III: Mainstream Postmods
Taking James Fenton as the representative student of Fuller and Auden, O'Brien in fact discusses "The Pitt-Rivers Museum" from the cycle Exempla in Terminal Moraine in ways that might almost satisfy N.H. Reeve and Richard Kerridge, authors of Nearly Too Much: The Poetry of J.H. Prynne. Fenton's use, both here and elsewhere, of a range of technical languages to displace the lyric subject and its point of view, along with whatever consolations such a limited perspective might provide, recalls not only the use of scientific knowledge - anthropology and geology, for example - in Auden or David Jones, but also what Reeve and Kerridge call in Prynne's work "the presence of discourses [which challenge] the humanist paradigm and its place in late-capitalist culture by imposing shifts of scale which immediately disrupt any sense of personal, unmediated perspective," reminding us that we are in fact ourselves the products of infinitely large and infinitely small processes - cosmic, geological, molecular - to which the human subject may properly be subordinated in a poetry seeking an expression for these processes themselves.
In its sixteen sections and sub-sections, Fenton's Exempla draws on such sources as Smith and Miller's Developmental Psycholinguistics, Lyell's Principles of Geology, Raymond Bush's The Fruit-Growers, an Oxford billboard, an article on frogs' eyes, and the museum labels and other materials from the Pitt-Rivers Museum. O'Brien calls the poem's fragmentary narrative elements "residually Audenesque," but so too, certainly, is the strange hodge-podge of bookishness recalling Auden's own use of W.H.R. Rivers himself, John Layard and other anthropologists, psychologists and neurologists in Paid on Both Sides and The Orators. While the stanza O'Brien quotes echoes Auden even in the rhythms - "All day, / Watching the groundsman breaking the ice / From the Stone trough, / The sun slanting across the lawns" - the decisive point made about the poem as a whole in relation to Fenton's work in general might well lead us back to Reeve and Kerridge on Prynne:This is an early example of Fenton's interest in interfering with, or removing, the interpretative frame through which readers may at first believe themselves to be viewing a poem....The poem is a 'museum-piece', whose random inventory gradually ushers us towards the realisation that to excerpt and categorize items from the world and encase them in a building does not enable us to stand outside the world from which we have removed them. The poem in fact makes an elaborate fetish of the museum, in order to view this place of learning or idle contemplation as the embodied unconscious of a culture....Fenton clearly gains in the relative indirectness of his approach, which enables the psychic strains of amnesia ('A German Requiem'), displacement and class/cultural exhaustion ('A Vacant Possession', 'Nest of Vampires') to become matter for poems rather than rhapsodies on themselves, as they might in the hands of inferior writers in the confessional mode.Reeve and Kerridge argue that "in order to survive, poetry has to collide with the powerful discourses of our culture (smashing them to pieces), rather than dodging into alley-ways while they pass, or lingering in safe places like gardens." Although readers of Fenton and Prynne seem no more interested in talking to each other than do most Conductors to most Penguins, the manifesto-like passage of Prynne's "L'Extase de M. Poher" ought to find the author of Exempla sympathetic to his tirade:      NoNo doubt the most obvious Audenesque aspects of Fenton's work exist in his early and explicitly political poems about Indochina in the early seventies, like "Cambodia," "In a Notebook," and "Dead Soldiers." But no one would have called those poems postmodern when they were first published and I doubt that anyone is inclined to now. Of the Fenton poems that appear in the Penguin selection, it is in particular "A Staffordshire Murderer" that O'Brien finds, together with "England," among the "most truly radical...most impressive varieties of English postmodernism to date." Noting that Fenton is again in Auden's debt as he draws on ritual elements of the detective story in "A Staffordshire Murderer," O'Brien goes on to describe with appreciation what he calls "its cubism," which offers a series of menacing digressions without supplying a narrative or establishing any sense of novelistic "real time." He quotes Alan Robinson to the effect that Fenton's poems often exhibit "a recalcitrant fragmentation [which is] characteristic of much of an emergent tendency in Postmodernist writing which parallels the deconstructive preoccupations of much contemporary literary theory" and concludes his essay by saying that Fenton - and John Fuller as well - has undertaken an "unwriting" of England in which "the linguistic representation of 'otherness' encounters an experiential otherness so extreme that it subverts representation itself." O'Brien imagines Fenton having "trained under hothouse conditions a type of poem that might have been glimpsed in Auden's 'Bucolics,' to the point where it brings in question our capacity to grasp its internal contradictions, and where the only evidence of its own coherence and relevance to itself lies in the poem's insinuating tone."
poetical gabble will survive which fails
to collide head on with the unwitty circus:
no history running
with the french horn into
the alley-way, no
of valued instinct, no growth
of meaning & stated order:
we are too kissed & fondled,
no longer instrumental
to culture in "this" sense of time:
1. Steroid metaphrast
2. Hyper-bonding of the insect
3. 6% memory, etc
any other rubbish is mere political rhapsody, the
gallant lyricism of the select.
I belabor all of these attempts to identify Fenton as a postmodern poet who can find his own radical sources in such a mainstream figure as Auden simply to suggest that, if this characterization is even remotely correct, Fenton - Oxford Professor of Poetry and anathema to many of the Conductors and Others - could without contradiction himself appear in Conductors of Chaos represented by cycles like Exempla or poems like "A Staffordshire Murderer" while also making a choice from early Auden - choruses from Paid on Both Sides, parts of "The Airman's Journal" or "The Initiates" from The Orators, certain pieces from Poems (1930) - that would parallel in interesting ways the actual five contributors' sponsorship of work by Gascoyne, Moore, Hendry, Graham, and Jones. Since O'Brien is rather stubbornly unwilling to discuss any of the poets in Conductors save Roy Fisher, he is not quite the critic Robert Pinsky called for some years ago in The Situation of Poetry who would be able to take up the work of particular poets without being distracted by the quasi-political divisions into groups or camps or parties with which they are superficially identified or superficially identify themselves. In part because he categorically groups and excludes "neo-modernists," "language poets," and "performance poets" from his discussion, it is necessary to consult a book such as Tuma's to complete the account of recent British poetry in somewhat the same way one needs, in the American context, to read Marjorie Perloff after reading Helen Vendler. Nonetheless, O'Brien is generally more impressed by poets and poems than by movements and groups. Many of the poets he discusses are as much a challenge to avant-garde pieties as the really innovative work of British experimentalists - neo-modernists, language poets and performance writers among them - is a challenge to mainstream literary conventions.
It may be easier to claim Fenton's work for a kind of mainstream postmodern canon than that of Glyn Maxwell and Simon Armitage. Although as co-editor of the Penguin anthology Armitage does not include his own work in the book, American readers should know that he has been paired with Maxwell - who now teaches at Amherst and is published by Houghton Mifflin - in journalistic accounts of the New Generation at least since the 1993 publication of the Bloodaxe New Poetry anthology. He has even played MacNeice to Maxwell's Auden in Moon Country, a collaborative book about Iceland reminiscent of the Auden/MacNeice Letters from Iceland of 1937. O'Brien grants Armitage the distinction of being "perhaps the first serious poet since Larkin to achieve wide popularity" in Britain, but he finds the "everyday postmodernity" of his poetry, in which a younger readership has clearly come to recognize its own image, to consist mainly in "a kind of linguistic automatism, or echolalia - like language running around with its head cut off." Clearly Maxwell is the more interesting poet.
Although I am pretty certain he would dislike some of the jargon, it's possible that O'Brien might be willing to extend his provisional description of mainstream postmodernism to include certain terms and formulae that Hulse, Kennedy and Morley used to introduce Armitage, Maxwell, Didsbury, Reading, and even O'Brien himself as a poet in 1993. The editors of The New Poetry asked us to observe in their poets a "relish for cumbersome cultural props for their totemic presence alone," a realization that "ideas of meaning, truth and understanding are in themselves fictions determined by the rhetorical forms and linguistic terms used to express them," a "mixing of registers, idioms, and thematic provenances," and "doubts about authenticity of self and narrative authority" where "the pronominal act is itself a risk." Reading Maxwell's work specifically as a response to the questions which they took to be implicit in many of the younger poets in their anthology - How does the new poet "escape the negative inheritance of British poetry: its ironies, its understatements, its dissipated energies?" - they pointed to Maxwell's exploitation of "an untrustworthy I and a passive narrator," his "self-conscious wit and an attack that came...from a relentless conceptualizing of language that plays with misreadings, tautologies, insecurities and qualifications," and his "re-emphasized and re-directed syntax that, in mimicking the evasions and non-sequiturs of everyday speech, reminds us that language is always debased currency." Maxwell, who does indeed manifest some of these characteristics in some of his work, also, like Fenton, simply sometimes sounds like Auden and, fleeing as he might "the negative inheritance of British poetry," cleaves with some tenacity to its positive inheritance in formal verse written with an ease that might have impressed the master himself. His range, like Auden's, is very wide - from light verse to narrative to elegy to satire. Derek Walcott has spoken of his ability "to orchestrate asides, parenthetical quips, side-of-the-mouth ruminations into verse with a bravura not dared before." And Joseph Brodsky has said that "he covers a greater distance in a single line than most people do in a poem. At its best, the poetry sounds like this (from "Drive to the Seashore," a poem that David Kennedy thinks of as a response to Geoffrey Hill's sequence "Of Commerce and Society"):We passed, free citizens, between the glovesMaxwell's boisterous metrical exuberance in congenial forms employed elsewhere, such as the Burns stanza, not only recalls Auden but also, in "Don't Waste Your Breath," playfully invokes his name before asking critics such as myself not to waste our own breath "telling me / my purpose, point or pedigree." Fair enough, one says, while still insisting on how frequently the Auden trick is turned, the pedigree displayed, in something such as "Just Like Us":
of dark and costly cities, and our eyes
bewildered us with factories. We talked.
Of what? Of the bright dead in the old days,
often of them. Of the great coal-towns, coked
to death with scruffy accents. Of the leaves
whirled to shit again. Of the strikers sacked
and picking out a turkey with their wives.
Of boys crawling downstairs: we talked to those
but did this: drove to where the violet waves
push from the dark, light up, lash out to seize
their opposites, and curse to no effect.It will have to be sunny, so these can marry,At this point, some of the questions O'Brien raises about the Audenesque become important. He wonders, for example, exactly what it is that Maxwell is after in Auden - his "air of knowing [his] way about," his "cultural assurance and power of synthesis," his diagnostic abilities, his "tricks with articles and syntax," his "formal gifts," his "air of secrecy and conspiracy," the "various personal myths," his self-appointed role as the age's representative, or some combination of these. What O'Brien doesn't consider as a perhaps unintended result of Maxwell's schooling himself on Auden is what Keith Tuma calls in Maxwell's work "a pervasive air of diminished ambition," the "desperate or campy futility" which vitiates some of Auden's later poetry. And one might well associate these characteristics with the dangers of a "rhetorical imagination" that David Kennedy in fact celebrated in the New Generation poets he anthologized with Hulse and Morley as "a change of emphasis from the latencies and nuances of language to its forms and surfaces." O'Brien sees in such a change of emphasis a sign of possible decline or impoverishment, a decadence of sorts which he associates with British cultural activities fueled by Thatcherism. Kennedy's enthusiasm for the paradoxes of a poetry "in which carefully husbanded resources of containment and circumspection go hand in hand with exuberant enjoyment, prolific output, and a wide range of occasion and inspiration" strikes O'Brien as itself curiously Thatcherite, and he makes an unexpected connection between Maxwell's poetry, Kennedy's editing and criticism, and Neil Astley's Bloodaxe Books - publisher of both The New Poetry and his own The Deregulated Muse. I'm sure Maxwell wasn't thinking of postmodernism, the Y2K virus itself, in his Audenesque parable "We Billion Cheered" included in the Penguin anthology. Nonetheless, the obscure "threat" in the poem which seems to disappear when "currencies dance" only to arise again and, like one of Auden's external "enemies" in The Orators, turn inward "like a harmless joke / Or dreams of our / Loves asleep in the cots where the dolls are," is as real as the radical methods of invading Conductors and Others making mutants of mainstream poets who may seek to domesticate them in their work. Although "We miss it where / You miss my writing of this and I miss you there..."
