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What Possessed Me by John Freeman (Worple Press)

What Possessed Me by John Freeman (Worple Press)

When I wrote about John Freeman’s work in my book last year about Dulwich College poets, Infinite Riches, I focused upon the strong influence of the post-war American poets. In an interview the poet had given to Gavin Goodwin (published in Tears in the Fence 59, 2014) he spoke eloquently about what had been his early reading:

“I’ve always been interested in the border country between speech, poetry, prose and verse; and since Whitman, Pater and the French symboliste poets there has been a great deal going on in this zone. But it’s much older than that, really. In my teens I lived close to the Old Vic in the years when it performed all Shakespeare’s plays, of which I saw a good few. The prose spoken by Hamlet and Falstaff thrilled me as much as the verse. Everyone knows, as Ted Hughes said, that the prose of the King James Bible, some of which I heard read out at school, contains some of our greatest poetry. Studying modern languages and having personal connections with France, I came across the prose poems of Baudelaire, Rimbaud, and others. The exciting modern practitioners for me were William Carlos Williams and some contemporary British poets who were open to American influences, including John Riley and Jim Burns. I discovered Williams’s late verse in my gap year by taking a volume at random from a bookshop shelf, Pictures from Brueghel and Other Poems, and finding ‘Asphodel, that greeny flower’. From there I proceeded within a year or two to the prose poetry in Kora in Hell and Spring and All. What is liberating about Spring and All is the way prose and verse alternate, as they do in [John] Riley’s prose Pieces, and the rapid transitions within the prose, which allow for a condensed thinking on the page with the dutiful connective passages left out.”

The collection from Worple Press, What Possessed Me, reveals those influences threaded throughout a remarkable volume of honest and engaging writing. However, there is also another voice which can be heard firmly reiterating “endlessly / What no man learnt yet, in or out of school”: the reflective tones of a man who took Shakespeare’s Sonnets to war with him in 1917. Edward Thomas’s influence on Freeman’s work strikes me from the very opening poem, ‘Me and the Gatepost’:

“On the front of the gate are three numerals
in hard plastic, the colour of clotted cream,
with screw-heads aureoled in rust.”

Although of course we can hear the voice of Carlos Williams in these words distinct in terms of precision and colours we can also hear that quiet tone, that exactness which is a hallmark of Thomas’s work: this is language as painting and the next four lines of brush-work move us forward:

“……………The post leans
as if exhausted, while its thickness tapers
to the shape of a pitched roof, bleached, pale grey.
On the slant surfaces ravines have opened,
a wave of wood, a wave of shadow.”

As if peering through the immediate, the surface of the canvas, the poet’s mind is opened to the subtlety of memory and loss as he thinks

“…of the lavender, grey and blue,
growing to a sturdy hedge with gnarled stocks,
and the yellow privet by the other gate,
past which we push our bikes to the back yard.”

The placing of the word “growing” at the beginning of the line echoes Thomas’s own hymn to the artemesia, “Old Man, or Lad’s-Love”, where the poet shows us the “hoar-green feathery herb, almost a tree,”

“Growing with rosemary and lavender.”

But the influence of Thomas is much more than this wistful reminiscence and the poem I am most reminded of is the first one Thomas wrote, ‘Up in the Wind’. John Freeman introduces a note of mundanity, a sense of exact recall in the portrait of his mother which rises to memory’s surface:

“Its fascination is unconnected
with my mother’s vigorous red arm
and its pointed funny bone, the funnier
for the spread thickness of the muscled flesh
surrounding it, resting on top of the gate.”

The publican’s daughter at The White Horse in Froxfield also possesses a physical sense of reality as

“Her eyes flashed up; she shook her hair away
From eyes and mouth, as if to shriek again;
Then sighed back to her scrubbing.”

The mother in Freeman’s poem is leaning on the gatepost talking with a reliable monotony and the poet’s recollection of a long-gone past has “nothing to do, I’m sure, with her voice, / going on and on, talking not to me, / luckily, but to a passing neighbour…”. In Thomas’s poem the daughter who draws the ale repeats what must have been told time and time again:

“…Here I was born,
And I’ve a notion on these windy nights
Here I shall die. Perhaps I want to die here.
I reckon I shall stay. But I do wish
The road was nearer and the wind farther off,
Or once now and then quite still”.

