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Tag Archives: John Donne

STANZE by Simon Marsh (Oystercatcher Press)

STANZE by Simon Marsh (Oystercatcher Press)

In an interview with Jane Davies, published by Shearsman in Talk about Poetry (2007), Peter Robinson focused upon one of the most damaging aspects of poetry-writing since the world of The Movement. The interviewer made a short and clear point when in suggesting that Robinson’s poems ‘seem to address lived experience in recognizable forms of human expression’ to which the reply came:

‘You’ve put your finger on something that absolutely baffles me about the contemporary poetry scene. I thought this was what poetry did or does, and it often doesn’t seem to, strangely enough, because most poetry now isn’t much like this’

Robinson went on to quote the Italian poet Franco Fortini who had addressed him at a Cambridge poetry festival with the disarming question ‘Why do all the English poems end with a little laugh?’ It is as though being scared to be seen as serious we have to adopt layers of thick-skinned irony.

When I read Simon Marsh’s sixteen sonnets, each placed in its own stanza, its little room of memory, clouds lifted: here was a deeply moving poetry of lyricism and grace. Shafts of light break through cloud as memories and hopes surface in such a manner as to remind us of a world of love that has been central to poetry since the earliest writing. This is an uplifting and wonderful book!

In a short essay about the poetry of Peter Hughes (‘Pulling on the Feathered Leggings’) Simon Marsh quoted Gene Tanta saying that ‘writers who use language as a fluid artefact of the commons help to dislodge static notions of selves’. He also referred to Peter Hughes’s ‘attentive crafting’ and ‘uncommonly complete freeing up of the powers of observation.’ This precision, an awareness of the moment, filters its light through the joint volume Hughes and Marsh did for Shearsman five years ago, The Pistol Tree Poems. The last section of that remarkable book was written the year before publication and after the death of Simon Marsh’s partner Manuela Selvatico to whose memory these Oystercatcher STANZE are dedicated. In number 86 of The Pistol Tree Poems we read

‘tiles of
primary brightness
cast in
muntin shadow
a tattered map
fallen
at my feet
whenever
we were lost
we held
each other’s breath’

That ‘tattered map’, with its seventeenth-century sense inherited from Donne, is a future fractured and in number 102 we are confronted with an Odyssean figure ‘tied to the mast’ who may ‘settle back alone’ but whose awareness of life is so strong that ‘kelp shadow stuns the air’. The muntin strips which divide up a pane of glass provide a frame, a structure, within which the glass can remain as filter for the light of prospects now dissolved. A map may be tattered but as with Donne’s experience on the shortest day of the year the poet can be ‘re-begot /Of absence, darkness, death; things which are not.’ This sense of presence within absence is hauntingly caught on the cover of this compelling Oystercatcher: lines which could be empty musical staves, horizons, skylines are also the strings of a guitar which is there poised to play again. And so in the third of these little rooms, fourteen-lined STANZE, we hear a voice

‘you gave me back the poetry
the will to breathe in tunes
unravelled the strings of years
& tied light bows to my tail’

The escaping from past imprisonment, the unravelling of those netting strings woven by the years, brings to my mind Charles Olson’s urgent plea in his poem ‘As the Dead Prey Upon Us’, ‘disentangle the nets of being’. The opposite of the entanglement is graceful movement as a kite lifts in the air and streams its ‘light bows’ out behind it.
Serious Art allows the fleeting a place to rest; it also looks far forward as well as back; it is movement which does not just atrophy:

‘you promised me Dante after supper
the circumstances no longer exist
only changes in air scent
intensely captured light
page-bound radiance of individual days
when we last scooped vacant autumn oysters
from low tide silt at Minnis Bay’

Dante’s ‘lucerna del mondo’ is of such brightness and human reality is not easily put aside. As Simon Marsh puts it ‘sentiment as fluid / can cross oceans due to light’. This is not ending a poem with ‘a little laugh’; it is coming to terms with the individual ache of loss and the common grounds of human thought which we share.

