Will Daunt looks at the work of Roger Elkin and the critical relevance of his latest project The F Word
Roger Elkin’s influence and contribution as an editor, writer and teacher populates much of the landscape of contemporary English poetry. Over forty years, the expanse and skill of his creative output, research, and editing has opened eyes, ears and minds to the complexity and the wealth of the ways in which we are driven to write.
A poet’s work depends upon craft and determination and Elkin’s achievements are inextricably linked with the extraordinary vision and work ethic that defined the period between 1992 and 2006, when, after a formative period co-editing Prospice, he took sole charge at Envoi, which was already 35 years old.
Sadly defunct since 2020, the magazine under Elkin was an exemplary platform for writers and readers interested in poetry, and not simply a vehicle for poetic ‘product’. It was, above all, a dynamic creative environment which published poetry of extraordinary depth and breadth: its editorials, features, reviews and letters reached far out into the community of writers. Without faction or favour, Elkin was as equitable as he was honest in what he said in the journal, and in how he communicated with the countless writers who submitted to Envoi. Other editors often sidestep that thankless task by returning a standard rejection slip. Despite the occasional bile provoked by his personalized and constructive responses, Elkin stuck to the principle, helping a generation of writers.
Envoi under Elkin was an exemplary platform for writers and readers interested in poetry, and not simply a vehicle for poetic ‘product’
Looking back, Elkin records the extraordinary – and difficult – steps he took to revise completely the journal’s editorial process. He says, “[Envoi] had a team of 25 sub-editors. The Editor posted out submissions to these: any one poem had to be voted positively by three sub-editors to be considered suitable. The Editor then sequenced the Contents. It was a lengthy and cumbersome procedure. My first editorial action was to thank these 25 for their commitment over the years, and ask them if they would act as competition adjudicators, and / or reviewers. I wanted to edit the magazine entirely, and expand the readership. I wanted the magazine to be self-funding via subscription, and I wanted to show that I read submissions – hence my infuriating / helpful pencil suggestions and return letter with ideas for development etc.”
Over time, Elkin reduced the magazine’s review team to three. R.V. Bailey and the late Eddie Wainwright set the critical bar very high – the former measured, subtle and rigorously detailed, the latter blunt and (sometimes brutally) clear. But they were both ruthlessly and demonstrably fair. (I was the apprentice.)
In 2005 the legendary Headland press had published Blood Brothers, the touchstone to Elkin’s writing up to that point. Its ‘new and selected poems’ includes generous quantities from the first five collections and a further 17 original poems. One of the newcomers, ‘Deep In Lanes’, describes beautifully the timeless dilemma for writers: how to connect. A father takes stock as his son is unexpectedly moved by the Rachmaninov that’s playing on the car radio:
What point this fencing over words or
names of flowers, indeed what point of speech
in such incongruence of need.
Ironically of course, the poem’s evocations answer that question (without the need for a question mark).
Two books preceded the Envoi period. 1988’s Pricking Out was followed in 1996 by Points of Reference. The latter features a photo of Elkin as a boy on the (now) Croatian island of Rab, by a war memorial, and an introductory note which describes a section of Istrian poems “as a celebration of former more harmonious times; and as a prophetic pointer to the pervasive historical and cultural tensions that have subsequently consumed the majority of the Balkan population.” This captures how a poetic imperative can energize Elkin, as it does in Home Ground (2002). This title holds a key to all of Elkin’s work: its groundedness. The introduction places a dedication to Elkin’s late mother in the context of the Staffordshire Moorlands. As a “third generation outsider”, Elkin expands upon the writer’s relationship with his ‘home’ environment, that groundedness manifesting itself in those intimate relationships between land and people, subject matter and form. He says, “I have tried to marshal language and form to celebrate the unbridled energies and enigmatic purposefulness of Nature. In turns, sad, cruel and strangely uplifting.”
In 2006, and on the cusp of leaving Envoi, Elkin produced the wryly-titled Rites of Passing, its contents marshalled over a twenty year period, and released with a relish for what the final poem calls “the newness of today”. As in the title piece, subject matter is pursued elegiacally, with finely-tuned irony, via:
[…] the ordinary rites that constitute
the passing grandeur in the wrongs of things.
Another piece about ‘Grandad’s Half-Hunter’ ends with a sober rallying cry for the next phase in its author’s life:
imagination’s my watch, and time its enemy.
