What the doctor said

Edna Longley

  • A New Path to the Waterfall by Raymond Carver
    Collins Harvill, 158 pp, £11.00, September 1989, ISBN 0 00 271043 9
  • Wolfwatching by Ted Hughes
    Faber, 55 pp, £8.99, September 1989, ISBN 0 571 14167 6
  • Poems 1954-1987 by Peter Redgrove
    Penguin, 228 pp, £5.99, August 1989, ISBN 0 14 058641 5
  • The First Earthquake by Peter Redgrove
    Secker, 76 pp, £7.50, August 1989, ISBN 0 436 41006 0
  • Mount Eagle by John Montague
    Bloodaxe, 75 pp, £12.95, June 1989, ISBN 1 85224 090 3
  • The Wreck of the Archangel by George Mackay Brown
    Murray, 116 pp, £11.95, September 1989, ISBN 0 7195 4750 4
  • The Perfect Man by Fiona Pitt-Kethley
    Abacus, 96 pp, £3.99, November 1989, ISBN 0 349 10122 1

Most books offered as poetry never leave the condition of prose – which is not to say they are good prose. But when a prose voice enters poetry, it can clear and freshen the air. Beside Raymond Carver’s posthumous collection, the others I have been reading seem musty, costumed, made-up. Anyone who finds his poems flat or prosaic might consider Edward Thomas’s defence of Robert Frost: ‘if his work were printed [as prose] it would have little in common with the kind of prose that runs to blank verse ... It is poetry because it is better than prose.’ A New Path to the Waterfall is poetry because it is better than prose. Another of Thomas’s insights into Frost also applies to Carver at his best: ‘with a confidence like genius, he has trusted his conviction that a man will not easily write better than he speaks when some matter has touched him deeply, and he has turned it over until he has no doubt what it means to him, when he has no purpose to serve beyond expressing it, when he has no audience to be bullied or flattered, when he is free, and speech takes one form and no other.’ Let the theorists make of that what they will.

Tess Gallagher, Carver’s widow and partner in an intense literary enterprise (she moved in the opposite direction, from poems to stories), has collated his last book. Her introduction stresses that poetry was always on the horizon for him. Carver preferred, indeed, to be called ‘poet and short-story writer – and occasional essayist’. Gallagher reprints his occasional essay ‘Some Prose on Poetry’, which tells how he came across a copy of the magazine Poetry in a house he visited while working as a delivery boy. The magazine’s owner let him keep it: an epiphanic ‘moment when the very thing I needed most in my life – call it a polestar – was casually, generously given to me’. More recently, Carver, who has been called ‘America’s Chekhov’, followed his star by re-arranging as verse passages from Chekhov’s stories. Gallagher, who initiated this practice, says: ‘it was as if we’d discovered another Chekhov inside Chekhov.’ (Shades of Frost and Thomas again.) These Chekhov ‘poems’, interspersed through A New Path to the Waterfall, suggest how Raymond Carver went on discovering another Carver inside Carver. Dying from lung cancer, having already published his selected poems (In a Marine Light), he reached still more intently for something glimpsed when ‘bleary from reading [Poetry and the Little Review Anthology] I had the distinct feeling my life was in the process of being altered in some significant and even, forgive me, magnificent way.’

Both the re-formed Chekhov extracts and Carver’s own poems put pressure on line-endings. Frost’s ‘common decasyllabics’ less radically tested that crucial borderline between poetry and prose. But Carver’s line-breaks have little in common with the kind of poetry that runs to free verse. They participate in a larger rhythm which depends on sentence-sounds, on a primarily syntactical music. (Frost compared poems without sentence-sounds to clothes tied together without a clothes-line.) Significantly, Carver’s methods most fully declare themselves where he is most immersed in storytelling.

Narrative, often the resort of failed lyricists (whereas Carver’s lyrics concentrate successful narration), is a much-abused term. At one pole it can legitimately cover some of the fictions that Paul Muldoon conjures from phrase and symbol. But Carver, although his narratives are not necessarily transparent, sets out from the other pole, from event. And the short story has nurtured (or did it draw on?) the instinct that marks a real poet: where to begin and end. A Carver poem instantly establishes its presence:

That time I tagged along with my dad to the dry cleaner’s
What’d I know then about Death?

Trying to write a poem while it was still dark out,
he had the unmistakable feeling he was being watched.

‘What the doctor said’ begins, ‘He said it doesn’t look good,’ and ends:

I jumped up and shook hands with this man
                       who’d just given me
Something no one else on earth had ever given me
I may even have thanked him habit being so strong.

The ominous miniature ‘Quiet Nights’ might epitomise Carver’s imaginative transactions between two points, the first fixed, the second problematic:

I go to sleep on one beach,
wake up on another.

Boat all fitted out,
tugging against its rope.

