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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

Salon Noir by Simon Smith (Equipage)

Salon Noir by Simon Smith (Equipage)

The epigraph at the front of this stunningly presented new book of poems from Rod Mengham’s Equipage is significant in that it points the way forward:

‘Place and the spirit of place is the inspiration of more poetry than we nowadays like to admit; and to do poetry justice, the critic needs to turn himself into a tourist’.

These words conclude Donald Davie’s essay on ‘The Cantos: Towards a Pedestrian Reading’ (spring-summer 1972) and they possess the faint timbre of a Michelin Guide to the Cathar regions of Foix, Palmiers, Montaillou and Montségur. And in similar mode one of the best tourist guides of poetry during the Pound era, Hugh Kenner, allowed his engaging narrative to act as our signpost in 1972 as we were transported back to 1919, ‘a good summer for the impecunious to travel’. Ezra and Dorothy Pound met Tom Eliot ‘near Giraut de Bornelh’s birthplace, Excideuil’:

‘The three headed south, the Pounds finally to Montségur but Eliot on a divagation of his own to inspect nearby cave drawings. That may have been at the Grotte de Niaux. We are to imagine him, rucksacked, deep inside a mountain, individual talent confronted by the Mind of Europe, satisfying himself that art never improves (“but the material of art”—here, bison “d’un pureté de trait étonnante” drawn with magnesium oxide in bison grease—“is never quite the same”), while 20 kilometers eastward by crows’ flight the Pounds, fortified with chocolate, were climbing the southwest face of Montségur to the white walls that ride its summit like a stone ship.’

Naturally enough Thomas Stearns Eliot, gentlemanly figure from London, was a different type of tourist from the Pounds, as is evident from his short letter to Lytton Strachey written in late August that year:

‘I have been walking the whole time since I arrived and so have had no address at all. Through Dordogne and the Corrèze, sunburnt—melons, ceps, truffles, eggs, good wine and good cheese and cheerful people. It’s a complete relief from London.’

Simon Smith’s poetic journey into that part of France north of the Pyrenees merges past and present as his Airbus A320 ‘prepares for final descent & the slip towards Tolosa / Piere Vidal’s town’. This is the first reference to Paul Blackburn, a haunting presence throughout the sequence of poems, and to his Peire Vidal translations published by Mulch Press also in 1972, a year after the American poet’s death. A second follows immediately:

‘the lines you carry with you
lines in lieu of memory
the ghost of Paul Blackburn takes up the work from E.P.
poets metamorphosise
into tourists & time shuffles forward one hour’

This awareness of time is central to the whole sequence and in the fifth poem we are presented with the Salon Noir itself deep within the Grotte de Niaux:

‘Gallery of the Scree the Deep Gallery
damp limestone metamorphosing
stalactites drip

reform as stalagmites
climb the ossified sand dune
thirty-odd feet high

& to the Salon Noir a kilometre deep
bison some ice-age horses ibex deer
off limits the Réseau Clastres & the only weasel

Panel II bison facing away
right 13,850 BP counterpoint
to Panel VI 12,890 BP bison facing left

a dead female & a thousand years between

outlined in charcoal or a mixture
manganese dioxide
for black haematite for red

clear as today lit by torch battery
our eyes are their eyes
no history between’

In his introduction to Blackburn’s Peire Vidal, the editor commented upon the excellence of the American poet’s choice in translating the poetry of the Provençal troubadours because it was a choice made out of a special affinity for them: ‘Because he had the gifts and desire, he became one and all of them, as with genius and learning he gave their poems his own voice and new life in a new language.’ There is an integritas in the late-twelfth century poet which also sits closely alongside Simon Smith’s re-creation of the Cathar world of Montségur, the temple to the sun which Pound had brought back into focus in Canto 76:

‘….and the rain fell all the night long at Ussel
cette mauvaiseh venggg blew over Tolosa
and in Mt Segur there is wind space and rain space’

