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Andrew Taylor

 

John James, 1939-2018

 

As a founder member of the Edge Hill University Poetry and Poetics Research Group (PPRG) I was used to the outstanding organising skills of Robert Sheppard. In his time at the University, Sheppard brought a host of important poets to read, talk to students or to present at open meetings of the PPRG. Poets who visited included Tom Raworth, Lee Harwood, Harriet Tarlo, Geraldine Monk, Jerome Rothenberg, and John James.

I became aware of John’s work through Sheppard calling him ‘the Welsh O’Hara’ around the time of the publication of the wonderful John James Collected Poems published in 2002, by Salt. This book gathered all of the work from 1967’s Mmm Ah Yes through to Schlegel Eats a Bagel (1996). Because of the rarity of the work in pamphlet form contained within, it was a real gift to have these poems readily available. 

John James read his work at Edge Hill on 23rd November 2005. It was a mesmerising reading. Robert Sheppard has proof of this on a cassette tape that he recorded that night. 

 

John James,  Edge Hill 23rd November 2005

John James,  Edge Hill 23rd November 2005
© Andrew Taylor

 

Following the publication of Collected Poems, precious few John James poems appeared in print, whilst odd bits of criticism about the work appeared in places such as Poetry Wales and in 2009, ‘An Introduction to John James’ by Peter Philpott appeared on the Modernpoetry.org.uk website (the page is still active.) The Salt Companion to John James edited by Simon Perril, was published in 2010, featuring essays by John Wilkinson, Romana Huk and John Hall, amongst others.

It wasn’t until 2011, that a new pamphlet of poetry emerged. In Romsey Town was published by Cambridge Press, Equipage. A beautifully produced collection of exquisite James poetry, it was a delight and a wonder to behold and it was thrilling to be in the company of contemporary James work. Following swiftly in 2012 came Cloud Breaking Sun (Old Hunstanton: Oystercatcher Press), a pamphlet whose poems were described by Alastair Paterson in Stride Magazine as retrospectives of travels and visitations, of old friends and vanished times, [are] undertaken with an exemplary calm and kindness. […] Lives where poetry was and had to be the centre are touched on, re-animated.

A review also appeared in Litter editor Alan Baker’s blog http://alan-baker.blogspot.co.uk/2012/06/john-jamess-new-pamphlet.html

Following Cloud Breaking Sun was another Equipage pamphlet, Songs in Midwinter for Franco published in 2014. Writing on the Tears in the Fence blog, Ian Brinton described the 12 part sequence, which was written in John's French home in La Manière in January 2013, as 'simply very moving; it is a sequence which one wants to return to time and time again. It places the smallest of individual moments, accurately recorded, against the backdrop of human frailty and being.'

Peter Riley writing in The Fortnightly Review of Songs in Midwinter for Franco, noted 'that we only have a small sample of John James' poetry before us' adding that that 'since his Collected Poems of 2002 he has published only an Oystercatcher Press pamphlet and In Romsey Town (Equipage 2011) which is half-way to a book at 40 pages.' Riley was probably as surprised as anyone when a further Oystercatcher pamphlet, Sabots followed in 2015.

Sabots was a further departure for John as the pamphlet was presented in three distinct parts, again dealing with France, and as Ian Brinton noted once more on the Tears in the Fence blog, 'Sabots is an uplifting sequence […] poems which restore a sense of vitality and endurance within a world threatened by commercial bureaucracy and ‘targets’. It is a tribute to the quietly unchanging in a fast-changing world. It’s terrific!'

In October 2015, scouring Alan Halsey's West House Books website , I noticed a John James item for sale that I hadn’t been previously aware of. It was listed as 'Nightmare.' Intrigued, I immediately turned to the Collected. There was no sign of a poem or pamphlet with that title. I then turned to Simon Perrill's Salt Companion to John James. In the extensive bibliography at the rear of the book, 'Nightmare' was listed as:

c.1971 Nightmare. N.p, poem dated 'December 1970-April 1971'

I sent off for ‘Nightmare.’ I was pleased to receive a A4 stapled four page mimeographed item with a hand drawn cover image. The poem can be dated to specifically, as on the final page interior we have the dates December 1970 – April 1971.

Cambridge poet and editor of Oystercatcher Press, Peter Hughes wrote to me and made me aware through his role as a Judith E. Wilson Poetry Fellow at Cambridge university and visiting Fellow at Magdalene College, that he was organising a symposium focussing on the work of John James.  We corresponded about my recent acquisition of a hitherto missing James poem, and Peter invited me to present a paper at the symposium.

The 2017 Cambridge Conference on the Poetry of John James took place on March 11th at Magdalene College. The conference programme reads:

          John James, one of the most accomplished and rewarding
          Poets writing in English today, was born in 1939. His first
          Publication, ‘Mmm…Ah Yes’, came out from Ferry Press fifty
          years ago. The 2017 John James Conference, curated by the
          current Judith E. Wilson Visiting Poetry Fellow Peter Hughes,
          provides a welcome opportunity to examine and celebrate
          the magnificent body of work which John James has created over
          the past five decades. The contributors are distinguished poets,
          academics, artists and friends of the poet all of whom have developed
          a deep love of, and commitment to, John James’ poetry. They include
          Ian Brinton, Rod Mengham, Drew Milne, Peter Riley, Simon Smith,
          Andrew Taylor and Geoff Ward.

The title of my paper, which I hope to expand and publish in the near future, was ‘Nightmare’ – tracking down an omission from John James’s Collected Poems (Salt, 2002); poetry as artefact: an influence on a personal poetics.’ For a review of the day, see Ian Brinton’s piece for Tears in the Fence here: https://tearsinthefence.com/2017/03/13/the-poetry-of-john-james-conference/

John was in attendance throughout the day and afterwards accompanied some of the panelists and delegates to a nearby pub, The Punter. it was a pleasure to be in John’s company, as he talked happily about his French home and kindly signed copies of his books and pamphlets.

John asked for a copy of ‘Nightmare’ and confirmed via email that it was indeed a lost poem.

I continued my correspondence with John following the conference and was delighted to receive a postcard thanking me for sending him a copy of my second book of poetry, in late 2017. Similarly, I was touched and humbled to receive an acknowledgement for ‘discovering the fugitive poem ‘Nightmare’’, in John’s New & Selected Poems Sarments, published in April 2018 by Shearsman.

British poetry has lost one of its greats.

 

John James’ coat and reading table, Edge Hill 23rd November 2005

John James’ coat and reading table, Edge Hill 23rd November 2005
© Andrew Taylor

 

 

 

 
Copyright © Andrew Taylor, 2018