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   Jacket 31 — October 2006        link Jacket 31 Contents page        link Jacket Homepage

Peter Riley reviews

Blue Grass
by Peter Minter

116pp. Salt Publishing. GBP9.99, USD15.95.
ISBN 13 9781844712465
and 10 184471246x

This review is about 7 printed pages long.

(a) Review

Peter Minter is writing these days with tremendous energy and depth. He is absolutely dedicated to a poetry of process; that is, a poetry in process, which seeks to involve the reader directly in the scenario of the poem, banishing the distances of observation or description and all the British prize-winning tropes of pop-poetry empathy or novelistic empiricism. In the middle of many of Minter’s poems the most we could say about our experience is that ‘something is happening’ all round us. It’s not to do with fragmentation — the language patterns are those of declaration and depiction — but the things declared or depicted run into each other and encounter terms from somewhere else, and ‘where you are’ shifts underneath the feet. The elsewheres jammed into the poem are not usually substantial enough to constitute parallel, illustrative (metaphorical) support. You are cast into them suddenly, and whipped out again. Or they are images which are perfectly whole and clear but don’t declare for themselves any rhetorical comparative or enhancing function —

to rise early and see
      another owl pressed calmly to your cheek

We can’t take it literally but it is too direct to be taken as metaphor; whatever the owl  ‘was’ has been erased. But  ‘calmly’ remains, and divination would be possible, but none is indicated. We are immersed in the scenario itself rather than offered a handle onto a replication of authorial experience. And sometimes images and abstracts, items and gestures crowd round you in bright contrasted colours until it’s like being in one of Kandinsky’s  ‘Improvisations’. And that’s nothing to complain about.

So there’s no doubt about the energy. There’s also no doubt about the courage, in the sense of the willingness to take risks, and to leave the reader behind (which isn’t necessarily a courage; it can be a disdain). And the eagerness to exploit the possibilities suggested by a great range of experimentalist poetry through the 20th Century in English and French, especially disjuncted image layers, and vocabulary items of the high public sphere dashed into contradiction, etc. etc. … modern poetry. But how about  ‘depth’? How do we (how did I) know there is depth (as I did instantly, without seeking it), a concept which is itself rejected in certain poetical quarters, including some of the quarters Minter obviously values? And what do I mean by depth anyway? Who knows? But I certainly mean something which depends upon acts of recognition, clarity, and truthfulness — or  ‘accuracy’ might be better, since  ‘truthfulness’ tends to drift into the global. I mean guarantees.

For we don’t need help with a poetry like Minter’s so much as assurances. Quite a lot of the time we are cast into the cauldron where it all forms itself. What we need, and I believe we mostly get, is the experience that comes out of it as a knowledge or realisation, of what the process is for, to locate its end-product. We don’t of course get it as a lesson, but as something more substantially a gift. I think it happens in at least two ways, which merge into each other.

Firstly, the texture is quite elastic, and I have perhaps exaggerated the avant-gardery, which swims through the text not so much as a purpose, more an energising and a disruption of a basic quasi-symbolic / depictive discourse, often quite elegant and measured. All that referred experimentalism (which he seems to think of mainly as American) is valued only as long as it doesn’t destroy a fundamental tenor (which he seems to think of as Australian, though I’m not so sure about that) which is almost constantly present. The big operative result is an extended connectivity in the text which extends persistently through all the questions, disjunctions, metonyms, and displaced symbols, determined that perception shall not get short changed with mere fracture or other forms of unthinking. The sentence, in fact, holds, even the complex sentence, as it must. A tone is donated which is normally quite serious and weighted. There are some poems dominated by New-Yorky persiflage but here too the connectivity is unrelenting and nothing stops the poem running into broader terms. This ‘classic’ tenor holds the poetry back, in a necessary way, from the dangers of sectional contemporaneity and protects it from the poet’s own excitement. Thus he can quote a line from Artaud without falling into psychological extremism. Indeed the text is scattered with quotations and near-quotations, mostly from American poets, but held so much in its own tensions that none of them disrupts or diverts the sustaining pressure.

