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Richard Owens

Gael Turnbull: The Bricklayer Reconsidered

Editing Gael Turnbull’s Collected Poems

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In his most widely published and well-known poem, “An Irish Monk on Lindisfarne,” Gael Turnbull writes:


The patience of the bricklayer
is assumed in the dream of the architect.


Like so much Blake or Bunting, these lines stay in the mind and stick to the ribs. If we can take the liberty of constructing a crude equivalent, we might view this architect of Turnbull’s as poet and his bricklayer as editor. Just as the architect’s dream can only ever be fully realized by the bricklayer that digs in and builds this vision from the ground up, it is often through the work of an editor — patient or otherwise — that the work of the poet is made flesh through the fact of the book.

Gael Turnbull

Gael Turnbull


But the task of the editor is not as simple as it might at first appear. Nor is this task preinterpretive. Editors, like critics, interpret the work they edit, making highly interpretive decisions based on their readings. These decisions, in turn, determine how readers receive and interpret a text, regardless of whether that text is a collection of poems or a technical manual. Unfortunately — unless we find ourselves dealing with editions such as Gabler’s Ulyssesor Franklin’s Emily Dickinson — very little critical attention is given to textual editing, especially when it concerns small press poetry not yet absorbed into the canon. But in There Are Words: Collected Poemswe encounter the presence of editors that have worked exhaustively to bring into circulation the bulk of Turnbull’s poetic output otherwise long out of print. These editors haunt the posthumously published work just as surely as Turnbull himself. They guide our eyes and minds through Turnbull’s work, invariably shaping the way these poems come to mean. And for this the bricklayer, too, deserves attention.


Shortly after it was first published last year a number of poets reviewed Turnbull’s Collected Poems, most notably Ron Silliman, Richard Price and fellow Scotsman Peter Manson. Although none of them devoted much attention to the fact that the book was edited, all of these reviews were nothing if not favorable — and rightfully so. The fact that much of Turnbull’s corpus was made available to readers by Shearsman Books was — and still is — something to be celebrated. Commenting on Turnbull’s poetic humility and interest in the mundane, Peter Manson writes in the Contemporary British Poetry number of the Chicago Review, “This handsome Collected Poemslets us see, at last,” that Turnbull “was in fact unique, true through half a century of questioning to the least self-important of selves in modern writing.” At last. Without the intervention of Shearsman we wouldn’t be seeing anything of this least self-important of selves. Not since Anvil Press published A Gathering of Poemsin 1983 has a comprehensive selection of Turnbull’s poetic production been available to Anglophone readers. Further, the Collected Poems collaboratively edited by Jill Turnbull and Tony Frazer is, as Manson notes, a handsome volume which, due to advances in print technology, will be available for readers to purchase years from now precisely as it appears in print today. Like small press publishers such as Salt and larger university presses such as Harvard and Oxford, Frazer’s Shearsman takes advantage of print-on-demand technology. The feel of the volume is, of course, markedly different than the small or fine press publications through which Turnbull’s poems were first brought out, but as a trade paperback Collected Poemsis as pleasurable to hold and read as any other conventionally printed book. Most importantly, the volume makes the work available. This, however, concerns publishing more than editing. Now that the work is available to us, what are we to make of how the texts have been edited?


If we exclude A Trampoline(1968) and Scantlings(1970),two collections brought out jointly by Cape Goliard in the UK and Grossman in the US, Turnbull’s publishing history is an exclusively small press history, a history involving dozens of seemingly ephemeral chapbooks, broadsides and privately printed pamphlets published by more than a dozen seemingly marginal independent presses. Given this complex publishing history any attempt to gather and edit a comprehensive collection of Turnbull’s work, especially when that collection is edited and published posthumously, must involve Herculean patience. As not only a poet but also the editor of Migrant Press — an imprint which committed itself to sustaining a transatlantic exchange through publishing titles by figures ranging from Ed Dorn to Roy Fisher — Turnbull was fully aware of the patience involved in the task of editing. And the storm of heavily revised manuscripts, privately printed collections and other ephemera Turnbull left behind in the wake of his death are no less challenging to an editor than those of the poets Turnbull himself edited.


