What does the word sublime mean to you? For many, it connotes the grandeur of certain natural landscapes – rugged, mountainous vistas with the potential to inspire awe, and perhaps a sort of departure from the everyday. We inherit this understanding from the Romantics, for whom magnificent scenery offers a kind of transformative power which heightens the poet’s perception.
This power typically reveals connections between the poet, the natural world, human society, and sometimes a deity or immanent creative force. These connections are often profound and esoteric, and inaccessible except through this kind of sublime revelation. When the poet comes to mediate this experience into verse, their tone is typically one of wonder, their language ‘elevated’ far above the everyday.
In Wordsworth’s case the kind of scenery that offers an experience of the sublime is found in the Cumberland fells. Other Romantic poets look further afield – Shelley, for example, to Mont Blanc in the Alps.
This experience of the sublime might have been a long way removed from the everyday lives of most people in Wordsworth’s time. But this was at least a time when those lives were largely connected quite intimately with the natural environment. After two hundred years of urbanisation in the developed world, we find ourselves profoundly estranged from that natural environment and the Romantic sublime is less accessible to most of us than ever.
True, we can take walks in the countryside. We can visit the Lake District or (if we can afford it) the Alps. On those occasions when we are permitted to ‘connect with nature’, though, our potential experience of the Romantic sublime has been pre-empted by visual media. We’ve seen those places a thousand times in photographs, film and television. We can never perceive those landscapes in the same way as our forebears in the era before mass communication.
As a reader or a writer of poetry in 2019, then, you might be tempted to discard any notion of the sublime as an experience of place. Instead I would suggest looking somewhere different.
Wordsworth’s contemporary John Clare was born into the agricultural labouring classes and spent his life in the pleasant but unspectacular landscape of rural Northamptonshire. He found glimpses of the sublime not in majestic scenery but in the smaller details: the motion of a robin, or the sounds of thawing ice and snow.
Clare demonstrates how the sublime might be reconfigured in terms of both scale and location – from the grandiose to the humble, and from the notable to the obscure. In doing this he offers us some cues towards an understanding of how we might find a kind of transcendence in poetry (and perhaps other art forms) today.
When I come across this characteristic in new poetry, I think of it as a sort of ‘provincial sublime’. It’s typically located in scenes that are ostensibly mundane or inconsequential, often marginal in some sense, often where the natural and the built environment interact. They are obscure places. They may embody some kind of social, economic or environmental dysfunction. A sort of transcendence is attained in these locations through a particular gaze, which might narrow down to those small details or expand outward into an imagined or remembered wider landscape.
If you are watching a Boeing Dreamliner taking off from Heathrow for Singapore, there is no Romantic sublime to be encountered in the humdrum periphery of west London. But you might think about the hundreds of passengers on board, and conjure some riff on the grand sweep of humanity. You might consider the many intertwined processes – technical, industrial, financial, political and personal – that have combined to lift and propel this 250-tonne mass of glass, kerosene, titanium, and human flesh and bone over your head. You might reflect that these processes can also move backwards, and when Concorde served the route the same journey could have been made 40 years ago in half the time.
Or you might focus on the gentle swaying of the rosebay willowherb at the airport fence below.
Here are two poems, with very different tones but some similarities of form, which seem to me to relate to this notion of the provincial sublime. The first is from Natalie Burdett.
you’re blossoming new curves. A warm glow skims
them, ribbons out across your city roofs
from Selfridges’ bright aluminium discs
to flick around the library’s gold hoops.
At night a colder, more fluorescent sheen
accentuates your skyline’s harder-edged
old towers. Polished steel casts well-built beams
of light which flash back from wet tarmac beds.
Inside the markets people claim a space.
Chermoula chicken couscous in deep bowls
steams up the glass; revives, illuminates
the dust-grey faces, highlights natural tones.
Outside, down low where nothing shines at all,
a sycamore seed sprouts against a wall. 
Burdett’s Birmingham is a scene not of decline and dysfunction but of renewal. The distinctive “new curves” of the library and the Selfridges building are both 21st-century additions to the landscape. Although the expansive, rooftop-roaming gaze of the first two stanzas narrows down to a human level in the third, the celebratory tone remains, and the focus remains on the built environment rather than the natural. Neither prepare the reader for the quietly astonishing final couplet.
And that, in fact, is the point. The understated power of this closure derives precisely from its reversal of expectations. The richness and gleam of the regenerated cityscape, together with the convention of the sonnet form, invite the reader to anticipate an even grander, further-reaching finale. But the gaze becomes narrower still and, in a wonderfully surprising twist, shifts abruptly from the built environment to the tiny interloping organism from the natural world.
The bathos here is profound enough to prompt a reappraisal of what has gone before. Is the city’s much-heralded revamp somehow all in vain? Will human endeavour forever be overtaken by the natural environment that preceded it? Regeneration has been practised by urban planners only in the few decades of the post-industrial era – but nature has been doing it for countless millennia.
Matthew Clegg’s poem ‘Open to the Sky’ is rooted not in a city but an unnamed location, recognisably neither urban nor rural. There is no sign here of any form of regeneration, just glimpses of an inaccessible otherness.
Open to the Sky
England – my England – amounts to this:
a Hull-bound train stalling by a landfill;
gulls and crows scatter from the rubbish
and delay evolves into total standstill.
This is no more than I deserve, no less.
If I ever dream, the place is unable
to deliver. The big guy opposite
sucks on his Coke, bites deep in his burger.
He unwraps The Matrix DVD box set.
His balding fleece is endorsed by NASA.
We live on what we find. Like crows. Like gulls.
The sun ebbs and the landfill loses colour.
