- A Night in the Gazebo by Alan Brownjohn
Secker, 64 pp, £3.00, November 1980, ISBN 0 436 07114 2
- Victorian Voices by Anthony Thwaite
Oxford, 42 pp, £3.95, October 1980, ISBN 0 19 211937 0
- The Illusionists by John Fuller
Secker, 138 pp, £3.95, November 1980, ISBN 0 436 16810 3
Donald Davie has proposed that Eliot’s Quartets are in some sense a work of self-parody, with ‘The Dry Salvages’ in structure and style parodistic of the quartets that preceded it. This proposal took off from an idea of Hugh Kenner’s, and any theory with two such exceptionally able sponsors needs treating with respect. The element of likelihood in this one derives from the way it locates Eliot’s work within that ‘Age of Criticism’ which Modernism helped to inaugurate. A modernistic poem will interrogate itself: hence the continual ironic critique within Eliot’s verse of the ‘shabby equipment always deteriorating’. But if a poem is to be successful there must be a limit to the amount of self-consciousness it can safely contain. The Cretan tells us that ‘All Cretans are liars’: is he lying or telling the truth? The nature of language itself prevents us from communicating certain general propositions about ourselves to other people. So, if a poem works it’s likely to be about something other than the self saying it. Because the Quartets do work, all Eliot’s gestures of self-awareness are in the end less important than what in part they serve as a nervously courteous smoke-screen for: the burden of naked and extreme experience which these poems have to express. This is what gives them their peculiar, surprising weight and permanently distinguishes their tenuousness from vacuity.
Much intelligent English poetry since the Quartets, however different it has appeared from them, has shared their scepticism about the claims and status of art itself: a scepticism common to both photographic plain-speakers and those who play games with the verbal medium. Most recent poetry seems to struggle with a problem that gives it both its integrity and its marked abstraction: the problem of a kind of weightlessness – an anorexia nervosa of the imagination. Its natural aesthetic mode is the shadowy one of parody, as the current tone is the impassively ironic. Thus, Alan Brownjohn’s A Night in the Gazebo ends with a parody, an affectionate rewrite of Sir Gawain called ‘The Seventh Knight and the Green Cat’, which closes with a volte-face. Whatever Mr Brownjohn has to say he says ‘truthfully’: it is hard to think of many writers at once so lacking in blague and yet so unboring. In substance, many of these poems come close to the sociological, ironically confining themselves to the smaller data of the contemporary. One opens: ‘One Xmas in the High Street’; another: ‘On a wet South Coast night’; a third: ‘Somewhere a bus drives on’; the title-poem invites a consideration of the love-life of hotel-managers nel mezzo del cammin:
Look down into hotels where girls work
In their vacations,
And in the early evening, managers, averaging
Forty-six years old, induce them to upper bedrooms,
Empty because business is dropping off ...
And the managers cautious and honourable,
Saying they won’t go too far, and going
Too far ...
Similarly, one of the most oddly memorable of these poems, ‘The Bad Cat Poem’, records the passing of a year, with all modesty, in terms of a male and a female person’s quietly hopeless efforts to teach a cat to use a catdoor.
This is a verse highly realistic in appearance, but in fact extremely literary. Subtly observant as the poems are, they have nothing in common with sociology. The art lies in the awareness of art, the peculiarly exact judging of distances which characterises style and tone and produces Mr Brownjohn’s elegant and recognisable ironic humour. There is everywhere consciousness of the precise width of the gap between data and observer, between cat and man or woman, between the dry melancholy lyricism of the Audenian summons to ‘Look down into hotels’, or the grave Eliotean pauses on participles (‘going/Too far’), and the precise and random subject: the managers, the girls. Attitude is sacrificed, or located only in the play of the medium; an ironic abstention becomes a style.
