Tony Harrison’s ‘Them and [uz]’

Last week I posted on Tony Harrison’s ‘A Cold Coming’. The following discussion of another extraordinary Tony Harrison poem originally appeared in book form in Tony Harrison: Loiner (Clarendon Press, 1997), edited by Sandie Byrne.

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‘Them and [uz]’ – listen to Harrison read this poem here.

for Professors Richard Hoggart & Leon Cortez

I

αίαι, ay, ay! … stutterer Demosthenes

gob full of pebbles outshouting seas –

 

4 words only of mi ‘art aches and … ‘Mine’s broken,

you barbarian, T.W.!’ He was nicely spoken.

‘Can’t have our glorious heritage done to death!’

 

I played the Drunken Porter in Macbeth.

 

‘Poetry’s the speech of kings. You’re one of those

Shakespeare gives the comic bits to: prose!

All poetry (even Cockney Keats?) you see

‘s been dubbed by [Λs] into RP,

Received Pronunciation, please believe [Λs]

your speech is in the hands of the Receivers.’

 

‘We say [Λs] not [uz], T.W.!’ That shut my trap.

I doffed my flat a’s (as in ‘flat cap’)

my mouth all stuffed with glottals, great

lumps to hawk up and spit out… E-nun-ci-ate!

 

II

So right, ye buggers, then! We’ll occupy

your lousy leasehold Poetry.

 

I chewed up Littererchewer and spat the bones

into the lap of dozing Daniel Jones,

dropped the initials I’d been harried as

and used my name and own voice: [uz] [uz] [uz],

ended sentences with by, with, from,

and spoke the language that I spoke at home.

RIP, RP, RIP T.W.

I’m Tony Harrison no longer you!

 

You can tell the Receivers where to go

(and not aspirate it) once you know

Wordsworth’s matter/water are full rhymes,

[uz] can be loving as well as funny.

 

My first mention in the Times

automatically made Tony Anthony!

Read about the drafting of this poem – in the Tony Harrison Archive at Leeds University.

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Though it was Keats’ ‘Ode to a Nightingale’ Harrison ‘mispronounced’ at school, it is actually Wordsworth who is more important to him because both share a belief in poetry as the voice of a man speaking to men. This conception of poetry as speech is a powerful constituent in Harrison’s work and perhaps one not clearly understood. John Lucas, for example, has attacked what he sees as loose metrics in the poem ‘V’ but, to reverse Harrison’s comment that all his writing (theatrical or otherwise) is poetry, all his poetry needs to be read as essentially dramatic and deserves to be tested in the spoken voice as much as in the study. Harrison’s interest in the curious idea that the true poet is born without a mouth implies the difficult battling for a voice or voices which can be found everywhere in his work and it is in this clamour that I find its dramatic quality. In a public poem like ‘A Cold Coming’, Harrison makes use of the contrasting and conflicting voices by playing them off against a regular form. This is almost always the case, but in what follows I prefer to concentrate less on metrical effects than on the way voices interweave.

The very title of the pair of sonnets, ‘Them & [uz]’, seems to promise conflict, at best dialogue, and it opens with what could be taken as the howl of inarticulacy. In fact each pair of these opening syllables gestures towards crucial worlds in Harrison’s universe. The ‘αίαιof classical dramatic lament is echoed by the “ay, ay!” of the musical hall comedian cheekily working up an audience. Immediately, the reader is plunged into the unresolved drama of two differing voices, instantly implying the two cultures of the sonnets’ title. The line and a half which follows, sketching Demosthenes practicing eloquence on the beach, is intriguing in that its locus as speech is hard to pin down. It is perhaps intended at this stage (apart from introducing the poems’ central issue) to hover in an Olympian fashion above the ruck of dialogue that follows, implying the heroic stance which will be taken up in the second sonnet.

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Line 3 opens again into a dramatic situation with the voice of the narrator (the adult Harrison), repeating his own interrupted recital of Keats in the classroom, while the master’s scornful comments appear fresh, unreported, as if still raw and present, in speech marks. The narratorial comment on this – “He was nicely spoken” – confirms this poem’s tendency to switch voices for its effects, this time its brief sarcasm barely obscuring the unironic comment likely to be made by an aspiring Loiner, or by an ambitious parent. The example of nice speaking given (again in direct quotes in the following line) is the master’s claim to possession, to authority in matters of language and culture and the separated-off reply of the narrator – “I played the Drunken Porter in Macbeth – with its full rhyme and sudden regular iambic pentameter, implies both a causal link between the two lines, painting Harrison as dispossessed specifically by the master’s attitudes, as well as conveying the tone of resignation in the young schoolboy.

