Second Chances

Donald Davie

  • Collected Poems by Patricia Beer
    Carcanet, 216 pp, £18.95, July 1990, ISBN 0 85635 788 X
  • Friend of Heraclitus by Patricia Beer
    Carcanet, 59 pp, £6.95, March 1993, ISBN 1 85754 026 3

Patricia Beer tells how not long ago she was giving a reading at which, presumably in a question-and-answer period, one after another in her small audience savaged a poem she’d written 25 years earlier, and hadn’t included in her programme. When after a while she asked if they wouldn’t switch to one of the two hundred poems she’d written since, it turned out that the early poem was the only one any of them had read, and this because it was the one that their tutor, who was present, had photocopied from an anthology and distributed among them. Such things happen on the reading-circuit, as I can attest. And one marvels at what authors will put up with for the sake of a little transient and pitifully restricted fame; how, to get that little, they let themselves be bullied by their agents and publishers, by educationalists and cultural organisers; and one reflects how much cleaner and more decent it is to write for readers than for auditors.

Patricia Beer might agree. But the moral she draws is different: how seldom in our time a writer gets a second chance. If you start off on the wrong foot, as she admits she did (‘I wrote as lushly and as loosely as I could’), you’ll be lucky if anyone notices when you change step. This, too, I can corroborate, in a way that does me no credit: disliking her first book, Loss of the Magyar (1959), I wrote Beer off for a long time, and only in the last few years, seeing the odd poem of hers in a magazine or a newspaper, did I begin to wonder if she hadn’t pulled herself together. She had, she has; and the proof is in her Collected Poems, which draws on the first two collections hardly at all.

What Beer has suffered from, in having to wait so long for a second chance with the public, is what we have all endured who have been writing through the last thirty years: over-production, less by the poets than by their publishers. Nothing is so wide of the mark as the still common notion that it’s hard to place a poetry manuscript with a publisher. It’s all too easy if you’re the right sort of poet and he’s the right sort of publisher. Reputations are made on the poetry-reading circuit, and those are reputations that many a publisher will take a modest risk on. Hence the heterogeneity of publishers’ poetry lists. A reputation made on the circuit in South and East London, Kent and Sussex, represents formal and stylistic choices quite different from a reputation made in Hull and the North-East, or Liverpool and the North-West. (And this isn’t even to touch on the highly profitable pool of Irish poets, the less profitable Scots and Anglo-Welsh, the Caribbean, the Asian.) The canny publisher, thinking of roundabouts making up for loss-making swings, will devise a list where, if a clientele is indifferent to one item, it will be gratified by the next. Thus, in the Sinclair-Stevenson list, the admirable William Scammell (Five Easy Pieces) has to rub shoulders with poets whose every move shrieks its discordance with his. The Carcanet list that houses Patricia Beer is a good deal more harmonious; but it features John Ashbery, of whom one has to say that if he is right, Beer is wrong, and vice versa. It is not a new phenomenon: eclecticism coming on as catholicity. But what results is a delusive fecundity that can’t be kept track of: with so many new starts, how to notice when a wrong first start begins to go right? Too many poets, too few informed readers, too many uninformed audiences – that’s the choppy sea we’ve been swimming in these thirty years.

And then there have been the squalls of opinion, or of the opinionated. Beer lists some of them:

A. Alvarez has tried to bully us into being less genteel; for our own good, of course. Our audiences at poetry readings have demanded that we go confessional, that we go popular, that we go American, with threats that if we do not we shall be labelled, as the case may be, cold, academic or parochial. Since the Forties, various translators have put pressure on us to share, even emulate, the feelings of East Europeans who have had a wider and harsher political experience than ourselves.

Yes, these are the squalls that have blown themselves out over our heads while we trod water. And in such circumstances, merely treading water to keep afloat – what in easier ages might have seemed unambitious – can be a remarkable exploit.

Beer’s refusal to pretend to be American or East European doesn’t mean that she falls back on some supposedly unscathed Englishness. In her poems she isn’t English in that sense, at all: she is of East Devon, which is a part of England to be sure, but a peculiar part, with a peculiarity that is missed by summer visitors. What it looks like from the point of view of its urbanised working class is conveyed in Beer’s remarkable autobiography, Mrs Beer’s House (1968). Also illuminating in a different way is her novel Moon’s Ottery (1978), an artless and ultimately implausible idyll of East Devon at the time of the Armada. To see the implausible scoured away, and the idyll qualified almost out of existence, we need ‘Farmhouse Time’, from The Lie of the Land (1983):

Four hundred years ago
When this farmhouse was new
The great Queen was the first to go.
Stiffening in her brocade
In London she lay dead.

After that it seemed
Time really began.
The farmer and his sons

Went down man by man
Into the country grave.
Soft and active as a worm
The heir moved up above.

At the top of the lane
Wars went by.
Cromwell’s horses broke the hedge.
Rebels from Sedgemoor tried to run,
Hunted towards their houses
By the bloodhounds of the Judge.

