By Peter Riley.
THE LATEST ISSUES from Oystercatcher Press1 have arrived. They are Cloud Breaking Sun by John James and When blue light falls 32 by Carol Watts. Oystercatcher is a small press run by the poet Peter Hughes, and his particular way of finding audacity and liberality complementary impresses itself on both his poetry and the press he runs. He has a regular column headed “small press” on the Poetry Book Society’s website3 in which he says such things as–
Of course, some poems pulsate and wriggle more than others. They force vocabulary from disparate discourses into the same pen, juxtapose contradictory tones and undermine expectations. Some readers respond enthusiastically when these kinds of challenges are cranked up. Some readers get very irritated and have to go for a lie down in a darkened room.4
So his position is clear as an exponent of the innovative or radical end of the poetry scale. But what he says bears no burden of militant endeavour – the characteristically wry tone denies it. There is no campaign afoot here, no pioneer corps slash and burn, and consequently no programmed narrowness. It is more like a cultivated inclination which becomes a conviction, with a lot of leeway allowing widely different approaches. That at any rate is how the press is run. Its very name contributes to this sense of civilian endeavour. Some small poetry presses have for a long time paraded their negativity and virulent oppositionality by choosing names as off-putting as possible. There was one called Strange Faeces in the 1970s, and if you search for it I’m sure you’d find one called Unspeakably Awful Poetry or Rubbish Productions. Indeed so-called rubbish theory is taken seriously by those poets who see the purpose of their art as essentially destructive. Peter Hughes lives on the top of a cliff on the Norfolk coast and oystercatchers must be a common sight there. The fact that it is a rather comical-looking and a noisy bird is certainly relevant. It is possible to maintain distinctly radical beliefs, political and cultural, without classifying the contemplation of sea hill or plain as “pastoral” betrayal.
OYSTERCATCHER WAS STARTED in 2008 and to date has published 49 titles, all 20 to 30 pages long, in a standard A5 stapled format, most of them with an attractive front cover featuring a painting by Peter Hughes, though never attributed. It is by such economies of production, and a “special arrangement”, I believe, with a printer related to the concept of “print on demand”, that the series has been so prolific and that an editorial freedom is possible, unthreatened by sales figures.
What is demonstrated by Oystercatcher is the great range possible within a broad concept of the continuity of modernism, which means in effect that whatever the ambience of the poetry there is a strongly verbal textuality. Whatever it is concerned with, however it approaches the world, it takes no words for granted, but turns them on their sides and holds them against the light until the balance of intent and accident is clear. And this is indeed what so many of the brighter things are doing these days, not just the young ones. Oystercatcher’s catchment zone goes from hoary old sages like myself and John James, to bundles of youthful energy such as Emily Critchley (Who handles one over the backlash, 2008) and Sophie Robinson (The Lotion, 2010) – these are both works I value for keeping their heads aligned towards a purpose through wild thickets of linguistic disruption. It is particularly felicitous when the press catches a work which is an integral whole of the right length and one of the most remarkable of these has been The Son by Carrie Etter (2009), a kind of drama concerning a lost son, very moving and in a tone and manner unlike anything else of hers I’ve seen.
Sets of very small poems feel particularly at home in the Oystercatcher environment, like whitebait perhaps. the deer path to my door by the senior Scottish poet Gerry Loose (2009) consists of two-line poems focused on environmental detail in his own backyard with as little authorial mediation as possible, producing things like
autumn behind the apple tree I’m almost not
here the barn owl’s screeching
or as little as
feed the slugs
A very different use of the small poem structure is Py by Anna Mendelssohn (2009), a collection of 27 six-line acrostics on (mostly) the word “poetry”, somewhere at the far side of surrealism and completely dotty.
You can’t say it doesn’t end on a positive note.
