Received Accents

Peter Robinson

  • Collected Poems by Charles Tomlinson
    Oxford, 351 pp, £15.00, September 1985, ISBN 0 19 211974 5
  • Selected and New Poems: 1939-84 by J.C. Hall
    Secker, 87 pp, £3.95, September 1985, ISBN 0 436 19052 4
  • Burning the knife: New and Selected Poems by Robin Magowan
    Scarecrow Press, 114 pp, £13.50, September 1985, ISBN 0 8108 1777 2
  • Englishmen: A Poem by Christopher Hope
    Heinemann, 41 pp, £4.95, September 1985, ISBN 0 434 34661 6
  • Selected Poems: 1954-1982 by John Fuller
    Secker, 175 pp, £8.95, September 1985, ISBN 0 436 16754 9
  • Writing Home by Hugo Williams
    Oxford, 70 pp, £3.95, September 1985, ISBN 0 19 211970 2

Charles Tomlinson has a poem called ‘Class’ about the Midland pronunciation of the first letter of the alphabet. In the last chapter of Some Americans, the poet tells how for a short time he was Percy Lubbock’s secretary at a villa near Lerici. In ‘Class’, he says he tried to pronounce the ‘ah’ of received English, but couldn’t and, because ‘I too visibly shredded his fineness,’ was released from the post. The version of this incident in Some Americans indicates that his encounter with ‘the author of The Craft of Fiction’ left a wound. The poem is more openly dismissive of his one-time employer:

          I’d always thought him an ass
which he pronounced arse.

‘Class’ is, with the exception of one sentence, written in the first person.

Referring to Lubbock’s title, with its tricky second word, Tomlinson neatly introduces the sense of ‘class’ meaning ‘quality’ – ‘that title was full of class’ – and observes:

You had only to open your mouth on it
to show where you were born
and where you belonged.

Tomlinson’s lineation says that you don’t necessarily belong where you were born. If you don’t remain there, but retain some of your native accent, your identity may be partially defined by ambiguous relations to places, class positions and the sounds of your own voices. Many people’s speech is unstable in just this way, and when poets are congratulated by reviewers for having ‘found a voice’, I wonder whether their poets have been discovering something about themselves or inventing for themselves a new accent.

Relations between accent and identity involve, among many things, the uses of pronouns. Imagine those three lines from ‘Class’ in the first person, rather than that impersonal but also self-addressing ‘you’. ‘Tramontana at Lerici’, a poem from about the time of the Lubbock incident, begins in the second person. This ‘you’ with ‘might’ and ‘should’ in attendance allows speculations about the sort of experiences anyone could conceivably have. In the third stanza the poem introduces a present perceiver, but makes him sound rather posh:

At evening, one is alarmed by such definition
In as many lost greens as one will give glances to recover.

This impersonal pronoun, which can be used as a personal pronoun with an intent to exclude not hearable in ‘you’, cannot easily express warmth between people. The poem’s last stanza begins crisply: ‘And the chill grows.’ In the final lines, the pronoun’s social tone and the wind’s effects appear to be working in concert so as not to receive the perceiver:

                                One is ignored
By so much cold suspended in so much night.

Yet to think of wind and pronoun as concertedly cold would be to miss the presence of a voice saying the poem. This voice, when it says, ‘One is ignored,’ turns itself away from the door of its own self. Kenneth Allott admitted to feeling put off by the fineness of ‘Tramontana at Lerici’ when anthologising the poem in 1962. Understandably, though mistakenly, he wrote that ‘human beings and their awkwardnesses have been squeezed out.’ Yet there is a world of human awkwardness in Charles Tomlinson’s shifting pronouns. When Allott added that Tomlinson was ‘an aristocratic mutilé of the aesthetic war’ he saw that the conflict was also about class: but Tomlinson is not aristocratic – rather, in ‘Tramontana at Lerici’ he shows a wound inflicted by seeming to have to sound as if he were.

