Mark Blayney writes on Peter Finch‘s Collected Poems Volumes 1 & 2 edited by Andrew Taylor, reflecting on the poet’s mastery and innovation throughout a career which has spanned over fifty years.
Two brick-sized books have landed on my desk, their strange abstract covers seemingly from another world. Planet Finch is quite a place: exciting to visit, vibrant, ever-inventive, ever-experimental, unpredictable; and he has been honoured with a handsome, well-designed, well-produced pair of volumes from Seren. It’s not often a lifetime’s work is published in one hit. This is almost 1,000 pages of poetry, stretching from 1968 until 2021. You might think, why not add a couple of new poems and it could have 2022 on the cover; and of course the answer is that Finch has another book coming out later this year. The man is unstoppable.
A quick recap if you are new to Finch: the poems range from the formally inventive to the conventionally formal. He is well-known in Wales as an innovator, a surrealist, a relentless experimenter. His collections mash up art, the concrete with the mainstream, the list poem, the poem with no words at all and the downright weird. So to nail him down to a philosophy or an aesthetic seems overly ambitious, but there’s a thread running from his first published work in 1968 through to what he’s going to write tomorrow – things fall apart. His drive is a restlessness, an inability to accept the status quo, a free acknowledgement that everything is in flux and that to deny this or try to impose order on the unorderable is doomed to failure. We don’t want things to fall apart, and the struggle against it is what gives Finch the fuel for his vehicle.
The abstract work makes us experience this by his refusal to conform to what we might think a poem is. Consider the first line of ‘Politic’, a poem from Math (1996):
The modern is (could be) always (inevitably) historically (mythologised) possibly (certainly) at war (rebuilding) (restructuring) (unplating) with what comes (arrives) (sails) immediately (historically) before (after) it.
Now, there’s a lot going on in there, but if your first reaction is to find it incomprehensible – don’t worry. Imagine being a surfer. The thrill of surfing is not in trying to control the water; the thrill is in fearing you might fall off.
More conventional poems explore entropy in more explicit ways. In ‘Roofer’, ‘black sludge everywhere’ and ‘the tar fix to repair / the flat roof fails as I watch it.’ In ‘House Painting’, the narrator decorates a wall whilst new neighbours are ‘eating things on sticks’ whilst ‘thinking how hard it is / to change anything for long’:
We’re there. This is the future.
I wet the brush,
Many of the non-narrative poems are ‘about’ order breaking down and stability turning to decay. Sometimes poems falter until the words and then the letters themselves degrade, ending in a static-like hiss. Putting together the Seren collections has involved some heavy-duty excavation; with many of the original pamphlets in extremely limited editions, a long time ago, much has vanished or has slipped down the side of Finch’s sofa. The appeal of the typewritten poem is its imperfections, and in an endnote for ‘Blues,’ the editor explains that the lost Olivetti typewriter originals are recreated with a font designed to mimic its decayed look.
If most of us are in a battle to impose order on chaos, the corollary for Finch is that we can make a poem out of anything. At the launch a few weeks ago, someone asked Finch his tips for conquering writers’ block. Good question – we’re in expert company here. Stand up. Take a book – ‘this is an old Mills & Boon novel,’ Finch explained, ‘I got it for 5p in a charity shop.’ Rip the book apart – physically destroy it. The pages scatter to the floor. Pick pages up at random. Read out lines that leap out. Stitch them together, and you have a poem. The cut-up technique has had its day, but as a workshop exercise it’s one of many useful things you can learn from watching Finch in action. It’s a jumping-off point for something else, and you won’t know what until you get there. Rather like stretching before exercise, you find you can run further.
At the end of the launch the more gig-inclined of us found scraps of abandoned Mills & Boon as souvenirs. ‘…kissed Viola elegantly, looking proud and yet modest in some indefinable way,’ mine says.
Bubbling beneath all of this is Finch’s second theme – the individual’s place in the wider scheme of things. This is the middle eight, if you like, in his rock song. ‘Out at the edge’ sees the poet on a Pembrokeshire headland, looking towards America: ‘but don’t see it. / Mist, distance, earth’s curvature, / or maybe it just isn’t there.’
In ‘Mountains: Sheep’ he pauses in the middle of nowhere, annoyed by some graffiti. ‘While I seethe / they stand and shit. / When I go / they stay.’ The world carries on regardless, whether we’re there or not. Finch is touching at the existential here; keep grinding away at this idea and, like the typefaces, our sense of identity, purpose, fades and vanishes. But – as always – it’s done with humour. For someone who might be described as a ‘difficult read’, he is not a difficult read. ‘We communicate largely by the act of communicating,’ he informs us in ‘Talk Talk’.
Some poetry folk think you can’t be any good if you’re funny, or at least you’re more likely to be a better poet if you’re not funny. Because being good is serious, isn’t it? At the very least, you can’t be both funny and good in the same poem. Finch would disagree. Intelligence means having perspective and having perspective means you have, or should have, a sense of humour. In fact he wouldn’t even disagree; he’d politely demur that there isn’t a discussion to be had. In ‘Lost’, for example, he finds himself looking ‘in my mother’s shed for a missing cat I’ve never seen.’ The set-up is well-observed melancholy. ‘The rain on my back like 1940 and / my father’s hat still on the door.’ The ending conveys loss and a somewhat Pooter-ish isolation in perfectly-pitched, unresolved humour. ‘A cat skits along the bungalow ridge tiles. / Could be the one. Who knows.’
