In 1973 a book of my poems entitled ELSEWHERE appeared in the first Peterloo Poets Series edited by Harry Chambers and published by E.J. Morten (Manchester).
Elsewhere – Poems by David Selzer Peterloo Poets Series
Edited by Harry Chambers © 1973 by David Selzer ISBN 0 901598 85 2
2023 being the fiftieth anniversary of the book’s publication I have decided to re-publish the volume on my website as a flipbook and as a pdf. Each has been painstakingly produced by Sam Hutchinson, who designed my website and maintains it.
Each is a facsimile of the original book and not just a copy of the poems. Readers need to bear this in mind when searching for a particular piece. For example, the first poem Connections 1 is on page 15 of the pdf but listed in the Contents as being on page 11 of the actual book.
View the pdf page turner:
View / download original .pdf:
The ELSEWHERE 1973 & 2023 project is in four parts – the first two appearing in April and June, and the remaining two in September and December 2023. The flipbook and the pdf will be included in each part, accompanied by an article about the work. The first article [https://www.davidselzer.com/2023/04/elsewhere-project-1973-2023-part-1/] was by Alan Horne – editor of Between Rivers and one of the original contributors to Other People’s Flowers. Clive Watkins [https://waywiser-press.com/clive-watkins/] – another of the original contributors to Other People’s Flowers – has kindly agreed to contribute the second.
ELSEWHERE Poems by David Selzer: A personal review by Clive Watkins.
David has invited me to write about his first collection, ELSEWHERE, in this, its fiftieth anniversary-year. I am very pleased to do so. It is a strong collection.
In a special sense, David is an old friend. He and I were both students at Liverpool University in the ’60s – and members of the student union’s Poetry Society. Largely as a result of David’s efforts, the Poetry Society at that time offered a vigorous and engaging programme of discussion, workshopping (as we might call it now) and readings. The twin high-points of the readings were the visits on separate occasions of a young Michael Longley and a young Seamus Heaney, events made possible by David’s energy and contacts.
I purchased ELSEWHERE in the year it came out, 1973. At that time, my wife and I were still living in Liverpool, though I was already teaching in a high school on the Wirral peninsula and driving through the road tunnel under the River Mersey each day. In 1976, we moved over the Mersey to live in Gayton in the Wirral. From our back garden we could see the Dee and the hills of Wales. We were, in fact, living on the edge of the territory that figures so prominently in David’s poems – though David and I has gone our separate ways after university.
At last, around 2010, I bumped into David again on the internet at the website he had set up not long before. Since then, I have enjoyed reading his new poems as they have emerged there, and we have corresponded frequently.
Against this background, in addressing ELSEWHERE I want first to discuss two batches of early poems by David, twelve in all, that I have been carrying with me from house to house for the past fifty-seven years. They exist as two sets of cyclostyled sheets distributed at meetings of the Poetry Society. Though none of the poems is dated, details in some of them suggest they may have been composed not long before they came into my hands. What interests me is the considerable gulf in manner between those early poems and those David published in 1973, as well as the continuities of theme and process I think I detect. What was entailed in the transition from the earlier to the later mode?
Their form is interesting. All twelve, totalling 506 lines, are in metre. Of these, 317 are blank verse. Of the rest, 172 are rhymed pentameters. Thus, 489 lines out of 506 are five-beat lines – that is, nearly 97%. On this showing, pentameters, unrhymed or rhymed, were in that early period David’s preferred metre. Furthermore, of these twelve early poems eight employ strict rhyme and are couched in traditional forms. Three are Petrarchan sonnets; five others are in set stanzaic forms. Of the twelve, only one, Time’s Countries, was carried across into ELSEWHERE, where it has been lightly edited but is substantially unchanged.
These formal characteristics alone suggest a general affinity with what have been called the Movement poets of the Fifties – poets such as Robert Conquest, Kingsley Amis, Philip Larkin and John Wain – though how far they constituted a coherent group has been contested. What they had in common was a rejection of the techniques of Modernism as those had emerged in the work of T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound, and a belief in poetry as a branch of rational, culturally sanctioned discourse. However, to suggest such an ancestry for David’s twelve early poems would be to overlook their diversity of manner and substance. There are poems on personal occasions; there are poems on more public themes. Sometimes I think I catch the tang of Larkin writing in one of his more acidulous moods, as in Age. Here is the first stanza of its seven:
Archie, their cancerous budgerigar,
Pants in his cage. The old folks sigh.
