RSS Feed

Category Archives: English Poetry

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and helpful introduction by Ryan Dobran to this long-awaited publication of a major correspondence is already a shade out of date!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

Selected Poems: 1989-2012 by Simon Smith (Shearsman Books) Part Two

On the reverse side of this selection David Herd is quoted from The Oxford Handbook of Contemporary British and Irish Poetry where he comments upon Simon Smith’s sequence of poems from 2010, London Bridge:

“Simon Smith’s writing forges English language poetry out of the translated utterance, his most recent volume, London Bridge, fixing itself not to place but to the questions of crossing.”

In an article by John Wilkinson titled ‘Stone thresholds’, published in this year’s Textual Practice there is a fine reading of Andrew Crozier’s late poem ‘Blank Misgivings’, “built on the rubble of a postwar cityscape and of postwar political hopes”. Wilkinson notes that the poem’s title is borrowed from Arthur Hugh Clough:

“The ruined landscape fills with sounds and obstructions as well as ‘unbuilt monuments’; like the ‘extinct hiss’ which is still incendiary and the ‘static roar’ from space, it is haunted by futurity as well as the past. Neglected past participles throng in this poem, still hissing and burning. What is performed here and enjoined on a reader is a hermeneutic work of remembrance, reconnection and shaping.”

Reading through the selection of twenty-five sonnets from ‘Unfelt, A Poem in Forty-Four Parts’, which occupies a prominent section towards the end of this new Selected Poems I am drawn back to looking at Clough again. The awareness of ghosts haunting the ‘you’ and the ‘I’ in Smith’s sequence reminds me of the tone of ‘Amours de Voyage’. In section VIII of that fine poem from 1862 Claude writes to Eustace:

“After all, do I know that I really cared so about her?
Do whatever I will, I cannot call up her image;
For when I close my eyes, I see, very likely, St. Peter’s,
Or the Pantheon façade, or Michael Angelo’s figures,
Or, at a wish, when I please, the Alban hills and the Forum –
But that face, those eyes – ah no, never anything like them;
Only, try as I will, a sort of featureless outline,
And a pale blank orb, which no recollection will add to.
After all perhaps there was something factitious about it:
I have had pain, it is true; I have wept; and so have the actors.”

The shadows which haunt Simon Smith’s sonnet sequence offer glimpses of world lost in which “I cannot distinguish between your acts now” (2) and that world of ‘crossing’ which is perhaps pointed to in that quotation from David Herd may be seen most clearly in sonnet 41:

“The literal truth of history I feel you in the air
& the sun but not in detail everything is at once
Too near & too far enough to make me tremble
Quietly as we are, you at New Cross, & I here”

Simon Smith’s poems have often been located in a recognizable topography and the power of this sonnet sequence is located in the way the poet moves from this ‘here-and-now’ to an awareness of how we stand upon the flagstones of our pasts. This is a poet who has read his Olson as well as his O’Hara:

“we compare notes
we meet, shall I come
to you or will you come to me
unhappy as Mercury in our shape-shifting
as we row backwards always backwards rolling
towards beginning with all the inevitable permanence
of the concrete breeze blocks, their presence, their weight
their grey bulk

floats off
above
city
air
to be with”
(‘Ode to David Herd’)

Simon Smith is a major poet of the present and his voice is distinctive as the world of America and England meet in a manner that the shade of Clough may well smile at; after all, ‘Amours de Voyage’ was first published in the Boston Atlantic Monthly.

Ian Brinton, 25th April 2017

More Flowers Than You Could Possibly Carry, Selected Poems 1989-2012 Simon Smith (Shearsman Books)

More Flowers Than You Could Possibly Carry, Selected Poems 1989-2012  Simon Smith (Shearsman Books)

Part I: CONTEXT

Simon Smith’s poetry is always on the move and Fifteen Exits (Waterloo Press 2001) is no exception. Although published at the opening of the new century the individual ‘exits’ are all dated in the closing years of the previous one. The place of first publication and the names of the travelling companions are also included. The volume’s opening poem, ‘The Nature of Things’, is dedicated to J.D. Taylor, carries an epigraph from Stephen Rodefer and begins in a slightly old-fashioned epistolary fashion suggestive of being on the cusp of change:

Dear John, my friend
can I call you that?
No news, but poetry.