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Much of the tension and success of the poem has already arisen from the dramatic interchange of voices and the master’s voice asserts itself again in line 7 ironically claiming a kind of monolithic, aristocratic purity to poetry which this poem has already attempted to subvert:

 

Poetry’s the speech of kings. You’re one of those

Shakespeare gives the comic bits to: prose!”

 

The following lines contain a curious wavering in the clear interplay of dramatic voices, only part of which is resolved as the poem proceeds. Evidently, the intrusive, even hectoring, parenthesis (at line 9) is the narrator’s questioning of what appears to be the master’s voice’s continuing argument that “All poetry” belongs to Received Pronunciation. Yet the aggression of this attack, with its harsh alliteration and sarcastic question mark, is out of key with the other narratorial comments in part I, though the tone is re-established in part II. In addition, I have some difficulty in accepting the master’s words as appropriate to the situation which – with no break – continues the speech made to the young Harrison. For example, the word “dubbed”, with its implication of the deliberate laying of a second voice over an ‘original’, already hands victory in the argument to Harrison’s claim for the authenticity of ‘dialect’ and, as such, would not be used by the believer in “the speech of kings”. Equally, the apparent plea, “please believe [ s] / your speech is in the hands of the Receivers”, does not accord with the voice that summarily dismissed the pupil as a “barbarian” 7 lines earlier. In this case, Harrison’s desire for the dramatic has foundered momentarily on that old dramatist’s rock, the necessity for exposition which compromises the integrity of the speaking voice.

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The true note of the master returns – interestingly, following one of Harrison’s movable stanza breaks, as if confirming a shift in voice though the speech actually continues across the break – with “We say [Λs] not [uz], T.W.!” The tone of the responding voice, after the suggestion of a more spirited response in the Keats comment, has returned to the resignation of the brow-beaten pupil. This is reinforced by the more distant comparison of the boy to the ancient Greek of the opening lines, heroically “outshouting seas”, while the young Harrison’s mouth is “all stuffed with glottals, great / lumps to hawk up and spit out”. This first sonnet draws to a close with this tone of frustrated defeat for the boy, yet the drama has one final twist, as the voice of the master, sneering, precise and italicised, has the last word – “E-nun-ci-ate!“. There can be little doubt that the boy must have felt as his father is reported to have done in another sonnet from The School of Eloquence, “like some dull oaf”.

The second part of ‘Them & [uz]’ contrasts dramatically with the first, though the seeds of it lie in the image of heroic Demosthenes and the accusatory tone of the reference to Keats which seemed a little out of place in part I. This second sonnet’s opening expletive aggression strikes a new tone of voice altogether. “So right, yer buggers, then! We’ll occupy / your lousy leasehold Poetry”. The poem’s premise is that it will redress the defeat suffered in part I in an assertive, unopposed manner. Not the master, nor any spokesman for RP is allowed a direct voice, yet the interchange of speech and implied situation can still be found to ensure a dramatic quality to the verse.

The passionate and confrontational situation of the opening challenge is clear enough, yet it’s striking how it has taken the autobiographical incident in part I and multiplied it (“yer buggers . . . We’ll occupy”) to present the wider political and cultural context as a future battlefield. Even so, there is no let up in the clamour of voices raised in the poem. Immediately, the narratorial voice shifts to a more reflective, past tense (at line 3) as the rebel reports actions already taken – and with some success, judging from the tone of pride and defiance: “[I] used my name and own voice: [uz] [uz] [uz]”. Even within this one line, the final three stressed syllables are spat out in a vivid reenactment of Harrison’s defiant spoken self-assertion. It is this slippery elision of voice and situation which creates the undoubted excitement of these and many of Harrison’s poems as they try to draw the rapidity and short-hand nature of real speech, its miniature dramas and dramatisations into lyric poetry. A further shift can be found in lines 9 and 10, in that the voice now turns to address a different subject. The addressee is not immediately obvious as the staccato initials in the line are blurted out in what looks like a return to the situation and voice with which this sonnet opened. Only at the end of line 10 does it become clear that the addressee is the poet’s younger self, or the self created as the “dull oaf” by the kind of cultural repression practised by the schoolmaster. The reader is further drawn into the drama of the situation by this momentary uncertainty: RIP RP, RIP T.W. / “I’m Tony Harrison no longer you!”.

