Sperm’s-Eye View

Robert Crawford

  • Dock Leaves by Hugo Williams
    Faber, 67 pp, £6.99, June 1994, ISBN 0 571 17175 3
  • Spring Forest by Geoffrey Lehmann
    Faber, 171 pp, £6.99, September 1994, ISBN 0 571 17246 6
  • Everything is Strange by Frank Kuppner
    Carcanet, 78 pp, £8.95, July 1994, ISBN 1 85754 071 9
  • The Queen of Sheba by Kathleen Jamie
    Bloodaxe, 64 pp, £6.95, April 1994, ISBN 1 85224 284 1

The family, stuff of novelists as different as Rose Macaulay and James Joyce, Virginia Woolf and Lewis Grassic Gibbon, is absent from much great poetry of the early 20th century. T.S. Eliot’s parents, a religious poet and a businessman, produced between them a businessman-religious poet, and meant an enormous amount to him. Yet they scarcely figure in his poetry, while his criticism, obsessed with issues of inheritance, usually suggests that the kind of tradition that matters comes from books, not parents. Often Modernist poets seem embarrassed by Mum and Dad: Ezra Pound’s father, Homer, is displaced by his son’s epic poem. Pound is his own hero, lonely and supermannish. One has to turn to his biography to realise how much MacDiarmid’s family sustained him as he wrote such superb poems of isolation as ‘On a Raised Beach’. In Auden too, family can appear as weakness. Heredity, in various aspects of Modernist culture from Freud to eugenics, is a source of worry that becomes, eventually, a Nazi obsession.

In the Fifties, it returns as something brighter. The voice of Robert Lowell’s Life Studies grew out of a negotiation between European and American traditions, not least English and American traditions, with the balance of power tilting decisively towards America. Lowell, coming from an East Coast Wasp society, is entranced by, yet impatient with, the world of his grandparents, whose ancien régime may be represented by the Illustrated London News. He takes one of the great lines of English poetry and impatiently speeds it up, pragmatically recasting it in terms of his own inheritance: ‘They’re all gone into a world of light; the farm’s my own.’

For all the élite Bostonian whiff that comes off it (and, let’s admit it, partly because of that whiff), Life Studies comes in 1959 as a remarkably refreshing book. Eliot, characteristically generous, recognises this, sees that Lowell has been able to write a kind of poetry the author of Four Quartets couldn’t manage, yet which his own family background had qualified him for. Suddenly, mother and father and the grandparents can come centre-stage. After the chronic, heroic loneliness of Modernist poetry, the family is back. The first, unforgettable poem of the ‘Life Studies’ section of Lowell’s collection opens with the child-voice: ‘I won’t go with you. I want to stay with Grandpa.’ Many of the finest effects in this book come not from the gothic or baroque parts of Lowell’s imagination, but from a simplicity of emotion and diction, as when, in ‘For Sale’, he pictures his newly widowed eighty-year-old mother in the soon to be sold family home

     mooned in a window
as if she had stayed on a train
one stop past her destination.

Hugo Williams is one of many modern writers whose work one might see in relation to Life Studies. If home territory is one of the great themes of this century’s verse, then Williams, though a kind of retreating upper-class Imperial Englishness is implicit in many poems, belongs to the post-Lowell part of the century, in which ‘home’ means not so much territory as people. In Dock Leaves, his finest collection to date, Williams, celebrated memorialist of his father, writes with equal distinction of his mother, father and himself. As in Life Studies a sense of present erotic mess is set against a parental world burnished with the romance of obsolescence. Where Lowell looked admiringly at his grandparents’ Pierce Arrow, Williams’s retrospective eye catches someone ‘polishing the Jowett Javelin to extinction’. The elegiac possibilities of technology are beautifully exploited, as is the way in which names, whether of cars or plays or products, exert a potent gravitational pull, drawing round them the aspirations and cultural climate of their age. Williams’s book is not awash with names, but his fine sense of how they can articulate a culture is an index of his very precise ability to balance ordinary language.

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