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Category Archives: Criticism

Nothing Is Being Suppressed: British Poetry of the 1970s by Andrew Duncan (Shearsman Books)

Nothing Is Being Suppressed: British Poetry of the 1970s by Andrew Duncan (Shearsman Books)

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: I am glad Andrew Duncan has written his books about 20th century poetry, but I wish he’d do some proper research, reference material, and not be so opinionated (or at least use critical material to back up his arguments). But at least he is paying attention to what went on in the world of poetry (or parts of it), this time in 1970s Britain, the decade when I first encountered and paid attention to small presses and alternative bookshops, though in my case it was a weird mix of Brian Patten, Adrian Mitchell, Ted Hughes, Ken Smith and Julian Beck alongside T.S. Eliot and the WW1 poets I was studying at the time in school. For me though, postpunk and improvised music was in the mix, as well as experimental theatre and radical politics – and I wish poetry was sometimes considered in relation to what else was going on at the time.

There are, it has to be said, some great sections in this book, and it does feel like the most shaped and edited of Duncan’s critical volumes. That doesn’t of course, mean there isn’t his normal conjecture, assumption and generalisations, sometimes made using scant evidence. In fact the first chapter of Nothing is being suppressed is called ‘Generalisations about the Seventies’ which, despite my scepticism, is an intelligent series of statements ‘designed not to be controversial’ but ‘placed as the front as a basis’, a kind of foundation for what follows. It works well, even if one feels one can’t argue back to what is being presented as a given here.

Duncan it at his best when he writes at length about a subject, so chapter such as ‘Speaking Volumes’, a weirdly selective summary of what books were published when, and his quick dips into Conceptual Art and Visual Poetry are less successful. Yes, Michael Gibbs and John Powell Ward are good examples of the latter, but one can’t help feeling that Duncan is regurgitating information gathered up in a recent Uniform Books edition on the former, and that other visual poetry by the likes of Bob Cobbing also deserve attention.

Chapters on ‘Psychedelic Coding’ and ‘Post-western’ (not cowboys but Western society seen through fringe science, home and landscape: a good example of wider contextualisation) are better, if brief, whilst elsewhere Duncan seems to want to elevate a few selected names. There’s a whole chapter on Colin Simms and his poems of American experience, whilst the oddly titled chapter ‘The Bloodshed, the Shaking House‘ creates a kind of alternative history, or ‘folklore’, where ‘Martin Thom and Brian Marley are remembered as the supreme moments of the Seventies, the excelling goals for journeys to bring the dace back to life.’ Their work is interesting but one gets the feeling of a desperate attempt at literary mouth-to-mouth resuscitation long after the corpse has gone cold.

Elsewhere, another strangely titled chapter, ‘The Geothermal Turret: News of Warring Clans‘, turns out to be an erudite and considered critique of Prynne’s work; in fact one of the most lucid discussions of his poetry I’ve read. It’s a highlight of the book, along with chapters on Iain Sinclair, Allen Fisher (though I think this is mostly drawn from Duncan’s book of interviews with him – apologies if this is wrong), and a discussion about ‘Who Owns the Future?’, where Duncan questions the critical elevation of Ken Smith and Basil Bunting. This is mostly intelligent and well-reasoned, although I fail to see why Smith’s marvellous Fox Running prompts Duncan to ask ‘Why doesn’t Smith describe feelings?’ Because the reader can work them out from the events and description in the text; they don’t need to be explicit!

In a strange example of synchronicity, I’d been rereading and listening to Briggflatts before my copy of the book arrived. I can understand Duncan’s suspicions about the imposition of a new canon or hierarchy but it seems to me that there are obvious answers to be had. Ken Smith was one of two Bloodaxe authors who the publisher managed to get high profile publicity for: in Smith’s case this was mostly the result of him being writer-in-residence at Wormwood Scrubs prison. Bunting was very much a neglected modernist, and – as Duncan I’m sure knows – was reintroduced to the poetry world by Tom Pickard, at a time when modernism was being reconsidered, and ‘poetry of the North’, ideas of place and locale, as well as dialect and excluded voices, were in vogue. That doesn’t mean I don’t rate both these poets and texts highly, it’s just the way things happened. I for one am glad that both Fox Running and Briggflatts remain in print and continue to attract readers.

