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Category Archives: English Prose

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

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Edward Thomas: Prose Writings Volume V Edited by Francis O’Gorman (Oxford University Press)

Edward Thomas: Prose Writings Volume V  Edited by Francis O’Gorman  (Oxford University Press)

When I reviewed the first volume of O.U.P.’s ambitious project to produce six substantial volumes of the prose of Edward Thomas I remember being struck by the meticulous and engaging introduction by the editor Guy Cuthbertson. That review appeared in The English Association’s Journal The Use of English in the autumn of 2011. The same held true for the second volume edited by both Cuthbertson and his partner in the whole project, Lucy Newlyn. As I read through this fifth volume, edited by the Saintsbury Professor of English Literature at Edinburgh, the undoubted professionalism of the whole O.U.P. project becomes sparklingly clear.
In his prose work Timber, or Discoveries, Ben Jonson presented us with the way in which language reveals our identity:

“Language most shewes a man: speake that I may see thee. It springs out of the most retired, and inmost parts of us, and is the Image of the Parent of it, the mind. No glasse renders a mans forme, or likenesse, so true as his speech.”

In the introduction to this finely-crafted book containing not only Edward Thomas’s critical studies of Swinburne and Pater but also some of the reviews the poet wrote between 1904 and 1909, O’Gorman suggests that “A critic’s identity is always some part of what he or she presents as knowledge of someone else’s”. For Edward Thomas, a writer troubled with trying to get words exactly right so that he could present his readers with the shades of reality that constituted his thoughts “readings of Pater and Swinburne are peculiarly dense with the literary conundrums for which he was seeking an answer, the problems of his professional relationship with words, the troubles of making a living from language while not betraying it”. For O’Gorman these two book-length monographs on Oxford-educated poets “provide a broken narrative of an as-yet voiceless poet journeying towards himself.”
In a subsection of his introduction, the editor directs us to Chapter 8 of the book on Swinburne and makes a convincing case for the chapter’s distinctive qualities in terms of Thomas’s own progression from prose to poetry. He notes the intensity of Thomas’s absorption, “his detailed enumeration of the many turns of Swinburne’s language that figure a mystery”. He conjures up for us a picture of Thomas “entranced by a poet on the edge of theology; a poet handling what might loosely be described as unsolved or numinous ideas that avoid mere clarity and summon possibility without adjudication”:

“Thomas is drawn to Swinburne’s capacity to write in ways that suggest rather than inform. He calls attention to Swinburne’s ability to compose poetry that contains ideas but is not reducible to them. He describes the ineffable objects of Swinburne’s imagination.”

In this chapter Thomas mused on ways in which poetry was able to communicate differently than merely through the literal sense of words:

“His criticism points to an aspiration for poetry that trades in un-paraphrasable moments of understanding, luminosity, emotional poise, mystery, or even – to borrow the title of a book he never wrote – ecstasy.”

When we read Thomas’s poetry we recognise time and again that reach for some meaning that lies beyond the empirical, that concern for trying to catch, as F.R.Leavis expressed it in 1932, “some shy intuition on the edge of consciousness that would disappear if looked at directly”.
The sixty page introduction to these two important prose works of Thomas, both written in the two years leading up to the outbreak of war, relies upon imaginative use of manuscript material from the Thomas archives in order to present us with what amounts to a portrait of Thomas himself. Or, as O’Gorman puts it, “They are, in significant ways, versions of Thomas as he was and as he imagined he could have been. They are certainly versions of his literary problems, solved and unsolved”. Tracing this path of the poet’s life in which his acumen and honesty as a literary critic of considerable renown was brought to bear on two writers of substantial importance to the late nineteenth-century and the early years of the twentieth O’Gorman dwells intriguingly on Thomas’s early years as an Oxford student of History and the disappointment to himself of his second-class degree. We are directed to the seemingly easy judgement made by the poet’s widow in her biographical account of their lives, World Without End, as she refers to the birth of their first child:

“As was natural his work suffered a good deal during this last term, and it was no surprise to David [Edward], though a bitter disappointment to his father, when he got only a second-class degree.”

O’Gorman suggests that the use of the word “natural” is apt in one sense, after all the arrival a baby is bound to interrupt the study for Finals, but it is also a cagey one:

“Its sense of normality, of what is merely to be expected, throws into the shade the aftermath (perceived or real) of not taking a higher class of degree; of not having made the most of that last Trinity term; of not being free from the responsibilities of marriage and children. Behind that ‘as was natural’ is the sad history of a man who felt he had had to live unnaturally.”

I remember writing that review in 2011 after reading the first volume of this superbly presented series, ‘Autobiographies’, and commenting upon one of the central themes haunting the work of Edward Thomas: the inability to ever go back; the inaccessibility of a past which haunts and beckons whilst always being one step away from actualization. This new volume complements the two earlier publications and I wait with considerable anticipation for the next volume to appear.

Ian Brinton, 30th May 2017

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