Ancient Orthodoxies

C.K. Stead

  • Antidotes by C.H. Sisson
    Carcanet, 64 pp, £6.95, March 1991, ISBN 0 85635 908 4
  • Dog Fox Field by Les Murray
    Carcanet, 103 pp, £6.95, February 1991, ISBN 0 85635 950 5
  • True Colours by Neil Powell
    Carcanet, 102 pp, £6.95, March 1991, ISBN 0 85635 910 6
  • Eating strawberries in the Necropolis by Michael Hulse
    Harvill, 63 pp, £5.95, March 1991, ISBN 0 00 272076 0

‘Aller Moor’, the first poem in Antidotes, begins

And now the distance seems to grow
Between myself and that I know:

It is from a strange land I speak
And a far stranger that I seek.

A heron rises under my nose
And into the flat distance goes.

The thoughts that follow her grow less
And vanish into emptiness.

But I am I and I stay here:
Who and where I am is not clear.

The book’s dedication quotes ‘no surfett in word no in language’. The poetic ambition is to be honest, without pretensions; the poetic problem, or part of it, that to strip away all colour may leave only a faint wash. Because the language is so neutral, it is the form in these lines which eye and ear find themselves debating. A slight awkwardness can add charm and authenticity: but when I come to the tenth line, which has the right number of syllables, but where the emphases cannot by any stretch of normal articulation be made to fall where they should, it is as if my driver has inexplicably run off the road.

There are other uncertainties. Does the statement need all those syllables, or are some of them (‘seems to’, ‘it is’, ‘under my nose’) there to fill out the form? Has versification compacted the statement, or inflated it? That these are not problems which detain me in Marvell’s octosyllabic couplets (‘To His Coy Mistress’), or Yeats’s (‘To Ireland in the Coming Times’), may have less to do with metrics than with a richness in and beyond the language. Sisson writes, ‘A heron rises,’ and because I, too, encounter herons on my local walks, I see at once the curiously beautiful drapery on the wings’ trailing edges, and the elegant languid lofting into the air – but I don’t see them in the poem. When Les Murray writes, ‘the white-faced heron hides in the drain with her spear,’ or when Allen Curnow writes, ‘the small wind instruments in the herons’ throats / play an incorrigible music,’ there is in each case the shock of something quite particular, and of language forced to find a way of matching it. Someone is forgetting himself and looking out at the world from which Sisson seems mostly to avert his eyes.

C.H. Sisson (b. 1914) has had a quietly distinguished but consistent and latterly accelerated literary career. Since his retirement from the Civil Service, publications have come more frequently. Michael Schmidt, his colleague on PN Review, has promoted his work; and Donald Davie, in one of those hot flushes that make his criticism so unpredictable and exciting, has declared Sisson’s ‘The Usk’ to be ‘one of the great poems of our time’. Sisson’s critical writing is intelligent, sharp, individual and readable. He is a first-rate translator of poetry. His essays on religion and politics must be enjoyed by the few of like mind, and are surely of interest to those whose disposition is otherwise, if only because they show how a man almost totally at odds with the spirit of his age (he is a High Church monarchist and English nationalist who believes modern Conservatives insufficiently Tory) can put his case lucidly and rationally. But the impression darkens upon reading Christopher Homm, a novel technically interesting in that it proceeds chronologically backwards from its central character’s senility in the opening chapter to his birth in its last, and which I have seen promoted as a major work, but which for me has the distinction only of being the bleakest, most limiting and perverse view of human life I have ever encountered in fictional form.

Which I think focuses Sisson’s problem as a writer.

I seek reclusion from the years
Which have brought nothing but the lack
Of what I wanted, even tears
Are not worth shedding ...

It is as if he is conscientiously living out to the end the death-in-life adumbrated in his novel published twenty-five years ago and written ten years earlier. ‘The “autumnal serenity” and “the wisdom of age”,’ Sisson once wrote with reference to Four Quartets, ‘are a wash-out, but it is of no use to keep on saying so.’

In 15 some might say bloodless, but nonetheless grave and dignified sonnets, Sisson states the problem of the ageing poet who believes ‘the time of truth has come,’ that ‘poets are liars,’ and that

No other language but that of the Creed
Will serve to say the things which must be said.

Logically no conclusion is possible but that ‘silence is best,’ and Sisson comes to it – again and again – but not to silence itself, which after all no reader of poetry would want of him. Rather, what one craves is a break-out of senses and sensibility from the prison-house of self. There’s self-reproach, even self-loathing, it may be, at times: it is nonetheless the ego that stands between the poet and his perceptions, condemning the world along with himself, and putting all his poetic eggs into one ineffable, invisible, unsayable basket that is supposed to exist somewhere out there beyond the frame of the poem:

Trust no man, nor no woman, though they bend
to do you pleasure, hunted or unsought.

Only God, out of the desolate sky,
Comes to renew the pattern we have spoiled.

