Martian Arts

Jonathan Raban

  • Home and Away by Steve Ellis
    Bloodaxe, 62 pp, £4.50, February 1987, ISBN 1 85224 027 X
  • The Ballad of the Yorkshire Ripper by Blake Morrison
    Chatto, 48 pp, £4.95, May 1987, ISBN 0 7011 3227 2
  • The Frighteners by Sean O’Brien
    Bloodaxe, 64 pp, £4.50, February 1987, ISBN 1 85224 013 X

In 1972 the final issue of Ian Hamilton’s Review was given over to a symposium on ‘The State of Poetry’. Only fifteen years on, it has the flavour of a yellowed historical document. The symposium’s tone is embattled: it finds enemies and traitors on every bookshelf, with the whole future of English poetry threatened by sinister forces. ‘American Poetry’ is seen as the big, bad colonial influence by more than half the 35 contributors, few of whom bother to make it clear whether they mean Robert Lowell, or Allen Ginsberg, or the Black Mountain imitators of William Carlos Williams. ‘The Liverpool Poets’ are regarded with a mixture of fear and derision. ‘The ranks of the illiterate raise puerile and rhythmless voices,’ wrote Roy Fuller. ‘Infantile simplicity is all,’ wrote Julian Symons.

What no one in the symposium quite manages to say, yet almost everyone darkly hints at, is that in 1972 the ‘Poundian revolution’ still looked as if it was carrying the world before it. Trailing in the long wake of The Waste Land, the Cantos, Williams’s Paterson and Bunting’s Briggflatts were Louis Zukofsky’s A, Charles Olson’s Maximus, Allen Ginsbert’s Howl, the substitution of ‘breath’ for metre and gossip for metaphor. Adrian Henri and Roger McGough, with their sedulous imitation of the faux-naif Modernism of e.e.cummings, were just as much part of the movement as Ed Dorn, Robert Creeley or Kenneth Koch. With his Essex Poems, even Donald Davie, the very type of the English conservative poet-critic, appeared to have capitulated to ‘American’ Modernism, just as the more recent poems of Charles Tomlinson seemed touched by the dotty magniloquence of Charles Olson’s ‘Projective Verse’ manifesto.

In his new collection, Late Pickings, Gavin Ewart has nicely parodied the sort of thing that the Review symposiasts had in mind:

‘How to write a poem in the American style’
                  Use the
                 line, en-
               where possible –
               don’t forget
             the ampersand!

                 No need
               for rhyme,
             not much need
               for rhythm –
                 it’s all
               like trying
                 to touch
               your toes.
               can try it.

Compare this with a deadly serious effort by Miriam Waddington, published in her Collected Poems and called ‘Toronto Rain’:

It’s raining in Toronto love
I wonder what it’s doing
in Fredericton; he didn’t
come home last night
did he men are like birds
cat-escapers rain drives
them away smoke drives them
away and a woman has to know
that every dog has his day
and when he’s gone
he’s gone ...

That the magisterial influence of Pound, Eliot and Williams should have boiled down, by the late Sixties and early Seventies, to such bosh (‘Toronto Rain’ was first published in 1968, and its inglorious resurrection today looks like an act of deliberately cruelty by the Oxford University Press) was justification in itself for the existence of the Review, that small, sworn enemy of played-out Modernistic trickery.

Yet (in England, at least) – ubi sunt? For the last three months I’ve been reading books of poems submitted for review to the London Review. With the exception of a few amused parodies and the odd Waddington-style coelocanth, none show any trace of being haunted by the bogies of ’72. Studying the work of writers aged between 30 and 45, it would be almost impossible to deduce that Ezra Pound, let alone William Carlos Williams, had ever existed. Who now are the Old Masters? Larkin, of course; early Auden; Hardy; Tennyson; Thomas Hood (in a certain quarter); Byron and Shelley at their most playful. But the presence of the Great Modernists feels as remote and irrelevant as that of Edward Marsh’s Georgians.

Larkin, the lonely fugitive from poetic Modernism, now looks suspiciously like a one-man tradition. So standard an item in recent collections has the Philip Larkin Memorial Poem become that it now exists as a genre in its own right, like the limerick and the villanelle. Thus Ewart again:

                             For us, he’s gone
much loved, humane; that shyly gloomy humour
stays in the minds of friends ...

