We shall not be moved

John Bayley

  • Come aboard and sail away by John Fuller
    Salamander, 48 pp, £6.00, October 1983, ISBN 0 907540 37 6
  • Children in Exile by James Fenton
    Salamander, 24 pp, £5.00, October 1983, ISBN 0 907540 39 2
  • ‘The Memory of War’ and ‘Children in Exile’: Poems 1968-1983 by James Fenton
    Penguin, 110 pp, £1.95, October 1983, ISBN 0 14 006812 0
  • Some Contemporary Poets of Britain and Ireland: An Anthology edited by Michael Schmidt
    Carcanet, 184 pp, £9.95, November 1983, ISBN 0 85635 469 4
  • Nights in the Iron Hotel by Michael Hofmann
    Faber, 48 pp, £4.00, November 1983, ISBN 0 571 13116 6
  • The Irish Lights by Charles Johnston and Kyril Fitzlyon
    Bodley Head, 77 pp, £4.50, September 1983, ISBN 0 370 30557 4
  • Fifteen to Infinity by Ruth Fainlight
    Hutchinson, 62 pp, £5.95, September 1983, ISBN 0 09 152471 7
  • Donald Davie and the Responsibilities of Literature edited by George Dekker
    Carcanet, 153 pp, £9.95, November 1983, ISBN 0 85635 466 X

There remains a most decided difference – indeed it grows wider every year – between what Philip Larkin calls ‘being a writer’, or ‘being a poet’, and managing to write something which will delight or amaze people without their having to respond to it in the context of poets and writers. Religion and other activities used to concentrate an audience by figuring in a non-literary context, and Blake or Emily Dickinson used religion, as they used the context of childhood responses, to appeal directly to an audience over the head, as it were, of literature. Their communication seems to short-circuit it. The tactic was understood and developed by the Romantics. The ‘Ancient Mariner’ and the Lucy poems must have struck home like early Betjeman, or indeed like Larkin himself. Byron and Pushkin make a particular fetish of not being ‘writers’, and so in his different way did Kipling.

These names probably confuse an issue which could be put quite baldly – as by Larkin again – by saying that content in poetry is not for the reader a literary matter, and that style should slip the content straight down the reader’s throat, for content is what matters most. This may beg a lot more questions, but except to critics it is clear enough. When W.H. Davies says he saw the wind dragging the corn by her golden hair into a dark wood, the startling and exciting information goes straight inside us. Complex reactions then occur; theorists of rhetoric can tell us how the effect is achieved; but the truth of the information is what really matters, as when Donne tells us:

’Tis the year’s midnight and it is the day’s,
Lucy’s, who scarce seven hours herself unmasks.

Where the theorists are concerned, truth of this sort is now out in literature, and has been replaced by the concept of literature itself, or rather ‘literariness’. It’s always been there, it’s the same thing as the truth or the content, but give it a different name and you start writing a different thing, start doing poetry and prose that is nothing but ‘poetry’ and ‘prose’. This is what John Fuller’s new rhymes for children are: they announce their literariness and children can no doubt admire it, for in this context they know, like older readers on the poetry scene, what is proper to it.

But Walter de la Mare’s line ‘Who said, “Peacock Pie”?’ is not just appropriate to a poem for children. It is a real question, just as this, from Stevie Smith, is real information:

Cool and plain
Cool and plain
Was the message of love on the window pane.
Soft and quiet
Soft and quiet
It vanished away in the fogs of night.

Since the time those poems were written, even poetry for children has become contextualised. Fuller’s ‘The Ship of Sounds’ is delightful, and delightfulness is its literariness: it tells us nothing, and neither do the creatures of his Bestiary, who are neither more nor less than the creatures in a poet’s bestiary written for children.

The ampersand MOSQUITO whines
Erratically above. We freeze
And fold The Times. No creatures are
Quite so invisible as these.

But we do not even discover what an ampersand is. Children do not now have truths pushed down their throats: they are ‘into’ the knowledge context, as they and their elders are manipulated, by the right context, into the poetry scene, which is not the scene of de la Mare’s engrossing stanza:

Who said, ‘Peacock Pie’?
The old king to the sparrow.
Who said, ‘Crops are ripe’?
Rust to the harrow.