In an earlier volume, Mr Brownjohn composed a splendidly oblique and satisfying poem by juxtaposing extracts from a Victorian textbook of mathematics for children. Here again, it was the distance that lent the perspective that made the art: a dead syntax and an unjust world seen justly grow to a style. There is a close connection between this sceptical objectivity and the current concern in verse for ‘fictionality’, a portmanteau term which fuses the sense of the unreality of art as a self-contained entity with the special literary properties of narrative, as though stories express with a peculiar definiteness the necessity and the unbelievableness of all art. A number of poems in this and Mr Brownjohn’s last collection are ‘fictive’, creating mysteries in a quasi-Pinterian manner by alluding to situations and identities unstructured in any way other than by this allusion: thus ‘Dea ex machina’ turns pregnantly on the arrival of an ‘Anna, after a decade, at the wrong moment, back’. The difference between this and (say) Eliot’s nominally fictive quatrain poems lies in the desired diminishment of import. Sweeney’s meaning may be lost, but he still works as a symbol, evoking a sense of threat proportionately massive. Anna, on the other hand, is only a dislocated allusion, a sad verbal gesture, the detritus of a genre retained like any other haunting objet trouvé for its ironic reassurance that its context once existed, as though to say: ‘If fictions, then stories, if stories, then surely endings, if endings, then perhaps meanings.’ The end-of-a-road bleakness which these unpretentiously subtle poems communicate finds a true image in the benighted small-town furniture-shop window that shines in ‘The Dolls’ House’:
Sixteen miles from anywhere larger
On the map of a renamed county.
A striking aspect of this ‘renaming’ of the aesthetic territory is the new blurring of the borderline between the factual and the fictional. It is becoming common to meet not merely historical but still surviving persons in works – novels, films, television dramas – that would once have been called fictional. Something like the reverse process happens in a critical study like Frank Kermode’s The Genesis of Secrecy, which considers the aesthetic nature of works once accounted historic: the four Gospels. In a context where the Gospels are ‘Notes towards a Supreme Fiction’, art is an open secret and truth a sense of style. In this new wide-swinging relativism the uncommitted term ‘voice’ has a special part to play. The title of Anthony Thwaite’s Victorian Voices seems to go beyond a use of the word to describe the Browningesque dramatic quality of these 14 verse monologues. It suggests also his subjects’ ambiguous relation with the real, their semi-symbolic function: they are ‘voices’ (like masks) of the poet too. Mr Thwaite is in one sense highly realistic, is writing from the life: the substance of these poems is taken from biographies of actual if minor Victorians, and these sources are listed in notes at the back; correspondingly, their style is historicising and imitative. The collection genuinely offers the kind of exploratory pleasure and interest that biography itself offers, the real historic sense of otherness. But it is symptomatic that these Victorian voices all have something in common. Eliot’s ‘different voices’ became poetry at the point where they were audible as all saying the same thing; it gradually becomes apparent that MrThwaite’s subjects have all caught his attention at the point where they have failed in some way, have proved ‘minor’, not ‘major’. The first three, for instance, are Philip Henry Gosse (the Father of Father and Son), who had his work for ever upstaged by The Origin of Species; John Churton Collins, a good journalist and scholar for ever cruelly ‘placed’ by one harsh Tennysonian snub; and Eliza Lynn Lynton, an early – too early – feminist. All are persons whose failure in life foreshadows that final shelving that time carries out on failure and success alike: they are in some sense, therefore, symbols of our own historicity – their betrayal by time giving them a kind of enforced timelessness that makes them oddly available to the poet. In another monologue here, Thwaite makes George Dennis, Consul at Benghazi and a passionate antiquarian, open with words that form a splendidly resonant though decorous conceit for the poetic process itself:
Rich bronzes, figured vases, jewellery –
Fruits of my labours, subterranean joys:
My men sit round a dark sarcophagus,
Broken and plundered centuries ago,
And nod at noon. I sift and sift again ...
But there are problems in this very aptness, this control by the intelligence that sometimes replaces the sense of the real. Both Mr Brownjohn and Mr Thwaite possess a scrupulous realism that brings them close to a poet whose tones and cadences are heard often in their verse, Philip Larkin. The lit-up furniture shop in Brownjohn’s poem seems to recall the expressively empty chairs of Larkin’s ‘Friday Night at the Station Hotel’, just as Thwaite’s vivid sketch of a Victorian don carries echoes of the speaker in Larkin’s ‘Livings III’. But the comparison reveals that Larkin’s powerfully natural images have the superior force of an achieved existence, are always in some sense a real world, out beyond self-consciousness and luminous with their own life:
Above, Chaldean constellations
Sparkle over crowded roofs.
