The greatest thing a human soul ever does in this world is to see something and tell what it saw in a plain way… To see clearly is poetry, prophesy and religion, all in one.
John Ruskin, Modern Painters III
Nature, art and work define the prism through which John Ruskin examined man’s place in the world, and he combined them with mathematical elegance. Art and work require nature as raw material, and through study and further engagement, art and nature will ask of the mind what work takes from the body, while nature and work, for Ruskin, provide the perfect subjects for art.
The last of these equations is demonstrated by the critical interest Ruskin took in the Pre-Raphaelites, and in J M W Turner. Born and raised at the poor end of the Thames fishing trade, Turner’s close observations of ‘black barges, patched sails’ and ‘weedy roadside vegetation’ were highly praised by Ruskin, who saw no other painter able to depict ‘the natural way things have of lying about.’  This sensitivity, and the rallying cry of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, to paint from nature and to reject classical and artificial notions of composition and beauty, chime with Ruskin’s revelation, aged twenty one, which overturned much of the nine years’ schooling he’d had in ‘the mannerisms and tricks’ of making a painting. One afternoon, ‘with no prospect whatever but a small aspen tree against the blue sky’, he saw the charm of ‘composition’ in the existing world, and the holistic learning journey of capturing it. ‘At last the tree was there, and everything that I had thought before about trees, nowhere.’ 
The poets and visual artists featured and discussed in this essay embrace this clarity of sight in their spark and rigour. Seamus Heaney’s sonnet “The Forge”  begins: ‘All I know is a door into the dark.’ Through the doorway, all we see and hear, such as ‘The unpredictable fantail of sparks / Or hiss when a new shoe toughens in water’, make the nearby ‘traffic flashing in rows’ sound tinny and ineffectual; while the juxtaposition of the modern road, where the blacksmith ‘recalls a clatter / Of hoofs’, provides a surface under which we seem to peer, as if through time, or perhaps not through time at all, but through our own surface layers, into what we are still made of.
“Coming Close”  by Philip Levine invites more direct contact, with a woman working the night shift at a buffer wheel. The work is dirty, hard and heavy, and has taken its toll on her body. She’s three hours, and many years in, her work is steady and conscientious, yet she’d resist it in a moment, should the chance come. Just before the end of the poem, we’re asked to imagine this:
… if by some luck the power were cut,
the wheel slowed to a stop so that you
suddenly saw it was not a solid object
but so many separate bristles forming
in motion a perfect circle …
Then she laughs and touches ‘the arm of your white shirt to mark / you for your own, now and forever.’
Philip Levine was born to a middle class family in Detroit in 1928.  When his father died, twelve years later, the insurance company found an excuse to deny the major part of the claim, and Levine saw his mother worn out by the effort of keeping the family fed, clothed and sheltered. When they were fourteen, he and his twin brother vowed never to ‘participate in the corporate business of this country, a business that appalled us by the brutality of its exploitation of the people we most loved.’  Poetry had taken hold of Levine a year or so earlier, when his burgeoning lust for words fused with feelings of deep resonance that arose from delving into backyard soil to make things grow, and nights spent in woodland. So nature and work were implicated from the start, and “Innocence”, a poem from his 1991 collection What Work Is, sets them in bitter opposition to each other. A team of workers have prepared an oak wood for a road to come through it, foliage and branches have been removed, then:
earthmovers gripped the chained and stripped trunks,
hunched down and roared their engines, the earth
held and trembled before it gave, and the stumps
howled as they turned their black, prized groins
skyward for the first times in their lives
Soon after the vow with his twin, Levine began working part-time in a soap factory, and for many years supported his higher education by road building, factory and delivery work, until writing and teaching at last provided a living. His poetry remains fascinated by the streets and people of Detroit. In What Work Is, we journey with ‘the faces on the bus … each sealed in its hunger / for … a lost life’ , to places where someone must put on ‘wide rubber hip boots, / gauntlets to the elbow, a plastic helmet / like a knight’s but with a little glass window’ , or yearn to ‘climb the shaking ladder to the roof / of the Nitro plant and tear off / my respirator and breathe the yellow air’ , then to school, where the monoculture sets in:
These are the children of Flint, their fathers
work at the spark plug factory or truck
bottled water in 5 gallon sea-blue jugs
to the widows of the suburbs. You can see
already how their backs have thickened 
In his youth, Levine believed that manual labour would leave his ‘mind and imagination free for writing’.  This mirrors Ruskin’s desire for St George’s Museum in Sheffield to inspire tired workers with ‘what is lovely in the life of Nature, and heroic in the life of Men.’ Situated on Walkley’s north facing hillside, where the furthest view looks northwest over the Peak District, ‘the mountain home of the museum’, as Ruskin described it, was chosen to draw local grinders up from the toxic air of Rivelin, Loxley and Neepsend valleys.  However, some knew a more sustained escape was needed.
By his mid-twenties, Levine had his share of residual minor injury, was disgusted by the divisive practises that drove industry, and the prospect of a life there, unassuaged by his dream to make poetry pay, would have been intolerable. Instead, for many decades until he died in February this year, writing and teaching gave him:
… some work
to do, something useful
and hard, and that they might please
their own need to be doing. 
A hundred years before Levine worked in factories, Sheffield grinders suffered severe damage to their respiration, digestion and posture; many were physical wrecks with terminal illnesses by the age of nineteen.  Rivelin knife grinder Benjamin Creswick was impeded by the symptoms of his trade while his family grew.  When St George’s Museum opened, in 1875, he was twenty-two, and its exhibits spurred him to try his hand; he discovered a talent for sculpture and invested in lessons. Before long he drew the attention of John Ruskin, who tutored him, helped find commissions, and paid him, weekly, for as long as necessary. Creswick became a sculptor of great national renown. He played a leading role in the Arts and Crafts movement, and held a senior position in Birmingham Art School for decades. Completing many public and private commissions, he made art from terracotta, marble and bronze, often portraying characters at tasks he’d performed and observed during his early working life.
It’s a credit to the zeal for authenticity Ruskin passed on in his training, that, with at least six children to support, Creswick initially turned down a major commission to illustrate the manufacture of hats, saying he knew nothing of the process. He was persuaded, after being allowed several weeks of study in the hat factory; and the friezes he made for the high street shop front, and factory entrance behind, have been called ‘a magnificent piece of Socialist realism, modelled without sentimentality but with great dignity.’  The hatters’ building no longer exists, but the scenes depicted on the Cutler’s Hall Frieze in London show the same strength and dignity. Creswick’s great granddaughter, visual artist Annie Creswick-Dawson, has said that the visual impact of the men’s stances, within sections and from one frame to another, remind her of the flow of the Rivelin.
I find this comparison thrilling for the way it taps into the parallels between man and nature that I strive to illuminate in poetry. From the realisations voiced by the teenage couple in “Star”, to the potency of how Sheffield’s fast rivers brought its famous industry to town, the connections flow. Poems of mine such as “Here I spill” and “River Memoir” imagine a river’s life in terms of a person’s, tracking attitudes and behaviour as they mature, suggesting also the harnessed power of a workforce. In poems like “Impasse” and “Contra Flow” the river stands in for the mind’s ability to break through and move on. “Flood Triptych: The Loxley” brings these notions together: as the harness breaks, human ingenuity turns against human, and devastation wrought by the river echoes a body’s internal struggle.
