Send no postcards, take no pictures

John Redmond

  • One Train by Kenneth Koch
    Carcanet, 74 pp, £7.95, March 1997, ISBN 1 85754 269 X
  • A World where News Travelled slowly by Lavinia Greenlaw
    Faber, 53 pp, £6.99, January 1997, ISBN 0 571 19160 6
  • A Painted Field by Robin Robertson
    Picador, 98 pp, £6.99, February 1997, ISBN 0 330 35059 5

Kenneth Koch ends his fine and amusing collection, One Train, with a sequence called ‘On Aesthetics’, which, amongst many other things, takes in the aesthetics of Paul Valéry, of jazz, of moss, of air and of being the youngest of four sisters. In tone, the sequence is something like a cross between Auden’s ‘Academic Graffiti’ and the Private Eye scribbling of E.J. Thribb. Often, the line-breaks are deliberately clunking, as in ‘Aesthetics of the Outdoor Opera’:

Sing as loud
As you can
At the outdoor opera –
It will never
Be loud
Enough.

Each section is, essentially, a one-liner which has spilled over its line. Some, like ‘Aesthetics of Comedy Asleep’, are mere squibs: ‘Don’t wake the clown/Or he may knock you down.’ Others like the witty ‘Aesthetics of Surrealism’ – ‘To find the impossible/With breasts’ – are near-Wildean aphorisms which simply flash by. But however substantial they are, all of the pieces, like tasty canapés, can be consumed quickly and easily and this, I think, says something about the aesthetics of the sequence itself. It put me in mind of Kurt Vonnegut’s description of his sister, who was a painter:

Alice, who was six feet tall and platinum blonde, asserted one time that she could roller-skate through a great museum like the Louvre, which she had never seen and which she wasn’t all that eager to see, and which she in fact would never see, and fully appreciate every painting that she passed. She said that she would be hearing these words in her head above the whir and clack of her wheels on the terrazzo: ‘Got it, got it, got it.’

Vonnegut’s sister articulates, in a deliberately colourful manner, a presumption which many who read poetry and many who view paintings probably share – that the reader or viewer with an experienced eye should be able to ‘get’ an art-work quickly. The image of roller-skating past the paintings in the Louvre – rather than, say, slowly genuflecting before each one – is anti-precious in the best American way and reflects an attitude which Vonnegut shares with Koch – the latter, after all is using a High Culture title like ‘On Aesthetics’ to line up a series of throwaway jokes. The image also reflects, in a much gentler way, a cultural bias towards quickness. Koch, in his poem ‘A Time Zone’, talks about his collaborations with John Ashbery on some more or less light-hearted – and certainly light – verse. These collaborations, which again put us in mind of Auden, feature the following (unpunctuated) lines: ‘He is not writing much this year but he likes to collaborate/So do I we do a set of sestinas at a speedy rate.’

Koch writes quickly and his poems read quickly. Speed, or rather speediness, in One Train, is a kind of free-floating value-in-itself – as it is in the world outside the book – like the qualities of being ‘modern’ or ‘sophisticated’, with which it is closely, if ambiguously, associated. When Koch writes about the meeting of two sophisticates, this attitude to the quality of speed is mirrored by the milieu:

When he and Jane Freilicher meet it’s as if
they’d both been thrown into a swimming pool
Afloat with ironies jokes sensitivities
perceptions and sweet swift sophistications
Like the orchids of Xochimilico a tourist
                 attraction for the nations
Jane is filled with excitement and one hundred percent ironic
This conversation is joy is speed is infinite gin and tonic

Koch’s style is shown to best effect over an extended period, as the jokes and the minor felicities accumulate. What is most impressive about One Train is its highly defined technique, in the sense in which Heaney talks about technique, as a ‘stance taken towards the world’ rather than towards the book. Poetry which reads quickly usually reflects a conviction that neither the reading nor the writing of it is necessarily the best way to spend one’s time. Such a position tends to crystallise when the poet is discussing certain themes like, say, manual labour (as in Frost) or politics (as in Ginsberg). Travel is another instance, and when Koch writes about his experiences in Sweden as a young man, his amusing and unassuming manner turns towards the world:

The only thing I could say in Swedish
Was ‘Yog talar endast svenska’
Which meant I speak only Swedish, whereas I thought it meant
I DON’T speak Swedish.
So the young ladies, delighted, talked to me very fast
At which I smiled and understood nothing,
Though sometimes I would repeat
Yog talar endast svenska.

