Poetry in English Since 1945
Apocalyptics to The Movement
We will survey poetry in the UK from the New Apocalyptics to the Movement: tracing the dominance of Dylan Thomas and the reaction to it in the new sobriety of figures in ’The Movement’, using poems by Philip Larkin, Elizabeth Jennings, Charles Tomlinson and Thom Gunn. We will then move forward to look at some work by two pre-eminent and highly individual voices in UK poetry: Geoffrey Hill and Ted Hughes, both of whom emerged in the late ‘fifties.
We shall look at case studies of some of these poets, and you will read interviews, reviews, essays, obituaries and other source material including critical essays about the literary groupings and some of the poets that made up their numbers.
What I am aiming for is for most of this source material to be available to you at the first session, and simultaneously on the web site for this course. This will allow you to access the material at any time in order to help you prepare essays or revise for the exam.
Importantly, it will allow more time for group discussion of individual poems in class.
Among these materials therefore are poems by, among others, Dylan Thomas, Norman MacCaig, Charles Tomlinson, Elizabeth Jennings, Thom Gunn, Philip Larkin, then next week Ted Hughes and Geoffrey Hill.
In order to make the best use of time we will be reading these aloud in class and discussing them in relation to the supplied critical, historical and biographical material.
Ideally, I would like you to have read this material before coming to the seminars. I shall supply copies of the poems and materials at the seminars but it would be good if you can print this, read it and bring it to the seminar.
The title of a poetry grouping is not a Linnaean classification. It is unscientific, imprecise and useful chiefly to critics who think in terms of the genus rather the species. The title sometimes scarcely bears any concrete, or even useful, relationship to the group of poets being described or their poems. I would argue that, taking the stricter meanings of ‘apocalyptic’, the term might be used to describe poems by anybody on a good day. And that there are poems written today that are typical of Robert Conquest’s reasoning for ‘the Movement’, including some of the work of Carol Ann Duffy and Simon Armitage. Indeed, Conquest’s terms for correctness are applicable to many poets. What leaders of poetry movements are trying to do is shake up the current system. That means they tend to over-argue their case for difference. Thus, they identify a wave of new practice which, to an evolutionist’s eye, would present a stochastic forward movement in the evolution of poetry. Poetry, and life, are however messier than that: they are both more accidental and less willed or wilful.
An Apocalypse is from the Greek word ‘to disclose’, a ‘revelation’ or an ‘unveiling’, and the title given to the Book of Revelation in the New Testament. The term ‘apocalyptic writing’ is generally used to describe writing that aims for the condition of being prophetic, for example certain works by Blake and Yeats.
The New Apocalyptics were a poetry grouping in the UK in the 1940s, taking their name from the anthology The New Apocalypse (1939), which was edited by J. F. Hendry (1912-1986) and Henry Treece. There followed the further anthologies The White Horseman (1941) and Crown and Sickle (1944). Others closely associated were the Scottish poets G.S.Fraser and Norman MacCaig. There was an overlap, in fact with the Scottish Renaissance group of poets, though not necessarily by publication in London. Others sometimes mentioned in this connection include Ruthven Todd, Tom Scott, Hamish Henderson, Edwin Morgan, Burns Singer and William Montgomerie. This grouping was represented in Modern Scottish Poetry (Faber, 1946). Welsh and Irish poets were also prominent.
The Scottish Renaissance group themselves were really the second wave of a renaissance engineered by the energy and bold (if admirably self-serving) journalism of Hugh MacDiarmid, and the publication of his ‘A Drunk Man Looks at a Thistle’ in 1926. The movement aimed to revive the Scots language, which MacDiarmid called “Lallans”, and one of his stated principles was the “Caledonian antisyzygy” or “zig-zag of contradictions” which supposedly lay at the heart of Scottish identity. Graeme McDonald will focus on this ‘Double Renaissance’ and the new Scottish poetry later in the course.
Poets such as Norman MacCaig (right) abdicated from the Apocalyptics, owing to
their rather removed concentration on deliberate and deliberated British surrealism and linguistic obscurity, manners of writing which achieved their chief advocates in the work of Dylan Thomas and George Barker. Poets who were not part of this grand alliance viewed its stance with scepticism bordering on contempt for its hysterical and affected concept of poetry, or of “playing the poet“, or championing the sound of the poetry over what the poem, or even its basic sentence structure, means. These latter two qualities, along with a body of fine if often frustrating poetry, are the triple legacy of Dylan Thomas. Personally, I have admiration for much of Thomas, for the ambition of form and certain concisely surreal qualities in his prose. His insecurities, failings, and his remarkable ability to offend and alienate his allies, are splendidly enumerated in Paul Ferris’s good biography of Dylan Thomas, and laid bare in his edition of The Letters of Dylan Thomas. However, I feel Thomas’s reputation deserves new investigation and re-appraisal.
But, as Don Paterson and David Williams have recently argued: ‘British poetry in the ‘40s in many ways marks a nadir in the century; the reasons are complex, but after the huge advances made by the Auden generation the poets perhaps felt wedded to a progressive paradigm, and obliged to push forward for the sake of it; unfortunately, they were particularly hampered by poor models - in particular Dylan Thomas and the American Wallace Stevens, both poets of genius who nonetheless often succeed despite their stylistic excesses - those excesses being, alas, the one bit that was easy to imitate. The result was the rather hysterical and affected ‘Apocalyptic’ verse ... or at best a kind of vatic rumbling, characterised by the rhetorically impressive but often affected bluster of George Barker.’ (The Poetry House, 2004) Let us briefly look at some at that ‘vatic rumbling’ in action:
The final stanza of George Barker’s ‘O Who Will Speak From a Womb or a Cloud?’
Sad is space between a start and a finish,
Like the rough roads of stars, fiery and mad.
I go between birth and the urn, a bright ash
Soon blazed to blank, like a fire-ball. But
Nothing I bring from the before, no message,
No clue, no key, no answer. I hear no echo,
Only the sheep's blood dripping from the gun,
The serpent's tear like fire along the branch.
O who will speak from a womb or a cloud?
Ÿ What basic poetic effects are deployed?
Ÿ Why, and how successfully?
Ÿ Identify ‘surreal’ imagery and examine how effective it is. If not, why not?
The other poets in the three ‘New Apocalypse’ anthologies were Ian Bancroft, Alex Comfort, Dorian Cooke, John Gallen, Wrey Gardiner, Robert Greacen, Robert Herring, Sean Jennett, Maurice Lindsay, Nicholas Moore, Philip O’Connor, Leslie Phillips, Tom Scott, Gervase Stewart, Dylan Thomas, Vernon Watkins, and Peter Wells. Of these, posterity has looked kindly on Comfort, Thomas and Watkins.
Dylan Thomas is by far the most prominent, despite suffering a critical backlash over the past twenty years. However, there is a remarkably durable, if minority, audience for the poems of Bancroft, Greacen, Moore and Scott. The ‘Cambridge School’ of ‘avant-garde’ poets have recently been reclaiming the work of Nicholas Moore for their own agenda of English experimentalism, for example see his inclusion in the new Oxford University Press/Keith Tuma anthology. All the Scottish poets have “escaped” the English categorisation of ‘apocalypse’ following the upsurge of interest in Scottish literature and Scottish studies since the early 1990s. They are now largely reclaimed for North of the border (along with a number of poets whose birthplace happens to lie in Scotland). Norman MacCaig’s early exit can be seen as an exhibition of nationalist prescience.
A broader movement of New Romantics has been postulated to cover many of the British poets between the ‘Auden group’ of the 1930s and The Movement. This is much more debatable; it may be something of a flag of convenience for those such as the followers of Dylan Thomas and George Barker whose style clearly marked them off, or on the other hand a tag for those addressed polemically and retrospectively by the Robert Conquest introduction to the New Lines anthology.
Robert Conquest, New Lines I and II, and The Movement
Who is Robert Conquest? What drove him? Let’s examine some of the reasons that might lie behind Robert Conquest’s preoccupations and alliances in the creation of New Lines and New Lines II. Critics write of him as though his views about poetry are merely ‘reactive’ to the so-called ‘extremities and excesses’ of Dylan Thomas and George Barker. Robert Conquest was working on these books, on all his arch arguments and flyting counter-arguments, during the raw era of the Cold War. Educated at Winchester College, the University of Grenoble, and Magdalen College, Oxford, he was an exhibitioner in modern history and took his B.A. and M.A. degrees in politics, philosophy, and economics and his D. Litt. degree in Soviet history. Conquest served through World War II in the British infantry and thereafter in His Majesty's Diplomatic Service. Conquest is the author of a number of books on Soviet History and Stalin including his classic on the purges The Great Terror. Robert Conquest has also been identified as having worked for the IRD from when it was set up until 1956. The Information Research Department (IRD), was a section set up in 1947 (originally called the Communist Information Bureau) whose main task was to combat Communist influence throughout the world by planting stories among politicians, journalists and others in a position to influence public opinion. A 1978 story in the Guardian alleged that Conquest's work there was to contribute to the so-called “black history” of the Soviet Union - in other words, fake stories put out as fact and distributed among journalists and others able to influence public opinion. After he had formally left the IRD, Conquest continued to write books suggested by the IRD, with United States Secret Service support. His book The Great Terror, a basic anti-communist text on the subject of the power struggle that took place in the Soviet Union in 1937, was in fact a recompilation of text he had written when working for the secret services. The book was finished and published with the help of the IRD. A third of the publication run was bought by the Praeger Press, normally associated with the publication of literature originating from CIA sources. Conquest's book was intended for presentation to “useful fools”, such as university professors and people working in the press, radio and TV. Conquest to this day remains, for anti-communist historians, one of the most important sources of material on the Soviet Union, and the work I have read is very impressive. He has explicitly denied complicity in falsification, and no proof of his involvement has ever been produced, but the IRD connection is frequently mentioned by publications seeking to discredit his serious historical work.
Yet Conquest’s own poetry, at its best, is as astringent as his own choice of poems for the anthologies New Lines and New Lines II. These anthologies invented The Movement. To quote Conquest: ‘[His brother] went to Macmillan and published a book of my poems. Then I said, ‘what about an anthology of chaps I liked?’ Imagine that!
This turned into New Lines, which was meant to define the provincial, disciplined Movement of 1950s poets, though none of those supposedly moving believed that the movement existed...The Movement did not exist, but there is something distinctively astringent and unrhetorical about the attitudes of Conquest and Amis that might easily be mistaken for a school of thought. It combines a very high regard for technique with a horror of showing off. Conquest says in praise of Thom Gunn, “he's one of the very few people who can read a poem without making a nuisance of himself” - without drawing attention to the fact that he is reading a poem or stressing the rhymes. Conquest has a low opinion of recent poets laureate: “I did the second New Lines, about 1963, I should think, and Thom Gunn said to me, ‘you should put in Ted Hughes’. I wasn't going to and he said, ‘You must admit he's no worse than John Wain.’ Point taken.”
Andrew Brown‘s Profile of Robert Conquest, The Guardian, 15th February, 2003
Both anthologies are now out of print, but available from Warwick’s Library. Conquest’s introduction speaks of the ‘corruption [of] the general attitude to poetry in the last decade’: ‘The debilitating theory that poetry must be metaphorical gained wide acceptance. Poets were encouraged to produce diffuse and sentimental verbiage, or hollow technical pirouettes ...’ The general approach of this new group, he writes, ‘is not new, but merely the restoration of a sound and fruitful attitude to poetry, of the principle that poetry is written by and for the whole man, intellect, emotions, senses and all.’ Their poetry ‘submits to no great systems of theoretical constructs nor agglomerations of unconscious commands. It is free from both mystical and logical compulsions and - like modern philosophy - is empirical in its attitude to all that comes.’ In techniques, ‘we see a refusal to abandon a rational structure and comprehensible language, even when the verse is most highly charged with sensuous or emotional intent.’
He adds that the most obvious influences to be seen are Yeats, along with Robert Graves and Edwin Muir. ‘Auden, too, casts an obvious shadow here and there: who can escape that large and rational talent? But in his case it is mainly a matter of technical influence. There is little of the Auden tendency to turn abstractions into being in their own right.’
The phrase, The Movement was a term coined by J. D. Scott, literary editor of the Spectator, in 1954 to describe this group of writers (including Kingsley Amis, Philip Larkin, Donald Davie, D.J. Enright, John Wain, Elizabeth Jennings and Robert Conquest himself). The Movement was essentially an English affair; unlike the previous mafia of The New Apocalyptics, poets in Scotland and Wales were not generally included.
Although the name was essentially a publicists’ concoction, it is used still as shorthand for these and a few others, including Thom Gunn and John Holloway.
Their tone is anti-romantic and rational. Conquest described the connection between the poets as ‘little more than a negative determination to avoid bad principles.’ These ‘bad principles’ are usually described as excess, both in terms of theme and stylistic devices. The polemic introduction to New Lines targeted in particular the 1940s poets, the generation of Dylan Thomas and George Barker — though not by name. A second New Lines anthology appeared in 1963, by which time The Movement was a spent force, in terms of fashion; the ‘underground’ in the shape of ‘The Group‘, and the more American-influenced style of the Al Alvarez anthology The New Poetry having come to the fore. Apart from Larkin, it was hard at that point to identify a Movement poet by ‘voice’.
Poets in the New Lines (1956) anthology
Kingsley Amis, Robert Conquest, Donald Davie, D.J. Enright, Thom Gunn, John Holloway, Elizabeth Jennings, Philip Larkin, John Wain.
Poets in the New Lines 2 (1963) anthology
All of the above, excepting John Holloway, together with: Thomas Blackburn, Edwin Brock, Hilary Corke, John Fuller, Francis Hope, Ted Hughes, Richard Kell, Thomas Kinsella, Laurence Lerner, Edward Lucie-Smith, George MacBeth, James Michie, Jonathan Price, Vernon Scannell, Anthony Thwaite, Hugo Williams.
Rebellion: Charles Tomlinson contra the ‘Middle-Brow Muse’
Charles Tomlinson was a young poet from the Midlands who had studied under Donald Davie at Cambridge. He was strongly drawn to recent American traditions such as Objectivism, and the ‘clean line’ of Marianne Moore, Ezra Pound and George Oppen. What he saw in New Lines was Little Englandism, a stagnation of internationalist possibilities because of the attractions of xenophobia, and the Cold War posturings of some of the Movement poets and advocates. What Tomlinson identified as their source for power in poetry was ‘a Middlebrow Muse’. I include an interview with Tomlinson below which covers some of this ground. This species of dissatisfaction also led to the next grouping, identified by Alvarez and championed by The New Poetry. See the excerpt from this interview below:
David Morley: Are young poets merely swapping their predecessors insularity for a new insularity? And how did you respond to the hyping of The Movement when you were beginning to make your mark?
Charles Tomlinson: I can perhaps answer the first half of your question by addressing myself to the second. I responded to The Movement by writing for Essays in Criticism a review of Robert Conquest’s New Lines Anthology called ‘The Middle-brow Muse’. It was precisely the hype that got me: poetry was supposed to be on its way back to the common man; foreign cities and the myth-kitty, according to Amis and Larkin, were supposed to be out. There was a stale ‘little England’ism in the air that seemed to negate all I had learnt to love since adolescence. Despite Larkin’s technical virtuosity and his clear talent, I still think the staleness is there and very flattering to people who actually prefer straitened horizons. There’s a terribly middle-class self-satisfaction, for all their much advertised ‘humanity’, about the poems.
Some points to consider
How persuaded are you that such groupings of poets (‘New Apocalyptics’, ‘New Romantics’, ‘The Movement’) have any real use except as journalistic short-handed classification? Is it useful to bracket such variety under one banner or is it more useful to look in greater detail at a single poet’s life and work? What purpose is served by a poet ‘adopting’ a group or ‘abdicating’ from it?
To go further, was it mere canniness that made Norman MacCaig “ride the apocalypse” before jumping ship for the second Scottish Renaissance? Or did he indeed, as I would suggest, outgrow the stable of talent displayed in those anthologies and learn to distrust any poetry grouping that entertained a manifesto of intent, driving what should be rightly described as a “market“, rather than a philosophical or aesthetic intent, driving one’s own talent to grow under individual pressure which is at odds with the concept of market (cf. Charles Tomlinson).
Or: might a slighter talent take a ride within a stronger grouping, a stronger cultural pool or ‘meme’, in order to maximise exposure to their work and minimise the danger to their own reputation (cf. Conquest’s dismissal of John Wain quoted above)? You might consider, for example, the slightly earlier era in which the MacSpaunday generation of Auden, MacNeice, C. Day Lewis and Stephen Spender effectively “carried” what could be described as the talent of lesser writers, including Spender himself.
Talking of Spender, there is now good evidence to suggest that he, as an editor of the CIA-funded magazine Encounter in the ‘50s and ‘60s, knew of that source of funding (a secret at the time, if an open secret). Does your knowledge that Robert Conquest engaged, covertly or overtly, with the IRD, add anything new to the views he was espousing about poetry in the New Lines anthologies?
What drives Dylan Thomas’s reputation among readers who are not naturally drawn to reading modern poetry?
Ask yourself what was happening in the real world when these loose groupings of poets were writing. For example, what are the international and national contexts during the period between the publication of the first ‘apocalyptic’ anthology in 1939 and the death of Dylan Thomas in New York in 1953?
THE POETS AND THEIR POEMS
Including essays, obituaries and interviews
We will be discussing as many of these poems as possible in class.
Dylan Thomas was born in Wales in 1914. He was a neurotic, sickly child who shied away from school and preferred reading on his own; he read all of D.H.Lawrence's poetry, impressed by Lawrence's descriptions of a vivid natural world. Fascinated by language, he excelled in English and reading, but neglected other subjects and dropped out of school at sixteen. His first book, Eighteen Poems, was published to great acclaim when he was twenty. Thomas did not sympathize with T.S.Eliot and W.H.Auden’s thematic concerns with social and intellectual issues, and his writing, with its intense lyricism and highly charged emotion, has more in common with the Romantic tradition. Thomas first visited America in January 1950, at the age of thirty-five. His reading tours of the United States, which did much to popularize the poetry reading as new medium for the art, are famous and notorious, for Thomas was the archetypal Romantic poet of the popular American imagination: he was flamboyantly theatrical, a heavy drinker, engaged in roaring disputes in public, and read his work aloud with tremendous depth of feeling. He became a legendary figure, both for his work and the boisterousness of his life. Tragically, he died from alcoholism at the age of 39 after a particularly long drinking bout in New York City in 1953.
The Force That Through The Green Fuse Drives The Flower
The force that through the green fuse drives the flower
Drives my green age; that blasts the roots of trees
Is my destroyer.
And I am dumb to tell the crooked rose
My youth is bent by the same wintry fever.
The force that drives the water through the rocks
Drives my red blood; that dries the mouthing streams
Turns mine to wax.
And I am dumb to mouth unto my veins
How at the mountain spring the same mouth sucks.
The hand that whirls the water in the pool
Stirs the quicksand; that ropes the blowing wind
Hauls my shroud sail.
And I am dumb to tell the hanging man
How of my clay is made the hangman's lime.
The lips of time leech to the fountain head;
Love drips and gathers, but the fallen blood
Shall calm her sores.
And I am dumb to tell a weather's wind
How time has ticked a heaven round the stars.
And I am dumb to tell the lover's tomb
How at my sheet goes the same crooked worm.
A Refusal to Mourn the Death, by Fire, of a Child in London
Never until the mankind making
Bird beast and flower
Fathering and all humbling darkness
Tells with silence the last light breaking
And the still hour
Is come of the sea tumbling in harness
And I must enter again the round
Zion of the water bead
And the synagogue of the ear of corn
Shall I let pray the shadow of a sound
Or sow my salt seed
In the least valley of sackcloth to mourn
The majesty and burning of the child's death.
I shall not murder
The mankind of her going with a grave truth
Nor blaspheme down the stations of the breath
With any further
Elegy of innocence and youth.
Deep with the first dead lies London's daughter,
Robed in the long friends,
The grains beyond age, the dark veins of her mother,
Secret by the unmourning water
Of the riding Thames.
After the first death, there is no other.
I include MacCaig here because his poetic career links, in slight but interesting ways, many of the key movements in poetry from 1945 to 1985. I also think very highly of his plain style, and the manner in which he conducted his vocation as a poet. MacCaig is a very individualist poet in the manner in which he deported himself as poet. Yet he linked his work successfully to the Apocalyptics, then the Scottish Renaissance. These links do not happen by standing back; choices are made, and acted upon with a certain boldness, then with a shrug when the connection grows stale.
His later minimalist, metaphor-driven observational poems (for example, see ‘Frogs’ below) has been convincingly viewed as the fore-runner to the “Martian” poetry of Craig Raine and Christopher Reid (“Martian” is a term coined by James Fenton referring to Raine’s ‘A Martian Sends a Postcard Home’.) Therefore, as students of this course, you might want to explore a line of compositional strategy, one that links the use Metaphysical Poets made of conceit thence > to MacCaig’s verse thence > to Craig Raine. You might then compare such a strategy to that which links the poetic “address” and thematic choice of Wordsworth and of Clare thence > to Hardy thence > Edward Thomas > thence the poets of The Movement thence > to Andrew Motion.
Norman MacCaig was born in Edinburgh, on 14 November 1910. His father was a Lowlander and his mother from the island of Scalpay, and this meeting of Highland and Lowland cultures runs through the rest of his life. He was educated at the Royal High School and went on to study classics at the University of Edinburgh. For most of his career, he worked as a primary school teacher, until in 1967 he was appointed Fellow in Creative Writing at Edinburgh. Three years later, he became a reader in poetry, first at the University of Stirling and then again at Edinburgh. For almost all of his life, MacCaig divided his time between Edinburgh and Assynt in the north-west Highlands: the landscape of the latter in particular is a recurring theme of his poetry. The complementary, rather than contrasting, backgrounds of mountains and city are one of the "contradictions" which he relished. He died in Edinburgh, on 23 January 1996.
His first collection of poetry, Far Cry, was published in 1943 (at a time when his career was broken by the Second World War, although as a pacifist he did not take part in combat). Both it and The Inward Eye (1946) belonged to the New Apocalypse movement: never a man for movements and -isms, MacCaig later disowned both of these, claiming that he wanted to destroy all copies of them – although two copies were discovered among his papers after his death. The first collection in which MacCaig's individual voice is audible was Riding Lights (1955): this was followed by The Sinai Sort (1957), A Common Grace (1960), A Round of Applause (1962), Measures (1965), Surroundings (1966), Rings on a Tree (1968), A Man in My Position (1969), The White Bird (1973), The World's Room (1974), Tree of Strings (1977), The Equal Skies (1980), A World of Difference (1983) and Voice Over (1988). The final editions of his Selected Poems and Collected Poems also include a selection from around 600 poems which were found after his death and previously unpublished.
Frogs sit more solid
than anything sits. In mid-leap they are
in a free fall. They die on roads
with arms across their chests and
I love frogs that sit
like Buddha, that fall without
parachutes, that die
like Italian tenors.
Above all, I love them because,
pursued in water, they never
panic so much that they fail
to make stylish triangles
with their ballet dancer's
The MovementThis is a clear working definition adapted from Wikipedia:
The Movement was a term coined by J. D. Scott, literary editor of The Spectator, in 1954 to describe a group of writers including Kingsley Amis, Phlip Larkin, Donald Davie, D.J. Enright, John Wain, Elizabeth Jennings, Thom Gunn, and Robert Conquest. The Movement was essentially Englishin character; poets in Scotland and Wales were not generally included. A reaction?
Essentially The Movement was a reaction against the extreme romanticism of the previous identifiable major movement in British poetry, the New Apocalyptics (which overlapped with the Scottish Renaissance). Whereas the New Apocalyptics had been irrational, deliberately bordering on the incoherent, and outrageous or controversial, The Movement poets tended towards anti-romanticism (almost constituting a form of neo-classicism), rationality, and sobriety. John Press has described it as ‘a general retreat from direct comment or involvement in any political or social doctrine.’
