Amy Clampitt is a most spirited and exhilarating performer. An enormous appetite for observation and zeal to describe precisely what she has observed are transmitted through both the best and the least successful of her poems. ‘Gusto’ is the word that springs to mind – and not only because it was a term of the highest commendation with the senior American poet whom, in many superficial respects, she most closely resembles: Marianne Moore. One registers this quality, bracingly, through the singular rhythms which permeate her new collection, What the light was like, and which, in her verse, have come largely to take the place of orthodox prosody.
In essence, these are prose rhythms, although it should be made clear that no slur is intended by such a description: think, rather, of the impetuous, supercharged narrative manner of Virginia Woolf, or the cumulative music of Henry James. Where syntax and the overall shaping of a sentence are concerned, Clampitt can match both these supreme artists in the way she reflects the state of an enquiring or apprehending mind by means of the fits and starts of individual phrases and clauses, the emphases obtained by calculated juxtapositions, the hesitations and qualifications implied by sometimes quite lengthy parentheses.
She handles the long sentence, in particular, with astonishing skill. Perhaps the most impressive use of it is evident in the poem that lends its title to the entire volume, an elegy for a man, a holiday acquaintance, who is revealed to have died while boating on his own off the New England coast. At its climax, the poet declares:
I find it
tempting to imagine what,
when the blood roared, overflowing its cerebral sluiceway,
and the iridescence
of his last perception, charring, gave way to unreversed,
the light out there was like, that’s always shifting.
This is offered as a kind of impertinence, and one notes that the temptation to imagine the dead man’s final moment – the moment of his dying, in effect – is, through a rhetorical device betokening the poet’s ultimate concession to tact, both hinted at and held in restraint. After all, is such a private thing amenable to even the most sympathetic outsider’s curiosity? The obvious answer is no, and yet so much of the poem up to this point, and in the dying fall that follows it, is predicated on the poet’s supposed ability to reconstruct her subject’s final voyage, stage by stage, in the most vivid detail, merely through the application of her redoubtable imaginative powers.
The skill with which this is done is so dazzling that one is almost beguiled into not noticing how Clampitt continually questions her own right to indulge in this speculative fancy: but then, of course, she also provides the answers. As if anticipating the charge that her method amounts to no more than a kind of extravagant wool-gathering, she modulates at one point, near the beginning of a sentence that extends breathtakingly across 44 lines, through a description of dawn in the harbour as
a lifting weft
of fog spooled off in pearl-pink fleeces overhead with the first
by way of clashing sonorities and disorienting shifts of syntax – the lines looping from stanza to stanza in a manner that is surely meant to be tricky to unravel – to an utterly persuasive evocation of how things presumably looked, on that particular occasion, from far out to sea. Discreetly, Clampitt stops short of presenting the final moment, but it is as if, with characteristic scrupulousness, she had by dint of all this amended the answer begged by the question whether another person’s death can be imagined, to: ‘No – not quite.’
The result is an elegy of the highest order, as complex and as dignified as ‘Lycidas’, and certainly the finest poem in this book. There are, however, other noteworthy achievements. Many of Clampitt’s exercises in natural description, rural and urban, spilling over with observations and comments, communicate beyond this her sheer delight in words as the means, the lovely apparatus, of revelation. One of these, ‘Gooseberry Fool’, may surprise English readers by the fuss the poet kicks up over her discovery of the unexotic fruit, which she ends by promising to incorporate in the dish of the title, but only after having already made a verbal meal of it. Lines like
bristling up through gooseberry ghetto sprawl are braced thistles’ silvery, militantly symmetrical defense machineries
offer a very Moore-ish mouthful. Her unfeigned enthusiasm here is, nonetheless, hard to resist.
Less convincing are her awkward forays into social satire (‘A New Life’) and the somewhat coy or camp style of vers d’occasion she reserves for such pieces as ‘Townhouse Interior with Cats’, with its tuberoses giving off ‘Wagnerian arias of perfume’ amid a lot of other spurious props. Overstatement, in the form of a descriptive opulence that can sometimes smack of the National Geographical’s more outlandish feats of lily-gilding, is a recurrent fault, and a number of the finished items look doggedly worked up from material less rewarding than it promised to be.
This is the complaint I have about the sequence of eight poems that appear under the collective title of ‘Voyages: A Homage to John Keats’. The ambition here, to anatomise the development of Keats’s imagination at a crucial period of his life, is admirable in itself, but for all Clampitt’s brisk command of her source material, the project never comes to life in such a way as to suggest authentic experience. As an odd kind of scholarly thesis or mulling-over of archive evidence, it works well enough: but as a story calling for the reader’s direct imaginative involvement, it’s too literal, too laborious, too overt in its treatment of the points it seems designed to make, to be counted a total success. Too little of the energy and mimetic inventiveness which one has come to recognise as her great virtues can be detected.
