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PN Review 276
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This item is taken from PN Review 73, Volume 16 Number 5, May - June 1990.

I'm sorry that Donald Davie thought my review of his Under Briggflatts 'hostile and malicious' when it was in fact angry and sad. His book was designed to be provocative, and it provoked me: he shouldn't be surprised or upset about that. Nor should he, in his reply, misrepresent points I made in the review. For instance, when I said that he 'loathes' Larkin, I obviously meant that he loathes the man's work and what he stood for, not that given half a chance he'd have punched him on the nose. When I mentioned Mrs Thatcher (and, yes, I intended to be provocative too), it was mainly to emphasise Davie's unfortunate use of the regal 'we'. When I cited his dismissal of an Arvon prize-winning poem, it wasn't to suggest that Gunn writes pornography (though I'm not sure I'd know, or disapprove of, a pornographic poem if I saw one): it was to imply, surely with justification, that Davie's moral permissiveness is somewhat erratic. And as for the distinction he now proposes between the 'historian' and the 'chronicler': well, in his own Foreword he talks about 'the historical record' - and that, I'd have thought, is a fairly accurate synonym for 'chronicle'.

I do regret the phrase 'academic arrogance and snobbish paranoia', which I put in when typing the final draft late at night and after a pint too many. What I meant to suggest, and want to make clear now, is that there is a tone of voice which I detect in Under Briggflatts and in much other 'conservative' criticism (and which I have heard myself using all too often), which seems to combine intellectual stridency with embattled edginess. It is a 'malevolent combination', as I said, because it shuts readers out; it preaches only to the converted. It is the characteristic, and understandable, tone of the poet-scholar who feels doubly besieged by a society which is indifferent to his art and a government which is contemptuous of his scholarship. But equally, as a teacher-turned-bookseller (and I don't know how that relates to poachers and gamekeepers), I'm uncomfortably aware that it's a tone which gets between literature and the intelligent general reader - who is, bless him or her, still out there. One of the remarkable achievements of Larkin is to provide a real bridge for such readers into the apparently exclusive and excluding world of poetry.

On some points, of course, Davie and I will continue to disagree, simply and frankly. I remain baffled by his neglect of Roy Fuller and by his extraordinary assertion that Fuller's work has no historical significance'. And I still think 'inspissated' is a daft word - particularly in a writer whose critical prose style has in the past been exemplary and (I hope) even influential. But enough. Anyway, who was it who in a poem called 'Replying to Reviewers' (The Listener, 19 July 1973) advised: 'Don't answer your reviewers'?
Neil Powell

T. J. Harris's review of Charles Tomlinson's Annunciations proclaims the poet's supposed inadequacies at length and in detail. So it would be specially unjust if a review like this - showing a consistent inability to read and hear the poetry with any critical alertness - went unanswered in its particularities. Notable among these is Harris's calling on several lazy prejudices for support. On the one hand, the reviewer trails the notion of Tomlinson as an uncaring aesthete (timeless beauty allegedly preferred to human 'historical suffering'). On the other, Tomlinson is damned for not staying in the little niche Harris allows him, with his aesthetic detachment as tame observer of things, but dares to step out and become - now - our moralising instructor. Such are the critical travesties, all of which drives me to surmise that Harris not only has little grasp of the instinctive yet reasoning consciousness actually in play between the poetry and the world it articulates, 'The reviewer cannot really 'place' Tomlinson, try as he will, because he has only a hazy idea of the historical antecedents that are important in Tomlinson's work both generally and in Annunciations.

Of course Harris mentions Ruskin, and the poem 'Ruskin Remembered' is laboured over. The name of Adrian Stokes also appears, though he can hardly be enlisted by our anti-aesthetic reviewer as one of the inhuman seekers of mere Beauty if he actually shares with Tomlinson a delight in Cezanne and a world of flow and concreteness - the terms on which people build, cultivate, and find civil relation. But none of this matters much to a reviewer who can, extraordinarily, claim that Pater is one of the antecedents. Pater! - a writer from whom Tomlinson has taken nothing and who, if the reviewer weren't so intent on enervating the poet as the aesthete flinching from pain, would clearly be seen to share nothing also with the lineage of felt observation, fact and solidities to which Tomlinson does belong. And here one needs to add further names to those of Ruskin and Cézanne - that is, Constable, Hopkins, Marianne Moore: all embodying in various ways a human consciousness responsively alive, and continually changing in relation to, a physical world seen, via meteorology or geology or botany, in its contoured variety and otherness.