John Clare’s poetry pulls you into the midst of nature, where the work of flora, fauna and river seems never to be done. People are often peripheral: a cowboy on a gate, a distant seed-man sowing grain, or where ‘the cottage roof’s-thatch brown / Did add its beauty to the budding green’.  Clare observes from pathless land, inside a thicket, or by ‘little brooks that hum a simple lay / In green unnoticed spots’.  Removed from human lore, his poetry reveals the long rhythms of nature, while melding the immediacy of life, for its creatures and vegetation, with the breathless joy of the recorder. In “Sudden Shower”, a bee is one of the ‘little things around, like you and I’, who hurry for shelter, and his allegiance is palpable in this stanza from “Autumn”.
While from the rustling scythe the haunted hare
Scampers circuitous with startled ears
Pricked up, then squat, as by
She brushes to the woods
Where seeded grass breast-high and undisturbed
Form pleasant clumps through which the suthering winds
Softens her rigid fears
And lulls to calm repose.
Born in 1793, to a peasant family in the Northamptonshire village of Helpston, Clare grew up in similar poverty to Turner, with the same kind of exposure to his future material.  He went to school until he was eleven or twelve, after which money and location left no possibility for further education; yet Clare was a voracious scholar. He borrowed, or saved to buy, books on history, music, botany, maths; everything, that is, except Latin and grammar which he disdained. Already in the thrall of reading, writing and story, when he read The Seasons by James Thompson in his early teens, he was seized by the urgent desire to record his world as poetry, and did so obsessively from then on. His early inner life also has parallels with Levine’s, and the poetry of both are underpinned by deep-rooted threads of human equality and nature’s supremacy. They also share the endearing strategy of telling you their tale as though you were stood beside them. Here are some lines from Clare’s “The Nightingale’s Nest” :
Hark! there she is as usual – let’s be hush –
For in this blackthorn-clump, if rightly guessed,
Her curious house is hidden. Part aside
These hazel branches in a gentle way
And stoop right cautious ’neath the rustling boughs
The fields and gardens where Clare worked weren’t the factories of Creswick or Levine, yet in “The Lament of Swordy Well” he bears witness to the appetites of the revolution already underway in cities:
And me, they turned me inside out
For sand and grit and stones
And turned my old green hills about
And picked my very bones.
In poems like this, dedicated to the horror of land ownership which Enclosure ushered in, Clare rails at length against its fences, stop signs, ‘Grubbed up trees, banks and bushes’.  The packaging of land came to Helpston in 1806, Clare’s thirteenth year, and in “The Moors” there’s the sense of him having caught the last moments of ‘one eternal green / That never felt the rage of blundering plough’, whose ‘only bondage was the circling sky’, where boys picked mulberries, and shepherds found lost sheep. Intact forever, until ‘Enclosure came and trampled on the grave / Of labour’s rights and left the poor a slave’. This and a similar line in “The Village Minstrel”, where he ‘Marks the stopped brook and mourns oppression’s power’ – a line that could have been written somewhere in the world any year since – typifies his fluidity between a lost detail and the irrevocable hijacking of resources. His way of speaking for and as the landscape and its creatures makes his politics always personal, yet he is usually shedding light on an ugly facet of his nemesis. When “The Fallen Elm”, which always grew comfortingly close to his home, and ‘murmured in our chimney top / The sweetest anthem autumn ever made’, was felled without any warning, he notes the dangerous rhetoric of those who ‘Bawl freedom loud and then oppress the free’. He goes on:
And labour’s only cow was drove away.
No matter – wrong was right and right was wrong
And freedom’s bawl was sanction to the song.
– Such was thy ruin, music-making elm
Like Levine, Clare grew up at the brunt of great national hardship and severe class division. In Helpston, he struggled to make a living, nearly enlisted, even put up fences for the local squire – which always made him drink more and hardly write at all; then at twenty four, his family almost destitute, he travelled a few miles for work burning lime, which went to make mortar and fertiliser. It was during this employment that he resolved to change course: he approached a local bookseller and his twelve year journey to publication began.
This is no rags-to-riches tale. Clare held out for the best deal, and after his first collection was published in 1820, he enjoyed several years of acclaim as the Peasant Poet. During visits to London, though noticeably gauche, he made friends, some generous and loyal, of writers, artists, etc. There were more collections of his work, but inexperience and bad advice lost him money, and it’s likely that his wit and politics eluded much of his contemporary readership. When delays and charlatans had squandered his most accessible assets, his popularity waned. Meanwhile, the severity of his mental frailty, and homesickness when away, went unrecognised or misunderstood for too long. Conversely, he missed London friends and city life when he only connected with them by letter.
Three years after the publication of his first collection, Clare suffered his first bout of depression. This coincided with the death of a rural labouring class poet from Suffolk, a few decades his senior. Robert Bloomfield’s work had been immensely popular for a while, but the man had died penniless and losing his sanity. Fourteen years later, aged forty-four, John Clare was first certified insane. Failing mental health, manifesting in depression and erratic behaviour, had for a long time prevented him from making the best of his earnings, and made home life difficult. Now, it seems, his wife was concerned he would become violent. In his last few years at home, he could often only be calmed by one of his children talking gently with him about the countryside. He remained in mental health care and continued to write until his death in 1864. Here’s his sonnet, published in 1835, “To the Memory of Bloomfield”:
Sweet unassuming minstrel, not to thee
The dazzling fashions of the day belong:
Nature’s wild pictures, field and cloud and tree
And quiet brooks far distant from the throng
In murmurs tender as the toiling bee
Make the sweet music of thy gentle song.
Well, nature owns thee: let the crowd pass by,
The tide of fashion is a stream too strong
For pastoral brooks that gently flow and sing,
But nature is their source, and earth and sky
Their annual offering to her current bring.
Thy gentle muse and memory need no sigh,
For thine shall murmur on to many a spring
When their proud streams are summer-burnt and dry.
As is so often the case, in the 1870s much concern was expressed in Britain about the national debt. This didn’t, however, refer to the debt owed to the working urban and rural poor by the individuals making a fortune from the sweat on their thickening backs. Ruskin’s response was to call for a National Store, and St George’s Museum in Walkley was conceived to exhibit this collection of artefacts.  He deplored mass production and its attendant poverty of the human mind and body, and founded the Guild of St George to explore alternatives to industrial capitalism, encourage art and craft, and work toward greater class equality throughout the country. The museum in Walkley was one of its earliest projects. Unfortunately, several episodes of serious mental illness left John Ruskin unable to fully realise his hopes.
Currently, the Guild is funding a nine year programme at Sheffield’s Millennium Gallery, due to culminate later this year. Ceramicist Emilie Taylor was commissioned to produce work for Force of Nature; Picturing Ruskin’s Landscape, its 2012 exhibition.
Taylor has led a number of projects that encourage members of a community to make art from what binds them.  Several years ago, for instance, in Brown & White, recovering heroin and cocaine users employed a nostalgic framing to juxtapose their own images of addiction and safety. For Force of Nature, she drew on childhood memories of her father’s involvement in pigeon racing around their Rivelin Valley home, and the piece she made, “So High I Almost Touched the Sky”, is a pair of metre tall vases decorated with tender images of Skye Edge pigeon fanciers, their birds and surroundings. She fired them in an outdoor smokeless wood-fuelled kiln, built by the artists’ community at Manor Top, while pigeons flew high above. The impressive stature of these items, along with their capacity and fragility, are perfect for the men they depict. Indeed, for the whole workforce who keep everyone fed and sheltered without anyone’s name being known – because none of them are called Tesco or Adidas – and for the poets and artists spoken of here, who have seen something and wished to tell it.
