In a 1979 review of Roy Fisher’s collection of poems The Thing about Joe Sullivan, probably the most likeable collection by a not always likeable poet, John Ash wrote: ‘In a better world, he would be as widely known and highly praised as Ted Hughes and Seamus Heaney.’ This would be a very strange world, and not necessarily a better one. Fisher has never aspired to the sort of readership that Heaney and Hughes enjoy; it’s not clear he has aspired to much of a readership at all. Astringent in tone, the voice denuded of personality and with all the warmth of a lens, exploratory, restless, difficult: it is poetry almost entirely without charm. On first learning that his work was being read outside a small circle of poet friends, Fisher froze up for an extended period of time, as he would periodically throughout his writing life. There isn’t much in the poetry that would provide fuel for the more significant engines of reputation. It is too heterodox in form and method, and too various to characterise or place comfortably in the context of contemporary British poetry, beyond the idiotic and self-marginalising labels of ‘outsider’ or ‘experimental’.
A poem, Fisher said in an interview, ‘has business to exist … if there’s a reasonable chance that somebody may have his perceptions rearranged by having read it’. The poem exists as a subversive agent, ‘psychologically, sensuously’. The aim is to produce a dislocative effect. ‘I’m suspicious of poetry which can be embraced by people who are interested in identifying a culture as a culture at a particular moment.’All of this may sound appealingly provocative and avant-garde, but in practice it puts off most readers and jettisons what small prospects exist for serious critical reception. But Fisher throughout his career has learned and taken advantage of ‘what it is possible to do, freed from readership’.
‘I come from the thing called the “working class”,’ he says, ‘and I didn’t go to one of the older universities, and I’ve never lived in London. I’m a provincial … Which is everywhere but London, Oxford and Cambridge, and one or two rather well-to-do spots around that way. It doesn’t mean much, but it affects the way you behave, and what you root for and what you snarl at.’ A lifelong, rather cheerful agoraphobe and hermit, neglect suits him. Nevertheless, The Long and the Short of It, published in Fisher’s 75th year, should find a substantial readership beyond the poets and scholars who have constituted his audience from the beginning. As the difficulties and intellectual prejudices abate, the more significant poems will almost certainly make their way into the canon.
The title poem in the 1978 collection that Ash so rightly praised, ‘The Thing about Joe Sullivan’, written in 1975, is terrifically bracing and approachable, in its defiant way, and could be read as Fisher’s ars poetica. Fisher has worked as a professional jazz pianist throughout his life. He was a musician before he was a poet, and music has probably meant more to him than poetry. Fisher likes no jazz pianist more than Joe Sullivan, the rumbustious white Chicago artist who came up in the 1920s with Eddie Condon’s band. Like Fisher, Sullivan was an unabashed disciple of the Earl Hines style of playing, with that busily inventive left hand and the right hand playing octaves:
The pianist Joe Sullivan,
jamming sound against idea
hard as it can go
florid and dangerous
slams at the beat, or hovers,
drumming, along its spikes
For all that, he won’t swing
like all the others;
disregards mere continuity,
the snakecharming business,
the ‘masturbator’s rhythm’
under the long variations
the mannerism of intensity
often with him seems true,
too much to be said, the mood
pressing in right at the start, then
running among stock forms
that could play themselves
and moving there with such
quickness of intellect
that shapes flaw and fuse,
altering without much sign
It concludes with the poet/pianist attempting a Sullivan solo on his own piano:
fingers following his
through figures that sound obvious
find corners everywhere,
marks of invention, wakefulness;
the rapid and perverse
tracks that ordinary feelings
make when they get driven
hard enough against time.
This is an anomalous poem for Fisher, and a splendid one: an anthology piece, and one of the very few first-rate poems about jazz. ‘I’m not interested in making a structure which has got a climax, a thing which has got an authoritarian centre, a rule or mandate somewhere in its middle which the work will unfold and will reach.’ Except when he is, as in this poem. And then there is his most commonly anthologised piece, ‘The Entertainment of War’, about the bombing of his native Birmingham during the Second World War:
A mile away in the night I heard the bombs
Sing and then burst themselves between cramped houses
With bright soft flashes and sounds like banging doors;
The last of them crushed the four bodies into the ground,
Scattered the shelter, and blasted my uncle’s corpse
Over the housetop and into the street beyond.