First published in West Coast Line in the Fall of 1995 the poem was originally titled ‘Didactic Ode’ but with the new century a re-reading of Lucretius impelled ‘These coarsened times’ to ‘swallow the Works of the Ancients too’.
Reviewing Smith’s 2010 Salt collection, London Bridge, Ben Hickman had referred to the poems as ‘fast’ or, as if just to check that distance between perceiver and perceived, ‘rather, the world they intermediate in is’:

The achievement of the poems is to hang on to this world while remaining faithful to the fact that, in the twenty-first century, this is not easy. Smith, in a sense, has it both ways, reflecting the fragmentation of experience but also often enough able to grab it, celebrate it, mourn it or present its beauty.

Hickman’s use of the word ‘fragmentation’ here inevitably conjures up the world of early Modernism, particularly T.S. Eliot whose ‘fragments’ were ‘stored against’ his ruin in The Wasteland. London Bridge is peopled with literary ghosts, from the opening poem’s weaving of John Ruskin’s ‘Storm-Cloud of the Nineteenth Century’ into Second World War air-raids over London to Chaucer, Keats, Baudelaire, Rilke, Kafka, Apollinaire, Pound and Saussure.

Smith’s concern with poetic voices had been announced earlier with the title of his 2003 volume for Salt, Reverdy Road. A reference to the French poet, translated by Kenneth Rexroth, points us to the end of one of Frank O’Hara’s most well-known pieces, ‘A Step Away From Them’ which itself concluded with his heart in his pocket, ‘it is Poems by Pierre Reverdy.’ This link to O’Hara is central to Simon Smith’s poetry: poems which appear to present a quality of the random are in fact highly-wrought and careful vignettes of modern urban and suburban life. As a practitioner Smith is also concerned with the line as well as the music of verse and it is fitting that the short poem ‘Olson’ from Reverdy Road should focus not only on the geography of Fort Square but also on the emphatic Olsonian concern for the poetic line:

Looking off the watch-house quay into fog.

Olson scrawling walls and every surface.

Hi, gran pops! Information log-jammed.

Everyday is small. A few drops

The other way look the other way there

It goes the World harder than love. The line.

In 2011 Veer Books published Smith’s sequence of poems, Gravesend, reflections of a train journey between Charing Cross and Chatham. The volume opens with a desire for permanence within a shifting landscape, a narrative that contains ‘whatever occurred at that particular moment at the carriage window, or on the train.’ However, the hunger for permanence and some sense of stability in a fast-moving world is undermined by the subject material of potential catastrophe. Within these poems we will be confronted by the ghosts of Conrad and Dickens, Walter Benjamin and Paul Weller (Jam to Style Council), Juvenal, Claudius, Caesar, Vespasian, Neil Young and Browning, Spenser and Catullus. This wide frame of reference offers a living background to the ‘now’ and it is worth looking at Smith’s 2005 review of Josephine Balmer’s new translation of Catullus published by Bloodaxe (Poetry Review, Vol. 95, No. 1). In a scathing reference to the former Education Minister Charles Clarke’s pronouncement that educational subjects worthy of study ‘need a relationship with the workplace’ Simon Smith pointed out that if you want to become a politician perhaps you should read Cicero, Plato or Aristotle before going on to pose the question ‘where else is the foundation of Western democracy other than in the Ancient worlds of Greece and Rome?’
In contrast to this sense of continuity, however, one pervasive tone threading its way through the Gravesend sequence is that of impermanence and perhaps another shadow behind the literary urban scene is Paul Auster whose novel In the Country of Last Things (1987) drowned the reader in instability:

When you live in a city, you learn to take nothing for granted. Close your eyes for a moment, turn around to look at something else, and the thing that was before you is suddenly gone.

A child’s recognition of vertigo and terror finds one its most moving manifestations in the opening pages of Dickens’s Great Expectations where the young Pip is surrounded by the graves of his family as he stands on the marshland of North Kent one Christmas-eve. The presence of this little seed in the opening poem of Smith’s journey sets the scene for the injustice of life and the oppressive political insensitivity of the adult world masquerading as the language of ‘Progressive education’ and ‘liberal democracy’

Where ‘life’ became a history to cry out
About grey and brown flatlands tilted
Over the edge dangling Pip.

