ISSUE 19

PAS DE MUSIQUE AVANT TOUTE CHOSE Nine Lessons From The Dark  Adam Thorpe Cape ISBN 0-224-06385-5 8.00.  

One of the disappointing aspects of Adam Thorpe's collection is its lack of musicality. A neat advance in our understanding of how we process language reveals that semantic content is handled by the left side of the brain and the melody of language, it rhythm, cadence, prosody, metre by the right side. Perhaps this is why language which makes use of the musicality of speech is so appealing: it fires up both sides of the brain at once. Perhaps it also goes some way to explaining the remarkable mnemonic power of song. If you listen to the rhythms of Thorpe's poems, excluding from your mind all question of meaning, what you find is that his poems are formed from discrete units of speech akin, I hate to say it, to sound bites. What they lack is the flow of musicality. In fact, one of Thorpe's favourite devices is to pause, insert a comma, follow it with a little aside, and continue. For example:  

No claw or tine could scrape such forms, we felt.  

What is going on in those last two words? In my view, what is happening is the application of a poetic brake. I don't mind the line as far as forms, but the final two words make me think of an Anglican vicar holding a china saucer, sipping tea as he admires the view from the vicarage window (far from the urban scene, of course) and hedging every statement in that pusillanimous English manner that drags everything back to a narrow definition of life's possibilities. As far as forms, the line is bold, then it loses all courage, apologises for itself, straightens its tie, stiffens its upper lip and remembers that an English gentleman eschews vulgar enthusiasm. Thorpe's poetry is full of this. It is the poetry of English, middle-class control, in spite of the fact that he was born in Paris and grew up in India and Cameroon as well as England. But class is class and place is place.

The rear cover puff from Judy Gahagan reviewing the collection for Ambit says: "....you expect a refined control of diction and in this third collection it's there in abundance." An abundance of control? I can imagine an excess of control, but don't control and abundance tend to contradict one another? And isn't an abundance of refinement also slightly problematic? Rabelais is abundant. Cervantes is abundant. Shakespeare is abundant. Whitman is abundant. But are they refined? Aren't they, rather, delightfully vulgar, sometimes even downright bawdy? You won't find bawdy in Thorpe, it might run out of his control. Abundance isn't something that sits easily with tight-corsets and dog-collars and if ever there was poetry of tight-corsets and restricting garments, this is it. Perhaps Gahagan's confusion and inaccuracy point to what I'm getting at: this is clever-dick poetry that has lost touch with life, but Gahagan wants to see this Emperor's new clothes. He's naked and it's not an exciting sight. Gahagan also goes on to mention the collection's "fastidious" language. Control. Refined. Fastidious. Yes, those things apply to this poetry , but alive and interesting? Abundant?

To return to the music of language. All speech carries meaning in its prosody. Everyone knows how to say: "How nice to see you!" and mean the opposite. The music of language and its meanings are part of our common biological inheritance and they mark language as social. The music is there to convey subtle meaning, subtle modulations of meaning. It's a product of natural selection though almost certainly an exaptation. To celebrate the music of language in poetry is to stress poetry's social nature and function. It is this from which Thorpe is fleeing. Time and again he pulls back from connection, involvement. His attitude is withheld, disengaged and by being so betrays an underlying superciliousness. The characteristic attitude of an elite.

If this seems too harsh, reflect that Thorpe is one of a handful of contemporary British poets we are encouraged to attend to as great, leading voices. He is a member of the poetic meritocracy. These few are published by the big houses, reviewed in Sunday papers, puffed, feted. If he were a small press poet, struggling along as small press poets do, appearing in little mags here and there, publishing collections which sell twenty-five copies a year, I'd be kinder. But if we are expected to accept people like Thorpe as our poetic leaders, then they need to justify their position. To me, a naked Emperor is no different from a naked bus driver.

The reduced music of Thorpe's poetry seems to me to be indicative of his social withdrawal. There is a very dipped, unmelodic English way of speaking which is used by people in power when they want to create distance from those over whom power is exercised. On the other hand, friendliness always engages the sing-song nature of speech. It is the clipped lack of melody which seems to me to permeate Thorpe's work. Why? Perhaps because he knows himself to be a member of an elite, socially and poetically. Perhaps because the meritocracy that has elevated him is founded on lies and his position is essentially defensive.

