The Man Who Loved Wooden Boats

Having been told that Bill Griffiths was a Hell's Angel, I felt a bit intimidated when we met in Earl's Court back in the 1970's. It was sometime before he appeared on the cover of Simon Pettet's mag, SATURDAY MORNING (issue #4), when he was emerging as one of London's most interesting innovative poets. At any rate, I had to ask him about his "Love" "Hate" knuckle tatooes, and yes, he said, he had seen Robert Mitchum in NIGHT OF THE HUNTER. I thought Bill's forearms resembled Popeye's, but I may be imagining it. I know Bill wouldn't mind my mentioning that he was the most tatooed poet in the long history of English literature because when we saw each other in a pub he liked (The North Star) across the street from the Finchley Road tube (after he had moved to Seaham and was in London doing a fine tuning on the Eric Mottram Archive for King's College), we talked tatoo, and I said that in the event I ever introduced him at a Reading I'd like to say that. He was chuffed (a word I picked up in the North of England in 1967-'68 watching Ena Sharples on Coronation Street). His first published poems appeared in POETRY REVIEW, Autumn 1972, and the opening poem of his CYCLES ON DOVER BORSTAL was reprinted along with two others from that sequence in SIXPACK, issue number 3/4, Spring 1973. It opens thus:

As I ain't like ever to be still but
Lock and knock my sleep.

The complex of the fort against the French, Dover,
'S mighty imperfection: fits to the sea.

* * * * *

At running in the sun
I thought
This serious, my world is.

* * * * *

Rowed up in roads, housing cuddling cold
Sky's lead, is closed in of fear
Just keeps crying
Get punished: punched by the sea
Shit on by the rain.

He became a small press publisher (Pirate Press) issuing the first bilingual edition of BEOWULF in England in over 100 years, although the translation, by John Porter (cover by the inimitable Jeff Nuttall), still today an excelllent antidote to the populist version by Heaney, met with silence from critics, disdain from academia, and today it is becoming almost as rare as the original of Blackburn's EL CID. He was a student of Anglo-Saxon Literature, earning a Ph.D. Even then, the police kept tabs on him; loyal to his friends he was. Here is Bill writing of a visit to Durham prison:

A vast speculation
each supports, uses, is practical

we are plump pillars
a sequence
count up and it is a sentence

and their motto reads
(right to left)
had a good reason for everything

or declare the product the cause

we that wish to bring you the truth
which is the consequence of so many molecules
and may not be explained.

Such are the conditions of help.

(from DURHAM & Other Sequences, West House Books, 2002)

Eric Mottram and Clive Bush had commented on how so many of Bill's poems register the sound slightly before the sense comes to consciousness. This is from "Mantras" in NOMAD SENSE (Talus Editions, 1998):

All th'ev'ry-day daubing-on
fresh tinkle art
yellow ground 'n' red-teddy
all-year paint-maintain and move.

A good van
'n' all th' lettring you-can-eat.

I would she-sez
if they were-not-all
so man-an-man ,
but The-lord-of-life
keeps bedward
keeps-close keeps-dumb

'Not travel.'
Static feet shuffle-switch,
Prod-at sheets.
'Have home.'

It could be DHL's GIPSY (Bill was also a translator of Romany poetry), or a girl with a red parrot walking along the beach, but it is "painting job with-the fairground-people" and the precision of the voice, comes from his musicology, not just piano and the writing of music as he had done as a young man, but also from Balinese gamelan, of which he was an afficionado. That plus, as he said to Cris Cheek in the old SATURDAY MORNING interview, "Crabbe, Keats, and Hopkins, where increasingly you're getting use of all aspects of a word for its function in a poem, both its meaning and its rhythm and its phonetic sound, its contexual placing..." Muriel Rukeyser became an influence later on.

His tending-his-garden poems may remind one of Neruda's odes to various vegetables, but his language is more akin to an upside-down roto-rootered ALTAZOR enhanced with the syntactical synapses and jump-cut discourse-shifts of TRILCE. From "A Review of Vegetables" in DURHAM & Other Sequences:


"No, it must have been someone who looked like me."
Spoke the potato, and very cool.
My authority in jeopardy.
Zig and zag, they may.
I invoke the concept of collective responsibility and cook the lot.


... like newborn.
Humans do look like tubers, sometimes.
Ginger, Mandrake, Horseradish
hairy, bulby, lumpy, stumpy limb
the forked carrot they said was the prophet Elisha.

For the systems of roots are as marvellous as the upwards
can you doubt this under-world or downward-world?

I think not.

Bill's last book was PITMATIC: THE DIALECT OF THE NORTH-EAST COALFIELD, a valuable work of which I am sure he was justifiably proud, though always modest, this hard and gentle man.

"...a genuine in a poetic and academic world of mostly arseholes....he wore his scholarship gracefully and lightly" Tom Raworth had said on hearing of Bill's death, and although the last time I saw him was on the London bus of THE POETRY BUZZ, the last time we had a one-on-one was at that pub on Finchley Road when, even though his legs were badly swollen and he was anxious to return to the high Northeast of England, to Seaham, to the place he had come to dig into and to love, the place which was his final port, Bill was a romantic old salt, and we spoke of his possibly voyaging out into the great south seas, a journey he, like me, was always ready to make, even though we both knew it was highly unlikely.......... "and though
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are --
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield."

Bill Griffiths, poet & scholar, 1948-2007. r.i.p.

(fulsome obituary by Nicholas Johnson in THE INDEPENDENT, September 20th, and by Professor Will Rowe, King's College, London, in THE GUARDIAN (Sept. 22). William Rowe is also the editor of The Salt Companion To Bill Griffiths. Generous selection from THE MUD FORT (Salt Modern Poets) also on-line.)

ADDENDUM: from an interview with Bill Griffiths by Bridget Penney and Paul Holman....

"Why am I so set against the reality that authority has designed for us? When I went around with bikers in Harrow and Uxbridge, there was almost constant but small run-ins with the law, and one day I was called in and interrogated by detectives about a series of local break-ins which I had nothing to do with, but I guess somebody had given them my name to get the pressure off themselves. I was not very well treated. They let me go but later that day I got into an argument in a pub and was challenged by three people. Because I felt really angry, I wouldn't back down but as a result I got a bad cut on the head from a glass and had to stop fighting from lack of blood. I was in a bad state for some weeks after that, and during that time I was picked up by the police and remanded in Brixton prison for possessing a small knife which I was actually using as a pencil sharpener. The problem was that because of my injuries I couldn't speak very clearly and this was taken as a sign of aggressive non-cooperation. I was put into solitary and did not appreciate the experience of being locked in a wing where all you had all night was continual screaming. Eventually a psychiatrist came and told me that if I didn't give up my ambitions to write and get a sensible job, the court would send me to prison, so I compromised and got a job as a gardener and continued writing, but I have determined never to write the sort of poem that is simply entertaining, that helps people carry on enjoying the world as it is."