It is solid stuff: the more we repeat it the more true facts emerge. The old king’s words are at once a threat, a gibe and an ironical comment – sparrows and such are no doubt an important filler in so-called Peacock Pie. The rust is reminding the harrow that when crops are ripe he will soon be scoured again as he crumbles up the winter earth.

O western wind when wilt thou blow
The small rain down can rain?
Christ that my love were in my arms
And I in my bed again.

C.S. Lewis used to say that it was his wife he was thinking of, not his mistress or girlfriend, otherwise he would most likely have written ‘in her bed again’. However that may be, the point is that de la Mare and Stevie Smith and Anon are all appealing to us over the head of literature. They are appealing to our sense of fact, and our pleasure in it – fact that comes through poetry but is not just concocted in its context.

Come aboard and sail away is as zestful as all John Fuller’s collections, but like his novel in verse, The Illusionists, it delights anyone with an ear and a taste for poetry rather than for truths and tales that short-circuit the poetic, as they do in Pushkin’s Evgeny Onegin. To seem to depreciate Fuller’s skill and achievement – and that of many other contemporary poets – by this sort of method and criterion is not only ungrateful but arrogant, and yet the fact remains that poetry nowadays is becoming (as it has frequently become in the past) too purely poetical. Even reviews of it are concerned to do in the reviewing context exactly what the poetry is doing in the poetical: that is, they talk about it entirely in its own literary terms, using the appropriate vocabulary – intricate, compassionate, fearless in its uncompromising vision, dedication, integrity, unswerving response to experience, and so forth. An interview with John Fuller in the recent number of Poetry Review, like other things in that worthy periodical, has the rather lowering effect, for an outsider, of poets talking about their practices and their poet friends in a charmed circle.

This even applies in some degree to so deliberately moving a poem as James Fenton’s ‘Children in Exile’, describing the arrival in Italy of Cambodian and Vietnamese refugees.

I hear a child moan in the next room and I see
   The nightmare spread like rain across his face
And his limbs twitch in some vestigial combat
   In some remembered place.

There are the incongruities of grammar and phrase books for those tormented but still pellucid young sensibilities to struggle with.

La Normandie est renommée par ses falaises et ses fromages.
    What are Normandy, cliffs, cheeses and fame?
Too many words on the look-out for too many meanings.
    Too many syllables for the tongue to frame.

This poem manages triumphantly to leap over literature to us, but cannot quite clear in the same way the entanglements of up-to-the-moment reportage – all those immaculate photos in the Sunday Supplements, and the effective paragraphs from the field with their details chilling or bizarre. Perhaps it could not and should not do so? Poetry cannot sever itself entirely from the most oppressive literary manifestations of its time, but it must use them with its own sort of detachment (as Larkin used advertising in his poems), and Fenton’s meditation shames in the last analysis its superior journalistic originals by doing something that only a successful poem can do – forcing the reader into pleasure by compelling him to pick his way with concentration and yet without seeming effort. Some of Fenton’s best poems, such as ‘Dead Soldiers’, an extraordinary account of lunching with Prince Norodom in Cambodia, are to high-class war and travel journalism what brandy is to wine or calvados to cider.

Well, here are your facts, obscure, exotic, detailed, packaged in the artfullest words – what more do you want? One can only reply that their very profusion, the equable relaxed way they accumulate, makes these Literary Facts, the sort that used to pile up in the fine diction of 18th-century poems – Falconer’s ‘Shipwreck’, Gay’s travelogues (beloved of Fuller), Dryden’s ‘Annus Mirabilis’, in which Dutch sailors, in a battle with the British off Norway, are the victims of their own destructively exotic cargoes.

Some preciously by shattered porcelain fall,
    And some by aromatic splinters die.

The contemporary poetical has gone back to that era of good conceits, rare objects, delicate exaggeration – or rather it has discovered its own kind of equivalent for them, tuned to the modern sensibility. The Romantic movement gave (or restored) to fact what we now think of as poetic intensity, the flash of real intimacy from poet to reader which seems beyond literature. Philip Larkin, arch-romantic, does not care much, it seems, for the contemporary poetical because of this absence of romanticism (every poem in his Oxford Book of Twentieth-Century Verse was a romantic poem), and because what he calls the poetic device does not now move us as the experience it is based on once moved the poet.

