RSS Feed

Tag Archives: Charles Reznikoff

The Meaning of Things: Poems and Prose by Elaine Randell (Shearsman Books)

The Meaning of Things: Poems and Prose by Elaine Randell (Shearsman Books)

There is an old saying about not judging other people until you have walked a mile in their shoes. In her reminiscences about her father, the concluding section of this powerfully moving new book, Elaine Randell puts it slightly differently:

“If anyone ever behaved badly or was criticised by my mother or me, he would always say, to know all is to forgive all, you have to understand why people do certain things and behave in a certain way before jumping in, Elaine.”

Elaine Randell’s career in social work and psychotherapy complements her substantial work as a poet which stretches back to Nos 3 & 4 of The Curiously Strong in November 1971 where she appeared alongside Barry MacSweeney in ‘The official Biography of Jim Morrison’, Just 22 And Don’t Mind Dying. Two years later a short book of poems appeared from MacSweeney’s Blacksuede Boot Press, Telegrams From The Midnight Country, and it is one of these short pieces that lingers in my mind as I read Randell’s new volume from Shearsman Books:

“See how the tree comes to
ward.
A heavy wind here pesters
loose wood.
Sky steps are light.
The birds fly up ex
static.”

In an interview the American Objectivist Charles Reznikoff suggested that poetry presents the thing in order to convey the feeling: it should be precise about the thing and reticent about the feeling. Of course the feeling is there in the selection of material: you pick certain things that are significant—that’s your feeling. You don’t go into the feeling; you portray it as well as you can, hoping that somebody else reading the poem will get your feeling:

“Now, as part of that, I should perhaps say that I try to be as clear and precise as possible….my own belief is to name and to name and to name—and to name in such a way that you have rhythm, since music (and I think George Oppen would agree with me) is also part of the meaning”.

I’m sure that Randell would certainly agree with Reznikoff and that early poem, titled ‘For You – Today’, would not look out of place in the 1934 Objectivist Press publication Jerusalem the Golden. For instance look at the three lines of ‘July’ in that Reznikoff volume:

“No one is in the street but a sparrow;
it hops on the glittering sidewalk,
and at last flies – into a dusty tree.”

Randell’s The Meaning of Things is divided into four sections the last being two autobiographical pieces of memory of the poet’s mother and father. In section II that naming and rhythm which mattered so much to both Reznikoff and Oppen is placed securely in ‘Easter 2014 Romney Marsh’:

“On such a day the skylark
heard above the tractor before seen
up that high.
Who could not be charged
by his ecstatic salute to life
upwards and yet further up he shows how to sing while flying
while
plummeting
vertically effortlessly hovering before parachuting back.
On such a day you had also heard this
known perhaps that despite their aerial activities,
skylarks nest on the ground not in trees which may catch the wind.”

Forty-four years ago in ‘For You – Today’ the second line opens with what might be perceived to be the second syllable of the word “toward”. However, by being placed where it is that word becomes a verb “ward” and the note of warning and care held in both sound and meaning of that small word leads the reader forward to the third line’s reference to “A heavy wind” and the repeated ‘w’s, agitated by the use of “pesters”, take us to the fragility of “loose wood”. In this new poem there is a contrast between the firm placing on a ground, “On such a day”, with the following nine syllables of line two ending in the open music of “seen”. The poem echoes the surge of movement and song as the lark moves “upwards and yet further up he shows how to sing while flying”.
George Oppen was a great admirer of the slightly older Reznikoff and in a 1959 letter to June Oppen Degnan, his half-sister and publisher of San Francisco Review, he wrote:

“Rezi wrote

Among the heap of brick and plaster lies
A girder, still itself among the rubbish.

Likely he could mull along and tell you what he had in mind. But how other than with this image could he put into your mind so clearly the miracle of existence—the existence of things. It is only because the image hits so clear and sudden that the poem means what it means. I don’t know that he could make it any clearer by talking about it.”

Elaine Randell’s new publication presents the reader with poetry and prose. The poetry stands clear on the page, THINGS. The prose, reminiscent of John Berger’s account of a doctor in the Forest of Dean in A Fortunate Man, gives us human voices that unsettle us with their convincing presentation of emptiness and perseverance, loss and determination. This is an important book.