The room lets in a patch of sky
That parts the curtains like a scar.
The old folks and the budgie die.
The mocking tone of another, H.M.S. Intangible, and its use of a refrain put me in mind of Kingsley Amis. Here are the first two of its four stanzas:
When the last drunken rating is aboard,
And the wardroom and every mess deck full
Of how this one was bilked and that one whored,
From Hong Kong, H.M.S. Intangible,
The last and most expensive of her class,
Sails for the islands with a falling glass.
The captain thinks the chance of storms is slight.
His officers sing rugby songs, and vet
The misspelt letter home board seamen write.
The Chinese launderers think of Marx, and sweat.
The last and most expensive of her class
Sails for the islands with a falling glass.
In their kind, these two poems are not unsuccessful; in particular, the second rehearses a theme David will revisit many times; but he will go on to write much stronger and more inventive poetry.
Also of interest is the length of some of these early poems and their tightly interwoven texture. Five run to more than forty lines, that limit loved by magazine editors and those who organize poetry competitions, but some run considerably beyond this. This is particularly true of the four poems in blank verse. These are Private Massacres (109 lines), Someone Has Set It Down (87 lines), Thursday’s Children (75 lines) and Lark Ascending (46 lines). The rhymed poem, Time’s Countries, half of whose lines are pentameters and half tetrameters, has 90 lines. It is true that several poems in ELSEWHERE come close to or, indeed, in one case significantly exceed, these line-counts: New Heroes (54 lines: PDF page 27), The Chimney (54 lines: PDF page 29), The Zoo (142 lines: PDF page 32), Babel’s Villa (62 lines: PDF page 37), Elsewhere section 6 (79 lines: PDF page 56), Elsewhere 12 (75 lines: PDF page 56), Scott’s Last Expedition (69 lines: page 59); but the differences between the earlier group and these later poems is illuminating.
First, all seven of the later poems are written in a free verse of predominantly shorter lines – in many cases, lines with as few as four or three words; some lines contain only a single word. Secondly, though I have not made a systematic survey, I have the strong impression that sentences in the later poems tend to be shorter than those in the earlier poems. These differences in metrical and syntactical voicing enable wider expressive effects. Thus, the texture of the later poems is more fluid and open. It allows the importation of quotations and other kinds of verbal borrowing, as well as sudden swerves in register – as, for example, in New Year 1970 (PDF page 20) and Elsewhere section 2 (PDF page 47) in an eclectic and omnivorous style derived ultimately from the practice of those same early twentieth-century Modernists whose techniques the Movement poets of the Fifties had rejected.
Another enabling possibility of David’s new style is that poems can be constructed out of smaller units, units which do not necessarily have to follow a straight-line narrative or argument but can be assembled into a kind of tessellation. This is obvious in the two sets of poems entitled Connections (PDF pages 11 and 20), which, in opening the book, set down a marker for this kind of thing, and also in The Zoo, but less obviously and perhaps more subtly in other poems, such as section 12 of ‘Elsewhere’. In these ways David’s new manner diverges strongly from that of the earlier poems, where the forward thrust of the metre and the tendency for the sentences to be longer, their energy always moving ahead towards syntactical and logical resolution, results in a more closed effect. (About David’s non-metrical verse I will have more to say below.)
Yet there are continuities, too. The longest pre-ELSEWHERE poem , The Private Massacres begins as an account of a fun fair – ‘the draughty palaces of fun, / The pleasure castles of democracy’, with ‘glaring stalls / That offer up expected booty – dolls, / Fruit dishes, coconuts’ – before turning to the ‘wax works’ that ‘displayed for years / The past – the bold, the noble and grotesque’. The second paragraph introduces the Chamber of Horrors in a description whose climax is ‘A new exhibit – What the Nazis Did / Pictures from Auschwitz Concentration Camp’. The following paragraph, which runs to forty-six lines, develops this topic, describing the cruelties and hypocrisies of the communities among whom those deported to the East had lived, cruelties and hypocrisies which the poem, in its repeated first-person plural pronoun, implies may also be our own:
Our next door neighbour whom we envied, loathed,
To whom we were polite, now by decree
Is public enemy who poisons wells
Though last week played the violin perfectly.
