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Selected Poems: 1989-2012 by Simon Smith (Shearsman Books) Part Two

On the reverse side of this selection David Herd is quoted from The Oxford Handbook of Contemporary British and Irish Poetry where he comments upon Simon Smith’s sequence of poems from 2010, London Bridge:

“Simon Smith’s writing forges English language poetry out of the translated utterance, his most recent volume, London Bridge, fixing itself not to place but to the questions of crossing.”

In an article by John Wilkinson titled ‘Stone thresholds’, published in this year’s Textual Practice there is a fine reading of Andrew Crozier’s late poem ‘Blank Misgivings’, “built on the rubble of a postwar cityscape and of postwar political hopes”. Wilkinson notes that the poem’s title is borrowed from Arthur Hugh Clough:

“The ruined landscape fills with sounds and obstructions as well as ‘unbuilt monuments’; like the ‘extinct hiss’ which is still incendiary and the ‘static roar’ from space, it is haunted by futurity as well as the past. Neglected past participles throng in this poem, still hissing and burning. What is performed here and enjoined on a reader is a hermeneutic work of remembrance, reconnection and shaping.”

Reading through the selection of twenty-five sonnets from ‘Unfelt, A Poem in Forty-Four Parts’, which occupies a prominent section towards the end of this new Selected Poems I am drawn back to looking at Clough again. The awareness of ghosts haunting the ‘you’ and the ‘I’ in Smith’s sequence reminds me of the tone of ‘Amours de Voyage’. In section VIII of that fine poem from 1862 Claude writes to Eustace:

“After all, do I know that I really cared so about her?
Do whatever I will, I cannot call up her image;
For when I close my eyes, I see, very likely, St. Peter’s,
Or the Pantheon façade, or Michael Angelo’s figures,
Or, at a wish, when I please, the Alban hills and the Forum –
But that face, those eyes – ah no, never anything like them;
Only, try as I will, a sort of featureless outline,
And a pale blank orb, which no recollection will add to.
After all perhaps there was something factitious about it:
I have had pain, it is true; I have wept; and so have the actors.”

The shadows which haunt Simon Smith’s sonnet sequence offer glimpses of world lost in which “I cannot distinguish between your acts now” (2) and that world of ‘crossing’ which is perhaps pointed to in that quotation from David Herd may be seen most clearly in sonnet 41:

“The literal truth of history I feel you in the air
& the sun but not in detail everything is at once
Too near & too far enough to make me tremble
Quietly as we are, you at New Cross, & I here”

Simon Smith’s poems have often been located in a recognizable topography and the power of this sonnet sequence is located in the way the poet moves from this ‘here-and-now’ to an awareness of how we stand upon the flagstones of our pasts. This is a poet who has read his Olson as well as his O’Hara:

“we compare notes
we meet, shall I come
to you or will you come to me
unhappy as Mercury in our shape-shifting
as we row backwards always backwards rolling
towards beginning with all the inevitable permanence
of the concrete breeze blocks, their presence, their weight
their grey bulk

floats off
above
city
air
to be with”
(‘Ode to David Herd’)

Simon Smith is a major poet of the present and his voice is distinctive as the world of America and England meet in a manner that the shade of Clough may well smile at; after all, ‘Amours de Voyage’ was first published in the Boston Atlantic Monthly.

Ian Brinton, 25th April 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

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

MacSweeney: Strap Down in Snowville

MacSweeney: Strap Down in Snowville

Paul Batchelor’s edition of essays about Barry MacSweeney is here at last from Bloodaxe Books as number 13 in their Newcastle / Bloodaxe Poetry Series and the opening paragraph of the editor’s introduction is immediately spot on:

‘The last full-length collection that Barry MacSweeney lived to see published was The Book of Demons. Many of the most impressive aspects of this volume—the intricate symbology, the vertiginous swoop of registers, the unsparing wit, the complexity of characterisation, the syntactical resourcefulness—had been earned over a lifetime of restless self-testing; but this same restlessness simultaneously gives the book the kind of daring, hubristic, allusive, raw dazzle usually associated with a precocious first collection. The book draws its power from such contradictions: a chronicle of failure, it has a swaggering confidence; a departure, it felt to many like a homecoming’.

This is a wide-ranging book and it should certainly reawaken interest in a poète maudit from the North-East whose area of focus ranged from Chatterton to Bob Dylan, from Seventeenth-Century nonconformist radicals to the social consequences of Thatcherism, from Mary Bell to Apollinaire.

This fine introduction to MacSweeney contains essays by Harriet Tarlo, Matthew Jarvis, Andrew Duncan, William Walton Rowe, John Wilkinson, Peter Riley, W.N. Herbert, Terry Kelly and Jackie Litherland as well as by the editor himself.

Among the cast who do not make an appearance my biggest regret is to see nothing from Luke Roberts but, of course, this volume has certainly been talked about for some years now and it may well be that he was not on the tracks of ‘Pookah Swoony Sweeney Swan Ludlunatic’ back then. However, I am hoping that I can persuade him to write a review of this new book for the next issue of Tears!

Ian Brinton, December 17th 2013.

Andrea Brady’s Cut From The Rushes

Andrea Brady’s Cut From The Rushes

John Wilkinson suggests that Andrea Brady is ‘one of the most impressive lyric poets writing now in English’ and goes on to salute her clear-eyed precise register of tone. This new sequence from Reality Street bears out the full accuracy of that judgement. When Brady’s critical examination of English Funerary Elegy in the Seventeenth Century was reviewed in The Use of English (Vol. 58, No. 2, Spring 2007) the reviewer referred to the adoption of poetic form as being ‘a necessary means of containing otherwise overwhelming feeling’ and the apposite nature of this comment to Brady’s own lyric voice was made clear early on in ‘Japanese Song’, from 20 Poems by Keston Sutherland & Andrea Brady (Barque Press 1995):

 

Your skin is white like the white

heel of a reed where it goes into the ground.

 

This new collection of poems, divided into two sections ‘Embrace’ and ‘Presenting’, reveals a maturing of that lyric tone and compassion threads its way through political anger to produce a voice of real distinction.

 

So the link collapses like an old story

after wearing into a hook then a

wire  Then powder drops out

of the air, outlining a man on the ground. We can go

on      splinters of horn nailed right into

green trees   where they fought against nature,

get bundles of light to tell

us where we went

wrong, downhill out of sight

past all minding.

(‘How much to have a go’)

 

Buy this book please from www.realitystreet.co.uk

 

Ian Brinton

 

 

 

 

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