Johnson’s Imlac, urging that the poet neglect the ‘minuter discriminations’ of the tulip leaf in favour of ‘general properties’, has been unpopular for two hundred years, never more so than now, when it is believed that accumulated tiny detail – thinginess – vouches for a poem’ s authenticity. But Imlac also argues, apparently contradicting himself, that ‘to a poet nothing can be useless,’ that he ‘must know many languages and many sciences’ and through his command of botany, zoology, astronomy, politics, ethics and so on become a ‘legislator of mankind’. This is familiar enough for us to see that there is no contradiction: our own version is that the poet be learned but wear his learning lightly, that he know more than he lets on. We expect the poet to know in a general way that his physics are Einsteinian, so that (like Imlac crossing deserts and mountains for ‘images and resemblances’) he may draw if he wishes on a language of atoms, anti-matter and black holes – but not, like Empson in ‘Doctrinal Point’, to cite individual physicists such as Heviside and Eddington. We may ask for ‘scientific precision’ in poetry but we don’t want displays of scientific knowledge any more than Johnson did: these will earn the epithet ‘cerebral’. Poems of Science, an anthology of seven centuries of scientific verse (from Anon on the structure of the cosmos – ‘as appel the eorthe is round’ – to John Updike on cosmic gall), is therefore fighting a lost battle. The editors make out a brave case for the similarity of poet and scientist (‘the starting-point for both of their activities is the imagination’), dispute old distinctions between ‘fact’ and ‘feeling’, and think it important for poets to keep abreast of scientific advance. But then comes their selection. Donne is there, not for those compasses in ‘A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning’, but to expound the new philosophy in ‘An Anatomy of the World’; Empson is there to haggle a doctrinal point rather than let it go. That’s science for you.
Imlac speaks of the poet as a ‘he’, and for women poets, the story goes, there has never been the same pressure to keep up. Their tradition has been one of domesticity, transcended to a greater or lesser degree, but never entering the laboratory. Yet the domestic tradition, it turns out, can provide a room of one’s own with spacious opportunities for encyclopedic research. Two of the most vigorous (and rigorous) contributors to Poems of Science are Dorothy Donnelly, examining a pin under a microscope, and Marianne Moore, whose ‘Four Quartz Crystal Clocks’, taking as its setting the US Naval Observatory and Bell Telephone Laboratory Time Vault, is a plea for punctuality and punctiliousness:
The lemur-student can see
that an aye-aye is not
an angwan-tibo, potto or loris.
Amy Clampitt can probably tell an aye-aye from an angwan-tibo and might well have chosen those lines as an epigraph for The Kingfisher. Hers is a poetry of minute discriminations. Unlike those unbotanical ‘Down East people’ who talk loosely of ‘that pink-and-blue flower you find along the shore’, she knows her flora and fauna and can trace them through their Latin roots. She documents the phenomenon of the sea-mouse (a marine worm of the Aphroditidae family) and records the efforts of the killdeer, a shore bird related to the plover, to camouflage its nest. She devotes a 49-line poem to describing what the surface of the sea looks like. She knows her Darwin and talks of
that backhand round-
about refusal to assume responsibility
known as Natural Selection.
She uses a demanding vocabulary, since accuracy (she implies) demands it: repoussé, embays, panicled, percale, cerulean, pheromone, tsunami, sphagnum. Her world is looked at but also looked up, textbook knowledge refining and elaborating a talent for precise delineation. If she occasionally seems domestic, as when she reflects on the drawbacks of central heating or adopts an idiom that might have been drawn from Vogue (fog a ‘fishnet plissé’ or ‘peau de soie’, the sea ‘velouté’ or ‘suede’), she rightly prefers the term ‘outdoorsydomestic’, which nicely catches her trick of presenting the great outdoors in indoor terms. In ‘The Cove’, for example, we see her
looking out at the eiders, trig
in their white-over-black as they tip
and tuck themselves into the swell, almost
as though diving under the eiderdown
in a gemütlich hotel room at Innsbruck.
This takes such a simple, erotic pleasure in nature that we scarcely need to notice the aptness of ‘tuck themselves into’ or the progress from eiders to eiderdown.
Such lines and shorelines bring to mind Elizabeth Bishop, littered as they are with correspondences – a turtle like ‘a covered wagon’ or the ocean ‘wrinkling like tinfoil’. She lays the paint on more thickly than Bishop: but can she rise to the grandiloquence of ‘At the Fishhouses’? At first it seems not: the generalising is less than epigrammatic, and such personality as the poet has seems cranky, beachcombing, too willing to erase itself before nature. But midway through the book comes the long, measured, mysterious ‘Procession at Candlemas’, in which a journey home along ‘route 80’, apparently to visit a parent in intensive care and including a stop at a service station, becomes a profound meditation on memory, birth, death, ceremony and the settling of America.
