Mark Ford

Mark Ford’s fourth collection of poetry, Enter, Fleeing, was published last year.

Of Philip Larkin’s​ many ostentatiously ‘less deceived’ accounts of family life, among my favourites is the soaring riff that concludes his introduction to All What Jazz (1970), a collection of mainly unimpressed reviews of John Coltrane, Miles Davis et al that initially appeared in the Telegraph. ‘Sometimes I imagine them,’ he muses of the readers of his...

Born,​ out of wedlock, in Rome in 1880 to a high-spirited, convent-educated but unconventional young aristocrat of Russian, Polish and Italian descent, the poet Apollinaire was given no fewer than five prénoms by his mother: his full name, in its French version, was Guillaume-Albert-Wladimir-Alexandre-Apollinaire de Kostrowitzky. During his schooldays in Monaco he was known as...

Poem: ‘Love Triangle’

Mark Ford, 22 March 2018

Here – ahem – is a motif that has proved popular in many diverse cultures in many eras: think, for instance of Arthur, Lancelot and Guinevere; or think if you dare, of your own turbid y-y-y-youth.

In Fiery Letters: F.T. Prince

Mark Ford, 8 February 2018

Although​ during his lifetime F.T. Prince (1912-2003) acquired a number of illustrious admirers – including those poetic polar opposites, Geoffrey Hill and John Ashbery – his poetry is still not widely known. ‘Soldiers Bathing’, it’s true, is likely to feature in any anthology or critical account of the poetry of the Second World War, and assiduous scholars of...

Poem: ‘Oxford, 1985’

Mark Ford, 5 October 2017

Oh to recapture the golden summer I met Allen Ginsberg! That tireless man! – he had within minutes, produced a whole box of photographs of himself, all shaggy and naked, in bed with a blond admirer. Had he taken these pictures himself? I inquired, marvelling at their composition … he had!

Poem: ‘Viewless Wings’

Mark Ford, 17 November 2016

What aileth thee now, that thou art wholly gone up to the housetops? – Isaiah 22:1

I (gulp) had to have a certain operation, and as I went under, found myself assailed by a flock of hostile pigeons, by a whole parliament of fowls, cooing hysterically – blackbirds and ospreys and screaming gulls. How daftare you! mocked a jackdaw, jabbing its beak at my groin. Vile droppings...

T.S. Eliot’s mind was a vast, labyrinthine echo chamber, and perhaps more than any other canonical poet of the English language, with the possible exception of his great antagonist John Milton, he was conscious of the previous uses by other writers of the words he deployed in his poems. But what exactly is the difference between an interesting allusion or echo and a mere verbal coincidence?

So much in the life and work of Ted Hughes was weird and transgressive that even now it is hard to feel confident that his actions and achievement can be judiciously assessed. For a start, he wrote and published at such a rate: Jonathan Bate’s bibliographic tally of Hughes’s books runs to more than seventy items, while the various Hughes archives contain nearly a hundred thousand pages. The vast Collected Poems edited by Paul Keegan and published in 2003 presents a poet who insistently ‘o’erflows the measure’.

Poem: ‘Enter, Fleeing’

Mark Ford, 19 November 2015

Undo that step, or at the least tread softly, for a sleek and bushy-tailed urban fox is counting chick- chick-chick- chickens in his dreams; when he wakes he’ll yawn and prowl, while I’ll be staring, shamefaced, down the grainy, haunted vistas opened by insomnia. Sing, birds, I mean all ye bird-brained in every furrow that you hop in; warble tales of the species that will wade...

Until​ quite recently, paper played a crucial role in the composition, and transmission to posterity, of most poems in English: they were written down on paper, or antecedents such as parchment or vellum, or typed on it, and then printed in pamphlets, newspapers, magazines or books. Computers and digitisation have changed all that: the poemhunter.com version of ‘La Belle Dame sans...

Poem: ‘Show Time’

Mark Ford, 5 December 2013

Tempus fugit every sundial proclaims, yet over and over time seems to swoon, or to expand, even to grind to a juddering halt when I blog; a dreadful day online, I think I mean, is a dreadful day forever. My current screensaver is a sniper’s- eye view of a traffic warden leaning back to photograph an illegally parked car. Hatchet- faced tax inspectors invade my dreams: ‘We need you...