so these can gossip and this forgive
and happily live, so if one should die
in this, the tear that lies in the credible
English eyes will be sweet, and smart
and be real as blood in the large blue heart
that beats as the credits rise, and the rain
falls to England. You will have to wait
for the sunny, the happy, the wed, the white. In
the mean time this, and the garden wet
for the real, who left, or can't forget,
or never meant, or never met.We line the shore,Surprisingly, O'Brien finds Peter Reading also to be a species of Audenesque postmodern (anti-Thatcher sort of) Thatcherite. If this is surprising given the ferocity of Reading's specific mockeries of Mrs. Thatcher, one nonetheless understands what he means. Focusing on the journalistic side of Reading's work, its relationship to what he calls the "urgencies of its period," the dangers of "whoring after relevance," its determination to reveal the garbage of what Tom Paulin calls "Junk Britain" and make the poet "the unofficial laureate of a dying nation," O'Brien finds "a huge hole where causality ought to be" and a kind of political exhaustion. He thinks the Swiftian contempt sometimes noted in Reading's poetry is often only a "sclerotic posture" such as one associates with the late work of Kingsley Amis, and that Reading projects a self-loathing onto the general public with his castigations of the generic Beckettian "H.sap" and the "pangoids" and "morlocks" that populate his writing. He believes that the poems are finally complicit in "a cruelly Manichaen rationalization which lies behind Thatcherism" with its "use of effect (brutalization) to justify cause (impoverishment)." Reading is seen as a poet of the Coleridgean Fancy rather than the Imagination whose chief formal device is "juxtaposition," and whose poetry, like much journalism, "shrinks its subjects to fit the requirements of its rhetoric." This strikes me as a harsh and very one-dimensional view of a remarkable poet who even more than Fenton, and certainly more than Maxwell, can be profitably read in the company of poets appearing in Conductors and Other.
Speak of the waving dead of a waving war.
And clap a man
For an unveiled familiar new plan.
Nothing will start that hasn't started yet.
It, its friend, its foe and its opposite.
Armitage and Crawford make a good effort to represent Reading in the Penguin anthology, but ultimately the poetry is not amenable to any kind of selection at all because Reading's best work appears in through-composed books, many of which need to be read dialectically in relationship to other through-composed books. But the eight pages taken from Ukulele Music - only Muldoon's "Incantata" occupies more space in the book - is a gesture in the right direction. American readers should know that Reading's two volume Bloodaxe Collected Poems is available from Dufour Editions and that Northwestern University Press publishes separately his Ukulele Music and Perduta Gente in a single volume. This last is certainly the best introduction to his work.
The editors of 1993 Bloodaxe New Poetry anthology claimed Reading - older than most New Generation Poets having been born in 1946 - as an important participant in their postmodernist agenda. Reading was seen as a poet who in his "mixing of registers, idioms, and thematic provenances" was happiest when he could "manipulate reader expectation by contrasting tonality and subject, lofty style and squalid nastiness" both in his "socio-political work [and his] writing on everyday human pain." The "lofty" style has much to do with Reading's choice of forms and meters - classical hexameters, the elegiac distich, the alcmanic, the alcaic, the choriamb - scansions of which sometimes appear in the texts themselves. The effect of these scansions is often very unnerving - two dactyllic feet cancelled with an X at the end of Final Demands, a fully scanned stanza emerging from a drawn skull's mouth in Evagatory, the counting out of distichs in the "plinkplinka plinkplinka plonk" that accompanies and concludes the weird counterpointing of voices in Ukulele Music. Neil Corcoran has written that "one of the paradoxes of [Reading's] work, of which he is lucidly self-aware, is that its grim occasions provoke it into greater and greater feats of 'prestigitial' invention, particularly in his adoption of resolutely unEnglish classical verse forms." If Auden is sometimes present behind Reading's work as he is in Maxwell's, it is not only the Auden who imitated the falling meters of Tennyson's "Locksley Hall" in "Get there if you can and see the land you once were proud to own" and whose social satires had, for a while, a Swiftian rage; it is also the later Auden whose obsessive subject in his talky, intricate syllabics was the ultimate frivolity of art and the inability of poetry to say very much that would disenchant and disintoxicate either the word-drunk poet himself or the self-enchanted reader.
