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Tag Archives: Sean Bonney

when did it aall gan wrang? by Alan Baker (Open House Editions)

when did it aall gan wrang? by Alan Baker (Open House Editions)

These poems are a mix of actual conversations and additional material aimed at giving a voice to those who often go unheard. They are moving, humorous and witty and employ a degree of dialect related to Newcastle where the author grew up. The opening sequence ‘Ten Tyneside Twittersonnets’ are based on a form invented by Robert Sheppard which has 280 characters (a tweet) split over the 14 lines of a sonnet. They remind me, to a degree, of Sean Bonney’s sequence The Commons, where found materials are utilised in relation to a commentary on popular culture, class and politics. The resonance feels similar.

          where’s it aall ganna end?

          (1967)

          ee, alan byekar, ye

          luk leik butta would

          n’t melt in ya mooth

          . ye’re a bonny bairn

          but ya nowt but trou

          ble. Aa’ll be hevin

          words wi’ ya mam. Ye

          ‘ll niva come to owt

          D’ye even belang roo

          nd heor? Hadaway or

          aall call the poli

          s. Where’s it aall g

          anna end? Nase alwi

          z in a bluddy buik!

     In ‘Bob Morris Speaks Out’ a retired miner talks about the events around the 1926 strike which is based on an actual recording from the British Library’s survey of English Dialects. It’s a powerful piece which resonates with those who lived through the 1984 strike and reminds the contemporary reader of the importance of historical documents and of the nature of class, poverty and politics which, in our current environment is hardly inappropriate:

          As hewed coal an

          the best men couldn’t

          get nee more than

          thorty five bob a week

          that had ti keep

          yor hoose and family          

          aye thorty five bob a week

          it was cruelty mann!

          an the gaffer spoke

          ti yi as if yi

          was just muck

          yi don’t answer him back o no

There are a number of short  pieces under the headline ‘Dispatches’, attributed to particular residents of the housing estate in Newcastle where the author grew up which are filled with humour and poignant recollection. This is poetry as social history, gritty realism which also has an element of experiment, mainly encapsulated in the title poem from Twittersonnets where the final lines   ‘…. when did it / aall gan wrang mrs t’ probably relates to a communication between neighbours but I can’t help reading an address to Margaret Thatcher in the tone even if the dates don’t quite match. I’d love to hear these pieces read aloud and understand there are recordings available. It will be interesting to see what the author does with the line breaks as indicated by the formal restraints on these fourteen liners. Alan Baker’s work is continually intriguing, his mix of politics, experiments in writing style and social history are rare elements and his output is prolific. Highly recommended.

Steve Spence 22nd May 2022

Atoms by Clive Gresswell (erbacce press)

Atoms by Clive Gresswell (erbacce press)

Atoms is a free flowing pamphlet-length prose poem, a sinuous sweep through the first quarter of the 21st century as it lurches into and out of lockdown. I’m reminded of Carl Jung’s essay on James Joyce’s Ulysses in which he refers to the work as a cosmic tapeworm. Jung initially wants us to see this as an insult, characterising writing he saw produced as much by an autonomic nervous system as by an aesthetic intelligence. But something in Jung’s writing feels conflicted. It’s as if he almost admires Ulysses for its parasitic processing power. And as it turns out, he does. He says of the book:

     There is life in it, and life in never exclusively evil and destructive…it wants to be an 

     eye of the moon, a consciousness detached from the object, in thrall neither to the 

     gods, nor to sensuality, and bound neither by love nor hate, neither by conviction nor 

     by prejudice ‘Ulysses’ does not preach this but practices it—detachment of 

     consciousness is the goal the through the fog of this book

Atoms is a tape worm. It is the 21st century eating itself. It has an internal logic this way, it has aesthetics this way, and in this way it is alive. You don’t feel the sense of the poet behind the poem, generating the old A level questions, what is Gresswell thinking? what does he mean? The writing can do that for itself, thank you. It’s a clever worm, a socialist worm, a worm that frankly has to stomach a lot when it comes to eating history. Deep down it’s probably quite glad to be a worm, that it doesn’t have to retch, or stop to demonstrate its outrage. It can leave that to the reader, maybe even its author, but it won’t care about that. The best writing has long since ceased to care for its author:

     Some of the atomic figures were fictitious. The prime minister instilled a sense of

     calm into the proceedings. More zygotes wrapped themselves around the institutions. 

