ON THE BACK OF THE ELEPHANT: Riding with Charles Olson, by Iain Sinclair

“Anonymous Bosch sent me this photo, from one of our walks, of the proof cover of ‘American Smoke’.”

proof cover of 'American Smoke

proof cover of ‘American Smoke by Anonymous Bosch

“Here is the transcript of a talk I gave at Canterbury (University of Kent). It’s about Charles Olson, but I hope it also fills in some of the background of ‘American Smoke'”

— Iain Sinclair


Riding with Charles Olson

By Iain Sinclair


I have a theory by which I try, but fail, to live: which is that at this stage in life I don’t want to go anywhere I can’t walk. And this presented problems when I was exploring America, which I’ve been doing for a book I’ve been working on, and that I’m still working on, and which I’ll be drawing into this discourse: a book called American Smoke: Journeys to the End of the Light. What it’s about is the fact that when I began, when I was firing up my first enthusiasms in the early 1960s, I was captured by the figure of Charles Olson and the whole Black Mountain School of writers. Earlier, as a schoolboy, I’d become engrossed in Kerouac, by way of a chance gift of that gaudy paperback original, Maggie Cassidy. I hadn’t appreciated that these legendary beings lived a short drive away from each other in that same early-settled corner of the New World.  Lowell and Gloucester are geographically close, they’re working cities engaged in very different kinds of work: one a mill town on a powerful river, the Merrimack, and the other a historically important fishing port.

The two figures, alive and dead, haunted me. I think now of the title of a late poem by Ed Dorn: The Deceased are the Travellers Among Us. And as an extension of that provocative notion, a phrase from The Undiscovered Country by Carl Watkins: ‘The soul in purgatory was a traveller passing through, not a permanent resident.’ Olson and Kerouac would argue over the implications of residence and mobility, the great American neurosis about the daunting scale of the place where they found themselves, between Atlantic Ocean and the always difficult but seductive draw of the West. I was fascinated by the notion of the bad journey, towards Mexico or Alaska, volcano or ghost town from the Californian gold rush.  So I kept returning to that little mustard-yellow booklet put out in England by Cape Goliard Press in 1969: ‘West’. ‘Men are only known in memory,’ Olson says. At the conclusion of the adventure of any expedition, physical or in language, there must be a resolving image. In this Olson poem, it’s a beauty.


one lone Indian

      fishing in the river at the bottom of

      the Barranca del cobre

The mentoring by our elected forefathers is significant. David Herd has mentioned the book called Lud Heat, published by my own small press in 1975. Here, at the time of a period of employment as a gardener in the riverside reaches of East London, was my crude attempt to register an allegiance to Olson. The book opens with a tag from Yeats: ‘The living can assist the imagination of the dead.’  Which became my working credo. I was cutting the grass around Hawksmoor churches and plotting alignments between significant London buildings, seeing the streams of history as a plural entity rather than as a series of laminated notice-boards copywritten by hacks for the benefit of dubious political and sub-civic entities.

I should make it clear at the start of this talk that I’ll be guided by Olsonian principles, which is to say I’m going to digress, professionally, by intention, one image following directly on the heels of another. But, unlike Olson, I won’t go on for four hours or four days, that’s the only difference. Draw breath and strike out, sink or swim. Follow the figure of the dance, as David Herd has identified it: between the force fields of physiology and geo-politics.


London’s an odd place just now, and coming onto the road, to find my way to Canterbury, is launching into another hallucinatory trip. Keeping an eye on traffic, on stalled civil engineering projects, and rehearsing what I might, usefully, say, I listened to a CD provided by Colin Still.  It was a CD of Black Mountain poet Ed Dorn and he’s reading Idaho Out. So here you have a beatific superimposition of English roads and the madness of escaping traffic and warnings of winds as you cross the bridge over the Medway — and, at the same time, this live voice with its astringent and witty take on the politics of being in America. And again, it’s worth remarking, the recordings were made by English enthusiasts. The book from which the readings are taken is published in London by Dr Stuart Montgomery’s very useful Fulcrum Press. ‘History has always seemed to me lying right on the table,’ Dorn says.  Here are poems about the inauguration of Johnson, poems about the landscape of Idaho, the Shoshone, all of these things in play. Howard Hughes appearing in Gunslinger. It’s disorientating to know that you can be following the classic English pilgrimage route to Canterbury voiced by a kindly ghost sitting alongside you, recalling his days venturing into Kent.  ‘Slightly disappointed,’ Dorn wrote, ‘from thence to Croydon.’ There were once proper transatlantic bridges on offer. In the 1960s, we were fortunate that writers like Dorn and Tom Clark were based in Colchester at Essex University; poets like Andrew Crozier and John Temple were going to Buffalo; there were proper exchanges.


