Samples from The Many Press

by Michael Peverett

John Welch’s The Many Press was active from 1975-2003; there were about 80 publications altogether. He has written: “The Press when founded was part of the poetic revival of the late Sixties and early Seventies; there was a feeling, quite widely shared, that much of what was most interesting was likely to be found outside the productions of the mainstream publishers. Changes in the technology of typesetting and printing also had much to do with it.” The publications I’ve seen are beautifully produced, a reminder of some of the things that non-mainstream publishing has lost by decamping to the internet.

John sent a sample stack of still-available books and pamphlets to IS HQ, and I combed a few off to read. You can possibly acquire any of these merely for the price of postage . I can’t remember on what basis I sampled the sample, but I seem to have ended up with an all-male selection.

The biggest volume (it calls itself a full-length collection) is Nigel Wheale’s Phrasing the Light (1994). All the poems in it, with the exception of the sequence "From The Versts", are also in Raw Skies, a later and larger "New and Selected" that was published by Shearsman in 2006; judging from the PDF extract on the Shearsman site, this should be an amazing book. From that extract, it seems that Wheale has become interested again in brilliant description, the kind that flies out of the page at you in an early poem like this:

     Venetian words

     Slicks and rips ran eel-fast
     beneath the lagoon, hammer-beaten
     by an early rain burst:

     In the evening we stalked fire flies
     that might have been moving
     within the constellated dark
     of cypress trees,

     Beyond which true light struck
     like a night-long infection
     burning among storm clouds.

But most of the poems in Phrasing the Light have other ends in view; they are intentionally imperfect medleys of sound which act as carriers for generally overt political condemnation and for attempts to register the structure of society as it really is, that is, as an enormity. The talent for description is impurified by Cambridge-school plumbing of the dictionary and shameless literary echoes. Maybe I'll say something more about the former.

     Mordants acid-etch the city's circuit-board and we are
     gridlocked into fierce raptus by the high stacked money
     the punishing wealthy beauty of Manhattan's rigor -
     offences of height and gilt, cash and glazes
     from which nothing falls excepting the street dead
     who fell way before the first fence
     in the exiled wombs of inconsequent mothers.

      (from "The Africans Selling Gucci on the Avenue of the Americas")

You can read this without looking anything up, accepting "Mordants" and "raptus" as thrillingly sinister registerings of the obscure underlying malign forces that make the structures that govern our lives so impossible to overturn, and which rather romantically are imagined as still powerful forces for evil though their roots are hinted at being ancient and archaic if not magical: this is actually the poetry of a conspiracy-theory image as also variously refracted through e.g. pulp books of the The Da Vinci Code sort or Ballardian dystopian sci-fi or Andrew Duncan's social histories. The diction of the era is obsessed with words ending in "-nt", the recherché debris of out-of-date medical textbooks and mephitic chemistry. So Wheale elsewhere has "exigent", "postulant", "margent", "descants", etc. There are a lot of other stylistics that I could mention here. For example, skipping particles to produce a harsh contemporary overdrive of newsfeed, as:

     base surge wipes out from ground zero

     in endlessly untellable count of submission.

     upon bland plates / of gross water plant

     muffled in emotional cloak

      (lines from various poems)

Apart from "endlessly untellable" you can pretty much hear Mark E. Smith intoning those lines, the same way he mutters: revenge for Culloden debt. Or does it co-opt/subvert the moronic/menacing alien speech-bleeps in Dr Who? : "Dalek sensors indicate presence of Timelord..."

Another (perhaps the best) way of understanding these aspects of the poetry is as repetitive components that make something analogous to a groove in music; they impart an extended character that does not necessarily mesh rationally with the matter in hand; the character is primary.

But it's worth looking up the words, too. "Mordant" in one of its senses is a corroding substance, properly if rather tautologically used in connection with etching; in truth this sentence doesn't tell us who is doing what to who, it acts as a placeholder, or it just means "some bad process is continuing the whole time". Which is exactly what Wheale wants to register: the confusion of a city is that it's always unfolding in a complex way, you never witness the beginning, diagnosis eludes us. "Raptus" is (medically) seizure and, in medieval law, the crime of rape or ravishment, but also a state of enthralled ecstasy (much food for thought in the possibilities for male exploitation of that fruitful ambivalence).

