Review of Denise Riley in Eborakon

Eborakon is a poetry magazine based at the University of York and the latest issue, Vol 1, eboIssue 3, is just out, featuring, among many good things, my review of Say Something Back, by Denise Riley. Here’s a brief sample, you’ll need to buy the mag to read more:

Throughout the collection, the formal restraints of song, with or without rhyme, provide a sense of emotional restraint, a pattern of emotion expressed, and then drawn back, an exploration of the language to enact this pattern in, that is deeply moving.

Collected Poems 1964 – 2016 by Barry Tebb: A Review

barry-tebbCollected Poems 1964 – 2016, Barry Tebb, Sixties Press, 978-1-905554-31-7, £10.00

Barry Tebb is something of an outlier when it comes to the history of British poetry over the last 50 years. His career began apparently riding the wave of 1960s counter culture enthusiasm, only to collapse into a quarter century of silence, followed by 20 years of intense writing and publishing activity on the margins of both the mainstream and alternative poetry ‘scenes’. It’s a trajectory that can be mapped now thanks to this welcome Collected Poems, published, as most of his mature writings have been, by his own Sixties Press imprint.

Tebb is an interesting figure for a number of reasons, not least of which is his position in, but not of, the Northern working class milieu of 1950s Leeds, a world which was to become the ground on which his poetry rests. This ground is apparent in the first poem in his 1966 collection, The Quarrel With Ourselves, ‘School Smell’, a poem which, presciently, Michael Horovitz was to include in his seminal 1969 anthology The Children of Albion. This poem, a memory of the poet’s Leeds childhood sense of ‘outsiderness’ prefigures his later work, but is absolutely untypical of the three volumes he published up to 1970.

Much of this early verse is apprentice work, a young poet’s idea of what poetry should be, with many of the poems being about artists and musicians, and the poet’s sensitive reactions to them. The importance of ‘significance’ is over-emphasised:

Lodged in some deep recess of the soul
Poems are waiting for me to write them
(from ‘Expectancy’)

It is interesting to see they young Tebb absorb the modified Surrealism of the 1940s so-called New Romantic poets in poems like ‘Everything in its Place’:

The blackboard is cleaning itself behind me,
Making my neck prick as it scattered dust

There are also a number of short, haiku-like Imagistic poems, along with echoes of Eliot, Yeats and, more surprisingly, Browning:

But my father called, I left my people
With a sot who embarrassed the Bishop.
I was not long in my see, two Popes died quickly
And my father’s whispers never ceased, Rome called
And I was Cardinal at last.
(from ‘The Cardinal Looks Back’)

And through all these influences, the patient reader can detect traces of Tebb’s original voice emerging:

Slumped in action
A matrix of motion
Blurs direction;
Left and right
Gathers them in, sucking
Gently round blind corners.
(from ‘Absent Enemies’)

And then, 25 years of writer’s block intervened, years in which Tebb says he was ‘unable to write’, a silence which was brought to an end by a dream of his first love, Margaret, who called him back in space and time to the Leeds of his childhood. The work which followed his return to writing is at times uneven, but almost always interesting, the ear which was latent in the earlier work blossoming into a unique voice full of assonance and alliteration:

As soon as we entered Yorkshire
Hughes’ voice assailed me, unmistakeable
Gravel and honey, a raw celebration of rain
like a tattered lacework window;
(from ‘Hughes’ Voice in my Head’)

There is a greater emphasis on the personal, and even those later poems that deal with art and artists feel earned in a way the earlier work doesn’t. There are a number of poems, probably too many, on the state of contemporary poetry politics, a not unnatural result of Tebb’s sense of being excluded, but these are more than outweighed by the honesty of the personal poems, especially in those dealing with his troubled marriage to poet and mental health activist Brenda Williams, most notably ‘The Road to Haworth Moor’:

We were wrong from the beginning, you always said, wrong
To be together, wrong to go away or perhaps, as Hobsbaum said,
‘It was the place’s fault. If we’d made it to Haworth as we
Dreamed, standing on the moor top, the heather muffling your tears,
The wind sighing its threnody, crying its cradle-song, whispering
Promises of its care to come, its breath caressing the very stones
We sat on, lost beyond the ken of any guide, beyond the signatures
Of time and place, beyond, beyond…

This passage might be seen as typical of Tebb’s method, with the preponderance of trisyllabic feet and concomitant preponderance of unstressed syllables contrasting with the intrusion of occasional adjacent stresses acting as counterpoint to the patterns of vowel and consonant sounds; ‘Dreamed, standing on the moor top, the heather muffling your tears’. It’s a distinctive and fascinating voice, adaptable to a wide range of tones and styles.

At the heart of Tebb’s achievement is the long autobiographical poem that is the direct outcome of his dream, Bridge over the Aire. Despite internal nods to a number of 1940s poets, this poem seems to me to owe a great deal to Basil Bunting’s Briggflatts. As with Bunting, Tebb’s return to poetry is also a return to a lost childhood love and to its associated state of prelapsarian simplicity.

Aire is 80-odd pages long and divided into six named books, each consisting of shorter numbered sections. The whole progress in a kind of spiral, with themes, scenes and emotions recurring, but at a different slant on each occurrence. The tone ranges from dense sound patterning to child-like simplicity:

I began this prayer of poetry in poverty
And this never-ending song started in silence
After the bells quietened and Sunday was in
Church or still in bed as I watched the tusky
Growing in the fecund darkness. The shed was
Holy, warm and in wonder I felt it move and
On my scooter I flew over the holy stones of
Jerusalem the Golden.
(from Book One)
 
“Rag-bone rag-bone
White donkey stone”
Auntie Nellie scoured
Her door step, polished
The brass knocker
Till I saw my face
Bunched like a fist
Complete with goggles
Grinning like a monkey
In a mile of mirrors.
(from Book Three)

Book One, Against the Grain, which is the longest of the six, maps Tebb’s reconciliation with his past, with Leeds, with remembered first love, and with poetry. At the core of this deciding for poetry and for love is a thirst for simplicity:

It’s been a problem ever since
With everyone, no-one else was
So simple, always wanting more or
Less than I could give, when all
There was to follow was more of
The same

The reconciliation with childhood involves an invocation of his pre-pubescent love of Margaret, and the book ends with a physical encounter (whether real or imagined is not entirely clear) between her and the narrator, their love finally consummated.

Standing In Eden, the second book, opens with twin images of the young Tebb claimed by poetry and of Homer singing the nostos of Odysseus, before moving to a fragmented delineation of the Edenic Leeds of 1950s working class community, as seen through the eyes of children. Tebb is aware that things were not so ideal for all his neighbours:

For fish and chips
We went past ‘The Mansions’
Half a dozen enormous
Victorian houses abandoned
To the poorest of the poor
With front steps missing
Holes in the halls so big
You had to jump and
Rats the size of cats.
 
The children who lived there
Pushed coal in broken prams
Their jerseys had more
Holes than wool
They had impetigo
We passed them quickly
On the other side.

The tone soon turns to lament; slum clearance meant that homes, shops and trades, an entire way of life, have been eradicated in the space between the now and then of the poem. This is Eden demolished, if not entirely eradicated, to be rediscovered only in the smallest of things:

In the May dawn silence
I walk the cobbled road,
The houses gone for sixty years.
A single wallflower grows
On the ravaged bank.

This clearance also meant the movement of people. and the separation of the young lovers of the poem. Tebb moving to the suburbs, grammar school, teacher training college, outwards and upwards, Margaret to who knows where.

Book Three, The Kingdom of my Heart, moves from the mythic and communal to the personal and historical. The kingdom in question is both the emotional terrain of first love and the Anglian realm of Deira. It’s an urban landscape transformed by the twin powers of love and poetry:

The park itself will blossom
And grow in chiaroscuro
The Victorian postcard’s view
Of avenue upon avenue
With palms and pagodas
Lakes and waterfalls and
A fountain from Versailles.

And these powers are inextricably entwined:

Margaret, now we’ll see
What truth there is
In dreams and poetry!
I am at one with everyone
There is poetry
Falling from the air
And you have put it there.

The fourth book, Land of my Childhood, brings the reader back to the poem’s present, and at its core is Tebb’s recognition of his ‘outsider’ position: ‘My trouble was I’m not/Really working class’. This sense of difference extended to his preference for playing with girls rather than boys, a distaste for football, and, now, for the sanitised new Leeds of the planners’ dreams:

This is no land for me
I who have seen Excalibur
Pulled from the living tree
I who have drunk the wine
Of Margaret’s memory.

The Mooring Posts of Book Five are the landmarks of the gone world, ranging from the bridge of the poem’s title to local shops. Death, clearance and the brave new world of 1950s suburbia, with its shiny Formica and bright interior décor are folded into each other to signal the Fall, the end of innocence and the loss of love.

The closing book, The Walk to the Paradise Gardens, which circles around Bonfire Night 1954, is both coda and a closing of the poem’s spiral. The poet finds himself returned to an Eden he never really left, thanks to the power of art. It’s an ending of quiet hope, based on the premise that what is made well and with love endures:

The Hollows stretched into darkness
The fire burned in the frost, sparks
Crackled and jumped and floated
Stars into the invisible night and
The log glowed red and the fire we
Fed has never died.