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The remaining 6 lines are, as a speech act, more difficult to locate. There is an initial ambiguity in that they may continue to address “T.W.”, though the stanza break suggests a change and, anyway, this makes little sense as T.W. is now dead (“RIP T.W.”). In fact, these lines use the second person pronoun in the impersonal sense of ‘one’, addressing non-RP speakers in general, and it is the generalised nature of these lines which disarms the effectiveness of the passage. This is particularly important in line 14, “[uz] can be loving as well as funny”, the tone of which, commentators like John Haffenden have questioned. The difficulty here is that if Harrison is addressing those who might use [uz] anyway, though there may well be many amongst them for whom the fact that “Wordsworth’s matter / water are full rhymes” is useful ammunition and reassurance, the same cannot be said of the “loving as well as funny” line which might variously be construed as patronising, sentimental or just plain unnecessary. Nevertheless, the poem regains a more sure touch in the final lines in its use of the reported ‘voice’ of The Times in renaming the poet “Anthony“. The effect here is both humorous (this, after all the poet’s passionate efforts!) and yet ominous in that the bastions of cultural and linguistic power are recognised as stubborn, conservative forces, still intent on re-defining the poet according to their own agenda, imposing their own hegemonic voice where there might be many.

Tony Harrison’s ‘A Cold Coming’

I have been thinking about the role of metre in poetry in preparation for 3 evening sessions I have been asked to teach for the Poetry School in London. The sessions are part of a wide-ranging course on some of the basics of poetry (other parts of it will be taught by Tim Dooley, Judy Brown, Claire Crowther and Matthew Caley). Also, last Saturday I attended the Free Verse Poetry Book Fair in Red Lion Square, London. There – apart from spending too much money on poetry books and chatting with people who had come from all over the country – I listened to a discussion about the role of poetry in relation to politics. Fiona Moore chaired a discussion involving Choman Hardi, Bill Herbert, Sophie Mayer and R A Villanueva. Ideas put forward included the delicate issue of ‘using’ the experience of others in political poetry as well as the need to work polyvalently or collaboratively to combat the influence of unquestioned language and form. Herbert quoted W S Graham’s line: “What is the language using us for?” At the confluence of these two biographical moments I found myself thinking of Tony Harrison’s solutions to the poetry/politics issue – in part through his use of formal metre. The following discussion of Harrison’s Iraq War poem, ‘A Cold Coming’, originally appeared in book form in Tony Harrison: Loiner (Clarendon Press, 1997), edited by Sandie Byrne.

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Harrison has declared his commitment to metrical verse because “it’s associated with the heart beat, with the sexual instinct, with all those physical rhythms which go on despite the moments when you feel suicidal”. In conversation with Richard Hoggart, he explains that without the rhythmical formality of poetry he would be less able to confront, without losing hope, his favoured themes of death, time and social injustice. “That rhythmical thing is like a life-support system. It means I feel I can go closer to the fire, deeper into the darkness . . . I know I have this rhythm to carry me to the other side”.

There are few of Harrison’s poems that go closer to the fire than the second of his Gulf War poems, ‘A Cold Coming’. Its initial stimulus, reproduced on the cover of the original Bloodaxe pamphlet, was a photograph by Kenneth Jarecke in The Observer. The picture graphically showed the charred head of an Iraqi soldier leaning through the windscreen of his burned-out truck which had been hit by Allied Forces in the infamous ‘turkey-shoot’ as Saddam’s forces retreated from Kuwait City. In the poem, Harrison makes the Iraqi himself speak both with a brutal self-recognition (“a skull half roast, half bone”) as well as a scornful envy of three American soldiers who were reported to have banked their sperm for posterity before the war began (hence, with a scatological nod to Eliot, the title of the poem). There are undoubtedly echoes in the Iraqi’s speech of the hooligan alter ego in the poemV’, yet Harrison worries little over any narrow authenticity of voice in this case, and he does triumphantly pull off the balancing act between the reader’s emotional engagement with this fierce personal voice and a more universalising portrayal of  a victim of modern warfare. Furthermore, it is Harrison’s establishment and then variation of the poem’s metrical “life-support system” that enables him to achieve this balance, to complete a poem which weighs in against Adorno’s view that lyric poetry has become an impossibility in the shadow of this century’s brutality.

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The poem’s form – rhymed iambic tetrameter couplets – seems in itself chosen with restraint in mind, as if the photographic evidence of the horror lying in front of him led Harrison to opt for a particularly firm rhythmical base “to carry [him] to the other side”. Indeed, the opening five stanzas are remarkable in their regularity with only a brief reversed foot in the fourth line foreshadowing the more erratic energies soon to be released by the Iraqi soldier’s speech:

 

I saw the charred Iraqi lean

towards me from bomb-blasted screen,

 

his windscreen wiper like a pen

ready to write down thoughts for men.