My instinct, having worked through that engagement with local sub-cultures and topographies, and the tramp around London’s orbital motorway, was to step right away and in my old age, my biblical allotment of years rapidly approaching, to go back –- or to make an imaginative return, if such a thing is possible, to the sites I had been reading about in fugitive magazines and booklets. Gloucester, Massachusetts, was as fabulous as Homer’s Troy; it was a familiar mystery not an achievable bus stop. Now, by the accident of launching out on a new book, I was there. Physically. In October rain. I was staying in a writer’s hut that had formerly been occupied by the poet Vincent Ferrini, the person to whom Olson addresses the Maximus sequence by way of an impassioned correspondence. ‘Write to me,’ he ordered, ‘and tell me how my streets are.’ Already he is laying claim to the territory of the poem. He’s not even in Gloucester, the first Maximus poems are coming out of Black Mountain College. Ferrini is embedded in the fishing town, he’s working as a picture framer. I think his marriage has broken up.  He’s lodged in a small roadside hut, a step away from the harbour. For a couple of weeks, I must live with this man’s leather hat on the wall, with all of his books and CDs, with the actual heat and smell of his presence;  how the guy moved through the tight space, how he slept on this bed and went over to the kitchen and the bathroom. There were also a lot of photographs and blackboard scribblings related to Olson, so I experience a double hit that is overwhelming. The ghosts do argue: the rough demotic of the street and the high cast of Olson’s ever-expanding mythology. Under a low roof, in a site of complete specificity, the starry ceiling of Olson’s over-reach is present. The sound of those Camel cigarettes, as Dorn reports, being whaled at a gulp.

And then I realized that what Olson was working toward was the idea of the chart: if you saw the room where he lived in Gloucester, in Fort Square, the wall was covered with maps,  poems, false starts, picture postcards. Prompts and potentialities. Dead ends. A demonstration, before his own eyes, of the theory of open field poetics. The sifting of hard evidence. You have to make the jump back to Kerouac, his notebooks, the scroll he produced for On the Road (which is being exhibited just now in the British Library). An enormous teletype roll, taped together, no paragraph breaks, real names for characters. This relic is a virtual road; a map of simultaneity with everything happening at once, like a Chinese painting from the museum in Seattle. A form of paper cinema much closer to Kerouac’s primary intention that the recent fancy travelogue by Walter Salles, that abortive and posthumous translation of the big book. Blocks of hot type become a flowing river. There is no room to fake anything. The dynamic carries you tight against the margin. Kerouac starts firing out ellipses like Céline, to keep up – in a way approved by Olson – with the pace of thought. The author disappears into the text. Publication aborts the purity of the original form and brings a level of fame and intrusion that Kerouac is incapable of handling. He dies of celebrity, a few inches from a 24-hour TV set in Florida retirement, before he reaches the age of fifty. In his mother’s house.


I have to start by trying to shape this Gloucester interlude as a classic Olsonian journey, a push out from the shore and then a turn back to land. If the two movements of The Maximus Poems are that: the first volume, looking at the sea, dedicated to the ‘figure of outward’, Robert Creeley, and examining the economics of the fishing trade; then the second sweep coming back into Gloucester itself, the condition of coast having an ambiguous status, between the infinity of ocean and the density of the land and its histories.

I’m going to do something about Dogtown, which is this area behind the settlement of Gloucester, now a scatter of glacial erratics mixed with the ruins of the original villages, the cellar holes and debris of an attempt to dig in. An extraordinary and haunting place of which I formed no true picture from my earlier reading.  American Smoke is about a halting excursion into my own youth, my enthusiasms, my invented geographies. And the figures who inhabit those places.

I start where I want to finish. And I’ll give you the key. I want to read that Olson poem,  ‘MAXIMUS FROM DOGTOWN – II’, which comes from Maximus IV, V, VI. I think what is important to have in mind is what Jeremy Prynne talked about in a lecture in 1971 at Simon Fraser University; it stops you short, the idea that Maximus is a simple poem coming from a complicated man. How does he put it? ‘The poem is simple, but the life it came out of, and the pre-occupations that surround it, immeasurably dense and confused and packed with a kind of fertile obscurity.’ And the notion really is that life, as the thing that we’ve given, that ribbon of being, is an allegory – which is how Tom Clark pitches it in his biography of Olson. A large and potent myth. A novel using the elements of a man’s history creatively, balancing research against memory and improvisation. With all the attendant risks. Olson quotes this from Keats: ‘Man’s life of any worth is a continuous allegory’. He’s actively looking for the metaphor and he’s also paying his respects, his love, to the place where he happens to have come to ground.  This is ‘MAXIMUS FROM DOGTOWN – II’, just hold it as a chart of things that we will try to connect up later.