Figuring oneself as Hamlet in the middle of the 19th century was a perilous business. Think of Mr Wopsle, who performs the role in a hilariously bad production in Great Expectations. When he agonisedly wonders whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings etc he is assailed by contradictory cries from the audience: ‘Some roared yes, and some no, and some inclining to both...

Poem: ‘Under the Lime Trees’

Mark Ford, 3 January 2013

All that glitters is not glass, but lots and lots of it is, mused the helmeted cyclist … o you fast- spinning tyres, so delicately ridged, so like the scales of a young crocodile – avoid whatever sparkles, and that flap-hatted woman weaving her way briskly against the traffic, her hands a jiving blur as she belts out snatches of We’re justtwo little girls from Little Rock...

By my count, though I may have missed a few, this is the 25th volume of Ezra Pound’s highly distinctive correspondence to see the light of day. The first selection of his letters, edited by D.D. Paige and culled from the years 1907-41, was published in 1950, when Pound was four years into what would be a 12-year sojourn in St Elizabeths Hospital in Washington, to which he’d been confined indefinitely after pleading insanity at his trial for treason in 1946. Paige’s selection introduced to the world madcap Ez the compulsive letter-writer, all hectoring capitals and italics.

When he was 23, A.S.J. Tessimond (Arthur Seymour John, Jack to his family, but known as John in later life) wrote to Ezra Pound, who had recently settled in Rapallo, enclosing some poems and an article on George Bernard Shaw. Tessimond’s letter does not survive, but Pound’s reply does. ‘Dear Sir,’ he wrote,

If you were in the least familiar with my work you wd. know...

Poem: ‘Dithering’

Mark Ford, 14 April 2011

‘Let Spades be trumps!’ she said, and trumps they were; it leaves us free to cry, and whisper to their souls to go. Nor wilt thou then forget where are the legs with which you run, Hurroo! Hurroo!, or wake and feel the fell of dark. Like an angel came I down, when my dream was near the moon, the crux left of the watershed, and the stars that usher evening rose. He is not here; but...

Petty Grotesques: Whitman

Mark Ford, 17 March 2011

In August 1867, Thomas Carlyle published one of his most virulent diatribes against ‘swarmery’, by which he meant the trend towards democracy. The immediate inspiration for ‘Shooting Niagara: and After?’ was the threat of Disraeli’s Reform Act, which would double the number of adult males entitled to vote, and thus, as Carlyle saw it, unleash untold ‘new...

Door Closing! Randall Jarrell

Mark Ford, 21 October 2010

Born in 1914, Randall Jarrell belonged to the first generation of American poets who found a ready home in the country’s burgeoning university system. Of the great modernists of the previous era, only Robert Frost assumed the role of pedagogue to undergraduates, taking his first job at Amherst College in 1917. Pound, Eliot, Wallace Stevens, William Carlos Williams, Marianne Moore, Hart...

Two Poems

Mark Ford, 10 June 2010

Ravished

Is the night Chilly and dark? The night is chilly But not dark. An all but full April moon Slides above barely visible clouds, and is greeted By a burst of hooting from an urban Tawny owl. On empty Brownfield sites they nest, and rear their young, and feed On vermin. Has Any Probing, saucer-eyed astronomer, even a modern Or French one, ever Grown genuinely accustomed ‘aux...

Poem: ‘Gregory of Nazianzus’

Mark Ford, 11 February 2010

stretched out on the grass, and tried to relax. A delightful breeze stirred his beard but his ear-canals ached, and his tongue felt bloated. While there is blood in these veins, he mused, and I can hear the murmur of leaves, and sparrows sing, I will not despair. He half-dozed, and in a waking dream relived the despair

that had seized him during a stormy voyage from Alexandria to Athens....

Poem: ‘White Nights’

Mark Ford, 27 August 2009

after Lucretius

A snake, if a man’s spittle Falls upon it, will wriggle And writhe in frenzied contortions, and may even gnaw Itself to death; and there are certain Trees, should you ever drift off to sleep In their shade, you’d wake clutching your throbbing head as if an axe Had been buried there. The blossom, I’ve heard, of a type of rowan That flourishes in the mountains...

The protagonist of ‘The Enduring Chill’, a short story Flannery O’Connor began in the autumn of 1957, is a 25-year-old would-be writer called Asbury Fox, who has been forced to return from Manhattan to the family farm in rural Georgia on account of a mysterious illness from which he believes he is dying. His path-breaking play on ‘the Negro’ has not yet been...

