The Dolemen and Nabmen
hoyoot: Collected Poems and Songs, by Tom Pickard.
It is a truism by now that poets from the United Kingdom (and Canada, and Australia, and other Anglophone precincts) hold little interest for American poets, and have even less presence in their classrooms, magazines, and short lists. It would heavy bore me to have to enumerate the reasons why this is; I’ll just say that a penchant to think of art as a comfort rather than a challenge ranks high. After all, “relatability” in our day is the literary virtue par excellence. Perhaps it’s a bad time to champion work outside our borders, particularly from a poet who valorizes border-dwelling and even though this poet has purloined a good deal of our William Carlos Williams and Ezra Pound — and whose poems until recently were kept in print mostly by Chicago-based Flood Editions. Thus, Tom Pickard.
Born working-class in Newcastle upon Tyne in 1946, adopted by a great-aunt, Pickard came to poetry as a teenager, errant and energetic. When Basil Bunting had fallen into obscurity and penury on his return from abroad, it was Pickard who, in the early sixties, adopted him as a mentor and launched him on the path to writing his masterpiece, Briggflatts. Pickard stood in relation to Bunting the way his generational counterparts in New York and San Francisco stood in relation to their Modernist elders — freer, wilder, smelling less of the lamp and more of hashish. He and his wife Connie operated the Morden Tower, a reading series on the old city walls. It was more urgent to gather and test poems out loud than to theorize about prosody in Newcastle, as in the Lower East Side that decade. Pickard’s career would exemplify the dual aspect of oral poetry — in its sense of address to a person or community, and in its sense of aurality, texture, mouthfeel.
His first book was High on the Walls, published with Fulcrum Press in 1967, and it placed him at the age of twenty-one not only in the company of Bunting but also Edward Dorn, Robert Duncan, Allen Ginsberg, Lorine Niedecker, and Gary Snyder (not to mention fellow outrider Brits like Roy Fisher, Lee Harwood, and David Jones). Like a Geordie Catullus, his themes were odi et amo: loathing for the Man (“the dolemen and nabmen”), love for wine, women, and song; or alternately wife and babies; mates, the miners and workers of the North, and the urban natural environment. He composed in a style forged from the same influences apparent in Donald Allen’s New American Poetry anthology — the thoroughly broken pentameter of Pound and Williams — which Bunting had nativized for Northumbrians alienated from the literary center, London (which in turn kept aloof from all Modernist mischief). Pickard leavened his flat vernacular with a dash of Geordie dialect: a handful of poems at the close of the book experiment with invectives of obscenity and aspersion, coded in a street language that sounds for all the world like song, at least as Bunting and Pound and the Elizabethans would term it.
The “New American” can be a clear, lapidary style, but often in the pursuit of sprezzatura one is merely left with spontaneity (see aforementioned anthology). Garrulousness is the biggest pitfall. Stray thoughts, dumb thoughts, blowharding, and attitudinizing have nowhere to hide. Yet the young Pickard was typically expressive, straight-shooting and fleet, even if he didn’t bowl you over with ingenuity. As time passed and Pickard diverged from the bohemian period style, the more his language sang:
I was deliriousday druggedsky highedriver rippedtree trippedhill hitcloud cutstone stonedpine spliffedskint as a skinned rabbitI was sprig jiggedmerlin skirtedpool cooledbark chargedwind blowngrass gassedthorn hornedbud rubbedhawk hungskint as a skinned rabbit— From Day Drugged
Bunting would have traced this chant back to alliterative Anglo-Saxon and the Northumbrian artist-monk whose rhythmic graphics distinguished the Lindisfarne Gospels. Pickard can sound practically anonymous, like them. At other times, he can sound like Martial or some other biting epigrammatist: “A History Lesson from My Son on Hadrian’s Wall” turns out to be “the first one there loses.”
