The Shearsman Review
Bill Griffiths - Collected Poems and Sequences (1981-90)
(Reality Street, Hastings, 2014. Paperback, 426pp, £19)
Reviewed by Juha Virtanen
Bill Griffiths’ contribution to post-war British literature is both substantial and significant. From the late 1960s until his death in 2007, the poet produced a bibliography of over 300 items, which cover poetry, collaborations, translations, essays, polemics, dialect studies, social history and more. Additionally, his skills as an archivist, book designer, and small press publisher enabled Griffiths to catalogue and support the proliferation of innovative poetry in Britain from the 1970s onwards. His erudite work on the history and patois of the North-East of England is equally noteworthy. And yet—partially as a result of the poet’s own preference to publish groups of poems in small units through independent publishers—much of this oeuvre would be difficult to locate outside of special collections in various institutions.
In light of this, the efforts of editor Alan Halsey and Ken Edwards’ Reality Street press to gather Griffiths’ poetry in collected volumes is an important and commendable project. Collected Poems & Sequences (1981-91), published earlier in 2014, is the second volume in the series. Originally, Halsey had intended to cover the work published between the early eighties and Griffiths’ death, but as the length of this draft proved too unwieldy, the present edition features a decade of experimentation, development and variation in Griffiths’ body of work. This chronology—as well as the decision to organise the material according to their appearance in successive publications—seems apposite, as it captures an expansion in the depth and breadth of the poet’s thematics, tones and concerns.
One of the key distinctions between this edition and the preceding volume, Collected Earlier Poems (1966-80), is to do with the scale of production. In the 1970s, for example, Griffiths released new pamphlets on a nearly annual basis. Indeed, in certain years—such as 1975—the poet printed several pamphlets and broadsides. The period represented in Collected Poems & Sequences, however, seems comparatively less active. While some of the earliest inclusions in the volume were first published in 1982 and 1984, the majority of the featured work originally appeared between 1987 and 1991. This is not the only point of comparison. While the work in the 1970s—such as Cycles or War W/ Windsor—traversed prisons, gangs, and motorcycles, the material from the 1980s appears increasingly preoccupied with boating, water-ways and history. While the previously prominent topics are not entirely absent, they appear in a brief and infrequent manner, as a section in ‘One Hundred Images of a Captured Friend’ demonstrates:
carefully piled up
Partially, as Halsey explains in the preface to the book, this is a natural development that befits Griffiths’ process: as a ‘poet alert to, inquisitive about and absorbed in his surroundings’ the added emphasis on his later concerns could justifiably be considered as a natural response to his houseboat in Middlesex (an influence, in part, for ‘The Book of the Boat’), Brightlingsea in Essex (see, for example, ‘Morning Lands’), and—finally—his move to County Durham in the early 1990s (a notable presence in ‘North Scenes’). As a minimalist section of ‘The Hawksmoor Mausoleum’ specifies, one of the keywords for these poems is ‘transit’. They are mobile texts that refuse stagnancy and continue to wander.
What is consistent, however, is Griffiths’ continued commitment to formal experimentation. Collected Poems & Sequences displays a dizzying range of styles and techniques, including a constant playfulness with musicality, syntax and caesura (for instance: ‘hell-of-dog-kink/arm/machine muscle-to-move/bulk of bicep’ in ‘Nuttall’); mesostics (in ‘Mesostics: Two Boats’); prose (in sections of ‘The Book of the Boat’); performance texts (for example, ‘At Matlock’); found texts (explicitly apparent in ‘The Flood’); plays (most notably in ‘Darwin’s Dialogues’); recipes (throughout ‘Metrical Cookery’); and riddles. The poems also serve as a testament to the continued influence that Griffiths drew from anachronistic literary forms and languages. The opening to ‘Alfred’s Prose’—‘How can’t you see When the coils and chills unround’—recalls the hemistichs and alliterative rhythms of Old English verse, while many of the texts incorporate sections in Latin. However, while Griffiths might occasionally utilize similar sources—for example, Ango-Saxon writing or the poetry of Li-Po—his use of them is markedly different from high modernists such as Pound. For Griffiths, the gristly roots of the ideas in action throughout his work do not regard tradition as a beauty to preserve. Rather, these poems delve into these roots in order to develop a singular and un-rooted idiom that perpetually (and, perhaps, paradoxically) investigates the contemporary moment.
Indeed, while the poems explore different registers from documentary to comedy, the collection is unfluctuating in its attention to the professional violence of the state. In ‘Guide to the Giants of England’—one of the earliest texts in the volume—Griffiths writes:
there is still the chance
any young Londoner
make a name
a career of conquest
Given the poem’s numerous historical allusions, the ‘career of conquest’ could be read as a reference to bygone imperialisms from the Romans to the British Empire. Having said that, this would overlook the crucial hinge of the section: the word ‘still’. The insertion of this term specifies that the section is depicting the ‘young Londoners’ of the 1980s. In this respect, the careers of conquest that Griffiths condemns revolve around the financial gains facilitated by the free-market ideologies of Thatcherism.
As the chronology of the collection progresses, Griffiths’ remonstrations against economic, political and cultural tyranny become increasingly explicit. Midway through ‘In Essex’, he asks the ‘citizens of Brightlingsea’ to join him in celebrating ‘the elimination of PRESIDENT REAGAN’ and remarks upon the hypocrisy of ‘the man that upheld the death penalty’ lecturing ‘us on human rights.’ ‘Darwin’s Dialogues’ develops a nuanced satire that depicts the Church as a self-interested and chameleonic agent of political power that is able to ally itself with both Hitler and an American general who intends to shape post-war Germany ‘back into some sort of democracy.’ Correspondingly, the humorous tones of ‘Egg Poem’ in ‘Metrical Cookery’ work towards undermining an absurd military machismo in order to question the purposelessness of ‘getting smashed’ in ‘the defence of the defence of democracy.’ In the third part of ‘Coal’, certain sections focus on the violent clashes that occurred during the Miner’s Strike:
by the paw
of the law.
Bottles & bricks course by air-mail,
down and round,
excited like demon-drummers,
and dogs are frantic, shouting and jumping & catching.
The poem concludes with a stark and suspicious utterance: ‘As if justice/be trust.’ Griffiths’ poetry ultimately asserts that—in a world characterised by injustice and inequality—there is no legitimacy to the forces that claim to govern us. As the dialectical pairing at the end of the fifth section in ‘The Purple Shepherd’ clarifies, ‘policy’ is ‘extermination,’ while ‘life’ is ‘retaliation.’
Given the remit and focus for Collected Poems & Sequences, it is understandable that Griffiths’ essays from this period are not included. However, this is somewhat regrettable, as certain texts—particularly the essay in 1991’s A Pocket History of the Soul—would provide an apt companion to the concerns expressed in many of the poems from the same period. Nevertheless, the current volume should be essential reading for anyone. Griffiths was—and still is—a poet we can trust.
6 August 2014