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ISSUE 13

SELECTED POEMS: RANDALL SWINGLER Edited by Andy Croft. Trent Editions, Dept of English and Media Studies, The Nottingham Trent University, Clifton Lane, Nottingham NQ11 8NS. ISBN 1842330 14 4 £7.99.

Congratulations to Trent Editions. And to the ever energetic and erudite and lively Andy Croft. Without them, this book would never have appeared. The big publishers wouldn't look at such a title, which shows just how crass they are becoming. Croft has written a biography of Swingler too. No doubt a fascinating read. But he canít find a publisher. What will you read tomorrow ? Not much of any worth if the commercial houses have their way. Long live the smaller and small and independent presses, to them we may owe the survival of literary culture Croft has done the kind of excellent job in introducing and editing which can be expected of him. The introduction is a model of clarity and learning. Swingler is a poet who ought not to have been forgotten. There are half a dozen first-rate poems here. Enough to remember him by. But he did much more. He was a powerhouse of cultural energy in the British Communist Party, which he left in disillusion in 1956.

His communism hasn't helped his reputation. Maybe things will come full circle and future generations will rediscover his period of greatest activity as one worthy of interest and respect. But maybe not. On the evidence of this collection, Swingler isn't a great poet, but he has moments of greatness. I think THE POSSIBLE is one. A poem which evokes the narrowness of the perilous path between hope and despair. In this relatively early piece he is aware of the strenuous effort required to maintain idealism and the constant temptation to lapse into self-pitying cynicism. It's prophetic. He didn't succeed in maintaining his idealism to the end. His final decade was quiescent, unproductive and drink-haunted. Perhaps we should blame the bourgeoisie. But Swingler's trap is that of all ages. He was a Marxist. Marx, of course, wanted to dedicate the first volume of Capital to Darwin. What ought a Marxist to make of Darwin now, underpinned as he is by genetics ? What ought a Marxist to make, for example, of evolutionary psychology ? Take its two assumptions: the human mind is essentially a highly complex computational mechanism; it is the product of natural selection. A bit of reverse engineering and you can see that almost everything the human mind does, it is capable of because it needed to be in the conditions in which we evolved. And then, as the Americans say, some. Biology exaggerates. Music is useless It's a genetic accident. We can survive without it. But who would want to survive without Beethoven's third or Charlie Parker or Birtwistle ?

Human beings are endowed with a bewilderingly complex array of instincts. We are so complex not because we have fewer instincts but because we have so many. Language, said Darwin, is "an instinct to acquire an art". Take that as a model of the mind. Human society is an instinct. We aren't social by choice any more than we are linguistic by choice. We have a culture and a history because we must. But we can never escape from our conflicting instincts. The world's religions are right: the struggle between good and evil, between desire and conscience never ends. Now, take another Darwinian principle: all individuals are different. Some are better at using their consciences than others. Sad but true. Swingler was a man of very high endowment. He was a sincere egalitarian. He was generous to a fault, courageous, self-sacrificing. He hated injustice and he sided with the downtrodden. No-one but a psychopath could fail to admire this. But he was armed with a theory which told him that the working-class were certain to espouse these values and to transform society so they would flourish. Yet their movement was taken over by corrupt leaders, time-servers, go-getters, cheats, liars, pimps, murderers, fools and swindlers. Power is very attractive to the worst of our instincts.

Swingler is a tragic figure because he exemplifies this betrayal of idealism and genuine high-minded ness. Part of his tragedy is that he tried to make his art serve his cause. This works so long as your cause remains individual. Think of Emerson. He's an uncompromising opponent of commercialism, vulgarity, exploitation, injustice. But he remains within the circle of his own reason and emotion. He adopts no theory. He thinks for himself. Reading Emerson wont inspire the masses to revolution, but it will inspire individuals to resistance, and enough resisting individuals becomes a revolution. Swingler's error was to believe that what he had within himself, the masses would easily find within themselves. But masses are difficult to lead and easy to mislead. It is heartbreaking to think of a man of Swingler's stature broken by the cheap and vicious egotism of power-hungry leaders.