A lot of my favourite poets are in the Oystercatcher list, and I’m reduced to jabbering names rather than attempting any further description: Kelvin Corcoran (of whom more later), Michael Haslam, Maurice Scully, John Welch, Nigel Wheale – not to mention attractive books by people I’ve never heard of. One of these that I’m not going to let slip by is The Reluctant Vegetarian by Richard Moorhead (2009) which is a set of outwardly playful and humorous imagistic redefinitions of various fruit and veg, uncovering words you’d never expect to find hidden behind such commonplace things, and liable to become serious when least expected. Thought is released in the sequence of images, without discourse:
n (1) owl pellet
fairy bile; (2) goose
with burdock; (3) jar
of seal eyes, lustrous
when wet; (4) a mesa’s
(5) blue Cambodian
skulls in a punnet;
v (6) to ash
the darkened skin
with chalk; adj (7)
the tight baby eye
of a teenage heart;
adv (8) how innocence stirs
in the mouth first;
adj (9) the taste
of a bitten tongue or
a wrecked planet.
THE TWO NEW arrivals are quite different from each other, but either might occasion a rush for the couch in the darkened room on the part of the unaccustomed or uninclined, for different reasons.
John James is a senior poet of importance and I shall leave to a later opportunity any comprehensive coverage of his work. Although he never uses punctuation, his verses are set in normal spoken syntax and speak directly of his own experience, with outbursts of delight or rage now and then. It is most obviously a gathering of the threads of a life, holding on to those channels of memory which bore fruit, and it is a chronicle of recompense. For the most part it is spoken gently to himself, so that nothing is, or needs to be, identified or explained as to an outsider. The fondly remembered “Barry” for instance, may be the artist Barry Flanagan in one poem and the poet Barry MacSweeney in another. If you aren’t aware who they were and that they both died, well you should be. Even Apollinaire is just “Guillaume”. It’s essential to accept this idiolectic condition of James’ poetry, which as well as people involves places and other things and at times approaches the arcane, to gain the reward of the poetry as an entire and integral theatre of experienced reality.
Carol Watts doesn’t exactly cast off the yoke of syntax, but it is reduced to phrases, which are spaced out through the poem with only occasional overt sequence connecting them. There are structural enigmas too: the poems are in a sequence numbered 2 to 16 in even numbers then 1 to 15 in odd numbers, each set in a somewhat different manner. And there are items of very technical vocabulary to deal with. These fragments of discourse are to be read without asking the why and wherefore. It is what I call an “ungrounded” poetry: everything is floating beyond the influence of the gravity which holds us to the normative demands of the linear earth. I cannot avoid a sense of immateriality, while I believe that the (London-based) poetical connections of the author theorise precisely materiality as the mark of innovation – perhaps verbal materiality produced conceptual immateriality. The actual effect, I find, is that an intimate account or address is taking place which has to be kept secret, or at the most hinted at. It wouldn’t be a critic’s job, of course, to attempt to unlock this. But a great deal more work is needed before the full nature of this poem in three books is known.
THERE ARE ALSO two Oystercatchers by Peter Hughes himself, the most recent being Behoven (2009). He has a long established habit of writing sequences of various length, often based on external factors, ever since The Metro Poems (Many Press 1992)5 – 33 poems named after stations of the Rome underground. There is one collaged from Berlioz’ Memoirs, there are 21 poems based on an edition of The Radio Times, “Six Klee Paintings”, several diary-like sets, a rather quirky set on facilities at various caravan and camping sites, and so on.6 It has always been his habit to both attend to and ignore the details of his sources.
Whether sequence or poem, each work seems to locate its own linguistic condition, always recognisably his but within a range of possibilities. So while some (such as Behoven) sport a level of difficulty which might at least get you to the threshold of the dark room, he could also be approached through a book such as The Summer of Agios Dimitrios (Shearsman Books 2009), his most recent, a set of diary-poems of a sojourn in Greece, which would drag you into the light. Here the transmission is unproblematic and the punctuationless writing enacts straightforward perceptual sequences – a succession of noticings and mentionings forming a progression from starting-point to ending which is never less than thoughtful and pointed. Most of his poetry is distinctly personal but without that appeal to the reader, an appeal for recognition and sympathy, which so much marks conventional poetry these days. Rather he insists quite proudly on his own terms of cognition, including his right to the vocabulary of joke, wit, sarcasm, even flippancy, in the face of the modern world.
