A more sophisticated version of Larkin’s cry ‘Foreign poetry? No!’ is the belief that the poetry of certain parts of the world (Eastern Europe, for example) is intrinsically more interesting than that of other parts. This isn’t only a matter of some countries being thought politically more dramatic, and therefore poetically more absorbing, than others, nor of the Teutonic going down better here than the Latin. There is also the matter of climate, and the custom the British have of treating all points south as places of leisure and relaxation which for fifty weeks of the year can scarcely be said to exist at all. According to this view, the poetry associated with Mediterranean and Caribbean countries must always be off the literary map: one can expect very little from books with titles like The Fortunate Traveller (Derek Walcott), Sun Poem (Edward Kamau Brathwaite), Aegean Islands (Bernard Spencer) and Sun the First (Odysseus Elytis).
Walcott confronts this prejudice in his new volume. Dividing his poems into those set in exile in the ‘North’ (the United States and Britain) and those of the ‘South’ (the Antilles and Greece), he seems about to offer a conventional contrast between hot and cold. In one of the first poems, we observe him shivering in exile through a Manhattan winter, ‘flu in my bones like a lantern’, sustained only by the thought that back home all is going on as always: the seas warm and the neighbours in the open together, ‘talking over palings’. But his opening Caribbean poem begins, disorientingly, with the ‘islands hissing in rain’, the intemperate weather symptomatic of a sea-change in the social order; and in ‘Hurucan’ the winds of change achieve a terrifying force, sweeping Jehovah-like across the land, lifting zinc roofs from their nails ‘like freight uncrated with a crowbar’ and leaving the poet to observe the quietly awesome rearrangements of the morning after the night before – those roofs scattered on the hillside, ‘like cards dropped during a shoot-out’. The last image is typical of the book’s martial mood: in ‘Beachhead’ the pleasure zone of a beach is transformed into the source of an ‘ancestral quarrel’, where surf breaks like a plasterer ‘smoothing fresh cenotaphs’ and
Sandpipers burst like white
notes from a ceremonial band.
Walcott has hot news from the Caribbean: ‘unrest’, ‘governments falling’, ‘junta and coup d’état, the newest Latino mood’. But he doesn’t find the changes heart-warming. The theme of ‘The Spoiler’s Return’, a part-patois, part-Popeian satire, is plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose – or, as this becomes in dialect: ‘Things ain’t go change, they ain’t go change at all.’ Allying himself with the conservative sceptic ‘V.S. Nightfall’, Walcott’s Spoiler, a dead musician revisiting Port of Spain in ghostly form, harks back to the common purpose that prevailed for blacks during the Commonwealth (‘we was in chains, but chains made us unite’) and compares it to ‘what passing over this Caribbean’ today:
Is crab climbing crab-back, in a crab-quarrel,
and going round and round in the same barrel,
is sharks with shirt-jacs, sharks with well-pressed fins,
ripping we small fry off with razor grins;
nothing ain’t change but color and attire ...
Walcott evidently means to identify himself with Spoiler. Classically educated and widely travelled, he can’t share in the brave new optimism of Independence and Black Power. He sees the old inequalities persisting – ‘black still poor, though black is beautiful’ – and his acquaintance with the example of earlier empires (he imagines himself in a glass-bottomed boat looking down on Atlantis, Sidon, Tyre and Alexandria) makes him see late-imperialist brutality all around him both in the Caribbean and United States. He understands his function to be to warn against the arrogance of power, wherever it has its seat, a function which condemns him – so he suggests in a near-sentimental image – to remain ‘a single, circling homeless satellite’. His only company is the dead: in ‘The Spoiler’s Return’ he is ‘backed up’ by Martial, Juvenal and Rochester, and in ‘The Hotel Normandie Pool’ he is visited by Ovid, a sandalled hotel-guest in a toga made of terry cloth, who speaks comfortingly of exile and the value of art.
