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More Flowers Than You Could Possibly Carry, Selected Poems 1989-2012 Simon Smith (Shearsman Books)

More Flowers Than You Could Possibly Carry, Selected Poems 1989-2012  Simon Smith (Shearsman Books)

Part I: CONTEXT

Simon Smith’s poetry is always on the move and Fifteen Exits (Waterloo Press 2001) is no exception. Although published at the opening of the new century the individual ‘exits’ are all dated in the closing years of the previous one. The place of first publication and the names of the travelling companions are also included. The volume’s opening poem, ‘The Nature of Things’, is dedicated to J.D. Taylor, carries an epigraph from Stephen Rodefer and begins in a slightly old-fashioned epistolary fashion suggestive of being on the cusp of change:

Dear John, my friend
can I call you that?
No news, but poetry.

First published in West Coast Line in the Fall of 1995 the poem was originally titled ‘Didactic Ode’ but with the new century a re-reading of Lucretius impelled ‘These coarsened times’ to ‘swallow the Works of the Ancients too’.
Reviewing Smith’s 2010 Salt collection, London Bridge, Ben Hickman had referred to the poems as ‘fast’ or, as if just to check that distance between perceiver and perceived, ‘rather, the world they intermediate in is’:

The achievement of the poems is to hang on to this world while remaining faithful to the fact that, in the twenty-first century, this is not easy. Smith, in a sense, has it both ways, reflecting the fragmentation of experience but also often enough able to grab it, celebrate it, mourn it or present its beauty.

Hickman’s use of the word ‘fragmentation’ here inevitably conjures up the world of early Modernism, particularly T.S. Eliot whose ‘fragments’ were ‘stored against’ his ruin in The Wasteland. London Bridge is peopled with literary ghosts, from the opening poem’s weaving of John Ruskin’s ‘Storm-Cloud of the Nineteenth Century’ into Second World War air-raids over London to Chaucer, Keats, Baudelaire, Rilke, Kafka, Apollinaire, Pound and Saussure.

Smith’s concern with poetic voices had been announced earlier with the title of his 2003 volume for Salt, Reverdy Road. A reference to the French poet, translated by Kenneth Rexroth, points us to the end of one of Frank O’Hara’s most well-known pieces, ‘A Step Away From Them’ which itself concluded with his heart in his pocket, ‘it is Poems by Pierre Reverdy.’ This link to O’Hara is central to Simon Smith’s poetry: poems which appear to present a quality of the random are in fact highly-wrought and careful vignettes of modern urban and suburban life. As a practitioner Smith is also concerned with the line as well as the music of verse and it is fitting that the short poem ‘Olson’ from Reverdy Road should focus not only on the geography of Fort Square but also on the emphatic Olsonian concern for the poetic line:

Looking off the watch-house quay into fog.

Olson scrawling walls and every surface.

Hi, gran pops! Information log-jammed.

Everyday is small. A few drops

The other way look the other way there

It goes the World harder than love. The line.

In 2011 Veer Books published Smith’s sequence of poems, Gravesend, reflections of a train journey between Charing Cross and Chatham. The volume opens with a desire for permanence within a shifting landscape, a narrative that contains ‘whatever occurred at that particular moment at the carriage window, or on the train.’ However, the hunger for permanence and some sense of stability in a fast-moving world is undermined by the subject material of potential catastrophe. Within these poems we will be confronted by the ghosts of Conrad and Dickens, Walter Benjamin and Paul Weller (Jam to Style Council), Juvenal, Claudius, Caesar, Vespasian, Neil Young and Browning, Spenser and Catullus. This wide frame of reference offers a living background to the ‘now’ and it is worth looking at Smith’s 2005 review of Josephine Balmer’s new translation of Catullus published by Bloodaxe (Poetry Review, Vol. 95, No. 1). In a scathing reference to the former Education Minister Charles Clarke’s pronouncement that educational subjects worthy of study ‘need a relationship with the workplace’ Simon Smith pointed out that if you want to become a politician perhaps you should read Cicero, Plato or Aristotle before going on to pose the question ‘where else is the foundation of Western democracy other than in the Ancient worlds of Greece and Rome?’
In contrast to this sense of continuity, however, one pervasive tone threading its way through the Gravesend sequence is that of impermanence and perhaps another shadow behind the literary urban scene is Paul Auster whose novel In the Country of Last Things (1987) drowned the reader in instability:

When you live in a city, you learn to take nothing for granted. Close your eyes for a moment, turn around to look at something else, and the thing that was before you is suddenly gone.

