Contraband Books, 2013, £8.99
It ought to be a commonplace, but I fear it is not, that from the late nineteenth century onwards – from Whitman, Laforgue, the prose poems of the Symbolists and the cadences of Pater for example, through Eliot, Pound, Woolf and Joyce – the boundaries between prose and verse have become increasingly blurred…
Preface to The Less Received. John Freeman
This selection of John Freeman’s prose poems – from those that appeared in 1970s Snow Corridors right up to the new thirty-page sequence, ‘A Summer Next the Sea’, which closes this volume – display the more experimental side of Freeman’s oeuvre. Indeed they serve to highlight the technical radicalism of a poet who, perhaps owing to the often contemplative nature of the world view which underpins his artistic vision, has been for too long left on the margins of the British poetry scene. If the 2012 award from the National Poetry Society for the shimmering time capsule that is ‘My Grandfather’s Hat’ signified a sea change in this misconceived attitude, then White Wings ought to further rectify the matter, containing as it does some of the strongest moments from Freeman’s career. ‘A Summer Next the Sea’, meanwhile, and the other new poems collected here, only serve to cement the perception that here is a poet who is currently writing at the very peak of his powers. The clarity of perception that we have come to expect and treasure in Freeman’s work is somehow made all the more lucid and perceptive than even before. ‘Summer…’ in particular, with all of its Woolfian time and thought shifts, is surely as fine a poetic achievement as has been published anywhere this year.
By their very nature, chronologically-minded selections of a poet’s work tend to offer glimpses of stylistic developments and experiments, and the overall honing of an artist’s style. Very often too, with the genuine artist, we see that the central themes of their artistic vision have, to all intents and purposes, been in place since their earliest work. This vision is often formed from an impulse to understand something that the artist didn’t understand as a child or young adult. The artist keeps trying to write about it once they have discovered its straightforward-meaning because they realise that meanings are, by their very nature, not straightforward. Meanings, indeed, are as intricate and as never-quite-knowable as another person. The more they attempt to write on the subject, the more they understand it and this, in a sense, is what I mean by ‘honing of style.’
This is certainly true of Freeman who is, at heart, a deeply philosophical poet. And when I say that in his new poems he appears to have reached a new clarity of vision, there is no greater example than in section seventeen of ‘A Summer Next the Sea’, whereby, in describing the virtues of rereading he also tells us his reasons for writing:
… And what rereading brings is less, as with [Wallace] Stevens, the final apprehension of complex thought, than the perception of the intricate umbels on parsley – that must be cow-parsley – in a rainy orchard which we, with the poet, seem to be revisiting alone, while remembering walking there in company; the way the twilight makes the stalks invisible, so the ghostly white flowers seem suspended; and the subtleties of the way these things resonate in the poet’s consciousness.
We see here that Freeman is interested in two things. The first, the abiding goal of his poetry: the capturing of time, so that the moment is made to live again both for reader and poet. The second is caught up with what actually makes this mortality-defying ability possible. And we find that it is the examination in close up of seemingly small, inconsequential things – those ‘intricate umbels on parsley’ being a perfect example – which makes this reliving of a moment in time possible. The intricacy of parsley can be a metaphor for the intricacy of a person or an event or a mystery that an artist never fully understood as a child and kept on writing or painting or sculpting or filmmaking about as an adult. Because he or she had learnt that meanings are never straightforward but rather links to and illuminations of other mysteries.
It is bound up with love too, of course, because it requires a great deal of love for the world and its people to have the patience and desire to look with the necessary degree of depth that it requires to make art which supersedes time.
I began this review with a quotation from The Less Received (2000), (Freeman’s essential collection of essays about modern poets that he feels have been unduly neglected), in which he regrets the abandonment of the modernist project of writers such as Joyce and Woolf who fused poetry and prose in order to more vividly represent human consciousness. In recent years this project has partially returned – perhaps most notably in the work of the Scottish short story writer and novelist, Ali Smith, as well as in the late Seamus Heaney’s wonderful prose poem sequence ‘Squaring’ – but this volume makes it clear that this is a territory that Freeman has long since made his own. It is to this territory – with its stylistic echoes of The Waves and Between the Acts – that White Wings returns to again and again. With its combination of serpentine, thought-process-like sentences and sudden abrupt haltings, it is a style which mimics both the everyday as well as the moment of epiphany or, as Wordsworth would have it, the ‘spots of time’, which inform so many of these poems. An epiphanic moment that Freeman describes with such enviable precision in another new poem, ‘Balanced’:
But I was still centred in consciousness, keeping my balance while I fell through the morning, as a falling cat rolls over to land on the well-sprung upholstery of its feet. Only gradually did a stiffness of doing things on automatic take over, like Botox injected into a face, freezing the nuances of response. To live with that alertness all day, would be impossible, surely, except for a saint. I’m grateful if I can have an hour, but always hope that today will be the day I stay poised, ready to move this way and that like a dancer, never losing the beat or balance or grace.
In his artistic life at least, this ‘beat… balance [and] grace’ is something that Freeman somehow manages time and time again. A fact that White Wings, which is a triumph of a book by anyone’s standards, more than ably attests to.