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For The Future Poems & Essays In Honour Of J.H. Prynne On The Occasion Of His 80th Birthday Ed. Ian Brinton (Shearsman Books)

For The Future Poems & Essays In Honour Of J.H. Prynne On The Occasion Of His 80th Birthday Ed. Ian Brinton (Shearsman Books)

This collection, with a beautiful cover designed by Ian Friend, ranges from the academic to the creative and anecdotal, and is both a festschrift and response to the poet and teacher, showing the awe and gratitude felt by many of his friends and admirers.

To begin with there are some fine poems by John James, Simon Smith, D.S. Marriott, Gavin Selerie, Elaine Feinstein and Rod Mengham in response to the man and his poetry. Several contributors recall the measure and force of tutorials in Prynne’s rooms at Caius Court and provide ample testimony to their challenge, depth and impact. Indeed Michael Grant responds fifty years later to a question asked of him about some lines by T.S. Eliot leading to a fine essay on retroactive and symbolic temporality enacted in the opening lines of Burnt Norton. John Hall eloquently draws the reader into the world of undergraduate Cambridge English 1964-1967, enlisting the memories of Paul Ashton and Colin Still for reading lists and poems discussed, to produce a moving insight into the world of a Prynne tutorial at that time. John Wilkinson recalls the staircase leading to the room that was open to all comers and the walk-in wine cupboard where Veronica Forrest-Thompson was once ‘propelled by the exasperated occupant’. Michael Haslam, Nigel Wheale, Masahiko Abe and Peter Riley also capture a sense of being and place.

Anthony Barnett describes how the first collected edition of J.H. Prynne’s Poems came about and set the template for future editions, a fact that Barnett is not sufficiently recognized for. His efforts are in stark contrast to the troublesome difficulties involved with the appearance of Brass in 1971 accounted for by Ian Brinton. Ian Friend and Richard Humphreys recall their literary and sporting conversations at the Morpeth Arms, Millbank, London leading to an evaluation of The Oval Window.

Prynne’s poetry and essays are covered in various ways and his interests and concerns are well illuminated. Harry Gilonis, for example, gives a highly informative and contextual reading of Prynne’s Chinese poem, ‘Jie ban mi Shi Hu’. Michael Tencer writes on the poem, ‘Es Lebe der König’, written in response to Paul Celan’s death, providing part of the poem’s historical, etymological and literary context in order to open up perspectives on the poem. The title comes from Georg Büchner’s play Dantons Tod and was discussed by Celan in his 1960 Georg Büchner Prize acceptance speech. Anthony Mellors shows how the exchanges in the English Intelligencer from March 1966 to April 1968 shaped a poetics and poetic intervention that has subsequently broadened whilst being cognisant of the sonorities and sedimented sense-patterns of language as historical record. This sense of how Prynne’s poetics and poetry widened and took on the shapes and approaches that it did also comes into the essay by David Herd on Prynne’s 1971 Simon Fraser University lecture on Olson’s Maximus IV, V, VI. Herd shows Prynne scrutinizing and reassessing the defining axis of the poem and Olson’s lexicon from the distinct outlook of viewing from another part of the world. This reassessment establishes a new tension between the rhetoric of lyric, view, geography, spatial geometry and coast and leads Prynne to question how language voices its condition and address the issue in The White Stones. Key terms such as lyric, localism, cosmos, planet, curve, border, home and wanderer are subsequently tested. He thus used the terms of Olson’s epic to reach an understanding of the necessity to register that we are all continuous within language past, present and future. Matthew Hall offers a compelling reading of Acrylic Tips as a response to the colonialisation of Indigenous people in Australia and the politics and lexical complexity of the female pronoun. Hall argues that the structural patterns of landscapes, argot, botanical studies and Indigenous knowledge in the poem are unique to Australia. He cites John Kinsella’s poem, ‘The Hierarchy of Sheep’ as a parallel text stemming from Prynne’s time in Australia with Kinsella.
Joseph Persad notes the way conventional formal structures help focus the emotive artifice employed in the later poems and locates Kazoo Dreamboats within a context of historical protest and resistance citing Prynne’s reading at the 2011 occupation of the Lady Margaret Hall against the government’s dismantling of higher education. This fittingly returns us to the dedication of the 2015 edition of the Poems: ‘For The Future’ and the privilege of being challenged by a mind that firmly believes in pressing on.

