rise and taste
‘Mexborough, Water-Fronted Properties Released’, Matthew Clegg, The Navigators (Longbarrow Press, 2015)
Back in 2013, Ruth and I had moved to Mexborough in South Yorkshire. We were both working part-time – meaning, we wanted to earn enough money to pay our way, but we also wanted enough free time to maintain our creative projects. Someone had told us that rents in Mexborough were the lowest in the country. It took us completely by surprise when we discovered that Mexborough also had a budding poetry festival, organised under the umbrella of the Ted Hughes Project. I was enough of a Hughesian to know that the poet had once lived in a newsagent’s shop at 75 Main Street – roughly from the age of 8 to 18. I was also aware that he’d attended Mexborough Grammar School, where his poetic talents had been nurtured by Pauline Mayne and John Fisher. This is something of a hidden chapter of the Hughes biography – less mythologised by the man himself, and often completely omitted from high-profile documentaries about the poet. Perhaps Mexborough lacks the Brontean glamour of the Pennines; the mystique of Cambridge; or the pagan magic of Devon. It’s the poor relation in this family of places, and possibly the location claiming least credit for the role it played in making Hughes the kind of poet he went on to become. Ted Hughes’s South Yorkshire by Steve Ely tells the tale.
The first Mexborough event that caught my eye was ‘Ted Hughes School Days’ (2016). It featured a discussion panel made up of men and women who attended Mexborough Grammar School when Hughes was a pupil. Memories shared were good-humoured and humorous, and the event was warm and surprisingly hospitable. Perhaps this South Yorkshire community feel was what affected me most. Back then, the prominent organisers were Steve Ely and Dominic Somers. Steve brought a scholar’s knowledge of Hughes in Mexborough, and a poet’s feel for the anarchic energies of the place. Dominic had a free-spirited approach to community engagement – and plenty of creative flair. If Steve brought deep respect for the Hughes legacy, Dominic added just enough irreverence to prevent literary rigor mortis from setting in. I decided to join the ranks. One year later I would volunteer at several festival events: some were conventional readings, some not.
the fly doesn’t care
Stanford M. Forrester, Haiku in English (W.W. Norton & Company, 2013)
I’d like to focus on one of the least conventional. Democracy of Words (or DOW) began as a participatory spoken word event in Mexborough High Street, on the Saturday of the Festival. Dominic Somers and Ray Hearne are the creative engines behind this, and Ray describes it as a ‘pop-up open-mic-cum-stand-up stunt in the open air. The idea is to move beyond familiar gestures of tokenism, and form an alliance of kindred minds, spirits and attitudes to devise some practical ways of inviting those with a commitment to the area, residents, partisans or passers-through, to dip their toes for an hour or two in the lapping waters of poetry, in all its choppiness.’ In short, the event offers a platform for poets and bystanders to perform in the street and to the street. Democracy of Words has opened its arms to page poets, spoken-word poets, singers, and the occasional beatboxer. It has welcomed performers not quite in their teens, and performers well past retirement.
Ray Hearne takes on the task of emceeing, and it’s hard to do justice to the skill and spirit he brings to the role. Ray is a poet and songwriter who cut his teeth as a floor singer in folk clubs. He has wit, warmth and the gift of the gab. Ray will usually begin by broadcasting the ethos of DOW to the street, before breaking the ice with the first performance. Volunteers will keep the momentum going, and this will build throughout the early afternoon. There is also a corolla of other activities: haiku are drawn on the pavement in chalk, volunteers will ascend to the carpark above Poundland and recite stanzas of poems through a megaphone to the startled street below. I have seen respected poets like Vahni Capildeo and Yvonne Reddick recruited to do this, and it has been interesting to witness fragments of Crow being floated from above, arresting the attention of grocers and Jehovah’s Witnesses alike.
One year, a worker on her break strolled out of B&M and told the world that she didn’t understand poetry. Immediately, Ray responded, coaxing an impromptu poem from her words. A further challenge was laid down for anyone to improvise poems about objects on sale. For Ray, Democracy of Words ‘offers a ground-level stage on which to perform, in permanent expectation of heckles or the possibility of passing abuse or brickbats – so the incentive is to be unpretentious though never patronising or supercilious.’ Ray manages this without strain or awkwardness. Poetry climbs down from its pedestal. Parts of the street step into poetry. Happenstance keeps everyone alert. The open interaction is an artform in itself.