John Updike is such a lavishly gifted novelist, and so lavish in the employment of his gifts, that his occasional ventures into the field of poetry have in the past tended to be rather disappointing. The miraculous exuberance of his prose, seemingly so inexhaustible in its gathering of perceptions and engendering of conceits, might have led one to hope that his verse would display something of the same unstoppable vitality: yet his earlier volumes showed him to be, at best, a competent dabbler in the art, turning out trim little verses that appeared to perform, for him, a function equivalent to Ingres’s violin or Schoenberg’s ping-pong. In this light, Facing nature comes as an encouraging surprise. It is bulkier than any of Updike’s previous collections and the poems attempt more, and achieve more, than anything he has hitherto tried in this line.
Two kinds of poem stand out above the rest: the first a loosely assembled set relating the observation of nature and landscape to autobiographical matters; and the second a group of ‘Seven Odes to Seven Natural Processes’. These odes, characteristically learned and witty, address topics – rot, evaporation, entropy and so on – that other contemporary poets may be thought to have neglected, perhaps because of the modern inhibition that prevents them from seeming to address any topic too blatantly. It must be confessed that some of my own doubts about the success of these poems arise precisely from such qualms. It is certainly astute of Updike to have hit upon the ode as the form most suited to his habitual headlong manner, and these specimens contain more than their share of startling exposition and metaphorical panache. At the same time, I cannot help wondering if they are not organised a little too much like essays, each part of the argument presented in its logical order so as to add up, not so much to a poem, as to a point.
An air of Augustan sententiousness, amounting in some passages to a cheery complacency about the workings of nature that Dr Pangloss himself would have applauded, increases one’s dissatisfaction. As an example of what is both pleasing and regrettable in these poems, the first few lines of the ‘Ode to Healing’ will serve. ‘A scab,’ Updike writes,
is a beautiful thing – a coin
the body has minted with an invisible motto:
In God We Trust.
The conceit is delightful, its glib moral application rather less so. Yet Updike appears to believe that the instances mustered in his poem will ultimately support such a contention, and he concludes with the sermon-like flourish,
Faith is health’s requisite:
we have this fact in lieu
of better proof of le bon Dieu,
which is not redeemed from patness even by the suspicion that the final terrible rhyme is meant as a comical let-out.
The poems that deal with the writer’s personal history in terms of what he has observed about his native landscape – ‘Accumulation’, ‘Plow Cemetery’ and ‘Planting trees’ being among the finest – are what one comes to value most in Facing nature. Here the view generously accommodates ample tracts of space, time and emotional development. At one point, Updike’s grandfather is said to have savoured ‘the epic taste his past had in his mouth’, when recalling a long-ago visit to his dentist; elsewhere his mother
remembers the day as a girl
she jumped across the little spruce
that now overtops the sandstone house
where she still lives.
Mythic gestures are accomplished with seemingly casual grace, and the drama that unfolds in each separate poem, that of the poet’s gradual rapprochement with his own past and heritage, engages one quietly but with utter conviction. Updike’s handling of metre is never more rigid than in the easygoing pentameters of ‘Plow Cemetery’, but it does not need to be, and one is seldom jarred by a false quantity or misjudged line-break.
His manner could hardly be more different, even in the odes, with their occasional grandiloquence and antique turn of phrase, from the busy hurtling fortissimo that Jeremy Reed contrives to sustain through so many of the 63 poems in Nero. Measured by quantity and density, this book is, to say the least, impressive. The most satisfying pieces here are those that cast the poet in the role of naturalist, as keen-eyed and as ready with a simile or metaphor as either Clampitt or Updike in their respective terrains. Those that come closest to complete success tend to rely for their force on the protracted observation of a single phenomenon, a procedure Reed cultivates with perhaps more insistent thoroughness than any other British poet would think, or be able, or dare to do.
In such poems as ‘Ants’ and ‘Daddylonglegs’, what looks like the frantic trying-out of one metaphor after another, to sometimes slapdash or ungainly effect, finally wins the reader over: this might, after all, be an apt way to celebrate nature’s superabundant variety, and if any single bash at a likeness fails to satisfy, we have often only to wait a line or two for the poet to take another, possibly more accurate swipe at it. The last lines of ‘Daddylonglegs’, concerning the plight of an insect fatally trapped indoors, show Reed at his best, achieving a rare harmony between manner and matter:
Tonight its buckled stilts drag on the floor,
it can’t levitate and its whirring runs
crinkle like tissue-paper touched
by flame. It is the victim of a sun
that responds to a switch. I can’t repair
its intricate, vital damage.
It crackles like a comb run through live hair.