I do have a difficulty with the outcome in the sequences taken as a whole and it is this. I feel a sort of thunk of mode-change when we move from the the visionary writing of a dire international polis that I've just been discussing to other poems about dead elm trees or making sloe gin, - as if one kind of poetry is basically an adrenalin-fuelled invention of sounds and ideas but the other is basically not made up, instead it records some aspect of educated domestic experience: such things as other poets as well as Thomas Hardy are apt to notice. And the line between these two kinds of writing is naked for all to see (even though they sometimes coexist in the same poem), and each kind of poetry undercuts the other by demonstrating how much it leaves out. This sounds like something that is admirable and honest. Ethically it can be defended: you could say that the making of poetry is necessarily a communal matter in which one individual's writings are always incomplete and part of a larger process. But still, I'm afflicted by a feeling that there should have been a further labour of realization, the poetry could have shown us the whole world and used every particle to prove the single dark argument scrawled over its head.

Here are samples of my two favourite grooves, both elongated, ferocious, and (both from 1980) standing next to each other in the book. This is just a little taste of the massive march-past of "In the sharp mode of failure":

     As the golden seed of all
     furrows through its sky
     and fiery youths who lick
     their sweat from each other's spine

     Disrobe to face
     the folds of warmth
     their upper legs stained
     in smoke from battles

     Far distant in the provincial universe
     fronded with power
     their faces blanched by long years
     under the neon ceilings of integrated offices

And on the opposite page, the harsh, upfront skitter of "All-niter":

     after a night of love

     stock market sentiment takes a dive
     wise up to this
     the old bag of threadbare street
     says we are living beyond our means

     after a night of love

     with Maggie who chose to tell us
     how to run our lives
     out of purest idealism & absolutely no
     self-interest involved

     after a night of love

     the Queen speaks to the heart of
     every christian christmas dinner
     legitimizing her familial hegemony

     after a night of love

     the dopes who jack off on obscurity
     return to their padded choir stalls*
     & stay inside careers founded
     on deconstruction

     after a .... etc.

[*Another Wheale stylistic: divide compound words back into separates, as "fire ball", "great coat", "gull paths", "bit jobs", "night school", "Cash Point", etc. - and (in the first poem I quoted) "rain burst", "fire flies", "storm clouds"...]


Next in my affections, though much smaller in size, is Jeremy Harding’s The Book, The Bay, The Breakfast Table (1992) – it’s a sequence (structured around staying in hotels and also the paintings of Juan Gris) that feels a lot more ample than it is, so taut is the control.

     The noise of work in another room
     is heard like distant news, that
     continent of effort: not pursuit
     so much as occupation, any
     occupation. Any morning, shadow
     folds into the linen, linen folds
     between hip and elbow – a thankless
     task, from floor to floor
     the feet move quickly, dusters
     glance the chests and table tops
     with fevered deference, bright piles
     of laundry rise without scruple

      (from "Room Service")

That little controlled explosion of "glance" suggests a traditional poetic of sensuous evocation, and by such a measure you might then go on to criticize, conventionally enough, the subsequent phrase "with fevered deference" as only weakening an impression that should have been left strong. But the poem is not wholly in thrall to this poetic. The sensuous evocation goes with a light pleasure in the aesthetic appeal of labour - that is, someone else's labour. That aspect of being a hotel guest is not to be gainsaid. It goes too with a recognition, with true fellow-feeling, of the cleaners' own pleasure in work done briskly and confidently, in bright surroundings and even with a certain liberated flamboyance when it comes to tossing down heaps of laundry. However, the conditions within which that pleasure exists, and which it therefore promotes, are also well to the fore. That playful fancy about the distant news and the continent of effort make the hotel into a microcosm, third world toil and poverty in the offing; the repeated "any" suggests a broader vision in which cleaning rooms is part of a structure outside our full comprehension, a dumbly-registered pressure and even an insanity. In the sequence as a whole, epitomized in the acute nose-to-the-canvas of the following poem, art becomes a way of anxiously trying to impose one form on a multitude of forms that already tweak at our judgments. It is potentially magical, but the stakes are high; like every other mode of perception it is politicised.


