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The Complete Poems of R.F. Langley edited by Jeremy Noel-Tod (Carcanet Press)

The Complete Poems of R.F. Langley edited by Jeremy Noel-Tod (Carcanet Press)

In 1978 Nigel Wheale’s infernal methods press published a chapbook of four poems by R.F. Langley, Wheale’s former English teacher at Wolverhampton Grammar School. Roger Langley had studied at Jesus College, Cambridge in the late 1950s, the same time as Jeremy Prynne with whom he was to remain close friends for the rest of his life. As Jeremy Noel-Tod puts it in the introduction to this splendidly produced new Carcanet edition of the Complete Poems: ‘In their final year, Langley and Prynne were supervised by the poet and critic Donald Davie’ who introduced them to the work of both Ezra Pound and Adrian Stokes. This is almost like an updating by ten years of the narrative told by Charles Tomlinson in Some Americans when he was tutored in the late 1940s by Donald Davie who introduced him to both Wallace Stevens and William Carlos Williams. In 1994 infernal methods published a second Langley volume, Twelve Poems, and it is this book which was referred to by John Welch in a letter to me from near the opening of this century:

The trajectory of a poetic career is interesting. As I think you know pretty much the only person to publish him [Langley] for years was Nigel Wheale, his friend and former pupil—and anything else that appeared appeared through Nigel. I was actually staying at Nigel’s when ‘it happened’—he’d just brought out a full-length albeit quite small collection of Roger’s when, out of the blue, Michael Schmidt rang up. I don’t think Nigel knew him at all—he’d simply sent off a review copy to PN Review. Anyway, Schmidt rang bubbling over with enthusiasm. Which led to the Collected and a good deal of subsequent interest in his work.

That ‘subsequent interest’ included Carcanet’s Collected Poems (produced in conjunction with infernal methods in 2000), The Face of It, a collection of 21 poems in 2007 and a regular slot in PN Review for the ‘Journals’. And the projection of this literary narrative has now given us this new Complete Poems, one of the most handsomely edited and produced collections I have seen for some time.
As Langley put it in the very well-known interview with Robert Walker from Angel Exhaust 13:

‘I didn’t start writing until I found out about American poetry. There was Donald Davie at Cambridge who talked about Pound. But Davie never talked about Olson. It was really Olson who convinced me that I might write something myself.’

It was very much that interview alongside the early poem ‘Matthew Glover’ that prompted me to write the first of my ‘Black Mountain in England’ articles for Michael Schmidt in 2005 (PN Review 161). But it wasn’t until 2010 that Roger wrote me an account of having first come across Charles Olson:

‘JHP introduced me to the work of Olson, of course, sending me copies of first ‘The Kingfishers and a bit later, I think, of the Projective Verse essay. Later on I saw the Donald Allen anthology, bought some copies of it, and used it to teach from while I was at Wolverhampton Grammar School. Obviously, from the very first, my own writing, although opened up to new methods by Olson, was always closely tied to my own immediate biography. The pleasure lay in writing about the little willow tree I knew and how it blew in the wind, the willow warblers I had watched in the bushes at dusk on the border of the parish. Nothing so personally particular in Olson.’

I shall be writing a review of this new publication for Shearsman Magazine on-line and that will concentrate more on the poems and less on the ‘chit-chat’!

Ian Brinton 1st September 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

Contemporary British Poetry by David Wheatley

Contemporary British Poetry by David Wheatley

This is a recent addition to Nicholas Tredell’s fine series of Readers’ Guides to Essential Criticism which are published by Palgrave and it is as ambitious and wide-ranging as we have come to expect from the series.

Opening with the required quotation from Adorno, ‘The recent past always likes to present itself as if destroyed by catastrophes’ David Wheatley guides us through a short labyrinthine history of ‘contestation and counter-contestation, each generation theatrically forswearing its precursor’. I am minded of the opening to William Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell published in the revolutionary times of 1793: ‘Without Contraries is no progression. Attraction and Repulsion, Reason and Energy, Love and Hate, are necessary to Human existence’. In Blake’s world-turned-upside-down ‘Good is the passive that obeys Reason’ and ‘Evil is the active springing from Energy’.

