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Prynne’s ‘Refuse Collection’

Prynne’s ‘Refuse Collection’

In 2004 ‘Refuse Collection’, a poem written in response to the allegations of the torture of prisoners by American soldiers at Abu Ghraib jail in Iraq, appeared in the Barque Press magazine, Quid 13 edited by Keston Sutherland.
In 2007 Jeremy Noel-Tod wrote a letter to the Times Literary Supplement in which he suggested that Jeremy Prynne’s recently published chapbook To Pollen (Barque Press) was ‘directly concerned with the “war on terror” and its vicious circles’, quoting the lines

“Afflicted purpose they hail we cut them they in
turn line the route denied, holding it most.”

In 2013 Noel-Tod went on to edit the Oxford Companion to Modern Poetry in which he commented on Prynne’s concentration upon the etymological source of words and the extent to which the language is used by those in financial or political social power to control and command the thoughts of others. He suggested that the “presiding discipline of the oeuvre, however, is philology” and here he took over from Donald Davie who had commented back in the 1970s that “The structuring principle of this poetry, which makes it difficult (sometimes too difficult), is the unemphasized but radical demands it makes upon English etymologies.” Noel-Tod again alerted us to what has been for many years the fascination of Prynne as a poet:

“What has drawn readers to the demands it makes is the intellectual urgency and aesthetic intensity that animates Prynne’s reinvention of traditional lyric subjectivity in a world governed by market forces and scientific empiricism.”

That stratified field of rich linguistic construction is exemplified in ‘Refuse Collection’ written on May 8th 2004 in response to the allegations of torture at Abu Ghraib.

“To a light led sole in pit of, this by slap-up
barter of an arm rest cap, on stirrup trade in
crawled to many bodies, uncounted. Talon up
crude oil-for-food, incarnadine incarcerate, get
foremost a track rocket, rapacious in heavy
investment insert tool this way up.”

The brutality of the language here with its bitter puns crushing together idiomatic phrases with both slang and Shakespearian reference makes for difficult and uncomfortable reading. However, there is a clear difference between difficulty and obscurity: obscurity is to do with a range of references, in the manner that Alexander Pope’s The Dunciad is now an obscure poem which needs a considerable number of footnotes so that local and contemporary references can be recognised. Difficulty is where the language is not complicated in itself but its layers of meaning require the reader to be especially vigilant and alert to nuance. The controlled violence of those opening lines to ‘Refuse Collection’ is intricately bound up with some of the following ideas: the prison-like geography of a light leading to a pit in line one. The human outrage emphasised by the pun on sole/soul, is followed by the phrase ‘slap-up’, a term often used in reference to a festive meal but here tinged with the brutality of beating. In line two the reference to ‘barter’ presents us with the financial dealings involved with trade where the roots of that word of commerce are to be found in the Middle Dutch or Middle Low German trade and Old Saxon trada, footstep. The word ‘stirrup’ casts not only a glance back to the festivity of consumption (a stirrup-cup) but also presents us with the theme of dominance which appeared in one of the photographs taken of Iraqui prisoners being piled on top of each other as if to be ridden. The reference to ‘crude’ in line four is not only echoing the scientific term for unprocessed oil but also suggests a deeply embedded feeling of the uncivilised given a further emphasis with the word ‘incarnadine’ immediately recognisable as part of Macbeth’s vision of wading through a sea of blood. The final reference which merges finance (‘investment’) with technology (‘insert tool this way up’) is made grotesque as we recognise the well-known euphemism for a penis.
In his unpublished notes on ‘Some Aspects of Poems and Translations’, April 2007 Prynne commented upon language in a manner that is pertinent to a reading of his own later work:

Individual words are placed in close relation in a new way, so that it is
not easy to guess how the meaning of one relates to the meaning of the
other. Sometimes a whole string of words seems to be making uncertain or
doubtful connections, so that when the reader or translator consults a full,
inclusive dictionary the different meanings for each word all seem at least
partly possible, because the guidelines of sense and idiom seem to point in
so many different directions at once.

