Editorial to Issue 17: The John James / Chris Torrance Special

Welcome to Issue 17 of Junction Box. This is a special edition celebrating the life and work of two poets with strong links to Wales, each of whom died fairly recently. John James was born in Cardiff and spent his early years there. Chris Torrance grew up in London and moved to Wales in the early 1970s. For both poets, to different degrees, the landscapes and townscapes of Wales held a fascination, nostalgic or otherwise, as did aspects of its industrial and rural past and its ancient literature. But it’s rarely really so much about Wales as about place, internal and external, modes of belonging, transpositions and overlays of identity. For Torrance, more or less pinned to one very particular location, the continual need to find ways of productively responding to it drove his attention deep into the rocks, atmosphere and ecology of the place. James’ interests and concerns are rangier, more widely diffused through textual and terrestrial space, but still the ‘here and now’, with its unique articulations, is crucial to him.

These are two very different writers, of course. James, superficially at least, is the more sophisticated poet, more rhetorically-minded in a classical (or is it romantic?) sense; his ironies run deeper, his literary/cultural contexts are more intricately woven, perhaps more ‘worldly’. An intellectual but also a sensual poet, luxuriating in the unfolding of locutionary pleasures, the prosodic play of weight, measure and tone. A connoisseur, say, but always in a spirit of spontaneity, sometimes discursive, sometimes ferociously pouring it all out; gargling each utterance’s quotient of aromas. There is more to it, of course, than the pleasures of life and eloquence: there is fun, but there is also an undeniable portion of melancholy; the abysses, political, personal and all the rest, are active, you feel, within the dancing surface, or bubbling away just below, pressing up against it. The poet’s relish for the objective details of everyday existence is suffused with supple ponderings about the self: what is it? how to accommodate its requirements in relation to the world and others?

For Torrance, there is a similar, possibly narrower but more acute question hanging over his work – how to live, how actually to evolve a workable and fulfilling existence, as a writer and a human being in a locality as remote and as physically and spiritually demanding (as well as magical) as the one in which he has planted himself, in a situation almost without redress. How to survive but also how to celebrate. So that considerations as to who he is in the where he is, and what in fact is this ‘where’, have often a really gritty, blunt, nobbly sense of immediacy. The work is diaristic, often directly and urgently narrative, not so much concerned with the aesthetics of the individual poetic line as with a ‘field’-based accumulation of recorded facts, about his life and the world around him and his research into the foundational knowledges pertinent to the place, or tangentially productive in relation to it: geological, botanical, mythological etc. Having said that, Torrance’s constructions are nearly always skilful, witty and varied, and there’s no shortage of highly savourable individual lines.

Neither of these poets is without their moments of difficulty, either at points of sheer density or in making leaps which take nimble work to follow, James especially, but both have a quality of accessibility. This is partly to do with their liberal use of the conversational mode, in which elements of narrative and anecdote reside happily, whether in fulsome or fragmentary form, but also with each man’s capacity for vividly evoking objects and actions in the world around them, the phenomenology of the passing moment. Each can be filmic, although Torrance is sometimes more documentary in his approach, James more likely to veer off into more obliquely imaginative or surreal positions, driven by the thrust of his own rhetoric.

One striking similarity is the importance that weather and its sky-effects seems to have for each poet. Weather as a kind of interface where the self with its fantasies and abstractions comes up against the endlessly self-renewing fluidity of the objective world; the refreshment of an ever-changing dailyness in all its fascinating details. Torrance can often be found expanding his observations into geo-mythical-meteorological terms, or following the phenomena into more scientific arenas, wondering about the position of the fronts and the jetstream and so forth, whereas for James the weather is the weather. But still, for both men this is an important matter, to do with textual and existential orientation and punctuation. The weather with its antics keeps the action live, is restorative but also transformational, an interruption which can set the mood and the movement churning in another direction.

Neither is afraid of being personal, autobiographical, sometimes as it were rather nakedly, even comically so. You come away from an extended reading of Torrance with some wonderful snapshots of a man sliding about in the mud in his wellies, cutting wood, watching birds, ducking jets and moping clumsily through an unrequited love-affair. James, too, that’s to say the persona he wants to present to us, seems vividly present in his poems, though often in a more fractured way, more densely mediated through language and reference, but we are still left with so many loveable images of a singular human-being moving through rooms and streets, meeting friends, eating and drinking.

Two fine, tremendously readable poets, full of energy and joie-de-vivre. Loveable and very much worth celebrating.

I say loveable and it’s clear that these men had a gift for friendship. Some of those friends have written for this edition of Junction Box and there is a variety of approaches to the celebratory task. There are memoirs here, poems, articles and critical studies. Some of the work featured has appeared previously in other places. Wonderful to have it all, for which we’re grateful to all contributors. A special debt of thanks is owed to Ian Brinton for his invaluable help in getting this edition together. Also to Phil Maillard, who is now Torrance’s literary executor.

Issue 17 ends with three poets whose featured work is not related to the James/Torrance theme. Thanks for their notable contributions too.

A special salute here to Alan Halsey, who died recently. A marvelous poet who will be very much missed.


Lyndon Davies


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