Indeed it is questionable whether terms like ‘feeling’ and ‘being moved’ are really applicable at all to the sort of poetry that Fenton writes, and that is also written, in their various ways, by Fuller, by Michael Hofmann, Tom Paulin, Christopher Reid and others. Certainly the romantic rhetoric that is second nature to Larkin, as to Auden, Yeats and Eliot, has no place in their poetic repertoire. It once seemed so ‘natural’, but beside their literariness and air of non-communication it now seems impossibly old-fashioned. It is difficult, of course, to be positive about these things. Perhaps the young are being conditioned by the way this poetry works to be ‘moved’ by it, in the old way? But I doubt it somehow. I think it is a genuinely new phenomenon, not advertising itself with the old-time splash of a nouvelle vague or ‘Make it New’ movement, but seeming almost a normal aspect of the modern scene, like the ‘magic realism’ of David Hockney or Alex Colville.

James Fenton’s ‘Dead Soldiers’, ‘A German Requiem’ and ‘Children in Exile’ are poems that work by a new and at first disconcerting technique, not to move us or to establish feeling, but to suggest a situation where feeling in the reader grows by itself. This neue Sachlichkeit arranges objects familiar and unfamiliar in unexpected ways, not so much to ‘make it strange’ as to sever the ordinary kinds of tie between poet and reader. If it does not work, the poet seems merely to be pottering about in his private museum, adjusting the exhibits and talking to himself. The visitor is merely bored. This occurs with many of the poets in Michael Schmidt’s anthology, for though Peter Scupham, Jeremy Hooker, Jeffrey Wainwright, Dick Davies and John Ash are all highly talented and painstaking artists, they seem to be fashioning their poems for themselves and each other. As Auden and Eliot showed, ‘difficult’ poetry can still be popular, but to secure the ordinary reader’s attention a strong charge of disturbing potential is needed. In his recently published essays Larkin continually points out that modern poets take it for granted their poetry will be studied, and this doesn’t do it any good.

And yet why shouldn’t the poet expect a reader as learned, or nearly, as himself, and as equably interested in perceptions and discoveries, to study him as if we lived in a Classic or Neo-Classic age? No reason why not, except that oddly enough the common reader has come to be a good judge (a century and a half of Romanticism again?) of whether or not the spirit has descended, a gamble paid off. Instinctively he wants the product of creation when the mind is like ‘a fading coal’, the power may come to a stop, at any rate cannot be relied on indefinitely. He likes a poem at once complete and insecure, as if nothing like it could be done again. By sheer versatility Fuller and Fenton often achieve this effect, and many of Fenton’s poems – ‘Chosun’, ‘The Pitt-Rivers Museum’, ‘A German Requiem’ – have high spirits and a parade of witty detail which make them richer on each rereading. They are products as highly organised and as superbly proportioned as some of the later tours de force of Auden, and Fenton shares that master’s verbal animation and syllabic ‘attack’, qualities not much in view in the more donnish poets of Michael Schmidt’s anthology.

As Schmidt points out in a thoughtful introduction, the generation of Hughes and Larkin already seems far back, as does the impact and immediacy of their techniques. The most verbally intense of Schmidt’s poets is Michael Hofmann, who in his own collection Nights in the Iron Hotel, uses the effects of a high-class film director to achieve a faintly sinister stylisation, uniform throughout poems relating to his own daily experiences and those which, like the remarkable ‘A Western Pastoral’, conjure in dramatic monologue a wholly different life-style and sensibility.

A much more old-fashioned stylisation is achieved by Charles Johnston, who writes with verve and elegance in many forms. Expressing admiration for Lowell’s Life Studies, he produces his own version about his own past, his schooldays and episodes from his time en poste abroad, combining these in a little volume with an admirable rendering of Lermontov’s ‘The Tambov Lady’, a narrative poem in the Onegin metre which he employs with as much virtuosity as in his previous Pushkin translations. Johnston hopes that poetry can still be ‘authorised to entertain’, and shows that if you are good enough you don’t have to bother with all the complex and various Modernist ploys designed to make it hard for the dog to see the rabbit. ‘If you are good enough’ of course begs the question, but it seems natural to his skill to go back to the direct manner of Byron, Pushkin, Lermontov. Lowell also could write like that, and it seems to be a question of class. There is nothing grand about the manner, but it has the easiness associated with the grand, or at least the naturally confident. It used to be second nature to novelists to adopt it – to be Dickensian was also in a curious way to be Byronic – but among the varieties of literary and poetic manner which today construct and protect the awareness that poets offer us it seems an incongruity.

