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no particular place to go by Laurie Duggan (Shearsman Books)

no particular place to go by Laurie Duggan (Shearsman Books)

In Robert Duncan’s interview with Ekbert Faas (Towards a New American Poetics, Black Sparrow Press 1978) the poet asserts “there are no trivial events for me. This is the question raised by Williams’ famous ‘so much depends / upon / a red wheel / barrow’. The real point of that question is: Are there any trivial events, are there any trivial people or trivial anythings, trivial beings or propositions? And for me everything happening in the poem is properly apprehended and therefore not trivial.” One consults a map because one has a particular place to reach but Laurie Duggan’s new volume of poems charts a sense of discovery which responds to experience rather than mapping it out first: read this book and you’re on the move!
When Williams highlighted the importance of his red wheel barrow he followed it with a prose statement concerning the “fixed categories into which life is divided”:

“These things are normal – essential to every activity. But they exist – but not as dead dissections”.

Laurie Duggan’s new collection is, in his own words, “an unholy gathering of discrete pieces written over the last fifteen years” but to my mind they hold together in such a way as to give a picture which is more than an accumulation of the discrete. ‘Hegemony’ is a poem which perhaps represents the sense of poetic unity:

“a world of transactions
at war with a world of immanence,
a geography without contours
against a range of singular spaces”

The immediacy of Duggan’s perceptions possess a life which is not held in by the contours of the field but which realises the geography of “range”. This fine collection is more than “singular spaces” and lives as a “world of transactions” between poet and reader. Our guide through the spaces is a perceptive wit which looks closely at the world and concludes with wry humour. Gustave Courbet’s 1854 painting titled ‘The Meeting’ is given a new breath of life by the poet’s close awareness of what the gestures in the painting point to:

“What made him present himself, greeted on the road
by another figure (engaged perhaps

in mere commerce) offer instead of an epithet
a commonplace?”

The poet has captured that “world of transactions” in which the figure on the right, a pedlar perhaps, cocks his head to one side as if appraising the figure in front of him: the painter with courteous gesture of held out left arm as if he might be wishing the man a fine day. It is typical of much of Laurie Duggan’s work that these small moments are given a life, a sparkle of immediacy. So many of the poems are addressed to individual readers and we are given sly insights into character and landscape within which character resides for a moment, a click of the lens. Tony Frazer, Peter Lanyon, Frank Auerbach, Alexander Calder, Basil King, Pam Brown, Angela Gardner, Lee Harwood, Rosemary Hunter and ‘The Ghost of WCW in a Faversham Pub’:

“ ‘I’d love to go back
to Acapulco

it was so different
and so easy’ ”

Those plums in the icebox were indeed delicious and as readers we easily forgive the seemingly inconsequential footsteps of words which step their way through these poems. Duggan’s volume may assert the “inherently occasional” but I am reminded of those Necessary Steps (Shearsman Books, edited by David Kennedy, 2007) in which John Hall reminds us of the derivation of the word “occasion”:

“The Oxford English Dictionary gives as the etymology for occasion: ‘ad. L. occasion-em falling (of things) towards (each other)’. It is not just the things that fall towards each other, though there is always, I would say, a sense of conjuncture or convergence that marks something as an ‘occasion’, even for those with their attention on the ‘everyday’. It is also that occasions are marked incidents that cause certain people to fall together.”

Given these words…there is always a “particular place to go” and I can think of few better guides that Laurie Duggan.

Ian Brinton, 6th February 2017

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

Slant by Linda Black (Shearsman Books)

Slant by Linda Black (Shearsman Books)

Reading through the graceful poems, the delicate threads of line that constitute this collection, I am reminded of a little essay written by John Hall and published by Shearsman in Necessary Steps, edited by David Kennedy in 2007. Writing about ‘Occasions of Elegy’ Hall refers us to some roots:

The Oxford English Dictionary gives as the etymology for occasion: ‘ad. L. occasion-em falling (of things) towards (each other). It is not just the things that fall towards each other, though there is always, I would say, a sense of conjuncture or convergence that marks something as an ‘occasion’, even for those with their attention on the ‘everyday’. It is also that occasions are marked incidents that cause certain people to fall together.’

