ISSUE 2

Fires In October By Philip Callow Published by Redbeck Press, 24 Aireville Rd, Frizinghall Bradford.  

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 list.

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 lids,  
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.