Peter Finch: Reviews of The Welsh Poems

writers advice

Rupert Loydell in Stride Magazine - Chaos Theory

Peter Finch's work, says the back of his new Shearsman book, is famous 'for it's fringe-dwelling, its boundary-pushing and its innovation' and has 'always veered wildly between the conventional and the experimental'. It kind of leaves little to say in a review, although I'd want to argue that it's more the hybridity of the work that is new; the fact that Finch's poems are both experimental and conventional.

Some of this is achieved because Finch has a sense of humour; he isn't a po-faced theoretician who has ring-fenced himself into a corner or commandeered a clique. He's not afraid to make the reader laugh, or to laugh at himself. His superb knowledge of avant garde poetries informs and underwrites all of his texts, whatever their final form. Many of the poems in here rely on sound, but there are also found poems and photocopied texts. Should we read aloud or in our head? Are these black and white blurs concrete poems, art or texts for improvised vocals? Does it matter? The juxtapositions and deformations, the music of the language, the organizational skills that Finch brings to bear far outweigh any concerns about what kind of poetry this is. Finch plunders his own and others' texts, roots around in the imagination and delights in what he finds. The Welsh Poems may contain many works rooted in the author's adopted country, but it extends far beyond any parochial or national boundaries.

Finch's home is the international one of Dada and collage, the surrealist, with a nod to innovative writing from across the Atlantic, and an eye on the TV in the corner. Life passes in a blur, these poems freeze frame language and regurgitate sense and meaning several pages later. 'Things grow in power and importance as they travel' says Finch in 'Repeat'. These poems are well travelled indeed. This is Finch's best book so far.

© Rupert Loydell 2006

Stride Magazine


Jamie Wilkes in Intercapillary Space

This new collection from Peter Finch is a real pleasure. His poetry inhabits an old border of the English language, permeated with Welsh sources, literature, history and place, fraying into Welsh or deeper into the common realm of sound where distinctions between languages dissolve. From this interesting position Finch continues to mine the rich seams of experimentalism, which if The Welsh Poems are anything to go by, are far from exhausted.

This fairly substantial collection, printed with the tantalising promise of a further New and Selected to be published by Seren in 2007, can be divided into three sections. The first contains individual poems, the second a number of visual poems including a set of visual haiku, the 'Dauber poems'. The last section is an act of homage to R.S. Thomas appropriately entitled 'R.S. Thomas Information'. It simply collects together in alphabetical order "deconstructed text, found material, collage and original work, along with actual information relating to Wales' greatest poet, R.S. Thomas", as one of the copious footnotes explains. The poem, or sequence, enacts an exhausting informational overload appropriate to its original internet incarnation with footnotes in the print edition replacing the hyperlinks, but the mix is leavened with emails, anecdotes, fantasy and poems-within-poems. I was won over by Finch's succinct justification: "With so many words why make more? These resources exist and need to be proclaimed. There is a thin line between data and information and another one between information and art. I am in the business of crossing these lines." Finch's alphabetisation is simply an alternative organisational structure for the poem.

The way in which an interest in Oulipian constraints, new ways of writing and non-traditional form intersects with a sense of place and history is partly what gets me really excited about Finch's work. Take the first poem in this collection, 'Fold'. It uses as a source the first lines of R.S. Thomas' 'Welsh History' - "We were a people taut for war; the hills / Were no harder", and makes this of it:

We (us) (I) (you) were (weren't) (won't) (will) a (the) (this)
people (pointed sticks) (prime numbers) (purple patch) taut
(tired) (tiled) (tight as fists) for (from) (frightened) (foaming)
war (wet fish) (wet fist) (wet fear); the (those) (these)
hills (hovering) (hollow) (high) (high) (high) (heated)
(hardened) were (will not) (can not) (can) no
(none) (neither) (normal) harder (holding) (heaving)
(happy as barber's poles) (hard hosts) (home)

The second section then uses the above as its source, building on the already altered text until it ends: "(fold) (fold) (fold) folded (fold)." This is poetry as origami, a folding that is also an unfolding. The Thomas poem ends with the prophecy, "When we have finished. . . gnawing the bones / Of a dead culture, we will arise / And greet each other in a new dawn." You could see this poem's gnawing as a part of that new dawn, a striking of balance between internationalist poetics and respect for a long heritage.

Finch is also extremely funny. His Zen Cymru haikus include moments of deadpan wit that slide into melancholy and out again:

Could be moon
Out there
Who cares

. . . .

This Wales leaks there isn't one
That doesn't
Is there?