The words F.R. Leavis wrote some eighty-five years ago about the poetry of Edward Thomas hold true today and reading John Freeman’s quiet awareness of the importance of moments, glances, brush-strokes, I am reminded of them:

“A characteristic poem of his has the air of being a random jotting down of
chance impressions and sensations, the record of a moment of relaxed and
undirected consciousness. The diction and movement are those of quiet, ruminative speech. But the unobtrusive signs accumulate, and finally one is aware that the outward scene is accessory to an inner theatre.”

It is no mere chance that this book by John Freeman was awarded the Roland Matthias Poetry Award at the recent Wales Book of the Year Awards. I urge readers to contact Worple Press and get a copy NOW.

Ian Brinton, 12th December 2017

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Ditch Vision: essays on poetry, nature and place by Jeremy Hooker (Awen)

Ditch Vision: essays on poetry, nature and place by Jeremy Hooker (Awen)

In the first essay of this remarkably wide-ranging book Jeremy Hooker refers to examining an entire life of a district. He looks at Gilbert White’s consideration of the “human (including antiquities) and nature where he found them, side by side; he did not need to go beyond the bounds of his parish to find the fullness of nature”. Hooker is looking at the idea of what might be contained in the word wilderness and recognises that there has been none in the British Isles since the Middle Ages:

“…even in the sense of the word given by Dr Johnson in his Dictionary (‘a desert; a tract of solitude and strangeness’), wilderness is nowhere to be found upon an American scale in these islands.”

I was tempted here to recall a passage from the ‘Anoch’ section of Johnson’s Journey to the Western Isles where the urban figure from the world of London finds himself sitting on a blasted heath and, in the words of the fine Shakespearean scholar, Wilbur Sanders, seems to find the sort of subversive drag upon his humane habitations as shook Macbeth’s footing so drastically:

“We were in this place at ease and by choice, and had no evils to suffer or to fear; yet the imaginations excited by the view of an unknown and untravelled wilderness are not such as arise in the artificial solitude of parks and gardens, a flattering notion of self-sufficiency, a placid indulgence of voluntary delusions, a secure expansion of the fancy, or a cool concentration of the mental powers. The phantoms which haunt a desert are want, and misery, and danger; the evils of dereliction rush upon the thoughts; man is made unwillingly acquainted with his own weakness, and meditation shews him only how little he can sustain, and how little he can perform.”

As Hooker suggests to us, the “wild…is not determined by the presence of wild beasts” and a focused scrutiny of our own immediate world can awaken in us an awareness of the non-human.
On a cold, bright East Suffolk afternoon, 12th February 2011, a number of people congregated in At. Andrew’s Church, Bramfield, for a memorial service following the death of R.F. Langley. Langley’s old friend from the Cambridge world of the 1950s, Jeremy Prynne, gave an address in which he was admirably clear about the importance of ditch vision:

“[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. What this means is that Roger’s special signature of stillness and silence were marks of the profoundest spiritual intensity.”

This is of course the quiet focus that Langley comments on in his interview with R.F. Walker (Don’t Start Me Talking, ed. Tim Allen & Andrew Duncan, Salt, 2006) when he refers to standing under a tree for an hour and a half having walked out of the village at dusk:

“And it just occurred to me that I ought to stand without moving at all for that length of time and see what happened. Not even turning my head. A lot of rabbits came up and sat on my feet. And moths whipping about within inches of me. A feeling that you might get through to what was really there if you stripped off enough…if you stand absolutely still, then you might not be part of any map at all. You ‘see’ the place when you haven’t got any designs on it…”

In October 2010 I remember writing to Langley about his early poem ‘Matthew Glover’ and at the end of that month he wrote back:

“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 would guess my deepest feelings have always been for Coleridge’s Conversation Poems, the Lime Tree Bower, the shock which begins where the particular strikes, beyond any general concepts, geographical, historical or whatever. The movement of the leaves as they are shaken in that particular little cutting by the water of the stream stirring the air around them, not even worrying too much about ideas of the One Life for instance.”

One of the most powerful things about Jeremy Hooker’s new book of essays is precisely that awareness of where the particular strikes; this is ditch vision. Given this concern it is of course entirely appropriate that the second essay should be about Richard Jefferies and it opens with a quotation from ‘Hours of Spring’:

“The commonest pebble, dusty and marked with the stain of the ground, seems to me so wonderful; my mind works round it till it becomes the sun and centre of a system of thought and feeling.”

