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Tag Archives: Philip Larkin

Slipping the Leash Graham Hartill, Phil Maillard & Chris Torrance Aquifer

Slipping the Leash  Graham Hartill, Phil Maillard & Chris Torrance Aquifer

In his poem ‘Little Haven’ Graham Hartill asks a serious question:

‘Where does the poem end?
Where are its outsides
in terms of the fields
that stutter away to the silent swollen river
bouncing along with its human trophies:
furniture, cars and mirrors?’

This last-line accumulation is not the same as Philip Larkin’s refusal to present a historical perspective to his lists of semi-industrial landscape detritus. As Donald Davie put it when writing about Larkin in Thomas Hardy and British Poetry, there is ‘no measuring of present against past’. Nor is there any sense of what Emerson saw in Carlyle’s The Diamond Necklace where he commented upon the British essayist’s picture of ‘every street, church, parliament house, barrack, baker’s shop, mutton stall, forge, wharf, and ship, and whatever stands, creeps, rolls, or swims thereabouts…Hence your encyclopediacal allusion to all knowables’. Hartill’s little list is not to do with a profusion of structureless facts and phenomena so overwhelming, according to J.H. Prynne’s notes on The Outlook and Procedures of the Post-Romantic Mind, ‘that the speculative mind, unwilling to re-direct its energies in favour of radical description, also fails to bring off any radical and coherent analysis’. Hartill’s question is about the relation of poem to place; at what point does the poet’s awareness of ‘plastic bags stuck high in trees’ become a mirror in which he is compelled to recognise himself within an environment? If I look for any form of tradition here it is bound to the world of Gary Snyder whose interview with Gene Fowler in 1964 emphasised reaching ‘beyond our social nature’ in order to recognise ‘our relationships in nature’, reaching inward to see the relationships ‘that hold there’.

Snyder’s focus upon the particularities of living also inform Phil Maillard’s work and the exercise of ‘Fixing the Light’ has that firmness of tone and precision of touch which Snyder brought to bear upon making a stew in the Pinacate Desert, ‘Recipe for Locke & Drum’. Maillard’s poem is much more than a list, it is an insight:

‘Remove light bulb
The only problem is the collar
round the fitting, which falls apart
with the removal of the bulb
Get new fitting purchased by Gwain
in Swansea market…’

The cadence of the poem’s conclusion presents the reader with the task done:

‘Put cover back on fuse box
Shake hands all round
Replace furniture
Total running time two minutes
thirty five seconds for
entire operation
Nobody died
Make coffee in new coffee pot
Sit by fire under new light
and drink it’

When Snyder wrote a late poem about ‘How Poetry Comes to Me’ he said that ‘It comes blundering over the / Boulders at night, it stays / Frightened outside the / Range of my campfire / I go to meet it at the / Edge of the light’.
This beautifully produced book from Aquifer (aquiferbooks@gmail.com) is a generous selection from three poets whose work is centred around South Wales and the World. Although Phil Maillard’s homage to Snyder, ‘To Snyder’s Avocado Stone’, does not appear here it is worth referring to and can be located in Grazing the Octave, a Galloping Dog Press publication from Swansea in 1977: ‘there are visions / before you, retained, / markers in the snow / ancient stone figures / seen from miles / still commanding the whole valley’.
Linked to this language of the immediate and the distant, visions marked in transient snow and more lasting stone, there is the work of the third poet riding aboard the troika, Chris Torrance. From his own Galloping Dog Press volume The Diary of Palug’s Cat we are presented with the nearness of the domestic and the reaches of a surrounding sky:

‘I have an idea
certain compartments in my head
are very firmly
locked
shut

WHAT THE HELL
WENT WRONG WITH MY MARRIAGE?

Others, equally,
are bolted
wide open

the sense of freedom

buzzards swirling. The blue sky
beckoning.’

When I wrote about Chris Torrance for PN Review some ten years ago or more (PNR 163, ‘Black Mountain in England 2’) I referred to the critical work of John Freeman, poet, prose-writer and teacher based in Cardiff. In a Stride Research Document from December 2000 he had compared Torrance’s work with that of Charles Olson:

‘Charles Olson set out with his own particular tools to make Gloucester, Massachusetts, real in the Maximus poems; his means of locating Gloucester include the context historical, geographical, geological, mythical and political. A similar range of interests and formidable expertise inform Torrance’s work, in part thanks to Olson’s example. Maximus is not easy reading, but it adds to the idea of what the long poem can do in making a place real, in recreating the whole context in which a living consciousness awakens to reality; rooted in particular location, but open to anything. Anything that can modify human consciousness can find its place in the field of forces constituting the poem.’

In the selection of Torrance’s work in Slipping the Leash we can move beyond boundaries and there is a ‘constant shift / from the frame / of the real / into an infinite, / mythic dissolve’. There are ‘no boundaries to the universe’ and any answer to Graham Hartill’s initial question about ‘where does the poem end’ is perhaps only to be found within the covers of this excellent publication.