Amy Clampitt is 50 and The Kingfisher should be judged not as the first book it is but as a mid-life Selected. It has had an enthusiastic reception in the United States, and here, where resistance to the Abstract Expressionism of Ashbery and Ammons is more entrenched, its cheery representationalism can expect a warm welcome. The Kingfisher promises to restore Anglo-American relations, in part through the intervention of Mars: some of its metaphors – ‘bell-pulls’ of lindenbloom, winds arriving with ‘lariats and tambourines of rain’ – might have come from the Poetry Editor at Faber, Craig Raine.
There’s more Martianism in another Faber debut, Philip Gross’s The Ice Factory.
Clogged webs are slack-strung tennis nets;
convulvulus, frail horn gramophones
for bees –
the opening lines assert, pulling out all the stops, but also requiring too much of that comma (which stands in for a plural verb but is asked to be singular), and perhaps also of gramophones, which are more commonly listened to than climbed inside. ‘Seeing’, here and elsewhere in the book, means turning a blind eye to rhythmical and syntactical inelegance. Ratcheting grasshoppers, jellyfish like pale fleurs du mal, the ‘Atlantic like a wildhaired, dotty aunt’: it may be better to do without metaphor if the alternative is to over-do it like this. There are two main strands to The Ice Factory: scenes from a suburban childhood, evoked without sentimentality but also without resonance; and exile, not just of East European refugees in England and the English in Africa, but in the poet’s own vulnerable, apart, ‘alienated’ probing of mystery. He sounds honest and amiable enough, but advances nothing that couldn’t be found in the average Outposts, and good will towards him is gradually driven out by stylistic mannerisms: his habit of ending poems with punchy, subjectless verbs; interpolations of dialogue, often unconvincing and rhythmically obstructive; lines broken and indented to no obvious purpose.
Verse like Philip Gross’s is the norm in Britain today and has been since the Movement: the poem as goods train, trundling a series of shackled-together images behind the engine of its main theme. Medbh McGuckian, occasionally linked with the Martians but from a different almost French Symbolist line, made her name as a bizarre and original talent some five years ago with a prize-winning poem called ‘The Flitting’, which ends with the memory of a train that ‘ploughed like an emperor living out a myth’. Her poetry goes against the current, not by any shockingness of theme, but by its Romanticism – its recitations of sun, moon, stars, goddesses, nightingales, bowers and flowers, and its Wordsworthian falling in with ‘the nature of a gleam’. Typical of its atypicality is its use of the word ‘like’: far from coupling the known with the known, turtles with wagon-trains or cobwebs with tennis nets, McGuckian follows what might be called the Margate Sands Principle of Metaphor, connecting nothing with nothing:
How clear and beautiful and hard to bear,
The shutters of these full delaying months,
Like a window not made to open, or a house
That has been too long to let, my dark woman’s
Slope. While the noise of the moon is like
Valerian drops when you come into a room
Late at night, or the strangling of a river
To give shape to its fall.
There is no candle here to light us to bed: ‘Ode to a Poetess’ the poem is called, an expansive title by McGuckian standards, but not very illuminating. The two sentences above work by the same principle, an initial ‘subject’ producing a double set of explanatory analogies. But both subjects are problematic: ‘the shutters of these full delaying months’ is not readily decipherable and is perhaps itself a metaphor for something else; ‘the noise of the moon’ is a difficult concept, made only more difficult when compared to a herbal scent. The point of most metaphors is that we recognise them to be such: they depart from a literal, prosodic meaning. But when McGuckian begins a poem, ‘I built my dovecote all from the same tree,’ we can’t happily take her literally and if we take her allegorically we must understand the rest of her poem as metaphors for a metaphor – and so not understand it at all. It is tempting to convict her of Sitwellism or Lenieritis, of letting sound drown out sense. But that would be to deny her a gracefulness, eroticism and rhythmical subtlety which those poets lack. Hers is a sort of domestic aestheticism: the familiar world is there in outline – children, home, a garden – but is transfigured into a magic place.
Such a poetry is all the more surprising given its constituency. We are used to hard words from Belfast and the impingement (even in so wry and oblique a talent as Paul Muldoon) of uncomfortable sectarian truths. But McGuckian is like Denton Welch, whose war-diaries make no mention of the war: we can only just make out this century, let alone her own particular time and place. In a recent Muldoon poem which turns his fellow Northern poets into selections from the cheese-board – Heaney as ‘monumental Emmenthal’, Paulin as ‘St-Paulin, his own man’ – McGuckian figures as ‘the silk of ewe’s milk’, a suitable mixture of the homely and exotic. She has acquired the honorary but eccentric status of an Emily Dickinson, telling it slant.
