top of page
  • SPAM

(SPAM Cuts Special) ONE FOR JOHN JAMES (1938-2018)


As the year draws in past midwinter day, we bring you a SPAM Cut festive special. Luke Roberts invites us to dwell upon the warmth of elegy, craft and sheer radiance in the work of Welsh poet John James, who passed away earlier this year. 

> John James died in May, true to his word: ‘best to die in summer / when everything is bright / & the earth turns over lightly’. At his final reading in London in April, very ill, he struggled to stand and had trouble holding his book. It was painful to watch but it was beautiful to listen to, and now it’s December and I can still hear his voice. A little Welsh inflection, fragile, but the music coming through clear and exact. I only really met him once, at a reading organised by graduate students in Cambridge in 2010. We took him to the pub beforehand and I bought him a glass of wine. He winced at the options: only New World varieties. From the 2000s onwards he lived part of the year in France, ‘territory of the vine’, writing his exquisite late work. Someone came to our table collecting for charity and he turned to me and quoted Frank O’Hara: ‘a lady asks us for a nickel for a terrible / disease but we don’t give her one we / don’t like terrible diseases’.

> I want to write about John James because he was truly great, but it’s hard to write about John James because if you can’t see it there’s no hope, and if you get it you already know. In Cambridge the older poets talked in hushed tones about his line, how great his line was. And it’s true. From The Small Henderson Room (1969) through to Berlin Return (1983) James worked out a poetry of rigorous sweetness, poised vulgarity, incredible attitude. After that he could do whatever he wanted. He makes it look effortless, but he also shows you over and over the discipline. Style takes work. Early in his correspondence with The English Intelligencer — one of the ‘rowdies’ as J.H. Prynne affectionately called him — he discourses on craft and writes that the whole point of poetry is to be memorable, to be worthy of commitment to memory. Craft is whatever aids this commitment, nothing more nothing less. And the lines come back: ‘Fresh bread can taste so good, it’s so rare / we eat it together’; ‘My shoulders / have learned to be / tense in the night’; ‘& I haven’t a thought in my head that could / sound like a line of Hölderlin’. And more: ‘Pure Chainsaw feeling in the Vat of TLP’; ‘I like to dance so much & a kind of mania / lures me’; ‘A glass of volvic could have made me happy forever’; ‘you’ve just come back / I definitely love you’; ‘art is a balm to the brain / & gives a certain resolution’. The whole of A Theory of Poetry (1977). The great late poem ‘Intersection’, with the wild opening lines: ‘Mao taught us it is a narrative / we must tell of ourselves each day’. They’re the kind of lines you share with your friends, springing to thought with regular buoyancy. They never went away.

> In 1975 James memorialised the German poet Rolf Dieter Brinkmann, killed in a traffic accident in London aged 35. He died on April 23rd, shortly after reading with James and John Ashbery at the Cambridge Poetry Festival. Veronica Forrest-Thomson died a few days later, and the two were commemorated in a volume published by Andrew Crozier’s Ferry Press. James wrote two poems for Brinkmann: one I already quoted in the opening sentence, and another longer work titled ‘One for Rolf’. It begins with ‘displaced April / air in May’, as if the poet’s death has interrupted the seasons. The whole opening stanza turns around subtleties of appearance, the precise quality of dissolution, where ‘we expire like the breeze at evening’. The expiration brings us back to the air, the poet’s breath still lingering in May-time. Erwin Panofsky says somewhere that poets invented the evening, and I believe this to be true. John James writes:

               (the struggle for what is light                 in what is dark                shone to advantage                in our own backyard

The first couplet could almost be Brecht. If this isn’t an image of political commitment I don’t know what is. James was a socialist from first to last, and his poems are littered with references to strikes, to reading The Morning Star, going out to meetings, hating the Government, to say nothing of his ferocious Irish Republican poems of the late 1970s and 1980s. But this doesn’t explain why the lines are so masterful. It’s something to do with the movement of articulation: ‘light’ and ‘advantage’ come to rest high in the mouth, at least if you read ‘advantage’ with a hard A. You tense your face a little to hold the line at the moment of its breaking. But ‘dark’ and ‘backyard’ are open-mouthed, exhalation, release.

