David Morley

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Writing With Light, by David Morley

Poetry Review

 

There is panache to literary endurance. The later poems of Les Murray, Charles Tomlinson, Peter Scupham and John Heath-Stubbs, all bear marks of rapid, concentrated writing: a fast-focus vision; expert craft; and adeptness about the knowledge of the poem’s time. They work at the top of their game. Natural talents, and the ability to learn, play a strong role in literary development, but character and stamina determine whether one lasts as a writer—as we will see in the case of W.S. Graham.

Some poets grow freer as they get older. For some, the incubation and gestation times for writing speed up, several poems running through their cognitive assembly lines simultaneously. The apprenticeship is long over, yet they write with the ease of beginners. Mellowing—even literary mellowing—is thought of by some as virtuous, as is the damnation of geniality. Both are manipulative legislations foisted by young writers on their elders to seize the game off them. I like my older poets fierce, frosty and restless. I like their example of hard work and curiosity. No pagefright for them.

For many such poets, mellowing can be safely left to younger writers who have not yet registered that making it work might be a more revolutionary aim than making it new. It is as if the November of a writing life leaves little time for much in the way of what Keats called agonie ennuyeuse (the tedious agony)— the fallowness of creativity before the storm of creation. The colour of these poets’ voices grows tighter and tougher given a backwash of snow. Geoffrey Hill’s recent progressions are exemplary in this respect. So are those of John Heath-Stubbs (born 1918) in his collection Pigs Might Fly:

 

The sky was full of cochons.

As they soared and swerved and swooped,

Exactly by what means I could not discern.

That was many years ago. I am an old man now,

And the sight’s so familiar

That I am told people don’t look up now as they once did

 

This is not a tone of voice so much as a tone of mind: the mind engages its own mortality in a porcelain language, language that is firm, but does not conceal the inherent breakability in its making. In late life, great poets and novelists can achieve that cold and clarifying self-characterization: experience and ceaseless practice demand it of the voice. The effect of such self-characterization is not self-dramatization, it is a forensic honesty, and it is merciless. The poet achieves a coldness and frankness of expression and exposition that is largely unavailable to either the writer who lives in the moment and in his or her appetites, or one who cannot help thinking too much. You hear this type voice in Mandelstam’s exile poems; you listen for it colouring Hardy’s late poems. Here is the whole of Heath-Stubbs’s ‘In the Porcelain Factory’. Listen to the sound of its simple argument: the clarifying veneer of prose, the spoken assurance of line:

 

Once I was shown around a porcelain factory,

One of our best English producers of fine china

But what I remember best is a small man—

Hunchbacked he seemed or deformed in some way.

His only task to paint images of birds on cups and saucers.

This he did constantly and continually,

Not pausing to notice those of us who gazed at him.

I do not know if there was anyone to love him or to care for him.

His whole life this constant repetition

Of small images of love and song and freedom.

He must be gone now and who will remember him?

                        

Heath-Stubbs’ task, in this book, is to paint small images, remembrances. What veers wonderfully in them are freedom, song, love. Like form, awareness of mortality is no prison to creation. You write against it: its restriction. It is as liberating as the knottiest of forms, despite the sensation that it makes time weigh upon the act of writing. But that weight is not just the weight of expectation, it is the weightless pleasure of action, however futile, however unseen or overlooked.

W.S. Graham’s work was in peril of being overlooked—once. There were poets to love him and care for his work. Audiences do not wait; you must create them. Graham was not especially good at this in his life—but his poetry is capable of creating audience, and his advocates are out in the field. As you can damn by faint praise, so you can by over-praise: Graham’s supporters are very canny in this respect; like water falling on stone, they have been very steady, persistent without becoming relentless

I have given slightly more space to Heath-Stubbs because the W.S. Graham New Collected Poems is the paperback version of the 2004 hardcover, skilfully edited by Matthew Francis, a volume widely and positively reviewed last year. Graham’s reputation has recovered from a position of inflicted and self-inflicted neglect. As Douglas Dunn writes in the Foreword, ‘Steadfastness of supporters (and the steadfastness, the indestructibility of the work) have led to Graham’s reappearance…’. His importance to poets, however, must be widened beyond that persuasive, persistent community. The task of recuperation is only half-complete: Graham still needs to gain more general readers, readers who are not academics or fellow writers. They deserve him. He writes with light.

