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The Collected Letters of Charles Olson & J.H. Prynne Edited by Ryan Dobran University of New Mexico Press

The Collected Letters of Charles Olson & J.H. Prynne Edited by Ryan Dobran University of New Mexico Press

As if echoing agreement with the British poet’s injunction from the 1983 sequence The Oval Window (“In darkness by day we must press on”) the clear and helpful introduction by Ryan Dobran to this long-awaited publication of a major correspondence is already a shade out of date!

“Prynne’s private collection of correspondence and manuscripts is scarcely known at all, and does not yet exist as an archive available to a scholarly public, although several letters to others besides Olson have been published in small magazines such as The English Intelligencer, Grosseteste Review, Parataxis and Quid.”

Well, the University Library in Cambridge does now hold the entire Prynne archive and work is already under way to have it catalogued and made available for research.
That said, in terms of the whole process of permitting the public to see Jeremy Prynne’s enormous output of papers and correspondence, drafts and teaching notes from the late 1950s to the very present this new publication of the Olson/Prynne letters will stand as a remarkably effective foundation stone. Dobran writes with modesty about his intention “to produce a readable book” and he has succeeded in this aim beyond all doubt. With an interest alerted by the introduction one can trace through the remarkable sequence of letters and recognise the importance of their argument in terms of what was happening in post-WW2 British poetry:

“Often loosely assembled via Eric Mottram’s term the ‘British Poetry Revival’, Prynne and his contemporaries were eager to renovate the stagnant ironies of the Movement poets prominently on display in postwar England. One instrument of breaking the hegemony of official verse culture was reading, discussing, teaching, publishing, and distributing postwar American poetry and prose.”

The awakening of infectious interest in poetry and language rears off the page in this collection of letters and Dobran notes that what makes the correspondence so vital is “not what these letters offer in terms of personal details, but rather the way they bind knowledge and writing, information and composition, feeling and articulation, history and poetry”.
The book opens in November 1961 as Prynne writes from Gonville and Caius College to ask if Charles Olson might send something for publication in the magazine Prospect of which he had just become editor. Prynne refers to reading Olson’s IN COLD HELL, IN THICKET which “speaks for me out of the fast centre”. Reading Olson’s work was for Prynne “like reading for the first time the back of my own hand.” Probably in response to Olson’s ‘Letter to Elaine Feinstein’ (the founding editor of Prospect) in which the American poet had suggested a need for some book of etymological roots, Prynne writes with exuberance about Julius Pokorny’s etymological dictionary:

“Pokorny has drawn on all the Celtic tongues, Tokharin and Hittite and a whole range of little-known Romance dialects: Phrygian, Thracian, Messapian, Venetian, Illyrian, Ligurian &c; it makes tremendously exciting reading. In the section given to KAR-, for example, with a root signification of ‘hard’ or ‘rough’, he shows an astonishing range of derived cognates embracing European words for ‘rock’, ‘crab’, ‘shell, peel, nut’, ‘strong, bold, heavy, difficult, firm’, perhaps also ‘cliff, crag, crevice’, ‘stone, scarp’, ‘cairn, burial-mound, temple’. And it merely confirms my own feeling to find ‘keel, hull, ship’ also included here; part 6 of the first Max. letter reveals the rationale behind this. Pokorny’s whole book sits on my shelf like a bomb, ready to explode at a touch with the most intricately powerful forces caged up inside, a storehouse of vectors.”

On November 24 Olson sent through a poem which he liked very much – “and hope you will”. The poem ‘GOING RIGHT OUT OF THE CENTURY’ was published in Prospect 6 and later became part of Maximus IV, V, VI.

This is an astonishing book of letters and I recommend that it should stand on the shelf of anyone interested in the world of post-war poetry.

