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Category Archives: English Poetry

For The Future (Shearsman Books)

For The Future (Shearsman Books)

In June 2016 David Caddy wrote a fine review of this little book. In October Tom Phillips also wrote a review and this was sent to all the contributors whose work had made the book important. As a consequence of some computer difficulties suffered by Tony Lewis-Jones’s Various Arts website, based in Bristol, this review never saw the light of day and so it is with great pleasure that I include it here under his name as a guest-blogger. It is important that Tom’s work is seen at large not least because it can now be included in Michael Tencer’s Full Bibliography of the work of J.H. Prynne.

Ian Brinton 8th July 2017

Review: For The Future: Poems & Essays In Honour Of J.H. Prynne On The Occasion Of His 80th Birthday, Ian Brinton (ed.), Shearsman Books, 2016

Of course, the usual starting point for discussing Jeremy Prynne’s poetry is to say something about how difficult or daunting it is. Saying this, however, is tantamount to not saying much at all. As several contributors to A Manner Of Utterance – the 2009 collection of essays about Prynne also edited by Ian Brinton and published by Shearsman – pointed out, if you start from the assumption that Prynne’s poetry is ‘difficult’ and therefore like a puzzle which needs solving, you’re probably coming at it from the wrong angle. Indeed, as Prynne himself has demonstrated with his extraordinarily expansive critical investigations of poems like Wordsworth’s ‘The Solitary Reaper’, even relatively simple-seeming work has multiple complexities and, yes, ‘difficulties’ if you look at it hard enough.
As in A Manner Of Utterance, then, the poems and essays in this insightful and wide-ranging new collection edited by Brinton counter the notion that Prynne’s work is the literary equivalent of the north face of the Eiger and that all it does is make exhausting intellectual demands of its readers. To be sure, the absence of a recognisable and autobiographical lyric ‘I’, the polyphonic assemblage of idiolects and specialist vocabularies and the unexpected shifts in grammar are disorienting, unfamiliar and have been at odds with the predominant modes of poetic expression for the fifty years that Prynne’s been publishing his work, but as the poet Peter Hughes puts it in his contribution to For The Future, that work has a “peculiar mass” nevertheless – and with mass comes gravity and you are drawn in.

Hughes also likens reading a Prynne poem to arriving in a foreign country – “Everything is going on around you and you do your best to go with the flow and pick up what you can” (which seems like very sensible advice) – while for Peter Gizzi the poems in the 1969 volume The White Stones have a “necessary and productive restlessness”. For Anthony Barnett – the first publisher of Prynne’s Poems (the steadily evolving ‘collected’ whose latest manifestation appeared from Bloodaxe in 2015) – it is a question of refusing “to be intimidated by the so-called difficulty or those critiques on difficulty, positive or negative, that have infected our academic and popular literary cultures both.”

Despite its sometimes abrasive surface textures, then, there is an energy coursing through Prynne’s work which keeps you reading it even if “the figure in the carpet” isn’t always readily apparent. Some of the essays here, of course, do posit hypotheses about what the ‘figure’ might be in specific poems or collections. Matthew Hall, for example, makes a persuasive case for understanding 2002’s Acrylic Tips in the context of “the physical landscapes and colonial history of the Australian continent” while Masahiko Abe finds a way into 1989’s Word Order through Rosalind Krauss’ concept of the ‘grid’ (as she applied it to modernist/minimalist art). Michael Tencer, meanwhile, unpacks the allusive density of Prynne’s ‘Es Lebe der König’ and identifies the multiple sources which feed into one of the very few poems dedicated to a specified individual – in this case the Romanian-German poet Paul Celan. Harry Gilonis’ discussion of Prynne’s Chinese poem ‘Stone Lake’ also illuminates how the indeterminacy and myriad ambiguities of Chinese poetry in general might offer a way of understanding how Prynne’s English poems operate and how we might approach them as readers. With Chinese poetry, after all, the general assumption is that it takes a lifetime to understand a poem as fully as it’s possible for any individual reader to do so.

