Foreigners

Denis Donoghue

  • Selected Essays by John Bayley
    Cambridge, 217 pp, £19.50, March 1984, ISBN 0 521 25828 6
  • Collected Poems: 1941-1983 by Michael Hamburger
    Carcanet, 383 pp, £12.95, March 1984, ISBN 0 85635 497 X
  • Poems: 1953-1983 by Anthony Thwaite
    Secker, 201 pp, £8.95, April 1984, ISBN 0 436 52151 2

One of Anthony Thwaite’s poems, ‘Tell it slant’, swerves from Emily Dickinson’s line ‘Tell all the Truth but tell it slant’ to settle upon an aesthetic procedure she would have been too nervous to enunciate:

Truth is partial. Name the parts
But leave the outline vague and blurred.

Dickinson thought the truth should dazzle gradually, and that the best ploy was ‘circuit’. She didn’t presume to trace the outline. The trouble with Thwaite’s advice is that you can’t know what a part is until you know the whole of which it is a part. Critics call this trouble the hermeneutic circle, and think it irksome but not vicious. Thwaite doesn’t trouble himself with it: he is content to assume that what seems to him a perception is indeed true and probably fits somehow into a grander truth. His poems, like Dickinson’s, are circuits, but he seems to know their direction in advance; she is wilder, more willing to be fey or crazy in a cause she doesn’t claim to understand. To Thwaite, poetry is a naming of parts; to Dickinson, the blow of phrase upon phrase, their cause as chancy as their end.

John Bayley, the most English of critics, looks for truth by resorting to foreign parts of it. Or by subjecting home truths to the stress of foreignness. Russia and the USA are his main resorts, the one for fulfilment, the other for provocation. But his criticism has always enforced a moral distinction, and has gone far afield to find it exemplified. About fifteen years ago he wrote an essay ‘Against a New Formalism’, partly a meditation on a passage near the beginning of Virginia Woolf’s The Waves where Rhoda says: ‘The world is entire, and I am outside of it, crying “Oh save me, from being blown for ever outside the loop of time!”.’ Bayley distinguished between those writers – he had Virginia Woolf and Henry James in mind – upon whom ‘a passionate and omnivorous interest in life’ is laid as a sacred duty, and other writers – Tolstoy and Jane Austen sustained this quality – who are too far inside life to find it ‘interesting’. The art of Tolstoy and Jane Austen, Bayley said, ‘is not showing us something but living something for us’. In Woolf and James, ‘communication is synonymous with the exhibition of an aesthetic object.’

Bayley’s hostility to formalism, new or old, arises from his conviction that ‘aesthetic theories of the autonomy of art are only formulated when the art of a genre is all that is left of it, and it is arguable that many art-forms are at their most powerful and centrally creative when they are not considered as art at all.’ The literature he admires tries to help us to get in touch, offers us ‘ways of aiding a relationship, not extruded objects which weigh down our consciousness by claiming a kind of coincidence with it’. The novel, he says, is ‘social intercourse by other means’.

The same conviction is enforced in Bayley’s Selected Essays, a gathering of his fairly recent writings. The writers he deals with, except for Pushkin, are those whose work has happened to come up for review: a new collection, a biography, a translation, a critical study. Bayley doesn’t claim that these writers are the best of their kind or jewels of their country. Many of them are American: Whitman, Stevens, Ashbery, Robert Lowell, Berryman, Cummings, and I suppose Auden. The English are Larkin and Betjeman. Russians and other foreigners include Pushkin, Blok, Gogol, Akhmatova, Mandelstam, Tsvetaeva, Nabokov, Canetti, Milosz and Popa. The only difference I see between Bayley’s present criteria and those of ‘Against a New Formalism’ is that he has settled for a typology of American literature as ‘aesthetic’ or ‘formal’, and of European literature as predicated upon ‘life’. According to this notion, a writer who looks into his heart and writes is likely to be European. He is also likely to write without epistemological fuss of the objects that interest him. Bayley refers to ‘the solid European object’, and to the European writer’s sense of ‘otherness’, his respect for ‘life in common’ and the privilege of ‘fact’. These European values are certified in the telling of stories, and ‘the being of the story-teller’. The purpose of such writers is to give their readers more life, and more abundant life: a gift likely to be received with pleasure by ‘the sound unexamined instincts’ of the general reading public.

