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Review: A Cure for Woodness, by Michael Haslam

Michael Haslam's poetry is the result of conflicting forces. Coming through Cambridge he must have taken on a lot of Continental (structuralist / idealist etc.) versions of culture which operate against meaning and content in literature, implying a poetry which conceals rather than declares, in the service of a totality which language can only approach indirectly by codes and displacements of sense. The work of poetry there is to replace saying and seeing with verbal obstructions and gaps, to inaugurate a subliminal process of coherence and discovery behind, rather than through or with, the text before you. It is also a belief which places poetry above all other discourses for its access to a greater reality through these occulted signings and this ambition sometimes shows strongly in Haslam's ponderings. The symbolical methods of Yeats and Pound of course fed themselves into this and it was not all denunciatory theory, but it did encourage intuited verbal processes aimed at the world as by a blindfolded archer, and thus liable to problems of difficulty to the point of impossibility. When Haslam writes the phrase vanilla curlew and so on (p.25) he is somewhere in all this.

Returning to the north of England, to live off the edge of a small mill-town in the Calder Valley where he has been ever since, he must have encountered different forces. The atmosphere of Cambridge is after all avowedly elitist and inclined to be puritanical, and I think Haslam next inhabited something like a New Age atmosphere which with its pursuit of the Celtic legends, open sexuality, and the general search for a new, libertarian, expanded or alternative vision of reality demanded more connected and explicit formulations, though with a quasi-religious aspect which would harmonise freely with the chants of the college priests. The first section of A Whole Bauble shows this process of assimilation and exploration at work as it devolves into lyrical and narrative aspects. Continual Song is the most sustained and cohering performance in the synthesis he achieved out of these changes.

But I don't think this ideological confrontation is the only, or main, point. The world he inhabited, and still does, was essentially local, and it was there that he found his materials, or it was to there that he brought them home (Continual Song seems to be quite a lot involved with sea-shores, which recur from time to time in later work). As against the universalising weight and didactic claims of symbolist and post-symbolist poetries he is more like, in the best sense, a parochial poet. I am reminded of the antagonism between Yeats and Patrick Kavanagh, who could be heard as saying You glorify the peasant for a world-view and a national ethnicity; I am a peasant, in field or in street, and I'll tell you what it's actually like, and what our unendorsed powers of thought and imagination can achieve exactly where we are. It also seems appropriate to this comparison that Yeats and his gang remained adherents of the Protestant Ascendancy, whereas Kavanagh spoke out of Roman Catholicism. Perhaps Haslam is like an intermediary figure such as Austin dark, concerned to reach contemporary (urban) realities in his poetry, under an embroidered cloak of assonance.

Be that as it may, the parochial in his poetry is most clearly seen as an offer to the reader of a real ground, a life being lived, interspersed pictures of himself washing up, walking to the pub..., being there at Foster Clough (as anybody else might) - a kind of punctuation to the poems which guards them against being so bogged in philosophy or music that the self image gets over-blown, for these glimpses of the real are usually retractive and self-deflating. As for the anti-parochial force, the Nietzschean aria via King's Parade, the spirituality, while explicit enough in quite large quantity, its force becomes word-centred, and forms the leading features of his style. However dizzy it makes us there is no mistaking the characteristic Haslamic process: the rhythms and tones of alliterative verse, balladic assonance, echoes rhymes puns and repetitions constantly thrusting the writing forwards to the extent that he sometimes seems to surrender himself to it, and trusts the linguistic surface to lead the poem onwards, trusting its music to locate its sense. The linguistic resource is highly sophisticated, always liable to burst into Latin when the occasion demands or to deploy meticulous abstractions. But there is also a parochial vocabulary which harmonises perfectly with this, not only the local terms (delph, dough, sike, etc.) but also the vocabularies of flora and fauna, geology and topography, the gritstone boulders, the delph in Spring... plus too the terms of manual trades and what you might call common vulgar words like piss (it's remarkable how often urinating is mentioned). So there is a kind of concretion of more-or-less recherché usages, great lumps of language from all over the place like lumps of conglomerate, speaking of a determined difference, a singular position staked out in the world.

