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Muted Strings: A Study of Louis MacNeice Xavier Kalck Presses Universitaires de France—Cned 2015 www.cned.fr

Muted Strings: A Study of Louis MacNeice  Xavier Kalck  Presses Universitaires de France—Cned 2015 www.cned.fr

A close friend of mine used to herald the onset of winter each year with a re-reading of MacNeice’s ‘Autumn Journal’. There always seemed to me to be something apt, a string plucked with a tone of melancholy leisure, about the opening of that fine poem:

‘Close and slow, summer is ending in Hampshire,
Ebbing away down ramps of shaven lawn where close-clipped yew
Insulates the lives of retired generals and admirals
And the spyglasses hung in the hall…’

A little like the taste of an almond cake, lying beneath the burned parts, in the opening pages of Proust, MacNeice’s rhythms brought to mind those shadows ‘on the perfect lawn’ that were the ‘shadows of an old man sitting in a deep wicker-chair near the low table on which the tea had been served’ some forty miles from London in Henry James’s most famous novel about how an archer’s aim had been brought low by a genius for upholstery. This is a world of muted strings and Xavier Kalck’s title for his book about MacNeice’s posthumous collection of poems, The Burning Perch, has been chosen with great care:

‘Muted Strings draws attention especially to the dynamic that exists in MacNeice’s poems from The Burning Perch between muting as a means to soften the tune of the song, and muting as a symptom of the deadening of the song.’

This delightful little introduction to the late poetry of Louis MacNeice clearly adheres to a formula and is aimed at students who are going to write essays and dissertations on the volume of poems published in September 1963, some ten days after the poet’s death. With a quietly unassuming sense of dignity Xavier Kalck, who lectures in American literature at the Sorbonne, tells me that the whole affair is rather standard although ‘I hope there was room enough for some small measure of originality’. There certainly is!

I had a good feeling about this book when a review copy arrived quite recently. This feeling was partly based upon my awareness of the careful attention Xavier Kalck had given to the poetry of Anthony Barnett, whose Shearsman Selected Poems he introduced ten years ago. In that introduction he had written

‘The origin of poetry, much like that of language itself, is a matter of the poet dealing with whatever origin he finds, finding out when and how it resists, letting the poem originate its own resistance, a language pared down to its first poetics.’

Given that focus it was no surprise when I opened up this little introduction to MacNeice to discover a quotation from Modern Poetry: A Personal Essay (1938): ‘However much is known about the poet, the poem remains a thing distinct from him’. I was cheered by the knowledge that this book, however much it may adhere to a formula, would focus upon the poetry itself and therefore introduce readers to the ‘formal gymnastics’ of a poem ‘rather than psychological or biographical concerns’.

The opening poem in The Burning Perch is preoccupied with space and time. ‘Soap Suds’ presents a circular movement and Kalck quotes from Peter McDonald’s criticism of the poem before going on to suggest some subtle new approaches:

‘In terms of imagery, visual and otherwise, the poem resolves into an expanding (or contracting) series of circular figures: the soap, the ball, the globes, the gong, the hoops, and finally again the ball and the soap. The circular movement of the poem itself brings the reader back to the adult hands of the beginning.’ (MacDonald)

‘The pattern is unquestionably relevant. We are told the speaker visited the house with the lawn “when he was eight” (1), and mathematically, the return visit doubles that time into sixteen lines. However, the lines do not only pick up speed as they stretch within this highly circular poem. To put it tautologically, the linearity of the lines works against, as much as in accordance with, the overall cyclical pattern. The length of the lines conveys the distance that separates the childhood recollection from the speaker’s present.’ (Kalck)

Perhaps the real quality of this little book is that it takes one back, again and again, to the text itself and by looking with such care at Louis MacNeice’s last volume of poems one is compelled to recognize how good this poet is.

Ian Brinton 21st December 2015

Crisis and the US Avant-Garde: Poetry and Real Politics by Ben Hickman (Edinburgh University Press)

Crisis and the US Avant-Garde: Poetry and Real Politics by Ben Hickman (Edinburgh University Press)

It was apparently in The Christian Recorder of March 1862, a publication of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, that the little jingle first appeared:

‘Sticks and stones will break my bones
But words will never harm me’

It was reissued in London some ten years later in Mrs Cupples’s Tappy’s Chicks: and Other Links Between Nature and Human Nature. And from there, of course, it soon became part and parcel of every child’s taunt of derision aimed at another child who was throwing verbal stones in the playground!

