D.J. Enright recently celebrated his 70th birthday. In commemoration, Oxford University Press have prepared a rather lean Selected Poems, and a volume of personal reminiscences and critical essays about Enright’s life and work by a variety of writers. This festschrift’s title, Life by Other Means, derives from an Enright poem called ‘Poetical Justice’ which muses rather more ambiguously on the relations between art and life than the stirring phrase might suggest in isolation.
Dr Johnson, one of Enright’s touchstones, records how he was so shocked by Cordelia’s death in King Lear that he could never bear to reread the play’s last scenes until forced to as a Shakespeare editor. In ‘Poetical Justice’ Enright’s speaker presents himself as similarly disturbed by tragedy’s unfairness:
It will be many years before I read again
Of the death of Cordelia,
Or indeed (though he deserves cuffing)
Of the Macduff boy’s stabbing.
‘Poetical Justice’ is a dry, witty exploration of one of Enright’s most characteristic dilemmas: art’s responsibility to life. In his discussion of King Lear Johnson admits that the sufferings of the good in the play at the hands of the evil constitute an accurate ‘representation of the common events of human life’, but goes on to argue that art should present a more idealistic vision of experience. He writes: ‘since all reasonable beings naturally love justice, I cannot easily be persuaded that the observation of justice makes a play worse.’ The speaker of Enright’s poem readily agrees with this – indeed he is even more distressed than Johnson at the idea of a literature committed to a realistic imitation of the injustice and illogic of life:
That such things happen in life is no cause
For them to happen in literature.
If it is true that ‘all reasonable beings
Naturally love justice,’
Then where shall they hope to find it?
I prefer to hear of such unlikely events
As Hermione surviving in private, or
Isabella furnished with a ducal husband.
(Some have tried, too late, to save Cordelia.)
But surely the choice of Isabella from Measure for Measure as an example of unlikely happiness rather undermines our confidence in the speaker’s literary judgment. At the play’s end she is notoriously silent, neither accepting nor rejecting the Duke’s proposal, coerced into a happy ending that is at odds with the comedy’s unsolved problems. Enright is illustrating the fine gradations between artistic conclusions that magically resolve a work’s issues, those that are imposed by an ironic use of convention, and those that are mere wish-fulfilment, of which Nahum Tate’s rewriting of King Lear with a happy ending is the most glaring example. Enright’s poem concludes:
In life we barely choose our words even.
Only those we hurt will still recall them.
Art, they say, continues life by other means –
How other are they?
Thus, rather than a celebration of art’s ‘other means’, the poem ends up offering a complex enquiry into art’s powers of equivocation. It’s almost impossible to gauge the poem’s tone with any certainty. How ironic is this wistful harking back to the firm Johnsonian ideals of justice which ‘all reasonable beings’ would accept? Are we meant to condemn or to concur with the speaker’s wish to see Cordelia saved? How can art offer comforting alternatives to life’s miseries without becoming sentimental fantasy? But what is clear at least, amidst this thicket of ironies, is the poem’s success in making us aware of the morally slippery interface between life and art.
Most of the essays in Life by Other Means are warm in their praise of Enright’s sanity, humanity and intelligence. Donald Davie agrees that Enright is ‘deeply humane, indeed humanitarian’, but then argues that this humanitarianism continually inhibits his poetry. Davie suggests that the pressure of the responsibilities entailed on Enright by his refusal to accept the autonomy of art leaves his verse trapped in the moralistic, with ‘too little room for manoeuvre, too little margin for invention and caprice’. The one poem he excepts from these strictures is ‘The Laughing Hyena, by Hokusai’ (1953), in which Enright directly dramatises the collision of the moral and the aesthetic. The poem describes a picture by Hokusai in which a hyena triumphantly holds aloft the bloody head of a child:
Between the raised talon of the right hand rests an object –
At rest, like a pale island in a savage sea – a child’s head,
Immobile, authentic, torn and bloody –
The point of repose in the picture, the point of movement in us.
Here, for once, Davie feels, Enright accepts that great art is ‘amoral, unleashing energies which do not stop short of, which may even seek out, gratuitous ferocities’.
Davie’s criticisms are of course reflected everywhere in Enright’s poetry itself, most obviously in its anxieties about the impotence of the liberal humanist. In ‘A Liberal Lost’, from The Old Adam (1965), Enright compares a lizard’s destruction of a helpless moth with the ‘dragon’ of a powerful political state – Enright was Johore Professor of English in Singapore at the time and was not on good terms with the authorities – which jeers at the poet’s own feeble ‘liberal notions’. Nature has no comforting analogies for the beleaguered humanist.
It’s hard not to be impressed, though, by the wit, honesty and variety with which Enright defines his compromised position. John Bayley makes an interesting comparison in his essay between Larkin’s paradoxical need to fuse in his poetry a recognisable speaking voice with an almost Yeatsian authority and intensity of statement, and Enright’s more leisurely, less aggressive colloquialism. Enright’s refusal to acknowledge art as a self-justifying absolute – as Larkin did, whatever his protestations to the contrary – is crucial to what might be called the social dimension of Enright’s poetry: its genial, raconteurish tone, its willingness to negotiate with foreign countries and foreign languages.
Enright spent most of his working life abroad as an English lecturer in Egypt, Japan, Germany (Berlin), Thailand, Singapore. Most of the poems written during these years record his responses to alien ideals and cultures, but all are underpinned by the need to believe in a common humanity. A poem called ‘Reflections on humanity’ ends with the characteristically deceptive thought for the day ‘That only the very worst literature is foreign:/ That practically no life at all is.’ Douglas Dunn thinks that these earlier poems are not only Enright’s best, but that they ‘stand among the best poems of their time’. Part of their conviction derives from their direct engagement with political and social issues, so much more unignorable in poorer countries, and part from Enright’s earnestness about poetry’s duty to adhere to the commonplace. In ‘Saying no’ (1960), for instance, Enright elevates his rejection of the flamboyance of Dylan Thomas and the Apocalyptics into a moral injunction:
Epochs of parakeets, of peacocks, of paradisiac birds –
Then one bald owl croaked, No.
Such table-thumping seems a bit dated now – one is inadvertently reminded of television’s ‘Just Say No’ anti-drugs ads. Disillusioned post-war Movement writers were always delighted to tell their more exotic predecessors where they could go and shove it, and as a reviewer in the late Forties and early Fifties Enright could be every bit as ferocious as ‘ape-neck Amis’ and the rest. His poetry, though, rarely conforms to the provincialism and insularity that were Movement hallmarks, and his allusions to non-English literatures – particularly German – set him still further apart from this branch of Movement ideals. His witty and original reworking of the Faust myth in A Faust Notebook (1979) is only the most sustained of his contraventions of Larkin’s law against the international myth-kitty.
Perhaps Enright’s most striking single volume is the autobiographical sequence The Terrible Shears, written after his return to England and published in 1973. The book is a series of vignettes about his working-class childhood in Leamington Spa. (Its carefully layered ironies and dispersed narrative are sadly lost in the truncated version offered in Selected Poems.) These drained, reticent poems resuscitate childhood memories with a kind of fascinated detachment that is wholly absorbing. In ‘I remember, I remember’ Larkin gleefully reversed the cliché of the poet’s wondrous childhood – as in Dylan Thomas’s ‘Fern Hill’ – into an absolute of blankness: ‘Nothing, like something, happens anywhere.’ But in their shared liking for extremes, Thomas and Larkin can seem temperamentally quite close. Enright’s approach to childhood in The Terrible Shears is very different and perhaps, in its own unemphatic way, more original.
Where both Thomas and Larkin are concerned to define the uniqueness of their childhoods, Enright merges his consummately into the common concerns and idioms of the everyday. Enright sees his childhood as illustrating certain social, economic, historical facts – he is particularly good on class issues – but there is little of the self-importance on which poetic autobiography, from The Prelude on, normally depends. Donald Davie reports himself ‘continually aghast’ at Enright’s dead-pan style in The Terrible Shears and wonders if it is ‘in any real sense poetry’? To my mind, The Terrible Shears is, on the contrary, the most successful of Enright’s evasions of Romantic singularity, and the fullest realisation of the Movement’s ambitions for a poetry of ordinary life. The uncertainty and self-awareness which Davie sees as circumscribing seem to me converted into an equivocal, laconic humour that proves continually thought-provoking and affecting.
Miroslav Holub is not only Czechoslovakia’s best-known poet: he is also an internationally respected immunologist. Like the American poet William Carlos Williams, whose work he greatly admires, Holub has always insisted that scientific and poetic enquiry constantly overlap. Holub, though, is far readier than Williams ever was to incorporate scientific terminology into the fabric of his poems, and his new volume of poems, Vanishing Lung Syndrome, takes this process further still. The book is structured into four parts called Syncope, Symptom, Syndrome and Synapse, and the poems in each carry the implications of these medical terms. Holub clinically observes all kinds of disease, actual and metaphorical, and for the non-scientific reader the result is an intriguing code language governed by mysterious forces just beyond comprehension.
Holub’s double-talk also derives, of course, from the political conditions of totalitarian Czechoslovakia that the poems illustrate and unmask. (All were written before the overthrow of the old regime last November.) Holub was banned from publication in his own country throughout the Seventies, during which time he was officially a non-person. Accordingly, he constantly makes connections between aspects of the body’s physical struggle for survival and the individual’s struggle within a hostile political system.
Holub’s austere, ironical observations are also capable of generating moments of powerful emotional uplift, as when physical and spiritual worlds suddenly mesh at the end of a poem describing a successful heart transplant:
And when the heart begins to beat
and the curves jump
like synthetic sheep
on the green screen,
it’s like a model of a battlefield
where Life and Spirit
have been fighting
and both have won.
The image of the green sheep on the cardiograph is a good example of the imaginative clarity and vividness of Holub’s poetry when it’s at its best.
The Dimension of the Present Moment is a collection of essays mainly on immunological topics which also reach out to aesthetic and political issues. One especially interesting essay called ‘Shedding life’ describes the desperate, pathetic struggle for survival of blood ceils leaking from a muskrat shot to pieces by a trigger-happy neighbour of Holub’s. Cellular life, Holub shows, continues long after the organism is officially dead. Czechoslovakia’s deposed leaders might find food for thought in the piece.
Bloodaxe’s Poems Before and After amalgamates their two previous Holub collections, The Fly (1987) and On the Contrary (1984), and adds a handful of new poems. The book was to have been published in this form in 1984 as a Collected Poems, but the Czech authorities managed to block the project on the grounds that Holub wasn’t a member of the Czech Writers Union, and therefore wasn’t distinguished enough to merit a full edition in a foreign country. The book is divided into two parts: ‘Before’ contains poems written before the 1968 uprising, and the rest were written after it. From this long, gruelling volume one gets not only a full sense of the variety and intelligence of Holub’s poetics of dissent, but a clearer awareness of his artistic sources and contexts. His use of a kind of archetypal surrealism, for instance, seems to derive equally from Slavic folklore and from French Absurdism of the Fifties, but, as also happens in the work of his Eastern Bloc contemporaries, Vasko Popa and Ivan Lalic, Holub’s manipulations of the surreal are rarely without a political point.
His whimsical puppet theatre is also a microcosm of the absurd political state. His Punch gets up to all kinds of merry pranks, but dreams most of all of speaking in
my own voice,
out of my own head,
for the first and the last time,
because afterwards they’ll put me back in the box,
wrapped in tissue paper.
Punch’s dream, or versions of it, persists so stoically throughout the volume that one wonders how surprised Holub was when it finally came true.
Holub didn’t begin writing poetry until he was 30, and might be considered something of a late starter. The even more dilatory Alistair Elliot didn’t publish his first book of poems, Contentions, until 1977, when he was 45. Elliot is best-known for his long sequence ‘On the Appian way’, which is a travelogue in rhyming couplets recording his attempts to recreate Horace’s first collection, Satires. Elliot’s is a very relaxed, not exactly gripping account of this quite novel holiday idea, and it exhibits his verse at its most characteristically deft. He must be the chattiest poet writing today – he makes even the late Auden seem lyrically elliptical. His colloquial ruminations are fitted into an interesting variety of rhyme schemes, but certain poems seem so low-pressured you wonder how they bothered to get written at all. This is particularly the case with the most recently written opening section of poems about America – mainly Florida and California. An especially laid-back one describes a visit with two New Age friends called Lindsay and Ellie to an astrologer. On the way back to San Francisco the car breaks down and they have to stay overnight at a hotel. The poem has no particular point to make: it’s like a versified diary in which the day’s events have to be recorded, however mundane.
Elliot’s earlier poems, particularly in his Talking back collection of 1982, tend to be rather more deliberate. Talking back has a number of poems on historical events with a much keener edge than is the Elliot norm. His resolutely banal style works well in a monologue by a Persian soldier involved in the slaughter of the population of various Greek islands in 493 BC, as spoken of by Herodotus:
I did the best I could to make it happen
so we killed not just men or not just women
but children too, to thin them equally
so that each family would remember us,
but Farhad said he was tired of killing women.
Elliot’s casual, meandering tone chillingly suggests the tedium of this mini-Holocaust.
Craig Raine’s 1953 is a very free and ingenious version of Racine’s Andromaque. Raine transposes the play to the imaginary aftermath of a World War Two won by the Germans and their allies. Pyrrhus becomes Vittorio, the son of Mussolini, and Andromaque becomes Annette LeSkye, a haughty English aristocrat, whose young half-Jewish son, Angus LeSkye (Astyanax in Racine), is a claimant to the English throne. Orestes accordingly becomes Klaus Maria Von Orestes, a secret envoy sent by Hitler to persuade Vittorio to hand over the young Angus, and Hermione is turned into the German Princess Ira, sent by Hitler to marry Vittorio to cement the German-Italian alliance.
Raine’s version was commissioned for a production at the Old Vic but was turned down by director Jonathan Miller, and a straightforward translation by Eric Korn was used instead. It’s not hard to see Miller’s objections. Beyond fulfilling the basic plot requirements, 1953 barely connects with Racine at all. It brims over with Raine’s characteristic farfetched metaphors and insights, but in the process sacrifices the reticence and intensity of Racine’s play. Raine’s own cleverness continually obtrudes into the text. Describing war, Vittorio talks of a river full of bodies ‘bobbing like teabags’, of ‘strafed refugees diving like goalkeepers’, of the way an amputee’s stump ‘puckers like a kitbag’. Raine’s sometimes brilliant, often self-admiring wit couldn’t have found a more incongruous vehicle than Racine’s severely impersonal drama. In contrast, Douglas Dunn’s translation, published simultaneously by Faber, is a colloquial but faithful rendering of the play into rhyming couplets.