Not that the text is without moments of wilful blockage — there are some figures which no one is ever going to get the hang of — and what sometimes looks like perversity. The final section, for instance, is called  ‘Fresh Kills’ and there’s a substantial note explaining what this is: the landfill site on Staten Island where the remains of the World Trade Centre were filtered and buried. But I can find nothing in the section following this title-page which refers us to that place or that event except by remotest implication or far distanced reaction, and when those two words themselves appears in a poem they seems not to refer to the place. On the other hand a poem which could very readily refer us to Fresh Kills, ‘A Nation of Trees… ’ (p.69) ( ‘Our soil is partly human’) is in a different section. Such things are no doubt part of the risk of advancedness, as the rare intrusion of opinion is the risk of the need to retract from advancedness.

Such worries are rare, and momentary. Instead, a depth and a clarity which would with most poets be exceptional, emerge again and again from the poems, as statement and as scene.

& so we are born
not of the buried
but of rain, alive in rocks                                     (opening of The Rivulets p.77)

It moves so swiftly and easily through its layers that you are tempted to let it go as  ‘music’ or surrealism or something. Casual too —  many of the poems begin in medias res and/or in the middle of a sentence like this, as breaking into a preparatory discourse which we don’t need. But the third line enfolds an entire geophysical process, of the formation of land fertility, and it is more than a plea for presence. Same tone at the end of the poem—

Rivulets radiate
from marks
our fingers leave on glass.

So perfectly crafted that you may not notice how the dead return (at  ‘leave’); they are not escaped so easily. We become them, of course.

So there are statements, like these, which I call  ‘deep’ because, partly in their avoidance of the endorsed discourses, they seem to speak of true personal discoveries which reverberate through anybody’s life. Depictions or scenarios equally participate in this sense of trueness, with the same sense of self-surprise in the wording, and this is itself a type of wisdom held in the act of recognising the earth anew, the concurrent seeing and knowing, or simultaneous arrival and departure.

It’s a depth (if I have to call it that) which doesn’t hang on either symbolism or abstraction, but reveals itself in the calm of particulars, the poise of lineation, an accuracy won by figures which are sensuously precise but too far-fetched to be called metaphor —

The night wind is over.
     Cold air running over flint leaves
& grey steel fields

white nimbus
     breaking moonlight on hilltops
at bright speed                                                          (opening of Serine, p.103

flint leaves, steel fields, bright speed… It seems inadequate to read these figures as ‘leaves like flint’, ‘fields like steel’… the adjectives reach beyond the picture or the sensation; they create another place, a parallel artifacted landscape running alongside the real, which then surges to the foreground, and it is typical for an initially realist imaginative landscape such as this to run on into a different and further theatre —

clatter of rib bones
     tied to a wheel
spinning under a dark tree

light from a star
     left older than you, its crescent glint.

Where are we? Not two places but a multiple of places in which the earth we know is unmade and re-made in language at one human point, a linguistic confusion rebuilding our perception from the fragments. Thus the almost comic play with  ‘over’ in the first two lines, the image scatter of moonlight broken / bright speed / white bones turning / points of starlight become crecsentic in the turning of the wheel… But all one scene, both/and, neither/nor, actual/virtual. In the  ‘something’ which is happening  ‘somewhere’ there is a literary cohesion, a vocal reliability which urges movement through the text as if to a purpose (except, I find, for the word  ‘left’, which I admit defeats me and I rather wish it weren’t there). The poem ruthlessly pursues this redoubling of perception as a gradual unfolding, carefully and stealthily moving its multiplicity into human terms until it reaches its purpose—

It’s then your face
     close by in the ground
remembers how you have lived.

which has all the force of, extraordinarily, a final moral.

The other way of getting guarantees is by being swept off your feet. Interspersed through the book is a series of 14-line poems collectively entitled ‘Yonder Sonnets’. They are by no means written in a manner distinct from the rest of the book, but the shorter format combined with the retention of connectivity (most of them in two to four sentences) makes these particularly intense, and they are all love poems in one way or another. I find nothing in the book so assuring of the value of the enterprise as these virtuosic pieces. It is as if the poet plunges wholeheartedly into the act of writing from what he holds dearest, rejoicing in his own sense of poetry as the outcome of his love, and the reader in return ceases to ask for elucidation before what is in its fervour entirely lucid.


Like a key that fell to sand
     my silver lion in the sun
a glance through swimming, blackened bones
     bloodless in the fragrant surf,
stars of ash in random waves
     of lacy carbon arcs towards the shore,
the dead trees we travelled with
     aflame at last beside the condominiums.

I looked to you & wept, universe
     flooding by invisibly, data
brailed by sudden tropospheres
     wet breeze filling out the heart.
We stand abreast & see the end of us,
     lions pleated silver in the sand.

