Broadening Ocean

Brad Leithauser

  • Natural Causes by Andrew Motion
    Chatto, 57 pp, £4.95, August 1987, ISBN 0 7011 3271 X
  • A Short History of the Island of Butterflies by Nicholas Christopher
    Viking, 81 pp, $17.95, January 1986, ISBN 0 670 80899 7

Two poets, writing in nearly the same language (British English, American English) and born at nearly the same time (1952, 1951). One, Andrew Motion, is quite well-known in this country, though an unfamiliar name to most readers of verse in America. The other, Nicholas Christopher, is one of the most celebrated of America’s younger poets but – I suspect – an unknown figure in England, at least as a poet (his novel, The Soloist, was published by Pan last year). In each case, this disparity in reputation – this failure, or at least delay, in the gaining of a transatlantic reputation – would seem, on the face of it, rather mysterious, since each is an accessible and rewarding writer. Any explanation of the mystery probably must begin with the distressing lack of literary interchange between the two countries at present – a lack far more pronounced with poetry than with fiction. Two poets, then, sharing language, youth, and a broadening ocean.

At the moment, the criticism of American poetry is a diverse and, at bottom, unnervingly haphazard business. Given the multitudes of poets publishing today (a situation to which graduate programs in creative writing and the entrance of subsidised university presses into the domain of contemporary verse have contributed), no reader could possibly feel at home within even this single subset of the literary world. Contemporary American poetry, if often dismissed as peripheral by most contemporary American readers, turns out, paradoxically, to be a far larger phenomenon than ever. In terms of the individual critic, the field’s proliferation has promoted an almost inevitable tendency to preface all judgments with an apology for the partiality of one’s own perspective. This preliminary admission of self-limitation seems, actually, almost the only cohering aspect of American poetry criticism.

Why do English and American poetry at the moment seem so far apart? It was not so long ago that figures like Lowell and Berryman and Plath were integral to the English poetry scene, that writers like Larkin and Graves and Dylan Thomas seemed familiar voices in America. (And it was not so many years before that when Auden and Eliot managed to scumble the boundaries of nationality altogether, giving each country some legitimate claim to serving as the poets’ true homeland.) These days, only a handful of English poets have any sort of sizeable reputation in America, and I suspect that none is read with the closeness and loyalty which Philip Larkin recently inspired. Of that generation of younger poets represented by Andrew Motion, only James Fenton is a known quantity in America, and his renown probably stems less from his poems, meritorious as the best of those may be, than from his political journalism and celebrated daredevilry, This indifference to contemporary English verse appears all the more ironic and quizzical in light of the determined attempts by numerous schools of American poetry to look beyond their own borders for inspiration. In recent decades, America’s poets have displayed an admirable, if at times indiscriminate, hunger for foreign influences – which has manifested itself chiefly as a passion for Latin Americans (Neruda, Borges, Paz, et al.), but has also stirred renewed interest in Oriental and Eastern European poetry. In this pluralistic climate, however, there seems to be strikingly little attempt to come to terms with contemporary English verse, and one notes with amusement, and some chagrin, that a chief cause of this indifference may be a resistant, even unkillable belief that any sincere attempt to forge an authentically American verse tradition must commence with a ‘purification’ of English influences. Certainly, only the foolhardy would ever underestimate the enduring effects in America of a belief in the availability, and desirability, of a creative tabula rasa. Or, to put this still more unflatteringly, a belief in the powers and virtues of an unsullied ignorance. (To be fair – or to be equally, conscientiously unfair – one notes that this willed blindness is at times darkly matched by an English shortsightedness born in a blithe and unreflective condescension.)

But the barriers on poetic interchange across the Atlantic run deeper than the merely attitudinal. They are also a matter of dollars and cents, pounds and pence. For various economic (which is to say ultimately inscrutable) reasons, American publishers have been finding the issue of contemporary English verse an increasingly unfeasible proposition. And vice versa. In fact, in an age of mushrooming costs, the commercial publishing of poetry – any poetry, foreign or domestic – suddenly looks shaky. The American poet whose first book sold for five dollars on release four years ago, whose second for seven dollars two years ago, and whose third collection goes for 11, is forced to ask: ‘How long can this go on?’ In England, the situation seems no less dire. When a house like Faber and Faber makes available Marianne Moore’s Complete Prose, as they did last year, one applauds their discernment, for this surely is a volume that belongs in the library of every English as well as American poet. But when one realises that the book retails at £30 – and that Faber, whose commitment to Miss Moore goes back half a century, must reluctantly have priced it so high in an attempt to recoup heavy expenses – one begins to question whether the prose of the next Marianne Moore (and may she come soon!) will cross the sea at all.

