Tuesday, June 20, 2006

2. Richard Caddel

Here’s the second instalment of eighteen on the challenge I set myself in this blog entry.

It might be worth mentioning, in case there is any doubt, that I have no obvious qualifications to comment on these modernist poets. I come, not as an expert, but as an average reader of poetry interested in what poets are doing beyond the mainstream. My response is purely personal and I have no doubt that academics and literary theorists could do a much better job.

Richard Caddel, as I suspected, is a challenging read. At first, I thought he was also going to be an unrewarding read, but there are rewards to be had if you go looking and don’t give up too soon. I was at a loss on how best to describe his poetry. Fortunately Richard Caddel came to my aid, with three lines that provided me with an entry point into what he’s trying to do.

The first two of these lines are at the beginning of the first poem by him in the book, a five-page extract from a longer poem called Fantasia in the English Choral Tradition. It starts:

lost in everyday deposits
of bedrock

There is a lostness, there is a mundanity in the “everyday deposits”, but these deposits are fundamental, the “bedrock”. So three points of a triangle, each very different – even contradictory – but each dependent on the position of the others for their particular angle. The fundamental solid ground goes into tension with the lostness, which in turn is in tension both with the bedrock, which aims to give solidity rather than lostness, and with the everyday deposits, which you might think would be too familiar to get lost in and too unimportant to be genuinely fundamental.

The poem begins with what feels like a creation myth. It has an almost liturgical surge, with lines repeating like a religious incantation, and the phrase “the face of the earth” recalls the creation myth of Genesis 1. Caddel has human beings appearing and moving over the earth “like a great dance         like cloud spray”.

The poem is made up of fragments that echo one another, but the minute the images begin to pull together, they slip apart again. Caddel could almost be talking about his poem when he writes:

These fragments come
out of time
                          to call to
the heat of the world

(My efforts to replicate the white space Caddel employs haven't succeeded so far, despite my attempts to follow Julie's html directions. I'll try again later. For now, just imagine that each line doesn't always begin on the left margin! Apologies). Images and phrases come and go, repeat, connect and disconnect. Whenever the poem threatens to come into focus, Caddel makes sure it blurs over again. One section of the poem is structured like this:

dealing with         the anger of a friend
                                    …watching a cow blink
                                    …hearing a car go down the hill
                                    …when it’s still moist with rain

I’ve taken these out of sequence to illustrate what he then does in the next section:

…the grass still moist from hate         dealing with a friend’s cow         a car anger         blink in the moist evening…

He takes phrases from the previous section and mixes them all up. Sometimes the new phrases make unusual sense, sometimes not. I suspect this is one deconstructive literary theorists would enjoy putting under the microscope. He finishes this section with the revealing phrase:

hoping for a light to steer by but not touch

That’s what I was thinking too. There’s nothing to hang onto, but now and again a little light helped me to find a route through, although hardly a definitive one.

A lighthouse does indeed appear in the next section. Caddel’s view seems to be that true expertise in steering comes through loving, naming, singing. Not that there is a structured argument in the poem of any kind, but that’s what I took from it. Humans are part of this world, lost even in the everyday’s solid ground, but they can steer themselves through:

I am back in thought
                                               in the hills
with scope
                          to sing
the things I love
                                    as they occur
this instant


The second poem, Rigmarole: Block Quilt, is like this over three pages:

not that you asked for a poem
curled asleep         insight of mountains
to place such pieces         spirall roundles…
conical sections, circular pyramids

stem pulled into breathing         repeatedly
clarity of thought         capture of brindled ox
capture of cauldron         escapers
storming the glass castle

I must admit, I read through the whole poem, and almost gave up. It seemed to offer nothing but isolated fragments. However, I lived with the poem for a few days and gradually I realised that the fragments weren’t completely isolated. Phrases repeated or were changed slightly or added to. And the poem is about a block quilt, so I might expect separate blocks in a whole piece, many parts stitched together, each part distinctive in itself.

