ZoŽ Skoulding in Skald
R. S. Thomas's 'Welsh
Landscape' is one of the many deserving victims of Peter Finch's
wit in this extremely entertaining collection. The Thomas poem has,
we are told, simply been put through French translation software
several times, though I would love to find the programme that could
come up with a finale like 'To widdle on the dictionaries of a polyurethane
song.' Here, as in other poems, Finch focuses on the resistance
and complexity of language in a way which neatly sidesteps the dangers
for the poet writing about Wales. His 'Walking Poems' are Welsh
(and Scottish) landscapes without a trace of sentimentality, the
rushes of unpunctuated energy inhabiting a linguistic territory
somewhere between Jack Kerouac and Nigel Molesworth. Wales in this
collection is just as often an urban experience. In 'St David's
Hall' the 'enormous cymrectitude' of the Welsh establishment emerging
from a concert is set against another vision of an unselfconscious
identity defined by alcohol, Catatonia and the Super Furry Animals:
'it's like breathing / you don't think, you do it...' This sense
of culture as something to be endlessly created, something which
is never static, informs the whole of Food, which includes elements
as diverse as visual poems, in which type is blurred and distorted,
poems about management training and a multiple-choice version of
William Carlos Williams's fridge door note. In 'Going on TV' the
taxi driver asks what the speaker will be appearing for: 'Poetry,
I say / I pronounce it poultry so as not to sound too arty.' Although
it is unquestionably art pursued to its limits, this book is full
of delicious poultry and game.
Skald - October
Barnie at Gwales.Com
Food contains all the
ingredients weve come to expect from Peter Finch wordplay
poems, found poems, list poems, haiku, manipulated photos, effortless
free verse. Not exactly experimental in the avant-garde sense, though
they sometimes pass for this in Wales, but a necessary part of the
Finch poetic persona the street-wise Cardiffian who looks
on Wales with an amused eye, who refuses, on a point of principle,
to be taken by surprise.
Typical are two satires on post-Thatcherite business mentality,
Building Business and Getting Through the Agenda.
Theres a return to his periodic onslaught on R. S.s
vision of Wales in Well-Proportioned Panorama in which
A Welsh Landscape is run through two French translation
Alive in Wales is informed
At dusk of an opposite blood
That has been going about as a manufactured savage sky product...
And a take on official Welsh culture in St Davids Hall,
where the great and good emerging from a surreal, imagined concert
are contrasted with the kids getting pissed in a bar,
Welsher than R. S., louder than Iwan Bala. (The poem
creates opposites out of high art and popular culture, though its
hard to see why we should be reduced to an either/or.)
Theres much to
admire here, Peter Finch is on form, and theres no-one writing
quite like him in Wales, despite the emergence of younger urban
poets in Cardiff and Swansea.
The poems that held me
most, however, are in some ways uncharacteristically personal, a
clutch of half a dozen lyrics plotting the decline of his mother
into the helplessness of old age and the helplessness of the son
in the face of her decline. There ought to be wisdom available for
such times, but in The Wisdom of Age there is none.
The son has come to mend a faulty fuse for his mother, itself a
symbol of human circuits cut, malfunction, the ravages of age:
Now, together we must
faulty future me standing there with
my yellow screwdriver and
my poultice of fuse-wire,
her with her poor hair
and her need which
clings to us both until we kneel
wishing that wisdom would help
but knowing it cant.
The ageless hipster and chronicler of his nations foibles
is suddenly middle-aged, and vulnerable. These are moving poems
that take Peter Finch into new territory. He should follow where
they are going.
Gwales.Com (the Welsh
Books Council's total book Wales site) - October, 2001
Peter Finch has been an
active figure in British poetry for over 30 years. He has, to my knowledge,
been an editor (his Second Aeon was a great magazine in the
early 1970's), and arts administrator, a bookseller, a tutor, and
has written two essential guides for poets.