Weasel, Magpie, Crow: Edward Thomas

Mark Ford, 1 January 2009

‘Prends l’éloquence et tords-lui son cou!’ Verlaine resonantly, and eloquently, declared in his ‘Art poétique’ of 1874. The line must have lodged in Edward Thomas’s mind: in May 1914, some six months before his late efflorescence into verse at the age of 36, he wrote to Robert Frost of his longing to ‘wring all the necks of my rhetoric...

Poem: ‘The Death of Petronius’

Mark Ford, 18 December 2008

(after Tacitus)

Turning to Caius Petronius, there are a few things about him that deserve To be remembered: he liked to sleep all day, then devote his nights To business – or pleasure. Most have to work hard To become well known, but it was idleness that propelled Petronius to fame. He differed, though, from most debauchee or wastrel-types, For he was a cultured, exquisite master of the...

He Tasks Me: Marilynne Robinson

Mark Ford, 9 October 2008

‘Home,’ Mary suggests in Robert Frost’s 1914 poem ‘The Death of the Hired Man’, ‘is the place where, when you have to go there,/They have to take you in.’ To which her husband, Warren, replies: ‘I should have called it/Something you somehow haven’t to deserve.’ Home is Marilynne Robinson’s third novel; published four years...

It was a curious set of circumstances that in 1820 drove James Cooper (the ‘middle surname’ Fenimore would not be added for another six years), the son of one of post-independence America’s wealthiest land speculators, to embark on a career in the dubious and unpredictable world of novel-writing. Almost nothing in Cooper’s life up until that year, in which he turned...

Think Tiny: Nancification

Mark Ford, 17 July 2008

The prodigiously gifted artist and writer Joe Brainard died of Aids in a hospital in New York in May 1994, at the age of 52. He had long been revered in certain parts of the New York art and poetry worlds, though he never achieved, or, by all accounts, desired, the celebrity and status of Andy Warhol or Claes Oldenburg or Jim Dine, alongside whose work his elegant collages were first...

Poem: ‘Signs of the Times’

Mark Ford, 21 February 2008

‘Today,’ wrote Thomas Carlyle As the brown and barge-laden Thames rolled past Cheyne Walk, ‘I am full of dyspepsia, but also Of hope.’ On the Today Show today a dyspeptic interviewer set brusquely about A hopeful minister, and I ingested, along with the dyspepsia And the hope, a story about a dubious collector Of Regency soft toys and Apache Bows, arrow-flints and...

The earliest poem collected in Edgar Allan Poe & the Juke-Box, Alice Quinn’s edition of Elizabeth Bishop’s miscellaneous drafts and fragments, opens:

I introduce Penelope Gwin, A friend of mine through thick and thin, Who’s travelled much in foreign parts Pursuing culture and the arts. ‘And also,’ says Penelope ‘This family life is not for me. I find...

Poem: ‘The Gaping Gulf’

Mark Ford, 6 September 2007

Cloud-capped, deserted, building and building site Exchange whispers and winks. I glide half- Asleep down the alley between them, as if Adrift on some superannuated schooner. Nearby, on another Kind of scaffold, John Stubbs gallantly raised his hat to the cheering crowd With his left hand, and blessed the Queen, while her Executioner held aloft his right....

Inky Pilgrimage

Mark Ford, 24 May 2007

‘I am convinced,’ wrote Henry Church to the poet who had just dedicated to him his longest poem, ‘Notes toward a Supreme Fiction’, ‘that Mrs Stevens has had an important part to play in the poetry of Wallace Stevens.’ This was in 1943, by which time Mr and Mrs Stevens had been living together in marital discord for more than a third of a century. ‘Mrs Stevens and I went out for a walk yesterday afternoon,’ Stevens once quipped to a colleague at the Hartford Accident and Indemnity Company; ‘we walked to the end of Westerly Terrace, and she turned left and I turned right.’

Two Poems

Mark Ford, 8 February 2007

Dominion

Rise up! we heard their war-cry – Levitation! the trembling leaves kept sighing –Levitation! Then Hurry Harry abandoned the way of the raccoon and beaver, and felt his heart whirled aloft by some hand or talon: Oh no more, he reasoned, will I scramble blindly between settlement and clearing, mocked by the melancholy loon. Off, off, again off, ye buckskin garments! How it...

Erasures: Donald Justice

Mark Ford, 16 November 2006

Donald Justice, who died in August 2004 at the age of 78, was one of the most subtle and enchanting American poets of his generation. In ‘Variations on a text by Vallejo’, a poem anticipating his own demise, but written some three decades before it, he pictured gravediggers burying him in Miami (his home town):

And one of them put his blade into the earth To lift a few clods of...

