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Cultural cohesion, p.4
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       Cultural Cohesion, p.4

           Clive James
 

  A look contains the history of Man,

  And fifty francs will earn the stranger right

  To warm the heartless city in his arms.

  Famed stranger and exalted outcast, Auden served a society larger than the one in which he hid. In his later work we see not so much the ebbing of desire as its transference to the created world, until plains and hills begin explaining the men who live on them. Auden’s unrecriminating generosity towards a world which had served him ill was a moral triumph. Those who try to understand it too quickly ought not to be trusted with grown-up books.

  . . .

  I was born in the month after Auden wrote “September 1, 1939” and saw him only three times. The first time, in Cambridge, about five years ago, he gave a poetry reading in Great St. Mary’s. The second time, on the Cambridge-to-London train a year later, I was edging along to the buffet car when I noticed him sitting in a first-class compartment. When the train pulled in I waited for him at the barrier and babbled some nonsense about being privileged to travel on the same train. He took it as his due and waved one of his enormous hands. The third time was earlier this year, in the Martini Lounge atop New Zealand House in London, where a reception was thrown for all of us who had taken part in the Poetry International Festival. Auden shuffled through in a suit encrusted with the dirt of years—it was a geological deposit, an archaeological pile-up like the seven cities of Troy. I don’t think anybody of my generation knew what to say to him. I know I didn’t. But we knew what to think, and on behalf of my contemporaries I have tried to write some of it down here. I can still remember those unlucky hands; one of them holding a cigarette, the other holding a brimming glass, and both trembling. The mind boggled at some of the things they had been up to. But one of them had refurbished the language. A few months later he was beyond passion, having gone to the reward which Dante says that poets who have done their duty might well enjoy—talking shop as they walk beneath the moon.

  Commentary, October 1973; later included in

  At the Pillars of Hercules, 1979

  POSTSCRIPT

  Reading this piece again after thirty years, I itch to tone it down. To write it, I re-read the whole of Auden’s poetry all at once: so a previous encephalitic fever that I had suffered in instalments recurred as a single rush of enthusiasm to the head, and hence to the style. The word “immediately” is used twice, which is twice too often: intensifying adverbs, and especially that one, are a bad way of generating an air of immediacy. Nor is “it seems to me” often advisable, because the usage does little to make an opinion sound tentative, and too much to make the user sound self-absorbed. The phrase snuck in out of a semi-conscious recognition that my Delphic assertions of Auden’s greatness might sound extravagant. But (it seems to me) they weren’t, and still aren’t. As a field of scholarship, Auden continues to grow, like an industrial estate: people as clever as Edward Mendelson can give their whole lives to him, and with a clear conscience. But there is still room for the critical view that tries to transmit the pristine, delighted response: room and necessity, because as Auden’s poetry becomes a posthumous institution it tends towards the daunting, and it should never be allowed to be that. Thick collected editions don’t help. Learned commentary and chronological reordering are sometimes valuable, but more often they dampen the fugitive spirit of the original slim volumes, which were sent into the world as single spies, not as a battalion. The comparatively brief critical article has a better chance than the proliferating scholarship of directing the general reader towards the source of the thrill. For some of us, the thrill of Auden never stops, and we find ourselves composing critical pieces as our natural way of being thankful for it. At the moment, and with nobody asking me to do so, I am ordering the notes I have just made on my hundredth reading of “Letter to Lord Byron.” (I hardly need to read it; there are whole stretches of it I can recite; but it never hurts to go back to the text and find out if loving memory has played tricks.) The spaces between the notes are filling up with linking commentary. Preserved by negligence through one reprinting after another, there are typesetter’s blunders which (it seems to me) need to be distinguished from the liberties Auden deliberately took with his rhyme scheme. And just how inextricably is The Age of Anxiety entrapped by its throwback disciplines of alliteration, its Beowulfian barriers of barbed wire? Doesn’t his lyrical genius fight its way out anyway, and all the more fascinatingly for being starved and scarred? A critic who is finished with Auden is finished with criticism. He might have attained a dignified indifference, but he has forgotten the essential sobriety of his job, which is to restore poetry to those readers capable of being astonished. The sobriety means nothing without the initial capacity to get drunk, so I have left the piece with all its spasms intact, as a token of how drunk I could once get.

  2003

  2

  ON SEAMUS HEANEY

  Door into the Dark by Seamus Heaney

  Of all the newer tight-lipped poets Mr. Heaney is the hardest case, and the tight-lipped critics whose praise is not usually easy to get have been sending quite a lot of approbation his way. His technique is hard-edged: a punchy line travels about two inches. The subject matter is loud with the slap of the spade and sour with the stink of turned earth. Close to the vest, close to the bone and close to the soil. We have learnt already not to look to him for the expansive gesture: there are bitter essences to compensate for the lack of that. Door into the Dark confirms him in his course, its very title telling you in which direction that course lies. I will show you fear in a tinful of bait. It should be said at the outset that poetry as good as Mr. Heaney’s best is hard to come by. But it is all pretty desperate stuff, and in those poems where we don’t feel the brooding vision to be justified by the customary dense beauty of his technique we are probably in the right to come down hard and send our criticism as close as we can to the man within. The man within is at least in some degree a chooser. If he chose to be slick, to let his finely worked clinching stanzas fall pat, there would be a new kind of damaging poetry on the way—squat, ugly and unstoppable.

  But first let us demonstrate the quality of the poetic intelligence with which we have to deal. This is the first stanza of his two-stanza poem “Dream”: it should be quickly apparent that his virtuoso kinetic gift can find interior equivalents in language for almost any movement in the exterior world, so that the mere act of sub-vocalizing the poem brings one out in a sweat.

  With a billhook

  Whose head was hand-forged and heavy

  I was hacking a stalk

  Thick as a telegraph pole.

  My sleeves were rolled

  And the air fanned cool past my arms

  As I swung and buried the blade,

  Then laboured to work it unstuck.

  All the correct chunks and squeaks are caught without being said. But where does it get us? It gets us to the second stanza.

  The next stroke

  Found a man’s head under the hook.

  Before I woke

  I heard the steel stop

  In the bone of the brow.

  He had a dream, you see, and his skill brings you close to believing it—but not quite. This deadfall finish is really a conventional echo of the professional toughies, “realistic” about violence, who have been giving us the jitters for some time. Most of the other symptoms in the syndrome are manifest somewhere or other in the book. Human characteristics tend to be referred back to animals and objects. As with Ted Hughes, it takes a visit to the zoo, the game reserve, or an imaginary dive below the sod before the idea of personality gets any showing at all. The people themselves are mostly clichés disguised in heroic trappings. A stable vacated by a horse (“Gone”) offers more character than the smithy still occupied by the smith (“The Forge”). This latter poem is surely fated to be an anthology piece for the generations to come.

  All I know is a door into the dark.

  Outside, old axles and iron hoops rusting;

  I
nside, the hammered anvil’s short-pitched ring,

  The unpredictable fantail of sparks

  Or hiss when a new shoe toughens in water.

  The anvil must be somewhere in the centre,

  Horned as a unicorn, at one end square,

  . . .

  Sometimes, leather-aproned, hairs in his nose,

  He leans out on the jamb, recalls a clatter

  Of hoofs where traffic is flashing in rows;

  Then grunts and goes in, with a slam and flick

  To beat real iron out, to work the bellows.

  The numbered questions in the back of the school anthology are obvious. What is the attitude of the smith to modern civilization? Is it the same as the poet’s attitude? And (for advanced students) would you consider the Leavisite views on the organic relationship of work to life relevant? But it should also be obvious that the interest of the poem drops considerably when the human being replaces the object at stage centre. Those hairs in his nose don’t do much to establish him, except as a character actor sent down at an hour’s notice from Central Casting. If he were more real, his attitudes towards mechanized culture might not fall so pat. Get through that doorway in the dark and you might find him beating out hubcaps or balancing the wire wheels on a DB6—both jobs which can be done with as much love as bending your millionth horseshoe. There is no conflict here: there is just a received opinion expressed in hints and cleverly overblown in unexpected places—that altar, and the unicorn’s horn, which ought to be a rhino’s only that’s too easy. On the page the refined poem has its attractive spareness: it’s the implication, the area of suggestion, that worries the reader through the ordinariness of its assumptions about culture. Self-employed artisans are usually tough enough to see reality straight: given the chance, the leather-aproned subject might well remind Mr. Heaney that there ain’t no pity in the city.

  Things live; animals almost live; humans live scarcely at all. The inverse progression holds disturbingly true in well-known efforts like the poem about the frozen pump, “Rite of Spring.”

  That sent the pump up in flame.

  It cooled, we lifted her latch,

  Her entrance was wet, and she came.

  It’s a roundabout way for passion to get into print. The obverse poems to this are “Mother,” in which the lady ends up wanting to be like the pump, and “The Wife’s Tale,” a brilliantly tactile poem in which you touch everything—cloth, stubble, grass, bread, seed and china cups—except flesh.

  Mr. Heaney’s “A Lough Neagh Sequence” forms an important section of the book and could well be pointed to if one were asked to isolate a thematic area absolutely his.

  They’re busy in a high boat

  That stalks towards Antrim, the power cut.

  The line’s a filament of smut

  Drawn hand over fist

  Where every three yards a hook’s missed

  Or taken (and the smut thickens, wrist-

  Thick, a flail

  Lashed into the barrel

  With one swing). Each eel

  Comes aboard to this welcome:

  The hook left in gill or gum,

  It’s slapped into the barrel numb

  But knits itself, four-ply,

  With the furling, slippy

  Haul, a knot of back and pewter belly

  That stays continuously one

  For each catch they fling in

  Is sucked home like lubrication.

  Evocation could go no further: the eels (“hatched fears”) are practically in your lap. Similarly in poems like “Bann Clay” and “Bogland” his grating line, shudderingly switched back and forth like teeth ground in a nightmare, finds endless technical equivalents for the subject described: he really is astonishingly capable. And in “Bogland” there is an indication that he can do something even more difficult—state the open statement, make the gesture that enlivens life.

  They’ve taken the skeleton

  Of the Great Irish Elk

  Out of the peat, set it up

  An astounding crate full of air.

  The spirits lift to the flash of wit. There ought to be more of it. Nobody in his right mind would deny that Mr. Heaney’s is one of the outstanding talents on the scene, or want that talent to settle in its ways too early.

  Times Literary Supplement, 1969

  POSTSCRIPT (I)

  One of my earliest notorieties was obtained by mentioning Seamus Heaney in the same breath as Yeats. I was right not to regret it, because sooner rather than later everyone was doing it. More commendably, this piece paid Heaney the compliment of careful writing on the reviewer’s part. By using “symptom” and “syndrome” in the same sentence to show that they did not mean the same thing (strictly, a syndrome is a group of symptoms) I pioneered a technique which I have been using ever since in the attempt to do my share of saving useful distinctions threatened with decay through misuse. As a TV critic, writing every week, I would frequently form a sentence around such paired words as “disinterested” and “uninterested,” or “mitigate” and “militate,” in order to prove that the precision conferred by using them correctly was worth preserving. If the campaign had succeeded I could be more modest about it. It failed completely. As Kingsley Amis has pointed out, there is an iron law operating which dictates that anyone working in the media who makes such errors somehow never gets to read articles deploring them.

  The Metropolitan Critic, 1994

  POSTSCRIPT (II)

  To hitch a ride on the coat-tails of a comet is a bad ambition, but can be gratifying if it happens accidentally. I was lucky enough to be the first critic into print with the nerve, or the naivety, to suggest that Heaney might have a Yeatsian gift. For some time afterwards the comparison was cited by my detractors as clear evidence of hysteria. Later on it was called a boldly premature tip that turned out to be right, and still later everyone forgot that I had ever said it. But it was fun while it lasted. With another flight of fancy I was less lucky. In my mock epic poem Peregrine Prykke’s Pilgrimage I fielded a Guinness-voiced character called Seamus Feamus. The nickname caught on, but I never got the credit for it. In profiles about Heaney, its coinage (but with the second name spelt “famous,” which loses half the point, one would have thought) is usually ascribed to his old literary chums in Ireland. This might very well have been so: it was an idea begging to be had, so anything less than multiple authorship would have been surprising. Fortunately it is not possible to copyright a coinage, or else professional jealousy would spawn a million lawsuits. If you invent a word or a phrase, you should be ready to see other people lift it without acknowledgement; why else did you invent it, except to get it into the language? In the best critics of any medium there is always a poetic urge, and in the critic of poetry it can lead to a professional deformation. Almost always he is, or has been, a poet himself, and when faced with a brilliant new arrival he needs to guard himself against his own envy. The best way is to admit it. From his first book, it was obvious that Heaney commanded, as a natural dispensation, a vocal register well fitted for grandeur—rather more grandeur, in fact, than the emergent Yeats, who spent a long time trilling lightly near the top of the stave before his voice finally broke. The comparison was elementary. Yet one poet of my acquaintance—famous himself later on, although not quite Seamus famous—spent years telling me that it was the silliest thing he had ever heard.

  Reliable Essays, 2001

  3

  ROBERT LOWELL’S

  MARBLE CHIPS

  Of the three new books by Robert Lowell—all of them consisting, like their antecedent Notebook, of unrhymed sonnets—only The Dolphin contains entirely fresh material. It is dedicated to Lowell’s new consort Caroline, and deals with the life they are now leading together. For Lizzie and Harriet deals exclusively with the life Lowell has left behind: it isolates and reworks those poems concerning his ex-wife and daughter which were earlier scattered through Notebook. The central and bulkiest volume of the current three, H
istory, is an extensive reworking and thoroughgoing reordering of all the remaining poems in Notebook, with eighty extra ones mixed in.

  When we consider that Notebook itself had two earlier versions before being published in Britain, it is clear that there is a great deal going on. If mere bustle were creativity, then later Lowell would be the most creative thing in modern poetry. Daunted, the critic is tempted to hand the whole problem directly to the scholar and get the work of collating done before any judgements are hazarded. Unfortunately judgement will not wait—not least because these recent works offer an invitation to scholarship to start up a whole new branch of its industry, an invitation which will be all too eagerly accepted if criticism neglects to mark out the proper, and reasonably discreet, size of the job. Lowell is a giant, but his perimeter is still visible: there is no need to think that he fills the sky.

  In so far as it had one, Notebook’s structure was rhapsodic—an adjective which, in its technical sense, we associate with the Homeric epic. As the poet stumbled in circles of crisis and collapse, digressions could occur in any direction, sub-sequences of the proliferating sonnets form around any theme. These sequences constituted rhapsodies, and it was easy to sense that the rhapsodies were intent on forming themselves into an epic. At that stage, the Lowell epic resembled John Berryman’s Dream Songs: its digressions had shape, but there was no clear line of progress initiating them—no simple story for which they could serve as complications. The story was mixed in with them. All of human history was there, and Lowell’s personal history was there too. Both kinds of history jumped about all over the place.

  The new books have simplified everything, while simultaneously making a clalm to universality that takes the reader’s breath away. “My old title, Notebook, was more accurate than I wished, i.e., my composition was jumbled,” writes the poet in a foreword. “I hope this jumble or jungle is cleared—that I have cut the waste marble from the figure.” Cutting away the marble until the figure is revealed is an idea that reminds us—and is probably meant to remind us—of Michelangelo. As we realize that not even these new books need bring the matter to an end, the idea that the figure need never fully emerge from the marble also reminds us of Michelangelo. Lowell seems intent on having us believe that he is embarked on a creative task which absolves his talent from wasting too much time polishing its own products. He does a lot to make this intention respectable, and we soon see, when reading History, that although thousands of details have been altered since Notebook, the changes that really matter are in the grand structure. It is at this point that we temporarily cease thinking of marble and start thinking about, say, iron filings. Notebook was a random scattering of them. In History a magnet has been moved below, and suddenly everything has been shaken into a startling linear shape.

 
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