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The Poetry of John James Conference

The Poetry of John James Conference

Last Saturday saw Magdalene College, Cambridge, host this conference to celebrate the poetry of John James. It was organised by the current Judith E. Wilson Fellow, Peter Hughes, whose Oystercatcher Press has published both Cloud Breaking Sun (2012) and Sabots (2015). I recall reviewing Sabots for the Tears blog in August 2015 and concluding that it is “an uplifting sequence of three poems which restores a sense of vitality and endurance within a world threatened by commercial bureaucracy and targets”.

The conference was itself uplifting and by the end of the day I realised that the speakers had taken us on a journey which involved close textual criticism, overviews of the place of John James’s work in contemporary poetry and personal reminiscence. Emphasis was placed on the role of music within the poetry and the importance of the visual arts to a man whose sense of the flâneur is still to be recognised in the laughter and wry awareness exhibited by the poet in the audience who turned to me at one point to say “Who is this poet? I must get hold of some of his work”.

The speakers included Rod Mengham whose Equipage Press has published both In Romsey Town (2011) and Songs In Midwinter For Franco; Andrew Taylor whose debt to James weaves its way through his own Oystercatcher volume Air Vault; Simon Smith, Ian Heames, Peter Riley, Drew Milne and Geoff Ward spoke and read and by the end of the day there was a feeling that the success of this event was partly to do with the range of focus: different takes on a common theme of respect for this poet whose first published volume had appeared half-a-century ago from Andrew Crozier’s Ferry Press.

The poem ‘Pimlico’ was read (first published in Tears) as was ‘A Theory of Poetry, twice, and there was a beautifully produced gift from Ian Heames of his own finely published copy of the original Street Editions in comfrey blue. There was a sense in the auditorium of what John James referred to in his ‘Poem beginning with a line of Andrew Crozier’:

“I reach toward the poetry of kindred
where we speak in our work as we seldom do otherwise”

My review of Sabots had ended with a simple statement about the book:

“It is a tribute to the quietly unchanging in a fast-changing world. It’s terrific!” The same could be said of the 2017 Cambridge Conference on the Poetry of John James.

Ian Brinton, 13th March 2017

Pennine Tales by Peter Riley (Calder Valley Poetry)

Pennine Tales by Peter Riley (Calder Valley Poetry)

Peter Riley’s 1992 chapbook Reader opens with a quotation from J.H. Prynne dated from 15th September 1985:

‘It has mostly been my own aspiration, for example, to establish relations not personally with the reader, but with the world and its layers of shifted but recognisable usage; and thereby with the reader’s own position within this world’.

I was alerted to this when I looked this morning at Tony Baker’s fine little contribution to the compilation of essays on Riley’s work published as The Gig 4/5 in which he suggests that the ‘meaning of landscape as I read Alstonefield has surely something to do with my own relation to the place, recognized afresh in the light of the poem’. A finely-tuned awareness of the relation of people to their landscape threads its path through the twenty-four poems in Pennine Tales and it comes as no surprise to meet not only Prynne along the way but also Wordsworth, ‘poor Clare’, Michael Haslam and Thomas Hardy, ‘guide and spokesman’. As Peter Riley puts it

‘Sometimes
hundreds of us walk the tired dark page, water
with stars in it leaking into our boots, eradicating belief.
But a crowd worth joining.’

In a fine book about Hardy, written by Douglas Brown in the mid 1950s, we were pointed towards the ‘hard centre of controlled nostalgia, the profound awareness of lost stabilities and certainties, and the mordant humour insinuating actuality into time and place and person’. Brown was referring particularly to ‘The Dead Quire’ from Time’s Laughingstocks and other verses (1909) in which the ‘Quick pursue the Dead / By crystal Froom that crinkles there’ and the voices of time past drew toward the churchyard the music of that choir of singers ‘smalled, and died away’. The first of Riley’s lyric hauntings opens with the ‘last minibus’ leaving from the station

‘heading for the tops
full of ghosts, ghosts with notebooks, ancestors
from Halifax: farmers, publicans, clerks, looking
for me, wanting me back in the peace and jubilee
of diurnal normality. But they have caught
the wrong bus and will be delivered into nothing,
the nothing of death they came from, and came here
to welcome me to. Passing the abandoned chapel
they start singing hymns, and will soon begin to fade.’

