Unrestricted Moment: on the poetry of Peter Dent
There is a quiet integrity about the poetry of Peter Dent. It is poetry of things and experience impinging on a life, on the inner life, from various contingent quarters and frames of reference, simultaneously, and often contradicting each other, so that the poem becomes the act of the poet to make sense of experience, whereby the ‘I’ doing the experiencing, and experiencing himself experiencing it, is also various and contingent.
Dent is something of a “poets’ poet”; a lot of poets know his name, and he is held in great regard, though even many of those who like his work seem to be somewhat baffled by it. His poetry has been called “terse”, “understated” and “oblique”, and it is all of these; coming to grips with a Dent poem is also acknowledged to be hard work, but worth the effort; though few have, in fact, actually made that effort and read his work, in spite of special features on his work some years ago in PQR and Litter. Moreover, he lives in the comparative backwater of Budleigh Salterton on the Devon coast, which, though not far from Exeter, might as well be in a different universe thanks to the local bus service or lack thereof. He is not keen on promoting himself or making public appearances to read his poetry, he is almost alone among ‘avant’ poets in having no academic profile and has never become involved in poetry wars or ‘avant’ vs. ‘mainstream’ mudslinging, and his online presence, almost a must for poets nowadays, is low-level, mostly limited to quiet appearances in Stride, Shadow Train or Litter.. Indeed, he must be one of the few poets left without a computer, e-mail, and all the rest of the contemporary communication and self-publicity paraphernalia. Not on Facebook. Although he does have a Wikipedia page, with a full bibliography – created, it turns out, by Yann Lovelock. But even so, all this means that his work is not as well-known as it deserves.
Originally from Forest Gate in London, he worked as a primary school teacher in Surrey until he moved to Devon in the late 70s. Writing in the 2007 Litter feature, Yann Loveluck saw Dent’s move from Surrey to Devon as the major watershed in the development of his writing. I would say that the big watershed came later, with his move towards a ‘post-modern’ mode of writing first signalled in his pamphlet Settlement (Leafe Press 2001), though this is not in fact a rupture from his earlier Pound and Bunting-influenced imagist and ‘oriental’ mode of his earlier work and is, to my mind, a more consistent development than is often recognised, assimilating the lessons learned there – and moving on.
His output is prolific, and his poems have appeared regularly in magazines over the years, but publication of full collections has been sparse. His first pamphlet appeared in 1972, followed by a constant stream of pamphlets of poetry and versions from the Chinese and other languages, including Surfaces (1975), published by his own Interim Press; his first full collection, however, did not come until 1980 (Distant Lamps, from Hippopotamus Press), and the next was not until Unrestricted Moment (Stride 2002). This was then followed by Adversaria (Stride 2004) and Handmade Equations (Shearsman 2005). There have been a recent clutch of small pamphlets, more or less self-published, and one from Oystercatcher Press, and another Shearsman collection in 2012, Tripping Daylight. But by his own admission he has five or more bulging Lever Arch Files (“beautifully black & fat”) waiting in the wings.
What I want to explore here is why Dent’s poetry is so necessary and why it is so important for me. A short answer would be his integrity and uncompromisingly rigorous attitude to language, and his willingness to take risks, even at the cost of being overlooked.
Dent’s earlier poems, in his ‘imagist’, Bunting-esque mode and close association with Peter Dale and William Oxley’s Agenda magazine, such as those in Surfaces (Interim Press 1975), have a sharp-contoured, crystalline clarity that is at the same time brimming with liquid light:
Off windows the flash of winter sun;
and off this heavy disc of ice
the children bring, crystalline
and shaggy on its underside.
craze a newly-frosted lawn.
From the house
I hear the sharp cries splash
and hang in still blue air.
There is a strong insistence on the primacy of the image, tempered with abstract reflection, the emotional involvement of the poet in the action, mediating it. Clearly the product of his engagement with Chinese poetry, sometimes the effect is quite Zen:
of the mind
It is a line drawn
or without care
and is unblemished
To its nothing
(Routeing, from Line, 1995)
In a letter at the time, he wrote of Line, “I set myself the challenge of speaking in the simplest manner whilst leaving a spiritual/philosophical stream running deep beneath. Don’t really know whether I’ve succeeded!” To this reader’s mind, the jury is out as far as Line is concerned, but Dent continued working along those lines (!), and this preoccupation with an almost Buddhist meditative mode culminated in At The Blue Table (Blackthorn Press 1999), with a series of short poems, such as:
To the possible
Be at home Home’s lights
Its cobwebs nothings
Linking here to there
Peppermint and clove
Just words another door
Same house and larder though
And can the child be far?
perfectly-pitched pieces in which image, meditation and emotion co-exist in dynamic balance.