     They bled racism into the walls of their buildings. Hurrah for common sense and the  jaws of death.  (p.6)

Try and figure out the series of ironies here, finishing with that ‘hurrah’. That last sentence is like the ghost in the machine—who says this? The are aspects to the writing that look programmatic, or like a form of cut-up or fold-in, splicing different words and phrases against each other. Here you can imagine the ‘atomic figures’ and ‘zygotes’ could just be dropped in from the discourse suggested by the title of the poem, but in another way they just feel literal, like the sentence between them (except, of course, when has our prime minister done this, really?). And that’s it.   

The language of atoms and zygotes keeps breaking the surface, as if a submerged and subversive force, pre-sentient, questioning us as to who is in charge. The political, the social, undermined by the real drivers, particles, cells, chaos theory: 

     No more night flying caffeine cells to dispute wages dismantled by atomic discipline and wiring.  (p.11)

     Foot-first though the frostbit forest. Matriculation in the atomic sequence. No one 

     here to captivate an audience.  (p.16)

     Still pumping hard a faithful heart draws blood rushing crucifixion to the art of 

     capital atoms. Capital letters adorning wisps of lager clouds.  (pp.27-28)

The connection between the senses of ‘capital’ here isn’t metaphoric, it’s literal. Something in Atoms wants to tell us that nothing is metaphor, everything is contiguous, metonymy. 

Atoms is angry. Who is it angry with? Trump, Johnson and Starmer are named targets, but across the whole piece it seems plain that Atoms is angry with an ideology, a neo-liberal ideology underpinned by the return of humanism. It is angry to know that beneath everything, humanism is not humane. You can see the influence of Sean Bonney in this poem, but with one major difference. Bonney’s work takes things personally, and there is a subject position to suffer it all for us. Here Gresswell’s text presents no subject: if you feel the abjection consequent to its violence, there is no proxy. You take it. You have to live here:

     Recalled and on pianos in destitution unfurled by Universal Credit music. Fashions  come and go in times of rigor mortise. (p.35)

Keith Jebb 12th March 2022

Atlantic Drift edited by James Byrne & Robert Sheppard (Arc Press & Edge Hill University Press)

Atlantic Drift edited by James Byrne & Robert Sheppard (Arc Press & Edge Hill University Press)

The opening statement of Robert Sheppard’s short introduction to this exciting new volume of transatlantic poetic focus is uncompromisingly clear in its assertion:

“Contact and conversation between transatlantic poets has always been one of fluctuating relations. North American writers have always been an important presence in British and Irish poetries, sometimes physically so. Edward Dorn, who lived in and wrote about England was aware of these relations and what he called the ‘North Atlantic Turbine’. Often the traffic is reversed.”

The fluctuating nature of these relations can of course be traced back to the early Sixties when Donald Allen’s The New American Poetry was being recognised in England with a sense of excitement. Charles Tomlinson’s forty-page Black Mountain Poets supplement to Ian Hamilton’s the Review appeared in January 1964 and three months later Andrew Crozier edited an American Supplement to the Cambridge magazine, Granta. Unlike Tomlinson’s focus on the Black Mountain School Crozier’s was more largely based on the Allen anthology and contained work by Levertov, Eigner, Woolf and Loewinsohn as well as Dorn, Dawson, Duncan and Wieners. Crozier quoted a letter Olson had written to George Butterick which included the phrase “to freshen our sense of the language we do have” and this statement might well describe the impact of this new anthology from Sheppard and Byrne. However, it might be just worth recalling the rather mean-spirited editorial note which Ian Hamilton added to the Tomlinson supplement which had offered such new ideas to a world dominated by New Lines:

“It should, I think, be made clear that the foregoing pages were given over to Charles Tomlinson to fill, more or less as he pleased, with work by the Black Mountain poets. We are most grateful to him for his co-operation. The editorial motive of the Review in this project has been a documentary rather than, necessarily, a critical one. We believe that the movement ought at least to be known about.”