It cannot be helped that fashion shadows our perception of writing. Reappraisals rot into neglect; favouritisms deform into denunciations. Writers tend not to be so fickle in their admirations (Dunn and Francis have been staunch), and general readers have far greater fidelity to a name. Literary quality, if the writer is lucky, outlasts any phase of cultural fashion. The panache of literary endurance fails without near-constant advocacy. I hope this volume is not a signal that the campaign is considered completed, the fashion mellowing, and that luck is, again, on the wane.

Of course, Graham is everything his reviewers claim: a canonical modernist romantic. There are few poems from the late Twentieth Century in English lovelier in their soundscapes than ‘The Nightfishing’ and ‘Malcolm Mooney’s Land’; few poems more agonizingly haunting than ‘Loch Thom’; or darker and wiser than ‘Johann Joachim Quantz’s Five Lessons’. His language is beautifully turned for the ear, for he also writes with sound. That resonance will draw readers ever more closely. I propose Faber release on CD any recordings which Graham may have made, or commission a CD of the poems read by his steadfast poet-supporters. Include this recording in the next edition of the paperback. In the meantime, read these poems aloud to others. Poets: include one Graham poem in your own readings. You might deserve (you might need) the same advocacy one of these days.

 

Pigs Might Fly, John Heath-Stubbs, Carcanet Press, pb., 48 pp. 7.95   and New Collected Poems, W.S. Graham, Faber and Faber, pb., 390 pp. 16.99

 

 

The Science of Possibility by David Morley

Poetry Review

 

A poem’s design, or the design of a single poetic line, should suggest possibility, not cast-iron certainty; even though its structure may be as super-involuted as the genetic design of a rose, or eye. Let a poem carry the argument. This is the entirety of Charles Tomlinson’s ‘A Rose from Fronteira’:

 

Head of a rose:

above the vase

a gaze widening —

hardly a face, and yet

the warmth has brought it forth

out of itself,

with all its folds, flakes, layers

gathered towards the world

beyond the window,

as bright as features,

as directed as a look:

rose, reader

of the book

of light.

 

The cellular life of a poem is its language, and Tomlinson’s language is numinous with life. Alert, evocative, precise language of this standard is not too far from the best observational nature writing, or writing that arises from scientific enquiry. Obviously, a botanist would not reach for the image of the rose as a ‘reader of the book of light’ while writing a paper, but they might were they tilting their findings into creative nonfiction.

Charles Tomlinson is light-years ahead of so many other English poets whose reputations are more visible if less sturdy. Why do we not celebrate him more than we do? It is an old question, and it will not go away. Is he too good for us? Cracks in the Universe is a volume brimming with excellences; it extends a body of poetry which has few equals in achievement, perceptual alertness and audacity. I’ve little doubt that when we look back on poetry from England in fifty years, Charles Tomlinson (with Geoffrey Hill and Ted Hughes) will be seen as the figures to reckon with, and to re-read. It is abjectly Little-English to ignore him while he lives—and writes so well—among us. If you are unfamiliar with his work, this book is yet another marvellous place to begin.

Good poetic design engenders possibility. The oeuvre of a poet suggests similar strains of possibility since we tend to read in picks and patches, rather than taking a complete view. It is possible to take that completed view with Peter Redgrove now he is passed on: a scientist and a poet of such range and strangeness that his work arouses as much confusion and talent-blindness among critics, as it does curiosity and devotion among readers. I personally feel that, like Charles Tomlinson, Peter Redgrove is foolishly under-rated but that we are beginning to catch up with him at last and, in both cases, this is our gain.

For some poets, writing poems requires an excess of process in order to create discrimination: their volcano vomits sky-high ash, but there may be a few diamonds scorched into being. This was never Redgrove’s project. There is a sense that you need to read his whole output as one long white-hot flow of which these two books are fresh tributaries. Penelope Shuttle quoted Philip Hosbaum in a recent edition of Stand as stating, ‘…the dedicated reader needs to accept Redgrove en bloc, demanding though the task may be’. That seems a unnecessarily pushy and off-putting: Redgrove’s work demands only to be read out loud (as Shuttle indicates) for its apparent mysteries to become what they are: open-minded enquiries, clear-eyed explorations.

