Two thoughts occurred as I was thinking about how best to respond to Peter Finch’s work, or what I know of it, based on his 2020 collection The Machineries of Joy. The first was about how much we retreat from the so-called mainstream, if we were ever connected to it, as we age – the second, prompted by something I read on twitter, was about how dangerous it is to listen too much to poets who ‘teach’.
The first came out of the title poem in Finch’s collection, based on a fun idea of Johann Sebastian Bach and a student assistant at the end of the pet food aisle in Sainsburys selling industrial quantities of symphony and sonata ready packaged to all-comers. There is a sudden shift that suggests he may have placed himself, as he is now in his seventies, in the poem. Maybe, maybe not. He’s an elusive character as I believe the better poets are, but it struck a note: At home a bald bent man sits/in his room writing on sheaves of stave/ paper. This is his obsession./ He knows it is all ultimately pointless/ because the kids don’t listen anymore,/ if they ever did,/ but he doesn’t care.
Suddenly, rightly or wrongly, this felt like a key to the whole collection. There is a defiance – whatever anyone says or thinks, the point is to go on exploring the craft, for want of a better word, of writing until you just can’t do it any more. When we’re young we make noise, fight to make ourselves heard, to find ourselves enough elbow room to try to change whatever bit of the world means most to us or seems most wrong. And inevitably, as we age a new generation moves in to shove us aside. We become, or seem to become, less relevant.
The second point arose when a writer said she was grateful to women who had written confessional poetry, even though the ‘confessional’ was now frowned upon – or as she put it, ‘the idea persists in poetry that you shouldn’t write about the personal, especially if you’re a woman’. I’ve no idea what she has based this on, whether it’s an accurate reflection or not, but it brings up the issue of those who ‘teach’ poetry by seeking to mould their students by using a set of imaginary rules. My response to this kind of guff is to tell someone to write what they want to write, how they want to write it, and try to discover what works for them at any given time. And to know that might change – and to be open to that change. Sermon ends. Back to Peter Finch.
Finch has spent his life exploring how to communicate by testing the boundaries and accepted norms of poetry. I don’t think anyone trying to bind him by one of those ‘How To Write Poetry’ textbooks or a Creative Writing Course with its goal of a book-length collection substituting for a thesis would have got very far. And if they had, then the poetry world would have been poorer for it.
Seren are to be congratulated for indulging his stubborn mix of sound poetry, apparently random and sometimes nonsensical word associations, visual experiments, some that have the feel of cut & pastes, as well as more conventional narratives when his observations are often shrewd and blessed with a wry sense of humour.
I don’t know Finch, have never met him, remember one of his readings but can’t think where and as for when, well a long time ago will do. Twenty years or more, certainly. As far as I recall it was inspirational, energetic and fun (when so many aren’t). Accordingly, no doubt, I bought a book after it. Maybe poems for ghosts (1991) or useful (1997), both of which I have and still go back to, as well as his Selected Later Poems (2007). I couldn’t tell you whether Finch was a nice, affectionate kind of chap or one of life’s nuisances but like most of us as we age, I suspect he’s not bothered about that one way or the other: it’s getting the work down that matters.
The poem Boots in The Machineries of Joy begins: The sound of the man next door getting/ out of bed with his boots already on/ is really my Uncle Billy who was/ killed by a shunting brake van and who I/never knew. This is a statement about how we make connections, how life builds experience sound by sound, memory by memory, until the echoes blend in.
In The Novel, he reflects on the naive enthusiasm and grand ambition of youth when he set out to write a great novel that, mercifully he says now, came to nothing. Anyone who’s shrivelled away in embarrassment at a piece of writing they did in their youth, when obviously they considered it revolutionary in its majesty, knows that one.
