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.

Thursday, 31 July 2008

Letter 15

Click here to listen to So here We Are on Miporadio.


In my last talk I mentioned J.H. Prynne’s contribution to The English Intelligencer. I would now like to say a few words about literary connection in the context of Andrew Crozier, who collated and edited the first series of The English Intelligencer. Crozier, who died in April 2008, is a much less well-known figure than he might be and left a substantial and lasting legacy as a poet, editor and teacher. He was instrumental in recovering some of the forgotten history of Modernism through his retrieval of the works of John Rodker, (Poems and Adolphe 1920 Carcanet 1996) J.F Hendry and others.

The idea of literary connection is full of potential difficulty and complication as we lack words for the different types of relationships and connections. Moreover critics tend to label poets together by dint of association and essential differences can be lost. Connection is closely attached to selling a particular poet or book, regardless of whether an underlying connection exists or not and again can be used loosely.

Literary connection is also associated with place and tourism. Thus Derbyshire and the Peak District advertise their connection with the Elizabethan historian, William Camden, who wrote about the Wonders of the Peak in Britannia (1586), and other writers and poets throughout the centuries. Camden’s work, of course, was central in forming the concept of a unified nation. The Peaks are sufficiently distinctive and attractive to become part of the national identity, and the issues around its constitution, so that they are at once local, regional and national as reinforced by Thomas Hobbes in his poem De Mirabilibus Pecci (1636) that celebrated Chatsworth House, Peak Cavern, St Anne’s Well, Buxton, Eldon Hole and Tideswell. The Peak District is the loci of Crozier’s friend and editor of the second series of The English Intelligencer, Peter Riley’s Tracks and Mineshafts (Grosseteste 1983). A work that meditates on the significance of ‘abandoned mines, standing out like sores through the rough mingling pastoral surface’ (page 23) and engages with Seventies cultural politics through a reading of the ideology of English landscape poetry and insists on digging deeper into ‘the message that exceeds us, the concept not grasped, the emptiness of total being, pure sign of itself to which such substances as metal, poetry, history, can only be tools of an interim script’ (page 27).

Connection, the action of connecting or joining together (OED 1 a) was first used in the 1609 edition of the Bible. From Thomas Hobbes in Leviathan (1651) we have (OED 1 b) of immaterial union or joining together and (OED 2 a) the linking together of words or ideas in speech or thought. From the base of the action or condition of being joined together the idea of connection has been added so that it has eleven meanings that cover links without specification. There is a gap in the English language that allows a simple notion of linkage to be employed that denies individuality and difference in favour of easy labelling and obfuscation. Smaller and deeper underlying contextual links are often unread and dormant as a result.

Issues around national identity, what constitutes ‘Englishness’ and whether we should have connections with foreign poets and poetry have dominated the struggles within English poetry since the 1900s especially between Modernism and the Movement and their successors and reaching a crisis from 1956 to 1963 and subsequent battle during the mid-1970s. (See Peter Barry’s Poetry Wars: British Poetry of the 1970s and the Battle of Earls Court Salt 2006) Thus Robert Conquest in his New Lines – II (1963) introduction could write of a return to the cardinal traditions of English verse and warn against poetry that is written from new or different attitudes and state that ‘the human condition from which the poetry of one country springs cannot be readily tapped by that of another.’

In 1961 Andrew Crozier won an exhibition to Christ’s College, Cambridge to read English, having won a scholarship to Dulwich College, south east London in 1954. He was arrested twice for civil disobedience on the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament Aldermaston demonstrations. As an undergraduate, Crozier edited an American supplement to Granta magazine and included work by Robert Duncan, Edward Dorn, Robert Creeley and John Wieners. At the end of this publishing adventure which was prepared to rattle the status of the Movement poets, he added a letter from Charles Olson to George Butterick that included the phrase ‘freshen our sense of the language we do have’ adding that the ‘spirit of Olson informs this whole collection’.
Amongst his friends were the American poet and The Paris Review poetry editor, Tom Clark, studying English at Gonville and Caius on a Fulbright Scholarship, who would later write critical biographies of Ted Berrigan, Jack Kerouac, Robert Creeley, Charles Olson and Edward Dorn, and John Temple, Peter Riley and John Riley, with whom his work shares an affinity. (See Andrew Crozier ‘The World, The World: A Reading of John Riley’s Poetry’ in For John Riley edited by Tim Longville Crosseteste 1979 pp. 97-104.)

