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The Poetry of John James Conference

The Poetry of John James Conference

Last Saturday saw Magdalene College, Cambridge, host this conference to celebrate the poetry of John James. It was organised by the current Judith E. Wilson Fellow, Peter Hughes, whose Oystercatcher Press has published both Cloud Breaking Sun (2012) and Sabots (2015). I recall reviewing Sabots for the Tears blog in August 2015 and concluding that it is “an uplifting sequence of three poems which restores a sense of vitality and endurance within a world threatened by commercial bureaucracy and targets”.

The conference was itself uplifting and by the end of the day I realised that the speakers had taken us on a journey which involved close textual criticism, overviews of the place of John James’s work in contemporary poetry and personal reminiscence. Emphasis was placed on the role of music within the poetry and the importance of the visual arts to a man whose sense of the flâneur is still to be recognised in the laughter and wry awareness exhibited by the poet in the audience who turned to me at one point to say “Who is this poet? I must get hold of some of his work”.

The speakers included Rod Mengham whose Equipage Press has published both In Romsey Town (2011) and Songs In Midwinter For Franco; Andrew Taylor whose debt to James weaves its way through his own Oystercatcher volume Air Vault; Simon Smith, Ian Heames, Peter Riley, Drew Milne and Geoff Ward spoke and read and by the end of the day there was a feeling that the success of this event was partly to do with the range of focus: different takes on a common theme of respect for this poet whose first published volume had appeared half-a-century ago from Andrew Crozier’s Ferry Press.

The poem ‘Pimlico’ was read (first published in Tears) as was ‘A Theory of Poetry, twice, and there was a beautifully produced gift from Ian Heames of his own finely published copy of the original Street Editions in comfrey blue. There was a sense in the auditorium of what John James referred to in his ‘Poem beginning with a line of Andrew Crozier’:

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

My review of Sabots had ended with a simple statement about the book:

“It is a tribute to the quietly unchanging in a fast-changing world. It’s terrific!” The same could be said of the 2017 Cambridge Conference on the Poetry of John James.

Ian Brinton, 13th March 2017

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Air Vault by Andrew Taylor (Oystercatcher Press)

Air Vault by Andrew Taylor (Oystercatcher Press)

In 1923 a doctor from Rutherford was convinced that something important depended upon a ‘red wheel / barrow’ and the picture that his sixteen words conjured into being was a firm belief that American culture was based in a realization of the qualities of a place in relation to the life which occupies it. Andrew Taylor’s Air Vault, where the mind is prompted to jump into echoing spaces, realises that

‘there is a poem in that
no, there is a poem in that’

John James’s poem of recollection from a 2012 Oystercatcher volume, Cloud Breaking Sun, was subtitled ‘Les Sarments’ with its reference to the twining growth of vine-shoots. Taylor’s ‘Poem beginning with a line of John James’ opens with an echo of that earlier ode:

As August counts itself out

As if to herald a clear sense of tradition Andrew Taylor not only opens his poem with the James quotation but has a clear sense of how the older poet had himself published a ‘Poem beginning with a line of Andrew Crozier’ in that 2012 collection. And it is in that earlier poem that we read the statement ‘I reach toward the poetry of kindred’.

The precision of Andrew Taylor’s writing is an infectious delight:

‘The respite of a rest area
temperature drops at midnight

Carried sandwiches foil & plastic
wrapped evening before

some kind of souvenir bread
like bread bought from a post office

Treated like a treat some things taste
better away from home

Mattresses floored a camp
shutters shut this is France after all’

John James’s ode counted August out ‘like a Rosary worn with kisses’ and autumn ‘arrives when you least expect it’. The patience of devotion is a reminder of Keats’s ‘last oozings hours by hours’ and is followed by the unexpected shift of time. Taylor’s jazzing rhythms give us ‘Fig’

‘drop with days between
a rustle’

and ‘Kenny was right’

‘Autumn falls early’

Jeremy Hilton referred to Andrew Taylor’s poetry in Tears 60 when he reviewed the Shearsman collection Radio Mast Horizon and noted the ‘expression of everyday life in all its vivid details’:

‘Colour, sound, speed and technology weave through the poems…This is a poetry of the present-time’ which carries with it a ‘full awareness not just of history but of the impact of historical changes on the lives of people’.

As I race along the tracks of this new volume I am confronted with that colour, sound and speed’: ‘Pitted repaired // there is a preference / for the plaque Michelin’

‘send a postcard
to arrive after return’ [.]

This is a world of evocative moments as the ‘square folds into quietness // after lunch’ and a ‘woodpecker feather // falls onto gravel’. The feather ‘finds a place in the notebook’.
The front cover of Air Vault invites us to peer into a room framed in blue and we have a snapshot of that poetry which reaches toward kindred: the domesticity of the scene has a privacy and austerity which is emphasised by the table-lamp on a chair and its reflection in the cabinet. Looking back at my copy of John James’s Cloud Breaking Sun I sit in front of the bold type of the introductory lines:

to the side of the terrace

the painted blue brick in the wall

warmed by the sun

spoke to me in the afternoon

it said

only you can do this

Wallace Stevens referred to Carlos Williams’s red wheel / barrow as a ‘mobile-like arrangement’ and Hugh Kenner suggested that the words ‘dangle in equidependency, attracting the attention, isolating it, so that the sentence in which they are arrayed comes to seem like a suspension system.’ I find this balancing of word in relation to word attractively present in the light swift movement of Andrew Taylor’s new poetry

‘Sunflowers bow
row after row

season seems
hardly done

time for Autumn
reflections

so soon?’

Ian Brinton 21st August 2016

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