back toJacket2

Jacket 20 — December 2002   |   # 20  Contents   |   Homepage   |  Catalog   |

Peter Quartermain


Richard Caddel. Magpie Words: Selected Poems 1970-2000. Sheffield: West House Books, 2002.  182pp. £12.95 ISBN 1-904052-03-7

Tony Baker and Richard Caddel. Monksnailsongs. Bray, Co. Wicklow: Wild Honey Press, 2002. n.pag. ISBN 1-903090-37-7

Anthony Flowers. Quiet Music of Words: Conversations with Richard Caddel. Sheffield: West House Books, 2002. 40pp. £4.50 ISBN 1-904052-06-1

This piece is 4,000 words or about ten printed pages long

What welcome books these are. The comedy of Monksnailsongs — a wicked piece of wit disguised as a creampuff; the intelligence of the conversation with Flowers and its evocation of place; the range and music of Magpie Words. Here’s one of the poems in Magpie. It was written in 1982, and in Uncertain Time (1990) it was the middle of a triptych sequence, ‘Jackdaw in Spare Bedroom,’ one of 53 songs (‘some of’ which, as Caddel there quoted Charles Ives, ‘cannot be sung’). It has page 108 all to itself, all that white space round it a terrible waste, in some cultures, of clean white paper. But that lovely extravagance, start a new poem, start a new page, both makes this a really handsome book and affords the reader a contemplative leisure the poetry calls for.


Evening: smell of parsley
thinned in late May after rain

Familiar territory, perhaps, at a glance maybe looking a bit old-fashioned, one of those careful quick takes Caddel is so good at: the quiet contemplative observation, utterly unpretentious, a tiny lyric catalogue, a bit like the music of Morton Feldman. The unobtrusive internal rhyme in the last line, the nicety of the movement through and in the vowels, the consonant play — here alliterative, there clustered juncture — determining pace, all matched by the precise specificity of that moment, the pungency caught in that otherwise humdrum ‘thinned’ with the length of its single syllable — the exactness of ‘late May,’ and that telling ‘after,’ picking up as it does the first vowel of ‘parsley,’ a small resonance like the keen lingering scent. The intense fragility of the familiar and even perhaps ordinary moment, savoured, available to contemplation and meditation. A little song, with an ear as exact as Creeley’s, celebrating small things. It is a memory device.

Photo of Richard Caddel by Derek Smith

Richard Caddel

Photo by Derek Smith

      To the alert reader, ‘Parsley’ might seem familiar, for the poems in Magpie Words are arranged alphabetically by title, not chronologically by date. By happy accident that 1982 poem comes almost exactly sixty pages after lines which were written three years later, in 1985. They are in the penultimate section of Caddel’s first published attempt at a poem of some length, ‘Fantasia in the English Choral Tradition.’ I shall have more to say about the disturbance of chronology in Magpie Words later on; here I attend the play of memory:

it’s important
                     to make mistakes
in a way, once
                      in a way
            reaching for the measure
the song wavered      recalling
        smell of parsley
          thinned in late may after rain
over and over
                     air shifting over ground
violin,     skylarks wilder

(pp. 48–49).

The shifts in lineation and spacing, the breaking-up and interruption of the original sequence, and the denser context, even in this short extract packed with abrupt transitions and disjointed sequence, make for a quite extraordinary transformation, and the act of recollection — both of the earlier short (and let’s face it unruffled) poem and of the slight and more-or-less ordinary commonplace event which it registered — opens up a range of possibilities. There is the play of ‘measure,’ for instance, against the name of a common kitchen-herb; but that play is modulated by the connections between ‘reaching for the measure’ — which have to do with music and poetry (with both of which ‘Fantasia’ has been concerned in its seven or so pages so far, and which that ‘violin’ and ‘skylark’ nicely complicate) — and  the ‘air shifting over ground,’ a phrase in this particular context suggestive say of Shelley and of English Romantic violin music. The impact of the repetition, ‘in a way, once / in a way,’ along with that crucial placing of ‘once’ just before the line break, plays up ambiguities and possibilities, not the least of which is the injunction that ‘it’s important to make mistakes... once’ as well as ‘once in a way’ (the multiplicity of meanings the repetition makes possible serves to undermine the limitations implied in that repeated once).