Poem: ‘Invisible Hand’

Mark Ford, 19 October 2006

I

A white finger of frost along the spine Of the country, and the first rumours of the first Female Archbishop of Canterbury: while still In her cradle the Lord filled Her to the brim, and drove headlong The querulous demons whose riddles End only in debt and pain; her dimpled Right hand seemed to grasp and poise A miniature crozier, and her eyes Peered through tears at the sins of the world.

...

Hyacinth Boy: T.S. Eliot

Mark Ford, 21 September 2006

Hart Crane, for one, was in no doubt about it. ‘He’s the prime ram of our flock,’ he insisted to Allen Tate in the summer of 1922. Tate was initially puzzled by the phrase, as well as by various other ‘signals’ his friend was making, but eventually came to understand Crane’s drift: ‘In those days,’ he later commented, ‘a lot of people like...

Diary: Love and Theft

Mark Ford, 2 December 2004

“Virtual information that appears on your own screen tends to seem, viscerally, less someone else’s than when it’s printed in a book with the author’s name on the cover. The ‘boundless textual promiscuity’ of the web, as Thomas Mallon called it, has also decisively altered the way we think about information; the point is not so much to be good at remembering things, as to be good at finding them quickly. Already web skills are playing an important role in the evolutionary struggle for survival. Will future historians turn first to the wrist and clicking finger in assessing a corpse from our era? Will those who develop RSI soon be the information revolution’s lepers? How soon before our relatively recently acquired skills become as obsolete as the ability to kill a mammoth with a spear or write shorthand or programme a VCR?”

This bird used to be the most numerous on earth And to blot out the sun for hours over Wisconsin and Michigan And to strip bare the great forests of cranberries, pine-nuts, and acorns.

Whole trees toppled under the weight of roosting birds. In flight They made a sound like Niagara Falls. Horses trembled, And travellers made wild guesses at their numbers and meaning.

The bird’s sad...

F.T. (Filippo Tommaso) Marinetti liked to describe himself as the ‘caffeine of Europe’. He was undoubtedly the most daring and inventive artistic propagandist of the 20th century, and Futurism, the movement he launched with a manifesto published on the front page of Le Figaro on 20 February 1909, reconfigured the popular notion of modern art and the modern artist more widely and...

Poem: ‘Six Children’

Mark Ford, 15 April 2004

‘Though unmarried I have had six children’ Walt Whitman

The first woman I ever got with child wore calico In Carolina. She was hoeing beans; as a languorous breeze I caressed her loins, until her hoe lay abandoned in the furrow.

The second was braving the tumultuous seas that encircle This fish-shaped isle; by the time a sudden riptide tore Her from my grasp, she had known the full...

Red makes wrong: Harry Mathews

Mark Ford, 20 March 2003

“How do you render ‘Here not there’ in a tongue that can only express: ‘Red makes wrong’? Botherby did not hesitate long. He saw, as you of course see, that he had no choice. There was only one solution. He grasped at once what all translators eventually learn: a language says what it can say, and that’s that.” (from ‘The Case of the Persevering Maltese’)

The poems in Live from the Hong Kong Nile Club are taken from August Kleinzahler’s first six publications. All were small press books with relatively limited circulations – the first, The Sausage Master of Minsk (1977), was hand-set by the publishers and the poet himself on a platen press in Montreal. Until the early 1990s, when he was taken on by Farrar, Straus and Giroux in the...

Poem: ‘Hooked’

Mark Ford, 7 September 2000

then thrown back, like a long-finned, too bony fish, I finally took him at his word, and felt the lateness of the hour acquire a dense, rippling aura that weighed down these eyelids, pressed

apart membrane and nerve: howsoever I twist and retreat, I thought, or silently glide from sphere to sphere, the merest splinter of rage keeps returning as a glittering, razor edged weapon, and even after...

Two Poems

Mark Ford, 6 January 2000

One Figures

in his plans, but briefly, as a cupped hand holds water, or as private and public spheres collide

and blur, overlap within his fragile, omnivorous stare. Barely awake, dazed and blinking, I was urged under

solemn oath to consider the lilies of the field who neither toil nor spin. Hallelujah, I meant to answer, selah, only

a seething, surf-like roaring in my ears seemed to engulf...

