Cambridge Theatre

Donald Davie

  • Swansongs by Sue Lenier
    Oleander Press, 80 pp, £7.50, April 1982, ISBN 0 906672 04 X
  • Collected Poems by Sylvia Plath, edited by Ted Hughes
    Faber, 351 pp, £10.00, September 1981, ISBN 0 571 10573 4
  • Devotions by Clive Wilmer
    Carcanet, 63 pp, £3.25, June 1982, ISBN 0 85635 359 0

Sue Lenier’s poems occupy 70 closely printed pages, of which I have read – the things I do for LRB! – 50 or so. If ‘read’ is the word for what one does, or can do, with language like this:

Mourn no more for the flowers you have broken,
Lies you have told and clouds stirred on my face
Roused from my dark to the moons you have awoken,
In this fair night your blackness keeps no place,
When Winter holds her blue tongue to the trees
Licking them white, they cry not at their death
With tears like wings of flies washed in the breeze
And blown away, each sad and lonely breath,
And as each creature waits for Spring’s pale arms
To rouse their sleep and tenderly lead them out,
So I to you who did me all this harm
Will wait, heart-full, to wake you with my shout
 Of happiness, love and trembling sin –
 As all the night goes out, the stars come in.

How many sentences? No matter, and no prizes offered. For there is no answer, as the punctuation – all commas – advertises. Who would stay for such pedantries anyway? Who holds off from the lyrical afflatus, when it happens? Not Malcolm Bowie of Queen Mary College, London (‘all in a splendid surge of creativity’); not Claude Rawson of the University of Warwick (‘no doubt of the power ... at the acute cutting edge of feeling’); not Elaine Feinstein, from Cambridge (‘the talent is unmistakable’). The truth is that Swansongs should never have been published. As much can be said of many first collections of what offer themselves as poems, and in such cases the merciful way is to ignore them, to pretend that the embarrassment never happened. It is Sue Lenier’s misfortune that her artless lucubrations have been seized on by various academic persons as the occasion for revealing what it is that their souls have been yearning for all this time when they have been the intimidated colleagues of the late F.R. Leavis. ‘Unashamedly,’ says John Rathmell of Christ’s College, ‘a lyric and romantic poet in the tradition of Blake and Shelley’, thus grossly maligning both Blake and Shelley. (‘Unashamedly’, however, is correct.) Either the Times or the Telegraph had advance knowledge of the organised puff, carrying some absurd story of how this poet was better than Shakespeare because she could write as many sonnets in a week as he in a year. Nothing is more likely: facility is what Ms Lenier has lots of, and of course it helps that she has nothing to say – ‘affords so little purchase for intellectual analysis,’ says Dr Rathmell, meaning that the poems don’t make sense, so we needn’t look for it.

Not surprisingly Sue Lenier – she is 25, and was at Cambridge 1977-80 – has a better sense of what she is about than any of her sponsors have. What she is after, she says, ‘is to create something that is beautiful and, as far as I can judge it, accurate’. ‘Beauty’, we perceive, comes first, in advance of ‘truthfulness’ (if that indeed is what ‘accurate’ means). And sure enough this capitalised but never defined ‘Beauty’ figures largely in the verse also. On one of the rather infrequent occasions when in Lenier’s verse a pronoun can be related to a preceding noun, we are asked, of ‘Beauty’, ‘Then will she gleesome rise and trot along/Lonely to cupboards?’ Now there’s a question, especially since this filly, be it noted, is in her high-stepping action ‘gleesome’. ‘I’m not,’ says Ms Lenier further, as if she were bringing us news, ‘interested in nature except as a vehicle for emotional drama.’ ‘Drama’ is the honest word: ‘it is always,’ she says, ‘the theatre that I can find in poetry that I end up returning to.’ Well, just so: theatrical is what she means to be, and what she succeeds in being – street-theatre, unscheduled ‘happenings’, no plot, no discernible theme, but still ‘theatre’.