That use of the word ‘fade’ echoes a later Hardy poem, ‘Exeunt Omnes’, which concludes

‘Folk all fade. And wither,
As I wait alone where the fair was?
Into the clammy and numbing night-fog
Whence they entered hither.
Soon do I follow thither!’

Hardy’s air of ‘blankness’ and recall of ‘littered spaces’ where the fair once stood finds its echo now outside the Hare & Hounds at 11.20 pm as the poet waits with Mike Haslam and stands ‘on the edge of the moors’:

‘There is nothing here but stone
walls and distance. We are alone. We are nowhere.
We are the length and breadth of a dark nowhere
which encompasses the world.’

But the mournful wisps of sound in Riley’s poems are heard against a larger background:

‘Come all you little vermin that dwell under stones
crushed underfoot of the earth and make together
a faint hissing and rustling in the night which
grows greater towards the central principle
and the separate sounds build to a chorus
saying that 500 years of degradation and humiliation
is as nothing to us, we can persist ten times as long
working towards a modern condition which
recognises at long last the day of the many’.

These Pennine Tales, ‘night music’, offer ‘some tremble between beliefs’ and as the music ‘draws / our thoughts into the distance’ Peter Riley, poet of people and landscape, registers a reaffirmed presence ‘at home, site of mind / heart decisions’. This is elegiac poetry at its very best.

Ian Brinton 29th July 2016.

Meridian by Nancy Gaffield (Oystercatcher Press)

Meridian by Nancy Gaffield (Oystercatcher Press)

Peter Riley’s comment on the back of this new Oystercatcher delight from Nancy Gaffield points us in the right direction:

‘Each book by Nancy Gaffield seems a new venture—not a new poet, for there is considerable continuity of her way with words, but rather a new way of projecting the text, a new ancestry, and a new form of engagement with the reader’.

1. ‘A new venture’

An aphetic version from late Middle-English of ‘adventure’: a risky undertaking, a journey the conclusion to which is unknown. Nancy Gaffield’s ‘new venture’ starts with both literature and geography, the self and the place. The opening section offers a quotation from Lorine Niedecker’s ‘North Central’. This short piece of aphoristic poetry looks outward as the opening of both writing and a journey: ‘For best work / you ought to put forth / some effort / to stand / in north woods / among birch’. First published in Cid Corman’s Third Series of Origin (July 1966) the American tone is immediately set for this discovery of a British meridian: the Niedecker quotation is closely followed by a reference to Ordnance Survey Map 122 and a title ‘Peacehaven to Lewes’.

‘Everywhere there are signs / of the North / sudden turns / in weather / a fierceness / of light / trace landscapes / vacant lots / a pivotal place’

The poetry is placed on the page in the three-ply line so loved of Carlos Williams and I only don’t produce it like that on account of the fear that it will not appear correctly when placed on-line. Niedecker, Williams; and I recall writing about Gaffield’s Zyxt (Oystercatcher) last year and referring to Robert Duncan and Charles Olson.

2. ‘considerable continuity’

The continuity referred to by Peter Riley can be traced back to that previous Oystercatcher publication in which Gaffield said that ‘each poem is an exploration / of language in place’ following it with a reference to Gaston Bachelard’s assertion that ‘Inhabited space transcends geometrical space’. This new journey along a meridian takes the reader through those inhabited spaces: ‘vacant lots’, pivotal places, churchyards, epitaphs and fields which ‘lie fallow / waiting for the sun / waiting for the yoke.’ There is perhaps a new voice here as well, that of R.F. Langley whose early poem ‘Matthew Glover’ explored the ideas inherited from both Black Mountain College on the one hand and Carl Sauer on the other. Getting the outside world in has echoes of the advice offered by Olson to his Black Mountain student, Edward Dorn, to follow the model of history set down by Herodotus: ‘istorin, to find out for oneself; to absorb himself intensely and entirely in his subject, “to dig one thing” in a “saturation job” that might require a “lifetime of assiduity”. Carl Sauer was an example here: “to dig one thing or place or man” until the subject was exhausted, as Sauer had done with his early studies of the land and culture of the prairie, was to be “in forever”’. In Nancy Gaffield’s digging

‘Reliable markers include: long barrows, cairns, dolmens, ponds, springs,
wells, castles, churches, hill-forts, quarries, notches in hills, cross-roads. This
is a spatial practice.’

