Fires In October By Philip Callow
Published by Redbeck Press, 24 Aireville Rd, Frizinghall
Three of the poems in this collection deal directly with
the life of D.H.Lawrence. Callow is, of course, the author of an excellent
study of Lawrence's early years and there is something of Lawrence's
sensibility in his work; but the good side, not the irritable, unfair,
bitterly carping Lawrence but the gentler man, in love with nature and the
beauty of life and thoroughly committed to his art.
Philip Callow has a long reputation behind him. He is
novelist, poet and biographer and has revealed his excellence as a writer
in all three genres. These poems tell of ordinary things in ordinary
language but they always manage to touch on what is strange and unique.
There is no banality about Philip Callow. He casts back to bring up
memories of his father, his brother, his infant school class but in a way
which speaks to something beyond his own experience. He begins by saying:
This is what my life has been like," and it is easy to respond:
"Yes, my life has been that way too."
His poems are constructed so that their construction is
barely noticeable. They read easily, the rhythm of the lines leading the
mind onward, but they avoid strict forms. The images arise naturally and
there is no sense of forcing the similes or metaphors. Callow has no need
to prove himself a poet, he is utterly in command of his art.
The mood of this collection is one of careful
retrospection, sometimes painful, sometimes joyous but always truthful,
never trying to hide the inevitable disappointments and difficulties of
life but in the end celebrating the natural world, the word and above all
intimacy. As he puts it in On A Balcony:
"... it runs to waste, all of it,
if you are not loved."
It is fitting that this poem should come immediately
before one entitled Van Gogh which tells the story of the painter's love
for Christine, the girl he found "Pregnant, sickly, walking the
streets to get food." It is a poem which' reminds us, in a world
which makes much of the rich, the celebrated, the glibly successful, of
outsiders trying to find, a way to hang onto their humanity. A wise and
ever-necessary reminder. Like the rest of this collection, the poem is
beautifully done and is full of Callow's love of people and striving
against whatever is ugly, cheap and degrading.
Collected Essays Of John Goode
Edited by Charles Swann, Introduction by Terry Eagleton.
Keele University Press, 1995, £35
In his generous introduction to this perhaps necessarily
incomplete collection of John Goode's essays, Terry Eagleton recalls that
when Goode's first essays appeared, in Tradition and Tolerance in
Nineteenth-Century Fiction it wasn't easy to know where he was 'coming
from.' Left-Leavisite? Not exactly. Nor could he be pigeon-holed with
either Arnold Kettle or Raymond Williams, nor with the New Left 'in either
its Hoggartian or later Andersonian incarnations. Lukacs hovered somewhere
in the background, but these pieces were definitely 'criticism' rather
than 'theory', a discourse which was in any case no more than a gleam in
the eye of Roland Barthes.'
Two names are missing from this list. One, Eagleton may
be forgiven, for not knowing about. D.J.Gordon was Goode's professor at
Reading University and he is the dedicatee of Tradition and Tolerance.
If, as Eagleton rightly remarks, Goode's 'familiar mode was the essay,
which he practised with rare expertise.' then Gordon's essays provided a
model which he set himself to emulate. Gordon's own methodology was, I
suppose, derived from the Warburgians. He had a passionately historical
sense of enquiry and a belief that only by the most scrupulous and exactly
attentive reading of any artefact could you hope to recover its meaning
and, more importantly perhaps, its significance as an intervention in the
cultural moment which in some senses had given rise to it and to which, in
others, it contributed.