When I opened this short review with a reference to the wide-ranging scope of Hooker’s new collection I was thinking about the quiet intelligence he brings to bear upon the poetry of George Oppen, Charles Olson and Lorine Niedecker as well as his passionate understanding of the work of John Cowper Powys. In ‘Notes on Poetic Vision’ he quotes a short poem by John Riley, possibly the last lines that the Leeds poet wrote before his murder in 1978:

“at the boundary of mind’s reach
at the edge of heart’s sensing
violence of colour
and the wind rising”

The last work of Riley’s that was published as a book was his translation of Osip Mandelstam’s ‘Second Voronezh Notebook’ (Rigmarole of the Hours, Melbourne, 1979) and with that in mind I want to conclude with a quotation from Nadezhda Mandelstam’s memoirs of her husband:

Attention to detail, he noted in one of his rough drafts, is the virtue of the lyric poet. Carelessness and sloppiness are the devices of lyrical sloth.”

Read Jeremy Hooker’s new collection of essays for an understanding what that attention to detail can really signify.

Ian Brinton, 4th December 2017

Laozi: Daodejing A new version in English by Martyn Crucefix Enitharmon Press

Laozi: Daodejing  A new version in English by  Martyn Crucefix Enitharmon Press

The introduction Martyn Crucefix provides to his remarkably engaging new version of Laozi’s Daodejing is not only an introduction to the 6th Century mystic but also to the world of poetry. The opening sentence presents us with a story:

‘It’s said the keeper of the western gate, whose name was perhaps Yin Xi, realised the old librarian from the royal archives of the state of Zhou did not intend to return.’

The dramatic immediacy of this opening draws the reader in: it has the quality of the story-teller of which Brecht (who wrote his own version of the story in 1938 in which the gatekeeper is presented as a Customs Officer) would have thoroughly approved.

‘He knew the old man as a quiet, wise character, never someone at the heart of activities, never excluded by others, an observer, seldom observed, always ready to offer advice, not eager to thrust himself forward, often ignored, never wisely. The gatekeeper called, “Old Master, Laozi! If you intend not to return, if you mean to renounce the world, then leave a record of your thoughts. Write me a book to remember you by.” The old man climbed down from his humble oxcart, borrowed pen and ink. A few hours later, he handed Yin Xi a script of some 5000 characters and then continued westwards, never to be seen again.’

I am reminded immediately of that marvellous opening to Hugh Kenner’s The Pound Era where the American critic has given us a glimpse of a chance meeting in London between Henry James (clad in a red waistcoat) and a ‘quick jaunty’ Ezra Pound:

‘Which is all of the story, like a torn papyrus. That is how the past exists, phantasmagoric weskits, stray words, random things recorded. The imagination augments, metabolizes, feeding on all it has to feed on, such scraps.’

The poems Crucefix offers his readers are a gateway into a new experience and moving forward from the third century scholar, Wang Bi, he recreates what he refers to in Laozi as ‘a distinctive voice, a coherent poetic style – alluringly laconic, clipped, coolly enigmatic’. He also refers to ‘a kind of poetry which enthusiastically accepts that its profound and heartfelt messages are inevitably compromised by the need to express them in the form of language, hence demanding that it employ a variety of technical manoeuvres, that it stays light on its feet.
When Beckett was in close conversation with Georges Duhuit he contemplated the limitations of language for the literary artist in a manner that has become memorable. In reply to the artist’s question about what the dramatist would prefer to do as opposed to ‘going a little further along a dreary road’, Beckett replied:

‘The expression that there is nothing to express, nothing with which to express, nothing from which to express, no power to express, no desire to express, together with the obligation to express.’

Martyn Crucefix tells us of Laozi writing ‘a kind of poetry which ‘enthusiastically accepts that its profound and heartfelt messages are inevitably compromised by the need to express them in the form of language, hence demanding that it employ a variety of technical manoeuvres, that it stays light on its feet’. As the commonplaces of human experience become ‘realistic emblems of man’s spiritual nature’ (Andrew Crozier writing about the poetry of John Riley) one is reminded of Bishop Grosseteste in Lincoln whose short treatise De Luce (‘On Light’) merged an Aristotelian terminology with a concern for matter as substance. The light of which Grosseteste wrote was not the ordinary physical light of everyday experience, but was a simple substance, almost spiritual in its properties. For Grosseteste light multiplies itself by its very nature: a pinpoint of beginning radiates outwards an infinite number of times and, rather like Crucefix’s comment about Laozi’s sense of the Dao, ‘the one precedes the many’.

