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Summer 2020.

barbed rule



barbed rule
A FULL BOOK BAG, reviewed or noted in this order—

Emily Oldfield
Yves Bonnefoy
André du Bouchet
Mallarmé translated by Brinton and Grant
Kelvin Corcoran
Steve Xeri
Peter Hughes
Khaled Hakim

…and books received.
barbed rule

by Emily Oldfield

Poetry Salzburg 2020 | 36pp pamphlet | £6.50 $ 9.50

EMILY OLDFIELD HAS flair. Her first collection is a hotpot of poems taking their substance from a wide range of experience and response, with a good sense of how words work with and against each other, pushing through percept towards discovery, seeking extremes of sense in clashing metaphors. Place is frequently her stage (and she comes from an interesting place called Rossendale) for enactments of confrontation with contextual conflict and resolution, but refusing that dreamy suspension so often inflicted on poetically conceived landscape.

She shows some hesitance as to what kind of poem she wants to write, and there are poems mechanically conceived by rote, and some heavy in their use of the impersonal “you”, so easily a false collective. She is perhaps at her best with poems where the impulsion abandons symmetry and punctuation, and the language stumbles forward towards a conclusion, such as “Mile Stones”, which does in fact employ the generalised “you” but more dynamically. It’s about running—

It’s like the town is cut in two with a plastic
knife from the fryer-up with the shutters down most
of the week and a colour code that comes without
asking. In the back of your throat you can feel
acid like the holes bubbling under the flyover where your
feet keep crossing – this is what it is to resist, this is what it
is to be chased at first like it means something and then just
as much a task as everything else and the thumping thumping of your heart at the bend in the road….

Outside: Poetry and Prose
By André du Bouchet

Selected, translated and presented by Eric Fishman and Hoyt Rogers | Bitter Oleander Press 2020 | 210pp paperback, bilingual text | £22.44 $28.00


By Yves Bonnefoy

Edited and translated by Stephen Romer, Anthony Rudolf and John Naughton [et al.] | Carcanet 2020 | 454pp paperback | £24.00 $39.58


by Stéphane Mallarmé

translated by Ian Brinton and Michael Grant | Muscaliet 2019 | “Comment” by J.H.Prynne | 62pp paperback | £8.50.


ANDRÉ DU BOUCHET’S OUTSIDE is complementary to his Openwork (translated by Paul Auster and Hoyt Rogers, Yale University Press 2014), a selection right through his career (reviewed by me here in The Fortnightly Review). Du Bouchet was prolific, and there is no danger of this second selection having recourse to lesser writings. The translation, which is fairly evenly distributed, seems to me in both cases expert and licenced to take liberties, some of which seem more justified than others. Translation from French to English by Americans often seems to take departures from the literal as a matter of course, which may be merely apparent and most of which are worth thinking about as idiomatic accuracy or renderings of implication. But every now and then there is a wild departure (Ben Bellitt’s versions of Lorca many years ago were notable for this as I recall). It is difficult to question such experts but it would be interesting to know, for instance, how on page 31 the French word “pierraille” (normally “broken stone”, “rubble”) ended up as “Reverdy’s stones”.

As the selection is not in sections the three main phases of du Bouchet’s work are not so evident, but they are there, along with some possible exceptions, as when he will allow a degree of intelligibility in some quite late works, as against the ever more insistent counter-point which sets words against each other in a way which could, or arguably does, drain them of transmission, recognition, emotion, or any other linguistic function. I notice that comments on his writing tend to be defensive, aware not only of this persistent minimalising which thrusts the reader out into a much needed expanse only to cancel it (“dehors / mais vide /le dehors” specified in translation as “outside / but empty / the outdoors”). But there is also sometimes a kind of imagery introduced which seems to degrade the home or comfort zone, the “inside” that we must quit (“today / guts and lungs / in / the sharp chill / next to the door / they’re hung up like a rag”)1. This guarded position among his advocates includes Bonnefoy’s comments as quoted in Rogers’ Afterword —“It is sometimes thought that he harbors an attraction towards nothingness and emptiness…” and the response to this in several cases is to hint rather nervously at the “mystical”.

