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Sunday, January 26, 2014

Robert Sheppard: small presses part two: Bill Griffiths The Book of the Boat and Collected Poems and Sequences

Bill Griffiths’ Collected Poems and Sequences (1981-91) has just come slapping through the door. I had expected this to complete the serial Collecteds, but of course there is another decade’s work yet to be assimilated. To celebrate I want to post the second half of my lecture All the Little Presses that Fly with the Phoenix in the Sunshine: Bill Griffiths and the form of Book of the Boat,’ to give it its full title. It is destined for serious revision as a chapter on book forms (and it is planned to combine it with work on Allen Fisher’s ‘Proposals’ posted in draft form some weeks ago) for a book on formally innovative poetry. It is on Book of the Boat which is reproduced with illustrations in this volume in better quality than I imagined, although I had corresponded with editor Alan Halsey on this matter. There is also a hand-coloured version of a picture of Griffiths’ boat (of the book!) on the cover. So I’ve had to delete a few sentences about my fear for the survival of the images. Of course, it isn’t the pamphlet itself, but as near as we’ll get. My piece is about how the form of the book determined the form of the poem/prose. I dedicate it to the dedicated editor, Alan, and to the generous publisher, Ken Edwards of Reality Street. More on the book (and the first volume here. 

After part one of the lecture (a series of speculations and ideas about poetry publishing), I got down to business with text and Power Point images.

I want to discuss poetic form as it manifests through the medium of poetry and in the medium of the small press pamphlet, in the work of Bill Griffiths (while remembering that I am talking in the middle of a revival of that publishing form, so what I say could be encouragement for poets and publishers alike, now).

Griffiths himself was a keen adopter and adapter of new technologies, even if he hit on the wrong ones at times, as in his exploration of microfiche in the 1970s, but he had assembled an impressive website by the time he died in 2007. He was an active small press publisher (Pirate Press, mainly mimeo, followed by Amra Imprint, mainly photocopied). The 1990-91 ALP catalogue lists 6 of his own books as Amra Imprint publications, ranging from Anglo-Saxon dictionaries and translations (his independent academic specialism) to poem-sequences such as Morning Lands and On Plotinus. Alan Halsey speculates that ‘It is unlikely that ALP would have sustained its impetus … without Griffiths’ energetic contributions under the chairmanship of Bob Cobbing’. (47). (‘Busy’ would be a better word: I think of Bill as quietly emphatic, modestly insistent, rather than ‘energetic’.) Griffiths was also part of the Collected Poems phenomenon: The Mud Fort from Salt in 2004 is an undeclared Collected (or selected) Poems 1984-2004 and the posthumous 2010 Collected Earlier Poems (1966-80) from Reality Street is exactly what it says it is. (Now there's the new one.) One of the editors of the latter, Alan Halsey, has described his experience of dealing with Griffiths’ slippery oeuvre. Of the poem ‘To Johnny Prez’, he remarks, it ‘was frequently reprinted during the next twenty years but I have yet to find two entirely identical texts,’ yet this was common to many poems, and obviously a nightmare for an editor or bibliographer: lines come and go through subsequent reprintings of poems with jaunty indifference to textual stability. This was partly because every re-printing was a potential re-writing, and some re-printings were transpositions of text from one work to another, easily achieved with Pirate Press mimeography. (p.45) More generally, Halsey acknowledges of these early years, Griffiths ‘appears to have used the possibilities – advantages – of short-run mimeo as part of his process of composition, as part of his active poetics, his making of forms. ‘ p. 41 halsey) [1] When Griffiths met Bob Cobbing he recognised ‘a quite remarkable set up, not only a Gestetner duplicator but a scanner that would make stencils from visual material, and best of all, a great deal of experience in producing small books, designing them and even marketing them.’ (Rowe: 174). More than this he recognised a pragmatic and philosophic matching between the forms of poetry and pamphlet form, both in his mentor’s work (Cobbing could write a concrete poem in the morning, publish it, printing it as a visual poem, in the afternoon, and launch it in the evening, performing it as a sound poem) and in his own emerging practice: ‘I was writing poems in small groups and the small press booklet seemed an ideal medium.’ (174) 

This accurately describes Griffiths’ work, from the early A History of the Solar System (1978) which is a stitched folded concertina booklet through to On Plotinus (1990), the latter a photocopied booklet, but whose contextualising commentaries, essays and quotations are missing (and missed) when the poems are simply excerpted, as they are in The Mud Fort, for example. The reading experience is completely different – in fact, the poems become more difficult, and seemingly elliptical. They are formed otherwise. 