For The Future, though, is not a book of critical essays per se and while the insights into specific corners of the writerly labyrinth sent me back to Poems with the thought “Ah, so this might be a potential starting point …”, the memoirs about Prynne and the poems dedicated to him also shed light on the man, the poet and the teacher. Brinton himself, for example, details the protracted negotiations between poet, publisher and printer over the publication of 1971’s Brass – thereby illustrating the care with which Prynne approaches the physical appearance of his texts – while John James’ poem ‘Affection’ steers a course through the ethical and political concerns which animate the work of a poet whose avant gardism is not an affectation but the inevitable product of a heterodox set of ethical and political concerns about transaction, encounter, power and language. Above all, perhaps, what the many and varied contributors to For The Future do is provide a reminder that Prynne is also a generous and profound teacher (more than a few of the essays here are by former students who encountered him at Cambridge) and that, whatever response you have to his poetry, he’s the kind of writer whose work needs to be read – much like that of the Black Mountain poets he did so much to champion – if you’re going to have any kind of understanding of what poetry has done in the past and what it might do in the future. As Nigel Wheale writes in his essay here: “What comes across so vividly is the range of concerns vigorously worked through, worked over, in these books, an intellectual project uniquely ambitious.”
With both A Manner Of Utterance and now For The Future, Ian Brinton has served that uniquely ambitious project well. In so doing, he is also helping to restore the contours of contemporary English-language poetry to the shape they might have assumed had the silly/shameful ‘poetry wars’ of the 1970s not disfigured them or turned them into the boundary markers of the literary cliques which are, as Michael Haslam observes in For The Future, “the scandal of poetry in England”.

Tom Phillips, October 2016

Wound Scar Memories by Peter Philpott (Great Works Editions)

Wound Scar Memories by Peter Philpott (Great Works Editions)

Peter Philpott’s editorial introduction to Issue Number Three of Great Works, July 1974, breathes; there is a sense of a door and a window being thrown open:

“This is a magazine of contemporary writing. It contains work which is attempting to create new modes of experiencing the world and of representing that experience which is at this time of ours or the writer’s. Such research is necessarily largely poetic, as that is the use of language at the maxima of energy and novelty needed to transcend the lies and ignorance of our now natural way of life. This art may therefore appear arbitrary or inexplicable in its composition. Don’t be put off. What is smoothly presented to us as contemporary literature by the commercial, academic and leisure interests is the dried husk of art, an empty form that cannot generate life. It binds us in further with accepted answers and unprofitable easy technique.”

The concluding prose section to Wound Scar Memories continues this important conversation and offers the reader “some fragments out of the past which glittered and glistened in the same way as some things do now”. This is a world of linguistic interplay, “a funny sort of thing / – writing / down your words so they’re not yours / but belong more to whoever can read them”. It is also a world of compassionate humility which recognises “our capacity for delusion always infinite” and offers us room which is both geographical and literary:

“you’re hiding still on the edge of this town
little shitheap with lots of water I’d call the place
what you engage with is really just language
I know, you know, as does the world it says”

In an early account of his new collection from the Great Works Press, Philpott gave us some background to the four sections (three sequences of seventeen sonnets and a substantial 23 page piece of prose):

“The book starts from bringing the wonderful Tim Atkins and Peter Hughes versions of Petrarch (+ a sense of Petrarch himself, which came from being intrigued by their work) to Fontaine-de-Vaucluse in the summer of 2015, the village where he may well have written much of the so-called Sonnets. Playing with their words allowed other voices to come in, and I wrote 17 sonnetty things. Too pleasurable not to be suspect, so I wrote another, slightly tighter sequence, stripping back what goes on to an affair of pronouns (isn’t that what it’s all about?). I recoiled from the sparseness of this to more jokey material, by creating voices for a variety of Dark Age characters, starting with the usual suspects, ending up by burrowing down into the dirt even of Bishops Stortford. These last 17 sonnetty things depended too much on allusion to public but obscure material (who’s up on the anomalous elements in the names of the earliest “Kings of Wessex”?). So I then wrote some prose to discuss all this and what lies behind.”

What lies behind, or indeed below, is given a sense of perspective through a quotation from Robin Fleming’s book Britain After Rome: The Fall and Rise 400 to 1070:

“People living and dying in eastern England in the generations after 420 were cobbling together distinctive little cultures all their own out of this cacophony of peoples and circumstances, and these cultures were heterogeneous, highly localized and very fluid.”

Wound Scar Memories is an astonishingly powerful collection: we are reminded not only of our debts to a past but of our fluid living alertness to a present that only fools will try to tie down to certainties:

“locality & the past & all our origins
calcify themselves with fear
yet old wood bursts fresh buds & blossoms

infinite variety includes what’s gone
all our parents – so many aren’t they?”