Or Vernon Scannell:

We met each other once, that’s all,
Nearly twenty years ago.
We were not close and yet I know
His death-day stretched beneath a pall

Of melancholy that would leave
Something of its gloom behind ...

Or Anthony Thwaite:

Now what you feared so long has got you too.
The blankness has descended where you lie
Deep in that building you already knew ...

Or Steve Ellis:

Hull was the global meridian
all poetry was measured from;
and now you’re gone, a flat blank gap
empty as East Yorkshire, sits on the map ...

The worst of these Larkin elegies have the authentic plangency of E.J. Thribb. The best, as yet uncollected, is by Andrew Motion, and was first published in the TLS. ‘This is your subject speaking’ is a long poem, with a powerful and complex narrative drive. In the final section, Motion visits Larkin in the nursing-home where he was dying of his cancer:

The door to your room ajar

and you in your linen suit
watching the Test on telly.
In the silence after applause

or laconic reports, your voice
was the cold, flat voice
of someone describing someone

they hardly knew.
Nobody’s said what’s wrong
and I haven’t asked. Don’t you.

Well I’ve nothing to live for,
have I? Christ, don’t answer.
You’ll tell me I have. Like seeing

Becker at Wimbledon, winning.
He looked just like young Auden.
That was good. I’m sure I’ll die

when I ’m as old as my father.
Which gives me until Christmas.
I simply can’t cheer up –

and don’t you start ...

In its entirety, ‘This is your subject speaking’ is vivid and painful to such a degree that it’s hard to read the poem without crying. It also provides a useful landmark in immediately contemporary verse, for several reasons, of which its reverence for Larkin is only one. Like a short story, it moves elliptically through a series of pictorial scenes, mostly interiors, each one bodied-out with a clutter of domestic detail. It is full of dialogue. Its pronounced and confident rhythm is closer to the rhythm of storytelling than to formal metrics. One is always turning the page to find out what happens next.

Where Pound, Williams and their imitators and descendants were obsessed with ‘poetics’ to the point where the actual writing of a poem came more and more to resemble making an origami paper dragon, Motion and his contemporaries are writing poems that are on kissing-cousin terms with prose fiction. In the Review symposium no one mentions what is going on in the novel, yet since 1972, the main drift of modern poetry has been towards narrative, towards a vein of novel-like psychological realism, towards similes that are designed to nail a particular moment to the page with a novelist’s shrewd eye for contingent detail. When Craig Raine introduced his selection of Kipling’s prose earlier this year, he singled out for particular praise a sentence from the first paragraph of ‘Love-o’-Women’: ‘There remained only on the barrack-square the blood of man calling from the ground. The hot sun had dried it to a dusky goldbeater-skin film, cracked lozengewise by the heat; and as the wind rose, each lozenge rising a little, curled up at the edges as if it were a dumb tongue.’ This is very ‘Martian’, with its intent observation of the surface of things, its reliance on the slightly shallow brilliance of simile as opposed to the deeper, more reflexive power of metaphor. You’re meant to be thrilled by it, but not to linger too long, for it’s leading you into a story, not trying to stop you in your tracks. In that respect, it is very like a lot of the best lines in current verse – lines that dazzle briefly before being swallowed by a moving plot.

Poem-novels, or poem-stories, are all about us – James Fenton’s ‘A German Requiem’, Anne Stevenson’s ‘Correspondences’, Blake Morrison’s ‘The Inquisitor’, Motion’s ‘Independence’, the plotty, tessellated pattern of the poems in Carol Rumens’s Direct Dialling, with its East-West love story. One sees rhyme used, as Byron used it in Don Juan, to speed the narrative; hurrying trisyllabic metres; more vivid simile than true metaphor; and character, action, dialogue – the trappings of fiction in the form of verse.