It’s in this poem that I found my third line to describe Richard Caddel’s poetry:

body falling into its own absence

That’s how this poetry feels to me, although I’d be hard-pushed to explain exactly what the line means. The whole stanza goes like this:

body falling into its own absence
common range         a shoe-leather handshake
recalled         lose the file
curling asleep under an old steep root

Fragments are let loose, built on, chopped and changed, and a patchwork is created, but not one with any central focus. The poem ends with phrases that will be familiar from the rest of the poem, but without forcing them into a cohesive meaning:

it’s what remains         when the slate is wiped
just wanted to say         I love you
and all of this too         pieces laid out side by side
for clarity         no easy way

of breath         no wasted effort
the songs finding themselves         curled asleep
miles away         escapers in tender
common range of visible things

It was interesting to explore, but I doubt it would enjoyable to read an entire volume full of stuff like this poem. I prefer poems that offer a little more to reader, a sharper focus at times, even if that focus continually blurs over. Here, there didn’t seem to be any focus, quite deliberate I’m sure. Fragments are what postmodernism is all about after all. Of course, as John Kinsella has reminded us, not all poetry is written to please, and this may be a poem written, as he says of his own poetry, to “suggest and to bother – to irritate and to instigate.”

The final two poems from Richard Caddel are highly accessible in comparison, although still intriguing, a bit disturbing. The Ash Tree that Bears Apples pictures two people walking through an orchard in silence. They feel happy, yet the poem ends ominously with “bitter fruit”. The Coat has a frail light, frost, sea, wind, going alone with a dark faith, the casting off of fear (at least, I think it’s the fear that’s cast off), and then:

                                …Song lifting
                  and going on alone
        in frost, the same and yet changed

Strange, but I’d guess that most readers of mainstream poetry could easily enjoy these third and fourth poems. The first one might intrigue enough to hook people who wanted to make the effort, and there are some startling lines throughout. The second poem is tough to get to grips with.

Generally, I was pleased that I managed to enjoy bits of Richard Caddel’s poems, because at first I thought I wouldn’t.

The next head on the chopping-block is David Chaloner. Soon.


Cailleach said...

And you don't consider yourself academic? I'd say you did a pretty good job here! Wanna write my next assigment? ;¬)

As to the white space thingy, I think it might be that when you compose you new post, you need to use the 'Edit html' tab rather than the 'Compose screen.' You're probably doing that anyway - I'm no expert on html: I prefer to use copy and paste from 'view source.' As a friend of mine says, "why invent the wheel every Tuesday, when you can nick bits of it and glue it together on Friday."

Rob Mackenzie said...

Thanks. I've just amount managed the white space now.

Hedgie said...

I'm enjoying your essays on these current UK poets, and I appreciate how much effort goes into them. Thanks very much.

The only problem has nothing to do with the essays themselves; it's a more general problem that, over here in the former colonies, it's frustratingly difficult to get books by current British poets. Only very occasionally and at lengthy intervals will you run across a volume by a poet such as Don Paterson or Glyn Maxwell that's been reprinted from its original British edition by a U. S. publisher; even more rarely can you locate an actual volume from Bloodaxe or Carcanet here (and that's usually only at someplace such as Amazon). Ordering from AmazonUK or even AmazonCanada is both horribly expensive and very time-consuming. I suspect you have similar problems trying to obtain U. S. poets' work over there in the UK. (I spent a couple of hours today, in fact, trying to locate readily-available volumes by Roddy LUmsden, Ruth Padel, Alice Osward, and several others with very little success.)

At any rate, thanks again for your work in posting these essays; I look forward to the others with anticipation.

Rob Mackenzie said...

I suspect it's getting easier to obtain the work of better-known U.S. poets in Britain, but if you're not Charles Simic, John Ashbery, or Billy Collins, the work is only available in U.S. editions. That said, amazon.co.uk often stock the work of writers in U.S. editions at a more reasonable price than was usual in the past.

I guess UK publishers don't have the clout or the money that many of the American publishers will have. Also, UK poets sell few enough books in the UK, and the thought of a global audience isn't an option for many. It's a shame though. It seems to me that USA and UK poetry exist in two separate worlds, despite a common language.
However, the Internet is beginning to break that divide down, and it will be interesting to see whether it breaks down further in the future.