A Fortnightly Review.
By ANTHONY HOWELL.
Now, Stannard’s poetry has often been almost self-deprecatingly mundane. That mundanity of subject reminds me of the work of Alan Brownjohn, who was a pioneer in this regard, able to write a deft poem about breaking eggs for an omelette. Other poems by Stannard seem to bathe in the delight of letting Italian street and church names trip off the tongue; he used to teach English and American Literature at the University of Genoa. Stannard has always been adept at teasing us with ideas which seem at the very edge of being ideas. He likes sprinkling his work with allusions, on occasion simply for their flavour, which is fine by me. And thus, he has felt free to pick up his content from anywhere, ever the master of the minor moment. Take Stannard’s ‘Scallops for Tracy’ (from The Parrots of Villa Gruber Discover Lapis Lazuli):
Steve’s cooking scallops for Tracy.
He’ll actually use a little too much cream
but the scallops won’t resist too much.
Steve’s cooking scallops for Tracy.
Everything bar the cooking’s almost ready.
He’s about to undress and step into the shower.
Tracy’s slipping out of Darlington.
She doesn’t know about the scallops,
she’s not sure about her level of resistance.
Steve’s scrubbing himself in the shower.
It’s true he’s put on a little weight
but who wants to sleep with a will-o’-the-wisp?
Steve’s cooking scallops for Tracy,
he needs to shave and apply some Eau Sauvage.
A man with scallops is a man who shaves.
Tracy’s driving along the motorway.
She’s bought herself a nice little dress.
She’s never in her life eaten a scallop.
The poem works as a movie works, cutting from one scene to another happening elsewhere, in this case at the same time — and heading for collision. Perhaps Tracy will prove allergic to scallops! But the form of the poem is tight, derived from the seventeenth century triolet — with its repetition of a key line – and with lines which are generally four- or five-stress ones. There’s an epicurean delight in the description of meals in Stannard’s work that continues into his collection What Were You Thinking? But these references to food are more situationist than culinary — I’m reminded here that in À Rebours (Against Nature), J-K Huysmans’ eccentric aesthete, Jean des Esseintes, explores what I call the “exiled senses” — touch, taste and smell — with a sensual delight which has been labelled ‘decadent’ — however, he only eats what I suppose is a French form of Bovril. I think that is brilliant. The book would have been an utter bore had des Esseintes been a gourmet. With Stannard, dining out and food subjects are simply the hangers for the conversation that ensues (I’m reminded of A Nest of Ninnies, by John Ashbery and Jimmy Schuyler) — and the jokes that can be made via the vocabulary of what we may eat — as in ‘Lunch with Fleur’ — from a section in the book called ‘Dear Nosh’:
Somewhere in the freezer
Fleur had put a quiche.
She’d bought it for a street party
but it had rained and, in any case,
what a shame to give it up.
The quiche climbed into the freezer.
It sort of liked it: its parts becoming one,
a flying saucer, a frisbee, in Finchley.
It was a stroke of genius
to pull it out and watch it twitch
in the kitchen
rediscovering its pseudo-Gallic whatnot,
its thawing into chanson.
Quiche, you are my chanson d’amour:
small but perfect.
Have another piece, Fleur said
have another chanson d’amour.
Let’s sing, I said, we could sing a duet.
I am tone deaf, I am a catastrophe
when it comes to duets
but there is something about the quiche
the O of oh and the O of oh
which makes me want to sing
and I want to dance the tango.
The quiche isn’t a chanson d’amour
It’s a tango by Astor Piazzolla
It’s oblivion, it’s total oblivion
It’s the back streets of Buenos Aires
It’s late afternoon, quiche, quiche are you ready?
The poem is fairly tight still, though not as tight as ‘Scallops for Tracy’. But what it offers us is a delightful sense of how conversations can be free to evolve, through quips and repartee into a cartoon hilarity and the purest absurdity. As a tango dancer, I know a tango is nothing like a quiche! But ‘twitch’ works with ‘kitchen’, and there is a hint of ‘Lorraine’ in the O of oh, and so the poem gets to its mad destination and beyond — with ‘quiche’ almost being ‘quick’ — or the way they say it in the Loraine. The lines get us thinking, about words, about their origins, about where their mere sounds may take us.
