Some initial responses, after 10 years reading, to Waves on Porthmeor Beach by Alaric Sumner
"Waves on Porthmeor Beach," wrote Alaric Sumner, in the book of that name,
"consists of three basic elements. First, a diary of descriptions of the waves on Porthmeor Beach, St Ives, Cornwall during 1991 on those days and nights that I spent in St Ives. Before the text I specify on the left the date and time and on the right the position around the bay from which the observations were made. I have left the diary sections virtually unedited and where I am unable to read my handwriting I have left blanks. The second element is a series of poetic Insertions into this diary, denoting the separation of one day's description from the next. The third element is a group of Absences, prose passages denoting gaps when I failed to record a description because I was not in St Ives or for some other reason. These Absences are explanations, elaborations on the structures and techniques of writing Waves on Porthmeor Beach under the heading Writing and responses to the drawings by Sandra Blow under the heading Drawing. Insertions were written between 1992 and 1995; Absences in 1995."Diaries, as the term is usually understood, move in time from a beginning to an end. They don't usually move along different time lines simultaneously. They may comment upon the action they speak of; but this book, Waves on Porthmeor Beach: a diary moves along three main time lines, one only of them directional, not counting recollections within its narratives, commenting, in those formal layers, upon itself existentially. And note that the material added later is of different kinds to that of the original diary.
The diary, as such, was written through part of 1991; with the Insertions late 1992 - 1995, a period much longer than that covered by the text into which they are being inserted; and then the Absences in 1995.
The writing in 1995 occupied only a few months because the text went to the printers quite early in that year, but Sumner was writing Insertions and Absences at the same time during 1995, with the original transcription of plein air writing becoming more and more part of a literary artefact made in the study. All in all it is a complex and multiple text.
With a diary, too, there is an anticipation that the writer will tell the truth as they see it or wish to see it; unless, that is, they are writing for posterity - in which case, we are less than likely to put trust in what they say; but even there the veracity of what is said is likely to be a major issue. But Sumner offers us something else:
"Whether I believe that what I wrote is true is irrelevant," he said in a talk at Tate St Ives on 20th September 1995. "I am not searching for truth or honesty in my writing; I am playing with ideas, forms and structures. My work is fiction not fact."
Even allowing for the apparent honesty, this is a contentious assertion; though one which I am sure he would have delivered with apparent conviction and quite stony-faced.
Diary form, then. Fiction, not fact. But in the Tate talk, he went on:
"The whole of Waves is structured on precise documentation of where and when passages were written and I could bring along the original rain and spray spattered note books, in an attempt to prove it. But it is not relevant."One might be forgiven for asking what it is not relevant to; and also whether we should accept what he asserts given the nature of the assertion. He goes on:
"What is relevant is that, as author, I am presenting the work as if it had been written at the time and place I specify. It is artifice, the translation of idea in to craft and language that is the point. Not necessarily careful, neat artifice. Sometimes wildly artificial."I have written elsewhere that it could be said Alaric Sumner's favourite word is Why. It wasn't used aggressively, though some took it that way; he was among the least aggressive people. It was meant to destabilise certainty either in others or himself. Why were you so certain about something? he wanted to know. Or, if he disagreed with you, perhaps you could prove him wrong and make him less certain and therefore more open. Sometimes he offers a target:
What is missing is any sense of contradiction between the desire to describe and the desire for literary form. [TWELFTH ABSENCE (8 to 9 October 1991) / Writing]His craft problem, at the length of writing he chooses, the potential contradiction, is to maintain the writing without undue repetition. Waves, as Sumner clearly knows, are not all the same; but there is a limited set of directly applicable words available to him, and a near infinity of waves to describe. If one actually looks, the sea is changing all the time at the macro and micro levels; but how to write about that level of usually-ignored repetition without boring or losing the reader!
He uses the word "wave" 162 times and "waves" 196, very low in a text of 30, 000 words on the subject of waves, finessing the occurrences with a constantly changing syntax, pace and tone; so that the weight the word imposes and / or carries is not constant
One way into this book is to see how artfully he avoids becoming dull and engages our interest in what might otherwise seem superficial and merely iterative; whilst, simultaneously, encouraging the reader to reconsider much of what they may have previously thought about writing. He sold his book to, if not the general reader, then a variety of readers. In less than a year between 900 and 1000 copies were sold, the majority through a handful of outlets. Sumner made almost no attempt to market it to those who had been his readership for Lurid Technology and the Hedonist Calculator and Rhythm to Intending, the two publications of the previous year, probably much the same readership for the last two titles published during his life: Aberrations of lenses, mirrors, sight (1998) and Bucking Curtains (2000).
