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This review is taken from PN Review 192, Volume 36 Number 4, March - April 2010.HALF A CENTURY OF WRITING
Charles Tomlinson’s New Collected Poems consolidates his unquestionable reputation as one of England’s most important post-war poets, creating an alternative English voice to the misanthropic if popular Larkin. Whereas Larkin cultivated a suburban tristesse in which a diminished post-war England is evoked from ‘Behind the backs of houses’ or by estates full of washing, Tomlinson has consistently studied landscapes both in England and abroad and shares with his readers a sense of wonder. This new volume replaces the Collected Poems of 1985 which means that some fifty years of poetry are now housed under the same roof. Whereas the Collected Poems ends with Notes from New York (1984) we now have the poet’s latest seven volumes from The Return (1987) to Cracks in the Universe (2006). The unwavering focus of Tomlinson’s project is even more apparent.
I like to imagine this capacious volume leaning against the Collected Poems of Donald Davie (Carcanet, 2002), who was always a vociferous supporter of Tomlinson’s work. Both poets, stylistic differences notwithstanding, were committed to the excitement of international modernism, yet both were assiduous in their attention to the English line, championing neglected poets such as Ivor Gurney. Although Davie sought freedom from the exiguousness of the Movement by embracing the radical boundlessness of Pound he never became a breathless acolyte. In the Six Epistles to Eva Hesse, a mischievous address to Pound’s German translator stubbornly composed in Hudibrastic couplets, he celebrates the empirically verifiable topography of the ‘Langsett moors’ and ‘tiny Hugsett’ where ‘we would/ Cull bluebells forty years ago’ and describes himself as a Yorkshire poet grounded by ‘some lump of English clay’.
Tomlinson, who like Davie has engaged enthusiastically with American and European models of poetry, not infrequently making the act of translation central to his poetic, has for half a century made Brook Cottage the centre of his poetic universe. When Willard Spiegelman came to interview him in his remote Gloucestershire dwelling for The Paris Review he was astonished by what he called ‘a dream-image of idiomatic English architecture’ in which a surrounding border garden burst with ‘hollyhocks, flowering mint, buddleia, deep purple poppies and roses’. Yet when the American suggested that the English poet had chosen to remove himself from the world Tomlinson was quick to point out the local wealth of writers and artists. Tomlinson’s nearest neighbour for fifteen years was Bruce Chatwin and much discussion of his books took place before publication.
These unofficial tutorials between poet-traveller and youthful travel writer are interesting in a number of ways and there are poems which refer to these encounters, not least ‘Jubilación’ (p. 564) and the memoriam piece ‘The First Death’ (p. 605). Their geographical proximity was fortuitous and even incongruous and their viewpoints on England quite different. From ‘Jubilación’ we learn that the two writers would ‘walk together, talking distant parts’ but that ‘Not everybody’s smitten with this spot - /When Chatwin lived here he declared he was not/His cool, blue eye alighting only on/Far distant vistas Patagonian.’ Unlike Chatwin, Tomlinson did root himself in the English countryside, a notional Arden which though never Eden might be seen as ‘Eden’s rhyme’. Yet as Tomlinson explained to Spiegelman it would be a mistake to confuse local attachment with provincial insularity. In his introduction to William Carlos Williams’s selected poems Tomlinson cites the American poet’s declaration: ‘The only universal is the local as savages, artists and - to a lesser extent - peasants know.’ This celebration of localism is an attitude, an ideology almost, which Tomlinson has embraced this side of the Atlantic so that the universalism of place, rather than uncalibrated universalism, becomes an environmentally sensitive way of celebrating particularity and distinctness and rejecting a nullifying and indiscriminate homogeneity. Tomlinson’s poetic occupation of Brook Cottage has created a way of looking and a way of being that underpins his creative practice in general.
His poetry is typically concerned with texture, flux and surfaces where surfaces can be as ‘deep as roots’. Calvin Bedient described Tomlinson as the ‘anchorite of appearances’. Inspired by his readings of the phenomenologist Merleau-Ponty, he invests in the factuality and mythlessness of place. This again aligns him to Williams, who had recoiled from The Waste Land, calling it a catastrophe which took us back into the classroom when ‘we were on the point of an escape to matters much closer to the essence of a new art form itself - rooted in the locality which could give it fruit’. In place of mythopoetry Williams offered ‘no ideas but in things’. In the title poem of The Return (p. 413) Tomlinson returns to the Ligurian village he had known after the war and re-discovers Paolo Bertolani, the Italian dialect poet he’d befriended in 1951. The pleasure is bitter-sweet because Tomlinson learns that Bertolani’s wife is now dead and the four-part poem is a moving elegy which transports a Wordsworthian sensibility to that Italian location. This return to La Serra, and readers might wish to read ‘Up at La Serra’ (p. 84) which describes the 1950s sojourn, is never less than a physical or somatic experience in which the poet re-walks those steep inclines among the orchids and the wild asparagus: ‘For place is always an embodiment/And incarnation beyond argument.’
Reverence for place becomes for Tomlinson a reverence for places and in this demonstration of ecopoiesis you can trace his indebtedness to English Romanticism. Unlike Larkin, who cultivated his ‘suburban mental ratio’ in a spirit of retrenchment, and equally deaf to Kingsley Amis’s call for an end to poems about foreign cities, Tomlinson has quite deliberately embraced the opportunities of travel and international exchange. Epistolary poems, poems of dedication to fellow poets and more recently poems in memoriam abound. That early experience in Italy, briefly in the employ of Percy Lubbock, proved decisive and Tomlinson has subsequently claimed that the mysteries of light, sea and rock allowed him to write his first true poems. By 1957 he had struck up a correspondence with William Carlos Williams, whose ‘three-ply’ was employed by Tomlinson in A Peopled Landscape (1963). This engagement with Williams not only released him from the seductive influences of Wallace Stevens - see The Necklace (1955) - it led to the English poet’s first visit to America in 1959 and subsequent encounters and friendships with, amongst others, Louis Zukofsky, George Oppen and Robert Creeley. One of the pleasures of reading his work is seeing how his management of the line with its auditory and visual effects internationalises a distinctly English voice in which the local is enriched by a far-reaching eye.
Tomlinson has travelled in order to return and Brook Cottage is central to this act of nostos. In The Return there is a moving companion piece to the poem about Bertolani called ‘Winter Journey’ (p. 433). Now back in England it is the poet who in a state of Coleridgean expectation awaits the arrival of his wife Brenda. He uncorks the wine and piles the hearth to quicken her homecoming, and the gracefulness of the poem is captured in that concluding half rhyme which gifts us with
The smell of the distance entering with the air,
Your cold cheek warming to the firelight here.
This review is taken from PN Review 192, Volume 36 Number 4, March - April 2010.