Cover of Magpie book

There’s an element of surprise in memory, as there is in any closely attended everyday event, an element of the unexpected. But  in Magpie Words it is of course the poet who recalls the poem, for the reader hasn’t met it yet. Because we get it in reverse compositional order, it is the short, separate, quick take of ‘Parsley’ on page 108 that acquires an otherwise unwarranted and certainly unexpected resonance, the poem unobtrusively moving beyond the ordinariness of commonplace as it is so indirectly disturbed by the smoothing out of slightly turbulent recollection.

      The reader’s act of remembering replays the poet’s ‘recall’ some sixty pages ago (but three years later) — such funny stuff going on with time as well as memory — with history, call it. This sort of play of repeat and surprise, where (as Gertrude Stein reminded us) repetition is never exactly repetition, is very much akin to a musical play of structure, and informs the whole book, echoes resonating back and forth among the poems. In the larger (book-length) musical structure it is as much a potentiality of repetition as it is its accomplishment, a kind of music of memory in which anticipation figures and prefigures, just as so many of the poems are, each by each, a looking forward as well as a casting back. Harry Gilonis has acutely observed (Fragmente 103, aptly quoting Zukofsky) that Caddel is interested in ‘the future of what has perished’ as well as ‘the past of what has survived,’ and is with this in mind that we should read Caddel’s remark to Anthony Flowers in Quiet Music of Words that ‘it’s all experiential, not out of books’ (21), the work an invitation to the reader to participate. ‘Without that,’ Caddel tells Flowers, ‘it’s a sterile pulpit craft which I want none of’ (28). The ironies in that remark, that it’s ‘experiential, not out of books,’ hint at Caddel’s insistence on what he calls ‘untidy edges,’ and it hardly comes as a surprise to learn that ‘the distractions of daily life, family, job, world, are generally very welcome..., recognised as part of the process’ (33). If it’s important to make mistakes, it’s just as important to pay attention to the details, the minutiae. How telling, that nowhere in Magpie Words is ‘everyday’ written ‘every day,’ adjective followed by noun — the  two-word split so much more abstract, so less exact.
      If such intention calls to mind William Carlos Williams’ resolution nearly a century ago to lift ‘to the imagination those things which lie under the direct scrutiny of the senses, under the nose’ (Imaginations 16), Caddel’s determination is closer to Bunting’s, that poetry is sound, and the means and end of his scrutiny are musical. As the close of ‘Fantasia in the English Choral Tradition’ puts it: ‘back in thought / in the hills / with scope / to sing / the things I love / as they occur / this instant’ (49). An interesting list, that, a statement of poetics: The things I love. As they occur, this instant — the very nowness of occurrence. In thought, to sing — the music always apparent, always foremost, in tuneful mindful breath — airs, then. Byrd, Campion, and Dowland. And the hills? a mark of Northern England, perhaps, where Caddel loves to walk, but surely too a mark of the margins and boundaries so many of these poems claim kinship to — another mark of Northern Engand, perhaps. Go contrary, go sing. Nodding mischievously to Williams,  ‘Larksong Signal’ puts it this way:

Sing it —

No ideas but in tunes —
‘sounds we haven’t heard
that the birds know about’ —
writing on air for dear life (102)

The quote is from Ghanaian drummer Obo Addy; it points to let’s call it the animal world, instinctual and indecipherable but not after all so Other as we might think. All meanings of ‘dear’; all meanings of ‘air’ — and the sheer unlikelihood of the poet’s task, through the sheer fragility of the poem and the ephemerality of sound, to enlarge our sense of life, to maintain the quality and range of consciousness so under threat (‘dear life’ indeed) in a world devoted to such poisonous abstractions as Production and Efficiency. Caddel’s poems do what they talk of, in that sense they are performative, and he generally reserves latinate diction — ‘committee’, ‘endorse,’ ‘guidelines,’ and the like — for the objects of his scorn, preferring instead the world of scarlet berries, burnet rose, water-mint, or — as ‘Flock’ lists them — turf, birdsong, light cloud, wind. ‘The heart pounds on’ (50).
      No ideas but in tunes, and entuning can be complex, as in the elaborate compositional procedures of ‘Underwriter,’ which began life as a set of phonic translations from Celan, or the cut-ups of ‘Short Climate-Atlas of the Soul,’ or the subtractive methodologies of ‘The Feet of Dafydd ap Gwilym Tapping to the Triads of Dr. Williams’ and of the first part of the astonishing ‘For The Fallen,’ its powerful condensation and concentration of sound, thought, feeling. Distillations. As in the syntax of this stanza from ‘Counter’ (35):

wasted lyric in sickness
our words gone from us into that chimney
mistake, imagining a singing loss so that a
creature down and miles out of
things for the lack of which the
world dies daily