In an interview with Mandy Pannett, Elkin admits that “During those 15 [Envoi] years I wrote three poems”. Mandy Pannett: Interview with Roger Elkin, Sentinel Poetry Movement Literary Quarterly, (April 2014). Small surprise, therefore, that Elkin’s own writing flourished after his final Envoi, in 2006. Since then, he has added a further eight collections to his canon, with numerous competition-winning poems, magazine placings, adjudications and occasional reviews. So, his gifts to poetry have externalized themselves after his gruelling stewardship of Envoi. And the more recent collections have at least the heft of their predecessors: powerful subjects, memorable voices and a continuous fascination with form. My review of 2007’s No Laughing Matter reflected that “Elkin’s writing is informed, but never overbearingly so”. That finely tuned judgement – of when, how and why to write – generates the authenticity of Elkin’s work, and, as Don Paterson puts it, makes it “simply very interesting”.
Elkin says, “I have tried to marshal language and form to celebrate the unbridled energies and enigmatic purposefulness of Nature. In turns, sad, cruel and strangely uplifting
I asked Elkin for his Desert Island Favourites and they reveal his catholic tastes just as they illustrate how his writer’s voice was born fully-formed: it is as innovative as it is poetically literate. He’d choose Ken Smith’s Shed alongside the collected poems of Peter Reading, U.A. Fanthorpe, Thom Gunn and Ted Hughes (with Gaudete). Like that of his Envoi stablemates, Wainwright and Bailey, Elkin’s writing is anchored by extensive reading, but fiercely independent of what anyone might expect it to be.
Take 2011’s Fixing Things, the wonderful re-imagining of the outdoor world that his father inhabited. Not for the last time, Elkin retrieves some of the poems from an earlier collection: here, Pricking Out. Such revisiting only works with a writer who hit the ground at speed in youth, and has the creative stamina to sustain that quality over the decades. And they need the skill to be able to create the greater good: a project which is as coherent as it is affecting.
The collection revives and celebrates a garden, and its gardener. That intimacy is of course explained in part by the filial bond, but in the evocation of one ‘ordinary’ English garden there is an extraordinary level of detail and stylish variation. Look at how the diction changes in ‘Transplanting’, like a generational shift:
But under bench, his awkward foot rooted to the spot,
boots snagged movement, legs grew plumbing, veins chained
But I could bend and reach; spin; turn;
duck casually and stretch. Soon knew he needed me
Two books then followed in quick succession. Bird In The Hand is another thematic exploration: uncompromising both in terms of its quantity and quality. Perhaps ‘anyone’ could write over 100 pages of poems about British native birds, but has any other book of verse ever achieved this degree of insight into the subject, with such wit, lucidity and craft? Here’s some of the book’s characteristic lyricism, in a tribute to the poets’ champion of Belfast: Dennis Greig:
Yet, just now, as they banked together,
line after line, piloting with one mind,
they flowed like ripplings of tide
licking and lipping at the shore.
(from ‘Peak District Lapwings’)
The F Word: The Leading Question
None of this prepares the reader for The F Word. Published in part in 2020 as The Leading Question, the poems in this project followed a reading and shortlisting in 2004 at Strokestown in Co. Roscommon. Then there was a visit to the town’s National Famine Museum. Elkin describes how his response and his writing quickly became, “an investigation of the tragic events surrounding the potato blight: soup kitchens, task work, meal roads, evictions, emigration, coffin ships, government inadequacy and incompetence”.
The Leading Question is a riveting and critically important read: accessible, shocking, intricate and assiduously researched. Its larger hinterland will continue to be a labour of love for Elkin. He says, “[The F Word] occupied ten years of research, drafting and redrafting and was ready for publication in 2014. It then took seven years doing the rounds of publishers, several of whom thought it ‘worthy’ and ‘needing to be published’, before The High Window Press took it up in 2021, but in the form of the ‘selected poems'” [i.e. The Leading Question].
The Leading Question is a riveting and critically important read: accessible, shocking, intricate and assiduously researched
One sequence from The Leading Question was first published in Ireland by Lapwing in Dog’s Eye View. The ten poems of ‘Dan Byrne’s Hunger’ are a taut and powerfully envisaged set of stories, each taking the reader deep into the experience of a kind of insidious genocide. Elkin says, “The use in 1846 of the word ‘holocaust’ by Strokestown’s Father McDermott to describe what by implication the English government was doing, opened up the topic to link with 20th Century events in Europe”.
‘Dan Byrne’s Hunger’ is purposely a “difficult”, “unpalatable” and “gruelling” read”, marked by desperate searches for food: a dead fox rotting in a trap, “about a quart” of blood drawn from a terrified heifer, or digging deep to catch a badger’s “sagging bag / of flesh”. The fraught exploits of Dan, the Reilly brothers et al. might have been comic elsewhere, but they describe the outer limits of human survival. In ‘Famine Pit’ a victim called Padraig is carried for five miles on “the plank / from the back of his dresser” to the graveyard so that Dan and his mates can be paid a few “coffin pence”. But first Dan has to scan:
[…] the tumbled
pile of bodies, and amid the mix of limbs and swollen forms
picked out the shape of six faces and heads.
