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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

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On Violence in the Work of J.H. Prynne by Matthew Hall (Cambridge Scholars Publishing)

On Violence in the Work of J.H. Prynne by Matthew Hall (Cambridge Scholars Publishing)

It may seem strange that I should be writing this review since a few lines of my blurb appear on the back of the book itself. However, the point of the review is that it enables me to say more about why I think that this highly intelligent book is one of the best accounts of Prynne’s oeuvre that I have read for some considerable time. It also gives me space to explain why I should think this!

Within the network, the weave, of Prynne’s language there is a compassionate sense of Humanity and a lament for the distortions of language and self-delusion which enable the Human to become soiled by his most basic aspirations. Hall’s comment on ‘Refuse Collection’, that terrifying glimpse into the atrocities of the Second Gulf War, refers to the poem’s elegiac quality which is ‘linked to the pastoral elegy by establishing spatial locations that are unified with ceremonial mourning’:

‘The use of the pastoral elegy establishes connections with the poem Acrylic Tips, as well as ‘Es Lebe der König’, where the elegiac is a feature associated with landscape constructions.’

There is a movement to and from within this book and individual chapters centre upon different texts while never losing sight of how the accumulation of reference builds up into a glimpse of the extraordinary range of Prynne’s work and recognition of the profoundly integrated nature of his poetry. After the first chapter on the Celan poem from Brass we are moved on to a close examination of News of Warring Clans, Bands Around the Throat, Acrylic Tips. The last thirty pages then focus upon that language of ‘Refuse Collection’, a poem which should stand among the most powerful War poems ever written.

Matthew Hall is very good in directing us to the backgrounds, the heritage, the traditions within which Prynne writes. In the introduction he refers to the importance of Keats as a presence lurking behind some of the lines in that poem Prynne wrote immediately after hearing of the death of Paul Celan, ‘Es Lebe der König’, published in the 1971 collection Brass. Hall directs us to look at how, in the second stanza, Prynne’s ten lines mimic ‘Ode to a Nightingale’ and how Prynne’s line ‘It is not possible to / drink this again’ reverberates off Keats’s line ‘That I might drink and leave the world unseen’. Prynne’s poetry is well-known for its buried resources, its incorporation of his own reading, and one has only to recall the use of Dickens in ‘Of Movement Towards a Natural Place’ or the words of Lear in the opening lines of ‘As Mouth Blindness’ to recognise the wholeness of a life dedicated to reading, teaching and writing.

The first chapter of Matthew Hall’s book is devoted then to looking in close detail at the way in which that intensely important early poem actively investigates the ‘sense of alienation in the postwar world’. According to a letter sent by Prynne to Anthony Barnett that poem (for Paul Celan 1920-1970) was written on the same night that he heard of Celan’s suicide ‘from a Frenchman here in the city, long before it was reported in the Press’. It was not published until December of the following year.

It has been excellent to read some accounts in this book of the importance of music and its influence in ‘informing the poetic structure and technical operation of Prynne’s poetry’:

‘Throughout Prynne’s poetic oeuvre, music is represented and interrogated for signifying ontological sustenance. The reliance of ‘Es Lebe der König’ on the fugal pattern informs the technical and thematic orientation of the poem, by creating fidelity to the event of Celan’s death and evincing the role of ideology in perpetuating the Holocaust’s inescapable cycle of violence.’

Throughout this highly readable book we are left in no doubt as to the importance of Prynne’s poetry and I am reminded that in 1972 the Cambridge poet was deeply involved in reading early work by the French contemporary André du Bouchet. It seems just, perhaps, to end on a short quotation from one of du Bouchet’s Notebooks in which he commented upon the ‘Readable Poet’:

‘Poetry—this miracle—
the secret on the surface: what is most secret, unique, or so you’d assume, in broad daylight, and circulated through this ordinary language—as though it could only become aware of its secret through this public measure—man.’

Ian Brinton 22nd January 2016

In Memoriam: Charles Tomlinson

In Memoriam: Charles Tomlinson

III

I first came across the poetry of Charles Tomlinson in 1970 when I was studying English in Cambridge at Gonville and Caius. My supervisor, J.H. Prynne, gave me a copy of ‘At Holwell Farm’ to write about as an exercise in Practical Criticism and I was immediately struck by a tone of measured quietness that I recognised as belonging, in my own mind, with the poems of Edward Thomas that I had studied for A level eighteen months earlier. In the way coincidences work, seeming sometimes to offer a haunting sense of woven tapestry, my English teacher at Sevenoaks had been a St Dunstan’s pupil just after the war. I was to learn some years later that my supervisor at Caius was also a St Dunstan’s product who had dedicated his first book of poems, Force of Circumstance, to his teacher there, Basil Harvey. I suppose that some of my liking for the Thomas poems also came from my living at the top of the hill overlooking Sevenoaks Weald where Thomas had lived in Else’s Farm in the early years of the twentieth century. But it was the tone of quietness which spoke to me most nearly.