the Sea – turn yr Back on

the Sea, go inland, to

Dogtown: the Harbor


the shore the City

are now

shitty, as the Nation


is – the World




And again that later passage…


the greater the water you add

the greater the decomposition

so long as the agent is protein

the carbon of four is the corners


in stately motion to sing in high bitch voices the fables

of wood and stone and man and woman loved


and loving in the snow

and sun

                         the weather


on Dogtown

is protogonic but the other side of heaven

is Ocean




That is so strong and so direct in its terms, you can see how Olson loves signs and shapes. How he responds to Mayan glyphs, spends time in Yucatan trying to find a language that’s also a mark of energy. Olson contrives his theory of what he calls ‘Projective Verse’ as a strike at the physicality of writing which is also a measured defence of his own practice. Kerouac composes, in a sort of neighbourly rivalry, his own Essentials of Spontaneous Prose: you must not revise or self-censor. Let it pour, image following image, through the draw of breath. Although, when I was in the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center in Austin, Texas, I saw Kerouac’s work journal at the time of the composition of On the Road, from in the late 1940s, and he’s counting how many words he’s done a day and he’s revising and agonising and weighing up, even though the actual composition when it comes is a great rush — fuelled, as it apparently was, by copious infusions of caffeine. There is that kind of remorseless, look-no-hands, surging torrential aspect to it. Kerouac feels that he must try to incorporate everything. He’s noticing and connecting and digressing and consciously repeating himself, building up a rhythm: like and utterly unlike Olson. Olson said at one point that Kerouac was the finest writer in America. And Kerouac for his part was jealous of Olson’s scholarship, his academic status, the fact that this large man has been able to take on the town of Gloucester and create a mythology of place in a way that Jack wants to do with Lowell but never quite pulls off. Kerouac, through sentiment, and sensory recall, is closer to someone like Dylan Thomas. His recasting of Lowell in Dr Sax is a haunted memoir of childhood, in which the industrial town is personalised, made into a sump of origin and immigration and gothic shadows.


What Olson thinks of as history is the amniotic fluid through which he’s swimming and struggling. He is a person who, unlike Kerouac, has actually been positioned in the body of political life of America. He starts out and he’s teaching at Harvard. He actually tutors the Kennedy boys and finds Jack dim. He can’t see what they’re doing there, I mean they turn up at Harvard with manservants. They do a little swimming and hire somebody to fudge their term papers. Then Olson is in Washington working for the Democrats: he knows how the system operates. And, when he’s in Washington, he takes the opportunity to visit the disgraced Ezra Pound who is locked away in the asylum at St. Elizabeth’s for all those years.  He makes regular visits and debates the form and reach of the modernist epic: how far back you need to go, beyond the Greeks. More significantly, and this is the breaking point, there is the collision with Pound’s rancid prejudices. And then Olson goes down to Florida where he’s spending time in a property once occupied by Ernest Hemingway.  He’s writing his book on Melville and Moby-Dick, Call Me Ishmael, which uses some spectacular original research. He digs out the volumes that were in Melville’s library, he deciphers annotations. He makes a number of major discoveries. And, by way of this activity, is invited to meet John Huston in Hollywood, to hold discussions about a potential Moby Dick film. Huston is quite enthusiastic and they get as far as floating a model whale in the studio tank. Unfortunately, it keeps sinking. Jack Warner, who’s on holiday in the south of France, comes back and says: ‘Kill the fucking fish’. And that was the end of that. Seven years later Moby Dick does get made, but now the screenplay is by Ray Bradbury, the science fiction writer, and Olson is gone. Olson is connected in all these ways.

The push is towards Sacramento, and the idea of the West, the gold fields. ‘I was writing,’ Olson said, ‘about the distance between Sacramento and the old old West.’ Which was, as he read it, one of the crucial American themes or stories.  So it’s not just the Gloucester voyage of the fishing fleets and the colonists, out into ocean, there’s the push west; the fact of unknowable space.


