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Vanishing Points Eds. John Kinsella & Rod Mengham (Salt Publishing)

Vanishing Points Eds. John Kinsella & Rod Mengham (Salt Publishing)

The moment of change between one century and another is no easily defined discrete box into which ideas can be crammed later to become defined as Twentieth Century as opposed to Twenty-first Century. Thomas Hardy knew this well when he published his much anthologised poem ‘The Darkling Thrush’ on December 31st 1901. The poem looks forward to the newly defined Twentieth Century with a limited sense of blessed hope “whereof he knew but I was unaware” whilst also looking back at the Nineteenth Century’s corpse “outleant”. This sense of one eye being cast over the shoulder whilst the other is fixed firmly ahead is the hallmark of the Salt anthology of poems, Vanishing Points, edited by John Kinsella and Rod Mengham and published in 2004.
The backwards glance is towards the anthology Conductors of Chaos, edited by Iain Sinclair in 1996 in which, as Randall Stevenson suggested in Volume 12 of The Oxford English Literary History, there was a clear attempt to make great demands on readers to ensure that they “looked at the language on the page—rather than through it, towards a familiar, represented reality—transparency and ease of ordinary understanding had to be eliminated as far as possible”.
Sinclair’s introduction to Conductors of Chaos had thrown down a glove for the editors of anthologies and for serious readers of modern poetry:

“The work I value is that which seems most remote, alienated, fractured. I don’t claim to ‘understand’ it but I like having it around. The darker it grows outside the window, the worse the noises from the island, the more closely do I attend to the mass of instant-printed pamphlets that pile up around my desk. The very titles are pure adrenalin; Satyrs and Mephitic Angels, Tense Fodder, Hellhound Memos, Civic Crime, Alien Skies, Harpmesh Intermezzi, A Pocket History of the Soul. You don’t need to read them, just handle them: feel the sticky heat creep up through your fingers. If these things are ‘difficult’, they have earned that right. Why should they be easy? Why should they not reflect some measure of the complexity of the climate in which they exist? Why should we not be prepared to make an effort, to break sweat, in hope of high return? There’s no key, no Masonic password; take the sequences gently, a line at a time. Treat the page as a block, sound it for submerged sonar effects. Suspend conditioned reflexes. You don’t need to sign up for Tom Paulin’s masterclass to reap the reward. If it comes too sweetly, somebody’s trying to sell you something.”

As if to emphasise even more the links between one century and the next, three of the seven titles mentioned by Sinclair were published by Rod Mengham’s Cambridge based Equipage Press and there is perhaps a sense of appropriateness here in his being the co-editor of the first significantly challenging new anthology of the Twenty-First Century. In his introduction to Vanishing Points Mengham takes up the challenge of reading as thrown down by Randall Stevenson, looking at language on the page:

“The vanishing point lies beyond the horizon established by ruling conventions, it is where the imagination takes over from the understanding. Most anthologies of contemporary verse are filled with poems that do not cross that dividing-line, but our contention is that many poems in this volume are situated on the threshold of conventional sense-making. They go beyond the perspective of accepted canons of taste and judgement and ask questions about where they belong, and who they are meant for, often combining the pathos of estrangement with the irascibility of the refusenik.”