The tall chimney
is cool now; the workshops
fill with art.
In October 2019 Democracy of Words took flight from Mexborough and migrated to three new locations: Elsecar Heritage Centre, Doncaster Market, and outside Rotherham Market Hall. Elsecar was a softer environment in which to pilot this new phase of the project. The space was semi-enclosed: cradled between bars, craft shops, art studios and industrial heritage. The weather was good and the atmosphere easy-going. A steady stream of poets and writers came along to support the event. As Ray says, ‘if poetry is robust enough to look after itself, human beings are not; all good teachers know that confidence is all, and any willing individual can be coaxed, nurtured and developed from the lowest of bases towards an appreciation of their own potential agency as a crafter or turner or manipulator of words. DOWists are amongst those trying to model by example.’ I talked to Tracey Dawson, who, in mid-life, had found her way into poetry through Ian Parks’ long-running Read to Write initiative in Mexborough. Ian had encouraged her to write and memorise poetry, and this led to one of the most unforgettable moments of the day: 25 lines from Beowulf, recited from memory – and in the original Old English. This from someone not involved in poetry for much longer than two years. It was stirring to hear those eerie vowels from the roots of our culture filling the space between stone buildings, under a clear October sky with Autumn changes threatening. Drinkers sat and listened outside the Maison Du Biere, smiling and perplexed. Later in the day I was chalking a haiku on the pavement slabs. It was by the Japanese poet Issa. An elderly bloke walked up to me: ‘In my day, you’d’ve been caned for doing that…’ The humorous old haiku master would have smiled. I composed a reply:
In Issa’s day
he’d be doing this
By the time we pitched up outside Doncaster Market, the sky was turning. But Saturday is still Saturday, whatever the season. Here the liveliness was turned up a notch. We were competing against the hurly-burly of weekend trade. There were busy ranks of market stalls, and simply more people scrumming around and passing through. The great thing about where we were pitched was the broad acreage of pavement. This meant plenty of space for chalking haiku, couplets, aphorisms and lines of poems. I’d just mangled a couplet from Tony Harrison’s ‘A Kumquat for John Keats’ on the slabs:
‘[Life’s] one part sweet and one part tart:
say where the sweetness or the sourness start.’
A couple of guys in their twenties bounced over and one of them asked me what the lines said. I assumed I was in the way, and stood back so he could see them better. ‘No, mate, I can’t read!’ He seemed unabashed, so I recited the couplet for him. He gave me the thumbs up and walked off, smiling. If I had Tony Harrison’s email, I’d write to him. It was like a scene out of a gentler, better-humoured ‘V’. Later in the afternoon a pensioner walked up to me to chat. He said, ‘my wife has a beautiful reading voice. She can recite the whole of ‘The Owl and the Pussycat’ from memory’. Ray tried calling her over to perform, but she was too shy, or distracted. Her husband told me, ‘her talents are wasted on this life…’ I wrote the phrase down, and watched them stroll away, wishing them a world ‘where the Bong-Tree grows.’
A busker blows tunes
for the rain to fall through.
The puddles applaud.
Rotherham was where we earned our Red Badge of Commitment. The trains were scuppered by floods. It rained flat-out all day. We pitched our stall by the entrance of the indoor market, trying to take a little shelter from the deluge. Water dripped from the concrete above and slid down the back of my neck, giving me the shivers Emily Dickinson claimed were the sign of true poetry. Eventually, the market manager came out and told us we were creating a hazard, so could we please move. I wanted to test the authenticity of this charge, so I walked around to another entrance, where I discovered ten large men huddling around the doorway, smoking old-fashioned cigarettes. Three DOWists were a hazard, ten large men sucking on fags were not. We took it in our stride and moved a little further out into the rain. We battled on, reading against the rain, incorporating the rain into our poems, breathing and thinking pure rain, spitting out rain. The market manager returned. ‘I’m sorry’, he said, ‘but you have no right to be here. You have to move on.’ Ray had clearly been in this situation before. He was calm but firm: ‘We’ve got permission from the council. We’re being paid to be here. Here’s the gaffer’s number. You can ring her if you want.’ It was half comical, half edgy, a real cowboy standoff – poetry against health and safety, verse versus commerce. Less committed artists than Ray would have surrendered. Dominic intervened, taking Ray out of the firing line, or the market manager out of Ray’s. He bargained with the bloke for twenty minutes, and achieved a compromise. A gazebo was erected for us to stand under. People slowly joined us under there. They read protest poems from the 1980s. They read surrealist poems. They read nonsense poems. They read survivor poems. They read poems of unknown categories. The afternoon ended with Dominic’s young daughters reading Ted Hughes in their clear Yorkshire voices. We had the full hawk, pike and otter banquet. Poetry held its line against the rain. The day was won.
