Venisti tandem

Denis Donoghue

  • Selected Poems by Tony Harrison
    Viking, 204 pp, £9.95, September 1984, ISBN 0 670 80040 6
  • Palladas: Poems by Tony Harrison
    Anvil, 47 pp, £2.95, October 1984, ISBN 0 85646 127 X
  • Men and Women by Frederick Seidel
    Chatto, 70 pp, £4.95, October 1984, ISBN 0 7011 2868 2
  • Dangerous play: Poems 1974-1984 by Andrew Motion
    Salamander, 110 pp, £8.95, October 1984, ISBN 0 907540 56 2
  • Mister Punch by David Harsent
    Oxford, 70 pp, £4.50, October 1984, ISBN 0 19 211966 4
  • An Umbrella from Piccadilly by Jaroslav Seifert and Ewald Osers
    London Magazine Editions, 80 pp, £5.00, November 1984, ISBN 0 904388 75 1

A year or two ago, Geoffrey Hartman urged literary critics to declare their independence. They should not regard criticism as an activity secondary to the literature it addressed, but as an art in its own right. Think of Pater, Valéry, Blanchot. Hartman’s advice seemed bad to me, and I preferred to abide by T.S. Eliot’s assumption that the aim of criticism should be ‘the elucidation of works of art and the correction of taste’. But I have to admit that the matters of current interest to critics are miles away from the current practice of poets. Critics worry – or declare, often in high spirits, that they are worried – about the disability of language, about representation and its discontents, the crisis of meaning and value to which Post-Modernism is supposed to be a desperate response: but the poetry I read shows no sign of distress on those scores. Poets are writing under different assumptions: that language, whatever its difficulty, is good enough for the job, that the belatedness and indeterminacy of sentences are nobody’s problem but the critic’s. These poets take it nearly for granted that you can make sense by making connections, one experience with another, and that the main problem is to find a style of being present in the poem. The teller is in the tale, and the artistic effort is to make sure that his presence there is neither assertive nor apologetic. A preoccupied sense of crisis is not obligatory.

Tony Harrison’s Selected Poems includes 14 poems from the Loiners (1970), eight from The School of Eloquence (1978), 36 from Continuous (1981), all of Palladas (1975), and about twenty uncollected poems. (Palladas, is Harrison’s version of about half the epigrams attributed in the Greek Anthology to Palladas of Alexandria, circa 319-391.) Most, but not all, of the poems are the kind that cats and dogs can read. Harrison hasn’t lost any sleep over Eliot’s assertion, in ‘The Metaphysical Poets’ (1921), that ‘the poet must become more and more comprehensive, more allusive, more indirect, in order to force, to dislocate if necessary, language into his meaning.’ But ‘the poet’, in Eliot’s sentence, has upper-class responsibilities which don’t exert much of a claim upon Harrison’s working-class sensibility. He prefers to write of local occasions: how things are going in Newcastle, what’s new in Leeds, hard living in foreign parts, ‘lovely Sodom’s sin’, a bout of tachycardia, sundry episodes in Brazil, Cuba, Beverly Hills, the Rosebowl at Pasadena, sex abroad. But the occasions that dominate his most telling poems are the old mortalities: in one poem, heartbreakingly, a dead child, in twenty poems or more a dead mother, a dying then dead father.

Many of Harrison’s poems issue from images of the War in its first years: black-out blinds, allotments, digging for victory,‘George Formby’s uke’,

those wrought iron railings made
into shrapnel and grenade,
acanthus leaf and fleur-de-lys,
victorious artillery,

James Cagney films (the only art Harrison shared with his father). When he alludes to other poems, they are mostly poems the War turned into momentously general truths, as in an echo of Empson:

It’s not diseases, but the void that kills,
The space, the gaps, the darkness ...

But Harrison is even happier with the street-poetry of dialect words – yagach, faffing – and the shared pavements of the North.

His special tone arises, I think, from his sense of gallantry which makes an accepted claim upon him but which the conditions of his life haven’t allowed him to sustain for long. This sense of unaffordable values appears in the poems from time to time as a grander style than any his normal themes would sustain:

When you’re conscious, Jane, we’ll read
how that caparisoned, white steed
helped the younger son get past
leafage clinging like Elastoplast
and win through to bestow the kiss
that works the metamorphosis.
But frogs stay frogs, the briar grows
thicker and thicker round the rose.

Sometimes the authority he claims is Robert Lowell’s:

They wear their skins like cast-offs. Their skin grows
Puckered round the knees like rumpled hose.

There are also poems – ‘On Not Being Milton’ and ‘The Rhubarbarians’ – in which, enjoying a bit of rough stuff, he plays the Luddite. But mostly he doesn’t take any greater authority than he needs to manage in an appalling situation. Indeed, his relation to the authority that a poet can resort to is quizzical, no more than a glance at big guns he knows he could bring forward. He ends ‘Study’, a poem about the best room in the house, reserved for deaths and Christmas, by alluding to two masters: ‘My mind moves upon silence and Aeneid VI.’ In Yeats’s ‘Long-Legged Fly’ mastery is possible – Caesar, Helen of Troy, Michelangelo – because the mind can accept its conditions by sequestering itself within them:

Like a long-legged fly upon the stream
His mind moves upon silence.

