Consequences

Christopher Reid

The Parisian Surrealists appear to have taken their games-playing very seriously. Ritual imitations of the creative act – involving the practice of automatic writing, a deep faith in the value of mere accident, and the contrivance of jokey juxtapositions – formed a vital part of their programme. One favourite exercise was called le cadavre exquis. In reality, this was not much different from the ancient parlour-game of ‘consequences’, but in surreality it had a sacramental importance. A number of artists would contribute to the production of a single picture: the first might, for instance, draw the head of a figure, fold the paper and then pass it on to a colleague, who must add the torso, fold the paper – and so on. In the end, the page would be uncrumpled to reveal that most prized of Surrealistic fetishes, the collective work of art.

One can see here an affinity with the Japanese cultivation of the renga. This verse form allowed groups of poets to join in the creation of a whole work: the collective nature of the enterprise was thought to guarantee transcendence. The growth and relationship of the unit verses were governed by strict rules and the individual contributor effaced himself in obedience to poetic decorum. There was however, no folding of the paper – no interest in the shocks and disharmonies that so enraptured André Breton and those who followed him. The renga was an essentially Buddhist form, embodying an ideal rather different from any Western notion of collectivism. In contrast, le cadavre exquis had a worldly political purpose. Many of the Surrealists claimed an adherence to Communism that may have embarrassed more run-of-the-mill Party members, but that was nonetheless sincere. The collectivisation of art, entailing, of course, the abolition of the artist as ‘property-owner’ of his work, was an important part of the Surrealist campaign.

The Renga composed in Paris more than ten years ago by Octavio Paz, Jacques Roubaud, Edoardo Sanguineti and Charles Tomlinson has recently been published here. This work, the result of five days’ collaboration in the basement of the Hôtel St Simon on the left Bank, has both oriental and occidental ancestry. The ceremonial meeting of poets to enact a ritual of elegance and refinement (more elegant and refined, perhaps, in nostalgic imagination than in humdrum reality) was admittedly an attempt to re-create the procedures and achievements of Japanese poets in the 15th and 17th centuries. In place, however, of the strict Japanese verse-form, we find a structure more like that of the traditional European sonnet – 14 unrhymed lines, divided in various ways between the four participants. Moreover, where a group of Japanese would at least have been united by their common language in the attempt to transcend egotism, these four have stuck, for the most part, to their own tongues – Spanish, French, Italian and English – as if to challenge God’s high-handedness at Babel by striving for an impossible coherence. At one point in his prose introduction to the volume, Octavio Paz is bold enough to cite those ‘two contradictory but complementary elements: the diversity of languages and the community of the language of poetry’.

As it happens, I do not believe in such a ‘community’. Paz’s formulation strikes me as not so much magnanimous as merely bland. At times, indeed, this whole endeavour (promoted by Claude Gallimard, the French publisher) puts me in mind of one of those optimistic United Nations stunts, where a Finnish maestro, say, will conduct an Israeli ensemble in the performance of some Bolivian composer’s setting of a Zulu poet’s ‘Ode to Joy’. The undertaking may be praiseworthy but the result is not inevitably an artistic success.

Renga was, I think, doomed to fail from its inception. The poem begins confidently enough, and with every sign that the writers are paying courteous heed to what each of their number is trying to express. ‘Cesa el sueño: comienzan los lenguajes,’ Paz declaims, and Tomlinson’s parallel translation of this – ‘An end of dreams, and the gift of tongues begins’ – seems adequate. Certain Western myths are, naturally, prominent in their minds: not just that of the Pentecostal visitation, but also, by virtue of their confinement to the basement of a hotel, those stories where a descent into the underworld brings forth rich rewards. Unfortunately, the odd circumstances of the poem’s creation become so much its theme that there is soon a disastrous lapse into self-consciousness, coy internal reference, sly tomfoolery and baragouin.

This may be explicable in a number of ways, apart from by the sheer artificiality of the gimmick. The four poets were, we may assume, deeply versed in the two traditions which they were attempting to unite. Nonetheless, the Western mode – and that with a definite flavour of Modernism and Surrealism – cannot but prove the stronger. The pious hope that the writers’ individualities will somehow be sublimated into a pure, transcendent otherness is soon replaced by the knowledge that here we have, in typically Western form, what always comes about when so many poets gather – a quartet of vigorously brawling egos. Even without the device of folding the paper, the writers manage, whether consciously or not, to tease, thwart, baffle and subvert each other. When Sanguineti puts down what Tomlinson translates as ‘I have written rainbows of honey for your fragile knees,’ it is as if he is taunting his neighbour with: ‘Follow that, Jacques!’

