Sunday, November 20, 2022

A Man of Heart. The story of Vortigern and the end of Roman Britain.


Precisely between their God and the Devil, heaven and hell, white and black, the man of heart walks through. (Joseph Campbell, The Masks of God).

My version of Laȝamon's version of the story of Vortigern and the end of Roman Britain. 

Currently chasing errant commas in this final proof copy. I am sure they move around when no one's watching. This is the second part of A Presentment of Englishry  and will be published by Shearsman in the UK in January 2023.

Sunday, November 6, 2022

How to get rid of your dragon!

No, you don't call in some sword wielding killer, or grab your weapons, call out the boys and march off hoping for glory or death. First, measure the island of Britain to discover the centre. Then dig a hole at that spot. Into the hole place a container of your best mead and cover it with a cloth. When the dragons have exhausted themselves, they will turn into small piglets and fall on to the cloth, The cloth will sink to the bottom of the container, the dragons will drink all the mead and fall asleep. You can then wrap up your dragons and hide them on Snowdon. Problem solved, No dead dragon, no singed heroes.....

Monday, October 17, 2022

Writing Poems. Poets and their Processes.

The Editors at Long Poem Magazine invited me to contribute to their 'Poets and their processes' series. There's a critical myth, convenient for critics, that writers, and especially poets, aren't in control of what they do. You can read the piece by clicking on the link.

Thursday, September 29, 2022

Review, The letters of Basil Bunting, OuP


My Review of The Letters of Basil Bunting, selected and edited by Alex Niven, is now up on the Brazen Head. You can read it by clicking on this link.

The Brazen Head

(I started pulling books of the shelf when I was writing the review, checking what I thought I knew, the pile of books became ridiculous, so I neatly arranged them for a photo. The joke's on me.)

Wednesday, September 28, 2022

Publication; Chapter eight of the story of Vortigern.



Chapter eight of my story of Vortigern, is online at the Brazen head.

The full story will be published as A Man of Heart, (Vol 2 of A Presentment of Englishry) by Shearsman Press, UK, in early 2023.

Sunday, September 25, 2022

Porius by John Cowper Powys.


Rereading this, I'm struck by how successful Powys was in creating a fictional world set in the past. A small corner of what is now Wales, in the 5th century, is strange and believable. The traditional feuds and resentments woven into the story and its background,  interact with the characters of the participants to drive the story, though drive is probably too dynamic for a story that moves at its own pace.

His ability to create multiple sub plots, and people them with interesting characters, is evident in other novels, like A Glastonbury Romance and Wolf Solent, but in Porius what is most impressive is Powys' ability to suggest that the people of the 5th century lived differently in the world, thought differently, understood themselves differently. He may not be historically correct, there's no way of knowing, but in Porius he created a convincing 5th Century Prince who is not a modern man dressed in funny clothes, bereft of modern technology. 

Compared to most modern fiction pasted into the past, it's in a class of its own.

Rereading this, I'm also struck by how good it is. 

Monday, August 29, 2022

Robert Graves, Poetic Unreason and reading The Tempest.

This began as a contemplation of John Kerrigan’s “Shakespeare’s Originality’ (2018) and my intention was to compare Kerrigan’s chapter on The Tempest, as an example of his overall argument and approach with that of Robert Graves in ‘Poetic Unreason’ (1925). But given how obscure the latter text is, what follows is an extended discussion of Graves’, ‘The Tempest, an Analysis’ (pps. 221-232).


A slight though not inconsequential digression


Eliot vs. Graves as critics.


Eliot. 'Hamlet', in ‘The Sacred Wood’ published in 1920.


‘The only way of expressing emotion in the form of art is by finding an ‘objective correlative’; in other words, a set of objects, a situation, a chain of events, which will be the formula of that particular emotion: such that when the external facts, which must terminate in sensory experience, are given, the emotion is understood.’ (p100)


The younger Eliot was good at smoke and mirrors. If you try to untangle the difference between an ‘objective correlative’ and a symbol, or you ask how any ‘external fact’ can objectively represent something as messy as an emotion in a way that will be recognisable to everyone, you may wonder what happened to his philosophical training.  It sounds profound and reasonable…until you stop and think it through.


But in his early criticism Eliot often withdraws from specifics. In the same essay he writes:


‘We must simply admit that here [in writing Hamlet] Shakespeare tackled a problem which proved too much for him. Why he attempted it at all is an insoluble puzzle. Under compulsion of what experience he attempted to express the inexpressibly horrible, we cannot ever know’.


Eliot is happy to raise a question and then avoid the necessity of offering an answer. It also absolves him from grounding the claim in any kind of evidence. Eliot’s essay is based on the assumption that ‘we’ all agree that Hamlet the play fails because Hamlet the character experiences an emotion in excess of the facts that might be used to explain or cause it. Whether ‘we’ would all agree with this, given the opportunity to dissent, is a different matter. Having damned the play, on grounds that are themselves questionable, it is enough for him to suggest that Shakespeare was driven by a personal compulsion to create Hamlet, and the play is a failure because he had not mastered that compulsion. But to understand that process ‘we should have to understand things which Shakespeare did not understand himself’. 