A bad time to be a poet, then. To which one adds, after some reflection: And when was it a good time to be a poet? And adds further: And what better thing is there to be?

For those who take a gloomy view of the contemporary poet’s lot, there is little that is immediately cheering in Andrew Motion’s book Natural Causes, whose title carries overtones of a fresh corpse and a police inquest. Its pleasures announce themselves slowly. Motion, whose fifth collection of poetry this is, has rarely seemed so purposefully subdued, so impervious to the allures of wit and word-play. Natural Causes also offers little garnishment for the eye. There is nothing in it so visually pleasing as, for example, this passage from his earlier ‘Independence’:

                But we stayed
all morning, staring up from the quay, scanning those
tiny high rails for his wave
and seeing nothing, then nothing again

when he sailed, the liner unthinkably huge
as they tugged it clear, but suddenly
tiny – a slow dispersing feather
of smoke spiraling north.

In Natural Causes the chief pleasure – and it is considerable – is that of beholding complex thought and diction effortlessly adapted to stanzaic forms. Motion takes big breaths. Here are the closing lines of ‘You do, I do’:

           The instant I roll over,
press you gently back against the pillow,
stroke your hair out in its silky, spiky crown,
and stare into your face, I feel a stranger to myself
and all the lives I’ve led – like someone travelling,
whose boat has suddenly stood off a sunlit coast
with him on deck, who never saw these cliffs before,
or smelt this new-mown grass smell drifting out to sea,
but knows at once that he belongs here, and he’s home.

Among the many virtues of ‘Independence’ was its prickly depiction of physical desire. Natural Causes seems at once less restless and more wise than its predecessors. (At times, even – so to speak – unwisely wise, as in ‘Scripture’, a Biblical pastiche which, lacking the bite for parody and the breadth for true grandeur, falls between and seems the one clear failure of the collection.) Motion is a rarity among poets in often being at his best when verging on the sentimental – or, at least, when allowing himself access to that fullness of life which includes what is tender, empathetic and vulnerable within him, as he shows in the title poem:

       A dingy, rain-spattered dawn,
and the three of us lay in our big double bed
with the pig in the middle between us feeding
with slobbery, wheezy, chirruping grunts.
Because it was early, because I was tired,
because I was almost lost to the world
with love for the boy, the thought of the man
with no memory came to me – as it had come,
I should say, hundreds of times before –
nervously, slithering into my mind
like a dog on a heavy painful rope,
yet lazily too, like a dog on a dusty day ...

One is grateful for such sweetness both as a pleasure in itself and as an antidote to Motion’s occasional penchant for a terseness that smacks of the self-congratulatory. This is a weakness which he shares with Philip Larkin and with Larkin’s American contemporary John Berryman – two marvellous poets, but men who perhaps took too much delight in presenting themselves as forthright and illusion-free souls; although Larkin’s tough talk (‘before I snuff it’, ‘some brass and stuff/Up at the holy end’) is a little less deliberately awkward than Berryman’s (‘It is a true error to marry with poets/or to be by them’), in either case the language is too self-consciously ‘honest’ to be truly honest.

I would not be surprised to learn that Motion has grown weary of comparisons between himself and Larkin, whose friend Motion became during the time he spent as a lecturer at the University of Hull, who served as the subject of a brief study Motion published in 1982, and whose biography Motion has contracted to write. But Larkin’s wry, bespectacled ghost shambles pleasantly but unignorably throughout the pages of Natural Causes. One hears him in the closing lines of the initial poem, ‘The Dancing Hippo’:

       But God above
it was beautiful, God! – or something like that.

And in the title poem:

In the midst of life ... The Lord taketh away ...
What do we deserve ... that sort of thing.

