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Richard Swigg

Richard Swigg

Richard Swigg, formerly Senior Lecturer in English at the University of Keele, died last week. His books on the poetry of Charles Tomlinson constitute probably the most important contributions to a full recognition of that poet who was primarily responsible for introducing the world of post WWII American poetry to the shores of England. Swigg’s publications included Charles Tomlinson and the Objective Tradition (Associated University Presses, 1994) and it is worth recalling the opening statement of that book:

“My subject is the poetry of Charles Tomlinson and the Anglo-American tradition that he illuminates. The lineage of concrete particularity to which he belongs is one that reaches back in verse to the English Augustans, and forward, through Blake, Whitman, and Hopkins, to William Carlos Williams. Above all, it is a tradition of objectivity that has special regard for the world in its solid, separate otherness – for a plurality of phenomena independent of our egotistic projection and unblurred by myth or symbol. Tomlinson, I believe, is unique among contemporary English poets in the way that he has provided the terms by which we see the distinctness of that world and the tradition that describes it.”

Swigg went on to focus on that “distinctness” and in his next book on Tomlinson, Look with the Ears, Charles Tomlinson’s Poetry of Sound (Peter Lang, 2002) he traced the way in which Tomlinson’s poetry evolved from the 1940s to the 1990s as an acoustic means of “seeing” and voicing the physical world. That concern for the voice prompted Swigg to put together the most comprehensive collection of taped readings by Basil Bunting and in 8 separate cassettes he recorded the poet reading Briggflatts (1967) and ‘The Well of Lycopolis’ (1982) as well as interviews with Tom Pickard in Northumberland between 1981 and 1982. Richard Swigg’s energetic involvement with the world of modern poetry is also evidenced in his work done on the poetry and letters of George Oppen and in 2007 Penn Sound published his collection of William Carlos Williams recordings online before going on in 2009 to publish his collection of Oppen recordings. In 2012 University of Iowa Press published his book on Williams, Eliot and Marianne Moore, Quick, Said the Bird and this also is a book worth seeking out:

“It is the keen-edged life tracked as much by Moore in a frigate pelican, a Virginian mockingbird, or the eagles of Mount Rainier as it is by Williams following through the gymnastics of starlings in the wind, a bird winging down to its watery image, or the notes of a redbreast by the Passaic Falls: all instances of a poetic outreach into the zestfully unsilenced which still persists in the later Eliot’s call, “Quick, said the bird,” as the thrush of an English garden points the acoustic memory back to the cries of the Philomela nightingale or the water-dripping song of the North American hermit-thrush in The Waste Land.”

In the early years of this century I was the reviews editor of The English Association’s magazine for teachers, The Use of English, and I arranged for Richard to review Tomlinson’s Carcanet Press edition of Metamorphoses: Poetry and Translation. Needless to say the review was terrific as he noted that “Frontiers divide, fissures break open, but in Charles Tomlinson’s poetry they also impel the mind across borders to new connections”. That review appeared in Vol.55, No.2, Spring 2004. Richard Swigg was an academic and teacher who committed himself wholeheartedly to what he regarded as the central work of his life. His eye for detail was precise and his awareness of what was going on in the world of research made his work very important indeed. In a letter that he sent me some fifteen years ago one can detect the investigator at work. The letter was in reply to some little details I had sent him concerning the Oppens and the Tomlinsons:

“As to Oppen coincidences, I have mine! While reading the Selected Letters recently, I noticed that Oppen had done a 1964 reading for the American Academy – a recording which I mentally noted as worth pursuing (since I have several, post 1967, where he reads Of Being Numerous and later poems). The 1964 one must, I thought, include The Materials, surely. Well, hardly had I noted this than I had a reply from the Harvard Poetry Room – the new Curator there, Don Share, who’s done a Ph.D. on Bunting (under Ricks, I think) – about my request for another Oppen tape, to say that he also had the 1964 one. So now he’s sending them over. I’ve also located ones that Oppen did for the Bay Area local radio station, KPFA, in Berkeley, and hope to get these one of the days.”

Don Share of course is now the editor of Poetry Magazine and published the very fine critical edition of Basil Bunting’s complete Poems for Faber & Faber last year.

I last met Richard Swigg at the celebration of the poetry of Charles Tomlinson held in the Wills Memorial Building, Clifton, Bristol on 30th September last year. It was a joy to hear his open-hearted enthusiasm for Tomlinson’s contribution to British poetry.

Ian Brinton, 26th March 2017

In Memoriam: Charles Tomlinson

In Memoriam: Charles Tomlinson

III

I first came across the poetry of Charles Tomlinson in 1970 when I was studying English in Cambridge at Gonville and Caius. My supervisor, J.H. Prynne, gave me a copy of ‘At Holwell Farm’ to write about as an exercise in Practical Criticism and I was immediately struck by a tone of measured quietness that I recognised as belonging, in my own mind, with the poems of Edward Thomas that I had studied for A level eighteen months earlier. In the way coincidences work, seeming sometimes to offer a haunting sense of woven tapestry, my English teacher at Sevenoaks had been a St Dunstan’s pupil just after the war. I was to learn some years later that my supervisor at Caius was also a St Dunstan’s product who had dedicated his first book of poems, Force of Circumstance, to his teacher there, Basil Harvey. I suppose that some of my liking for the Thomas poems also came from my living at the top of the hill overlooking Sevenoaks Weald where Thomas had lived in Else’s Farm in the early years of the twentieth century. But it was the tone of quietness which spoke to me most nearly.