Out from under Modernism’s shadow, these poems have subjects, stories to tell, a decently high level of basic technical competence in rhyme and metre. Their worlds are insistently (and often a touch self-righteously) domestic: they are full of husbands and wives, rather than lovers and girlfriends, of in-laws, aunties, the rubble of toys on the living-room floor, jobs (and failing to get jobs), holidays (family packages to the South of France and Morocco figure prominently as the outer limits of the exotic). Since Larkin and Douglas Dunn’s Terry Street, the landscape of Kingston-upon-Hull has come to look like Grantchester, Adlestrop and far Araby all rolled into one. It crops up twice in this batch of collections, in poems by Steve Ellis and Sean O’Brien.

The opening of ‘Summer ’84’ by Steve Ellis provides a fair sample:

My father-in-law adored a drought.
At the first sign of a sun in stasis,
cracked soil, rumours on the radio,
he’d mobilise an army of buckets
and scurry all over the house, planning
complex campaigns of tap and bowl.
He could charm water from room to room
through a hundred different uses:
faces, socks, windows, the car, the loo
all downstream from each other. When
that final basinful of brown scum
was scattered over the garden plants,
you could see water in his own eyes
aching to join it ...

The only problem with this engaging portrait is why it needed to be a poem at all. It’s the beginning of an okay prose short story whose lines stop short of the end of the page for reasons more to do with syntax than metre. The stakes are raised (though the game remains essentially the same) in ‘SDI’ by John Levett, where the briskly-handled iambic pentameter stiffens a pleasant holiday conceit and gives it seriousness and point:

Ten miles above the tits at St Tropez
A satellite’s remote, panoptic eye
Is tracking us and quietly waiting for
The gesture that could culminate in war;
You scratch your nose, I finish my ice-cream
And screw the silver paper in the sand.
Your milky skin is tanning like a dream.
That ultra-violet shadow is my hand.
The camera rolls on, its frozen lens
Picks out the agriculture of the Fens
Then swaps the filters for the infra-red
Cupolas of beleagured Leningrad.

A third example, from a sequence called ‘Holiday Snaps’ by Roy Kelly:

Golden reptiles wriggle on dark water.
Cafes burn with invitations to dine.
The pale woman and her chubby daughter
are hung about each door like eglantine.
At east before his orders and requests
a standing waiter smiles and smokes the air.
A line of coloured bulbs circles the square.
Glow-on girls parade weighty basted breasts
and ostentatiously ignore old men
who flex their eyebrows over icy rims,
then turn to view those well-known wives again ...

None of these poems will live in anyone’s memory for very long, but they mark a shift, barely imaginable fifteen years ago, to the homely, the territory of fiction and reportage, the tight traditional form. The genius loci of the scene is hymned, not without a dash of ambiguity, by Anthony Thwaite:

When for forgotten poets we give thanks,
Hold firm the note, prolong the dying strain,
Yet is there bounty: we still have Craig Raine.

It’s hard to imagine a more absurdly misapplied cognomen than ‘Martian’ – suggesting as it does some new and peculiarly ferocious form of alienation from the world. Not since Coventry Patmore and The Angel in the House has any English poet seemed so happily well-adjusted to the way things are as Craig Raine. The poem that gave the movement its name was an idyllically playful homage to family life chez Raine; its only sadness was that the poor Martian (a close relation to Eeyore the donkey) was excluded from the hearthside by his solemnly comic misunderstanding of the proper functions of amenities like lavatories and telephones. Domestic contentment found its measure in a corresponding delight in language – in ingenious tropes and fortuitous rhymes, in the idea of not-belonging played out in cosy make-believe.

There is a family connection between ‘A Martian sends a postcard home’ and recent poems about first-parenthood by Motion and Morrison, or Fleur Adcock’s ‘Blue Glass’. Poems about children, about being a child, about being an anxious parent, hardly daring to draw breath for fear of breaking the spell of the safe world inside the house, with its pet-names and secret, serious games (how close Raine’s poem itself is to a game of family charades ... ‘Book!’ squeals young Clever-Clogs, getting it in one), have become a contemporary version of pastoral. Hand in hand with their idealisation of the private, the domestic, the familial goes a sense of the insidious impingement of another, genuinely Martian kind of life. There are missile bases out there, rapists, meaninglessly cruel political frontiers. As Heather Buck in The Sign of the Water Bearer puts it:

The year the lorries came, as though they climbed

the darkest inclines of a prophecy,
they stirred the dread we didn’t dare confess.

