I was in the front bar of the Conway. This was back in the days when the Conway had a front bar. It was here that the great Anglo-Welsh poet and filmmaker John Ormond held court. Ormond had risen to fame by making unparalleled documentaries about the poet R S Thomas, by writing verse good enough to get Oxford University Press to publish, and for knowing Dylan Thomas personally. There’s a photo, somewhere, of a barely recognisable Ormond sitting on some rocks with a few other people. One of them is allegedly Dylan.
John was generous with his time. He’d looked at my amateur verse on a number of occasions and actually bothered to make suggestions which helped me improve it. “Why not take the beginning and put it at the end” was one of his better ones. I was the new white hope. This mainly because I was young, omnipresent on the nascent literary scene and full of energy.
“The trouble is, Finch,” he told me, “that they won’t be putting ‘he had energy’ on your gravestone.”
I didn’t know what he was talking about so he explained. “You need to start writing something of worth.”
The big literary subject of the age was the battle between form and content. Being full of enthusiasm for poetry but not actually having very much to say was anathema to John. Much of the theorising went back to Charles Olson (1910-1970) and his Black Mountain College in the Appalachians. His manifesto on Projective Verse had much to answer for. “A poem is transferred from where the poet got it, by way of the poet, all the way over to the reader.” Poetry as energy, poetry as flow. “Form is never more than an extension of content,” as Olson’s pupil Robert Creeley put it. Much of this was taken to mean that form on its own was sufficient. Not really what Olson meant, I believe, but what many of his followers actually carried out.
In my case that translated into an enthusiasm for the art of verse itself rather than what verse could do. Nothing much, the saying goes. Ormond begged to differ. “You must have a message,” he insisted. “Celebrate, describe, honour, encourage, excite, manipulate, promote. You need to do those things.” So I did.
I suppose that as my ability to work in a range of forms has expanded over the years I’ve learned that the content of what I want to say usually dictates the form it will eventually take. Some things are prose fiction, some extended verse, some post-modern shake-ups in sound and letter. The idea arrives first then you work out where to take it.
Olson, revered as one of the great twentieth century American poets, was never readily available in the UK. You could read about him and the work of his pupils but rarely could you get your hands on the poetry of the man himself. I was once standing on the poetry balcony at the second iteration of the Welsh Arts Council’s Oriel Bookshop. The one in the Friary, Cardiff, at a time when commerce was beginning to rear its difficult head. I was manager. I was showing Andrew Motion around. “What I’d like to see,” I said, waving at the endless shelves of titles, “is something like a collected Olson appear from Penguin. Wouldn’t that be a great idea?” There was silence. Motion was still. Then he spoke. “No. I don’t think so,” was all the future poet laureate said.