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Collected Poems by Peter Riley (Shearsman Books) Part II

Collected Poems by Peter Riley (Shearsman Books) Part II

About three-quarters of the way through the first volume of Peter Riley’s Collected Poems we will find the long piece of poetry and prose Lines on the Liver which had originally been published by Andrew Crozier’s Ferry Press in 1981. Re-reading this piece I am struck by echoes of Charles Olson:

“To the west, beyond Stoke, are Welsh hills and the sea, and eastward behind me stretches a simple and wide monotony to the coast, perhaps the most blessed condition of all land: unexciting and open. But the past I dwell in is not so distant, and the distance that worries me is not so extensive. West and East stay with me as I move around like a left and a right, while also beyond me and fixed. It is not a problem of extent but of accuracy, and the only true spatial index to that is the night sky.”

There are one or two little changes here from the first edition which offered us “Smoke” and “Celtic hills” and these little shifts are symptomatic of a concern for the type of accuracy referred to later in the passage. Similarly the “past I dwell in” was originally given as “the past I mean” and the shift brings us closer to the Olsonian sense of our being inescapably incorporated in history. Referring to different identities in the work, an ‘I’ and a ‘We’, John Hall had focused upon something central to Riley’s work: the urgently serious movement towards our understanding of ourselves by recognising who we are in relation to the world around us. In The Many Review No. 2 (Spring 1984) he had described it as “the plural form of the person assiduously involved in the rhetorical transactions of metaphor”. Hall also referred to a collective sense

“coinciding with the idea of ‘the town’ as a specific social and emotional force-field within the land-form, as extended home, a specific community lived from within rather than sociologically describable; or it might be the human figure implied by an archaic term like ‘the plain’ or an understanding of humans in which geology is socially incarnate.”

I am reminded here of lines from Riley’s earlier collection which Crozier’s Ferry Press had published in 1969, Love-Strife Machine:

“work: to make it at least feasible
that the lines should intersect the way they do
on the map of it all.”

Or, again, “knowing this stone / also as a city / I underwrite”. As if emphasising again the importance of that Hastings poem of the mid-sixties which I referred to last week, in this 1969 volume we read

“learning to (speak, listen, dance, be, etc.)
there comes a point when you have to act simply by
throwing out blindly onto whatever surface
seems likely to bear the weight, throw
the whole body forwards onto
the bright substance and hope it floats…”

Towards the end of the first volume of Riley’s Collected we arrive at the remarkable series of ten sonnets, ‘Ospita’, which had originally appeared as No. 4 in his beautifully produced Poetical Histories series that had started in 1985 as a result of his obtaining a hoard of mould-made paper from what had been the print shop of The Brooks Press, Wirksworth, Derbyshire. When James Keery wrote a fine exegesis of this sequence for The Gig he brought our attention to the “intensity of the speaking voice” being “palpable” and illustrated this in his reference to the poem’s “compelling” opening sonnet:

“Seeking a bearing point on hurt I find
Hollows and rooms in the thick of the night,
A building hard at work flashing its bright
Offers into the star dome.”

As Keery puts it the speaking voice undertakes an enquiry into the problem of pain with “a discursive cogency that the Age of Reason might have approved”. This ‘Ospita’, this house or shelter for a guest, is in Nigel Wheale’s account for Chicago Review, “some kind of visionary hospice, a post-war Britannia hospital where fundamental categories such as harm and care…roughly trade their terms.” For myself I am drawn forward to J.H. Prynne’s 2008 essay on ‘Huts’.

In an early piece from Love-Strife Machine the poet had wondered how the knowledge of knowing “how to sustain the music” could be kept alive “beyond the first bright hope”. Reading the opening lines of the tenth ‘Ospita’ sonnet we have that question answered:

“I walked out on the morning of May 12th
The blades were bright and coy and loud,
Thick with languages I walked without stealth
The fields of angry farmers, proud
To be harmless and legal, half and half,
No one could fathom my strong shoes,
There is no paradise but tongue of love.”