Eliot is a fascinating critic to read if you want to learn how to sound profound. And he has been fruitful for generations of literary critics because of what can be said about what he ‘meant’. There are versions of his essays, in the writings and lectures of his exegetes, which are far more interesting than anything he ever wrote. 


Graves on the other hand is fascinating to read for other reasons. He would probably have agreed with Eliot that the writing of Hamlet, or the writing of any play, was Shakespeare’s attempt to solve some kind of personal problem. At the time Eliot was writing The Sacred Wood, Graves was working towards a theory of composition that appears first in ‘On English Poetry’ and is then given its fullest expression in ‘Poetic Unreason’. Eliot claimed that to know why Shakespeare took on Hamlet would require ‘a great many facts in his biography, and we should like to know whether, and when, and after or at the same time as what personal experience he read….’. Eliot stops there. Having raised a question which he says cannot be answered, he exits, leaving us to wonder what was the purpose of his essay.


It’s a style that has been endemic in critical studies since then. The fashion for ‘problematizing’ texts was characterised by the failure of a many of its practitioners to do more than point out the problem. Graves, on the other hand, having come to a theory of composition, was more than ready to not only point in the direction he thought the critic should head, but to march resolutely towards his objective and persist in the assault long after common sense suggested that the objective wasn’t worth the effort. But his refusal to fudge the issue and stop becomes a way of showing why going half away along the path is equally pointless. 


‘Poets are entitled to approach the truth imaginatively as well as by the slower methods of scholastic research.’ (p91)


To understand the composition of any text, or in this case the play: ‘The easiest approach to the study of the composition of The Tempest is to sort out what has already been discovered of the contributory materials and then see what is left to be explained both of the materials and of the motives’ (p.194)


Graves states that there are three main sources which he seems to assume are well known. A German play by Ayrer, Die Schone Sidee

A Spanish Romance by Ortunez de Calohorra: Mirror of Princely deeds and Knighthood, translated and printed in 1580

A ‘fairly large body’ of literature dealing with adventure in the new world. (p.194)


For the modern reader, confronting the RSC Shakespeare’s declarative ‘No known Source for the main plot’ this raises immediate questions which we shall blithely ignore. 


Graves claims that once these three sources have been fused by the writer there is not much to account for: The masque, the drunken sailors, Caliban and his mother.


And off Graves sets to ‘account for’ these, like Alice chasing the White Rabbit. First, he constructs a biographical narrative from the sonnets, links this to the chronology of the plays, and goes on to show how The Tempest is Shakespeare’s attempt to reconcile the conflicts these personal disasters caused. The necessary catalyst that brings together the Author’s life and his reading was, according to Graves, a passage in Isaiah in the Bible. ‘Nobody familiar with the psychology of romantic creation should deny that this passage had the power of crystallizing into dramatic form all the loose material floating about in Shakespeare’s mind’. (p. 210) 


Perhaps I am unfamiliar with the psychology of romantic creation, but it seems to require a great deal of charity to follow Graves at this point. I can’t see the link between the biblical passages and The Tempest.


However, he goes on to ‘account’ for the features of the play that are not in the sources. 

Caliban is W.H.; Sycorax the Dark lady; Ariel is an emanation of Shakespeare himself. The drunken sailors discover themselves as Chapman and Jonson, rival poets. (214)


Graves was nowhere near finished. Ariel’s song ‘Full fathom five’ and Prospero’s Epilogue have also to be ‘accounted for’, and even then he keeps going. Contacting a scholarly expert, to check his findings, he discovers he needs to add the ‘recent’ murder of Henry IV and the marriage of both Shakespeare’s own daughter and the marriage of the daughter of King James. In this historical doubling Sycorax now ‘in the political sense’ is Catherine of Medici and Caliban is Jesuitism. Prospero as ideal King is both Henry 4 of France and James 1 of England, and Graves’ scholarly source provides supporting evidence that the other subsidiary character have political sources and the lengthy conversations amongst the stranded nobles have political overtones.


By which point the exhausted reader is beginning to wonder what doesn’t relate.

Caliban may well be the result of combining ‘An Adriatic devil from a Spanish romance, a sea cow seen in the Bermudas, Jesuitism generally; Raviallic particularly’ as well as Mr. W.H.  Everything a writer does, sees, hears and reads, is material for the finished work. It’s to Graves’ credit that he keeps going, but his determination illuminates the inevitable futility of the activity. Anyone trying to unravel all the threads that combined in the finished work is taking on an impossible task. A task made even more complicated by Graves’ understanding that, ‘How far he [Shakespeare] knew after writing each scene what that scene was about …is impossible to say’. 


The chapter invites a peculiar ambivalence. Graves had taken ‘source’ analysis’ beyond a listing of similar texts, which had to be an advance. The reading takes The Tempest well beyond the usual ‘Shakespeare is Prospero and this is his farewell to the theatre’ which has to be in its favour. 


