Recently I received a somewhat smug letter from one of the editors of PN Review asking me to contribute to yet another symposium on the state of critical chassis which still persists in Great Britain. The editor enclosed a statement entitled ‘A New Orthodoxy’ which listed certain ‘imperative tasks’. The sixth task was this: ‘To expose the absurdity of using literary criticism as an outlet for political frustrations.’ This paradoxical call for inactive action issues from a familiar form of conservative quietism, but it is important to remember that in certain other societies quietism and political frustration are not opposed attitudes or states of mind. In Miroslav Holub’s Czechoslovakia; the poet and the critic know that the act of writing is both necessary and absurd. This is the sharp, precise point of ‘Swans in Flight’, where the swans circle ‘and that means that Fortinbras’s army is approaching. That Hamlet will be saved and that an extra act will be played. In all translations, in all theatres, behind all curtains and without mercy.’ These lines allude both to Pasternak’s ‘Hamlet in Russia’ and to Zbigniew Herbert’s ‘Elegy of Fortinbras’, and they wryly describe that fixed and determined social reality which constrains the poet who writes from inside the Eastern bloc. The laws of the state are like the rules which govern a tragic masterpiece – only naive optimists believe they can be changed to allow for a happy ending. But the irony is that in suggesting this Holub’s fatalism takes on a political edge and relevance. By expressing a frustration, the writer has taken a risk.
This type of poetry resembles an elegant, ironic, highly sophisticated scrimshandering – it is the art of a prison-camp society, of a closed world where poetry is written without hope but with an obstinate integrity that negates as it creates. Holub’s scientific landscape is clean like a hygienic laboratory-bench: it is also, of course, a political landscape which is crossed by fences and filled with ‘Cyclopses, olms, informers’. Olms are a type of blind salamander which are found in caves in the Carpathian mountains and they are kin to one of Holub’s favourite symbols – ‘Minotaur’. Often his poems slip out of the rational daylight into a mythic cave-world where Minotaur (i.e. the state) reminds the reader that there is no private life, no possibility of the trapped poet writing a timeless lyric that will fly up like a swan or an Icarian dream of transcendence. For Holub dawn is simply ‘the naive light of songbirds’ brains’ and dusk is the moment when
The Icaruses were caught
somewhere in spiders’ webs.
These images acknowledge the pointlessness of art, but Holub persists in writing poems and in holding strictly to the idea that the poet in his type of society can perhaps effect a minimal change in its ruling consciousness. His poems all possess a scientific mode and style which is deliberately depersonalised and apparently inhuman, so that the poet can acknowledge European history and suffering without sentimentality or self-regard.
Thus in ‘Distant Howling’ Holub describes how in 1885 Pasteur saved his first patient, the nine-year-old Joseph Maister, with his new vaccine:
Pasteur died of ictus
ten years later.
The janitor Meister
fifty-five years later
when the Germans occupied
his Pasteur Institute
with all those poor dogs.
Only the virus
remained above it all.
Those laconic closing lines are aimed at the idea of disinterestedness, and they remind Holub’s readers that there are no imaginative exits from history. Rereading these lines on a damp day in May, I reflect that Keith Joseph is poised to close down a dozen tutorials on Matthew Arnold and that Holub speaks also to this society. He is a magnificent, astringent genius and this volume sings with an oblique and cutting candour, a tubular coolness we must praise and praise again.
Peter Levi, alas, is one of those dwindling, disinterested Arnoldians who can still be uncovered in the home of lost causes. Last year he became Professor of Poetry at Oxford and in his inaugural lecture announced: ‘Today is the feast of Crispinus and Crispianus; it is Agincourt day.’ Behind the declamatory trumpets, it is possible to discern a form of Runcie-speak – an Establishment code which hints that times are changing and that the concept of national destiny which sent the dogs of war yomping over distant peat bogs needs to be stood down. Professor Levi must be one of the few students of poetry who can discern a ‘profound force’ in Matthew Arnold’s moribund verse, and it is hard not to be amused when Levi confesses himself ‘honoured and awed’ to be standing in Arnold’s place. Like Arnold, he is ‘keen on Celtic poetry’ and concludes his lecture by quoting in full Eilis Dillon’s translation of Eileen O’Connell’s famous 18th-century Gaelic poem, ‘The Lament for Arthur O’Leary’. In a bizarre critical judgment which might be seen as a form of transcendental literary Unionism, the professor asserts that ‘The Lament’ is ‘the greatest poem written in these islands in the whole 18th century’. I find this sweeping statement hard to understand (the professor is referring only to a 20th-century translation) and suspect that Levi may have been in contact with a virus which the present Secretary of State for Northern Ireland terms ‘the Irish fever, the worst variety known to man’. As a critic, Levi is pure waffle, a recycled Maurice Bowra. I look forward to his next lecture.
