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.

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:

as I aint like ever to be still but
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:


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


and rough

and those in Materia Boethiana a decade earlier:

This one

speaks of the same time-tumble too.


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



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,


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.’


Malcolm Ritchie and Angelina D’Roza: A Review

The Crows of Gravity by Malcolm Ritchie, Longhouse, 2016.

small lines on the great earth by Malcolm Ritchie, Longhouse, 2016.

Envies the Birds by Angelina D’Roza, Longbarrow Press, 2016Malcolm Ritchie cover TS A

Malcolm Ritchie is a Scottish-born poet and teacher who, after much wandering, now lives on Arran. In the course of that wandering, he suffered abuse at boarding school, dropped out of art college in Falmouth, hung out with Heathcote Williams, John Layard and various future luminaries of the British folk scene, lived with Jean Shrimpton, indulged in drink and drugs, lived in a temple in a small Japanese village and practiced as a traditional Seike healer.

In one level, The Crows of Gravity can be read as a memoir of a 60’s survivor; it does contain its fair share of tales of excess, and Ritchie’s early life had all the elements: dropping out of art college, drinking too much, casual sex, and failed attempts at casual sex, brief involvement with the Cornish separatism movement, an on-off friendship with Dr. John Layard, hanging out with future luminaries of the British folk music scene, living among the tail end of California Hippiedom and, the icing on the cake, a long period of living with Jean Shrimpton, one of the faces of the decade.

However, there’s something more going on here; what Ritchie documents is, in an unusually full sense, a search for a sense of self.  Estranged from his deeply unsympathetic parents and subjected to abuse by a female teacher at his boarding school, the young Ritchie seems to have had no real sense of who he was or could be and very little ability to form relationships, especially with women. As the book unfolds, we see this search take multiple forms, as Ritchie seeks himself in art, Jungian analysis, spiritualism of various kinds, Buddhism and Shintoism, and, ultimately, Shamanistic exorcism in the Peruvian jungle.

Along the way, he becomes suspicious of post-Enlightenment Western culture, which he sees as having created conditions in which ‘we developed an overly dualistic and objectifying consciousness or cultural mind-set, and incrementally lost our relationship with the planet and our natural home on it.’ I can understand this in the context of Ritchie’s voyage of self-discovery. Western ‘science’ in the form of mental health care let him down because of its narrow focus on the symptom, not the person, as it has so many others in his circumstances. This reductionist tendency in post-Enlightenment mechanistic science is undoubtedly problematic.

This anti-rationalist position is, I think, a fair point to make about the existential crisis in which we find ourselves, but as a philosophical position it is not without its risks. Prime amongst these is the danger of falling into a parallel dualism in which science is seen as the problem. While an overly materialist dependency on science can be problematic, it needs to be remembered that science is just a tool and that our problems are created by us, not by our tools. Indeed, if we are to survive the crisis we will depend on the sensible use of scientific knowledge to ensure that survival. This requires educating ourselves in what science really looks like, a provisional, constantly questioning search for knowledge.

Although he was writing and publishing for much of the period covered in The Crows of Gravity, the book contains remarkably little material on his literary beliefs and approaches. We do learn something about his involvement in the Falmouth Poetry Group and his close relationships with Peter Redgove and Heathcote Williams, whose magazine The Transatlantic Review published Ritchie’s early experimental poetry. In the Japan section of the book there is an interesting longish discussion of the haiku, which he views as a form in which the ‘I’ of the poet is subsumed into the revelation of ‘unadorned existence’ so that ‘out of this egoless state, the poet retrieves a treasure he or she can share.’

Malcolm Ritchie Cover 1These words could be applied to the poems in small lines on the great earth, Ritchie’s 2014 collection of deft short poems that illuminate his life in Japan and on Arran. Formally, these poems are, perhaps, closer to tanka than haiku, as they consist of short paired sections one at the top of each page and one at the bottom, the connection between the parts being non-linear, each page also bears a pen and ink drawing by the poet. Like their Japanese antecedents, they contain much humour, considerable insight and a deftness of touch that brings the most everyday words to vivid life. These poems are of the process.


a seed smells the rain

in a sleeping cloud








where do they come from

these white blossoms

this tree remembers so perfectly

each spring

These are two typically handsome paperbacks from Bob and Susan Arnold’s Longhouse imprint, although Crows could have done with a more careful bit of editing in places. However, as Ritchie is a writer whose work was not previously known to me, despite this minor cavil I’m delighted to see such a fine double introduction to his work in print.


Longbarrow Press also produce handsome volumes, and it is interesting to compare their output with their American cousin’s. Both use a serif font, with Longhouse favouring a larger point size. Their books reflect a folkier vein of hand printing that owes something to the tradition of local newspapers and an almost brash self-confidence. Longbarrow’s house style is more restrained, elegant and understated in an English manner. Both presses produce fine, attractive books that are a pleasure to hold and read.

Envies the Birds is Angelina D’Roza’s debut collection, although Longbarrow included some envies-the-birds-jacket-coverof the poems here in their excellent The Footing anthology.  Avian references aside, there are some parallels between the first half of this book and Ritchie’s memoir, inasmuch as it consists of poems that are, or appear to be, concerned with the poet’s childhood and time as a student nurse. The poem as personal anecdote is a popular genre, it seems, but I confess the reasons for this popularity are lost on me. Anecdote poems represent the world as a closed system, a box in which event X can be parsed as having outcome Y with no regard to the world at large. It’s as if Joyce had only ever written his epiphanies. In fact, Joyce is probably a forebear for the genre, but he knew that these moments of revelation were not sufficient onto themselves but needed to be woven into a wider fabric in order to make art. D’Roza’s anecdotal poems are very well written, but ultimately the feel somewhat inconsequential.
Happily, there comes a moment a little over half way through this book when D’Roza makes the move from anecdote to narrative; interestingly the pivotal moment is a pair of haiku under the title ‘Dawn Chorus’ (the first of two such pairs with this title in the collection). There follows a run of poems that deal with walking around Sheffield. The writing is freer, more concerned with the here and now and less with significance, a mind moving through the world not trapped in it, questioning and enacting rather than explaining.

Past the cutlers, halfway over the Don
I stop to watch the river’s dull pewter
slow-shimmy the strait, grinding stone,
cutting shingle.

(Ball Street Bridge)

The influence of Rebecca Solnit is evident in here, but despite that there is a clear sense of D’Roza entering into her own voice, her own stride in these poems, to the extent that when personal anecdote resurfaces later, the handling is evidently different. The freeness of the walking poems, the reduced concern with significance, means that a poem like ‘Brutal Music’ escapes the narrow confines of the earlier poems. One can but hope that D’Roza has worked the urge to anecdote out of her system and that her future work will be in this more open vein. If it is, she will clearly be a poet to watch.

Ruth Duffin: Irish Woman Poet

Ruth Duffin (1877-1968) was born in Belfast, one of six sisters whose father was a stockbroker. She published two volumes of poetry with her sister Celia, The Secret Hill (1913) and Escape (1929), both of which were illustrated by a third sister, Emma. A third book, The Fairy Cup, appeared in 1958. God’s Fool is taken from The Secret Hill.

“When we are old,” you said, and plucked a rose
And held it to your lips, “it will be sweet
To walk together in the June-tide heat
Just such another day, when the wind blows
Warm from the south, and buttercups unclose
Their varnished goblets where still pools repeat
The heavy trees with cattle at their feet
Knee-deep in grasses. Will you come ?” ” God knows.”
“God knows,” I said. To-day I come again
Along the path that once our footsteps knew;
The sunset reddens all the frozen wold
Where no flower opens, and the winds complain
In naked boughs that once were green and you
Long, long are dead, and I, thank God, am old.


Celia Duffin: Irish Woman Poet

Celia Duffin (1887-1983) was born in Belfast, one of six sisters whose father was a stockbroker. She published two volumes of poetry with her sister Ruth, The Secret Hill (1913) and Escape (1929), both of which were illustrated by a third sister, Emma. The Leaping Flame (1949) was published under her married name, Celia Randall. God’s Fool is taken from The Secret Hill.