A child’s recognition of vertigo and terror finds one its most moving manifestations in the opening pages of Dickens’s Great Expectations where the young Pip is surrounded by the graves of his family as he stands on the marshland of North Kent one Christmas-eve. The presence of this little seed in the opening poem of Smith’s journey sets the scene for the injustice of life and the oppressive political insensitivity of the adult world masquerading as the language of ‘Progressive education’ and ‘liberal democracy’

Where ‘life’ became a history to cry out
About grey and brown flatlands tilted
Over the edge dangling Pip.

As the train approaches Bluewater shopping-city, itself an Auster or Ballard world, ‘Assessment elides policing’ and the prevailing sense of educational policy which would have doubtless found favour with that now historical Minister, Clarke, prompts the poet to mis-read a sign on a grey bin labelled ‘not working’ as ‘networking’! This is a world of captions and key-words which present themselves as mirrors of everyday narrowness.
Gravesend, republished in 2014 by Shearsman as the second section of 11781 W. Sunset Boulevard, is not a disconnected set of fragments shored against this poet’s ruin but is a collage where ‘Opposite Burger King’ there will be the outline of a Roman temple and where ‘Ghost landscapes slip the train window.’ As the reader arrives finally at Chatham, the ‘End of the line’, the journey has been a narrative in the sense used by Ortega y Gasset in Historical Reason, (published in 1984, the year of the miners’ strike and Big Brother):

So if we resort to the image, universal and ancient as you will see, that portrays life as a road to be travelled and travelled again—hence the expression “the course of life, curriculum vitae, decide on a career”—we could say that in walking along the road of life we keep it with us, know it; that is the road already travelled curls up behind us, rolls up like a film. So that when he comes to an end, man discovers that he carries, stuck there on his back, the entire roll of the life he led.

Or as Simon Smith, sardonic, shrewd and humane poet, concludes:

Me in pin-sharp form,
The ring-pull moment of chance,
Reality a line right through.

In his most recent poems, written in 2014 whilst on the West Coast of America doing research work for his forthcoming Paul Blackburn Reader, Smith pursues his concern with speed and place

father farther out with each act
of memory whilst I’m here
locked between the non-stop grind of trucks west
and endless gridlock east
trying to learn Italian
from reading Franco Beltrametti’s Face to Face
each neighbourhood a tight packet of stuff

Beltrametti’s book was published in 1973 by Grosseteste Press and Smith’s awareness of the Italian poet is not only a sly reference to John James’s sequence of poems published by Equipage in 2014 (Songs in Midwinter for Franco) but also to the poet whose merging of the immediate and the far produced embers which became fire and in whose own work ‘introspection creaks like stretched / leather, gaudy and plain, at half past / midnight 50 km out of town’.

Eating tangerines.
Missing people—lots.

Ian Brinton 17th April 2017

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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

Tears in the Fence 60

Tears in the Fence 60

Tears in the Fence marks its Thirtieth Anniversary with a poetry Festival 24-26th October, and the publication of issue 60.

Tears in the Fence 60 is now available from https://tearsinthefence.com/pay-it-forward and features poetry and fiction from Lucy Hamilton, John Freeman, Ric Hool, Francis Ponge translated by Ian Brinton, Lynne Wycherley, James Midgley, George Ttoouli, Melinda Lovell, Michael Farrell, Paul A. Green, Norman Jope, Rethabile Masilo, Jo Mazelis, Helen Copley. Saint James Harris Wood, Paul Kareem Tayyar, Linda Black, Jeremy Reed, Peter King, David Ball, John Torrance, Jay Ramsay, Dorothy Lehane, Caroline Maldonado, Mark Dickinson, Michael Henry, Amy McCauley, Lesley Burt, Deya Mukherjee, Colin Sutherill, L. Kiew, Adam Fieled, Rob Stanton, Steve Spence, Colin McCabe, Elaine Randell, Mandy Pannett and Mark Russell. There is also a Conversation Piece between Fiona Owen and Ric Hool.

