By Anthony Howell.
WHO IN THE UK, Canada or America, or indeed elsewhere in the world, is breathing fresh air into poetry? At the conclusion of my essay about the Norton anthology American Hybrid, I suggested looking for the work that is marginalised by both the traditionalist camp and by the abstractionists – and by the post-modern post-divisionists in the aforementioned anthology.
I think of such poets as mavericks. Certainly it is a term that can be applied to Elizabeth Bishop, and F. T. Prince was just that – indeed he used the term to describe himself. He was a poet who reconciled the British lyric and narrative tradition with European modernism. Identified by T.S. Eliot as his successor, Prince was booted off the Faber list as the clouds of World War II were gathering, since his work was too ‘disengaged’, and the preference was for the socialist ‘commitment’ of W. H. Auden – not altogether surprising, since Pound’s defection to the Axis.
Prince was a Catholic, but his commitment as a writer was primarily to literature. Having been invited to chair the English department of Kingston University in Jamaica, he grew exasperated when students handed him manuscripts avowing their religious zeal. He said to me once, ‘Literature allows one to become emancipated from oneself.’
PRINCE WAS AT the same time supremely erudite and supremely conversational. His work owes something to that of Arthur Hugh Clough, whose Amours de Voyage, published in 1858, is one of the first maverick masterpieces (though we should not forget that James Thomson (not the B.V. one, but the earlier one) published his descriptive tour de force, The Seasons, in 1730 – right in the midst of the Augustan age!).
Clough has been pronounced a prosaic poet, and the same could be said of some of Prince’s best work, but I see the adjective as one that describes a quality rather than a fault. Remember Pound advocating the need to ‘bring poetry up to the level of prose’? Here is the beginning of Prince’s evocation of Laurence Sterne’s love for Eliza Draper:
Spenser has Britomart on guard in the enchanter’s house
xxxxxx Reading over every iron door ‘Be bold’,
And on and on ‘Be bold’, until over the last door
xxxxxx ‘Be not too bold.’
xxxxxx xxxxxx xxxxxx One might vary it: ‘Be plain,
Be sad, true, deep’—see with the addition how they do.
xxxxxx But for the bundle we have here (including
Not only the diary and letters found in a loft
xxxxxx Among lumber and waste paper by a boy
Who played and rummaged) the only right word is ‘Be late.’
xxxxxx Which is, even with ‘Be not too late’, I daresay
No famous old device, but vows to serve Eliza
xxxxxx And Yorick and the Journal to Eliza,
And will fit it down to the opening, out of things unknown
xxxxxx And just as he left it, the first pages gone,
Sent after her; when Sterne, worn by so many fevers
xxxxxx But most that of his heart, sits with her picture
Alone, pale and bereft, in Bond Street:
xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx ‘O my Bramine,
xxxxxx my friend, my helpmate!’
xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx – From A Last Attachment: F.T. Prince Collected Poems, Anvil Press Poetry 1993
The tone is calibrated to the content of the poem, and it’s a tone seldom before encountered in English poetry. The same can be said of Prince’s poem spoken by Saint Rock’s dog:
howso we go in grace
silk air and sun
of summer, taking and
a walk, my ride
my hop, my read and rite
—and rumbles, tumbles
turns here to be shrewd
sitting down hastily
to itch, then on
to such collating
what all they, every one
gone said and done…
xxxxxxxxxxxxxx – From His Dog and Pilgrim: F.T. Prince Collected Poems, Anvil Press Poetry 1993
The verse here reads like a fresh literary concept. It occupies new ground for, in art, nothing stays the same. Perceptions that seemed like break-throughs in the heyday of their innovation (I think of Manley Hopkins in relation to the high jinx of this doggy poem) become techniques we handle with ease. And there is an ease about this writing. It is not loathe to entertain.
