… As in – What? You want to dig out everything I’ve ever completed or abandoned and put them all in a book? Why? Some will be so bad they’ll be embarrassing.
Except it’s the type of thing that usually happens to more accomplished and better known writers than me, and usually when they’re dead, so the truth is there is nothing to be frightened of.
On the opposite side of the experience, reading every poem someone has written might seem a massive and potentially draining task unless you were planning to write an academic thesis.
Even so, I was fascinated by the idea of Peter Finch’s two-volume Collected Poems (Seren, £19.99 each book) given that he had so much of his early work in long out-of-print small magazines – and that he is still alive.
As a kind of preparation, I looked again at Philip Larkin’s Collected Poems, published in 1988, three years after his death. It’s illuminating to see how organised and competent a writer he was when he was still so young, though perhaps that’s in part a result of the constraints of his time, in that it was easier to know then where to pitch oneself if you wanted to write poetry and were English. But what did I gain from reading all of those early poems, including one published in a school magazine when Larkin was sixteen? Sadly, the answer is not a lot.
What would Larkin have thought of it? True, he kept meticulously dated notebooks, to the point where an individual poem could be traced over time, but I am not sure that the legendary librarian of Hull University would have approved of every single one of the contents of these personal books being lumped together and offered to the general public as proof, one way or the other, of his historical standing. Perhaps the limit of his intentions in keeping the notebooks was to offer any future students a chance to assess him in terms of an essay here, a thesis there. (Or maybe he’d wanted them thrown out when he had gone.) But the whole lot thrown together for public consumption?
Finch, being alive, at least has been able to control what’s included and what is quietly omitted. And, even if that makes it a kind of Selected Collected Poems, I don’t blame him a bit. This way, we know he feels there is, or might be, some value and relevance in each of the pieces that are included.
And I do prefer the idea of a Collected Poems, good, bad and indifferent, to one of those slim Selected Poems volumes that only scratch the surface of what a poet is about. I’m thinking of another book on the shelf, the unsatisfactory, 33-poem selection of W H Auden’s work, published in 1968. I believe Auden was involved in the production of that, so must take some responsibility for it. However, so much is left out that it runs like a brief introduction. And, of course, there was so much more to come.
Back to Finch, whose work now stretches back more than fifty years. He, and everyone else involved with the project, will know the collective effort and dedication that is required to get something like this into print. It’s huge but admirable – and, in my view, well-deserved, if the arrival of a Collected Poems is, in the end, to be considered an accolade.
I had a fairly inadequate stab at considering what Finch is about in a previous blog, centred on the books I had bought of his over the years, so don’t intend to attempt an in-depth assessment of the 950-odd pages in the two volumes. Sufficient to say that as usual, while there are orthodox, plainly written pieces, some apparently personal and anecdotal, and therefore easy to understand, in others the boundaries of what people might perceive a poem to be are tested again and again. (If you want to see the earlier blog, it’s under the title of The Value Of Doing Things Your Own Way – A Brief Look At The Work Of Peter Finch, from June 2021.)
Years ago, on a work trip, a colleague picked up a book of Diane Wakorski’s work that I had with me. He read a couple of the poems, looked mystified and said: I don’t understand. Is this poetry or is it just ideas? As usual, I found it hard to respond. I am no defender of anyone’s poetry, including my own, or other kinds of writing for that matter, and for all the time I’ve been writing I still can’t explain exactly what poetry might or might not be. That, perhaps, to me, is the point – and why I find Finch interesting.
My friend put Wakorski’s book down and took the traditional higher ground that poetry wasn’t poetry if it didn’t rhyme. There wasn’t much point in telling him about Paradise Lost or The Prelude but stupidly I did attempt a vague stab at the suggestion that poetry may have used rhyme because travelling, illiterate balladeers found it easier to remember the words if they had the comfort of rhymes to hold on to, rather like most songs. Once it started to be written down and published, by those who could write and afford to publish, this was no longer necessary, although for centuries people preferred it that way and many still do. Yes, folks, I came across as a pretentious idiot, sensed it, and fell back on the weary old chestnut In the end, it’s what you like, which always translates as I’ve no idea what I’m talking about.
What my colleague would have made of Finch, I can’t imagine. We have the concrete poems, sound poems, performance poems, whatever comes into your head poems, even images of, for example, crumpled pieces of paper, purported to be critical reviews in poetry mags of the time.
He does what he wants and does it his own way. We don’t have to like everything he does. He would probably think there was something slightly wrong with us if we did because the point is that he’s trying to challenge us to rethink, reconsider, wonder why something he has done in an apparently odd way is how it is. I enjoy the way he explores ideas, in the methods he uses to communicate as well as in the more formal texts.
In his foreword to the second book (1997-2021), Ian McMillan recalls the time
Finch was guest poet at Ty Newydd, the longstanding venue for those who want to attend poetry courses. McMillan, who was teaching there, asked Finch to liven things up a bit – perhaps a daft and dangerous thing to do! Finch responded by reading chunks of a Mills and Boon novel, tore pages out as he read them – and ate them. McMillan felt that in doing so he challenged the relationship between writer and reader, performer and audience.
Terms like avant-garde, concrete, experimental, inventive, alternative are so often applied to poets the world doesn’t quite understand or can’t pigeon-hole. I don’t want to go too near those traps but to interest me a poem has to feel like it’s living, breathing, feeling. At his best, Finch involves me in his work in this way.
Some will inevitably gloss over the stranger pieces because they won’t ‘get’ them. Sounds, images, images which combine with texts, found poems, all fit with a quotation from Finch, included by Andrew Taylor in his introduction, where he says: It is a perfectly respectable approach to make poetry from not what is inside the head but from the swirl of words outside it.
Taylor also calls Finch one of Britain’s leading poets. I’m not really sure what one of those is but I take the point that Finch is trying to challenge where poetry might take us – and in that sense is attempting to lead us somewhere, anywhere, perhaps he’s not exactly sure where, to offer us the potential to move our own writing into places we had not previously considered taking it.
There are just too many pieces in this spread of more than half a century of writing to pick up quotations or select one over another. Enough to say I know I will read and re-read, look at, dip into these two books, as and when, for a long time to come. I am grateful to Finch himself and to Seren for having the energy and ambition to make them available.