Given that clue, we can find a perspective – not indeed on Sue Lenier, who crops up in every generation, clamouring to be let into the Creative Writing class – but on the excited sponsorship she has attracted. The Masson Professor of English Literature in Edinburgh ruminates to not much purpose (‘something very taking about this poetry’), until he bethinks him of what may be called a thermal poetics: ‘seems to me better (than Ted Hughes) – warmer ... ’ Easily placated though he is, Ted Hughes will hardly be pleased to think that grounds for comparison could be found, even from the oblique standpoint of Edinburgh. A more obvious comparison is with Sylvia Plath, virtually the patent-holder for our time of poetry as theatre, as ‘emotional drama’. With her, too, the plot of the drama, its theme (Oedipal to be sure, but how?), remains, satisfyingly for enthusiasts, unclear. But out of the indiscernible drama, each of the too famous late poems – ‘Lady Lazarus’, ‘Daddy’ – comes through as at all events a craftily composed Racinian tirade. One need only compare Plath’s punctuation with Lenier’s to see the difference – the difference, that is, between a schooled and responsible poet who has lost control (for ‘The Colossus’ is an impressively controlled early statement of what in ‘Daddy’ becomes hysteria), and a poet who doesn’t know what control is, and doesn’t like what she’s heard about it. Plath’s poems have been so shamelessly appropriated by so many, for the vicarious living-out of torments that they toy with whereas she suffered them, that I think it will be a while yet before anyone can be judicious about them; I know I can’t. What is certain, however, is that they make sense; perhaps too much sense, too many incompatible meanings thrust at us simultaneously. In any case, they demonstrate, even at their most hysterical, something different from casting one’s self on a tide of words – especially symbolic epithets like ‘black’ and ‘white’, ‘wet’ and ‘cold’ – and trusting to half-remembered cadences out of Shakespeare and Yeats to convey the illusion of meaning.

Not the least ardent of Sue Lenier’s sponsors, but the cagiest, is John Newton of Clare College, who speaks of ‘the poet’s command of her verse-music. This is already a distinctive music in its special quickness and of considerable range and power.’ This trades on one of the more discreditable Leavisite legacies, the device of talking of ‘music’ or ‘movement’ with portentous ambiguity – is ‘quickness’ opposed to ‘slowness’ or to ‘deadness’? Nothing so crass, of course, as deciding if the verses can be scanned, and if so according to what metre. But even where there’s no question of scansion, we are surely not at the mercy of John Newton’s ungainsayable ‘ear’:

Gold-breasted, long-armed I saw you journeying soon
And heard you soon, in gypsy flowers
The wandering rose and smoothly ice-tailed shark
Hang in mats of silk from your tender harsh breasts.

Ignore the grotesque tattiness of diction and imagery, and ask only what is the meaning and the justification of the rhythmical levelling-out on ‘your tender harsh breasts’. It is enough to recall a similar but meaningful flattening that ends the first stanza of Plath’s ‘Blackberrying’:

                               Blackberries
Big as the ball of my thumb, and dumb as eyes
Ebon in the hedges, fat
With blue-red juices. These they squander on my fingers.
I had not asked for such a blood sisterhood; they must love me.
They accommodate themselves to my milkbottle, flattening their sides.

‘Blackberrying’ indeed, surely one of Plath’s finest poems and an object-lesson in the handling of one sort of unmetred verse, is very much to the point. For there, too, the treatment of ‘nature’ is theatrical; the blackberry bushes along the lane, and the sea that will rear up at the end of it, are read, are decyphered, for the signals that they send or will send, though not explicitly, to the agonising, milkbottle-armed, berry-picking consciousness that works its way through them. All the same, we are never in doubt that this is a real lane, or that the sea at the end of it is real sea:

The only thing to come now is the sea.
From between two hills a sudden wind funnels at me,
Slapping its phantom laundry in my face.
These hills are too green and sweet to have tasted salt.
I follow the sheep path between them. A last hook brings me
To the hills’ northern face, and the face is orange rock,
That looks out on nothing, nothing but a great space
Of white and pewter lights, and a din like silversmiths
Beating and beating at an intractable metal.

This is quite different from taking ‘sea’ and ‘lane’ and ‘blackberry’ as so many verbal counters, so many daubs of greasepaint ready to hand in a rhetorician’s dressing-room.

John Newton and John Rathmell, Claude Rawson and Wallace Robson, especially Elaine Feinstein the translator of Tsvetayeva, really should be ashamed of themselves. From Cambridge, from under the feet of several of them, comes Clive Wilmer’s second collection, Devotions, artfully composed to be much more than the sum of its parts, tightly metrical verses first and last, framing a central section of short-lined free verse that owes much (and very properly) to the practice of Thom Gunn. There are three poems – ‘Among Bric-a-brac’, ‘An Autumn Vision’ and ‘Homecoming’ – where the effort after metrical tightness betrays Wilmer into the too choicely archaic diction that disfigured his earlier work: otherwise these forty pieces splendidly restore one’s faith that even now honourable and responsible poems can come out of England. The recorded preferences and expectations of respected mentors like Robson and Rawson and Feinstein show just what the odds are against such sober and self-respecting work being done among us at the present time. And let no one say that there ought to be room for both sorts of writing – Wilmer’s and Lenier’s. A taste for the one sort drives out a taste for the other. Either Wilmer is right about what poetry does and is, or else Ms Lenier is right. And so long as the unfortunate Sue Lenier gets applauded for habits that she ought to, if she can, grow out of, so long will poets like Wilmer direly need the admonition that he frames for them and for himself:

     Now, in our needy time,
     Virtue and beauty seem
   In dark, like heady vintage, to mature;
     Full-bodied and obscure.