In 1964 he studied at the State University of New York, Buffalo on a Fulbright Scholarship, publishing the broadsheet series Sum and the journal, The Ant’s Forefoot, and was tutored by Charles Olson. Whilst in America, Crozier contacted the Objectivist poet, Carl Rakosi, who had changed his name to Callman Rawley and stopped writing. Rakoski later acknowledged that Crozier’s determination to find him had persuaded him to return to writing poetry. Crozier’s discovery of Rakosi led to a much wider awareness of the Objectivists. The impact of Olson on Crozier’s thought can be gauged by the use of a line from Olson as the title for his Collected Poems: All Where Each Is (Allardyce, Barnett 1985).

On returning to London in January 1966, Crozier began The English Intelligencer before joining Donald Davie at Essex University, where he wrote his Doctorate thesis Free Verse as Formal Restraint, and founded The Wivenhoe Park Review with Tom Clark. This in turn became The Park when he moved to teach at Keele University in 1967. J.H. Prynne’s introduction to Crozier’s first book of poetry, Loved Litter of Time Spent (1967) refers to a central quality in the writing ‘the possible as it really comes over, day by day’.

The English Intelligencer rejected the received modes of established Movement poetics in favour of a new, modernist poetics of diversity that shifted attention away from the insular towards a broader field of activity. The newsletter was distributed for free to interested individuals and encouraged an open forum for exchange and was clearly looking to develop a new English poetics. Crozier insisted early on that ‘the Intelligencer is for the island and its language, to circulate as quickly as needs be.’ (see Drew Milne ‘Agoraphobia, and the embarrassment of manifestos’ Jacket 20 page 11)
This is curious language. ‘The Intelligencer is for the island and its language’. The immediate context of this statement is the Movement’s wholesale rewriting of the history of modern poetry and the suppression of part of that history and its claims to speak for the nation. Donald Davie, one of the theorists of the Movement, famously wrote in Granta 68 in 1963 that ‘I think that everyone knows, really, that Philip Larkin is the effective laureate of our England’ annexing poetic quality and national culture in an uncomplicated and empirical alignment. The thrust of this annexing and suppression was reinforced in polemical anthologies and histories, such as Robert Conquest’s New Lines – II (Macmillan 1963), Blake Morrison’s The Movement: English Poetry and Fiction in the Fifties (OUP 1980), Al Alvarez’s The New Poetry (Penguin 1966) and Blake Morrison and Andrew Motion’s The Penguin Book of Contemporary British Poetry (Penguin 1982). Crozier brought a return to what Robert Conquest in his 1956 New Lines anthology wanted to remove from English poetry that is to say, intellect, strong emotion and ‘social pressure’. Crozier brought intellectual rigour to his editorial work as explained by an early contributor, Chris Torrance, in a private conversation in March 2006. It was Crozier’s advice and support that led Torrance to Olson and the much wider world of American music, painting and writing.
Through Torrance’s work and teaching one can follow the Olson line to a new generation of contemporary poets such as Elisabeth Bletsoe and Rhys Trimble.

Crozier founded Ferry Press in London in 1964, first publishing Thread by Fielding Dawson, the painter and poet, who had studied at Black Mountain College. The Press becoming, with John Riley and Tim Longville’s Grosseteste Review, an important outlet for J.H. Prynne, Peter Riley, John James, John Hall, John Temple, Chris Torrance, Doug Oliver, Wendy Mulford and others that had contributed to The English Intelligencer. This connection, however much forgotten or ignored, is real enough. That many of the poets involved lived and worked in Cambridge is also undeniable but not particularly useful to know until you question their social and work situation. Moreover, Crozier and his friends were frequent visitors to London in the mid-Sixties and in particular, Better Books, where the poets, Bob Cobbing and Lee Harwood worked and a lot of networking and readings took place. The frequent denial of a so-called Cambridge School has much to do with an understanding of connection and process. Yes, Cambridge is an early focus point but so is Better Books, and later, Compendium Books, and Essex University. The denial can be read therefore as a deflection to persuade the reader to look deeper. The document that most clearly articulates Crozier’s position is his introduction, written with Tim Longville, to the anthology A Various Art (Carcanet 1987).