As for Aeneid VI, I assume that Harrison has in mind Aeneas’s meeting at last with his father, who says: ‘Have you come at last, and has your love conquered the difficult road?’

Venisti tandem, tuaque exspectata parenti
vicit iter durum pietas? datur ora tueri,
nate, tua et notas audire et reddere voces?

Harrison is a learned poet, but the authority he calls upon for conviction and truth-telling comes, not from the poetic tradition, but from his family, mother, father, uncles, aunts and grandfathers, to whom pietas is a matter of remembering, reciting old woes, and holding on to a grandfather’s knuckleduster so that, years later, it can be used as a paperweight, never far from the poet’s hand:

Fell farmer, railwayman and publican,
I strive to keep my lines direct and straight,
and try to make connections where I can –
the knuckleduster’s now my paperweight!

Men and Woman is Frederick Seidel’s first appearance from an English publisher. American readers know his two books of poetry, Final Solutions (1963) and Sunrise (1980). The new book is a rather abstemious affair, a slim volume containing 21 poems from Sunrise, nine uncollected poems, and only one from Final Solutions. I hope this doesn’t mean he has disowned his first book.

One of the poems ends, ‘That is the poem,’ as if to say that the poetry consists in the connections he has made between apparently disparate episodes: an anonymous phone call in New York, bizarre conjunctions, an affair with Lady Q., a bit of bohemian life in London – ‘In Francis Bacon’s queer after-hours club’ – and one Pericles Belleville.

At a very formal dinner party,
At which I met the woman I have loved the most
In my life, Belleville
Pulled out a sterling silver-plated revolver
And waved it around, pointing it at people, who smiled.
One didn’t know if the thing could be fired.

But even if the poetry is in the connections, the connections still have to be made, in style sufficient to assess them. In that sense, Seidel’s poems are an achievement of style.

For a poet who has not been profuse, his range is wide. Many of the poems capitalise upon coincidences which don’t press for attention but will repay it: his is evidently a mind to which the chances of things are irregularly generous. He has written poems of high life in Bel Air, Antonioni directing Zabriskie Point, how it was at Harvard, the beauty of the MV Agusta racing 500-3, class-consciousness in Scotland; indeed, he has brought into poetry experiences, glosses and connections rarely found there. Some of the experiences are trivial in themselves, but then they are not ‘in themselves’, they are in poems which show that it is possible and meritorious to be good-hearted among trivia. ‘Pressed Duck’, for instance, reports or imagines dining at Elaine’s (in New York – it has been fashionable) among spirited elegances. ‘Why do we need anybody else? We’re the world,’ Elaine is offered as saying. The grim reaper will take a severe line on this sort of thing, but Seidel doesn’t think it necessary to do the reaper’s work: time enough for that. He is ready to be charmed by appearances, but not conned by them: the play of irony is conducted on that understanding. He is one of those poets who, in saying, ‘We are no longer what we were,’ does not feel obliged to add ‘Alas’.

That much said, and while many of Seidel’s poems are hi-tech performances, I find that the poems that stay most powerfully in my mind are broodings upon the dreadful, where there is no question of being charmed or conned but only of being appalled. Some of these poems are about growing up and other indignities, some about deaths and dyings. One of them, ‘The Blue-Eyed Doe’, is about someone’s mother – the poet’s, I have to assume – lobotomised. ‘Sunset’, a very difficult because compacted poem, evidently arose from a terrible accident to a young man. And an extraordinary poem, ‘Wanting to live in Harlem’, from Final Solutions, makes irrefutable connections between a boy growing up in St Louis, dreams of a fair black woman, two boys in Harlem, and an account – taken from the Cambridge Ancient History – of the Emperor Hadrian crying to Antinous:

                     ‘Your Hadrianus
Misses you, Antinous,
Misses your ankles slender as your wrists,
Dear child. We want to be alone.
His back was the city gates of Rome.
And now Jerusalem is dust in the sun,
His skies are blue. He’s coming, child, I come.’

Andrew Motion’s Dangerous Play consists of six poems from The Pleasure Steamers (1978), the poem Independence (1981), 16 poems from Secret Narratives (1983), and seven uncollected poems, including a long prose-passage, ‘Skating’, a memoir of his mother. The best poems are moved by the accepted force of anterior life: they seem to issue from something felt as life even though it has not – not yet, that is – got into language. In literary theory, the status of what has not got into language has never been lower, but in Motion’s poetry such life is felt as force before it is given the fulfilment of a linguistic character. His poems are attractive mainly because of these recognitions. He has no time for the dismal sense that we are already inscribed, the visible ink of purposes we are conned into thinking spontaneous. The poems are functions of a native language, gifts of English as defined, say, by Hardy and Edward Thomas, but when we’re reading them we don’t think of them in that way: we think of them as translucent to what they have perceived and only verbal in the last resort and by the way. Even in ‘The Whole Truth’, where the truth lies bleeding between one imagined scene and another, the poem gives the impression of inhering in the events, and in the connections made between them, and only at the last moment in the words that constitute it. Take the first lines of ‘Coming to Visit’:

Your daughter Kate saw the ghost
the same summer night your twin
came for her visit.

