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Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Robert Sheppard: John Seed: England’s derelict archive circa 1990

(The above quartet of links will direct you to my previous accounts of Seed's work.)
Seed reading at The Poetry Buzz

John Seed’s poetry battled against Thatcherism in the only way poetry can, quietly and by, and through, its formal innovations. There are some strong poems that seem to me to exemplify this. Seed shares my sense of poetry as a dark nugget of resistance to the reality principle, though he’d not quite use that language. Something in the era caused all of us to come out of our shells. It is a miracle, though, given this, that he is still able to write a poem of the imagistic clarity of ‘shadow of the gable-end’ (p. 71 of his New and Collected Poems, but also, something reminded me, in Pages 25-32; October 1987, the precursor to this blogzine! ISSN 0951 – 72 43 for those who like such things). That ‘shadow’, we are told, is ‘Sharp against the white wall,’ though it is ‘Fading and shifting’ thus one unfinished aspect of reality (and out of reach of political interference). Seed even allows

                                                                        how beautiful

                        The world seems its transformations


This hymn to unfinish reminds us that perceptual transformation is a model for other kinds of transformation, without stating anything like a political theme. In the above poem ‘transformations’ is the single and foregrounded abstract noun. The word ‘seems’ suggests that beauty itself is incomplete, only half the story, ‘as we/ Begin to leave’.

 Contiguous poems (all bar one reprinted in the same order from his 1993 collection Interior in Open Air (Reality Street)) dally less over shadows and, if not quite foregrounding political realities, abstractions become important in the discourse. The prose poem ‘Brick Lane Market’ (dated September 1984) presents a world of objects (I’m not making any facile equation with ‘Objectivism’; see elsewhere) and suggests the tumble of the famous street market (not perhaps as famous as Petticoat Lane) by presenting the undifferentiated merchandise as one long compound(ed) noun to show they are components in an aggregate, one thing: ‘Denturescrackedjugsbrokenshoespanlids’(53) These are separated from the truly useless ‘Collar studs for shirts long since rags,’ flagging up (or ragging up)‘shifting’ and ‘transformations’ that have destroyed the object’s utility. There is no suggestion that the ‘collar studs’ (used to attach the detachable and separately washable collars to shirts; hence collarless shirts were/are called ‘Grandad shirts’) will become antiques. (That’s another market economy of course. In Letter from the Blackstock Road, written about the same time and in the same city as this poem, I quote this brazen truth from a shop sign: ‘We buy junk and sell antiques.’) In fact, white space, used as carefully in Seed’s prose as in his poetry, separates us from the economy he sees beneath or behind these attempts. Over what is ‘Detritus’ he presents ‘bent figures … sifting garbage in the gutters’; the text reminds us, should we have forgotten, in bourgeois retreat from the scene, where somebody might find somebody else’s ‘dentures’ of use, that they are ‘human figures’ too, like many of the Victorian survivors of the demi-monde that Seed and Mayhew (together) bring to life in his ‘Mayhew’ poems. The central, explanatory abstraction is: ‘Circulation of commodities at the limit’. At the limit of what? At the limit of commodification, certainly (it’s ‘detritus’), and at the limit of human utility, the edge of poverty in other words.

Brick Lane Market
But this scene is not Victorian London. However, the contiguous poem in the collection(s), ‘Along the Thames, Looking from the Roof of the Custom House: October 1849’ emphatically is. (52) The precise dating shares the same digits as the contemporary poem’s, 1984, and is a numerical echo that suggests historical equation or difference. The title is that of a photograph or painting and Seed (though present in neither poem: imagine how the streak of personality would have ruined either) presents a skyscape of variable ‘Busy trade’: numerous types of boats (‘barges’, ‘schooner’ and ‘steamers’, getting ever-larger, more sea-going rather than riverine as the passage progresses), numerous items of ‘trade’: ‘beer’ (! John), ‘fruit’ and more generic ‘crates of hardware’). The verbs are active (‘moving’), adjectives suggest plenitude (‘heaped-up’) and evoke the ‘busy’-ness of business very well (and its specialised vocabulary). Seed’s Marxist commitments are even less attracted to this scene than the one of contemporary destitution (this is important, easy to miss): ‘Busy trade and boundless capital: all corners of the earth ransacked, each for its particular produce.’ ‘Boundless capital’ is, of course, imperialist and colonialist trade, which (as Seed points out in his excellent volume Marx: A Guide for the Perplexed) was the most prescient aspect of Marx’s works of political economy, the virtual prediction of the development of ‘a global working class that produces essential goods mainly for the European and North American markets’, but yet lives in ‘absolute immiseration’. (Seed 2010: 167) In 1849 this ‘market’ was, in the poem, London, the ransacking pivot of the world, the ironic ‘Axis Mundi’ represented by this picture. But, of course, 1848 was a year of Revolutions on the continent, and, more hopefully, Seed reminds us (elsewhere, in his guise as an historian) that Marx commented: ‘The chief result of the revolutionary movement of 1848 is not what the people won, but what they lost – the loss of their illusions’ (quoted p. 41). Somewhere offstage, this near-coincidence of dates (and its echoes of 1984), signals this recognition.