 

The instant the Iraqi’s voice breaks in, the metre is under threat. Each of his first four stanzas opens with trochaic imperatives or questions and at one point he asks if the “gadget” Harrison has (apparently a tape-recorder but a transparent image of poetry itself) has the power to record “words from such scorched vocal chords”. Apart from the drumming of stresses in lines such as this, Harrison deploys sibilance, the alliteration of g’s and d’s, followed by an horrific mumbling of m’s to suggest the charred figure’s effortful speech in the first moments of the encounter. Regularity is re-established the moment the tape-recorder’s mike is held “closer to the crumbling bone” and there is a strong sense of release from the dead man’s initial aggressive button-holing as his voice (and the verse) now speeds away:

 

I read the news of three wise men

who left their sperm in nitrogen,

 

three foes of ours, three wise Marines,

with sample flasks and magazines . . .

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In the stanzas that follow the dead man’s angry, envious sarcasm is controlled within the bounds of the form and it is rather Harrison’s rhymes which provide much of the kick: God/wad, Kuwait/procreate, fate/ejaculate, high tech’s/sex. It is only when the man demands that Harrison/the reader imagines him in a sexual embrace with his wife back home in Baghdad that the metrical propulsion again begins to fail. It is in moments such as this that the difficult emotional work in the poem is to be done. This is our identification with these ghastly remains, with the enemy, and it is as if the difficulty of it brings the verse juddering and gasping to an incomplete line with “the image of me beside my wife / closely clasped creating life . . .”

The difficulty of this moment is further attested to by the way the whole poem turns its back upon it. Harrison inserts a parenthetical section, preoccupied not with the empathic effort the dead Iraqi has asked for but with chilly, ironic deliberations on “the sperm in one ejaculation”. Yet all is not well, since this section stumbles and hesitates metrically as if Harrison himself (or rather the persona he has adopted in the poem) is half-conscious of retreating into safe, calculative and ratiocinative processes. Eventually, a conclusion yields itself up, but it is once again the metrical change of gear into smooth regularity (my italics below) that suggests this is a false, defensive even cynical avoidance of the difficult issues raised by the charred body in the photograph:

 

Whichever way Death seems outflanked

by one tube of cold bloblings banked.

 

Poor bloblings, maybe you’ve been blessed

with, of all fates possible, the best

 

according to Sophocles i.e.

‘the best of fates is not to be’

 

a philosophy that’s maybe bleak

for any but an ancient Greek . . .

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That this is the way to read this passage is confirmed by the renewed aggression of the Iraqi soldier who hears these thoughts and stops the recorder with a thundering of alliterative stresses: “I never thought life futile, fool! // Though all Hell began to drop / I never wanted life to stop”. What follows is the Iraqi soldier’s longest and most impassioned speech, by turns a plea for attention and a sarcastic commentary on the collusion of the media whose behaviour will not “help peace in future ages”. Particular mention is given to the “true to bold-type-setting Sun” and, as can be seen from such a phrase, Harrison once more allows particular moments of anger and high emotion to burst through the fluid metrical surface like jagged rocks. There is also a sudden increase in feminine rhyme endings in this section which serves to give a barely-caged impression, as if the voice is trembling on the verge of bursting its metrical limits and racing across the page. This impression is further reinforced in the series of imperatives – again in the form of snapping trochees at the opening of several stanzas – that form the climax to this section of the poem:

 

Lie that you saw me and I smiled

to see the soldier hug his child.

 

Lie and pretend that I excuse

my bombing by B52s.

 

The final ten stanzas culminate in a fine example of the way in which Harrison manipulates metrical form to good effect. In a kind of atheistic religious insight, the “cold spunk” so carefully preserved becomes a promise, or perhaps an eternal teasing reminder, of the moment when “the World renounces War”. However, emphasis falls far more heavily on the seemingly insatiable hunger of the present for destruction because of the way Harrison rhythmically clogs the penultimate stanza, bringing it almost to a complete halt. The frozen semen is “a bottled Bethlehem of this come- /curdling Cruise/Scud-cursed millennium”. Yet, as we have seen, Harrison understands the need to come through “to the other side” of such horrors and the final stanza does shakily re-establish the form (though the final line opens with two weak stresses and does not close). However, any naive understanding of the poet’s comments about coming through the fire can be firmly dismissed. This is not the place for any sentimental or rational synthetic solution. Simply, we are returned to the charred face whose painful, personal testament this poem has managed to encompass and movingly dramatise but without losing its form, thus ensuring a simultaneous sense of the universality of its art and message:

 

I went. I pressed REWIND and PLAY

and I heard the charred man say:

 

Review: Kate Bingham’s ‘Infragreen’ (2015)

There is a side to Kate Bingham’s poetry that might be (and has been) described as steady, calmly observed, dispassionate, elegant and formally accomplished. But I also see another writer – one largely unacknowledged in Seren’s blurb to Infragreen and the many critical comments arrayed in her praise – for whom the world is endlessly atilt, above lethal undertows, aching distances, the formal wizardry in large part a white-knuckled hanging on in fear of letting go. I don’t mean the latter in any silly psycho-babble way but in relation to that moment when the black gulfs open up under all we thought we knew.