But Walcott doesn’t take comfort. In the title poem he explores self-accusingly the relationship between travel and betrayal. The speaker is a man who has attained a position of power in a Third World country, and who is used to being told: ‘You are so fortunate, you get to see the world.’ But seeing the world, we discover, means seeing it as if through a reversed telescope: individual pain and suffering shrink to ‘an oval nest of antic numerals’. The speaker completes a transaction the exact circumstances of which remain unclear (the poem has the shady atmosphere of a thriller) but which will evidently bring further hardship to the world’s poor:
I crossed the canal in a gray overcoat,
on one lapel a crimson buttonhole
for the cold ecstasy of the assassin.
In the square coffin manacled to my wrist:
small countries pleaded through the mesh of graphs
in treble-spaced, Xeroxed forms to the World Bank
on which I had scrawled the one word, MERCY.
The Fortunate Traveller is an impressive collection that moves lucidly and at times brilliantly between abstract notions of power and responsibility and visual notations of landscape, cityscape and sea. But it is only the title poem that comprehensively escapes Walcott’s rational grip: elsewhere one is too aware of him press-ganging images into the service of an idea. This is especially true of his poems about the United States, which have too many smartly appropriate similes (a New England church spire like a ‘harpoon’, an Appalachian miner’s wife whose neck tendons are ‘taut as banjo strings’) and are full of embarrassing regret that ‘the Muse is leaving America’ (why should Walcott care?). The poems that explore the guilt and regret of being away – ‘North and South’, ‘The Fortunate Traveller’, ‘The Hotel Normandie Pool’ – are the ones in which he seems to me most fully at home.
Walcott’s are sophisticated poems versed in the Anglo-American tradition, dedicated to the likes of Mark Strand, Anthony Hecht and Susan Sontag, and aimed primarily at a circle of readers in London and New York. (He has evidently succeeded in that aim: the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation has just bestowed on him its ‘Genius Award’ – $250,000 with no strings attached.) Edward Kamau Brathwaite is also familiar with that circle, having carried off a Cholmondley Award in this country and a Guggenheim Fellowship in the United States, but, as one might guess from that ‘Kamau’ (as late as 1973 he was published as plain Edward Brathwaite), he is more concerned than Walcott to be seen to be speaking to and on behalf of a Caribbean audience. His new book, the second in a projected trilogy about Barbados, is politically and aesthetically more disturbing than Walcott’s, and in its technical dislocations – long unrhymed lines, snatches of Bajan and Rastafarian slang, bizarre and sometimes pointless-seeming coinages created with oblique strokes, colons or hyphens (‘muse/ical’, ‘i-scream’, ‘I:ron’, ‘thrill/dren’, ‘nat/u/really’) – is more demanding of the British reader. Brathwaite looks to Africa where Walcott looks to Europe; he incorporates personal material only where he judges it of collective, archetypal significance; he captures the hubbub of living speech where Walcott employs a refined poetic diction. He is also, as some of this may imply, less pleasurable to read.
Sun Poem is nothing if not structured. It has 12 sections, suggestive of an annual cycle, or of the hours between sunrise and dark; seven of these sections correspond to the colours of the rainbow, though in puns that have further dimensions (‘indigone’ – indigo, indigenous). The use of the name ‘adam’ for the central character opens a seam of myth to do with the Fall, typified in a temptation scene which takes place under an apple tree (‘she threw him more duncks one after one after one after one very quick’); then there is the play on the word ‘sun’ – sun, son, but also son (the French for sound and the name of an Afro-Cuban folksong form); finally comes the essential ‘male’ theme (the history of the island traced through fathers and sons), which restores a little dignity to the Barbadian men who figured so slightly and so unflatteringly in Brathwaite’s last book, Mother Poem.