‘STILLNESS’
chapter 48

– the art of knowledge consists
in adding day by day to your store

the art of the way consists
in subtraction day after day

subtract then again subtract
till you reach a point of stillness

since it is only through stillness
that all things are activated

in far off days those great ones
who influenced men and women

did not interfere—if they had
who would have followed them

This is an attractively produced book from Enitharmon and Martyn Crucefix has brought a high level of seriousness to bear upon the relationship between these ancient poems and the poetry of the now.

Ian Brinton 4th December 2016

Woman in a Blue Robe by Yoko Danno (Isobar Press)

Woman in a Blue Robe by Yoko Danno (Isobar Press)

This is the last of my little reviews of the Isobar Press publications but I shall most certainly return to scrutiny of such a fine publishing firm when more titles appear.
In the third section of this compilation of poetry and prose we are introduced to the idea of a dukodemo, a door, an ‘anywhere door’:

‘…a door to wherever you like. But I can’t think of anywhere I’d particularly like to go. Then suddenly a door in my memory springs open. Yes, on that summer day in my childhood, I knew exactly where I wanted to go…’

Imaginative doors can open up new perspectives as Alice discovered when she peered into a garden that she was too large to enter or mislaid the key when she did indeed become the right size. In many of Charles Tomlinson’s poems his art is reflected in a moment of seeing: movement caught in stillness. Many of his poems deal with doors, gates, gaps, stone cromlechs. The eye, itself a window to the soul, reveals the self by studying the intricacies of form in the natural world. In 1992 he published a collection titled The Door in the Wall. The sub-title of my soon-to-be-published selection of the poetry and prose of John Riley is taken from one of the Leeds poet’s late pieces, ‘spring. diversion’: ‘the absolute is a room / without doors or windows’. There is a sense of mysticism here with the arrival somewhere being separate from the journey and this too reminds me of Yoko Danno’s work. The poetry in so much of this new volume has a spiritual quality to it and, make no mistake, this is not some easily achieved set of thoughts: the exploration of what lies beyond the door is caught with humility and grace. Read ‘Snow Adventure’:

‘By midday, warmed
by the piercing sunshine,

trees shed heaps
of snow from their limbs

as if slipping out
of padded
white kimonos,

stand naked
in the slanting rays
like antennas,

ready
for communication

with meteors’

When I first read this I was immediately reminded of the Georgia O’Keeffe exhibition at Tate Modern and the sinews and light of her landscapes. I was also reminded of Charles Tomlinson’s recollections of visiting O’Keeffe in the Winter of 1963. North of Santa Fe and further to the West it was thirty below freezing and it seemed as if a visit to the painter may have to be postponed:

‘But one had failed to take into account the desert sun. Once it was above the mountains, the snow began to melt until it lay only in the shadows, a white geometry at the edges of buildings reproducing gables and rooflines on the shining black streets…the snow was sliding off the roofs…the oranges and reds of the desert were seeping back now through the retreating white. Water sang and flashed through the arroyos under the road.’

Danno’s landscape moves in a similar way leaving those ‘antennas / ready for communication’.
There is a quiet edge of reality to some of these poems and I urge all to read ‘Alchemy Lesson’ which moves between the world of Zeus making love to Danaë in a shower of gold pouring through an open window to Hiroshima, ‘a city burnt / in a flash of light’ followed by a different downpour of ‘black rain’.
The ‘Woman in a Blue Robe’ has been going through ‘a list of my own names I want to discard. I don’t need a personal name any longer’. Names are milestones along a path and the quiet flavour of many of these pieces of writing suggest very much that room to which Riley was referring back in 1977.

Ian Brinton 27th September 2016

Something Other Than Other by Philip Rowland (Isobar Press)

Something Other Than Other by Philip Rowland (Isobar Press)

The line from John Berger which introduces ‘Birdsong’ introduces a note which goes on to haunt this serious, quiet and often profound collection of Philip Rowland’s poems:

The dead surround the living. The living are the core of the dead.’