For the same reason that it is difficult to anthologize Reading's work, it is difficult to quote it adequately in a review. In her introduction to volume one of the Collected Poems, Isabel Martin argues for the "absolute unity" of volumes like Evagatory, Stet, Ukulele Music, Perduta Gente, and Going On achieved by "antithetical or polyphonic plotting, highly sophisticated structures, continual cross-referencing of narrative, imagery, motifs, voices and verbal echoes...[which constitute] an interweaving more commonly found in novels." A very good way to begin hearing Reading correctly is in fact to watch the widely available Lannan Foundation video in which he reads both Evagatory and Diplopic in their entirety. In this tour de force of a performance there is no missing what Neil Corcoran has described as the "intermittent Bakhtinian polyphonies, the voices seeming to emerge from a buzzy radio static, the hiss of permanent interference, the cacophony of crossed signals." Perhaps the following excerpt from Evagatory (which is brilliantly read on the video) will give some idea of a few of Reading's effects, along with a sense of his famous "mordant humour" - a quality that saves his bleak vision, like Samuel Beckett's, from at least some of the charges levelled against it in O'Brien's account of his work. The characteristic falling meter of the centered passage introduces, with appropriately Anglo-Saxon trappings, a bard who will sing, in a made-up language, the praises of Mrs. Thatcher herself. The "patois" of his encomium appears in the left column; the translation (in "translationese") appears on the right.  Snow-haired, an elder, dulled eyes gum-filled,
tuning a sweet-toned curious instrument,
gulps from a goblet of local merlot,
sings on a theme whose fame was fabled,
that of a sad realm farctate with feculence
(patois and translationese alternately):
Gobschighte dampetty,       Wonderful little Madam
gobby Fer-dama,       self-mocking Iron Lady,
getspeeke baggsy,       who some said was a windbag
getspeeke parly       some said talked
comma cul, comma       like an arsehole, like
spmalbicker-bicker,     a termagant - why,
porky getspeeke?, porky?     why did some say that?
Pascoz vots clobberjoli,     Because your pretty frocks,
vots chevvy-dur dur,     your permed-stiff hair,
vots baggsymainchic,     your smart handbag, your
vots collier-prick,       tight-sharp necklace,
cuntyvach twitnit,       satrapess so marvellous,
iscst pukkerjoli -       were so beautiful -
illos jalouz dats porky!     they were envious, that's it!
Ni iscst vots marrypappa     Nor was your spouse
grignaleto, ne.         a pipsqueak - far from it!
Mas vots pollytiq       But your many wise policies
saggio sauvay         were saving your islet,
vots salinsula,       your filthy isle, and
insulapetty,         made all equal with nil
et fair tutts egal mit-nochts.
After viewing the Lannan Foundation video, the new reader of Peter Reading might have a go at Ukulele Music and Perduta Gente. The latter poem, dealing chiefly with a Dantesque hoard of urban "lost people," many of them lying among their rags and cardboard hutches under Royal Festival Hall during a performance of Sibelius, recalls the world of Tony Harrison's V and Ken Smith's Fox Running. These gente perduta are the subject of Reading's grim elegy for the "insulate ranks of expendables, eyesores, / winos, unworthies, / knackered-up dipsos / swilling rasato-and meths," the dispossessed subjects of the "Wonderful Little Madam," the Iron Lady whose praise-poem was sung by the snow-haired elder in Evagatory. Here, too, the Anglo-Saxon hammers the reader into the poem.  Don't think it couldn't be you -The four voices speaking in the companion poem counterpoint a poet's elegiac distichs with the prose of Viv, his daily help whose comments on her own life and on the poet's manuscripts left around the house sound like Dickens via Monty Python; the archaic-heroic-imperial verse of an aging Captain who, also employing Viv and living in the same building with the poet, can no longer tell the difference between his own life on the sea and the "yarns" he has heard or read; and a series of goofy, high-spirited instructions quoted from a beginner's manual for the ukulele. We are meant to understand that Reading regards the poet's fulminations at the urban violence and ecological destruction all around him to be about as significant as "the man in the music Hall song that goes he play his Uku uker Youkalaylee while the ship went down," as Viv has it in one of her notes. The four voices are kept separate in the first third of the poem, but in the last third, following the Captain's account of voyages that include a time aboard the Lucky Dragon when it sailed too close to an atomic testing ground, they begin to merge - Viv and the Captain first appear in, then begin to write, the poet's poems, while all three are accompanied by the banalities of the ukulele manual. Thus the poet's versions of tabloid horrors are constantly played off against the Captain's seafaring swagger, Viv's Mrs. Gamp-like persistence, and the plinkaplinkaplinks of the Uke. It is at once a deeply upsetting and strangely exhilarating performance.
bankrupted, batty, bereft,
huddle of papers and rags in a cardboard
bottle-bank cocktails and Snow soporifics,
beg-bucket rattler, no-hope no-homer,
squatter in rat-pits,
busker in underground bogs
(plangent and harp-twang, the Hwaet!
Haggard, the youthful and handsome whom I
loved in my nonage;
vanished, the vigour I valued;
roof-tree and cooking-hearth, sacked).
Bankrupted, batty, bereft -
don't think it couldn't be you.
It's the exhilaration that O'Brien seems unwilling to recognize. His desire that poetry must preserve "something of itself from the general wreck - not optimism or hope, necessarily, but the power of imaginative production" - is surely met by the logopoeia in Reading's "feats of prestigital invention" that Neil Corcoran finds in the Bakhtinian polyphony of voices. Ukulele Music is much closer in its verbal energies to a novel like Burgess's A Clockwork Orange than to the "sclerotic posturing" of the later Kingsley Amis, and it communicates a similar simultaneous pleasure in language and horror at the perpetration of gratuitous violence. It is also, like some of Fenton's work, worth contrasting again with Jeremy Prynne as read by Reeve and Kerridge in Nearly Too Much.
If poetry, as Reeve and Kerridge believe, must, like Prynne's, "collide with the powerful instrumental discourses of the culture," and if, as Prynne writes in "L'Extase de M. Poher," "any other rubbish is mere political rhapsody, the / gallant lyricism of the select," what is to be made of the bits and pieces that result from the collision? Is some of the junk in Junk Britain "rubbish" in some positive sense? Prynne's poem, quoted in part earlier, continues:      Rubbish isThis rubbish, Reeve and Kerridge argue, "is what results from the smash-up, when different discourses do not occupy the cultural places to which they have been directed, but cross the tracks and collide." They also associate it with Julia Kristeva's notion of "the abject": "the expelled and used-up parts of the self which signify that the self is not separate and unitary, but involved in constant processes of dissolution and exchange with the world." One does not need to read Reading with the full machinery derived from Bakhtin, Kristeva, Lyotard, and Habermas, brought to bear on Prynne by Reeve and Kerridge, to argue that one might read Reading that way, and that one might once again find some common ground between a mainstream postmodernist discussed by O'Brien and anthologized in the Penguin, and the poets in Conductors and Other. "Leider's no art against these sorry times" writes the poet in Ukulele Music, and his heckler-critic answers a few lines later: "Reading's nastiness sometimes seems a bit over the top." "No / poetic gabble will survive which fails / to collide with the unwitty circus," wrote Prynne. Reeve and Kerridge take their title from a pair of lines in his "Down where changed," the second of which is the more important: "Nearly Too Much / is, well, nowhere near enough."
pertinent; essential; the
most intricate presence in
our entire culture; the
ultimate sexual point of the whole place turned
into a model question
Poets more congenial to O'Brien's taste are Peter Didsbury and Roy Fisher, in part because of the way they use their native cities to "think with." As Fisher says of Birmingham, "it's not made for that kind of job / but it's what they gave me." In fact, O'Brien admires Didsbury's work almost as much as he does Fenton's - largely, I think, because Didsbury does such interesting things with O'Brien's (and Larkin's) own native city of Hull, a place brought to almost preternatural life in some of Didsbury's oddest and strongest poems in a manner recalling the paintings of Stanley Spencer in which biblical stories are reenacted in the village of Cookham. Not only does O'Brien argue that "it is as a celebrant...that Didsbury should be celebrated" who, unlike Reading, has "sustainable positives to set against the dismal, de-historicised character of contemporary life," but he also takes his work as the site where he can contend with theoretical critics like John Osborne, quoted earlier, whose "linguistic materialism" and "Post-religious enlightenment" sound feeble "compared with the grandeur and terror of what [they] seek to replace" in the genuinely religious imagination of poems like "Eikon Basilike" and "A Winter's Fancy," where fiction "crosses over into belief." And yet, although Didsbury himself expresses distaste at being described as a postmodernist, believing himself to be "engaged in tasks and duties and pleasures which are nothing if not ancient," his work is clearly related to that of the poets discussed above and to American models such as Kenneth Koch and John Ashbery - poets, incidentally, who must also be celebrated as celebrants.
Didsbury's poetry is characteristically self-conscious and self-reflexive in the manner of these other poets and it frequently meditates on language and the versions of the self that speak it. Walking in "the empty heart" of his home city, a speaker finds it suddenly like "a level Baltic town," its canal emptying "into a turbulent German Ocean" with "dereliction on one side of the stream" and "an Arctic kind of Xanadu on the other." Shivering, he thinks of his hip-flask and realizes he "hadn't actually invented it yet" but knew he "wouldn't be leaving it very much longer."If this was what linguistic exercise meant
then I didn't think much of it. The deep structures
I could cope with, but the surface ones
were coming at me in Esperanto, and fragments of horrible Volapuk.
In "Back of the House," in an English garden, "Language, fat and prone beneath her fountain, / idly dispenses curling parchment notes, / her coveted, worthless, licenses to imitate." And at the end of "A Winter's Fancy":The cattle squelch past beneath a sodden skyThe American reader may feel he has seen enough of this sort of thing in the native product, but Didsbury's British cultural context makes it all a little more distinctive than short quotes can illustrate. In a blurb taken from the Observer on the back of Didsbury's recent book, That Old-Time Religion, Alan Jenkens says that "some of his invention...hints at a rich humane vision of England which yields a kind of surrealism all of its own: estuaries, farms, country estates, city streets and bedsits, a kind of tatty or compromised pastoral are detectable in Didsbury's oblique, desperate celebrations." This strikes me as a fine characterization of a body of work that is difficult to characterize. About the long passage he quotes from "The Hailstone," O'Brien says that memory functions, not as in Reading always to yield only images of something lost, but as something held in store, a "granary of the imagination." He finds a Lockean association of ideas provoking "a momentary experience of the uncanny, as if the mind wakes up to its own presence and contents, refreshed and restored to the original vividness of relations with local and domestic culture." It is a poetry in which an extremely literary poet "tries to show us a world before literature gets at it."
below my windows and before the eyes
of Peter Didsbury, in his 35th year.
I consider other inventions of mine,
which rise before me on the darkening pane.We ran by the post office I thought, 'It is all still true,If Didsbury's poems recall Stanley Spencer's painting, Roy Fisher's urban art is a curious amalgam of figures like L.S. Lowry and Edward Hopper on one hand, Tatlin, Malevich and Paul Klee on the other. If there frequently seems to be a low mimetic convention at work in his poetry, his serious joke about being "a 1920s Russian modernist" is in fact a key to his work and, as I have written elsewhere, even the seemingly realist City needs in the end to be read in a context of constructivist and assemblagist innovation as its fictive world emerges from the signs and names of real things. Although O'Brien, like Donald Davie before him, underplays and possibly misunderstands this aspect of Fisher's work, his affection for, as it were, the Hopper-Lowry in Fisher clearly goes very deep for some of the same reasons he admires Didsbury. But we have now come to a point at which - with Fisher's work as a bridge both between the Penguin anthology and Other and between O'Brien's reading of contemporary poets and Keith Tuma's - we must look at a few of the "alternative" poets discussed in Fishing by Obstinate Isles. There is no great mystery why Fisher can, in fact, function as a bridge by producing work that can be admired by both camps, appear in both anthologies, and be sympathetically discussed by both critics. He is an extremely reader-friendly postmodern (or "1920s Russian modernist" who has moved on), and often he is very funny. As O'Brien says, "he has the artfulness to support the radicalism of his aesthetics and to invite readers into the complicated landscape of his work." He is as good a poet - all schools and movements aside for a moment - as Hill or Tomlinson, Douglas Dunn or Paul Muldoon. Which means he's one of the best alive. But it is, as O'Brien says, his inclusion of consciousness in his poems in such a way that "the poetic imagination has, as it were, no back wall to rest against" and where "the mind itself is continually becoming part of the picture," that aligns one side of his work with the epistemological concerns of Tuma's Cambridge poets, just as a certain affinity with Language poetry (in The Cut Pages especially) aligns another side of his work with Tuma's Londoners. But his austerities and self-imposed constraints are all his own. Six short lines allow us a transition and sound a warning:
a wooden drawer is full of postal orders, it is raining,
mothers and children are standing in their windows,
I am running through the rain past a shop which sells wool,
you take home fruit and veg in bags of brown paper,
we are getting wet, it is raining.'
It was like being back
in the reign of George the Sixth, the kind of small town
which still lies stacked in the roofs of old storerooms in schools,
where plural roof and elf expect to get very wet
and the beasts deserve their nouns of congregation
as much as the postmistress, spinster, her title.
I imagine those boroughs as intimate with rain,
their ability to call on sentient functional downpours
for any picnic or trip to the German Butcher's
one sign of a usable language getting used,
make of this what you will. The rain has moved on,
and half a moon in a darkening blue sky
silvers the shrinking puddles in the road:
moon that emptied the post office and the grocer's,
moon old kettle of rain and ideolect,
the moon the sump of the aproned pluvial towns,
cut moon as half a hailstone in the hair.Because it could do it well
the poem wants to glorify suffering.
I mistrust it.
I mistrust the poem in its hour of success,
a thing capable of being
tempted by ethics into the wonderful.