But were we acquiescent then? Remarking
how a lane was widened here, a village bar
enjoyed increased prosperity, and
as a cat disturbed in sleep will stretch
and turn and sleep again, we drowsed
a few more summers in the sun ...

The poem is called ‘The Building of the Missile Base’ – of course – and it might well stand, along with Martin Amis’s prose polemic ‘Thinkability’, as an epigraph to a whole pile of collections whose authors seem to have discovered the joy of family life as if they belonged to the first generation ever to have invented it. John Levett’s spy-satellite, tracking the holiday beaches, is keeping a critical eye on everyone’s lines.

Blake Morrison’s second collection, The Ballad of the Yorkshire Ripper, contains a close encounter with an American airman on an English road: ‘The Kiss’.

His Buick was too wide and didn’t slow,
our wing-mirrors kissing in a Suffolk lane,
no sweat, not worth the exchange of addresses.

High from the rainchecking satellites
our island’s like a gun set on a table,
still smoking, waiting to be loaded again.

Technically sure-footed, seemingly private, casual and storylike in its opening, with a blazingly exact simile (try the image of Britain as a smoking gun on the next TV weathermap and see how indelible it becomes), and its logical sprint from Kissing to Mutual Assured Destruction, Morrison’s poem might be taken as a classroom blueprint for what is now going on in English verse. It is both ‘typical’ and strong in its own right, a fine example of Morrison writing at the top of his bent, more fully in the swing of today than any other poet of his age.

He has learned from Larkin –

a long gust stirs the mustard slurry

of the rapefields, then skirls towards the air-balloon

floating the logo of a Little Chef,
then off past gleaming shippons and silo-towers,
off through the barracks of a turkey-farm,

off, off, to Lowestoft and Felixtowe,
where homes rise like bread out of breeze-blocks
and raw container-ships unload the software
of tomorrow, which I believe in,

or pretend I do ...

– but where this sort of landscape was for Larkin a place where other people lived, a place to pass through sadly, to view through the smeared glass of a railway carriage, Morrison lives inside it, as a husband, parent, voter. Larkin’s ‘The Large Cool Store’ was full of goods he’d never buy and Modes for Night for other men’s wives; Morrison’s ‘Superstore’, with its ‘glowing crypts’ of flymos and fish fingers – where

           we heave
the trolley to the log-jammed checkout
where girls with singing typewriters
record our losses onto spools
of print-out which they hand us
with an absent smile –

is a good and happy place. Its ecclesiastical echoes (the dialogue with Larkin is explicit) are

not a mockery of churches
but a way like them of forgetting
the darkness where no one’s serving
and there’s nothing to choose from at all.

Morrison is not one to be consoled by the thought of how many dead lie round. With road accidents, mass murderers, Sizewell and the Lakenheath air base never far out of sight in these poems, there is no need to go a-courting for intimations of mortality. The book begins with that sane, silly, decent gesture made by Sarah Tisdall when she xeroxed the Heseltine memo and slipped it to the Guardian because she, like Morrison, was affronted by the idea of so much secret lethal weaponry. The poem, ‘Xerox’, moves through a series of three separate surreal illuminations, each one an obscure and ominous prefigurement of another, unnamed kind of flash. The first is when the memo is fed, after hours, into the xerox machine:

A lightshow begins under the trapdoor:
it flashes and roars, flashes and plashes,
each page the flare of a sabotaged refinery
or the fission of an August storm ...

Then, after her arrest –

posseed to the courtroom
under a scarlet rug

– Tisdall has her

cheeks lit palely
in the lightning of a Nikon swarm.

In the final stanza, ‘the sudden candour of a moon’ lights the landscape where the girl stands alone in the dark, ‘afraid and down-at-heel’. As the three images leak into each other and begin to breed, the poem takes on a power beyond its apparently modest means. Its cunning obliquity makes it into a deeply persuasive statement about that trickiest of all literary subjects: the relation between the private person and the terrible abstraction of nuclear warfare.