For this poetical texture he has created stands for something. Even before we have begun to worry about the messages passing through this substance, it stands for quite a lot. It stands for the right to individuality to the point of eccentricity, the validity of a cultural existence separated from the centres of power, the union of the most sophisticated and the most basic of discourses through openness of self declaration, the democratic right to be well-read or even an 'intellectual' outside of the categories of a class structure - it says that if you immerse yourself in the life lived in a small Pennine town or anywhere in the sticks you don't thereby uneducate yourself. Rather you are offered fields of exploration. And it speaks of the rightful recourse to natural beauty for the good of the soul, and a lot more. The discourse that passes through it is the story of Michael Haslam, his quests, disappointments, triumphs etc.

A poetry which is the product of conflicts will always be troubled by uncertainties, will wobble this way and that, and there has always been a lot of re-writing. A Cure for Woodness begins with a prose introduction expressing a new worry about authenticity suggesting a turn away from the local focus towards the self as such (I think Kavanagh took such a turn in his later poetry). Reviewing his oeuvre he laments his failure to break with rhyme and rhythm from the start, as if he had failed to achieve modernism because of what he calls doggerel: blatant rhythm, blatant rhymes, plots, as if bogged down in verbal technique as in one of those crusted mud-pools up on the moors. I was too fond of the syntactic music of sentences to fulfill my intention. [...] One step back and the word-world just looks mad. He connects this dissatisfaction with a certain despondency concerning getting older and losing the edge of desire. He claims to have wanted originally a purer poetry, referring to the French post-Mallarme line, a grand abstract vision, plotless scope, which he rejected as a disconnection of language and reality but fell instead into a practice-led verse because of the uncertainties which made him constantly re-write and over-write. (A lot of people who went through Cambridge poetry in Haslam's time emerged feeling like diminutive failures, and suffer from it intermittently ever since). He defines himself as an amateur writer, compromised, always falling back into an English or provincial mode, pottering around picking up forgotten vocabulary (like woodness, from wood meaning mad, furious, out of one's mind, which he fears he suffers from, though from his description it sounds more like not himself.) He yearns now to revive the possibility of an abstract, plotless, sparkling pattern which would be a cure for woodness.

This is a strange confessional, for it attempts to corrode the edifice itself. I'm tempted to read it as a capitulation to Cambridge University and all the vast tentacles of Continental intellectual theory that come with it, 150 years of ever more sophisticated and evasive literary preaching determined to deprive us of meaning and content in literature, or of all connectivity, recognition, grounding. Fortunately this isn't necessary.

The seven poems forming the first section of the book are said to inhabit the despondency dissatisfaction and woodness of the Introduction. But what emerges from these is that this crisis is Michael Haslam's new story, which he feeds through his established technique - it is in many ways the same substance with a different plot passing through it. Even at his most self-rejecting he mimics the doggerel techniques which got him there:

Juggling and giggling and jiggling and gurgling mean
next to nothing. Readers have read enough.
Please try to write more seriously stiff and thoughtful stuff.

Noteworthy is Lyric in Blemish, a short poem defiantly responding to Bridges' talk of disabling blemishes in Hopkins:

Blemish is the native tongue
I speak in song
In quiet hills' nigh lilac light
small traffic and less speech

and write ways wrongly wrought, unblessing
and unteaching what I meant to preach...

His very complaint against himself seems to be also a quite confident display of his craft. Only the second italicised line is perhaps a glimpse of the purer poetry he yearns for, but to me it feels close to those glimpses of the local actuality, which have always hooked his verse onto a sense of the real. The same paradox of self-complaint and defiance emerges strongly in what is perhaps the most impressive text of this section, Wastes of the Picturesque, a monologue of self-blame starting:

An art of ruins wastes and wrecks has left a late-
romantic artist vexed, perplexed before a space
of nothing but a tract of wretched text, a vacant complex
he suspects means nothing more as message or
as metaphor than merely private wreckage of his own
poetic sex.

(Note how the speed and rhythmic structure enable the quite distant rhyme complex and sex to chime fully). The poem goes on to lead us through scenes of a wrecked boat, drunkenness in a bar, some kind of disaster on the landing, etc. openly and humorously, with some of his virtuoso parodying of classic lines:

Come something and save us
from the raucous talk and racist jokes,
the empty schooner stranded in the bar,
the desperation at some engine failure
and ones own mental defects...