One that liberates and refreshes. Today’s mannered poets are men, and there is a certain irony in the fact that an ‘old-fashioned’ poet like Johnston has more in common with women poets writing today like Fleur Adcock, Carol Rumens and Ruth Fainlight. His verses, like theirs, have nothing against being simple, forceful and straightforward. Modern mannered poets show a latent anxiety about the poem not quite coming off which is quite absent in Ruth Fainlight. In a tradition various enough to include Emily Dickinson, Mary Coleridge, Christina Rossetti and Charlotte Mew, her poetry gets on with itself, not self-absorbed but quite independent. Men poets, it makes one feel, get together too much, have too much of an eye for each other’s points and failings; and women have not shared in this tradition, with its complex rituals of amour propre.

One consequence is that Ruth Fainlight’s poems, like Barbara Pym’s novels, are not a bit afraid of feeling, or of not handling it the right way. Poems in the present collection like ‘The Circle’ – an old friend turns back to fairy stories and goes mad – and ‘Judgment at Marble Arch’ succeed as poems because they do so as true experiences: that is, they have the authenticity of the best fiction. The second is a verse encounter which has several parallels in Pym novels, though this poetry has no place for Pym’s humour. Hardy or Betjeman would not have put things thus, one feels: poets who are men tend to make use of compassion in such a context, and to leave it surrounded with their own sort of insulation. Yet it may be that certain styles of insulation are proper and necessary to art, to the arts of poetry as well, and that they do not diminish simplicity and sincerity of feeling but neutralise the palpable design upon us (why can’t we be more caring?) that Keats rightly distrusted. Ruth Fainlight’s ‘This Meat’, a short forceful poem, draws attention to the fact that this meat browning in the pan is the same stuff that stuck to St Lawrence’s gridiron or to ‘the iron beds of Phnom Pen’, ‘the same stuff I am made from’:

Here
in my kitchen I am forced to look and listen.
I cannot ignore it.

Several things here get up the reader’s nose. There is the implication that while the sensitive poet in her kitchen is forced to look and listen, we in ours are too insensitive to do so. Why make us think of meat only? A Titian of St Lawrence grilling, or the remark the saint is said to have uttered in that situation, does unite us in some degree in admiration for fortitude and martyrdom, the spirit rising above the flesh. Reductive, as today’s starkly honest propaganda techniques try to be, the poem suggests not only that the flesh is all that matters but that compassion depends upon our underlining the fact.

It is an interesting case: a poem that succeeds in its own way by dividing our responses, by manoeuvring us into a complex attention of distrust. Such success is more compelling than the solipsism of the modern mannerists, who never risk failure by bringing the artifice of a poem too closely in contact with what is merely social and personal. The same kind of success is scored in a different way by another short poem, ‘The Concept’. It slips a bit of feminism down our throats, but then, as is the case with all Ruth Fainlight’s best poems, stimulates an interior discussion. The poem knows that the strategies of sex are, and have to be, sequential and predictable, and this knowledge divides response with the more hopeful kind of knowledge that love is unexpected and can surprise sex in the act.

These poems continue to justify the title of Ruth Fainlight’s second collection, To See the Matter Clearly. No more than Stevie Smith and the women poets of today is she concerned with the politics of poetry, or rather the poetics. These poets use their talents to explore, not the possibilities of literature but their direct experience of the world, and if this seems a sexist point we should remember that Larkin and Hughes do, or did, the same – though their experiences might not seem particularly congenial or meaningful to these women poets. It seems that the more talented women poets there are, the more obvious becomes the distinction between what they write about and what the men do. In this context most of the old sex clichés seem disconcertingly true.

Seeing the matter clearly is not the same as theorising about how it can or should be seen. There is a striking contrast between Ruth Fainlight’s poems and everything that is implied in the essays about modern poetry in Donald Davie and the Responsibilities of Literature. Here we are in a man’s world, more specifically the world of male academics in committee, responsible for defining the proper areas of poetic idiom, arbitrating between them, assessing performance and promise. For those in the business, this is a book of quite exceptional interest, though hard-going for the general reader. All ages show that a vivacious dialogue between theory and poetry is highly beneficial to the health of the latter, even though poetry’s most instinctive masters in any age may seem to disregard theory, or operate outside it.