Lacking anything else, two teenage girls
take photo after photo of each other. 
If western society in the 20th century was characterised by social and technological advances in tandem, then perhaps the defining feature of the 21st is the way technology has continued to race ahead while social and perhaps cultural progress – like the train in Clegg’s poem – has stalled. Advances in technology are no longer driven predominantly by the need to solve a problem or improve society: some items and services seem to be developed and marketed simply because they can be.
It’s this disconnect between possibility and reality – “If I ever dream, the place is unable//to deliver” – that defines ‘Open to the Sky’ and sets its tone of matter-of-fact desolation. The girls’ cameraphone and the mention of NASA remind us what miracles can be achieved by human ingenuity, but the concept of space exploration makes for a sharply ironic contrast with this rickety, paralysed locomotive and the predicament of its stranded passengers.
In the end, while the adjacent landfill stands replete with rubbish, the stalled train comes to emblematise another kind of waste. Instead of merely salvaging scraps, how much more could all these passengers be doing now, had a functional railway already taken them to their destination, or a functional society delivered on their dreams? The image of the girls photographing each other just for something to do is not a reversal, in the style of Burdett’s closing couplet, but is equally arresting, even as it completes the sense of malaise. Outside of war poetry, it’s perhaps as complete and devastating a symbol of futility as you will ever find.
If we insist upon the notion of sublime that developed two centuries ago, in an utterly different world, then we’ll not find it in the poetry being written today in Yorkshire or Birmingham, or any other post-industrial setting. If, on the other hand, we understand the sublime to be defined by a sort of transcendence from one’s immediate surroundings – rather than necessarily by beautiful or majestic settings, and a tone of great wonder – then it is there for our taking.
‘Birmingham’ toys delightfully with our expectations, skipping adeptly between scales and scopes, and snatches us away from human vanity to point out the timeless endurance of nature. ‘Open to the Sky’ hints at a magnificence or redemption that is insurmountably elsewhere, offering a bitterly ironic kind of transcendence. In their different ways, in similar forms, both poems represent a model of the sublime that is perfectly attuned to our times.
 The “dust-grey faces” of the market people here reprise the “sleep-stupid faces” of factory workers in another study of the second city, by Louis MacNeice, dating from the 1930s and also entitled ‘Birmingham’.
 When cameraphones first became available, owners typically lacked ideas for their everyday use. For the technology to acquire a widely perceived purpose, a culture shift was also necessary; this followed later, when social media lifted some of the stigma around narcissism, as seen in the normalisation of the selfie.
 Regular users of Northern Rail, which serves the Hull region, will need no reminder that its fleet still comprises many obsolete Pacer units, built in the mid-1980s with an anticipated lifespan of 20 years.
Images by Pete Green. An earlier version of this essay was presented at Modern Nature, a two-day symposium (organised by The University of Sheffield) at The Hepworth, Wakefield, 25-26 April 2019.
Pete Green’s Sheffield Almanac is available from Longbarrow Press; click here to order the pamphlet. An earlier essay by Green addresses issues of civic identity and civic pride, and examines Sheffield’s status as a ‘City of Making’. Click here to read ‘Model City’.
Pete Green and Anders Hanson lead a walk through Sheffield’s Kelham Island district on Wednesday 3 July (as part of From Brooklyn Works to Brooklynism, a programme of exhibitions and free events). Click here for more information and to book tickets.
a poet as rock – an attempt to gloss
Andrei Tarkovsky identified the specific material with which art-cinema works – time. He said that it’s obvious a musical composer works with sound, and that a writer’s material is words, a painter’s is colour, and a potter’s clay … Tarkovsky realised that the artist film-maker sculpts in time. A material of memory!
‘Where will they put [time]?’
‘They won’t put it anywhere. Time isn’t a thing,
it’s an idea. It’ll die out in the mind.’
I feel enlightened by and confident in Tarkovsky’s explaining that cinema is made out of time (or rather, perhaps that should be ‘from’ time?). And I’m comfortable that obviously a sculptor’s material could be marble, and that a musician’s is sound. But I’m not so sure about a writer’s material … or rather I’m not so sure about Tarkovsky being right about the material a poet works with. And in turn this starts to make me doubt whether a poet is actually a writer … because writers do … of course, of a matter of course … work with words …
But to say a poet works with words, that is, perhaps, like saying a rock-climber works with stone. Of cause [sic], a writer works with words, in the same way that a map-maker works with symbols that represent geometry that represent ground … that …
… But what is it that a rock-climber works with? What is a rock-climber’s material? Am I being foolish, to assume that a rock-climber makes something, that a climber is a maker? Yes, perhaps being a fool is the point, or a point … in time … or out … of time …
A person has one body,
Singleton, all on its own,
The soul has had more than enough
Of being cooped up inside
A casing with ears and eyes
The size of a five-penny piece
And skin – just scar after scar –
Covering a structure of bone.
A map-maker works on paper (or at least they used to!). A climber moves on … (or is that with?) … rock. If we are to believe, remembering that just like the word ‘fool’, ‘belief’ is a vital word for human-ness … if we are to believe, or rather if I am to believe … that a climber is a maker, that a climber in the act of climbing creates some ‘thing’ … then what is it that they make? The produce of the map-maker is their (or our?) map, made out of symbols of measurements. The produce of the/a writer is an/the … essay … prose … a novel … a story … a narrative … fiction … journalism … The Tweet! Where does a poem happen? When? What is it made of? Where from? Does it happen on the rock’s surface, or start deep down amongst strata, way back in deep time … or is it only now held in (the) memory, that sensation of fingers pressing against gritstone, or toes jammed into a sharp slate crack? The particular layout of holds … and textures on the rock’s surface … did the first climber to find that pattern, or put that pattern together … make the holds? And what of the climbers who follow after that first ascent? What do they make of it? What did they make of it? What will … ?