If Graves is right that poetic composition is the poet’s response to personal issues of which he or she may not be aware, and if the biographical narrative Graves creates from the sonnets is valid, and if it matches up with the chronology of the plays, and if Shakespeare had access to the texts Graves had identified, and if his rivals are the models for some of the characters, then it seems possible to argue that The Tempest is the way it is because of all this.


That’s a great many ifs. Apart from the question of how much goodwill you have to extend to Graves and his argument or the fact that if any one of those ifs is wrong the whole argument comes apart, the chapter raises two issues. 


Firstly, the argument can’t be proved. Therefore, apart from pointing out that  ‘this text was not available to Shakespeare because….’ it can’t be disproved. It’s possible for another critic to theorise a different problem; Shakespeare’s ambivalence to his daughter’s marriage for example, a slightly different set of sources, and a different set of contemporary models and both constructions would be equally valid. Apart from the historical grounds of showing Shakespeare could not have used a source, there would be no way of choosing between them.  


Although he later disowned his theory of composition, I think it rewards consideration if you’re a writer of poems, but from an academic point of view, although it seems like New Historicism avant la letter it’s a dead end. Once you’ve started out you have to keep going, looking for explanations for everything in the play. And having ‘explained the Tempest’, presumably you then go on to explain each of Shakespeare’s plays and while you’re doing that other scholars are ‘explaining' 'The Ring and the Book’ or ‘Paradise Lost’. As an intellectual activity, it must be very stimulating for the person doing it, but the external value of the exercise seems limited. The act of creation is too messy and contains too many variables to be reduced to a formula. 

One thing redeems Graves’ approach throughout Poetic Unreason. Academic criticism, for most of the twentieth century has been reception orientated. A sceptical observer might suggest the art of academic criticism is mostly the art of using texts as springboards for displays of erudition other critics can object to.  


On the other hand Graves was worrying away at a theory of composition from the perspective of someone who composed poetry. ‘New Historicism’, driven by institutional requirements to make any form of critical activity ‘New’, would develop into a sophisticated academic version of trainspotting which often leaves the reader baffled, wondering what was the point of wading through pages of cleverness. Graves was trying to prove something about authorship. If his theory held good for himself, it should apply to others.  He was adamant: ‘my chief care in this chapter has been to illustrate my general theory of the psychology of poetry by means of the Tempest, rather than to anatomize The Tempest as a scientific subject with the absolute scientific idea that by presenting one thing in terms of something else or even several other things we can arrive at a knowledge of its true character’ because, as he concludes,


‘Even if every aspect has been discovered, and considered in its relation to the context, there still remains the personality, the individuality of the piece that baffles further scrutiny, something more than the aggregate of the histories that compose it.” P. 232 


If Graves’ attempt feels awkward, it also, implicitly, offers a criticism of books like John Kerrigan’s 'Shakespeare's Originality'. If you go that far, and still end up stranded in no man’s land, with your readers wondering why you’d bothered, what’s the virtue in going less than half that distance? The modern version is open to all the criticism of Graves’ method, without the saving grace of the clarity of his prose, and his willingness to push on to his conclusion.  


Tuesday, August 16, 2022

He Do the Police in Different Voices, Badly


Rereading the Waste Land Manuscript for a talk. Surprised, once again, at how bad the draft was. This is the same writer who produced Prufrock, but had he published 'He do the Police in Different Voices' as it was, he would have been remembered as the critic who wrote Prufrock. 

How is it possible for a writer to be so good and then to be so oblivious to how dead his work had become? Or how rancid some of it was. 

(The Image shows a page from the manuscript. The diagonal line, which may be Eliot's or Pound's, strikes out the whole page.)

Saturday, July 30, 2022

Letters of Basil Bunting #3. Pound, Bunting and Persian literature

Bunting’s Persia revisted. 



Ten years ago, trying to study Bunting’s disagreement with Pound over Bunting’s Persian translations, I had to rely on the available snippets of Bunting’s correspondence. taken out of content, often with ellipsis, I  could only wonder what was hidden by the frequent ellipsis in the quotations.


It's a delight to see the letters printed in full here. Niven says of them: 


The following two letters to Pound repay close attention, because they contain arguably the most revealing statements about Bunting’s literary development in this part of the correspondence. (p.91)


If we leave the bus that goes to Briggflatts, beyond any possible significance they have for Bunting’s literary development, the letters illuminate a problem central to one strand of poetics in the twentieth century. Bunting, Pound, William Carlos Williams et al were minimalists by instinct. But they were touched by the thought that Great Poets Write Long Poems. Disdaining narrative, their problem was how to make a long poem cohere. 


One of the many benefits of Niven’s edition is obvious when a quote that was available ten years ago is compared with the letter it’s taken from.


It occurred to me a long time ago that this indirect business had gone about as far as it would go without degenerating. Nobody is going to do it better than you for a hell of a long time, and Zuk [the American poet Louis Zukofsky] can only introduce further complications of method that remove it from a possible reader, step by step, until somebody will rise who will… be totally unintelligible. (Bunting qtd. Makin 1992,  p.77. Ellipsis in Makin.)


