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The significance and frailty of Raymond Crump.

A Fortnightly Review.

Chords. New and selected poems.
by Raymond Crump
Afterword by Peter Riley.

SSEA Press and Face Press (London & Cambridge) 2020 | 68 pp| £12:50 (paper) £22:00 (hardcover)

By NIGEL WHEALE.

Eyes on the rose
Turn ever in the vault
A motion of
The heart. They are the
Seasons and circle
The same centre. Always
The gaze of wheeling petals
Balancing silence without
And within
The mystic machine.

RAYMOND CRUMP’S POEMS all have this frail strength; simply brief, they also just evade you at every reading, me at least, and so they should.

Part l is thirty-one poems, written before 1970, fifteen of which were included in Green Barrel Poems, the poet’s only other collection.1 Other poems were included in the 1960’s ‘worksheet’, The English Intelligencer, and Peter Riley’s Collection; three are from manuscript.

Part II comprises twenty poems written after 2010. These are less evanescent, more declarative, in that sense, perhaps more conventional. These differences apart, there’s no apparent narrative development in the collection, one lyric succeeds another, then they stop.

I must have puzzled over Crump’s poems when I first saw copies of The English Intelligencer in 1968. My teacher, Roger Langley, was intensively coaching me, post-A level, for the Cambridge Entry exams. I was sent a few gratis numbers, having tried to join that tightly corresponding, mimeographed circle, but had been politely declined membership, by Andrew Crozier — I was just a callow sixth-former, after all. But Rog was an inspiring genius; he had written only one poem at that time, ‘Matthew Glover’, closely focused on the history of the landscape near his home in Shenstone, but following Charles Olson’s ‘open field’ practice:

The shapes seemed abstract
but handled well

at all speeds

were, in a way
pure, that is

Roger talked me through his poem, half-embarrassed, but maybe half-convinced that he had as much right to be a poet as, well, all those others. He would go off to mythic Cambridge for three or four days each holiday, and return with his poet-friend and mentor’s latest work. He told me how J.H. Prynne would keep him up through the night till dawn, interrogating him line-by-line about his own latest poem, which he seemingly understood no better than Roger — ‘“Mallet path!” What the hell’s a “mallet path”? He doesn’t know either!’ Again, that half-quizzical, half-inspired sense for him that this was utterly new writing, and not understanding it was precisely its virtue and point.

Roger never dared to mention his own poem to Prynne, who never asked about the progress of Roger’s work when he became more prolific, and finally published by Carcanet in 2000. When I arrived at Cambridge, the first collection of Prynne’s that I bought, partly from my scholarship winnings, was the then-utterly mystifying Kitchen Poems (1968). I’d already seen some of the texts in copies of The English Intelligencer that Rog had shown me, at school. Another reading revelation at Cambridge was George Oppen’s Discrete Series (1934), thirty-one poems somehow linked together, but on a much larger scale than anything suggested by Raymond Crump’s Chords.2

‘Intelligencer’: earliest meaning in UK English, 1540, as ‘spy’, and then later, ‘reporter’; a broadsheet to convey intelligence, as information and as, well, intelligence. English Intelligencer, perhaps following on from The Freeman’s Journal, Or the North-American Intelligencer, which circulated in Philadelphia, 1781 to 1792; in Washington, the National Intelligencer was the local journal. By the mid-nineteenth century, the earliest issues of the Scientific American were subtitled the ‘English and American Intelligencer’. But there had also been the Cambridge Intelligencer:

Some time since we received a Letter signed Y. Z. — the writer of which recommended to our notice and reprobation, the Cambridge Intelligencer, as a Paper which, from its “rancour and scurrility, might do much mischief among the Yeomanry and Peasantry of the Northern Counties, if not properly checked and exposed.”

