In order to write public poetry you need two things - the 'given' being a sufficient poetic skill: an event of importance that the wider community knows reasonably well; and a gift for capturing the contemporary relevant to the time of the event. Andy Croft's poem has these essential attributes. He is a man of his time, and deeply involved in his event, namely, 'the Great North half-marathon run'. For a public poem, however, to continue to speak to succeeding generations, the event which it celebrates has to be continuingly memorable or made thus memorable. Homer made an obscure war a symbol of all wars. Virgil made the founding of an imperial city the mythological birthing of all imperial cities. Milton beautifully retold the story of Genesis from the Hebrew bible. Andy Croft has, most cleverly, chosen an annual event for his locality; and half-marathons, seem on-going events from Phiddipides' time to now, and into the future one may suppose, the other requirement of contemporary detail remains, in his poem as in so many, problematical. Homer's localised detail became universalised through the world-shaking growth of Ancient Greece's civilizing genius, followed by the Roman imperial take-over, the Arab-assisted re-discovery of his work, and the continual use for thousands of years of the Iliad and Odyssey as scripture-fodder, if I may be forgiven so secular a phrase. By contrast, Milton hid his 'contemporary relevance' in allegory, so that the events of his time remained sub-textual. In the second requirement - i.e. that of continuing to speak to future generations and being heard - Great North like The Dunciad (pt.IV perhaps excepted) will soon need to creak with scholarly footnotes. Because, while the event may continue to be celebrated, it will need continuous re-translation by future pens. But to the poem itself: the somewhat eccentric product of the eccentric fact that 'Andy Croft was Poet-in-Residence on the Great North Run 2000'. He ran the race; and was funded to do so. The poem is divided into 13 sections covering the start of the race and each of the following single miles. It is written throughout in rhyme, a,b,a,b, in lines of loose but sinuous pentameter. The rhyming is as brilliantly unpredictable as that in Byron. Here are some of them: 'run the show'/'La Rochefoucauld'; 'Atlanta/'a canter'; 'play the hero'/'Rio de Janeiro'; 'step'/'schlep'; 'photo'/'in toto'; and here are a couple of examples of the full line in action:
This strange desire to run and run and run Belongs to some long centuries dead Greek farmer; If you think distance-running's not much fun You should try running round in heavy armour!and,
In short, this run contains a kind of pattern, Co-operative, inclusive and self-taught, A vision where all hierarchies flatten, And rank and class and deference count for nought.Andy Croft belongs to the long tradition of English nonconformist radicalism, from Bunyan to Bevin. The poem is full of swipes at our newly privatised world and, as he neatly puts it, this John Lilburn sort of Leveller Poet that he is: 'That past makes better sense than most tomorrows'. The most recent past of that 'past' being that of Keir Hardie and the coal mines of the north:
When class was class, and poor was bloody poor, When South was South, and rich was bloody rich...What does not emerge from these limited quotes is the fuller persona of this Utopian autodidact: a witty, at times humorous, gently sermonising and classically-learned man. I suspect, too, a marxist-communist past; yet not one for whom art has been at all subsumed under propaganda. In fact, in Andy Croft the democrat has won out over the ideologue. As he puts it in his brief forward to this elegant pocket sized book: 'Half-marathon running is a very democratic activity...In this respect it seems to me to serve as a good model for the arts, for politics and civil society - and for poetry.' Clearly a public poet and one who may do greater things than Great North if he can resolve some of the intractable difficulties in the genre. He clearly knows and admires the poets who have.
Already things begin to look different. And they look different again when we follow Smart's own title and consider the Lamb. Lambs feature frequently in the Bible, but are almost all literally lambs and usually intended for sacrifice. The expression The Lamb of God, as a sacrificial image which is so central to Christian belief and terminology, is found only in the writings of St John. "Behold the Lamb of God, which takes away the sins of the world" (John 1:25). It is then in Revelation that the image is fully developed and this appears to have been Smart's starting point.
Revelation 7:9 reads, "After this I beheld, and, lo, a great multitude, which no man could number, of all nations, and kindreds, and people, and tongues, stood before the throne, and praised the lamb..."
And earlier 5:13, "And every creature which is in heaven, and on the earth, and under the earth, and such as are in the sea, and all that are in them, heard I saying, Blessing, and honour, and glory, and power, be unto him that sitteth upon the throne, and unto the Lamb for ever and ever."
When we look at the opening of Jubilate Agno with this in mind we see that we are witnessing John's Revelation before the throne of God, with a man and a creature stepping forward together to praise the Lord and the Lamb, and each man has chosen to come forward with a creature he can identify with and speak for. First, as is right and proper, come the Patriarchs. Abraham steps forward with a ram (Genesis 22), Balaam with an ass (Numbers 22) and Daniel with a lion (Daniel 6).
