Saturday, October 17, 2020

Maurice Scully's things that happen


Enthusing in progress.

It’s that time of year. 

At the time of writing, the T.S. Eliot prize shortlist has been announced and soon we will be treated to the usual critical contortions as judges, journalists and those in the know reach for the usual terms of praise; ‘Ground breaking’ ‘Innovative’. ‘Original’, ‘Genre bending’ and so forth and so on to try and distinguish one book of well-written poems from another.

Shearsman’s announcement in 2020 that they were publishing a one volume edition of things that happen should have been hailed as one of the publishing events of the year. Of course it wasn’t.  But if you want to see what genuine ‘ground breaking’, ‘original’ ‘innovative’ ‘sui generis poetry’ is like, you need to read this book. 

It’s fascinating and baffling, endlessly enjoyable, and it raises all kinds of questions about what you do when you read, and the problems of verbalising the pleasure given by a poem that refuses to do the box ticking manoeuvres of the kind of poetry and poems that win the T.S.Eliot prize.  

I first encountered Maurice Scully’s work by accident. I bought a second hand copy of Livelihood which is a small part of things that happen. I was fascinated because it was like nothing else I’ve ever read. There were echoes, similarities, there has to be, but the thing itself was unique in my experience. It was also compulsively enjoyable. 

A few years ago, as part of a PhD, I read as many as possible of the book length long poems, narratives or sequences that had been written since the beginning of the last century.  Most of the works shared a great deal in common, most were what you’d call ‘well-written’, some were enjoyable, many I would never bother to read again and some I wondered if my presence as a reader was necessary. But I quickly discovered that my initial impression about Livelihood was sustainable. It is one of the few books on that ridiculously long bibliography that is unlike anything else.

I didn’t know anything about Scully the Poet. Over the years, I made desultory attempts to find information but to this day I haven’t met anyone else who reads him. I am happy to believe that he is a fictional character, dreamed up by Flann O’Brien and Samuel Beckett who had become bored by the afterlife and had entertained themselves by designing a truly modern poet: indifferent to biography, they had only sketched in suggestive details: there was a house, and a wife called Mary and children. The house was in Ireland, then Africa, maybe somewhere else, Italy? 

In the best Beckett tradition though, their story was about a penniless poet who spent his time in a tin shed writing poetry. The fact that the shed was made of tin was crucial. It should have the complete works of De Selby lying scattered on the floor and a fractured map of eternity on the roof. The poet listened to the rain and the birds and the rust forming on the roof and made it all into poetry.

And he kept writing. For twenty five years, releasing the product in hard to find pamphlets and books. Now the whole thing exists between one set of covers.  

Almost as exciting was Shearsman’s announcement that there would be a companion book of essays devoted to the poet. Hopefully there would be erudite insight and enlightenment on offer. Maybe someone could explain why this was so enjoyable.

And while I have nothing intelligent to say about ‘things that happen’ except that anyone interested in modern poetry should read it, the essays require a longer post all to themselves.

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