Levi’s poetry may not be the worst variety known to man, if only because it is easy to avoid being infected by it. In one poem, he tells us ‘there is something final about darkness,’ and in another remembers that he visited France when he was 25:
I saw nothing naked and virginal,
nor did I play tennis, nor ever shall.
This is a poetry of high obviousness which delights in primary colours and feeds on a winsome sensitivity:
In the writing up of human history
I sense a tragical beat:
snowfall is the balance of the universe,
back-pupilled Venus will be glittering
over the simple pleasures and the simple sleep.
Levi writes a form of translationese which runs always with a smooth, fake facility. Sometimes he essays a political subject, as in the poem entitled ‘A Few Words about Fascism’ which turns out to be about weeds and ‘fog on the Danube ice’. Levi is clearly well-travelled and he often flips out postcard verses which read as though they’ve been written by someone studying a tour brochure in Henley. I do not recommend a dip in these tideless waters.
Douglas Dunn, fortunately but tragically, is the absolute opposite of a vapid poet like Levi. Dunn’s elegies were written after the death of his wife, Lesley Balfour Dunn, in March 1981, and they love and celebrate her as she lived and as she lay dying. I first met Lesley in 1968 and I last saw her a fortnight before her death – wasted, heroic, witty and ‘turning down painkillers for lucidity’, as Dunn writes in a poem which remembers the friends who called at the house in the final months. These poems are set in a world of ‘municipal function’ and they constantly juxtapose pain with an agonised ordinariness, that secular reality which seems to affront love, grief, or a possible faith. Dunn has always written as a severely tender, puritan realist and in ‘Second Opinion’ he writes:
A heavy mother shuffled with bad feet
And a stick, a pad over one eye,
Leaving her children warned in their seats.
The minutes went by like a winter.
The irrefutable otherness of the woman and the framing otherness of the poet’s suffering become testimonies to a reality which on the one hand seems visibly out there, almost casually ordinary, and on the other is an ungraspable noumenon, another world of spiritual and physical pain.
Dunn has always possessed a vision of pure being, a mode of existence that is ‘outwith/ The trend of places’, as he says in an early poem, ‘Silences’, and in ‘Thirteen Steps and the Thirteenth of March’ he describes their shared experience during their last weeks together – an intimate anonymity while
Time was out
Walking his dog by the low walls and privet.
This quality of being is most marvellously caught in ‘Creatures’, which is a memory of a long sojourn in France many years before:
Nervously proud, itself, and secular,
A fox patrolled on its instinctive route
Past us and nut trees to the absolute
Wild pathless woods, a French fox, pure renard.
There is a quality in Dunn’s imagination – perhaps a buried Calvinism – which makes him take instinctively to French language and culture. Thus ‘Creatures’ places its visionary delicacies (‘She scattered milk-dipped bread for the lazy snakes’) within an exacting, Cézanne-like sense of form and geometric order. This is an extension of Dunn’s combination of municipal function and personal grief, though it works here to create a most stringent sense of wonder that can combine the rational and the visionary. In the closing stanza, a ‘paradisal stasis’ fills the dark:
She scattered bread. ‘A snake’s a shy creature.’
I dip my bread in milk, and I think of her,
The châtelaine of her reasonable ark.
Here, the pictorial allusions – to French and American primitive painters – do not overburden the lines, and they pay a subtle tribute to his wife’s work as artist and gallery-curator.
‘Creatures’ is a masterpiece with a texture of ‘impacted human soul’ that is ultimately religious, and in ‘Home Again’ the writing carries a similar conviction that it is
more than remembering,
Larger than sentiment.
Brilliantly, Dunn allows a sense of ultimate mystery and terror to emerge through a strict negativity, and in the remarkable ‘Reading Pascal in the Lowlands’ he describes a chance encounter in a park with a man whose son is dying of leukaemia:
I close my book, the Pensées of Pascal.
I am light with meditation, religiose
And mystic with a day of solitude.
I do not tell him of my own sorrows.
He is bored with misery and premonition.
He has seen the limits of time, asking ‘Why?’
Nature is silent on that question.
I dislike the term ‘moving’ as a means of praising a poem, but reading the last line of that stanza I feel lacerated: Dunn, the dying boy and his parents and aunt appear like philosophers of grief and suffering, knowing an infinite dark space beyond this reader’s understanding. However, Dunn’s deployment of the plain style isn’t always so effective, and in ‘The Clear Day’ I was worried by the phrase ‘radiantly painful speculations’ which lacks the poised simplicity of ‘Home Again’:
I call her name,
And it is very strange and wonderful.