With his latest book, Heat Wave, Stannard is happy to ride without stirrups and let go of the reins altogether, for the most part, though he still shows, with certain poems included here, that he can put up with some vestige of a harness. However, when we get to ‘Eau Sauvage‘ (Stannard’s favourite scent?) — freedom takes on a whole new dimension.
I get an unexpected
text from Lord Lucan:
Will you read my poems?
Yes, Lord Lucan, I will.
Tomorrow, when I look
for the message it isn’t
there — I mean his part
of the message isn’t there.
Just, Yes Lord Lucan I will.
It sounds like a song.
Yes, Lord Lucan, I will.
Yes, Lord Lucan, I will.
A week later a package
drops through the letter box —
22 Landguard Road
into a communal hallway,
full of envelopes
addressed to neighbours
who’ve long since disappeared:
Miss Moon, Miss Pinkerton
Miss Reckless, Miss Raven
and the loveliest of all
I read the poems
with trembling lips.
I read the poems
with trembling thighs.
I read the poems
with widening eyes……
And so, in couplets and single lines, the poem continues for another twelve pages. It’s an improvisation, a riff on Lord Lucan, a poem to be read aloud without bogging oneself down in some attempt to extract the sense, though there’s plenty of sense in it if you like your sense scrambled, which I do. It’s purely and simply a joy to read — as it is to put on a Jazz CD and let it let you drift away. It’s an artist taking ‘a line on a walk’, as Paul Klee might put it. I’m impressed that this has been published. It bodes well for a liberated future for English verse.
Now since poets have a tendency to hobnob with other poets, I’ll hazard a guess that the ‘Fleur’, whose lunchtime quiche it was in the poem before last, is Fleur Adcock. Hailing from New Zealand — and appreciated there as well as here — Fleur is one of the tightest poets I know. Her words have the diamond-precision of a glass-cutter. She can touch on a reference with such deft allusion that one nearly misses it while letting you in on some literary or cultural gossip, as in ‘An Illustration to Dante’:
Here are Paolo and Francesca
whirled around in the circle of Hell
clipped serenely together
her dead face raised against his.
I can feel the pressure of his arms
like yours about me, locking.
They float in a sea of whitish blobs –
fire, is it? It could have been
hail, said Ruskin, but Rossetti
‘didn’t know how to do hail’.
Well, he could do tenderness.
My spine trickles with little white flames.
(Fleur Adcock, Collected Poems)
The poem is a subtle medley of half-and near-rhymes — Francesca, together, pressure — locking, Ruskin…And it also plays with names rich with allusion — Paolo, Francesca, Ruskin, Rossetti. Two six-line verses, neatly set together, and then, in each verse, a sensual love line concludes. And this is a poem about legendary lovers — so the ultimate effect is an invocation of passion.
Can such a ‘tight’ writer free up? To some extent. ‘Smokers for Celibacy’ is created out of relaxed couplets underpinned by rhymes:
Some of us aren’t too keen on the thought of micro-organisms travelling up into our brain
And giving us General Paralysis of the Insane….
But the poem is humorous and rounds itself off with its point:
Altogether, we’ve come to the conclusion that sex is a drag.
Just give us a fag.
One way in which Fleur Adcock pursues a more open style is when she makes use of collage as in ‘Sam’s Diary’ — where we find a description of new arrivals in New Zealand setting about building a house:
Clean weather board
Dressed timber flooring
pencil notes ghosting the pages
intended for January 1914.
Then a flutter of dates blown in from elsewhere,
with just enough details to anchor them:
The poem accumulates lists, receipts and so on, building up a picture of the desolate times it describes, ending on…
…a bucolic note: Cow served
November 21st 1915;
Due August 1916. Not long
to wait; she was pregnant when they bought her.
So, for all its seeming looseness, it still finds its ending, and rather than freeing up it has simply created a form from collage to get across the experience it describes.