As the train approaches Bluewater shopping-city, itself an Auster or Ballard world, ‘Assessment elides policing’ and the prevailing sense of educational policy which would have doubtless found favour with that now historical Minister, Clarke, prompts the poet to mis-read a sign on a grey bin labelled ‘not working’ as ‘networking’! This is a world of captions and key-words which present themselves as mirrors of everyday narrowness.
Gravesend, republished in 2014 by Shearsman as the second section of 11781 W. Sunset Boulevard, is not a disconnected set of fragments shored against this poet’s ruin but is a collage where ‘Opposite Burger King’ there will be the outline of a Roman temple and where ‘Ghost landscapes slip the train window.’ As the reader arrives finally at Chatham, the ‘End of the line’, the journey has been a narrative in the sense used by Ortega y Gasset in Historical Reason, (published in 1984, the year of the miners’ strike and Big Brother):

So if we resort to the image, universal and ancient as you will see, that portrays life as a road to be travelled and travelled again—hence the expression “the course of life, curriculum vitae, decide on a career”—we could say that in walking along the road of life we keep it with us, know it; that is the road already travelled curls up behind us, rolls up like a film. So that when he comes to an end, man discovers that he carries, stuck there on his back, the entire roll of the life he led.

Or as Simon Smith, sardonic, shrewd and humane poet, concludes:

Me in pin-sharp form,
The ring-pull moment of chance,
Reality a line right through.

In his most recent poems, written in 2014 whilst on the West Coast of America doing research work for his forthcoming Paul Blackburn Reader, Smith pursues his concern with speed and place

father farther out with each act
of memory whilst I’m here
locked between the non-stop grind of trucks west
and endless gridlock east
trying to learn Italian
from reading Franco Beltrametti’s Face to Face
each neighbourhood a tight packet of stuff

Beltrametti’s book was published in 1973 by Grosseteste Press and Smith’s awareness of the Italian poet is not only a sly reference to John James’s sequence of poems published by Equipage in 2014 (Songs in Midwinter for Franco) but also to the poet whose merging of the immediate and the far produced embers which became fire and in whose own work ‘introspection creaks like stretched / leather, gaudy and plain, at half past / midnight 50 km out of town’.

Eating tangerines.
Missing people—lots.

Ian Brinton 17th April 2017

Vanishing Points Eds. John Kinsella & Rod Mengham (Salt Publishing)

Vanishing Points Eds. John Kinsella & Rod Mengham (Salt Publishing)

The moment of change between one century and another is no easily defined discrete box into which ideas can be crammed later to become defined as Twentieth Century as opposed to Twenty-first Century. Thomas Hardy knew this well when he published his much anthologised poem ‘The Darkling Thrush’ on December 31st 1901. The poem looks forward to the newly defined Twentieth Century with a limited sense of blessed hope “whereof he knew but I was unaware” whilst also looking back at the Nineteenth Century’s corpse “outleant”. This sense of one eye being cast over the shoulder whilst the other is fixed firmly ahead is the hallmark of the Salt anthology of poems, Vanishing Points, edited by John Kinsella and Rod Mengham and published in 2004.
The backwards glance is towards the anthology Conductors of Chaos, edited by Iain Sinclair in 1996 in which, as Randall Stevenson suggested in Volume 12 of The Oxford English Literary History, there was a clear attempt to make great demands on readers to ensure that they “looked at the language on the page—rather than through it, towards a familiar, represented reality—transparency and ease of ordinary understanding had to be eliminated as far as possible”.
Sinclair’s introduction to Conductors of Chaos had thrown down a glove for the editors of anthologies and for serious readers of modern poetry:

“The work I value is that which seems most remote, alienated, fractured. I don’t claim to ‘understand’ it but I like having it around. The darker it grows outside the window, the worse the noises from the island, the more closely do I attend to the mass of instant-printed pamphlets that pile up around my desk. The very titles are pure adrenalin; Satyrs and Mephitic Angels, Tense Fodder, Hellhound Memos, Civic Crime, Alien Skies, Harpmesh Intermezzi, A Pocket History of the Soul. You don’t need to read them, just handle them: feel the sticky heat creep up through your fingers. If these things are ‘difficult’, they have earned that right. Why should they be easy? Why should they not reflect some measure of the complexity of the climate in which they exist? Why should we not be prepared to make an effort, to break sweat, in hope of high return? There’s no key, no Masonic password; take the sequences gently, a line at a time. Treat the page as a block, sound it for submerged sonar effects. Suspend conditioned reflexes. You don’t need to sign up for Tom Paulin’s masterclass to reap the reward. If it comes too sweetly, somebody’s trying to sell you something.”