The most impressive thing about Morrison’s work is his precise and subtle grasp of what it means to be a contemporary. However ‘topical’ his poems are, they are always worrying intelligently at the immediate poetic past. His running dialogue with Larkin is one example of this; his handling of the title poem, ‘The Ballad of the Yorkshire Ripper’, is another. Elsewhere in the book, he has an updated version of Auden’s ‘Night Mail’, and in the ‘Yorkshire Ripper’ he adapts a form that Auden used in the Thirties in poems like ‘Miss Gee’ and ‘Victor’:

Victor was a little baby,
Into this world he came.
His father took him on his knee and said,
‘Don’t dishonour the family name.’

– which, of course, Victor proceeded to do, armed with a Bible and a carving knife. Morrison’s poem about Peter Sutcliffe is, on one level, a reworking of Auden’s ‘Victor’ which also manages to define the exact distance between Auden’s Thirties, and Morrison’s Eighties. Written in broad Yorkshire, in ringingly regular rhyme and metre, it looks, at first blush (if that is the word), like a bad-taste rollick:

Peter worked in a graveyard,
diggin bone and sod.
From t’grave of a Pole, Zapolski,
e eard – e reckoned – God,

sayin: ‘Lad, tha’s on a mission,
ah’ve picked thee out o t’ruck.
Go an rip up prostitutes.
They’re nobbut worms and muck.

It is funny, and horrible, and reads wonderfully well out loud: but it is also a brilliant modern elaboration of an old form. To see just how good it is, one needs to go back to Auden. The speaker of ‘Victor’ was a Narrator of the kind then being used widely for radio plays – a man-of-the-world with a BBC voice. The speaker of ‘Yorkshire Ripper’ is ‘a Bessie’, a milksop, a man despised at the pub for being soft on women. Bewildered and fascinated by misogyny, and the licence extended to misogyny by good chapelgoers bred on the Epistles of St Paul, brooding on his own exclusion from male society, he recites the story of Sutcliffe with a mixture of comic relish and appalled disbelief. It is in the odd-couple relationship between the teller and his hero, in the seesaw motion between moral outrage and sneaking regard, that the poem happens. Two stanzas, chosen almost at random:

E were a one-man abattoir.
E cleavered girls in alves.
E shishkebab’d their pupils.
E bled em dry like calves.
Their napes as soft as foxglove,
the lovely finch-pink pout,
the feather-fern o t’eyelash –
e turned it all to nowt.

‘Shishkebab’d’ gloats; ‘finch-pink’ recoils in wonder and shame. The poem becomes an essay on the nature of storytelling itself, and goes at least as deeply into the character of the teller as it does into the character of Sutcliffe – and reveals the teller, for all his sentimentalism and his boasts about how ‘ah look on em as equals’, as a riven man. ‘Yorkshire Ripper’ has the psychological complexity of full-length fiction; it is typical of Morrison’s writing in the way it looks simple, but the more you read it, the richer it grows.

Sean O’Brien’s contribution to the genre of Larkin Memorial Poem is a jeering riposte to ‘Toads’, called ‘Initiative’:

In folds of heathland patched with scrub
There are serious nutters at large.
You have seen them, perhaps, from your car.

They are rained-on, unsubsidised creatures
Long out of the fashion (some shoeless,
Some nude) with those comedy accents

The services used to be good at.
Their present is nobody’s business,
So don’t talk to them about nippers

Or fires in buckets, or windfalls:
They go for your throat not your poems.
They’re losers. They fell from employment

(Assuming they had it), and cities,
And shedding ambition (assuming they had it)
Along with their names, dribbled south

Until blocked by the sea. Now they squat
In their shit and are none too appealing.
The fact is they’re weak, and they think

This is something we’ve done, and they’re right ...