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The more conventional part of this new book is the second section which seems to be visiting a landscape, a house and wooded countryside where the poet perhaps spent time in her youth. We are given reflections on early love, motherhood, the daughter becoming a mother herself, the English countryside, cattle, blackberrying. Most of these poems are obviously viewed through the perspective-glass of time past and time present and this somewhat disrupts Bingham’s more characteristic way of seeing things which is from within and without. One really marvelous poem here assumes the stance of the innocent younger girl encountering an apparently friendly farmer who keeps a bunch of string in his pocket to entertain the child while also using it to keep “his trousers up” (‘String’). It’s the humming, obsessive, ground-base of end-rhyming (string, string, twine, string, mine, strings, string, hem, string, hen, string, him) that evokes the worrying undertow of adult threat without anything explicit being said at all: “He didn’t need the string. / I tugged his arm and trotted after him”.

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It’s the clash of viewpoints or perspectives – using that unsuspecting, unreliable narrative voice – that makes this gem of a poem so disturbing to read. And it is the manipulation of viewpoints that yields such rich dividends elsewhere in Infragreen. On a domestic level this is played out in ‘Next Door’ where the tone is one of some surprise that the neighbours “experience life to the full”, the latter word forming on this occasion the repeating ground-base rhyme that imports irony into the seeming admiration for the “bang and slam” of their lives. But the collection is carefully opened with two brief, curiously abstract treatments of perspective. ‘Ultragreen’ takes the ‘above and beyond’ implication of the prefix to have the narrator observe a water drop “at the end of the garden”. Through a disturbing synaesthetic travelling, the drop instantaneously appears “in my brain”, indeed takes up the narrator’s perspective precisely as it “looks out / and sees what I have seen”. What was without is now within and something “like photosynthesis begins”. As a way of announcing this poet’s basic strategies and as a metaphor for (artistic) generative fecundity this is brilliant.

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This is followed by the six cryptic lines of ‘Infragreen’ itself. I take Ultra to suggest ‘out there’ so Infra is more ‘within’ and here suggests a more harmonious coincidence of perception in which “the sun and I see eye to eye”. However, this frail connection seems always in danger of being broken, “half letting go of itself / half hanging on” and though Bingham does write occasionally of the fertile experience of such connectedness (see below) she more often writes in the throes of its breakdown, of distance and the accompanying sense of loss of control. So the archetypal ‘feel-good’ season of ‘Spring’ seems to be remotely occurring rather than directly experienced, the sun (again) “rising above its various nationalities / and making things grow”. The romantic gift of flowers is undercut in a meditation on tulip harvesting in Holland and the deliberate wrenching cliché of “the international language of flowers”. Even the self, viewed from deep within, has to be recognized through experience and even then not reliably: “it is her face my face projects / and for a moment I look strange” (‘Look’).

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Seamus Heaney has a number of car poems in which the vehicle seems to be working benignly as a mode of travelling into wider experience (my favourite is ‘Postscript’ from The Spirit Level (1996): “As big soft buffetings come at the car sideways / And catch the heart off guard and blow it open”). For Bingham, in contrast, the narrator’s car is a place “I have to return to”, a place of (admittedly rather dull) security, “somewhere to look from” (‘Silt’). So much so that there are occasions, even when “London at night is a blaze of company”, when sitting alone in a stationery car, “seat belt on / and the engine running”, seems the best thing to do, or even the most that can be done. This is from ‘Between’, another of Bingham’s best poems in this collection, opening in the familiar only to end in another dizzying, atomised gulf.

The familiar surroundings, the container of the car, perhaps works in the way that Bingham’s use of rhyme can be seen to work, as providing a firm base from which the poem gazes outwards into the truly disturbing (Tony Harrison has said something similar about his use of metre and rhyme; it also makes me think of Elizabeth Bishop’s ‘The Art of Losing’). So the lulling rhymes of ‘On Highgate Hill’ make the stabbing on a London bus more shocking than a more informal, realist treatment. The hypnotic, mono-rhymes of ‘At Night’ (night, white, light, sight, tight, right, bright and so on) evoke a drowsy, sleepiness of thought that ventures closer and closer to the edge. On this occasion, the vision is a brighter one of something (like Edward Thomas, Bingham enjoys the nonspecific of such a word), something “mine and right / and unconditional”.