Reading this line I was taken back to Herbert Butterfield’s truth from 1924 concerning the impossibility of history:

‘The ploughman whom Gray saw, plodding his weary way, the rank and file of Monmouth’s rebel crowd – every man of them a world in himself, a mystery of personality – these have left no memorial and all that we know about them is just enough to set us guessing and wondering. Things by which we remember an old friend – his peculiar laugh, his way of drawing his hand through his hair, his whistle in the street, his humour – we cannot hope to recapture in history [just as we] cannot hope to read the hearts of half-forgotten kings. The Memory of the world is not a bright, shining crystal, but a heap of broken fragments, a few fine flashes of light that break through the darkness.’

Those ‘few fine flashes’ are caught by Rowland in a poetry which aspires to a condition of music. The ‘Prelude’ which opens this beautifully produced volume from Paul Rossiter’s Isobar Press, one of the finest contemporary poetry- presses, begins in a silence of anticipation:

‘in the hush before music
the music of who
I am not’

Amongst those ‘broken fragments’ one might discover the Quartet for the End of Time which Olivier Messiaen created for piano, violin, cello and clarinet whilst imprisoned in a Silesian camp in 1941. The first performance of this remarkable work pierced the darkness of an atrociously cold mid-January day in Stalag VIII. The audience included five thousand prisoners from all levels of society (priests, doctors, shop-keepers, professional soldiers, workers, peasants) and the composer, commenting later, is reported to have said ‘Never have I been heard with as much attention and understanding’. In Rowland’s ‘Birdsong’ the poet refers to Messiaen’s Quartet as ‘music directed towards eternity, timelessness’:

‘To praise – aspire – as though transcribing birdsong that the
dead might hear.’

From the silence, the ‘hush before music’, there is another music which is anticipatory; that music ‘of who / I am not’. And in this context another name comes to mind of course: the Black Mountaineer, John Cage whose 4’33” was premiered in New York in 1952 when a formally-dressed pianist went on to the stage, sat at a grand piano, opened the lid and sat quietly for four minutes and thirty-three seconds before rising, bowing to the audience and leaving. The work isn’t of course a silent composition at all. Although the pianist makes as little sound as possible, just the occasional turning over of the sheets of music, the audience’s attention is inevitably upon the sounds both within and outside the auditorium. The audience learns to attend to those noises, which might include their own memories of noise, which are routinely taken for granted and given no real attention. In 1992 Anthony Barnett suggested in an interview that ‘what you play acts upon the silence, determines the nature, the sound of the silence which follows’. Referring to the trumpet player Leo Smith, he said ‘each sound phrase has its corresponding silent phrase’. Rowland’s opening poem concludes

‘inhabiting repetition
listening for the sound
of our listening’

Those ‘few fine flashes of light’ which illuminate a past which we no longer inhabit, although we carry it within us, can bring into focus a ‘Man on a Ladder’:

‘wooden man
on a wooden ladder,
his narrow body
contoured and incised
with marks and lines
like language seen
from afar…’

They can also bring to mind the poet who died in 1978 in Leeds. Rowland’s ‘Found in John Riley’ attends ‘to objects’ which ‘flick away the one / fluttering down’ where the pun on the last word offers a vagrant movement through air. It was Riley who wrote in May 1977 that ‘the absolute is a room / without doors or windows’ and Philip Rowland writes ‘A Bach Fugue’ in which ‘dusk’ rearranges silence and

‘what’s left of the light the music absorbs’

Isobar Press can be located at http://isobarpress.com and I shall be writing a review of Paul Rossiter’s own Seeing Sights and the narrative haiku sequences of Masaya Saito, Snow Bones, over the coming week.

