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What Possessed Me by John Freeman (Worple Press)

What Possessed Me by John Freeman (Worple Press)

When I wrote about John Freeman’s work in my book last year about Dulwich College poets, Infinite Riches, I focused upon the strong influence of the post-war American poets. In an interview the poet had given to Gavin Goodwin (published in Tears in the Fence 59, 2014) he spoke eloquently about what had been his early reading:

“I’ve always been interested in the border country between speech, poetry, prose and verse; and since Whitman, Pater and the French symboliste poets there has been a great deal going on in this zone. But it’s much older than that, really. In my teens I lived close to the Old Vic in the years when it performed all Shakespeare’s plays, of which I saw a good few. The prose spoken by Hamlet and Falstaff thrilled me as much as the verse. Everyone knows, as Ted Hughes said, that the prose of the King James Bible, some of which I heard read out at school, contains some of our greatest poetry. Studying modern languages and having personal connections with France, I came across the prose poems of Baudelaire, Rimbaud, and others. The exciting modern practitioners for me were William Carlos Williams and some contemporary British poets who were open to American influences, including John Riley and Jim Burns. I discovered Williams’s late verse in my gap year by taking a volume at random from a bookshop shelf, Pictures from Brueghel and Other Poems, and finding ‘Asphodel, that greeny flower’. From there I proceeded within a year or two to the prose poetry in Kora in Hell and Spring and All. What is liberating about Spring and All is the way prose and verse alternate, as they do in [John] Riley’s prose Pieces, and the rapid transitions within the prose, which allow for a condensed thinking on the page with the dutiful connective passages left out.”

The collection from Worple Press, What Possessed Me, reveals those influences threaded throughout a remarkable volume of honest and engaging writing. However, there is also another voice which can be heard firmly reiterating “endlessly / What no man learnt yet, in or out of school”: the reflective tones of a man who took Shakespeare’s Sonnets to war with him in 1917. Edward Thomas’s influence on Freeman’s work strikes me from the very opening poem, ‘Me and the Gatepost’:

“On the front of the gate are three numerals
in hard plastic, the colour of clotted cream,
with screw-heads aureoled in rust.”

Although of course we can hear the voice of Carlos Williams in these words distinct in terms of precision and colours we can also hear that quiet tone, that exactness which is a hallmark of Thomas’s work: this is language as painting and the next four lines of brush-work move us forward:

“……………The post leans
as if exhausted, while its thickness tapers
to the shape of a pitched roof, bleached, pale grey.
On the slant surfaces ravines have opened,
a wave of wood, a wave of shadow.”

As if peering through the immediate, the surface of the canvas, the poet’s mind is opened to the subtlety of memory and loss as he thinks

“…of the lavender, grey and blue,
growing to a sturdy hedge with gnarled stocks,
and the yellow privet by the other gate,
past which we push our bikes to the back yard.”

The placing of the word “growing” at the beginning of the line echoes Thomas’s own hymn to the artemesia, “Old Man, or Lad’s-Love”, where the poet shows us the “hoar-green feathery herb, almost a tree,”

“Growing with rosemary and lavender.”

But the influence of Thomas is much more than this wistful reminiscence and the poem I am most reminded of is the first one Thomas wrote, ‘Up in the Wind’. John Freeman introduces a note of mundanity, a sense of exact recall in the portrait of his mother which rises to memory’s surface:

“Its fascination is unconnected
with my mother’s vigorous red arm
and its pointed funny bone, the funnier
for the spread thickness of the muscled flesh
surrounding it, resting on top of the gate.”

The publican’s daughter at The White Horse in Froxfield also possesses a physical sense of reality as

“Her eyes flashed up; she shook her hair away
From eyes and mouth, as if to shriek again;
Then sighed back to her scrubbing.”