Personally, I find Redgrove’s work beguiling in both its fragments and its wholeness. His balance of science and metaphysical exploration is rigorous and intelligent, alight with parallaxes and possibilities. I was first drawn to his poems directly because I was a scientist, as was he. But this balance and play of mind has been overplayed by critics who know nothing about science, or who have not grown beyond the image of scientist as anti-imagination empiricist. In my experience, scientists are among the most innovative and lateral workers with language, ideas and images. There is nothing unusual in Redgrove’s absolute refusal to stop exploring the inner and outer minds of his worlds; it goes with the training.

What Redgrove knew from the long experience of writing poems is that form must seem inevitable, be near-invisible, a presence in dialogue with the writing. In his later work, he embraced a three-step line; and this allowed him a huge elasticity in voice and pacing. One thing it allows the reader is speed: the three-stepped line runs downhill at a clatter. For the poet, the line’s shape props and pistons the work forward within the superstructure of a book. Reading Redgrove therefore has never been easier, and both these posthumous collections complete a most remarkable oeuvre.

I’ve admired Philip Gross’s poems since his first collection Familiars in 1983, and never understood why Gross’s poetic reputation is not a little more electric, until I discovered that some commentators consider him ‘safe’, whatever that means. However, one supportive critic commented that Gross’s excellence is not just a matter of his imagination but also what he chooses to write about. That goes some way to making a case, but underplays his literary style which is considerable in its linguistic panache. As a poet, Gross can be as experimental and leftfield as any self-elected avant-gardist, and in this new collection he plays compendious games with stanza and sound; and also pushes punctuation and numerical marks into open spaces where they begin to sprout into little words and images all by themselves, for example in ‘The Channel’:

 

…Our first week apart

 

I found myself doodling its symbol: brackets

inside-outed. Trust a man

to translate sadness into mathematics

 

) (

 

or ink on the page – like opening a river

of type, so space might flow…

 

I was particularly impressed throughout this book by the interplay between line, line-break, various connecting patterns and stanza-shapes; but not distracted to the point where I forgot about the words—the poems indeed—and just enjoyed the technique. Some of the poems are marvellous, not because they are candid, not because they are brave about subject, not even because of the technique on display, but because they are electrifyingly well-observed and beautifully-written. Perceptual acuity at this level, like that of Charles Tomlinson, is an act of extreme attention. There is nothing safe or lame in that endeavour; it is one of the hardest of poetic feats.

Lame poems are like lame jokes: they surprise us into boredom. As Greg Delanty would probably argue, a good joke is itself a decent poem. There is little lame about Greg Delanty’s poetry but, in contrast to the sifted compactions of Philip Gross, Delanty creates cocky, wordy, cheerful poems, as well something we used to call “verse”. For purists, any of these gambolling qualities could send a poet to purgatory. Yet good humorous verse is tough to pull off, and the best comedy is the thorniest to write.

Within the vasty fields of a complete works, there are bound to be etiolations of poetic energy (‘the froth/of goodwill bubbling up like cappuccino’ is the kind of image starved by the writer’s sheer goodwill). These etiolations occur when Delanty switches all the power from the poem to the joke of the poem. Mostly, the wordy bravura keeps the poems alive. By reputation, he is a brilliant performer of his work, and the enlivening syntax of poems such as ‘The Natural World’ and ‘The Shutterbug’ wake the ear with their spoken confidence. Of course, all writing is performance. Style performs our voice. Our syntax and diction perform language. In Delanty’s oeuvre, those syntheses are beautifully entangled; messily sometimes, but honest in their occasional clumsiness. In fact, I like this poet a lot more for the faults he shows honestly than for faults hidden by technical gloss-paint. Possibility, even the possibility of failure, yields more to the reader than certainty or professionalism.

 

Cracks in the Universe, Charles Tomlinson, Carcanet, pb., 80 pp., 7.95, ISBN 1-903039-79-7

The Harper, Peter Redgrove, Cape, pb., 64 pp., 9.00, ISBN 0-224-07793-7

A Speaker for the Silver Goddess, Peter Redgrove, Stride, pb., 110 pp., 8.50, ISBN 1-905024-16-9

The Egg of Zero, Philip Gross, Bloodaxe, pb., 80 pp., 7.95, ISBN 1-85224-726-6

Collected Poems 1986-2006, Greg Delanty, Carcanet, pb., 254 pp., 14.95, ISBN 1-903039-

 

A Spring in the Heels: Pauline Stainer,

by David Morley

The Guardian

 

Like Robert Frost before her Pauline Stainer published her first collection, as some critics are fixated in describing it, ‘late’, but by which they mean the poet’s forties. A recent blurb touted a male writer of forty-five as ‘one of our best younger poets’. There is a reversible rule at work - if the art doesn’t stand up displace blame by youth, or ostensible youth. In Stainer’s case, as with Frost, the waiting and hard work clearly delivered a deal more grit to the pearl. Her first volume The Honeycomb remains a precise and numinous work, distinctive not only for the range of subject and clarity of language but also by its accidental and interesting timing. Her critical reception occurred during one of the new poetry’s year of frenzy, 1989, which saw the release of a whole schoolyard of some our more interesting young poets (now ‘our best younger poets’). A deal of fun was had by a few; the hangover lasted a generation.