Goode's politics were more thoroughly of the left than
Gordon's, but his concern with 'specificity'-a term he much favoured-was
undoubtedly strengthened if not prompted by his great teacher. That is why
his essays, though strong in judgement, are never opinionated. They are
always grounded in wide reading and sure historical knowledge. You know
that an enormous amount of preparatory work has gone into the least of
them, and although he is sparing in his use of footnotes, nobody reading
the essays collected here can have any doubts about their uncompromising,
hard-packed weightiness. 1848 and the Strange Disease of Modern Love,
which together with Goode's account of Amours de Voyage: The Aqueous Poem
seems to me still the best account of Clough's poetry we have, begins with
a cautionary statement: 'The way in which any major historical event
registers itself in the literature of the succeeding epoch is difficult to
define." But this turns out to be the means for opening the door onto
a brilliantly compact account of ways in which the events of 1848 can be
read, which itself then leads into a entirely compelling discussion of the
"contradictions [which] are manifest in the two sonnets Arnold wrote
in 1848 to answer Clough's revolutionary commitment." Goode is a
remarkably subtle, discriminative reader, as his invaluable essays on
James reveal-especially the one called 'Character' and Henry James, which
after 30 years is as original as when it first appeared in the pages of
New Left Review. In a somewhat different mode the essay on Mark Rutherford
and Spinoza manages to communicate why the seventeenth-century philosopher
mattered to the nineteenth-century novelist, William Hale White, and at
the same time picks its way with rare perspicacity between "the
programme of Rutherford's novels and White's involvement in Spinoza."
Like all his essays, Mark Rutherford and Spinoza is distinguished by a
laser-like keenness of perception and a wide-ranging intelligence.
This intelligence was accompanied by a wit that most
often gleaned out when Goode was dissecting humbug or hypocrisy. Here, the
essay on Woman and the Literary Text is crucial. It begins bluntly:
"I want to ask whether literary analysis can be valuable to women's
studies." This then develops into a painstaking and necessarily
tentative series of questions about the nature of the literary text,
proceeds to a discussion of some important nineteenth-century novels by,
among others, Meredith, Hardy and Gissing, and along the way offers a
quietly devastating account of how to misread these according to the
dictates of (usually uninspected) ideology. It is a stunning performance
and it must, I assume, have been of considerable help to academics and
others wanting to establish women's studies within institutes of learning.
And to say this brings me to the other name missing from Terry Eagleton's
R.H.Tawney is perhaps less read now than he was in the
1950s or early 1960s. If so, the loss to the left is great, for Tawney's
passionate ethical socialism is needed today as much as it ever was. Goode
had read Religion and The Rise of Capitalism and The Acquisitive
Society; and I am pretty certain he would also have known the essays
gathered together as The Radical Tradition (first published in book form
in 1964 and put into Penguin two years later). He did not attempt to echo
Tawney's eloquence, although he came near to rivalling his scornful wit:
but he assuredly identified with that great man's conviction that you
didn't just theorise about socialism, you lived it. Eagleton very
perceptively notes that one of the paradoxes of Goode's writing is that
"you get all along the sense of an unusually strong, independent
critical personality, but one which is oddly unaware of itself... There
is, I think, an ethical as well as intellectual quality to this
process." There is indeed. What gives Goode's work its integrity is
his comparative indifference to fashionable theory-the index lists Barthes
(mentioned once) but not Derrida or De Man or Lacan - even though or
because he is acutely aware of socialism as a developing and necessarily
responsive commitment. Hence, his never to be thought of as coat-trailing
essays such as Feminism, Class and Literary Criticism, which is
collected here, together with others which aren't. Of these, I especially
regret the absence of Arnold, Baker, Culture: An Alphabet of the
Repressive State, published in 1983, an essay whose strengths Tawney
would have been quick to recognise and applaud, especially in its
excoriating attack on those who wished, as they wish still, to protect
'culture' for a particular version of Englishness, and for whom the
educational process was a means to hand. Anyone thinking (i.e. behaving)
otherwise was therefore to be treated as the enemy. That enemy was, and of
course is, most likely to be located in the public sector. By what ethical
right, then, do professed socialists send their children to private or
grant-maintained schools? By what right do they collaborate with that
which they profess to oppose? It's a question which Raymond Williams and
other self-proclaimed socialists have unforgivably dodged. They have had
more attention paid to them than they deserve. John Goode's Collected
Essays deserve and will repay all the attention we can bring to them. Like
their author, they emerge from, as they contribute immeasurably to, the
true socialist tradition.
For Jazz: 21 Sonnets By Peter McSloy.
Published by Hit & Run Press and available from For
Jazz, PO Box 43, Manchester, M20 6LN. £7 plus £1 postage.
