Christ’s Teeth

C.K. Stead

  • Studies in the Ezra Pound by Donald Davie
    Carcanet, 388 pp, £25.00, April 1991, ISBN 0 85635 850 9
  • Poems 1963-1983 by Michael Longley
    Secker, 205 pp, £8.00, August 1991, ISBN 0 436 25676 2
  • Under the Circumstances by D.J. Enright
    Oxford, 64 pp, £5.99, May 1991, ISBN 0 19 282834 7
  • In the Echoey Tunnel by Christopher Reid
    Faber, 73 pp, £12.99, September 1991, ISBN 0 571 16252 5
  • A Cold Coming by Tony Harrison
    Bloodaxe, 16 pp, £2.95, July 1991, ISBN 1 85224 186 1

‘Dates, dates are of the essence; and it will be found that I date quite exactly the breakdown of the imaginative exploit of the Cantos: between the completion of the late sequence called “Rock-Drill”, and the inauguration of the next, called “Thrones”.’ This is Donald Davie in his introduction to Studies in Ezra Pound, offered as Volume IV of his Collected Works, and including the whole of Ezra Pound: Poet as Sculptor (1964), followed by a single essay from 1972, then ‘Six Notes on Ezra Pound’ from Trying to Explain (1980 – nowhere actually named in the present volume), and nine essays and reviews written since. Excluded without mention is his 1975 Pound in the Fontana Modern Masters series, a book that mixed some of his best critical insights with strange eruptions of moralising petulance.

Davie’s problem with ‘Thrones’, and so his location of the ‘breakdown’ of the Cantos there, is that it offers ‘propagandist fiction’ as historical fact; and worse, there is ‘its levity: the high-handedness with which Pound at that stage exploited several mutually inconsistent myths of history as if all were equally nourishing and proper’. In other words, the truth of the thing beyond poetry is compromised. The poem hands itself over to modern theorists who argue that poetry is only a linguistic construct, not to be measured against anything outside itself. ‘Thrones’, Davie’s book asserts in its final sentence, ‘cannot be saved from the ... Post-Structuralists; and that is just what is wrong with it.’

But elsewhere Davie argues against reading the Cantos simply for ‘meaning’ or ‘ideas’ or ‘history’ – treating the words as a code to be broken. He even rejects his own six-page reading of Canto 91 as a ‘travesty’ since it has ‘raised to the explicitness of ideas matters which the poet goes to great lengths not to make explicit’.

So critics who use the poem as a stepping-off point into history and a world outside the poem are resisted by Davie: but so are theorists who invite us to stay in there with the doors and windows shut and the curtains drawn. This appears to be a contradiction: but it’s clear that Davie feels it need not be – and I agree with him, though I think it’s a problem he doesn’t ever quite resolve.

Even with the most successful passages from the Cantos there can seem to be a problem residing in a contradiction in Pound himself – between the poet and the man. The poet advocated, achieved, and sustained relentlessly, what he called ‘the presentative method’. Nothing is, or ought to be, explained. It is simply there, fulfilling the Jamesian injunction, ‘Dramatise!’ But much of what the poet insisted must be presented dramatically, as voice, had been chosen by the man, from remote and random sources, because he considered it important, worthy of exposition, even necessary if Western civilisation was to be saved. The more the man insisted on this material, bringing it in by the cartload from his reading, the more the poet insisted on disposing it eccentrically – truncated, juxtaposed, verbalised, twisted into a texture that was not permitted simply, or even primarily, to point beyond itself. Even in its worst absurdities – the crackerbarrel ‘Amurkin’ passages, the being-on-first-names-with-history (‘Miss Tudor’, ‘Jim First’, ‘Noll’ and ‘Charlie’) – one can see Pound the poet resisting Pound the man, determined that the material of his art shall be seen for what it is: not history, nor landscape, nor biography, nor economics, but language.

Is this, then, a confirmation of the modern theorist’s approach to poetry: that all texts are equal, self-referential, and that it is what the critic makes of them that really matters? I don’t believe it is. I share Davie’s rejection of that view, which presents itself as a revolt against the authority of the academic establishment but is in fact the academy’s revolt against the authority of literature. Words in Pound signify. Reference is a function of language; and in poetry which claims its traditional pre-eminence among the literary arts every function is to be exploited. Further, Pound assumed that the world words pointed to was ‘real’, whatever problems of theory that might entail. But in poetry of the kind he aimed for (and here, I think, may be the resolution Davie does not quite reach) words draw that life-beyond-language into the life of the poem, rather than going out and surrendering to it.

That is why, I believe, it is possible for capable poetry-readers to take the Cantos whole, not blinding themselves to the dead passages, the boredoms, the follies and felonies, but finding everywhere, and carried along by, an energy generated in the tension between man and poet, between politico-historian and artist, and of course especially rewarded at those places where the poem opens out into passages of great tranquillity, or beauty, or incandescence.

This kind of reading was signalled by Donald Davie in his 1975 book, where he advocated taking the Cantos in ‘great gulps’, not stopping to question what is not understood, but moving with the flow of the thing, accepting such ‘reality’ and immediacy as the words themselves carry, without corroboration outside the frame. It is something as mysterious, I’m sure, to those who can’t achieve it, as swimming is to non-swimmers, or riding a bicycle to those who have never learned. It is also the only way to take the Cantos as a poem. You don’t learn to ride the bicycle by taking it apart, using the Annotated Index to the ‘Cantos’ as a spanner.

Those verbal habits of Pound’s which it seems British readers especially find irritating (and Davie is very good on that subject) seem to me not unlike Picasso’s characteristic iconography. Why should a man who can dispose colours and forms with such power and originality and beauty insist on (for example) those repetitious heads with both eyes on the same side? It’s as though the painter has said: ‘I’m going to give you a version of “reality”, but in such a way that you will never be able to pass effortlessly through the medium of paint into a world you know already. I will continually interrupt your recognitions and make you aware of the medium and that I am in control of it.’ The same is true of Pound’s distortions, puns, slang, typographical tricks. They keep us alert to language, and aware of his fingers on the keyboard. They in fact permit him to go beyond language because they ensure that we go through it.

In the Seventies, when my five-year-old daughter arrived from France for her first day in an English school, a boy in the play ground asked: ‘ ’Oo yer for?’ She didn’t know. He asked again, and added: ‘Tottenham or Chelsea?’ She still didn’t know, but she tried Chelsea, and was roundly punched for it.

Since the hitherto dormant volcano of Northern Ireland began erupting in the Sixties, the poets of that region have attracted a great deal of attention they could not otherwise have expected. This has been a kind of good fortune for them. It must also mean constant expectations and pressures that have constantly to be resisted. Michael Longley has acknowledged that a poet ‘would be inhuman if he did not respond to tragic events in his own community, and a poor artist if he did not seek to endorse that response imaginatively’ – and if the latter part of that sentence means ‘if he didn’t write poems about them’, I agree. But politics at the level of opinion and analysis doesn’t serve poetry well; nor does political feeling unless it goes beyond ‘ ’Oo yer for?’, reaching across whatever barricades divide the parties. The lessons Yeats learned, and taught, have to be relearned in every generation, and even from one poem to the next. The poet wants to do his civic duty, but his first loyalty is to a sterner discipline.

There is nothing (or nothing I can detect) to tell which of the dead in Longley’s three short poems, ‘Wreaths’, were Protestant and which Catholic: but it seems a fair bet that there are some of each, and certain that these are real events, not invented ones The victims are drawn back out of the abstraction of sectarian definition which caused their deaths, into the realm of human particularity. There is anger and regret in the poem, but one could never say quite where, because these feelings are not given direct expression but lie somewhere behind every line, marked as much as anything by the care, the craftsmanship, the reverence with which the victims are brought home to us, and also by that strangely clumsy yet daringly extravagant vision which opens the third poem:

Christ’s teeth ascended with him into heaven:
Through a cavity in one of his molars
The wind whistles: he is fastened for ever
By his exposed canines to a wintry sky.

I am blinded by the blaze of that smile.

In turn, through an image of false teeth, these lines permit Longley to dissolve the identity of the dead workers on the pavement into that of his dead father, whom he must now grieve for and bury again.

Irishmen like to talk in riddles and write in images. If one thinks of the history of Ireland the laying of one language over another so that the colours of the earlier still seep through; the defeats and colonisation; the conflict and intermixture of English and Celt, Catholic and Protestant, until each lives partly in the mirror of the other; the need at times, and so the habit always, of giving tongue obliquely, sometimes hiding a small needle of sense in a haystack of words, and sometimes making the needle stand for the whole haystack – it mightn’t be too much to argue that although Longley only occasionally finds the means, or the occasion, to deal directly with the Troubles, Ireland’s past history and present politics are in every line he writes.

He returns often to the subject of war and war poetry, partly through his father’s recollections of the Somme (where Ulstermen went over the top shouting ‘Fuck the Pope!’ – a way of rousing the blood), and partly because he sees himself as a war poet, inheriting something from Keith Douglas and Isaac Rosenberg. Both writers are named in ‘Bog Cotton’, a poem celebrating the ‘desert flower’ that is to his ‘war’ what the poppy was to his father’s.

Longley’s poetry is thoroughly grounded, never permitted to track far into a abstraction away from landscapes and weather. (What other poet has so outrageously and beautifully pushed the image of the Nativity down into the mud of the manger?) To go forward fast in reading one of these poems is to be forced back over the same ground; and the slower progress only reveals that further crossings will be necessary. Truths are skilfully hidden; statements are often gnomic. There are many uncertainties for the reader, and that is part of the fascination.

The second time we meet I am waiting in a pub
Beside the cigarette machine. She is in her moons.
A cat with a mouse’s tail dangling out of its mouth
Flashes from between her legs and escapes into my head.
There follow trips to the seaside where I find for her
Feathers, shells, dune violets among the marram grass.

That is the first of five stanzas – a poem called ‘Dead Man’s Fingers’. Does ‘in her moons’ refer to menstruation – or is she just ‘mooning’? Is the cat that ‘flashes ... between her legs’ a ‘pussy’ in another sense, and the mouse’s tail a tampax string? Is this happening in the poet’s head, or only in mine? The poem will go on like that, making me feel as if I am discovering what has been put there, but declining to confirm. Of course his strategies are not all successful. Occasionally his images block the plumbing, or, worse, seem pretentious. But there is always that sense of density, texture and formal control.

Ce qui n’est pas vers est prose; and ce qui n’est pas prose est vers: Molière’s Monsieur Jourdain concludes from this that he has been speaking prose all his life. D.J. Enright’s new book is subtitled ‘Poems and Proses’. There is a poem, ‘Martyr to Meaning’, about a poet whose lines in youth were ‘musical, mysterious, modestly magical’. But ‘the older he grows the more he worries about meaning.’ ‘Quaint conjurations’, ‘evocations’, ‘multimeanings’ won’t do.

Everything should mean, never mind how humbly
And even be seen to.

As a consequence, his poems get shorter and shorter: ‘It looks as if meaning is running out.’ If Kingsley Amis had written this, we would be meant to understand that the man was learning sense as he grew older – kicking the bullshit habit. Enright seems to think so too: but he’s less sure. And so the poem ends neither forcefully nor with rich ambiguity, but in equivocation. I admire Enright’s intelligence, like his jokes, share quite a few of his prejudices, enjoy his company on the page. But how do the ‘poems’ differ from the ‘proses’ except that they don’t go all the way to the margin?

Christopher Reid’s new book presents itself strangely. Its title, The Echoey Tunnel, and a cover illustration reminiscent of the Moomintroll stories, suggest a children’s book; and if you should open at the central poem, ‘Memres of Alfred Stoker’, this might at a glance seem to be confirmed. In fact, these 20 pages represent the semi-literate recollections of an old man, born in Wapping in 1885, whose birth (his mother told him) was attended by an angel with a gold face, gold ‘raiment’, gold wings, bearing a gold Bible, and with a voice like thunder.

Than Ma had George Edie Peg so on
but no ANGEL.

I suppose it’s unduly literal of me to worry about provenance. It could all be fiction, which would be one thing. Much more likely is that it is an edited version, arranged into lines, of the old man’s attempt to write his own story, keeping his original spellings, without which it would lose much of its flavour.

fers the paler with the moggne Chairs
moslie shut
ixep Sun day vosens:
you Smell the Old brikes thur the florry paper.

The latter and probable source makes it, I suppose, a ‘found’ poem – with more than the usual problems that entails. If it has literary quality, is its author Alfred Stoker? Or does Reid make it literary by arrangement, and by shifting it into the context of what is, really, a rather arty little book? A nice problem for theorists. To me it smacks of the 18th-century habit of bringing noble savages to meet European royals. (’How do you do, Mr King George,’ said the Maori chief, Hongi. ‘How do you do, Mr King Hongi,’ George replied.)

Reid’s own voice takes over in the other long poem, ‘Survival: A Patchwork’, written as a diary of his wife’s serious illness and recovery, where the best skill is in the syntax (the subject of Davie’s first book) and compression – a free-running, often onrushing linguistic and grammatical flow, not unbroken, but in parts sustained as if a break might signal, or bring about, its subject’s death. There is great compositional skill in this, which is also – since the language is otherwise temperate – the vehicle for a range of deeply-felt emotion.

I turned with something like guilty pleasure (the critic aware that he might be contradicting himself?) to Tony Harrison’s rough and gutsy A Cold Coming. Yes, it’s polemic, ignores all those important Yeatsian lessons, will speak only to those of like mind and will lose a good deal of its point as the events recede into history. Nevertheless I’m glad in the short term to salute a poet who has put simple disgust at the Gulf War into very effective rhyme.