In last week’s press, X
reviewed Y: One of the best
poets now writing.
In this week’s press, Y
reviews X: One of the best
poets writing now.
‘Nips’, Peter Reading, Collected Poems: 1 (Bloodaxe Books, 1995)
There are many reasons to feel excited about the contemporary poetry scene. There are also reasons why a person might become jaded. Poets often feel marginalised, or ignored. Not everyone can find a way into the cliques and factions, or feel at home in them once they have. It can be hard to keep up with trends. There are also the sensitive matters of standing and prestige to be processed, and many poets have a tale about feeling snubbed or patronised. I’ve been practising the art for 30 years, and there are still moments when I feel I am standing outside looking in, like Larkin ambivalently watching the dancers in ‘Reasons for Attendance’. Working alongside Ray and Dominic has been a re-fresh experience. There is nothing precious about Democracy of Words; but plenty to be valued. There is the pleasure of working with a supportive, non-judgemental group. There is the buzz of being in the street, watching happenstance splash against the day’s canvas. There are the moments of genuine interaction, when you encounter unlikely people with a private passion for poems. There is an energy that comes from other performers when they overcome their nerves or inhibitions, and share something authentic. Some of us need to return to street level, and test the power of language in the most direct and immediate fashion – where ego or elitism cannot shield us. As Ray puts it, Democracy of Words provides an opportunity ‘where some of those who purport to live by the word might test their resolve, read, perform, or offer some utterance to the passing world’. That passing world is as impartial a jury as you will find. There are few spoken word venues more inclusive.
After Elsecar, Ray and me sat outside the Maison Du Biere. I wanted to learn more about how Ray found the path he walks now. I heard a rumour that he’d abandoned a PhD in the 80s, so he could devote his energies to community art. He may not have those three letters after his name, but he does have a presence and a reputation in South Yorkshire that should carry as much weight. There won’t be a Ted Hughes Festival in 2020. Instead, the project will return to grassroots events. We have a new creative producer – Dan Ryder – and a refreshed desire to take the power of words outside the usual factions and structures, and back into the topsoil. An anthology of football poetry is forthcoming by our associate publishers (Wild West Press), and readings are planned in sporting venues across South Yorkshire. I’m hoping we can broaden the remit, and celebrate bowling greens, cricket pitches, and all the other grassy spaces where people escape their stresses and strains. As Ray reminds us: ‘the DOWist is always a guest on somebody else’s turf and is there to share pleasantries even when artfully provocative. The DOWist approach might be viewed by some as a kind of aesthetic rewilding, but it is simply reintroducing poetry back to its natural environment…’ I’m rolling that phrase up in my kit bag when I next leave the house. Thanks, Ray!
Matthew Clegg’s collections – West North East, The Navigators, and Cazique – are available now from Longbarrow Press. Click on the links embedded in the titles above for extracts, essays and audio recordings.
Photo credits: 1 & 3 by Dominic Somers; 2 courtesy of the Rotherham Reader.
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)
Early on a bitterly cold, January morning, I walked through Derby city centre, on my way to work. On St Peter’s Street, in the recessed doorway of Lloyds Bank, a homeless couple were bedded down together in a nest made out of dirty blankets and two zipped together sleeping bags. They were obviously huddling for warmth. A few days later, making that same journey, the scene had changed. The recessed doorway had been hosed and soaped down. You could still see the suds, draining into the gutter. On lampposts opposite were two offerings of flowers, in cellophane. I don’t know if these details were in any way connected, but it’s hard not to think so. It reminded me of a spate of articles I’d read over Christmas: articles presenting data gleaned from interviews with homeless people. This data revealed alarming figures about the number who had been attacked or verbally abused by individuals from the general populace. Many homeless people felt like they needed to stick together – not just for warmth, but for safety. It also made me think of the anti-homeless benches and anti-homeless spikes installed in cities now.