 Book of the Boat, which dates from 1988 and is a Writers Forum booklet, though using photocopying rather than mimeo, presents a more radical version of this dilemma. Presented in Japanese folding, with a sea-blue cover, it is subtitled ‘Inland and Blue-water texts with illustrations by the Author’, and the sections are accounts of various encounters with boats from the rhyming hymn of praise on the re-opening of the Blissworth Tunnel, to a brief memorial text in Anglo-Saxon, taken from Archbishop Wulfstan, to record ‘MY BOAT IS BURNED AT UXBRIDGE BOAT CENTRE’. One of Griffiths’ faux naïf  illustrations of the houseboat at the Centre, records the calm before this catastrophic event in Griffiths’ life.

The longest text is entitled ‘LOG OF THE CIMMERIAN’, which records the navigating of the barely sea-worthy Cimmerian from London, around the coast, through one of the busiest shipping lanes, to Brightlingsea in Essex, in July 1986. The motor is unreliable, anchorage and its retrieval dangerous, and the crew consists only of Griffiths and his long-term friend Alf Harman (who appears throughout Griffiths’ work). It makes Iain Sinclair’s account of navigating the same stretch of water in Downriver a few years later look like a trip on a boating pool. I have not yet commented upon the most obvious aspect of the making of this book: it doesn’t just contain hand-drawn images, the text is handwritten by Griffiths. This gives it an air of intimacy. [2] This obviously suits the ‘log’ form described above, but it also allows Griffiths to design the pages himself. The most notable aspect is the adoption by Griffiths of one of the most ancient orthographic approaches to the poetic line, that zero degree determinant of poeticality. Before printing asserted capitalised repeated lines as the normative form for notating this poetic unit, a simple dot was often used to mark a rhythmic unit, in continuous margin-to-margin writing. This was to save papyrus, stone or tablet, or as here, to present an array of poems in as few pages as possible. Griffiths’ handwriting makes him a virtual scribe, so this scriptural convention from the days of manuscript culture is appropriate to this book’s poesis. However, for the modern eye, used to undertaking an eye-scan of saccades to detect the difference between poetry and prose, this may be disconcerting. But once adapted to it, the reader is drawn into its myopic and detailed progress. In fact, the ‘log’ consists of two texts: the chronological ‘LOG OF THE CIMMERIAN (prose)’ as well as the numbered dot-line poems of ‘LOG OF THE CIMMERIAN (Sea-Shanties)’. This spreads across six pages, with prose on the left folio and ‘shanties’ on the right. As ‘shanties’ they are the tuneful accompaniment to a job of marine work, the delivery of Alf’s boat to new moorings. The hairy adventures on the journey in the ‘prose’, are presented in a slightly hammy, but colloquial, rendition:

At 05 30 after a short sleep we awoke to find ourselves quite close to Bradwell-on-Sea, that is, on the wrong side of the Blackwater Estuary, while ahead of us was a formidable array of tankers, fortunately riding at anchor, like us. The captain [Alf] was surly and uncivilized, but managed to locate some blockage of the fuel-filter and never-properly tightened or worked-loose components… At last the outboard worked properly … and powered us ably … into the entrance of the Colne. (20) 

The matching two ‘sea-shanties’ read:

Calling with the horn in my gob, aghast at. four mamothian (sic) tankers lined up, straight at us. till I see them riding to the tide, like us, anchored up.