If I'm right, there should be abundant evidence of what I'm claiming in the poems. The first poem is called CAIRN. We begin in the countryside. Phew! Not a prole in sight. No streets. No factories. No shops. No pubs. No public life. No debate. No democracy. A good place, of course, for a meritocrat to begin. Away from society, away from the town, away from vulgarity. Hiking was once, of course, a favourite working-class pastime. My great uncle, who began work in the mill at twelve, was famous in Lancashire for his books, Thirty Rambles, Forty Rambles. At eighty he was still doing ten miles over the tops on a Sunday. But when he hiked he talked and what he talked, among other things, was socialism. He saw hiking as a political act: the intrusion of the industrial masses on the protected lands of the aristocracy. He enjoyed a good trespass. Thorpe's hikers have none of that. They are respectful. They wouldn't put two fingers up to the Duke of Westminster. They wouldn't sully the beauty of nature with vulgar, argumentative chatter about democracy and equality. So the poem begins:

Like a person, spookish, spying from on high  

Notice that Thorpe can get no more than three words into his collection before he has to reach for a comma. He's a commaholic. Take the commas out of this line and doesn't it read badly? Apollinaire was right: good poets need no punctuation. The cadence of the lines will do. Yet, even if "spookish" were made the second line, the poem has barely moved before it's stalled. It's pulled back. It's under control. The paper aeroplanes have only just been made and the teacher arrives with his cane.

"Like a person". Yes, but not a person. And what is this non-person doing? Spying, spookishly. Goodness! Even here, out in the wilds, even where there are no people, there are cairns that look like people and seem to be watching you! Yet the next line saves us:  

over the whispering of marram on the brae.  

Marram is grass, several varieties, usually growing in sandy ground. Brae is what the Scots call a hill or hillside. He wants us to know they're climbing a hill in Scotland. Marram is specific. Yet isn't there a hint of preciousness? Brae provides a half-rhyme with scree, but if that's its main reason for being there it's strained. And the grass assumes human qualities, like the cairn: it whispers. In the fourth line, the cairn is described as:  

.......the peak's thank-offering to the sky.  

Yet wasn't the cairn made by people? What follows is a storm. Nature raw and uncaring. They arrive at the cairn:  

..................................unnerved and blinking...  

A poem about the power of nature and how little account it takes of us. Yet this isn't Lear on the blasted heath/it's just a bit of middle-class hiking. There is no profound sense of existential revelation, nor any feel for that wrenching separation between humanity and the nature that produced us which defines our place in the universe. You just know at the end of the poem that these people will go back to their four-wheel drive, or their comfortable hotel, and their decent incomes and nice houses. They are definitively not latter-day tears who have been taught a bitter lesson by the raging cruelty of a storm. They're just hikers with good boots and Gore-Tex rainware. The poem fails as an evocation of the crushing realisation of our pettiness in the face of vast physical forces because beneath it lie the attitudes of the comfortable. Behind the poem, betrayed in it, is a social attitude. Lear is cast out by social cruelty and he faces then the indifference of nature. These hikers are secure in their social status. They just get wet and a little bit disorientated on a Scottish hillside. A pettiness.

The second poem is called THE PROPOSAL and it's about exactly what you'd expect. Now, isn't a man proposing to the woman he loves an interesting theme? So much hangs on her response, so much on his choice of moment, words, tone, gesture. The poem has three stanzas and twelve lines. Ten of them have nothing to do with proposal. They are about nature.  

Beside the thin woodland stream...  

Nothing is more social than the way the sexes relate to one another. We are also an urban people. We work and play in towns and cities. We propose at bus shelters, outside chip shops, in pubs, on trains, in restaurants, cafes, hotels, cinemas, shops. Not Thorpe. He has to retreat to the woodlands. And what about Jo, the object of his proposal? Not a damn word! Is he in love with her or the "bracts of primrose"? A bract is a kind of leaf. That this may be the re-creation of an authentic experience doesn't detract from the fact that as a poem it's remote from the way we live.

Much later in the collection is a poem called PRODUCTIVITY. Ah, perhaps, at last, something relating to our social and economic realities. But no:  

To bring the bloom onto the horses' coats at dawn, each day, before the ploughing... tansy leaves rubbed between the hands and sprinkled in the bait; or sweet saffron baked to dry

The poem is "after George Ewart Evans". But ploughing with horses? Aren't we exercised over GM crops these days? Doesn't only one percent of our population earn its living on the land? What is this poem but a retreat and a denial? What is it but a refusal to grapple poetically with modern experience? And look at those commas again. What, exactly, is added to the poem by the insertion of "each day"? It isn't essential for rhythm. Isn't it the moment when the poem stops and the controlling presence intervenes?