A few years ago, I read Paul Farley’s poem ‘Tramp in Flames’, the title piece of his third collection. On one level it appears to be an elegy for a dead or dying ‘tramp’ – a man cruelly doused in petrol and ignited. On another level it’s a clever series of tropes, each one mediating reality differently. The poem bears witness to a tramp in flames through various lenses. You can imagine the incident first being mediated through CCTV footage, and then through simile, metaphor, surrealism, and memory association – the slightly distancing devices of the poet. Is the poem adequate to the awful event it describes? Does it succeed in redeeming the ‘personhood’ of the dying tramp from the series of tropes? Is this one of the moral obligations of poetry? Farley’s poem offers no comfortable answer, and it isn’t affecting in the classic sense, but it does make me question the freedoms and responsibilities of art.
Peter Reading’s 1989 volume Perduta Gente also focuses on the plight of the homeless. Like Farley, Reading had a background in Fine Art. Perduta Gente employs various presentation techniques, including cut-up, montage, found material, classical lyric, and diary extracts. The book offers a continuous thread of alternating modes and perspectives. Reading’s ‘One day a lone hag gippo arrived…’ begins in the first person plural. Where Farley’s lyric ‘we’ attempts to create accord with the hypothetical reader, Reading references a real community: a group of childhood school friends. The poem dramatizes their callousness towards this woman. The first level of this is revealed by the names they use to describe her: ‘hag’ and ‘gippo’. Throughout Perduta Gente Reading deliberately employs dismissive nouns commonly applied to vagrants: ‘winos’, ‘losers’, ‘alcos’, ‘dossers’. These names keep their subject’s humanity at bay and imply all blame for their predicament rests with them.
Is Reading implicating his childhood self in this process, or is the episode dramatic monologue? The unease is deepened as the poem narrates their remorseless campaign of cruelty. When the first person singular is used in stanza two, it is only to reveal that the speaker is ‘horribly startled’ by what he sees when he pries into the gypsy’s caravan. She provokes his disgust, not his compassion. His account reduces her to a glaring eye, ‘matted hair’, a ‘withered leg’ and a stink of ‘excreta’. There is an ambiguity about the last stanza that I find poignant. Although the poem seems to be relating how a vagrant has been chased off once again, a stain is left behind marking the spot where she has been, ‘etiolated and crushed’. The adjective ‘etiolated’ is curious. What is the ‘light’ this woman lacked, or was deprived of? Does Reading mean the light of humane society? There is a degree of poetic justice that her stain ‘blighted that place, and remained.’ The speaker is not moral, but the poem implicitly holds him to account. In order not to feel complicit with the lack of humanity on the surface level of this poem, the reader’s compassion is drawn upon to fill the vacuum.
In ‘Tramp in Flames’ Farley’s subject doesn’t speak, whereas Perduta Gente is peppered with instances where the lost people articulate. ‘missiz an me inda warm inda Euston…’ is a fine example of Reading’s ‘dosser-speak’. Here we encounter a lingo that fuses drunken slur and London vernacular. These bursts from the ‘dossers’ fuse elements of both the Devils and the lost souls in Dante’s Inferno. In ‘Outside Victoria station…’ the ‘dosser’ kicking his wife and bellowing ‘fugg-bag, / fuggbagging fugg-bag’ could be one of Dante’s tormenting demons. In ‘missiz and me…’ the effect is more imploring: ‘savvy dis noosepaper see? / sonly bed we gotter nigh…’ The pun on ‘noosepaper’ is acute. It is the London property pages that this homeless couple will be wrapped in when night falls.
The vernacular passages take us deeper into homelessness: here even language is brutal and brutalised. Yet this idiom is perhaps the only one adequate to that predicament. Reading it we are sucked deeper into that world and reminded just how cruelly different it is. The painstaking lengths to which Reading goes to render this vernacular implies respect for his subjects. It also deepens the reader’s sense of encounter with another stratum. Reading’s approach is immediate and sociological. These people are in our midst, imploring us to listen. They are also on the other side of a social gulf the minute they open their mouths.