- and the collection is seeded throughout with humour, sometimes gentle, sometimes earthy. This balances the sobriety of some of the other poems, which include the musings on method of 'How' ("Probably the most important realisation was that the ear could lead the voice. Hear the distortion and then mimic it. Follow the pale traces of syllable bumping"), the resurrected and treated social history of 'Mardy Maerdy', and various celebrations or remembrances of fellow poets Barry MacSweeney, Bob Cobbing and Chris Torrance.

The breadth of techniques and forms marshalled here shouldn't really be surprising - Finch has done it before in Antibodies and to a lesser extent in the shorter Food and Useful - but it's still stimulating. The visual poems in The Welsh Poems (first published by Writers Forum in 1997) are high contrast, hard b&w pieces similar to those in 'Five Hundred Cobbings' (from Antibodies). The explanation that prefaces the Dauber poems is helpful and to the point: "Haiku because they use only the slightest amount of text, verbal fragments, half syllables, seasoned words. They work by suggesting, by letting ideas echo."

I will leave a final description of the collection to Finch himself: "aficionados of technique will find the found, the extracted, the bent and processed, the recycled, the cut and pasted, the masqued, the flailed, the rubbed, the ripped and the repeated here."

# posted by Jamie Wilkes : 12:38 PM



Sarah Kennedy in West Branch

Peter Finch’s long career has been largely focused on experimentalism. His most recent collection, TI samples the various styles and interests of this wide ranging writer. List poems, prose poems, and poems combining visual and textual elements all figure into Finch’s aesthetic, and though his poems are often wryly funny, they also express a controlled rage. This collection is mostly in English, but Finch often skirts the border between that language and Welsh; in fact, the complications and slippages of language itself are often his subject as well as his writing strategy. One poem, for example, is made up entirely of symbols—snowflakes, flags, celtic crosses, hands, and skulls-and-crossbones—spaced into a sort of line-and-stanza structure. The title is in Welsh: “Dw’i ddim yn deall,” or, “I don’t understand.” The list poem “newjobs” combines Welsh and English: “varnish remover / dadaboxer / jocyr gwyddelig [Irish joker] / high roller / dutch nude.” His long alphabetized list poem, which has no over-arching title, is mostly in English, but the entry for “W” refers again and again to Finch’s central interest, Wales:

Welsh whiteness wanting wrong wind world
welcome we wind’s we who winds wades white
wings with Welsh witted (half) wind’s winner womb
where world will where wantons whore whisperers
wife wild winds woods with wind wind woods
wide why when wind who who world white Wales
wrenched wood whipped whose water wind whom
wing whipped where well wild work wrote woman
woman was with well warbler words with window
what with winds wound weather Welsh with when
were wild workshop when what with world woke
Wales window would with was wife watching which
wind walls winter weak with wood wind willingly
wide with women when was waving with were wait
weaving with Welsh

Finch’s strength lies in his embrace of large categories. Though Wales is his central concern, almost every poem is inclusive in the broadest sense. Writing is almost always his subject, and many of his poems self-consciously point to themselves as constructions in language. He is interested in everything and in how the things of the world can be traced in text. The prose poem “Swell” is perhaps typical, if such a word can be applied to any one poem of Finch’s, in that it ends on a self-reflexive note:

Round the back in the pub use your pad and get it down. Old pubs
are best. Something about the life that’s flowed through them reaching
you through the seats you sit on. Something about the talk in that air
held still by the wallpaper. Something about the passion in the touch
of glass. Something about the future never imagined. Something
about the now surrounding you like a blanket. Get crisps and nuts for
sustenance. This is not Buddhism you can eat them. Pick them. Let
them clog your veins. Relax. Fear nothing. Write everything down.

“Repeat,” another prose poem, ends with this plea for the reiteration of poems: “Come again everyone asks. Let’s hear this one that one. You’ve got it top of your list bored flat by now meaning drifted the way edges blunt and surfaces scratch and crack. But sing it. It’s the song.” “Nothing Is New” ends with the speaker “Fold[ing] the poem back into the pocket,” and “Instead of Writing” ends with a surprisingly conventional metaphor for the writer’s career: “It’s a dark life this endless search for light.”

Not all readers will find Peter Finch’s work to their taste. Meaning is often frustrated by the skittering lists and the twisted syntax, but even those who prefer poems that maintain clear surfaces will surely find beauty in this poet’s diction. “Language music haunted stillness” reads one line from the poem “Glow.” Whether “haunted” is the verb in a sentence or an adjective in a list of words, the line captures Finch’s sensibility. He describes his work, in a footnote to the book, as “macaronic … poems with no certain home,” and he grounds the collection with its title: “They are the Welsh poems in tribute to John James whose own book of the same title, published in 1967, was an early influence and because that’s what they are: Welsh.” And that is perhaps the best description of this innovative and bold collection.

from West Branch magazine, Brucknell University, Lewisburg, PA, USA



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