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This item is taken from PN Review 255, Volume 47 Number 1, September - October 2020.

News & Notes
Pinter Prize 2020

The 2020 PEN Pinter Prize was awarded to Linton Kwesi Johnson, a popular and timely choice, described by Claire Armistead for the judges as ‘poet, reggae icon, academic and campaigner, whose impact on the cultural landscape over the last half century has been colossal and multi-generational’. He was characterised as ‘unwaveringly committed to political expression’ in his work. Armistead’s fellow judges were Dialogue Books Publisher Sharmaine Lovegrove and author Max Porter. The award will be presented at a digital ceremony co-hosted by the British Library on 12 October – the day on which Harold Pinter would have turned ninety. Johnson will name his own co-winner of the award for the International Writer of Courage 2020, selected from a shortlist of international cases supported by PEN.

Gösta Ågren (1936–2020)

Christine De Luca writes: Gösta Ågren (1936–2020), who died in June, was one of Finland’s most important poetic voices. Being a Swedish-Finn from Ostrobothnia, his poems, essays and biographies were written in Swedish. With his philosophical turn of mind, his poems often reflected on the complexities of being human, and of facing death.

He published several collections, reaching ever bigger audiences through the 1970s with Don’t be Afraid and Cloud Summers. His major work was the Jär (Here) trilogy, the first part being awarded the Finlandia Prize in 1989. In 2011 Ågren was awarded the Swedish Academy’s Finland Prize for significant contributions to Finland’s Swedish-speaking cultural life and nominated for the Nordic Council Literature Prize, and in 2013 he won acclaim from the Längmanska Kulturfonden Foundation in Sweden.

I met him in Spring 2002 when, at Moniack Mhor in the Scottish Highlands, we participated in the first of the annual poetry translation workshops organised jointly by Literature Across Frontiers and the Scottish Poetry Library. Like him, I greatly enjoyed the opportunity to work with the poets and translators from Iceland, Norway and Denmark, along with David McDuff from the UK. While Gösta embodied the serious and the contemplative – so evident in his poetry – he was also convivial and sometimes, unexpectedly, uproarious.

His poetry has been translated into Finnish, English, French, Spanish, Icelandic, Russian, Dutch and Hungarian. A Valley in the Midst of Violence: Selected Poems (En dal i våldet) with translations by David McDuff, was published by Bloodaxe Books in 1992. As he wrote in ‘Kvar’/ ‘Left’, one of the poems I translated into Shetlandic in the workshop:

                         Naethin is left
but your wirds, your hoose
an your love.

Michael McClure (1932–2020)

Brian Morton writes: Michael McClure did not want poetry to be aethereal. He wanted it muscular, mammalian, meaty. His plane of art was the tribal dancing ground, his ethic a kind of hunter-gatherer spirit that snarled at the pastoral. He turned being lionised into an active verb when in 1966, a decade after his celebrated emergence at the Six Gallery readings in San Francisco which marked the beginning of the Beat movement, he read (roared) his poetry in the big cat house at San Francisco zoo. He was routinely described as leonine, but it proved to be more literally true than usual: the lions seemed to recognise his spirit and roared back competitively.

He had other claims on notoriety. He ran with the Hell’s Angels for a while, celebrating the ‘meat-spirit’ of the tribal male. His play The Beard, which included a sex act between Billy The Kid and Jean Harlow was censored, even in tolerant San Francisco; when it transferred to Los Angeles, the cast was arrested every night of its short run, bailed just in time to go through the whole process again. If the younger crowd knew him, it was probably because he turns up in the middle of Martin Scorsese’s documentary about The Band’s farewell concert, The Last Waltz. He didn’t opt to read from Hymns To St Geryon (1959), Ghost Tantras (1964) or Love Lion Book (1966). Instead, dressed like an exiled count, he recited the opening of Chaucer’s Prologue to the Canterbury Tales. Middle and Old English – or what was then called Anglo-Saxon – fascinated him. One of his more notorious writings, in Meat Science Essays was a deconstruction of ‘Phi Upsilon Kappa’, the once vigorous Anglo-Saxon verb for coition that had descended into a catch-all, classless, meaningless obscenity. His own language was scarcely chaste, but never pointlessly obscene.

McClure was born in Marysville, Kansas, but raised largely in Seattle by his grandfather, after his parents divorced. The Pacific North-West shaped his view of wilderness America, even after he returned to Kansas for high school. He studied at the University of Arizona, Tucson, where he met his first wife Joanna Kinnison. They moved to San Francisco, with the vague intention of studying art and maybe movie-making. McClure was fascinated by Jackson Pollock’s gestural, almost terpsichorean approach to painting, as photographed by Hans Namuth, but he was also drawn to the Black Mountain aesthetic of Charles Olson, with its emphasis on ‘energy’ and composition by field, and he found that his own creativity was more readily expressed in text and declamation than on canvas or celluloid.

