selected letters 1990

August 5th 1990

Dear P

 I had a good time in London there at Bob Cobbing's 70th birthday thrash and doing some research. The Rationalist Press Association's manager Nicolas Walter in Islington High Street is a man well worth meeting. He published a book earlier this year Blasphemy Ancient and Modern under the RPA imprint, and also gave me a book of essays on John M. Robertson published by Pemberton (I think another RPA front) in 1987. Both well worth a read. A very obliging man himself, Nicolas Walter, photocopied masses of stuff for me that he's going to be giving to the Bodliean. This amongst other things has helped me at my leisure decipher some of the less legible writers of letters to Henry Salt regarding his 1889 biography: so after 13 years (last time I was in the RPA) the problem of this bloody place called "Allace" that Thomson's father had died in, is solved. All sorts of maritime sources for disabled sailors etc had been consulted, without success. No wonder. Not "Allace", though it first looks like it - but it's Arran!

 [The manuscripts of Henry Salt's notes taken during his interviews with people for B.V. Thomson's biography were as mentioned subsequently passed from the RPA to the Bodleian Library Oxford. At the time of this letter I was working on completion of my own biograph of  B.V Places of the Mind published by Cape three years later.]

December 4th 1990

 Dear D

A very pleasant surprise, getting your letter and lecture. I would have replied sooner only the schedule I'm on to finish my Thomson book takes a big chunk of each day, so I'm constantly behind with any other business. It's supposed to be done for the end of the year but it'll be the end of spring coming into May I'd say before I can finally put all the stuff under the bed, though I'd probably have to jack the bed up about two feet to do that. It's enjoyable though, even the excitement I suppose of tightrope walking the more difficult bits, once you see you're getting there and it's the right way to cross. I've been connected with a projected work on Thomson for such a long time it's going to be a very strange feeling for me to have it completed. Now's the time though with Radical Renfrew by, it'll fit.

Thanks for what you say about my work. I would never have described myself as "avante-garde" though for goodness sake, 'tis never a word I would countenance. I suppose given my having organised events like the Sound & Syntax festival, and my involvement with tape recorders and collage... I don't know: such beasties have been around so long, people still think of Webern & Schoenberg in terms of contemporary music at some festivals maybe. Non-narrative, not having the literary equivalent of tonality? The comfort of a sense of structural resolution that posits a sign as conveying a sense of synthesis? My head's too scrambled after a morning and more at my Amstrad to work at this clearly. Whatever it is, it's whether a thing works with me that counts, though that leaves all the scope as regards communicating what I mean by that. The people in Sound & Syntax, for instance - Ruhm, Jandl, Cobbing, Rothenberg, Chopin: to some these are a kind of "avante garde" to others they're a bunch of wankers, to many probably both, if they've heard them. To me they were people simply whose expression was an authentic part of themselves, an essential part that couldn't be any other way. They were their work, and people in Scotland hadn't heard them, which is why I arranged the thing.

I remember there was one Canadian guy who enveigled his way onto the programme. If you were organising a festival then (1977) there were busloads of them being sent abroad by their Arts Council.I hadn't invited him but I was persuaded to let him on in a ragbag session at the end. Anyway he was awful: slick, obviously knew all his Kurt Schwitters, obviously thought here he was among the "avante garde". I remember saying to someone how I'd have loved to have ended the festival with a rifle shot from the back of the hall. He was "in relationship to the idea of his work" and all that self-consciously "avante garde" stuff. With Bob Cobbing for instance I just relax when he starts up, there's a kind of "Thank God for Bob" goes through me, it's not countermanding anything specifically or existing in that parasitical in-relation-to-something- that-the-work-isn't mode, which could only have an interest span of about five minutes.

Harrison I just can't be bloody bothered with. Far too precious, all this mystery of his working class daddy stuff, the poet's suffering soul looking back at his bunnit-clad childhood through a hole in his degree form. A kind of higher form of Malcolm Muggeridge, that type of the poet in a sacred breathless moment allowing himself to be snapped by his own camera in the act of seeing-beneath- the-surface. Keeps the education industry going certainly: the art of moral government, of a limited moral governance. That "V" poem for instance; how ironic that the tabloids should rail and the liberals proclaim about the poem as having something to do with freedom of expression. The poem to me presents a kind of simpering would-be Hamlet figure congratulating himself on his own sensitivity by presenting this banal "transformation" of graffiti into Triumphal Image. A spurious moral synthesis imposed on the particulars again: time for bed, said Zebedee. It's wholly loaded against the insensitivity of The Boors In Their Boorish Language etc. - another example of that school of British poetry which consists of poems whose real title ought to be "The Problem of Them". Fuck me, Yorick. Maybe his translations stand up better, I don't know them.

Of Mahon I've always thought that Wexford Shed is a tremendous poem, certainly the poem that has got home to me most of the Irish School productions of recent decades. Heaney I like best at his "simplest" in poems like A Policeman Calls or the sonnet about taking the washing in with his mother. Of the poetry books which have appeared this year the ones I have welcomed most have been Carcanet's paperback (with some editorial corrections from the bound, apparently) of Clare's Midsummer Cushion, also the little Greville Press booklet of W.S. Graham's uncollected poems. Another source of some excitement for me was in transcribing when in Oxford recently an unpublished translation by Thomson of Novalis's "Hymns to the Night". Michael Schmidt has expressed an interest in seeing it for his magazine, when I can get time to type it all up.

Please when you're next in Glasgow phone me, or better still phone me before you come down and we can meet. Are you in Edinburgh much? I've some business to do there in the PRO and the National Library. Maybe if you were going to be doing some work in Edinburgh I could time my own visit to coincide and we could meet in the evening? Anyway thanks for writing. Forgive my Harrison strictures, I'm just saying what I feel and have no wish to identify myself as a member of an Anti-Harrison Group or any other poetical coalition for that matter.


LETTERS 1991 - 1992


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