EASE CAN BE refreshing. One of my criticisms of American Hybrid was that it tended to favour ‘difficult’ poems. Perhaps we first encounter ease in the work of Walt Whitman, and it is also a refreshing attribute of beat poetry – Ginsburg, Corso, Ferlinghetti and others. Today, we meet it in the work of Tony Hoagland, in the work of Wendy Cope in the UK and also in the work of Donald Gardner – who lives in Holland, but writes in English.
ON A PHOTOGRAPH OF MYSELF, AGED TWO
I am all there
all my hair
thick blonde curls
concentrating fiercely on a box of alphabet blocks.
In the photo I look
definitely unimpressed –
that’s not much of an alphabet!
My sister’s in the photo too,
keeping an eye on me to see I don’t make a mess,
but she’s been messing with my toy battleship.
Better watch it, big sister, I’m thinking.
But I’d better watch it myself – she’s bigger than me.
Older, bigger, spoiling for a fight,
she’ll see I don’t get into mischief.
Nearly seventy years on I catch myself
in the same pose.
Hands on hips, same vexed look.
I’m staring at my grandchildren
as they move around the living room floor,
crawling and playing,
but my mind is elsewhere.
In company, but lost.
All that change,
yet I’m still the same.
I might be hard put to it
to get into mischief.
Gardner sometimes refers to himself as a performance poet. And it should be admitted that this is comparatively fresh way of looking at poem-making that is creating some interesting results – but it’s not entirely a new approach – Vachel Lindsay was a performance poet and it’s a term that could be applied to Whitman, and to most of the beats. Both Donald Gardner and Zena Edwards are performance poets who are also simply poets – their writing works on the page as well as it does in performance. We should not confuse ‘ease’ with a merely facile use of words. A similar effortlessness of expression can be found in the later poems of Jean Garrigue, another maverick precursor.
FOR JENNY AND ROGER (FIRENZE)
Drunk on your gaiety,
Your charm and crazy grace,
And drunk upon the blitheness of your words,
I talked with you all night
And now I am spent.
But I would have the play again
Of candlelight and thought,
Poems chanted, or begun
One notorious pun,
And all with such a wit
We were laughter’s oracles,
And I would have again
Our carefree spirits dancing
To measures of our liking.
Hunting and fishing stories,
Arguments begun and dropped,
The maddest theories brought out
Of some old corner of a hat,
We talked the night away
Kindled by our sympathy
To wander down all rough and grassy roads,
Unfolding every vagrant plot
In which we had been drolls or gallant fools
So it might amuse.
For those who talk the night away,
What makes that pride so sweet,
That pride of life they take
In putting on the wholecloth of their thought,
Those parts they’ve half forgot
Of what they’ve lived that they play out,
What makes that pride if it’s not love,
The heat of light and thought,
The heat of beating out
Love’s steps to wine and light?
Nor is their thought known to them
Till the other gives the truth away.
They are hidden from their thought
Till the other finds it out.
xxxxxxxxxx – Jean Garrigue, 1912-72, from Studies for an Actress, Collier Books, 1973
OF COURSE, EASE is deceptive and can camouflage deep ideas. But as with difficulty, ease can pall. The trouble is, it can become predictable, whereas with poetic ‘difficulty’ we begin to yearn for a little more predictability!
Now we are getting to the heart of the matter. Poetry tasting is not quite like wine-tasting. It is not just the flavour or bouquet assessed in a single sip – as poetry competitions might have us believe! A book priding itself on its difficulty can overwhelm our patience: a book that is easy to read can ‘bottom out’ after several poems because it is not challenging enough. In this regard, bear in mind Laura Riding’s differentiation between lethargy and boredom (in an introduction to her own work). These, she suggests, are similar sensations resulting from different causes; boredom setting in when something is too familiar, lethargy when something is too new – or perhaps difficult – requiring that we first make an effort describe it to ourselves.
I find a balance of difficulty with ease in the work of Jody Cothey, who writes under the name Pamela Stewart – and on whose farm I was staying recently, high up in the Massachusetts hills overlooking Vermont.