All the energy displayed in these fields also powers an eclectic,
idiosyncratic poetry which is always fun to read. This latest collection
from Seren is welcome. Its consistent tone is notable for its wryness,
the mocking response of a mature, and slightly world weary man who
can tell a hawk from a handsaw. Occasionally, the wryness gets caustic,
ironic, sometimes self-mocking. Above all, the collection is often
outright funny and displays a comedian's sense of timing. Interspersed
with the more mainstream poems are experiments which reflect Finch's
interest in concrete poetry, a genre which has passed me by, and which
probably requires a performance to reveal their attractions. I can
see the point of his 'list' poem "Words Beginning With The Letter
'A' from the Government's Welsh Assembly White Paper". Its gradual
verbal disintegration has the effect of undermining the cliched, portentous
language of authority and bureaucracy: 'apathy apathy and responsibility
for ancient monuments arises arses arses and wishing wells'. One or
two poems play games with the literary canon. R.S. Thomas's "A
Welsh Landscape" is mutilated by a soulless computer's translation
programmes. I won't upset Thomas fans by quoting from it.
The sheer cheek of these literary jokes and experiments might be considered
surprising coming as they do from a writer who plays poetry for Wales,
and is (or was!) the 'Director of Academi', the Welsh National Literature
Promotion Agency. Judging by the sheer variety of forms Finch uses,
it appear that his mission is to extend the boundaries of Welsh, and
perhaps British, poetry. At the same time, the direction of the irony
is towards undermining the linguistic horrors of contemporary communication,
especially that of 'business-speak'.
'The guy next to me, my rival at Copiers, \ has a list on his lap
headed Things I Want To Shove Up The Chairman's Arse.
Umbrella Handle, Toothbrush Holder... ,'
Most of the poems are, however, more polite, well-mannered mainstream
anecdotes The best of them are personal, often quite touching. There
is an undertow of regret for something lost, irrecoverable, as in
a poem about his mother:
'Now, together we must
until we keel
wishing that wisdom would help but knowing it can't.'
The Wisdom Of Age
Food is full of invention and imagination, yet rooted firmly in the
It is fundamentally sane, and is also highly entertaining.
Nottingham International - April 2002
Routh in Stride Magazine
Food For Thought
Here is some vintage
Finch ideas so good you can't think why you didnt think
of them first, and their the execution so stylish and graceful you
are glad that you didnt, that its Finch who developed
them with customary panache. From the first page (Finch on Finch,
height down 10mm
weight increase 2.1 kilo in 60 months
theres a meld of
humour (erection angle), puzzle (flat mile averaged), emotional
tug (compare Finch (my father) 334 lbs in 1940 / his only
extant stat), and sombre reflection.
The page-and-a-half of
Words beginning with A from the Governments Welsh Assembly
White Paper is a good way to start if you are new to the sort
of wild experiments with words that Finch allows his poems. These
are not processes which exclude: perhaps on first reading you'll
be scanning through the list of A-words, the ands and as
and assemblies and agendas that inevitably make up an official document.
But you'll be on the lookout for what, you're not sure but... can
this really go on? You might spot apricot. Apricot
what's that got to do with anything? So round you go again: approling:
now is that a legal term? Is there a Latin declension in here? You
become involved in uncovering the way language works. Skip to the
last line if you must (I wont spoil it by quoting it) but
it will only make you backtrack through the poem to unearth other
words, about which I had to have recourse to the dictionary to be
sure. Im drawn in, its my process as a reader as much
as it is the writers. And you can pick up connections in a
later poem (St David's Hall) too:
New Wales unselfishly
immersed in the national pastime
alcohol alcohol antipathy antidote,
not mentioned anywhere in the Assembly agenda.
as he calls it comes in for quite a bit if flack. We are into Finch
proper (every laugh packs a punch) with the Irish Guide to
for craic see crap
for error see earlier
Dont worry if youre
fazed by Welsh words, youll still be able to read the page
of Some Christmas Haiku
half of Wales dont care
Other half cant pronounce it
Haiku? Yes but the pages
of South Wales Haiku are more than the sum of their
parts, a (fairly grim) characterisation of place: Cherry blossom
on the coalshed / Kid inside / Killing a cat.