Here the introduction emphasised ‘the degree of difference that existed between individual poets, and the extent to which each poet had accomplished a characteristic and integral body of work, with its own field of interest and attention,’ and claimed ‘both the possibility and presence of such variety, a poetry deployed towards the complex and multiple experience in language of all of us.’ (A Various Art page 14) It is noteworthy for refusing any collective stance, its advocacy of diversity and for producing the clearest denunciation of Movement poetics.
It begins by refusing the notion that it is an anthology of English poetry (page 11), referencing the history of perceptions of English poetry since the 1950s and polemical anthologies that lay claim to pre-eminent achievement within the inclusive reference of national representation. Crozier and Longville refuse the exclusivity of fashion by a sectional view of change and difference so as not to be seen as covering the social divisions and otherness implicit in our national culture. They accused the Movement poets of employing a common rhetoric that foreclosed the possibilities of poetic language as well as the scope and character of poetic discourse in relation to the self, to knowledge, history and the world. Moreover, language was always to be grounded in the presence of a legitimating voice of an impersonally collective tone that was subsumed within a closed cultural programme.
They further lay claim to the Movement’s wholesale rewriting of the history of modern poetry and the exclusion of parts of that history, the line from Pound and William Carlos Williams, and beyond to Olson, Oppen, Dorn and so forth. (A Various Art page 12) This being a unifying connection between the contributors to the anthology, many of whom had been English Intelligencer contributors.
The title of the anthology aptly summarises Crozier and Longville’s ethos that poetry is an art in relation to language with various artifice and rules that apply to specific rather than to general occasions. Another unifying connection between the contributors that the editors cite was that many had established their own publishing houses and journals. I think, though, that there is an absence in their account and that is the impact of The English Intelligencer. It is the big connection. Firstly, it established the idea of exchange between interested individuals, often friends, although not exclusively, and a community of risk and possibility. The model for The English Intelligencer was the San Francisco journal, Open Space, initiated by Stan Persky in 1964 to provide a regular forum for a community of North Beach poets that included Robert Duncan, Jack Spicer, Robin Blaser and Joanne Kyger. The idea of Open Space had been to provide a context to the poetry and politics of the group and immediacy to the writing. Secondly, despite the difficulties of overcoming preconceived notions of publication, The English Intelligencer eventually became a communal forum of exchange, exploration and criticism that opened up new areas for many of its prominent contributors. As such, it underwrites the direction of many of its contributors and holds them a distinct relationship.

Crozier identified the period from 1956 to 1963 when critics, such as Donald Davie, Robert Conquest and Al Alvarez, moved the focus of attention away from the achievements and interests of the Forties poets to the Movement and confessional poets.
That shift can be said to start with the death of Dylan Thomas in 1953 and his literary executors, especially Kingsley Amis, who became a prominent Movement novelist and critic, doing much to detract from the achievement of Thomas and Forties poets generally.

The Forties had seen a great revival in poetic activity, as the archival work of A.T. Tolley (The Poetry of the Forties Manchester University Press 1985) and others (e.g. Andrew Sinclair’s War Like A Wasp Hamish Hamilton 1989) has shown, and a growing interest in European and American poetics through Wrey Gardiner’s Grey Walls Press, Tambimuttu’s Poetry London and Poetry London Editions and John Lehmann’s Penguin New Writing. It was a period, partly due to the Second World War, when the cultural exchange between London, Paris and New York was at a peak.
Thus the New York poet, Edward Field was first published in Wrey Gardiner’s Poetry Quarterly in London in 1946 and during his time as a fighter pilot in England he met many literary and artistic figures that were criss-crossing between London and Europe at the Gargoyle Club in Soho. Similarly, David Gascoyne, Rayner Heppenstall, W.S. Graham, Ruthven Todd, Norman Cameron, Nicholas Moore, Charles Madge, Kathleen Raine, Humphrey Jennings and Dylan Thomas to name a few all utilised London’s Zwemmer’s Bookshop for the latest artistic, literary and philosophical developments to arrive from Europe.