I once thought Tomlinson’s uses of ‘you’, ‘we’ and ‘one’, and of impersonal abstractions such as ‘the eye’ and ‘the mind’, were conscious tactics for foisting assent on readers without obliging the poet to become fully embroiled in the poem’s matter. That was ungenerous and untrue, because the self in Charles Tomlinson’s poems is not the source of perceptual and moral insight that it might appear. ‘Against Portraits’ and ‘A Self-Portrait: David’, both from later collections, make such insecurity their theme. The poet prefers here

a face half-hesitant,
face at a threshold.

Still, his poems remain preserved, for reasons given in ‘Against Extremity’, from more threatening instabilities of the self.

Charles Tomlinson’s pronouns are also more unstable than I had granted. He acknowledges in ‘Over Elizabeth Bridge ...’

                                that uncertainty
And restless counterpointing of a verse
‘So wary of its I’, Iván, is me.

In his 1978 collection, ‘The Scream’ has the poet dragged out of sleep by a scream: it proves to come from a hedgehog which a badger has mortally hurt but failed to finish off; the poet, going outside with a torch and discovering it, dramatises the altering condition of the perceiver. The poem begins, ‘A dream so drowned my mind,’ and seems secure in the first person singular. Yet within a dozen lines a sound meets ‘the ear’ and the narrative slips for a sentence into the second person. I struck uphill,’ it continues, but as the enigma of the scream grows more intense, another shift occurs:

                                 A dream
Had delivered me to this, and a dream
    Once more seemed to possess one’s mind,

and soon thoughts

                            crowded together
To appal the mind with dream uncertainties.

The more abstracted, impersonal forms appear when mental confidence is under most threat. It’s as though the ‘I’ in this poem were a grammatical convenience which gives unity to the narration, while behind it, unsecured, a person responds to and is moved by shocks.

Exploration of landscape and nature has been crucial for Tomlinson: where you are can have so powerful an influence on who you are. The ‘dispossessed/ and half-tamed Englishman’ of ‘John Maydew or The Allotment’ returns from war to find that he must choose between ‘an England, profitlessly green’ and a landscape where

          slag in lavafolds
rolls beneath him.

The first part of the poem seems to be spoken to the man in his allotment, but, immediately after remarking on a bitterness ‘rooted in your silence’, the second-person address gives out in a row of dots. The man does not reply, and the rest of the piece describes him in the third person. Within this poem’s fluency there is an absence of encounter, and a suggestion of its impossibility.

The ‘interrupted pastoral’ of Tomlinson’s poetry represents a conflict in the poet between attachment to a green, pleasant England and that of industrial production and ugliness – the poem was written in the early Sixties, when the dark satanic mills were still largely in business. His 1974 collection, The Way In, attempts to resolve that conflict, for, unlike John Maydew, Tomlinson moved away from the slag and into the green. The first person singular confidently speaks throughout ‘At Stoke’ and ‘The Marl Pits’, but, looked at together, the two poems indicate a knot of ambivalent feeling. Did the landscape of Stoke-on-Trent and environs nurture a unified identity or impede its life? ‘At Stoke’ begins, ‘I have lived in a single landscape,’ but quickly divides this ground of grey-black by noticing ‘Discouraged greennesses, lights from a pond or two’; after ‘cindery inbetweens’ come hills which ‘swell up’ and are ‘free of it’. Tomlinson turns to this residual and resurgent nature in ‘The Marl Pits’ for what was, after all, the way out.

It was a language of water, light and air
I sought,

he begins, needing a release from the ‘stoic lethargy’ which seemed required by an industrial town, and then ‘I found my speech.’ This discovery involved losing something; by opting for what he calls a ‘kindling Eden’ which you could think ‘rescinded its own loss’, he idealised for himself what was and is a predicament of people and places in our conflicting history.

Tomlinson has been concerned with relations between poetry and history. ‘Ars Poetica’ asks:

What is it for
this form of saying, truce
with history in a language
no one may wish to use?