In his THIRD ABSENCE (22 April to 18 July 1991) / Writing, he says:
"Contemplation of time in the regular sequence of words in lines on the page seems to fix it into the linear. A book appears to present its ideas in a form that needs to be studied linearly."and, throughout the book, he will be investigating the seeming of appearance.
A little way on, he tells us:
"The Insertions and Absences follow different rules; they express (and were created over) different time periods from each other and from the diary"This is little more than he has told us already, as an obvious implication; but here he is specifying it, making it very clear to those who have truly read this far. There are those who have only read the diary (the 1991 writing); and those who have only read the commentary (1992-1995).
Alaric liked theory and practice, but nowhere else did he bring them together in quite this way. This was new and, for him, relatively extreme ground, even in the diary sections; and there, it may be, it was all he could do as he found himself in extremis.
When Alaric Sumner moved to Cornwall at the beginning of the 1990s, he hadn't published for over a decade.
Collected Letters 77 came out from Tapocketa Press in 1977. Later, he self-published The flowering of atomic romanticism in the desolation of poetry; but most copies of that print run remained packed away forgotten until Writers Forum re-issued them in 2005.
Much later, he repudiated outski (1979), attributed to himself and Richard Tabor, saying that it contained nothing he had made. Two other publications which I have listed (in Alaric Sumner: Documentation of his writing and other artistic and related output words worth books / Writers Forum, 2004) certainly existed to some extent but are of doubtful substantiality as publications in terms of having had sustained availability.
A good case could be made, I think, that he did not publish anything, in the sense that one could actually acquire it without being a very good personal friend in active friendship, between Collected Letters and Lurid Technology and the Hedonist Calculator (Lobby Press 1994): 16 or 17 years!
The latest periodical publication from the 1970s which I have found was a contribution to the magazine Blueprint, edited by Richard Tabor in June 1979
The next time he appears in any magazine I know of, it is in Talus # 7, Autumn 1992 edited by Balzani et al. If one allows time for "winding down" and "winding up" activity, there is clearly at least a decade in which, bibliographically, he was inactive.
A similar pattern emerges if one investigates his public appearances as an artist: nothing for around 12 years.
To a very great extent, from the point of view of those who followed him as a poet, he disappeared and seemed to want to be invisible. (For instance, he and I never fell out; but, like some others, I found that he was no longer present or easily locateable.)
The latter half of the 70s were a troubled time for him. He was unable, for a number of reasons, to be as singled-minded as he would later be about his art; and he also found himself hesitant artistically, having spent a considerable amount of time finding out what he did not want to do in writing, in performance, in editing! Nevertheless, over a decade went by which he would later characterise as wasted years, years - he said - in which he did nothing and achieved nothing.
What survive of his notebooks do not support that story. The 1980s were years in which he wrote Voices (for 9); large parts of Rhythm to intending; first drafts of what would become Lurid Technology and the Hedonist Calculator; and early versions - note the plural - of what ended up as Conversation in colour. And that is apart from holding down a responsible job, putting together a remarkable music record collection and concomitant knowledge of modern music, reading widely and voraciously - someone remarked to me that the state of a favourite theoretical book once owned by Alaric was suggestive of reading as an act of violence! - going to the theatre and concerts.
He also travelled a fair bit; studied photography and other subjects; and, I have recently discovered, co-spotted the only Magnolia Warbler (an American species of bird) ever to have been spotted in Britain and probably in Europe.
Alaric Sumner's later dismissal of the 1980s as he experienced them seems to me to have been a summary judgement which took its energy from dissatisfactions not directly related to writing; and perhaps from irritation that he had fallen from public view: he was, for all his real humility, very ambitious. Conversely, it may also have masked a continuing insecurity that, while he had long known what he did not want to make, he was not sure what he wanted to make. Perhaps he worried that all of his possible new starts, if he made them, would prove unproductive. He was prone to such thoughts.