On Planet Finch, if you see a random gathering of stones, your mind whirs away kinetically in ways that the stones themselves do not. ‘they could build / a wall, a harbour, couldn’t they? / they don’t’. Only rarely does he drift into the sour. The uncharacteristic ‘Meeting her lover’ vents an anger that does not do the narrator, or us, any good. ‘His car is shit fast he tells me I / couldn’t give a damn.’ He heads quickly back to experimenting, innovating, and we go with him. The second brick in particular sees Finch exploring theories of consciousness, spacetime singularities, gravity and whether or not a clock goes more slowly as it approaches lunchtime. This is not someone who just writes about the view from city bookshops on a rainy day; although there are plenty of those too.
The books have been edited by Andrew Taylor, who (slightly battleworn by what a huge project this clearly was) introduced them at that launch a few weeks back. This was quite an event – a swish hotel, a livestream, proper cameras and everything. Finch was interviewed by Ifor Thomas. In terms of ebullience, anarchy and unpredictability, Thomas is the equal of Finch. They also both share a curious inability to age.
There were a few writers in the room and you could hear the cogs whirring. But where were all the would-be writers? Where were the students? Where, in fact, were the young? I was among the youngest there and, whilst I look terrific for my age, I’m the wrong side of 47. You can learn a lot as a poet from an hour in Peter Finch’s company. Imagining yourself as a piece of furniture. Wondering what inanimate objects would do if they moved. Perspective on being stuck in human form. Writing about big themes without being portentous, overblown or egotistical. Perhaps some think Finch is inaccessible or just not for them. How can I convince otherwise? Well, ‘wet sky like a moved photocopy’ is as near to a single-lined piece of brilliance as I (or rather, Finch) can offer. In those six words we have remarkable compression; an original image; rhythm; sound; and an evocation of sense-memory.
Finch is a Cardiff poet, not a Wales poet. He is urban, and when he explores the rural it is always as a visitor. That is not to diminish the achievement. What poet would want the burden of representing a nation anyway? The poet wants to explore the miniature in the world of the greater; the ignored, the rarely or differently observed. Look at the mess people get into when they become, oh I don’t know, Poet Laureate or something. Finch is specifically and proudly Cardiff, and the ‘Welsh fog’ that some reviewers find themselves (pleasurably) flailing in is PeterFinchCardiff fog.
Anyway, as another critic suggested 15 years ago, Wales is Finch’s adopted land, despite having lived there all his life. His homeland is the international one of Dada, surrealism and collage. You’re going to find poems that will pass you by in these two collections, and you’ll probably even find a few you actively dislike. It doesn’t matter. If you won’t get on a plane because you don’t understand how it works, you’ll never go on an adventure. Plunge in, don’t worry about it too much and let the Finch hop about in front of you, cock its head to one side, pin its beady eye on you and say yes, you might feel a bit challenged when in a sudden flutter I land on your knee – but go with it.
The delight in ripping things up and invention-as-fact gives the energy that powers Finch’s work and reputation. Jimi Hendrix never did wake up lost on the island in the middle of Roath Park Lake by the way, despite what the Western Mail might think – Finch made it up. He is an anarchist in a sharp suit, a punk with the safety pins attaching cultures that are not usually stuck together. Sometimes this leaves the reader confused; why call sequences of poems haikus if they don’t have 17 syllables? And I am not the first to point out that Wales is not bigger than Texas, as one of his most recent poems claims/argues/pretends/derides. But no matter. Long may Finch’s birdcall attract us from the other side of the lake.
Perhaps, as will happen to any poet when they have a huge and impressive body of work to celebrate, Finch risks becoming unfashionable (if he has ever been so, loaded as the word is with connotations of popularity and short-termism). Contemporary poetry has changed so much in the past decade or so, and it would be unfair to judge Finch against it. With the exception of climate change, the themes that concern many poets now – our identities in a multicultural world, social injustice, diversity and equality – are not really touched on. But let’s not criticise a circle for being insufficiently triangular. Finch’s legacy is to create substance from nothing, to defy our knowledge of decay and disappearance with vibrancy, sly humour and indefatigable energy.
Brian Eno once said of the Velvet Underground that only a few thousand people bought their first album, but everyone who did started a band. I hope Peter Finch sells a million of these books, and I guarantee that (almost) anyone will have an urge to start writing poems as they are reading. Try it now. Here’s a one-word poem from Finch. What’s yours?
Mark Blayney writes fiction, poetry and comedy. He won the Somerset Maugham Prize for Two kinds of silence, is a Royal Literary Fellow and was an inaugural Hay Festival Writer at Work.
Peter Finch‘s Collected Poems Volumes 1 & 2 edited by Andrew Taylor are available via Seren.