O’Brien’s infectious pleasure in his own artifice and rhetoric, his debts (however rudely repaid) to Larkin and Auden, his strong sense of the poem as a form of fiction, his subjects (childhood and the family, unemployment, war), mark him as a contemporary of Morrison, Motion, Raine, Reid. But he lives on the New Brutalist wing of the movement (if movement this is). He talks dirty. He combines craft and rage in equal parts. In his essay ‘The Filial Art: A Reading of Contemporary British Poetry’ (in The Yearbook of English Studies, Vol. 17, 1987), Blake Morrison interestingly compares a number of poems-about-parents, especially by writers dealing with-their working-class fathers and families. It is a pity that he didn’t mention O’Brien’s ‘The Allotment’:

The cold eases over my wrists. I’m at home
With the details, at dusk in October.
My Grandad’s allotment’s an ashtray
Crammed with herbal cigarettes. The red coals
Fade in the cucumber frames and there’s sure
To be frost in the brazier by morning.
Around us the other old men on their plots
Have knocked off for a smoke before home.
They wear their breath in grey balloons
And have fireproof hands and no lungs.
I should mention the moon with milled edges,
The roar down the tunnel of air
That means somebody’s scored. But I can’t
I’m the future, a gaberdined dwarf
In the cap of the privileged school ...

How artfully one is led into the cosy bric-à-brac of the Northern heartland, the warm and schmaltzy stuff on which adult memory indulgently feeds, only to be rebuffed by memory’s own failure to relate itself to this impossibly distant and fictive past. The gaberdined dwarf in the cap of the privileged school was never at home here: the poet is simply reciting the dutiful, filial lies that the reader is presumed to expect of him. The whiplash effect of ‘But I can’t./I’m the future’ is a typical O’Brien strategy for knocking his reader off his comfortable perch.

More than any of the officially-registered ‘Martians’, O’Brien really does have the style of a rootless extra-terrestrial, irritably at large in the English class system. He has no sentimentality, no good manners, no cultivated pieties. He has an unstoppable metrical assurance – a rhythm that grabs you by both lapels and won’t let go until the poem’s over. On occasions (as in ‘Song of the South’), he drifts into withering, machine-turned Agitprop, and can sound uncomfortably like Derek Hatton reigning over a subdued saloon bar, but at his best he is an unshackled fabulist, bringing to the dole queue, the empty wharf, the abandoned industrial estate an imaginative vision as bright and surreal as Chagall’s. He is capable of marvellous inventions, as in this version of what the unemployed of Hull get up to in the small hours:

At dead of night the warehouse furnace burns
As urgently as ever,
Dictating its letters of smoke to the stars.
The fishermen slip with their catch on long poles
Through unlit streets to scale the roof.
Of an average midnight a dozen or more
Can be found there with liquor,
Their lines lowered into the chimney.
They’ve no other role but to parody us
With their simple attachment to money and pleasure:
By dawn they have all disappeared ...

O’Brien’s fury with the world is tempered by enviable resources of fantasy, laughter and technical skill. His book ends with a vision of a great good place – and it in no way resembles a People’s Republic of Anywhere.

Out there is home, a hammered strand
By some unvisitable sea,
Beyond all empire and all sense,
Enduring minus gender, case and tense,
A landfall, past imagining and free.

Those are the lines that genuine green men inscribe on their postcards home – full of nostalgia for nothingness, for that great black hole in Space where there are no jobs, no jobless, no nouns, no verbs. How Larkinlike that sounds (and how truly Martian Larkin was):

Rather than words comes the thought of high windows:
The sun-comprehending glass,
And beyond it, the deep blue air, that shows
Nothing, and is nowhere, and is endless.

[*] Other books discussed by Jonathan Raban are:

Late Pickings by Gavin Ewart. Hutchinson, 126 pp., £5.95, 19 March 0 09 168251 7.
Collected Poems by Miriam Waddington. Oxford, 422 pp., £15, 26 February, 0 19 540935 8.
Funeral Games and Other Poems by Vernon Scannell. Robson Books, 63 pp., £6.95, 30 April, 0 86051 429 3.
Letter from Tokyo by Anthony Thwaite. Hutchinson, 86 pp., £5.95, 19 March, 0 09 1705517.
Skedaddle by John Levett. Peterloo Poets, 60 pp., £4.50, 0 905291 82 4.
Drugstore Fiction by Roy Kelly. Peterloo Poets, 63 pp., £4.50, 28 May, 0 905291 86 7.
The Faber Book of 20th-century Women’s Poetry, edited by Fleur Adcock. Faber, 303 pp., £9.95 and £4.95, 5 May, 0 571 13692 3.
The Sign of the Water Bearer by Heather Buck. Anvil, 55 pp., £4.95, 14 May, 0 85646 193 8.