Neil Oram is a poet who was very much involved with the British Poetry Revival of the 1960s and featured alongside the likes of Lee Harwood and Tom Raworth in the famous Michael Horovitz anthology Children of Albion: Poetry of the Underground in Britain.
He later contributed to Poetry Review during the editorship of Eric Mottram and witnessed firsthand the coup which saw the magazine renouncing its experimentalism and radicalism, and returning – tail between its legs – to the mainstream fold in 1985.
While many of his peers ended up in Cambridge and other universities, Oram founded a quasi-commune in the Highlands near Inverness. Also a painter and storyteller, he reached a larger audience when he turned his own life into a Guinness Book of Records- breaking play called The Warp, directed by Ken Campbell. A lyric-epic-dramatic poem, the 24-hour play is a feast for poets and a behemoth of subversion, but also charts the real life and times of the hippie era in Britain much more authentically than any documentary.
Oram as a poet is noticeably different to both mainstream and avant-garde practitioners of today. His poem ‘This is Not the Ten O’Clock News’ goes in a completely other direction than Tom Leonard’s classic ‘The Six O’Clock News’.
This is not the Ten o’clock news.
This is the truth. You people never fell
From a mythic state of grace. Cain
Your father was a killer, who started off this race,
And his blood is thumping through your veins
A fact you can’t escape.
Oram spiritually diagnoses while satirising. The Rain Stands Tall is an important new book because it is a definitive selection from his 1959-2015 oeuvre. It’s a very nicely produced paperback by Barncott Press (who have also published a novel Inside Out and a new play The Friends of Deception by Oram.) The front and back covers feature artworks by the author, a gifted and energetic all-rounder who was born in Torquay in 1938.
The short introduction is a brilliant telling of how an unsuspecting poet stumbled upon his true vocation. Oram felt as if he had had a close encounter, near Regents Park, with the spirit of the Victorian poet Philip Bourke Marston. This is why he later chose the name of Phil Masters for his own character in The Warp..
His work is unabashedly lyrical, autobiographical, seeking revelation of self. This is what lyric poetry was invented for, but that role has become unfashionable, the art has become self-conscious, and polyphony is supposedly obligatory. However, the ‘lyric I’ can only succeed or fail depending on the nature and personality of the ‘I’ that deploys it. Oram, the embodiment of Thomas Gray’s hoary mountain ‘Bard’ speaking truth to power, lets you know who he is and what he’s about without wasting time. The first poem begins:
When I first came across poetry
I imagined poets soaked in strangeness
Playing and intuiting
Minds like mine.
Interestingly, a later line foresees his career as playwright, the hippie Shakespeare.
I imagined loads of us imagining each other
All over this dramatic globe.
Another quote was used as epigraph to an anthology of French poetry, the only English in the book. It communicates perhaps the nature of the disillusionment we encounter in this first poem: ‘What is going on is a war between those who believe in poetry and those who don’t.’ The term ‘hippie’ actually means someone who is in a social conflict between the forces of the ‘hip’ and the ‘square’. This differs from the usual ‘left’ and ‘right’ in an instructing if equally simplistic way. A leftist could be square, a right-winger could be hip, as in the days of the Roundheads and Cavaliers. Though imperfect and limited, it is often useful as a tool for working out what is going on in a given situation. Corbyn’s anti-nuclear pacifism is ‘hip’, say, to Cameron’s very predictable and ‘square’ military-industrial will to bomb Syria. (Unlike the previous example, this coincides with left-right alignments.) The hip/square dialectic is also an updating of the hipster legacy which literati took from their jazz heroes in ’50s America. Both hippie and hipster are pejorative terms today, but hip remains hip, if ambiguous. One poem ‘Bebop Reality’ pays homage to Jim Burns’ ‘Against the Square World’.
Oram does not over-quote. Though he likes poets such as Charles Olson, his work is not lettered, not littered with literary references. Points of allusion are Reiner Kunze, Frances Horovitz, Mary Oliver, Sorley MacLean. A fine poem ‘Roger’ celebrates the virtually unknown poet-painter Roger Mitchell who became Marty Mission in The Warp, a composite character also based on the better-known poet Harry Fainlight. Oram is both politicised and spiritualised. Few modern English poets can claim to have been resident at the ashrams of Indian gurus Rajneesh and Babaji. He has an idea of a poet as teacher which is not schoolmaster or professor. His awareness of language is different to other linguistic tricksters. Manichean and manic-depressive, language is a force for good, but is used for evil:
Language has been used to steer
Imagination into judgement.
In the powerful protest poem ‘Voice’, Oram – who self-identifies as Celtic – pays homage to Sorley MacLean and laments what corporate new-speak has done to the Scottish countryside and its language,
A language which rose from earth, wind and sea
From skill and struggle with ropes and wood.
This real voice, seasoned through celebration
Could ease communal struggle ‘gainst always-
And focus the mind on details of the heart,
On shades of changing nearness in the unkempt hills
Oram – psychologically allied to Blake – sees neoliberal encroachments on the countryside as spiritual warfare by dark forces and recalls an image of MacLean talking to camera in the Sound of Raasay while nuclear submarines suddenly and unexpectedly appeared in the background. A huge anger makes the Selected Poems a kind of forge, a kind of furnace. But there is ideal as well as spleen, another way of life which at times seems that of an ancient Tang Dynasty poet in the hills.
A way of life. To paint
When all is still.
The quiet morning stirs
The cold light slowly
Kills the stars.
Caressed by the sounds
Of shifting leaves.
Oram has been praised by the likes of Lee Harwood and Iain Sinclair both as wordsmith and as someone who is above and beyond literary fashion. There is a terrifying sincerity about some of this utterance as well as a ribald comedy. ‘Dust Bin Blues’ is a hilarious song, supposedly about a bitter elderly woman, but really a lyrical mirror in which anyone could recognise their anti-self. The triviality of mainstream poetry is ducked from and the aridity of avant-garde poetry is dived from as Oram weaves and warps what is his. There is vitality, emotional largesse, a wilful gutting out of the mind, a Dionysian splendour in this book. Oram manages that peculiar miracle: to be an English Celt.
Photo of Neil Oram at the Poetry Cafe by Julie Goldsmith