McClure’s poetry was, in the words of his friend, avant-garde movie-maker Stan Brakhage, a series of ‘cellular messages’, often expressed as surreal autobiography, as in ‘Dream: The Night Of December 23rd’ where McClure and dedicatee Jane remember watching giant extinct birds from Madagascar walking across a field in 1940s Wichita, ‘sweeping / side to side as a salmon does – or as a wolf does - / but with a Pleistocene, self-involved gentleness / beyond our ken.’ In ‘Peyote Poem’ – an inevitable experiment, though psychotropics were not, one feels, overwhelmingly important to him – he wrote ‘I hear / the music of myself and write it down’. He listened outwardly and inwardly, and when he said, in the same poem, ‘I know // all that I need to know’ it was body-­knowledge that he meant rather than learning. McClure won unexpected endorsement from Francis Crick, the co-discoverer of DNA’s double helix, who quoted him in Of Molecules and Men, an association that reinforced McClure’s belief that poetry and science were not at Blakean odds, but were part of the same endeavour.

He had more predictable associations with the rock crowd, falling in with Ray Manzarek of The Doors and creating in lead singer and would-be poet Jim Morrison an almost cartoonish version of himself. McClure later, after Morrison’s death, performed spoken-word recitals with the pianist, releasing Love Lion (1993) and The Piano Poems (2012). McClure also wrote the lyrics to ‘Mercedes Benz’, an a capella hit for Janis Joplin. And he was present, an already senior statesman, on Thanksgiving Day at Winterland in San Francisco, as The Band brought it all home. Also on stage that night was McClure’s one-time mentor Robert Duncan and his Hell’s Angels mentor Freewheelin’ Frank, whose autobiography he had ghosted.

McClure continued writing to the end, publishing nearly fifty poetry collections, plays and other works, appearing in films (notably Peter Fonda’s The Hired Hand) and serving as a wise and well-loved teacher at California College of the Arts (formerly Arts and Crafts) in Oakland. Of all the Beat generation, he wore his own mythology most lightly. Jack Kerouac has him as Pat McLear in Big Sur and Desolation Angels, a Rimbaud type whose totem bird is the hawk, and as Ike O’Shay in The Dharma Bums. But McClure was too much his own creation to be a character in American’s poetry’s longest running soap. His life was spent, in words he addressed to Kerouac, ‘wanting the huge reality of touch and love’.

John Furnival (1933–2020)

Greg Thomas writes: John Furnival (1933–2010), who died on 31 May 2020 at the age of eighty-seven, was a text-artist and visual poet (though he preferred to call himself a ‘drawer’) who contributed significantly to the international concrete poetry movement of the 1950s–70s, as well as to visual and sculptural movements such as Kinetic Art and Mail Art.

A product of the RCA and the late-1950s heyday of British Pop Art, John’s operation at the boundaries of text and image have much to do with the early collage works of Eduardo Paolozzi or Richard Hamilton. But Furnival’s primary compositional mode became the free-hand text mural. From the early 1960s onwards he incorporated his interests in post-war consumer culture, cold war politics, literature, myth, and wordplay into a series of dazzling text-towers and columns, most famously the various instalments of his ‘Tower of Babel’ series, which he began in 1963.

These and other text-based works were primarily celebrated as contributions to the international movement of concrete poetry, and John’s work was included in all the major concrete anthologies of the late 1960s. However, as Bernard Moxham noted in his recent obituary (The Guardian, 17 June 2020), John was never entirely comfortable with the label of ‘concrete poet’. Indeed, he described his first work in the ‘Babel’ series, The Fall of the Tower of Babel (1963), as an ‘anti-concrete’ work, expressing his scepticism about the ideals of linguistic minimalism for which concrete poetry stood. Comprised of teeming rows of text, the design was executed spontaneously, growing initially from calligraphic repetitions of the phrase ‘Peace for the World’ printed in English and Russian (Furnival had worked as a Russian military translator for MI3 during 1956–57). The gesture is typical of Furnival’s politically infused, often acerbic humour. Other works of this period, such as his 1965 sculpture Devil Trap, are significant contributions to the 1950s–60s renaissance of Kinetic Sculpture, while his press, Openings, co-founded in 1963 with Dom Sylvester Houédard, produced text-based artworks for distribution by post in the spirit of the burgeoning Mail Art movement.

In 1960, John began teaching at Gloucestershire College of Art, which then had campuses in Stroud and Cheltenham. He also picked up teaching work at Bath Academy of Art in Corsham, and from his West Country base made contact with nearby poets and artists including Dom Sylvester Houédard, Kenelm Cox, John Sharkey, Charles Verey, and Thomas A Clark. Their loosely collective activities made the West Country an unlikely centre for the concrete poetry movement. And though this scene was notable for its homosocial membership, John produced work throughout his life with his partner, the textile artist Astrid Furnival. He also communicated with artists and writers spread further afield, notably producing collaborative works with important late modernist poets such as Ronald Johnson and Ian Hamilton Finlay.

John remained hugely productive following the fading of the movements with which he was instinctively associated. In 2010, he co-founded the press Openings-Closings with his long-time friend and supporter Bernard Moxham to reprint as much as possible of his vast catalogue raisonné. During 2018–20, Moxham curated a series of ARC-funded retrospective exhibitions, collectively entitled Lost for Words, held at Stroud’s Museum in the Park and Ruskin Mill, Venice’s Emily Harvey Foundation, and Bath Spa University’s School of Art.

This item is taken from PN Review 255, Volume 47 Number 1, September - October 2020.

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