Robert Sheppard: ‘Swift Songs’ and Essay on James’ ‘A Theory of Poetry’

Swift Songs for John James

Late Advance to Bonheur

i.m. J.J.

the Atlantic Drift scrum
spiders ahead to leave us
pacing behind

I’m attentive to frailty
the dandyism of the advanced guard

we plod the endless perimeter
of the museum’s black railings
its global plunder sealed for the night

all the tourists off to their bolt holes
all the wage slaves back to the peripheries
(even as far as Cambridge)

August Sander’s ‘last people’
swept out of our way

all the poets ahead of us, it seems

to play catch up I sing
through Fred Astaire

the British Museum
had lost its charm

you laugh and your laugh
dances along the pavement

jouissance on its last barricade




big ‘Old’ England – we’re still here
and most of us are ‘not bad’ – as we
pour fire on fire and fail to get it

and now? What can we do
nothing that doesn’t acknowledge
our own servility


oh! trades-union banners riding the slavish winds



Night and Day

passing under the railway bridge
by the Dragons’ Teeth, concrete pyramids
left over from the War, trains tremble

above, flashes of light on the wet road either side
stop to feel this moment without movement
late workers and night workers cross their rhythms


… as you walk out into morning sun and rain
the cry of gulls has displaced
the blackbirds’ songs with blasts of panic

and laughter. The blackberries on the common
even up the municipal alley, are there for the taking
but the peasantry has forgotten how to forage

they get their mates to phone the foodbanks for them
in such a State interest rates rise
to keep the living wage unliveable



11 August 2022: Radical Landscapes

we drift through the gallery
whose exhibits keep reminding us of poems

(I’m thinking of your rivers Severn Avon Cam Thames Taff
where trout leap, no sewage dumped in their heat)

between the ‘Trespass’ documents and news cuttings
rises Peter Riley’s The Ascent of Kinder Scout

beneath the photos of burning headdresses of New Year tar
chants Tom Pickard’s ‘Dancing Under Fire’

Ken Smith’s priapic chalk Cerne Abbas Giant
poses twice, as photograph, as throbbing neon

even Bryan Winter’s abstract hail of seed
concretises WS Graham’s wordblind blasts

at last! We find your friend Richard Long
circling Dartmoor, a revolution of sorts

‘still holding the line still walking the line’
continuously from your poem for him

Ian Hamilton Finlay speaks for himself by quotation
in eclogic Latin, on guillotine blade

Zoë Skoulding’s A Revolutionary Calendar
literalised in the wilting plants and working implements

of Ruth Ewan’s
‘Back to the Fields’

the isolate potato
the threatening axe

quartidi 24 Thermidor
the year of the Republic CCXXX



Bending the Ear

they sound in my dream
or are left as echoes

as I plunge up
into a day that carries

me onto and out of
the tin-eared magic

of feigned foreignness but
those words I woke with

our finite rituals in the service
of an infinite obligation

seem somehow balanced
against the englishing Dictate function

of my laptop that hears
my hard-picked word

jouissance as
‘swift song’


June – August 2022



CLICK HERE TO READ: John James and Poetics – ‘A Theory of Poetry’



Robert Sheppard edited Atlantic Drift with James Byrne, which includes the work of John James. His most recent books are Bad Idea from KFS, part of his sonnet-project ‘The English Strain’, and a reprint of Collaborations with Bob Cobbing from Veer. His selected poems and a book of essays on his work are both available from Shearsman. He lives in Liverpool and from the top of the hill he can see Wales. He is currently editing the New Collected Poems of Lee Harwood with Kelvin Corcoran.



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