- A Night in the Gazebo by Alan Brownjohn
Secker, 64 pp, £3.00, November 1980, ISBN 0 436 07114 2
- Victorian Voices by Anthony Thwaite
Oxford, 42 pp, £3.95, October 1980, ISBN 0 19 211937 0
- The Illusionists by John Fuller
Secker, 138 pp, £3.95, November 1980, ISBN 0 436 16810 3
Donald Davie has proposed that Eliot’s Quartets are in some sense a work of self-parody, with ‘The Dry Salvages’ in structure and style parodistic of the quartets that preceded it. This proposal took off from an idea of Hugh Kenner’s, and any theory with two such exceptionally able sponsors needs treating with respect. The element of likelihood in this one derives from the way it locates Eliot’s work within that ‘Age of Criticism’ which Modernism helped to inaugurate. A modernistic poem will interrogate itself: hence the continual ironic critique within Eliot’s verse of the ‘shabby equipment always deteriorating’. But if a poem is to be successful there must be a limit to the amount of self-consciousness it can safely contain. The Cretan tells us that ‘All Cretans are liars’: is he lying or telling the truth? The nature of language itself prevents us from communicating certain general propositions about ourselves to other people. So, if a poem works it’s likely to be about something other than the self saying it. Because the Quartets do work, all Eliot’s gestures of self-awareness are in the end less important than what in part they serve as a nervously courteous smoke-screen for: the burden of naked and extreme experience which these poems have to express. This is what gives them their peculiar, surprising weight and permanently distinguishes their tenuousness from vacuity.
Much intelligent English poetry since the Quartets, however different it has appeared from them, has shared their scepticism about the claims and status of art itself: a scepticism common to both photographic plain-speakers and those who play games with the verbal medium. Most recent poetry seems to struggle with a problem that gives it both its integrity and its marked abstraction: the problem of a kind of weightlessness – an anorexia nervosa of the imagination. Its natural aesthetic mode is the shadowy one of parody, as the current tone is the impassively ironic. Thus, Alan Brownjohn’s A Night in the Gazebo ends with a parody, an affectionate rewrite of Sir Gawain called ‘The Seventh Knight and the Green Cat’, which closes with a volte-face. Whatever Mr Brownjohn has to say he says ‘truthfully’: it is hard to think of many writers at once so lacking in blague and yet so unboring. In substance, many of these poems come close to the sociological, ironically confining themselves to the smaller data of the contemporary. One opens: ‘One Xmas in the High Street’; another: ‘On a wet South Coast night’; a third: ‘Somewhere a bus drives on’; the title-poem invites a consideration of the love-life of hotel-managers nel mezzo del cammin:
Look down into hotels where girls work
In their vacations,
And in the early evening, managers, averaging
Forty-six years old, induce them to upper bedrooms,
Empty because business is dropping off ...
And the managers cautious and honourable,
Saying they won’t go too far, and going
Too far ...
Similarly, one of the most oddly memorable of these poems, ‘The Bad Cat Poem’, records the passing of a year, with all modesty, in terms of a male and a female person’s quietly hopeless efforts to teach a cat to use a catdoor.
This is a verse highly realistic in appearance, but in fact extremely literary. Subtly observant as the poems are, they have nothing in common with sociology. The art lies in the awareness of art, the peculiarly exact judging of distances which characterises style and tone and produces Mr Brownjohn’s elegant and recognisable ironic humour. There is everywhere consciousness of the precise width of the gap between data and observer, between cat and man or woman, between the dry melancholy lyricism of the Audenian summons to ‘Look down into hotels’, or the grave Eliotean pauses on participles (‘going/Too far’), and the precise and random subject: the managers, the girls. Attitude is sacrificed, or located only in the play of the medium; an ironic abstention becomes a style.