Category Archives: Essays

‘Dialogues through Time with the Gone’: Robert Selby on Martin Booth’s Knotting Poems

Acknowledgement: All poems by Martin Booth have been reproduced with permission from Shearsman Books and the Estate of Martin Booth. Copies of Martin Booth’s The Knotting Poems are available here.

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The late Martin Booth’s poetry collections The Knotting Sequence and The Cnot Dialogues – originally published by Elizabeth Press of New York in 1977 and 1981 respectively – were last year collected together for the first time by Shearsman as The Knotting Poems. ‘By the time these books [first] appeared,’ writes Shearsman’s Tony Frazer in a publisher’s note, ‘it was probably clear to Martin that he was not going to achieve a breakthrough with a major British poetry press: he had been around long enough, and had enough influential friends in the poetry world, that if he was going to be taken on by a major press, it would have already happened.’

Booth was born in Ribchester, Lancashire in 1944 but lived most of his formative years in Hong Kong, where his father was in the Colonial Service. In 1964 he returned to England, worked as a secondary school teacher and in his spare time ran the Sceptre Press, publishing broadsheets and booklets by – among others – Robert Bly, Ted Hughes, James Kirkup, John Lucas, Christopher Middleton, Peter Redgrove, Penelope Shuttle and Alan Sillitoe. Except for a 1971 Eric Gregory Award, Booth’s own poetry struggled to find a reception in Britain, and in 1981 he wound-up Sceptre and funnelled his energies into writing prose. Thirteen novels were the result, of which The Industry of Souls (1998) was shortlisted for the Booker Prize and A Very Private Gentleman (1991) was made – six years after Booth’s death from cancer in 2004 – into the film The American starring George Clooney.

Booth also wrote many children’s novels and works of non-fiction, the latter including British Poetry 1964-84: Driving Through the Barricades (1985), a forthright criticism  of the poetry scene that had spurned him – ‘the old boy network of editor and judge and publisher’, the ‘self-indulgent ego-tripping’, the ‘poems for the sake of poets, not readers’ that eclipse ‘craft and truth’. Booth was searing: ‘The trouble with so many poets is that they are lacking in human terms and, therefore, their poetry follows suit.’ He identified the ‘Outsiders’, a handful of ‘people who live for poetry, not those for whom poetry exists as a tool of self-opinionism’. Outsider status was not contingent on obscurity: conferred with it were major figures such as Ted Hughes (‘he writes with artistic integrity for the universe of people’) and Geoffrey Hill (‘even if the meaning is obscure, the poetry is always lyrical and powerful, strangely universal’) because Booth saw them as operating outside ‘cliques and new attitudes’. His own Knotting poems contain strong echoes of – and arguably responses to – Hill’s 1971 Mercian Hymns, and also possess qualities in common with Hughes’s Remains of Elmet, published in 1979 between the appearance of The Knotting Sequence and The Cnot Dialogues.

These works are symptomatic of what Seamus Heaney in 1976 identified as the ‘devolutionary impulse’ in some English poets, post-empire, to capture ‘a new sense of the shires’, drawing on a – hopefully – benevolent and hospitable local patriotism. Mercian Hymns, The Remains of Elmet and The Knotting Poems are each rooted in their respective nooks of England, and evince a sense of history as – in Hill’s words – ‘some vital dimension of intelligence’.

Elmet was the last independent Celtic kingdom in England, situated in what became Yorkshire’s Upper Calder Valley where Hughes was born and brought up, a place – according to Hughes – still exhibiting a distinct cultural identity in its ‘narrow cleft and its side-ginnels’ into the twentieth century until the ‘local regimes (and combined operation) of Industry and Religion started to collapse’ following the Great War and the 1930s economic slump. Those poems in Remains of Elmet concerned with the human-anecdotal instead of the topographical only mine as far back as what was – in Hughes’s childhood – just beyond living memory. The deployment of ‘Elmet’ in the book’s title is instead a contextualising shortcut, drawing on the Dark Ages to add greater validity to Hughes’s portrayal of this community as being, until the recent past, somehow culturally distinct. In turn, the disappearance of the community’s distinctiveness, or even of the community itself, can be presented as a cataclysm, the sort of baleful backdrop (‘the empty horror of the moor’, ‘the melting corpses of farms’) Hughes relished.

In Mercian Hymns, Hill drew more fully on the Dark Ages to root his native place, with his boyhood Worcestershire in what Andrew Michael Roberts has called a ‘linguistic continuum’ with the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Mercia. Hill’s anachronistic Mercian king Offa, ‘overlord of the M5’, driving ‘his private derelict sandlorry named Albion’, has become celebrated, so too the way Hill renders the eighth and twentieth centuries coterminous, just as Offa’s vanity and capriciousness – qualities typical of a ruler – elide with projections of Hill’s child self (‘dreamy, smug-faced, sick on outings’). Imperial Great Britain has shrunk back to an enduring ‘coiled entrenched England’, ‘primeval heathland spattered with the bones of mice and birds’, ‘gasholders, russet among fields’ and ‘the quiet hammer-pond’. Eighth-century Offa’s regal ambitions – rather parochial in our modern eyes, bar pilgrimages to Rome and Compostela – match our postcolonial, localist horizons; his coronation ends at ‘the car-park of “The Stag’s Head”’ and he takes weekend holidays in ‘valleys beyond Mercia’s dyke’ (Wales).