This oblique trance is my natural
Way of speaking,
she claims, and this is indeed how her poetic personality comes across: dreamy, meditative, in the world but not quite of it.
Selima Hill has some of the same ambivalence towards domesticity, accepting it as part of her experience while needing like McGuckian to escape into more enticing mythologies. But whereas McGuckian’s mythology is Classical and womanly, Venus in the ascendancy, Hill professes a fascination with the male gods of Ancient Egypt – Horus, Aah, Ra, Nut, Min, Tzec and the rest. The tone is set in the opening poem, in which she imagines herself being welcomed by Thoth into the underworld with
Pleased to meet you,
Mrs Hill, and how’s the writing going?
This is ‘charming’, but as one reads (and rereads) through the collection some of the charm wears off. In ‘The Picnic’she returns the compliment and imagines herself and a female chum welcoming ashore a boat-party of Ancient Egyptians at Sheringham in North Norfolk: the gods will be ‘happy in their swimming-trunks’ and the girls will lift up their skirts ‘and get drunk’. This sounds a bit like D.H. Lawrence proposing that life would be better if men went round wearing red trousers, and though Hill is more playful than Lawrence, her crossing of cultures – Abu Simbel twinned with South London – is seriously intended. In another poem she tells of the fowlers in the marshes round Thebes 3000 years ago, then asserts, ‘My mother’s hushed peculiar world’s the same’: a promising thought, but what’s promised of hushed peculiarity fails to emerge in the remaining lines, which leave the mother’s world unexplored. As the Egyptological preoccupation spreads itself over a further half-dozen poems, it begins to seem unassimilated, descending at times into a girlish, how-odd-the-gods-are whimsicality and suggesting little beyond a mild dissatisfaction with our (drab) civilisation in relation to theirs.
With some of the plainer family poems it’s a different matter. ‘Above Tooey Mountain’, for example, interweaves letters from Hopkins, James Joyce’s mother and Sir James Melville with the poet’s own experience of motherhood: the pay-off is too much like an Ian Hamilton poem (arms damp with flowers ‘from holding them so long’), but the narrative leaps and elisions make this a powerful poem about mothers and sons. There are some entertaining pieces about sex, too, one describing a wicked old neighbour at the baths –
the wet wool of his trunks
reminded me of blankets I had peed on –
another an encounter with a preening US male, the machismo of whose bedroom would be more persuasive if it were John Wayne staring down from a ‘shelf-ful of pistols’ and not John Wain. Outstandingly, there is ‘Chicken Feathers’, an exploration of a mother-daughter relationship which stays determinedly flat in its diction, as if too immersed in the subject to do anything else:
When I kneel by her grave,
in need of a little consolation,
I will picture her standing
on a hillside in bright sunlight,
lifting her hand to wave to me ...
The most homegrown mythic piece in Saying hello at the station is that in which Hill likens herself, at the onset of middle age, to one of those chalk giants on the Downs, children climbing over her and grass growing on her face. But for its quietism, this is the sort of image to appeal to Liz Lochhead. She is drawn to larger-than-life mythic figures, giants and ogres, Frankenstein and Rapunzstiltskin. And, like Angela Carter in The Bloody Chamber, she seeks to revise ‘male’ fairy-tales and legends, and to celebrate the subversiveness of their ‘grim’ (or ‘Grimm’) sisters: the bawd who boasts ‘there is mayhem in my smile’; the lady rescued from a castle who by the fifth day is bored with her prince and making eyes elsewhere; ‘Mad Meg’, from a Brueghel painting, with whom the poet – ‘wild-eyed, unkempt, hellbent, a harridan’ – eagerly identifies. It’s hard not to suspect at least an element of posturing in this, especially when so many of the other poems in Dreaming Frankenstein are soppily unreconstructed love stories, but Lochhead does seem most inventive when she is (and is on the) offensive.
Donald Davie (LRB, Vol. 6, No 11), seeking a contrast to the knotted texture of Geoffrey Hill’s poetry, has used the notion of a poetry that is ‘ventilated’, a poetry that lets us hear the natural speaking voice. This aptly characterises Lochhead’s work, which animates cliché and stays undemandingly close to prose so as to sound all right on the night – Lochhead, the blurb tells us, ‘spends the majority of her time travelling all over Great Britain for readings and performances of her work’. But ‘ventilation’ is, of course, a euphemism: what’s allowed into the poetry is not air but words, more words than are strictly necessary. This is Lochhead’s weakness: going easy on the ear, she goes in one and out the other.
