Peter Finch: Reviews of Food

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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 2001

 

John Barnie at Gwales.Com

Food contains all the ingredients we’ve 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’. There’s 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 programmes:

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 David’s 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 it’s hard to see why we should be reduced to an either/or.)

There’s much to admire here, Peter Finch is on form, and there’s 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 face the
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 can’t.


The ageless hipster and chronicler of his nation’s 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

 

Poetry Nottingham International


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.
It Goes:
Umbrella Handle, Toothbrush Holder... ,'
Building Business

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 face the
faulty future
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 contemporary scene
It is fundamentally sane, and is also highly entertaining.

Poetry Nottingham International - April 2002

 

Jane Routh in Stride Magazine

Food For Thought

Here is some vintage Finch – ideas so good you can't think why you didn’t think of them first, and their the execution so stylish and graceful you are glad that you didn’t, that it’s Finch who developed them with customary panache. From the first page (Finch on Finch, in ‘Stats’)

height down 10mm
weight increase 2.1 kilo in 60 months

there’s 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 Government’s 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 and’s and a’s 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 won’t 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. I’m drawn in, it’s my process as a reader as much as it is the writer’s. 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.

‘New Wales’ 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 Wales Errata’.

for craic see crap
for error see earlier

Don’t worry if you’re fazed by Welsh words, you’ll still be able to read the page of ‘ Some Christmas Haiku’

Nadolig heddwch
half of Wales don’t care
Other half can’t 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 I’d anticipated, tender, economical, powerful. Looking for a ‘missing cat I’ve never seen’, in his mother’s 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 there’s 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 you’d 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’.

I’ve 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.

Don’t 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 2001

 

 

Meic 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 poet".

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'.

'Perfect anonymity'. 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, 2001.


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Michael 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, 2002

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Claire 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.


Poetry Salzburg Review #2 March 2002

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