(Note the vowel rhyme of save us and failure). The set ends with a refreshing interlude of recovery involving paddling in the edge of the sea, before reiterating the failure.

At this point Haslam inserts three old pieces, reprinted or revised, to kick-start his new resolution to achieve abstract plotless scope, including a long piece from 1972 formerly rejected for plotlessness. It is good to see these, and they have an important part in the book's plot, but after what we've got used to from Haslam they are strangely lacking in presence. There is only intermittently any strong sense of where they come from other than maybe the mind; they are not consistently grounded and so tend to leave obviously important symbol-like utterances floating in mental and earthly space. This is marked especially by the paucity of the first person singular pronoun: images happen without an agent. It is a sudden switch from the preceding poems to have opening sentences such as: Start City Star! and Elasticated static spans and snaps. There is a faint, or maybe not very faint, sense of science fiction in this plotlessness, which is not very plotless at all because it continues to tell relentlessly of the poet's quest for an elusive abstract or totally comprehensive idiom. He refers to the rewriting of those two old pieces as a failure because my scribble was not prepared to abandon its acquired habits. The third text is the third reprinting of a prose piece, A Lubrick Loosed (originally 1994, prefatory to The Whole Bauble), obviously a text of great importance to him, but whose unaltered repetition suggests that the question it posits is not new.

Lubric means slippery / unsteady / risky / lascivious, and should be an adjective. The piece speaks of an elusive substance, quality, and experience called It, which is set before the poet as his probably impossible and perhaps not entirely desirable objective. I don't think It is exactly poetry or even quite the poetry MH wants to write. It seems to be more like an urge towards poetry encountered in reading which offers itself as a quite ephemeral or illusory substance, no sooner realised than retreating into its own secret hole and closing the lid. But like those Cornish pasties in Quatermass II once you touch it you are taken over, committed to a course of alienation and collapse. If I say it is the invitation to poetry it is so as the signing of Faust's contract. The idea of the piece is extended and elaborated in a prose appendix to the book called [It] which is more particularising about It as a language-use and a particular kind of poetic quality, tracing It in Renaissance forms of English language figuration for example, though I get a shifty feeling that this is a different It from the first one. In fact this essay is quite polemical about a poetical quality which

Since its conception is entirely in whatever the imagination is,
it is irrational, and may be that which must be inadmissible
in any rational, materialist, non-metaphysical
theoretical poetics. Maybe such must do without it...

and so can't be the quality of most kinds of poetry, which seem to be disqualified here. Yet elsewhere it is an animus that enlivens all human aspiration, Capital, Messianic hopes and the increase of the population. This is definitely a Haslamic entity. But this is ahead of the event, because between these two texts is the actual meat of the book. The Introduction is silent about the third section, seven poems headed with the book's title. It merely asks whether the cure worked, and evasively attributes a discernibly more positive tone here, like the lifting of a burden (it cheers up a bit) to the placidity of old age and the time of year (spring).

Basically the plot continues. But I find myself increasingly aware in this final section that the book has been moving as a whole towards this ending, especially by the transition of effects: images themes and terms picked up again and again, pointedly or casually, from start to finish. Indeed the whole book is an unfolding one-man drama about age and doubt. Basically the struggle continues, of self-blame and failure, but from the start of this ending he begins to come to terms with the poet he has made of himself, and the poetical substance he has been complaining about. The question of what he is moving towards, of what the cure or the new vision is to be, becomes less certain as it is more and more strongly urged until it emerges in at least the hope of a final refreshment and purpose.

