Click the Link for my novel – The Distance Measured in Days.
Saturday 7 April 6.30 pm – at The Upper Vestry Hall, Saint George’s Bloomsbury, Bloomsbury Way, London WC1A 2SA
Kerry-Lee Powell, Rosanne Wasserman, Eugene Richie, Donald Gardner, Alan Jenkins, Anthony Howell and Fawzi Karim.
Readings at 7 pm. The hall is just round the back of this magnificent Hawksmoor church.
We have taken over this larger venue to celebrate Grey Suit Editions – and our series of Chap-books. Many of our poets from the United States and from Canada have come over to join us. We have seven readers and there will be plenty of refreshment, and it is a FREE EVENT since it is the launch of chap-books by Rosanne Wasserman and Donald Gardner. Rosanne’s husband Eugene Richie will also read with us.
Rosanne Wasserman’s poetry embodies the New York School’s fascination with language, form, humor, and irreverence. Born in Louisville, Kentucky, in 1952, her books—The Lacemakers, No Archive on Earth, and Other Selves—include variants on Moore’s stanzas; Pound’s imitation ancient Greek, Chinese, and Provencal forms; centos, sestinas, pantoums, and Oulipo games. Her new chapbook from Grey Suit Editions, Sonnets from Elizabeth’s, is a 42-poem sequence riffing on Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Sonnets from the Portuguese. Her poems, essays, and other work appear in many journals and anthologies, including Best American Poetry, both in print and online. She and Eugene Richie founded the Groundwater Press in 1974, giving many third- and fourth-generation New York School poets their first publications. She has received a poetry fellowship from the New York Foundation for the Arts; attended workshops in Manhattan and Brooklyn led by John Yau, Bianca Stone, Emily Skillings, and Simone Kearney; and interviewed Pierre Martory and James Schuyler for the American Poetry Review. With Eugene Richie, she has written two collaborations—Place du Caruousel and Psyche and Amor—as well as edited the two-volume Collected French Translations of John Ashbery. For twenty-five years, she has taught English and cinema to merchant sailors at the United States Merchant Marine Academy, Kings Point, Long Island.
Eugene Richie was born in Winona, Minnesota, in 1951, and has lived in New York since 1974. He is Director of Creative Writing in the Pace University English Department, where he teaches creative writing and literature courses. His collections of poetry include Moiré; Island Light; and, with Rosanne Wasserman, Place du Carousel and Psyche and Amor. A new book of poems, Views of Little Neck Bay, is forthcoming in 2019 from Gnosis Press. Of his poetry, John Ashbery has said he reveals “the landscape of love we all carry around with us, that we use to accost, identify, and finally understand the ‘real’ one yapping at our ankles.” He has translated, with Edith Grossman, two poetry collections of the Colombian writer Jaime Manrique (Scarecrow and My Night with Federico García Lorca, a Lambda Literary Award finalist); two collections, with Raimundo Mora, of stories by the Venezuelan writer Matilde Daviu; and with Medievalist Martha Diver, tales by John Gower, Geoffrey Chaucer, and Thomas Chester. He has edited Ashbery’s Selected Prose, and, with Wasserman and Olivier Brossard, three bilingual collections of Ashbery’s translations of poems by French poet and novelist Pierre Martory: The Landscape Is behind the Door; Oh, Lake / Oh, lac; and The Landscapist (a London Poetry Book Society Recommendation and a U.S. National Book Critics Circle Award poetry finalist). With Wasserman, he edited Ashbery’s Collected French Translations, a London Poetry Book Society Recommendation and a finalist for the U.S. Poetry Foundation Pegasus Award for Poetry Criticism.
Born in Montreal, Kerry-Lee Powell has lived in Antigua, Australia and the United Kingdom, where she studied Medieval and Renaissance Literature at Cardiff University. Her work has appeared in The Spectator, Magma and The Boston Review. A collection of her poetry, Inheritance, was published by Biblioasis in 2014. She has also published a book of short stories, William de Kooning’s Paintbrush, with Harper Avenue in 2016.