But what has all this to do with the poetry ? Everything. Swingler is far too astute ever to reduce his poetry to propaganda. Nevertheless, his commitment informs much of his poetry and there is an undertow in many of his poems pulling them in the direction of his ideology. I suspect that had he been able to lay ideology aside - not his values, merely his ideology - he might have released more of his native feeling into his work. Take this for example:  

Sleeping on their sides by the water  
Where the sleek rivers, Lot, Vezere, Dordogne,  
Sweep impassive around their haunches  
The bristly hills like a herd of rhinoceros  
Wrinkle in sleep.  

It has an innocence and joy about it, a pleasure in something observed and experienced, it's Swinglerist and It inspires a desire to know more of what makes this man tick. ! think Swingler didn't give-enough rein to the truth of his sensibility, which was wise, thoughtful, insightful, kind, generous. A fine sensibility is a great joy. Too often it is half-gagged in his poetry so that the ideology can whisper.

All the same, Swingler is certainly as good a poet as some of the famous names from his period: Spender, Day-Lewis; and in his best poems a match for much of Auden. The absence of his work ( and of Croft's biography ) from the shelves of our bookshops and libraries testifies to the cultural narrowness and paucity of imagination which lie beneath the apparent literary cornucopia symbolized by the hyped appearance of mountains of books which all seem to have been written by the same person. At his best, Swingler sounds like no-one but Swingler. He deserves to be rediscovered and Trent Editions and Andy Croft deserve your support.  

 

DINOSAUR POINT by Paul Mills. Smith/Doorstop ISBN 1-902382-23-4 £6.95  

Good poetry sticks to your brain. Why should this be ? Finally, we rely on intuition to explain it. I read this book less than twenty-four hours ago but not a line stays with me. Much of this is prose-like. Some of it clumsy. Take this, for example:  

"the same year that it was considered spiral  
galaxies may be created by density waves.."  

The enjambement jars badly, the relative pronoun of the first line is redundant, it loses nothing by being written as prose and the language is simply dull. Much of the collection has the same feel. Some of the poems are far too long for their content; their energy dwindles and it's an effort to push on to the final line. Mills is one of those poets who seem so in thrall to whatever vagrant ideas pass through their minds that they feel simply to set them down makes poetry. There's a Journalistic feel to some of the pieces, that spatchcock rush to get the words down and convey the "information". There isn't enough music, and beauty and wit and legerdemain in this to make it something to go back to. The cover contains kind words from Ted Hughes about one of Mill's earlier books, but puffs from great poets don't make great poetry. Mills's work is easy to forget and that's the last thing poetry should be if it's to last.  

 

THROUGH THE BUSHES by Peter Daniels Luczinski

Smith/Doorstop ISBN 1-902382-22-6  £3.  

Sex is one thing, intimacy another. Sex is mere mechanics. It's the same for everyone, and dogs. Every intimacy is different. There's no evocation of the uniqueness of shared subjectivity in " 'I want you to fuck me"' or "' I want you to come". Mere mechanics. And lazy language. It's the stuff of foolish and dull pornography. Admittedly it's in the poem French Lesson partly to introduce the conceit, but it still seems too gross, too routine, too lacking in the specificity of intimacy. Lucsinski strikes me as one of those many poets without much of a reason to write. Poems tend to feel routine if they're written for routine reasons. NEIGHBOURS is a little piece about a wasps' nest in a house wall. There's some nice alliteration in the second stanza, but it's a poem that says little. It feels like an exercise in poetry. I suppose you could use it in the classroom. But lots of the most interesting poetry is what you couldnít use in the classroom. Luczinski is perfectly competent, but there are few fines that surprise, nothing to set your ideas running, little to lift the heart. Poetry is getting too tame. I suspect this happens when poets are looking over their shoulders at bureaucrats who dish out grants or award residencies. I'm not accusing Luczinski of this, but I think his poetry suffers from a depletion of chutzpah, zest, vim, sheer bloody awkwardness. Poetry should be awkward, especially in an age of the stuck record like ours. Luczinski plays too safe.  

