My first sonnet is obscure, but you ought to distinguish between obscurity residing in the uncommonness of the thought, and that which proceeds from thoughts unconnected & language not adapted to the expression of them.
Leaning so long over myself, each
Locally placed and at the same time evasive in its suggestion of the equivocal landscapes over which he walked and where he worked as a teacher (what equivalences might there be between war-threatened suburbs and the ‘doubtful’ 20th century East End?), the poem represents the quietly rhythmical gathering of moments and connections that converge on an afternoon’s experience. From the ordinary and humdrum emerges a kinetic panorama of visual and contemplative occasions, whose incoherence is both out there in a (hard to interpret) social and environmental patchwork as well as in the writer himself who compels himself to engage, if at a distance, from the position of his suggestively introverted ‘leaning over’ of himself.
Representative as this sonnet may be of Welch’s earlier style, it does not approach what is finest in his later writing; nor is it perhaps towards a primarily aesthetic finesse towards which he leans. That said, while Out Walking is situated largely within urban landscapes, much of it tends towards idiosyncratically imagined versions of pastoral – both urban and in movement between growth, decay and back again – and something else. As though archaic layers of the city attempt to grow back, Welch similarly returns, along with the creatures which they harbour, to the shrubs, weeds and trees that have seeded in the cracks:
Buddleia: the branch
The movement of these lines takes us beyond urban décor: the plant, as imagined in Welch’s transformation of it, has a struggling, complicated ‘erotic’ and ‘salty’ life. And while ‘Butterflies drowse on its sleeve’, the inextinguishable buddleia (a sort of vegetable equivalent of the eternal cockroach) has ‘the scent of an absent name,/Like the life I imagine I have/Summoning me at daybreak.’ Both natural and psychological life have complicated and erratic trajectories which is both palpably out there and suffused with a subjectivity which tentatively reaches out to its physical presence.
Through the welter of these details, Welch suggests a disorienting mis-en-scene. ‘Odd inscrutable flights of birds’ are ‘announcing sky…Rain-bloated blackberries hang./ The bloodstained tissues, remnants of storm /Are scattered by dustmen’; the park is an unsettling ‘huge green lake of light’ and ‘Towerblocks, waterbirds/ Dabble their fringes’, while (sinister or absurd in smilingly Kafka-esque cartoon reduction), attendants arrive ‘In their dainty uniforms of grey and green’. At the end of the second section of this five-page poem, Welch concludes:
‘But the suburb is indecipherable
All the phenomena the writer looks out on in fact represent a form of incoherent, automatic ‘writing’, and here Welch includes the process by which he observes and makes his notations. Just as 'A branch in the garden, lifting, inscribes/On the wall its calligraphy of shadow’, so ‘The writing itself is a kind of deafness’. What the poet does is part of the city. But he - as are buildings, the inscrutable lives of others and the dusty botanic effervescence in which he takes sardonic and ambivalent pleasure - is separate. What he expresses is (paradoxically) a shared alienation in which everything ‘belongs’ within a process of separation, perhaps even from its own self-being. Far from representing a personalised poetic ‘complaint’, the writer’s place, like the suburb ‘at an acute angle’ enables him to participate in the separateness of convergent life forms, places, events. He is a living and expressive component of the calligraphy that he observes and contributes to.
Binding this melange through which he travels on foot, in trains and in imagination, is something which is both more and less than the writer himself and his anonymous co-inhabitants in their common, sometimes banal or derelict landscape. In the sonnet just quoted we saw that ‘the dull seeds’ were ‘this nothing-at-all’. ‘City Twilight’, another sonnet from the same group opens ‘Is he experienced, out of this swarm of nothings?’ And ‘Movement’, the poem that precedes this, opens
‘I, knocked off its table,
The ‘nothing’ of dull seeds is, it seems, a negation of what otherwise we assume to exist. But human experience, like the seed, like the city in which it germinates into buddleia, sycamore and hydrangea (these are companions of the poet’s meditative afternoons) seeks its place in the world:
So through the city
The effort here to participate in the world and make what is alien concrete, reveals a heroic impulse to conquer, or at least explain/explore an existential solitude. And it’s here too, in ‘I, knocked off the table’ that we come to an early example of a formula that recurs in Welch’s writing: the compositional self’s questioning of self, of not-self or of partial self: the suggestion of the somewhat ghostly presence whose ‘I’ is equally expressed as ‘he’ or ‘you’ (although this might sometimes be someone else with a more clearly assumed identity) in an environment where ‘it’ (and perhaps the entirety of what isn’t subjective) is similarly ambiguous. In the ‘I, knocked off the table’ just quoted, the first person assumes so little stability that it falls off a not very dangerous surface and is so insubstantial that by the end, it has slipped into a depersonalised ‘you’ which by now we take to be ‘I’. Nor has this ‘second person’ singular even begun to ‘touch’ the environment which is its home.
