Ten Poets

Denis Donoghue

  • Selected Poems by Donald Davie
    Carcanet, 124 pp, £2.95, April 1985, ISBN 0 85635 595 X
  • Collected Poems: 1947-1980 by Allen Ginsberg
    Viking, 837 pp, £16.95, April 1985, ISBN 0 670 80683 8
  • Instant Chronicles: A Life by D.J. Enright
    Oxford, 58 pp, £4.50, April 1985, ISBN 0 01 921197 X
  • Selected Poems by Edwin Morgan
    Carcanet, 139 pp, £2.95, April 1985, ISBN 0 85635 596 8
  • Selected Poems by Jeffrey Wainwright
    Carcanet, 79 pp, £2.95, April 1985, ISBN 0 85635 598 4
  • Selected Poems by Gillian Clarke
    Carcanet, 112 pp, £2.95, April 1985, ISBN 0 85635 594 1
  • The Price of Stone by Richard Murphy
    Faber, 92 pp, £4.00, May 1985, ISBN 0 571 13568 4
  • Selected Poems by Iain Crichton Smith
    Carcanet, 121 pp, £2.95, April 1985, ISBN 0 85635 597 6
  • Selected Poems by Sylvia Townsend Warner
    Carcanet, 95 pp, £2.95, April 1985, ISBN 0 85635 585 2
  • From the Irish by James Simmons
    Blackstaff, 78 pp, £3.95, May 1985, ISBN 0 85640 331 8

One of Donald Davie’s early poems, and one of his strongest, is ‘Pushkin: A Didactic Poem’, from Brides of Reason (1955). As in Davie’s ‘Dream Forest’, Pushkin is taken as a model, a poet

Who recognised no checks
Yet brooked them all – a mind
Molten and thereby fluent,
Unforced, easily strict.

In this didactic poem the speaker is professional, drawing his comparisons with rehearsed casualness:

In the matter of Pushkin, Emily Brontë
Is the best analogy in some ways
Among our poets.

But Pushkin is more various than Brontë, apparently, more resourceful in relation to the wider circuit of experience available to him. Poetry for Pushkin was a means of circumventing the spleen. Unforcedly assenting to each experience as a gift,

     The poet exhibits here
How to be conscious in every direction
But that of the self, where deception starts.

Not that self-consciousness is necessarily at fault, according to the poem, but it has to be kept in balance, ‘under laws/Of disciplined sensibility’, as in 17th-century Wit. When these disciplines of social use are lost, a mind has to be heroic, like Pushkin’s, to maintain the law of sound imagining. The law, if it held, would state that we are diseased

   When the moral will
Intervenes to sap the heart,
When the difficult feelings are
Titillated and confused
For novel combinations, or
Ransacked for virtue.

To be specific:

As Byron said of Keats, ‘I don’t
mean he is indecent, but
viciously soliciting
his own ideas.’

The exact quotation, incidentally, comes from a letter Byron wrote to John Murray on 9 October 1820:

Mr Keats whose poetry you enquire after – appears to me what I have already said; such writing is a sort of mental masturbation – he is always f – gg – g his Imagination. I don’t mean that he is indecent, but viciously soliciting his own ideas into a state which is neither poetry nor anything else but a Bedlam vision produced by raw pork and opium.

Davie’s poem speaks powerfully for ‘moral commonplace’, and repudiates what he regards as the morbid kind of self-consciousness: ‘titillate’ is his decorous version of ‘soliciting’ or ‘f – gg – g’. But his certitude is chilling, and is not warmed by his appeal, in ‘Dream Forest’, to ‘a sculptor’s logic’. Such logic, whether it is enforced in Pound’s Cantos or in Yeats’s ‘The Statues’, is no protection against vanity and self-deception. How to be conscious in every direction but that of the self, where deception starts: it sounds a worthy programme, but it leaves many questions a-begging and much vanity undisciplined.

An enforced choice between masturbation and happily wedded love doesn’t seem to be the best analogy for the discrimination of poetic styles. Again in ‘Dream Forest’ Davie praises Brutus:

 imperious, curbed
Not much by the general will,
But by a will to be curbed,
A preference for limits.

