Other Poems and Other Poets

Donald Davie

  • Notes from New York, and Other Poems by Charles Tomlinson
    Oxford, 64 pp, £4.50, March 1984, ISBN 0 19 211959 1
  • The Cargo by Neil Rennie
    TNR Productions, 27 pp, January 1984
  • Collected Poems 1943-1983 by C.H. Sisson
    Carcanet, 383 pp, £14.95, April 1984, ISBN 0 85635 498 8

Landor wrote: ‘Many, although they believe they discover in a contemporary the qualities which elevate him above the rest, yet hesitate to acknowledge it; part, because they are fearful of censure for singularity; part, because they differ from him in politics or religion; and part, because they delight in hiding, like dogs and foxes, what they can at any time surreptitiously draw out for their sullen solitary repast. Such persons have little delight in the glory of our country ...’ This admonition (especially the last sentence) is what I try to hold in mind when I give my sense of Charles Tomlinson’s poetry.

Those who have been aghast at the churlish reviews of Tomlinson’s Poetry and Metamorphosis – Charles Martindale, who protested at Tom Paulin’s review in the LRB, and Richard Swigg who many months ago answered Alistair Elliott’s more brutal review in the TLS – have every reason to wonder that Tomlinson should still solicit the suffrages of a public that shows him such ill-will. He must be, so it must seem, either preternaturally meek, or else exceptionally a patriot. For it has been common knowledge for a long time – some would say, a long-standing scandal – that this poet enjoys the esteem of foreign readers (not only the English-speakers) to just the degree that among the compatriots of Betjeman and Larkin and Adrian Mitchell he is a prophet without much honour; and there has not been lacking the rather plain implication: ‘Go and live with those furriners that like you so much.’ But Tomlinson won’t go away; and he insists on publishing in his native country – thanks to his loyal publishers, OUP, who long ago took him on their list (induced in the first place – let credit be given where it’s due – by John Press). He insists, and he has the right to insist, that he is as authentic a voice of modern Britain as Philip Larkin is.

As some pages of Poetry and Metamorphosis make clear, the Britain that Tomlinson speaks for is one that most of us, gratefully or not, are ready to think defunct: the Britain of Ford Madox Ford in 1913-15, which was host to Wyndham Lewis’s earliest paintings, to the sculpture of Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, and to Ezra Pound’s first translations from the Chinese – a Britain that we may think of as snuffed out on the Somme, though on the contrary it seems to have been given its quietus by the depraved insouciance of Bloomsbury. As Tomlinson writes the history, it goes like this:

The wave of energy throughout Europe and England, which made men like Pound believe that they were living in a new Renaissance, was spent in England by the First World War. It had its renewals in Paris. It reached Russia (until group antagonisms and political suppression ended it there) in the work of Malevitch, Popova, Kliun, Tatlin and the constructivists... The Revolution extended for a while in Russia what the war and Bloomsbury sapped in England. Gaudier dead; Lewis impoverished; forgotten as a painter since, for ten years from 1921 onwards, he never exhibited; Pound demoralised and, like D.H. Lawrence, abandoning the England on which he had centred his hopes for a new age; Pound in Italy swallowing Mussolini whole. These were the sad facts of the Twenties.

Looking at a passage like that, we can more easily understand why Tomlinson has been black-balled, and continues to be, by people who have invested in a more consoling version of English history through the last seventy years.

Tomlinson is painter as well as poet; and with daunting erudition he will footnote his modern history from the painting of this century, as readily as from the poetry. In poetry in English, the figure he cannot sidestep (though he’d like to – he’s more drawn to Eliot temperamentally, not to speak of various Englishmen) is Ezra Pound. This is so because Tomlinson has found himself, like Pound, as much verse-translator as poet – to the extent indeed that, like Pound and long before him John Dryden, Tomlinson can’t conceive of translating except as a special, and not very special, aspect of what it means to be a poet. Thus his Translations, now valuably excerpted into a separate volume, cannot be in any way regarded as a spin-off, a separate transaction from what is going on in the collections that he doggedly, in the face of yawns and lukewarm esteem, perseveres in putting before us as original poems. ‘Original’ and ‘translated’ – the whole of Poetry and Metamorphosis is devoted to showing us how arbitrary is this distinction that we think so clear-cut. (And we bridle – of course, for what poems has Larkin translated, or Betjeman?) Tomlinson’s versions of Tyutchev, of Machado, of Lucio Piccolo and others bulk as large in his oeuvre as Dryden’s versions of Juvenal and Ovid in his – a protestation which will sound less ringingly than it should, since in our classrooms Dryden’s verse-translations are still not taken account of.

In his brief but instructive comments on the poets he has translated, Tomlinson – meek though he truly is, and anxious to conciliate – cannot in honesty avoid sounding the note that gave such offence in Poetry and Metamorphosis. We read for instance that ‘Ungaretti, pulling against the current of d’Annunzian heroics, attempted in his early work something similar to that reconstitution of the strength of the syllable and the short verse line such as one finds in Pound and Williams ... Eduardo Sanguineti ... implies that the anguish and religiosity of the later work is a touch willed and that there is reason to prefer Ungaretti’s moment of setting out ...’ ‘There is reason to prefer ...’ but how can that strike the many who are convinced that preferences in poetry are, by definition, unreasonable? To them one may recommend, without much confidence, Tomlinson’s versions from Lucio Piccolo (1901-69), Baron of Calanovella, cousin to the author of The Leopard, who composed his verse (as Tomlinson acknowledges), not syllable by syllable, nor line by line, but as it were in slabs:

What days those were! and little was enough to make
story and fable flourish, and the lip
was prompt, the ear attentive amid the suspense
of faces. The word was a sprig of corn in the wind
dense with grains that the air
scattered to perplexed city, to somnolent village,
to far-off cottages.
The skein-winder of the hours
reeled-round times of quiet expectation,
cool returns to the vast divans of patterned flowers.
St Elmo’s fire spelled safety
in the seastorm and the serene Bear
came back to shine
tiptoeing on the sea
before the beacon-lights, before the dark
irresolution of the further coastline.

This has nothing to do with Pound or William Carlos Williams. It is perhaps Virgilian; or else it is, what Tomlinson calls it, baroque. At all events it shows, with its persistent run-over lines, how far Tomlinson’s modernism is from being programmatic or doctrinaire. (And yet, what of the politics of the Baron of Calanovella? Do not these serene verses come from a poem called ‘Under a Bourbon King’? Yes, so they do; tut-tut and dearie me!)

An unusually educated and intelligent blurb remarks that Tomlinson’s world is ‘a surprisingly unalienated one for the late 20th century’. This is just; and it costs nothing to admit that for many years I have been disconcerted by this in Tomlinson’s poetry, without being affronted by it. There is no doubt that the poems image for us a man who has learned to balance conflicting claims upon him – for instance, of domestic affections, of civic responsibilities, and of elemental affinities – in a way that most of us, however we aspire to it, seldom attain. And this, I can well understand, is why readers who respect and even admire Tomlinson none the less feel mutinous and incredulous at having presented to them something like a model of the moral (meaning, the feelingful) life. But this, I think, is to misunderstand the contract that Tomlinson tacitly enters into with his readers. On this matter, intransigent modernist though he is, he is strikingly conservative: his private disorders, uncertainties and tumults are to remain private – what he makes public is a self ordered and harmonious, and therefore in no bullying sense exemplary. Tomlinson the poet is what Tomlinson the man manages to be at those moments when he is most in control of himself and his circumstances. How far this is from the agonising into print of a Robert Lowell or a John Berryman is too obvious to need spelling out: but the expectations of dishevelled intimacy aroused in Lowell’s readers, or in Berryman’s, are what Tomlinson the Englishman cannot help but disappoint. We are not to be intimate with him; and why should we expect to be?

This is at all events preferable to a teasing sort of poem now being written, in which we seem to be promised an intimacy that in the upshot is denied us, in which we are introduced for instance to an ‘I’ and a ‘you’ but are given no help in characterising either person, still less the relationship between them. This happens, I’m afraid, with Neil Rennie’s The Cargo, 15 very short poems arranged so as to be ‘the first three parts’ of a supposedly longer work in progress. Rennie, I think, doesn’t mean to be a tease; his teasingness has less to do with a perverse poetics than with the fact that all his poems are set in the South Pacific, and rely on information about the culture of that region, information such as perhaps some Australians may be expected to possess, and some professional anthropologists, but hardly the rest of us. If that is the subject that Rennie’s experience has supplied him with, there is not much he can do about it: but the fact remains that his poems are quite densely peopled with characters of whom we can make out nothing, not even in many cases the colour of their skins. Occasionally, but alas not often enough, the quality of the language is sufficient by itself to arouse and hold our interest:

while underneath the launch the waves change places
in a series, each with another one the same.

Unfairly but inevitably we can be expected to have some basic information about New York such as we can be excused for not having about Polynesia. And so Tomlinson makes claims on our knowledge that only a few of us will think excessive. On the other hand, one need not have much love for New York to feel that Tomlinson’s verse-observations about it, though deftly turned, come across as extraneous and Olympian: poems not just of a tourist, but of a tourist determined to keep his quizzical distance from the city and its citizens. Fortunately the title is misleading: only the first 15 poems are about New York and, as always with this poet, when he gets back to England his writing moves into another register, altogether more plangent and dense. For instance, a short poem ‘To Ivor Gurney’ is deeply sorrowful, and yet it rests on no judgment overtly passed, nor even with any certainty implied, about what has happened to the Cotswold and Malvern hills since Gurney walked on them. Change, or rather one particular telling change, is registered, but not so as to nudge us into thinking the change is for the better or the worse: it is change as such, merely the passing of time, that fills the poet and us with sorrow.

Such sorrow with such equanimity (for at the end Gurney’s shade is assured that his England is still, in some metaphysical sense, the inviolable Eden that he thought it was)... should this paradox unsettle us? Hardly: for such dark shadows in such amber light should be familiar to us from as far back as

Golden lads and girls all must
Like chimney-sweepers come to dust.

Still, I’m not sure that other of the England poems earn their golden light of Eden as surely as do the lines to Gurney; I’m not always as confident as Tomlinson wants me to be that an England known from a motor-car on the M4 is in all essential respects the same enduring England that Ivor Gurney knew, or Robert Herrick. I suppose this is one way in which this poet is, as the blurb says, ‘surprisingly unalienated’. In ‘Near Hartland’, for instance, a mile-long avenue of wind-whipped beech-trees is gloriously transfigured; and perhaps it is churlish or worse to wonder if the glory is not all in the transfiguring eye of the beholder. At all events, the equanimity about England is interestingly mirrored in technique: for whereas some of the New York poems, and some poems at the end about Mexico, answer in some degree to what we’ve been led to expect about ‘reconstitution of the syllable and the short verse-line’, it’s notable that all of the England poems on the contrary are blocked out in enjambed long lines, like the translations from Piccolo. Are they Virgilian, then, or ‘baroque’? In some sense, surely, we may say that they are; with whatever disquiets that may arouse about the transfiguring gorgeousness of an accomplished rhetoric.

‘Accomplished’ is not the most fulsome of compliments. And it’s true that this collection is relatively lightweight, it shows the poet operating well within his limits, as it were cruising. (And ‘cruising’, by way of the airline expression ‘cruising altitude’, reminds me that there are here two extraordinarily gorgeous poems about birds in flight.) But if Notes from New York gives us the poet in relaxed mood, it is a great poet who thus relaxes. There is in any case one piece, the longest in the book, which rises far above this level, a poem that cannot hereafter be ignored by any one who wants to take Tomlinson’s measure. It is called ‘History of a Malady’, and is as near as this poet will ever come to being intimate, almost confessional. The malady in question is, literally, migraine; and it is treated in the poem, austerely, as seemingly a necessary condition of that hypersensitivity – to words, but also to sights and sounds – which earns this poet, and others like him, some peculiar triumphs. In this way it anticipates, and concedes in advance, our disquiets about triumphant rhetoric: yes, such golden language is, or it rests on, an abnormality, a sort of sickness – a sacred sickness, so the Ancients thought it:

    One should have entered
  Suspiciously this Eden of the sight
As one attends to the brittle brightness
  That on a day of spring spells rain ...

Eden itself, that figure which in other poems was offered to console Ivor Gurney and others, is thus seen to be implicated in malady. And indeed, we now remember, that sinister aspect of Eden was in those earlier poems always acknowledged – in the image of the angel who bars our re-entry into the Eden we have lost:

this is the angel with the sword
the shining double-bladed word
a lingering at the gate
of Eden late or early.

There are all-new theorists who think it has remained for them, freed from the shackles of a ‘bourgeois’ poetics, to recognise how the traffic of names with what they name is double-edged or multi-edged. They should read more poets, instead of reading each other; it is what all poets know, though only the exceptionally ambitious poet, like Tomlinson, is prepared to confess the shameful secret and to explore its implications. The pain of the confession, and of migraine also, is in the denying of a satisfactory closure – ‘late’, the closing rhyme so beguilingly on offer, forced to present its concord three syllables too early, so that discord is what we end on. Only in the great poets is content so intimately married to form.

Finally, C.H. Sisson. A proper appreciation of Sisson’s Collected Poems must be left to others: my own admiration of his work is so amply documented that, were I now to embark on it afresh, my tribute would be discounted as predictably partisan. He is less various than Tomlinson, less variously accomplished. But they share many things: notably, first, an unshakable confidence (which I wish I could share) in the enduring effectiveness of England as a cultural force in the future; second, a modernism which, because it necessarily involves translation, means a re-knitting of bonds with that great and neglected English poet, Dryden. The publication of Sisson’s Collected Poems is, or it ought to be, a landmark.