Seed’s poems might be seen as the Benjaminian project of giving a physiognomy to raw dates, whether 1849, 1984, or in Transit Depots (1919-1939), or – as in the dates of poems to which I now turn – 1989 and 1990.

‘New Year’s Eve, 1989, Driving South’ is an unusually allusive poem, and allusive not to Marx or Benjamin’s take on Klee’s angel of history, for example, but to the main tradition of English poetry. The poem begins (and ends) with a reminder of the time in cosmological and psychological terms, with two of Seed’s wonderful hanging indented lines (ranged right from the capitalised full line-beginnings):

                                                            this is the year’s last day

                                                and the decade’s

It ends with an iteration, but one emphasised by the capitals:

                                                This year’s and the day’s

                                                The decade’s

                                                Deep midnight (73)

(The use of ‘night’ in Seed’s work deserves an essay of its own.) Like Donne’s similarly mid-winter ‘A Nocturnall Upon S. Lucies Day’, which begins ‘Tis the yeares midnight, and it is the dayes,’ (Donne 1950: 50), and ends ‘since this/ Both the yeares, and the dayes deep midnight is’ (51), Seed returns to the essential time of year, but whereas Donne’s narrator is consumed with the loss of a lover (‘For I am every dead thing’) which he relates to the winter environment, and he expects no vernal resurrection in his state: ‘I … am the grave,/ Of all, that’s nothing’ (50), Seed’s anomie is both more personal and more socially situated: ‘the dreaming kids …/What kind of English/ History can I tell them?’ (74) As an historian he professionally faces this question; but it is also a reference to the politicisation of the history curriculum in schools (a process that returned under Michael Gove, of course, despite his going… going… Gove….) On the quotidian (and dreaded) post-Christmas long drive back from visiting distant relatives, these questions arise. There are grim jokes:

                        Whatever’s the opposite

                        Of a construction site

                        Distributed North (73)

Deconstruction? No: just plain old fashioned ‘destruction’ will do! Thatcher had no compunction about immiserating the North, her battle with miners and mining communities (her maiden speech in Parliament in the 1960s had been on this subject, revenge for the General Strike in 1926), her deliberate willingness to let Liverpool wither, ‘managed decline’ was their euphemism – it’s all a matter of record now. Back then it was inference:

                        What were we meant

                        To feel if not political

                        Hate?        and failure… (73)

‘Hate’ is capitalised by the line break, allegorised a tad, but the ‘failure’ reminds us of the self-loathing at the heart of the poem (that, drawing on the Donne, we are ‘nothing’). ‘Poverty lies and despair’ is Seed’s equivalent of Donne’s ‘absence, darknesse, death, things which are not’, (50) except they emphatically exist. He quotes his second intertextual reference as comment on this, and serves to underline the cyclical and iterative form of the poem itself: ‘We must suffer them all again’. (73) The allusion is to Auden’s famous (but suppressed) ‘September 1, 1939’ (another poem that carries its date in its title). The word ‘decade’ is inserted into what otherwise appears to be Seed’s opening and closing lines, but it refers to Auden’s similar sense of being at a bad decade’s end (I won’t do my ‘decades actually end in 0 years’ bit here): ‘a low dishonest decade’, the thirties, that lead inevitably to war (three days later than the date of Auden’s title, and he knew it). It’s a great poem (Auden’s best, despite the suppression, and destined not to be forgotten, because of the suppression):

I sit in one of the dives

On Fifty-Second Street

Uncertain and afraid

As the clever hopes expire

Of a low dishonest decade:

Waves of anger and fear

Circulate over the bright

And darkened lands of the earth,

Obsessing our private lives… (Auden 1986: 245)

Like Seed, the political invades the private, ‘the dreaming kids’. There seems no escape, and thus another underlying functionality for the circular and iterative styling of the text: ‘Where are we headed?/ Not even exile.’ (74) At least one question is answered. The poem is pessimistic.