In an unpublished letter to Michael Haslam from September 1980, and now resting in the Cambridge Modern Poetry Archive, Peter Riley had raised a question about the world of Charles Olson and it has an interesting bearing upon his own forward movement:

“…the things (readings, informations, modes) he used for his poetry became items of a proscription, and that academic inflation slowly took him over. He began to think he was delivering important messages to the world at large, which is where you stop speaking to any particular member of that world and they become a ‘public’.”

Peter Riley’s poetry is firmly particular and his self-portraits are of ourselves.

Ian Brinton, 23rd December 2018.

Collected Poems Volume 1 by Peter Riley (Shearsman Books)

Collected Poems Volume 1 by Peter Riley (Shearsman Books)

Peter Riley’s two volumes of Collected Poems weighs in at about 1200 pages and they need to be reviewed. There is no way that a short piece here can do justice to the wealth of this work and so I shall write three or four reviews covering the chronological development of a poet whose voice is a labour of “calm close attention” (‘All Saints’, a short prose piece from the opening section of Volume 1, pieces written in London between 1962 and 1965). When I gave a Paper at a Conference in Birkbeck devoted to Riley’s work I focused on his editing of the magazine Collection. The Paper was written up for PN Review 207, some six years ago and it began rather mischievously. Now that we can see more fully the quality of Riley’s early work from the Sixties I wish to repeat that mischief by beginning with a quotation which will set the scene and trust that this will prove to be in no way contentious:

“For a time young poets of very different backgrounds and temperament may feel themselves, or be felt by critics, to be working along similar lines. Though its long-term consequence necessarily remains unclear, such a shift of sensibility has taken place very recently in British poetry. It follows a stretch, occupying much of the 1960s and 70s, when very little—in England at any rate—seemed to be happening…”

The quotation comes of course from a very reliable source: a Poet Laureate, a highly successful journalist and a highly competitive and long-standing publishing firm: The Penguin Book of Contemporary Poetry edited by Blake Morrison and Andrew Motion. And so it’s official: “very little seemed to be happening” in the 60s and 70s and this reminds me of the mischievous title of a splendid little journal founded by Anthony Barnett in 1966, Nothing Doing in London. There were only two issues of that beautifully produced item but they contained work by Andrew Crozier, Edmond Jabès, George Oppen, Tom Pickard, Samuel Beckett and Nick Totton: nothing indeed happening very much at all!
The calm close attention which Riley has given to his wealth of life’s experiences is there from the very start as is evident with the poem ‘Introitus’ written in his Hastings years during the mid-to late 60s. The poem opens with the short phrase “How it begins” before proceeding to examine the difficulty of walking on shingle on Hastings beach. The quiet and purposeful movement recalls the ‘Riprap’ progress of Gary Snyder in a very different landscape:

“To walk effectively on shingle you have to
lean forwards so you’d fall if you didn’t push
your feet back from a firm step down and
back sharp forcing the separate ground
to consolidate underneath you, with a marked
flip as you lift each foot, scattering
stones behind, gaining momentum.”

The year is 1967 and Peter Riley was about to take over the editing of The English Intelligencer from Andrew Crozier. Writing to Crozier on January 12th, having arrived back in Hastings after the two had met up, he told of finding Jeremy Prynne on the doorstep and how they had spent that evening discussing the future progress of the magazine. In a letter from a few months later Riley referred to the need for energetic engagement with the poetry scene, “something not so much finished as in mid-stream, alive and still developing” and this energy pulses through these early poems.
When Barry MacSweeney organised the poetry gathering at Sparty Lea Peter Riley was there of course and the letter he wrote to a newspaper a few years ago emphasised the event’s importance:

“Sparty Lea was a serious event that involved listening to each other carefully and weighing up the possibility of common purposes.”

The publication of ‘Sparty Lea Epilogue’ in the first volume of these collected poems is testament indeed to its importance as a meeting-place for new poets who were concerned about what was happening in the world of British poetry:

“It must be the whole continuance,
of our lives bound through the occasion
it must be this other place given
in return, the small room at night.

The meeting was a specific node
of exchange like a thank-you in a long
conversation, fastening the discourse that
sustains us to a future weather.”