Ian Brinton 18th June 2017

EACH TO EACH, J.H. Prynne (Equipage, 2017) NINE DRUGS, Ulf Stolterfoht, translated by Lisa Jeschke (Face Press, Cambridge, 2016) OF . THE . ABYSS, J.H. Prynne (Materials, Cambridge, 2017)

In Canto XXVI of Dante’s Inferno the voice of Odysseus issues from a flame as he speaks to Virgil of his last voyage which led him to the abyss. He had spoken rousing words to his men concluding with the injunction “Take thought of the seed from which you spring. You were not born to live as brutes, but to follow virtue and knowledge”. [trans. Sinclair]. Prynne’s interest in Odysseus has been there from that early poem ‘Lashed to the Mast’, written in Charles Olson’s house in Fort Square and first published in Andrew Crozier’s Wivenhoe Park Review; it was there also in the photograph of an early design on a piece of pottery, depicting the figure of Odysseus tied to the mast by his sailors as they rowed past the island of the Sirens, which Prynne pasted into the opening leaf of his edition of Pound’s Cantos, poems which themselves open with a journey of outwards:

“And then went down to the ship,
Set keel to breakers, forth on the godly sea, and
We set up mast and sail on that swart ship…”

The opening poem in this latest sequence of ten pieces by Prynne seems to set us outwards again upon a voyage:

“Billow under below known sat follow, happen so
to make thwart leaden fine to fasten up as
yes taken back, given to yield or space hold
to later denounce grave enough smiling in
turn the face back now, derelict ecstatic fee
advance never clear rack, the inclination pack
mouth breath wide, slight gasp for air what is
known here found all down, all child eyes
wide too, prow stove in cold leading outward
flake to glitter certain and sure, all ever
known down and reach to ready for gone shine
far out ported beyond, rate and known.”

When the Jargon/Corinth edition of Olson’s The Maximus Poems appeared in 1960 it bore the dedication for Robert Creeley, “The Figure of Outward” and when Ed Dorn’s poem about Olson appeared in 1964, designed and printed by Tom Raworth, it concluded with the “whispers of the most flung shores / from Gloucester out”. The last words became the title of the book.
Prynne’s poetry is known for the way in which quotations and references lie buried within the text and the 6th poem in this remarkable sequence is no exception. The lines move between a reference to Bonnie Prince Charlie’s escape on a boat to the Isle of Skye after his failed bid for power in 1745/6 and Charles I arriving in the House of Parliament some hundred years before to arrest the Five Members who had encouraged the Scots to invade England only to discover that the birds have flown. The movement shifts between a traditional narrow-boat and “A flute” which brings together music and a vessel of war:

“Oh strike the light, float the boat, for
sake of common peril they are fallen away
as gathered up in sight of lamentable in-
difference and will go down against us, the
birds have flown, break speed this blithe
boat fled, weapon unwilling guard the sure
place radiant with possession save up go
down ignore, in such wide eyes. A flute
drifted in darkness as engulfed without
pleat over plaint ever pitch no bird on
no wing we are the wing broken as to see
waves of longing rise and turn face up
o’er brim their clammy cells out from
the shelf undertow and follow…”

Keats’s autumnal richness takes its place within the voyaging and gives credence to those words that Nigel Wheale used in an article written about The White Stones and published in Grosseteste Review 12 in 1979:

“the purity of the wandering stranger is not ‘The Scholar Gypsy’, but a completely responsive lyricism.”

This important publication of a sequence of 10 poems is attributable to David Grundy and Lisa Jeschke and it follows the Equipage presentation of EACH TO EACH earlier this year. The two epigraphs to that collection of 23 poems are from Boethius (“All fortune is good”) and W.R. Bion (“All thinking and all thoughts are true when there is no thinker”) and the lyric grace of movement is caught in line after line:

“…..The notes slide to come
home deserved by succession ready to be glad, if
able to steer to hidden shore early after plain.”

Lisa Jeschke’s own translation of poems by the German Ulf Stolterfoht, handsomely produced in an edition of 200 copies by Face Press, is accompanied by a short introductory statement by Prynne:

“Ulf is one of the great poets of the German language…Ulf knows that he can make this language do new kinds of expression under the pressure of poetic vision and originality.”

That pressure of poetic vision has an alchemical touch to it and I am reminded of how Marguerite Yourcenar helped in the translation of her own 1968 novel about alchemy, L’Oeuvre au Noir, so that it became in English The Abyss.