As if hurled in the teeth of Hamilton’s graceless editorial disclaimer, Robert Sheppard’s comments present us with a sense of the active and living importance of what he and James Byrne have collected together. It is located in a reference to one of the contributors, Jerome Rothenberg, whose concern for the urgency and scope of poetics is presented in the words used to relate this “directly to the way he sees the world”:

“But the world we share, & our interplay with it, calls again & again for discourse: in the case of Poets, the setting forth of a poetics. I have found myself involved with that also, at first tentatively & then, once into it, discovering ways suited to my own temperament & to the sense I have…that the discourse, like the poetry, must in all events resist rigidity & closure.”

It is this resistance to closure, this refusal to adopt the safe line for poetry that is presented year after year in too many Secondary Schools, that makes this new anthology a box of fireworks. One can read Sean Bonney’s lines of lyrical politics and hear a voice that possesses not only anger but acute observation:

“An invisible person has appeared in everyone’s simultaneous dream.
Oh look here I am. Fuck the police.
It is the surveillance laws. All ages are not contemporaneous.
We are outside this century. We are very glamorous. We are
waiting in the hall.
Somewhere near Moritzplatz the adepts are getting sick.
It is the stupidity of gardens. I love the tiny sparrows.
The janitor’s kids are not playing they are digging up gold.
It is the last song you will ever hear.”

And one can turn from that to Chris McCabe’s snarled lines about “John Whittaker Straw, Labour politician” who changed his name to steal unearned value from the Peasants’ Revolt figure of 1381, Jack Straw. And then one can turn again to Rosmarie Waldrop’s ‘By the Waters of Babylon”:

“Unless we recognize a language we do not recognize a man. We
wrap entire villages in barbed wire.

My father used to close his eyes and remain as motionless as
possible to let his body-image dissolve.

I repeat myself often.

Time has no power over the Id. But heat passes from a warm body
to a cold body and not in the reverse direction.”

Look in this anthology for the America of Charles Bernstein and Claudia Rankine, Nathaniel Mackey and Lyn Hejinian; look this side of the Atlantic for Allen Fisher and John James, Geraldine Monk and Zoë Skoulding. We are presented with “Poets in both directions across the water” who “have influenced, and continue to influence each other in terms of practice and poetics.”
Atlantic Drift continues this collaboration and exchange in its alphabetic juxtaposition of twenty-four contributors and these poems ignite to provide a most effective and immediate anthology of the living power of poetry and poetics. As such it takes its place in the tradition of Donald Allen’s 1960 volume and Iain Sinclair’s 1996 publication, Conductors of Chaos.

Ian Brinton, 1st October 2017

Collected Poems by William Rowe (Crater 41, 2016)

Collected Poems by William Rowe (Crater 41, 2016)

In his chapter on Barry MacSweeney in Three Lyric Poets (Northcote House, 2009) William Rowe quoted Maggie O’Sullivan suggesting that Barry MacSweeney’s poetry resounded “with the spit of dissent and the edgy, wounded anger of revolt”. Rowe went on to make a comment that is as true today as it was then:

“It is written against the social amnesia, the ‘spin’, and institutionalized lying that have taken place in the name of modernization: especially against the language that anaesthetizes and makes submission easier.”

