I feel compelled to tell others about two difficult moments I have experienced … but somehow I don’t think that I can write poetry about what I feel compelled to tell … I’m not keen on writing prose … prose fixes things too much for me, whereas poetry is open … and I often feel pompous with prose, as if I’m making statements that of course can be smashed … with poetry, all flows, bends, dissolves, re-appears … and it seems to me my ego can lay no claims to another’s – reader’s – imagination … but prose … well, I don’t trust prose … certainly not my own … or at least I have tended not to … however, of late I’ve learned that just writing how things were, or are, in prose, does not have to fix, or hold ideas down … and sometimes the stable ground of prose is the only way to proceed, the only way to say certain things, and sometimes the ‘art’ of poetry cannot say such things … one cannot begin through poetry to try to tell of certain things … it feels like … stealing … and the usual expansive feeling of creativity that begins the making of poetry is somehow unobtainable, even though there is so much vivid feeling & detail, which is usually the very stuff that starts poems … the underlying drive is there, but it is cut short by a feeling of some kind of forbiddenness … I’ve not worked out why exactly I can’t make poems from certain moments, why it feels wrong … I don’t know the right answer … but I’m not sure what would be a wrong answer either … anyway, here is what I want to tell:
Years & years ago, when I lived in The Lake District, a climber called Luke Steer told me how he had found a ewe with her eyes gone, and that he had had to kill her. He used a boulder. Luke said that it was one of the most difficult things he had ever done, certainly the most horrible. And so, for years I have feared that one day in the hills I’d encounter a sheep so ravaged and in agony that I wouldn’t be able (allowed?) to just walk away – that I would have to ‘put’ the beast ‘out of its misery’, as they say.
I’m not entirely sure it is the right thing to do; perhaps us humans make an assumption about ‘misery’ & ‘agony’, and perhaps other creatures would prefer to cling to life no matter what, for as long as possible. And so perhaps I did wrong. But, yes, this last July, on the south-eastern ridge that goes up to Moel Eilio (just before the peak Foel Gron) in Snowdonia, I found a young ewe whose belly was ridden with maggots. And one of her hooves was twisted half off. She could hardly move, her gasps were frail and slow, and her snout was red raw and crawling with flies. Nearby there was the ‘perfect’ stone: a long shaft of rock, whose weight & length made for easy momentum. She was already very sluggish … my thwacks dazed her more … but she did cry … and so did I … and her legs trembled and kicked weakly. Of course, sheep’s skulls are incredibly hard, as is evident from the way they butt each other. The swinging stone & my shaking self could not kill her … so, I took some of her own wool, that had come loose from her and was lying nearby, and I pressed it into her nostril … and I pressed her snout into the short grass … daftly I kept uttering ‘Go beast, just go.’ Eventually, her frail grasping to breathe subsided. Instantly, her cornea blurred, the gleam vanished, and the flies, with jewel-green abdomens, immediately crawled all over her eye.
I’m a farmer’s son. I’ve killed many cat-damaged birds, mice & rabbits, and other small badly broken creatures … but killing a creature so big … I don’t know why it should be so different … but the energy of such a tough beast, such a resilient hill creature … it is very very hard to come up against … and I’m not sure that I did right … accept that I think I responded honestly to a feeling we call ‘compassion’ … but I’m not sure it makes it the right thing to have done …
… another incident years ago: when my partner Nikki & I witnessed a young man jump in front of a lorry on the M1 just before junction 28 (on the hillside that falls to the River Erewash) … perhaps I need to write that again … yes, we saw a young man kill himself by facing an oncoming lorry … I stopped my car on the hard-shoulder and ran back up what seemed like such a long steep slope … I passed other motorists who had pulled over and were sitting motionless and shocked … the artic-lorry that had hit the young man stood alone beyond traffic backing up behind it … in front the motorway was still … and the young dead man lay absolutely still too … he looked so so heavy … at the time I imagined the surface of the road bending under his weight …
… and perhaps that imagining – in the moment – is all the poetry that can come of experiencing such an event … and for me, probably, I needed the company – the protection – of my familiar art in that moment, and needed to make something of what I was experiencing … but I can’t make that image go further, or rather ‘take’ that image further … and I can’t take a poem from this moment …
The lorry driver was a man called Terry. I remember his bewildered gentleness and fear as he gave evidence in a court room in Chesterfield. Terry saved my life. Nikki & I were passing the front of his lorry just at the moment the young man hit it. Had Terry swerved or hit his brakes too hard, I’m sure that Nikki & I, and quite a few other drivers & passengers would’ve been tumbled, with our vehicles crumpling round us. The judge clearly stated how well Terry had done – despite his suddenly being presented with a horrible emergency he had kept his artic-lorry in a straight line. Terry had to decide to drive straight on into that poor young man. I have no doubts that Terry, that day, did everything right …
Mark Goodwin’s new poetry collection, Steps, will be published by Longbarrow Press on 24 November 2014. Click here to visit the Steps microsite.
I trail my shadow round this Lord’s demesne -
closed cottages, forge, tavern, farm…
Death and the Gallant, Chris Jones
It’s very rare that you get to see depictions of medieval individuals going about their daily business in the flesh. You could visit a ‘high end’ art gallery, for sure, and study sombre portraits, or go online and hunt down illuminated manuscripts and books of hours that showed wealthy patrons rooted in the narratives of their good lives. Then – perhaps more humbly – there are those paintings in parish churches that offer wider perspectives on Pre-Reformation England and its culture. The art on offer is often fragmentary, worn-away, and incomplete, but the views on offer in these settings are compelling, haunting, and tantalising in equal measure.