Spurting & spuming, the lovely motor. steers us across the estuary, crossing. making for the marked Colne channel. (21)     

Neither is a version of the other. The ‘sea-shanties’ narrate the events in compressed imagistic form, leaving aside much of the social interaction and the technicalities of sailing. The ‘formidable array of tankers’ (understating the threat if they had not been at anchor) becomes ‘four mamothian tankers lined up, straight at us’, which embodies the almost atavistic animate, even co-ordinated threat, of the huge tankers’ presence. (The Cimmerian is depicted as a smallish boat in one of Griffiths’ pictures, tossed and rearing, a slave to the waves.) Tony Baker reports Griffiths informing him: ‘Shanties is really a set of haiku in which alliteration replaces syllable count, which doesn’t work in English, as a binding device’. (salt 89) Alliteration, of course, is the binding device of Anglo-Saxon verse, but the haiku form is preserved in the tripartite division of the lines. The biggest shock is not the difference between these discourses – prose and poetry – but the difference in form when one encounters the poems elsewhere in Griffiths’ books, lineated and also revised, though I am not making assumptions about priority of composition.[3] 

The prose ‘log’ ends:

Alf & boat, proud as apples. in the fine-sunned field of. Brightingsea, boat-starred.

Although the boat had passed through the boastful ‘pride of Greenwich’, here the image of the apples (proud in fullness and rotundity) seems apposite, and the Anglo-Saxon-like collocation ‘boat-starred’ suggests the galaxy of sailing-craft at the boat’s final moorings. (BB: 21) The Mud Fort version of the poem, just called ‘Shanties (through London to Essex)’ ends with the same words, bar an ampersand, lineated:

            Alf and boat, proud as apples
            on the fine-sunned field of
            Brightlingsea, boat-starred (MF: 42)

The line-break before ‘Brightlinsea’, the hanging preposition ‘of’ enacts the expectation of arrival. However, in the version in Future Exiles (an anthology of 1992), just entitled ‘Sea Shanties’, the sections are still numbered rather than appearing as continuous verses, and carry initial capital letters and are punctuated. The end, though, runs:

            APPENDIX: A note on the Captain:

            After, proud as an apple,
            In the fine-sunned field of
            Brightlingsea, boat-starred.

Alliteration, note, has guided the revision: ‘Alf’ becomes ‘After’.
Separated from the prose log, the poem in these other showings (lineated, and however numbered or punctuated), becomes more poem-like. The Cimmerian all but disappears. The loss of narrative context engenders poetic autonomy. The expectations that readers carry with them to form lyric structurings during their encounters with such a text come into play. Lineated, the lines are more easily read as alliterative and iterative. Not just sounds but words repeat, no more so than in the opening poem or verse or section:

Locked in in the beauty
Locked into the beauty
Locked in in the beauty (MF 39)

Tony Baker testifies to the haunting power of those opening lines but admits it takes him some time (partly because he is not responding to the poem as a part of Book of the Boat, which he does not know) to realise that ‘locked’ refers to the lock gates of the canals leading to the Thames. But he misses the sinister undertone of the repetition of the word ‘locked’ from a poet whose work is full of protest against incarceration. ‘Knock and lock my sleeping’ is the fourth line of one of his most famous poems, ‘Cycles One: On Dover Borstal’, a poem featuring an institution where Griffiths had spent some time, knocked about and locked up.  (collected earlier p. 64) The beauty is obviously the boat (remember it has a ‘lovely’ motor, when it works) but it is held captive by the canal banks and lock gates. Griffiths admits of rudimentary navigational skills which means the boat beats against its prison walls, the word ‘bound’ neatly illustrating the iterative patterns of sound and the subtle shading of the theme of containment:

Blundering, to be blunt about it
in the darkest bits of the canal, night-bound
bound into a dark alley (MF 39)

The repeating ‘night-bound. bound’ of the unlineated version reads very strangely, without enjambment to separate the repetition, to hold the binding of the over-arching night off from the binding confinement of the London canalbank. Characteristically in the ‘sea shanty’ entunement of the voyage we do not experience our mariners running into ‘some fishermen on the way, who slung a handful or two of maggots in retaliation’ at this point, as we do in the prose. (p. 16 boat ) 