 

TIME YOU LEFT by Brenda Lealman Smith/Doorstop ISBN 1-902382-19-6 £3  

A series of poems about a death, grief and slow recovery. The collection has coherence and the poems follow convincingly one from the next, creating an emotional atmosphere which is authentic and effecting. Lealman has a simple, taut style which fits well with the material; the potential overflowing of grief is held nicety by the restrained language so that, alt exaggeration and melodrama being expunged, there is an honesty in the pain and toss. The sense of retrospect and of the weight of the time left to live after loss, evoke a downward movement into hurt and regret, yet the collected energy and intelligence and sensitivity of the poems pull in a more positive direction and the tension between the two gives off an excitement of difficult, lived emotion astutely rendered. It takes no more than half an hour to read through the poems and they are the kind of thing I can imagine myself going back to for their genuine feel and the fine, clear images through which Lealman often pinpoints an emotion, an experience. A worthwhile addition to anyone's poetry shelf.  

 

MAP-MAKER by Kwame Dawes Smith/Doorstop ISBN 1-902382-18-8  £3  

"Dear Claudia,  
Few things here succumb to time though the old grow tender  
and die."

 So begins MIDLAND. But surely everything on earth succumbs to time? And that the old die is hardly a revelation. The confused ideas of the tine seem to come from a pursuit of significance But it trips itself up. There is no insight, nor is the line rhythmically interesting Think of this: " When lilacs last in the dooryard bloomed." It makes you want to read on, but the line itself is interesting, even if you donít know to what it refers. Such lines are hard won. Many possibilities have to be sifted and dismissed before just the right combination of words is hit. Kwame Dawes's poetry is full of a kind of settled-for language. I'm sure he knows how he feels and what he's getting at, but making the reader discover that means real work on the words. There is a feeling here that setting it down is easy and, once again, that sense, widespread in modem poetry, that if you have fine feelings and ideas just committing them to paper will be enough. I was bored by this pamphlet. It seemed to say little and to contain not much music. I think you could find many lines like those above, lines which seem to reach for a significance they canít evoke and which therefore seem to collapse into confusion or dullness. Kwame Dawes has won lots of prizes. But prizes donít make good poets any more than puffs. Heigh-ho.  

 

THE WIG BOX: NEW & SELECTED POEMS by Dorothy Nimmo. Smith/Doorstop ISBN 1-902382-24-2 £7.95.  

The last half of this book contains poems from Nimmo's previous collections. The first half is new. She has remained consistent in style and, and many ways, in sensibility and subject-matter. There is a terrifying poem called ILL-WISHING HIM. If such a poem were written by a man about a woman it would be proof QED that men are murderous fiends. I read it several times to see if it's tongue was so lightly in its cheek I'd not noticed. Maybe I still haven't but it doesn't seem to be. I'm not averse to poems of bitterness, like those of Villon for example, and Villon was a murderer, though not cold-blooded. Yet his bitterness is mixed with wit and makes you laugh. There's love in there somewhere. Life is tough, but it's worth it. There's a kind of pure, murderous hate that issues from this piece directed at the man who has forsaken her. People hurt one another in intimate relations, often more out of stupidity than malice, and it's often good to escape. But to want an ex-partner dead ? With apologies to the feminists, I've known one or two shrews in my time, but I wouldn't wish harm to them. And in any case, the sweet women outnumber them. I suppose it's a testimony to the power of the poem that it makes your hair stand on end.

Otherwise, Nimmo is a a skilled chronicler of the ordinary. There's nothing here to bring great surprises, but the poems are well-structured and the language adroitly chosen. Somehow, a sense of trying to turn away from the modern world and to find a simpler form of existence suggests itself through the collection. No bad idea, though I like some aspects of urban life and poems that wander streets. There are odd glimpses of something close to humour and some poems of real compassion but in the end I feel a kind of withdrawal or holding back and maybe a faint odour of resentment filtering through. And that poem about the man ! If I were him, I'd stay away from dark alleys.

 

EARTHBOUND by Jeremy Hilton Phlebas Press, 21 Overton Gardens, Mannamead, Plymouth, PL3 5BX. ISBN 09516800 8 X £3.50.  