…somebody will rise who will justify the kind of things the academic nincompoops used to say about you, and be totally unintelligible. Hence ‘Chomei’ to reduce it to such simplicity as I could, which thereupon ended the matter so far as I am personally concerned. I can do nothing with it that will satisfy me. It is much better to leave the field to you and perhaps Zuk’s elaborations and try telling a story.


This leads to the wretchedly unsuccessful attempt to do a bit of Machiavelli, and consequent considerable thinking. (p.93)


Niven’s footnote suggests that the ‘bit of Machiavelli’ hadn’t survived, but ‘How Duke Valentine Contrived’ had been published by Pound two years earlier and ‘wretchedly unsuccessful’ is an apt description.  


From the 1930s Bunting was looking for the exit from the inevitable stylistic cul-de-sac, and his instincts, reinforced by reading Persian, was to return narrative to the mix. Pound wanted none of it. Their clash over Bunting’s attempts to translate The Shahnemeh made the problem explicit. 


Rather than let the letters speak for themselves, Niven imposes an interpretation on them:


Though it would take him another three decades to work through the impulse, one of Bunting’s distinctive contributions to late Modernist poetics (announced tentatively in The Spoils and much more emphatically in Briggflatts) was an embodiment of the sorts of epic, narrative values he advocates in this letter. 

Perhaps fairly, given the emphasis on heroic action in the cantos, Pound took umbrage at Bunting’s suggestion […] (p. 91)


‘Perhaps fairly’ misses the point of Bunting’s ‘suggestion’ and is an odd reading of the Cantos.


The problem, how to tell a story using the techniques that Bunting admired in ‘poetry’, or how to reconcile modernism and Traditional narrative if you prefer, was not one he solved. The kind of ‘epic, narrative values’ he advocates in these letters are not evident in The Spoils and only occasionally in Briggflatts.  The latter is a poem with narrative passages, and it purports to be an autobiography, but how much could readers learn about Bunting’s life if they only had the poem as evidence? 


The test of that thought is whether his criticism of the Cantos in the second of these two letters applies to his own later work. ‘But the literature of the last-how long-has all of it been psychological: people talking or thinking about things they didnt do, or would like to do, or why and why not,’ describes much of The Spoils and some of Briggflatts. In the following quotation replace Sigismundo with Basil, the Encyclopedia Britannica with Burton’s biography, the Cantos and works of E.P with Briggflatts and the comment applies to Bunting’s poem.


Sigismundo was presumably an active lad, but the cantos dont relate his activities , they allude to them or show him alluding to them. IF I want to know what Sig did I goter consult the Encycl.Brit whose contributor presumably had found out somewhere not in the works of E.P. (p.95)




Friday, July 29, 2022

Letters of Basil Bunting Selected and edited by Alex Niven. #2

 The letters as biographical evidence;

‘Letters are meant to be written to affect one bloke, not a public. What is true in the context of sender and recipient may be a bloody lie in the context of author and public…’ (Bunting to Zukofsky, June 1953 qtd in Burton, p. 354)


What becomes obvious, when Bunting's letters are printed in full and in some kind of sequence, is how limited they are as biographical evidence.


A skilful biographer, like Richard Burton in his biography of Bunting, makes cautious use of letters as biographical evidence. On their own they don’t constitute biography. Something mentioned in a letter may be fictional; an absence in the letters doesn’t necessarily mean it’s absent from the life. Burton’s biography makes it clear that Bunting loved a good story and wasn’t above embellishing one to make it more interesting.


Before email killed it, letter writing was a performance art where content and expression were shaped towards the recipient.  Unless explicitly so, a letter wasn’t testimony delivered under oath, or an essay written for examination, despite the tendency of scholars to treat letters as both. The one letter in this collection, explicitly written ‘for the record’ is different in tone and syntax from the others. 

Bunting repeatedly told his correspondents that his letters were not written for publication or posterity: ‘None of what I write in letters is meant in any permanent way, it isn’t thought out or deliberated on. It is offered merely in passing, not meant to be dwelt upon’ (p.193).


It's a caveat worth keeping in mind. Thanks to Niven, interested readers now have access to complete letters, contextualised in the sequence in which they were written. 


The letters hint at biographical events for which there is no external evidence. ‘I am off for the continent, and I hope to be in Italy sometimes in the spring and I hope to visit Rapallo and I hope to meet you there. My Girl Died’ (p.24).


Niven can only note: ‘This curious elliptical aside ,-for which I can find absolutely no context-brings home how little we really know of the minutiae of BB’s early years’ (n. 67 p. 24). The same is true of Bunting’s strange claim to have led some kind of protest in London during the succession crisis.


Later in life, Bunting was adamant, in both letters and interviews, that Wordsworth had been a major influence on him from childhood. When Bunting discovered that Peggy Greenbank was still alive, he tells his correspondents that he had never not been in love with her. It would be possible to extract such statements as ‘evidence’, there is no reason to doubt him, but it’s now possible to see that neither claim is mentioned in any of the letters prior to the ones in which the claim appears (1953 and 1965 respectively). 