Five or six relations are established before the poem is well under way. The lines claim little for themselves and everything for the lives and relations and events they merely resume. Not difficult lines, but dense with apparently prior event. What remains, then, is that the poem complicates the narrative, and gives each episode its due recognition, as if that alone were what each had lacked. The poetry becomes the gist of a much larger unwritten drama which it is content to allude to rather than to document. In the gap between ‘your daughter Kate’ and ‘your twin’ nearly anything can have happened, and at least one thing did: this is a gap crossed not only by the ghost but by the twinning internal relations of ‘ghost’, ‘same’ and ‘summer’, resolved in ‘visit’. In some of Motion’s poems an event is welcomed for leading the mind out of its exigency; as in ‘These Days’ the irritation of delayed desire is mitigated by a little domestic event. A cat, lapping milk in a saucer, discloses in the willow pattern

a woman crossing a blue bridge

setting out on a journey,
perhaps, or coming back,
her parasol raised in salute,
her blue cross-hatched hat
tipped to deflect the wind,
and her eyes distinctly narrowed
to blue expressionless flecks
by a sudden onrush of light.

Mister Punch, David Harsent’s first collection since Dreams of the Dead (1977), strikes me as a transitional book. The practice of ascribing a multitude of experiences to one figure has been vigorously maintained, especially by John Berryman in Dream Songs, though in that case the necessary distinction between ‘Henry’ and Berryman didn’t survive the strain he put on it. In the end, Berryman overwhelmed his creation by falling upon him. Harsent has given his puppet a busy life: he is at various times lecher, drunken truth-teller, boulevardier, rabble-rouser, sexual victim, defeated lover and anchorite. In a middle group of poems he is imagined as painted diversely by Rouault, Giacometti, Schiele, Ensor and Bonnard. A major theme pervades the book: the woe that is in marriage, or in any relation between a man and a woman, any Punch, any Judy. A sentence from Jung makes an epigraph for the poems: ‘The wounded wounder is the agent of healing.’ Something like this aphorism might be the moral of the entire story, if we could ascribe to the several moments a character integral enough to hold them together. But the relation between one moment and the next seems to me arbitrary. I’m not persuaded that it would make much difference to the poems if each were given a separate provenance and the connection with Punch and Judy were dropped. In the best poems I found myself taking the stanzas as they came, and not impelled to carry forward the prior experiences attributed to hero and heroine. ‘Punch and the Passing Fancy’ is a touching poem, and would be just as memorable if the lovers were any he and any she. The poem recites their love, their conjunction, and ends more dismally than their circumstances seem to require:

They unearthed
mysteries of kinship,
something quick
in the blood,

witching, venereal;
their hermitage
echoed, each day,
to cooing and crowing.

They traded
only in bliss,
taking their haul
to cafes, to theatre queues.

By firelight
she told stories
of the antediluvian
world of friendships –

here were the sole survivors,
passionate mutants
too fragile
to prosper or breed.

I don’t see why they shouldn’t prosper, shouldn’t breed, on such venereal soil – unless friendship is deemed to be a disability, or the lover can work up only enough erotic energy to ensure that his fancies pass.

Jaroslav Seifert is, I gather, the best of contemporary Czech poets. Ewald Osers provides a brief account of him and of his political history. Osers’s translations read well, though I suspect a misprint on page 41 in ‘The Song of the Whales’. On the evidence of the present collection, Seifert is so at ease with his talent that he can let it play freely with old themes. He is a storyteller, it appears, delighting in old legends, reminiscences of other poets, boyhood friends. He writes of his mother, of women and love, of kingfishers, dreams. One poem laments that Paris is no longer Paris and, more generally, the loss of lunar sentiments. There is an odd but charming poem about a Czech beauty-queen; another about Casanova; one about a present, an umbrella, brought back from London. But the centre of the book is Prague.

And mercilessly, just as Marsyas,
let anyone be flayed alive
who lays hands on this city,
no matter who he is.
No matter how sweetly he plays
on his flute.

In ‘A Visit to the Painter Vladimir Komarek’ Seifert has cause to distinguish between painting and poetry:

In the outlines of the things on which I look
I paint what the eye does not see.
And that is art.

But as a fisherman draws from a living fish
transparent sparks,
I force from things, if need be by brute force,
their tears.
And that is poetry.

I do in part believe him. But one poem, ‘Lost Paradise’, refutes the argument: there is force, but never brute force.