JULY 3, 2018
UNLIKE THEIR FRENCH or American counterparts, modernist poets of the British Isles have never been able take certain poetic virtues — freedom, energy, formal expansiveness — for granted. Rather, as Dylan Thomas recognized in “Fern Hill” (“I sang in my chains like the sea”), they are haunted by enclosures of the world and of the mind; they must somehow acknowledge the constraints of English power and tradition even as they strive to circumvent them. Think, for instance, of Thomas’s own singular take on continental symbolism and surrealism, his use of deep-time archetypes (accentual pulse, alliteration, Bardic mannerism) alongside his forward-facing international style. Encumbered by history, British modernism is driven by escape. It is everywhere defined by attempts to transfigure ancient hindrances and break through to spaces of hard-won creative freedom, with underlying despair that Establishment fetters won’t loosen entirely this side of another Civil War.
For all that, some British modernists fly so free of established strictures that it is hard to place them in surveys of contemporary poetry. Step forward Tom Pickard, whose latest work, Fiends Fell (2017) — a hybrid of prose memoir, draft fragment, and poem proper — was recently published by Flood, in an elegant edition typical of their output. Pickard has managed to evade generic pigeon-holing for more than half a century, and in his life and work he embodies a strain of militant liberation not often encountered on the British Isles. With a recent collected (Hoyoot, 2014), a suite of new material (Winter Migrants, 2016), and a sequel to Fiends Fell in the works, his spirit of independence is finally flourishing amid a remarkable outburst of productivity.
Pickard’s recent success follows many decades of wayfaring. He began with an apprenticeship in countercultural circles on the edge of what passes for literary decorum in the United Kingdom. As a working-class school dropout in the mid-’60s, inspired by rumors of Beat and Black Mountain capers, he organized the seminal Morden Tower poetry readings in Newcastle-upon-Tyne with his first wife, Connie. At roughly the same time, he met the Poundian modernist Basil Bunting, who was wilting in obscurity in the nearby countryside, and encouraged him to start writing again. With the juvenile crowd at Morden Tower acting as both sympathetic audience and communitarian muse, Bunting composed his masterpiece Briggflatts (1966), a defining work of British late modernism. The poem was a direct result of the intergenerational rapport between Bunting and Pickard, and a testament to the vibrant scene they helped to engender in postwar Newcastle.
Pickard’s own writing career got off the ground in the wake of the Morden Tower moment with the tentative Imagism of High on the Walls (1967) and at the height of the British Poetry Revival. However, like the early peaking musicians in his milieu — Ian Dury designed psychedelic artwork for High on the Walls, and Pickard’s own band King Ida’s Watch Chain were on stage when cops raided London hippy venue Middle Earth in 1968 — he found it difficult to follow up youthful success with lasting professional equilibrium.
A long period of wandering and exile in observance of modernist convention ensued. Nuggets of brilliance — especially the 1973 sequence “Dancing Under Fire,” which Bunting pronounced almost as good as The Waste Land (1922) and better than Four Quartets (1943) — would surface intermittently between Pickard’s spells in TV production and years spent hustling for work in London. Though Bunting’s estimate of “Dancing Under Fire” was perhaps a tad hyperbolic, the poem does evidence a combination of minimalism and localism that is characteristic of Pickard’s developing style. Bunting’s influence is apparent in the descriptions of miners’ tombstones hewn out of the ruins of Hadrian’s Wall, and onomatopoeic snatches of northern birdlife:
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If his writing was still impressionable at this point, Pickard’s ability to let sound lead the way was already his greatest creative asset.
By the turn of the millennium, he was back in the English Northeast, but in a peculiar context that would decisively shape his later writing. As the Morden Tower happenings slowly petered out at the close of the century, the Newcastle scene largely succumbed to the institutionalized culture of PR, author signings, and literary prizes that has done so much to foster the mediocre and the docile in British writing over the last few decades. Unsurprisingly, Pickard’s trajectory since the 1990s has mostly been away from urban Newcastle and its Blairite arts initiatives. Rather than return to his native city for the second chapter of his career, Pickard sought refuge further inward, in the rural hinterland of the Deep North of England: the remote, saw-toothed landscape of the North Pennine mountains, where the ruins of 19th-century industry (quarrying, lead mining) coexist with traces of hill farming and swaths of deserted moorland (in a crowded country, this is perhaps the only portion that resembles the isolated grandeur of the American West).
On moving to this evocative borderland, which crops up occasionally in Wordsworth and Auden but is often overlooked, Pickard’s whole poetic seemed to click into place. In successive collections since 2002’s Hole in the Wall, and especially in his most recent work, he has honed a mature style that irons out the gaucherie of his early years and replaces it with something like the filigreed lyricism Bunting achieved in Briggflatts. “At the Estuary,” a standout lyric from Winter Migrants, is a case in point:
sanderlings dig bait
tailgate the first ripple
of a returning tide
a mercury whisper
of tipped-in light
rushed in, in front of itself
Late modernist and neo-romantic in equal measure, Pickard’s 21st-century oeuvre is precise, austere, and rooted in the wildness of a frontier locale that works as an objective correlative to his deep-seated sense of marginality, his anti-establishment leftism, and his radical yearning for forms of escape that recall the free movement of birds in flight.
