- Peter Porter: Collected Poems
Oxford, 335 pp, £12.50, March 1983, ISBN 0 19 211948 6
My subject-matter is subject-matter. Is it true, as it sometimes seems, that certain subjects are inevitably more interesting than others, however much we may protest that they are merely different? For instance, does Robert Lowell’s Life Studies intrigue us more than, say, Tony Harrison’s family reminiscences in Continuous? If so, is it because Lowell’s technique is more sophisticated and fluid than Harrison’s vigorously clanking sonnet sequence in which the rhymes come like a boisterous game of snap? Or is it because the Lowell family tree is richer in eccentricity and event than that of Harrison? Where Lowell can boast a Great Aunt Sarah thundering ‘on the keyboard of her dummy piano’ and ‘risen like the phoenix / from her bed of trouble-some snacks and Tauchnitz classics’, Harrison’s relations are more familiar figures, bickering on Blackpool’s Golden Mile or locked into their ordinarily absurd theatre of non-communication:
Your life’s all shattered into smithereens.
Back in our silences and sullen looks,
for all the Scotch we drink, what’s still between’s
not the thirty or so years, but books, books, books.
As this last line makes amply clear, Harrison is the only eccentric in his family. Even so, the predicament of the deracinated scholarship boy is a familiar enough subject. That is its appeal. Any upwardly mobile reader will identify with it. I suppose, too, that it is just possible there are upper-class readers so articulate and cocooned that they find Harrison’s background exotic in a way comparable to Lowell’s. I doubt it, though. In any case, shouldn’t both hypothetical readers reject that padding ‘all’, even while they reluctantly accept the decorum of the cliché: ‘Your life’s all shattered into smithereens’? Not to mention the awkward rhyme, ‘between’s’, which boldly attempts vernacular, though the actual phrase remains maladroitly formal: ‘what’s still between’.
As far as subject-matter goes, Lowell unquestionably appeals to the snob in us, the desire to know the secrets of the grand. Harrison appeals to the inverted snob in us and, for some, that will be a greater appeal. Most readers, though, will react like Elizabeth Bishop:
And here I must confess (and I imagine most of your contemporaries would confess the same thing) that I am green with envy of your kind of assurance. I feel I could write in as much detail about my Uncle Artie, say, – but what would be the significance? Nothing at all. He became a drunkard, fought with his wife, and spent most of the time fishing ... and was ignorant as sin. It is sad; slightly more interesting than having an uncle practising law in Schenectady maybe, but that’s about all. Whereas all you have to do is put down the names!
Elizabeth Bishop is, of course, overstating the case. One of the reasons why one withholds one’s agreement is precisely the wish that she had written about her uncle Artie. Few poets have written better about the apparently insignificant – from her ‘Filling Station’ to the anonymous, timid commuter-soul of ‘The Man-Moth’, from ‘Jeronimo’s House’ to ‘Manuelzinho’:
I see you all up there
along with Formoso, the donkey,
who brays like a pump gone dry,
then suddenly stops.
– All just standing, staring
off into fog and space.
Clearly, there is a place for interestingly uninteresting subject-matter. We know this from Miss Bates and the spectacle rivet. We know from Chekhov that the provincial and the defeated have their proper significance. Even Tolstoy, dealing with grand themes in War and Peace, succeeds best, not when he ruminates about History, but when he adds brilliantly mundane footnotes to the illuminated scroll of recorded events: Rostov’s fractional pause and subsequent guilt because his French opponent has a dimple in his chin; ‘one bandy-legged old French officer, wearing Hessian boots, who was getting up the hill with difficulty, taking hold of bushes’. These details are more memorable than the names of the battles in which they occur.
All the same, it is difficult to resist the appeal of striking subject-matter. In ‘The Music of Poetry’, Eliot remarked: ‘the best contemporary poetry can give us a feeling of excitement and a sense of fulfilment different from any sentiment aroused even by very much greater poetry of a past age.’ Eliot assumed the reason for this to be that contemporary poetry was nearer to the reader’s own everyday speech. I think it more likely that immediacy of subject-matter is the proper explanation for this excitement.
[*] Cape, 63 pp., £3.95, 24 March, 0 224 02095 1.
Vol. 5 No. 21 · 17 November 1983
SIR: Craig Raine is right (LRB, 6 October). Subject-matter cannot be considered apart from style. What you write about is utterly dependent for its success on how you write about it. If this weren’t so then every halting piece of doggerel in the obituary columns of local newspapers could claim kinship with, say, Ben Jonson’s great poem on the death of his first son. Donald Davie says some-where that a poet may try to disarm criticism by his obvious sincerity, and he cites as an example of this Stephen Spender’s ‘I think continually of those who are truly great.’ Can you bear to be critical of a poem that starts with such a line? Well, yes, you can. In fact I can report that its sheer inanity makes me double up with laughter as soon as I think of it. (Which is not continually: I ration myself to once or twice a year, or whenever the going gets rough.)