The “long conversation” has continued down the years and when Roy Fisher referred to Riley’s deepening sense of how poetry “can be capable of mediating between inner and outer experience” it was adopted as the blurb on the back cover of Pennine Tales issued by Calder Valley Poetry two years ago. It is within the lyric grace of those late pages, written and published too late to be included in the Collected Poems that one can pick up the mournful wisps of sound from an energetic poetic engagement that is by no means over:

“There is nothing here but stone
walls and distance. We are alone. We are nowhere.
We are the length and breadth of a dark nowhere
which encompasses the world.”

I am tempted to say that Peter Riley is a towering presence in the world of modern poetry and yet even that image of stasis is immediately rendered inappropriate when we can read now the early lines he dedicated to Andrew Crozier in the late 60s when he felt that they were “wanderers not in exile / but at permanent home / in movement.”

Ian Brinton 9th December 2018

The Small Henderson Room by John James (Ferry Press, 1969)

The Small Henderson Room by John James (Ferry Press, 1969)

A Paper given at the John James Conference, 11th March 2017

In his introduction to the Salt Reader for John James Simon Perril, referred to a ‘politics of poise’ in the poetry and to my mind this related closely to James’s wry sense of transience, his concern for the particular time and for a creative atmosphere. It is as if, in the words of the artist Peter Cartwright, “Two effects strike me as running through his poetry, in the form of an interaction of a consciousness of the visual with an acute flow of perceptions”. James came across the work of Peter Cartwright at the Survey ’67 exhibition of Abstract Painters at Camden Arts Centre which he and Andrew Crozier visited. It was there that he also came across the catalogue which included Cartwright’s comments upon his art:

“I am concerned with growth, movement and tension. Certain work is influenced not directly by, but by reaction to, natural forms and structures…I am aiming to establish a reality which will exist independently from myself. My intention is to make a vital tension between forms, to induce speculation, to create a relationship which is a synthesis between the formal and the unpredictable. Any references in my work are oblique and are references to mood.”

That statement found its way into the poem ‘Waiting’ which appeared in The Small Henderson Room published by Crozier’s Ferry Press in 1969 where the fifth section of that poem opens

“In a new blue room I rearrange
the mantelpiece, opening on it
the catalogue of the Survey ’67 Exhibition at Peter Cartwright’s
Three. Those anonymous forms wait, shakily
menacing to change shape, making
a new & unpredictable arrangement
of themselves.”

It was after seeing Cartwright’s work in the Camden gallery that James asked him to produce a cover for the Ferry Press publication and Cartwright later wrote about his surprise at seeing his own catalogue statement appearing in James’s poem prompting him to say a few words about ‘Waiting’:

“The poem moves through events and situations, producing the sensation of a shifting range of experience. It reveals in John’s work an integration of allusions to art, to living encounters and to language and the centrality of a range of phenomena in which the aesthetic experience is a potent and even a fundamentally social element…Two effects strike me as running through his poetry, in the form of an interaction of a consciousness of the visual with an acute flow of perceptions. I am aware in John’s poetry of a constant perceptive response to the tactile, to the nature of light, of physical presence and one’s own physical transience.”

He also made some comments upon the particular nature of that cover:

The Small Henderson Room was the last of the covers I made, and was designed with more concern for the curious and oblique relationship the cover would have to the work within. Did I receive a copy of the poems before designing the cover? At this distance I’m not sure but I think not. The cover was designed as an entity but with some intuitive response to the words The Small Henderson Room. The cover-work, a formal abstract image, was a response to the unknown nature of that ‘room’. My intention was to create a spatial ambiguity, tension and even a sense of unease.”

