Staggering

Frank Kermode

  • Roy Fuller: Writer and Society by Neil Powell
    Carcanet, 330 pp, £25.00, September 1995, ISBN 1 85754 133 2

One of Roy Fuller’s ‘Quatrains of an Elderly Man’ is called ‘Poetry and Whist’:

How enviable Herrick’s
Fourteen hundred lyrics!
  Though, as the Scot complained when they dealt him all
The trumps, a lot of them were small.

The envy seems unjustified, for Fuller must have written far more than 1400 lyrics – indeed there are more than that in the Collected Poems of 1985, with dozens more to come.

Some of Herrick’s are small indeed:

To Print our Poems, the propulsive cause
Is Fame, (the breath of popular applause.)

Worth printing? Fuller might have thought so if only because ‘propulsive’ is the sort of unexpectedly posh word he rather enjoyed, either for its own sake or for the sake of a cosy joke, the humour of the Blackpool breakfast table he always fondly remembered. Another Herrick, somewhat more in the elderly Fuller manner:

When one is past, another care we have,
Thus woe succeeds a woe; as wave a wave.

The only thing missing from this aperçu is any touch of self-critical humour, as in Fuller’s ‘shopping list of fleshly ills’. What Fuller tends to comment on – though often with equal brevity – is, as a rule, less general, more personal, rueful and wise, but less incontrovertibly and complacently wise than this observation of Herrick’s. He made many poetic jottings and characteristically would start a piece off with ‘Odd how ...’ or ‘Strange that ...’

Feeling my heart about to accelerate,
I swallow a pill of phenobarbitone.
Odd how one enjoys the bitterness, knowing
It will fade ...

Or, from a poem about being 65:

Strange that obsessive observation seems
To be an overture to verse ...

The habit was deprecated much earlier:

In this the thirty-ninth year of
my age ... it seems
That any old subject fits into my verse.

Among the New Poems, published when he was still under sixty but already complaining regularly of the ills of old age, there is one that begins thus: ‘Rising at dawn to pee ...’ He will note the unavoidable presence, so familiar to the ageing, of the vitreous floater, which your GP tells you not to worry about; annoying though the phenomenon undoubtedly is, it is regarded as harmless, one of the lesser human problems, but not too trivial to be noticed here.

The last years of Fuller’s life saw an extraordinary outpouring of poems. His son, the poet John Fuller, aware of the great quantity already published in his father’s declining years, was surprised to find a posthumous mass of additional typescripts. Last Poems,[*] selected by John Fuller from this cache, includes an aubade beginning ‘Actions on waking: inserting some upper teeth ... socks / Achieved with grunting’ and going on to this self-perception:

To plough through the prosaic to poetry –
The only way of versing that I know.
The life so simple, the dreaming so bizarre.

Fifty years or so earlier the poetry was sometimes much more strict, as in the fine opening poem of Fuller’s third collection, A Lost Season (1944):

For those who are in love and are exiled
Can never discover
How to be happy: looking upon the wild
They see for ever

The cultivated acre of their pain ...

The prose here was wartime homesickness, commonplace as well as painful, but the poetry has what may now seem a slightly dated exactness and elegance, learned in part from Auden. Fuller was well known in the early Forties as a war poet, and there was a great demand for war poets. The experiences offered by the Navy were for the most part strictly prosaic, but some of them he turned, with ambitious care, into good poems. I have heard A Lost Season called his best book, but that seems rather insulting when you remember a half-century of technical enterprise, a virtually incessant quest for his own voice, and for poetry everywhere detected, even when the immediate occasion is picking up a senior citizen’s bus pass, or taking a pair of shoes to be mended (‘Your welt has gone’).

It would be a considerable mistake to think Fuller a careless or merely opportunistic poet. He was always trying something – for example, he was curious about stanza forms, and wrote dozens and dozens of sonnets of almost every conceivable kind. Quite late in life he began as it were spontaneously, and rather unexpectedly, to write syllabic verse – a departure which led to his calling on the aged Elizabeth Daryush, then a little known exponent of the method, and to the publication of a volume of hers with his Preface.

Yet for all his various skills there is often in his writing – prose and verse – a certain ungainliness. It is not to be wished away, but registered as native to his person, or perhaps it would be better to say to his tessitura, in prose and verse. Once while living in Kennington he met two Oxford undergraduates, Jack Clark and Rodney Philips, who were interested in poetry: they ‘were in some disbelief that close to the Clark family house could actually reside a contributor to New Writing, as, in a way that now seems baffling, had been reported to them’. That sentence, with its contrived inversions, has a very characteristic stagger – Neil Powell prefers to talk about a style ‘slightly skewed’. In the same volume of his autobiography, Vamp till Ready, Fuller discusses a poem in which he had spoken of ‘the penis lighthouse ... Aloof with rolling eye’; he didn’t like the neologistic epithet ‘penis’, partly because George Barker had used it first, partly because penises can only with difficulty be imagined to have ‘rolling’ eyes. ‘What the lighthouse was more like (the one at Dungeness) was a vinegar bottle with a perforated ceramic attachment to its cork, enabling the acetic fluid to be sprinkled over a plate or newspaper of fish-and-chips.’ This is staggering Fuller – not only does the mandarin periphrasis for vinegar co-exist with the demotic meal it sprinkles, but the whole dependent clause has a touch of comic formality that mimics the way in which people, including some solicitors, try to sound impressive. Fuller was glad a reviewer found his autobiography funny; it is, and some of the fun depends on his writing like this.

I once noted, in a review the poet certainly read, that he seemed to be under the impression that ‘Hibernian’ meant ‘Scottish’, and this biography provides evidence that he believed this from his earliest days, even when he was in Aberdeen with the Navy. It must have been a childhood error, deriving from the Scottish football scores, but there is something rather staunch about his not correcting it; it reminds one of the high valuation he always put on early experience, the chatter of fellow clerks. And it is of course intended to be a rather classy way of saying ‘Scottish’. It confirms the stubborn individuality of his gait.

As it happens, the poem of his I like best has to do with gait: it even has a rather limping title,‘Homage to Dr Arnold Gesell and to My Granddaughter Sophie’. It is to be found in Buff (1965). Incidentally, although the poet was a great believer in non-obscurity, this poem, like many others, requires some collaboration from readers, who won’t make much of it if they are completely ignorant of the theories of Dr Arnold Gesell. However, it’s worth that trouble, being beautifully balanced and finished, even if here and there, like the little girl, appropriately staggering. It turns out, in the affectionately selfish way of poets, to be more about poetry than about the two-year-old girl: the child’s ‘jargon’ reminds him of his own, and of the contest of obscure dream with waking language:

The best part of my life is bringing out
Jargon with words – but how minute a part,
Since ordered language is most loath to admit
The excited dream-soaked gibberish of its start.

Neil Powell’s biography is done with proper affection and respect, though it is far from being uncritical, and even goes in for a certain amount of quite severe close reading. But of course his main business is with the remarkable double life of this writer: it was a topic on which Fuller himself often brooded. First, and most obviously, he was an extremely successful solicitor and man of affairs, in a world away from poetry. But he was also a poet, a novelist, a children’s writer and, in verse as well as prose, an autobiographer. There are in fact ten novels, many collections of verse, four volumes of autobiography and several of criticism, all produced in the spare time of a man who liked to call himself indolent. Perhaps it was his insomnia which, far from driving him to distraction, enabled him to do more reading than normal sleepers can manage, but his industry is still astonishing. Because it was habitual he seemed not to notice it, or get tired; prone to self-reproach but never frenzied, he even supposed he ought to be doing more than he did.

Within the doubleness of his careers there was the further doubleness, that he wrote both prose and verse, and on these divisions he often meditated, not thinking of himself as a particularly gifted novelist, yet prone to say he was first a solicitor, second a novelist, and only third a poet. Powell calls his concern with ‘the double, divided self’ obsessional, and traces its recurrence in the novels – The Second Curtain, published in 1953, has a hero who resembles what Fuller might have been had he not, on demobilisation, gone back to the Woolwich. This alter ego wears a beard to disguise himself, but underneath has the same shyness and lack of self-confidence which, remarkably, characterised the successful author – a man at moments capable of exercising combative authority, and a man at once, as Powell puts it, fastidious and reckless. His recklessness was perhaps shown in his writing the novel Image of a Society (1956) about a building society very like the one he worked for. In the end this audacity did not damage his excellent prospects. He must have known he was valued so highly there that he could take the risk. His affection, admiration indeed, for his non-literary colleagues, is explained in the final autobiographical volume, Spanner and Pen.

One sees how little he had to regret in choosing that career, and how confident he was of his worth. He did not miss the parallel between his life and that of the American poet and insurance lawyer Wallace Stevens. But after all it is not very close: to Stevens the quotidian was a malady, not a stimulus, and his jargon as a poet did not have the same struggle with the constrictions of ordinary language. And Stevens, though equally an inhabitant of the suburbs, was a Harvard man, a bon vivant (though Powell really shouldn’t compare his poetry to plum pudding) and an altogether grander as well as a more private figure, who wouldn’t have dreamed of celebrating the virtues of his non-poetic fellow vice-presidents. The difference between the two is caused in part by temperament, in part by the different image of the poet (and of the society and his place in it) still current in America – more bardic, more privileged, and far less domestic than Fuller’s, or ours.

Powell benefits not only from the existence of the autobiographies (in which he not surprisingly detects certain reticences) but from access to the poet’s long correspondence with his friend Julian Symons. That friendship, going back to pre-war years, makes one reflect on Fuller’s luck. He went to no university, was the product of a middle-class provincial childhood and education, and began adult life as an articled clerk in Blackpool – an apparently unconventional preparation for a lifetime of fruitful reading, a confident debut in poetry, and the early acquisition of such interesting and well-known friends as Symons and George Woodcock. But we ought to know that for some poets it is good to be self-taught, to make one’s own way; and it was good for Fuller.

It is easy enough to understand that his translation, almost by chance, to a mildly bohemian London milieu did little to suppress what Powell calls ‘that familiar, treacherous nostalgia of the self-made intellectual for more demotic forms of art’ – meaning Fuller’s fondness for the popular tunes and jokes of his youth, perfectly consistent, in later years, with his refined understanding of classical music. He also enjoyed an occasional game of snooker and the ambience of Charley’s caff in Marchmont Street. Powell thinks the choice of Charley’s rather than the Café Bleu in Old Compton Street, haunt of the poet Paul Potts, ‘defines Fuller’s character’, since Charley’s couldn’t possibly be called a ‘self-insulating artistic enclave’. It is true that on his visits to the Café Bleu the law student Fuller wondered, as the hours slipped by, when, if ever, its habitués wrote or painted; they were, he decided, ‘failures’, obviously from him a strong condemnation. Yet playing pinball and listening to jazz at Charley’s, though not exactly bohemian, will not easily be seen as a way of affirming promise or achievement. Perhaps Powell is right in saying Fuller preferred it, rather highmindedly, because it belonged to ‘a recognisably everyday world’, and it was in that world that he always looked for poems. At any rate it was possible for him to aspire to poetry yet enjoy pinball.

Whether Charley’s customers strengthened his early left-wing conviction of ‘toiling humanity’s essential goodness, its innate wish for advancement’, is doubtful. But he might well have felt more at home with them than with high-class intellectuals. As he remarked forthrightly in Home and Dry, he was suspicious of upper-class bohemians: ‘there is (or at any rate used to be) an area of communication occupied by the lower middle classes characterised by irony, decency and unpretentiousness, and that was what I was used to by birth and upbringing.’ Charley’s was hardly the place to look for those qualities, but like the rest of toiling humanity, the young law student had a right to some leisure; and the Blackpool clerk who had passed many hours playing ‘office cricket’, whatever that is, might well feel that pinball and snooker were as much his privilege as self-improvement. It is another doubling, the dedicated and industrious writer and the cautious skiver; a dualism perhaps more common than Powell allows.

Even in the years when he was a big shot at the Woolwich, but also Professor of Poetry at Oxford, a governor of the BBC and a member of the Arts Council, the poet was still, in Powell’s formula, ‘culturally embattled’. But he continued to speak out, his shyness, marked by a reluctance to enter into intimacies, wasn’t of the kind to prevent his expressing disapproval or disgust at much that presented itself to his fastidious gaze in the aftermath of 1968. He writes of his ‘Colonel (Retired)’ persona, and his

Reactionary views, advanced mostly
To raise a laugh – taken as gospel –

but he meant what he said, and many disliked the manner he assumed almost in spite of himself. It was what he had grown into, having declined the life of the bearded bohemian.

He was proud of having achieved so much in both the jobs he’d done, and once counselled his Oxford audience not to suppose it impossible to be creative while leading a ‘humdrum’ life. As he told his largely undergraduate listeners, ‘the fact that someone is on hand who has done this may be a kind of reassurance that there is some kind of life to be made without dotty bohemianism or perennial studentship.’ By ‘life’ he meant ‘creative life’.

There is justified pride and authority in the claim, but during these later years he partly lost his following. By the end of his life he was lamenting that it was more and more difficult to get his books printed, and he even quarrelled with publishers over this indignity. He was out of fashion because he seemed reactionary and had grown old, but it will not do to blame poets, whatever their opinions, for writing on through their last years; such have been rare enough, and sometimes, like Yeats and Pound, they have been far more reactionary than Fuller. Moreover, as we are so often told, the old now form a large and growing constituency and, however edentulous (one of his posh words) they may be, and out of breath while pulling on their socks, they may have some sympathy with the notations of senescence in which he came to specialise; at any rate so long as they retain, as he did, some feeling for that ‘dream-soaked gibberish’ which a poet may go on struggling to match with the language of the quotidian.

[*] Sinclair-Stevenson, 104 pp., £14.99 and £7.99, May 1993, 1 85619 295 4.