In the early sections, which include one poem spoken in the voice of a rainbow, the symbolic harness threatens to throttle the life out of the verse. But when Brathwaite allows himself to use more personal and local material – adam’s fight with the beach bully, his banter with a girlfriend, Grandfather’s funeral, the grandson’s memory of the silver sixpences kept in his father’s pillbox, ‘as beautiful and light as wafers that the priest put on miss sissie’s tongue’ – the poetry begins to attain a power and authenticity. The use of dialect is an integral part of this authenticity, and serves to direct the reader’s sympathy into places it might not otherwise be led, as in this passage where a young West Indian describes the trials of early marriage and parenthood:
we walkin out good till de firss baby come: bonnet pram bootie wettin de bed: evry body stannin rounn cooin like woo-dove: look how e favour e faddah they sayin: look e lil booee eye an e twiss mout. an e big bubby muddah got e chattel up safe an fat in she out a harms way. so is family now an i owns it ...
Both Walcott and Brathwaite have written much about exile, which is also the keynote in the work of Bernard Spencer, who died in mysterious circumstances in Vienna in 1963 (he was found dead on a railway line, apparently struck by a train during one of his blackouts). Spencer’s reputation as a poet, like Robert Graves’s and Lawrence Durrell’s, has always been tainted by his association with the Mediterranean, an injustice which the Collected Poems, intelligently edited by Roger Bowen, seeks to put right. The volume shows how travel encouraged in Spencer both a casual, accumulative mode of observation, the poet noting with curiosity what other travellers might miss or think unworthy of mention (a watchdog on a building-site, a soiled door-curtain to a Spanish café, chickens feeding behind a customs post), and a growing tentativeness about passing judgment, an understanding that signs can easily be mistranslated. At best this gives Spencer’s work a quiet tact: we sense someone groping to articulate as honestly as possible the moral and philosophical problems thrown up in everyday life. Against that must be set the lack of a settled voice, a lack that has less to do with his being derivative (though there are occasional flashes of the Audenesque – ‘the clever rumour planted in the nerves’, for instance) than with his having no strong ideas or feelings to impart, and, indeed, having little firm sense of himself. This helps explain why Spencer’s best poems, including the much-anthologised ‘Allotments: April’, are those which, having built themselves round a simple premise, proceed to offer a series of visual observations; his least successful strain to be wiser than they know how and dissolve into rhetorical flourish. The poems he wrote during the Second World War, which are among his best, seem to have alerted Spencer to his limitations, which he once summarised as a ‘failure to see except as a foreigner’. That seems about right: he is attractively receptive to an alien world (and even his London is alien), but one sometimes wishes he had a more forceful poetic personality to impose on it.
In ‘A Spring Wind’ Spencer describes himself loving Greece ‘out of all reason’ as he sits reading the poems of Odysseus Elytis. In the wake of Elytis’s 1979 Nobel Prize, a selection of his poems over four decades has been made available in English – a welcome development, though not as rewarding as one might have hoped. As the Hellenic landscape is unfolded in the poems of his first two books –
Olive trees and vineyards far as the sea
Red fishing boats beyond, far as memory
August’s golden sheaves in midday slumber
With seaweed and shells –
it seems that we are going to have to take Elytis’s reputation on trust, so hackneyed are the images (that Golden Treasury third line above), so remote the cadences from those that move us in English. This isn’t only a matter of lame translation, though the prevalence of words like ‘halcyon’ makes us suspicious: the properties of sun, rock, sea, olive and cypress resist assimilation. Even the supposed ‘surrealism’ of Elytis’s early poems remains an elusive quality: of these only ‘Helen’ – ‘Forehead to windowpane we keep watch for the new sorrow’ – convincingly succeeds. But the selection is redeemed by its major piece, ‘The Axion Esti’, which includes two fine passages that draw on Elytis’s experiences during the Second World War Albanian campaign and describe soldiers, as Wilfred Owen or David Jones might, making their way to ‘the place where you don’t find weekdays or holidays, sick people or healthy people, poor or rich’.