Before this there is a long poem Prince Phoebus Columbus which I read as his own account of his writing career, variously and quite jocularly allegorised and bound up (typically) with sexual adventure and failure. Here the linkage of poetry and sex as twin failures of declining age is given a quite jocular run and is not, I think, heard from again. Nowhere else in the book is it so obvious, and he must have been aware of this himself, that his declared quest towards an abstract or pure poetry of mind is being conducted in a manner totally in defiance of the declared intent. The text is steeped in earthly and bodily effects. The methods he has renounced return with a vengeance and the discourse of this narrative galimaufrey is entirely bound up in, and often determined by, rhyme, rhythm, alliteration, echo, assonance, puns, obscure vocabulary, archaisms, provincialisms, neologisms, syntactical oddity (nouns used as verbs, adjectives used as nouns), as well as plunges into sense diversions which it is very difficult to follow - the whole bag of tricks in fact, inevitably felt here as obstruction, for a story and a lesson are in progress to which these things form a permanent interruption like an unruly farmer's son in the back row of the class. This whole piece perhaps begins to look like a deliberate exercise in the grotesque, meaning that some other kind of theatre is in sight. And while the doggerel rolls on there are hints at other possibilities, here and in neighbouring poems: a closer personalisation in circumstance, serene nature-pictures, a sylvan noumenon - (noumenon is the Kantian terms for a thing as it is in itself as distinct from a thing as known through the senses). There is then in all this verbal excess a possible glimpse of something much calmer and even purer but essentially poetical (which we wouldn't get if noumenon didn't have the pastoral sylvan preceding it: then we'd be in a philosophical tangle.) There is also a realisation of ecological trouble brewing which feeds into the last poems.

The culmination and crown of this book is a group of three poems under the general title The Love of English. I don't need to say a lot about these. I may be quite wrong in my reading of the narrative of this book, but it seems to me that the goal of the adventure shifts in the course of the writing. I don't think Haslam reaches, or any longer desires, a pure, intellectual, totalising poetry which could only, in the end, be some form of symbolism or the attempted evasion of symbolism in metonymic displacements. I think he is too attached to earthly realities, his own temperament, and indeed English to want that. But there is a change, at least within the book. The love of English' begins with an outrageous outburst of sibilant stubbornness:

We feel our sexes in such soft sog, soppy, soapy stuff
as acid slime, and love
to shake out filth down in the lovely clough.

but what these three poems move towards, emerging from this slime, is a regard for clarity, and a more relaxed tenor to the writing, a sense of freshness in quite extended passages of straightforward account or description, including welcome revivals of close local detail, entirely integral to the running themes of the book:

A one-bar fire in the parlour
and a light left on
for no-one in the hall. The unreal
melancholia of recall.

But also an ease and clarity which is free to disport itself in far from literal terms:

There are ghosts of people drinking to this day
in ghosts of moorland public houses
raising toasts to vanished brewers,
lovers ...
Deep in the snug, I find myself being questioned by
a Supernatural Goat...
Goat in a Coat is
the ghost on the coast: the captain
of the boat of lies ...

And again it is all integral - ghost (of himself), boat (shipwrecked), pub (as retreat) recur intermittently throughout the book (see the second quotation from Wastes of the Picturesque above).

Running water and birds dominate the imagery, including the loss of bird species from the Pennine valleys and moorland, which wakes him up into a sharper and external reality. He speaks directly of the noun love, and Clare rather than Cambridge is his first thought:

I feel a cure for woodness working very slow.
I really love Nobody though it lifts me
nearly, just to say I love, I love the, love the thee
however bodily this singularity appears to be.
I love the poetry of poor John Clare...

There is no revolution of the word; his way of being a poet remains the same, as can be seen in the line structures and reverberations of this passage for all its freedom from sticky words (Clare, clarity, poetry, poverty... and is there a monastic hint at the Poor Clares?) And of course poetry can be a lot clearer than his finally is (or Clare's) but the local is re-asserted, and a thread of literalness binds round the rhapsodies. And that too is a relief- there are at times in the book fears that the unique Michael Haslam manner is going to be sacrificed in favour of something conceived as larger. The texture here is not very different from the more direct passages of Continual Song.

As for the cure, was it successful? Or indeed, was it needed? What was it actually a cure from? Was it perhaps the rock on which his poetry stands which he asked to be cured of? The Introduction gives a survey of the obsolete word wood from Chaucer to Shakespeare but strangely neglects its etymology, which if followed would have brought him back through senses of possession, to the Indo-European root *wat-, which is represented also by Old English wod, song and Latin vates, poet.