The mother in Freeman’s poem is leaning on the gatepost talking with a reliable monotony and the poet’s recollection of a long-gone past has “nothing to do, I’m sure, with her voice, / going on and on, talking not to me, / luckily, but to a passing neighbour…”. In Thomas’s poem the daughter who draws the ale repeats what must have been told time and time again:

“…Here I was born,
And I’ve a notion on these windy nights
Here I shall die. Perhaps I want to die here.
I reckon I shall stay. But I do wish
The road was nearer and the wind farther off,
Or once now and then quite still”.

The words F.R. Leavis wrote some eighty-five years ago about the poetry of Edward Thomas hold true today and reading John Freeman’s quiet awareness of the importance of moments, glances, brush-strokes, I am reminded of them:

“A characteristic poem of his has the air of being a random jotting down of
chance impressions and sensations, the record of a moment of relaxed and
undirected consciousness. The diction and movement are those of quiet, ruminative speech. But the unobtrusive signs accumulate, and finally one is aware that the outward scene is accessory to an inner theatre.”

It is no mere chance that this book by John Freeman was awarded the Roland Matthias Poetry Award at the recent Wales Book of the Year Awards. I urge readers to contact Worple Press and get a copy NOW.

Ian Brinton, 12th December 2017

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John Freeman at the Tears In the Fence Festival

John Freeman at the Tears In the Fence Festival

We are excited that John Freeman, a long time and regular contributor to the magazine will be reading at the Tears in the Fence Festival, on Saturday, 25th October. Our Festival will be held in a large marquee by the White Horse, Stourpaine, Dorset, on 24th -26th October, in the heart of beautiful countryside. The venue nestles beneath Hod Hill and is close to the north Dorset Trailway.

John Freeman is a leading exponent of the prose poem and an authority on the British Poetry Renaissance. A Lecturer in English at University College, Cardiff since 1972, John specialises in modern poetry, the Romantics, and Creative Writing. His most recent books include White Wings: New and Selected Prose Poems (Contraband, 2013), A Suite for Summer (Worple Press, 2007) and a critical work The Less Received: Neglected Modern Poets (Stride Publication, 2000).

In Tears in the Fence 59, Ian Brinton described White Wings as a book that ‘when you have read it you will want to keep turning back to it time and again.’ He notes that ‘these pieces by Freeman give us pictures caught in the act of movement’ and that they ‘possess
a palpability’ of the precise unfurling of the moment. Freeman continues to probe the present moment in this poem in Tears in the Fence 60.

The Exchange By The Stile

Let it be creation, let it be even
illusion, the sense of a coherence
in the story we tell ourselves of ourselves,
isn’t it a story worth telling? We have
only the present moment, they say, breathing
in, breathing out, but what of how, driving
along the humming dual carriageway
in early May, I notice the beginnings
of small new leaves on trees where a stile guards
the path I used to walk along the river,
often alone, but one time with my father,
and feel a presence here as delicate
as the tender shoots not fully open.
Because I forget what either of us said
at this spot, I remember, driving on,
what he said later after we had skirted
the playing fields under the trees beside
this same river, the other side of it –
we’d have crossed it on the springy footbridge.
We were deep in placid communion,
about to leave the green part of the walk
to cross a busy road and head for home.
I touched his arm and we turned and stood still,
seeing the grass and the tall woods behind us,
and he said that looking back was something
he wished he’d thought to do and done more often.
He meant it literally about his years
of walking, cycling, and exploring, but then
the hidden meaning in it overtook him,
and we both heard it in the same instant,
ambushed, together, by unspoken feeling.
Whatever it was that happened and was said
at that stile I flash past on my journey,
or merely passed unsaid but felt between us,
it was present in that later retrospect,
the two moments fused into one moment,
infusing this one, not by an act of will,
but as fragrance taking me unawares,
like the penetrating scent of lilac
that caught me yesterday by the front gate
taking me back to mornings in my childhood.
We live in so much more than just the present.

In an interview with Gavin Goodwin in Tears in the Fence 59, Freeman said that his most consistent drive in writing White Wings was the ‘raising of consciousness’ to avoid sleep-walking through life.

Freeman is a measured reader of poetry and we have a treat in store.
We can’t wait!

David Caddy 19th September 2014

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