In the mid-60s, Olson comes to London with the notion of getting himself to Dorchester, in the West Country, to research John White and the impetus behind the founding of the settlement in Gloucester. He wanted to look at mercantile records in the museum. This is where the Olson biography intersects, in a very accidental way, with my own: he was staying in the house of a wealthy patron of the arts, a lively and interesting woman called Panna Grady. She had taken this house on Hanover Terrace, alongside Regent’s Park. Olson, a former lover, had been upstairs for several months, beached and restless. Now Allen Ginsberg and his small entourage occupied the summerhouse. In July 1967, I turned up at the door, a very youthful and innocent figure, to ask Ginsberg if he would be part of a film I’d been commissioned to do about the Dialectics of Liberation at the Roundhouse in Camden. I’m having this preliminary conversation with no knowledge of Olson’s relation with the house and with Panna Grady. I don’t find that out until much later. I only set eyes on Olson one time, in the Queen Elizabeth Hall, where he’s reading with Stephen Spender and Auden and all those people, and he refuses to go down onto the stage. He sitting up in the audience, and he happens to sit right alongside me. The person next to me says, ‘You can’t leave him in the aisle, give him your chair.’ So I get up. We only exchange two or three words: that was our only engagement in this life. And of course he is led down to the stage, reluctantly, and he reads. He doesn’t like this reading because it is too formal, not open-ended. He stumbles and starts a number of times.

While he’s with Panna Grady in London, he has conversations with Ginsberg, and also with Burroughs, who visits the Hanover Terrace house. There is a tremendous interchange of energies, a testing of ideas. Olson says that history’s over, because he has come to that point, he’s using the term post-modernism before anyone else — but it’s not that ironic thing, like eggcups on TV studio roofs. It’s not the modernism of Pound and Eliot; he’s gone beyond that. Ginsberg and the Beats are fascinated. What Olson is proposing is another form of activity called ‘istorin, which is what you can find for yourself: the history of any event is how you came to this room, how you think, what you bring with you, all of that. Ginsberg gave me his understanding of those conversations with Olson.

Olson declared that history was ended – in the sense that what we know of history is only what we know of images left behind. Those images were an abstraction from the actual event, so history was just another poem, as interpreted by those poets, some of them bum poets, who happened to be around. And now there has been a change of consciousness – to include event as part of the abstraction of history. And electronic eavesdropping equipment, now in its primitive stage, will ultimately develop so that anybody can tune in on the president, can get into his bathroom through laser beams. Which means that all secrets are out.


So there we were with Charles Olson and his special sense of history, spreading right out, infiltrating English culture — and at the same time as this, extraordinarily, the English poet who is our leading Olsonian of the period, and who is supplying Olson with research materials and helping with the editing and sourcing of Maximus, Jeremy Prynne, was actually in Olson’s flat in Fort Square in Gloucester. He’s writing poems on Olson’s typewriter. So you have fertile conjunctions going on without anybody being really aware of it. The visit to Olson is a rite of passage for young English poets of a particular dispensation. But, spiritually, emotionally, Olson is in a winter decline. He’s back in Gloucester but the world around him has changed, and continues to change; the fishing industry is in decline, the economic bite is already visible. Can audiences be found for the great poem of place he’s struggling to deliver?


Ed Dorn has this beautiful statement: ‘Only writers are real.’ Of course I agree, completely, and I think the world is dividing into zones where writers are real because they have been condemned by some Faustian contract into brokering discriminations of love in the world — while other enclosed and invaded zones are given over to politicians promoting non-human entities, CGI terrains fit only for cyber-people. The public men are so smooth, they’ve trained themselves to absorb consensus, the opinions of others. They have no morality of their own, beyond immediate gratification. They are weeping and apologising for everything that’s nothing to do with them, anything that’s happened twenty or thirty years ago. They’ll apologise for the War of the Roses and the Black Death but ignore Iraq and Afghanistan. Olson is locked away in his cabin in Gloucester, in Fort Square; a community of Portuguese fisherman looking out over a working harbour. It is limbo for both men, Olson and Kerouac, and for America, when they do finally contrive a meeting.


Olson was avid for conversation, the audience that Kerouac could never be. They held the door open and Jack crawled from the car. There were newspapers spread up the slippery steps, a welcome mat for a literary cardinal. The Lowell writer was trampling over one of those sneering Boston reviews and he took it as an intended insult. The night never picked up. Olson had been known to keep young poets, across from England, probably Cambridge, trapped for forty-eight hours while he pounded them with metaphors, poetry and truth. He finished the bottle. He dry swallowed psilocybin buttons from the cache Leary gave him, a container the size of one of those old-fashioned confectioner’s jars. Pink pills: peanuts. Sweaty excitement fed by the evident intelligence and attentive respect of the willing victim, now groggy, green-white, punchdrunk. He sucked them dry, husked them, striding to the window, then back across the steamy room, temperature cranked to tropical hothouse by the blue flare of the gas stove. Shirt soaked. Gripping the rim of the table. That mesmerising voice seemed to come now from all corners of the room at once as the formerly-young man crawls towards the distant exit, the dangerous steps. ‘The world has moved,’ he reported, ‘in another context, on.’