Simon Smith’s ‘Montségur’ opens with space and movement, white on the page, background to the movement of ‘swallows tipping in / & out of thermals’. The expansion of light as recorded by Robert Grosseteste in his De Luce: a little tract from around the same time as Vidal’s song which tells us that ‘light of its very nature diffuses itself in every direction in such a way that a point of light will produce instantaneously a sphere of light of any size whatsoever, unless some opaque object stands in the way.’ In Smith’s poem the ‘luminous’ is ‘a punishing light & infinite thirst’ as we are presented with the sketch of

‘the last two hundred die-hard Cathars
below the prat dels cremats
eight months of dissent’

The movement of history and geography, the tourist’s awareness of how time does not alter everything and, as Eliot was to assert about the unchanging nature of art, the then and the now overlap like ‘the infinite / tripping over of water / from the fountains into the babble of voices’.

Paul Blackburn’s ‘Ab l’alen tir vas me l’aire’ opens with the immediacy of

‘I suck deep in air come from Provence to here.
All things from there so please me
when I hear
in dockside taverns
travelers’ gossip told
I listen smiling,
and for each word ask a hundred smiling words,
all news is good’

Simon Smith’s journey to the Salon Noir brings back this sense of air and noise, a history of both then and now. As with every good tourist trip a reader will want to return and return in order to savour again those moments glimpsed; such as

‘John James alone on the wide terrace of the Café de la Paix
a half empty glass of vin blanc on the table
happy for another as we are of the first

and talk
of a new book—Songs in Midwinter for Franco
Franco Beltrametti.

Ian Brinton 16th March 2016

Chances of a Storm by Rod Mengham (Carcanet Press)

Chances of a Storm by Rod Mengham (Carcanet Press)

Rod Mengham’s tale, ‘The Cloak’, is written in a tone of voice that reminds me of the compelling power of storytelling as exemplified by Tolstoy in the 1880s with his tales such as ‘What Men Live By’, ‘How Much Land Does a Man Need’ or ‘A Spark Neglected Burns the House’. At the same time, the anger and bitterness of injustice that threads its way through the storyteller’s art makes one realise how much the tale is about the very language used to tell it. When writing about the focus Dickens brought to bear upon sliding scales of value Mengham has, in the past, suggested that ‘A specific human complexity is reduced to the level of the lowest common denominator—exchange value—’. In his 1995 book, Language, he went on to give the reader a powerful passage from Our Mutual Friend in which Mr and Mrs Boffin search for an orphan to adopt and uncover an endless supply of equally dispensable human units:

‘The suddenness of an orphan’s rise in the market was not to be paralleled by the maddest records of the Stock Exchange. He would be at five thousand per cent discount out at nurse making a mud pie at nine in the morning, and (being inquired for) would go up to five thousand per cent premium before noon…fluctuations of a wild and South Sea nature were occasioned, by orphan-holders keeping back, and then rushing into the market a dozen together. But, the uniform principle at the root of all these various operations was bargain and sale…’

The bitter humour that juxtaposes the language of ‘Stock Exchange’ and ‘mud pie’ can be recognised in Mengham’s powerful story of ‘The Cloak’ which had been first published in PN Review 222 earlier this year before taking up its place in this fine collection being published by Carcanet this November.

‘The most affecting stories of urban poverty—workers dying of cold, starving in basements—were penned by a neat bourgeois from a small town whose louvred windows were never opened wide on impulse; its aesthetic awareness was tailored by having to choose the right kind of paving slab, riven or smooth. The repair, maintenance, adornment, beautification of the urban fabric was discussed during the evening passegiate. The walking and talking was conducted through the main shopping thoroughfare, which itself became the focus for rival schemes of showy benefaction. In this way, the town acquired its world-famous drain covers. Their extravagant designs were meant to publicise the wealth of donors, but only put the lid on their stench.’