This last image, as we shall see, is an essential one in the career pinnacle that is Fiends Fell. Indeed, the decision to live in the North Pennines and away from the grind of the poetry business has allowed Pickard to thrive as the nature poet he always threatened to be. And while at first glance Fiends Fell might be mistaken for one of those “year in the country” travelogues that have become so inexplicably commonplace in recent years, this account of rural isolation is grounded in material circumstances quite unlike the bourgeois pastoralism of John Lewis-Stempel’s Meadowland: The Private Life of an English Field (2014) and Helen Macdonald’s H Is for Hawk (2014).
After the breakup of his third marriage in the mid-2000s, and burdened by extreme poverty (he is declared officially bankrupt about a third of the way through Fiends Fell), Pickard retreats to an attic room above a bikers’ cafe on Hartside Pass, a serpentine mountain road on the edge of the Eden Valley. This description might suggest a lime-tree bower — and indeed Coleridge provides the epigraph here — but Pickard’s decision to move to the Hartside Café was born of necessity rather than romantic escapism. In a narrative marked by desperation and loneliness, he registers the hardship of a modern rural-proletarian existence that is marginal in every sense. Aside from encounters with the natural world, Pickard’s daily routine consists of eating leftover food from the cafe, evading social security officers who will stop his benefit payments if he does not complete a weekly “lie sheet” cataloging attempts to find work, and late-night sexual trysts fueled by wine, weed, and amyl nitrate.
There is a latent darkness here that is never quite acknowledged in Pickard’s stoical prose — you get the feeling that this was a personal crisis on a par with Eliot’s Lausanne breakdown or Pound’s Pisan climacteric of 1945. And like Pound in the Pisan Cantos (1948), it is to a combination of historical memory and natural epiphany that Pickard turns in his dark night of the soul. As a ferocious mountain gale — the “Helm Wind” — drives sleet through the roof of his attic room, he recounts old love affairs, the minutiae of his Newcastle childhood, and vignettes of the ’60s counterculture (highlights include Alex Trocchi and R. D. Laing arguing “in a full frontal Glaswegian face to face” in Edinburgh in 1963, Bunting singing Northumbrian ballad “Sair Fyeld Hinny” high on marijuana, and, wonderfully, a road trip across northern England with Ed Dorn and his “roadie” Jeremy Prynne).
In the middle of this associative flow, a subtler, quieter narrative emerges of creative and personal recovery. Wandering the fells, Pickard comes alive as he describes sudden visitations by the array of birdlife that subsists in this part of the world. Fiends Fell’s cool, unforced portraits of buzzards, starlings, geese, kestrels, redwings, shags, hawks, crows, and gulls are hugely worthwhile for their own sake. However, one of the strengths of this unorthodox text is the unique insight it offers into Pickard’s creative process. We observe firsthand how already-exact draft notations are pared down to form lyrics in his signature spartan style. The hymn to a raven that is “New Year’s Day,” which intrudes eerily after several pages of prose, is a typical example:
the blizzards blown out
snow blowers go below
sun-white Watch Hill
a growking raven groaks
my first foot flying past
With the chaos of Pickard’s personal life as backdrop, it is moving to observe how he compacts these numinous animal encounters into such meticulously sharp contours. This is Hopkinsian “inscape,” for sure, and all the more remarkable because we can glimpse how it originated, in writing that combines overt craftsmanship with a spontaneous sense of reverence and redemption.
The movement toward aesthetic and private recovery that guides Fiends Fell reaches a lyrical climax in the sequence “Lark and Merlin.” First published in 2010, but situated here in the context of its original composition, it acquires new emotional depth. Beginning in an oneiric setting — a “café without customers” that plays host to the messy sexual underworld hinted at in preceding journal entries — the sequence unfurls as an extended eulogy to newfound love. Unsurprisingly, given Pickard’s lyric instincts, this erotic episode is figured in terms of bird flight (“and does the merlin in fast pursuit of its prey, / tell the fleeing lark it enamoured of its song?”).
With the Helm Wind now transformed from destroyer to creative stimulus, and with Pickard’s life apparently in motion once again, “Lark and Merlin” concludes the Fiends Fell memoir with gathered resolve:
I do not want to die
without writing the unwritten
pleasure of water
Pickard is no mournful psycho-geographer, and since the days of Bunting and Morden Tower his work has rested on fundamentally positive notions of regeneration and renewal. So it is inspiring to read the final lines of “Lark and Merlin,” and to place them in the context of the real-life creative renaissance he has enjoyed since his stint in the attic of the Hartside Café. If the reception of his recent output is anything to go by, Pickard appears to be enjoying the sort of belated recognition that is customary for British modernists. It is heartening that such a free and unorthodox poetic talent has risen to this summit without ever having to follow the official routes.