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Master of the Five Dimensions: Alan Halsey Nearing Sixty

- David Annwn

 

Where I live is language – my first reality. Before I live in Nether Edge, I live in language. I write out of the consciousness of that. Do I write as a ‘Language’ poet? I do and I don’t and ‘Language’ poets do and don’t but in different ways. 1

These are the words of Alan Halsey, English master of linguistic legerdemain, of fugue and subterfuge, subtly undermining syntactic rationale and complacency. As he writes, his literal being is at home in Nether Edge, Sheffield in the North of England, yet he is always lighting out for new lexico-cognitive territories, his words twisting and turning They are words which simultaneously reveal an awareness of trans-national connections and yet also reveal an extraordinary sensitivity to nuanced differences in writing cultures. As Paul Green wrote in the Chicago Review: ‘His grasp of language, or the many layers and interiorities that make a text work, is about second to none.’ 2

In 2009, Halsey is 60 which means that now for nearly thirty years  his work as poet, collagist, book illustrator/designer, publisher, all of which activities cross-pollinate each other, has been fomenting a quiet revolution on the English literary horizon. About Halsey’s work there’s a great deal of the determination and daring of early English revolutionaries: those ranters, levellers, encoders of news and heresies who turned the 16th century world upside down. It’s not for nothing that his has been called:  ‘a poetry of passionate and stoical resistance’ but that misses his elation in language, the spectra of his humour and deep wit, his strategies of bonchief and mischief, the restlessness of his play in words and restless forays through language. 3 He has said: ‘I think I’m a comic writer…J.H. Prynne is always best when he’s funny.’ 4 He has a gift for upturning the trestles of neat logic and artistic discretion: on occasion his readings can be uproarious. As this writer approaches sixty there’s a great deal to  celebrate about all he brings to the table.

On his Cross-Cultural Poetics radio interview with Halsey, Leonard Schwartz asked if the Englishman could ‘place’ himself within the contemporary  literary landscapes of British poetry. Halsey replied that though he had been associated with Cambridge and London poetry, he actually ‘belonged’ to neither which might seem, at first, puzzling. On other occasions too, Halsey  has  been grouped with the second wave of English Language-based poets and with Cambridge writers in particular. Yet, I’d suggest that, if those British poets like Wyndham Lewis, Basil Bunting, Mina Loy and David Jones were reacting with and against a first wave of innovative Modernism, those, like Lynette Roberts, Dylan Thomas and W.S. Graham born 1882-1918  can be said to comprise the second wave. Roughly then within a subsequent sixteen year span 1936-52 J.H. Prynne, Roy Fisher, Thomas A Clark, Elaine Randell, Allen Fisher, Lee Harwood, Geraldine Monk, Denise Riley,  Bill Griffiths, Gavin Selerie, Barry MacSweeney, Maggie O’Sullivan, Douglas Oliver, Ric Caddel and many more of the third wave of innovative British poets were born, their earliest work appearing from 1966 onwards. Theirs’ is an extremely varied field of procedures and techniques, geographically diffuse and often engaged in radically different projects.

In fact, some of Halsey’s earliest enthusiasms are a far world away from the innovative poetics of Cambridge: Edward Dorn’s uses of Augustine satire, J.V. Cunningham’s epigrams, Clark Coolidge, the Robert Creeley of the For Love poems, Wittgenstein and even the Geoffrey Hill of Mercian Hymns. Even when Cambridge enters the picture, the focus of Halsey’s reaction was one of sharply-defined and specific enthusiasm,  as he hints when he calls ‘The poetic sweep’ from J.H. Prynne’s Brass to Down Where Changed  ‘incredible’. 5

A key question that he returns to is one framed in ‘From a Diary of Reading Clark Coolidge’:

The question with writing is always what’s needed to make writing possible. There’s no doubt whatever about that. 6

As if in answer to this, Halsey’s poetry forms at the interfaces wherever people make speech and words : coffee-shops, reading newspapers, barbershops, table-talk, touristic jargon, in conversation in pubs and over cards. A ‘media magpie’, he has an unnerving habit of snapping up phrases from review copy concerning his writing, seeing ambiguities other than intended therein, stretching these as far they’ll go and re-working them into his ongoing projects.  On this level, his work is very companionable: this kind of companionability in words can, of course, words, be a type of concealment. Yet on a public level too, he is companionable, enjoying debate, verbal play and asides.   He seems very much at home in innovative pluralism and communities of his peer writers.  Yet, as we might expect, there are other levels.