Du Bouchet’s poetry has always been an engaging venture, especially perhaps for an Anglophone reader, into the equivalence of observed geology and the written or drawn line, and the process of setting words into apposition with each other with less and less movement or substance resulting, with more and more white (in this case light cream) space around them, pushing them towards a “silence beyond language” in which having said less and less they do not say at all but leave us with a faint memory of the possibility of saying. This book excellently opens this process beyond French, including the final surge towards what is not recognised as loss, where some of us might complain that du Bouchet, like John Cage, fails to know that nothing is not an opening but solid impenetrable substance, not a post-conclusion but a never-having-started.

Bonnefoy also wrote an abundance of prose and half-poetical prose. This large collection of critical and appreciative essays, published by Carcanet, begins at 1961 and is supplementary to a lot of earlier essays and books, in some cases returning to subjects he has already treated thoroughly and in others turning to new ones. There are three main divisions: essays on painting and the visual arts, notably Piero della Francesca, Poussin, Giacometti, Cartier-Bresson, Bernini (but only a short extract from the substantial “Rome 1630”); poets, notably Shakespeare, Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Mallarmé, Yeats, Blake, Mozart under the category “poet” (and Bonnefoy’s riposte to the criticism of Georges Poulet) as well as theoretical essays and some memoirs. An index would have been helpful.

WHEN MALLARMÉ ENTERS the scene, he brings problems. Whether you’re pro- or anti-, delighted or baffled, you’re faced with sudden and deep difference. And the text which stands at the limit of his writing and will ultimately challenge all-comers is of course “Un coup de dés…” which occupies the final third of the book. I don’t know what on earth you do to translate this; perhaps you need a spread-sheet. What you don’t do, obviously, is attempt an act of one-to-one transference. Every move you make has to answer a question, which amounts to the existence of the entire work. The only other version I have at hand to compare this one with is the “crib” by Anthony Hartley in his Penguin Mallarmé (1965). Both deviate sometimes extravagantly from the literal, if indeed there is a literal to deviate from, Harley in search of sense, Brinton and Grant, judging by their preface, in search of the original experience or moment of the poem from which to build their version. One would expect this to lie in the short sentence in enlarged upper-case bold which stretches right through the text (but doesn’t reach the end): “A THROW OF THE DICE WILL NEVER ABOLISH CHANCE”. As a message to the world from the great font of poetry this has always struck me as rather feeble—why should a bid for luck in a structure specifically set up to bifurcate the possibility eliminate chance elsewhere? Surely more thought or experience resides in the text in smaller upper-case ending, “Nothing will have taken place except the place except perhaps a constellation”(which is identical in both English versions). That “nothing” again, that emptiness, which the French seem to relish and of which Mallarmé is perhaps the original in poetry. The move is cancelled, the outside is empty, but from this void the map of a heavenly city is suddenly unfurled. Good luck, anyway, to all who sail in this dismantled boat.

The remainder of the book is a judicious selection making no claims to be definitive but avoiding the rather coy occasional verses, with a clear stylistic inclination in the translation, more evident in the shorter poems than in the trance-dance at the end of the book, towards a sense of artifice, especially in a respect for the lineation and a reluctance to normalize Mallarmé’s syntactical peculiarities, the lateral spread of the symbol which admits the arresting shifts of word-choice.

The Republic of Song
by Kelvin Corcoran

Parlor Press 2020 | 82pp paperback | £10.99 $13.99

HOW TO BEGIN a poem:

I’m sending you this from Agios Dimitrios,
October light on the sea as summer retreats,
the days strung out like amber beads of the turning world;
we can walk along the shore and see its radiance dissolve.

—“Listening to Country Music”

This kind of strolling movement, gentle but persistent, has for some time been Corcoran’s normal way of progressing through a poem, sometimes towards a quite demanding terminus, in groups of three to five but normally four lines, unmetricated but denying the thesis of the all-powerful “natural” iamb2 with a roughly dactylic ease of movement which is so much the movement of calm thought and address, relaxed but determined to get somewhere, pacing rather than plodding. It is also manifestly not concerned about which poetical identity it wants to claim: does it proceed from Modernism or Georgian? And it always does get somewhere, in this case the ripping apart of Orpheus and Eurydice as they attempt to return from Hell, leaving the speaker with everything and nothing, defeated by “distance unimaginable”.

