A bird that isn’t there

Jeremy Noel-Tod

  • Collected Poems by R.F. Langley
    Carcanet, 72 pp, £6.95, January 2001, ISBN 1 85754 448 X

After J.H. Prynne’s weighty Poems (Bloodaxe) surfaced, like the Kraken, in high-street bookshops in 1999, the complete R.F. Langley looked like a pretty small unnumbered polypus in comparison. Prynne and Langley are of an age (in their early sixties) and, superficially, of a school: both are connected with the small-press poetry world centred on Cambridge, which has, since the 1960s, maintained an alternative aesthetic to the poets and poetry associated with Oxford in the same period. Unsympathetically put (or from the Oxford point of view), the aesthetic is obscurity: dislocation of syntax, metaphor, subject, the lyric ‘I’. You signify it, it’s dislocated. Prynne is the pre-eminent exponent of this double-jointed poetry, and a small-scale comparison might suggest R.F. Langley to be a disciple:

you I took, as you
could hardly, with
me if you offer

(Prynne, ‘Word Order’)

O you, O you he
this, she this
here, once, and
again and again

(Langley, ‘Blithing’)

But whereas Prynne has been copious, Langley has been called ‘the least prolific poet of the last thirty years’ – this Collected runs to 17 pieces, none of them an epic. The reason for this seems to be connected to the kind of poetry each writes.

Another poet not willingly on first name terms with the public, T.S. Eliot, once offered a correspondent this explanation for his own limited output:

There are only two ways in which a writer can become important – to write a great deal, and have his writings appear everywhere, or to write very little. It is a question of temperament . . . My reputation in London is built upon one small volume of verse, and is kept up by printing two or three more poems in a year. The only thing that matters is that these should be perfect in their kind, so that each should be an event.

It is in the nature of Prynne’s project – as it was in Pound’s – to investigate the spectrum of available registers by creating a body of work large enough to include all kinds of language. He is a poet of deconstructed discourse. Langley, like Eliot, is temperamentally an epiphanic poet, concerned as much with the occasion of inspiration as with the medium of its expression. A rare interview, given to the magazine Angel Exhaust in 1996, confirmed this: of the 12 R.F. Langley poems published until that date, each had, he revealed, a specific biographical centre, not necessarily deducible from the end result, but maintaining a demonstrably close relationship with it nevertheless. For example, the ‘eight absurd captains’ to which ‘The Upshot’ returns several times are (or were originally) poppy-head bench-ends in a particular Suffolk church.

No one could accuse Langley of Eliot’s conscious ambition, though. It is not really possible even to speak of Langley’s ‘project’. His densely-worked poems have appeared at a rate of fewer than two or three a year, in humble print-runs, with little else in the way of public activity to draw attention to their author (who was, until recently, a secondary school teacher). The nature of his writing has been described by Peter Riley, in A Poetry in Favour of the World (1997), as ‘non-persuasive’, avoiding ‘the rhetorical habits which are so dominant in Western poetry’. By this Riley seems to mean that Langley lets his experience tell its own story, without the retrospective shaping of any neater, more generally pocketable conclusion. ‘The Upshot’ leaves the experience of a modern man visiting an empty medieval church open in a way that is different from both Larkin’s sober ‘Church Going’ (‘When churches fall completely out of use’), and Eliot’s hieratic ‘Little Gidding’ (‘You are here to kneel’). The speaker speaks only for himself:

My hands and feet are already lost
in this country, with the immediate
sadness which no one has to believe.

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