September 2nd 2016

Dianoia by Michael Heller (Nightboat Books)

Dianoia by Michael Heller (Nightboat Books)

The Scottish philosopher Sir William Hamilton proposed the term dianoiology for that portion of logic which deals with dianoetic processes of the mind: the thinking through of ideas. For a writer this may well involve what Michael Heller refers to as the ‘breaking apart’ of ‘clods of what was named’ because after all language is the ‘hardest / of earths, each word narrowing…’. So many of these poems in Dianoia deal with stasis and movement and they are deeply moving testimony to an artist who has spent a lifetime trying to let stillness convey fluidity.
In ‘Visiting Brigflatts with Ric’, written in memory of Ric Caddel, the opening lines plunge the reader into a memory:

‘Your car chugging up the pass
into snow’s unseasonal bursts,
all the while sun shining overhead,
then a plunge down to Bunting’s grave,
stone of Quaker plainness…’

The movement of that opening line followed by the unusual nature of the weather hardens out into ‘stone’ which in turn will become ‘austerity of row upon row.’ The picture we are given of Ric Caddel is of ‘an elm’s rooted trunk / or northern stone pillar’ but the metamorphosis of this poem’s language, the stasis of what is memorialised, is given fresh movement in the last line with ‘currents animating earth’. And there we have it! The poet at work!
In ‘Lecture’, we move between an account of the German artist Max Beckmann’s painting ‘Tot’ and the Number 30 London bus being blown up in July 2005. We move between the Japanese poet Bashō who ‘travels along paths and byways’ producing ‘spontaneous evocations in poetic form, haiku, linked haiku’ and the American poet George Oppen who writes of a highway accident with ‘The wheels of the overturned wreck / Still spinning – ’. As Heller looks closely at the photographs of both the London bombing and of a bus blown up is Israel he notes

‘No need here to go into “visual” languages, semiotics, etc. We’re talking about what gets communicated across the special loneliness between you and me and I and it.’

Referring again to Bashō and his journal writings in Narrow Road to the North Heller gives us one aspect of the artist caught in a moment: ‘that impression of spontaneity is part of the art of it’. He quotes the short piece of Bashō which evokes the memory of the heroic death of Lord Sanemori, an ageing warrior who dyed his hair to disguise his age, and whose helmet was carried to the shrine that the Japanese poet has just passed:

‘I am awestruck
To hear a cricket singing
Underneath the dark cavity
Of an old helmet.’

The living quality of stillness is central to Michael Heller’s art and in the opening page of ‘Lecture’ he focuses upon his own walking in which he is accompanied by all that makes him who he is. He walks with Bashō, ‘stopping at a shrine, experiencing awe and reverence, the surround of mountain peak and foliage, the pines he likened to solitary figures’. The image from the Japanese is part of who he is as he moves through a living world of gone things. Focusing on the July bombings in London he writes of the world of the here-and-now and how it impinges upon who we are:

The self. That’s what got me going here, the self alone against murderousness, the sudden “nearness” (I don’t know how else to put it) to random murder perpetrated by others against innocents.’

The Number 30 is the bus that often carried the poet from Islington to Bloomsbury, to the British Museum. ‘Had we arrived a day earlier…’. The sense of how we see ourselves in relation to the world around us is central to the vision:

‘…My sense that A can morph into B,
tenuous nets of companionship, that we ride
like they ride who elsewhere are killed.’

Heller writes that ‘We are exposed / to the possibility of unplanned ruin’ and he seems partly to echo Paul Auster’s comment at the opening of In the Country of Last Things:

‘When you live in the city, you learn to take nothing for granted. Close your eyes for a moment, turn around to look at something else, and the thing that was before you is suddenly gone. Nothing lasts, you see, not even the thoughts inside you. And you mustn’t waste your time looking for them. Once a thing is gone, that is the end of it.’

The bitterness of the narrator in this apocalyptic novel from 1987 is, however, far different from Michael Heller’s determination to make the moment live, to give stasis currency and it seems appropriate to conclude not only with that image of ‘currents animating earth’ but also with the short poem Ric Caddel wrote for John Riley, the Leeds poet who was murdered in 1978:

‘What in the world we see
is what’s important. There
the days seemed shorter and our hearts
spun with the compass under

trees, magnificent pointers
out of galaxies. Continental drift,
an appointment we were late for,
an old friend missed.’

My review of The Poetry and Poetics of Michael Heller, ed. Curley & Kimmelman, has just appeared in the current issue of PN Review.

Ian Brinton 7th May

Cavalcanty by Peter Hughes (Equipage)

Cavalcanty by Peter Hughes (Equipage)

In a letter from late 1831to Julius Charles Hare of the Philological Museum William Wordsworth made a comment concerning his experiments in translation:

‘Having been displeased, in modern translations, with the additions of incongruous matter, I began to translate with a resolve to keep clear of that fault, by adding nothing; but I became convinced that a spirited translation can scarcely be accomplished in the English language without admitting a principle of compensation.’

