Best Things

Alan Hollinghurst

  • Viewpoints: Poets in Conversation with John Haffenden
    Faber, 189 pp, £7.50, June 1981, ISBN 0 571 11689 2
  • A Free Translation by Craig Raine
    Salamander, 29 pp, £4.50, June 1981, ISBN 0 907540 02 3
  • A German Requiem by James Fenton
    Salamander, 9 pp, £1.50, January 1981, ISBN 0 907540 00 7
  • Caviare at the Funeral by Louis Simpson
    Oxford, 89 pp, £4.50, April 1981, ISBN 0 19 211943 5

By and large we are interested in the thoughts, opinions and intentions of writers we are interested in, and by and large writers are keen to express these things in reviews, essays and memoirs subsidiary to their main work. A critic lurks, an implicit presence, in every creative writer, and though most of them are starved of a Boswell to transcribe and irradiate obiter dicta as facets of the creative life, they are none the less eager to shine their light on their own work. At its best, self-consciousness is forgotten and the act of self-explanation becomes a part of the self-vindication of the work and even of the creative process in general.

The interview is a medium obtained from television. In print, the subjects are left slightly less freedom, but practice in self-projection can be used just as effectively as by the interviewed politician to put over a position with no time, at the time, to think. One does not know to what extent Haffenden has edited out the false starts and inelegances of ordinary speech to produce this published text of his interviews (different texts of several of which have appeared previously), but certainly a sense of accustomedness to answering questions is felt to a greater or lesser degree in these pieces: they are a kind of performance in which the poets give themselves away as much by their manner as their matter. In Larkin’s case in particular, we find the poet insisting on creating a public image which has been popularly accepted but which is projected at the expense of whole areas of his artistic personality. These performances will be influential on future criticism written about their subjects/performers, but the influences will often be far from straightforward.

Geoffrey Hill and Thom Gunn impress by their quiet responsiveness, their unembarrassed exploration of their own complexities – but equally they are given by Haffenden the benefit of long interviews and of questioning which follows up both intellectual contexts and precise poetic detail. Most readers will feel rather familiar with the territory of Heaney’s and Larkin’s interviews, though they are none the less worth having for that. In his Preface Haffenden insists that no critical inference should be drawn from his omissions in this book, or from the widely varying lengths of the interviews. Even so the selection must mean something. That there are no women is regrettable, but beyond that, seven of the ten poets are published by Faber, the outsiders being Thomas Kinsella, the unignorable Geoffrey Hill and the successful Craig Raine: in the world of literary publishing, such matters have some importance. Two of the pieces were published in Quarto, until recently edited by Raine himself.

Raine’s name crops up in other interviews. Irish writers enjoy meeting him when he or they cross the Irish Sea; and Paul Muldoon professes to like ‘a great number of poems by a great number of people from Michael Drayton to Craig Raine’. These may seem curious choices as termini of the English tradition, but at the modern end he seems to allude to what has become something of a critical orthodoxy on Raine – that he is the newest and best thing going, modern poetry at its most winning.

None of the poets perhaps goes as far as Larkin in arranging literary history to suit his own argument: ‘Poems don’t come from other poems, they come from being oneself, in life. Every man is an island, entire of himself, as Donne said.’ But Raine is very much alive to the forensic deployment of great names in support of his own efforts –‘There are similarities and differences between Chris [Reid] and myself as obvious as the similarities and differences between Donne and Marvell’ – and to explain the conditions of originality: ‘I think you create the taste by which you are enjoyed, as Wordsworth said.’ The establishment of a taste for Raine’s work has been a conspicuous feature of British literary life during the last three years. Soloists with the chorus of praise have been distinguished and influential: Peter Porter, John Carey, John Bayley – and Raine himself has by no means been indisposed with laryngitis. His position in literary journalism and his access to the popularising media have played their part in his promotion. And the result of this rapid creation of the taste is of course a dangerous over-definition of his skills which any young writer might find restricting and which can easily threaten an atrophy through excessive self-consciousness. Haffenden’s blurb describes his poets as ‘tempting the taboo against self-consciousness’: this meaningless clause is presumably intended to mean that the attention paid to them overcomes their inhibitions, but it may be the case with Raine that the volume of attention paid to him has the contrary effect, and imposes inhibitions.

