Monday, July 18, 2011


The following is a brief comment I sketched out on Alan Halsey's Lives of the Poets (Five Seasons 2009) and Bill Griffiths' Collected Earlier Poems (Reality Streets 2010) which appeared in the Spring 2011 issue of Colorado Review. Posting it here if, for nothing else, to further register my continued interest in what feel like two monumental publications. I'd add to this Geraldine Monk's Escafeld Hangings (West House 2005), an historically-oriented cultural excavation of Sheffield which includes reference to Griffiths in its opening poem and can, I think, be read well against Francis Crot's forthcoming HAX, an explosively chaotic anthropological investigation of Hackney (Punch Press 2011). In any case:

Geraldine Monk and Alan Halsey | Alexandria, VA 2008 | photo Tom Orange

Strictly on the terrain of material production one of the most stunning books to come to out of the UK in recent years is Alan Halsey’s Lives of the Poets (Five Seasons Press 2009), a lush book built after Samuel Johnson’s Lives and subsidized as many eighteenth and early nineteenth century titles would have been: through advance subscriptions that testify to the kindness of poets, readers, bookshops and friends. A substantial number of beautifully reproduced engravings from Portraits of the British Poets (W. Walker 1824) further cement Halsey’s Lives to the period of its model. But Halsey’s project is not invested in a destructive nostalgia, nor is it intended to reductively sentimentalize a prior cultural moment. This is where the continuities that connect Halsey’s Lives to the time of Johnson come to an end. Unlike the prose assessments we find in Johnson or other such volumes from the period, these 191 lives (including eighteen authored by Halsey’s collaborator Martin Corless-Smith) are lineated and wonderfully vertiginous distillations that read more like Exeter riddles shot through a twenty-first century critical sensibility than eighteenth century biographical sketches. We see this in Halsey’s Thomas Wyatt:

to mark and remember nerawhyt erring
and to make into our englysshe
Wiat que la dame Anne Bulleyn
avait este trouvee au delit avec
my thinges so rawlye goyng to nowght afore mine Ies
I restles rest in suspect
for better poursuyte the tyme to seke (17).

In his Wyatt lecture delivered at Newcastle University in 1974 Basil Bunting insists that, as a poet of the Tudor court, “Wyat was even further from the ancient tradition of English than Chaucer was, but unlike Chaucer he went directly back to the headsprings of poetry; back to song itself, to music, and perhaps to dance.” Whether we accept the terms of Bunting’s statement or not, we see at the very least that Halsey’s life of Wyatt angles well to reproduce the music that so moved Bunting. Lurking somewhere beneath the early modern English and French in Halsey’s distillation is a music that troubles semantic meaning but refuses to jettison it completely. What we have instead is the articulation of subsemantic or paralinguistic sound (the radical unfamiliarity of pre-standardized early modern English now utterly alien to most Anglophone readers) with an undeniable narrative that reads the history of the language (“our englysshe”) as a living thing shaped by the contingencies of the political (“la dame Anne Bulleyn”).

Upper left and right Griffiths with Tony Jackson | Bottom Bob Cobbing and Griffiths | Morden Tower 1985 | photo David James

In fact the whole of Halsey’s Lives seems, as the first line of his Wyatt suggests, “to mark and remember.” But what he marks and remembers here is not so much the lives of poets as it is the complexities of a language unfolding across time and intersecting with the work of poetry. Or as the couplet that encapsulates the life of Samuel Rogers maintains, “Memory still making alterations | the work ready printed in boards” (142).

The skeleton key to these lives, however, resides in Halsey’s life of Samuel Johnson. The title of the life reduces “Samuel” to the more familiar “Sam” and situates a colon between given name and surname, acknowledging the limit between what can be chosen and what is always already the case. We are born, the title suggests, into language and the politics of genealogy. A fatalistic tone resonates through Halsey’s life of Johnson, who in the frame of the poem sees “my wife crying” and insists “There is no arguing with vain terrour and negligence” (117). In a post-911 moment this “terrour” naturally extends beyond the bourgeois revolutions of the eighteenth century and the subsequent terreur in France, toward perhaps a far more expansive and seemingly interminable terror advanced under the auspices of eliminating terror. In this context the lives (we cannot tell if they belong to Johnson or Halsey) become prayers uttered for lack of agency into the wild:

would not trouble too much with the Lives of the Poets
in unmerciful nights and great want of company
sadly broken but one of the most fervent & Eloquent prayers (117).

Johnson’s life among others—like Johnson’s call for the standardization of English in his 1755 preface to The Dictionary of the English Language—stands as a nodal point, a center of gravity around which the other lives are constellated. But the radically shifting registers we encounter when we leap across Halsey’s lives are disorienting, pointing toward the exceptionally rich linguistic and textual differentiation within the British Isles. And it is perhaps the deep appreciation of linguistic difference embedded in the full range of Halsey’s work that best lays bare the continuities connecting Halsey to his late friend Bill Griffiths, whose Collected Earlier Poems (Reality Street 2010) Halsey co-edited with Ken Edwards.