Men live much longer now
Than their sheep do.
Yet all the time – once more, once less –
The passing bell seems to be ringing.
At night all our ghosts
Stand in the walls singing.

Each wind pulls straws
From the descendant
Of the first thatch.
The cat, fed indoors nowadays,
Laps like a watch.

The clock on the night storage heating
Ticks like a taxi waiting.

No one could take this as a hymn to our national heritage. Time ticks away as inexorably under 17th-century thatch as under the shingles of a split-level ranch-house in Arizona; the first is no sort of refuge from the second, and if the poet dwells on the first, that’s only because it’s what she’s used to dwelling in, or dwelling near to. The lapse of time between the 17th century and the 20th is registered in a matter that Moon’s Ottery anticipates: the feeding of a cat indoors, not out of doors. Thus when the cat makes a slight noise like the ticking of a watch, more is indicated than a likeness between sounds; and indeed the homophone ‘laps’/‘lapse’ shows up as a skewed but crucial pun. Thus this is every inch, conspicuously and proudly, a well-made poem. But in the irregular apportioning of syllables to verse-lines, and of verse-lines to stanzas, it is not well made according to the pattern of Housman or Kipling or Betjeman, nor of Hardy for the most part, nor Larkin. Beer says that when she entered upon poetry in 1953 she knew English poetry up to 1900 quite well, but the 20th-century poets hardly at all; sometime since then she has learned the 20th-century poetics of open-endedness and asymmetry. This does not make her a Modernist; but it shows that she has read the Modernists, and learned from them liberties that she can put to use. This is what is meant by treading water; the waters of history are streaming beneath her, and her awareness of this is part of what keeps her afloat.

This is too glib, however. For one thing, Patricia Beer didn’t embark on poetry in 1953, but only then, as an adult, did she resume an aspiration that she’d had as a little girl. Not an aspiration either, but a conviction – that she would be famous, and famous as a poet. She insists on this in Mrs Beer’s House. She doesn’t take it to mean that she was ‘destined’ to be a poet (whatever that might mean). On the contrary, her account of how poetry was inculcated in her is deeply subversive and salutary. Academically speaking, the inculcation began at Exmouth Grammar School with Book III of Palgrave’s Golden Treasury: ‘I loved the poets’ tone of calm authority; they suggested nothing, they stated, not aggressively but with conviction. It was like listening to an argument that had already been won, to a debating motion that had already been carried. The poses and the gestures were as unfelt and insincere as the ones I was arriving at myself.’ The poetry of the aphorism, the massive commonplace, could not be better described, nor in the end more scathingly dismissed. Yet it worked; it was what got her ‘hooked’. She learned by heart poems by Cowper and Collins and even Burns, whose misunderstood Scots she rapturously mispronounced in her strong Devonshire accent. What she particularly prized was, of all unlikely poems, Gray’s ‘Ode on the Pleasures arising from Vicissitude’. John Patten and his advisers, but also his antagonists, please note: for this is a 14-year-old speaking. When Gray described the turning of the seasons, ‘at the same time as he was enlarging my experience by describing reactions I had never had, he was leaving peacefully intact my deep, lazy, mindless love of the very things he was depicting.’ Enlarging the adolescent’s experience by adumbrating what he or she hasn’t experienced yet, at the same time ‘leaving peacefully intact’ what he or she has experienced – it sounds like a programme more sophisticated than educationalists have yet come up with. Beer certainly doesn’t rail at it, nor convict it of having set her for years on a false track. One learns to write honestly by first writing dishonestly – many poets’ lives enforce this truth; and the period of dishonesty can’t be left out, or short-circuited.

East Devon isn’t part of Wessex, but it abuts on Wessex; and so it’s no surprise that reading Patricia Beer’s Collected Poems is in many ways like reading Hardy’s. Both poets are happy to write poems that are ‘occasional’; and neither of them distinguishes occasions that may be thought trivial from others that may seem momentous. In both cases poems that seemed well-turned but trivial on a first reading strike as momentous on a second; and vice versa. In both cases we have unbelievers who remember – sometimes wistfully, sometimes with resentment – the Belief they have been forced to abandon. Beer doesn’t – and in this she is modern – try, as Hardy does, to construct an alternative deity. Her opting out from that endeavour, though it spares us Hardy’s dogmatic atheism, undoubtedly removes from her verse the tension that we feel in Hardy’s. Accordingly she sometimes sounds like D.J. Enright, another unbeliever unable to leave alone the belief that he was reared in, yet happy, as Hardy never was, to remain suspended between Belief and Unbelief. That happiness – its name is Irony – perhaps is quite unhappy, really. The possibility is allowed for in a poem by Beer with the defiantly regional title, ‘On the Cobb at Lyme Regis’, from Just Like the Resurrection (1967):

If I had magic to keep the sea down
I would feel exceedingly complacent
And walk the wall like Nelson at Port-Royal
Conscious of skill to blunt any trident.

But this safety is different. I know
From my teachers what is impossible.
I am in no danger, the sea cannot rise,
Which is the most frightening thing of all.

Nothing is more frightening than the possibility – in some minds, the certainty – that God cannot outwit the hydrographers and the architects of sea-walls. This is not asserted simply, but enacted – in the contrast between the clangorous rhyme of ‘complacent’ with ‘trident’ worthy of Hugh Selwyn Mauberley, and the much more muffled and uncertain rhyme of ‘impossible’ with ‘thing of all’. In such a case, the poet is carried beyond herself; her own device, rhyme, commits her to saying what she hadn’t it in mind to say. Beer, raised among the Plymouth Brethren, can’t escape the imaginative constrictions and necessities which intellectually she broke free of long ago.

Not many of her occasional poems carry this weight of meaning. And indeed this freight may have been loaded when she was looking the other way. On the other hand, there it undoubtedly is, part of the cargo that her verse vessel has to carry. She may have thought (though I’ll wager she didn’t) that she was shipping only spices. Enervated palates will find her spices in any case too emollient, habituated as they are to more fiery flavours from the New World and Eastern Europe. But someone among her Nonconformist ancestors tells her that no sauce is more mordant than sin, silky though that tastes at first sip. Silky it undoubtedly is, and mordant only as an aftertaste, in many of her recent poems: in ‘Blood will have Blood’, for example, where at the end of a political party conference the delegates are

Away, by miles and years, from the blood of the Lamb
That clotted in their youth: a tourist’s stain

On arras or flagged floor, touched up by time yet they sing secular words just as bloodthirsty as any that their rejected Christianity once required of them; and particularly in ‘Lost’:

That night the news, fraying from the Stockland mast,
Stuttered across the valley that the Penlee life-boat
Was lost with a crew of eight.

(‘Lost’ they still say when talking about the sea
But not ‘souls’ any more.) The waves that mislaid them
Were two moors away and three lighthouses,

Yet when the vicar paused in his prayer that Christmas Eve
There was true silence in the church as though
The lost souls had been found for a few minutes
Who had no time for ‘Nearer my God to Thee’.

The ache for the lost scheme of things is anchored not in any technical nicety (for here the virtuosity is kept below the surface) but in the precise registering of how Penlee stands, geographically, to East Devon: ‘two moors away and three lighthouses’. The fellow-feeling reaches across that distance, and the reaching cannot be articulated in any but the supposedly discredited terms of Christian hymnology: ‘Nearer my God to Thee’.

What’s at issue isn’t anything so vulgarly impudent as wondering whether Beer hasn’t had second thoughts about separating herself from the Christian flock, insofar as she has done so. The point is rather that, aside from all the modish categories of modern, post-modern, post-post-modern, one true dilemma that faces us is what it means to be post-Christian. Thomas Hardy faced up to this in his poems, as Dennis Enright and Patricia Beer have faced up to it since. The more publicised and profitable concerns of their contemporaries seem, by comparison, trivial. How hard it is to live in a post-Christian world – if, that is, one has known what a Christian world is, or once was: that’s what Patricia Beer is dealing with, when she’s most engaged.

In Friend of Heraclitus Beer acknowledges Enright as a co-worker on this patch of ground. This is in a poem called ‘Facts of Life’, occasioned by a reading of Enright’s most searing and most nearly confessional sequence, The Terrible Shears. However, what she writes is hardly a tribute to Enright. For his poems, here, as elsewhere, rest rhetorically on the formula, ‘The facts speak for themselves’; whereas Beer objects, incontrovertibly though harshly, that in literature facts can never do this, since they reach us only as filtered through a screen of selection and rejection by the writer. Enright’s rhetorical pretence that he has used no such screen is what enables him time and again to leave his reader in a state of suspense between (morally and religiously) Yea and Nay. Beer asks for more:

I wish for an articulate commandment about sin.
I wish for a hailstorm of grace.

Very proper, and one sympathises. But unfortunately the ‘I’ in these verses can’t be identified with Patricia Beer, but only with the supposedly anonymous author of ‘Poem Found in a Modern Church’. This persona says:

I long for John Donne, Lancelot Andrewes and Jeremy Taylor
To preach, telling me without consultation
Something I did not realise I ought to know.

Very proper, once again. But why are these sentiments not subscribed: ‘Patricia Beer’? Why instead do we have this persona who has been reading, all too devotedly, T.S. Eliot? Donne, Andrewes, Taylor – all have, as it were, the Good Housekeeping (Eliotic) seal of approval; there are authorities, less illustrious but more modern as well as more ancient, whom to approve would risk more ridicule and carry that much more conviction. Who knows? They might include preachers whom Patricia Beer sat under in her years among the Plymouth Brethren. All in all, whereas both Enright and Beer use irony evasively, it is Beer’s usage, I think, that comes nearer to deserving the epithet: ‘arch’. If she thinks that only the Christian scheme makes sense of human life, why doesn’t she, after so often hinting as much, come right out and say so?