Ian Brinton, 17th May 2017

Vanishing Points Eds. John Kinsella & Rod Mengham (Salt Publishing)

Vanishing Points Eds. John Kinsella & Rod Mengham (Salt Publishing)

The moment of change between one century and another is no easily defined discrete box into which ideas can be crammed later to become defined as Twentieth Century as opposed to Twenty-first Century. Thomas Hardy knew this well when he published his much anthologised poem ‘The Darkling Thrush’ on December 31st 1901. The poem looks forward to the newly defined Twentieth Century with a limited sense of blessed hope “whereof he knew but I was unaware” whilst also looking back at the Nineteenth Century’s corpse “outleant”. This sense of one eye being cast over the shoulder whilst the other is fixed firmly ahead is the hallmark of the Salt anthology of poems, Vanishing Points, edited by John Kinsella and Rod Mengham and published in 2004.
The backwards glance is towards the anthology Conductors of Chaos, edited by Iain Sinclair in 1996 in which, as Randall Stevenson suggested in Volume 12 of The Oxford English Literary History, there was a clear attempt to make great demands on readers to ensure that they “looked at the language on the page—rather than through it, towards a familiar, represented reality—transparency and ease of ordinary understanding had to be eliminated as far as possible”.
Sinclair’s introduction to Conductors of Chaos had thrown down a glove for the editors of anthologies and for serious readers of modern poetry:

“The work I value is that which seems most remote, alienated, fractured. I don’t claim to ‘understand’ it but I like having it around. The darker it grows outside the window, the worse the noises from the island, the more closely do I attend to the mass of instant-printed pamphlets that pile up around my desk. The very titles are pure adrenalin; Satyrs and Mephitic Angels, Tense Fodder, Hellhound Memos, Civic Crime, Alien Skies, Harpmesh Intermezzi, A Pocket History of the Soul. You don’t need to read them, just handle them: feel the sticky heat creep up through your fingers. If these things are ‘difficult’, they have earned that right. Why should they be easy? Why should they not reflect some measure of the complexity of the climate in which they exist? Why should we not be prepared to make an effort, to break sweat, in hope of high return? There’s no key, no Masonic password; take the sequences gently, a line at a time. Treat the page as a block, sound it for submerged sonar effects. Suspend conditioned reflexes. You don’t need to sign up for Tom Paulin’s masterclass to reap the reward. If it comes too sweetly, somebody’s trying to sell you something.”

As if to emphasise even more the links between one century and the next, three of the seven titles mentioned by Sinclair were published by Rod Mengham’s Cambridge based Equipage Press and there is perhaps a sense of appropriateness here in his being the co-editor of the first significantly challenging new anthology of the Twenty-First Century. In his introduction to Vanishing Points Mengham takes up the challenge of reading as thrown down by Randall Stevenson, looking at language on the page:

“The vanishing point lies beyond the horizon established by ruling conventions, it is where the imagination takes over from the understanding. Most anthologies of contemporary verse are filled with poems that do not cross that dividing-line, but our contention is that many poems in this volume are situated on the threshold of conventional sense-making. They go beyond the perspective of accepted canons of taste and judgement and ask questions about where they belong, and who they are meant for, often combining the pathos of estrangement with the irascibility of the refusenik.”

The thirty-two poets in this anthology are from Australia, Canada, New Zealand, United Kingdom and United States of America but despite this wide geographical range what binds them together is “a strong insistence on finding ways of continuing and renewing the lyric impulse in poetry in English”. The British contributors include Caroline Bergvall, Brian Catling, David Chaloner, Andrew Crozier, Andrew Duncan, Roy Fisher, Ulli Freer, Tony Lopez, Barry MacSweeney, Anna Mendelssohn (Grace Lake), Drew Milne, Ian Patterson, J.H. Prynne, Peter Riley, Geoff Ward and John Wilkinson. Some of the poems in the anthology are from a much earlier date and Roy Fisher’s The Cut Pages first appeared in 1971 from Fulcrum Press before re-emerging in 1986 as a joint production of Oasis Books and Shearsman Books. Introducing the first appearance of the poem Fisher had told his readers that the “aim in the improvisation was to give the words as much relief as possible from serving in planned situations” and that the work “was taken forward with no programme beyond the principle that it should not know where its next meal was coming from”. This method of composition “produced very rapid changes of direction”. More on the cusp of the millennium Barry MacSweeney’s ‘Totem Banking’ and ‘I Looked Down On a Child Today’ were both written in 1998-1999 and included in his posthumous selected poems, Wolf Tongue, which appeared from Bloodaxe in 2003. ‘Totem Banking’ is dedicated to J.H. Prynne and the appropriate nature of its inclusion in this anthology is emphasised by Mengham’s introductory comments concerning the way in which “writers in this anthology have been part of a process of exchanging ideas manifested in little magazines, in the publishing programmes of small presses, and in the sheer volume of email and internet transactions”. It was Prynne, along with Andrew Crozier, who began much of this exchange of ideas with the creation and publication of The English Intelligencer back in the 1960s and it is a measure of the Cambridge poet’s professional commitment to new forms of writing that an extract from his own Red D Gypsum should form part of the new horizon posited by the editors of Vanishing Points.
Although Red D Gypsum was published by Barque Press (Andrea Brady and Keston Sutherland) in 1998 it was one of the later sequences which prompted Andrew Duncan in 2003 to write “Of course, Prynne’s aesthetic of difficulty often causes panic anxiety, feels like sensory deprivation, and invites misconstruction…people have different perceptions of what ‘good pattern’ is, and may experience incompleteness as anxiety as well as cognitive freedom”. Writing about the sequence in 2009 Nigel Wheale suggested that it is worth thinking about the sense in which reading it “may be a cumulative experience for the reader” requiring a different reading strategy. This, of course, is entirely in tune with the editorial comments in Vanishing Points and John Kinsella, the co-editor, stressed that “Typically, a poem gives the reader or listener something to take away from the text—an emotional gravitas, whimsical joy, intellectual or spiritual connection or awakening”.
At the end of the last century Kinsella had formed a publishing partnership with Clive Newman and Chris Hamilton-Emery and this new Salt Press heralded the world of Print-on-Demand (PoD). The press soon made a name for publishing a pluralist view of poetry and the 2004 publication of Vanishing Points was like the raising of a standard.