THE BLITZ IN EALING. This can't be set in the countryside! Fascism. The fight for democracy. The sacrifice of the common people. The usual incompetence or cynicism of leaders. Surely this is a poem which must touch on a least some of the vital issues of the modern world?  

You crouched under the table as the ceiling rained down flour and the lights went out. Upstairs..  

Who is the "you"? It would be interesting to be given at least a due. Yet the withholding of that is typical. It's a coyness. And then we have "the latticework of laths" whose collapse the subject escapes by not being there, "...latticework of laths"? Isn't that a little twee in a poem about fascists bombing a residential part of London? I think if Thorpe were to write about the Rawandan genocide he would find some twee, precious, fey little formulation through which his refined, controlled, fastidious poetic sensibility could escape to its precious Parnassian vantage. There is no anger in this poem, no outrage, no sense of tragedy. The final line is:  

The fiery light dancing on the stockinged dead.  

"....fiery light"? This isn't the cubs' camp fire. And "dancing"? When flames or light dance don't we think of joy, release, happiness? Fiery light dancing? These are people's homes going up in flames. These are people's lives being lost. This was an attempt to bomb us into barbarism. Dancing? I find the use of that word, its cynical willingness to allow triviality to sit so dose to tragedy, offensive. Nor does it seem justified to me on the grounds that even in the direst tragedies quirky or attractive physical effects may be ^reduced. Thorpe's readiness to partake of that ugly and stupid post-modern sensibility which refuses all hierarchies of values as outmoded may pass in some circles as clever and cool, but there is no disguising the terrible loss of human sympathy it entails.

And those commas: It's thanks to these, we were told/coasting to a cry, which was yours, and then/And somehow something has to give, you feel/We'd mostly be having to mend, in fact.....Thorpe doesn't have Beckett's ability for a witty, wry, bathetic tag. Post-comma his lines stiffen, freeze and stick their nose in the air.

Thorpe belongs to our poetic elite and they, I guess, are supposed to be untouchable. He's part of the poetic meritocracy which, like all meritocracies, dreams of turning itself into an aristocracy. Literary meritocracy is as abject and misguided as any other. The concomitants of meritocracy in whatever sphere are sycophancy, time-serving, pusillanimity, self-serving, go-getting, narcissism, preening pride and narrowness. Above all narrowness. It is only by maintaining a narrow definition of what is meritorious that any meritocracy can survive. This is exactly what happens in literature. The elite five per cent of poets represented by the big publishers are deemed to have merit, the remaining ninety-five per cent are ignored, denied, downgraded, shunted into the literary sidings. Yet in preference to Adam Thorpe, I'd much rather read poems by Nick Pemberton, Stephanie Norgate, Mike Barlow, Andy Croft, Sid Thomas, Ken Champion, Gael Turnbull, small press poets all. The poetic meritocracy is a lie. We need democratic equality in literature as much as we need it anywhere else, that doesn't imply any abandonment of literary judgement.( Great poets are rare. Good poets hyped up to look great are much more common.) It means rejecting the snootiness which assumes that a big house poet must be a big poet and a small press poet a small one. It means casting out the assumption that all the work of a big house poet is sure to be worthwhile and all the work of a small press poet worthy of neglect. It means a thoroughgoing transformation of our literary arrangements so that meritocratic narrowness is burst asunder. The truth is, all poets are uneven in their work. A poet who turns out a dozen truly memorable pieces has done something worth celebrating. Let's celebrate all our good poems, whether they appear in tiny, struggling magazines knocked together in back bedrooms or the beautiful editions of the big publishers. But let's ditch once and for all the meritocratic snobbery which sets the tiny elite against the majority and falsely claims that the only worthwhile literature is produced by the former.

 

The Selected Poems Of Isaac Rosenberg introduced by Jean Moorcroft Wilson Cecil Woolf, 1 Mornington Place, London NW1 7RP. ISBN 1-897967-38-1 6.95  

Isaac Rosenberg was a painter before he turned to poetry. Had he been born into a different class, his name might be as well-known among schoolchildren and students as those of Wilfred Owen and Van Gogh. He had the misfortune to be born Jewish and poor. His class origins hampered him, denied him and finally killed him. On the front cover of this collection is a self-portrait from 1914. It's reminiscent of at least one of Picasso's self-portraits from his early years in Paris. It shows the same ability to capture character and situation. Clearly, art lost a significant talent when Rosenberg decided to make poetry his first form. Yet what a gain for poetry!