The late, admired travel writer Jan Morris reacted favourably to Finch’s writing about Cardiff, his home city where he gives or gave ‘alternative’ tours, but added that she skipped the poetry the book contained because she didn’t understand it. I suspect this is a common reaction that Finch accepts and perhaps almost expects. Over the years I’ve found it interesting, amusing, sometimes exhilarating to read some of the apparently weirder more playful pieces aloud. Poems for ghosts contains Hills, which begins conventionally – Just an ordinary man of the bald Welsh hills – but soon evolves into words linked by sound – Just grass gap, bald gap, garp gap, garp gap, gop gap, sharp grap shop shap sheep sugar sha shower shope sheep shear shoe slap sap grasp gap gosp – and eventually repeating 19 times (not 20 so not 5 complete lines) gap.
There are random word-association poems, poems with vowels missed out, list poems. Some things that are just raucously daft and pointless (which is the point as an artist would say). Take Sonnet No. 18 (from Useful) which begins Eeeee e eeeeee eeee ee e eeeeee’s eee? Something to do with Shakespeare’s most famous sonnet. Of course, he could be making that up.
Given that we spent six years, or was it 26, editing a poetry magazine, and 15 or so running a poetry press, Finch’s poem Little Mag (from poems for ghosts) about the years when he edited Second Aeon in the 60s and 70s holds a grim kind of truth. Spend three hours/ addressing envelopes./ Bic exhausted./ Towards the finish/ the hand finds itself/ totally unable to complete the/ tight circle of a letter o… In exchange I get misprints/ highlighted, protest, left topher/ off his name, no comma, word missing,/ poems, two renewals, one cancellation… A bag of post like a/ sack of kippers// Dear Editor,/ I enclose 38 poems about love./ My friends say these/ are better than anything/ else they’ve read./ I would like to buy your/ magazine please send a/ free copy./ I will pay for one/when I’m in it.
He mixes prose patches with lists as in Dutch (poems for ghosts) – towns in Holland beginnings with H. No reason to it beyond the sound but still – Heerenveen, Hoogeveen, Haarlem, Hertogenbosch, Hippoylytushoef, Heemstede. (Sadly, all do exist.)
More conventional fun-poking, too, at the perils of living with a partner in All I Need Is Three Plums (useful). Please forgive me, I have taken the money/ you have been saving in the ceramic pig/ and spent it on drink.
And tenderness towards the father-son relationship in Student House, when the father takes the son back to a freezing house unoccupied for the three-week break. A river of lager cans flows down the hall… The stains across the sofa look like someone has died… He hands me the torch. I go to the basement to see if I can fix the boiler, no longer in charge but still trying, the fallen king.
Writer’s Guidelines (Real Cardiff, 2002) begins A pamphlet of poems and a hard-backed novel will accelerate at the same speed when you chuck them down a stairwell.// Fiction always ends. And the cynic in him takes aim at the literary cognoscenti, the career-poets – Say hello often enough and you’ll soon be famous.
The Machineries of Joy still contains this kind of energetic enthusiasm for life and if anything has even more of the hit-or-miss, scatter-gun array of pieces that take in Wales and the USA, where he seems in search of musical roots (and ok, I suddenly notice from the back cover blurb that one of his books is called The Roots of Rock From Cardiff to Mississippi). In one poem he sets John Ashbery in Lidl, another is about the pointless anxiety of searching for supposedly lost cats in the dark, another a reaction to a commissioned piece on Don Van Vliet, otherwise known as Captain Beefheart, for an exhibition in Liverpool. Inevitably, for a sound poet, there is a poem called Train. There are one or two that link. House Fix – In here the rain comes through the wall/puddling below the window./ It was fixed last year and the one before – connects nicely to Crap Builders – They are all like this crap builders/ forty years of house repair has taught me. And there follows a page-long rant about tradesmen who demolish more than they mend.
Reading one of Finch’s books is always the same for me. Some poems I find liberating, life-enhancing, some I pass by. If you can accept that, then I would say he’s worth exploring. And as to where he’s at now, after all the gregarious years as a performance poet and, strangely, head of the Welsh Academi, maybe the last lines of a poem called Ty Draw sum it up. I’ve written it now./ And you’ve read it. So, something remains.