This treasure trove of celebratory thoughtfulness, affectionately introduced by Ian Brinton, is reminiscent of Tim Longville’s For John Riley (1979) in the way that it eschews any chronology for a more impressionistic and sonorous response.

David Caddy 14th June 2016

Spacecraft by John McCullough (Penned in the Margins)

Spacecraft by John McCullough (Penned in the Margins)

Robert Kaplan published his ‘Natural History of Zero’, The Nothing That Is, in 1999 and it opens with the intriguing assertion that ‘If you look at zero you see nothing; but look through it and you will see the world’. Nature often supplies us with circular hollows: from an open mouth to the faintly outlined dark of the moon; from craters to wounds. Nabokov wrote ‘Skulls and seeds and all good things are round’. Zero, a nought, allows us to contemplate the very large by building up towards it in stages. Place a row of noughts after a figure of 1 and ‘rather than letting our thoughts diffuse in the face of immensity’ we can watch the world expanding. It is significant that the epigraph to that building up of a large picture in Charles Olson’s Maximus begins with the Black Mountain cook, Cornelia Williams, exclaiming ‘All my life I’ve heard / one makes many’. Her statement overheard by the poet complements that of A.N. Whitehead in Process and Reality: ‘…the term many presupposes the term one, and the term one presupposes the term many.’ In John McCullough’s poem ‘O’, in the second section of his forthcoming collection of poems from the enterprising publishing house of Tom Chivers, this letter, itself an echo of nothing, ‘is not the simplest letter, not always / a lucid stroke’:

‘….In my book of scripts

O sloughs its symmetry, tilts toward discord,
its wall subsiding, air charging out

as the winds inside gnash and ravel,
upgrade to howl. I lay my finger

on the page and trace each flourish.
I conjure up your lips saying

the letter, forming the shape but stopped
mid-word. I read it over and over,

I who know too well these days
how a single sound can hold a city.

When Gloucester met Lear on the sands and shoals of the blind and the mad he addressed his monarch with the words ‘O let me kisse that hand’ and Lear’s response was immediate: ‘Here wipe it first, it smels of mortalitie’. In shocked dismay the loyal earl cries out ‘O ruind peece of Nature, this great world should so weare out to naught, do you know me?’ In the Warton Lecture on English Poetry given by J.H. Prynne in 1988 he commented upon this passage:

‘There are deeply buried puns here, beyond the comprehensions of either speaker yet ensconced within their predicament of speaking about utter perdition: the round O of loyal plea turned into horror and outcry at ruined nature, broken and unpeaceful, is the self-same figure as the great world itself and the cypher it has come to, the naught.’

Mathematics and literature, figures and emotions, overlap and John McCullough’s time-machine can bring back before our eyes a Lee Harwood whose death in 2015 does not remain a nought: ‘There it was again // the softness / of your voice // the cushioned spaces / of its hesitance // that constant search / for the right way // to question yourself.’ By giving the poem the title ‘Rooms’ McCullough brings to mind the absence of the word ‘White’ and the statement in ‘When The Geography Was Fixed’ that ‘The colours are here / inside us, I suppose’. In McCullough’s airy drawing the figure of Lee Harwood comes before us, glimpsed, before a disappearance that leaves him with only ‘the silence of clouds’, ‘shuffled pebbles’ and the respect and affection that prompts him towards ‘the gaps I listen for // inside the rain’.

Another poet who died last year was Charles Tomlinson and I make no apology for repeating a quotation I have used many times before. It comes from a poem written some sixty years ago, ‘Aesthetic’:

‘Reality is to be sought, not in concrete,
But in space made articulate’.

It seems to be an appropriate statement for John McCullough’s new volume as I read with delight one of the concluding poems about living in a basement, making a space articulate:

‘A fine pleasure, to live beside the uncertainties
of a basement garden, to sit curled
near the hydrangea’s unfolding, a pipistrelle’s
click-click-click. Earlier I ran inside
and watched a squall assault the ground,
drops pummelling the glass of tea I left
on chipped slate. They made liquid coronets
in the air above it, the dark drink rising quickly,
spilling over—soon running wholly clear.