As if to emphasise even more the links between one century and the next, three of the seven titles mentioned by Sinclair were published by Rod Mengham’s Cambridge based Equipage Press and there is perhaps a sense of appropriateness here in his being the co-editor of the first significantly challenging new anthology of the Twenty-First Century. In his introduction to Vanishing Points Mengham takes up the challenge of reading as thrown down by Randall Stevenson, looking at language on the page:

“The vanishing point lies beyond the horizon established by ruling conventions, it is where the imagination takes over from the understanding. Most anthologies of contemporary verse are filled with poems that do not cross that dividing-line, but our contention is that many poems in this volume are situated on the threshold of conventional sense-making. They go beyond the perspective of accepted canons of taste and judgement and ask questions about where they belong, and who they are meant for, often combining the pathos of estrangement with the irascibility of the refusenik.”

The thirty-two poets in this anthology are from Australia, Canada, New Zealand, United Kingdom and United States of America but despite this wide geographical range what binds them together is “a strong insistence on finding ways of continuing and renewing the lyric impulse in poetry in English”. The British contributors include Caroline Bergvall, Brian Catling, David Chaloner, Andrew Crozier, Andrew Duncan, Roy Fisher, Ulli Freer, Tony Lopez, Barry MacSweeney, Anna Mendelssohn (Grace Lake), Drew Milne, Ian Patterson, J.H. Prynne, Peter Riley, Geoff Ward and John Wilkinson. Some of the poems in the anthology are from a much earlier date and Roy Fisher’s The Cut Pages first appeared in 1971 from Fulcrum Press before re-emerging in 1986 as a joint production of Oasis Books and Shearsman Books. Introducing the first appearance of the poem Fisher had told his readers that the “aim in the improvisation was to give the words as much relief as possible from serving in planned situations” and that the work “was taken forward with no programme beyond the principle that it should not know where its next meal was coming from”. This method of composition “produced very rapid changes of direction”. More on the cusp of the millennium Barry MacSweeney’s ‘Totem Banking’ and ‘I Looked Down On a Child Today’ were both written in 1998-1999 and included in his posthumous selected poems, Wolf Tongue, which appeared from Bloodaxe in 2003. ‘Totem Banking’ is dedicated to J.H. Prynne and the appropriate nature of its inclusion in this anthology is emphasised by Mengham’s introductory comments concerning the way in which “writers in this anthology have been part of a process of exchanging ideas manifested in little magazines, in the publishing programmes of small presses, and in the sheer volume of email and internet transactions”. It was Prynne, along with Andrew Crozier, who began much of this exchange of ideas with the creation and publication of The English Intelligencer back in the 1960s and it is a measure of the Cambridge poet’s professional commitment to new forms of writing that an extract from his own Red D Gypsum should form part of the new horizon posited by the editors of Vanishing Points.
Although Red D Gypsum was published by Barque Press (Andrea Brady and Keston Sutherland) in 1998 it was one of the later sequences which prompted Andrew Duncan in 2003 to write “Of course, Prynne’s aesthetic of difficulty often causes panic anxiety, feels like sensory deprivation, and invites misconstruction…people have different perceptions of what ‘good pattern’ is, and may experience incompleteness as anxiety as well as cognitive freedom”. Writing about the sequence in 2009 Nigel Wheale suggested that it is worth thinking about the sense in which reading it “may be a cumulative experience for the reader” requiring a different reading strategy. This, of course, is entirely in tune with the editorial comments in Vanishing Points and John Kinsella, the co-editor, stressed that “Typically, a poem gives the reader or listener something to take away from the text—an emotional gravitas, whimsical joy, intellectual or spiritual connection or awakening”.
At the end of the last century Kinsella had formed a publishing partnership with Clive Newman and Chris Hamilton-Emery and this new Salt Press heralded the world of Print-on-Demand (PoD). The press soon made a name for publishing a pluralist view of poetry and the 2004 publication of Vanishing Points was like the raising of a standard.

Ian Brinton 10th April 2017

%d bloggers like this: