Evading the canon

An Andrew Crozier Reader, ed. Ian Brinton (276pp, £18.95, Carcanet)

The last 15 years have seen a bumper crop of collected poems by some of our senior or deceased innovative poets, but this book takes that further by offering a Reader. So we get the poems, of course, but we also get some critical prose, and - interleaved between both - we get commentary from the editor, Ian Brinton, as well as commentary by others as background. These intrusions sometimes don't leave Andrew Crozier's poems room to breathe on their own. Letters from fellow poets inevitably praise, and snippets from interviews or reproductions of postcards used in the making of poems, move imperceptibly from poetics to interpretation. I offer this as a warning to prospective readers (of which I hope there will be many) in their navigation of this essential and well-edited volume, because this material is important in illuminating the poems and in presenting the many contexts in which Crozier's work appears, but some might want to avoid it on first reading.

Thus we have a historicised Crozier. We read the early faultless exercises in American projectivism (both before and after he studied with Charles Olson at Buffalo). We read of his famous re-discovery of Carl Rakosi via some late introductions to the work and writings on Objectivism generally (including one of the best assessments of George Oppen's early work). We see him moving closer to other members of the so-called Cambridge School (J.H. Prynne and Douglas Oliver, for example), and we witness a strange and unexplained petering out of the creative work after the 1990s (though there are robust critical writings from this century). 

I am still drawn to the excellent sequences of the 1970s as primary evidence of his importance (though I pass over
Printed Circuit which Veronica Forrest-Thomson lambasted in Poetic Artifice. Never attempt to copy Prynne.) The Veil Poem of 1971-2 we are told, via the commentaries, amount to 10 responses to 10 postcards of Islamic architecture. I've previously read the sequence as a kind of domestic meditation in post-Olsonian process, via English Romanticism, and I still read it that way, despite the recognisable presence of 'arches' and 'carpets' from the images. The lines 'How can I know anything so grand/ but from a postcard' read less ironically, but they proclaim a perceptive balance. The images are 'banal and/ awful as any literal image'. After all, the 10 poems sign off with a cosmic sweep that can be read as a local corrective to the global pretensions of the poems' donnˇes:

                          The dust beneath my
     fingernails is all the wisdom I have
     to take with me upstairs to my wife.

This still reads like Coleridge of 'Frost at Midnight' filtered through A.N. Whitehead, shudderingly beautiful.

Pleats, which was written in 1974, takes this materialist mysticism further, as Douglas Oliver noted in a letter of the time, calling it a 'quasi-day-to-day history'; its 'insights ... spread out into a wider dimension', including the domestic as notional and notational experience: 'Good morning 7 a.m.../Lewes 3858'. (It seems odd that in the commentary, which is so precise about geographical location in Crozier's earlier life, we are never told he moved to Lewes to work for many years at the nearby Sussex University.) Indeed, much of this notebook-like sequence seems to be 'about' moving house, 'Closing the attic door on memory'. But amid the quotidian there is a growing sense of the role of language in constructing reality. One prose passage offers a meta-discourse on this improvisational 'dummy book without language': 'Every day possibilities suggest themselves and I neglect some or omit to enter them so the book lacks one kind of fullness that I restore as I go along' by adding passages from elsewhere (I assume). 'There is no palimpsest writing in the end.'
For a writer aware of procedure almost on an Oulipo level (and in one of the interview excerpts here he does use the Oulipean word 'constraint') it is no surprise that
High Zero, a group of 24 poems of 24 lines each, topped and tailed with parodies of Prynne and John James, was written by an unusual procedure. Like a painter (I suppose) working on numerous canvases at once, he wrote all the lines 1, then 2, then 3, etc... until the poems were complete. Whether it needed the chummy in-crowd nodding of the framing poems (the title is a combination of titles by Prynne and James), or indeed needed the painterly technique (or, more precisely, whether a reader needs to know any of this), this sequence is a richly metaphorical examination of the perceptual and imaginational components of the day to day:

     Rain drips in the casement
                       of an outdoor life
                from day to day bonheur
     where condensation clings as though breath
     would fly through the window
                    still moving slowly
     in a gathering wave at the meniscus
            ready to launch itself
     in immaculate newness.   

Of course, given the method, the poem was itself written day to day, serially. Between each enjambment (and in one of the interviews Crozier is insistent upon the metrical integrity of individual lines) lies the writing of 23 other lines from 23 other unfinished poems. It is quite remarkable in its 'immaculate newness'.

There are both excellent and less-achieved isolated poems throughout this book but Crozier thought the crowning glory of his poetry was his sequence from the 1990s, 'Free Running Bitch' which coalesces many thematic strands, while (as far as I can see) eschewing the techniques of earlier pieces. From his early encounter with American poetry he inherited an insistence upon the
spoken voice (he is sceptical in interview about claims for the musicality of language) which he settles into a mode that is capable of calm and emphasis, wonder and despair. House moving has been superseded by house clearance, it seems. He refuses to read (his mother's?) school

                                   exercise book old
     through disuse, its ruled feint lines still a blank
     history of the world, covered in red like
     an old globe for imperial infants with
     warnings on traffic, tables for everything, and an
     illegible map of home. Don't run, don't pass,
     don't play, don't follow, don't hang on, don't forget.

The prohibitions on the back cover of the exercise book ('warnings on traffic ... Don't run') metamorphose into the narrator's own finely-balanced decision to relinquish the pull of the past whilst refusing to forget it: 'don't hang on, don't forget'. 'Blank/ history' and 'illegible map' suggest the fragility involved.

Among the critical prose there are a number of pieces on British poetry. Although Crozier's much-quoted (by me anyway!) 'Thrills and Frills' attack upon what I call the Movement Orthodoxy is not included here, there is a welcome and summarising update, 'Resting on Laurels', which traces the adventure of canonical poetry in Britain through to the millennium, taking Raine and Armitage as representative figures (we can only have one such figure per decade, he comments). Of the 'New Poetry' of the 1990s he snarls, 'Such poetry was only new in the sense that it was waiting to be recuperated by the canon, prime cuts resting on Movement laurels.' Pitch against this self-regulating mechanism his rediscovery and re-animation of the isolated Rakosi and you can see why he would feel like this. He writes with feeling of Rakosi (and perhaps of himself), 'A writing block or inhibition' - particularly professional work getting in the way of writing - 'is part of the phenomenology of writing.' Like a number of writers (I'm thinking of Peter Riley with Nicholas Moore) he has re-examined the reviled 1940s to find a significant writer who was eclipsed by the Movement Orthodoxy: in Crozier's case, J.F. Hendry, whom he praises for negotiating politics at the level of experience, 'the work of a complex, absorptive mind'. But his piece on Roy Fisher's
A Furnace negotiates the readings of Donald Davie on Fisher's early work and sees a materialist mysticism in Fisher's 'making of identities through the action of signs when not subjected to authority, the authority above all of time.' It might be a little too easy to say that this describes Crozier's work too, but there is clearly a relationship between Fisher's domestic phenomenological defamiliarisations and Crozier's 'day to day bonheur' that evades (or ignores) the canon.

     © Robert Sheppard 2012