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Wound Scar Memories by Peter Philpott (Great Works Editions)

Wound Scar Memories by Peter Philpott (Great Works Editions)

Peter Philpott’s editorial introduction to Issue Number Three of Great Works, July 1974, breathes; there is a sense of a door and a window being thrown open:

“This is a magazine of contemporary writing. It contains work which is attempting to create new modes of experiencing the world and of representing that experience which is at this time of ours or the writer’s. Such research is necessarily largely poetic, as that is the use of language at the maxima of energy and novelty needed to transcend the lies and ignorance of our now natural way of life. This art may therefore appear arbitrary or inexplicable in its composition. Don’t be put off. What is smoothly presented to us as contemporary literature by the commercial, academic and leisure interests is the dried husk of art, an empty form that cannot generate life. It binds us in further with accepted answers and unprofitable easy technique.”

The concluding prose section to Wound Scar Memories continues this important conversation and offers the reader “some fragments out of the past which glittered and glistened in the same way as some things do now”. This is a world of linguistic interplay, “a funny sort of thing / – writing / down your words so they’re not yours / but belong more to whoever can read them”. It is also a world of compassionate humility which recognises “our capacity for delusion always infinite” and offers us room which is both geographical and literary:

“you’re hiding still on the edge of this town
little shitheap with lots of water I’d call the place
what you engage with is really just language
I know, you know, as does the world it says”

In an early account of his new collection from the Great Works Press, Philpott gave us some background to the four sections (three sequences of seventeen sonnets and a substantial 23 page piece of prose):

“The book starts from bringing the wonderful Tim Atkins and Peter Hughes versions of Petrarch (+ a sense of Petrarch himself, which came from being intrigued by their work) to Fontaine-de-Vaucluse in the summer of 2015, the village where he may well have written much of the so-called Sonnets. Playing with their words allowed other voices to come in, and I wrote 17 sonnetty things. Too pleasurable not to be suspect, so I wrote another, slightly tighter sequence, stripping back what goes on to an affair of pronouns (isn’t that what it’s all about?). I recoiled from the sparseness of this to more jokey material, by creating voices for a variety of Dark Age characters, starting with the usual suspects, ending up by burrowing down into the dirt even of Bishops Stortford. These last 17 sonnetty things depended too much on allusion to public but obscure material (who’s up on the anomalous elements in the names of the earliest “Kings of Wessex”?). So I then wrote some prose to discuss all this and what lies behind.”

What lies behind, or indeed below, is given a sense of perspective through a quotation from Robin Fleming’s book Britain After Rome: The Fall and Rise 400 to 1070:

“People living and dying in eastern England in the generations after 420 were cobbling together distinctive little cultures all their own out of this cacophony of peoples and circumstances, and these cultures were heterogeneous, highly localized and very fluid.”

Wound Scar Memories is an astonishingly powerful collection: we are reminded not only of our debts to a past but of our fluid living alertness to a present that only fools will try to tie down to certainties:

“locality & the past & all our origins
calcify themselves with fear
yet old wood bursts fresh buds & blossoms

infinite variety includes what’s gone
all our parents – so many aren’t they?”

When, in September 2015, I reviewed the volume Peter Philpott’s published with Shearsman Books, Ianthe Poems, I referred to his lines as the “binding of a moment”, and that sense of immediacy, respect for the quiet reality of this day, is what threads its way through this new sequence. The lines of many of these sonnets have “tested again the self’s rickety old fences / as usual it mysteriously survives”:

“abysmal loss faces us, & portentous forces squat
flocking in uncontrollably or worse
not, negation & the loss of words
but only ones that have no purpose

ones that aren’t anything like us
we find ourselves now in the night
following only our own constraints
to open up a newer moment
against the stupid glitter of the rich
– now open it all up at once”

This use of the word “glitter” is not to be confused with that reference about fragments that I started with; the glittering and glistening of those fragments out of the past become what constitutes who we are. As I read through this book more and more I take on board the statement from sonnet 7 in the first section:

“unreciprocated desire is our human condition
coupled with chosen arbitrary restrictions”

The shining newness of moments is perhaps what Frances Presley was referring to in her comment on the back of that earlier Shearsman volume:

“Peter Philpott recuperates both our excitement with the world around us and with new poetic form.”

There will be a launch for this new publication at the forthcoming Contraband Poetry Night on Tuesday 4th July: The Crown Tavern, 43 Clerkenwell Green, EC1R 0EG, 7 o’clock.

Ian Brinton 2nd July 2017

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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

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