In Mircea Eliade’s 1959 book, The Sacred and the Profane the author suggests that a sacred place has a unique existential value for religious man, whereas for non-religious man space is neutral:
‘A universe comes to birth from its centre; it spreads from a central point that is, as it were, its navel…just as the universe unfolds from a centre and stretches out towards the four cardinal points, the village comes into existence around an intersection. In Bali…when a new village is to be built, the people look for a natural intersection, where two roads cross at right angles. A square constructed from a central point in an imago mundi. The division of the village into four sections…corresponds to the division of the universe into four horizons. A space is often left empty in the middle of the village; there the ceremonial house will later be built, with its roof symbolically representing heaven. At the other end of the same perpendicular axis lies the world of the dead.’

Along Nancy Gaffield’s meridian that human sense of place is sharply caught: it is there. Knowledge accumulates and ‘Landscape remembers’:

‘Danehill Anglo Saxon for swine pasture on the hill
is surrounded by woods
Cowstock Wood
Down Wood
Enholm’s Wood
High Wood
Withy Wood Sedge Wood
“thick and inaccessible” (the Venerable Bede)
Itineration a form of salvage’

3. ‘a new ancestry’

Nancy Gaffield is a reader of poetry as well as a walker of the landscape and one’s reading becomes a part of who one is. In this new volume we meet Helen Adam and John Clare, Walt Whitman and, perhaps, Philip Larkin’s sharp eye for the wreckage of the suburban:

‘The edges of arable land give way
to housing estates wasteland
this part of town
isn’t meant to be gawked at
newly-built business parks
abut abandoned warehouses
brownfield sites
ripe for development
in the distance the yelp of a dog’

It seems so entirely appropriate that the blurb for this excellent new Oystercatcher should have been written by Peter Riley whose own poem ‘From Romney Marsh’ recollected ‘my track across the land’.

Ian Brinton, 29th February 2016

Beneath by Simon Perril (Shearsman Books)

Beneath  by Simon Perril (Shearsman Books)

In the notes at the end of his earlier volume of poems linked to the lyricism of Archilochus, Archilochus on the Moon (Shearsman 2013), Simon Perril referred to the Greek poet’s ‘nuanced voice, full of many tones and timbres’. The poet’s voice, he suggested, ‘tastes of brine, sweat and handled coins; it has the viscosity of semen’:

‘Viscosity is caused by friction; it is a measure of its resistance to gradual deformation. Archilochus crafted an intimate yell seven centuries before Christ, and a good many before Mayakovsky and Frank O’Hara.’

These words echo Peter Riley’s comments made when he was interviewed by Kelvin Corcoran in 1986 for Reality Studios 8; talking about ‘the condition of poetry’, Riley bemoaned ‘the neglect of someone like John James’ which struck him as particularly reprehensible since ‘his poetry is actually a popular poetry in some ways, it refers to people like Mayakovsky and O’Hara, the self in it is a popular self: a brash, open, aggressive, stylish, perky sort of self…it speaks of public places, and should be heard in them, literally.’ It is no mere accident that this quotation should appear in Simon Perril’s introduction to his Salt Companion to John James, which appeared in 2010, since Perril’s own poetry possesses some of those same qualities displayed in James’s ‘The Conversation’ in which the poet refers to Jeremy Prynne’s leafing through pages and giving ‘some new sense of strengthening regard for common things’. In the Companion we can also find Perril’s statement which points us towards his own poetry, ‘He shares with the New York School poets a willingness to view everyday objects not simply as degraded commodities, but as potential talismans that might be invested with hopes and desires.’

The background to Beneath is made clear on the back cover: ‘A nekyia is an underworld story preserving a rite from classical antiquity wherein the living call up the dead, and are questioned about the future.’ In 1935 Pound thought that the Nekuia episode of The Odyssey was the oldest part. In the words of Hugh Kenner, ‘foretime: a remembering of rites already ancient when the tale came to Homer’. And in the early 16th century the Nekuia was transposed by one Andreas Divus Justinopolitanus (‘Et postquam ad navem descendimus, et mare…’). And from thence to the opening of Canto I: ‘And then went down to the ship, / Set keel to breakers, forth on the godly sea…’ (incorporated into Canto III in Quia Pauper Amavi, 1919, just after the end of the first Great War, before being chosen to open the Draft of XVI Cantos in 1925).

