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Temporary Measures by Paul Rossiter (Isobar Press)

Temporary Measures by Paul Rossiter (Isobar Press)

When Auden composed ‘In Memory of W.B. Yeats’ it is possible that he was very unaware of how some of the lines would echo down the corridors of literary criticism. But they have done and they are worth recalling again:

“For poetry makes nothing happen: it survives
In the valley of its making where executives
Would never want to tamper, flows on south
From ranches of isolation and the busy griefs,
Raw towns that we believe and die in; it survives,
A way of happening, a mouth.”

In Paul Rossiter’s new volume there is an inherent emphasis upon the particular, the moment, the making of nothing into happening. There is a quiet humanity of attentiveness in the observation of railway workers that brings to mind the objectivist world of Williams or Reznikoff:

“the railway workers
cross the line
stepping

casually
over one
live rail

(turning to
each other
and talking)

and then
the other – they
do this every

day, almost
not noticing
they’re doing it

carefully”

The poem lurking behind this machine made of words is, of course, Williams’s 1930 poem ‘As the cat…’ about which Hugh Kenner noted in The Pound Era “It is one sinuous suspended sentence, feeling its way and never fumbling”. The “stepping” of the railway workers is placed in a line of its own and is succeeded by a gap before the single word line which defines the nature of the stepping: “casually”. The movement forward, fraught with potential danger from a live rail, is itself suspended by the bracketed picture of the steppers who turn towards each other in conversation; feet, like words, are so sure of where they should be placed.
The majority of poems in this new collection by Paul Rossiter take place in the world of common experience, effortlessly unrestrained. In the early morning of ‘Waking’

“the unanswerable landscape reassembles
in an instant
to what we always knew

and we go down
from the empty places, to walk”

The walking will be through the “ruined valleys” and the existing will be in the “abrasive cities”. However, this is not a post-apocalyptic landscape and the poem concludes with “delight despite ourselves / with only naked consciousness to clothe us”. When Marianne Moore addressed the Grolier Club in late December 1948 she had something to say about poetry:

“Concentration avoids adverbial intensives such as ‘definitely’, or ‘absolutely’. As for commas, nothing can be more stultifying than needlessly overaccented pauses. Defoe, speaking in so low a key that there is a fascination about the mere understatement, is one of the most persuasive of writers. For instance, in the passage about the pickpocket in The Life of Colonel Jacque, he has the colonel say to the pickpocket: ‘Must we have it all? Must a man have none of it again, that lost it?’ But persuasiveness has not died with Defoe…”

As the notes on the back of this handsome volume tell us, these poems are mostly set in London, with excursions westwards in England and southwards to the Dordogne region of France. In addition they cast a glance at Tang Dynasty China with versions of Du Fu and Wang Wei and offer responses to “places and occasions” in Kuwait, Egypt, Cyprus and Greece. The poems contain the “memory of countless small devotions” and they work “moment by moment / arising from the world”. Paul Rossiter’s poetry gives life to the everyday with which our lives are filled; it survives as a way of happening, a mouth.

Ian Brinton 8th September 2017

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Richard Swigg

Richard Swigg

Richard Swigg, formerly Senior Lecturer in English at the University of Keele, died last week. His books on the poetry of Charles Tomlinson constitute probably the most important contributions to a full recognition of that poet who was primarily responsible for introducing the world of post WWII American poetry to the shores of England. Swigg’s publications included Charles Tomlinson and the Objective Tradition (Associated University Presses, 1994) and it is worth recalling the opening statement of that book:

“My subject is the poetry of Charles Tomlinson and the Anglo-American tradition that he illuminates. The lineage of concrete particularity to which he belongs is one that reaches back in verse to the English Augustans, and forward, through Blake, Whitman, and Hopkins, to William Carlos Williams. Above all, it is a tradition of objectivity that has special regard for the world in its solid, separate otherness – for a plurality of phenomena independent of our egotistic projection and unblurred by myth or symbol. Tomlinson, I believe, is unique among contemporary English poets in the way that he has provided the terms by which we see the distinctness of that world and the tradition that describes it.”

Swigg went on to focus on that “distinctness” and in his next book on Tomlinson, Look with the Ears, Charles Tomlinson’s Poetry of Sound (Peter Lang, 2002) he traced the way in which Tomlinson’s poetry evolved from the 1940s to the 1990s as an acoustic means of “seeing” and voicing the physical world. That concern for the voice prompted Swigg to put together the most comprehensive collection of taped readings by Basil Bunting and in 8 separate cassettes he recorded the poet reading Briggflatts (1967) and ‘The Well of Lycopolis’ (1982) as well as interviews with Tom Pickard in Northumberland between 1981 and 1982. Richard Swigg’s energetic involvement with the world of modern poetry is also evidenced in his work done on the poetry and letters of George Oppen and in 2007 Penn Sound published his collection of William Carlos Williams recordings online before going on in 2009 to publish his collection of Oppen recordings. In 2012 University of Iowa Press published his book on Williams, Eliot and Marianne Moore, Quick, Said the Bird and this also is a book worth seeking out:

“It is the keen-edged life tracked as much by Moore in a frigate pelican, a Virginian mockingbird, or the eagles of Mount Rainier as it is by Williams following through the gymnastics of starlings in the wind, a bird winging down to its watery image, or the notes of a redbreast by the Passaic Falls: all instances of a poetic outreach into the zestfully unsilenced which still persists in the later Eliot’s call, “Quick, said the bird,” as the thrush of an English garden points the acoustic memory back to the cries of the Philomela nightingale or the water-dripping song of the North American hermit-thrush in The Waste Land.”

In the early years of this century I was the reviews editor of The English Association’s magazine for teachers, The Use of English, and I arranged for Richard to review Tomlinson’s Carcanet Press edition of Metamorphoses: Poetry and Translation. Needless to say the review was terrific as he noted that “Frontiers divide, fissures break open, but in Charles Tomlinson’s poetry they also impel the mind across borders to new connections”. That review appeared in Vol.55, No.2, Spring 2004. Richard Swigg was an academic and teacher who committed himself wholeheartedly to what he regarded as the central work of his life. His eye for detail was precise and his awareness of what was going on in the world of research made his work very important indeed. In a letter that he sent me some fifteen years ago one can detect the investigator at work. The letter was in reply to some little details I had sent him concerning the Oppens and the Tomlinsons:

“As to Oppen coincidences, I have mine! While reading the Selected Letters recently, I noticed that Oppen had done a 1964 reading for the American Academy – a recording which I mentally noted as worth pursuing (since I have several, post 1967, where he reads Of Being Numerous and later poems). The 1964 one must, I thought, include The Materials, surely. Well, hardly had I noted this than I had a reply from the Harvard Poetry Room – the new Curator there, Don Share, who’s done a Ph.D. on Bunting (under Ricks, I think) – about my request for another Oppen tape, to say that he also had the 1964 one. So now he’s sending them over. I’ve also located ones that Oppen did for the Bay Area local radio station, KPFA, in Berkeley, and hope to get these one of the days.”

Don Share of course is now the editor of Poetry Magazine and published the very fine critical edition of Basil Bunting’s complete Poems for Faber & Faber last year.

I last met Richard Swigg at the celebration of the poetry of Charles Tomlinson held in the Wills Memorial Building, Clifton, Bristol on 30th September last year. It was a joy to hear his open-hearted enthusiasm for Tomlinson’s contribution to British poetry.

Ian Brinton, 26th March 2017

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