The road is mirrored in your tearful eyes
Like bushes in a flooded field at dusk,
I love … and I think that is the right word … I love to see light change the expressions of stone. How Stanage Edge is made of light and not rock, or at least it is made of light if I just watch … but … it is with … out any doubt in … my body … when I touch … it … made … of gritstone (and perhaps ‘from’ that substance too) … and when I remember my moving on the rock (or with the rock?), and I recall the resonance of other climbers having moved there also, and remember that others will also move in tune with the stone(’s) pattern(s) … at the ‘same’ point in space … but … long after I’m gone … then this memory feels …
… like a gleam, a glossy trembling, a smoothness just … vibrating over the rock’s rough surface …
In answer to each step you take
The earth rings in your ears.
First quote: from The Possessed, Fyodor Dostoevsky,
quoted by Andrei Tarkovsky in ‘Imprinted Time’
(chapter 3 of Sculpting in Time).
Second quote: the first stanza of Eurydice,
by Arseniy Tarkovsky (Andrei’s father),
(translated by Kitty Hunter-Blair). This poem
is spoken in Tarkovsky’s film Mirror.
Third quote: first two lines of the second stanza
of Ignatievo Forest, by Arseniy Tarkovsky
(translated by Kitty Hunter-Blair).
This poem is also heard in Mirror.
Fourth quote: the last two lines
of Eurydice, by Arseniy Tarkovsky.
Image: Hen Cloud by Paul Evans (click here to view his paintings, drawings and poems for the Seven Wonders project). Mark Goodwin’s publications include All Space Away and In (Shearsman, 2017), Steps (Longbarrow Press, 2014), and a new collection, Rock as Gloss (Longbarrow Press, 2014). Click here to visit the Rock as Gloss microsite for extracts, essays and audio recordings. You can also order the hardback via PayPal below:
In her long poem Drift, Caroline Bergvall says, “Eventually one comes to a point where being lost can signal a starting point.” She refers to this process as “to north oneself”. This statement is an accurate description of my own long poem, Meridian. I am following the Greenwich Meridian line along public footpaths and bridleways from Peacehaven to the Humber in order to investigate the way that landscapes are disturbed and reordered by history and memory. Meridian is a long poem about time, walking and lines: lines, both real and imaginary, in all their forms. It is also a walking practice, walking in the Wordsworthian sense of “a mode not of travelling, but of being”—a process that implicates both mind and body on equal terms. I want the shape of the poem to be determined by the rhythm of walking—the measure of the step to shore up the measure of the line, alternating long Whitmanesque lines with the shorter, stepped lines of William Carlos Williams, undulating like the contours on the Ordnance Survey maps. On my walk I am in dialogue with a number of companion poets: Lorine Niedecker, Helen Adam, John Clare, Iain Sinclair—to name but a few.
I chose to write Meridian as a long poem. Charles Altieri defines the long poem as one which desires “to achieve epic breadth by relying on structural principles inherent in lyric rather than narrative modes.” To do this, the long poem incorporates other texts, voices, political speech, bits of memory whilst foregrounding the writer’s role in making her way through such often-resistant material. Indeed, the process of writing of such a text is often part of the material—it is self-reflexive. The long poem itself is a challenge—both for reader and writer, for example: how to maintain a sense of momentum and coherence, how/when to end it; choosing the most effective form. On the other hand, it offers greater space to develop ideas; it can be an ongoing work that you do alongside other projects; it offers the potential for panoramic treatment of a thing; it can bring in other registers, discourses, genres. Since the early 20th century, experiments in innovative, language-based long poems, often disjunctive in form, have been gathering momentum. In particular, I’m interested in long poems by women: Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons, Rosmarie Waldrop’s The Reproduction of Profiles; Susan Howe’s The Europe of Trusts, Sharon Doubiago’s Hard Country, Lynn Hejinian’s A Border Comedy, not to mention very long poems like Rachel Blau duPlessis’ Drafts. These poems often recover political, philosophical or historical material, and pay close attention to the way language, especially its rhythms, silences, gaps, conventions and expectations, engages with the reader.
In 2015 I was beginning to think about what my next full collection would be, and I knew I wanted the work to be informed by the ideas, concepts and methods of psychogeography. Around that time I was reading books like Robert Macfarlane’s Landmarks, Roger Deakin’s Wildwood, Nan Shepherd’s The Living Mountain, Barry Lopez’s Arctic Dreams, Peter Davidson’s Distance and Memory—so I knew landscape/geography would once again feature in whatever I was to write, but ratcheting it up a notch by incorporating psychogeographic ideas.
As Guy Debord accurately said, psychogeography is a concept with “a rather pleasing vagueness.” His Lettrist International Group in the 1950s were investigating urban space through desire rather than habit. To do this, they explored different ways of getting lost: for example, by hiking through the Harz region in Germany using a London map as a guide. However, in general, psychogeography studies the affects and effects of the built environment on the emotions and actions of individuals. It embraces chance and coincidence, concurrent with an alertness to patterns and repetitions arising from the collision between the chaos of the urban environment and the personal history of the individual. It involves a range of activities that raise awareness of the natural and cultural environment around the walker; the walker is attentive to senses and emotions as they relate to the environment; it is serious but fun; it is often political and critical of the status quo. One of the key concepts within psychogeography is that of the dérive, an informed or aware wandering through a varied environment using continuous observation. Dérive = drift, aimless wandering through a place, guided by whim and the awareness of how different spaces both attract and repel. The walker attempts an interpretive reading of the city and its architecture by engaging in a playful reconstruction. This turning around (détournment) is key to the situationist agenda; it is a dialectical tool useful to expose hidden ideology. The psychogeographer is seeking new ways of apprehending the environment, excavating the past and recording it with the present, revealing the nature of what lies beneath.
