Making sense

Denis Donoghue

  • A Wave by John Ashbery
    Carcanet, 89 pp, £4.95, August 1984, ISBN 0 85635 547 X
  • Secret Narratives by Andrew Motion
    Salamander, 46 pp, £6.00, March 1983, ISBN 0 907540 29 5
  • Liberty Tree by Tom Paulin
    Faber, 78 pp, £4.00, June 1983, ISBN 0 05 711302 5
  • 111 Poems by Christopher Middleton
    Carcanet, 185 pp, £5.95, April 1983, ISBN 0 85635 457 0
  • New and Selected Poems by James Michie
    Chatto, 64 pp, £3.95, September 1983, ISBN 0 7011 2723 6
  • By the Fisheries by Jeremy Reed
    Cape, 79 pp, £4.00, March 1984, ISBN 0 224 02154 0
  • Voyages by George Mackay Brown
    Chatto, 48 pp, £3.95, September 1983, ISBN 0 7011 2736 8

In ‘A Wave’, the title-poem of his new collection, John Ashbery says, among many other things:

One idea is enough to organise a life and project it
Into unusual but viable forms, but many ideas merely
Lead one thither into a morass of their own good intentions.

The reference to ‘one idea’ recalls the passage in ‘Esthétique du Mal’ where Wallace Stevens dismisses

                                     the lunatic of one idea
        In a world of ideas, who would have all the people
Live, work, suffer and die in that idea
In a world of ideas.

The cure Stevens prescribes for the illness of living by one idea is to hold many ideas with nearly equal nonchalance, enjoying the exhilaration of changing one’s mind according to one’s mood; and, in convalescence, to promenade around the lake of Geneva. Ashbery’s advice is to disavow any connection between having ideas and staying alive. Making sense shouldn’t be regarded as an immediate issue or a technique for discovering privileged places in which the mind can rest. ‘It’s fun to scratch around/And maybe come up with something,’ but the something shouldn’t have the stability in which words take pleasure:

                                         But for the tender blur
Of the setting to mean something, words must be ejected bodily,
A certain crispness be avoided in favour of a density
Of strutted opinion doomed to wilt in oblivion: not too linear
Nor yet too puffed and remote.

Travelling not too hopefully, for such a poet, is better than arriving. Sense, however arduously made, is always trivial, and vulgar in thinking itself superior:

                                                Isn’t this ‘sense’ –
This little of my life that I can see – that answers me
Like a dog, and wags its tail, though excitement and fidelity are
About all that ever gets expressed?

A Wave gathers about forty recent poems and prose-poems, and ends with the title-poem, a long meditation which readers may want to compare with Ashbery’s ‘Self-Portrait in an Convex Mirror’ and ‘Fantasia on “The Nut-Brown Maid” ’. The origin of ‘A Wave’ may be the passage about dreams in ‘Self-Portrait’: ‘They seemed strange because we couldn’t actually see them ... ’ As in ‘Self-Portrait’, Ashbery’s style is loose-limbed, musing, discursive unrhymed verse, the lines of varying length but mostly long, as of someone drowsing at twilight, murmuring to himself and enjoying the state of not being interrupted. His sentences are propelled by no duty other than that of steering the mind past lucidities it would rather not meet. Ashbery’s poetry has always accepted the aspiration of music toward formal perfection which maintains an air of making sense without incurring the obligation of any particular meaning. He values ‘the kind of rhythm that substitutes for “meaning” ’. For him, long poems are spaces to move about in, like a big canvas for the painters he admires, site of many gestures which are not troubled by the fact that they are all the same. No analogy with drama is appropriate; or with oratory. What makes Ashbery’s procedures distinctive is that while his common form is a monologue and might be maintained even if the speaker were on Mars and Earth did not exist, he doesn’t claim any authority for its tone. Nothing of Yeats’s rhetoric inhabits these poems. Ashbery doesn’t command his experience. Nor does he submit to it. He prescribes the formal condition upon which he responds to whatever happens: a monologue in which conscientiousness keeps allowing for rival accounts of the same thing. But he doesn’t claim that his procedure covers the case, or is at all adequate to its provocation:

But I don’t mind. I feel at peace with the parts of myself
That questioned this other, easygoing side, chafed it
To a knotted rope of guesswork looming out of storms
And darkness and proceeding on its way into nowhere
Barely muttering.