A few years ago, Taylor was guest visual artist on a poetry walk led by Mark Doyle, and I was lucky enough to be on it. We left Upperthorpe Library to stand where Kelvin flats had been, and look out over Pitsmoor and Parkwood Springs. She gave out materials, talked to us about looking, not looking, and negative space, showed us methods to capture our version of the view. Then I was amazed to be led along Neepsend Valley to where derelict pigeon lofts are barely hidden by a thin stand of trees beside Penistone Road. “Flight from Cuthbert Bank” is the poem I wrote about the walk; here are its last two stanzas:
Ten years since the last
kept pigeon homed to here. Back five more decades
to before they razed Parkwood Spring and sucked
Neepsend dry: the valley not this fleck of factory,
a filament between car galleries
and abandoned hillside,
but like a Lowry vision: a flock
of men released by work clocks, to rise above
day’s end, the valley’s din, legacies of grind,
to hold the small bulk, feel its heat
pulse through feathers in cupped hands,
and send those tiny hearts and lungs
to claim their reach of sky.
Several poems by Fay Musselwhite appear in the Longbarrow Press anthology The Footing; her debut collection will appear from Longbarrow Press in 2016. She is among the poets taking part in the Longbarrow Press residency at the Pop-Up Ruskin Museum at 381 South Road, Walkley, Sheffield, S6 3TD, from 2 – 30 September 2015. Join us for the salons (every Wednesday and Thursday between 1pm – 3pm in the Museum), in which the poets will lead discussion of several Ruskin-themed topics with reference to their own and others’ poetry; these are free to attend, and no booking is required. The residency will culminate in a collective reading at the Museum at 7pm on Wednesday 30 September, featuring Musselwhite and poets Matthew Clegg, Angelina D’Roza and Pete Green. See the Longbarrow Press Events page for more information.
 Ruskin, The Two Boyhoods, in Wilmer p146
 Ruskin quoted in Dearden, pp17-8
 from Door into the Dark, 1969
 Levine, What Work Is
 details of Philip Levine’s life are from Levine, The Bread of Time
 Levine, Bread, p113
 “Every Blessed Day”, Work
 “Fear and Fame”, Work
 “Burned”, Work
 “Among Children”, Work
 Levine, Bread, p114
 Price, p71
 “Possession”, Not This Pig
 details of Benjamin Creswick’s life are from Creswick-Dawson
 Creswick and Ruskin scholar Simon Ogden, quoted by Creswick-Dawson
 “The Village Minstrel”
 “The Eternity of Nature”
 details of John Clare’s life are from Bate, Biography
 “The Lament of Swordy Well”
 Notes about the Guild and the Museum are from the Guild’s website
 details of Emilie Taylor’s work are from her website
Sources and further reading (click on bold text for website links)
Bate, Jonathan, John Clare: A Biography. London: Picador 2003
Bate, Jonathan (ed.), John Clare: Selected Poems. London: Faber & Faber 2004
Dearden, James, An Illustrated Life of John Ruskin. Princes Risborough: Shire 2004
Engels, Friedrich, The Condition of the Working Class 1844
Guild of St George
Heaney, Seamus, Opened Ground: Poems 1966-96. London: Faber & Faber 1998
Levine, Philip, Not This Pig. Hanover: Wesleyan University Press 1963
Levine, Philip, The Bread of Time: Towards an Autobiography. New York: Alfred A Knopf 1993
Levine, Philip, What Work Is. New York: Alfred A Knopf 2012
Price, David, Sheffield Troublemakers. Stroud: Phillimore & Co 2008
Wilmer, Clive (ed). Unto This Last (collection of Ruskin’s essays). London: Penguin 1997
“The greatest hazard of all, losing one’s self, can occur very quietly in the world, as if it were nothing at all. No other loss can occur so quietly; any other loss – an arm, a leg, five dollars, a wife, etc. – is sure to be noticed.”
– Søren Kierkegaard, The Sickness Unto Death (trans. Walter Lowrie)
Over the last year, I have spent most of my creative life walking in and photographing certain aspects of landscape. I have also begun to discuss how and why I came to certain decisions during and after the project. It is the opening out of these landscapes into the wider cultural field that I wish to discuss in further detail here. I approach this piece of writing very tentatively. It finds me writing further away from any hub or centre than I might ever have previously imagined or desired. It finds me feeling hemmed in, cornered, startled out of my solitary journeying by the surprise of others. It meets me discouraged by my own nervousness and precarious position. However, I want to share the emotional and critical range of my working practices or else the photographs will just be pictures without context and as such would remain an ostensibly private record.
The photographs in Booths are a document in themselves, and therefore need no further qualification. However, on returning and attempting to put them into a larger meaningful framework, many of the fissures and fault lines I began the series with have again come to dominate my thinking. It ought to have been obvious to me from the outset that many of those wishing to discuss or engage in ideas around spatiality would only do so within an ulterior framework. For example, the growing emphasis on ‘landscape’ or psychogeography as an academic module needs to fill certain criteria by its very nature. These images can’t fulfil those criteria. So they become easier to disparage or conveniently ignore or subtly mock as unsophisticated. It is only really dawning on me now, slowly but starkly, how out of step this way of thinking about space is with my own.
I have discussed elsewhere and at length the aim of Booths as a larger metaphor for the idea of temporary shelter and as a place of safety. The need to find home and its concomitant community, as I have argued previously, is hotwired into us even at the outer limits of an environment. However, I often found this was, in reality, at odds with my need to wander, my desire to disappear and my instinctual disposition for getting lost. Perhaps those who are ostracised, displaced or exiled might better understand a deep hurt transferred as need for silence and space.
The realisation that a landscape is only qualitatively ‘there’ through the projection of those wishing to impose meaning onto it has latterly informed much of my thinking around Booths. It is difficult to marry theorising about spatiality with the physicality of being somewhere for reasons other than those prescribed by an exterior framework. The nature of trespass becomes more than a physical act; it is seemingly also about accessing (or being denied) critical legitimacy. I felt a similar discomfort when I began photographing in areas that, whilst legally accessible, the casual walker was actively discouraged from seeking out. Ostracism or trespass is akin to being lost in the sense that all the reassurances and validity of community are destabilised. It is as if from that point on your insurance or warranty is no long valid; you are stripped of social ranking or status, like John Clare or Van Gogh. For academia, any status that necessitates being permanently lost, unknown or invalidated would be an impossible impasse. Without notebooks, sketches and poems, what can really be said about this ‘dead zone’ of seemingly aimless, untraceable wandering?
From the outset of Booths I always meant to try and undo some errors in previous steps, not to re-trace but to erase, setting out not find myself but to strip back any remaining attachment to the urbane and polite milieu I had spent several years jettisoning. Spending such an amount of time being isolated from human interaction makes it very difficult to be candid on returning. Explaining, justifying, extrapolating: all point away from the purpose of turning towards landscape as internal exile. It seems all the more important to jot down the particulars because this microclimate of thought and sensation is what would disappear.
