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Ditch Vision: essays on poetry, nature and place by Jeremy Hooker (Awen)

Ditch Vision: essays on poetry, nature and place by Jeremy Hooker (Awen)

In the first essay of this remarkably wide-ranging book Jeremy Hooker refers to examining an entire life of a district. He looks at Gilbert White’s consideration of the “human (including antiquities) and nature where he found them, side by side; he did not need to go beyond the bounds of his parish to find the fullness of nature”. Hooker is looking at the idea of what might be contained in the word wilderness and recognises that there has been none in the British Isles since the Middle Ages:

“…even in the sense of the word given by Dr Johnson in his Dictionary (‘a desert; a tract of solitude and strangeness’), wilderness is nowhere to be found upon an American scale in these islands.”

I was tempted here to recall a passage from the ‘Anoch’ section of Johnson’s Journey to the Western Isles where the urban figure from the world of London finds himself sitting on a blasted heath and, in the words of the fine Shakespearean scholar, Wilbur Sanders, seems to find the sort of subversive drag upon his humane habitations as shook Macbeth’s footing so drastically:

“We were in this place at ease and by choice, and had no evils to suffer or to fear; yet the imaginations excited by the view of an unknown and untravelled wilderness are not such as arise in the artificial solitude of parks and gardens, a flattering notion of self-sufficiency, a placid indulgence of voluntary delusions, a secure expansion of the fancy, or a cool concentration of the mental powers. The phantoms which haunt a desert are want, and misery, and danger; the evils of dereliction rush upon the thoughts; man is made unwillingly acquainted with his own weakness, and meditation shews him only how little he can sustain, and how little he can perform.”

As Hooker suggests to us, the “wild…is not determined by the presence of wild beasts” and a focused scrutiny of our own immediate world can awaken in us an awareness of the non-human.
On a cold, bright East Suffolk afternoon, 12th February 2011, a number of people congregated in At. Andrew’s Church, Bramfield, for a memorial service following the death of R.F. Langley. Langley’s old friend from the Cambridge world of the 1950s, Jeremy Prynne, gave an address in which he was admirably clear about the importance of ditch vision:

“[For Roger] the smallest things were absolutely everything – if you knew the difference between a martin and a swift you knew everything – not just something – you knew the whole universal truth of things if you knew one thing deeply and exactly and carefully. What this means is that Roger’s special signature of stillness and silence were marks of the profoundest spiritual intensity.”

This is of course the quiet focus that Langley comments on in his interview with R.F. Walker (Don’t Start Me Talking, ed. Tim Allen & Andrew Duncan, Salt, 2006) when he refers to standing under a tree for an hour and a half having walked out of the village at dusk:

“And it just occurred to me that I ought to stand without moving at all for that length of time and see what happened. Not even turning my head. A lot of rabbits came up and sat on my feet. And moths whipping about within inches of me. A feeling that you might get through to what was really there if you stripped off enough…if you stand absolutely still, then you might not be part of any map at all. You ‘see’ the place when you haven’t got any designs on it…”

In October 2010 I remember writing to Langley about his early poem ‘Matthew Glover’ and at the end of that month he wrote back:

“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 would guess my deepest feelings have always been for Coleridge’s Conversation Poems, the Lime Tree Bower, the shock which begins where the particular strikes, beyond any general concepts, geographical, historical or whatever. The movement of the leaves as they are shaken in that particular little cutting by the water of the stream stirring the air around them, not even worrying too much about ideas of the One Life for instance.”

One of the most powerful things about Jeremy Hooker’s new book of essays is precisely that awareness of where the particular strikes; this is ditch vision. Given this concern it is of course entirely appropriate that the second essay should be about Richard Jefferies and it opens with a quotation from ‘Hours of Spring’:

“The commonest pebble, dusty and marked with the stain of the ground, seems to me so wonderful; my mind works round it till it becomes the sun and centre of a system of thought and feeling.”

When I opened this short review with a reference to the wide-ranging scope of Hooker’s new collection I was thinking about the quiet intelligence he brings to bear upon the poetry of George Oppen, Charles Olson and Lorine Niedecker as well as his passionate understanding of the work of John Cowper Powys. In ‘Notes on Poetic Vision’ he quotes a short poem by John Riley, possibly the last lines that the Leeds poet wrote before his murder in 1978:

“at the boundary of mind’s reach
at the edge of heart’s sensing
violence of colour
and the wind rising”

The last work of Riley’s that was published as a book was his translation of Osip Mandelstam’s ‘Second Voronezh Notebook’ (Rigmarole of the Hours, Melbourne, 1979) and with that in mind I want to conclude with a quotation from Nadezhda Mandelstam’s memoirs of her husband:

Attention to detail, he noted in one of his rough drafts, is the virtue of the lyric poet. Carelessness and sloppiness are the devices of lyrical sloth.”