Strangely, neither of these texts get a mention in the other fantastic chapter, where Duncan considers ‘the Long Poem of the 1970s’ by discussing the long poems, plural, of the era. Duncan makes a strong case for them being ‘a feature of the 1970s’, offers up a lengthy but selective reading list, and then offers brief comments on a strange selection of these, often ­ missing out texts I’m not alone in thinking important, e.g Ted Hughes’ Crow. Perhaps Duncan feels enough words and time have been spent analysing the more famous poems he names, perhaps he is attempting to be inclusive, write about his favourites, or draw attention to neglected work? There’s also, of course, the possibility that what he writes about had more of a presence at the time, although I’m not convinced.

Whilst it’s good to see long poems or sequences by W.S. Graham, David Jones (a bit of a shoe-in), Harry Guest, (An)Tony Lopez, Allen Fisher, and Andrew Crozier included, I’m far less interested in the work of Jeremy Reed, Ian Crichton Smith and George Macbeth (who Duncan disses anyway). There’s an interesting conclusion to the chapter, noting the practical and financial difficulties of publishing long poems in magazines, proposing that long poems were ‘a line of advance’, and suggesting that 

‘The starting point for these poems is questions which are rather older and which were often put by readers of poetry. The questions where, what is your moral and theological vision? And what is your political commitment and system? The long poems connect to the questions but don’t answer them […]’

I’m not convinced, although Duncan is astute in realising that long poems were often written due to ‘internal exile, a rejection of the values of the news media and of what political and cultural authorities were saying.’ He also notes that ‘rejection could either be from the Right of the Left and was certainly more to do with the failure of authority than with dislike of their success.’

He mentions Judith Kazantzis here, someone whose work I certainly feel is neglected, but mostly adheres to the binary notion of ‘mainstream poets like Thwaite, Hooker, Wain, Hill, Humphreys’ (despite recognizing that their work is ‘similar to the alternative poetry’) in opposition to ‘the Underground’, cynically suggesting that ‘[t]here was an alternative everything‘ and that in the end ‘[t]he unavoidable questions of the mid-70s were resolved by a wide-spectrum surrender to the power of capital’ and that ‘[a]lternatives became less fascinating.’

Yes, but… Resolved or defeated? Isn’t there a difference? And what about new innovative and experimental poetries that emerged despite the collapse of the so-called Underground? Just as small publishers found new ways to sell their books after the collapse of alternative bookshops, just as society changed and adapted after the end of the 60s utopian dream, poets found new audiences, new forms, new media, new ways of publishing, new ways to write. In his ‘Afterword’, Duncan offers a different picture, accepting that ‘you can see the Underground as a river that breaks up into dozens of shallow streams and finally runs into the sand.’ I’m a cynic at heart, but this seems simplistic and negative, reductionist even. I’m interested in some of those streams, and believe that some find routes to other lakes and oceans.

I can’t help feeling that Duncan sometimes strays too close to the mainstream, focussing on published books, whilst choosing to stay away from performance poetry (where are John Cooper Clarke and Attila the Stockbroker in Duncan’s 1970s?), theatre or stand-up. Maybe even song lyrics (Howard Devoto anyone?), let alone the freeform improvisations of Julie Tippets and Maggie Nichols at the London Musicians Collective which might be considered as sound poetry? And where is Michael Horovitz? Surely he at least deserves a mention?

No, nothing is being suppressed, least of all by Andrew Duncan. There’s no conspiracy, but I want a bigger, different picture. I know  that part of this is to do with taste (it always is), but I can’t help feeling Duncan doesn’t quite play his cards straight here: is this a survey, a critical book, or Andrew Duncan’s extended desert island books? How critically detached or emotionally invested is he? ‘There is grey sludge underneath consciousness’, he declaims in his discussion of liminality and the sublime, a sludge Duncan thankfully keeps well away from, preferring to stay in the sludge-free thinking zone.

In the end, the ‘Afterword’ lets Duncan cover his tracks. He notes that the defeat of Jeremy Corbyn in 2019 has added another layer to his and our perception of radicalism, and altered the underlying thesis of how he began this book, and acknowledges that ‘[t]here is a whole world of alternative poets today’, at the same time giving a nod to visual arts and literary theorists. He concludes by answering some of my questions, stating that he wanted ‘to rescue things that have never been written down and which are threatened with forgetfulness and decay’, and declaring that he is ‘describing what people said and wrote in the 1970s’ whilst flagging up the problem with setting aside ‘what people in 2020 [and presumably 2022] think about the time and what selective memory processes have been set in motion to cover up deception.’ If he almost undermines the whole project with his jibe that ‘any kind of marketing is better than total oblivion’, he then recovers enough for an upbeat ending, where despite ‘discontinuity’ there is ‘a whole theme park of abandoned poetic projects’ to explore. I can’t see how Duncan can dissociate himself from contemporary poetry and thought, but once again he has produced an intelligent, provocative and sometimes annoying volume.