The book has an unusually splendid set of blurbs on its back cover, seeming in their thoroughness and accuracy to render the reviewer’s task spurious. (The normal poetry blurb at present consists of standard formulas of extravagant praise, increasingly sensual (“It made me tingle all over” … “We are so excited…”) laced with assurances that the writing is “relevant to our time” which means not too bothered about being poetry, our time recognised mainly in current media topics of concern. Here five readers have supplied succinct accounts not only of how good the book is but also why, entering briefly but deeply into the book’s content. And they do it elegantly. Here is Martin Corless-Smith:

The Republic of Song is Corcoran’s Waste Land, stripping away consoling myth, personal and public, only here there can be no revitalized King. This kind of anger can only come from an exiled son, recalling his once green hopes, pillaged and replaced by a doomed mirage. Beautiful and angry, sad and amused, hopeless and wise: here is a socialist rebuke, here is an anthem of collapse, here is the Republican song sounded over the ravaged common.

This is exactly right, though it is not everything. The three sections into which the book is divided are three sequences which challenge outright the conditions which have defeated us, but serenity and delight are episodically involved in the progressions, and the final words of all three speak of an escape into brighter and wider conditions. The first, “To Write a Mythology”—

…poet in labyrinth turns, follows the sound of the sea
poet scales the final mountain everyone’s there, it’s ok.

The second, ”The Republic of Song”

… Leaving the house I’m caught
that moment of evening, the wind in the pine,
the colour shift of earth, bronze mountains,
Lee, that moment you would know.

And the last, “The Museum of the Sea”—

… Village voices engulfed drift to an ending,
the harbour wall retains the heat of a long history;
radiant click of Ares, the honey of Helen’s mouth;
the sea is dark, the night is dark, we are free,
the boat’s there, sits easy on the water, let’s leave.

Reading difficulties can occur throughout, mainly a matter of referents rather than linguistic distortion. The poetry is open to all forms and degrees of knowledge, picked up as they are encountered or as they arise from major foci, and the forward movement of the lyrical condition which distinguishes the writing does not encourage stopping to explain. More often than not the knowledge you need is indicated in some corner of the poem or of another poem, or can be reached by putting two and two together with the help of a little research.

To take an instance, Corcoran now lives in Brussels, and the poem “Having a Drink with Phil” in the second section of the book asks the reader to recall the history of Leopold II’s disastrous appropriation of the Belgian Congo, as well as Roger Casement’s report on the colony and his meeting with Conrad, and particularly the 267 people who were brought over to form a human zoo in the World Fair of 1897 (an idea that was revived in 1958). The form of the poem is that of a typical Corcoran open quest, a conversation during a tram-ride through Brussels on a route ordained by Leopold for access to his estate at Tervuren. Reminders of the atrocity stand on the ground all around, and appeals for help are made to manifestations of Captain Beefheart , Franz Masereel, Paul van Ostaijen, Samuel Beckett and even Leopold himself on his giant tricycle… An accumulating encounter with harm on a grand scale is played off against possible tokens of redemption in artistry. It is not an account of what happened; it is more like an attempt to escape from what happened by sheltering in the ”republic of song”, which in the end will only lead you to the pity itself. The human zoo is mentioned briefly in passing but at the end of the poem the reader needs to remember the name of its site, Tervuren. The movement of the text leads finally into an elegy for the seven Congolese who died of infectious diseases there in the cold winter of 1897, but this is postponed to the next poem, the smaller “The Seven Graves of Tervuren” as if after all that worry and discussion a breath needs to taken for a new start and a simplicity—

Leopold mounts his giant tricycle
his white beard flapping like a fat tongue,
pedals hard around the graves of Tervuren
gliding pneumatic on Congolese rubber.

Ekia, Gemba, Kitoukwa, M’Peia, Sambo,
Zao and Mibange, remain barely legible;
dumped on unconsecrated ground
their funeral procession booed.


Reburied in a row against the church wall
seven slabs lie at the side of the path;
we stood there and heard nothing – and heard
a song called A History of the World.

I should particularly mention, but Adam Piette has already done so in his back cover blurb, that the book’s final section is “…the great sequence ‘The Museum of the Sea’, on the impact of the long history of sea travel in Greece on our collective imagination and sense of time, place, and space. ” Three of the five poems by Corcoran here are in this book.