Jeremy Hilton is unlike most modem poets in that he resists the drive to confine each poem within the limits of its form, meaning or rhetoric. This confining tendency is almost ubiquitous these days. It's part of a certain kind of closing down, perhaps related to Christopher Lasch's idea of a " minimal self". Old faiths have collapsed, old movements run aground. Progress, except mere technological, seems to have stalled. Confidence has ebbed away to be replaced by a kind of loud, puffed-up vulgarity. And poetry has retreated to safe corners. Who would dare write like Whitman these days ? The notion takes your breath away. Democratic vistas ? So poems tend to have this contained quality. No wind blows through them. But Jeremy Hilton is prepared to take risks and to open up his poems so that something larger than their mere form weaves between the lines. I find this very congenial, rather like escaping early from work on a bright, clear day. The openness of the poems relieves you from the somewhat tedious track through the conceit to the often predictable pink-bow conclusion of much modem work. These poems have a wandering, open spirit behind them and an expansive sense of human possibility and experience. My favourite is border crossing, a first-rate piece which is a model of how to allow a poem to open to something beyond itself. Too much poetry these days has a cramped, pinched, withheld feel about it. Milton's is more a poetry of the "maximum self", if such a concept makes sense. It's a welcome change and if you read this little collection you'll see how he puts the poems together with a kind of looseness" (not clumisness or lack of care - a very deliberate and skilled looseness) which assists an expansion of the imagination. And the way the poems are laid out on the page reflects this and is pleasing to the eye. Jeremy Hilton edits the magazine Fire. Both he and his magazine deserve to be better known.  

 

TAKING OFF EMILY DICKINSON'S CLOTHES by Billy Collins. Picador £6.99 ISBN 0-330-37650-0  

Billy Collins is a master of the conversational voice. Many poets try it and there's something of a tendency these days to believe that whatever you write, about whatever has happened to you, is bound to be interesting. Collins must work very hard on his style. In a hundred and fifty pages of poetry there are onty three words which strike me as possibly, but only possibly, slightly, but only slightly, out of place (the fifth line of the second stanza of Directions - to sit on). But what a silly quibble. Collins makes you think he has written impromptu. His manner is impossibly easy ( anyone who thinks it's easy should try it ) and is the essence of the extraordinary courtesy of his poetry. Perhaps Collins the man is an appalling character. Maybe he beats his wife and kicks the cat, gets drunk every night and picks fights with strangers. But I doubt it. As with much writing, you can intuit the character behind it. Collinsís poetry dislikes offence. Not that it's naive or seeks to cover over the facts of human nature. But it sides constantly with the best in our instincts: tolerance, wryness, a willingness to accept the inevitability of sadness, a refusal of violence and cynicism, tenderness, love of simple pleasures, modesty. Reading the collection there came into my mind the image of a kindly father consoling a disconsolate child, gently bringing him back to himself and to acceptance. The poems work in that way. Even when Collins writes about a deep personal hurt like the death of his father, he comes at the subject quietly, obliquely, without fuss or rhetoric.

To use a phrase from one of the poems, Workshop, this is "blue jeans" poetry. Maybe it will begin the "blue jeans school". In any case, its relaxation is very hard won, as relaxation always is. It's much easier to be bad-tempered or high-handed and it's especially easy in poetry to have at least one foot in the stirrup of your high horse. When Collins in The Best Cigarette, writes about:  

...a little something going  
in the typewriter,  

you have a sense of his quiet enthusiasm and his determination not to be carried away with the idea of his own creativity. It's easy to break into laughter at the unpretentious self-deprecation of:  

Anyone walking under this open window  
would picture a girl of about ten  
sitting at the keyboard with perfect posture,  
not me slumped over in my bathrobe, disheveled,  
like a white Horace Silver.  