At the same time, however, in Settlement (Leafe Press 2001) he was moving towards the more dissociative strategies of his later work, while Simple Geometry (Oasis Books 1999) is a first major experiment in prose-poetry, something that started in Northwoods (Stride 1992) and has become increasingly predominant in Dent’s work. Even in “prose”, his language is compressed as he engages in the exploration of a possibly more expansive, though still terse and concise, way to approach meaning:
In this room high in the house are maps and guides By day I use
them as I must ‘per instructions’ (Though the names are many and all too
often yours Since you have made them so) Seldom without cross-referencing
Annotated or scribbled through Whose directions when I find them are
always more than I can take Making do instead with what is simple Of the
moment Guesswork more or less
Regarding geometry and prose-poetry (he would very much like to be allowed to use the word ‘proem’ but the OED won’t have it. But if he and Geraldine Monk and perhaps others too persist in insisting, the usage could catch on, transcending, as it does, the received notions of prose, poem and prose-poem), in 2009 Dent wrote, “For me a ‘poem’ is circular, if we’re talking geometry. It begins, it circles (= deviates) and returns to (a rediscovered and re-energised) base. Meaning inherent in the thing, it’s we who do the circling. And in that process become one. BUT, I don’t think ‘poem’ fits what I’m doing now or, in fact, what I’ve been doing for the past 10 years or so. They are not, I suspect, to be umbrella’d by the word ‘prose-poem’, although I do have to use that word for convenience. Their business, if they have any, is to meet the moment and do whatever it requires. So the geometry’s various. I’m capable of (or, guilty of), as I say, deviation, recommencing, cancelling or producing multiple ‘stories’ under one heading. And it’s liable to switch (at the flick of a ... switch !) from prose to verse rhythm and back. All the tools of prose and poetry, I regard as there for the taking. Or asking.”
Some of the poems in At The Blue Table and Simple Geometry also feature the earliest appearance I can find of Dent’s use of the gap between phrases (as in ‘Breadth’ and ‘Transition’ above). He is not alone in using it, of course, and it may well be that it is something that migrated into his work from his involvement with the work of George Oppen and Lorine Niedecker, both of whom he was instrumental in introducing to English readers with volumes of essays he edited in his Interim Press in the 80s. The many and varied ways gaps are used by various poets may well be worth a separate study.
Dent was well aware at the beginning of the new millennium that his new, ‘post-modern’ style was likely to irritate those familiar with his earlier work. (“I’ve moved from Imagist/Oriental to Objectivist (some say) and on to Post-Modernist – but I think they’re all in there somewhere (if you look hard),” he wrote in a letter in 2001.) Writing in a letter in 2002 about Unrestricted Moment he said, “Inevitably, its post-modern approach has left a lot of old pals gasping – not that there’s much I can do about it: the writing of poetry leads the writer by the nose and, anyway, I’m well ‘writ-out’ of my former self/poetry!” But Unrestricted Moment was not the first unveiling of this new, re-invented poetic self. His 2001 Leafe Press pamphlet Settlement opens with a poem, ‘Way Back’, which, indeed, pointed back to his earlier mode and was unlikely to upset his old readers:
As I and if we’re lucky you remember it?