Davie has made a distinctive poetry from this preference, placing himself squarely between titillation and the abyss. Like Allen Tate’s narrator in The Fathers, he believes that ‘excessively refined persons have a communion with the abyss,’ and that civilisation is ‘the agreement, slowly arrived at, to let the abyss alone’. Davie arrived at this preference not slowly, it appears, but as if spontaneously and by a law of nature.

His poetry, however, is not as innocent or as unmorbid as he claims. He is conscious in every direction including – very much so – that of the self. If that is where deception starts, he is as ready to be deceived as anyone – as Ginsberg, for instance. Davie is just as relentlessly preoccupied with the self as Ginsberg is, just as conscious of the profile he offers his readers:

Lighting a spill late in the afternoon,
I am that coal whose heat it should unfix.

The appeal to late 17th-century Wit is acceptable here, but it isn’t made innocently or without self-regard. When Davie pulls out the vox humana on the Wurlitzer –

What will become of us? Time
Passing, beloved, and we in a sealed
Assurance unassailed
By memory

– the vibrato on ‘Time’ titillates the sentiment before it makes the plangent claim of ‘passing’. I accept the claim, and am willing to give whatever is asked of me, but not to pretend that no claim is made. The Yeatsian touch in

These have I set up.
These have I set, and a few trees,

and the carefully withheld preposition in the repeated phrase are effective, but the effect is self-consciously sought. Indeed, the title-poem of Davie’s In the Stopping Train plays with motifs of stopping and starting, not as a play of mind or an act of ‘the mind turned outwards’, but as a self-soliciting process for which f – gg – g is the best analogy.

In another poet, this wouldn’t matter: it would be accommodated by a more genial rhetoric. But in Davie’s poems there is a worrying incongruity between the claims incessantly made – notably to ‘enlightened but still common sense’ – and the insecurity of judgment which finds claiming necessary. In his best poems, as in ‘Remembering the Thirties’ and most of The Forests of Lithuania, there is already a sufficiently dogged body of lore or prejudice which he can point to, such that the poetry becomes his particular sense of it, and of his distancing himself from it. His weakest poems are those, as in The Shires, in which there is no obstacle to his feelings, but he is not sure enough of them to leave them unsolicited.

Many of Davie’s poems seem laboured, and sometimes I want him to care less and risk more. He knows that this is a common response to them, and he has two or three poems which dispute the case. But at least the labour is one of care and love, and he has the civility to work at his poems before flourishing them. He doesn’t believe, as Ginsberg does, that first thought is best thought. Ginsberg claims: ‘Spontaneous insight – the sequence of thought-forms passing naturally through ordinary mind – was always motif and method of these compositions.’ I believe him, but there is little evidence of composition. I’ve just been through his Journals: Early Fifties Early Sixties (1977), and I find no difference between his momentary jottings and many of the items in the Collected Poems. In the new Introduction he refers to ‘the drama of breakthrough from closed form to open form in American poetry’, and in many places he aligns himself with Whitman in that episode. I’m sure it felt dramatic at the time, but now that poets write any way they like and have given up worrying about openness or closed-ness, the drama has drifted away.

Ginsberg says that his Collected Poems ‘may be read as a lifelong poem including history, wherein things are symbols of themselves’. But this is disingenuous. He is a very literary poet, even if a line in ‘What would you do if you lost it?’ says: ‘Campion, Creeley, Anacreon, Blake I never read through.’ The kinship he claims with Blake is specious, but his relation to Whitman, if only in ‘A Supermarket in California’, is valid. At least he learned from Whitman something of the poetics of recurrence. But the comparison goes no further. Whitman’s delicacy, the justice of his acknowledgements, his sense of a life he has not invented, and of the responsibilities of poetry, haven’t touched Ginsberg. The mantra-poetry Ginsberg proclaims in ‘Wichita Vortex Sutra’ can’t look to Whitman for authority. Ginsberg often claims to have issued indirectly from Whitman’s and directly from William Carlos Williams’s overcoat: but Williams’s presence of mind in language is quite different from Ginsberg’s, and his poems are far more fully composed.

