John James has been published as a poet since the 1960s, and was one of the poet/publishers of that decade's fabled British Poetry Revival. James's writing is rooted both in working-class Anglo-Welsh culture (born 1939 in Cardiff) , and a picking up of a lively, informal urban modernism, epitomised by radical American poetry of the 1950s and 60s (as reflected in his pioneering little magazine The Resuscitator), and indeed by trends throughout Twentieth Century European poetry since Apollinaire and Mayakovsky. His is a poetry far removed from the cloying and unexpansive suburban domesticity of much recent English mainstream writing.
James was a member of the English Intelligencer/Cambridge Poets grouping towards the end of the 1960s, and his poetry shows their typical features of a wide cultural range of references, energy-filled ellipses of meaning, and a complex but relaxed discourse rooted in human utterance. But his poetry always approaches its reader/audience on a more human level than Cambridge poetry is often felt to, and James has always been a compelling and exciting reader/performer. Indeed, Andrew Duncan claims him as "perhaps the best reader of poetry I have ever heard, and all his poems work best in that format: everything that is not immediate is discarded, while the logic of the poem jumps to something new, with daring montage logic, at every turn." Actually, they work damn well on the page too.
John James's poetry then is quick, intelligent and amused/amusing — "sprezzatura", that valued Renaissance quality of masterful nonchalance is a term I'd use for his typical tone. Though James was early on in his career labelled by his friend Andrew Crozier, as
a city boy at heart, and his delighted and informed enjoyment of the cultural forest through which we wander is as apparent as Frank O'Hara's (a writer important to him), poems increasingly often spring also from the landscapes of Wales and Ireland, places of resistance to the dehumanising power of Imperial British capitalism. Though he has mainly lived and taught in Cambridge since the late 60s, it is significant that his career has been at what is now Anglia Ruskin, rather than the other well known educational institution in actuality more concerned with reproducing our social elite.
Until the Salt Collected Poems of 2002, his publications were largely small press books and pamphlets, some produced in collaboration with artists, eg Bruce McLean: Berlin/London. Readers also eagerly await from Salt the long forthcoming The Salt Companion to John James (edited by Simon Perril).
Things to look out for and enjoy: John James's relaxed and expressive reading — this is a man who can interact with an audience without faking it; the rapid, coruscating play of image and variation; the mingling of the important worlds of human appetite (lots of food as well as love and companionship), contemporary culture (music and art especially) and political anger; sheer bloody humour (can you ever now forget his book title Schlegel Eats a Bagel?); an exquisitely pitched voice, sometimes long drawn out and angry, sometimes quick and aphoristic — but always coming from his skilled control of language. That crucial Cambridge attention to language as the centre of attention in a poem is always there, even in the most political or humane works — the contemporary dystopias excoriated and the actual threatened utopias hymned are real, and their reality is within the language embodying them in the poem (as well as in our lives).
Peter Philpott, September 24, 2009