Since the late 60s, John James has been a particularly distinctive presence in English poetry. For ages it was hard to get hold of his earlier work which had appeared in pamphlets from various small presses. Then, in 2002, Salt published the wonderful Collected Poems
and over 350 pages of James' poetry was once more made available.
The poetry of John James resists categorisation. It takes its energies from popular culture, joy in the sensual, contemporary art, friendship and political defiance. It embraces the Romantic, the modern, the lyrical and the edgy. It is Welsh, French, American and English. And now there is a new work for 2012: Sun Breaking Cloud
This substantial pamphlet (32 pages) brims with friendship and vivid memory. Some of those friends are no longer with us: Andrew Crozier and Barry MacSweeney are both important presences in the book (as they are in English poetry over the last fifty years, of course). Other friends are very much still with us, including Jeremy Prynne and John Temple.
Lasting friendship, art, wine, fresh bread and laughter are recorded and celebrated in these poems. But the good of life is increasingly threatened by the bankrupt ideologies of the ruling classes in this country. It is a mark of James' artistic integrity that the boundaries of his poems are constantly ruptured and infiltrated by forces which threaten common decency. John James stares down the slopes of increasingly inequality in a political climate which:has a poisonous air where soon nothing will be secure
not the least social provision nor bread nor wine
the mercenary TV pundits are permitted to spout fascist platitudes
as the sirens wail back home in the city
Not that the tone of this work is one of unmitigated anger. James refuses to be ground down and there are plenty of witty flourishes and jaunty celebrations. Sometimes the tone is a more complex mix, as in this bitter-sweet vision: a tribute to the late Barry MacSweeney cast as dream sequence:in the heat of the night I dreamt we were all at the ‘I Love You Poem Award'
at a reading organised by some hard edge dudes from the Later Cambridge School
they asked you to stand up
you were wearing a gorgeous indigo mohair suit
with narrow lapels made in Soho in the 60s
you received an ovation from the crowd
all seated on the ground
they took the prize away from Carol Ann Duffy
& awarded it to you
but you were not thereCloud Breaking Sun
is full of poetry for adults. The beautifully shaped lines embody a rueful wisdom, still buoyant in a gap between the storms:
yet the lid of the box was lifted
it smelt of wet dust after rain
I think it was called hope.Cloud Breaking Sun
is published by Oystercatcher Press and costs £5 (inc UK p&p).
poetry publications include Paul Klee's Diary, Blueroads, Nistanimera, The Summer of Agios Dimitrios
and The Pistol Tree Poems
. Nathan Thompson writes of it as ‘flickering, intense, innovative and utterly mesmerising'.