Rupert Loydell 31st March 2022

Tears in the Fence 75 is out!

Tears in the Fence 75 is out!

Tears in the Fence 75 is now available at https://tearsinthefence.com/pay-it-forward and features poetry, prose poetry, translations, fiction, flash fiction and creative nonfiction by Mandy Pannett, Greg Bright, Penny Hope, David Sahner, Stephen Paul Wren, Alexandra Fössinger, Mark Russell, Maurice Scully, Gavin Selerie, Mandy Haggith, Lynne Cameron, Sarah Watkinson, Jeremy Hilton, Gerald Killingworth, Lesley Burt, Nic Stringer, Sam Wilson-Fletcher, Lilian Pizzichini, Paul Kareem Tayyar, Beth Davyson, Rethabile Masilo, Tracy Turley, Olivia Tuck, Elisabeth Bletsoe & Chris Torrance’s Thirteen Moon Renga, Wei Congyi Translated by Kevin Nolan, Basil King, Robert Sheppard, Lucy Ingrams, John Freeman, Mélisande Fitzsimons, Deborah Harvey, David Harmer, David Ball, Rupert M. Loydell, Jeremy Reed, Alexandra Corrin-Tachibana, Sian Thomas, Chaucer Cameron, Huw Gwynn-Jones and Simon Collings.

The critical section consists of editorial, essays, articles and critical reviews by David Caddy, Elisabeth Bletsoe Remembering Chris Torrance, Jeremy Reed on The Letters of Thom Gunn, Simon Collings’ ecocritical perspective of Rae Armantrout, Isobel Armstrong on Peter Larkin, Barbara Bridger on Barbara Guest, Andrew Duncan on Elisabeth Bletsoe & Portland Tryptich, Frances Presley on Harriet Tarlo,  Simon Jenner on Geoffrey Hill, Steve Spence on Sarah Crewe, Mandy Pannett on Charles Wilkinson, Clark Allison on Ken Edwards, Guy Russell on Paul Vangelisti, Norman Jope on Ariana Reines, Lyndon Davies on Elena Rivera and Scott Thurston, Harriet Tarlo on Carol Watts, Morag Kiziewicz’s Electric Blue 10 and Notes On Contributors.

A Forest On Many Stems edited by Laynie Browne (Nightboat Books)

A Forest On Many Stems edited by Laynie Browne (Nightboat Books)

This massive book (580 pages) is a collection of ‘essays on the poet’s novel’, which takes a look at contemporaneous and (mostly 20th Century) historical prose works written by poets. Most are written by poets, so we have an anthology of poet’s critical prose about other poets’ fiction.

I can’t pretend I know all of the critics or the authors and texts under discussion; even the many names I do know, I often haven’t read the works being considered. Yet these essays are open, inclusive and discursive enough to not only encourage me to find and read many of these works, but also to offer themselves as both experimental writing and as informed and more generalised contextualisation and discussion.

That is these essays are informed by and embedded within a sense of poetry and its playfulness, liquidity and experiment, with a particular focus on the works poets have chosen to produce as ‘novels’. Not prose poetry, but novels: fictional prose, although the book starts with a brief section on the ‘Verse Novel’ where texts by Lyn Hejinian, Anne Carson and Alice Notley are discussed and the fourth section includes ‘Prose Poem’ as part of its more elongated title.

Others of the seven sections are more intriguing and open to interpretation: ‘Genre Mash-Ups’, considers work by Barbara Guest, Gwendolyn Brooks and Gertrude Stein and others; ‘Metamorphic / Distance / Aural Address / Wandering’ could perhaps include anything, but its selection of author subjects includes Sebald, Pessoam Lewis Carroll and Leslie Scapalino; whilst Langston Hughes, Michael Ondaatje and Keith Waldrop are amongst those who feature in ‘Portrait / Documentary / Representation / Palimpsest’.

Some questions re-occur – usually with different answers. Why would a poet adopt prose? How does prose differ from poetry?  (‘Why does a poet choose another language to write a novel?’ asks Vincent Broqua.) Do we read poets’ novels with different expectations? What about narrative, authenticity, plot and momentum? Interiority and lyricism? And what genre is the poet’s novel?

