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Alistair Noon and the English sonnet.

By Peter Riley.

ALISTAIR NOON’S FIRST book, Earth Records1 begins by plunging reader and poet right into the thick of it together, with a set of 40 formally correct (or very nearly2) sonnets of the kind called “English” or “Shakespearean”, which supplies the book’s title. It is a bold and quite defiant gesture with which to begin a first book of poems, since it at once involves us in poetry as a serious business and an acquired skill, and admits allegiance to no current school or tendency. I trust we are not so prosodically naïve as to assume that forty strictly formed sonnets must be the work of some kind of reactionary mentality. In fact, the poets commonly dubbed “mainstream” or “establishment” very rarely do anything like this, and when they do they often treat the form with cavalier abandon.3 The experimenters, when they use the term, may mean anything by it.4

A true sonnet means something in itself and is a fine thing in itself. It is a symbolic code recognised by the reader as eliciting certain forms of attention or expectation, especially in terms of first person involvement in the text, originally the address towards the desired object. But perhaps the English sonnet, through its less widespread use, its structure5 and its connection with Shakespeare himself, particularly anticipates a fairly remorseless course of concerned argumentation towards a conclusion.

Many other qualities may be enfolded in the idea of the sonnet, especially in terms of elegance of address, balance and fluidity, free movement among figurative modes, and the use of the final couplet as reliable verdict with or without irony. But perhaps the primary message coming through the manifestation of this ancient poem formula is something like, “You’ll need to get your nose down to this.” That is, the discourse will be continuous link by link across different modes of representation and will need to be followed continuously to the end to get the message. Expect then no diverting vignettes in mid-course but be prepared to follow the discourse from beginning to end, ever alert to switches of mode. This at any rate is what these sonnets expect of us.

NOON SEEMS TO have travelled all over Europe and several other parts of the world. Number 10 finds him at a major border crossing from Serbia into Hungary:

Late at night the Balkan languages clog
at Horgos, where they wait to gain admittance
to the circle of stars. A see-through smog
surrounds the returners from the remittance
economy: static, running exhausts
and the world’s greatest mass cigarette break,
as coaches queue up for one of the ports,
bays with a quay, where the night shift’s awake.
We hoot, or cheer each inch; the wise just doze.
No border guard knows the meaning of soon.
Priština, Niš, to Dortmund, Ulm. One
goes to Miriampol. (O beautiful moon
of Miriampol… Sat in East Berlin,
Bobrowski looked up). Here’s Europe. We’re in.

What happens in this sonnet is very much focussed on the last three lines. Before that we have a well-crafted scene of the endless wait at a border crossing (a thing particularly familiar to those of us who have transgressed the former Iron Curtain, where a bureaucratic automatism lingers forever among the police, but the experience is now probably just as bad on entering England). Deftly and unobtrusively integrated into the quatrain patterns, the writing remains steadily and mildly sarcastic concerning humanity forced to do nothing, marked by a scatter of little clashing verbal combinations: see-smog, static-running, returners-remittance, and the bays – into which the coaches move when it is their turn – called “ports”, as if they themselves feel like journey’s end after the enforced stasis.

It is indeed the Balkan languages which “clog” together; here you’re either Balkan or not, queuing to get into the “circle of stars” – the European symbol, the European glamour (I suppose this is obvious but it took me some time to remember the European Union logo). These are minor pieces of gentle sarcasm filling a space created by boredom. Then the poet (ever present but not mentioned) starts noticing the origins and destinations of the coaches. The first four cities named may not be specially reverberant (all massacre sites, but then so are most if not all cities of central Europe) until Miriampol is noticed and the whole tone changes.

This city in Lithuania (Marijampolé in Lithuanian) at once invokes the opening of a poem, called “Wagenfahrt”, by Johannes Bobrowski: “Schöner Mond von Mariampol!” Bobrowski (1917-1965) was an East German poet who should be much better known in the English-speaking world than he is. (Indeed I sometimes wish that some of the intense excitement focused on Paul Celan could be apportioned to Bobrowski, for they share some degrees of technique and obsession, though not at all the same fate.) The invocation is rural – singing to the moon from a cart on the way home at night (shades of Mussorgsky) – and the south Prussian border zone where it takes place was to Bobrowski a sacral zone, which he created in his poetry as a kind of lost world, with its pagan deities, its histories of trespass and its medieval landscapes. It was also his zone of origin, where he remembered five ethnic groups living together, including Jews, of whom he wrote, “a long story of misfortune and guilt, for which my people is to blame…”6 Miriampol was the site of a particularly appalling Jewish massacre in 1941. Bobrowski’s second use of the word “moon” in the poem is, uniting the aural and the visual, “…we heard it linger across the town, up there in the towers, we heard the Jewish moon…”