Most of Ginsberg’s poems document his time and collapse into it. They haven’t survived the conditions that provoked them: their interest is now chiefly documentary. If you want to know what it was like to have sex with Neal Cassady, or to rap with Kerouac, or to yearn for Orlovsky, or to be thrilled by a photograph of Che Guevara –

More sexy your neck than sad aging necks of
                  Johnson
               De Gaulle, Kosygin,
or the bullet pierced neck of John Kennedy

– these poems tell you how it was, I suppose. Beyond that, they show what is wrong with the American Romanticism they proclaim, and not what is right with it. That there are responsibilities, and not merely rights, in the tradition of American poetry from Emerson and Whitman to Hart Crane and Stevens is nowhere acknowledged: so Ginsberg’s relation to that tradition – Whitman apart – is trivial because unearned. ‘The self seeking the Key to life found at last in our self’ – Ginsberg’s hindsight on his Kaddish – is a travesty of the tradition: that is not what Emerson meant at all.

In this enormous book, the few poems that survive are those, like ‘Dream Record: June 8, 1955’, in which Ginsberg forgets himself long enough to remember someone else distinct from himself – in this case, Joan Burroughs: it is a decent, humane poem, continuous with the best, the most exactly cadenced, work of Creeley, Snyder and O’Hara. In other poems, such as ‘My Alba’, there is an uncertain Blues tenderness to mitigate Ginsberg’s otherwise appalling vanity. ‘Mugging’ is funny and touching, and it shows that by 2 November 1974 Ginsberg had succeeded in taking himself, at least now and again, unseriously.

Of Instant Chronicles it is nearly enough to report that it is D.J. Enright’s new book, and that it is just as winning as the earlier ones. He continues to write little satires upon circumstance, broodings upon stale starts, notes upon the ways of a rather battered world. The places are Egypt, Japan, Siam and Poland, the last in a sharply perceived poem on the merit of accepting half a loaf in preference to the normal alternative. Many of Enright’s poems come from an expatriate’s ruefulness, a sentiment he likes to visit but not to live in. So he writes of taxis in Egypt, the edginess of body and soul, ogres, history, opium, the chores of a publisher’s life. Some poems are achieved by looking hard at the axiomatic wisdom of proverbs and clichés; some by punning, not always well. There is a beautiful poem about memory and the figures it insists on calling up:

No end in sight. They spread from coast to coast.
Once heaven or hell was where we sent each ghost.

There are several light-hearted poems, taking a poet’s pleasure in rhyming ‘ferryman’ with ‘Berryman’, and deconstructing ‘memoirs’ as ‘me-moirs’. As long as reading the book lasts, it is unnecessary to worry abut modernism, crisis, decline and fall, apocalypse, the death of God, or of the Author. But the serious parts of the book are balanced upon sentiments I think Enright cares about – the desire to attend to the past, the whole human story, and at the same time the desire to be rid of its clamour. Brainwashing would wipe us clean. But in the meantime

               we make our unfresh starts
And share our instant chronicles. It’s your turn now.

Edwin Morgan takes his turn with some flamboyance. His poems imagine things you wouldn’t think it necessary to imagine except to demonstrate what the mind can do, given half a chance. Imagine your flat is burgled, the burglar has cut his hand breaking the window, there is blood everywhere, you take a cloth to clean the place, you rub the bloodstains, you cut your fingers, get his blood into your blood. He was ‘a hepatitis-ridden addict’. No matter: a buttock jab takes care of hepatitis:

         Not there
the invasion, the invisible assault,
as landings forget neighbours’ running feet,
and shocked rooms spring back slowly into place,
and walkie-talkies fade along the road,
and the uneasiest of sullen nights
comes down and wraps things in an aspirin throb
of memories and apprehensiveness:
the greater break-in was not through those walls
but into my reddened hands, into my blood.

I wouldn’t want to retain that notion of burglary for long. Morgan’s imagination thrives, apparently, upon motifs which in another man would be morbid but in him are converted opportunities, no harm left in them. He likes to take big themes – ‘the real Clyde’, Glasgow, blindness, abortion – and drive them far beyond their official forms. Sometimes too far. I can’t make much of his concrete poetry, or enough of his poems of Science Fiction. Sometimes his mood, especially if he’s in a good one, expends itself in an uplifting generalisation hard to reconcile with the bizarre imagination on the loose within a page or two. ‘A great place and its people are not renewed lightly,’ he writes in ‘The Second Life’, a poem about being forty in Glasgow which seems to call for more. ‘Joy is where long solitude dissolves,’ he says at the end of ‘Night Pillion’ – a poem far more dramatic as it roars along than the conclusion it reaches.

