HEIGHTS AND DEPTHS
(Review for Samphire magazine, 1979, of poetry books by Geoffrey Holloway, Yannis Kondos and Galway Kinnell. Plus additional note, 2011)
Geoffrey Holloway Yannis Kondos Galway Kinnell
As readers of Samphire will have realised, Geoffrey Holloway’s work is spiky, concentrated, ironic and rather more worthwhile than that of many other better known and currently fashionable poets. I’ve read and reread his latest collection, All I Can Say (Anvil), with growing pleasure in its skill and vigorous diversity and with increased respect for someone whose work I’ve always admired. Now in his sixties, Holloway seems to be writing better than ever, and I urge anyone seriously interested in contemporary British poetry to get hold of this book and Holloway’s two previous collections To Have Eyes (Anvil, 1972) and Rhine Jump (London Magazine Editions, 1974), which should still be in print. Rarely can a critic endorse a publisher’s blurb, but in this case “a wide selection of his poems from many years of writing, diverse in theme and styles but constant in their accuracy of observation and compassion” is fair and not misleading or exaggerated comment. Holloway has the wry persistence allied to that sensitivity, scope and generous honesty which are the hallmarks of the genuine poet.
He’s hard to quote from (one invariably wants to include the whole poem) and yet a memorable phrase-maker: “the branched indifference of a clock” or (of a crab) “a Cornish pasty trying/to pinch its own crust” – to open this book at random. And because of his variety Holloway’s hard to pigeonhole, which is perhaps why he hasn’t really received his critical due. To give some idea of this range, there’s Holloway as nature poet, for instance. He has some moving and unsentimental words on the death of a cat; he writes about horses (Enigma; Rebuke); there’s a poem on Slugs, and – short enough to quote in full – one on Nasturtiums:
on high stools
And I like his visions (in separate, longish poems) of foxes and ewes, as much as the various Hughesian versions of these creatures. Even as the poet celebrates it, creation itself, owing to the lurking inescapable presences of savagery and death, can often seem like a bad joke. In Caged, sardonic sympathy and shrewd observation concisely and memorably fuse:
The animals who can’t laugh haunt me
The gritty, more satirical side of Holloway can be found in bleak ballads like Travellers Joy; Bedsitters; or the weightier but equally deadly quatrains of Bitch, while the socially-committed poet – Geoffrey Holloway is a social worker in the Lake District – comes to the fore in Statistics: 2 a.m.; Non-Accidental Injury Slides; and Surveillance, which deal with child abuse, urban misfits and the miseries of impoverished old age, subjects probably unfamiliar or uncongenial to more academic types. And as before, Holloway also includes some fine war poems: characteristially, these deal with war’s individual casualties mental and physical, for he served in a parachute field ambulance during WW2.
These are utterly convincing, deeply felt and vividly re-created. Equally impressive are the poems dealing with the illness and death of the poet’s first wife, to whose memory the collection is dedicated. Holloway never flinches or postures, and though the book’s last word is in fact ‘death’, it effectively affirms the joy and value of life.
For this one can forgive a few roughnesses and occasional faults. Occasionally he overdoes the staccato statements and consonantal clashes, or adjectives and similes pile up and rhythms become clogged or prosaic. Sometimes, too, he overbalances – the final ‘us’ in Snails, for ecample – although it’s hard to see how the poem’s otherwise deft series of clipped imagist couplets could be less obviously concluded. But Holloway is usually strong on endings, and in ninety-odd pages hardly any poems misfire. Some, such as Street, are purely descriptive, accurate if scarcely memorable, while a few others are slight: generally the language is lively and the perceptions keen.
Yannis Kondos, now in his mid-thirties, is one of the more interesting newer Greek poets and has already been translated into Russian, Italian, Serbo-Croat, Bulgarian and Welsh. Yannis Goumas – a name again familiar to this magazine’s readers, who know him as a quirky, enjoyable, English-language poet and an assiduous and prolific translator from his native Greek – has done both the poet and ourselves a service, for Mercurial Time (Sceptre Press) is an excellent introduction to Kondos’s work. As evident from the book’s title-poem, and that of other pieces such as Excavations 1972; Timeless; Photocopy; and the prose-poem seuqence Sketch For A Story (Montage), Kondos is preoccupied with time in all its aspect, its swift passage, deceptions and illusions. He examines whether ancient methods, such as archaeology or poetry, of trying to fix, classify or isolate time’s fragments – facets of the temporal – are any more or less valid or enduring than technology’s newer developments, e.g. slides, photocopies (the title of his 1977 collection) and frames of film. It’s of course an impossible attempt – and traditionally a very Hellenic one, however contemporary the style – to define and rescue something permanent from the Heraclitean flux.