The critical section includes Hannah Silva’s Make It Strange, Jennifer K. Dick’s Of Tradition & Experiment, Anthony Barnett’s Antonyms, Belinda Cooke on recent translations, Basil King’s Learning to Draw / A History, Ben Hickman on Tony Lopez, Jeremy Hilton on Andrew Taylor, sean burn, Ric Hool, Peter Hughes on Women’s Experimental Poetry in Britain, Philip Crozier on Andrew Crozier in Hastings, Gavin Goodwin on Thomas A. Clark, Mandy Pannett on Simon Jarvis, David Caddy on John Goodby’s The Poetry of Dylan Thomas, Rosie Jackson’s Between The Lines, Notes on Contributors and Ian Brinton’s Afterword.

New from Oystercatcher’s beak

New from Oystercatcher’s beak

Rouge States

                      by Alex Houen

Later Britain

                      by Ben Hickman

When I first glanced at Alex Houen’s ‘Eucalypso Redux’ sequence of six sonnets I was given a glimpse of an energetic vista of the dispersal of meaning and reconfiguration which resisted any notion of a charting singular centre: I was on the river ‘punting down a sequence of dolly- / shots and flashbacks called the Cam’; I was listening to the margins of language where ‘Blades / chop the building rush of dark internal river’; I was immersed in a world which seemed to owe debts to both Robert Browning and to J. H. Prynne. These poems are journeys of which Browning’s Pentapolin (‘Named o’ the Naked Arm’) could create a Sordello for us by taking a stand on the boat ‘pointing-pole in hand’; they are movements which present the reader with ‘gaps of explanation rolling like wheels contrary within themselves’ on one of Prynne’s Kazoo Dreamboats: ‘alien motions on fire with coriolis demeanour’. As Peter Riley puts it on the back cover of this delightful collection, this volume contains poetry

 

where any word, almost, can suddenly flip itself elsewhere without asking permission

 

When the words behave in this manner they return to the page like a Mobius Band: we have been transported elsewhere and recognise our departure point as both the same and radically different.

 

Turning to Ben Hickman’s chapbook I discovered myself more in the world of John Ashbery’s ‘System’ where the American poet wrote with a sense of energy and delight about ‘How we move around in our little ventilated situation’ whilst discovering ‘how roomy it seems’ and how ‘there is so much to do after all, so many people to be with…’

There is a generosity of humour in Ben Hickman’s poems and a manner of utilising common phrases without any sense of the cliché. These are poems written with mordant magnanimity: yes, he is generous but don’t fall foul of him!

 

I tell myself I’m in love, that I would cry out

into the tear-charged sky, my feet tingling

like spring grass, the underground river

rising through me. Oh Dave it’s you

as I dig down, distinguished for my skill

among Greeks everywhere.

 

As well as Ashbery’s voice I detect here a trace of the Charles Olson who concluded ‘The Kingfishers’ hunting among stones.

 

Ian Brinton 15th June 2014

Zone: A New Magazine

Zone: A New Magazine

The first issue of a new magazine from Kent University has just appeared and it is absolutely terrific.

 

Edited by Kat Peddie and Eleanor Perry this first number contains work by Allen Fisher & Jeff Hilson, Denise Riley & John James, Kelvin Corcoran & Tony Lopez.

 

It also contains exciting new work by the Canterbury Chapter and it is very good indeed to see new poems by David Herd, Simon Smith, Juha Virtanen, Ben Hickman, Dorothy Lehane, Nancy Gaffield.