My own engagement arose initially out of a particular challenge: finding my way. I can’t read a map, or a compass—and, as a result, am always lost. Not only is this a huge frustration, when lost, I am susceptible to panic attacks, so I thought I could learn the rudimentary skills of navigation whilst writing my poem. I also wanted it to have a Kentish connection, so I gradually came to the idea of the Greenwich Meridian as a way to organise the walk in time/place. (Greenwich was part of the County of Kent until 1889.) Happily, then, I discovered the series of guidebooks written by Graham and Hilda Heap, which take the walker primarily on footpaths and bridleways along the Greenwich Meridian from Peacehaven in East Sussex to Sand le Mere in East Yorkshire—total length 275 miles. Around this time, Iain Sinclair came to Kent as a Visiting Professor. I started to read London Orbital and had the opportunity to speak with him about that as well as what I was doing. His process, he explained, always seemed to happen in four parts. There is a statement of place before a stepping out into a quest/journey. That is followed by a dark night of the soul moment that tries to undo the simplicity of the journey and takes you somewhere you didn’t expect to be, then a moving away from what you created and/or segueing into the next section/project. Could this structure then be helpful to me in the way I would move forward? Certainly, there was a synergy: the trail is divided into four books, so I am using each book as a device to section the collection. Part I is Peacehaven to Greenwich; Part II is Greenwich to Hardwick; Part III is Hardwick to Boston; and Part IV is Boston to the Humber. Each Part will consist of approximately 20 pages of poetry, subdivided by the Ordnance Survey Map number which pertains to that part of the walk.
So far I have walked to Epping Forest and I intend to walk the rest of the route this summer. While walking, I record observations and events in real time; these appear on the page using indentations to indicate voice or breath change and emphasis. Before each walk, I do some basic research into the places en route, but I do not plan the content. It is very important that the poem leads me. I stop to take notes as I walk, sometimes record things into a recording app on my phone and take photographs. At the end of the day, I write up the day—and finish the section related to each walk within five days. Inevitably, I engage in “soul-wandering”, so associative leaps and digressions are made, including sensory description, bits of narrative and lived experience, mainly relating to whatever is preoccupying me at the time, the passage of time, what I am reading around that journey, and conversations—both real and imaginary.
Part II has a section called “The First Cut”. This is composed by using the cut-up method. I took every tenth sentence from “The First Walk” in Iain Sinclair’s Lights Out for the Territory. I cut the sentences up into individual words and phrases, and collaged these into the poem along with my notes and observations of the day’s walk.
And this is where I am now, about to enter Epping Forest, which I’ve been putting off because of all the stories I’ve heard of the woods’ dark reputation. I wonder what will happen further ahead, through Forest and into the Fens? And Lincolnshire?
 If there is an application of this concept to Meridian it is that I am trying to break through the paternalistic and geocentric relationships inherent in the L[l]ine.
N.B.: this essay was first drafted in February 2016 (at the outset of the Meridian project). The walk was completed in autumn 2017; the resulting work was published by Longbarrow Press in February 2019 (see below for further details).
Meridian, the third full-length collection by Nancy Gaffield, is available now from Longbarrow Press. You can read an excerpt from Part II here; visit the Meridian site here; and order the book by clicking on the relevant PayPal link below.
Meridian: £12.99 (hardback)
Nancy Gaffield’s first collection of poetry, Tokaido Road (CB editions 2011) was nominated for the Forward Best First Collection Prize and was awarded the Aldeburgh First Collection Prize that year. Her second collection, Owhere (Templar 2012) won a Templar Poetry Pamphlet Award that year. Subsequent poetry publications include Continental Drift (Shearsman 2014), the chapbooks Zyxt (Oystercatcher 2015) and Meridian (Oystercatcher 2016), and a libretto, Tokaido Road: A Journey after Hiroshige (Shearsman 2014). Meridian is her first collection with Longbarrow Press.
Click here to read ‘Mirror Image’, Brian Lewis‘s recent survey of the poetry of Nancy Gaffield (by way of Eratosthenes, Solnit, Muybridge and Hiroshige) for the Longbarrow Blog.
On the ninth of November 2018, climbers Paul Evans & Mark Goodwin performed together at the Kendal Mountain Literature Festival.
The following cycle of seven
poem-photo-combinations is drawn
from that experience.
All photos are by Nikki Clayton.
to say a
to tear an
caught in a
edy or trag
as a bran
dow light as
our own I
and even as won
even as now a
est reflected gest
tence has lit
Artist Paul Evans has collaborated with a number of Longbarrow Press poets in recent years; click here to view the paintings, drawings and poems for the Seven Wonders project. His main website can be found here.
Mark Goodwin’s publications include All Space Away and In (Shearsman, 2017) and Rock as Gloss (out from Longbarrow Press in late January 2019). His fourth poetry collection, Steps (Longbarrow Press, 2014), explores themes of climbing, walking and balancing. These themes are developed in his new collection, Rock as Gloss. Click here to visit the Rock as Gloss microsite for extracts, essays and audio recordings. You can also order the hardback via PayPal below:
Out in the Channel, the dead water
shines like melted wax. Behind in the dark
is England; ahead in the dark, France
and everything untold.
