There was a time when local or regional poetry was greeted and respected as a romantic phenomenon: its origins far from the literary vortex of the metropolis were the guarantee of authenticity, bardic purity of inspiration, and a closer access to the nature as well as the language of men. Even now, there is something disconcerting about the rural adage, as if beneath its apparent irrelevance or banality some potency or spell resided, choosing simplicity itself as a disguise.
What the wind blows away
The wind blows back again
is how Norman Nicholson ends a poem in his new collection, Sea to the West. The lines are perhaps low on witty morality, but their power is the greater for that: coming at the end of a description of weather over Black Combe (a recurrent point de repère of the book), they are a formal act of conclusion and interpretation which refuses to interpret. Again and again this is the pattern: the creative energy of the poems is channelled into description, and the wisdom of the vision, the revelatory magic, is either left latent or drawn into maxims of such simplicity that they send the reader back to the poem. The poem, like the landscape it describes, claims a self-sufficiency and recognises no obligation to be more than itself.
Now this may seem to be an easy task, to describe a series of landscapes but to withhold any explanation beyond the grasp of a child, and at the simplest level we examine this testimony as we examine that of the children and other naïfs who inform Wordsworth’s Lyrical Ballads: as the experience of folk-wisdom transmitted with an artlessness akin to innocence. Nicholson looks back to and draws strength from ‘wise, proverbial days’, though the wisdom of the proverbs – such as that
Under the shadow of Black Combe
Will come back there to die –
may seem at worst perverse and at best unhelpful. But more than most this is a book to be read as a whole: centred, like its author’s life, on Millom in Cumbria, it offers a reading of that place and that life which intensifies in resonance and interconnectedness as one goes on, and goes back. One can hardly believe that the first poem in the book is as simple as it is, asserting that Scafell Pike, ‘the tallest hill in England’, will still be there when its man-made surroundings have ceased to be:
No roofs, no town,
Maybe no men,
But yonder where a lather-rinse of cloud pours down
The spiked wall of the sky-line, see,
It is school-magazine stuff, with its once-modishly free form and its mixture of original, slightly self-conscious metaphor and mild archaism of diction. Yet the second poem, ‘Beck’, far more imaginative and dense, leads us a stage further into the terrain with which the book identifies and also sets up the boldest dialectic with ‘Scafell Pike’: every mountain and hill is being slowly and eternally worn flat. Nicholson’s seemingly artless dicta challenge not only us but each other: the withholding of judgment gives time for the presentation of a whole and substantial corpus of evidence.
The best individual poems in the collection are a handful which contribute their information with the least personal business. ‘Shingle’, ‘Fjord’ and ‘Glacier’ all revolve their central subject in a concentrated, economical and entirely detached fashion. Nicholson is in no way a psychological writer and these inanimate geological topics draw from him an exactly complementary coldness of technique. The chilling inhumanity of these poems suggests the frailty of life, not in the manner of some proverbial maxim, but by the eradication of all human population. In the absence of pathos, the poetic imagination can cleanly vault space (the depth of the fjord) and time (the millennial growth and height of the glacier, the pebbles ‘rolling round England’).
The weakest poems (again a handful) are those in which this externality is mediated by depictions of himself and questions about the future: ‘maybe, five months from now ...’, ‘And what of me, born four years too late?’ By such homely devices Nicholson dissolves his mastery of observation in favour of a more amateur conjecture; wonder is sacrificed to a kind of parable in which the poet naively volunteers to stand for us all in his confrontation with time and the world.
This is a problem for a poet keen to describe and elegise his own community, a subject rich in sentiment and darkened by the shadow of Ubi sunt? . Unlike the mysteries of tides, caves or hills, these are things the reader knows about, and the assent the poet wins will be too unthinking unless real discovery is enacted by the language. And much of the descriptive writing in Sea to the West is memorably vivid. At one point there is a wildly incongruous ‘meringue of cumulus’, but elsewhere Nicholson vows to eschew such ‘knick-knack conceits’ in a humorous attempt to describe Fingal’s Cave – ‘grooved chip-potato cutter’ – and opts for the accurate and sober:
The columns crack into hexagonal
stools of black basalt.
