Russell, (Irwin) Peter
RUSSELL, (Irwin) Peter
Nationality: British. Born: Bristol, 16 September 1921. Education: University of London, 1946–50. Military Service: British and Indian Army, 1939–46. Family: Married; two sons and two daughters. Career: Owner, Pound Press, 1951–56, Grosvenor Bookshop, 1951–58, and Gallery Bookshop, London, 1959–63; lived in Venice, 1965–83. Poet-in-residence, University of Victoria, British Columbia, 1975–76, and Purdue University, West Lafayette, Indiana, 1976–77; teaching fellow, Imperial Iranian Academy of Philosophy, Tehran, 1977–79. Editor, Nine magazine, 1949–57. Since 1990 editor, Marginalia.Awards: International Le Muse prize for lyric poetry, Florence, Italy; international Dante Alighieri prize, for Dante and Islam, Accademia dantesca casentinese. Address: c/o Marginalia, La Turbina, 52026 Pian di Scò, Arezzo, Italy.
Picnic to the Moon. Privately printed, 1944.
Omens and Elegies. Aldington, Kent, Hand and Flower Press, 1951.
Descent: A Poem Sequence. Privately printed, 1952.
Three Elegies of Quintilius. Tunbridge Wells, Kent, Pound Press, 1954.
The Spirit and the Body: An Orphic Poem. Privately printed, 1956.
Images of Desire. London, Gallery Bookshop, 1962.
Dreamland and Drunkenness. London, Gallery Bookshop, 1963.
Complaints to Circe. Privately printed, 1963.
Visions and Ruins: An Existentialist Poem. Aylesford, Kent, Saint Albert's Press, 1964.
Agamemnon in Hades. Aylesford, Kent, Saint Albert's Press, 1965.
The Golden Chain: Lyrical Poems 1964–1969. Privately printed, 1970.
Paysages Légendaires. London, Enitharmon Press, 1971.
The Elegies of Quintilius. London, Anvil Press Poetry, 1975.
Acts of Recognition: Four Visionary Poems. Ipswich, Suffolk, Golgonooza Press, 1978.
Theories. Tehran, Crescent Moon Press, 1978.
Elemental Discourses. Salzburg, University of Salzburg, 1981.
Malice Aforethought: Satirical Poems. Salzburg, University of Salzburg, 1981.
The Vitalist Reader: A Selection of the Poetry of Anthony L. Johnson, William Oxley, and Peter Russell, edited by James Hogg. Salzburg, University of Salzburg, 1982.
All for the Wolves: Selected Poems 1947–1975, edited by Peter Jay. London, Anvil Press Poetry, and Redding Ridge, Connecticut, Black Swan, 1984.
Quintiliiapocalypseos fragmenta. London, Agenda, 1986.
The Duller Olive: Poems 1942–1958 previously uncollected or unpublished. Salzburg, University of Salzburg, 1993.
A False Start: London Poems, 1959–1963. Salzburg, University of Salzburg, 1993.
Berlin-Tegel, 1964: Poems and Translations. Salzburg, University of Salzburg, 1994.
Venice Poems, 1965. Salzburg, University of Salzburg, 1995.
More for the Wolves. Salzburg, University of Salzburg, 1997.
Africa: A Dream. Salzburg, University of Salzburg, 1981.
Teorie e Altre Liriche. Rome, C. Mancosu, 1990.
Poetic Asides, 2 volumes. Salzburg, University of Salzburg, 1992–93.
The Pound Connection. Salzburg, University of Salzburg, 1992.
The Image of Woman as a Figure of the Spirit. Salzburg, University of Salzburg, 1992.
From the Apocalypse of Quintilius. Salzburg, University of Salzburg, 1997.
Something about Poetry: Selected Lectures and Essays by Peter Russell. Salzburg, University of Salzburg, 1997.
The Global Brain Awakens: Our Next Evolutionary Leap. Shaftesbury, Element, 2000.
Editor, Ezra Pound: A Collection of Essays to be Presented to Ezra Pound on His Sixty-Fifth Birthday. London, Peter Nevill, 1950; as An Examination of Ezra Pound, New York, New Directions, 1950.
Editor, Money Pamphlets by £. London, Peter Russell, 6 vols.,1950–51.
Editor, with Khushwant Singh, A Note … on G.V. Desani's "All about H. Hatterr" and "Hali." London and Amsterdam, Szeben, 1952.
Editor, ABC of Economics, by Ezra Pound. Tunbridge Wells, Kent, Pound Press, 1953.
Editor, The Consciousness Revolution: A Transatlantic Dialogue, by Ervin Laszlo. Shaftesbury, Element, 1999.
Translator, Landscapes, by Camillo Pennati (bilingual edition). Richmond, Surrey, Keepsake Press, 1964.*
Manuscript Collections: University of Buffalo, New York; Humanities Center, University of Texas, Austin.
Bibliography: A Bibliography of the Writings of Peter Russell by Glyn Pursglove, Salzburg, University of Salzburg, 1995.