The illustration may well have been the last of the covers that Cartwright made but only by a month or two since he had also produced the cover for the last issue of the magazine The Resuscitator that John James and Nick Wayte had begun in Bristol in 1963. The last issue of that magazine appeared in February 1969 and Cartwright commented upon the way he had designed the cover pointing to the image of “a stark black formality on a white ground’ with the ‘embossed whiteness of the title” which “meant that no text was immediately visible. THE LAST RESUSCITATOR – the title’s ambiguity chimed with the need to physically tilt the book to decipher it”. The same is true of the Ferry Press book and both suggest to my mind something about the act of reading: the words are not simply visible, they need to be tilted to reveal the seemingly invisible.
The opening poem in The Small Henderson Room presents us with a world in which “we are aware of ourselves as persons with a / particular history”. It originally appeared the year before the Ferry Press publication in 2R2, Resuscitator Second Series and it opens ‘on the move’

“& so I open myself again as we wheel
down over Crickley, chivalrously high on our seats
you see across the gleaming generous screen
right to the Severn valley, tawny with the broad
spread of distant grain, & beyond
is where I’m going, where the mountains
put up their profiles & in the moister
air of that high altitude, the woods and valleys
will be deeply soft & made greenly
vivacious again”

When the poem appeared in the following year’s Ferry Press collection the opening lines had changed a little, perhaps to emphasise that sense of movement and the second published draft is what appeared in the Salt Collected Poems of 2002. The first line starts now much further towards the right margin and is heralded by three dots as if to suggest the continuance of a line of thought. Both the second and the fourth lines are closer to the left-hand margin giving the impression that the main body of the poem is indented. These small details are perhaps part of what Cartwright was referring to when he suggested that James’s poetry presented an interaction between a consciousness of the visual with an acute flow of perceptions. Or as Romana Huk put it when writing about the early poems there is a quality of repetitive artifice and voluptuous spontaneity. This is of course recognisable in ‘The Postcard Sonata’ which contains “40”, the collaborative sonnet written with Andrew Crozier which was to reappear in the 1970 Ferry Press publication IN ONE SIDE & OUT THE OTHER where it also joined forces with Tom Phillips: a writing over what has already been said. The second sonnet in ‘The Postcard Sonata’ is “for Andrew Crozier” and it contains a brief critical comment on Cartwright’s work:

admiring Peter Cartwright’s One Two Three
Four & Five all menacingly fluid but
precise, a relationship between the formal

& the unpredictable.

This quality that James noted about Cartwright’s work haunts his own poetry and Simon Perril noted that he shares with the New York School poets “a willingness to view everyday objects not simply as degraded commodities, but as potential talismans that might be invested with hopes and desires”. Noting the influence of Wordsworth on John James’s poetry Perril pointed out that “characteristically, this aesthetic moment of contemplation contains an element of rhapsody that compels the listener to ‘look up’ and take further notice of his environment.” In terms of the Conversation Poems of Wordsworth/Coleridge, shared walks, interests, focal moments there is a “communitarian sense of the lyric voice forged not in isolation but in the friction of relationships, friendships and reciprocal hopes and fears” It is as if the “we” is that path via which “I” am. That untitled opening poem from The Small Henderson Room proposes that: “In a mutual presence / catastrophe may be averted” and this thought is taken up in A Theory of Poetry published by Street Editions in 1977 where there is a reference to

“particular people at a particular time
& in a particular place
these people are the others
without whom you would not exist”

It is within that context that I wish to point out what will appear obvious to sensitive readers of the poetry of John James. His early work is in no sense a hearkening back to the pastoral nostalgia of the Georgian poets. In the first collection that Crozier published for Ferry Press, MMM… AH YES, 1967, there appears a poem ‘An Open Letter to Jim Workman, Landlord, at the Rose & Crown, Withy Mills, North Somerset’. The title itself gives a nod to Wordsworth and it celebrates the natural ability of a pub landlord to find ‘sustenance’ in his rootedness in “the earth your / feet press on”. Now what I mean by saying how different John James is to the Georgian ‘Nature’ poets who focused on geographical rural particularities can be seen when you look at a little piece written in 1910 by W.H. Davies, friend of Edward Thomas and known mostly for being the author of The Autobiography of a Supertramp and for possessing a wooden leg. The poem celebrates a particular pub in the Sevenoaks Weald named The Harvest Home. It is little more than a jolly record of a moment and, as of course might be expected, the pub no longer exists. Neither does the Rose and Crown at Withy Mills near Paulton in Somerset. And that’s where the similarity ends. Whereas Davies’s poem is locked into a particular moment of stasis, a diary note that could be added to a social history of the local area, James’s poem is ‘on the move’. It recreates the character and personality of Jim Workman through the landlord’s actions and advice. There is the local humour of characterisation contained in the recollections:

“& if I brought you a poem
what would you do with it?
what would your hawk’s nose,
your dry sniff, pulled down
corners of mouth,
mockery of Old Winsley,
scrounging his way, the way
you made him an iced birthday cake
of wood, set light to his hat

And there is the admiration of folk-lore knowledge that doffs its hat to Edward Thomas’s figure of Lob:

“the way you know the way
foxes kill young cuckoos
in long grass…

You showed me the
way to bud the
briars in June,
splicing with
raffia. Told me
dung burns the roots off
beans, to repair
the rung of a ladder with
pitchpine

But there is also that Wordsworthian title, the inclusion of words from Pound’s ‘L’Envoi’ from 1919, that recognition of the influence of Charles Tomlinson in “the fields / multiplying through / division by hedges”. The landlord, Jim Workman, finds “sustenance” in his natural rootedness “from the earth your / feet press on” and James’s poem echoes the short review he published in Resuscitator 4, May 1965, of Anselm Hollo’s here we go:

“In this and in other poems in this little book, Mr. Hollo presents the humdrum details of family life in such a way, with such choice and ironic juxtaposition, that escape is not only unrealistic but unnecessary. Such apparently trivial details – queuing for public transport, children asleep in their cots, undressing for bed – matter for Mr. Hollo and for all of us because without them we would not exist. Once they are accepted they become meaningful, a source of happiness and enlightenment. Such acceptance of the common place in literature is not new of course. One thinks of how central it was to the poetry of Wordsworth and to Ulysses; and it survives as an attitude in the poetry of Charles Tomlinson…”

The reference to Charles Tomlinson is important and his poem, ‘A Given Grace’, later published in American Scenes, is the opening moment of Resuscitator 1, Autumn 1963. It presents challenge and replenishment. A few months later Resuscitator 2 appeared and Tomlinson took his place alongside Zukofsky, Corman and Olson. In January 1968 the second series of Resuscitator was started from John James’s home in Trumpington High Street and the contributors included J.H. Prynne, Gill Vickers, Jeremy Mulford, Elaine Feinstein, Andrew Crozier, Nick Wayte, Wendy Mulford, John Hall and James himself. It is worth noting the dedication to that new magazine:

“This series of Resuscitator is dedicated to Charles Tomlinson with thanks for his generous help over the first series”.

IN ONE SIDE & OUT THE OTHER presents the reader with a writing over what has already been said and words push off the page through new designs. It is almost as if you need to tilt the book to see what lies beneath and I return to the influence of Charles Olson whose poem from January 1950, ‘These Days’ opens with the injunction to “leave the roots on” whatever it is that you have to say, “let them / dangle / And the dirt // Just to make clear where they come from”.
For John James ‘sustenance’, the ground on which your feet press, can be located in ‘The Conversation’, a poem he contributed to the last issue of Grosseteste Review in 1984 with its illustration on the front cover by Franco Beltrametti:

“to say nothing of you Jeremy when you leaf
your pages to that summer & and have before you
all we make of what we are when every day
gave some new sense of strengthening regard for common things
& all the land gave up a breath of gentler touch
but for the undertow of darkness
in the phones

And it is there in Songs In Midwinter For Franco published less than three years ago by Equipage here in Cambridge:

in tranquillity
is difficult simplicity

as ever the table set
not to forget

Ian Brinton 20th May 2018

Sarments by John James (Shearsman Books)

Sarments by John James (Shearsman Books)

‘Recollection Ode: Les Sarments’ was originally published in Cloud Breaking Sun (Oystercatcher Press 2012) and it came as no surprise that John James should have read this poem at the launch of his new Shearsman collection in Swedenborg Hall on 10th April. It opens with time moving:

“as August counts itself out
like a Rosary worn with kisses
autumn arrives when you least expect it”