Whether this means the statements are ‘false’; demonstrates the limitations of letters as biographical evidence, or opens up the rabbit hole that ‘true or false’ might have different definitions in different contexts and is rarely a straight forward binary,  it’s now possible to ask those questions.  

Sunday, July 3, 2022

A reading of Jeremy Hooker's '1st of July 2016'

Clicking on the link below will take you to the poetry voice podcast. The poetry voice podcast is an audio anthology of poems from the earliest times to the present day. You can also listen to it on Apple Podcast as well as Spotify. This is episode 183. There is a complete index of all previous episodes  on

This poem is taken from Jeremy Hooker's collection 'Word and Stone' (Shearsman 2019)

Saturday, June 25, 2022

Letters of Basil Bunting. edited by Alex Niven

 Excited to finally get my hands on a copy of this. So far very impressed by Niven's editing, not everyone can do footnotes or annotations but so far his have been everything they need to be and nothing more.  

I'm  looking forward to reading several of these letter which i've only seen quoted with the inevitable critical ...

More to follow.

Saturday, June 18, 2022

Gavel Lindrop on the excellence of Charles WIlliams' Arthurian Poetry


A lecture on Youtube, Gavel Lindrop's excellent consideration of the merits of Charles Williams' Arthurian poetry. He makes a case for Williams' stature as a poet, and for his important contribution to the Arthurian story.

It's a beautiful example of a critical intelligence in the service of the poet. It feels 'old fashioned' in the best of ways, rather than the critic using the poem as the starting point for a performance, the critic is trying to explain to an audience why a poet he admires is worthy
of their attention.  

Monday, June 6, 2022

Publication: The story of Vortigern, Chapter seven.

Chapter Seven brings part one to a close.   You can read it by clicking on the link below. (The first picture above shows an Anglo-Saxon building reconstructed at the Experimental Archeology site at West Stow. The second shows looms in one of the buildings.)

Thursday, June 2, 2022

Dumbing down Sir Thomas Malory's Morte D'Arthur.

This is from the publisher's summary for the Audible audio book version of Le Morte D'Arthur read by Chris MacDonnell and published by Spoken realms. 

It has to be a candidate for the title of 'Dumbest reading of the book' or 'How to misrepresent a book in a desperate attempt to attract readers'.

To the modern eye, King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table have many similarities to our own contemporary super-heroes. Equipped with magical powers, enchanted swords, super-strength, and countless villains to take on, they protect the weak and innocent and adhere to their own code of honor. Comparing Batman, Superman, and Captain America to Sir Launcelot, Sir Tristram, and Sir Galahad isn't a huge leap of the imagination.

Perhaps, for the 15th century reader, King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table were the equivalent of our modern day Justice League or Avengers.

There are so many things wrong with this description of the Morte and its readers that I wonder if the person who wrote it had read the book or knew anything about the fifteenth century.

It may not be a huge leap of the imagination to compare Captain America and Sir Galahad but it's a leap away from anything meaningful in the book.

Comparing Batman and Sir Lancelot is like comparing Napoleon and Brigitte Bardot: they have many similarities: they were both French, they both had hands, feet, a mouth and eyes.

Thursday, May 26, 2022

Billy Mills reviews Maurice Scully's 'Things That Happen'

 As much as i love 'Things that Happen' I find it very difficult to say anything intelligent about it.

But you could read an excellent review by Billy Mills if you follow the link below:

Thursday, April 28, 2022

Review of 'Ghost Passage' by Josephine Balmer and 'A Country Without Names' by Martin Anderson

My review of Josephine Balmer's 'Ghost Passage' and Martin Anderson's 'A Country Without Names' is up at Long Poem Magazine. Clicking on the link below will take you to Long Poem's website.

Two fine books of poems, though very different in their approach to 'History'. 

 Review of Ghost Passage and A Country with Names

Friday, April 1, 2022

T.s. Eliot's 'The Waste Land'...almost a hundred years old...

 If joyce can have Blooms day, then Eliot should have his day and what better than April 1st?

The Waste Land

                                  FOR EZRA POUND
                                IL MIGLIOR FABBRO

              I. The Burial of the Dead

  April is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.
Winter kept us warm, covering
Earth in forgetful snow, feeding
A little life with dried tubers.
Summer surprised us, coming over the Starnbergersee
With a shower of rain; we stopped in the colonnade,
And went on in sunlight, into the Hofgarten,
And drank coffee, and talked for an hour.
Bin gar keine Russin, stamm’ aus Litauen, echt deutsch.
And when we were children, staying at the arch-duke’s,
My cousin’s, he took me out on a sled,
And I was frightened. He said, Marie,
Marie, hold on tight. And down we went.
In the mountains, there you feel free.
I read, much of the night, and go south in the winter.

I read the whole thing for the Poetry Voice swings....