Ian Brinton 27th August 2017

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The Messier Objects by Michael Zand (Shearsman Books)

The Messier Objects by Michael Zand (Shearsman Books)

In a talk given at Barrack’s Studio, Newcastle-under-Lyme, 6th May 1995, Roger Langley referred to those moments which, rather akin to Wordsworth’s ‘spots of time’, seem to assert themselves like islands within the time schemes that dominate our everyday lives. George Simmel had referred in 1911 to adventures that interrupt the everyday as ‘islands’. Not like a state which is part of a continent, in that its boundaries are generated from within itself, against the opposition only of an altogether different medium, the sea, which is forced to comply with the directive from the land. After all, episodes in ordinary life have their beginnings and ends determined by boundaries which are, in a sense, mechanical, not organic like those of the island, since they are drawn by mutual pressure from both sides from similar things, as are the boundaries of a state on a continent amongst other states, where frontiers are set by equal pressures and compromises between them. Langley goes on to add ‘In this way, then, the adventure is a foreign body in our existence, yet it also speaks of the unity of all life in a way that normal events woven into the surface daily routine of our lives cannot. The adventure shows things which seem essential. As such it has affinities with three other types of event; the game played by a gambler, the dream, and the work of art, the poem.’
In his Foreword to this collection of poems, Michael Zand tells the reader a little about the background to the Messier Objects:

‘Messier was a comet hunter and was frustrated by seeing objects in the sky that he thought were comets, but turned out to be random and uninteresting clouds of dust. He drew up the list to avoid comet hunters wasting time on what he regarded as the “worthless detritus of the skies”. Ironically it was later discovered that these objects were in fact galaxies, nebulae and other deep sky phenomena…’

The moving sequence of these poems highlights the importance of what we can too easily be tempted to overlook. There is a sense that the importance of life is in the smallest things which can be dismissed as detritus. And this constitutes ‘loss’. ‘M1’ opens with a mythical feeling of beginning ‘vaguely in the shape of an apple tree’ and many of the later poems and prose-poems record a history of a Fall.

‘how much time do you have
these star clouds are all that’s left

anything you say
anything with a word in it
has been exhausted’

The draining of language that is used by ‘the methods/ of our society’ (‘Lyra’) is a matter of ‘cheap shots’ with an unavoidable violence contained in the layers of meaning tucked into that last word. Michael Zand plays with language and hints and shifts; he avoids the classification of words which can permit behaviour of narrow-mindedness, cruelty and ultimate blindness.

M 89

‘they seems impossible . these stars
but they are part of us . and remains so beautiful

even though it messes things up
who cares . let them

they are our horses they—

In his introduction to Roger Langley’s Complete Poems, the editor, Jeremy Noel-Tod, quoted from J. H. Prynne’s speech in Bramfield church on 12th February 2011:

‘[For Roger] the smallest things were absolutely everything—if you knew the difference between a martin and a swift you knew everything—not just something—you knew the whole universal truth of things if you knew one thing deeply and exactly and carefully.’

These words came as no surprise to us as we sat there in St Andrew’s and recalled Prynne’s own poem about inclusiveness, the importance of what can so easily be overlooked, ‘L’Extase de M. Poher’, in which ‘Rubbish is / pertinent; essential; the / most intricate presence in / our entire culture’. In Michael Zand’s world of messier objects, The Messier Objects, in which the ‘messier’ ob-jects,
We have pauses of lyric grace and watchfulness:

‘fig and parsley and drift wood
percussions revolve around the—’

And those dashes with which so many of these pieces conclude, as if there were so much more I could say about—

Ian Brinton 2nd September 2015

The Complete Poems of R.F. Langley edited by Jeremy Noel-Tod (Carcanet Press)

The Complete Poems of R.F. Langley edited by Jeremy Noel-Tod (Carcanet Press)

