Wednesday, October 14, 2009
Mute et svelte
Hand-delivered to my door, issue one of the Cambridge Literary Review. Yes, hand-delivered, which I’d wager is more than anyone reading this in Cambridge can boast, but it seems one of that new journal’s editor’s parents live around the corner from me here in Hull. (How unsatisfactory the collective possessive is in English, is it not, may I add parenthetically. I’d like to thank you on all our behalves. The behalves of all of us? Fie on’t!). ‘In one corner of Oxford, I have not been forgiven for coming to Cambridge’, begins Jeremy Noel-Tod’s ‘A History of Difficulty: On Cambridge Poetry’, an essay that has already inspired excited reveries in the TLS and much cyber-debate. Substitute ‘Grimsby’ and ‘Scunthorpe’ for the place-names in that sentence and you will be halfway, at least, to grasping why some people still flinch from Cambridge poetry, the very thought of it, though I seem to remember JNT venturing beyond those city wall to t’North Country a few summers back with no obvious ill effects, even if t’soft lad ’ad t’nerve to compare Philip Larkin to Patience Strong while ’e were ’ere. There is a pathology of Cambridge poetry, undoubtedly, a small glimpse of which can obtained on (CLR contributor) Robert Archambeau’s blog, when having made the unfortunate suggestion that some consciouness-raising-in-the-community might have the effect of getting a Seamus Heaney reader to read a bit of Tom Raworth, which would after all be a good thing, Keston Sutherland pounces faster than a Proletkultist reproving a less ideologically sound comrade at a Comintern meeting on town sanitation to point out that, no it wouldn’t, Heaney being a running dog of international capitalism (‘by this point practically an armrest of the state apparatus’), though Sutherland also rejects the ‘weird vignette of cults, sects, mysteries, conspiracies, messianism, contrived suffering, programmatic self-exclusion, etc’ he found in Kent Johnson’s characterisation of recent British poetry recently over on Digital Emunction (‘If anyone’s obnubilated in incense and ectoplasm it’s people like Fiona Sampson, the editor of the once again wretchedly conservative and dull Poetry Review’). Would there were world and time enough to do justice to these epic struggles of our time but, can you believe it, there aren’t.
Among the other noteworthy things in CLR are an opening poem, ‘Patridges’, by Helen Macdonald, whose Shaler’s Fish, let me repeat myself here, remains one of the best book of British poetry of recent times. I also recently read and can recommend her Reaktion Press book on the falcon, and note from the back of the mag that she lives in Cambridge ‘with her gyrfalcon Mabel’. ‘Partridges’ ends:
You can whisper birds for as many times as you like
but they are mute et svelte, et primaries wet as palms
alulas wet as thumbs, lovers of beets and ground.
How many those walked alfalfa. Toadflax and hairy beeds
weak foci for the dispossessed. If I could plant plover
in the sky. Or shake a westerly with landrails down.
And all its invented ghosts. And for all its clouds.
They run along the lines as tiny soldiers
all wintry & humane.
She also contribute a prose piece, ‘Big Trouble in Little Shelford’.
Peter Riley presents some poems by ‘Ray Crump’, who J.C. at the TLS seems to think was a kind of Fenland Ern Malley, though for non-devotees of this kind of thing ‘How would they tell the difference?’ would seem an obvious follow-up question. From a ‘real’ Cambridge I mean, whatever that might be.
Suffice to say, then, that I found that the Crump poems perfectly readable, nay lucid. (perhaps that’s why he had to leave Cambridge?):
Flint in long
grass. Fracturing, cracks
like the death of a bird. Blood
edge echoes chorus
of the hedge. Stubmling down
a damp lime slope. Roadside
littered with flint stone. Flint
and a black feather.
There’ also John Hall on Douglas Oliver, Christina Macleish on Nigel Wheale and R.F. Langley, and a meaty essay by Stefan Collini, among much more. Subscription details on the website.
I recommend this fascinating new journal.