Crozier’s interest in Forties poetry led him to contact, J.F. Hendy, a survivor from that period and write an introduction to his work in Iain Sinclair’s anthology Conductors of Chaos (Picador 1996), a poetry anthology where other Forties poets were introduced, for example Nicholas Moore by Peter Riley, and given space. Crozier was instrumental in reviving interest in Hendry, the ‘New Apocalypse’ and Forties poetry more generally, through his essay, ‘Thrills and frills: poetry as figures of empirical lyricism’ in Society and Literature 1945 -1970 edited by Alan Sinfield (Methuen 1983).

I thought about connection in relation to Crozier because of his attention to context and historical placement. In my dealings with him, I found him to be modest and self-effacing. He effectively helped create a context and thus readership for the English Intelligencer contributors, the poets that he published with Ferry Press and in A Various Art. He was clearly not prescriptive about any one approach or orthodoxy of intent and was at pains to point readers towards a diversity of achievement and fields of interest. In these more dogmatic times that is a salutary lesson.

Crozier’s own poetry attempted to remove the lyrical self so as to enact a closer encounter with the particularity of things in the world. Here’s ‘(i.m. Rolf Dieter Brinkman)’ from A Various Art page 82:

Already the ducklings resemble their aunts and uncles
free of all obvious maternal bond
the brood moves in and out of itself
involuted and explosively bobbing
in each other’s wake

their movement appears haphazard
and even elegantly natural they all
look the same and know what they want
when we appear under the shadowy leaves
with our bags of bread

it is a sign for them to
come to the edge and when it stops
and the last crumbs are shaken out
into the dirty water they move off
together again while you and I

set off round the pond talking
about ducks and the volume of foliage
on a summer branch which dips
toward the water to be reflected
in words that condense like the image

of each leaf shifting over the others
while unreflected light flickers through
in a web of shining brevity
that glows all night long
as air moves and water rises

within those immense columns
echoing : all language is truth
through a bed of dry leaves when evaporation
ceases and our words turn and fall
flickering with our life upon the earth

Sunday, 29 June 2008

Letter 14

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In February 2004, Randall Stevenson writing in The Oxford English Literary History Vol. 12 1960-2000: The Last of England? (OUP 2004) inadvertently sparked a media controversy by suggesting that the achievements of experimental poets, such as J.H. Prynne, would be of more lasting significance than that of the Movement poets. The value of J.H. Prynne’s poetry was debated in newspapers and on the radio but not seriously engaged with. As I regularly get asked about the value of Prynne’s poetry, I thought that I might offer some contextualising notes as a preliminary to reading his Poems (Bloodaxe 2005).

The arc of Prynne’s poetry over the past forty years may be said to have broadly moved from a metaphorically based open field lyricism towards a metonymic and etymological challenge to the reader. It is, above all, concerned with encouraging the reader on a journey, involving a reading process that avoids closure. It is about the journey, that is a continual process, towards meaning and comprehension rather than finding answers. It places utterance within the political and socio-economic predicament of the individual in relation to its historical and geographical landscape. One might say that it is one journey of utterance that acknowledges the boundaries and thresholds of the individual, through and across the nuances and shifts of language and historical time. It draws upon specific discourses and their appeal to knowledge, both provisional and substantive, within the languages of criticism and human sciences and beyond. It is a poetic utterance that looks back to the earliest epic and founding literature and forward beyond any postmodernist position. It has enlarged the focus of the poet beyond the reference frames registered by Ezra Pound’s The Cantos and Charles Olson’s The Maximus Poems. It appeals to a community of speakers, readers and writers, cognizant of the fact that all are in a series of markets and hierarchies of language and discourse outlays, without privilege.
This work is substantially supported by critical essays, such as ‘Stars, Tigers and the Shape of Words’ (The William Matthews Lectures 1992 Birkbeck 1993), where Prynne reassessed the arbitrariness that Ferdinand de Saussure famously attributed to the signifier and signified and emphasized a set of secondary relations through which meaning developed such as historical contexts and usages, accumulated layers and aspects of association, social function and usage codes, and practical criticism, such as They That Haue Powre To Hurt: A Specimen of a Commentary on Shake-speares Sonnets, 94 (Cambridge 2001) and Field Notes: The Solitary Reaper And Others (Cambridge 2007 distributed by Barque Press) that shows an exceptional regard to determining the fullest context and meaning of a poem. Each word and phrase in a poem has a philological and etymological base that returns the reader to things and the world of which they are a part. The words used enact and sustain the relations and forces between language and the world.