‘Tramp in Flames’ references popular culture, surrealism, history and personal memory association. The poem’s opening declares that the tropes employed are ‘heat shields for re-entry / to reality’, which invites us to believe the poem will bring us there eventually – once the heat cools. Reading also leans heavily on reference and allusion. Like ‘Tramp in Flames’, ‘Now we arrive at the front of the ruin…’ employs shifting lenses. Dante-like images invite comparison between Mucky Preece’s ‘derelict L Barn’ and a structure from the Inferno. This sense is deepened when the poem shifts its reference again, quoting directly from newspaper property pages:
Money no object to buyer of L-shaped
picturesque old barn
seeking the quiet country life
This is biting irony, offering scathing economic context. Juxtapositions of this kind are common in Reading’s work. They are a recurrent jolt to the reader’s expectations. Reading has seduced us through his command of classical reference only to offer rude awakening through found material. His command of classical metres is equally seductive. This is nowhere more apparent than in ‘Often at dusk in the birch woods beyond…’ By and large the metre is Reading’s adaptation of the Latin elegiac distich. It usually involves breaking the long line into combinations of longer and shorter lines. Enjambment often occurs on unstressed syllables, except when closing a motion of thought. In this poem stressed line endings include ‘gloom’, ‘loss’, ‘gone’ (twice) and ‘ash’ – affecting words. The metre is plangent, melancholy and mournful. It carries the burden of loss with something like dignity whilst still facing up to ugliness. I believe Blake Morrison is right to point out that ‘for all its mix of registers, [Reading’s] art aspires to the condition of music’. Whilst his use of found material and demotic language jolts and challenges the reader, his music has the affective power to open us up emotionally. When he fuses the two the effect is unforgettable.
Reading was often dismissed as somehow marginal in British poetry – a curmudgeonly maverick, beating the distich of doom. His work was even labelled as Thatcherite by some. I find this difficult to accept – as he is so often critical of heartlessness, and, certainly, I cannot find any poems that portray the invisible hand of the free market looking after society. His city isn’t an ideological separation of the worthy from the unworthy. One thread of Reading’s work was a sustained engagement with individual suffering within a sharply observed socio-economic reality. He doesn’t offer solutions, but he can witness and give voice. Most importantly, he can make us question our desire to insulate ourselves against affect. ‘Don’t think it couldn’t be you…’ is a refrain repeated throughout Perduta Gente. Reading’s work possesses urgency and a necessity that brings it close to what Joseph Conrad called ‘the destructive element’ – an element we would be foolish to think we can escape or distance ourselves from. How will contemporary poets respond to the current social and economic climate? In many ways, we live in strange and grotesque times. Five years after his death, Reading might deserve a re-appraisal. Perduta Gente will be with me as I walk through the streets between the private bubble of home, and the corporate bubble of work. Let the last words here be from Reading’s 1997 collection, Work in Regress:
From the Chinese
I donate money to a beggar;
it is not much, but he has half my wealth.
I am reminded of the sage’s words:
If the mendicant gets drunk tonight,
then I am happy also.
Perduta Gente appears in the second volume of Peter Reading’s Collected Poems (Bloodaxe Books, 1996). An earlier blog post by Brian Lewis, ‘The Sandpit’, also reflects on Perduta Gente and themes of homelessness, precarity and shelter.
Matthew Clegg’s second full-length collection, The Navigators, is available now from Longbarrow Press; click here for extracts, essays and audio recordings. You can also order the hardback via PayPal below:
The Navigators: £12.99
In making an application for a fellowship of the Higher Education Academy, I was invited to reflect on the philosophy behind my teaching practice. As I teach creative writing in a university, and am a working poet, you would expect there to be a strong relationship between my teaching and my creative practice. I had some rewarding conversations with a colleague about the education philosophy of Ivan Illich, and his work Deschooling Society (1971). If you’re not familiar with Illich, he believed there are roughly two types of education: one based on the notion of syllabus, legitimised by authority, and designed to serve its agendas; and one based on the notion of conviviality, whereby people come together to learn what they want to learn – that is, what is convivial to them. If the former is disseminated through conventional institutions, the latter could be organised through what Illich described as ‘learning webs’ – or informal networks.
My colleague and I agreed that conviviality is central to creative practice – and that if we were to explore this principal more freely, we would need to set something up outside the conventional syllabus, and the orthodox classroom. This is why we created the Co-Conspirators salon in Derby, a space for students, ex-students and creative practitioners to come together and exchange passions, interests and ideas in the spirit of convivial learning. The group has been meeting for over a year. It’s both a supplement to the creative writing degree, and an open forum.