Spacecraft will be published on May 1st this year and for further information about it contact James Trevelyan at james@pennedinthemargins.co.uk

Ian Brinton 24th March 2016

STANZE by Simon Marsh (Oystercatcher Press)

STANZE by Simon Marsh (Oystercatcher Press)

In an interview with Jane Davies, published by Shearsman in Talk about Poetry (2007), Peter Robinson focused upon one of the most damaging aspects of poetry-writing since the world of The Movement. The interviewer made a short and clear point when in suggesting that Robinson’s poems ‘seem to address lived experience in recognizable forms of human expression’ to which the reply came:

‘You’ve put your finger on something that absolutely baffles me about the contemporary poetry scene. I thought this was what poetry did or does, and it often doesn’t seem to, strangely enough, because most poetry now isn’t much like this’

Robinson went on to quote the Italian poet Franco Fortini who had addressed him at a Cambridge poetry festival with the disarming question ‘Why do all the English poems end with a little laugh?’ It is as though being scared to be seen as serious we have to adopt layers of thick-skinned irony.

When I read Simon Marsh’s sixteen sonnets, each placed in its own stanza, its little room of memory, clouds lifted: here was a deeply moving poetry of lyricism and grace. Shafts of light break through cloud as memories and hopes surface in such a manner as to remind us of a world of love that has been central to poetry since the earliest writing. This is an uplifting and wonderful book!

In a short essay about the poetry of Peter Hughes (‘Pulling on the Feathered Leggings’) Simon Marsh quoted Gene Tanta saying that ‘writers who use language as a fluid artefact of the commons help to dislodge static notions of selves’. He also referred to Peter Hughes’s ‘attentive crafting’ and ‘uncommonly complete freeing up of the powers of observation.’ This precision, an awareness of the moment, filters its light through the joint volume Hughes and Marsh did for Shearsman five years ago, The Pistol Tree Poems. The last section of that remarkable book was written the year before publication and after the death of Simon Marsh’s partner Manuela Selvatico to whose memory these Oystercatcher STANZE are dedicated. In number 86 of The Pistol Tree Poems we read

‘tiles of
primary brightness
cast in
muntin shadow
a tattered map
fallen
at my feet
whenever
we were lost
we held
each other’s breath’

That ‘tattered map’, with its seventeenth-century sense inherited from Donne, is a future fractured and in number 102 we are confronted with an Odyssean figure ‘tied to the mast’ who may ‘settle back alone’ but whose awareness of life is so strong that ‘kelp shadow stuns the air’. The muntin strips which divide up a pane of glass provide a frame, a structure, within which the glass can remain as filter for the light of prospects now dissolved. A map may be tattered but as with Donne’s experience on the shortest day of the year the poet can be ‘re-begot /Of absence, darkness, death; things which are not.’ This sense of presence within absence is hauntingly caught on the cover of this compelling Oystercatcher: lines which could be empty musical staves, horizons, skylines are also the strings of a guitar which is there poised to play again. And so in the third of these little rooms, fourteen-lined STANZE, we hear a voice

‘you gave me back the poetry
the will to breathe in tunes
unravelled the strings of years
& tied light bows to my tail’

The escaping from past imprisonment, the unravelling of those netting strings woven by the years, brings to my mind Charles Olson’s urgent plea in his poem ‘As the Dead Prey Upon Us’, ‘disentangle the nets of being’. The opposite of the entanglement is graceful movement as a kite lifts in the air and streams its ‘light bows’ out behind it.
Serious Art allows the fleeting a place to rest; it also looks far forward as well as back; it is movement which does not just atrophy:

‘you promised me Dante after supper
the circumstances no longer exist
only changes in air scent
intensely captured light
page-bound radiance of individual days
when we last scooped vacant autumn oysters
from low tide silt at Minnis Bay’

Dante’s ‘lucerna del mondo’ is of such brightness and human reality is not easily put aside. As Simon Marsh puts it ‘sentiment as fluid / can cross oceans due to light’. This is not ending a poem with ‘a little laugh’; it is coming to terms with the individual ache of loss and the common grounds of human thought which we share.

I don’t think that I can make it much clearer: GET A COPY OF THIS BOOK NOW. Copies are available from Peter Hughes at Oystercatcher Press, 4 Coastguard Cottages, Old Hunstanton, Norfolk PE36 6EL.