The unconditional is an escape from the binaries of perspective. It is a fleeting moment – impossible really to be written about because impossible to be disciplined into language – when self and other, those distinctions we lean on and then find ourselves manacled to, vanish. Bingham approaches such moments cautiously, “my hairs on end, my senses trespassing”, occasionally there are successes: [I] look back from where I am at where I stood / and see the wood for the trees, the trees for the wood” (‘The Wood’). On other occasions the plenitude is more overwhelming like the fisherman faced with an overflowing fish farm: “tongue-torn, foul-hooked, half tame / when there was nothing more to take more came” (‘Cull’).

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But there are also a few untitled experimental pieces scattered through Infragreen that seem to be approaching this state of the unconditional in a lower-case, unpunctuated tentativeness. On page 24, a couple wake into a sleepy uncertainty in which bird song and growing buds seem one, as do thoughts and birds on a branch, the human and the natural, “one listening one listening to itself”. The final poem too, page 63, starts by undermining language (“call it what you like”) and proceeds to a car crossing Exmoor, an unaccountable stopping, the driver leaping out into a gale force wind, a slammed door offering a brief framing device, the observing voice trying to “make what I can” of it all, though within and without are bewilderingly blurred, “the other side of the force in the fence // of the foreground”.

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Kate Bingham’s skill in tacking the vessel of form against the breeze of colloquial language is certainly to be marveled at. There is great pleasure to be had from the rightness of her positioning of words on the page. But I also admire her willingness to gaze past what Seren’s blurb refers to as “necessarily” her subjects, “the familiar, the seen again, and the returned to”, to glimpse something far more terrifying and in this she reminds me less of Edward Thomas, less of Elizabeth Bishop, more of Robert Frost.

Douglas Dunn’s ‘Terry Street’ and Thoughts of 1969

Recently, in my local Oxfam shop, I found a remarkably well-preserved hardback first edition of Douglas Dunn’s debut collection, Terry Street (Faber, 1969). Since living in a very similar street in Lancaster exactly 10 years after Dunn’s book was published (Aberdeen Road, up on the northwest-facing terraced streets above the town, looking out across Morecambe Bay to the – occasionally snow-capped – peaks of Cumbria), I’ve always had a soft spot for the book. But I hadn’t read it in years, I now realise.

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Aberdeen Road, Lancaster, in a recent photo

The particular copy I bought (for £2.50) still had the Poetry Book Society’s Bulletin in it as Terry Street was the PBS Choice for Autumn 1969. It printed a review by Julian Jebb of the PBS’s second Poetry International staged at the QEH, South Bank, in July 1969. Jebb praises the organisers for attending to the faults of the first such event (noted as an over-crowded audience and over-running readings by poets). WH Auden is there in the “blackest of spectacles”, reciting recent work from memory including ‘On the Circuit’ (1963) in which he satirises the lecture/reading round he has been treading in the USA: “so large / So friendly, and so rich”. He read precisely: “15 minutes and hardly a fluff”, reports Jebb.

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He was followed by “a ponchoed American poet, Robert Bly”. Jebb’s tone here will have been addressed to the original readership of his review (it appeared in The Financial Times) but it’s still an interesting period piece. Bly seems to have flailed his arms while reading “in tragic-comic, uncoordinated circles, strongly reminiscent of Peter Cook’s imitation of Macmillan in Beyond the Fringe”. Later he over-ran shockingly with 20 minutes of his “sloppy, deranged images about Vietnam”. This was delivered, Jebb tells us, to a growing slow hand-clap.

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A young-ish Robert Bly

Later in the evening, Edward Brathwaite, Derek Walcott, Ogden Nash, Miroslav Holub, Vasko Popa and Janos Pilinszky also read. Few details are given on these contributions unfortunately, but the experience of the latter three poets of the Second World War and Eastern Europe in the first half of the 20th century prompts Jebb to observe: “We have felt safer than these three men and we are grateful to them for their eloquence in telling us so”. Here is evidence that poetry was making very little happen when it came to the heavy lifting required to shift the entrenched sense of superiority and national egocentricity of the period.