As part of our peregrinations around Nottinghamshire and Lincolnshire, we came across paintings of three shepherds at St John’s church, Corby Glen. The shepherds, represented on the south arcade of the church, are coming in from the fields with their sheep. The two adult shepherds depicted are carrying crooks across their shoulders. Hanging from these staffs there seem to be lunch pails or baskets. An accompanying boy shepherd is playing a musical instrument, perhaps something like a bombard (in the official literature it says, more prosaically, ‘pipes’). You can see by the way the boy is pursing his lips that he is playing an instrument with a reed. The shepherds also have a sheepdog for company. Although the animal is five hundred years old you can still see the spots on its coat – the red blotchy pigment that remains is echoed in both the boy’s and the adult shepherds’ garb.
These shepherds of the nativity story are, quite naturally, medieval citizens. They straddle Biblical time and ‘contemporary’ time in a relaxed, uncomplicated manner. Yet however much this small group is stylised, however much they escape from ‘realist’ perspectives and framing devices, there is a sense in which we are looking at authentic representatives of a time and place. The men and the boy have names, they have families. They know their fields around the village.
The modern viewer might want to perceive these images in terms of continuity: the wall paintings offer evidence of an unbroken lineage of worship in Corby Glen that goes back to the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. However, the very existence of these portraits is underpinned by acts of violence and suppression. The shepherds now occupy space on the walls of the church because they were whitewashed over during the Reformation. These stylised bucolic images, however endearing and romantic our responses to them, signal the end of one dominant religious system of belief in the country, and flag up (through their concealment over the centuries) new approaches to praising God in Protestant England. The shepherds are not only messengers sent to herald the birth of the new king but revenants of the ‘old ways’. They offer interested parties, day-trippers, sightseers, perhaps even pilgrims, a glimpse of some strange and beguiling worldview of man’s place in the universe that has long since been repudiated, abandoned. The shepherds seem very old and at the same time immediate, knowable: fresh from their day’s work on the land.
What remains with me from the three churches we visited over the course of one morning and afternoon is the way in which these images come back to me, floating up through the bricks and stone. However faint or half-formed these pictures appear on the walls, they linger on the retina like strange dreams you can’t quite shake in daylight. I felt deeply humbled to spend time among these medieval paintings, created by anonymous artists who left no signature or ‘thumbprint’ in sight.
Death and the Gallant appears in the Longbarrow Press anthology The Footing. This is the third and final blog post focusing on the pre-Reformation wall art of Nottinghamshire and Lincolnshire churches (visited by Emma Bolland, Brian Lewis and Chris Jones on 19 September 2014). The first post, by Brian Lewis, appears here; the second post, by Emma Bolland, appears here. Listen to Chris Jones and Emma Bolland discuss ‘The Tree of Jesse’ and the poems in ‘Death and the Gallant’ (recorded at St John the Evangelist’s Church, Corby Glen, Lincs, 19 Sept 2014):
I point at sinister and say to Brown
there’s ones like you, stewing in sex…
But Hell’s not prised for Brown’s gathered elect.
And you, old man, do you rise or go down?
Death and the Gallant, Chris Jones
What shape does the devil take? What is the colour of evil? How much ‘dark matter’ does it take to weigh us down? In the ‘Doom’ painting (a name often given to depictions of the last judgement), dated to 1380 and filling the entire Chancel Arch in St Andrew’s church in Pickworth, a ‘swim of souls’ (Jones, ibid.) ascending into heaven are counterbalanced by a suffocating net of the damned, hauled hopeless into the gaping maw of Hell. The landscape of heaven sitting to the right hand of Christ is a noncommittal pastoral. How does one depict that hazy notion of Nirvana? The environs of evil, both figuratively and literally speaking, are on the other hand, even in their abraded, ‘desecrated’ state, vividly drawn with cauldrons, flames and leering demons of unequivocal iconography. Evil is easily described and given shape. We see it clearly, located in our particular visions of ‘the other’, formed in the image of that which is not us.
… Brown works the whitewash,
and just for good measure, cuts Mary’s face.
The word ‘blasphemous’ comes to us from the Greek: blapsis = evil + phēmē = speech. To be blasphemous is to speak (and I include the word of ‘image’ here) evil. Within the institutional structures of faith, the malevolent utterance is defined in relation to that which is sacred; or, more importantly, those linguistic or visual devices adopted to serve such definitions, and in some interpretations, will constitute a sin that is beyond redemption. The new Protestantism of the Reformation had to differentiate itself from that which it now positioned as the other – Catholicism – by adopting the word as its definitive tool. It became the faith of scripture, of language, and thus the Catholic emphasis on the visual, the figurative representation of doctrine through painting and statuary, had to be condemned as idolatrous and blasphemous in the extreme. Particular attention was paid to the head, the face and ultimately the gaze. The common iconoclastic belief was that evil could enter in through the eyes, by implication suggesting that evil was therefore emitted from the eyes of the idol, evoking primitive anxieties regarding the sorcerous, hypnotic stare. Statues were not merely smashed, they were beheaded; faces not simply painted over – first, their eyes were gouged out. The paradox is that whilst the paintings and statues were condemned as superstitious, superstitious actions were required to properly destroy them.