Ian Brinton 7th March 2016

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

Smoke Rising, London 1940-41 by John Seed (Shearsman Books)

Smoke Rising, London 1940-41 by John Seed (Shearsman Books)

The blurb on the reverse side of this important new arrival from Shearsman raises interesting and central issues for the reader of History as well as the reader of Poetry:

Smoke Rising is a documentary poem. Very much in the tradition of Charles Reznikoff’s Testimony, it utilises oral sources to capture the speech—and perhaps the experience—of those who suffered the London Blitz. However, its elective affinities are also to Walter Benjamin’s great unfinished Arcades Project: “to carry the principle of montage into history…to assemble large-scale constructions out of the smallest and most precisely cut components…to discover in the analysis of the small individual moment the crystal of the total event.”’

John Seed’s awareness of the relation between Poetry and History has been evident throughout his career and one has only to turn back to his contributions to the Crozier-Longville anthology, A Various Art, to recognise this. The poem which takes its title from Antonio Gramsci, “History Teaches, but it has no Pupils” , gave the reader ‘unimagined contradictions’ in terms of ‘Imagining the real’:

‘…to make poetry of these streets
Hours and days
contemplating a page a line a word’

And in ‘During War, the Timeless Air’ the image of Bede’s sparrow ‘swooping through the bright hall’ offered us the searchlight intensity of the fleeting moment. An emphatic sense of place can grow out of the singular and I am reminded that Charles Olson appended an epigraph to the first publication of The Maximus Poems, Jargon 24, in 1960: ‘All my life I’ve heard / one makes many’. The words were used by Cornelia Williams, cook at Black Mountain College, and incorporated into a letter sent by Olson to Creeley on 1st June 1953.
Other figures of course provide the backdrop to John Seed’s moving re-creation of ‘London 1940-41’. There are the figures of the Annales School of History and Le Roy Ladurie’s Montaillou; there is Charles Reznikoff whose first volume of Testimony reflected in verse the social, economic, cultural and legal history of America and its people from 1885 to 1890. When that appeared from New Directions in 1965 it had a comment from Robert Creeley on the back: Reznikoff ‘has used all his skill as a poet to locate the given instances sans distortion, in the intense particularity of time and place.’

John Seed’s poem is a very moving document and in a world of ‘violent and indiscriminate bombing’ (a statement from the Ministry of Transport, 11 September 1940) the poet moves outwards from the particular to the general. It doesn’t have to be the irony of that 9/11 coincidence to bring domestic chaos into focus; we recognise the shocking dismemberment of domestic life in the steady stream of refugees escaping from war-torn countries in the Middle East. Poetry makes things happen! The artist, more than the historian, recognises the interweaving images that constitute a fugue and this new Shearsman publication is haunting in its clarity:

‘Blasted windows clocks without hands glass

on stairs mounds of yellow

rubble poisonous tang of damp plaster

and coal gas the house still

smouldering scraps of cloth hanging bare

walls at the side still standing

burnt piece of wood like a

gibbet jutted out into the sky

weary blistered firemen grimy half-clad

homeless mirror swinging steeples scorched and

discoloured by fire the sound of

swept off the streets a few

seconds above the trees lines of

figures asleep scrawled over

obscene inscriptions

The picture is vivid and that last word, ‘inscriptions’, offers a historical perspective suggestive of life’s unchanging desolation. The gibbet which ‘jutted out into the sky’ recalls both Hogarth’s ‘Gin Lane’ and Dickens’s opening image of marshland in the first chapter of Great Expectations.
John Seed is a very important poet and I urge readers to get hold of a copy of this book. Whilst you are at it you might also search out SNOW 3 with his ‘Recollections of the Durham Coalfield’; this is poetry for our time!

Ian Brinton, 18th September 2015.

The Complete Poems of R.F. Langley edited by Jeremy Noel-Tod (Carcanet Press)

The Complete Poems of R.F. Langley edited by Jeremy Noel-Tod (Carcanet Press)

In 1978 Nigel Wheale’s infernal methods press published a chapbook of four poems by R.F. Langley, Wheale’s former English teacher at Wolverhampton Grammar School. Roger Langley had studied at Jesus College, Cambridge in the late 1950s, the same time as Jeremy Prynne with whom he was to remain close friends for the rest of his life. As Jeremy Noel-Tod puts it in the introduction to this splendidly produced new Carcanet edition of the Complete Poems: ‘In their final year, Langley and Prynne were supervised by the poet and critic Donald Davie’ who introduced them to the work of both Ezra Pound and Adrian Stokes. This is almost like an updating by ten years of the narrative told by Charles Tomlinson in Some Americans when he was tutored in the late 1940s by Donald Davie who introduced him to both Wallace Stevens and William Carlos Williams. In 1994 infernal methods published a second Langley volume, Twelve Poems, and it is this book which was referred to by John Welch in a letter to me from near the opening of this century:

The trajectory of a poetic career is interesting. As I think you know pretty much the only person to publish him [Langley] for years was Nigel Wheale, his friend and former pupil—and anything else that appeared appeared through Nigel. I was actually staying at Nigel’s when ‘it happened’—he’d just brought out a full-length albeit quite small collection of Roger’s when, out of the blue, Michael Schmidt rang up. I don’t think Nigel knew him at all—he’d simply sent off a review copy to PN Review. Anyway, Schmidt rang bubbling over with enthusiasm. Which led to the Collected and a good deal of subsequent interest in his work.

That ‘subsequent interest’ included Carcanet’s Collected Poems (produced in conjunction with infernal methods in 2000), The Face of It, a collection of 21 poems in 2007 and a regular slot in PN Review for the ‘Journals’. And the projection of this literary narrative has now given us this new Complete Poems, one of the most handsomely edited and produced collections I have seen for some time.
As Langley put it in the very well-known interview with Robert Walker from Angel Exhaust 13:

‘I didn’t start writing until I found out about American poetry. There was Donald Davie at Cambridge who talked about Pound. But Davie never talked about Olson. It was really Olson who convinced me that I might write something myself.’

It was very much that interview alongside the early poem ‘Matthew Glover’ that prompted me to write the first of my ‘Black Mountain in England’ articles for Michael Schmidt in 2005 (PN Review 161). But it wasn’t until 2010 that Roger wrote me an account of having first come across Charles Olson:

‘JHP introduced me to the work of Olson, of course, sending me copies of first ‘The Kingfishers and a bit later, I think, of the Projective Verse essay. Later on I saw the Donald Allen anthology, bought some copies of it, and used it to teach from while I was at Wolverhampton Grammar School. Obviously, from the very first, my own writing, although opened up to new methods by Olson, was always closely tied to my own immediate biography. 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 shall be writing a review of this new publication for Shearsman Magazine on-line and that will concentrate more on the poems and less on the ‘chit-chat’!

Ian Brinton 1st September 2015

Lee Harwood III: the palpability of loss

Lee Harwood III: the palpability of loss

In early March 2012 Lee and I were invited by Kim Wyatt, the Head of English at Warwick School, to give a talk and a reading. I wanted to look at some Olson and some Hardy in relation to what I saw as Lee’s astonishingly powerful awareness of how tangible loss can feel. Some notes:

‘It is by their syllables that words juxtapose in beauty, by these particles of sound as clearly as by the sense of the words which they compose. In any given instance, because there is a choice of words, the choice, if a man is in there, will be, spontaneously, the obedience of his ear to the syllables. The fineness, and the practice, lie here, at the minimum and source of speech’. Charles Olson, ‘Projective Verse’.

Olson goes on to refer to the anonymous late medieval lament

‘O western wynd, when wilt thou blow
And the small rain down shall rain
O Christ that my love were in my arms
And I in my bed again.’

This short poem was one of George Oppen’s favourite lyrics and it is worth comparing it with his poem ‘O Western Wind’ from the 1962 collection The Materials:

‘A world around her like a shadow
She moves a chair
Something is being made—
Prepared
Clear in front of her as open air

The space a woman makes and fills
After these years
I write again
Naturally, about your face

Beautiful and wide
Blue eyes
Across all my vision but the glint of flesh
Blue eyes
In the subway routes, in the small rains
The profiles.’

Douglas Brown called Hardy’s language one of ‘thorough integrity, of actual and human relations; his matter is mutability and the place of loss in the texture of life’ (Thomas Hardy, Longmans 1954). One attempt to retrieve moments gone might be a reconstruction of the absentee’s presence by imitation, giving empty space a palpability, a sense of almost being still there. With the image of an ‘air-blue gown’ in Hardy’s ‘The Voice’ colour and emptiness are located in something as substantially matter-of-fact as a dress. Compare this with Lee’s early poem ‘As your eyes are blue’ especially with reference to the image of the shirt on the top of a chest-of-drawers. And then Hardy’s poem ‘The Walk’ from January 1913:

‘You did not walk with me
Of late to the hill-top tree
By the gated ways,
As in earlier days;
You were weak and lame,
So you never came,
And I went alone, and I did not mind,
Not thinking of you as left behind.

