David Hackbridge Johnson on Andrew Duncan: A Barbarian Tripos

Andrew Duncan was born in Leeds, in 1956. He studied as a mediaevalist and started his writing career in punk ‘fanzines’. He has been publishing poetry since the late 1970s, serving as the editor of the magazine Angel Exhaust. Duncan worked as a labourer (in England and Germany) after leaving school, and subsequently as a project planner with a telecoms manufacturer (1978–87), and as a programmer for the Stock Exchange.


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You can read listen to Andrew Duncan reading his poems here


A Barbarian Tripos:  – On Andrew Duncan
David Hackbridge Johnson

The alien cultures
punk fanzine of new vistas
mesh of a Chinese martial-arts movie
our modern mercantile mess.

This is not meant as a poem but is ‘found’ from the blurbs on the back covers of four Andrew Duncan poetry volumes. Not at all randomly culled. From these perceptive fragments it might be possible to make a start on viewing the concerns of a writer whose poetry, criticism and magazine editing must make him one of the most vital and questing of today’s authors. Would you know it? – Duncan’s booklist is large: over a dozen books of poems, at least seven volumes that taken together give a most varied critical survey of British poetry from 1950 to 1997, several volumes of translations from the German, not to mention his essays (whose subjects include, film, German writing and etymology) to be found on the blog pages pinko.org and angelexhaust.blogspot.co.uk – and yet there are no extended critical studies on his work, just a few reviews here and there; there may be others but I trawled pretty deep just for the small fry. There is an entertaining article by Kent Johnson on Duncan’s Savage Survivals amid modern suavity, which is, as he describes, an Anti-review. [1] Johnson delights in anecdotes about his time at the Cambridge Conference of Contemporary Poetry in 2004 before tackling Duncan’s book by means of an evening’s drinking with its author. Johnson is the opposite of the dry reviewer and one hopes there is more of him on Duncan somewhere. [2]

From one Johnson to another. To use the ‘found’ quatrain that heads this piece as a starting point. ‘Alien cultures’. This does not mean sci-fi but it does mean a relationship to the other. Duncan’s linguistic concerns (see below) allow him a window onto different cultures, a window on a misty past that can be wiped clear. The Poundian programme of creative translation might be a starting point here; an artist of sufficient curiosity might begin by resurrecting as an historical or linguistic exercise lost works but by doing so invigorate original work. A re-contextualisation by means of dead lexicons that are suddenly alive. Was he inspired to view other cultures by Pound? Or by reading Eddie Flintoff’s Sarmatians? Or Geoffrey Hill’s Mercian Hymns? Duncan is a linguist; he studied Anglo-Saxon, Norse and Celtic at Cambridge, what he calls ‘the barbarian tripos’ [3] – and he has written extensively on Welsh and Scottish writers (although mainly on those who wrote in English) but he has also lived and travelled abroad. His poems are not recastings of other poets; cultures and language infuse the present. I have been reading Bill Griffiths, mainly, all last year. He came later than Duncan to Anglo-Saxon, achieving a PhD in that subject in 1987. There are some similarities between the two poets and scholars; they have both worked largely out of academe, they both spent time in Germany (suggesting a grounding for, respectively, Duncan’s translations of Thomas Kling and others, and Griffiths’ A Preliminary Account of Nordrhein-Westfalen etc. ) [4], and in both Griffiths and Duncan we find a negotiation with past and present, with old words and new – for such writers it seems that the linguistic possibilities of Anglo-Saxon or Old Welsh are still current despite their spoken status as ‘dead’. The combination of old and new is not presented as conflict but as continuity, although this often means continuity of conflict. Power structures are malleable and responsive to new ways of exertion; the negative side of inventions being tested first. Will it make a weapon? And so a theme of violence in all its forms runs through both writers’ work: the prison violence, raw in the telling, in books like Griffiths’ Seventy-six day Wanno, Mississippi and Highpoint Journal , [5] and the administrative violence in Duncan’s Pauper Estate.[6]