What Olson learnt above everything else was his own sort of negative capability: to be able to live in your flaws and with your flaws. But he didn’t do what William Carlos Williams, one of the modernist figures he most admired, wanted him to do: he called his great work The Maximus Poems and not Gloucester, in the way that Williams called his book Paterson. Williams missed the point. Olson chose the figure of Maximus because he was completely taken by the idea of size and scale; he wanted something bigger than life, a figure he could relate to Gilgamesh and Samson, to Odysseus and the idea of the eternal voyage. They were all questing for verifiable evidence, combing records and charts, to underpin Homer, Hesiod and Herodotus. They wanted to know what Venetian sailors were reporting, as eyewitnesses, of unexplored coastlines. The nature of the Homeric voyage is that it is made from fits and starts; it goes out, it stops, it halts, it winds back, it picks up at another point in the narrative, it trespasses into the land of the dead – and then, finally, it is permitted to return home: this great arc of homecoming that is the shape Prynne refers to in his talk at Simon Fraser. He says that Maximus is made from two movements, both leading to the revelation that the curvature of the universe is love. All of these late-modernist projects are, at base, about that.


I’m going to round off now by getting to the rocks of Dogtown. I have to get to those rocks. We’ve had the first movement to the sea and out. Now we must come behind the city to the place of rocks. I really had no sense of it until I got there and began to walk among those tracks and boulders. Dogtown is a labyrinth, you get lost in no time at all. It’s a place to wander and to disappear. Carved into the rocks are texts.  One of Olson’s most striking Maximus figures is James Merry, the handsome sailor who wrestles with a young bull. By accident or design, in the middle of my wanderings, I came upon that stone.


To have a destination, I settled on the clearing where the handsome sailor, James Merry, fought a young bull, and was gored, tossed, trampled. Self-sacrificed to his own vanity. And drunkenness. An episode of great fascination for Charles Olson, who addresses it in the Dogtown poems of Maximus. ‘The bios/ of nature in this/ park of eternal/ events.’

Now, with trails branching off, left and right, I found myself in the place I needed to be. Green-white lichen on a  stone beside the path. Letters cut, shallow declivities repainted in red: JAS. MERRY DIED SEPTEMBER 1892. The confirmation of the poem, first read so many years ago, so far away; as myth or fable, like the Mabinogion, now fact. I stood in the clearing with its alien grass, like hair or mattress stuffing, summoning the sound of the bull.

When Olson came to Dogtown with Sanders, he was wrecked, afloat on bourbon and the leftovers of the Leary experiment in his medicine cupboard, a fistful of psilocybin ‘peanuts’ and a bottle of LSD. ‘Twenty million micrograms,’ Sanders said. ‘Enough for Manhattan.’ Olson creeps along in a battered station wagon, ferrying the boys to the Panna Grady house. Sanders (a classicist) envisions him as Poseidon. That greasy sailor’s mane held in place with a rubber band. Ed is downloading, through involuntary chemical rushes, the Lovecraft nightmare of Gloucester’s inhabitants as part-fish; mutating in front of his bulging red-rimmed eyes. Cold blooded Puritan creatures with gills-in-the-throat. Ocean returnees, reverse evolutionists. The future recorder, through The Family, of the Charles Manson dune buggy madness, wanders off into the serpentine trails of Dogtown; where he is found and rescued by the police in the early hours of the morning. He is wearing his stage outfit, an all-red suit.



It was a voyage, an amazing voyage for me. A year ago, coming into it, coming off the back of my own cod-Homeric voyage, the absurdity of taking a swan pedalo from Hastings, the swan lake by the funfair, round to Rye, then by river to the Medway, from the Medway to the Thames, then back to London. So this was kind of a lunatic English homage to the  Olsonian voyage I am trying to describe, the over-reach. And it was always in my mind that as soon as I came ashore, I would be heading off to Gloucester. It took four weeks to reach the mouth of the River Lea and it was the perfect preparation.