One bone cold afternoon I sat behind a half wall sheltering as best as possible from a screaming wind. Suddenly, right next to me, a huge winter hare stood on its hind legs, startled by my presence. Usually hares dart away as soon as they sense anything close to human contact. But this one was different somehow. It went down onto all fours, like a cub, and sat by me, watching, unafraid, curious even, as if it could sense my benignity. It seemed somehow inappropriate to try to photograph the moment, so I tried to just stay as still as could, enthralled by its presence. Anyway it soon tired of me and went on its way with an inbuilt urgency that wasn’t fear. I too went on my way. Revived by this intimate encounter, the wind seemed to drop a little and visibility lifted just long enough for one or two more pictures. I’m thinking of this now as I remember how I have encountered the human sphere since. I am recounting it as it highlights how many conceptual frameworks can quickly become no more than a convenient attempt to unify disparate experiences or perspectives. Perhaps the hare’s behaviour on that afternoon was unique; simply a reaction to a set of circumstances bound toward each and so specific as to be both unrepeatable and unquantifiable. It might well fit into a larger paradigm of animal/human relationships, but without seeking to document it, the moment provides only a lost desire toward a descriptive absence. These coincidences, this fleetingness, are among the things from Booths that resonate the deepest with me.
The linear rendering of an idealised landscape shows a true lack of engagement. Similarly a faux memory of a family day out and an easy journey back to café or car, a prescriptive route followed as activity, leisure or sport. None of these touch on what the desire to disappear feels like. Cultural tourism is such a hugely prevalent force that it now informs critical thinking at many levels. The idea that you can travel freely with both the fiscal and moral right to do so, ought, at the very least, to start to raise serious questions about how this might not be either possible or desirable for everyone. In 2012 I stopped a certain aspect of photographing in the urban environment for similar reasons. The graffiti, torn posters and peeling paint that I had used as a larger metaphor for other things had just become the new ‘hotspot’ for those seeking a simplified safe lexicon for the urban ‘experience’. One afternoon I encountered a group of photographers on a creative tour of the places I’d been previously photographing without consent to access. I knew then it was time to move on. I don’t mean this as a form of inverted snobbery but rather as an innate fear of cultural redundancy, laziness or overfamiliarity. Hegemony doesn’t strengthen cultural ties but strangles them through excessive production, weakens them by gaining capital through their experiences.
On July 9th 1975 the Dutch conceptual artist Bas Jan Ader set out in a tiny craft to singlehandedly cross the Atlantic. He set a cine camera on a tripod on the beach to watch him disappear into the horizon line, the white triangle of the sail a vanishing perspective. On the night prior to the voyage he had a choir singing sea shanties on the coastline. He was never found or heard from again. He left no clues nor writing as to his intentions but critical momentum and speculation has gathered around the event ever since. I don’t want to expand on the ‘meaning’ of this act here, but have highlighted it as it exemplifies to an extreme degree a part of my thinking about spatiality. I did not seek to understand landscape but to immerse myself so deeply in it as to be absent from anything else but the landscape. To be absorbed, saturated, consumed by a force other than your own, to deplete self-interest to a point where your fear of mortality empties away. Its force is why I went as far into it as I did and choose the harshest of seasons. Now, months later, unlike Ader, I’m back on solid ground and yet the feeling of being lost remains more acute than ever. No critical framework can dispel it from me; no amount of walking can shake it off.
This is the third of three new essays on photography by Karl Hurst (under the series title ‘On Liminal Spaces’); the first essay (‘Reflections on Impracticality’) appears here, and the second essay (‘Meditation on Carl Wark’) appears here. Karl Hurst’s Flickr photosets can be viewed here, including the series Booths from which all five photographs featured in this piece are drawn. Boxed editions of prints are available from his Etsy site. Details of his publications with Longbarrow Press (writing as Andrew Hirst) are available here. His sequence ‘Three Night Walks’ appears in the walking-themed poetry anthology The Footing (Longbarrow Press).
A few months ago, I went into a corner of the southwestern English town where I used to live to see if it looked any different. The depots and forecourts hadn’t moved; some of the road junctions had been redesigned; a bit more of the horizon was gone. I wanted to know if the wire and concrete fence I’d photographed ten years ago was still there. The fence was still there, and the gate in the fence was still there, and I walked through it and stopped where I had stood. The scene was much as I’d left it, bare branches climbing the gate, its axis extended, the yard emptying out: yet it wasn’t what I’d flattened to a frame. It didn’t fit. The parts hadn’t changed; the relationship between them had.
In 2004, the poet Andrew Hirst invited me to work with him on a sequence of poems and photographs that we titled The Frome Primer. Andy was based in Sheffield; I was living and working in Swindon. Neither of us had access to email, text messaging, or digital cameras. We would meet to discuss the collaboration every month or so, but most of the work was developed through the Royal Mail, with me posting half-a-dozen prints per week, without commentary or description, and Andy’s poems arriving almost by return. None of the poems referenced the photographs; few of the photographs seemed to inhabit the territory of the poems. The motifs, tones and rhythms that developed over the three years of collaboration were, I think, a result of the texts and images indirectly working on each other, the ‘common ground’ of the sequence belonging to neither.
In the early stages of the project, Andy referred to The Frome Primer as ‘a view of the south from the north’. The view was obscured, not just by the dearth of situational or geographical clues in the photographs, but by what had happened to the photographs. The images I was sending north, the images used in the published and exhibited versions of The Frome Primer, were black-and-white photocopies of colour prints, desaturated and degraded. This process stripped the prints of pigment and lustre and depth. It also had the effect of detemporalising them: between the bleached skies and the blotted shadows, it was hard to fix a time of day or time of year. What remained were tight lines and empty vaults. These few particulars, the land pared to its levels, linked the low counties of Essex and Kent (where many of the photographs were taken) to the low-rise, self-contained parks and estates that proliferated in the shallow bed of west Swindon. The prints may have been taken out of time, but they had not lost their place.
As the photographs sank into the crisp folds and outskirts of the southern English townscape, its flat-stacked horizons, the poems became increasingly, and explicitly, concerned with the fate of the northern English city. The Frome Primer is caught between the new space on the edges of our settlements, and the old spaces at their heart; between erasure and exile, drift and displacement. In one poem, we find the speaker contemplating ‘cavities where the old city / walls have collapsed’; in another, the ‘surrendered’ city’s solace is a stand of ponderosa pine, another ‘displaced’ species, ‘swaying in monumental agonies / of light and shade, light and dust’. The erosion of civic space in The Frome Primer is insidious and inexorable, obliquely marked in the passing of ‘an older world’; the new space offers little purchase, seems less than solid, and our sight of it is fragmentary, fleeting. Both the poems and the photographs draw their energies from these states of contradiction and change. The city expands outward while contracting inward. The walls collapse and are rebuilt. The distance fractures and is filled in.
