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Journal, Day Three
Roy Fisher is a Birmingham poet. His often jazz-inspired work shows how place and folk conspire with each other, and inspire each other, in the lives they lead in the landscapes in which they lead them. His is a singular voice: harsh, sometimes crabby but, equally, ironic yet warm and often very funny. This is “Epic”:
‘Stranger, in your own land
how do men call you?’
‘I will tell you. Men call me Roy
Fisher. Women call me
Poetry is many things to many people. Whilst there is room, no doubt, for the sentimental, the deeply personal, the spiritual, there should also be space for much else: the dispassionate, the humorous, the arcane and the difficult. But defining poetry—like defining the novel—is a foolish occupation. Poetry is what it does. Poetry is each poet’s attempt in each poem to write about what they are trying to say via a form they are happy to call poetry. If that definition is too catholic for you, I think you’ll find that any that is more restrictive excludes some poems that you probably love.
We often know a small number of random facts about a wide-range of subjects: I know that elephants have a gestation period of 22 months; that parsley is poisonous to parrots; and that Birmingham (the largest city in the UK’s Midlands; often thought of as England’s Second City, a position it testily vies for with my adopted home of Manchester) has more canals than Venice. I also know—without ever having been there—that Venice is quite beautiful. Birmingham—where I have been very many times—is not. Or, rather, is not obviously so. But in every city and town, men and women have loved and struggled and lived. They have created ugliness, been crushed by conflict, acted badly and they have, through all of these lived lives, made and thought and done many beautiful things too. Roy Fisher is a Birmingham poet and his Birmingham is full of “light, sharp edges . . . the dog odour / of water, new flats, suburb trees . . . oil-marked asphalt / and, in the darkness . . . a sort of grass.”
On Monday, I talked about Elizabeth Bishop and, yesterday, about Paul Celan. Both are very different poets, but both command a considerable audience. It is likely that poetry readers in both the US and in the UK will know both poets names. Roy Fisher, however, is a more minor and much more local voice. A teacher and a musician, Fisher was inspired by the (American) Black Mountain poets: a Midlands boy he may be, but even in his colloquialism his influences and influence reach beyond the local. Actually, I think that’s the point I want to make here: poetry can certainly embody the local, but it can also destroy it as well. Destroy what is stifling or insular or parochial about the local and make it immediately larger than itself. Certainly, it is important to focus on the concrete in any poem (what is it actually saying? how is it saying it? does the form in which it is saying it help or hinder what it is trying to achieve?), but the allegorical moment is always there, and the poem always has one eye on it. A poem is always about its own subject matter and itself as a poem, but it is also always not about these things. A poem is always also not about itself.
Where’s Birmingham river? Sunk.
Which river was it. Two. More or less.
[. . .]
Tame, the Dark River; these English spread their works
southward then westward, then all ways
[. . .]
. . . a river called Rea, meaning river,
and misspelt at that. Before they merge
they’re both steered straight, in channels
When I last saw Fisher read (at the University of Manchester) he had a hacking cough that kept interrupting his reading. And then he kept interrupting himself with anecdotes of when, where, how he wrote his pieces. When he could talk no more, he reached for his water, and a pianist played some bars of some jazz classics until he was able to resume. Despite his frailty that day, Fisher was a compelling presence and he brought out in his work a stronger, stranger, blacker humour and a more insistent warmth and wisdom than I’d found on the page. In a recent interview with the Guardian newspaper, the poet Don Paterson said about public performances that he’d “begun to think that it forges an unnaturally close relationship between you and the work.” I’ve been thinking about that as I recalled Fisher’s gig, reading his words, a picture of his face in mind, the sound of his cough accompanying my reading, beating time to it.
Has Fisher the person imposed himself too closely onto his words? Am I now reading his words, having heard him read them, with his inflexions and hesitations and nuances and emphases? With his gentle, barely-there Brummie accent? I’m not sure. But I do know that Fisher himself felt a distance from his own words, and perhaps through them a distance, sometimes via his very proximity, from the Birmingham he loves. And I do know when I read Fisher, sometimes hearing him read along with me in my mind, that his lines and his landscapes are only provisionally local: Roy Fisher is not a Birmingham poet.