Abigail Lang, writing about ‘Jacques Roubard’s poets’ prose, gets to the heart of the matter for me, suggesting that ‘[i]f poetry and prose are maintained as distinct, they can enter into a productive conversation’. Whether engaged in close reading, philosophical discussion, literary discourse or theoretical deconstruction, this book articulates and extends that conversation. It is a challenging, focussed and exciting read.

Rupert Loydell 28th January 2022

Infrathin by Marjorie Perloff (University of Chicago Press)

Infrathin by Marjorie Perloff (University of Chicago Press)

Marjorie Perloff continues to write theoretical and critical books that are both perceptive and highly readable. Infrathin, her most recent, takes its title from Duchamp’s idea that things (and words) that are seemingly the same are always different, even if that difference is ‘ultrathin’. Perloff takes this as the basis and working method for her seven chapters, although there is also a lot of close reading.

Perloff, it has to be said, had me worried at first, as she talked about discussing the context of poetry rather than focussing on the texts themselves, but this ‘context’ is what I would think of as intertextuality, that is how work relates to other work: of the time, previously as influence, and how it has affected poetry since. Some of this ‘context’ (if we stick with Perloff’s term) produces some surprising groupings and discussion.

She starts with a chapter considering ultrathin in relation to Gertrude Stein’s playful experiments, as well as her writerly relationship to Duchamp. Chapter 2 is where the surprises start to happen, where Perloff undertakes a superb analysis of the textual musicality, structure and effect of T.S. Eliot’s ‘Little Gidding’, and then makes an unexpected but coherent case for Eliot as a forerunner to concrete poetry, such as that produced by Ian Hamilton Finlay.

Perloff then pans out to consider how Ezra Pound uses the page, or invents a specific kind of page, for his Cantos. Her close reading here includes the visual element as well as the text, noting the differences, as Pound did not read aloud the ideograms and other visual components of his sequences. Charles Olson and Zukofsky get short shrift in relation to the complexities and structure of the Cantos, Perloff preferring to consider Brazilian concrete poets such as Augusto de Campos.

Next up is a fascinating discussion of Susan Howe’s Quarry in relation to Wallace Steven’s Rock, titled ‘Word Frequencies and Zero Zones’. This consideration of repetition, slippage and what is left unsaid is astonishingly original, unlike the next chapter which considers the work of John Ashbery, Charles Bernstein and Rae Armantrout. It feels slightly expected and a revisiting of some of Perloff’s previous work.

The book ends with a detailed chapter about ‘Poeticity’ in Samuel Beckett’s work, followed by another featuring Beckett, but this time considering how he came to engage with and be influenced by the poetry of Yeats, with an overarching theme of ‘The Paragrammatic Potential of “Traditional” Verse’.

If at times this book feels like the seven conference papers or essays they previously were, reworked into chapters, and if at times Perloff makes some rather personal, associative and conjectural leaps when undertaking her poetic deconstructions, it can be forgiven in the light of surprise, intelligence and originality. I haven’t enjoyed a serious and challenging critical book like this for a long time.

Rupert Loydell 11th December 2021

Within the Inscribed: Selected Prose and Conversations by Michael Heller (Shearsman Books)

Within the Inscribed: Selected Prose and Conversations by Michael Heller (Shearsman Books)

This is, it must be said, a deeply intelligent and thoughtful book, of what are interviews and essays. This comes very late for Michael Heller (b1937) who has already behind him a copious collected poems This Constellation is a Name and a number of significant prose volumes, including a much admired study of the Objectivist poets Conviction’s Net of Branches (1985)This comes some years after a significant volume from Salt, Uncertain Poetries (2005). There are insights to be gleaned here not only on Heller’s writing but on poetics and practice more generally.

A full appreciation of what is going on here might very well spur further essays. So in that sense this short review is bound to seem a little superficial. The book is in three parts, one more general, one geared to specific readings and a concluding ‘Coda’ of just three articles. 

It is doubtless relevant and pertinent to note that Heller’s predominant influences have been George Oppen and Walter Benjamin, with whose work he has sustained a lasting relation (p117) and there was an Oppen correspondence. The book, regrettably, has no index but there is a bibliography of works cited, some six pages.

There is almost an unspelled out theory of poetic composition here, almost an ars poetica, but it is not stressed or emphasised, and we have reference to such notions as revelation and clarity, as well as the void, which language might ‘cover’ with some nods to Heidegger, in ‘revealments and concealments’ (p189). This is plainly not far from the notion of authenticity if not exactness. There is also Heller’s late encounter with Buddhism, something he shares for instance with Ginsberg. The notion of ‘now time’ is also picked up from Benjamin.

