Saturday, August 28, 2010

"One Comes Across The Strangest Things In Walks"

Ivor Gurney admired Walt Whitman.  I suspect (and this is pure speculation on my part given my limited knowledge of Gurney) that one of the things that Gurney liked about Whitman was Whitman's  (seemingly) stream-of-consciousness cataloguing of what one stumbles upon in the world.  Here is a wonderful example from Gurney:


One comes across the strangest things in walks:
Fragments of abbey tithe barns fixed in modern,
With Dutch-sort houses, where the water baulks,
Weired up, and brick-kilns broken among fern;
Old troughs, great stone cisterns priests might have blessed
For mere liking, most worthy mounting-stones;
Black timber in red brick, surprisingly placed
Where hill-stone was looked for; and a manor's bones
Spied in the frame of some wisteria'd house;
And mill-falls and sedge-pools, and Saxon faces;
Stream sources happened upon in unlikely places;
And Roman-looking hills of small degree.
The surprise, the good in dignity of poplars
At a road's end, or the white Cotswold scars --
Sheets spread out spotless against the hazel-tree.

And toothless old men, bubbling over with jokes,
And deadly serious once the speaking finished.
Beauty is less, after all, than strange comical folks,
And the wonder of them never and never can become diminished.

Published in The London Mercury, Volume VI, Number 36 (October, 1922).

I hesitate to call attention to one small piece of the marvelous whole, but I cannot help but observe what a beautiful touch it is for Gurney to write "never and never" in the final line rather than simply "never."

                                           Robin Tanner, "June" (1946)


William A. Sigler said...

I just love this pose you strike that Gurney is one of the most famous poets in the world, backing it up with this incredible poem, and leaving us with the subtlest of echoes.


Stephen Pentz said...

Bill: Thank you for again visiting and commenting. It is a fine poem, isn't it? I think that it captures Gurney's charm very well. And Robin Tanner's etchings are a nice accompaniment to Gurney's walks in, and poems about, the English countryside.

PAL said...

This blog continues to be the first daily port of call for the aspirant to the cultivated life.

I absolutely agree about the power of particularity in Gurney. But his skill is in the way he assembles seemingly random detail into poetic entities that have a habit of staying in your head.

Also his diction, a telling example of which you point to, strikes me generally as truly original. I do urge you to get hold of PJ Kavanagh's 1984 OUP edition of the Collected Poems.

Further to our conversation of a few weeks back, I share your high opinion of Sam Hynes's Edwardian Occasions. For the first time it made me see cultural history in a different way. Have you read his Pacific War memoir? Very fine. And The Soldier's Tale? Better than Fussell.

Stephen Pentz said...

PAL: As always, it is a pleasure to hear from you. It would be churlish of me not to accept your generous compliment, but I do fear that your kindness puts me in way over my head! Thank you very much for your kind words.

I completely agree with your observations about Gurney. You're exactly right: it is not simply the particularity, but the way in which he brings the details together, and the idiosyncracy of the details, that is remarkable.

And I agree with you about his diction as well. I confess that I sometimes find it quite difficult. This is especially true of the poems that were not published in his lifetime (particularly those that were written during his years in and out of asylums): as you know, his manuscripts and typescripts can be confusing and the punctuation (or lack thereof) therein may, I think, sometimes add to the difficulty of his diction (for me, at least).

I do need to obtain Kavanagh's edition of Gurney's poems. I have an Everyman edition by George Walter, who has done a great deal of work in Gurney's archives. You probably know that Walter has produced a number of Gurney volumes for Carcanet.

As you also no doubt know, Professor Tim Kendall and Philip Lancaster are preparing a new edition of Gurney's poems. I have been following their efforts on their blogs: and I think that we can expect to see a large number of new Gurney poems when their edition is published.

Unfortunately, I have not yet read Hynes's war memoir or "The Soldier's Tale" -- the latter is on my shelf, but still awaits me.

Thank you again, PAL.

Philip Lancaster said...

I find it a great encouragement to read of others enthusing about Gurney's work, affirming my own belief in it. As you say, there are a large number of poems as yet unknown, only about a third of his more than 1,500 poems being in print. As I am working through the archive, completing the initial transcription of the poetry, I am left wondering how many of the poems have escaped attention to date. It is both exciting and a great privilege to be bringing these to publication with Tim.

Whitman was, as you observe, a very great influence upon Gurney: in his knowledge of America, for instance; in his style of poetry, with which Gurney experimented most notably in 1925; and in his acts of memorial following the war; et al. I am endeavouring to explore all of these influences in my current work.

Stephen Pentz said...

Mr. Lancaster: Thank you very much for visiting, and for leaving a comment. As I mentioned above, I have been following your work on Gurney, so it is exciting to have both you and Tim Kendall (who commented on a previous post) find your way here.

It is wonderful to know that there are still so many Gurney poems awaiting us! As you say, it must indeed be exciting to be involved in such a worthwhile endeavor. I wish you and Tim the best of luck in bringing it to completion.

I look forward to your work on Gurney and Whitman. I admit (shamefacedly) that my knowledge of Whitman is not (especially since I am from the U.S.) what it should be. I was surprised to find Philip Larkin identify Whitman as one of the poets whose volumes he always kept close at hand. Also, in commenting on contemporary American poetry in a 1964 interview with Ian Hamilton, Larkin said: "I don't know much about [the Beat poets]. That's because I'm fond of Whitman; they seem to me debased Whitman, but debased Whitman is better than debased Ezra Pound." (Larkin is always entertaining in his interviews, isn't he!)

I don't think that Edward Thomas particulary admired Whitman's poetry -- he wrote that D. H. Lawrence's poems "have the effect which Whitman only got now and then after a thousand efforts of rhymeless lawlessness." (!) However, to his credit (he was, I think, an incredibly perceptive critic), Thomas recognized Whitman's originality. In a review of Frost's "North of Boston," Thomas states: "Mr Frost has, in fact, gone back, as Whitman and as Wordsworth went back, through the paraphernalia of poetry into poetry again." (Being a great admirer of Thomas, I would argue that Thomas himself did the same thing in his poetry.)

My apologies for going on so long. Again, thank you for visiting. And, again, thank you for, and the best of luck with, your work on Gurney.