Ian Brinton 10th April 2017

Unknown Translations by Tom Phillips (www.scalino.eu)

Unknown Translations by Tom Phillips (www.scalino.eu)

I recall reading a poem by Tom Phillips titled ‘Wearing Thin’. It was published in a fine collection, Recreation Ground, put out in 2012 by Peter Robinson’s Two Rivers Poets and it opened with movement:

‘Going home, with decisions unmade
and threats of further paperwork,
you’re jostling for position
at a crossing point, taking
the lights’ delay as a reluctance,
the pavement for a starting grid.
As if the whole town could do its best
to hold you back.’

A similar restless journeying also leads the reader through this hauntingly beautiful new mindscape which Tom Phillips has translated from the Bulgarian originals written by Tom Phillips! When J.H. Prynne gave his speech in 2008 at the First Conference of English-Poetry Studies in China on the topic of the difficulties of translation he quoted John Keats’s comment ‘I think Poetry should surprise by a fine excess’ before going on to add

‘I think that the excess he had in mind was to run past the normal bounds and limits, in making new combinations of words and thoughts that draw the reader into new kinds of pleasurable excitement. In a more technical way we can acknowledge that unfamiliarity plays an important part in pattern-recognition, and we can ask how this feature gains its effect. If two words are placed together that are not normally associated as from the same field of reference or meaning, a kind of semantic spark or jump may be created that is intensely localised within the continuity of the text process: it may be a kind of “hot spot” that burns very bright but which the reader can quite quickly assimilate within the larger patterns of composition.’

This placing of words together, prompting a brightness, is there within the pages of this new publication by Tom Phillips and his introductory note draws us into a world where language seems washed clean:

‘I started writing the poems in this book in Bulgarian because I wanted to practise a language that I have been studying since my first visit to Sofia in 2013. While I was learning vocabulary, noun by noun, verb by verb, adjective by adjective, I would find myself repeating seemingly unconnected series of words – “room”, “confused”, “hungry”, “flowers”, “silently” – and these sometimes came to suggest situations and images or at least to forge unexpected connections in my mind.’

Phillips continues by reminding us that it is very easy ‘to become trapped in your own voice, to repeat the things which have worked in the past, and pushing at the boundaries of your comfort zone – by, for example, attempting to write in a language whose traditions and riches you’re only just beginning to appreciate – is one way of finding an escape route’. To an extent he lets ‘language take the lead…’.
Unknown Translations, new journeys, are threaded with present participles: ‘children playing / by a war memorial’, ‘walking along the pavement, / past the market’, ‘in the park, the dogs are walking / like old men’. At the same time Phillips is fully aware of those trammels which recur and that ‘Purity / is only an instant of being’ (Olson). We carry our pasts like mollusc shells closely attached to us and ‘approach / a possible fate / under magnificent architecture / which the lightest breeze / can destroy’ (‘Old Directions’). That earlier poem from Recreation Ground concluded

‘As red turns to green,
you’ve almost reached the other side
before you’re pulled up short
by a misread fashion headline:
‘You Are What You Were’.’