The Style It Takes: John Cale

Mark Ford, 16 September 1999

Despite their ill-rated, short-lived, acrimonious reunion in 1993, the Velvet Underground are still the coolest rock band there ever was. Nowadays, music critics and historians talk of their seminal influence on punk or grunge, and you can buy big boxed CD sets (bearing that irresistible sticker ‘Contains Previously Unreleased Material’) of out-takes and rehearsal sessions, although it seems no live recordings survive from their heyday – that is, before Lou Reed kicked John Cale out of the band, ending three years of almost symbiotic closeness.’‘

Two Poems

Mark Ford, 27 May 1999

Reproduction

of whatever you are absorbing with your five senses is forbidden, and may provoke nausea, insomnia, loss of balance or blurred vision: it were better you retire, and then attack, hurling weapons and imprecations at the diffident foe. The world averts its gaze, and unfortunate schemers drag their woes from home to muddy fields: all roads lead to rooms, as the Irish say, and to...

The first literary appearance of the mythical figure of Prometheus (whose name means ‘foresight’) is in the writings of Hesiod. Hesiod’s Titan is something of a trickster, of ‘intricate and twisting mind’ in Richmond Lattimore’s 1959 translation, who first affronts Zeus by trying to cheat him of his sacrificial dues: Prometheus slaughters an ox, but instead of offering the meat to the father of the gods, he gives it to men, presenting Zeus only with the animal’s bones, concealed beneath a thick layer of fat. As punishment, Zeus decides to deny mankind the use of fire, but Prometheus cleverly manages to steal the sacred flame, which he smuggles down to Earth by hiding it in the hollow of a fennel stalk.‘

Poem: ‘I wish’

Mark Ford, 4 March 1999

you would please spare me your Western logocentrism! Isn’t it clear I’m the sort who rejoices when the Queen Mother chokes on a fish-bone? I’d shine a harsh, piercing light on the damage indiscriminately wrought by the tinkling music of the spheres. Our errands merely seem average and natural: every second is underwritten by an invisible host of dubious connections; like...

Two Poems

Mark Ford, 19 March 1998

Jack Rabbit

Will I ever catch up, or will I be easily Caught first? It was assumed I’d branch out With the heretics, commit a few crimes, then Suffer the decreed punishment: instead, I paused Near the knoll where the vociferous and well- Groomed gather to consider their options. I yearned To wade through buttercups and clover towards The sinister squadrons of an embattled Bourgeoisie....

Poetic Licence

Mark Ford, 21 August 1997

The American writer Neal Bowers has published three collections of poetry and two critical books, one on the works of James Dickey and one on Theodore Roethke. For the past twenty years he has occupied a creative writing post at Iowa State University, and, until 1992, led what he describes as ‘a most uneventful life’ in the small town of Ames, Iowa. The majority of poets, he argues in the opening chapter of Words for the Taking, ‘lead lives of quiet inspiration, blessed by the calling that damns us to obscurity’. Bowers’s well-crafted poems earned him a solid reputation on the circuit, and his work was regularly accepted by magazines such as Poetry, whose September 1990 issue included ‘Tenth-Year Elegy’ and ‘RSVP’, two poems in which Bowers contemplates his father’s unexpected death.

Genius in Its Pure State

Mark Ford, 22 May 1997

The French Writer Raymond Roussel was 56 years old when he left Paris for Sicily in the early summer of 1933. It seems clear he had no intention of ever returning to France. His theatrical extravaganzas, legendary generosity and eccentric lifestyle had consumed the bulk of his colossal fortune. He was addicted to drugs. One morning in his hotel in Palermo he opened a vein in his wrist in the bath, but immediately summoned help. ‘How pleasant it is to die,’ he was heard to remark. Eleven days later he was found dead from an overdose of barbiturates.

Old Gravy

Mark Ford, 7 September 1995

‘Since the age of 15 poetry has been my ruling passion and I have never intentionally undertaken any task or formed any relationship that seemed inconsistent with poetic principles; which has sometimes won me the reputation of an eccentric,’ Graves writes at the start of The White Goddess (1948), his synoptic account of the history of Western myth. His eccentricity took many forms, as many as the mercurial goddess herself, yet Graves seems never to have doubted the central narrative to which his life and work were dedicated:

Poem: ‘Looping the Loop’

Mark Ford, 6 July 1995

Anything can be forgotten, become regular As newspapers hurled in a spinning are to land With a thump on the porch where Grandma sits And knits, her hound dog yawning at her feet.