He stumbles down the village street. They crook
Their fingers as he passes by,
And follow with disdainful eye,
His queer ungainly form and uncouth look.
Ah, men, your petty scorning spare,
He hath a greater cross to bear!
A woman turns from scoffing with the rest
To hush the little child that clings,
Affrighted, to her apron strings,
Or hides a little soft head on her breast.
Women, he too was fair of limb,
And once a mother prayed for him!
Ragged and queer and old, he comes alone,
But sometimes, with mysterious smile,
He mutters to himself the while,
Or stops to hold strange converse with a stone.
Ah, men, beware, lest you should curse
The Master of the universe.
He claims acquaintance with a leaf wind-blown,
Or bids good morrow to a toad;
So, far adown the dusty road
He stumbles forward into the unknown.
Have pity on his passing. He
Hath trod the road to Calvary.

Holocaust: Charles Reznikoff

Originally published on the Guardian Books blog 11 January 2011.

Back in November, books blog readers were asked to name their favourite book of 2010. For me, the answer was, and is, an easy one; it has to be Holocaust by Charles Reznikoff. Now, I’m pretty sure most of you have never heard of either this book or its author, and that would hardly be surprising given that Holocaust has long been out of print and that Reznikoff has never been a fashionable writer. Now, thanks to Five Leaves Publications, you can get your hands on a very nice paperback edition, complete with an introduction by George Szirtes, and judge for yourself whether or not I’m wrong.

Reznikoff was born in Brooklyn in 1894, the son of Russian Jewish immigrants, and studied law at New York University, although he never actually worked as a lawyer. New York, Jewishness and the law were, one way or another, to dominate his poetry and fiction. In fact, his Complete Poems 1918-1975, sadly still out of print, consists mainly of observations of life in his native city and verse reworkings of episodes from the Old Testament and Talmud.

Reznikoff is on record as saying that his legal studies led him to the insight that poetry should be like the evidence given by a witness in a criminal trial; “not a statement of what he felt, but of what he saw or heard”. It was this approach that made him a kind of patron and model for the Objectivists in the 1930s, and its full flowering was to come in his late 500-plus page long poem sequence Testimony: The United States (1885-1915) Recitative, the first volume of which was published in 1965.

Testimony draws on the records of hundreds of court cases to present a portrait of a society in ferment; the society, incidentally, into which the poet was born. It is, indeed, a picture of things seen and heard, with, ironically given the material, very little by way of judgemental interpretation. The original transcripts are arranged and lightly edited as, essentially, found poetry. For most of the cases used, we don’t even get to read the verdict or sentence handed down.

Published just a year before his death in 1976, Holocaust was Reznikoff’s last book. It, too, draws on court records, this time The Trials of the Major War Criminals at Nuremberg and the Eichmann trial in Jerusalem. The literal, matter-of-fact style that Reznikoff uses in the poem is not accidental; it is a conscious technical choice. The horrors of the death camps are placed starkly before us in the words of the survivors, and the poet’s selection process denies the reader the opportunity to look away. It also deprives us of any sense of catharsis; these things happened and no good came of them. There is no redemption, and no place for the reader to hide in the flat surface of the writing:

 The women begged for their lives:
they were young, they were ready to work.
They were ordered to rise and run
and the SS men drew their revolvers and shot all five;
and then kept pushing the bodies with their feet
to see if they were still alive
and to make sure they were dead
shot them again.

And for me it is this matter of technique, the unblinking gaze of the invisible poet, that makes Holocaust such a vital book. It’s as if Reznikoff took up the challenge implicit in Adorno’s much misunderstood “Nach Auschwitz ein Gedicht zu schreiben ist barbarisch” (“It is barbaric to write poetry after Auschwitz”). If Adorno’s question is “how can anyone write poetry that can comprehend the barbarity of the Holocaust“, Reznikoff’s response is “by doing what the artist has always done and finding the appropriate technical means”. The result is, in my opinion, one of the very great long poems in English to be written in the last century.

And so, there you have it. Not fashionable, not a big seller, not even a novel, but Holocaust is certainly the best book I read last year. And like any January drunk in a pub, my intention is to grab you by the collar and insist that you must read it, too. I’m not going to say you’ll like it; that wouldn’t be the point. But if you are interested in what poetry can do in the face of the world, then Holocaust is a must.