Mutter / Land
by Steve Xerri

Oystercatcher Press 2020 | 28pp pamphlet | £5.00


Bethesda Constellations
by Peter Hughes

Oystercatcher Press 2020 | 28pp pamphlet | £5.00


XERRI INTERESTED ME immediately for his language use. It is perfectly “standard” English3 without verbal experimentation or contortion, but in his hands it becomes the vehicle for a sustained discourse by its wide vocabulary, a correctness related to official and legal speech especially in its complex sentence structure which can thus carry extended and devolved content. But it is not at all an antiquated idiom and accommodates the individual writer’s tone with ease.

So he takes a deep breath and launches into the full possibilities of English grammar to convey extended and complex thought (the second poem in the book is one sentence in 18 lines). The extent of the continuity is part of the reader’s pleasure. Whatever he launches the poem into, which may be delineation of experience in landscape, contemplation of natural process (three poems on bird-song), complaints about modernity… whatever it is, it is brought into an extended careful speech by the compatibility of content and manner in the unfolding and diversifying sequences of thought, evidently arising from a strong personal response to the landscapes and experiences he speaks of. As he quotes from MacDiarmid, “It requires great love of it deeply to read the configurations of land” which leads into the long title poem on East Anglian landscape and his relation to it as half-foreigner. It is not a pastoral poetry. It always seeks the real and confronts it directly, but not in a hurry, not scoring points, savouring detail while progressing carefully towards a finality.

in this copse thickly green
with feathery wild chervil
and dog’s mercury, I stand
among creaking trees, see
a Coke can wedged in the fork
of a trunk, breathe close air
zingy with fox, and scent
a backdrop of aircraft fuel
from the hangar a half-mile off
running engine tests under a veil
of microscopic droplets

I could be a recording angel
with no idea what has him here
walled up by traffic noise
in this patch of woodland,
and you reader the monitoring
god whose steadicam I am

—“Voice Memos”

It does not leap across the globe in search of hope; basically it stays where it is, but it does pursue its own written ventures steadfastly into an enlarged sense of the world’s surface which is all the more trustworthy as its mechanisms are in full view. It relishes a sense of extent, especially height, and pushes the language ahead of it, sometimes reaching striking figuration, as in the beginning and end of “Bird Music II” —

Alone at the window as streetlamps
prickle through the fading daylight,
I listen as the blackbird

unfurls his fluttering solo
into the cathedral acoustic
of this high-skied evening.


Unbidden there comes an image
of the heart as a fruit rotting
in the bone tree of a thorax –

and I grasp at last in my mind’s core
something of Rilke’s notion of beauty
as the thin end of terror’s wedge.

Xerri’s discourse acts as a kind of guide, a polite but persistent one, to a terrain and its lessons or through his own thought processes. The poet is the camera, essentially the steady camera uninterested in wobbles and fortuitous image juxtapositions, whereas for so many of the “poetry boom” stars the cameras are focused on the poet.

In principle I think this kind of English discourse is not incompatible with Modernism, and might sometimes drift into that category, or the edge of it, when the intensity level is heightened. Rather oddly, one section of the title-poem suddenly disintegrates into a scatter of words across the page. And of course the more it is a developed English in its weight and poise the more it is European, for that’s where it was forged.

It feels strange to suggest a language use carrying potential qualities in itself, though it has been the normal belief of just about all practising poets for centuries past as a reason for insisting on a poetic diction (including “the real language of men”). There would of course be no quality of any kind without Steve Xerri’s hand holding the quill. I suspect that there are many people all over the land writing poetry in a serious version of standard English like this, though I also get the feeling that Steve Xerri is exceptional.

PETER HUGHES’ POETRY varies in manner across a whole range, sometimes reaching the experimental, which for him is mainly in dislocating small items of language, or modelling poems phonetically on Italian classics. Bethesda Constellations represents a somewhat more normative writing which goes back to his earliest work. But still he bans all punctuation and leaves you to work out the syntax, using line-ends and rhythm, among other things, to define the articulation. The text also skips in and out of consistency of address and location and introduces unknown names. It is as if he takes a casual version of standard English for a walk where it doesn’t normally go and makes it jump over any boundaries that get in the way. But he is too interested in sharpness of wit and joking to eliminate completely the grammatical structures on which these events depend.

The dominant tone is light, but many of the verbal rambles start from serious considerations or serene notations and stay there, though with always the possibility of welcome distractions and irrelevances. A poem like “March” begins and ends within the possibility of meditation on earthly space but the whole middle of the poem is an interruption by the news, therefore absurdity—

	  a longer evening light begins to play
	across the damp catchments of the valley
	  & these eyelash fractals of resistance

	the king is in his armoured counting house
	  & has proclaimed that fire should be allowed
	free reign to ransack woods and villages

	  so as to reinforce the commonwealth’s
	immunity to future conflagration
	  the slightly longer evening light plays on

	around our temporary clearing
	  a hint of fresh petal on the blackthorn
	& a pair of long-tailed tits are building

That’s the whole poem. The interruption cancels a move towards a deeper reading of the scene in perceptual or dispersed multiplicity (“fractals”) and in its resumption the plot is diminished (“slightly”, “temporary”). It ends with a more active but less resonant notation — details of sheer fact, which is the reassertion of personal hope just as the news might barge in and cancel any serenity we have managed to locate. “reign” for “rein” is perhaps a hint at appropriation of disaster by pseudo-regal political opportunism.

A different kind of interruption, local to the poetry scene, occurs near the end of the poem “At Red Wharf Bay” which, being “in memory of John James” and addressed to him, is a ramble over a lost poet’s territory both verbally and topographically.

wherever you may be
my own path takes me over here
squelching towards the end of the line
at the turning of the tide
the wind withdraws for a siesta
I wonder what the avant poets
are doing probably washing up
I walk along past all these signs
I cannot see but feel I think
they grow through me.

This is not the only intervention in this poem of a more-or-less barbed witticism into a serious meditation on death and what it leaves behind for us (“since I moved here to Wales / my English has come on no end”).

Hughes’ poems don’t always interrupt themselves, but if they do not, they are likely to lurch hither and thither, or behave entirely tidily as if to the poet’s surprise..

Bethesda Constellations is classic Hughes: more serious and more irreverent than ever, with a sustainable lyrical line unfailingly true to the variety and instability of experience.

The Book of Naseeb
by Khaled Hakim

Penned in the Margin 2020 | 328pp demy hardback | £10.65 $24.21

MARKETED AS A novel, though I think the author prefers to call it an epic poem, this came as a surprise to such as me who had just discovered Hakim’s existence as an unusual and fascinating kind of poet (see poems by him here and my review of his poetry collection, Letters from the Takeaway, here). The immediately striking feature was a deliberate illiteracy, not in substance, but in the actual script, as of someone who can’t spell and struggles to represent the words by imitating their sound, but whose spoken English ranges from street-talk to the high jargon of philosophy and culture.4 That mode is not so intensely present here as it is in the poetry; it is confined to the first part of the book, for in the second part it would slow down the narrative, which is continuously urgent. Even where it dominates it is absent from some passages, such as the first chapter which is concerned with the speech and acts of deities, but then we get down to street level and we are off — “Da man runs out of his flat wiv de left luggage ticket…”

I’d be quite happy to accept the word “epic”, though not in terms of a tale of royalty and leaders. What is Wolf Hall but the tittle-tattle of kings and queens and the desperation of the victims of their misbehaviour, a religio-social crisis caused by the personal fixations and irresponsibility of a few ordinary people with too much power? The first part of The Book of Naseeb chronicles the struggle against all odds of a denizen of the Birmingham Islamic zone not merely to succeed but to gain redemption by the good works which the Quran repeatedly demands of the faithful. Struggling through a kind of social desert of “small-time” traders the hero conceives an ambitious scheme to help the victims of war on the other side of the earth and so to track through all the squalor and comedy by the only means left: finance and crime — amateur drug-dealing, to finance a quite crazy scheme to supply the maimed of Afghanistan with second-hand artificial limbs. It hardly begins to work before the professionals step in and that is the end of that.

It depicts a bid to escape, not merely from Birmingham back-streets, personal inexperience and racial determination, but from a spiritual disconnection. Islamic discourse hovers over earthly acts, unable to gain admission, and there is an entire parallel text in chapter headings giving a summary divine version of Naseeb’s ventures and mishaps. involving especially the personally appointed angels that follow every individual’s life, the Recording Angel and the Protecting Angel. The Recording Angel certainly records everything Naseeb does, says, or thinks, but the Protecting Angel seems to be ineffective in a crisis. There is a particular kind of comic eschatology as when during the depiction of some domestic fracas it is noted that he probably doesn’t realize that there is a winged white angel standing in the toilet remembering everything they say.

The whole book chronicles a bid to escape from deserts. The first desert is the frustration of the hero’s desire to belong or achieve in a complicated, corrupted mess of a living zone for which the author obviously holds much affection. The second is an actual desert, not specified but perhaps Afghanistan, where Naseeb squeezes by luck through an isolated border post and is then lost in nowhere in constant fear of the uniformed gun-carrying thugs who are the state’s representatives, as elsewhere (but just boys really). As he escapes, running through the border he throws away his backpack, which may contain artificial limbs. Here he will meet his ultimate fate and fall into one of the two categories of redemption or extinction. This second section is called “Berzakh’ which is a kind of Purgatory, and it is possible that at the end of the first part Naseeb dies in a literal or fictive sense, as he does at the beginning of the book, as a result of his punishment for attempting to violate the exclusivity of the drugs trade, and that these two deaths are the same death, both with his father beside him in the hospital saying some of the same words.

The second part is real adventure writing: escaping from detention, being helped and guided across a language barrier, a car crash, being taken in by a smallholding family… and all in the quest to regain the border post , declare his legitimacy and telephone the British Embassy, which we know will never be possible. The descriptions, especially of people, are typically sharp-witted and focused, and there is a richness of incident which urges the reader on towards the end of the book. Naseeb’s quest for redemption, which seems to get forgotten among his attempts to survive, is brilliantly restored in the final episode, where he and his guide stumble across an abandoned baby miles from anywhere in the middle of the night, an opportunity to do good works in spite of his desperate circumstances, as his entire quest focuses on the attempt to keep the baby alive.

And why “epic”? I wouldn’t insist on it, but this narrative cuts into figures of conflict, deprivation and dominance, which are global, seen as they are lived through the urban labyrinth and in open space, unresolved in human reality but with always the possibility of a divine arena beyond perception where the resolution, if there is one, takes place. The total map is of two contrary zones which never meet: the terrestrial and the divine. They endlessly discuss and contemplate and are concerned for each other but never actually come into effective contact. Both of Naseeb’s narratives in this extraordinary book could be posthumous, and both episodes could represent a testing by which the deities decide what to do with Naseeb’s soul. It is a book like no other.

pending the possibility of future review


The Rites of Paradise
By Geoffrey Heptonstall

Allahabad 2020 | £12.03 $15.00


Socrates at Verse and other philosophical poems 
by Christopher Norris

Parlor Press (USA) 2020 | 216pp paperback | £15.99 $19.99


Restless Voices.
by Alan Price

Caparison (The Recusant) 2020. 68pp paperback. £8.00.

Poems derived from letters of mostly Modernist poets and prose and verse derived from Walter Benjamin and others.


by J.H. Prynne

Critical Documents 2019 | 64pp pamphlet.

Prose, narrative even, totally unrepentant.


Cold Calling
by Nick Totton

Equipage 2018 | 28pp pamphlet.


World Frequency
by Nick Totton

Magpie Moon 2018 | 40pp A4 pamphlet | £6.00 $8.00

Nick Totton was a Cambridge poetry denizen who quit and has now returned, but still has a foot embedded, resulting in cold texts, many collaged, with varying degrees of intensity. Of the two, Cold Calling is considerably more relaxed.


Florilegium: poems with a glossary.
by Molly Vogel

Shearsman 2020 | 126pp paperback | £9.81

Contemplating flowers through Modernist poets. This is set aside for further consideration.


Songs We Learn from Trees.
edited and translated by Chris Beckett and Alemu Tebeje.

Carcanet 2020 | 302pp paperback | £15.19

An anthology of Ethiopian Amharic Poetry.

Fortnightly ReviewsPeter 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 (including The Glacial Stairway [Carcanet, 2011]) – and some of prose. He lives in Yorkshire and is the recipient of a 2012 Cholmondeley Award for poetry.

Peter Riley’s Collected Poems, containing work from 1962 to 2017, was published in two volumes by Shearsman in 2018, followed by Truth, Justice, and the Companionship of Owls from Longbarrow Press in 2019. An earlier book, Due North, was shortlisted for the Forward Prize in 2015.  A collection of his ‘Poetry Notes’ columns has been collected in The Fortnightly Reviews: Poetry Notes 2012-2014, and published in 2015 by Odd Volumes, our imprint. An archive of his Fortnightly columns is here.

  1. Both quotations are from Á l’arrêt / At a standstill, the last poem in the book.
  2. The heaviest insistence I know on the absolute inevitability of iambic rhythm in English language poetry because it is “natural” to the language is in Don Paterson’s book The Poem (2018). I found it quite convincing until I tested it repeatedly against actual language use, spoken or written. It is true that stressed and unstressed generally alternate, but the space between the stresses is most commonly of two syllables or more, whether you call that dactylic or anapaestic or “sprung rhythm”.
  3. The concept of standard English is risky these days and easily thought of as exclusive. But it is no more than basic English English; it is the kind of English you have to learn if you are a foreign-speaker learning English. The official definition allows for “minor regional and national variations” to what is otherwise a world language. But a more modern view is that formerly colonised or annexed places such as Scotland, Ireland, Jamaica or India each has its own “standard” English, which should not be viewed as a sub-set.
  4. There’s an interesting paragraph by Hakim entitled “On Orthography” on the Pallina Press website, here.

One Comment

  1. wrote:

    Here we go again. Though Riley eagerly directs us to his earlier disquisition about André du Bouchet, he omits to mention that I was prompted by its wrong-headedness to publish a full-length reply:


    The answer to Riley’s disingenuous question about a minor detail on p. 31 of Outside is self-evident. At the beginning of this short piece, the poet invokes his mentor, Pierre Reverdy. At the end, after viewing the sunrise through the master’s eyes, he refers to the Pierraille at the edge of a village. He capitalizes the word and puts it in italics (Riley suppresses both, for polemical purposes): obviously, one can only conclude that these are ‘Reverdy’s stones’. 


    Even if Riley didn’t know the Christian name of this renowned French poet, he should logically assume that it must be Pierre, and that this is a play on words, as the English confirms. Similarly, a poem about a writer named Riley, which ends with the phrase ‘Peters out’, would tell us his full name. The translation of du Bouchet by my colleague Eric Fishman flows readily from the internal markers, and I concur with it unreservedly. Vice-versa, in French, for ‘Peters out’ we might use something along the lines of ‘Riley s’épuise’, which would convey the basic meaning and reveal his full name.


    Any reader at all conversant with French poetry would automatically pick up on du Bouchet’s wordplay. But if an unschooled neophyte—such as a soi-disant reviewer—had any doubts about the line, he would find that even Reverdy’s most abbreviated biographies stress two things: his father was a stonemason, and stones are the central image in his verse. His often-quoted dictum about poetry declares: ‘The poet is a mason; he fits stones together’. Two of his most celebrated books are Pierres blanches and Ferraille; put them together, and you get Pierrailles. All this background is instantly available on the internet, and The Fortnightly is an online journal.


    I give Riley more credit than he gives himself. He pretends that he did not perceive either the inner workings of the poem, or the interplay between the French and the English. Nor did he bother to seek any further information—though this is presumably another feint. His goal was simply to undermine the reader’s faith in the translation. In a tiny review, he focuses on one phrase in a two-hundred page book which—while easily grasped at face-value—is twisted to discredit the text as a whole. This sort of ‘translator shaming’ is like shooting fish in a barrel, especially with a bilingual edition in hand. In translating poetry, the first equivalent that pops up in the dictionary is rarely the apt one, since so much depends on subtleties of allusion, metrics, idiomatic expressions, historical events, the personal context, and other factors too countless to rehearse.


    It’s hard to apprehend what pleasure Riley derives from such ill-willed antics, which also informed his extensive, misguided ramblings about the earlier du Bouchet volume, Openwork. There also, Riley attributed the inadmissible ‘license’ of the translations to their being composed by ‘Americans’. But with Outside, the patronizing, neo-Colonialist gimmick becomes even shakier, since one of the translators of the book belongs to an international family, and the other has spent virtually his entire life outside the United States, in countries where no English is spoken. The larger quandary is: Why review publications you don’t recommend? My dearly regretted friend, the poet and translator Alastair Reid, always said he would only write about a book if he deemed it completely worthwhile, since people nowadays read too little as it is. Why dampen their enthusiasm even further? 


