John Welch, Collected Poems

Reviewed by Peter Hughes

Shearsman, Paperback, 456pp, 9x6ins, £16.95 / $29, ISBN 9781905700578

The publication of John Welch's 450-page Collected Poems provides the reader with a welcome opportunity to look back over the writing career of this significant London-based poet. It has been a long and productive career: the poems collected here cover a period of almost forty years; and a large number of earlier poems are left out. Shearsman are to be congratulated on imaginatively bringing out, at the same time as this substantial volume of poems, another important work by John Welch, his Dreaming Arrival. This is half the size of the Collected Poems and is a series of prose reflections on the motivations of his poetry, and the relationships between the poetry and the author's experience of psychotherapy.

Yet the simultaneous publication of these two books, valuable and fascinating as each certainly is, does pose something of a dilemma for the reader. If you read the prose book first, you are in danger thereafter of reading the poems as merely autobiographical, or worse – as a series of exercises in art therapy. Needless to say, the poems could be read that way. But such a reading would be damagingly reductive. So I would recommend reading the poems first, then the prose. The poems are thereby free to resonate in the more expansive contexts they deserve.

◊ ◊ ◊

Sometimes Welch can sound like Seferis:



The city sleeps. One by one
We waken into its dreams
Beginning to dream of ourselves, like children
Throwing stones at a statue.

The word is scrawled on a coffin
Or over a mirror: I saw.
The sleeping town
Is verbal tangles. Although not
Obsequious, not like us, these eat
And breathe and sleep and are without hope
Till going from us
One by one they waken into their dream.

In a sunlit corner of that city
Where I was and was not
I came upon someone fallen quiet
Who was myself and not myself.

Lifting his eyes he addressed me.
'I am beside you now
Riding the breath but not staying.
What you need is this distraction.

When you wake the mirror clouds
With bloom of my exile breath.
You trace your name
And smile into my absence.

(Imagination and Dream, p. 179)
There is a good deal of absence in the poetry of John Welch. And not just the absence of traditional formal devices such as rhyme and alliteration. A sense of absence can appear suddenly in the spaces between different pronouns, especially when those pronouns refer to the same thing – the voice articulating the poem. This is registered from the inside and from the outside. It is rotated between the fingertips of the poem to shift from 'I' to 'you' to 'he' to 'they' – sometimes to end up as 'us'. It is also scrutinised as a permeable membrane forged of language; sometimes this flexes as a deep innerness, but usually the speaker's sense of self slides off it back into a sunlit silence. The sound of footsteps walking away along a city street is usually one's own.

Again and again, these poems carefully trace the everyday details of London streets – and then the details dissolve into a pool of selflessness and dazzle off a mucky puddle:

Then it comes, that sense of being here and not being here, all things chiming at once in an epiphany of absence, and for a moment you are quite lost in it.

(Local Aspects, p. 165)
Lost, perhaps, in the sense of found.


Stand and on one foot turn

The way light falls into silence

(Taking Refuge, p. 251)

... 'I' is this epiphany of absence

(Exhibit, p. 338)

So we go on defined by our absences.

(At the Centre, p. 350)
I wonder if one aspect of this recurrent sense of absence is a good old godlessness. After all, Welch's father and grandfather were both clergymen whilst the voices here in the poems articulate an entirely secular vision of existing amidst the ordinary; of existing, indeed, mainly in terms of other people's expectations, criticisms and approbations. Another kind of absence in the poetry is that of the 'father' and 'mother' – figures who are remote, detached and vivid only in dreams. So instead there is walking, walking and writing. Walking towards and away from the sense of self; walking towards personal extinction through vistas of arterial roads, the odd beach or meadow, and pages inscribed with the sights and sounds of dream and waking.

Here is a resonant passage from the prose book Dreaming Arrival:

You have a notion of a model railway all set up in a beautifully crafted landscape, the marvellous self-containedness of this simulated world. But it never quite happens. Instead you end up with words. A poem: as if you need this mirror to make your silence in, the reader moving in behind you who hovers there like an afterthought. It was as if out of absence you had made a kind of home. And now it emerges with something in its beak.