And perhaps in a title like ‘You do, I do’. In the book’s longest, concluding poem Larkin appears triply as dedicatee, as subject-matter, and – venturing beyond the oblique voicings of echo and influence – as speaker. Larkin may have been a presence in ‘Bro’ as well, a poem which takes a notable prosodic journey. Larkin’s ‘Cut Grass’ – surely one of his loveliest lyrics – begins with a weightily measured iambic dimeter line –

Cut grass lies frail.
Brief is the breath
Mown stalks exhale

– and concludes in tight iambic trimeter:

Lost lanes of Queen Anne’s lace,
And that high-builded cloud
Moving at summer’s pace.

If this lyric is ‘about’ life’s ephemerality, it is also about the process by which a poem moves – subtly, surely – toward a more spacious versification. Motion’s ‘Bro’ begins with a three-beat line –

We walked the way we had seen
our elders and betters walk
on their and their families’ land:
with a head-back swaggering stride,
our hands stuffed deep in our pockets

– and finishes with a four-beat line:

throwing in twigs and watching them
wriggle from sight in curdling eddies,
and marvellous nineteenth-century walls
built right at the water’s edge, so the eyes
of their gargoyles stare at themselves for ever.

The ease of Motion’s transition, and its sense of rightness, reflects in miniature many of the staple satisfactions of Natural Causes – which are often those found in following the progress of an obviously intelligent poet who understands shape and proportionality, the subservience of parts to wholes, and the rendering of joy and sorrow without ostentation.

There is little that is unostentatious in Nicholas Christopher’s work. He’s keen on fireworks. If Motion’s quintessential creative task might be seen as that of vivifying a gift for eloquent understatement with some touches of the quirky, the lopsided, the uncategorisable, Christopher’s characteristic struggle might conversely be regarded as the regimenting of an imagination prone to wild veerings. A tempestuous temperament, he longs with each line to go for the top rung, the bull’s eye, the overhead smash. One can imagine American readers dismissing Motion, wrongly, as ‘too English’, which is to say too timorous, depleted, restrained; and one can imagine English readers, with equal adherence to stereotype, viewing Christopher as ‘too American’, or too free-form and headlong in his pursuits.

In those rare instances when Motion might seem obscure to the American reader, the cause is likely to be his rootedness in English landscapes and English mores, while Christopher’s difficulty is apt to be felt by American and English readers alike, and to arise from a sense of his being rootless, a soul afloat in an atmosphere that mists into surrealism.

From even the next rooftop, tar-slow, your eye
wouldn’t catch on this place: glaring window offsetting
the bleached sign, two tables catty-corner to the door
where no one sits, too hot for sitting, the cream
curdled and the shakers reversed, salt gone black
and pepper white, like unmixed dice, permanent
as the silent waitresses, the ashtrays full
of butts, the lottery stubs everywhere.
And the sawdust with its ocean patterns.

But Christopher can seem difficult not merely in the sense of obscure: he can come across as personally vexatious, even irritating – particularly in poems dealing with sensuality. He is perhaps to be commended for taking up the theme of carnality in these days of sexually communicable horrors, and still more so for treating it with abandoned relish (one would be tempted to call his poetry sexy, had that term not been irredeemably debased), but one must add that his gusto occasionally seems narcissistic. In ‘On Tour with Rita’, the longest poem in his first collection and the one which gave the book its title, he revelled in sexual celebration which at times seemed – like that of the Beats – sophomoric.

But whatever flaws On Tour with Rita might possess, it remains an excellent book with a number of first-rate poems (‘Heat’, ‘John Garfield’, ‘Serenade’) and some fine imagery (‘leaping fish with hearts compact and cold as lemons’, ‘turning waves that smoke out despair’). And Christopher’s second book, A Short History of the Island of Butterflies, proves even more rewarding than his first – the work of an older and wiser soul that had, fortunately, lost none of its antic ardour. Particularly satisfying are ‘Cardiac Arrest’, which begins with a man’s collapse on a city streets and ends in a netherworld – or etherworld – of hospital corridors, and ‘Losing altitude’, which includes this stanza:

The altimeter keeps the time,
running down to zero o’clock
when the merciful angels
will ring their golden bells
and the flamethrower angels
douse us with immortality.

To my mind, the poet who could come up with the image of ‘flamethrower angels’ is one who should be forgiven almost any shortcoming.