John Maydew, too, is described as having accepted ‘his truce’ with history. In ‘A Dream’ Tomlinson wonders,

                                       is it me
or Danton from the tumbril,

and years later he added a poem on Danton to his series of poems about defeated or assassinated revolutionaries and political thinkers. One of my favourites is ‘Machiavelli in Exile’, where the theorist of ‘guileless guile’ is obliged to choose for companions

Such men as endure history and not those
Who make it:

which is to say, men like John Maydew. Is it the generals who win the wars or the soldiers? Machiavelli, writing in isolation, reaches

                  his last defeat
And victory, no battle, but a book.

Tomlinson seems momentarily to identify with this Italian when, in ‘Dates: Penkull New Road’, he says:

                 I write to rescue
What is no longer there – absurd
A place should be more fragile than a book.

Does the poet imply his own defeat and victory? It is as if he were neither one who endures nor one who makes history. Yet he is exiled with those who would have been history’s makers if they hadn’t been defeated by circumstances. Might there be more future in finding the poet among those who endure?

Tomlinson’s ‘Up at La Serra’ dramatises the restricting circumstances of a young Italian poet called Paolo Bertolani,

                who had no more to offer
than a sheaf of verse
         in the style of Quasimodo.

Bertolani has since achieved a style of his own; his most recent volume, Seina, is written in the dialect of La Serra. Tomlinson’s impressive, ambitious poem, to which he may have been assisted by translating Antonio Machado with Henry Gifford, pits itself against received English styles of verse. Resisting a native environment, ‘Up at La Serra’ survives a sense of having been willed into existence. Charles Tomlinson’s Collected Poems are the work of a man who has believed that by poetry people may live. He has borne the costs of that commitment. Though these should be reckoned with, gratitude and thanks are what I most owe.

J.C. Hall started by expressing high faith in poetry. ‘The Poem’, the first of his works kept in print, concludes:

In the moment and in the swarming acre
A thing is seen and gathered like a flower.
Here in this room I emulate its maker
And though remote I still control its power.

The first ‘its’ must mean created nature; the second may equivocate between that creation and the poet’s own. The rhymes want to demonstrate control, but the ‘still’ hints at some uncertainty – or is it modesty? – which counters the astonishingly large claim being made. Alongside this appearance of playing for big stakes comes some painfully literary poetry which furnishes praise for the great and famous dead. ‘The Wood’ proposes to console us for

            whatever falls apart
In the chaos of these times

by invoking three poets in a tone which unintentionally flatters and patronises:

       Wordsworth who fills
The stern mould of all Westmorland hills;
Hardy too, haunting his Wessex ways,
A pastoral order dying in his gaze,

and William Yeats – a ‘stubborn and age-angry man’ – who laughed ‘with rod and can’. Hall attributes vain powers by falsely calling these poets ‘lords/ Of a landscape’; this sort of tribute does neither living nor dead any good.

‘Alfoxton’ glamorises the collaborative efforts of Wordsworth and Coleridge, then reflects

In a darker age I surveyed that green domain
And thought how the living always come too late.

How much better than 1951, when Hall’s poem was first collected, would 1798 have appeared to the author of ‘Fears in Solitude’? By saying that ‘the living always come too late,’ Hall dispossesses himself of his own experience – even were that experience itself of dispossession. It also accidentally implies that the poets of the Lyrical Ballads weren’t alive when they wrote. A result of this regrettable dispossession is to be heard in Hall’s diction. ‘Against Magic’ speaks of ‘the dead in a living voice’, but its voice is, for lines at a time, obscured by poeticisms through which the dead would choke the living.