How much of all this is relevant to the ending of Noon’s sonnet is largely up to the reader (and the reader’s language). But clearly after three quatrains of waiting and boredom in a non-environment, a quite different, poetical place is offered. It is a written place and a place of the mind, but also the site of real longing. It is heavily ironic, then, that at just this point they finally get through the check-point into “Europe”. The relief or even jubilation at “We’re in” is surely played against the despair of those Balkan countries whose long awaited admission to the ring of stars turned out to be a welcome to economic crisis, augmentation of poverty and impending bankruptcy. But is it not also that by the intervention of Bobrowski we have entered imaginatively into the real Europe, with its history of endless conflict and necessary expiation more important than remittance?

NOON IS THE most urban of poets, but without attached polemics. The sites of the sonnets are mostly such places as restaurant, cigarette factory, housing estate, road works, car park, National Museum and so on, many of them in Berlin where he lives. But his purpose, which tends to come to fruition in the final couplets, is an opening towards a wider and richer sense of the human context, by describing the urban scene with sharp-eyed accuracy but offering space to images of an elsewhere too easily dismissed as nostalgic. The sonnet (No. 30) on cathedrals and the rewriting of the model city “and its pain” ends with a sudden turn away from the metropolitan to a desert where “Searching the earth between watering holes / it’s the Bedouin who find the Dead Sea Scrolls.” Similarly No. 32, on housing (“Light has status. One pays for space and style”) ends “…the place that’s always free / is where the land breathes out, becoming sea.” There is a sense of western vision as progressively reductive, that an exponentially rich cultural possibility in the past has been rationalised down to a thin modern discourse, and with it a shortened memory-span: “The Western memory stops / at the inventors of letters and crops.” Explicitly in the opening of sonnet 23: “Artist no more in the shadow of God, / or sensing the group like a ritual dancer, / I shift my icons.” The last sonnet, which does culminate the series, announces “The constellations shift. No, it’s not better / never to leave the excavated zones…” The excavated zones are what we have constructed around ourselves or buried ourselves in, in either case foreshortening our vision, and the term involves more than just physical circumstances.

The sonnet goes on to propose a plethora of difference, outdated and neglected modes that we can now turn to, an expanding prospect of possibility if we cast off our dislike of the antiquated, the provincial, the foreign, finally notated as a musical and dialectal enrichment: “The magnitudes of sounds intensify. / Vowels vary their colours in the unfinished sky.” (Is this also a put-down of Rimbaud’s rather senseless and schoolmasterly attribution of particular colours to the vowels?)

So the sonnets do follow a course and are linked, sometimes verbally sometimes by theme or locality, and it is as if a continuous argument is undertaken through enriched accounts of forty encounters with places and structures, though not an argument that could be satisfactorily abstracted. And they are only the first third of the book.

NOON’S WORK COMES in clusters and there remain five of them before me: the remaining two-thirds of the book and three booklets. There’s no need to investigate each one meticulously; outside the sonnet form Noon’s “normal” poem is a more relaxed but pointed discourse, favouring quatrain structure but free to be unmetrical or part-metrical, rhymed or unrhymed or near-rhymed. A lot of urban and suburban scenes are investigated for signs of hope, which must always lie to some extent in the poem itself, the crafting of a lyrical structure out of the fact of the author on the ground in likely and unlikely places.

The groupings are commonly around localities, especially the kind of sadly uniform expanses of ageing featureless development you get in the former Communist countries (“All those old apartment blocks / from Magdeburg to Vladivostok / still herd mostly with their kind. / They wait in one long sullen line, / in sun and snow, hail and rain, / for a firework show of paint.”). “At the Emptying of Dustbins” (the second part of the book) is much concerned with these Eastern Bloc scenes.