Two words invariably used to describe the initial experience of reading the Poems are ‘arid’ and ‘difficult’. ‘Arid’, as if it were written in a desert. That is to say that it is often missing the props of mainstream metaphorical poetry that enables a quick grasp of meaning, intention and the scope of the poem under review. It is what is called ‘difficult’ poetry. It is, as it were, poetry of the desert. I shall now pursue these two notions as a way of locating the literary context to the Poems.

Poetry written from the desert, of whatever order, may be seen as poetry of exile. One thinks of Ovid, Paul and Jane Bowles, and the post-holocaust poetry of Edmund Jabés and Paul Celan. The critic. T.W. Adorno wrote that ‘after Auschwitz, we can no longer write poetry’. It was Jabés who wrote that after Auschwitz, we must write poetry, but with wounded words’ and in conversation with Mark C Taylor, who said: ‘It is very hard to live with silence. The real silence is death and this is terrible. To approach this silence, it is necessary to journey into the desert. You do not go into the desert to find identity, but to lose it, to lose your personality, to become anonymous. You make yourself void. You become silence. And something extraordinary happens: you hear silence speak’. (Edmund Jabés The Book of Margins: Translated Rosemarie Waldrop Chicago 1993) Further exiled or self-imposed exiled poetry has a social position and literary effect. By dint of being outside the social-literary mainstream, it is more able to comment inwards on the prevailing socio-political conditions. One thinks of Anna Akhmatova’s poetry ability to comment upon Stalinist Russia and the purges and so on. Prynne’s poetry, like Jabés and Akmatova, may be seen in broad moral and literary terms as a profound reaction to the historic events of the twentieth century and beyond.

J.H. Prynne’s social-literary position can be seen as a self-imposed exile. He has been, for example, excluded from such literary reference books as The Oxford Companion to English Literature edited by Margaret Drabble (OUP 2000) and taken moral decisions on the integrity of how and where his poetry and criticism appears.

His exact social-literary position is complex, given its predominantly exile status. Born in 1936, Jeremy Prynne was raised in Kent and educated at Jesus College, Cambridge. His mother ran a private nursery school for boys and girls and his father was an engineer. At Cambridge he met the poet and critic, Donald Davie, who supported his early intellectual direction. Like Davie, this was a move away from the insular concerns of the Movement to the richer intellectual concerns of new American and European poetry. Davie’s study, Thomas Hardy And Modern Poetry (1973) offers an early account of Prynne’s poetry. A Life Fellow, College Librarian and University Reader in English Poetry until his retirement at Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge, he works on all aspects of the English poetic tradition, including writings of American, European and Far Eastern origin. In his teaching capacity, his enthusiasm for sharing and generosity of spirit towards many students is well known and helped to develop a wide readership base. However, this is only part of the story. Prynne’s poetry emerged as part of an avant-garde discussion and readership outside of the literary market place. This began with Prynne’s editorship of Prospect magazine in 1964 and continued with his mimeographing and distributing The English Intelligencer, a literary newsletter, between January 1966 and April 1968.

The English Intelligencer was an attempt to organise a new collective poetics that focussed upon producing ‘quality’ work. Drawing upon a wide range of literary and non-literary sources, it was distributed for free to an expanding mailing list. Poems, essays and comments were shared without cost and exchange value. The Intelligencer occupied a space between a private letter and public book and embodied a shared community opposition to market commodification.

