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Poems 2004 -2014 Harriet Tarlo (Shearsman Books)

Poems 2004 -2014 Harriet Tarlo (Shearsman Books)

In January of last year Shearsman Books published a delightful collection of poems by Harriet Tarlo and I do not use that adjective without some consideration. I remember reviewing her Anthology of Radical Landscape Poetry, The Ground Aslant (Shearsman 2011), when it first appeared and being struck by the sharp focus of the poet’s introduction in which she wrote ‘Language is a form in which landscape can come alive’. The quiet and perceptive intelligence of this brief statement was brought back to my mind yesterday when I was reading Madame Bovary in preparation for a talk to be given to Sixth-formers in a couple of weeks’ time. Flaubert’s understanding of the world as seen through the eyes of the sentimental Emma is placed, at one point, in terms of landscape:

‘She liked the sea only for its storms, and greenery only when it was thinly scattered among ruins. She had to be able to derive a kind of personal advantage from things; and she rejected as useless all that did not immediately contribute to her heart’s consummation—being of a temperament more sentimental than artistic, seeking emotions and not landscapes.’

Also in her introduction, the editor accounted for the diversity of texts by Wendy Mulford, Peter Larkin and many others as juxtaposing differing arrangements of prose blocks, found text and stanzas of poetry, ‘each within their own spaces.’ She then suggested that ‘these diverse texts speak to each other across the space, allowing readers to enter the poem and speculate over their relationship to each other’. I think that that it was the importance of this last statement that came back to my mind when I was looking at Harriet Tarlo’s Poems 2004-2014 and I re-read Gillian Allnutt’s comment on the back about this being a poetry ‘that thinks through time and place’.

I was looking closely at the concluding sequence of eleven poems, ‘insurmountable chasm’, many of which were originally embedded in an essay entitled ‘An Insurmountable Chasm?’: Revisiting, Re-imagining and Re-writing Classical Pastoral through the Modernist Poetry of H.D.’ which had been published four years ago in Classical Receptions. The first piece is what Tarlo terms ‘original’ and I think that it is very striking indeed in the different ways it can be read.

found words over space list
shunting sound leaf dust under
learning to hesitate leave it
long and longer over-creepage
ivy

The way that this poem is laid out is central to the manner in which it can be read and I am hoping that the spaces will have come over okay when my little piece has been transferred to the website blog. If not then readers will have to write out the twenty-one words for themselves or, much better, buy a copy of this delightful collection: it will repay many hours of focused study as one appreciates how language is a form in which landscape can come alive.

In his essay ‘Four Different Ways of looking at J.H. Prynne’s Chinese Poem’ (Quid 7), Li Zhimin wrote:

‘To judge whether a classical Chinese poem is successful, the first and most important question is to see whether it creates an integrated Yijing, which refers to the overall effect of a poem, a sort of picturing imagination fully including the poet’s genuine understanding of life at large, of human beings, of nature and the universe…The appreciation of a good classical Chinese poem often runs beyond explanation. In many cases, it is simply unexplainable. The more one explains, the more its beauty will be blurred for readers…’

Li Zhimin goes on to tell us that the usual way of reading a traditional Chinese poem is (i) from right to left vertically downwards. A more modern Chinese way, more familiar of course to us, is (ii) from left to right, horizontally. A third way of reading (iii), combining the two cultures could combine the traditional Chinese-right-to-left and the English-horizontal and one might even be compelled to try (iv) the English-left-to-right and the traditional Chinese-vertical way. Looking at Harriet Tarlo’s first poem in ‘insurmountable chasm’ the effect of these different ways of reading can be felt immediately and I just want to point out a few of the delights which I came across while leaving the continued and continuing reading of these poems to you.

In (i) watch how the pun on ‘leave’ (leaf) is followed by the thrust forward of ‘over-creepage’ to ‘over leaf’ which hesitates before the enclosing growth of ‘ivy’ becomes language.
In (ii) watch how ‘space list’, a white page perhaps(?), seeks space ‘over’ language, words which are that ‘dust’ of accumulation under ‘leaf’ can be given voice ‘shunting sound’.

This beautifully put together book of poems sheds light.

