More Recent Reading: Short Reviews

As I said in a previous recent reading post, small presses and journals are the lifeblood of new writing, offering opportunities to both emerging and established poets to test their work in whatever public arena is available to them. The publications mentioned below fall into this category.

Reliquiæ is the annual journal of Autumn Richardson & Richard Skelton’ Corbel Stone reliquiae03Press. The contents range from poetry, both old and new, short fiction, translations, especially of ethnography and myth, and visuals. The focus is on the environment, folklore, animism and the esoteric. In its range and the editors’ ability to set old and new work in interesting conjunction, it has something of the quality of an updated Victorian miscellany; the intention is clearly ‘to move, to teach or to delight’ and generally all three outcomes are achieved.

Particular highlights in Issue 3 are: two new sequences by Thomas A Clark, ‘The Blue of Flax’ and ‘Yellow’; Ross Hair’s essay on Shoreham, Geoffrey Grigson and Ronald Johnson’s The Book of the Green Man; ‘Gathering’, some excerpts from a work of mapping the Cairngorms by Alex Finlay. However, it is invidious to focus on individual contributions. The measure of any literary magazine is normally that it introduces the reader to work they didn’t previously know, and while Reliquiæ does this (Richard Harms and Ken Cockburn are two poets who are new to me and whose work I will now be looking out for) there is also a good deal of pleasure to be derived from seeing, for example, Yeats’ prose folklore writing placed in conjunction with Icelandic myth and experimental place writing.

All three issues operate as organic wholes, each item illuminating what has gone before and comes after it. They are also physically handsome objects. If you are interested in how the world can be written, then Reliquiæ is essential reading. These volumes are treasure troves to return to, each new perusal bringing fresh pleasures.

umagthreeBelatedly, I also wanted to mention Uniformagazine No 3, published last spring by Colin Sackett’s Uniform Books. This is a neat, pocket-sized mag, unfussily designed and packed with text and images. This issue is roughly themes around a series of interventions in sound, image and/or writing in liminal spaces: a train commute; a prehistoric mound that wasn’t; an old, long-closed ’transport literature specialist’ shop; the Chalke way. The magazine is a quarterly, so there have been three more issues since. Well worth a read.

 *

 page1derek beaulieu’s collection of essays and interviews, The Unbearable Contact with Poets, comes from James Davies’ ever-interesting if p then q press. beaulieu writes lucidly about potentially complex matters, and the book’s concerns range from women conceptual poets to Reznikoff’s Holocaust as a model for documentary poetry about the Shoah to the need for self-publication. Even when you disagree with what he’s saying, the disagreement tends to be fertile. Take this statement from page 47 of the book: ‘Writers are only writers when they write; when they cease to write, they cease to exist.’ Interesting, but, I feel, wrong. In fact, I would argue that writers are most fully writers when they are not writing. The act of writing is a performance that depends upon a sequence of conscious and unconscious mental processes that occur during periods of not-writing. For the writer, the writing/not-writing distinction has no real meaning. A writer is always writing, especially when they aren’t.

This train of thought leads me to question the whole idea of ‘conceptual writing’ as a valid category. All writing is conceptual, the working out of a concept, more or less clearly formed in the spaces between writing acts. Writing that calls itself conceptual is merely making this fundamental aspect of the act as explicit as possible and in so doing it risks losing the complex ambiguity that makes the business worthwhile. 

*

Finally, three poets who exemplify beaulieu’s call to ‘[m]ake stuff, hand it out, talk to people’. John McVey is a Cambridge, Massachusetts based teacher of graphic design. I’ve been reading a set of pamphlets from his Aguanga Press, centones / derivations, a strange) mixture of all sorts / derivations from John Macdonald’s Telegraphic Dictionary (1817) (Three vols), Mutilation Odes/The Tables/What New Fangled Notions, and trench codes. These were all published in paper form in 2015, but the work dates back as far as 2001 and is all available online.

McVey’s method involves working with digitally archived volumes of code language of one form or another, typically dating from the 19th and early20th centuries. The result are found poetry derived from their originals by processes of erasure, but they eschew purely random procedures; McVey’s poems are the product of choice.

Some of these texts are made by selecting passages to erase and constructing texts from what remains. Others by searching the digital ‘originals’ for certain words or phrases and then using the longer text contexts in which the search terms occur to form list poems. In the case of the first two volumes of a strange) mixture, the text consist of unerased sections of the scanned source volumes, with the imperfections due to the scanning process forming part of the visual effect.

I first came across this work when McVey started contributing telegraph derivations on the Guardian Poster Poems blog series, in response to specific themes. His work is often lyrical, with suggestions of narrative, and regularly fascinating. They are difficult to explain, so I’ll illustrate by posting the first few stanzas of ‘by the hand through the mazes of the merry dance’, from centones / derivations:

in his hand the model of a cow’s head

in his hand a couple of large burdock leaves

some bank-notes in his hand

 

the destructive hand of careless neglect

 

when palette and brushes are not at hand

and the house on the right-hand side

at the right hand, as you see

 

is now tenanted by a boat-builder

and as I have on my left hand

[ a ] more practised hand would give a few finishing touches

 

foxiness on one hand, and rawness on the other

ramification of the branches

by the right hand and lifted

 

try my hand

 

Now, go and read the rest.

cover-image-FireStation2The Fire Station by Sarah Barnsley is the latest in Telltale Press’s series of small calling-card pamphlets by emerging poets. Barnsely is a student of Modernist American poetry, although most of the poems in the chapbook show little sign of their influence. Most of them are very British anecdotes of childhood, a genre that is now so commonplace that it has become almost impossible for anyone to put their personal stamp on it; the personal, paradoxically, becomes subsumed into a generic ‘poet’s childhood, and Barnsley’s anecdotes are no exception.

It isn’t until the last poem, ‘Three States’ that an individual promise appears as Barnsley abandons her memories and yields to imagination:

between sand and air dropped the morning,

falling free and easy, full of substance,

 

solid and gas at the same time,

a blanket of cold across the beach.

James King is a Derry-based poet and performance/sound artist whose work I have only furrowed livesrecently become aware of. Furrowed Lives is a collaboration with artist David Hegarty who spent some time in a nursing home drawing the residents. King’s poems to accompany the drawings enter into the imagined linguistic universe of the people behind the drawings, each one an individual voice:

Martha

 

Where’s Alfie?

My Alfie

He left in a hearse

My Alfie, my Alfie

A grand affair

What hearse, what hearse?

O Alfie, Alfie

Where are you Alfie?

I don’t want a hearse

It’s Alfie, I want

A grand affair

Who cares?

Where’s Alfie?

The apparent surface simplicity of these poems masks a control of technique, of tone, that is the mark of a poet. Despite their clear differences, there’s a continuity between King’s performance practice and these poems, deriving from the immediacy achieved in both forms. There’s really not a lot more to say.

Isobel Hume: Irish Woman Poet

Little is known of the life of Isobel Hume. She married someone called Fisher, her poems appeared in the Westminster Gazette and The North American Review, and she published a single volume, The Pursuit And Other Poems in 1913.

SPRING
 
Loosen your shining hair!
Let it float to your knee —
Lately a child you were,
Now you hold Love in fee.
 
There is a wood I know
Hid in a lonely place,
Where the white wind flowers grow
No fairer than your face.
 
And elfin rivers run
Tall grasses scarcely cover;
There you will sit in the sun,
And I will be your lover.
 
Lately a child you were,
Now you hold Love in fee —
Loosen your golden hair,
Let it float to your knee.

Elizabeth Dickinson West: Irish Woman Poet

Elizabeth Dickinson West was born around 1850. The daughter of the Dean of  St Patrick’s in Dublin, she studied under, and later married the critic and poet Edward Dowden. Verses 1856-1884, A Critical Edition is available online.

THERE SHALL BE NO MORE SEA.
 
“There shall be no more Sea.” Ah, surely this
Is only for the souls who reach the bliss
Of Paradise! They need not seek the kiss
Of Earth’s great mother, Sea; nor will they miss.
Whose pulses with new-risen life beat high?
The soothings of the Æolian lullaby,
Which now doth win man’s weariness to lie,
Lapped in its sound and be content to die.
 
Hearts strong in vigour of their fresh great joy
Will ask no more the leaping waves to buoy
Their moods to kindred laughter, and destroy
Through alien glee their human cares’ annoy
A little while. The eyes whereon doth break
The light of Heaven, what need have they to take
Sad pleasure in those ocean gleams that make
Dim lives worth living for their beauty’s sake?
 
Yet though the Blessed need no more the Sea,
Will not God leave her to the Lost? — that she,
Who could not save them from their woe, may be
Their nurse to comfort, ever tenderly
With vast and low- voiced hushabies to still
The restlessness of pain incurable.
And with a sense of vague, fair sadness fill
Their hunger for lost good adorable.
 
Men love her, earth’s old Sea. She loves them well.
If she may be their mother too in Hell,
Will she not rock them there with lulling swell.
In her deep constancy? Ah, who can tell?
If waters’ strength and love’s be not in vain.
Some souls who nevermore God’s grace might gain
May yet to peace of dreamless sleep attain.
Lost to all gladness, lost alike to pain.

Posthumous Cantos, by Ezra Pound: A Review

Posthumous Cantos, by Ezra Pound (Edited by Massimo Bacigalupo), Carcanet, ISBN: 978 1 pound784101 20 6, GBP£14.99

The Cantos is arguably the finest Modernist fragmented epic in English, and certainly one of the most important long poems of the last century in any language. Like any poem of such scope and ambition, it is uneven and its unevenness reflects the prejudices of its author. Nevertheless, they straddle the development of modern poetry; like the Alps, as Basil Bunting wrote “you will have to go a long way round / if you want to avoid them.”

In Pound’s case, prejudices is the operative word.  He admired Mussolini, disliked Buddhists, Taoists, Georgian poets, Rubens, and Christians and was frequently virulently Anti-Semitic to the point where whole passages of the poem are virtually unreadable because of the appalling attitude to Jews expressed in them. There are those who would dismiss Pound entirely because of this; however, I agree with Marjorie Perloff when she writes that this is a ‘ridiculous’ position. Perloff points out that a to insist on a stance of ‘Love my Politics, love my poetry’ would mean that much of the best writing of the 20th century, Neruda for instance, would have to be consigned to the rubbish heap.

Posthumous Cantos is the first major addition to the Poundian canon in 30 years.  Given the (initially at least) fragmentary nature of Pound’s method, it is appropriate that much of the work collected here by Massimo Bacigalupo takes the form of discarded drafts for and passages from  published and unpublished Cantos, taken from a huge mass of manuscript and typescript archive. The book covers every period of the extended composition of The Cantos, but the most interesting material comes from three key eras: the early Ur Cantos from 1915-17; poems and drafts in English and Italian written during WWII (before and at Pisa); the Prosaic Poems and Lines for Olga 1962-1972 sections that expands on the great final Drafts and Fragments Cantos.

*

The early materials, consisting of the ‘Three Cantos’ published in Poetry in 1917, plus a fourth Ur-text and some short drafts, shows Pound working towards an idiom for his projected ‘long poem containing history’. The resulting Cantos owe much to Robert Browning and echoes Pound’s earlier long poems ‘Near Perigord’ and ‘Provincia Deserta’. However, half way through the third of these early drafts, Pound discovered the combination of Anglo Saxon, Homer’s Odyssey and Andreas Divus that was to be the eventual opening to the poem, an opening that set Pound on his chosen course, thematically and technically. What he cut away in the process has much to tell the attentive reader about how to read the poem as it came to be written, if only by showing what it isn’t.

In discarding these early drafts, Pound in effect set aside the idea of a single, unified narrating voice. His poem was to give voice to a multitude, layering perspectives one over the other; like Odysseus in the nekyia, Pound would summon up the ghosts of the dead, giving them voice so that they might illuminate the problems of the present.  Equally, in his adaptation of the ‘Seafarer’ line, he began to find a means of applying the Imagist dictum ‘to compose in the sequence of the musical phrase, not in sequence of a metronome’ to the particular requirements of the long, non-lyric poem.