The opening poem in this new collection offers ‘Sunlight in March’:

‘It’s clear to me that
in an unknown town,
I met another life
suddenly, unexpectedly,
like sunlight in March.’

Newness of both language and geography reveals a map of an unknown town and ‘then took me home’.

This is a refreshingly original little volume of poems and I recommend you to get hold of a copy before the poet melts back into Bulgaria.

2nd October 2016

City Trappings (Housing Heath or Wood) by Peter Larkin (Veer Books)

City Trappings (Housing Heath or Wood) by Peter Larkin (Veer Books)

The menacing satirical quality of George Cruikshank’s 1829 print of ‘London Going Out of Town or the March of Bricks and Mortar’ may well have reflected the view the artist saw from the windows of his house in Myddelton Terrace in Islington as extensive building works were in progress in the Camden and Islington area. St Paul’s Cathedral appears amid the smoke from chimneys on the left of the drawing and a variety of inanimate things come to life in an invasion of the rural surroundings. Haystacks are seen fleeing from the discharge of bricks as from a muzzle-loading mortar and the whimsicality of having the workmen, who are digging up the ground and tearing up the trees, possess heads made from beermugs does little to soften the impact of such invasive development.
The ‘Note’ at the beginning of Peter Larkin’s disturbingly powerful 21 poems recently published by Veer Books gives a clear account of the area of his focus:

‘These poems arise from an ambivalent fascination with new perceptions of the urban environment and wildlife, especially in terms of remaining pockets of ‘trapped’ or encapsulated countryside…’

The direction of Cruikshank’s invading army of bricks and mortar might suggest the partial urbanisation of Hampstead Heath during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries and if so it is worth contemplating the poetry of response to this move. Leigh Hunt went to live there and his house became a centre for the leading literary figures of the day: both Coleridge and Crabbe visited there at about the same time as Cruikshank’s apocalyptic satirical vision. As Larkin goes on to say in his introductory comment these pockets of ‘trapped’ countryside are ‘often survivals of deer parks or chases which were never intensively farmed but are just large enough to drop containment on the far side of their horizon’. The growth of these ‘pockets’ of ‘encapsulated’ rural freedom may well have led to the formation in 1882 of the National Footpath Preservation Society whose main aim was to protect the commons from entire absorption by private landlords and railway companies. The city-dweller started to take his Sunday morning walking-tour and this became so popular that the subsequent decline in church attendance led to the Convocation of Canterbury meeting to discuss the “Sunday question”.
Section 3 of Peter Larkin’s sequence of poems sets a scene for ‘Population prescience’ and ‘con / fined deferral’ and the question is asked about the emergence of that which is not to be repressed:

‘….if emergence
is entrenched core, which
urban valve emulates
the flow?’

The first of the three epigraphs to the sequence comes from J.H. Prynne’s ‘In the Long Run, to be Stranded’ from The White Stones (1969):

‘called the city and the deep
blunting damage of hope’

Prynne’s city is an inalienable whole within which we live and the echo of damage is felt in Larkin’s section 4:

‘urban in-hollowing, full exposure to lateral concern is the
trapping itself: horizons glide and raise accordingly

nostalgia implode supplies a rind to content, at this point the
urban handle does turn: we are tipped for zones horizoning
us by event, by disconvention post-immaculate but purely
on implanted spot’

As Larkin looks at what might be perceived as ‘a universally normative urban inclusiveness’ he also wonders ‘how much idyll is untransferable’; that verbal echo of a nineteenth-century reminder of a long-gone world evoked by Theocritus casts its own shadow as we look at the second of the epigraphs to the poem. Christina Rossetti’s lines ‘And other eyes than ours / Were made to look on flowers’ can be juxtaposed with the prose section 7 in which we encounter ‘a green gap is a gate to walking the entrapment’ and the city ‘conspires protection under its feet / initial urban running ahead into the domain…’. In this world which is being explored by the poet of the Twenty-first Century Nature is ‘only portable / through a mesh of local / variation’. It might be worth recalling here another nineteenth-century voice, that of Richard Jefferies who published his Nature Near London in 1883 one year after the setting up of that footpath society:

‘Though my preconceived ideas were overthrown by the presence of so much that was beautiful and interesting close to London, yet in course of time I came to understand what was at first a dim sense of something wanting. In the shadiest lane, in the still pinewoods, on the hills of purple heath, after brief contemplation there arose a restlessness, a feeling that it was essential to be moving…This was the unseen influence of mighty London. The strong life of the vast city magnetized me…’.