Versions of The Frome Primer were exhibited in Sheffield and north-east Lincolnshire in 2008 and 2009. These earlier displays pushed the linear and literal aspects or tendencies of the work to the fore; each coupling of poem and photograph was intentional (the decisions made some months after the parts had settled) and the sequence was first arranged as a grid (two double rows of poems and photographs) and then as a continuous line. The order of poems and photographs was unchanged between displays. When the opportunity came to remake the work for Bank Street Arts, my initial expectation was that the patterning and sequencing would change a little, but not greatly. The order of the poems – not titled, but numbered, I-XXIV – couldn’t be disturbed, and many of the photographs had settled around these fixed points. I arrived at Gallery 2 for the installation and unpacked the work. I made a start on the walls, lining and spacing the first few pieces, the same pairs falling into place. It wasn’t working. I’d remembered the last display as a chain of taut horizons; this was a weakened line, jerking and sagging. The parts hadn’t changed, but the fit was gone, the movement was gone. I took a few steps back and looked around the room, its fixtures and joins, fractures and fillings. Then I returned to the photographs and arranged them in new groups of two, three and four, led by tone, contrast and rhythm. I didn’t look at the poems as I did this. Slowly, each wall took its clusters and fragments of Frome, texts following images into the gaps; slowly, the surprise of the work came back to me.
I’d edited and published two selections of poems from The Frome Primer in 2007 and 2008, two pamphlets in dark brown covers, the poems printed in the order I was now repeating. The poems aren’t new; the walls renewed them. Their multiple personae are more defeated and more defiant. The rhetoric is somehow plainer and more oblique. The pain of familial and municipal estrangement, the bruise in each lament and parable, is sharper and darker. Threads that seemed peripheral in earlier readings have now shifted into focus: the speakers’ preoccupation with grain, roots and yields (seemingly at odds with the urban terrain they are speaking of and from) prepares us for one of the few instances of a named landscape in The Frome Primer, that of a field near Boston, to which the ‘rootless’ have been displaced, ‘the itinerant labour gang, in transit, dispersed.’ The means by which the city is sustained and rebuilt – low-paid agricultural work, low-paid industrial work – are distanced or concealed from us, as are the workers’ conditions. The effects of displacement and dispersal are, perhaps, more evident in the city itself, a centre become a margin, its inhabitants clinging to temporary islands, the residual, diminished spaces of ‘an older world’ cut off by walled estates, gated flats, fenced wastelands.
Walls, gates, fences: frontiers that rise and fall throughout The Frome Primer, and which seem even more prominent in this sparse new arrangement. If these long, low barriers are the horizontal axis of the photographs, then perhaps trees are its vertical axis, sometimes interrupting a boundary line, sometimes marking it. In the poems, they often hint at pasts and futures beyond the speaker’s reach (bare willows, dark asters, the rowan trees ‘we’ll all come back as’). And sometimes these pasts and futures are collapsed into a single frame, as in the photograph of the wire and concrete fence, bare branches climbing the gate, on which the sequence once closed, and with which it now opens.
The Frome Primer was exhibited at Bank Street Arts, Sheffield, 19 – 30 May 2015. This is a revised and extended version of a post (‘Frome Revisited’) that appeared on the South Yorkshire Poetry Festival website in May 2015. Brian Lewis is the editor and publisher at Longbarrow Press; other writings appear on his website. Andrew Hirst’s poems for The Frome Primer are available from Longbarrow Press in a limited edition package comprising two pamphlets and two postcards; click here for further details. You can read Marlow Jones’s review of the pamphlets here. Andrew Hirst’s photographic work (as Karl Hurst) is available to view and order here. Listen to Andrew Hirst reading ‘Frome XIX’:
There’s a poem, ‘Street Life’, by Alan Jenkins, that has niggled away at me for the last fifteen years or so. In it the narrator discusses his relationship with a prostitute who lives in the flat above him. The speaker explores various aspects of knowing in his encounters with this unnamed woman. The first meeting of minds revolves around self-recognition: ‘We are alike, we share / the same sad, comical fear of being caught / together on our corner’. Their second understanding is negotiated through care and deception, the way she ‘makes something up when I ask her how she got the bruise / that cascades down her cheek’. The third encounter (a memory) plays on different interpretations of that idea of knowing: put bluntly, the time he ‘paid her twenty quid and pushed it up her, dry and tight’.
You could read this trajectory in the poem as a critique of masculinity, laying bare the fragile binary between protection and exploitation. On a more mechanical level, the poem ‘works’ (is memorable) through that description of perfunctory sex as the final line (the punchline) of the work. In a way, Jenkins is turning a trick here too. Illuminating the subtext of such a technique has the writer whispering to the reader: ‘Yes, my speaker screwed this woman one time but I am screwing with your expectations too, the way in which you expect this poem to progress.’ Whether you admire or not this kind of narratorial gambit is up to you.
Perhaps this poet’s approach might be put in perspective if we compare his poem to another work that dwells on hypocrisy, lust and self-deception: Thom Gunn’s poem ‘Sweet Things’. Like Jenkins, Gunn uses ‘mirroring’ perspectives to draw out his narrator’s concerns. The poem initially focuses on the speaker’s relationship with Don, a young man with Down’s syndrome, who habitually befriends him on the street for money so he can ‘buy sweet things, one after another’. The narrator reflects on why he has never given Don a cent:
I wonder why not, and as I
walk on alone I realise
it’s because his unripened mind
never recognizes me, me
for myself, he only says hi
for what he can get [.]
Someway down the street, our protagonist meets ‘John, no Chuck / …a scrubbed cowboy, Tom Sawyer / grown up.’ They begin talking: ‘“It’s a long time / since we got together,” says John. / Chuck, that is.’ The invitation is immediately taken up: ‘“How about now?” I say / knowing the answer. My boy / I could eat you whole.’ Through juxtaposition, Gunn provides an artful balance between the spurned Don and this narrator’s own desire for ‘sweet things’. Our casual shopper is just the same as Don: self-centred, pleasure-seeking, entirely looking after himself.
I’ve always admired this moral calibration in Gunn’s writing, that he (or his persona) never puts himself above the people he writes about. Those marginalised or troublesome individuals, the street life he encounters, are always treated with respect, understood, listened to. Because he advocates this open door policy, he can directly or by extension assimilate varieties of ‘otherness’ into his worldview. Thus power relationships are never quite straightforward in Gunn’s poetic universe.
I spent most of my early twenties writing about Thom Gunn. I eventually met him in San Francisco, an experience I write about in my new collection, Skin (see my poem ‘An Invitation’). For a writer who professed to like ‘loud music, bars, and boisterous men’, it was quite an eye-opener for a straight, Catholic boy from Quorn, Leicestershire. But I am grateful that I spent such a long time in Gunn’s company. From early on I was preoccupied with the idea of writing about ‘difficult men’, an orbit that eventually led me to work with prisoners as a writer-in-residence in a high security prison. Over the past twenty years I have returned to consider the binds of masculinity through various wider thematic perspectives. Three of the main poems or sequences in this collection hinge on the idea of two men talking, debating, and/or arguing with each other. In ‘Sentences’ my narrator is a teacher working in prison who befriends a drug-dealing poet on the Remand Wing. There are times in the poem where they both need each other, but for very different reasons. The hierarchies embedded in prison culture and its tough moral currency leave both men feeling pressurised by their marginal status. What is the right thing to say and do in such extreme circumstances? In ‘Death and the Gallant’ the two men, Brown and an old man, use the biblical paintings and religious objects that they have set out to destroy to conduct a guarded, then more overt, theological debate. In the final long poem of the collection, ‘Every Time We Met’, Gregory (the writer) and Ed (the academic) joust with each other about success, rivalries, legacy. But underneath the brittle social patter lies a more insidious version of oneupmanship.