And other strangled details will emerge and prove Suddenly potent to confound the wary-footed, and even The assembled members of the panel; in turn Each pundit speaks, yanks from the hat an angry rabbit who flops

In...

His v. Hers

Mark Ford, 9 March 1995

The final section of Paul Bowles’s most famous novel, The Sheltering Sky, is prefaced by a quotation from Kafka that encapsulates the narrative trajectory of just about everything Bowles has ever written: ‘From a certain point onward there is no longer any turning back. That is the point that must be reached.’ With obsessive frequency Bowles’s short stories and novels feature characters propelled beyond the boundaries of their own cultural milieux towards realms they can neither control nor comprehend, and in which even their sufferings become meaningless. In one of his earliest stories, ‘A Distant Episode’, a professor of linguistics investigating Arabic dialects is captured by a band of Reguibat nomads, who beat him, cut out his tongue, and drape him with strings of empty tin cans. He is forced to perform a ridiculous dance for their amusement, and in time grows accustomed to his role as the tribe’s jester. When he finally escapes, rather than attempting to return to Western civilisation, he immediately flees back into the wilderness.

Little Do We Know

Mark Ford, 12 January 1995

‘What are we going to write about now?’ one of Ulster’s more engagé poets half-jokingly inquired soon after the IRA’s ceasefire was announced. One would imagine that Paul Muldoon will be among the Northern Irish poets least directly affected by whatever happens – or doesn’t – in the Province. His poetry has always reflected political events in the most delicate of styles, avoiding overt judgments, sentimental ideals, commitments or solutions, instead teasing out angles of irony and embodying states of impasse – ‘that eternal interim’, as he calls it in ‘Lull’ – with a sophistication that must be its own reward.’’

Purple Days

Mark Ford, 12 May 1994

George Bush’s proud declaration that by bombing fleeing Iraqi soldiers America had ‘kicked the Vietnam syndrome once and for all’, was one of the more startling instances from recent years of the Vietnam War’s continuing hold on the American imagination. One could just about suspend disbelief when Sylvester Stallone set about rewriting history, but it was disconcerting to find the President of the United States so clearly in the grip of the same fantasy of revenge.

Kooked

Mark Ford, 10 March 1994

The poetic legacy of Ezra Pound has been divided up, sifted, plundered by an extraordinary variety of claimants. A list of poets who have profited from his achievement would include Allen Ginsberg and Louis Zukofsky (both Jewish), the Lowell of Notebook, the Orientally-minded Kenneth Rexroth and Gary Snyder on whom Cathay made such an impact, British poets as different from each other as Donald Davie and Jeremy Prynne, Objectivists like Oppen and Reznikoff, and of course the whole group of poets associated with Black Mountain College – Robert Creeley, Denise Levertov, Ed Dorn, Robert Duncan and Charles Olson.

Marvellous Boys

Mark Ford, 9 September 1993

Australia’s most celebrated Modernist poet was born on 14 March 1918, in Liverpool. His father, wounded in the war, died in 1920, and soon after that the family moved to Australia, settling in Sydney where his mother had relations. He left school at 14, and worked over the ensuing years at a random series of jobs, as a garage mechanic, an insurance salesman, a watch repairer. Most of his brief adult life was spent in Melbourne, where he was, in the words of his elder sister Ethel, ‘fond of a girl’ but ‘had some sort of difference with her’, a difference movingly reflected in such lyrics as ‘Perspective Lovesong’.

Among the Bobcats

Mark Ford, 23 May 1991

May the 24th is Bob Dylan’s 50th birthday. To anyone involved with Dylan in the mid-Sixties, say during his medicine-fuelled blaze with the Band through Australia and Europe in 1966, the fact that he is not only alive but still performing twenty-five years later must in itself seem utterly extraordinary. One of the key aspects of the Dylan myth during those roller-coaster years was that he wouldn’t be around much longer. He was popping quantities of pills; he hardly ever slept; he seemed to provoke showdowns with any authority he could find. ‘He was Christ revisited,’ remarked an Australian actress he briefly took up with. On occasion Dylan himself explicitly tried on the martyr’s role: ‘I have a death-thing, I know …’ he told his official biographer Robert Shelton in one of his more revealing interviews, as if confiding to an apostle.

Poem: ‘Funny Peculiar’

Mark Ford, 25 April 1991

I sit down here drinking hemlock While terrible things go on upstaris.