The image of unpleasant matters being swept under the carpet is powerfully placed here and calls to mind the passage Dickens wrote about Newgate Prison in Sketches by Boz in which he refers to ordinary people strolling along streets, walking and talking, passing and repassing (passegiate)

‘this gloomy depository of the guilt and misery of London, in one perpetual stream of life and bustle, utterly unmindful of the throng of wretched creatures pent up within it—nay, not even knowing, or if they do, not heeding, the fact, that as they pass one particular angle of the massive wall with a light laugh or a merry whistle, they stand within one yard of a fellow creature, bound and helpless, whose hours are numbered, from whom the last feeble ray of hope has fled for ever, and whose miserable career will shortly terminate in a violent and shameful death.’

The pictures that appear on our international news channels, filling up the space between sports news and a dancing competition, are of refugees and migrants searching the globe for something more than starvation and bloodshed. In Mengham’s powerful tale they become symbolized by the one figure of ‘a man sitting by the dusty road that stretched out of view’. When asked by the narrator what is the matter the ‘man could not reply but pulled aside his cloak revealing a dead child’. The echo of the second ghost, that of Christmas Present, in A Christmas Carol is loud and clear. In Dickens’s tale the figures lurking beneath the ghost’s cloak are ‘yellow, meagre, ragged, scowling, wolfish’ and they are named ‘Ignorance’ and ‘Want’. The warning is given ‘Beware them both, and all of their degree, but most of all beware this boy, for on his brow I see that written which is Doom, unless the writing be erased.’
Rod Mengham’s prophetic tale ends with the only hope that can survive: ‘All that might be preserved was the memory of their flight; and the poor man could now relinquish this charge to his listener.’ Like a modern-day Ancient Mariner the fleeing man tells his story:

‘Into this deadened world came the smallest flicker of life, like the flare of a match inside a blackened dome. It was the poor man’s voice, feeling its way in the dark towards the gossamer-like trance of words leading him almost against his will towards failing light. He began to tell his story—for the first and last time, since in the act of listening the writer could not help changing words, adding several details while leaving many out; and in general making the story his own; and the poor man perfectly realised this before laying his burden down.’

The dead child is to be placed in the garden of the highest tower ‘For there is the grave that is nearest to heaven’. But the tower from the opening of Mengham’s book on Language is, of course, that of Babel. When stories are told they will be in different languages and there will be enormous confusion. Perhaps the only way to reveal what is under the paving stones before the stench becomes unbearable and deadly is to attempt to keep language clean from ‘exchange value’. Or as Mengham put it in Language

‘It is in the area of tension generated between a horizon of fixed standards and a horizon of no standards that the conditions of identity can be explored.’

This new collection of poems and prose-poems contains two sequences that were published last year, The Understory (corrupt press) and Paris by Helen (Oystercatcher), both of which I wrote about in blog reviews in June and July 2014. But it also, most valuably, contains much, much more and for me the volume would be worth acquiring even if it were just for that marvellous, moving and central tale, ‘The Cloak’.

Ian Brinton 5th November 2015

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

The Oxford Handbook of Contemporary British & Irish Poetry

The Oxford Handbook of Contemporary British & Irish Poetry

Edited by Peter Robinson

As the editor makes clear in his introduction this Oxford Handbook is a ‘collaborative effort at sketching a map of the always partially unknown’. Its range is enormous and will serve for many years to come as a perspective upon the various aspects of the poetic scene and not the least of its values lies in its ability ‘to sketch a space for curiosity and mutually enhancing accuracy of distinction that may help to mitigate the widespread self-confusion by means of other-denigration witnessed on all sides.’

The substantial 750 pages are divided into five sections: Part 1 ‘Movements Over Time’; Part 2 ‘Senses of Form and Technique’; Part 3 ‘Poetry and Places’; Part 4 ‘Border Crossings’; Part 5 ‘Responsibilities and Values’. The contributors range from Martin Dodsworth and Jeremy Noel-Tod to Peter Carpenter and Adam Piette; from Rod Mengham and Peter Middleton to Andrea Brady and David Herd. The separate subject areas range from ‘The Unburied Past: Walking with Ghosts of the 1940s’ to ‘A Dog’s Chance: The Evolution of Contemporary Women’s Poetry?’ and from ‘Auden in Ireland’ to ‘Multi-ethnic British Poetries’. There are 38 separate articles of substantial length and all I can do here is offer a pointer towards one or two of the immensely informative and exciting contents.

