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.

Tuesday, January 18, 2022

Byron in Venice. A reading.


A reading of Byron in Venice. The link should take you to the audio.

 Byron in Venice

(The poet in exile)


The debris of a city in decline

slops at the crumbling steps,

as the sun sets over palaces 

even dusk can’t dignify.


The clock strikes, he puts down the page

and calls for servants. Suddenly

cannot remember if he is to meet

the opera singer or the serving maid.


No matter how elaborate the choreography,

his hands run free, his mind completes the rhyme.

Afterwards, duty done, excuses made, 

he’ll coax these stanzas to their climax 


and scrawl defiance on the blank of time’s indifference,

graffiti on the walls of history. 

He has explored the tangled pathways of his heart

and written travelogues for those who stayed at home.


If that leads here, to age and desolation;

the fading light, broken on the Grand Canal,

where life is repetition, and even lust grows stale;

the boys and women he has loved


the friends he misses as he dines alone,

faded signatures on bundled letters,

locks of hair, old arguments the night returns;

if it leads here; beyond the poem, what remains?


An aging face, once beautiful,  

staring through its own reflection,

soliciting an audience

to dignify the commonplace as art?

Poem is taken from 'From Rough Spun to Close Weave'.  Signed Copies available from the shop at 

Thursday, January 6, 2022

Dafydd ap Gwilym's 'Love's affliction'. (Cystudd Cariad)

Continuing the Poetry Voice Podcast's aim to build an audio anthology of poems. This one by Dafydd ap Gwilym, one of the great poets of the Middle ages. And this is my candidate for a brilliant bit of creative translation.

Tuesday, January 4, 2022

The Poetry Voice Podcast returns!

 I didn't mean to take a year out. But I waited until the man next door had finished building his house and then the people on the other side decided to renovate. And while dogs, parrots, magpies, Australian weather and traffic are almost bearable as background, power tools and the Australian Tradesman's peculiar habit of cranking the volume on his radio and then putting noise protecting ear muffs on made the whole thing impossible,

First reading is from R.S.Thomas.

you can listen on Apple or Spotify, or directly from the website. 

If you're looking for a particular poem the index can be found here:

Clicking on either link will open the page in another window.