When, in September 2015, I reviewed the volume Peter Philpott’s published with Shearsman Books, Ianthe Poems, I referred to his lines as the “binding of a moment”, and that sense of immediacy, respect for the quiet reality of this day, is what threads its way through this new sequence. The lines of many of these sonnets have “tested again the self’s rickety old fences / as usual it mysteriously survives”:

“abysmal loss faces us, & portentous forces squat
flocking in uncontrollably or worse
not, negation & the loss of words
but only ones that have no purpose

ones that aren’t anything like us
we find ourselves now in the night
following only our own constraints
to open up a newer moment
against the stupid glitter of the rich
– now open it all up at once”

This use of the word “glitter” is not to be confused with that reference about fragments that I started with; the glittering and glistening of those fragments out of the past become what constitutes who we are. As I read through this book more and more I take on board the statement from sonnet 7 in the first section:

“unreciprocated desire is our human condition
coupled with chosen arbitrary restrictions”

The shining newness of moments is perhaps what Frances Presley was referring to in her comment on the back of that earlier Shearsman volume:

“Peter Philpott recuperates both our excitement with the world around us and with new poetic form.”

There will be a launch for this new publication at the forthcoming Contraband Poetry Night on Tuesday 4th July: The Crown Tavern, 43 Clerkenwell Green, EC1R 0EG, 7 o’clock.

Ian Brinton 2nd July 2017

Collected Poems by William Rowe (Crater 41, 2016)

Collected Poems by William Rowe (Crater 41, 2016)

In his chapter on Barry MacSweeney in Three Lyric Poets (Northcote House, 2009) William Rowe quoted Maggie O’Sullivan suggesting that Barry MacSweeney’s poetry resounded “with the spit of dissent and the edgy, wounded anger of revolt”. Rowe went on to make a comment that is as true today as it was then:

“It is written against the social amnesia, the ‘spin’, and institutionalized lying that have taken place in the name of modernization: especially against the language that anaesthetizes and makes submission easier.”

With an echo of the mid-Seventeenth Century world of the Ranters and Diggers Rowe’s volume of Collected Poems fizzes within its covers. In ‘start the civil war’ (and note the use of the lower case for the title, a little like keeping one’s hat on in Service or in Parliament) we are given language of muscularity and promise:

“as capital says
abandon all hope
death’s head descending
property & property & property

a horrible gleam
houses lawns cars eyes words children

validation of hate
= courage

revenge morning
against the arrow of time

weeping backwards tears backwards
validation of hate

herald of antigone brother
ayawaska sister

destruction and riot
= maximum intensity

produce
void

against prostitution of time
by Tory corporalities

fascinated by cruel
immortality of money

fascisted by the gleam
of that obedience

enjoy & enjoy & enjoy”

The merging of language which has literary, religious and scientific antecedents pulses with energy. The abandoning of hope which was so completely final in its inscription over the gateway to Dante’s Inferno becomes visually engulfing as the death’s head descends. The clatter of horse’s hoofs brings Tennyson’s ‘Northern Farmer’ into focus:

“Doesn’t thou ’ear my ’erse’s legs, as they canters awaäy?
Proputty, proputty, proputty – that’s what I ’ears ’em saäy.”

And the greed of accumulation is caught in the “horrible gleam” that shifts so smoothly from a shining car outside a house and lawn to the eyes and words of the children who are trapped. The enticing shine leads to an obedience in which unthinking hatred can be converted, by a twist of language’s expectations, to “courage”.
William Rowe contributed an important article on MacSweeney to the Shearsman publication Poetry and Public Language (ed. Tony Lopez & Anthony Caleshu, 2007). Writing about ‘Jury Vet’ he quoted MacSweeney’s introduction to the poem given at a 1982 reading in Goldsmith’s College at which an uncompromisingly clear statement was made:

“I wanted a title that was national and would reflect the way I was feeling at the time which was that life is very much made up of secrecy, betrayal, various codes, passions which can be quite meaningless except in the act of doing them and their result.”

Rowe’s statement which then follows is interesting as a disturbing comment upon modern consumerism and the State:

“The statement could apply equally well to a fashion show, a court of law, and the State, which are the theatres of appearance that the writing engages.”