‘It is a quality of air, a temperate sharpness
Causes an autumn fire to burn compact,
To cast from a shapely and unrifted core
Its steady brightness.’

Prynne pointed out the quotation in that first line and I recall hurrying back to my digs to look up the letter Keats had sent to J.H. Reynolds on 21st September 1819 from Winchester. After all, I had the two-volume Hyder Rollins letters which had been on the reading list Prynne had sent out to prospective undergraduates:

How beautiful the season is now—How fine the air. A temperate sharpness about it. Really, without joking, chaste weather—Dian skies—I never lik’d stubble fields so much as now—Aye better than the chilly green of the spring. Somehow a stubble plain looks warm—this struck me so much in my Sunday’s walk that I composed upon it.

The ‘composition’, of course, was titled ‘To Autumn’. Tomlinson’s image of the fire, presumably of leaves and weeds, struck another chord with me because it brought back the number of times I had helped my father rake together fallen leaves in Autumn before pulling them all together and lighting the slow-burning, smouldering, fire. That was in Keston, not very far away from the first school I attended which was run by Muriel Prynne, the mother of the teacher who introduced me to Holwell Farm!
Prynne’s first collection of poems contained ‘Before Urbino’ which opened with lines that were clearly written after reading Tomlinson:

‘House next to house; tree next to tree; a wall
Tokens a winding road. The air across
The distant slope is palpable with light,
A clarid flood of silence.’

On December 24th 2002 Tomlinson wrote me a card:

‘Prynne’s use of the word ‘clarid’ makes me think he had been reading Stokes as well as CT. I see there is at last a new edition of Adrian Stokes Stones of Rimini, a marvellous book on limestone & sculpture CT was also reading long ago. Details in TLS last week—plus news that CT has won the New Criterion Poetry Prize, N. York.’

In May 1961 Prynne had indeed written to Tomlinson about Stokes and I referred to this in some detail in my article published in Salt 2 six years ago, ‘Prynne in Prospect’:

‘Immediacy for Stokes is the simultaneous apprehension of a two-dimensional surface in space: this seems to me to be his primary concern. Elements of recession and protuberance, texture and contrast, are allowed to articulate our awareness, but not to violate its separateness and lucidity. Music and the dimension of succession generally is an arrière-pensée, draining the impact of this confrontation by insisting on the context of a linear dimension through time. Stokes manages in spite of this arbitrary self-impoverishment (he has lost, after all, effective use of two out of four dimensions), both to see with accuracy and to feel the full emotional relevance of what we see—the Cortile d’Onore at Urbino (seen almost completely through his eyes) was an extraordinary experience, and one in which I felt a full deployment of my entire capacities for response.’

Ian Brinton August 28th 2015

Homage to Charles Tomlinson Part Two

Homage to Charles Tomlinson Part Two

In the early 1980s there was a short-lived review of modern poetry, The Present Tense, edited by Michael Abbott. The inside cover included a list of people to be thanked for help and advice and these included Neil Astley for issue 3 and Michael Schmidt for issue 4. Issue 2 contained poetry by Charles Tomlinson (‘A Defence of Poesie’) and issue 4 published his ‘Sonnet (after Mallarmé)’. Other poets who appeared in the four issues of this little Bristol-based magazine included C.H. Sisson, Anthony Rudolf, John Greening, Glen Cavaliero, Michael Schmidt and Martin Booth. In issue 3, Autumn 1982, I reviewed Tomlinson’s recently published collection The Flood and the following remarks are taken from that review. Whilst I may blush at some naïveties presented over thirty years ago I think that I still hold to the substance of what I wrote!

After referring to ‘Winter Encounters’, the poem featured in my first ‘blog’, I went on to look at Tomlinson’s questioning of the permanence of stone as his house in Ozleworth became flooded after constant heavy rain and the brook overflowing:

‘The close connection between the landscape and the people dwelling in it is emphasised by the civilised term ‘neighbourhood’ in ‘Winter Encounters’. In that poem there is a firm sense that the bodying-forth of the connections perceived within a landscape is linked to the constant values inherent within individual lives. However, in this latest collection I am impelled to recognise a new tone, a questioning sense that perhaps these objects seen are dissolving, no longer to be relied upon as constants. In ‘The Gate’ the poet’s eye is ‘teased; by a gate being placed on the edge of an unfenced field and the poet’s new eye melts a wall to nothing: a place ‘unspaced’ is, perhaps, in lacking its structure, non-existent. There is here a new way of seeing as the rigid becomes fluid and what is seen becomes almost dream-like:

‘…The mocked mind,
Busy with surroundings it can neither bound nor unbind,
Cedes to the eye the pleasure of passing
Where, between the gate’s five bars,
Perpetual seawaves play of innumerable grasses.’