Almost a half century after High on the Walls, Pickard gives us hoyoot: Collected Poems and Songs. It traces his progress as a balladeer engaged with the vicissitudes of city life and class struggle to a lyric poet in profound correspondence with his home in the Pennines and with the erotic muse. It’s as if the early poems of High on the Walls are repeated, variegated, and amplified, like musical motifs, through the intense erotic poetry of the nineties and the bitter breakup poems of The Dark Months of May. Pungent Geordie slang gradually yields to the diction of mithering (“Cumbrian dialect for the weather when it is neither drizzling fog nor misty drizzle”) and clough (“steep ravine”), may (hawthorn blossoms) and the ever-present fells (hills, upland moors).
mayin her black haira bridal charmshe blows a lacewingfrom her armdark hareswhite through bluea blackcock flewacrossa flowering ashshe sucksmy cock by rockcinquefoila comma settleson her thighwindfuckfucks windraving watersrushthe cloughoverhungwith campionknittedwith thyme— May
The fuckwind — “an archaic name for the kestrel” according to the Oxford Companion to Modern Poetry — is one of Pickard’s signature tropes. Not even the wind is neuter! All sex poems are silly for some readers, but Pickard’s marriage of the blunt and the elemental made me seriously wonder why we have so few of them. It seems like another symptom of American poetry’s unbudgeable middle-classness. It would rather go to a restaurant.
Like wind, like water, Pickard deliquesces the identities of male and female, human and unhuman, as in “Late Summer Loot”:
foraging fungiamong oakand birch alonga railway trackslippery-jackkisses underScots pineshe squatsa prickearly bramblespinkher fingerspluckchanterellea surge of windquicks firneedles
I hesitate to paraphrase, and so should you — if you’re hung up on whether mushrooms, brambles, fir needles, and pink are symbols, or whether this is sub-D.H. Lawrence, you’re on your way to crushing or making risible a very delicate poem not just about love, but lovers indivisible from their habitat. Everything about them is mirrored or refracted in nature, their maker. The way the language almost escapes into foreignness, drawing on Anglo-Saxon consonance to yank it from speech to song, halfway to grammarless bird vocalizations, is part of the charm of it. And by charm I mean riddle or sigil.
Later, in the poems from The Dark Months of May, we will read “Ancient Stone Dressed with Lichen”:
now the mushroom season is hereI remember — she has the basketbut I have the knife.
The same couple — we surmise — has parted ways, but this poem recalls us to their earlier bliss. The series of poems from this period are wounded and sometimes furiously funny — my favorites. “Denial Is a River in Egypt” is a terrible title, but it spits contempt: “he grabs your arse in crowded bars / confusing it for one of his slack chins / he has a sudden urge to scratch.” And in “Inverted Muse,” he takes a potshot at her cheap decor: “and those red velvet curtains / you bought from the charity shop / to spice up your bedroom / still stink of the crematorium they came from.” The linguistic ecstasy gone, the odi of Catullus is back in all its lapidary disgust.
But wait: the linguistic ecstasy isn’t gone. It has slipped elsewhere — into the loneliness of the landscape the poet finds himself answering to instead of a lover. If it was mystically imbued with sex in previous books, the terrain of fells, River Teviot, wind, birds, and may — the hawthorn tree and its white flower — now jabbers like a haunted place:
as I look to that dale,and the woman therethat was my lifea tift rattles grass,tuft after tuft,and writhes on —a wind within a windI step through boggy heathmy heart is peltand plucks another beat— Strange Phenomenon on Fiend’s Fell
And again the language reverts to something approaching a bird’s vocalizations, all mouthfeel:
scuffing gushesover lush miststhat skulk cloughswhile swift streamsskim speechfrom streets of the sea— From Self Abstracting Poem
The attempt to “abstract” the self from the landscape results in the purest possible speech: nature’s, where sound and sense are finally one. So much for the Muse, with her fingers and pinks; the omphalos of poetry is a windy fell in the north, and the Orphic poet bereft. Just as the author of Briggflatts might have had it.