Excluded from the club, his window smashed,
He’s hung up silent in the yelling square;
His wife is dressed to wash a General’s foot;
A reading lamp shines through his daughter’s skin….
The poem concludes with a return to the present of the fun-fair. The bitter contrasts and evoked parallels are unmistakable.
Though, in its length, its elaborated syntax and its wealth of sardonically observed detail, The Private Massacres appears to stand at some distance from the more clipped manner of many of the key poems in ELSEWHERE, its mode is not dissimilar: the juxtaposition of divergent occasions with the implied encouragement to the reader to compare and contrast. It is a mode that David has continued to use in many, much later poems on his website.
I am not surprised that David did not republish The Private Massacres, however. It is not, in my view, entirely successful, though it demonstrates David’s willingness to tackle big topics, and, in this instance, a topic very close to him. The deployment in the long third section of horrifying details from the history of the Holocaust risks appearing generic and second-hand – like items borrowed from a newsreel, perhaps – though of course each enshrines a deeply appalling human experience. Addressing such material presents profoundly difficult ethical and aesthetic problems. I wonder if the issue is one of style. The very fluency of David’s blank verse – that running medium – somehow weakens the charge of his writing. This is true of another of these otherwise promising early poems, Thursday’s Children (‘Thursday’s child has far to go’). This describes a school assembly featuring the hymn All Things Bright and Beautiful. The Head Master is shown as appallingly out of touch with his students and their pinched circumstances. But set Thursday’s Children alongside the concision and lyrical force of a famous poem by another schoolmaster – Charles Causley’s Timothy Winters – and the undermining weakness of its fluency becomes clear. (Causley’s thirty-two-line poem can be found here: https://poetryarchive.org/poem/timothy-winters/).
But ELSEWHERE contains effective poems in manners other than the clipped and elliptical. An instance is Babel’s Villa (PDF page 37), which happens to illuminate further the transition from those early poems to the more mature style of the book. In the sheaf of poems from the Sixties there is one with a private and domestic slant entitled Shadows:
Like effigies upon a hidden tomb,
Silent, love-making over, hand in hand,
We watch the night sky from our attic room.
Unseen street lamps colour the narrow strand
That lies between the stars and town like sand.
Light does not reach us here. Close in the dark,
Wrapped in the dull, electric air we lie,
My wife, myself, our child. Here we embark
Upon the sure and private course we ply
That sovereigns us, from choice, high up and dry.
The thunder breaks. We see our daughter stir
As lightning shimmers through the dusty pane,
Kicks out the shadows, does not waken her,
And almost imperceptibly, as rain
And ragged thunder drum on our domain,
Lie closer palm to palm – and not so sure
We are not stranded here, as lightning fades
And baby sighs, where chancy lives abhor
Storm’s accidents. We weather most blockades,
Until the shadows thicken into shades.
Babel’s Villa and Shadows are clearly cognate. The imagined situations are close, and the themes are similar – for example, the sense of a house threatened by a storm, yet still providing shelter; fear for the safety, both now and in the future, of a young child. In both poems, the adults are like ‘effigies upon a hidden tomb’ (Shadows) or ‘like figures on a tomb’ and ‘effigies’ (Babel’s Villa). Babel’s Villa, however, places itself some three years later, for it seems the ‘baby’ is now a three-year-old; also, the relationship between the adults seems to have subtly shifted. I guess, too, that the houses in the two poems are not the same.
