The LRB came late to the poet R.F. Langley, who died this week: ‘Still Life with Wineglass’ was the first of his poems to be published in the paper, in 2001. By then he was in his sixties with half a dozen short books, including a Collected Poems (72 pp.), to his name. To cast one’s eye back over the list of early publishers – infernal methods, Poetical Histories, Equipage – is to understand Langley’s vivacious interest in the hedgerow and his singular indifference to the arterial road. His wonderful, slender body of work developed quietly, intermittently, in the world of the very small presses. No mistaking this kind of poet for a celebrity wordsmith or a national treasure: Ted Hughes and Johnny Morris are out, though nature is insistently present; Larkin and Eric Morecambe are likewise absent, but comic elegy is there in the mix.
A Langley poem is a world of scintillating data, explored at close range with a fibre-optic attention both to the details of things and to the ways in which we know and name them. Writing in the LRB about the Collected Poems, Jeremy Noel-Tod spoke of ‘the close mapping of subjectivity… relieved by moments of lovely, objective clarity’. One after another, across a longer poem, these moments produce an effect of serial revelation. In an interview, Langley remarked on the importance of ‘wonder’. ‘Yes. Oh yes. It’s the chief thing, isn’t it? The thing I value. Marvellous.’
Rhyme appears in many of the later poems, which also work to a variety of syllabic counts. ‘Blues for Titania’, published in the LRB in 2003, has the alexandrine somewhat quizzically in view, but demurs by a syllable, producing four stanzas of 19 lines each, in lines of 11 syllables. It’s an unobtrusive device in English, a stress-timed language – indeed you’d scarcely notice if you hadn’t suspected something was afoot. But it braces the poem and allows it to adjust for the different pressures exerted by the poet’s observation. At which point the many things remarked and imagined begin to ‘cohere’, and we’re settling down to a sequence in a natural history programme, somewhere in a wood near Athens, where ‘purple orchids are smuts in the dusk’. The story will be long, and having reached the end, we’ll want to loop back to the beginning. Or as the poem says: ‘Detail is so sharp/and so minute that the total form suggests/infinity.’