                tile –
     a hotel corridor
     is sheer
     white to the fields
     of intention

     but a rose of paper
     also opens

     breaking up the rule
     of thumb
                the wisdom
     of occasion
             to the ground

     The canvas suggests
     another day
               in the curve
     of a brush
     the light
    emended or bound

    over, furniture
    without receding

In the end poetry has not proved the main string to Harding's bow. He's now a contributing editor at the LRB and regular author of hard-hitting, scarily informative articles, especially on foreign affairs (scary because there's so much we seem to need to be informed of); he also wrote the admired memoir Mother Country (Faber, 2006), about his adoptive parents and the search for his real parents, and has translated Rimbaud’s poems and letters (Penguin, 2004).


Riccardo Duranti, The Archer’s Paradox (1993) is a small pamphlet of poems written in English, - he is also an Italian poet, translator, and university teacher of English Literature.

I'm really interested in the idea of writing poems in a language that is neither your mother tongue nor an enforced lingua franca; you would think that love and freedom might transmit themselves into the poem, and they do here. Besides, I like the fresh emphases that come from not-total linguistic command: command tends to be a stifling thing because it works too well.


     stop dragging your leaden head around
     feeling like a dull cartridge
     waiting for
     the impact at the bottom:
     quite useless
     to realize
     one's life as it's being spent
     from inside ...
     and the noise shall even eat up your cry.

Duranti is also a countryman, and the countryside's punctuation of silence comes into the poetry. It scuffs against images and turns them round in silent meditation: there's not a word of speech, there's no-one around to speak to.

     and let us see
     the ground.

     Scratched hardness
     is a mirror
     that fits
     our opaque tangle
     and the roots
     might dig in it
     a pregnant shelter.


Nicholas Lafitte, Near Calvary: Selected Poems 1959-1970 (1992).

Nicholas Lafitte committed suicide at the age of twenty-seven. Up to the age of sixteen he was just a promising child of clever parents (his father was a leader-writer for the Times): a top scholar at top schools. But the last eleven years of his short life were punctuated by schizophrenic episodes of increasing frequency and intensity. Lafitte used poetry as a methodological instrument in an anguished, not quite coherent, program of research: he admired Eliot, Lowell, Stevens, and his poems are full of echoes and parodies of them and of other familiar literate debris of the period (Hopkins, Yeats, Pound, Dante...); he was never really part of a poetry community, these canonical poets get flung in alongside the canonical philosophers and theologians and semioticians as raw material for his personally urgent debate about clarity.

This selection is book-ended by a friend's (Anthony Howell's) critical introduction and by a "brief life record" written by his father. These arresting and painful documents may at first seem more affecting than many of the poems in between. Take these extracts of Lafitte-doing-Eliot-doing-Dante from the sixth section of "Seven Last Words":

     Amidst the louder carrion of those kindly birds
     One midwinter, in the imprecise region between
     Darkness and forgetfulness, walked alone Mount


     Seek first amid the teetering array a sharp
     Simplicity of purpose. Golgotha's gates were not so sheer
     That man could not abbreviate the pettiness of motive

     Into a more singular clarity. The gongs of Troy sound
     All about the shattered sea, yet are folded in a single
     Chord, which reconciles the angel's tongue to the abundant

     Blabber of the beast.

There is a certain amusement to be had from working out how much EngLit material gets sub-quoted to compose these texts. Naturally I prefer the odd moments when Lafitte forgets his stuffy conceptions of what a poem ought to look like and just writes what's in front of him, as in the very early "This, is the Sea" or in the later conversation-poem that begins:

     And the sea, blue as an icehead, the ever-returning
     Sea. In Ethiopia a girl, she couldn't have been
     More than five or six, gripped my arm in her tiny hand,
     So softly! as soft as the wind, and, more softly still,
     Kissing my hand as though my fingers would yield a
     Burden of money (what is their propensity to
     Consume, these beggars? what is their marginal
     Productivity? what is the output per man hour?) And
     The eternally recurrent, the eye-blue sea, rambling
     Simply up Mark's shore.