I don’t think that I can make it much clearer: GET A COPY OF THIS BOOK NOW. Copies are available from Peter Hughes at Oystercatcher Press, 4 Coastguard Cottages, Old Hunstanton, Norfolk PE36 6EL.

Ian Brinton 7th March 2016

The Drop by Robert Sheppard (Oystercatcher Press)

The Drop by Robert Sheppard (Oystercatcher Press)

When J.H. Prynne gave his Keynote Speech at the First Conference of English-Poetry Studies in China on 18th April 2008 he referred to the art of translation in terms of poetic composition:

‘The activity of composing a poem in the first place shares some features with translation-work: pausing to consider exactly which words and expressions to use, building up the form and sound of a poem as if it already exists in your mind and as if you are translating this idea or process of thought into words on a page.’

‘Building up the form’ echoes the note Prynne made one year before that speech in China when he suggested that translation was ‘a noble art, making bridges for readers who want to cross the divide between their own culture and those cultures which are situated in other parts of the world’. Those bridges may be made stone by stone, brick by brick, word by word, or, perhaps when the bridge connects a world of the present with a world of the past, drop by drop. The drop may suggest Donne’s ‘A Valediction: of weeping’ where ‘each tear / Which thee doth wear’ creates ‘a globe, yea world’. The drops of sorrow at the loss of someone close to one’s whole life may, in Donne’s terms, become

‘Fruits of much grief they are, emblems of more,
When a tear falls, that thou falls which it bore,
So thou and I are nothing then, when on a diverse shore.’

That disyllabic adjective emphasizes the distance between the lovers, each on their separate shore.
Near the end of Robert Sheppard’s elegy to his father, the poet writes that the ‘Desire the task / Of the poet is elective translation’:

‘To transmute the nothing said
Into the nothing that could

That could talk itself
Into the world the

Shadow that casts wings between
The pillars the poem’s

Ear vibrates unthreads the
Love-whisper

By interruption
Quickens the sparkle-speech scattered

Among injured words love
Intervenes

Cannot resist too
Much in love with its own resisting

Earlier in this powerful elegy Sheppard had referred to the ‘longest story ladders / Up sides of tombs’ and the whole poem explores the ability of language to explore the inability of the past’s reconstruction. Words can never bring back the dead, never ‘talk’ themselves ‘Into the world’, but the ‘translation’ referred to is ‘elective’ and the stumbling forward of language in its climbing out of the past to reconstruct what can never bridge those distances is caught in the repetition of ‘that could’. That passage from near the poem’s end brims over with suggestion: the ‘Shadow that casts wings’ inevitably echoes the valley of the shadow of death in Psalm 23 and I found myself looking back at Robert Duncan’s ‘Often I Am Permitted to Return to a Meadow’ where the poet links the present to the past through imagination. Duncan’s scene is ‘made-up by the mind’ but is definite enough in its concrete reality to be ‘a made place’. Although personal to the poet, it is a place to which he is permitted to return; it has mythological existence as the underworld to which Kora was taken. The architecture of the hall, the domain of the subconscious/past/underworld promotes the palpability of the present in which the poet lives: ‘Wherefrom fall all architectures I am’. Olson also wrote about the impossible distances and suggested that because love is so intense and alive in its feelings it ‘knows no distance, no place/is that far away’ (‘The Distances’).

Robert Sheppard’s elegy opens with two comments which are central to understanding the nature of this unbridgeable loss. The first page opens with the italicized phrase ‘Standing by’ and the fourth stanza concludes with a reference to ‘Elegy lost in action on the outskirts of an event’. The immeasurability of the gap between NOW and THEN, the living and the dead, means that all writers of elegies stand on the outskirts of an event. As Thomas Hardy recognized in the first of his poems about the death of his wife, ‘The Going’, her death was the closure of a term and the single word ‘gone’ on line five has a musical resonance of bell-like clarity. Hardy’s image of the swallow then emphasises the impossibility of bridging the distance between that past and this present. The past cannot ever be reached despite the ability of the migratory bird to fly swiftly over extraordinarily long distances.