Tony Frazer, painfully aware of the editorial quagmire he threw himself into, writes in a publisher’s note contained in the volume, “There are two obvious ways to approach the compilation of a Collected Poemssuch as this: order the poems chronologically, or place them in the context of their original publication, thus making a ‘Collected Books’” (Turnbull 20). Ordering the poems chronologically, according to Frazer, would have been fairly impossible given that Turnbull scarcely ever dated his working manuscripts or filed them according to date. Worse still, like Whitman or Robert Graves, Turnbull continuously revised his work. Given this, Frazer decided to collect books rather than individual poems, arranging these books chronologically, according to the date they first appeared in print. For example, the first poems we encounter in the collection are those contained in Trio, Turnbull’s first book published by Robert McAlmon’s Contact Press in 1954. Then we find those poems first published in The Knot in the Woodin 1955. Embedded between some of these collections according to decade are what Frazer refers to as “uncollected poems.” Although there is no critical apparatus contained in the volume to indicate the source of each of these uncollected poems — after all, the volume is a clear reading edition and not a critical edition — Frazer states in a February 27, 2007 email message:


The poems that are listed at the end of each decade as uncollected are those which have not appeared in any books (other than home-produced chapbooks for private distribution). Some appeared in magazines… . Some of the late work was sourced only from manuscript, but not often. The majority of his work had been published in one way or another, some of it after his death… .


Apart from these uncollected poems, which undoubtedly further enrich our encounter with Turnbull, the volume is a collection governed by the sequential order of Turnbull’s single-author publications. Aside from those few poems like “An Irish Monk on Lindisfarne” — which shows little textual variation from its first appearance in the Spring 1954 issue of Cid Corman’s Originmagazine to later appearances in various collections — most of Turnbull’s textual production was subject to radical revision at any time, no matter how many times a given poem had been previously published. In the case of a poem that previously appeared in a collection but was later revised, Frazer has opted to include the most recently revised version of that poem. And it is here that we enter into the fray of perhaps the most aggressively contested theoretical issues involved in textual editing: final authorial intention and the eclectic approach to editing.


Most editions — both clear reading editions and those scholarly editions that have sent so many casual readers screaming naked into the wild — are often constructed based on the Greg-Bowers theory of editing. Named after textual scholars W.W. Greg and Fredson Bowers, this theory of editing privileges the use of a copy-text. According to the Modern Language Association’s Committee on Scholarly Editions (CSE), which glosses the term based on Greg’s theory, a copy-text is the “specific arrangement of words and punctuation which an editor designates as the basis for his edited text, and from which he departs only where he deems emendation is necessary” (CSE Guidelines). What is most troubling here, of course, is the latter clause in the statement: where he deems emendation necessary. Ideally these emendations are made not to substantives — Greg’s term for the words in a given document — but to accidentals. Accidentals, according to Greg, include punctuation, spelling, and anything else involved in the formal presentation of a document which does not affect its meaning.


But how can the meaning of a text be disentangled from its formal presentation? Doesn’t punctuation and spelling contribute to the meaning of a text? Take, for example, Frazer’s decision to anglicize spelling within those Turnbull poems first published in the US — a decision which, if we abide by the logic of the Greg-Bowers tradition, would not affect the meaning of the work. What does it mean for an English editor to anglicize the work of a Scottish poet who not only published widely in North America before receiving attention in the UK, but who first traveled to North America in order to avoid the possibility of conscription during WWII and later began publishing Migrantmagazine in Ventura, California? Although this may seem like a minor point, the ideological implications of anglicizing the spelling of work produced by a “migrant” poet are tremendous — especially in a post-911 world. On one hand, the decision to anglicize seems to wash away traces of the poet’s migration from Scotland, through Canada to California and finally back to Scotland. On the other hand, given the post-911 political pressure which resulted in Britain’s inclusion in a “coalition of the willing” during the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, the anglicization of spelling can be read as a reaffirmation of the poet’s Scottishness. Either way, whether conscious or not, there is a discourse of nation which runs through Frazer’s decision to alter the spelling of Turnbull’s work.


Although Frazer has collected and arranged Turnbull’s publications as they appeared in print, the editorial notes at the end of the volume indicate that he used the collection A Gathering of Poemsas a sort of copy text — which is to say, where a previously published poem differed from the version of that poem included in A Gathering, Frazer includes the version from A Gathering. This is eclectic editing. When we read, for example, through those poems in the volume which were first published in, say, To You I Write(1963), we are not reading the poems contained in the collection as they first appeared in that collection. In the case of a poem like “They have taken,” what we are reading is the poem not as it first appeared in 1963 but as it appeared twenty years later in A Gathering. In actuality, then, we are not reading the work produced by a Scottish poet in his mid-thirties living in California, but the revisions of a Scottish poet living through his mid-fifties in Worcester. In fact, one might go so far as to argue we are reading a different poem produced by a different poet. Just as scholars mark a distinction between the early work and later heavily revised work of Marianne Moore, a similar distinction might be made between earlier and later versions of Turnbull’s work. If this is possible, is it wise to invest an older Turnbull with greater authority than a younger Turnbull? In other words, is the older Turnbull allowed here to exercise a sort of tyranny over the work of the younger Turnbull?