A raw winter’s afternoon. A track peters out into stones and earth, a slight slump in the middle of fields. Pylons step across the dun-grey landscape. We can see maybe two miles in each direction, a horizon of copses, hamlets, farms.
This is – more or less – where my great-grandfather Albert Brown was killed. We don’t know exactly: he wasn’t an officer, so the diary entry has only a few details, including the pencilled word ‘killed’, at the end of the brief record for the 26th February 1917. He was 37 and had been in France about six weeks; he left Annie to bring up six children.
His body wasn’t found. The buzzing pylon and surrounding scrub don’t feel like markers: we’ve just run out of track. We stand freezing for a few seconds, my dad and me; then we go back to the car.
The villages are ancient and they aren’t. Aerial photographs from 1918 show nothing but dark weals; yet here are hedgerows, huge trees, honey-stoned cottages and walls. Graveyards cluster along the lanes, the same stone cut into trim slabs and lined up, almost touching. Everything is small and close: 100 graves in a garden plot; six villages in a ten-minute drive. A dozen fields run down to the Ancre. I look at the maps from 1914, 1916, 1917. The villages disappeared but the red lines were more or less the same. Men came up that road, year after year, and were killed. When it was finished people came back, rebuilt their houses, planted trees, ploughed the land again.
Around Ypres, over the border in Belgium, farmers call it the Iron Harvest. Each year their ploughs uncover munitions, barbed wire, remnants of rifles. Sometimes the flotsam of older conflicts turns up – lead and iron from the Napoleonic Wars (known, until 1918, as the ‘Great War’) and the Hundred Years’ War.
Digging down takes me through horrors in the cultural strata. Wilfred Owen (who fought in the same fields as Albert) and David Jones; Napoleonic Frankenstein and his monstrous progeny, Goya and his; the macabre paintings of Hieronymus Bosch, who lived in the shadow of the Hundred Years’ War (three million killed); and Thomas Malory, knight, possible veteran of France, probable career criminal. Here is a rough-stitched portmanteau of French romances and Celtic myth, spun with Christian morality and nationalism for the domestic market; and at its core, capacious and contradictory, the heroic, doomed quest of a fading empire. Bones jut out of the earth: men sent to fight someone else’s battles. Those returning tell horror stories, or stay silent.
In his introduction to Malory’s Works, Eugène Vinaver is confident that Thomas Malory fought, not only in the Hundred Years’ War but later (on the losing Lancastrian side) in the Wars of the Roses. These events, along with the long list of indictments and imprisonments, make him something of a Falstaffian figure. In this context, the Tale of the Sankgreal appears to occupy the same political ground as Shakespeare’s Histories: an attempt to curry (or, in Malory’s case, rekindle) political favour in turbulent times.
The narrative, unwieldy as it often seems (ellipses and non-sequiturs abound), can be summarised around a basic theme: the attempt to resurrect national unity of a once-great polity in the face of fading influence and factionalism. The Shakespearean seed-sowing in the first pages makes it clear not only that something is rotten, but that we are invited to anticipate a tragic arc. Gawain, as Arthur’s nephew (and first champion), feels duty bound to announce the quest to find the Holy Grail with which the maimed king can be healed and the waste land made whole again. There are signs and wonders but also personal and political intrigues, centred round Launcelot (the current beste knight of the worlde) and his illegitimate son Galahad, newly arrived at court and stirring difficult emotions in his lover Guinevere. Arthur fears the worst – his grete sorowe lies in his reckoning that
my trew felyshyp shall never mete here more agayne.
A doomed adventure, then – but one in the course of which the destiny of the nation is played out through the lives and reckonings of individuals. A mask of confusion is sustained through a range of contemporary literary conventions (dream visions, ‘miracles’, and predestined occurrences) – as well as events and moods which for a modern audience bring to mind Gothic (revivalist) novels, grand guignol theatre, Bergman backlighting (school of Malory’s near-contemporary Brueghel), or the ketchup and screams of Hammer films. Whether following the dismal trails of the knights over heaths and through forests, entering the ghost ship with Percivale (where his dead sister lies, having sacrificed herself to the Grail’s thirst for blood), or witnessing the ‘elevation’ of the berserker Galahad, we are consumed by a dreadful trajectory. The achievement of the Grail by the pure means death; failure means a return to a home that is unchanged – and yet which is now estranged by the experience of those that undertook the quest. When Launcelot and Bors embrace in the final scene, we see them with a modern sensibility – as survivors of trauma.
Europe was full of wanderers
and sickness: men who’d tracked
the Grail roads and found only wastes
and dark versions of themselves.
A picture on the cover of a book, Forgotten Voices of the Great War. The book is full of personal accounts; but it was the cover, hand-coloured, that got me. Three injured soldiers walking towards us through a wrecked landscape, their faces bearing witness to horrors we can never know. They could be the ‘champions’ of Malory’s Quest who return, damaged but alive, to tell their tales of prowess, ultimately to fall quiet, broken, perhaps, by survivors’ guilt. In that story it is those who don’t return – Galahad and Percivale in particular – who are most celebrated: pure, heroic, ‘whole’ men whose sacrifice is the ultimate, ennobling destiny.
The soldiers in the photograph – two British, one French – walk in step, arms linked in fellowship. What binds them – the shared experience of war – won’t help them in their return to the everyday. The felyship of the Round Table, that necessary prerequisite to soldiery, cannot ultimately make a kingdom whole:
And ye have sene that they have loste hir fadirs and
hir modirs and all hir kynne, and hir wyves and hir
chyldren, for to be of youre felyship.
