Wednesday, 12 August 2009

Accident Adventure, or: shopping list - the sequel nobody wanted

This is a note about interesting books of poetry which I failed to write about.

Many years ago, I published a Shopping List in Angel Exhaust which was later published, adapted, in Failure of Conservatism. As I explained, it began with an evening in the pub (1995?) with Simon Smith and Harry Gilonis. We had lots of arguments, then, where anti-modern people would challenge us to name good non-conservative books. The TLS reviewer of that book remarked that you couldn't "bring linguistic modernity into existence by decree" - passing over the list of 250 prized verbal artefacts of modernity as if he'd failed to read it. The naming was the catalogue of an imaginary museum of modern poetry, a decree bringing the recent past into official existence, and what aroused black fury on the part of those whose works didn't feature in it.
Distracted no doubt by egoism, I failed to find space, even in four volumes, for many poets I do know about and whose work I admired. This could be, as for Robert Smith, because their book hadn’t come out. They would include R Smith, Daniel Lane, Robert Hampson, Rod Mengham, David Kinloch, Peter Philpott, Steve Harris, Scott Thurston. My other website ( ) has extra material of this kind. There was also the possibility that I could search through the areas of darkness, and uncover some more poetry I actually liked. Shopping is too great a thing for anyone to aspire to perfection in it, but here are some faint notes anyway. It did occur to me that I could read up on mainstream poetry, in order to check that I had been right to ignore it. I pursued this project to some extent, but didn’t actually discover anything I wanted to write about. Extending the list into 1998 would have required financial resources which I just didn’t have.
The search became a compulsive thing, like most collecting activities I suppose. I was criticised for the books I’d left out (this is always phrased as leaving people out, as if it was malice), but I am more concerned by the collector’s problem of grabbing too much, and listing books which are lacking in thrill-power. After a certain point, reading threatens to take knowledge away rather than add it. A certain number of our poets suffered catastrophic drop-offs at some point – knowledge which made me constantly anxious.
I suspect that at least 20,000 works of poetry were published in this period (1960-97). I have only read a tiny section of these, guided by a network of friends, wonderful but selective. I have the idea of suggesting the limits of the research I did by shining a brief light on the works I missed. No doubt many more discoveries remain to be made by critics more hard-working than I am. Showing what is outside the work shows its true shape. Perhaps I was struck down by languor and satiation after six years of the project. Maybe. But the prospect of discovering one more brilliant book buried on the margins is still intoxicating.

Gerard Casey, South Wales Echo. Jeremy Hilton republished this work (in Fire, 17, 2002) on Casey's death. It had first come out, in a de luxe edition, from Enitharmon, in 1973, under the pseudonym of Gerardus Cambrensis. This is a remarkable long poem, heavily influenced by David Jones, a montage of 'memories and echoes' recalling the sights and sounds of 1920s Cardiff, along with departures into the mystic and the symbolic realms of the cosmos, referring to Boehme, Robert Fludd, Plotinus, etc.

flotsam I come
as to a place much longed for
as to one much prayed to
to the place where the streams empty
but I know Tom of old ... long ago
far back in the storm of the world-flow
he foresuffered all
humped trembling over Esau
bent in flamelight over Tilphussa's spring
gulped the black water
all worlds consumed in everlasting fire
And eyeless under Suhir
sang with Shiddeh his bahilowi

The South Wales Echo is, or was, a Cardiff newspaper. I know of no other poems by Casey, who simply did not register on our radar screens — we are hugely indebted to Fire, which is a good place to hunt for neglected British poets.

After FCon came out, Tom Raworth emailed me to draw my attention to On the Beach with Eugene Boudin, by Philip Jenkins, and Snap Box, by Paul Gogarty, books which I had missed.
Both are remarkably cool, degage, post-surrealist works. Both poets followed them up with heavily uncool, complicated, elaborate, mythical-psychoanalytical long poems - The Accident Adventure (Gogarty, 1979), and Cairo (Jenkins, 1981). Both were published by X Press. Both bear some resemblances to Martin Thom's masterpiece The Bloodshed the Shaking House - also published by X Press (an insider's tip). (I would love to see an X Press anthology.)

In 1964, I dreamt that I was sewn into a carcass of meat hanging in a butcher's shop. Inside, I was conscious of colour moving slowly as a succession of projected slides from rich red through purples and browns into black.