Snow falls on fire. Saved and damned lie buried
under snow. Christ and his colours
The pre-Reformation supplicant would have sat (or more commonly stood) within a space ablaze with colour. Paintings, statues, decorative ornament flooding their visual field with an unruly display that has more in common with the murals and paintings of a Latin American Day of the Dead or Mardi Gras, than with the spare anti-iconographic aesthetic that we now identify with the Anglican Church. Even in its abraded and faded state, the paintings at Pickworth were shocking and seductive, the smallest trace of pigment conjuring their original saturated viscerality. On our secular September pilgrimage, the Romantic decay of the images and the place allowed us to be lost in wonder – at times I was speechless at these extraordinary sights, flooded with gratitude and emotion at the privilege of standing beneath them – whilst distancing ourselves from the implications of the doctrine for our personal and political selves. Fading chevrons glancing along the stones, the elusive half-shy face of the Madonna peeping sweetly from the interior gloom: my eyes pricked at such things. We stood, enraptured, outside of history – we, who most certainly would have been amongst the damned.
Some of the ideas regarding the nature of blasphemy were first explored in Bolland’s essay Somebody’s Heaven, Somebody’s Hell, written to accompany her exhibition Nightwood, and presented at East Street Arts’ ‘Thought For Food’ meal sharing and seminar series. The essay grew out of an ‘in conversation event’ with the writer David Peace, where Peace and Bolland discussed the mythologies of violent and sexual crime in relation to their own respective practices. The essay has been newly posted on Bolland’s blog and can be read here.
Death and the Gallant appears in the Longbarrow Press anthology The Footing. This is the second blog post focusing on the pre-Reformation wall art of Nottinghamshire and Lincolnshire churches (visited by Bolland, Lewis and Jones on 19 September 2014); the first post, by Brian Lewis, appears here. The third and final blog post and podcast, documenting the visit to Corby Glen, appears here. Listen to Chris Jones and Emma Bolland discuss ‘The Last Judgement’ and the poems in ‘Death and the Gallant’ (recorded at St Andrew’s, Pickworth, Lincs, 19 Sept 2014):
I wake thick dust as chapel-sunlight pales
and into silence lift my stubborn breath…
On a late September morning of thick cloud and thin air, I visited St. Mary Magdalene church in Newark-on-Trent, accompanied by poet Chris Jones and artist/writer Emma Bolland. We’d travelled there to record the first of three podcasts based on Chris’s Reformation-era sequence Death and the Gallant; the first stop on a one-day tour of Nottinghamshire and Lincolnshire that would also take in the parish churches of Pickworth and Corby Glen. Death and the Gallant is an imaginative exploration of the slow purging of Catholic wall art that began in the sixteenth century (authorised by the Royal Injunctions of 1559) and continued for a hundred years. Few pictures, paintings or other ‘Monuments of Superstition and Idolatry’ (including altar rails, chancel steps and crucifixes) escaped the notice of iconoclasts like William Dowsing, who visited over 250 churches in East Anglia during 1643-1644; most of the objects and images that did survive were either effaced (often with whitewash) or concealed. Dowsing’s journal of destruction (a valuable source for Death and the Gallant) might be considered a record of an anti-pilgrimage. Our brief expedition, in which we sought to document and discuss some of the remnants that the purges left behind, was not in itself a pilgrimage – we were journeying through the faith of an earlier culture, and the efforts to bring that faith and culture to an end, rather than immersed in a personal quest – but each of the visits was focused by contemplative ritual.
St. Mary Magdalene is reputed to be one of the largest parish churches in the country; as Chris observes, its dimensions rival those of Southwell Minster a few miles to the west. At 236 feet, the church spire is the highest in Nottinghamshire; the spire and the tower were completed in the 13th century, with the nave and the chancel dating to the 14th and 15th centuries. Impressive as the scale and reach of the building is, it’s not the reason for our visit, or the occasion of our wonder. Chris leads us inside, through a nave busy with clinking teacups and pockets of chat, and towards a small sanctuary, flanked by two chapels, north and south. To the south of the high altar is the Markham chantry, founded in 1506 for Robert Markham and his wife Elizabeth, as directed in (and endowed by) Markham’s will. The base of the chantry is decorated with heraldic shields; the wall above it is divided into twenty-eight bays. Of these twenty-eight, almost all are empty. In the lower right corner of the wall, flickering under reflective glass, we find a pair of painted panels, filling out the last two bays, one panel depicting a skeleton, the other an affluent young man. The skeleton (a ‘feminised’ skeleton, as Emma notes) dances, the right hand extending a carnation to the young man, the left hand pointing at the ground (or the grave). This is ‘The Dance of Death’. The colours have paled, but the message (a popular theme of the medieval period) is clear: death comes to us all, and cannot be deferred by worldly wealth. What is less clear is why, and how, this fragment survived the purges. We step back from the panels, and step forward again, the painting disappearing and reappearing in shifts of light.
