Adam Somerset reflects on, Tsunami Days, a new collection of essays by John Barnie, which delves into poetry, culture, politics and the threat of ecological disaster.
Tom Kremer, game designer and publisher, wrote a homage to the art of the essay in his preface to the William Hazlitt Essay Prize of 2013. It is defined, he wrote, “by its magpie capacity to inhabit any and every subject… Its occasions are manifold”, he continued, “scholarly, journalistic, imaginative, personal. It can be linked to a fleeting moment or written with an eye to timelessness and universality. It can be factual, or it can float free of the evidence.”
Novelists regularly take to the essay with ease. The disciplines are similar; an eye for the detail that tells, a gift for formal patterning, the making of sentences of grace. Julian Barnes has run a parallel career in non-fiction for decades. Amidst the outpouring of prose for fiction John Updike managed whole books on painters. The obituaries for Jonathan Raban this January last underplayed the sharp overspill into political and social observation.
Novelists and poets differ. Poets strive for fresh metaphors, for linguistic insights, for illuminative compression. In a page headed “Negative Capability” John Barnie writes “Poets think in metaphor and symbol, they think in rhythm, assonance and alliteration.” The essays of a Robert Minhinnick are not those of a Julian Barnes.
Tsunami Days comprises 68 pieces over 218 pages written between 2020 and 2022. In his afterword he calls them “observations.” Their interest comes from different directions. The first is the record of a life lived in rich reading. Barnie reveals his year of birth, his cohort the first not to be conscripted for national service. From an Abergavenny childhood he goes to Birmingham University where immersion in literature begins with Beowulf, Chaucer, Langland, Gawain and the Green Knight. His references range widely: Conrad, Henry Fielding, Martha Gellhorn, Ted Hughes, Sorley MacLean, Metternich, Victor Serge, Tamburlaine and many others feature. In “the Meaning of a Book” he takes reading further. The book is an artefact. He describes in detail first editions by Caradoc Evans. He likes the font, the spacing, the thickness of the paper, “the handsome maroon boards.” He observes of the publishers in Wales that they “can rarely keep their most successful authors… they act as nurseries for the far bigger London publishers.” There is more to it than that. Canongate in Scotland, for instance, is larger than all Welsh publishers combined. His personal aesthetics are most revealed in “the Pattern in the Leaf”. “The sense of beauty in humans must derive from the natural world… Beauty is concerned with balance and symmetry of the kind revealed in a butterfly’s wings or the pattern of veins in a leaf.” He moves to the “Grosser Mohn” painting of Emil Nolde, to mosques and cathedrals, to calligraphy and Concorde.
He recounts his own path to poetry. Tsunami Days is his thirty-first publication. Immersion comes first. Hughes, Plath, Larkin, Stevie Smith, William Carlos Williams lead to pastiche; it is the necessary route equally for playwrights. “Those years were a prowling around, searching for a voice…ventriloquism being an important aspect of learning about rhythm, image, lineation, even punctuation; about how words can eventually be given the soft impress of your own voice.”
A sense of dislocation is common to writers. To see the world contrapuntally requires an inner separation. Of his own road, the borders to Midlands to Europe to the coast of Ceredigion, he writes, “I belong but don’t belong.” The essay “the Freedom of Being Someone Else” opens, “I have lived my adult life between two worlds, belonging to neither.”
The references are wide but the name of Schopenhauer is absent. A pessimism akin to Schopenhauer underlies the persona. He says explicitly “my view is pessimistic.” In “The Elephant in the Room” he writes “we will destroy something in ourselves, will wound ourselves, and carry the grief of it within us.” A few pages on “We are living in a New Dark Age.” Human nature, in “Revolution’s Allure”, “is imperfect, our brains jury-rigged, our lives governed by irrational swings, so that what we build we eventually destroy.” The essay “Weepy Culture” speaks of “a pandemic of sentimentality.” “The problem with humanity en masse is that we do not understand what we are.” “At one level we are all strangers, to ourselves and others, but that is territory where most do not wish to go.”
The essays look broadly and rarely go into the cultural battles of the moment. He puts both social media and blogosphere within inverted commas, but he notes a young woman in a local bus buying her fare, attention to her phone preferred to any human contact with the driver. He cites a literary episode where the editor of a poetry magazine apologises for his error and failure. Barnie sees an aggressive group-think at work. In “Truth versus “Truth” he cites Donne “On a huge hill/ Cragged and steep Truth stands, and he that will/ Reach her, about must and about must go.”
Novelists have moved to public life in a way that other artists have not. Other artists are little at ease with politics. Coleridge caused altercation in a Bala public house with his views. Poets have the disadvantage; the instinct to seek an essence has an intrinsic compatibility with a practice that is pragmatic. Politics starts with where we are; poets start elsewhere. The politics within Tsunami Days are conventional, over-estimation of current events obscuring deep movements. So too are the views on Christianity. It is described as a religion of blood. But blood is not shed, unlike the festival of Ashura-, which I once witnessed- where it is. Writers are better on culture than politics. We do not have writers in order that they comfort us. They are there to give us a jolt. John Barnie gives that jolt. As he himself says in “Art and the Flatlands” “we need more writers with bite.”
Tsunami Days is available now from Cinnamon Press.