— ‘that chimney mistake’ is astounding, but there are other astonishments in these six lines: the aural risk in that ‘imagining a singing’ and that other kind of risk in the play on ‘down and out.’ ‘Counter’ winds it all in, dense complexities of movement, the echo of Williams in the last of these lines resonating against and with, as a note on page 180 tells us, ‘a number of works on the dance-language of bees, and diseases of the blood,’ perhaps the poet’s own sickness, perhaps the loss of his son (who when he died was, like his father at that age, learning to be a musician), but perhaps, too, what pompous critics like to call ‘the situation of poetry at the present time.’ Counter: one who reckons; a table or board on which money is counted; contrary reckoning. It is also a term in music, and a defence or retaliation. Overall the poem has a musical structure, playing alternating forms and chants, refrains invocations and lyric stanzas, a complex Charm or Spell in which lament turns into prayer turns into praise.
      ‘Counter’ begins with two quotes, the first, as Caddel tells us in the note on page 180, from Stefan Themerson’s surreal comic novel Bayamus and the Theatre of Semantic Poetry (1949), ‘published in the year of my birth,’ and the second, from Armand Schwerner’s ‘translation’ of a fake archaeological find, The Tablets, published ‘in the year of my fiftieth birthday.’ The first of these nods to the absurdist and intuitive is the rhymed gobbledygook of  ‘Kardang Garro / Mammul garro [&c.]’ (for which Caddel provides a translation), and the second a scrap of commentary on ritual chant; it might be Caddel’s instruction to the reader: ‘The sound, the proper / Voice for the saying, . . changed by murmur into animal liveliness.’  Caddel works from notebook jottings, but ‘before they ever get into the book,’ he told David Annwn in 1990 (Prospect 89), ‘I’m hammering them into a rhythm or a sound which I like. So, from before the start, I’m trying to put a heard element into it.’
      Together those epigraphic quotes invoke a sense of lost forgotten history, and give voice to those who are, as the first lyric stanza of ‘Counter’ tells us, ‘living out on contrary margins’ where the act of telling marks ‘a boundary of... resistance.’ The stanza I quoted in full has a double movement: in the direction of sense, an indwelling isolate lament; and in its energizing breathlessness, a turn towards affirmation and play — towards imagining. This move is picked up in the following stanza’s turn (via the poem’s cut-up or collage techniques) to ‘a compound vision dance.’
      It is a poem which comments upon itself as it goes, and the commentary is one prime of the poem’s celebration of complex and sometimes pained awareness, the structure and shape of the poem itself, as the final lyric stanza might be telling us, ‘deliberate form seeking in fleet foot dance, a signal towards an unknown.’
      Uncertainty, then, to be celebrated along with and through such undecidabilities as those in the linebreaks of ‘Fantasia’:

to make mistakes
in a way, once
in a way,

exploring possibility, fostering surprise, and if the poet’s task in composition is to find a way of pulling the notes into a whole, an equally pressing problem is to find a way to make room for echoes and associations to happen, to keep the territory of the poem open, to ease up. So ‘control is an essential element, even in losing control,’ as he told Annwn (88), and poem after poem in Magpie Words deploys the juxtaposition of seeming irrelevancies or incompatibilities — frequently, in what I call his quick takes, through the poem’s title. What, after all, is exactly the relationship between the title ‘‘Darknesse and light / divide / the course of time’’ (it’s in quotes) and the four lines which follow?