‘punk fanzine of new vistas’. Duncan’s first writings were for such zines although I have no information on this. His first book of poetry, In a German Hotel, he describes as ‘in a punk style approximating to pidgin German, as in a basically Turkish workplace.’ [8] Since nothing from this 1978 volume has been carried forward to subsequent ‘collecteds’ we might assume that this is because, as Duncan says, ‘My voice started up, it wasn’t my voice.’  [9] Punk/Pidgin/Turko-Germanic sounds pretty interesting to me. Is a punk lyric traceable beyond the three year period of Duncan’s engagement with it? Duncan’s most recent volume, On the Margins of Great Empires: Selected Poems, includes the poem, ‘Looks Like Luxury and Feels Like a Disease’; could some of these lines be such traces?: ‘Money for jam. Just the facts ma’am. Start me up. Pummel my lights.’ And in the same poem, an incantatory style that feels like Christopher Smart: ‘He begs for silver foil as snug ticking./ He begs for a door-post when he sees it./ He desires greasy victuals.’ Is this Jeoffry the cat in leathers?

‘mesh….mess’ is quite good – I’ll take it. Duncan is able to range wide and collect data, not so as to find a grand unifying theme (do we want one?) but to hold things in place long enough to view – a mesh that might keep in wire suspension: history, trade, materials (Duncan was briefly a metalworker), urban experience, thoughts of a ‘sexual being’.  [10] The idea of a mesh is not so far from the way Duncan’s immense seven volume project, 25 years in the making, charts British poetry since the Second World War, a way that allows for a multiplicity of voices that don’t fit easily into ‘isms’. The ‘mess’ is to be had in abundance – ‘About Living Opposite the Brewery in Brick Lane’ is a virtuosic display of unruly liquids. [11] Amid much sluicing and gushing there is a kind of historical dream sequence, as if a pattern of sorts might be found to explain the inundations. And here is the mercantile: ‘Bureaucracy, the verb system, the family laws’, a system that has ‘Turned strong men into wallowing pigs’. It is too pat to say that Duncan is a political poet, implying the application of dogma to give the poem the correct colour; rather history and politics come already woven into the lines and are part of the poet’s perception as daily experience. It is this everyday-ness combined with a mind admitting of ‘some mud-flat in Frisia’ two thousand years ago, that allows Duncan to avoid preacher status. He has been in the congregation for a long time.

And the Chinese martial-arts movie? Well, the heroes of The Water Margin crop up in the Post Office where the poet has gone to give in his giro. Later they, all 108 of them, saunter out of ‘the only gay bar in Inverness’. This, and much else, happens in the 18 part ‘Weapons Form with music’ from Savage Survivals. [12] This linguistically brilliant and at times funny, at times bleak epic, mixes the Chinese folk tale with passages culled from Sir Thomas Urquhart and the Lives of the Presbyterian Saints. [13]The superscription to part 2 gives a flavour of the juxtapositions: ‘The Glasgow avant-garde redesign the Campsie Fells; Sung Chiang chastises an insufficiently courteous hashed-meat vendor’. So much for the witty abutting of disparate epochs, yet I think there is more than just humour here; soon the poem plumbs the depth of a culture – not the China of the Song Dynasty – but the medieval Kingdom of Dalriada – the Gaelic land that included north-east Ireland and west Scotland: ‘with all/ the qualities of blood, milk and ink of the Dalriads/ dense and perfumed as a summer night’. Here the local is made exotic – the roots of culture are under your feet (though you might trip over them) where the blood of the clan is fed by the milk of the cattle and storied for the future in ink. Themes of outlawed religion in Scotland link with Sung Chiang’s band of outlaws. Later: things more specifically Chinese; this from a poetic reconstruction of the crane dance: ‘I embroider waterfowl on a quilted jacket/ trunks fallen headlong in pools and roots embracing air/ stitching a rustling cloak of reeds/ swim to the river island, pick the berries there/ the octagonal red oak single stick/ the use of borage and watercress/ saturated land and silted backwaters’ – if this is the water margin by Mount Liang it also has about it a washed lyric worthy of Lorine Niedecker’s Black Hawk Island. Duncan can do this – these pools of beauty – yet they are not isolated; the one just quoted comes directly after part 14, with its death by water of the two Wigtown martyrs: Margaret Wilson and Margaret MacLachlan. Yet a further ambiguity lies in ‘crane dance’ – the dance is part of a martial art style and mimics the crane’s methods of poise before attack, of violence held and then released in the kill, and despite ‘the evenings imitating the call of birds’ the poem ends in an apocalypse of destruction: ‘entire towns destroyed, ships sunk, hillsides collapsed.’ These are the shifts from apparent intimacy to a vast arena of collapse, an agoraphobic of atrocity, that make Duncan’s poems so startling in their jumps of vision; these mass events invade the personal and allow only awkward room for isolated lyric moment.

