Archive for April, 2012

Was a time I lived for a period in Bolton, a Lancashire ex-textile town. In my time  there it was making the most of its ex-ness by becoming a hub of academia.

One consequence of this was its outstanding public library. Nor were Bolton’s credentials solely based on this remaking of itself: the library archives housed an extensive collection of letters from a Bolton literary society (before such corresponding societies were disbanded by Government order for suspected fostering of sedition in the long aftermath of the French Revolution). The recipient, and correspondent? Walt Whitman.  The collection of letters and photographs is housed under the heading of the Bolton Whitman Fellowship, as they styled themselves.

That public library had more wonders in store, or should I say ‘stock’: some I bought up as I left the area, and the library, like most, sold off stock to make way for new.

And for the overall depletion of library services; to turn into what we have now – a rather sorry service. Anything of note now has to be requested from the central lending library, for a fee.

You have to know what you’re looking for, and how to look for it. All those fortuitous finds of books, materials, you had no idea existed…all that surprise and wonder, has gone.

One of those ‘treasures’ was a book, “Notes from an Odd Country’, by Geoffrey Grigson (Macmillan, 1970).

Grigson was… an awkward bugger; but by design, I think. I could tell you things, but… another time maybe.

He started off well: in the 1930s starting with his wife the most important poetry magazine of the decade, New Verse. The library archives also had originals of this magazine too.

New Verse was the main podium for the most energetic and lively writing of the period, W H Auden, Louis MacNeice, Stephen Spender. Wyndham Lewis, pre-Blast, was a close friend. Anyone who was anyone…..

The story behind ‘Notes…’. was that circa 1968 Grison was driving through France to meet his family in Venice… No, re-wind, that was Seamus Heaney, same time or near enough, similar route too:

The smells of ordinariness

Were new on the night drive through France:

Rain and hay and woods on the air

Made warm draughts in the open car.

…………………………………..

A combine groaning its way late

Bled seeds across its work-light.

A forest fire smouldered out.

One by one small cafes shut

…………………………………..

(‘Night Drive’, Door into the Dark, 1969).

And most of those small cafes have gone now, sold up about ten or more years ago.

No, the Grigson family were driving across France (enroute to Italy?). What they found was a small side river off the mighty Loire; this was the Loir (no e), and the small village of Troo. Cliffside dwellings in Troo  appeared to be … cave houses? On closer inspection they were old and abandoned wine stores, carved out of the rock, and with new brick frontages: door, windows; the chimney was in the cliff top above.

G G was enchanted; they hired out every summer for years. The children attended the local school.

– It was here that Pierre de Ronsard took his daily walks;

– in this area that Rabelais first tasted delightful fruity Chinon wine (I’ve tried it, and it is!), and started out on the reckless career of Gargantua.

– around here that, newly released from long English arrest, that Charles d’Orleans had his chateau, his literary clique, and, it was rumoured,  that Francois Villon got to know the dungeons, following his banishment from Paris.

– It was also near here that Zola based and wrote ‘La Terre’.

– Claudel lived and wrote nearby.  “What do you think of Claudel in England?’ the woman asked Grigson, ‘ and without waiting for a reply she goes on and assures me that he is no less great than Shakespeare.’  Anyone who knows Claudel will know he was a Right wing bigot of a high order.

The book is illustrated with pencil drawings by Grigson.

So what is the book… about?

It consists of notes, expanded into meditations, observations, critiques. It is arranged into three sections: Spring, High Summer, The Fall. This is a device that helps record the locale of Tours, La Mans, Blois, Vendomes, the Beauce , the Loire and Loir, in all their variety and variousness.

It allows him to include his own translations of Ronsards’ poetry and memoirs of the region; of commentators on Ronsard and region etc.

Grigson records a visit and brief holiday by artist Ben Nicholson as he made his way to the opening of an exhibition of his work in Venice.