> I think these lines, like many of James’s, have a double-function. I read them allegorically as an image of optimism, commitment, even faith. But since this is ‘in our own backyard’ I also picture a distinct physical space. And since this is about darkness and the struggle for what is light, I imagine that the poet has lost something and is looking for something in the night. I imagine light from a window in the rooms above the yard. I think about specific places I’ve lived and specific people I’ve known. Forrest-Thomson would call this bad naturalization: but since this is an elegy, I take licence in my feelings. I think of a beautiful line Andrew Crozier was writing around the same time: ‘In torchlight to know where you are / and then switch the beam off’.

> The poem, which moves through 10 short sections, is organised around images of light and around images of the accident. James walks through Cologne in the ‘silvery grey light’, sees a ‘torso on the grass / discarded’ with ‘the shadow trickling / across the road’. Sometimes the two coalesce, as with the ‘Traffic lights, tall / lamp-standards, thin trees’. He quotes Ed Dorn, from Gunslinger: ‘“Speed” says Ed “is not necessarily fast”’. There are other quotations: parts of O’Hara’s dictum ‘the slightest loss of attention leads to death’, and a slightly-switched repeat of a line from the earlier ‘Rough for Rolf Dieter Brinkmann’ I’ve already mentioned: ‘& I haven’t a line in my head that could / sound like a thought of Hölderlin’. The most plaintive line in the poem sounds itself like a quotation or translation, but I can’t trace it: ‘there has been an accident in my life o my life’. And so these lines are like reaching out for support, to steady and further the poem, to do the work of mourning.  


> In the conclusion of the poem James gathers his friends closer. Crozier appears ‘in the new good morning day’, looking out of his window in his back-yard in Lewes. He recalls a reading by Ted Berrigan, from ‘Three Sonnets & A Coda for Tom Clark’:

                                   & Ted I heard him                  read the words “Tomorrow you die”                  & me I say,                             “Are you kidding? See you later!”

And in the elegiac mode this poem from 1975 becomes an elegy in advance for Ted — translated by Brinkmann in Guillaume Apollinaire Ist Tod — and for Ed Dorn, and for Crozier, who died in Lewes in 2008, and why not for Tom Clark, too, who himself was fatally struck by a car earlier this year. And why not for Douglas Oliver and David Chaloner and everybody else, gathered beside Rolf and Veronica as the air switches back from May into April.

> Towards the conclusion, light becomes more wholly the medium of consolation:

               the history of your life                a pagination of existence in which I partly live                a slow exposure to the radiance left by you                by you & all others

This gesture towards the others, to everyone, is hard to pull off. Sometimes poets do it to get themselves out of trouble, or else it’s a cheap move of bombast designed to cover the cracks. But James always manages it: the movement is measured, controlled, and authentic, the slow burn of feeling. So we have the radiant pagination of existence, and it’s still radiant.

> A couple of weeks ago I showed my students a short poem from the 1990s:

   Confession                I throw myself on a                eating utensil a nail                a tin of lemonade                my head against a wall                & smash a window                no one had asked me to do this

We talked about the Catholic imagery, the act of confession, the tin of lemonade as a kind of parody sacrament, the nail as holy reliquary. We tried to elaborate the elusive humour of the whole thing. We decided that if you switch the eating utensil for a writing utensil, it works as a metaphor for poetry itself: the comic frenzy, the damage, the pushing up against constraints, the struggle. The poet is answerable to no-one. There’s something adolescent and helpless about it, finally inscrutable. And I think of this as the other side of the coin: there’s control and discipline, there’s the line and there’s craft; but there’s also accident, panic, and fervour. And John James did it again and again. There were quiet years following his Collected Poems in 2002, but after In Romsey Town in 2011 he published poems and pamphlets with regularity until the end. You can read some of them in Sarments: New and Selected Poems, the book he was holding on to back in April. You can read it in the Collected Poems. I love it all the way through.

                                                                                          December 19th 2018


Text & Image: Luke Roberts


bottom of page