‘We were not inattentive to our Correspondent; we immediately purchased the Cambridge Intelligencer, and found it infinitely more vile and detestable than we had been led to surmise. It contained a mass of loathsome ingredients, a sort of “hell-broth,” made up of the worst parts of the worst public Papers that ever disgraced the Metropolis of any Country, with added filth and venom of its own … a Print so decidedly hostile to the Religious and Political Establishments of this Country, so rancorous and malignant in its language, and so diabolical in its principle, must either be confined to a few Readers, as mad and wicked as its Conductors; or must be soon suppressed by those Laws which its purpose was to revile … We know from certain information, that the Cambridge Intelligencer is dispersed gratuitously in the most unfrequented parts of the Country. We see that it has somehow or other the means of supporting itself without the aid of Advertisements. Our Readers must be left to guess at the source of these supplies.’3

‘Dispersed gratuitously in the most unfrequented parts of the Country’ could apply as well to The English Intelligencer as to its Cambridge forerunner.

The Anti-Jacobin, in which this notice appeared, was founded by George Canning, Under-Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, and edited by the ‘cold and saturnine’ satirist, William Gifford; Pitt the Younger wrote for The Anti-Jacobin, James Gillray contributed cartoons; it ran from 1797 to 1798. Gifford was wrongly thought to have written the ‘Cockney poetry’ notice attacking Keats’ Endymion, which, in the view of Shelley and Byron, destroyed the poet. (The notice was in fact written by ‘the talking potato’, John Wilson Crocker, denounced by William Hazlitt.)4‘Dispersed gratuitously in the most unfrequented parts of the Country’ could apply as well to The English Intelligencer as to its Cambridge forerunner. The poetical Intelligencer was compiled and produced under the pressure of collaborative composition, and in a relatively unsystematic way, so its numbers now present tricky problems for cataloguers and librarians.5

Raymond Crump’s Chords is beautifully made, the size of a large notebook, white cover with vibrant yellow card flyleaves. On the cover, an abstract, blue pen-and-graphite drawing, ‘Suspended Chord’ [shown above], by the author. The fifty-two poems are risograph-printed in the same pale, mimeo-blue; wide margins place them perfectly for a slow, sustained read, and re-read. The poems call for this. I have always loved Matsuo Basho’s haiku in his Narrow Road to the Deep North and Other Travel Sketches, and Records of a Travel-Worn Satchel — spare, naturalistic, yet endlessly meditative. I can read Raymond Crump’s poems with the same kind of attention, and pleasure. They are freighted ephemera.

All light
Fingers the flower,
Earth and all the shades
Clinched
In roots and air.
Where words
Concentrate, white petals
Tremble. Flowers
Will not wait.

The frailest elements — light, flower, petals — are charged with significance; the poem is the place where words are concentrated.

The three sentences appear unrelated, but take the reader on, to a different percept, line by line. The frailest elements — light, flower, petals — are charged with significance; the poem is the place where words are concentrated. Crump’s poem is utterly original, but calls up every other poem ever written about time passing and our ephemerality:

A white flower.
The spring is old days
And the dream is cold. (Ozaki Hosai)

The poems of Part l are mostly pastoral, there is work in fields — ‘The baler broke, shaft / sheared through’ — a relationship haunts some of the lines; perhaps there is a child, too. There are also moments of the larger world — a trip to the cinema, a hitch-hiker, time in the dole office where ‘We are all waiting / for money’. But the world and the orchard are just pretexts for the lyric intangibility of these poems. They are so nearly almost nothing, that the ways in which they resolve – conclude is too final a word – has to be through an extreme tact.

Peter Riley notes, in his Afterword, ‘The eye is alert to beauty, in the singular instances by which it manifests itself. The language gathers round it until a completion is formed, an ending, a summation, frequently dominated by nouns, a final stasis.’

The longest poem in Part l, ‘Of the Black Garter’, is in five numbered sections — another occulted narrative of which we see only dislocated shards. There seem to be three involved — a lover, a she, and another male, ‘he, leader’. As in the shorter poems, you read but what you follow is ever elusive, meaning side-steps you, the poem refracts to somewhere else, that could never be totalised.