Davie has remarked that he wrote his theoretical books, Articulate Energy and Purity of Diction in English Verse, in order to clarify for himself how he wanted to write his own poetry. At the other extreme to this, Pushkin, a natural poet if ever there was one, and a poet high in the pantheon of Davie’s own comparative scholarship, observed that a poet ‘should possess his language without looking at the difficult working of it’. Such contrasts between the instinctive and the self-conscious, which usually also means the popular and the recondite, are characteristic of the poetry of any age. But, as Hugh Kenner points out in a typically brilliant if somewhat perverse essay called simply ‘Responsibilities’, Davie’s concern for poetic language is really a concern for culture as the modern equivalent of theology. ‘The Englishman who was pulled in the 19th century between Canterbury and Rome has given place in the 20th to a man torn between Ezra Pound’s America and D.H. Lawrence’s England.’

The analogy is not extravagant. Davie is the pattern of a divided man, equally at home in an English or American cultural context, and with ‘a nearly anguished concern for two poetries that may perhaps with care become an Anglo-American poetry’. But can it, and would it be a good thing? Ecumenism is the death-knell of theology, and, as Kenner stresses elsewhere in his essay, the strength of English as a culture-carrying language has become its multiple provinciality. He sees the ‘Three Provinces’ – England, America, Ireland – as bearing with their necessary divisions the continuing vitality of ‘English Literature’. Ulysses, Mrs Dalloway, The Sound and the Fury are interrelated works which yet keep their own kind of separateness. Though it makes no sense to ask whether Ulysses is part of ‘Irish’ or of ‘English’ literature, it has its own place in the ‘International Modernism’ of the Three Provinces. By being together yet separate, they avoid the nemesis of little literatures, condemned to the nationalism of a single culture and language.

Kenner’s scenario, of which he sees Davie as the most active and practical exponent, is persuasive as a diagnosis of what has taken place. But where do the responsibilities come in? If we are, as I believe we are, so fortunate as to be able to enjoy nearly equally and simultaneously the literature of our Three Provinces without feeling that any one of them is local or outlandish, we are in luck as a matter of historical determination. The creators, Eliot and Yeats, Joyce and Faulkner, did not set out to create a new literary language, nor were they anguished in their concern for the results. Like Mandelstam and the Acmeists, they simply took as their inspiration the example and tradition of European literature, and this they did by instinct, not as if they were shouldering a new responsibility.

But this is not good enough for the theologically-minded, and, notwithstanding the fascinations of this book, it is difficult for most of us to see what all the fuss is about. We may agree with Kenner and Davie that F.R. Leavis carried to absurd lengths his emphasis on ‘English’ as part of the English Puritan tradition. Davie sees Bloomsbury itself as a chapter, a ‘lurid and instructive’ one, in the history of English Puritanism. That is theologically sound, as well as shrewd, for Leavis’s Cambridge and fashionable Bloomsbury were never really all that far apart. Leavis was a mythologist rather than a theologian, inventing his own myth of the ‘real’ England, which survived only in ‘The Wheelwright’s Shop’ and in the pages of D.H. Lawrence. Apart from the fact that a ‘real’ England has never existed, Lawrence was himself a notable cosmopolitan. And yet the myth of a central kind of Englishness survives obstinately in the outlook of those who take a visionary view of ‘Eng. Lit.’ studies, a view often apt to combine puritanism with the conviction that some authors are more English than others.

It is for this reason that the eclectic, wholly non-insular nature of Davie’s talent, so justly celebrated in these essays, has a very decided importance for poetry and criticism alike, though I still feel that the word ‘responsibility’ is not really in place. More important is Davie’s status as the don’s poet, or the don as poet. William Empson was never that, was indeed rather positively committed to his own version of the English metaphysical manner, a manner as blunt and accessible as in Herbert’s poetry or Aubrey’s prose. As Bernard Bergonzi shows in an acute and learned essay, Davie has had a long love-hate relationship with Ezra Pound, the poet par excellence of International Modernism. Davie once agreed with Leavis that Pound had ‘no real understanding of culture or tradition’, these things being seen as the interior and instinctual lines which connect Eliot’s poetry with the past just as surely as Thomas Hardy’s. But it is part of Davie’s complex intelligence, working in both his poetry and criticism, to display at other times the limitations of such a judgment.