Ben Hickman’s timely and important reminder of verbal limits opens up with a refreshing quotation from the American poet Joshua Clover:

“I think that for a while now, many of us poets have been telling ourselves lies about the political force of poetry”.

Clover goes on to voice some of those well-known and well-worn lies (“Speaking truth to power. Giving voice to the voiceless. Laying bare the truth of the ineluctably immiserating mechanism in which we live.”) before grouping them together as “ideas which allow activities at the level of language to claim the same material force as a thrown brick.” It was Anthony Barnett who used a reference to a brick thrown through the windows of reviewers when he wrote in 1989 about the Allardyce, Barnett publications of authors including Prynne, Crozier, Oliver and himself. The handsomely produced volumes were indeed brick-like and presented a clear assertion of the contents’ importance: ignore these authors at your peril! When Prynne later became published by Bloodaxe the production again had the weight and appearance of an oeuvre that would not simply be ignored.

In PN Review 192 Geoffrey Ward published an article ‘Poetry and the Rift’ in which he looked at some limitations of language. He opened his piece by declaring “In the beginning was the word. Trouble being, the word was always late for the event.” After all words are NOT things like bricks or stones:

“Words can describe, evoke, suggest, delineate, propose, haunt—do all manner of things—except be the thing or feeling or concept to which they refer.”

The article is partly a re-writing of a piece which Ward had included in the ephemeral little magazine, Archeus, in 1989:

“Language is doomed to unpunctuality, words chasing, describing, shadowing a reality they can do anything but actually be. But if words miss their goal they pursue in the meantime their own life in the mouth or on the page, powerful figures of speech that predate our individual use of them constraining or permitting meanings always aslant or surplus to requirements.”

In memorable lines Auden announced the limitations of poetry when he declared in his poem written in memory of Yeats that “poetry makes nothing happen”

“…..it survives
In the valley of its making where executives
Would never want to tamper…”

Taking up the theme again in Partisan Review, Spring 1939, Auden presented a piece of prose ‘The Public v. the Late Mr. William Butler Yeats’ which concluded that “The case for the prosecution rests on the fallacious belief that art ever makes anything happen, whereas the honest truth, gentlemen, is that, if not a poem had been written, not a picture painted, not a bar of music composed, the history of man would be materially unchanged.”

Ben Hickman’s highly readable account of some aspects of contemporary American poetry includes a close survey of work by Zukofsky and Olson, Rukeyser, Baraka and Ron Silliman. Quoting Olson’s The Special View of History Hickman gives us the richly ambiguous statement “Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please”. What surrounds this statement is a very fine account of the poem ‘As the Dead Prey Upon Us’, a more extended account of which can be found in Hickman’s contribution to the Manchester University Press collection of essays edited by David Herd, Contemporary Olson. Ben Hickman goes on to write about the vivid nature of Black Mountain College in which the polis was constantly self-constituting, self-employed and self-inventing:

“It is this characteristic of quick fluidity, of a perpetually open process of social constitution in which coups d’état were a constant possibility, that made Black Mountain “a live society, not something proposed—something that was done and was there.” (Olson on Black Mountain)”.

Hickman’s clear, precise and lucid account of the avant-garde in American poetry takes a close look at the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E world of Bernstein and Silliman and quotes the latter’s comment “Important as books are, it is being that determines consciousness”. Which takes me back to Geoff Ward:

“We certainly handle words better than we handle each other or the non-human world. But living in particular spaces, whereby the hieroglyphs that spell ‘save the planet’ are not the same thing as a saved planet, the injunction ‘pass the salt’ no guarantee of approaching salinity, there is built into writing, a certain lateness. There is something of death in all its usages.”

As Ben Hickman’s concluding chapter on ‘The End of the Avant-Garde’ suggests, almost mischievously, “an avant-garde in a university is a contradiction in terms”.