So the review both evokes an earlier age of extraordinary poetry and also shows how far we have come. With Ted Hughes’ and Daniel Wiessbort’s founding of Modern Poetry in Translation in 1965. British poetry was just at this moment becoming exposed to worldwide influences (even if some were hardly listening). In this light, Douglas Dunn’s PBS Choice reads like the dying edge of the 1950s, of The Movement. The Terry Street poems themselves may be memorable evocations of working class life in Hull but what I notice now more than anything is Dunn’s obsessive use of the plural subject: young women, girls, the children, mothers, old men, the chatty women, men of Terry Street, old women, revellers, neighbours, street tarts, trawlermen, young women, the people who live here, men on bikes. These are versions of Larkin’s typological  “cut-price crowd” (‘Here’), the women in ‘Faith Healing’ and the fathers and mothers and newly married couples of ‘The Whitsun Weddings’. The difference is that Larkin would as often turn his acerbic gaze on himself. In Terry Street, Dunn makes the choice to keep himself out of the picture (behind glass) and there are hardly any delineated individuals in the book (though we all remember the man who wheels an optimistic lawnmower down Terry Street).

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Dunn viewed ‘these people’ through a window – “our window” says a self-lacerating, retrospective poem of mourning addressed to his late wife, Lesley (‘Envoi’ in 1981). While the belief that these people were a fit subject for poetry is admirable, many of the poems now read as patronising, still mired in the English class system (despite Dunn’s Scottishness). To that extent I disagree with Terry Eagleton who, in 1970, praised Dunn for being able to “transcend the two major pitfalls of poetry concerned with working people – bourgeois voyeurism or sympathetic mythification”. Dunn seems to me to fall foul of both of these.

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In the 1969 PBS Bulletin, the young Dunn himself wrote “Terry Street became for me a place of sad sanity . . . an alternative to the gaudy shams everywhere”. It was this sense of the real that Dunn needed (for himself) as a mature student in Hull, pursuing an English degree, and perhaps was a substitute for what he was already declaring: “Scotland is what I most want to write about and what I am least able to”. Later, Morrison and Motion’s 1982 Penguin anthology of contemporary British poets, pigeon-holed Dunn with Tony Harrison in being “sharply conscious of background and upbringing, which sets them at an angle to the cultural establishment”. But Dunn’s chosen strategy in the longer run was to acquire the ‘language’ of the poetic establishment in formal terms and try to speak up for those men and women of Terry Street (or their Scottish equivalent) rather than merely observe them from afar. ‘The Come-On’ appeared in Barbarians (1979):

Our level is the popular, the media,

  The sensational columns,

Unless we enter through a narrow gate

  In a wall they have built

To join them in the ‘disinterested tradition’

  Of tea, of couplets dipped

In sherry, and the decanted, portentous remark.

  Therefore, we will deafen them

With the dull staccato of our typewriters.

  But do not misbehave –

Threats and thrashings won’t work: we’re outnumbered.

Whatever piece it was Bly read that night in July 1969, the voice of the establishment regarded it as threats and thrashings and was too easily able to dismiss it.

How far have we come? Is it still the case that alternative poetic voices look to disguise themselves – whether with formal display like Dunn’s or with an obscuring erudition – to pass through the narrow gate into poetic acceptability? Or is it now that we anxiously seek out and fetishise what is different so poets and their publishers feel the need to define and confine work with USPs like race, gender, sexual orientation, locality, even disease – whole books focused on life events that begin to sound like the prose genre known as ‘misery memoirs’? Do poets actually articulate this to themselves: in my Creative Writing graduation ceremony, how do I ensure I stand out?

Dan O’Brien’s ‘War Reporter’ and new poems

I sometimes think poets are of two kinds: those drawn to dramatic subjects which explicitly dramatise the writer’s concerns and those drawn to more everyday topics which come to reflect the writer’s concerns in the course of the poem. I think of Hardy and Edward Thomas in the latter camp, alongside Heaney’s reference to Katherine Mansfield in North (1975): “I will tell / How the laundry basket squeaked”. In the former camp, for sure, stands the American writer, Dan O’Brien, who is everywhere at the moment.

O’Brien sees himself as “a playwright who moonlights as a poet” and he has just won the Troubadour International Poetry prize and been shortlisted for the Evening Standard theatre awards (for his play The Body of an American). He also has poems included in the recent Magma issue discussed in my last blog (https://martyncrucefix.com/2014/12/01/the-launch-of-magma-60-at-lrb-bookshop/). O’Brien’s first book of poems, War Reporter, was published by Charles Boyle’s excellent CB Editions just a year ago and I reviewed it for Poetry London. The book went on to be shortlisted for the Forward First Collection Prize and to win the Fenton Aldeburgh First Collection prize (http://www.thepoetrytrust.org/news/fenton-aldeburgh-first-collection-prize-2013-winner-announced/)