It is such muted registrations of encounters and non-encounters between an ambiguous self, city, its people, processes and the often unearthly coexistence of what is derelict and what grows, that make up a good deal of Welch’s first book. It is an exploration of the impersonal phenomena that surround us all, but to which the poet’s self-questioning and his probing, interrogative exploration of uncertainty lends an other-worldly shine and an uncanny originality. There can be few so self-confident to whom these existential intimations are strange. But few Anglophone writers have approached such challenging (and often weird) territory. Paradoxically, in a work where the idea of the self has become so mysteriously compromised, the voice that dominates Out Walking, and which Welch sustains in his later writing, is unmistakable. And while cadences and imagery from Eliot may be traced through some of the poetry (‘He goes upstairs/Where his body falls back on the bed’: Welch’s That Night, to give just one example, suggests a passage in The Waste Land: 231ff), Welch’s style is that rare thing in these post-Eliotic decades: an idiom which can immediately be recognised.
Welch continues to explore more wide-ranging uncertainties in the poems of his next volume, Blood and Dreams. ‘The Fish God’ opens with three prose paragraphs describing classroom work Welch did on a south Asian legend. While the opening prose launches a narrative context (here, as with several prose paragraphs, I find some of the writing tonally unsure), the intentionally unstable poetic syntax that follows appropriately enacts its subject:
Over the straight canal
The phrases, disjoined as their subject, coexist in a wonderfully overlapping phantasmagoria in which East London market topography, the buying and cleaning of fish converge with the invasive dream of myth – at which point the poem breaks into a rhapsody where the real and imagined, Ur-time and the present, become mingled:
He is mud-dwelling, widespread
The treacherous, generous, submarine world of myth, cruelly counterpointed by the pressures of subsistence (the wife in the story wants more than the fish god had promised), is followed by new subversive passages. The fish becomes ‘Mother of chaos’: a ‘sagacious’ presence and deity of the everyday, and then suddenly reverting to Walthamstow, the poet himself feeds fish guts ‘just like my own’ to the cat, before abruptly exclaiming from the counterpoint of his own experience:
But what do I do? I go about
The capitalised A of the repeated ‘Are’ ironically suggesting that while the writer’s actions in the world of the real are here on the page, they have (like the self whose shadows he has been projecting onto so many years of writing) an ambiguous existence and that they are no ‘cleaner’ than the felt-tip inscriptions of his train journeys.
Elements of myth as a sub-text co-existing with ordinariness recur in other poems. In Fresco, the sun god and a girl who ‘flees into laurel’ inhabit the same space as a dawdling helicopter whose pilot is imagined gazing down and wondering, not unlike the author, ‘What it’s like to live down there’ (in London presumably). The poet perhaps both knows and doesn’t. But in Victoria Park he is certain, or rather capable, of one thing, and that is his immersion within a vision of the familiar which is at the same time distanced by the alienation expressed in his earlier poems:
Entering there, as if on bloated wings
This interfusion of the new and ancient is also of a piece with Welch’s exploration of the ambiguities attaching to selfhood: a preoccupation that he expresses in his wonderful account – often hilarious, always probing and ingeniously evocative of the historical periods over which he ranges - of a course in psychotherapy where he writes: ’Each week for those nine years I carried this self across North London – my ‘self’, like taking the dog for a walk, or carrying something in a cup and holding it up as an offering.’ 2
I suggested earlier that Welch’s poetry is difficult on account of its disjunctions and its refusal to pursue clearly defined topics. Coleridge’s distinction between ‘uncommonness of the thought’ and ‘thoughts unconnected & language not adapted to the expression of them’ is pertinent, since both definitions of difficulty (in Coleridge’s view incompatible) might be said to characterise early poetic modernism and later Anglo-American extensions of pioneering 20th century experimentation. But Welch has not pursued a modernism which has obliterated the world of phenomena and I would argue that the discontinuities are of a piece with and expressive of the worlds he, often hesitatingly, moves in and out of. Indeed, his world and consequently his work, is luxuriantly full: the world is contingent, sometimes asphyxiating, and in several pieces the author depicts (with cool, if fugitive, sensibility) his escape to rooms, gardens and writing tables. It is, in other words, the self as much as the world which is in question. That said, there are, especially in the later poetry, an increasing number of sequences attached to places of completely positive historical value and haunting beauty (the English west country, Orkney, other UK islands, rural France), and in response to these Welch’s language rises to a quiet magnificence. Here, mountains, water, rock and wild alternations of sun and cloud replace the scaly textures of London and the complications of parasitic symbiosis. Sometimes these landscapes are evoked in terms of reassurance. In ‘Duddon Valley’, for example, ‘We seek confirmation among boulders/ To anchor ourselves to their remote substance…’ While by contrast, as in ‘On Arran’, a pleasurable imaginative immersion remains infused with a sense of the world as a continuingly factitious series of mobile panoramas:
Earth’s cover wastes.