Ian Brinton 12th October 2015

Modernist Legacies Ed. Abigail Lang & David Nowell Smith Palgrave Macmillan

Modernist Legacies Ed. Abigail Lang & David Nowell Smith Palgrave Macmillan

On 18th February this year David Caddy posted a blog about the Manchester University Press publication of essays edited by David Herd, Contemporary Olson. The book itself arose out of a conference held at the University of Kent in November 2010. As the Acknowledgements section in this recently published collection of essays from Palgrave Macmillan stresses ‘Like so many collections of essays, the current volume has its beginnings in a conference titled “Legacies of Modernism: The State of British Poetry Today”, which took place at the Université Paris-Diderot, Institut Charles V, June 9-11, 2011. The Charles Olson book was terrific in its range of essays and is possibly the most important book on the American giant who coined the term ‘Postmodernism’ to have appeared for some considerable time. This new book, subtitled ‘Trends and Faultlines in British Poetry Today’, is also a very powerful introduction to the world of contemporary poetry in Britain. Divided into three sections (‘Histories since Modernism’, ‘The Modernist Legacy’, ‘Poetical and Political Commitments’) the book looks at major poets such as J.H. Prynne and Barry MacSweeney, Anthony Barnett and Allen Fisher, Andrea Brady and Wendy Mulford, as well as focussing upon a wide range of other poets whose work is central to the world of contemporary poetry: Caroline Bergvall, Jeff Hilson, Drew Milne and Keston Sutherland.

I was fascinated by the interview between Allen Fisher and Robert Hampson dealing with the ‘Interaction between American and British Poetries 1964-1970’. The background to much contemporary poetry comes to life as we can read about Better Books and how Tony Godwin enlarged the shop on Charing Cross Road to incorporate shops at 1, 3, and 5 New Compton Street in November 1964. As Fisher had made clear in an earlier interview with Adrian Clarke, Better Books did not just sell books but also created ‘a space where you would find out about other activities going on’. The shops became informal meeting places for the building-up of a subculture and as such they were perfectly in tune with a world that Fisher recognises as connecting John Ashbery and Wendy Mulford. Referring to a poem from the late 1960s in Mulford’s Bravo to Girls and Heroes, as well as poems by Andrew Crozier, David Chaloner and Roy Fisher, Allen Fisher says

‘What these poems share with Ashbery is a self-consciousness made explicit in the form—the poem discusses its own processes in the script of the facture en route. But also, it’s self-analysis not so much as questioning as rather indicating its dialectical thrust—the logic of the particular having a larger interest as if—or, rather, so that—the simple description or fragment of description feels metonymic for a far larger philosophical position.’

This interview gives us fascinating insights into the world of American poetry’s effects upon what was happening in Britain and if I have any quibble it must only be about one tiny piece of misinformation given as a footnote. Allen Fisher tells us about Jonathan Williams (Jargon Books) often being at the Dulwich poetry readings in South London but the footnote says that the readings were held upstairs in “The Crown and Sceptre” in Dulwich village. The pub was actually named “The Crown and Greyhound” and it still stands there today!

How refreshing to find a chapter devoted to the work of Anthony Barnett. As Xavier Kalck, associate professor at the Paris-Sorbonne University, points out ‘Barnett’s work opens Andrew Crozier and Tim Longville’s landmark 1987 anthology A Various Art, and his work then and since epitomizes the well-known connection pointed out by Crozier and Longville in their introduction: “Certainly, at the time [the 1960s], one of the means by which many of the poets in this anthology were identifiable to one another was an interest in a particular aspect of postwar American poetry, and the tradition that lay behind it—not that of Pound and Eliot but that of Pound and Williams.” Kalck also highlights Barnett’s central position within the world of contemporary British poetry when he refers to the newly collected poetry and noncritical prose numbering no less than 647 pages.

I was delighted with this book, the most recent contribution to a fine series devoted to ‘Modern and Contemporary Poetry and Poetics’ promoting and pursuing topics in the burgeoning field of twentieth-and twenty-first-century poetics. It is a goldmine of information and suggestion, constituting a perfect starting-point for anyone interested in what can sometimes feel like a difficult territory to map out.