In a world where cheap cladding bears some responsibility for multiple deaths we have moved language a long way from Spenser’s sense of protection in which a knight could be clad in “mighty arms and silver shield”. We have also moved a long way from the decorous and respectful sense that Puttenham refers to in terms of lamentation where friends show love towards the dead by “cladding the mourners their friendes and servauntes in blacke vestures, of shape dolefull and sad, but also by wofull countenaunces and voyces, and besides by Poeticall mournings in verse.” I find that Will Rowe’s poems speak with a voice more finely-tuned than I have heard for some time:

“the moral and spiritual damage that
comes from this situation is profound.
it is a scar across our collective soul.”

In a world where “we cannot pay you / because you have / as much or more money / coming in than / the law says / you need to live on” one can sense the outrage of what in 1650 would have been Abezier Coppe’s ‘Fiery Flying Roll’:

“Behold, I the eternal God the Lord of Hosts, who am that mighty Leveller am coming (yea even at the doores) to Levell to some purpose, to Levell with a witnesse, to Levell the Hills with the Valleys, and to lay the Mountains low.”

But make no mistake: William Rowe’s poems are not an evangelical return to a long-gone past. After all, as Sean Bonney writes at the end of this powerful collection:

“The catastrophe has already taken place, it’s just that all of its light has yet to reach us. It’s not clear from what or when that light might be coming. A burning city. A barricade. A refugee stumbling out from an already decided future, an insistent and illegible memory of something that happened long before any of us were born. A light that might illuminate the location of the emergency brake. A brake that by now is glowing far too hot to touch.”

Look out for the ghostly face starting to pressure outwards as the ribbon of blood pours down the face of the book’s cover (Aodan McCardle): this is a collection of poems which opens doors and tears down façades. Get a copy from Amazon Books NOW.

Ian Brinton, 23rd June 2017

The Collected Letters of Charles Olson & J.H. Prynne Edited by Ryan Dobran University of New Mexico Press

The Collected Letters of Charles Olson & J.H. Prynne Edited by Ryan Dobran University of New Mexico Press

As if echoing agreement with the British poet’s injunction from the 1983 sequence The Oval Window (“In darkness by day we must press on”) the clear and helpful introduction by Ryan Dobran to this long-awaited publication of a major correspondence is already a shade out of date!

“Prynne’s private collection of correspondence and manuscripts is scarcely known at all, and does not yet exist as an archive available to a scholarly public, although several letters to others besides Olson have been published in small magazines such as The English Intelligencer, Grosseteste Review, Parataxis and Quid.”

Well, the University Library in Cambridge does now hold the entire Prynne archive and work is already under way to have it catalogued and made available for research.
That said, in terms of the whole process of permitting the public to see Jeremy Prynne’s enormous output of papers and correspondence, drafts and teaching notes from the late 1950s to the very present this new publication of the Olson/Prynne letters will stand as a remarkably effective foundation stone. Dobran writes with modesty about his intention “to produce a readable book” and he has succeeded in this aim beyond all doubt. With an interest alerted by the introduction one can trace through the remarkable sequence of letters and recognise the importance of their argument in terms of what was happening in post-WW2 British poetry:

“Often loosely assembled via Eric Mottram’s term the ‘British Poetry Revival’, Prynne and his contemporaries were eager to renovate the stagnant ironies of the Movement poets prominently on display in postwar England. One instrument of breaking the hegemony of official verse culture was reading, discussing, teaching, publishing, and distributing postwar American poetry and prose.”

The awakening of infectious interest in poetry and language rears off the page in this collection of letters and Dobran notes that what makes the correspondence so vital is “not what these letters offer in terms of personal details, but rather the way they bind knowledge and writing, information and composition, feeling and articulation, history and poetry”.
The book opens in November 1961 as Prynne writes from Gonville and Caius College to ask if Charles Olson might send something for publication in the magazine Prospect of which he had just become editor. Prynne refers to reading Olson’s IN COLD HELL, IN THICKET which “speaks for me out of the fast centre”. Reading Olson’s work was for Prynne “like reading for the first time the back of my own hand.” Probably in response to Olson’s ‘Letter to Elaine Feinstein’ (the founding editor of Prospect) in which the American poet had suggested a need for some book of etymological roots, Prynne writes with exuberance about Julius Pokorny’s etymological dictionary:

“Pokorny has drawn on all the Celtic tongues, Tokharin and Hittite and a whole range of little-known Romance dialects: Phrygian, Thracian, Messapian, Venetian, Illyrian, Ligurian &c; it makes tremendously exciting reading. In the section given to KAR-, for example, with a root signification of ‘hard’ or ‘rough’, he shows an astonishing range of derived cognates embracing European words for ‘rock’, ‘crab’, ‘shell, peel, nut’, ‘strong, bold, heavy, difficult, firm’, perhaps also ‘cliff, crag, crevice’, ‘stone, scarp’, ‘cairn, burial-mound, temple’. And it merely confirms my own feeling to find ‘keel, hull, ship’ also included here; part 6 of the first Max. letter reveals the rationale behind this. Pokorny’s whole book sits on my shelf like a bomb, ready to explode at a touch with the most intricately powerful forces caged up inside, a storehouse of vectors.”

On November 24 Olson sent through a poem which he liked very much – “and hope you will”. The poem ‘GOING RIGHT OUT OF THE CENTURY’ was published in Prospect 6 and later became part of Maximus IV, V, VI.

This is an astonishing book of letters and I recommend that it should stand on the shelf of anyone interested in the world of post-war poetry.

Ian Brinton 18th June 2017

Facing West by Kelvin Corcoran (Shearsman Books)

Facing West by Kelvin Corcoran (Shearsman Books)

“the mineral density of loss”

Myth in forms our lives not just our life; it threads its way in strands which are held together by the light and distant clash of cooking implements both now and then. The screech of Ariadne’s cries reach us now through the lyric muscularity of Kelvin Corcoran’s lines as the sea blinds her, “the sail-away sea gone sour”.
Facing West contains not only the sequence of poems published by Maquette Press three years ago but also some important new pieces which confirm my view that Corcoran’s poetry is amongst the most important being published in this country. I wrote about Radio Archilochos in my review for this blog in November 2014 and therefore wish to just focus for a moment now on two pieces from this new volume, both of which deal with loss: ‘Orpheus / If I could’ and ‘Lee Harwood 1939-2015’.
As if in response to a reading of Rilke’s poem concerning the journey undertaken by Orpheus, published in New Poems 1907/08, Corcoran’s contemplation of loss aches with “mineral density”. In Rilke we read of

“Bridges over voidness
and that immense, grey, unreflecting pool
that hung above its so far distant bed
like a grey rainy sky above a landscape.
And between meadows, soft and full of patience,
appeared the pale strip of the single pathway
like a long line of linen laid to bleach.”

In Kelvin Corcoran’s web of landscape

“Orpheus walked the dark path
through black trees arching,
their bloody roots like shadows
seeping deep entangled underground
where the light collapsed in stripes.”

In these poems loss has a palpability as the “earth gives way at every step / foot sinks, birds stop singing” and the geological foundations of misery are presented to us with a vivid portrait of what irrevocability might look like:

“face broken, head empty, staggering,
propelled into a wall of obsidian”.

This is world known to Thomas Hardy who “Saw morning harden upon the wall” before leaving his house in pursuit of a glimpse of his dead wife “Where so often at dusk you used to be” only to be confronted by “The yawning blankness”.
In the tribute to Lee Harwood, dying in a “high room, Ward 9A East”, Corcoran journeys across the country:

“I drove long tunnels of swaying trees
through Gloucestershire and Oxfordshire,
and walked the hospital maze to find him
through green underwater light made blind.”

The maze through which one can trace one’s way down those lanes of memory, helped by Ariadne, that Goddess of Mazes, leads us to a bedside, words (“Oh Kelvin you made it”). And from there, almost like a poem from Malcolm Mooney’s Land, the tracks lead on further and further back

“So I can only imagine him at the kitchen window
up early, asking – “What do you think that bird is there?”

This collection is of course facing West as the poet’s eye is firmly focused upon a declining light. It also doffs its hat to the Westward glances of both Olson and Dorn!