(Dreaming Arrival, p. 204)
That slightly cheeky intrusion of the 'natural world' into the last line is characteristic of Welch. His work is full of birds carrying unreadable scripts and singing unintelligible song. Then there are the plants, usually resilient and unrequired – say a dusty buddleia, coming into leaf in the corner of some wasteland ripe for redevelopment. Yet indispensible, actually, because redolent of the unplanned, the gratuitous, the vital amidst the constructed and part-derelict present.

Another kind of unplanned vitality irrupting into the poetry is that of dream. An extraordinary amount of Welch's work is fed and energised by dream. He discusses the relationships between dream, memory, desire and poetry at length in Dreaming Arrival. As far as the Collected Poems volume is concerned, the greatest concentration of dream imagery is, not surprisingly, to be found in the section entitled 'Blood and Dreams', which was originally published by Reality Street Editions in 1991. Yet in spite of the chaotic freedoms of dream, familiar themes emerge. Embedded in the first poem of this section, 'The Fish God', is a children's story, quoted in full: "One day Gopal caught a fish. It said, Put me back, and he did so. The fish gave him silk saris for his wife, a house, servants. But Gopal's wife grew greedy. She wanted to be queen. The Fish God was angry and took all the presents back. She went to the riverbank and shouted, but the God never returned. Gopal didn't mind; he just went on fishing." (The Fish God, p. 132)

More absence then – this time burnished by a sense of guilt which is inexplicable, unfocused, and displaced.

Later in the 'Blood and Dreams' section comes the poem already quoted from at the start of this review, Imagination and Dream. It contains the following evocation of the poet as Orpheus:

'Literature' – like Orpheus as he returns from the Underworld. So long as he looks straight ahead, safe in the knowledge that he is leading someone, it is the Real that lives and breathes and walks behind him, and moves steadily towards the creation of some final meaning. But, should he look round, all he will find in his hands is this meaning clearly stated, which is to say, lifeless...

...The dreamer: site of an abandoned cult, come back to daylight. The mark of absence is a blaze on his forehead.

(Imagination and Dream, p. 183)
This sense of a richness hidden somewhere just out of sight is sustained by moving forwards. And this movement keeps at bay the stultifying oppressiveness of a stale and static present. Walking, walking and writing, with each step and syllable a postponement of some kind of paralysis.

In the end the poetry deals with perception, with the experience of being in the world, and reflecting upon it – and therefore of language:

Backing off into a smile I greet you
Standing silent in the doorway to language.

(Dreaming the Sign, p.145 )
We have returned to the classical theme of art enduring: dynamic models of thought and perception enshrining their occasions. Language as Tardis:


I can see it crouched there on the table, facing onto the blackness outside. The thing at the back to hold the paper upright sticks up in its V-shape, like antennae. The whole looks as if it is about to set off into the night.

(A Vigil, p188)
Writing is seen as a way of moving away from the self, into an enduring public realm.

The best lines I ever wrote flew out of the window and settled in the trees.

(A Vigil, p189)
The best that can happen, it seems, is that the margins of self and non-self melt or merge, masking isolation and the incapacitating tangles of self-consciousness. And that this is enacted within and facilitated by poetry.

...Journeys to the periphery - I sat in my room at midnight such a sensation of power; a hot summer night and the surge of traffic below me, I was the city and I could do anything with it and I wrote it down as if it wrote me.

(A Vigil, p.195)
Before ending I should perhaps say that not all these poems concern the urban. Poems are set on the coast, or in the remote countryside, in Wales, Scotland, England and France. Nor do all the poems have a solitary feel – several deal with relationships between parents and children, or between partners. I should also mention the beautiful artwork that graces the covers of both the Collected Poems and Dreaming Arrival. (John Welch is married to an artist, the painter Amanda Welch). Yet the characteristic Welch poem is out walking through the north London streets, measuring the presence of the conscious self in its passing settings, and making more of this modest and unmistakeable music:

And I will walk slowly
Making the most of it
Absenting myself in the song

(Dragon Dreaming, p.138)
This book is full of integrity – again and again, the seriousness of address; writing as if poetry were a matter of life and death. Quiet lyrics following one another like cold waves onto an autumn shore. No flash effects, no random scramblings, no posturing, nothing sly or trivial. Writing as if your life depended on it.

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