Hugging the cats

John Bayley

  • Poems by Gay Clifford
    188 pp, £14.99, May 1990, ISBN 0 241 12976 1
  • Selected Poems 1940 – 1989 by Allen Curnow
    Viking, 209 pp, £15.99, May 1990, ISBN 0 670 83007 0
  • Collected Poems and Selected Translations by Norman Cameron, edited by Warren Hope and Jonathan Barker
    Anvil, 160 pp, £14.95, May 1990, ISBN 0 85646 202 0
  • Collected Poems by Enoch Powell
    Bellew, 198 pp, £9.95, April 1990, ISBN 0 947792 36 8

Good writing, in prose or verse, can seem a sort of visible distillation, brandy-like, of the anima vagula blandula, the tenuous and transparent daily self that produced it. Another kind of good writing does not establish itself as involuntary personality, but as something the writer is just very, very good at doing. Such a dispossessed fluency seems available to everyone with a flair for catching a fashion. I suspect that a lot of people spellbound today in the intergalactic gameyness of an Ian McEwan novel feel that, yes, this is the thing – I could do this if I had the idea or the time, or, well, the talent. Good writing in this academic sense is, or seems to be, held in common.

‘Academic’ is a harsh word, implying as it does ‘creative’ writing, the thing that can be learnt on the campus, ‘the consequences’, as Philip Larkin put it, ‘of a cunning merger between poet, literary critic, and academic critic (three classes now notoriously indistinguishable)’. Gay Clifford was an academic, and by all accounts a brilliant and effective one, a lecturer in English at Warwick, where she was a colleague of Germaine Greer, and the author of a subtle and distinguished book of criticism called Transformations of Allegory. She was also a poet, who passionately wanted to be a poet, and to combine it with being a perfect teacher, researcher, lover, mother, perhaps even wife. A divine or sublime hubris here, risking the threat of the kindly ones, as Sylvia Plath did? Such seems to be the opinion of Germaine Greer, who in a vividly comprehending retrospect introduces her friend and these poems. The retrospective note is because Gay Clifford’s career, though not her life, was terminated in 1984 by a cerebral haemorrhage. ‘Her monument was less than half-hewn when she was forced to abandon it,’ Germaine Greer writes, ‘but it is more picturesque, more moving, grander, more sublime perhaps for that.’

Well, it is in a sense completed, in terms of local colour, by their relationship, by what is written about poems and author which the poems do not say themselves. These are apt to blur too easily into cleverness, into their own determination to be written, a lack of involuntariness which seems eventually their justification, palimpsests as they are of the will to make life glittering and hectic in the way Yeats (an admired and also hated figure) thought it should be. Pallas Athene must be in the straight back and arrogant head, even metamorphosed into a Sunday-supplement rushing and gushing. ‘Twice Gay grabbed the red can, sprinted across the carriageway and stuck her thumb out. Each time she was back in ten minutes. We were a hell of a team. After three days without sleep, when we and the Fiat were at last at Pianelli, Gay and I were still laughing at each other’s jokes.’ The struggle to be tremendous women, in the masculine sense, synergises with the violent pose of escaping such a role, and produces (as Germaine Greer implies) a new version of the crucified Andromeda, of Mrs Browning, Emily Dickinson, Christina Rossetti, struggling ‘to obey the peremptory demands of their own creativity within the limits imposed by our culture’.

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