The final poems of The Dark Months of May, with their lonely subsidence into the landscape, provide the perfect segue to Pickard’s magnum opus to date, the Ballad of Jamie Allan, which in these days of insipid half-prose “project books” stands out as a wonder. It was my first introduction to Pickard when it was published by Flood Editions in 2007. I’ve read it many times since, mostly in connection with teaching, since it was the ideal book to discuss with my Texas students of various ancestries, north of the borderlands of Tamaulipas-Cameron County. Placed now in the context of Pickard’s life-work, as the culminating book of hoyoot, it is as much a transhistorical tour-de-force and statement of value as Briggflatts was for Bunting. I might have implied that the progress of hoyoot winnowed the political from the lyric, but that would not take into account the way the Geordie Catullus has melded with the anarchic border-balladeer persona of Jamie Allan, eighteenth-century piper, horse thief, and “professional deserter” in the precincts of the Dukes of Northumberland. hoyoot’s chronology is a slow burn toward this climactic ars poetica (which has also been staged as an opera — “folk-opera” — with music by John Harle).
Who was Jamie Allan? A quasi-mythical musician of the borderlands between the North of England and Scotland, the subject of much apocrypha; “Jemmy, the Duke’s piper,” as local legend would have it. Have you seen Titanic? The tune the musicians played as the ship went down is called “Jimmy Allan.” But we have no definitive compositions in his name. The official documents, Pickard tells us, boil down to mentions in the Book of Deserters and the criminal records of the National Archives: he was fond of taking recruitment money from militias and then absconding with it, or, alternately, stealing horses. It was for this latter crime that he was finally caught, tried, and sentenced to death in 1803. The sentence was commuted to transportation, but his ill health saved him instead for a damp death in a cell above the River Wear in Durham, in 1810, aged seventy-seven. The idea of this rogue musician of almost supernatural gifts — whose larcenies were committed for survival, not accumulation, as Pickard points out — has incarnations all over the globe, I’d bet (ours is Robert Johnson).
Pickard’s identification with Allan is acute. From his own sliver- thin memoir, More Pricks Than Prizes, we know that he spent some time in jail awaiting trial on a charge of drug smuggling. As a laborer, Pickard experienced the recession at ground level. We hear of unemployment, picket lines, child support, utilities cut off for non-payment. He was in love with a woman from Warsaw; he needed the money if he was ever going to see her again. Then — busted. Friends in high places, including Wing Commander Basil Bunting, probably saved him from doing hard time (shades of Jamie Allan here too, whose patrons saved him from the death penalty). But finally it is the identification with the fells, the borderlands, that provides the lyric charge that leaps the distance between eighteenth-century Northumberland and twenty-first century Newcastle.
How does a lyric poet specializing in short, intense, affective images turn himself into a storyteller whose essential job is to dispense narrative information? Pickard does it with a modular approach — weaving short bursts of prose and poetry, free verse and balladry, private soliloquy and public testimony. “Information” provides the supposed facts, themselves a kind of poetry crossed with the rhetoric of the deposition:
Peter Kemp of Cavill, his Information13th day of Janue. 1694.about Christmas last hee had a tenshillinge and piece of gooldtaken out of his Chestand that within this four or five dayshee had ten in goold and fortie shillings in monietaken outt of his chambereand that hee found his Goold and silverwith Robt Allan.Robt Allan, his Information13th day of Janue. 1694.martinmass last hee was looking for some of his Linninin Petter Kemps chesthee found a tenn shillings pece of gooldand that yesterday morn being the twelfthhee looking for kecksunder Petter Kemps bedfound a purse with monie in itt butthow much there washee knew nott.
So many unanswered questions here — Who is speaking? Who are these men to each other? (This is 1694, so we’re not contemporaneous with Jamie Allan yet.) Then we jump more than a century to the night Jamie Allan dies:
Beneath a bridge that spans the river
a low wind invades his cell
and withers the thin afternoon light.