That first far sighting of the ocean
And its colours Clear as we had thought
The waves were clear So meet again
But then the next poem, ‘Handing Over’, almost programmatically sets out the new frameworks of reference:
Room for thinking Rain Ideas exciting others
Into consciousness The live-long night of it
Acts out the safe transition of the soul
Necessity and need And someone sighing
As the day sighs making up a world
Things exist in language, through language, but cannot be contained by language:
For what is named
Extends to one side and the other of its name
This new constellation gathers in the lessons learned and experiences garnered in At the Blue Table in a series of short poems and fragments:
Pollination Light dusting
Across field and copse
A boy at his window
Under constellations Flowering
argument To priestly
Moderation Detail Midnight
Out of a distant bell
But it is the penultimate poem that, in retrospect, can be seen to be showing the shape of things to come – poetry as meditation on language and on the external, natural world experienced as the reality of the mind:
To stardom and elision song that
No-one knows persuasive detail of
A steady climb unnavigating words
Now in it for the long haul cloud-lit
Margins crossed life levelling out
In a letter in 2008, Dent wrote, “I found that writing in response to just about anything that prodded me, was a big turning point – realising that what seemed for all the world like really unlikely material could pack a huge surprise ... even open up new chapters in my writing.” And increasingly, what has prodded him has started in the external, natural world. One imagines him taking long walks along the beach at Budleigh Salterton or in the adjacent countryside, as far as his state of health permits. In this sense, perhaps, Dent is a “nature poet”, though not in the poetry-of-place sense that John Clare was a nature poet, or in the way that Ted Hughes or William Wordsworth, etc. in their various ways were nature poets. (What Dent does, however, along with most, if not all, other poets of the current avant garde, share with Wordsworth, especially in his radical younger incarnation, is a concern with disrupting and challenging the complacent – and conservative – expectations of the conventional poetry audience.) The natural world is always part of the empirical. external world with which Dent engages in and through language as a poet, while remaining detached from it. The engagement is more aesthetic than visceral. It provides the foundation for what is, I think, the quintessential Dent collection, the magnificently achieved Unrestricted Moment (Stride 2002).
The collection is divided into three sections. As the ‘mission statement’ or introductory blurb says, the “book’s first section deals with the vagaries of the creation process as the artist encounters them; the second acknowledges the nagging stimulus of nature: and the third navigates ‘the ordinary’, its urgencies and ennui. Overlapping all is a detailed realisation of the slipperiness of perception and how chancy the words that conjure it.”
In that first section, entitled ‘Adjacent Drumming’, the poem ‘Treated Text’ deals with “Habits of learning ‘a re-imagined landscape’”, with “this / Slow turning of a tendril through a day”; while ‘Equivalence’ begins with a “Daybook fantasy” possibly consisting in an attempt “to pressure meaning / Of my own whose colours live to vary / Simply into that which is all right // Itself before I bring myself to bear”, since “worlds / can’t have too many ways to read // A day when skies are dangerous”, leading him to find “how life proves / Heady” and ask “as weightless as the stuff of words?” This is the enaction of the poet searching for equivalences and connections to give his words weight, as in ’Connectives’: “let // Gravity be nothing Summer / Long but just a word connecting / Light to what we need to fix”. In ‘The Hold’, evoking a ship (with possible echoes of Rimbaud’s ‘bateau ivre’), “The transient makes it in again for refit Winter // Starlit pages and thinking ever to co-exist // Where it’s hand-to-hand or mouth and who / would bet on it” moving to “Quick commerce and easy violence” and “a love to // Write home about”, the point being “Engaging measure words in reconstructed time”. It is all about an urgent concern with how to be in the world, as a poet and as a human being.
The second section, ‘Natural Order’, deals with ways in which the natural world – outside us and yet we are a part of it – underpins and impinges on us. Dent is not afraid to take on the old poetic trope of birdsong, calling a poem ‘Song Thrush’, although the poem is hardly “about” the bird singing, as much as “The existence of the semblance of / Another midnight past”, asking “ which tier / Of the mind will hold it when the thing / In question’s skewed”, and in the end coming to the tentative conclusion “can’t guess / Which way it goes or what the song / Returns me to I hear the mind”. We as humans are deeply part of and invested in the natural order, the “song”, and yet the mind makes us separate from it – possibly to our loss.
But of course it is not just the natural world that governs our existence; it is made up of the ordinary dross that surrounds us, too, the machinery, commerce and regulations of human civilisation, and this is what Dent investigates in the third section, ‘Necessary Burning’. At various points throughout this section and especially in the final poem, ‘Primary Education’, the figure of the child is introduced:
And children ready to ignore the surfaces
Of things to let their rapid easy lines
Do all the work investigate and access
No special interest in the ‘colours’ to come
Just self-forgetting lines
with the inference, perhaps, that the artist needs to experience the external world as a child does, so that ordinary, humdrum things become extraordinary, new, amazing.