There are more straightforward
poems than Id anticipated, tender, economical, powerful. Looking
for a missing cat Ive never seen, in his mothers
shed he comes across Ten-year mud on gloves / shriveled like
leaves. (Lost) . There are telling moments in
relationships with the old, her with her poor hair in
The Wisdom of Age, and with the young in The
Student House, the tug between wanting to help the young and
leave them be.
And theres a strong
vein of joyful humour. His Walking Poems set walks according
to guide books against walks as he actually encountered them, when
he threw the offbeat/ guide book into the unknown brook
(Dinas Powis). Perhaps youd have to be a man-of-certain-age
to be thrown into quite the paroxysms of laughter I observed in
one reader of Starting the New Magazine. And have you
been to Totleigh Barton? Read Care in the Community
if so: ...love and care is the best route despite there being
no mention of this in my contract.
Ive read the book
several time already: it will live on the shelf by the bed because
Food can be savoured many ways. You can take all these at their
face value with great pleasure, or you can relish the processes
by which they are made. They are generous and inclusive methods
Finch thinks about the way language works and wants you to
be able to see this too: the processes he deploys are not about
producing impenetrable end-products. Well Proportioned Panorama
is the text of an R. S. Thomas poem that has been attacked with
translation software: Finch explains how and how many times in a
note at the back; his methods are open, inclusive.
Dont be put off
by the cover image (which resembles my compost heap on a hot day)
or an appalling typo in a title: this is definitely one to buy.
Stride Magazine - October
Stephens in the Western Mail
It was not a Gorilla
that sat down beside Meic Stephens on a bus. It was a Finch.
Once, many years ago,
I was taking a bus into the centre of Cardiff when a gorilla sat
down beside me. I tried to ignore the beast but, after a while,
my apprehension turned to astonishment when it asked me for the
time. I recognised the voice: it was Peter Finch, on one of his
jaunts into town in the days when he liked dressing up just to see
how people reacted.
The same vein of Surrealist
humour is to be found in his writing. Peter is now chief executive
of the Welsh Academy, where he does a good job as impresario and
animator, but there is nothing pinstripe about him.
He is still in the vanguard
of Welsh writing in English and much in demand as a performer of
his own work.
I first came across him
when he was publishing a small, cyclostyled magazine entitled Second
Aeon and running a poetry group, No Walls.
For a few years we shared
an interest in experimental poetry and he went on to produce texts
and tapes which shocked some of our more conservative critics.
I know one who still
refers to Peter Finch as "bardd ofer", "a pointless
That seems to me a harsh
view of a man who marches to a different drum and who is willing
to stretch the bounds of poetry as far as they will go. There may
be something of Buster Keaton or Alfred Jarry about his work, but
the fact that it makes us grin doesn't mean that he isn't serious
in what he does.
It is probably because
he's endlessly inventive that his critics are puzzled.
There is nothing that
is beyond his wit and zany view of Wales and the world. He is especially
wicked about the stale old image of our country as a land of sheep
and male voice choirs, but he can be equally mordant about the horrors
of media-speak and bureaucracy.
He is one of only a handful
of poets who have take on the National Assembly, Cerys Matthew's,
Iwan Bala, Owain Glyndwr, RS Thomas and St David's hall - to name
just a few of his targets.
One of the funniest poems
in his latest collection Food (Seren, £6.95), is Good
Names For Cats, which lists about a hundred possibilities, including
Kingsley Amis, Ted Rowlands, Russell Goodway, William Hague and
Shirley Bassey before ending with the rather more obvious Tabby.
To ask what these people
have done to earn such treatment is to miss the point: life is random
and so must poetry be.