J.H. Prynne was a key figure in its articulation of the language and poetics of ‘quality’ in opposition to the language of commodity. Essentially he wanted to rescue a concept of ‘quality’ from its financial meaning to make it viable outside of a purely market lexicon. In the poem, ‘Sketch For A Financial Theory Of the Self’ (Poems pp 19-20), which first appeared Series 1 no.17, Prynne probes the relationship between word (name) and object within the economic field and suggests the ways it impacts on the self. He writes of how words and poems and quality, as habit, have been reduced to monetary objects by which we define ourselves. He notes that we are duped into a reductive cash flow nexus: ‘The absurd trust in value is the pattern of / bond and contract and interest -’ and ‘Music, / travel, habit and silence are all money; purity / is a glissade into the last, most beautiful return.’ He extended his thinking on quality and money with ‘A Note On Metal’ (The English Intelligencer second series June 1967, appended to Aristeas (1968, Poems pp.127-132). Here quality is seen in terms of property (strength) and substance. He looks back to the origins of money as coin (gold) and Western alchemy, defined as ‘the theory of quality as essential’. He differentiates between early Asiatic socio-economic formations where coins were the ornament of power rather than currency of value and early Greek economies where it is the substance governing transfer as exchange. This thinking is brought historically up to date in the poem, ‘Die a Millionaire’ from Kitchen Poems (1968), where the ‘twist-point / is “purchase” – what the mind / bites on is yours’ … ‘we are the social strand / which is already past the twist-point & / into the furnace’ … so that what I am is a special case of / what we want, the twist-point missed exactly / at the nation’s scrawny neck.’ (Poems pp 13-16)
The English Intelligencer by removing a formal ownership and exchange value thus produced a newsletter divorced from the literary market. In so doing, they showed that words and poems, as objects, have properties beyond their meanings and exchange value within the community. This move can be seen as an extension of the work and thinking of the Objectivist Press and poets, such as George Oppen, Charles Reznikoff and Louis Zukofsy, who searched for a language outside of the ideology and practice of commodification.

The English Intelligencer fostered intense interest in a wide range of poetries and philosophy. These included Ezra Pound and the Imagists, William Carlos Williams and the poetry of things, the Objectivist poets, the Black Mountain College poets, the San Francisco Renaissance, the New York School poets, such as Frank O’Hara and John Ashbery and the European post-holocaust poets, such as Jabés and Celan. Beyond that widening flux of alternative poetries, Prynne continued his readings within the English tradition, especially the Romantic and Elizabethan poets, and within modern European philosophy, including Hegel, Wittgenstein, Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty and the issues of language, being and the phenomenology of perception raised by their work. Amongst the questions that this reading raised would be the notion of the autonomy of the text and whether there is a singleness and moral structure to immediate knowledge. (For a discussion of these issues see ‘Capital Calves: Undertaking an Overview’ by Kevin Nolan Jacket 24 www.jacketcom November 2003 pp 1-37)

Against a backdrop of growing disenchantment with the Vietnam War, civil disobedience in relation to women’s, gay, environmental issues, industrial strife, a balance of trade deficit that led to the devaluation of the pound and student ‘revolt into style’, structuralism moved across from linguistics and anthropology cutting into sociological, historical, philosophical, psychiatric and critical thought, with the concept of the de-centred subject and de-centring of the structure impacting upon thinking within European human sciences. Doubtless buoyed by E.P. Thompson’s articulation of the impact of literary, satirical and political presses in the early nineteenth century in The Making of the English Working Class (1968) and Jeff Nuttall’s overview of more recent oppositional publishing and culture in Bomb Culture (1968), several English Intelligencer contributors became small press publishers. It was through these regional activists that J.H. Prynne chose to publish most of his early work. (e.g. Day Light Songs Resuscitator Books, Pampisford 1968, Aristeas Ferry Press, London 1968, The White Stones Grosseteste Press, Lincoln 1969) and Fire Lizard Blacksuede Boot Press, Barnet 1970)

Prynne’s early readership then consisted of friends, the avant-garde poets, intellectuals and critics associated with The English Intelligencer, his colleagues and students. The nature of his communication with that growing audience took the form of his poetry and a contribution to the thinking and reading of that audience. It always already posits a literary-social position in relation to a mode of poetic communication that involves questioning before and beyond any current ideology of text, authorship, intention and process of marketing and entails a wandering across and through both language and the literary canon. Over time he deepens and widens that range, by attempting not to suppress variable meaning and knowledge that impinge upon a thing, so that the reader might question various knowledge thresholds, in particular such concepts as ‘totality’, ‘immediate experience’ and ‘textual autonomy’.

