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Category Archives: English Poetry

Day In, Day Out by Simon Smith Parlor Press (USA)

Day In, Day Out by Simon Smith Parlor Press (USA)

In April last year I reviewed Simon Smith’s Shearsman publication More Flowers Than You Could Possibly Carry, Selected Poems 1989-2012. In April 2015 I reviewed his Oystercatcher chapbook Half a dozen, just like you. April 2018 is not a season entirely bereft of spiritual consolation despite the ghastly warnings across the ether: there is a new book from Simon Smith and once again I am drawn into a world in which words are offered for their daylight meaning. As an early poem by Charles Reznikoff had put it

“the plain sunlight of the cases,
the sharp prose,
the forthright speech of the judges;
it was good, too, to stick my mind against the sentences
of a judge,
and drag the meaning out of the shell of words.”

As I have said before, Smith’s poetry is on the move and it is no mere accident that the title of his Selected contained a pun on the word ‘Flowers’. As Joyce put it in Ulysses, “Hold to the now, the here, through which all the future plunges to the past”. This new book of journal entries is haunted by ghosts: Paul Blackburn, Christopher Smith the poet’s father, 26 Poems: Californialand in Winter (vErIsImILItUde, 2014). The American influences are identifiable in many ways but, as with all ghosts, they are felt along the bloodlines and are Shades which melt when looked at directly. A poem which bears the title ‘Letter, Yesterday’s: with a Poem / Attached by Paul Blackburn, & my / Entry for the Day Before Yesterday’ has James Wright’s famous ‘Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy’s Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota’ in the background and the tone of voice in Wright’s accumulation of images is echoed by “today’s entry is reflection”. Then we hear the voice of O’Hara in the “daily account”, a noun which both narrates and sums up an experience:

“yes, Evan clicked at keys and stops in step to the mouthings
Matt sampled then re-processed
as David and I
spoke line into line
each layer broadcast above
the other”

The broadcast layers, an accumulation of one’s reading and thinking, recall Joshua Tree, Split Rock, Paul Blackburn, Barry Goldwater Jr. and Charles Olson as “lines and stanzas / hang mobile / hang-gliders in air on electronic / ether SPACES”. However, these SPACES are not just the Olsonian central fact to man born in America at the opening of Call Me Ishmael, they are unbridgeable gaps between the present and the past. A journal, day by day, records reflections of loss and yet the teasingly almost-tangible ghosts of yesterday find an opening into the NOW with the very act of writing: this poem of Smith’s is the ‘Entry for the Day Before Yesterday’ and it concludes with an awareness of the spaces “between / us”. It is “a very personal poem” which lies clear on the white page “to drop / kisses into / / browsing data and love”. The poetry of Frank O’Hara is clearly close to Simon Smith’s heart and like the New York poet’s ability to drag that meaning “out of the shell of words” his new series of poetry journals “is a plate of spinning, stunning experience” (Elaine Randell). When O’Hara wrote his famous lunch-time jaunt, ‘A Step Away from Them’ the word “Step” has not only a physical connotation of movement but also a deep-seated awareness of how we all are only a step away from the dead.

Many of Simon Smith’s poems are anchored firmly in the concrete but it is the spaces between the pictures, the cadences, the quiet and unjudging adjacency of people and objects that make their reality moving.

Ian Brinton, 9th April 2018

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Selected Poems by Geoffrey Grigson edited John Greening (Greenwich Exchange)

Selected Poems by Geoffrey Grigson edited John Greening (Greenwich Exchange)

In the first essay of Ditch Vision, a fine book which I reviewed in December last year, Jeremy Hooker refers to Geoffrey Grigson’s understanding of how a poet stands in relation to a sense of place. Quoting from Grigson’s The Private Art: A Poetry Note-Book , Hooker highlights the link between the poet and his past:

“The territory may be – often has been – a garden which surrounded him and contained him, a miniature world or universe which seemed enormous and mysterious, and protective as well.”

Hooker goes on to mention Grigson’s upbringing in a vicarage in east Cornwall where his first territory was such a garden “with which he felt an original oneness” and from which he moved out into the world of the surrounding parish where “I knew each tree, corner, footpath, rock and trickle, where I knew each of the fields by name.” This is the concern which Grigson himself had also referred to in his Introduction to The Faber Book of Poems and Places (1980) with his assertion that “Our feeling flows into places, and an accumulation of feeling, historical, cultural and personal, flows back from places into our consciousness.” Given this awareness of place it is not surprising that Geoffrey Grigson should have written a poem titled ‘Travelling at Night (After Tu Fu)’ the opening lines of which bear witness to Anne Stevenson’s comments about Grigson’s poetry having a “vine-like way of twisting words around ideas until, in surprise, you discover how much he is saying”:

“Delicate grasses ashore
stir in a small wind. Tall
my boat’s mast in this
night’s loneliness. Stars
depend to these
wide wide levels.”