Going back to my earlier question – about the link between my teaching philosophy and my creative practice – I realise that both are tied up with notions I have about the value of being self-taught, of being an autodidact. My own writer’s apprenticeship followed this path – as many have in the past. I first recognised the value of poetry whilst I was undertaking low-paid, low-status jobs, in my twenties, not when I was in conventional education. Whilst working as an ice-cream man, someone gave me an anthology of poems, because I looked bored. A poem called ‘Roe Deer’, by Ted Hughes, switched on my whole nervous system, and from then on I was curious. Later, I was employed by Argos as a Christmas temp, working in the basement – filtering out a soundtrack of Led Zeppelin’s In Through the Out Door. I carried a copy of Ted Hughes in one pocket, and a copy of T. S. Eliot in the other. I inhabited these books, and began making my own incantations out of words.
One thing I worry about, now I teach creative writing in a university, is that I’m serving two phenomena I’m uncomfortable with: a cultural addiction to syllabus, and a possible institutionalising of creative practice, through affiliation with the orthodoxies of academe. Let me take care: I’m not questioning the value of the best work undertaken by my colleagues and myself in higher education. You will certainly find a healthy spirit of imagination and integrity disseminated by creative writing staff at Derby University. Artists need to balance integration and differentiation in their creative lives, and there is value in learning how to integrate with cultural institutions. Equally, the differentiation that occurs along the autodidact’s less orthodox path is of value too. Illich wrote eloquently about how the position of the autodidact has been discredited in modern society, and how this has perpetuated the interests and economy of syllabus and power. Become too integrated, and you risk being institutionalised, addicted to validation; but become too differentiated and you risk being nowhere.
Perhaps some students sense this, and this is why they feel they must chase grades rather than pursue passions, or get lost in a subject. Of course, as an ex-student of mine told me recently, it is possible to do both – that the differentiated passions can lead to the grades.
Let me write briefly about the first autodidact I knew: my grandfather. He began his working life as a butcher’s boy, in London, eventually becoming a butcher’s driver. During the blitz he was a fire-warden, and the story goes that this offered him an experience that changed his life. After an air raid, he gained entry into an exclusive London hotel and restaurant. He was incensed by the luxury he witnessed there. At a time where the London poor were struggling with rationing, the wealthy were dining extravagantly. After the war, he left London, and travelled north, where he taught himself to be a joiner and interior decorator, and where he helped build houses, churches and schools for ordinary people. He taught himself the basics of car mechanics too, and, when he retired, taught himself to build boats. He made a cabin cruiser out of plywood and fibreglass – a boat I’ve written about in the poem ‘Jasmine’, from The Navigators.
When we were children, my sister and I received many home-made toys and presents from him: bikes, sledges, go-carts, model yachts, doll’s houses, a see-saw that also span around like a merry-go-round. Our house was filled with his handiwork: chairs, tables, cabinets, chests, a sliding partition. This was a man without a single formal qualification – and yet he embodied craft, skill and creativity. I have been in danger of idealising him and his generation, perhaps in proportion to all the ways in which our society of syllabus, qualification and legitimised practice has made his kind a thing of the past. In my imagination, he is something akin to Yeats’ fisherman – ‘a man who does not exist, / a man who is but a dream’ – more symbol than flawed flesh and blood. Nevertheless, I think about him more as I get older, and I’d like to work out a way to infect my students with something of his independence and convivial ingenuity.
His son – my uncle Bill – was certainly as independent and ingenious as his father, but I think he understood all the ways in which his father’s path would be harder to follow in the modern world. He did become a qualified engineer – through the army – but he also saw how legitimisation ran even deeper than qualifications. My mother says he became embittered – acutely sensitive to class orthodoxies and discriminations. He disappeared into the kind of voluntary nowhere where the too-differentiated often go to escape the painful and frustrating jostle for place. A talented engineer became an odd job man in a private marina – living on a lifeboat he’d converted into a home. He died of cancer of the spine, in his early 50s. I didn’t get the chance to know him. I wish I had.
I certainly haven’t walked a conventional path through academe. I haven’t served much of an apprenticeship as an orthodox scholar. My research abilities are no doubt adequate to the kind of poems I write, but they are no more than that. If you measure the worth of a poet by their scholarship, or their more pedantic tendencies, then you are likely to pass over mine. Many of my students will go on to become better academics than I will ever be. I find it extremely hard to write anything as pure research – without the filter of experience, or near-experience – or without a creative objective. According to some orthodoxies, my work is likely to appear insufficiently impersonal – and I’m ill-at-ease with the jargon vocabulary of academe, or its enlightenment sense of knowledge, or what counts as original research. But I persevere. I am interested in creative practice, however, and in how each practitioner will need to both integrate and differentiate themselves, if they are to continue on their own with a life of convivial, creative growth.