Ian Brinton 17th January 2016

House At Out Mark Goodwin Shearsman Books

House At Out  Mark Goodwin Shearsman Books

I find that reading books is in no way a discrete business and the same, inevitably, holds true for writing reviews. Looking at the blurb on the reverse side of this new collection of Mark Goodwin’s poetry I see the words of Simon Perril:

In House At Out, Mark Goodwin steps beyond the physical landscapes of Back of a Vast, into a new topography: a world that is a “wild’s inf i
nite b its” approached through the gaps and hollows in the word. The holes are apertures as we zoom into language, crack open word hoards and find worlds of association, “hole keys” with which we open kinetic lands as nimble as “music thinking of water”’.

A few days ago, in my review of The Cambridge Companion to British Poetry 1945—2010, I didn’t have sufficient space to say what I wanted to about Perril’s excellent contribution about ‘High Late-Modernists or Postmodernists?’ but now I am prompted to return via this topographical reference to Goodwin’s work. Early on in Perril’s essay he refers to Geraldine Monk in terms of the emotional geography of place, most especially her native Lancashire:

‘Her habitats are haunted by a sense of inequalities and injustices that the landscape has preserved as its own memory, and that charge the language with both neologistic verve and a sense of regional historical witness.’

This combination of neologisms and ‘historical witness’ is central to Mark Goodwin’s work as in ‘Our Shoulle’:

‘a round voice in the bottom of an impossible tube is
nearly silent yet ticks away a shiny poem coils of a
whole other place pull me in it is thin in a last place
a shell makes so wide at first a thrush has smashed a snail

shell on a doorstep think of bricks think of your family
we always wonder why sky doesn’t flatten a shell with its
simple vast coiled solid song song of wafer stone stone
that is a song a crab may live in an on & on song a snail

carries around exchanges for size & no size we do not live
in shells because our feet are too big they would not fit into a
tight pink compartment where a shell goes no further into
the round of all a world slates so slight against her round

voice bright raging sky with a rain in a bottom of impossible’ [.]

There is a Hopkinsian quality of the music of ‘things’ here (‘choses’ as Ponge would have had it) as we are offered ‘a round voice’ in which stones might ring, as they do in the second stanza as ‘song song’ becomes ‘stone stone’. The voice may be ‘nearly silent’ and yet its insistent measuring of Time pulls both poet and reader into a new world. The comparison of shell to brick, of wafer to stone, takes us back a page to the title of this section of the book, ‘A Bachelard’s Château’ and Gaston Bachelard’s comment in the opening pages of The Poetics of Space

‘all really inhabited space bears the essence of the notion of home’.

In the world of Bachelard, imagination can build walls of impalpable shadows and, to refer again to Ponge, imagination can compare the human to the hermit crab:

‘The monuments built by man appear like offcuts from his own skeleton: but they don’t raise the spectre of a creature of comparative size. Compared to a shell, the portals of the greatest cathedrals open to release a crowd of ants and the most wealthy villas or chateaux, home to one man only, are more akin to a hive or an ants’-nest divided up into its separate rooms. When milord departs from his manor-house he certainly appears a lot less impressive than that gigantic claw of the hermit-crab swelling out of the mouth of that cornet shell which he calls home.’
(‘A Note addressed to SHELLS’, translated by Ian Brinton, Oystercatcher Press 2015)

There is, to my ear, a roundness, a completeness as ‘slates’ move to ‘slight’ and, round, to ‘bright’; an echo coiling round a spiral ‘in a bottom of impossible’. I recall Harriet Tarlo’s wonderful anthology published by Shearsman four years ago, The Ground Aslant, in the introduction to which she wrote ‘I have focused here on poets whose formal techniques are exploratory and experimental enough to be called radical, poets whose ideological pushing of the boundaries is to be found integrated into the forms their poems inhabit’. Mark Goodwin’s work was, naturally enough, featured in that volume as ‘the lock of the sun clinks its heat’. And when Robert Macfarlane reviewed the anthology for the Saturday Guardian (16/4/11) he referred to Mark Goodwin’s landscape details as providing no reliable resting place for the eye or the mind:

‘It simply refers the subject onwards in an effortful relay of attention from speck to speck. Keep going. Move along now.’

In this world of spatial vectors and Heraclitean flux I hear the opening lines of one of the poems in Prynne’s The Oval Window:

‘In darkness by day we must press on,
giddy at the tilt of a negative crystal.’

Keep it moving as fast as you can, citizen! And Mark Goodwin writes ‘thoughts escape leave us free and we are poem coils / of a whole i am’.

