This comprehensive gathering together of the poetry and prose of one of the key figures of non-mainstream British poetry is long-overdue, with much of the work included here having been long out of print, or scattered across a plethora of small press publications.
While this, of course, places his work firmly within the poetic timeline of the last 50 years, one of the most interesting immediate impressions is the way An Andrew Crozier Reader also places it in a geographical context. Early engagement with American modernism, and especially Objectivism, is both energising and fruitful, and sees Crozier getting to grips with two of his recurring themes – the infinite possibilities of language, and the awareness that language creates reality as often as it reflects it.
So, in a piece called ‘How Does It Go?’, from around 1965, you find him asking:
in its rhyme
to say what’s meant
that lovely ice that girl
how to have both
in the poem?
That sort of aside is typical of Crozier’s style, and touches on his scepticism about the musicality of language – the result is a style that frequently replicates the thought processes of everyday living. In lesser hands that might be a recipe for flat or even banal writing, but Crozier was always capable of opening out new layers of meaning and perception from even the most seemingly mundane subject matter.
That’s most evident in sequences from the 70s, such as ‘The Veil Poem’, or ‘Pleats’, the highlights of the volume for me. If John James and Lee Harwood are two obvious points of comparison that occur when reading them, the truth is probably that Crozier, like them, was looking back to the ‘conversation’ poems of Coleridge, or to the other English Romantics. ‘Poem of this Poem’, for example, from ‘Pleats’, moves from the immediately quotidian to wider perspectives, and back again, gracefully and seamlessly, in passages such as:
person I sleep with I am as ever
beside you drawn into the breaths
you take. Not speaking. Hearing such space
that slowly stills into an ambient
jointure of being. Here. Far off.
The world rises into us.
He even slyly undermines those flashes of a more universal perspective, too. Just a few lines further on, he’s telling you that: “Rarely able to sense the pregnancy of cosmos / these days I make a number of local compacts / veiled in desire for whole ground…”
I found Crozier less engaging when he seemed more directly influenced by English contemporaries. ‘Printed Circuit’, for example, reads uncomfortably close to straightforward imitation of Prynne, and is all the worse for it.
Crozier wrote relatively little poetry in later years, but the 1990s sequence ‘Free Running Bitch’ shows no falling-off in quality, pulling together many of the concerns and themes of the earlier poems while treading a finely-judged line between remembering the past and living in it – “don’t hang on, don’t forget”, he warns himself, and the reader. Repetition is used effectively, but the sense of movement in both time and space that it evokes is frequently exhilarating.
The critical prose which dominates the last third of the book is never less than engrossing, but it’s at its most enjoyable not when Crozier is attacking the mainstream canon (although he does give much credit where he feels it due), but when he’s making a passionate case for ‘lost’ poets such as the American Carl Rakosi (Crozier effectively rediscovered him and inspired him to begin writing again) and the Scottish 1940s writer J F Hendry, or when he’s taking issue with Donald Davie’s evaluation of Roy Fisher. Crozier may well have felt a close kinship to the work of all three, and certainly there are interesting parallels between Fisher’s ‘A Furnace’ and Crozier’s own poetry when read in light of his essay.
Which brings me to one final point. Throughout the book, there’s commentary from the editor and other poets, along with interviews with and by Crozier, and letters from fellow poets (most notably Prynne). While these are frequently valuable in illuminating Crozier’s poetry, occasionally I found myself wondering whether I was being told too much – the sequence ‘High Zero’, for example, works perfectly well without knowing the process by which it was constructed, or the poems it references and replies to. It would be churlish to gripe too much about it, though – one answer, obviously, is to avoid these passages on first reading, and return to them later for further illumination – when it comes down to it, their role in defining Crozier’s importance makes this an essential book for anyone with an interest in the alternative stream of British poetry since 1960.
Matt Merritt lives in Leicester. His collections are ‘hydrodaktulopsychicharmonica’ (Nine Arches, 2010), ‘Troy Town’ (Arrowhead, 2008) and a pamphlet, ‘Making the Most of the Light’ (HappenStance 2005).
An Andrew Crozier Reader, edited by Ian Brinton, is publsihed by Carcanet Press, 2012, £18.95.
(to read previous Magma blog reviews, please click on the ‘Reviews’ tag immediately below)