- The Amis Anthology edited by Kingsley Amis
Hutchinson, 360 pp, £12.95, November 1988, ISBN 0 09 173525 4
- The Chatto Book of Nonsense Verse edited by Hugh Haughton
Chatto, 530 pp, £12.95, November 1988, ISBN 0 7011 3105 5
All poetry that really works has immediate vocal authority. It makes us attend. In a rather memorable and haunting poem, ‘The Masters’, Kingsley Amis stressed the point, substituting other activities for the poetic one, but really talking about the nature of the poem itself.
Vol. 11 No. 4 · 16 February 1989
John Bayley says some excellent things about some of my own favourite poems in his piece ‘Pffwungg’ (LRB, 19 January), and I wouldn’t want to spoil his delight in what he calls ‘the rich nonsense magic’ of the eponymous stanza from Auden’s ‘What siren zooming’, were it not for two things. The first is the misquotation which transposes ‘time’ and ‘town’ in the first line. It should read ‘Till the town is ten and the time is London’ (which would strengthen his point about nonsense). But (second thing) the lines are not nonsense, though they certainly have a magic which derives in part from the fact that they initially sound like nonsense. Bayley recalls ‘the tremendous pleasure of that “pffwungg” long ago when I had no idea where the poet had got me, except that it was a place of intoxicating elation and comic-sinister hilarity’. Well, I hope I can enhance his pleasure by telling him exactly where Auden had got him: Helensburgh. More precisely, Auden’s room in the Larchfield School, from which he looked out in another poem of the same period, ‘Now from my windowsill’. As I confirmed for myself last summer, ‘Watching through windows the wastes of evening’ one can indeed see from there the fate of ships and the tide wind on the Clyde estuary, as well as ‘the church clock’s yellow face’ of ‘Now from my windowsill’.
Auden’s mise-en-scène is absolutely commonsensical. ‘Pffwungg’ transcribes the sound of the gas-burners the school used for lighting (‘Now from my windowsill’ records that ‘The silence buzzes in my ear;/The jets in both the dormitories are out’). If the poem, pace Bayley, contemplates suicide, it is only to reject it, ‘Accepting dearth/The shadow of death’ as preferable to the real thing, ‘In groups forgetting the gun in the drawer’, seeking consolation in ‘The marginal grief [which]/Is source of life’. The first line is only superficially cryptic. This poem was dedicated to Edward Upward, the source of the phrase ‘Touch of the [not ‘an’] old wound’. It was originally the fourth Ode in that currently underrated but major text, The Orators, written during Auden’s time in Helensburgh. The Envoi to the subsequent Ode repeats the gas-burner image (‘The taps are turned off and the boys are in bed’), confirms that ‘At six the lamps of Greenock [across the water] are clear’, and adds:
Night is ahead of London here.
We make ourselves cosy when the weather is wet
With a shocker, a spaniel and a crystal set.
Auden, that is, is listening to the ten o’clock news on his wireless set. The announcement that ‘This is London’ would be particularly resonant for a lonely young man (‘I don’t know a soul’) nostalgic for the less restrictive mores of the South, where you don’t always have to ‘be careful not/To offend County Council or Fisheries Board’. Nerves grow numb between north and south because the wireless, like aspirin, deadens the pain of separation: he has survived another day. Most of the strange free-floating signifiers in this poem can be given a precise Helensburgh referent: the ‘siren zooming’ of the opening lines, for example, refers to the fog-horn of the lighthouse at Cloch Point across the water. The frozen fjord is Loch Long.
Professor Bayley’s argument that Auden’s poem ‘knows perfectly well what it is talking about’ is reinforced by these circumstantiating particularities. We shouldn’t assume to be nonsense something which makes good literal sense, simply because we’re excluded from the rich provincial rootedness of the text. After all, we would get very shirty with students who claimed Eliot’s Saint Mary Woolnoth keeping the hours with a dead sound on the final stroke of nine was really magical nonsense. To my mind, the magic is deepened, not diminished, by these precise locations and locutions. Incidentally, Helensburgh in all its parochial eccentricity is ‘a place of intoxicating elation and comic-sinister hilarity’ – an ideal site for Auden’s most anarchic creation, and one of Modernism’s major works of auto-destruction.
Vol. 11 No. 5 · 2 March 1989
My thanks to Stan Smith (Letters, 16 February) for pointing out errors, and for arresting proof that good poems are more sensible even than they seem, and as Amis says, always get us to some fascinating place where they want us. Even if we don’t know it’s Helensburgh.
Vol. 11 No. 6 · 16 March 1989
A footnote to Stan Smith’s brilliant forensic account of Auden’s ‘What siren zooming is sounding our coming’ (Letters, 16 February). The source for ‘pffwungg’, Auden’s apparent nonce word for the noise of a gas jet, is the ‘Circe’ episode of Ulysses, when Stephen smashes the chandelier in Bella Cohen’s brothel: ‘THE GASJET: Pwfungg!’ Which explains a lot. Perhaps too much. Once assume a deliberate allusion and it is not difficult to establish a parallel. It’s possible, though, that Auden rewrote his final stanza, eliminating the ‘pffwungg’, to destroy the evidence of a youthful theft. That siren zooming may be a police car.