It is this sense of the difficulty of the pursuit that all these poets are involved in which gives vitality to the third of these volumes, John Fuller’s The Illusionists. Subtitled ‘A Tale’, it is in form a quasi-Romantic bildungsroman, tracing its innocent young hero’s progress from birth through schooling and university to his initiation into adult society – one marked by the destruction of certain illusions about life, love and, above all, art. For Tim’s real education begins only with his arrival in London and his employment by a fraudulent art gallery busily engaged in faking a ‘new’ Hogarth. To recount here the rest of the story which the poem tells with its own cool lucidity would be pointless. For one thing, it involves a world of exposure and self-exposure, the making of images and the destruction of illusions, where nothing is what it seems. Moreover, The Illusionists tells a story that undermines the very hypothesis that ‘story’ exists, except as what we now call, with all guardedness, a ‘fiction’, and it does this with full consciousness:
For that’s the beauty of the bogus:
It makes us all conspirators.
It is to the point that the poem’s central image of illusion is a ‘Hogarth’ (master of realism) faked up by crooked art-dealers, and that it depicts a painter painting a painter painting a picture. The poem is, in short, self-undermining in precisely the manner that Kenner and Davie have posited of Eliot’s Quartets.
This process of self-undermining in Mr Fuller’s poem is effected by the way the verbal medium persistently interferes with the ostensible narrative. The poet is almost as much an interrupter as a narrator; his relaxed and charming interpositions convert every climax to anti-climax, and the whole story heads purposively towards non-event (no picture, no girl, no meeting of hero and heroine, no ending to the story, possibly no story). Similarly, characters are caricatures, or fractions or figments of the actual: thus the villains enter as activities superimposed on luxury carpeting:
Across its pile, in pairs, were walking
Four feet expensively encased.
A couple of yards above them, talking,
Two mouths in which cigars were placed ...
Once on the story’s crowded scene, the hero’s notional heroine fissures into two, a much-pursued metropolitan sex-symbol and an innocent suburban secretary; and when the secretary, Mary, dreams, her dream fills with similarly split personages from the ‘great world’ of politicians, union bosses, journalists – who stalk through it as ‘Eric Cire ... Sidney Yendis ... Noël Leon’, narcissistic bifurcations of the true. The poem’s verbal medium makes plain that corrupt action among the rich and spurious ‘principalities and powers’ is essentially a matter of self-obsessed games, incestuous inversions, but it cannot do so without immersing itself in those games, in all those ‘lies and secrets’ which gave Fuller the title of his previous volume. Thus at any moment the whole fabric of The Illusionists is liable through a shift of perspective to switch into formalistic verbal sports: from the alliterative chapter-headings which at page one invite a willing unsuspension of disbelief, through the eclectically learned epigraphs, the lipographic rendering of Rimbaud into English, the acrostics which, dotted through the poem, spell out dedications and other messages, and all the other profuse and calm insistencies that a poem is a poem is a poem, not (for instance) a girl’s handbag (whose contents one stanza brilliantly lists), nor the menu of a meal (ditto), nor the bill when it is eaten (ditto), nor is it any of life’s simple and unverbalisable actions like the using of a telephone:
The GPO provides the means
Whereby two voices, willy-nilly,
May cross through wires and small machines
That link the ear and lips together
Without distraction from the weather.
Sometimes a voice, as voices do,
Will interrupt with: ‘Are you through?’
And often it can be a trial
Simply to get connected to
The number of the person you
Originally tried to dial ...
