Peter Finch: Reviews of Useful

writers advice

A Ril Blydi Welshman - William Scammell. Independent On Sunday.

Peter Finch is an "Archive" in his own lifetime. You can find him, it says in the prelims, at "http//", where presumably there’s a selection or gallimaufry from his 30-odd books, which range from Pieces of the Universe to Publishing Yourself, Not Too Difficult After All. None of this bodes well, not at least for those moored carefully in the mainstream, and one opens Useful expecting the worst. But it turns out to be a delight, continuously inventive, truthful, intelligent, as funny as Buster Keaton or Dafydd ap Gwilym, and as sad.

Some poets take pains to be "unified", in manner and in matter; others beckon you into the lean-to shack that is their life, and caper about according to mood. Finch is an exemplary member of the latter school, one minute telling you about his failed marriage and one-parent holidays with difficult kids, the next breaking you up with parodies and heady linguistic concoctions. There’s the rubber "Chicken of depression" side by side with quietist "Stones" ("they could build / a wall, a harbour, couldn’t they? / they don’t"), pup types seen as de Koonings, and R S Thomas as a rock group: "Rnld Tomos … Gospel. Austerity tradition. Jnd Iago Prytherch Big Band (1959), notch, crack, gog, gap, bwlch, tan, iaith, mynydd, adwy …"

Some of the puns and English-Welsh macaronics pass me by, as they do in the very funny "Partisan" ("I am bicupping mainly cym sticker aardvark / the dictionary cymro hirsuit weirdo …"), but there’s enough immediate reward to make one want to relish this "ril traditional blydi Welshman" and his "Mabinignog crap" all over again as soon as possible. Inevitably there are a few damp squibs, but I was reminded more often than not of Joyce and MacDiarmid, and of the linguistic high jinks on view in recent Scottish poetry. Maybe Finch will make up the difference between getting an Assembly and a Parliament.

There are concrete poems, angry realist poems, prose poems, bathetic surrealist poems ("furniture / is such sweet sorrow / I am purple / you are laminated / plink plonk plank"), list poems, hurrah poems for such yesterday’s men as Burroughs, Bob Cobbing and Eric Mottram which in any other hands would be a turn-off, and a rather annoying set of variations for Tony Conran, based on an elaborate code and, I fear, the capabilities of the word-processor.

What lifts the pieces in Useful out of callow avant-gardism is Finch’s admirable imagination and formal control. Buy it soonest.

10 August, 1997.

Ian MacMillan. Poetry Wales.

In Wales, Peter Finch is a considerable part of the poetic landscape; to some he’s a fine promontory, a viewpoint from which far away things can be glimpsed, and to others he’s a blot or a series of blots. He’s also known for his work on behalf of poetry, through the Oriel Bookshop and his articles and handbooks for poets.

I’m writing this from England, though, where Finch isn’t at all well known, and that’s a terrible waste, a crying shame. I’m convinced that Finch is one of the most exciting poets writing today on these islands, pushing the idea of poetry out as far as it will go, stretching the elastic band to snapping point and beyond, far beyond.

Useful is divided into two parts, Practice and Theory. It’s interesting that Practice comes before Theory, somehow to show that the application of the hard-earned rules of the avant garde are most useful when applied to real life, real pain, real loss (although I have to say that I personally like the Theory section best). Some of the pain is presented on the page without any frills, as in 'Meeting Her Lover’, where the two men stand awkwardly in front of a game on the TV:


On the
screen the goals mount like fever,
men embracing on the green sward.
You take her then, I say, as
if this woman is still something I
have a hold on. But he’s not looking,
the game’s being played again,
on and on.


Even within this bareness, though, Finch is doing the poet’s job of Making it New: the goals are mounting "like fever", the "green sward" is ironic as hell. In ‘Talk About Nice Things’ an elderly woman with memory loss is being helped from a car:


When night falls television is
memory flickering on her walls.
She butters bread. The word for
love won’t come, too distant. Sleep
stands like a dolmen in the hall.


The dolmen in the hall is very Peter Finch but is just right in context. At times, though, even in the Practice section, Finch can’t resist playing with us; ‘Modernist’ messes with the ideas of Memory and History: "WW2 started in 1937, he wrote. / An easy mistake beaten by / Snowdon Scotland’s highest peak then / Frank Bough, MP for Ynys Mon", and the section ends with a clutch of beautiful prose pieces, like ‘Marks’ which begins: "The path is light brick, level, gaps unmortared, most of the surface mossing slowly. The world is everything outside his skin. This day the wind blows through but there is no rain."

Theory, the second section of the book, begins with some lovely visual poems, given context by Finch in his notes at the end. ‘Walking’ is a lowering mountain landscape in memory of Eric Mottram, created "by photocopying Mottram’s entire Selected Poems onto a single sheet then rearranging this by rip, fold and tear". ‘Anglo-Welsh Studies’ is a pile of shifting and falling words and paragraphs; and, as Finch explains, "a page from the 1989 Carcanet edition of Caradoc Evan’s Nothing to Pay containing a paper blemish suggested further working." These visual pieces do a sterling job for poetry in suggesting the infinite possibilities of language, the endless reworkings and remining that can be done with any text.

In the rest of the Theory section, language and literature are balls to be splendidly knocked around the court, eggs to be marvellously cracked and made into omelettes. ‘Things That Can Go Wrong For Painters’ is a fine example; on one level it’s a found poem, using The Artist’s Handbook of Materials and techniques as a source, but Finch reworks the material with great skill, turning the euphony of "small punctures of oiliness, failed surface regeneration, misuse of knives" into the profundity and, say it, poetry of "For years there will be unmistakable evidence of pressure, the crackle, the irregularities, the inequal tension and the smouldering fire, the aching arms, the eyes which do not sleep..."

One of Finch’s strengths is his accessibility; many avant-gardists don’t seem to care for their audience, but Finch, partly because of his firm grounding in performance and in the poetry workshop world, and partly because of his sheer desire to communicate, is very much in tune with any potential readers and listeners. Maybe in the end Finch is so good because of his constant need to create and recreate, and his refusal to accept barrier. We need more poets like him.

What he should do now is rework this review into a poem. There’s a challenge!

Poetry Wales, Winter 1997.

Ian McMillan lives in Darfield, near Barnsley. he is a freelance writer, broadcaster and performer. His collections include Selected poems and Dad, The Donkey’s On Fire (Both Carcanet)

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