Ian Brinton 4th March 2017

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.

Lee Harwood II The Miracle of Existence

Lee Harwood II  The Miracle of Existence

In January 2010 I gave a talk at Eltham College Literary Society alongside Lee reading his poems and these bullet-points are extracted from some notes I used as a handout for the boys.

• The epigraph to HMS Little Fox (Oasis Books 1975) is taken from Pound’s ‘Canto 77’: ‘things have ends (or scopes) and beginnings. To know what precedes and what follows/will assist yr/comprehension of process’
Pound’s lines are accompanied by the two ideograms placed at the head of this blog.

• ‘The Long Black Veil: a notebook 1970-72’ is the opening poem in the collection and Lee’s own notes on the cover account for the ordering of the poems in the volume:

‘This collection was written between 1967 and 1972. The work really has its seeds in my book The White Room (1968), and also is where The Sinking Colony (1970) left off, even though some of the work here was written at the same time as the work in that book, and a few poems even before that time. (I want to state here my sense of this continuity.) It is a development from there—towards a greater complexity and range. Not only containing varied information, but having an energy and necessity as well. The two qualities—presentation of informations and the art as mover, catalyst—to somehow work together, be one. The collection is set out to be seen the way you see a plant. It begins with the sequence ‘The Long Black Veil’, the end-product, the ‘flower’ of my work to date, and then moves on down to the origins, the roots of that work, the earlier poems and the poems written at the same time as I was writing ‘The Long Black Veil’. The whole book is one crystal in which things ricochet back and forth, echo and re-echo. In which light enters and bounces out again changed in form and direction. And the crystal itself alive and growing.’

‘There are very many references to enclosed spaces/gardens/cloisters in your work, right from the early days up until now. What are these metaphors?’

This question was asked in an interview with Andy Brown in The Argotist Online, August 2008 and in reply Lee related this sense of an enclosed space to a comment made to him by Douglas Oliver: ‘Inside the harm is a clearing’ and it is one of Lee’s finest qualities as a poet to make this ‘clearing’ more than something metaphorically abstract. In the same interview he referred to a ‘Reznikoff quality to these images too, in that they’re real, solid—the courtyard with the fountain is an actual place.’

• Charles Reznikoff, a Jewish New York poet 1894-1976 wrote the lines

‘Among the heaps of brick and plaster lies
A girder, still itself among the rubbish.’ (Jerusalem the Golden, 1934)

• The Objectivist poet George Oppen was deeply moved by these lines and wrote to his half-sister June Oppen Degnan in February 1959: ‘Likely Rezi could mull along and tell you what he had in mind. But how other than with this image could he put into your mind so clearly the miracle of existence—the existence of things. It is only because the image hits so clear and sudden that the poem means what it means. I don’t know that he could make it any clearer by talking about it.’
Late in the Second World War while he was driving a truck in a convoy, Oppen came under enemy fire and was forced to dive into a foxhole. Two other men also leapt in the foxhole, and both were killed, while Oppen was seriously wounded from exploding shrapnel:
‘…found myself trapped in a fox-hole, slightly injured, and with no apparent means of escape, certainly no possibility until night-fall. I waited, I think, some ten hours, and during those hours Wyatt’s little poem—‘they flee from me’—and poem after poem of Rezi’s ran thru my mind over and over, these poems seemed to fill all the space around me and I wept and wept. This may not be literary criticism, or perhaps, on the other hand, it is.’
(Letter to Milton Hindus, late Spring 1977)