Albert signed up in 1915, before the slaughter of the Somme brought in conscription. It’s easy to imagine how a community can persuade its lads to go to war (or at least, ensure that any act of objection is made in the face of wholesale disapproval, even disgust): but a working, family man in his thirties? The 2/5th wasn’t a Pals battalion; nor was it likely, at the time of his enlistment (it was a Territorial battalion), to involve front-line service. The initial optimism of 1914 had begun to harden into a grimmer view: the sense was growing that the war would be long-lasting and attritional. In all likelihood, it was with a more general sense of ‘doing his bit’ that Albert joined up. No longer an adventure, it was still a just cause: in fact, as the casualties continued to mount, men still at home would have felt an increasing responsibility to play their part.
At home he dreamed of this:
his brothers’ bodies cast
on the mud, piled like logs
for the earth’s winter.
Edward Thomas was the same age as Albert when he was killed at Arras a few weeks after him – and he enlisted at a similar time. He had prevaricated, his conscience wrestling with a sense of, if not duty, then fellowship: an identification with his fellow countrymen and the physical connection with territory which is central to his poetry – and which provides a deep and enduring bond between him and his ‘tribe’. Most Englishmen in the early twentieth century had not travelled abroad, and had no sense of shared identity with ‘foreigners’. If the chain of events which led to war was political, it was nationhood, an emotional concept based on a sense of belonging – and, necessarily, not belonging – which provided an army. Though much is made of the power of community coercion – the Pals, the white feathers – millions of men joined up voluntarily in 1914–15 to protect their own against the ‘other’.
It is argued that the period of the Hundred Years’ War (1337–1453) saw the emergence of the idea of English national identity and the nation state, exemplified by the spread of vernacular English as an expression of national confidence. Though this view centres on the second half of the fourteenth century, focusing on the writing of Chaucer and Langland, it reached its fulfilment with Caxton’s printing of Malory’s Le Morte D’Arthur in 1485. Although the conflation of vernacularity and national identity can be seen as simplistic, Malory’s overtly nationalistic schema – the ‘matter of Britain’ identified as a heroic quest to restore a broken realm – is persuasive.
Those three wounded comrades emerging out of the waste land trigger, then, an identification across five hundred years of nationalist politics which draws its soldiery from an idea of ‘us’ and ‘them’. It goes on. The current rise of populist demagoguery and vicious nationalism across the West is but another, depressingly familiar tide, made possible by the limitations of human memory: those with direct experience of Western war grow old or are dead – so we are stirred by bugles more than we are appalled by horror, or feel it as physical fear.
In 2014 the Telegraph published a remarkable series of photographs by Thom Atkinson. Inventories of War: Soldiers’ Kit from 1066 to 2014 showed how little had changed in what British infantry took with them into battle – until the development of automatic weapons in the early 20th century. The similarities of both arms and personal items provided further correspondence, for me, between the wars in Malory’s fifteenth century (and by extension, how he considered the experience of Arthur’s knights) and the First World War. I have interleaved the sections of The Grail Roads with short comparisons as a way of maintaining a sense of identification between the conflicts.
We drive down to the river, follow it through villages and hamlets: Miraumont, Baillescourt, Beaucourt. The road turns uphill at the station towards Beaumont Hamel, where Albert camped the night before his death (and where those of his fellows whose bodies were recovered are buried). We are banked below the open fields to our right, formerly cut by the tangle of trenches, climbing gently to the pylons at the front line. A green lane tracks along to our left. It is quieter and warmer here. The regimental diary reports the advance of Albert’s regiment on 25th February down this road ‘and thence to Front Line… Shelling of Battalion Sector by evening normal.’ The same continues the following day, with ‘Shelling of ‘B’ Co’s Sector’.
CASUALTIES: KILLED, 4885 Pte A. Brown, ‘B’ Coy, 3475 L.Cpl J.W. Pearson, ‘D’ Coy […]. WOUNDED, 3363 Pte W. Hope, ‘B’ Coy, 3703 Pte H. Hastelow.
The Grail Roads is the third full-length poetry collection by Rob Hindle. A beautifully produced 144-page hardback, it is available from Longbarrow Press for £12.99 (+ P&P). You can order the book securely by clicking on the relevant PayPal button below.
The Grail Roads: £12.99 (hardback)
Rob Hindle is the author of several collections of poetry, including Some Histories of the Sheffield Flood 1864 (2006), Neurosurgery in Iraq (2008), The Purging of Spence Broughton, a Highwayman (2009) and Yoke and Arrows (2014). Five long poems and sequences, collectively titled Flights and Traverses, appear in the Longbarrow Press anthology The Footing (2013). The Grail Roads is his first full collection with Longbarrow Press. Click here for further details and to read poems from the book.