Rod Mengham writes about ‘The Altered Sublime: Raworth, Crozier, Prynne’ in which he quotes from Fredric Jameson on ‘Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism’. Highlighting Jameson’s observations concerning former sources of the sublime, such as the unconscious, becoming incorporated progressively into the processes of commodity production he notes how the unconscious becomes saturated by the languages of media and advertising agencies. Although Mengham concentrates specifically upon Prynne’s sequence The Oval Window we cannot ignore of course that earlier poem from Brass, the title of which refers to Alain Poher, the president of the French senate who became president of France in April 1969: ‘No / poetic gabble will survive which fails / to collide head-on with the unwitty circus’. Mengham also brings to our notice the essay by Heidegger on ‘Poetry, Language, Thought’ as the authentic gauging of the dimension of dwelling as the primal form of building:

‘Nor is poetry building in the sense of raising and fitting buildings. But poetry, as the authentic gauging of the dimension of dwelling, is the primal form of building. Poetry first of all admits man’s dwelling into its very nature, its presencing being. Poetry is the original admission of dwelling.’

One is tempted at this point to look up Prynne’s essay on ‘Huts’ which appeared in the journal Textual Practice in 2008. The article proceeds to look carefully at Andrew Crozier’s ‘The Veil Poem’ in which the focus is upon an embracing of material existence, human relationships and natural cycles despite their mutability.

Adam Piette’s contribution is on ‘Contemporary Poetry and Close Reading’ in which he takes us back to William Empson’s elaborate reading of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 73 with its ‘unpacking of connotations’ in the reference to ‘Bare ruin’d choirs, where late the sweet birds sang’. As Piette reminds us Shakespeare’s metaphor works because churches themselves are metaphors, being built to resemble stone forests. This timely reminder of the importance of close textual analysis is followed by an expert reading of Denise Riley’s ‘Song’ and the article closes with another timely reminder which must never be forgotten:

‘Close reading helps readers to construct a poem out of the distracted elements of their own lives and the lives of others; and it is through such loving attention, or heartbeat sensitivity to the elemental story in poetry’s forms of language, that poems begin to act upon the world.’

Ian Brinton 20th October 2014

Paris by Helen: Rod Mengham (Oystercatcher), Speedometry by Andrzej Sosnowski Trans. Rod Mengham (Contraband)

Paris by Helen: Rod Mengham (Oystercatcher), Speedometry by Andrzej Sosnowski Trans. Rod Mengham (Contraband)

Seven years ago Jeremy Noel-Tod wrote a letter to the Times Literary Supplement in which he suggested that Jeremy Prynne’s recently published chapbook To Pollen (Barque Press) was ‘directly concerned with the “war on terror” and its vicious circles’:

Afflicted purpose they hail we cut them they in
turn line the route denied, holding it most.

Rod Mengham’s recently published sequence of poems Paris by Helen (Oystercatcher) similarly has a lyric grace which is unafraid to gaze with unerring eye on warfare, lies and the Romance of twisted language which obscures human designs.

Language has an expiry date
with light foot, it is the tally-man ignorant of the branch-like
instructions for using your gun-rest. We shall not see its like
the load-bearing syntax of the river
settles everything. Once again
I have reached a dead wall.