Ashbery is an aesthete of the provisional perception which ‘belongs where it is going/Not where it is’. He is especially gifted in sensing states of feeling which don’t claim to coincide with states of being: it is enough that the reader senses the process of musing and doesn’t claim to apprehend the shapes it seems to take. No wonder Ashbery refers to the wind as ‘something in which you lose yourself/And are not lost’; and that, as if continuing where one of Stevens’s moods left off, he writes:

                                              By so many systems
As we are involved in, by just so many
Are we set free on an ocean of language that comes to be
Part of us, as though we would ever get away.
The sky is bright and very wide, and the waves talk to us,
Preparing dreams we’ll have to live with and use. The day will come
When we’ll have to. But for now
They’re useless, more trees in a landscape of trees.

I take ‘useless’ to be a term of pleasure. Responsibilities may begin in dreams, as Yeats and Delmore Schwartz mused: but such a beginning can be eluded, Ashbery takes pleasure in assuming. There is time yet. ‘Not until it starts to stink does the inevitable happen.’

If Ashbery’s poems are monologues or ‘dialogues of one’, much depends upon his ability to imagine attitudes alien to his own, and to speak them as if in his daily voice. ‘A Wave’ bears comparison with ‘Self-Portrait’, but doesn’t rise to its extraordinary mark: mainly because the work of art, Parmigianino’s self-portrait, forces Ashbery to recognise ways of feeling, knowing and being which don’t coincide with his own, and the recognition drives his common voice beyond itself. There are many passages in ‘A Wave’ so winning that I am nearly willing to settle for its circumventions, its serpentine evasions. But in the end the force of everything in life it excludes or ignores makes one’s pleasure a little ashamed of itself. It comes to this: there is nothing in ‘A Wave’ which Ashbery’s mind has much difficulty in taking as itself. The admission of rival sentiments comes to appear merely a nuance of the mind’s habit.

Andrew Motion’s way of making sense is to imagine something, then something else apparently quite different, and let the poem accommodate both imaginings with or without specifying the relation between them. A girl and her father, quarrelling; the girl and a boy, making love; the double vision, which the speaker offers his lover, a love-poem ‘hiding in fictions’. A girl with a love-letter; then a pilot, crashing. A demented man writes to a woman as if she were his dead wife: she imagines herself answering, speaking in the wife’s voice, writing herself into love. Someone is moving house, and a plane is bringing wounded soldiers home. A man studies the butterflies he has caught: hundreds of miles away his wife, dying, remembers a bowl of apples. The poetry is in the gap between the two images, the third sense they make. In ‘The Great Man’ the two issue from the same eyes:

                                                             Or the way
his eyes were scanning my face but staring
at someone else.

In a few poems, the third sense is specified – notably in ‘Open Secrets’. But mostly we are given only the two images, and allowed to make the sense upon our own authority. We are left free, too, if we want to assume, as with Stevens in ‘The River of Rivers in Connecticut’, that the force of the river ‘is not to be seen beneath the appearances/That tell of it’. Andrew Motion gives us the two appearances, but not, as a general thing, an official syntax to bind them.

Secret Narratives comprises 17 fairly short poems about houses, foreign places in war-time, codes, communications, letters. That everything exists as a sign is their predicate: hence the bearing of secrets, whispers, unanswered telephones, Anne Frank’s house, Albert Schweitzer’s music, Edward Lear as ‘dream companion’. These are the kind of poems a good poet would write if his ‘one idea’ for the moment were that everything in the world wants to be a message. Rain in London wants to ‘whisper’. A shaken duster waves ‘goodbye’. Even Edward Lear’s furniture has its dealing with the sun, as if its rays aimed a signal:

Such secrecy. From night
to night he keeps himself
without a word for love,
and then sails north
at last, his boat weighted

down with chairs, tables,
and an upright black piano
strapped and locked on deck,
the varnish quickly warming
as it flashes back the sun.