On the other hand, I think Mr Raine is wrong when he implies that those who admire Tony Harrison’s work do so uncritically. His subject-matter appeals to the upwardly mobile, Raine says, but shouldn’t they take notice of Harrison’s flaws: shouldn’t they, for example, ‘reject that padding “all”, even while they reluctantly accept the decorum of the cliché: “Your life’s all shattered into smithereens”? Not to mention the awkward rhyme, “between ’s”, which boldly attempts vernacular, though the actual phrase remains maladroitly formal: “what’s still between”.’ I don’t see why acceptance of the decorum of that cliché has to be ‘reluctant’. More importantly, though, I disagree that ‘all’ is padding. The word is frequently used in demotic speech as a means of adding emphasis. Two examples from my local pub, both of them overheard yesterday: ‘I was all covered in mud.’ ‘You could see she was all upset.’ In Harrison’s poem the word is so deployed as to imply the speaker’s desire to get back to a language that father and son can share, because it is the indicator of a shared emotional life. But of course books have come between them, hence the maladroit formality of the phrase ‘What’s still between’, which perfectly well suggests how difficult the speaker finds it to come to terms with his father. (Cliché intended.) The clumsinesses and hesitations of style are what the poem is about, and Craig Raine’s criticisms seem to me no more than an accurate description of certain of its effects. You can surely only object to Harrison’s tactics if you accept Yvor Winter’s view that to imitate speech rhythms and idiomatic phrases must always be wrong; and I cannot believe that Mr Raine would wish to identify with so ridiculous a notion.
Of course, the danger with my approach is that it can be a way of defending the indefensible, or of sheltering behind the absurdity of Susan Sontag’s ‘integrity of badness’. I don’t at all want to do that and I will agree that Harrison is sometimes clumsy in stylistically indefensible ways – as is Peter Porter. Yet I’m bothered by what seems to be an underlying assumption in Craig Raine’s extremely clever review: that questions of style can be referred to some kind of English equivalent of the French Academy because the nation as a whole will accept an inflexible propriety in such matters. No doubt there are those who would like us to believe that this is the case. The history of the editing of John Clare is a particularly damning example of what happens when that belief is put to the test.
Craig Raine writes: I am grateful to John Lucas for his thoughtful letter. Initially, I was so convinced by its citation of local dialect (‘I was all covered in mud’ and ‘you could see she was all upset’) that I was prepared to stand corrected. Those two phrases are obviously authentic. There can be no argument about them. But is the same true of the phrase I quoted from Harrison’s poem: ‘Your life’s all shattered into smithereens’? I think not. The phrase is ‘smashed to smithereens’, isn’t it? And the line could have read: ‘Your life’s all smashed to smithereens’ or ‘Your life is smashed to smithereens.’ Either would have been authentic. Both would have been two syllables short for an iambic pentameter, though. What Harrison has written doesn’t ring true at all: ‘shattered into smithereens’ is a very decorous version of the cliché, half demotic, half literary. At the very best, it is an awkward conflation of two phrases, commonly used, though never simultaneously: ‘he was completely shattered by what happened’ and ‘it was smashed to smithereens.’ Obviously, you could attempt to justify Harrison’s procedure by saying that the upwardly mobile poet no longer has a precise grasp of dialect idiom – that he is deliberately demonstrating how rarefied he has become. But you have to be very rarefied indeed not to know a phrase which, after all, is only restricted to the entire British Isles. It is a mistake a foreigner might make. Surely Harrison has tampered with the standard phrase to fill out his iambic pentameter. Given that, the authenticity of ‘all’ as a dialect intensive is beside the point. In this context, it merely adds to one’s doubts. I feel the same way about Harrison’s ‘what’s still between’. My original description was ‘maladroitly formal’. In fact, the phrase is scarcely English at all. One might say: ‘what’s still between us is’. Harrison prefers ‘what’s still between is’ – again for metrical reasons. This time he has one syllable too many, so ‘us’ is eliminated and ‘is’ elided. And he ends with ‘what’s still between’, an absurdly stilted phrase that is required by the exigencies of his formal conceit about the book ends, but not by any requirement of the English language. Neither he, nor his father, nor anyone, would ever use it. Except in a poem.
Vol. 6 No. 2 · 2 February 1984
SIR:I agree with John Lucas (Letters, 17 November 1983). I think Craig Raine unduly hard on Tony Harrison (LRB, 6 October 1983 and Letters, 17 November 1983). The phrase, ‘What’s still between ’s’, exists on the plane of deliberate linguistic ambiguity which all dialect particularly enjoys, and serves to enhance the earlier ‘Your life’s all shattered into smithereens.’ Let me explain.
If Harrison were a modern Malherbe, he would not be allowed to elide at all, of course; but as he isn’t, he can: to confound academicians like Raine, he deploys common idioms which acknowledge, admittedly often unconsciously, time’s complexities – ‘What is still between us,’ ‘What was still between us,’ ‘What is still between is,’ or ‘What was still between was,’ or whatever, as the earlier ‘Your life’s all shattered into smithereens’ can be read as ‘Your life is all shattered into smithereens’ or ‘Your life was all shattered into smithereens.’ Such ambiguity exists in other common English idioms, which also serve to emphasise uncertainty, such as in ‘You’d’, for example, which can mean either ‘You should’ or ‘You would’.
Tony Harrison has realised dialect’s often unconsciously acknowledged potential for never actually locating a specific event at a specific time in a specific tense. Such potential is lost within the more formal framework of, say, the alexandrine, where there is a tendency to cram all syllables into an exact metre, thereby defining a precise tense, and consequently masking or, if you like, apostrophising time’s darker accents.
As for the inclusion of ‘all’ and ‘shattered’ in the line ‘Your life’s all shattered into smithereens,’ this indicates only the necessity for the poet to be continually experimenting (attempting new ‘tricks’, if you like, which the audience may or may not appreciate) which even Malherbe, I feel sure, with his obsessive desire for perfection, would have understood – and if this is to be seen as ‘padding’, or even ‘cheating’, then it may help to recall that it is only in fairly recent times that boxers have taken to wearing gloves!