This concern with the ordinary, the empirical, also informs Adversaria (Stride 2004), a sequence of forty poems written over a period of three months, a kind of ‘journal’. The poems, each comprising six couplets, proceed by leaps and unexpected associations from a simple thought, subject only to the reach of the mind, with a “key” to reading them provided in the book’s epigraph from the Diffidentiae: “So much for a Day, stripped of its disobedience to time and the place it pretends to inhabit, [...] naturally intact, where thought picks up the pieces, look”. The first poem, ‘Perception’, sets things in motion:
New seasonal light to freshen up my
First is in improbable clues come last
Perpetuum immobile like the man says
Softly Hamlet clamouring on the roof
At moonlight and a dozen lonely things
Which state’s unenvious of looks on
With a Cheshire smile says who goes
Easy there? It’s the pendulum knows
A bad day night’s ecstatic at its loss
As the words swing true to form say
When in a westerly that’s awol with
A vengeance if happy to stop and look
As a reader, one is given the pieces picked up by thought between abstraction and scraps of narrative and challenged to put together one’s own version of events. It is a forensic process, looking at the trace evidence left behind at the scene. But nature is never very far away; the creative process becomes a trial of strength, a birth process:
Well who can say how a work goes in
Its wildest definition of trust how easily
It’s outperformed by nature delivered
Safely of a green word
Dent even finds room to answer (self-?) criticism of the apparently tectonic shift his work had undergone:
Roll over show them the threat’s less
You than ever a woodland skimped
Turned avant garde is like something I
Last heard thinking trying to breathe
It is possibly no accident that ‘diffidentiae’, the title quoted for the epigraph of Adversaria,means “distrusts”; nothing should be taken on trust on the basis of appearances, not even, as any good postmodernist knows, the “I” of the beholder/narrator. In a letter in 2002 Dent wrote, “I’m told (by some) I shouldn’t ‘mean’, I shouldn’t ‘communicate’, I shouldn’t use ‘I’ and a dozen other things... but I only want to write what I think needs to be said; what needs to be said is open to endless qualification; I need to be honest with my (confused & self-critical) thought processes; and I don’t need to patronise any possible reader who, if he is going to ‘get’ something from it, has to do so through his own mental mechanisms. My ‘I’ is always various (I am various, as are we all) and ambiguous and never to be fully trusted. Always consider what an ‘I’ is and you’ll probably be unharmed by the experience!” Always bear in mind who is speaking and what is at stake.
In Handmade Equations (Shearsman 2005), Dent brought together “over eighty poems written since the beginning of the new century”, poems which exemplify and highlight the concerns, methods and techniques explored so far, in a monument to where he was at, to his achievement mid-decade. A great many of these poems are prose poems, prose set out in stanzas like a poem and with the same associative leaps and gaps and syntactical dislocations as in the more “poem-like” pieces. His writing since then has continued to be prolific in exploring these paths, especially prose poetry, with the four pamphlets with number plates disguised (high tide editions), Dasein and Scarecrow (Offline Press), Ghost Prophecy (Kaleidikon) and Price Fixing (Kaleidikon) all appearing in 2011, followed by Repertory (Kaleidikon) in 2012 and Private Utopias or ‘Noises in the Head’.(Oystercatcher Press 2013).