Ian Brinton 30th September 2015

A Quick Note on César Vallejo

A Quick Note on César Vallejo

Selected Writings of César Vallejo, ed. Joseph Mulligan, various trans. (Wesleyan University Press, 2015) is a badly formulated publication, in contrast, for example, to the same publisher’s magnificent handling of Victor Segalen’s Stèles (2007). It has to be said that it is not infrequent that seemingly all-embracing selected volumes make uncomfortable reading. The Selected Poetry and Prose of Andrea Zanzotto (University of Chicago Press, 2007) is another case in point. This is not to say that one should not buy this Vallejo. Probably one should because some eighty percent of its contents have never been translated into English before. The problem is that the wonderful wealth of decently translated and annotated prose, extracted from a great deal more: articles, chronicles, stories, plays, letters, has, interspersed among it, selections from Vallejo’s poetry, some in previously published translations, all anyway previously translated many times. This makes for irritating intrusion, not the helpful context the editor or publisher presumably intended. And that space could have been taken up with more of the prose. Two other points, just for example. Firstly, the earliest Vallejo prose includes quotations from poems by two other poets, which are not translated. Why? This book is offered as a translation. Doubtless many of its readers will be unable to read Spanish well or at all. So why is it assumed that these quotations do not also need to be translated? Secondly, that part of the bibliography, while described as selected, devoted to “Works by Vallejo in English Translation”, is nevertheless grossly negligent in important omissions, including Shearsman’s The Complete Poems, Allardyce Book’s The Black Heralds, and others.

Anthony Barnett 15th July 2015

Tears in the Fence 61

Tears in the Fence 61

Tears in the Fence 61, designed by Westrow Cooper, with a stunning winter woodland cover, is now available from https://tearsinthefence.com/pay-it-forward It features poetry, fiction, art criticism and drama from Mike Duggan, Robert Vas Dias, Ian Seed, Jennifer Compton, Anne Gorrick, Kelvin Corcoran, Charles Wilkinson, Sheila Hamilton, Chris Daly, Gerald Locklin, Mark Goodwin, Kimberly Campanello, David Pollard, James Roome, Tim Allen, Matt Bryden, Sheila Mannix, Cora Greenhill, Jackie Sullivan, Colin Sutherill, Yvonne Reddick, Michael Henry, Andrew Shelley, S.J. Litherland, Elizabeth Cook, Cristina Navazo-Eguía Newton, John Bloomberg Rissman & Anne Gorrick, Nigel Jarrett, David Goldstein, Reuben Woolley, Kate Noakes, Rupert M. Loydell, Paul Sutton, Seàn Street, Louise Anne Buchler, David Clarke, David Andrew and Ziba Karbassi.

The critical section consists of David Caddy’s Editorial, Hannah Silva’s Make It Strange
, Anthony Barnett’s Two Childlike Antonyms
, Andrew Duncan on Kathleen Raine
, Steve Spence on Daniel Harris & Rupert M. Loydell
, Ric Hool on Tom Pickard
, John Muckle on James Wilson
, Elaine Randell on John Muckle
, David Caddy on David Miller
, Mandy Pannett on Jay Ramsay
, John Welch on Paul Rossiter
, Belinda Cooke on Yves Bonnefoy and Leonid Aronzon
, Fiona Owen on Victoria Field, Jay Ramsay on Anna Saunders
, Anthony Barnett’s Antonym: Literary Tumbles
, Sheila Hamilton on Melinda Lovell
, Notes On Contributors
 and Ian Brinton’s Afterword.

David Caddy 12th March 2015

SNOW 3 Spring 2015, edited by Anthony Barnett & Ian Brinton

SNOW 3 Spring 2015, edited by Anthony Barnett & Ian Brinton

SNOW 3 is a cornucopia of international delights and quite unlike any other UK literary review. There are translations, musical scores, drawings, writing paintings, original poetry and prose, essays, extracts and stills from Rei Hayama’s film, The Focus, based upon a Nathaniel Hawthorne story, extracts from the correspondence between the Dutch writer, Cees Nooteboom, and Anthony Barnett, sketches by Harold Lehman, and a photographic essay on the artists and musicians at the Grand Terrace Cafe, Chicago, in early 1941.