The Movement produced two anthologies: Poets of the 1950s (1955) (editor D. J. Enright, published in Japan) and New Lines (1956). Conquest, who edited the New Lines anthology, described the connection between the poets as 'little more than a negative determination to avoid bad principles.' These 'bad principles' are usually described as excess, both in terms of theme and stylistic devices. The polemic introduction to New Lines targeted in particular the 1940s poets, the generation of Dylan Thomas and George Barker— though not by name. A second New Lines anthology appeared in 1963, by which time The Movement seemed to some a spent force, in terms of fashion; the 'underground' in the shape of The Group, and the more American-influenced style of the Al Alvarez anthology The New Poetry having come to the fore. Ironically, interest in "The Movement" renewed in the early nineties, primarily in America, with the rise of the New Formalism and increased public interest in the work of Philip Larkin. And here he is:
Philip Larkin was born in 1922 in Coventry, England. He attended St. John's College, Oxford. His first book of poetry, The North Ship, was published in 1945 and, though not particularly strong on its own, is notable insofar as certain passages foreshadow the unique sensibility and maturity that characterizes his later work. In 1946, Larkin discovered the poetry of Thomas Hardy and became a great admirer of his poetry, learning from Hardy how to make the commonplace and often dreary details of his life the basis for extremely tough, unsparing, and memorable poems. With his second volume of poetry, The Less Deceived (1955), Larkin became the pre-eminent poet of his generation, and a leading voice of what came to be called “The Movement”, a group of young English writers who rejected the prevailing fashion for neo-Romantic writing in the style of W.B.Yeats and Dylan Thomas. Like Hardy, Larkin focused on intense personal emotion but strictly avoided sentimentality or self-pity.
In 1964, he confirmed his reputation as a major poet with the publication of The Whitsun Weddings, and again in 1974 with High Windows: collections whose searing, often mocking, wit does not conceal the poet's dark vision and underlying obsession with universal themes of mortality, love, and human solitude. Deeply anti-social and a great lover (and published critic) of American jazz, Larkin never married and conducted an uneventful life as a librarian in the provincial city of Hull, where he died in 1985.
The Old Fools
What do they think has happened, the old fools,
To make them like this? Do they somehow suppose
It's more grown-up when your mouth hangs open and drools,
And you keep on pissing yourself, and can't remember
Who called this morning? Or that, if they only chose,
They could alter things back to when they danced all night,
Or went to their wedding, or sloped arms some September?
Or do they fancy there's really been no change,
And they've always behaved as if they were crippled or tight,
Or sat through days of thin continuous dreaming
Watching light move? If they don't (and they can't), it's strange:
Why aren't they screaming?
At death, you break up: the bits that were you
Start speeding away from each other for ever
With no one to see. It's only oblivion, true:
We had it before, but then it was going to end,
And was all the time merging with a unique endeavour
To bring to bloom the million-petalled flower
Of being there. Next time you can't pretend
There'll be anything else. And these are the first signs:
Not knowing how, not hearing who, the power
Of choosing gone. Their looks show that they're for it:
Ash hair, toad hands, prune face dried into lines -
How can they ignore it?
Perhaps being old is having lighted rooms
Inside your head, and people in them, acting.
People you know, yet can't quite name; each looms
Like a deep loss restored, from known doors turning,
Setting down a lamp, smiling from a stair, extracting
A known book from the shelves; or sometimes only
The rooms themselves, chairs, and a fire burning,
The blown bush at the window, or the sun's
Faint friendliness on the wall some lonely
Rain-ceased midsummer evening. That is where they live:
Not here and now, but where all happened once.
This is why they give
An air of baffled absence, trying to be there
Yet being here. For the rooms grow farther, leaving
Incompetent cold, the constant wear and tear
Of taken breath, and them crouching below
Extinction's alp, the old fools, never perceiving
How near it is. This must be what keeps them quiet:
The peak that stays in view wherever we go
For them is rising ground. Can they never tell
What is dragging them back, and how it will end? Not at night?
Not when the strangers come? Never, throughout
The whole hideous inverted childhood? Well,
We shall find out.
Elizabeth Jennings (1926-2001) was born in Boston. Her father was a respected Chief Medical Officer who moved the family to Oxford when she was six years old. She later discovered poetry while attending the Oxford high school. After attending St Anne's College, Oxford, Elizabeth became a librarian at Oxford city library. Having more time to focus on her writing she published her first collection of poetry (1953) which drew the attention of Robert Conquest. Throughout the 1960s, she was one of the most popular poets in England. She never married and published a great number of works. Elizabeth once said, ‘I write fast and revise very little’. Her Roman Catholicism colours much of her work. She has always made it clear that, whilst her life, which includes a spell of severe mental illness, contributes to the themes contained within her work, she does not write explicitly autobiographical poetry. She is not generally regarded as an innovator, and her work displays a simplicity of metre and rhyme that she shares with The Movement.
Lying apart now, each in a separate bed,
He with a book, keeping the light on late,
She like a girl dreaming of childhood,
All men elsewhere - it is as if they wait
Some new event: the book he holds unread,
Her eyes fixed on the shadows overhead.
Tossed up like flotsam from a former passion,
How cool they lie. They hardly ever touch,
Or if they do it is like a confession
Of having little feeling - or too much.
Chastity faces them, a destination
For which their whole lives were a preparation.
Strangely apart, yet strangely close together,
Silence between them like a thread to hold
And not wind in. And time itself's a feather
Touching them gently. Do they know they're old,
These two who are my father and my mother
Whose fire from which I came, has now grown cold?
I am aware that you studied Thom Gunn with Peter Carpenter in Week 6. This is a refresher for you.
Thom Gunn was born in Gravesend, Kent, England, in 1929. Before enrolling in Trinity College, Cambridge, in 1950, he spent two years in the national service and six months in Paris. In 1954, he relocated to San Francisco and held a one-year fellowship at Stanford University, where he studied with Yvor Winters. Gunn published more than thirty books of poetry in the United States and Britain, including Boss Cupid (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2000); Frontiers of Gossip (1998); Collected Poems (1994); The Man with Night Sweats (1992), for which he received the Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize; The Passages of Joy (1983); Selected Poems 1950-1975 (1979); Jack Straw's Castle (1976); To the Air (1974); Moly (1971); Touch (1967); My Sad Captains (1961); and The Sense of Movement (1957). He has also written several collections of essays, including The Occasions of Poetry (1982; U.S. edition, 1999). His honours include a Lila Wallace-Reader's Digest Award and fellowships from the Guggenheim and MacArthur foundations. Thom Gunn died on April 25, 2004, in his home in San Francisco, CA.
On The Move
‘Man, You Gotta Go’
The blue jay scuffling in the bushes follows
Some hidden purpose, and the gush of birds
That spurts across the field, the wheeling swallows,
Have nested in the trees and undergrowth.
Seeking their instinct, or their pose, or both,
One moves with an uncertain violence
Under the dust thrown by a baffled sense
Or the dull thunder of approximate words.
On motorcycles, up the road, they come:
Small, black, as flies hanging in heat, the Boy,
Until the distance throws them forth, their hum
Bulges to thunder held by calf and thigh.
In goggles, donned impersonality,
In gleaming jackets trophied with the dust,
They strap in doubt--by hiding it, robust--
And almost hear a meaning in their noise.
Exact conclusion of their hardiness
Has no shape yet, but from known whereabouts
They ride, directions where the tires press.
They scare a flight of birds across the field:
Much that is natural, to the will must yield.
Men manufacture both machine and soul,
And use what they imperfectly control
To dare a future from the taken routes.
It is part solution, after all.
One is not necessarily discord
On Earth; or damned because, half animal,
One lacks direct instinct, because one wakes
Afloat on movement that divides and breaks.
One joins the movement in a valueless world,
Crossing it, till, both hurler and the hurled,
One moves as well, always toward, toward.
A minute holds them, who have come to go:
The self-denied, astride the created will.
They burst away; the towns they travel through
Are home for neither birds nor holiness,
For birds and saints complete their purposes.
At worse, one is in motion; and at best,
Reaching no absolute, in which to rest,
One is always nearer by not keeping still.
An Obituary of Thom Gunn by Neil Powell
28th April 2004, The Guardian
In a poem from his 1982 collection The Passages Of Joy, Thom Gunn, who has died aged 74, delightedly announced: "I like loud music, bars, and boisterous men." But he immediately provided a characteristically cerebral explanation: these were things "That help me if not lose then leave behind,/ What else, the self."
This relationship - a balance rather than a conflict - between the body's hedonism and the mind's discipline was a central, enduring theme in the work of one of the late 20th century's finest poets.
The "Thom" was not an affectation, but was short for Thomson, his mother's maiden name. He was born in Gravesend, Kent, and his mother, who died when he was 15, had been a literary journalist; his father became editor of the Daily Sketch.
His adolescence, spent in north London, apart from a brief evacuation to Hampshire, coincided with the second world war. He was educated at University College school, and by the time he went up to Trinity College, Cambridge, after two years' national service, he was 21. His first book, Fighting Terms (1954), contained poems written while he was an undergraduate: they engagingly combined youthful brashness with scholarly allusiveness.
Two Cambridge friends were especially influential: Tony White, an actor who "dropped out, coolly and deliberately, from the life of applause", and Mike Kitay, an American who was to become for Gunn "the leading influence on my life, and thus on my poetry". It was primarily to be with Kitay, his lifelong partner, that Gunn applied for a creative writing fellowship at Stanford University, California, which he was awarded in 1954 and where he worked with the great, if wayward, poet-critic Yvor Winters.
The juxtaposition of Gunn's metaphysical Englishness with Californian life and Winters' teaching is very evident in his second collection, The Sense Of Movement (1957), an exciting, deliberately provocative book whose distinctive energy comes from an apparent tension between form and content: traditional poetic structures and intellectual abstraction are deployed on subjects that include Hell's Angels, Elvis Presley, and a keyhole-voyeur in a hotel corridor.
It is no accident that the book's most celebrated poem, On The Move, borrows its epigraph (Man, you gotta Go) from the Marlon Brando film, The Wild One.
From 1960 onwards, Gunn lived in San Francisco, for some years lecturing at the University of California at Berkeley. His third book, My Sad Captains (1961), is divided into two distinct halves: it appears, superficially, to be a contrast between Englishness and Americanness, for the magnificent opening poem, In Santa Maria Del Popolo, looks back to Europe as surely as Waking In A Newly-Built House, which begins Part II, looks forward to America.
But the distinction is, in fact, a technical one, between closed metrical forms and open syllabic ones, and it reflects an emotional and philosophical, rather than a geographical, division: quiet understatement replaces the seemingly aggressive stance of earlier poems.
During the early 1960s, Gunn worked on two extended projects: the long poem Misanthropos, completed in London in 1964-65, about a man who thinks himself the sole survivor of the ultimate global war; and a book-length sequence of free-verse captions to photographs by his brother Ander, published as Positives (1966).
The discipline of writing to a specific set of visual images and the liberation of free verse were both beneficial to Gunn: a poem such as Pierce Street in his next collection, Touch (1967), has a grainy, photographic fidelity, while the title-poem uses hesitant, sinuous free verse to portray a scene of newly acknowledged intimacy shared with his sleeping lover (and the cat).
By now, Gunn's earlier aggressive-defensive mode had given way to a more open, flexible stance; and he was in the right place at the right time - San Francisco in the late 1960s - to explore this openness.
These, he said, "were the fullest years of my life, crowded with discovery both inner and outer", and the poems written then make up his most sunlit, celebratory book, Moly (1971); rock music and drug-induced euphoria find their characteristic counterbalance in the beautifully resonant lucidity of The Fair In The Woods, Grasses and Sunlight.
However, in Gunn's next book, Jack Straw's Castle (1976), the dream modulates into nightmare, related partly to his actual anxiety-dreams about moving house, and partly to the changing American political climate. "But my life," he wrote, "insists on continuities - between America and England, between free verse and metre, between vision and everyday consciousness."
The Passages Of Joy reaffirmed those continuities: it contains sequences about London in 1964-65 and about time spent in New York in 1970; its forms range from very supple free verse to an excellent sonnet; dream and nightmare are largely subsumed in the cool, anecdotal observation towards which he had been moving in the 1960s. The Occasions Of Poetry, a selection of his essays and introductions, appeared at the same time.
Ten years were to pass before his next collection, The Man With Night Sweats (1992): here, with terrible irony, the poet who had sought to lose "the self" found himself "less defined" and "unsupported" as his self-defining friends died of Aids. Much of the book is tersely occasional, but in its final 30 pages Gunn used the context of Aids to produce major poems about mutability and mortality, endurance and celebration.
In 1993, Gunn published a second collection of occasional essays, Shelf Life, and his substantial Collected Poems, which usefully reintegrated a number of previously fugitive pieces into the main body of his work. His final book, Boss Cupid (2000), ranges from reckless youth to elegiac age; from gossipy anecdotes to movingly meditative poems such as In The Post Office, in which he finds himself a "survivor" who "may later read/ Of what has happened, whether between sheets,/ Or in post offices, or on the streets." One could hardly ask for more.
Thomson William 'Thom' Gunn, poet, born August 29 1929; died April 25 2004
A Given Grace
a given grace,
afloat and white
on the mahogany pool
of table. They unclench
the mind, filling it
Though common ware,
these rare reflections,
coolness of brown
so strengthens and refines
the burning of their white,
you would not wish
them other than they are –
you, who are challenged
and replenished by
those empty vessels.
Tomlinson’s biography can be gleaned from the review and interview that follows this poem.
‘When he began writing, in the 1950s, Tomlinson posed himself against both the Sturm und Drang of late Romanticism and Dylan Thomas, and the dry brittle wit of Larkin and the Movement poets. He was unique among British poets in maintaining a fondness for, and a commitment to, American poetry and American landscapes. His earliest influences (in addition to Ruskin, a natural inspiration for a man who was at one time a serious painter and who has always been a patient looker at landscape and art) were Marianne Moore, Wallace Stevens, and William Carlos Williams.
’Tomlinson's poetry has always been marked by a refusal to court or parade the merely personal, but as Kirkham suggests, his impartial, self-restrained tonalities are exact but never ascetic. He discovers and produces delight and pleasure in his richly descriptive poems that treat actual or imagined landscapes: his attention ‘moves through the facts to a kind of interior meaning.’ Kirkham details the ways in which Tomlinson's discipline - of eye and ear - produces ‘a poetry of negotiations.’ The poems constantly deal with associations and partnerships, all the processes of adjustment in space and time through which we locate ourselves within the non-human world.’
From Willard Spiegelmann’s review of Passionate Intellect: The Poetry of Charles Tomlinson by Michael Kirkham (University of Toronto Quarterly, 2000-01)
Excerpt From a Review Essay of Tomlinson’s Skywriting (Carcanet, 2003) by David Morley
I've heard some poets assert that, in the poetry business, as in “business business”, success creates success. Conversely, neglect breeds neglect. But what does that say about us, or our culture, if certain of our neglected poets are highly celebrated elsewhere in the world? It says that the English audience for poetry is shameless in following the crowd; that we prefer to look inward, and abjure adventure in favour of our stable of home-made traditions, traditions which we then choose to misunderstand and misread anyway (there is much that is unconservative about our lively, internationalist and radical literatures and edgy traditions).
It also says that we fear to learn new ways of seeing and believing in case it exposes our suppositions about the art - or our poems indeed - as ignorant, second-hand or, worst of all, third-rate. It alerts us that this is a very primal fear: important but temporary poetic reputations and critical judgments depend on various lies that must not be decoded. Yet who is this English audience for poetry but many of our own poets, tussling over the art form, its prizes and privations, like scorpions brawling in a corpse?
Meanwhile, the art advances elsewhere, and if you are fortunate enough to visit some of these elsewheres - America, Australia, Europe, Japan, Mexico - and meet their major poets and critics, you may be knocked for six to learn that for them English poetry is a triangular constellation made up of Charles Tomlinson, Geoffrey Hill and Roy Fisher. Even Charles Causley, in the days following his passing, featured on more international radars for reputation than we in The Shire might have predicted. The stock response to this type of view is often the xenophobic flourish of dismissal: we are wiser and they are not. And, fair enough, it does represent a refracted and exclusive take on British poetry of the past few years, one that doesn't take due cognisance of the great formal range and achievement of many new writers. That said, it is a view, and it is widely held. And, taking again the international response to the death of Charles Causley, let's ask ourselves, quietly: does it really take the death of one of our major poets to bring their reality and fineness into focus for English readers? Isn't that something we used to blame on previous generations, damning them for their lack of foresight?