One listens to the quiet sound of the word “ashore” followed by the clarity of the opening of line two with “stir” and the context given by “small wind” which suggests movement possessing the accuracy of the particular. This brush-stroke has a fine awareness of how place and consciousness merge one into the other. An interesting comparison might be made with the translation undertaken by David Hinton for New Directions in the late 1980s where that opening line became “In delicate beach-grass, a slight breeze.” There is something matter-of-fact about this line and it doesn’t create Grigson’s atmosphere of personal involvement with how the Chinese poet’s journeying echoes far beyond the late eighth-century. In Grigson’s version the second line concludes with “Tall” and again one recognises the stretching out of the particular moment to become an aspect of an individual’s journeying: this mast has been set up in defiance of “night’s loneliness”. Hinton used the word “teetering” in relation to the erection of the mast and this has less urgency. The movement of Grigson’s poem is towards a conclusion in which we read

“Writing gives me no name,
illness, age bar my advancement –
drifting, drifting
here, what am I like
but a gull of the sandbanks
in between earth
and heaven!”

Not being able to read the original I do not know how accurate a rendering this is of Du Fu’s poetry and Hinton’s conclusion (“How will poems bring honor? My career / Lost to age and sickness, buffeted, adrift / On the wind”) may well be closer to the Chinese. However, what Geoffrey Grigson has achieved is a poignant sense of an individual held in self-doubt between what lies below and what lies above. There is a sensitivity and personal engagement in Grigson’s lines which gives the lie (or at least another perspective) to the well-known attribute he had of being a fiercely uncompromising critic and a prickly character to deal with. Perhaps this portrait of the literary editor of the Morning Post who founded the influential magazine New Verse in 1933 can be partly laid at the door of Dylan Thomas who wrote in a letter to Pamela Hansford Johnson late that year:

“There are only two men in England whom I hate with all my heart: Sir Edward Elgar and Mr Geoffrey Grigson. One has inflicted more pedantic wind & blather upon a supine public than any other man who has ever lived. The other edits New Verse. His place is already reserved in the lower regions where, for all eternity, he shall read the cantos of Ezra Pound to a company of red-hot devils.”

One has only to look closely at the early 1970s poem ‘Raw Ream: Remembering, Now Dead, a Teacher’ to recognise how much better and how much more generously thoughtful Grigson’s poetry is:

“I speak of times before high whining of cars or round
growling of planes, when silence was fashioned by noises:
it is a pool in our hollow of pines looped by the sun
which makes them the colour of foxes, is defined
lightly by crows passing over, by
a huckling of hens relieved of their eggs,
by women calling to women, is broken, so
made by clangs, or by regular bells now and then.”

As with the world of Du Fu reality is to be found in contrasts, silence is defined by noise. That concept hearkens back to the eighth century of Chinese poetry and forward to the challenging understanding of John Cage at Black Mountain College. This latter suggestion would doubtless bring a wry and disapproving twist to the mouth of Geoffrey Grigson, poet and critic, whose work has been importantly restored to us through the excellent editorial skills of John Greening.

Ian Brinton, 3rd April 2018

http://www.greenex.co.uk

Tears in the Fence 67 is now available

Tears in the Fence 67 is now available

Tears in the Fence 67 is now available from https://tearsinthefence.com/pay-it-forward

This issue is designed by Westrow Cooper and features poetry, fiction, flash fiction and talks from Peter Riley, Angela Gardner, Jeremy Reed, Geraldine Clarkson, Mike McNamara, Khairani Barokka, Caitilín Gormley, Beth McDonough, Nigel Jarrett, Mark Dickinson, Colin Honnor, Jessica Sneddon, Lesley Burt, Charles Wilkinson, Colin Sutherill, Doug Jones, Radka Thea Otipkova, Maria Stadnicka, Richard Makin, Fiona Moore, Tess Jolly, Gerald Killingworth, Norman Jope on Lessons From A Left-Behind Laureateship, L. Kiew, Rupert M. Loydell, Jill Abram, Harriet Parker, Gram Joel Davies, Judy Darley, Charles Hadfield, Amy McCauley, Lucia Sellars, Tim Allen, David Ball, Jay Ramsay, Lydia Harris, Rosie Jackson, Rachael Clyne, Maitreyabandhu, Michael Farrell, Andrew Henon, Anna Backman Rogers, Andrew Shelley, Alexandra Sashe, Kris Hemensley, Cat Conway, Morag Kiziewicz and Jeremy Reed on Starman: Temenos Academy Talk.