Someone sleeps with his back to you,
or he doesn’t. He sweats
as he dreams. On his lip
a small blue spot gathering clouds
beyond a mountain pass.
Miles from here, you see another man
staring into himself at the face of a woman.
She turns at the gate. He looks through
her right into the earth.
He wakes. You both wake. On the mountain
the deer stand betrayed.
One of them is you.
The sky loosens snow. A flash of hooves
circles your room, black spots
on the horizon.
In each hand you hold a story.
your heart wedges into the earth.
Not flower, not mouth or star —
but an eye, half-shut, waiting.
xxxxxxxxxx – Pamela Stewart, from Nightblind, Raccoon Books, 1985.
THERE IS A simplicity to the language. What is said is clear, and yet the meaning is complex and eludes immediacy of comprehension (better than the other way round, which is frequently the case with a lot of unsuccessful poetry). While often working with a serene juxtaposition of vivid images which can remind me of the work of Georg Trakl, Pamela Stewart can also mine a vein of pure description:
ON THE OUTER BANKS
In the silver ballast of their Airstream,
Fredus M. Berger & his “missus” fried up
salmon patties made of pink shreds from a tin.
They had a thin schoolroom taste
in the violet seaside dusk.
Our tent, pitched nearby on sand, stood tilted
& adolescent compared to the Berger’s
provisions & folding chairs. A yellow lamp
sizzled bugs away from our just-
getting-acquainted-talk. The next day
I watched you & Fredus fishing in the surf.
The sun, the sky, all the sea & shore curved
in a huge white blank & for the first
time ever I collapsed from heat, became
the indolent depletion of falling absolutely down:
a strangle of hair at my neck,
the running streams of my arms & legs,
those distant knees & toes. Forced
by such enormous brightness to just let go,
I touched a further shimmering world
which roared like the engine of the sun.
For a moment I slept at its center.
Somehow salvaged, I came to as Mrs. Berger
poured iced tea. Later that year
I stopped loving you. The walls closed in. Still,
I praised the grey-haired Bergers, back
in Tennessee, with their opened tins
of fish & baby peas. That bright hunk of metal
anchored in their yard had ruffled curtains
& plastic figurines. But its stories of travel
continued to gleam in the shadow of that house
where one old man & his wife
curled into each other without question or fear.
– Pamela Stewart, from Infrequent Mysteries, Alice James Books, 1991
The scrupulous realism here is nevertheless cut into by the abrupt emotional shift: “Later that year/I stopped loving you. The walls closed in….”
I see Pamela Stewart’s work as just as relevant as any of the hybrid poets brought together in the Norton anthology. But I prefer to think of her as an ‘afterist’ – to return to my own term for a poet whose work transcends the split between traditional realists and the champions of the abstract .
The afterist poet will manage to balance difficulty with ease, so perhaps the authentic poem of our time needs to be defined by negatives. It is not automatically the case that it will be a ‘hybrid’, striving to fuse meaning with abstraction. It will not erect difficulty like a wall that only academics may scale, nor will it embrace ease with such enthusiasm that everything becomes just too emollient.
As has always been the case, poetry depends on the stamina of the poet’s dissatisfaction – the line turned and turned and turned again. So the afterist church is broad in one sense, but infinitely picky in another. It is only concerned with jewels ‘of the first water’ – but these can be any sort of gems.
THOSE WHO, WITH an indefatigable zeal, tune a poem to perfect pitch and an overall resonance which makes it more than the sum of its parts are often too immersed in the process to spend much time networking or checking whether the poem adheres to some group protocol. Even this ‘zeal’ requires mediation. Poets of the indigenous nations were required to keep to their wigwams and to sleep a lot, for sleep was where the poem came from.
I see such sleepy perfectionists as the true mavericks. They are poets who seem to be part of no particular school: poets like Peter Didsbury, James Cervantes and Rosanne Wasserman. All three employ language as a form of knowing rather than as a means of direct, obvious communication. Didsbury’s work, for instance, is steeped in tradition, both the tradition of poetry and the traditions of his Northumbrian and archaeological background, and yet there is a delight in the twists and surprises it is possible to generate with words. Didsbury is a poet who is fully aware of abstract innovation, yet uses such method to evoke what is ultimately a nostalgic atmosphere. While dislocating the sense with startling references, the syntax of each sentence is still capable of adhering to the logic generated by the whole, so it reads as a consequence of the sentence before.
xxxxxxxxxx (for Leo Doyle)
Men are not gods. They just hold the same things in common.
Climbing the stairs to our bedrooms in the dark,
or idly gazing at landscapes from early albums,
crouched in a plastered outhouse of a summer evening
where it’s cool and quiet and the light has failed,
we harvest the truth of those tentative statements
which were formed in the mouth of the bakelite wireless,
for its plummy plurals have continued to reach us
wherever we are in the house. Edifying Lectures at Dusk
float in and out of the windows like paper planes,
the kind whose bombload is held to resemble
the light reflected from jams in the pantry,
pear halves stacked in syrup in jars,
the breath of apples in the air raid shelter
and the sound of the clock in the hall that is ticking like fruit.
Please ask me nothing. A globe of inky but translucent glass
is slowly inventing itself, and turning into a sky.
The yellow panes of a window expand upon it and curve
like four birds flying away from a centre.
I stoop to look through them at mountain lawns
and a bent old child with a barrow on a path
who gradually straightens and shrinks, while I do so myself.
There are bird baths on Olympus, too.
Dressed in gas masks and a good deal shorter
we are playing French cricket next to one,
passing the bats around and around our legs
and eyeing the prizes of perfect fruit it supports
as if the centrifuge on the end of the arm
had just created loganberries and now sustained them.
The garden levels as I watch; the fence comes upright with a click;
a sigh from the bellows of an unseen camera —
and the outspread palm of the evening is holding up the house.
Here. Its bootscrapers stand in little religious alcoves
and vie with the kitchen drains in collecting the dark.
The bells in the bedrooms are stopped with paint
as fast as the mouths of the days of its servants.
A towel rail hums in the bathroom, a stirrup pump stares,
a medical dictionary sighs on its shell,
and trolley bus tickets with different owners
flutter like moths in the back room we shared,
just glimpsed, as I open the door with love
to gaze at the absent inmates on the grass,
flying back to their piles on the dressing table,
and alighting in serial silence, like the days.
– Peter Didsbury, from Scenes from a Long Sleep, New and Collected Poems, Bloodaxe, 2003
We should also recognise that there are mavericks who have been out there working in other languages: Yannis Ritsos, Anna Akhmatova, Elizabeth Borchers, Ifigenija Simonovic, Fawzi Karim, the Swampy Cree and many more. They also go back in history – I have already indicated that this is the case with Thomson and Clough – it is also true of Richard Lovelace, and later, in America, of John Wheelwright and Harte Crane, and of Francis Webb in Australia. In the UK, Charles Madge was a maverick, and David Gascoyne, while adhering to surrealism, was so isolated in England in his time that the term refers to him as well.
Recently a painter friend of mine made the observation that a certain image by Picabia neither represented something nor failed to represent anything, since it felt as if it should represent something, but in the end it somehow just existed. This suggests that the Picabia epitomises one notion which seems not to have dated, i.e. that of the pure work of the imagination, as sought after by Raymond Roussell and by Mallarmé.
Then, in his essay on Vorticism, Pound maintains:
THE IMAGE IS NOT an idea. It is a radiant node or cluster; it is what I can, and must perforce, call a VORTEX, from which, and through which, and into which, ideas are constantly rushing.