Booth’s place was his adopted Knotting in north Bedfordshire, where he lived (and ran the Sceptre Press) in the 1970s – ‘a hamlet of nine houses, a 1,200-year old church and a few farm buildings,’ he explained in an afterword to the poems. Like Hill with his linguistic continuum and Hughes with his ‘archaeology of the mouth’, Booth sought ‘dialogues through time with the gone’ (note: not the dead – ‘they’re still here’), in this case with a metaphysical character in Cnot, an Anglo-Saxon after whom the original settlement was named. Though cantankerous like Offa, Cnot is – in Booth’s words – a mere ‘archetypal ancestor’, without pretensions to be Rex Totius Anglorum Patriae (King of the English) or a friend of Charlemagne, a farmer seeking only to be left ‘minding / his own / business’. In one section, as an antidote to the violence of Mercian Hymns, Cnot – transcending time – recalls watching the first-century Battle of Yelden nearby: ‘I didn’t go to help // no sense drawing / them over here.’ Likewise, in a further riposte, Cnot impudently repudiates on behalf of himself and everyone else royal authority:

in the name of
Offa

in the name of
Arthur

in the name of William
of Normandy

in the name of
Henry
John
Couer de Lion
Victoria

I declare these
fields
royal

no screams the
dead Cnot

these blades
of grass
are ours

Cnot also objects to the building of the church:

we have a
god-place
built by
god already

(he spanned
the fields with
two
wide fingers)

The grass of the fields is rooted in hallowed soil (Offa’s ‘crypt of roots and endings’, Cnot’s ‘ancient / hearth’), and Booth described Cnot as ‘both man and earth, now and then, us’. Knotting, like Mercia, is codified and perpetuated in chthonic terms, but whereas Hill’s Mercia borders – in the view of some critics – on the nationalistic, Knotting is collectivist: Cnot’s Digger-like rejection of institutions and a dedication to living on the land feeds a levelling worldview, a subsistence commonwealth of thatch and mead open to any who feel a connection with the natural forces of field and woodland. (Just as kitsch maybe, but not the same as what Tom Paulin argued was Hill’s nostalgia for hierarchical feudalism.) Afterall, Booth was himself an incomer to Knotting, yet Cnot is eager to get under his skin as an intangible longing – what the Cornish call hireth – for the place when he’s abroad, keeping his watch set to GMT: ‘dammit!’, Cnot calls from within him, ‘isn’t / this, my / hamlet, good / enough / for / you?’

Booth was perpetually an incomer, not only to the various places across England where he lived,  but also to England itself, having grown up in Hong Kong where he ‘went native’, rebelling against his father by learning Cantonese and accessing corners of the then-colony usually closed to a ‘Gweilo’ – the title of his final book, a memoir of his childhood. He thus would have been sensitive to the risk of exclusion inherent in ideas of identity: ‘“Not indigenous”’ is a ‘cruel way’, he wrote at one point, to speak of the deer ‘some / rich bastard stole / from China // two centuries ago’.

Cnot is a derelict – ‘insidious pollens gather / in the pleats of / his coat’ – watching times change from his hovel near ‘the A6, south / of / Rushden’ –

once
a land of
sixty
ponds and
springs

time and
tractors
filled them
in

now
the wheat
reflects
clouds

Apparitions from times past, however, live on in a dweller or visitor’s interior sense: the fighting cocks the seventeenth-century reverend blasphemously kept in his church; John Bunyan (a Bedfordshire man) singing from the pulpit; a washerwoman at the village pump singing a lament for her husband lost in Flanders; Luftwaffe vapour trails overhead. This comingling brings a permanence, despite the changes.

What Hill called ‘a care for natural minutiae’ The Knotting Poems poetry has in abundance: ‘in every / leaf of the / silver birch // is a silver / hand longing / to clap’; ‘a leaf turns // no: is / turned’; ‘over the green / life of the grass // burns the raucous / yellow flight of / a brimstone’. Booth’s short-lined limpid verse – more akin to the poetry of his American stablemates at the Elizabeth Press than to that of his British contemporaries – places significant stress on each word or syllable, spreading them apart and pacing out their assimilation, going further than Hughes and in contrast to Hill’s compact, muscular ‘versets of rhymical prose’: ‘bats / hang in the / clockweight cup- / board’. The poems sometimes negotiate the line between delicacy and thinness unsuccessfully, their meaning lost like seed pods to the wind; too much spacing can – inversely – feel like filler. As Frazer admits in his publisher’s note: ‘I suspect a little judicious editing would improve their chances, even now.’ But for the most part Cnot and The Knotting Poems deserve better than their ongoing obscurity, especially considering today’s renewed interest in natural and local histories, and the tumultuous contemporary politics surrounding identity and belonging: ‘we can live on / the edge of / nothing – // or / something real // it’s in us / all.’

Robert Selby edits the online poetry journal Wild Court. His poems and reviews have appeared in Areté, The London Magazine, New Statesman, PN Review, The Spectator, the Times Literary Supplement, and elsewhere. His debut pamphlet was published in 2017, in the Clutag Five Poems series, and his debut collection, The Coming-Down Time, is forthcoming from Shoestring Press in 2020.

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Martin Booth: Three Additional  Knotting Poems

August 17:
Stack Close – wheat

August 18:
Melchbourne Mead – wheat

August 19:
Grit Field, Wayposts – wheat
& barley

August 19:
tonight at
seven as
light was leaning
down, the
end wall of
the long
barn fell out under
the weight
of heaped
grain

my lords of
earth; this
has been
a good
year

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I suppose it’s
in the
order of
things or the
gods would
smite it
down: cruel
they can
be

so reasons our
old ancestor as
he watches
the crop-
spraying aircraft bank &
turn for
another run in on
New
Ground

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PEEWITS

so silent, in their
clerical garb

like so many
solemn priests upon
a ritual
convocation

they nod and
bow, obsequious
as hell

usually noising by
now, they
make no
mew

showing now a
mourning for
her, for
Cnot and
all
time passed

from The Knotting Poems by Martin Booth (Shearsman, 2018)
reproduced with permission from The Estate

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