I have looked forward to the day when the beauty of the Anglo-Saxon alliterative haiku sea-shanties would be re-united in our reading experience with the slapstick prose and now they are in the second volume of Griffiths’ Collected. (The orthography is standardised in print, of course.) The original book as a whole, in its idiosyncratic, limited form, presents not just texts for later assimilation in various other publications, bigger and better; its careful dovetailing of form and function of text (of various kinds) and its presentation as a whole (or at least a complete provisional presentation as ‘book’ as its title asserts) offers a reading (and viewing) experience that cannot be had in any other way, that brings us (with image and text bearing the imprint of Griffiths’ own hand, not unlike the manuscript culture that preceded and overlapped the introduction of printing) close to a formal object that demands our readerly encounter to form it in our making. The poesis of text and medium is handed over bodily to the reader who is then responsible for its final form in cognition and recognition. One of the ‘contents’ received is an expanded sense of book making as form. Griffiths’ book is a singular and brilliant example of that, but I suspect some of the small press pamphlets being produced now – as well as, in their different ways, digital enterprises where medium has created the possibility of the medium’s own new message – are engaged in small scale (and small press) counter-enterprises against the world of the big publishers who might (still) not recognise this work – prose as well as verse – as poetry. In its genial scriptural resistance, Griffiths’ book is an anti-commodity, for the ‘labour which made it retains its visibility’. (Ed 1985 alp).

WORKS CITED (in this posting and the one on the small presses preceding this. See the full links to all posts that relate to my work The Meaning of Form here.)

Baker, Tony. ‘From Black Cocoa Out’ in Rowe, Will. ed. The Salt Companion to Bill Griffiths. Cambridge: Salt, 2007: 88-107.
Brinton, Ian, ‘infernal methods or Tigers of Instruction’ (sic), Tears in the Fence 54: Autumn 2011: 100-116
Edwards, K. ‘Writing and Commodities’, Association of Little Presses Catalogue, London: 1985.
Griffiths, Bill. Book of the Boat. London: Writers Forum, 1988.
Griffiths, Bill. ‘Interview with Will Rowe’, in Rowe, Will. ed. The Salt Companion to Bill Griffiths. Cambridge: Salt, 2007: 171-196.
Griffiths, Bill. (with Fisher, Allen, and Catling, Brian) Future Exiles: 3 London Poets. London: Paladin, 1992.
Griffiths, Bill. The Mud Fort. Cambridge: Salt, 2004.
Griffiths, Bill. eds. Halsey, Alan, and Edwards, Ken. Collected Earlier Poems (1966-80). Hastings: Reality Street (with West House Books), 2010
Halsey, Alan. ‘Abysses & Quick Vicissitudes: Some Notes on the Mimeo Editions of Bill Griffiths’, Mimeo Mimeo 4: Winter 2010: 41-50.
(accessed 28th February 2010)
Reed, Brain M. Reed. ‘Visual Experiment and Verbal Performance’, in Perloff, M. and Dworkin, C. The Sound of Poetry/The Poetry of Sound. Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 2009.
Sheppard, R. ‘Imperfect Knowledge’, Catalogue of Little Press Books in Print 1990-1991. London: Assocation of Little Presses, 1990.
Shields, David. Reality Hunger. London: Penguin, 2010
Wheale, Nigel. ‘Uttering Poetry: Small-Press Publication’, in Riley, D. ed. Poets on Writing. Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1992.

See the Special Issue on Griffiths of the Journal of British and Irish Innovative Poetry here.

Update September 2016: For those who can buy The Meaning of Form in Contemporary Innovative Poetry, or order it for libraries, here are the places

[1] Each mimeo page was assembled separately; I remember with my magazine Rock Drill one would have enough pages left over to make incomplete copies: I called them ‘bizzarros’ at the time. Put another way: a jamming accident on the second side printing of a single sheet would deplete the full print run; stencils were not easy to use again. 

[2] In a couple of the multi-voiced performance texts here, it is difficult to read what would otherwise be italics playing off against standard type.

[3] This is the same with many poems in the book, but they are beyond my remit today.