The thirty-two poets in this anthology are from Australia, Canada, New Zealand, United Kingdom and United States of America but despite this wide geographical range what binds them together is “a strong insistence on finding ways of continuing and renewing the lyric impulse in poetry in English”. The British contributors include Caroline Bergvall, Brian Catling, David Chaloner, Andrew Crozier, Andrew Duncan, Roy Fisher, Ulli Freer, Tony Lopez, Barry MacSweeney, Anna Mendelssohn (Grace Lake), Drew Milne, Ian Patterson, J.H. Prynne, Peter Riley, Geoff Ward and John Wilkinson. Some of the poems in the anthology are from a much earlier date and Roy Fisher’s The Cut Pages first appeared in 1971 from Fulcrum Press before re-emerging in 1986 as a joint production of Oasis Books and Shearsman Books. Introducing the first appearance of the poem Fisher had told his readers that the “aim in the improvisation was to give the words as much relief as possible from serving in planned situations” and that the work “was taken forward with no programme beyond the principle that it should not know where its next meal was coming from”. This method of composition “produced very rapid changes of direction”. More on the cusp of the millennium Barry MacSweeney’s ‘Totem Banking’ and ‘I Looked Down On a Child Today’ were both written in 1998-1999 and included in his posthumous selected poems, Wolf Tongue, which appeared from Bloodaxe in 2003. ‘Totem Banking’ is dedicated to J.H. Prynne and the appropriate nature of its inclusion in this anthology is emphasised by Mengham’s introductory comments concerning the way in which “writers in this anthology have been part of a process of exchanging ideas manifested in little magazines, in the publishing programmes of small presses, and in the sheer volume of email and internet transactions”. It was Prynne, along with Andrew Crozier, who began much of this exchange of ideas with the creation and publication of The English Intelligencer back in the 1960s and it is a measure of the Cambridge poet’s professional commitment to new forms of writing that an extract from his own Red D Gypsum should form part of the new horizon posited by the editors of Vanishing Points.
Although Red D Gypsum was published by Barque Press (Andrea Brady and Keston Sutherland) in 1998 it was one of the later sequences which prompted Andrew Duncan in 2003 to write “Of course, Prynne’s aesthetic of difficulty often causes panic anxiety, feels like sensory deprivation, and invites misconstruction…people have different perceptions of what ‘good pattern’ is, and may experience incompleteness as anxiety as well as cognitive freedom”. Writing about the sequence in 2009 Nigel Wheale suggested that it is worth thinking about the sense in which reading it “may be a cumulative experience for the reader” requiring a different reading strategy. This, of course, is entirely in tune with the editorial comments in Vanishing Points and John Kinsella, the co-editor, stressed that “Typically, a poem gives the reader or listener something to take away from the text—an emotional gravitas, whimsical joy, intellectual or spiritual connection or awakening”.
At the end of the last century Kinsella had formed a publishing partnership with Clive Newman and Chris Hamilton-Emery and this new Salt Press heralded the world of Print-on-Demand (PoD). The press soon made a name for publishing a pluralist view of poetry and the 2004 publication of Vanishing Points was like the raising of a standard.

Ian Brinton 10th April 2017

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Modernist Legacies Ed. Abigail Lang & David Nowell Smith Palgrave Macmillan

Modernist Legacies Ed. Abigail Lang & David Nowell Smith Palgrave Macmillan

On 18th February this year David Caddy posted a blog about the Manchester University Press publication of essays edited by David Herd, Contemporary Olson. The book itself arose out of a conference held at the University of Kent in November 2010. As the Acknowledgements section in this recently published collection of essays from Palgrave Macmillan stresses ‘Like so many collections of essays, the current volume has its beginnings in a conference titled “Legacies of Modernism: The State of British Poetry Today”, which took place at the Université Paris-Diderot, Institut Charles V, June 9-11, 2011. The Charles Olson book was terrific in its range of essays and is possibly the most important book on the American giant who coined the term ‘Postmodernism’ to have appeared for some considerable time. This new book, subtitled ‘Trends and Faultlines in British Poetry Today’, is also a very powerful introduction to the world of contemporary poetry in Britain. Divided into three sections (‘Histories since Modernism’, ‘The Modernist Legacy’, ‘Poetical and Political Commitments’) the book looks at major poets such as J.H. Prynne and Barry MacSweeney, Anthony Barnett and Allen Fisher, Andrea Brady and Wendy Mulford, as well as focussing upon a wide range of other poets whose work is central to the world of contemporary poetry: Caroline Bergvall, Jeff Hilson, Drew Milne and Keston Sutherland.