II

This very companionability somewhat belies his range and aims as a writer. As I’ve said, his  legerdemain and  allusive skill are  extraordinary.Halsey’s work reveals a fatal addiction to the ‘Sudden and bright’ asides in the Ranter Abiezer Coppe’s apocalyptic A Fiery Flying Rolle, the texts of Thomas Lovell Beddoes and Mary Shelley, the obscure, (for us), Lives of little-known poets,  attempts at Englished versions of Ancient Egyptian hymns, book-curses, diaries, letters marginal notes and the occluded jargon of contemporary finance gurus. It soon becomes clear that the width and depth of his lexical explorations are staggering. We remember that opening quotation, that ‘Where I live is language…’ and his first demonstration in these poems that we as readers live there as well.

His forté is in trekking and tracing language through the zones of its formation and re-constitution, especially noting, in passing, the many sites of its resistance, the places it won’t go, where it colludes and slips, where the syllables distort and warp and fall back into that which we think of as its inherited, lexical orders, into its illusions and totalitarian syntax.

When we re-read then the opening statement of Table Talk, (1989), it revisits the reading mind with a new force:

The poem looks the other way
just as one word impersonates the first thing
the last thing it means will reward it for. 7

The loop of logic here is symptomatic: the proposition reminds of Wittgenstein and we approach the everyday communities of reception with a new acuity.

Blue chips plenty in a white-lie district.
Everything’s potential being taken
for a ride and/or a fact becomes the one
constant factor and a rage past
caring, precisely; the influence of coffee-house or
copyshop makes table talk
and retail reality net practice for
a start, knife tells fork.

The puns on ‘net practice’ hint, of course, at consumer complicity in ignoring the loss of human potential.

That dinosaur
dishonour
is words
                      dropping
                    off to sleep
                      into place.

The cut worm ploughed back shares the profit

He invites and challenges,  works through and explodes literary terms of address: ‘Dear guest’  ; the speaker lures, allures then bluffs us; it taunts, hedges, bets and waits for us to catch up:

Fifth on the left is one trading estate
like a malcontent waiting for the next course

which is devastating and funny enough regarding the system until we remember our own involvement in such social engineering and the resultant sense of time:

joke true to form. Try recalling 1968
or it sixty-seven or 1644
          our condition is their pre-
         condition, are you with me?

Implicit in the date references for readers in the West is Halsey’s persistent attention towards social alternatives, illusory if haunting visions of utopia which recur over great distances of time in Britain. The leap from the 1960s hints of revolution to 1644 might lead us to focus on The English Civil War, the ebbing of collectivist dreams, the burgeoning of Cromwell’s Commonwealth armies and the foundations of individualistic capitalism.

The poet was looks back on the era anticipating the emergence of rabid Thatcherite monetarism in the late 1970s:

The old means of production giving out
Gives out warnings.

That’s clear as an Aide-mémoire rule of thumb.


III

Yet some of  this poet’s prose can seem at first glance resistant to easy reading, ergodic, bearing witness to a kind of hidden agitation, an almost opaque stress. In the first lines of ‘Coffin Text, Radnor Recension’ tension and brilliance of the language encourage us to skim over the surface with all our questions held suspended:

Not walking upside down is a spell blade to death and the text duality
the ghosthopper’s ransom. The nerve that writes sustains : thus
agreements change but refusals gone to ground when a satire is the
devil become rites forever. 8

The drive and complexity of wordplay here can take us past the grasping for immediate meanings for a moment, noting perhaps that ‘rites’ is a near anagram of ‘satire’ and that ‘The nerve…’ is culled from Night IV of ‘The Complaint: or Night Thoughts…’ of Edward Young:

My prostrate soul adores the present God : Praise I a distant deity ? He
tunes My voice (if tun'd) ; the nerve, that writes, sustains : Wrapp'd in
his being, I resound his praise…

and the flow of perceptions is nervy, angry. In taking them in, there’s no need to supply a connotative framework : the words are as mysteriously satisfying and wrenching as Stein’s, as compelling a surge as those of Clark Coolidge’s work. Soon we find we’re deep inside a riven, haunted wordscape:

Past the gastroentiritic syndromes, the ghosts
given up and the other poor souls

Lost communities of the dead are evoked here. Coffin Texts principally stem from the Ancient Egyptian Middle Kingdom and were written in the form of spells, this kind of composition in fact democratising the afterlife, after the royal exclusivity of the Pyramid Text. The ‘spells’ were often in the forms of instructions of how to negotiate the way to the next life and to supply magical formulae to pass through certain obstacles. Halsey applies this idea over generations to the ordinary dead of the Radnor area of Wales with all the force and irony accruing to a scape which is now polluted and under threat:

                                                                  …the last of a species
dashing through the spell blade is dashed over Lethe. Watch the
mucous orange in the brook there: walking cushioned on the storm
three feet above the ground is the only trick these dualists will find
worth the knowing.