The Co-Conspirators currently meet on the second Tuesday of each month, in Derby. If you’re interested in coming along, please email Matthew Clegg at firstname.lastname@example.org for the time and location, and any other details.
Matthew Clegg’s second full-length collection, The Navigators, is available now from Longbarrow Press; click here for more information about the book.
Images: Bark, Endcliffe Park, Sheffield, 28 May 2016 (photographs by Brian Lewis)
Clock-tick, birdsong, cars.
My palate wakes from last night:
whisky, woodsmoke, stars.
This is how I remember it. It was the first autumn of the new millennium. I was poet in residence at The Wordsworth Trust, living yards from Dove Cottage – Wordsworth’s home for nine of his most creative years. My girlfriend, Chloe, was away in Spain: on holiday with two of her friends. I’d received a postcard from her saying they weren’t getting on as well as she hoped. I got it into my head to write her a sequence of wonder poems, detailing the passage of the Lakeland autumn – a record of the season she was missing. It was a period when I was discovering the Japanese haiku masters (Bashō, Buson and Issa), and I was reading about connections between Wordsworth’s thought and Eastern religion. I’d also been collaborating with Angela Hughes – an energetic visual artist from the north-east – and had been influenced by her process of working outside, or in situ. Inspired by this combination, I’d decided to make my poems for Chloe a sequence of linked haiku – or renku. I would wander through the Vale of Grasmere every day she was absent, writing poems on the hoof. I called my sequence ‘Trig Points’. I saw it as an act of creative mapping: a triangle of the inner, domestic and outer worlds. There was one further layer of influence operating on the sequence: the influence of musical forms and process. I was living under the spell of three musical works: Bach’s ‘Goldberg Variations’, Steve Reich’s ‘Electric Counterpoint’, and Nick Drake’s album, Five Leaves Left. These compositions nourished my creative process, and led me towards a further collaboration with Simon Heywood, in his guise as a composer and folk guitarist.
1. Fugue: Bach’s ‘Goldberg Variations’
Chloe and I shared a love of Glenn Gould’s performances of Bach’s ‘Goldberg Variations’. I have a vivid memory of her arriving at my house one afternoon, and dancing as the first variation leaps away from the theme. The story goes that a Russian Ambassador, Count Kaiserling, commissioned Bach to compose them as a balm for insomnia brought on by poor health. Goldberg was the dutiful musician who had to play the variations to the Count, from an antechamber. Both the therapeutic and the formal aspects of the work appealed to me. As in fugue, a theme is introduced, then developed through 30 variations, before it is recapitulated at the end – implying some evolutionary growth. ‘Trig Points’ was the first poetry sequence where I experimented with the form of fugue variation. The sequence opens with the poet waking to a morning in early autumn: the taste of smoke, whisky and starlight still on his palate. It plays out 25 haiku variations before returning to a differently nuanced reference to smoke and light: this time in late autumn. It is implied that the next morning will be the first of winter. The whisky has been drunk. The new season will wake up colder and darker: more smoke, less light. The sequence is precious to me as a record of my last full autumn in Grasmere. The following October I returned to Leeds: in the wake of 9/11, I resumed an urban life of alleyways, terraces and a view of the Crossgates gasometer from my attic window. Chloe had moved to Clapham, to work in reader development. Our idyll in Grasmere was over. My memories would lose definition: chimney smoke blurring into that November dusk.
2. Shimmer and Pulse: Steve Reich’s ‘Electric Counterpoint’
I’d fallen under the spell of Steve Reich’s ‘Electric Counterpoint’. Its feeling of intense trance made it a piece I could close my eyes and listen to with complete absorption. Stripped of all but the clean patterns of plucked strings, it had a cleansing effect on my mind. Then there was the sense of dazzle – of shimmering light reflections bouncing off rippled water. Most appealing of all, perhaps, is the strength and steadiness of rhythm – of pulse. This pulse has such physical presence and purposeful momentum. Although its rhythms change, they never falter. The piece is aerobically robust. I wanted my haiku sequence to possess these qualities of trance, shimmer and pulse. There is no doubt that trance is a quality that links renku and Wordsworthian blank verse. On some days, autumn in the Vale of Grasmere was like being inside a globe of changing light – light off the lakes and rivers, and off the changing colours of the fell-sides. Pulse was the daily health and pleasure I took from it. Shortly after I composed ‘Trig Points’, I developed panic attack syndrome, and my pulse went wayward – often haywire. I would return to the poetic sequence years later – often when struggling to recover a healthy heart rate. My later sequence, ‘Edgelands’, could be seen as ‘Trig Points’ mark two: Eden, post fall from wonder into anxiety.
