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So Here We Are: Poetic Letters From England
I would like to say a few words about the poet and translator, Bill Griffiths, who died in September, aged 59, and briefly sketch the context and scope of his work. He produced more than two hundred books and pamphlets and translated from Old English, Welsh, Romany, Latin, Norse and other languages. He was in the tradition of Radical pamphleteers, concerned with planting the Liberty Tree, and wrote with commitment to make you think about the words and materials under review. He was concerned with the discourses of power and their effects and with the erosion of local democracy. He had a great ear for music and quickly assimilated speech patterns. Some of his works are beautiful artworks, such as A History of the Solar System / Fragments: A History of the Solar System (Writers Forum / Pirate Press 1978). This consists of A4 sheets folded to A5 and machine stitched into a concertina format within green covers. It is a work that literally opens out the world of cosmology, alchemy and belief to show that the universe is multiple and diverse. I have always kept this on my desk to remind me of Bill’s inventiveness and that poetry should open out to another place. His passing leaves a large gap in English poetry.
He was born Brian Bransom Griffiths at Kingsbury, Middlesex, on 20 August 1948. His father was a teacher and mother had been a civil servant. When I first met in August 1973 he was known as Billy Griffiths. He arrived at the Windsor Free Festival poetry event, which I had instigated, with his mentor, sound poet, Bob Cobbing, and read with him prior to another double act, Robert Calvert and Michael Moorcock. He was an impressive reader using cut-up direct speech and intense syntactical compression in poems about bikers and Vikings. He was like the reading, moody and provocative.
I met him several times that autumn and kept in regular contact, receiving most of his Pirate Press editions and subscribing to his various books. He was an inquisitive and supportive, albeit argumentative, character. Bearded, with LOVE and HATE tattooed on his fingers, he was part of London’s anarchist squatting community and mixed with bikers, Hell’s Angels, gypsies, renegade Irishmen and other outsiders. Although he squatted in inner London, writing about the dispossessed in Whitechapel (Whitechapel: April & May, End, & Start Texts (Pirate Press 1977), he returned to live at his parental home until he moved into a riverboat at Cowley, near Uxbridge, in the mid 1980s.
Private and irascible, I had no idea that he had a degree in Medieval and Modern History from University College, London. He was independent and radically, non-conformist. We argued incessantly about the usefulness of education and how to develop alternative poetic strategies and readership. I was writing and giving away poems at the time and he urged me to not go to University so that I would think more in alternative ways. This was a time of social and industrial unrest, of fragmentation and protest, and such a proposition was not so fanciful if you had private means, which I did not.
I went to University and this upset Bill, who was committed to the ideals of an alternative society. He made poetry his life, placing it above all other concerns, and was continually producing new work. He employed disparate materials often prefaced by notes based upon his etymological and historical research that alerted his readers to the direction of his thinking. He used juxtaposition and narrative disjunctions to allow other discourses and voices into his poems to add another dimension to the subject under review. Typically, his endings refuse any closure to indicate a situation or event is continuous.
I recall seeing him in spring 1977 when he was strung out and not in great health. He gave a blistering reading at Portsmouth Polytechnic Fine Art Department. It was a provocative exposure of the mid-Victorian civil service’s handling of criminal justice and prisons using found and cut-up texts and documentary evidence. Some of these poems appeared in Poetry Review Volume 67 Nos. 1 and 2. He was cleverly using found texts from the past to comment on the present. It was his riposte to my decision to study History and to engage in post-graduate literary study, all part of an argument about theory and practice. His analysis was similar in scope to Michel Foucault’s Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison (1977). That night we discussed the Annales School of historiography and the difference in approaches between historians such, the Marxist, George Rudé and the anarchist, Richard Cobb. The methodological argument between them comes down to the importance attached to the document. Bill’s eyes lit up as he extolled the virtues of the document, archives and proper systems of storage and access. Bill later worked as an archivist on several project, including cataloguing Eric Mottram’s Archive at King’s College, London, and became a member of the Society of Archivists. Bill was, in essence, writing a history of power ‘from below’ to use the Annales School term.
Bill was an associate of Bob Cobbing’s Writers Forum Press and workshop, a regular contributor to Eric Mottram’s Poetry Review, a stalwart of the Association of Little Presses (ALP), producing the newsletter (PALPI) and Print Shop Manager at the Poetry Society from June 1974. As such, he was an integral part of the London hub, along with such poets as Allen Fisher, Iain Sinclair, Lee Harwood, Gilbert Adair, Ken Edwards and Jeff Nuttall, of what Eric Mottram termed the English Poetry Renaissance or Revival. Bill used the Association of Little Presses book fairs to sell his hand printed books and pamphlets and developed his own independent ways of reaching a loyal readership. He was produced many publications in the Poetry Society basement and several works, including War w/ Windsor (Pirate Press 1973), Idylls of the Dog, King and other Poems (Pirate Press 1975), Cycles (Pirate Press 1975) and The Song of the Hunnish Victory of Pippin the King (Earthgrip Press 1976), went into multiple editions. This was a golden age of little press activity and it was hurting the larger poetry presses. Eric Mottram at Poetry Review was accused of publishing too many foreign poets and lost his job. The Poetry Society print shop where Bill printed his and other London based publications was closed down. The whole apparatus of support, including the National Poetry Secretariat, wonderfully administered by Pamela Clunies-Ross, for little press poets outside London, was taken away. A documentary account of this is given in Peter Barry’s Poetry Wars: British Poetry of the 1970s and the Battle of Earls Court (Salt 2006).
His early work includes War w/ Windsor, which appeared in several editions, and Cycles, distinguished by their disruptive use of language and radical scope. It is in marked contrast to the conventional poetry of that period and takes prison and urban deprivation as its main themes in a sustained study of the manifestations of repression. War w/ Windsor explores the social parameters of bikers and the law at a time when the stop and search laws were in frequent use by the police on any individual that appeared to be vaguely outcast. Stop and search was based on sections 4 and 6 of the Vagrancy Act (1824) and became a contributory factor in the 1980 St Paul’s, Bristol and 1981 Brixton, riots. Incidentally, his poem, ‘The Toxteth Riots’ (in The Mud Fort: Selected Poems 1984-2004 Salt 2004) quotes the Liverpool 8 Defence Committee emphasising ‘police harassment over a long period’ as the main cause of the disorder. War w/ Windsor gives voice to the biker’s world, the Windsor Chapter and Uxbridge Nomads war against each other and the police, of prison and social control, employing broken syntax in linked sets of sound poems that catch their speech patterns in terse narratives.
Here’s the opening of ‘To Johnny Prez Hells Angel Nomads’
1. Christmas straight-
Packet of light fields
2. With no lamps, roads
Without airforce or Angels, wd you jin Ruislip?
A lion in you
In a law-shop
3. The motor-bike is acorn yellow
Johnny Bev Bob
White my mind
Gonna pick up of
Pepper is day yep
4. Bev as the sea wave wake
See this this is Angels getting the booting of their life in
This is Johnny
This is me picking up snout bits in Brixton
5. Johnny begot, beading of black Jack-club
Dance kick at drums, can-banging
6. And love
Works to mix to mix you up miscates the soul
Shooting blood out; all
Shut in the breasts of her.
Bill shared the Poetry Society’s Alice Hunt Bartlett Award for 1974, with Allen Fisher, for such work. Bill augmented his interests in Latin, Anglo-Saxon, Romany, Norse and other languages into his work.
Cycle 1 (On Dover Borstal) begins:
as I ain’t like ever to be still but
lock and knock my sleeping
‘Ictus’ being Latin for a physical hit or strike, also signifying the first or regular beat in Latin verse, although there is historical confusion over this (see Oxford English Dictionary OED 1) and in medicine the beat of the pulse (OED 2 a), implies impact, stress and a sense of confusion and physicality. The exclamation mark emphasises and raises the pitch of utterance, echoing Romantic exclamatory usage in terms of outcry and suspense. That impact is implied is reinforced by line four’s ‘lock and knock in my sleeping’ and that the narrative self is under review is achieved by the switch from the ‘I’ of line two to the ‘my’ of line 4.
the complex of the fort against the French, Dover,
‘s mighty imperfection: fits to the sea,
the moat (and ported, kinging the blue, closed, so built-made
and the salty grass and rubble of chalk growing
writing the chalk-kid
shout for separation
Here the writing shows an educated, disorientated narrator aware of the war machinery at work, ‘the barbwire is German / it is made with razorblades’ and employs alliteration and disjunctions that dazzle and surprise.
and I ain’t any one but you
The bright crazy rings in agate
It is an intensely physical poem, alert to historical knowledge, with a narrator self awake to a landscape and seascape of cuts and bruises and wanting to break free ‘to think on the pattern of an action’. It is this tension of wanting and needing to escape that he dramatically captures.
Bob Cobbing’s sound and visual poetry workshops at the Poetry Society from 1969-1977 were a formative and continual inspiration. Bill’s concern with the materiality, and ways of scripting, utterances led him back to Old English literature and other languages with traditions of cryptic utterances and runic signs. He also acknowledged in an interview with Will Rowe the impact of Jerome Rothenberg’s anthology Technicians of the Sacred (1968), with its global ethnopoetics and concern with archaic poetry. The book provided his introduction to works, such as The Nine Herb Charm (1981), that he would later translate himself.
Bill regularly toured with Cobbing and Paula Claire as Konkrete Canticle, the sound and visual poetry group, from 1974 until 1979, from 1984 -1988 and again from 1990 until 1992. They toured Canada, Sweden, Germany and the U.K. Here Bill developed different uses for the voice in poetry, fragmenting vowels and consonants, and explored the edges of utterance. As Paula Claire has written in The Salt Companion to Bill Griffiths (Salt 2007), Bill continually worked on texts and left behind a whole range of poetic experiments in hypergraphics spanning the repertoire of communication signs in their broadest sense. This is deposited in her Archive.
Through Eric Mottram, who taught English and American Literature at King’s College, London, Bill encountered the wide range of poetries published in the Poetry Review and returned to study Old English at King’s, gaining a Ph.D. in 1987. His translation work began, with John Porter, working on the late medieval Icelandic texts in Gisli’s Saga – The Verses (Pirate Press 1974) and then Beowulf: Anglo-Saxon Text with Modern English Parallel (Pirate Press 1975). In these and later works, Bill emphasises the rhythmic and would often produce the original text, a literal one and poetic version. His poetic versions though were in marked contrast to standard translations. It was if he was scraping away the Victorian gloss and returning to older traditions through rhythm and sound and placing them in the context of music and dance. His connections at King’s College led to a fruitful relationship with Anglo-Saxon Books in Norfolk, who published The Battle of Maldon (1991, revised 2000) and Aspects of Anglo-Saxon Magic (1996, revised 2003).
In 1990 he moved to Seaham in Durham and became involved in the collection and archiving of dialect materials. His selected poems 1969-1989, introduced by Jeff Nuttall, appeared in Future Exiles: 3 London Poets (Paladin 1992). He became Visiting Fellow at the Centre for Northern Studies at Northumbria University. He published A Dictionary of North-East Dialect (Northumberland University Press 2005), several collections of dialect literature and wrote some ghost stories, set in the baroque world of English local government.
Pitmatic, his last book, concerns North East coalminers and their dialect and clearly has a social-political dimension. He remained a political and campaigning poet as later books such as, A Book of Spilt Cities (Etruscan 1999) and Durham and Other Sequences (West House Books 2002) show. Although he also wrote extensively on Plotinus, Darwin and Seaham, it is his consistent writing about struggles between the dispossessed and the police that stand out. See for example such late poems as ‘Detective Notes’ and ‘Thirteen Thoughts as though Woken in Caravan Town at Dawn by 150 Policemen in Riot Gear With Helicopter and Film Back-Up at Saltersgate Near Tow Law in Co. Durham on the Sixth of March 1996’ from 1997.
We have babies ‘n births
sometimes secessions; burials; communities are moved,
demolition eases the feral-search for ground for housing
the kings of the dock-weed be warned.
and the opulent win the shadow-box,
choose the puppets on show for hands with legs ‘n wages
we are subliminated into tokens ‘n riddle-stanzas
or left a road march
(see Worlds of New Measure: An anthology of five contemporary British Poets Edited by Clive Bush Talus Editions 1997)
Bill’s poetry has a difficult, edgy surface that is oppositional. It employs an array of languages, often in the same poem or set of poems. Colloquial or spoken English, Anglo-Saxon, local dialects collide with Latin, French and Standard English, the written language of power. It his work on the procedures of law and bureaucracy, on prison; his commitment to a locality and its linguistic culture as a base for poetry; his use of ordinary people’s lived experience through a musical ear and cut-up disjunctions; his efforts to write polyphonically and to remove the obfuscation of Victorian language over archaic poetries and his continual movement to offset the structures of power with citizenship and the dialect of poetic language that will survive. Bill Griffiths I miss your stubbornness and cussedness already.