 

The blurb on the inside of the back cover of this polished, illustrated and handsomely printed magazine makes the collaborative nature of the enterprise very clear: ‘We have commitments and enthusiasms to and for certain writers, writings, ideas, and actions.  We wish to share these with each other and with others. Some of these commitments are political. We have chosen essayists whose poetical and political commitments we think are important. One of these commitments is to the idea of the Commons…in a common, and commonly owned, ground in which individuals come to work together.’

 

Tears in the Fence 57 is out!

Tears in the Fence 57 is out!

Tears in the Fence 57 is out! It is available from https://tearsinthefence.com/pay-it-forward/ and features poetry and fiction by Sean Street, Elizabeth Welsh, Lou Wilford, Pansy Maurer-Alvarez, Ben Hickman, Karoline von Günderrode, Lori Jakiela, Paul Kareem Tayyar, Rosie Jackson, Isobel Armstrong, Steven Earnshaw, Sarah Miller, Paul Matthews, Alexandra Sashe, Susmita Bhattacharya, Claire Crowther, Alistair Noon, Mélisande Fitzsimons, Gerard Greenway, Adam Fieled, Jennifer Compton, Alison Lock, Kevin McCann, Dorothy Lehane, Andrew Shelley, Melinda Lovell, Peter Robinson, Tess Joyce, Tim Allen, Jaime Robles, Noel King,  Geraldine Clarkson, Gavin Selerie, Steve Spence, Eleanor Perry and many others.

 

The critical section includes selections from Letters From Andrew Crozier to Ian Brinton, Andrew Duncan on Fiona Sampson’s Beyond The Lyric, Chrissy Williams on Chris McCabe, Michael Grant On Writing, Laurie Duggan on Geraldine Monk’s Cusp, Jeremy Hilton on David Caddy, John Welch, Robert Hampson on Ben Hickman, Sheila Hamilton on Melissa Lee-Houghton, Lindsey Holland, Frances Spurrier on The Best of British Poetry, Mandy Pannett on Rocco Scotellaro, Ian Brinton on Donald Davie, Jay Ramsay on Norman Jope, Pauline Stainer, Michael Grant on Anthony Barnett, Ric Hool on Mario Petrucci, Richard Humphreys on Clive Wilmer, Ben Hickman on Wide Range Chapbooks, and regular columnists David Caddy, Rosie Jackson, Anthony Barnett and Ian Brinton.

 

 

 

 

John Ashbery and English Poetry

Ben Hickman’s new book on John Ashbery is a must for anyone who is interested in this most prolific and central of contemporary American poets. And, perhaps even more importantly, it offers a highly convincing and inviting introduction to how Ashbery’s work is closely related to his reading of British poetry. As Ben Hickman puts it in his introduction:

 

The centrality of poets like Henry Vaughan, Andrew Marvell, Thomas Lovell Beddoes and John Clare to Ashbery’s achievements, along with near-contemporaries like Nicholas Moore, F.T. Prince and W.H. Auden, show a poet reading in a manner quite foreign to most other American poets of his time, both from mainstream and avant-garde movements.

 

In this context it is interesting to recall J.H. Prynne’s comments from 1968 about J.V. Cunningham’s appraisal of Wallace Stevens:

 

Cunningham has also more recently described how Stevens’ preoccupation with the dialectic interaction of self and environment is “the residue of the teaching of Royce, William James, and Santayana” and has argued that his finest achievements like ‘Sunday Morning’ are in “the nineteenth century rhetorical style…of Wordsworth’s Prelude, Keats’ Ode to Autumn, Tennyson’s Ulysses”. One might wish to add to this sketched list: the ‘Meditations in Time of Civil War’ and ‘Coole Park and Ballylee, 1931’ of Yeats, for example, or maybe Charles Olson’s ‘The Kingfishers’ and (with important reservations) John Ashbery’s ‘The Skaters’.

 

Ben Hickman’s book on Ashbery is available from Edinburgh University Press and Michael Schmidt’s blurb on the back is a serious boost for this new book:

 

An individual and authoritative reading of one of the great poets of our time…Hickman writes with clarity and depth of knowledge.

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