In the Dictionary the word ‘slant’ has of course plenty of references to the oblique (‘having an oblique or sloping position’) bringing to mind that occasional sense of one thing leaning towards another: movement and balance. The delicate threads of Black’s lines lean in such a way that stasis merges into movement: the gesture is that of thought becoming fixed for a moment, and it is recognizable in ‘Earth’s spread’:

‘—legend
quickens outward
inward to the fine grit
sand sieved & airborne
scuffs the surface
into drills blows in
three wishes bows out
definition beaten by whether…
O fragile web!

The forward movement of civilized growth, that which in narrative terms creates ‘legend’, has a primeval thrust of life which is caught with the word ‘quickens’. The word itself has of course echoes of the Credo where the ‘quick’ and the ‘dead’ merge and in this present context it is promoted, propelled forward, with the gesture of ‘outward’ as if from a centre. With a leaning gesture forward there is also an awareness of what space has been left behind by the movement: the opposite of ‘outward’ is ‘inward’ and the ‘fine grit’ or ‘sieved sand’ is like the prehistoric substance from which the perilous slanting forward derives. The ‘fossils’ and ‘scavengers’ and ‘bones’ which appear in the poem’s second stanza are ‘far far lower’ than where we are now but they provide the essential backdrop for this surge of slanting forward.

A central sequence of poems in Slant is ‘The Seven Lamps’ and as Carol Rumens says on the back cover ‘This work is a kind of translation, and Black finds enrichment for her own rhythms and vocabulary by re-grouping and personalising borrowings from the original texts’. In Ruskin’s fourth chapter of The Seven Lamps of Architecture he had presented an aphorism that could well be borne in mind when thinking about contemporary poetry:

‘But symmetry is not abstraction. Leaves may be carved in the most regular order, and yet be meanly imitative; or, on the other hand, they may be thrown wild and loose, and yet be highly architectural in their separate treatment.’

Ruskin went on to explain how his ideas differed from many architects since many of them ‘would insist on abstraction in all cases’ whilst he felt that a purely abstract manner ‘does not afford room for the perfection of beautiful form’ and that ‘its severity is wearisome after the eye has been long accustomed to it’. In Black’s poem (‘after Ruskin’) we find

‘Long low lines rise soon to be lifted
& wildly broken’

And we are confronted with ‘pavement’ which ‘rises / & falls’ as ‘arches nod westward & sink not one / of like height’

The conclusion to this second stanza of ‘The Seven Lamps’, a remarkable poem, is central to Linda Black’s whole volume as she comments upon ‘These inclinations’ (note the pun on subjective desire):

‘the accidental leaning the curious incidence
of distortion – differences’

The presentation of each poem, with italicised words leaning against the rest of the text, is part of the whole exquisite design and ‘A life of custom & accident’ is held in a delicate balance.

Ian Brinton 13th May 2016

Ianthe Poems by Peter Philpott (Shearsman Books)

Ianthe Poems by Peter Philpott (Shearsman Books)

All art is in the past, acting as a record of what was seen or felt upon some occasion, and, as John Hall reminded us in his contribution to David Kennedy’s Necessary Steps (Shearsman 2007) the Oxford English Dictionary gives the etymology for ‘occasion’ in terms of the falling of things towards each other:

‘It is not just the things that fall towards each other, though there is always, I would say, a sense of conjuncture or convergence that marks something as an occasion, even for those with their attention on the everyday.’

A poem may appear to be occupied with a dramatic present (‘It is an ancient Mariner, And he stoppeth one of three’) but once the storyteller weighs in with his narrative it is firmly past tense (‘There was a ship…’). And it is the past’s intrusion into the present that is a mainstay of all Art. A poem, if it is worth anything, interrupts the even flow of the day-to-day; it appears in the manner described by Lyn Hejinian which Peter Philpott uses as the introductory presence to the first section of this sequence of poems which revolves around his grand-daughter, Ianthe:

‘The desire to tell within the conditions of a discontinuous consciousness seems to constitute the original situation of the poem. The discontinuity of consciousness is interwoven through the continuity of reality—a reality whose independence of our experience and descriptions must be recognized.’

