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.

The poem’s reference to a ‘hassock’ is about the only definite clue Langley gives us to where we are, before ending, tentatively:

We find
peace in the room and don’t
ask what won’t be answered.
We don’t know what we see, so
there is more here. More. Here.

Riley sympathetically distinguishes Langley’s obscurities from those of programmatic Modernism (such as one encounters, for example, in Geoffrey Hill’s Canaan): ‘The connectives, where absent, seem to me simply to be absent, not replaced in a theology of subliminal parallels or punitive shock-treatments . . . Fracture doesn’t seem in itself to be a purpose of this poetry, which is a poetry not written against any other poetry or any world.’

The less sympathetic reaction is to observe that occasionally it’s hard to discern any other purpose either. The tendency in ‘Blithing’ in particular towards irreducible linguistic oddity –

out of
selected non
drip shadows
walk the raisins
and nuts

– ultimately excludes even a willing reader, in a way which may not be programmatic, but is still effectively punitive. The frustration induced is different from the experience of reading Prynne, whose effortless perversity in switching the points of reference indicates an intriguing confidence in the game he is proposing, a solemn humour about the mess of everyday meaning: ‘0.0 g fibre in milk, we needed/to know that so quickly’ (from Pearls That Were). Langley’s more precious vacillations between high lyricism and private surrealism – ‘“Is it a comma’s wings/make such a silky noise?”’ – are less convincing. But this is an occasional weakness.

Langley’s career falls into two parts, divided by a long silence: the seven years (possibly longer) over which he produced 11 poems (1978-85), and the last six, during which another nine, at least, have been written (not all collected here). The poems of the first period are not so much Eliot’s ‘events’ as experiments, each with a unique formal character and dictive world. Those of the second are the events, combining the themes and stylistic sleights of their predecessors with a new regularity of rhyme, and a new commitment to a centrifugal coherency – that is, at least a sense of sense – to create what is recognisably a ‘voice’. The manner is confident, energetic and kaleidoscopic, every line chased with verbal detail, and every poem decorated, like a Gothic frieze, with glimpses of a carefully noted natural world, where nuts and raisins don’t walk, but a gliding owl may step ‘off on his long legs into air’.

‘Mariana’ (1985), the first piece here, is the bridge between the two periods. The clearest of all Langley’s poems, it is also as close as he comes to a manifesto – ‘Plenty of small manifestos/wherever the blue mice go’, as it says in ‘The Night Piece’ – a plea for all that is manifest:

And, looking out, she might
have said, ‘We could have all
of this,’ and would have meant
the serious ivy
on the thirteen trunks, the
ochre fields behind, soothed
passage of the cars, slight
pressure of the sparrow’s
chirps – just what the old glass
gently tested, bending,
she would have meant, and not
a dream ascending.
And, looking in, she might
have seen the altering
cream of unemphatic
light across the bevel
of the ceiling’s beam, and,
shaken by the flare of
quiet wings around the
room as martins hovered
at the guttering, she
might have soon settled for
these things, without the need
for certainties elsewhere.

Tennyson’s Mariana, pining away with weariness for a lover who may never come, is rebuked. She might have looked closer to home for relief. To abandon oneself to what is ‘elsewhere’, rather than to devote one’s attention to the birds of the house, is to invite fatal disappointment, visited on her by the unforgiving ‘amorini, who,/being unreal, demand/her head for what they steal.’ Langley’s is a world where both senses of ‘Little/is certain’ (‘The Night Piece’) obtain.

Ideas of possession – what we can or can’t have as certainties – are central. ‘Saxon Landings’, one of the most successful early poems, ends with the words: ‘you’ve been given a silver dish.’ The biographical centre here, Langley has said, was the discovery of the Mildenhall dish, combined with hearing a radio play about the Romans being driven out by the Saxons. Flashes of narrative evoke Roman panic at the invaders, and the subsequent burying of treasure: ‘push it somewhere away into soft/loam and leave it afloat there.’ ‘Loam’ (Old English: la-m) is a ‘loan’ word to a Roman – already the appropriation of the soil is beginning. The silver dish (OE: seolfor, Lat: disc) becomes a symbol of the secret histories of language, the loss and gain viewed through the process of linguistic mutation.

All this might suggest – as the Angel Exhaust interview certainly does – that these poems are the products of an ingenious and genial temperament. Langley’s assent to the suggestion that his poems are full of ‘wonder’ is typical: ‘Yes. Oh yes. It’s the chief thing, isn’t it? The thing I value. Marvellous.’ Wonder nonetheless has to be worked at, against a strong sense of unease. ‘The Gorgoneion’ (1984) is the haunted, hallucinatory twin of Larkin’s ‘Aubade’:

Waking at four to soundless dark, I stare.
In time, the curtain edges will grow light.
Till then I see what’s really always there:
Unresting death . . .

(Larkin, ‘Aubade’)

Once more the menace of the small
hours and of coming to light and of
each sharper complication. There was
a loosening which let much neglected
detail out of the dark. You can’t look
away once it’s started to move. This.
Must. And so must this. In bitter little
frills and hitches. About in a suspicious
twiddle are the tips of someone’s ten
fingers . . .

(Langley, ‘The Gorgoneion’)

Langley’s unspecific ‘you’, and then ‘someone’, is characteristic. His poems shrink interestingly from the single, arrogating point of view, the self-possessed lyric ‘I’. You, I, he, she, we, it are liable to take each other’s place without warning, until, as ‘The Barber’s Beard’ puts it:

Jack and the poet and the pronouns shrug,
take a breath each, and melt into the blue.

It is with the arrival of the figure of ‘Jack’, in ‘Man Jack’ (1994), that the style discovered a decade earlier for ‘The Gorgoneion’ is revived with new vigour. It’s hard to say quite who Jack is. His genesis, typically, was ‘the dozens of columns in the Oxford Dictionary on the word “Jack”’, which suggested ‘everything you can do with Jack, a sort of commonality of humanity that Jack might represent’. Thematically, Jack is shorthand for the divisions of personality played out in earlier poems such as ‘The Long History of Heresy’, which cuts mysteriously between ‘the young lord’, a man of action, and ‘our man’, the figure of the contemplative. Jack, also, is ‘your man, Jack is your man in things’, a servant and a goad, an accomplice and a stand-in. ‘Tom Thumb’, with its comparison of the speaker’s thumb to Caliban (‘he fetches wood, digs pignuts’), and echoes of Prospero (‘Spirits obey. How goes the day?’), implies that Jack is an Ariel-figure. Certainly, he resembles Ariel in his powers to alter perception, his affinities with the natural world, and his role as a corrective Fool to his human master:

My job, preparing for the dinner, was to peel
the shrimps. Decapitate them first, then, stripping off
the legs, pinch out, if they were females, all their black
and yellow eggs. And Jack, as usual, was not
at hand to help me do the damage, manage not
to curse out loud. We both know why. Distracted by
a resonating croak, he watched a heron stroke
unhurried to the south-east, past a rosy cloud
to the full moon. And then involved himself in how
the gnats above the chimney shared their worrying
together, working out their troubles in a crowd.
They must have done that every summer, all my life.
Jack says he never saw them doing it till now.

‘You know who Jack is don’t you? He’s that little figure you see running along beside the train jumping over the hedges and swinging from the telegraph poles’ (Langley, in the Angel Exhaust interview).

Jack’s spriteliness is expressed by the incessant, excitable rhyme-schemes of the poems in which he features, and the sense of surprise and discovery here is intimately connected with seeing ‘what would happen if rhyme came back in to do a lot of the running’, as Langley has written of the inspiration for ‘Mariana’. Appropriately for a poet fascinated by the ‘soft fuss’ of flocking birds, these poems rediscover what Pater called ‘the swift, flitting, swallow-like motion of rhyme’. The verse template in the later poems is syllabic – in the example above, twelve syllables to a line – but the thought, and the rhymes, roam fluently over the line-breaks, creating effects which recall the mosaic quality of Langley’s earlier work: the end of one sentence and the beginning of another are laid together in a printed line, repetitious rhythms are surprisingly broken. ‘Jack’s Pigeon’ is an allegory of this mosaic aesthetic, in which fragments of experience are rearranged and juxtaposed to generate pseudo-meaning, as in the Freudian dream-work. The poem begins with a coffee bowl breaking on ‘the kitchen tiles’ and a pigeon dropping dead on the street. It ends by reconciling the two in an imagined act of reparation told in soothing, unbroken couplets:

Now, on the terrace, huddled in my chair,
we start to mend a bird that isn’t there,
fanning out feathers that had never grown
with clever fingers that are not our own;
stroking the lilac into the dove grey,
hearing the croodle that she couldn’t say.

Langley’s rich, tightly-orchestrated diction and rhythms, through which the close mapping of subjectivity is relieved by moments of lovely, objective clarity (‘coloured lights in the pub garden, over/the green, steadily seen’), is in the tradition of Hopkins and Bunting. Such moments are Patmore’s ‘veins of pure gold’ embedded in what was, for him, Hopkins’s ‘masses of unpracticable quartz’. The later Langley, like Hopkins, is not really so unpracticable when given proper attention. Nevertheless, ‘hiding the gist of what I have to say/in brisker chatter’ has its dangers. Speaking of ‘The Gorgoneion’, Langley has modestly said that this ‘heavily worked up’ style is either ‘too worked up or rather good’, and there is the odd moment when ‘Jack’ does seem to be the reincarnated muse of Edith Sitwell, exuberant to the point of self-parody:

Jack is jumping. The rhythm of
the gnats is hot. Up there, the chimney pot is squat.

But the Jack poems (and those which have appeared since) are remarkably assured pieces of writing: idiosyncratically inclusive (‘Jack’s Pigeon’ features a ‘scratchcard’), playful and full of vivid accuracies. The nature poetry is undeceived and earned from observation: ‘the surface of fresh snow/is more like fur’. As Eliot said of Shakespeare’s ‘daffodils,/That come before the swallow dares’, it ‘remains’ even under the closest inspection. Language is trusted to refer beyond itself to relations in the external world. Jack is one name for Everyman; Adam is another. The achievement of these later poems is to make the world seem newly named.