It was twenty years ago today

The Saturday before last, I went along to the launch of the Selected Poems of Harold Massingham, edited by Ian Parks and published by Bob Horne’s admirable Calder Valley Poetry. Despite torrential cold rain, there was a very good turnout. It was held at the former boys’ grammar school in Mexborough that Massingham and his slightly older contemporary, a lad called E.J. Hughes, attended (as did Parks, many years later). The excellent readings of Massingham’s poems were undertaken by different members of the Read to Write group, and even included a couple of musical settings for guitar and voice, plus some full-throttle Anglo-Saxon. It was a moving and memorable event, in part due to two of Massingham’s children being there. The book, with fabulous drawings by Pete Olding, is rather beautiful, inside and out, and I’ve been enjoying dipping into it.

Not much doing on my poetry front of late – but I’m happy with one new poem. Very unusually for me, it merrily decided it wanted to be a prose poem, a form about which I’ve traditionally been a little sniffy, despite including two in my first collection. In fact, I found writing and shaping it really rather enjoyable. It may well be to do with an exercise which Katrina Naomi put us through on the Arvon course last month, the effects of which are still on my mind apparently. I’ve also started writing poems in response to sculptures by George Fullard in Sheffield city centre – it’s early days for that project though.

I was saddened to be told the other day that the haiku poet Malcolm Williams had died. Throughout the 10 years or so that I dealt with postal submissions to Presence, Malcolm was the most constant and enthusiastic of submitters, and often a very good one, whose letters and cards I always enjoyed receiving. As with the example here (please scroll down), he sometimes wrote two-line haiku, which, in my experience, is very rare.

On the subject of mortality, today marks exactly 20 years since W.G. Sebald’s death. I’ve been thinking more about his life as related in the biography by Carole Angier; whether the details of his life, research and writing practices add to or detract from my understanding and evaluation of his writing. What’s perhaps as intriguing as anything about his life is the unique speed, just a couple of years, at which he went from being virtually unknown outside his academic field to being touted as a candidate for the Nobel, such that the interviews he gave were, and still are, regarded as the precious utterings of a sage for the Baby Boomer generations, and that ‘Sebaldian’ has become a synonym for writing infused with melancholy. There are certainly few prose writers whom I find as re-readable as him – maybe just Berger and Woolf these days. As I said last time, I think his poetry is yet to be properly appraised and will grow in stature as time passes. There is a brilliant review by Ryan Ruby of Angier’s deeply flawed biography in New Left Review, here, which forensically details its omissions, errors and dubious judgements. Amongst many things, Ruby is surely right about the weight which Angier accords to each of Sebald’s four major novels – I can’t say that Vertigo is anywhere near my favourite of the four; nor that it merits far more attention than either The Rings of Saturn or Austerlitz.

The highlight of my recent reading continues to be Gillian Allnutt. I love the polished simplicity of her poetry, which makes much contemporary poetry look and sounds overwritten in comparison. Take these lines from ‘Tabitha and Lintel: An Imaginary Tale’ from her 2001 collection Lintel: ‘Snails have crossed the doorstone in the dark night / secretly as nuns, at compline, in procession’. Probably not everyone’s cup of tea, but I like it.

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