Jamie Allan is seventy-seven years old and dying.
The wind smells of the Wear, sprays rain on the wall
and growls with an insistent swither.
He pulls a ragged blanket close,
leaving an ear exposed to the crack.
Chaff flatters the rats.
— From Durham Lockup
The chronology may have leaped a century, but the language has leaped three; this diction is Pickard’s modern one, fusing author and subject’s identities across time. Language itself is a character in the story, perhaps the closest thing we have to an omniscient one, containing all time and history, obfuscating and revealing at whim. Where the same tale, told cinematically, would require flashback within flashback, the idea of “flashback” makes no sense here — there is no stable point of view; as Pound claimed, all times are contemporaneous. Anachronism is just another musical mode. Slowly, as we proceed through the poem, we will find out the answers to some questions, but not others; we will toggle between various characters and witness Jamie from many different angles; we will hear eighteenth-century English and twenty-first century English, metered and unmetered, of varied diction; and we will occasionally see Pickard the Geordie Catullus peeking through, like an actor letting the mask slip at moments of crisis:
come with me oh come with mecome with me my darlingthe berries are red the thorns are sharpand the corbies are craawingdon’t send me out don’t cut me downdon’t exile me my darlingthe thorns turn red kill the blossom deadand the tethered wind is snarlingthere is a hawthorn by a wallthat looks down to the valleyits berries are red its thorns are sharpit’s where we said we’d marryits berries are red its blossom is whiteand the hail makes sharp weatherwithout her now I’ll make my bedin the bleeding heather— From Hawthorne
The ars poetica that emerges from The Ballad of Jamie Allan encompasses the themes that have preoccupied Pickard since his first book, which can perhaps be boiled down to the simple question of freedom — the freedom of wine, women, and song, sure, but also freedom to work as needed and not particularly for gain. What is free love and its relation to free verse? Is love a gift; is the ability to write lyric a gift? Is it work, and is it like the work that one must do to survive? Who is the local authority (and why); what the cosmic authority? What is the past? In the process of circling — or cycling — through this collection, going back to the beginning from the end, I find this earlier poem, “A Sense of History”:
along the banks of the Tyneto look for driftwooddawnmist over waterthe great stone railway bridgewith blackened archesa couple, pensioners,— bent and stiff —scrape the dry earthwith wire sticksthey hack hard clarts collectingsmall coal slack almostcaked in frozen mudand clay
— and suddenly it seems there is no real chronology in Pickard’s work; his various modes were always already in place, from the erotic and invective poems to these musically dense descriptive snapshots. The anonymity that pervades his style is both tribal and intimate, to borrow from Seamus Heaney — an unlikely poetic sibling, but not unsimpatico, as syllable-hewing time traveling goes.
So many echoes from English literature resound in these poems. The tale they tell of a community imbricated with an unforgiving landscape has been told through the ages, from the anonymous bard of “The Wanderer” to Shakespeare to Brontë to Hardy. That Pickard comes at it from below, from Newcastle and not Oxbridge, probably has a significance that we can’t begin to fathom on this side of the pond. The orphan, young husband and father, laborer, who blasted invective at the local arts council and “toady poets who sit in circles blowing prizes / up each other’s arseholes with straws” names his collected poems and songs “hoyoot,” a Geordie word which manages to elude the internet. According to Jeremy Noel-Tod, reviewing the book in the Sunday Times, it means “to make redundant or ‘to throw coins from a bridal car.’” To think of these brief, intense poems as small change tossed thusly, while Pickard speeds away in pursuit of Life like some hero from Pasternak, has a paradoxical effect: I treasure them.
Ange Mlinko was born in Philadelphia and earned her BA from St. John's College and MFA from Brown University. She is the author of five books of poetry: Distant Mandate (2017); Marvelous Things Overheard (2013), which was selected by both the New Yorker and the Boston Globe as a best book of...