The operation of power is seen in many Duncan poems; certain poems seem to be about power studied through the lens of history and utterance. Quite explicit is: ‘I saw world history and the struggle of classes/ a sweep/ from the sacral way at Pergamon/ to the display windows of Bond Street shops’. [14]  Less explicit is a poem like ‘Trust’. [15] Here a questing individual seems locked in a nexus of confusion in relation to complex social expression. There is a threatening atmosphere of exposure with ‘A camera bursting through doors into the back office’; the poet/protagonist is ‘Knotting and swallowing the wish/ to follow at heel’ – a sense of resistance to easy belonging but a contrary desire ‘to be held up on kind unsteady hands’. We get a catalogue of trust (‘in the Oxford accent’, ‘in strong tea’, ‘in the groundwater of sexual energies’) but these are shown to over-extend themselves and fall away. Duncan seems to plunge into the past with ‘gets lucky, gets married, carves an object’, as if a product of great antiquity is shown to us; telling us perhaps of a great continuity. The ends seems bleak; with ‘collusion’, ‘deceit and inattention’ we are in an untrusting world full of fake appeals to it: ‘The bulimic gorging of trust/ waking the deeper circuits, the deep eye/ soft and smooth to poison/ spewing sweet liquids’. This communal spewing is a satire so dark it almost induces nausea. That this is needed I am in no doubt; ‘Trust’ is Duncan at his most dense and difficult but his examinations of collective action and individual forced inaction are vital contributions to a poetic that challenges a world it can’t find easy comfort in. We only have to note the insidious lines, ‘playing with deceit and inattention/ till they become a building/ and you are allowed a chair inside the building’; to sense that a way out of isolation is offered only by joining those you can’t beat. This is an ominous form of social power where collusion is presented as a virtue.

Duncan can bring us face to face with unpretty aspects of modern urban life. I can readily access images of my own to go with ‘Circular’ [16] ; we know from Duncan’s introduction to In Five Eyes that he lived in proximity to the North Circular Road in the 1980s and 1990s, and it was towards the end of Duncan’s time there that I was making my own hair raising journeys, adding waste ‘From the hot pipes of the steel throat’. As I was hurtled round in the slipstream of container lorries and floored white vans, Duncan, unbeknownst to me, was the stationary viewer – in fact if we look up the address that ends the first poem of In Five Eyes, ‘Suspended Section’ ,  [17] 119 Bowes Road, and posit that this was Duncan’s abode at that time, we see that he, or at least the viewer of his poem, has a ring side seat. Bowes Road is the North Circular at the section north of Bounds Green Station. As might be expected the vision is of speed and pollution; the poem is noisy and smelly; a sea of rank tarmac suggested by ‘sound rushes across the road shore and rims.’ Accidents are bound to happen at the ‘Blast apron’. ‘Pinned fabric of motion’ suggests that the road and its pattern of traffic is a pierced garment ready for cutting; ‘motion’ must be illusory if all the vehicles are ‘pinned’ – they are going nowhere fast. Whilst Duncan views the pitiless speed and manic travel there is a static element of sound and fury signifying nothing – we can follow the poem and spot the ‘nothings’: the messages ‘effaced’, the ‘numb skin’, the ‘unwriter of thoughts and patterns’ – this last example seeming to negate the possibility of writing the poem itself. The poem opens out to suggest other lookers and dwellers in this express space: a ‘media slew’ – I don’t know what this is exactly but it could be CCTV, or perhaps news cameramen on standby for a spectacular crash; slew suggests a long term presence of vulturine feet; the ‘eight million faces’ sum up exactly their own anonymity; that rooms are buried ‘in the throb of fuel chambers’ says that dwelling spaces are somehow inside the engines; that the acts of combustion occur in polluted cathedrals of fumes that infest all available living areas under diesel stained roofs. The end offers both a subject for poetry: ‘This is the message you were built to hear’, and a possible way out of the road that ‘rolls from A to A’ : ‘Look for a crack’ – as if the merest chink in this Babel of metal plates and hot pipes might allow escape. If the title ‘Circular’ suggests Dante, the hope of a crack in this urban nightmare might be Purgatory rather than Hell. That ‘message’ and ‘built’ appear together in what might be a poetic call to arms, adds ambiguity: what is ‘built’ doing here? It mechanises the viewer, as if subsumed into a machine by means of unwilling assimilation; a behaviour mode of the Borg in Star Trek: The Next Generation. The message might in those circumstances be of little cheer. Only that crack offers potential solace.