Jean Moorcroft Wilson has written a biography of Rosenberg. Her introduction is pertinent, astute and expert. She includes just over forty pages of poetry divided into two sections. The war years come first, followed by early poems. The reverse chronology is a good idea because it is in the war poetry that Rosenberg reaches his best, Wilson is honest about the clumsiness of some of his work, yet it's a clumsiness easy to forgive for the vibrancy and clarity of image the poems render. Here is poetry about something! About, in fact, some of the most horrendous things people do to one another in the name of civilization. Rosenberg's class confined him to the ranks. He lived the life of the trenches. He has, therefore, none of Owen's distance: "What passing bells for these..in Rosenberg's case it would have been for us. Perhaps this is part of the reason he hasn't been fully appreciated. His poetry isn't gentlemanly. It tells the foot soldier's inglorious truth about the viciousness of war:  

The darkness crumbles away
It is the same old druid Time as ever.
Only a live thing leaps my hand -
A queer sardonic rat -
As I pull the parapet's poppy
To stick behind my ear.
Droll rat, they would shoot you if they knew
Your cosmopolitan sympathies.  

How real! How true! Poetry without affectation and packed with meaning and feeling. Why does the darkness crumble? At least in the darkness the fighting is curtailed. The coming of dawn means the resumption of battle. The thickened darkness is a protection, a relief. Its disappearance is experienced as the removal of a welcome shield. Hence, it doesn't lift to reveal the welcome dawn as you might expect in a lyric poem, it crumbles, or rather it is experienced as crumbling. Behind the line, behind the word, is a plea for the darkness to remain, for battle to be held at bay. In the trenches, human values are so reversed, so perverted, that the simple love of light is replaced by a clinging to darkness. And why is Time a druid? Because it must be obeyed like the objects of adoration for the ancient sect. Or perhaps because their compulsive beliefs have about them the inevitability of time. And in that line what a terrible sense of the burden of time during war, day after day the same horror without relief. Yet also, what utter absence of self-pity. And druids are dead and gone, so Time seems dead, weighs heavy, the dawning of a new day seems like the arrival of something very old and worn out. The "only" of the next line is neatly ambiguous: all the same, something is alive, but it is a mere rat. Notice how welcome the rat seems, and the adjectives applied to it give it human qualities "queer" and the extraordinary "sardonic". The rat is the writer's friend because "live" because it can "leap". A live leaping thing in the fields of death. And , in a jaunty, almost careless act, a gesture that mirrors the rat's instinctive leaping, the poet plucks the poppy from the parapet to stick behind his ear, as a man might pick a flower in the countryside, in the light, in peacetime. Then the wonderfully wry observation: the rat is droll, that is, impish, comical, a scamp. Isn't the rat the easygoing, living, leaping, happy artist the poet would like to be? And who are the "they" who would shoot him for his "cosmopolitan sympathies"? The same people, of course, who have sent the poet to war so that his fate is lower than a rat's, so that his cosmopolitan sympathies, the very opposite sympathies to those that have caused the war, are denied. It takes a very great poet to extract such subtle, oblique, honest and dark humour from so vile a predicament, dominated as it is by the forces of anti-life.

This extract is the beginning of Break Of Day In The Trenches, one of the strongest poems in the collection. Dead Man's Dump has the same kind of power. Indeed, all the war poems have something of this. War helped make Rosenberg a great poet. Poetry is social. Social circumstances shape poets' minds. Some poets have nothing better to write about than getting wet on a hike, and some face the searing truth about the worst in human nature with a stoic honesty which never loses faith in the best. Rosenberg's poetry lifted to greatness as he struggled to find a way to render the experiences of war. This collection, appearing as it does in a time when too many poets have retreated from the hard issues of the public realm into a poetry of what Christopher Lasch called "the minimal self", is a timely reminder of the way poetry is girded and made more than cool, detached comment or a game of hunt-the-prizes or a vaudeville routine in conspicuous technical competence, by grappling with difficult realities and coming out on top through its quiet assertion of the best in the human mind.

You probably won't find this book on the shelves of your high street book seller. No matter. Order it, read it, give your aunty for her birthday, tell everyone you know about it. Jean Moorcroft Wilson speaks of Rosenberg's "somewhat chaotic method of composition" but she also wisely points out the "organic" nature of his forms, "springing from the material itself". This is always the hallmark of great poetry. The tragedy is that Rosenberg died at twenty-seven before his gift had barely had chance to be realized. Honour his memory by buying this marvelous little collection.