“The  convention of the rectangular canvas, which is the formalisation of the visioned space around one’s two eyes, upsets Ben, as a limitation. This… is one reason why he has admired Sunday painters… who combine their marks on a piece of cardboard, a torn box lid,……… There is a very real point here which reconciles me, almost…’

Always that ‘almost’, the last word.

Grigson glories in the balmy climate, the profusion of natural colour, flora and fauna – he was an ardent botanist, ornithologist… he was one of those who needed to know all about everything he encountered.

This being the time the Paris Riots of 1968 echo and resonate in the background. Occasionally they intrude; Grigson was enough of an old armchair socialist to be open to what was going on around him: the injustices as well the pleasures.

He was also enough of an old journalist to know to record all responses, both  Right (as he called them Gaullist) as well as Left, and middle, and the often frequent muddying of the two.

We read about the local character Maurice, wine growing: white wine (“few have the nerve for it now’ because it means leaving the grapes on the vine right until the last minute, just before the frosts hit.), and free thinker. Grigson uses him as a sounding board for many of his own explorations of the meaning of place. He records his responses even when he is distracted off-topic by something trivial. Tiredness, maybe. This brings out the multi-facettedness of the book, its glorying in variety.

“Swift: ‘I never saw, heard, nor read, that the clergy were beloved in any nation where Christianity was the religion of the country. Nothing can render them popular but some form of persecution.’

The resonance to Grigson of this passage must come from him being a clergyman’s son: Grigson senior was a wealthy Cornish (ex-Norfolk ) Anglican priest.

Variety:

‘A pleasant noise in this old-fashioned and I think I must say still backward France: the clip-clop of hooves drawing a trap, which comes up at this moment from the other side of the river. I prefer horse-droppings on the road to smears of oil on parking places; a preference – they look nicer – not a sentiment.’

Other local sounds:

‘…I recall walking home and hearing with extra pleasure one of the special noises of Troo.

…this noise could be described as the slow hitting of a soft anvil.

…………………………………………

A clear night, with three-quarters  of a moon, early summer, and here is this soft anvilling again – which is, in fact, the  noise of natterjack toads in unhurried conversation about their annually required sex.’

An incident with poet Roy Campbell circa 1944:

‘He fell out with me on account of something I had written about the poems of his friend Edith Sitwell…On the way from Broadcasting House to have a coffee, I encountered Roy in a ten-gallon hat stalking up the pavement. He raised a knocbkerry’ (walking stick) ‘, and threatened to crack it down on me… I dissuaded him, and he stalked on….’

The story went round and round. You know those office stories!

It was here that Jane Grigson first discovered the rich variety of local cuisines, and her second? career (gallery curator, wife, mother etc etc)  as cookery writer began.  In this connection:

“Last indulgence. We resolved to eat lark – petit des alouettes……… So how do they taste?…………extremely good, like roast pheasant in minature, plump ‘ (they are netted whilst fattening up for Winter in the wheat fields), ‘not at all like sparrows……..’

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A Gregorian Peace

Where do journeys end? What were settings in the early poems, now become things in their own right; the world has been stripped down to its constituents. It is interesting to see how far Kopland has travelled when we compare this poem from 1993 with his earlier work:

                                     Among Cattle

                      And when the summer had come back again after all

                      And so we were sitting once more, drinking by the river.

 

                     ………………………………………………………………………………………………..

                   ……………………………………………………………………………………

       …………………………………………………………, but the sun went down the same.

 

                     And he went to sleep. Because the world went to sleep.

                     Black he sat by the river, black hole in the prospect.

Now deeply versed in our human myths of living, our hopes, fears, equivocations and failures to measure up: the tonal and emotional ranges these lines weave, and weave between, are immense. The language and imagery now is scrupulously placed.

The human being becomes as much an object of the world as any other of its constituents parts. And as such just as subject to its laws of natural science.