When Rod Mengham’s poems were included in Iain Sinclair’s monumentally valuable anthology Conductors of Chaos (Picador 1996) they were introduced by John Wilkinson who noted how the language used ‘exacts the commitment of full attention at every instant’ before he went on to say that Mengham’s ‘mysterious lyricism…turns out to have been genuinely premonitory—it was exactly what the world was to be like, if from a particular perspective: for, after all, the people of Macedonia are best preserved from the knowledge that their nation’s new banknotes are given away as reader gifts by The Sunday Times.’
It was Thomas de Quincey who wrote in 1834 about Coleridge’s use of unacknowledged quotation:

Now, to take a phrase or an inspiriting line from the great fathers of poetry, even though no marks of quotation should be added, carries with it no charge of plagiarism. Milton is justly presumed to be as familiar to the ear as nature to the eye; and to steal from him as impossible as to appropriate, or sequester to a private use, some “bright particular star.” And there is a good reason for rejecting the typographical marks of quotation: they break the continuity of the passion, by reminding the reader of a printed book…

Language stands upon the shoulders of those who have previously used it and I found much of the lyric grace in these poems by Rod Mengham enhanced by the references, occasionally direct as with the echoing sound of Eliot’s The Wasteland in the poem ‘Through a Blow-Pipe’ in which the ‘drip drip drip’ leads to connecting ‘nothing with nothing’. Sometimes the references are more oblique echoes such as the opening image of Ulysses lashed ‘to the mist’ with its sly glance back at Prynne’s early poem ‘Lashed to the mast’. Perhaps most dominant for me is the eerie shadow of Dante cast across this doomed love affair between Paris and Helen. In the opening poem, ‘To Repeal the Spoils’ it is almost as if a Francesca is whirling through the air lamenting the cause for her being in the Second Circle:

That was your great discovery

an unreasonable desire for poetry while
swallowing blood. Now you find me shaking something

Penelope’s chervil glove, unharmed in the debris
on a worn-out carpet.

Just as the larks lose all sense of their bodies
so you are wearing your skirts much higher

every night in my bed. But my flight of bemusement
will not add up. The occasion demands flight
with its opposite number.

Mengham’s translations of the contemporary Polish poet, Sosnowski, are terrific. They provide that bridge which I referred to in last week’s blog on Anthony Barnett so that the reader who is unknowing of the original language can experience something of the taste of another man’s mind:

You raise your eyes, and the wind roars among the great bells.

Ian Brinton 26th July 2014

Songs in Midwinter for Franco by John James

Songs in Midwinter for Franco by John James

Equipage Press http://www.cambridgepoetry.org/equipage.htm 

There is a sudden immediacy about the poetry of John James which can almost catch you in the back of the throat. I think that it’s the clarity of truthfulness to experience; the absolute sense of being there.

 

This is what Andrew Crozier was perhaps getting at in his ‘To John James’ from the 1969 Ferry Press collection, Walking on Grass:

 

There he suddenly is

on the other side of the street in search of

an elusive motor, or the nearest opening time,

and for a second it looked quite filmic because

he was with you a moment ago.

 

The poetry shares a quality of exactness with Antonio Machado, whose ‘Poem of a Day’ written at Baeza in 1913, gives us such palpability:

 

Outside drizzle falling,

thinning sometimes into mist,

sometimes turning to sleet.

Picturing myself a farmer,

I think of the planted fields.

 

This new sequence of John James’s poems, twelve sections written at La Manière (Langue d’Oc) in January 2013, is simply very moving; it is a sequence which one wants to return to time and time again. It places the smallest of individual moments, accurately recorded, against the backdrop of human frailty and being. Life is made up of the small moments intruding into which ‘a sudden enormity / changes everything’. Life at La Manière has a ‘tranquillity’ which ‘is difficult simplicity’. It has room for Art, the ‘word the / inscription writ large’

 

a letter from you

out of Peru

 

in your calligraphy

is better than graffiti

 

like a trace

of a bird

 

in the snow

a trembling stem

 

lets fall a bead

of rain at night

 

In the reflective and reflecting eye of the poet ‘lost objects / will be revealed’ and I am moved to look at Pound’s Canto 95 from Section: Rock-Drill:

 

LOVE, gone as lightening,

enduring 5000years.

Shall the comet cease moving

or the great stars be tied to one place!

 

This absolutely indispensable chapbook of poems, poems to live with, can be obtained from Rod Mengham at Jesus College, Cambridge CB5 8BL.

 

Ian Brinton 20th June 2014

 

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