Emma, who is photographing the day’s visits, starts setting up her tripod and camera. I switch on my audio recorder. This version of ‘The Dance of Death’ is the primary source for the eighth poem in Death and the Gallant. Until today, Chris had only seen the work in reproduction. He begins to speak, and speaks firstly of the painting’s presence, the details unavailable in the print and online photographs; in particular, a small dagger with an inlaid skull. The panels seem to draw him further and further in, the voice slows, is made hesitant, is moved almost to silence. We start over, and over, Chris pacing around the painting, musing on its history, refining and reconsidering his ideas about the work, always at a hush, in spite of the loud, frequent interruptions of sprung doors opening and closing nearby. I become attuned to the interruptions, footsteps in the nave, faint smears of traffic, the shutter-click of Emma’s camera, her own pacing, sensed but unseen, testing the light, testing the angle, drawing into distance, closing on the panels. I think of her work on the MilkyWayYouWillHearMeCall project, in which she and her collaborators Judit Bodor and Tom Rodgers explore the idea of ‘research as performance’, ceremonies of remembrance enacted for the camera, ritual as a defence against civic erasure, against forgetting. Today, she’s on the other side of the camera, the ritual steadying her with patience, waiting for the light, waiting for us to move into it, her image-making punctuating Chris’s narrative of image-breaking. We consider the chapel plaque, its allusion to a missing inscription, a prayer for souls that was lost to the destruction. Chris offers his last words to the painting, and Emma offers her last words to the painting. We gather our things from the pews, our voices small in the vaulted space.
Death and the Gallant appears in the Longbarrow Press anthology The Footing. Two further blog posts (by Emma Bolland and Chris Jones) and podcasts, documenting the visits to churches in Pickworth and Corby Glen, appear here and here. Listen to Chris Jones discuss ‘The Dance of Death’ and its relationship to the poems in ‘Death and the Gallant’ (recorded at St. Mary Magdalene church, Newark-on-Trent, 19 Sept 2014):
I was sitting on a ledge high up on a crag called Clogwyn y Ddysgl. Below me the small watery letterbox-slot of Llyn Bach invited me to post silly messages … not exactly in the same way Plath’s Wuthering Heights’ sheep did with their black slots. This slot glittered, and I was elated, so obviously the invitation to post was also one to celebrate … in that moment I felt – being that absurdly over-the-top personhood known as poet – that I could sing a psalm to Earth’s centre, to praise the weak but very beautiful force of gravity. Fortunately, I quickly came back to the matter, the rock, in hand and focused again on the practicalities of climbing. My climbing partner – a tough, pragmatic yet gentle woman – was much relieved, to say the least. And to say ‘the least’ is very hard for a poet to do.
The sheep know where they are,
Browsing in their dirty wool-clouds,
Grey as the weather.
The black slots of their pupils take me in.
It is like being mailed into space,
A thin, silly message.
I was once told by a sheep, as I balanced along the knife-edge crest of a boulder, only nine feet high mind, but nevertheless, I was told by a sheep that poets are absurd, dangerously absurd. High minded approaches to the stuff of stone and the weak but cunning force of gravity quickly go awry. And even the most rational of people can find themselves being told off by the utterly resilient woollen beings that wander much of Britain’s uplands, if such persons approach the zone with high minds. Of course finding one’s self is far easier than losing it. As voters know too well! As for poets, well … being balanced on-&-along a line, knowing when to end it, the line that is, counts for much. Each step has to be counted, and counted on. One step at a time, and soon, you have a whole collection of steps.
Friction, momentum, gravity. If the poet engages with these three through impeccable tenacity, as well as gentle negotiation, then the poet can fling off ‘the’ and become ‘a’. To be ‘a’ teetering on an edge shows how very fragile and maskly ‘the’ really is. I, or an I, marvels at what an I has learned about gravity and how bundled attentions of flesh called muscles-&-ligaments-&-tendons – held on a stone frame we call bones – can become an aerial. When we sing we sway, and sway is dance. So, there I am on this ledge staring down at a dark yet glistening slot of water, and I am listening to gravity sing. And do you know what, I very nearly thought of spreading my wings, but was put off by how pointless climbing would become if I had in a reality done so. I mean if I’d really flown, rather than just really thought about it. Often climbers can be very arrogant, it goes with(out) the territory: the vertical expanse that maps forget. However, the arrogance of poets completely outstrips that of climbers … to believe that the vibration made in one’s throat can really keep a being in place on a line between abyss & existence is absurd self-indulgence second only to that of the gods’.
However, give me a break, or a gap, or a crevasse or caesura can you not read how I’m making some effort at humility? My title has wilfully refused ‘my’, because the notion of ‘keeping’ balance is daft enough without adding to it the notion that I, me, a selfhood, might ‘own’ balance.
It was when A raven at the top of Tryfan’s South Summit said to me, “Watch Your Step” … it was just then-right-now that I knew Offkilter was Is’s swooping. And I was literally covered in flying ants. Still, I stayed in balance, momentarily at home in a house of balance, and came down from the mountain … not mad … but not a poet either. I came down as a person who had been touched by gravity.
Mark Goodwin’s long poem ‘From From a St Juliot to Beyond a Beeny’ appears in The Footing, an anthology of new walking-themed poems published by Longbarrow Press. A new collection, Steps, is due to appear from Longbarrow Press in late 2014.
Sylvia Plath’s ‘Wuthering Heights’ appears in her posthumous collection Crossing the Water.