The editor of the series in which Burning the knife appears speaks with unconscious precision when he advocates Magowan’s music because it ‘tyrannises our minds, as another poet’s sound-poetry did – A.C. Swinburne’s’. Tyrannies, in whatever form, had better be resisted. His comparison with the English poet gives no idea of Magowan’s poetry, nor does this at the end of Robert Peters’s Introduction: ‘I am reminded, finally, of that stunning moment in Alfred Tennyson’s neglected masterpiece “Maud”, where his hero, confronting madness, meditates on the fragility of the human brain, seen via the image of a seashell. Like Tennyson’s hero, Magowan is a survivor.’ Neglected or not, Tennyson’s poem has its speaker say that the mind when overwrought may suddenly

strike on a sharper sense
For a shell, or a flower ...

It is likewise arguable to what extent the speaker of ‘Maud’ is a survivor, since his

           bury me, bury me
Deeper, ever so little deeper

and his embracing ‘the doom assign’d’ indicate a desire not to live. Moreover, he has madness thrust upon him, whereas Magowan has been studying to achieve it. His true forebear is Arthur Rimbaud with his aesthetics of deranged senses, of Je est un autre. He likes to live dangerously, and brags about it in his footnotes. One section of his book is devoted to Nancy Ling Perry (1947-1974), a member of the Symbionese Liberation Army with whom Magowan cohabited for four months, ‘a period exactly framed by the two mescaline overdoses’. Later: ‘I was living in France at the time of the Hearst kidnapping. But my relation to Ling was still close enough that she could use me as a reference in renting the apartment where they had Patti tied up in a closet.’ Great! The poetry contained here –

Rats, if we are they, let’s crawl into our own holes,
If vines, let us stretch,
In forest air climbing back to the mucus of God –

has never

        a shell, or a flower, little things
Which else would have been passed by!

because it is too busy trying to see urinals as mosques.

Christopher Hope’s poem Englishmen has the advantage of a subject other than the inside of the poet’s own head. Hogge, Owen, Mrs Oribi and Mr Silvero represent aspects of English settler life in South Africa. The first two are ‘mysterious bureaucrats’ and ‘faceless men fumbling about with a problem which is much too big for them’; the third and fourth may not exist, according to the cover, though Oribi is the name of a gorge; of the fourth nothing is said, but I wondered if he was the same man as appears

With caressing hands, at Limoges
Who walked all night in the next room

in ‘Gerontion’. If so, Christopher Hope’s point may be that South Africa was ‘To be eaten, to be divided, to be drunk’ or that its ‘history has many cunning passages.’ The poet certainly had Eliot in mind when he made Mr Silvero speak of

Setting out to find all we left behind,
travelling the road we did not take,
on the bus we did not miss ...

By being drafted around these sketchy figures, Englishmen can intriguingly explore relations between personal, national and Imperial selfhood, displaying a certain warmth for its characters while rejecting what they represent.

Here in England, chess takes its proper place as a pastime.
It is not such a solemn affair, and yet, to be sure, it is serious.

This is Paul Morphy, the American genius, writing to his mother in 1858 about the ambience of the then world champion, Howard Staunton, an editor of Shakespeare who refused to play Morphy. On hearing of the American’s rumoured madness, Staunton says:

Well, well. One might have guessed it, but the cause
Is none too clear.

They remark these things in John Fuller’s excellently sustained poem ‘The Most Difficult Position’, republished in Selected Poems: 1954-1982. Reading it and others there, I wondered with which idea of the game Fuller’s work shows more affinity. Fuller, who has published a useful critical work on W.H. Auden, is an inheritor of the poet’s later attitude to the art. When, in his English phase, Auden wrote from the conviction that poetry, arising out of crises in his own and his country’s identity, could alter both, he may have been pitching his hopes too high: but when he wrote in the elegy for W.B. Yeats that ‘poetry makes nothing happen,’ his reaction was extreme and I think mistaken. Poetry then became for him a highbrow pastime: not such a solemn affair, yet serious. ‘Objet Trouvé: Piazza San Marco’ is beautiful, and an example of such poems. It is written in taut and shapely tetrameter couplets, but its final line, which completes a triplet rhyme, swells into a regular pentameter. The rhymes are full, but never clumsy: very frequently the sense runs on to the next line with great assurance. The poet is like a word-perfect guide: his readers know exactly where they are, but may chafe at not being allowed to wander into areas of mind and world not on the itinerary.

