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This item is taken from PN Review 230, Volume 42 Number 6, July - August 2016.


In ‘Charles Tomlinson at Bristol’ (PN Review 229) C. K. Stead initiates one of the ‘critical conversations poetry constantly requires those of us who are serious about it to have’. The one he introduces here concerns the poetry (and personality) of Charles Tomlinson (1927–2015). Essentially, according to Stead’s memoir, when the two knew each other in the late fifties, he found Tomlinson’s poetry problematic. Even today, while admitting their difference in temperament and conceding some talent to Tomlinson, Stead continues to ‘run up against what seems to me a wall of abstraction and effete discourse’.

The primary reason I disagree with Stead’s judgment is that where he sees effeteness, I see vitality. The difference may be one of focus. Mine is not on Tomlinson as an explorer of abstract ideas, but on his persuasive rendition of the beauty and perils in nature (especially of landscape and the spirit of place). To me, Tomlinson is the poet of ‘the commonplace miraculous’ – as he calls it ‘Bread and Stone’ – and the implicit tragedy lies in our all-devouring urban sprawl:

It was a language of water, light and air
     I sought – to speak myself free of a world
Whose stoic lethargy seemed the one reply
     To horizons and to streets that blocked them back
In a monotone fume, a bloom of grey.

                                                                ‘The Marl Pits’

At the time Stead knew Tomlinson he felt, in the latter’s poetry, ‘a kind of disengagment’ in the lines ‘as if the words had been chosen with immense care, but with a faint feeling of distaste’. So Tomlinson’s Seeing is Believing (1958), for example, displayed for Stead ‘a sharp visual perception driving a keen intelligence’ but was ‘a little precious, a little gutless’. I question that. To me the poems have vigour. Any weakness is, in fact, the necessary consequence of the poet’s enormous ambition. As Tomlinson explains in ‘Winter Encounters’ our confrontations with nature:

                  though of moment in themselves,
Serve rather to articulate the sense
      That having met one meets with more
Than the words can witness.

The senses are the source of the collection’s vitality, satisfying in any number of images where observation has a surreal, often humorous cast. In ‘Oxen: Ploughing at Fiesole’ the animals are hardly burdened by their ‘matchwood yoke’ which looks like ‘The debris of captivity / Still clinging there’ from a fresh escape. ‘The Mediterranean’ describes a ‘country of grapes / Where the architecture / Plays musical interludes’. So Tomlinson writes of the wine stopper in ‘Variant on a Scrap of Conversation’: ‘Its head (cut into facets) / An eye for the cubist.’ Or in ‘Civilities of Lamplight’ where a man walks the darkness while his light ‘Hollows the hedge-bound track, a sealed / Furrow on dark, closing behind him.’

Again and again Tomlinson arrests the fluidity of seeing momentarily, his poems light-filled, like the artists he loves and learns from, Vermeer for instance:

                                      White earthenware,
A salver, stippled at its lip by light,
      The light itself, diffused and indiscriminate
On face and floor, usher us in,
      The guests of objects
                                                        ‘At Delft’

I take these examples from the early part of this painterly collection and yet already, as reader, I have been amply rewarded. Tomlinson rarely intrudes. This is not to everyone’s taste, but it was to his American masters. The clarity of his phrasing, his imaginative skills and observational detail remind one of Tomlinson’s acknowledged masters: Pound, Stevens and Moore. Their influence in his poetics matches his tendency to mute ‘the gust of personality’. As he recounts in Some Americans: A Personal Record (1981) a consideration of the example of Poe and Hart Crane drew him toward his ‘own basic theme’:

one does not need to go beyond sense experience to some
mythic union, that the ‘I’ can only be responsible in
relationship and not by dissolving itself away into ecstasy or the Oversoul.

Despite his fidelity to American models, Tomlinson explained in Some Americans, ‘if through them the tonality sounded American, the tradition of the work went back to Coleridge’s conversation poems’. Nevertheless America recognised him at a time when England did not. William Carlos Williams’ ‘measure’ became another influence, translated into the idiom of Queen’s English, and the poetry of George Oppen and Louis Zukovsky.

Tomlinson’s vision was remarkably consistent over fifty years, though his stance was not always that of the effaced observer. Camaraderie, conversation and the glow of history are also characteristic. ‘The Return’, for instance – for me Charles Tomlinson’s finest verse letter, a form he handled superbly – is an elegy for the wife of an old friend and fellow poet. In the poem, the two men take the roads of thirty years before and remember the conversations the three of them had, as well as other voices from those hills, for ‘We cannot climb these slopes without our dead.’  

To me Tomlinson’s ‘engagement’ stems from his self-appointed mission, romantically expressed in the poem ‘In a Cambridge Garden’ (which takes the form of a second conversation with Octavio Paz):

                                                 I thought
That I could teach my countrymen to see
     The changing English light, like water
That drips off a gunwhale driving through the sea,
     Showing the way the whole world
Dipping through space and cloud and sun,
     Surges across the day as it travels on

Unlike C. K. Stead, I never met Charles Tomlinson and would not question the account of Tomlinson’s off-putting manner in 1957, his ‘depleted energy’ that might be illness or affectation, but I can record that I did correspond with the poet on three occasions in his last few years and, despite his increasing blindness, found him full of energy and encouragement. As for evaluating the worth of the poetry, ‘there are no right answers, no final solutions’, C. K. Stead reminds us. Of course he is right about that – thank goodness.



There appears to be a curious mistake in Claire Crowther’s otherwise excellent article on syllabics: three seconds to pronounce a syllable? More like 0.3 of a second. Thirty seconds to pronounce a ten-syllable line? More like three seconds.


Thanks, Anthony Rudolph, you are right. The decimal point slipped. I am thus outed as a near-innumerate and it is curious, as you say, because why would such as I chain myself to a strictly number-controlled line? Another argument for the perversity of syllabics, perhaps?


This item is taken from PN Review 230, Volume 42 Number 6, July - August 2016.

Readers are asked to send a note of any misprints or mistakes that they spot in this item to
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