The intensity of this kind of poetic timbre exemplifies how subtly Elkin weds his subject matter to its form, or as Belinda Cooke puts it, “So frequently, these days, contemporary poets seem to be mainly concerned with content, but, for Elkin, sound and meaning are inextricably linked and always consciously combined.https://newwelshreview.com/the-leading-question
Elkin says, “It was essential that while the subject remained consistent, in order to maintain reader’s interest there should be variety in the expressive means – hence the use of different voices, found poems, factual listing etc. But you might notice that repetition, assonantal patterning, and participle use are strategies employed”. This is rivetingly true. The opening poem, ‘Holding’, is beautifully poised and delivered with a calm assonant lyricism that inevitably plays upon the subject matter and position of ‘Digging’ in Heaney’s Death of a Naturalist:
[…] this potato, flat in the hand,
its shape filling the palm-bowl,
fully: rounded, smooth, pebble-like.
But there’s a lot more going on here. While the pen in Heaney’s hand is “as snug as a gun”, Elkin points out that, in ‘Holding’, “the shape of the potato in the hand is gradually compared to the holding of a weapon – the famine could be seen as part of the policy of genocide / ethnic cleansing – English against Irish – Protestant against Catholic – wealthy landowning aristocrats against poor farm tenants etc”.
The targets of the title poem are defined by negatives, initially. More than the Famine’s imperatives (the “Legality”, the “Economics”, the “Logistics” and the “Ethics”), ‘The Leading Question’ demands that we consider:
Not these, but the riddle
of where History ends and Literature begins.
For Elkin, “the potato becomes the poem becomes the weapon with and by which the reader becomes alerted … can the collection be considered as poetry or as history?” That question is the first of several that the poet wants the collection to provoke: “How valid / valuable is [The Leading Question] as a record of history? What’s in a label? What is the Leading Question? What’s the purpose / function of poetry?” The poetry continuously sets these kinds of challenge for the reader and, like the most effective teaching, leaves the answers to emerge from our encounters with this book. What we learn, feel or enjoy from the poems will be determined by numerous subtleties.
For Elkin, “the potato becomes the poem becomes the weapon with and by which the reader becomes alerted … can the collection be considered as poetry or as history?”
For example, our response to that “leading question” is focused abruptly by the mouth-watering cargo of Irish exports to England on one boat, in “that first Famine winter”. The sudden shift in register and the found poetry of the “bill of entry” sets out the cynical exploitation of Ireland’s commercial and human economies, including “209 pigs … 338 bags oatmeal … 550 firkins butter” and most tellingly “47 bags potatoes”.
Elkin has structured The Leading Question with great care, ensuring that poems two to four reflect the journey towards and the shock provoked by the Famine Museum visit. Following some genially-delivered directions, Elkin drives past the ‘Statue Group, Custom House Quay, Dublin’. His English perspectives are arrested immediately by the famine-stricken tableau: “Turning backs on Ireland and the soil that has worn them / sickle-thin to betrayal.” 175 years on, it remains as important as ever that Britain understands the depth of its responsibility for what happens on the island of Ireland.
But “the lights change” for Elkin’s party and he returns to that other dilemma:
[…] Given what we’ve seen in Art,
what use in letting History put its special slant on truth?
As John Shapcott puts it in his article, ‘Roger Elkin’s North Staffs Poetics’: “Prior to Coetzee’s polemic [The Lives Of Animals] there was unofficial literary consensus, best expressed by Theodore Adorno, that to write poetry after Auschwitz was barbaric because there were no words to express the horror, but some poets – and I include Elkin in this group – insist that bearing witness is part of a poet’s duty.”John Shapcott: Roger Elkin’s North Staffs Poetics, January 2021
The challenge of bearing witness continues to unfold in ‘Journeying’ and ‘Stable Truths: The Irish National Famine Museum’, the latter leading us into a “block of Georgian elegance”. This was the home of the Mahons, who Elkin describes as: “An English aristocratic landowning family, [who] became the Earls of Hartland as a reward / bribe for their support of the 1801 Act of Union. The house was eventually inherited by Major Dennis Mahon, who was assassinated in 1847 – the first English aristocrat to be killed in the Famine.”