The book itself has a wonderfully perplexing epigraph from critic Geoffrey Hartman,- ‘the sacred has so inscribed itself in language that while it must be interpreted, it cannot be removed’. This suggests of course that interpretation can be a kind of usurpation or adaptation. Yet this intrinsic core of the sacred remains, although Heller, to his credit, does not harp on about this.

So in that sense, the first part is about poetics generally, and the second offers specific readings, of Oppen, another leading Objectivist Reznikoff, HD (her ‘Helen in Egypt’), Robert Duncan and Norman Finkelstein. Memorably Duncan asserts that he is waging poetry, not war. There does seem also to be an awareness of Harold Bloom’s notion of the literary agon. For Heller his engagement with Oppen seems to have been quite critical. Heller’s implication in secular Judaism cannot equally be discounted. 

For better or worse, Heller’s main engagement has been with the Objectivists and of course also Benjamin. He writes insightfully also about Pound and HD. Olson is mentioned only briefly, and there is certainly an awareness of Whitman as well as Ginsberg. Also the Oppen connection in which Heller was imbricated was personal. Heller may be very interested in the methodology of poetry but he is not trying particularly to sketch out any larger historical development.

Poetry as Heller asserts is ‘an articulation of that which was inarticulate’ (p45). He then discusses the ‘desanctification’ of Whitman and how this must be ‘re-examined in the light of present circumstances’, before going on to discuss some Buddhist possible extrapolations, whose foremost exponent might be Ginsberg. Buddhism, especially Tibetan Buddhism, might be seen to be reaching out to the West, in a way for instance that Hinduism does not.

And there is more besides;- Heller is very aware of Judaic thought for instance, and how this must relate to contemporary poetics. He speaks of a tendency to ‘turn the Torah of Israel from a source of authority to a source for inspiration’ (p59), of converting Law into lore. One might cover ‘the underlying void and expose it at the same time’ (p61). This he says leads to Oppen’s ‘speaking the estranged’. (p62) Citing the poet Bialik he asserts ‘between concealments, the void looms’ (p64); and he continues that ‘between a perfunctory use of language and a language of the mysteries’ ‘are at the heart of the sacred text’ (p65). 

There is an interesting engagement with Leiris, where we find commentary on ‘the refusals of the confessional writer to indulge’ in a more palatable artifice (p73), described in terms of ‘adherence to the rules of the game’. And, actually this is a signal characteristic of Oppen and the Objectivists that they tend to be disinclined towards confessionalism, introspection and subjectivity which are then bound up with purported solipsism or narcissism. 

Given that, the presentation of lyricism here is penetrating and thorough, as well as effectively honed. There is of course nary a hint of Lowell, say, and one feels that this is a work of communal engagement, not the solitary or personal insight. Given that, the sophistication of argument is high, and just about all the poets cited well worth the attention and effort. I would maintain then that this is criticism and comment of a high degree. But of course Heller is not discussing the ‘New Americans’ but the ‘Objectivists’ and their legacy. Yet given this process of constraint there is much here to stir a quite delving creative interest if not some soul searching.  

Clark Allison 10th October 2021

Lyric In Its Times by John Wilkinson (Bloomsbury)

Lyric In Its Times by John Wilkinson (Bloomsbury)

First off, I think this is a good book to argue, feel and think against. There are some highly perceptive close readings here of the likes of O’Hara, Graham and Guest. What’s missing is any overt theory or credo, so for instance nary a mention of Language poetry or the Movement. Wilkinson does not try hard to justify his candidates for reading, intimating for instance that he was quite taken by Shelley’s poetry, of which disapproved, while at high school (p2) Wilkinson maintains that he perceives a need to think and respond ‘ahistorically’, although some enterprising student might be able to put together a chronology. There is little here earlier than Shelley and the choices are highly individualist. A near contemporary WS Graham is one bellwether.

There is nonetheless a kind of tacit theory here. Wilkinson is aware, for instance of Drew Milne’s radical ecopoetry, what’s been dubbed a ‘lichen Marxism’. Wilkinson takes on this notion of ecopoetic grounding, and feels we need to attach poetry to the breath, where Olson comes up, and the stony, wherein we have Adrian Stokes. An empathy say for old stones might seem elusive and inconsequential, but Wilkinson I’d say just about makes a case for it. Stone is the most intransigent and ingrained aspect of landscape.