Friday, March 11, 2022

Publication. Chapter six of the story of Vortigern. The Wasshail ceremony.

The Wasshail ceremony, in which Rowena meets Vortigern.

You can read the chapter at this link. Clicking on it will open in another page on The Brazen Head web sight..

Tuesday, February 1, 2022

Jeremy Hooker's 'The Release'. Part three, The Poems

This is the final post of three about Jeremy Hooker's The Release. See the previous two posts for a general introduction and a discussion of the prose journal component. 

The Poems




Over the hills

            as a shadow chases cloud

            as a clod springs up 

            becoming lark

as thought from the lamed body


beyond the blinds

as word leaps to lips

seeking a way

            over the hills.



One tempting manoeuvre for the bemused reviewer is to slip into a discussion of ‘What the poems are about.’ Cue memories of English classes and the teacher demanding ‘What is this poem about.’ ‘What do you think the poet is trying to say?’ Even if I thought those questions were worth asking, and outside the classroom I’m sure they are not, they are made redundant in The Release by the prose.   


The prose is a journal, as such there are parts of it that are personal: memories, the absence of a loved one, lists of names who visit or call that mean nothing to someone who doesn’t know them. An honest journal cannot avoid what Lewis called ‘privatism’. But the poems, while produced by the experience and the concerns, float free of their circumstances and stand alone as achieved works of art. 


This distinction is fascinating, not only because it seems to answer one of Hooker’s own questions: how to be a lyric poet and not be a poet who parades his own ego as subject matter. Perhaps the metaphor which allows me to get closest to what I think is happening is the idea of windows, which runs through the prose and then becomes a poem which ends: 


Truly we owe thanks 

to the art of the glazier

which lets the outside enter 

and the inside reach out

driving back the dark.

                                    In Praise of Windows. (p.76)


A man in a room, living his life, his memories, concerns, interactions, connected to the world allows the outside to enter. That’s the prose. But he’s looking outwards, and the poet practises the art of the glazier, letting the outside enter, but shaping it as poem, as objects to illuminate the dark. They capture bright moments of seeing. 


Metaphors are always inexact, therefore two quotes to qualify this image. The first is from Hooker’s tribute to 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’ .  Selected poems, p. 251

It’s so very apt for R.S.Thomas, but I’d conscript it to describe Hooker’s best poetry. I live by an estuary and every gull on a post evokes Hooker’s poem of that name in his Selected Poems. The two seagull poems in The Release do the same thing. The everyday is presented in a way that is accurate as observation, but shaped in a way that invites the reader to look again. You’re being offered a glass to look through that frames the object. If you live on the coast no poem can make you see sea gulls ‘for the first time’, that’s nonsense. But a poem can colour the way you see them. 


As for style, it’s not easy to talk about a poetic that leaves out the tricks of the modern poet yet delivers far more than the simply declarative. The best way to illustrate Hooker’s style would be to reprint the book here. 


As that is not possible, another useful quote, this time from Briggflatts, where Bunting is praising Domenico Scarlatti. Initially it might seem strange to link Scarlatti’s fifty-five notes to a bar ripple and rush with Hooker’s uncluttered poems. Bunting first, then Hooker.


It is now time to consider how Domenico Scarlatti

condensed so much music into so few bars

with never a crabbed turn or congested cadence

never a boast or a see-here, and stars and lakes

echo him and the copse drums out his measure

snow peaks are lifted up in moonlight and twilight 

and the sun rises on an acknowledged land. 





First, they were voices

speaking a language 

familiar to me, but

untranslatable, that

sounded like need need need 


I felt it was the sea

they were crying for 

the element that mothered them

restless provider, giving 

and withholding,

constantly unstill.


Ghost bird, pleading

theirs was the voice 

that troubled my cradle.

In age, it returns

with the night wind,

shrilling, bringing back

the beginning, promising the end.  



No pyrotechnical ‘see here’, no congested cadence of jumbled syntax, no boastful ‘Look at the vocabulary I pillaged from the thesaurus’ or ‘Be impressed by my references to things you’ve never heard of?’ Hooker writes well. It should be the highest praise. 


In the prose, he writes about art as conversation, and the poems have a conversational tone only someone who is tone deaf might think artless. However, Art as conversation means more than just tone. It’s difficult to explain. You know it when you read it and the effect is complex and profoundly satisfying. 


If the poet and the man in the hospital bed are the same man, unified not just by a shared flesh but by an intelligence that refuses to split them, a particular kind of intelligence which takes the world in and shapes it into verbal patterns, then it follows that the poem and the world it describes are not separate. 


The poem isn’t the world. It cannot make the sunrise or be the sun. And the sun cannot care for the poem. But the poem can acknowledge the world, frame it in a way that invites looking, and simultaneously situate both writer and reader in it. 


The last three lines of the Bunting quote get at this in a way that I can’t verbalise. 

The magic of the effect of an honest poetry in dialogue between the poet and the world and the poem the reader and the world lies in a complex of ideas clustering round that word ‘acknowledged’. 