However, unlike the turn away from the extended (the over-extended?) manner of The Private Massacres, here the movement is in the other direction: the later poem is indeed longer than the earlier one, but it gets a great deal more out of the set-up than its more tightly drawn predecessor. One important aspect of this is the wider range of tones and techniques David’s new manner admits. For example, just in the first few lines, there is the wry humour of ‘Home-owner’s water torture’, the zeugma (underlined by alliteration and the line-break) of ‘My roof / and my rest are leaky’, where the leaky rest will admit the disquieting thoughts that the poem goes on to present. Later, there is the flash of anger, very relevant to a poem with this setting, displayed in ‘Our childhood fields / are sown with paper houses / and instant community, where again, the line-breaks are made to work hard. Three lines on, the slackening of the storm is evoked by the lyrical assonance in ‘Gusts ease / under eaves’, an effect beautifully softened by the run of three words opening with vowels. As the poem turns to the wakeful child, we have the powerfully evocative ‘wind moves / like a cry in the throat’ and, later still, ‘Memory / is full of razors’. The following lines are particularly strong, their indirections hinting at kaleidoscopically diverse meanings, both private and public, an effect mediated in part by the ambiguity of the first-person pronoun, which (rather as in The Private Massacres) might be confined to the couple or be extended to human beings in general:
In the attic,
mice scratch – like my discomfort,
unreachable. We have laid poison
in shadows. I found a corpse,
its delicate guts nibbled at.
They are cannibals, mastering
our poisons, our sly
refinements. No walls
exclude all shocks of weathers,
seasons. Love keeps nothing
from the commonwealth of dust.
We, who lie like effigies,
have known each other for ten years and can afford
After expanding its scope even further to encompass the ‘poor’, and ‘Asia’, so that ‘Nothing would convince me / this is not everywhere / a night of squalls’, the poem closes on a note of beautifully gauged tentativeness: ‘Often the house is quiet with happiness’. This conclusion shows to much advantage over the very different close of the earlier poem, which, by contrast, has a slightly pat feel where the need to complete the metre and rhyme seems to have thrown up in the last line a somewhat conventional image, with its self-conscious distinction between shadow and shade (scilicet, amongst other things, ‘the shade of death’).
Though the mode of Babel’s Villa is different from that in – say – the two sets of Connections, perhaps at a deeper level it can be seen as operating in an analogous way. There, the juxtaposition of details is a strategic principle, one which directs the local rhetoric of oppositions (‘Between Nicholas … and Edward … sits Wilhelm’, ‘between his right ear / and the blurred grin’, ‘Between Bronstein alias Trotsky / and Djugashvili alias Stalin, / deceptions’). In Babel’s Villa, and in other poems in ELSEWHERE, the juxtapositions have a more adventitious, naturally unfolding and tactical feel – for example, the shift from the lines about the childhood fields ‘sown with paper houses’ to ‘the stain-glass / bijou of our Edwardian windows’. Wonderfully, between each verbal component of this latter phrase, small distances of tone and connotation are opened up: from ‘stain-glass’ (high art, the aspiration to high art, to the quasi- or the pseudo-sacred) and so on to ‘bijou’ (originally French – a jewel precious for its workmanship or intrinsic value, then, in a diminished sense, a piece of estate agent’s jargon) and finally to ‘Edwardian’ (a suggestion of the solidity of a long-dead past, though it is fragile glass that is being described, the word being further marked by association with the discredited British imperial project, a theme addressed in other poems). Opening out the form of his verse in these various ways allowed David to open out its range.
Looking back at ELSEWHERE over such a long interval, what strikes me is how, quite early on, my reactions to it changed. I recall an initial feeling of disappointment when I realized that the poems I had read and enjoyed in 1965 and 1966 were represented only by Time’s Countries. But this reaction says more about my own youthful self as an aspiring but very unconfident poet than about David. I was envious of what I saw as his apparently effortless skill with metre and rhyme. (That another very talented member of the group, John (aka Barry) Wareham [see https://www.davidselzer.com/2019/09/opportunity-knocks/, seemed to have a similar facility, did not help.)
But by the late Sixties, the critical dominance of the so-called Movement poets was waning. Other ways of writing verse were becoming available, many of them stemming from America. It was a period when independent publishers such as Rapp and Carroll, Stuart Montgomery’s wonderful Fulcrum Press, McGibbon and Kee, and Arthur Boyars were publishing in the UK collections by such poets as Cid Corman, Galway Kinnell, Ed Dorn, Gary Snyder, Robert Creeley and William Carlos Williams.