As signposters each chapter, of ten, comes with a prefatory summary. Chapters 1 and 10 probably provide the better all round guidance. This at times can veer to the haphazard as, eg, what does Barbara Guest have to do with Frank O’Hara or Adrian Stokes, other than that they have caught John Wilkinson’s astute, if sometimes fervid imagination?

It is in Chapter 10 I think that one finds Wilkinson getting closer to staking out his perspective and inclinations, as –

            ‘The silence of the text prepares for the poem’s voice. As for my voice it will be engulfed in the             event, in the ‘abstract act’, as act is engulfed in abstraction and as abstraction gives rise to act.             Such coming-together…’ (p234)

Needless to say, Wilkinson is foremostly a poet, and quite an accomplished, challenging one before turning his hand to criticism or essay. The book in a sense joins other efforts by noted poet critics to establish their prerogative or world view, from Eliot’s Selected Essays to Auden’s Secondary Worlds to Davie’s Under Briggflatts to Geoffrey Hill’s Critical Writings. I might suggest that Wilkinson is less the traditionalist, more the progressive, with his Cambridge school leanings, and that on a certain level he has occupied and demarcated ground that is beyond these estimable precursors, albeit that he is unwilling to venture any chronological analysis or synthesis, but that then may be highly symptomatic of these global times we live in.

Strangely I sometimes feel as if I’ve been there, and certainly Marjorie Perloff set about a thorough critique of O’Hara that no doubt exceeds this in its depth and range of comprehension. But on the other hand one would not catch Perloff discussing Shelley nor probably WS Graham in quite this way.

Wilkinson, I tend to feel, is mapping out a space, a hopefully reliable space, from which we can view and apprise ourselves of developments in ecopoetry and lyric poetry. The sheer depth of range is foolish to dismiss. If Wilkinson is right such notions as dwelling or territory are apt to become more relevant even than they have been. Not just stony ground, but for the ‘breath’, wherein we have the instigation of Olson’s Projective Verse allied to place through myth. I’d say then that this is vital poetic criticism, quite at the cutting edge as much as anything comparable that might complement or counter it. Careful reading I’d say definitely leads to a sometimes searching reconsideration of what it is that we want or expect our poetry to do.

Clark Allison May 21st 2021

The Fifth Notebook of Dylan Thomas: Annotated Manuscript Edition Edited by John Goodby and Adrian Osbourne (Bloomsbury)

The Fifth Notebook of Dylan Thomas: Annotated Manuscript Edition Edited by John Goodby and Adrian Osbourne (Bloomsbury)

The Notebook, a red Zenith Exercise Book, found in a Tesco bag by Louie King, a former servant of Dylan Thomas’s mother in law, contains fifteen and a half poems. The half poem being the first five sonnets of the ten comprising ‘Altarwise by owl-light’. The poems from Thomas’s first two collections, 18 Poems (1934) and Twenty-five Poems (1936) are mostly fair copies of ‘finished’ poems, written on the right hand side, or recto, pages. There are some missing pages and some occasional crossings out, less than one per cent of which were undecipherable. Written between May 1934 and August 1935, the notebook contains no unpublished work. However, it does reveal a break between the ‘process’ poetry he had begun in 1933 and the non-referential poems that came next. The Notebook allows more accurate dating of compositions, with poems, such as, ‘I dreamed my genesis’, ‘Seven’ and the sonnets of ‘Altarwise by owl-light’ being dated.

At the end of ‘Seven’, dated 26th October 1934 and underlined, there is a second longer horizontal line between two short vertical lines in the centre of the page, indicating an end or break. The date is significant, being the day before Thomas’s twentieth birthday, and the editors think that this marks a conscious decision to end a writing phase and embark on a new style. His birthday held special significance and was the focus of several of his October poems. He is also reading James Joyce closely at this time. There is, though, no conscious change of style marked within Twenty-five Poems, and so this is evidence of a conscious change in poetic style. Further evidence is available in the form of the increased number of deletions and there are some other discoveries in the form of an unknown original stanza two in ‘Fifteen’. The deleted stanza is more nebulous than the replacement. He changes genders and uses personal pronouns and in the sixth line ‘white’ becomes ‘black’ and the overuse of ‘half’ is removed.   

