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 Only fifteen years on, it has the flavour of a yellowed historical document.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.

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[*] 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.