In 1977 at the Vortex, Siouxsie and the Banshees performed a song in which the protagonist mutilates himself before impaling himself on a butcher's hook anticipating new skin.

In the Serapeum at Sakkarah in the third century before Christ, Asar Hapi, the Apis bull of Memphis into whom was sewn the dead Osiris,

Called the life of Osiris

Animated by the soul of Osiris.
(from Cairo, Book 1, 5)

Her would-be-groom's clan fought her family then went on to more glorious trials of horsemanship & lute playing.
The groom had to bust a cooking cow in half.
Next they marry.
If she is not a virgin that night the groom says she will be kicked out first thing in the morning.
Everything goes ok.
She stays in for three days then makes her way to the courtyard where a small boy fastens a belt round her waist.
She goes back to the house to make lunch.
On the seventh day she fetches water from the well in the village square. Here a man must try to hit her with a loaf of bread. It is the job of local women to protect her with the skins of prickly pears.
(from Accident Adventure, 3)

the generalized other of a television
its systems embedded in taut drums of sound
word-like tentacles follow dog-like
elaborated mouth shapes snapping instructions
out of its armchair
confused patterns
scars gouged
in granite
body tremors
eye ache
sclerotic fingers
(from AA, 2)

The Vortex was in Hanway Street, I seem to recall. Accident Adventure has a drawing of a wedding photo on the cover, and is perhaps organised around marriage, conception, the birth and growth of the self, the continuity of the self with all human generations. Free association is not organised but may be a structural metaphor for boundlessness and the end of personal identity. 'and if there's nothing there but a small hairy sponge thing whoozing we'll peel back its skin layer by layer till we reach that centre core of sound/ the monogyne/ that sent this whole thing twanging off gathering fur as it sped waves into space marking out its region'. We are inside the realm of the primary process here. (Monogyne is a female plant with only one pistil, a word invented by Linnaeus.)
Cairo is based on a stripping-down of the self to its ancient irreducible parts. Egypt features as the origin of farming, the source of European myth, kingship, of the peasant social order. The primal is seen as a visual order which recedes before reason but is always there as the basis of rational sight:

the thin line ties
the neck of the bottle
to the edge of the table

the line is heavy: it bows

that small hominoidal face
brush strokes define a vigour
mark the movements that will
obscure, eventually obliterate

the passage from the fingertips
the outstretched arm
follows through
(Cairo, Book 2, 5)

There is a rumour that Cairo Book 3 will be published during 2005.

David Jones is probably the essential poet of my life. This doesn't make it easier to write about him. I switched my degree course to Anglo-Saxon, Norse, and Celtic because I was so fascinated by the lore Jones drew on. My infatuation with poetry involved, prominently, an infatuation with The Anathémata - this, around 1973-4; before Jones' death and when I was 17 and 18. I can't write about him without disassembling my whole adult personality. It's too hard retrieving adolescent feelings when you've become a rational being.
Ted Hughes only features very briefly, despite my huge admiration for him. I was put off by the expense of quoting from a Faber author and by the knowledge that he was already hugely famous and so what I wrote could make no difference. But I have spent really a lot of time reading and thinking about Hughes.
Giles Goodland reached our attention first with Littoral (1996), an account of a cliff-walk in which the astounding hyper-realist piling-up of botanical and geological detail was not quite integrated with subjective statement. Later, I saw in typescript a few of the poems based on a database of citations for a new Oxford English Dictionary, which became A Spy in the House of Years (2001), with a montage poem for each year of the old century. The sense of the whole complexity of human linguistic activity just outside the poem, pouring into it through a crack, is delirious. 1925:

for a time the patient succeeded in bringing her personal wishes, social aspirations and libidinal needs all under the aegis of the oral erotogenic zone, in accordance with

the Bee Cell Supporter. A Boon to Womankind. Made from the purest, softest rubber. Endorsed by the medical profession.

in addition to the above the following equipment is required: rubber tubing, 1 yard. Adhesive plaster, assorted, 6 reels. Cyanide gauze, 2 lb. Kruschen salts, 2 bottles.