With that in mind, consider Charles Tomlinson. Tomlinson, born in 1927, is a unique voice in contemporary English poetry, and has been a satellite of excellence for the past 50 years. He is a satellite because he has chosen to work outside the cliques and so has created his own audience. He chose not to borrow an audience left over from some previous movement, nor has he compromised himself into becoming a poet more easily assimilated by the reader who prefers a poetry that simply corroborates their own ostensibly liberal viewpoint.
Instead, the breadth of Tomlinson's concerns, the passion and compassion of his intelligence, and the experimental power of his craft, mark him as a seriously good world writer, aligned with his friend, the late Octavio Paz. That's why I feel a strong new volume from Tomlinson should be a cause for celebration. Yet coverage in this country has been somewhat scant, despite the strengths of his new work, not only for Skywriting but also Carcanet's other excellent volume The Vineyard Above the Sea (1999).
Thank goodness for us, then, that Tomlinson is a fighter, an energetic and creative artist and intelligent advocate of the poetry of other writers. His poetry and poetics are highly significant in that they have advanced the art as a way of seeing and voicing the physical world. He has also contributed substantially to an international view and practice of poetry, working with writers from many countries on jointly written forms such as the Japanese renga. He is responsible for bringing to light the work of many authors, including Attilio Bertolucci, Fyodor Tyutchev and C?sar Vallejo; and backing and editing work by writers marginalised from the British mainstream such as the great Scottish poet Hugh MacDiarmid and the Welsh poet David Jones.
But this is a microscopic sample of Tomlinson's undertakings. It shows a poet who takes on the artist's civic and cultural responsibilities generously and gladly. Maybe we could do worse than learn from his example. Maybe his actions make too many poets appear ultimately self-interested. Maybe that's partly the reason for the deliberate and deliberated neglect.
In Skywriting, his poetry continues to break ground in his concern for the environment and his precise perception of the external natural world. He has a strong Wordsworthian regard and instinct for ecology and natural cycles, here writing of badger trails and also, by default, of ourselves: "These signs for silence / Dwell within the mind's own silences / Breeding a mystery - mysterious, too, / Even when explanation has restored it / To a world not shaped by introspection / And to lives lived-out beside our own / Nocturnal and unseen."
His new volume contains some bravely experimental work, especially the sequence "Mexico", which moves between forms, including a prose poem which movingly urges its focus to the house and garden of Octavio Paz, "the poet who came here to die and to seek, he said, reconciliation beneath these trees with their eagles and beside the cool basin frequented by pigeons". More moving still is an elegy to another good friend, Ted Hughes, in a poem fired by grief and affection and one which opens by echoing a poem by Hughes himself in which a soldier shot in the trenches falls massively across the length of Britain. In Tomlinson's poem, driving to the funeral, precise perception of people, nature, light and sound combine with place and movement, and we become witness to the pain of that day:
"It was a death that brought us south,
Along a roadway that did not exist
When the friendship was beginning death has ended.
How lightly, now, death leans
Above the counties and the goings-on
Of loud arterial England. I see
A man emerge out of a tent,
Pitched at a field's edge, his back
Towards the traffic, taking in
The flat expanse of Sedgemoor, as if history
Had not occurred, the drumming tyres
Creating one wide silence.
Oaks stand beside their early shadows.
Sun makes of a man's two shadow-legs
Long blades for scissoring the way
Across yet one more meadow, shortening it."
Tomlinson makes a poetry sown and rooted in place - whether his Gloucestershire home or a roadside in Mexico. As a poet of place and perception, as translator, advocate and editor, he is a most un-English poet (pace Larkin) and yet he is also the most rigorously English poet we have: an internationalist striding the Forest of Arden; an anarchist classicist; a passionate precisionist. For these apparent oppositions are also parts of a great tradition which, in Tomlinson's work and his new volume, achieve balance, synthesis and wonderful expression
Copyright The Guardian 2004.
Charles Tomlinson in Conversation with David Morley
Charles Tomlinson was born in Stoke on Trent in 1927. He was educated at Longton High School and Queen’s College, Cambridge. He has published much poetry, and is internationally well-known as a translator and editor. He is a painter, and has written several volumes of artistic criticism.
He has travelled widely in Europe, America, Mexico, and, more recently, in Japan and Israel. His early poetry received greatest attention and prior publication in the USA.
He is married with two daughters, and is Professor of English Literature at Bristol University, an honorary Fellow of Queen’s College, Cambridge, and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature.
This article grew out of a conversation which took place in January 1991 at Tomlinson’s home in Ozleworth, a valley near Wotton under Edge, and which was continued by post during that April.
‘After reading Charles Tomlinson’s copious and challenging Collected Poems, I am more than ever convinced that he is one of our best poets.’ - Michael Schmidt
DM: What was your first ever contact with poetry?
CT: My first ever contact with poetry was Thomas Hood’s ‘Song of the Shirt’ - a socially conscious poem about poor seamstresses. My grandmother, good Liberal that she was, remembered every word of this, and she recited it to me. ‘Recited’! There’s a word you don’t hear much of these days. People once learnt whole poems to ‘deliver’ on the right occasion. She also knew Cowper’s ‘John Gilpin’. She knew more poems and bits of poems than students coming up to university these days. Then from my mother, a completely uneducated woman, I got Tennyson’s ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’, and my father knew bits and pieces of Kipling and Robert Service, a Canadian poet who once had a great popular following with poems like ‘The Shooting of Dan McGrew’, which begins ‘A bunch of the boys were whooping it up in the Malamite saloon …’ All these poems had a decidedly pronounced rhythm and I suspect that Service’s anapaests influenced my very first poem, ‘Buried Treasure’, written at twelve years of age and published in the Stoke on Trent City Times! That begins ‘On a tropical isle in the southern sea,/Where the cannibals dance to the drum…’ The other influence there was Treasure Island, along with a children’s version of Robinson Crusoe, both of which were ‘poetry’ to me because they spoke of things far from Stoke.
DM: With hindsight, did Stoke supply the young Tomlinson with material or stimulus for starting to write poetry? When did you start to write, and why?
CT: Stoke supplied the young Tomlinson with easy access to the countryside. So despite the fact that I lived overlooking one of the biggest steelworks in England and Josiah Wedgwood’s once ‘ideal’ and then blackened pottery factory, I could walk out - almost nobody owned cars in the 1930s and 1940s - into lush country to the south or more rugged country to the north. I used also to go fishing with my father most weekends of the season, and the excellent local train services we had then soon delivered you to quiet and air and reflection. You had to keep quiet if you were going to catch anything, and the presence of water meant reflection in both senses - meditation on what you were aiming to catch, and the presence of ‘huge and mighty forms’ as Wordsworth says, both in themselves and mirrored in the water. There was the weather, too, and its varied changes. All that entered into the composition and compositions of the young poet.
The other stimulus was school and the teachers I had. Even before I went to Longton High School, we were taught poetry - teachers didn’t seem frightened by poetry in those days. I even recall the headmaster taking us through scenes in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Then at high school the real catalyst began - mostly through French. We had a splendid teacher, Cecil Scrimgeour, who, by the sixth form, had us reading the French Romantics - De Vigny, Hugo, Lamartine, De Musset. We read some early Rimbaud (all Rimbaud was ‘early, of course) - poems like ‘Le Dormeur du Val’, and quite a bit of Verlaine. So that I committed to memory then - and still have, fifty years later more or less, as part of my portable library - ‘Les sanglots longs des violons’ and ‘Le ciel est par-dessus le toit…’ We read his ‘Art Poetique’, so I knew what ‘the symbolist aesthetic’ was before I won my scholarship to Cambridge - where I had teaching much inferior to that of Cecil Scrimgeour. Add to all this that we were studying Racine - Berenice and Phedre - and Corneille’s Polyeucte, and you can see what it was possible to get into a working class head before personal stereos marooned kids in their rock jungle. At Cambridge they wanted me to do modern languages, but I stuck to English. So Stoke, and the schooling I was able to get there, set me on the right track, with a feeling for place and a feeling for poetry.