And then, quite suddenly, I’m in the Writer’s Center, this roadside shack in Gloucester, and there is a DVD, a film that Vincent Ferrini’s nephew, Henry, made about Olson. It’s got John Malkovich reading sections from Maximus, all kinds of strange connections, but the real punch arrives at the end as one of the extra features. Olson, quite roughly documented, in the Fort Square room, reading the poem I read to you at the beginning. And this was absolutely mesmerising and lifted everything from the theoretical pitch I’m making to a different register. You witness the man, the energy of him as he grasps his own poem; the practical demonstration of projective verse, the full body reading. I’ll finish just with a couple of lines on that:


The only way to properly experience Olson was to watch one of the extra features on Henry Ferrini’s DVD. The poet, caught sweatily close, mammal head lolling and rocking, reads ‘The Cow of Dogtown’ from Maximus IV, V, VI. I could have attempted this without leaving Hackney. But having absorbed a little of the weather of place, the poet’s performance hit with new force. In his Fort Square apartment, up against a wall of maps and photographs, Olson is, absolutely, in flow of inspiration. The balletic precision in the waving and signalling of arms as he conducts this torrent of words, at varying pace, cigarette stub pinched flat between finger and thumb. I never witnessed such a thing, such naked delivery. The gathering together of geological particulars, and the processing of technical terms into the energy field of the poem, was what I wanted from Gloucester.

Nothing more than that, he taught us how to read. The gossip of slack biography is impertinence. The man lives in language. He knows just how to end a passage, arms flung wide, as he brings ‘Maximus from Dogtown – II’ into harbour. What is broken and fragmentary on the page coheres. A secret formula. ‘Heart to be turned to Black/ Stone/ is the throne of Creation.’ The other side of heaven, for Charles Olson, after Dogtown, is the ocean. I play Ferrini’s film again. And again. And again. I love the way Olson says carbon.








Ed Dorn. Westward Haut. Etruscan Books. 2012.

Dorn. Idaho Out. Fulcrum Press, 1965.

Jack Kerouac. Maggie Cassidy. Panther, 1960.

Kerouac. On the Road. New York, 1957.

Kerouac. Dr Sax. New York, 1959.

Charles Olson. ‘West’. Cape Goliard Press, 1966.

Olson. Maximus Poems IV, V, VI. Cape Goliard Press, 1968.

Olson. Call me Ishmael. New York, 1947.

Iain Sinclair. American Smoke: Journeys to the End of the Light. Hamish Hamilton. Tbp 2013.

Sinclair. Lud Heat: A Book of the Dead Hamlets. Albion Village Press, 1975.

Sinclair. The Kodak Mantra Diaries. Albion Village Press, 1972.

Carl Watkins. The Undiscovered Country: Journeys Among the Dead. Bodley Head, 2013.





Henry Ferrini, Ken Riaf (dir). Polis is This: Charles Olson & the Persistence of Place. 2010.

John Huston (dir.) Moby Dick. 1956.

Robert Klinkert, Iain Sinclair. Ah Sunflower! Allen Ginsberg in London. 1967.

Andrew Kötting (dir.) Swandown. 2012.

Walter Salles (dir.) On the Road. 2012.





From the London Review of Books: “Diary” by Iain Sinclair

Iain notes from the days of the Olympics.

“The quiver of sharp-nosed rockets in the Rapier missile battery lurched and aimed with a robotic motion.”

Published on LRB 30/08/2012




What any competition designed to promote literature, regional interest or corporate sponsorship, is really doing is judging the judges. I’ve been there. And I know how uneasy it makes me feel to elevate one author above the other runners, all of whom have different qualities, different approaches. There is no right answer. In making a choice you are, inevitably, going to get it wrong. You are agreeing to compare electricity with nougat, coal with margarine.

The lift of being nominated for a prize, the rush of excitement that comes with the realisation that somebody has actually read your book, with care and consideration, rapidly plunges into a complex slew of emotions. Being shortlisted is a way of exposing yourself to a more public failure. Now the chances are, 9/1, that you will be known to a wider readership, a live audience, as a recidivist loser. You may indeed, for an event as grand as the Booker, have to become part of a television spectacle, the last supper of mainstream fiction. Predatory cameras stare while you gnaw, dry-mouthed, on rubber chicken, waiting for the bad news. And preparing to look brave, supportive of the person who walks away with your cheque.

But the ‘Wales Book of the Year’ is different. I was born in Cardiff during the Second War and left, almost immediately, for Maesteg. My mother’s family, my grandparents and the great-aunts among whom I grew up, were Welsh speaking. My father and his father before him were doctors, GPs in the Valleys. I drifted to London, as so many do, in my early twenties, settling in Hackney. Where I have stayed. Same borough, same house. With the underlying conviction that London is workable, as soon as you accept that it is a Celtic city, a branch line of the Mabinogion. Defensive walls were set around the buried head of the giant Bran at Tower Hill. The true mythology of London was, as the great poet/painter David Jones proved, at root Welsh.