Most collections of poetry are just that. They pull
together a number of poems written over a number of years and there
probably isn't any other reason for them being alongside each other. Some
anthologies are built around specific subjects, of course, but individual
collections tend to aim for the general. It's a pleasure therefore, to
review For Jazz, which is a series of poems about great figures in the
music. The focus on one subject gives the book cohesion.
Peter McSloy clearly knows and loves jazz and he uses the
sonnet form to good advantage. Ted Gioia, author of a fine book about West
Coast jazz, seems to suggest in his introduction that a strict form is
perhaps the best way to write poetry about jazz, the music itself having
structures that "serve to anchor the play of the horns and the flow
of the rhythm instruments." Using the sonnet form, Gioai says, works
because "The rigidity of formalism is made to co-exist with the free
play of the words." But the test, surely, has little to do with
whether or not a poet uses an established form (and, in any case, supposed
"free verse" is now an established form) but instead depends on
how successful a poem is in combining form, subject-matter, and content.
No-one can say in advance how that works. In Peter McSloy's case he has
managed to combine a set form with subject-matter that suggests
imagination and content that creates it skilfully.
It's interesting, I think, that his chosen musicians and
singers are from what people like to refer to as "the great days of
jazz." Even the musicians who continued to be active after 1960 or so
had established their styles and their reputations prior to that. And this
raises the question of how far contemporary jazzmen could inspire good
poetry? It is alleged, in some quarters, that younger jazzmen lack the
individuality of earlier stylists. They may well be more skilled
technically, but they are, it is said, often like well-produced peas in a
pod. It's hard to tell them apart. Would there be sufficient in what they
do, and the way that they do it, to cause a poet to want to describe it,
or does the blandness work against this?
McSloy's poems are about musicians you would never
mistake if you heard them. He describes Ben Webster's "belching tones
delivered in a rage," and he points to Lester Young being
"Incorrigibly sly and swift, and veiled." There was, he says of
Thelonious Monk "A stark insistence in his themes," and the
guitarist Freddie Green is seen as someone who made his mark by "work
at small perfections."
In other poems he evokes the person as well as the music
they played. Charlie Parker, with a history of "arrests and
derelictions" is shown "At ease, the smiling farm-boy, eyes
half-closed," in a photo taken in California during a brief period of
calm in his turbulent life. Billie Holiday is portrayed with her
"dogs and maid," and Duke Ellington has the "looks and
manners of some benign/But confident seducer," whereas Joe Venuti is
"an old Italian in an outside forties suit."
There are vivid word pictures of Mary Lou Williams, Joe
Pass, Jess Stacy, Art Tatum, and others, and one poem which isn't a
portrait of an individual and prefers to re-create the era when the
big-bands and their musicians were in favour:
"We stood in line outside the Paramount,
Whole crowds of Jewish and Italian kids
From Brooklyn. Winter, thirty-eight. The cops
On horseback. Morning
show. We all cut class,
For Berigan with Goodman, or the Count
With Buck and Lester, too see the trombones fan their
The trumpet section, standing, blow their tops,
And four men rhythm, reeds, and eight on brass.
Jesus that music made you feel alive!
Cootie or Vido blasting as the band rose from the pit.
Mickey Weiss was a fan of Shaw on clarinet
(Mickey was killed on Guam in forty-five).
Oh Lord, the Paramount, the, Greystone in Detroit,
The Earle in Philadelphia, Roseland, the Lafayette."
This is marvelous stuff-presumably shaped from an actual
memoir-and it captures an era when, as the announcer of a big-band
programme on one of my local radio stations is fond of saying, "good
music was popular and popular music was good."
For Jazz is well-produced, with good, clear print and
plenty of space on each page for the poems to breathe. I make no apologies
for writing about it with enthusiasm. I've been a fan .of jazz and
big-band music for over forty years and the musical and social impact both
have had on my life has been immense. But I want to stress that, in
addition to their qualities as pieces about jazz, the poems stand up in
their own right. They are deftly crafted irrespective of their
subject-matter and deserve to be recommended on that basis. It should be
noted that the book is also aptly illustrated with linoleum cuts by the
New York artist.