I’m a white male who grew up on the edge of a housing estate in East Leeds. At the start of the 1990s I struggled to get work and found myself moving between employment training schemes and voluntary placements. I was a young man of vague aspirations and low self-esteem. To shield myself from the feeling I was going nowhere, I read insatiably. I began as a free-range reader. I discovered my own pathways without a guide, and without knowledge of prestige, reputations or fashion. I was especially attracted to writers who offered two things: I wanted to broaden my horizons, but I also sought parallels with my own world and predicament. I wanted ‘here’ and ‘elsewhere’, ‘home’ and ‘away’. I experienced more parallels reading Derek Walcott’s poetry than when reading nearly everything produced for the shelves of my own country at that time.
It was during this period that I first became aware of the endless prizes and selective promotions that characterise the British poetry scene. Even then, I suspected they were not targeting the likes of me as a prospective reader. The centre of what people call ‘culture’ seemed a long way away from Foxwood Training Base or Crossgates Library. I felt like I was leading an island life and Walcott’s Caribbean felt closer to home.
I’d take Omeros out into my community. I’d study it in the reading room of my local library, amongst the long term unemployed, within earshot of pensioners. I’d read it in parks, outside tennis courts, and often, at weekends, I’d take it with me on walks between cricket pitches. The book always made more sense to me when read in these locations. One afternoon I sat on the edge of an empty cricket field in Crossgates – my Dad’s club, and where I’d climbed trees and run amok all through my childhood. Crossgates CC had never been rich. The ground was leased. It didn’t have a club house or a bar. The field itself wasn’t even properly flat. It had a homespun, ramshackle quality to it; but through all the ebbs and flows of membership and money it was a focus of health and joy and it survived. It also had its catalogue of modest heroics, on and off the field.
It was here that a vital aspect of Omeros started to make sense. This had something to do with the relationship of the ordinary to the heroic. I find it hard to put this into ideas that don’t sound like clichés. Or those ideas can feel like clichés when you are far away from the source of what gives them social necessity and value. Omeros identifies heroic qualities in men and women who live in shacks, fish from canoes, drive taxis or tend rum shops. It’s a heroism of integrity or loyalty under pressure, of ordinary (and extraordinary) decency in the face of poverty, corruption and economic expedience. It connects a small island community to routes through layers of a larger history. It felt local and universal. It was classical in scope and reference, and yet it was pioneering in terms of the territory it rendered into poetry.
I came to Collected Poems 1948-1984 and The Bounty after my encounter with Omeros. I took the books with me on walks from Crossgates to the grounds of Temple Newsam House, a one-time stately home now open to the public. There you can find parks and walled gardens – and a glasshouse containing tropical flowers. I’d sit amongst foaming buddleia, or within sight of the purples, reds and yellows of exotic-seeming plants, and read. It was here that I made a connection with a spirit that seems to blossom through much of Walcott’s poetry. It has something to do with what appears to be a marriage between the Methodism of his mother, and the climate, flora and fauna of the Caribbean. In his poetry, nature is both wealth and God – pleasure and blessing fused into one. It’s richer than the bought pleasures of Western materialism; and it’s a material blessing that has nothing to do with the hierarchies, dogmas and institutions of the church. Walcott made bays and forests his galleries and cathedrals. The poet was something between a lay priest and a drunk Vincent. This bowled me over.
In Another Life I recognised a role for the artist. As I read about Walcott’s quest to render a culture, climate and ecology into art, I began to think about all the acres of my own locale that seemed outside the written stanzas of English poetry. In a time that often declares itself as democratic, plural and inclusive, it seemed to me then – and it still does – that many people go about their business in places and predicaments unexplored by poets. Adrian Mitchell once said ‘most people ignore poetry because most poetry ignores most people.’ This still feels like bracing critique.
I grow uncomfortable with how poets have been professionalised. They seem lured away from a community that might provide readers, and into a network of cliques and academies that offer prestige and finance. In this artificial limelight, poets make funding bids, apply for commissions and posts, and slowly find themselves with obligations to sponsors, funding bodies and institutions that interfere with their ability to speak truth to power, or to achieve fellow-feeling with those outside elite spaces. I’ve often asked myself: can institutions remove poets from the source of one spirit of poetry? Inside the competitive, intellectual hothouse, it’s possible for us to lose common feeling and common touch.
Back in 1992 I signed up for an access course at Leeds University. This was by far the most positive experience of education I’ve had. I studied alongside a nurse, an office worker, an Asian businessman, a hospital porter, a mother of Afro-Caribbean background, and a woman who worked for a company operating phone-sex. The head of the course was a sociologist from a Yorkshire mining family, and the woman who taught me English literature was about to embark on another career as a drama therapist. It was a culture that deserved to be called a melting pot in a way that many expensive universities conceptualise better than they embody.
One evening, halfway through this course, I was listening to the radio. I was browsing the stations when I stumbled upon a dramatization of ‘The Schooner Flight’. I’d not yet read this piece in Walcott’s Collected Poems. In the cramped dark of my box-room I listened, riveted, and when the final ‘chapter’ closed on its stoical prayer to work and craft, I knew I’d discovered a new heroic figure in Shabine. He was sailor and poet; rooted and wayward; man of action and man of art; black and white; African and European; neither and both. He melted categories like Rimbaud, and embodied Patrick Kavanagh’s belief that the universe always starts from where you stand. His Caribbean felt as particular and universal as Joyce’s Dublin.