Mostly, Collins writes out of experience. The poems begin in memory or maybe in a curious sensation which needs to be worked through. Now and again he writes directly from a fully-formed idea and these poems tend to be slightly less convincing because the idea lurks at their shoulder and you picture the poet seeking the words to chase it down. These poems don't fail or grate, they are simply not quite so authentic and organic as his very best. There seems an inevitable gap between the idea and the poem. Perhaps in some of these pieces, the idea is revealed too quickly. Nevertheless, in almost all of them Collins leads astute insight and civilization gently by the hand, introducing them nonchalantly to his readers. His wears his remarkable qualities of erudition and wisdom tightly and herein lies the charm of the book. In its pages you encounter signals like those offered by a new acquaintance of evidently superior intelligence and character whose manner subtly conveys that none of his advantages will be used against you. At your ease, you can easily learn from his superiority. Collins Is a great, wise, tender teacher, and a poet of exquisite gifts.  

 

CONJURE . ISBN 0-330-39110-0  
DANCES LEARNT LAST NIGHT POEMS 1975-1995
by Michael Donaghy. ISBN 0-330-48194-0 Picador.  

The first thing you notice about a poem is how it sits on the page. Donaghy's poems are usually chunky, stocky. Their appearance is their first forbidding aspect. Not laid out for ease of access or warm welcome their construction confirms a tendency to exclude. Donaghys poems seldom admit you easily. They make you feel you are on less than familiar ground and in the company of someone who doesn't always want you to forget it. If the watchword of Billy Collins's work is courtesy, that of Donaghy's is defensiveness or perhaps a kind of fighting upwards. Perhaps they are just slightly too self-consciously clever. His poems are pieced like jigsaws. There isn't always a clear, natural run in the tines that permits meaning to flow easily so that the movement of the eye across and down the page is also the movement of a mental and emotional accumulation. The feeling is sometimes of a jigsaw with a piece missing: that sense of having carefully put the puzzle together only to find the final picture isnít realised. The sometimes diminished onward flow seems to be achieved by a careful inhibiting selection of each line or word. Something is withheld in the poem, at the deepest level, which is the emotional. Highly intelligent, they nevertheless give off a congealed feeling, or perhaps a desire or need to impress and be accepted.

There is considerable skill in creating this tone. Donaghy's poems arenít incompetent. The feel of these collections is too pervasive to be accidental. Again and again he achieves what he's seeking. Sometimes, in conversation, an interlocuter will say half-aloud a few words intended to be half-heard. It's a tantalizing technique which leaves you wishing you'd heard, but unsure as to whether to ask for a repetition, so deliberate was the half-audible delivery. Donaghy's poems sometimes work in a similar way. He's speaking to you, but he isn't. He's not convinced what he has to say can always be shared so he sometimes retains something essential. All readers are individuals, but my guess is that, like me, many readers will find it relatively rare to read a Donaghy poem and respond with recognition. He hunts down the individuality of his experience so resolutely that he strips it almost bare of the features which make it recognisable, imagine a head seen from behind which prefigures a beautiful face, but when it turns to you is plain.

I think there's something in the best poetry- which conveys the character of its author Whitman simply couldnít have been a fascist. Larkin simply couldn't have been a socialist. Thatís to put it very crudely, but I think I might have liked the company of Francois Villon, even though I might not have trusted him too far. He was full of bitterness at the harshness of life, but he was fun-loving. Or think of Emerson in his prose or poetry. You know you could trust him with your last pound or your deepest secret. Why ? it's trite but true: writers betray themselves when they write Donaghy is no sloven. He scrutinizes language intensively and is determined to wring from it just the meaning he intends. From this point of view he is a very good poet Yet I canít take away from his work much that I like or which warms me or sustains me greatly or makes me want to go back to it more than infrequently. I think this is because Donaghy is slightly suspicious of his readers. It is as if he must have, finally, some tiny edge over them so they canít get him wrong, or as if he's writing to pass some kind of test. As I said earlier, there's an undercurrent of seeking for acceptance which seems to inform the work.  