I walked up there today
Just in the former way;
Surveyed around
The familiar ground
By myself again:
What difference, then?
Only that underlying sense
Of the look of room on returning thence.’

It’s worth comparing Hardy’s register of loss in this poem with Lee’s ‘Y garn, Glyderau’ written in memory of Paul Evans and published in In The Mists (Slow Dancer Press 1993): memory is linked to a particular venue and, as with Hardy, opens up a different vista: ‘tugging winds and squalls’ give way to ‘clear days’:

On a cloud bound summit
you don’t stride out of the mists
across the rocks and dirt,
as I felt you might,
maybe cursing,
as I just stood there.

Instead
I plod on,
reach the familiar cairn.
No one there except the silence
and a heaviness.
The tugging winds and squalls
died down into this grey calm.

In the fifth of the interviews with Kelvin Corcoran, February 2008, Lee referred to the poem ‘September Dusk’:

‘The poem ‘September Dusk’ touches on that indescribable feeling that one has at moments, am amazement at the surrounding world, its colours, its appeal, the taste, the smell of it, the touch of the wind on your skin. Most of all it’s the feeling of being totally present.’
This puts me in mind of the quotation from Maritain which Oppen used as the epigraph to The Materials: ‘We awake in the same moment to ourselves and to things.’ The first poem in the collection is ‘Eclogue’:

‘The men talking
Near the room’s center. They have said
More than they had intended.

Pinpointing in the uproar
Of the living room

An assault
On the quiet continent.

Beyond the window
Flesh and rock and hunger

Loose in the night sky
Hardened into soil

Tilting of itself to the sun once more, small
Vegetative leaves
And stems taking place

Outside—O small ones,
To be born!

Lee in conversation with Aodhán McCardle, September 2003:
‘There’s a thing Oppen says which knocked me out the other day…He says ‘I want to be free from the career of poetry, I want to know what I will be able to say to myself in my life, and I mean…to myself. And that, that there shall be an area of silence where the poem lives, if it lives.’ It’s very personal in the sense that it’s not trying to convert anybody…’

The reply highlights a central element in Lee’s poetry:

‘I find it everywhere in your poetry, relationships between time and space, as in time between when the writing seemed to be happening and time that jumps from one line of the poem locating you somewhere, anywhere, doesn’t have to be specifics, and by the next line there’s a different location, not just spatial but in time, so therefore there are things happening simultaneously.’

And this in turn prompts a connection with John Ashbery when Lee said:

‘I think it’s probably what Ashbery, unconsciously or indirectly taught me is the foolishness of the egotistical voice. You’ve got to have that ‘meanwhile back at the ranch’ stuff. It may be a description of, say, a love poem, the two individuals, but meanwhile out in the street people are going about their business to whom the scene in the room is irrelevant or they don’t even know it, and, ah, by bringing in what’s going on outside the room, what’s going on in other parts of the world, makes the thing in the room much more…real, it puts it in perspective, makes it part of a bigger thing rather than being some giant romantic monument.’

And in conversation with Robert Sheppard, April 2005, Lee emphasized again that Ashbery concern for juxtaposition:

‘If you are describing a very intense emotional experience, and if you also then mention the noises outside in the street, or even in the next room, it makes it much more real than having just a vision of this one isolated experience. One reason is that the readers can be involved as well. They’re aware of all those things surrounding them too.’

After the talk Lee sent me the John Wayne picture. ‘I thought this old favourite might amuse you. There’s something so ham, almost camp, about John Wayne—and yet we (almost) believe in him. Or I do, anyway!’

Ian Brinton 1st August 2015

Derelict Air: from Collected Out by Edward Dorn Enitharmon Press

Derelict Air: from Collected Out by Edward Dorn Enitharmon Press

In February 1955 Charles Olson wrote to his former Black Mountain student Mike Rumaker:

‘This is not an answer to your two, and mss. You will excuse me, but I
am selling cattle, plows, property etc., and it will soon be in hand, and I can get back to you, and proper work. But this is to tell you officially that the turn has come, and that it is forward, again: that we will operate spring and summer quarters, and I wanted you to know, simply, that you, Tom [Field], Jerry [Van de Weile] and Ed [Dorn] are our solids—solid core, and all that—around which we are building, taking only students who are sharp and directed themselves, and expecting a strong summer group, if the spring thing shows no surprising additions yet.’