[…] and stars and lakes

echo him and the copse drums out his measure

snow peaks are lifted up in moonlight and twilight 

and the sun rises on an acknowledged land. 


The short version review. 


Hooker’s ‘Selected Poems’, along with Maurice Scully’s ‘Things that Happen’, would have had my votes for outstanding poetry publications in 2020 had there been votes for such a thing. They are very different poets, but equally admirable. The poems in ‘The Release’ move on from those in the Selected with no loss of quality. Here’s hoping there will be more. 


Until then, buy ‘The Release’. And Hooker’s ‘Selected Poems’. And while you’re at it, buy Scully’s ‘Things That Happen’ and enjoy contemplating how two excellent poets can be so wildly different.



Monday, January 31, 2022

Jeremy Hooker's 'The Release'. Part two. The Prose

 Almosting it, as Stephen said.

Part two of an attempt to discuss Jeremy Hooker's The Release (Shearsman 2022). See previous post for part one. 

The Prose.


The journal element in The Release is an elegant record of a questioning intelligence moving through a difficult personal time and shaping that experience in a clear precise prose. Presented as an integral part of that experience, there’s a perhaps unfashionable set of questions. What is the purpose of writing poetry in English in the 21st century; what is the purpose of art; is great art possible or desirable; what is the role of ego in first person poetry and why is the NHS so badly underfunded and staffed by overworked people who appear in the pages of the journal as compassionate figures doing their best.


For Hooker the first question seems as important as the last. He uses the journal to navigate his way tentatively, while recording his dealings with the other people in his ward, the staff, visitors and the inevitable health concerns, so the literary is not presented as something precious and off to one side but as mundane as being wheeled off for an ECG. 


‘Feeling his way’ [his term] allows the writing to perform its own contradictions and avoid didacticism. I might agree with him that we need admiration bordering on hero worship in poetry, immediately qualifying that by pointing out he’s hard on his heroes, but that thought is already qualified by his references to the television in the corner of the ward and the politicians we’ve been saddled with by a different kind of hero worship.


At a time when the concept of ‘Great writing’ is often treated with suspicion, Hooker advances a case for the human need for art that does more than pass the time or reassure the audience that they’re marching in the right direction with the right crowd behind the right slogans. 


He quotes Barry Lopez twice: ‘All great art tends to draw us out of ourselves’ and then Arvo Part’s wife telling Lopez that ‘what her husband composes can reassemble a person.’   


Hooker comments on the second quote: ‘This is perhaps the greatest claim for art’s potential effect that I’ve met. I know that it’s true.’   


Stand in front of a work of art, literally or metaphorically, and experience awe. Realise the gap between you and the made thing, and have the humility to recognise the gap and the confidence or faith to make that leap to embrace it in all its challenging alterity. If, as Hooker says ‘Poetry speaks human. And human is relational’ (p.30) then in doing so discover, paradoxically, in the singularity of the work of art, your relationship to common humanity. 


Perhaps you’ve never done this. It’s difficult. You’d have to overcome so much; the automatic qualifying doubt a modern literary education drills into students; the profound suspicion of art as ideological weapon with designs upon the audience; the baffling but popular idea that art should reflect the viewer’s aims and interests, should comfort it with platitudes and commonplace, should above all else agree or provide a fashionable banner to march behind, and if it doesn’t then the best response is the bunker mentality where you hunker down behind the barbed wire of your own unexamined beliefs and then wonder why the art you see, the poems you read, are so instantly forgettable.


For decades, Hooker has been engaged professionally with what used to be called ‘Great Writers’. His pantheon is personal: Richard Jeffries, David Jones, J.C Powys. Over the course of that engagement he has refined his own ideas about them and his own work. The knowledge that there is Great Writing, and the nagging questioning of what makes it great and what it does that other writing doesn’t, informs his own poetry. The concerns in their broad outline are common enough, what makes Hooker’s exploration of them is the honesty with which he’s willing to approach them, and the fact he does it without recourse to theory or its jargon.


There are no easy answers. There may not be any answers at all. But reading Hooker is to follow a single intelligence moving through them, and we don’t have to agree with where he goes or how he gets there, but we should be grateful someone is willing to mark out the terrain.


If the journal records four stays in hospital, it provides the ground (in both the common sense and the old fashioned musical sense) for the poems. Hooker is present in the prose: his reading, his questions, his biography, his memories, but he’s absent from the poems. The prose at times risks making the reader answer the question: why are you staring over my shoulder? The poems are stand-alone works of art.

For which see the next post.

Sunday, January 30, 2022

Jeremy Hooker's 'The Release'. Part one. The problem of writing about poetry


This began as an attempt to write a review of Jeremy Hooker’s The Release. The first part is preamble. How to write about poetry? The second part is a discussion of the book itself. 


Part one. How to write about poetry? 

Jeremy Hooker’s ‘The Release’ (Shearsman 2022) is a combination of prose journal recording time Hooker spent in hospital between June 2019 and August 2020 and the poems  that grew out of the experience.


