Sunday, 28 November 2010

Hidden Form: The Prose Poem in English Poetry

The view that prose poetry evolved through French poetry is a partial one. Such a perspective doubtless has its origins in the impact of that evolution on American, Polish and other traditions. Certainly there is a distinct line of development through Aloysius Bertrand’s Gaspard de la Nuit (1842), Charles Baudelaire’s immensely popular Petites Poémes en Prose (1869), and on through Rimbaud, Laforgue, Mallarmé to Gertrude Stein, the Surrealists, especially Francis Ponge and Max Jacob, all of whom found it a useful tool in the quest for imaginative liberation. These modernist poets have their equivalents in the German and Spanish traditions as well as later examples in Greek, Russian, English and Japanese. Early English modernists appear to have followed T.S.Eliot’s view that this was a no man’s land for the aspiring poet who should be concerned with formal verse. An alternative viewpoint had been suggested by Shelley’s observation that the King James Bible was an example of prose as poetry. Indeed, English mainstream poets seem to have regarded the prose poem as a peculiarly foreign affair and one to be avoided apart from those times when there was a public questioning of identity and language. I don’t think that we would have seen a prose poem, such as Elizabeth Smart’s By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept (1945) published, for example, in 1925 or 1955, when the literary establishment and publishers were less open and firmly anti-internationalist. Indeed Smart’s work, reissued in 1966, became a classic in the Sixties and Seventies when it was possible to read the prose poems of Baudelaire, Neruda, Paz, Kenneth Patchen, the Surrealists and the Beats as well as the open-field poetics of Charles Olson. There was also interest in the work of David Jones, and his epic prose poem about the First World War, In Parenthesis (1937), at this time. It is this re-emergence of the prose poem, and its possibilities, into English poetry that I wish to discuss.

The prose poem can be seen as a site of struggle and potential subversion within an evolving and shifting variety of poetic forms and discussion of those forms. It is part of a counter-discourse through its lack of general visibility within mainstream English poetry. There are very few histories of the English prose poem and a relative lack of essays and journals devoted to the subject. Yet it has been a constant that has been seemingly re-discovered and developed by individual late modernist and avant-garde poets and writers.

The origin of that struggle can be traced from Oscar Wilde’s description of his ‘obscene’ letter to Lord Alfred Douglas as a ‘prose poem’ in 1893 and subsequent association with French decadence, sexual deviance and immodesty in the mind of the English reading public. This was reinforced and clarified by T.S. Eliot’s 1917 essay, 1 ‘The Borderline of Prose’, based upon his criticism of Richard Aldington’s The Love of Myrrhine and Konallis and other Prose Poems (1917). The essay essentially concerns definition and possibility. More generally it can be linked to his aversion to Ernest Dowson and Oscar Wilde’s appropriation of French symbolism. Eliot recognised the ‘unexplored possibilities’ of both poetry and prose but urged writers to write one or the other and not mix them. What constitutes the borderline and boundaries of poetry and prose thus became and remains a continuing debate.

The prose poem substantially entered English poetry through the impact of French symbolism and early modernism. I recall my own discovery of Baudelaire’s Paris Spleen translated by Louis Varése (New Directions 1970) in 1975, tracking down of his Wine and Hashish poems, and fascination with this alien genre. 2 There has been a continuous interaction since then as English poets have fed off and entered into subsequent French poetic discourse and French translations have arrived in England. A partial list since Dowson and Wilde would include Samuel Beckett, David Gascoyne, Norman Cameron, Charles Tomlinson, Roy Fisher, Peter Redgrove, Lee Harwood and John Ash. The prose poem often associated with the modern world, unofficial language and thought, can present through its hybrid nature unsettling and unfamiliar aspects of that world, which these poets have seized upon.

The prose poem seen here as a poem without line breaks retains the tension between line and sentence structure without the use of line endings. It has the potential to build pace, rhythm, music and produce meaning as much as free verse, only it has to generate tension, drama and crises through sentence structure, relationship and language use alone. It is in a sense a freedom to open possibilities and to move away from a stultifying rigidity and closure. Eliot objected to the pseudo archaic style of the Decadent prose poem and, by implication, indicated that the prose poem could not rely upon only emulating the musicality of verse in one narrative. Alternatives needed to be found. His own effort the prose poem, ‘Hysteria’ does show the way towards fabulism in its use of burlesque and fantasy. Notwithstanding, Eliot’s censure, the apparent failure of the Decadent prose poem, led to clear thresholds in English poetry

in the Twenties and Thirties. Clearly, later, the Movement and their successors, have a dualistic attitude to the questions of identity and the formal constraints of language and verse that runs counter to an opening up of the world and a discovery of variance through language. Don Paterson’s 2004 T.S. Eliot Lecture, ‘The Dark Art of Poetry’, is shot through with it: ‘Only plumbers can plumb, roofers roof and drummers drum; only poets can write poetry.’ (

I mentioned that the prose poem is part of a counter-discourse. I think that that can be seen in part in the criticism of Roy Fisher and his prose poem, The Ship’s Orchestra (1966). 3 There is scant attention in the critical volume on Fisher edited by John Kerrigan and Peter Robinson and Robert Sheppard in his essay refers to the work as ‘the nearest Fisher has approached to prose fiction’. 4 No mention in Nancy Santilli’s book on the prose poem in English. 5 Similarly, Robert Sheppard in his study, The Poetry Of Saying, neglects to include this major work in his discussion of Fisher. 6 There is no mention in Sean O’Brien’s The Deregulated Muse.7 or by Andrew Duncan in Origins of the Underground. 8 I would argue that The Ship’s Orchestra works as a prose poem because it is exceptionally well integrated as narrative prose and poem. It is a classic of its kind. There is a high degree of poetic technique in the form of rhythmic compression and musicality in sentences of varying length with considerable tension, drama and varying thematic repetition. It has a narrative symmetry that prompts memories of reading Kafka and Virginia Woolf’s The Waves. There is, for example, pressure from the narrator to find unity and to become another: ‘To be somebody else: to be Amy,’ and ‘If only we could all play together on one single instrument!’ 9 The exact location of the musicians within the ship narrative is a state of mind. All the action takes place in the mind of a flexible character that has authentic piano player indeterminacy. He is a drinker, seer, liar, slacker, trying to find his place as a musician at sea in a band who are not allowed to play. His view is partial, cubist. It is at once bohemian, quirky and in the twilight of sensory perception.

Think of what all the people you see taste like and you’d go mad: all those leaping, billowing tastes through the world, like a cemetery turned suddenly into damp bedsheets with the wind under them. So the possible taste of a person is a small thing, just a flicker of salt, putrescence, potatoes, old cardboard across the mind, behind the words, behind the manners. And the actual taste, if you go after it, is something that’s always retreating; even if it overwhelms, there’s an enormous stretch of meaninglessness in it, like the smell of the anaesthetist’s rubber mask in the first moments – it ought to mean, it ought to mean; but how can anything mean that? There must be a taste about me that could be sensed by others. Somebody as skilled as a dog could recognise it as mine; yet I cannot. If I try to get it from

myself I just get the double feeling of tasting and being tasted all in one, like being in a room with an important wall missing. Hold hands with myself as with another person; the hands disappear from my jurisdiction. Looking down, I see moving

effigies; the hands that feel are some way off, invisible. There is an image of me that I can never know, held in common by certain dogs. 10

It is intensely physical and shot through with poetic externalisations. Thus Merrit’s saxophone is a husk and Amy’s trombone is an axe. 11 In essence the poetry and prose are woven together through the mutability of the narrator seeing from ‘far down’ the ship’s superstructure and seeing the world of the ship ‘like cake’. He gets drunk, vomits, sees a mermaid, hears Amy play the trombone and sees the ship as a structural and purposive unity proceeded with music. However, that is not how it is. The musicians don’t play and the ship is not a unity 12 and the musicians sink further into themselves and a world of claustrophobia and paranoia. The ship becomes a symbol of societal constraint and the musicians clearly want to break free and play. 13 Again the poetry burst through the prose as heightened externalisations of inner emotions. The narrator is ‘something that has been pushed out of Amy’s body’, with ‘no legs’, ‘no arms or hands’ and ‘pushed out of Merrit’s body in his sleep’ with ‘no head’ and thinks he is yellow. 14 He contracts to this limbless creature that can journey between ‘Amy’s breasts by caterpillar tractor.’ 15 The heightened poetic language serves to subvert the prose through the mutable and refractive narrative. It is at once a shocking and surrealistic poem and deserves to be much more appreciated.

Prose poetry seems to have evolved out of sentence structure long before it was designated as such and interrogated by Eliot’s either / or thinking. The Surrealists and Ethnopoets seem to have no trouble opening the reader to new possibility. As an early example of this trend consider the poem, The Nine Herbs Charm, featured in Jerome Rothenberg’s 1968 anthology Technicians of the Sacred (pp. 347-9) as a poem. This tenth century Anglo-Saxon magic text, with ingredients from and parallels in German and Norse, has been translated with and without line breaks. It relates to paganism, mythology and doubtless has been subjected to Christian interference, takes the reader into another world and has power as poetry when chanted aloud. It is this quality that marks it as one of the earliest prose poems and reminds us of the potential connection and connotation that a prose poem can muster. Here is a prose poem version I found on the net.

A worm came creeping, he tore a man in two, then Woden took nine Glory-Twigs, then struck the adder, that it flew apart into nine bits. … Woden established the nine herbs and sent them into the seven worlds, for the poor and the rich, a remedy for all, it stands against pain, it fights against poison, it avails against three and against thirty, against foe’s hand and against noble scheming, against enchantment of vile creatures.

(Sourced from 16

Prose poetry was certainly formed as a hybrid to shock and innovate against poetic tradition. Once the idea of introducing non-literary prose into poetry had been accepted as a form of modernist subversion then the genre spread as a strategy and innovation kicked in to the extent that by the 1980s it became a growth area and by the 1990’s an established way of writing poetry in American poetry.

The prose poem in England has never really disappeared. However, it is currently enjoying a renaissance, with expansion of possibilities and even recognition. Younger poets such as Luke Kennard, Vahni Capildeo, Patricia Debney and Elisabeth Bletsoe have joined older poets such as Gavin Selerie, Elizabeth Cook, Peter Riley, Brian Catling, Martin Stannard, Geraldine Monk and Alan Halsey in this revival. Kennard won an Eric Gregory Award for his prose poem collection The Solex Brothers (Stride 2005) and his second book, The Harbour Beyond The Movie, (Salt 2007) was nominated for the 2007 Forward Poetry Prize. His third collection of prose poems, The Migraine Hotel, (Salt 2009) has seen Kennard gain more critical recognition. Todd Swift, for example, in Poetry London 65, credits Kennard with introducing ‘an entirely new and distinct style to poetry in the UK – one capable ... of handling any subject or language it wants to.’ 17 Whilst it is not entirely new, one immediately thinks of Martin Stannard’s deadpan humour and wide range, Gary Boswell’s idiosyncratic comic monologues and many others, as being precursors, it is clearly distinct and seemingly more acceptable. Kennard has successfully applied French and American prose poem strategies into an English idiom. Here’s the beginning of ‘A Dog Descends’:

Before I was born the seer predicted, ‘You will be inaudible in the laughter of many doctors.’

