Home Poetry Interviews Reviews Links Contact
  Tom Lowenstein
John Welch
Collected Poems
Shearsman (2008), £16.95

Reviewed by Tom Lowenstein


 More reviews 
    New European Poets


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.
Coleridge – letter, 17 December 1796

This was Coleridge responding to criticism from John Thelwall on a putatively obscure passage in a poem that greeted the birth of Coleridge’s son Hartley in which the thought, so the poet implied, was sufficiently uncommon to merit what he regarded as difficulty of language. Had Coleridge been talking a bit later about his younger contemporary Keats he would probably not have defined that poet’s work in the same terms. But the celebrated conclusion to Keats’s Grecian Urn with its mystifying lines on beauty and truth would, had Coleridge seen them, no doubt have pleased him. Philosophical beauty or a sense of beauty as in itself a philosophical entity informs both poets’ work. And as with any writing of aesthetic value, the impact on both ear and eye comes in part from a mysterious quality which suggests that behind the verbal music and visual originality there lies something more, which perhaps can’t be put exactly into words. Some ancient peoples were aware of these indefinable values and created terminologies for them. In Sanskrit poetics, this ‘something indefinable within’ approximates rasa ‘(aesthetic) taste’. And in writings about Chinese landscape painting, there is the term li which refers to the inner line that lives behind the brush stroke; while Longinus spoke of the unsustainable flashes of the sublime which must be borne along, in any one piece, by more ordinary writing. In modern Europe, most famously perhaps, Lorca spoke of duende: the spirit of performance that differentiates the technical from the true spirit of Flamenco dancing. ‘These dark sounds,’ wrote Lorca, ‘are the mystery… from which we get what is real in art. . . it is not a matter of ability, but of real live form…of creative action.’ By implication this incorporated poetry too.1

Poems that are merely interesting, clever or occasional in reference seldom offer an aesthetic experience which could be classified under any of these mysterious and ultimately vague categories. Beauty and the ‘truths’ that beauty itself (indefinably) suggests emerge from an area of imagination and a writing experience that lies elsewhere. It is likely to be difficult, for there will be more on, under or within the page than either technique or the most decoratively perfect verse architecture.

And so there is something both familiar and strange in an oeuvre like John Welch’s, where an experimental and wide-awake modernism - disjunctive, uncompromising, reticent, and with a quiet, speculative subordination of thematic focus to the exposition of below-the-surface realities - is expressed in language which also has some of the hallmarks of that English poetic splendour we meet in the early nineteenth century. And while these exploratory suggestions aren’t of course intended to place John Welch in the higher Romantic pantheon, the language of Welch’s best work glows with an idiosyncratic magnificence part of which lies in its suggestive reach towards a dimension that we are familiar with in the poetry of Keats and Coleridge.

Of course to the modern reader there is nothing esoteric in the surface of early 19th century writing. Difficulties lie in the complexities of texture of which beautiful language is often both vehicle and content. In Welch’s poetry, the ‘obscurities’ are, I think, an inseparable aspect of the beauty of a writing which emerges from a modest and contemplative reticence, the results of which makes it often difficult to know exactly what he is describing or where a poem comes from or leads. In tension with the lingering and meditative quality to his observations, there is also a nimble, associative movement between the objects of his attention, and the poetry is difficult to interpret because its interior values are seen only glancingly, indirectly and from quickly disappearing points of surface vantage. I shall return briefly to an attempt to describe this quality in relation to the unostentatious originality of Welch’s vision.

John Welch has been publishing since the early 1970s and brought out some seven of his earlier chapbooks under the imprint of his own London based, Many Press. This volume of Collected Poems opens with Out Walking (Anvil 1984), which is Welch’s first long and independently published book: and it is here that we find examples both of his variably revealed insights and the subtle colours that suffuse so much of his work. Born in northwest London in 1942, Welch continues to live in the city, and his excursions in Out Walking are intensely visualised realisations of what he observes – often, but not exclusively, in the multiple surfaces of east London where he has lived for more than thirty years and in the open spaces, with their uncanny industrial skylines, of the Lea Valley. An early poem, ‘So Long’, from a sequence of twenty unrhymed sonnets, exemplifies this:

Leaning so long over myself, each
Day the same, the honey-coloured landscape
Of shuttered summers; today at lunchtime
I followed tree-trunks bare with sunlight.
Beside a ditch, two children, and beyond them
The factories and football pitches.
Here the doubtful river was being cleansed,
Each pool covered in gulls. This is the dull seed
From which it will germinate, this nothing-at-all,
Sunlight suddenly trapped in the classroom’s
High windows, rain-wet roads, and in my heart
The Buddhas of a thousand years. Today
As I stand beneath a cold sky, there is one Alsatian
Weaving over these empty, cared-for fields.