The translation work that Wordsworth was engaged upon was from Virgil’s Aeneid and one poet laureate commented upon another as C. Day Lewis referred to this passage in 1969 in his Jackson Knight Memorial Lecture on ‘Translating Poetry’:

‘By this principle we presumably mean putting things in which are not there, to compensate for leaving things out which cannot be adequately rendered.’

Day Lewis went on to suggest that ‘much greater liberties can justifiably be taken with lyric verse than with narrative or didactic’ and that very word ‘liberties’ suggests a hint of danger, revolution, turning a world upside down. When Pound wrote about Cavalcanti he suggested that the canzone, Donna mi Prega, ‘may have appeared about as soothing to the Florentine of A.D. 1290 as conversation about Tom Paine, Marx, Lenin and Bucharin would to-day in a Methodist bankers’ board meeting in Memphis, Tenn.’ Pound then goes on to suggest that Cavalcanti may well have read Grosseteste on Light, De Luce, and a reading of the opening lines of the canzone supports this idea. Grosseteste considered light to be ‘a very subtle corporeal substance, whose exceeding thinness and rarity approaches the incorporeal, and which of its own nature perpetually generates itself and is at once spherically diffused around a given point.’ As another reader of Grosseteste, the poet John Riley, recognized Light is the active principle of all things and the Bishop of Lincoln’s opening statement in Riedl’s translation reads ‘For 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 light of any size whatsoever, unless some opaque object stands in the way.’ I can imagine that Pound might have regarded that Methodist bankers’ board meeting in Memphis as an opaque object.
Pound’s translation of Donna me prega opens:

‘Because a lady asks me, I would tell
Of an affect that comes often and is fell
And is so overweening: Love by name.

E’en its deniers can now hear the truth,
I for the nonce to them that know it call,
Having no hope at all
that man who is base in heart
Can bear his part of wit
into the light of it,

And save they know’t aright from nature’s source
I have no will to prove Love’s course
or say
Where he takes rest; who maketh him to be;
Or what his active virtu is, or what his force;

Nay, nor his very essence or his mode;
What his placation; why he is in verb,
Or if a man have might
To show him visible to men’s sight.

In the Preface to his own collected poems, published in 1936, Ford Madox Ford, to whom Pound had shown his canzone many years before, wrote that aureate diction was a civic menace because ‘the business of poetry is not sentimentalism so much as the putting of certain realities in certain aspects,’ and ‘poetry, like everything else, to be valid and valuable, must reflect the circumstances and psychology of its own day. Otherwise it can be nothing but a pastiche.’
Turning to Peter Hughes’s version of ‘Donna me prega – per ch’eo voglio dire’ in this new Equipage delight we can see what might halt that Memphis bankers’ board meeting in Memphis in its tracks:

‘now the lady makes me think about love’s
pit-bull attacks on the soul’s soft tissues
& those fatal core-reactor meltdowns
& deep immunity to metaphor
it’s tricky thinking through these things in ink
as love demands we loosen up our grip
on pre-existing modes of consciousness
affiliation & self-confidence
otherwise we stand no chance of melting
flowing into fresh configurations
in response to love’s accommodations
of feral power rerouted through refined
reformulations of specific lips
in actual laps tomorrow evening

The energy of these lines gives off a heat which confronts us with a social and political sense of ‘in yer face’ and that ‘deep immunity to metaphor’ ensures that any prevailing post-Movement, post-Martian, post-Mush world is left completely behind in the dusty cupboard of dead poetry anthologies. This is a world of Love which is made ‘of nothing yet feels like marble knuckles / kneading your most vulnerable hollows / articles & raw protuberances’. The energy of childhood’s games of marbles (no feeling of butterflies here!) merges with the pun on knead/need and the empty cries from empty places within. It’s superb!
This short flagging-up of Peter Hughes’s tremendously powerful evocations of Love in Cavalcanti is merely to whet your appetite and, with that in mind, take a warning about how ‘beauty’

‘finds its finest incarnation in her
being out of touch around the corner

we’ve never been quite bright enough to take
the subtle hints & reassurances
the goddess always hovers round the bend’

Ian Brinton 4th January 2016

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