This thoughtful, constructively critical review of No Shore Too Far appeared in New View issue 84, Summer 2017, and was written by David Donaldson. We love how deeply he’s thought about it, and how clearly he’s expressed his thoughts. You can find out more about New View here.
In the last issue of New View, [Spring 2017] Jonathan explained what lay behind this recent collection of poems – for in addition to finding ways to cope with the death of his wife, it also provided an opportunity to articulate the essence of what he’d gathered from over forty years as a student of Rudolf Steiner and to do that in as simple and accessible a way as possible, something for which his experience as a maker of film documentaries had well prepared him: that ability to focus on the essence of a subject.
The poems, therefore, touch on a wide range of themes that will indeed be familiar to those well versed in Steiner’s work and do so in many ways that are clear “without pretension, that marry deep feeling and thoughtfulness, opening us towards a sense (so difficult to articulate) of another level of reality.” (Jeremy Naydler, as quoted on the back cover).
They range from everyday trials (News, for example) and poignant memories as in Marmalade:
But now there’s only one jar left,
and that I’ll have to keep;
for stored up there
is treasure rare
Which helps me not to weep.
To wide-ranging metaphysical perspectives, alluding to Leibniz in No Shore Too Far: This is a question so profound-/ it stops me in my tracks.
There’s also an acknowledgement that such pondering that draws my gaze/ beyond the hills/ to things we cannot see may become unbalanced:
I sometimes wonder
if I dwell too much
on what to some
must often seem
not quite to do with life. (Moving On).
This links with his self-deprecating lines where he compares his own to his wife’s very different kind of mindset:
A Cambridge girl herself
trained to spot flaws
in wooly folk like me. (Icy Winds).
While essentially agreeing with Jeremy Naydler’s assessment, I’d like to consider aspects of the collection that might be off-putting to those people Jonathan expressed a hope to reach in his New View article [Spring issue 2017]: “people who don’t have the time or inclination to read lots of books” but might be won over if the essence of a subject “is sincerely and simply expressed.”
There’s no doubt that these poems remain both clear in their general thrust and highly accessible throughout – whether dealing with humdrum details or far-reaching speculations about the nature of things. But there’s a monotony in the style and a use of rhythm and language which resorts to archaic inversions and clichés and poeticisms that can make the writing seem old-fashioned at times and therefore damages its accessibility not because the sense isn’t clear, but because it sounds as if it belongs to a different age:
And if I heed/what whispers thus/from lessons long ago/so grows the strength… (Immortal Life)
This smacks of ‘poetic’ not contemporary language. So also, for example:
The working of those spirits flawed (Trust) or
And all those scenes sublime (Insight)
Again: but they are toys when you compare/those rockets sleek.
Why not ‘flawed spirits’ and ‘sleek rockets’? Because the rhythm doesn’t work. But then there’s a choice between resting content with poetic inversions from 200 years ago or working harder at the choice of word if the line is to communicate a contemporary sensibility. After all, one isn’t working within a demanding rhyme scheme that could have justified such inversions in the past
The best of the poems avoid such archaisms but there’s a liberal sprinkling which, I suggest, doesn’t make for the contemporary accessibility the poet is hoping for.
Another point is the repeated use throughout of ‘perhaps’ and ‘maybe’. Such words are the death of poetry! Imagine doubting Thomas after placing his hand in the side of the Lord saying ‘Perhaps you’re now my Lord and God’ or ‘Maybe it’s true after all.’ So, for example:
Perhaps that god has come to us/and lives in eyes/of quite a different kind…/And maybe such a power as that,/which needs our trust to grow… (Vision)
Together still, united in our search/for what I sometimes call/a bigger picture:/a journey and a quest/that maybe never ends. (A Bigger Picture).
It’s a salutary exercise for any poet to deny themselves the indulgence of using either ‘perhaps’ or ‘maybe’ and working with the issue at hand to tease out a sharper and more authentic response. After all, the metaphysical issues at stake here have to do with touching into reality, touching the hem of the garment as it were, and ‘maybe’ or ‘perhaps’ just won’t do!
But this is a beautifully produced book and at 147 pages there’s a wealth of material to dip into. It’s also worth mentioning that the book itself is described as ‘Meditations on death, bereavement and hope.’ The word meditation is important because, despite the stylistic issues I’ve raised, there is a depth of thoughtfulness here which rightly claims our attention. Here’s one to finish that has no maybes, and only one inversion which I won’t begrudge because it makes such a telling use of rhyme!
What we imagine/has a power,/that as we wiser grow,/could echo what imagined us/in ages long ago.
But we are free/what route to take-/it could go many ways./Creation that is fit to last/needs us to think and pray. (Imagination).
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