The Petrarch set “Quite Frankly” (that is, quite Petrarch but not entirely) shows a lot of his skills. There is no real need to read it in parallel to the originals, though to do so is certainly entertaining. He mainly follows the principal moves, ignoring what he can’t use and letting the poem follow its own course where necessary. But he can sometimes take up quite close detail with great ingenuity, as in the incorporation of Petrarch’s play with the letters of Laura’s name in number 5. As the sequence progresses, for all his ironic modernisation and free-play, it enters deeper and deeper into a sincere realisation of the modern love-poem. The complaint against the world which is explicit (though not necessarily directly owned) in the first quatrain of number 7, informs a great deal of the writing, and both intimate affection and defiant, independent realisation of the life actually lived, are his defences against it.
It is incidentally a relief to me that this modernising quasi-translation of a classic text is conceived entirely within Hughes’ own praxis, and does not follow the course of phonetic mimicry (“homophonic translation”) of which we have had a lot in the innovative zones, all authorised by the American poet Louis Zukofsky, who notoriously murdered Catullus in this way in 1969. This is a mechanical operation in which the sound-values of the original are imitated as closely as possible in English whatever the result, making it a translation from Latin into nothing. The mistake is, of course, to assume that poetry’s musical properties are its central value and raison d’être. But neither does Hughes indulge the contrary tendency favoured by a number of highly successful poets, perhaps best summarised as “Homer (Dante, Beowulf etc.) cooked up for the lads”.
Behoven is offered as “registrations of the 32 Beethoven piano sonatas” and it might be possible to read them against the sonatas if your copy were not, like mine, the edition of Liszt, who put them in order of difficulty instead of chronologically. I don’t know what you’d find if you did that, though there are clearly verbal hints towards Beethoven’s life and music here and there. Using music as an external referent, which Hughes has done quite a lot, tends to disperse the singular location and unity of address in the poem. Or, as he says, “bring your own weather”. The progressions in the poem then derive from each other, metaphors create metaphors, a single word launches a new direction. Here is number 12 (without attempting to reproduce the complex variable margins which are a feature of this set):
/ apricots & black / coffee by the mattress / on the floorboards we breathed / an aftershock of happiness // cotton refuge // glide between wing-beats // your memories coming up the stairs // O Vienna!
Here a scene, or experience, is half-established and then dispersed into particulars without firm context. It is possible, with some effort, to read it as all elements of the same scene, but it is also easily possible not to. The poem begins as personal and sexual but ends with an interjection which could, if we allow it to, leap right out of context into massive cultural concerns. To me a shout of “O Vienna!” at once feels like a reaction to the vast waves of cultural dismantling of various kinds which have swept our way from there since the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The five stages of the poem are offered to the reader to make our own story of (as any written narrative is to some degree) moving constantly in and out of anecdotal and imaginative spheres, and this is characteristic of the whole set. Such qualities, happily keeping company with the usual mockery and verbal jests, invoke a larger sense of where we are without any loss of actuality, and within that enhanced sense of belonging the scope of our possible acts becomes more hopeful.
Long may Oystercatcher Press continue to prise poets from under stones.7
Peter Riley, the poetry editor of The Fortnightly Review‘s New Series, is a former co-editor of The English Intelligencer, the former editor of Collection, and the author of fifteen books of poetry – and some of prose. His latest book is The Glacial Stairway (Carcanet, 2011). He lives in Cambridge.
Peter Hughes’s sequence “Quite Frankly” is published in The Fortnightly Review here.
· More ‘Poetry Notes‘ in The Fortnightly Review.
- www.oystercatcherpress.com 4, Coastguard Cottages, Old Hunstanton, Norfolk PE36 6EL. All Oystercatcher books cost £5.00 including inland postage. There is a sample poem from each book on the website. ↩
- Parts 1 and 2 of this serial poem were published by Oystercatcher in 2008 and 2010. ↩
- Go to http://www.poetrybooks.co.uk then to “poetry portal”, and his is one of the offerings listed there. At the time of writing the current one is about John James. ↩
- This concerns the Oystercatcher book Kiss Off by Sophie Mayer, 2011. ↩
- Reprinted in Blueroads: selected poems. Salt Publishing 2003. ↩
- The first and last of these, and Behoven, will be in his next book, Allotment Architecture, due from Reality Street Books early in 2013. ↩
- An anthology of poems from the Oystercatcher Press booklets, entitled Sea Pie, is under preparation at Shearsman Books. ↩