Shabine was the man who tried to sail away from his troubled home, but who could never get beyond the tides of his island sea. I’ve had very few such encounters with a poem that so coalesced with my own emerging sense of poetry and the world, and no poem that could have been further away from my own parish. I taped a copy of that dramatization, and when I left the access course I gave it to the woman who taught me English Literature. Now I teach an adult education course about to be closed down – as the course I studied at Leeds was eventually closed. Melting pots coalesce and disappear all the time, subject to the fickle expedience of economics. The torch is carried in the human imagination.
I read somewhere that a true university shouldn’t be thought of as a building or an institution. It’s a spirit or a happening. I’ve encountered so much of the spirit of meeting and melting-pot in Walcott’s poetry. It’s the embodiment of how cultures melt and merge to create something vital and fresh. I’ve bought my copy of The Poetry of Derek Walcott: 1948-2013. It had been my intention to write a critique of this new selection, but I’m no more capable of reviewing it than I’m capable of reviewing myself. I’ve been reading and drawing from Walcott’s poems for so long, they’ve been stirred into the soup of my life. Better, perhaps, to offer a letter of thanks, or to carry on the spirit of meeting and melting that I find so abundant in his poetry. It is bounty indeed, and I’ll be returning to it often.
The Poetry of Derek Walcott: 1948-2013 (selected by Glyn Maxwell) is published by Faber & Faber. Matthew Clegg’s West North East is available now from Longbarrow Press. Click here for more information about the book.
‘I don’t entirely understand why reviews of anthologies frequently focus so heavily on the editors’ introductions or forewords. When I buy an anthology, first and foremost I’m looking to be introduced to new poets and new poems that I wouldn’t otherwise come across. If I like them, I’ll go out and find more of their work. If I don’t, well, no matter, there’ll be something I do like along in a minute.’
Matt Merritt reviewing Dear World & Everyone In It: New Poetry in the UK edited by Nathan Hamilton in Under the Radar, Issue Twelve, December 2013.
There was a point in a recent radio programme when two of the guests were asked when they first came across Thom Gunn’s poetry. I was surprised to hear that both of the speakers, Paul Farley and Fiona Sampson, picked out the Forward Prize winning 1994 collection The Man with Night Sweats as their first encounter with Gunn’s work. I was surprised because I thought they must have come across A Alvarez’s groundbreaking anthology The New Poetry, first published in 1962, then revised and reprinted in 1966. Gunn’s work is one of the highlights of Alvarez’s survey of British and American post-war poetry. I first came across Alvarez’s compendium as a fourteen or fifteen year old in the early 1980s: I still have my battered thirty year old copy, with its funky but misleading Jackson Pollock cover (abstract expressionism is not the first thing that comes to mind when I think of post-war mainstream British poetry). For me, reading the anthology was a revelation – partly because I hadn’t read much contemporary poetry before, partly because it included an American contingent of Confessional poets, and partly because there was a generous focus on the work of Thom Gunn (he features more than any other poet in the collection, apart from Ted Hughes). His poems stood out: they were different, quirkier, more energetic and passionate than a lot of the rather dry, ironic Movement and post-Movement poetry that filled the book’s pages.
Because I digested a good selection of Gunn’s oeuvre in The New Poetry (including the iconic pieces ‘The Wound’ and ‘On the Move’), I went on to buy Gunn’s Selected Poems. From there I bought individual collections, and started taking an interest in literary criticism of Gunn’s work. I went on to spend four years writing a PhD thesis on Gunn’s poetry and reviews, and subsequently met and interviewed the great man himself in San Francisco in 1995. This, I suppose, is the power of the anthology in action. But thinking again about Farley and Sampson: why should they have read Alvarez’s book? I mean, all anthologies have a shelf life, a contemporary relevance – why should something published over fifty years ago still be current or used as a way into understanding or contextualising a rather grey and restrained period of British poetry?
My feeling is that The New Poetry is a key text in terms of how we understand how mainstream representative anthologies have developed over the past fifty years. The book is a template, a touchstone volume, in terms of its structures and preoccupations, of how we think about what an anthology should be doing to earn its keep. But it’s not the content – the roll-call of poets – that has driven the debate on the necessity and efficacy of the anthology over the last half-century, but Alvarez’s introduction to the work itself. His essay, ‘The New Poetry, or Beyond the Gentility Principle’, has focused people’s minds on what anthologies are for: what is each anthology’s brief and purpose? Anthologists return again and again to its arguments, assimilating and reacting against its abiding concerns, and from it create new narratives of contemporary literature.
The interesting thing for me is what Alvarez’s introduction is setting out to do and not to do. What really galvanises Alvarez’s attention is the state of post-war British poetry. He talks about current preoccupations in terms of negative feedbacks, that the poetry of the 1950s and early 1960s is reacting against historic literary forces to create signatory poems that represent the age. Briefly, these negative feedbacks are: 1: a reaction against modernist and experimental verse forms; 2: a reaction against Dylan Thomas and his acolytes (what Alvarez calls ‘a blockage against intelligence’); 3: (and I quote directly) ‘an attempt to show that the poet is not a strange creature inspired; on the contrary, he is just like the man next door, in fact, he probably is the man next door.’ All of this has led to what Alvarez terms ‘gentility’ – a kind of mundane, provincially intelligent everyman epitomised by the narrators in Philip Larkin’s poetry. Alvarez’s contention is that this kind of poetic persona cannot last in the modern world. The modern urban dweller is realising he is part of a wider world of global danger and evil forces beyond his control. ‘What poetry needs’, Alvarez suggests, ‘is a new seriousness’ to reflect this precarious age.