DM: There’s the usual journalistic talk of new schools of poetry emerging in the UK (just in time for the millenium). Are young poets merely swapping their predecessors insularity for a new insularity? And how did you respond to the hyping of The Movement when you were beginning to make your mark?
CT: I can perhaps answer the first half of your question by addressing myself to the second. I responded to The Movement by writing for Essays in Criticism a review of Robert Conquest’s New Lines Anthology called ‘The Middle-brow Muse’. It was precisely the hype that got me: poetry was supposed to be on its way back to the common man; foreign cities and the myth-kitty, according to Amis and Larkin, were supposed to be out. There was a stale ‘little England’ism in the air that seemed to negate all I had learnt to love since adolescence. Despite Larkin’s technical virtuosity and his clear talent, I still think the staleness is there and very flattering to people who actually prefer straitened horizons. There’s a terribly middle-class self-satisfaction, for all their much advertised ‘humanity’, about the poems.
DM: How does it affect your ‘sense of place’ to be not so much a British as an international poet? Do you dislike labels such as these?
CT: Yes, I dislike labels. A passion for languages which began at school - we did Latin, French and also German, and to these I later added Italian and Spanish - simply led me to discover other cultures and other poetic possibilities. I was really only perpetuating something that has gone on for a long time. After all, it was the challenge of foreign poetries - and the possibilities found in translating them - put on their metal Chaucer, Wyatt, Marlowe, Jonson, Dryden, Pope, Pound. When I came to edit The Oxford Book of Verse in English Translation, I realised more and more that English poetry and translation into English had traditionally been part and parcel of a single activity. Some of our greatest poets had been great translators. They had learnt new techniques from abroad and, of course, immensely deepened their sense of mythology and subject matter. So when you speak of my being not so much a British as an international poet, I want to reverse the label, and say that, like my great predecessors, I found myself as a British poet because I could bring other ways of ‘doing it’ to bear on that task. Sometimes directly, sometimes indirectly. Pope and Dryden would have been very different writers without having translated Homer and Ovid and Virgil. It seems to me that one’s ‘sense of place’, as you say, is made more fruitful by being aware of the bigger place in which literature moves, one’s local flavour having, in some sense, to measure up to the scope of all that, both technically and in terms of an adequate subject matter.
DM: It’s unfortunate, but there are various stereotypes surrounding both your work and person (as there are for somebody like Geoffrey Hill). What do you think about the charge of coldness or lack of compassion? And why do you think critics indulge in this sort of gamesmanship?
CT: Why I am ‘cold’ and Larkin is apparently ‘warm’ puzzles me. The cold idea was put into circulation by early reviewers whose own feelings were cold and numb towards the kind of things that interested me - our relation to the non-human world, for example, which surrounds us and has shaped us. But my feelings are born of excitement. I want to tell people. If people read my Midlands poems - ‘The Way In’ for example - or those on the deaths of my mother (‘Under the Moon’s Reign’) and Miriam (‘To Miriam’), or my daughters, my cat, they would surely find me as warm as most people. I think my ‘Charlotte Corday’ is a warm poem as is ‘The Return’, occasioned by the death of Graziella Bertolani, wife of a leading Italian poet. Where people say ‘cold’, they mean they themselves are not responding on all the wavelengths of feeling and language, and then blame me for their frigidity. But I do think there is a bracing, unsentimental vision in the poems that still comes as a shock to some people, like a cool drench of rain. I love coolness as well as warmth. Both contain human possibilities.
DM: Would you ally yourself more with Donne and Herbert? For instance, is there such a thing as passionate intelligence? Can ideas be both metaphysical and warm?
CT: Yes, surely a passionate intelligence can be both metaphysical and warm, though I must say I find over-use of the word ‘warm’ a bit sloppy - like the self-congratulatory ‘caring’ which seems now to have displaced the dignity of ‘kind’. I love the playfulness in Donne and the beautiful conversational run in Herbert, often combined with great metrical and stanzaic dexterity. If ‘warm’ means merely feeling and that that’s what poetry’s supposed to offer, readers will miss the whole impingement of a passionate mind as it engages with the world of thought and perception. We think as well as feel, and in poetry both activities come together. Pope is a supreme example of this in a poem like ‘Eloisa to Abelard’, the Apollonian couplet, as one writer puts it, containing the Dionysian overflow of the situation of the poem - great excitement along with great control. But it’s only recently, I find, that my students have got over the Victorian prejudice that poetry is composed ‘in the soul’, and have come to admit you can feel in as tight a form as couplets. Only yesterday, it seems, Pope and Dryden were being called ‘cold’. So that’s good company to be in.
DM: One other aspect of the Tomlinson stereotype is that your work lacks humour. Clearly such critics must skip your funny poems (‘Arroyo Hondo’, ‘The Death of Will’, ‘A Night at the Opera’, etc.). How important is humour to you as a person and poet?
CT: Well, humour’s always just around the corner. I think of there being in my poems what I attributed to Donne just now - play. In poems where humour of the side-splitting kind may not be in evidence, there are the dance of mind that is humour’s best friend, and puns and syntactic invention that give you the feel of language as being something humanly malleable, always breaking out of the d?ja vu. Which is what humour often does. Two of my heroes are Keaton and Chaplin, where again the image of the dance comes to mind, when you think of their timing and the sheer beauty of their movements.
DM: A prose work, such as Some Americans, was very well-received. Why not write something else along these lines?
CT: The brief answer is lack of time: full teaching and administration, writing and a lot of painting have left me short of it. I also write a good deal of criticism, as in my other prose book Poetry and Metamorphosis and in frequent reviews. So give me time and I may do another - or a different - Some Americans. I shall be retiring soon …
DM: You must have been very pleased by the award of the Nobel prize to Octavio Paz. With Michael Schmidt, you’ve been responsible for bringing Paz to a British readership by many means, including translation. You also wrote a book together (Airborn/Hijos Del Aire: Anvil 1981). How did you meet, and has your friendship influenced the way in which either of you write?
CT: We met by accident, believe it or not, on Rome airport. The American poet, George Open, had once said what a striking woman Marie Jose Paz was. I was on Rome airport, in 1967, travelling to read at Spoleto, and suddenly I saw this very striking woman and intuition said: That must be Marie Jose Paz! So I followed her on the supposition she was looking for her husband whose picture I had seen. And this was so! He was changing money at a counter and when he turned round I introduced myself - I had already translated some of his poems and he had written enthusiastically to me about the translations. So we all - my wife Brenda was with me - travelled to Spoleto together by train. There ensued years of correspondence and many meetings. These again sometimes occur accidentally - this has happened twice in New York, where I only heard of the Paz’s presence by chance.
I think the influence has been more one of attitude of mind than stylistic. Octavio sets you in the mood for writing because he seems to be alive with creative electricity. The range of his conversation links up many fields - political, ethnographic, the world of painting. He wrote an introduction to my book of graphics, In Black and White, and he was one of the first to encourage my visual art. In his book of reflections on contemporary history, One Earth, (Carcanet) he uses my poem ‘Assassin’ (on the death of Trotsky) as a vision of ‘the fatal trap into which the fanatic who believes he possesses the secret of history inevitably falls’. In turn, I persuaded him to read Wordsworth’s Prelude, one fruit of which was a long poem about his own life. His writings on art led me to seek out the paintings of the great nineteenth century Mexican landscapist Jose Maria Velasco, and ultimately to write a long essay about Velasco, which appeared in the catalogue of the bumper show that was put on in Mexico City last year to celebrate Paz’s birthday. Paz is just extraordinarily stimulating company, a great talker, but a great listener. I’ve known other great and fascinating talkers - the American Robert Duncan is one who comes to mind - who never paused to draw breath. Paz’s prose writings have a kind of French elegance at their best, particularly his studies of individual poets.
DM: Your love of music keeps resurfacing on almost every page of your Collected Poems. And both your daughters are professional musicians. Were you ever attracted to musical composition? And would you ally yourself with a poet like Basil Bunting, and say that syntax should enact the melody of the poet?