Elsewhere description has intense plasticity and sensuality:
On the line of the swell
Each long crest crumbles
Into a sud of stone
Medallions and ovals,
Smooth as butterbeans.
On the other hand, it can try too hard, in packed monosyllables or clogging composite words, just as whole poems, over-rich in detail, call for paring down and ventilation. The sea will, of course, encourage this over-energised writing and ‘Slap splashily on flabby jetties’ in a prodigality of effect which is actually counter-productive. In
Fag-card flash of a boy’s bright slagbank day,
The wild barley in the back street, the quite impossible catch
That snatched the match and the cup,
the barley takes on an additional poignancy from the cacophony before it (by Dylan Thomas out of Hopkins) and chiming silliness after it, like Auden’s pastiche of Hopkins in The Orators. To say this is to register a failure of Nicholson’s regionality and shrewd ingenuousness, for nothing could be more remote from these poems than Auden’s perversity and camp, into which they seem inadvertently to have wandered. It remains both their strength and weakness that they are real and potent whilst being quite removed from any kind of literary allusiveness or even self-consciousness.
This cannot be said for Andrew Waterman, who makes a tremendous business of being a poet, and of everything else he does: teaching, living in various places, drinking a lot, having feelings. Out for the Elements has the character of a self-portrait, a medium in which there is, more than in any other, an uncertainty about how much the artist is revealing or disguising. The self-portrait indentifies the subject with his craft and leads its public into other speculations: is the artist like he says he is? And if so, is this a good thing?
The book contains the eponymous long poem (2492 lines) which won second prize in the Observer competition; it is preceded by a 20-part sequence, ‘Given Worlds’, some shorter poems, and the 350-line ‘Anglo-Irish’. The long poem is continuing its revival, in the hands of younger poets such as Jeffrey Wainwright and Paul Muldoon; there has also recently been the odd case of John Fuller’s The Illusionists, a novel in the stanza of Eugene Onegin which expertly takes on much of the wit, melancholy and technical fluency of Pushkin’s poem. ‘Out for the Elements’ is also in the Pushkin stanza, but differs from Fuller’s poem in discarding the etiquette and detachment of history and fiction in favour of autobiography and introspection. At one pole this self-absorption is romantic, illuminating and dramatic; at the other egotistical, immodest and boring. The longer the performance goes on, the greater is the risk of the second.
‘Out for the Elements’ is a fine technical achievement, remarkably sustained though a third too long. But Waterman’s register is less refined and more violent than his original. Though it has an impressive suppleness of movement, the poem feels lacking in a kind of serious levity which could afford to let things go unsaid. Often Waterman fights hard against his chosen form, and he is equally mutinous – and deliberately so – in shifting the ambience of his poem from the drawing-room to the public bar. In a way, this strategy creates a tension which keeps the thing going, but its danger is to buttonhole us. When he says, ‘still I have seemed inordinately to go on,’ the reaction is not, as it is with Pushkin, or Byron, or Fuller, ‘No, not at all,’ but: ‘Yes, perhaps you have.’
This kind of performance requires the irony of an internal dialogue, the more so if the subject is autobiographical. The two sides of Waterman’s manner are a lofty, polysyllabic address and a demotic, colloquial speech. Often they collide in mannerisms which become the more noticeable for the length of the book – for instance, a way of colloquialising abstractions as well as other nouns by an obsessive use of the inflexive genitive, omitted relative pronouns and contracted auxiliary verbs. This gives an impression of energetic collision and toughness, until the habit becomes tiresome:
We on and on, agreeing all our
civilisation’s savages in suits.
It often becomes hard to say. ‘In winter mists’ silence’ is only viable on the page, and, though it has the air of a colloquial contraction, it is of course quite unidiomatic. Sometimes it seems not to make sense, or is idiomatically dark:
What’s she I’d rather instead,
not what she’d rather for me?
The compression can resemble the unnatural diction of a tongue-twister, or some mad headline: ‘soot sifts in, specks cuffs and files’.