In 1978 Nigel Wheale’s infernal methods press published a chapbook of four poems by R.F. Langley, Wheale’s former English teacher at Wolverhampton Grammar School. Roger Langley had studied at Jesus College, Cambridge in the late 1950s, the same time as Jeremy Prynne with whom he was to remain close friends for the rest of his life. As Jeremy Noel-Tod puts it in the introduction to this splendidly produced new Carcanet edition of the Complete Poems: ‘In their final year, Langley and Prynne were supervised by the poet and critic Donald Davie’ who introduced them to the work of both Ezra Pound and Adrian Stokes. This is almost like an updating by ten years of the narrative told by Charles Tomlinson in Some Americans when he was tutored in the late 1940s by Donald Davie who introduced him to both Wallace Stevens and William Carlos Williams. In 1994 infernal methods published a second Langley volume, Twelve Poems, and it is this book which was referred to by John Welch in a letter to me from near the opening of this century:

The trajectory of a poetic career is interesting. As I think you know pretty much the only person to publish him [Langley] for years was Nigel Wheale, his friend and former pupil—and anything else that appeared appeared through Nigel. I was actually staying at Nigel’s when ‘it happened’—he’d just brought out a full-length albeit quite small collection of Roger’s when, out of the blue, Michael Schmidt rang up. I don’t think Nigel knew him at all—he’d simply sent off a review copy to PN Review. Anyway, Schmidt rang bubbling over with enthusiasm. Which led to the Collected and a good deal of subsequent interest in his work.

That ‘subsequent interest’ included Carcanet’s Collected Poems (produced in conjunction with infernal methods in 2000), The Face of It, a collection of 21 poems in 2007 and a regular slot in PN Review for the ‘Journals’. And the projection of this literary narrative has now given us this new Complete Poems, one of the most handsomely edited and produced collections I have seen for some time.
As Langley put it in the very well-known interview with Robert Walker from Angel Exhaust 13:

‘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.’

It was very much that interview alongside the early poem ‘Matthew Glover’ that prompted me to write the first of my ‘Black Mountain in England’ articles for Michael Schmidt in 2005 (PN Review 161). But it wasn’t until 2010 that Roger wrote me an account of having first come across Charles Olson:

‘JHP introduced me to the work of Olson, of course, sending me copies of first ‘The Kingfishers and a bit later, I think, of the Projective Verse essay. Later on I saw the Donald Allen anthology, bought some copies of it, and used it to teach from while I was at Wolverhampton Grammar School. Obviously, from the very first, my own writing, although opened up to new methods by Olson, was always closely tied to my own immediate biography. The pleasure lay in writing about the little willow tree I knew and how it blew in the wind, the willow warblers I had watched in the bushes at dusk on the border of the parish. Nothing so personally particular in Olson.’

I shall be writing a review of this new publication for Shearsman Magazine on-line and that will concentrate more on the poems and less on the ‘chit-chat’!

Ian Brinton 1st September 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

The Oxford Handbook of Contemporary British & Irish Poetry

The Oxford Handbook of Contemporary British & Irish Poetry

Edited by Peter Robinson

As the editor makes clear in his introduction this Oxford Handbook is a ‘collaborative effort at sketching a map of the always partially unknown’. Its range is enormous and will serve for many years to come as a perspective upon the various aspects of the poetic scene and not the least of its values lies in its ability ‘to sketch a space for curiosity and mutually enhancing accuracy of distinction that may help to mitigate the widespread self-confusion by means of other-denigration witnessed on all sides.’

The substantial 750 pages are divided into five sections: Part 1 ‘Movements Over Time’; Part 2 ‘Senses of Form and Technique’; Part 3 ‘Poetry and Places’; Part 4 ‘Border Crossings’; Part 5 ‘Responsibilities and Values’. The contributors range from Martin Dodsworth and Jeremy Noel-Tod to Peter Carpenter and Adam Piette; from Rod Mengham and Peter Middleton to Andrea Brady and David Herd. The separate subject areas range from ‘The Unburied Past: Walking with Ghosts of the 1940s’ to ‘A Dog’s Chance: The Evolution of Contemporary Women’s Poetry?’ and from ‘Auden in Ireland’ to ‘Multi-ethnic British Poetries’. There are 38 separate articles of substantial length and all I can do here is offer a pointer towards one or two of the immensely informative and exciting contents.