The poem ‘What I Like’ in with number plates disguised offers a good case study for examining Dent’s poetics. He is constantly setting and then undermining his own frames of reference, with narratives hinted at and then left hanging, leaving the reader to make up her own mind, continue the story. Here is the full text of the poem:
WHAT I LIKE
About small improvements they barely register on the canvas of
a colourful life mired in controversy or blessed with a sinecure
it’s all the same to the journos quirks in our psyche don’t spoil a
tea party neither does taking an interest in sub-genres like
microeconomics fear and the global recession are strangers now
to the empty pocket oughtn’t we to try? an umbilical cord is
sometimes happy to stretch a point
Trees right up to the skyline cows herded to one corner of a
well-cropped field it’s such a long sentence looking out all
those vocations – considered and rejected – like perfect clouds
while tomorrows in their late and unavoidable wisdom lag behind
I can’t be motivating slackers any more than I can indulge in a
fantasy about living words there’s only that bright red tractor
struggling uphill unpacking shadow
(from with number plates disguised, high tide editions, 2011)
In ‘What I Like’, for instance, the title carries over into the first stanza: “About small improvements”; and these small improvements “barely register on the canvas of a colourful life” – introducing, perhaps, the idea of life imitating art, as well making reference to the visual relationship between poetry and painting. Life is murky, too: “mired in controversy or blessed with a sinecure it’s all the same to the journos” – and here we are at the bottom of the pile with hints of phone hacking scandals and base instincts. It’s just a short hop from there to what could be taken as an oblique dig at the loony US right: “quirks in our psyche don’t spoil a tea party”. And then we’re right in the thick of the lived experience of a poet with a bus-pass (even if there’s no service to use it on!): “fear and the global recession are strangers now to the empty pocket” – and a society that would infantilise us all: “an umbilical cord is sometimes happy to stretch a point”. Here the stanza breaks with a shift in the frame of reference: as though one could imagine the poet walking along a lane deep in meditation and suddenly brought up short by awareness of his physical surroundings re-impinging: “Trees right up to the skyline cows herded to one corner of a well-cropped field”. The landscape is man-made, artifice. The poet, peddler of artifice in language, interrupts the scene, observes himself observing; the mind observing itself at work and following where the reflection takes it, with ambiguity: “it’s such a long sentence looking out all those vocations – considered and rejected – like perfect clouds while tomorrows in their late and unavoidable wisdom lag behind” The idea of lagging (and the almost-juxtaposition of ‘long sentence’ and ‘lags’) leads to notions of work (another poem in the collection has a title that nicely sums up the (pensioner) poet’s vocation: ‘Malingering by right’): “I can’t be motivating slackers any more than I can indulge in a fantasy about living words”; at which point the poem – and the poet’s attention/consciousness – returns to the scene at hand, which now seems to be almost a desperate attempt to cling to some kind of rural idyll as being all we have, ultimately – or is it simply an acknowledgement that what is there is merely being itself (with echoes of a certain red wheelbarrow)?: “there’s only that bright red tractor struggling uphill unpacking shadow” – with a hefty emotional punch packed into that “unpacking shadow”. The reader is being invited in to witness the process of the poet’s mind at work achieving discovery in the process of writing, but also to sift the bits and pieces and make sense of them for herself. The technique highlights artifice: how we construct the ‘reality’ around us, including the natural world, in, with and through language.
This is the strategy of Unrestricted Moment being constantly refined and redefined in Dent’s work; language remains slippery and each poem is a new attempt to pin it down, fix it to external signifiers. The same strategy can be seen in very many poems, for instance ‘Counter factors’ in the seven-couplet sonnet sequence making up Dasein and Scarecrow: “The rhetoric is nothing to speak of. / Not that you can see them, but there are storms // On the face of the sun. A case of ‘the harder / you look...’ at pretty white cottages over water [...] things experimental / still having a say [...] they’re just as much for meaning the / rain on stone, as light, when a day clouds over.”
Like with number plates disguised, Ghost Prophecy comprises around twenty prose poems, each in two parts with the second providing some kind of counterweight to the first. They comprise sentences and phrases seemingly randomly “found” and set down separated by a leap – the effect is like turning a radio tuning dial picking up disconnected strips of language in a ‘ghostly’ symphony of voices, white noise from which to make sense, allow sense to coalesce (“I can spend as much time as I like with my hunches and still arrive at the wrong station answers that aren’t exactly wrong but clearly out of line with contemporary wisdom will on a good day relocate to another dimension whatever measure you use for the art of living you need to ask yourself what kind of internal dialogue best benefits from patrolling the border...” (‘Freakish Climes’)) It is a technique that is deeply democratic – here is no top-down ‘authority’ leading the reader’s response, demanding that the reader feel a certain emotion. The response is up to the reader – and that is what makes this kind of poetry “difficult” for readers who prefer to be spoon-fed and are not prepared to make the effort to meet the poem half way and complete it by joining up the dots from their own repertoire of experience. In that sense, Dent’s poetry is political, in the same way that a great deal of ‘avant’ poetry is political, in that it insists on the primacy of the – subversive – individual response of/ through/in language in reaction to and as resistance against the comfy, complacent, conventional and well-worn narratives, by their very nature deeply conservative, handed down by the kinds of issue-evading poetry, with its feel-good “epiphanies”, that, as Robert Sheppard puts it, “wins poetry competitions” and by which we are subtly and not-so-subtly controlled through media, advertising and corporate politics.