Alan Jenkins was brought up on the outskirts of London in Richmond, and educated at the University of Sussex, and has worked for The Times Literary Supplement since 1981. He was also a poetry critic for The Observer, and the Sunday Independent from 1985 to 1990. He edited the “Collected Poems of Ian Hamilton” (Faber & Faber, 2009). He has published six volumes of poetry including A Shorter Life (2005) and Revenants (2013). He is now Deputy Editor and Poetry Editor of The Times Literary Supplement.
He has taught creative writing for the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, Arvon Foundation, the Poetry Society, London, and at the American University in Paris. He was a judge for the Christopher Tower Poetry Prizes
Fawzi Karim was born in Baghdad in 1945, and is now living in London. He is rapidly establishing a reputation as a major figure in contemporary poetry. Plague Lands (Carcanet) was a Poetry Book Society recommendation for 2011. He has been reviewing Classical Music and English Poetry in ASHARQ ALAWSAT, the Arabic newspaper, London, since 1980s. A second book of his poems is due to be published by Carcanet.
London-born Donald Gardner is a poet and literary translator who has lived in Italy, New York and the Netherlands. Currently he divides his time between Amsterdam and Kildare, Ireland. His most recent collection is ‘The Wolf Inside’, (Hearing Eye, 2014). His selection of Remco Campert’s poetry, ‘In those Days’ (Shoestring Press), also appeared in 2014 and was awarded the Vondel Prize for literary translation. He is known for his readings of his poetry. ‘Donald Gardner’s work is light but not trivial; clear but technically subtle and eloquent. His poetry captures his images in few words: sharply, precisely.’ Leah Fritz on ‘The Wolf Inside’ (London Grip online).
Anthony Howell is a poet and novelist whose first collection of poems, Inside the Castle was brought out in 1969. In 1986 his novel In the Company of Others was published by Marion Boyars. Another novel Oblivion has recently been published by Grey Suit editions. He was invited to the International Writers Program, University of Iowa in 1971. His Selected Poems came out from Anvil, and his Analysis of Performance Art is published by Routledge. His poems have appeared in The New Statesman, The Spectator and The Times Literary Supplement. His articles on visual art, dance, performance and poetry have appeared in many journals and magazines including Artscribe, Art Monthly, The London Magazine, and Harpers & Queen. In 1997 he was short-listed for a Paul Hamlyn Award for his poetry. His versions of the Silvae of Statius have been well received and Plague Lands, his versions of the poems of Iraqi poet Fawzi Karim, were a Poetry Book Society Recommendation for 2011. A former dancer with the Royal Ballet, and now a respected teacher of the tango, Howell was founder and director of The Theatre of Mistakes, which created notable performances worldwide in the seventies and eighties – at venues such as the Paris Biennale, the Sydney Biennale, the Paula Cooper Gallery, the Theater for the New City (NY) and at the Tate and the Haywood. Play-scripts of his performances are now published by Grey Suit Editions. He is a Hawthornden Fellow. Howell is currently curating The Room, a space for dance, performance, poetry and visual art in Tottenham, London.
All enquiries – 0208 801 8577
Details of Grey Suit editions can be found here
Poetry is perhaps the most difficult of arts because the easiest to set about – you don’t need a chisel or a canvas or an instrument or a studio. Writing is eminently convenient. But melancholy derives from the need of the author to dwell on the work. There is shame here, the shame of appearing a narcissist. To return repeatedly to a poem one has written may be compared to returning repeatedly to the mirror to examine one’s own features. It may be compared to masturbation. All too often shame overshadows the compulsion to niggle away at the lines.
But to bring the poem fully into its own presence, the poet may be required to dwell on what has been written, and to return to it, months, even years later. This will not always be the case – sometimes the labour may be easy – but ease can hardly be elevated into a credo, as the next poem may prove difficult to bring into being. The difference between jobbery and genius becomes apparent when the work is an iota away from completion. Do you have the stamina to sustain your own dissatisfaction? To alter the poem is to kill off the previous version, thus admitting one’s own failure as its author. One may feel ashamed that one has got it wrong yet again.
Another version gets screwed up and thrown in the bin. This has been described as mimetic suicide. Leonardo understood this, for artists and composers are also subject to the same requirement to attempt the unattainable goal.
The initial impulse may be released onto the page in a species of trance, perhaps instigated by Dionysus. The subsequent crafting of the poem relates to the ear, to the measure that generates the rhythm, and to concision of expression, and these aspects of the piece are presided over by the rational Apollo. Apollo tempers the molten element of Dionysus, and this also induces a tension that provokes melancholia, as the struggle between these two contradictory forces suggests the suppression of the one by the other. But the hope that out of their feuding will emerge a dynamic equilibrium drives the authentic poet ever closer to completion.
Just back from Hawthornden, where I spent a month writing and painting watercolours. And here are two poems by Penny – who was also a fellow, one for Jean Findlay – who plays the bagpipes – and one for me, celebrating a walk we took up the glen (it is more of a ravine) leading one up to nearby Rosslyn Castle.
The pipes have fainted – all limp neck
and stomach, the air knocked out of them.
You pick them up; they loll.
It does not look promising.
Unfussed, you settle them and start
bestowing mouth-to-mouth although
they’ve never lived. Notwithstanding,
spines bristle and resuscitate.
Launching is the trick: a bid for balance
among chancy toots and goose-chase spurts.
You bloat the bag with your latest lungful,
prompting with a good sharp nudge.
The pipes agree an open span which could mean anything –
in itself glad nor glum, but compatible with both.
The tune’s your call. You’ve got the edge;
we’re asking you to fill in all the blanks.
(‘God is our Guide’)
The river’s cut these rocks out by degrees –
slowly, over centuries. We cannot fathom this.
The path flirts hard with the edge,
tempting fate. We wish it wouldn’t.
It’s disguised with beech leaves
like a wealth of unearthed coins.
The horizon tumbles with loose stones
down the ravine; the water, below, repeats itself.
You sketch. I sit and eat a chilly lunch
overlooking that big nothing, not thinking much.
Round the corner we encounter a couple –
outdoorsy types in defining black, like spies.
He’s urging her onto a sublime ledge,
an empty niche above the nerveless drop.
We could be witnessing a betrothal
or a murder. If one precludes the other.
He squares himself to the terrible view;
she squats, not looking. She’s inches from the brink.
He holds the camera high to get the shot.
I wonder what they’ll find in future
to hold over each other – a lie, perhaps, or
thoughtlessness – and whether that will feel at all like this.
Penny’s book Ship of the Line is published by Eyewear
Lady Mary Wroth – one of our first sonneteers.
Here is a link to my essay on Sonnets. It is published by the Fortnightly Review.
A new exhibition at The Room – 33 Holcombe Road, London N17 9AS
Sat 30 September – Sunday 12 November
Donald Gardner – to celebrate Donald’s Grey Suit chap-book – Early Morning
Tim Dooley – to celebrate Tim’s Eyewear publication – Weemoed
Anthony Howell – to celebrate his High Window Press publication – From Insidex
Sarah Wardle will also be reading from her Bloodaxe collection – Beyond
£5 entry, then donation for refreshments – for performance and poetry events.
Here he is reading for Grey Suit. To find him reading Soonest Mended and other poems, please scroll to 47:31 on Issue 3
Here is my obituary note in the Fortnightly Review.
Here is a link to an interview with J.A.
And here is my essay on the By-ways of John Ashbery
written in 1994
There is also an essay I wrote at the same date on his poetry, that was published in the PN Review, back then, and I will post the link here when I find it. Meanwhile here is the text of that essay:
ASHBERY IN PERSPECTIVE
Part 1: His influence and stature
It is John Ashbery, more than anyone else, who has been responsible for creating that measure of recognition conceded nowadays to abstract poetry. Abstraction is a questionable term for a form which insists on the reality of its medium; making us aware of the surface we are looking at, or of the actuality of the words in a text, whatever the content signified by it. In Ashbery’s case, a laconic acceptance of the ordinary may resemble content; but his detached, amusing, sometimes melancholy tone provides the excuse for a poetry which tunes us in to a consideration of syntax and sentence-construction – the feeling of how things hang together, or could or should or might hang together -just as an intriguing piece of music leads us from its beginning to its end. The gist of a previous passage may slip away as we read further, but again and again we stumble as if by accident on phrases of deep import: they come upon us like sudden raindrops out of a blue sky.
I have heard him referred to as a poet difficult to understand. However, I have found it easy to appreciate the poems I have got to know. It is hardly a question of comprehension, but simply that the flow of his inspiration is charted by his language – to shape a phrase out of the title of his long poem “Flow-chart”. Like a landscape, his poetry is to be returned to and dwelt in. Familiarity in this case breeds respect.
However, there are differences between an American way of going about writing and a way dear to the British, whether we are considering narrative or abstract work. F.T. Prince has expressed it to me as the difference between poetry and poems. American modernists often skip our literature and espouse that of Europe. Unlike us, they appreciate philosophy and hypothetical aesthetics. A way of writing, based on a novel perception of where literature should be “at” may matter more to them than any specific felicities engendered by that style. Whitman began this trend with “Leaves of Grass”, and it persists in the work of Ezra Pound, William Carlos Williams and Charles Olson. British poets and critics, representing a nation of shop-keepers, wish to examine the goods more closely. They do not buy poetry “in bulk”. What matters to them is the particularity of the poem itself, rather than the style in which it is written.
Ashbery’s style is so pervasive that it often swamps our appreciation of individual poems. Nevertheless there are plenty of gems to be found in his oeuvre: “The Instruction Manual”, “Thoughts of a Young Girl”, “Rivers and Mountains”, “Farm Implements and Rutabagas in a Landscape”, “Soonest Mended”, “Street Musicians” and “At North Farm” should satisfy the most fastidious British taste. Still, it is style which dominates the issue when the poet’s influence is considered. Today’s abstractionists perceive Ashbery as their maitre: from their semiological stand-point his way is the correct, indeed the only, way to approach poetry. It denies individualism, since it makes no choice, picks up on anything, from Baudelaire to Daffy Duck, like a radio antenna at the mercy of the air-waves – as Burroughs once described his own brand of anti-narrative writing. Sense is shattered, like the world from which it emerges. There is no picture, only the tesserae garnered from diverse mosaics. These are what Ashbery pieces together so that each seems to fit its neighbour, although no new picture appears; his language casting a spell of coherence despite the absence of a tangible narrative thread.
The trouble with this belief in his “correctness” is that it leads his acolytes into a single role, which is that of imitation. All of them sound hopelessly like him. And because they are not prepared to admit this palpable limitation, it is unlikely that their work will stand the test of time. A philosophical perception, like some mathematical formula, may prove true forever; but in poetry it only sounds true when first stated – repetition falsifies it by turning its expression into cliche. Among American writers who might admit Ashbery’s influence, perhaps only Clark Coolidge and Douglas Crase emerge from it with a distinct style of their own; though Coolidge’s style, more fiercely disjointed than Ashbery’s since he is the Jackson Pollock of poetic abstraction, has its own host of imitators; Bruce Andrews being the first to climb aboard, followed in time by the entire brood of language poets.
A weakness dogs abstraction in poetry which has not affected its manifestion in painting. Paint is a stuff, a substance, and its plastic actuality admits of a wide variety of perceivable sensations. Language, however, is a signifying system; and as such it is abstract by nature: a series of marks which amount to signs. It remains this, whether the signs are conceived as transparent, “framing” some extrinsic reality, as in narrative usage, or presented as phenomena in their own right. While perceptions of space, shape and density may be borrowed from visual art, as in concrete poetry, there is very little to differentiate one poem from the next, so far as perceptible, physical changes are concerned. Most poems happen on the page, and are made up of words. Because language is an abstraction in itself, abstract poetry operates on too narrow a band to admit of much differentiation between its practitioners.
Ashbery’s poems continue to set themselves apart from their imitations, however; and they arouse the reader, while language poetry very soon becomes a wordy blur. It is because they perform a balancing act between meaning and its absence. They “seem to mean” – and this gives many of them an urgency generally lacking in their field. In the most traditional sense of the term, Ashbery has a voice. His is not merely an optical poetics.
It took me many years to find a way of writing which was not heavily influenced by him, on the one hand, and systemic music on the other. I remained intrigued by abstraction, though, or at least by the notion of some material truth to be gleaned from language itself. Then I visited Australia and began to engage in description; for this often produced surreal results, in a land where north is hot, and where trees lose their bark instead of their leaves – at least it seemed to do so from my deciduous perspective. Breton noticed a similar effect when he visited the Caribbean.
I still wanted to write with the same intentionless quality I admire in Ashbery; for ultimately the difference between traditional writing and that influenced by abstraction may reside in its relation to significance. However innovative it may be in form, the traditional poem sets out with a purpose. It is an emphasis on this aspect which makes conservatives out of both Leavis and Eagleton. The former insists that writing should serve some function extrinsic to itself; the latter that no value judgement can be made, that writing can only be held up for examination by a methodology that assesses its social awareness. Both adopt what amounts to a moral view, whether that be Christian or Marxist.
Once one swallows either of these lines, one lands in a dish set between Queen Victoria and the Red Queen of cultural studies; but what is interesting about modernism, from Mondrian to Morandi, is not so much the abstraction as the resolute absence of symbolism, significance, or any purpose extrinsic to the essentially plastic concern: this is what unites Roussel and Stein.
In order to evacuate significance or purpose, I evolved a usage of narrative description which was ironically abstract – in that the description was offered for no end. I merely described what I saw until there was nothing left to describe. This is what makes my Australian poems as opaque as any by my American mentor. Meticulous description, as Roussel proved in A View, can be read as if it were devoid of anything “meant”, simply for the way its sentences achieve their agreement with the form in which they are cast; this in itself being a reason for employing some regular scheme.
It was in Australia that I first came across the poetry of Les Murray. Murray is an emphatic, if laid-back, Catholic who writes with a specific narrative purpose. His poems are significant by intention, but his work sprawls into Rabelaisian excesses, and suddenly it appears to tip over into a glorious abstraction, a delight in language for its own sake. In his work I find a similarity to Ashbery which is not detrimental, for Murray arrives at sheer syntax from the opposite direction. He has so much to say that occasionally he writes a sentence of the purest poetic nonsense, like this one from Equanimity: “That it lights us from the incommensurable, that we sometimes glimpse, from being trapped in the point,(bird minds and ours are so pointedly visual), a field all foreground, and equally all background, like a painting of equality..” Conversely, Ashbery’s Pythic phrases condense their import out of a steam of incomprehensible verse.
These are both poets of stature, and Frank Prince is a third. His admirers include Ashbery, who admits that Prince, along with John Wheelwright, exerted an influence on his work. While firmly rooted in meaning, there is an emphasis on form in Prince’s poetry, a delight in rich vocabulary, especially in the early poems, and a desire to experiment which appeals to post-war poets searching for a greater emphasis on language. He is the only poet of our time to have successfully brought about an innovation in form. His six-line stanzas often employ a syllabic count to structure equivalent line lengths, thus breaking with the notion of “feet” which has become the orthodoxy of our prosody. Often the stanzas only demand two pairs of rhymes, so that the other lines may remain blank. The issue of his formal innovations is too complex to detail here (and deserves a separate essay). However, their overall effect has been to introduce some “slack” into the taut rope of versification, allowing elbow-room and providing literature with a vehicle which mediates between traditional poetics and vers libre.
This reconciliation brought about between the verse of previous centuries and the poetic revolutions of the more immediate past is more significant than we yet realise. For modernism’s freedom has resulted in far too great an emphasis on subject-matter. Eliot’s dictum that for the man who wants to do an honest job there is no “free verse” has not been seriously attended to. Where Victorian writing “bottomed out” into vacuous schemes of versification, the twentieth century now excretes elephantine and immobile mounds of (largely significant) content.
Ashbery’s innovative abstract poetry evades this feculence by presenting us with diaphanous veils of language and by endorsing construction for its own sake. Murray delights in a traditional descriptive vein which is so sanguine and torrential that it carries everything with it: rhythm, meaning and colour tumbled together like debris washed down the gullies in a tropical storm. Prince offers us a verse once more aligned to music, where a formal duality is constantly refining and enhancing the meaning while lending his poems an object quality which the more open verse of Ashbery and Murray may sometimes lack. He mediates between innovation and tradition. As the most original and energetic exponents of these values – innovation, tradition and mediation – Ashbery, Murray and Prince may well be seen by history as the three key poets of the English language during the latter part of the twentieth century.
Anthony Howell, Cardiff, 1994.