Decorations and Contingencies

John Bayley

  • Pea Soup by Christopher Reid
    Oxford, 65 pp, £4.50, September 1982, ISBN 0 19 211952 4

Decoration in poetry traditionally has a purpose: to embellish the story of the Faerie Queene or of Venus and Adonis, to ornament with appropriate curlicues the exposition of order and harmony in a poem like Sir John Davies’s Orchestra. In what might be called the new decorated style, or modern Elizabethan, the decoration has become an end in itself, serving only to embellish the sense of time passing, water dripping, bells ringing, clothes flying on the line.

There is a certain irony in this, because the plain poetry of today, seeking in its way to rediscover the clear waters of Wordsworthianism, of an ordinary man speaking to ordinary men on an ordinary evening in NW3, uses if it can a clear plain rigorous language, more or less reimported from America. New Decorated takes the spirit of this but then starts to play around. Classy films and classy novels are doing much the same, and with the same theoretical background: a language code in which art can try to reveal nothing but itself, its own message as a great deal of medium.

In the hands of brilliant performers such as Christopher Reid, John Fuller or Craig Raine, the results can be extremely variegated and highly satisfying. It is of course misleading to put such names together – they are as different from each other as from any other poets writing today – and yet there is a recognisable similarity in style and approach. The art is to surprise by a Zen-like defamiliarisation, the upshot of which, however, is not so much to startle us into seeing something simple afresh as to add a solid little cube of satisfaction to the Rubik language. Christopher Reid has a poem in which a

            lordly fellow
who cuts and stripes
the Council’s grass

surveys a terrain
of meticulous damage.

His ‘haruspication of pods’ in the title poem ‘Pea Soup’ are green victims who cascade their entrails to a jab of the thumb ‘like so many plump suspension-dots’. The pretty epanorthosis of ‘meticulous damage’ would have been appreciated by readers of The Shepheard’s Calender, connoisseurs of tropes such as Sidney’s ‘sweet enemy’: but in traditional Elizabethan such a rhetorical flourish was fitting itself to a larger design. Reid’s pea-pods and Council grass are for themselves only.

Given the nature of poetry, given the tendency of the words in it to lead on to other unspoken words and stories and perspectives, that is quite an achievement, even if a negative one. This is where Decorated styles begin to diverge. For all their charm, Reid’s poems are singularly lacking in implication, of the kind cumulatively possessed, for instance, by the stanzas of Craig Raine’s poem ‘Flying to Belfast 1977’. Each of these adds subtly to the ingenuities of defamiliarisation, until the poem is billowed out with a kind of obscure terror nowhere directly invoked in detail. It is unfair to compare poems on two different themes, however similar their technique, and it could well be argued that a great part of the success of Reid’s poetry comes precisely from the skill with which he has blocked off implication and afterthought.

Long ago, Robert Bridges observed about one of Keats’s lines that ‘it displayed its poetry rather than its meaning.’ That was once a criticism, certainly, but neither the old nor the new Decorated styles are subject to the censure that attends the absence of meaning in romantic poetry. In fact, a paradox of this contemporary manner is that it has too much meaning: it fairly stuffs it down the reader’s throat till he gags, stuffs it in the form of relentless verbal perception which he seems to have, as it were, no time to digest. These are not the ‘nutritious images’ of Larkin’s poetry, which guilefully nourish the expectant traveller. One could put the matter historically by saying that the Movement – Larkin, Wain, Amis and others – brought back sharp expression and tight rhythm into our contemporary poetry, while their successors have jazzed up this straightforwardness and added exoticism to wit.

And in Reid’s case with scintillating results. If one carps a bit at first on general grounds, it is because there is so much good news to bring, in detail, later. Again and again, poetry and meaning meet the moments of our present time head-on, and the resultant collision is intensely exhilarating for the spectator. A marvellous example is ‘Dark Ages’, which celebrates quasi-affluent urban squalor – ‘our heraldry of dirt’ – in the terms and images appropriate to allegorical design, and to the ages of faith or enacted stability which talked and pictured in its terms.

This is our heraldry of dirt:
a dog crappant on a lawn vert.
A supermarket-till cartouche
Looping inanely through a bush
must have been threaded by some child.
No civic wall but is defiled
by spraygunned mottoes, jousting cocks –
the clichés of the heterodox.

The extensions of the conceit are worked out here as thoroughly as in any of the old Elizabethans, and in a fashion that would have delighted them. A policeman with his neat little RT ‘obeys the rasp of airborne voices’ like Joan of Arc.