A quatrain of Goethe’s is adopted as epigraph to ‘The Most Difficult Position’:

If you think life’s a game
You’ll never get anywhere;
Lose your self-control
And you’ll always be a slave.

Ideally, the most difficult position would be to combine the outlooks of Morphy and Staunton. But is it possible? It might mean trying lines not in the book. Morphy sounds like Clough’s ‘Amours de Voyage’, the Englishman like a dramatic monologue by Browning. But Staunton’s syntax is simpler, and his tone resembles more the self-possession of its author than the conflicts of self-knowledge and circumstances that flex the grammar of, for example, Giuseppe Caponsacchi’s final verse paragraph in The Ring and the Book. The more diverting they are, the less I know what to do with John Fuller’s well-made poems.

‘Leaving school’, from Hugo Williams’s Writing home, has 30 lines, of which 11 begin with the first-person-singular pronoun. It occurs 14 times in ‘Scratches’, a poem of 24 lines. Two pieces, ‘A Little While Longer’ and ‘Slow Train’, begin with ‘My father’, while in ‘Walking out of the room backwards’, the same words open the second line. Hugo Williams’s father was an actor, and most of the poems in Writing home present the poet thinking about his own identity and how he had assembled it by rivalling someone who lived by playing roles. ‘Before the War’ develops the affecting twist that children are ever in pursuit of the fun they imagine their parents are having, but never reach it because they are always that bit younger. A besetting danger, I felt, was that the poem perpetuates a fancy for the sake of the emotion it engenders. You might be tempted to say, as the poet’s father does in ‘A Parting Shot’: ‘ “For God’s sake, GROW UP!” ’

Preserving the writer’s vulnerability to fatherly rebuke – for the way he combed his hair, or for not sitting up straight – is a way of cherishing the possibility that his father, who died in 1969, can still have the same part to play in his life. But he can’t, as a number of the poems recognise: for one reason, the poet’s ‘I’ doesn’t have the same meaning as the boy’s. I like the poems which implicitly register this difference by incorporating both child’s and man’s sense of the father. In ‘At Least a Hundred Words’, about having to write that many words home from boarding-school, the boy says, ‘I roll a marble along the groove in the top of my desk,’ but, after the boy has heard it tumble through the books and things inside, there is a

       thirty year gap as it falls through
the dust-hole into my waiting hand.

It both is and isn’t the same hand, just as someone’s ‘I’ provides a continuous convention within which to express alteration. ‘No Particular Place to Go’, about a record shop the schoolboy frequented, affirms the self’s difference by imagining the grown man caught for loitering in the vicinity of his childhood: ‘the past is out of bounds, you should know that.’ Yet his reply winsomely tries to deny it:

‘But sir,’ I’ll say, ‘where else is there to go
on these half-holidays?’

The poet knows he’s excluded but can’t help hankering – and I can’t help liking him for it.

‘Death of an Actor’ confronts the concerns that Writing home occasionally risks appearing to indulge. The blurb-writer takes the wish for the deed observing that this sequence ‘resolves conflicts with his father and takes stock of the present.’ A crucial aspect of the book is the poet’s envy and resentment of his father, as ‘Raids on Lunch’ – a poem focused on the pronunciation of the ‘a’ in ‘ate’ – amply demonstrates. ‘Death of an Actor’ ends with Hugo Williams wishing to hear him ‘goading me’ again and

              wondering
What manner of man I might be.

The word ‘manner’ is perfectly chosen, and ‘Unfinished Poem’, which comes next in the book, rebukes the blurb-writer’s blitheness when it asks whether the poet should once more ‘go upstairs and look for evidence of myself?’ The evidence is souvenirs from his father’s acting career, and the poem seems to acknowledge that a bundle of attributes and appearances is not the same as a person. It is the latter that dies, and survives within the direct simple style of the best from Writing home.