When I was born they tied a red ribbon around my ankle and glued fur onto my back so that my blind father could tell the difference between me and the dog – a hairless breed. This didn’t work as the fur just wouldn’t stay on, so I had to learn to touch-type whilst drinking from a dog bowl and sleeping amid the scraps. Mother kept saying, ‘Father knows best.’ When I protested, father would scream, ‘WILL SOMEONE SHUT UP THAT INFERNAL TALKING DOG?’ When the dog barked my father would shout, ‘WILL SOMEONE TEACH THAT


This combines fable and narrative into tight comic lines that are self-contained and engaging. Kennard can be overtly self-conscious and self-deprecating in the manner of Dave Allen or Gerald Locklin and like them can be very funny.

The prose poem is susceptible to a wide range of strategies as shown by Brian Clements and Janey Dunham’s Introduction to the Prose Poem. This American anthology, with English contributors such as Rupert Loydell, Geraldine Monk and Gavin Selerie, identifies twenty-four strategies ranging from anecdote, object, image, aphorism, list, repetition, fable and on to surreal imagery / narration, rant, essay, epistle, monologue, dialogue, hybrid, sequence and so on. It also shows in the structural analogue strategy section how the prose poem can absorb a wide range of discourse. 19

English poets are grasping the possibilities that the prose poem offers. Two examples are Elisabeth Bletsoe’s Birds of the Sherborne Missal sequence from her Landscape from a Dream collection,20 which has been anthologised in Carrie Etter’s Infinite Difference anthology, 21 and Vahni Capildeo’s ‘Person Animal Figure’ from her Undraining Sea collection. Bletsoe’s narratives weave around the Sherborne Missal’s marginalia of birds employing religious iconography and local observation in short and very short vibrant sentences. Capildeo’s fabulous dramatic interior monologues render the world in a fresh and exciting way managing to be simultaneously breathtaking and mildly disturbing.

The animal who kisses persistently is much to be avoided. The more it is avoided, the more it comes back. It will seek out its prey in the middle of dreams about castles in nowhere, and make its catch before the staircase in the upper servants’ hall. The animal is known to feel like a peach that has been rained on. It carpets itself and plasters itself but insists that it does not cling. The degree of wildness that characterizes this animal has yet to be ascertained. It announces itself with popping sounds like a champagne bottle being opened on the roof. To determine the whereabouts of this animal, it is advised to make a fresh cup of tea and leave it about as if forgotten. With a loud slurp the top of the tea will be taken off. A second slurp, if permitted – and it seldom can be avoided – will put away half the cup. That is the way that the animal who kisses persistently strengthens itself in preparation for the attack. 22


1 See also Eliot’s 1917 essay ‘Reflections on Vers Libre’ and 1936 introduction to Djuna Barnes poetic novel, Nightwood, which he claimed was not poetic prose as it did not have sufficient rhythm and music.

2 For an interesting discussion of the impact of Thomas De Quincey on Baudelaire

and the development of the prose poem see N. Santilli – Such Rare Citings: The Prose Poem in English Literature New Jersey Rosemont Publishing 2002 pp.87-97

3 Roy Fisher – The Ship’s Orchestra London Fulcrum Press 1966

4 Robert Sheppard – ‘Making Forms with Remarks: The Prose’ in The Thing About Roy Fisher Edited by John Kerrigan and Peter Robinson Liverpool Liverpool University Press 2000 p. 134

5 N. Santilli – Such Rare Citings: The Prose Poem English Literature. Some of Fisher’s other prose poems are mentioned.

6 Robert Sheppard – The Poetry Of Saying: British Poetry And Its Discontents 1950-2000 Liverpool Liverpool University Pres 2005 pp. 77-102

7 Sean O’Brien – The Deregulated Muse: Essays On Contemporary British & Irish Poetry Newcastle Bloodaxe Books 1998 pp. 112-122

8 Andrew Duncan – Origins of the Underground: British Poetry Between Apocryphon And Incident Light 1933-79 Cambridge Salt 2008 pp. 62-70

9 Roy Fisher – The Ship’s Orchestra p. 44 and p. 43

10 Ibid pp. 11-12

11 Ibid p.8

12 Ibid pp. 18-22

13 Ibid p. 39

14 Ibid p. 46

15 Ibid p. 50

16 Bill Griffiths version of the The Nine Herbs Charm (Tern Press 1981) emphasises it sound and prose qualities. Moreover, Griffiths’ Aspects of Anglo-Saxon Magic (Anglo-Saxon Books 1996) makes a case for many Old English texts as list poems that can be translated with or without line breaks. Griffiths, of course, was a poet intensely concerned with questions of identity, language and power.

17 Todd Swift – ‘Catering to the Perfumed Cannibal’ Poetry London 65 Spring 2010

Sourced at

18 Luke Kennard – The Migraine Hotel Cambridge Salt 2009 p. 48

19 Brian Clements and Jamey Dunham Eds. – An Introduction to the Prose Poem Firewheel Editions 2009 pp. 233-254

20 Elisabeth Bletsoe – Landscape from a Dream Exeter Shearsman 2008 pp.49-57

21 Carrie Etter Ed – Infinite Difference: Other Poetries by U.K. Women Poets Exeter Shearsman 2010 pp. 80-86

22 Vahni Capildeo – Undraining Sea Norwich Egg Box 2009 p. 57

Friday, 29 May 2009

So Here We Are 21

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The Long Beach poet and writer, Donna Hilbert, has been writing about death, grieving, class, alienation, motherhood, displacement and survival in a series of books since 1990. Brought up in the Red River Valley of Oklahoma near the Texas border, she has spent most of her life in southern California. What is distinctive about her work is not so much its seeming transparency and purity of language but rather its deployment and repetition of certain key words, phrases and poems throughout her oeuvre in order to give it semantic structure and weight. This enables her to expose unresolved aspects of the human situation and constraints on the self, without prejudice or sentimentality that reverberate over time. Her work can be read as a fusion and extension from a feminist perspective of some of the literary techniques employed by Charles Bukowski and Raymond Carver. The use of precise economic and social detail, which needs to be examined for its context and omissions, dominates over form. This is evident in poems, such as ‘Economy Lesson’, ‘Interior Decoration’ and ‘Aunt Velma’ in Deep Red (Event Horizon Press 1993) and ‘Consciousness Raising’ in Transforming Matter (Pearl Editions 2000 pp. 31-32). There is a striving to convey raw emotion within sharply defined social situations, as in poems such as, ‘Craving’ in Transforming Matter (page 22). Repetition is utilised to move beyond the singular moment and ordinary things and objects, such as letters, shoes, dresses, playing cards, lunch boxes, magazines and so on, accrue extra meaning.
Hilbert reinforces this sense of unresolved matters returning by repeating certain poems in subsequent collections. They are used as echoes and to potentially show through ambiguity new meaning in their different context. Take the example of ‘Rank’, which appears as the first poem in the Dear Heart section of Transforming Matter (page 27), a collection dedicated to her husband killed by a motorist whilst cycling his bicycle early on the morning of 25 August 1998 and concerned with the social context of the narrator’s love affair with her husband. ‘Rank’ can be read as a loving memory of a man who obeyed his mother in teaching the narrator how to play bridge. This is supported by the context of the other poems in the collection. When ‘Rank’ reappears in Traveler in Paradise (Pearl Editions 2004 page 51) as the third poem in the Transforming Matter section it can be read more as a poem of social control, class and fitting in where the emphasis is more on the narrator and mother-in-law rather than mother-in-law and son or narrator and son.

Here’s ‘Rank’

I never wore white shoes
before memorial Day
or suede in summer.
I crossed my legs
primly at my ankle,
wore a panty girdle
and a full-length slip,
no shadow of body
apparent through my dress.
I knew better than
to crackle gum,
or walk down the street
cigarette dangling
from my mouth,
knew better than
to pierce my ears,
like some common girl.
Still, his mother
rooted out the tell-tale
signs, traces of a family
line who worked for wages
in “mediocre” jobs.
The day after
we’d spent the night together
and got caught,
he came to my apartment
with a deck of cards
that he spread across
the kitchen table,
saying Mother says
I have to teach you bridge
so we’ll have something in common.
He arranged the cards
in suits to demonstrate
their ranking,
clubs, diamonds, hearts, spades,
saying spades are the boss
trump, outrank everything,

‘Rank’ works as a compressed narrative where each detail has meaning and power that echoes over time and shows the upwardly mobile, transgressive narrator out trumped by the superior class of her future mother-in-law. It is a poem about transgression and consequent exposure.

It was the Transforming Matter collection that led to the making of the short film Grief Becomes Me: A Poet’s Journey, by director Christine Fugate, an interweaving of documentary footage and narrative interpretations of the poetry. Made by a team of women filmmakers, the film explores Hilbert’s depiction of death and renewal and reveals some of the inner life of grief. The title Grief Becomes Me indicates an enfolding and overpowering of a self by an intense emotion as well as fitness to and by implication beauty within that state.

Here is the poem from Transforming Matter (page 45):

Grief Becomes Me

You’ve never looked better
my friends Edward and Neil
tell me and lean close
for a clearer view.
I know what they mean
and believe it’s true,
the same way earth and sky
wash to a radiant clean
after relentless days of rain.
How you would present me
with pieces of sea glass
tumbled smooth
from journeying canyons
and rivers to the ocean
and back again
washing up at our feet –
bits of amber, green,
and the rarest stellar blue.
Everything pure and impure
has leached from the soil
of my face,
and in the corners of my eyes,
hard crystals form.

The poem’s focus on perception and representation emphasises the need to look closer at things. The lines ‘Everything pure and impure / has leached from the soil / of my face,’ scorches the notion of outer appearance reflecting inner being. It is the final line that shifts the poem’s attention back to chemistry and process. The use of ‘hard’ in the final line takes the possible meaning of crystal away from any pleasing geometrical shape to crystallisation and the difference between glass and crystal solids. The poem thus ends with an appeal to the difference between solids and glasses as representations and the knowledge that the process of forming a glass does not release the latent heat of fusion.

Hilbert’s latest book, The Green Season (World Parade Books 2008), is a poetry collection sandwiched between two short stories. The title plays on the multilayered meaning of green as an adjective and harks back to the poem of displacement, ‘Seattle’ in Transforming Matter (page 30). In ‘Seattle’ the narrator is as green as the evergreen trees and grasses of Seattle and is ‘green too at nineteen’, and is within the range of meaning of OED 8, not fully developed, OED 8c, still raw, and OED 8d simple, unsophisticated, gullible and so on. There is the underlying possibility of implying OED 3a as in green with envy, although this is not fully supported. This mention of green, a recurrent theme throughout the oeuvre, comes with references to the novelist, Graham Greene’s The Power and the Glory and The Heart of the Matter and has the narrator so lonely that she engages wrong numbers in conversation. The use of green in the title The Green Season moves from adjective to noun and implies OED 2c a season of the year, characterised by abundance of verdure, OED 10b retaining the traces of newness, perceptibly fresh or recently set and not completely hardened and OED 9 as a noun, verdant. There is also contained with this OED 6b adjective, of immaterial things, especially the memory of a person, which echoes throughout part of the collection. It is therefore using ‘green’ as a marker over time, place and social situation so that it echoes in a new context and shows a movement forwards. The collection charts a continuing journey towards connectedness, of self and to family and friends that is thwarted by opposition, setback and death. The past is still shaping the future in the present, memory and dreams, and experience, family relations and psychological history temper the promise of renewal. The path to regeneration is thus strewn with psychic markers and this is represented in the collection by previously published poems and stories.
The opening story, ‘The Early Days’, from the award-winning collection, Women Who Make Money and the Men Who Love Them (Staple First Editions 1994), concerns a woman’s journey out of grief to connectedness with the world through language. The social detail is clearly defined in relation to the narrator’s confinement within the gender role assigned by her family and class. The narrator, often with her mother, uses new words, such as cantaloupe, foreign words and swearing as ways into a newer and better social space and as buffers against failure. Cantaloupe can be read as a sign of health, fresh diet, as well as new word and part of the journey outwards. However, the narrator fails to find a way out, fails to connect and disintegrates in suffering. The happiness of the title poem, ‘The Green Season’, is prefaced by a sequence of poems, including ‘Domestic Arts’, ‘Madeleine’ and ‘The Explanations’ which show a generation of alcoholic middle class women handing down their coping mechanisms to their daughters and neighbours. Here the narrator as a young mother rebels against this and attempts to break free of their great unhappiness. They are all in some way seeking a language for hunger, grief and anger and other meanings for passion and what it is to be a woman. The narrator as a mature woman operates more on instinct in ‘This, Happily’ when she takes a new lover and knows that competition is not far away.

He Who Takes My Sorrow Away

He who takes my sorrow away
my friend has named as her lover.
Who wouldn’t wish for that,
if only for an hour or two,
that sorrow might
be lifted with the skirt,
discarded like a soiled shirt.

Hilbert refuses any easy closure or notion of healing after grief in favour of a psychologically more probing perspective of self and others, self and self. The collection has an uplifting philosophical poise, highlighted in the poem, ‘Waste’, and although remarkably close to memoir, is profound in its critique of therapy as social control and understanding of the necessity for a set of historical and psychological markers that underpin a narrative self on the brink of renewal.

Wednesday, 11 March 2009

Letter 20

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I would like to say a few words about Juliet Cook’s Horrific Confection originally published as an e book and now published in hard copy by BlazeVox Books ( of New York.

Juliet Cook’s Horrific Confection combines elements of magical realism and dark horror in a poetic exploration of the domestic, especially food, and the artificial. It is set deeply within the meaning of confection as a noun ‘the making or preparation by mixture of ingredients’ (OED 1), ‘a preparation made by mixing; a composition, mixture, compound’ (OED 5) and as a verb ‘to make into a confection; to mix, make up as a seasoned delicacy’ (OED 1). More than that, Cook reaches back to older meanings of confection such as ‘a medicinal preparation compounded of various drugs’ (OED 5b) and ‘a prepared poison, a deadly potion’ (OED 5c).
The book is divided into four sections, ‘heat me up’, ‘cool me down’, ‘consume me’ and ‘choke on me’, which provide both a narrative and analytical structure. The opening poem, ‘Morning Fragment’, introduces two recurring motifs, the egg and the knife, within a breakfast image of bloodshot eggs, glistening marmalade, glowing hot wire ribs and crumb cake crawling out of the narrator’s throat. The egg registers as nutrition, embryo, ovulation, fertility and eyes and the knife as implement and weapon, showing the domestic to be both constructive and destructive.
The first section, ‘heat me up’, inhabits a domestic world that is both sensuously tactile and swerves between the kitchen as a site of sanitised violence and food as nourishment and poison. The raw seems to permeate and resist the cooked. Here the narrator attempts to resist the artificial and sinister world of her mother’s domestic regime:

A black line blurs
into bristling trellis. Throbbing. Little sister ensanguined,
straining twisted limbs. Furry bodies wriggle in sockets. Honey
bees burst out her eyes. Leave behind
tiny stingers pumping venom into trespassed flesh. (page 15)

Note how the stressed ‘b’ produces a savage intensity. ‘She Warns Me’ continues:

Mother’s burgeoning tongue. Cyanosis-blue and serrated
abduction. I can’t hide. I surrender to the toxic spill,
the swarm. Excruciating swell and thrall
Words sprawl disembodied. A husky hum
from the filthy darkness underneath a rusty engine.
Tendons slashed. Ripped open dress. Knivey licks
and public restroom reek of chloroform. (page 15)

Cook’s feminism is indirect and subtle. Domestic violence lurks and hovers in all manner of unexpected places and weapons, from the mother figure, to Barbie dolls, to confectionery and the male gaze.

The artificial is seen most graphically in the poem, ‘Dollophile’, which concerns male fascination with blow-up and other dolls, and occasions some blistering and comic language:

He wants to smooth pancake makeup
onto already poreless ‘flesh’
He wants her preprogrammed ‘voicebox’
to ‘acquiesce’, ‘deliquesce’, ‘luminesce’,
and release a steaming shitload

of dirty words. He wants made-to-order, interchangeable
crotch panels, blinking lights, a bottomless spit valve.
He wants a barely legal doll who can fit a small octopus
inside like some kind of mutant nesting doll rape. (page 17)

In the second ‘cool me down’ section, the poem ‘Grotesque Intimacy’ features a narrator that yearns for the artificial and transgressive desire. Here the self and her partner seek invasion: ‘We’re being drained, smeared, / dragged into the lush desire for even darker disguises.’ The language is suitably double-edged and shifting into a multilayered universe of possibility. ‘Beady-eyed sweetie. Zombie lips. / Feel the baby earwigs tickle your spine. / They know how you want to be a book.’
The textual solidity of the poems forces through to a world that is less make believe and more credible horror through its constant reminder of the self as consumer and its proximity to the raw. ‘Swathes of mucus always ooze / from slugs nestled inside her pastel cupcake papers.’ and later from the same poem, ‘Horrific Confection’, ‘A shiny knife winks at her. It wants her -- / a frosted slice. Gaping and glazed with coagulum.’

The third section begins with ‘Self Portrait as Gingerbread Girl’ and takes the reader into the heart of this culinary dystopia. Here the narrator longs ‘for a dress that flaps open’ and to ‘escape this edible mess / of shams.’ in order to avoid decapitation and gives voice to the Gingerbread Girl that ‘didn’t ask to be cut in the shape of a girl.’ This is an attack on the artificial as she would prefer to be ‘abstract’, ‘unable to be construed’ and ‘spicy misdeeds’. It is a wonderfully idiosyncratic elegy. The section as a whole gives voice to confections that insinuate and fester against the matronly domestic goddess and her opposite the domestic witch. These poems show the ways in which the artificial penetrate other parts of a woman’s life and culminate in ‘Costume Party Afterbirth’ where:

You’re more like a pin-
striped service provider, holding down the tongue depressor gag.
You experiment with cup sizes, but have nothing real

to fill them. Sample 1. Fake Secretary Sample 2. Fake Pig
Suspended in Silicon Sample 3. Besmirched Cryptozoology.
You have anthropomorphized yourself, you have felt yourself up

for suspicious lumps. You have frisked your hollow panda bear head
until at least one piece of candy fell out
your eye socket. Your gaping piebald maw. (page 42)

The final, choke on me, section gives voice to more mutant confections, fake cakes, horror cakes and gaping holes oozing slime leading to ‘Self Portrait as Semi-Amorphous Entity’ where ‘she’s beating / her own head against a doll house / door’ and the narrator’s head ends up in the cake pan. Choke on me shows the impact of the artificial on the young girl that veers away from the domestic goddess to the domestic witch in a blistering series of dramatic and satirical poems. Poems such as ‘Oh Those Mercurial Wrists’, ‘Spilled Milk’, ‘little death scenes’, ‘Pink Bird’ and ‘The Angel of Death’ bring this energised collection to a climax full of invective and humour. Here’s the beginning of ‘Oh Those Mercurial Wrists’:

The way she froths at the mouth then explodes
into sexy blasphemy.

The way her lips sizzle then ignite –
Bananas Flambé.

Painted flames drizzle down to
scintillating nipple ring gleams.

This leads to

The way she makes up her own eyes with a languorous,
over-the-top glamour
she calls ‘Tarred & Feathered’.

The way today’s look is called ‘Little Bo Peep the Whore’
as she wields a tiny riding crop, exclaiming, ‘Faster Lambchop!
We must escape the damned rapscallions!’ (page 54)

This, however, is a mere warm-up for the full violence of ‘The Angel of Death’ that links its sustained attack on the artificial to a Catholic upbringing and explodes in visceral anger.

My womb is a real muckraker
and half the congregation’s dirty fingers are stuck inside.
Some of them are trying to get me off;
some of them are trying to turn me off,
but my motorized blades are still whirring furiously.
You see, in MY visceral guide to uterine occupation,
the vagina dententa myth is true.
I’ve cued the seizure-inducing lights
and the spew of slashed babymakers.
Bang your head to the strains of this heretic c--t. (page 63)

Saturday, 7 February 2009

Letter 19 (new series)

SHWA 19: A Note on Hugh Fox

Hugh Fox, one of the co-founders of the Committee of Small Magazine Editors & Publishers (COSMEP) network, has been an abiding and colourful presence on the small press scene for forty years. COSMEP was founded at Berkeley in November 1968, by a generation born in the Thirties, to foster the post-Beat boom in small press publishing. Closely linked to Sixties counter-culture, the founders of COSMEP were interested in breaking down social, psychological, personal and literary barriers. Hugh Fox has continued on this route unabated, combining an academic career with his small press activity. He wrote an acclaimed book on pre-Columbian religion and edited, Ghost Dance, an international quarterly of experimental poetry from 1968 until 1995 that featured Latin American and outsider poets. He is a poet of exuberant mental states and shifting voices. He has published more than one hundred books of poetry and is one of those poets that is forever looking and moving forward. The direct opposite of, for example, the English poet, Philip Larkin, who published only five books and was predominantly introspective. Widely read with an inquisitive mind, Fox’s poetry exudes the spirit of opening the doors of perception and its arc of development is outwards towards the new.

His work jumps from perception to perception, allusion to allusion, drawing upon vast knowledge in literature, history, archaeology, anthropology and languages and experience. Like Charles Olson, Fox works on a grand scale, seeking out a universality and global and or comparative perspective. Fox, though, is more divergent than Olson and works in shorter units. He is a beguiling poet, continually experimenting with different techniques and personae and using cultural, historical, autobiographical and linguistic references to open out meaning and ways of being.
It is this constant quest of moving forward, onwards to the next technical problem, book, chapbook, and a desire to publish with independent presses that he shares with his English contemporaries associated with The English Intelligencer newsletter started in 1968 and the Association of Little Presses, founded in 1966.

Quoting from Fox’s own autobiographical comment, he writes:

‘After attending grammar school with the Irish nuns at Saint Francis de Paulo school in Chicago, and then high school with the Christian Brothers of Ireland (not just the regular Christian Brothers), the pre-med and medicine at Loyola University in Chicago, then a switch to English, a Ph.D. in American Literature from the Univ. of Illinois and marriage to a Peruvian who was mostly Indian and getting involved with the mythologies of the ancient world, making discoveries no one had ever dreamed of before (like discovering Phoenician writing all over the pottery and ruins of the Mochica Indians in Peru and the Yopi Indians in Mexico, discovering Sumerian writing on pots in ancient Bolivia), and then becoming a Jew after I discovered that the ‘Czech’ grandmother who had raised me was really Jewish too ...’ (Hugh Fox – Defiance Higganum Hill Books 2007 page 88) Note the emphasis upon discovery and the movement from one discipline to another, from one religion to another. His second wife was from Kansas and his third is a Brazilian MD. From the same autobiographical note, we read ‘When in Spain or Latin America he is usually identified as an Argentinean.’

His memoir, Way, Way Off The Road (Ibbetson Street Press 2006) sheds light on what he terms the invisible post-Beat hippie generation of poets. It’s full of vignettes of poets and literary figures and criss-crosses over time and place in a collage of stories.
Fox is fascinated with the roots of individual identity and language that is backed up by research in Peru, Columbia, Chile, Mexico and Trinidad, a facility in several languages and the first critical studies of Charles Bukowski and Lyn Lifshin. He was attracted to Bukowski’s non-academic, non-Latinate English and its lack of pretension and Lifshin’s sense of isolation that he links to her father’s hidden Jewishness. (Way, Way Off The Road pp 10, 101-6, 128-134) He admires both for their artistic integrity and yet sees their outsider status as masks. The same perspective can be applied to Fox’s poetry. For he also plays the outsider card and similarly employs masks. The most notable of which is his alter ego, Connie Fox, which he played out in dress and print. (See Connie Fox’s Blood Cocoon: Selected Poems Presa Press 2005) The creation and writing of an active female self with a life and history can be seen as an extension or unfurling of the creative self and a movement against another barrier or plain exhibitionism. Certainly he has remained true to the post-April 1968 Berkeley sensibility of the gypsy poet vagabond and continues his outward journey of discovery and the books continue to appear at a prolific rate.

His Brazilian poems, Finalmente / Finally translated from the Portuguese into English by Glanna Luschei (Solo Press 2007) has been followed by Nunca Mais / Never Again (Cornerstone Press 2008) a series of sequentially numbered first person narratives that places the perceiving self within the living culture of Florianopolis, Brazil. It is a subjective study of the body in flight, crippled and fighting against the ravages of time and the backdrop of a holiday from Michigan to distant relatives.


Teresa walking slowly with her cane,
talking about “I…I…I…w…w…would..I…I…
like…to go t…t……the..b…b…bathroom,”
her son who spoke perfect English last
year yesterday told me (eating coconut
sweets) “I’ve already forgotten everything,”
his sweetheart, Neiva, has a son from another
guy..the commandments here:

1. More coffee,
2. More butterflies,
3. Papaya,
4. News on the TV,
5. Clothes,
6. Free time,
7. Sea,
8. Hills,
9. Grilled beef,
10. Eternities.

The movement here from pathos to bathos gives extra depth and humour to a sequence that effortlessly sprawls across intercultural relations into philosophical
probing. Fox positions words to employ their full meaning in poems and in so doing makes easy poems more complex and brings in a wider range of reference, as here:


Lovers Day tomorrow – the TV shows
men lifting women over to beds, me
castrated like a monkey from another planet,
trying to learn how to be a human being
in the middle of assassinated sons, drugs,
rifles, cocaine, cocaine, cocaine,
communion / the body of Christ in
the twenty-first century

Coca = Herb
and herbas are natural products of the earth.

The tone of casual reportage begins to unwind towards the end of the sequence.


The church channel on TV, hypnotizing,
Hail Mary to the computers, hail to
to the TV with a thousand channels,
hail to the cost of gas going up, hail
to the motorcycles that go like bullets
and use less gas, hail to inflation
lowering the salaries and raising prices,
hail to all the faces in the world together,
no differences because of color or language,
or the name of the tribe, waiting for Jesus
to come back again, and for the difference
between heaven and earth to disappear
forever. Amen.

‘Hail’ here of course can be pellets of frozen rain, to greet enthusiastically and to acclaim as the reader knows and thus the tone of the poem is both enhanced and potentially mocked. As the news and films of violence escalates, the narrator becomes more isolated by thoughts of mortality and this eventually leads to a poetic implosion.


My poetry itself begins to
undo itself, the intellectual-
creative landscape undoing
itself and the philosophical
richness of the present moment
here re-becoming the great
emptiness of my life (almost
over) there.

This reinforces the Bukowskian theme of the body with teasing comic puns in the bracketed ‘almost’ and line broken ‘over’ coalescing thoughts of mortality into the kind of self-pity that Bukowski would have ridiculed. Fox employs a knowing self that seeks to embrace the world as fully as possible and calls upon the full gamut of emotional responses within a continually evolving exploration of identity.

David Caddy

Friday, 31 October 2008

Letter 18

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My first recollection of entering Piddles Wood near Fiddleford in the mid-Sixties is of sinking into wet mud along the rutted uphill path and of the constant patter of raindrops on a dense flora of shrubs, ferns, creepers and moss. Enchanted by this ancient woodland of oak, ash and hazel, I became a regular visitor and soon discovered the remains of a campfire strewn with cider and methylated spirit bottles and a makeshift stove. A little higher uphill was the disused brick house that had been the home of a woodman in the Fifties and an orchard of apple and plum trees. The place seemed alive with living things and yet had an otherworldly nature due to the variation and nature of sounds and the prospect of encountering some stag, tramp or creature. I became aware of the way cuckoos and owls mimic human voices and of the extraordinary variety of butterflies and moths. This early experience of ancient woodland eventually led to poems and an interest in woods in social and literary history as well as what is now called biodiversity and ecology. Unlike my father and grandfather, I am not a carpenter although I do follow the happenings around my local woods and that filters into my poems.

Whenever I walk Piddles Wood now I recall the Dorset Elizabethan poet, George Turbeville’s Noble Art of Venerie or Hunting (1576). Turbeville (1540-1610) was from nearby Winterborne Whitchurch and belonged to the old Dorset family recalled by Thomas Hardy in his novel, Tess of the d’Ubervilles (1888). His book is a manual on the etiquette and language of all things connected to hunting. It is also a poetry book with a commendatory poem on the noble art by George Gascoigne, the Green Knight, and poems by Turbeville from the viewpoint of the huntsman and the various hunted animals. The book, dedicated to the Queen’s Master of Hart Hounds, is a work of translation from English, French, Latin, Italian and Dutch sources designed to offer the best guide to noble and gentlemen available and it became an immensely popular and important work in shaping hunting behaviour for several centuries. The virtues, nature and properties of stags, hounds and dogs are identified and the deer hunter is taught how to read behaviour and physical signs in animals. The book also features one of the first appearances in English of Raynard the Fox, the ballad popularised by John Masefield in his 1919 poem and a staple of BBC radio broadcasting during the twentieth century. Based on mainly anonymous late twelfth and thirteenth century French poets, Turbeville omits the bawdy and comic elements of the original. It is his book on hunting far more than his Epitaphes, Epigrams, Songs and Sonnets (1567) and translations of Ovid that give him importance in English social and literary history. For his guidebook and poems have their opposite in illegal hunting, or poaching, and in the history of those excluded from the noble art that sought access to the bounty of the wood. Poaching continues in 2008 and is a business for some and a form of economic survival for others. Increasingly well-organised at the top end of the business are those that organise stag hunts in Piddles Wood at £1,000 per gun and at the bottom end are joy-hunters that lack the income to do much more and people stealing kindling wood and timber. In between are warring factions of gypsies and gamekeepers that roam far and wide in acts of poaching and cruelty.

Hunting forests were subject to harsh Forest law, imposed by the Normans, with punishments of castration and mutilation. Indeed the word ‘forest’ was originally a judicial term meaning land that had been placed off limits by royal decree. By the twelfth century there were 66 Royal Forests and 70 private chases controlled by strict Forest law. Here the King and other nobles had the right to keep deer, wild boar and other prey. ‘Forest’ also carries within it a meaning of being outside the public domain and it is this meaning that poets have utilised. Forests and woods then are potentially where the world is turned upside down, as in Shakespeare’s As You Like It or A Midsummer’s Night Dream. It is a place of sexual discovery and assignation, danger and deceit, where pagan spirits can take over a man, such as Falstaff, as in The Merry Wives of Windsor. Things can be different and the pastoral can be disrupted to allow otherness to enter. Protest poems against Forest law date back to the Old English poem, ‘The Rhyme of William’ found in the Peterborough Chronicle (1087). (See Robert Pogue Harrison – Forests: The Shadow of Civilisation Chicago University Press 1992 page 76)

I would like to look at some forests as they appear in English poetry. This is a vast theme and I only intend these remarks as introductory and to dovetail into previous talks. From the seventeenth century the history of forests is one of progressive deforestation with attendant struggles over rights, access and poaching. Forest officers according to forest law that had been encoded since the twelfth century essentially kept royal forests fertile. As more land was turned over from the monarchy into chases and parks and eventual enclosure, the more non-landowners lost pasture and common rights and forest access.
Forest land became stripped of wood, turf, gorse and timber
as private owners unwilling to compensate commoners with rights of pasture, turf and wood took advantage of their new market freedom. New money and new types of landowners produced barren and disputed forests. This divide between public men with landed property and the new private competitive men unmotivated by public spirit is seen in Alexander Pope’s poem, Windsor Forest (1713). Here Windsor Forest signifies an older order of values, land and custom, domestic peace and harmony, as in line 42 ‘And peace and plenty tell, a STUART reigns.’ The poem celebrates a brief period of harmony between forest officials and foresters during Queen Anne’s reign. The Forest, continually shrinking in size throughout the eighteenth century, was divided into parkland owned by the Crown and private owners, enclosed arable and meadow land, thick coppices and smaller woods, moor land and marginal lands with squatters. It was still highly regulated and from 1716 the harmony was destroyed by new forest laws brought in by the Whig government leading to intense hostilities between poachers and forest officials between 1720 and 1723. (See E.P. Thompson – Whigs and Hunters Allen Lane 1975 pp 28-9) Pope, whose experience of growing up at Binfield on the western part of the forest underlay much of his pastoral poetry, celebrates the harmony of the forest economy with its balance between hunters and farmers. This is contrasted with the earlier tyranny of William III’s reign. A tyranny that returned as Walpole’s Government sided with the new moneyed interests against the foresters and passed the Black Act (1723) introducing the death penalty for breaking forest laws.

Eric Mottram’s Windsor Forest (Pig Press 1979) draws upon the Herne the Hunter legend first mentioned in The Merry Wives of Windsor and explores the historical and mythological origin of
a specific wood demon. The poem serves as a local study of power relations within the forest over time and of a self in conflict with authority. It employs an open-field approach with a kind of Victorian sub-horror imagery derived from W. Harrison Ainsworth’s historical romance, Windsor Castle (1844) and George Cruikshank’s illustrations, supported by references to British and Celtic deities and reminders that the legend is based in part, at least, upon historical relations and conditions from the fourteenth century onwards. The lines are heavily compacted with information and references to how belief in a wood demon is ingrained in English culture and linked to widespread popular beliefs. The forester / narrator is tested, as in the legend, by the offer of liberation into demonic power and example of Herne, which he tries to resist, ‘I may be in league with darkness / but I have no wish to aid him’ for his crimes. This implicit association between Herne and darkness recalls the Windsor Forest poachers blacking their faces to disguise their identity in their struggle with forest officials as sketched by E.P. Thompson in Whigs and Hunters. The wood demon is the product of repression and revenge. ‘I have known no human passion except hatred and revenge.’ The poem ends with the forester seeing demonic energy ‘more through deeds’ and ‘hunt horns’ calling ‘the allegiances’, which implies a dual demonic nature in both sides of the divide. The poem catches the slippery nature and energy of a wood demon through sudden narrative shifts, dense and arcane language that produces an unsettling effect. There is uncertainty over the range of possible meanings and inferences and their exact relationship to the narrative that requires further enquiry. For example, Herne is introduced as ‘wild spectral humanity’ and described thus:

deer skins around tawny gaunt limbs
he his a skull helmet antlered

phosphoric fire cut in links
rusted from his left arm chain

on his right wrist a horned owl
dilated taloned erect

red balled feathers angered
in full cauldrons the moons (page 1)

This appears to be a description of Cruikshank’s Herne illustrations. However, Mottram has added ‘phosphoric fire’, ‘red balled’ and ‘full cauldrons’. The ‘phosphoric fire’ could be a reference to Lucifer’s fall making the connection with the fallen Herne and also introducing some notion of transformation from hunter to spirit to Satan or another demonised figure. Note the use of ‘links’ indicating relations beyond the links on chain maille to preface this line of connection.
Windsor Forest is a complex poem that opens up a wide area of association. For example, it connects the dangers of the forest with forbidden and erotic love through the presence and quotation from Anne Boleyn’s lover, Sir Thomas Wyatt, who presumably employed Herne to regain Anne and ‘now follows druid fire’. Wyatt’s sonnet ‘Whoso list to hunt’, perhaps about Anne, acknowledges that he may hunt ‘an hind’ no more. Herne’s woodcraft is associated with Celtic deities and regeneration ‘on occasion he appeared as a monk in dark second skin’, Actaeon, the Greek hunter who changed into a stag, and Ogham script, the ‘three strikes’ used to name a tree. Gypsies, amongst those squatting on the forest’s margins, are also linked with Herne, through ‘skin’ in a passage where the hunter and trapped buck appear to find release. Mottram developed his Herne investigations into A Book of Herne (Arrowspire Press 1981), linking with Herne with the Green Man and widening his theme of a self in conflict with authority, desire and madness.

The Easter stag hunt that the poet John Clare witnessed in Epping Forest, north east of Greater London, in 1841 was an annual event from 1226 until 1858. His being was affected that Easter Monday by standing next to ‘a stout, tall, young woman, dressed in a darkish fox-red, cotton gown as a milkmaid or farm-servant.’ He was a poet that to use Merleau-Ponty’s phrase
breathes ‘authentic speech’. (See Maurice Merleau-Ponty – The Phenomenology of Perception Routledge 1996 Page 194) He is awake to the nuances of each living being in Epping Forest and they invest his poetry with clarity as he names and speaks for them. Clare’s poem ‘London versus Epping Forest’ has become a powerful statement for the green movement in that it calls for responsible stewardship of the forest and its inhabitants.

The brakes, like young stag’s horns, come up in Spring,
And hide the rabbit holes and fox’s den;
They crowd about the forest everywhere;
The ling and holly-bush, and wood of beach,
With room enough to walk and search for flowers;
Then look away and see the Kentish heights.
Nature is lofty in her better mood,
She leaves the world and greatness all behind;
Thus London, like a shrub among the hills,
Lies hid and lower than the bushes here.
I could not bear to see the tearing plough
Root up and steal the Forest from the poor,
But leave to freedom all she loves untamed,
The forest walk enjoyed and loved by all.

The forest’s greatness over London, that is a representation of commercial capital, is defined in terms of its measurement and ability to bestow freedom to all that exists within itself. This includes the poor whose freedoms are being eroded by the loss
of forest land. Clare asserts the right to roam and access to wood’s bounty for the poor at a time when enclosure reduced the Forest in size from 9,000 acres in 1793 to 7,000 acres in 1848. (See John Rodgers – The English Woodland Batsford 1941 page 34) His earlier poem ‘To A Fallen Elm’ proclaims the right to life for every living thing and by using an old tree evokes the full panoply of ancient statutes that won and protected the access and other rights denied by enclosure, saying ‘right was wrong and wrong was right’. Clare’s poem is quite distinct and more powerful than for example William Cowper’s acquiesence to loss in ‘The Poplar-field’ (1784) or Gerard Manley Hopkins’ lament for the loss of the Binsey poplars in 1879. For him the elm tree is as much a temporal as a spatial landmark and when a tree goes he is disorientated physically and mentally. Clare is Epping Forest’s most eloquent and radical defender in the tradition of the poetry of complaint.

Epping Forest itself has a long literary history that interweaves with the use of woods in poetry. (See William Addison – Epping Forest: Its Literary and Historical Associations Dent 1945) Elizabethan poets and courtiers, such as George Gascoigne, Thomas Lodge and Lady Mary Wroth (1587-1653), lived and wrote in the wood. Wroth was the first English woman to publish an original work of prose fiction, Urania (1621). This work within the Sidney-Spenser school has a supplement of 103 sonnets and songs, ‘Pamhilia to Amphilanthus’, was the first English sonnet sequence published by a woman. Lady Mary was a patron to poets, such as Ben Jonson, who dedicated The Alchemist (1610) to her and George Chapman. Johnson’s poem ‘To Sir Robert Wroth’ employs a different pastoral language to the Sidney-Spenser poets to place his subject.

Helen and Edward Thomas, whose first book was The Woodland Life (1897), settled at High Beech cottage from October 1915 until 1917, when Edward was stationed at Loughton Camp and studied Clare. (Addison – Epping Forest page 227) Thomas’ poetry has echoes of Clare’s especially in a poem like ‘Home’ with its suggestion of dwelling in a place where the birds and the narrator have one memory and the same relationship to the wood. It is one of Thomas’ poems of course that so inspired the young Robert Frost. The narrator hears the birds and sees the April mist and is at one with the environment. ‘Twas home; one nationality’. (See Edward Thomas – Collected Poems OUP 1981 page 59)

Clare hated the enclosure acts that sequestered land away from the peasantry and well knew the impact of enclosed commons, parks and woodland. William Cobbett in his Rural Rides (1830) questioned for what and for whom are the deer kept in the New Forest and why should any man be transported for catching Forest game when it is public property? The Commissioners of Woods and Forests farmed hay and planted saplings for the deer out of public money until the 1851 Deer Removal Act. Deer were never fully removed and the New Forest remains one of the largest unenclosed forest areas in England with unified Commons rights going back to a 1698 statute. Its complex ‘rights of common’ pre-exist Royal hunting law. In 2005 it became a National Park with the Forestry Commission retaining its powers to manage Crown land and the Verderers under the New Forest Acts. Protest issues around the Forest continue, as it is hard to make a living from such stringent laws in what is largely a wasteland. Of recent poems on the New Forest, Jeremy Hooker’s collaboration with the sculptor, Lee Grandjean, entitled Their Silence A Language (Enitharmon Press 1993), is more concerned with tree-images than the social and economic history and ecology of the Forest. Hooker uses the tree as a symbol with different usages and meaning as a means to achieve perception. It effectively links trees and woods with creativity but misses out on their impact upon community identity. His images are sparse and simple, employing some of the analogies between carving and use of poetic language suggested by Donald Davie in Ezra Pound: Poet as Sculptor (1965), but without penetrating far beyond a narrow range of awareness and perception. It is, though, original in being about the trees of one Forest. Sadly, though the book fails to negotiate the real relations of the Forest and centres on a limited imagism and basic mythology, as in ‘Druid Song’ (page 42):

Who keeps the vert and the venison?
Who calls the creatures into a circle?

The stag-headed one,
bearded with green leaves,
lies down with the tree that was windthrown
in its prime,
the lightning-shattered,
all the litter of the seasons.

These come again –
new wood, timber.

But Thor’s tree is down,
the groves of the oakmen are felled.

There is no leaf, no twig
that does not grow upon the tree of life.

Where is the tree that will rise
to lift up the image of its maker?

Clare’s response to Epping Forest can be interestingly compared to Andrew Marvell’s Upon Appleton House, To My Lord Fairfax (1651), a poem that features the private wood of Lord Fairfax. Here the first person narrator confers with the birds and trees and wants to be one with their lives and world (stanza 71);
considers how his mind is made safe by the wood and the manner of his contemplation (stanza 76) and longs to be enslaved by its protective brambles and briars, invoking an image of crucifixion as the key to a spiritual life (stanza 77) and ultimately the ordered world of Fairfax’s country house. (See Andrew Marvell – Selected Poems Carcanet 1988 pp.83-85)

Marvell’s wood is quite distinct from John Milton’s Comus: A Mask Presented at Ludlow Castle 1634 (1645), which concerns a young woman, the Lady, who becomes lost in a wild wood (Haywood Forest) near Ludlow Castle, the home of Comus, a magician shepherd. Comus lives a life of sexual and sensual excess and attempts to seduce the Lady with ‘orient liquor’. With the help of her Christian brothers and the earth Goddess, Sabrina the Nymph, her virtue remains intact. However, Comus is not beaten and runs away to continue his ways. Milton breaks the conventions of both the masque and the pastoral by allowing Comus to survive. The wood is traditionally the scene of disruptive disorder conquered by the forces of virtue usually represented by the monarch. Milton’s ending is open and there is no recourse to any pastoral nostalgia. The idea of using the wood as a setting for evil is anti-pastoral and the work has a radical aspect that Blake recognised when he wrote that Milton was ‘of the Devil’s party’. John Kinsella’s recent version of Comus (Comus: A Dialogic Mask Arc 2008) has seized upon this and develops the anti-pastoral elements of the original and places it within a contemporary setting. Commissioned by the Cambridge University Marlowe Society to celebrate Milton’s 400th birthday, Kinsella’s Comus interacts with the original and brings out its environmental and sexual subtexts. His Comus is a genetic scientist who swallows Viagra and amphetamines. The Lady’s chastity as in the original concerns the temperate use of nature and self-control. Kinsella’s Comus is interfering with nature and is seriously out of control. Temperance in the original is the virtue that ethically preserves the wood and earth.
As in the original it is Sabrina the Nymph, who springs to the defence of the Lady at the Attendant Spirit’s request against the unethical scientist, and sings:

I hope to show
That where rushes and willows and osier grow
We can let things be,
No need for motor boats or cars,
Effluent pipes or phone towers,
Fertilisers that bring algae
To choke ducks and fish;
I am wary of the developer’s ambush,
Building to the water’s edge,
Let the stoats hunt and squirrels forage,
And so, farm hand, at your request
I am here. (page 64)

Here the Lady becomes an eco-warrior delineating and arguing
against Comus’s excessive tampering with and exploitation of nature. However, virtue is seen as an incomplete or pragmatic answer as the saving of wild place in the developed world is at the expense of another in the third world. The Attendant Spirit eulogises:

So don’t despair,
all this greenie poetry
won’t mean you’ll lose your luxuries.
Those of you who’d follow me,
remember the code word: LIBERTY…
virtue doesn’t mean you
can’t have your cake and eat it too. (page 68)

Kinsella thinks globally in his revitalisation of verse drama and draws attention to the need for local action. Reading Kinsella, I hear echoes of seventeenth century environmental concerns in our present situation, the problems of deforestation, air pollution, draining of wetlands (a concern of the Levellers), overbuilding, toxic mining, maltreatment of outcasts, gypsies and animals, destruction of habitats and dispossession of the poor, and the need to sing of the earth’s complaints and the need for wise and ethical cultivation. The wood is not merely a place of sanctuary, as in Marvell’s Upon Appleton House, and testing of conflicting virtues and vices but also of potential regeneration.

Saturday, 4 October 2008

Letter 17

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Poetic fashions ebb and flow and there are always marginalised figures that pursue fields of interest that are on the edge of acceptability. The boundaries of poetic discourse are always blurred and being challenged by successive avant-gardes. The poetic field itself is infinitely expansive rather than limited to easily identifiable categories due to the nature of language and to the bohemian inclination towards difference and the other. If we remove this from our analysis we have a less than dynamic vision of poetic discourse and endeavour and fail to see the myriad ways poets have produced sound and written texts, have questioned how to use language, form and the lyrical voice. In short, we fail to see that there is a vast history of alternative poetries. These poetries have been concerned with the interface between the public and private, between the self, experience and language in place and time and how to produce a radical poetics for most of the last century. These poetries can be seen as counter to the Movement and its successors and their continued anti-modernism and anti-internationalism, which in the words of Andrew Crozier and Tim Longville ‘foreclosed the possibilities of poetic language within its own devices.’ (A Various Art Carcanet Press 1987 page 12) Overall and underlying this has also been a continuous dispute about what constitutes the central tradition of English poetry.

The impact of this cultural nationalism has been such that many Forties poets have been attacked and forgotten. Their history of outward-looking and international engagement has been marginalised and downgraded by Movement and post-Movement critics. This is seen most clearly in the omission of Dylan Thomas, W.S. Graham, Norman Cameron, Lynn Roberts, Ruthven Todd, Nicholas Moore, George Barker, Humphrey Jennings, Philip O’Connor, Kathleen Raine, George Reavey, Sean Rafferty, Wrey Gardiner, Tambimuttu, J.F. Hendry, Burns Singer, Henry Treece, Hamish Henderson, Ruth Pitter, Vernon Watkins and their friends and associates.

The situation of one Forties poet was such that in April 1974 he found himself listening to a woman read the poem ‘September Sun: 1947’ to a group of mental patients on the Isle of Wight. A tall, sad looking man in a group of severely depressed inmates finally convinced Judy Lewis that he indeed was the poet, David Gascoyne, who had written the poem. Here we are in the midst of a hole in Gascoyne’s life. This is the man who had been a massive presence and key figure in the late Thirties and Forties in English and French culture mixing and arguing within Marxism, psychoanalysis, Catholic mysticism, alchemy and Surrealism. This is the man who in 1964 had been arrested at the Élysée Palace on his way to warn President De Gaulle of a forthcoming apocalypse and whose previous twenty years of life was still cast in shadow, seemingly lost, albeit highlighted by his December 1955 radio meditation, Night Thoughts and the publication of his Collected Poems in 1965.

He had been a precocious figure. He had published his first poetry volume, Roman Balcony (1932) aged 16, in the vein of Rilke, first novel Opening Day aged 17, written A Short Survey of Surrealism (1935) aged 19 and helped organise the 1936 International Surrealist Exhibition at Burlington House in London. His immediate circle was a distinct mixture of neo-Romantic poets that frequented the bookshops and pubs of Fitzrovia, Dylan Thomas, George Barker, Ruthven Todd, Roger Roughton and Norman Cameron, and recent Cambridge graduates, Humphrey Jennings, Roland Penrose, Charles Madge and Kathleen Raine. He had spent 1933 in Paris having been drawn by the avant-garde magazines he found in Zwemmers bookshop in Charing Cross Road in London. He was soon at the centre of the Surrealist movement in Paris with André Breton, Max Ernst and so on. From his Collected Journals 1936-1942 (Skoob Books 1991) we find Gascoyne in London and Paris advocating a revolutionary literature that is not didactic or social realist and striving to move into a deeper literary area than that occupied by the Auden Generation. In Paris he absorbs himself in European poetry and philosophy and writes Hölderlin’s Madness (1938), inspired by the translations of Jean Pierre Jouve, and sees the need for a great spiritual reawakening and rebirth to be part of any political revolution. Writing at a time of international danger, he turned to the Book of Revelation and the concept of the artist as a prophet. From the same period that he wrote Poems 1937- 1942 (Poetry London Editions 1943), illustrated by Graham Sutherland, and was translating Breton, Eluard, Dali and so on for Roughton’s Contemporary Poetry & Prose magazine, he interestingly compares his European conception of poetry with the Auden Generation’s poetry of rhetoric and argument. For him poetry is, in essence, a journey of discovery to the void and beyond and operates on a deeper level than that of statement or reportage.

To those who want to limit the horizon of English poetry, Gascoyne is simply brushed aside as a figure caught up in obscure French poetry and Surrealism, neatly forgetting that he was a distinctly English poet, working as much in the English visionary tradition as that of European poetry and philosophy. The arc of his poetic development is distinctly international and draws upon a wide range of sources. It stems from a period of rich intellectual exchange in Paris and London that provided the context to his poetry. I would like to say a few words about that context and offer some introductory notes to some of his poems.

Gascoyne’s Poems 1937-1942 marks a movement away from his earlier Surrealist work, Man’s Life is This Meat (1936), which established him as the leading surrealist poet in England.
Published by Tambimuttu, a Sri Lankan poet and publisher of Poetry London and PL Editions, it includes a cover and several edgy and alarming black and red ink drawings by the painter, Graham Sutherland, that augments and adds to the effect of the whole. Sutherland had exhibited at the 1936 Surrealist exhibition. Here his work seems to be echoing Gascoyne’s journey towards revelation.
The book is full of dedications and notations to the bohemian culture of Paris and London. The most dominant word in the book is sky. There are translations of Jouve, elegies for Wolf Berthold and Roger Roughton, a poem to Benjamin Fondane, as well as a whole section in French dedicated to the memory of the composer, Alban Berg. A range of traditional and modernist forms and styles are employed that serve to upset any natural flow to the book.
Gascoyne’s over-riding intellectual concern was to unite the subjective and the objective, the personal and the political, surrealism and political commitment. He strived to formulate what he called ‘dialectical supermaterialism’ a reconciliation of metaphysics with revolutionary ideology. His poetic sources and inspirations are a distinct amalgam of the visionary landscapes of neo-Romantic poetry and painting, such as his mentor, the editor of New Verse, Geoffrey Grigson’s enthusiasm for Samuel Palmer and the landscape of southern England, the surrealists reading of Freud, such as Salvador Dali’s theory of paranoia which inspired Jacques Lacan’s development of the concept of the Imaginary and Jean-Pierre Jouve’s work on sublimation, which connected Freud with Christianity, and mixing of the mystical and the erotic in his quest to move beyond the void. Gascoyne was actively reading the latest philosophical and psychoanalytical essays, absorbing Heidegger and early existentialist writings, translating a wide range of new essays and poetry by Dali, Breton, Eluard, Jouve that was tackling ontological questions. All this was fuelled by a growing amphetamine addiction at a time of uncertainty over his sexuality. He later confided that these were the two major omissions from his Journals. (Collected Journals pp. 336-402) He was actively talking about these matters in the cafés and bars of Montmartre and undergoing psychoanalysis with Jouve’s wife, Blanche Reverchon, which proved unhelpful. All these sources were instrumental in leading Gascoyne to a more visionary, religious poetry. Jouve, in particular, had written that the only answer to the void of time was to find in the poetic act a religious perspective. (See A.T.Tolley’s The Poetry of the Forties in Britain Manchester University Press 1985 chapter on Gascoyne)

I would like to briefly look at two of Gascoyne’s poems, ‘Ecce Homo’ and ‘The Gravel pit-Field’, from Poems 1937-1942.

Here’s the first four stanzas of ‘Ecce Homo’

Whose is this horrifying face,
This putrid flesh, discoloured, flayed,
Fed on by flies, scorched by the sun?
Whose are these hollow red-filmed eyes
And thorn-spiked head and spear-struck side?
Behold the Man : He is Man’s Son.

Forget the legend, tear the decent veil
That cowardice or interest devised
To make their mortal enemy a friend,
To hide the bitter truth all His wounds tell,
Lest the great scandal be no more disguised:
He is in agony till the world’s end,

And we must never sleep during that time!
He is suspended on the cross-tree now
And we are onlookers at the crime,
Callous contemporaries of the slow
Torture of God. Here is the hill
Made ghastly by His spattered blood

Whereon He hangs and suffers still:
See, the centurions wear riding-boots,
Black shirts and badges and peaked caps,
Greet one another with raised-arm salutes;
They have cold eyes, unsmiling lips;
Yet these His brothers know not what they do.

‘Ecce Homo’ is often quoted as the poem that led to Gascoyne’s ostracism from official Surrealism for it reference of ‘Christ of Revolution and of Poetry’ in stanzas 10-12. Gascoyne’s Christ, though, as Kathleen Raine has noted, is like Blake’s, the ‘divine humanity’ in all humankind, the spirit of Imagination and of prophecy. (See Kathleen Raine ‘Introduction’ in David Gascoyne: Selected Prose 1934-1996 Enitharmon Press 1998 page 18) The poem turns upon a mystical response to international fascism that places the current international violence in the context of larger and more enduring suffering, ‘the slow / Torture of God’ ‘in agony till the world’s end’.
Gascoyne at this time was also deepening his reading within the European alchemical tradition. He had known the work of Emmanuel Swedenborg since he was a schoolboy at Salisbury Cathedral School and had progressed through the German alchemical tradition from Cornelius Agrippa’s Occult Philosophy (1650) to Novalis’ Hymns to the Night (1800). The concept of the eternal is certainly derived from his reading of Boehme and Novalis’ and his reading background in Blake.
In his Journal entry on 23rd April 1939, we find Gascoyne in the midst of spiritual experience and writing: ‘The essential nature of the experience being Negation. The void, das Nichts, Nada, le Néant. Practically the only image that presents itself at all strongly to me is a black vacuum in (or through) which two eyes are fixedly staring’ and searching for the right tone to write poems about man’s present spiritual crisis. (Collected Journals page 256) In ‘Ecce Homo’ he calls upon the ‘Christ of Revolution and of Poetry’ to ‘Redeem our sterile misery’ so that ‘Man’s long journey through the night / May not have been in vain’. The ‘Miserere’ section of Poems sketches a ‘revelation of despair’, the contemporary spiritual condition, and shows a divine presence in moments of lucid subjectivity. This subjectivity returns the world to an authentic objectivity. It is suffering and a journey to the edge of the void that allows this transitory illumination of the divine presence or god of imagination. The void, here, being the result of the negation of the divine presence. This worldview is a distinct mixture of alchemical, surrealistic and ontological thinking stemming from the cafés and bars of Paris’ Left Bank inscribed within an English visionary landscape, as in poems such as ‘The Gravel-pit Field’.

Here’s ‘The Gravel-pit Field’:

Beside the stolid opaque flow
Of rain-gorged Thames; beneath a thin
Layer of early evening light
Which seems to drift, a ragged veil,
Upon the chilly March air’s tide:
Upwards in shallow shapeless tiers
A stretch of scurfy pock-marked waste
Sprawls laggardly its acres till
They touch a raw brick-villa’d rim.

Amidst this nondescript terrain
Haphazardly the gravel-pits’
Rough hewn rust-coloured hollows yawn,
Their steep declivities away
From the field-surface dropping down
Towards the depths below where rain-
Water in turbid pools stagnates
Like scraps of sky decaying in
The sockets of a dead man’s stare.

The shabby coat of coarse grass spread
Unevenly across the ruts
And humps of lumpy soil; the bits
Of stick and threads of straw; loose clumps
Of weeds with withered stalks and black
Tatters of leaf and scorched pods: all
These intertwined minutiae
Of Nature’s humblest growths persist
In their endurance here like rock.

As with untold intensity
On the far edge of being, where
Life’s last faint forms begin to lose
Name and identity and fade
Away into the Void, endures
The final thin triumphant flame
Of all that’s most despoiled and bare:
So these least stones, in the extreme
Of their abasement might appear

Like rare stones such as could have formed
A necklet worn by the dead queen
Of a great Pharaoh, in her tomb …
So each abandoned snail-shell strewn
Among these blotched dock-leaves might seem
In the pure ray shed by the loss
Of all man-measured value, like
Some priceless pearl-enamelled toy
Cushioned on green silk under glass.

And who in solitude like this
Can say the unclean mongrel’s bones
Which stick out, splintered, through the loose
Side of a gravel-pit, are not
The precious relics of some saint,
Perhaps miraculous? Or that
The lettering on this Woodbine-
Packet’s remains ought not to read:
Mene mene tekel upharsin?

Now a breeze gently breathes across
The wilderness’s cryptic face:
The meagre grasses scarcely stir;
But when some stranger gust sweeps past,
Seeming as though an unseen swarm
Of sea-birds had disturbed the air
With their strong wings’ wide stroke, a gleam
Of freshness hovers everywhere
About the field: and tall weeds shake,

Leaves wave their tiny flags to show
That the wind blown about the brow
Of this poor plot is nothing less
Than the great constant draught the speed
Of Earth’s gyrations makes in Space …
As I stand musing, overhead
The zenith’s stark light thrusts a ray
Down through dusk’s rolling vapours, casts
A last lucidity of day

Across the scene: and in a flash
Of insight I behold the field’s
Apotheosis: No man’s land
Between this world and the beyond,
Remote from men and yet more real
Than any human dwelling-place:
A tabernacle where one stands
As though within the empty space
Round which revolves the Sage’s Wheel.

The arc of the poem is from the ordinary objective to the extraordinary subjective with the bleak light of the March evening becoming the light of transformation. Here the imagination takes hold of the real as a succession of image objects is transformed. The snail shells become rare stones and the mongrel bones become relics of some saint, the writing on the woodbine cigarette packet becomes the writing on the wall from Daniel 5:25 and so on. This culminates in the gravel-pit field’s ‘apotheosis’ becoming a ‘No man’s land’ and ‘tabernacle’ enabling a communion ‘between this world and the beyond’. The transformation of image objects is surely alchemical. The poem was written at a time when Gascoyne and other surrealists, such as Breton and Ernst, were drawing upon alchemical sources and inspiration. The use of a gravel-pit is significant in that it is unconsecrated ground and the site of late eighteenth century dissenting meetings, such as held by Dr. Joseph Priestley on 19 April 1793 to preach on Psalm 46 line one ‘God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble’ and on 28 February 1794 and other fast days. (See A Sermon Preached at The Gravel Pit Meeting, In Hackney April 19th 1793) Priestley was also a Francophile, believer in revelation and prophecy and writing at a time when England was at war. The use of ‘No man’s land’ reminds us of that area between two warring forces which is held by neither and where both sides are free to go as well as an area of land that is not owned by any particular individual or agency and tabernacle being a place of worship by nonconformists as well as a receptacle for the Eucharist and a fixed or movable habitation.

Gascoyne’s poems stem from the creative centre of Europe. His concern is essentially with the boundaries and thresholds of consciousness, stemming from the discoveries of Freud, the surrealists, through the early existentialist movement, which Gascoyne splits into two separate groupings and sharply differentiates his perspective from that of Sartre’s, to Heidegger’s thinking on authenticity, being and time, to the frontiers of madness in Hölderlin and his novelist friend, Antonia White, and contemporary occult and magical practice.
It is in the darkness of the last century that he set about trying to find some light, went mad, and recovered to re-read his past.

After Judy Lewis rescued Gascoyne they married and he became part of the poetry reading circuit, reading to packed audiences at Cambridge, the Sorbonne and was later honoured by the French Government. His radio poem, Night Thoughts, with its pre-Situationalist mapping of the deserted city, had an impact on writers and poets such as Iain Sinclair, Jeremy Reed and Aidan Andrew Dun. Reed provided the introduction to Gascoyne’s poems in the Conductors of Chaos anthology (Picador 1996) edited by Iain Sinclair, noting Gascoyne’s ‘total commitment’ to his art and compassion for the outsider that lives by ‘inner rather than social dictates’. (Conductors of Chaos p. 372)

The situation is changing slowly. The Forties is increasingly seen as a watershed decade and more critical attention is being given to its neglected poets. Robert Fraser, who wrote a critical biography of George Barker (The Chameleon Poet: A Life of George Barker Jonathan Cape 2001), is now writing a biography of David Gascoyne and Rod Mengham is also working on a Gascoyne study. Enitharmon Press have recently published Despair Has Wings: Selected Poems by Jean Pierre Jouve Translated by David Gascoyne along with various letters and other materials. More discoveries on Gascoyne’s extraordinary life and previously lost or unpublished material are also forthcoming. There is now plenty of critical attention given to W.S. Graham. There was a recent symposium of essays on Sean Rafferty at intercapillaryspace ( edited by Alistair Noon; Andrew Duncan’s new book Origins of the Underground (Salt 2008) has chapters on Gascoyne and other Forties poets, and Peter Riley has an essay on Dylan Thomas forthcoming in the next issue of Poetry Wales.

Tuesday, 2 September 2008

Letter 16

Click here to listen to So Here We Are on MiPOradio.


In my last talk I mentioned that Andrew Crozier shared some affinities with the poet, John Riley, an early contributor to The English Intelligencer. This is particularly noticeable in Crozier’s poem, ‘The Veil Poem’, where he employs a probing lyrical self to see beneath cognitive perception to unveil the shifts of light and dark. Moreover, Crozier repeatedly refers to light, mirrors, windows and glass in his poetry to indicate a concern with the processes of perception. Thus in the first stanza of ‘Light In The Air’ we read ‘Light floods the retina / then vanishes along the / optic nerve to reappear / as what we see/’ and in ‘The Veil Poem’, Crozier seems to be concerned with probing and enacting the processes by which the self articulates the shifts not only between the shades of light and dark, waking and sleeping but also between partial and impartial knowledge. The poem effectively shows how the self is ‘drawn’ as vessel and vehicle, hemmed and pressed in by a wall of both light, darkness and disputed colour. There are echoes of Coleridge’s ‘Frost at Midnight’, John Dee in its reference to ‘the repeated tracery of magic in / cardinal numbers’, John Donne in its metaphysics of incompleteness and John Riley in his probing of how to respond to light and the world. Although Riley might well have wished to move beyond the concept of ‘the hermetic / correspondence of forms hidden beneath appearance’ into a more commonplace understanding.

I would like to contextualise John Riley’s poetry and give some idea of its field and integrity. Far from Blake Morrison and Andrew Motion’s contemptuous assertion in the Penguin Book of Contemporary British Poetry page 11) that ‘very little seemed to be happening’ in the Sixties, the scope of Riley’s work and that of other English Intelligencer contributors would indicate otherwise. When I first encountered Riley’s poetry in the mid-Seventies in the various pamphlets and poetry magazines that I found in Compendium Bookshop, it was like a revelation to find an English poet that was speaking in the present and yet out of time and in the visionary tradition. This was a poet quite distinct from the official poets and seemingly in touch with a wider European humanism that allowed for difference and the idea of a melting pot and also with post-Poundian American poetry.

