Uncertainties of the Poet

Nicolas Tredell

  • Kid by Simon Armitage
    Faber, 89 pp, £4.99, June 1992, ISBN 0 571 16607 5
  • Feast Days by John Burnside
    Secker, 52 pp, £6.00, April 1992, ISBN 0 436 20103 8
  • An African Elegy by Ben Okri
    Cape, 84 pp, £4.99, March 1992, ISBN 0 224 03006 X
  • Memorabilia by Colin Falck
    Taxus, 77 pp, £5.95, March 1992, ISBN 1 873012 23 3
  • Serious Concerns by Wendy Cope
    Faber, 87 pp, £12.99, March 1992, ISBN 0 571 16658 X

‘Fin de siècle’: the term suggests a dilution and dispersal of the cultural, social and political energies of a century, an uneasy time of uncertainties as a new era waits to be born. If this was the case in the 1890s, which still provides our chief sense of a century’s ending, how much more so in the 1990s, when the global spread of capitalism swallows alternatives, and generates, inside the whale, a shopping mall of styles, the hypermarket – rather than the museum – without walls. It is this unprecedented fusion of a superficial plurality and an all-encompassing uniformity that produces, for the poet as for others, a situation of unprecedented uncertainty and opportunity.

There is plurality in plenty, and not merely of a superficial sort, in Simon Armitage’s Kid. It is a varied, versatile collection, showing considerable facility in its rhythmic variations and in its generation of often surprising feminine and half-rhymes. Armitage maps a degraded Post-Modern landscape, where the seedy can tip into the macabre or shade into desolation, where a jaunty resilience can harden, all too quickly, into callousness, where laughter cackles uneasily in the midst of the sour or sordid. ‘Brassneck’ is the fly, streetwise – or terrace-wise – monologue of one half of a duo of thieves who fleece football crowds: ‘Anything goes, if it’s / loose we lift it.’ Much of the pleasure of the poem, the identification with the thieves it invites even as it prompts a nervous checking of our wallets, comes from the bounce of the rhythm and from Armitage’s nifty lines, whipped from under our noses: ‘bread is’/’readies’, ‘police car’/‘fleeced her’. The rhymes have semantic resonance: we are in an uncertain world where supposedly distinct categories, the licit and the illicit, the criminals and the police, are blurred. The darkest resonance is set off by the ‘wreath’/‘thieves’ rhyme, which occurs at the point in the poem when the Hillsborough disaster is invoked. The football terraces become, as they have often done in the 1980s, an image of a society’s traumas and transgressions, a site where the tensions between a communal and an individualistic ethic are played out for real.

Armitage also updates older images and poetic modes. ‘Untitled, with Flowers’ offers a new variation, partly parodic, on the withering of plucked flowers as a symbol of mutability. In its combination of colloquial and consciously literary phrasing, its proliferation of imagery, and its pregnant conclusion, it is characteristic of his work. ‘In Our Tenth Year’ is less defensively jokey, a lyrical celebration of enduring love, with a touch of the Metaphysical: ‘still two, still twinned but doubled now with love’. ‘Song’ opens with a lyricism reminiscent of early Yeats, but varies its rhythm and hardens its diction so as to check fin-de-siècle lull and lend greater weight to its final annunciations: ‘secrets told in acts of sunlight, / promises kept by gifts of rain’. ‘East Riding’ is a chaste elegy on a murdered boy, in which the economy of words and the cadenced rhythm and rhyme convey the frailty of the victim, the desolate sense of waste.

A recurrent persona in Kid is Robinson, partly an alter ego of the poet: ‘we went back years, me and that man Robinson, / the illiterate son of a Maltese policeman.’ He is a seedy, odoriferous, mean fellow, a Sweeney without the massive hams, the brute bodily presence: but his amorphousness makes him, at moments, capable of more sensitive registrations than Sweeney could ever have managed. Armitage has a lot of fun with Robinson: the reader may not quite share his enthusiasm, or see this persona’s significance, though there are memorable moments, particularly in ‘Mr Robinson’s Holiday’, where his meanness has a number of comic consequences and where he is promoted, as he walks on a moonlit beach at the end of the poem, into a bearer of significance, rather in the manner of a seedy character in a Graham Greene novel, though there is, with Armitage, no sense of a formal religious ambience, even in echo. Robinson, who has hitherto been presented in the third person, speaks to us directly in the penultimate poem of the volume, and seems almost at times to merge with the voice of the poet. He takes on a new seriousness that issues in silence: ‘This is my final word. Nothing will follow.’ The reader will hardly be sorry to see the back of Robinson, and may ask whether his pledge of silence signals Armitage’s own renunciation of that persona, as an outgrown stage on the road to poetic maturity.