The critical section features Ian Brinton’s Editorial, Isobel Armstrong on Carol Watts, Andrew Duncan on Steve Ely, Frances Presley on Hazel Smith, Rosie Jackson on Cora Greenhill, Melinda Lovell on Sheila Hamilton, Richard Foreman on Leonora Carrington, Vanessa Gebbie, Ian Brinton on Douglas Woolf, Elaine Randell on John Muckle, Lesley Saunders on Josephine Balmer, Mandy Pannett on Jay Ramsay, Fiona Owen on Matthew Barton, John Freeman, Andrea Moorhead on Pansy Maurer-Alvarez, Charlie Baylis on Rupert M. Loydell, Richard Foreman on Alan Moore, Suzannah V. Evans on the 2017 T.S. Eliot Summer School, Elizabeth Stott on Kathleen Jones, Jonathan Catherall on Robert Vas Dias & Julia Farrer, David Caddy on Stairs & Whispers, Morag Kiziewicz’s Electric Blue 3, Notes on Contributors and David Caddy’s Afterword.

Article 50 by Kelvin Corcoran (Longbarrow Press)

Article 50 by Kelvin Corcoran (Longbarrow Press)

1n his 1981 book The Political Unconscious: Narrative as Socially Symbolic Act Frederic Jameson argued that reality presents itself to the human mind primarily in the form of narrative. Two years later in Waterland, one of the most moving examinations of the interwoven sense of History and Fiction, Graham Swift put the following words into the mouth of a South London teacher of History who is facing redundancy. Addressing his last Sixth-form he preaches:

“Children, who will inherit the world. Children to whom, throughout history, stories have been told, chiefly but not always at bedtime, in order to quell restless thoughts; whose need of stories is matched only by the need adults have of children to tell stories to, of receptacles for their stock of fairy-tales, of listening ears on which to unload those most unbelievable yet haunting of fairy-tales, their own lives…”

In Kelvin Corcoran’s recent chapbook of poems, so exquisitely produced by Longbarrow Press, we are also presented with the weaving fabric of history and fiction as the signing of Article 50 of the Treaty on European Union, enacted by the Treaty of Lisbon on 1st December 2009, set in motion that procedure for a member state to withdraw from the European Union. In the satirical portraits of some of the main characters promoting the cutting adrift of this sceptered isle one can almost hear the cracking open of champagne bottles on the side of a craft as it slips down the beach. In the sequence of three poems titled ‘Biographies of the Brexiteers’, with its little echo of that famous gallery of miscreants portrayed in The Complete Newgate Calendar, we read of ‘The Quiet Man’ (Ian Guido Smith), ‘Boris Johnson and Seventy Two Virgins’ and ‘Twisting Michael of the Gove’. The tone of Corcoran’s writing is unmistakable as we are presented with vignettes of these three political figures. ‘The Quiet Man’ looks over the Channel:

“As the girl Europa struggled all at sea, Guido looked on dreaming,
arranged the limbs of the drowned to spell Breakthrough Britain;
and gathered the spoils to build a new nation for old time’s sake.”

And there’s the rub! The launching of the Brexit boat for nostalgic reasons, the leading backwards “into an England of last resort”.
What is most valuable about this new collection of poems is the ability and determination of the poet not to rest contented in a satirical mode however successful that may be. Kelvin Corcoran moves the reader forward with a tone of anger and anguish, a tone which requires us to take account of what is truly meant by loss both personal and social. The third poem in the volume is titled ‘Radio Logos’ and it conjures up a portrait of a thinker who sits on a cliff-top watching the inexorable movement of the Brexit vessel:

“I sit here on the edge of time gazing out to sea;
if history is an account of semantic drift
it can be read backwards to the well of speaking.

That was lesson 4 – were you even listening?
Were you just smiling at the pretty dial-light?
So here it is again – call it Terms of Resistance.

Lesson 4: you must trust the people, their erudition
from unlikely sources, from the stream of first meaning
from the mouths of all the people under the ringing sky.

As surprising as the beauty of recalled trade routes
the acquisition of obsidian, highland cedar and coral,
the expansion of ritual activity, the invention of sailing.

As surprising as the small pool of cool water
found high in the mountains, that bright ellipse
keeping a cold eye on the arching blue.”