But suppose everything weren’t a message or a sign? Then these poems would seem complacent in the possession of sentiments they haven’t earned. Or too happy in the happiness of a language determined to embrace the world and charm every event to become an epiphany. In that mood, it is hard to take Motion’s sentiments upon his system of valuation. The poem ‘Wooding’, for instance, tells of a family – the father and two sons – in the days after the mother’s death, and ends:

The whole short afternoon we spoke
of anything except your death,
and then, next day, beyond that
blank enormous wall we buried you,
still destitute of ways to show our grief.

‘Show’ is an impurity, and the whole poem more a show than it ought to be. If the boy is destitute, it is not for the reason the last line claims but, presumably, because he has that within him, his mother’s loss, which passes show. Motion has ascribed to the boy his own zealotry of communication.

Tom Paulin’s way with poetry is to seek an equilibrium between the immediacy of experience and patterns suggested by natural life, the seasons, the ebb and flow of things. His favourite season is in-the-beginning: some of the most stirring passages in Liberty Tree imagine an aboriginal landscape and the freedom of starting out:

Dactyls and the light of harbours:
how simple it is in the beginning
for the historian to walk at dawn,
seeing a pure narrative before him.

In ‘The Book of Juniper’ Paulin imagines a social and political narrative corresponding to the plentitude of the tree: the juniper, the rudimentary dictionaries say, is an evergreen coniferous shrub or tree with hard blue berries, yielding an oil used in medicine as stimulant and diuretic. Add to that a discrimination of juniper-kinds, including the savin or Juniperius sabina, the genièvre, and the family of gymnosperm, not to speak of the Grimms’ tale of ‘The Juniper Tree’ and Eliot’s allusion to it in ‘Ash Wednesday’. What more would an analogist want, touching upon earthly presence, racial memories and desires? Paulin doesn’t resort to all the poetries already adhering to the juniper tree, but only to as many as he needs to incite his desire for a new beginning under the best auspices. The political use he makes of the emblem is to dream

of the sweet
equal republic
where the juniper
talks to the oak,
the thistle,
the bandaged elm,
and the jolly jolly chestnut.

Charming, no doubt, but a long shot of dreaming at a time when RUC men in Belfast are killing people with plastic bullets and the IRA are practising their craft with bullet and bomb.

Paulin’s response to these immediacies is erratic. Sometimes his poems take a superior attitude to their themes. In ‘Desertmartin’ he sets his lithe intelligence against the ‘parched certainties’ he ascribes to the Protestant villagers:

Because this is the territory of the Law
I drive across it with a powerless knowledge –
The owl of Minerva in a hired car.

So what does he expect – that the villagers should come out to greet the owl, and declare its powerlessness a delusion?

                                                    I see a plain
Presbyterian grace sour, then harden,
As a free strenuous spirit changes
To a servile defiance that whines and shrieks
For the bondage of the letter ...

Should they accept, as it appears to them, the bondage of a Catholic letter?

Some of Paulin’s poems of Northern Ireland are clear enough, though their politics seem to me naive. But some are bound to be opaque to readers who have not had the privilege of living in the North. I lived there for nearly all my youth, but some of Paulin’s dialect-poems are dark to me. In ‘A New Look at the Language Question’ (1983) he made a fair case for Irish dialect as a poetic language, by analogy with the ‘hoard of relished words’ by which members of a family express their kinship. I have no quarrel with the sentiment. But I don’t see that anything would be lost by adding a few notes to such a book as Liberty Tree. Paulin’s readers are expected to know that ‘the Big Man’ is Ian Paisley, and to know or guess the parts played in the history of the North by ‘Munro, Hope, Porter and McCracken’. Maybe they know that ‘sheugh’ means ditch: a paragraph in John Braidwood’s The Ulster Dialect Lexicon mentions it as ‘that Ulster favourite sheugh’, and reports that it is ‘recorded all over Scotland from Aberdeen to Galloway – Burns uses it – and in England from Northumberland to Chester’. But readers can’t be expected to know that ‘prod’ means Protestant or that ‘the Cruiser’ is Conor Cruise O’Brien. Gourly is gurly or rough, a corrie is a mountain-hollow, a spooly is (I presume) a linen-worker.