Moreover, since Tomlinson's poetry often matches up to that constantly moving world, so that human consciousness is kept thereby agile and attentive, it is not surprising that his verse challenges an art of fixed endings, apocalypses, and egotisms. The Wagnerian 'Glare of brass over a restless bass' from an early poem quoted by Harris is therefore not just an instance of a 'caricature' Romanticism that Tomlinson contests, It indicates that clamorous music of finalities which elsewhere Tomlinson depicts as the self ignoring possibilities in past, present or future. 'Variation' in Annunciations outgoes such endings, even as it starts with one finality, Cleopatra's declaration that 'There is nothing left remarkable beneath the visiting moon'. What is left in a continuing world of time and space, in a landscape uncovered by the moon's rays, is the entire substance of the poem in gradual revelation. But Harris's comment, 'how quickly human pain is turned from', prompts one's observation, how quickly this poem is turned away from by the reviewer's insistence on an illusory, dehumanised Tomlinson; and how a poem in Annunciations, 'Ode to Dmitri Shostakovich', for example ('each vast adagio dense/With the private meaning of its public sorrow') doesn't even get a mention, with its evocation of an inner suffering that Tomlinson suggests in meditative mastery. ( One finds comparable examples elsewhere in previous poems: 'After a Death', on the death of his mother, or 'For Miriam', on mortal decay and resurrection.) But since the reviewer cannot envisage Tomlinson working at this level and scale, he even misses in ' Variation' Tomlinson's sense of disaster and continuity as suggested by the last line which speaks of the moonlight's origin long ago when 'it set out/In a rain of disintegrating comets, of space creating' . Has the reviewer forgotten, or does he know, Tomlinson's poems on cataclysm in another book, The Flood ? Even so, Harris, who finds that last line 'cacophonous', has before him a text whose acoustic life (If listened to) reveals 'dis-int-eg-rat-ing' as a multi-syllabic spread that carries on from, and enacts, the 'rain' of cosmic break-up, just as the taut, clear a's of 'space creating' suggest the new coherence that could only come out of fragmentation.

For Harris, however, Tomlinson' s control of the line and metrical skills are seriously in doubt; though it is very unfortunate - for Harris' s case, I mean, not Tomlinson' s poetry - that the one poem chosen for detailed attack is 'Ruskin Remembered'. As with earlier poems like 'Geneva Restored' and 'Frondes Agrestes', where Tomlinson draws upon Ruskin' s prose (Praeterita, Frondes Agrestes), and on a vision of leaf, rock, light which has vital importance for Tomlinson's later poems about lands struggled for by their cultivators, 'Ruskin Remembered', drawing on Fors Clavigera, suggests no flaccid contentment but the hard-earned means by which the sensibility inhabits place - tunes into the accords it can have. Harris quotes part of Letter XXXII from Fors in discussing the poem, but he omits that quality of rocky fact which underlies Ruskin's discriminative powers and which is important for Tomlinson' s poem. Scottish streams, says Ruskin, can only exist under very subtle concurrence of rock and climate . There must be much soft rain, not (habitually) tearing the hills down with floods; and the rocks must break irregularly and jaggedly. Our English Yorkshire shales and limestones merely form - carpenter-like - tables and shelves for the rivers to drip and leap from; while the Cumberland and Welsh rocks break too boldly, and lose the multiplied chords of musical sound'. So Tomlinson's verse, one realises, not only adapts to the given words of another man, but also closely matches up to the conditions, the discipline, of Nature's given otherness lit by Ruskin's language:

What is it tunes a Scottish stream so fine ? Concurrence of the rock and of the rain. Much rain must fall, and yet not of a sort That tears the hills down, carries them off in sport.

No moraliser lecturing here; instead, in the lively non-egoism of the meditation, a poet whose second line celebrates Ruskin's general principle by letting his words more obviously concur ('rock' with 'rain' in assonantal balance, rather than 'climate') but with a 'Concurrence' which the rest of the poem goes on to earn as a realisation in greater precision. Harris can only hear 'jog trot' iambic pentameters in these initial lines, missing the vigorous strife of metre and idea which (with 'sport') pulls against the ten-syllable norm so far established. For Harris, this is the way to metrical ruin, whereas it is the athletic yet ordered pace of one whose poise is worth nothing unless it is won out of hard ground and difficult terrain:

The rocks must break irregularly, jagged -
Our Yorkshire shales, carpenter-like,
 form merely
Tables and shelves for rain to drip and leap
Down from; the rocks of Cumberland
 and Wales
Are of too bold a cut and so keep back
Those chords their streams should
 multiply and mingle.