I can almost hear the urgency of Tom Crick, history-teacher in Greenwich, whose subject is being shut down despite his Headmaster’s assurance that “I’m not dropping History. It’s an unavoidable reduction. There’ll be no new Head of History. History will merge with General Studies.” And I wonder if that fictional Headmaster ever read that fictional account of a fictional future in 1984: “He who controls the past controls the future. He who controls the present controls the past.”

The overarching sense of loss in these poems is placed with quiet and humbling reflection as, in the nine poems that make up ‘A Footnote to the Above’, we encounter the shades of Lee Harwood, Roy Fisher and Tom Raworth. In this Dante-like underworld they appear held exact in a moment of time:

“Roy read as he wrote with no show, no pomp;
in Newcastle-under-Lyme twenty years ago
standing with Carl Rakosi and Gael Turnbull:
come up, come up my thinking shades”

The past merges with the present as the poet thought he saw “Robert Sheppard in the market / Place Dumon, Brussels, bright for business / wearing a leather Fedora and a fine jacket” and Corcoran makes the past “most alive living nowhere now”. It takes us back to the interview he gave with Andrew Duncan (Don’t Start Me Talking, Salt, 2006):

“Imagine that the classical edifice of mythology is no such thing but an overlaying and retelling of competing localised myths and songs, arising out of a sort of civic pride, giving back meaning to the specific group. The ancient landscape overlays the modern and I see the mythology as local and useful and not detached from the everyday. I think it’s also a sort of code which tells us exactly what is happening in the present Oil Wars for instance, it is a type of ignorance to behave as though such things have not happened before and it’s only in the interests of the perpetrators to act as if such things have not happened before.”

This beautifully produced little book should be read by anyone who values lyric poetry and by all those who can still call to mind the closing lines of Shelley’s poem written just over two-hundred years ago:

“My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings,
Look on my Works ye Mighty, and despair!
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away”

Ian Brinton, 26th March 2018

http://www.longbarrowpress.com

Heretics of Language by Barry Schwabsky (Black Square Editions)

Heretics of Language by Barry Schwabsky (Black Square Editions)

This is a compelling collection of essays focussing upon a wide range of artists and led by the pied piper of the Arts, Barry Schwabsky. We can engage with Jack Spicer and John Ashbery, Samuel Beckett and Italo Calvino, Peter Manson and Denise Riley…Paul Celan and more…and more.
A taster: the review of Rasula and Conley’s anthology Burning City: Poems of Metropolitan Modernity (Action Books, 2012) opens with an uncompromisingly clear tone:

“There’s nothing like an ambitious anthology for redistricting your inner map of poetic possibility.”

There is a clean sense in Schwabsky’s use of the word “redistricting” which locates us firmly in the urban world that Blake might have recognised in his use of the word “charter’d” in ‘London’. Ambitious anthologies might include Donald Allen’s The New American Poetry (1960), Crozier and Longville’s A Various Art (1987) and Iain Sinclair’s Conductors of Chaos (1996); they certainly include the one mentioned by Schwabsky, Jerome Rothenberg’s Poems for the Millennium. The time-frame of Burning City is approximately 1910-39 and “Jed Rasula and Tom Conley have given us a historical anthology with clear implications for our present sense of what literary modernity might be and of how we could still be implicated in it”. As the editors assert “We still inhabit metropolitan configurations pioneered under the auspices of Modernism” and therefore, implicitly, our writing is still conditioned by such habitation. It was Ben Jonson who wrote that “Language most shewes a man: speake that I may see thee” following that dramatic statement with the assertion that language “springs out of the most retired, and inmost parts of us, and is the image of the Parent of it, the mind”. Barry Schwabsky’s review of this anthology reflects his own sense of mind: a fairness concerning the enormous amount of work done by the editors spending “untold hours leafing through half- or entirely forgotten magazines in seemingly every European language (there are a few Asian writers included as well)”. It comes of course as no surprise that Schwabsky should also pick up on what he sees as something rather surprising, that this complex piece of publishing “has been undertaken by a small press like Action Books:

“One would have thought this kind of project to be the preserve of the university presses…but these days, apparently, such things depend less on institutions than on the heroic efforts of a few individuals. Action Books had long since won my admiration for its publications by contemporaries like Glenum, Aase Berg and Kim Hyesoon, but Burning City puts the press on another level altogether”.