In contrast to the often ambiguous fragmentation of his urban pieces, finely drawn lines like these reassure us that the poet refuses to ignore, indeed enthusiastically acknowledges, exactly where he is and what the world consists of – developing the questioning of earlier work and confirming that what he explores is part of an investigation into the nature of what is. In ‘On Orkney’, a poem coming mid-way between Blood and Dreams and The Eastern Boroughs, the natural world – and/or its archaeological contents - and a semi-fictive ‘I’ are harmoniously brought together:
Here is an ‘I’ at the worn stone of going in.
Time and the transformations in human and natural history are unified here in a meditation on the ‘timelessness’ in which things happen to old places and their unknowable past inhabitants:
After five thousand years –
The contemplative poise of this passage and the beauty of its writing perhaps lie where the concrete and the metaphoric are in balance: in time as felt in geological and archaeological presences, while these latter ‘stone pages’ are a sort of writing wherein temporal abstractions are peacefully cancelled. Similar effects may be found in ‘Its Radiance’, a sequence published in Greeting Want. Here, as in ‘On Orkney’, a naturalism of great beauty appears suspended in time and place, rendering that convergence abstract and metaphorical:
Hydrangea near the sea-shore’s speckled pink.
In a very different passage from the same poem, the focus of exploration approaches the autobiographical: but this near self-indulgence is quickly transformed into a more generalised symbol:
She sent me out out
and most dramatically:
It was just as it was
In the lines near the end of Its Radiance this apparent, perhaps temporary resolution of connectedness is given space:
…grounded in one anotheralbeit replaced by an equally vivid contemplation of a displacement which is outside time:
An experience of loss we’re the site of
The world’s ‘impermanence made fast to your heel’ is held up, in the same poem, against a landscape in which ‘Stealthily the hills are fading’. The rich texture of this poem is representative of Welch’s later poetry, but it concludes with an exposed and ambivalent double-spaced triplet which leaves the ‘radiance’ that suffuses the poem in suspension:
The rosy shellfish-coral
The Eastern Boroughs is Welch’s latest full length collection and several poems here reformulate and make newly explicit themes that emerged in Out Walking. Somewhere in Hackney, just opposite a breaker’s yard, ‘bird song tends a small wilderness’ because
Here it’s that inner-city mix
Moving into a generalised view of the city with its ‘idylls of rust’, Welch confirms earlier suggestions that the city is ‘not a place exactly: It was more a thing I’d balanced in my mind’. He’s ‘haunted its edge everywhere’, and as though in an anthropological time-warp, ‘Discovered, I thought, the last indigene.’ But having tracked down this being to his ‘favourite watering-hole’, he discovers him to be, in reality (?!) ‘some words scrawled on a wall/Where language came to collide with the world.’ Reassuring himself, like some time-navigator that ‘had there been more words/I’m sure I might have found them’, he simply goes on walking ‘Being filled with something that I could not name’. (‘Dig’)
This linguistic habitation seems at once to represent a kind of philosophical quietism and a sort of agnostic existential mysticism. Fixed identities remain an impossibility. There is only the ‘person’ in intermittent gestures of connection with others, in places that change and where opportunistic life forms take hold silently alongside their equally separated human and non-human beings. The world is a flurry of inscrutuable selves that co-exist with contingent and yet remote phenomena which are at once beautiful, random and impossible to interpret. This circumambient All is in itself (as expressed in earlier poems) a kind of writing, a largely disorganised and sometimes disorienting scrawl: a composition of forms which human imagination participates within, and of which imaginative artefacts are a reflection, an extension and an exploration. Welch is too modest (and honest) to provide anything like an interpretative summary. A resonantly, quasi-devotional and agnostic emptiness in which all this is acknowledged suffuses the poems. Just as God in Genesis observed his work to be ‘good’, so the poet-denizen of grimy, over-travelled and worn-out relics and transformations of the creation looks on and marvels at the fact that it is there at all, while incapable of offering an explanation as to how and why these jumbled surfaces and their inexplicable interiors came to be, still less what they will develop into.