A bollard and a station-wagon
Have met like St George and his dragon.

Newspapers enfold the knees like supplicators; the hippy is a holy man staring at panties and tights doing a dance round the maypole of a clothes-line. And here these worked-out conceits are implications too: of a particular kind and quality exclusive to Reid’s verse. By the sharpness with which they are themselves, they suggest something of the slackness, the indifference and pathos of their subjects, the lack of sense and form in urban manners.

Something similar happens in ‘Magnum Opus’, a poem of splendid virtuosity about the cornucopia of absurdities, both tangible and liturgical, that constitutes today the huge heap of a cathedral. Again Reid makes his own kind of poetic order out of something that to the ordinary eye has ceased utterly to make sense. It is instructive to compare this poem with Larkin’s ‘Church Going’, where the poet is equally ignorant of the church’s objects and history, but where the poem seems to make itself out of the silence and tension in which these survive. For Reid, ‘the tall tale of the cross’, and all the ‘grave rumpuses’ that go with it, simply flap and shamble all over the place, a cross between Tristram Shandy and a mad old ballad:

   then there were digressions
and subplots for the dead.
Certain august persons
struck attitudes. Children hid.
Two briefly-married cousins
prayed side by side in bed ...

Hewn down in some thug battle,
the great knight slept. His scars
were tourist penknife doodles.
He lacked nose and ears.

Out of these and a jumble of unassorted recollections of when the service began, the poet makes his poem:

I recall a young woman who fainted,
my neighbour’s atonal keen
and the brute baby that ranted
against the preaching dean.

The brisk complexity of meanings there is typical of Reid. Ranting, preaching and the brutes that perish join in a small harmony of sense for the duration of the poem.

Reid’s chief excellence, which makes him one of the best poets of our time for some things, is for making a basic simplicity of theme work itself out through a highly visual and tactile pattern. Like Craig Raine, he has the gift of defamiliarisation which demands the familiar knowledge of the reader’s eyes. Raine has a delightful image of the urinals in the Gents calmly sucking their peppermints, a glimpse instantly at home, even if only with half the poetry-reading public. In practice, this technique is probably as old as poetry, consisting as it does, not of an idea and object abstractly yoked for exemplary purposes, as in the Metaphysical conceit, but of two objects magicked into a coincidence that produces not visual fantasy but homely truth. Gay was good at it two hundred years ago, writing about a country tour that ended up at Lyme Regis.

On unadulterate wine we here regale,
And strip the lobster of his scarlet mail.

The wine is unadulterate because smuggled, and that unspoken word also contains the lobster and his pot, which is then openly placed in a context both martial and erotic. The fact that the lobster is red by violence, not by nature, and is not in fact stripped but dug out, has the effect of making this glimpse of him that much more visually exact.

Reid’s simpleness starts with his acceptance of total contingency, abruptly made the trademark of emphasis. Our empty eye has had to register that ‘supermarket-till cartouche looping inanely’ before we can recognise it in its new livery, just as we have had to register the antiseptic cubes in the glugging urinals. This is a poetry of peculiar topos, which as handled by Reid has an unexpectedly wide variety of uses, though seldom or never that of directly moving us. And yet it does so in its own way, as in ‘Bravura Passage’, a poem Hardy would have liked, which assembles the contingent aspects of a dingy day by the London Thames, and then spots a motor-launch, ‘abounding in chutzpah’, which symbolises

   your adventurous beauty
in the midst of things.

The technique is modishly intellectual in ‘The Exotic Nouns’ and in ‘The Naive Reader’, which threads in brilliantly Audenian metre the cliché-paths of popular fiction. It is amusing when it titups round the clichés of anthropomorphism in the aquarium, where the turtle, the old buffoon of the zoo, is your departed uncle trying to ‘come through’ from another world, ‘and not drowning but waving ...’ But the best use is perhaps for the portraits, ‘after Turgenev’, which spring all too credibly into life. Here is the beggar, once a soldier,

who, in a seaport
near the Equator,
possessed a young girl
as glossy as an aubergine,
with a curious perfume
both fecal and sweet.
A cap like a puddle
now lies at his feet,
to receive the odd penny.
He wheedles his harmonica –
a horrible sound.

Among the delicate verbal springes and mines of this verse that plain dead end in the last line does touch the heart: for, in contrast to the curious perfume, the horrible sound expresses a life outside the usual coding of the poetry.