This poem, again, is unusual: Fisher is almost never autobiographical, interested in narrative, or inclined to relate ‘brute documentary’. Nor is there often a stable, identifiable ‘I’: ‘my poems are propositions rather than reactions to personal experience,’ he says. ‘The poems are to do with getting about in the mind … from one cluster of ideas to another without a scaffolding of logic or narrative … the way a poem moves is the index of where the feeling in it lies.’ In ‘Of the Empirical Self and for Me’ he writes:
In my poems there’s seldom
any I or you –
you know me, Mary;
you wouldn’t expect it of me
‘The Entertainment of War’ is part of an ‘assemblage’ of poems entitled City (1961) that Fisher started to write about Birmingham when he returned there after a spell in the early 1950s in Devon, where he had lived with his first wife and taught at a grammar school. Fisher had lived in a single house in Birmingham until he was 23, never travelling far afield or for any length of time. On his return to the area he landed a job at a teacher training college and set up house in Handsworth, only a few hundred yards from the house in which his mother had been raised. Fisher supplemented his income by working most nights ‘playing in Dixieland bands, bebop quartets and Black Country dance bands; for a while I was the token white in the Andy Hamilton Caribbean Combo.’ He played in jazz clubs, town halls, village halls, strip clubs, dance halls, drinking clubs and hotels. None of this work finds its way into the poetry, at least directly, but being away from Birmingham for so long had given him an artistic distance from it. ‘My journeys through it in connection with my educational work and my piano playing were in all directions at all hours of the day and night. I saw it from the oddest of angles.’
While in Devon, Fisher had been reading, looking at and listening to the important moderns and had begun publishing his own poems. As was, and remains, his custom, he nosed about on his own. One early non-Modernist influence was Robert Graves, and the ‘brusque conversational tone’ in some of his poetry. In the mid-1950s, the poet Gael Turnbull, who was editing a special British number for Cid Corman’s magazine Origin, took an interest in Fisher’s work and invited him to his home in Worcester. There, Fisher saw for the first time the work of the later William Carlos Williams, Basil Bunting, Robert Duncan, Allen Ginsberg, Louis Zukofsky, Robert Creeley, Charles Olson and others. ‘I’d never seen poetry used as these people were, in their various ways, using it,’ Fisher remembered, ‘nor had I seen it treated as so vital an activity. These people were behaving with all the freedom and artistic optimism of painters. Very un-English.’ The Long and the Short of It is dedicated to Turnbull, as well as to Fisher’s late second wife, the playwright Joyce Holliday.
Had Fisher continued to write poetry in the vein of ‘The Thing about Joe Sullivan’ and ‘The Entertainment of War’ he might well have enjoyed a proper career. But the method of much of the writing, even in City, assured him of marginality, at best. City’s subject-matter is urban, the technique a blend of the surreal, expressionist, realist and cubist, the whole thing almost cinematic in its abrupt transitions and dislocations. In fact, the sort of thing you see every day on TV adverts or in front of your nose on Tottenham Court Road or Oxford Street. Fisher’s reading of it – on a vinyl recording he made for the tiny Amber label in 1977 – sounds almost like the voiceover to a documentary or an exhibition of photojournalism: an unusually artful, strange and disjunct documentary or exhibit to be sure, and one that could only be shot in black and white. Fisher’s poetry, almost all of it, occurs in a crepuscular world of half-tones and chiaroscuro:
Brick-dust in sunlight. That is what I see now in the city, a dry epic flavour, whose air is human breath. A place of walls made straight with plumbline and trowel, to desiccate and crumble in the sun and smoke. Blistered paint on cisterns and girders, cracking to show the priming. Old men spit on the paving slabs, little boys urinate; and the sun dries it as it dries out patches of damp on plaster facings to leave misshapen stains. I look for things here that make old men and dead men seem young. Things which have escaped, the landscapes of many childhoods.
Wharves, the oldest parts of factories, tarred gable ends rearing to take the sun over lower roofs. Soot, sunlight, brick-dust; and the breath that tastes of them.
There’s that sort of thing, but there’s also this:
At night on the station platform, near a pile of baskets, a couple embraced, pressed close together and swaying a little. It was hard to see where the girl’s feet and legs were. The suspicion this aroused soon caused her hands, apparently joined behind her lover’s back, to become a small brown paper parcel under the arm of a stout engine-driver who leaned, probably drunk, against the baskets, his cap so far forward as almost to conceal his face. I could not banish the thought that what I had first seen was in fact his own androgynous fantasy, the self-sufficient core of his stupor. Such a romantic thing, so tender, for him to contain. He looked more comic and complaisant than the couple had done, and more likely to fall heavily to the floor.