In another poem, Words
beginning with A, he pokes fun at a Welsh Office paper which,
he claims, was censored before it was published, key phrases having
been edited out.
When the full text appeared
in one of our literary magazines it was over the pseudonym Peter
French, who was described as 'an experimental poet living in Cardiff'.
He comments in a wry note. It is impossible to mistake a poem written
by Peter Finch.
Even when he is not using
tele-text messages or visual images (some of which are striking
in their mysterious contortions) or translation software, his writing
is stamped with his original personality, as in the handful of poems
collected here which speak of his personal life.
I liked in particular
The Only Book In The House, in which he finds a copy of Lady
Chatterley's Lover in a bedside cabinet while clearing out his
parents' house, and The Student House, about visiting his
son and trying hard to play the handyman.
Western Mail, November,
Bangerter in Iota
Reading some of Peter
Finch's work is like reading the bog walls of a superior university
- this is a compliment. Many of the poems in Food have a
driving lyric energy, despite (or because of) their frequent bawdy
language. Other poems are less extreme; rely, for their humour and
power to affect, on an anecdotal and, dare I say it, mainstream
prosody - this from a poem about his mother: "...You open a
box / and show me blurred shots of how it was, / but you can't recall
any names. / Dvorak comes again through the hiss / like the sea,
you say, / and we sit there, / pretending to listen." It is
true that a lot of his lines end on articles and conjunctions -
so what, when the poems work so well. Finch is a craftsman; he does
not rant or rave in an undammed stream of consciousness. In this
respect, anyone reading Ian Macmillan's rather odd appreciation
(back cover) might be surprised to find such comprehensible
poetry in this collection. I don't find his work exhibiting that
elastic band stretched to snapping point and beyond, far beyond"
(how many readers would wish to?). Finch is an exciting poet, and
Food is full of surprises; a supremely perceptive collection
that will make you smile, make you sad - and make you think.
Iota #57, February,
Powell in Poetry Salzburg
Finch's latest collection
is Food. Food in every culture is heavily laden with symbolism,
from the bread and wine of the Christian Eucharist to aphrodisiacs
such as chocolate or oysters. We live in a society dominated by oral
behaviour, from the condemned man's last meal to the eroticism of
the famous scene in the film 9½ Weeks in which Kim Basinger
messily gorged herself in front of the open fridge. The symbolism
of food was perhaps most famously analysed by Lévi-Strauss
in The Raw and the Cooked: if the raw is the natural and the
cooked is the cultural (in Lévi-Strauss' terms), Food
is Finch's study of the art of Welsh cooking.
As with his other major collections, it is Wales and Welsh culture
that is Finch's overriding concern in Food. This concern manifests
itself in widely varying poems, from 'Haiku for the Academi', to 'Text
Message from Ffynnon Denis' to 'Well-Proportioned Panorama', a return
to R. S. Thomas's canonical poem 'A Welsh Landscape' which Finch had
previously lampooned in 'A Welsh Wordscape' and which began, 'To live
in Wales, / Is to be mumbled at / by re-incarnations of Dylan Thomas
/ in numerous diverse disguises
'. Here R. S. Thomas' text was
fed into French translation software and traversed from English to
French around thirty times, resulting in predictably distorted and
hilarious results that yet have a certain truth about them:
There is the shout
in the Gogledd this evening
Similar to owls on the moon,
And a heart shitting in the bushes,
Calming the polyester of the hills.
It has never been the present in Wales,
And the future
Is a racy bodice-ripper stolen from the past,
Fragile with Vernacular
A colon-exhaled nibble mansion
With imposing ghosts
Misunderstood exploits and men
Of infirm person,
Cancelling their traverses,
To widdle on the dictionaries of a polyurethane song.
In Food, Finch
serves up Wales's sacred cows in a beefy poetic hot-pot, with relish.
It's his speciality. The collection is a cornucopian repast of lip-smackingly
tasty poetic morsels. Food for thought. Food for the
soul. Savour it.
to What The Critics Say