As a corrective to, or as a means of arguing against these particular models of controlling masculinity, I also wanted to consider nurturing, loving behaviour in Skin. In two of the main sequences of poems, ‘Miniatures’ and ‘Jigs and Reels’, I reflect on family connections and my own experiences of becoming a father. Philip Larkin says that one of the reasons that he wrote was to ‘preserve’ experiences so that his readership could ‘feel what [he] felt.’ There is certainly a sense of capturing significant moments in the pieces that engage with my young children. In one poem I wrote about how my oldest son’s ears came to ‘unfold’ (a kink in the cartilage of each ear straightened out when he was about six months old): I’m sure I would have forgotten this detail if I hadn’t written it down. I have in my hands, when I read Skin, a trove of memories, tangible, potent, ever-present, that are also moving away from me at the speed of light.
‘Jigs and Reels’, by the way it couples poems, and in its emphasis on a storytelling and lyric drive, sends a strong nod in the direction of folk songs that get twinned together to form ‘sets’ of tunes. That’s something I think writers can miss out on – the collaborative nature of making art. Musicians sitting in a circle improvising and/or playing learnt melodies doesn’t have its own corresponding experience in bookish culture. I have been fortunate over the past ten years to work with a number of writers and artists on public art, commissions and projects in galleries. Some of my most ambitious work has come from cooperative practice and I wanted to give a flavour of this in the collection. Thus I have included haiku, tanka and a couple of longer works that emerged directly from creative relationships.
In a book that returns to representing different aspects of the arts (through writers, painters, musicians) and often concentrates on homosocial power relationships, it seems appropriate that one of the last voices you hear in the book is that of Leigh in ‘Every Time We Met’, an artist, who contextualises her own work in terms of building and making objects of aesthetic beauty, moving away from the more destructive impulses that dominated the early part of her career. It is important that Leigh is allowed the space and time to give her own point of view here. The counter or contrary voice is something I have always tried to find room for. Increasingly, narrative (through debate and dialogue) holds my attention as a writer. If Skin has taught me anything, it is to think in terms of listening to a variety of voices rather than just voicing a steadfast opinion: that there is much to made from polyphony as a way of exploring the world we inhabit and try to make sense of.
Skin is out now from Longbarrow Press. Click here for further details of the book, and to read and listen to poems from the collection.
In The Faraway Nearby, Rebecca Solnit writes: ‘The self is a patchwork of the felt and unfelt, of presences and absences, of navigable channels around the walled-off numbness’. The same might be said of a book of poems. Some years ago my writing journey had run aground on an island of my own making. I was living in a mouldy flat. I’d resigned from a job that had made me ill. A very important relationship had broken down. I was still struggling with my health, fighting a numbness brought on by absences of my own. One Sunday I tuned into a radio programme called ‘Homer’s Landscapes’, written and presented by Adam Nicolson. In it, Nicolson examined the journey Odysseus made to Hades, where he must feed blood, honey and wine to the ghost of Tiresias, in order to restore to him the gift of speech. Only Tiresias can offer Odysseus the directions he needs to complete his homeward journey. According to Nicolson, it is as if the Greeks believed that the body and taste of these things were essential not only to life, but to language too. This is a metaphor for poetry itself – for any attempt to make absences or abstractions concrete. The ghosts need their blood and honey, otherwise they’ll remain silent shadows.
This is why I’ve chosen to start my new collection, The Navigators, with a version of this episode of The Odyssey. It acts as a kind of prologue to a book that is full of reconstructions: crowded with personal, historical and mythical ghosts. Marooned on my own journey, I needed to consult with them in order to restore my sense of direction. Some of the poems in this new book predate poems in West North East (Longbarrow Press, 2013), and some of them were written immediately after. One thing that distinguishes them from the poems in my first volume is a broadening of the canvas of time and place. Another is a greater fascination with the flowing element of water, as it moves through both. The collection starts with rain falling in Cumbria. It flows to the South Yorkshire waterways, before arriving at the sea and another scene in another navigational myth from Ancient Greece.
Section 1: Trig Points
The collection begins with poems born out of a writing residency at Wordsworth’s Dove Cottage. The first drafts were written some 13 years ago. They’ve been re-drafted many times since – the form just eluding me, until I started experimenting with free and open forms in 2014. I’ve taken a long time to discover what many poets start with. This sequence chiefly maps my relationship with the landscape, with creatures, and with my companion of that time, C. Cumbria was the glue that held C and me together, and our relationship struggled after we left. It was as if we couldn’t agree on a landscape we wanted to share – and so we retreated separately to places closer to our origins. The poems in Trig Points also triangulate mental journeys between past, present and projected future. C and I lacked a shared vison of the future, but this doesn’t stop the heart wanting to look back at a loved person and a loved place, trying to find embers to carry forward. Time is a cold landscape without these embers. The frame of this section of the book is also haunted by myth and history. There is a recent adaptation of passages from Aristophanes’ The Birds, and a sequence that touches on events in Kosovo. Many Kosovan refugees settled in Cumbria, and if I go beyond my right to speak of such subjects, I do so in order to remind myself that no idyll is unvisited by voices from worlds outside it. I thought this each time a military jet passed over the Cumbrian sky.
Section 2: The Navigators
In 2009 I received a commission to write poems about the history of the South Yorkshire waterways. I’m no stranger to canals. My grandfather had built a canal boat after he retired, and many holidays in my childhood were spent on his cabin-cruiser, navigating the Leeds-Liverpool canal. The commission resulted in some historical monologues in the voices of navvies and boatmen, as well as personal reminiscences of time on my grandfather’s boat. In 2013 I moved to Mexborough, in South Yorkshire, and found myself 5 minutes from the canal. There, I navigated the waterways as they are now. On one stretch of the canal, a number of houses back onto the water. From the street, they look like ordinary semis or terraces, but from the canal bank they appear more exotic – the domestic waterfronts decorated with bunting, statues of herons, and with little huts and fishing platforms. Some homes even have boats. There is something exciting, for me, about having a boat at the bottom of the garden. I suppose it is possible to look at the motorcar as Everyman’s Argo, parked in the driveway or the street outside every home. But it doesn’t work for me. There’s something special about a boat – about stepping off land and onto a craft that navigates another element. Any waterway has a mystery that a road can’t achieve. When I think of my time on my grandfather’s boat, I realise my experiences were a growth. It’s more poignant now because I understand how important that new adventure was at the end of my grandparents’ lives. Parts of my coming of age and their retirement coincided on the waterways. The canals will always lead back to my history, and to theirs. And they lead back to history with a capital H (or even a dropped one).