*

Bridge over the Aire is a singular achievement in the same way that Briggflatts is; a poem unlike anything that Tebb’s fellow Children of Albion have, or could have, produced. As with most long poems, there are some flat moments, but overall it is a poem of great accomplishment as well as being a remarkable document of a world that has melted away before our very eyes. There is much to admire in this Collected Poems, but this poem makes it a book to treasure, a book to return to. Tebb is, above all else, a survivor of a gone world, a world of hope based on a firm sense of community and of social democracy in all its messy glory. Read it.

Six Irish Poets: A Review

Undercurrents, a psychogeography of Irish rivers in haibun and haiku, by Amanda Bell, undercurrentsAlba Publishing, ISBN 9781910185353, €12 / £9 / $14

Haibun is a literary form of mixed prose and verse that has its origins in the travel journals of Basho, the great Japanese master haiku poet. These include his most famous work, the Oku no Hosomichi or Narrow Road to the Deep North. It’s a highly flexible form that allows the poet to blend the inner and outer paths that any journey involves, and to seamlessly incorporate memory, history and immediate sensation into the text.

It’s a form that is experiencing something of a revival, in part at least because of the rising interest in psychogeography as a crucial mode of landscape writing. In Undercurrents, Amanda Bell applies it to a very specific end; a meditation on various Irish rivers that for one reason or another have significance for her. This is not a journal of a single journey, but rather of multiple trips through both space and time, the resulting texts being both local and personal, the rivers ranging from the Liffey to the Mulcair to an un-named mountain stream.

Rivers are, of course, the most liminal of sites, and Bell’s haibun reflect this essential fact. The Liffey damned at Poulaphouca for Dublin’s water supply covers flooded farms and houses that reappear when the level falls, a drowned world momentarily, and vacantly, revived. The Clare, on the Limerick/Tipperary border, is site of a double death. The Mulcair, which flows a few hundred yards from where I’m writing this review, marks an adolescent rite of passage.

Bell’s prose is direct, unpretentious and lucid, conveying fact and impression with ease. Haiku is one of the most difficult verse forms to carry off, allowing the poet the narrowest of opportunities to fire a synapse in the reader. Often, this reaction turns on a single word. At her best, Bell manages admirably:

cutting this year’s wood

for next year’s fires –

who will feel its warmth?

Undercurrents is an interesting and rewarding little book, not least for the way it indicates something of a shift in the dynamic of Irish verse as our poetry of place moves away from the pieties of the last century and towards a more exploratory, indeterminate mode.

inabsentia

EchoNone, Michael McAloran, Oneiros Books, ISBN 9781326289393, €8.40. `


In Absentia
, Michael McAloran, Black Editions Press, ISBN 9781326618292, €7.18.

Place, in the sense of a defined location, is entirely absent in Michael McAloran’s work, which is grounded in a nihilistic view of the void in which nothing is, or can be, known or communicated; a state in which, to quote the epigraph to EchoNone, ‘what resonates is the sound of zero cracking apart’. The texts that comprise these two books are not prose poems, but rather poetry in prose (McAloran also writes in verse), syntactically disrupted blocks of language, in which the only punctuation used is an occasional parenthesis and frequent slashes and ellipses.

Both books are an attempt to articulate the nothing, zero, the great egg of the world, and these punctuation marks are a crucial device to help the poet avoid the danger of total stasis that could all too easily ensue. In EchoNone, for example, each block of text opens with an ellipsis, pointing back to the previous text and ends similarly, pointing on to the next (or, in the case of the first and last pages of the book, to the silence the text emerges from). Slashes punctuate the constituent markers as pauses, not of the breath (these are very much texts for silent reading, not for performance) but of the mind that would comprehend the underlying, almost Socratic, maxim ‘I speak therefore I know no thing’.

EchononeThe idea that life is meaningless, unknowable, unutterable presents certain challenges for the nihilist writer. The problem is that language continually asserts meaning. Put a word on the page, say ‘a’, and already a constellation of expectation asserts itself. A noun is required, a thing, indefinite but real. ‘a shred of pulse’, which is life, and what of it? What does it do?

…a shred of pulse sung some distance din breath lapse of reduced to nothing or of what matter echo/

And the reader makes sense of it, the ellipsis sends us back to what went before (‘silence silenced/…) and the slash both stops us and prepares us for a something next. Which is to say that the nothing is not everything, that endurance and continuity matter. That, to quote an obvious exemplar, ‘I’ll go on.’

There is a great deal of Beckett here, not least in the emphasis on silence and echo, a mutually contradictory complement. Or, to quote the final paragraph of In Absentia:

seals up in wound of speech echoing distance untraceable/ stillness/merely broken bones

More surprisingly, I am often reminded of Beckett’s Irish contemporary Brian Coffey, who, for all I know, is not known to McAloran. In lines like

black light vibration returns unto premise premise none yes or no/ futility bitten artery un-shine

there is a strong echo of passages from ‘Advent’ or ‘Mindful of You. Of course, Coffey leaned on religion as a stay against the void. McAloran has no such easy answers, and yet there is a sense through both these books that he is aware of something behind the nothing. Whatever that may be, he’s clear that it is neither simple nor easy.

Like so many of our most interesting and challenging poets, present and past, McAloran is published mainly by small foreign presses or his own Black Editions. Consequently, you’re unlikely to come across his books in your local bookshop or library, but they are very much worth tracking down and reading.

oranges in finland, Judy Kravis, Road Books, €5.00oranges-finland

Road Books is an imprint run by Judy Kravis and Peter Morgan from their home in West Cork. Her most recent publication, oranges in finland, is part of the second series of their ‘colour books (will fit in a shirt pocket) line of handsome little books. If McAloran’s writing can sometimes teeter on the edge of nightmare, Kravis inhabits a somewhat different dreamscape. As she puts it herself ‘Forty-three dreams. Forty-three mornings. Write after breakfast, before the dream disappears. Revise in the evening with the day’s weather, the day’s plot woven in.’

These poems capture the banal absurdity that characterises most of our dreams: an airport becomes a hospital; you open a knocked door but nobody’s there; journeys lose their destinations. Kravis presents these dream incidents in carefully crafted poems that refuse the temptation to interpret, hovering on the edge of sense, and not straining to impose an artificial order.

in media res

 

the people you have met

merge with the people you

have not – you know who

they all are but not yet

who you are nor just

how brinkish the

middle of thi-

ngs can be

Despite their obvious differences as writers, Kravis’ work sits outside the Irish mainstream as much as McAloran’s does. She eschews the expected rhetoric of self to create small poems in a minor key that are individual, honest, unpretentious, and carefully crafted. They are poems that feel like they have been written for the sake of it, and not to appeal to a putative audience. This is, indeed, a book to slip in your shirt pocket and enjoy in quiet moments.

A Childhood UnsharedA Childhood Unshared: The Crumlin Poems, Teri Murray and Pauline Fayne, Clothesline Press, ISBN 9780951941232, €10.00.

Teri Murray and Pauline Fayne grew up in mid-20th century Crumlin, a working class suburb of Dublin and although their experiences overlapped they didn’t meet until adulthood, brought together by a shared interest in poetry. Here they present a set of paired poems reflecting their different but similar childhoods. It’s a conversation between two distinct but complementary voices that grow out of lifetimes immersed in books. Fayne sums it up well in her opening piece ‘The Poet Dreams of Crumlin’:

 

The shock of recognition

in each others words –

the dream lives and perfect homes

born between the pages

of the books that sustained us,

the same envied neighbours, the one

need to belong.

Unlike most Irish poetry of place, which depends on the magic of naming and of rootedness, to the point of cliché, these urban place poems are, like most working-class urban living, a negotiation between a sense of community and a kind of rootlessness. In the 1930s, Crumlin went from being the dairy farm of Dublin to a sprawling development designed to facilitate inner-city slum clearance. As such, Fayne and Murray represent the first or second generation of children to grow up in this new environment, which is both theirs and not. The poems they collect here reflect this reality, celebrating not the shared history and myth of the place, but rather the creation of its history and myth. Phil Lynnot is a god who walks among them, as too, in a different way, are young men in uniform, whose army jobs are a kind of way out.

The resulting work has a surface simplicity, but any idea that it is simple is undercut by Murray’s first poem in the book, ‘To Me Fella, A Letter’, a well-judged parody of Pound’s ‘The River Merchant’s Wife. A Letter’:

At sixteen, you departed, went into far Drum-Con-Dra,

by way of the dark lanes across the river

of swirling eddies and you have been gone five months.

The magpies make sorrowful noises overhead.

However, the rest of the work avoids a self-conscious literariness and is Poundian only in its direct treatment of the thing; the thing being daily life. Crumlin and the poets’ experiences of it are not made to stand for something else, they are lucidly themselves. In ‘Theatre of the Absurd’, a poem about back-garden entertainments, Fayne brings this world to life in the sophisticated ordinariness of her particulars:

Patiently accepting

well watered squash,

Marietta biscuits

and cornflake sandwiches.

If variety is the essence of a literary culture, these quiet poems, these poets, must be welcome as an integral part of the pattern.

Distance, by Ron Carey, Revival Press, €12.00FRONT-Jpeg-Print-Ready-Distance-Cover-Final-Draft.indd-page-0011-191x300

Distance, the first collection by Limerick poet Ron Carey was nominated for the Forward Prize for Best First Collection 2016 for the United Kingdom and Ireland. This is, I imagine, a pleasing achievement for the poet and for his publisher, a small Limerick-based press dedicated to the publication of local poetry.

It’s not difficult to see why Carey’s book would be popular with the judges; it’s a very self-consciously literary book in the rural Irish tradition of Kavanagh, who is the presiding spirit in the collection. Carey covers the well-worn themes of childhood wonder, eccentric relations and neighbours, fathers and mothers, rural electrification and the confessional, and the redeeming powers of art in a series of ‘well-made’ anecdotal poems, with all the strengths and dangers of the genre. It’s not a kind of poetry that I read much of, so I am, perhaps, not well-placed to judge this book.

There is, however, one thing that jumps out of these pages, which is a dependence on simile and metaphor as a central organising method. If Fayne and Murray respect their landscape in and of itself, in Carey’s poems, everything tends to be seen in terms of something else.

This is fine when it works organically in the poem and when the comparison forces the reader to see things in a new light. However, there can be a tendency to a bathetic flatness, as when a dry-stone wall is compared to a Large Particle collider, or in a poem about one of the eccentric relations:

In the evening, his head on Aunt Lilly’s lap, they lay

Among the grey-haired dunes.

At other times, comparison seems to be made simply for the sake of it, adding nothing to the poem but extra words:

My Aunt Babbie wore a shawl, black as midnight

In a country lane

There are moments when the method does work:

I find life now – much the same

As the robin does – wriggling

In my mouth

On balance, however, the poet seems to be in love with comparison, but not in control of it.

Carey now lives in Dublin and it will be interesting to see if his second collection moves away from his essentially rural vision to encompass the realities of his new urban environment or if he will develop a different vocabulary and more open method for his work as a result.

Bill Griffiths Collected Poems and Sequences 1966-1996: A Review

Bill Griffiths: Collected Earlier Poems (1966-80), Collected Poems & Sequences, (1981-91) and Collected Poems Volume 3 (1992-96). Reality Street 2010, 2014 and 2016. Eds. Alan Halsey and Ken Edwards.

BG1
When the Collected Poems Volume 3 (1992-96), the third volume in Reality Street’s vital edition of Griffith’s poetry over three decades, arrived in the post, it became evident that it would make no sense to review it in isolation. And so, what follows is a review of all three volumes, or rather a survey of Bill’s poetic career up to 1996. Griffiths is, in my view, a major poet, one of the towering figures of late 20th and early 21st century British poetry. What follows is, of necessity, all too brief and somewhat unsatisfactory, but, I hope, better than nothing.

*

In 1976, Griffiths distributed a prose text called A Note on Democracy, consisting of six single-sided typewritten quarto pages with wide right-hand margins, stapled in the top right cornet to a green light card back cover which has a list of Pirate Press pamphlets. I say distributed because, as a note at the end of the end of the text says ‘this is not a publication but a private set of copies not for resale’. The reader is encouraged to use the wide margin to make their own comments on the text and share them with the author by post. The Note is a tract against power and what Griffiths sees as the pretence of power sharing inherent in the democratic system. He picks out as examples the treatment of the English gypsy community and the role of prison as a tool of repression and a microcosm of society at large. He also draws a contrast between ‘Roman’ ideals of order and ‘Celtic/pagan’ ideals of individualism, with a clear preference for the latter. This is in keeping with the Note’s essentially anarchist position; Griffiths is not interested in proposing an alternative form of government, but an alternative to government. As Alan Halsey notes in his introduction to the latest volume, Griffiths ‘fails to address the question of criminality itself’, but this possible naivety does not change the fact that his politics were heartfelt and consistent and also very understandable in the context of 1970s English policing, with its barely concealed racism. In any case, you don’t have to agree with his ideas to appreciate the power of the poetry they informed.

It’s a pity that this text has never been made more widely available, as it represents possibly his clearest statement on so many of the concerns that run through the poetry: the concern with marginal social groups like gypsies, prisoners, bikers, canal people and coal miners; the repeated references to Charlemagne’s destruction of the Irminsul; the need to resist power in all its forms. Crucially, it also informs his belief that social activity must be based on collaboration rather than coercion.

This belief in collaborative effort underpins much of the writing, from the prison and biker poems that are, in effect, co-written with prisoners and bikers, to the frequent use of found text and collage to the poems written for multiple voices or as text for group performance, Griffiths wrote with the social and linguistic landscapes he inhabited, rather than against them. In many cases, his primary collaborator was himself, as he recycled texts through numerous versions and configurations from publication to publication, creating quite a complex editorial job for Halsey and Edwards in the process. To their credit, they have managed to organise the materials at their disposal to produce three volumes that make this essential body of poetry available in a coherent form.