The 1980s were, for Sumner, a period when he was in one stable relationship. His move to Cornwall marked the end of that relationship; and soon the end of his following a skilled trade. He spent a long time in rented accommodation, after having had his own home for years. He was on the dole and required to travel enormous distances for slave wages with no future.
When he contacted me again in 1991, and said he was in Cornwall, I assumed that he wanted to be there. But Alaric liked London, where he had spent most of his life, and missed what it had to offer culturally. He found St Ives more homophobic than London had been. Later, he said he liked New York; and, later still, hoped to live there, both for the culture and the gay scene as it seemed to be to him. At least, that is how he told it.
He spent the academic year 1993 / 1994 in Leeds, at the University, where he obtained an M.A. And after his appointment as a part-time lecturer in Performance Writing at Dartington College of Arts, he bought a flat in and spent more and more time in Totnes in Devon.
Both absences are of course perfectly sensible. He couldn't follow a conventionally taught course so far from Leeds. He couldn't teach in Devon while he was living in West Penwith. Nevertheless, it is worth considering how little time he spent at the place which is the eponymous subject of his most widely known book Waves on Porthmeor Beach. Someone spoke in an obituary of "his beloved St Ives", but he rather carried his view of the place like Christian's burden.
His family came from the area and he had been in St Ives before. He was there for a holiday in the 80s; and, with hindsight, it appears he was sizing the place up as a base. He knew that the Tate St Ives was on its way; and that would have been influential even if he did not imagine working there. (I suspect he did not.)
He valued the work of the St Ives artists. Yet he had little interest in local history, for the sense of place. He valued the peninsula for its light, and the beauty of the particular part he tried to make his own; but he did not feel much else for it, I think.
As I got to know him again, and got to know him better, I became more and more puzzled about his move. I don't think that he considered it a mistake. He acknowledged that the move and the shocks of the move had enabled him to change the course of his life; but it may not have worked in quite the way he hoped and / or expected. If he created his own luck in the 1990s, perhaps he could have done that in other ways: he did know his own worth as a writer though he doubted it in the specifics of almost everything he wrote; and he had a reasoned valuation of the quality of what he was making, even as he was also doubting it. I am not describing changes of mood, though he did become deeply depressed, but a hyper-awareness of his emotions' flow and their multiplicity and contradictoriness. Few, I believe, are that honest with themselves.
I can take this inquiry no further without indulging in guess work, and imaginatively prying into what is not my business. I say what I have said because I want to emphasise how different Waves on Porthmeor Beach is to his other books.
Part of that may be to do with its method of writing. And its circumstances.
He would have been on his own largely, I think. Without much space. His writing habit was to work cautiously, revisiting ideas and material very gingerly but repeatedly. It seems to have been his habit to wait until he knew how he would structure it before he wrote anything (though there are examples of exceptions to this habit). As I have demonstrated, it was years and years since he had published or appeared in public as a poet; and he had moved away from the city in which had spent his life.
He had rejected a large part of his former life, but it remained with him emotionally. (I have the testimony of friends.) He had been dismissive of his writing and yet it remained with him, its problems of process then unresolved.
In that loneliness, he went out and observed the sea. He could always happily observe the sea. I remarked to him once that if I lived where he did in St Ives I might spend the days just watching the tide come in, and then go out again. Oh yes, he said, very seriously, he had found that too; he did that. And one of the ideas he had nurtured through much of the 1980s was to keep a descriptive diary of some kind and use that as the starting point for writing.
When I was his guest, he seemed bewildered to discover my interest in walking inland: for him, the sea, here and now, constantly changing, was all in all at times and always preferable to the inland. It is remembered of him in St Ives that he once walked home from New Mill, seen as a prodigious feat by some of his acquaintances though only ten miles. Asked how he knew the way! he replied that one could not not know it - one walked down hill to the sea and then followed the coast.
So, at the start of the 1990s, he would stand for however long it took, watching the sea and making notes. Then, or later, he would write up what he had written, usually sitting in a pub or cafe, and accepting the interference that brought. By his own account, what he wrote then was how it stayed.