But what Alvarez isn’t interested in is explaining his choice of poets. There’s no sense to why some poets are in and some poets are out. Oddly, he does include poets he is critical of in his introduction; Movement poets like Larkin and John Wain and Kingsley Amis. But he doesn’t feel like explaining why there aren’t any British women poets in his selection. There’s no Elizabeth Jennings, for instance, who did appear in one of the first main post-war anthologies, Robert Conquest’s New Lines in 1956. Jennings was not some marginal figure – her Collected Poems, published by Carcanet Press in the 1980s, far outsold most of the works of poets represented in The New Poetry (this was helped no doubt by her work being put on the ‘A’ Level syllabus). There’s no Rosemary Tonks either, whose work could have been included in the second edition (Notes on Cafes and Bedrooms comes out in 1963) – but Tonks does appear in the first edition of British Poetry Since 1945 edited by Edward Lucie-Smith (published in 1970). The choices made by Alvarez are therefore – we presume – self-evident (they do not require justification). Alvarez seems more interested in articulating the threat of the bomb in his introduction rather than defining his own curatorial role.
The enduring appeal of The New Poetry, the content that critics and anthologists keep returning to is not the poetry – the meat and drink of the book – but Alvarez’s introduction. Everything that follows on from The New Poetry and reflects on it or uses it as a starting point concentrates on his essay. It’s odd to think an analysis of the volume should be mediated through the prose content rather than the poems themselves. Probably the book that is indebted most to the Alvarez anthology is The Penguin Book of British Contemporary Poetry (1982), edited by Blake Morrison and Andrew Motion. This anthology explicitly converses with Alvarez, his argument, and his system of negative feedbacks. You can see this interaction throughout the script. Here are two prime examples:
[Writers] have exchanged the received idea of the poet as the-person-next-door, or knowing insider, for the attitude of the anthologist or alien invader or remembering exile (p. 12).
There is another reason why recent British poetry has taken forms quite other than those promoted by Alvarez: the emergence and example of Seamus Heaney. The most important new poet of the last fifteen years, and the one we very deliberately put first in the anthology. Heaney is someone Alvarez could not foresee at the time and someone he has attacked since (p. 13).
The Motion and Morrison book is deeply problematic because of this. It’s a pity that they focus so openly on the Alvarez volume as a kind of starting point for all their pontificating. They want to argue with Alvarez, and, by doing so, take their ‘eye off the ball’: they spend too much time on their predecessor’s assertions rather than on the poetry that is spread out in front of them. Their own arguments for ‘newness’ are weakened by circumstance and historical context. This idea, for instance, that poets are now ‘alien invaders’ is returned to later in their essay when they come to consider, at some length, ‘Martianism’. The problem with this kind of snapshot judgement, that Craig Raine’s ‘A Martian Sends a Postcard Home’ contains within it the DNA of future British poetry generations, is suspect when we come to think of ‘Martianism’ not so much as a pivotal movement of the last thirty years, but an experiment dabbled in by a couple of young poets that had some limited impact at the time but was soon superseded by other interests and concerns.
My other quotation – the flagging up of Seamus Heaney as the key British poet to emerge over the past twenty years – has its own chastening narrative. In a way, this is what The Penguin Book of Contemporary British Poetry is remembered for more than anything else. It had the effect of outing Seamus Heaney not as a British but as an Irish poet. The poem that dominates or overshadows this anthology is one that is not included within its pages; Heaney’s ‘An Open Letter’ (published in 1983), offered as a rebuke to Motion’s and Morrison’s assertions:
Don’t be surprised if I demur, for, be advised
My passport’s green.
No glass of ours was ever raised
To toast The Queen.
Motion and Morrison make their vociferous claims only for the stitching of their assertions to come apart in their hands. You could say they were unlucky in their dealings with Heaney (he could have asked to have his work removed from the anthology) but there is an overriding sense of a lack of forethought or keen sense of prognostication in their calls. When they say in the concluding paragraph of the introduction: ‘the poets here do represent a departure, one which may be said to exhibit something of the spirit of postmodernism’ (p. 20), you have to wonder what ‘the spirit of postmodernism’ actually means. They seem to be hedging their bets: it feels half-arsed and peculiarly shaped by the academic preoccupations of the time. It tries to define a generation’s practice, but lacks intellectual rigor: it has to affect the way we look at the choice of poets as a whole. If the anthologists’ notions of important trends like ‘Martianism’ and ideas of ‘Britishness’ are contestable, then surely we will question the wider narrative they wish to impose on the contemporary poetry scene.
I do wonder why Motion and Morrison didn’t include Peter Reading in their survey. He had been writing for over ten years at the point of the anthology’s publication. He emerges as one of the most interesting, imaginative, cussedly inventive poets of the 1980s in collections like Diplopic, Ukulele Music and C. Perhaps our curators found his work difficult to anthologise (which is deserving of an essay in itself – poets whose work cannot be easily assimilated into anthologies). Perhaps they didn’t rate him. Perhaps his work doesn’t fit into the wider narratives they try to establish in their introduction. We don’t know.