     At Silversands I cut my toe on the coral. It still
     Hurts. Lapping the pebbles, collects stones, breathes
     In sighs, grasps the beach. They say Nairobi is violent,
     No place for a single girl at night. The people live
     Behind corrugated iron, in little boxes; rather like
     A zoo really...

But preoccupation with the poems as finished products isn't really the point. Instead, you experience the book as a continuous soul-adventure, always teetering on dangerous verges, e.g. of religious mania, as in the first of the "Seven Last Words", addressed to his estranged wife but draping both her and himself in Messianic rhetoric:

     day and one day longer from your love         dearer day
           Nearer your precious blood, which ransomed me,
           Me pierced to the quick by that my mute sword of
     Unchoice, pain. I only ask that you commit the wound
           Of your body-mastering grief to me          see how it fills
           The ladychapel church choir sky universe of discourse
     Speech; I only ask my speech to be flecked with blood.

Or of alcoholic excess, as in the third part of the same poem:

                    Cradle of life, collateral kinsman, from
     Whose deep elusive womb I tore a sort of being, wooled by
     Insanity, sensitized solely to the sea, you, one half of
     Me who fight and fight against you oiled existence-skins, you
     Shall not take me for am strong. Shall it be said of me:

     'Poseidon fathered him, but he drank his birthright down the
     Eye of a factitious hurricane.'?


Giorgio Verrecchia, Nods (1991), co-publication of The Many Press / Poetical Histories.

This too is a publication with a sad history attached to it: Verrecchia died suddenly of a brain tumour not long before the pamphlet was published. But of course no shadow of this appears in his spritely personal and occasional poems, with their enviable fearlessness, which somehow emerge as art (they really do) partly because of beautiful typesetting and partly because of nothing much more, so it seems, than a few smart capital letters, an ampersand here and there, and an instinct for knowing when to stop.

                           The   Love   Poem

How   wrong   they   got   it   -   the   Old   Masters

&   the   Young   &   the   Middle   Aged.

that   Splendid   cramming   of   her   Items   -

from   Hair   to   Toes   -   no   soul   like   five   cool   moons   &

Guts   like   melting   Ore   - &   Not   just

Lips   open   just   to   Smile.

But   the   Fairer   game   when

your   blue   eyes   see   with   the   green   of   mine   &

my   Grey   matter   goes   Pink   in   the   Pulse   of   yours.


Amarjit Chandan, Being Here: Ten Poems and a Statement (1993). Chandan, though a UK resident since 1980, is principally a Punjabi author (poet and novelist), but these are self-translations with assistance from Amin Mughal and John Welch. Before emigrating he was active in the Maoist Naxalite movement and for two years a political prisoner. His poems can be chatty, humorous, melancholy, concerned with exile and justice, or fantasias on a traditional ground-bass, as here:


     Frightened birds start singing all of a sudden

     Numerous jinglers beat their shells

     The soil soaks up the sound drop by drop

     The horizon: a conch blowing

     Sound of wine filling a goblet

     Hands fondling a breast, and the

     Departing touch of hands

     A pen scraping the paper in the still night

     A plough, making a furrow in earth

     The moonlight falling on closed windows

     A school bell ringing

     The clouds of wheat raining down, grain by grain

     Sadness travelling through the veins

     A river flowing beneath the sea

Every time I read this, the apparently inconsequent sequence of images switches on more circuits, for example the gradual loss of weight in the hand from "goblet" to "fondling" to "touch", or the labouring crowds that the reader becomes aware of from nothing more direct than closed windows and a bell.

In comfortable ignorance of Punjabi writing, what I completely lack (in contrast, for example, to when I read Wheale or Lafitte) is an idea of what choices were available, of what choices were made and what would be communicated by those choices. In my rendering of the text, the rendering I make as I read it, half the noise of the poem is missing. But then, you can never completely understand any poem.

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