John Riley (1937-1978) was born and went to school in Leeds, Yorkshire. After National Service in the Royal Air Force, which he spent in Germany and during which time he learned Russian, he read English at Pembroke College, Cambridge from 1958 to 1961. He was thus an exact contemporary of Tim Longville and the satirist, Peter Cook also studying English at Pembroke, and near contemporary of J.H. Prynne and R.F. Langley who studied English at Jesus College. Bill Oddie, who followed Cook into writing and performing radio comedy, began studying English at Pembroke College in Riley’s final year. Cook was a precocious undergraduate figure at Pembroke creating a legend even greater than that of Ted Hughes in the early Fifties. Whereas Cook left Pembroke for Soho, after graduating Riley worked in various schools around Cambridge and became acquainted with other Cambridge based poets. In 1966 he took up a teaching post at Bicester near Oxford. It was during this period that Andrew Crozier invited him to contribute to The English Intelligencer and he began to write his distinctive poems. He founded the Grosseteste Press and Grosseteste Review, with Tim Longville, and published his first book, Ancient And Modern in 1967. Here in its title we have possible notions that the author advocates both the old and new or that the new comes out of the old and are mutually held together. Riley’s poetry is precise and attentive to detail. It has a tremendous clarity and that probably stems from an admiration for the techniques of George Oppen, Charles Olson, to whom he wrote a memorial poem ‘in memoriam Charles Olson’ (The Collected Works Grosseteste 1980 p. 147) and Robert Creeley. Its broken exactness owes something to Creeley’s early sixties love poems. Thus in the poem, ‘January 1966’, we read:

if there’s time
I’ll plant a tree

there where that blackbird is, a
for speed

against the black wall (The Collected Works p.43)

Beneath the Oppen, Olson and Creeley admiration, one might detect a background in Pound studies. Indeed his press was named after the Neo-Platonist theologian and philosopher, Robert Grosseteste (c1170-1253), who inspired Pound. Grosseteste argued that light was the first corporeal form and that light was the basis of all matter. Love and truth were reached through illumination by divine grace. From studying thirteenth century Neo-Platonists, including Grosseteste, Pound derived the idea of light, the radiant world, the self-interfering patterns from which and through which all corporeality flows and this impacted upon his poetry in the Cantos. He wrote in an essay on Guido Calvacanti about the significance of light and the loss of the radiant world ‘where one thought cuts through another with a clean edge, a world of moving energies’ ... a world of ‘magnetisms that take form, that are seen, or that border the visible, the matter of Dante’s paradiso, the glass under water, the form that sees a form in the mirror …’ (See Hugh Kenner’s The Pound Era 1991 p.451).
According to Donald Davie in Ezra Pound: Poet as Sculptor (1965), which compared Pound’s use of language to a sculptor’s use of stone, the constituents of the Cantos are components arranged in space. It is a poetry, Davie writes, ‘that characteristically moves forward only hesitantly, gropingly, and slowly; which often seems to float across the page as much as it moves down it; in which, if the perceptions are cast in the form of sentences, the sentence is bracketed off and, as it were, folded in on itself so as to seem equal with a disjointed phrase; a poetry (we might almost say) of the noun rather than the verb.’ This is a useful description of the technique of Pound, Olson and Creeley and one that Riley doubtless would have known through his contact with Davie and others at Cambridge.

Riley’s poetry has that slow movement and lucidity and that same floating across the page as well as something different.

Here’s ‘The World Itself, The Long Poem Foundered’

The beating of my heart ripples the lamp
Oh this constant expectation of good news.

A daisy grows. A girl passes. A girl passes along
The wet night street, the houses opposite are luminous.

The sky appears colourless but it is not so,
It could be a love, or longing, or both of these.


In full voice, in full throat, in full cry, in full
Flight. To trace, round-eyed, the flight of birds,

As a poet said. How to trace longing beyond sight,
Removed beyond sensible reaching? And to give it voice?

Perhaps, high up, the clouds are frozen rain,
And the stars – we read time backwards, watching it go by.


You would not believe how the birds sing round our home.
How easy to consider beauty timeless.

I know of no longing to appease this longing, be it even
Your voice, moving me to a celebration of it, love.

A stillness encompassing movement.
With enormous beauty still to answer to.

Blackness seeps through the closed door, douses the lamp.
It is a longing for the same world, and a different world.

Let us love while the sunlight lasts.
By night the moon will light us.
Where’s the moon’s disc, in you?

Clouds move between the moon and me,
I watch them, not stirring from my chair.
Your hair, your brow, your eyes.

Your eyes, your face. Our slow time.
A driving wind sweeps the market-place bare.
It is intolerable, that you should die.

Rain, rain, rain. (The Collected Works pp. 103-5)

Here the first person narrator is characteristically looking out of a window and probing with a calm restlessness. It is a knowing inner voice that is caught at the edge of his knowledge and relationships and love. Note the large gaps between some of the parts of the poem and its title indicating a compression or rejection from a long poem. The ‘Long Poem Foundered’ could for example be a rejection of Pound, as the modern founder of the long poem and that would entail the rejection of the institution around Poundian aesthetics. It could equally indicate a broken and abandoned longer poem of which ‘The World Itself’ resembles and is the equivalent of. The idea of the world as broken and abandoned in poetry and elsewhere might give the first person narrator some edge. This poem indicates Riley’s constant probing of how ‘to trace longing beyond sight / Removed beyond sensible reaching? And to give it voice?’ Birds, emissaries of the spiritual, are also to be traced ‘round-eyed’. A restless, searching intelligence informs every line as well as a successive movement of stillness that serves to suspend each image and verbal event in a continuous present. Riley’s poetry characteristically has a calm restlessness in which the calm and restlessness, the lyric and counter lyric, are held in balanced conflict and repetition. It is this ability to hold both the balance and conflict and repetition together with fresh language that distinguishes Riley’s work. Note the repetition of key words, such as, ‘A girl’, ‘love’, ‘longing’, ‘full’, ‘voice’, ‘trace’, ‘birds’, ‘beauty’, ‘world’, ‘light’, ‘moon’, ‘hair’ ‘eyes’, ‘face’, ‘time’ and ‘rain’. The third part of the poem consists of a full repetition of key words, such as, ‘birds’, ‘beauty’, ‘longing’, ‘voice’ and ‘love’ and serves to re-set the poem’s theme in the fourth line, ‘Your voice, moving me to a celebration of it, love’. A line that refuses any easy closure as it holds the possibility
of ‘voice’ and ‘love’ both being subject and object in both cases. Several of these key words occur in repetition in many other poems. He was drawn by the ‘ancient’ certainties of ritual repetition, as John Hall has written, (John Hall – ‘John Riley, poet’ Tears in the Fence 20 Spring 1998 p. 63) where ritual itself is a set of repetitions and a way of ending without ending. Many of his concerns are encapsulated in the fourth part of the poem:

A stillness encompassing movement
With enormous beauty still to answer to.

Blackness seeps through the closed door, douses the lamp.
It is a longing for the same world, and a different world.

The seemingly contradictory statements of the first and fourth lines serve to enact their own contradictions as fixtures of the world by a perceiving self that seeks both the certainties of the past and transformation of the present world.

In 1970 Riley gave up primary school teaching in order to spend more time writing and editing. He moved in the winter of 1970-71 briefly to Fowey in Cornwall, which provided the stimulus for a number of poems, such as ‘Rough Tor, Cornwall, this landscape what song’, and then returned to Leeds, where he lived for the rest of his life. He married Carol Brown in 1973. He became absorbed in French, German and Russian poetry, translating Holderlin, Pasternak and Mandelstam. This reinforced his disposition to view the world in religious terms and in 1977 he joined the Russian Orthodox Church. He was mugged to death in uncertain circumstances on the night of 27/28 October 1978. A memorial volume, For John Riley edited by Tim Longville appeared in 1979. Tim Longville edited The Collected Works (Grosseteste) in 1980 and Riley’s work was included in Andrew Crozier and Tim Longville’s A Various Art anthology (Carcanet 1987) and Keith Tuma’s landmark Anthology of Twentieth Century British and Irish Poetry (Oxford University Press USA 2001). Tuma selected the long poem, ‘Czargrad’ to illustrate Riley’s concern with the Orthodox Church and post-Poundian poetics. A Selected Poems (Carcanet) edited by Michael Grant appeared in 1995.

Riley’s poems characteristically look out, from a window, to probe what is known of the world. They typically proceeds through an accumulation of statements about the phenomenal world with all its pain, longing and loss and end in an unsettling doubt where the song is undone. I take the perceiving narrator in Riley’s poetry, following Andrew Crozier (See Andrew Crozier ‘The World, The World: A Reading of John Riley’s poetry’ in For John Riley Grosseteste 1979), to be transfigured by love and concerned with placement. The narrator is absorbed within a metaphysical world of linkages that are set up in the poems as binaries and opposites. Thus the domestic is linked to the divine, One is linked to All, and here and now to everywhere. There are no spiritual discoveries or epiphanies but rather there is a journey into the world, the planet and eternity, from certainty to an unsettling doubt. This journey is in the continual present and takes the form of an intense response to light, love and the world and is re-enacted with each new day and poem. After re-reading his poems, one is struck by the realisation that Riley is one of the greatest philosophers of love and incompleteness since John Donne.

Poem after poem in Riley’s work seems to sing and yet deny the possibility of song. Each lyric contains its own counter lyric and an evasion of easy closure. Thus in ‘Love Poem’ (The Collected Works p. 66) we read – ‘Not that anything has to be improved. / Simply that everything must be done away with.’ This impulse to undercut the lyrical voice with an opposing one is also seen in the poem, ‘Second Fragment’ (The Collected Works p. 62), from the start:

I put out the light and listen to the rain
Example taken from history – she loved

The rain: but that won’t do for she loves it still
And perhaps awake as I she lies at home

And listens to the rain that once beat on Rome
Or fell gently on the Galilean hills

Note the beginning of the second line undercutting the attempt to elegise and the correction in the third line and then the recourse to placement within the history of Empire and Christianity. The poem continues:

This time of year is so beautiful
One can almost abandon oneself to it

This attempt to eulogise is again interrupted, cut up and counter pointed to the point of anguish culminating in the final three couplets:

It is the indifference of believers
That dismays, not the existence of others

We renew ourselves completely how often –
Daily we slit dumb throats and watch the blood run

I put out the light and listened to the rain
Hear how it falls : I wonder if love falls so

Internally then this poem has a number of continuous struggles between the ‘I’ and the ‘One’, the ‘still’ and the ‘rain’, the ‘fell gently’ and the ‘slit dumb throats’, the ‘indifference’ and ‘believers’, the ‘light’ being put out in the present and in the past, and so on.

Riley’s second book, What Reason Was (Grosseteste 1970) is linked by the progress and breakdown of a relationship and the longing for a permanence that is beyond reach. It is marked by loss and absence and hope against fear, through eternity or the eternal return. This is perhaps seen best in ‘Poem On These Poems’ (The Collected Works p. 126), a commentary on earlier poems, a technique subsequently employed by Bill Griffiths.

Poem On These Poems

Myrtle tree of heaven, white-scented flowers
Of Venus. Look, I will tell you of a dream I had
When speaking men were sleeping : moisture ran down the windows
Like rain. Outside the full moon, one day old. It seemed
I saw another tree, laden with light, the clearest of crosses.

Love, love, the great love, or the unexpected,
My God my love I cannot see or sing,
There is no part left of me that does not hurt,
Even dreams hurt my eyes, sober mind’s image.
Eighteen months ago the seasons

Became seasons and more than seasons, I had not seen
How slow death is, quick life – blossom
As flower, tree I thought we had done and we cannot die.
Days go by and the scent of the flower
Will kill me for ever and ever.

It is cold beyond the reaches of our air,
Our slow time; its trappings are gold and silver.
And poetry a voice, a voiceless eye
A dream from which I do not hope to wake. Love,
We find ourselves at the foot of the tree. We have always been there.

Here Riley as ever holds the tensions of the binaries and opposites in balance and the loss and absence inherent in love and light, again leads to brutal anguish, as in the second stanza’s:

Love, love, the great love, or the unexpected,
My God my love I cannot see or sing,
There is no part left of me that does not hurt,

This reinforces the idea that love and light both blind. If Riley’s
world is constantly threatened by loss and absence, the longing to sing out that is curtailed by an unsettling doubt, this poem finally finds a placement beyond the usual binaries that frame and limit the probing self. The ending gives two placements for the narrator and reader, one in the ‘voiceless eye’ of the poem and the second ‘at the foot of the tree’ of knowledge.