I was fascinated by the interview between Allen Fisher and Robert Hampson dealing with the ‘Interaction between American and British Poetries 1964-1970’. The background to much contemporary poetry comes to life as we can read about Better Books and how Tony Godwin enlarged the shop on Charing Cross Road to incorporate shops at 1, 3, and 5 New Compton Street in November 1964. As Fisher had made clear in an earlier interview with Adrian Clarke, Better Books did not just sell books but also created ‘a space where you would find out about other activities going on’. The shops became informal meeting places for the building-up of a subculture and as such they were perfectly in tune with a world that Fisher recognises as connecting John Ashbery and Wendy Mulford. Referring to a poem from the late 1960s in Mulford’s Bravo to Girls and Heroes, as well as poems by Andrew Crozier, David Chaloner and Roy Fisher, Allen Fisher says

‘What these poems share with Ashbery is a self-consciousness made explicit in the form—the poem discusses its own processes in the script of the facture en route. But also, it’s self-analysis not so much as questioning as rather indicating its dialectical thrust—the logic of the particular having a larger interest as if—or, rather, so that—the simple description or fragment of description feels metonymic for a far larger philosophical position.’

This interview gives us fascinating insights into the world of American poetry’s effects upon what was happening in Britain and if I have any quibble it must only be about one tiny piece of misinformation given as a footnote. Allen Fisher tells us about Jonathan Williams (Jargon Books) often being at the Dulwich poetry readings in South London but the footnote says that the readings were held upstairs in “The Crown and Sceptre” in Dulwich village. The pub was actually named “The Crown and Greyhound” and it still stands there today!

How refreshing to find a chapter devoted to the work of Anthony Barnett. As Xavier Kalck, associate professor at the Paris-Sorbonne University, points out ‘Barnett’s work opens Andrew Crozier and Tim Longville’s landmark 1987 anthology A Various Art, and his work then and since epitomizes the well-known connection pointed out by Crozier and Longville in their introduction: “Certainly, at the time [the 1960s], one of the means by which many of the poets in this anthology were identifiable to one another was an interest in a particular aspect of postwar American poetry, and the tradition that lay behind it—not that of Pound and Eliot but that of Pound and Williams.” Kalck also highlights Barnett’s central position within the world of contemporary British poetry when he refers to the newly collected poetry and noncritical prose numbering no less than 647 pages.

I was delighted with this book, the most recent contribution to a fine series devoted to ‘Modern and Contemporary Poetry and Poetics’ promoting and pursuing topics in the burgeoning field of twentieth-and twenty-first-century poetics. It is a goldmine of information and suggestion, constituting a perfect starting-point for anyone interested in what can sometimes feel like a difficult territory to map out.

Ian Brinton 30th September 2015

Gael Turnbull on Poets & Poetry

Gael Turnbull on Poets & Poetry

This new publication from Shearsman is a long overdue collection of reviews, essays, memoirs and journal pieces by Gael Turnbull, a figure who is central to the world of 1960s Anglo-American poetry.

There is a section on Basil Bunting which includes an account of how Turnbull helped to bring about a meeting between Bunting and Peggy (she of ‘Fifty years a letter unanswered; / a visit postponed for fifty years’) as well as his own account of his visit to the poet of Wylam in the Winter of 1965.

There are essays/articles on Carlos Williams, Corman, Robert Duncan, Ginsberg, Burroughs and an excellent short piece on the publication of the Stuttgart edition of Olson’s Maximus Poems 1-10. Charles Tomlinson obtained his copies of the two Jonathan Williams volumes from Gael Turnbull as he records in his autobiographical sketches reprinted by Carcanet as American Essays: Making It New.

There is a section on British poets which includes essential work on Roy Fisher whose major poem, City, was first published by Turnbull’s Migrant Press in May 1961.

To register the Anglo-American connection within Turnbull’s work it is worth looking at issue 8, the last of his Migrant journals. It contains work by Edwin Morgan, Charles Olson, Anselm Hollo, Michael Shayer, Larry Eigner, Ian Hamilton Finlay and Roy Fisher.

As Jill Turnbull makes clear in her introductory comments Tony Frazer is responsible for the footnotes in the volume and they are absolutely spot on: unobtrusive but highly informative.

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