Kopland uses the image of a ‘patient instrument’: “we were made by an impartial attentive/patient instrument, the same/ that breaks us down again.” (Your Back). It is also an image for language, and by extension, our ability to comprehend everything, whether by reason or instinct. He examines with it the human dimension. Patient, in that it enables him, by the complex employment of the medium, to look calmly at our extremis: dementia, ageing, death. He sees an aged one’s back, he wants to see the person, not just his own response, or his version of that person; his instrument shows him, not love: “love is a word for something other /than what I was seeking…” (ibid), it shows him the commomplace that everyone ages; he also sees, through his training, profession, a medical anatomy chart. All these have their part, all are acknowledged.

Language, our distinguishing feature, also distances us from that of which we speak or write. Can it also bring the world to us:

 

                        “there must be something now the word morning

                       slowly lights up and it becomes morning

                       that held us together and lets us go

                       as we lie here like this.”

(In the Morning)  ?

 

His instrument‘s distancing effect allows him to see fables in our existence. His Message from the Isle of Chaos (1997) sits very well amongst Seamus Heaney’s fables in The Haw Lantern, and their background in the east European writers (Holub, Herbert in particular).

These examinations of ways and means, of what language allows us, bears extraordinary fruit in The Latest Findings:

 

                      experts

                      have searched in human brains

                       …………………….

                      they recorded:

 

                      “Night fell through the windows of our institute

                      moonlight stroked across the young breasts

                      of our female experimental person

                     …………………………………

                      We are still searching feverishly for formulae.”

Desire, human warmth, love, still escape the limits of our study.

More pertinently, the most important human apprehensions continue to fall outside the scope of our microscopes:

 

                    because happiness is a memory

                    it exists…………………….

                    the reverse is also true

 

                    I mean this: because happiness

                    reminds us of happiness it pursues

                    us and therefore we flee from it

 

                                                    happiness

                    must exist somewhere at some time because

                    we remember it and it reminds us.

(What is Happiness?)

Richard Pool, reviewing for ‘Poetry Wales’ wrote of Kopland’s “existentialist poetry”. I find the writing more Phenomenological. Based on Husserl’s work, the present-day Phenomenologists present the experience of mind as a series of recursive mental events: echoes of echoes looping back and forth through our brain’s maps of world and body, that create an impression of one’s self. It is as though we continually restructure our maps on a daily basis, as the pattern at play in the brain changes.

The extra ingredient, the rider, is a sense of futurity: anticipation.

Here we have Kopland’s exploratory template as he explores and objectifies in his writing. There is an increasing sense of wonder, openness, what Belgian critic Herman de Coninck called the “Gregorian peace” of the later work (timeless rivalries: how the Catholic south never forgave the north ‘s breaking away, or abandonment of them… the wry dig of allotting a Gregorian peace to a Calvanistic northerner).

We now encounter titles like, Until it Lets Us Go (1997), even the title of the Harvill collection, Memories of the Unknown, or the recent book, What Water Leaves Behind. All of these exhibit, I would argue, a Phenomenologist sense of numinous wonder, where the world of objects is found to be the one reality, and our response to it is the possibility of happiness, love, desire, all the human responses. These objects are, as Phenomenlogist professor Dan Lloyd called, ‘the insensible dimensions that constitute reality.’

It is always best to let the writer have last say:

A Garden in the Evening

                 Things are happening here and I am the only

                 one who knows which 

 

                ………………………………………………………….

……………………………………………………………………………………………

                 and what you don’t hear and don’t see – the places

                 where we dug holes

                 and filled them up again, weeping

 

                 I tell you this because I do not want to be alone

                 before I am.

 

Postscript

The story goes that ‘Rutger Kopland’ was involved in a bad car crash: night driving, a tree, a write-off.  He acquired a bad head injury; so much so he was unable to speak for a while, became frustrated, violent even. The story continues he ended up for a period in one of his own locked wards.

The upshot is he now restricts his activities severely: his readings, attending conferences, exhibitions all cut back to a minimum.

For further and more modern work by Rutger Kopland, see:

http://www.gedichten.nl/schrijver/Rutger+Kopland

There is a translation facility.

