Poetry Pamphlet Reviews & Features

Run by HappenStance Press

Ludovic Press, 2008   both £5.00 - http://www.jimcarruth.co.uk/publications.html  

Cowpit Yowe follows Carruth’s previous books Bovine Pastoral and High Auchensale in focusing exclusively on agriculture and the rural landscape. It does so using (unusually) predominantly concrete poetry, Carruth undoubtedly taking his cue from fellow Scots poet Edwin Morgan. This means that the lines might wind across the page in imitation of the furrows made by a plough; the text may be exploded into fragments of words or the skin of a sentence flake and float away. There is ‘found’ poetry too, the most interesting example of which is ‘Farm Sale Fragments’, a simple list of no-longer-needed equipment—scrap—that powerfully implies the velocity of change in the industry. As a sort of counterbalance to this, the lines in ‘Lot 76’ can be read in any order, suggesting the leisurely pace (or mundanity) of everyday existence.

It is a valiant and thoughtful attempt to unite the apparently incongruous, bringing together tradition and innovation, the trusted and experimental, the old and the new, and using the juxtaposition itself as a symbol for the way in which the agricultural lifestyle is adapted to change. It also has the effect of making an argument for inclusivity in poetry, combining as it does a subject matter and a style that are each on different outskirts of the modern mainstream.

Beyond the initial effect, however, Cowpit Yowe is often difficult to penetrate, and the inclusion of more familiar pastoral themes (‘The season turns’) sometimes makes the stylistic experimentalism seem like window dressing. The title poem seems to depict crows crowding around an eye, but I couldn’t be sure of that. The danger of visual experimentalism in poetry, as always, is that its impact may come at the expense of clarity.

 

Baxter’s old ram sings the blues, the second of these two pamphlets issued at the same time, pairs a single, 70-line poem of Carruth’s with Robertson’s striking lino cuts. A foreword by Richard Holloway compares the result to the parables of Jesus which “never propounded theories” but “asked questions”, but this doesn’t seem quite right. For one thing, it is more fable than parable, since its focus is on the animal. For another, parables contain explicit lessons based on a central moral dilemma. Baxter’s old ram lacks both the moral dilemma and the resulting lesson, instead recalling stories like E. B. White’s Charlotte’s Web and Dick King-Smith’s The Sheep Pig, though there is something more adult/absurdist about “the flock’s father” using the last of its strength to sing a week-long burst of blues. The poem also has hints of the urban legend or folk tale about it.

Carruth’s language is strongest at the beginning (With a gushing bloom of slack-jawed drool..”) and end (he reached out, held his ram close, rocked it slow/gently squeezed the song out of its last breath) but becomes more prosaic towards the middle, where the poem takes a sharp turn towards social satire. It is here, however, where the message of the poem seems to be centred, as the media and the world at large respond to the news of the crooning ram with opportunism, interpreting it to their own ends rather than letting it stand for itself.

The linocuts perform the difficult task of adding to the content of the poem, rather than merely illustrating it. The medium is well suited for intoning the age and wretchedness of Baxter’s ram, with its tired eyes and two visible teeth, as well as the deep lines in the faces of farmers, the lushness of fields and the anguish of Baxter himself. It may not make you “look at yourself and the world you live in”, as Holloway suggests, any more than a typical newspaper horror story, but Baxter’s old ram sang the blues is a sad, soulful and imaginative book nonetheless.

Jon Stone

What the Common Reader says about Jim Carruth’s Baxter’s Old Ram Sang the Blues:

Despite the fact that some of the linocut illustrations to this poem are very beautiful (and relevant), I didn’t feel the balance was quite right: this pamphlet was illustration heavy. The more I get drawn into this poetry business, the more I appreciate the print size and style which contributes to readability. Carruth’s writing is very easy on the eye. It is quite an absurd idea that a ram should burst into song but Baxter’s did—and the front cover illustration is the proof. The ordinary merges with the extraordinary. I was totally hooked by this improbable story. Carruth has a wonderful gift as a story-teller and I thoroughly enjoyed reading this particular tale.

 

And the Young Reader has the last word:

This chapbook looks fantastic. The lino cut illustrations on the cover and right through the book are quite beautiful, and work perfectly with the story. I think the story is really about how the true meaning of things can be lost when people try to use them to get what they want without really understanding them, and it could apply to organised religion, art, music and lots of other things. It’s a moral story that doesn’t try to preach to its readers, and it’s brilliant.