Ancient Orthodoxies

C.K. Stead

  • Antidotes by C.H. Sisson
    Carcanet, 64 pp, £6.95, March 1991, ISBN 0 85635 908 4
  • Dog Fox Field by Les Murray
    Carcanet, 103 pp, £6.95, February 1991, ISBN 0 85635 950 5
  • True Colours by Neil Powell
    Carcanet, 102 pp, £6.95, March 1991, ISBN 0 85635 910 6
  • Eating strawberries in the Necropolis by Michael Hulse
    Harvill, 63 pp, £5.95, March 1991, ISBN 0 00 272076 0

‘Aller Moor’, the first poem in Antidotes, begins

And now the distance seems to grow
Between myself and that I know:

It is from a strange land I speak
And a far stranger that I seek.

A heron rises under my nose
And into the flat distance goes.

The thoughts that follow her grow less
And vanish into emptiness.

But I am I and I stay here:
Who and where I am is not clear.

The book’s dedication quotes ‘no surfett in word no in language’. The poetic ambition is to be honest, without pretensions; the poetic problem, or part of it, that to strip away all colour may leave only a faint wash. Because the language is so neutral, it is the form in these lines which eye and ear find themselves debating. A slight awkwardness can add charm and authenticity: but when I come to the tenth line, which has the right number of syllables, but where the emphases cannot by any stretch of normal articulation be made to fall where they should, it is as if my driver has inexplicably run off the road.

There are other uncertainties. Does the statement need all those syllables, or are some of them (‘seems to’, ‘it is’, ‘under my nose’) there to fill out the form? Has versification compacted the statement, or inflated it? That these are not problems which detain me in Marvell’s octosyllabic couplets (‘To His Coy Mistress’), or Yeats’s (‘To Ireland in the Coming Times’), may have less to do with metrics than with a richness in and beyond the language. Sisson writes, ‘A heron rises,’ and because I, too, encounter herons on my local walks, I see at once the curiously beautiful drapery on the wings’ trailing edges, and the elegant languid lofting into the air – but I don’t see them in the poem. When Les Murray writes, ‘the white-faced heron hides in the drain with her spear,’ or when Allen Curnow writes, ‘the small wind instruments in the herons’ throats / play an incorrigible music,’ there is in each case the shock of something quite particular, and of language forced to find a way of matching it. Someone is forgetting himself and looking out at the world from which Sisson seems mostly to avert his eyes.

C.H. Sisson (b. 1914) has had a quietly distinguished but consistent and latterly accelerated literary career. Since his retirement from the Civil Service, publications have come more frequently. Michael Schmidt, his colleague on PN Review, has promoted his work; and Donald Davie, in one of those hot flushes that make his criticism so unpredictable and exciting, has declared Sisson’s ‘The Usk’ to be ‘one of the great poems of our time’. Sisson’s critical writing is intelligent, sharp, individual and readable. He is a first-rate translator of poetry. His essays on religion and politics must be enjoyed by the few of like mind, and are surely of interest to those whose disposition is otherwise, if only because they show how a man almost totally at odds with the spirit of his age (he is a High Church monarchist and English nationalist who believes modern Conservatives insufficiently Tory) can put his case lucidly and rationally. But the impression darkens upon reading Christopher Homm, a novel technically interesting in that it proceeds chronologically backwards from its central character’s senility in the opening chapter to his birth in its last, and which I have seen promoted as a major work, but which for me has the distinction only of being the bleakest, most limiting and perverse view of human life I have ever encountered in fictional form.

Which I think focuses Sisson’s problem as a writer.

I seek reclusion from the years
Which have brought nothing but the lack
Of what I wanted, even tears
Are not worth shedding ...

It is as if he is conscientiously living out to the end the death-in-life adumbrated in his novel published twenty-five years ago and written ten years earlier. ‘The “autumnal serenity” and “the wisdom of age”,’ Sisson once wrote with reference to Four Quartets, ‘are a wash-out, but it is of no use to keep on saying so.’

In 15 some might say bloodless, but nonetheless grave and dignified sonnets, Sisson states the problem of the ageing poet who believes ‘the time of truth has come,’ that ‘poets are liars,’ and that

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