We shall not be moved

John Bayley

  • Come aboard and sail away by John Fuller
    Salamander, 48 pp, £6.00, October 1983, ISBN 0 907540 37 6
  • Children in Exile by James Fenton
    Salamander, 24 pp, £5.00, October 1983, ISBN 0 907540 39 2
  • ‘The Memory of War’ and ‘Children in Exile’: Poems 1968-1983 by James Fenton
    Penguin, 110 pp, £1.95, October 1983, ISBN 0 14 006812 0
  • Some Contemporary Poets of Britain and Ireland: An Anthology edited by Michael Schmidt
    Carcanet, 184 pp, £9.95, November 1983, ISBN 0 85635 469 4
  • Nights in the Iron Hotel by Michael Hofmann
    Faber, 48 pp, £4.00, November 1983, ISBN 0 571 13116 6
  • The Irish Lights by Charles Johnston and Kyril Fitzlyon
    Bodley Head, 77 pp, £4.50, September 1983, ISBN 0 370 30557 4
  • Fifteen to Infinity by Ruth Fainlight
    Hutchinson, 62 pp, £5.95, September 1983, ISBN 0 09 152471 7
  • Donald Davie and the Responsibilities of Literature edited by George Dekker
    Carcanet, 153 pp, £9.95, November 1983, ISBN 0 85635 466 X

There remains a most decided difference – indeed it grows wider every year – between what Philip Larkin calls ‘being a writer’, or ‘being a poet’, and managing to write something which will delight or amaze people without their having to respond to it in the context of poets and writers. Religion and other activities used to concentrate an audience by figuring in a non-literary context, and Blake or Emily Dickinson used religion, as they used the context of childhood responses, to appeal directly to an audience over the head, as it were, of literature. Their communication seems to short-circuit it. The tactic was understood and developed by the Romantics. The ‘Ancient Mariner’ and the Lucy poems must have struck home like early Betjeman, or indeed like Larkin himself. Byron and Pushkin make a particular fetish of not being ‘writers’, and so in his different way did Kipling.

These names probably confuse an issue which could be put quite baldly – as by Larkin again – by saying that content in poetry is not for the reader a literary matter, and that style should slip the content straight down the reader’s throat, for content is what matters most. This may beg a lot more questions, but except to critics it is clear enough. When W.H. Davies says he saw the wind dragging the corn by her golden hair into a dark wood, the startling and exciting information goes straight inside us. Complex reactions then occur; theorists of rhetoric can tell us how the effect is achieved; but the truth of the information is what really matters, as when Donne tells us:

’Tis the year’s midnight and it is the day’s,
Lucy’s, who scarce seven hours herself unmasks.

Where the theorists are concerned, truth of this sort is now out in literature, and has been replaced by the concept of literature itself, or rather ‘literariness’. It’s always been there, it’s the same thing as the truth or the content, but give it a different name and you start writing a different thing, start doing poetry and prose that is nothing but ‘poetry’ and ‘prose’. This is what John Fuller’s new rhymes for children are: they announce their literariness and children can no doubt admire it, for in this context they know, like older readers on the poetry scene, what is proper to it.

But Walter de la Mare’s line ‘Who said, “Peacock Pie”?’ is not just appropriate to a poem for children. It is a real question, just as this, from Stevie Smith, is real information:

Cool and plain
Cool and plain
Was the message of love on the window pane.
Soft and quiet
Soft and quiet
It vanished away in the fogs of night.

Since the time those poems were written, even poetry for children has become contextualised. Fuller’s ‘The Ship of Sounds’ is delightful, and delightfulness is its literariness: it tells us nothing, and neither do the creatures of his Bestiary, who are neither more nor less than the creatures in a poet’s bestiary written for children.

The ampersand MOSQUITO whines
Erratically above. We freeze
And fold The Times. No creatures are
Quite so invisible as these.

But we do not even discover what an ampersand is. Children do not now have truths pushed down their throats: they are ‘into’ the knowledge context, as they and their elders are manipulated, by the right context, into the poetry scene, which is not the scene of de la Mare’s engrossing stanza:

Who said, ‘Peacock Pie’?
The old king to the sparrow.
Who said, ‘Crops are ripe’?
Rust to the harrow.

It is solid stuff: the more we repeat it the more true facts emerge. The old king’s words are at once a threat, a gibe and an ironical comment – sparrows and such are no doubt an important filler in so-called Peacock Pie. The rust is reminding the harrow that when crops are ripe he will soon be scoured again as he crumbles up the winter earth.

O western wind when wilt thou blow
The small rain down can rain?
Christ that my love were in my arms
And I in my bed again.

C.S. Lewis used to say that it was his wife he was thinking of, not his mistress or girlfriend, otherwise he would most likely have written ‘in her bed again’. However that may be, the point is that de la Mare and Stevie Smith and Anon are all appealing to us over the head of literature. They are appealing to our sense of fact, and our pleasure in it – fact that comes through poetry but is not just concocted in its context.

Come aboard and sail away is as zestful as all John Fuller’s collections, but like his novel in verse, The Illusionists, it delights anyone with an ear and a taste for poetry rather than for truths and tales that short-circuit the poetic, as they do in Pushkin’s Evgeny Onegin. To seem to depreciate Fuller’s skill and achievement – and that of many other contemporary poets – by this sort of method and criterion is not only ungrateful but arrogant, and yet the fact remains that poetry nowadays is becoming (as it has frequently become in the past) too purely poetical. Even reviews of it are concerned to do in the reviewing context exactly what the poetry is doing in the poetical: that is, they talk about it entirely in its own literary terms, using the appropriate vocabulary – intricate, compassionate, fearless in its uncompromising vision, dedication, integrity, unswerving response to experience, and so forth. An interview with John Fuller in the recent number of Poetry Review, like other things in that worthy periodical, has the rather lowering effect, for an outsider, of poets talking about their practices and their poet friends in a charmed circle.

This even applies in some degree to so deliberately moving a poem as James Fenton’s ‘Children in Exile’, describing the arrival in Italy of Cambodian and Vietnamese refugees.

I hear a child moan in the next room and I see
   The nightmare spread like rain across his face
And his limbs twitch in some vestigial combat
   In some remembered place.

There are the incongruities of grammar and phrase books for those tormented but still pellucid young sensibilities to struggle with.

La Normandie est renommée par ses falaises et ses fromages.
    What are Normandy, cliffs, cheeses and fame?
Too many words on the look-out for too many meanings.
    Too many syllables for the tongue to frame.

This poem manages triumphantly to leap over literature to us, but cannot quite clear in the same way the entanglements of up-to-the-moment reportage – all those immaculate photos in the Sunday Supplements, and the effective paragraphs from the field with their details chilling or bizarre. Perhaps it could not and should not do so? Poetry cannot sever itself entirely from the most oppressive literary manifestations of its time, but it must use them with its own sort of detachment (as Larkin used advertising in his poems), and Fenton’s meditation shames in the last analysis its superior journalistic originals by doing something that only a successful poem can do – forcing the reader into pleasure by compelling him to pick his way with concentration and yet without seeming effort. Some of Fenton’s best poems, such as ‘Dead Soldiers’, an extraordinary account of lunching with Prince Norodom in Cambodia, are to high-class war and travel journalism what brandy is to wine or calvados to cider.

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