Rhythm, for the reviewer, is so nonexistent in the despoiling of the iambics that by the time Tomlinson arrives at the line which begins ' Tables and shelves, words break down into a 'stuttering' . But the remarkable fact is that Tomlinson, who is often found using a four-stress line and a form of sprung rhythm, sets the lines begun by 'Tables' and 'Down' in controlled, definite iambic beat (heightened) by the added, regularising 'ands' ), so that the trochaics of ' Tables' and 'Down from' protrude as the verbal equivalent of over-resistant rock from which the best stream music cannot come. Far from 'stuttering' or anything similar, the hard c's of 'rocks . . . of too bold a cut and so keep back / Those chords', (with 'bold' and 'back' stiffening resistance also) constrict the throat of the speaker, just as hard stone blocks the way to finer water music, but without Tomlinson words letting one forget the possibility of an ampler sound - as with the multi-syllabic 'multiply' and the alliterative 'mingle', after the strict monosyllables of the previous line.

So, if Tomlinson's verse is Hopkinsian in its verbal dance (religious without being Catholic or a thing of dignity, as Harris makes it) it is also Ruskinian in its eye for native, local conditions. Those are clearly there in Ruskin's observation in Fors Clavigera that 'the loosely breaking rock must contain hard pebbles s to give the level shore of white shingle through which the brown water may stray, in rippling threads . . . the pure crystal of the Scottish pebbles, giving the stream its gradations of amber to the edge, and the sound as of "ravishing division to the lute", makes the Scottish fords the happiest pieces of all one day' s walk' . Such words provide awareness not just of Tomlinson's adaptations in the rest of the poem, but of his remarkable feeling for that concrete yet illuminable opacity which is seen in so many of his poems where Ruskin is not a presence. So Fors Clavigera provokes yet also gets back a consciousness:

But there must be hard pebbles too -
The loosely breaking rock, to strew a
Along the level shore - white, for the
Water in rippling threads to wander
In amber gradations to the brink, the ear
Filled with the link on link of travelling
Like heard divisions, crisp above a ground,
Defining a contentment that suffices -
As walking to unblent music, such as this.

Harris's account: 'the poem moves towards a traditional closure, with two couplets (the second being somewhat irregular) and a strong last line with an uplift at the end', Surely not a moral uplift or anything loosely transcendental ? For we hear a grounded sense of word exactly measuring up to the very sufficiency of contentment, here, now, without excess - 'suffices' met perfectly by the fit chime of 'such as this'. Yet Harris goes on to nag at the 'rhythmic faltering' which makes the reviewer want to halt on the 'heavily-stressed and lengthened "through"', only to find that the alleged 'wandering' rhythms , go on - 'intended to suggest, presumably, the wandering waters'. For a moment one almost feels that Harris does hear the acoustics of the poem, even if he shows it by resenting the forward movement which 'through' impels. But surely that crucial momentum has started earlier in 'hard pebbles too': a verbal-geological upthrust of stone-like solidity, but now of a kind that is penetrable, 'loosely breaking', to 'strew a shingle', as token of that finer note that, after fragmentation, begins to come 'though', and carry the ear forward to new music. Yet such impulsion, as it grows in line after line, makes harmony out of the 'unblent', the broken, the divided, the gradated: not a seamless, smooth flow but a continuity won by passage through obstacle. Thus, verbally, 'white' (detached from Ruskin's noun) offers the trochaic resistance across which, in contrast, 'the brown/Water' must go, with a suggestion in that trochaic of the impelling, onward energy within the 'wander' of "Water'. This is no languid, aesthetic faltering, but the bright, dexterous movement by which, bit by bit, the ear is 'Filled with link on link of travelling sound': all separate pieces, as words are only separate parts, but sounding out the basis of a continuous, rediscovered ground. Perhaps this kind of detail is not to Harris's taste. but in such texture lies Tomlinson's marvellously awake reverence for a physical world, beyond the ego yet reachable - religiously celebrated, indeed by a consciousness that submits itself to agile tutoring. This is no aestheticism pretending to 'the dignity of the religious', but a delicacy and vigour, a freshening of senses and mind, which, in its religious way, marks the splendour of Tomlinson's poetry and reveals all the more the inadequacy of this particular review.
Richard Swigg

This item is taken from PN Review 73, Volume 16 Number 5, May - June 1990.

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