‘It is a quality of air, a temperate sharpness
Causes an autumn fire to burn compact,
To cast from a shapely and unrifted core
Its steady brightness.’

Prynne pointed out the quotation in that first line and I recall hurrying back to my digs to look up the letter Keats had sent to J.H. Reynolds on 21st September 1819 from Winchester. After all, I had the two-volume Hyder Rollins letters which had been on the reading list Prynne had sent out to prospective undergraduates:

How beautiful the season is now—How fine the air. A temperate sharpness about it. Really, without joking, chaste weather—Dian skies—I never lik’d stubble fields so much as now—Aye better than the chilly green of the spring. Somehow a stubble plain looks warm—this struck me so much in my Sunday’s walk that I composed upon it.

The ‘composition’, of course, was titled ‘To Autumn’. Tomlinson’s image of the fire, presumably of leaves and weeds, struck another chord with me because it brought back the number of times I had helped my father rake together fallen leaves in Autumn before pulling them all together and lighting the slow-burning, smouldering, fire. That was in Keston, not very far away from the first school I attended which was run by Muriel Prynne, the mother of the teacher who introduced me to Holwell Farm!
Prynne’s first collection of poems contained ‘Before Urbino’ which opened with lines that were clearly written after reading Tomlinson:

‘House next to house; tree next to tree; a wall
Tokens a winding road. The air across
The distant slope is palpable with light,
A clarid flood of silence.’

On December 24th 2002 Tomlinson wrote me a card:

‘Prynne’s use of the word ‘clarid’ makes me think he had been reading Stokes as well as CT. I see there is at last a new edition of Adrian Stokes Stones of Rimini, a marvellous book on limestone & sculpture CT was also reading long ago. Details in TLS last week—plus news that CT has won the New Criterion Poetry Prize, N. York.’

In May 1961 Prynne had indeed written to Tomlinson about Stokes and I referred to this in some detail in my article published in Salt 2 six years ago, ‘Prynne in Prospect’:

‘Immediacy for Stokes is the simultaneous apprehension of a two-dimensional surface in space: this seems to me to be his primary concern. Elements of recession and protuberance, texture and contrast, are allowed to articulate our awareness, but not to violate its separateness and lucidity. Music and the dimension of succession generally is an arrière-pensée, draining the impact of this confrontation by insisting on the context of a linear dimension through time. Stokes manages in spite of this arbitrary self-impoverishment (he has lost, after all, effective use of two out of four dimensions), both to see with accuracy and to feel the full emotional relevance of what we see—the Cortile d’Onore at Urbino (seen almost completely through his eyes) was an extraordinary experience, and one in which I felt a full deployment of my entire capacities for response.’

Ian Brinton August 28th 2015

John Keats and Charles Tomlinson

On 21st September 1819 Keats wrote to J.H. Reynolds from Winchester:

 

‘How beautiful the season is now—How fine the air. A temperate sharpness about it. Really, without joking, chaste weather—Dian skies—I never lik’d stubble fields so much as now—Aye better than the chilly green of the spring. Somehow a stubble plain looks warm—in the same way that some pictures look warm—this struck me so much in my Sunday’s walk that I composed upon it.’

The composition, of course, was the famous ‘To Autumn’ which was written on September 19th.

 

In December 1958 Charles Tomlinson wrote his own poem, ‘At Holwell Farm’, which Richard Swigg, Tomlinson’s most careful and patient critic, refers to in his statement about ‘a constancy of relation with the energy and singularity of phenomena’. Tomlinson’s poem centres upon a farmhouse which lies within a few hundred yards of his own dwelling and it opens with a reference to that letter from Keats to Reynolds.

 

It is a quality of air, a temperate sharpness

Causes an autumn fire to burn compact,

To cast from a shapely and unrifted core

Its steady brightness.

 

This poem was one of those presented by J.H. Prynne to his students at Gonville & Caius in 1969 for the purposes of ‘Practical Criticism’ and, for one student at least, it proved to be the door which opened into a new world of poetic intensity and care: a quietness in which urbanity and the rural stepped side by side.

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