Beckett’s short play Krapp’s Last Tape is one of the great elegies and as the recorder of events puts it, listening to himself on tape from a former year, ‘The grain, now I what I wonder do I mean by that, I mean…[hesitates]…I suppose I mean those things worth having when all the dust has—when all my dust has settled I close my eyes and try and imagine them.’ In Robert Sheppard’s world this has become

‘My mind mummified with emotion
I thought everything

Was compiled
On reels of tape piled into temple walls’

The walls of the temple, as Krapp is compelled to recognise, do not keep memory fresh and Robert Sheppard’s ‘drop mourns itself’ and it is not only morphine which will thicken the ‘glassy eye’. The Drop is an extraordinarily powerful poem which grows more lasting each time I read it.

Ian Brinton 8th January 2015

Nerve Cells by Colin Winborn (Knives, Forks, Spoons Press)

Nerve Cells by Colin Winborn (Knives, Forks, Spoons Press)

Some fifteen years ago, in Tears 42, Colin Winborn wrote an intriguing piece comparing lines by the metaphysical poet John Donne with lines from the lyrics of the Kentucky-born singer-songwriter Will Oldham:

‘…Donne reaches for a transcendent fusion of spirit and flesh, rising above the laity, [whilst] Oldham presses back to earth, refusing transcendence’.

The contrast suggested here came back to my mind when I started looking at Nerve Cells, published in 2012 by the wide-ranging and central small poetry press, Knives Forks and Spoons. There is an account of this press of course, written by Juha Virtanen in Tears 59 and I have included an update in the Afterword for the forthcoming Tears 61.

The movement mentioned by Colin Winborn is caught exquisitely in one of the opening poems of this substantial volume. A poem which clearly takes a Brueghel painting of hunters returning in the snow as its starting point opens with the lines

‘The hunters
returning see themselves
in faint silhouette, woodsmoke
curling inwardly’

The playing with light and self-awareness conjures up a moment from Dante’s Paradiso and that ‘quïete in foco vivo’ is taken up again by Winborn in the carefully cadenced piece ‘Edward Thomas’:

‘that dusky
brightness that child
crying for the bird of
the snow’

*

He paused
by the clearing
watched as the cold
rain unquoted

The delicacy of movement taking shadow beneath the watcher in the clearing notes the shift from a feathery lightness to a cold quota of the more tangible. With an echo of Robert Grosseteste writing about how light of its very nature diffuses itself in every direction in such a way that a point of light will produce instantaneously a sphere of any size whatsoever and confirming the Lincoln theologian’s attitude concerning light being the corporeity of form we read here

‘A thought divides
itself, multiplies

the world: Let
there be lights!’

Further comments upon this remarkable collection will appear in my forthcoming book about Dulwich College Poets since 1950. After all, the College was fortunate enough to have Colin Winborn on its staff in the first decade of the present century.

Ian Brinton 16th February 2015

Unfinished Study of a French Girl by Todd Swift

Unfinished Study of a French Girl by Todd Swift

www.knivesforksandspoonspress.co.uk

 

Alec Newman’s splendid Knives Forks and Spoons Press has just released some imaginative and inspiring new volumes and I am delighted that this treads closely upon the heels of Juha Virtanen’s review article on the Press in the current issue of Tears.