The force of Morgan’s imagination is its variousness. I can’t imagine a life needing such virtuosity, such opportunistic skill, but presumably it’s good to have more than you need. You might, just possibly, have to direct a boy-actor in the role of Hermione’s statue in The Winter’s Tale; and even if you don’t, there may be other occasions for reflecting upon the disproportion between a crude means and an uncanny end. Against Camillo’s advice in the play, Morgan makes a wild dedication of his powers to unpath’d waters, undream’d shores, but his excess has method in it, however outlandish. As in the poem ‘Heaven’, and the remarkably achieved ‘Alphabet of Goddesses’.

Jeffrey Wainright’s Selected Poems are taken from The Important Man (1970) and Heart’s Desire (1978), with a few recent poems added. Heart’s desire is his theme, nuanced by his sense that the heart is both the domain of our affections and a contractile organ. Many of his poems brood upon the kinship of mind and body, and celebrate the conviction that the body is not merely a house:

A space, a lodging, cavity, lathboard crack,
But something that is fluent in the mind,
As the mind itself is mortised
In this body’s nervousness.

In The ‘Tableau’ the lover’s body fulfils the mind’s desire. More than that:

Upon your handsome body
Is put the flesh
Of this desire.

Even when the occasion is not amative, mind and body are in such amity that the best analogy for their kinship is a swimmer’s relation to the line of water his body cuts:

To swim is to break and not break that line,
To cut it and leave it as you found it,
To love the old and simple world of water
And to need the air.

Here, in ‘The Swimming Body’ and several poems of similar brooding, it is typical of Wainwright to recognise needs unplaintively: apportioned limits are his medium.

Many of these poems are ponderings of historical events and personages – Thomas Müntzer, George III, the Battle of Jutland – written as if to make peace with them by understanding them. In these poems the poet’s mind is indeed turned outward: his interest in other people is disinterested, and he prefers ‘we’ to ‘I’, and ‘he’ or ‘she’ to either of the first persons. But there are moments, especially in the longer poems, when the grammar of objective narrative or meditation leads Wainwright so far away from himself and his demandingness that the poetic voice loses his character and becomes someone else’s. Stevens’s, for instance:

  This is the border of the world,
The edge of space, the tireless lapping
Of the thought of truth, the pulse of death ...

I wish I could hear Wainwright’s voice more clearly as his own. But I hear it clearly in ‘Love in the Arms of Death’:

She finds within his touch a lover
Kinder than any man could be.

Gillian Clarke’s voice is easily recognised. She is as secure among her themes as Seamus Heaney is: similar themes, too – weather and weathering, water-divining, children, waterfalls, skulls, curlews, calving, scything, fallen plums, falling shadows. Like Heaney, too, she has an elemental respect for conditions – of work and time and setting – and she likes to give her natural images a domestic destiny. As in ‘Lunchtime Lecture’, about a woman’s skull disclosed after four thousand years by a tractor:

   Till a tractor in summer
Biting its way through the longcairn for supplies
Of stone, broke open the grave and let a crowd of light
Stare in at her, and she stared quietly back.

A crowd of light: in A Midsummer Night’s Dream Lysander says that Helena engilds the night more ‘than all yon fiery oes and eyes of light’. Gillian Clarke’s phrase removes the gasping hyperbole and domesticates the particles. In ‘Sheep’s Skulls’ the sheep die

On the open hill, and raven and buzzard
Come like women to clean them.

Like women: a lesser poet than Gillian Clarke would have eked out the comparison and made too much of the domestic rite it alludes to. Sometimes she, too, makes too much of her occasions. When someone tears down a warehouse, her rage turns carelessness into a capital offence:

     Too much comes down
in the deaths of warehouses. Brickdust,
shards of Caernarfon slate. Blood on our hands.

It’s not blood, though it isn’t ketchup either: the sight of real blood should establish the difference. Hands are not ‘splattered with the stones’ blood’. I make the point only because Gillian Clarke’s poems ask to be believed and trusted: what she says is not only interesting but true. If she says, ‘I live in the house I was born in,’ I don’t construe the ‘I’ as someone other than herself, or resort to a theory of ‘the implied author’ to deal with what is going on. I take the ‘I’ as referring, truthfully, to Gillian Clarke and issuing as directly as the English language allows from her apportioned experience. So it makes a difference if belief is strained or affronted, if I lose confidence in the validity of what she says.