Sweat creeps like moss outward to the palms, And time itself now seems a strange, gauze-like medium.

Sleep will leave still newer scars each night, or, Infuriatingly, is a curtain that refuses to close.

On the horizon, bizarre consolations make themselves Known – a full fridge, a silent telephone,

The television...

Poem: ‘Affirmative Action’

Mark Ford, 7 March 1991

In the original raree-show, of which this is a pale Imitation, phantoms swore and hurled mountains at each other;

Tiny, endless columns of red-jacketed soldiers Adjusted their busbys before attacking a farmhouse;

And ‘White Light/White Heat’ blared From bank upon bank of shuddering loudspeakers.

Now a vast customer complaints department Imposes everywhere its blinkered theories of...

Thank God for John Rayburn

Mark Ford, 24 January 1991

‘Travelling,’ Jonathan Raban once remarked, ‘is inherently a plotless, disordered, chaotic affair, where writing insists on connection, order, plot, signification.’ Even the best contemporary travel writing is haunted by the self-consciousness that grows out of this contradiction. It’s embarrassing to read about seemingly spontaneous encounters with exotic people in far-flung countries, and then suddenly to remember that the whole thing has been set up just so the author can convert it into so much copy for his or her book.

Puck’s Dream

Mark Ford, 14 June 1990

D.J. Enright recently celebrated his 70th birthday. In commemoration, Oxford University Press have prepared a rather lean Selected Poems, and a volume of personal reminiscences and critical essays about Enright’s life and work by a variety of writers. This festschrift’s title, Life by Other Means, derives from an Enright poem called ‘Poetical Justice’ which muses rather more ambiguously on the relations between art and life than the stirring phrase might suggest in isolation.

Two Poems

Mark Ford, 24 May 1990

Ledgers

Accordingly, I lay with my wife for three Successive nights. During this exact period of time The Mets beat the Cubs and it rained continuously.

October 8th. Fearful itching all over. After much prodding and goading from H. I agree to see a skin-specialist.

The park by starlight. The margins Fill with doodles. This space, these Pages, shelve ever more steeply into darkness ...

High...

Turning down O’Hanlon

Mark Ford, 7 December 1989

In The Orators W.H. Auden classified bird buffs as ‘excessive lovers of self’: they illustrate the psychological type who is ‘unable to taste pleasure unless through the rare coincidence of naturally diverse events, or the performance of a long and intricate ritual’. Redmond O’Hanlon sees his own career as a bird-watcher originating along similar lines to this but rather more romantically. It all began when he was four and three-quarters. A mistle-thrush dropped half of an empty eggshell at his feet on the lawn of the Wiltshire Vicarage where he grew up: ‘Being unaware, at the time, of the empty cosmos, of the unfeelingness of causal connections, I concluded that this message of brown and purple blotches on a background of browny-white had been intended just for me.’

Poem: ‘Policing Beaconsfield’

Mark Ford, 12 October 1989

Pot-plants unwatered on the sun-deck Like moaning minnies lie down and die.

Her lips have twisted into a random smile, but In her mind she curses in her mother-tongue.

The room is now an inverted fish-tank; Things float helplessly up towards the glass –

Her brushes, her combs, her trash, Objects it were useless even to list.

Each noise fades away like forgotten Sex, its stripes etched...

Pretzel

Mark Ford, 2 February 1989

These are the first of Georges Perec’s wonderful and extraordinary writings to be translated into English. Perec has been a household name in France since the runaway success of his first and most popular novel, Les Choses (1965), which still sells twenty thousand copies a year. Les Choses describes, with a sociological exactitude justified in the novel’s concluding quotation from Marx, the motivations and disappointments of an utterly ordinary middle-class couple in a consumerist culture. Sylvie and Jérôme are both public opinion analysts, as indeed was Perec at the time: they emerge as a kind of generically rootless Parisian couple of the Sixties, whose experiences and emotions are such that no one of that generation could help but identify with them. The book ties in neatly with, indeed was partly inspired by, Barthes’s theories on the language of publicity, which were appearing around the same time; its precision and syntactical ingenuity aspire to Flaubert, a major figure in Perec’s pantheon of favourite authors.