Rumaker also recalled Dorn ‘presenting the illusion of a foxy preacher from the Old West’ and one can sense a slight whiff of this in Robert Creeley’s ‘Preface’ to the 1978 Grey Fox Press Selected Dorn:

‘No poet has been more painfully, movingly, political; the range and explicit register of Edward Dorn’s ability to feel how it actually is to be human, in a given place and time, is phenomenal’.

One highly engaging aspect of this terrific new volume of Dorn’s previously unpublished work is precisely to do with that ‘given place and time.’ People and places weave a haunting path through the 600 pages of this book with the convincing quality of diary entries. ‘An Account of a Trip with Jeremy Prynne in January 1992 through the Clare Country’:

‘Nobody knows what it’s like
to be in love in the country
nobody knows what the labor’s like
nobody feels the distant thermal
tedium in the fields, where the birds
mock such indenture with No Regard.’

The tone of voice here reminds me of the early poem from Hands Up!, ‘On the Debt My Mother Owed to Sears Roebuck’, whilst further on in this passionately serious new poem one can detect the voice and interest of Prynne:

‘the farm gone beyond its wretched and wracked
draft of human labor conditioned by
the fake gestures of Spring and Summer—free heat
no credit to the sun, whose ownership was,
and still is assumed, paid for with evermore
toil and exertion with a ration calculated down to
and including the last straw.’

It’s that wonderful merging of the colloquial with the analytic in the last lines, the anger and directness of statement, which becomes a hallmark of the work of both poets.

Last year shuffaloff / Eternal Network Joint # 6 published extracts from Dorn’s 1971 The Day & Night Book and my copy has a little insert that says simply ‘a slice from the year 1971, beginning with birth of our daughter Maya, to early summer.’ In this new Dorn collection the entire eighty pages of that diary-poetry appear and it is more than a ‘slice’. As if to emphasise again the close-working connections between Dorn and Prynne the 203rd Day includes ‘On first reading The Glacial Question, Unsolved, again. The tones of the two poets are again operationally interactive:

‘There are a legion of poets
and like
with any legion the work
is fixed and secondary
a ride in the desert
spent days, one
at a time
the serial is in some ways
perfect for a legion

and of the poets prancing
in the academy stock
talking into the face of the clock
only Prynne has the wit to compose
The Pleistocene Rock!’

Prynne’s poem, from The White Stones deals with the glacial movement south in the Pleistocene Era and within it scientific discourse becomes lyric expression which disrupts those discourses. Of course Dorn would have appreciated the compassionately aware sense of both history and humour in the English poet: ‘We know this, we are what it leaves’.

Ian Brinton 3rd July 2015

Map, (Poems After William Smith’s Geological Map of 1815) Edited by Michael McKimm Worple Press

Map, (Poems After William Smith’s Geological Map of 1815)  Edited by Michael McKimm Worple Press

In the early decades of the nineteenth century the civil engineer and geologist William Smith produced his maps giving a stratigraphic table for the rocks of Britain. As Michael McKimm tells us there are about 400 copies of this map, produced between 1815 and the 1830s, and one hangs on display in the entrance hall of the Geological Society of London. Two hundred years on from Smith’s Delineation of the Strata this anthology responds to that recognition of the way we relate to what lies beneath us in terms of both geological structure and historical fabric; it is an anthology of poems dealing with that world about which Charles Olson wrote in 1950 when he declared that ‘whatever you have to say, leave / the roots on, let them / dangle // And the dirt //Just to make clear / where they come from.’ As the editor puts it:

Their poems illustrate not only the vibrancy and variety of contemporary poetry but also poetry’s unique ability to take on uncharted territory with vision, to make connections…

The anthology contains a wide range of poems and I just highlight one or two as a taster of the delights to be found in this little volume from one of our very best small publishers.