His first book The Onion, Memory was so engaging because the ‘Martian’ technique (as it later came to be known) was so fresh, and many of the poems were concerned with explaining their notion of ‘the gentle irony of objects ... if only we believed our eyes’. With no one else yet doing so, the critic in Raine worked within the poems to explicate their procedures, and he used an experimental variety of forms – devices which also partly suggested the first book’s uncertainty of authorial personality. Martianism was not only a way of defining but also a way of avoiding objects and experiences by the translation of the simile. This is felt particularly when poems in this mode are juxtaposed with others in the book, such as the Eliotic ‘On the Perpetuum Mobile’, where it has not yet been resorted to and where a youthful mawkishness and aestheticism make themselves felt. The jokes and riddles of Raine’s new style are devices of shyness: the cleverness and sensitivity of this proxy world of metaphorical transformation create a kind of artistic self-celebration which avoids naked feeling or revelation of personality. And yet Raine often wants to express strong personal feelings and a concern for larger issues of humanity and mortality, and it is questionable to what extent his new mode can cope with this. Certainly in other hands it can be seen to go disastrously astray. Naive readers, says Raine, love his work, and he frequently seeks an analogue to his poetical vision by invoking his children: but his work is not naive at all. It is a highly calculated thing, and though not intellectual, extremely cultural, referential and knowing – to the extent that the naive machinery of the simile is subverted or even betrayed by the wit and superiority of the poet.

In his second book, the technical self-consciousness increased and the forms became more monotonous. In his new book, the form throughout is a costive triplet of very short lines. On the back, John Carey says he ‘cannot think of anyone else writing today whose every line is so unfailingly exciting’; and Laurence Lerner opines that ‘almost every line he writes crackles with invention.’ It is not merely pedantic to object that there is not a single inventive or exciting line in the whole of the new book – because Raine has abandoned the line, and the stanza, as units of rhythmic inflection or aids to meaning. His pages are now all space, with a stumblingly slow progression of words down the middle. There are still marvellous and memorable images, but the poems isolate them with an over-exquisite attention, and a far from elegant metrical effect.

I can see her smile,
a timeless crumb
of yolk

precarious
in the hairs
beside her mouth.

This ending makes its bid for fineness in a way that sends pathos into bathos. The memento mori has become a central preoccupation, and the mode requires it to be expressed through a portentous reading of mundanities that becomes laboured. Seeing stubble burning, Raine asks:

Is it fear
halting my child

so that her thumb,
withdrawn for a second,
smokes in the air?

Or fascination
like her father’s?

The division between the naive child who reacts and the self-conscious father who writes poems has never been so clear.

It was James Fenton who first defined the ‘Martian School’, and his brother Tom has printed, very beautifully, these Salamander books. But Fenton’s career and preoccupations have been very different from Raine’s, and his poems have tended increasingly to a lengthy, elusive and mysterious kind of hidden narrative, revealed by symptomatic detail, over which the presiding genius has undoubtedly been Auden. A German Requiem is in some respects a departure. It addresses itself far more directly to its subject: the paradox of the creative or protective memory, particularly the memory of the War in modern Germany. The conventional forms of remembrance are rhetorically exposed as a public form of forgetting, through ceremony and repetition seeking a comfort which is not consolation but a distortion of the past through a selective training of memory. Oblivion discovers a ritual:

How comforting it is, once or twice a year,
To get together and forget the old times.

Even so, things which Fenton has usually done best turn up in the poem. There is a glimpsed narrative, concerning someone addressed merely as ‘you’, widowed, bereaved; and a confident generalisation of ‘the city’ and its cemetery counterpart, ‘the city of your ancestors’, symbolic and yet cryptic in their very generality, juxtaposed with highly specific and bizarre detail. Most striking are the vaguely facetious Doctor Gliedschirm and Professor Sargnagel, buried like many others with their official name-plates torn from their homes to identify their graves:

Professor Sargnagel was buried with four degrees, two associate memberships
And instructions to tradesmen to use the back entrance.

The text of this quite short poem is broken up into sometimes rather inconsequential sections, which are surrounded by, in all, something like seven square feet of blank paper: whilst the effect is partly to provide a visual parody of memorial plaques on huge areas of stone, it also runs the risk of seeming to look more grand than the material fully justifies. The procedure of the poem is to a large extent cumulative, as so many of Fenton’s poems are, and a certain oddness and obliquity make one puzzle over each accumulated detail or fragment to find its meaning – why this? or this? Fenton has written poems far nearer to nonsense than this one, and the increased seriousness of tone may indicate the discovery of a new and less self-defensively whimsical manner.

Louis Simpson’s new poems work by an accumulation of observations too, but the tone is so much more relaxed and affable, and the pieces so innocent of any form, that they give the impression of having been transcribed from a tape-recording of ruminations.

These things make an unforgettable impression, as though there were a reason for being here, in one place rather than another.

But we have even less knowledge of what the reason might be than he does. This vagueness is Simpson’s own way of alluding to without committing the vulgarity of telling a story: shadowy, unknown figures (including, tactfully, himself) are seen to do this and that. Occasionally, but much less than in the more Whitmanesque exploration of his American subject in the past, he offers a reflection on life:

Yet nothing in nature changes, from that day to this,
she is still the mother of us all ...