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Slant by Linda Black (Shearsman Books)

Slant by Linda Black (Shearsman Books)

Reading through the graceful poems, the delicate threads of line that constitute this collection, I am reminded of a little essay written by John Hall and published by Shearsman in Necessary Steps, edited by David Kennedy in 2007. Writing about ‘Occasions of Elegy’ Hall refers us to some roots:

The Oxford English Dictionary gives as the etymology for occasion: ‘ad. L. occasion-em falling (of things) towards (each other). It is not just the things that fall towards each other, though there is always, I would say, a sense of conjuncture or convergence that marks something as an ‘occasion’, even for those with their attention on the ‘everyday’. It is also that occasions are marked incidents that cause certain people to fall together.’

In the Dictionary the word ‘slant’ has of course plenty of references to the oblique (‘having an oblique or sloping position’) bringing to mind that occasional sense of one thing leaning towards another: movement and balance. The delicate threads of Black’s lines lean in such a way that stasis merges into movement: the gesture is that of thought becoming fixed for a moment, and it is recognizable in ‘Earth’s spread’:

‘—legend
quickens outward
inward to the fine grit
sand sieved & airborne
scuffs the surface
into drills blows in
three wishes bows out
definition beaten by whether…
O fragile web!

The forward movement of civilized growth, that which in narrative terms creates ‘legend’, has a primeval thrust of life which is caught with the word ‘quickens’. The word itself has of course echoes of the Credo where the ‘quick’ and the ‘dead’ merge and in this present context it is promoted, propelled forward, with the gesture of ‘outward’ as if from a centre. With a leaning gesture forward there is also an awareness of what space has been left behind by the movement: the opposite of ‘outward’ is ‘inward’ and the ‘fine grit’ or ‘sieved sand’ is like the prehistoric substance from which the perilous slanting forward derives. The ‘fossils’ and ‘scavengers’ and ‘bones’ which appear in the poem’s second stanza are ‘far far lower’ than where we are now but they provide the essential backdrop for this surge of slanting forward.

A central sequence of poems in Slant is ‘The Seven Lamps’ and as Carol Rumens says on the back cover ‘This work is a kind of translation, and Black finds enrichment for her own rhythms and vocabulary by re-grouping and personalising borrowings from the original texts’. In Ruskin’s fourth chapter of The Seven Lamps of Architecture he had presented an aphorism that could well be borne in mind when thinking about contemporary poetry:

‘But symmetry is not abstraction. Leaves may be carved in the most regular order, and yet be meanly imitative; or, on the other hand, they may be thrown wild and loose, and yet be highly architectural in their separate treatment.’

Ruskin went on to explain how his ideas differed from many architects since many of them ‘would insist on abstraction in all cases’ whilst he felt that a purely abstract manner ‘does not afford room for the perfection of beautiful form’ and that ‘its severity is wearisome after the eye has been long accustomed to it’. In Black’s poem (‘after Ruskin’) we find

‘Long low lines rise soon to be lifted
& wildly broken’

And we are confronted with ‘pavement’ which ‘rises / & falls’ as ‘arches nod westward & sink not one / of like height’

The conclusion to this second stanza of ‘The Seven Lamps’, a remarkable poem, is central to Linda Black’s whole volume as she comments upon ‘These inclinations’ (note the pun on subjective desire):

‘the accidental leaning the curious incidence
of distortion – differences’

The presentation of each poem, with italicised words leaning against the rest of the text, is part of the whole exquisite design and ‘A life of custom & accident’ is held in a delicate balance.

Ian Brinton 13th May 2016

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Ianthe Poems by Peter Philpott (Shearsman Books)

Ianthe Poems by Peter Philpott (Shearsman Books)

All art is in the past, acting as a record of what was seen or felt upon some occasion, and, as John Hall reminded us in his contribution to David Kennedy’s Necessary Steps (Shearsman 2007) the Oxford English Dictionary gives the etymology for ‘occasion’ in terms of the falling of things towards each other:

‘It is not just the things that fall towards each other, though there is always, I would say, a sense of conjuncture or convergence that marks something as an occasion, even for those with their attention on the everyday.’

A poem may appear to be occupied with a dramatic present (‘It is an ancient Mariner, And he stoppeth one of three’) but once the storyteller weighs in with his narrative it is firmly past tense (‘There was a ship…’). And it is the past’s intrusion into the present that is a mainstay of all Art. A poem, if it is worth anything, interrupts the even flow of the day-to-day; it appears in the manner described by Lyn Hejinian which Peter Philpott uses as the introductory presence to the first section of this sequence of poems which revolves around his grand-daughter, Ianthe:

‘The desire to tell within the conditions of a discontinuous consciousness seems to constitute the original situation of the poem. The discontinuity of consciousness is interwoven through the continuity of reality—a reality whose independence of our experience and descriptions must be recognized.’

When I first read a piece of prose by Lyn Hejinian it was in the Salt anthology Vanishing Points edited by Rod Mengham and John Kinsella over ten years ago and a line that struck me there was to do with children’s play; ‘They bend, the hour is bound somewhere.’ Fluidity and stillness, children’s ‘present’ and the adult’s binding of a moment into a poem.