John Freeman has four entries here and I am struck by the way in which ‘Strata Smith’ reminds me of early Dorn or Olson. I am thinking here of the early Dorn historical metanarrative, ‘Relics from a Polar Cairn’, which the American Black Mountaineer had sent to Gordon Taylor in December 1953 before it was published in Cid Corman’s Origin 13 in the summer of 1954. Comments on the poem appear in the second of my Black Mountain in England sequence of articles I did for PN Review ten years ago. Freeman’s poem opens up with that conversational informality which helps to reconstruct a scene:

We don’t know what they ate or drank. Three men
in a private room on a June evening,
the glass and china cleared from the table.
One man spoke, a second wrote, having ruled
a horizontal and four verticals
on a very large sheet of paper. The one
dictating went through, in order, with names
some of which he had improvised himself,
the twenty-three layers of various stuff,
including chalk, sand, clay and fuller’s earth,
always in the same sequence underground.
Each man took a copy before they parted.

This scene is placed for us, reconstructed along lines that might have stepped out of the pages of a narrative by Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie, and it is only by allowing the movement of the sentence to take us gently forward that we are able to register the stunning importance of the word ‘always’ heading that penultimate line. This map will change history. As Freeman puts it in the second section, ‘Nobody had ever seen this before. / There had been no understanding of what lay, / lies, beneath their feet and ours.’ The movement outwards from the local to the vast, as in some of those early Snyder poems based upon his experiences in Yosemite, is expansive as the poem concludes with days that ‘were getting longer and longer’:

that time of year when it seems light will go on
filling the whole world more and more brightly.

The anthology is too rich for me to give an account of each poem but there are delights from the well-known names of Philip Gross, Peter Robinson, John Greening, Anthony Wilson, Elizabeth Cook, Andrew Motion as well as so many more. Andy Brown, the editor of the very fine Kelvin Corcoran Reader The Writing Occurs as Song, (Shearsman 2014), gives us fossils as ‘a haunting from the underlying past’ and Helen Mort, the organiser of the recent John Riley Symposium in Leeds merges a past with a present in which she wishes to stay ‘until the very end’:

feeling the earth
move under me,

known by
nobody, part

of nothing,
whole

Get this important anthology from http://www.worplepress.co.uk

Peter Carpenter has got it right again!

Ian Brinton 10th May 2015

Due North by Peter Riley (Shearsman Books, 2015)

Due North by Peter Riley (Shearsman Books, 2015)

As the author’s blurb on the back tells us this is a poem in twelve chapters ‘concerned with human movement northwards or out in the quest for work, subsistence, settlement and gratification, and in danger of getting trapped in various enclosures, including thought-traps.’ It is serious; it is where we are; it places ordinary people in the history and geography of their upbringing.

The opening chapter brings to my mind the early sections of R.F. Langley’s Olsonian venture ‘Matthew Glover’. Riley has ‘human groups moving / over the great grasslands with the herds’ across ‘vast green and red lands without division’ and registers for us those ‘footsteps measured in millennia’. Langley’s poem opened with movement and settling: ‘To start with throve heavy forest / this district, on its marl / thick blue marl’. And this in its turn brings to mind the thoughts of Mircea Eliade’s suggestion that a sacred place has a unique existential value for religious man as ‘A universe comes to birth from its centre’. As Peter Riley’s opening chapter puts it, wisdom is learned ‘in a form of desire, a distance to be gained’ and this in turn is accompanied by ‘Orphic stasis’; no looking back unless it be at the fast disappearing shadows of what one thought one might have brought with one.

The movement is ‘Not “travel”’ since there ‘were needs, and displacements’ and an ‘outpacing’ of the desert ‘trekking in a great curve across the African savannah / towards the northern swamps and forests / the great diadem that divides the sky / into days and days into hours, captured / in a circular stone hut’.

Music, history and personal reminiscence merge as ‘A precise liquid touch on the keyboard / small cloven hoofs on the packed stones’ and the ‘everyday which is where we live’ is also the place ‘in which we are trapped.’

This is a terrific book which contains the previously published The Ascent of Kinder Scout (Longbarrow Press 2014) about which I wrote a blog on August 22nd last year. This is a book to carry ‘in a side pocket through morning thoroughfares’:

‘Silence folded against the flank as the sky is folded
tight behind the morning fogs and closed shops
and there is no refuge to be had across the great
housing estates, sleeping citizens of eternity.’

Ian Brinton 14th April 2015