Turning to the notion of ‘difficulty’. This familiar notion in the poetry world is encountered in the first line of the first poem, the magically sonic, ‘The Numbers’: ‘The whole thing it is, the difficult’. A note to the 1982 edition of Poems (Allardyce Barnett Books) referred to ‘difficulty as being the ardent matter and accompanying breadth of imaginative and political reference’. In other words, it is inherent in the matter addressed as the forces and relations of production and consumption already taint the nuances of languages and knowledge. There is no impartial discourse. ‘Difficulty’, though, is not misleading, that is to say the reader is either able to grasp something or not. It perhaps implies that the conflicting and impartial knowledge at work is beyond the reach of one reader and some of these poems are beyond comprehension, through the uncertainty of variable meaning. However, it should, at least, be seen as relative and in relation to ‘simplicity’. A seemingly transparent and simple poem, such as Blake’s ‘The Tyger’, may require considerable critical work in disentangling the complexity of discourses, method and intentionality and possible effects registered, in the same way as a ‘difficult’ poem as so much of its sub-text is out of view. This can perhaps be described as ‘subtlety’ in all its guises. Both ‘difficult’ and ‘simple’ poems demand intellectual work and are initially conditioned by prejudicial readings and the disposition towards response and effect. In other words, some poems produce effects and reference knowledge that are unseen or unread by certain readers and that is governed by reading history and preferences as much as ability of the reader. An awareness of that history, conditioned as it is by ethnic, social, educational, psychological and other factors, and its prejudice, may help dissolve some of the weariness generated by poems that refuse to be read. At the macro-level, it might help reader appreciate the divide between those who read poems as language only and those who read poems as social process only and show the need to resist closure on either side of the fence. ‘Difficulty’ can be distinguished from ‘subtlety’, meaning that which is not obvious in any way, possessing small and important data, often implying cleverness through its ability to withhold and disguise. Subtlety, then, wants to be acknowledged rather than seen. Difficulty, in contrast, has intrinsic value in the sense that a poem retains its vitality over time, as in the case of Wordsworth’s ‘Lucy’ poems, and implies an openness or opening towards the complex. It is potentially much less elitist than a work of subtlety.

The arc of Prynne’s poetry may be seen as moving further into exile, a deepening of the challenge to the reader, as a method of registering wider referents, on the basis that might be a focal point of social and ethical or literary change. Consider the examples of Blake and Kafka, as psychological exiles, self-imposed or not, and the ways their work has entered the language. Now consider, at the micro-level, the individual forced by exceptional circumstances, e.g. the loss of several high school friends to suicide, into self-imposed exile, who returns and begins to campaign for social change. Consider also a woman who is sexually abused, attacked and raped or the female vagrant. This is the possible territory called into reference by Her Weasels Wild Returning (1994), see Poems pp. 412-416, where there are a series of explicit journeys out and back by the poem’s implied participants. What happens in these examples is a journey out to exile and a journey back, in altered state, with its concomitant changes. Of course, the exiled do not return to exactly the same place as time has elapsed since they left. In a way this is akin to the experience of reading Prynne’s poetry.