As for British writers, in 1966 Basil Bunting had re-emerged with his long autobiographical poem BRIGGFLATTS (from Fulcrum), a work that, formally, comes from the School of Pound and Eliot. Then, just in Liverpool, there was the parallel strand of writing represented by the so-called Mersey Poets, Adrian Henri, Roger McGough and Brian Patten, vigorously promoted by Penguin in their group anthology THE MERSEY SOUND (1967). I have no particular knowledge of David’s awareness of these writers (and others like them) in the later Sixties and early Seventies (though a remark of his from years after makes me think that for a time he knew Brian Patten personally), but I find it hard to believe that someone as alert and intelligent as David was ignorant of them, and that what I might call the change of poetic climate that was under way had not had some influence on the choices he made in writing and assembling the poems in ELSEWHERE.
What struck me next – and, knowing David, this was quite unsurprising – was the intellectual and historical scope of the book. The first poem, for example, gives us Ovid in exile and his House of Rumour (from his long poem Metamorphoses, and a passage Chaucer later borrowed), the assassination of Tsar Nicholas and his family in 1917, T. S. Eliot and his first wife, Vivienne, dancing / at the Hammersmith Palais’, Hitler, and the Triangular Trade. The second poem opens with Trotsky and Stalin, and then moves on to the Spanish conquest of Aztec Mexico and the death of Montezuma in 1520. A few pages later we come across the first Moon Landing in 1969, a poem about environmental pollution, and, in the title poem, the history of the slate industry at Bethesda in North Wales, with its famous strikes. The book closes with a poem about Captain Scott’s last South Polar expedition in 1912, a poem foreshadowed by the book’s frontispiece, an image of Captain’s Scott’s last diary entry. In between, there are poems of a more domestic cast. What this recital suggests is how David’s poems often sit at the intersection of the private and public. It is a positioning that is very much to my taste.
Then there was the anger, a sharp consciousness of the injustices of the world, that comes through in poem after poem, a bitterness that represents a strong continuity from the early poems. Sometimes, this takes what I might call a sour turn, as perhaps here in New Year 1970:
Season of schmaltz
and dyspepsia twitches
on the silver pandora
in the corner –
box of trivia,
‘The Lone Ranger’ precedes
the politician bleeding in the greasy
kitchen; a child, too starved
to cry, follows
‘Opportunity Knocks’ – variety
flickers like the windmill with pomegranate
sails I planted for my daughter
in the summer. Wind
While the details are well observed, I wonder if the tone here teeters on the edge of condescension, but maybe we should regard this passage as at least in part directed by the speaker at himself. We should notice the high-brow but perhaps self-mocking literariness of ‘Season of schmaltz / and dyspepsia in its glance at the opening line of John Keats’s To Autumn. (I believe David, like Keats, was born in the autumn. Oddly, perhaps in one of those enlivening connections David so often calls to our attention, like Keats he is, in a technical sense, also a Londoner.) We should also notice the witty and knowing mythological allusion in ‘pandora’ (for television set). Certainly, later in the poem, the poet dramatizes his twenty-eight-year-old self as ‘sleepwalk[ing] streets that flap / with litter. A hundred sheep / wake me with human faces – friends, / advancement. I am pacing vanity’s / iron zoo…’ (fine phrase). This is, after all, a young man’s poem.
In his own excellent piece about ELSEWHERE [https://www.davidselzer.com/category/elsewhere-1973-2023] Alan Horne draws attention to the skill with which David manages his free-verse lines. As he rightly says, ‘Try to read them as prose. They just keep turning into verse’. This was the fourth thing I belatedly understood. How is this done? There is no single answer, I think. One clue is the scattered presence of five-beat lines embedded half-concealed in the run of free verse, accidentals, as it were, for which these two might serve as examples:
It is burning Europe’s flesh but we are safe.
(The Chimney: PDF page 29)
Furlongs beneath, coal-seams and fossils stretch.
(Scott’s Last Expedition: PDF page 60).