Carver’s lyrics condense strategies of his narrative poems, as the latter condense strategies of his stories.[*] But all his writing tends towards dramatic monologue, present-tense soliloquy that wears the past like a hairshirt. Some poems in A New Path to the Waterfall (‘The Offending Eel’, ‘Miracle’, ‘On an Old Photograph of My Son’) once again revolve around deranged marital or family relations. But he now bravely adds his own cancer to these case-histories of the incurable. ‘The Net’ projects the artist as both outside and inside the pain which is his subject:

Toward evening the wind changes. Boats
still out on the bay
head for shore. A man with one arm
sits on the keel of a rotting-away
vessel, working on a glimmering net.
He raises his eyes. Pulls at something
with his teeth, and bites hard ...
                                           I keep
going. When I turn back to look
I’m far enough away
to see that man caught in a net.

‘The Net’ also illustrates Carver’s unforced transitions from narrative to emblem. The short story ‘Intimacy’ ends with an estranged husband walking through ‘Piles of leaves wherever I look ... Somebody ought to get a rake and take care of this.’ ‘Nearly’, with its parable of pest control, represents another way of adjusting the ingredients. And Carver does not, in fact, mix the same poem twice.

A New Path to the Waterfall ‘bites hard’, reinstating feeling in a manner Philip Larkin might have approved. However, the poems are not only not artless: they unite poetry and epistemology more deeply and functionally than does, for instance, John Ashbery. When Carver in ‘Summer Fog’ imagines grieving for his wife, instead of vice versa, he instals poetry as the agent of knowing.

‘The Painter and the Fish’, a rich and witty version of Carver’s aesthetic, associates art with the need and lust for cognition:

All day he’d been working, like a locomotive.
I mean he was painting, the brush strokes
coming like clockwork. Then he called
home. And that was that. That was all she
wrote. He shook like a leaf.

This disturbed painter abandons his mechanical craftsmanship and takes a walk through Carver country. He observes card-players, ‘men driving/ jitneys and forklifts, driving themselves’, and ‘a mill/ called “the mill” ’. He finally sees an amazing fish rise out of the water during a rain-storm:

            The painter’s mouth flew
open. By the time he’d reached home
he’d quit smoking and vowed never
to talk on the telephone again.
He put on his smock and picked up
his brush. He was ready to begin
again, but he didn’t know if one
canvas could hold it all. Never
mind. He’d carry it over
onto another canvas if he had to.
It was all or nothing. Lightning, water,
fish, cigarettes, cards, machinery,
the human heart, that old port.
Even the woman’s lips against
the receiver, even that.
The curl of her lip.

Few contemporary poems attain the ideal completeness symbolised in ‘The Painter and the Fish’. Ted Hughes, well capable of it, has long rejected certain formal and social co-ordinates which his poetry now sorely misses.[†] Perhaps difficulties begin at the point where archetypes cannot do the whole work of psychology, where dying animals cannot altogether stand in for unaccommodated man. The best poems in Wolfwatching are further elegies for ‘the seed-corn/ Lugged back from the Somme’. Yet Hughes does not always listen to his human material. The first part of ‘Walt’, finely understated, records a veteran’s memory of lying with a bullet in his groin and imagining a walk through his native countryside. The second part, however, transforms Walt and his wound into a cliché of Hughesian apocalypse:

Mountains of dissolution
Boil cold geysers.

In Hughes, melodrama is the flipside of evasion. Thus, of two poems about his ‘postwar father’, ‘Dust as we are’ is less effective because inflated trench-images (‘Swampquakes of the slime of puddled soldiers’) remain outside the relationship of father and son. But ‘For the Duration’, which confronts the son’s ‘strange fear when the war-talk,/ like a creeping barrage, approached you’, gets to the trenches through empathy.

Along with aborted Englands, Hughes elegises the life-force and the poetry force. It is hard not to read the title-poem, which invokes his most dispirited caged beast to date, as an ironic allegory of poet and audience:

Children’s gazings
Have tattered him to a lumpish
Comfort of woolly play-wolf.

Wry quotation from earlier poems may imply that the Hughes universe is losing conviction as it ages, as Lupercal subsides into Wolfwatching. On the other hand, this ‘world/ Stinking on the bone, pecked by sparrows’ is yet again the animal dying within us, the psyche constrained and persecuted.

So is it all the fault of the audience? Or does self-criticism attach to the old wolf’s ‘left-over scraps and bits of energy/And bitten-off impulses’? That might describe how Hughes still says ten things (three of them brilliant) about a macaw or dove without the result adding up to a poem. Over-free verse has encouraged a fission of image from image, and line from line. But there are some signs of structural tightening in Wolfwatching. The power of Lupercal did not issue from Hughes’s daemon alone, but from its contest with prevailing formalities, from the tension between cage and horizon. ‘Telegraph Wires’, written in succinct couplets, renews that tension:

Take telegraph wires, a lonely moor,
And fit them together. The thing comes alive in your ear.