The poems in Elegies speak from a shared tragedy and yet they are full of wonder, instinct with a firm and obdurate courage.
Michael Longley belongs to that epic and heroic generation of Northern Irish poets who brought the Word to a province where Minotaur snarled at art and banned plays that criticised the status quo. His first volume, No Continuing City, was published in 1969 and its title derives from St Paul’s Epistle to the Hebrews: ‘For here we have no continuing city, but we seek one to come’ (xiii, 14). I recall being puzzled by the title when I first read the volume in Belfast 16 years back. With hindsight I can see that Longley was pointing towards a profound unease in the Ulster Loyalist consciousness – a sense of being without strong or complex traditions, of being historically impoverished and deprived. Belfast is a city of buried, misplaced or lost traditions, and its political culture before the present troubles is best expressed in the 17th verse of Hebrews xiii: ‘Obey them that have the rule over you, and submit yourselves: for they watch for your souls, as they that must give account, that they may do it with joy, and not with grief: for that is unprofitable for you.’ Brought up to respect authority and balance-sheets, the Loyalist imagination petrified while the libertarian Protestant ethic took on strange and distorted forms.
Back in the Sixties when Longley was writing ‘No Continuing City’ Ian Paisley was brooding in a prison cell on Paul’s Epistle to the Romans and attaching that text to an intuition of the essentially corrupt and temporary nature of the Northern Ireland state. Paisley, like Longley, drew a message for the times from St Paul, and it is impossible to read Longley’s early poems without being haunted by ironic premonitions of what was about to happen. And although it is possible to regard ‘No Continuing City’ as a straightforward, if somewhat sexist, love poem, it is essentially an exploration of the conflict between a pragmatic but superficial modern outlook and a more complex but dangerous mythological past which threatens the brave new world of Ulster’s O’Neillite ‘Opportunity State’:
From today new hoardings crowd my eyes,
Pasted over my ancient histories
Which (I must be cruel to be kind)
Only gale or cloudburst now discover,
Ripping the billboard of my mind –
Oh, there my lovers,
There my dead no longer advertise.
Ominously, this stanza transforms a pragmatic Protestant rejection of the discredited atavisms of a nationalistic reverence for the dead into the rejection of a purely personal past.
Longley is fascinated in the early poems by images of solitude and stasis (a bittern is ‘Cupboarded in ice like a specimen’), and he often expresses a fear of social collapse and disintegration. In ‘The Centaurs’, for example, ‘Our whole army fights for balance,’ and in this mythological nightmare ‘last stands’ are made on causeways and the prevailing certainty is that of defeat. This is the siege-mentality being probed by the imagination of a highly sensitive, liberal Unionist, and the line ‘We wake to a world of infantry men’ anticipates what was soon to happen on the streets of the discontinuous city. In ‘Rip Van Winkle’ Longley writes, ‘You wake to find all history collapsed,’ and his poems are seeded with such premonitions.
Longley has described himself as ‘a mutant Irishman’ on the grounds that, though he was born and brought up in Belfast, his parents were both English. He therefore grew up (as I did) in a puzzling Irish/British city which lacked a ‘familial hinterland’. This partly explains the double-minded uncertainties of
While I, hands in my pockets, hesitant,
Am in two minds,
a simple question
Of being in two places at the one time.
The sense of not being fully at home in Ireland is the subject of the poem ‘On hearing Irish spoken’, where Longley overhears two fishermen talking Irish and catches the one word he knows:
Repeating itself at desperate intervals
Like the stepping stones across a river in spate.
Minotaur still forbids Protestant children to study Irish and this means that Northern Irish writers who were educated within the state system can sometimes feel ‘desperate’ about language. Longley several times employs the word ‘dialect’ in his poems but his work is strangely pure of dialect words, even though the Ulster vernacular he speaks is crammed with lovely words that could refresh the written language. Though he worships John Clare, Longley does not follow Clare in using dialect, and yet there is at the heart of his imagination a similar shyness and gentleness, a finely humane outlook with an almost mystical texture and cherishing puzzlement. Like Clare, Longley has a special feeling for wild birds, and the essential strangeness and wonder of his verse is similar to these quietistic stanzas from Clare’s great poem ‘To the Snipe’:
The unbounded heaven esteems
And here my heart warms into higher moods
And dignifying dreams.
I see the sky
Smile on the meanest spot
Giving to all that creep or walk or flye
A calm and cordial lot.
Thine teaches me
Right feelings to employ
That in the dreariest places peace will be
A dweller and a joy.