Another kind of self-consciousness comes with the belief, which some commentators on the enterprise have supported, that Renga offers a new hope for Western poetry, and in particular the enfeebled English sort. I am convinced that an openness to influence from foreign cultures is both wholesome and enlivening, and that commerce between tongues must carry a mutual benefit. But these are truisms, and I doubt that their glib translation into the kind of cultural-diplomatic stunt which produced this particular Euro-poem can do much to heal the damage we have suffered since the fall of Babel. If George Steiner’s hunch is right, and languages conceal a strong resistance to being understood from the outside, then Renga contributes in microcosm to a confirmation of that.

One thing that is to be admired here, however, is the freedom with which these four poets have treated the sonnet form. The sonnet has, of course, survived many transmutations in its long history: Hopkins, Mallarmé and Robert Lowell have all tested its strength beyond what some might consider legitimate extremes – and yet it cannot be denied that a sense of the traditional form is essential to their work. John Hewitt’s book, Kites in Spring, containing his reminiscences of a Belfast boyhood, consists of more than a hundred sonnets, but these are disappointingly unadventurous in their scope and could, formally speaking, have been written by any textbook rigorist.

Where they sometimes come alive is in the authenticity and quirky selectiveness of Hewitt’s memory. Many of these tales and vignettes are bathetic, but then bathos is one of the most reliable gambits in any raconteur’s box of tricks. It is still a puzzle, though, why he should have used the sonnet form to convey these titbits of family gossip. Not just for irony’s sake, surely? And, explain it as one may, there is no accounting for the stiffness and strain of many of the lines in this volume. For example, ‘Music Lesson’, which tells the story of the poet’s lack of a musical talent, ends like this:

Miss Harrison, my sallow teacher, filled
the term’s report with words which gave no hope,
and I was left, relieved, to carry home
th’iambic tick-tock of her metronome.

The pay-off is ingenious, in that the boy’s redeeming vocation, to be a poet, is obliquely suggested by the final conceit. But why does Hewitt mar the effect with such a clumsy and glaringly antiquated device as the elision? Was he really unable to find an iambic line to accommodate his meaning? And, if so, does this not fundamentally contradict what could have been a discreet and persuasive piece of rhetoric? It is sad to see a poet of modest but attractive talents hampering himself with an over-studious respect for the traditional forms.

Brian Jones’s The Island Normal suffers from no such fault. Most of the poems in this book contrive to be both short and unshapely. Jones casts a disaffected eye over the bleaker aspects of our national landscape – dreary bypasses, suburban wastelands, crowded seaside resorts – but he does not have much that is new to tell us about these things. When, in ‘On the Edge’, he looks at some unprepossessing stretch of country and dubs it the ‘arsehole of England’, the reader might expect a poetic amplification of this brutal remark. No such luck: Jones is not going to waste time developing a conceit or justifying a metaphor – he must be off without delay to the next pit, blot or rat-trap, there to pass yet another terse, curmudgeonly comment in lines of no elegance or beauty.

Let him learn from Tony Harrison, a number of whose poems appear in New Poetry 5, the latest Arts Council anthology. Harrison has all the graces that Jones lacks, and I cannot do better than to quote this beautifully accurate passage, 16 musical and decorous lines, from ‘The School of Eloquence’:

Their front garden (8 × 5) was one of those
the lazier could write off as ‘la-di-dah’.
Her brother pipesmoked greenfly off each rose
in summer linen coat and Panama.

Hard-faced traders tore her room apart.
Litter and lavender in ransacked drawers,
the yearly programmes for the D’Oyly Carte.
‘Three Little Maids’ she’d marked with ‘4 encores!’

Encore! No more. A distant relative
roared up on a loud bike and poked around.
Mi mam cried when he’d gone and spat out ‘Spiv!’

I got Tennyson and Milton leather-bound.
The Sharpes came next. He beat her, blacked her eye.
Through walls I heard each blow, each Cunt! Cunt! Cunt!
The Jowetts’ dahlias were left to die.
Now mi dad’s the only one keeps up his front.

Congratulations to the anthologists, Peter Redgrove and Jon Silkin, for culling this.