Here’s a curative from Wallace Stevens, one of Stainer’s talismanic influences, ‘The reason is a part of nature and is controlled by it’.  Pauline Stainer’s poetry was distinctive among the new generation of poets for several strong reasons, not least the powers of her reason, the natural balance and maturity of her intelligence, and the fact that her poems were written in a way that most of the then current poetry wasn’t: her poetics was difficult, strange and challenging. The poems flouted Larkin by dipping voluptuously into the European myth kitty. They harried the new formalists by sticking with a sharpened free verse. They challenged the empiricists with a declaration ‘Intuition is the blade / of a swept vision; / in the overnight snow / the samurai / rinse their swords.’

In addition, her diction was violently eloquent, as violent and as earthed as the Ted Hughes of The Hawk in the Rain, Lupercal and Wodwo, but it was also almost polar in its clearness, and her language was plainly, thank goodness, not streetwise. She was also among the first poets of her time to engage with science with an alertness and open-mindedness that many of us in the scientific community respected. I was a scientist in the late ‘eighties, and it was joy to find a poet for whom science was more than something to be narrowly raided for a misunderstood term or mangled paradigm - to read somebody who recognised that perceptual precision and intelligent enquiry can live alongside passion, compassion and fascination with language.

But Stainer did something rarer, generous even: her work taught: it illuminated the questions of why poetry is such a possible vehicle for the perception that the world contains a commonality of senses, but equally how our perceptual worlds are shaded differently and so shade the world differently. ‘Good writers write; failed writers teach’ is one of those ego-supporting statements that ignore Milton’s homemade classroom (with enlightened syllabus and afternoon walks) or Ted Hughes helping set up the Arvon Foundation. What really fine writers like Pauline Stainer do is both write and educate, and they do so first and foremost within their poems. Her poetry teaches by example - Stainer’s polyvalent curriculum embraces ancient history, mythology, metaphysics, the visual arts and music, geography, natural philosophy and physics. Gustav Mahler desired that the symphony should contain the world. Stainer makes the same demand for poetry, then goes further in imaging the alternative, complementary worlds of past and future.

You could argue that this is the hope of any art form on a good day, especially if the artist is alert when the good day presents itself. But there is nothing more complicated than perception. Stainer’s material is language interacting with the imaginative truth of myth, and with the various degrees of significance and possibility offered by science. She sites her poetry smack on the veering demarcation between metaphysics and science: falsifiability. These aspects and doubts ramify through her subsequent collections Sighting the Slave Ship (1992) and The Ice-Pilot Speaks (1994) in which she questions of a Leonardo print ‘Is it the physiology / of the smile, / printed on silk / so thin / the image can be seen / from both sides // or the sleight / of quantum movement, / the verve / of her barely being there, / the fate of all those lost / probabilities // when given half a chance / she would swallow / the pearl of the moon?’

Stainer’s purpose has been rightly described as demonstrating that ancient worlds are of a piece: that old rituals still obtain, that old beliefs still govern instinct. This could sound a somewhat solemn enterprise but, like Charles Tomlinson or the late poet-scientist Miroslav Holub, her purpose is enlivened by the notion of serious play. By all means her work - like David Jones, Jorie Graham or Geoffrey Hill - can be thought to be difficult but it is not inaccessible and, like all these poets, one of the reasons is the sheer jouissance and bloody-minded verve of the artistic execution. Serious ends very often require playful processes and means: games with language can produce magical syntheses, plays, scientific breakthroughs, novels, equations and poetry. Stainer once declared, ‘I see how rapaciously eclectic some of [my poems] are. They could well jettison the academic. Notes, quotes, even questions throw up their own dry-ice. Maybe the probing intelligence should wear its seriousness with spring heels...’