The prose alternates with verse. As the late Kenneth Cox said in one of the very few useful pieces on Fisher’s poetry, the verse line slows down the rate of reading and highlights details of movement and texture, as well as allowing a more flexible syntax and looser connections between successive meanings:
The sun hacks at the slaughterhouse campanile,
And by the butchers’ cars, packed tail-to-kerb,
Masks under white caps wake into human faces.
The river shudders as dawn drums on its culvert;
On the first bus nightworkers sleep, or stare
At hoardings that look out on yesterday.
The whale-back hill assumes its concrete city:
The white-flanked towers, the stillborn monuments;
The thousand golden offices, untenanted.
It’s a temptation for critics who write about the early work to get caught up in its bleak, social realist aspect. In a review of Fisher’s 1968 Collected from Fulcrum Press, Donald Davie found strong affinities between Fisher and Larkin, in particular the ‘piercing pathos’ and the way that Fisher restricts ‘himself as self-denyingly as Larkin to the urbanised and industrialised landscapes of modern England’. Davie goes on to align both poets in the tradition of Thomas Hardy. Jacques Réda and Les Ruines de Paris would seem the safer bet, along with the urban photography of Bill Brandt; but all bets are finally off with Fisher, so wide and unpredictable are his influences, and so diffused.
Most of the lineaments of Fisher’s mature work are already present in City, however, a remarkable achievement for a writer in his twenties. He sets out to write about an actual city but to ‘dissolve’ its particulars and make them strange, until it becomes as much an inner perceptual field, as a post-industrial Midlands wasteland.
‘I always assume,’ Fisher said in an interview, that ‘I can handle subtleties, velleities, half-tones, but not anything brash. Had I been a painter I’d have needed slaves to mix my colours, for the sight of reds, yellows and blacks splurging aggressively from the tubes would have wrecked me for the day.’ These half-tones are nowhere more in evidence or handled more masterfully than in ‘Metamorphoses’, a 1970 prose poem:
She sleeps, in the day, in the silence. Where there is light, but little else: the white covers, the pillow, her head with its ordinary hair, her forearm dark over the sheet.
She sleeps and it is hardly a mark on the stillness; that she should have moved to be there, that she should be moving now across her sleep as the window where the light comes in passes across the day.
Her warmth is in the shadows of the bed, and the bed has few shadows, the sky is smoked with a little cloud, there are fish-trails high in the air. Her sleep rides on the silence, it is an open mouth travelling backward on moving waves.
Mouth open across the water, the knees loosened in sleep; dusks of the body shadowed around the room. In the light from the windows there is the thought of a beat, a flicker, an alternation of aspect from the outside to the inside of the glass. The light is going deep under her.
The poem isn’t about anything in particular; very few Fisher poems are. You don’t know where you are or who’s on board. The metamorphoses are tonal, and proceed glacially, like the massive tone clusters of a Ligeti orchestral piece.
Red beans in to soak. A thickness of them, almost brimming to the glass basin, swelling and softening together, the colour of their husks draining out to a fog of blood in the water.
The mass of things, indistinguishable one from another, loosing their qualities into the common cloud, their depth squashed by the refraction and obscured in the stain, forms pushed out of line. Five beans down it may be different.
‘Metamorphoses’ is far more representative of what Fisher is about than ‘The Thing about Joe Sullivan’ or ‘The Entertainment of War’, but it would be a very hard sell to whoever’s putting together the next Oxford Book of 20th-Century British Poetry.
‘There’s little poetry in my head,’ Fisher says, ‘which is filled with almost continuous music and optical polaroids.’ It’s almost exclusively these that get into the poetry, black and white, often out of focus, the images scrambled, their tonal qualities different from one another. As a child Fisher was a gifted painter. That went by the board in his teens and was supplanted by jazz, but it’s the visual that dominates the perceptual field of his poetry. Fisher claims to have been blessed, or cursed, with near photographic recall and there is throughout the poetry a fetishising of remembered images.
‘Metamorphoses’ was written later, the same year as ‘The Cut Pages’, 16 pages of wildly disjunct and spontaneous outpourings that began as an exercise to break out from a long period of not writing and personal crisis. The poem is more anomalous in its freedom than ‘The Entertainment of War’ in its containment:
Korean chrysanthemum, flattened into a fan. Rushing in, seeing it,
falling on his knees, struggling on his knees to justify it
He must have come from somewhere. Terra Cotta Brick
Sham signifiers, wearing the palms bearing the bays, keeping the
patrolled, walking the dogs’ dogs. There seems to be
British Bakelite could rise again
And so on. Those who have followed Fisher’s work closely – very closely – will recognise the fetishised imagery (brick), the cadences, the way Fisher’s mind moves. This last feature would make it most identifiable to me, at least in a blind test. Marjorie Perloff, in an admiring essay, thinks ‘The Cut Pages’ is the best thing Fisher has ever done, predictably, I suppose, and the reason he was put on this planet: as a precursor to the so-called L-A-N-G-U-A-G-E poets. Perloff is not entirely wrong, except that the poem is of little interest except to the most specialised, and tolerant, reader.