I include Fleur Adcock as the epitome of precision, and returning to Julian Stannard, I reflect that for a writer with plenty of tight poetry in his background, it seems quite unusual to free up so drastically. So that has got me thinking about this issue of freeing up — did it really begin with the Impressionists — or did it begin with the cavemen? I bet it has always been there, a sense that one’s first sketch may have more authenticity than some polished final product.
Here, as in previous references to impressionism, those small clay sketches come to mind; the ones that the neo-classicist Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux created when preparing to execute some grand commission that would end up as a composition in polished, monumental marble. Thousands of years earlier, handprints become red smudges and many red smudges magically formed a mammoth on the wall of a cave. Impressions made with thumbs and fingers can generate a sense that one’s first take may well be the take that is the most authentic. It’s the mirror neurons kicking in – and that initial projection that precedes recognition.
All too often, in literary theory, restraint and liberation become polarised. Historically, this can be understood as leading to opposing camps: pitched battles fought with umbrellas when Nijinsky first rubbed his lithe body against the shawl of the nymph who’d escaped him on the night L’Après-midi d’un faune was first performed – and the row was as much about Debussy’s anti-establishmentarian music and Mallarmé’s “undisciplined” poem as it was about the sensuous enactment of a fantasy. I guess it is all pretty Nietzschean — Apollo versus Dionysus and so on. And then of course you can see it with the beat poets and how appalled the Ian Hamilton crowd were by poems such as ‘Howl’.
My friend Kazuko Shiraishi is the Allen Ginsberg of Japan — it’s what Kenneth Rexroth called her. It was she who, after having been discovered by the avant-garde poet Katsue Kitazono – a friend of Ezra Pound – unshackled Japanese poetry from an insistence on stilted forms. She is now in her nineties. When I met her, at the Iowa International Writers’ Program back in the ‘sixties, she wore tight gold lamé trousers and platform heels. The IWP was founded by Paul and Hualing Engle as a non-academic, internationally focused counterpart to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. We got an excellent salary for a year, and were committed to give one presentation during that year. Those were the days! We came from everywhere, poets and translators from Ethiopia, Rumania, the Philippines. We all had rooms in the same dormitory: rooms prompting Feydeau-like farces, since one kitchen would be shared by two separate flats! During the bitterly cold months, Kazuko would cook excellent tempura. Other nights would have a Filipino or some other traditional theme, and sometimes John Cheever or a visiting Stephen Spender would latch onto us for our looks, our suppers and our conversation. Cheever, as befitted his East Coast demeanour, never wore anything but a jacket, even in a blizzard.
Having been married to a famous Japanese film-director (Masahiro Shinoda who directed Double Suicide in 1969) Kazuko regaled us all with colourful stories about her life. She was born in Vancouver in 1931 — the family were discriminated against before the war, and so they went back to Japan, once more to suffer discrimination, but from a Japanese angle now. I think this experience made her “a little outside life” — as Edith Sitwell says of herself in ‘Colonel Fantock’, and perhaps that is a poet’s fate. Kazuko Shiraishi could stand outside either a north American or a Japanese sense of herself, and see either for the projection it was. But she was what a later generation might have called a raver. She got off on black G.I.s — and cool Japanese film-directors.
By the late fifties she had begun to have doubts about the sort of modernism promoted by Kitazono’s VOU movement. To her it was all art for art’s sake and lacked the power of chaos and dynamism that she saw around her in the real world. She was after something more immediate.
Others had already called the sanctimonious praise of a canon embalmed in some notion of tightness mightily into question: Walt Whitman certainly, and also, just as significantly, Vachel Lindsay — who wrote ‘The Congo’. Lindsay is considered a founder of modern singing poetry, as he referred to it, in which verses are meant to be sung or chanted. He encouraged Langston Hughes and was a pioneer of the spoken word. His poems are a joy to read aloud, and the same can be said of the work of Edith Sitwell.