Rod Mengham writes about ‘The Altered Sublime: Raworth, Crozier, Prynne’ in which he quotes from Fredric Jameson on ‘Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism’. Highlighting Jameson’s observations concerning former sources of the sublime, such as the unconscious, becoming incorporated progressively into the processes of commodity production he notes how the unconscious becomes saturated by the languages of media and advertising agencies. Although Mengham concentrates specifically upon Prynne’s sequence The Oval Window we cannot ignore of course that earlier poem from Brass, the title of which refers to Alain Poher, the president of the French senate who became president of France in April 1969: ‘No / poetic gabble will survive which fails / to collide head-on with the unwitty circus’. Mengham also brings to our notice the essay by Heidegger on ‘Poetry, Language, Thought’ as the authentic gauging of the dimension of dwelling as the primal form of building:

‘Nor is poetry building in the sense of raising and fitting buildings. But poetry, as the authentic gauging of the dimension of dwelling, is the primal form of building. Poetry first of all admits man’s dwelling into its very nature, its presencing being. Poetry is the original admission of dwelling.’

One is tempted at this point to look up Prynne’s essay on ‘Huts’ which appeared in the journal Textual Practice in 2008. The article proceeds to look carefully at Andrew Crozier’s ‘The Veil Poem’ in which the focus is upon an embracing of material existence, human relationships and natural cycles despite their mutability.

Adam Piette’s contribution is on ‘Contemporary Poetry and Close Reading’ in which he takes us back to William Empson’s elaborate reading of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 73 with its ‘unpacking of connotations’ in the reference to ‘Bare ruin’d choirs, where late the sweet birds sang’. As Piette reminds us Shakespeare’s metaphor works because churches themselves are metaphors, being built to resemble stone forests. This timely reminder of the importance of close textual analysis is followed by an expert reading of Denise Riley’s ‘Song’ and the article closes with another timely reminder which must never be forgotten:

‘Close reading helps readers to construct a poem out of the distracted elements of their own lives and the lives of others; and it is through such loving attention, or heartbeat sensitivity to the elemental story in poetry’s forms of language, that poems begin to act upon the world.’

Ian Brinton 20th October 2014

Paris by Helen: Rod Mengham (Oystercatcher), Speedometry by Andrzej Sosnowski Trans. Rod Mengham (Contraband)

Paris by Helen: Rod Mengham (Oystercatcher), Speedometry by Andrzej Sosnowski Trans. Rod Mengham (Contraband)

Seven years ago Jeremy Noel-Tod wrote a letter to the Times Literary Supplement in which he suggested that Jeremy Prynne’s recently published chapbook To Pollen (Barque Press) was ‘directly concerned with the “war on terror” and its vicious circles’:

Afflicted purpose they hail we cut them they in
turn line the route denied, holding it most.

Rod Mengham’s recently published sequence of poems Paris by Helen (Oystercatcher) similarly has a lyric grace which is unafraid to gaze with unerring eye on warfare, lies and the Romance of twisted language which obscures human designs.

Language has an expiry date
with light foot, it is the tally-man ignorant of the branch-like
instructions for using your gun-rest. We shall not see its like
the load-bearing syntax of the river
settles everything. Once again
I have reached a dead wall.

When Rod Mengham’s poems were included in Iain Sinclair’s monumentally valuable anthology Conductors of Chaos (Picador 1996) they were introduced by John Wilkinson who noted how the language used ‘exacts the commitment of full attention at every instant’ before he went on to say that Mengham’s ‘mysterious lyricism…turns out to have been genuinely premonitory—it was exactly what the world was to be like, if from a particular perspective: for, after all, the people of Macedonia are best preserved from the knowledge that their nation’s new banknotes are given away as reader gifts by The Sunday Times.’
It was Thomas de Quincey who wrote in 1834 about Coleridge’s use of unacknowledged quotation:

Now, to take a phrase or an inspiriting line from the great fathers of poetry, even though no marks of quotation should be added, carries with it no charge of plagiarism. Milton is justly presumed to be as familiar to the ear as nature to the eye; and to steal from him as impossible as to appropriate, or sequester to a private use, some “bright particular star.” And there is a good reason for rejecting the typographical marks of quotation: they break the continuity of the passion, by reminding the reader of a printed book…

Language stands upon the shoulders of those who have previously used it and I found much of the lyric grace in these poems by Rod Mengham enhanced by the references, occasionally direct as with the echoing sound of Eliot’s The Wasteland in the poem ‘Through a Blow-Pipe’ in which the ‘drip drip drip’ leads to connecting ‘nothing with nothing’. Sometimes the references are more oblique echoes such as the opening image of Ulysses lashed ‘to the mist’ with its sly glance back at Prynne’s early poem ‘Lashed to the mast’. Perhaps most dominant for me is the eerie shadow of Dante cast across this doomed love affair between Paris and Helen. In the opening poem, ‘To Repeal the Spoils’ it is almost as if a Francesca is whirling through the air lamenting the cause for her being in the Second Circle:

That was your great discovery

an unreasonable desire for poetry while
swallowing blood. Now you find me shaking something

Penelope’s chervil glove, unharmed in the debris
on a worn-out carpet.

Just as the larks lose all sense of their bodies
so you are wearing your skirts much higher

every night in my bed. But my flight of bemusement
will not add up. The occasion demands flight
with its opposite number.

Mengham’s translations of the contemporary Polish poet, Sosnowski, are terrific. They provide that bridge which I referred to in last week’s blog on Anthony Barnett so that the reader who is unknowing of the original language can experience something of the taste of another man’s mind:

You raise your eyes, and the wind roars among the great bells.

Ian Brinton 26th July 2014

Launching Simon Smith

Launching Simon Smith

The first of the 2014 Shearsman events at Swedenborg Hall in London included Simon Smith reading from his recently published collection 11781 W. Sunset Boulevard. This is a fast-moving world which ranges from L.A. to Dartford in Kent, from Paradise Cove to Gravesend. One of the epigraphs to the first section, the American poems in which Simon Smith goes in search of Paul Blackburn and the ‘pure products / of the dream factory’, simply gives us ‘A crazy little place called ‘Be There Now’’ and as one is zoomed across a continent this seems very apt. One of the things I liked about these poems was, however, that impression I got of the sense of ‘Now’ being placed within a context of both ‘Then’ and a future which can loom with ominous dislocation. The click and shift of sounds and humour are underwritten with an urgency which has moments of leisure to savour ‘the taste of almonds as Time drops below the sun’.

The second half of this collection is titled Gravesend and it takes us on the North Kent railway line from Charing Cross to Chatham and beyond…and beyond. In a world of captions and key-words which present themselves as a mirror of everyday narrowness Smith gives us ‘Deposits’:

 

Refrigeration and containment

Not that far to the jail at Sheppey

Nationalise the debt for helicopter money

No time to think—extruded plexi-glass,

Or a few details from my own personal experience

Is History in real time not sampled

The exchange of containers from ro-ros to lorries,

The male located in the female.

 

The reference here to acrylic glass is both precise and illuminating since laser cut panels have been used over the last ten years to redirect sunlight into a light pipe or tubular skylight in order to spread it into a room. In this sequence of poems details of personal human experience shed light upon the poet’s perception of History and, as if in memory of the time when he threw a large clock through the window of Barnwood House in order to do a runner from the lunatic asylum in Gloucester, the poet and composer Ivor Gurney now ‘plots his great escape from Dartford Asylum’.

On the back of this volume Jeremy Noel-Tod has written ‘All the digital landfill of one London poet’s life is here, not to mention a book-stopping tribute to Cy Twombly. Line by line, Smith is one of the most exciting poets writing in England: if it weren’t for the sweet Thames and the Little Chefs, he might pass for an American.’

 

Ian Brinton 22nd January 2014

 

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