    Using the coat peg of Outside, Riley again portrays du Bouchet as a poet whose pointless ‘venture’ brings him to a dead end, like a staircase spiraling to nowhere. He deliberately quotes out of context a snippet from Bonnefoy, who was refuting obtuse critiques of du Bouchet, precisely like those of Riley. Countering them, Bonnefoy affirms: ‘To any future existence, the work of André du Bouchet already offers its exemplary energy, its inexhaustible wellspring of transformations. And there are few in our time who embody so decisively that outer limit our age must reach: the purity of the poetic act’. I included the complete quotation in my afterword, from which Riley lifted a self-serving segment. In fact, it is a constant feature of superficial literary journalism to mine the essays of others in order to warp them with an underhanded intent. Bonnefoy’s words do not strike me as ‘nervous’ or ‘mystical’, as Riley would have us believe. He marshals the latter word as a tut-tutting reproach; yet in English, as in all other languages, many of the finest poets have been mystics in some way. I do not know of anyone in French or English who writes about du Bouchet ‘defensively’, as Riley claims, unless it is because she or he is being ‘offended’ by a screed like this one. In that case, it is only normal to ‘defend’ the poet—or in other words, to clarify the truth.


    These ‘summer poetry reviews’ seem to be expressly designed to discourage the reading of translations, or of any foreign book. Riley persists as before in his insular attitudes, writing of ’the French’ and ‘the Americans’ in vast, condescending generalizations that hold as little water as his habitual ruminations about Modernism—a term so vague that it has led him to group Dylan Thomas with du Bouchet. Such comments are on a par with the remarks I used to hear bandied about in the MCR of my Oxford college. Riley seems to hold a particular grudge against French literature, though he sets himself up as an authority on the subject. In this contribution, he devotes only a paragraph to Carcanet’s anthology of Bonnefoy’s splendid essays, beautifully introduced by Stephen Roemer. He grants them no word of approval, even as he lavishes praise on relatively minor British poets, highly meritorious though they may be. Did he read the text at all, one wonders? His petty objection that the book needs an index is belied by his own description of the volume’s division into sections, with most essays being focused on a single topic, specified in the title. This collection, published in the UK, was translated by both Britons and Americans, without the editors considering the latter more inaccurate than their counterparts from the ‘sceptered isle’.


    In the next paragraphs, we find Riley taxing Mallarmé for a supposed ‘French’ obsession with nothingness, as if he were somehow entitled to pass sweeping judgments on one of France’s greatest authors. What are his qualifications for making such pronouncements? By his own account, he has only looked at two anthologies of the poet, and does not know his entire work in depth. The translators of a recent selection he flippantly dismisses are Ian Brinton and Michael Grant. Along with an earlier translator, Anthony Hartley (whose name he misspells), they are accused by Riley of ‘deviating sometimes extravagantly from the literal’. All three of the guilty parties are Britons, yet he does not single out their ‘extravagant deviation’ as a national trait, as he does with ‘the Americans’. Could the fault actually lie in the cramped ‘literalism’ of Riley’s own mind, incapable of understanding the flexibility which any translation demands? 


    Chauvinism is out of place in literature, above all in the field of translation. But if he must take a nativist stance, Riley should stick to his home turf: the English language, especially as written in England. As his diffuse essays over the years have demonstrated, he is in his element when he slowly ambles through the hills and dales of poetry in the British idiom, particularly if it dwells on the countryside in familiar metrical schemes, or varies the menu with ethnic urbanities, or employs foreign locales as a backdrop for Anglophone bemusement. He does this so engagingly that I for one would sincerely urge him to forget about the pernicious intellectualism of ‘the French’ and the linguistic treachery of ‘the Americans’. He should cleave to what he knows and loves, which is something on which we can all agree: the verbal glories of ‘England’s green and pleasant land’.  —Hoyt Rogers

    Saturday, 1 August 2020 at 20:46 | Permalink

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