Similarly the grass which appears ‘like scattered megaliths’ in ‘Hay’ dissolves into an atmosphere of scents:

‘A hedge of hay-bales to confuse the track
Of time, and out of which the smoking dews
Draw odours solid as the huge deception.’

The title poem appears near the end of the collection and the poet who wrote about ‘Stone Walls at Chew Magna’ opens now with

‘It was the night of the flood first took away
My trust in stone.’

The liquid element fills in spaces as opposed to delineating them and the poet vainly attempts to erect structures that will channel the water back to its origin as he ‘dragged / Sacks, full of a mush of soil / Dug in the rain, and bagged each threshold.’ However, naturally enough for this type of flood these measures are ineffectual and I recall D.H. Lawrence’s comment in ‘Love was once a little boy’:

‘The individual is like a deep pool, or tarn, in the mountains, fed from beneath by unseen springs, and having no obvious inlet or outlet.’

The flood in Tomlinson’s poem has ‘…no end to its sources and resources / To grow and to go wherever it would / Taking one with it. The welling up from the springs of imagination is not to be balked by sacks which are themselves filled with soil dug in the rain: here will be

‘…a swealing away
Past shape and self’.

When faced with the overwhelming scepticism concerning those meticulous details upon which the ordered mind has relied for so long then what has been said by others is something to be preserved. Carrying objects to the floor above the poet puts a stair ‘Between the world of books and water.’ In a confrontation between imaginative inspiration and the landmarks which give it shape ‘Water had tried stone and found it wanting’.
However, as with the grass inside the fenceless field the mind discovers new areas of contemplation: a reconciliation. The ‘vertigo of sunbeams’ reflected off the water onto the ceiling are, next morning, something to be praised. Perhaps stone was too unyielding for a poet taking stock of himself. Now no surface is safe from swaying and stone appears as ‘malleable as clay’. Within this Noah’s Ark there is a new morning and a new way of seeing, waiting patiently ‘upon the weather’s mercies.’

I apologise in advance for the incorrect left margin in some of the quotations: technical hitch!

Ian Brinton August 26th 2015

Homage to Charles Tomlinson

Homage to Charles Tomlinson

I

Winter Encounters

House and hollow; village and valley-side:
The ceaseless pairings, the interchange
In which the properties are constant
Resumes its winter starkness. The hedges’ barbs
Are bared. Lengthened shadows
Intersecting, the fields seem parcelled smaller
As if by hedgerow within hedgerow. Meshed
Into neighbourhood by such shifting ties,
The house reposes, squarely upon its acre
Yet with softened angles, the responsive stone
Changeful beneath the changing light:
There is a riding-forth, a voyage impending
In this ruffled air, where all moves
Towards encounter. Inanimate or human,
The distinction fails in these brisk exchanges—
Say, merely, that the roof greets the cloud,
Or by the wall, sheltering its knot of talkers,
Encounter enacts itself in the conversation
On customary subjects, where the mind
May lean at ease, weighing the prospect
Of another’s presence. Rain
And the probability of rain, tares
And their progress through a field of wheat—
These, though of moment in themselves,
Serve rather to articulate the sense
That having met, one meets with more
Than the words can witness. One feels behind
Into the intensity that bodies through them
Calmness within the wind, the warmth in cold.

The ‘encounters’ here are a mixture of the permanent and the transient and are perhaps best captured by the phrase ‘shifting ties’. Ties are those connections we feel towards each other as well as the way one thing is linked by complement to another. The solidity of ‘House’ is tied with the vaguer and more echoing ‘hollow’ and the human group of habitations in ‘village’ is tied with the landscape of ‘valley-side’. The way everything is linked together in this poem is held by the pairing of one thing with another and although the ‘properties are constant’ the way the pairing is perceived is dependent upon the fluctuating and shifting quality of light and season. The tie of one thing to another is seen as a parcelling and a meshing, itself a criss-cross weave of connections. At the heart of the poem there is a steady permanence with the phrase ‘The house reposes’. That reliable permanence of peaceful existence is delightfully caught by the relaxed meaning of repose and is given a solidity of structure by the geometrical presence of ‘squarely upon its acre’ and yet even this solidity is shown as dissoluble by the effect of ‘the changing light’ and one is aware that all the landscape is moving ‘towards encounter’. Distinctions fail because of course they don’t remain static and the ever-shifting encounters register life moving. However, even in this world of movement there are those reliable certainties which allow the mind to ‘lean at ease’ and one becomes aware of the attractive repetitive conversation between farmers as to the likelihood of rain, of the effects of tares growing wild in the field of wheat. ‘Calmness’ taking up from ‘repose’ has a settled strength which throughout the poetry of Charles Tomlinson becomes a matter of expressing a dearly held set of moral values, a code of mutual dependencies between man and his landscape which owe something to that measured world of urbane generosity which one comes across in Ben Jonson’s ‘To Penshurst’ or ‘To Sir Robert Wroth’.

Ian Brinton, 24th August 2015

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