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The Selected Poems of John Fowles Reviewed
Fowles is not the first dead writer to have his unpublished material put on public show. Accordingly, Thorpe’s introduction comprises an earnest plea for the novelist as a “fine and serious poet” and, as always in such cases, his hitherto overlooked poetic artistry. To his credit, Thorpe does not evade commenting on the poems that failed to make the cut, those that, in his estimation, were too “prosaic” or that displayed “acidic bitterness against the outside world”. (Readers of Fowles’s Journals will already have sampled that distinctively Fowlesian brand of bile.)
Nor was Fowles, in his journals, short of opinions when it came to judging the work of his Parnassian colleagues. DH Lawrence “isn’t really a poet at all, but an emotion; a wordy emotion. A hit-and-miss man with words”, while WB Yeats, by contrast, “married music and meaning”. On the strength of this Selected, Fowles’s evaluation of Lawrence may be seen to rebound uncannily on himself. Moreover, Fowles’s translations of other poets come as a relief at the book’s end where the strident monotony of his voice gives way to the ribald humour of La Fontaine and, most striking, the sixth-century Japanese Man’yoshu: “Like a letter in faint ink, / the geese returning in the mist” – a shimmering, delicately-wrought simile. Perhaps it was the process of working with and thinking through such poetry that inspired what, to my mind, is the most moving and truest of Fowles’s poems:
Not an owl on the bough, after all;
but a patch of grey light forcing
through fir. A light-bird,
a bird-light. Retinal phantom.
Or poem to my shortening sight.
This is more than mere scene-painting; the poem comes into vision, line by line into being; a bird, then a light, then a poem, finally, all three. The chimes of repetition across the lines (“light” ricochets to become, in the last instance, “sight”) enact the persistent resonances of a lived moment, the vitality of art itself – proof that short-sightedness may be a blessing as the poet probes beyond the apparent surface detail to the interplay of shifting realities beneath. Too often in this Selected the poet’s myopic approach – intransigent in its will to communicate a message or summon vague emotional states – impedes the true poem coming into sight or sound.