Friday, September 14, 2007

BILL GRIFFITHS (1948-2007)

Matt Chambers called from Buffalo this morning to let me know Bill Griffiths passed away today. According to a message sent out by Tom Raworth, Griffiths was checked into a hospital last week and then released. Today he was found in his County Durham home with the television, radio and a computer on.

Endearingly grizzled with tattooed knuckles, Griffiths worked with Bob Cobbing through the Writer's Forum. His first poems appeared in Poetry Review in the mid-1970s, the journal then under the editorship of Eric Mottram — another figure important to Griffiths and whose archive he would later catalog at King's College, London.

In 1987 Griffiths earned his PhD in Old English and Anglo-Saxon Studies from King's College. Aside from his own poetic production through the 1970s and 80s, Griffiths translated from the Anglo-Saxon, translations which include The Battle of Maldon and Guthlac B. Through Anglo-Saxon Books in Norfolk he published Alfred's Metres of Boethius and Aspects of Anglo-Saxon Magic in the late 1990s. Other critical and scholarly works include North East Dialect: Survey and Word List (Centre for Northern Studies, newcastle) and Dictionary of North East Dialect (Northumbria University Press).

Among his dozens of poetry collections (and this is to mention nothing of the perhaps hundreds of ephemeral publications he brought out) are: Tract Against Giants: Selected Poems (Coach House Press), Future Exiles: 3 London Poets (with Allen Fisher and Brian Catling), and, most recently, Mudfort (Salt 2003). He was also, with Tom Raworth and Tom Leonard, included in Etruscan Reader 5.

Earlier this year the Salt Companion to Bill Griffiths, edited by William Rowe, was published. In addition to various interviews with Griffiths, the book contains both casual and critical discussion of Griffiths' work by Eric Mottram, Jeff Nuttall, Alan Halsey, Iain Sinclair, John Seed, Tony Baker and a number of others.

Unfortunately I am in Santa Fe and not Buffalo, away from the handful of Griffiths titles I have — so I cannot access them and think through the work as I consider his passing. Further, it's only six months now since I first started corresponding with Griffiths. In response to a very brief letter soliciting work for a forthcoming volume of Damn the Caesars, he not only sent several wonderful poems and a sizable number of Amri and Pirate Press books but, on hearing about my interest in David Jones, he sent an essay he'd written on Jones' inscriptions and letter design. These poems and the essay were due to appear in the next volume of DTC, now at the print shop. That he has passed before I could get copies of the new volume to him is especially painful. I very badly wanted him to see how much his work was appreciated by younger poets and scholars this side of the pond. Aside from Steve McCaffery, Charles Bernstein, Peter Quartermain, Keith Tuma and a handful of others, Griffiths work didn't enjoy the readership in North America it otherwise deserved.

Discussing Griffiths' poetry In his introduction to the Salt Companion Jeff Nuttall writes:
Bill Griffiths’ poems are dazzling. More than any work in English since Gertrude Stein they insist on being recognised as surfaces and structures. Statements are made. Stories are told. Places and people are described. A bitter anarchism is expressed, also Nietzschean yearning towards energy and joy. Yet statement, narration, description and expression are kept in check so that the poem is seen as itself, a poem, an artefact, an edifice with an importance over and above its subject matter. It is not the light and the landscape, the sense of motion of limbs or machine, the anger and the disappointments, the passions and hungers, which are magnificent. It is the poem itself which, in Griffiths’ work, perpetually dazzles and astonishes in exactly the way the great stained-glass windows of European cathedrals dazzle and astonish before the eye has recognised whatever image is depicted.
It is hard not to agree with Nuttall's assessment of the work. The poetry does dazzle like the stained-glass windows of European cathedrals. But there are no such cathedrals in Santa Fe. Up the street from the Hotel St Francis where I'm writing now is the Loretto Chapel. And a few blocks from that the San Miguel Mission, the oldest church in the United States. Built by Tlaxcalan Indians under the direction of Franciscan Padres in 1610, the church was eventually destroyed by fire and then restored in the late seventeenth century. While on the phone, Matt had a drink to Bill -- a shot of Glenn Fiddich. Having no liquor in the hotel room, I wandered up to the mission and lit a candle.


ADDENDUM: Matt Chambers just sent the following photograph of Bill with Geraldine Monk. It seems to offer us a window into the community of poets he worked with and worked to galvanize — and I can't thank Matt enough for sending it.