If this is what Reed does well, there is also, unfortunately, a tendency to preposterous exaggeration in his writing that frequently governs his wiser instincts. This bedevils many of his nature poems –‘Drought’, for instance, where one is told, neither helpfully nor convincingly, that the ‘tiny iridescent lime-green eyes’ of horseflies ‘sparkle like planets that have shrunk to beads’ – but is allowed freest and most embarrassing expression in the title-poem of his book, as well as the central sequence of monologues in ramshackle quatrains, where the imagined speaker is Baudelaire.
Morbid attitudinising and the callow affectation of a cosmic disgust are not made any the more palatable by the surrealistically-synthesised jargon in which Baudelaire is supposed to utter his thoughts. ‘Couples in the street,’ we find the great flâneur remarking,
sense how I peel the foreskins from their skulls
with the dexterity of a fish knife
handled by a mortician,
while later in the same poem, ruing public neglect of Les Fleurs du Mal, he offers the bizarre comment:
No jackal on heat
would find kindling-sticks in the jewel-cold blaze
that packs each sensuous image with snow
Admittedly, Baudelaire himself was not always guiltless of rhetorical excess, but this sort of thing goes on for page after page when Reed is in full spate, and one’s impatience is only aggravated by the dud rhymes and harum-scarum rhythms foisted so unjustly on the victim of his impersonation.
Tony Harrison’s treatment of the quatrain in his long poem V. might, at first glance, look as careless as Reed’s, but to anyone forewarned by his previous work it will soon become clear that a conscious policy of disruption has been followed to bring about the frequent unevennesses of tone and texture that make an initial reading such a bumpy experience. Harrison appears to equate poetic and social form, and his rough versifying is a kind of bellicose bad behaviour, designed to emphasise his abhorrence of received opinion on the social matters that are his constant concern.
Thus in V., as in the Meredithian sonnets that constitute his finest and most personal achievement so far, The School of Eloquence, time-honoured iambic pentameter and living Yorkshire voice are set against each other in an antithesis that generally resolves in favour of the latter, as one has only to hear the words spoken to recognise that the verses are sustained by an authentic and irreducible rhythm that will not be denied its claim to poetic status. Only at rare moments does a line appear to have been lazily filled out to make weight, or a measure needlessly botched in a spirit of literary vandalism.
But then Harrison is a wily operator, and even here he has pre-empted the complaints of his critics, for the central event of his new poem is a visionary encounter, in the Leeds cemetery where his parents are buried, with a graffito-daubing United supporter, a defacer of tombstones, who turns out to be none other than the personification of Harrison’s own vandalistic impulses. One’s judgment of the success of the poem will depend largely on whether one is persuaded by the poet’s identification with this figure. ‘You piss-artist skinhead cunt’, Harrison calls him at one point, demonstrating that he can at least match him for the quality of his insults, and he goes on:
you wouldn’t know
and it doesn’t fucking matter if you do,
the skin and poet united fucking Rimbaud
but the autre that je est is fucking you!
This is perhaps the least credible part of their heated exchange. Why, one is bound to ask, the awkward literary gesture at just the moment where the poet should be most eager to persuade, not only the skinhead, but the reader too, of his fellow-feeling? Is the gaffe intended? Are we meant to read this speech as a sort of inversion of bad social form? Perhaps we are, but it remains a troubling point and one that continues to niggle in spite of the skinhead’s warning not to ‘speak Greek’ (a reciprocal false naivety?) and Harrison’s subsequent confession to an act of ‘mindless aggro’ in his own youth.
Even if this identification remains more willed than achieved, however, the poem is still busy with ideas and generous in its scope. Admirers of The School of Eloquence will no doubt be glad to enjoy again the punning word-play that is one of Harrison’s most fruitful devices and that enables him to reveal such a wealth of V-significance in the single letter of his title: from the versus of antagonism to the optimistic wartime ‘V for Victory’. Versus, too, inevitably suggests verses, and with a single squirt from the skinhead’s aerosol it can become a universally recognisable sexual emblem. Schism, defiance, the value of poetry and the healing power of love are all caught up thematically within this particular poem which, although it may lack the discipline of the ‘sonnets’, encouraging Harrison at times to over-indulge his penchant for bleeding-heart rhetoric, nonetheless confronts issues of real urgency and is capable of quickening the reader’s responses more immediately than the performance of almost any other contemporary poet.
Bloodaxe has also brought out a handsome and substantial collection of Harrison’s theatre work in Dramatic Verse 1973-1985. Most of the pieces here are in the form of translation, including, in The Misanthrope, what may be the most successful rendering of Molière into rhyming couplets that the English stage has yet seen, as well as a bolder and more controversial Englishing of Phèdre, and a version of the Oresteia, stuffed with kennings and bluff alliteration, that is altogether too Anglo-Saxon for my taste. The text of Bow down – rather opaque without Harrison Birtwistle’s eerie music to support it – a romp on the theme of Herod called The Big H, and two operatic libretti, complete a package which should convince doubters that verse drama is still a lively proposition, in the right hands.