These collections left me with a sense of dislocation, as if they were the product of a highly intelligent, highly educated mind at some remove from its own experience. Some inauthenticity lurks within them, like that of the person whose behaviour is transparently intended to create an impression. Perhaps we're seeing more of this straining to impress in poetry as the number of people educated enough to write increases and the audience for poetry dwindles because of the ever-greater dominance of electronic and visual media, and a vulgar popular commercialism which arrogantly and noisily asserts itself as the true and only culture? Perhaps poets need to regain the sense that for a writer nothing matters but posterity. Maybe Donaghy will be judged well by the future, but my fear is that he's too adjusted to the existing poetic Establishment and that his cleverness will not be enough to sustain his reputation against the corrosive power of that irresistible enemy of everything which dallies with the ephemeral, time.  

 

DEAR TOM: LETTERS FROM HOME by Tom Courtenay Doubleday ISBN 0 - 385 - 60095 - X £16.99.  

This is Courtenay s testimony to his family especially his mother, it is composed of the letters she wrote to him from 1958, interspersed with his own observations. It's essentially an autobiography and begins with ninety pages of his reminiscences of his childhood and adolescence in Hull. His skill as a writer is that he knows his limits. He is wry and understated. He brings his gallery of, principally working-class characters, to amusing life and treats them with wisdom and affection. The book is full of the qualities that nave made him one of the best actors of his generation: intelligence, insight, care, diligence, compassion, humour and determination, it recounts many anecdotes of working-class life in dockland Hull, and without ever being explicit, he has subtle ways of suggesting that these people led lives limited by a cramping system. There's no romanticization or sentimentalization. The tone is realistic, sometimes fond, always honest, and at times hilarious. Above all, the book pays homage to the wasted talents of Courtenayís mother, Eliza Annie, nee Quest.

Lack of education prevented her from becoming the writer she fancied herself. Her son escaped via the 11-plus and Kingston High School where he was best mates with Alan Plater. Courtenay's early life was marked by the urgency of his need to avoid "Fish Dock". Education was the way out and Courtenay was diligent in pursuing the exam passes he needed to get away. He's clearly grateful for his grammar school education and the chance in life it gave him. His younger sister, Ann, failed the 11-plus. She may have scored as highly, or even higher than him. Such was the scam by which this measure of innate intelligence was adjusted to ensure equal numbers of boys and girls in grammars. It's hard for people who benefitted from the chances grammar schools provided to understand why it was good thing they were replaced. In Courtenay's class, two out of of fifty got through. Forty-eight children marked as failures before their lives had hardly begun. Good comprehensive schools give everyone a chance. How bizarre that we should ever have organized our schooling so it made the majority of children failures.

Eliza Courtenay had much of the dryness that makes her son's writing a pleasure. She had a mind that constantly pushed towards insight. In a banal letter she surprises with:  

The funny part is I donít realty feel like anybody's mother.  

or

What qualification has Mrs M got to tell me where to find happiness ?  

or

But how can one be right against so many ?  

The letters begin just before Courtenay fails his finals. He was not cut out for academic life. He's not an intellectual, he's instinctively histrionic. His years at UCL were effectively wasted but he seems to have persevered out of misplaced desire to succeed in others' eyes (especially his mother's ). Once he moved down the road to RADA he was in his element and never looked back. Acting is, of course, a precarious profession. According to The Stage, the average British actor works for eleven weeks a year. Easy to understand then why working-class aspiration does not settle naturally on the theatre as the path to bourgeois comfort and respectability. I think this is what slowed Courtenay. The book elaborates a poignant interplay between the restricted lives of his family back in the northern working-class world, and his own entrance into a very different arena. He becomes ' somebody", not merely one of the neglected mass. By permitting Eliza to speak in her own voice, and by bringing her to the public as the mother of a famous and outstanding actor, he rescues her from that fate of neglect and exclusion which is the every day experience of people at the bottom. There is no anger in Courtenay, rather a quiet regret that his soulful, intelligent mother should have been denied the atmosphere in which she could have flourished. She didn't fail, she was denied.

We still inhabit a culture of denial, but this book brings hope. If a working-class lad from Fish Dock in Hull (something like his mate Albert Finney who began humbly in Salford ) can take on the world and still retain the unpretentious modesty of his origins, who knows what the future may hold ? In a flashy society of crass celebrity this is a charming and humanizing read. I hope it soon goes into paperback and achieves the readership it deserves.