Pound as poet, analogous to a brilliant instructor of Eng. Lit., grasps and displays everything from the outside. His images consciously show us cultural tradition in art, as if they were pictures or sculptures assembled by the poet. This calls for application in the reader, as if he were a trainee student at Christie’s or in an art museum. Much of Davie’s own poetry works the same way, as befits a scholar at ease in the museums of all the Three Provinces. The basic distinction here is an important one, though not easy to demonstrate: it comes down to the fact that Eliot, say, however seemingly ‘obscure’ and full of ‘difficult’ references, is really working on interior lines, can be intuitively grasped by the reader in his own way. The poetry of Pound, and of Davie, must be understood in their way, or not at all. International Modernism, like an inspiring but exacting teacher, requires us to see everything exactly as it is shown to us. The symbol offers itself to our consciousness, can be intuited there in many different ways, but the Image, like objects in nature or art, remains its own hard and uncompromising self. It is with these factors in mind that Davie makes a distinction between poets like Pound who show us the surface world as it is, and more conventional poets like Tennyson and Eliot (or Betjeman?) who, in conjunction with the reader, turn it into a landscape of the imagination.

The reader is accustomed to that, and hence Eliot is far more easy to take in, as poetry, than Pound: is, in fact, a popular poet as Pound can never be. The same goes for Davie. To be at home in the idiom of all Three Provinces means that one will not at once seem natural in any: readers must learn you and work on you, and that kind of effort is for Davie what modern culture should be about. As Kenner says, he works and writes in that area which ‘forms no intelligible part of the literature of any one country’. His impressive body of poetry has to be understood from outside, and these essays instruct us in it to great effect, literally showing us its points and meanings, as if on a blackboard. Such explication is needed to show us how good it is, for few of us have the specialised learning required. Davie’s poems do not just refer: they gloss and incorporate whole sections of cultures and techniques, past and present, Augustan, American, Polish, Russian, Irish.

Indeed, one of the most illuminating essays, by Augustine Martin, professor of Anglo-Irish Literature at University College, Dublin, shows in detail how Davie has made use of Irish metrics and themes, weaving variations and reversals quite invisible to the uninstructed eye. The sentiments of Yeats or of Austin Clarke are hollowed out from within in the same way, never in mockery but as part of a delicate process of aesthetic decoration and intellectual re-examination. Under Professor Martin’s treatment, the beauty and range of Davie’s effects are brought sharply into focus.

Green Leinster, do not weep
For me, since we must part;
Dry eyes I pledge to thee
And empty heart.

The end of so deceptively simple a poem as ‘Ireland of the Bombers’ discovers sudden richness and plangency of meaning, wry relations and friendships, severed but unbroken, with ancient Celtic and Christian genres, laments for exile and parting. The ordinary reader cannot see such things for himself: he must be told them, or he must devote himself to an understanding of this poetry’s background in the same meticulous spirit which Joyce required of his reader. International Modernism is a seamless gown, but one that cannot be worn until many exams have been passed. Its strength lies in its synoptic powers, demanding though these may be, and in its insistence that we can learn to take pleasure in art whose point is that it makes no instinctive appeal to us – in Tomlinson, MacDiarmid, Zukovsky, Menashe and in the many other poets whom Davie explicated with such inspiriting energy in The Poet in the Imaginary Museum. But we must give up supposing, as Kenner puts it with his artful simplicity, ‘that certain poets being admirable, certain others must be no good on the face of it.’ In other words, if we like poets who speak instantly to us we should also learn to like those who don’t. An odd lesson for Modernism to teach, and one that brings us back to that ‘decided difference’ with which I started. We still talk about Pound and Eliot: in practice it is usually or – one or the other – for Eliot and Yeats were really the perennial romantics against whom Pound and Modernism were contending. Modernism lost, but Davie and the scholars still keep it going, ignoring ‘the silent conspiracy which unites all the English poets from Graves down to Philip Larkin’. That conspiracy is not so much English as Romantic, though it is true that Romanticism has always felt happier with a national background and cannot easily adjust to International Modernism. Also, as the Modernists would ruefully admit, it has never needed any academic support.