If we look at Turnbull’s later work, especially those poems produced in the years immediately preceding his death, we find a poetry teeming with energy and committed to investigating formal innovation with the same rigor we find in Twenty Words, Twenty Days, a work first brought out in 1966. Produced in the earlier third of his career, Twenty Wordscame into being through the random selection of a word from the dictionary every day for twenty days. Fusing words randomly located with reflections on the day and the intervening sounds and images surrounding him, Turnbull investigates in this work the overdetermined intersection of consciousness, the unconscious and the external world. As he says himself in part XVII of Twenty Words, he paradoxically achieves “clarity through a haze” (Turnbull 149). But where Twenty Words sees Turnbull invested in a procedural poetics governed, in part, by a sort of Mallarméan chance, his later work such as Transmutations(1997) and Might a Shape of Words(2000) sees him exploring temporal and spatial dislocations within the frame of the prose poem. These poems don’t defamiliarize language and subvert normative syntactic formations like, say, Zukofsky’s 80 Flowers. Rather, these later prose poems dislocate themselves from the temporal continuity of their own narrative without breaking the frame of that narrative — in much the same way an athlete might find an arm dislocated but still attached to the body, the skin unbroken.


In Transits: A Triptych, one of the last poems composed before his death in 2004 and previously unpublished, Turnbull appears to summarize the trajectory not only of his own life and work but all life and work. If we read this verse summary in relation to his later work, it seems to provide a curious window into the later prose poems:


Marking, adjusting course
                        inscribed by time
against tidal current, vagaries of wind
                        each shift, each tack
as furrow that divides
                        that calls to us, that signals
what was from what might be
                        as image and reflection
glimpsed far astern
                        that we reflect upon (460)


Here we might view Turnbull’s affinity for endless revision as a refusal to believe in the reproducibility of the past or the possibility of returning to the past. And in much the same way Turnbull reads “what was” through the window of “what might be” and revises it accordingly, Frazer has edited the early instantiations of Turnbull’s poems through the window of the poet’s later revisions — that is, the authority which guided Frazer in editing the volume was Turnbull’s final intention. Speaking further to the issue of authorial intention in the email exchange mentioned above, Frazer states:


Many [of the revised poems contained in Collected Poems] were manuscript revisions. When he DID republish/re-collect/re-select poems, his policy was always to republish revised versions. Accordingly we kept to this policy, consistently, throughout the book (Frazer to Owens, Feb 7, 2007).


But Frazer didn’t act alone in making these decisions. Jill Turnbull, an art historian, began co-editing the volume almost immediately after the poet’s death. Indeed, to handle the volume and read through Jill Turnbull’s introduction is to feel an affection for the poet and a sense of urgency behind the publication of this book. On one level collating and editing her husband’s work seems to have aided in what would otherwise have been a moment of mourning and despair. As she writes in her introduction, “Sorting out the papers of someone close who has recently died arouses, as might easily be imagined, a mixture of emotions — great loss and sadness, but also the pleasure of happy memories and, in my case, a voyage of discovery” (Turnbull 19). Like Frazer, she too states that Turnbull’s final intention — wherever such intention could be detected — guided her editorial hand.

Richard Owens

Richard Owens edits Punch Press and Damn the Caesars, a journal of contemporary poetry and poetics. His poetry, essays and reviews have appeared in Shearsman, Aufgabe, O Poss, Hassle, Kadar Koli and elsewhere. Delaware Memoranda, a book-length poem, was published through BlazeVox early in 2008.


Here one might side with a textual critic like Jerome McGann and argue that all authors are multiple, that the production of the poem happens in part at the level of the unconscious, or that a number of undisclosed outside agents are involved in the production of any and every text. Regardless, the editorial decisions made by Jill Turnbull and Tony Frazer appear to be highly informed by the poet’s own practices, his propensity for endless revision and his close involvement in the publication of his own work. In the end, what Jill Turnbull and Frazer offer us is a clear reading edition containing the better part of a body of work by a formidable poet — work that was criminally out of circulation. In doing so they offer casual readers, poets and critics alike a point of departure, a place to begin the critical investigations that Turnbull’s work so deserves.

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