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In discussion at Aldeburgh, O’Brien said War Reporter had been described as “docu-poetry” and that “sounds fair.” The war reporter in the book’s title is Canadian journalist, Paul Watson, and for seven years O’Brien has been in communication with him, “obsessively” recording and working on email conversations, as well as Watson’s recordings from conflict zones around the world. The two poems in Magma are part of new work in progress. ‘The War Reporter Paul Watson Has the Time’ is a good example of the complex webs of guilt and complicity that O’Brien poems weave at their best. The narrator has helped an “interpreter” escape from Kandahar and vengeance is taken against the interpreter’s extended family through an IED: “A bump in the road and / the usual denouement”. The poems never flinch from explicitness about physical harm (“his father, leg like broken / bricks in a bag”) or psychological damage (“a pistol for protection, against all / sense and provocation, only to suck it in his mouth and – blackout”). ‘The War Reporter Paul Watson Knows’ returns in part to the moral quandaries surrounding Watson’s 1994 Pulitzer prize-winning photograph of Staff Sgt. William Cleveland’s body being dragged from the wreck of a Black Hawk and through the streets of Mogadishu. It also alludes to Watson’s more recent eyewitness accounts from the conflict in Syria: “The West engaged / in self-soothing debates while mercenaries / penetrate the borders, tilting the board / in Assad’s favour”.

The Troubadour winning poem likewise derives from the Syrian conflict. Co-judging with Seren’s Amy Wack, Neil Astley said O’Brien submitted three poems, any one of which could have won first prize: “All three were so compelling that I found myself measuring all the other poems I read against them . . . I had no hesitation in putting forward one of them for first prize.” The eventual winner was ‘The War Reporter Paul Watson and the Barrel Bombs’: “basically pieces-of-shit / IEDs of TNT, nitrogen / -rich fertilizer, diesel, anything / likely to kindle after exploding”. This is a more brutal, less multi-dimensional poem than some of O’Brien’s but it possesses an undeniable power to shock: “A foot in a sock / sticks out of the mountain. They tickle her / to see if they should dig”.

O’Brien has just published a second collection of more personal poems with CB Editions: http://www.cbeditions.com/obrien2.html

And here is my review of War Reporter from last year:

Dan O’Brien’s book is big, brave, important and challenging even in its imperfections. It is an act of ventriloquism, hitching a desperate and often horrifying ride on the work and experiences of Canadian war reporter, Paul Watson. Watson took the 1994 Pulitzer prize-winning photograph of Staff Sgt. William Cleveland’s body being dragged from the wreck of a Black Hawk through the streets of Mogadishu. Without doubt, his work tapped something important for America; as well as Watson’s original book, Where War Lives, and these poems, there is also a play and an opera in preparation.

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The poems abound in speaking voices, dominated by Watson himself, but including the “Poet”. Each piece comes at the reader as a slab of blank, largely decasyllabic verse. Voices bleed into one another, partly under the pressure of war zone experiences but also because of an explicit similitude between author and reporter: “You’re like the writer / I’ve always wished I were [. . . ] your constant / returning to an underworld we can’t / look at” (‘The War Reporter Paul Watson Describes the Ghost’). Both men admit to the allure of war and death. Watson’s voice, telling of his Mogadishu photo, confesses “When / you take a picture the camera covers / your face, you shut the rest of the world out” (‘The War Reporter Paul Watson Hears the Voice’). The quieter, more reflective stretches of the sequence explore this idea and allude to Camus’ claim to have solved the mystery of where war lives; the answer is in each of us, in our loneliness and humiliation. Watson’s book pursues this and O’Brien does the same here, taking the idea to justify excursions into both men’s personal and family backgrounds. I’m not sure how effective this is (OK, both are drawn to war’s horror, but neither are warriors) and these episodes do sap the quite astonishing power of the more direct reportage.

The book has Watson recalling scenes from Somalia, Rwanda, the Balkans, Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan and it is art’s ability to contemplate such horrors that makes the book an important one. Tony Harrison (who always refers to himself as the man who reads the metre) insists that his formal artistry is vital to bring the poet through the fire he is intent on penetrating. O’Brien chooses to speak of man’s brutality by telling it slant, through another’s voice. Watson witnesses the stoning of a married rapist, but the initial possessive modifier ensures we cannot push the scene into the distance: “our audience cheers an elderly man / lifting a perfect cinder block above / his head, then smashing it down where a gash / jack knifes the rapist’s neck” (‘The War Reporter Paul Watson Attends a Stoning’). War lives in all of us and the collection is a hard read partly because of our reluctance to face this. The rigid consistency of form perhaps also adds some monotony, but I’d agree with Jay Parini, that O’Brien’s success is in finding words “sufficient” for our time, a form of speech adequate to the evil that persists.