Out of the Cave (Calder Wood Press 2011) is a more diverse collection with a number of bright and witty poems of metropolitan experience, emerging, I think, from the cave of institutional discourse. Two booklets from Longbarrow Press, Across the Water and Swamp Area (both 2012) are, as you’d expect, concerned with watery areas, crossed by various means and for various reasons but seriously involved in the senses of distance and the passage of time such urban-edge expanses elicit. A number of these poems are about going to work in a train in the company of others doing the same thing, thus about accepting the given terminology of society, which is thought and sung through to its crux, at which you escape from it.7

I am particularly glad of “Holidays of the Poets” (the third part of the book), a rather longer set which unites the author with a lot of different authors (not all poets) as partners in witnessing a place or travelling through one, usually incongruously – titles like “Blake in Munich”, “Homer in New York”, “Pablo Neruda in Aylesbury” – but not always using that formula. The pairings release a lot of Noon’s humour, which is always purposeful, but serious themes abound, particularly a sense of high culture (poetry) made to face the modern condition. There is a particularly delightful piece called “Basho at St Andrews”, prose with haiku-like verselets interspersed, detailing two attempts to walk the coastal footpath to get to the poetry festival. Semi-wilderness beset with notices and golf courses.

THERE IS A poetical category called “the new formalism” but I don’t think Alistair Noon is in it. For all his belief in formal properties he is not writing in opposition or trying to turn any clock back. He does, I think, see a central space in current poetry which is being neglected or drained by extremism on both sides and seeks to regenerate it. He is just as concerned as any avant-gardist to use poetical language to reveal what lies below the surface, but does not see this being done by negating language itself, and thus denying cultural partnership with the reader. He distrusts the levels which the experimenter needs to excavate through, and this means he trusts perception. A good clue to the nature of his practice is given by one of the pieces of Holidays of the Poets, which speaks of the anthropologist Clifford Geertz and his well-known essay “Thick Description”8 This mode is best defined through its contrary: thin description would be an account of what is witnessed, what takes place, what is said, with no authorial comment or interpretation of any kind, and there is quite a lot of poetry like that (viz. the so-called second-generation New York school or, more extremely, the German poet Rolf Dieter Brinkmann). The classic example is of a boy whose right eye either winks or twitches, and thin description cannot say which. Thick description includes motivation, use of codes, context in general, it is the realisation of meaningful structures which are not so much hidden as understood – “to know the imaginative world within which people’s acts are signs”, and here it comes within reach of the possibilities of poetry, especially as Geerz goes on to describe it as the construction of a kind of fiction out of what happens – a “making”.

Noon brings this to poetry through his placement of the authorial self, you could say centrally but not subjectively – it is a perfectly objective attention to particulars as a means of attaching the whole (“the general makes me more specific” – Sonnet 1). Lyrical description is perhaps a good label for what Noon gets up to. The song qualities enhance the description and the description holds the singing to realities.

After so much fresh invention, a reviewer is reluctant to end with such a barefaced cliché as “We look forward eagerly to his second book.” But we do.


Peter Riley, the poetry editor of The Fortnightly Review‘s New Series, is a former editor of Collection, and the author of fifteen books of poetry – and some of prose. He won a 2012 Cholmondeley Award for poetry. His latest book is The Glacial Stairway (Carcanet, 2011). He lives in Cambridge.


  1. Alistair Noon, Earth Records. Nine Arches Press (New Poets Series) 2012. 96pp, £8.99. There have been ten earlier booklets and downloadable e-books, three of which from Calderwood Press and Longbarrow Press 2011/12, are mentioned later. Three of the ten are translations of August Stramm, Monika Rinck and Pushkin’s “The Bronze Horseman”.
  2. I noticed one or two skipped end-rhymes, and the line-length corresponds to the iambic pentameter most of the time, best measured as five stresses rather than five feet.
  3. Seamus Heaney’s “Glanmore Sonnets” (in Field Work, 1979) for instance, use half-rhyme, assonance and non-rhyme a great deal, revise the formal demands ad lib., and the line measure is approximate.
  4. See The Reality Street Book of Sonnets (2008), an interesting chronicle of the survival of the term in modernist-inclined writing, but in which the definition is eventually reduced to that of a short poem susceptible to a count of fourteen of anything (lines, words, streaks of paint etc.), or not.
  5. Three groups of four lines rhymed (in this case) ABAB CDCD EFEF followed by a final couplet (GG). The discourse of the poem thus moves more continuously towards the ending. There is a conventional “turn” of address after line 8 which is not obligatory (inherited from the earlier “Petrarchan” sonnet). Noon frequently ends a sentence at that point without necessarily changing direction.
  6. Quoted in the introduction to Shadow Lands, translated by Ruth and Matthew Mead (Anvil Press 1984). This is still the only substantial collection in English, with skilful and sympathetic translations but unfortunately no text in German.
  7. Visit and These booklets are all around 20-30 pages and cost four or five pounds each.
  8. In his The Interpretation of Cultures: selected essays, 1973. The term derived originally from Gilbert Ryle.
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