In the sixties, Kazuko Shiraishi hung out with jazz musicians and began doing her readings with them, while she also presented her work at fashion shows – bringing it into the realm of performance. Then Rexroth edited a volume of her poetry in English for New Directions Press (Seasons of Sacred Lust, 1968). Early poems in this collection are compact, lyrical essays in surrealism, still influenced by VOU, each with a beginning, a middle and an end:
He’s a football player
Kicks a ball, everyday he kicks a ball
He kicked love up high in the sky
And it stayed there
Because it didn’t come down
People thought it must be the sun
The moon or a new star
A ball that never comes down
Hangs suspended in the sky
You can see it become flames
Becoming a star
As her work evolves, the verse, which has already ripped itself away from the stilted conventions of haiku, becomes rhythmically influenced by the jazz solos of John Coltrane. This was in an era when her contemporary, Shuntaro Tanikawa was engaged in introducing humour (and even nonsense!) into Japanese literature. Kazuko Shiraishi goes further. She introduces Japan to Dionysus. Her lines can wind anywhere, as she opens up and improvises on the theme of My Tokyo, accompanied by some of the best jazz musicians in the city. But Tokyo itself is just the glum October backdrop to a poem that rides the subway of her interior city, a city where things read, things seen, experienced and reacted to swirl around her as she burns like a phoenix reliving her many lives in the midst of it:
…Autumn, as always, holding classes
Kissing them all good-by
The time has come to retreat
Into my interior canal
I infiltrate my intimate city
And at the gate, at the end of summer
Amenhotep, pharaoh of ancient Egypt,
Once a young nobody
Nowadays a bus conductor
A racing car driver
And so on
All the rain
But not all
Old Egypt of five thousand years ago
An eagle amulet
Guts of the new-born crocodile for bait
Pulpy brains of a baby
Unguents for rituals
Slinky dress of hatred
Time both the part and the whole
Holding hands with him, Amenhotep
Playing peekaboo in this chaos
We rushed into a season of personal appearances
The noise of the subway
Rumbles through the pit of my womb city
On the stage drums and bass sounding
Sandra started her dance
Sandra, the Black dressed in black, never Salome
But a stunning lesbian, a nice middle class girl
A sweet, most dissolute mistress, a go-go dancer
She’s a black Madonna who turned her husband
Into a pale shark, a big star, a castrated Don Juan
Starting to take the subway
Led to my first meeting with Henry Miller
In the shit pot, newspapers, old letters
In chairs, in milk
In all the furnishings or food
I saw his drinking water, his microbes, his life of rags
I still ride the subway all the time
I’ve loved the subway for hours, as long as intercourse
The subway of my interior city’s not made of iron
But of giving flesh
A ghost of civilization
A nest of thought
The most intimate gut of meditation
Migrants to my city
Between waking and sleep hang to the ulcer
No words, no uproar, no pleas, no smiles
No seductions, no contentment, no bickering
It’s one in the morning at the Club “So What”
Max Roach beats his drum
Why does he look so good to me
I ask why his drumming is a lyrical accusation
His technique crowned by a rain of crushing sound
Numbs and enchants the audience
Inane spawners of eggs squashed flat
By the microcosm of his music….
Shiraishi’s poetry brought with it a modern age, an age of kinky schoolgirls and Manga comics and pink fluff – all mixed up with Buddhist temples and Samurai movies, together with saxophones, jazz riffs and jet-age travel – and I recollect that at the same time Christopher Logue was touring the UK with his musician friends, filling town halls with Red Bird’s jazz poetry – which of course the British poetry scene did its best to ignore.
In 2017, New Directions brought out a generous chap-book of Shiraishi’s poetry, in versions by Yumiko Tsumura – Sea, Land, Shadow. As cool as ever, and now able to access her tighter, lyrically surreal side as well as her swinging open-form extravaganzas, Shiraishi is now acknowledged as one of Japan’s major voices, and indeed as an international voice. Gunter Kunert (a friend of Bertold Brecht) said of her work:
In the poems of Kazuko Shiraishi East and West connect and unite fortuitously. In her poems, Japan and Europe (and America – my parenthesis) have entered into an inseparable marriage. Something very special and unusual defines these poems. On the way to a world culture, to a comprehensive world literature, Kazuko Shiraishi’s poetry marks one step. And it refutes Kipling’s dictum that East is East and West is West and never the twain shall meet. In Kazuko Shiraishi’s poems this meeting has already happened.”