Poetry renews itself, comes alive, within the necessities of the individual poem. If these are dodged, a totalising vision and vocabulary may take over. Like Hughes, Peter Redgrove has developed a brand of ready-mix poetic utterance. Poems 1954-1987, now out in paperback, leaves a homogenised taste of apples, dew, leaves, clouds, mists, spiders, ‘juices and saps’. However, it accords with Redgrove’s animistic, feministic philosophy that all phenomena should melt into a universal flow. A favourite symbol is the spider’s web, ‘crowded with lenses gazing upwards, pointing light’. Books metamorphose into trees, the sensory world into text, Falmouth into phantasmagoria. This kaleidoscope can be exhilarating, where Redgrove does not seize so eagerly on occasions of poetry (‘Shells’, ‘From the Life of a Dowser’, ‘Orchard with Wasps’) as to exhaust them:

Applegenius, loverwasp, scimitar
Of scented air and sugar energy.

Should something be left out?

Redgrove is often most interesting where least rhapsodic or manically inventive :for instance, in ‘Ghosts’, which conflates a haunted terrace and a breaking marriage, and in ‘On the Patio’, which concentrates on ‘a wineglass overflowing with thunderwater’. A trace of conflict does his poetry no harm. But his new collection, The First Earthquake, generally opts for rhapsody: dew and spiders, the ‘yachts purling past the blue headlands/Of bluebell woods’. Marriage and parenthood have rarely been so hymned:

                                          the scripture
Falling open like a rain of conception.

The poet’s imagination desires to be both child (‘Everything flies open just for the child’) and woman:

The great invisible woman plunges
Into the heavy tassels, into the wheat-smell ...

He dwells on, or in, wheat-smells, forest-smells, flower and fruit-smells, woman-smells (including menstruation). Some of this seems over-ripe, like Redgrave’s attraction to jewels or to words like ‘silk’ and ‘shiver’. In worshipping the earth-mother, where does vision stop and voyeurism begin?

John Montague’s last book, The Dead Kingdom, centred – often portentously – on the troubles of his native province:

our homely Ulster swollen
to a Plain of Blood.

This vatic note is mercifully absent from Mount Eagle, except for ‘Cassandra’s Answer’ which resorts to some well-worn Montague adjectives: ‘fatal’, ‘gaunt’, ‘fierce’, ‘bleak’. Better are a pair of particularised sonnets: an elegy for a deaf-mute killed by his failure to respond to a military challenge, and an account of how a Protestant contemporary repaid childhood debts during ‘A swirl of trouble with two UDR’.

Montague’s focus has alternated between the public world and more inward concerns. Here he writes about marriage and children while revisiting mythic territory associated with primal impulses:

I had forgotten that we live between
gasps of, glimpses of miracle;
once sailed through the air like birds,
walked in the waters like fish.

Eagle and salmon (sexed as regally male), deep and high places, symbolise redemption of ‘our foul disgrace’ – presumably both Irish and human. However, good intentions are still intentions:

This is the slope of loneliness.
This is the hill of silence ...

A stony patience.

This is, in fact, the height of abstraction. Montague’s diction betrays him here, as in the awkward phrase ‘gasps of, glimpses of miracle’. His over-insistent participles and adjectives cannot disguise a deep fracture in relations between image and idea: ‘gasping, clasping/for a last breath’, ‘gaunt silos, fuming mills’. Too often Montague is neither looking nor thinking very hard. He repeats words carelessly, a sign that he has not inhabited them. Carelessness breeds cliché: old women have wispy hair, young women golden bodies. We hear of ‘Dame Nature’s self-delighting richness’ and ‘decay’s autumnal weft’. In ‘Scotia’ lochs are ‘melancholy’, ‘names clang like a battle-axe,’ and Sorley MacLean’s ‘echoing Gaelic’ sounds like ‘a fierce pibroch crying on the wind’. Montague’s writing comes alive again in an affectionate memory of John Berryman, in some of the family detail, in two translations from the Irish. But Mount Eagle proves by default what A New Path to the Waterfall proves positively: linguistic and rhythmic precisions are inseparable from other accuracies.

Despite the howls of the excluded, it can be quite easy for modest talent to secure a niche in the pantheons of our archipelago. This produces tacit conspiracies of specialisation. Thus George Mackay Brown specialises in Feyness, Fiona Pitt-Kethley in Coarseness. Mackay Brown’s The Wreck of the Archangel may charm –

Said stone to buttercup,
‘Dance till you’re yellow rags, then die’

– but his legendary Orkney serves only limited purposes beyond its own wistful evocation. Decorative marginalisation would not suit Pitt-Kethley, loudly knocking on doors in central London, obsessed with ‘the poetry world’ as a Gents toilet where

   inside, all the bastards in a row,
stood envying what the man next door had got.

Pitt-Kethley’s writing is verse, performance, pre-Aids Cosmo journalism: ‘Safe sex? There’s no such thing.’ But as hype and market forces invade poetry, I can sympathise with her ambition for an immodest niche. The vulgarity (her word) is at least honest.

[*] Elephant, and Other Stories was issued in paperback by Collins Harvill on 21 September 1989. (124 pp., £4.95, 0 00 27104 0)

[†] A selection of the Moortown poems has been reissued as Moortown Diary (Faber, 68 pp., £8.99 and £3.99, 18 September 1989, 0 571 14196 2).