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Tag Archives: Charles Olson

Lessons: Selected Poems Joel Oppenheimer (edited by Dennis Maloney & introduced by David Landrey) White Pine Press / Buffalo, New York

Lessons: Selected Poems  Joel Oppenheimer (edited by Dennis Maloney & introduced by David Landrey)  White Pine Press / Buffalo, New York

In Black Mountain Days, the engaging autobiographical account of the early 1950s at Black Mountain College, Michael Rumaker described his fellow student Joel Oppenheimer as that “fierce-featured poet from the Bronx and refugee from Cornell, whose father owned a luggage shop in mid-Manhatten”. When Oppenheimer wrote a short biographical note for the concluding pages of Donald Allen’s 1960 ground-breaking anthology The New American Poetry, in which he was represented by five poems, he wrote:

“Born for the Depression, but too young to remember any suffering. Too young for WWII – in school and 4 F during Korean. Consequently, having missed the 3 major social calamities of my time, I am always feeling just a little guilty. Now living in NYC”.

There is a clarity in these phrases of self-accounting as well as a wry touch of humour. This is the man who, in a little anecdote told me some years ago by Jeremy Prynne, caused the Zukofsky family a certain amount of consternation. Prynne and Oppenheimer had paid a visit to the Zukofsky home and Joel, being of some considerable physical size, started to throw his arms about in energetic enthusiasm. According to Prynne, Louis Z. was terrified for the safety of the little ornaments with which the flat was decorated!
Dennis Maloney’s new selection of poems by Oppenheimer brings the extravagant and dedicated figure of Oppenheimer back into focus and David Landrey’s introduction directs us to some very good reasons why the poet who bridged the world of North Carolina and New York should be read again now. Landrey writes about simplicity in Oppenheimer’s work not as being opposite to complexity but as being more connected to what Emerson wrote in his 1836 book-length lecture Nature:

“When simplicity of character and the sovereignty of idea is broken up by the prevalence of secondary desires – the desire of riches, of pleasure, of power, and of praise – and duplicity and falsehood take place of simplicity and truth, the power over nature as an interpreter of the will is in a degree lost; new imagery ceases to be created, and old words are perverted to stand for things which are not; a paper currency is employed, when there is no bullion in the vaults.”

At Black Mountain College Charles Olson taught the value of limpidity and Rumaker recalled soon after leaving there a letter he wrote to Olson in September 1956:

“Four years ago or so when I first read your work (mostly in Origin) I thought you were straining after an impossible chaos – that it was whimsical, meaningless, sensationally tricky. But what was necessary was a correction of my ear. I didn’t see the form, I didn’t hear the limpidity of your thought and feeling, your rhythm – what you were always after me for, limpidity, telling me that night over the dishrack to go to Williams, as I did, and found, as I find now the same in you, in all I’ve read of you.”

Oppenheimer’s short poem ‘The Gardener’ first appeared in Robert Creeley’s magazine Black Mountain Review 4, Winter 1954:

“on the left branch, a
blossom. on the
top branch, a blossom.
which child is this.
which flowering
of me. which
gold white bloom.
which the force of my life.”

Of course there is Williams in this but there is also a delicately thoughtful contemplation which is entirely Oppenheimer: an awareness of one’s self, a throwing open of one’s arms. Zukofsky might have had justification for his touch of anxiety! In ‘Chaos’ from the 1994 collection New Hampshire Journal there is a further contemplation of the relationship between the poet and his creations:

“CHAOS is where
we come from
FORM we reach
occasionally
then fall back
into chaos
to start again
renewed

INCOHATE
means beginning

comes from the root
TO HARNESS

getting into harness
is just the beginning

how we plow and
what we plant
determines the field

the field
determines
what feeds us
while we wait
to fall back
to grow again”

This is a fine poem which focuses on the link between the present and the future recognising the way in which we can learn from what we have created: this is poetry which has a sense of newness, a sense of the future and yet it contains a limpid grasp of where ideas come from, a humility. It recalls for me that early Olson poem ‘These Days’ which I am so fond of quoting:

“whatever you have to say, leave
the roots on, let them
dangle

And the dirt

Just to make clear
where they come from”

In his ‘Poem for the New Year 31 December 1973’ Oppenheimer describes being strangled by Medusa in a nightmare from which he struggles to awake. As he puts it “i am saved / by the old poet, he helps me / break loose”. The old poet is Charles Olson who had died some three years before but whose teaching would continue to have a major effect on American poetry.