So much for Europe, and for the few American writers – Lowell, Berryman, Elizabeth Bishop – who share European values. But American literature, on the whole, is – to a degree Bayley thinks perverse – internalised; it lives by starving itself, cultivates impoverishment, blankness and homelessness. It doesn’t tell stories: ‘we are no longer called on to suspend disbelief but to concentrate on a tropal geometry in which that question does not arise.’ Stevens is the typical American poet, ‘because the “vital” was for him the inside of the mind, the place where the visions and inventions of poetry used to be born, but which for that purpose is now “The empty spirit/In vacant space” ’. Stevens’s true ephebe is Ashbery, whose poems exhibit ‘an elegance that mimes the act of evanescence’; a poet ‘who stylises into apparent existence the non-events of consciousness, sometimes contrasting them in a rather witty way with the perpetual work of art that consciousness has to make up as it goes along’.

I don’t know how original Bayley thinks his sense of American literature is. It seems to me an exasperated version of a theory to be found readily enough, in several forms, as in Stevens, Empson, Blackmur, and Richard Poirier. Poirier’s A World Elsewhere is a typology of American literature consistent with the acceptance of Emerson as its prophet. Empson didn’t write a theory of American literature, but he thought James’s later style distinctively American in allowing him to escape from his subject: predicaments are retained in it as secret possessions, while James eludes the demands they make on him. Blackmur argued, in an essay on Marianne Moore, that she is like other American writers, including Poe, Hawthorne, Dickinson, James, and the Melville of Pierre, in contriving ‘to present the conviction of reality best by making it, in most readers’ eyes, remote’. Stevens, in one of his many moods, said that the American poet tries ‘to make the visible a little hard to see’. What these several witnesses agree on is that the American imagination isn’t concerned to celebrate a given plenitude or to make the world seem to coincide with the words that tell of it. If Stevens’s postulate of imagination and reality is accepted, it follows that American writers subordinate reality to their imagination; even though the unexamined instincts of the American reading public go the other way.

But Bayley’s exasperation is his own. Mannerism, in Stevens as in Ashbery, irritates him, so he forces himself to be gentle in its presence. I’m sure he gives acts of consciousness the consideration they deserve, but he always implies that they would deserve more if they didn’t demand any. Consciousness, he says, ‘is not best represented in poetry by the techniques that suggest they are representing it most closely’. The claim upon closeness is a sign of fuss and vanity. Bayley is also irritated by Stevens’s device of avoiding the commitment of a style by pretending it and putting the pretence on show. Stevens, he says, ‘seems afraid of meaning, as something “exactly itself”, and located in the achievement of a style’. Bayley hasn’t much time for intricate evasions, which he regards as shadow-play. He becomes gruff when Ashbery’s poem, ‘City Afternoon’, a serpentine pondering of a famous photograph, makes him recall a poem he cares for: ‘it is instructive to compare it with that masterpiece of invention, Larkin’s poem on looking at a young girl’s photograph album.’ The comparison isn’t made, so the instruction is hypothetical, but Bayley’s general patience is clarified by what it has to put up with in Ashbery’s Shadow Train.