The Notebook reveals the extent of Thomas’s use of traditional Welsh poetry, cynghanedd, the short patterning of vowels and consonants. He draws upon the wok of medieval poet, Dafydd ap Gwilm, who used the englyn form, sangiad, the parenthetical phrase, dyfalu, hyperbolic comparison and description, and torymadroddy, inverted construction. He is quite clearly using more than alliteration and assonance in his sound effects.

Thomas scholar, Ralph Maud, speculated on the existence of ten notebooks and the editors see a missing notebook between notebook two and three as well as the most likely continuation of ‘Alterwise by owl-light’ in another notebook. Given Thomas’s highly peripatetic lifestyle such notebooks could still be extant.

The Notebook and handwritten notes, including one where he describes himself as having ‘no respectable occupation, no permanent address’, are fully annotated so that all differences are accounted for and some debated points of punctuation are now conclusively resolved. The Fifth Notebook contains facsimiles and full transcripts of the originals, which are annotated and accompanied by editorial notes. The notes are comprehensive and come with an extensive bibliography divided into several sections. This is exemplary scholarship, easy to navigate and utterly illuminating. 

David Caddy 29th October 2020

Tears in the Fence 69

Tears in the Fence 69

Tears in the Fence 69 is now available at https://tearsinthefence.com/pay-it-forward/

This issue has a front cover designed by Westrow Cooper from a photograph entitled, God and Man, and was designed by Westrow Cooper. The creative section consists of poetry, visual and prose poems, fiction, flash fiction and creative non-fiction by Martin Stannard, Valerie Bridge, Marcin Podlaski, Sharon Olinka, Sheila E Murphy, Jeremy Reed, Clive Gresswell, Gerald Killingworth, Michael Farrell, Serena Mayer, Will Hall, Holly V Chilton, Annemarie Austin, Robert Hirschfield, David Harmer, Maria Stadnicka, Jazmine Linklater, David Felix, Jasmina Bolfek-Radovani Mina Ray, Jennie E. Owen, Regi Claire, Emma Stamm, Drew Milne, Peter Dent, Tess Jolly, Charles Wilkinson, Basil King, Yvonne Litschel, Arpit Kaushik, Richard Foreman, Ceinwen E.C. Hayden, Amy Acre, Mandy Pannett, Jane R Rogers, Louise Wilford, John Brantingham, Laurie Duggan, Andrew Shelley, Ezra Miles, Greg Bright and Beth Davyson.

The critical section consists of Ian Brinton’s Editorial, Jennifer K. Dick’s Of Tradition & Experiment XIII: Rachel Blau DuPlessis, Caroline Clark’s In Praise Of Artifice on Veronica Forrest-Thomson and Olga Sedakova, Sarah Connor on Poems For Grenfell Tower, A Tale of Two Londons, Norman Jope on Games Across Frontiers: Twitters For a Lark, Andrew Duncan on Edge of Necessary, Martin Thom, Barbara Bridger on JR Carpenter, Sheila Hamilton on Melinda Lovell, Tim Allen on Andrew Duncan, Seán Street on Eleanor Rees, Guy Russell on Martin Gray, Simon Collings on Alan Baker, Jessica Mookherjee on Rachael Clyne, Mandy Pannett on Reuben Woolley, John Welch on James Sutherland-Smith, David Pollard – What Is Poetry? A Response, Why are we writing and who are we writing for? A Conversation between Lisa Kiew and Amy McCauley, Notes on Contributors and David Caddy’s Afterword.

The Oval Window by J.H. Prynne (Bloodaxe Books)

The Oval Window by J.H. Prynne (Bloodaxe Books)

A new edition of Jeremy Prynne’s long poem which had been originally published privately in an edition of 600 copies in December 1983 is due to be published on 29th March this year. It is the third separate publication of this major poem since the second one appeared in Brisbane in 2002 edited by the Australian artist Ian Friend. On the cover of the first edition there was a photograph showing a window-like opening in the wall of a ruined ‘shield’, or shieling, a rough stone hut built by medieval farmers to house themselves and their families during the summer transhumance. The photograph is one of many taken by Prynne himself at Tinkler Crags, on Askerton North Moor, a desolate area near the village of Gilsland in Cumbria and twenty more pages of these photographs are now included in this new edition.

This finely produced new edition is edited by Neil Reeve and Richard Kerridge whose work on The Oval Window goes back to an article ‘Deaf to Meaning: on J.H. Prynne’s The Oval Window‘ published in issue 3 of Parataxis in 1993. They also wrote a chapter of fifty pages on the poem for their major publication on Prynne, Nearly Too Much (Liverpool University Press, 1995). The new Bloodaxe edition contains two new substantial essays on the poem and some fifty pages of notes. It is a must! This is merely a quick advert for the book to alert our readers in advance and I shall be writing a full review of the new edition in Tears in the Fence 68 later this year.