This would be my definition of a good poem, and here, we seem to have come full circle, when a remark from the very moment that signified a radical shift from the tradition still seems to apply to the very best of writing today.
THE AFTERIST POET reconciles the above values. It stands as a poem, not as a representative for some theory of poetry, and it can be set in the lyrical tradition of realism (a fine poem by Thom Gunn, for instance), or be a play of abstract phrases, or nonsense, or aim for a fusion of any of these values or any others. It may use narrative, and then shift laterally, as in collage. Wit is much in evidence, and while it may be accessible, it delights in the oblique. The afterist does not seek to establish his or her work by adherence to an exclusive school. The ‘isms’ are over.
One poet who works within the lyric tradition, yet still succeeds in writing memorable poems is Kerry-Lee Powell, a Canadian poet whom I first met in Wales at a stimulating get-together for poets that used to take place regularly in a pub opposite Cardiff Castle called The Four Bars.
The former residents of the drowned village
Returned by the bus-load to see their steeple
Emerge in a dry spell from the hydro-electric
Reservoir’s receding waters. On calm days
The remains of the old hall’s walled garden,
Greenly wavering. Year after year they came,
Spreading blankets on the embankment.
Like the shed leaves of the surrounding birches,
The water’s shifting mirrors caught their looks of sad
Enchantment -as if figures in a recurring dream
Gliding off in boats over lilac stumps and the cellars
Of their demolished houses. Wistful flotillas-
How their faces lit up momentarily then fell,
Because it was hard to tell whose swamped yard
Had been whose. Sometimes some of them wished
They could dive to the bottom and drift
Among the ruins to find the glittering, lost thing
They must have all been looking for, but never did.
Is this a dream, or a fantasy, or a described reality? It is not a poem much affected by the trend of post-divisionism, nor is it a hybrid. It could have been written at any time since the invention of hydro-electric power, I guess. Nevertheless, it works as a perfectly crafted object made of words. Such a thing will never lose its relevance.
Leaving division behind, let there be reconciliation, and tolerance if not integration. But please understand that I am not advocating some wishy-washy acceptance of all verse. This reconciliation of division does not mean that, with the ways of writing a poem being so broad now, there are no longer any criteria for assessing writing. It is not ‘all subjective’. It’s possible to identify a number of faults in traditional, abstract or hybrid verse – redundancy, for instance, or inaccuracy, clumsiness, lilt, sentiment, over-emphasis on message, monotony, unoriginality, facility, ignorance, lack of concept, garishness or failure of dynamic. We may learn to accommodate our differences, but, we are also canny enough to be able to read with enjoyment what we may not see as ‘party’ to our own endeavour – nevertheless we grasp how it works and can tell where it fails, if it does. Essentially a poem must reach it’s own homeostatic equilibrium. If it is still carrying something surplus to this, or has fudged some essential element of what it sets out to define as its structure, then it has failed.
In a broad church, there can still be an appreciation for the unique voice, refined and crystal clear, together with an understanding that the voice might well be an abstract pattern that entertains.
If I were to select an anthology it would feature poets from all over the world who had mastered the art of ‘flying crooked’.
MAVERICKS (an international sample)
Teri Louise Kelly
Gregory Warren Wilson
Of course there are others…
From Grey Suit: Poem Stream: F. T. Prince reads ‘Strambotti’.
A former dancer with the Royal Ballet, Anthony Howell was founder of The Theatre of Mistakes and performed solo at the Hayward Gallery and at the Sydney Biennale. His articles on visual art, dance, performance, and poetry have appeared in many publications including Art Monthly, The London Magazine, Harpers & Queen, The Times Literary Supplement, and he is a frequent contributor to The Fortnightly Review. In 2001 he received a LADA bursary to study the tango in Buenos Aires and now teaches the dance at his studio/gallery The Room in Tottenham Hale. He is the author of a seminal textbook, The Analysis of Performance Art: A Guide to Its Theory and Practice.