The Poetry of Rutger Kopland -2

Posted: April 7, 2012 in Parameters

Part 2: Traveller’s Tales

As I stated earlier, 1966 was a significant year: it was also the year Seamus Heaney published Death of a Naturalist. The two poets had basics in common: rural settings, anecdotal structures, a backward looking, to some extent, revisionist standpoint, a particular style of language use. For Heaney the language is an aural experience; metaphorical, wrought, highly percussive, using the resources of language to communicate but also inveigle an Irish, Catholic, tonality into the English canon.

For Kopland the language is conversational, ‘parlando’; yet at the same time the reader senses that each word is weighed, placed precisely. The subtexting is that of the common man in a society wrenched out of true by ‘the european experience’

Whereas Heaney takes issue with cultural identity, Kopland takes issue with time: the depredations of time on physical and mental processes, and through this the concepts of human worth, value, and continuance.

Both writers gained world status.

In the later poems we have a moving away from recognisable environments; the sentence structure becomes less concrete, more impressionistic. There also emerges a surer handling of expression that is both probing and exploratory. It allows into the life experience some measure of immanence, mystery, some of the magic of Under the Apple Tree:

 

An Empty Spot to Stay

                               Go now into the garden, dear, and lie

                               in an empty spot ……………………………….

                               ………………………………………………………..

                               an empty spot for someone, to stay.

Is this Kopland’s ‘paradise’? The nostalgic paradise readers detected in Kopland’s earlier period, he takes issue with, because it cannot be separated from an authoritarian, dare we say, predestined, design. Kopland is, if anything, a materialist, anti-mystic. ‘Everyone finds a lost paradise in my poetry, a longing for it. I don’t long for the past, I long for experience (…) and experience is new, now.’

A change has taken place, perhaps a distrust of exposure, of identity. But at the same time there is reaching out of national identity, to universality.

Kopland set about dismantling all the certainties and structures of his position; he became a wanderer, a traveller. In the true Dutch manner.

In Breughel’s Winter, based on the Hunters in the Snow painting, we have:

                             … At their feet the depths

                            grow and grow, become wider and further,

                            until the landscape vanishes into a landscape

                            that must be there, is there, but only 

                            as a longing is there.

 

At our most objective there is still the desire for objectivity, that internal filter of all we perceive of the world, and what we are doing in it. Is it possible to go beyond even that, as in The Surveyor:

                              …he is a hole in the shape of

                              a man in the landscape.

 

and longing? See Conversation with the Wanderer:

 

                               What I want, he says, perhaps

                               I wanted to be a bird, a swallow

                               I saw, there, high in the mountains

                                ………………..

                              as it was there, the moment I

                              disappeared from view, something

                              that exists beyond myself.

 

Notice that placing of ‘I’, it is in the same position in the Dutch. And the playing with tenses: drama and dislocation, as though we are entering indeterminate territories.

This is fully realised in Bay, which deserves to be quoted in full:

                                It stays and it stays, it does not fade away:

                                a yellow beach with empty chairs,

                                ……………………………………………..

………………………………………………………… and over all

                                a thin, lilac, coagulated light.

 

                               ……………………………………………………………………………………..

 

                                Something motionless remains, a moment in which

                                the beach has been deserted, …………..

……………………………………………………………………………………………….

 

                                and a longing for the moment to pass.

 

An unpeopled landscape; except it is anything but. The sense of suspended time is masterly. Dutch is a stress-based poetry, like ours. Stress sets up expectations, onward flow, development, argument and conclusion. The Dutch here avoids rhyme; the rhythm, based on the iambic, is frequently endstopped, falling with feminine endings, that defuse the tensions. The lines are beautifully cadenced; the repetitions only help further to arrest movement. Yet movement is desire, longing: it is the raison d’etre of the piece. Recognition, here, is acceptance of contraries, of the wandering ways of our sense of ‘onward’. The form and structure convey as much as the text does.