Ian Brinton, 12th May 2017

September in the Rain by Peter Robinson (Holland House Books)

September in the Rain by Peter Robinson (Holland House Books)

Haunting the accelerating pace of the years throughout the last century the words of L.P. Hartley’s narrator echo a deepening sense of loss: ‘The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there’. Of course they always did but the speed of change seems to have made that world of Edwardian England another country entirely.
Looking back at an early holiday in North Tyne during the middle of that twentieth century Peter Robinson remembers ‘fishing lines / tautening under a vanished horizon’ and recognises that ‘Nothing recompenses for the love withdrawn – ’. It is almost as if in this early poem, ‘Under their feet’, one can hear Arnold’s measure as he listens to the ‘melancholy, long, withdrawing roar’ of a sea which retreats ‘to the breath / Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear / And naked shingles of the world’. We walk with the past below our feet and discover monuments piercing the soil telling us how, in Charles Olson’s words, the ‘dead prey upon us’. The American poet cries out his urge to ‘disentangle the nets of being!’ and another early Robinson poem, ‘A short history’, introduces us to those trammels of the past as with a painterly eye we are presented with ‘first light / through gripping ivy’, ‘leaf shadow, / telephone wires on the ceiling’, ‘meshed stained-glass’ and ‘woven emblems’. Now in this powerful novel of reconstruction as dawn lightens on the road, where the two protagonists of September in the Rain have arrived in Como after getting a lift from an Agip petrol station bar, ‘Distances stood out pellucid and near’: the past nightmare is returning into clear focus with the ‘barred and meshed windows’ of a ‘dusty-grey frontage’ which houses la Questura, the police-station.

In The Political Unconscious: Narrative as Socially Symbolic Act (1981) Frederic Jameson suggested that story-telling is the quintessential form in which reality presents itself to the human mind. Four years later Oliver Sacks wrote about The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat and asserted that

‘We have, each of us, a life-story, an inner narrative – whose continuity, whose sense, is our lives. It might be said that each of us constructs and lives, a ‘narrative’, and that this narrative is us, our identities…for each of us is a biography, a story. Each of us is a singular narrative.’

And so, some forty-one years after a traumatic experience of sexual violation in a car during a wet night in Northern Italy, a violation committed by a man armed with a pistol, Peter Robinson’s inner narrative surfaces in this stunningly moving novel, September in the Rain. The long-reaching effects of the incident ensured that the narrator’s ‘one summer of half-innocent youthful confidence had gone for ever’ and as he confesses to us ‘There are things you can’t come back from, however much you may wish you could, or even pretend you have’.

The novel opens with a dramatic and highly visual effect which brings to mind the opening paragraph of that Black Mountaineer Michael Rumaker’s Exit 3:

‘The yellow breakdown truck pulls off and halts outside an Agip petrol station bar. Pushing the stiffly sprung door, the driver throws back his blue anorak hood and shakes off the worst of the rain. Behind him come the two of us, bedraggled from the storm, wet through, with limp hair and blank faces, eyes blinking in the neon as if startled out of a troubled night’s sleep.’

There is an immediacy, a palpability, to this first paragraph; it is as if one of the shades from Dante’s Inferno is piercing their changeless existence to loom out at us ‘as if we’re already dead, come back to haunt the scenes of our last moments like a pair of unappeasable revenants’. That echo of Dante’s infernal world continues later in the novel when the narrator talks to his sister:

‘Our talking over everything and everyone began to go round and round in circles, and our conspiracy of two turned in upon itself.’

Dante is by no means the only literary figure woven into the fabric of this artful tale and the narrator can reveal a distance between himself and the outrage committed so long ago by recognising the power of his own reading and thinking. The scene of rape in the car is contextualised by a reference to Ovid and the witness to the crime sees that ‘you would not die, not for now anyway, nor, for that matter, be changed into a nightingale’. The entangling self-knowledge which is one of the major themes of this disturbing narrative leads the narrator to recognise his own attempts at artistic and cultural distance. As his girlfriend shuts her eyes on the train-ride which will be taking them back to some kind of normality he is attempting to read Florentine Painters of the Renaissance

‘…my eyes enlarged behind the thick lenses, reading page after page, retaining nothing at all, yet seeming entirely lost to you in art’.

The writer’s awareness of the gap between emotional commitment to an individual and the larger world of cultural heritage which stretches back for thousands of years is caught for the reader in the paradox of the two choices at the New Wing at the National Hospital for Nervous Diseases. The left doorway announces HEALING above the door whilst the right has RESEARCH: ‘I find myself wondering how I might even try and attempt the impossible—and go in through both doors at once’. September in the Rain is moving evidence of that attempt.
And as I Return to Charles Olson’s ‘As the Dead Prey Upon Us’ the poet recognises that ‘Purity // is only an instant of being, the trammels // recur’ and the reference in Robinson’s novel to ‘reddish smears from the wet clay earth’ (sharp perception of those moments of early horror) are hauntingly glimpsed towards the end of the novel as the narrator’s ‘envious eyes’ were ‘deflected to the red clay tiling of the kitchen floor, where tiny flecks of onionskin lay preserved in its more remote corners’.

Ian Brinton, 29th August 2016

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.

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