In this context, it is relevant to observe that the name ‘Robinson’, combining the name of Batman’s boy wonder with a marker of filial status, links up with ‘Kid’, the title poem of this collection, a poem which raises the whole issue of ‘maturity’. That ponderous term, stale with Leavisian self-importance, may seem inappropriate when applied to a poem which takes its dramatis personae from popular commodity culture and which is dazzlingly funny in its idiom and execution, its line running on so energetically that it transforms its feminine rhymes from dying falls into jabbing punches. But ‘Kid’ does, in its comic way, pose the question: what does growing-up mean? Is this Robin still a son, repeating paternal gestures even in his rebellion? Isn’t a maturity which insists ‘now I’m taller, harder, stronger, older’ both energising and endearing – encapsulating that liberating crystallisation of identity in adolescence – and, in some key respects, lacking? The question is not confined to ‘Kid’, the particular poem, but spreads itself across Kid, the whole collection.

The question is focused by the poem on the page lacing the title poem, called ‘Look, Stranger’. That poem is richly ambiguous, but its title inevitably invokes Auden and the whole poem could be read as an allegory of Auden’s career and a figuration of the art of poetry. The closing couplet reads:

Audacious audacious could be the root,
but commonly this tree’s known by its fruit.

With a certain interpretative licence, one might apply this, not only to Auden’s poetry but also to that of Armitage. There can be no doubt of Armitage’s audacity – one might almost at times say his Audenacity – or of his fertility in phrasing, rhythm and rhyme. But the poetic fruit from that audacious root is ambiguous – its smell sometimes the aroma of accomplishment, sometimes a more dubious odour, like that of the unfragrant Robinson. Armitage proves himself boy wonder and Batman’s equal, with more than a touch of the Joker; and one would not like the humour to be lost. But he also shows signs of a seriousness that he might, in future, seek to enlarge. His development will be worth watching.

Compared to the eclectic, pyrotechnic scatter of Kid, John Burnside’s Feast Days is poised and tactful. His diction is chaste, like cool stones from clear water, with an occasional rarity raised from the bed of the river, a recondite word such as ‘alchemilla’ or ‘pleroma’, or a more common one, such as ‘implicit’, used in a way that revives an earlier etymology, as when the fresh-minted animals of pre-Adamic Eden have

gold skins newly dropped
from God’s bright fingers, still
implicit with the light.

Burnside evokes evanescent moments, hauntings, ghostings, traces, what he sometimes calls ‘afterprints’. He is drawn to what is fleeting, secret, hidden, sly, to the spaces before words, and between words and things, to intermediary zones, snowfall and snowmelt, nightfall and daybreak. Gradations are subtly registered:

The deep morning: how light evolves
through mauves, in the watered
stillness of suburbs.

But he does not merely capture the impressionist moment: he is concerned with the way in which such moments can produce heightened perceptions, of self and the world, that may figure as touchstones in the living of a life:

how morning sometimes works,
unpicking our brighter selves from the wool
tangle of the everyday.

The poems often return to a childhood that ‘persists, / like Palestine’ or like ‘an exercise in mathematics’. One aspect of Burnside’s originality here is his capacity both to assimilate and to challenge the Romantic, Wordsworthian-Dickensian appeal to childhood experience: the scholastic and rote-learning exercises of the schoolroom figure in his poems, not as Gradgrindish enemies of the imagination and spirit, but as models for encountering the enigmas of existence. Formal religion figures beautifully in memory, as in the prose poem which gives the collection its title: ‘missals of feast days in scarlet ink: Laetere, Rogation, Quasimodo’. But Burnside celebrates what his final poem, which conjoins formal religious observance and evanescent intimation, calls ‘a subtler festival’. His quiet rejoicings occur on the edges of, at a tangent to, the official liturgies.

At times, reading Burnside, Eliot rises to mind; echoes of ‘Burnt Norton’ and ‘Marina’ are transposed into ‘Urban Myths’. But it is one sign of Burnside’s distinctiveness that he cannot be subsumed as Eliotic. Indeed, his work is free of the prosy ponderousness and the institutionalising drive towards formal religion that sometimes mars Four Quartets.

He offers less obvious annunciations, ‘Canticle’ transforms the desiccation and faintly distasteful warm rain of an earlier Eliot, the poet of ‘Gerontion’:

When it rains
and the garden is cool

and blackbirds return to the wet
borders of our land,

we think ourselves the tenants
of a borrowed house,

with nothing to protect, nothing to claim,
only the moment when singing is resumed.

The poem acknowledges and affirms transience, ‘the pleasures of finity’, ‘the smell of windfalls’, ‘the grease of mirrors’. There is no Eliotic disgust. Similarly, Burnside’s awareness of primal violence lacks the melodramatic insistence of Ted Hughes.

Violence, and the resistance to it, are important themes in Ben Okri’s An African Elegy: but his declamatory mode largely proscribes subtle registrations like those of Burnside. Okri’s greatest public exposure as a poet came on the 1991 Booker Prize night, when he read what is now the title poem of this collection; that public reading, indeed, prompted this volume’s publication. But a poetry effective on the podium can seem doubtful on the printed page. Okri often deals with some of the most serious of public themes: above all, the sufferings and conflicts of the post-colonial world, whether ‘post-colonial’ is understood to apply to the formerly colonised countries or the old Imperial centres – in Okri’s case, Africa and London. He makes much use of abstraction and personification, which are, as the 18th century recognised, right for public poetry: but, in a manner more like that of a certain kind of 19th-century Romanticism, that of Shelley and Swinburne, those abstractions and personifications tend to float loose from semantic and syntactic armatures. The result is a weak phantasmagoria, a vague simulacrum of England and Africa. Okri likes the sentence that runs on over short lines, sometimes no more than one word in length, but there seems little semantic or rhythmic justification for his breaking the lines where he does. He is fond of parallelism and repetition with variation, and this can produce some of his better effects – for example, the repetition of ‘remember the history well’ in ‘On Edge of Time Future’. But potentially powerful parallelisms falter because some of the parallel phrases are loosely filled out. This is not to charge Okri with a merely aesthetic slackness: it is a matter of a proper rhetoric for public poetry.

To criticise Okri in this way is, of course, to invoke the ‘close reading’ criteria implicit in the early work of Richards and Leavis, and these may seem inappropriate to a poetry that employs a different rhetorical strategy. But it is worth recalling that those criteria can be seen as, in part, a reaction against the inflation and abuse of public language in the First World War, not least in its public poetry. The insistence on linguistic precision was no mere pedantry, but sprang from a sense that loose language had potentially lethal consequences. That case was doubtless itself inflated, particularly when extended into the belief that good poetry and fiction could save us, but its more modest versions did have some truth. In the post-colonial world, a similar linguistic precision seems most important. There is now a vast range of post-colonial writing of remarkable resourcefulness and subtlety – to take only some of the most prominent instances, there is the prose of Achebe and Selvon, and the poetry of Walcott or, closer to home, James Berry (Okri might also learn a thing or two from Grace Nichols). It may be that Okri wishes, as a poet and novelist, to define himself against these older generations, but he is not yet a strong enough poet to spurn their lessons.

Colin Falck’s Memorabilia ranges over death, loss, love, children, poetry, travel, history, politics, the echoes of religion. He has a supple, resourceful line, conversational but able to encompass both the lyrical and the abstract. Like John Burnside, he can evoke, with quiet effectiveness, marginal, fleeting moments; he can also, as Burnside does, suggest affirmations that occur on the edge of, in an oblique relationship to, traditional Christian festivals, as in ‘Blackbird Singing on Christmas Morning’. But this is not where he lives all the time. His poetry inhabits a more mundane zone, closer to that in which Armitage sometimes dwells, though it can yield epiphanies – for instance of an erotic kind, as in the poem about the Indian girl ‘on the checkout of the Chelsea Foodfayre’ – a poem, it should be said, that is rather unself-critical in its appropriation of that girl into male fantasy. The imaginative possibilities of the mundane are given formal as well as thematic acknowledgment in the title poem of the collection, which consists of a collage of supposedly miscellaneous memorabilia: it lists and, in some cases, reproduces the texts of a range of notes, tickets, maps, restaurant cards, receipts, programmes, newspaper advertisements, contracts, airplane boarding-passes, and other odds and ends. The effect is intimate and suggestive, like going through someone’s drawer. Falck can also offer a partly comic whimsy, as in ‘Easter Rabbit’ or the prose piece ‘One Way to Go’. But ‘One Way to Go’ is also, to some extent, about the relationship between intellectuals and politics, and it feeds into that aspect of Falck’s poetry which encounters, as Okri’s tries to, the public, political and historical world, as in ‘Sleeping Out Under Stars’, a poem in which Welsh hills harden into those of Spain in 1936, or in ‘The Key of Life’, which juxtaposes ancient and modern Egypt. The boarding-passes that, in ‘Memorabilia’, are symbols of movement and freedom, of journeys safely accomplished, turn into one-way tickets to death in the last poem of the volume, most of which simply names, as a passenger list might, the 35 Syracuse University students killed in the Lockerbie bombing.

In a sense, much of Falck’s poetry continues but updates the Movement tradition, opening it to wider perspectives and freer forms. The spirit of this collection is epitomised in ‘The White Frost’, the poem which is most like a Movement poem in form and sentiment, fusing, in a measured manner, the apprehensions of love, beauty and mortality in the consciousness of a speaker who concludes that ‘time’s far wiser than I knew’:

Such careful ways of bringing us together.
Such dazzling steps along the road to death.

Throughout this collection, Falck remains true to his uncertainties and achieves a poise which is too vulnerable to be complacent.

‘I am of very fond bananas. / Am I a poet?’ This is the interrogative ending of Wendy Cope’s poem on de Chirico’s painting The Uncertainty of the Poet, or at least on a Guardian report, which she quotes as an epigraph to the poem, of the million-pound purchase by the Tate Gallery of that picture: a picture which, as the Guardian’s elegant ecphrasis puts it, ‘depicts a torso and a bunch of bananas’. The implication of comic madness in Cope’s penultimate line could be seen as a defensive deflation of the serious concern which the last line might, in other contexts, be held to express. The volume itself is called Serious Concerns – the cover shows a teddy bear with an open copy of T.S. Eliot’s Notes towards a Definition of Culture – and the poem of that title is a response to a quoted review comment which damns with faint praise. The bestsellerdom which Making cocoa for Kingsley Amis achieved has put the spotlight on Cope’s work in such a way as to heighten the question of her poetic identity. Her poems can be enjoyed, consumed instantly, like bananas; but their obvious accomplishment, in terms of her handling of rhythm and of metrical forms, and of her tonal control, does make one come back for more – the poems are not, after all, used up at one reading. There is also her capacity for pastiche and parody – less prominent here than in Making cocoa, but still evident: one feels that, if she turned her mind to it, none of the other poets discussed in this review would be safe, and some would be very vulnerable. Her parodies are affectionate, yet, even in that, they typify Post-Modern parody because they deconstruct the distinction between original and copy: subverting the seriousness of their sources, they conversely subvert their own flippancy, raising the possibility that their perpetrator is, potentially, a ‘serious’ poet.

The poems here on the travails of love hover between self-deprecating humour and a repressed but audible plangency; pretexts for a poem that Colin Falck would have developed are truncated; there is, often, a refusal to squeeze the orange of emotion over a more extended grid of poetic structure (of course, to extend it thus risks diluting it). Such truncation can have its advantages; some affirmations of simple happiness, often in children’s rhyme form, catch the reader off-guard, producing a warm glow, like a mug of cocoa at bedtime. And the indulgence implied in the title of Making cocoa towards a certain style of male chauvinism is, you’ll be glad to know, fellas, also evident here. Men are put in their place, but in a kindly way, rather than, as with Fiona Pitt-Kethley, being sucked dry, then discarded like used lolly-sticks. In this way, Cope reassures: even so, her men still depart. She evokes a world of transient relationships, of fleeting joys that give way to isolation; she is, as Falck can sometimes be, a jet-age Tennyson who moves in a zone of ‘airports and goodbyes and tears’. But her tears soon dry and harden into a jaunty smile. This is, perhaps, a required tone of our fin de siècle.