Ian Brinton 23rd December 2015

Contemporary British Poetry by David Wheatley

Contemporary British Poetry by David Wheatley

This is a recent addition to Nicholas Tredell’s fine series of Readers’ Guides to Essential Criticism which are published by Palgrave and it is as ambitious and wide-ranging as we have come to expect from the series.

Opening with the required quotation from Adorno, ‘The recent past always likes to present itself as if destroyed by catastrophes’ David Wheatley guides us through a short labyrinthine history of ‘contestation and counter-contestation, each generation theatrically forswearing its precursor’. I am minded of the opening to William Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell published in the revolutionary times of 1793: ‘Without Contraries is no progression. Attraction and Repulsion, Reason and Energy, Love and Hate, are necessary to Human existence’. In Blake’s world-turned-upside-down ‘Good is the passive that obeys Reason’ and ‘Evil is the active springing from Energy’.

In chapter 5, ‘Experiment and Language’, there is a subsection titled ‘The dust of our wasted fields’ which opens up with a statement that is worth placing next to these ‘Contraries’:

‘Narratives of rupture and discontinuity will always be to the fore in discussions of modernism, but it is also worth insisting on deeper continuities. To Jeremy Noel-Tod, surveying the links between the experimental and Romantic traditions, Prynne’s project is “essentially Wordsworthian”, confirming affinities across centuries which only the vagaries of contemporary anti-modernism serve to obscure. Reading an early Prynne essay, ‘Resistance and Difficulty’ (1961), Noel-Tod uses the first of those terms to suggest an alternative to the more usual accusation levelled at Prynne’s poetics, unintelligibility. The Romantic landscape offers resistance to our too-easy progress, and requires careful thought and engagement before it can be negotiated. Landscape is encountered rather than mastered, in the sense that familiarity does not exhaust a Wordsworth landscape, whereas a field in the path of a motorway is recognised and assessed as an obstacle and swept aside.’

Given this emphasis it is no surprise, but a real delight, to read Wheatley on Harriet Tarlo’s wonderful Shearsman anthology of ‘Radical Landscape Poetry’, The Ground Aslant (published in 2011 and worth getting hold of NOW). This anthology which reports from what Wheatley refers to as ‘more marginal zones’ corrects, as he puts it, an assumption that British experimental writing operates in a realm either of rarefied abstraction or of metropolitan indifference to anything beyond the city limits. And it is within this context that he also then writes about the fine poem by R.F. Langley, ‘Matthew Glover’. When Langley was interviewed by Robert Walker (Angel Exhaust 13) he talked about the background to this poem:

‘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. So that something like ‘Matthew Glover’ is a fairly naïve attempt to do a miniscule Olson in an English setting.’

I recall writing a review of the Harriet Tarlo anthology, soon after it appeared, for Todd Swift’s EYEWEAR publishing and since that review is still up there online I had a quick peek to remind myself what it was that I had found so refreshing and valuable about that book: ‘Language is a form in which landscape can come alive’.

David Wheatley’s overview of the contemporary scene is a balanced and intelligent one. Of course there are points at which we want him to say more but this is a ‘Readers’ Guide’ and its purpose is to point out features of the landscape which we can go and explore for ourselves. The test of a good book of this type is whether or not it can engage the reader with an infectious sense of enthusiasm that prompts him then to use the bibliography, the reading list, the list of further suggestions. This is a good book!

Ian Brinton 17th January 2015

Give Forest Its Next Portent by Peter Larkin

Give Forest Its Next Portent by Peter Larkin

Shearsman Books

In Robert Browning’s poem from the 1864 sequence Dramatis Personae, ‘Gold Hair’, the poet refers to the ‘beautiful girl…/ Who lived at Pornic, down by the sea’:

‘Yet earth saw one thing, one how fair!
One grace that grew to its full on earth:
Smiles might be sparse on her cheek so spare,
And her waist want half a girdle’s girth,
But she had her great gold hair.’

The word ‘sparse’ is derived from the Latin verb spargere, to scatter, and can refer to being widely spaced or spread out as well as distributed in all directions. In the section from this new book from Peter Larkin, ‘Sparse reach Stretches the Field’ (2011) the word is used on some twelve occasions and refers to an outward thrust of growth ‘stretched at drawn-out fully sparse’. In the earlier section of this lovely collection of writing, ‘exposure (A Tree) presents’, following on from an epigraphic quotation from Roger Langley (‘The Tree. It shows what we would call / constraint. It bursts through rock in calluses’) we are given a piece of prose which is unmistakably Peter Larkin:

Already unsealed from itself but poor enough to steal attached life to a kit of relation, a blunt jerk towards additions of acceptance, copiously sparse, rooted from edge.’

