Fibre-Optic Attention

Jeremy Harding · R.F. Langley

The LRB came late to the poet R.F. Langley, who died this week: ‘Still Life with Wineglass’ was the first of his poems to be published in the paper, in 2001. By then he was in his sixties with half a dozen short books, including a Collected Poems (72 pp.), to his name. To cast one’s eye back over the list of early publishers – infernal methods, Poetical Histories, Equipage – is to understand Langley’s vivacious interest in the hedgerow and his singular indifference to the arterial road. His wonderful, slender body of work developed quietly, intermittently, in the world of the very small presses. No mistaking this kind of poet for a celebrity wordsmith or a national treasure: Ted Hughes and Johnny Morris are out, though nature is insistently present; Larkin and Eric Morecambe are likewise absent, but comic elegy is there in the mix.

A Langley poem is a world of scintillating data, explored at close range with a fibre-optic attention both to the details of things and to the ways in which we know and name them. Writing in the LRB about the Collected Poems, Jeremy Noel-Tod spoke of ‘the close mapping of subjectivity... relieved by moments of lovely, objective clarity’. One after another, across a longer poem, these moments produce an effect of serial revelation. In an interview, Langley remarked on the importance of ‘wonder’. ‘Yes. Oh yes. It’s the chief thing, isn’t it? The thing I value. Marvellous.’

Rhyme appears in many of the later poems, which also work to a variety of syllabic counts. ‘Blues for Titania’, published in the LRB in 2003, has the alexandrine somewhat quizzically in view, but demurs by a syllable, producing four stanzas of 19 lines each, in lines of 11 syllables. It’s an unobtrusive device in English, a stress-timed language – indeed you’d scarcely notice if you hadn’t suspected something was afoot. But it braces the poem and allows it to adjust for the different pressures exerted by the poet’s observation. At which point the many things remarked and imagined begin to ‘cohere’, and we’re settling down to a sequence in a natural history programme, somewhere in a wood near Athens, where ‘purple orchids are smuts in the dusk’. The story will be long, and having reached the end, we’ll want to loop back to the beginning. Or as the poem says: ‘Detail is so sharp/and so minute that the total form suggests/infinity.’

You can hear Langley reading ‘Blues for Titania’ and ‘Cook Ting’ at The Poetry Archive.


  • 28 January 2011 at 3:26pm
    Vance Maverick says:
    I'm sorry to hear of his death (and, as usual, embarrassed to have learned of his work only because of it).

    But really I'm posting to wonder about the metaphorical sense of "fiber-optic". Is the image of light that travels along subterranean paths, or devious ones, rather than straight through the air? Or is it of data transmission, because with current technologies fiber has comparatively high bandwidth?

  • 28 January 2011 at 4:36pm
    Chris Larkin says:
    The loss of R.F. Langley is a great shame. Always innovative and never afraid to be "difficult" his poetry was strictly formulated but subtle and sincere. His use of complex ideas, images and structures made him an innovator. Pushing boundaries and curious about how poetry could be written and read, his great strength was in the almost fractal beauty of his writing. As Jeremy Harding suggests, the closer you looked at his poems the greater in depth they became - and I believe will continue to become.

  • 31 January 2011 at 10:11pm
    Chris Roseblade says:
    Roger was an inspirational poet, but also an inspirational teacher.

    To be taught by him was to be taught to see the world with new eyes. He challenged the young mind, teaching - in a way that is simply impossible in the brave new educational world of today - Spenser, Carlos Williams and Beckett in what is now called Year 9, Ed Dorn and Olson's "Kingfishers" in Year 10, with Adrian Stokes, Sartre's 'Being and Nothingness' and a dash of Melanie Klein thrown in along the way. He formed the sensibility of many of us. He taught us how to feel and how to think.

    He has left school and nobody cares about his motives now. Some sort of dancer has been here, who perched and glowed and whizzed and picked the pepper out of the closing air.

  • 8 February 2011 at 6:26pm
    RichardC says:
    Roger taught and inspired me at Bishop Vesey's Grammar School, Sutton Coldfield during the 1980's - his charismatic style, dedication and incredible gift for English literature are enduringly memorable. After a day at the chalk-face, Roger often ran extra classes at his home for students interested in poetry....impossible to forget his compelling classes on Gerald Manley Hopkins or Blake which connected so completely with a room of hormone-fuelled 15 year olds. A true great, rest in peace.