Plenty of room in
dockage. Laugh a
cry, they despise
me. Dog bark. Coin
silvering. Look up
who has with lashes
gone. A ribbon. O
laugh a lot. Killers. Pine
tree, alone, you. Can’t
catch the fish. Something
of appointments. 

The final poem in Part l is a perfect miniature, that could have been written by Basho during his dangerous journey to Mount Fuji:

Old leaves
blowing
downhill
bonfires 

The twenty poems of Part ll, written since 2010, are, in Peter Riley’s words, more ‘substantial … moving more slowly towards a wider and more resonant conclusion’. They are in that sense, to me, more conventional, and in most of them I miss the slightness and evanescence of the poems in Part I. The first poem, ‘Woodpecker’, serves as a kind of thesis, a sustained metaphor for the nature of language, meaning, and their convergence in the written word.

Language is clever. It cleaves the sense
of clinging to and first of splitting. 

Raymond Crump is a great musician of words, and his lines can sing: ‘Wee / twittering tit sticks the twigs with stitch / and stutter.’

The second poem, ‘Hooded Raptor’, might be haunted by Hughes’ crows, but then escapes anything so obvious by characteristic indirections and swiftness: ‘Grey rooftop heron. / Flown smile horizon.’

‘Flight of the Deer’ describes a particularly poignant roadkill incident, the kind we all drive in fear of, and seems orchestrated to deliver its final line, ‘Crash landed in a sudden grace of death.’

‘Charnel Ground’, ‘Skiff’, ‘Meridian Walker’ and ‘Castaway’ are meditations on an estuary, hulks abandoned, skiffs stranded, pathos of seascape and shore as emblem for some ‘hapless crusoe’.

‘Shower on the Garden’, ‘Wet in Wet’ and, superbly, ‘At Churt’, have that lovely attention to almost nothing that makes Raymond Crump’s poetry utterly singular, and rewarding:

The song of an unseen bird
across the wet road
among tall pines
a melodic three note lilt
rings leaf-strewn light
through the trees
over the hill rushes the road
under cloud-marbled sky 


Nigel Wheale is the author of Raw Skies: New and Selected Poems (Shearsman 2005) and The Six Strides of Freyfaxi (Oystercatcher 2010). His academic texts include The Postmodern Arts (Routledge 1995) and Writing & Society: Literacy, Print and Politics in Britain 1590-1660 (Routledge 1999). An archive of his work for the Fortnightly may be found here.

NOTES.

  1. See Boris Jardine’s scrupulous ‘Bibliographical note’, pp. 59-60. ‘In discussion with Raymond Crump (15 April 2019), many small changes have been made to both early and recent poems, with titles being added to some of the former.’
  2. Richard Swigg, ‘Parts, Pairs, Positions. A Reading of George Oppen’s Discrete Series’, Jacket 37 (2009).
  3. From The Anti-Jacobin, or Weekly Examiner. In Two Volumes. ‘Sparsoque Recolligit Ignes’ [Lucan, Pharsalia, I 155: ‘and scatters the gathered fires’]. Fourth Edition, Revised and Corrected. London: Printed for J. Wright, Piccadilly. 1799. Notice for 7 May 1798, vol. 2: 263–5.
  4. Walter Jackson Bate, John Keats (Chatto & Windus, 1979): 369. See also Emily Lorraine De Montluzin, The Anti-Jacobins, 1798–1800. The Early Contributors to the Anti-Jacobin Review (Macmillan, 1988).
  5. Certain Prose of the English Intelligencer, Neil Pattison, Reitha Pattison and Luke Roberts, eds. (Mountain Press, 2012). On Prynne’s letter to Peter Riley, in the Intelligencer, see ‘J.H. Prynne, the Neolithic and Landscape’, in arduity.com (‘Paying attention to the difficult poem’), an excellent site. And ‘A Note on the English Intelligencer’, in the bibliography of J.H. Prynne, at prynnebibliography.org.
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