*

Griffiths’ essential method is declared early on, in the opening lines of ‘Cycle 1’, the first of a sixteen-poem set of cycles ‘on Dover Borstal’, which he wrote in his early twenties:

Ictus!
as I aint like ever to be still but
kaleidoscope,
lock and knock my sleeping

This is a passage that has been analysed frequently but it still bears considerable unpacking. The opening ‘ictus’ operates on a number of levels. It is, of course, a reference to the stress of Griffiths’ characteristically accented line, but also to the rhythm of the pulse, the flow of blood through the speaker/poet’s intensely physical presence. It is a word whose use implies a kind of knowledge, of culture even, that contrasts sharply with the demotic ‘I aint’ that follows. Although this usage reflects the poet’s South London dialect, as ‘ictus’ is part of his academic idiolect, this is a fictional ‘I’ as Griffiths inhabits the persona of an inmate rather than documenting his own experience. This degree of identification with the liminal groups he writes about typifies the early work and, as we will see later, a move from first to third person is one of the markers of a change in his later political poetry. This tension between idiomatic and specialist language registers runs through all of Griffiths’ work and one of his core technical achievements is the way he marries them into a cohesive style, or set of styles.

The isolation of ‘kaleidoscope’ as an entire line emphasises it as a marker of how to read the text it is embedded in. Grifffiths’ poetry is kaleidoscopic in a number of senses; words are rearranged in ever-shifting provisional patterns and the constituent elements are hard, sharp, bright shards of dislocated matter, the dynamic, multiply reflected objects of a kaleidoscope, not the static, frozen tesserae of a mosaic. Take, for instance, these lines from Delvan’s Book (1993):

Belook, in opening Ramuyi

the loop-feathered art,

a prayer,

prowled out in light,

a slide of a dance,

to pronounce

coming offering me to Hanuman

the oil of the human

to the unfolded fur

Then the fourth line of the cycle enacts the typical Griffiths, a short unit of one to three densely-packed stresses, jagged, full of assonance and consonance.

Not that Griffiths only wrote in short lines; passages, and even whole poems, feature longer units, and even prose paragraphs. In fact, the lines that immediately follow burst this bound:

Within

The complex of the fort against the French, Dover,

‘S mighty imperfection: fits to the sea.

The moat (and ported, kinging the blue) closed, so built-made and the salty

grass and rubble of chalk growing.

Writing the chalk –– kid

Shout for separation.

But even here the tendency for the long line to break into short half-lines is evident. It is tempting to argue that this underlying structural strategy reflects Griffiths academic background in Anglo Saxon and his editing and translating of numerous Old English texts. What is certain is that this short line became a tool of immense flexibility in his expert hands, with a range that comprised the poems in Metrical Cookery (1991):

Bread is body

and staff

basic

and rough

and those in Materia Boethiana a decade earlier:

This one

speaks of the same time-tumble too.

Others

starts suns storms.

A torrential land

like glasses tuned and sharded.

It’s a method that is summed up neatly in these lines from A Book of Legends (1991)

Everything moves into pattern

like words in poetry

(tho few enuf stay there)

*

Cycles is the first of the three great early works that dominate the first volume of the set, the others being War With Windsor, a shape-shifting immersion into biker culture, and the second being Building: The New London Hospital, a book about reincarnation through the filter of manual labour.
The biker poems (Windsor are/were a chapter of bikers) continue the theme of the dispossessed and reviled outsider, potential or actual fodder for the prison system whose parallel version of the social order is laid out in dazzling, if occasionally somewhat dispiriting, detail:

Close up wolf about my mouth

He would go in

Sit in his cave, like me

Smell at the daylight.

Animals an’ criminals

Among the legs of the animals

Criminals hands in belts.

Jesu ‘pecker

My eyes is loose with worry.

The war is also with another Windsor, much of the text being concerned with the nature of monarchy and of the contract between people and rulers when the rule is unjust: ‘Fealty, or the link between monarch and subject is revocable, as are all feudal ties.’

Building is my personal favourite of the major early works, although Griffiths himself was never really satisfied with it. Perhaps this was because it is something of a transitional text, partly because the subject of death and of ghosts enters his work, but mainly because while the labourers are as much a marginal group as prisoners and bikers (indeed, some of them are individuals who appear in earlier poems), they represent a different kind of community who exist within rather than without the margins of wider society and because the theme of manual work now enters Griffiths’ imaginary vocabulary.

the great slabs or sills mad as hell

I rolled em uphill rather than lift em

still they caught me so I was eating blood some more

it was strength I

wanted to show, not

blood

*

BG2The early 1980s represented a relatively fallow period for Griffiths, who was studying for his PhD and leaving London to live on a houseboat in Middlesex. When he started publishing more frequently again, from 1986, the work is focused on this new margin of canals and the people who live on them. The relatively slower pace of this world is reflected in the poems of The Bournemouth, The Book of the Boat and Morning Lands, the three books that represent the heart of the second volume of the Collected. Like the building site, boats represent work but they also bring a greater awareness of the natural world, an almost environmental consciousness that is not present in the London work.

Asleep a minute on the soil,

I part

a thousand facets of celery,

look through my woodland

not a’hunt but hopeful,

land-awake

on a tiny pivot

of love.