‘We understand each other as a result of the speed with which we pass over words,’ Paul Valéry wrote – and what goes for Swedes goes for Vulcans, too. At one point in the original series of Star Trek, Kirk hands Spock a very large, very technical-looking book to read. Spock flicks through the pages at high speed, like a bookseller checking the binding, then with a raised eyebrow hands it back. ‘Very interesting,’ he remarks, with the implication that he has absorbed it all in a trice. Even if we could read as fast as Spock, we probably wouldn’t even want to understand a book at such speed. Or rather we suspect (and this is what makes Spock really alien) that whatever is human about understanding can never be a function of mere rapidity. Spock ‘gets it’ too fast.

Lavinia Greenlaw has strong feelings about travel and speeds of communication and something like a nostalgia for old-fashioned ways of sending messages. During a recent interview, she observed: ‘The physical effort of the rider on horseback, the letter written on rough paper with unstable ink, are more in keeping with the way we talk and listen to each other than the regulated mechanisms of telegraph or the invisible smoothness of fibre-optics.’ These words echo the opening of the title-poem in her most recent collection, A World where News Travelled Slowly:

It could take from Monday to Thursday
and three horses. The ink was unstable,
the characters cramped, the paper tore where it creased.

Although Greenlaw might prefer a slower pace of communication, her work belongs to the world of high-speed air travel and e-mail. The poems contain many sketchy images of transit points: train-compartments, airports, hotel-rooms. Often, too, they come with verbless descriptive sentences: ‘The one radio, the one radio station’; ‘A dog’s tombstone, its eroded elegy’; ‘No promises! The doctor’s benevolent uncertainty.’ Having the offhand air of notes or diary entries, such elliptical sentences often sound as if they were written against the clock. While ‘filling in’ the verbs, readers must keep up as best they can.

In her first book, Night Photograph, many poems used intriguing scientific facts as a point of departure. More than that, the poems adopted a sober, distanced tone such as we might expect a scientist to use. Although this follow-up collection is looser in style and the tone is now more personal, there is a lingering coolness. Like Michael Hofmann, Greenlaw has a fondness for paired, unexpected adjectives delivered in a clipped prose-like manner: ‘This privacy is teenage,/collective’; ‘The hill has its nightlife, amiable, averted’. Rather like the quasi-journalistic ethos of Thirties poetry, her work seems to take it on itself to record fairly whatever it encounters. Hence the speaker is foregrounded against the speeding, swirling world which she feels obliged to report. The poems also emphasise the non-human scale, in particular the height and impersonality of buildings. The one grounded site is the body, either her own or that of her partner, on which many of the poems record the making of marks – wounds, teethmarks, blisters. In poem after poem, the rhythms of the body, the speed at which it wants to go, are played off against the speeds at which the environment wants it to go.

One of the most characteristic pieces in the book, ‘New Year’s Eve’, opens up a space in which the variety of feelings generated by speed can be accommodated. The poem provides an atmospheric picture of a single night in a strange city, animated by the tension between individual experience – roughly aligned with the poem itself and with romantic love – and mass experience – roughly aligned with tourism and the media. Near the middle of the poem are two lines about transmission:

Tonight’s celebrations will be broadcast nationwide.
The TV crew erect their twenty-foot friendly animal logo.

Like other tall structures in the book, the giant logo does not belong to the human scale – it is part of a world where news travels (too) quickly. Against the over-processed experiences with which it is associated, the poem recounts incidents in the night which it prizes for their obvious idiosyncrasy, for being anything but run-of-the-mill. So the first line of the poem sounds like it sprang from a travel guide – ‘The city’s architecture is characterised by the arcades’ – but the next undermines this impression – ‘under which we duck to avoid the water-bombs’. Through the long lines with their many unstressed syllables, the rest of the poem reads quickly, as the couple seem to be moved by the pace of the events around them. The poem ends by refusing insertion into the tourist template: ‘We send no postcards, take no pictures.’ In its own way, this is Greenlaw saying ‘Yog talar endast svenska.’

‘A Painted Field’ is the sombre, highly polished début of the Scottish poet, Robin Robertson, much of it taken up with atmospheric depictions of natural scenes. For a first book, it is of an unusually high standard, which seems to owe something to Robertson’s careful immersion in other poets’ techniques. The poems are saturated, for instance, with echoes of Irish poetry (several poems are set in Ireland), with Yeats, Longley and (especially) Heaney being the obvious influences. Recalling Heaney’s image of a door into the dark, one poem speaks of ‘opening/a door in the night I can leave through’. Another looks out ‘on the dark that goes to Norway’. Some of the diction, and the sound-effects derived from it, are pure Heaney, like ‘the rummage/and shuck of the waves’; ‘The nubbed leaves/come away/in a tease of green.’ Robertson is fond of describing actions with paired verbs – rabbits ‘scud and veer’, flags ‘flare and gutter’ and tumblers ‘flip and flex’. He regards Nature as a repository of lost personalities – the wind is a lost voice, the sea is a lost face and so on. His treatment of it, on the whole, is not metaphoric – he takes nature on its own terms, evoking a landscape that appeals to his own psychology, rather than a psychologised landscape. Nature in these poems is conceivably threatening but mostly reassuring. The poems seem to be happiest when they are confronting relatively empty spaces. The speaker in a poem called ‘Retreat’ says:

I want to go where I am not known,
where there are no signs.

At times the poems invoke the comfort of depth and distances, the kind of comfort a child might feel late at night in a car gazing up at the travelling immensities.

These poems move, for the most part, at a liturgical pace and they avoid sudden or startling transitions. We expect poems about sparsely populated landscapes to be ‘slower’, particularly when the sensibility of the poet is conservative. What Robertson finds reassuring is the monumentality and permanence of Nature – qualities he also appears to find in the best of Irish poetry, which like Nature is a showcase of successful forms. Struggling with these weighty powers, the poems slow down. Robertson’s work by no means avoids the bustling life of cities, but it is marked by a negative reaction to that life. The poems seem to be reacting to a wound of some kind (there are frequent accounts of mutilation and bodily disintegration) for which rural ways are a partial analgesic: ‘And how I long for the pibroch,/pibroch long and slow’, ‘the rain, immanent as stars,/now falling, falling slowly’. ‘In Memoriam David Jones’ has the title of an elegy but is entirely a poem about landscape. Jones probably made as much use of landscape as any poet has ever done, but Robertson’s poem has nothing of Jones’s High Modernist style. Its six-line stanzas are composed of a mixture of mostly three, four and five-beat lines, and there is a distinctly Yeatsian spin to the technique. The opening is an example:

The first day of winter
and the sun’s long shadows
cover the leaves on the river path to the sea.
Fleeing moorhens drill across the water
homeless now for the year’s cold quarter;
it was a wild night put their reeds among these trees.

It’s not too far-fetched to claim that these windblown reeds among the trees were put there by The Wind among the Reeds. Apart from the imagery, the Hiberno-English construction of the last line (‘it was a’), and the way an encapsulating, stark statement, combined with a more definite rhythmical pattern, is saved for the end are strongly reminiscent of Yeats. What is unusual about the poem is that it goes on for four more stanzas, in similar vein, without mentioning – or obviously alluding to – the poet it is supposed to be commemorating. If the poem was called, say, ‘In Memoriam Hugh MacDiarmid’ it would make no discernible difference. And this shows, if nothing else, how completely poetry and natural form are linked in Robertson’s mind.