Critical Studies: "Quintilius: Three Elegies" by Edward O'Neill, in Comparative Literature (Oregon), 1955; "Between the Lines" by Kathleen Raine, in Southern Review (Baton Rouge, Louisiana), spring 1974; "Pagan Idioms" by Peter Levi, in Times Literary Supplement (London), 6 February 1976; A Servant of the Muse: A Garland for Peter Russell on His Sixtieth Birthday, Salzburg, University of Salzburg, 1981, and The Salzburg Peter Russell Seminar 1981–82, University of Salzburg, 1982, both edited by James Hogg; "By What Criteria" by William Oxley, in Salzburg Studies in English Literature (Salzburg), 1983; A Vitalist Seminar, Salzburg, University of Salzburg, 1984; "The Poetry of Peter Russell" by Peter Levi, in Agenda (London), 22(3–4), 1985; "Cultivating Asphodel and Hemlock in the Garden" by Robert Nye, in The Times (London), 27 February 1985; "Peter Russell's poem "Smoke'" by Anthony L. Johnson, and "Touchstone and His Dilemma: The Poetry of Peter Russell" by Stephen Wade, both in Vitalism and Celebration, edited by Hogg, Salzburg, University of Salzburg, 1987; "Agamemnon in Hades: Peter Russell's Philosophical Diary" by Wolfgang Reisinger, in Outsiders (Salzburg), 1, 1989; "Una Voce dimenticata: Peter Russell," in Il Sole 24 ore (Milan), 31 July 1991; "Ishmael among the Scriveners" by Thomas Fleming, in Chronicles (Rockford, Illinois), November 1991; "Peter Russell: Teorie" by Glyn Pursglove, in The Swansea Review (Swansea), 8, October 1991; Peter Russell: Poet and Publisher (dissertation) by Michael Wagner, University of Salzburg, 1991; "Homage to Quintilius Stultus" by W.G. Shepherd, in Marginalia 7 (Pian di Scò, Italy), December 1992; "Peter Russell" by Gisbert Kranz, in Inklings: Jahrbuch für Literatur und Astetik (Aachen, Germany), 9, 1992; "La poesia di Peter Russell" by Emanuele Ocelli, in Talentino (Torino, Italy), March 1994; Peter Russell issue of Agenda (London), autumn 1994; "Peter Russell's Selected Poems" by Joy Hendry, in Marginalia (Pian di Scò, Italy), 1994; "For Love of the Muse" by Stacey Kors, in Chronicles (Rockford, Illinois), November 1994; "Life Is a Celebration Not a Search for Success': Studies in the Poetry of Peter Russell by Anthony L. Johnson, Salzburg, University of Salzburg, 1995.* * *
For many years Peter Russell was perhaps the major neglected talent of our time—the author of one of the finest books of purely "English" lyrics (The Golden Chain) since the 1960s; the author of a gigantic, mostly unpublished epic poem, Ephemeron, running to some two thousand pages; and the author of Paysages Légendaires, a book impregnated with great wisdom and that music the Celts call cael moer, or "great music." In Russell one was dealing with not just the Poundian theory of the multilingual poet of the future (and Russell was Pound's greatest disciple) but also with the realization of such a poet as fact. The sheer magnitude of the job of investigating the innumerable works produced by Russell since Picnic to the Moon in 1944 was not a sufficient excuse for not trying. Still less was it an excuse for the wanton neglect of a poet of whom such a figure as Hugh MacDiarmid had written, "Peter Russell is, in my opinion, a writer who has so far received nothing like due recognition … no one in Great Britain today has rendered anything like the disinterested, many-sided and sustained service to Poetry," the latter comment referring to Russell's work as editor of Nine and as publisher of many of today's established figures long before they were known.
In the early 1970s Enitharmon Press published Russell, as did Anvil Press beginning later in the decade. Since that time Anvil and, later, the Salzburg University Press have endeavored to tackle the daunting task of publishing the poet. As a result, by the 1990s the true stature of the poet had become better recognized. The prestigious literary journal Agenda produced a handsome issue that amounts to a partial Festschrift on Russell's work, while the University of Salzburg announced a further volume of studies for the poet's seventy-fifth birthday.
Of Paysages Légendaires, Hugh McKinley's phrase "tribute open-eyed, yet illuminate, of life entire" is remarkably apposite. This is how the poem opens:
Palladian villas and the changing seasons
An old man digging in the shade
The gold sun varnishes
The small viridian of the elms
And gilds the hidden cadmium of the glades.
In fact, the expression throughout is best described as an openeyed style.
The book also is a rare work of unimpeachable seriousness and poetic wisdom. Perhaps the most interesting feature of Paysages Légendaires, and the explanation of its style, is the absence of a close or particularly tense (or overtense) verbal and syntactical density, which induces an unusual clarity in the verse. This goes a long way toward compensating for the major disadvantage of a modern sequential but nonnarrative long poem, namely, the breaks in continuity that so trouble the average reader. It is a poem that reads well.
The sheer intelligence of the poem commands respect, but what matters is that one feels it to be an extraordinarily "aware" poem, a poem aware of and in touch with the mainstream of human thought. This awareness of the "now" is undoubtedly achieved by a profound knowledge of the "then" and exemplifies what is, perhaps, the poem's central preoccupation:
It will take time to build again,
To build the soul's tall house,
The tower of the wandering self
Foursquare beneath the moon.