The tolled beads of moment “mark the narrative in earth” and that line itself takes the reader back to ‘Poem Beginning with a Line of Andrew Crozier’ which also appeared in the Oystercatcher of 2012.
This is a carefully put together volume of John James’s poetry and as one reads through it there is a compelling sense of how his world is constituted of interlinking ideas: we sense the man behind the poet. This new publication is a living testament to what he had written back in 1977 in the Street Editions sequence ‘A Theory of Poetry’:

“there you will discover
particular people at a particular time
& in a particular place
these people are the others
without whom you would not exist”

The poetry of John James is peopled with presences and it seems appropriate in the ‘Recollection Ode’ (note the title) that he should write “those who love must also hope”: an attention to the particular which constitutes love is closely bound up with a sense of the future as well as the past. The ode concludes

“I wish you the fruits of the four seasons
& every day as the sun beckons
may you be delivered to that daily glow.”

Given this focal stance which casts its eye both backward and forward it is also appropriate that the poem preceding the ode should be ‘October’ recalling the Cambridge days when the poet met up with both Tim Longville and Jeremy Prynne:

“I’m meeting Tim at Millers at 6.00 p.m.
the hearth will glow the ale will flow
the banter will be light & fancy
later we’ll go on to Jeremy’s rooms
& take a generous glass of Glenmorangie”

That poem also dwells with the particular nature of the Now in terms of the Future as the smell of “wet dust after rain” concludes with “I think it was called hope”.
This new volume also includes some of the poems from the fine Equipage publication from 2011, In Romsey Town. Here a ‘Nocturne with Baudelaire’ opens with “a singular glance” before going on later to appease the “thirsty heart” by invocation:

“pour again hope
la primeur”

The energetic move forward in the plea takes some of its power by casting a sly glance at one of Baudelaire’s ‘Spleen’ poems in which the sky “verse” (pours) a hopeless day upon our heads and hope is seen as a bat trapped by walls and rotted ceilings. James’s poem concludes very differently as “pride / the virtue of the work” restores “to us an inkling / of the sacred.” And it is that word “inkling” that took me back to a letter written in 2010 by Roger Langley in which he referred to his early poem ‘Matthew Glover’:

“The pleasure lay in writing about the little willow tree I knew and how it blew in the wind, the willow warblers I had watched in the bushes at dusk on the border of the parish. Nothing so personally particular in Olson. I would guess my deepest feelings have always been for Coleridge’s Conversation Poems, the Lime Tree Bower, the shock which begins where the particular strikes, beyond any general concepts, geographical, historical or whatever. The movement of the leaves as they are shaken in that particular little cutting by the water of the stream stirring the air around them, not even worrying too much about ideas of the One Life, for instance. Perhaps Peter Larkin’s Being Seen for Seeing: a tribute to RF Langley’s Journals gets it somewhere as I feel it, though I only saw this piece recently and it is mainly about the Journals, as it says. Something that happens just beyond the most exact observation, something that remains this side of the transcendental, and thus basically rather hopeless in a way, but yet, but yet…the particular spills further still, beyond what I am managing.”

Among the new and uncollected poems published in Sarments there is ‘On reading J.H. Prynne’s Sub Songs’, nine poems addressing the titles of the poems in Prynne’s 2010 Barque Press volume. The opening of the first poem titled after the original, ‘As Mouth Blindness’, presents us with a re-cadencing of the quotation from King Lear in which the reduced King bears the dead body of Cordelia. Prynne’s original had “Her voice was ever low” and the James poem opens “her low voice beguiles me / amid the tumultuous foul // eases my head / in sleep at night”. It is perhaps that beguiling that might lead one on to recollect
what John Hall once described as John James’s “quiet and tender acts in the departing shadow of the inevitably fugitive.”
This poetry places the smallest of individual moments, accurately recorded, against the backdrop of human frailty and being. Life is made up of the small moments intruding into which “a sudden enormity / changes everything”. That poem John James wrote soon after the funeral of Andrew Crozier in 2008 beginning with a line from ‘Free-Running Bitch’ perhaps affirms one of the most central aspects of this very fine poet’s oeuvre:

“I reach toward the poetry of kindred
Where we speak in our work as we seldom do otherwise”

Ian Brinton, May 8th 2018

The Magic Door by Chris Torrance (Test Centre Publications)

The Magic Door by Chris Torrance (Test Centre Publications)

Test Centre Publications: http://www.testcentre.org.uk

In June this year Phil Maillard wrote the introduction to Test Centre’s collected and complete earliest published books of Chris Torrance’s ongoing poem-cycle The Magic Door. As he says, “They cover the years from 1970, when the poet moved to a cottage in the Upper Neath Valley in South Wales, to 1996, thus representing about half of his near-50-year residence there.”
Maillard goes on to make a central statement about Torrance’s poetry:

“The poet inhabits borders and boundaries, between worlds, both physical and imaginative. The portals, gateways and doors so prevalent in the writing open both outwards and inwards.”

This new publication is like a cromlech: the reader passes through the portal covers into a new world and the opening sequence, Acrospirical Meanderings in a Tongue of the Time, is the first greeting that one discovers. Published by Albion Village Press in 1973 it consists of poems written at Glynmercher Isaf between June 1970 and October 1972 and contains ‘The Theatre of its Protagonist’s Desires’, dedicated to Andrew Crozier:

“Strode out into the woods with
cat, axe & saw to bring back
mushrooms: Ceps
&Rough-stemmed Boletus: apricot-
lunged Chanterelle; pretty, intoxicant
amanita muscaria emerging
richly red from her
silky membranous fur. The
music becomes more insane, more unreadable.
Tea onto the compost heap. Empty the cats’
shitbox. & then, preferring “my ease
to my will” (Valéry)
nettle & marigold beer
trickles down my throat. Buzzard
flies by the moon as I crouch
down on the porch to watch
Sweetheart of Sigmund Freud crunch up
yet another mouse. My beard has grown
as lushly as my garden. The fire
hisses & flares. The fire in my head
is a crippled demon I am burning up.

September 1970

The title of the poem is taken from a letter sent by Andrew Crozier to Chris Torrance soon after the London poet had arrived in Wales in the summer of 1970. Writing to me in 2006 about this poem Torrance suggested that Crozier’s letter was something along the lines of “the poet finding the right place to fully pursue his work, in the theatre of its protagonist’s desires”.
The opening presents us with a frontiersman’s spirit of determination with the word “stride”. This purposefulness is no meander, that will come later, and the accompanying tools suggest a world more akin to that of Robinson Crusoe than a rural ramble: the cat, for a reminder of domesticity, the axe and saw for the intentional task of survival. The listing of the fungi conveys a movement outward and the sharply sounded separation between “Ceps” and “Rough-stemmed Boletus” followed by the angular sounding “apricot-lunged Chanterelle” is seductively followed by the seemingly innocuous word “pretty” which then sinuously unwinds over the next three lines. Perhaps the word “fur” with which the sentence concludes adds a frisson to the living quality of the poisonous fly agaric which had been previously conjured up by being referred to as “her”.
This poem is located in the immediacy of small events: “tea on the compost heap” or emptying the cats’ shitbox. The meandering quality of thought which succeeds to that purposeful opening is heralded by the preference for taking “my ease” rather than by subduing this to “my will”; the viscous quality of the beer is felt in the contrast of “nettle” and “marigold” before a Keatsian ease is captured in “trickles down my throat”. This accumulation of details, moving the poet outwards from the purposeful opening of the poem is, in conclusion, registered as time passing. The poet’s beard grows lushly as does his garden and the purgative experience of unwinding (an ironic echo of the book’s title, Acrospirical Meanderings, the twisted new growth of a leaf as it pushes out being accompanied by the winding of the Phrygian river) ends with fire. The “hiss & flares” are reflective of a sharply heard and seen burning away of poisonous dross. The poet has passed through a doorway into a new world.

This is just a glimpse into some of the delights of this new Test Centre publication and I shall be doing a further account for PN Review.

