Letter from Poetry Magazine

Letter to the Editor

By Will Johnson

Dear Editor,

Others may comment eventually on Clive James’s more general  points [“Technique’s Marginal Centrality,” January 2012], but it would be iniquitous to allow his implied denigration of R.F. Langley to stand unchallenged, especially since for some this may be a first and, if James has anything to do with it, last acquaintance with the poet. James says of Langley’s lines:

Impeccably bland, resolutely combed for any hint of the conventionally poetic, its lack of melody exactly matched by its lack of rhythm, Langley’s poem had shaken off all trace of the technical heritage, leaving only the question of whether to be thus unencumbered is a guarantee of novelty.

This is so far from the mark, and so unrecognizable to those who have read and admired Langley’s work, that one is tempted to conclude that the only Langley James has ever read are the five lines he quotes from the Guardian’s obituary. For those who have not been deafened by the poetic equivalent of a brass band, even those five lines (and James, following the Guardian obituarist, actually omits a line in the middle) have a quiet but distinct rhythm. Yet to take a different example:

A wineglass of water on
the windowsill where it will
catch the light. Now be quiet
while I think. And groan. And blink.

I am anxious about the
wineglass. It’s an expert at
staying awake. How can it
ever close its eyes? It’s too
good a defence against an
easy sleep under the trees.

The opening of a poem called “Still Life with Wineglass”: in whose ear does this lack melody and rhythm?

It is particularly inapposite that James should contrast Langley with a passage from Eliot that he commends for its “subtle interplay of interior echoes,” since anyone who has read Langley (and there isn’t that much to read) will know that throughout he is a master of unobtrusive internal rhymes. For instance (but almost any poem could be quoted), the end of “The Long History of Heresy”:

                                            How was I so
willingly defeated? I was forced to give
over when I felt the big drops piercing

the foliage overhead. The warmth of the
uncut grass. In impossible furrows. In
tufts. Near green. Dove gray. An unusual

rosy pink in the unmade hay. I can make
nothing of lover’s violet and the dark
long throws. Of muffled rubies. Nothing.

Nothing. When you’re taking my breath away.

I would urge readers unfamiliar with Langley not to pass over him because of what James implies to be his guilt by association with Prynne and the Cambridge School. Rather, they might take the opportunity provided by the crossfire of ignorance to discover one of the best and most subtly rewarding English poets of the last fifty years.

Originally Published: June 1st, 2012
Appeared in Poetry Magazine This Appears In