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
Of musky odour

Seen from the top of a bus
Where it flourished among the rubbish

In the heat tap-tapping
On corrugated iron.

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
Entered, at an acute angle, suddenly’.

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,
And the rest of you float past, leading a
Submarine life…

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
Carefully, looking for bottom, you place two cups
On the counter’s exact centre, this being the one
Stipulation. The trains beneath you are
Speeding towards it, and outside are secretaries,
Their breasts swelling with virtue, but you
Haven’t touched it, you haven’t begun to touch it.

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
by factories grass dumb with frost
the train chant and torn up seats
smeared felt-tip inscriptions…

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
our human stink hunts him
our abbeys of intellect
whitish stone gatherings
wait to receive him,
from cold to cold.
voices uneasy
out of the flames
are talking of money. Plants
shrivelled by cold
are sprawled on the soil.

He swims
He flies
He lives in the water at night

We eat him.

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
all over the town
and write all over it, smeared inscriptions
Aren’t pure   Aren’t clean

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
Beyond the railings
Deer nuzzle crisp bags.
A stag losing its velvet.
Children with ancient bodies strip and plunge
Into the Union Canal

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.
Birds pick at it
Where it curls like a damp page.
There are pipits, insects,
And one seal’s soapstone head
That’s caught in a patch of sunlight.

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.
Stone of beginning skyish stone

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 –
It has a certain
Time-cancelling quality

Impacted, the
    Stone pages
Their runnel of erosion,

Being lifted each
    Up against sky to
Make sun-linkage

Just next to the waves
    As when the first bird
Swam into stone, it

Seems like yesterday
    And weighted in the hand
Is the peace of an axe

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.
Sunlight and wind comb the tamarisk over the rock
Whose turning edge will lift us into time

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
Wearing the right clothes
Another face was hanging in the mirror

and most dramatically:

It was just as it was
Darting in out of the wood
Over the window-seat, its embroidered cushions,
Her scream stitched in
Dozing beside the open window
He sat, waiting for what would come
The voice to return to itself
In unbelief
She would return
Swooping and diving

In the lines near the end of Its Radiance this apparent, perhaps temporary resolution of connectedness is given space:

…grounded in one another
We shall inhabit ourselves
Outside rain freckled the still pond
albeit replaced by an equally vivid contemplation of a displacement which is outside time:

An experience of loss we’re the site of
Being born with us in the world
But we fill this place
As completely as any other
Day by day we approach it
With emptier hands

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

Mothers up its blood

Half in fright and half adoring

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
Of quasi-pastoral and light industrial

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
Breeze moss cowbells and crucifix
Solidity of a world of objects
So carefully disposed sit down among them
Almost as in mourning.

Or the almost crucifyingly paradoxical pain and compassion of this passage from the aptly titled Lyric:

Being bitten all over with hunger
Love is in my corner
And this, my blamed body
Its otherness has brought me here.
Listen: my hunting diamond

The wildness of the animal
Is the sharpness of its feature,
The burnt child, this cinder child,
While kestrel hung
Like an asterisk, free-floating hoverer

Above the defeated town,
Its vegetation lurching out from the brickwork
And buddleia smell after rainfall
At rest here under the eaves of light
I’ll arrive here in a small voice

Here in the city that I thought was mine,
Its bombsites where a black redstart sang
Where I found a scorched photograph.
Stories are told to bind up wounds.
But my archaic ink –

With all my words, as if
I wanted to bury something
And better this bruised lyric
Lips and throat, the heart-shaped vowels
To take my voice back home.

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 [1816]. 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

© Tom Lowenstein 2009