Fisher’s poetry abounds with detours and experiments, which even if unsuccessful open entire new areas for him. ‘Matrix’ and a number of other significant poems followed on the heels of ‘The Cut Pages’, which Fisher prefers to call an ‘improvisation’ rather than an ‘experiment’: an attempt at ‘working as closely as I could to the elements of my language and its immediate field of association, well below the levels of models that imaged the self and its extensions’. Another significant and immeasurably more successful detour was ‘The Ship’s Orchestra,’ written in 1962-63. It is a surreally inflected 22-page fantasia about an imaginary jazz band aboard an imaginary ship on an imaginary journey; it’s identifiably Fisher, but again unlike anything else he’s written:
Then it was her black (purple, juice) net dress, rough to the touch, things grew so big in the dark. Or lacquered hair, dry and crisp as grey grass. Want it to come away in handfuls, and she be meek, and satisfied, as far as that. Plimsolls, the smell of feet in a boy’s gymnasium. Learn to live with it.
Merrett calls his saxophone a tusk. What shape is the field of vision the eyes experience? Its edges cannot be perceived. A pear-shape, filled with the white plastic tusk, rimmed and ringed and keyed with snarly glitters, floating importantly. Where? Against a high, metallic and misty sunset, the sky like Canada in thaw, and Billy Budd’s feet dangling out of heaven five miles up, through a long purplish cloud.
The piece feels almost as though he had fallen asleep during a break between sets with a copy of Burroughs’s Naked Lunch spread across his face. Fisher had not yet read Burroughs, though he would later, but there can’t have been much of this sort of thing going down in Handsworth in 1961.
The eye darts about in Fisher’s poetry. It abhors the object at rest, framing of any kind. It’s like a camera, jerking and swivelling on an unstable tripod. Early and late, the poetry is about the eye in motion. The shifts may be subtle or vertiginously abrupt. It’s best not to get too comfortable as you progress through a poem because you’re not going to be where you think you are for long:
From here to there –
a trip between two locations
ill-conceived, raw, surreal
outgrowths of common sense, almost
merging one into the other
except for the turn
where here and there
change places, the moment
always a surprise:
on an ordinary day a brief
lightness, charm between realities;
on a good day, a break
life can flood in and fill.
Roy Fisher’s publishing history has been a mess, as it customarily is for those poets consigned to the margins who have managed to persist at their art over many years. The Long and the Short of It is, effectively, his fourth ‘Collected Poems’. The first came from Fulcrum in 1968. Fisher supposed, at the time, that he’d gathered together what he wanted in print or was capable of, and was leaving all that foolishness behind. Not to be. He later had two collecteds from Oxford: Poems: 1955-80 (1980) and Poems 1955-87 (1987). This new collection and The Dow Low Drop: New and Selected Poems (1997) are from Bloodaxe. Pretty much everything is here in this new volume. It’s not chronologically arranged, which is a minor nuisance to the reviewer but not to the reader. (The poems are all dated in the index.) The poet tells us in the acknowledgments: ‘These poems no more amount to a biography than I do; and my habits of working on projects from time to time over long periods and my heterodox approach to methods I use would make an arrangement that seemed chronological false: so nothing of the kind is here attempted.’ Stick that in your pipe and smoke it.
His masterwork, A Furnace, was issued by Oxford in 1986. Again, it is recognisably Fisher but not at all like anything else he’d written. Dedicated to John Cowper Powys, who would seem at first glance an unlikely model for the poet, it is a 35-page, 1300-plus-line composition in seven parts, an excavation of a site through time, conflating the local aluminium works, John Dee, the neolithic spirit world, Great-Grandfather William, Adolphe Sax, modern Chicago, the transit of Augustan Treverorum to Trier and old rocks of every description, all of it glued together with a very loose, homemade animism. It is Fisher’s richest and most challenging poem, and one that requires many readings over time to unwind the elaborate braiding of its elements.
Fisher now lives in ‘that strange miniaturised mountain landscape at the edge of the Derbyshire limestone, where green conical hills shoot up fantastically hundreds of feet from the banks of the upper Dove’. Birmingham isn’t far, however; it never is.