In the 1996 collection The Wound-dresser’s Dream (the wound-dresser is John Keats in 1819 considering signing on as a ship’s surgeon) and Parable Island (1999) the sprung heeled Stainer is ever more playful in subject: Coleridge goes scuba-diving, and to Malta, Herman Melville jumps ship while, on the island of Samoa, Robert Louis Stevenson dreams of his father and grandfather inspecting famous lighthouses in Orkney, weighing ‘the examined life, / the necessary exile, / against the way light behaves / between islands.’ And islands loom more like solid characters in these new and selected poems. Stainer was for a time her own Prospero, living on the Orkney island of Rousay. The resulting work is fairly sea-sprayed with the imagery of the shoreline, raised beach and anchorage. Not so much her parable island where ‘you could slip a blade / between the sea and the sky’, but an entirely physical and desired landfall for the sea-swallows that follow ‘the midnight sun / from pole to pole / as if absolving the dark’ and which ‘were there / before anything was, / unsung and beyond metaphor...’

The Lady and the Hare confirms Pauline Stainer as one of our best, certainly one of our wisest, poets. From island to mainland to continent, her poetic worlds have evolved larger and complex forms. They have begun colliding and producing Venn Diagrams of poems like the new sequence ‘A Litany of High Waters’ in which literal history and mythical story are fused together with that colder eyed, far North, and pearl-hard way of saying: ‘Everywhere, the colour of exile - / silica, sulphur // arctic foxes in their mottled summer blue, / ashes white unto harvest. // In the unspeakable interior / the rivers drop like axes. // Our old frostbite re-opened / through the white nights ... Only then, did the falcons / fall out of the middle air’.

The Lady and the Hare: New and Selected Poems by Pauline Stainer, 192pp, Bloodaxe Books, 2004

 

 

England’s Glory: Charles Tomlinson,

by David Morley

The Guardian

 

I‘ve heard some poets assert that, in the poetry business as in ‘business business‘, success creates success. Conversely, neglect breeds neglect. But what does that say about us, or our culture, if certain of our neglected poets are highly celebrated elsewhere in the world? It says that the English audience for poetry is shameless in following the crowd; that we prefer to look inward, and abjure adventure in favour of our stable of home-made traditions, traditions which we then choose to misunderstand and misread anyway (there is much that is unconservative about our lively, internationalist and radical literatures and edgy traditions). It also says that we fear to learn new ways of seeing and believing in case it exposes our suppositions about the artor our poems indeedas ignorant, second-hand or, at worst, third-rate. It alerts us that this is a very primal fear: important but temporary poetic reputations and critical judgements depend on various lies that must not be decoded. Yet who is this English audience for poetry but many of our own poets, tussling over the art form, its prizes and privations, like scorpions brawling in a corpse?

Meanwhile, the art advances elsewhere, and if you are fortunate enough to visit some of these elsewheres—America, Australia, Europe, Japan, Mexico—and meet their major poets and critics you may be knocked for six to learn that for them English poetry is a triangular constellation made up of Charles Tomlinson, Geoffrey Hill, and Roy Fisher. Even Charles Causley, in the days following his passing, featured on more international radars for reputation than we in The Shire might have predicted. The stock response to this type of view is often the xenophobic flourish of dismissal: we are wiser and they are not.  And, fair enough, it does represent a refracted and exclusive take on British poetry of the past few years, one that doesn‘t take due cognisance of the great formal range and achievement of many new writers. That said, it it is a view, and it is widely held. And, taking again the international response to the death of Charles Causley, let’s ask ourselves, quietly: does it really take the death of one of our major poets to bring their reality and fineness into focus for English readers? Isn’t that something we used to blame on previous generations, damning them for their lack of foresight?

With that in mind, consider Charles Tomlinson.Tomlinson, born in 1927, is very much a unique voice in contemporary English poetry, and has been a satellite of excellence for the past fifty years. He is a satellite because he has chosen to work outside the cliques and so has created his own audience. He chose not to borrow an audience left over from some previous movement, nor has he compromised himself into becoming a poet more easily assimilated by the reader who prefers a poetry that simply corroborates their ostensibly liberal viewpoint. Instead, the breadth of Tomlinson’s concerns, the passion and compassion of his intelligence, and the experimental power of his craft, mark him as a seriously good world writer, aligned with his friend, the late Octavio Paz. That’s why I feel a strong new volume from Tomlinson should be a cause for celebration. Yet coverage in this country has been somewhat scant, despite the strengths of his new work, not only in Skywriting but also Carcanet‘s other excellent volume The Vineyard Above the Sea (1999).

Thank goodness for us then that Tomlinson is a fighter, an energetic and creative artist and intelligent advocate of the poetry of other writers. His poetry and poetics are highly significant in that they have advanced the art as a way of seeing and voicing the physical world. He has also made a substantial contribution to an international view and practice of poetry, working with writers from many countries on jointly written forms such as the Japanese Renga. He is responsible for bringing to light the powerful work of many authors such as Attilio Bertolluci, Fyodor Tyutchev or Csar Vallejo; and backing and editing work by writers marginalised from the British mainstream such as the great Scottish poet Hugh MacDiarmid and the Welsh poet David Jones. But this is a microscopic sample of Tomlinson’s undertakings. It shows a poet who takes the artist’s civic and cultural responsibilities generously and gladly. Maybe we could do worse than learn from his example. Maybe his actions make too many poets appear ultimately self-interested. Maybe that’s partly the reason for the deliberate and deliberated neglect.

In Skywriting, his poetry continues to break ground in his concern for the environment, and his precise perception of the external natural world. He has a strong Wordsworthian regard and instinct for ecology and natural cycles, here writing of badger trails and also of ourselves by default:

 

               These signs for silence

Dwell within the mind’s own silences

Breeding a mystery - mysterious, too,

Even when explanation has restored it

To a world not shaped by introspection

And to lives lived-out beside our own

Nocturnal and unseen.

 

His new volume contains some bravely experimental work, especially the sequence ‘Mexico’ which moves between forms, including a prose poem which movingly urges its focus to the house and garden of Octavio Paz ‘the poet who came here to die and to seek, he said, reconciliation beneath these trees with their eagles and beside the cool basin frequented by pigeons’. More moving still is an elegy to another good friend, Ted Hughes, in a poem fired by grief and affection and one which opens by echoing a poem by Hughes himself, in which a soldier shot in the trenches falls massively across the length of Britain. In Tomlinson’s poem, driving to the funeral, precise perception of people, nature, light, sound, combine with place, movement, and we become witness to the pain of that day:

 

It was a death that brought us south,

            Along a roadway that did not exist

When the friendship was beginning death has ended.

            How lightly, now, death leans

Above the counties and the goings-on

            Of loud arterial England. I see

A man emerge out of a tent,

            Pitched at a field’s edge, his back

Towards the traffic, taking in

            The flat expanse of Sedgemoor, as if history

Had not occurred, the drumming tyres

            Creating one wide silence.

Oaks stand beside their early shadows.

            Sun makes of a man’s two shadow-legs

Long blades for scissoring the way

            Across yet one more meadow, shortening it.

 

Tomlinson makes a poetry sown and rooted in place—whether his Gloucestershire home or a roadside in Mexico. As a poet of place and perception, as translator, advocate and editor, he is a most un-English poet (pace Larkin) and yet he is also the most rigorously English poet we have: an internationalist striding the Forest of Arden; an anarchist classicist; a passionate precisionist. For these apparent oppositions are also a part of a great tradition which, in Tomlinson’s work, and his new volume, achieve balance, synthesis and wonderful expression. Join to this praise that he is also very funny, and I trust you have abandoned any reason not to buy the book. Let’s be proud of him.

 

Skywriting by Charles Tomlinson, Carcanet Press, 2005

 

 

 

An End and a Beginning: M.R. Peacocke,

by David Morley

The Guardian

Did anyone notice the recent crisis in poetry publishing? If poetry were a species, it would have entered the red list. There were more writers of the stuff than ever, but few readers. Poets were loss makers, so bigger publishers dropped their poetry lists or shrank them to a trickle of slim, overpriced volumes. Prominent poets, once published by the big houses, were forced to seek out new habitats within the small presses. This narrowed what those companies could do: it meant scant room for poets considered uncommercial. So those proud starvelings were left, beaks open, in the cold of non-publication.

What began to save the situation was the determination of an energised group of specialist editors to keep poetry true to itself, to its best traditions. They wanted to make the "brand" of poetry healthy, to publish the best and be damned or lauded by posterity. Peterloo Poets was one of a cluster of presses, including Bloodaxe, Carcanet and Arc, that held its nerve within that crisis, and the result is a book as strong as this, MR Peacocke's third collection. Peterloo had experience behind it. The company has been championing both the barely visible and the established poet for nearly 30 years. For half that time MR Peacocke has been a gold standard for readers of its list (another of its luminaries is UA Fanthorpe). Peacocke's Marginal Land (1988) and Selves (1995) were fine collections, distinguished by the fact that nearly all the poems had been worked to such a degree that every piece held up, many poems were memorable, and some were terrifying in their honesty. This was healthy poetry, not that interested in reception, but necessary because its severe honesty was rather avant-garde in contrast to the post-modern/urban poetry pouring down at that time.

MR Peacocke's Speaking of the Dead is also entirely convincing, and even more thorough in its determination to be honest. Her work is emblematic of contemporary British poetry and its publishing, not least because the excellence of her work is coupled with a neglect of her reputation outside poetry circles. Peacocke lives on a hill farm among those beautiful but wild fells you will have seen flanking the M6 in Cumbria. She runs the place as a smallholding. As such she has a powerful feel not only for beasts ("an old dog was waving / his shadow tail and barking a raspy / rundown bark") and natural history ("Worms that lay out in a soft dusk / are block-cold this morning. Frost / has burned them") but also for the briefness of everything perceived in our lifetimes. Life and time are hard-won glimpses to be valued and held in writing, yet knowing this work will also disappear: "to tread our names in blemished / brilliant drifts; because the time we have / is shrinking away like snow".

Of course, many writers have been on this terminal moraine before; but I know few contemporary British poets other than Peacocke who can write with such perception of the under-dramatised ordinariness of mortality. Nature kills without value; we choose to impose a sometimes shallow value on that process through our need for sentiment or our needless terror of death. Peacocke, instead, writes with what Osip Mandelstam called "the science of saying goodbye":

 

The moment when you say, Not many more.

Without pain or anger, something gives,

like a wrapping of ancient linen

or leather that is spent; and your eye

can gaze into a lost eye and feel

no rancour, because now it comprehends

how the first subtle binding was made.

Your freed hands stretch, unswaddled limbs,

and you laugh, learning the air and rain.

For a while these dead may search, fumbling

after lost authority. Dismiss them?

They fade of themselves, carrying no weight,

their language of command obsolescent.

 

Peacocke's language is shriven, precise and terribly open to the dead, to absence. What alerts the poet, and what fascinates me in her poetry, are those moments of change in which things die into one another without loss of essential energy or force. It's a question of perception. In "Late Snow" she writes of:

 

An end. Or a beginning.

Snow had fallen again and covered

the old dredge and blackened mush

with a gleaming pelt; but high up there

in the sycamore top, Thaw

Thaw, the rooks cried,

sentinel by ruined nests.

 

This is Larkin's trees crying to "Begin afresh, afresh, afresh" and Shakespeare's "bare, ruin'd choirs". It also calls to our need for a concise vocabulary for the merits of being alive. Peacocke shares this precision of language with the late American poet Elizabeth Bishop. Both have a bristly perceptive clarity for minutiae, and for the wry double-take on detail that can be deadly as well as funny. Writing of an unidentified seaside town where "you can glimpse Scotland when the cloud lifts":

 

... someone's troubled to work

on the notice until it advises

Please d i e carefully ...

Two dogs with experienced grey muzzles

are laughing over something ...

This is a place for men

and miniature men, for talk

of tides catches records goals. The women

sit. Older sitters have good big teeth ...

 

Meg Peacocke was born in 1930. One imagines she doesn't do a lot of sitting about on her high-contoured farm. Maybe you have to live long and work as hard to write this well and as clearly. Maybe a smallholding high on the fell is the place to create these self-sufficient, alert combinations of words "that quest, voice, check, run / like hounds hunting alone". Her control of feeling is superb, and the plain knowledge that lies behind these poems, most of it simply unspoken, is a mark of her respect for the reader. I predict her reputation, like that of Elizabeth Bishop, is likely to increase greatly with time, and I trust that it happens within her lifetime.

It's discrimination and boldness that allow presses such as Peterloo to hold a poet of Peacocke's talent to the light. With others, it has broken the snow for new poetry presses that already show immense promise such as Heaventree, Worple and Arrowhead. We should show the same respect to small and specialist publishers as we do to the best regional theatres, galleries or orchestras. They are also proud starvelings; they operate on a fare of energy and belief. Feed them by buying their books, beginning with this one.

 

Speaking of the Dead by MR Peacocke , 62pp, Peterloo Poets, 2003, 7.95

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