Peter Larkin’s near-microscopic focus upon what he sees allows us to become aware of what might lie behind his ‘ambivalent fascination’ and the final poem offers us a ‘heath’ which is ‘prying into its lyrical tent’

‘where urbanisation dives
for no human help, spell
out the survival nodes

coalescent emergency ribbons
a green inference: less of ours
in the more to be given’

The pun on the word ‘spell’ opens up a conclusion which suggests that the ‘City Trappings’ do not solely represent imprisonment and the third of the epigraphs has a direct voice from Peter Riley which it would be foolish to ignore:

‘We’ll evict ourselves when we need to’

Ian Brinton 17th August 2016

Pennine Tales by Peter Riley (Calder Valley Poetry)

Pennine Tales by Peter Riley (Calder Valley Poetry)

Peter Riley’s 1992 chapbook Reader opens with a quotation from J.H. Prynne dated from 15th September 1985:

‘It has mostly been my own aspiration, for example, to establish relations not personally with the reader, but with the world and its layers of shifted but recognisable usage; and thereby with the reader’s own position within this world’.

I was alerted to this when I looked this morning at Tony Baker’s fine little contribution to the compilation of essays on Riley’s work published as The Gig 4/5 in which he suggests that the ‘meaning of landscape as I read Alstonefield has surely something to do with my own relation to the place, recognized afresh in the light of the poem’. A finely-tuned awareness of the relation of people to their landscape threads its path through the twenty-four poems in Pennine Tales and it comes as no surprise to meet not only Prynne along the way but also Wordsworth, ‘poor Clare’, Michael Haslam and Thomas Hardy, ‘guide and spokesman’. As Peter Riley puts it

‘Sometimes
hundreds of us walk the tired dark page, water
with stars in it leaking into our boots, eradicating belief.
But a crowd worth joining.’

In a fine book about Hardy, written by Douglas Brown in the mid 1950s, we were pointed towards the ‘hard centre of controlled nostalgia, the profound awareness of lost stabilities and certainties, and the mordant humour insinuating actuality into time and place and person’. Brown was referring particularly to ‘The Dead Quire’ from Time’s Laughingstocks and other verses (1909) in which the ‘Quick pursue the Dead / By crystal Froom that crinkles there’ and the voices of time past drew toward the churchyard the music of that choir of singers ‘smalled, and died away’. The first of Riley’s lyric hauntings opens with the ‘last minibus’ leaving from the station

‘heading for the tops
full of ghosts, ghosts with notebooks, ancestors
from Halifax: farmers, publicans, clerks, looking
for me, wanting me back in the peace and jubilee
of diurnal normality. But they have caught
the wrong bus and will be delivered into nothing,
the nothing of death they came from, and came here
to welcome me to. Passing the abandoned chapel
they start singing hymns, and will soon begin to fade.’

That use of the word ‘fade’ echoes a later Hardy poem, ‘Exeunt Omnes’, which concludes

‘Folk all fade. And wither,
As I wait alone where the fair was?
Into the clammy and numbing night-fog
Whence they entered hither.
Soon do I follow thither!’

Hardy’s air of ‘blankness’ and recall of ‘littered spaces’ where the fair once stood finds its echo now outside the Hare & Hounds at 11.20 pm as the poet waits with Mike Haslam and stands ‘on the edge of the moors’:

‘There is nothing here but stone
walls and distance. We are alone. We are nowhere.
We are the length and breadth of a dark nowhere
which encompasses the world.’

But the mournful wisps of sound in Riley’s poems are heard against a larger background:

‘Come all you little vermin that dwell under stones
crushed underfoot of the earth and make together
a faint hissing and rustling in the night which
grows greater towards the central principle
and the separate sounds build to a chorus
saying that 500 years of degradation and humiliation
is as nothing to us, we can persist ten times as long
working towards a modern condition which
recognises at long last the day of the many’.

These Pennine Tales, ‘night music’, offer ‘some tremble between beliefs’ and as the music ‘draws / our thoughts into the distance’ Peter Riley, poet of people and landscape, registers a reaffirmed presence ‘at home, site of mind / heart decisions’. This is elegiac poetry at its very best.

Ian Brinton 29th July 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

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