elbow-length sleeves, closely-fitting collars and rougeless face

It perfectly evokes the simplicity of the brain in comparison with the cosmos. This torrential quality could not be reduced to a lyric subjective experience, but has an astonishing wealth of meaning. No one has like Goodland reproduced the insane detail and precision of new imaging media in language. There is also Overlay (1998). Personally, I can see a direct link between this and the poems by Jenkins and Gogarty discussed above. Both draw on an irrational and inexhaustible source of images, and write long poems in which the poet does not appear. The replacement of the Unconscious as the Unstilling Voice by an electronic machine is prefigured by Gogarty's passage on the television, quoted above. The Goodland passage quoted involves psychoanalysis, but only in passing. It does amount to a myth, though: we obviously associate the satisfaction of the woman in the first quotation with the honey of the bees, the protective clothing of the bee-keeper with the dangers of sexuality, the oral arrangement with the contact of the bee's proboscis and the 'mouth' of the blossom, the danger of penetration with the celebrated virginity of most of the bees. Perhaps this tells us how myth starts: in flights of dream which draw on a stock of images far wider than personal awareness.
Tom Rawling, b. 1916, a Cumbrian, published in 1993 The Names of a Sea-trout, which includes some very good poems. The aesthetic is derivative of Hughes and Heaney to a remarkable degree – which makes it hard to write about him, and also reveals he was not writing poetry before 1976. He would have been of the “New Romantic” generation, but shows no trace of that style. His style is patient, full of physical details, without descriptions of feelings, compact, careful, vivid. It is possibly related to a self-image as “northern”. Names itself is close to Celtic nature poetry and to praise-epithets - archaic models mediated through who knows what, probably Hughes. The linguistic freedom here is what makes it attractive. The dating in his life makes it implausible he would go on to large-scale sustained works. There are particular poems I would like to pull out and admire.

Reach through jutting thorns
for the blue-hazed sloe,
ignore the blood on your wrist.

Needle-prick to the hard stone,
watch their transfusion seep
through the gin.
silk-sliding fire
of frost and thorns
and bitter fruit.
('Sloe Gin')

The collection is scrappy, as runs of single poems, without a deeply original style, always are. This is inherent in the design of “a collection” as we know it. There are two other books of his which I haven't read.
Harry Guest (b.1932) is a discreet writer, not arresting or original. His work is tidy and quiet, with the power of something which is pious towards beauty and meditative states. Arrangements (1968) is conservative compared to other debuts of the same period. (There was an earlier book which was absorbed or not listed for some reason.) It is related to Lee Harwood, but Guest never wholeheartedly accepted the innovations of the 60s; stuck with several Movement values. He didn’t believe in an undiscovered continent floating just off the known waters, and so retained balance – partly interesting, partly boring. The work shines in rigorous selection, e.g. by Tony Frazer (in A State of Independence, the 1998 anthology which also reprints Philip Jenkins). I can't be bothered to read all his books to see if one is good. My problem basically is that he has idly repeated themes within a book, he dulls the ear until you can't hear his excellent poems properly. He never got carried away by an idea in poetics, or another sort of idea. Living in Japan for many years (thirty, even) encouraged, I guess, his belief in beauty. Elegies (1980) works entire, because it is only a pamphlet in extent.

Airs of summer wind their way through the empty chamber
for the skulls have gone to stare behind glass at a crude
map on the museum wall. Perhaps the bones
were removed piecemeal when the mound fell in. The sun is low
and slopes of tough grass fleeced with hazel
repeat the fragrance of the day. High stone slabs
freed from burial by five thousand years of rain
stand in the light and frost. You do not like these journeys.
(from 'Fifth Elegy')

I think probably there are a few poems which are excellent in each of his books. I see there is now a big Collected Poems (1955 to 2000), but this is not the ideal way in.
Daniel Lane (circa 1963?) emerges as a modern-day poète maudit. Two of his books (Wrecks in Ultra-Sound, n.d., and Stuff Culture, 1995) came out only as self-published, provisional form. A third collection, Lag, exists only in typescript. I have no idea why they didn't get some imprimatur — for me, they were some of the most interesting work of the decade. Lane's work is sunny and cheerful, ideally receptive to the work of John James. He is close to the world of pop music, that magic combination of musicality and lightness of touch. He treats things like formica-topped cafe tables and beaches with piety. Some of the poems appeared in Angel Exhaust.
Harry Gilonis and Tony Baker published a volume, from far away (completed 1990), a shared poem (renga) which became familiar to me, much later, from hearing it read, at least once, by Harry and David Rees. It was a pleasure to hear.

a blue moon. nightblue apple trees.
star-naked boys in the meadow.
a frog. a leaf. a fire-fly. leaves.

asking myself, how come these things pile up at my door?
answering; & do not the weeds to have right of access to the sun?