To possess a sunny disposition may be as much a handicap to a poet seeking approval in Britain as to come from a sunny clime, and George MacBeth’s and Gavin Ewart’s books are likely to have to answer to the charge that they lack a vision of evil. Poems from Oby would have us believe that the poet has finally, at 50, come into his own, thanks in part to his acquisition of a rectory and two and a half acres of land in Norfolk. MacBeth presents an almost stereotyped version of the Good Life: ‘a homely fire’ burns in the grate, friends are expected for supper, and from the kitchen good smells waft their way up to the study where the poet sits counting his blessings. Images of different kinds of wood – beech, chestnut, walnut, oak – indicate the solidity which, after years of restlessness, the poet has now acquired: he spreads his ‘booted legs’ and feels like a lord. Even the daily round of country life seems benevolent: a dead hornet, frail and pathetic, ‘its warrior’s head bent sideways’, strengthens the poet’s resolve that his own death will be, not like that, but full of ‘grace and honour’; the decent burial of a fledgling pheasant becomes a recompense for its brief life; the cat gives birth to six kittens, all of which – miraculously, it seems – survive. Here is fulfilment indeed.
To all of which a possible not wholly malicious response is that one person’s good fortune is of no intrinsic interest to another person, or, as Gavin Ewart puts it in his new book: ‘Happiness is the one emotion a poem cannot capture.’ Those who take a sceptical view of MacBeth’s overrunning cup may also point to the technical unevenness which allows him to mingle a striking image like ‘the Norse barque of sleep’ with the pop cliché ‘When dreams wash at the curtains of my mind’, or note the working up of a childhood memory of peeing over a visitor’s dress into a ludicrous baptism: ‘By this water’s touch we are friends.’ Yet MacBeth does, I think, succeed in making his personal fulfilment a sharable commodity, partly because of an almost archaic formality which lends the confessional material an impersonal air, and partly because the history of his house and hamlet – from Viking longships to the recent present with its ‘pleasant rectors knocking croquet balls’ – provides that very firmness to which he is laying claim. He also succeeds because, in spite of himself, he can’t banish the wolf at the door. The bravura sequence ‘Thoughts on a Box of Razors’ – 14 sonnets of 14 lines about 14 razors – shows that the bad old macho and sado-masochistic ways haven’t been entirely set aside; other poems show his continuing fascination with predators – cats, bats and owls; others recount the pain and guilt of a broken marriage. These elements darken the idyll, but make it more believable.
The New Ewart describes a dream in which the poet is hauled before two disapproving editors, one of whom, a young American called Chuck (‘Glad to meet up with you Gavin’), accuses him of a ‘lack of positive thinking’. This is an ironic variation on the usual case against Ewart – that in jollying us along in light verse he ignores life’s disquiets – but it isn’t, if harping on death counts as ‘negative’, wholly implausible. Among those we see die in the course of the book are the poet’s mother and other animals (one poem defends Ewart’s right to compare his mother’s death with that of his cat), a subaltern whose head is blown off during the Second World War, W.S. Gilbert, an Air Commodore and an old headmaster. A poem called ‘The Deaths’ compares the lion’s patient stalking of the wildebeest to the way death works in the human world; a sonnet proposes that the real world is ‘quite a good deal more horrible’ than the choppings-up and decapitations to be found in Gothic fairytales. Grim material, but Chuck’s mistake is to suppose that it is incapable of being transformed. Ewart’s strategies for laughing in the face of death include a jaunty use of metaphor (death as an advancing army, a fading hearing-aid, an ‘exit’ sign in a room), a cheery but not complacent stoicism (‘not giving up hope is the thing’) and the sort of comic invention that distinguishes ‘The greedy man considers nuclear war’, where the cost of the holocaust is measured in the loss of ‘sizzling sausages’ and ‘tikka chicken’.