I would add that is not just East and West but past and present that blend together in her improvisations.
It is often the case that there is something improvisatory about freeing up, and that is just what jazz seemed to offer poets such as Logue and Shiraishi, just as rap is potent for wordsmiths today. But what I do take issue with is this tendency to separate, or seek to separate, the milieu of poetry into some eternal opposition, pitching tightness of form against freedom of expression. It’s an old battle, this, in the visual arts, at least: the official salon versus the ‘Salon des Refusés’. Now, that was an event sanctioned by Emperor Napoleon III, to appease the large number of artists who joined forces to protest the harsh jury decisions in 1863, which rejected almost half of the works submitted. Down with all ‘jury decisions’, I say. Tight-ass poetry covens may seek to protect their own coteries by insisting on such a division, confusing the issue with the politics of Left and Right, but, as we move into the new aeon, surely we know how little truth there is in this opposition. Most groups of intense writers actually have adherents to tight writing as well as adherents to a looser rein. Among the ‘Fugitives’ of the Southern USA we find Allen Tate and John Crowe Ransom — wonderful poets, adept at the use of tight form — but among their number there is also John Peale Bishop — who can loosen up when he so wishes and acknowledge a debt to De Chirico and surrealism. Laura Riding was also attached to the Fugitives. Edwin Denby is considered a poet of the New York School — but he is neither a free-wheeler — as is Frank O’Hara — nor into an abstraction that melts in the mind, as does the poetry of John Ashbery. Instead, Denby writes sonnets – and these can be pretty tight, and then, within this ambiance, Bernadette Mayer can write sonnets that are more like springboards to elusive thought.
The work of Robert Creeley exemplifies for me a mediation between these two supposedly opposing poles. In this poem, ‘Goodbye’, he shows us how simple a poem can be, made out of the most ordinary words – not trying hard to be a poem – yet somehow capturing a hesitancy, a naturalness of speech, and the simple evolution of a situation:
She stood at the window. There was
a sound, a light.
She stood at the window. A face.
Was it that she was looking for,
he thought. Was it that
she was looking for. He said,
turn from it, turn
from it. The pain is
not unpainful. Turn from it.
The act of her anger, of
the anger she felt then,
not turning to him.
(Robert Creeley, Poems 1950-1965)
The poem is both tight and free; simple yet complex. Direct, yet built on how many times you repeat a word. In other poems of Creeley’s, the mind is still at liberty to wander, and yet there is a discipline to the poet’s adherence to an expression that must be achieved through very well-used words, through the ordinary, if you like, as in ‘The Rocks’:
Trying to think of
some way out, the
rocks of thought
So life is
water, love also
has substance of
water a Sunday
morning God will
is it my
wife, her warmth
beside me, is
that sense of warm
moistness the condition
in which all grows?
think well of me.
Artists, musicians and poets access their creativity by finding an axis, a balance. But as with sailing, the wind changes. Those steering their craft must lean out, sometimes this way, sometimes that, at the swing of the boom. Rather than dividing the literary scene into tight-asses and loose writers, we should realise that these are our options. Like Creeley, at times we may wish to be both tight and loose at the same time. Like Shiraishi, we may sometimes feel the need to lose ourselves in the rhythm and spill out as the Milky Way does from Hera’s breast. Sometimes we may feel the need to tighten the reins and do poetry as dressage, or use terza rima or some other equally difficult form. Tacking this way and that, then, informs the art of sailing. And sometimes one finds oneself working up against the wind, sometimes the wind is behind one. Poise on the yacht differs accordingly, as does one’s technique.
However, one cannot free up if one is loose. And perhaps one should be wary of tightening up — if one is already tight.
Anthony Howell, a former dancer with the Royal Ballet, 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. He is a contributing editor of 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. Details about his collaborative project, Grey Suit Online, are here. In 2019, his exploration of psychic chaos, Multilation (with Consciouness), was published by the Fortnightly’s imprint, Odd Volumes. His latest collection is From Inside (The High Window).