In writing what would become Canto I, Pound did not stick rigidly to the four-stress Anglo-Saxon line, but he did use that line’s freedom as regards the number of unstressed syllables to create that tension between rhythm and meter that came to characterise the music of his long poem. Although the particular patterning that he used in Canto I does not reappear elsewhere in The Cantos, the lessons in adapting the Imagist line to longer structures clearly benefitted from this initial framework:

And then went down to the ship,

Set keel to breakers, forth on the godly seas, and

We set up mast and sail on that swartship,

Bore sheep aboard her, and our bodies also

Straight away the iamb, iamb, anapest of the first line sets the tone, and the establishment and disruption of expectation continues through the whole section, establishing a method that could accommodate the full range of the poem’s disjunctive needs, from narrative, through adaptations of documentary sources, to visionary glimpses of the numinous:

I have brought the great ball of crystal;

who can lift it?

Can you enter the great acorn of light?

These lines from Canto CXVI, written some 45 years later than the Ur Cantos, show that Pound developed this tension to a point of great, subtle flexibility; they also demonstrate his skill in weaving vowel and consonant patterns through his lines to make a verbal music that is at once both complex and clear. It is, in my view, this mastery of the sound of verse that marks Pound as being one of the handful of 20th century English-language poets to whom the word ‘great’ can reasonably be applied.

*

Towards the end of WWII, Pound was detained in a US detention camp near Pisa on suspicion of treason. Here he wrote The Pisan Cantos, probably the most widely read and admired section of the poem. The poignancy of the circumstances of their composition undoubtedly played a significant role in their positive reception. It is, therefore, interesting to see that many of the major themes that run through the Pisan sequence were already present in the poems in English and Italian that he had been working on since around 1940. Without question, the particular circumstances of his detention shaped this material as well as adding an additional layer of matter, but lines like these, inspired by Pound’s study of Confucius, could easily have ended up in the final work:

With a white flash of wings over the dawn light

with a flash of wings over sunset

thus cd/ a man learn wisdom

a man with sky in his heart

Bacigalupo also includes poems written in Pisa but later discarded, and these show that the poet’s instincts as an editor were as sure when it came to his own work as they had been when working with Eliot on The Waste Land. In particular, the decision to exclude two unpublished passages originally intended for Canto 84 was extremely wise.

*

In late 1967, Allen Ginsberg visited Pound in Italy to pay homage to the older poet. He CL Anthpublished his diary of the visit and their conversations in 1974 in the City Lights Anthology. By this time, Pound had stopped working on the Cantos, and the last section, Drafts & Fragments of Cantos CX—CXVI would be published about a year and a half later, put together by his publisher James Laughlin, of New Directions books.

Pound’s conversations with Ginsberg reflect the tone of failure that imbues the Drafts & Fragments poems. Amongst the errors and failures that Pound confesses to, one stands out. After Ginsberg offered him his Jewish Buddhist blessing, Pound replied ‘my worst mistake was the stupid suburban prejudice of antisemitism, all along, that spoiled everything.’

This admission is of a piece with what Bacigalupo terms Pound’s realisation in the late work as his fatal lack of compassion. This is captured in the following lines from a 1959 typescript draft of what would become From Canto CXV:

I have been a pitiless stone —

stone making artwork

and destroying affections.

These late poems of failure are, ironically, amongst the most achieved work Pound ever published, and the five or six drafts reproduced here from this period help round out this achievement. They are, however, not comprehensive. Another draft of Canto CXV was published in the Belfast magazine Threshold in 1963. For interest, I reproduce it here.

CXV

*

It is somewhat misleading to represent the Drafts & Fragments poems as Pound’s final work. Since 1995, editions of the Cantos have ended with a short verse called Lines for Olga, addressed to the poet’s long-time lover Olga Rudge who was his companion for the last ten years of his life. Bacigalupo prints here a set of six short poems under that group title, dating from the last 10 years of Pound’s life, when Rudge was his constant companion and minder. The poems are a testimony to late love, and Bacigalupo sees them as the return of the Venus of Canto I. To an extent, he has a point, but the Olga poems are more than that. Having spent a lifetime writing an epic, searching for the grant gesture, the illuminating instance from history, the vision of the numinous, Pound finally arrives at the realisation that it is in the ordinary that life has its deepest significance:

bearing it all

finding beauty

where the last

vestige of it

still was

In this extended form, Lines for Olga are the perfect coda to the Cantos, a Nostos that could only be achieved after both the ambition and failure of Pound’s voyage after knowledge had been exhausted. Readers of Pound owe Bacigalupo a debt of gratitude for recovering these poems and bringing them into print.