Ewart’s other accuser is a Mary Whitehouse-like 50-year-old editress with blue-rinse hair who represents the staid interests of ‘the Poetry Readers’ Association’ and regrets to inform him that his poetry is ‘sheer filth’. This, too, is wide of the mark, though not as wide as we are invited to suppose. In the Ewart world, sex has customarily been an innocent nursery game, full of giggly nippings and unzippings. ‘Fluffy’ is one of his favourite words for describing its gentle gratifications; he speaks of ‘soft flesh (like chocolate creams)’. Only the disciplinarian deniers think sex bad, and they are in any case hypocrites: Baden-Powell, for instance, who’s undone in a series of balladic refrains that tell us how he ‘pumped’ (or ‘dumped’, ‘bumped’, ‘humped’ and other things) ‘it all into a lady’; ‘respectable’ middle-aged women who hush up their youthful abortions; ‘the Puritans who are the Gods of This World’. It’s with assertions like the last, though, that Ewart begins to lose his sense of proportion. His desire to keep hounding the Victorians not only looks quaint, a throwback to the days of Lady Chatterley’s Lover, but leads him to write lines which are less easily chuckled over today than they might have been in the 1960s:
Proud ladies in big flowery hats
dream of being held down, naked, and peed on
by the whole of a rugger fifteen.
Ewart overemphasises what he calls ‘the vest under the shirt’; he’s preferable when wryly consoling himself over his detachment from the youthfully sexual world he celebrates:
They look so beautiful, that’s how they look –
but none of them has been into a book.
For Peter Redgrove, England is a country more meteorologically extreme and spiritually energised than his grey-faced poetic contemporaries will admit – an abroad on our own doorstep. The Apple-Broadcast begins in his favourite weather, a thunderstorm, as rain and lightning ‘come to rest’ in a wineglass that has been left out on ‘a drumming steel table’. The glass is a symbol of what Redgrove thinks a poem should be, a receptacle of violent natural forces, and the final image – the poet rushing out to drain the glass – is a sort of good-luck charm: by taking that energy into himself Redgrove hopes to nourish his poetic powers. He does not lack further opportunities to replenish himself: thunder and lightning – whether breaking up a Jubilee street party or tearing through Exeter like an express train with ‘lighted windows’ – are never far away. Clouds loom on the horizon, in a range of brilliant guises and disguises: ‘bosomy weeping mothers’, ‘tons of water floating heavy as cathedrals’, ‘white kings muttering’, ‘God’s boaters, his water-boatmen’, ‘a great white ear floating in the sky’, ‘great white moths’. Like a Celtic well-worshipper, Redgrove believes water to be life’s ruling principle: ‘humans are two thirds clear water,’ it is claimed; beer too (which we see Redgrove getting through a good deal of) is ‘mainly water’; ‘water is everywhere and I think with it.’
It has been pleasing to see Redgrove’s poetry, which has suffered through inapt comparison with Ted Hughes’s, receiving more appreciative treatment in the last few years. This has in part been an accident of literary history: the revival of metaphor in the work of Craig Raine and others has indirectly benefited Redgrove, who seems less indulgent with imagery than he did in the plain-speaking days of the Movement and Group. The contributors to a recent issue of Poetry Review who point out the differences between Redgrove and Raine are right to do so, but the images in The Apple-Broadcast of, for example, a clay tip as a ‘talc ghost’, or of a bowl of sugar with its ‘cup of lighted bulbs’, or of a melon ‘bearded with succulence’, have the same domesticating imagination, and usefully remind us that quotidian activities – watching television, oiling a bicycle, using a telephone box – are a more central aspect of Redgrove’s poetic subject-matter than either his detractors or admirers admit. One often finds oneself wanting to rescue Redgrove’s images from him before he ruins them through overworking or silly punning, and the deeper purpose of his bold analogies (a laundromat as prayer-wheel, for instance) may sometimes be questioned. But at best – in ‘My Father’s Spider’, ‘Full Measures’ and ‘Orchard with Wasps’ – his work is almost shaming in its imaginative reach.