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Aidan Semmens

“Wild Metrics” by Ken Edwards, pub. Grand Iota, 244 pp.

They say if you can remember the 1960s you weren’t there. A statement probably stronger on wit than on logic or sense, but if it means anything it could probably be applied with equal force and justice to almost any other era – the 1970s, for example. It’s not just about the fabled intake of halucinogens (though there is that), but more about the fallibility of memory and the social, cultural construct of any era as if it had a single, unified and describable essence; of any decade as if it had its own character, distinct from others and recognisable by everyone. Tosh. And yet somehow, insidiously and perhaps inexplicably, there is something in it. I mean, you know what The Seventies were, right? Especially – or do I mean even? – if you were actually there.

Ken Edwards and I were both there, separated by sixty-odd miles and that handful of years in age that means nothing now we’re in our sixties but was a gulf when I was in my teens and he a grown-up in his twenties. How sophisticated he would have seemed had our paths crossed then, and how endearingly unsophisticated ‘K’, his personification in Wild Metrics, appears now.

The Kafkaesque nature of that naming is a happy bonus; the essential point is to both link and differentiate Ken now from that ‘other’ person he was then – the difference partly the consequence of those changes that inevitably accumulate over time, partly an artefact of that equally inescapable fallibility of memory. A point that is implicit throughout the 1970s-set first three sections of the book, and explored explicitly and effectively in the fourth and final part, which reveals Ken now writing at his desk overlooking the English Channel.

Writing what sort of book? A memoir, yes, with avowedly untrustworthy memory supported structurally by diaries written ‘at the time’. A poem? Frankly, no, not in any of the many ways I understand the word, though he calls it that on the title page. A novel? Not really, though at times it feels rather like one. If it were truly a novel – or even a conventionally fictionalised autobiography – it would surely have a more satisfying story arc, a more artful sense of withholding and denouement, more rounded characters, a plot.

The claim in the forematter that “This is essentially a work of imagination” is ingenuous. It’s not that, even if it makes no claim to ‘truth’, or only a partial, tangential one. The ensuing declaration is somewhat more truthful: “Names, characters and places have a complex relation to real people and locations, and incidents narrated may not necessarily have occurred in the way or in the sequence described, or at all.” Not necessarily, which means not necessarily not, either.

This is a book full of people whose names, perhaps their writing, and in a few cases their persons too, were familiar to me at the time. Well, not full exactly. There are many such people named (mostly poets, of the left-field, non-mainstream type appreciated and represented by both K/Ken and me both then and now), but most pass through the pages with little description, barely registering as characters or moving along what action there is. It is in this way that the book is least like a novel and most like life. Most true to the real nature of memory, and indeed of living.

What do you really know of most people who pass through your life? Do they have a back-story you could (and would want to) recount? Or do most enter like, for example, the child Ollie Chalk, who wanders into Wild Metrics on page 24, suggests for a few paragraphs an intriguing, offbeat character whose future adventures might enthral, then disappears at the top of page 26, never to be seen or heard of again? Not every character in the book is quite so ephemeral, but many are. Few of the poets name-checked along the way become more than the stick figures of their names. We do learn quite a bit about Allen Fisher’s poetics but next to nothing about the man. You are left frequently asking, perhaps in a somewhat desultory way, ‘I wonder what happened to...’ Just like life. So that’s what this is. Life writing, of an unusually lifelike kind.

It’s a work not so much of imagination as of memory. And memory, as we all know, is an unreliable narrator. It’s also non-linear. Events and recollections trigger other recollections with little or no regard for chronology. Memory dots backwards and forwards, often revising itself as it goes. And that is roughly what Wild Metrics appears at first to promise. But then it mostly gives up and settles into a more conventional, broadly chronological narrative. Which may be good for conventional understanding; perhaps less good for either aesthetics or verisimilitude.

Neverthless, there is a sense throughout, quite Kafkaesque, maybe even more like the experience of Dylan’s Mr Jones, that “something is happening here, but you don’t know what it is”. Or if not happening here, exactly, then happening offstage, round the corner, just out of sight – seldom, if ever, just over the  page. And if that sounds frustrating, it can be. Just like life, in fact. K, or Ken, never tries to tell you what he doesn’t know.

Sometimes he refuses to tell you what he does know. Such as the real-life identity of the Rock Star whose entourage he joined for the US tour that makes up the second section of the book. It is in this section that the sense of unknown things happening just out of your/his sight or hearing is most intense. The constant hints that K – travelling as largely unwanted tutor to one of the Rock Couple’s children – is (a) missing most of the fun, (b) being constantly slighted, and (c) about to be chastised, downgraded or sacked add up, presumably, to a fair representation of what the trip was like for the young K. The mingled senses of unfairness and mystery are deepened by the question of the Rock Star’s identity. There are, in fact, enough clues to work it out but I shan’t spoil the fun by revealing what Ken has (perhaps for contractual reasons?) kept back.

It is in this section too, though it’s there throughout, that the feeling of outsiderness is strongest. From where I (or perhaps I should say ‘A’) was in the mid-1970s, it looked as though K and others he names were at the centre of something; something you might call a ‘scene’, of which I was so far out on the periphery as to feel either excluded, ignored or simply unnoticed. But for all his involvement with other poets, the very character of K too is imbued with the sense that if there is a ‘scene’ it’s somewhere else. Maybe just around the corner, but not here. So we’re back with Dylan and his ‘Ballad of a Thin Man’. A few conversations I’ve had, or been a semi-detached party to, suggest that most if not all poets (and maybe most other people too?) have this feeling of affinity with Mr Jones.

I do have one degree of involvement to confess. My name appears in this book. Not as a participant in the narrative, not even as one of the passingly mentioned poets (though K’s circles and mine overlapped just enough that that might theoretically have been possible), but on the endpaper as one of those whose advance subscription made its publication possible. Not that I have any pecuniary interest beyond what anyone has in a book they buy a copy of. I thought it a project worth supporting because I thought it might be worth reading when it came. And I wasn’t wrong.

As you might expect, there is some sex, a few drugs, some rock ’n roll, but none that seem as satisfying as the final section, which is essentially a series of brief essays about life, poetry and everything. It’s in these final pages that it becomes most explicitly apparent that as much as it’s a book of memories this a book about the nature of memory.

For those of us who were there, or thereabouts, it’s a nostalgia trip. I think it should also have appeal for anyone interested in the history of ‘alternative’ poetries, of social living, of London, of that time in British life when the SS meant the social security office you had to attend every week or two to ‘sign on’ for unemployment benefit; for anyone who wants to know ‘what was it like?’ Ken Edwards should know. After all, he was there.

Copyright © Aidan Semmens, 2019