CT: It’s interesting that your mention of music anticipates something I was going to say: seeing is believing, but hearing is also believing! A poem whose ‘music’ is defective, whose rhythms are null, is a creative failure. For me poems begin with something seen, but then they declare themselves through a medium that has to be heard - either by the mind’s ear or by that and the physical ear in the act of reading aloud. I’ve just recorded all - yes, all! - of my published books for Keele University Tapes, and in doing those readings the chief concern was always for the voice to keep the verbal music alive. That flowing forward of syntax, the chiming of rhyme, the stops, the reprises, all parallel the effects of music! I awoke to music as I awoke to poetry: there were cheap tickets for schoolchildren to go and hear the Halle Orchestra under Barbirolli, the Liverpool Philharmonic under Beecham and Sargent, at Hanley’s Victoria Hall. I heard Kathleen Ferrier there. For me syntax in poetry, moving in time, is like articulation and harmonic progression in music.
Donald Davie, one of my oldest friends and my tutor in my final year at Cambridge, wrote a book on syntax in the ‘50s called Articulate Energy. He writes there: ‘Poetic syntax is dramatic when its function is to please us by the fidelity with which it follows the “form of thought” in some mind other than the poet’s, which the poet imagines’. I would add to that ‘or his own’, though strictly speaking the ‘I’ of a poem is a dramatic fiction dreamed up for the sake of that poem. The bit I like in the Davie is the idea of the ‘form of thought’ being absolutely central, being drawn out by the movement of syntax. One enlists one’s ‘form of thought’ by a fidelity to the form of language, its hidden power always allowing itself to be coaxed forth and empowering one’s fictions. English, with its marvellous strengths, is always there, waiting to be used, beyond the burble and cliche of the media. The ‘form of thought’ it offers moves like music: we hear that music as one of the many elements in a poem’s succession, while words measure out their shapes through metre and stanza schemes, chiming their way past rhymes, hurrying over the line-endings of blank verse, or sometimes pausing at those line-endings or within the line itself. Yes, I agree with Bunting who exemplifies all this in Briggflatts. But, no, I’d never try musical composition, have never been tempted towards it. I just continue to envy the composer and do otherwise - compose with words, that is. And whistle.
DM: I hear that film was a key influence on your poetry. Which films are important to you? And how has the cinema influenced your handling of poetic imagery?
CT: The comic cinema has meant a lot to me, the rapid pace of those early silent films. I’ve already explained in an interview in PN Review (Autumn 1987) how Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane made me aware of a whole range of cinematic possibilities, of the way angles of perception process, so to speak, what you are looking at. Cinema, from that point of view, very much helped to sharpen my critical faculties as did an activity that went hand in hand with my interest in it - namely, drawing and painting. My paintings, like my poems, begin with the sheer otherness of things - rocks and stones and trees in both are ‘resistances’ that lure you out of your comfortable subjectivity and bring you into relationship with the processes and presences of the world. Hence my first full scale book was called Seeing is Believing.
DM: What are your plans at present?
CT: I’ve just completed a new volume of poetry, The Door in the Wall, due from OUP next year, so already I’m thinking of the one after that! My immediate plan is to complete the Selected Poems of the 80 year old Italian, Attilio Bertolucci, which I’ve been translating for several years. (He’s the father of the film director, as one inanely has to say to people who know only the media names.) He’s an extraordinary poet - the poems read as if you had combined Proust and Thomas Hardy, but in a very domestic setting, though a setting which has felt the impact of the fascist ‘30s, then the war-torn ‘40s and flight to the mountains when the Germans took over in Italy. And they contain a retrospect of a different Italy from now - one rooted in the provinces, principally Parma, with its influences from France in both architecture and cuisine, and a kind of local sweetness of temperament that shows in the great frescoes of Correggio there. Bertolucci has been writing what he calls a novel in verse, La camera da letto, which sums up the life of his family and ancestors and in a syntax that would have delighted Bunting - and maybe Proust himself.
The other part of my plan is to do more art criticism. I’ve written a couple of essays on Cezanne for the late Peter Fuller’s magazine Modern Painters, also one on John Ashbery as art critic. At the moment I am engaged on a piece which should appeal perhaps to the readers of The North and this is on Canadian painting in the first half of the century. It begins with the fact that two of Canada’s finest painters, Arthur Lismer and FH Varley, emigrated from Sheffield. One of the arresting things about their rocks and stones and trees - and about Varley’s mountains - is just how much they seem to have owed to the drawings in the Ruskin museum at Sheffield, studied in their student days. So it was Ruskin - another of my influences, incidentally - and not the unmediated Canadian wilds that made their work so compellingly accurate. There again are two Britishers who ventured outside the right little, tight little island and became, virtually unknown to the island, two of the century’s most daring landscape painters. So perhaps Ruskin and his Modern Painters makes a good place for us to call a halt. He carried forth much that is best in English Romanticism. He influenced our two Sheffielders, and he also influenced Gerard Manley Hopkins in the latter’s passion for ‘inscape’ - what Ruskin called ‘the peculiar and separating form’ of things. And lastly he influenced your interviewee - as did Hopkins too - with his stress on the ‘leading lines’ of what we see. If as a poet you see clearly, as Ruskin thought you should, you can translate his ‘leading lines’ into those of syntax, ‘articulate energy’ as Davie so brilliantly puts it. So, to sum up, I’m not ‘cold’ but energetic, I’m not humourless but endlessly playful (even where I’m being serious) and my poems are for me full of the future - as I hope they will prove for the younger generation - because they are based on an awareness of ecology, a balance to be achieved with nature, which is one of the things that might save us from the political catastrophes of this century.
Really Useful Key Texts:
Poets of the Apocalypse by Arthur Edward Salmon; Boston Twayne Publishers,1983
Blake Morrison, The Movement: English Poetry and Fiction of the 1950s, O.U.P., 1980
Bernard Bergonzi, Wartime and Aftermath, Oup, 1993
‘Larkin’s Politics and Tomlinson’s’, from Donald Davie, Under Briggflatts, Carcanet, 1989
‘Thom Gunn’, from Donald Davie, Under Briggflatts, Carcanet, 1989
New Lines, edited Robert Conquest, Macmillan,1956
New Lines II, edited by Robert Conquest, Macmillan, 1963
Elizabeth Jennings, Collected Poems, Carcanet Press
Larkin, Philip, Collected Poems, ed. A Thwaite, Faber & Faber, 1988
Larkin, Philip, Selected Letters, ed. A. Thwaite, Faber & Faber, 1992
Larkin, Philip, Required Writing: Miscellaneous Pieces 1955-1982, Faber & Faber, 1983
Larkin, Philp, Interview in J. Haffenden, ed., Viewpoints: Poets in Conversation, Faber & Faber, 1981
Dylan Thomas, Collected Poems, Dent
Dylan Thomas, by Paul Ferris, Penguin Books
Andrew Motion, Philip Larkin. A Writer's Life, Faber & Faber, 1993
Thom Gunn, Collected Poems, Faber & Faber, 1994
Thom Gunn, The Occasions of Poetry: Essays in Criticism and Autobiography, Faber & Faber, 1982
Neil Corcoran, English Poetry Since 1940, Longman, 1993
Edna Longley, Poetry in the Wars, Bloodaxe Books, 1986
Edward Larrissy, Reading Twentieth-Century Poetry: The Language of Gender and Objects, Blackwell, 1990
Background for Essays
Harry Ritchie, Success Stories: Literature and the Media, 1950–1959, Faber & Faber, 1988
Robert Hewison, In Anger: Culture in the Cold War 1945–60, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1981
Robert Hewison, Too Much: Art and Society in the Sixties, 1960–1975, 1986
Alan Sinfield, Literature, Politics and Culture in Postwar Britain, Blackwell, 1989
Alan Sked and Chris Cook, Post-War Britain: A Political History, 3rd edn., 1990
Bryan Appleyard, The Pleasures of Peace: Art and Imagination in Post-War Britain, Faber &
Terence Brown: Ireland: A Social and Cultural History, 1922–1985, Fontana, 1985
Declan Kiberd, Inventing Ireland: The Literature of the Modern Nation, Vintage, 1996