an introduction to Doorways Gather
I lived a childhood in a typical old Leicestershire red-brick farmhouse. So to go to, and to go inside another old typical red-brick farmhouse – that had been deserted many years before – was bound to rebuild various rural childhoods and cause an array of layers of childhoods … and squeeze them through various degrees of haunts’ angles. One haunt’s interference can boost another haunt’s signals, or it can cancel. It all depends upon aligning care-filled angles made by corners & the oblongs of doors & ways. And it so very much depends on the angle with which we hold one haunting up to the light, as we bring another haunting in front of it, or behind it. And haunt-waves – which we call sound – are always dependent, utterly dependent, on whether the air that transmits them is being breathed or not …
And as we snap from one place to another – as we change dimensionally – we may or may not notice our existence’s transiting judder(s) …
Not long ago I went down into the cellar of my parents’ old Leicestershire red-brick farmhouse to make a field-recording. I tapped various bottles and also blew into their necks. I dabbled my fingers into the little puddle that is always there at the bottom of the stairs, where-water-has-settled-in-a-dip-where the quarry tiles have slumped ( a change to the cellar’s physical substance, a transformation that probably finalised its position decades before I was born ). My son’s Collie god, that so reminds me of one of the gods of my childhood, heard my underground percussion via the cellar’s sky-light and so, as gods do, replied to my noise as if hearing a prayer. That field-recording of that place in that time has been laid beside another-that video recording of another that-place in another that-time, and so those-layers have now bled out unfathomable times … that have somehow wept … together … and merged into some organised kind …
And many years before the field-recording I made of my mum’s & dad’s cellar – in one part of a Leicestershire – and before the video that artist Martyn took from the light that had been kept in that deserted farmhouse – in an other part of a Leicestershire – I had made a poem in a large barn in the Morvan of France, just to the west of the Côte d’Or escarpment …
And that House At Out poem – its text once barned in a book – has recently passed through my voice’s sound to be placed beside – and yet also so very much within – the fields of a video & an audio recording at
[To experience the full sonically-detailed jaunt please wear headphones.]
Martyn Blundell is an artist and film-maker. His other film-collaborations with Mark Goodwin can be viewed here. Mark Goodwin’s publications include All Space Away and In (Shearsman, 2017) and Rock as Gloss (out from Longbarrow Press later this year). His fourth poetry collection, Steps (Longbarrow Press, 2014), explores themes of climbing, walking and balancing. Click here to visit the Steps microsite for extracts, essays and audio recordings. You can also order the hardback via PayPal below:
Not long ago, I stumbled into a website that sported an article titled ‘What Marketing Can Learn from Conmen.’ [i] There was something brazen about it that carried the stink of our times – this stage of capitalism that some people refer to as ‘late’. I was working on a poetry sequence about the confessions and self-justifications of a small-time conman, and had been looking for examples of how the psychology of manipulation is hard-wired into our culture. As I once heard someone remark: we all work in sales, now. Only the other day, I spotted an article published on The Guardian’s Academics Anonymous website that touched on the kind of false premises some universities can employ to lure students into postgraduate study. When far more people are graduating from PhD programs than the academy will ever employ, is an institution speaking in bad faith when it implies the qualification is ‘vocational’? Presumably, one lesson that marketing can learn from conmen is about the relationship between deception and self-deception. Find out what someone wants to believe. Find out how they are inclined to deceive themselves, and that’s where you will have leverage. It’s a simple and powerful principle. Even intelligent people can deceive themselves. Coleridge said: ‘men’s intellectual errors consist chiefly in denying.’ [ii] He knew.
The state of happiness we call a fool’s paradise is based on a person’s not knowing or denying the existence of potential trouble. It’s possible to view our deregulated global economy as one of the most spectacular fool’s paradises ever staged. In 2005 I remember sitting in a pub with an intelligent friend who was telling me how the new economics had defeated the cycle of boom and bust. Three years later, proliferating interest-only mortgages had collapsed the global markets, and Gordon Brown was bailing out the banks with public money. In The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine, Michael Lewis ascribes this to a combination of stupidity and something verging on institutional fraud: stupidity because investors fooled themselves into believing the winning streak could never end, and fraud because institutions did not accurately or transparently price the risk of their financial innovations. We are often reminded how important it is for society to be built on hope, but it seems we must also be reminded that ‘hope [can] be hope for the wrong thing’. [iii] In Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, Gordon Gecko defines insanity as the repeated pursuit of a goal that you know is doomed to fail. In the face of this, scepticism is clearly called for. Joseph Conrad called it ‘the tonic of minds, the tonic of life, the agent of truth – the way of art and salvation.’ [iv] Are we still not getting enough?
My interest in conmen is partly personal. When I was 16 or 17 my mother met a man who lured her into marriage with the promise of a better life. After investing her divorce settlement and her savings into his property development business, she was eventually left responsible for his debts when he absconded. Just before the end, she had glimpsed his mental instability, and intuited his darker intentions. She had tried to warn the bank against loaning him any more money, but they proceeded anyway. She tried to warn his business partner against further investment too, but he had already gone too far to contemplate turning back. This was the first conspiracy of denial I’d witnessed up close. My mother was declared bankrupt, evicted from her home, and thinking she had nowhere left to go, resorted to desperate measures. A year before these events, and on the brink of their separation, I remember sitting in the passenger seat of his Jaguar Saloon as he told me he would always look after my mother’s interests, and that everything would be OK. I wanted to believe him, so I did. Afterwards, I felt like I’d followed my mother up the Congo. Nostromo, Conrad’s epic of the corrupting power of material interests, became my favourite novel.
2016 was a fruitful year for anyone combing world events for material to create a cast of Shakespearean villains. Certainly, the news presented us with a gallery of public grotesques that art would struggle to rival. It was a good year for the ‘crooks and tarts’ of political manipulation. Just before Trump’s election, and our own Brexit Circus, I had been reading about the 19th century conman, Gregor MacGregor, a man Roger Cook refers to as the greatest conman of all time. As The Guardian reported in October 1823:
‘Some months ago Sir Gregor MacGregor, a person of whom we do not choose to say all that we think, induced a number of persons, chiefly Scotch, to emigrate to a settlement which he gave them to understand was formed, and in a flourishing condition, on the Mosquito Coast of Honduras. The most deceptive statements were published respecting the country for which these poor people were thus induced to relinquish their homes: it was described as a land flowing with milk and honey, abounding with all the good things of life to such a degree that a man was sure to make his fortune in a very short time.’
