Wednesday, March 22, 2023

Beyond the New Wave - Michael Butterworth Complete Poems: 1963-2020

I read this book incorrectly, and I am happy to say so.  I began by skimming through the pages, looking for poetry that was visually attractive, and this naturally brought me to those poems of an experimental nature: superpositioned parallel stanzas, sloping formations affecting the “progressions” of some speaker’s conceptualization, organized groupings of “innocuous” typeface… The most elaborate of these successful efforts is the curiously titled “Circularization of Condensed Conventional Straight-line Word-image Structures (Radial-planographic Condenses Word-image structures, Rotation about a Point)”. Notwithstanding what some readers may call the “self-conscious excesses” of the title, the production is intelligently and intelligibly structured—the presentation of a minimalist travel narrative progressing across chronological, historical, and conceptual dimensions; moreover, illustrated with radial diagrams demonstrating the configurations of these multi-dimensional progressions. Another experimental poem intriguingly titled “For Richard Kostelanetz” is (at this point in my investigation) unintelligible, but it remains formally inviting and, evidently, the product of a strict discipline and method.  No doubt meanings will emerge upon further study; indeed, it is a “museum instillation” readers will want to repeatedly visit and consider, and discuss with other visitors.

After exhausting the overtly (that is, visually) experimental pieces, I turned to the front of the book and read through the poems that are more recognizably “conventional”. I discovered many more conceptual pieces, but also I was delighted to meet Butterworth’s gentle sensibility.  Using few words, Butterworth can evoke a strong sense of voice, narrative, and the “feel” of emotional observations—which are thoughtful and measured. The effect is immersive.  The book does what I require most from a book of poetry: it puts me in a "quiet sanctuary" where I can sit, feel stillness, think carefully about the ephemeral nature of words and emotions.

The collection is divided into six chronological sections that reflect stages in Butterworth’s life: 1965-1968, 1968-1975, 1975-1979, 1979-1989, 1989-2001, 2001-2020. This is perhaps the most sensible way to arrange the pieces, but throughout the author’s career, the gentle voice is centrally present. This voice is the true organizing principle, whatever he does. The author has led a life with many challenges, conflicts and losses, but—and maybe curiously—throughout these many disappointments and setbacks, Butterworth’s poetry sustains a quiet place of thoughtfulness, gentle response, and stillness.

At the front of the book are an Introduction (by critic and poet Jim Burns) and a Preface by the author. Burns properly underscores the author’s versatility, the terrific range of experiences and techniques that Butterworth employs—his craft, his attention to detail.  The author’s Preface introduces the chronological sections, elaborating on many conflicted family situations, on-edge escapades, business successes and failures (Butterworth was a publisher, and he ran several bookstores in Manchester), arrests, courtroom dramas, and political conflicts. Also, Butterworth was one of the many aspiring idealistic writers who gathered with Michael Moorcock and pursued the British New Wave. J. G. Ballard (the visionary), Brian Aldiss (the Oxbridge intellectual) and Moorcock himself (the tireless tribal chieftain, guitar slinger, and typewriter Fagin) are popularly (and properly) the stars of the New Wave, but it was young writers like Butterworth who produced the truly exquisite gems of innovation that are the legacy of this characteristically 1960s movement. And how forward-seeing that movement was! Butterworth’s biography is fascinating, and it reveals the grist for Butterworth’s poetic mill.  Remarkably, as I’ve already described, the madcap character of this biographical material is absent from the thoughtful and quiet poems that this life inspired. I read the opening introductory pages last, happily.  

To view the Amazon description, please click the cover image:

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