3. Fuse: Nick Drake’s Five Leaves Left
In his ‘Notes Towards a Supreme Fiction’ [i], Wallace Stevens says: ‘Music falls upon the silence like a sense, / a passion that we feel, not understand.’ When we hear or feel music, we are the music. We inhabit it, and it inhabits us. We are fused with it. In the late 80s I was living on the ground floor of a dive in Wolverhampton. I had holes in my floorboards. I’d gone to sleep, and was dreaming about a rat crawling up from the cellar. Then my housemates must have disturbed me. They’d come back from a club and put on Nick Drake’s Five Leaves Left in the room next door. It was like waking into another, better dream. The track I woke to was ‘Three Hours’. It sounds like a fusion of folk-roots, jazz and Indian raga. ‘Raga’ derives from the Sanskrit, meaning ‘colouring’, or dying, or, more figuratively, ‘something which colours our emotions.’ ‘Three Hours’ is somehow intense, melancholy and full of longing. I was a 20 year old who had grown up in the 70s and 80s, on the urban edge of East Leeds. This music became the music that expressed my own nostalgia for something I’d not properly experienced – an English pastoral inflected with a trance of Eastern mysticism. It was a cobweb, floating from 1969 – the year of its composition, and my birth. Of course, my two years in Grasmere brought me a little closer to that pastoral. I wasn’t looking to fuse with raga, but with haiku. Both share an emphasis on mood, and on seasonal references. I wanted to take some of the domestic qualities of western poetry – aphorism and proverb – and marry them to the Zen epiphanies of Japan. The delicacy I heard in Nick Drake’s guitar playing was something that helped me prime my attention for lyric. Much of the poetry I’d written before then had been more narrative in mode. I wanted to exchange storytelling for something closer to music – to the Japanese koto, or the Anglo-Saxon lyre. I wanted to learn how to pluck mood notes with language, and let those notes resonate and flow. Sometimes, I would go to sleep listening to the ebb and flow of Five Leaves Left. I would get up the next day, and walk out into autumn, where haiku notes would ebb and flow in turn. Only three times in my life have I felt this sense of walking inside a music that I was listening to, and composing, all at the same time. ‘Trig Points’ was the first time, ‘Edgelands’ was the second, and ‘Moving with Thought’, from Chinese Lanterns, was the third.
During my last summer in the Lakes, Simon Heywood and myself walked from Grasmere to Lorton Vale, where his parents have a caravan. The journey was some 30 miles, over the fells. We talked a lot. Simon’s connections with the Lake District run deeper than mine, so it seemed natural, later, that we would collaborate on a piece that fused my haiku and his music. I talked about Basil Bunting’s experiments with the sonata form, when composing poetry. Simon spoke about the challenge of feeding the economy of haiku, and the flow of renku into the composition of music. In the end we adapted something like the four-part structure of Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony: calm, thanksgiving, storm, and calm after storm. Drawing from musical sources and collaborating with a musician was a necessary stage in my transformation from a predominantly narrative artist into one who has fallen under the spell of pattern, pulse and coloured emotion. I shouldn’t be so surprised. Long before I wrote a poem, I’d been a drummer in a Crossgates marching band. I couldn’t play or read music, but I could immerse myself in it and keep time. Inhabiting or keeping time to music – heard or implied – has helped me shape my thoughts and feelings, and refresh my writing process. It has even helped me keep writing when my creative pulse has faltered. Music is nothing if not transformation and momentum combined.
Listen to the 2007 arrangement of the haiku sequence ‘Trig Points’ performed by Clegg and guitarist Simon Heywood (thanks to Robin Vaughan-Williams for recording and broadcasting this version on his Spoken Word Antics Radio Show):
‘Trig Points’ appears in Matthew Clegg’s second full-length collection, The Navigators (Longbarrow Press, 2015); click here for more information about the book. ‘Not Daffodils’, an earlier blog post reflecting on the Grasmere residency, appears here.
[i] Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens, New York, Knopf, 1954
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).
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.