Sssnnnwhuffffll

Mark Ford, 19 January 1989

This is Ciaran Carson’s second collection of poems. His first, The New Estate (1976), revealed an intricate, lyrical poet intensely aware of traditional Irish cultures, and concerned to connect them meaningfully with the sprawl of modern living; these early poems are taut, rather literary, and often very beautiful. His themes are pretty much the same in his equally impressive new book, but his approach to them has changed radically. All the poems in The Irish for No are written in long easygoing lines – more or less fourteeners – and exhibit a wonderful fidelity to the casual flow of ordinary speech and storytelling. What could be more enticing and relaxing than this for the opening of a yarn?’

Swinging it

Mark Ford, 7 July 1988

Of all the now vanished breed of New Yorker humorists – James Thurber, E.B. White, Dorothy Parker – S.J. Perelman wrote by far the richest, most meticulously crafted prose. His dedication to his art was almost frightening. He was once asked in an interview how many drafts each piece went through. ‘Thirty-seven,’ he replied. ‘I once tried doing 33, but something was lacking, a certain – how shall I say? – je ne sais quoi. On another occasion, I tried 42 versions, but the final effect was too lapidary – you know what I mean, Jack? What the hell are you trying to extort – my trade secrets?’’

Like Tristram Shandy, Delmore Schwartz so hated his name that he sometimes used to attribute all of his misfortunes to it. It was an obsession he enjoyed feeding: he would invent ridiculous sources for it – a delicatessen, a Pullman railroad car, a Tammany Hall club – while in his stories and poems he would always inflict on his leading character, who was always himself, a name exotic or absurd, half old-time Jewish and half Hollywood – Shenandoah Fish, Hershey Green, Cornelius Schmidt. In his best verse play, Shenandoah, he even features himself looking back on his own naming ceremony twenty-five years earlier. When his mother, Elsie Fish, decides on Shenandoah, he breaks out Macbeth-like:

Out of the blue

Mark Ford, 10 December 1987

So characteristic of Paul Muldoon’s poetry as to be almost a hallmark is the moment, unnerving and exciting in about equal measures, when his speaker is suddenly revealed to himself as someone else. The whole world expands and changes in ‘Cass and Me’ when, as a boy, he climbs on the older Cass’s shoulders, and they lean out

Two Poems

Mark Ford, 3 September 1987

Last to Go

Things not necessarily funny will stick in the memory, like recipes for success, or how one once stood up laughing, happy, a chip off the old block; and I too, some days, rise, the applause of the dying committee still ringing in my ears, addressing absent friends, and those present, for better or for worse, the tears now pouring openly down my ravaged face. It’s as if our...

I am Prince Mishkin

Mark Ford, 23 April 1987

It’s over thirty years since the angry drumbeat of Howl first assembled the dissatisfied tribes of an expanding American subculture, and gave them a name and a voice. The first reading took place at the Six Gallery in San Francisco on 7 October 1955. Michael McClure who also read that night along with Gary Snyder, Philip Whalen and Philip Lamantia, describes the poem’s impact in Scratching the Beat Surface (1982):

Letter

Voltaire’s Skull

8 November 2018

Fredric Jameson, in his illuminating piece on Karl Ove Knausgaard, asks us to ‘recall the story by Raymond Roussel of his discovery, in a dusty provincial museum, under glass, of the skull of Voltaire as a child’ (LRB, 8 November). A story concerning Voltaire features, along with the reanimated skull of the great orator Danton, in Chapter 3 of Roussel’s Locus Solus (1914), and Voltaire...

If Hardy was half a modern Londoner, the other half had a weakness for the pastoral-oracular. The two halves changed shape, feeding and modifying each other.

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Earthworm on Zither: Raymond Roussel

Paul Grimstad, 26 April 2012

‘I have travelled a great deal,’ Raymond Roussel wrote towards the end of his life, ‘but from all these travels I never took anything for my books.’ It’s an odd...

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Fronds and Tenrils: Mark Ford

Helen Vendler, 29 November 2001

Suppose, having been betrayed – ‘hooked/then thrown back’ – you decide to let your instant reflex, a desire for revenge, cool off overnight; then suppose you wake up the...

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In the Anti-World: Raymond Roussel

Nicholas Jenkins, 6 September 2001

In 1924 the Surrealist Benjamin Péret was eager, like many artists then and since, to relate his own interests to the works of the rich, bizarre and innovative French poet, novelist and...

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Eternal Feminine

Ian Gregson, 7 January 1993

The excitable, exuberant surface of Mark Ford’s poems makes them instantly attractive. They speak with a bewildered urgency: See, no hands! she cried Sailing down the turnpike, And flapped...

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