Claude Rawson

  • St Kilda’s Parliament by Douglas Dunn
    Faber, 87 pp, £3.00, September 1981, ISBN 0 571 11770 8
  • Airborn/Hijos del Aire by Octavio Paz and Charles Tomlinson
    Anvil, 29 pp, £1.25, April 1981, ISBN 0 85646 072 9
  • The Flood by Charles Tomlinson
    Oxford, 55 pp, £3.95, June 1981, ISBN 0 19 211944 3
  • Looking into the Deep End by David Sweetman
    Faber, 47 pp, £3.00, March 1981, ISBN 0 571 11730 9
  • Independence by Andrew Motion
    Salamander, 28 pp, £5.00, December 1981, ISBN 0 907540 05 8

The title poem of St Kilda’s Parliament is about a local institution ‘quite unlike Westminster’, a gathering ‘by interested parties to discuss the day’s work and any other issues that needed to be talked over’:

On either side of a rock-paved lane,
Two files of men are standing barefooted,
Bearded, waistcoated, each with a tam-o’-shanter
On his head, and most with a set half-smile
That comes from their companionship with rock,
With soft mists, with rain, with roaring gales,
And from a diet of solan goose and eggs,
A diet of dulse and sloke and sea-tangle,
And ignorance of what a pig, a bee, a rat,
Or rabbit look like, although they remember
The three apples brought here by a traveller
Five years ago, and have discussed them since.

This opening passage shows some of the volume’s strengths, and a weakness. It is vividly observant, rich with a sense of place, but the note of dignified and loving meditation is corrupted a little by patronising folksiness, as in those last few lines, or a similar passage about a woman ‘who might not believe it’ if informed of ‘the populous mainland’. Such passages suggest a tourist-brochure writer’s idea of some Hardy of the Western Isles.

The speaker is not the poet or anyone witnessing the scene directly, but a photographer imagined as looking at a photograph he has taken a hundred years ago. The full title is ‘St Kilda’s Parliament: 1879-1979. The photographer revisits his picture’, and Dunn’s Poetry Book Society note tells us that he’s never been there and first saw the photograph in Theodora Fitzgibbon’s A Taste of Scotland – evidently a regional cook-book with touristic overtones. But the whimsy about not believing in the mainland is an invented one, virtually signposted as such, and sounds as though it emanates from the poet rather than the photographer – a poet coyly aware of playing with tourist clichés, who knows how to convert them into a tender eloquence:

  Traveller, tourist with your mind set on
Romantic Staffas and materials for
Winter conversations, if you should go there,
Landing at sunrise on its difficult shores,
On St Kilda you will surely hear Gaelic
Spoken softly like a poetry of ghosts
By those who never were contorted by
Hierarchies of cuisine and literacy.

The photograph-poem has become an important sub-genre. Larkin, Hughes, Porter and others have practised it. There’s a sense in which the photograph does part of the poet’s work for him, freezing a charged but vanishing moment so that nuances of mood or relationship, by definition volatile, become permanently fixed for the poet to work on at leisure. Perhaps this lies behind David Sweetman’s recent remark about photography as an art that helps people to ‘see what they had previously merely looked at’: a role Romantic theorists sometimes reserved for poetry itself.

Viewed thus, the photograph, itself a work of art, performs in a new way art’s ancient task of giving permanent form to transient things. The memorial is no longer a monument, frankly ennobling the object as monuments once did, nor the ‘powerful rhyme’ which set out to outlive even these. The photograph’s boast is its exact veracity to the surface. It cannot, like other art-forms, find its essential value except through this veracity, however transfigured or transcended: hence its availability to the poet as a visual aidemémoire as well as matter for multiple and mutually complicating perspectives. It extends a process which was already visible in Keats’s Grecian urn, which not only replaces ‘monuments’ by humbler memorials but also fixes with a pictorial finality moments in a process, provisional in themselves, like an uncompleted kiss, a particular look.

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

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