It is a mark of Gillian Clarke’s poetry that she prefers to perceive things rather than to imagine other things. In the weaker poems, she loses confidence not in her power of perception but in the unsolicited latitude of what she perceives. Then she ekes it out, moralises her landscape, thinks the tale has to be adorned. ‘Still Life’ makes a point, then makes it again. ‘Llyr’ has so much enriching evidence that it doesn’t need its facile conclusion, ‘that nothing is until it has a word.’ In her best poems, the relation between her mind and what it meets is mutual tact: as in ‘The Hare’ and ‘Letter from a Far Country’, where much is said by leaving the rest unsaid.

Richard Murphy, too, leaves a good deal unsaid. The price of stone is high, apparently, but he hasn’t computed it in detail; we are meant to leap from one assessment to the next. To begin with, it is the price of trying to build a house in granite, and then of trying to make a life from correspondingly difficult and durable material. The phrase, ‘stone by stone/Personified’, in ‘Cottage for Sale’ marks his poetry and something of his life. He is an Irish poet whose inherited life is compounded of particles Irish, English and South African. The life he has made for himself involves a house in Cleggan, sailing to Inishbofin and other islands, the poetry circuit in the USA, marriage, lovers, children, and sundry affiliations. Many poems in this new collection are tokens of affection, offerings to friends – Tony White, Mary Ure, a dying poet. A few are more public, like the rather unquestioning poem about the Long Kesh hunger-strikers. There is a weirdly memorable poem about a poisoned goat. Fifty sonnets are about buildings, and the price of them: Nelson’s Pillar, Kylemore Abbey, a school in Carlow, the Red Bank Restaurant in Dublin – the last an institution mourned by some but not by me.

Murphy’s relation to these themes and symbols is unfailingly humane. The poems are personal, but not in any sense that Byron would call vicious. Murphy doesn’t force the unspoken claim that these perceptions have issued from him and could not have come from any other source. He implies that he happened to be in the right place at the right time, and that the form of the sonnet was available to note the conjunction. He doesn’t come closer to the reader than decorum requires, and he uses a rather curial diction to mark a due distance. He likes words that have kept themselves aloof, and sometimes justifies them by attributing them to the voice of a building. As in ‘Old Dispensary’:

A horse trotting loose, or a cow might stray
By my comatose door. Nobody passed a remark,
All the years I desquamated in decay
Tumorous on the bog-road in the priestly dark.

In surgery, to desquamate means to scale off the corrupt or shattered parts of bones: intransitively, it means that a cuticle, say, comes off in squamae or scales. A poem beginning

Lobawn, he calls me in shelta, his duck nest
Under a thorn bush on a petering-out lane

might cause a problem which a note would resolve. Shelta is the jargon of Irish tinkers. Lobawn is probably the Irish loban, meaning mud or mire, though the speaker is a personified ‘Wattle Tent’. ‘Brought to a brumal standstill, here I lie,’ says the personified ‘New-grange’: brumal meaning ‘of the winter’ and finding its common form a few lines later in ‘A ray of wintry hope, fixed on rebirth’.

These are good poems, but unvaryingly phrased. Murphy’s style has every merit, starting with dignity, but I wish it would allow itself to change, indulge itself in moods, be fractious on occasion. A meditative propriety governs the entire book: excellent if such a degree of government is required, but oppressive on days when we long for Mardi Gras. The book ends with ‘Natural Son’, a heart-easing poem in which an infant’s new life is celebrated in the language of a building, walls for protection – ‘to wall you round with love’ – rooms for comfort, and the mother’s exhausted body to be restored. Appropriately, a touching poem ends with the word ‘touch’ which, even more than seeing, is believing.

Iain Crichton Smith’s Selected Poems is a volume too slim to give more than glancing impressions of his career. It suggests enough variety of theme – there are poems about Lenin, Aberdeen, Freud, Miss Brodie’s Edinburgh, King Lear, Hamlet, Gaelic, Scott, Keats, Australia, deer, a dead sheep – indeed, such variety of interest that you wonder what principle brings them together. In the poem about Lenin, Smith praises

       the moving on
into the endlessly various, real, human,
world which is no new era, shining dawn.