(b) Post-script

(concerning not the quality of Peter Minter’s poetry, but something else)

I mentioned that there are a lot of quotations, which are thoroughly subsumed into the text as items of its vocabulary, built into the changes of the discourse, and  ‘are not necessarily accurate or complete’. Many read as if memorised, as having entered the poet’s mind and become his, intimate to the author or to the needs of the poem. At the end of the book there are five pages of references for these quotations, though there seem to be others in the poems not referenced. One or two are archaic, but by my reckoning there are 60 quotations from modern poets, in the following proportions —

American (U.S.A.): 39 from 22 poets
Australian: 11 from 7 poets
French: 6 from 5 poets
British: 2 from 1 poet
Other: 2 from 2 poets.

Thus nearly twice as much American as all the rest together, and Britain right out on a limb. This quotation list isn’t a thesis (Pound, who must be important to Minter, is absent from it) but it feels symptomatic. It seems to be a common conclusion among the best Australian poets now that poetry is basically American, in much the way that music at one time became basically Austro-German. Robert Adamson is another Australian poet who frequently alludes to and pays homage to American poets of the non-mainstream, including experimentalists, without letting his own way of writing follow them into semantic emptying. Indeed the contents of dearly beloved Jacket itself must be at least 60 percent American in most issues. Even the musicians honoured by many Australian poets in titles and references seem to be mostly American, and the very title of the book under review invokes an American music. There are moments when Peter Minter seems to assume that his readers must be familiar with recent American poetry, as when he drops the name  ‘Coolidge’ (p.99) as if everyone will know who he refers to, and it isn’t Calvin either.

And yet it seems to me that you could write almost the whole of Blue Grass without having read a word of American poetry. The only exceptions that I can see are the manner of the two or three New York speaking poems, and a certain freedom with varied indentation, mostly in the same poems. Both of these could be seen as European derivatives via America. I certainly don’t think that the sustained connectivity which I think dignifies the poetry is a  ‘European’ weight counterbalancing an  ‘American’ freedom. The move beyond metaphor, and the semantic compaction which goes with it, can be drawn readily from mid-century British poetry, especially the development after Dylan Thomas, and British and Continental poets have gone as far into or even past metonymy as any others, and indeed too far.

Ken Bolton spoke (in an interview) of this is a problem, that you want to write an Australian poetry, but if you want to innovate the only way to innovate is to be American. I’m not sure that this is true; it wasn’t true in Britain, where a native innovation has been plentiful. What other problems are cloaked in this Americo-mania? Is it a post-colonial anxiety? And if all poetical good comes from the States, how does this relate to the need for political good? Can you ignore that? Isn’t it perhaps a bit too easy to dissociate the two completely, to say we admire exclusively the American opposition? For an opposition needs a proposition. When Peter Minter says (p.7),

Maybe it’s too late, the Americans now do
full spectrum dominance.

is he rejoicing for the poetry or lamenting for the politics? Or both? When he associates a  ‘European sensibility’ with  ‘Reason’ [sic] (p.53) is he seriously worried, since Europe is ultimately the source of all the finely unreasonable vision in his poetry?

Surely British poetry went through all this in the 1970s. I was myself party to it and retain an unshakable faith in plenty of them: Duncan, the earlier Dorn, the serious O’Hara, Spicer, Blaser, the poetical Olson, the sane Weiners… But the Australian poets still seem to be in the position of swallowing the whole bag of tricks (they would want to expunge the adjectives from that brief list) and there is no tricksier poetry than mid-to-late 20th Century American in the history of the world. Do Australians really still take poets such as Zukofsky seriously? Shallow hobbyist manipulation of word-play? Is that the way forward for Australian poetry, on into the mind-numbing perversity of  ‘Language’ and entirely into the arms of the  ‘unintelligible intelligentia’? But that institution is at the top of the sectarian league in U.K. as much as U.S.A. (rather less so in most European capitals) if that’s what you want.

If I were to worry at all about the future of Peter Minter ‘s poetry (I don’t) it would be that the sentence might not continue to hold, and at some point a border might be crossed which closes doors on any basis for a sense of common humanity whatsoever, and I might blame American power for that, though it has happened elsewhere.

(Reference to Peter Minter’s views is drawn from his interviews with Australian poets on his new website, especially the one with Ken Bolton)