What’s ventilated in News for Babylon is chiefly anger. As anyone who has taught in schools or colleges with black students will be especially aware, this is a very necessary anthology, although not necessarily a likeable one. ‘West Indian-British’ is a cumbersome term but alerts us to the problem: for West Indians in Britain, neither British nor Caribbean poetry speaks exactly to and of their condition; something in-between has evolved instead. It is a poetry of exile, but the exile is more economic than political, and the exiles are not always agreed as to what constitutes ‘home’. Its characteristic idiom is a crossbreed of Creole (or patois) and standard English, a mix which can be lyrical, as in James Berry’s Caribbean Proverbs –
When lonely man dead
grass come grow a him door –
but is more often resentful, its resonance that of the steel drum, not the violin. This hard-hitting quality to the verse poses problems for the British reader reared on gentle nuance, who risks missing some of the ironies and subtleties of the beat. Jimi Rand contributes a poem in which the speaker is woken by the knocking of a bigot who wants to repatriate him: ‘E nock gwine sen ya back,’ the poem goes, meaning ‘the one who knocks’ but also ‘Enoch’, and played out against a ‘knock knock who’s there’ routine. Poems like these need the dialect they’re spoken in, and would work in no other tongue. In the non-dialect poems, by contrast, the language can seem unduly abstract – until you reflect that a word like ‘freedom’ is no abstraction when used by the descendants of a slave class.
Babylonians as we are, even the most liberal-minded of white British readers will find it hard not to feel excluded and even threatened by some of what they read. ‘Babylonians you better take care,’ one Rastafarian writes, ‘cause we build up your land and now we want our share’; another talks of ‘theory, practice and the gun’; and Rudolph Kizerman’s blast against Rachmanites is inflammatory: ‘The essential landlords ought to be disturbed by fire.’ In Linton Kwesi Johnson, hardly less disturbing a poet on the page than on record or stage, portents of revolution come through images not just of ‘dread’ (fear/dreadlocks) and ‘blood’ (violence/racial heritage) but of a gathering tropical storm. The ‘thunder, lightning, brimstone and fire’ in Bob Marley’s song ‘Revolution’ have left their mark on Johnson, as on much else in the book. Few individual poems stand out, and some seem virtually interchangeable. But part of the impact of the anthology is as a collective voice (one of the contributors is in fact a collective, RAPP – the Radical Alliance of Poets and Players), and in having the same motifs treated by diverse hands: the letter to or from the Caribbean relative; the harking back to Africa; the concern with the politics of language; the loving lists of lost tropical fruits.
There are, nonetheless, considerable variations in manner and achievement, and one becomes aware of a generational divide in the book between ‘first wave’ immigrants and their children. In the first group (b. 1920-30 and arriving here 1945-60) are such writers as E.A. Markham, A.L. Hendriks, Andrew Salkey, Claude Lushington, Samuel Selvon and Wilson Harris, who write a rather formal, Anglicised, apolitical verse. Markham is the most talented, and his Selected Poems show him to be a more diverse and idiosyncratic figure than even James Berry’s generous selection of his work suggests. The younger group are still mostly in their twenties, and include several Rastafarians who have dropped their Anglicised names for African ones (Jawiattika Blacksheep has several poems on the subject). Their poems are angrier, and celebrate dance and drumming (the opposite of ‘sittin on backside’). Linton Kwesi Johnson stands out as their spokesman, though Grace Nichols’s ‘I Is a Long Memoried Woman’ is the most attractive contribution. James Berry strives for a united front in his preface, and the large number of his own poems he has included show allegiances to both camps. But there’s little disguising of a split which is representative of a broader division in the West Indian-British community.
Insofar as they care for literary ancestry at all, the younger contributors to James Berry’s anthology look to the tradition of the native Barbadian Edward Kamau Brathwaite, not to that of the Trinidadian internationalist Derek Walcott, whose learned allusions – ‘as Ugolino did’, ‘that phrase of Traherne’s’, ‘those sheeted blighters, the Stoics’ – must denote for them a poetry of political compromise and impotence. Self-accusing as he is, Walcott would probably concur. ‘Praise had bled my lines white of any anger,’ he writes in a poem from his new sequence, and promptly demonstrates this by treating the events of 1981 as the stuff of decorative analogy – leaves rushing to extinction ‘like the roar of a Brixton riot’, ‘the alleys of Brixton, burning like Turner’s ships’. This is a poetry of conceit, shamelessly arrogating life to art (which is why the conceit can seem the most arrogant of rhetorical strategies). Though more elegant than anything in News for Babylonm, the poetry of Midsummer is introverted, world-weary and stiflingly well calculated. Holed up mainly in Trinidad, but including stop-offs in Britain, Germany and North America, it is a book taking a holiday. Heat, sweat, dust, flies, storms, sea, sand – Walcott is good on midsummer torpor but succumbs to it himself, sprawling across endless pentameters and too accidieprone to tell good lines from bad.
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