What we find time and time again in Dent’s poetry is an awareness of the tentative, contingent nature of what we call reality, what Peter Riley has called “the cohabitation of rest and energy .... of fragmentation and continuity. Little floating strips of language, not connected, or not definitively connected, to each other.” Enacting the need to impose some kind of order in order to find sense, Dent places these “floating strips of language” into strict stanzaic forms: couplets, triplets, quatrains, here and there a sonnet, and symmetrical forms with a single line stanza followed by maybe another single line then two or four couplets or triplets, followed by single line stanzas to balance the first. The effect is of stasis, a slowing-down of “reconstructed time” by “[e]ngaging measure” to allow the mind, the poet’s and the reader’s to catch the “transient” as it passes and create meaning from it. But that meaning is shifting and contingent, since “things settle // As they will as deep as maybe / Truth banked up as I am so / Cold against established signs” (‘Firmament’). At the same time, it is an insistence on form, not merely as convention, but as an aid, helping the reader’s eye to engage with the material, especially in the prose poems.
Dent’s 2012 pamphlet Repertory, published by Kaleidikon, comprises, as its subtitle says, 60 pieces, a series of prose poems. The title may, in the sense of repertory theatre, suggest a wheeling-out of stock-in-trade, going through the motions; nothing could be more wrong. These are perfectly realised, perfectly pitched pieces, pushing and probing beyond the status quo, revealing an artist who is not prepared to decide he has found his ideal form of expression and is content to mark time, tread water, but to move on and find that there is always something that can be added to the repertoire. Something like the exploration implicit in the title of the 2013 Oystercatcher Press pamphlet Private Utopias or ‘Noises in the Head, the underlying motivation of which is not just or necessarily always the natural world impinging but the cacophony of the language of political and social realities invading private space and needing to be resisted through language.
His latest full collection, Tripping Daylight (Shearsman 2012) shows an artist at the peak of his powers. The collection comprises three sections, the first, ‘Tripping Daylight’, comprising 80 prose ‘sonnets’, followed by ‘Arithmetic & Colour’, a sequence of 48 prose ‘half-sonnets’, and ‘Theatre’, a mixed bag; ‘theatre’ as in acting, but also, of course, as ‘theatre of operations’. What we see here is a poet writing to keep a beacon of light going in the surrounding gathering dark, “maybe excusing myself / with a regular bag of tricks”, and maybe with a slant look back to his previous overriding concern with the natural world, “trapped between tall conifers and / a text”. Writing is always a struggle that happens in spite of the writer, who grabs at life with both hands, filtering raw experience into language: “believe me I’ll have another Springtime / waiting in the wings and twilight put on hold”, and coming out triumphant: “a / flourish and see the sky relents!”
One criticism that could be levelled at Dent’s work is the sheer amount of it; yet quality control is never neglected for quantity of production. Dent’s search is for the mother lode, the “big one”, the ultimate poem. His concern is quite simply for writing, for expression, for “getting it out there”, producing a stream of pamphlets and collections; a Collected would be unmanageably vast, and selecting poems for a Selected well-nigh Sisyphean, and in any case, “Too much work.” Time and energy better spent writing. At the same time, the search is not for answers; how can answers be found if we do not even know what the questions are? Writing is a deliberate strategy of dislocation and meditative reflection, the writer alone with things and trying to find the language to cope. Each poem is a new start, a new attempt to come to terms with the ability, or lack of it, of language to mediate the indeterminacy of empirical experience. In a recent letter he wrote, “I’m starting to believe there has to be a balance struck between Narrative (even if it’s detached, loose or half-connected) and Abstraction in order for new poetry to progress. Tipping over into either extreme is the best way possible to avoid the issue – which is the complexity of the world, the impossibility of full knowing and safe/certain action. I think it will always be a tentative ‘move towards’. We will never, like we did at school, turn to the back for the Answers. Those days is over! Writing needs to be in on the action, chipping away at the stubborn material, and with genuine humility.”
Berlin, May 2014
(An earlier version of this essay appeared in VLAK 3, Prague, 2012)