When I first read a piece of prose by Lyn Hejinian it was in the Salt anthology Vanishing Points edited by Rod Mengham and John Kinsella over ten years ago and a line that struck me there was to do with children’s play; ‘They bend, the hour is bound somewhere.’ Fluidity and stillness, children’s ‘present’ and the adult’s binding of a moment into a poem.

If I were still school-teaching I would use some of these fresh, innovative and delightfully playful lyrics from Peter Philpott’s new volume. I often used to present a world of childhood through the eyes of ee cummings and his little lame balloon-man as well as through the binding loss of Blake’s priest in black gowns. Now I would include Peter Philpott’s ‘non-poetic coffee shop’

‘where babies gather in their buggies
& a man gives a tutorial on public health
and the staff chat about what they bought on holiday’

I would include this world in which ‘our ease is sweet here / luscious and dropping’; a world of ‘persistent bird cries / like little lyric poems’ which ‘erupt’ to intrude upon the mundane. These poems are unafraid to be serious. These poems are unafraid to be personal and to evoke domestic connections of the highest quality. These poems remind me of the point Peter Robinson once made when he recounted how the Italian poet Franco Fortini had approached him at a poetry festival in Cambridge to ask ‘Why do all the English poems end with a little laugh?’ It seems almost as if an ironic tone is adopted in order to protect the poet from being seen as nakedly serious and wanting to refer to genuinely felt emotions. This is absolutely not true of these poems by Peter Philpott:

‘what you read here is
what wisdom in these words
uncountable but singable not
what is said but how
each word points at this world!’

The lines of a poem, the binding of a moment, the words (already an echo of the past by virtue of being language) reflect what Philpott recalls from Keston Sutherland about ‘The pressure to think and sing’. The poems constitute a type of absence:

‘a silence
or opening
that isn’t
silence but
lies underneath
that

the darkness enclosing
that too…’

Ian Brinton, 7th September 2015

‘an intuition of the particular’ Peter Hughes

‘an intuition of the particular’ Peter Hughes

‘An intuition of the particular’: some essays on the poetry of Peter Hughes (Shearsman Books 2013), the companion volume to his Selected Poems, (Shearsman 2013), illuminates and excites the reader through close textual readings. Hughes is a poet, painter, musician and publisher of the award-winning Oystercatcher Press. He is undoubtedly one of the most prolific and accomplished poets currently working in England. His recent work translating Petrarch’s sonnets into the landscape of the Norfolk coast being both impressive and popular. This volume is a perceptive and useful accompaniment to his poetry.

Behoven 16

he would stalk

the winter quarters

of the circus

glaring at bears

The essays, edited by Ian Brinton, feature in an informative interview with John Welch, who also writes about publishing Hughes early collections. There are essays by Peter Riley on The Metro Poems, Derek Slade on three poems from Blueroads, John Hall on Behoven, Andrew Bailey on The Summer of Agios Dimitrios and Simon Howard on the Petrarch sonnets that significantly mark the range of Hughes’ output. David Kennedy and Simon Marsh offer insights into the ways that artists and musicians, such as Paul Klee, Joan Miro, Art Pepper, Keith Tippett, Beethoven and others have fuelled and shaped poetic sequences and collaborations. Nigel Wheale offers a reader’s response to the experience of reading Hughes over time. Gene Tanta writes on why poetic collaboration matters, Riccardo Duranti contextualises Hughes’ Italian poetic connections, and Ian MacMillan writes about Oystercatcher Press. Ian Brinton’s introductory essay highlights Hughes ability ‘to condense the universal into the field of local habitation and name.’ This wonderfully stimulating volume deserves to be read by anyone interested contemporary poetry.