grey coat
grey eyes
ellipse of morning
pebble dash sea

Does it help (whatever ‘help’ may mean here) to know that the title comes from chapter five of Sir Thomas Browne’s Urne-Buriall and that the quote continues: ‘and oblivion shares with memory a great part even of our living beings’? What lifts this juxtaposition, this apparently arbitrary linkage, from being merely a gesture towards opening up the territory? Perhaps nothing — this is an early poem, written in 1973 — but the urgency to keep the territory open, to avoid the stifling arrogance of knowing that carries closure in its wake, draws thought by risking perplexity. There’s a wonderful little poem, the fourth in the ‘Baltic Coast’ sequence, called ‘Threap’; its title and its dedication to Eric Mottram both a bit of a riddle — how do they connect? — until you find, looking it up, that the last lines quote the dictionary. Threap:

noun, local:

persist in asserting; affirm;
maintain obstinately or aggressively

and the poem, its untidy edges still suggestive, suddenly but not in the least explicitly voices equivalent affection for Mottram as for the Balts, their stubborn difficult allegiances. Juxtaposition, here deliberate, elsewhere fortuitous, to enlarge scope.
      Some time around 1979 John Cage told Kathan Brown and the printers at Crown Point Press when they were tangled and impatient with a technical problem, that ‘Art’s purpose is to sober and quiet the mind so that it is in accord with what happens.’ When he published it in a mesostic in 1982 Cage added a bit: ‘the world around it open rather than closed’ — the world of untidy edges and intractable materials forcing responsiveness to what is under hand and in the tune — ‘I am not creating music,’ Morton Feldman once told a class, ‘it’s already there, and I have this conversation with my material’ (157). The great risk of such practice, in which by being enigmatic the poet appears to withhold meaning from the reader, is the risk of the predatory, which claims knowledge and or understanding the reader presumably lacks, and in the process defines the reader’s desires or interests in the writer’s terms; the problem is to neutralize completely that sort of power play in which the writer — like any committee or marketer — tries to control both the reader’s response and the matter at hand to achieve a predetermined outcome. It is a sort of intentional planning in which you claim to know what you think before you think it, and has something in common with what I call well-made poems, and Caddel calls ‘High Street poetry.’ It leaves nothing to chance.
      The last line of ‘Counter’ is  ‘— thus nightshadowpurple —’; it is the last line too of the varied refrain of colours which, chanted throughout the poem at more or less regular intervals, serves as a shifting but stabilizing constant as it moves, an irregular rainbow, from white through black to thus shadow and its shades. And it is immediately followed, on the facing page, by the greys of  ‘‘Darknesse and light’,’ those words by Sir Thomas Browne: ‘Oblivion shares with memory a great part even of our living beings; we slightly remember our felicities, and the smartest strokes of affliction leave but short smart upon us.’ The juxtaposition is fortuitous, and perhaps uncannily apt; a consequence of the alphabetical arrangement of the poems. That arrangement, Caddel says in his Preface, ‘affords each of the poems a chance to make its own relationships with readers, and with its neighbours,’ and he speaks of adopting a ‘sequencing device’ which ‘brings to light too many examples of synergy and interaction — sound sense — between the poems to be dismissed as mere chance’ (11); in a note on page 180 he says the book is ‘intended... for readers rather than scholars.’ Magpie Words would indeed be a different book, and have a wholly different flavour, were the order of the poems to be chronological, the same poems I mean, in part because it would invite us to read the poems as exhibiting the course of the writer’s development as a poet — the model is progressive — and because it would cater to the prurient interests of those (academics?) who like to think of poets in terms of their careers, and careers as open to assessment; intent on choosing which poem is ‘better’ than which, they fail to read a poem on its terms, instead wishing it were something else, and were perhaps ‘more important’ — whatever important might mean.
      The vagueness of  ‘sequencing device’ is a little disingenuous, certainly a shade mischievous, but it does caution the reader that the ‘chance to make its own relationships’ which each poem has is not necessarily as arbitrarily determined as the strict alphabetical sequence on the Contents page suggests. Here is ‘Hitting the Vein,’ one of the texts gathered here, a short prose piece:

The day I terminated my lightning-fast mustard gas liaison with catholicism was also, ‘by chance’, the first really rainy day of the autumn 1977/78, with its inherent discoveries of torn coats, leaky  shoes, and lost slates. I became, after this, a firm believer in the workings of chance — a belief which has since been shaken.