The boat was destroyed in a fire and, after a peripatetic few years, Griffiths moved to Durham, where he was to spend the rest of his life. This move is pivotal for the work, and the transition is marked by two 1991 titles, Coal and the aforementioned Metrical Cookery. In an unpublished review written at the time of publication, I focused on the various aspects of coal as signifier that run through that book: coal as work, wealth, artifice and so on. But I have since come to realise that there is a larger significance to it. Coal represents a kind of entering in to the life of an entire community, a shift from nomad to settler in an entirely other kind of marginality, and a life that centres on various ideas of family:

Sea coal

is coal by sea.

Family is

these and these,

not a more,

but same,

your soldiers,

lads and ladies,

a letter lode

for the matrix.

The recipe poems Metrical Cookery are an extension of this sense of community; they are charms for the shared meals that bound families and mining villages together. The effect is underscored by the entry of Durham dialect into the work, marking the beginning of what was to be a major preoccupation for the rest of his life.

If the early 80s were relatively quiet, the period 1991-96 were enormously productive for Griffiths, and the third volume contains over 500 pages of poetry written during those five years. Unavoidably enough, the results can be somewhat uneven. For instance, while it is interesting to see Griffiths try on ballad forms and submerge himself in the local dialect, the resulting Dialect Poems is, ultimately, unsatisfactory as poetry, smacking a bit too much of the academic exercise. Equally, in the poems in Satires (1993) the anger drowns out the poetry, with the result that they feel too easy, too much like shooting fish in a barrel.

It’s David Frost!

Shit from the shit-monger.

Shit straight from the Court of St Shit.

However, this period also sees some of Griffiths finest work appearing. The early 90s pamphlets Calendar Contents and Quotidiana see the sense of community of Coal broaden and deepen. The latter sequence is particularly fine and includes poems where the Durham dialect really works as a kind of tender mark of absorption in his new home. In The Coal World (1995), the dialect becomes fully integrated into Griffiths’ method as he versifies stories of mining life in the 19th century in a manner that brings to mind some of the early gypsy poems.

Bill GBut the heart of Griffiths achievement at this time are the three great poems about Delvan MacIntosh, a young man of Pakistani ethnicity who was a prisoner in Wandsworth. These poems, Notes from Delvan Macintosh, Delvan’s Book and Star Fish Jail push Griffiths’ poetic of collabouration to their logical conclusion, with the poet acting as editor and amanuensis for MacIntosh, whose story is told mainly in his own words. In his introduction to the volume, Halsey notes that while in the earlier prison poems ‘the speaker or persona is unidentified and thus easily mistaken for the poet himself’, in these works we see ‘a clear distinction between the prisoner … and Griffiths as empathetic audience and transcriber’. The result is a body of work that skewers the brutal racist prison regime that takes for granted that prisoners should be seen as fair game on the basis of skin colour and of a wider justice system that accepts confessions extracted on the basis of torture and the administration of drugs as valid reasons to condemn suspects.

Here, the problem of criminality ceases to be an issue, nobody, regardless of what they may or may not have done, deserves the treatment meted out to MacIntosh as a matter of course, and the poems are triumphs of documentary condemnation:

An’ I was in solitary ; it’s a sort of bare bed of concrete

but you can’t use it even : they come and check

and then the doors open : a screw comes in

sez, get against that back wall ; or we’ll put you there.

An’ you cannot see out : or smoke, or read, or nothing,

And my hands were hell : with them twisting the thumbs behind your back

to walk down the landing : some screaming exhibit.

(Star Fish Jail)

Griffiths fuses the prisoner’s words with a line derived from Anglo-Saxon verse and something of the tone of the Old English ‘Wanderer’ poem to produce political poetry of the very highest order.

The three other major sequences in this final volume, The Lion Man (1995), Baldur’s Lacrimosa and Rousseau and the Wicked (both 1996) see the ‘old’ and ‘new’ Griffiths integrating. Most of his major themes and preoccupations are here, but now seen very much from a Northern perspective rather than a London one. It is a mark of his sense of being at home in Seaham that he more or less abandons dialect and writes in his own voice, but with newly adjusted eyes.

The appearance of Jean Jacques Rousseau as an exemplar at this stage in Griffiths’ career casts a new light on his writing. In particular, it brings into focus his treatment of the liminal outsider groups he writes about as exemplars of innately good people, who are corrupted by the civilisation that would exclude them. It also illuminates the strain of Romanticism that runs through his work: his preference for the individual over the collective; his identification with the marginalised; a syntax of the irrational; poems based on works by Borodin and Mussorgsky; and a Wordsworthian emphasis on ‘the real language of men’.