Bayley has defended his criteria in several other books, notably in The Characters of Love, so it is vain to expect him to go over the ground again. My own sense of the matter is that he has exaggerated the differences between Europe and America and has taken the short way to pronounce in favour of the European type in morality and imagination. The notion that American writers create ‘a new consciousness that does duty as a new world’ is merely a formula, and it doesn’t really tally with the fiction to which Bayley applies it – Winesburg, Ohio, Appointment in Samarra, The Great Gatsby, and The heart is a lonely hunter. Nor is there much point or much justice in saying that ‘Faulkner’s world ... is crafted straight from vacancy into myth and symbol’: you could just as reasonably say it’s crafted straight from the soil or from history or from the defeat of the South. Bayley lets these exaggerations rip when he feels, reading a book he loves – Milosz’s The Issa Valley, for instance, – that the Americanisation of literature has been a nuisance, and that it is urgent to have the poetic imagination call a spade a spade. The great quality of Milosz’s book, Bayley says, is ‘the reality of the thing, the return of the thing’. The emphasis is Bayley’s, and it is enough to show how endangered he thinks a sense of the reality of things has become. ‘In Europe,’ he says,‘things preceded consciousness; in America they had to be created and commemorated by it.’ As an examination question, to be followed by the instruction ‘Discuss’, this would be a lively stroke. But as a cultural generalisation, it’s blunt. Maybe it could be established, but not in a few hectic pages.

The reviews of Russian and other writers are most interesting when a local question is illuminated: the relative merits of two translations, Canetti’s sense of Kafka’s obduracy, ‘the Lithuanian provenance of Milosz’, and many other matters on which I am happy to be instructed. Verve is the particular merit of Bayley’s criticism, especially when it is lavished upon a book he loves. He is a superb praiser, so it is a pity that he should ever be driven beyond his patience.

Michael Hamburger’s poems have always been in the shadows of his translations and critical essays: mainly, I think, because he has acute misgivings about the autonomy of language. He believes in inspiration, that a poet’s words are what ‘some power behind him has assigned’, but he doesn’t get practical conviction from that belief. An ostensibly generous Muse soon turns into ‘an unkind geometry’ that mocks the poet’s will. It’s hard to reconcile the notion that art is aristocratic with the local haggle of words when a poet tries to make sense and form of them:

Art is aristocratic. Lend me pure white
To glide on time’s calm waters or in the blue
Expanse of summer answer the infinite!

But a poet isn’t a swan or a windhover: at best, his words are off-white and unreliably pointed by homing instincts in the direction they should take. Hamburger refers to ‘the silent language of place’, but no poem issues from that sentiment, though he resorts to Venice, Vienna, Berlin, Lisbon and even Lady Gregory’s Coole Park to provoke it. Traipsing around Germany after the war, he consigned to his notebook the hope that ‘old Europe’ wouldn’t be let die. Many of his poems are in praise of continuity:

For continuity,
A place of your own
Where bird, wind passes through.

The new book marks Hamburger’s 60th birthday and forty years of intermittent poetry. Many of the poems celebrate ‘natural time’s repetitions’, as in flowers, trees, a cat’s custom. For consolation, Hamburger’s muse runs to botanic allegories. But about half-way through the book the poetry goes sour. Even before that, Hamburger wrote a miniature ‘Tempest’, a grim alternative to Shakespeare’s, in which Caliban rules the world and Prospero drudges for him. In a poem ruefully called ‘Security’ ‘the winds too are afraid, and blow from fear.’ Hamburger’s semiotics is, in these poems, a fear of omens: knowing as if in advance that his time is fulfilled in Eichmann and Treblinka. Many of these poems purpose ‘to tell of the fire in the night and briefly to flare like the dead’, but the poetry is numbed by what stirred it in the first place – it doesn’t flare, or flares only when the poetic cadence asserts its rights over what the words merely tell of:

What will become of us,
Too well you know it, meaning not us at all
But his regalia, realia of the working day
We care about, only because we know
How poor the realm is, how mad our king.

Getting from regalia to realia sharpens the otherwise too civic progress of speech, and allows the passage to settle upon the ballad-desolation of the mad king.

Hamburger’s best poems are not immediacies: his common style needs a certain distance in which particular reflections have a chance to consort with reflections of other kinds. ‘In September’ makes much of weather and weathering, and just enough to keep the parable reasonably patient. ‘Real Estate’ is a play of mind upon its title, but it doesn’t fuss with implausible detail. Hamburger knows that his words have come a long way and what they don’t need now is to be put through antic paces. In such poems I am reminded of Hamburger’s friends, Edwin Muir, David Gascoyne, Vernon Watkins and Robert Francis, poets whose common styles share the knowledge of what words have gone through.

What such knowledge proposes is patience, certainly not the petulance in which Hamburger indulges himself when the bad humour takes him. Many of these poems are consigned to the section called ‘Observations, Ironies, Unpleasantries’, so I suppose Hamburger is edgy about them – as he should be. It is too late to be peevish about computers, supermarkets, Spiro Agnew, ego-tripping, and (can he be serious?) my treasured Radio 3.

Anthony Thwaite said, in a recent TLS, that his poetic master is George Herbert. Herbert’s ‘combination of plainness and power, working within a great variety of stanzaic and rhythmical forms, is a model of how to think in verse’. Thwaite’s poems think aloud about an unborn child, a born child, a house for sale, a dead blackbird, soldiers in a train, sundry memorabilia, scar-tissue, an obscene phone-call – many sorts of things, if not all. His poems offer a moral attitude and ask to be judged circumspect in the end if flighty in the beginning. They seem to start as beachcombings; then go through a circuit of reflections; and end where they began, but differently. Like Herbert’s, they often take up an improbable subject and end by restoring it to an alerted domestic analogy: ‘something understood’ is a formula just as applicable as ‘the art of thinking in poetry’. Sensitive to ‘the simple brutes – fire: hunger: earthquake: pain’, Thwaite negotiates such blatancies in a dualistic scheme. His mind likes to hold in poise the diverse attractions of art and life; contingency and abstraction; patterns and the detail they control; simplicity and the vagary that confounds it; spontaneity and habit. As for thinking, our poets can do that for us by showing how feelings may unglibly be brought to equilibrium. The morality of the right ordering of sensation is what Thwaite’s poems strain toward: as in ‘Sick Child’, he tries to cope with helplessness and foreignness of the appalling kind.

No theory of inspiration incites these poems. Thwaite values his senses, and lets his mind fulfil their report: trusting his nose, his mind is always ‘full of the smell my nostrils smelt’. In these transactions he is willing – like Herbert again – to have his feelings led by pieties they are not ashamed to acknowledge, and to accept their due dictions. ‘The pebbles teach my feet,’ he reports, and so they do, but they can’t teach the mind what to do or say. Some of what Thwaite’s poems say is a bit much. If, sitting at a window, you see a chestnut, the sky, and a jet, only a determination to reach for the grand style would have you say:

Rooted and restless, watching behind glass
Such fierce contenders harmlessly perform
Their rapt compulsions ...

But generally Thwaite keeps to a decorum well enough suggested by Herbert’s decencies and Larkin’s principled composure.

Larkin notwithstanding, Thwaite goes to distant fields for observations and styles different from his own. The Libyan poems in The Stones of Emptiness (1967) are remarkable measurings of spontaneity and custom, as in ‘Dust’ and ‘The Letters of Synesius’ – ‘All those arcana for which, now, I die’. Victorian Voices (1980) is given entire: very fine, too, though a bit twee when the enchantment lent by distance is not repaid by the consideration that in their time our sad Victorian captains were just as modern as we are. And there is a batch of 20 uncollected poems, mostly short lyrics, some of them – ‘What Animal’, ‘The Bed’, ‘Afterwards’ – with every sign of heading straight into the anthologies:

I can’t believe all this. I’m feigning anger,
Or disillusion, or the end of things.
My little world is not made cunningly,
And yet it’s made, has lasted until now.

And deserves to last.