Irregular Writings

John Cowper Powys

I have become obsessed with a writer called John Cowper Powys. Those of you who have been under his spell and, by some chance, trail your eyes across this miserable arrangement of words in a contemporary magazine might understand how this could happen. For you true believers, I am not here to critique the writer or the writing. I only come here to stand at the foot of the great wall of words he began to stack, pile upon pile, when he turned to writing, after a career of 35 years of public reading of the classics in the USA in the early 1930s. I first heard him spoken of in a passing reference in Colin Wilson’s book, The Occult. There is something occult and mystic in his writing but also something that cuts to the very core of a person’s existence. The latter is a poor description of what John Cowper Powys calls a person’s “life illusion”, which they experience in “the galactic spectacle”. I address him by his full name as he had two brothers, Theodore Francis Powys and Llewelyn Powys, who also wrote, though not as copiously as John. There are websites and societies devoted to them. It is a true universe of Powys that awaits anyone who cares to enter! I was also always drawn to a particular shelf in a favourite bookshop in Melbourne, Collected Works. This is a centre for small run poetry publications and a hub for local literary events. A universe of its own and a quiet place smack in the middle of the city where you always wish you could stay for another couple of hours. The shelves in the shop are arranged in eras of time and place. International and local and according to century and within those centuries, particular standout genres or art movements around which all creative activities danced for your attention. There is also writing before and after particular wars and colonial adventures and transformations. Also writing arranged via gender. The tall bookcases have shelves covered with neatly written guides or tiny bios to particular authors or areas. (People such as the poet Ed Dorn and his relationship to the Black Mountain Influenced Group). It’s the sort of place you walk into thinking you know stuff and walk out humbled by the weight of knowledge that still eludes you and will, forever. The particular shelf I would often stop by was given its own name ‘Field and Aether’ and this was where you could find a few precious books by, or about, the Powys Brothers. It was intriguing. They reached out across the years, having escaped almost all known critical bondage, still free and pulsing. There, somewhere, in the words. So that was where I began to climb. I will live, hopefully, for a while longer, knowing I will never get to the end of John Cowper Powys’ writing. Most novels are around 600 to 800 pages in length. And there is always another book that you find out about. There’s always another! He lived until the age of 91, dying in 1963. He was still writing at the age of 90, wild short stories from beyond time with humans, gods and slugs writhing through time and space with no care for mortal narration. A critic said these later stories “use the mode of science fiction, although science has no part in them”. His big hits included A Glastonbury Romance, Wolf Solent, Weymouth Sands, Maiden Castle and Porius. The latter is set over a few days in the Dark Ages in a part of Britain that is being battled over by the Romans, the Celts, The Saxons and Merlin. Magic and religion all mixed up. It has a scene where he describes men sitting in a dark hut all drinking honeyed mead, gradually feeling the potion giving them the strength to believe their own illusions that they can express in words their feelings for their place in the world and that the men nearby could understand them. I have been in pubs just like that! Such a fleeting sense of power and humanity! I started with his startling Autobiography, which has been hailed as the greatest book to ever parade under such a title. It really is something else. He gets to places no others can even imagine. Strange, yes! He has been called a writer who “evokes both massive contempt and near idolatry” and it has also been said that his approach to the novel is “so alien to the temper of the age as to be impossible for many people to take seriously”. But the people who said that are probably dead; so let their words be eaten by the worms too. In Wolf Solent, the main character speaks regularly to the skull of his dead father who he has visions of as a laughing skull just inches below the surface of the earth. That’s what Powys is like when I read his words. He’s got presence. The people who love him really love him and there is a great critique of him online under the heading ‘John Cowper Powys: a tedious long-winded bore!’ What greater praise in the age of MasterChef, The Block, and The Bachelor? @davegraney

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