Advice for the New Nineties

Julian Symons

  • HMS Glasshouse by Sean O’Brien
    Oxford, 56 pp, £5.99, November 1991, ISBN 0 19 282835 5
  • The Hogweed Lass by Alan Dixon
    Poet and Printer, 33 pp, £3.00, September 1991, ISBN 0 900597 39 9
  • Collected Poems by Les Murray
    Carcanet, 319 pp, £18.95, November 1991, ISBN 0 85635 923 8

Every poetic rebellion hardens sooner or later into an ossification of style and language and needs replacement by something at the time believed to be its opposite. In the 20th century it has been sooner rather than later, so that in Britain the almost art-for-art’s-sake purity of Imagism was replaced by the socially-conscious, deliberately objective poetry of the Thirties. When that was killed off by the war the vacuum was filled by the extravagant romanticism associated with Dylan Thomas, George Barker and Edith Sitwell. Less than a decade later, with those roses seen as over-blown, Robert Conquest was deploring ‘the omission of the necessary intellectual component from poetry’, gathering several disparate writers under one umbrella, and announcing the striking out of New Lines. The Movement was succeeded by the Group (now what was that?), and common sense gave way to the desperate metaphorical and mechanical ingenuity of the Martians, which in turn ...

Responsibility for the present poetic confusion rests chiefly with the general obedience to Pound’s rejection of what he called the yakkety-yakkety-yak of iambic pentameter, and tacit agreement with his insistence on the poetic power of the image. The beliefs that plain or ornamented images are almost poems in themselves, that there are ‘no ideas but in things’, and hence no need even to consider the possible importance of a poetic metric, have led in the last two decades to a mass of inert, inept verse. Some of it has been written by talented poets bemused by the ‘freedom’ given or even imposed on them by Poundian principles. Free verse, as was said long ago, can never be free. It takes on the quality of poetry through awareness of the restrictions of rhythm and metre even while rejecting verse that goes yakkety-yakkety-yak. In his last years Roy Fuller was much absorbed by theories of prosody, the nature of metrical stresses, and what he called the artifice of versification. He concluded that ‘rhythm is the root of the matter in poetry’, rhythm as complex as Swinburne’s or as straightforward as Gershwin’s, and also that ‘one thing is certain: there is nothing particularly simple about the way good poems are fabricated.’ Of course this is not to say a poet is always conscious of what he is doing, only that the idea of complete independence from metrical or prosodic ‘limitations’ is an illusion. Much of what is written today is uninteresting because incompetent, the writers unaware even that any skill exists to be mastered. That wasn’t true in the past. Southey’s protégé Kirke White had the most minuscule poetic talent, but technical competence enabled him to produce in his 21 years some readable though imitative verse. A good slogan for the poetic Nineties would be an inversion of Blake: ‘Damn relaxes, bless braces.’ Bless, too, the varied and pleasurable technical resources of poetry, sight, half, leonine and other rhymes, dimeter, trimeter and tetrameter, spondee and dactyl and what Poe called Her Serene Highness the Archduchess Ana-Pest. It is a mistaken puritanism that makes some poets today deny them all.

Her Serene Highness is distinctively and successfully present in Sean O’Brien’s poems of workaday life. He envisages, for instance, an ‘hour of general safety’ when you can rest peacefully and

Leave the socks you forgot on the clothesline.
Leave slugs to make free with the pansies

in a world where momentarily

The policemen have slipped from their helmets
And money forgets how to count ...
The deaf submarines with their crewmen
Spark out at their fathomless consoles.

The anapest’s downbeat effect can become monotonous, and O’Brien intelligently uses it as a basic measure, varied every few lines by a change in stress or rhythm. His poems are about averagely hard and easy days of living, among them the pleasures and disasters of drinking, the burden of working in libraries (‘the lost oubliettes of unwisdom’) and the greater burden of teaching students who move from ‘their latest adventures in learning to spell/To a common obsession with Sylvia Plath’. These are not all hymns to boredom, however – far from it. ‘Working on the Railway’ broods on a dream of past railway travel as the poet reads ‘Lost Railways of England’ instead of working. ‘From the Whalebone’ shows affection for a fairly grim Northern scene, and other poems suggest a love-hate relationship with Brighton, the love perhaps predominating. There are occasional reminders of Auden in his threatening early manner, as in ‘Propaganda’, which ends with the radio announcement that

            all roads are flooded,
The sovereign’s in Canada, Hitler in Brighton,
And no one will leave here tonight.

No more than reminders, though. Sean O’Brien is a poet of original talent, witty, stylish, unpretentious, constantly enjoyable.

Enjoyable seems the right epithet too for Alan Dixon’s pamphlet. The joys and miseries of childhood are a dismally common poetic theme, but ‘Odd Shoes’ leavens sentiment neatly with comedy through the shoes of the title, one blue and white, the other ‘a heavy black laced pair with round capped toes’. Why was the boy wearing them? We don’t exactly learn, but the result is effective. Sometimes the poems seem no more than deliberately odd, like that about an old man dreaming of a young girl’s beautiful feet, or just quaint like one about John Nash as a young painter, but the slow seriousness of the writing remains attractive. There are agreeable poems about cats, one called Little Blotter, and a lively curse poem. The ordinary is often made to seem excessively strange as when blackthorn blossom turns into ‘the frock on a dark, small, angular lady’. Straining a bit for effect? No doubt, but outrageous metaphor like this keeps you alert.

Les Murray is a rarity, a poet with a gift of the gab used not for self-regarding rhetoric but for storytelling, a man writing with unstrained and often moving eloquence about the places and people of his native New South Wales. He offers a possible answer to the teasing question: ‘Does Australian poetry exist?’ Exist, that is, as something independent of influence by Yeats, Auden and a variety of Americans? The question was momentarily posed, though not really considered, in the recent Faber Book of Modern Australian Verse, in which the editor Vincent Buckley glided away from it with phrases praising the ‘combination of set forms with vernacular language’ as innovatory. Yet if one looks at poets of talent like A.D. Hope and Judith Wright, the debt they owe to Europe, not just in technique but in the approach made to their native material, seems obvious, and although some of the younger writers use an insistently demotic language, they might be writing anywhere at all:

I don’t go to the pub much any more –
they pulled down the Newcastle ten years ago,
and the Forest Lodge is full of young punks
who can’t hold their drink.

It isn’t a pub in Newcastle, Eng, he’s talking about, but it might be.

Murray, by contrast, is unmistakably Australian, his subjects mostly found around the area where he grew up, his only obvious influence the ballads and narrative poems of such now disregarded writers as Henry Lawson and ‘Banjo’ Paterson (‘The Sick Stockrider’ etc). His work has changed very little over the quarter-century covered by this volume, so that some of the finest poems are the early ones, ‘Driving Through Sawmill Towns’, ‘Evening Alone at Bunyah’, ‘Lament for the Country Soldiers’, The deliberate roughness of ‘The Ballad of Jimmy Grosvenor’, a poem about a man soon to be hanged, is a corrective to the literariness of Wilde on the same subject:

Soon all be finished, the running.
No tracks of mine lead out of here.
Today, I take that big step
on the bottom rung of the air
and be in Heaven for dinner.
Might be the first jimbera there.

The tone of ‘Driving Through Sawmill Towns’ is quite different and extraordinarily evocative, with its casual glimpses of ‘bare hamlets built of board ... a plain young wife at a tankstand fetching water/in a metal bucket’ for homes where ‘men sit after tea/by the stove while their wives talk’. In this world there is a lot of action as axemen cut down trees, pigs are slaughtered, bulls are tamed.

Block him, yard him, bloody bull,
I’ll sell you for dogmeat, screamed
my short-legged father.

At other times men meditate on a possibly bleak future, and muse on stories about a recalcitrant horse ‘looking for the kingdom of God’ and the dreams of a flying fox. There are poems of delicate sensibility like that in which snow is seen for the first and only time, and of deliberate stylishness like ‘The Commercial Hotel’.

Murray’s most characteristic manner is a down-to-earth lyricism, seen most impressively in a cycle of poems covering aspects of life at his Bunyah home over a year. The loose but varied forms of these pieces give full scope for his accurate descriptive skills and zest for storytelling. Old men talk in the kitchens in ‘a kind of spoken video’, their tales running contrapuntally, there are recollections of the district’s former haircutter now replaced by ‘the buzzing electric clipper, straight from its card-board giftbox’. The language is vivid, packed, nervously vigorous. This is a view of the rainy season:

Horses are exposed to it, wanly stamping out
unglazed birth ware for mosquitoes in the coming season
and already peach trees are a bare wet frame
for notional little girls in pink dots of gingham

This remarkable poem cycle, like most of the longer pieces contains some excruciating phrases (Murray’s satires are much less successful than the descriptive or lyrical poems), yet the force of the imagery and the driving energy of the language make one swallow the MacGonagallian couplets with which it opens. It is even possible to be persuaded that they provide a necessary contrast to the felicities that follow. And within an apparent looseness of form, there is a variety of styles. Like all poetic talent Murray’s is partly natural, but still there is nothing simple about the way these good poems are fabricated.