Ridicule or peril attend the presumptuous artist at every turn, as Kondos is well aware in the following poem (quoted in full), Danger In Town:
Tonight no poems are being written.
I run – we run.
The deceptively humorous voice with its haunting surreal undertone comes through clearly in striking images such as “The wild transistor plays on, and no one sees/the octopus seizing a seagull on the rocks.” Or in a fine poem like The Great Silence, whose title and oblique political references will resound with ironies for anyone like myself who happened to be inside the Colonels’ Greece of 1967. The closing lines link public and private, black and white, stasis and flux, good and evil, synthesising Kondos’s preoccupations, to my mind very aptly:
The stayed hand.
Someone turns on the switch
Kondos has clearly learned from the surrealists (one sequence has an epigraph from the still undervalued founding-father of Greek surrealism, Andreas Embiricos) and it’s been a fruitful lesson. But like Holloway he’s very much his own man. He ends one section with lines I’d guess Holloway would endorse: “Don’t think the world is smiling. It merely bares its teeth.” There are some blemishes in the translations here and there: ‘enwalled’ for walled up or immured; ‘impassion’ used actively rather than adjectivally as a past participle; a few awkward inversions of word order, and the odd colloquial error (‘a mum afternoon’), but these are relatively unimportant. Translating poetry is an arduous and thankless task and it would be churlish to quibble with a translator as dedicated, energetic and generally reliable as Goumas. A pity the price is rather steep (£2 for only 34 pages of actual text), since the book, admittedly well produced, may thus not reach the wider readership it deserves. This of course is the perennial problem with small presses!
Talking of which I wonder why Omphalos Press and J-Jay Publications bothered to publish the lamentable Galway Kinnell volume, Book Of Nightmares. Almost everything is wrong with this lengthy opus and Kinnell comes across as the worst kind of American pseud: portentous yet dull, self-indulgent, longwinded and inept. The author has a tin ear and a penchant for arbitrary line-breaks that lovers of the ludicrous might relish. The book’s very epigraph, “This is beyone description!” [sic], apparently a quotation from the great German poet Rike [sic], alerts us to the plethora of typos within, while Blurb notes that the author has been “poet-in-residence at several colleges and universities”. Decency forbids further comment.
Various small presses published further poetry books by Geoffrey Holloway during the 1980s, but the last collection of his which I have on my shelves is a fine pamphlet of two dozen pages, The Strangest Thing, published in 1991 by the terrific and now alas, late-lamented, Redbeck Press, run from Bradford by David Tipton. Tipton, himself a Northern writer, is an old friend who also published my own collection Skeleton Keys in 2003. He too seems to have battled – for recognition, funding assistance and review-space alike – with the London-based literary establishment (the Arts Council, Poetry Society, TLS, etc), encountering the same sorts of cliquishness and closed minds that Holloway must have done.
I wrote ‘must have done’ for I’m not sure exactly when (in the 1990s?) Geoff Holloway died and I can’t say I knew him well. We met on a few occasions only, initially at the Arvon centre at Lumb Bank, Yorkshire in the mid-1970s, where I was co-tutoring a writing course with novelist Angela Carter. Until he declared himself midway through the five days, no one had any idea who the single much older ‘student’ on our course was: he’d originally signed up using his middle name, ‘Percy’. As an experienced and talented poet himself he should, we told him, have been helping us help the others to write! At any rate his mixture of amused observation, with both a sense of mischief and of humility, was thoroughly likeable and Holloway also proved very amusing company in the pub.
I saw Geoff several times more at the end of the 1970s, when Kate and I were living in his beloved Lake District throughout one autumn and winter before leaving for Greece in the spring of 1979. I thought then and think now that he was underrated. A major publisher should surely have produced during Geoffrey Holloway’s lifetime a representative Collected. These days, however, there’s little literary taste and less discernment: you must make the right career moves, be young and photogenic, and/or meet a spectacularly premature end… The likes of Geoff Holloway – an honest and prolific artificer with a sharp eye, a survivor with a keen moral sense and an abrasive wit – don’t measure up to current fashions and may be forgotten for a while, but the work remains and will continue to speak for itself and to us.