Elkin prefaces the next part of The Leading Question by challenging the unversed reader with the conclusion to ‘Stable Truths’, and its ironic title, with: “And do words betray where silences deceive?” He’s just listed six “prescriptive terms” that characterize the famine, just as they underline how little it is understood outside Ireland. Test yourself with “conacre”, “booleying” and “spalpeens”. The poem ‘Spalpeens’ reinforces how Ireland’s poorest were a caste cast aside by the English, on both sides of the Irish Sea. In their homeland:
they outlawed themselves in mountain glens,
the blue-misted hills, the heath-thickets, and brown peat-bogs …
where they dragged their families up.
Across the sea, they become “British citizens hi-jacked into penury”, and the poem’s later voice shifts sharply into something more journalistic. This shows how that critical part of the populace was (is?) seen, not as headline-snatching atrocities such as: “Chinese cockle-pickers, / […] Vietnamese gagging for air / in the backs of container wagons” but as an ignored underclass: ” itinerant beggars / that most of England / thought it wise to deny.”
With Swiftian explicitness, the poem imagines the recipes for “the round Cabbage”, “the fatter January King”, and so on, as a series of mutilations
A satirical voice is raised by Elkin in ‘Cooking Cabbages’, which uses Delia Smith’s dilemmas about how to cook the vegetable as an exercise in unknowing complacency. The notes tell us that, in the Strokestown region, “7,500 people were existing on boiled cabbage leaves once in forty-eight hours (October 12th 1846)”. With Swiftian explicitness, the poem imagines the recipes for “the round Cabbage”, “the fatter January King”, and so on, as a series of mutilations. And from the first line of ‘Summing Up’, you know that its subject, the devious soldier and M.P., George Charles Bingham is a ‘bad ‘un’ since he was “good with sums”.
The F Word: A Party Business
And what of the remaining poems from The F Word, uncollected in The Leading Question? As John Williams puts it: “If the other poems from that sequence are as good as the ones in this selection, then the full collection deserves comparison with other masterpieces of human suffering: such as Akhmatova’s Requiem of the Stalinist Terror, Celan’s Todesfuge of the Holocaust, and Yang Jisheng’s Tombstone the epic about Mao’s Great Famine.”https://londongrip.co.uk/2021/06/london-grip-poetry-review-roger-elkin/ These “residue” poems have been re-assembled as A Party Business. This focuses on the Mahon family and the estate of Strokestown Park House, home of Major Denis Mahon, the first English aristocrat to be assassinated in the Great Irish Potato Famine, and whose stables house the Irish Famine Museum.
Two illustrations preface the poetry: Mahon, in a posed lithograph, and an extraordinary (and rare) photograph of an Irish labourer from the period of the Famine. These are followed by Elkin’s judiciously-crafted notes: “In 1847 Mahon paid £4,000 for the emigration to Canada of 1,000 tenants, nearly a quarter of whom died en route. Subsequently, large numbers of his tenants refused to go to America: Mahon responded by evicting 600 families involving about 3000 persons. Major Mahon was shot to death on the evening of 2 November 1847.”
Rich material indeed. Like its sibling volume, A Party Business begins with poems of orientation (some of these appearing also in The Leading Question). First in the ‘Prequel’, ‘Ireland’s 9/11’ provides another brutal contemporary resonance. Bad enough, the Cromwellian sacking of Drogheda in 1649, and the slaughter of the Irish / Royalist forces and many civilians, including children. Equally dreadful, the ‘justification’ and judgements of the English authorities, a.k.a. The Lord Protector of Ireland:
This was a righteous judgement of God
upon those barbarous wretches.
Or Cromwell quoting the psalms as justification:
Happy shall he be that taketh and dasheth
Thy children against the stones.
Central to the poems that follow are the six that comprise ‘The Mahon Acrostics: A Party Business’. Their titles are repeated as acrostics, reflecting the poet’s playfulness while accentuating the horror. Deftly, Elkin winds into these texts considerable italicised first hand evidence, as in ‘Despite Opposition, The Clearances Continue Apace With Force’, where the “tenantry, wound up to vengeful / exasperation” suffer:
… the loss of exiled relatives, as well as by hunger
and pestilence … The idle display of a large force of military and
police, carrying outside so many rounds of ball cartridge …
and inside … bacon and baked bread, surrounding the poor man’s
cabin, setting fire to roof, while half-starved, half-naked children”
escaped “the flames with yells of despair”.
Subtly, Elkin weaves his own narrative into the story, as in the fifth poem, which tells of Mahon’s death at “Doorty Bridge”
“Ten minutes before six. We should be home about half past,”
declared Major Mahon as they approached the outskirts
of Four Mile House, just before Doorty Bridge. Suddenly,
out of the gloom two figures emerged from behind the coping,
raised firearms a-cock, and two angry blasts of duck-shot
thundered out, breaking the peace. Horse bucking, the phaeton
yawed to a standstill.