I feel honoured to have that link acknowledged by the shortlisting of a book that responds to recent enclosures, grand projects, surveillance systems. Themes as pertinent to Cardiff Bay as to the Isle of Dogs. To anywhere opting to use the word ‘marina’ instead of dock or harbour.

And that is the only advice I can offer: respect locality. From those minute particulars, the universe will stand revealed in all its mysteries.


—Iain Sinclair

The Man in the Clearing. Iain Sinclair meets Gary Snyder. From LRB

“A piece I wrote on my visit to Gary Snyder is being published in the next issue of the London Review of Books (24 May). I have also recorded it as a podcast. It has been titled: The Man in the Clearing. I believe that it can be accessed without charge on their website.”

Iain Sinclair

The article has just been posted on the LRB website

No sign of the podcast yet.

“Night Thoughts: The Surreal Life of the Poet David Gascoyne by Robert Fraser – review” from The Guardian

Iain reviews the book “Night Thoughts: The Surreal Life of the Poet David Gascoyne” by Robert Fraser on the Guardian, 30/03/2012:


Night Thoughts: The Surreal Life of the Poet David Gascoyne by Robert Fraser – review | Books | The Guardian

The Isle of Wight is different. And though it stands within teasing sight of the mainland, jagged needles of white rock trouble the casual visitor, making that small separation feel like a tide of rising panic, the nagging anxiety of a road that is too empty; retirement houses and curtained bungalows so self-contained they speak of thunderhead psychoses, imminent breakdown. Coming here in 1995 to record David Gascoyne for a poetry event at the Royal Albert Hall, when he didn’t have the stamina to join Allen Ginsberg, Sorley MacLean and Paul McCartney, my companion said: “This is like finding yourself in a Look at Life film. Being trapped in the 50s when they started to use colour but didn’t know what to do with it.” The island, once a gulag for the extended mourning of Queen Victoria and her shaggy laureate, Alfred Tennyson, uses the glittering sea lanes between Ryde and Portsmouth as a manifestation of that difference: as between poetry and prose, elective exile and the humdrum business of ordinary mainland existence.

The legend of how Gascoyne was brought back from the dead, to be given a last act of domesticity and a measure of grudging cultural acknowledgement is reprised in Robert Fraser’s painstaking biography. Here was a fragile personality, a premature revenant, on the fringe of all the movements. An autodidact blessed like his peers – Dylan Thomas, George Barker, David Jones – in avoiding a university miseducation. A convinced internationalist (last wave of high modernism in Paris, first wave of speed-freak meltdown in the US), Gascoyne was the poets’ poet, subsisting on the wrong kind of patronage: the patronising reviews of Stephen Spender rather than the munificence of Joycean benefactors, adulating Left Bank paymistresses and New York manuscript collectors. A tall, thin, nicely spoken lad, gone in the teeth, sexually unfocused, in thrall to the dangerous virus of language, Gascoyne, the former Salisbury choirboy, travelled the blacked-out cities and hamlets of wartime England as a jobbing repertory actor, when the other bright young men were away in uniform.

In the complex progress uncovered by Fraser, Gascoyne’s history becomes a witnessed romance of manners and slights, a landscape in which cold biographical facts are converted into metaphors of questing vision, delirium, breakdown. The gaberdine England of slow trains, drowned fields, damp boarding houses, clamps the poet in a stifling embrace. Gascoyne is a cross-channel man, an importer of surrealism and a compulsive tourist in painters’ studios. “Is it true that you actually knew Max Ernst?” demands a persistent interviewer, stalking the poet’s stair-lift retreat, on the outskirts of Newport. “Knew him? I had him over the back of a grand piano in 1926.”

Fraser’s fable of a poet’s life, the impossibility of that role in a society that has no use for it, moves chronologically, set piece by set piece, through the decades of the last century. Gascoyne was born in 1916 and died just after the new millennium. He grew up in a female-dominated household – his father away at war – and in a setting that provided the ideal preparation for his later engagement with surrealism. The Cartesian weirdness of Magritte translates effortlessly into the community of women at Harrow in which Gascoyne lived for his first few years. (Harrow was where another troubled seeker-poet, David Jones, made his long retreat, turning his room into a version of a first world war trench, heaped with books, papers, pens and prayers.)

