Tuesday, September 29, 2020

A review of Jeremy Hooker's: Selected poems 1965-2018 (Shearsman Books 2020)

 Jeremy Hooker: Selected poems 1965-2018 (Shearsman Books 2020)

It’s a strange feeling to hold a man’s writing life between two covers, and it would be presumptuous to pretend to be able to ‘asses’ it on such short acquaintance. But the book is very good. One of the great joys of interest in poetry is that there are always so many fine poets to discover. Ignorance is a fine place to begin, as long as you take it as a place to leave. 

My prior knowledge of Hooker is limited to the fact he was the author of a ‘pioneering study’ of David Jones, which I admire.( ‘David Jones, an exploratory study of the writings’ (1975).

I bought the selected because the blurb named David Jones and George Oppen as formative influences and I was having difficulty trying to imagine how anyone could combine those two very different writers.

The poems in the selected are grounded in places and things. They epitomise what Donald Davie called ‘a poetry of right naming’. In full knowledge of the slipperiness of words, or the slippage of the signifier if you want to be French, the poet doesn’t ‘Flinch’ into language or in it (to misquote Seamus Heaney) but tries to be as precise as possible. 

What I love is the fact of it. 

A channel kept open, shipping
stone for the cathedral;
blue Cornish slates;
coal from Woodmill
to Blackbridge Warf. 

A channel used, disused,
restored, until the last bridge
passed under the railway bridge
now abandoned, framing
water that is going nowhere, 
but silts, with passages 
the colour of stonedust
and boys rowing, a surface
silver and boiling
where blades dip and turn. 

from Itchen Navigation p. 102 (last stanza omitted)

The resultant poetry is lucid and compulsive. I can’t remember the last time I read a selected poetry from start to finish and then went back and read it all again. Although Hooker discusses the idea of Ground in the essay at the back of the book, and in more detail in his recently published essays, ‘Art of Seeing: essays on Poetry, Landscape painting and Photography’ (Shearsman 2020), the places in the poems shift: the Solent, Wales, Holland, The Holy Land. The poet is not so much tied to place as exploring places.

The book also provides on answer to a writing conundrum.

What kind of poem would you arrive at if you avoided a regular rhyme scheme and the predictable rhythms that gave melody and memorability to so much poetry in English written before the 20th century?

And then went further. If you avoided the tricks of the Avant Garde: no pyrotechnics, no disordered syntax or paratactic clauses? If you refuse to treat the poem as some kind of puzzle that the reader is invited to solve? If you were to avoid ‘clever’. 

If you avoided the thesaurus, and choose words you’d use in normal speech placed in normal order. If you avoid the temptation to be ‘poetic’, not pretending to thoughts and insights no one ever has in any given situation? And if you avoid the temptation to show off your considerable reading by dropping in allusions to other poems and poets? 

 If you avoid the selfie poem, where the words on the page are the debris left by your incessant scratching at your private itch, hoping your readers will sympathise with your pain for the length of time it takes them to scroll down to the next offering?

Take all that out and how might you end up with anything worth reading? 

One answer would be Hooker’s selected  poems. It’s the absence of the usual tricks of the trade that make them hard to discuss.  What to praise in words used carefully with a respect for the thing described. An unobtrusive control of rhythm. Poem as record of an intelligence moving through a landscape and recording its impressions, inviting the reader to not only look at what is being presented, but to look more carefully at the world he or she is moving through where-ever that might be?

Reading the selected reminds me of reading Ruskin’s Modern Painters. After reading Rusin on clouds, or light on water, you may never paint a picture, but you from time to time you find yourself paying attention to the detail in what you’re looking at. 

Hooker’s poem have the same effect. As he wrote about R.S.Thomas: 

We have heard his voice.
It will not be unheard. 

We have looked with his eyes.
What he has seen
will colour our seeing. 

                        ‘Eglwys Hywyn Sant, Aberdaron’  p. 251

 And that is a gift gratefully received.

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