John Lavin attended a celebration of the Welsh component of the British Poetry Revival with John Freeman, Kate North, Peter Finch, Chris Torrance.
Owain Glyndwr, Cardiff, 23/04/13
This event, a celebration of three unique and absurdly undervalued Wales-based exponents of what is sometimes called the British Poetry Revival, couldn’t have been timelier. Having recently been awarded one of the three main prizes in this year’s National Poetry Competition – for the glorious, Proustian rush of ‘My Grandfather’s Hat’ – John Freeman appears to be finally garnering some of the praise his poetry (of which to date there are nine volumes) so richly deserves. Peter Finch, of course, is a writer much beloved in Welsh literary circles but one who likewise has been too often ignored by those who govern what constitutes the historical progression of contemporary British Poetry. Chris Torrance meanwhile, is perhaps even more of a case in point, given that those who know it regard his Magic Door sequence as being among the important poetical works of the last quarter century. The exceptional young poet and novelist, Kate North – herself a former student of Freeman – completed the bill, contributing to a sense of the influence these three Wales-based poets have had upon a new generation.
The British Poetry Revival, which appears to be a retrospective term, first appeared in Britain as a reaction to the Beat Poetry movement in America. As well as being influenced by the Beats they looked back to modernist poets such as Ezra Pound and William Carlos Williams, as well as to British poets like Hugh MacDiarmid and Basil Bunting.
Peter Finch was at the forefront of the Revival in Wales, running the legendary Oriel bookshop in Cardiff, as well as the zeitgeist-troubling literary magazine, second aeon. Indeed, one of the new poems he reads tonight deals specifically and humorously with the type of submission you get when you first start a literary magazine:
How to cope with weight. How not to be mistaken in pubs. Not
catching the eyes of old, almost-lovers now it’s too late. Strategy for
hair loss, scalp condition, whiteness, regress, dryness, falling and
fading…. Article on how to remember what you just said. Article on
how to convey this to others. Ads for fast cars. No poems.
Finch is a wonderful performer, fizzing with energy, and his presence on the bill tonight really suggests a direct line back to the time of the Beats and the Revival. What is so inspiring about his performance tonight is that he mostly reads new poetry (because, as he rightly points out, nostalgia for past glories was never the point of the Revival) and it is as restless and experimental as ever. He is a writer who, without question, sticks to his guns.
The work of Chris Torrance is no less experimental than that of Finch but it is a pastoral type of experimentalism, deeply interested in the history and myths of these islands. Tonight he reads a combination of individual poems with extracts from his on-going sequence of prose and poetry, The Magic Door. Billy Mills suggested in The Guardian that ‘If Torrance was American … he would be a cult figure. But he’s British and almost totally neglected’, which is a fact that this evening certainly bears out. Torrance is not only a phenomenal reader, accentuating the static and the flux in his work with expert diction, but also, on this evidence, one of our great poets; his use of Welsh mythology and stream of consciousness at times putting one in mind of a kind of Welsh Joyce.
Kate North has had two books published to date, the experimental novel, Eva Shell, and the outstanding recent poetry collection, Bistro. Tonight she reads extracts from both and impresses with her technical accomplishment – using text messages and emails is a hallmark of her style – and with her understanding of colloquial speech and the finer nuances of relationships. Her work can be almost forensic in its dissection of these emotional landscapes and frequently very funny with it too.
John Freeman sets the scene for his reading tonight by telling us that ‘Poems are dialogues between words and silence, and I like to begin a reading with a poem that establishes the silence around the words.’ He duly begins with the sensual, blue-black tones of ‘Nightfall on Ithaca’. This is followed by the ‘Cool morning’ and ‘scorching afternoon’ of ‘Swallows’, a poem which, in evoking a summer’s day, somehow manages to suggest deeper and more intricate mysteries than the swallow’s nest the poet chances upon:
…at the periphery of vision,
shadows are swooping against walls, and beyond
living shapes transforming wires to staves,
whispering their music into the darkness
of memory like a nest high in a barn
they will return to, summer after summer
There is a precision about Freeman’s use of language that, rather than putting me immediately in mind of one of his poetic forbears, makes me think instead of Julian Barnes and his direct antecedent, Flaubert. Like those writers, there is an elegiac quality to Freeman’s writing which suggests that, in trying to capture a moment with such a degree of exactitude, he is almost trying to make that moment happen again. And this, of course, is what all great art does. It tries to make what matters to the artist live for all eternity.
This is a quality which reaches its apotheosis in the aforementioned, prize-winning ‘My Grandfather’s Hat’, a breathtakingly lucid re-creation of a single moment from the poet’s childhood. In focusing his gaze on his grandfather’s ‘trilby hat’, which is ‘grey and sleek like a new plush toy’ – and which he appears to have seen his grandfather wear only on this one occasion – Freeman is able indirectly to give us a good deal of information about his grandfather’s personality and background:
Crowning himself slowly, his own archbishop,
holding on to a handrail like a sceptre,
he turned with no more haste than one of the ships
he had sailed in round Cape Horn as a boy
in another century…
The grandfather’s almost regal manner is both a source of respect and tender amusement (he also makes the Freemans’ ‘two front steps / more like a staircase in a stately home’), while that sad-eyed ‘boy in another century’ line suggests that he is a man out of time in a world on the cusp of change. This contrast between an old world that is dying with one that is being born anew is underlined by the earlier comparison between the grandfather’s old-fashioned kitchen range and the ‘overheated lounge/ of Aunt Nell and Uncle George’s new flat/ in Morden’. That ‘Morden’ striking a harsh, modern-sounding note while also, perhaps, deliberately rhyming with the Swedish word for death: doden. The poem closes with the almost dreamlike
…black and white chess-board
of the path to the front gate stretched out,
like a long drive lined with waving flags.
This suggests both the impression the grandfather made on his family (so that even the path seems to cheer him on) and the sense that he is also nearing the finishing line of his life. This also makes you think of the poet writing this as an older man through the eyes of his younger self – all of which contributes to an exact distillation of the passing of time. It made me think of that other great paean to time, Bergman’s Wild Strawberries, and the moment at the film’s end when the old man sees his young mother and father waving and beckoning to him on the beach.
It proved a fitting end to an evening of glorious poetry in the spirit of the British Poetry Revival, which proved to be a fitting celebration of this wonderful group of writers. Let us hope that it is the first of many such celebrations.
You might also like…
Sophie Baggott reviews Cardiff-based writer and performer Peter Finch’s 26th poetry collection, Machineries of Joy.
John Lavin is a regular contributor to Wales Arts Review.