My reading of the notebooks supports that. There is much still to identify and compare, but later changes are few in what I have read. For instance, on 27 July 91 he wrote: "Behind me, a misty moon briefly peeps over the edge of The Island until obscured by thick cloud." but published "A misty moon briefly peeps over the edge of The Island until obscured by thick cloud."
It is possible that there is a later rewrite / fair copy which I have not yet identified or which has been lost. It could be that every word of the observations will turn out to have remained unaltered after the period of composition - composition in but not of the community which surrounded him.
Sumner typifies himself sitting in cafes, alone, on a number of occasions; and Susan Lamb at the Tate St Ives, where he was later the first writer-in-residence, remembers first becoming aware of him writing in a notebook in the Tate cafe
It seems to me, though, that in those early days, long before the Tate St Ives had opened, he was not writing Waves on Porthmeor Beach as we have it. Diary entries are scattered throughout a great many notebooks; and initially that is all there was.
He had set himself a process, not really a structure. Notice that in September 1995, he speaks of the book being "structured on" the documentation. The structure of the whole book itself, the more complex structure, came later, I believe.
And the later writing, the absences etc, may well have been rewritten as he began to consider what he had written as a phenomenon even as that considered the phenomenon of the waves.
But for a while, perhaps in some distress, he had a method which enabled him to write at a considerable speed and output; and that is what he did.
He was a serious observer and analyst. Among his surviving possessions are binoculars and a heavy duty camera lens; presumably from his bird-watching days.
There is a notebook entry from the mid 1980s where he complains that a photography course he had taken only taught him about photography! And his later Aberrations, conceived in the 1980s though worked on during the period of his writing Waves and after, indicates a desire to take the material of scientific instruction and discourse and make of it a sort of philosophical poetry. The voices in Aberrations can be seen to be ideas being played with as in that declaration of 1995 which I have quoted, though he manages to make it seem as if the ideas themselves are playing
It seems that Sumner owned a copy of THE EVER-CHANGING SEA by David B Ericson & Goesta Wollin. Copyrighted to 1967, it was first published in UK by MacGibbon & Kee in 1968. The edition in question is a Paladin paperback from 1971.
It may have been bought second-hand because £2.00 has been written on the first page in pencil. What may be an earlier price of £3.95 is just about visible. Thus, it could well have been acquired locally many years after its original publication.
It's a readable and thorough account of the state of knowledge in the mid 60s of the sea - acceptance of continental drift, for example.
While I would hesitate to say what kind of books Alaric did acquire, this one seems to be NOT the sort of book I would have expected him to have. The opening sections, though, might well have been of interest to someone paying the kind of attention to sea waves as Alaric did at least from the start of the 1990s. There is for instance a section, complete with diagram, which illustrates that waves move through water rather than that water moves in the waves. The diagram shows a seagull on the water staying where it is while the waves move under it.
I speculate, therefore, that Alaric bought the book because he wanted to inform his writing of what became Waves. I can well imagine him doing that.
Of course, it might be he was always interested in oceanography; or the book may have belonged to someone else. Inquiries suggest that he did indeed acquire the book or another source of information almost certainly during the early 1990s. He became quite knowledgeable about some of the topics raised, noticed by others because he sought to pass on the knowledge, in an area where he had not previously seemed to be knowledgeable!
Thus, I am saying that while he based his writing on subjective experience, he sought to give - or sometimes liked to think he was giving - his observation scientific rigour and then to subject that writing itself to rigorous examination. He would have known that what he had was something other than scientific rigour; but he would have been interested to pin down exactly what he had. And that, I think, is the start of Waves on Porthmeor Beach as we have it.
The pursuit of poetry is an investigation equal to but different from the pursuit of science. They are different modes of knowledge.
One can say that the difference is between objective knowledge and subjective knowledge. Such statements are made, usually, on the implicitly shared understanding that objectivity delivers the goods. Objectivity, goes the belief, is superior or more accurate, than subjectivity, or more versatile... Is it always?
I recall that the two dimensional character in A K Dewdney's The Planiverse, gradually infers the existence of his three dimensional observers even though he has only an imagined grasp of what a three-dimensional universe might be like. He glimpses something of the world as it might be as he manages somehow to apprehend in a way that he is apparently not mentally or physically equipped to apprehend.