There is hardly a single poem in Fiona Pitt-Kethley’s Sky Ray Lolly that could not be improved by judicious rewriting – the adjusting of a line-length here, the straightening-out of a passage of exposition there. Her deadpan manner works most effectively when there is at least the shadow of an iambic structure to reassure us that this is verse we are being offered, not just chopped-up prose. But let that be my last complaint, as this is a book which, for all its technical shortcomings, deserves to be welcomed warmly both for the truth it tells and for the grim comedy of its telling.
Although she tackles other subjects, Pitt-Kethley’s main preoccupations are childhood and sex, and sometimes, most audaciously, the great taboo, childhood-and-sex. As an example of her work in this genre, a few lines of ‘A Sunday Afternoon’ may be quoted. The poem as a whole, like others on the theme of remembered innocence, evokes with marvellous clarity a world which is liable to be hidden from grown-ups, but which the child is able to experience with a naive and unjudging sense of random adventure. The poet recollects cycling on her own, at about the age of ten, to Springfield Gardens in Acton. ‘It was your average London park,’ she explains,
with flasher, park-keeper, geraniums,
a bum-splintering see-saw and baby swings.
I soon got talking, and a girl of seven
was pointed out, who always dressed in pink
and used to suck men’s willies in the Gents.
I thought it seemed a funny thing to do.
The steady iambics of the last four lines, with their stylistic echo of Summoned by Bells, and even The Prelude, convey precisely what a funny thing the poet still finds it, although the funniness may be of a different kind.
Pitt-Kethley’s curiosity about adult sexual behaviour, in all its wild and at times alarming variety, is remarkable for its avoidance of censure. Even a poem that begins, ‘I sing of Men – crude, thoughtless, kinky men,’ and goes on to mention some of their exasperating foibles, affably concedes that ‘There’s nothing badly wrong with blokes like these’ when compared to those who might ‘use you as a punchbag’ or ‘ask to have their faces shat upon’, which last supposed horror is itself instantly qualified by the sober sociological note:
a Civil Servant taste I heard from some
Madame’s good friend.
It turns out that the poet’s harshest satire is reserved for hypocrites and fantasists – those, in other words, who would wish to avert their minds from sexual reality, something Pitt-Kethley, in these poems, could scarcely be accused of doing.
Her attitude resembles, I would suggest, that of the lecturer on Chinese art who, in ‘A Piece of Jade’, discloses that the ancient treasure which has been passed around his class for appreciation is
an old arsehole-stopper from a corpse
set there to keep the evil spirits out.
It is the attitude of connoisseur and humorist combined. Readers of Pitt-Kethley’s The Tower of Glass, a collection of very brief, barely versified anecdotes, some apparently inconsequential, others cocking a snook at credulity, gathered here as in a 16th-century jest-book, will find a similar air of delectation. ‘The Hag’ is fairly typical:
There was a man
who was afflicted
by the visitation of a hag.
At six, every evening,
after he had dined,
she would burst into the room
and come straight at him,
with an angry frowning countenance,
and strike him with her staff
so that he fell into a faint.
Not much to it, perhaps, but the slight pedantry of
At six, every evening,
after he had dined,
is, in the context, especially choice.
Over sixty years ago Ezra Pound slashed a pencil through a verbose typescript by his friend T.S. Eliot, with results that are famous. More recently, Wendy Cope gave The Waste Land fresh scrutiny and decided that the job could be done pretty well in the space of five limericks. The first of these goes:
In April one seldom feels cheerful;
Dry stones, sun and dust make me fearful;
Clairvoyantes distress me;
Commuters depress me –
Met Stetson and gave him an earful.
Cope’s first collection, Making cocoa for Kingsley Amis, contains a good deal that is as inventively funny as this. Her habitual stance is the sly one, less modest than might appear at first sight, of marginal annotator, ruthlessly mocking literary pretentions and absurdities. Her creation of the pathetically ambitious South London poetaster, Jason Strugnell, whose sad fate has been to fall under the influence of one major contemporary voice after another, allows her the opportunity for some devastating parodies. Perhaps the most striking achievement in this book, however, is a set of love poems which, although embellished with parodistic devices, show Cope attempting something braver and more personal. One in particular, ‘My Lover’, borrows its form from Christopher Smart’s Jubilate Deo and, by following Smart’s questionably logical use of the conjunction ‘for’ at the beginning of each line, offers as frank and funny an account of the irrational nature of love as I have ever read.