Seed’s intertextual use of William Wordsworth and Spenser (and/or Eliot) in ‘Crossing Westminster Bridge, Nights, November 1990’ could be similarly analysed, though the comic ending (which I love):

Sweet Thames

            wherever you’ve come from

Fuck off (78) 

has less resonance than the allegorical force of the drive south (away from the blighted North) of the earlier poem. Of course, ‘wherever you’ve come from’ might be questioning which source (a suitable riverine metaphor) the words have come from: Spenser’s glorification of London presaging a royal wedding day or Eliot’s regret at the loss of all that tat in personal feeling as black as Donne’s, but deeply conservative in its social focus. ‘Fuck off’ is a response to those literary sources, as well as an expression of the ‘political/Hate’ of the earlier poem, the reality of ‘England’s derelict /Archive 1990’. (77)

A Personal Postscript

The house on the left looks extraordinarily like the one we lived in, Lessignham Ave, Tooting

Inserted into New and Collected Poems is an untitled piece, dedicated to Patricia Farrell and myself. It was excluded from Interior in Open Air probably because it is slight, a moonlit epiphany of ‘the precision/ Of light     on asphalt crystal’, where the present disperses into the ‘future we/ Disappear into’. The scene is depopulated, no humans of any kind, just the recording of place and time:


On the turn of Lessingham Avenue SW18 (sic)


November 24th 1990 (79)

As to place: Lessingham Ave, where Patricia and I lived in Tooting, is actually in SW17 (even ‘on the turn’ I think, into the main road). As for time: It’s the same month and year as the Westminster Bridge poem, but more specifically, it’s nearly a quarter to ten and it’s a Saturday. One of our ‘legendary’ London parties is referred to here, but not the now-quite-frequently-referred-to ‘Smallest Poetry Festival in the World’ (that was 4 years later, give or take ten days), but the one recorded in my journal thus:

Tuesday 27th November [1990]: Thatcher resigned last week, on Thursday. By lunchtime, I’d re-written ‘The Poll Tax Blues’ to take account of her sudden fall: ‘Thatcher’s gone but she should be dead./ [See here.] I want her to suffer like we’ve all bled.’ I needed it for our party on Saturday, when Chris [Baldwin] and Tony [Parsons] and I [i.e. our acoustic blues trio Little Albert Fly] did our full set (with some improvisations) for the delight of our guests (none of whom I really spoke to, but it was good to see Mick Parsons and Bob Cobbing; all the Alfords and Peter Tingey; John Muckle and Chloë Homewood, to juxtapose parts of the guest-list). The fall of Thatcher was part of the rejoicing: a sudden and calamitous removal by the ‘men in grey suits’ who will take over. I am under no illusion … Thatcherism has permanently altered the shape of this country and that even a change of government which, temporarily at least, seems less likely now, would not be able to reverse a good number of ‘achievements’. But even a change of Tory leader – they’re voting today – would be preferable. (Only just, probably).

That’s the unstated context of Seed’s

                                    Tense    presence

                                                the future we

                        Disappear into

as he disappeared into the Tooting night: we were all ‘No-one’ as far the Tory government was concerned, whoever we suspected would next lead it. In fact, some of the worst excesses of Thatcherism occurred after her ‘fall’.

As it was long before we were there

A Second Personal Postscript

It occurs to me now that ‘New Year’s Eve, 1989, Driving South’ was written (or written about events that occurred) three days after the day I began work on Twentieth CenturyBlues. Perhaps somebody should do something with that coincidence. On that day I drafted ‘Melting Borders’ which surrealised the news where Seed ponders over it, and serves as a ‘Preface’ to the next 11 years of work (in which there are a couple of poems dedicated to Seed, one of course in the interwoven text(s) of Transit Depots/ Empty Diaries, by Seed and Sheppard which were published by Ship of Fools in 1992, with images by Patricia Farrell). Here it is (and it should appear in my selected poems too):

Empty Diary 1926

For John Seed 1

We push cars on their sides, jeering

them out

                 coal lorries with police guards

smoulder outside the depot’s gates and

nervous clerks in tin hats salute débutantes

peeling spuds with bloodless fingers:

history’s tight membrane

the age’s leaking sewer,

revolution, spirits one broken machine gun in

a pram

hold out

until the police clear the Broadway for

the British Gazette

for one instant

Baldwin’s hanged and we call this