I read it in one sitting. The remains of ex-tropical cyclone Tiffany were still rummaging round the coast, occasionally crashing rain against the house. When the floor to ceiling curtains were blown horizontal I remembered to stop and close the windows. Otherwise, I went on reading. 


A positive, enthusiastic response. I wondered if I could review it. Then it occurred to me that what might be important was my reaction to the book, and my ability to explain that was secondary. How to do justice to the experience, and yet write about it in a way that might be of interest or use to a third party. 

A review, which masquerades as an objective evaluation might be essentially dishonest. A book comes alive as it inserts itself into and resonates within a complex of memories, interests, and concerns that are specifically personal, or it doesn’t. 


It’s impossible for me to read Hooker’s comments about Barry Lopez without remembering the first time I heard that name, or remember sitting on a sand dune watching the sun rise over the Pacific, rereading Crossing Open Ground

It’s impossible not to be interested in what Hooker has to say about David Jones. His book on Jones is still one of the most sane and lucid discussions of that baffling writer, and over the years he’s qualified and revised his opinions and hasn’t been afraid of doing that in print. I am currently reading a book on Jones, published last year, and wishing the writer had Hooker's clarity, enthusiasm and generosity.  

And the poems! The Selected Poems, published in 2020, were impressive, but these new poems seem to have picked up and gone further, giving the lie to the myth that poets do their best work in their twenties.  


I am increasingly convinced that an enthusiastic response is initially more important than the cerebral one that comes in its wake. Without it, or at least an acknowledgement of its absence, criticism starts in the wrong place and is never more than a performance with a text as a starting point. How many critics have you read, where you were left with the strange feeling that the critic doesn't enjoy or admire the writer or book they are discussing? 


However, to enter into dialogue with a third party about poetry it’s necessary to go beyond the subjective. Who else cares about my memories of Barry Lopez? And then there’s an immediate problem. How do you talk about poems and resist the gravitational pull of an off the shelf vocabulary? 

There are ready made tool kits available from which you could cobble a passible review if you were lazy. 


There’s The Reviewer Tool Kit. It contains phrases and words like ‘brilliantly original’ ‘innovative’, ‘genre breaking/bending’, ‘searing’, ‘coruscating’ ‘raw’, ‘honest’. The poet is ‘reinvigorating the language’, ‘redefining poetry’, ‘pushing the boundaries of the possible.’ Most of the time, if you’re honest and not ignorant or suffering from Historical Amnesia, you know they don’t apply. You can count the truly original, ground breaking genre breaking poets in the 1500 years of English poetry on one hand. 


There’s also an Academic Poetry Tool Kit which has changed so greatly in my life time. The formalist reading gave way to ‘theory’. That seems to have faded. Today, you don’t even need to read the poems. If the poet is dead, you can rifle through the biography and the letters, commenting on statements which suggest political affiliations no longer in fashion, or time bound attitudes that are no longer acceptable. Or the poems can be discussed in terms of ideologies, praised when flying the flag for whatever group is currently fashionable, or whichever particular ideology the critics are currently marching behind, damned when they don’t. 


Either tool kit allows the reviewer to sound like a wine connoisseur flaunting the appropriate vocabulary; the equivalent of a knowing wink or secret handshake for a limited circle of cognoscenti. Most of the time, it sounds like a wine connoisseur trying to flog the nastiest chateau de plonk. Or for those of us old enough to remember, baffled elderly Music  Journalists trying to intellectualise The Stones. 


To strip away this sludge and get to the experience of reading a book requires an effort and the results are neither succinct nor pretty and will still teeter preciously on the border lines of an informed and hopefully intelligent subjectivity. After all, the book that redefines your world can bore your best friends. Your highly erudite, well-read acquaintances may think there’s something very wrong with you because you fail to see any value in the famous poet they are currently spruiking. 


And discussing poetry becomes even more difficult, when dealing with a poet like Hooker who avoids the tricks and twitches of the fashionable. 


One of the earliest surviving comments on a poet in English is Laȝamon's succinct praise of Wace, whose work he must have lived with and known inside out and backwards as he translated the 15,000 lines of his work.


Boc he nom þe þridde; leide þer amidden.   

þa makede a Frenchis clerc; 

Wace wes ihoten; þe wel couþe writen.


‘He could write well.’ There may be few poets in history who are original ground breaking language reinvigorating or boundary pushing but there’s a host of great poets who wrote well and are worth rereading. Tongue in cheek, what else need to be said about Yeats? 

However, (again) If I move from the subjective to the public, is my knowledge of poetry broad enough and deep enough, and have I proved it enough, to validate the statement: ‘This is well written’?

That’s still not enough. There are any number of modern writers who can ‘write well’ whose work is instantly forgettable. Their books are on my shelves and once read rarely get taken down again. Who would pay to hear a guitar player run scales? The poem has to be well written, and at the same time offer something to the reader beyond the spectacle of a self-applauding performance.  


I don’t know the answers. I do know that The Release is excellent. And in the next post, a discussion of that book rather than my tangled reaction to it.