I see now that this might not be the extended work that Duncan’s poetry deserves; having been reading him for barely a year, more percolation of thought is required for me to go beyond this sketch. With so much in the field it is hard to plot the positions. This piece might scratch the surface, and by avoiding an over-ambitious overview can pick out a few things that have struck me in my reading year. What I suspect is that Duncan’s poetry when read in tandem with his criticism may throw up further connections with his programme of poetic ground reclaimed. Many of Duncan’s work on post-war poetry contextualises both politically and socially, before viewing the poetic response or lack of it for any given period. He also finds poets that were quickly hidden, or invisible from the start, some emerging later as fashions died and were reborn or reforgotten. Some of the more public rivalries between perceived factions in the 1970s are characterised by the phrase ‘Poetry Wars’. [19] I think Duncan would allow for a more nuanced view where neglected poets form a cross-hatching of bigger names that look increasingly obscured by the voices that don’t fit. But I am already trespassing on territory I am even less qualified to speak of than I am of the poems I have so admired and written about above.

David Hackbridge Johnson began composing at the age of 11 and has written works in all genres. His works have been widely performed. and include 15 symphonies, 4 of which have been recorded on Toccata Classics.  He is also a poet.


[1] Kent Johnson, (anti)-review of Duncan’s Savage Survivals: amid modern suavity, Chicago Review, 53:1 (Spring 2007), p.205-212.
[2] Duncan unfortunately doesn’t get a prize in Kent Johnson’s very funny Prize List, ecolinguistics, 2015, http://www.ecolinguistics.blogspot.com
[3] Andrew Duncan, On the Margins of Great Empires: Selected Poems, Shearsman, Exeter, 2018, p.7. (hereafter OMGE)
[4] Arc Publications, Todmorden, 1978.
[5] Amra Imprint, n.d. but probably early 1990s.
[6] Shearsman, 2000.
[7] But there is a glimpse of Duncan’s music reviewing, c.f. Andrew Duncan, Jumpin’ slick was my ruin;, or, Twilight Whisperings from Arkham Asylum, http://www.pinko.org/46.html The piece is so good on glossy pop glamour that I wonder if any of Duncan’s early poems ever sounded like Jeremy Reed.
[8] OMGE, p.7.
[9] Ibid. p.7.
[10] ‘Get Out of my Head’, In Five Eyes, p.38.
[11] Andrew Duncan, OMGE, p.37.
[12] Savage Survivals, pp.15-41.
[13] I haven’t been able to trace this volume but details of the Wigtown martyrs, whose story Duncan tells so vividly in part 14, can be read in, Alexander S. Morton, Galloway and the Covenanters; or, The struggle for religious liberty in the south-west of Scotland, Alexander Gardner, Paisley, 1914, pp.409-440.
[14] ‘Silver Threads and Golden Needles’, OMGE, p.126.
[15] OMGE, p.128.
[16] In Five Eyes, p.16.
[17] Ibid. p.11.
[18] ‘Suspended Section’, Ibid. p.11.
[19] It is the title of Peter Barry’s book published by Salt, Cambridge, 2006.

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