Bill Griffiths: Collected Earlier Poems (1966-80), 368pp. £18
Reality Street, 63 All Saints Street, Hastings, TN34 3BN
Bill Griffiths died in 2007 age 59. This collection, edited by Alan Halsey and Ken Edwards, brings together, for the first time, his poems up until 1980.
The final poem in this book, ‘Building: The New London Hospital,’ contains the lines: ‘even in the middle of a swimming-pool / I still know my own feet’. The puzzling clarity of this, the sense of sudden insight, of finding your feet where you don’t expect to, and the combination of seriousness and playfulness, come some way towards describing what it’s like to read these poems. Griffiths’ note on the poem illustrates his approach: ‘this long sequence centres on the theme of reincarnation and contains covered refs to an alleged murder committed outside a pub in Stepney, which tho I put the passages in the first person, was nothing to do with me. Otherwise most of the info comes from fellow-workers on the London Hospital extension.’ The combination of such disparate material and the wry reference to his non-involvement with the murder is typical Griffiths. The sequence comprises numbered ‘fragments’ in a variety of forms. ‘FRAGMENT 1’ begins:
big buildings / mountains
Alf who was always sleeping in strange places
50 KG more than ½ a hundredweight
my back adds it up / spinal sum
a bishop can hold an abbey in one hand
a boot shot out the door with a yell
there was a 2nd boot
& a birdcage
This reads like notes written on-site; only 11 lines but a striking number of situations, observations, suggestions of what’s to come (an ‘adventure’? ‘cartoon’?), two contrasting characters (‘Alf’ and a bishop) and an incident described like a surreal cartoon (referring back to line 3). Details are decontextualised, though it’s not difficult to imagine contexts; the reader is involved, drawn in, making connections.
It isn’t that helpful to ask what these poems are about, it’s more useful to talk about what they do: Bill Griffiths makes structures out of language which themselves say something about the world. ‘Building: The New London Hospital’ provides, among (many) other things, one of the best impressions I’ve read of manual labour – the physical strain, desperate hilarity, preoccupation with detail and the relationship with co-workers. The fragmentary structure is exactly right. The poem also incorporates other scenarios and references to other poetry; a fragment entitled ‘SHEPHERD’S CALENDAR’ begins: ‘I follow her into the front room / I leave the sheep in the back room’. There’s also a healthy dose of satire: ‘My latest thought brick has just materialized. My young son has just been made a member of the local golf club.’
Bill Griffiths’ poetry is full of contrasts, as was the poet. He joined a biker gang when he was 15, was homeless for two years, spent time in a squat, and once lived on a houseboat until it burned down. He was, at the same time, a pianist, a respected scholar, local historian and archivist: he held a PhD in Anglo-Saxon, translated Old English and Romany poetry, and published a series of books on local dialect. He was also a small press publisher, and during Eric Mottram’s legendary editorship of Poetry Review in the 1970s (documented in Peter Barry’s Poetry Wars) was manager of the Poetry Society print shop, a focus of what Mottram called, in 1974, the British Poetry Revival. Griffiths writes from a radical, anarchist perspective, with a remarkable knowledge and sense of history. Robert Creeley, talking about Charles Olson’s view of history (and Pound’s) could be talking about Griffiths: ‘[the] ability to pick up materials of history so they’re all coincident and contemporary. You weren’t transforming them, but the only place they could obviously be was where you were, if they were to be there at all.’
Griffiths structures poems out of found text, historical sources, his own experiences, so that it feels as if history is happening now, in the present. The work constantly ranges over time and can incorporate a dizzying array of sources. The acclaimed ‘Cycles’ sequence, for instance (39 pages; 16 poems) includes poems on Dover Borstal, Brixton prison, the burning of York Minster in 1829, found text from MR James’ ghost stories and ‘an impressionistic history of the period 1952 plus.’ Sources for material cited in poems, given in the collection’s invaluable endnotes, include: Honshu by Yasuo Kuwahara, Ideal Home Exhibition and the Colosseum, Vulgate Jonah & Mallalieu, BBC on recycling, Authorised Psalms, Jimmy & Robert Boyle, Tolkien, Jane Austen, the Sun, Edward Moor’s Bealings Bells 1834, ‘Parkinson Cookery Book,’ a cantata of John Stanley and a Rupert Bear story. As a general rule, however, references for the sources aren’t available because, Griffiths says: ‘the poem has to stand for itself.’ When the source is provided, though, it adds a new dimension to the poem. Cycles One: On Dover Borstal’ for instance, has the line ‘En regardant vers le pais de France’ a quotation from the poet Charles d’Orleans written when he was imprisoned at Dover, whose longing for freedom, written over five hundred years ago, provides a historical counterpoint to contemporary events. He also makes history out of the experience of groups who might be considered outsiders, and invents styles of writing to suit his needs. The major sequence ‘War W/ Windsor’ based on his experience and knowledge of biker gang warfare utilises a formidable variety of forms and a convincing reproduction of biker talk: ‘One of them blasted w/ a shotgun on Chelsea bridge, and we was to help them against Windsor…They had a caravan on the North Circular and their speaking & planning was well O.K., sunshiny.’
During his time as a biker, Griffiths was arrested under the stop and search laws and briefly imprisoned in Brixton, though never charged. Prison is a preoccupation. ‘THE INFLUENCE OF SWEDENBORG ON RETRAINING,’ for example, is scored in columns for two voices. The first voice, a found text, is that of an inmate of Colchester military prison, the second is a justification of divine punishment by Swedenborg. The contrast (and the refusal to privilege Swedenborg over the anonymous prisoner) illustrates Griffiths’ egalitarian beliefs and calls into question the assumptions of the legal system and its authority. ‘Cycle Three: H.M. Prison Brixton’ gives us prison life from the inside: ‘Texas looked in the cell / with the tea and the bars / he says to my cell-mate surprised like / ain’t you topped yourself yet?’ The politics is fundamental, and never obscures the poetry.
This is a stunning collection and I recommend it. I also recommend the Salt Companion to Bill Griffiths edited by Will Rowe, which contains some excellent articles on Griffiths work (including a piece by Eric Mottram, which convincingly places Griffiths in the anarchist tradition of Blake, Godwin and Shelley) and an interview with the poet. Alongside this collection, it should help bring Bill Griffiths’ work to a wider audience. I’m going to give the last word to Jeff Nuttall, whose introduction to the Salt book brilliantly describes the effect of reading these remarkable poems:
‘Bill Griffiths’ poems are dazzling…they insist on being recognised as surfaces and structures. Statements are made. Stories are told. Places and people are described. A bitter anarchism is expressed…Yet statement, narration, description and expression are kept in check so that the poem is seen as itself… an artefact, an edifice with an importance over and above its subject matter. .. [which]…perpetually dazzles and astonishes in exactly the way the great stained-glass windows of European cathedrals dazzle and astonish before the eye has recognised whatever image is depicted.’
First published in The North.