This is life as it has come to be from the point of view of a mind which is similarly mystified as to how ‘it’ ‘I’ or ‘you’ have likewise emerged. In ‘Chartres’, a short poem near the beginning of The Eastern Boroughs, this borderline mysticism receives unusually direct expression. The cathedral, not so unlike the writer’s train to Walthamstow and the scribblings of life forms that the city of imagination has become, is ‘Encrusted language… As if there there were meaning without sign/A word made stone’. Language, suggests Welch, is perhaps what he and we must be content with in our search for the real and/or essential. What this language expresses can’t properly be paraphrased; the result would simply be more periphrases. The natural and the manufactured worlds have arrived; they are here. At Chartres, the verbal concretions that arise from his contemplation of stone and the doctrines and histories that these structures have been built to proclaim are part of that world – and yet as separate and puzzlingly estranged as the ‘something I could not name’ of the poem quoted earlier.
But Chartres, like many of the objects of John Welch’s contemplation, is beautiful and interesting. What truth, to the agnostic mind, lies within this – or in the guts of a fish or graffiti that carry no clear message beyond their mere existence? Words that present these in their mysterious co-presence can only suggest that they belong to a panorama of forms which are various but unified in co-existence. Render these in depth, as in Welch’s best writing, and we can experience the bewildering uncertainty that perceives and recreates. What it means is unsayable and lies within the inner line: which is, itself, also not merely impossible to explain, but is in part about that unknowable territory.
What strikes me, then, as finest in John Welch’s writing, is that he dwells in a world which must thus be experienced as metaphor, and which he renders within an unbroken poetic continuum. The insecurity of personal experience and the puzzling calligraphy of the external world are part of one another. Ambivalently but without pause he sees, listens in and composes his modest but resonating responses. We recognise what he perceives, but the poems recreate this in hermetic conundrums of their own. The world exists on several simultaneous levels which may or may not touch each other or interact, and we follow the writer as he expresses his correspondingly complex perceptions of these strata. Still he avoids big showy gestes. Many of the most dazzling moments - as in this passage from To Resume ( ‘A Place Like Here’, p.397) - are serenely composed, as though applied casually by a juxtaposition of warm but muted brush-strokes:
Esplanade Barrouze like a roomful of trees
Or the almost crucifyingly paradoxical pain and compassion of this passage from the aptly titled Lyric:
Being bitten all over with hunger
One can, after all, only marvel at the stateliness of this painful music, but what lives beneath the skin of such a lyric has that ‘truth’ (or rasa or gusto) of poetic mystery which the surface both enacts and suggests without divulging any precisely defined interior motif. The finesse of John Welch’s writing lies, I think, in his willingness to expose such co-terminous levels of experience, feeling and perception, and let them, as though almost with their independent freedoms, sing. When Hazlitt remarked of Kubla Khan that Coleridge could ‘write better nonsense than any man in England,’ the intentionally wounding truth in his jibe (and there has been no greater critic) points indirectly towards the best of 20th and 21st century modernism. Status and canon have no relevance in these cross references. But the ‘nonsense’ identified by Hazlitt which is profound and beautiful to us has much of the sense of that uninterpretable world which John Welch’s writing continues to represent for us. It is beautiful and enigmatic and the more impressive for his refusal to let us apply an easy definition to it.
1Hazlitt suggested a comparable idea in his essay On Gusto . Significantly, he found it easier to describe the presence of gusto (a nice unintentional translation of rasa) in painting than in literature. Likewise his most penetrating remark is in the negative as when he compares Vandyke’s flesh colours to those of Titian. Vandyke’s has ‘great truth and purity’, but ‘wants gusto. It has not the internal character, the living principle in it.’
2Dreaming Arrival, Shearsman 2008