Ian Brinton, 6th June 2017

EACH TO EACH, J.H. Prynne (Equipage, 2017) NINE DRUGS, Ulf Stolterfoht, translated by Lisa Jeschke (Face Press, Cambridge, 2016) OF . THE . ABYSS, J.H. Prynne (Materials, Cambridge, 2017)

In Canto XXVI of Dante’s Inferno the voice of Odysseus issues from a flame as he speaks to Virgil of his last voyage which led him to the abyss. He had spoken rousing words to his men concluding with the injunction “Take thought of the seed from which you spring. You were not born to live as brutes, but to follow virtue and knowledge”. [trans. Sinclair]. Prynne’s interest in Odysseus has been there from that early poem ‘Lashed to the Mast’, written in Charles Olson’s house in Fort Square and first published in Andrew Crozier’s Wivenhoe Park Review; it was there also in the photograph of an early design on a piece of pottery, depicting the figure of Odysseus tied to the mast by his sailors as they rowed past the island of the Sirens, which Prynne pasted into the opening leaf of his edition of Pound’s Cantos, poems which themselves open with a journey of outwards:

“And then went down to the ship,
Set keel to breakers, forth on the godly sea, and
We set up mast and sail on that swart ship…”

The opening poem in this latest sequence of ten pieces by Prynne seems to set us outwards again upon a voyage:

“Billow under below known sat follow, happen so
to make thwart leaden fine to fasten up as
yes taken back, given to yield or space hold
to later denounce grave enough smiling in
turn the face back now, derelict ecstatic fee
advance never clear rack, the inclination pack
mouth breath wide, slight gasp for air what is
known here found all down, all child eyes
wide too, prow stove in cold leading outward
flake to glitter certain and sure, all ever
known down and reach to ready for gone shine
far out ported beyond, rate and known.”

When the Jargon/Corinth edition of Olson’s The Maximus Poems appeared in 1960 it bore the dedication for Robert Creeley, “The Figure of Outward” and when Ed Dorn’s poem about Olson appeared in 1964, designed and printed by Tom Raworth, it concluded with the “whispers of the most flung shores / from Gloucester out”. The last words became the title of the book.
Prynne’s poetry is known for the way in which quotations and references lie buried within the text and the 6th poem in this remarkable sequence is no exception. The lines move between a reference to Bonnie Prince Charlie’s escape on a boat to the Isle of Skye after his failed bid for power in 1745/6 and Charles I arriving in the House of Parliament some hundred years before to arrest the Five Members who had encouraged the Scots to invade England only to discover that the birds have flown. The movement shifts between a traditional narrow-boat and “A flute” which brings together music and a vessel of war:

“Oh strike the light, float the boat, for
sake of common peril they are fallen away
as gathered up in sight of lamentable in-
difference and will go down against us, the
birds have flown, break speed this blithe
boat fled, weapon unwilling guard the sure
place radiant with possession save up go
down ignore, in such wide eyes. A flute
drifted in darkness as engulfed without
pleat over plaint ever pitch no bird on
no wing we are the wing broken as to see
waves of longing rise and turn face up
o’er brim their clammy cells out from
the shelf undertow and follow…”

Keats’s autumnal richness takes its place within the voyaging and gives credence to those words that Nigel Wheale used in an article written about The White Stones and published in Grosseteste Review 12 in 1979:

“the purity of the wandering stranger is not ‘The Scholar Gypsy’, but a completely responsive lyricism.”

This important publication of a sequence of 10 poems is attributable to David Grundy and Lisa Jeschke and it follows the Equipage presentation of EACH TO EACH earlier this year. The two epigraphs to that collection of 23 poems are from Boethius (“All fortune is good”) and W.R. Bion (“All thinking and all thoughts are true when there is no thinker”) and the lyric grace of movement is caught in line after line:

“…..The notes slide to come
home deserved by succession ready to be glad, if
able to steer to hidden shore early after plain.”

Lisa Jeschke’s own translation of poems by the German Ulf Stolterfoht, handsomely produced in an edition of 200 copies by Face Press, is accompanied by a short introductory statement by Prynne:

“Ulf is one of the great poets of the German language…Ulf knows that he can make this language do new kinds of expression under the pressure of poetic vision and originality.”

That pressure of poetic vision has an alchemical touch to it and I am reminded of how Marguerite Yourcenar helped in the translation of her own 1968 novel about alchemy, L’Oeuvre au Noir, so that it became in English The Abyss.

