February 04, 2007

Poetry Chronicle 2: M. R. Peacocke and the Small Press Crisis

Peacocke 1

Above: The Howgill Fells, home to M.R. Peacocke and her work

The state of independent poetry publishing will be a matter we need to return to again and again. After a debate at Warwick about the crisis endemic to poetry publishing, I described some of the issues – with reference to a particularly fine (but utterly neglected) ‘small press’ poet, Meg Meacocke. I acknowledge “The Guardian” Review where it first appeared.

An end and a beginning

Did anyone notice the recent crisis in poetry publishing? If poetry were a species, it would have entered the red list. There were more writers of the stuff than ever, but few readers. Poets were loss makers, so bigger publishers dropped their poetry lists or shrank them to a trickle of slim, overpriced volumes. Prominent poets, once published by the big houses, were forced to seek out new habitats within the small presses.

This narrowed what those companies could do: it meant scant room for poets considered uncommercial. So those proud starvelings were left, beaks open, in the cold of non-publication. What began to save the situation was the determination of an energised group of specialist editors to keep poetry true to itself, to its best traditions.

They wanted to make the “brand” of poetry healthy, to publish the best and be damned or lauded by posterity. Peterloo Poets was one of a cluster of presses, including Bloodaxe, Carcanet and Arc, that held its nerve within that crisis, and the result is a book as strong as this, MR Peacocke’s third collection.

Peacocke 2

Peterloo had experience behind it. The company has been championing both the barely visible and the established poet for nearly 30 years. For half that time MR Peacocke has been a gold standard for readers of its list (another of its luminaries is UA Fanthorpe). Peacocke’s Marginal Land (1988) and Selves (1995) were fine collections, distinguished by the fact that nearly all the poems had been worked to such a degree that every piece held up, many poems were memorable, and some were terrifying in their honesty.

This was healthy poetry, not that interested in reception, but necessary because its severe honesty was rather avant-garde in contrast to the post-modern/urban poetry pouring down at that time.

MR Peacocke’s Speaking of the Dead is also entirely convincing, and even more thorough in its determination to be honest. Her work is emblematic of contemporary British poetry and its publishing, not least because the excellence of her work is coupled with a neglect of her reputation outside poetry circles. Peacocke lives on a hill farm among those beautiful but wild fells you will have seen flanking the M6 in Cumbria. She runs the place as a smallholding. As such she has a powerful feel not only for beasts (“an old dog was waving / his shadow tail and barking a raspy / rundown bark”) and natural history (“Worms that lay out in a soft dusk / are block-cold this morning. Frost / has burned them”) but also for the briefness of everything perceived in our lifetimes. Life and time are hard-won glimpses to be valued and held in writing, yet knowing this work will also disappear: “to tread our names in blemished / brilliant drifts; because the time we have / is shrinking away like snow”.

Of course, many writers have been on this terminal moraine before; but I know few contemporary British poets other than Peacocke who can write with such perception of the under-dramatised ordinariness of mortality. Nature kills without value; we choose to impose a sometimes shallow value on that process through our need for sentiment or our needless terror of death. Peacocke, instead, writes with what Osip Mandelstam called the science of saying goodbye>

The moment when you say, Not many more.
Without pain or anger, something gives,
like a wrapping of ancient linen
or leather that is spent; and your eye
can gaze into a lost eye and feel
no rancour, because now it comprehends
how the first subtle binding was made.
Your freed hands stretch, unswaddled limbs,
and you laugh, learning the air and rain.
For a while these dead may search, fumbling
after lost authority. Dismiss them?
They fade of themselves, carrying no weight,
their language of command obsolescent.
Peacocke 3

Peacocke’s language is shriven, precise and terribly open to the dead, to absence. What alerts the poet, and what fascinates me in her poetry, are those moments of change in which things die into one another without loss of essential energy or force. It’s a question of perception. In “Late Snow” she writes of:

An end. Or a beginning.
Snow had fallen again and covered
the old dredge and blackened mush
with a gleaming pelt; but high up there
in the sycamore top, Thaw
Thaw, the rooks cried,
sentinel by ruined nests.

This is Larkin’s trees crying to “Begin afresh, afresh, afresh” and Shakespeare’s “bare, ruin’d choirs”. It also calls to our need for a concise vocabulary for the merits of being alive. Peacocke shares this precision of language with the late American poet Elizabeth Bishop. Both have a bristly perceptive clarity for minutiae, and for the wry double-take on detail that can be deadly as well as funny. Writing of an unidentified seaside town where you can glimpse Scotland when the cloud lifts>

... someone’s troubled to work
on the notice until it advises
Please d i e carefully …
Two dogs with experienced grey muzzles
are laughing over something …
This is a place for men
and miniature men, for talk
of tides catches records goals. The women
sit. Older sitters have good big teeth …

Meg Peacocke was born in 1930. One imagines she doesn’t do a lot of sitting about on her high-contoured farm. Maybe you have to live long and work as hard to write this well and as clearly. Maybe a smallholding high on the fell is the place to create these self-sufficient, alert combinations of words “that quest, voice, check, run / like hounds hunting alone”. Her control of feeling is superb, and the plain knowledge that lies behind these poems, most of it simply unspoken, is a mark of her respect for the reader. I predict her reputation, like that of Elizabeth Bishop, is likely to increase greatly with time, and I trust that it happens within her lifetime.

It’s discrimination and boldness that allow presses such as Peterloo to hold a poet of Peacocke’s talent to the light. With others, it has broken the snow for new poetry presses that already show immense promise such as Heaventree, Worple and Arrowhead. We should show the same respect to small and specialist publishers as we do to the best regional theatres, galleries or orchestras. They are also proud starvelings; they operate on a fare of energy and belief. Feed them by buying their books, beginning with this one.

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