The words push outwards, unsealing, becoming movements which steal in stealth with an unstoppable ‘blunt jerk’: they are rooted from edge, prayer-like upwards and stretching towards what lies beyond the page.

‘Prayer takes the flightpath of a world not yet cleared of trees but they already betoken its etiolation the by-tallness of placing ascent to
obtrude through seems already stretching past the flattened way firs obsess a periphery beyond what is their focal legion, patrolling a prayer
at its slender successors of margin’

(Section III of ‘praying // firs // attenuate’, 2014)

When I wrote a short review three years ago of Harriet Tarlo’s anthology of Radical Landscape Poetry, The Ground Aslant, I referred to Peter Larkin’s work in comparison with the prose poems of Francis Ponge and suggested that the French writer’s eye had been attracted to contrasts, edges, contours, meeting places: those areas which define where one thing ends and another begins. Ponge’s interest in edges, boundaries, ‘bords de mer’, dispelled the vertigo of gazing at the overwhelming bulk of phenomena: the grand ocean of Victor Hugo’s language is dispelled by a focus on the particular and seashores offer a framework akin to the pages of a published piece of writing. Or as Charles Tomlinson put it in a poem composed in December 1952, ‘REALITY is to be sought, not in concrete, / But in space made articulate: / The shore, for instance, / Spreading between wall and wall; / The sea-voice / Tearing the silence from the silence.’

The taut and straining movement of Peter Larkin’s work inevitably brings to mind the complexity of language used by Gerard Manley Hopkins and I looked up the 1873 ‘Journal’ to find

‘At the end of the month hard frosts. Wonderful downpour of leaf: when the morning sun began to melt the frost they fell at one touch and in a few minutes a whole tree was flung of them; they lay masking and papering the ground at the foot. Then the tree seems to be looking down on its cast self as blue sky on snow after a long fall, its losing, its doing’

As Larkin suggests

‘Nothing squats in the midst of guileless void unless hollows a layer of intricate tackle out of the way of itself cunning of branch at a longitude of members if this is to allow itself at last there will be fewer withheld packets countering as sheer twist the vertical risk of thickets’

Note please the absence of a full-stop at the end of either of these quotations. Life continues to push outwards and ‘sparse’ will lead to ‘great gold hair’.

Ian Brinton, 23rd October 2014

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

MacSweeney: Strap Down in Snowville

MacSweeney: Strap Down in Snowville

Paul Batchelor’s edition of essays about Barry MacSweeney is here at last from Bloodaxe Books as number 13 in their Newcastle / Bloodaxe Poetry Series and the opening paragraph of the editor’s introduction is immediately spot on:

‘The last full-length collection that Barry MacSweeney lived to see published was The Book of Demons. Many of the most impressive aspects of this volume—the intricate symbology, the vertiginous swoop of registers, the unsparing wit, the complexity of characterisation, the syntactical resourcefulness—had been earned over a lifetime of restless self-testing; but this same restlessness simultaneously gives the book the kind of daring, hubristic, allusive, raw dazzle usually associated with a precocious first collection. The book draws its power from such contradictions: a chronicle of failure, it has a swaggering confidence; a departure, it felt to many like a homecoming’.

This is a wide-ranging book and it should certainly reawaken interest in a poète maudit from the North-East whose area of focus ranged from Chatterton to Bob Dylan, from Seventeenth-Century nonconformist radicals to the social consequences of Thatcherism, from Mary Bell to Apollinaire.

This fine introduction to MacSweeney contains essays by Harriet Tarlo, Matthew Jarvis, Andrew Duncan, William Walton Rowe, John Wilkinson, Peter Riley, W.N. Herbert, Terry Kelly and Jackie Litherland as well as by the editor himself.

Among the cast who do not make an appearance my biggest regret is to see nothing from Luke Roberts but, of course, this volume has certainly been talked about for some years now and it may well be that he was not on the tracks of ‘Pookah Swoony Sweeney Swan Ludlunatic’ back then. However, I am hoping that I can persuade him to write a review of this new book for the next issue of Tears!

Ian Brinton, December 17th 2013.

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