What do we know of seeing in ways we can barely comprehend? How do we see out of that of which we are a part?
That was Sumner's territory
Hazy blue-white moonlight from the hidden moon hanging in a diffuse ball just off shore, with very low tide and the waves starting to break and leaving their foam at that point and dragging it like unfurling cloth behind them as they move forward over the previous wave's foam. The change of brightness so that the just broken wave's foam is always brighter, though the previous one's foam still seems as bright as when it first broke. The speed the waves travel up the beach decreases as they get higher until at the end, still just moving they become so feebly grey that they fade into the darkness to be overwritten by the next slow moving, feebly grey wave. The curve of each wave varies...It's not until near the end of that opening paragraph that we get a full grammatical sentence. The beginning of it is notelike as of someone trying to catch the scene as a painter might make a sketch or as if the writer were going to "write it up".
An oddity in a painter's sketch might be the attempts to catch the speed of the waves' travelling up the beach decreasing. Well, perhaps. He is, as the colloquial phrase has it, painting a picture, but he goes beyond. The picture is a film. At least, it isn't a still picture. It is of course a piece of written text where he can use the cinematic and the still modes; and others. Even with a timebase it would be hard to draw attention to the phenomenon as neatly as the words do it.
It is complex writing in a number of ways. Where is he in time at any one point in the text? There's the describing of what he sees as it happens, or so he says; and of summing up what he is seeing over a period of time. Even in the 1991 sections, we know - or have been told - that they are interrupted and framed by writing which occurs in the succeeding four years.
Here we start in the indefinite, with "Hazy blue-white moonlight" and switch to the definite when the subject / object is switched from the main focus in the sky to the main focus on the planet with "and the waves starting to break".
blue and white in "blue-white" are rhymed in "moonlight" as is moon echoed, suggesting perhaps wholeness in the scene, and interaction of parts as perceived by the perhaps unwittingly analysing observer.
The "diffuse ball" is not quite so clear as it might seem. Is it the moon or the moonlight which is hanging in a ball. One knows what he is describing. One has seen it. He describes it well, but not scientifically; reader and writer know damn well there is no ball hanging just off shore; but that's what the writer says.
It's a long sequence of detail. After the moonlight and the ball, we get the very low tide followed by an "and" - more to come and separate and part of what is happening though what is happening is grammatically hazy itself (no main verb); and that's rather like the chaotic system he is trying to describe. Put away the ruler and the stopwatch and pay attention.
Each sentence is differently structured. The one beginning "The change of brightness" seems ok till you analyse it to find that it says "The change of brightness... always brighter". It's not quite doing what we might ask of it, any more than the waves will. Yet it's perfectly good colloquial English. With the "though" in the middle, one hears an apparently reasoned argument. And then the next statement seems to go on for ever, expending its energy and exhausting the reader. And then, finally, a short sentence; a simple statement of fact, except that the writer denies us that by offering three dots instead of the one. It strongly conveys the variety and rhythmic asymmetry of the waves. And the lack of an end ever to tidal movement.
All of this has been headed:
PRELIMINARY DESCRIPTIONThat is apparently precise documentation... There is a map to help us to understand where he is writing of (although the reader will find that many of the places described are not on the map so it is something of an illusion as a tool) And there is an explanation which encourages confidence in the writer's precision: "Waves on Porthmeor Beach consists of three basic elements" etc
However, this is part of a section immediately following the first quotation: FIRST ABSENCE (30 January 1991 to 27 March 1991)
On the second day of the diary about waves on Porthmeor Beach, the diarist has gone away from Porthmeor Beach and is telling us how his diary, one day old, is structured.
He tells us of "a series of poetic Insertions" to separate days' descriptions. He tells us of "Absences" - "prose passages denoting gaps when I failed to record a description because I was not in St Ives or for some other reason."
And he elaborates, at the end of his outline of the structure: "This preliminary Absence is prefatory in nature, as is the "Preliminary Description" above." before going into "Drawing."
All of this is presented as a continuous orderly text; and it has been my discovery from talking to readers who enjoy the book that many had not actually taken in this looping back upon itself of the making process on first reading. They knew it was there but had not been greatly aware of it in their reading which had been as of a continuous present set in the past.