Next come the Priests, but Smart, being such an animal lover, will not have them sacrifice their animals; they sanctify them and let them go free.
"Let Aaron, the high priest, sanctify a bull, and let him go free to the Lord and Giver of Life." (A 15)
After the Priests come the Politicians and Military leaders, but never a word of war; again a benevolent design is at work here.
The procession goes on and the names continue until at line 112 this opening section comes to an end. "Let Dan rejoice with the Blackbird, who praises God with all his heart, and biddeth be of good cheer."
There have been moments of beauty, curiosity and lyricism, but if we ask ourselves where it has all got us, we would have to say: Not very far. The conception, sublime as it was, was always too static to allow of any forward movement. Once all these men and all these creatures have presented themselves before the throne of the Lamb, what are they to do? They have entered, we presume, into eternity and at the beginning of Smart's Seatonian poem on that topic he had had to admit that it was 'INCOMPREHENSIBLE'.
My search was for unity. For the unity of love and the vision of love I found a parallel in ancient myth, in the love story of Osiris and Isis, which bound nature and love and regeneration, and thus reconciled the individual with the great cycles of nature. This poem was "Flight into Reality" and is my most successful long poem. It is 2,100 lines long and is in terza rima. The metre is iambic pentameter with some variation. My next most successful long poem was "Message in a Pill Bottle" which is written in seven sets of seven sonnets and has as its theme the spiritual desolation of modern medicine. The third long poem written at the same time (in fact all my long poems were written in an energetic burst around 1987) had as its theme sexual politics, and was abandoned, as it attempted to reconcile romanticism and realism. Parts were rescued, re-written over and over - this poem was first entitled "Betrayal into Origin", then titled "Dancing and Revolution in the 'Sixties" and writing it was a bit like knitting a very recalcitrant sock, with a set number of stitches - 10 lines to every verse - with varied metrical pattern in some stanzas - there are a lot of slipped stitches, stitches (stresses) carried over, syncopations of rhythm, and then turning the heel, the narrative, which had several re-castings until finally the ending threw a unity over the whole proceedings. Another long poem, "THe Wake of Wonder" also 49 sonnets, is the reflections of the consumerist couple and the world view they shared which made their future and the future of the planet questionable. There are echoes of archaic diction in this long poem, and it remains an unresolved work. I have incorporated some of the stanzas into a verse play called "Does One Make a Difference?" but this needs to be re-written as a drama. Therefore these last two works are incomplete and need a lot of work. I am hoping to publish the first three long poems together in the Spring of 2002. So anyone interested please contact me on 00 3531 278 0037.
I am walking along the greensward at Angmering-on-Sea in West Sussex, its long lawn stretch bordered by tamarisks. It is July 1980, and I have recently survived finals at Oxford. And this moment, and its wave have been building for some time already, so that doing the exam work became more and more arduous. I didn't want to dissect, deconstruct and otherwise theorize: I wanted to write. I wanted the thing itself.
Coming to the wooden turnstile gate (I can still see the exact spot, the grass worn to dry sandy-coloured earth) I saw it: a long episodic epic unfolding - like the image - over the years, into the future...but not as a single monumental poem, instead an intention, a context and a shaping spirit made up of individual poems (and styles, and voices), sequences, sections and subsections: books and chapters. It was a journey, and its whole direction? To the spirit, to the Divine, the Source (where else was there to go?), Home. Most importantly it was an evolutionary journey, composed as much of shed skin as poems that could also stand the test of time, even if they were of their time, and not the restless shifting edge of the present with its ever-new demands - to MAKE IT NEW, but more importantly, to be renewed from within.
I knew I was in the Romantic tradition from the time I first read 'Ode to the West Wind': that energy, that quickening that pointed to an intenser and realer life. And Wordsworth's Prelude taught me narrative and, (like no other poem) a totality of experiential expression within its memorable sustained images. (Wordsworth was cinema, was Andrei Tarkovsky years before his time - I also loved cinema which became a major influence). The other thing was simply the greatness of poetry that I felt was needing to be re-stated for our time, and in a renewed context: the spiritual journey, the only journey which goes anywhere.
Long poems need strong glue to hold them together: I was aware too of many longer poems that had either not been completed (The Cantos, Paterson), or which had collapsed into obscurity (Ronald Duncan's Man), or both. The Cantos especially was a warning as well as a vast inspiration: 'this house has burnt down'.
Sustaining a long poem over years takes skill as well as will: it's as important to know when to coast as it is to close the lab door and turn up the heat. It's important to realize that at times it is a burden you cannot bear, precisely because it is more than you (much more), by definition. I began with what you need to write at length: a certain afflatus I have been attacked for (Andrew Duncan, no relation of Ronald Duncan), a rash conviction, and most of all an absurd faith in how things would (somehow) work out. That faith has moved mountains, and at levelling times it looks like a highwire walk I didn't even see was under my feet.