Many people, myself among them, think that poetry—the "real" part, the heart's meat of the matter—is the line or lines of words that are necklace perfect. It is something that glitters with ineffable quality, wisdom, beauty, and life, a kind of instant revelation in words, the discovery, as Russell puts it, that "every natural effect has a spiritual cause /(That which is above, is below)." Indeed, if poetry is the unshakable line, the memorable phrase, then Russell is one of the best English poets writing.
Myth is the stuff of thought, one might say, and Paysages Légendaires is a "thoughtful" poem. There is little concrete description, and where there is, the object tends toward the emblematic and metaphorical. There is, however, one short passage in which the descriptive element is uppermost:
Sweet bones are growing in the earthly night
Slow maturations in the endless dark
Of subterranean galleries, telluric force
That broods whole centuries upon a single grain
That crumbles or coagulates.
One gets a sense of the tremendousness of life, its continual working. The key word is "broods," which reveals brilliantly the meaning behind the description, the life within.
Apart from the practical problem of the range of Russell's work, there is another problem, which is only a "problem" in the framework of present-day poetry's dusty picture. This derives from the fact that the more one reads Russell's poetry, the more one realizes that it demands imagination. In poem after poem one finds the feeling transcending the flat detail of experience.
There also is a copious knowledge displayed of life both past and present, and at times there is that true linguistic metamorphosis that provides a permanent frame—be it only a single good line—in which the present is held up before our eyes to be seen in infinite terms. Therefore, parodying Pound, these poems must "go to the imaginative" if they are to be understood and to the serious if they are to be loved.
More and more certain and clear lines of achievement have come to be appreciated since the appearance of Paysages Légendaires. The first achievement became apparent with the publication in the mid-1970s of The Elegies of Quintilius. These are a series of meditations by a fictitious Roman poet, supposedly of the latter days of the empire. Writing in the Times Literary Supplement in 1976, Peter Levi said of these "spoof" poems, "In The Elegies of Quintilius the mask, if it is one, fits so closely to Mr Russell, as the mask should in the perfect translation, that there is no useful distinction between persona and personality … They are readable, excellent poems, and it would be crazy to dismiss them as pastiche … He ought to be reviewed by the best English critics, not as a Classical joke." Not only have more and more critics come to appreciate these elegies, but the poet himself has considerably expanded the corpus of "Quintilius's" writings, so that there now exists an almost cosmic mind history of both the real and the imagined poet via the developed vehicle of the sequential poems. Further examples of these poems have appeared in the volume of selected poems published by Anvil in 1984 and elsewhere.
The second major strand to emerge stretches forward from the aforementioned Golden Chain volume and is composed of a seemingly endless flow of lyric poems, many of them highly formal. These culminate in, but have not ceased with, a large bilingual volume (in English and Italian) entitled Teorie e Altre Liriche and published in Italy. The weakness in this volume, and to some degree in the whole of Russell's lyric achievement up to this book, is a tendency to repetitiveness of rhythm and a not infrequent rhythmic awkwardness. That said, however, what cannot be denied is his frequent ability to make palpable the haunting music of the true romantic poet, and the "great music" present in the more impressionistic Paysages Légendaires appears even in his most formal lyrics.
It has to be admitted, however, as Dick Davis observed on reviewing Russell's All for the Wolves: Selected Poems 1947–1975, that there are a number of difficulties in getting "at the substance of Peter Russell's achievement," not least of which in Davis's view is the fact that "Russell's public persona is so close to Pound's as to seem almost a parody of it." To this I would add the too overt influence of the satirical Roy Campbell. But in the final analysis the chief difficulty that critics must experience in coming to terms with Russell's poetry is the cumbrous and inept working of so many lines in what would otherwise be very good poems, a fault almost certainly due to a lack of attention to rhythm and diction that derives from a deficiency of self-criticism by Russell of his multitudinous outpourings. Those features that Davis describes as "less beguiling" and that he exemplifies as "the Wardour Street language of many of the poems… the woodenness of rhythm in some of the rhymed verses, and the laxness of rhythm which seems to indicate a laxness in the mind that conceived the poem …" are barriers to a wider appreciation of Russell's work.
But the third strand of achievement is one that constitutes, if not a complete rebuttal of Davis's strictures on Russell's work, at least a considerable sidelining of them. The publication of The Duller Olive, A False Start, and Berlin-Tegel, 1964 by the University of Salzburg, in conjunction with the two Anvil Press volumes, go a considerable way toward overcoming the difficulties in getting "at the substance of Peter Russell's achievement." Not only do the three Salzburg collections have fascinating introductions by the poet—introductions that, for once, enhance the reader's view of the poems and do not detract from or overexplain them—but they also go a long way toward providing the critical focus that has hitherto been lacking on the tremendous output of this poet. It can now be safely claimed that those barriers I formerly felt were "insuperable" to the wider appreciation of Russell's work have begun to crumble rapidly.