Read Jeremy Hooker’s new collection of essays for an understanding what that attention to detail can really signify.

Ian Brinton, 4th December 2017

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City Trappings (Housing Heath or Wood) by Peter Larkin (Veer Books)

City Trappings (Housing Heath or Wood) by Peter Larkin (Veer Books)

The menacing satirical quality of George Cruikshank’s 1829 print of ‘London Going Out of Town or the March of Bricks and Mortar’ may well have reflected the view the artist saw from the windows of his house in Myddelton Terrace in Islington as extensive building works were in progress in the Camden and Islington area. St Paul’s Cathedral appears amid the smoke from chimneys on the left of the drawing and a variety of inanimate things come to life in an invasion of the rural surroundings. Haystacks are seen fleeing from the discharge of bricks as from a muzzle-loading mortar and the whimsicality of having the workmen, who are digging up the ground and tearing up the trees, possess heads made from beermugs does little to soften the impact of such invasive development.
The ‘Note’ at the beginning of Peter Larkin’s disturbingly powerful 21 poems recently published by Veer Books gives a clear account of the area of his focus:

‘These poems arise from an ambivalent fascination with new perceptions of the urban environment and wildlife, especially in terms of remaining pockets of ‘trapped’ or encapsulated countryside…’

The direction of Cruikshank’s invading army of bricks and mortar might suggest the partial urbanisation of Hampstead Heath during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries and if so it is worth contemplating the poetry of response to this move. Leigh Hunt went to live there and his house became a centre for the leading literary figures of the day: both Coleridge and Crabbe visited there at about the same time as Cruikshank’s apocalyptic satirical vision. As Larkin goes on to say in his introductory comment these pockets of ‘trapped’ countryside are ‘often survivals of deer parks or chases which were never intensively farmed but are just large enough to drop containment on the far side of their horizon’. The growth of these ‘pockets’ of ‘encapsulated’ rural freedom may well have led to the formation in 1882 of the National Footpath Preservation Society whose main aim was to protect the commons from entire absorption by private landlords and railway companies. The city-dweller started to take his Sunday morning walking-tour and this became so popular that the subsequent decline in church attendance led to the Convocation of Canterbury meeting to discuss the “Sunday question”.
Section 3 of Peter Larkin’s sequence of poems sets a scene for ‘Population prescience’ and ‘con / fined deferral’ and the question is asked about the emergence of that which is not to be repressed:

‘….if emergence
is entrenched core, which
urban valve emulates
the flow?’

The first of the three epigraphs to the sequence comes from J.H. Prynne’s ‘In the Long Run, to be Stranded’ from The White Stones (1969):

‘called the city and the deep
blunting damage of hope’

Prynne’s city is an inalienable whole within which we live and the echo of damage is felt in Larkin’s section 4:

‘urban in-hollowing, full exposure to lateral concern is the
trapping itself: horizons glide and raise accordingly

nostalgia implode supplies a rind to content, at this point the
urban handle does turn: we are tipped for zones horizoning
us by event, by disconvention post-immaculate but purely
on implanted spot’

As Larkin looks at what might be perceived as ‘a universally normative urban inclusiveness’ he also wonders ‘how much idyll is untransferable’; that verbal echo of a nineteenth-century reminder of a long-gone world evoked by Theocritus casts its own shadow as we look at the second of the epigraphs to the poem. Christina Rossetti’s lines ‘And other eyes than ours / Were made to look on flowers’ can be juxtaposed with the prose section 7 in which we encounter ‘a green gap is a gate to walking the entrapment’ and the city ‘conspires protection under its feet / initial urban running ahead into the domain…’. In this world which is being explored by the poet of the Twenty-first Century Nature is ‘only portable / through a mesh of local / variation’. It might be worth recalling here another nineteenth-century voice, that of Richard Jefferies who published his Nature Near London in 1883 one year after the setting up of that footpath society:

‘Though my preconceived ideas were overthrown by the presence of so much that was beautiful and interesting close to London, yet in course of time I came to understand what was at first a dim sense of something wanting. In the shadiest lane, in the still pinewoods, on the hills of purple heath, after brief contemplation there arose a restlessness, a feeling that it was essential to be moving…This was the unseen influence of mighty London. The strong life of the vast city magnetized me…’.

Peter Larkin’s near-microscopic focus upon what he sees allows us to become aware of what might lie behind his ‘ambivalent fascination’ and the final poem offers us a ‘heath’ which is ‘prying into its lyrical tent’

‘where urbanisation dives
for no human help, spell
out the survival nodes

coalescent emergency ribbons
a green inference: less of ours
in the more to be given’

The pun on the word ‘spell’ opens up a conclusion which suggests that the ‘City Trappings’ do not solely represent imprisonment and the third of the epigraphs has a direct voice from Peter Riley which it would be foolish to ignore:

‘We’ll evict ourselves when we need to’

Ian Brinton 17th August 2016

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