If I were still school-teaching I would use some of these fresh, innovative and delightfully playful lyrics from Peter Philpott’s new volume. I often used to present a world of childhood through the eyes of ee cummings and his little lame balloon-man as well as through the binding loss of Blake’s priest in black gowns. Now I would include Peter Philpott’s ‘non-poetic coffee shop’

‘where babies gather in their buggies
& a man gives a tutorial on public health
and the staff chat about what they bought on holiday’

I would include this world in which ‘our ease is sweet here / luscious and dropping’; a world of ‘persistent bird cries / like little lyric poems’ which ‘erupt’ to intrude upon the mundane. These poems are unafraid to be serious. These poems are unafraid to be personal and to evoke domestic connections of the highest quality. These poems remind me of the point Peter Robinson once made when he recounted how the Italian poet Franco Fortini had approached him at a poetry festival in Cambridge to ask ‘Why do all the English poems end with a little laugh?’ It seems almost as if an ironic tone is adopted in order to protect the poet from being seen as nakedly serious and wanting to refer to genuinely felt emotions. This is absolutely not true of these poems by Peter Philpott:

‘what you read here is
what wisdom in these words
uncountable but singable not
what is said but how
each word points at this world!’

The lines of a poem, the binding of a moment, the words (already an echo of the past by virtue of being language) reflect what Philpott recalls from Keston Sutherland about ‘The pressure to think and sing’. The poems constitute a type of absence:

‘a silence
or opening
that isn’t
silence but
lies underneath
that

the darkness enclosing
that too…’

Ian Brinton, 7th September 2015

British Women’s Experimental Poetry

British Women’s Experimental Poetry

 

Women’s Experimental Poetry in Britain 1970-2010: body, time & locale

by David Kennedy and Christine Kennedy,

Liverpool University Press.

The opening chapter to this important book makes no compromises and takes no hostages: ‘There is, then, a large body of women’s experimental poetry in Britain that has never received its critical due and continues not to, with the result that it is forever in danger of being forgotten or overlooked.’ Very appropriately this statement is followed by a quotation from that splendid survey of new British poetries which Robert Hampson and Peter Barry edited for Manchester University Press in 1993 with its subtitle ‘The scope of the possible’.

This whole book is a serious survey of what needs to be more widely read and the poets looked at range from Veronica Forrest-Thomson and Wendy Mulford (both with their Cambridge connections from the early 1970s with the publication of Language-Games in 1971 whilst working on modern literature at Girton College and the founding of Street Editions in 1972)

to

Geraldine Monk’s ‘recognition of common humanity, emotional geography, other selves and historical echoes’ which ‘are crucial to the book-length sequence Interregnum.

to

Denise Riley’s related questions concerning how the self is to be given language and the provenance of the words used. In this chapter Clair Wills is quoted as suggesting that the Reality Street publication Mop Mop Georgette is ‘an extended meditation on what is inside and outside the self, and the purpose of lyric.’

to

Maggie O’Sullivan’s reading of ‘To Our Own Day’ which left Charles Bernstein with the experience of each listening bringing ‘something new, something unfamiliar’ and wondering at how ‘such a short verbal utterance could be so acoustically saturated in performance.’

to

Caroline Bergvall, Elizabeth Bletsoe, Andrea Brady, Jennifer Cooke, Emily Critchley, Elizabeth James, Helen Macdonald, Anna Mendelsshon, Marianne Morris, Redell Olsen, Frances Presley, Sophie Robinson, Harriet Tarlo, Carol Watts.

This is an expensive book (£70) but I gather that it is to be reissued as an e-book. In the meantime badger your library to get hold of a copy; I promise that you will not regret reading this remarkably clear account of what has needed to be pulled together for far too long. To refer back to the beginning and to Veronica Forrest-Thomson it seems quite appropriate to quote from J.H. Prynne’s words placed at the end of the Street Editions 1976 publication of On The Periphery: ‘With great brilliance and courage she set fear against irony and intelligible feeling against the formal irony of its literary anticipations.’

Ian Brinton January 2nd 2014

Necessary Steps

Necessary Steps

It is five years since David Kennedy edited a splendid volume of essays, Necessary Steps (Shearsman) and I was reminded last night of how wide-ranging and imaginative that volume is. As the blurb says this is ‘a collection of essays about poetry’s continuing importance in bringing clarity to questions of attachment and separation, possession and loss.’ I was particularly struck by John Hall’s contribution titled ‘Falling Towards Each Other: Occasions of Elegy’ in which he reflects on forms of loss, especially deaths, and the forms and practices of words that we use to define and negotiate these. Referring to J.H. Prynne’s ‘Shadow Songs’ (first published in The English Intelligencer) he talks of the poem singing in the shadows of a sense of loss and, in a footnote, recalls Thomas Campion’s poem from A Booke of Ayres, ‘Follow your saint’. Campion writes of following

‘with accents sweet’ whilst yet never being able to overtake because the ‘sad noates’ always ‘fall at her flying feete’. The image here is of a fall, as it were, just behind the flying feet (at her heels) and in turn this reminded me of Thomas Hardy’s elegiac yearning to follow Emma in ‘The Going’. Hardy recognises that he cannot ever catch a glimpse of his dead wife again even if he were to follow ‘with wing of swallow’, those long-distant and swift travellers of the air. The dead are always JUST beyond the graspable. It also reminded me of the lines towards the end of W.S. Graham’s ‘The Thermal Stair’ where he asks Peter Lanyon ‘why is it you’re earlier away’; lines in which the domestic smallness of the movement are given perspective by juxtaposing them with the earlier hint at an evening in the pub where the ‘dark-suited man/Has set the dominoes out/On the Queen’s table’. ‘Has’ possesses a presence which suggests that ‘earlier away’ is a matter of going home. This essay is a delightful glance at the world of elegy and its importance within the minds of those left behind.

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