Good comic poetry is rare. If a surprising amount of it has appeared since (say) the war, it must derive from the kind of poised and critical detachment which gives John Fuller his stanzas of brilliant farce: the sense of sharp discrepancy in an art that provides a poem which is from one angle in the rattling-good-yarn tradition, and which does indeed prove engagingly readable, but which is at the same time liable at any stanza to freeze into a kind of kenning of experience, a verbal conceit that denies the possibility of action. This kind of highly self-conscious artifice brings the poet very close to the work of the later Auden (there are echoes, too, of the Nabokov of Pale Fire). But the relation with Auden recalls a tradition older than half a century. The pace and charm of The Illusionists perhaps learned something from Auden’s ‘Letter to Lord Byron’ (in Letters from Iceland), and Auden was in his turn looking back to Byron, who habituated in verse the splendid militant pragmatic dottiness that Sterne had unleashed on the English novel. In terms of poetry, it is Byron who is the true progenitor, and who inspired another writer whom The Illusionists explicitly bows to in a way so illuminating to the poem as to deserve a moment’s acknowledgment. Mr Fuller’s blurb tells us that his poem ‘uses the stanza which Pushkin invented for Eugene Onegin’. In fact, The Illusionists seems to get something of its meaning from being so close to the Russian poem as to be a kind of parody of it, or at least – in more Augustan terms – an Imitation. Pushkin’s poem is similarly a story of futility in love, quixotically handled by a sophisticated poet. Tatiana, a romantic, bookish and innocent young girl born and brought up on a provincial country estate, falls extremely in love with the bored, experienced Muscovite Eugene, declares her love and is (not unkindly) rebuffed by him; some years later. Eugene returns from his travels to Moscow to find a changed and now mature Tatiana married to an important man, falls in love with her, and is (not unkindly) rebuffed by her. In synopsis, this history of failure in love sounds like a Maupassant conte: that it is not, that it is quite free from any anecdotal cynicism, is explained by the fact that it is essentially not an anecdote. Despite its ‘story’, it is a wholly poetic unravelling, a luminous disclosure whose futilities in terms of action and event serve only to divert our attention from the ‘what happens’ to the conditions and meaning of that ‘happening’ – or that ‘unhappening’, whichever it is.
Mr Fuller’s poem seems strikingly to follow Pushkin, not merely in the story he tells, but (much more importantly) in the insistence that poetry does not exist just to tell stories. It is in the sense of what poetry does exist to do that the two poets, the two periods, too, begin markedly to differ. Where a novel would – as a form – deal centrally with the mundane, with the random, Pushkin’s Romantic poem (both like and unlike its Byronic original) roots itself in the natural, that Romantic form of the necessary. Thus its failures of event serve, with a curious consolingness, in part only to substantiate our sense of the real, its futilities becoming poetic disclosures. In moral and psychological terms, the story hints that Eugene and Tatiana get more from, are more created by, their failure in love than they would have from whatever success in love might mean. But that substantiating presents itself primarily through the world of the poem, the ‘scenery’ which – a projection of the inward life of feeling, like Tatiana’s dream – ‘what happens’ in it mutates into. The major event in Eugene Onegin is not the love, not the duel, not one rebuff or the other, but the journey from the glittering life of the wintered capital, hoar-frosted outside and chandelier-lit within, to the luminous serenity of the boring rustic existence (the servant-girls overheard by a Tatiana in agonies of love, singing as they gather fruit in the garden) – and from there back, at the end, to Moscow again. When these images are all set together in a poem they speak of some learning-process or of some truth in life that is more than misadventure.
Eugene Onegin has its own scepticism, sustained by the quiet and detached narrative voice of the poet, amused, playful, knowledgeable. But the poet is always being lost in the radiant or troubling images that make for the depth and solidity of the world of Eugene Onegin. Because of that sense of the real, we do not forget (for instance) the Moscow milk-sellers, squeaking the morning snow under their feet, or the dark dusty emptiness of Onegin’s country house. The intensity of these details lies in their capacity to articulate permanent human feeling – Eugene’s archetypal urban boredom with the diurnal, Tatiana’s for ever unused love for him. Comparable details in John Fuller’s richly clever poem are in some strict and surely even intended sense empty. When FuNer describes Piccadilly in the pouring rain, or the dusty attics of the country house, Summershoot –
Mirrors in gold frames staring at you,
Elephants’ feet to stumble on.
Armour, a carved harmoniphon,
Dog-irons, a revolving statue ...
– his precision dictates the limits of a brilliant game with the medium, fastidiously withdrawn from any communicative feeling beyond the sense of that dusty attic, the mastery of technique. The comparison with Pushkin can, in fact, only highlight how much The Illusionists lacks the sense of the real. It was perhaps to say exactly this, to make some modest and reflective statement of present losses, that this ambitious poem chose to ‘parody’ the earlier master, just as Eliot in the Quartets makes deference to a Dante a thousand years away.