Sisson is at his best in a dignified blank verse which acknowledges its precedents back to Shakespeare without losing its footing in the present; and there are rare off-guard moments of something like affirmation:

Not what the wind said but what solid people
Have said at the height of their delusions
Or in the middle of a tough campaign
when choices filled their minds and nothing else:
These are the speeches I can listen to.

And

The hope and love I had in fields and moors,
In hills, in waters lashing round the coast.
The coast of where? And where but you, O England,
Which name has gathered all my hopes and loves,
Changed like a dream, the land that never was
And yet to which I gave my dearest wish
Which contained all the wishes that I had ...

The ‘wish’ here seems to be political, and must be related to a line in the sonnets: ‘The only dream I had did not come true.’ But what was it? Did it belong to Sisson’s youthful, and persisting, admiration for Charles Maurras (once described by Eliot as ‘a Virgil who led some of us to the gates of the temple’)? One is grateful for a positive emotion: but we are not permitted to have its source or its larger context, and it lies there mysterious among the denials, like an air ticket in the wreckage of an earthquake.

Long ago Sisson quoted René Béhaine identifying the very moment at which he lost le sens du bonheur et le pouvoir d’être heureux, and added that ‘something of that kind’ happened to him in 1932. Six decades later his faith in his loss of the power to be happy seems cast in stone. One can’t complain of that, I suppose. Joy can be quite as oppressive and intrusive as sadness. Both tend to stand between the poet and his world. But ‘attend to what is,’ Sisson tells himself: ‘The smallest thing that is is better than / The best that can be said’. The injunction, if not the schoolmasterly tone, is like W.C. Williams’s ‘No ideas but in things.’ And in one of his essays Sisson writes: ‘It doesn’t matter whether the poet can talk: he must observe. He will look and listen; it is difficult to believe that there was ever a poet who was not a watchful man.’ In his own way, it must seem to Sisson that he lives by this requirement. But for the baffled reader, wanting to admire, conscious of a substantial literary presence yet baulked by the inexhaustible rumblings of an abstract discontent, it is precisely here that the poetry seems to fail.

Les Murray is certainly an observer. Observation stimulates invention, which in turn demands further observation. He has no classic sense of restraint, of tact, of limit. His talent clamours to be fed. His poems are heavily laden pack-horses, unloaded line by line against a glaring landscape or in a downpour. His stylistic principle might be ‘Never say “When”.’ The fixed forms he likes to work in are crammed, sometimes to bursting, or sinking. It is a poetry I would have thought alien to my own temperament; and there are some few poems in which, even reading aloud, I can’t quite pick up on how the lines should run, and suspect the fault is his, not mine. Yet I read him compulsively. There is so much of a world in Murray’s poems, so much linguistic life and intellectual energy, so many tones, moods, clever ideas, amusing anecdotes, and a presiding presence, not altogether or always benign, but mainly so – and certainly likeable.

Murray shares with Sisson a faith in ancient orthodoxies and a contempt for modern ones: but that world view, sometimes comically expressed, as in the description of our era as one when ‘The poor were fat and the rich were lean. / Nearly all could preach, very few could sing,’ is not intrusive. You are not required to share it – any more than you must share his conservative sexual morality to admire the dash, the succinctness and the brutality with which he can sum up a change in mores between the Sixties and the Eighties:

So it’s back to window shopping
on Aphrodite Street
for the apples are stacked and juicy
but some are death to eat.

These larger views function partly as an assurance that the poet is in no sense land-locked. Nor is he time-bound. His sense of history and his ability to evoke it in rich particulars are acute. There is evidence everywhere of a mind working both on the near and the far. But at the centre of Dog Fox Field there is the poet and family man occupying land in the Northern Rivers countryside of Australia that is home.

He could envisage
though he didn’t invent
the breeze-steered dam
in its khaki pug,
cattle twinned at their drinking
and the baby frogs
still in their phlegm.

Woodducks drowsing on their feet
enriching the dam wall
he could foresee them,
but not the many jets
of the native waterlily
burning Bunsen-blue ...

There, though the writing is tight, the lines are transparent. He can also be colloquial, either adopting a persona, as in

He’s done me, has that bastard Sanderson
that I sank dams for on his huge mountain run.
Eighteen months and damn near the wreck
of my business from the lies he spread – now I get his cheque
and it’s pure rubber!

Or in being himself:

Bang! it was autumn
right on the first of the month,
cool overcast after scorchers
and next day it poured.

He enjoys linguistic games, as in the poem on removing spiderwebs. He also has more courage than any poet since Auden in letting invention run with an idea – as when, in ‘The Cows on Killing Day’, he speaks as ‘All me’, the collective consciousness of a herd. And perhaps best of all there are those poems, ‘Midnight Lake’, for example, or ‘Spitfire Roundel’, which resist arrest, and where obscurity comes, not from clutter, but from compression. In some of these, not understanding perfectly feels like the finest kind of poetic apprehension, keeping the poem alive right on the brink of sense:

That’s the choice: most
as failures and tools
or an untrustworthy host
of immortal souls.
               o
The owl who eats living
mice in the gloom
is still in the long
rehearsals of your freedom.
               o
Absolutely everything
is absolute to those
who see the poem in it.
Relegation is prose.

Energy, intelligence, daring; and a charity not at odds with a sense of the absurd – all these are where they should be, in the language. It is not merely the scale of Murray’s talent that is remarkable, but the way he has worked in isolation, not at the role of the poet, but at the craft.

Neil Powell’s cover offers the title, True Colours, red on black, and a photograph of a shirtless young man, nipples to crotch, head and legs out of the picture, his Lee Cooper jeans undone and hanging well below the navel. The blurb recommends the ‘movingly elegiac’ sequence ‘A Cooling Universe’. It consists of 15 formal sonnets in which the last line of each becomes the first line of the next, the last line of the 14th returns us to the first line of the first, and the 14 final lines together become the 15th sonnet – on the face of it no mean achievement, but one which buries the dead man whose memorial the sequence is supposed to be so deep I have no sense at all of him or of what he might have meant to the poet. Sonnet 12 begins:

As time and distance beckon us to sleep,
Lines soften into shadows. Here at least
Bleak landscape and clear light may help to keep
A style plain as the wheatfields of the East ...

It’s not quite clear what time and distance are doing there: but the rest makes its point, that landscape may suggest and foster a particular style. But we have a sonnet to complete, so

Or other regions whose topography
Enforces its unwritten discipline –
Llano and tundra, wilderness and scree,
Where space and sparseness suddenly align.

You’ve got the point? Maybe – but we’ve only reached line eight.

Such landscape should dictate a clarity
Of vision, an economy of words,
A still-life rather than a tapestry ...

True Colours is Neil Powell’s third collection, and includes a selection from the previous two. He has an essentially iambic ear, with a fair range of variation, and firm control of verse forms. His poems are mostly written in the first person – civilised, educated, accomplished, not infrequently addressed to friend or lover. If there is a predominant mood it is quiet, nostalgic, sentimental. In the background there is usually landscape (East Anglia particularly) and weather. These are the kinds of limit Georgian poetry imposed. In Powell’s case they are not, I should think, primarily a matter of poetic ideology so much as of temperament: but he is prepared to defend them. In ‘An Autumn Letter to Roger Walton’ he writes of ‘minds which will never wrestle for a rhyme’, and goes on:

Preposterous digression – well, maybe:
But we agree on craft and clarity
And in your art as well as mine prefer
The well-wrought to the merely amateur.
The easy and the pleasurable betray
A mind to dullness and a world to clay.

And at the end of the poem:

If this devalued age deserves an art,
Or we deserve to give it one, let’s start.

Did anyone ever suppose that amateurs in verse were short of rhymes? On my reading, these are lines that condemn themselves, even while claiming to be ‘art’.

The distinction between verse form and the unique form of the poem is always the problem. Form is everything you do with anything that may be thought of as existing ‘outside’ the poem, before or after it, and which doesn’t go into it as wine into a bottle, but is kneaded, trimmed, added to, moulded, to become the verbal artefact. It requires an ear and an eye, a vocabulary, a grammatical sense and a tradition. It also requires invention. Each occasion is a new formal problem, making new demands. Michael Hulse grew up in Stoke-on-Trent, son of an English father and a German mother. He seems to live now in both countries and both languages, to have travelled in North America, and to have learned from the New Zealand poet Allen Curnow, who shares the dedication and is the subject of a poem.

I am not suggesting that these biographical facts explain the sense of expansion there is in moving from Powell to Hulse: on the other hand, they represent opportunities which haven’t gone unused. He is an elegant, occasionally an opulent poet: clever, various and engaging. He can catch the arbitrariness of thought intertwined with perception, its lack of logic, and the force of that lack. He speaks mostly in his own persona, always in complicated or subtle relationship to people (or person) and place; but also sometimes in the persona of someone quite other – the ageing Salvador Dali, various characters in paintings by Winslow Homer, or Deedee’s woman friend who tells her ‘an aluminium casket would be a good idea.’ It is a poetry not unrelated to Murray’s, though on a smaller scale and less firmly centred, and whose nearest or largest forebear must surely be the later Auden.

A poet’s distributing photocopied verse
for a few pesetas and a pathetic boy
       tries begging from the woman who
    pulled up in a Porsche in a squall of dust

and now sits testily scanning La Revista,
sunglasses cocked in her mane and a pendent breast
       relaxing out of her T-shirt
    whenever she leans for an olive. Me,

I’m watching her over the top of a battered
Penguin Classics Life of Saint Teresa, drinking
   an Aguila beer and thinking
   of Teresa’s image of the waters ...

Here the syllabic count, 12, 12, 8, 10, has its usual effect of permitting an irregular pattern of stresses to establish itself, independent of the count, while shutting out the iambic automaton. But the other economy is to get a number of disparate elements into the picture without dislocation – a highly artificial juggling act which paradoxically makes us feel we are not in a poem, but in ‘life’.