Section 3: Cave Time and Sea Changes
In ‘Reference Back’, Philip Larkin said that ‘though our element is time, / We are not suited to the long perspectives / Open at each instant of our lives.’ All through my life, long perspectives have opened in coastal landscapes. I’ve returned to the sea for reflection and regeneration, and the poems I’ve set there are epiphanies that hatch on literal and metaphorical thresholds. This final section explores key moments in three romantic relationships. I’ve questioned whether there might be something insensitive about placing love poems for three women in such proximity. However, I am interested in the drama of the human heart in time. This is supposed to be one of the things the compass of poetry helps us navigate – look at poems from Gilgamesh to Hardy’s Poems of 1912-13 to Hughes’ Birthday Letters. In this final section I try to construct my own compass. The denouement is a sequence that explores Proustian memories of Flamborough Head, where I attempt to fuse mythical, personal and historical threads in one fugue-like movement. It culminates with a glimpse of the Greek god of sea-changes, Proteus. This is channelled through a photo taken by my partner, Ruth. I use it as a talisman to return me to a present that is never-ending, and always in the wind. The marooned sailor uses it to find a way home, if home is the seat of our affections, or the starting point for all new expeditions.
The book doesn’t quite end there. I’ve chosen to exit with another mythical scene. This time it’s a night before Jason and his Argonauts embark on their journey. Jason is losing his nerve. Two of the crew have fallen into bitter dispute. It’s almost come to blows, when Orpheus enchants everyone with a song about our elemental origins. The Argonauts carry the song in their hearts long after the music stops, and even into their sleep and dreams. This seemed like the perfect note upon which to suspend my poetic navigations. It’s often said that time is problematic in the human mind. We displace the present into the past, or project it into the future. DH Lawrence wrote about his desire to pioneer a poetry of the present – something that eluded even Orpheus in the end, perhaps. Events later in his life led Orpheus to regret the backward look. In another version of his myth, after his dismemberment by the Maenads, his decapitated head is left to float on the river Hebrus – still singing – until it reaches the Mediterranean shore. As Ezra Pound says in ‘Exile’s Letter’, ‘there is no end of things in the heart.’ This book places my stones on the cairn of that idea.
The Navigators is published by Longbarrow Press on 13 May. Click here for further details of the book, and to read and listen to poems from the collection. Matthew Clegg and songwriter Ray Hearne will lead a walk along the Mexborough Canal on Sunday 24 May; click here for more information (and to reserve places). The Navigators launch takes place at The Shakespeare, Sheffield, on Thursday 25 June; further details appear on the Events page of the Longbarrow Press website.
The title of this blog post (‘Feeding the dead is necessary’) is taken from W.S. Graham’s long poem ‘Implements in Their Places’ (available in his New Collected Poems, Faber, 2004).
There’s healing power in music. Sometimes it’s the right lyric, or the drumbeat, but it’s usually a combination of the two that does it. In 31 Songs, Nick Hornby mentions his mum’s derision at the T. Rex lyric, “Get it on / bang a gong”, touching on the lyrics v. poetry debate. I mostly think it’s daft; whichever angle you’re coming from, there often seems an unconscious (or conscious) elevation of poetry woven into the parameters of the comparison. Are those lyrics poetry? Who cares? And while we’re here, “More than a woman” is not a man! I couldn’t write a decent lyric if PJ Harvey stood over me with a feathered whip. Glyn Maxwell suggests that music is to lyrics what white space is to poetry. If some lyrics retain their power when you lose the music, does that make them poetry? Does that make them better lyrics? Or worse? We don’t measure the value of a poem by taking away the line breaks and seeing if it holds up. Even so, if I were going to buy into this, and some days I do, I’d offer Leonard Cohen’s lyrics (not his poetry?!) –
Dance me to the children who are asking to be born
Dance me through the curtains that our kisses have outworn
Raise a tent of shelter now, though every thread is torn
Dance me to the end of love
The words hold their own beauty. Does this make them poetry? Maybe. I might listen to them walking Burbage Edge, or sitting on the Cholera Monument behind the house I grew up in, looking out on the city shrunk to a more manageable size. It will gently get you through most days.
But if you really need to feel better, sooner or later you have to get up and dance around like a curiosity. Carly Simon has a song, “Attitude Dancing”: “And it don’t really matter / what steps you choose to do / only one thing matters / that’s your attitude.” This was the power of the Leadmill nightclub. Lyrics still mattered. Look up the words to “99 Red Balloons” or “Baggy Trousers”. They say stuff. But they’d say it to a beat I could throw myself into, and although I’d be barged by all the other vodka-mixer-for-60-pence-fuelled youth of the day, the gratification was in being fiercely yourself, and to hell with everyone else. Listen to the Stone Roses’ “I Am the Resurrection” – that opening drumbeat’s filling your chest with the screw you factor, isn’t it? Then add, “Don’t waste your words, I don’t need anything from you / I don’t care where you’ve been or what you plan to do.” Arms up and singing to the delayed refrain of “I am the resurrection” is about as much pure joy as you can get in life.
The whole being yourself thing is a struggle. Other people aren’t merely mirrors, but we do see ourselves reflected in them. We build relationships with the people in who we see ourselves most clearly. Maybe they show my best side. Or you might choose those who confirm your flaws. But sometimes you spend so long looking at the reflection, you forget that’s all it is. This is when you need the song.
“Silentium”, by Fyodor Tyutchev (trans. Chandler), describes this act of self-reclamation:
Be silent, hide away and let
your thoughts and longings rise and set
in the deep places of your heart.
Let dreams move silently as stars,
in wonder more than you can tell.
Let them fulfill you – and be still.
It ends: “Hear your own singing – and be still.” The poem might work differently to the song, have its own sense of musicality, but it’s an experience as physical as any bass vibrating through you. Here, stillness is made visceral. The simplicity of the language and rhythm, the weight of the rhymes, slow me down and send me into myself. The imperative to step out of the world lends nerve to the poem’s assumption that I am enough. I am. To be still, here, is an act comparable with dancing irreverently. I’m memorising it. It’s wonderful. But Rosemary Tonks’s “Addiction to an Old Mattress” enacts the struggle I’m thinking of:
No, this is not my life, thank God …
… worn out like this, and crippled by brain-fag;
obsessed first by one person, and then
(almost at once) most horribly besotted by another
“This is not my life” suggests it’s someone else’s, and thank God she doesn’t have to live it, with its crippling “brain-fag”. Brain-fag! But she is living someone else’s life, and it hardly matters whose. This randomness of who she might fall for is what defines obsession; it’s not them as people that takes her over – it’s dispossession itself. Rebecca Solnit, in The Faraway Nearby, describes us as stories, telling and being told, as threads woven into the fabric of the world. That balance between connection and autonomy is essential to our sense of self, I think. When we lose control of our story, we become dispossessed, but also if our thread winds loose from the pattern. This makes stepping out of the world sound less desirable, though we all want to run away from it sometimes. Maybe it works for a while, as a way to relearn your story, to narrate a new one. At some point, though, we need it to be heard.
Anyone can become dispossessed of self, by society, abuse, love. Solnit says that your suffering doesn’t mark you as special, “though your response to it might”. You might react by being still. I might sing the Stone Roses in my kitchen (but I am special …). For the speaker here, without herself, her personhood, her own story to tell, what else is there but the other, any other. Even the month belongs to them and not to her:
These Februaries, full of draughts and cracks,
they belong to the people in the streets, the others
out there – haberdashers, writers of menus.
potatoes, dentists, people I hardly know, it’s unforgivable
for this is not my life
but theirs, that I am living.
And I wolf, bolt, gulp it down, day after day.