Ian Brinton, 17th May 2017

Discovering Dylan Thomas, A Companion to the Collected Poems and Notebook Poems John Goodby University of Wales Press

Discovering Dylan Thomas, A Companion to the Collected Poems and Notebook Poems  John Goodby  University of Wales Press

In PN Review 222, March/April 2015, I reviewed John Goodby’s superb edition of Dylan Thomas’s Collected Poems and made a point of highlighting the very fine quality of the notes included in what will surely be the standard edition of Thomas’s poetry for many years to come. The notes occupy the last 180 pages of the volume and they act as genuine literary criticism. I suggested that these clear and unobtrusive notes ensure that the reader gets an immense amount out of recognising the contexts within which the poems were written. When I contacted John Goodby to bemoan the fact that there didn’t appear to be any quick way of locating the notes from the poems, something which occurs also in the George Butterick Collected Poems of Charles Olson, he replied that the lack of locational referencing was part of the huge cuts (55,000 words) that the publishers insisted on. He also suggested that there were battles “every step of the way” to preserve as much of the integrity of the edition as he could; notebook poems and juvenilia had to be dropped as well as drafts of poems which he had intended to include in the notes. John’s communication concluded on a highly optimistic note:

“I have persuaded another publisher to publish the material I was forced to cut from the notes as a Guide to the Collected Poems.”

Well, it is here! And it is terrific! Everyone who now possesses a copy of the Collected Poems (it is available in paperback now with added page references in the notes) will want to purchase this substantial new book: a real Companion to both the Collected Poems and to the Notebook Poems. The rationale behind Goodby’s new book is clear:

“That rationale is primarily a critical and scholarly one, unshaped by commercial criteria, even though I hope this book will appeal to some non-academic lovers of Thomas’s poetry too. A coherent work in its own right, it offers, for example, critical histories for most of the poems, at a level of detail which would never have been tolerated in the edition, as well as material which has come to light in the two years since the edition was published.”

One of the exciting things about this new book is that as readers we are aware of being part of a work in progress: Goodby’s magisterial understanding of the importance of Thomas’s work ensures that any academic dust has been blown off the pages before we start to become immersed in an adventure of continuing discovery.
This new book is divided into sections including ‘Supplementary Poems’, ‘Textual annotations and critical histories’ and ‘drafts’and time and again we are reminded of the omnivorous reading which the poet undertook in different disciplines. In his introduction John Goodby raises the interesting question as to “just why Thomas alludes to and echoes other writers so obliquely”. By way of answer he points out a path for the reader which avoids simple references to other literary works incorporated within that reading:

“Dylan Thomas was a trickster-poet, one who resisted the display of metropolitan insider knowledge which allusion, quotation and echo of ten signify. Defining himself against Eliot and Auden, with their well-bred canonical assurances, he opted instead for a subversive, cryptic mode of allusion.”

Goodby recognises that Thomas’s volume 18 Poems “is very different to The Waste Land or The Cantos in smothering its allusions deep within its traditional forms, rather than flaunting them on a broken, variable verse surface”. He also recognises that there is a need for an overhaul “of standard accounts of 1930s and 1940s poetry and its relationship to the present-day scene”:

“Critics such as Andrew Duncan and James Keery have for some time been preparing the way by teasing out the 1940s inheritance shared by such unlikely bedfellows as Hughes, Plath, Roy Fisher, Geoffrey Hill, Philip Larkin and J.H. Prynne, as well as tracing the influence of W.S. Graham on poets, such as Denise Riley, associated with the ‘Cambridge School’”.

One might add to that list by including the name of Andrew Crozier whose ‘Styles of the Self: The New Apocalypse and 1940s Poetry’ was included in my edition of his selected prose, Thrills and Frills (Shearsman Books, 2013). One might further add an example of precisely the sort of “subversive, cryptic mode of allusion” by referring to a couple of examples contained within the poetry of J.H. Prynne. As was pointed out to me some time ago by Anthony Mellors, in ‘Of Movement Towards a Natural Place’ (Wound Response, 1974) there is a quotation from Dickens’s Great Expectations embedded within the text:

“upon his lips curious white flakes, like thin snow”

In ‘As Mouth Blindness’ (Sub Songs, 2010) King Lear’s words as he bears his dead Cordelia onto the stage are echoed, buried within the text:

“What is’t thou sayst? Her voice was ever soft,
Gentle and low….” (King Lear, V iii 270-271)

“…Her voice was ever low…” (Poems, p. 609)

Discovering Dylan Thomas is an indispensable book. Buy a copy and you will discover much more than appears on the title page.

Ian Brinton, 14th May 2017

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