I haven't always got it right, either: while I've had faith I'd know which were the important poems, the ones that had to be included, I've also erred on the side of thoroughness (Duncan would say egotism), which is easier to do when you can't fully step out of the picture. Self-editing a long poem means there's further to walk 'in', to really engage, and also further to walk out to see round the building. About 7 per cent of what I included in the 1988 edition of books 1-5 published by Geoffrey Godbert at The Diamond Press I would now definitely leave out.
Thoroughness is the alchemy that takes place in the engine room of change. And because my poem is a work-in-progress that (hopefully) enacts its progress, there is unevenness. I have also used as many styles as I can across the whole available range, believing like Yeats in inner development as well as guidance and rebellious against the idea that a poet has a single 'voice' which he or she 'finds'. That is more like a recipe for endless self repetition, however pyrotechnic, that is more likely to become a cul-de-sac in the end.
What has been important to me is to experiment, so beside the outrageous whale of the main work (which now runs to over 1000 pages) there are a "series of pilot fish, one-offs like Trwyn Meditations or most recently Alchemy of the Invisible (with abstract painter Jenny Poretsky Lee) which have stopped me getting stuck in the monumental, and which have enabled me to open new doors. Most significant for me among these has been improvisation, learning to work direct from the voice itself onto tape. These threads have then altered the weave, which always borders on the unknown.
Preoccupations: to reach what I call 'feeling language' recognising language as the medium, but not the thing itself. Language like stained glass is what the spirit comes through. To believe that poems are only made of language is precisely the ceiling we have to raise. Poems are sound-vibrational bodies transmitting their energy and effect (for better or worse). This relates to my second main area whch has been to bridge the Oral and the literary - also in terms of performance, so that the poem is speakable (always my final test for any poem). Speakable also means communicable and so communicative, because there's a world out there fortunately not merely composed of literati.
Thirdly, aesthetics. I have always believed that poetry is in the living air all around us and not just on the page, that it manifests, or strikes (like lightning) as spiritual reality, and is symbolized in the natural world. That is a shamanic view at the heart of a book like the I Ching, it is also a tradition that both Blake and Yeats (as well as Kathleen Raine) are in.
What that also means is that in the form and style of what I do I am always trying to come as close as possible to the experience itself, in tone, shape and extent: that is poetry in a dynamic universe mirroring what we are part of. For me poetry is intense engagement not merely on a mental level, like performance it is the whole of the body as well and its strange transparent heart.
Fourthly, length. I have already mentioned how the work has accumulated in its deep leaf drift, autumnal as finished work always is. The Great Return contains poems of all sizes from the haiku to the canto, the sonnet and the improvisation, and for me it is best symbolized by its longest single element, the blank verse Pilgrimage poem that was five months (daily) in the writing, with all its peaks and troughs. And still the end of it is beyond my sight, even as it could as abruptly end - and in all reality be only a fragment because that is all we can be at this level, where life is as much about loss as it is achievement, and where the spirit is always beyond us even as we may realize that we have learned not just to write, but (like Rumi) to dance; not just to record, but to invoke and celebrate, not just to speak of our own accord, but say what most of all needs to be said.
Avebury, Richard Burns, Anvil Press/Routledge, 1972.
Angels, Richard Burns, Los Poetry Press, 1979.
Tree, Richard Burns, Menard Press, 1980.
Croft Woods, Richard Burns, Los Poetry Press, 1999.
The Floor of Heaven, John Tranter, Arc Publications, 2000.
Killing Time, Simon Armitage, Faber & Faber, 2000.
Cosmologia, Eric Ratcliffe, Four Quarters Press, 2000.
Great North, Andy Croft, Iron Press, 2001.
Time's Fool, Glyn Maxwell, Picador, 2001.
Gone Where Anselmo Went, Steve Sneyd, Fire No. 15, 2001.
The Manager, Richard Burns, Elliott & Thompson, 2001.
Ice, John Barnie, Gomer Press, 2001.
Cotton Candy Kid and the Faustian Wolf, Sandra Lester, QQ Press, 2002.
When my co-editor took on the full burden of the two previous newsletters because of my Millennium Year of the Artist Residency, I was very thankful. But neither of us guessed how soon he would assume an even larger burden as editor of the newly revived The London Magazine. He remains co-editor of this newsletter, but by way of expressing my gratitude for his work in nos. 9 & 10, I have assumed primary responsibility for this issue....William Oxley
This newletter is produced by Acumen Publications, 6 The Mount, Higher Furzeham, Brixham, South Devon TQ5 8QY, UK.