In Simon Perril’s exploration of what lies beneath the surface, the voice of Neobulé, the bride-to-be of the first lyric poet, Archilochus, who committed suicide after her father had called off the wedding, gropes towards an understanding of her shadehood:

‘Hermes took me down
each step
decreased in sound’

As absence causes presence to fade into what will become the unrealisable ‘Lethe dyed my thoughts / white’

‘and I wore them
anew, so fresh

they barely contained
you’

The visceral sense of dissolution is traced from different angles throughout these eighty poems:

‘Dionysus
god in the tree

whose limbs of ivy
curled ’cross Thracian seas

will come for me
and plant a wet kiss

reclaim his daughter
as a body

of dancing water’

As the solidity of ‘tree’ and ‘limbs’ move through an abbreviated verb of transport the physicality of consonantal ‘daughter’ melts to its rhymed counterpart in the lightness of the last line.
Dissolution, a presence of process, is evident in poem after poem in this magical sequence and we become aware of how ‘constant leaving’ is a ‘leaking’. Persephone, the ‘dark abductee’ gathers the speaker

‘for I soften
lose shape

find kin
amongst the wet things

palpitate
like a fountain tip.’

Elly Clapinson’s cover photograph explores a glimpse of the journey.

Ian Brinton 27th December 2015

It Looks Like An Island But Sails Away by Ralph Hawkins (Shearsman Books)

It Looks Like An Island But Sails Away by Ralph Hawkins (Shearsman Books)

On the back of this deliciously fast-moving collection of poems by Ralph Hawkins there is a quotation from Peter Riley’s 2005 review of a previous Shearsman Books collection of his work, The Moon, The Chief hairdresser (Highlights):

Hawkins is a very literary poet, very aware of the written artefact as something with a long history and a mass of material accrued to it, and determined to re-invent the whole thing.

That review also contains the phrase about Hawkins’s ‘dazzingly virtuosic performance’, a quality that is also fully evident in this new book.
Two literary echoes came to my ears when I read this book: Ben Jonson and Sir Thomas Wyatt. Jonson’s Epigramme CXVIII is titled ‘On Gut’

Gut eates all day, and lechers all the night,
So all his meate he tasteth over, twise:
And, striving so to double his delight,
He makes himselfe a thorough-fare of vice.
Thus, in his belly, can he change a sin,
Lust it comes out, that gluttony went in.

Ralph Hawkins opens this new Shearsman with ‘Gut’:

Down in the tubes like corridors of blood he lived. His name was Gut and
his body had many rooms.

To the right was the Giant’s room and his name was Git. Is Git a short giant? If Git and Gut have children it will be a miracle as they don’t eat together. This would be a gustatorium. A windy palace of gables and false starts. Huge butterflies hung from Eve.

The dry and mischievous humour here is witty. As readers we move from the London Underground to the well-known joke about the difference between a penis that is flaccid and then erect. The word ‘gustatorium’ blows us towards those Tennysonian plains of Troy and ‘false starts’ take us back to the mordant humour of Jonson who could see himself as the lover who has gone beyond his sell-by date in ‘A Celebration of CHARIS in ten Lyrick Peeces’ or whose ‘Picture’ left in Scotland reveals ‘My mountaine belly, and my rockie face.’

John Muckle referred to Hawkins’s poems as a ‘version of New York school poetics’ and highlighted his ‘light-fingered touch’ where the very phrase suggests the snapper up of unconsidered trifles. ‘Since in a net I seek to hold the wind’ is a collage to live with:

a siskin and then a bunting
two killers in a red circle
the cop (un flic) knows everyone, is bad

I am not a catholic but it rains
Jean-Pierre holds his Stetson in a January wind

they rip buds and pick nuts

the (stolen) diamonds are stuffed into a holdall

you are my angel in the wind
noli me tangere
you restoreth my soul

four pills and a tube of ointment
is all it takes

Wyatt…taken from Petrarch…all diamonds are stolen and a poem is a fine ‘holdall’.

Ian Brinton 10th June 2015

Simon Smith’s Navy (vErIsImILLtUdE, 2015)

Simon Smith’s Navy (vErIsImILLtUdE, 2015)

In these times of bewilderment and dislocation it is important to read poets who recognise the contours of the political landscape and it is vital to attend to voices that quietly insist upon pursuing truths despite being noised-out by the chatter from the island. Or, as one modernist poet put it in 1968:

And so slowness is
interesting and the dust, in cracks between
boards

The same poem, ‘A Gold Ring Called Reluctance’, written by a young poet in his early thirties continues ‘Fluff, grit, various / discarded bits & pieces: these are the / genetic patrons of our so-called condition.’
When Simon Smith was interviewed by Andrew Duncan for a book titled Don’t Start Me Talking (Salt 2006), a book incidentally that was dedicated to David Herd and Robert Potts, ‘visionary editors for a new sight’, he referred to poems being conceived as a type of dialogue with other poems. The precise background to Smith’s comment was his writing of Night Shift (1991), composed in ‘quite a strict or regular verse form’ in response, partly, to Peter Riley’s ‘Ospita’ and Tom Raworth’s Sentenced to Death and Eternal Sections:

‘There seemed to be some sort of dialogue going on between these poetries, formally I mean, and I found myself taking part in that dialogue, or should I say the poem found its way through this kind of engagement. The poems then ‘talk’ to one another within the sequence. Building poems in series like this is a feature of the so-called avant garde in this country—it’s a way of replacing linear narrative without losing scope, or compromising perception.

Simon Smith’s recently published volume Navy is an interesting movement forward from these ideas and it does not make for comfortable reading. The opening section of the book is titled ‘England, A Fragment’ and I am quickly made aware that this does not refer to a small part of the country but is itself a description of that which is in the process of falling apart.
The dialogue here is with William Carlos Williams and the use of the three-ply line stretches the eye down the page as we move from ‘dirt from under the nails / on Dover Beach’ to ‘a shrieking gull’. The whole sequence is threaded with fragments of poetic and musical reference and the Matthew Arnold backdrop to those opening lines soon becomes the early world of Olson’s poems as illustrated by Corrado Cagli. Debussy and Schubert are fragments stored against ruin but so is the early morning ‘station pie’ with its echo of Larkin’s change of trains at Sheffield in ‘Dockery and Son’. There is, however, another voice behind this moving and important poem-for-our-times and that is the hoof-fall of Ed Dorn’s ‘Gunslinger’. Through the world of East Kent the ‘UKKK’ are bringing ‘law to town’ and hooded men in pointy hats are on the move.
The epigraph to this terrific and terrifying volume includes words by that voice of sanity and careful consideration, John James:

‘but it’s wonderful to wake up & know that
despite everything
France is still there’

The book is, as a moment of connection to that early conversation, also dedicated to David Herd.

And to me; for which, Simon, many thanks; I am honoured.

Copies of this little collection can be obtained from the publisher at 58 Crescent Road, Ramsgate, CT11 9QY

Ian Brinton, 9th May 2015

Due North by Peter Riley (Shearsman Books, 2015)

Due North by Peter Riley (Shearsman Books, 2015)

As the author’s blurb on the back tells us this is a poem in twelve chapters ‘concerned with human movement northwards or out in the quest for work, subsistence, settlement and gratification, and in danger of getting trapped in various enclosures, including thought-traps.’ It is serious; it is where we are; it places ordinary people in the history and geography of their upbringing.

The opening chapter brings to my mind the early sections of R.F. Langley’s Olsonian venture ‘Matthew Glover’. Riley has ‘human groups moving / over the great grasslands with the herds’ across ‘vast green and red lands without division’ and registers for us those ‘footsteps measured in millennia’. Langley’s poem opened with movement and settling: ‘To start with throve heavy forest / this district, on its marl / thick blue marl’. And this in its turn brings to mind the thoughts of Mircea Eliade’s suggestion that a sacred place has a unique existential value for religious man as ‘A universe comes to birth from its centre’. As Peter Riley’s opening chapter puts it, wisdom is learned ‘in a form of desire, a distance to be gained’ and this in turn is accompanied by ‘Orphic stasis’; no looking back unless it be at the fast disappearing shadows of what one thought one might have brought with one.

The movement is ‘Not “travel”’ since there ‘were needs, and displacements’ and an ‘outpacing’ of the desert ‘trekking in a great curve across the African savannah / towards the northern swamps and forests / the great diadem that divides the sky / into days and days into hours, captured / in a circular stone hut’.

Music, history and personal reminiscence merge as ‘A precise liquid touch on the keyboard / small cloven hoofs on the packed stones’ and the ‘everyday which is where we live’ is also the place ‘in which we are trapped.’

This is a terrific book which contains the previously published The Ascent of Kinder Scout (Longbarrow Press 2014) about which I wrote a blog on August 22nd last year. This is a book to carry ‘in a side pocket through morning thoroughfares’:

‘Silence folded against the flank as the sky is folded
tight behind the morning fogs and closed shops
and there is no refuge to be had across the great
housing estates, sleeping citizens of eternity.’

Ian Brinton 14th April 2015

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