Cultural Cohesion, p.6Clive James
Whatever Procrustes might have thought, trimming things to fit an arbitrary frame is not a discipline. And without its rhyme-schemes, the sonnet is an arbitrary frame. There are many times in Notebook/History when the reader thrills to the impact of an idea achieving a formal measure almost in spite of itself:
I hear the catbird’s coloratura cluck
singing fuck, fuck above the brushwood racket.
The feeder deals catfood like cards to the yearling
salmon in their stockpond by the falls.
The singing power of the mimesis, the clashing couplings of the shunting assonance, the muscle of the enjambement: if there were a single sonnet wholly assembled with such care then one would not even have to set oneself to learn it—it would teach itself. But fragments are the most we get. Lowell’s later method might allow some parts of his talent free play but it allows his technique only child’s play. “I want words meat-hooked from the living steer,” he writes in the course of rebuking Valéry for preferring six passable lines to one inspired one. He gets what he wants: meat-hooked words and inspired lines. But what one misses, and goes on missing until it aches, is form.
Still, within the limits he has now set for it—the liberating limits, as he sees them—Lowell’s talent is still operating, and still majestic. There are times when nothing has happened except language yet you must helplessly concede that the vitality of his language is unique:
Man turns dimwit quicker than the mayfly
fast goes the lucid moment of love believed;
And there are times when the language subsides into nothing special, but the visualizing faculty reveals itself for the hundredth time as a profound gift:
coming back to Kenyon on the Ohio local—
the view, middle distance, back and foreground, shifts,
silos shifting squares like chessmen—
What an idea! But in all the vast expanse of Notebook/History there are not many times when both things come together, and none at all when a poem sustains itself in the way to which Lowell once made us accustomed. There is no doubt that Lowell has abandoned his old course deliberately. Nor is there any doubt that he has opened up for himself an acreage of subject matter which could never have been reached in the old way. But we still have to decide if what we are being given is poetry or something else. Of some comfort here is that Lowell appears to be still undecided himself.
Setting aside the decisive alteration of structure which turned the circularity of Notebook into the linear stride of History, all the minor changes seem to have been made with the fidgeting lack of direction that you might expect from a writer who somehow feels compelled to refurbish the deliberately formless. Most of the attention has been expended on points of language: it’s too late by now to go back to fourteen passable lines, but apparently there is still hope of drumming up the odd inspired one. All too frequently, the striving for intensity results in a further, incomprehensible compression of an idea already tightened to the limit. In the Notebook version of “In the Forties I”:
Green logs sizzled on the fire-dogs,
painted scarlet like British Redcoats. . . .
Whereas the History version has:
greenwood sizzling on the andirons,
two men of iron, two milk-faced British Redcoats.
Without a knowledge of the first version, it would be hard to guess what the second might mean: the idea of the red paint has become familiar to Lowell, and he has got rid of it without pausing to reflect that we will have trouble following the idea unless it is spelled out to some extent. Scores of these changes for the worse could be adduced. Other changes are simply neutral. In Notebook’s “Harriet 2,” the fly is like a plane gunning potato bugs. Appearing again in the sonnet “Summer, 2” in For Lizzie and Harriet, the fly is like a plane dusting apple orchards. The second version is perhaps preferable for its verb being the more easily appreciated, but on the other hand potato bugs have more verve than apple orchards. It’s a toss-up.
Another kind of change is incontestably for the better. In History Robert Frost’s voice is “musical and raw” rather than, as in Notebook, “musical, raw and raw.” One had always wondered why the repetition was there, and now one finds that Lowell had been wondering the same thing. In Notebook Frost was supposed to have inscribed a volume “Robert Lowell from Robert Frost, his friend in the art.” In History this becomes “For Robert from Robert, his friend in the art.” Much chummier. Was Lowell, for modesty’s sake, misquoting the first time? Or is he, for immodesty’s sake, misquoting now? It is impossible to tell, but grappling with the implications of these minor shifts is one of the involving things about reading all these books together.
The comparison between Notebook and History could go on for ever, and probably will. Discovering that the Notebook poem for Louis MacNeice is reproduced in History with one of its lines doubled and another line dropped—a really thunderous printer’s error—one wonders distractedly if anybody else knows. Does Lowell know? It’s large territory to become familiar with, even for him. Finally one decides that getting familiar with it is as far as appreciation can go. To recognize details is possible; but there is small hope of remembering the whole thing. Like Berryman’s Dream Songs, Lowell’s Notebook/History/For Lizzie and Harriet defeats memory. Perhaps The Dolphin is heading back to the way things were, but on examination it starts yielding the kind of names—Hölderlin, Manet—which make us think that most of it is fated to end up in the next version of History. In The Dolphin the only human, unhistoried, unsignificant voice occurs in the quoted parts of Lizzie’s letters. If Lowell wrote them, he should write more. But there isn’t much point in saying “should.” The outstanding American poet is engaged in writing his version of the poem that Pound, Williams and Berryman have each already attempted—The Big One. Lowell thinks he is chipping away the marble to get at the statue. It’s more likely that he is trying to build a statue out of marble chips. Who cares about history, if poetry gets thrown away? Perhaps he does. And anyway the poetry was his to throw.
Times Literary Supplement August 10, 1973;
later included in At the Pillar of Hercules, 1979
In a subsequent letter, John Bayley twitted me about the Redcoat andirons. He said that the image in its revised form was not hard to puzzle out. On reflection, I decided Bayley was right, but I still wondered whether the image was improved by being made a puzzle. (Tightened, or screwed? is always a good question to ask about a poet’s emendation.) At the time, the main issue raised by Lowell’s final barrage of poetry collections was a journalistic one: the legitimacy, or lack of it, of his quoting Elizabeth Hardwick’s letters without permission. Only slowly did the discussion shift towards the lasting critical point, which was whether or not Lowell was engaged in the distortion of his own achievement by crushing it under a heap of busywork that it took a tenured scholar to care about. From the point of view of his British publishers (who were in the front line, because Lowell had shifted his base from New York to London), their accommodation to Lowell’s latter-day prolificity was a disaster. Sales of the new books were negligible, and the blight eventually affected his back catalogue. The critic’s duty was clear: to remind the educated reading public that this absurd attempt to build a pyramid single-handed from within, though it looked like the work of a mad pharaoh, was the aberration of a very talented man. The critic also had the duty to remind his more gullible colleagues that the talent was not attaining an apotheosis, but consuming itself before their eyes. What happened to Lowell in London was not the final development of his confessional poetry. It was the final development of his clinical dementia, a condition for which there had never been any legislating, although there had always been a romantic critical tendency to believe that the poetry would not have been possible without the madness. In that respect, distance lent enchantment to the view. Anyone who caught the merest glimpse of Lowell’s solipsistic mania knew that it was more likely to produce boredom t
FOUR ESSAYS ON
1. Somewhere becoming rain
Collected Poems by Philip Larkin,
edited by Anthony Thwaite
At first glance, the publication in the United States of Philip Larkin’s Collected Poems looks like a long shot. While he lived, Larkin never crossed the Atlantic. Unlike some other British poets, he was genuinely indifferent to his American reputation. His bailiwick was England. Larkin was so English that he didn’t even care much about Britain, and he rarely mentioned it. Even within England, he travelled little. He spent most of his adult life at the University of Hull, as its chief librarian. A trip to London was an event. When he was there, he resolutely declined to promote his reputation. He guarded it but would permit no hype.
Though Larkin’s diffidence was partly a pose, his reticence was authentic. At no point did he announce that he had built a better mousetrap. The world had to prove it by beating a path to his door. The process took time, but was inexorable, and by now, only three years after his death, at the age of sixty-three, it has reached a kind of apotheosis. On the British best-seller lists, Larkin’s Collected Poems was up there for months at a stretch, along with Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time and Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses. In Larkin’s case, this extraordinary level of attention was reached without either general relativity’s having to be reconciled with quantum mechanics or the Ayatollah Khomeini’s being required to pronounce anathema. The evidence suggests that Larkin’s poetry, from a standing start, gets to everyone capable of being got to. One’s tender concern that it should survive the perilous journey across the sea is therefore perhaps misplaced. A mission like this might have no more need of a fighter escort than pollen on the wind.
The size of the volume is misleading. Its meticulous editor, Anthony Thwaite—himself a poet of high reputation—has included poems that Larkin finished but did not publish, and poems that he did not even finish. Though tactfully carried out, this editorial inclusiveness is not beyond cavil. What was elliptically concentrated has become more fully understandable, but whether Larkin benefits from being more fully understood is a poser. Eugenio Montale, in many ways a comparable figure, was, it might be recalled, properly afraid of what he called “too much light.”
During his lifetime, Larkin published only three mature collections of verse, and they were all as thin as blades. The Less Deceived (1955), The Whitsun Weddings (1964) and High Windows (1974) combined to a thickness barely half that of the Collected Poems. Larkin also published, in 1966, a new edition of his early, immature collection, The North Ship, which had first come out in 1945. He took care, by supplying the reissue with a deprecatory introduction, to keep it clearly separate from the poems that he regarded as being written in his own voice.
The voice was unmistakable. It made misery beautiful. One of Larkin’s few even halfway carefree poems is “For Sidney Bechet,” from The Whitsun Weddings. Yet the impact that Larkin said Bechet made on him was exactly the impact that Larkin made on readers coming to him for the first time:
On me your voice falls as they say love should,
Like an enormous yes.
What made the paradox delicious was the scrupulousness of its expression. There could be no doubt that Larkin’s outlook on life added up to an enormous no, but pessimism had been given a saving grace. Larkin described an England changing in ways he didn’t like. He described himself ageing in ways he didn’t like. The Empire had shrunk to a few islands, his personal history to a set of missed opportunities. Yet his desperate position, which ought logically to have been a licence for incoherence, was expressed with such linguistic fastidiousness on the one hand, and such lyrical enchantment on the other, that the question arose of whether he had not at least partly cultivated that view in order to get those results. Larkin once told an interviewer, “Deprivation for me is what daffodils were for Wordsworth.”
In the three essential volumes, the balanced triad of Larkin’s achievement, all the poems are poised vibrantly in the force-field of tension between his profound personal hopelessness and the assured command of their carrying out. Perfectly designed, tightly integrated, making the feeling of falling apart fit together, they release, from their compressed but always strictly parsable syntax, sudden phrases of ravishing beauty, as the river in Dante’s Paradise suggests by giving off sparks that light is what it is made of.
These irresistible fragments are everyone’s way into Larkin’s work. They are the first satisfaction his poetry offers. There are other and deeper satisfactions, but it was his quotability that gave Larkin the biggest cultural impact on the British reading public since Auden—and over a greater social range. Lines by Larkin are the common property of everyone in Britain who reads seriously at all—a state of affairs which has not obtained since the time of Tennyson. Phrases, whole lines and sometimes whole stanzas can be heard at the dinner table.
There is an evening coming in
Across the fields, one never seen before,
That lights no lamps . . .
Only one ship is seeking us, a black-
Sailed unfamiliar, towing at her back
A huge and birdless silence. In her wake
No waters breed or break . . .
Now, helpless in the hollow of
An unarmorial age, a trough
Of smoke in slow suspended skeins
Above their scrap of history,
Only an attitude remains . . .
And as the tightened brakes took hold, there swelled
A sense of falling, like an arrow-shower
Sent out of sight, somewhere becoming rain . . .
How distant, the departure of young men
Down valleys, or watching
The green shore past the salt-white cordage
Rising and falling . . .
Steep beach, blue water, towels, red bathing caps,
The small hushed waves’ repeated fresh collapse
Up the warm yellow sand, and further off
A white steamer stuck in the afternoon . . .
Later, the square is empty: a big sky
Drains down the estuary like the bed
Of a golÏd river . . .
At death, you break up: the bits that were you
Start speeding away from each other for ever
With no one to see . . .
Rather than words comes the thought of high windows:
The sun-comprehending glass,
And beyond it, the deep blue air, that shows
Nothing, and is nowhere, and is endless.
Drawn in by the subtle gravity beam of such bewitchment, the reader becomes involved for the rest of his life in Larkin’s doomed but unfailingly dignified struggle to reconcile the golden light in the high windows with the endlessness it comes from. Larkin’s sense of inadequacy, his fear of death are in every poem. His poems could not be more personal. But, equally, they could not be more universal. Seeing the world as the hungry and thirsty see food and drink, he describes it for the benefit of those who are at home in it, their senses dulled by satiation. The reader asks: How can a man who feels like this bear to live at all?
Life is first boredom, then fear.
Whether or not we use it, it goes,
And leaves what something hidden from us chose,
And age, and then the only end of age.
But the reader gets an answer: There are duties that annul nihilism, satisfactions beyond dissatisfaction, and, above all, the miracle of continuity. Larkin’s own question about what life is worth if we
The white steamer has gone. Like breathed-on glass
The sunlight has turned milky. If the worst
Of flawless weather is our falling short,
It may be that through habit these do best,
Coming to water clumsily undressed
Yearly; teaching their children by a sort
Of clowning; helping the old, too, as they ought.
Just as Larkin’s resolutely prosaic organization of a poem is its passport to the poetic, so his insight into himself is his window on the world. He is the least solipsistic of artists. Unfortunately, this fact has now become less clear. Too much light has been shed. Of the poems previously unpublished in book form, a few are among his greatest achievements, many more one would not now want to be without, and all are good to have. But all the poems he didn’t publish have been put in chronological order of composition along with those he did publish, instead of being given a separate section of their own. There is plenty of editorial apparatus to tell you how the original slim volumes were made up, but the strategic economy of their initial design has been lost.
All three of the original volumes start and end with the clean, dramatic decisiveness of a curtain going up and coming down again. The cast is not loitering in the auditorium beforehand. Nor is it to be found hanging out in the car park afterwards. The Less Deceived starts with “Lines on a Young Lady’s Photograph Album,” which laments a lost love but with no confessions of the poet’s personal inadequacy. It ends with “At Grass,” which is not about him but about horses: a bugle call at sunset.
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