Ian Brinton, 13th November 2016

Flood Drain by Tom Chivers

Flood Drain by Tom Chivers

(Annexe Press   www.annexemagazine.com)

 

In The Terrors (Nine Arches Press 2009) Tom Chivers tried to map for us the city and how it all connected: ‘Sodden hooks north; strip developments; turnpikes; vowels that stretch and bend with the roadway.’ Now he has published Flood Drain, commissioned for last year’s Humber Mouth Literature Festival. When Philip Larkin was working on early drafts of his poem about Hull, ‘Here’, he complained that it was caught, trapped, as a ‘pointless shapeless thing about Hull’. In October 1961, having completed the poem that was to stand as the opening to The Whitsun Weddings, Larkin wrote that he meant it as a celebration of Hull: ‘It’s a fascinating area, not quite like anywhere else’.

 

Tom Chivers has written a fascinating poem that could stand most interestingly alongside Larkin’s in terms of the shifts and changes that have taken place in English poetry over the past half-century. Flood Drain is much closer to the world of Charles Olson and the refracted language of R.F. Langley’s ‘Matthew Glover’ than it is to Larkin’s. What it shares with Larkin’s world is that fascination with the merging of history and industrialism that haunts that North-East coastline and the history which interests Chivers is more akin perhaps to that which interested Graham Swift in his writing of Waterland: the tone of voice in the opening author’s note is a register that I suspect Swift would recognise:

 

Hull is also a lost word. A name with no definitive etymology. Some claim it as Celtic for ‘deep river’ or Saxon for ‘muddy river’, but the most alluring explanation was offered by Nathan Bailey in his 1721 An Universal Etymological English Dictionary: HULL…of hulen, Lower Saxon heulen, Teutonic, to howl, from the Noise the River makes, when it meets with the sea.

 

Flood Drain swirls around a walk Chivers made in an attempt to ‘trigger an altered state of conscciousness’ and with that visionary sense he takes as his model Langland’s Malvern dream of Piers Plowman in the opening of which the poet lies down ‘under a brod banke by a bourne syde’ before drifting into a sleep charmed by the sound of the stream’s waters. Very different from the ambitious Medieval allegorical world of Langland’s dream poem this witty and intelligent take on industrial drainage in the twenty-first century has no qualms about playing with sounds and inferences

 

I had a drain                  /

I had a flood drain

in a somer seson

the day after St Jude’s day

 

The reference to St. Jude, the Patron Saint of Lost Causes, has a bleak appropriateness as Chivers conducts us through a ‘flat world in which everything slips’. And there again the echo of Waterland can be heard as the past emerges from a silted land:

 

“See all this waste up here? It’s called slag.

It gets wet & it gets all muddy almost like

a liquid & that’s when it makes a landslip.”

 

Within and across this landscape which is brought to life for us in this splendid new poem by Tom Chivers what we hang on to is our only shield:

 

Hull into Humber.

Humber into sea.

This we know.

This much we know.

 

Ian Brinton 14th April 2014

 

 

The Status of the Cat by Sean Elliott

The Status of the Cat by Sean Elliott

The Status of the Cat by Sean Elliott

(Playdead Press 2013  www.playdeadpress.com)

 

Ideas of Space in Contemporary Poetry by Ian Davidson, (Palgrave Macmillan 2007)

 

 

In his fascinating study of notions of space in the world of contemporary poetry Ian Davidson refers at one point to Gaston Bachelard’s ideas of a house being a place of accumulated memory, the accumulation being produced by the repetition of apparently insignificant actions. Davidson writes about poets from Olson and Dorn to Ralph Hawkins and Fanny Howe. Spaces dominate Sean Elliott’s poems from the open beach at Dawlish to the ‘tiny pubs’ of Kent’s East Coast or the ‘white houses by the sea’ at Margate. The tone is unmistakably Larkinesque. ‘Margate’ opens up with a stanza which bears comparison with ‘Afternoons’:

 

Old world, perhaps: white houses by the sea,

the shops which may reopen in the spring,

even the clubs embrace stability:

the smoking boys, the laughing girls who sing

the latest hits against the winter gale,

an interlude of joy then home to tea.

Their young replace them without fail.

 

The tone of Larkin is caught between the compact accuracy of ‘white houses by the sea’ and the slightly wry sense of a present in relation to a possible future. The shops may reopen in the spring confirming our present situation placed in the closed season of ‘the winter gale’. The stability of progression which is repetition is firmly there in the last line with its echo of the final stanza of Larkin’s poem in which the courting places ‘are still courting places /(But the lovers are all in school)’. Larkin’s tone of quietly resigned optimism informs the final stanza of Sean Elliott’s poem:

 

Old women talk of when a summer’s crowd

would clog the coast, some comic’s punning speech

bewitched the closed theatres; we were proud.

Defeat like perfume soughs across the beach,

the wind performs a Pierrot’s drab routine;

lovers no longer pay to laugh aloud.

I cross my town’s historic green.

 

As with Larkin this picture gives us generalities, ‘Old women’, (not to be confused with T.S. Eliot’s ‘ancient women’ who carry a weight of classical allusion) and then a movement to make the general specific with ‘some comic’s punning speech’. The blurring of time and the past’s reconstruction through anecdote or gossip is nicely caught with the adjective ‘some’ and the movement which has led to the closing down of that old world is held in reminiscence as ‘Defeat’ is scent caught on the noise of a dry beach.

 

Sean Elliott will be reading from this collection on Wednesday 19th February at 7.00 p.m. in the Poetry Café on Betterton Street in Covent Garden.

 

Ian Brinton 13th February 2014

 

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