Winifred Emery, Gascoyne’s mother, came from an established theatrical dynasty. As a young woman, she was in the private lake of WS Gilbert (of Savoy Opera fame) when she found herself struggling, out of her depth. Gilbert, trying to reach her, slid beneath the surface and drowned. Also in the bathing party was Ruby Preece, who later changed her name to Patricia, before becoming a student at the Slade and captivating the painter Stanley Spencer, with whom she lived in spectacular disharmony in Cookham. Such are the collisions and coincidences of sociocultural intercourse on our small island. And Fraser is diligent in highlighting them.

Without labouring the thesis, he manages to suggest that Gascoyne’s lifelong interest in conspiracy, covert sexuality, the occult, is an extension of the rituals and disguises of London suburbia. Poems, on the edge of self-erasure, fret over the impulse that pushes them towards publication and exposure. The visionary poet, a Christian existentialist, was prolific in his silences. He contrived enough white space for others to mythologise a consistently aborted career. He traded in the distance between his own reluctant muse and the conviction and swagger of the great ones he sought out, echoed and honoured.

The tension, when Fraser draws on the Paris journals, is palpable; at times this biography is a form of channelled ventriloquism, a paraphrasing of Gascoyne’s private letters to himself. English poets have been defined by crumbling mouths and the inability to drive. Think of old Auden shuffling around Oxford in carpet slippers, his trenched stocking-mask face a microwaved photograph of ruined youth. Think of Dylan Thomas, in a New York bar, covering his rictal grin with a damp cigarette and a cheekful of boiled sweets. Persistent toothache, as much as boredom and dread, brought Gascoyne to his drug habit: the destructive quest for a form of reverse alchemy, glitter to mush, as he peeled the innards of the benzedrine sulphate inhalers that came in gold-coloured cylinders. Amphetamine psychosis fired the motors, fuelling the poet on nocturnal walks through the city, but brought him to sleeplessness, stalled inspiration, voices in the head. After a manic episode, breaking into the Elysée Palace to warn De Gaulle of the coming apocalypse, Gascoyne was institutionalised, and spent years drifting between impoverished retreat and melancholy incarceration, one of the nameless reforgotten.

Biography, which is part of the process of resurrection for a reputation, comes in three forms: as a commissioned text by a strategic bounty hunter, as a book catalogue (market value), or in the poet’s own words – the story as he wanted to deliver it. Gascoyne’s rescue, his return to life in the suburban house on the Isle of Wight, was brokered by two remarkable people. Judy Lewis, a vet’s estranged wife, who read his “September Sun: 1947” to a depressed group at Whitecroft Hospital, provoked the previously mute writer to speech. “I am the poet.” “Yes, dear. I’m sure you are.” But it was true. He was the poet and it was always 1947. He became a living quotation recovered from a midden of fragments: “All our trash to cinders bring.” There was to be a notable late flowering for the willowy and disconsolate figure in the bow tie, the time traveller from the 30s. Gascoyne married Judy. He had found his loving companion and chauffeur.

The second figure in Gascoyne’s rebirth was an East Finchley bookman, Alan Clodd – dealer, publisher, collector. Clodd, grandson of Thomas Hardy’s friend and banker Edward Clodd, was the George Smiley of English letters. A hovering, owlish figure in a short white raincoat, gripping a bulging attaché case, Clodd pounced on the Gascoyne journals when they resurfaced. He excavated poems and elusive translations from libraries and locked cabinets. He understood well that bibliography offers as powerful a storyline as biography. And in this sense the catalogue of Gascoyne’s own library assembled by James Fergusson as Every Printed Page Is A Swinging Door reveals as much of the truth as Fraser’s substantial work of archaeology. Clodd, with his cancelled smile and his fastidious eye, was a private detective unpicking the past, trawling for value, and hoarding the evidence in his book-crammed museum-house.

In the last years, Judy and David became a double act. She prompted, he veered between benevolent silence and magnificent memory riffs, recalling Dr Karl Bluth who shot him up with a heady mix of ox blood and methedrine, conversations with Picasso and Dalí, sessions in New York with Ginsberg. October sunshine filtered through the branches of the cherry tree in the quiet garden, speckling a table laid with marmoreal segments of cake, as Judy trawled the photo albums. Tracking Fraser’s sympathetic biography gives us a measure of that Isle of Wight experience; reading becomes listening, all the gaps in Gascoyne’s hopping and skipping monologue are neatly filled.

Iain Sinclair’s Ghost Milk is published by Hamish Hamilton.