David Caddy

Peter Hughes from Reality Street

Peter Hughes from Reality Street

Peter Hughes is a prolific poet and an increasingly confident one. His lyrical tone is juxtaposed with a passionate concern for getting things right and his mordant sense of humour adds both grace and depth to his writing. This new collection from Ken Edwards’s Reality Street publications, Allotment Architecture, contains five major sequences, ‘Lynn Deeps’, ‘Behoven’, ‘Site Guide’, ‘18’ and ‘Berlioz’. Behoven appeared of course as an Oystercatcher in 2009 and John Hall’s account of it is essential reading (‘An intuition of the particular’, some essays on the poetry of Peter Hughes, Shearsman Press 2013). Some selections from ‘Lynn Deeps’ and ‘18’ appeared in the recent Shearsman selected Hughes but it is a delight to be able now to read the whole pieces and recognise their breadth and continuity. It is always refreshing to read Peter’s work and I wholly endorse Peter Riley’s comments on the back of this new volume where he refers to the ‘reassurance to readers that all of the many forms in which experience and language confront us are open to our own powers and defences’. The next major publication must now surely be a collected Petrarch which will gather together Peter’s splendidly vivid interpretations of the Italian poet: fourteenth century Avignon informing the Norfolk coast-line. Perhaps the dedication of this volume to his parents and to Cliff Hughes says it all: ‘This book is dedicated to my parents, Mary Hughes and the late Cliff Hughes, who showed me early on how to get off the path in order to explore, and who continue to support these explorations in different ways.’

 

Allotment Architecture is published by Reality Street, 63 All Saints Street, Hastings, East Sussex TN34 3BN.

www.realitystreet.co.uk

 

Ian Brinton

 

 

Reading ‘Couch Grass’

Reading ‘Couch Grass’

The association of couch grass (Elytrigia repens) with the tenacious world of the living is emphasised by one of its country names, ‘quick grass’ or ‘wicks’ from the Old English word cwic, (‘characterized by the presence of life’ O.E.D.). The word’s association with both the living and loss is not only to be found in the Apostle’s Creed (‘the quick and the dead’) but in the opening section of the Old English elegy, ‘The Wanderer’: ‘None are there now among the living [cwicra] / to whom I dare declare me thoroughly, / tell my heart’s thought.’

It recently struck me that one of the clear associations between English poetry of the seventies and the American influence of Charles Olson can be found in John Hall’s beautifully produced volume, Couch Grass (Great Works, 1978, produced in an edition of 200 copies). As all gardeners know, couch grass spreads its roots underground and is almost impossible to eradicate. Like the tangled ‘nets of being’ in Olson’s ‘As the Dead Prey Upon Us’ these roots  remain below the surface to thwart and constrict our actions and John Hall’s poem opens ‘you choose the life or the life chooses you / what you have become being that kind of person / you do not owe yourself to the others / how could you / be sure any capitalist notion of the self / has you as the debtor / if you accept the story the part is fixed’. For Olson any attempt at escape from these nets, the untangling of the webs of inheritance which bind us, is the act of the moment: ‘Purity / is only an instant of being, the trammels / recur’ and our lives are made up of the interwoven nets which precede us, moving below the surface, prompting who we are. Towards the end of his poem Hall points to ‘A sense of incompleteness’ which ‘keeps you from saying / you have finished’ and as the poem closes he accepts the living centrality of the movement of couch grass by pointing to the classification of the plant as a ‘weed’ by those who cannot accept the intricate complexities of which we are made up:

 

weeds are quite simply

what the single-minded don’t want

and poison re-inforces their point of view

persuasively

 

The other poem by Olson which I found myself wanting to put alongside John Hall’s is the short 1950 piece which Fielding Dawson refers to in his The Black Mountain Book, ‘These Days’:

 

whatever you have to say, leave

the roots on, let them

dangle

 

And the dirt

 

Just to make clear

where they come from

 

The text of John Hall’s poem can be found in the selected poems, else here, published in 1999 by Nicholas Johnson’s Etruscan Books. Both ‘These days’ and ‘As the dead prey upon us’ can be found in The Collected Poems of Charles Olson, University of California Press 1997.

 

Ian Brinton

 

 

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