What these effects seem calculated to create is the impression of a rapid, trenchant, corner-cutting intelligence; allied to the richly interlarded quotations of ordinary speech they suggest a writer proudly embedded in a working humanity while reaching out to a more oracular and inclusive vision. The theme of ‘Out for the Elements’ is the complexity and moral miasma of human existence in face of the supposed simplicity and order of the elements; the poet seeks some stay – and art is the only one he finds – against the endless flux and violence of existence, his nomadic life, and his experience of Ulster. The poetic imagination, he claims, is moral, and his own case within the largeness of this argument has to take on a great responsibility. He relishes large rhetorical soundings as well as some modest and crabbed repression of such an impulse. At times the two voices work perfectly to resolve this, as in the final self-naming bathos of this stanza:
A spasm in some vast purposeless
game’s slow dynamic, we conjecture
fragmentarily, our unique
signatures – micro-chips, bezique,
Joyce, teasmades, popes, string, architecture –
doomed squiggles; still we weep, and think,
notice that girl, or clean the sink.
On the other hand, the grander manner, butchly colloquialised, pushes under our nose not merely experience but Waterman’s remarkable capacity for experience as a source for wonder: ‘There’s plenty of the void round here,’ he brags:
I cruise the nights insomniac in
what welters in me, take unseen
soundings, subversive, submarine.
A loose amplitude of reference, an intoxicated running-on, produce some of the weakest writing:
Though ‘not by bread alone’, that vital
truth attuning us to what in
ourselves deserves, if not the title
‘homo sapiens’, still to win
distinction from all other creatures,
if we’re to use what it would teach us
requires at least bread’s minimum.
What the people he likes (apparently ‘loners, writers, plain folk, brats’) would think of this is uncertain. ‘Life’s utterance,’ claims Waterman, comes from ‘the tavern’. Here the constructive duality of tone becomes almost schizoid as he applies these dim archaisms to the very language he is hoping to channel.
Yet reading the poems in the second half of R.S. Thomas’s new book one begins to long for the ranginess and, simply, life of Waterman’s more abundant writing. Certain of them do show a kind of parched magnificence, but their verbal austerity, and their sustained humourlessness, strike a chill. They are all short and very pared down, not without beautiful cadences and meticulously judged rhetorical movements at times, but at others fussily disposed on the page, with nervous indentations which seem attempts to inflect or subtilise material which otherwise has a prosaic tone. The poems are concerned above all with God and the poet’s search for him, evoked by Thomas in an agnostic age with a grave simplicity:
I am alone on the surface
of a turning planet. What
to do but, like Michelangelo’s
Adam, put my hand
out into unknown space,
hoping for the reciprocating touch?
This is the end of ‘Threshold’, and of the book, a calculated symbolic moment which perhaps deliberately takes refuge in the mechanism of symbolism to avoid discussion, and to avoid the interpretation and refraction of such ideas in words and experiences which are more humanly accessible. The gesture and image of hope are found in art, and we are shown no reason to think that they will make themselves known in life. Art is another preoccupation of these poems and a further indication of what threatens to become an arid discourse: the religious question takes the poetry to a point where it acknowledges its inadequacy and turns into an inner questioning, art about art, but with no Yeatsian resonance and burnish.
The first half of the book is art about art in a different sense: here, under the title ‘Impressions’, Thomas has assembled reproductions of 33 more or less Impressionist paintings and faced each one with a poem suggested by it. It is a risky exercise because it could so easily become facile, like the poems someone wrote (published by a reputable house) to fit each movement of all the symphonies of Mahler. With the sound of the music in your head the poems looked particularly futile; and with these great paintings under one’s gaze the poems attached to them are in danger of appearing whimsical and reductive. Beyond that, they imply, too, the need to animate the bleak world of the other poems, which have lost their roots in observed life, while taking an infusion of colour and variety from outside. Reproduced in black and white (more disadvantageous to this kind of painting than to any other), the paintings seem to have been bled of their vitality by some sort of vampiric borrowing of life. Even so they have a poignancy, indeed a saving inarticulacy, which the poems are likely to violate.