In addition to bringing Griffiths’ hard to find pamphlets and books back into print, the second and third volumes also contain substantial bodies of previously uncollected bodies of poetry that previously appeared in magazines, anthologies, collections published after 1996, and the self-edited two floppy disk ‘collected poems’ that Griffiths put together in 1992 and updated in 1996. Most of this work is of the highest quality and rounds out Griffiths’ oeuvre. A good example is the long sequence ‘How Highpoint is Better than Wandsworth’. This is another collaboration with Delvan MacIntosh, apparently based on letters between him and the poet. Here we see an experience of a saner, more humane prison system which serves somewhat to balance the unrelenting grimness of the Wandsworth poems:

They open it in front of you,

for to see if there’s any drugs or stuff that’s not allowed

but they don’t actually read

what’s in the letters.

When your posters came in, Bill,

the screw looked at them, sez to me,

Jeez you ain’t gonna put them up, are you?

*

This necessarily short and selective chronological skim inevitably fails to reflect the full range and power of this major body of writing. Another way to slice it is to review the range of genres Griffiths worked in and how the poetry relates to his work as a scholar, translator, prose writer and purely visual and sound poet.

The dialect poems relate closely to his almost single-handed effort at revitalising the study of the language of his adopted Durham home. While there is much lyricism in the poetry, there is little enough lyric, and almost no conventional love poetry. Indeed, despite the Romantic vein identified earlier, Griffiths’ favoured genres reflect his interest in the medieval. There are narratives, elegies, praise poems, satire, riddles, recasting of myth and poems that verge in the condition of rite. In addition to the Old English echoes already mentioned, there are translations and adaptations embedded in the work, with sources ranging from the Padderborn Epic to Rimbaud. There are also passages, like this from another prison poem Liam’s Song (1994), that remind the reader that Griffiths also translated Y Gododin:

Wobbut thoo ettled ti meet god.

Woz his stick bray-ey enough?

Did his bottles hilp thaw runaway heed?

Efter his mirikles, hoodee thaw shackle-banes feel?

Wor the bizzun-foak anjel an’ lowery aareet?

Hev thaw raxy brawn limbs com wick ageyn, man?

What-like is stane like tiv eet? (Aye, Aa thowt seea)

An’ ti cowp seea much blud – all tis haw thaa’s a regular guy

While all of these genres are handled unconventionally, there are also more overtly ‘experimental’ modes employed, too. These include found texts, documentary poems, cut-ups, texts for multiple voices and others with visual elements integrated into them. The natural world, when it appears, can be Edenic:

Cheshire: On a long-abandoned RAF camp,

the ruins of the demolished buildings are almost hidden

under brambles                and briars

and seas of rosebay willowherb           and plants

escaped from cultivation,             especially lupins

and Shasta daisies            which increase year by year

Griffiths’ achievement is that he managed to write poetry about anything that interested him while, at the same time, reconciling the tension between being and doing, the often conflicting urges to make poems that are and poems that do, that make things happen. The hard surfaces and formal adventurousness of these poems chime with an avant garde concern with the materiality of language but they are underpinned by that sense of social and political engagement that the Note on Democracy spells out. The result is that he writes a poetry that is questioning not just of the nature of writing, but also of the public context in which it exists and intervenes.

All things that work

are fun.

There is an incipient magic.

(from poem 47 in the Rousseau and the Wicked)

*

While I was writing this review Ken Edwards posted a farewell to publishing on the Reality Street blog. The press has published a wide range of very fine work, but if it had only published these three volumes it would have been enough to mark it out as one of the most significant publishers of the “parallel tradition” of British poetry. He and Halsey have navigated the complications of Griffiths’ editing and publishing history to produce a cohesive, wonderfully readable text with just the right level of annotation to allow the reader to discover the depths of the writing for themselves. A small indication of the difficulties involved can be seen by considering what may be of Griffiths earliest publications, two A4 broadsheets from around 1971. They mark the beginning of one of the most significant and exciting British poets of the period since the 1960s, just as the last volume of the collected sadly marks his end.

One consists of three poems, ‘Terzetto’, ‘In Gypsy, 1970’ and ‘Short’, the other of a single poem, ‘Black Mass’. This last has eight irregular stanzas, and Griffiths started typing the last stanza after the sixth, realised his mistake, xed over the words he had typed and then continued the correct order on the next line. ‘Terzetto’, ‘Short’, and ‘Black Mass’ are included in the first volume as stand-alone poems, with adapted lines from ‘Terzetto’ and ‘Black Mass’ also featuring in other, longer pieces. ‘In Gypsy, 1970’ is not collected, but reworkings of the material appears in two other works. The broadsheets have no date, publisher name or place of publication on them, and to add a final twist, the name at the bottom of both is Billy Griffiths.

Note: This clarification is from Ken Edwards: ‘the credit for editing the texts – the scholarship and drudgery – should be attributed entirely to Alan Halsey. My role was largely confined to typesetting, book design, production and marketing.’