there's no light under the orchard,
under the hill; above, just the glimmer
of Minuarta verna

a waste and howling wilderness
this window open in
to the infernal world

How long shall I heare the sighs and groanes
O Tythes, Excize, Taxes, Pollings &c
This government is firmly committed to

David Kennedy published a volume titled President of the Earth, new and selected poems, dating from the mid-1980s onward according to the jacket. I enjoyed this, a reception of the New York School. As usual, I hark back to a cafe chain with a branch in the street off the Strand where I work, which perpetually plays tapes of Blue Note recordings from the 1950s. You can't criticise Blue Note. German phonography plus American musicians, ka-pow. But you can't just saunter out of the new Ab Ex show at Leo Castelli's, buy a copy of Good Housekeeping, quote John Foster Dulles on the situation in Indochina, dash off the sleevenotes to Hank Mobley's first album, and go to linger over a Valium and Daquiri cocktail at Phaedra's, because it's not 1958 any more. No, it's chainstore neoclassicism. The second part is a kind of avant-garde pastoral, based on programmed repetition and recombination of inherited lines, which gets nowhere at all. Ian Bamforth was born in 1959, and his second volume was Sons & Pioneers, in a standard 80s ludic style, heavily based on Edwin Morgan and Les Murray. The poems are not quite good – not light and joyful enough to be Morgan. The tunes never quite resolve into a new shape as opposed to the tunes they’re based on. There is a whole stylistic zone which would include Morgan, Duhig, Ash, Didsbury, Kuppner, etc. Bamforth’s work is well written but it’s not sufficiently individuated to separate itself from everyone else trying for the same gestalt. At least we can identify this style, connect it with the 1980s, and trace it to the analyses which produced it. It’s irony++ — he doesn’t enjoy his own poem because he’s too busy disengaging himself. The tic of throwing value away, denying commitment, is probably key. It’s not that his work lacks complexity or grace, or strains for effect. 'Impediments', in Open Workings, his third book, is a quasi experimental prose chain of 101 parts, full of erudition, and full of unexpected associations:

Carragheen. Irish seaboard town. Structural polysaccharide of red seaweed (Rhodophyceae). Consists of alternating polymers of galactose, commonly used as a gelling agent, emulsifier and stabiliser.

A corset, a portfolio of dirty postcards, a hideous stuffed parakeet, a chinchilla scarf, studlinks, wooden clothes-hangers, shoe-polish, a Napoleonic scabbard. The terrible din when phenomena come to speech.

I am wondering why I felt disappointed afterwards. The detail is heady, but it is piled up in a whimsical and faithful way, without jumps of logic or lyrical flight. The focus is close and there is no line leading forward. Letting ideas in isn’t his problem, more likely the problem is not being interested in ideas. This exploits the faculty of memory rather than the creative faculties. John Burnside (b.1955) published Swimming in The Flood (1993), which I was quite taken with. No poem is quite altogether good. But he’s awake, and some passages are sublime. But he is confused about his own poems and his models. I wondered at how the whole book repeats the same themes, but the organisation of this large extent is feeble. As the need to repeat suggests, the individual poems are never quite resolved. I thought the poems were suggestive but there is a basic gap in the method (that formula of big vague post-religious feelings plus very precise sensuous detail) which suggests that he got it from someone else. The two streams should combine like a great radio song, but don't, their relevance to each other is too unclear. His poems are generic. But I think he might write a great poem one of these days. I think the source of this style is American, it seems familiar but the impression is vague. I read in the introduction to The Wesleyan Tradition (edited and introduced Michael Collier, 1993) that there was a standard style in the 60s and 70s called "deep image", and I think this is why the impression is so vague - hundreds of poets wrote like this, I can't remember a particular source, and Wesleyan Press says that the style had become conventional by the 1970s. If Burnside invented his own poem design, he would be more likely to hit it in the bull's-eye. I have to add that I really enjoyed that Wesleyan anthology, there's nothing dishonourable about copying one of the patterns. It’s possible to be a casualty of the sublime – this isn’t exactly unfamiliar from 20th C Christian poets. He has published 7 books, with what seems to me like frantic productivity - so I haven't read them all.

Addendum 2012. With further knowledge, I can see that there are other poets I should have discussed: Paul Brown, Paul Evans, Graham Hartill. They were invisible behind enormous amounts of poetry by other people. You can hide any kind of information behind information.

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