Elkin’s English perspective is cleverly bound into the collection’s last sequence, ‘A Question Of Faith: St. Giles, Pugin and John Talbot’. He explains, “I also found links with my own locality. For example, James Bateman of Biddulph Grange regularly contacted John Lindley, Secretary of the Royal Horticultural Society, who had the task of discovering the reason for the potato blight. Also John Talbot, sixteenth Earl of Shrewsbury … The country’s leading Roman Catholic, with vast estates in England, Wexford and Waterford, he commissioned Pugin to build St Giles’ church at Cheadle, at an initial cost of £4,000 which with all the artistic, architectural, sculptural … I have not seen any reference to Talbot / Shrewsbury’s support of his Irish peasantry; on the other hand, I haven’t read that his Irish tenants underwent any suffering.”Mandy Pannett: Interview with Roger Elkin, Sentinel Poetry Movement Literary Quarterly, (April 2014).
But the poetry begs the question about suffering. The sixth ‘Mahon’ poem, ‘Talbot’s Irish Concordat’, describes Talbot’s differences with his fellow Catholics, and then quotes one of his open letters (here in italics). He:
[…] Criticized Strokestown’s Catholic priest,
Father Michael McDermott, “dedicated builder
of churches” and “martellus haereticorum”,
alleging that his public attack on Major Denis Mahon
had directly led to his death
There was not a reasoning man in the three kingdoms
who doubted the formal denunciation of Major Mahon
from the altar.
Once again, Elkin is not ‘writing history’ here: he’s entwining poetic exploration with shrewd shifts of form and finely-curated sources.
175 years on, it remains as important as ever that Britain understands the depth of its responsibility for what happens on the island of Ireland
‘Leaving’ concludes both A Party Business and The F Word. It leans those nineteenth century cruelties against the ordinariness of the ferry home, appropriately via Liverpool. There’s one mood for the imagined: “Not for us / the gagging stink between orlop decks / with cattle sashaying in the mire below.” Another for the remembered. And the project’s concluding lines show how the deeper experience is always a mix of what we’ve learnt and what we’ve felt and experienced:
our heads filled with images of Ireland,
earth stone bone history
and the curve holding it all together
the holding of this potato
Already, The Leading Question is a critically-important poetry book. But its larger and unpublished text, its full inception, is a giant in the world of creative responses to history: its voices pierce your imagination and your conscience. They must be heard, not least in England, now.
Roger Elkin’s Poetry
Pricking Out (Aquila, 1988) ISBN 0-7275-0401-0
Points of Reference (Headland, 1996) ISBN 0-903074-80-X
Home Ground (Headland, 2002) ISBN 1-902096-72-X
Rites of Passing (Shoestring, 2006) ISBN 1-904886-43-4
Blood Brothers, New & Selected Poems (Headland, 2006) ISBN 1-902096-96-7
No Laughing Matter (Cinnamon Press, 2007) ISBN 975-1-905614-34-9
Dog’s Eye View (Lapwing, 2009) ISBN 978-1-907276-24-8
Fixing Things (Indigo Dreams, 2011) ISBN 978-1-907401-27-5
Bird In The Hand (Indigo Dreams, 2012) ISBN 978-1-907401-87-9
Marking Time (Sentinel Poetry Movement, 2013) ISBN 978-0-9568101-1-3
Chance Meetings (Poetry Space, 2014) ISBN 978-1-909404-11-3
Sheer Poetry (Dempsey& Windle, 2020) ISBN 978-1-913329-16-7
The Leading Question (The High Window, 2021) ISBN 979-8-696331-61-4
Reviews of The Leading Question
Roger Elkin’s poetry has received the Lake Aske Memorial Award (1982 & 1987); the Douglas Gibson Memorial Award (1986); the Sylvia Plath Award for Poems about Women (1986); and the Hugh MacDiarmid Trophy (2003). He became the first recipient of the Howard Sergeant Memorial Award for Services to Poetry in 1987; and was The Writer’s Rostrum ‘Poet of the Year, 1991’.
Will Daunt and The Friday Poem would like to thank Roger Elkin for his written answers to questions drafted for this piece.
|↑1, ↑5||Mandy Pannett: Interview with Roger Elkin, Sentinel Poetry Movement Literary Quarterly, (April 2014).|
|↑3||John Shapcott: Roger Elkin’s North Staffs Poetics, January 2021|