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This review is taken from PN Review 35, Volume 10 Number 3, January - February 1984.THE BENEFIT OF DOUBT
William Empson remembers with his regular chirpy dismay that he was once discussing a young poet at a literary party and observed that he had a singing line. 'Exactly,' replied his interlocutor in the tones of someone concurring in the diagnosis of a particularly malignant disease - but Empson had meant that the young poet 'had the root of the matter in him'. I wouldn't say that Peter Robinson has a singing line, it's more like humming: 'Neither invoke nor//laugh off that gap,/we hum in unison.' ('Ear to the Night, Mouth to the Morning') Some of the virtues of this humming are: its fund of affection for the tune it constantly recaps, the way it gives a fresh domestic pulse to art's finish and polish, its attunement of relaxation, the patience with which it ruminates over music, putting the melody again and again like a question gently urged. Peter Robinson has evidently been devoted to humming for a good while, 'evidently' because of the deft humour with which it appears in his poems:
Never your intention
to harm them, you hum
half recalled snatches
underneath your breath.
your mouth allows
each day's impingement
which you are, ungreeting.
('Furniture Music, Musical Chairs')
The poet is lodging with a couple who are his friends as well as his landlords; the lines make out the demarcations and the disputes which hang round such relations and they do so with a real wit about the touchy senses of injury both parties bear, the impulses to exculpate yourself born from the rubbed-up wrongs of cramped accommodation. Consider how the lineation lets the poet admit guilt as he denies it: 'Never your intention/to harm them, you hum', where the second line is detached from the previous disclaimer by the white space between verses, and notices then the desire to infuriate actually behind and within the hum (for the mutuality imagined in 'we hum in unison' is deep just because humming is normally a solitary occupation, withdrawn from talk). Homely irritations, which often blind one to what justice may be on the other side, are treated with a moral insight no less great for its inobtrusive delicacy; the music is 'immaterial' for the poet because it rhapsodically escapes his daily rankling contacts in the house, 'immaterial' to the other occupants because of its studied irrelevance to them. Similarly, the turn on the pronoun at 'each day's impingement/which you are . . .' and the blank weightiness of 'are' show how each party to this sustained tolerating finds the very existence of the other an affront. A hum is purely first-personal, music made with one's mouth shut against the other and for one's own ears only, but the poem can hear itself through other ears, a voice imagined distant from itself as the voice can never be in humming.
Robinson, conscientious hummer that he is, doesn't want always to call only his own tunes. We hear other voices than those of landlords across the lines. Tennyson's 'The moan of doves in immemorial elms,/And murmuring of innumerable bees', for instance, sets off the tightlipped music of Robinson's chain - harm them, hum, immaterial, music, hermetically, mouth, impingement- and in turn has the Tennysonian dissolution of brash 'effect' into authentic virtuousity set off against the skilled reticence of Robinson's words. If it seems odd to mention Tennyson round here, then I would recall Fitzgerald's description of Tennyson reading as 'deep-chested music', which sounds to me a bit like humming, and also note the brief appearance of a muted form of the In Memoriam stanza at the end of section eight of Robinson's sequence, 'The Benefit Forms':
Imagining, the want
to have this ebbing away
blush for bureaucracy's
clarity of name, event.
'. . . one far-off divine event,/To which the whole creation moves'- but the minutely-created world of Peter Robinson's sequence is a world without event, a universe of welfare nobody does very well out of. It has, as his meticulous word 'ebbing' indicates, the massive, regularly fluctuant placidity of tides and state institutions, it is composed of lives so full of recurrences they have no place for occurrence, lives shuffled together in that collective suspense which comes on us in doctor's waiting-rooms and queues. 'The Benefit Forms', as its characteristically punning title indicates, edges around the issues and lack of issue in a confronting of poetic labour with the really unemployed; the poet finds himself working for the DHSS, and the clerical experience is made to put questions to the clerisy of which he is a member and in which he writes. So at 'Imagining, the want', the comma creates a ponderable grammar for the line: we may read 'Imagining' as in apposition to 'the want' and ask ourselves whether an imagination moved by the desire to be rid of these chores of organized care is inquiring or fantastical; we may take the comma as indicating a semantically less laden pause and understand 'the want' as the object of 'Imagining', which leaves us not so up in the worried air about the doings of imagination. And with what solid justice Robinson lights on 'the want' rather than either 'the wish' or 'the need', for 'want' has an evenhandedness towards the claims of the clerk-poet writing and of those who sign on for him: the want is both the poet's wish to forget it all and, in this deprived neighbourhood, a material need which requires his attention.
These poems don't go in for settled disquiet or the despairing stylishness which attract some other of our younger poets, they have always in earshot the affable persistence of the humming voice as an undersong. There are times when Robinson's patience with adjacent and opposing points of view takes pliability to the verge of shapelessness; the respectful shifts of the negotiator come to look like the dodges of a middleman in poems such as 'The Frozen Cemetery' or 'Seasonal Employment'. I also think that the reserve of the style is not always a reserve of strength. Robinson would clearly share Joyce's hope for a language of 'scrupulous meanness' but what appears occasionally is more like rationing in the diction, hugging scarcity contentedly to itself. For example, he fondles his scenes with diminutives, gets tacitly pugnacious on behalf of the dowdy and the nondescript; when, in 'Overdrawn Account', the poet buys 'some small foodstuffs', the 'small' is wrongly habitual, as again, in 'Finding the Range', 'The smallest fret/at the edge of our attention' hasn't attended or fretted at all because 'smallest' and 'edge' come so familiarly to the poet's lips. But then:
Morning, in the small hotel
on the edge of the industrial
quarter of town, the light
settles on the breakfast table's white
which becomes the notebook's page.
The recollection of Eliot's Venice- 'Burbank crossed a little bridge/ Descending at a small hotel' - has a better, unpushy familiarity in it, a familiarity with another poet's words which refreshes them, Robinson coming into Eliot as into his own. There's a beautifully discovered poignancy in the rhyme of 'hotel' and 'industrial' too; as the accidents of life become the pattern of autobiography, the rhyme-scheme dawns out of speech, like a conviction forming itself from doubts; it grows into something understood between us, a humane arrangement of the air. In face of writing like this, criticism needs to be an expression of gratitude. Peter Robinson is in my judgement the finest poet of his generation, and the virtue of his work makes me glad to note that it is my generation as well. Overdrawn Account is a sterling achievement. ERIC GRIFFITHS
This review is taken from PN Review 35, Volume 10 Number 3, January - February 1984.