Unfinished Study of a French Girl is Todd Swift’s first pamphlet of poetry in years and, having written about Mainstream love hotel (Tall-Lighthouse 2009) some years back, it gives me pleasure to pore over this new little chapbook. I recall referring in my earlier review to Swift’s grounding of language and ideas in the personal and being struck by the feeling that there is a convincing quality to domestic reference that avoids the prurient by appealing to the universal. As the blurb on the final page of this new book tells us ‘Exploring how absence “ghosts” all our desires and hopes, our fears and fun, this collection artfully and playfully takes poems to rarely seen places, aesthetic, elegant and witty as always.’ Given that statement and my earlier reading of Todd Swift’s work it should come as no surprise that I turned to the poem ‘Kora in Hell’ which stands spread over the central pages of this new chapbook.

 

never bite

the red seeds bitterly bursting their small loan

onto the banks of your tongue

in the wan gardens underground

 

where no noon is.

 

This is a poem about transience and hope, about being ‘near the sun and on the ground’ which ‘is to be alive’. With an awareness of how time both takes and gives we are presented with that buried world in which ‘love lights darker candles’ and in which ‘a starker irresistance thrives’. I am reminded here of Donne’s ‘A Hymne to Christ, at the Authors last going into Germany’:

 

As the trees sap doth seeke the root below

In winter, in my winter now I goe,

Where none but thee, th’Eternall root of true love I may know.

 

Just as ‘Churches are best for Prayer, that have least light’ Swift’s underworld seeks to possess ‘The darker longing / is to keep the slim sweet guest who never stays.’ One of the beauties of the myth of Kora lies in its confirmation that all possession is itself short-lived and the ‘slim sweet guest’ will return to land and sun. There is no binding to oneself a joy! In William Carlos Williams’s 1920 publication, Kora in Hell, he referred to a discrimination between true and false values and concluded that the true value ‘is that peculiarity which gives an object character by itself’:

 

The imagination goes from one thing to another. given many things of nearly totally divergent natures but possessing one-thousandth part of a quality in common, provided that be new, distinguished, these things belong in an imaginative category and not in a gross natural array.

 

These are accomplished and delicate poems which play with ideas of presence and absence and which sometimes have that awareness of ‘only air where art / could have been’ in terms of the title poem of the collection.

 

Next year Todd Swift’s publishing company, Eyewear, intends to produce a book to help push current serious poetry criticism of contemporary British and Irish poetry into new and informative directions. The book will be aimed at the general intelligent reader and well as undergraduate and M.Litt university students, and of course, poets themselves.

Swift’s own account of this new venture is ‘I am thinking this will be a sort of brief critical encyclopaedia’.

 

Ian Brinton 26th May 2014

 

 

The English Pub and Poets

I have just enjoyed a literary meal at my local pub, where the landlord is fond of his ale, women and poetry. It is good to share a pint with him and chew the fat. He will drop in a line of poetry and look at me for verification. I smile back as I am hopeless at attributing some of the most famous lines! It links us though to an important literary and cultural tradition. One that poets have needed and used going back to Shakespeare, Ben Jonson and John Donne at the Mermaid Tavern. It is a great tradition. Dylan Thomas, Norman Cameron and George Barker wrote poems in the pubs of Fitzrovia. George Orwell drafted essays in pubs and saw their role in defining Englishness. Louis MacNeice and Roy Campbell famously came to blows in a pub as have other living poets that I shall not name. A few nights before he died, Barry MacSweeney told me of a poem that he drafted in the late 1970s in a Canterbury pub with H.R. Keating and John Arlott after watching a county cricket match. He was going to send the poem but never did. Sadly, pubs are closing at an alarming rate thanks to cheap alcohol in supermarkets and other factors. Poets and writers need pubs and community. There are always stories to be heard and told. Support your local and not the likes of Tesco. Raise a toast to your landlord and read him a poem. It will do you both good! Long may we support our local pubs and keep the tradition alive.

Katy Perry AND John Donne in the Same Article? Who Knew?

This should have properly been a post for Valentine’s Day but the nature of love and the pondering thereof in poetry and song is the stuff of everyday, right? John Swarbrooke thinks so.

Who would you want to serenade you about love?

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