At one level the poems merely describe the picture and its effect:
So beautiful it hurts;
yet nothing for tears
to exploit. April afternoon?
This is unedifying, and the insistence on the purely artistic resolution of subjects from life (‘Ce n’est ni l’un, ni l’autre: c’est de la peinture’), though a valuable part of our reaction to the paintings, makes less than gripping poetry.
this is art
the temptation to answer
a yawn with a yawn
is a remark which substantiates Thomas’s other reflections on the moral role of art, but as a commentary on Degas’s ‘Les Repasseuses’ it is surely cheerless and cold, if not downright wrong.
In other places this happens too: Van Gogh’s Dr Gachet is seen ‘becoming patient himself/of art’s diagnosis’, but the poem begins with a feebly doodling attempt to find a way in: ‘Not part of the Health Service ... ’ And others seem more like exercises than necessary explorations, and leave unrecognised the exploration which the pictures themselves make. The problem is that, unlike the life which the poems need, the paintings are finished objects, and their presence in the book, meant to win our assent, as easily fuels our dissatisfaction.
The newest Poetry Introduction is a constantly interesting one. Its most noticeable general characteristic is a detached playfulness, an acknowledged fictiveness – and this is fascinating to observe in poets who are just forming their mature personalities, who are at a stage when a synthesis of influence and individuality is taking place. The poems of Blake Morrison are the most agile in this respect. He remains extremely private behind his deployment of several different modes; he is very controlled and his poems seem the artifice, knowingly intermeshed, of a considerable critical experience. In this sense he often resembles James Fenton, moving around a fictionalised world without fully revealing the logic of its narratives. Many of its gestures have a melancholy largeness: ‘it seems like all we ever hoped for,’ ‘Our lives were wasted but we never knew,’ ‘there is nothing we know of to be done.’ This premature weariness is another expression of the mask, a rhetorical convenience that intrigues even as it fails to convince. ‘Looking at Tower Blocks’ is an exercise in the manner of Craig Raine, who, one is reminded, does this kind of thing best. Raine also overshadows the work of Simon Rae, perhaps the least distinct of these poets in individual style: the actual machinery is efficient, but seems directed to no particular end.
Wendy Cope makes fun of this and other fashionable modes in a series of ‘Strugnell’ poems – works of a fictional bard who is notionally the most chameleonic of all in this book, turning out his versions of Crow, haikus and ‘Mr Bleaney’ as well. She is funny and competent, and writes villanelles, triolets and ballades: this may be in part a defensive strategy, as her ‘straight’ poems, including the sadly inevitable lines on an old photograph, are much less capable, and can be merely sentimental. Duncan Forbes also has some light and comical poems, ‘Fatso and Spotty’ and ‘Politics of Envy’ (about the ‘Jackdaw folder of “Historical Genitalia” ’) particularly so. His serious vein is concise, and if not macabre then bleak and heavy with mortality. He uses interesting and effective half-rhymes, and discovers patterns of repression, misery and guilt beneath the facts of domestic existence. Joe Sheerin’s poems are strong and have a controlled emotionality which at times breaks out into ironies close to jokes, as in his final poem ‘A True Story’, about British social prejudice and his own relationship to this, as an Irishman. In Medbh McGuckian the emotion is not sufficiently reined, and dictates an intensely personal and impenetrable kind of work.
The pre-eminent talent of this anthology, however, is Michael Hofmann, its youngest contributor. Though his work is somewhat pleased with itself, it has an individuality distinct from the outset. It is curiously prosy and unrhythmic in superficial appearance, and seems to unfold its subject in a natural and accessible way: but it is at the same time oddly withheld and cryptic. It resembles a kind of alienated conversation which fascinates by its obliqueness and mysteriousness. The poems read the hidden evidence of pictures and places, which are themselves hidden from the reader: it is the antithesis of R.S. Thomas’s procedure, a true conjuring of life that remains potent, ambivalent and poignant. These poems also tend to end in the most surprising and sudden way.