Where Halsey’s life as an antiquarian bookseller clearly informs his work (mine eyes hath seen Steve McCaffery dance on receiving from Halsey a well-maintained seventeenth century edition of Chapman’s Homeric Hymns), Bill Griffiths’ work as a scholar of the Anglo-Saxon seems to have informed his. Or maybe it’s the other way around. Before his life was cut short in 2007, Griffiths’ work in poetry preceded his work as a formally trained scholar by more than a decade. And if his poetry and scholarship emerge out of anything it is likely connected to his brief but formative years as a young borstal boy and member of the Hells Angels. The defiant piss-and-vinegar sweep that characterizes the poetry Griffiths produced while studying under Bob Cobbing at the London-based Writers Forum and later under Eric Mottram at King’s College is palpable, influencing not only his early poetry and publishing activities during the 1970s but also his work during the 1990s as a scholar of non-standardized Northern dialects identified with powerlessness and devalued forms of labor. From formal investigations into the “Old English Alcoholic Vocabulary” to the countless essays and word lists attending to regionally-specific dialects associated with coal mining and fishing, a deep-seated commitment to cultures beyond the pale of power firmly connects Griffiths’ otherwise incongruent interests in poetry, the Anglo-Saxon, Northern dialects, labor, prison and publishing. Indeed, the long serial poem Cycles, published in installments during the early 1970s, begins with prison and gestures toward much more than poetic cycles or cyclical structures:

Like where’s a little kid
motorbikes out of sand (69).

Here we have cycles within cycles—motorcycles—embedded in the poem as the figuration of resistance which, if it is available to us at all, is fashioned from the materials at hand, even sand. And it is resistance that drives the attention Griffiths devotes to prison, politics and language in Cycles. From Dover Borstal to H.M. Prison Brixton, from Elizabeth to York Minster, Griffiths’ work carefully thinks through the overdetermined relation between the cultural and the political as these unfold across time. But unlike any species of critical theory, Griffiths’ thinking is predicated on the need to integrate the experiential into the texts produced, suggesting any critical analysis we might construct is always already mediated through bodies as they move upon the earth:

dreaming ghosts
alwayz all ways night
to lie dried as a stick
or singing the insultz the
wet wickid bastards throw in their shit bastard boxes.
how do you reckon people that walk trhu wallz?
get close
in their uniform of bownd bones (89).

But where linguistic variation in Halsey’s Lives alerts us to regional difference (the distance between, say, texts produced in the North or South prior to the standardization of orthography) Griffiths early and late work alerts us to economically specific, class-based differences within British English that run along both a vertical and horizontal axis. The use of dialect in his earliest poems, well before he devotes himself to any formal study of regional dialects in the North of England, emerge first out of his affiliation with prisoners, bikers, workers—people identified with linguistic practices specific to laboring classes. And through the mid 1970s—well before Robert Grenier announced his hatred of speech and shifted his attention, like many other US-based poets, from the transmission of meaning through the body to the transmission of meaning through the materiality of texts—Griffiths seemed concerned with the complex and fundamentally intractable relationship between speech and writing, dialect and text. In his work Griffiths appears to privilege neither speech nor writing but instead investigates the dynamic commerce between the two within a specific, politically determined conjuncture of historical forces. The shift back and forth from speech-based writing to translations from the Anglo-Saxon to normative writing practices in conjunction with the frequent and fluid movement from one language to another within many of these poems suggests Griffiths was unwilling as a poet to sacrifice an interest in the complexities of language for fashionable dogma or inflexible doctrine.

Focusing on the materiality of Griffiths’ work in his essay on Pirate Press included in The Salt Companion to Bill Griffiths (Salt 2007), Halsey remarks that Griffiths “is a signal example of a poet dedicated to maintaining control over the appearance of his work, often re-presenting it with a shift into a new context; in some cases this involves revision in the commonly accepted sense, in others it is more a case of re-vision—the text reproduced verbatim but in a different page space and/or variant setting, and so arguably in some sense fresh work” (55). Here Griffiths’ understanding of language appears to reach well beyond the split between speech and writing and into the territory marked out by the limits of material production, i.e. the difference between a poem hastily produced on inexpensive A4 run through a mimeo press versus a poem carefully set in type and printed on handmade Italian rag. Influenced by the publications produced through Writers Forum during the 1970s, Griffiths disavowed the fine and commercial press practices that slowed or impeded the rapid circulation of texts. Instead Griffiths published dozens of titles through Pirate Press using technologies conducive to speed: mimeo, silkscreen, offset and eventually photocopy. And despite the compromise in print quality, Griffiths preferred having total control of production over bending to the pressure of publishers that might offer a fine press quality at the cost of compromising the work. But if we attend to the forms of community and support that motored the publications brought out by Pirate Press we find a continuity that cuts across the distance between fine and small press practices. Like the Five Seasons edition of Halsey’s Lives, the 1975 mimeo edition of Beowulf translated by John Porter and published by Griffiths through Pirate Press relied on the advance financial contributions of subscribers later listed in the book. The list offers a clear view of the community Pirate Press titles circulated among and for that reason alone is especially useful. But what I find most striking is the radical contradiction in the practice of subsidizing a work through subscription. Rather than appealing to a larger publisher that might legislate and standardize the shape of that work, the poet-publisher in this case maintains total autonomy in a curiously paradoxical way by making himself available and in fact beholden to a community of others—that is, it is precisely community formation and the intervention of others that makes singular vision and uncompromising control over cultural production possible here. And perhaps it is this we see most clearly in Griffiths’ early poetry and Halsey’s Lives: singularity.