With an echo of the mid-Seventeenth Century world of the Ranters and Diggers Rowe’s volume of Collected Poems fizzes within its covers. In ‘start the civil war’ (and note the use of the lower case for the title, a little like keeping one’s hat on in Service or in Parliament) we are given language of muscularity and promise:

“as capital says
abandon all hope
death’s head descending
property & property & property

a horrible gleam
houses lawns cars eyes words children

validation of hate
= courage

revenge morning
against the arrow of time

weeping backwards tears backwards
validation of hate

herald of antigone brother
ayawaska sister

destruction and riot
= maximum intensity

produce
void

against prostitution of time
by Tory corporalities

fascinated by cruel
immortality of money

fascisted by the gleam
of that obedience

enjoy & enjoy & enjoy”

The merging of language which has literary, religious and scientific antecedents pulses with energy. The abandoning of hope which was so completely final in its inscription over the gateway to Dante’s Inferno becomes visually engulfing as the death’s head descends. The clatter of horse’s hoofs brings Tennyson’s ‘Northern Farmer’ into focus:

“Doesn’t thou ’ear my ’erse’s legs, as they canters awaäy?
Proputty, proputty, proputty – that’s what I ’ears ’em saäy.”

And the greed of accumulation is caught in the “horrible gleam” that shifts so smoothly from a shining car outside a house and lawn to the eyes and words of the children who are trapped. The enticing shine leads to an obedience in which unthinking hatred can be converted, by a twist of language’s expectations, to “courage”.
William Rowe contributed an important article on MacSweeney to the Shearsman publication Poetry and Public Language (ed. Tony Lopez & Anthony Caleshu, 2007). Writing about ‘Jury Vet’ he quoted MacSweeney’s introduction to the poem given at a 1982 reading in Goldsmith’s College at which an uncompromisingly clear statement was made:

“I wanted a title that was national and would reflect the way I was feeling at the time which was that life is very much made up of secrecy, betrayal, various codes, passions which can be quite meaningless except in the act of doing them and their result.”

Rowe’s statement which then follows is interesting as a disturbing comment upon modern consumerism and the State:

“The statement could apply equally well to a fashion show, a court of law, and the State, which are the theatres of appearance that the writing engages.”

In a world where cheap cladding bears some responsibility for multiple deaths we have moved language a long way from Spenser’s sense of protection in which a knight could be clad in “mighty arms and silver shield”. We have also moved a long way from the decorous and respectful sense that Puttenham refers to in terms of lamentation where friends show love towards the dead by “cladding the mourners their friendes and servauntes in blacke vestures, of shape dolefull and sad, but also by wofull countenaunces and voyces, and besides by Poeticall mournings in verse.” I find that Will Rowe’s poems speak with a voice more finely-tuned than I have heard for some time:

“the moral and spiritual damage that
comes from this situation is profound.
it is a scar across our collective soul.”

In a world where “we cannot pay you / because you have / as much or more money / coming in than / the law says / you need to live on” one can sense the outrage of what in 1650 would have been Abezier Coppe’s ‘Fiery Flying Roll’:

“Behold, I the eternal God the Lord of Hosts, who am that mighty Leveller am coming (yea even at the doores) to Levell to some purpose, to Levell with a witnesse, to Levell the Hills with the Valleys, and to lay the Mountains low.”

But make no mistake: William Rowe’s poems are not an evangelical return to a long-gone past. After all, as Sean Bonney writes at the end of this powerful collection:

“The catastrophe has already taken place, it’s just that all of its light has yet to reach us. It’s not clear from what or when that light might be coming. A burning city. A barricade. A refugee stumbling out from an already decided future, an insistent and illegible memory of something that happened long before any of us were born. A light that might illuminate the location of the emergency brake. A brake that by now is glowing far too hot to touch.”

Look out for the ghostly face starting to pressure outwards as the ribbon of blood pours down the face of the book’s cover (Aodan McCardle): this is a collection of poems which opens doors and tears down façades. Get a copy from Amazon Books NOW.

Ian Brinton, 23rd June 2017

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