But his poems want to make each dawn shine. Sensitive to ‘our poor journey and our common grave’, he trusts to words to make it less poor while still common. But he doesn’t trust them enough to let them appear without the colours he adds to them. ‘To an Old Woman’, a poem in prose, makes a Synge-song of itself:

May your world prosper and you on your way
home over the white streets like a man’s
mind, open with the edge of the knife, and
boys standing in their quarrelsomeness studying nothingness.

Birth in Lewis hardly justifies the claim: ‘it was the fine bareness of Lewis that made the work of my mind like a loom full of the music of miracles and greatness of our time.’

Smith’s poetry houses a good deal of blather along with its verve. He likes ample cadences:

Who brings reports? There’s one head to the penny.
A door is wooden, and no window grieves
for lovers turned away, for widows lonely.

This is from ‘Deer on the High Hills – A Meditation’, one of Smith’s most exalted poems.

These are mostly beautiful poems, elaborately and opulently profiled, but I wish Smith would trust his evidence to mean everything he wants it to mean, without adding italics for emphasis. He doesn’t believe in his symbols enough to leave them alone. In ‘Going Home’, another prose-poem, he writes that ‘A boat will be lying in the glitter of the western sun: and water will be running through the world of the similes of my intelligence.’ Yes, I think I see the point. A few lines later: ‘people talking and talking to each other, and the rainbow of forgiveness in their tears’. I’d believe in the rainbow more readily if it weren’t already translated into forgiveness. But it’s a lively, colourful selection, entirely welcome, except for one rather trivial poem about TV.

Sylvia Townsend Warner was a novelist by profession and a poet at times, so she thought her poems the best of her. They are very fine, especially those which come in forms and manners which Hardy did most to establish and Ransom to guarantee. Like Hardy, she liked ballads, stories true once for all; like Ransom, an archaic language willingly in touch with a perennial life:

Fie on the heart ill-swept
Where sorrows over-kept
Sodden with tears and foul
Like mouldering cheek by jowl.

Not that she evaded history or contingency, but she wanted contingency to aspire to mean more than it seemed to mean, and history to be stilled from time to time into the apprehended significance of myth. Sometimes the Hardy-note is too much:

How fares my ash-tree now?
Do my fruit-trees bear?
The gnarled apple and the stately pear –
How do they grow, and I not there, not there?

Sometimes the Ransom-quaintness is too quaint:

Closer should I have kissed, and fondlier prayed:
Pleasant is the room in the wakeful firelight,
And within is the bed, arrayed with peace and safety.
Would he had stayed!

Poetry consisted, for Sylvia Townsend Warner, in the turning of an experience, real or so fully imagined as to be real, toward the decisiveness of song. Many of her poems seem to ask to be set to music by Delius, Vaughan Williams, Finzi or Peter Warlock; especially those about peopled and unpeopled landscapes, the first cuckoo in Spring, faith gained or lost, and doves come flying. As if waiting for them to be set, she gives them a provisional music of her own, in keeping with the sentiment that we should gather rosebuds while we may. It is typical of this enhancing motive in her that she uses ‘thieves’, ‘glamour’, ‘bride’ and ‘proxy’ as verbs. ‘But I have never learned,’ she writes in ‘White Magic’,

By what mysterious art
The moonlight thieves
Colour from the young leaves,
And passion from the heart.

Not that I believe her: she learned much white magic, that included.

Much of James Simmons’s From the Irish is accomplished doggerel: it seems to ask to be set to music for The Dubliners or The Wolfe Tones and sung in a pub in Howth. His persona is that of the honest Ulsterman, ‘The Poet’s Breastplate’ something to be beaten in public. There is nothing wrong with his themes – the IRA, a dead policeman, Joyce, Sligo, Derek Mahon, divorce, the woe that is in marriage, ‘our ruined century’, Othello, and one of the hotels in Newry. But most of them are approached by way of nothing more exacting than irritation:

The only material for jokes
is annoyance. The cruel course
of our human race has been fixed for us
democratically: damned at the source
but improving, maybe.

They are also designed, apparently, for a wretchedly undemanding audience:

  The loftiest climber
only reveals his arse
  more clearly.
   Poets today
are likely to bungle
  the tragic modes.
What they know is farce.’

But farce, too, has its criteria: a disability in the tragic modes isn’t a qualification for the rough stuff.