• In the first interview with Kelvin Corcoran, published in Not the Full Story (Shearsman 2008), Lee referred to ‘little intense scenes shifting round…You do get these moments of goodness, whether it be in some of the pastoral scenes or a landscape of suburban railway tracks and oil refineries.’ When talking about his education at Queen Mary College, University of London, he placed the reading of literature firmly in the world of objectivity:
‘I did a degree in English literature and language. I had this terrific thing of walking from Mile End tube or Stepney Green—I was living in Stepney anyway—to lectures and then coming out of the lecture and walking back along Mile End Road. So all that business of maybe going to a place like Cambridge where you would float out of your lectures in your gown and walk to the quad, and you could keep on living in that world was avoided. It was knocked out of you because you immediately had reality in your face and you didn’t go to high table. You had bubble and squeak at the local transport café. I think that gave me a lovely sense of the importance of literature but also in the world, not in some isolated, privileged world. So you’d always have the measure of what you’d read, of the poetry existing in a working society.’
In the same interview he referred to a poem as ‘a bundle of stories’; ‘this building with fragments and suggestions’; ‘building up, like a chemical build up’; ‘a bundle of voices’; ‘getting to know the building bricks’; ‘an interest in displaced locations’ and ‘incomplete narratives’; ‘the heaping up of fragments’.
With reference to this last comment I suggested that the pupils might want to look at the accumulation of fragments in T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land; the ones he shored against his ruin. I also recommended them to look at Eliot’s 1919 essay on Hamlet: ‘The only way of expressing emotion in the form of art is by finding an ‘objective correlative’; in other words, a set of objects, a situation, a chain of events which shall be the formula of that particular emotion; such that when the external facts, which must terminate in sensory experience, are given, the emotion is immediately evoked.’

Part III of my Lee Harwood memorial will continue tomorrow.

Ian Brinton 31st July 2015

‘Living life totally…as a moving, growing thing’. In memory of Lee Harwood Part One

‘Living life totally…as a moving, growing thing’.  In memory of Lee Harwood Part One

On March 22nd 2009 I had written to Lee asking him to come to Dulwich College to give a poetry reading alongside Peter Robinson. I mentioned that I had been teaching ‘The Long Black Veil’ to my sixth form pupils and that I had also sent a copy of the poem to Michael Rumaker in New York. I thought that Mike would like to see this since he had been a close friend of both Olson and Wieners at Black Mountain College and after. Mike’s letter back was typically ‘on the nail’:

‘Finished Lee Harwood’s ‘The Long Black Veil’ this morning. Enjoyment more than I can say, except: herein, the process of a passion, lightly, deftly, touched on over wide, enchanting fields of language, spatially breathing, its poignancy leaving me breathless—passion worth anything beyond it, any pain, any pleasure before it. To have it, to have lived, to know one is alive. The singer is alive, his song alive. What more can one ask? Many thanks for sending me this lovely gift of a poem.’

On Friday April 24th the reading took place in the Masters’ Library in the College and in addition to the sixth form boys present the audience included the Australian poet Laurie Duggan and John Welch. We were also joined by Roy Fisher’s bibliographer, Derek Slade. As Peter Robinson wrote to me this morning, ‘It was such an honour to have the chance to read with Lee’. This, of course, was a memorable moment also on account of the review Peter had written for the TLS on 26th November 2004: ‘In the reader’s hands: Collected Poems of Lee Harwood’. A few days later Lee rang me at home to suggest meeting up for a drink in the Alleyn’s Head in Dulwich since he was staying in the area for a couple of weeks. We met up on May 6th and spent a lot of time talking about loss, the impossibility of registering absence in presence. I gave him a copy of Long Distance, the Ferry Press publication of poems by Lewis Warsh, since we had been talking about the famous photograph. Lee had sent me a copy of that Boston Eagles at Walden Pond, 1973, Judith Walker’s photo of John Wieners, Lee Harwood, Lewis Warsh & William Corbett, on the back of which he wrote ‘I thought this photo of four dodgy characters might amuse you. I don’t think you’d buy a used car from them, nor have them tarmac your drive. Though Mr Wieners’ gold lamé jacket and winning smile might fools some people.’ In May he also sent me a copy of The Hotel Wentley Poems which Joy Street Press put out in 2006:

‘This was, I guess, the final proof copy and they were ready to roll when Bill Corbett saw the many typos. It seems a Boston custom to have as many mistakes as possible, from my own experience of publishing there! Anyway Bill got it all right before the book was released’.