Some other words require guesswork or a fairly big dictionary: ‘fremd’ means strange, unfriendly; I don’t recognise ‘glubbed’, or ‘glooby’. ‘Glim’, meaning gleam, is common enough. ‘Tholed’, meaning borne, was one of John Crowe Ransom’s choice words. Bast sandals are matting or rope-sandals. I didn’t understand ‘claggy’ when Paulin used it in ‘A New Look’, and I stumble over it in the poem ‘Foot Patrol, Fermanagh’ and as ‘clagged’ in the poem ‘Trine’. I’m all for notes.

The equilibrium Paulin looks for would justify his sense of local immediacy by implying that it is sanctioned by the larger certainties of natural and planetary life. If he’s right in the large sequences, he’s probably sound on the small ones. A poet sensitive to the ‘meek astringency’ of juniper-oil is likely to be reliable when astringencies stop being meek and take to the gun. The rhetoric is astute, but not finally convincing. In ‘The Book of Juniper’ Paulin writes:

I must grasp again
how its green
springy resistance
ducks its head down and skirts
the warped polities of other trees
bent in the Atlantic wind.
For no one knows
if nature allowed it
to grow tall
what proud grace
the juniper tree might show
that flared, once, like fire
along the hills.

In their setting in Liberty Tree, these lines are just as ideological as the poem about Desertmartin. The proud grace adorns an epic past and a conjured future: it is the heroic version of the ‘plain Presbyterian grace’ gone sour in Desertmartin. Warped polities are not merely arboreal qualities: the warp is social and political. As for ‘flare’: recall the high tragic conflagration Yeats made of it when he put it to the torch of ‘In Memory of Major Robert Gregory’.

Paulin has learnt, probably from Seamus Heaney, how to put his sense of immediate provocation under the protection of natural and epic grandeurs. I’m surprised that the rhetorical procedure – which is just as questionable as Yeats’s – hasn’t been much reflected on. People plagued with immediacy are grateful for the release offered in a time-comprehending pastoral, but the release is specious, no historian really sees a pure narrative before him.

III Poems is a generous selection from five of Christopher Middleton’s books of poetry: Torso 3 (1962), Nonsequences (1965), Our Flowers – Nice Bones (1969), The Lonely Suppers of W.V. Balloon (1975) and Carminalenia (1980). There are also 11 new poems. ‘Old Man, Looking South’ is slightly altered from the version in Nonsequences, but otherwise the texts seem to stand unchanged. The notes to Carminalenia are dropped, and I miss them. It is helpful to know what Middleton has in view in such a poem as ‘Night Blooming Cereus’, where a student who is reading a poem by Georg Trakl – the poem is ‘Mensehliches Elend’, incidentally – is set in relation to the flower of the title ‘as the flower itself comes into the foreground’. The poem then ‘formally triangulates its two areas of reference by moving through a third area, which is the text itself as a poem about poesis’. This text and others, Middleton says, ‘conspire to levitate the world’s body and construct a poetic space’. Indeed, two or three of the poems from The Lonely Suppers could bear similar annotation. ‘Fractions for Another Telemachus’, despite its postscript from Boris Shklovsky, is too cryptic for me.

Middleton’s element is space, not just a space, like Ashbery’s, to move around in, but to inhabit, as trees in a peopled landscape. Metrically inventive and various, these poems are remarkably alive to ‘the unknown thing beside us’: they listen for ‘the due sound’, and, as if watching birds, register ‘the timed flight of words’. A motto for reading Middleton’s work might be: purify the source, then trust to luck. As in ‘The Prose of Walking Back to China’:

Perspective makes a space intelligible,
But you only find the place to stand
By moving as you may, for luck, so nothing
Nothing in the voice
Guides the poem but a wave
Continually broken,
And restored in a time to be perceived,
As the flute is perceived, at origin,
Before creation.

The aim is to ripen to a style, as other poets Middleton reveres – Seferis, Trakl, Yeats, Rilke – have ripened, with patience.

James Michie’s New and Selected Poems includes Possible Laughter (1959) and a batch of 25 more recent poems, mostly lyrical and meditative work on all sorts of occasions: poems about not being able to write poems, a daughter’s music-box, Vermont – a tribute to Robert Frost, this one – robins and larks, telling lies, a brass band, doomed love, a girls’ school, and saying goodbye in several voices. Some of them are charming album-verses about fairly mild things; some are Audenish improbabilities which somehow come through. The only tedious poem is an elegy on Dylan Thomas. A few poems, including ‘Double Blind’ and ‘Discoverer’, are wonderfully true, and ‘The Nostalgist’ is everyone’s story who has reached a certain age. The nostalgist goes through his house:

On step and rail the sunbeams slyly
    Hint at somewhere else.
So many things to slip on and tumble
  Down staircases, down years ...

If there is a perennial Romanticism, Jeremy Reed’s poems maintain it. He puts himself, without apology, at the centre of his experience, and regards morality as his promise to pay attention. What he pays attention to, in By the Fisheries, is hailstones, buoys, fishing for mullet, surfers, his father, Housman in old age, summer, Christopher Smart, eels, magpies, rain, tulips, snails. The poems are celebrations of natural life, their civility Reed’s sense of the propriety of rhythms and sequences. He doesn’t ignore social events, but he doesn’t run to seize their immediacy: it is as if his imagination consorted with them only when they have passed beyond history into nature; in Stevens’s terms, become ‘part of nature’ and only then and therefore ‘part of us’. Alert to ‘the martial roll of small disturbances’, the self in these poems often becomes ‘each his own personal brink of fear and loneliness’, but that is the risk a Romantic poet takes. In ‘An Age Bereft’ Reed’s speaker consigns himself to the shallows of Decadence, a Prufrock taking himself for something else, something stirring: his delicacy unbecoming. But in certain sturdier poems, like ‘Summer’ – one of several poems in Montale’s spirit – the strength of anything perennial steadies the vision:

Things catch light in a blaze. A shoulderblade
burns like a nugget exposed to the sun;
the cabbage butterfly flickers, a thread
suspends the spider over boiling surf –

and something imperceptible quivers,
and won’t pass through the needle’s eye, but burns ...
Too many lives are needed to make one.

Voyages, George Mackay Brown’s songs of Orkney life and lore, is a book of gists: his stories don’t need to be told in full, it is enough – as in any close community – to allude to them. They are tales of love and death, the doings at Hamnavoe Market, implied epics of the sea. Brown writes of things which, being already poetic, have only to be referred to: the words, that duty done, might nearly disappear. But they don’t: what holds them in the reader’s mind is Brown’s delicacy of cadence, the skill that goes with ‘ship-wit, sea-care’. ‘Lighting Candles in Midwinter’ is a lovely nocturnal upon Saint Lucy’s Day. And ‘Vinland’, propelled by something of the force of Synge’s Riders to the Sea, ends where it has to end:

They will say next winter
At the fires
‘Leif Ericson went
The fool’s voyage.’
A man will sing to a harp
‘Heroes
Venture for more than bits of gold.’
An old woman will say
To girls at candle time
‘It is that slut, the sea
Always
That has their hearts.’

‘Seal Island Anthology’ is Brown’s big poem of Voyages; an anthology, an epitome of a culture which, I suppose, can’t long survive in the forms Brown has loved.