Ian Brinton, 28th October 2017

Barry MacSweeney and the Politics of post-war British Poetry: Luke Roberts (Palgrave MacMillan)

Barry MacSweeney and the Politics of post-war British Poetry: Luke Roberts (Palgrave MacMillan)

One of the immediately refreshing aspects of Luke Roberts’s book about Barry MacSweeney is the clear manner in which he distances himself from the mythologizing and gossip which surrounded the poet soon after his death in May 2000. It is highly appropriate that he should open his introduction with a reference to the obituary written for The Guardian in which Andrew Crozier addressed the alcoholism which had caused MacSweeney’s death and was, as Roberts puts it, the “intractable subject of MacSweeney’s later books”. Crozier made the point, in his inimitably careful way, that “It would be unfortunate if this final self-identification became his own myth”. Luke Roberts’s fine engagement with MacSweeney’s work goes some considerable distance towards avoiding the world of gossip; instead he directs us to the poems themselves and how much of MacSweeney’s writing arose out of social and political commitment. The focus Roberts presents us with gives “a serious account of the communities he moved through from the mid-1960s to the end of his life”. This is an important book which provides a literary context within which to view MacSweeney’s lyrical intensity and to re-view his powerful political commitment.
This is the first major study of MacSweeney’s work and what is so attractive about it is the fine mixture of close textual criticism and historical literary context: in two ways we are reading a world which comes alive. Roberts looks at the Menard Press publication of MacSweeney’s lecture on Chatterton which was delivered at the University of Newcastle in 1970: Elegy for January. MacSweeney’s interest in the work of Chatterton may well have started as a recommendation by J.H. Prynne as did his reading of Death’s Jest Book by Beddoes:

“Though he begins by taking a sceptical view of the ‘romantic myth we are led to believe’, MacSweeney drifts into a glorification of youth and early death, In a manner not dissimilar to the ‘melancholy raptures’ of Dr. Knox, quoted at merciless length by Hazlitt, he addresses Chatterton directly: ‘You are the elegant, eloquent poet, my brother!’; ‘Thomas, what is there, after all, after youth’. Nevertheless, over the course of the lecture, MacSweeney does speak of a number of Chatterton’s poems precisely as if they were ‘old well-known favourites’, and this is borne out by the order of engagement we find in the poems. MacSweeney’s language and imagery is persistently inflected by Chatterton in Odes, ranging from subtle single-word allusions to the extended ‘Wolf Tongue’, which revels in his vocabulary for well over a hundred lines. Some of the most intense passages in Colonel B feature interruptions and excursions drawn from ‘AElla: A Tragycal Enterlude’ and ‘Elinoure and Juga’. Far from emptily enthusing about the circumstances in which they were produced, MacSweeney used these texts as a vital resource for his own writing.”

Luke Roberts then provides us with a vignette of the “true poète maudit”, Mark Hyatt, MacSweeney’s friend who killed himself in early 1972. He points us to the publication of some of Hyatt’s work in the posthumous edition published by MacSweeney’s Blacksuede Boot Press and Crozier’s Ferry Press, How Odd, before taking us forward to the collection of MacSweeney’s own work, Fog Eye which was dedicated to Hyatt and in which ‘Elegy’ appears:

“Invulnerable nothings. Nothing
indecipherable as those ghost
messages. The seed burns by
a grey unblinking plant or moon.
You tear pages from a diary
written many years ago, but
the stories are the same today.
There are chapters like hidden doors
and they do not bear closing.”

The final chapter in this book looks at Pearl and Blood Money: The Marvellous Secret Sonnets of Mary Bell, Child Killer and Roberts suggests that there is no simple coincidence in MacSweeney “thinking about the figure of the child and the idea of innocence”:

“These poems were written with extremely high-profile trials of children going on in the background, and a change in how the child is constituted as a legal subject.”

I have said that this is an important book and I hope that it may be just the first major study of a neglected poet whose explosive lyricism and deep political commitment to justice, (one who hated secrecy and deception), deserves to be more widely known. As Chris Hall wrote on hearing of the death of Barry MacSweeney:

“It is to be hoped that his untimely death will stimulate a genuine reassessment of this important, brave and undervalued poet.”

Ian Brinton, 26th May 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ian Brinton, 14th May 2017

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