From my Poetry Bookshelf – Jeremy Hooker – Master of the Leaping Figures

Master of the Leaping Figures

This week’s book from my poetry bookshelf is Jeremy Hooker’s Master of the Leaping Figures. It was published by Enitharmon Press in 1987 and is now out of print. Enitharmon have a collected, which I don’t own yet, and a more recent collection, Scattered Light, from 2015. If you are interested in buying them then they can be purchased here;

https://enitharmon.co.uk/authors/jeremy-hooker-2/

You can also get these books on Bookshop.org, along with some other collections, this time published by Shearsman (another poetry publisher whose work is worth delving into) . None are on my virtual poetry bookshelf , as I haven’t bought them yet, so it would be wrong for me to put them there at this time.

If you want to buy his Shearsman published books direct from the publisher then their Jeremy Hooker page is at;

https://www.shearsman.com/store/Hooker-Jeremy-c28271771

I probably ought to make a purchase, but it was my birthday recently, and I have a lot of new gifts to read first. But it’s on my radar. Along with so many other books. There are also plenty of other poets’ whose work I greatly admire, but of whom I only have one or two collections. More purchases on the horizon. But where do we stop, we collectors of books? Maybe I’ll have to start a poetry loan library when this Covid crisis is over. Except that poets need book sales. Poetry isn’t exactly the most financially rewarding art form, and collection sales are small.

My first collection, Landings, which is still available directly from me or through my publisher’s Dempsey & Windle has, I think, sold about 100 copies (I haven’t been taking an exact tally). I was at an Arvon course 15 years ago, and one of the tutors, the excellent Mario Petrucci (who I will feature at some point), said one evening that the year before, only 80,000 poetry books by living poets had been sold in the UK, (I’m not sure whether that was just British writers – my memory is hazy as I’d drunk about 3/4 of a bottle of wine by then). Of course the vast majority of these sales will have been of collections by famous poets. So buy poetry books if you can – buy direct from the poets, from their publishers, from bookshop.org (there is of course also Amazon, but I am currently trying to wean myself off from making purchases from that site, for a whole range of different reasons).

Back to Jeremy Hooker.

Jeremy Hooker (b. 1941) grew up in Warsash near Southampton, and the landscape of this region has remained an important source of inspiration. Many of his poems were written in Wales, where he has lived for long periods of his life. His academic career has taken him to universities in England, the Netherlands and the USA and he is currently Professor of English at the University of Glamorgan. As well as his eleven collections of poetry, Hooker is also well-known as a critic and has published selections of writings by Edward Thomas and Richard Jefferies, and studies on David Jones and John Cowper Powys, all of them important to his own creative life. Other critical titles include Writers in a Landscape and Imagining Wales, whilst Welsh Journal records his life in mid-West Wales during the 1970s.

Master of the Leaping Figures was written when he was Creative Writing Fellow at Winchester School of Art. His writing, like that of many of the poets whose work I am drawn to, is heavily rooted in place. I acquired Master of the Leaping Figures a long time ago – my copy is a first edition – probably not that long after it was published, (I can’t remember how I got hold of it – so if you are reading this and lent it to me I apologise – I hope the overdue book fees aren’t too onerous!).

It was one of my ‘go-to’ collections at that time, and has been pretty influential with my own writing. The whole collection is centred on the geography, history and people of Winchester and its surroundings. This book showed that I could potentially do something similar with my own writing (although I appreciate Fratton is a somewhat different landscape both physically and poetically).

I know Winchester and that part of the South Downs quite well, and studied some of the history that threads through this book – there is a long sequence entitled A Winchester Mosaic early on in the collection which switches back and forth in time, from present day to a segment about the desecration of the cathedral by Cromwell’s troops during the English Civil War. This particular segment ends with the following lines;

jumbling bones of bishops
with bones of Saxon kings.
Skulls grinned at them,
level with their feet.

They saw the joke, and took
thigh bones and flung them
against the west window,
shattering the Resurrection.

The blast that scattered
harlot amethyst and rose
let in pure light, and air
their souls could breathe.

There are other sequences in the book, including a lovely set of three short poems for Norman Ackroyd – as another example of Hooker’s writing I’ll share the second of these in full;

Cheriton Long Barrow

A long low hill in a hill field,
a curve within a curve,
white of ploughed chalk
on pale arable: epitome
of winter’s purity and grace,
of lines like the skeleton’s
long since at one with its bed,
and with nothing opposing it
but the first violet
barely visible in the open hedge.

It’s not surprising that Jeremy Hooker references David Jones as one of his biggest influences on his own writing. Another poet of place, of history, of people interacting with legend and landscape.

You can hear him reading some of his other poems on the Poetry Archive website (which is where I lifted the biographical notes from), including the marvellous Curlew here;

So what do you think? Let me know in the comments. I’ll finish with another poem from the collection, which has been published elsewhere online, so I assume it is OK to share it in full;

At Ovington

For Lee Grandjean, sculptor

You would make a form
that contains, which your hand moulds
as we talk, creating a body
between us, in the air. Below
the broad full river glides
hypnotically, silver,
green and dark. Here wind
meets light and water,
and the current at each instant
finds its bed, erupting
over shoals of weed, sliding
through a lucid gravel run,
continually making
and unmasking lines,
as in my mind I catch
and loose its images,
and about our heads
swifts hawking for mayfly
unerringly, explosively, glide.
I would let all go again,
saying – it is perfect without us,
but as we meet here, we share
words and your hand shaping
the flow, the brute
and graceful wings.
And our feet beat solidly on the bridge.

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