I’m excited by how feisty the lines are. The fight in them gives me hope for the speaker. The middle stanza opens, “Salt breezes! Bolsters from Istanbul!” and with its fractured rhythm and exclamations (the line break, the white space), it sounds as full of contempt as the “Barometers […] controlling moody isobars”. Even the “lemonades and matinees” are scorned alongside the “sumptuous tittle-tattle” of the summer crowd they feed. The sheer attitude of the poem makes me want to write, but it’s so strong, so ironically full of identity, I end up writing someone else’s voice: this is not my life …
The violence in the lines confronts the heteronomic forces being imposed on her. She can take it: “… I live on … powerful, disobedient”. I love her for this. But how can she be powerful, when she seemed so overwhelmed by her obsessions? This is the struggle I mean. Her power, I think, is in her disobedience and comes back to notions of dispossession, and being outside societal norms. We think we’re more in control, more separate, than we are. We’re moved by those around us. We want to belong, to be recognised, and this makes us vulnerable, so we toe the line. If you’re isolated, rejected, unseen, it becomes possible (necessary?) to reject, and perhaps there’s strength to be found in that – if you can’t relate to the haberdashers and their climate, screw them!
There’s such violence in the last line, too: “And I wolf, bolt, gulp it down …”, but here her anger seems directed inwards: this is what I do, and what I do is unforgivable. There’s much conflict in the poem: between the self and the other, yes – in one reading the other dominates. In another, the speaker is powerful, more autonomous (or disobedient) for her social death. She’s not merely consumed by the other. In the end, she actively consumes it. But the poem’s perspective is the speaker’s, and I think the real struggle is going on internally. Perhaps her strength is only an act. Or perhaps you have to act as though you’re strong, as though you’re enough, do some “attitude dancing”, before you can feel it, before you can retell the edges of yourself; is she consumed, consuming or rejecting? Is she giving the world the finger or looking for forgiveness? And if forgiveness, then from who? You? No … to hell with you …
Angelina Ayers’ sequence The Strait appears in the Longbarrow Press anthology The Footing. Ayers discusses Sylvia Plath’s ‘Morning Song’ in ’31 Songs’, Gerard Manley Hopkins’s ‘Pied Beauty’ here, and D.H. Lawrence’s ‘The Elephant is Slow to Mate’ in ‘Hotel California’ (three earlier posts in this series). Rosemary Tonks’s “Addiction to an Old Mattress” appears in Bedouin of the London Evening: Collected Poems (Bloodaxe Books, 2014). Click here to access Angelina Ayers’ website. Her debut collection will appear from Longbarrow Press in Spring 2016.
Philip Levine died on 14 February this year. Born in Detroit in 1928, the son of Russian-Jewish immigrants, he has been described by Neil Astley as ‘the authentic voice of America’s urban poor’[i]. He began writing poetry as a teenager before the end of the Second World War, and published his most recent collection in 2010 at the age of 82. He had lived through important chapters of American history, notably the Great Depression, the Vietnam War, the assassination of J.F. Kennedy, the Ronald Reagan administration and 9/11. One recurring theme in his work is the idea of knowledge, or the sense of truth. This is born out in poems with titles like: ‘What Work Is’, ‘Facts’, ‘The Simple Truth’ and ‘The Great Truth’[ii]. A resonant tension in his later poetry is that between experience and hope – if experience is often a synonym for disappointment, especially in the arena of politics. Levine was a master of showing us how much in life is political – from the hazardous world of factory work to the potatoes on his table.
One of my favourite Levine poems is ‘The Great Truth’ (2004), which seems to consolidate many of Levine’s themes and techniques. It inhabits past, present and future in ways that recall ‘The Escape’ – his personal myth of Midwestern love and suffering. Like ‘What Work Is’, it is preoccupied with masculinity and what a life of hard labour can do to a man. Like ‘The Mercy’, a poem about his mother’s arrival in America, it offers a journey from innocence to experience that builds towards revelation. Its title makes it an obvious partner to ‘The Simple Truth’, a poem that famously links the ordinary and the ineffable.
I’d like to focus on linked but contrasting moments in ‘The Great Truth’. They reveal the structural symmetry of the poem – moment 1 taking place at the end of stanza 1, and moment 2 at the close of the second and final stanza. In stanza 1 the 11-year-old Levine accompanies the household lodger on a walk in a public park. This man is ‘back from prison, penniless / and working murderous night job in the forge room / at Cadillac.’ At this age Levine believes there are ‘answers’: that one day this man will communicate to him something about manhood; that he (Levine) will experience a revelation that will raise and transform his understanding and experience of the world. We are to infer he was disappointed.
Stanza 2 shifts time. The adult Levine encounters this man in a bar ‘on Linwood / with a woman anxious to leave.’ The man is unable to recognise Levine, and after being prompted is only able to ‘put his head down on the bar, [close] his eyes, and [say], ‘oh my God, oh my God’, and nothing more.’ Ironically, this man’s failure to find language expresses more about life and time than words can easily convey.
Moment 2 shifts time again. Levine is revisiting the park. It is raining. He walks on alone and stands under some trees:
Up ahead what little I could see of sky
lightened as though urging me towards something
waiting for me more than half a century, some
great truth to live by now that it was too late
to live in the world other than I do.
The power of these lines depends on their relationship to the boy’s first inkling of revelation under the sky. What failed to materialise then, now threatens to materialise ‘too late’. The sense that there is a greater truth to live by remains, but whatever Levine has experienced in the half century between moments has created the man he must resign himself to be. This grounds revelation in a sobering relationship to the passage of time. Whilst we wait for our vision of truth, quotidian experience shapes us beyond our capacity to change.
This makes ‘The Great Truth’ something of an anti-revelation: an old man’s re-evaluation of romantic vision. Levine’s sense of history, of narrative, refuses to let him privilege the so-called timeless lyric moment. Could there be a political subtext here too? Lines 38-40 relate Levine’s old house sitting ‘waiting for JFK / to come back from Dallas and declare a new / New Frontier…’ Arguably, America has not recovered from the loss of innocence that was Kennedy’s assassination. ‘The Great Truth’ was published in 2004, in Breath; Levine’s first collection after 9/11, and 3 years into the Bush administration. Could Levine be implying that America, too, might have passed beyond the capacity for change, and into a destructive cycle of repetition? It leaves us haunted by the doubt that history and disappointment might teach us, whilst affirming our appetite and need for hope. Perhaps we are really always poised between the two.
‘The Great Truth’ is a visionary poem that scrutinises the epiphany and the visionary paradigm. Levine revealed himself to be one of America’s most retrospective poets: obsessively winding and unwinding the threads of time. He validates experience, transforms it, re-evaluates and interrogates it, and he reminds us how long it can take us to come to emotional terms with our own lives. As a poet reaching the height of his powers in later life, he showed us how, with age, we come to inhabit past, present and future differently – how the layering of years and memories create the ‘knowledge’ we live by. That is a vision I feel grateful for, and one I have tried to absorb into my own work. Philip Levine was a poet I navigated by.
[i] From In Person: 30 Poets, Bloodaxe Books, 2008
[ii] All the poems referred to here can be found in Stranger to Nothing: Selected Poems, Bloodaxe Books, 2006
This blog post reworks passages from an essay originally published on the Bank Street Poetry Café website. Matthew Clegg’s West North East is available now from Longbarrow Press: click here for more information about the book. His new collection The Navigators will appear from Longbarrow Press in late May 2015; further details will be posted on the Longbarrow Press website in the next few weeks.