Sometimes, as here, such lines offer the clinching effect of a familiar rhythm, but David has more oblique ways of employing this device. For example, in the last three lines of section 8 of ELSEWHERE, two lines of pentameter occur, interrupted by a two-word phrase of address. Here they are, relineated to disclose the hidden regularity:
‘That’s life!’? (We lied, knowing the seas run north).
we cannot always underwrite your losses.
In other poems, groups of lines fall into other strongly delineated but sometimes partly disguised rhythms. For example, at the end of New Year 1970 we find this:
Runners, in a brittle, thickening
wood, sky patches wheeling
above like shocked,
dead faces, sapless twigs
for a crystal, cloudless Spring,
Relineated according to the pattern of syntax and individual rhythmic units, and suppressing some of the punctuation, we discover this pattern:
Runners in a brittle thickening wood,
sky patches wheeling above like shocked dead faces,
sapless twigs snatching,
long for a crystal cloudless Spring,
but woods whirl, crashing horizons.
What to my ears is revealed by this re-arrangement is a group of five lines having, respectively, four (or perhaps five) beats, five beats, three beats, four beats and four beats. What is more, in the last two lines, both rhythm and alliteration hint at the pattern of the Beowulf line, with its central caesura. With this recognition comes the further thought that the first line and the two final lines might make a triad of four-beat lines, adorned with a pleasing and emphatic mix of consonants and vowels:
Runners in a brittle | thickening wood,
long for a crystal | cloudless Spring,
but woods whirl, | crashing horizons.
Something not dissimilar occurs at the end of section 4 of Elsewhere, where three lines of apparently non-metrical verse conceal two four-beat lines, each with a central caesura. Rearranged, they look like this:
Vanity speaks | of objectives reached.
Heart cringes | at wilderness known.
The longer passage to which this is the conclusion deserves quoting for the way its complex sound-patterns, word-play and artful line-breaks make clear that, whatever kind of writing this is, it is not ‘cut-up prose’:
I am the first and the last
and I want to shout, Adam
but don’t. The place does not give an inch
or a damn. It is adamant.
I carry my pride
carefully, like a hurt companion,
down to the road.
Vanity speaks of objectives reached.
Heart cringes at wilderness
The interaction of ‘Adam’, ‘a damn’ and ‘adamant’ is the most obvious feature here, but there is a softer music: for example, ‘inch’ and ‘reached’; ‘speaks’ and ‘reached’; ‘pride’ and ‘road’ (placed as end-rhymes); ‘road’ and ‘known’ (also placed at the line-end); ‘carefully’ and ‘companion’; and the short ‘a’ in ‘companion’ distantly picks up the short ‘a’ in those much louder words, ‘Adam’, ‘a damn’ and ‘adamant’, and is placed at the line-end as an echo-word with ‘adamant’. This is the writing of someone who has an instinctively good ear.
In summary, ELSEWHERE is a fine collection with many strong poems, poems that bear re-reading – and, in my own case, have indeed been read many times down the decades during which I have been acquainted with them. At this point I recall a poem by an exceedingly fine poet (and critic) who at one time was himself associated with the Movement poets, much to his own unease, for his work exceeds in human range and inventiveness the limitations of what was usually promoted under that banner. I am thinking of Donald Davie (1922 – 1995), born fifteen miles from where I sit at my desk this spring morning. The poem I have in mind is Ars Poetica. (It was written in memory of the sculptor Michael Ayrton.) Its first ten lines are these:
Walk quietly round in
A space cleared for the purpose.
Most poems, or the best,
Describe their own birth, and this
Is what they are – a space
Cleared to walk around in.
Their various symmetries are
Guarantees that the space has
Boundaries, and beyond them
The turbulence it was cleared from.
This seems to me to describe rather well what David’s poems achieve at their best: they offer us a space to walk round in, but one that does not allow us to blink either the surrounding turbulence or the effort and art it takes to create such a space.
Thank you, David.
'Elsewhere'Clive Watkinsdee estuaryDonald Daviefiftieth anniversaryHarry ChambersHitlerKing Edward VIINorth WalesOswald MoseleyOvidPeterloo PoetsPoems by David SelzerScot of the AntarcticT.S. Eliotthe Aztecsthe Bermuda Trianglethe Kaiserthe nature of truthTrotskyTsar Nicholas IIWirral