The guilty parties, companies which should be protecting the land, also pass this way:

                                Walking upside down come Ecogen and Micon,
faces averted.

The references to dualism are instructive as, in the second section of this work, the first unravels backwards with subtle interleaved changes. It is a tour-de-force, a ride, both unnerving and exhilarating of mirroring and un-mirroring language running back over itself, a recension following this phantasmal but also very real itinerary to the source of its outsetting. 


IV

There are repeated references to magic and punning on writing as the ‘dark art’, especially in the poems invoking the experiments of the Elizabethan mage, Dr. Dee:  it is no accident that Halsey sees his work emerging from the ‘dark side of the moon.’ 9 He is fascinated by the notion of what he calls ‘wordland’:

what I mean by it is the terrain which language/s inhabit/s, as do we as language-beings. The wordland is therefore much more extensive than any particular language & poetry is a way of exploring its terra incognita (terrible thickets of syntax there & phrases that bite worse than gargoyles), or receiving its dictation (which is better, since 'will' & 'intention' are perfectly useless in the matter). Now obviously there's a world beyond the wordland & we in part inhabit that too but language doesn't go there & if it did could bring nothing back. 10

Just as striking in this quotation is the idea that writing can be an act of transcription:  the poet as receiver of dictation, a concept found in Jack Spicer’s work,  traceable back, via Yeats, to Blake and, ultimately Classical sources.  Halsey is also compelled by the ways in which language operates as burgeoning illusion, of how far language can persuade us to ‘believe something against all the known facts.’ 11

Yet such a ‘sideways’ approach to whatever might be perceived as his subjects does not necessarily mean obliquity. In ‘The Frankenstein Franchise’ he broaches the perennial issue of a reader’s need to understand poetic references very directly:

Why believe there is someone who
believes he can trace every reference? 12

What would be the point of such scholarly assurance or of a writer believing in its existence? Such exhaustive curiosity would, it seems, be beside the point and miss the the energies in a poem. The display, the linguistic event is enough both in itself and as it becomes a new thing in reading. And, further:

                  […] To rename is only
sometimes to recall: description
gives nobody such fun as decryption

because as Philodemus said
words are poetry’s mother.

Inasmuch as he can withhold and warp rhyme, here the poet supplies a glancing rhyme which disposes of the great weight of mainstream narrative and anecdotal verse without effort.

Philodemus brings to mind Halsey’s uses of Classical and pre-Classical literature. The influence of the Pre-Socratic writers stems from his University days and his interest in Martial as a poet of the Imperium and in how Classical learning appeared in the literature of Renaissance England are enduring preoccupations.

The recent discovery and publication of the poems of Philodemus at Herculaneum unearthed a lost age of literary values:  those modes of criticism which flourished between Aristotle’s Poetics and Horace’s Art of Poetry, and Philodemus’s words quoted aptly here open out one of Halsey’s most remarkable discussion poems:

                         Let’s you and I scribble
in the crucible where losers are lizards
all devilled with their endless questions.


V

One of the most pleasant aspects of Halsey’s recent poetry is his explorations of perception and language and travel: the lacunae between the place read about, anticipated and experienced at first hand.

In ‘Syllabus of Errors’, Alan Halsey takes us on a leisurely glide through Venice, unravelling literary preconceptions as we go:

Pound sat where there are no steps
whereas Byron stood where there is certainly a bridge
but if he swam beyond the Rialto
even beyond where now the Ferrovia
or as the vaporetto voice-over says
the Royal Station meaning railway
there is a brand of cigarettes called Diana. 13

The simultaneous rightness and dissonance in the Byron-Pound links stay with us, as we think on Diana and versions of Englishness abroad.  The writer is teasing at our habitual cognitive ‘filling-in’, the media-led ways we anticipate a referential, the way that children are asked to supply the missing phonemes in words with contextual cues. Of course, Diana isn’t an overt reference to Princess Diana but to the Philip Morris Italian brand of smokes, and even that connection is provisional. The name Diana also turns out to be another unanticipated connection between Byron and Pound. Byron’s Diana in Child Harold’s Pilgrimage is no Spencerian icon of our latter age but:

                            […] meek Dian's crest
Floats through the azure air

Which, of course, brings us back to Pound:

Figures such as Carpaccio
Sat on the steps…
‘Dian’s crest’ wrote Byron
where Pound reckoned ‘Gods’
‘float in’ or as Byron says ‘through’
‘the azure air.’
Sate
Maybe sated

A sly historicist impugning of Modernist originality is implicit here, as the punning and innuendoes cluster. We might find, as Halsey does, that languages and their precise, local  inflections change our sense of what we see and read into, and for, places:

The Dutch instep while the English merely board.
Naturale in Venice can still be frizzante.

Multiple, different Gordon Browns, amongst them the then Chancellor of the Exchequer, float into and out of the speaker’s meandering perceptions but this is one of Halsey’s skilful gambits and the reader is being set up for:

Not to be confused with either Gordon Brown
Giordano Bruno

The famed cosmologist and occultist. What delights here is the lightness of the ongoing demolition of literary myths, as verbal cues and the legends which they invoke literally fall apart as we read.  That which chancellor Brown share with Byron and Pound, of course, is an interest in money. One shouldn’t believe the guide-books and that goes for food:

                                       riso-
tto is less common than spaghetti

‘Riso’ in Italian can mean rice but also laughter and splendor. But just as important is the sudden jarring demolition of national myths about so-called heroes:

                              Mr Churchill was willing
to gas whole towns to help America win
what the English still call the war.

The poem is quite literally a catalogue of errors exposed but the Syllabus referred to in the title is also a document issued by the Holy See under Pope Pius IX on December 8, 1864, during the Feast of the Immaculate Conception. The document remains controversial because it condemned concepts such as freedom of religion and the separation of church and state.  It was made up of excerpts and paraphrases from earlier papal documents, along with index references to them, and presented as a list of "condemned propositions". 

The same Churchill a proponent of the U.S.E.
United States of Europe
but that il Papa should reconcile himself to
progress liberalism and modern civilisation
last item of 80 in a syllabus of errors 1864
it was the way they told  ’em
and do.

We finish on item 80; the poem is 80 lines long. That final ironic aside isn’t without its play and explosive humour, that which Kelvin Corcoran has called Halsey’s ‘paronomastic' skill, but what marks this poet out as one of our very finest writers is that the irony involved is also as dark as the Venetian lagoons at midnight. 14

 

David Annwn

 

Notes:

1 Author’s interview with Alan Halsey, 25.03.08.

2 www.fiveseasonspress.com, 11.07.08.

3 www.fiveseasonspress.com, 11.07.08.

4 Interview, 25.03.08.

5 Interview, 25.03.08.

6 Alan Halsey, Marginalien, Five Seasons Press, Hereford, 2005, p. 334.

7 Alan Halsey, Not Everything Remotely, Salt, Cambridge, 2006, p.137.

8 Not Everything, p.178.

9 www.saltpublishing.com/books/smp/1844711064.html. 11.07.08.

10 In correspondence with the author, 1.07.08.

11 Interview, 25.03.08.

12 Not Everything, p.264.

13 Not Everything, p.221.

14 Cited in Gavin Selerie, 'Tracks Across the Wordland: The Work of Alan Halsey 1977-1996', Pages, March 1996, p. 397.

 

David Annwn  lectures for the Open University. He is a recipient of the Cardiff International Poetry Award and a Ferguson Centre award for African and Asian Studies. Amongst his books are the collaborations: It Means Nothing To Me, (with Geraldine Monk), and The Last Hunting of the Lizopard, (with Alan Halsey.) One of his poems has been made into a book of calligraphy by Thomas Ingmire for the San Francisco Libraries Collection. His most recent collection, Bela Fawr's Cabaret, (Westhouse/Ahadada),  has just been published.


Alan Halsey's most recent books are Lives of the Poets, 192pp, cloth/dw, from Five Seasons Press, £25 + £2 postage, www.fiveseasonspress.com , and Term as in Aftermath, a collection of poems 2005-7, 100pp paperback, from Ahadada, £11.95 postfree in the UK, UK distribution by West House Books, www.westhousebooks.co.uk , USA by Small Press Distribution, www.spdbooks.org.

 

 

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