Interestingly, The New Poetry, edited by Michael Hulse, David Kennedy and David Morley (Bloodaxe, 1993), does include a selection of Peter Reading’s poems. The first represented poet they highlight in their lengthy ‘Introduction’ is Peter Reading. Peter Reading, for them, is ‘Now and in England’. Perhaps one of the reasons why they have put Reading at the forefront of their evaluation is because he is absent from the Penguin anthology. Rather than pondering ‘the spirit of postmodernism’, they consider postmodern practice in contemporary poetry at some length, Reading being for them ‘a true postmodern’ (p. 22). Obviously, their title – without the editors ever stating it – is both a salute to Alvarez’s anthology and also a way of taking over the territory that Alvarez wants to control. The Bloodaxe anthology sets out to dismantle the view of British literature that is recorded in and perpetuated by the Alvarez book: that of a white, male, middle class group of writers. How can poets ‘escape the negative inheritance of British poetry’, they ask: ‘its ironies, its understatements, its dissipated energies’ (p. 22)? For the new The New Poetry the answer lies in polyphony: ‘plurality has flourished’ (p. 15). The editors state in their concluding remarks: ‘It would be absurdly presumptuous of us to claim The New Poetry is in any way definitive, but it is, we hope, “defining”. Where others perceive pluralism as hectic and serving special interests, we would argue that this signifies health as opposed to further decline and that such highlighting is long overdue in a culture which persistently ignores or marginalises the voices and achievements of a significant number of people’ (p. 27). The essay returns again and again to this attack on political, geographical, educational and social centralisation. Here are a few examples: ‘Jackie Kay’s personal circumstances as a black Briton adopted and raised by a white Scottish family may be taken as an extreme example of what Terry Eagleton, surveying the 1980s for Poetry Review, termed ‘the marginal becoming central’ (p. 18); ‘A need to find alternatives to the real or imagined English centre vigorously informs the current resilience of Scottish writing’ (p. 19); ‘A willingness to challenge the centre, to write poetry recognisably as social discourse, is a hallmark of many northern English poets’ (p.20). They are very thorough in their approach, we are left in no doubt where the editors are coming from; because of this it is an introduction that is well worth reading. It comprises a selection of poems that are well worth reading too, lest we forget what anthologies are really there for.
I suppose I have used these quotations as a set-up to briefly discuss one of the most recent anthologies to reflect on Alvarez’s example: Voice Recognition: 21 Poets for the 21st Century, edited by James Byrne and Clare Pollard (Bloodaxe, 2009). It’s interesting to see how the editors evaluate the power structures around the centre and the margins in their introduction: ‘A particular hub of this [new poetic] activity appears to be London, where many of the poets in this anthology are based – after years of other regions being prominent, there seems to be a real shift back to the capital, which is becoming a magnet for poets all over the country’. The editors, by demarcating the new boundaries of what they think is good and worthwhile, are saying all that new poetry is now the old poetry. They must have the Hulse, Kennedy and Morley book in mind when they state the ‘devolution to the regions’ model has been superseded by this Metropolitan focus of up-and-coming poets.
In their introduction Byrne and Pollard also write: ‘Among previous anthologies that had sought to define newness, we were influenced by The New Poetry, edited by Alvarez and first published by Penguin in 1962. It was a landmark anthology that scrutinised the island-bound fustiness of the Movement and championed key American poets, especially when Anne Sexton and Sylvia Plath were added to the updated 1966 edition. In Alvarez’s excellent introduction… he extends Pound’s dictum by declaring that “the great moderns experimented not just to make it new formally, but to open poetry up to new areas of experience”’ (p.13). There are several layers here, but of most concern to me is this notion that The New Poetry ‘scrutinised the island-bound fustiness of the Movement’. I would say yes, Alvarez’s introduction does do that, but the anthology itself is replete with Movement poets. Although he criticises Movement principles in the Introduction, he goes on to include their work alongside a wider range of voices. His anthology is at once critiquing/criticising and promoting the Movement canon. He hopes for a revolutionary future but actually offers us, in the end, a conventional mainstream anthology. What interests me here is that it is Alvarez’s text rather than the compendium of poems that grips the anthologists’ attention (apart from Sexton’s and Plath’s inclusion, of course); they make their assumptions about the collection from the introduction, rather than the poems themselves.
Perhaps what survives of the ‘landmark’ anthologies is not the poetry but the introduction. What gives your book longevity, if it is to survive at all beyond the original print run, is not a raft of poets giving their all but the editor’s or editors’ opinions on the state of play in British Poetry. What is mainly remembered of The Oxford Book of Modern Verse, 1892-1935 is W. B. Yeats explaining why he didn’t include Wilfred Owen in the anthology (‘passive suffering is not a theme for poetry’, he said). When Staying Alive came out, many critics discussed at length Neil Astley’s introduction and contextualising commentaries rather than the selection of poems themselves. Alvarez’s The New Poetry is remembered, discussed and revisited not because of Arthur Boyars and Ted Walker or (sadly) Thom Gunn but because of Alvarez’s own commentary.
This is a revised and extended version of a paper presented at the Midsummer Poetry Festival Symposium on Anthologies and Anthologising in Contemporary Poetry, Bank Street Arts, Sheffield, Friday 20 June 2014. Thanks to Ágnes Lehóczky and Angelina Ayers for organising the symposium. Chris Jones‘s sequence ‘Death and the Gallant’ appears in The Footing, an anthology of new walking-themed poems published by Longbarrow Press. His pamphlet Jigs and Reels recently appeared from Shoestring Press. Click here to visit his website.