thomas’s first book, The Woodland Life. It is also more immediately personal as we are presented with autobiography and the world of poetry weaving in and out of each other:

‘21 April 1983
After the Poetry Festival at Cambridge from Thursday evening until Monday night.
Mieke—how aware of each other we were at once, how easily and naturally we talked and touched. We stayed up alone together all night on Saturday, at Göran Printz-Påhlson’s, talking and making love. I walked back across Cambridge to Glen Cavaliero’s on a grey, wet morning, streets almost empty, birds singing loudly and sweetly in gardens. Went to bed at 8 and slept on and off until 1, waking to the strange sensation against my neck of the tiny silver dolphin on a chain which she had given me, and the questions often in my mind since then—Is it true? Is it possible? Can we be so suddenly in love?’

Anthony Rudolf’s book is almost like an encyclopaedia and I found myself wishing that there had been an index at the back so that I could quickly make reference to names that appear in different sections. I also found myself just questioning slightly the accuracy of all the information given when I read the comments about Andrew Crozier:

I always respected and admired him, though it took a while before I appreciated what a treasure he was. His widow Jean sent me Star Ground, a finely produced posthumous pamphlet containing three unpublished poems, one of which is the poignant and beautiful title poem dedicated to her and ending: ‘Frost heaves all night / To rise like waves / Spent on the margin / On the enduring /Particular resistance of our love.’ These are plainly the last words of a man who knows that his brain tumour is going to kill him, perhaps soon, as it did.

That little pamphlet, Star Ground, was in fact a republication of Crozier’s highly acclaimed poem from the 1970s, ‘The Veil Poem’ alongside the last major sequence he wrote, ‘Free Running Bitch’, published in Iain Sinclair’s 1996 anthology Conductors of Chaos. The title poem is a one-page, last-page, conclusion to the Silver Hounds chapbook.
Perhaps by virtue of being a diary, a journal, Jeremy Hooker’s Openings is much more readable to my mind and I became bound up in a chronological movement of reflections in which a lover, the author’s children, parents and geography weaved in and out of each other’s lives:

Did I expect to be as “free” as Sue says she is, and to grieve no longer? I must learn to watch these feelings pass. And to love the children less selfishly.
A love like M’s that draws me out…I’ve so much to learn, so much to unlearn.

Ian Brinton 11th August 2014


George Herbert’s Music At Midnight

George Herbert’s Music At Midnight

John Drury’s Music At Midnight: The Life and Poetry of George Herbert (Allen Lane 2013) is an excellent addition to Herbert studies. Colour plates, integrated illustrations and maps of the places in Herbert’s life, lavishly augment the book, which is the result of extensive immersion in the life and its world.


Unlike Herbert’s contemporary, John Donne, there has been no new biography since Amy Charles’ A Life of George Herbert in 1977.  There is a lack of documentation of Herbert’s short life, the last four years of which were spent as rector of Bemerton with Fugglestone, just outside Salisbury, midway between Wilton House and the Cathedral. The Wilton House, home of the earls of Pembroke, archive now at Trowbridge Library, is sadly depleted of references to Mary, Countess of Pembroke and her poetic school, which attracted Spenser and Drayton, let alone Shakespeare who may have performed As You Like It there in 1605, and Herbert. Of the earliest biographies, Izaak Walton’s was no more than fifty pages of notes, published in 1670, and, John Aubrey’s, also written decades after Herbert’s death, is unreliable in terms of historical accuracy. From scanty information, Drury weaves the known details of Herbert’s life into its cultural world and his poetry, which existed only in manuscript form until The Temple appeared in 1633 after Herbert’s death.


Drury centres his understanding of the poetry in the movement towards, ‘Love III’, the pivotal poem in Herbert’s oeuvre,  ‘Love bade me welcome: but my soul drew back/ Guilty of dust and sin’ exploring the inherent conflict in the life towards the final realization that God wishes man to return to pure love as a token of his non-conditional love, as being ‘saturated in the conditions of life in seventeenth England’. Herbert is shown as a man torn between worldly ambition and the spiritual life of love recording his inner journey through the anguishes of grief, disappointment, hope, despair, anger and longing in his poetry.


Drury is good in setting out the relationship between poetry and music, the state of the Church of England, impact of the King James Bible, Herbert’s family and educational connections to poetry and music, the ways that words were enunciated during Herbert’s life and the way Herbert’s poems breathe. I love the dramatic and musical nature of Herbert’s poetry, their plain speech, which draw the reader deeply into their conflicted world, and have walked the terrain of his final years between Bemerton and the Cathedral many times. St. Andrew’s Church at Bemerton, which has a literary heritage after Herbert, is tiny; a holy enclave now surrounded by roads, with a distinct atmosphere. It is well worth visiting for a compact sense of Herbert prostrate across the floor before the altar. It seems to hold the drama of Herbert’s poetry intact. The old rectory, a few steps away, is now a private house. The water meadows, with their irrigation system of channels, ditches and sluice gates, between Fisherton and Harnham mills, from where John Constable painted the Cathedral views, are still functioning and recently flooded in much the same way as in Herbert’s time. Drury is good at showing how experience of the waterways, intensive sheep farming, entered Herbert’s poetry in the form of metaphor. The winter soaking of the meadows provided good sheep grazing in the spring. ‘Sheep eat the grass and dung the ground for more’ as Herbert noted in the poem, ‘Providence’. Drury is good at reading less well-known poems in relation to Herbert’s understanding of music’s role and function, and the music of Dowland and Byrd, which Herbert would have encountered inside and outside of Salisbury Cathedral.


Drury offers close, informed readings of most of the poems as well as adding flesh to the outlines of Herbert’s life, his handsome bona roba wife, Jane Danvers, and connections. It is a fine book.


David Caddy 9th March 2014



‘the clink of the stonemason’s chisel’

‘the clink of the stonemason’s chisel’

A Strong Song Tows Us, The Life of Basil Bunting, by Richard Burton (Infinite Ideas)


This is an astonishingly individual, direct and engaging biography of one of the most important poets of the twentieth-century; it possesses that hallmark of the serious work, a sense that it really matters to the writer. As Richard Burton takes us through his reasons behind committing the past three years to this work he opens up a picture of a landscape, Bunting’s autobiographical poem Briggflatts, ‘as the spine of this life’:


‘Bunting’s poem acts as the Pennine Chain of this book, holding its landscape together on the one hand and, I hope, providing vistas that help us see the hinterland of Bunting’s work.’


This is not a review of Burton’s biography but merely a sign posting readers towards the review which will appear in Tears in the Fence 59. That said, let the difficulty of the biographer’s task remain uppermost in the mind as one reads Bunting’s response to Faber’s Editorial Director when asked for an endorsement which could be used as blurb for the cover of the Collected Early Poems of Ezra Pound:


Thank you for sending me the book. It makes me shudder. No doubt it is fitting that maggots consume us in the end, or at least the rubbish we scatter as we go; but I’d rather leave the lid on my dustbin and the earth on my friends’ graves. Piety takes curious forms: the toenail clippings of Saint What’s His Name are revered. I don’t think religion is much advanced by that. It would be more profitable, more to his glory, to throw away some of the poems Pound printed than to print those he threw away himself. I apologise for my lack of sympathy for the industrious compilers.


Ian Brinton January 17th 2014

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