Longley teaches by an exemplary sensitivity, and this volume contains a number of poems which stand out as permanent and classic statements: ‘The Adulterer’, ‘Swans Mating’, ‘Casualty’, ‘Wounds’, ‘Ghost Town’, ‘Wreaths’, ‘Last Requests’, ‘Mayo Monologues’, ‘Mountain Swim’, ‘Codicils’. Although I am perplexed by his sonnets to Florence Nightingale and Grace Darling – subjects only Monty Python can swallow now – his patient tenderness is always impressive. With an ironic honesty he faces that terminal sense of being marooned and unloved which is so much part of the Northern Unionist consciousness:
It is a last desolate weaning
When you hug me, the sole survivor
– Without location or protocol –
Of a tribe which let the fire go out.
In A Literature of their Own, the American feminist scholar Elaine Showalter states that she is ‘uncomfortable with the notion of a “female imagination”. The theory of a female sensibility revealing itself in an imagery and form specific to women always runs dangerously close to reiterating the familiar stereotypes. It suggests permanence, a deep, basic, and inevitable difference between male and female ways of perceiving the world.’ Against this sectarian notion, Showalter sets the idea that ‘the female literary tradition comes from the still-evolving relationships between women writers and their society.’ And although Showalter’s thesis is marred by a curious distinction she draws between the ‘superior’ woman who writes and the ‘ordinary’ woman who is not a writer, her sense of the fluid nature of literary tradition valuably challenges those critics who try to petrify literature into a fixed series of canonical texts.
Carol Rumens hopes her anthology may point towards the time when we do not feel obliged ‘to think of writers in terms of gender at all’. Although I’ve never felt obliged to think of writers as anything other than writers, I suspect this view was too easily won and for obvious reasons. But as I do not believe in the concept of a female imagination (nor, it would seem, does Carol Rumens), it’s impossible to discern a principle other than the fact of gender which links the various poets whom Rumens has collected in her anthology. Put simply, this anthology should be read for the marvellous poems it contains by Anne Stevenson, Fleur Adcock, Dorothy Hewett, Elizabeth Bishop, Barbara Guest, Carolyn Forché, Miriam Waddington, and Eunice De Souza, whose ‘Marriages are made’ is about an Indian arranged marriage where the girl is first given a complete medical examination before being deemed able
to do justice to
Francisco X. Noronha Prabhu
good son of Mother Church.
It’s unfortunate, though, that De Souza’s ironic precision and Elizabeth Bishop’s absolute perfection should have to consort with Adrienne Rich’s wretched verse:
trying the blurred edges of broadcasts
for a little truth, taking a walk before bed
wondering what a man can do, asking that
at the verge of tears in a lightning-flash of loneliness.
In Direct Dialling, her fourth collection of verse, Rumens begins with a poem called ‘A Prague Dusk, August 21st 1983’. The atmospheric theme of these poems is best expressed in the concluding title-poem where the lines
But our faces, sad,
already told us
of time and the state
contain an unsettling combination of West European angst and East European social reality. Often Rumens’s language has a terse intelligence, and in ‘Sixteen Dancers’ this infuses new life into the tired subject of old photographs. Because Rumens insists on giving emotions a social dimension, her poems can break free of a disembodied lyricism and take on a type of estranged and poignant verisimilitude: ‘the grown-ups silent as suitcases’.
Less happily, some of these poems are glitched with strings of dead adjectives.
The woman slides her hoover
noisily into the passage.
Dust twinkles in a sun-shaft, breakfast smells
seep from the kitchens. It is quiet, domestic.
Though this is an instant of being, a humdrum moment perceived by a historical consciousness, the language is stale: ‘twinkles’, ‘seep’, ‘quiet, domestic’ are all null words, and it is pointless to offer an argument from irony and say that their nullness is deliberate because the scene itself is banal. In a poem there are only words and cadences and the scene here is their creation.
Peter Redgrove writes poems which are for the most part solipsistic, domestic and amateurish. In ‘Cornwall Honeymoon’ these predictable phrases occur – ‘blazed with beauty’, ‘drifts of dead leaves’, ‘magnificently wreathed in ivy’. In ‘Lights in the Midst’:
The carelessness of her relaxation overcame him
As no planned seduction could.
Redgrove is slipshod and prosaic and he uses ‘of’ again and again and again. His poem ‘Whitsunwind’ is 33 lines long and can be construed as ‘of’ x 15. Another poem is entitled ‘Under the Duvet’ and this best expresses the privatised nature of Redgrove’s vision – he sketches a nowhere in which one childish fantasy melts into another. Set him next to Holub and this soi-disant ‘scientist of the strange’ looks merely self-indulgent and marginal. Minotaur will never growl at Redgrove. Minotaur approves of this type of verse.