Ian Brinton 9th February 2018

George Oppen’s Poetics of the Commonplace by Xavier Kalck (Peter Lang Publishing)

George Oppen’s Poetics of the Commonplace by Xavier Kalck (Peter Lang Publishing)

A new critical account of the poems of George Oppen is invariably a delight; the arrival of such an intelligent and closely argued text as Xavier Kalck’s has turned out to be is something more.
In his introduction Kalck points to Oppen’s poems “as remarkably readable compositions, which are only elusive if one chooses not to listen to their specific formal characteristics”. He then outlines one of his major concerns:

“The first objective of this book is therefore the exemplification of a new methodology, based on new readings of Oppen’s poems. Bearing in mind that dysfunction often really shows function, I plead for a critical shift toward prosody as interpretive pragmatics.”

We are presented time and again with close critical analysis that reminds one of what it means to read with an engaged concern for what the poet is presenting. As a result we can both see and hear how Oppen builds a song from the common – though shattered – resources of language. The blurb on the back of this new book recognises an aspect of what Kalck has achieved:

George Oppen’s Poetics of the Commonplace offers the first survey of the critical consensus which has now built up around the poetry of George Oppen, after over two decades of substantial interest in his work. It proposes a comprehensive perspective on Oppen and the criticism devoted to Oppen, from the Objectivist strain in American poetry to the thinkers, such as Heidegger, Levinas, Marx and Adorno, which critics have brought to bear on Oppen’s poetry, to pave the way for the consideration and exemplification of a new methodology which sheds a critical light on the ideas and practices in contemporary poetics, through well-researched close readings.”

And there we have it! What makes this book so important is not only the wide range of its focus and its placing of Oppen’s work within a background of substantial twentieth-century thought but also the fact that it takes one back time and again to the words on the page: we are offered an approach to POETRY .
When Michael Davidson edited the New Collected Poems for New Directions in 2002 he had referred to Oppen’s method of working, whittling and refining his poems “into tough, recalcitrant lyrics that would endure the test of time.” After the publication of Discrete Series, a short volume from the Objectivist Press in 1934, Oppen did not produce a second book of poems until 1962 when The Materials was published by New Directions and the San Francisco Review. Some of the poems in that volume had appeared in 1960 in Massachusetts Review and Poetry making the gap between Oppen’s published poems just over twenty-five years. During that quarter-century he saw active duty in the Battle of the Bulge, being gravely wounded in April 1945, became a custom carpenter in California, fell under the watchful glance of the FBI, went into exile in Mexico in 1950 and only returned to New York in January 1960. The epigraph to The Materials was a quotation from Maritain: ‘We awake in the same moment to ourselves and to things’ and it was those lines that Charles Tomlinson underlined in the copy which Oppen signed for him after they had become close friends. Tomlinson also wrote a brief but firmly-held statement just before George and Mary visited him in Gloucestershire in which he recognised that Oppen never wrote poems “where the powers of disquisition begin worrying to death the initial experience before it has been permitted to declare its own terms.”
In a letter from 1959 Oppen had written to Julian Zimet about what it was that so fascinated him about “Things and mechanisms” he said that “I like the things that people have wrested out of the idiot stone…All the poems are about the same thing. The shorter poems are shorter fragments of what I want to say, the longer poems are longer fragments.” In a cancelled opening paragraph to his introduction to the selection of Oppen’s poems edited for Cloudforms No. 4, Tomlinson had referred to making audible Oppen’s “characteristic voice, so distinct from the personality cults of Berryman, Lowell and Plath”. That voice is precisely what comes to the ear and eye in Xavier Kalck’s masterly account of the late poem “Song, The Winds of Downhill” and this book is worth getting hold of if only for those pages of “an architectural representation of the poem’s rhetorical framework”.
In conclusion Kalck refers to another letter sent by Oppen to a British poet. In this case the receiver of that letter was Anthony Barnett and the story behind the correspondence which lasted some thirteen years is told in SNOW lit rev 2. The letter in Kalck’s chapter earns its presence by epitomizing best the several threads which run through this book of criticism. I know that Peter Lang books are expensive but please do put some pressure on your Library to acquire a copy; you will not be disappointed.

Ian Brinton, 31st January 2018

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