Towards the end of this essay on the Poetry of the Modernist City Barry Schwabsky points us to a central aspect of the urban when he says that the city “seems to be constantly in the process of destroying itself but – through (or as) that very destruction – it persists”. In my mind this seems to point back to Paul Auster’s terrifying picture of the future of urban living in his 1987 novel In the Country of Last Things:

“When you live in the 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. Nothing lasts, you see, not even the thoughts inside you. And you mustn’t waste your time looking for them. Once a thing is gone, that is the end of it.”

In the opening words to this remarkable collection of essays Barry Schwabsky tells us that to use language is always, in some degree, to disturb it, “to trouble the solidity of the identification through which it is structured – to induce a mutation, momentary or momentous as it may be.” My response is YES! And that is what makes reading so engaging and so important.

http://www.blacksquareeditions.org

Ian Brinton, 1st March 2018.

Poems For The Dance by Scott Thurston (Aquifer)

Poems For The Dance by Scott Thurston (Aquifer)

In 1923 a Doctor in Rutherford was firmly convinced that much depended upon a red wheelbarrow which sat “glazed with rain / water // beside the white / chickens”. Wallace Stevens referred to that wheelbarrow as a “mobile-like arrangement” and Hugh Kenner suggested that the words hung together dangling in “equidependency, attracting the attention, isolating it, so that the sentence in which they are arrayed comes to seem like a suspension system.” Seven years after the placing of that same wheelbarrow William Carlos Williams went on to weave in words a picture of a cat which “climbed over / the top of // the jamcloset”. The 27 words of the cat’s movements are described in what Kenner called “one sinuous suspended sentence, feeling its way and never fumbling.” In The Pound Era Kenner went on to present us with a surfer:

“The surfer planes obliquely down a hill that renews itself at just the rate of his descent. But for encountering the beach he could glide eternally, leftward and inward and always as if downward, but never further down: always hung midway on the face of the wave. He shifts, precarious, through innumerable moments of equilibrium. And the wave bears him and there is no moving wave: the molecules of water move not forward at all but only up and down, their forward movement a pattern not a displacement, as his downward movement is no displacement but a pattern: on and on, self-renewing. So through mere words, renewed by every reader, the cat walks safely forever.”

In her introduction to Scott Thurston’s recently published volume Poems for the Dance Camilla Nelson highlights for us the sense of movement which threads its way through this fine and intriguing moving stance:

“A key part of Thurston’s skill lies in his ability to monitor, examine and carefully express his experience as a dancing body in words. This is evidenced most clearly in the first part of the essay ‘Dancing the Five Rhythms’. The level of detail he is able to recall of the seemingly fleeting emotional-physical relation of the moving body is impressive. But ‘body’ is not enough because, as micro-biologist Margaret McFall-Ngai has observed of her bacterial studies, as the focus of study narrows “it’s difficult for scientists to even categorize what they are seeing” (2010:3). Things fall apart. That is the beauty of such fine observation. Thurston conjures a mirage of being able to think, move and write all at once.”

The reference to things falling apart carries with it no sense of Yeatsian foreboding and what becomes clear throughout this volume of poems, prose and photographs is a sense that the centre both can and does “hold”. This should come as no surprise as one recalls his 2011 Shearsman volume Talking Poetics, the four ‘Dialogues in Innovative Poetry’, a collection of four interviews conducted with Karen MacCormack, Jennifer Moxley, Caroline Bergvall and Andrea Brady:

“It may be difficult to make an apprehension of a poet’s style available to critical analysis. To some extent it must simply be accepted as the means by which their poetry comes to us, and something which we may come to be more or less aware of, perhaps not unlike the rhythm of someone’s walk.”

Commenting on these interviews he suggested that “turning the mercury of speech into the lead of type was a sort of alchemy of meditation and reflection”. The opening poem in this new collection is itself a prolonged meditation on turning and I was reminded of the ‘Message From Not Far Away’ with which Jeremy Prynne concluded the first issue of a Students’ English Magazine of Guangzhou University in 2005:

“Out on the Pearl River enjoying a festive excursion I was watching the water currents slide by, flashing with lights from the banks on either side and lightning from the sky; and I realised how brilliant would be the new magazine of the Guangzhou University English Writing Classes, full of pearl-bright moments and shining articles all moving along in the currents of these changing times. Students of writing should write, so that Chinese imagination and English expression may flow together and blend and sparkle!”

This new collection of Scott Thurston’s work accompanied by the photographs of Roger Bygott sparkles and, as Sarah Kelly notes on the back, it presents us with “moments of encounter, acts of noticing, awareness of pattern – wave by wave by wave”.

Visit http://www.glasfrynproject.org.uk

Ian Brinton, 24th February 2018

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

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