MacGregor was a military veteran and adventurer – a stylish and glamorous figure, wishing himself to be known as ‘His Highness, the Cazique of Poyais’. Once exposed in Britain, he claimed to have been the victim of fraud and embezzlement himself. He travelled to France and attempted to repeat the scam – very nearly succeeding in sending another ship of colonists to ‘Poyais’.
The ‘Cazique’ of my own sequence is a much smaller figure – if not always in his own mind. He is somewhere between American Hustle’s Irving Rosenfeld, and my mother’s second husband. The latter, if he is to be believed, was also the damaged survivor of a deprived childhood. His mother suffered mental illness, and his father absconded, never to re-appear. He even claimed to have been abused in a military prison, after he went AWOL from the Royal Navy. When I first met him, I thought his eyes had a sad, mesmeric quality, and I was impressed by how carefully he appeared to choose his words. He passed onto me his love of rock music’s transformer artists – especially David Bowie in his Ziggy Stardust pomp, and Lou Reed in the early 70s. The character I’ve tried to create also shares this love, and I’ve added to it a fascination with Milton’s Satan, and Shakespeare’s Iago and Edmund the Bastard. My ‘Cazique’ is part anti-hero, part trickster, and part fallen angel. A genie of deception and self-deception, he recognises how our own world is in thrall to ideals of truth, but still unable to live entirely by its strictures. He speaks honestly about deception, and sometimes spins deceit out of his truth. He appeals to be saved or reformed, but cannot entirely overcome his addiction to seductive facades, or quite abandon the pleasures of the chase. What else does he have?
Some years ago I found a documentary about the great Australian comedian Barry Humphries. It focused on his relationship with one of his own character creations: Sir Les Patterson. This particular grotesque had origins both inside and outside the mind of Humphries. On the one hand, Patterson is a composite of various Australian political figures – vain, chauvinistic and crass – and on the other, he is a cutting taken from Humphries’ own psyche: everything that his creator tries to suppress in himself – the smoking, the drinking, the shameless promiscuity. Creative practice proceeds from both the outside in, and from the inside out. I confess that when my creating writing students assert that their character creations are entirely separate and external to themselves, I worry that they are speaking like those who fear social rejection, should their psyches be exposed in any way to judgement. If so, perhaps they are wise. We live in a period of growing political polarization. In Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion [v], the psychologist Jonathan Haidt has pointed out how this threatens to descend into dysfunctional tribalism. He warns us against our tendency to use our reason more in the manner of a lawyer trying to prosecute or defend a case, and less like someone impartially seeking understanding. In this kind of climate, we can be too quick to judge. My ‘Cazique’ is certainly a composite of external figures, but he also taps into the devils that sit in conference inside my own mind – waiting for when I am weak or desperate enough to listen. Since I have been infected with Joseph Conrad’s tonic scepticism, I find it hard to believe that any writer is not occasionally tempted by demons of seduction or manipulation. I’m with Baudelaire: there’s a whole menagerie inside our skulls!
I thought long and hard about the spirit in which I should approach this sequence. I’ve studied two masters: Peter Reading’s career-long panoply of found voices – voices ‘observed’ and pasted from our flawed social fabric; and Fernando Pessoa’s heteronyms, created from mutilations of his own personality – alter egos generated by the cracked prism of his hidden psyche. Reading is the clinical observer of social phenomena, and Pessoa is the occult medium conversing with the internal world. The Taoist in me wishes to walk a path between the lure of both – just as I wish to walk a path between scepticism and compassion. I am moved by Albert Camus’ ‘Create Dangerously’ [vi], a speech urging the modern writer to proceed in the spirit of understanding: ‘Instead of being a judge, he is a justifier. He is the perpetual advocate of the living creature, because he is alive.’ No doubt this is the spirit that Camus employed to present his anti-hero in The Outsider. In trying to understand the psyche of my ‘Cazique’ – his gamut from victimhood to villainy, riches to regret – I’ve also tried to find a means to structure and dramatize the life of a living creature – not just another straw man for the judgement bonfire.
Logos: Speeches for Two Occasions
That’s the f*ckin’ art of becoming somebody who people can pin their beliefs and their dreams on.
– Irving, American Hustle
Are the games we play really so different?
What would you do in the name of survival?
Dress above budget to make an impression?
Amp up the grades of those exams you bungled?
File off the burr of your whatever accent?
Doctor your interests, the place of your schooling?
Miss out the fact that you dropped out of uni?
Claim as your glory the work of a colleague?
Inflate your status by name-dropping others?
It seems to me, now, we serve the same mistress –
and this is the code we have to adhere to:
you need to get creative if you want to level the field.
You can’t make a sum unless you invest one.
If your bait is too big, no-one will trust it.
It has to be small enough to believe in,
but just ripe and round to make the mouth water.
Whatever it is, you have to present it,
and make sure it doesn’t blow up or spiral.
Ideally don’t play with more than one target;
take your time choosing, and learn to spot someone
who needs you to help them push for promotion
to a league just above their natural level.
If you follow these rules, things will run smoothly:
the more cautionary noises you sham, the more they’ll want to play.
[i] This has since been taken down.
[ii] S.T. Coleridge, Anima Poetae, 1895
[iii] T.S. Eliot, ‘East Coker III’, from Four Quartets, 1943
[iv] Letter to John Galsworthy, 1901
[v] Penguin, 2013
[vi] Create Dangerously, Penguin Modern: 17, 2018
Cazique is the third full-length poetry collection by Matthew Clegg. A beautifully produced 96-page hardback, it is available from Longbarrow Press for £12.99 (+ P&P). You can order the book securely by clicking on the relevant PayPal button below.
Cazique: £12.99 (hardback)