The poetry translations include Simon Smith’s Catallus, Emilia Telese’s Erika Dagnino, and Barry Schwabsky’s Pierre Reverdy. Anthony Barnett translates the poetry and prose of Gunnar Ekelöf. Christina Chalmers and Concetta Scozzaro translate Andrea Zanzotto’s essay ‘Infancies, Poetries, Nursery’, Ian Brinton translates Philippe Jaccottet on Francis Ponge, Jørn H. Sværen translates his own prose from the Norwegian. Konrad Nowakowski writes on Busoni’s Letter to Verdi and Bridget Penney writes about the literary and artistic connections of Abney Park Cemetery, north London. The original poetry, less than usual, comes from Caroline Clark, Dorothy Lehane, Yamuph Piklé, Alexandra Sashe and John Seed.

This extraordinary mix is beautifully designed and presented by Allardyce, Barnett, Publishers. 14 Mount Street, Lewes, East Sussex BN7 1HL.

http://www.abar.net

David Caddy 3rd March 2015

Parting Movement, Constantly Prevented by Isabelle Baladine Howald

Parting Movement,  Constantly Prevented by Isabelle Baladine Howald

Translated by Eléna Rivera (Oystercatcher Press)

A delightful arrival from the Oystercatcher: a moving sequence of poems under the three headings ‘August’, ‘September’, ‘October’ contained beneath a cover which merges the almost tangible sense of loss in the ‘Creation of Adam’ on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel with ‘Venetia, Lady Digby, on her deathbed’ by Van Dyck. Both paintings deal with stasis and movement, a recognition of the living and an awareness of the irretrievable loss of parting. The cover is of a statue, stone and movement, and is followed by an epigraph, “I have to find my place again and you have to move.”

The personal intimacy of these poems rests with the awareness of the gap between people:
‘Knowing you was never something I tried to achieve, even as
a child.
That’s the way I conceived of things right from the beginning.’

They remind me of Rosemarie Waldrop’s ‘Conversation’ recorded in Contemporary Literature, Vol 40, No 3, Autumn 1999:

‘what matters is not things but what happens between them. Or if you take the linguistic model, it is not the phoneme but the connection of phonemes that makes language, the differences in the sequence…The gaps keep the questions in relation.’

As Nikolai Duffy put it in her Shearsman publication Relative Strangeness, Reading Rosemarie Waldrop, ‘For Waldrop, poetry is the taking place of language in the spaces between words. Throughout her writing there is the sense that language can be experienced only as fissure, gap, aperture, an empty middle into which the possibility of meaning both enters and escapes.’
In ‘Projective Verse Charles Olson writes ‘At root (or stump) what is , is no longer THINGS but what happens BETWEEN things, these are the terms of the reality contemporary to us—and the terms of what we are.’ In ‘Aesthetic’ Charles Tomlinson writes about reality taking place in the space between things. In Howald’s ‘August’ the dominating sense is movement and stillness: fullness and emptiness: ‘The room resonates, without the furniture.’

Fragment 22:
‘A day of arguing, he had wanted to leave; in his backpack, his alarm clock, a flashlight.’

The clock presents an urgency of now whilst the flashlight suggests a stare into the future.

The fragments from ‘September’ give us a world of Beckett’s ‘Play’, the touching urns and the fragmented relationship conveyed lyrically to us as dismemberment, and Dante’s Canto V from Inferno with Paolo and Francesca:

Fragment 6:
‘I speak to him, he rarely answers but he listens.
In a certain way I love him, even if I never knew anything about
him, never wanted to know anything.’

The poet gives us a world of the suspended moment, as with Keats’s ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’ or that painting by Van Dyke:

Fragment 11:
‘Constant parting movement, constantly prevented.
Slight gesture toward turning round, finally not doing it.’

Another echo for me is Anthony Barnett’s translation of Anne-Marie Albiach’s ‘An Object of Anarchy’:

‘A memory in the body, attempts the awakening of coded signs in a partially blind work.’

Ian Brinton 15th October 2014

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