But ‘Hitting the Vein’ is not listed on the Contents page, it is the third of nine poems originally published in Shelter (1979), a title which does appear on the Contents page, and if, instead of relying on the list of forty-four poems you can find there, you actually count the number of poems in Magpie Words, then there’s somewhere between a hundred and a hundred-and-eighteen poems, depending how you count, in 163 pages of text. Some of the poems in sequences like ‘Sweet Cicely’, for instance, were first published separately, and some of the eleven amazing variations in ‘Ground’ bear independent titles although none, so far as I know, was published independently of the others — nor should it have been. All this (and more besides) might be a terribly pedantic sort of issue, except that it points first to the sheer undecidability regarding some of these texts — is this a separate poem or not? — and second to Caddel’s arranging hand: my response to the poems in Shelter as printed in 1979 is quite different from my response to them here, where I meet them as a distinct sequence rather than as a collection. How wonderful, that all six ‘Rigmaroles,’ written over fifteen years and not in this order, should cluster together at about the two-thirds mark of the book, each quite radically differing from the others, all of them through their shaping of fragment retrieving grace in an what Caddel, following Maurice Scully, acknowledges a murderous time. Powerful music, compelling thought.
      There is work in Caddel’s ‘workings of chance,’ the poet’s work. From time to time in Magpie Words there are clumps and clusters of poems, presented under a single title, which are true then to the poet’s history — the careful and deliberate arrangement of parts, fragments, sequences into more-or-less coherent units (‘Against Numerology,’ for example, or ‘Ground,’ or ‘Underwriter’).  But Caddel is careful not to give very much away, and it is finally up to the reader — who can after all figure out for herself that these poems apparently linked in sequence can be read independently of one another, and that these poems presented independent of one another might very well be linked. ‘One of the nice things, of course, about poems,’ he told Annwn, ‘is that you can rearrange them and put them in different contexts so they can make new friends as it were. There isn’t one finite set of them’ (95).
      That openness is crucial; it has a lot to do with why I think people will be reading this work fifty years from now, and more — not just the wonderful long pieces like ‘For the Fallen’ and ‘Ground,’ which are staggering in their skill and inventiveness, desperately moving in their lament and recovery for what is lost, and their celebration of what can be found; anyone with even half an ear, and that made out of tin, will find in them delight. But there are the shorter poems — the scornful comedy of ‘Flock,’ the exact thought and accurate narrative of ‘From Wreay Churchyard,’ the more obvious music of ‘Three Reels.’ And there is the sheer openness of the personal — I would say many of these poems are about family were that word not too abstract. They are about Ann, and Tom, and Lucy Caddel — and, though I have not said so, the closeness of their language opens movement of mind and heart, reminds me of words and language and how it is what we know, and that sense is, after all, from the senses, the non-lexical part of our complicated bodies and the physical worlds in which we dwell, and the political and social institutional. The quiet music of these poems opens up, through implication and association — now and again through explicit comment — more connections between the private and the public world than bombast ever could.

Works Cited

David Annwn. ‘[Interview with] Richard Caddel.’ in Peterjon Skelt, ed. Prospect into Breath: Interviews with North and South Writers. (Twickenham and Wakefield: North & South, 1991)

Kathan Brown. John Cage: Visual Art: To Sober and Quiet the Mind (San Francisco: Crown Point, 2000)

Sir Thomas Browne. Hydriotaphia Urne-Buriall, in Selected Writings. Sir Geoffrey Keynes, ed. (London: Faber, 1968)

John Cage. ‘Composition in Retrospect.’ Etchings 1978–1982 (San Francisco: Crown Point, 1982). This work is one of the source texts for Cage’s 1988-9 Norton Lectures at Harvard, published as I-VI (Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1990), where the words I quote can also be found (on p. 427).

Morton Feldman. Give My Regards to Eighth Street: Collected Writings (Cambridge, MA: Exact Change, 2000)

Harry Gilonis. ‘Making a Music Out of Language: Richard Caddel’s ‘reading’ of the Gododdin.’ Fragmente 7 (1997)

William Carlos Williams. ‘Prologue to Kora in Hell.’ Imaginations. Webster Schott, ed. (New York: New Directions, 1970)

Check out this author’s work: Bookstores in Britain, and in the United States

Jacket 20 — December 2002
  Contents page
Select other issues of the magazine from the | Jacket catalog | read about Jacket |
Other links: | top | homepage | bookstores | literary links | internet design |
Copyright Notice: Please respect the fact that this material is copyright. It is made available here without charge for personal use only. It may not be stored, displayed, published, reproduced, or used for any other purpose

This material is copyright © Peter Quartermain and Jacket magazine 2002
The URL address of this page is