Sitting in the Alleyn’s Head we were talking about O’Hara and Lee gave me a copy of the piece he was asked to write by Robert Hampson, a personal angle, titled “Generosity of Spirit, Memories of Frank O’Hara and Israel Young”. We talked about Charles Tomlinson’s poem written soon after George Oppen’s death and about Lee’s own poem from In the Mists, ‘For Paul / Coming out of Winter’:

‘On a bright winter morning
sunlight catching the tops of white buildings
a tree outlined against the sea
a wall of flints

To be able to stop and see this
the luxury of being alive
when the waves crash on the shore
and a fresh wind streams up the narrow streets
A moment like this lightens the darkness
a little, lifts the heart until
you can walk down the hill near careless

How can that be? suddenly slammed up
against a wall by memories of the dead
loved ones completely gone from
this place

Shafts of sunlight cutting through the clouds
onto the everchanging sea below

How many times we discussed the sea’s colours
all beyond description words a mere hint
of what’s beyond our eyes then and now

On October 24th I drove over to Abertillery to stay with Ric Hool. Lee was staying as well and we three drove over to The Hen and Chicks in Abergavenny. Jeremy Hilton, Phil Maillard, Chris Torrance, Will Rowe, Lee and myself did an evening of readings in memory of Barry MacSweeney. We talked of Reznikoff and Oppen and Lee wrote to me in January of the next year:

‘To have the tangible, to have real objects in a poem. To be believed that what happens in a poem happens in this world we live in, not just in books. Reznikoff’s ‘girder’, or in that marvellous sequence by Oppen ‘Of Being Numerous’:

‘The great stone
Above the river
In the pylon of the bridge

‘1875’

Frozen in the moonlight
In the frozen air over the footpath, consciousness

Which has nothing to gain, which awaits nothing,
Which loves itself

Ian Brinton, 30th July 2015

Benjamin Hollander’s Memoir American

Benjamin Hollander’s Memoir American

(dead letter office, BABEL Working Group, an imprint of punctum books, Brooklyn, New York)

 

As the blurb puts it ‘You will find in this Memoir what it means for an alien to search for his family in a book outside the time of its writing. You will find him discovering that translation is a personal story and that poetry might not have a home without it.’

 

I have increasingly become one of those people whose reading, unless I am focussed upon a particular piece of writing that I am committed to, seems to take on a life of journeying of its own. I read something and then find I need to travel down a path which arises from some memory of having read something else which in itself triggers another pathway and…I am going to have to read everything I have ever read as well as read all those things I have only heard of which have been recommended. I need to speak all languages. I am tumbling off the walls of Babel:

 

Therfor was called the name of it Babel, for there was confounded the lippe of all the erthe. [Genesis 11:9, translated by John Wyclif, 1382]

 

Having read Ben Hollander’s Memoir American which arrived in the post yesterday I feel energised and bewildered: I want to set off on those pathways. This is one of the most exciting short books I have come across for a long time and I can only suggest to you all: READ IT!

 

The central study of a section from Charles Reznikoff’s By The Well of Living and Seeing is a delight as Hollander contemplates what it means to hear/see ‘an American poet’s voice transformed when it is written under the influence of other languages which do not need to manifestly show themselves to be felt present in the poem, and which we know are evidenced in the poet’s life.’

 

And now I am being drawn in a way to re-read Paul Auster’s City of Glass (Faber 1987) with its disturbing opening sentence ‘It was a wrong number that started it, the telephone ringing three times in the dead of night, and the voice on the other end asking for someone he was not.’ And then I am dragged off to look again at Rod Mengham’s, Language (Bloomsbury 1993) with its study of the ‘crazy attempt to erect a structure that might bridge the gap between earth and heaven’ showing the depth and intensity of a human need to be furnished with a language that not only matches the world of physical phenomena ‘but which in some sense brings that world into existence.’ And, yet again, I am now impelled to search the shelves for George Gissing’s autobiographical sketch, The Private Papers of Henry Ryecroft in which he says

 

How the mood for a book sometimes rushes upon one, either one knows not why, or in consequence, perhaps, of some most trifling suggestion. Yesterday I was walking at dusk. I came to an old farmhouse; at the garden gate a vehicle stood waiting, and I saw it was our doctor’s gig. Having passed, I turned to look back. There was a faint afterglow in the sky beyond the chimneys; a light twinkled at one of the upper windows. I said to myself, “Tristram Shandy”, and hurried home to plunge into a book which I have not opened for I dare say twenty years.

 

Read Ben Hollander’s Memoir American at your peril; you don’t know where you might end up!

%d bloggers like this: