Maybe It's all True by Fred Voss Published by Pearl Editions, 3030 E Second St, Long Beach, California 90803

This little pamphlet contains fifty-two poems. Not one of then is more than half a page long. There are many poets who could learn a lesson about the virtues of brevity from Fred Voss. This was my first encounter with this writer whose work I had read reviews of previously but never bothered to seek out. I now realise my mistake. The first poem is entitled My Place. I thought it was going to be about the poet's 'personal space', as they say. No such thing. It is about something very big, but as with all the poems here, it gets at it in a very modest way. No-one could accuse Fred Voss of pretentiousness. His poems are astonishingly tight, utterly unsentimental and bracingly true and honest.

He has lived a life most writers would never dream of, but which they ought to. A factory worker, he is familiar with the hopeless, the feckless, the reduced, the marginal, the alienated, the poor, the abused, all the victims of modern lovelessness. And what breathes through every one of these poems is simply love. Not a hint of ideology. No cleverness. No display of learning. Even when Voss mentions Dostoyevsky he does so as a man who has read him during lunch break. He is a poet without answers. Finally, his poems say: "What can we poor mortals do but love one another as best we can?" In an age dominated by ideology, it is a thoroughly revolutionary message.

Yet these poems contain no anxiety to persuade. They are extraordinarily modest but have about them the authenticity of a man who has lived emotionally, who has known the massiveness of despair and the tininess of hope and beside then much English poetry seems thinly cerebral and lacking in real feeling. On the page, they look like chopped up prose and those leading English poets who believe that the primary poetic responsibility is to rhyme will be vastly disappointed. Yet, they are put together with fastidious care. Voss's use of enjambement is very original. He ends lines in ways that no other poet would dare. Sometimes a line is a single word. But what a word ! His poetry is full of images, yet there is not a simile or metaphor to be found. He has learned those lessons of simplicity for which Americans have Whitman and Thoreau principally to thank.

When I closed this little book after my second reading the word that came to mind was 'holy'. I can think of no other poet working in English whose work would evoke that response. Voss is a true original, Whitman's authentic heir. This is poetry that will last forever and which repays reading over and over. Such work is rare, but then, so are such men.


The Self as Agent / Persons in Relation / Reason and Emotion by John MacMurray Published by Faber and Faber  

All John MacMurray's work has been out of print in this country for many years. Recently, Humanities Press International began to reissue some of his books in America, so it is very welcome that Faber have responded to the flurry of interest in MacMurray's work by publishing three of his seminal books. Perhaps interest in MacMurray has something to do with his influence on a certain strain of contemporary British politics. If so, this may be unfortunate. MacMurray himself was convinced that his work could not be made popular. He recognised that he had a facility for clear expression which made his philosophy look less difficult than in fact it is. Popularisation would lead to vulgarisation and simplification. MacMurray had no faith that the kind of change in which he believed could be brought about by politics which he saw as limited to establishing a framework of justice. Community, MacMurray's term for a new vision of human relations in which the personal was to be elevated over the impersonal, could not be achieved politically. It is probably because of his wariness of simplifiers and political opportunists who might want to make use of his work for purposes of which he wouldn't approve that MacMurray insisted that Persons In Relation was his most important book, for it is his next dense and difficult, the one in which his clarity of style is least in evidence.

This book forms the first part of The Form Of The Personal, whose second is Persons In Relation, the whole being the series of Gifford Lectures delivered at the University of Glasgow in 1953-54. In spite of MacMurray's preference for the first volume, the second is a better way in to his work. It contains his careful exposition of his belief that human individuality depends upon mutuality: that "I" always implies "You":

"Personal Individuality is not an original given fact. It is achieved through the progressive differentiation of the original unity of the "You and I".

We are born into mutuality. For the human infant, isolation means death. Our individuality is formed through a rhythm of withdrawal and return which becomes the permanent form of personal relations. This recognition of the inescapable mutuality of our being forms the basis of MacMurray's rejection of the classic liberal defence of the individual. For MacMurray, the liberal conception of the individual is mistaken, for our individuality depends upon our personal relations with others. Our moral struggles are always struggles between persons rather than within individuals and morality is, by its very nature, personal. It is the stress on the personal, on the fact that human life can only be lived personally, on the fact that personal relations are self-justifying while the impersonal always requires justification, which leads MacMurray to his conception of community. Society is instrumental. It exists to fulfil certain specific ends. Its relations are impersonal and need to be justified. Community however, like friendship, serves no end other than itself. It has in common with friendship too that it is founded on equality, and it is timeless. The nature of friendship remains stable throughout the ages. MacMurray's debt to Aristotle's ideas on friendship is obvious. What matters though is that community, those relations into which we enter for their own sake, which require no justification and which are founded on the fact of the personal equality of all persons, should take precedence over mere society. Institutions are made for people and not people for institutions. The notion that people should serve society or its institutions is evil: society exists to serve individuals. It is our voluntary mutualities that really matter, not our enforced co-operations for ulterior ends.

To read MacMurray carefully is to see just how dehumanised contemporary society has become, it is to understand, as he wrote in Freedom In The Modern World that:

"Any moral rule which limits real human freedom is a bad rule... Freedom is the criterion of good conduct... there is no place for law and obedience in morality... a man is free only when he does exactly what he wants to do, without let or hindrance."  

There are many in our narcissistic, hedonistic culture who will see that as a licence for their irresponsibility and carelessness of others.   MacMurray intends the opposite.  To be completely free is to be completely responsible for one's own life and:  

"... we can only be ourselves for other people. Why so ?   Because to be yourself for yourself is to be turned in upon yourself and so to start on the path that leads to the unreality of spiritual dissolution."  

This is a path along which we have travelled a good distance. MacMurray's brave, clear and revolutionary (though not in a political sense) philosophy may help us find a better direction. He published fifteen books. These three are a good beginning. Let's hope that in due course the other twelve will appear.