Interestingly Prynne has spoken of a poetry that journeys out and back. It is a poetic and critical example that clearly informs Prynne’s method of composition and reading. Prynne reads Charles Olson’s Maximus Poems IV, V, VI as having set ‘the literal founding of history and its local cadence into speech extend outwards by feeling into the sacral and divinised forms of presence upon the earth’s surface’ and established as primary writing, ‘with a lingual and temporal syncretism, poised to make a new order’. In other words it places language as a mythological likeness resting on the earth through geological time and the monogene which ‘reaches back into two entwined histories: the geochronology of land-formation and cytochronology of biochemical evolution’. (Charles Olson, Maximus Poems IV, V, VI: J.H. Prynne The Park 4 & 5 Summer 1969 pp. 64-66)
In his 1971 Simon Fraser University lectures on Maximus Poems IV, V, VI, Prynne equates the homecoming of Maximus with the homecoming of The Odyssey and argues that the poem brings in the cosmos, that is knowledge of the universe considered as whole. At the beginning of Maximus IV, V, VI the narrative turns back from the sea, by which the narrator, for Prynne, means space and the large condition of the cosmos. For Olson to look from the Gloucester coast out into the Atlantic is to look into the whole economic support of early New England settlement and to look back to the mid-Atlantic ridges, that is to the residues of the birth of the earth. Olson then has an outward journey and inward journey, stretching lyricism into epic through the folding back of the voyage out. Prynne argues that each of the Maximus fragments participates in the whole so that it is literal and not an insistence of something else and therefore escapes metaphor. As such this leads to a condition of being, which is beyond the condition of meaning. The arc of the Maximus Poems is a singular journey to the limits of space and back to local historical roots achieved as a curvature that moves beyond the lyric into the condition of myth. (See Minutes of the Charles Olson Society No 28 April 1999 pp. 3-13 for J.H. Prynne’s 1971 Simon Fraser lecture on Maximus Poems IV, V, VI)

Olson provided Prynne with a modern epic template, of the journey out and back, and of poetry that places language on earth in geophysical time through the monogene. Prynne has extended this model into a reading experience that is uniquely his own, redolent with acute vocabularies and terse energy points. He offers encounters with language and the various discourses that impinge upon the individual showing how the individual is formed by processes that are outside immediate perception and cognition. His movement beyond metaphorical language seems to be entirely consistent with the scope of his initial enquiries and an attempt to find a more adequate measure of discursive pressures. Recurrent figures and sound patterns replace normative narratives. The use of juxtaposition and enjambment to move seamlessly from one thought or perception to another is done, as Olson advised in his 1950 ‘Projective Verse’ essay, at speed so as to bring seeming disparate discourses or elements of discourses into the sphere of activity being registered. Olson’s impact on Prynne is most noticeable in his early work, especially The White Stones, which can be read, in part, as an investigation of the transfer of language to the human account. It is Olson’s 1959 ‘Human Universe’ essay that forms a backbone to the collection’s frame of reference. In this essay Olson saw all post-Socratic philosophy as a false discourse of logic, classification and idealism, as opposed to a discourse that takes language as an action upon the real. ‘We have lived long in a generalizing time, at least since 450BC’ he wrote and went on to distinguish between ‘language as the act of the instant and language as the act of thought about the instant’. (See A Charles Olson Reader: Ralph Maud Carcanet 2005 page 113) To Olson, Aristotelian logic and classification have fastened themselves on habits of thought so that action is absolutely interfered with. In other words, the habits of thought are the habits of action, collapsing language from an instrument into an absolute with the Greeks declaring all speculation as enclosed in the ‘universe of discourse’. Olson calls for a writing that does not fall back ‘on the dodges of discourse’, a demonstration, a separating out, a classification. ‘ For any of us, at any instant, are juxtaposed to any experience, even an overwhelming single one, on several more planes than the arbitrary and discursive which we inherit can declare’. (A Charles Olson Reader page 114) This could surely stand as a preface to the work of Prynne’s Poems. Olson further notes that a thing impinges upon us by self-existence, without reference to any other thing, by its particularity that is to be found beyond reference and description and wants to bear in rather than away from a thing so as to discover and reveal.

Olson’s Maximus and ‘Human Universe’ essay, combined with Homer’s epic The Odyssey, leads Prynne and the reader to consider the exile in terms of the founding moment of historical self-awareness and, at the same time, as the site of various philosophical and individual splits and boundaries. It is the exile posited on the material foundation of historical change or reinstatement and displaced from any singular viewpoint. By challenging our ordinary linguistic ordering of the world, beginning with an analysis of concept formation in the financial world, Prynne’s poetry makes us question the way in which we make sense of things.