As with the landscape, what one sees is seen as a thing as it is, one thing, apparently continuous and unchanging. Yet, the author holds nothing back and tells us "Knowledge alters what is seen." ( in SECOND ABSENCE (1 to 19 April 1991) / Drawing
This book is telling us forcefully that it matters a great deal where you stand. That if you change where you stand you not only see something different, but you see more.
In computer-assisted modelling of an object, the image is built up by continuous rescanning, moving the object or the scan point.
I imagine rememberingBirds hunting are constantly looking down and up, checking the sky, checking the ground; and, within that, changing the angle of view. The cat about to pounce wiggles itself to get depth in what it is seeing.
Constant familiarity and constant refreshment of data.
Yet still the question comes: But where is it? A reasonable question for someone looking for their car keys or moving a robot on another planet; but not for much bigger questions.
The place Sumner is writing about is a peninsula near the end of a peninsula, an area almost a large island, so that in the town and in the locality, to some extent everything leads to everything else. The same effect occurs on the indented Suffolk coast, and on islands. (The island referred to in Sumner's book is not an island, but a remote place, even now, the term being metaphorical, probably from the Cornish)
The world seems to us asymmetrical; and we keep making things which stand alone from the world and are symmetrical, which means we know our ways round them but everything begins to look the same as everything else
At St Ives, where each point is on a curve and on a slope, a walk of a few yards can make an extraordinary difference to how Porthmeor Beach or almost anything else looks - so that saying one is looking from The Island or from The Clodgy is not as accurate as it seems - and a well-known place may be made unrecognisable by a small move.
The Drawing refers to drawings made of Porthmeor Beach for the book by the artist Sandra Blow. It was not known, when the book was started, that they would be made - Alaric Sumner and Sandra Blow did not even know each other and Sandra was still living and working in London:
the whole book's structure... changed constantly. In particular, when I heard that the Tate was planning the Porthmeor exhibition. Mike Tooby's decision to display the poems led me to approach Sandra Blow and the book was transformed again with her drawings.Though delivered on agreed time, as far as I know, the drawings for the book arrived relatively late in the day in terms of the book's timeline. Sumner worked very quickly.
Waves on Porthmeor Beach is, in its overlay of timelines, like a landscape, a mental landscape, which one must analyse.
The paper is landscape
Sumner wrote in his poem The Hoax of different views (diptych), apparently written in the early 1990s; and went on to discuss the Artist and Photography in terms not dissimilar to those in Absence One / Drawing.
It's a joke. A very serious joke - both in the use of the word "hoax" and in the delight with conundra and contradictions - and in the insistence that we must look and look if we would see. (Though never finished as a series, the hoaxes in their gallery form would present a painting with a typescript, leaving the viewer to make their connections between the two.)
Some of the writing in Waves is about Sumner's direct experience of Porthmeor Beach and other parts of the writing are about Sandra Blow's drawings arising in part out of her reading of Sumner's text and in part out of her experience of Porthmeor Beach and also arising, like Whistler's London Bridge, out of a lifetime of painting. Here's an example of Alaric writing about Sandra's drawing:
A mark tears and cuts, to present unrepresentative representation. Sand textures risked in a wrist's flick. Contained energy torn from vision, leads to a slice of sea in motion and emotion... an activity of scudding clouds printed in intricate dots - or lack of them. Structure requires a frame, a containment... or these gannets and shearwaters would glide from the page; auks, shags and scoters dive in these turbulent depths. Yet this language of marks and tears, cuts and paper, structures an imagination open to it, into an appreciation of the essence of communication... it signals many things but, ultimately, with excruciating certainty, it signals, above all, what it is, beyond interpretation: it signals itself... marks which hover around ideas.Unlike the processes which make a geological landscape, the formative agency here knows what has gone before in the text and is aware, feeding back, of its own formative agency ("it leads the imagination into a new understanding of water and rock, distance and time, light and place" - Absence One), an agency which takes pleasure in its own creativity and in providing a source of pleasure to others. This writing is writing about what he sees in the drawings and of course the process of drawing and the process of reading drawings; just as the whole book is about the process of writing as much as it is about waves. A greatly cut down mode of this kind of writing recurred in his sequence text out of image (Sandra Blow) a few years later.
Part 2 of this special feature will appear in Readings 3
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