In chapter 5, ‘Experiment and Language’, there is a subsection titled ‘The dust of our wasted fields’ which opens up with a statement that is worth placing next to these ‘Contraries’:

‘Narratives of rupture and discontinuity will always be to the fore in discussions of modernism, but it is also worth insisting on deeper continuities. To Jeremy Noel-Tod, surveying the links between the experimental and Romantic traditions, Prynne’s project is “essentially Wordsworthian”, confirming affinities across centuries which only the vagaries of contemporary anti-modernism serve to obscure. Reading an early Prynne essay, ‘Resistance and Difficulty’ (1961), Noel-Tod uses the first of those terms to suggest an alternative to the more usual accusation levelled at Prynne’s poetics, unintelligibility. The Romantic landscape offers resistance to our too-easy progress, and requires careful thought and engagement before it can be negotiated. Landscape is encountered rather than mastered, in the sense that familiarity does not exhaust a Wordsworth landscape, whereas a field in the path of a motorway is recognised and assessed as an obstacle and swept aside.’

Given this emphasis it is no surprise, but a real delight, to read Wheatley on Harriet Tarlo’s wonderful Shearsman anthology of ‘Radical Landscape Poetry’, The Ground Aslant (published in 2011 and worth getting hold of NOW). This anthology which reports from what Wheatley refers to as ‘more marginal zones’ corrects, as he puts it, an assumption that British experimental writing operates in a realm either of rarefied abstraction or of metropolitan indifference to anything beyond the city limits. And it is within this context that he also then writes about the fine poem by R.F. Langley, ‘Matthew Glover’. When Langley was interviewed by Robert Walker (Angel Exhaust 13) he talked about the background to this poem:

‘I didn’t start writing until I found out about American poetry. There was Donald Davie at Cambridge who talked about Pound. But Davie never talked about Olson. It was really Olson who convinced me that I might write something myself. So that something like ‘Matthew Glover’ is a fairly naïve attempt to do a miniscule Olson in an English setting.’

I recall writing a review of the Harriet Tarlo anthology, soon after it appeared, for Todd Swift’s EYEWEAR publishing and since that review is still up there online I had a quick peek to remind myself what it was that I had found so refreshing and valuable about that book: ‘Language is a form in which landscape can come alive’.

David Wheatley’s overview of the contemporary scene is a balanced and intelligent one. Of course there are points at which we want him to say more but this is a ‘Readers’ Guide’ and its purpose is to point out features of the landscape which we can go and explore for ourselves. The test of a good book of this type is whether or not it can engage the reader with an infectious sense of enthusiasm that prompts him then to use the bibliography, the reading list, the list of further suggestions. This is a good book!

Ian Brinton 17th January 2015

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

 

 

Tom Lowenstein’s notebooks & fantasies

Tom Lowenstein’s notebooks & fantasies

From Culbone Wood—In Xanadu

 

New from Shearsman

 

The late Roger Langley wrote of this book ‘A major work of the imagination. In no previous genre. Creates its own genre.’ Tom Lowenstein’s new publication is a riveting account of the world of Porlock and the world of Coleridge, ‘the discord between Somersetshire now and the timelessness of Xanadu’s appearance before me.’ This is a book to have on the shelf next to John Livingstone Lowes’s 1927 publication The Road to Xanadu: A Study in the Ways of the Imagination.

 

Tom Lowenstein refers to the travel writings that so influenced Coleridge, Purchas His Pilgrimage, in terms of the early seventeenth-century writer’s fascination with small details: ‘shrunk as the wax in a dried old hive—lie golden cells of honey.’ Some of these cells will be looked into on the coming Tuesday, February 5th, at 7.30 in the Swedenborg Hall when Tom will be reading. Not to be missed!

 

 

 

 

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